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Some Parts Holy, Some Parts Dark As Sin

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"When I was a child, I heard voices. Some would sing and some would scream." - Arsonist's Lullabye (Hozier)

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There‘s a special kind of truth to moments when death touches down to walk the earth, a sense of certainty. Merciless.

Sousuke is eight years old when death‘s fingers cover his small hands for the first time, and he feels this certainty grasp at his soul to leave it charred like a piece of coal, unrecoverable upon facing the ultimate truth: Where death walks, he leaves nothing but ashes and the stale taste of regret. Sousuke expects tears, expects his own voice to cut through the silence that has claimed the house after his mother‘s body hit the floor with a dull thump. Instead there‘s nothing but the blood rushing in his ears and a frenzied hissing sound he recognises as his own breath leaving his body when the trembling sets in.

There‘s no blood, no open wound, yet Sousuke doesn‘t waste a single second hoping there may be life left in the house besides him. His sister crashed into the wall unit and slid to the floor with a sickening crunch when he slammed a hand into her chest in anger, black oozing from his fingers and through her shirt until it looked like she was bleeding tar, and she remains a lifeless heap of limbs at the back of the room, just a few inches away. The walls seem to breathe around Sousuke as he catches his father‘s accusing face from the corner of his eye, still and pale, and he collapses in on himself until he‘s curled up on the carpet that smells like home, like his mother‘s perfume and like his father‘s cigarettes.

For a second his mind tries to recoil, to forget everything but this tiny zone of okay, before reality comes back with a neauseating lurch of Sousuke‘s stomach when he remembers just who gave his mother that perfume for christmas mere days ago. He stumbles to his feet, arms flailing to regain balance when the view of his mother‘s blackened features sends him stumbling several feet back. It‘s almost impossible to see her eyes through the darkness that has swallowed her face, but they still seem to bore into Sousuke‘s, accusingly. It‘s your fault. He‘s trembling as he bolts for the door and almost slips down the front stairs before his hands come up to clutch at the railing. It‘s frozen and iced over, and Sousuke‘s fingers slip along the cold metal, leaving a trail of black until he feels rough edges biting into his palms and red paints the handrail before he finally lets go to tumble to the ground.

For a moment Sousuke remains still, the cold effectively numbing the cuts on his hands but not his mind that is still reeling to understand what has happened.

Anissa blew his secret over dinner, he remembers this much, telling their parents that he‘d picked up the stray dog their mother insisted they couldn‘t feed, and hidden it in the garage. Before dinner was over, their father had slipped outside and set the mutt free while Sousuke glared at his sister across the dinner table. She‘d been too smug about her victory, too happy for his loss, and Sousuke remembers her wide grin until he slipped off to her room after dinner to throw Oscar, her stuffed budgie, out into the snow. Her outraged scream was the only warning he received before she crashed into him, arms and legs wrapped around his belly and chest to bring him down.

They had fought, both of them yelling angrily, and Sousuke remembers clearly how Anissa sat up victoriously after wrestling him down despite being younger and smaller than her brother, both hands pressing down on his chest, and snarled into his face, "You only brought him home because you needed someone to love you. A dog might be able to, since mom and dad aren‘t."

Hazy red clouded his vision at her words, bled into his consciousness and drowned him in something that felt angrier and more violent than he‘d never felt before, and Sousuke feels his stomach lurching again at the memory that follows.

Anissa‘s pupils blowing wide for a second as Sousuke‘s palm collided with her chest. The darkest black he‘d ever seen seeping through her white shirt. The smell of something sweet and sickening, warm and cold at once, until she slid off the cupboard, black mottling the wooden surface. Both their parents must have rushed in to separate the fighting siblings, Sousuke remembers their voices, frenzied and desperate, but he doesn‘t remember making the decision to push them off with both hands too. Unblinking, he watched himself burn through his father‘s stomach and his mother‘s face with a simple touch, palms hurting from the impact while his parents both collapsed on the floor, their skin and clothes charred black where he touched them.

With a sudden heave, Sousuke is ejected from his own memory and he tumbles off to the side to throw up into the snow. Finally a sob tears through his chest, rises up his throat and brings about a fresh wave of nausea that he releases into the clean white next to the stairs. He‘s still dry heaving when he pulls back, fingers clawing at his shaking thighs to keep himself upright, and he tears them away in panic, half expects his legs to burn to ashes or melt into a puddle of black, but finds them unharmed. Whimpering he turns over his hands and digs his fingers into the uneven cuts in his palms, but they release nothing but thin trails of blood. The pain grounds him enough to stop his shaking for a moment.

A soft whine makes Sousuke flinch, and he darts around to find the stray dog standing at their gate, its nose raised in clear distress but there nonetheless. For a moment he is startled, expects somebody to follow the dog to their door, somebody who heard its bark or their argument, but–

The memories come flooding back and Sousuke slumps to the ground with a gasp, breath stuck in his chest as it closes up. He‘s not aware of the dog slowly edging closer, does not feel the wet nose pressing against his head or the warm body settling down next to him. Only when his mind catches up with his panic does he realize that his back is warmer than it should be, given the season and his thin shirt. His breath comes slower now, and he feels like he may be able to get up without feeling sick again. Slowly he rises to his knees and reaches around to grasp at the dog‘s fur, thick and shaggy, as he looks up at the front door, hanging open like an invitation to hell. Again the pictures rise, but this time he manages to breathe while he buries both hands in the dog‘s warm coat, and the dog moves close enough for him to press his face against its neck.

Shivers wrack Sousuke‘s body by the time a neighbor comes out of the house and finds him curled up against the dog in the front yard. He barely registers the woman‘s startled cry and only blinks groggily when she shakes him. A wet tongue laps at his hand and makes him jerk, head darting around aimlessly until his tired eyes find the elder lady staring up at the house before kneeling before him, her face filled with worry. Meekly he stands at her request and she calls for her husband who is just stepping out of the neighboring gate to bring over a coat. She‘s met with more resistance when she tries to take him into the house, finally noticing that their front door is open and the lights are on. The heavy jacket draped around his shoulders is large enough for Sousuke to wrap himself twice in it, and he turns to watch the neighbor‘s husband try and fail to shoo the dog away as he shivers into the fabric.

Only now does Sousuke realize that there‘s a faint orange glow to the heavy clouds lining the sky and that it must be early morning. The neighbor expects his family to be leaving the house anytime now, his father in his cleanly ironed suit, his mother stepping after him to make sure he doesn‘t forget his lunch. Anissa, excited to be attending school like every first-year grade schooler still is, should be bouncing out the door with a sleepy Sousuke in tow at this time. Instead he is here alone, so cold that he doesn‘t feel his fingers and numb enough for his breaths to feel just right even though he can tell they‘re shallow and too quick. It takes the neighbor a moment to realize that something is wrong, that the house lies silent, then she gestures to her husband to go check the hall, and it‘s then that Sousuke gathers his last remaining strength to break away and run down the alley, to the crossroads and past the bus stop they normally wait at in the morning. His feet, clad in socks only, hurt after seconds, the ground is covered in half-frozen snow and iced over, but the stinging pain is numbed by the cold.

Sousuke doesn‘t know where he‘s running, doesn‘t know if he will survive another couple hours in the cold, but he‘s too afraid to look back, too scared of what he‘ll find or what the neighbors have discovered by now. He keeps running, rounds a corner and then another until he‘s entirely lost, and he can feel people‘s eyes on the oversized jacket, on his socks that must be drenched by now, but he doesn‘t stop until there‘s a loud bark behind him. Surprised, he falters, heart racing, but recognises the dog from before as his pursuer.

Pink and orange light bleeds through the clouds and paints the houses in the neighborhood in bright colors, but the world seems darker to Sousuke, like the light is dulled somehow. His eyes trail the first rays of sunshine breaking through the cloud cover, lancing through the dark blanket covering the morning sky like defiant fighters, and he envies them for their courage of diving into the unknown. Sousuke leans over to rest his hands on his knees and breathe, which gives the dog a chance to catch up to him. He circles Sousuke with small yips and slaps from his wagging tail, and the open display of excitement drains the last of Sousuke‘s energy to run. Exhausted, he slides down a fence to cower in the snow, chest aching from the long run and the cold in his lungs. He‘s not ready to go back, not able to go on.

Slowly his new reality catches up to him. Cold fog settles over the sense of dread that‘s clawing at his heart, numbing the pain until there‘s nothing left but that one certain thought and the truth: It‘s your fault.

-

The neighbors don‘t find him. The police does.
They take him in for questioning he answers with silence. They give him hot chocolate he refuses to drink and introduce him to a child service worker he doesn‘t look at. When they try to disinfect the wounds on his palms he tries to turn and run, but this time they‘re prepared. Despite his thrashing they clean the wounds on his hands and feet, give him clean clothes and a blanket, and Sousuke is relieved nobody starts bleeding tar again. He‘s hypothermic, they say, whatever that means, and Sousuke is willing to reply with glares when they come to speak with him again, but when they ask about the dog they found with him, he‘s quick to assure it‘s his. There‘s a few glances from one officer to the child service lady before she nods hesitantly and they bring in the dog. A quick wag of a tail brushes a stack of papers off a desk when he slides into the room and sits right next to where Sousuke is wrapped in his blanket, head pressing into his palm, and Sousuke feels at ease for the first time in many hours. The tremor in his muscles eases when the dog laps at his fingers.

Exhaustion is starting to get the better of Sousuke and he can feel his eyes droop when a police officer approaches him with a deep frown etched into his face. Immediately Sousuke feels himself reminded of his mother‘s face, dark and lifeless, and he averts his eyes. Only when the dog nudges his hand does he notice that he‘s gripped the chair‘s arms hard enough for the cuts on his palms to start bleeding again. He flexes his hands once, then again, before he exhales a shaky breath and dares look at the officer who‘s taken a seat opposite of him. Shoulders rising, Sousuke stares at the folder the man has brought along and is now placing on the table between them.

„We‘ve received new information from your parents‘ autopsy,“ He begins and Sousuke cranes back just as the child service worker breezes past him. She‘s stood back for the past few hours, giving him a chance to rest and breathe freely, and he was grateful for the time alone, but now she‘s back with a presence Sousuke didn‘t expect from her.

„You stop right there,“ Her voice is surprisingly strong, Sousuke thinks even as she steps in front of him, effectively blocking him from seeing the officer. He finds he doesn‘t mind at all. „You will not discuss the autopsy with the victims‘ son!“

For a moment Sousuke is taken aback, fingers digging into his thighs as he considers the words being spoken. Parents. Son. Not once has anyone mentioned Anissa, not as a part of the – autopsy, was it? – nor as a victim. He‘s almost ready to ask about her when he can see the officer‘s head pop back into view as the man rises from his chair, towering over the woman defying him.

„No, you stop right there, Amakata,“ He booms, venom seeping into his words, and Sousuke pulls the blanket closer around himself, „This child is not who you think he is, and you would certainly not defend him if you knew what I know.“ That seems to interrupt her long enough to create a moment of silence the officer fills with his deep voice. „Fingerprints were found in the burns thought to have killed both Yamazaki Anko and Yamazaki Daiki, their son‘s fingerprints! In fact, we have found them on the sister‘s chest as well, and if that‘s not enough to make you reconsider where you‘re standing, you may want to know that the compression fractures beneath the burns are shaped after his hands.“

The child services worker – Amakata? – remains quiet as Sousuke counts his breaths – four, five, six, seven, too many, too fast, too many – and watches her back over the top of his blanket. They mentioned Anissa. A snake curls into his belly, bites off a string of hope and devours it whole.

The dog stirs at his feet but doesn‘t rise. He‘s a steady weight on Sousuke‘s toes that keeps him from jumping off his chair and attempting another escape when the woman turns to him, stepping to the side so Sousuke can see the officer again. He keeps his eyes trained on her.

„What do you think, Sousuke-kun,“ She speaks softly as if not to disturb him, and Sousuke isn‘t sure if he‘s grateful or scared by the way she reads him, „If you could tell us what happened, we could try to prove that none of this is true. You really have to help us out though, we can‘t figure it out ourselves.“

How, he wants to ask, how am I supposed to explain something I don‘t understand? Instead he remains silent and watches on as Miss Amakata sits on the table‘s edge, once more blocking the irritated officer‘s view on him. Her face is soft and open, but Sousuke sees the way her eyes dart over the blanket and rest right where his hands are clutching his pants, palms stinging from the tension.

She knows.

Tremors run down Sousuke‘s spine, spread across his shoulders and down his arms until he‘s sure it has to be obvious. Unexpectedly, Amakata raises her eyes with a small smile. She leans in, whispering, „It‘s not so unusual for a child to want to touch their parents‘ face, especially in a stressful situation.“ For a moment Sousuke is dumbfounded, but flashbacks of his mother‘s sunken features bring him back to his senses before he can wonder why an adult would advise him to lie, because he‘s sure that‘s what the child service worker just did. Hesitantly he looks up at her, then at the looming figure behind her, and he understands.

Telling the truth would get him locked up, held in chains or executed, and even though he‘s aware that the news only ever report on criminals being sent to prison, he‘s also read a book about the guillotine and two magazines of Lucky Luke where the robbers were shot at. He can‘t really risk being beheaded or shot, especially if there‘s a chance Anissa could still be alive.

The snake chews on another string of hope and Sousuke realizes there are not many left, but he has to save whatever he can, if at all possible — for her sake too. He can still find out what happened, but spending his life in prison, never going to middle school, always wondering what Anissa is doing without him... Or, worse even, dying at his age?

„I‘m–,“ He begins carefully, fumbling with his jeans‘ waistband, „I don‘t really know.“ That much is the truth. "If you ever have to lie, try and stick as close to the truth as you possibly can," dad used to say, and mom would roll her eyes at both of them, "You‘ll make more mistakes telling your lies if they‘re all made up. Work with what you know." Sousuke can feel his heart thumping against his throat, and he‘s not sure if he can keep speaking like this but he‘s set his mind to try.

„There was a fight. My sister was mean to me, and we argued… our parents came running to stop us, but we were very angry, and–,“ He swallows, and for the first time since the incident he has to blink away tears. „–We wouldn‘t listen. I really don‘t know how it happened, but when I looked around, they were–,“ He has to interrupt again, sobs, but tries to fight the lump in his throat, „They were all on the floor.“

There‘s a soft rustling noise. Sousuke startles, tries to get rid of the blanket to get out, get away, stop feeling this way, but upon looking up he finds Miss Amakata holding out a tissue to him, eyes dark with something Sousuke recognises from when they buried his uncle two years ago: sympathy. He halts, the blanket pooling around his hips, and hesitantly takes the tissue from her. A soft whimper alerts him to the dog‘s attention and his left hand finds one shaggy ear while he stubbornly wipes at his eyes with the tissue.

Miss Amakata stands at her full height again, turning to face the police officer who has remained silent as far as Sousuke could tell through the pounding of his heart in his ears.
„This child lost both parents today, his sister is severely injured, so unless you can prove that he magically burned through their bodies with his hands, I‘m asking you to let him go now. He needs rest.“

Finally an answer. Anissa is alive. That realisation springs forth with more tears that Sousuke rubs at with the tissue and a sleeve, and he has to push at the dog‘s head to keep him from licking his face.
When the policeman speaks up again there‘s a determined glint in his eyes. It scares Sousuke, so he hides behind the dog‘s head while making sure not to take his eyes off the man. „You can take him into custody for now. Make sure he‘s available for further questioning at any given time, though. Oh, and Amakata,“ The policeman steps around the table to face the woman directly, „Don‘t cross me when it comes to our investigations. Your case is to keep the child safe, I get that. Our case is to bring a double murderer to justice, and I will not allow you to interfere with that.“

Sousuke shivers at the choice of words, crossing both arms over his chest. Miss Amakata seems entirely unfazed by the much taller man‘s attempt at intimidating her, and Sousuke finds he admires her for that. There‘s a sweet smile on her face when she takes a step forward and into the officer‘s personal space, bowing her head as if too shy to speak to him face to face, but the smile remains.

„I wouldn‘t dream of interfering with your work, Sir,“ She reassures him. Sousuke realizes why she encouraged his lying. She‘s good at it herself. „However, if you try and pressure a minor on my watch, I‘ll make sure you don‘t get a second chance at questioning them.“ There‘s a beat of silence before she raises her eyes to look at the policeman, and Sousuke can see her lashes flutter like Anissa‘s when she was trying to get what she wanted from their father. The officer‘s reply is lost on him when a new wave of memories rolls in, more overwhelming than before, and Sousuke feels like he‘s drowning in it.

He‘s not himself, that much he is sure of immediately. He‘s tall, much taller than a boy of eight could hope to be. There‘s a kind of levity to his steps that speaks of confidence and pride, and he‘s constantly fiddling with something on his hands.

Gloves, Sousuke realizes, they‘re gloves.

He‘s striding through an unknown city, old buildings and cobbled streets speaking of times long past or a city left mostly untouched. People are avoiding him, stepping out of his way to both sides of the street, and while he appreciates the space, he‘s mostly amused by the behavior. They always do that, he knows, and for good reasons. Many follow a mere instinct that dictates they back away from his approach, others recognise the hilt of a short sword where it rests against his hip and rightfully question a commoner's justification for carrying weaponry around. Most eyes are averted when he meets them, the fear that accompanies his appearance wherever he goes lines the street with respectfully lowered heads.

It doesn‘t take him long to find his destination in one of the smaller alleys off the main road, and he knocks on a wooden door, listening to a quiet voice inside. „Mot de passe,“ The voice requests and he hums,

„Les enfers.“

The door is opened with a quiet creak, and he slips in with a sketched bow. A small man with a torch leads the way down a hall and past a flight of stairs that takes them deeper down, the earthy smell a clear indicator of their descent. The walls are wet here, the air clean but chilly. Sousuke doesn't mind. He's used to the cold, spends most of his time below the city instead of in its midst. It's quiet, the soft rustle of a breeze and the clacking of Sousuke's boots against the stone floor the only sounds as they walk. No questions are asked, but the man steps aside when they reach a turn and the flame of the torch bleeds down three different hallways, all branching off the main path. Sousuke walks past him and confidently chooses the left route to make his way through a maze-like system of tunnels he's sure to have seen many times before. It's even darker now that the torch's light has faded, but he sees well enough in the dark to recognise the sharp edge cut into the western wall as a means of orientation.

Another door is opened, the man holding it bows deeply and only dares raise his head when Sousuke has walked into the middle of the room. There's dirt all over the place, and Sousuke brushes a thick layer of dust off the shelf above the fireplace, distastefully flicking his fingers at the other man who hurries to apologise. Sure, Sousuke figures, for somebody spending day and night down here, his lackey manages to keep the space surprisingly clean. Still-- He asks to see the progress the man has made, and receives yet another stammered apology in return, making his brows rise far into his hairline.

For a moment Sousuke feels an urge for punishment, but reluctantly accepts the other man‘s proposal to look at another project he‘s been working on instead. He can feel his mood drop at the same speed as something dark rears its head in his middle, fingers itching to release his irritation, and he rests both hands against his belt to quell his impatience as he steps up to the table.

The man retrieves two scrolls of paper from a cabinet and unrolls them on the table, revealing sketches of a long-hilted dagger and a conceptual design of something that looks like a large blade, avoiding Sousuke's eyes as he rambles about the extra balance a longer hilt could add to the current layout. Curious, Sousuke walks around the table, gloved fingers tracing the lines of a particularly elaborate drawing at the side of the second scroll. For a couple minutes he waits for an explanation as to why there's no progress on the latest mission. He's being quite patient, he finds, but the chatter doesn't stop, and for a moment he nods along to everything the man says until he rolls his eyes and turns around, ready to leave.

„It doesn't seem like you've got what I came here for,“ He dismisses and opens the door to slip out.

A startled cry halts him in his movements, and he turns to look over his shoulder. The man has started digging through the scrolls on the shelf and the table, searching for something – anything – to keep Sousuke from leaving, and he's constantly muttering apologies about how he should have finished the latest assignment and how he's sure he can find something else to satisfy him with. A quiet sigh is the only indicator as Sousuke's patience shatters. Stepping back into the room, he pulls off one glove with the other hand and grips the man‘s nape with soft pressure from his fingertips. There‘s a sense of accomplishment, short but delightful, when the man‘s breath stutters and halts, skin sizzling underneath his touch, and the man falls over as soon as Sousuke retrieves his hand.

„There. Your silence is satisfying enough,“ He hums.

Quickly replacing his glove, Sousuke pulls the conceptual sketches out from underneath the body now draped all across the table and shakes the black residue off before it can start melting the paper until there‘s nothing left. A small smile tugs at his mouth when he rolls up the scrolls to tuck underneath his arm and stares at the body. For a moment he considers leaving it on the table but thinks better on it and hauls it over to the fireplace, pushing it in just enough to make the clothes catch fire. The smell of ash and burning flesh fills the small room, and Sousuke knows he should be leaving soon, but morbid curiosity demands that he watch the body wilt for as long as the formation of smoke allows. His eyes land on the man‘s face, frozen in an expression of horror, cheeks hollow with the last breath he tried to take, and his world spins out of control.

Suddenly he‘s eight years old again, kneeling in his family house in the face of the bodies he produced, and his mother‘s eyes seem to burn through him just like the stranger's, sunken as they are in her charred features. His father‘s body is curled up around the hole Sousuke has dug into his middle and his sister – his baby sister – lies slumped against the back wall unit, her chest a mess of blackened blood and mottled burn marks.

Somebody‘s screaming, and it takes Sousuke a long moment to be shaken from the pictures in his mind and realize he‘s the one screaming. It‘s his voice filling the office at the police station, and two people are standing over him, alternating between shaking and calling to him. There‘s a weight in his lap, whining anxiously, and he recognises the dog first, front paws pressing against his thighs while he‘s trying to push past the adults hovering over him.

