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Part-Time Accomplice's Lament

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Act I: Immediate Symptoms


 

 

It’s simple enough.

He wants to keep up with his swordsmanship during college, so he’ll have to pay for fees and equipment too. Except he already has his college books and courses and transportation to pay for, and the money his parents left him only stretches so far.

Sure he could ask Sonomi for help. It isn’t like his foster family is hurting for money, but this isn’t about that. He’s grateful to the Daidouji’s for digging him out of the system and for saving him in a hundred other ways besides.  But just this once, at least this once, he wants to do it for himself. He wants to prove he can.

So he needs a part time job.

He needs this job.

He just has to keep telling himself that. Maybe the continuous mantra will serve as a reminder that he can’t quit. Or kill his co-workers. Or both. This is the only place hiring within walking distance of his room at the Daidouji house. This is the only place that keeps hours weird enough to fit his study schedule and his practice schedule both. This is the only job slow enough and relaxed enough that he can occasionally slip in a few hurried homework sessions between orders.

He just has to remember that.

Because he’s also one of maybe two sober people in the whole building at any given time, and he thinks maybe he might already be accomplice to a drug trafficking ring…?

Maybe he had better start at the beginning.

 


 

At first, it’s not half-bad.

Well, the customers are. It only takes a handful of sharp comments in the face of public idiocy for Yuui to tut at him and relegate him to the kitchen. He’s lucky he doesn’t get fired when he cusses out the asshole who demanded they refund him on an order they got right because he didn’t realize the portions were so large… But maybe the way he’d defended the restaurant and its standards had endeared him to Yuui somehow? He isn’t sure. For someone so young and easy-going, the owner is incredibly difficult to read. 

In any case, the kitchen is usually clean, always warm, and quiet save for the music on the radio. He doesn’t hate it there. He even sort of likes the task of cooking, following each new order, learning where everything is until his hands find ingredients before he can finish reading them off the list. It’s a particularly interesting kind of busy work. Filling out each combination and moving receipts into the stack of completed orders satisfies the primal part of his brain that likes watching numbers go up. And being allowed to take the few mistakes or unwanted orders home for leftovers at the end of the night is a nice perk. As far as part-time jobs go, it really isn’t bad. He likes cleaning up the main seating area in the wake of their customers a lot less, but that’s not the bulk of his shift, so he can bear it.

The trouble really lies in his co-workers.

“Kuro-wanko~! I was hoping I’d get to see you today.” Kurogane closes his eyes and grits his teeth.

Yuui is calm and cool. Kurogane had actually been a little impressed by him when they’d met for his interview. Even if this is a pretty small location, tucked inconveniently into a side street with little-to-no easy parking, Yuui can’t be any older than he is. The fact that the man already owns his own restaurant strikes him as quite the feat.

But for every ounce of calm and elegance Yuui possesses, his twin is….

“Ah, your hair is wet. Did you just come from practice?” His twin, Fai, is pressed into Kurogane’s side with one hand trailing through his hair, completely unaccustomed to the idea of basic personal space. Kurogane breathes through his nose and tries to remember that he is not allowed to use his sword techniques on people who annoy the shit out of him.

“Get. Off of me,” he grits. Fai blinks at him in confusion a moment or two, but does as he commands with no protest. At least he knows when not to push, Kurogane thinks begrudgingly, even if he does peel himself away slowly and with far more deliberate muscle control than any normal human should possess. Kurogane hangs his equipment bag on the row of hooks where all the employees throw their coats, and picks up a clean apron from the folded stack nearby.

“Wah. Sounds like Kuro-mu had a bad day today, hmm?” The blond is far too cheerful for the start of a closing shift. It’s nearing 10:00 PM on a Wednesday, and they aren’t likely to get too many orders tonight. He needs to check on the ingredient levels, figure out how long things have been sitting out of the fridge, toss what needs throwing out and start prepping for the rest of the night. With the expectation of low traffic, it shouldn’t take too long. Maybe he can find some time for the ridiculous amount of reading he needs to get through somehow before next week.

“Just a long one,” he responds eventually, knowing that Fai will only become more insistent and annoying when ignored.

“Sorry to hear.” Fai’s voice lilts up and down, sing-song. “I hate to say, but your day’s about to get a little longer.” He trails Kurogane around the kitchen, chattering as he walks. His attention flits everywhere, from straightening the jars on the spice shelf, to the ends of his own apron strings, to the way the next batch of bread is warming up. How he ever manages to get anything done strikes Kurogane as nothing short of a miracle. “There’s a special delivery tonight, so we’ll need to wait an extra half hour to close.”

“Great,” Kurogne grumps, emptying the last dregs of the tomato bin in the trash and tossing it into the sink for a rinse. He’s already accepted it before he thinks to ask, “what kind of delivery comes at three in the morning?” Fai throws him the sort of wicked grin that never means anything good and says only,

“You’ll see.~”

He is instantly and incredibly uneasy.

“We have a take-out order, by the way!” Fai calls, sticking a new receipt to the order wall and drifting airily back to the fridge to grab a few new tomatoes to cut. Kurogane squints at it after Fai dances away, reading the list of food with rising irritation.

“You didn’t wanna lead with that, idiot? This is supposed to be ready five minutes from now!” He throws himself into the whirlwind motion of a rush order, frantically placing boxes and packaging and slamming fresh ingredients onto the stovetop. He’s dreaming up ways to get back at the laughing blond across the kitchen, so he doesn’t notice how masterfully he’s been manipulated.

Yet.

He doesn’t remember the delivery until three rolls around. The high school kids who usually work up front are a bit too young to work this late, so Yuui always sends them home around midnight and pulls Fai out to work the counter instead. Kurogane thoroughly enjoys his three hours of blessed quiet, grateful for the opportunity to get a bit of reading done between Fai’s infrequent order call-outs. He hasn’t worked here for more than a month yet, but already he feels like he’s fallen into a sort of pattern. He’s started winding down, cleaning things up for the night when he hears Fai call out,

“Got an order for you Kuro-pon.”

It takes him far too long to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Right. They’re still taking orders because they haven’t closed yet. Because there’s a mysterious three AM delivery. He eyes the stovetop he’s just cleaned with open disdain, sighs, and trudges toward the opening that joins the kitchen to the storefront. Fai dangles half-way through it, smirking at Kurogane as he waves the order slip back and forth.

Kurogane takes it from him with a little more force than strictly necessary and tries to ignore the way Fai laughs at him for it. There only seems to be one dish on the list, no special add ins, so at least it shouldn’t take too long. He reads the order—

Reads it again—

“Lunar glow? What the hell—that’s not something we’ve got on the menu.” He grouches, mostly to himself. Fai hasn’t stopped laughing yet. He’s still draped in the order-window, hanging so far forward and folded in such a way that Kurogane imagines his feet must not even be touching the ground on the other side.

“Of course it’s not on the menu.” The blond giggles, “You’ll have to go grab it for me—I think I left it in the broom closet.”

He stares Fai down for a moment or two, trying to figure out just what the hell kind of game he’s playing. Still, teasing or not, Fai doesn’t buckle under his gaze. He tries to look past the splay of Fai's limbs, and really does catch sight of a customer waiting at the register.

“What the fuck.” He’s murmuring to himself beneath his breath as he wanders away from the kitchen and back toward the bathrooms. “What the fuck?” He grumbles again, half in surprise as he catches sight of the glass jug, tied with a sparkling bit of curled ribbon, half hidden-behind a wide broom.

What. The. Fuck. His brain screeches to a halt when he picks the thing up, and catches the scent in the air. Cinnamon and cloves and ripened fruit. “Lunar glow” indeed.

“Did you get lost?” that lilting voice drifts back from the front and Kurogane’s teeth grind.

He’s going to kill Fai, he thinks.

He considers, briefly, dropping the jug of moonshine and letting it shatter on the floor, but he doesn’t know everything yet. Besides, he really, really does need this job, as he keeps telling himself. Whether Yuui’s in on this thing or not, he’s sure Fai could contrive a way to get him fired if he made the idiot angry enough.

So he trudges back to the storefront with stiff, jerking steps, and stares Fai directly in the eyes when he sets the glass jug down on the counter between them. He’s so focused, he forgets about the customer until the guy clears his throat, somewhere off to the left.

“Great,” the stranger groans, taking a large bag from his shoulder and shuffling its contents around to make room for the rather large container. “I should have known this was what she ordered.” He looks a little young, not too much older than the two they’d sent home early. He runs a thin hand through dark hair in irritation and turns back to Fai. “What do I need to give you?”

His instincts sing out a low warning at the way Fai glances his way. Those eyes are judging him, measuring him for something, and he’s sure he’s not going to like what happens next.

Whatever Fai is searching for, he seems to find it, because the blue gaze glides away like water and flits back to their customer and his comically large bag.

“Yuuko said it’d be a red lacquer box this week.”

“Of course,” the boy spits, and Kurogane is reminded suddenly of an angry cat. “She told me that one was nothing special, so I had it near the top. Honestly. Does the woman want me to get arrested? I swear, sometimes….” As he grouses, his hands move deftly through bag compartments and dig past more small packages than Kurogane believed should fit. Finally, he digs out red lacquer with a huff, and passes the box to Fai.

“I know you have to deal with a lot of trouble. We always appreciate it, Watanuki,” Fai charms, and Kurogane can’t help but roll his eyes.

“Yes, well,” the kid stammers, clearly not as immune to Fai’s devious ways. “I’ll pass your thanks to Yuuko. Have a good night!” Fai follows him to the entrance and locks the door in his wake. Kurogane does not. He’s too busy trying to piece the situation he’s gotten into together in his head. There’s still a red box, strange and shining against the plain linoleum of their counter when he deigns to look. He glares at it and tries not to think too hard about what might be inside.

He hears the uneven pace of Fai’s gliding steps and doesn’t bother to look. He can feel his coworker standing beside him easy enough.

“So that’s how the first Wednesday of the month usually goes.” Fai uses the same tone he’d used to explain every other aspect of this job, airy and bored. Yes, we order new ingredients once a week. We try to go out and sweep the floor in the main front every few hours. On the first Wednesday of the month, we sell moonshine out of the broom closet and buy mysterious boxes of illegal substances from high school kids.

Kurogane still hasn’t decided how to react.

 “Fai,” he bites, and is almost surprised by how even he can make his voice. “Special delivery? Really? You couldn’t have given me more warning than that?” Fai’s expression shifts from something blank and plastic into a wry smile.

“It’s not a lie, really. Yuuko sends the best herbs.” He pulls the lid away with deft fingers, and Kurogane barely catches sight of the rather large mound of pot that lays within. He didn’t mean to see that. Now he’s an accomplice for real. “Are you gonna tell on me, Kuro-pu?” Fai calls with a wink, and the sight does something strange to his insides. Kurogane blames the way his stomach flutters on his disquiet and tears his gaze away.

“Finish closing on your own, and I might keep my mouth shut,” he blurts in answer before he can stop himself. He hadn’t even realized he’d made a decision yet, but, well.

He does need this job.

“Ah! Kuro-sama is so mean.” Fai wibbles, but he’s becoming easier to ignore. Besides, the faint smile in his eyes says he appreciates Kurogane’s teasing.

Well, he tells himself, it’s not like pot or moonshine are really that bad, honestly. They just tend to make people act like fools for a while, and not—

Kurogane whirls back to his coworker.

He sees Fai walking with the box in his hands, drifting like a cloud toward their bags and coats, composing an ode to Kurogane’s cruelty aloud.

It clicks then, in his head. How Fai is… the way he is. Constantly. Why he acts so differently from his brother. Why he’s flightier than any person Kurogane has ever seen before—

He’s higher than a kite.

 


 

“Did you even realize you’d scheduled Kuro-tan for a first Wednesday?” Fai asks, sprawled languidly across his twin’s desk while he panics. Yuui whines and presses his hands harder to his face.

“I forgot what day it was,” he admits. Fai sighs at him in fond exasperation before reaching out and depositing the offending lacquer box in its proper place, hidden among the clutter of Yuui’s bottom left drawer. His fingers find Yuui’s, easing them back and away from the possibility of self-harm. 

“Was he…. Did he seem…? Do I need to start calling around for damage control? He isn’t going to quit, is he? God, I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe, I—”

Yuui,” his twin chides, and he wills himself back down to earth, focuses on the way air moves in his chest every time he breathes. “I think he’s okay for it.”

“…Really?” he hardly dares to ask. Fai’s nod of reassurance finally calms him, and he pulls his hands free. He tries to turn back to the balance of accounts he needs to get through, but his thoughts just won’t stop racing. He’s glad this might work out despite his mistake—ridiculously glad, if he’s honest with himself. There’s no reason for him to be this attached to the dark-haired man with his mysteriously red glare, but he just can’t help it. There’s something in the way Kurogane approaches everything, whole-hearted, single-minded, that makes him easy to like. That makes him want Kurogane to like him too.

If the way his twin teases the man can be taken as any indication, he assumes Fai must feel the same draw.

“Although,” Fai continues, pulling himself up into a seated position atop Yuui’s desk and only barely managing to avoid knocking his coffee mug to the floor. “Given the earful of a lecture he gave me afterward about being sober at work, I’m pretty sure he thinks the delivery was for me.”

Fai’s grinning viciously from ear to ear. He thinks this situation is hilarious. Yuui…. Doesn’t.

“Oh,” he manages to murmur. He hates every part of this. He hates feeling like he needs it like a crutch to get by. He hates that his own vices reflect badly on his precious brother.

“Yuui?” Fai senses his dark mood immediately because of course he does . There’s nothing he cannot hide from his twin, most of the time. It’s a curse as much as a blessing. “I didn’t correct him, you know? I don’t mind if he thinks it’s me.”

Maybe that’s part of the problem , he wants to shout, but he’s so tired and he can’t afford to make himself too upset to finish out these accounts. He hates himself, he hates that he’s not strong enough to leave the past behind, and he hates that Fai is so willing to put up with his messes every damn time. He doesn’t’ know how to say any of it without sounding like a train wreck so he just… smiles.

“Do as you like,” he grants and turns back to the bills. Fai sits, perched atop the desk, and watches him like a hawk until he’s finished. 

Chapter Text



At first, he figures it’s just Fai. Fai’s the only one who dances when he so much as moves, flirts with every customer he rings out at the counter, and sings into the soup ladle as if it’s a microphone every time one of his favorite songs starts blasting through the radio.

(Fai has a lot of favorite songs)

He finds it more than a little frustrating that the idiot doesn’t care about his work enough to come down sober even one day out of the week, but…. To be honest, it’s not like Fai doesn’t get his share done. Somehow, amidst all his ridiculous antics, he still fills almost as many orders as Kurogane does, and runs the counter for three hours of the night besides. So after the first couple of weeks, he decides maybe it’s better to ignore the fact that he knows anything at all. Fai obviously has no plans to get sober, and he’s not really hurting anyone, so maybe Kurogane should just mind his own business. Sure, the idiot can be annoying, but he always knows better than to push too far.

And… he’ll never admit it, but…. Sometimes. Just sometimes, after a long day of classwork going wrong and schoolmates getting on his nerves, settling in to work alongside a cheerful Fai is something of a relief. And maybe he also doesn’t hate the fact that, his own irritation aside, Fai can make everyone in the store smile with just a few silly words. He’s even caught Yuui laughing in the office door frame once or twice, and that was… nice.

So whatever. Maybe it’s not his problem. Fai can do what he wants.

But then he starts to wonder about the others…

Well. It’s not like he’s an expert on drugs or anything, but there had been an awfully large stack of green in that box he saw. Surely that can’t all be for Fai, right? Even if he uses it every day, it seems like a lot to buy every month. So where does the rest go?

It’s a crazy thought, really. He doesn’t know why it won’t leave him alone, but…. Suddenly everyone around him has become suspicious.

It starts like this: Kurogane comes into the kitchen one day to find Syaoran, one of their high schoolers, dicing fresh vegetables for his ingredient lineup.  As far as kids go, Kurogane likes Syaoran. He’s quiet and earnest, seems like he’s got his head on straight. He doesn’t know why anyone under 18 would want to spend so much of their time toiling away at a local dive-restaurant, but he doesn’t have much room to judge.

“They throw you in the back with me today?” He asks, taking note of the times written above each of his ingredients and checking to see how much of today’s soup he has left in the pot. Not a whole lot, but it can wait. Syaoran shoots him a shy smile and picks up a new onion.

“Fai’s taking a break today, so S-Sakura suggested I should come back and help you prep a bit.” Kurogane rolls his eyes when Syaoran stumbles over the girl’s name. He blushes every time she so much as looks in his direction. “I mean, she heard from her brother that some of the fraternities were making a pub crawl tonight, and we thought you might have a bit of a rush around midnight, so…” He hates hearing the kid nervous, so he sighs and rolls his eyes.

“Idiot picked a hell of a day to take off, huh?” He muses, checking the two to-go orders lingering completed on their side of the order window and making sure there’s nothing already waiting for him in the queue. Syaoran laughs faintly and knocks some onion from his cutting board to its proper bin.

“He didn’t know,” the kid defends. He’s about to continue when Sakura’s sweet face peeks over the order window.

“Order for you!” She chimes, smiling blindingly at them both before she leaves her slip of paper behind on the sill. Syaoran is so distracted he nearly slices into his own fingers. Lucky for him Kurogane notices the trajectory first. He snatches the knife away and shoos the kid toward the order queue.

“Sorry,” Syaoran stammers, his face bright red. Kurogane flicks his free hand in a flippant gesture of “don’t worry about it,” and turns back to the cutting board.

“Just put the order together and try not to hurt yourself.” He grouches. Most people would take it as an insult, but the kid seems to understand him better than most. He nods, and shoots Kurogane a weak smile.

He moves to do as he’s told and complete the order with no more fanfare. Syaoran bustles here and there about the room, gathers what he needs efficiently enough, but there’s an odd sluggishness to his movements today. Kurogane’s nagging suspicions come back to mind.

Surely. Surely not, right?

Kurogane frowns, and really looks the kid over. He looks sober, but then Fai usually does too. His eyes are irritated and watery, but that’s probably just because he’d been cutting onions for so long. … Isn’t it?

“Is something wrong with the order, Kurogane?” Syaoran notices his scrutiny eventually, and he shakes himself away from his strange thoughts. His experience with Fai is just making him paranoid.

“It looks fine,” he assents, trying not to notice the way Syaoran puffs up at his admission, as if he’s just paid the kid a high compliment. It’s a little frightening how, even though they’ve only known each other a couple of months so far, Syaoran’s started looking to him for approval. He doesn’t know if that’s normal, for high school kids. Is that a thing they do? He doesn’t feel like he graduated that long ago himself, but he still feels out of his depth.

There’s more than enough onion stacked up in the bin by this point, so he moves on to bell peppers instead. He doesn’t exactly relish the thought of a late-night rush, scurrying to make food for a bunch of drunk-ass college boys, but then he supposes he should just be glad he’s not going to be the one manning the register. Still—

“Would have been nice to get some homework done tonight, but I guess I could always find some time in the morning.” He thinks aloud without meaning to and looks up to see Syaoran staring him down with interest.

“That’s right! You’re in college, right?” he asks with far too much enthusiasm, and suspicion creeps its way back up Kurogane’s spine. “What kind of classes are you taking?”

“Well,” he starts, a little uneasy with so much of Syaoran’s focus narrowed in on him. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet, so it’s kind of back and forth, but… politics and auto mechanics mostly.” He knows he has eclectic scholarly taste. The Daidoujis tease him for it often, for as much as they support him. He’s expecting some similar ribbing from his co-worker. He is not expecting for the kid to look at him like he’s just performed a super-human act.

“Got another order!” Sakura calls, and Syaoran falls instantly out of his weird, star-struck trance. He stumbles up to the order window and takes the slip directly from Sakura’s fingers with a smile.  Kurogane turns confusedly back to his bell pepper and wonders what the hell is going on.

“I always thought I would major in History or Linguistics maybe,” Syaoran tells him, absent-minded as he scans the order slip. “And, I mean, politics isn’t the same of course, but I saw the book you were reading yesterday, and it looked like a history book and I thought—” He sets the slip down and reaches for a cup and ladle before he stops himself, “Oh, we’re low on soup.”

There are a lot of things wrong with the jumble of words that just fell out of the kid’s mouth. Kurogane doesn’t know where to start with it, so he sets the knife down and trudges to the fridge for more soup to heat up instead.

He had, in fact, been reading a section from a history book last night between orders. About 100 pages of the driest foreign relations records he’s ever had the displeasure of needing to read.

“It’s a history of diplomatic relations between the United States and—” he starts, cutting himself off when he notices the weird, intently focused look the kid is sending his way. “You know what, we’re going to be done with it in a couple of weeks. You could read it yourself, if you wanted.” Again, Syaoran looks at him like he’s just hung the moon. Kurogane settles the pre-prepped soup into its large pot with a thunk and tries to ignore it.

“That would be the best!” he cheers, after he seems to remember how words work, “I mean, I know it’s probably weird, but I just really like history and there’s no one to talk to about it. I’ve never really studied it with a particular focus on politics before, but I could start! And that way if you ever needed to like, go back over the material to study or something I could—” Syaoran talks too fast and forgets to breathe between words. He trips forward in his excitement winds up nearly burning himself on the stovetop in his mad scramble not to fall.

Kurogane chases him back out to the front room and tries very, very hard not to think the kid must be on drugs of some sort.

He fails.

 

(It isn’t until later, much later, that he starts asking himself the questions he should. Like, If Fai took the whole day off, who covered the kitchen before Kurogane got there at nine? Yuui certainly could have, but then who would have manned the cash register? He’d heard once or twice that Yuui kept a couple of odd-jobbers in the books, just in case he needed a shift filled in an emergency. And he knew that sometimes, strangers he suspected might work for the mysterious Yuuko stepped in and helped at the register, but…

Syaoran was clumsier than usual. He looked a little loopy and he babbled, sure, but… people do that when they’re tired.

And yeah, Syaoran looked to him for a lot… did he have any one else to look to? Every night at midnight, the kid walks into the dark alone. Sakura lives barely a block away, so it makes sense that she walks herself home, but…. He doesn’t know where Syaoran lives. He’s heard Sakura mention her brother and father more than a few times already, but when he tries to remember what kind of family Syaoran has…. He draws a blank.

Syaoran wanted to hear him talk about college. Syaoran wanted to know what his homework was like. Syaoran only ever talked about his own plans for university in the past tense, as if they had already ended.

Something’s wrong all right, but it’s nothing drug related.)

 


 

Yuui almost forgets.

He’s buried deep in a mountain of receipts, matching credit card transaction to bank charge, line after line until he can find the damn reason his account is off. When he finally discovers the missing charge with a yelp of triumph, he circles it four times with highlighter green and tosses everything across his desk. Not his most graceful move, but the brownies he ate earlier had been very good, so he figures it could have been worse, all things considered.

He sighs, terribly glad to have finished one of his least favorite chores, and settles back into his chair. He’s falling comfortably into the haze of self-satisfaction, musing poetic in his head about the particular off-white shade of his ceiling in the yellow, artificial light, when he catches sight of the clock.

One-oh-one.

It’s a nice sounding time, good and symmetrical. Lots of long vowel sounds. Feels nice in his mouth.

One-oh-one and eggshell white and yellow-light and how-oh-how will he ever, ever be able to keep things making sense when its so easy to fall into the ways the syllables fit together?

Shit. Those had been very, very good brownies.

So it’s past one-oh-five by the time he remembers enough of himself to remember Syaoran and Sakura too.

He hasn’t shooed them off yet.

Yuui pulls himself up and off his chair, quite proud of the level of coordination he manages. He may be little better than a trash-fire, and floating somewhere near Jupiter, but by damn he can stand up and walk five feet with the best of them. 

There’s a lot of noise buzzing on the other side of his office door, and he thinks he doesn’t like that much, but brownies make effective armor against many different foes. For Yuui, that means noise and people and the way his head tries to drag him into the undertow of his own memories.

Very, very, very good brownies, he thinks to himself, weaving the words through his own thoughts like a spell, willing them to block out the clamor of intoxicated college boys sitting in his dining room

He finds poor Syaoran, practically asleep on his feet, still manning the register alone. Their rowdy guests have already been served food, and have taken seats around the room. Sakura must have left at midnight like she was supposed to. His fairy-tale princess knows better than to spend the stroke of twelve alone in the dark. Prince Charming, on the other hand...

Yuui floats his way accross the room, still impressed with his own ability to walk a straight line, and lays a hand maybe a touch too hard against the boy's shoulder. Syaoran blinks sleepily back at him, his amber orbs wide with surprise. Such a lovely shade—really the kind of amber any moth would love to die in. But Sakura isn't a moth, and Syaoran wouldn't kill her. 

"You were supposed to leave early today," he admonishes, even if his head is caught musing on the bleeding wounds of trees and how it might feel to sink and sink and sink below. Syaoran has been working in Fai's place today, but only under the express order that he head out early. He'd been instucted to come get Yuui from his office more than... five? hours ago now.

"Sorry," his young friend answers, though he doesn't look as if he really means it. "I just... needed the hours. Do you think I could pick up a shift this weekend?"

Yuui may spend most days high as a kite, but he knows a few things.

He knows it is illegal and unethical for a sixteen-year-old highschool boy to work as many hours as Syaoran does.

He knows if he offers to give Syaoran whatever money he needs, the boy won't take it.

He knows the poor kid is dead on his feet, still has homework, still keeps coming back in for a shift every day from five till midnight.

He knows he will continue to fudge the official time sheets and adjust Syaoran's bi-weekly "raise." He'll keep trying to let the boy keep his pride and his rent money both.

He knows he isn't smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough to fix it—to convince Syaoran that he doesn't have to work so hard, to find a way to help.

He's not good enough. So he looks at the kid he may as well consider his own and says, "of course," because he doesn't know what else to do.

Isn't it a bitter pill, isn't it the worst poison, that Syaoran looks at him in relief and thanks him for it?

He is overwhelmed, just for a moment, by the thought that he should very much like to die. If Syaoran's amber would please replace the floor beneath Yuui's feet and swallow him, that would be just fine. He thinks he might look nice as a moth. He's been told he's pretty, by one or two people.

Never voices he wants to remember.

Brownies, he reminds himself, and the world rubber-bands back into place.

He doesn't know what on earth has happened at the table to his left, but the four young men seated there suddenly erupt into a round of laughter that has him clutching his own ears before he remembers where he is.

"Yuui, I can head out now, but... are you sure you'll be okay?" Syaoran asks. Of course he does. Of course he's worried for Yuui's sake. Of course he sees through the paper thin shell of his intoxicated armor. Yuui feels his fingers shake and his thoughts twist. He knows very little, but he does know that he will never, ever be okay.

Syaoran wouldn't take that for an answer though, would he? So Yuui does what he knows to do best—he... bends. Compromises with his own weaknesses.

"I'll ask Kuro-rin to work the counter," he promises, still not sure whether he means it honestly or not. Fading or not, wearing off or not, he's had some very good brownies today and there's a tiny, frightened creature in his heart that's afraid for Kurogane to know it.  

Syaoran smiles, agrees, and doesn't move.

Oh. Oh he'll stay until Kurogane comes out to switch with him. Right. Yuui has miscalculated.

He thinks he might try to chase his young part-timer off, come up with a better excuse, but there's another explosion of laughter, this time from a table on the other side of the store, and he can't-can't-can't—

“Kuro-dono,” what is he doing? He doesn't remember the time between standing at the register and staring into the kitchen. He shouldn’t be doing this. He doesn’t want Kurogane to know how weak and stupid he feels. He doesn’t want those ruby red eyes to catch sight of him hiding. But he’s done it already. He has Kurogane's attention now, faintly grumbling that he'd rather Yuui didn't pick up his twin's bad habit of mutilating names. He needs to start talking if he doesn’t want to look completely incompetent.

Well. Maybe it’s a little late for that, he thinks snidely to himself.

Brownies. Armor. The clamor of drunken men. He can’t—

“Will you take over the register?”

Kurogane removes his hands from the sink, where he's been rinsing dishes. The skin of both his arms is bright red from fingertip to elbow, scalded by the water's heat. He really shouldn't turn it up so hot, honestly. He picks up a towel and wipes the moisture away. Yuui follows the path of rough fabric with his eyes and wonders distantly about the way his skin feels—how the muscles move beneath. 

 "I don't mind, just… are you sure you want me out there? I can hear those assholes even over the radio;  I can't promise I won't snap at them."

"Good," he mumbles. Kurogane stares him down for a moment or two, as if to judge how serious he might be. He doesn't know what the man finds. He's sure he doesn't want to. There isn't much good left in Yuui these days—just hard edges, thin walls and enough muscle memory to make him seem like a living person. Still, Kurogane looks at him and, after a while, laughs.

"Alright boss, I'll scare them off for you," he announces with an easy grin, tossing his wash-rag back into the dish pile. He throws Yuui a conspiratorial nod of understanding as he steps out the door, though for the life of him, Yuui has no clue what he's meant to understand.

Chapter Text


 

He isn't completely certain about Syaoran, if he's honest. Not the way he's dead sure about Fai. Still, Syaoran distractedly babbles to him for hours after he makes the mistake of loaning the kid his Foreign Relations book, and that's... no sober person talks that much or that quickly on all the particulars of a trade treaty signed in the late eighteenth century. Surely.

Still, the kid's old enough to make his own decisions. He gets through his shifts and very rarely leaves any messes for Kurogane to clean up. Kurogane decides it's not really his business.

It's Sakura who's really the last straw.

He never thought he'd really click with his younger coworkers when he started here, but he guesses he has. He likes Syaoran, tweaked and obsessive though he may sometimes be... and he likes Sakura. She's sweet, considerate, polite, and unflinchingly empathetic. She's also the only one he'd really met before working here, since Sakura and his sister are close. Tomoyo has always spoken very highly of her, so maybe that factors into Kurogane's feelings.

Either way, he completely does not expect to be suspicious of Sakura, of all people.

He’s certainly not expecting his day to turn that way when he steps into the restaurant earlier than usual on a Monday.

It’s around five in the evening—he’d usually be heading to practice right about now, but Fai had called his cell this morning and asked for a favor.