„Thank goodness,“ Miss Amakata enters his field of vision, and Sousuke takes her tissue even before he realizes his face is wet. „You blacked out for a moment, and suddenly you were screaming. Are you alright?“

Sousuke can‘t find the words to answer, mind hazy with panic and exhaustion, and he‘s still seeing snippets of the dream he had moments ago floating in front of his inner eye, but now that the context is gone the images seem to be making even less sense than before.

„He needs to sleep,“ That‘s the policeman Sousuke doesn‘t even have a name for. „This seems to be post-traumatic, make sure he gets enough rest. We'll call you up when there's news on the case.“
Miss Amakata doesn‘t argue, instead coaxing Sousuke out of his chair and into the hall. Obediently he follows, body numb and head stuck on pictures he has no words for.

-

It's quiet in the car. Sousuke doesn't try to question where they're going, but he insists on taking the dog along when he gets into the back seat. For a moment it seems like Miss Amakata wants to argue, but in the end, she nods at him and leaves him to his own thoughts after making sure he's fastened his seatbelt.

Snow is covering everything in sight, a blinding brightness Sousuke feels is almost ironic considering the darkness he's seen in the last 24 hours. He remembers it, feels like it's stuck against the inside of his eyes to cover everything he looks at with a somber veil. He's cold, frozen in a loop of memories replaying in his mind.

When they roll through the gates of what is declared as Tokyo Orphan Care by a large sign on a lamp post, reality's long fingers claw their way through the mist of memories and dreams permanently fogging up Sousuke's head. An orphanage. For the whole duration of the drive here, Sousuke didn't even consider asking what would happen next, because it didn't seem to matter — because he didn't see a point in wondering. When his eyes trace the heavy lettering across the sign, partly covered by snow, and follow the driveway to the large building nestled between a playground and what looks to be a Family counseling center, judging from the banner taped across the door, his own future starts catching up to him.
This is where he's going to stay, but for how long? Is he even allowed to take the dog inside? Is Anissa going to stay here once she's out of the hospital?

A soft yelp alerts Sousuke to his fingers subconsciously digging into the dog's ear, and he eases his grip immediately. The dog's wet nose is turned into his palm as soon as Sousuke releases the ear, and he is thrown back to how the hound found him. His father threw him out of the garage, Sousuke is sure of it, and the mutt could have returned to where he'd stayed for the past months: inside the wrecked car nobody towed off after it was left behind by its owner, just a few minutes away from Sousuke's school.

Another thought jumps to the front of his mind, and Sousuke swallows heavily. Is he going to go back to school after the holidays? His classmates will ask a lot of questions, he's sure. They heard of his uncle's death back when he took a day off school to attend the funeral, so he's fairly sure they'll somehow find out about what happened to his family. Are they going to know he killed them? That he's a double murderer, as the policeman called it. A criminal.

The recurring yelps don't cut through his thoughts this time, but the dog's teeth do. Startled, Sousuke tries pulling back his hand and realizes belatedly that it's stuck between the mutt's jaws. The pain grounds him against the waves of guilt surging against each other until he feels like he wants to black out, like any state of unconsciousness would be better than the war his thoughts are waging against him. He's still struggling against the dog's hold when the screeching sound of brakes and Miss Amakata's voice break through his panic, the commanding tone clear enough to make him obey immediately.

„Stop resisting it, Sousuke, it won't let go if you keep tugging on its hold!“ He breathes a sob, but stops fighting the dog's grip, seat belt preventing him from falling over to the side when the dog's weight pulls at him unrestrained.

Miss Amakata's arm darts into the back seat from the front, smacking a heavy-looking purse over the dog's head until it lets go of Sousuke's hand, and he's torn between telling her to stop and being relieved when the pain subsides to a dull burn. Overwhelmed, he throws open the car door, releases his seat belt on the second attempt – he misses the mechanism on the first try – and watches the dog burst out of the car. Sobbing, he stumbles out into the snow after it, his call for it to come back lost in the freezing wind. There's a heavy throbbing pain in his left hand where the dog's teeth tore into it, but he can't help feeling like he lost something when the hound's silhouette disappears around the corner of the building the car stopped next to. It's the counseling center, and Sousuke tries to sprint after the spray of snow the dog's hind legs are kicking up, but Miss Amakata has rounded the car with a few long strides and is now sliding an arm around his chest, effectively locking him into place when he tries to fight her.

Anger is quickly replaced by desperate exhaustion, and Sousuke's resistance wears down the longer he's staring at the corner of the building without a panting muzzle reappearing. Finally he gives in, form slumping until he allows himself to be held against Miss Amakata's warm body. She releases him slowly, as if unsure if he's going to try and run again, and leans down to get a better look at his hand. Sousuke turns away. From the corner of his eye he sees the social worker duck into the car to retrieve a first-aid kit before she thinks better on it, shoves it back in and pulls out the large jacket his neighbor wrapped him in – when? It seems so far away now.

„We'll get a better look at your hand inside, it's too dark here. You'll be alright!“ Miss Amakata slides the jacket around Sousuke's shoulders. He can feel her hand against his back when she gently nudges him towards the front entrance. „There's a famous saying that states: Life is a progress, not a station.“ For a moment Sousuke tries to understand how that saying is supposed to encourage him when clearly this orphanage is going to be a station, unless the house starts walking all of a sudden. With a last glance at the counseling center's dark front, he follows her into the main building.

-

There are two interviews with two different policemen. Sousuke is called to the police station for them the week after his arrival at the orphanage. They don't provide him with new information on Anissa, and he refuses to answer their questions in return.

Both times Miss Amakata is there with him, a steady presence he's starting to appreciate, if only for her reliability. She's focused on protecting him from irrelevant questions and pushy officers and she starts spouting odd proverbs whenever she seems at a loss for words. She's also the one trying to get answers to Sousuke's requests to see his sister but keeps coming up empty. Every piece of information on her is confidential and Sousuke only really wants to see her, to make sure she's recovering, she's alright, she'll be okay. They don't budge.

The first time Sousuke hears a word on Anissa, it's not what he expects to hear, and he refuses to believe it the first time Miss Amakata is allowed to brief him on her condition in the social workers' office.

„She doesn't want to see you,“ She repeats at his angry stare, her smile too small to be more than polite, „Her condition is improving quickly, but she's decided that you're not allowed near her, and since she's still in critical care the doctors won't risk any unnecessary strain.“

Miss Amakata's eyes wander off to examine a file where it lies open near her left hand, a clearly dismissive gesture, but the past week has provided Sousuke with enough dismissive gestures for a lifetime and he's tired of being treated like a piece of furniture the adults can pull up when they feel like it and put back when it's in the way.

Fuming, he presses forward, hands braced against Miss Amakata's desk. „She's younger than me, why does she get to decide what she wants but I don't?“

There's a small frown pulling at the social worker's brows, but Sousuke doesn't back down, and when Miss Amakata looks back up at him, he's surprised to see her sad.
„I don't know if you're aware, Sousuke, but your sister lost her parents too. And for all she's told, it may be her brother's fault. Nobody can explain to her how her chest caved in enough to bruise her lungs or how she's left with third degree burn scars for the rest of her life. All she knows is that you're the one person who was unharmed that night. Don't you think she has a good reason to be scared?“

Scared.

Anissa, scared of him?
Sousuke has dreamed of every possible scenario he may encounter at school when they make him go back, imagined a myriad of ways the other children may avoid him, found a dozen reasons why his room mates seem to dodge direct interactions with him. Not once has the idea of Anissa being one of those people occurred to him. She is his sister, and for that reason alone he was sure she'd be right there with him once she has recovered, asking pesky questions and borrowing his pens without telling him until he'd start freaking out about his pencil case being empty. The picture Miss Amakata paints is a different one, one Sousuke now realizes he should have considered, and the guilt welling up inside of him is enough to make him feel sick.

There's a soft tilt to Miss Amakata's lips, an apology in motion. Sousuke raises his shoulders in an attempt to ward it off before she starts speaking, but the social worker gestures to the chair across from her. Hesitantly, Sousuke sits. „I've been wondering, Sousuke,“ Miss Amakata begins, and she pulls over the file she's been looking at ever since he entered her office, „Your report says that you've been adopted at the age of four months. The file confirms that you're aware of that. Did your parents tell you?“

Sousuke feels his world shrink down to a memory he's been trying to keep at bay for the past year, a memory that is now trying to resurface, and he swallows thickly. „It was Anissa. She found out.“

That prompts the social worker to crane back in surprise, but she regains composure quickly. „Your sister? How did she know?“

„She found pictures in mom's – in our mother's night stand. Pictures of how they picked me up at a foster home. Nissa had just learned to read, she asked me what Foster Care means. When I asked her why she needed to know, she showed me the pictures.“ Sousuke's tongue feels dry and heavy in his mouth. It's been a week since he's last seen the stray dog, but he wishes he could bury his hands in its thick fur now. For company. For comfort.

Miss Amakata is shaking her head at the situation Sousuke describes to her. She closes his file and drops it into a drawer to her right. „I'm sorry you had to find out about it that way. It probably caused a lot of tension in the family, didn't it?“

Sousuke's tongue is too big for his mouth now, he doesn't know how to form words anymore. Instead, unbidden pictures crowd his mind, cover his sight and flood his hearing. He smells ash, tastes his own tears, remembers. He remembers too well.

Anissa, wrestling him to the floor. She always won their fights, sat on his chest and belly. Chestnut colored curls framed her pixie face, falling into her forehead and eyes when she giggled at him. Sousuke's mind forms a clear picture of the fury in her eyes after he threw Oscar into the snow, an act of childish revenge to get back at her for betraying his trust in her when he took her along to show her the dog. He was fuming then, for imagining the abandoned animal out in the cold thanks to her stupid prank. What really set him off though, and he can feel the same painful darkness rising in his chest at the memory, were her words.

“You only brought him home because you needed someone to love you.“

She knew. She knew he wasn't the same as her, not their real child, and she teased him about it after finding out. Over and over until that night a week ago when Sousuke couldn't reign in the anger anymore. Again the images suffocate him, force him to breathe consciously against the panic trying to claim his mind. He only realizes he's shaking when Miss Amakata calls his name, directing worried glances at his hands clutching the chair's arms. There's blood seeping through the bandages he's still wearing to cover the deep tears the dog left behind, and the social worker gets up from her chair and steps around the desk to take him to the nurse.

They stitch him up for the third time this week and the nurse issues an advisory note to his supervisors. Sousuke doesn't know what it says until Miss Amakata takes him to see a psychologist by the end of next week.

Therapy makes him feel even weirder, makes the other children at the orphanage steal more glances at him than they did before, but it helps with releasing his memories in a controlled fashion once he opens up. The solitude doesn't bother him as much as he expected it to, but the thoughts of Anissa keep his mind busy even after therapy hours. When Miss Amakata tells him that she's being released from the hospital, Sousuke isn't sure if he's relieved or frightened. They refuse to tell him where they're taking her, which drives them further apart, makes his chances of seeing her again even smaller than they were already. Desperately he tries to reason, reminds the social worker that he's the only family she's got left and is met with an expression of pity that makes his mouth go dry with anxiety.

„She's getting a foster home, Sousuke. A family that takes care of her and helps her adjust to her new situation. It's not a replacement for what she's lost, but she'll be in good hands.“ Sousuke swallows heavily, hands balling into fists by his sides, and he blinks against the tears that sting his eyes at the implication of Miss Amakata's words. He won't see her again. They're taking her away, giving her a new home at another place while he is left here by himself.

It makes sense, Sousuke figures, and the snake in his belly rears its ugly head to bite off half a dozen threads of hope he's desperately tried to retie every time they loosened in the last weeks. He's a monster. A double murderer. He almost killed his sister, too. Why on earth would anyone give him a new family, just so he can snap and kill them as well? And he could, Sousuke is sure, however he did it.

Nothing seems certain but this one fact, and Sousuke feels his blood run cold when he turns his back on Miss Amakata and walks away despite her attempts at calling him back. He's killed his parents and injured his sister. Of course nobody would adopt him, accept him into their home, give him a chance to repeat what he's done. And maybe, he thinks as something shatters in his young heart, maybe it's better this way.

-

The nightmares come more frequently during the following nights and the supervisors are forced to move Sousuke to another room because his room mates can't sleep through his screams. He's matched with a profoundly deaf boy who snores like he's trying to mow down the whole building but doesn't mind Sousuke's nightly panic attacks. Sousuke, on the other hand, finds himself surprised by how loud somebody can be when they don't hear themselves very much. He spends his days outside whenever possible and tries to avoid the noisy boy with the red hair who will bounce into his personal space to show him one of his favorite songs at any given chance.

It's absurd, Sousuke thinks, how somebody with such bad hearing can even listen to music in the first place, but it definitely explains his horrible taste in it. Heavy beats and bold hip-hop blare through their room all day, only decreasing in volume when one of the supervisors drops by to scold the boy on behalf of the other children. Asahi – the lively redhead – usually reacts with mild exasperation as if he's the one being harassed all day. He's far less lenient when it comes to interacting with the other children, chasing them out of the room when they try and mock him with playful gestures or when they surprise tackle him, well knowing that he can't hear their approach.
Sousuke walks in on him and two other boys punching each other against the walls of a hallway one evening. It's a one-sided fight, he realizes quickly when the two taller boys team up against Asahi, one of them pinning the redhead's arms above his head while the other rains down blows to his face and head. Alerted by Asahi's yelling, some of the other children trickle out of their rooms, but none of them make a move to help, instead crowding around the fighting trio and locking them in.

There's agitated chatter among them, amounting in shouts of encouragement to the duo beating up the much smaller Asahi, and the boy's frantic cries are lost in the crowd's cheers.
Sousuke doesn't know why he charges into the crowd, doesn't think about the elbows aimed at his head or the fist one of the taller boys lands against his ribs. He kicks to one side and holds the scrambling bodies off himself on the other, pushes through the mass until he can see the red shock of hair behind the teenagers still packing punches to the much smaller boy. He's never been one to fight, hasn't sought confrontation at school or with friends, but at this moment he knows he'll have to rely on the set of primal instincts his father always tried to deter him from using. His first kick hits one of the boys' calves, and it feels like he's kicking a wall. An angry growl slips from his mouth when an elbow collides with his jaw, and he tastes blood where his cheek stings from the blow, but his mind registers this as a win. He's got their attention – both their attention, he realizes quickly, when a well-aimed swipe of a fist connects with his nose from the other side.

Suddenly there's Asahi's voice again, close enough to pierce through the surrounding sea of chants, and Sousuke blinks in confusion, both at the sound of something that might be his own name – Soske! – and from the blow to his head he receives at the same moment. He staggers, finds the wall with one hand and barely blocks the next punch to his head with the other arm. When he lowers his head to allow blood to drip from his nose, his eyes meet Asahi's for the fraction of a second, and the gratitude he sees is enough to make him push off the wall and meet the next blows head-on. Inexperienced as he is, Sousuke takes a few more direct hits until he realizes that the bullies rely heavily on strength and vertical blows, using their height to their advantage, but are relatively slow to move themselves. Asahi's call – Soske! – stings Sousuke's eardrums again. This time he heeds the warning in time, dodges right as one of the attackers swings at him and drives his shoulder into the boy's stomach, the back of his head connecting to the teenager's chin when Sousuke pulls back. Asahi uses the momentary distraction to push himself off the wall with surprising speed and pounce on the second boy.

The crowd's cheers have died down, murmurs erupt among the group of children when the bullies' attack is met with resistance. Sousuke can't understand what they're saying, too busy evading the next few heavy swings, but he feels a sense of accomplishment at swaying the general mood.
Asahi spits a reddish mix of saliva and blood at one of the teenager's faces and uses the hunk's inability to see properly to climb his back, wrap his legs around the boy's middle and his arms around his head. He's covering the guy's mouth and nose with his sleeves, Sousuke realizes, while throwing him off balance with his weight, and he has the time to be impressed for a mere second before the second teenager is on him again. Unable to react in time, Sousuke gets pinned against the wall, and he almost blacks out from the impact his head makes against the stone. He struggles to breathe, uses his attacker's grasp to lift his legs off the ground and knees the boy in the guts. There's a short-lived sense of victory before the other boy's forehead collides with Sousuke's nose, and this time there's a sickening crunch. Immediately Sousuke feels tears spring forth from his eyes, and he's blinded by the pain until suddenly the weight against his body retreats. Hands shooting up to cover his face, Sousuke slides down the wall until he sits on the floor, flashes of white crowding his field of vision.

It takes him a moment to make out a shock of red hair – Asahi – kneeling in front of him, looking as battered as Sousuke feels, but he's grinning like a madman. He's babbling animatedly, but Sousuke can't make out more than the occasional „Soske“. Finally somebody wraps an arm around Sousuke's shoulders and pulls him up, then a folded piece of fabric is pushed against his face until he dares lower his hand to grab at the fabric instead. He looks up to find one of the supervisors eyeing him critically before leading them down the hall.

The mass of children has split in half, allowing them to pass through, and Sousuke can hear them laugh and point out how poorly they fared against the taller boys. He's fuming, but the pain and exhaustion are enough to keep him walking with his back turned on them. None of them even tried to interfere when two teenagers beat up a much younger boy, and Sousuke decides to give them a piece of his mind when given the chance, but for now he dismisses their remarks with raised shoulders. He's hurting all over. Only when they reach one of the supervisors' offices does Sousuke turn to see if the other boys are still there and freezes when the only person trailing behind is Asahi.
The teenagers are gone.

It only takes him a few minutes of being interrogated by the supervisor to realize that nobody is willing to believe they weren't the ones who started the fight. Sousuke's backtalk is cut short by the constant trickle of blood from his nose and the cloth he's still pressing against his face to prevent it from dripping into his mouth when he speaks, but he still tries to argue. Asahi's eyes are on him the whole time they talk back and forth, and Sousuke turns to stare at him twice but is met with silence. Of course, he thinks, Asahi doesn't understand what's going on, and he doesn't know a first thing about sign language. How is he supposed to explain to the boy that they're being punished for defending themselves against the other boys?

The supervisor appears to care little about whether or not the boys are the perpetrators or how Asahi is going to grasp what they're told. Her eyes bore into Sousuke's defiant glare, brows drawn in something that may be an intended warning, but he's still in disbelief about the injustice they're being treated with and refuses to yield.

There's a moment of silence when the supervisor seems to come to a conclusion, and her features harden. „I suppose we made the right decision in matching you to Asahi's room. He's been aggressive and uncooperative since he moved in, and you've proven to be violent before you came here. Amakata kept insisting that you'd settle right in, but I doubted her from day one. You're a dangerous freak, just like that gimp. Don't think for one second that you can blame your attacks on somebody just because they're taller than you. We're not as dumb as you may think.“

Sousuke feels his stomach drop just as his shoulders rise defensively. He's expecting a joke to be called for a short moment before meeting the supervisor's icy stare from across the room. Before they walked into this room he was wondering how the adults managed to not hear the ruckus down the floor, but all at once it seems to make sense. Too much sense. They didn't want to interfere, Sousuke realizes. He noticed before that the supervisors are avoiding him just as the other children are, but he took it for some kind of professional distance towards him as the new kid. Now he's starting to understand that he was wrong all along.

Asahi nudges his side with a pointed look at his face. Subconsciously he's lowered his hand and the blood is dripping down his chin. Quickly raising the piece of cloth back to his nose, Sousuke nods at Asahi in a form of Thanks he thinks the boy will understand and receives a wide grin. Two teeth are missing, Sousuke notices, and he wonders how often the boy has been caught in fights he didn't start but ended up being punished for. Too often, he thinks and turns back to the supervisor. Her face is an open display of disgust, and Sousuke throws the most spiteful glare he can muster her way.
„You two will mop the lunch room for the next week,“ She hisses back, „And I don't care how traumatised Amakata says you are. If you harass the other kids again, I'll make sure you're excluded from dinner for the week, too.“

They share a look of unveiled aversion before Sousuke walks back to the door and waves at Asahi with his free hand. He can hear the other boy's footsteps following him down the hallway they came from.

Asahi catches up when they round the corner to the nurse's office, and Sousuke meets his eyes when he glances over at him. „Soske,“ The boy hums and points a finger at Sousuke's head. He's a bit shorter than Sousuke, but he suspects them to be around the same age. Asahi's finger wiggles back to himself. „Asahi,“ He whispers as if his name is a secret and expectantly tilts his head at Sousuke. Sousuke blinks at him for a long moment before nodding his confirmation, and Asahi's face splits into an honest smile. He's bruised all over, blood has dried in one of his brows and seeped down his face and his lower lip is split in at least two spots. Still he seems at ease, almost cheerful in the way he keeps smiling at Sousuke from the side, as if being beaten up doesn't bother him. Like it's normal.

The nurse is much more worried about the boys' condition than the supervisor was. She makes them sit and spends the better half of the next hour patching them up, cleaning the cuts and dressing the blooming bruises, and she considers sending Sousuke to the hospital to have his nose checked by a real doctor, but he convinces her that he'll be okay so long as it's still straight. The last thing he wants is more attention.

-

The next days see the boys spending more time together. Sousuke keeps an eye on the clock and forces Asahi out of bed in the mornings to be ready for their pre-breakfast mopping tour – the red-head is a stubborn sleeper, unwilling to so much as blink before the sun has risen – while Asahi shows Sousuke where to find the cleaning equipment and introduces him to his favorite rappers with gestures that remind Sousuke of a mime.

Asahi, he learns quickly, is moodier than him. And he gives into the swings his feelings take more freely. There's frustration in the morning when he's supposed to get up before he wants to, anger when the bathroom is occupied even though Asahi wants to brush his teeth, happiness when his favorite songs come on and he gets to dance across the room. After a week of watching the other boy, Sousuke isn't sure which of his passions is greater: Hip-hop music or dancing. Most of the time he enjoys both simultaneously, and despite Sousuke's aversion to the excessive noise he has to admit that Asahi manages to move with the music, flow into the beat and internalize the rhythm until Sousuke is stuck watching him in awe. The red headphones are a permanent addition to Asahi's appearance, ready to be put on at any given time, and even though Sousuke thinks the red color is more of a fashion statement than a necessity, he understands after a while that Asahi can hear the music just as well as he can. The pulsing beats send enough vibration into the floor to be noticeable to Sousuke, and he's sure that Asahi feels them even more clearly, having learned to focus on them.