Syaoran’s gone and made himself ill, and Yuui procrastinated his accounts last week, so he’s banned from leaving the office this evening until they’re done,” He remembers the blond announcing, cheerful as ever and far too loud over his phone receiver. The weak protests he’d heard in the background probably belonged to Yuui. “Is there any way you could cover for poor, sick Syaoran? I could call in a favor from Yuuko if you can’t, but I think I already owe her a double batch this month, and these things take most of the month to make, you know? It’s not so easy to keep throwing together more every time she—”

So he’d agreed to come in. To get the idiot to stop talking about his illicit activities loudly over the phone, if nothing else.

It does annoy him that he had to skip practice tonight to come work at the job he only picked up to keep going to practice in the first place, but he guesses it makes sense to make these small sacrifices in the short term for the long-term benefit.

In any case, he’s already got his school bag stowed and he’s tying an apron around his waist when Sakura ducks into the shop looking like the devil’s on her heels.

“Sakura?” He calls, letting the apron strings hang and moving to put himself closer to the door. She’s standing there, panting and bent double at the waist, still in her school uniform. Kurogane’s protective older brother instincts kick in immediately and he moves to put himself bodily between her and the entrance, pushing her into a nearby chair.

“Oh!” she calls out in surprise, not seeming to notice him at all until his hand pushes gently at her shoulder. “Oh, Kurogane! Hello! So-sorry, I didn’t mean to—I just,” He frowns at her, watching her face flush to an unhealthy red.

“Take it easy,” he cautions, glancing back out the glass doors of the store entrance. He doesn’t spot anyone particularly threatening on the sidewalk nearby, but seeing Sakura in such a state makes him distinctly wary. “Are you alright?” He only asks after the poor girl stops nearly hyperventilating. Her breath evens more slowly than he likes.

“I’ll be fine,” she huffs, with the practiced ease of someone who says the phrase often. Warning bells begin to line the back of his thoughts and Kurogane stares her down. “Really! I just had to run for a while, it’s not a problem!”

“Run from what?” He asks, and the line of tension in her shoulders eases. Wrong question, he realizes, filing the information away to dwell on later.

“More like who,” Sakura teases, but she seems more playful than worried. He doesn’t move away from the door, but his hands do return to the task of tying his damn apron strings. “My big brother wants to know where I’ve been going, I think. He was trying to follow me.”

“He doesn’t know where you’ve been going?” Kurogane muses, hands pulling fabric taught in a secure knot. Sakura only laughs.

“Goodness no. I’ve been telling him I’m in cooking club after school, and that I stay late at Tomoyo’s house after.”  She only smiles like the sun in the face of Kurogane’s confusion, puts her hands on her knees and rises to her feet with a decisive motion. “You’re here early, Kurogane. Is—is Syaoran taking a day off?”

He keeps an eye on her, gears in his head turning as he watches her wobble on unsteady legs back to the hall and their apron supply. “…he’s sick today, apparently.” He admits. Sakura nearly tips the whole pile of clean fabric to the floor. “Hey, careful—”

“Sick! Really?”  Her hands twist in the canvas fabric, every bit of her visibly shocked and despairing at the news. This isn’t normal, right? She and the kid obviously dance around the fact that they’re head over heels for each other, but still—

“Shouldn’t you have known already? You go to the same school, don’t you?” He asks, and watches the way Sakura’s face falls.

“Well,” she admits, “sometimes he skips class to come work. I thought maybe—”

Wait. What. There’s no way that’s legal. What on earth is Yuui thinking, asking the kid to come in when he should be—

Wait… Has Yuui been the one to ask?

Kurogane sees the schedule every week. He knows the shifts fairly well by now. He’s never seen the kid scheduled before five PM before…

He files this oddity away too, feeds it into the strange mystery he’s come to find in this unassuming restaurant job.

“Ah, Hello princess! I thought I heard the bell.” Fai’s voice reaches them from the shadow of Yuui’s office, and Kurogane shakes his thoughts away. He’s here to work, not to pull answers from Sakura. “Do you mind to take the register today? It hasn’t been too busy, so I’ve got a stool set up to sit behind the counter till the customers come in.”

“Sounds lovely, Fai.” Sakura chimes, and Kurogane brushes passed them to take his place in the kitchen. He catches a glimpse of Yuui, unhappily buried in reams of paper over Fai’s shoulder and throws his boss a wave. Yuui only nods weakly in return. Well, that’s what he gets for putting his accounting off so long, Kurogane guesses. He doesn’t envy the man.

He figures, despite the earlier hour, his day should go about the same as it usually does. If Monday works anything like Saturday, they’ll have more take-out orders to worry about than dine-in customers, a minor rush around six, and a quiet evening otherwise. Kurogane makes himself busy checking the order queue, refilling ingredient bins, and tossing a new batch of bread in the oven for warming. He doesn’t mean to eavesdrop.

It’s just… the entrance to the kitchen is awfully near to Yuui’s office. And it’s not like Fai knows how to be quiet.

“I think Touya might have managed to follow me off school grounds,” Sakura pouts, low and conspiratorial. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell Dad.”

Fai doesn’t even seem to need a moment to think.

“I can write you up something that looks like a school outing permission slip. You can tell your dad you forged his signature on the previous ones. If you act nervous and contrite about it, I’m sure he won’t think to probe any further than that.”

He doesn’t have to look to imagine Sakura’s posture when she sighs, completely relieved by Fai’s confident plotting.

“Are you sure?” she presses, “You might have to keep sending one home with me now and again, to keep up the pretense—”

“I’ll keep a folder full in Yuui’s desk,” he offers easily. “That way, you can grab one whenever you need, even if I’m not around.”

“By the way, Sakura,” Yuui finally speaks. Kurogane doesn’t need to see to know when it’s one twin or the other. Their voices might sound similar on a base level, but… the way they talk. The pitches and inflections they both rely on couldn’t be more different. Kurogane doesn’t have any trouble at all telling them apart. “I’m sorry for putting these off so long. I’ll be able to pay you by the end of the night.”

“Oh! You don’t have to worry about that,” the young girl assures. Yuui hums in the way he does when he doesn’t agree with something, but doesn’t bother fighting with her. He’s made up his mind and he’ll do as he promised. Kurogane can tell. It’s part of what he likes about the twins; they both have an element of that same stubbornness.

“We’ll send a little extra along, so bring some medicine to Syaoran tomorrow, okay? Something tells me he doesn’t know how to take care of himself,” Fai assures, cool and easy as anything. Sakura laughs, but the sound is a weak thing. She doesn’t seem to know what to do when others pay her any kindness.

The clamor of his puttering around the kitchen seems unnaturally loud in the silence that follows. He keeps moving, trying not to make too much noise as he goes. Eventually, Sakura takes a deep breath. He imagines her standing still with her fists bunched tight, gathering her courage to speak.

“Thank you for everything, both of you,” she murmurs. “It really, really means a lot to Syaoran and me, you know?” Fai and Yuui both assure her she has nothing to thank them for, making her more and more flustered until a customer steps in and she has to rush back to the register instead.

Okay, so this is weird, right? And probably a lot of different kinds of illegal.

He doesn’t think Sakura pulls the kinds of shifts he sees Syaoran sneak in, but if her family doesn’t even know she has a job….

Forging school documents, helping the girl lie to her family… she’s under 18; can she even have a bank account in her own name? How does she cash her paychecks?

Fuck. He gives up. He’s accomplice to this place’s criminal record in more ways than one now, but… Sakura sounds so earnest when she says, ‘thank you,’ he doesn’t know whether he completely disagrees with what the twins are doing…

“Order for you,” Sakura tells him, holding a new slip gently toward him in the window. He doesn’t know what he allows to show on his face, but Sakura seems a little uncomfortable when he pulls the paper from her fingers.

Screw it. He shouldn’t have been eavesdropping anyway. She might as well know, right?

“Lying to your old man?” he presses as his eyes scan the instructions over. Not too much trouble, just two orders of their Monday special and a large soup on the side. Sakura goes a little pale at the question. She winces, but doesn’t shrink away.

“Yeah,” she breathes. Her eyes follow his hands as he puts the plates together. “It’s a little irresponsible, I know, but I just—kind of need this job.” Her argument rings familiar.

“Your dad wouldn’t let you work if he knew?” He pushes, throwing the meat on the stovetop to brown and pulling bread from the warming-drawer.

“Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think he’d approve of my reasons for working, I guess.” Sakura’s expression is drawn and dark. She can’t seem to meet his eyes. He wants to push for more, but Fai blows into the kitchen like a force of nature and brushes their conversation aside. Kurogane turns back to his work and lets the matter drop.

Still, it sticks. What might she need money for that her family could disapprove of so much?

He’s used to working alongside Fai by now. So much so that the blond’s ridiculous antics have started to become almost… comfortable. When the six o’clock rush blows through as predicted, Kurogane sinks into the familiarity of his job and forgets his troubled thoughts from earlier in the day.  It’s just…

Sakura looks a little unsteady out there. She stays perched on the stool Fai left for her, sleepy-eyed even as she takes orders and punches away at the cash register.

“Sakura seems a little low today, hmm.” Fai unwittingly speaks Kurogane’s own thoughts, just loud enough for the two of them to hear with the radio playing in the background. He doesn’t know what he should say, so he simply nods, focusing on the movement of his hands and the work he needs to do. “Well, I’ll let you in on a secret, if you promise not to sneak them for yourself,” Fai calls with a wink, and Kurogane thinks briefly of throwing his apron down and walking out right now. He’s had his fill of secrets in this place.

It’s only a fleeting thought. He needs this job too much, so he just watches as Fai climbs on to the counter top and starts reaching above the fridge.

“What the hell, dumbass! Get your damn shoes off the counter,” Kurogane crows, because somehow, ‘please for the love of god don’t hurt yourself,’ seems more incriminating. 

“Oh please, you can clean up after me easy,” Fai warbles before pulling a green lacquer box out of the shadow with a triumphant cry. Kurogane winces at the sight. Great. He knew it would be something like this.

“What the fuck is that,” he bites. Fai blinks at him, tilting his head faintly in confusion before something seems to dawn on him. He laughs with his whole body, would have laughed his fool self head-first towards the floor, but Kurogane sees the danger just soon enough to step in and catch an armful of chortling idiot. The box’s lid clatters to the floor in the scuffle and Kurogane, already cringing, looks inside to see—

Pastries?

He chances a second look. Sure enough, the box, probably a little less than a foot square, is crammed from wall to wall with thin, delicately-iced pastries.

“When Sakura gets like this,” Fai tells him, still bundled in Kurogane’s arms, still pressed a little too close against his chest and making no indication he plans to move any time soon. “It’s usually because she’s hungry.” Fai’s eyes dance with mirth, and Kurogane is somehow certain that he’s the one being laughed at. He sets Fai back to the floor, ignores the whine of disappointment that chases him back across the room, and leans into the order window.

The rush certainly appears to have ended. There are no customers in line, and only a lingering, lonely diner in the far right corner of the store. Sakura is half on her stool, half-sprawled across the counter with her arms flat across the surface.

…right.

“Kid,” he calls, watching the way Sakura jumps. “Are you hungry?”

Once again, he watches the girl’s face redden. Her hands flutter uselessly in the air, as if she means to wave him away.

“Uh, Not-not really! I mean, I’ll take my break soon and I was going to grab something then, so it’s not—” Her stomach betrays her, growling loud enough that Kurogane would have been able to hear it even without the order window. Alright. Mystery solved then.

“It’s slow enough,” he grouches at her, “You can ask us to make something for you, you know. Not like me and the idiot have anything else to do.” She tries, weakly, to continue her denial, but Kurogane tunes her out and starts throwing together the most filling thing he can think of. Fai watches over his shoulder, entirely too close and offering no real help at all.

“Hmm,” Fai muses, “maybe twice that much steak,” Kurogane gives him a strange look from the corner of his eye, but doubles the amount he has sitting on the stovetop anyway. He tosses the vegetables on, starts adding seasoning—“Sakura likes the ginger flavor. Also, you’ll probably want more veggies than that.”

“Do you want to do this?” Kurogane grits, waving his spatula like a weapon. Fai simply laughs, as if he knows something Kurogane doesn’t. Still. He heaps an extra serving of vegetables when the idiot’s back is turned.

By the time he’s done, the meal he’s thrown together for her hardly fits on its plate. He hands it to Sakura through the window and almost laughs at the face she pulls.

“Oh! It’s so much!”

“Blame him,” Kurogane mutters dryly, tossing his head in Fai’s direction. Sakura huffs, biting her lip.

“I—I mean, I don’t think I can pay for—”

“Seriously, princess? Workers get free meals. You know that,” Fai chides before he has a chance to do so himself. Sakura bows her head and takes her plate with good grace afterward. She looks longingly at it for a moment or two before sneaking it beneath the counter. Apparently, she still plans to wait for her break to roll around.

“Hey,” he calls out before he can stop himself, “no, you’re gonna eat that while it’s hot. Fai, get on the other side and cover for her.” He doesn’t really think about the fact that he might be overstepping his bounds a bit. Fai doesn’t seem to either. He laughs brightly and goes without question.

Kurogane is satisfied, so he doesn’t pay attention to what happens next. He doesn’t notice Fai take the box with himself into the other room, or the tiny argument it causes. He does notice when Fai returns not half an hour later with an empty plate.

“How much did she have to throw away?” Kurogane muses, following the line of Fai’s motion as he drifts his way back to the sink and tosses the plate carelessly in. Good thing the store buys plastic, because if they bothered with china they’d have gone under paying for replacements by now. Fai grins in his usual way, though Kurogane can already tell he’s still being laughed at.

“None! She ate it all, of course.” Fai practically chirrups, deciding that the stack of dishes really does look a little high, and rolling up his sleeves.

That… had been a lot of food….

Kurogane wanders back to the order window, as if by catching a glimpse of Sakura he might tell whether Fai is lying to him or not. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but…

“Sakura?” He calls, just in time to watch her shove one of the pastries from the lacquer box, whole, into her mouth. Her eyes are wide and green when she realizes what he’s just watched her do, cheeks puffed up like a chipmunk. She chews furiously with her hands in front of her face and swallows with an un-lady-like gulp.

“Y-yes! Um—sorry, is—did you need something?”

Kurogane stares at her.

He glances at the pastry box beneath the counter. Maybe it’s a trick of the light, but he thinks maybe the box might already be half-empty?

He looks again at Sakura’s tiny frame.

It dawns on him then, a terrible, terrible thought.

It’s almost like… Sakura has the munchies… 

“It’s nothing,” he sighs, feeling dead inside.  Somewhere behind him, Fai is laughing, he’s sure.

Chapter Text


He thinks he probably needs to say something about this to Yuui. He doesn’t know who knows what when it comes to the whole Wednesday delivery thing, but…

He watches Sakura steadily snack through the entire box of pastries. Her thin fingers still dart absentmindedly back to the box when the silence between customers lingers, long after she’s eaten the last one.  So… the next time he comes out to sweep the dining area, he slips a few warm rolls into the empty space, drizzled with a little honey at Fai’s insistence.

She eats them all.

And damn it, she’d never say a word to them but, he swears, when he gets back to the kitchen, he hears her stomach growling again.

It’s a fascinating new game Fai’s introduced him to, and a terribly worrisome one. No matter how much food he sneaks her or how embarrassed she gets by his mother-henning, down it all goes.