He starts trying to talk to the redhead, which seems to excite the boy immensely, and they sit across from each other on Sousuke's bed while Sousuke pronounces single words very slowly and indicates with a gesture what he's talking about. Asahi follows his every movement with his eyes and nods enthusiastically when he understands. Sometimes he'll turn his head left and right as if to try and catch the sound better, palms open behind his ears to enhance the volume. The first word Sousuke manages to teach him is „asshole“, and they both end up laughing themselves to tears at the different forms of pronunciation Asahi comes up with.

For the following weeks Sousuke settles into a routine that is almost comfortable. Waking Asahi in the morning, showering, breakfast, different activities depending on the weather outside – he builds snow castles with Asahi until the latter becomes impatient and destroys them in a burst of energy. Later there's lunch and helping in the kitchen, music and increasingly entertaining language practice with Asahi, then dinner preparations and dish washing after the meal. Asahi keeps babbling until he falls asleep, and even though Sousuke has no idea what he's talking about most of the time he starts recognizing more words as the days progress. The nightmares become less frequent and further inbetween.

When a supervisor informs Sousuke he has to start attending school again, he's anxious at first, but Asahi distracts him with a string of curse words he's recently learned, flung at one of the older girls who is just passing by. She starts yelling at the red-head who cackles back and earns a scathing glare in return. They go back and forth taking stabs at each other for a few minutes and Sousuke almost forgets about the news until the next day when the supervisor who works morning shifts this week drops by their room and tells him to get ready. A fresh wave of panic crashes down on him when he realizes he doesn't have a school bag, let alone writing materials or a uniform. When they transferred him into the orphanage, his personal belongings were left behind, and nothing he handles every day belongs to him. He hurries to slip into his clothes and hunts down the overseer who eyes him up and down before shaking her head.

„You can't go like that,“ She concludes, and Sousuke wants to yell at her that he already knew that, but waits for further instructions instead. „Go see the janitor, he's got spare uniforms,“ The supervisor shoos him away with both hands.
None of the available uniforms fit Sousuke who is tall for his age but not as wide in body shape as the other boys his height, so the pants they give him end way above his ankles and his jacket is too wide, shoulder pads bulging where his body hasn't grown into them yet. He's embarassed from the glances he receives, more frequent than usual, and a flock of girls that passes by on their way to the train station openly laugh at him, leaving Sousuke ready to turn back immediately. On the train he sits alone until a square-shouldered teen steps into his personal space and demands he move out of the way. Sousuke objects politely and is met with a fist to his freshly healed nose that sends spikes of pain up between his eyes.

„Think again,“ The boy grins and flops down on Sousuke's seat as soon as he ducks out of the way.

With Asahi attending another school, Sousuke feels utterly alone among the throng ambling for the school gates, and the few others he recognises ignore him.

„Sousuke?“ A familiar voice tears him from his daze, quick feet falling into step with his, „I can't believe it, you're back! How are you? Are you alright? Oh, what happened to your face? You look horrible, did somebody beat you up?“

The seemingly endless string of questions pulls at a corner of Sousuke's mouth, the first friendly face he's seen that day grounds him in the sea of hostility. „I'm okay. Got into a fight a few days back,“ He's quick to reply and the pink-haired boy edges closer to nudge Sousuke's upper arm with his shoulder, offering a wide grin.

„Damn, somebody really got you bad then. A battle scar or two will suit you though, like a super hero!“ Sousuke chortles and presses their arms together in return. „It's good to see you, Kisumi.“
He means it.

Kisumi's family spent the holidays on a skiing trip, effectively keeping the friends apart over christmas. When Kisumi returned for school, Sousuke had already gone. For a moment Sousuke is stunned by the realization that Kisumi must have a myriad of other questions for him, wondering where he went, why he didn't call, what happened to his school bag. Instead the boy strolls along with him, arms touching, and only slips over to his own desk when Sousuke is firmly seated at his own.

His other classmates are less tactful, and Sousuke has to dodge bullet after bullet during the front half of his first day back at school. During every break they ask about his parents and about the police, about Anissa and his new address, and Sousuke realizes again just how much they seem to know. Most of the kids he used to play with — people he thought were his friends, keep a respectful distance. Nobody stares at his hands like the children at the orphanage do, so Sousuke figures they haven't caught on to the details. Still, their whispers are enough to eat their way through his composure. When the fourth girl asks him when Anissa will be back at school, he feels the snake in his belly rear its head. His throat is clogged with something dark, a lump that tastes like ugliness, and Sousuke flees the classroom with his hands fisted into the pockets of his jacket. He's sure that his fingers are oozing black again, that somebody will notice the dripping darkness sometime around now, but nobody opposes him when he darts out into the yard. A teacher shoots him a concerned look but leaves him alone when he makes no move to escape the school grounds.

Panting, Sousuke moves behind an old oak in the back of the yard, back colliding with the trunk when he slumps against it. He feels drained, like he's expending every bit of energy he has on keeping his calm around his classmates. The tree's bark bites into the skin of his fingertips when he digs them into the cool surface, palms spread flatly against the trunk. He tries to feel himself again, to quell the nervous tremors hunting up and down his spine. When a soft voice floats up to him, he winces as if struck, but it's Kisumi's wavy bangs that pop into view after a moment of silence.

„You still come back here when you need to be alone?“

Sousuke nods carefully. „I know you're not okay, but I didn't want to call you a liar,“ The boy admits. Sousuke feels the bark scrape against his nails when his fingers tense again, but he tries to will away the spiteful answer perching on the tip of his tongue. Instead of offending the one friend he seems to retain around the school, he keeps silent. It's not Kisumi's fault there's too much pent-up frustration in Sousuke's life at the moment, and he certainly doesn't want to unleash the force he can feel rising in his chest again on his friend. His resolve stands strong until Kisumi continues, his tone quiet and impossibly naive. „My dad said you don't ask about a person's loss. If they want to talk about it, they will.“

For a moment Sousuke is atonished by the wisdom Kisumi's father seems to have passed on to his son, but the snake is hungry and he doesn't manage to bite back its venomous retort this time. „I don't care what your dad says. He knows nothing about me,“ He snarls. Even as he regrets the answer immediately, the emptiness he's been feeling ever since that dreaded night seems to fade a little. A few drops of satisfaction trickle down into the pit the ugliness is born from, the void grows a little tighter and the darkness recedes while he seizes the chance to release some of his anxious tension. „I'm not talking about my parents. I'm not talking about Anissa. You all think you're so smart but you have no idea what happened. And I'm not going to tell you because you wouldn't believe me anyway.“

Kisumi's face is split open in vulnerability, his smile drawn tight around the eyes and lips trembling. Sousuke wants to step forward and apologise the moment he's said the words, but Kisumi backs away with a look of betrayal. His hands are balled into fists, and Sousuke knows the sense of disbelief that firms the lines on his friend's face now too well. When his friend turns and walks back to the school with his shoulders raised, tension evident in the straight line of his back, Sousuke can't do anything but watch. The oak sheds a wave of twigs when Sousuke's fingers dig into the bark this time.

It takes Sousuke too long to regain composure. Two reminders by the teacher are more time than the break would have offered and he ends up being late for the next lesson. That earns him an additional warning and a long look from the teacher that tells Sousuke he will have to explain himself to the supervisor tonight. After class he ducks out of the room to make his way back to the train as quickly as possible, dodging past questions and underneath bulky arms conveniently blocking his way. When he ducks out of the way of a bike rushing by, he bumps into a shock of pink hair. Quickly he raises both hands and tries to hurry past the dark brown coat he knows so well but finds he's being held back by a hand on his arm.

„Sousuke,“ Kisumi's expression is guarded, but he doesn't withdraw when Sousuke steps out of the way of the general crowd and into his personal space. The hand resting curled around Sousuke's arm shifts before it lets go. „I'm... I'm sorry. I was only trying to be nice, but you got so angry.“ There's a soft shiver running along his mouth, but the boy grits his teeth and keeps going. „If you don't want to be friends anymore, that's okay. But I wanted to say something before you hate me.“

Sousuke's stomach is twisting and he's feeling sick to the bone for making a friend feel the way Kisumi does right now. It's true, all he did was try to be nice. He didn't ask about his family. Not this morning, not later, during their break. Not once.

When Kisumi speaks up again, his voice is firm, and his words send a fresh spiral of nausea through Sousuke. „I don't believe that you killed your parents. And you wouldn't hurt Anissa. You've always protected her, why would you attack her now? It makes no sense. Everybody's sure you did it, because the adults say so. I think even the adults can be wrong, and I don't know them well. But I know you. You're my friend, and you never hurt me. You wouldn't do this.“

There's a short moment of detachment when Sousuke feels like he's slipping out of reality before he's falling, falling into a bottomless pit, its walls plastered with memories and dreams alike. He can feel his hand connect with Anissa's chest, bone crumbling and skin melting under his touch. His father's dark eyes seem to follow his fall, lifeless as they are. There's a frightening amount of black dusting his mother's face, flakes of darkened skin peeling off and fluttering into the void underneath. Images of their new year's dinner line the walls, a tapestry woven from the last year's events. Anissa's birthday in january, the first time Sousuke got chocolate for White Day, the family trip to Shanghai, his surfboard accident that fractured both the board and his wrist, Sousuke's birthday celebrated at a climbing park, his homeroom teacher's letter of recommendation to skip a class and his mother's peals of laughter. The first snow, increasingly frequent fights among the siblings, the fragile peace treaty formed for their mother's birthday just before christmas and the escalation afterwards. Insatiable anger, manifested in black mottling walls and floor. Death.
Sousuke's fall becomes rougher, the walls begin to shake as he drops into the pit until the shaft collapses with a stinging blow to Sousuke's cheek. He blinks drowsily, grasps for support and finds a strong branch nearby. His balance is shaken, mind not quite caught up to the snow-covered ground beneath his feet, but he does recognise the flustered boy getting into his face, cheeks red with nervous blotches.

„Oh thank god, you're back,“ Kisumi's voice is a little too high-pitched to be normal, but he looks genuinely relieved. A quick look around reveals a large group of students and two teachers who have been herding the masses off the school grounds frozen in their paths, and they're all staring at Sousuke. He's not aware of what he may have been doing to alert them to his presence, but he remembers the last time he blacked out and screamed himself awake too well to be willing to imagine a possible scenario. Instead, he side steps further away from the school gates, and Kisumi follows on wobbly feet. Only now does he realize that the branch he clung to for balance is actually his friend's arm and he's quick to withdraw his hand. It takes the crowd a moment to continue on their way, many of them keep turning their heads to catch a glance at Sousuke off to the side of the front yard.

It's a struggle to try and find an answer to the questions Kisumi dares ask this time, but Sousuke manages to ward him off with non-committal replies and a few vague explanations of how he's been suffering from the stress the last weeks put him under. That satisfies Kisumi's concern for the time being, and they fall into a comfortable pattern of Kisumi talking to himself while Sousuke watches twilight bleed across the sky, painting clouds in shades of purple and pink, until he remarks with a small twitch of his mouth that nightfall is Kisumi-colored. Kisumi stares at him like he's gone for good now, then follows Sousuke's finger to the horizon and gasps at the display of natural color. His chatter resumes and Sousuke feels himself reminded of spending time with Asahi. Cheerful Asahi has the same habit of babbling incessantly, no matter the audience. Being with someone who talks too much is way better than being alone, Sousuke concludes, and he adds it to his mental list of new insights.

-

Going back to school becomes easier with the prospect of meeting someone he likes, Sousuke finds, and he endures the whispers trailing his steps with more patience than before. There's a sense of satisfaction when he arrives at the train station and sees Kisumi swinging around from where he's waiting, joining him on his way to the gates and effectively blocking the bullies from harassing him for a couple hours every day. It's not like Kisumi is intimidating, he's really not. In a way, the opposite may be the reason the older kids don't dare go after Sousuke when they're together. Kisumi is sunny. Cheerful and loud. When he's quiet, the teachers come looking for him, because that's usually a sign for trouble, and it's risky to pester someone who may alert the authority figures to the harassment, so the bullies stay away. It's not worth the gamble, Sousuke figures, and he finds himself enjoying some of his classes again.

The whispering never stops, but he's getting used to its presence, and with the rowdies kept at arm's length, he has nothing to fear. Breaks are fun to spend climbing the trees at the far end of the school yard, and Kisumi has a way of cracking the right jokes at the right times to improve Sousuke's general mood on almost every school day. Back at the orphanage, Asahi takes over, bubbly temper hiking up Sousuke's rating of the day even when school is a pain. They fight occasionally, Asahi arguing with loud words without sense or meaning, at least to Sousuke's ears, when Sousuke has to do homework and Asahi insists he has to work off nervous energy by dancing. The thumping beats blasting through his headphones drive Sousuke up the wall when he tries to focus, and the figure he can see bouncing up and down from the corner of his eye distracts him every time he starts taking notes.

A fresh layer of snow has covered the garden the night before, and Sousuke is studying when Asahi's lean frame darts for the window one day, arms failing in excitement. „Og! Soske, ders Og!“ Sousuke knows by now that Asahi's gestures often have more meaning than his words do, so he accepts defeat more quickly than he would at just the calling – „Soske!! Come 'nover Soske!“.

Sighing, he drops his pen and joins Asahi at the window to follow his fingers left and right, but all he can see are trees and scrawny bushes covered in snow. They both stare out into the glaring white until Asahi groans in frustration and lowers his finger. „Og,“ He grumbles and shakes his head at the snow, „'sapear hind tree og.“

For a moment Sousuke considers rolling his eyes at him, but he knows how quickly Asahi gets offended over people poking fun at his attempts to speak, and he tries his hardest to understand. „Asahi, what is an Og?“

Asahi stares at him like he's the one not making sense, then he gestures at the treeline across from their window, hands shaping a broad form. „Og,“ The boy repeats and directs his accusing gaze at Sousuke once more before he's the one rolling his eyes and gives up. With a frown Asahi climbs the windowsill and sits with his back propped against the wall, legs folded in front of him to fit onto the ledge. Sousuke returns to his desk with the feeling of disappointment and no idea what he just missed.

It takes two days until Sousuke finds out what “Og“ is. Again he's busy working at his desk and again Asahi flies to the window. He's been perching on the sill for the greater part of the past day and kept checking the yard this afternoon, but now the mysterious source of his excitement seems to be back. Sousuke gets up faster this time, intent on making sure that whatever Asahi wants to show him doesn't get away this time.

For a moment it seems like there's only snow outside, but Asahi tugs on Sousuke's sleeve with an insistent, „Soske stay.“ Sousuke complies and is rewarded with a sight he didn't expect. A shaggy mutt slips from the shrubs, fur dusted white with snow. Silently it roams around the garden, nose brushing against the thick layer of white covering the ground, and Sousuke understands.

„The dog,“ He whispers, and Asahi nods fiercely, hand grabbing Sousuke's upper arm while the other hand points outside. „Soske dog.“

There's no doubt he's right, Sousuke thinks as his hands fly up to open the window. This is his dog. Asahi scrambles off the windowsill to allow the glass to swing inside, and they both lean through the frame to get a better look despite the cold. The dog has gotten even shaggier, its fur seems to be clotted with mud around the flanks but it looks surprisingly well fed. Asahi keeps tugging on Sousuke's sleeve, urging him outside. For a moment he hesitates, doesn't trust the height to be suited for jumping, but then he screws up his courage and takes the leap. The ground is frozen and way harder upon impact than the thick, snowy cover suggests, but Sousuke shakes off the pain and scrambles to his feet under Asahi's constant calling.

The first thing Sousuke notices upon looking around is that the dog is watching him intently, and it raises its nose to sniff the air. The ears seem to perk up when Sousuke finally calls out too, his voice mingling with Asahi's „Dog, c'meer dog!“

„Hey there,“ He takes half a step before he realizes he's on socks, feet already wet thanks to the snow coating them, and stops dead in his tracks. A breeze drives the cold straight through him, shivers raking up and down his back, but he stands firm. „Do you remember me? I remember you.“ Slowly Sousuke raises the hand the dog sunk its teeth in when he first arrived here – it feels like that was ages ago – and tracks the scars left behind with his eyes. There's a soft yip when the dog's tail starts wagging slightly and Sousuke suddenly feels like crying. He's fairly certain the stinging sensation in his eyes is more thanks to the cold than the emotion he can feel welling up, but he can't prevent his sight from swimming with tears. Gaze locked on the dog, Sousuke squats down to get on eye level with the animal. His throat feels tight when the wagging motion becomes more rapid and the dog finally approaches him.

They both stare at each other for a long moment, Sousuke can feel his knees shake from the strain and the cold, but he refuses to go back inside just yet. Then, finally, with an excited bark the dog charges at him and Sousuke catches the heavy body with both arms, the impact throws him onto the ground but he barely notices the sting against his back. Front paws pressing down onto his chest, the dog hovers over Sousuke, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, and Sousuke playfully tugs at it. There's a startled yip, the dog rears back to pull his tongue from Sousuke grasp but immediately dives down for him again and Sousuke is subjected to a bath, dog style. Asahi calls for him but Sousuke ignores him, hands darting all over the dog's body to scratch ears, pet flanks and rub fond circles into his chest.

For a moment he's free, at ease despite the cold stinging his feet, back and head. The dog's breath warms his face and he finds himself laughing out loud for the first time in weeks, pushing the dog off himself to reverse their positions and rub the mutt's belly. He's rewarded with more licking and excited woofs and they tumble through the snow without a care in the world until strong hands grab Sousuke by the shoulders and drag him away from the dog. Their happy bubble bursts abruptly at the intrusion. Sousuke turns to finds the supervisor who hauled them in after the fight the other day is the one holding him by the shoulders. He struggles against her grip, belly burning with resentment and hands itching to latch onto her. He keeps his eyes trained on the dog that is frolicking after him, snow spraying all around. It's a merry image and for a second Sousuke dares hope that he may have a chance of keeping the dog this time, of washing and feeding it until it looks acceptable enough for the adults, but the thread is cut swiftly when a second woman rounds the corner behind the building and grabs the dog by the collar. Sousuke knows her well, she's the only supervisor Asahi is afraid of. She doesn't have a way with words like many of the others do but resorts to physical measures more often than not, and Sousuke is sure that she'd wrestle the dog from his arms if she had to. He's more than willing to fight though, and the dog struggles against her hold in an attempt to return to Sousuke as well.

Asahi has gone quiet. Sousuke can see him huddled up in the corner of the window frame, arms wrapped around himself. If he's warding his body against the cold or the stares directed at him, he doesn't know. What he does know is that he's not letting them take the dog without a fight, and he strains against the supervisor's arms until he realizes she won't budge. He's tall for his age and he's stronger than many others, but he's still a child of eight years and this woman is much taller than him. Kicking snow at her, writhing against her arms, aiming his elbows at her stomach, it all fails, and Sousuke finds despair rising at the prospect of losing the dog again.

„I'll take care of him,“ He yells against the wind that is picking up, but there's no immediate reaction, „He's my friend, you can't take him! I promise I'll walk him and feed him and wash him so he's clean, you won't have to take care of him at all.“ Frantically whipping his head around to catch a reaction, any sort of answer, Sousuke stares back at the woman holding him and is met with a sneer. He's left gaping at her, bewildered by the amusement on her face.

„We've observed that mutt for weeks,“ She finally answers, voice gentle, and Sousuke shivers at the fake friendliness, „And we have dog catchers ready to pick it up and put it down.“ Snowflakes catch in Sousuke's lashes and he tries to blink them away, but they melt into his eyes instead. Aghast, he turns back to look at the dog still straining against the collar, then at the supervisor holding him. He feels the molten bits of snow running down his cheek, but the cold is lost on him.
„Put him – what?“ Sousuke is torn between staring, wide-eyed, and blinking away the wetness in his eyes. He remembers the bunny Anissa had, remembers how it got all snotty-nosed and teary-eyed from a virus it caught outside last summer. Something like the flu, their mother explained, but incurable. They put the bunny down and Sousuke was allowed to watch with his sister. It was like the bunny was falling asleep after being poked with a syringe, but he understood that it wasn't going to wake up again. Anissa was less understanding and tried to shake the poor thing when it wouldn't move anymore. She took longer to grasp the concept of death than he did, but even she caught on after a few days.

„But he isn't sick!“ Sousuke's voice is rising above the howl of the wind, and he fights against the arms trying to pull him back to the front door, away from the cold. He doesn't believe that slipping inside could make him feel better right now, doesn't think that he'd be any warmer with a blanket and a heater. His chest feels colder than his hands do, but it's not numb yet. His heart is pounding furiously, blood screaming through his veins as he tries to free himself from the iron grip. „He isn't sick, you can't kill him! That's not right!“

The chest he's being squeezed against quivers with the chuckle the supervisor responds with. She shakes him, turns them in such a way that forces him to stare at the dog finally giving into being held, its head tilted to the side as he listens to the humans conversing. Sousuke's throat feels tight.
„He's not sick, but nobody wants him. That's what we do with things nobody wants. We get rid of them.“ The unspoken addition We'd do that to you if we could makes Sousuke tremble with desperate rage. He stops struggling just long enough for his captor to loosen her hold, then dives underneath her arms and makes a beeline for the dog. The shaggy tail comes up to wag excitedly for a second before Sousuke is seized by one hand, then the other, and frustration shoots to a new high when he understands that he can't outrun the adults. Helplessly he has to watch the warden holding the dog by the collar to lead it away and around the house, out of his sight, and his thoughts spin out of control at the lack of perspective. There's pressure on his arms again when the supervisor drags him along, dodging his kicking feet and cursing with surprising creativity when he bolts around and bites her hand just like the dog bit his what seems like months ago. She deserves it more than he did, Sousuke is sure of it, and he doesn't let go until she starts swatting at his head with her free hand. Yelping, he tumbles into the snow, stumbles to his feet and tries to take off after the dog's barks he can still hear in the distance, but the woman is on him within seconds. She's angry, he notices, face blotchy with nervous spots and hands shaking. His bite didn't draw blood, but she still favors that hand when she grabs him by the collar and brings her face close to his.