He’s lost in his thoughts, heating another batch of soup, trying to figure out just what he’s going to say to Yuui later, when he hears the strangest sound. It’s a foreign tune, lilting through the air and clashing with whatever’s blaring from the radio. Sounds kind of tinny, really—almost sounds like someone’s…

Phone.

Through the order window, Sakura has frozen like a deer in the headlights, her cellphone held delicately in slightly trembling fingers

“Answer it!!” Fai hisses, flailing his hands for emphasis.

“He-hello?” Sakura stutters, and even Kurogane starts to feel nervous on her behalf. “Ah, hi Dad.” Beside him, Fai visibly cringes. He bites his lip, glancing at Kurogane, at the door, at the cute phone charms dangling between Sakura’s cupped fingers. “Well, like I told you, I’m with Tomoyo.” She mumbles, sounding far too guilty. “T-Touya said what? …Oh, well… The t-truth is… I…” she takes a deep breath. Beside him, Fai is murmuring lies she can tell, trying to give her a way to wriggle out. She catches the blond’s gaze and nods. “Well, the truth is, the cooking club went out on an excursion for the evening, and I kind of, might have, forged your signature to be able to go?... N-no, I’m not lying—” she’s too nervous and far too honest to do this believably. She’s going to give herself away for sure.

Alright that’s it. He’s already an accomplice several times over, isn’t he?  He steels himself for just a second or two, then uses his long reach to lean forward and snatch the phone straight from Sakura’s hand. He can only just manage to grab it with the prep counter in the way.

“Kinomoto, I realize it’s after school hours, but you know better than to have your phone out. This is still a school function and I still have to confiscate it,” he chides, trying as hard as he can to imitate the tired disappointment he usually hears in Sonomi’s voice when he’s done something stupid.  He puts the far-too-cute phone up to his face and fights to ignore the way Sakura and Fai are both staring at him, open-mouthed.

“Yes, hello, whoever you are, but I’m afraid Kinomoto is not allowed her phone at the moment. Whatever you needed to say to her will have to wait until—”

“Um, sorry, but this is Sakura’s father.” Ah, the man finally speaks up. He sounds kind, if voices can be trusted. Maybe a little hapless.

“Ah, I see. Is there an emergency Mr. Kinomoto?” Sakura at least has closed her mouth, but Fai still doesn’t seem to know what to make of him.

“No, I just—are you in charge of the school’s cooking club?” He’s buying it. Well, of course he is. Kurogane knows how to sneak around with the best of them.

“Unfortunately,” he growls, letting his voice drip with disdain. Just for effect, he holds the phone away and shouts to no one, “Fluorite, if you try to light one more raw noodle on the stovetop flame I will send you home.” He pulls the phone back. Sakura is now visibly trying not to laugh. Both her hands are pressed across her mouth and nose, her shoulders shaking. “I hate to be curt with you Mr. Kinomoto, but I am chaperoning a group of adolescents with access to flammable materials, so unless there’s something you really need Sakura to know…?”

“Oh! Oh, no. Silly me, I just—forgot she would be out so late with your group. Thank you for watching out for them Mr….?”

Quick, quick, think of a name…..

“Souma,” he lies, thinking of the Daidouji chauffer. “I’m a part-timer they pull to watch the kids occasionally.” There. That’s solid, right? Even if the man’s suspicious enough to poke around for Faculty names, his lie should hold. Now… “Fluorite! What did I just say! Sorry, Mr. Kinomoto I have to go.” Kurogane lets his voice flood with as much exasperation as he can manage and hits ‘end.’ He sets the phone back onto the sill of the order window and returns to stirring the soup, trying to ignore the way both Sakura and Fai stare hard enough to make his neck burn.

He manages to put up with the strange silence for only a minute or two before he breaks.

“What?!” he snaps, only to watch Sakura bust into full, bellyaching laughter. Fai leans forward and grabs Kurogane’s arms at the bicep, staring at him like he’s a particularly fascinating new toy.

“Kuro-sensei,” the blond breathes, and sends poor Sakura into a whole new layer of giggles. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

He doesn’t know why they’re so surprised. It’s whatever. Not like he’s done anything Fai couldn’t have anyway. He has no way to answer so he just shrugs off Fai’s too-familiar touch and stirs the soup harder.

“Whatever,” he grumps. “Make sure you remember everything I just told your old man, kid. You’ll look suspicious if you can’t keep your story straight.”

“Of course,” Sakura fights to say between the chime of her laughter. She finds all of this far too funny, he thinks, and her face probably shouldn’t reach that particular shade of red, but what does Kurogane know. He waits her laughter out and tries to fend off Fai’s ridiculous teasing with the soup ladle, to middling effect.

“Thank you, Kurogane.” Sakura calls, just as honest and ardent as she’d been talking to the twins earlier. He learns two things in that moment. First, without a doubt, he’s gotten himself into a real quagmire of a situation. But second, he thinks as he sees Sakura’s grateful smile… he doesn’t regret it.

 


 

It takes forever to file everything in its proper place. It always does. Still, he manages to have timesheets and pay rates and bills all sorted, lies and truths alike, just a little before midnight rolls around.

Yuui pushes himself up to his feet, wincing at the way his back pops and aches with the motion. He can’t usually feel it, this time of night, but there’d been too much work to do for him to medicate well today. He’s only barely hanging on to the dregs of his evening buzz, just faintly distracting enough to keep himself from thinking too hard in the quiet.

(Not nearly distracting enough.)

Still, it’s easier when he has tasks to complete and someone other than himself to think about, so… he moves forward. Because Syaoran and Sakura need him to.

He picks up the slip of paper noting Sakura’s earnings, takes the cash envelope from his desk drawer and shuffles to the office door. Still three hours until closing and Fai’s been out there all day. Kurogane’s been in for an extra five hours today too—he needs to pull himself together. His workers deserve a break.

It’s just… he feels somehow, inescapably tired.

Every limb weighs heavy, every step feels like a struggle. When he tries to make change at the register, he finds himself counting the same three bills, over and over again.

“Yuui! Did you make it through all that paperwork?” Sakura is the very picture of cheer beside him. There’s color in her cheeks and… maybe a smear of chocolate near the corner of her mouth? It’s a good look for her, either way.

“No,” he murmurs without a hint of sarcasm. “Yuui has fallen in the field of accounting, and I am merely a ghost.” He draws a laugh from her throat, and that makes him want to smile too.

He isn’t entirely sure he’s joking, though… He feels more than a little zombie-like today.

“Ah! Is it midnight already?” He hears his twin call through the order window, and doesn’t bother to answer. Right. It’s midnight and Sakura needs to head home, and that’s why he should to hurry up and count out her pay. He stares down at the figure in his hand again, trying to make the numbers resolve in a way that makes sense.

Somewhere behind him, he hears distant clamoring and he knows his brother has unlocked the staircase door and rocketed back to their apartment.

Right, he thinks, and counts the bills he can reach until they add up to something familiar. He goes past the number he has written down and stacks on an extra twenty at the end for good measure.

“Alright, Sakura,” he tells her, sliding the cash drawer shut with a final-sounding bang. He puts the bills directly in her hands, and folds her fingers over before she can bother to double-check the amount. “Don’t forget to look in on Syaoran for us tomorrow, will you? He can’t come in if he’s still sick.”

“A-alright,” she stammers, already blushing at the mere mention of her friend. His kids are hopeless for each other, Yuui muses to himself for the thousandth time.

“Got it!” Fai shouts. His voice carries all the way down from the apartment, and Yuui knows instantly they’re going to have noise complaints. Still, there’s not much he can do about it. He sighs, turning just in time to watch Fai barrel out from the stairs, arms stacked with sweets. Yuui passes him a takeout bag from beneath the counter and watches his twin shove nearly three batches of cookies inside. “Yuui almost forgot this part of your paycheck,” he whines, pulling Sakura’s wrist through the bag’s handles before she can think to protest.

“I shouldn’t take all of these,” she huffs, clearly embarrassed.  Yuui hates it for her—it’s not her fault she needs so much sugar. He wants to find whoever told her otherwise and shove his fist in their face.

“Please,” he’s close to begging. He just wants, just wishes he could be good enough to help the people he cares about. Syaoran won’t just let him pay his rent, and Fai sacrifices so much for his sake he doesn’t even know what to be upset about first. At least, he thinks, maybe he’s good enough to get Sakura to eat a little more.

“Okay,” she sighs after far too long. Yuui’s heart eases, just the slightest bit. He can do this much.

He sends her off with something he hopes looks like a real smile, and tries to stop thinking so hard.

“Told you you didn’t bake them for nothing,” Fai gloats, grounding him with a quick, one-armed hug before spinning his way back to the kitchen.

Yuui stands in the empty storefront, twisting the cash envelope beneath his fingers and staring at the register. The numbers are finished for the day and they aren’t likely to see much traffic before close. He should probably just… settle down and take over here.

On the other hand… nothing feels quite right. Everything is so heavy, and his thoughts are so loud. He should probably try to ease the edge, but…. His office seems impossibly far away. He’s trying to find the energy to move when he finally notices Kurogane lingering in the hall.

“Ah, Kuro-sama. Sorry for keeping you so long today. You can head out now if you like,” Yuui calls, trying to keep his voice warm and even. He’s so tired. There’s a seat near the register so he braces himself, hauls his form up onto it.

He feels like he could just put his head on the counter and fall asleep, but… that probably wouldn’t be good for business.

“Actually, I wondered if you had a minute.” It’s almost a surprise to hear Kurogane’s voice. He’d kind of expected the man to bolt as soon as he could. Yuui turns back his way and rests his face in one hand, his elbow on the counter.

For you? Always’, he wants to tease. But he hasn’t had enough medicine for Fai’s kind of courage today. Instead, he says only, “Of course.”

He watches the ruby-red of Kurogane’s gaze slide away, uncertain. His part-timer looks pointedly at the kitchen, before winding his way decisively to Yuui’s side. He leans in when he speaks, voice pitched low.

“I needed to ask you about Sakura.”

Interesting, isn’t it? How Kurogane is always surprising him? He never knows what the man is going to say next. He’s not even sure what that sentence could mean, so he just… nods. (His head swims with the motion and… that’s probably not great.)

“How do I ask this…?” Kurogane mumbles, one hand pressed to the back of his neck. “I think I saw that kid eat enough for ten grown men today…?” he muses distantly, as if he isn’t quite convinced himself.

Yuui’s gaze hardens at once, spine stiffening. Kurogane might be cute, but so help him, if the man teases Sakura about her appetite even once…. “Is that a problem?” he asks, his words hanging like ice in the air. That sharp stare falls on him again, making him feel like Kurogane can stare right through him, dismantle him piece by piece.

“Depends on what you mean. Obviously if the kid’s hungry, she should eat. Though, I think you might want to up your employee meal budget if she’s on the clock.” It takes him longer than it should to understand the words, but once he does, Yuui relaxes. He leans harder into his hand, letting his eyes slip closed for just a moment in relief. “It’s just… is she okay?”

An excellent question.

Yuui smiles, pleased that he hasn’t misjudged his favorite new employee. Kurogane really is a good man.

“I’m not sure. I can’t convince her to go to the doctor...” he trails off, thinking of the times he’s found Sakura just on the verge of passing out in the dining area, Syaoran fanning her frantically and asking whether they might have some kind of candy or something for her to eat… Foolish. Both his charges are utterly foolish. “Sweets seem to help. She loses focus and energy rapidly without them, but I can hardly convince her to eat when she needs it.”

“Hunh.” Kurogane grunts. He seems to be coming to a decision of some sort. Yuui hasn’t the faintest idea over what. “She ate all the pastries Fai had stashed above the fridge. Do you think I should stop by the corner store and grab some more before her next shift?”

“That would be… very kind of you.” The words escape him in a moment of disbelief. Kurogane is a good man, far better than Yuui. “I… know it’s not in your job description, but… thank you. For looking out for her.” Kurogane pulls a strange face. He looks like he’s trying to wince and avoid a smile at the same time.

“Come on, it practically is my job. Fai and the kids are all total basket-cases. If I don’t look out for them, you’ll never have any work done around here.” Kurogane is utterly mistaken if he thinks those three are the worst messes here, or if he believes for a second that Fai doesn’t keep this place running better than Yuui ever could. The sheer ridiculousness of the notion drives a bitter rasp of laughter from his chest. Still… it’s nice… that someone else wants to take care of them too.

“Well, consider it part of your formal contract from now on then, Kuro-taichou. ‘Look out for the wellbeing of coworkers.’”

“Great,” Kurogane scoffs in mock disdain, “It’ll be the shining star on my resume, honestly.” Frazzled and tired as he is, with Kurogane here, it’s still easy as anything to laugh. He can hear Fai singing, purposefully off-key in the kitchen and he knows his twin has been eavesdropping, but he doesn’t think he cares. There’s this strange warmth in the center of his chest, something too tiny to really believe in yet, but… it almost feels like home. 

Yuui manages to stop snickering just in time for the damn phone to ring. He sends Kurogane a nod and turns back to his work. The customer delivers instructions quickly, and Yuui has no trouble interpreting the order. He moves through it quickly enough, punching in the right keys at the register and setting the order slip to print. Kurogane’s still here when he hangs up the receiver. He doesn’t know why, but he certainly doesn’t mind. He stands from the stool, already reaching out for the printed slip….

And feels the world spin.

Oh dear.

“What is it with you two falling on me today?” He hears Kurogane grouch from somewhere nearby. When he manages to open his eyes, he’s gathered bridal-style in his part-timer’s arms. Callused fingers meet his brow, and he barely manages to restrain himself from leaning into them. “Goddamnit, you’ll send the kid home, but it’s fine for you to work with a fever, huh?”

Fever? Hmm. Well, that makes sense. He has barely enough time to hear Fai’s dancing gait swinging his way from the hall before exhaustion finally pulls him under into sleep.

Chapter Text


 

He has no idea what to think about Sakura.

He doesn’t know how he managed to miss her odd behavior for so long. Now that he knows to look, he can’t stop noticing. He remembers how, every once in a while, her complexion flushes a little more than usual. How she starts to look distant at the counter—like a student about to fall asleep in class, even on her feet. And he’d never seen it before, but after the fever passes and Syaoran marches himself back to work, Kurogane watches the kid shoot Sakura the strangest, reprimanding look. The two say nothing to each other when Syaoran moves, slipping handfuls of hard-candy from his apron pockets to hers.

Please take care of yourself,” he whispers. She only huffs, red-faced until a customer comes in and sends the two jumping away from each other.

(Hopeless for each other. Honestly.)

So, he realizes it’s some kind of illness that ails her, and not just her obvious lovesickness.

He doesn’t know a whole lot about medicine or the body. He’s much more familiar with mechanical creations than the organic. But he’s lived long enough to know that diabetes and hyperthyroidism and all sorts of chronic conditions exist, none of them good. Those are the sort of thing that can make a girl so tiny, so hungry all the time, right?

He does a few google searches because, damn it all, he really has gotten attached to the kids and this place. He knows better than to trust everything he reads online, but he sees a lot of awfully nasty-sounding symptoms: anxiety, heart palpitations, trouble sleeping or breathing or—he doesn’t even know. Surely, Sakura’s a little healthier than all that or he would have noticed sooner, but he doesn’t know for certain. And a lot of those maladies—he knows people say cannabis helps, so…

This whole… Wednesday thing. Maybe she’s in on it, maybe she’s not, he doesn’t know. He does know that Fai and Yuui worry over her. They’re trying to look out for her just as much as he is, if not more. He can trust at least that much, so he’ll leave it lie.

Well, he leaves his questions lie. He certainly doesn’t intend to let Sakura continue ignoring herself. 

She just doesn’t make it very easy.

“Sakura, you’ll tell me when you get hungry today, won’t you?” He chastises as he prepares to start his shift. Her fingers bunch in her apron and she doesn’t meet his eyes when she chirrups,

“O-of course!” which he takes to mean, ‘No.’ His expression sours. Fai stifles a laugh somewhere to his left.

“Kuro-hen,” the idiot snickers. He lets his expression fall a little further at the new variation of his name. “don’t you think we’ve been trying that?”

…maybe he has a point. Obviously, the direct approach isn’t working out. What else does he have? He stares the girl down, considering. Sakura stares back, increasingly nervous beneath his gaze.

“Alright, the hard way then,” he announces. Fai and the girl both blink at him in dumb confusion, but he makes no move to explain himself.

He doesn’t press the issue for the rest of the night, though he does continue slipping sweet rolls into the box beneath the counter. Sakura tries to protest, and even dares to glare at him once or twice for it. Still, it seems if they’re within reach, she’ll eat them in distraction eventually.

Kurogane is no stranger to manipulating people. He grew up with two politically-minded parents, and then found his way to the Daidouji household, of all places. He can play the game with the best of them. However, he needs information to form an effective strategy. He thinks maybe he knows where to get it.  There’s only person he suspects might have more knowledge about this than even Syaoran…

His sister.

 


 

Tomoyo pierces him with a particularly dry look when she finds him waiting for her at the end of the school day. He’s not certain what he’s done to deserve it. He might be skipping his elective science course right now to catch her on her way home, but it’s not like she should know every detail of his schedule.

“Kurogane?” Syaoran is the first to ask. He and Sakura stand in formation around Tomoyo, flanking her better than even her occasional bodyguards can. “The shop doesn’t need help early, do they?” He shakes his head in negative and watches the expression of mixed relief that floods Syaoran’s form. He looks healthy enough, despite his recent illness. The kid bears a pale complexion and deeper bags beneath his eyes than he should, but looks far better than Yuui had the other night.

He shakes his thoughts away, not particularly interested in reliving the memory of his boss collapsing. That foolish man had been dealing with the onset of the flu, and never said a word to anyone. Kurogane wonders as to why. Yuui usually seemed so sensible… Had finishing his accounts on time really mattered that much?

Maybe if he’d rested sooner, the flu wouldn’t have hit him so hard, but it is what it is. As far as he knows, Fai’s still covering for Yuui with the books. They’ve wound up needing to contract one of Yuuko’s workers, despite Fai’s initial reluctance. So really, skipping practice that night had been entirely pointless.

Well… not entirely pointless. There was learning about Sakura, and helping her cover with her dad.

“To what do I owe the honor, brother mine?” Tomoyo warbles, cheerful as anything. He knows better than to ignore the snark buried beneath her tone.

“Can’t a guy come pick his sister up after school without people making a scene?”

The sound of her laughter masks Syaoran’s confused echo of “sister?” Sakura nods at him and starts whispering in his ear behind the cup of her palm.

“Someone could, I suppose. I just don’t believe that someone is you,” the tiny terror muses. Kurogane crosses his arms and grunts but secretly, he always enjoys her razor-wit.

The kids obviously aren’t done saying their goodbyes for the day, so he leans against the school gate to wait. He lets his attention drift while they talk, just on the verge of distraction when he hears Sakura’s tiny gasp.

“Oh no,”

That small sound draws his attention like a scream in the silence. His head snaps her way, follows the line of her sight to another college-age man standing on the sidewalk across the street. His hair and eyes are different, but there’s something similar in the cut of his features. And judging from the way Sakura is close to falling all over herself…

“Well,” He calls out, loud enough to let his voice carry but not so loud as to look suspicious. Sakura and Syaoran still jump slightly regardless. “It’s time for us to head out. Did you still have your club to go to today?”

The girl stares at him, wide-eyed, caught like a deer in the headlights. Syaoran is equally clueless. He hasn’t quite figured out what’s happening yet, still searching for whatever frightened Sakura so.

Lucky for them, they have Tomoyo.

“She does,” his sister sighs, looping her arms through Sakura’s to dampen her body language. “But you don’t mind coming to grab her after, do you? Mom took Souma for the night, but I wanted to get through more than just two episodes of our drama before Sakura has to leave… We’ll have so much more time if you take the car.” Hmm… not a bad plan. Sakura’s pesky brother might have more trouble following a car. Still, the timing would be off.

“What a pain,” he grouches, “I didn’t come home from class just so you could use me as an extra chauffer, Tomoyo,” she giggles, but the sound is too practiced. He can tell the difference. He hopes Kinomoto can’t.

“Oh come on, It’s for Sakura! How could you say no to her adorable face?” His sister is a genius, who masks Sakura’s nervousness by piling on embarrassment.

“Yeah, yeah,” he plays along, acting his part as the put-upon college sibling. “I’ll come get you, but I’ve got things to do. I won’t just wait around. You think you can get out of your club by 4:30?”

Sakura takes a beat too long to answer. As he watches her expectantly, understanding seems to dawn on her all at once. Her tiny frame stiffens with determination.

“W-well, it’s a bit early, but I guess they won’t mind just this once.”

Kurogane sees out the corner of his eye as Kinomoto slinks down the block, apparently satisfied. He’s still going to get the car from the Daidouji garage though. He wouldn’t put it past a guy like that to come back and check later. Sakura follows her brother’s path and doesn’t remember to breathe until she can’t see him any longer. Syaoran has to practically hold her up as she gasps.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I can’t believe he’s still trying to follow me,” her face is bright red behind her fingers. He watches Tomoyo and Syaoran pull her aside expertly, get her to sit down on a low concrete wall with gentle guiding motions. They’re used to her, and it shows in every move.

“Really, none of us mind helping you, Sakura,” his sister soothes, and Syaoran nods along earnestly. Kurogane fights against the urge to smile and shoves his hands in his pockets.

“Tomoyo, we need to head out now if we’re coming back with the car at four thirty.” He calls. Sakura stops hiding her face and gapes at him instead, openly shocked.

“You were serious?”

Kurogane just stares at her in answer, one eyebrow raised.

“I’m taking you home to watch movies with my sister after your club meeting. Wherever you might head after you leave the car, I’m sure I don’t know. Neither will anyone else.” The lovesick duo stare at him as if they’ve never seen him before. Tomoyo simply laughs.

“Truly, big brother, you are the most capable ninja in all the land.” He rolls his eyes.

“Come on, don’t start with that again.” He barks. Tomoyo simply ducks under his arm and starts meandering down the sidewalk. “Remember, four thirty, kid.” He glances at her still-red face, the way her breath still doesn’t seem to slow. “Make sure you eat something.”

Kurogane doesn’t stick around to see how she reacts to the admonishment, but he does think he hears Syaoran murmuring in vindication, “See? He thinks so too.”

 


 

He doesn’t have enough time to take Tomoyo shopping and walk home for the car both, but he’s worried enough not to care. Maybe if their conversation moves fast enough he can stop in at a gas station and stock the backseat with snacks before he takes Sakura from school?

“It isn’t like you to skip class,” Tomoyo scolds, though her tone is still light and playful. Kurogane has no idea how she’s aware of such a thing, but doesn’t bother to argue. Maybe Sakura isn’t the only one with a stalker sibling.

“Needed to catch you before practice tonight. One missed class won’t hurt.”

“Oh?” He’s piqued her interest.

Tomoyo might have danced circles around him when they first met, but he’s a quick study. He can read her curiosity in the change of her gait—the way she switches from bouncing steps ahead to a measured, even pace at his side.

Lucky for him, he doesn’t think he’ll need to play games with his enigmatic sister to get his answers today. He’s certain she wants to help as much as he does. He can afford to be blunt.

“What’s going on with Sakura?” The only indication of Surprise Tomoyo grants him is the brief pause, interrupting the rhythm of her walk. Really, he should warn her about her movements giving her away but he’s not sure he wants to lose his advantage.

“Hmm. Well, she’s quite worried about her grades,” Tomoyo lilts. “Helplessly pining over Syaoran and too dense to realize he’s helplessly pining back. She can’t get her brother to leave her alone… Just the usual.” Kurogane scowls, shooting her a tired look from the corner of his eye. “But I suppose that’s not what you mean, is it?”

“She’s sick,” he ventures. Tomoyo simply tilts her head, though her smile shifts to something a little more plastic.  “She won’t go to the doctor for it, because…?”

“Goodness, when is she ever going to have time for a doctor’s appointment? All that studying to do, and a part time job besides?” he hears the edge of forced cheer in his sister’s voice, and recognizes all the bitter hallmarks of a longstanding sore-spot. “Besides, it’s always been like this really. No reason to fuss. Just a bit of candy and she’s fine.” Tomoyo huffs, mask slipping into disdain just for a moment or two. He wonders if she’s quoting.

“She can’t afford to take even one day off?” The way his sister stills at his side makes him uneasy.

“She thinks she can’t.” Her voice is something sad and small. He has to strain to hear her against the backdrop of white-noise in the street. Tomoyo takes a deep breath to steel herself and straightens her spine. “Brother, I’m sure you have the best intentions, but there are just some things a girl can’t share about her best friend.” She accentuates her words with a sharp pat to his right wrist. Kurogane lets her, but his thoughts are churning.

“I wouldn’t ask you to betray her trust.” It seems to be the right thing to say. Tomoyo’s dark hair whirls around her when she turns to smile at him, spilling over her shoulders. “Alright then, so she won’t go to the doctor. In that case, she needs to eat.”

“I’m so proud of you,” his sister teases, clinging to his arm with mock-affection, “you’ve finally seen the light and learned to appreciate Sakura’s goodness.” He scowls at her as they turn the corner toward home, but doesn’t bother to shake her off.

“You don’t have to make it sound so creepy. I’m just worried about the kid, that’s all.” Still, Tomoyo titters and carries on, honestly happy to have him care. It’s a strange feeling. “She embarrassed about eating in front of people or something?”

Tomoyo sighs deeply in answer. There’s no reason to fake it, not now that she’s sure of his intentions.

“People used to tease her, when we were younger. ‘If you keep eating like that, you’ll surely get fat!’ …that sort of thing.” Her hand finds his and he realizes his fingers are grasping the air at his waist, searching for a weapon to wield against such idiocy.

“Why the hell did she listen?” Tomoyo’s tiny frown deepens.

“People said it a lot. I even heard her brother repeat something similar, once or twice. And if you hear something enough times, it starts to feel…”

“Fucking hell.” He interrupts, in a far fouler mood. People were cruel and stupid to say such things to children, and imbecilic in their vanity besides. “What does it even matter anyway? So what if she did get fat? There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that.” He doesn’t really mean to speak aloud. He’s just venting his anger in the only way he can manage.

“I know, Kurogane, but you don’t really understand the way they… Everyone was constantly judging her and teasing her for it. No one just said it as a statement of logic, it was always thrown at her as an insult. How could she see it any other way?”

They walk in quiet for a few minutes as he stews in his own annoyance. Still, he’s a little better than he had been as a child, and he can master himself before long.

“Alright, fine then. How have you been tricking her into eating?” he asks, no doubt in his mind that she has her methods because he knows his sister. He is intimately familiar with the sneaky way she cares about her loved ones.

Tomoyo manages a real smile for him. She looks like pure sunshine, but he’s almost frightened by the devious glint behind her gaze.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 


 

Tomoyo’s instructions are simple enough. He’d practically figured out half of it on his own. Don’t ask whether she wants food or not, just give it to her. If it sits nearby for long enough, she’ll eventually eat it without thinking.

He hadn’t thought of refilling portions of her plate while she’s not looking, so that she never really realizes how much she’s already eaten. But then, he’s not sure he could manage the kind of focus something like that would require, given his usual station in the kitchen. Still, it might be something to keep in mind for the next time Sakura stays over.

He also hadn’t been aware of Tomoyo’s trump card.

“Sakura really can’t refuse gestures that show a lot of effort. When you work hard to make her something, she’ll accept it every time. Her kind heart works against her that way.” His sister had sighed. It’s another thought to keep in mind, but he doesn’t exactly have the kind of schedule that allows for frequent, difficult baking projects. When he points this out, Tomoyo only laughs. “Well, in a pinch, just go for the cutest thing you see. That usually works too.”  

That’s how he comes to find himself staring blankly at a selection of gas station candies come four fifteen. Baby animals he kind of gets but, what makes one kind of candy cuter than another? He hasn’t the faintest idea.

He doesn’t really have time to dither. Tomoyo’s waiting in the car and he needs to leave soon if he’s going to pick Sakura up on time. Regardless… his eyes flick from brightly colored wrapper to wrapper. They all look the same to him.

He’s considering just buying one of each and letting his sister sort them by degree of cuteness herself when his thoughts are interrupted.

“You’ve been staring for a while now, mister. Are you waiting for the caramels to do a trick?” a young voice pipes, somewhere near his elbow. Kurogane turns his head just enough to bring his addressor into view; it’s a kid. A strange one. They’re gangly and thin, maybe ten or eleven, impossibly pale, and topped with a childish, floppy-eared cap. “Mokona can’t reach, with the scary guy in the way...” The kid murmurs aloud, pouting. Kurogane takes his cue and steps back. He watches the way the hat’s ears trail through the air when the kid—Mokona?—bounces forward with a happy noise of triumph. Somebody like this should know, right?

“Hey, kid. Which one of these things do you think is the cutest?” Mokona looks back over their shoulder, suddenly and unexpectedly intense for just a moment as they look him over. It’s only a moment. Their expression eases back into hapless glee so quickly he’s not certain it was ever different.

“Hmm.” They draw the noise out dramatically, hands pulling bags from the shelves, even while their head stays pointed toward Kurogane. As he watches, they bundle no less than four huge bags into the folds of their baggy clothing, clearly intending to shoplift and completely without caring that Kurogane has watched them do it. “Mokona understands. A scary guy like you must have trouble understanding cute things.” They nod, rearranging the folds of their scarf to hide the unnatural silhouette beneath. “Luckily for scary guy, sensing cute auras is one of Mokona’s special skills!”

Okay then.  Clearly, Kurogane has made a mistake.

“Look,” he starts, “I’m just going to take a couple of these and go.”

“Iiiit’s this one!” Mokona shouts, pointing to a bag full of soft, strawberry gummies. Kurogane simply does not know how to deal with this kid’s antics. He’s not completely certain any of this is even real.

Before he can gather his wits, Mokona lifts two strawberry bags and very much invades Kurogane’s personal space to stick them into his pants pockets.

“Hey!” He barks, dodging away from those darting fingers. He wonders briefly whether he still has his wallet, pleased when he feels the shape of it pressing into his leg. The candies, he pulls back out of his own pockets and tosses into his shopping basket where they belong. Even though the glare he fixes the kid with is pure, unabashed anger, Mokona does not appear cowed in the slightest.