„You should be the one we're putting down,“ She hisses, and her voice is dripping venom, „How dare you lecture us on what kind of killing is acceptable. You're the one who killed your own parents, you're the one who made his own sister an orphan! I don't care how you did it, but I know that you did.“ She draws back to get a better look at him, eyes him up and down, and there's a dangerous glint to her eyes. Mad, Sousuke thinks in a last attempt to keep the lid on his own demons. She's entirely mad. He knows too well that angry people will say things they'll regret later but he has trouble imagining this nasty person could ever regret her resentment. Also– „Normally the catchers only pick up the animals to drop them off at a shelter. In this case though – I think we'll make sure he's put down. That's one worthless life I can get rid of.“

Sousuke doesn't know how the flip is switched or if there's anything he could have done to stop it. In retrospect he's sure he wouldn't have, even if he'd had the chance. She deserves this, he decides before his brain clocks out. He spins, reaches for whatever skin he can find and digs his fingers into it. For a moment there's no reaction, just a pitiful look from above at a child's furious struggles, then the darkness slithers up through his stomach, fills the void in his chest and seizes his hands. Black drips into the pristine blanket nature has covered the garden with, soaks through clothes and into skin. There's a screech from the supervisor, then her hands let go of him, but he isn't done. His palm is closed around her wrist and he can feel the bones yield to his darkness. The other hand is pressed against her hip where liquid black is soaking through her jacket. The void seems to consume Sousuke entirely, and he revels in the quiet, doesn't hear the screams or the barks suddenly filling the yard again. His mind is a blank space, dark and soothing, but he's violently torn from it when a pain he's felt before rips into one of his hands.

Blinking rapidly, Sousuke tries to regain focus but doesn't manage to grasp the scenery before him at first. The supervisor, slumped in the snow, harsh breaths tearing from her body, the second warden who must have returned with the dog, wide eyes fixed on Sousuke's hand still holding onto the woman's jacket, the black oozing into the snow. He lets go, eyes following the trails of black dying the snow like ink until he finds the dog, jaws closed around his hand and dripping darkness. Startled, he tries to withdraw his hand but finds it locked by teeth, and it takes him two attempts to relax enough for the dog to release his vicious hold on Sousuke. For a frightening moment Sousuke is afraid he's infected the dog, spread the darkness into his body when his hand was caught in its jaws, but the hesitantly wagging tail calms him a little. The remaining black seems to withdraw with Sousuke's hand, and he slumps back into the snow, heart racing.

There's a soft thumping noise when Asahi slips from the windowsill, nimbly rolling through the snow before leaping to his feet. He bounds through the yard, eyes trained on the supervisor who's drawn a phone from her jacket and is talking rapidly into it. With a nervous glance at her back he sidesteps around her and kneels with Sousuke and the dog. His auburn eyes are locked on Sousuke's hands when he slides closer, anxiety evident in the way he keeps more distance than he normally would. He gestures at the blood seeping through Sousuke's fingers and shakes his head with a decisive „Nurse, Soske. Hafta see nurse.“

Sousuke nods at him. He's feeling drained now that the anger is gone, long minutes spent in the cold finally catching up to his small body, and he can't stand to look at the body lying in the snow. She's not dead, he realizes numbly when he sees her foot twitch from the corner of his eye, but she's also not alright. A part of him feels satisfied, complacent, and it scares him to even think about it. Terrible words caused this escalation, just like before, but Sousuke can't convince himself of the righteousness of his own reaction.

When they stagger back into the house, dog trailing behind, they're met with what seems to be every inhabitant of the orphanage. All of them back away to let them pass, and the hallway is silent when the trio makes their way to the nurse.

She refuses to treat Sousuke, face deathly pale as she stumbles as far back as she possibly can until her back collides with the bookshelf by the window. She saw, Sousuke realizes with a sinking feeling, just like all the others. The boys are left to treat the bite wounds by themselves. Asahi looks hesitant to touch Sousuke for a moment but is persuaded by the dog licking his fingers. He's the one cleaning the tears, covering them with a variety of band-aids Asahi always has a whole stash of. When Sousuke's hand is dressed to the best of their abilities, the boys sit on the windowsill, window closed to keep out the cold, and watch the paramedics strap the supervisor's body to a gurney. Traces of black paint her silhouette into the snow even after she's gone, and for a while the children are left alone.
The manager comes to their room in the evening, flanked by two men in what looks to be protective clothing, reinforced on shins and forearms. They take the dog away. Sousuke is moved to a separate room that is barely more than a storage room, with a single futon and a foldable desk and chair leaning on the walls. It has no window.

He's locked up during the night, eats after general meal times and spends his free time cleaning under constant supervision. They don't let him talk to Asahi, don't let him see the psychologist anymore. He wakes from nightmares every night, drenched in cold sweat, unable to wash himself until they unlock the door in the morning. The supervisor doesn't return.

-

Sousuke bears with the disciplinary measures, as they call it, for two weeks, then he doesn't go back to the orphanage after school. Instead he takes off on foot after waving Kisumi goodbye, slinking into the shadows after the first crossroads. It's the second time he's on the streets alone, barely older than the first time he ran off, but this time he's set his mind on staying away. He packed extra lunch in the morning and he's warm with his winter uniform and jacket. For a couple hours he wanders aimlessly, curious to explore and relieved to breathe the air of freedom for a while. When his stomach starts making itself known, Sousuke finds a secluded doorway leading into an apartment building to sit in. He has lunch after the sun sets and feels strangely rebellious for it.

Night falls faster than expected and Sousuke realizes belatedly that he doesn't know where to sleep, so he roams around the streets and tries to stick to the areas lit by lanterns. His breath hitches when a row of trash cans clank on the opposite side of the road, but the lean form dashing from the space between the bins a moment later is that of a cat. Relieved, Sousuke trudges onwards and almost bumps into a tall boy. He stumbles back and apologises, but the stranger doesn't seem mad. He regards him with curiosity, his eyes an odd shade of green that reminds Sousuke of a grove of limetrees in spring. His skin is almost as pale as the snow, but he seems full of energy when he looks around and cocks his head to the side with a gentle smile.
„Hey, I've never seen you around here,“ The boy greets, „How old are you? You seem very young to be out alone at this hour.“
There's a beat of silence between them when Sousuke eyes the stranger up and down and the other boy seems to realize that he doesn't look of age himself, even though he's clearly older than Sousuke. Nothing about the guy seems threatening to Sousuke, so he decides to humor him and replies, „I'm eight, but I'm fine by myself. Are you?“

The boy gapes at him for all but the blink of an eye before bursting out into a hearty laugh. His voice is just as nice as his eyes, Sousuke thinks. The remaining tension drains from the other boy's shoulders and he nods with a wide grin. „I spend all my nights outside, so I know where to walk and what areas to avoid. I also know I haven't seen you before.“ He buries both hands in the pockets of his coat before turning to nod further down the road. „Do you want me to walk you home?“
Sousuke almost considers accepting the offer until he realizes he doesn't have a place he calls home anymore, and he's certainly not going back to the orphanage tonight. Regretfully he shakes his head and walks past the stranger, but he turns back to look at him again. „I'll be alright, thank you. You should probably go out by day too, your face looks like it could use the sun.“ Again there's laughter, and Sousuke misses the wistful way the other boy looks at the moon before huffing his confirmation.
„You make sure you get inside quickly, okay?“ He calls after Sousuke, „It's going to get colder within the next few hours. A blizzard is supposed to hit tomorrow, and you don't want to be outside when the storm arrives.“ Sousuke waves over his shoulder and digs deep into his pockets to keep his hands warm. He takes a turn to get out of the boy's view as quickly as possible.

Walking becomes tiring with time, and Sousuke aches for his bed, any bed really, long before the moon reaches its peak. He's starting to wonder where he's even going and how he will sleep without a futon or even a roof for shelter when he finds a closed bakery. The entrance is framed by a small hallway leading to the backyard and Sousuke manages to fit into the corner of the door frame, legs drawn up to his chest to ward himself against the wind. Face pressed to his knees, he tries to relax, but sleep doesn't come. Nightmares find him before dreams do, and his eyes fly open to every little sound. The flurries of snow that rush past the doorway create a howling noise in the tunnel, there's crunches from the walls and groans from the building above. The cold crawls into Sousuke's clothes and makes him shiver, joints aching after just minutes of sitting. The night feels endless and Sousuke only realizes he's fallen asleep when he's woken by a knee nudging his leg.

A man's face hovers above him, eyes wary, and they widen when Sousuke looks up. „A child,“ The man breathes, clearly surprised, before he stretches past Sousuke and unlocks the door to the bakery. It's still dark and Sousuke shies away when a switch clicks inside and light floods from the store. He blinks, tries to adjust, and is met with the stranger's face once again. „Come in, kid, you'll freeze yourself to death out here.“

Hesitantly Sousuke looks around. It's still snowing, white piling on the sidewalk, on cars and branches, and he can feel the warmth pouring out of the bakery. It seems welcoming, warm and bright, and the man looks honestly concerned with his wellbeing. Maybe he even has a chance of getting breakfast in there, but memories of his parents' voices sneak to the front of his mind, warning him against trusting strangers, and suddenly the bakery seems like a trap. Sousuke flees, sprints down the street as quickly as his tired legs will carry him, and the movement chases the lingering cold from his limbs.

The sun rises and falls, and while Sousuke is trying his best to avoid people, his belly starts opposing him. He's hungry, and by the end of the second day he finds himself digging through the trash cans he saw the cat in the other night. It's gotten colder, just like the older boy from the other night predicted, and snow is falling from heavy clouds as the wind whips through the streets.

Sousuke finds the frozen half of an apple and drops it into his coat's pocket to let it warm up, but turns away from the trash cans when the smell of rotten fish burns his nostrils. Fingers cold from digging through the trash, Sousuke buries them deep in his pockets as he trudges through the snow, stomach growling with every step. Memories of easier times flood his mind and he feels a lump rise in his throat when he remembers his mother's Tonkatsu. His father used to say her cooking was the reason he married her, and Sousuke can hear the ring of his mother's laugh inside his head. He misses them, has missed them every day since arriving at the orphanage, and he's still having trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that he won't see them again.
He spends this night squeezed between a picket fence and a large fir tree, branches warding him against the flurries of snow rushing by. Sleep doesn't come easy, even though Sousuke is exhausted, but his belly keeps rumbling with complaints about how half an apple is not an appropriate meal for a growing boy. When his eyes finally droop, dreams claim him before he can defend himself.
He's a grown man again, visiting a potential new partner to build him – what, exactly? Sousuke sees the same scrolls his older self regarded so critically the last time he dreamed of this odd version of himself, threatening and dark, but oh so carefree. A small part of his subconscious is alert enough to register how much he desires this general state of mind, the lack of worry, the unconditional confidence.
Older Sousuke meets a man clad in a leather apron and gloves who wields a sledge-hammer like it's no heavier than a spoon, and he's immediately taken with the red-head's aptitude at casting long and short poles from metal that he sets up against the wall to cool down. It's obvious that this is a craftsman, a go-getter who will not wait for orders but take the steps he deems necessary, and Sousuke likes it. They discuss a potential deal in which Sousuke keeps the upper hand, and this time it's not in French but something Sousuke hasn't heard before but still understands perfectly. He identifies the words as Russian, wondering how he even knows that. They shake hands to seal their deal, and Sousuke notices they both keep their gloves on. When he wakes, Sousuke doesn't remember much, but he does remember the way the leather gloves felt against his skin, and his hands feel naked in his pockets.

The storm is still howling around the trees, shaking snow from the heavy branches Sousuke is covered by, and he decides it's time to leave when a lump of snow hits the back of his head. He shivers, nose running from the cold. A bed would be bliss, just like any sort of warm food, he thinks, and doubles over when a wave of pain rolls through his stomach. Only now does he realize that he hasn't stopped shaking, his fingers are clammy in his pockets. The runny nose seems less like a reaction to the cold and more like a symptom of a beginning cold now, and Sousuke hunches his shoulders to try and keep his head shielded against the icy wind when he slips back into the streets. For another day he wanders, aimlessly, and he grows weaker by the hour. He eats snow to give his mouth something to do and because he's even more thirsty than he is hungry by this point.

A crow starts chasing him when dusk turns the grey clouds purple over the horizon and Sousuke halts twice to stare at it, wondering idly if it expects him to have food. He shrugs helplessly. „I have nothing to share. You should look elsewhere.“ The crow keeps following him. When it slows down, Sousuke turns to see where it's gone and hurries back at the sight of the bird's head drooping. Immediately he feels guilty, wonders if he should have had something to feed it with in the first place. The crow doesn't try to flee. Instead it waits for him to come back, swaying left and right with a lack of balance Sousuke doesn't understand. What he does understand with a sudden sense of clarity is the expression on the crow's face – have birds always been so expressive? – as it looks up at him, blinks sluggishly and falls over onto its side. Sousuke kneels, hesitates for a second but bends over to touch the bird's dark plumage. It's too cold, he thinks, too cold for any living being. The crow blinks at him once more, beak opening as if to take a heavy breath, then it goes still. Sousuke tries to encourage it to get up again, wraps it in his hands and even untucks his scarf to try and warm the bird, but it's no use. Miserable, he puts it back down. For a couple more minutes he sits next to it, sheltering it against wind and snow, but when the crow remains lifeless, he finally gets up. Hands shaking with cold and sad acceptance, he shovels a few handfuls of snow over the small body, then he stands. It's only a matter of time until he freezes as well, he thinks, but doesn't have a solution other than moving on.
When a car pulls up to him after nightfall that day, Sousuke barely notices. He keeps walking, legs shaking in his snow-drenched pants, and only notices that somebody is following him when a familiar voice shouts over the storm, „Sousuke! Sousuke, come back!“

He turns and hides his face in his scarf when it is met with a gust of freezing air and snow. For a moment he can't see who called after him, but if he were to make a guess he'd expect Miss Amakata to come plodding through the snow. And sure enough, her slender form emerges from the snow flurry after a moment, face red from the cold and bearing an expression Sousuke recognises as relief. „Sousuke, what are you doing? We've been so worried! Come back to my car, I'll take you home.“

A small laugh forces its way out of Sousuke's throat. It sounds hoarse, which seems fitting after two nights spent outside mid-winter. „I don't have a home,“ He replies. His chest feels sore, like he's torn the words from deep down, and he tries to clear his throat before giving up. Shoulders slumping, Sousuke nods slowly. He's too cold to fight, too hungry to really want to stay out much longer. Without resistance, he allows Miss Amakata to take him back to her car and drive them through the city. It's warm in the car, more sheltered than Sousuke expected to ever feel about a vehicle, and he falls asleep within seconds.

-

He's punished with cleaning duty for another two weeks after recovering from his cold. For days he's miserable, and he almost regrets running away. Almost.

Asahi celebrates him like a hero whenever they get the chance to chat, and Sousuke tells him about the strange boy roaming the streets at night, about the bakery and his weird dream. A few times he has to interrupt, either to explain something in easier words – or to cough. Asahi is surprisingly patient when it comes to these talks, keen on having somebody speak to him like a normal person and eager to learn. He understands more than Sousuke would have expected, as long as he words things carefully or pronounces them more clearly than he normally would, and it's satisfying to see Asahi's face light up when he listens.

Miss Amakata puts in a word for Sousuke when he chases her down for the third time in a week and asks for a set of gloves to wear in- and outside, and the manager agrees to buying him a pair in exchange for his word on not running away again. Sousuke himself isn't quite sure he wants to keep his promise, but he's willing to agree on almost anything as long as he gets what he wants. His new gloves aren't leather, but they're soft and comfortable, and he starts wearing them immediately. Unsurprisingly, the other children eye him even more warily when he shows up with the new addition to his appearance, looks lingering on his hands. Sousuke finds he doesn't mind, he feels oddly safe with his gloves on.

Asahi sneaks to his room more frequently these days. He's received a new seat of earphones that he shares with Sousuke, and they sit and listen to music for hours until the supervisors come to shoo Asahi back to his own room. Asahi's taste in music is still an atrocity to Sousuke, but he appreciates his friend's stubborn insistence on visiting him, even though he has to climb in through the window more often than not because the supervisors have locked the door. Their shared hours are a pleasant bubble of happiness in the overall horror of daily life, and they become even more precious when the amount of aggression against them increases again. It almost seems like the majority of children at the orphanage has been waiting for things to calm down to provide them with a cover of peace in their undertaking, and Sousuke finds himself pinned against a wall almost every day of the week. There's no support from the adults, and so the boys fight back to the best of their abilities, but they lose most of the time, spending the rest of their afternoon patching each other up.

School becomes a mine field when Sousuke's classmates decide he's even weirder with his gloves on, and they try to steal them from him. Two boys hold him while a girl Sousuke only knows as the squeaky voice from the back of the classroom tugs at his fingers. He fights the boys' hold but only manages to free himself when his shoulder crashes into a chin. Cursing, one of the boys releases him, and the second harasser dodges off to the side to avoid Sousuke's fist. The girl backs away quickly, but a teacher approaches in her stead. Sousuke spends that afternoon in detention and receives more bullying for it the next day.

For weeks he bears with the constant harassment, ducking whenever he rounds a corner because he expects a fist swinging at his head, whipping around when somebody speaks up because he's prepared for their abuse. He tries to avoid the arguments wherever possible, walks back when he sees them approach and seeks the supervisors' company for protection. Asahi is on edge most of the time too, fingers anxiously twisting the wire of his earphones until one day, one of the boys at the orphanage tears it apart in one of their brawls. The children laugh and Sousuke can feel the mood shift when Asahi rears up next to him. The red-head is smaller than Sousuke, but at this moment he seems incredibly tall and imposing. Anger radiates from Asahi's whole body before he throws himself at the boy who destroyed the precious item, screaming at the top of his lungs. They win that day. The bully spends four days at the hospital, but his friends make a point of picking up where he left off.

The quarrels become more violent, leaving the boys bruised and bleeding more often than not, and Sousuke finally stops trying to avoid a physical approach. He throws himself into the fist fights, faring poorly until Asahi takes him outside one day in spring and presents him with bandages. Surprised, Sousuke tilts his head at his friend until Asahi steps forward and starts wrapping Sousuke's hands with the bandages. „Boxing,“ Asahi proclaims proudly, like he's had a brilliant idea, and for a moment Sousuke is baffled, but when Asahi wraps his own hands the same way he did Sousuke's, the pieces fall into place.

„You want us to fight each other?“ Sousuke asks, bewildered, and Asahi nods eagerly. „Boxing. Train now,“ He confirms. His eyes are bright with excitement, and Sousuke realizes that Asahi has been looking forward to this. For a moment he is insecure, unwilling to risk either of them getting hurt by each other. They're beaten up on a daily basis and Sousuke doesn't see the necessity to add to that. Hesitant at first, he eyes his bandaged hands, but gives into the urge to blow off some of his pent-up frustration quickly when Asahi comes at him with a surprisingly nimble right hook.
Both boys are drenched in sweat and covered in dirt by the time they finish their 'training', as Asahi calls it, and Sousuke revels in the feeling of quiet satisfaction that claims his body when the exhaustion sets in. Asahi is still bouncy as ever, but he takes a moment to study Sousuke's face before unwrapping the bandages from his hands and nodding eagerly. „Feel better,“ He exclaims and raises an elbow to point at Sousuke, then cocks his head to the side and grins. „Me too.“

Boxing becomes their favorite hobby over the next weeks, and unless the weather turns the garden into a mud hole they spend their afternoons exhausting their energy in controlled fights. Soon their brawls with the other children become more balanced, and when Asahi knocks a boy unconscious after being jumped from behind a corner he erupts in cheers for himself that Sousuke joins with a fond grin. He hoists Asahi up onto his back and carries him around the garden like a champion just emerging from the ring. Frequent one-sided assaults turn into evenly balanced matches that leave both boys less bruised and more relaxed on most days. They take punishments enforced by the supervisors in stride, swipe the floors and clean the dishes with minimal complaints and expend their frustration in bouts of hand-to-hand combat afterwards.

It's Sousuke who picks up a knife he just cleaned in the sink one evening and holds it out to Asahi who swings by with his broom to curiously tilt his head at the piece of cutlery. „Soske angry?“ He wonders aloud, and Sousuke snorts around a smile.
„I'm not angry,“ He assures but keeps the knife raised between them, „We should be blood brothers.“ The knife isn't particularly sharp, but it's the keenest edge Sousuke could find among the bunch he's been drying. Asahi's eyes widen comically at the idea of cutting himself, and he nervously bites his lips around a decision before finally offering a hand to Sousuke. The knuckles of his second hand go white around the broomstick, but he holds still as Sousuke slides the knife along his thumb and brings it up against the pad of his own finger to slice into it just enough to draw blood. Briefly he brings the cuts together and presses them against each other before moving to slip the knife back into the sink. When he turns back, Asahi is staring at his own thumb in wonder, then glances up at Sousuke. His nervous face splits open to reveal a blinding grin, and he charges at Sousuke to throw an arm around his shoulders.

„Brother!“ He exlaims, and they bump into each other's shoulders for a moment before a supervisor bursts through the doors and stares at them in exasperation.

„Cut out the noise.“ She shakes her head at the animated scene and turns away too quickly to catch Sousuke mouthing, „We'll cut it alright“ behind her back. Asahi is confused for all but the blink of an eye, then Sousuke waves his thumb at him and his face brightens in understanding. Together they laugh for the rest of their chores, then wash off what little blood the shallow cuts have leaked and slip back into Asahi's room to listen to music for the rest of the evening.