“Ah,” they say, “You lack many of Mokona’s skills. This is why you needed Mokona’s help!” Everything about this kid is strange and dramatic and ridiculous. Something about the bounce and energy behind everything they do reminds him uncomfortably of Fai.

Dear God. They can never be allowed to meet.

“Okay, Thanks.” Even he knows he doesn’t sound very thankful when he bites the words. He moves to leave, warily stepping around the kid as he edges toward the cash register.

“Mokona helped you!” They shout, “That means scary guy pays a price!”

He feels his eye beginning to twitch. This kid is going to figure out how the police handle shoplifting minors if he doesn’t get out of Kurogane’s way.

“Price?” he echoes, letting his voice carry every ounce of the frustrated, hurried annoyance he feels. Mokona ignores his tone entirely, pale features smoothing into a serious, blank face that he already knows better than to trust.

“Your silence.” The kid declares, openly pulling their waistband wider and dropping a fifth bag down one voluminous pant leg. It makes a soft rusting noise as it settles into the space at Mokona’s shin, caught between fabric and the top of their boots. Then, incomprehensibly, the kid busts into mad laughter and darts down the aisle and away from sight.

…Kurogane decides in that instant that he never wants to have children.

He checks out as quickly as he can, certain that at any moment he’ll catch the sound of the store’s blaring alarms, or see a store clerk hop up in irritation to chase the urchin off. He doesn’t.

Tomoyo assures him that that the soft, pink and white strawberries really are cute when he finds his way back to the car, so at least there’s that.

 


 

He tries to get up with the alarm, really he does.

It’s a concerted effort, but he manages to sit up. He even manages to turn and get his feet on the floor. He just—needs to stand.  There’s bread to bake and soup to make and marinades to mix, by damn. He has a store to run and he’s going to do it.  No heavy-headed exhaustion can keep him away from that. He can do this, and he will.

Fai has other ideas.

“Go back to bed, dork,” he calls, already watching intently from the doorway of their shared bedroom. It isn’t fair; Fai was up past closing last night and now he’s up again for prep. This is supposed to be Yuui’s job.

“No fever last night,” Yuui huffs. “I’m good for today—you’ve been working so hard, just let me—”

“Yuui, you can’t even stand. Go back to sleep.” Fai dismisses him outright. That tone, usually so bright, is frustrated and worn. Yuui can’t help the wince it elicits. He looks down, stares at the shape of his hands clenched tight atop his thighs as his brother turns and walks away.

He knows he’s weak and he knows he’s a burden. He knows Fai doesn’t really want this life, would have been far happier at university. But his twin cares too much, or at least he thinks he owes Yuui this… self-sacrificing loyalty.

Yuui doesn’t want it. Not at the price of his twin’s happiness. Fai was the only reason he’d ever—

He can’t afford to think of that.

He knows it’s not the lingering illness that leaves him unable to get out of bed. Not really.

 


 

Putting his dark thoughts away without his vices is difficult, but Fai asks so little of him. He isn’t supposed to dose while he’s sick unless it’s absolutely necessary.

He hasn’t figured out yet what “absolutely necessary” looks like, so he resolutely does not search for the stash Fai has temporarily hidden away. Maybe it takes him a few hours to remember himself, sitting hunched and motionless in bed with his thoughts racing out of reach. It’s not the worst. He still has further to fall.

By the time he has the strength to move, the noontime sun shines through his window blinds. He stares at it until strange colors and dark spots paint his eyelids when he blinks, turns away. He needs to get up.

He finally pushes himself to his feet, unsurprised when it doesn’t feel like a victory. He dresses without thought, throwing on the closest things he can reach. The end result nets him his own jeans and one of Fai’s shirts—it doesn’t matter.

It’s another few hours, staring blankly at the motionless screen of the television before he’s disgusted enough with himself to set his head back on straight.

He can’t keep doing this—wallowing and letting Fai suffer, willing to do it just because he’s accepted his own weaknesses. There’s work to do, and he needs a distraction. He’ll sneak his way down to the office and start going through the daily account balances. Fai hates doing them, so there’s a good chance he has some to catch up on. If he’s lucky he can edge past while things are busy and his twin will never know.

He should know better. He has never been lucky.

“Yuui,” the sound of his brother’s annoyance catches him before he can even shut the stair door. Busted, he thinks.

“Fai,” he calls back, exasperated.

“You should be in bed.”

“I’m not tired!” he stresses, far louder than he means to. For just a moment or two, he catches Fai off-guard.

He sounds like a petulant child, and he knows it. “Look,” he tries again. “No fever, and I can’t sleep anyway. Do I have your permission to use my own office?” Too much sarcasm, too much hurt—he shouldn’t…

Anger and worry fight to dominate Fai’s expression. His arms, usually in perpetual motion, cross defensively over his chest.

(Yuui’s doing this all wrong—He’ll hurt Fai—he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Sharp edges and broken glass—he’s not—)

Yuui!” he hears a cheerful call from further in the restaurant and barely raises his arms in time to catch the excited child who collides with him. “Yuuko told Mokona you were sick!”

It is always incredibly difficult to pull himself back from the edge of abyss without his usual crutch. Somehow, Mokona’s presence makes it just a little easier.

“I was, but I’m better now,” he soothes, staring pointedly at Fai as he talks. His brother shoots him a look—the kind that says, ‘this isn’t over, asshole.’  Fair enough. He’ll take it.

“Is Yuuko sending you on errands today?” Fai bends Mokona’s way and coos. As always, he shifts and glides between facets of his persona without trouble. Yuui envies him deeply.

“No, Mokona is making deliveries for Mokona today.” They take just a step back, reach into their shirt and lift a bag of peach-flavored soft-chews aloft, presenting them to Fai. “This one’s Fai’s, and…” the next package falls from the kid’s pant leg once they remove one boot. “This one’s for Yuui!” Coffee-flavored hard candies. One of his favorites, he must admit. Still, the way their visitor shakes each gift out of their clothes disturbingly implies….

“You didn’t steal these, did you?” Yuui asks against his better judgment. Mokona pouts up at him, the perfect picture of innocence as they tilt their head.

“Define ‘steal.’”  Well, that’s a ‘yes’ then. He looks at the offending bag of candies in his hands and knows that he will still eat them regardless.

Fai swoops forward, hefting Mokona into the air and spinning wildly.

“A thief in the shop!” he sings, “Whatever shall we do!” Mokona gasps and protests their innocence, dancing away playfully the first chance they get. Yuui watches their spectacle, helpless to do anything about it. Those two are loud and chaotic and probably frightening any customers lingering in the storefront, but… seeing them does make him feel a little better.

“Don’t run in the shop,” he calls after them both. Honestly, his brother is in his twenties. “And put your shoe back on!” it’s little use. Once those two get going very little can stop them.

Ah, well. At least he can work on his books without worrying about his twin coming to chase him out.

 


 

He has thoroughly forgotten his earlier spot of cheer by the time ten rolls around.  He really doesn’t mind that Fai left things behind for him to do. He just wishes they didn’t take so long. The stack of receipts before him only amounts to the sales and purchases from the last few days, but it may as well have been weeks’ worth for how slow Yuui works through the pile.

He’s biting his lip, leg jerking with a nervous rhythm, trying to decide if this counts as “absolutely necessary” when Kurogane sweeps the door open.

“Fai, why is there—oh, Yuui.” He must have just arrived. His dark hair is wet—from practice, maybe?—apron strings trailing untied behind him. The expression he wears is thunderously annoyed until his eyes find Yuui.

Kurogane has never mistaken one twin for the other, and Yuui hasn’t the slightest idea how. Sure, he and Fai always felt they looked different enough from each other; Fai liked his hair a little shorter. Yuui’s frame was just a touch leaner. Fai’s complexion was just a shade less pale, the shadows beneath Yuui’s eyes ever so slightly darker... Fai liked bright and colorful clothes and Yuui liked to stick to blues and monochrome—the differences had always seemed obvious enough to them. Not so much to the rest of the world; Even when Yuui had grown his hair past his shoulders, strangers and friends alike had still confused them for each other.

Today his hair still sits a little longer, but not by much. He’d only just dragged himself out of bed this afternoon, so he doesn’t even have it pinned back. He’s still wearing Fai’s bright red t-shirt. But even so, even expecting to see Fai, Kurogane recognized Yuui in an instant.

“How can you tell it’s me?” He asks before he can stop himself, too enchanted to keep a cool head. His part-timer appears surprised by the question, but only shrugs.

“You hold yourself differently,” Kurogane says. Fascinated, Yuui tilts his head. Hold himself? How would Fai hold himself differently? He’s sitting at the desk chair—is there another way to sit?

“Hmm.” He pictures his twin, thinks as hard as he can about the way his brother moves. Fai is a languid, boneless thing (Fai doesn’t have scar-tightened skin or the lingering ache of healed bones to keep him still). Fai doesn’t seem to realize furniture has an intended method of use. Fai likes to be sprawled, likes to be moving, doesn’t still feel the urge to make himself as small as possible. Yuui thinks through it all before he turns sideways in his seat, back against the hard corner of his armrest, feet swinging over the opposite side. He feigns dramatics and lets one hand fall loosely towards the ground. “Kuro-mu, don’t you recognize me?” he whines, effecting his best Fai impression.

“Okay, now that’s just weird.” Kurogane grumbles, and Yuui can’t stop the bubbling laughter that spills from his throat. “I would still know it’s you though.”

Something about the words pulls at Yuui’s heart.

“Yeah?” he presses. He shouldn’t. He should stop this game before it starts—there’s something, buried deep that’s far too satisfied, and if he starts to care too much he’ll only get hurt again. “It’s the hair, isn’t it,” he backpedals, because that’s safe. “I keep telling him if he grew his longer we could play all kinds of tricks, but he’s too stubborn and I like my hair long.” He gives the man an easy out, pushing himself painfully back to an upright position. He suffers aches and pains on his best days, but his recent brush with the flu has done him no favors.  

Kurogane huffs dismissively. “Actually, I’m terrible at noticing things like that. It’s—” Yuui stares, wide-eyed as the faintest blush blooms across the man’s face. “Well, you smile different. Quieter? And when you laugh you usually hide your face.”

Oh no.

Yuui is floored, strangely touched that anyone sees him to that extent—no one’s ever—

“Sorry,” Kurogane can’t seem to look him in the eye. “Didn’t mean to make it weird.”

“You didn’t,” he breathes, hoping to god that he can steer the overwhelming, embarrassed awe he feels away from his voice. His thoughts are a jumbled mess, a loop of panic.

“Anyway,” Kurogane draws out the word, visibly shuffling his thoughts back in line. His hands move to his apron strings, deftly tying as he talks. “I came in here to ask; why the hell is there a kid manning the cash register?”

Yuui’s mind takes far longer to wrestle back into order. He’s listening, but nothing seems to process in linearly. Kid? Syaoran and Sakura are on the schedule today, so they should be around somewhere. (How does he know them so well already? Why does he bother to learn?) Kurogane wouldn’t need to ask about those two though. (Oh no, oh no—he’s gone and made Yuui think he has a chance. He’s pulling on this stupid heart and he can’t—) So that only leaves…

“…Mokona?” He guesses aloud. Kurogane nods, staring him down in narrow-gazed suspicion.

“Look, Sakura and Syaoran are one thing, but surely you know better than to hire a little kid like that, right? There has to be a line.” What? Hire? (Kurogane’s cute and kind and he cares about Yuui’s family and he sees Yuui and that’s—)

“Mokona doesn’t work here,” he affirms, eyeing the way tension bleeds from the line of Kurogane’s shoulders, ever so slightly. (Very, very nice shoulders… He’s so doomed.)

“Then why are they working the register?” Kurogane is adorably flustered and concerned and looking at him (and shit, he’s got it bad.) Yuui sighs, flashing the man a teasing (quiet?) grin.

“Try to get them to leave it and let me know how it goes.” Kurogane nods slowly, still a little paranoid, so he adds, “Mokona thinks playing cashier is a fun game, but they tend to get bored within the hour. You don’t have to worry. Syaoran knows how to keep an eye on things.” He can watch the way his words affect Kurogane’s suspicion, see the path relief takes in his face.

“Sorry for bothering you,” the man mumbles.

“It’s really no bother at all,” Yuui assures, thinking hard about the shape of his smile. (What does quiet mean?) Kurogane nods and turns for the door.

“By the way,” he calls over his shoulder, just before he leaves. “It’s good to see you feeling better.”

Kurogane is going to kill him, Yuui thinks.

 


 

End of Act 1


 

Chapter Text


 

 

Act II: High Dosage

 


 

Holy Hell.

When he first met Fai, he thought he’d probably come to know the flightiest, most ridiculous person in the world.

There was no way he could have anticipated Mokona.

And even after meeting the weird kid at the candy rack, the whirlwind of sheer chaos that Fai and Mokona could cause together was nearly incomprehensible.

He’d known, somehow, that the two of them should never meet. He’d seen it like a premonition in the gas station.  Catching sight of those silly, floppy felt ears when he steps through the front door to start his shift feels like the beginning of a nightmare.

At first, he assumes Fai must have lost his mind with Yuui still out of commission and had hired the tiny delinquent in a fit of desperation. He storms into the office, ready to really tell the idiot off, but… he finds Yuui instead. The boss looks… well, better than he had Monday, Kurogane guesses. Either way, Yuui’s explanation does marginally ease his mind about the ten-year-old kicking their feet back and forth at the stool behind the register.

“Scary guy!” the child—Mokona—yelps as soon as he comes into view. He hears the sound of stifled laughter and turns to glare at Syaoran, who is wiping all the tables on the right side of the store. He gives the place a once over, now that he’s not quite so distracted. No customers eating inside, but foot traffic and takeout is unusually high today if the stack of completed orders in the kitchen window is any indication. Over the sill, he catches a glimpse of Fai and Sakura working together. It would be a perfectly usual Friday night if not for the little kid practically vibrating in his direction.

“Weird kid,” he greets back with far less enthusiasm. Mokona pouts at the epithet but appears otherwise undaunted.

“Mokona didn’t know scary guy worked here,” they announce, fingers tapping away at the order machine. Kurogane watches their hands with dread, looking from Mokona to Syaoran to the printer. Syaoran half-smiles back. He seems a little more worn than he usually is when Kurogane steps in for his shift. How long has the poor high schooler been roped into baby-sitting today?

“It’s Kurogane,” he corrects, “and the feeling is mutual. Are you done destroying our cash register?” Much like Fai, the kid disregards him entirely.

“Kuro-guy.” Almost entirely. “Hmm. Mokona wonders. Is someone like you truly worthy of the Fluorite branch? Earlier today Kuro-guy demonstrated a severe lack of skill.”  If Syaoran tries any harder not to laugh, he’s going to choke. Kurogane pins him with a dark look. If he’s going to be like this, he can have baby-sitting duty.

“Kid, it’s way past your bedtime,” he grumps, then thinks on his own words. It’s ten o’clock on a Friday night, and Mokona, fresh from their shoplifting adventure, is playing cashier in a sandwich drive frequented by drunks and potheads. If they have guardians at all, there’s no way they have anyone even remotely responsible.

He’s spent enough years as an orphan to know better than to ask, “where are your parents,” so he asks the next best thing.

“Does anyone know where you are?”

“Yes! Lots of people!” Mokona chimes, all sunshine and smiles. Kurogane doesn’t know how to parse that, but he guesses he doesn’t really care all that much. He leaves it be.

The shop bell rings out. Kurogane watches a couple step into the storefront, immediately blasted by Mokona’s noisy, “Welcome!” He tuts, shakes his head, and retreats to the kitchen amidst the soundtrack of Mokona’s gleeful order-taking procedures. Syaoran, he notices, takes the real order from the sidelines the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.

Ah. So he had disconnected the printer then.

“Hello, Kuro-guy!” Fai cheers as soon as he steps foot into the kitchen. Kurogane delivers him the deepest, most hate-filled glare he can manage. As usual, Fai does not care. “Goodness! What a face! Maybe you like Kuro-scary better?”

“Well look at that,” he grouches, turning back toward the door, “I guess you don’t need any help back here. I should go see whether Yuui could use a hand with—”

“Oka-ay!” Fai whines, “I’ll leave you be, you big grump. Just don’t leave me alone with this dish pile, I beg of you.” Sakura isn’t much better than Syaoran at hiding her laughter, but at least she has the decency to be contrite about it. She covers her mouth and nose, so that once her shoulders finish shaking and her hand falls away, she leaves dusty, flour fingerprints behind.

“Thank you for earlier, Kurogane,” she beams at him. Kurogane shrugs. Picking her up with the car hadn’t really been a problem, and the candies had hardly cost him anything. He had run a little late to practice after he spent too long trying to figure out which pastries were supposedly cutest at the grocery store, but she doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know what she has to thank him for.  

Oh right—the pastries. Kurogane had forgotten them in his bag.

“Hey, I’ll be right back, I need to—”

“Order Up!” Mokona shouts, loud enough to set Kurogane’s ears ringing. He moves his head slowly toward the order window and seethes at the be-capped terror child dangling Syaoran’s hand-written order sheet there. Pastries temporarily forgotten, Kurogane stalks toward the window and snatches the note from quick fingers.

“Oh, don’t be so sour, Kuro-su,” Fai chides, sidling up to read over his shoulder. “Easy enough. Thank you for your hard work, Mokona.” The outlandish man somehow manages to bow at the waist in the cramped kitchen without knocking his fool head against the counter. Kurogane covers the edge with one hand as Fai whips himself back up though, just in case.

“Your due recognition is appreciated.” He has never heard a ten-year-old kid talk like that. Mokona just seems stranger and stranger.  Kurogane wants to ask someone about them, but he hasn’t the first clue where he should start.

Fai gently pries the order slip away and physically turns Kurogane toward the sink. “If you could please direct your irritation to the dish pile, Kuro-grump?” He wants to protest but his work ethic stops him. He has been on the clock for a while now and gotten very little done. He picks up a relatively clean rag and starts draining away the tepid water.

“You gonna bow for me too, when I’m finished?” It’s a harmless joke in his head. He doesn’t even mean to say it aloud, but he does, damn it. Phrasing, he grimaces to himself, tries to see whether maybe Fai hadn’t heard.

No such luck. Fai’s gaze pins him in place.

“If you like,” the blond grants, certain and sure but barely louder than a whisper, and Kurogane has to wonder… There is nothing hazy or clouded in Fai’s expression, only quiet calculation—the barest hint of a challenge.  

For the first time in a long time, he starts to second guess the way he’s read Fai. At the very least, he figures maybe he’s finally caught the man on a sober day, but—

“Mokona is tired,” the brat declares, still hanging in the order window. Fai’s attention snaps back, body language and expression flipping so fluidly that it leaves Kurogane feeling a little unbalanced. “Can Mokona stay with Fai and Yuui tonight?” As Kurogane watches, still quite out of his depth, Mokona pushes their upper body up and starts literally climbing through the window.

“Get off of there,” he scolds, interrupting whatever Yuui had been about to say in answer. “You get down right now and walk around to the door like the rest of us.” Mokona puffs their cheeks at him in annoyance, scoffs, and lowers themself back down to the floor. Standing on the ground, Kurogane notices that he can only just glimpse the top of the kid’s hat as they glide away from the register and turn toward the hall.

All three of his co-workers stare at him incredulously. None of them breathe a word.  What? he thinks. He wasn’t about to let that kid get their boots all over the prep station. Did they just expect him to watch?

“Okay!” Mokona stomps their foot in the kitchen entrance. “Can Mokona stay with Fai and Yuui now?” Whatever spell he apparently cast on the others falls away. Syaoran shakes his head fondly and backs away from the window. Sakura shoots him an even brighter smile than usual and goes back to whatever she’s mixing. Fai practically drops the order he’s working on and whooshes forward to grab Mokona, much to their apparent delight.

“Of course you can stay,” he croons, readjusting his hold when Mokona, laughing, nearly squirms themself upside down to get away. “You don’t even have to ask! Did you let Yuuko know?”

… Yuuko? The same Yuuko who sent her high school errand boy around on the first Wednesday of the month? Mysterious, drug dealer Yuuko?

“Yuuko doesn’t care. But Mokona can call her if you want,” the squirming kid chirps between giggles. Fai has engaged them in a particularly odd and acrobatic form of rough-housing, with Mokona using Fai’s long limbs as their own personal jungle gym. Kurogane glances sidelong at Sakura to double check, but she doesn’t seem alarmed.

“Let’s go use Yuui’s phone.” Fai’s conspiratorial tone sets alarm bells ringing in Kurogane’s head. He doesn’t envy Yuui as the terrible two tumble out into the hall.

There’s a feeling like vertigo in the pit of Kurogane’s stomach and he knows without a doubt that somehow, someway this is just another messy, mysterious form of lawbreaking he’s doomed to become accomplice to.

 


 

Without the weird kid downstairs to distract him, it’s easy, always easy, to lose track of things in the midst of a heavy work load. Strangely, having three workers bustling about actually makes things more difficult. Sakura has been set to the task of making dough of all sorts, so she can’t lend a hand while he and Fai balance cooking orders and keeping the sink reasonably cleared. Her workstation, however, takes up about a third of the available counterspace. They don’t have a whole lot of room to move around each other, he admits. So when Fai leans a balancing hand against Kurogane’s spine as he slips by, or crowds around him to grab whatever is needed, Kurogane doesn’t make a fuss. Just this once, he thinks, ignoring the intrusive ideas that linger in the wake of every press.

It’s starting to get to him. A little.

The third time Fai slides his arm over Kurogane’s to reach the salt, he decides he could use something else to focus on.

“I hadn’t seen the dough mixed here before,” he calls to Sakura, hoping his voice doesn’t sound too strained. “Honestly, I’d thought it was just delivered from somewhere else.” Fai laughs, but there’s something off in the tone of it. Kurogane glances at the man, still reeling from their confusing interactions today, but Fai simply continues with his task. It’s like… there’s something stiffer than usual in the way he moves—something pulling him taught. Sakura doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe Kurogane is just paranoid.

“Oh, no! Yuui usually does this before work throughout the week,” the girl tells him cheerfully, sprinkling another dash of flour across her workspace before she plops more dough down. “Mine isn’t as good as his, but since he’s been sick—”

“Hey! I can make a pretty mean loaf too!” Fai whines, emphasizing his words with the flick of his spatula. “I just didn’t get enough made to account for today’s rush, that’s all.” Without thinking, Kurogane reaches out and stills the man’s arm before he can sling any more sauce across the room. Lean muscle and soft skin meet his touch. Kurogane pulls back as if he’s been burned, trying not to catch the curious, too-blue gaze he can feel boring into his neck.

It’s easy to let work distract him. So easy that he doesn’t really think about what Sakura reveals at all— not like he should.

Chapter Text


 

Maintaining some semblance of a work-out regimen on top of all his other responsibilities has become an increasingly difficult challenge. He used to jog every morning before his first class, but now that he works at the shop he doesn't have much time for it. True, he only works three or four nights out of a week, but it still messes with his sleep schedule. He falls into bed at three thirty or even four in the morning after closing shift. Waking up again for an early jog after that feels impossible. He has time to go to bed earlier on his off days, homework willing, but more and more he finds himself unable to sleep until three anyway.

It’s annoying. He supposes he could just jog at a different time of day, but the whole point of an early run was to space out his exercise regimen and give his body time to recover before practice.

But, he needs this job, he thinks. No way to pay for any practice at all without it. He’s trying to develop a compromise. His first class starts at ten or eleven, depending on the day. He usually pulls himself out of bed at nine, but if he starts catching naps between his afternoon classes he thinks he can wake up at eight. He can squeeze a quick run in that way, maybe. As long as he doesn’t need emergency homework time.

It’s nearing mid-semester and he’ll have even less time to spend when mid-terms start, so he resolves to give it a try.

He can’t afford to take his normal route if he starts so late in the morning. Instead, he follows a shorter loop that he figures he can finish in about thirty minutes. He doesn’t realize he’s plotted a path running right past the shop until he catches sight of it, cozy and tucked away, light spilling out toward the dimly lit street. He passes it first, wondering with amusement whether he’ll ever get a moment’s peace from the place. He isn’t even scheduled to work that night. He turns the corner and finds himself halfway down the next block before he realizes.

The lights were on.

That doesn’t make sense. He knows he’d turned them off when he closed last night, and the shop doesn’t open until lunch… maybe one of the twins wandered down to grab something after he’d left, and left the lights on by mistake?

It doesn’t matter, he tells himself. Either way it’s not his problem. It’s not his business wasting money on the damn electric bill, so he should just keep right on running and—

Kurogane finds himself back in front of the shop door before he can finish the argument.

The alley is dim as always and the storefront lights shine bright through the glass. Up close, he can see through the doors straight into the kitchen. He can even spot the movement of blond hair and slender limbs inside.  

The shop runs every day, eleven in the morning until three. He knows this. He even checks to make sure. There the hours sit, painted on the glass of the front door in swooping letters that look staggeringly professional for all he’s sure Yuui put them there himself.

It's just too strange to let go, so he knocks. 

…no answer. Goddamnit, whichever twin is in there probably has the radio up way too loud. He should just turn back now and finish his jog. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time before he needs to get back to the house and shower.

He rolls his neck, starts to turn away…  and winds up right back where he was, bruising his knuckles to knock hard against the metal of the doorframe.

This time, the twin in the kitchen jumps. It’s hard to see who it is from outside, but Kurogane identifies Fai the moment the blond slides into the hallway.  He watches annoyance shift to surprised amusement in Fai’s expression, open as a book.

“I’m afraid we don’t open until eleven,” Fai teases once he’s unlocked the door. Kurogane watches him stand theatrically in the entry way, hip popped, leaning his weight on one arm. It’s nothing out of the usual for Fai, but… there’s something tired in his smiling eyes.

“That’s alright, I work here,” Kurogane retorts. He’s getting better at playing the game if Fai’s laughter serves as any indicator.

“Get in here, Kuro-dork.”

He trails after Fai’s winding steps and follows him back into the kitchen, looking over the plethora of unfamiliar packages, ingredients, and projects strewn across the counter. He spots the mixing bowl and the rolling pin he’d seen Sakura using last week and finally realizes what he should have all along.

“Wait a minute. How long have you been working already?” He’d thought Fai had been moving slower the last few days. Maybe the fool doesn’t act any less ridiculous through the day, but there’s a marked slump to his shoulders and his motions seem ever so slightly more like…. Well, more like Yuui, honestly.

“Prep starts at six,” his co-worker admits, distracted, splitting his attention between the cutting board and whatever he has boiling away at the stove.

“Fai, what the hell are you doing awake? You were there when we closed last night.” Fai only hums in answer, tilting his head. He examines whatever he’s cooking thoroughly, sliding a portion of what might be fresh parsley off his cutting board. Those hands reach for the pot lid, replacing it, before Fai spins on a heel to tend to something else—“Fai.” Kurogane insists, reaching out for one thin shoulder before he can think better of it. Blue eyes take a moment too long to register him, and that’s about all he can handle. “You’re not sleeping enough.”

“Kuro-wan is worried about me?” Fai laughs. His eyes shut when he smiles. For just a moment Kurogane thinks the man will actually fall asleep standing right in front of him.

“Alright, sit.” He grouches, leading his idiot coworker over to the chair they keep in the back for especially slow days. Fai goes where he’s tugged, but bats weakly at Kurogane’s hands the whole way.

“I’m fine, just let me get my second wind.”

“You’re very obviously not fine,” Kurogane doesn’t know what it is about this place that people don’t know how to take care of themselves, but it’s starting to really annoy him. “How long have you been working these kinds of hours?”

“It’s just for a little while,” Fai whines. “Kuro-bossy, if you’re going to be difficult, could you please turn off the stove? The soup will burn.”  The burner clicks off quietly, and Kurogane realizes with a sense of discomfort that it’s the first time he’s ever been in the kitchen without the radio on. He leans back against the counter across from Fai, folding his arms over his chest.

“Sakura said Yuui usually makes the bread,” he thinks aloud. Fai nods, slumping further forwards and propping his head in his hands.

“Yuui does prep and catches a nap in the afternoon. I open the shop. That’s how it’s supposed to go, anyway.”  Kurogane’s frown deepens. He’s never heard Fai so utterly exhausted. He’d suspected the blond had been tired through the week, but Fai looks like he’s going to nod off right now. How had he hidden it for so long?

“So where is Yuui?” Fai goes suspiciously still.

“…I wanted to let him sleep in. He still hasn’t been feeling so great.” Right.

This place is a den of stupidity. He might need this job, but it’s become increasingly obvious that everyone here would be equally lost without him.

“So instead of hiring an extra hand, or hell, calling in a favor with Yuuko, you decided you’d settle for two hours of sleep a day for however long it takes?” At that, Fai finally lifts his head and stares at Kurogane in blatant shock. Had this logic just seriously not occurred to him?

Damnit. Just when Kurogane had been looking forward to jogging in the mornings again too...

He sighs deeply, marches back into the hall and snatches a clean apron from the dwindling stack.

“I’ve got an hour and a half. Tell me what needs done and take a goddamn nap.”

 


 

The first class he has today is International Law. It’s a small class and the professor takes attendance. He knows if he leaves immediately and heads straight toward school, he can make it in time. He won’t have his books and he’ll arrive in his jogging clothes, but at least he’ll keep the attendance points. No school supplies either, but in his experience, someone will almost always be there to lend a paper and pen to take notes in a pinch.

On the other hand… Fai looks miserably tired, even in sleep. Without his sunny smile, the deep shadows beneath his eyes stand out like a sore thumb, his features angular and ashen. Even though he’s uncomfortably twisted with his legs to the side, head pillowed atop his arms on the surface of the counter, he sleeps deeply. Idiot must have run himself ragged, these last two weeks…

One missed class won’t hurt his grades that badly, Kurogane reasons, packing the last of the dough away to rise. He won’t make a habit of it.

He has no idea how it missed his notice that the twins did so much extra work. Ingredient deliveries usually arrive before Kurogane comes in, so he couldn't have known that the twins make almost everything from scratch. Soup, bread, sauces, marinades—they throw all of it together themselves. Not to mention the extra work of packing and pre-packaging for later use, keeping track of the ingredient stock, knowing how much to freeze and how much to thaw and when to make more. The bread needs baking every morning, but the amount of dough has to be plotted beforehand, to leave it time to rise. Anticipating the flow of customer traffic days or even weeks ahead of time is the only way to limit wasted food—and on and on. It’s a tremendous balancing act.