Chapter Text

-

"When you're messing with hellfire, angels turn to anarchy." - Midnight Mouths (Lauren Aquilina)

-

Life at the orphanage gets easier with passing time, and Sousuke's dreams become less frequent along the way. Sometimes he wakes, startled by vivid images of a tall man clad in black haunting his mind, and forgets what even scared him in the first place before he can remember it entirely. He writes letters to Anissa and makes Miss Amakata promise to send them to her but never quite believes she gets a single one of them. She doesn't reply, and Sousuke stops writing after the third winter rolls around and he hasn't received a single letter in return. Homework and chores keep him busy, sparring with Asahi makes him fall asleep within seconds after hitting the pillow every night. He's still homesick but refuses to admit it when Miss Amakata asks him how he's doing one morning. She still checks in with him regularly.

Asahi starts confronting the adults whenever they try and exclude him from a conversation, throwing a wild mix of actual words and made-up curses at them until they give in and try to explain what they're talking about. Sometimes he will ask Sousuke about single words later, making sure he understood them correctly and adding to his vocabulary. Sousuke feels a distinct sense of pride when Asahi delivers a small speech of his own on his twelfth birthday. The majority of the older children at the orphanage still shun the two boys, but the smaller ones look up to Asahi after witnessing him standing his ground to a much taller boy who tried to steal a young girl's pocket money. A small fan club flocks around their every step after that, and the children come asking for help whenever there's somebody bothering them. Asahi is all too happy to step in and put the bullies in their place.

His vocabulary has improved to the point where he'll help the younger children with their homework on good days and swear colorfully at the bullies on bad ones, but his hearing disability disqualifies him for the middle school Sousuke is required to go to after the summer. At first neither of the boys is too concerned with attending separate schools, content with spending their evenings together as they always have been. It's not until two weeks before summer break that Sousuke learns Kisumi will not attend the same school he is going to in September. Their achievements at school are similar, yet Kisumi's family is moving by the end of July and his way to the new school would be too far to manage every day.

September rolls around and Sousuke finds himself unnerved with the amount of new faces. The majority of his classmates are strangers, the teachers wear formal suits and unknown names. He's required to join a club and finds he doesn't like a single one of them without at least one friend to join him. In the end he settles for the Judo Club, hoping desperately that the familiar environment of hand-to-hand matches will help him settle in.

It doesn't. In fact, the club's activities revolve more around spiritual education and less around fighting. Sousuke starts skipping the club two weeks into the semester. An invisible barrier keeps him from his classmates, and soon he learns why the teachers seem to eye him critically whenever he rounds the corner: The few who know him from grade school are all too happy to share stories about their former classes, and Sousuke hears his own name pop into those conversations at least once a day. Students he hasn't even talked to start avoiding him and the girl sitting next to him switches seats with a sick classmate.

On his birthday, Sousuke gifts himself with a free day, riding the train into the city center where he goes window-shopping for the greater part of the morning. It becomes a habit he indulges in once a month, then twice per week. The pocket money he receives from the orphanage manager once a month is spent on lunch he would have otherwise had at school, and Sousuke finds himself craving money for the first time in his life. He looks for jobs hiring students but is dismissed as too young everywhere he goes.

When he bumps into a tall teenager one late afternoon, he apologises with a quick nod and turns to walk back to the train station but is stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder. Surprised, he looks up and finds himself under the scrutiny of brown eyes darting along the emblem etched into his school uniform, the pants that are too short for his ever growing legs and his fingers readily curled into fists, should the stranger have bad intentions. For a moment the looming presence of the other boy feels threatening, and Sousuke is gazing down the alley he was walking before being halted in search of an escape, when the older teen straightens his shoulders and sketches a bow.

„Hey. You're looking for a job?“ His voice is surprisingly deep, he must be significantly older than Sousuke who is only just starting to feel the scratching in his throat that will change his voice soon.
Sousuke hoists his bag up on one shoulder, hesitant to answer, but fails to see why he should lie. Slowly he nods, fingers anxiously climbing his thigh to curl around the waistband of his pants. „Yes. Why?“ The other boy claps his hands, seemingly delighted, and nods eagerly in return. „Good, good. I have a job for you, if you want it.“

For a moment Sousuke is taken aback, wants to accept immediately, but then reality catches up with him. „How do you know?“ He asks warily. It's not like he's wearing a neon sign reading I need a job as he walks.

The other boy's smile is wide and genuine. „I get around a lot. You've been asking at every store in the vicinity during the last week.“ He tilts his head to one side, and somehow that reassures Sousuke. The gesture reminds him of Asahi. „So, what do you say?“ The brunet flashes another grin. „Give it a try?“

Sousuke's resistance is wilting like the sunflowers in the school's frontyard when he last saw them, and he crosses his arms. „What is this job you're offering?“ He's left wondering how a teenager can offer jobs at all, but it's likely this guy works for somebody else who, in turn, is offering the position.

The hand priorly clasped around his shoulder is extended in greeting. Sousuke eyes it suspiciously, and the other boy laughs. „I'm Natsuya. Don't worry, I'm not going to attack you anytime soon.“ The time limit doesn't serve to calm Sousuke's nerves that have been on end since he was interrupted by this stranger. Finally he takes a step forward and drops his defensive posture, reaching out to take the hand offered to him. Natsuya's handshake is firm and warm. „I'm Sousuke. Tell me about this job.“

Sousuke feels incredibly young next to this stranger with the strong presence. He tries to cover the nervous tremor in his fingers by slipping his hand into the pockets of his uniform. Natsuya doesn't seem to mind. If he noticed, he doesn't let it show. Instead, he turns to walk ahead and waves a hand at Sousuke to follow. When Sousuke catches up with him, he pulls his backpack from one arm and slides it to the front to retrieve an envelope. The glint in his amber eyes is both exciting and unnerving, but Sousuke takes the envelope anyway and turns it over in his hands. There's no address on it, neither originator nor recipient, and he raises a questioning brow at Natsuya. „What is this?“

Natsuya turns to look at him, eyes flickering in the setting sun like a campfire might. His features look so young, Sousuke thinks and mentally slaps himself for it at the same time. Clearly Natsuya is a couple years older than him, and no matter how trustworthy he seems when he's grinning like this, Sousuke can't quite shake the feeling that he should be careful with just how much he tells the other boy. The way they're walking down a quiet alley around the south of the city block instead of following the main road contributes to the feeling of uneasiness coiling low in Sousuke's belly.

„A first task, if you'll take it.“ Natsuya reaches into his backpack again and hands Sousuke another envelope, this one smaller and heavier than the first one. It's unlabeled, just like the other one, but doesn't bear a seal. Hesitantly Sousuke checks the content and finds a small bundle of bank notes inside. He doesn't bother counting to know that this is much more than his pocket money for an entire month. Sousuke's eyes trace the stitches along the base of his right glove's thumb where he had to fix one of the seams and the thread is already coming loose again. He could use new gloves, really, and it's unlikely the manager will grant him extra allowance this month. The talk she called Sousuke into her office for last week after learning he'd skipped Judo again was less than enjoyable.

Sousuke raises his shoulders, debating whether or not he should take money from a stranger and finding he's fighting a losing battle. It's the first time somebody's offered him enough money to afford new gloves, shoes or any piece of clothing really. Usually he's got to rely on what the orphanage has left over from the older teenagers growing out of their clothes, so this is a chance he can't stand to pass up on.

Natsuya's eyes are trained on Sousuke's face, his knowing smile tells Sousuke that he doesn't need to say the words. Again the older boy's hand squeezes Sousuke's shoulder. „Meet me in front of the Ueno Zoo tomorrow at nine and I'll tell you where to take the envelope. If you complete the errand, you're getting the same amount you're already holding a second time.“ Then he takes off, as quickly as he must have been walking when Sousuke bumped into him. Sousuke stares after him for a minute before stuffing both envelopes into his bag and slowly makes his way to the train station.
As Sousuke lies awake staring at the ceiling of his room that night he wonders for the first time if Natsuya crossed his way on purpose.

He meets the other boy at Ueno the next day, as requested, and is provided with an address. Natsuya won't tell him what kind of information the envelope contains, but Sousuke decided he doesn't care as long as he gets the money for it while contemplating his decision to go to the meeting point early that morning. He feels like he didn't even sleep a straight hour last night as nervous jitters were chasing the dreams from his eyelids until dawn's colors were pouring into his room and dripping from his walls. Natsuya seems happy to see him, face glowing with cheerful optimism when he sees Sousuke off.

When Sousuke meets him again two hours later, he receives a small envelope like the one from the day before. It contains exactly the amount of notes he was given before, and he's ready to say his goodbye when Natsuya steps after him. „Hey, wait!“ He calls. „This mission was more like a test than anything. You passed by coming back twice even though you could have kept the first envelope or opened the letter instead. We need honest kids like you, so if you'd like to earn more, we have more errands to run.“

Warily eyeing the envelope he's about to slide into his bag, Sousuke turns back to face Natsuya again. „I think this is enough for me for now, thank you,“ He replies and zips the bag closed as if to protect his reward from being taken away from him. The money he's earned in the last 24 hours will serve him in buying new gloves and a pair of warm boots for the colder months. Whatever kind of business Natsuya is associated with, Sousuke is hesitant to get himself involved more than necessary.

Natsuya seems disappointed but waves him off when they part ways. His face is unreadable when he calls after him. „You'll come back, I'm sure. They all do.“

There's a tingling sense of defiance when Sousuke shrugs off the older boy's words, and he spends the afternoon looking for new gloves after devouring two enormous onigiri for lunch. In the end he settles for a sleek pair made of thin leather, and he's excited to drop the old gloves into his bag and put on the smooth new pair.

Natsuya ends up being right. Sousuke does return to the corner he met Natsuya at two days ago and finds the tall boy waiting there with a smug grin on his face, pulling an unlabeled envelope from his backpack just as he did before. Sousuke carries out two errands that day, then one more the next day. Natsuya insists, on behalf of his employer, that Sousuke go to school at least three times a week so as not to get himself into more trouble than necessary, so they settle for two work days per week. It's always the same unlabeled envelopes Sousuke delivers, but the recipients differ. Natsuya will meet him to hand over an envelope, then check in with him again at another location to provide the matching address. They meet a third time for the reward.

A few weeks after he starts this odd dance, Sousuke finally asks why they need to meet for every step separately. Natsuya's reply leaves him reeling.

„What,“ The boy smirks as he pulls an envelope from his backpack, „Did you think what we're doing is legal?“

In fact, Sousuke didn't waste a single doubt on that idea, and it takes him aback. The prospect of earning more money to buy clothes for himself and do something more satisfying with his time than riding out classes with people who shun him anyway diverted his attention enough to not even consider the legality of his tasks. Sousuke feels entirely too young to be dealing with such questions in the first place, and it must be showing on his face because Natsuya speaks up again, hand raised in a soothing gesture. „It doesn't matter much as long as nobody watches. To make sure people don't recognise us we try and scatter potential clues hinting at what we're doing.“

Still baffled by the revelation, Sousuke dares ask, „What are we doing then?“

Natsuya cocks his head to the side in that particular manner Sousuke is so familiar with and points at the envelope he's still holding. „This? We're conversing with clients.“

That doesn't answer a single one of the questions chasing each other in Sousuke's head, but he nods numbly. „What are they buying?“ He asks again, and that seems to be enough for Natsuya to drop his smile for the first time since Sousuke met him.

„I'll show you when you're a little older.“ His tone is still friendly, but insistent. Sousuke takes the envelope, but doesn't put it away. His mind is spinning.

„But,“ He tries again. „You're still pretty young yourself. Why can you know when I can't?“

The amber of Natsuya's eyes hardens and even though it still looks like liquid gold, it's significantly colder than before. „I've been doing this job long enough to know you shouldn't be dealing with this yet.“ He seems impossibly tall again, and Sousuke pushes the envelope into his bag, crinkling one corner in the process. Natsuya's eyes flash with irritation, but he sighs and all of a sudden he seems more concerned than threatening. „You're 15 at best. This is not a road you should be walking yet.“

Sousuke doesn't understand, doesn't know why his age is so important, but he realizes he won't get more answers by pushing further today, so he doesn't ask again.

He gets less errands when winter falls, as Natsuya insists he only work during the day. Sousuke still manages to add to his wardrobe with two new pairs of shoes, a warm jacket he drags along on his way home to make the supervisors believe he found it outside and a new set of headphones for Asahi that they paint red together to make them look like the old ones. Asahi is both excited and confused as to how Sousuke managed to buy them, but he gives up on asking when Sousuke shows him the surround sound feature. For the following four days Asahi walks around the orphanage with his headphones as a permanent addition to his appearance, shouting with glee whenever the surround effect kicks in, and Sousuke forgets about his doubts regarding the nature of his work.

Sousuke is almost 14 when Natsuya finds out about his real age, and he's shaken at first, then impressed. Exasperated, he pushes at the unruly strands of dark hair tickling Sousuke's brows before he takes him to get a hair cut. „You should have told me,“ He accuses, brows furrowed as he watches the hairdresser's every move. „I wouldn't have let you work for us if I'd known.“

Sousuke chuckles and waves his concerns off. „It's good I didn't tell you then. Besides, I thought you knew. You'd been watching me for days before you hit me up.“

There's a dramatic sigh before Natsuya seems to decide the matter is not worth arguing over and nods in defeat. „Fair enough,“ He says, „But you'll take your birthday off. You have to.“ When Sousuke glares at him, Natsuya offers one of the wide smiles Sousuke is sure have convinced more girls to go out with him than he can count. „I'll take you out for lunch instead, okay? And how about the movies? There's an American thriller I want to see.“

For a moment Sousuke is stunned into silence, eyes locked on Natsuya's face in the mirror until the hairdresser gently pushes his face into the position she needs to keep cutting his hair. „I haven't been to the movies in... too many years,“ Sousuke finally admits when the lump in his throat has shrunk enough for him to speak.

Natsuya answers with a quick squeeze to his shoulder and crosses his arms with a look of satisfaction on his face. „It's settled then.“

-

The actual line of his work is revealed to Sousuke when he turns 16. He's just entered high school, barely scraping past expulsion for skipping classes in his last year of middle school, and has almost caught up to Natsuya in height. The other boy picks him up near the Imperial Palace one morning and walks him all across Marunouchi to a tall building with glass doors and a front desk that looks like it was probably more expensive than Miss Amakata's car. Sousuke feels distinctly underdressed when a pair of men in black suits leave the elevator, but Natsuya seems unfazed by their dress code. Like it's the most natural thing in the world he walks up to the front desk and greets the girl working there with a bright smile. She nods politely and offers him a key Natsuya uses to call on a second elevator off to the side of the entrance area.

Sousuke realizes belatedly that the elevator is taking them down instead of up, and his stomach does an uncomfortable flip at the thought of going underground. Natsuya nudges him with an encouraging grin before the elevator's door pops open with a quiet ring and they walk out.

Two steps into the wide hall, Sousuke stops dead in his tracks. Tall rows of wooden boxes line the corridor, but he can see more rows of boxes to the left and right. For a moment he wonders if he's stepped into a hangar of sorts before remembering he's underground. Natsuya comes back for him and pulls him along on his sleeve, giving him a warning glance Sousuke doesn't understand until they round a corner. The hangar is forgotten when Sousuke lays eyes on a dozen of the wooden boxes with their lids open and at least a handful of men in black shirts retrieving the contents of the boxes and lining them up on long tables at the further end of the hall.

„Weapons,“ Sousuke hears himself breathe, and Natsuya shoots him another look of warning, but his voice carries well in the open space and the closest of the men looks up.

„Ah, it's the rookie.“ The man barks a laugh, clearly amused by Sousuke baffled expression. „About time I introduce him to the business,“ Natsuya replies and rubs his neck with a quick shrug. „He's been running errands long enough to have met the greater part of our clients in Otemachi and Yarakucho. The boss said we should start letting him do real work.“

Sousuke releases a breath he didn't realise he was holding and nods slowly. „I see why you didn't tell me,“ He admits which earns him another laugh from the man nearby. When one of the other men strides over to them, Sousuke's eyes are locked on his forearms immediately. A dragon curls around his left wrist and up to where it disappears inside the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt, a collection of brightly colored koi covers the other arm. For a moment Sousuke is left wondering if he's imagining things, but Natsuya elbows him in the ribs with a glare. „You're staring.“

Embarassed, Sousuke turns to look at the open boxes and their contents instead, head spinning with the sudden realization that he might be dealing with men who not only deal with weapons but might be, at least in part, Mafia. Natsuya isn't, Sousuke is sure of it, as he's seen him in short sleeves before and there's no obvious marks as there are on the stranger who has taken to discussing the distribution of a specific load of goods with a second man. They step aside and start unpacking a crate that seems to contain light machine guns as far as Sousuke can tell. He's never laid eyes on a real firearm, let alone held one, so he's out of his depth when Natsuya tells him to sort through the Sumitomo crates and make sure to separate the 74s from the 62s.

With a quiet huff, Natsuya talks him through the types of weapons currently packed in the wooden boxes over on their side of the hall and shows how to check the crates for completeness of contents by ticking the goods on the delivery list.

Sousuke spends six weeks packing und unpacking crates and accepting deliveries at the back end of the hall that does, in fact, have a back entrance, until he's sent to make his first personal delivery. Natsuya tags along to supervise his work but stands back after initial greetings are exchanged with the client. Sousuke unpacks the unremarkable gym bag they transport the weapons in and showcases each of the goods to the client before letting them sign the delivery note. A quick slip of a sleeve and Sousuke knows who he's dealing with. He averts his eyes quickly enough for nobody to notice his curious glances and swallows against the nervous excitement clogging up his throat. It's odd, he thinks when they leave the place and Natsuya elbows him with a proud grin, how he feels like these criminals treat him more like a human being than the ones supposed to take care of him ever did.

In the following months he learns everything about the different types of weapons, their ammunition and mechanisms. He picks up that the businessman in Otemachi he ran errands for every week actually orders dozens of M67 Grenades while an elderly senior he only met once prefers Machine Pistols that are by law forbidden to be handled by anyone other than Special Forces, and he understands that appearance alone cannot be judged.
It's on his first delivery in the new year that he's stopped by an ordinary passenger car that turns out to be an undercover police patrol. They find and confiscate the small leather bag full of Claymore mines along with the delivery note that doesn't contain any information on who he set out to deliver to, and Sousuke refuses to comment. He's released on probation and offers a wide smile to the officer he remembers from the investigation surrounding his parents' death. The man looks like he'd love nothing more than to lock Sousuke up on the spot, but he walks away with nothing more than a duty to report to his parole officer once a week.

When he returns to the orphanage this weekend, Asahi greets him with the greatest display of respect Sousuke thinks he's ever seen him use towards anyone, bowing deeply and chattering on about something weapon-related he's not sure even Asahi understands. Miss Amakata is less excited about his probation and warns him to take his compulsory education more seriously, but Sousuke doesn't pay her much mind. The next day sees him making deliveries again, and Natsuya takes him out for dinner as a reward for not selling anyone out to the police.

Sousuke's tasks change after his first encounter with the police for firearm possession. He's sent to secure business deals with new clients or to reacquire those who dropped off the radar. It doesn't take him long to realize that this line of work is different from what he did before. More unpredictable. More risky. He breaks a nose and two fingers during his first month of dealing with the new clients, but he secures almost a dozen new deals in stride.

-

When he walks back to the train station late one night after a meeting with two potential new clients, a quiet click is all the warning he gets before a bullet sings past his left ear. Quickly he ducks out of the way, dropping the brief case he's carried today's offer in and rolling to hide behind a small car. The sharp sting pulsing through his ear and the heat seeping down the side of his neck is all the evidence he needs to know he's been hit, but he isn't sure who shot at him or why. As he's still contemplating how to get away without taking more shots, a familiar voice calls down the street.

„Why don't you pick a target of equal skill if you have to pick one at all?“ Sousuke's head snaps around to find Natsuya walking around the corner, weapon at the ready. He's striding along the sidewalk with an air of natural confidence that makes Sousuke wonder if his reckless approach isn't raw calculation, and he's proven right when he hears multiple feet scurrying away in the direction the shot aimed at him came from. While Natsuya squats next to him and tips his head to the right side to get a look at his ear, Sousuke listens intently to the noise from the alley two blocks over. Shouting, frustrated curses, then a shot that sounds like it hit metal instead of flesh.

Three of the men Sousuke knows from his work at the warehouse emerge from the shadows after a moment, discussing with their voices lowered so as not to alert anyone to the topic. They draw closer. Quickly Sousuke gathers that the four men followed him before he even met the clients to ensure nothing could go wrong - „Can't risk a kid's life,“ One of them quips but frowns when he catches sight of Sousuke's ear. „Damn, they got you after all. Can you fix him up?“ The three of them look to Natsuya and Sousuke follows. His ear stings, the shell burning with what must be a tear from the bullet, but Sousuke is too relieved to realize the trio chased his attackers off into the night to care much about the wound. They could have hit him straight in the head, and Sousuke doesn't want to imagine the bullet connecting with his temple instead of an ear.

Natsuya's face is shrouded in shadows when he speaks. His voice is more quiet than Sousuke has ever heard it, and he sounds angry. „I'll take him to Nao.“ Sousuke has no idea who Nao is, but the other men nod in unison. One of them picks up Sousuke's brief case and they all give his shoulder a brief squeeze before taking off. Sirens are drawing closer, so Natsuya urges Sousuke to his feet and leads him through the smaller alleys around the back side of a plaza nearby. It's dark and Sousuke's vision is slightly tilted due to holding his head slanted to the left. Blood is still trickling along his ear and down his neck and the thought of letting it enter his ear is disgusting enough for Sousuke to risk his balance. Natsuya curses quietly as they walk, and at first Sousuke thinks he's angry at him for getting blindsided like he did, but when he catches one of the wary looks Natsuya is throwing around, he recognises the guilt in his eyes. It's the same guilt Sousuke has been met with so often when he's looked in the mirror.

„Hey,“ He tries, successfully, to draw Natsuya's attention. „It's not your fault. I should have noticed them earlier.“ Natsuya's brown eyes are narrowed, but the haunted expression he directs at Sousuke is one of regret. He doesn't reply but trudges on in silence.