Yuui and Fai have been running all of that together ever since they opened the shop—working the store on top of it. Not to mention the fact that Yuui does his own books…

Kurogane wonders whether it’s too presumptuous to petition Yuui to either close earlier or hire help for his own good. Or if it is, whether he cares. Fai might be the one dozing in the kitchen, but from the way he talked earlier, Yuui runs himself just as ragged. Assuming Kurogane understands right, Yuui works to close, sleeps less than three hours, and then works until Syaoran or Sakura come in. Then, he catches as much of a nap as he can before he jumps right back to work by eight. The day Kurogane came in early to cover for Syaoran, he must have skipped the second half of his sleep schedule to make sure he finished everything in time to pay Sakura... It’s no wonder he’d collapsed.

Just thinking about the way these two blond morons have utterly disregarded their own health pisses him off. He slides the last tray of bread for the morning into the oven with a little more force than strictly necessary and closes the door behind himself, marginally satisfied by the resounding slam.

Fai jerks awake instantly with an audible inhale.

Whoops.

He watches the way his coworker freezes in the chair, holds perfectly still, save for the too-quick rising of his chest. He knows that body language all too well. Recognition slips uncomfortably through his thoughts, sends the sick feeling of worry trailing through his core.

“Fai?” He calls and hopes the man can hear him. He does. Thank god, he does. Blue eyes flit toward Kurogane, terrified and confused. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Kurogane hasn’t panicked himself awake for a while now, but he knows well enough what it looks like. He tries to remember the things Sonomi used to do…

He doesn’t have to. Fai regards him for only a few seconds more before he falls, boneless, back against the counter, hiding his face in his arms.

“Geeeze Kuro-ban. Way to give a guy a heart attack,” he whines, granting no indication of the deep fear Kurogane had just seen. It’s uncanny—unnerving how quickly the idiot just… puts it away. He knows it’s not that easy. 

“I’ll be more careful.” He assures. He doesn’t ask, ‘are you okay?’ He already knows the answer and he knows the lie Fai would tell. He’s starting to see it—the shape of Fai’s face behind all of his masks. “Well, since you’re awake: the bread should be done in about fifteen minutes. Which soup did you want me to thaw for today?”

Fai sits up, legs still twisted to the side, and drapes himself over the back of the chair. He makes a second sweep of the room, and this time he actually sees it. He looks at Kurogane, the oven, the clock that sits above it… Frowns. 

“You had class at ten,” he announces with displeasure. Kurogane shrugs and steps toward the freezer. He makes a show of opening it, of scanning the labels.

“I don’t think we have a soup by that name,” he calls behind himself, as deadpan as he can. He elicits something of the laugh he wants, but it sounds a little weak.

“Kuro,” Fai draws his name out in exasperation. “That was such a dad joke.” 

“Hmm, no, none of that either.”

“Oh my god. What is wrong with you. Tomato Basil, you huge dork.” There. That’s the way Fai should laugh; real and bright and breathless. He knows he’ll never see the end of Fai’s teasing after this, but he figures he can bear it. He’s put up with the idiot’s antics for this long. Besides, without Fai’s loud and excitable posturing, this place just doesn’t feel right.

…maybe he should worry about this more.  Is he suffering some kind of Stockholm Syndrome?

It’s quiet again as Kurogane flips the stovetop on and wrestles frozen soup into a clean pot. “Kurogane, it’s past ten. Don’t you think you should head to school?” He pauses. Honestly, he hadn’t expected Fai to press the subject.

“It’s just one day,” he reassures. He doesn’t look, but he can still somehow feel the weight of the blond’s disapproval.

“Make sure it stays that way.” He hears Fai stand and set the chair aside. Those steps patter at a slightly more sluggish pace than usual, but at least Fai isn’t passing out in front of the stove. “Not everyone gets to go to school, you know. You shouldn’t waste your chances hanging around our place.”

What a strange thing to say. Kurogane places a lid on the pot and faces Fai down, notes the brittle edge in his easy, lilting voice. Fai is a fool in many ways, he thinks. Just, maybe not the ones he’d believed when they first met.

“If you want to go, then go.” Playful censure flickers instantly to wide-eyed shock on Fai’s face. Did he really think Kurogane wouldn’t understand the words unsaid?

Maybe he’s just not used to having people close enough to try.

Fai takes far too long to answer. He breaks eye contact first, then plasters the remains of his smile back together. It crawls, slow and sad, across his face. Kurogane realizes with a faint pang of alarm that Fai looks the most like his twin in that instant. He doesn’t know what part of that fact should bother him more.

“Yuui has the restaurant. He can’t just leave it—it’s always been his dream.” That expression, still uncomfortably sad, takes on a nostalgic cast. “I could hardly drag him out of the home-ec room in high school. There’s no way I could pull him out of this store.”

“I’m not talking to Yuui right now,” Kurogane grouches, and again, Fai seems confused. He doesn’t know how he keeps surprising this man by offering basic human decency. He doesn’t like what it implies.

“I couldn’t… go without him,” Fai tells him, frightened and quiet. His voice hardly carries, even without the eternal whine of the radio.

“Why not?” he asks, even if he knows it’s a dangerous question. “You’re two different people with two different dreams. There’s enough students in this town who need jobs. You could afford to drop down to part time. Or don’t you trust Yuui to keep his shop going without you?”

“No,” Fai blurts almost instantly, doesn’t even have to think about it.  It’s the most honest thing he’s said all night.  Kurogane feels one eyebrow raising its way up towards his hairline. Fai steps back, covers his own mouth. He seems to realize he’s giving too much away. “Look, Kuro-nosy it’s just not in the cards. Yuui needs the extra hands and I’d be lousy at schoolwork anyway. It’s better to just—” There the mask goes—drifting back up alongside the pace of Fai’s voice. Kurogane wants to make it stop. 

“You don’t want to talk about it, so don’t. I’ll drop it.” For now, Kurogane thinks. He’s caught a glimpse of the man behind the sweeping gestures and singing words, and he doesn’t plan to look away.

(It doesn’t escape his notice that even though Fai sings boisterously along with every other song as soon as he turns the radio back on, he has never left Kurogane’s sight. He starts to think maybe, impossibly, Fai is really just like this.

Maybe.)

 


 

He wakes from the dream scrabbling at his throat, locked in a fight to bite back his own screams.  Fai doesn’t come running, so Yuui figures maybe he won. And also lost? He doesn’t know how that works out.

He does know that he is still here, awake in his bed, coughing and gagging, trying to remember how to breathe. He knows he’s alone. He knows he’s safe. He knows the dark eyes pinning him in place, daring him to bring the knife down, aren’t real. He knows that his body rests against cheap bedsheets—that the sensation of wet brick, rough against his skin, is a lie. He knows no one is coming to get them—hurt him—hurt Fai—God he has to do it. He has to—it doesn’t matter how he feels. He has to get Fai out—keep him safe.  This is the only way—

He is alone. He is safe. He is awake in his apartment above the shop. He knows these things. If only he could remember them for more than seconds at a time.

Yuui practically falls off the mattress as soon as he can move, desperate to get to the one thing he knows can make this stop—stop—Stop it, Please! Can’t you see what this is doing to you? I don’t even recognize you any more!”

He holds his breath as those footsteps sound, one after the other, closer and closer. The night is silent, but silence is a deadly, deadly thing.

“I’m only doing this for your sake to begin with, foolish child.” He feels each word like a knife in his heart, more painful even than the grasp at his throat, lifting him up from the ground. “Be careful that I don’t forget it.” Yuui chokes. He can’t breathe, but it’s not the lack of air that sets his eyes stinging.

He thinks, just for a moment, maybe the man really is angry enough to kill him. Fear drives him to struggle, clawing at the hand on his neck, desperately trying to get away. It’s no use. Darkness encroaches his vision—he’s on the verge of losing consciousness when he feels that grip release—feels himself crumple to the floor.

That’s it. He knows for sure now, and his soul is already grieving. The Ashura he knew is—Ashura is— Ashura is dead

Ashura is dead, and he knows and knows and knows that. Will not let himself forget.

His legs aren’t working right, and he can’t breathe. Whether due to any real damage, or his simple inability to gulp down enough air, he can’t tell. So he drags himself forward, scraping like a worm on his stomach.

It’s like that—weak, shaking, fighting for air and for movement and for the semblance of reality, that he makes his way to the lacquer box. The box, and the paper and his lighter because Christ, brownies might last longer but they're also slow. He needs—something—needs to get out of this. Needs to get away—

His throat burns, body uncertain as to whether or not his airways are obstructed in reality. If he goes back to that dream again, he thinks he may actually choke to death.

He doesn’t know how he makes it. He really doesn’t. Maybe there’s just so much going on in his damn head that his memory doesn’t bother to keep up. He simply finds himself at some point, breathing deep, blinking slow, sprawled on the floor with the sloppiest, most uneven joint he’s ever rolled in hand. It’s a total mess and a waste—going to burn far too quickly, but then, so is he. At least the smoke still looks pretty, drifting in roiling billows to the ceiling. He wonders how the metaphor carries. What dancing vapor still rises from the ugly embers of Yuui’s life?

He doesn’t know.

Years. Years, and years behind him, but it never seems to matter. All it takes is a dream, a phrase, a loud noise in the dark and every year of distance disappears. The monsters in his thoughts can reach through time itself to hurt him. What powerful foes. Is it any wonder he can’t beat them?

Not without this magic spell, anyway, he muses as he lifts the joint back to his lips. If he thinks about it that way he almost doesn’t even feel guilty.

Almost.

He takes another draw, lets the magic fill his lungs and spell another layer of armor between him and the claws that seek his heart.

 


 

 

Yuui watches the play of magic and monsters cast in the shadows of his ceiling until he has nothing left to smoke. The roach burns his fingers when he stubs it out on the coffee table, but he’s too out of it to care. It’s a wound that can heal and doesn’t hurt past the bounds of time and space, so he doesn’t see why he should bother.

He really had made a mess of that joint, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that it doesn’t last long. He floats back down to earth from the clouds within the hour. It’s almost nine in the morning by the time he remembers enough about his life to realize he has somewhere he should be.

Prep time started hours ago, he tells himself. He needs to go. He wants to lie back down and just… not, but he’s at least sober enough to realize Fai is downstairs working in his place. It’s as frustrating as it is embarrassing. This is not Fai’s job. Maybe it’s Yuui’s own fault he slept through his alarm, but Fai should have woken him up.

God, he wishes Fai had just woken him up. It’s a pointless thought; wishing has only ever helped him once, and even that was—

“I wish,” he whispers, staring terrified into Yuuko’s blank face. She tilts her head, dark eyes glittering. Still and focused like a cat before it strikes, she watches patiently while he struggles with his own voice.  “I wish he would just—”

No. He doesn’t need any more of that today.

He pulls himself to his feet, trudges haltingly to the shower. The apartment might be a lost cause, but he’d rather not track the smell of pot down into the shop if he can help it.

He loses more time than he likes to the distraction of water on his skin, but he’s an old hand at muddling through the day functionally blazed. He can handle something as mundane as the way water moves (collects, separates, refracts the light dimmed by clouds of steam.)

Yuui’s reflection in the mirror cuts quite the sight. He stares at himself, pale and exhausted, muzzy-eyed and waifish. At least the deep scratches at his throat add a nice spot of color, he thinks, though he knows Fai would never agree.

By the time he finishes getting ready it’s already past ten and the last dregs of his buzz are swiftly escaping. He’s missed almost the whole of prep time, but at least he can do more to help open. Maybe with a little luck he can even convince Fai to sleep this afternoon in his stead.

He winds a thick scarf around his neck, grateful for the chill in the air, and lifts a cellophane-wrapped brownie from the tin. He feels… kind of okay for now, but with the morning he’s just had he doesn’t trust things not to slide sideways later.

He takes a second brownie, just in case.

 


 

 

It isn’t until he reaches the foot of the stairs that he realizes anything out of the ordinary has happened. Fai can get a little loud in the morning, so the noise bouncing up from the stair doesn’t strike him as anything odd. Sometimes his twin talks and sings to himself to pass the time, so he almost expects to hear Fai’s murmuring. He doesn’t expect to hear anyone answer.

Yuui edges the apartment door closed, straining to hear that second voice. Who would Fai let into the store before open?

“—can’t even remember to eat breakfast. How are you two still alive.” Kurogane. He hears Kurogane’s voice, cranky as usual, over the sound of the radio, the clatter of work and the sizzle of the stovetop.

“Don’t ask me,” Fai admits, far more candidly than Yuui would expect. “Take a step just to the right there, Kuro-papa. Coming through with the bread.” He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t just spy on them, right? No matter how curious he might be. He shouldn’t hold himself as still as possible, breathe as quiet as he can to peer around the doorframe and catch a glimpse. He shouldn’t.

Kurogane stands at the stove, spatula in hand. He has something cooking already at the stove top, though Yuui can’t see what it might be from the door. He watches as Fai dances around the part-timer’s form with a full tray, unloading loaves of bread into their proper basket. The kitchen doesn’t have quite enough room for such a maneuver; Kurogane avoids Fai’s flailing elbows with practiced ease, but the two of them have to stand very close.

“Papa? Really?” that deep voice gripes, the epitome of dry annoyance. His hands move in front of him, busily flipping whatever project he has going at the stove, but his eyes never leave Fai’s form.   

“If the sense of humor fits.”

Yuui watches. He knows he shouldn’t, but he watches Fai turn and meet Kurogane’s gaze, watches the flicker of understanding and wry amusement that tugs the corners of Kurogane’s stern mouth ever so slightly upward.

He watches and thinks, this is the part where they kiss, right?

…but they don’t. Fai breaks eye contact first, finishes his task and whisks the tray aside. The two of them retreat to a safe distance. Yuui’s stupid heart can’t decide whether to be disappointed.

“You’re right though, the way you keep mother-henning us into oblivion, I should probably call you Kuro-mommy.” His twin cajoles, dancing away as Kurogane brandishes the spatula at him like a weapon.

“Try it, and I’ll walk right out of this store.” The man growls. Yuui has to duck back behind the doorway so neither of them catch sight of him sneaking around while they chase each other like children. The sound of Fai’s laughter rings so honest. He’d almost forgotten the way it used to sound.

“Your eggs are burning, Kuro-m—”

“Ah! Not another word!” Yuui doesn’t want to chance either of them spotting him, so he just stays where he is, back pressed against the wall, out of sight. He hears the tell-tale clink of plates and utensils, a few moments of pleasant quiet. They seem… good for each other. Really, really good for each other. He just— “Here. Make sure you eat it. All of it.”

“You aren’t exactly proving me wrong,” Fai grouses. Kurogane pays the comment no mind.

“I’m heading to class. Should I take this up to Yuui for you on the way out?”

It’s as good a cue as any to slip away. He slinks as quickly and quietly as he can to his office door, pulls it open and steps inside before he can hear whatever Fai says in answer. If they come looking for him, he’ll just pretend he was….

He doesn’t know what he’ll pretend. He doesn’t even know what he wants.

He reaches into his pocket and unwraps a brownie.