They stop in front of a door in Ebisu, the building high with a neatly trimmed front yard and silver nameplates. Natsuya's finger hovers over one reading 'Serizawa' for the blink of an eye, barely noticeable, before pressing the button down. The ring of the bell is quiet, as is the voice calling through the intercom. „Who's this?“

This time Natsuya's reaction is more visible, and Sousuke stares at him when he sucks in a gulp of air and bites down on his lip. For a second he doesn't seem sure he wants to answer, but ends up pushing the button for the intercom for several seconds before he speaks up. „It's Natsuya. I need your help.“

The person on the other end – Nao, Sousuke guesses – sighs quietly, and it's not clear if it's a sigh of exasperation or relief, but the door buzzes with an invitation to come on in. Quickly they slip into the house – carpet lines the hallway, and Sousuke wonders briefly just how much money somebody has to pay to live in a house like this – and climb the stairs to the second floor where the right-hand door is already open. Natsuya seems nervous as he walks ahead and right into the bright corridor. He lets Sousuke in, who stops dead in his tracks when a slender boy steps around the door to close it. „You're–“ Baffled, Sousuke watches the young man lock the door behind them before he turns around. „You're the boy I met that night.“

He's even paler than Sousuke remembers him, his skin the lightest shade of pink Sousuke has ever seen, hair snowy white in the shine of the overhead light. The boy moves to reply something, but Natsuya steps up between them. Sousuke can't see his face anymore, but the pale boy – Nao? – watches him with the corners of his mouth tilted in amusement.

„What brings you here?“ he wonders, bright green eyes locked on Natsuya's hands that are gesturing over his own shoulder. „He does,“ Natsuya admits, and Nao's brows furrow. „He was shot.“

Realization dawns on Nao's face. He pushes Natsuya aside with one hand, and while Sousuke is surprised by how easily Natsuya gives in, Nao steps around him to look for the injury. When he finds the wet sheen on Sousuke's black jacket, he pulls him into the middle of the hallway for a clearer look and clicks his tongue in irritation. „Do you all need to get yourselves shot before you understand something might be a bad idea?“ His voice is still quiet, tone soft, but there's an underlying threat to his words that Sousuke doesn't know how to judge.

Nao walks down the corridor and disappears into a room on the left side, calling for the two to follow. Natsuya scratches his head before nodding to Sousuke. They find Nao sifting through a large box of first-aid supplies in the largest bathroom Sousuke has ever seen, and he takes a step back to look around for a moment before Nao waves him over to sit on a stool he drags into the middle of the room with one foot. With practiced ease Nao puts on a pair of glasses and washes his hands at the sink. Sousuke's mind is still supplying memories of the night he saw the boy for the first time, and he can't help asking, „Do you still go out at night?“ which prompts Nao to laugh. He starts cleaning Sousuke's ear, effectively making him go quiet to prevent any more than the occasional whine from leaving his mouth. Sousuke has almost forgotten Natsuya is still there until the brunet boy edges around Nao to seat himself on the tub and watch.

A vague sense of concern settles over Sousuke when he sees Natsuya hand a packaged needle over to Nao who unwraps it carefully. „Hey, are you.. are you a doctor?“

Nao shakes his head, expression falling into something vulnerable for a second before he blinks against the light and the vulnerability is gone. „I'm not,“ he admits, and manages to look unfazed by the fact. „But I've read dozens of books and patched up a handful of idiots often enough in the last years to make me capable enough for this. Try and relax, okay?“ He dabs at Sousuke's ear with something cold. The sting makes his eyes water, and he can already guess where this is going, but doesn't object. The prospect of having to explain just how he got shot to an actual doctor makes him keep quiet even as Nao sets to work a few minutes later. There's a dull throb going along with every careful move Nao makes at the edge of Sousuke's vision, but the pain is well manageable.

Natsuya leans in to get a better look and receives a glare from Nao. „Fine,“ He grumbles and walks over to the door, „I'll find something to drink.“

They can hear Natsuya rummaging about in the adjacent room, and Sousuke tries to focus on the noise he's making until Nao straightens himself. He wipes down the side of Sousuke's neck and tapes something over his ear that feels like a cotton pad. „All done. You should be fine so long as you don't get it infected.“

While Nao proceeds to clean the room, wipes down the sink and throws the wrappers into a small trash bin underneath, Sousuke slowly stands and walks over to where a mirror covers the wall next to the door. He's dirty, likely from diving behind a car and kneeling on the ground for a while, and his hair is matted against the side of his head where blood seeped into it. A patch of gauze covers his ear, and Sousuke realizes belatedly that he could be missing half of it without even knowing, but he wouldn't ask Nao to redo the plaster so he can look at the damage.

„You ran away from home, didn't you?“ Nao's voice startles Sousuke from his thoughts, and he turns to see the boy watching him. „Back then, when you were eight.“
Sousuke snorts a laugh and settles his back against the wall. He's tired from the long day, but the unexpected reencounter has him curious to know more. „Not quite,“ He replies and looks around the wide room, taking in the spotless tub and the various bars of soap stacked on a shelf right next to the window. „I ran away, yes. But it was not a home.“

Nao eyes him carefully as if concerned to scare him away. Hesitant. „You're an orphan.“ It's not a question. Only now does Sousuke notice the soft lilt to his tone, the way his voice rises at every vowel and falls again with the end of a sentence. It's an unusual way to speak, he finds. „Did Natsuya drag you into the business?“ There it is again, the underlying threat despite the gentle tone.

Sousuke is about to answer when Nao shrugs him off, turning to face the door. „Never mind, I don't think I want to know.“ He walks out without another word, joining Natsuya in the other room. His dismissive words leave Sousuke dumbfounded for a moment before he follows.

They stay for a little over an hour. Nao boils water for tea, and they sit in the open living area where tall windows allow for a free view into the vast backyard. When Nao flicks the switch for the overhead light, Sousuke notices the glass is toned, and his eyes dart back to Nao's face. „Are you sensitive to light?“ It all makes sense. The fair complexion, the pale eyes, the glasses. When Nao's fingers climb his chest to pull a silver pendant from his shirt, Sousuke recognises a delicate sun on a plain silver necklace, its curved shape nestled into the crescent of a moon.

„It's the sun I can't handle,“ He replies. His words are heavy, as if there is more meaning to them than Sousuke can grasp, but he accepts the explanation easily. „It burns my skin and my eyes, so–“ There's a hint of amusement in Nao's voice when he continues, „I only go out at night.“

Sousuke can't help but stare at him in surprise. Natsuya huffs quietly, but doesn't comment. His eyes have been locked on the pendant ever since Nao drew it from his clothes, but he slips from the couch to look out of the window now. „You could go out during the day, if you wore sun screen.“

Nao's brows shoot into his hairline, and again Sousuke feels like he's missing the point of a remark. Hesitantly he offers, „Sun glasses should work for your eyes, right?“ Two pairs of eyes are suddenly focused on his face, and he feels heat rising in his cheeks.

Hesitant to speak again, Sousuke gets to his feet and gestures vaguely into the hall. „I should go. They're probably waiting for me anyway.“

It's not a lie, despite being an excuse, and Natsuya insists on walking him back to the train station to make sure he returns safely. Nao sees them off at the front door, features strained with what Sousuke thinks looks like worry. He says nothing when Sousuke and Natsuya say their goodbyes but is still staring after them when Sousuke turns once to look back.

-

Sousuke is met with two angry supervisors and the manager herself that scolds him for being late – again – when he returns to the orphanage. They warn him to stop causing trouble as he is old enough to be tried in court should he slip up like he did before. One of the supervisors takes him to the nurse to have his ear checked, but the nurse approves of the previous treatment and sends him off to bed. He sleeps fitfully, his dreams are shaped like nightmares. Twice does he wake up screaming after watching darkness carve through Asahi's chest and then his own. He's afraid to look himself in the eye the next morning, scared of what he'll see, but there is nothing unusual aside from the white covering his ear. The cooling substance Nao used has worn off halfway through the night, and Sousuke doesn't feel like he wants to face teachers and their questions today.

He wanders idly after skipping past the school's train station, looks at motorbikes displayed in one of the shops' windows and wonders if he'll have enough money to get his driver's license once he's old enough. His gloves come off to eat lunch – a small loaf of naan he's bought at a store near the train station – while he continues his tour along the store fronts. A dog he's seen on his walks before ambles after him, content with joining his stroll along the shop windows. She's wearing a collar, but Sousuke isn't too concerned with the animal's company. Often enough has he had dogs running after him when he was carrying out errands. They come and they leave as they please, and he's happy to share his lunch when they're joining him. Today's company is an old dog who sniffs his pants and wags her tail when he leans down to scratch her ear. Her nose presses into his palm and Sousuke feels his breath hitch when darkness oozes from his fingers. Startled, he withdraws his hand and tucks it into one pocket of his pants, but the dog keeps staring at the bulge his fist creates like she didn't want him to retrieve it.

It's been months since he's last felt the beast rear its head, but now that it looms in his stomach again it's almost like he's missed it. A bark draws his attention to the dog whose eyes are glued to the hand in his pocket edging closer, and Sousuke nudges her with his foot to keep her at a distance. He starts walking again and speeds up his step to try and leave the dog behind. She keeps up, raising her nose high into the air and sniffing it as if she can smell the void. Uneasy, Sousuke leads her across the area in a zigzag pattern, rounding corners and passing through subways in an attempt to lose her.

He's almost back at the school when the dog wheezes behind him and slows down, her legs shaking. Concern for the dog's health drives Sousuke to approach her again. Her eyes are glazed over and her breaths fall flat. Momentarily she staggers, then she raises her eyes to Sousuke's face, whining softly. Sousuke feels his heart race when he kneels next to the dog, supporting her weight with one arm and rubbing small circles into her chest with his second hand. For a moment the dog seems grateful and noses at his hand, then she sways and threatens to fall over. It's a desperate fight, Sousuke realizes before long, and she's losing it. He's not sure what happened, doesn't know why this dog even ran after him in the first place, but he recognises the swaying, the weakness and the desperate need for contact. Years ago he's seen an animal die in a similar manner after chasing after him for a while, and the crow's empty stare haunts his thoughts when the dog's legs finally slacken and she sinks into his arms.

Scared out of his own mind, Sousuke shakes her, tries to get the dark eyes to focus on his face once more, but the dog's breath is getting shorter by the minute. Frantically looking around for any source of support, Sousuke slumps to the ground, the dog in his arms, until he realizes that nobody is there to help him. A weak lick at his hand makes him crane back, eyes widening when he sees his palm weeping darkness again, and he wants to pull back, keep the dog from breathing his shadows in the last moments of her life, but she's stubbornly expending her remaining energy to lap at his hand. The sigh her last breath falls into sounds relieved.

Minutes pass and Sousuke can't take his eyes off the dog's head that is weighing on his palm. Shadows climb her forehead and he swipes at them in anger, trying to keep her safe from himself when there's nothing he can do but hold her body, still warm where she lies against his legs. The blackness seeps into her fur but doesn't burn it, and before long the darkness pulls back and disappears into his hand.

Sousuke keeps watching the dog until he hears somebody call for him and looks up to see a teacher approach him and stop dead in her tracks when she understands what she's walked in upon. Eyes blowing wide, she stumbles back and pulls a phone from her jacket. Sousuke knows he should be running, the scenery must make it seem like he hurt the dog, killed her like he did his parents, and he's not sure if he hasn't really done exactly that. She followed him, breathed the blackness from his hands. Mere minutes afterwards she died in his arms. How is he supposed to prove that he didn't hurt her? How is he supposed to believe it himself?

It's the fifth time in his life Sousuke is taken to a police station. It's the fifth time they ask for an explanation and it's the fifth time he doesn't answer. A short blond man steps in before they can interrogate him further and insists he plead Sousuke's case. Sousuke is confused until Miss Amakata breezes into the room and hands the man a file along with dozens of handwritten notes and he calls her „Darling“. Miss Amakata herself seems overwhelmed for the first time in all the years Sousuke has known her for. She's asked to leave the room as she has no justification to be working on his case anymore.

The blond man introduces himself as Goro Amakata, drawing Sousuke's interest for the first time since he came in. He's an odd person to meet at a police station and Sousuke has trouble imagining him in court, clad in a suit but with his hair dyed and shaven on the sides and a piercing in his brow.

„So,“ Mr. Amakata begins with a nod to Sousuke, „You're the one they call dangerous?“

Sousuke blinks. „Do they?“ He shrugs and looks away.

If this is Miss Amakata's husband, he doesn't want to cause him unnecessary trouble. For all her faults and limits to her possibilities, Miss Amakata has been one of the few adults treating him like a person, like someone worth respecting, after he was orphaned. He's ready to return the favor to her husband.

Mr. Amakata is just as confident as his wife, and more talkative. Sousuke spends the greater part of the afternoon listening to his explanations and suggestions, agrees to let him do the talking in court if it comes to that and even lets him file a signed statement that Sousuke didn't harm the dog in any possible way.

In the end he is released with a penalty that includes 40 hours of community service and restrictions to the free time at his disposal. Nobody can prove violence against the dog, but thanks to the extensive research done for the case, Mr Amakata dug up his rate of absence at school the court now demands punishment for.

Asahi is hooked on the idea of joining Sousuke for his shifts at the retirement home, but Sousuke convinces him to stay behind when he takes up the work there. Having to make dinner for a dozen profoundly deaf people is enough, he laughs and gets an elbow to the small of his back in return. In reality, Sousuke doesn't intend to take up the post. He's got a job, one that is paid well and doesn't involve feeding the elderly. Knowing Asahi, however, he wouldn't be able to do what he's about to do without the red-head tagging along if he knew what Sousuke is up to. So he remains silent.

He meets with the Amakatas twice in the following week. They take him to a restaurant the first time around, then invite him to their house for the second meeting. Both of these evenings make Sousuke forget that he doesn't intend to show up for the scheduled community service at all. They're an odd pair, he finds, bickering back and forth until Miss Amakata whips out one of her infamous proverbs and leaves both Sousuke and her husband staring. Mr. Amakata will agree hesitantly, his face a poor cover for the obvious confusion he eyes her with, then they'll start bickering again. Sousuke finds these meetings amusing, and he has to admit that he even enjoys the time spent discussing his schedule at the retirement home or his attendance at school over dinner.

The Amakatas' house is small but warm in a way Sousuke has almost forgotten exists. They have baked tonkatsu and rice, and Sousuke's mouth waters from the smell alone. It's home made, he learns quickly, when Mr. Amakata praises the panko texture and Miss Amakata flips her hair in an obvious display of pride. Stomachs full and bodies heavy, they sit at the kotatsu to go over possible times for Sousuke's shifts together after dinner.

It's close to midnight when they drop him off at the orphanage, and Mr. Amakata who has offered Sousuke his first name halfway through the paperwork that night crosses his arms when Sousuke unfastens his seatbelt, head cocked thoughtfully to the side. „It's nice,“ He hums, „Having someone so young in the house. Miho has been talking about you for years, and I expected you to be more troublesome.“ Mr. Amakata's – Goro's – laugh is loud and honest. „Maybe you should come over more often.“

Sousuke doesn't know what to say, but he blames the warmth spreading in his belly to the amount of pork cutlet he's had for dinner. Giving a curt nod, he slips from the car but holds the door open for a moment before swinging it closed. „Maybe I'd like that,“ He huffs just as the door closes with a low click. From the corner of his eye Sousuke can see a shock of blond hair tilting to the side when Mr. Amakata tries to catch another look at him, but he turns and walks up to the heavy front door. He doesn't look back.

Against all odds, Sousuke does take up the job at the retirement home. Miss Amakata gives him a lift when she leaves the orphanage to buy groceries and picks him back up after his shift to take him to the Amakatas' house for shared dinner. For the first time in his life Sousuke is trusted with parts of the cooking process, learns to cut onions and to blanch vegetables. Asahi is jealous whenever he returns to the orphanage smelling like fried salmon or miso chicken, and Sousuke manages to sneak him bits and pieces of the excessive dinner without anyone noticing, or so he thinks. When Miss Amakata packs a small box of leftovers one night and hands it to him with a conspiratorial wink he recognises his mistake in assuming he could be secretive in her kitchen.

His hours of community service are tiring and dull, but Sousuke finds he's mostly immune to the elderly's calls and constant misunderstandings. It's only natural, he figures, for a dozen men and women who are either hearing-impaired or so used to dealing with the deaf that their voices are at a natural volume Sousuke would classify as noise. Inwardly he thanks Asahi for unconsciously preparing him for this special kind of torture as he serves tea to a small group of elderly women arguing over their game of Blackjack.

-

When he walks back to the orphanage one night, Sousuke starts feeling an uncomfortable prickling sensation and goose bumps erupt at the back of his neck, like he's being watched. The wind has picked up and the breeze is tickling his skin, cold where it slips into his collar. He's almost reached the subway when he hears steps on the pavement and stops dead in his tracks. The world seems to lapse into silence around him, and Sousuke holds his breath. He half expects an attack and is surprised when the sound picks up again, quiet and even. His mind helpfully supplies a comparison with human footfalls and makes him realize this is not a person following him before he even discerns the tall dog's frame in the dark. Incredulous, he gazes into the dark eyes locked onto his face and rears back.

Too well does Sousuke remember what happened with the last dog that came after him, and the lifeless stare from hazy eyes slips to the front of his mind unbidden. Frantically he closes both hands into fists, digging the nails into his palms to feel the leather buffering the rough touch. It relieves him, knowing that the gloves are there to cover his hands. Still the dog's big eyes bore into his, and it's starting to edge closer, tail swishing left and right in a hesitant attempt to greet him.

Before he knows it, Sousuke is running, feet catching on to where he's headed before his conscious thoughts do. When he leaves the Hibiya line at Ebisu station, he's chased the unbidden images far enough into the back of his head to realize he's close to where he'd met Nao for the first time. With the blood still pounding in his ears, Sousuke focuses on tracking his own movements during that one night eight years ago, and he ends up in front of the alleyway that was housing a group of trash cans back then. Almost does Sousuke expect the slender form of a cat to slip out of the shadows, but the street lies quiet.
Again steps approach, and this time they're clearly human. Sousuke feels his shoulders rise in a silent wish to keep the stranger at bay, but his defenses fall when Nao's quiet tenor reaches his ears.

„Sousuke? What are you doing here?“

Unable to find an explanation that would make sense to anyone but himself, Sousuke digs both hands deep into the pockets of his jacket and shakes his head. „I don't know where Natsuya lives.“

It comes out sounding much more miserable than he intended it to, and Nao's eyes search his face before he sighs softly. „Come on in. It's cold.“

Only now does Sousuke notice the casual clothes wrapping around Nao's slender frame and the untied shoes. He stares over the other boy's shoulder to find the front door to his house open, light pouring into the street. Without hesitation he nods and walks up to the brightly lit doorway, waiting for Nao to go ahead. They slip into the apartment without a word, and Nao shakes the shoes off his feet. Sousuke follows suit.

There's a moment of awkward silence between them when neither one is sure what to say, and Sousuke is about to put his shoes back on and leave when Nao's voice knocks the breath out of him.

„Who are you running from?“ He asks, bright eyes seeming to look right through Sousuke.

For a second he is stunned. Speechless. Then his hands come up in an attempt to defend himself, and Nao's brows shoot up with a look that warns him not to. Sousuke tries anyway. „I didn't run.“

Annoyance flashes in Nao's eyes, and he turns on his heel, fair hair swinging after him when he strides into the living room. Sousuke is hesitant to follow, looks around, gropes around his pockets for answers. Finding none, he walks down the hall and peers into the living area where Nao is skimming a whole shelf of books until he picks one up, scans the first page and puts it back into its place. He repeats the process four times before his face lights up and he takes a book over to the couch where he sits on one of the arm rests.

Sousuke already noticed Nao's habit of sitting anywhere but on the designated seating surface the first time he was here, but it strikes him as odder than before now that nobody is occupying the couch. Slowly he comes into the room and takes a look at the books neatly stacked on the shelf Nao was sorting through. They're all hand-lettered in delicate cursive writing, displaying names and numbers Sousuke doesn't recognise.

Nao pulls him from his thoughts when he drops the book he's been holding onto the table with a heavy thump. „Take a look,“ He says and gestures to the book. When Sousuke steps closer, his eyes lock onto the name written on the book's spine. Natsuya. He stares at Nao who considers him with a long look, then nudges the book into his direction. A pointed nod follows.

It's heavy, Sousuke notices first. Heavy and bulging with pictures filling the pages. At first it looks like an ordinary photo album, and Sousuke wonders just how long these two have known each other when he browses through the pages. There's baby Natsuya, two years old at most, with a wide grin on his face and a strawberry in his hand. His hair grows curlier the further Sousuke flips through the pages, and he stares at a picture of Natsuya with a woman who must be his mother by his side. He may be six years old, and the way he is presenting a dark brown satchel makes Sousuke think this was taken on his first day of school. He skims through the first half of the book and is ready to put it aside when he finds a picture of Natsuya holding a girl's hand, both of them in their early teenage years, but Nao meets his eyes and slowly shakes his head.

Frustration claws at Sousuke's neck, irritation at being forced into a task that seems pointless to him, and he's about to argue that it's wrong for him to be looking through Natsuya's private pictures without him present when a picture catches his eye, and he releases a heavy breath through his nose.
It's Natsuya, of course, but his face is bloody and his eye swollen, the nose looks like it's broken. Stitches line his brow and one cheek. He seems to be no older than fourteen. Sousuke must have been staring, because Nao reaches across the table and turns the page. It doesn't get much better. The blood is gone, but Natsuya's cheek is covered in dark bruises and his nose is treated with a gauze cover similar to the one Nao dressed Sousuke's ear with after he was shot at.
„That was two days later,“ Nao explains with a tone that is too careful to be neutral, and flips through the next pages with quick movements.

Sousuke catches glimpses of what seems to be progress pictures, bruises changing color and stitches looking less sore, until all they show is scars. Nao keeps turning pages, shows Sousuke more impressions of injuries Natsuya must have had, a long cut along the side of his neck and stitches on one arm, then the other, that look like he's been torn open with some sort of spikes. Every set of pictures is spread over several pages, accompanied by a date and notes that look like they're Latin.
For a couple minutes they sit in silence, Nao flipping pages to reveal more and more bruises, blood and sutures. Finally Sousuke sits back and raises his eyes to look at Nao who in turn stops to meet his anxious stare.

„Whoever you're running from will not stop chasing you until you take action.“ Nao's voice is barely more than a whisper, and Sousuke can see his eyes dart back to the pages covered with images of Natsuya's blood. „Stop running, and they'll catch you, that's what people tell you. Sometimes they're wrong. Sometimes you have to stop running to wait for them.“

The haunted look in Nao's eyes fades when he glances up from the book and closes it with a quick swipe of his hand. He watches Sousuke for a moment, then he gets up and returns the book to the shelf. It doesn't seem like he expects an answer, but the words tumble from Sousuke's mouth before he can help it. „There's no running from myself.“

Nao stills, fingers still on the book's spine, and his back goes rigid when he turns to stare at Sousuke. His lips part as if to respond, then close again. „You–“ When he withdraws his fingers from the shelf, Sousuke can see that they're shaking. „So I was right after all. It all makes sense then.“

Nothing makes sense, least of all Nao's nervous glances at the window. Sousuke's patience is wavering, and he moves to get up, but Nao extends a hand to keep him seated. His fair features seem even paler than usual.

„Please, stay. I'm– I'm not sure how to explain.“ He starts pacing between the couch and the window, eyes tracing the furniture as he walks. „Have you been having odd dreams, by any chance? As a child? Now? Recurring themes, possibly dark?“

Sousuke stares at him, previous thoughts frozen in time. He remembers his mother's face, Anissa's laugh and his father's arms wrapped around him. A stuffed budgie and a dog. Dark hallways, tiles dripping with underground humidity. French, Russian. The void.

Suddenly aware that he's shaking, Sousuke gets to his feet and aims at the door, mind set on the only conscious thought it's capable of in this moment: to get out. What he couldn't have expected is Nao stepping into his way, arms stretched out to prevent him from leaving. He still looks nervous, but his expression is nothing short of determined and he stares at Sousuke unflinchingly even when Sousuke looms over him. Sousuke is taller despite his younger age, and there is no doubt that he's physically superior, but Nao's decided intervention is enough to slow him down.

„Don't!“ Nao's voice echoes down the hallway. „Please, listen.“

Sousuke isn't sure he can listen at the moment as the shadows are already drawing closer, and he's painfully aware of how deeply his nails are biting into his palms despite the leather covering them. His stomach is a gaping hole that is threatening to swallow him whole. Nao's voice is not enough to keep him from falling into it.

It's dark. Darker than any night Sousuke has ever encountered. Darker even than his own shadows – or is it?

He isn't scared. He's himself, he knows immediately, and the darkness isn't as impenetrable as it seems. He can look ahead, sees a river and an embankment covered in pebbles. Something seems to draw him across that river, so he goes, and the water becomes solid where he steps on it. Small flickers of light appear on the edge of his vision, and he turns to follow their trail. They're fireflies, he thinks, and follows them as they guide him across a vast wasteland, cold and dark, but he isn't uncomfortable. He feels calm. There's an odd sense of belonging that grows stronger the further he walks, and when his eyes touch upon a rough patch of land he knows where he's going. Vaguely he wonders why he ever thought he was following the fireflies when it's actually the other way around. They're following him as he is the only direction they know, and his hands are the only thing capable of offering what they need.

He comes to a halt before the field and lets his eyes roam along the clean line of holes dug into the ground. With practiced ease he slips out of his gloves and tucks them into his belt, hands diving forward in a motion that swipes the fireflies right into the pockets of earth created in the field. A spadeful of soil covers each hole, and Sousuke sits to wait and see what fruit the light will bear. He waits for what feels like hours, but his patience is unwavering.

At first there's tiny sprouts where the light rests, but they grow into shoots strong enough to illuminate the ground they emerge from, and when their stems stretch and take shape, Sousuke watches in wonder. They become trees and bushes, some tall and lean, others broad and round, and as they flourish so does their light. The environment becomes clearer, brightness illuminating the cavern he's in. The ceiling and walls are made of rough stone, wet in some spots and dry in others, and the river is sending its water down smaller streams to nurture the fields. There's many, Sousuke can see now, and they're all covered in snow. They lay dark before the fresh seeds bore their fruit, and in due time their light will die as well, but Sousuke enjoys the beacon of life whenever he takes the fireflies home.

For a while he sits and watches on, sees dusk start to bleed down the walls again and submerge the stone in darkness. Silently he gets to his feet and walks away, leaving the cave with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. The shine of light from behind casts his path in dancing shadows and allows for a clear view at the riverside, where a boat lies. The ferryman is releasing a handful of fireflies from its interior. Pulling the gloves from his belt to put them back on, Sousuke is about to approach the boat to set about his task again when the ground starts shaking. Bracing his feet against the stone, he watches, surprised at how helpless he is, as it splits open and he falls into the crevice. He blinks owlishly, confused, and watches color flood his vision when Nao steps into view.

„Sousuke.“ It's a breath of relief Nao is releasing, but Sousuke feels mostly disoriented. He looks around in a daze, senses slowly catching up to the room he's in. He's sitting on the floor, Nao by his side, and judging from the sweat on Nao's face he must have been a handful to deal with for the past few minutes. „No leaving,“ Nao begins again, and Sousuke stares at him in open puzzlement. Why would he want to leave? Did he want to leave?

He feels calm, at ease, like he's found something he didn't even know he was looking for. Nao's rumpled look makes him appear like he doesn't agree with the sentiment.

„We need to talk.“

For the following two hours Sousuke is listening quietly. He takes twenty minutes to find himself again completely and another hour to control the urge to stare at his hands. Natsuya takes another forty minutes to join them after Nao texts him, and Sousuke is left reeling again when Natsuya starts adding his truth to the story. That night Sousuke learns that most gods don't stay dead for long, and Hades is no exception.

Chapter Text

-

"And if the sun's upset and the sky goes cold

Then if the clouds get heavy and start to fall

I really need somebody to call my own

I wanna be somebody to someone - Someone to you"

- Someone To You (Banners) -

-

Note: Seven years have passed since the end of Chapter 2.

-

Clouds are soaking up the first light of day, and Makoto chides the fog reaching across the hedges and gardens he passes on his way to work, silently begging the humidity to fade. When he rounds a corner and sees the first rays of sun peek past the grey, his steps gain a gleeful bounce that carries him further east until the bright yellow banner of the garden center pops into view.

The early morning sun is warming the dahlias, blossoms glowing in shades of orange and yellow. Makoto's fingers brush a particularly dark red flower in passing, and it seems to stretch after his hand's gentle touch, blossom perking up when he walks down the sandy path to the tree nursery. The quiet trickle of water sweeping down the stone treads, an infinite flow of life in its liquid form, accompanies his every step, and Makoto watches a toad leap down the path to the aquatic gardens, hind legs sprinkling the cobblestone with a glistening sheen of water. He rounds the southern hall and assesses the soil humidity of the rose bushes and heliotropes with quick glances at the color of the flower beds, humming when the sun tickles a sneeze from his nose.

Makoto startles when a quiet giggle greets him at the entrance to the fruit tree section.

“Bless you,“ A shock of strawberry blond hair appears behind a young apple tree – Honeycrisp, Makoto recognises easily – and he directs a smile at his line manager who nods eagerly in return. “You're early!“

Makoto's laugh is sheepish when he shrugs and ducks around a group of Liberty trees, the swell of their ample fruits already impressive in early September. He's careful not to kneel in his streetwear, well aware of the wet pavement where his superior must have started watering her trees before he showed up, and leans in to have a look at the young tree she's working on. The leaves are covered in white splotches, the fruit it's already carrying dusted in grey. Makoto feels his brows scrunch together when he runs a finger along one of the stems, powdery surface deceptively soft against his skin.

“Mildew.“ It's a statement, not a question, and Aki's head bobs in agreement when Makoto sighs and looks around. Hesitantly he lets go of the plant and eyes the variety of pots Aki appears to have moved across the area, hosting apple trees of different species and ages. Some look to be quite heavy, and he puffs a mildly offended glare into her general direction that she picks up on immediately. Laughing, she raises both hands in a defensive gesture. “I had to move them away. You know how quickly Powdery Mildew spreads.“

Makoto straightens himself, trying to remain serious and failing. He chuckles even as he tries to reason. “You know I'm here before eight. You could have let me help!“ Aki's cheeky grin tells Makoto he's already lost, and he throws up his hands in feigned defiance.

“Fine! I'll tend to my hydrangeas then.“ Curling in his lips to hide a smirk, he walks off to the far end of the compound to retrieve his working clothes from the garden shed. He can hear Aki snicker at his back when he slips away, shedding jeans and t-shirt for forest green pants and orange polo shirt displaying the garden center's logo on the left side of the chest.
The morning is filled with tending to the tree sprouts, watering the pots outside as well as inside the halls until a fine mist is wafting across the displays every time somebody opens a door.

Around noon, Makoto starts feeling like his spine might snap, and he straightens his back from where he's kneeling to brush the sweat from his temple with one sleeve. The sun's rays have intensified in both light and heat, leaving Makoto's back sweaty underneath his shirt. He can feel every breath of wind against his neck where it teases at the wet skin, and he's grateful when Aki rounds a corner to wave at him with two bottles of water. Diligently, he finishes tying off the loose ends of cord that fasten a young dogwood tree to its nursery stake before slipping off into the shadows cast by the canopy reaching into the outdoor area.

Aki holds out one of the bottles and Makoto gulps down half of its contents before wiping at his forehead with a sigh. She smiles.

“You've raised those dogwoods well. The lady picking up her bigleaf hydrangea earlier this morning was ogling them even when she waved them off as being too expensive. I bet she'll be back.“

There's a soft rustle from the red osier at Makoto's back, which leaves him wondering, very briefly, how it can be making such noise when a gentle breeze is all the blessing the sky will grant them in today's late summer heat, but when he turns to look for birds hopping through the branches he's disappointed to find them empty. Aki nudges the bottle still raised against his lips, and Makoto lowers it with a questioning glance at her.

“I think the aquaculture guy is here today. Are the ponds clean enough for him to check?“
She nods back at the center, then over to the light and dark rock formation the water is springing forth from. For a moment Makoto blinks in surprise, then swallows another gulp of water before putting the bottle down on a bench near the entrance to the subtropical hall.

“Aquaculture? You mean one of the aquarists?“ Aki shakes her head at him, shrugging as she motions towards the front hall housing the majority of the outdoor furniture and balcony decorations.

“He's an outsider, just drops by to control water quality and fish population every now and then. Mochizuki says he's weird.“ With a quick turn, Aki bumps her shoulder into Makoto's upper arm and makes him wheeze from the impact. How is a girl as petite as her so strong, he wonders for the second time today, but quickly picks up his face that has fallen into a grimace when she chuckles at him. “We're expecting a delivery of pole pine stakes in about an hour. I need you to pick those up from the receiving department over at the south gate. Who knows, maybe you'll meet him?“ She winks at him. “Make sure to check him out for me, yes?“

The heat Makoto can feel rising to his cheeks has little to do with the sun mercilessly blazing down on the arboretum, and he raises a hand to the back of his head before remembering not to touch his hair when he gets nervous. Instead, he grabs his gardening gloves from where he left them earlier and sends a silent blessing to his therapist for teaching him coping mechanisms before he started on this job. There were many reasons for him to look for a new job after finishing his training, and difficulties thanks to his anxiety attacks were among them. He is not intending to start over where he left off at the old job.
Self-conscious, he slips back into the gloves to return to his dogwood trees, leaves rustling in quiet greeting when he waters the soil where the buildings throw enough shade for the ground to accept the water. Working among the plants quickly calms him down, and Makoto starts wondering about the guy Aki mentioned to him before. What even is aquaculture, anyway?

He hears about the stranger again upon walking into the front hall, breathing a sigh of relief when the air conditioning sends chills down his spine. One of the center's aquarists walks by, animatedly talking to a blonde woman Makoto knows works over in the pets area. He's gesturing with both hands.

“-who does he think he is, anyway?“ Makoto picks up on half of what is said, but immediately perks up, never one to be interested in gossip but curious about relationships among the employees at the center. It's been five months since he started working at the facility. Thanks to the center's magnitude he has barely met everyone, and he has yet to remember his coworkers' names unless frequently working with them. “Seriously, that guy,“ The aquarist's voice is picking up again, and Makoto can see that his face is red with anger, “Fish don't belong in tanks here, You have to pay more attention to the shrimps there, Nanase always finds something to nag about. Such a stickler to his self-designed rules, how can you be so entitled? He doesn't even work here, what does he know about our tanks?“
The blonde woman nods along with everything the guy is saying, and Makoto snorts at the nasal tone the aquarist is adopting as he quotes whoever crawled up his behind and died right there.

Makoto can still hear the guy ranting as he checks in with the receiving department. One of the storemen guffaws at the face he makes when he picks up a pack of stakes and hoists it onto one shoulder, then almost falls over when he tries to haul the second one onto the other shoulder. He's almost managed to walk off when the guy calls him back and produces a pushcart from behind the corner. Groaning, Makoto unloads the stacks and still has the decency to bow as he wheels the load off towards the subtropical hall from where he can exit back into the arboretum.

Makoto tries to heave the pine stakes off the pushcart for all but one moment before deciding he will unbundle them right here and now as they're ridiculously heavy. Aki is emerging from the greenhouse next to the private shed near the edge of the compound, a colorful bundle of Swiss chard leaves in one hand and a rake in the other, sweat beading on her forehead. She approaches quickly, putting the chard into a box waiting readily on a small table near the hall exit to align it with the slices of cucumber, plum tomatoes and spinach displayed for customers to taste test.

“Crap, I didn't expect them to deliver the whole order today,“ Aki's nose is scrunched up when she pops into Makoto's field of vision and pulls a bunch of stakes from the pile he's carefully unloading from the pushcart. He tries to wave her off, wants to say he can handle this by himself, but she's already carrying the poles over to the weathered shack they store the tools in and starts arranging them close to the wall to protect them from excessive humidity. Makoto follows quietly, breath entirely focused on filling his lungs in the afternoon heat as he lugs the stakes over.
They arrange the whole pile in all but ten minutes and collapse on the bench again, draining the remaining lukewarm water from their bottles. Makoto critically eyes the pale skin peeking from his sleeve as it slips up his arm, but Aki nudges his elbow with a playful grin.

“Can't avoid tan lines in this line of work, unless you prefer working inside.“ She raises a brow at him, the twitching corners of her mouth a clear hint at the imminent joke. “Maybe you should take your shirt off.“
Makoto's own brows shoot into his hair line, and he can already feel sweat beading along his forehead again. For a second he's groping for the right words and ends up scoffing a lame „Right“ at his superior. Aki giggles and leans back, eyes closing in a moment of rest.

“So,“ She starts again, and Makoto is already fearing the worst, “Did you meet the guy? The aquaculturist?“
Makoto shrugs non-committally and runs a hand through his hair to push the strands away from his wet forehead. “Is that even a word? And no, I didn't meet him. People are talking though, seems like he's a real charmer.“
Aki perks up, brown eyes widening comically as she twists her empty bottle in both hands.

“Really? Like, an actual charmer or, you know, is he really not?“ There's a moment where she seems to assess Makoto's face before she comes to the conclusion that it's the latter, and her mouth firms into a line. “Okay, stop playing me. He's a jerk, then? Come on, what did they say?“

Aki is much more invested in gossip than Makoto is, but she's not usually one to display her interest so openly, and he wonders if she's honestly looking to date a guy she hasn't even met before.
“Hm,“ He thinks for a second and stretches his legs, “They call him Nanase, so I'd guess that's his last name. I overheard one of the aquarists talking on my way to pick up the wood, apparently the guy is criticizing them a lot. Didn't sound like they liked that.“

A soft laugh fills the space between them, then Aki kicks off the bench and gets to her feet again.
“Figures. One guy I don't already know is unavailable for me, and he has to be a douche. Then again,“ She spins to look back at the entrance, unfazed by the way she almost bumps into a customer passing her by, “The fishkeeping department has been through some rigid controls in the past months, ever since we had an epidemic among the koi last year. If he's criticizing them, there has to be a reason for it. Let's see what he's like when he checks the outdoor waters.“
There's a hint of pride in her step when she grabs her rake from where she dropped it and holds it like a spear, raised by her side with one hand.
“I doubt he will find something to complain about in our ponds, we're keeping them absolutely clean.“

Makoto stretches the afternoon exhaustion from his limbs and nods, eyes flitting across the glistening surface of the water gardens in the far back of the arboretum. He gets up and extends a hand for Aki to drop her bottle into. Before she can complain, he walks off to the waste bins and drops both bottles into the packaging container.

They get back to work but keep glancing at the doors whenever a customer slips in or out, alternating between consultations about outdoor projects and taking care of the extensive gardens, cutting off the wilting blossoms of the early summer shrubs and watering the grounds wherever the sun fails to reach. Whoever the stranger may be, he doesn't show up in the outdoors exhibition. A family keeps Makoto on edge, the youngest child lurking too close to the large pond next to the rose garden, and he very nearly breaks into a sprint when he sees the little feet slip. Luckily, the father slides his arms around the toddler's belly just in time to lift him up with a gentle rebuke. Makoto sighs in relief and slips into the cooler air of the tool shack to retrieve two fresh water bottles. He drops one off near the place where Aki is patiently listening to a customer's complaints about her children's ball games ruining the lawn every other week and nods when she sends a grateful smile his way.

The merciless afternoon heat is finally receding when Makoto stumbles back into the water gardens to feed the fish, his t-shirt sticking to his back and hair plastered to his forehead. He's tired, from the sun, the kneeling and lifting and, last but certainly not least, the demanding customers. A middle-aged lady argued for fifteen minutes that their apple trees should be bearing more fruit, completely unsympathetic as Makoto tried to explain that their branches would break if they bore any more weight at their current age. He remembers her face when he told her to tie a bunch of additional apples to the branches if she felt like they should carry more. In the background Aki was shaking with laughter throughout the whole conversation, making it very hard for Makoto to remain serious himself.

He breathes a heavy sigh and almost trips over the line of rocks he should really know await behind the next corner, stumbling to catch his balance when he finds himself face to face with the brightest set of blue eyes he's ever seen. Surprised, he raises his head before bowing in greeting, hand sneaking up to fiddle with the hem of his shirt before he can catch himself. He didn't expect a customer back here. Most of the time the ones interested in the water gardens are people looking to build a garden pond or expand on the plants they're keeping in the habitat, and those are prone to seek help in their endeavors. Few are confident enough to pick plants or fish for themselves, especially with the massive task that is maintaining water quality and an even temperature throughout all seasons for the more sensitive species.
This man, however, seems completely unfazed by the fact that he is acting oddly, and is eyeing Makoto for a second before returning his attention to the pond full of dwarf water lilies he's kneeling beside.

“You smell,“ the stranger remarks, and Makoto feels a blush creep up his neck. He nods, then shakes his head before thinking better of it and inclining his head again. He can't smell himself anymore at this time of day, but the amount of water his body has perspired today is a tell-tale sign for just how unpleasant his company must be by now. Damn, he should have taken a break to wash up a while ago. Makoto is getting ready to turn back and call Aki to take his place, embarassed beyond belief, but the other young man gets to his feet to look at him. Fingers digging into his shirt, Makoto waits for the judgement that is sure to come, but the stranger's eyes are calm and dispassionate. “Don't worry, I don't care. It's warm.“ He turns to leave.

Confused, Makoto stands back and watches the stranger walk off before remembering his position. He takes after the man, cheeks still burning with awkward uncertainty.
“Excuse me,“ He calls and starts aligning words in his head to ensure he will get them out in order, “Can I help you?“
The look he receives is one of puzzlement, then a small smile tugs at the corners of the young man's mouth, and Makoto feels his breath catch in his throat. After the initial surprise of meeting somebody back here, he didn't think it possible to see those eyes light up further. The stranger is proving him wrong. He stops and turns around, feet avoiding the edge of the small koi pond by a mere inch. His eyes are a bright shade of early-morning blue, and Makoto is caught off guard when he finds he doesn't want to look away.

“I don't know. Can you?“ There's a hint of amusement in the other's voice when he replies.

“That depends on what you're interested in.“ Makoto is struggling to keep his tone even, self-consciously pulling the t-shirt loose where it's gotten stuck against the small of his back. When he feels the stranger's eyes on the movement, he drops both hands to his sides. “Do you need plants or fish? You were looking at the dwarf lilies earlier.“

A soft inclination of the stranger's head makes strands of black slip from behind his ears, and he shakes his hair out to clear his vision. Makoto finds himself staring again. He's never quite managed to figure out what draws him towards people, but he's always been sure that it's not their gender. With this guy, it seems like every new detail is attractive, and Makoto is fighting for his focus on the situation at hand. The tiny smirk lifting the other's lips definitely doesn't help.

“I wouldn't mind a little tour across the perimeter,“ He admits before pointing a finger at the wide arch overgrown with boreal vetch that signals the entrance to the outside fish farms. “I'm very interested in the young koi.“
Makoto is relieved to find his attention being drawn to something new. He takes a few steps to catch up to the other's position. When the breeze tickles a sneeze from his nose, the stranger gifts him with another small smile, and Makoto responds with one of his own. They walk to the koi farms in relative silence, only interrupted by Makoto's careful inquiries about what kind of fish this customer is looking for.

With the sun slowly sinking, Makoto finally feels the heat recede from his body. His initial anxiety has long drowned in the quiet discussions he's leading with the other young man, and Makoto is comfortable enough to not notice the confused looks the fish farmers are shooting at their backs. When he sneezes again and the customer wishes him well, Makoto attempts to thank him but is cut short by the realization that he doesn't know the stranger's name. There's a moment of awkward silence between them before the other boy huffs a quiet sigh and extends a hand.

“Haru,“ He offers and looks away. “Just call me Haru.“

Makoto can feel his heart jump into his throat, mind spinning when he adds this detail to the list of things he doesn't want to forget today. He was expecting a last name and formal politeness, not a first name and that spark of embarrassment in the other's eyes. Gladly he shakes the hand extended to him and sketches a bow, just to make sure he offers enough courtesy towards a person who is still his customer.
“Haru-san,“ He cracks a grin at the way the other is grimacing, “Please call me Makoto.“

For a moment they stare at each other, Haru's face a mixture of curiosity and tension. Then, finally, he drops his shoulders and nods back at Makoto.
“Just Haru is fine.“

They drop their chat after this, walking around the koi basins in comfortable silence. Makoto points at some of the larger fish they're keeping back here for safety reasons and finds Just Haru scowling in apparent distaste. For a second Makoto wonders if he did something wrong but decides not to ask. Instead, he leads them back to the water gardens and shows his companion the red cardinal flowers he's spent a lot of time nurturing this summer. Curious, Haru reaches for one of the long stems and squats at the edge of the pond to smell the deep red blossoms. There's a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm, Makoto notices now that he extends it, and even from this distance he can tell that it's a compass, slender black lines emphasizing the way Haru's muscles flex with the movement.
When Haru withdraws, a few drops of water cling to his fingers, and Makoto watches the light reflect from their surface in shades of green and blue. There's a sense of familiarity to the way Haru lowers his hand and lets the drops roll from the tips of his fingers until they're dry again, and Makoto can't help but stare.

When they walk back to the arboretum, Makoto tilts his head to one side to look at Haru. The young man has asked about the fish farms, about the pellets they feed the koi with and the different kinds of pumps used to keep the bodies of water circulating in the ponds, but not once has he expressed interest in buying any of the fish. He was clearly fascinated with the dwarf water lilies, even the second time around when they walked past them on their way back, but hasn't looked at the price index at all.
Makoto doesn't like convincing customers to buy something they don't really want, but he is well aware of the amount of time he's spent with this one in particular and that Aki is likely to wonder why the young man didn't decide to take at least one of their products along when he's leaving.

A little sheepishly, awkward edge to his voice be damned, Makoto finally dares ask, “Was there anything you liked in particular?“
A pair of clear blue eyes flicks up to Makoto's face. There's an edge to the look he's receiving that tells him Haru has recognized the implied meaning between the lines, and he's immediately feeling guilty.

“You're asking if I don't want to buy something?“

A string of curse words wraps around Makoto's tongue, and he has to press it flat against the roof of his mouth to keep them from coming out.

Way to go, Tachibana. There's somebody you're attracted to for the first time in forever, and you make this all about the business.

Makoto is still struggling to find an excuse, a way to apologise, and again Haru is proving to be much less judgmental than most other people would have been.

“I need a pear tree, small, preferably one that can be kept in a pot.“
Makoto blinks, dumbfounded, but Haru keeps looking him straight in the eye, hands shaping a flower pot as he talks. “Early ripening, please.“ When Makoto opens his mouth to question why Haru never mentioned he wanted to view the fruit trees in the first place, that pair of stunning blue eyes flashes with an expression of victory. “You never asked what I came for, only what I was interested in.“

There's a beat of silence between them, and Makoto is feeling like he's been toyed with for the last hour. He isn't quite sure whether or not to feel offended, but the sparkle of delight Haru regards him with makes it impossible to stay mad anyway. Sighing, Makoto gives up on trying to make sense of the young man and walks ahead towards the western part of the tree nursery.

“I'd suggest a Concorde tree in this case, dwarf breed, the fruit starts ripening in the next two weeks. You can easily keep them on a balcony or patio.“
Curious, Haru walks down the lane where the dwarf breeds are on display, taking a look at the trees Makoto is indicating and asking questions about how much water they need and how susceptible they are to bacterial diseases. In the end, he picks a sturdy-looking Concorde pear tree and a big blue ceramic pot for himself. Makoto walks him to the checkout area, bringing both the tree and the pot along on a hand cart.

When they exit the building and Haru slides the small tree into the pot to pick up both, Makoto makes an attempt to protest but is shut down by the raised brows Haru is directing at him.

“I'm taking the bus, so there's no reason for you to try and bring this to my car,“ Haru explains with a small shrug. He shifts the pot's weight in his arms and the sleeves of his t-shirt stretch over a surprising flex of muscle. Makoto has to will himself to look away, face reddening in a burst of self-consciousness. Hesitantly, he pulls the hand cart out of the way for Haru to make his way across the parking lot. He wants to say something, wants to ask the odd young man if they will meet again, but can't find the words to do so.

Haru himself seems unaware of his dilemma, eyes scanning the horizon for the silhouette of an approaching bus, and finally turns away. Over his shoulder, he calls, “Thank you for the tour,“ before walking off. Makoto is left watching Haru's back tense around the weight he's carrying until he leaves the parking site and disappears around a corner.

When Makoto returns to the arboretum, Aki is waiting for him with both arms crossed over her chest, a stern look on her face. Makoto has spent the way back thinking up ways to explain to her why he disappeared into the water gardens for so long, but she doesn't seem to care for any of the excuses he's trying to give.

“Really, that's what you think I'm going to say?“ She sounds offended, almost, and Makoto blinks in confusion. “It was time to clock out twenty minutes ago. You started early, which means you should have been gone at least an hour before that. Why are you still here?“
Again Makoto blinks, finally catching on to what she's talking about, and his eyes find the orange hue along the horizon, tinting the clouds bright yellow and the tree tops red. His stomach growls.
“You're impossible,“ Aki rolls her eyes at him with a fond smile and steps forward to pull the cart's handle from his fingers. “Go change. I'll take you out for dinner.“

For what feels like the hundredth time today, Makoto opens and closes his mouth uselessly, as Aki is already walking ahead to return the cart to the tool shack. She has cleaned up, Makoto notices when he crosses the subtropical exiting area, and all that's left for him to do is wash up and get dressed in street wear. He finds Aki at the front gate. She is holding out the third bottle of water for today, and Makoto sighs a Thank You while unscrewing the cap. He empties the water before they arrive at the burger restaurant Aki has taken him to twice already, the first time to celebrate his contract at the garden center, the second time to cheer him up when he found out his girlfriend was cheating on him. Today seems to be the first occasion without a major event to justify them eating together, and Makoto realizes he might be able to call Aki a friend by this point.

Haru is still on Makoto's mind when Aki pulls over to back into a parking space, and he wonders if the young man eats out sometimes. What are the chances to meet someone you barely know in a completely unrelated place, anyway? It's Aki who tears him from his thoughts when they walk up to the restaurant.

“So,“ She says and nudges his arm with an elbow, “That guy earlier. Someone you're interested in?“

Makoto feels his pupils blow wide and swallows around a lump of nerves that has risen in his throat. He stares at her from the side, being all too aware of how caught he must look right now. Aki raises both hands in reassurance.
“Hey, attraction is not always gender-based, right? You just appeared unable to take your eyes off him, is all I'm saying. Maybe I'm wrong, but you seemed pretty taken to forget about the time, your clean-up duty and the end of your work day.“ The friendly jab pulls Makoto from his panic room and out into the open. He snorts and opens the door for her.

“He played me well, to be honest.“ It hurts to admit that his attraction may be one-sided, but Makoto prefers honest words to assumptions any day, and so he pushes forward. Over crispy chicken burgers and so many fries that it feels like Makoto's belly is fit to burst, they discuss the stranger's curious behaviour, and Makoto ends up laughing about his own misery when Aki points out how he set himself up. It's not so hard to speak about his interest in men when Aki is so willing to accept his orientation, whichever it may be, Makoto isn't even sure himself.

“Honestly I had a tiny crush on you when you trialed in March,“ Aki admits and tucks a lock of strawberry blonde hair behind one ear. “You were so competent but so insecure, I had my hands full with just trying to set you straight for the first few days. It was endearing, really.“
Makoto frowns at her, assuming a joke, but is met with an open smile. That's the kind of honesty he really likes about Aki. No shame, no regrets. It's admirable, and Makoto wishes he could handle matters as easily as she does.
If he will see Haru again, he doesn't know. But, as Aki points out over her second brownie, nothing has happened yet. If they meet again, and Makoto swears this to himself, he won't allow his intentions to be detoured.

-

It takes two days for Haru to show up again, and Makoto can feel his brain short-circuit when he sees the familiar face emerge from the subtropical hall.

Haru is alone again, eyes blinking against the afternoon sun when he steps through the doors. He tilts his head to one side when he finds Makoto where he's rooted in place, offering a quick nod before striding over into the water gardens. He has surprisingly long legs, Makoto notices today, and struggles to look away.
Aki's quiet snort from two rows over makes a blush shoot up the sides of his neck, and he rubs at his collar sheepishly.

“Go“, She says and nods at the sandy path leading around the greenhouses and right into the water gardens. “I'll leave this to you.“

For a moment Makoto wants to argue, but thinks better on it. He finishes clipping off the roses' wilting blossoms and drops his shears into the basket with the cuttings. In his rush to get to his feet, Makoto trips over the loose end of a garden hose readied to water the roses once he's done pruning the bushes, and he appreciates the lack of laughter from Aki's direction. Scrambling to regain his balance, he walks by the tool shack and checks his reflection in the window.
Not as messy as last time. Good.

He finds Haru near the lily pond, where he's kneeling on the stone bridge separating star lotus from water hawthorn. Just like the last time, one of his hands is dangling off the side of the bridge. Carefully, Haru lifts one of the lilies above the surface and sweeps his fingers along one of the petals. Makoto stops dead in his tracks when the blossom seems to close, then the petals spread apart as if to greet the touch. Gently, Haru sets the flower back onto the pond. His palm hovers over the surface for a second, and again Makoto feels like his heart skips a beat when the water itself raises to meet Haru's skin. Speechless, he blinks to try and make more sense of the sight he's just witnessed, but instead the pond lies calm aside from the soft ripples along the surface where Haru replaced the lily.
As if nothing happened, Haru gets to his feet and walks along the beds of water hawthorn, white flowers stretching towards the beams of sunlight dipping over the hedge at this hour.

Minutes pass, and Makoto is still watching the young man pacing along the water's edge. He keeps leaning in to raise single flowers from their habitat, fingers brushing the droplets from their petals just to put the plants back into their place. There are soft waves emitting from where he touches the surface, rocking the lilies back and forth as if trying to put them to sleep.

Makoto finally steps forth from his position when Haru comes close to taking a turn that would lead him to discover that he is being watched. Still a little shaken from the things he believes to have seen a moment ago, Makoto avoids a spoken greeting and settles for a nod at the other young man. Haru doesn't seem to mind the lack of words, instead offering one of his rare smiles when he straightens himself.

“Makoto,“ He hums when he's arrived back at the bridge where Makoto is anxiously digging both hands into the pockets of his pants. “Your nenuphar are very beautiful.“

A startled “Huh?“ falls from Makoto's mouth before he can stop himself, but he waves his own inaptitude off. The ponds in the back of the garden hold large fields of white waterlilies, or, as Haru so expertly named them, nenuphar. It's unusual enough for a customer to have enough botanical knowledge to name any of the plants in the center, even less so for the scientific alias.
Makoto must be staring, but he can't bring himself to care when Haru flashes him another brief smile.

“They've grown a lot this year,“ He replies and finally manages to wrestle his fingers off his clothes to point at one of the larger ponds currently covered in white blossoms. “We'll have to remove at least a third of those in a few weeks to make sure there is enough space for the remaining plants. Their blooming period is almost over.“
Haru nods, fingers idly flicking drops of water back into the ponds. Makoto catches one of the movements with his eyes, wondering how he managed to keep the fluid in his palm all this time but ends up letting go of the thought when he realizes he's staring again.

Remembering their last meeting all too clearly – Makoto spent half of the past two days committing every moment of it to his long-term memory in case he'd never see Haru again – Makoto offers a wide smile.

“So, what did you come here for today?“

Haru gapes at him for a mere second before amusement flashes in his eyes – how are they so blue? - and he raises a hand against his mouth to hide what sounds like a guarded laugh. It's clear he understood the reference in Makoto's wording when he drops his hand and points at the sign above the gate leading to the fish farms.
“Not koi.“

Makoto feels his previous tension melting away and cocks his head to one side in a questioning motion. His lips quirk with mirth when Haru catches on and mimics the gesture.

“I heard you cultivate a variety of hydrangeas. I'd be interested in seeing them.“ At Makoto's raised brows Haru fails to hide a chuckle. “I'm not only interested in seeing them. I want to buy at least one, too.“
Makoto joins his laughter with a happy nod at the water gardens' exit. Haru follows easily when Makoto guides him to the rows of hydrangea shrubs he's been taking care of all summer. He's feeling light-headed when the idea occurs to him that Haru may have known this is his specialty and asked about hydrangeas specifically just for this reason. It's unlikely, he knows, but the fact that he met Haru again despite their lack of information on each other is proof that odds are not what matters for them right now.
As it is, Makoto is willing to hope for pretty much anything. He's oddly comfortable like this, walking through the afternoon sunshine with Haru by his side, their arms brushing against each other in the most casual of ways, their eyes meeting as a consequence before they both look away too quickly.

Aki waves at them from where she sits between the apple and plum trees, enjoying a break in what little shade the young trees create. Her curious glances help Makoto clear his head enough to remember professionalism, and he starts asking the important questions: What color does Haru want? How big are the blossoms supposed to be? Does he want an early or late bloomer? How tall does he want the shrub to be?
Haru answers dispassionately, curiosity evident in his eyes but carefully veiled in his tone.
He wants blue flowers – no surprise there –, size doesn't matter – Makoto chokes on a laugh –, late blooming would be preferred – of course, it's September after all – and again, size doesn't matter. Makoto is a chortling mess by the time Haru is done replying, and he can feel the heat creeping up behind his ears but realizes he wasn't truly embarassed before when Haru gives him the most knowing smirk Makoto has ever seen.

Makoto has to turn around to hide his rising blush and leads Haru along the rows of potted plants to show some of his candidates for the request at hand. He can't see Haru's face while he rambles about the different shrubs' benefits, but there's a chuckle from behind when he indicates one of the large-leaved species.

“Endless Summer,“ Haru repeats after Makoto's denotation, “That's what it's called?“
Makoto nods and finally dares turn around to gauge Haru's expression. It's less guarded than before as he takes in the tall shrub Makoto has pulled from its shelf. Its blossoms are almost as blue as Haru's eyes, leaves a lush dark green that rivals Makoto's working pants.
Haru seems intrigued, fingers carefully running along one of the serrated leaves. He tilts his head, and there's a hint of delight in his eyes when he nods.
“I want it.“
Makoto doesn't question Haru's decision, nor the way he seems to size Makoto up as he walks him back to the checkout. Instead, he decides to try and muster up the courage to ask the young man on a date before he has to see him off again, but the chatty cashier makes it impossible for them to exchange a single word.
When they finally step out into the heat again, Haru seems hesitant to pick up the flower from the hand cart. Makoto leans in to help and meets the familiar sensation of leaves brushing against his skin. His arms are already wrapped around the pot when Haru's voice throws him off.

“Is that what you do? You tame plants?“
Surprised, Makoto looks up. He has to blink against the glaring sun and raises a hand to be able to meet Haru's gaze, which is a bright contrast against his black hair. For a moment he has difficulty grasping what Haru is talking about but is ready to accept this odd wording as a way to describe his job. However, Haru seems to sense that his words haven't hit home, and he frowns.

“The leaves, they move after you. Wherever you go, they seem so hungry for your touch. Do they grow because they like you?“

Makoto's mouth feels dry. A car honks at him, but he doesn't move, and the car sways around their position with a string of curse words thrown from the driver's window. All color seems to drain from the environment as Makoto's panicked focus locks onto Haru's bright blue eyes, irises pulsing with something he has never seen before but feels drawn into immediately.
He has no words to reply, no way to explain what he doesn't understand. What he does know is that Haru is right. A stranger has caught onto what he's been trying to quell for years, hiding sprouts in the pockets of his jacket in winter where they managed to survive despite the cold and lack of sunshine, leaving trails of moonflowers in his bed when he gets up every morning. Honeysuckle decorates the walls of his apartment, sprouting from his wooden floor even though he never planted it there, and he can't deny the fact that his hydrangea seem to shoot faster than he's ever seen them grow anywhere else.

There's movement at the edge of his vision and Makoto turns his head just in time to see another car cutting the parking site's corner a little too tightly, bringing it dangerously close to their position. When he turns back, mind hazy with too many vines climbing the inside of his skull to think clearly, Haru is gone. There's a distinctive tug at his arm that Makoto doesn't give into, then a second, surprisingly forceful drag. He stumbles to the side and finds Haru staring at him, pupils blown wide. The car's honking resounds across the parking lot.

They stand in silence for a moment and Makoto tries to wrap his head around what just happened.
Haru saved him from being run over, he realizes slowly, and his own harsh breathing speaks volumes of the panic he can still feel coursing through his veins. Why he was unable to move, he couldn't say, but the vines in his head seem to untangle when Haru steps up to him and shakes him, hands on both shoulders.

“Makoto,“ He calls, and his voice is urgent. The carefully reserved tone is gone, what remains is a vulnerable edge that cuts deep into Makoto's soul. „Are you okay?“

Makoto nods numbly and raises his hands to close them around Haru's wrists. Haru's grasp seizes on his shoulders, but he doesn't resist.
“What if I make them grow? Do you think I'm crazy?“

Haru's brows shoot up, and only now can Makoto see that he's sweating, droplets trickling from his temple. There's a bitter twist to Haru's mouth when he exhales visibly, shoulders dropping.
“You're not crazy. Plants like you. There's nothing weird about that.“
Is it really that simple?

Myriads of memories swarm Makoto's mind again, flocking to his conscience like bees to the bluebells in spring. He's grown freesias from his desk at school, poppies from his mother's hair and peonies from his college locker. Carragheen moss covered his bed one morning, while Makoto himself found ivy climbing into his hair the day right after.
He always knew it was unusual, yet failed to find a way to prevent it from happening again. Attempts at hiding the oddities surrounding his everyday life drove him away from both friends and family into his late teenage years when finally, he learned to keep the plants in check. To this day, Makoto felt like he could afford to live a normal life and put his affinity to good use. His mother didn't even mention the bright red stock flowers he grew from her kitchen chair last year.

Now, having Haru both call him out on the impact his ability seems to have on his life and reassure him that there's nothing to worry about throws Makoto into a hurricane of emotions. He's never felt comfortable enough to reveal the anomaly that is his life to anybody before. Even past partners were left in the dark, sometimes wondering why Makoto preferred not taking them home even after months they spent together. On the other hand he is stunned by the other's way of simply accepting what Makoto himself has been trying to reign in for as long as he can think. Haru doesn't seem put off by this oddity, sees it as a fact that may be unusual but no less acceptable than any other.

A breeze cools Makoto's face and he kneels to regard the hydrangea still sitting on the hand cart. Its leaves bend ever so slightly to meet him when he reaches out, and their tips are cool to the press of Makoto's heated skin. He feels something stir beneath his ribcage and doesn't fight it for once, allows the forceful push of something powerful but not violent to guide his fingers along the plant's slim trunk. Shoots erupt from the branches where he touches them, sprouting into long leaves in a matter of seconds, and Makoto feels uncontainably jubilant at the sensation of sheer energy within the tips of his fingers. It's a display of life in its cleanest form, and he beams at Haru when he hears the young man approach from the side.

“See,“ Haru says, and the smile capturing his face is genuine, “It likes you. You're not crazy.“
This time, Makoto believes it.

Momentarily encouraged, he raises his head and asks, “Will you go out with me?“
Haru's irises flicker again, his face thrown open in surprise. He regards him with a mix of hesitation and wonder, then inclines his head just enough for Makoto to feel his heart pick up its pace.

“If I can pick a place, I'll go,“ He replies, and Makoto breathes a laugh, relieved and full of unbound delight.

Makoto sees Haru off after scribbling his phone number on the back of the cash receipt, which Haru tucks into the pocket of his jeans. This time Haru turns back to glance at Makoto before disappearing around the corner.

-

Meeting directly at the restaurant was Makoto's idea, and he regrets nothing when he closes in on the restaurant's location from the South.

He's nervous, has been nervous all day, and even now, after spending two and a half hours in front of a variety of clothing spread all over his bed, he isn't sure he picked the right set of clothes for the occasion. The brown vest seemed casual enough not to look overdressed, but Makoto isn't convinced if the white button-down he's wearing underneath won't seem like too much. Black jeans seemed appropriate eough for a fish restaurant, yet Makoto has spent the entire duration of his trip to Shibuya wondering if people's looks were those of benevolence or diapproval. He's trying to tell himself that he'll be alright either way, considering Haru was willing to talk to him when he was sweaty and covered in dirt. Still, the nagging feeling of inadequacy is making him knead the rubber ball in his pocket twice as hard as he walks.

Upon receiving a text from Haru on Thursday, Makoto dropped his watering can one too many times for Aki not to catch on.
Telling her about the upcoming date was not the worst thing to do, Makoto realized quickly when she started advising him on how it might not be smart to drive there by car, as the restaurant's neighborhood was supposedly crowded on weekends.

And really, now that he's walking along the fence to the Shinsen Children's Playground and takes a right turn, he finds himself surrounded by restaurants and bars. The street is positively jammed with cars, most of which are apparently looking for parking spots. Carefully, Makoto maneuvers past a supermarket's exit ramp and crosses the road at the next intersection to avoid a couple of women arguing in front of a barber shop. He doesn't pick up much besides their ire towards the hairdresser's rejection, and trudges on with a quick nod towards the women directing their attention at him in a way that makes Makoto truly relieved to arrive at the restaurant he's supposed to meet Haru at in – thirteen minutes, he reads from his watch.

The restaurant's front is welcoming enough for Makoto to be curious about its interior, its red roof lit by a handful of lanterns that make the paintings on the wall glow with color. Large fish are presenting the establishment's specialty, and bright yellow lettering identifies it as the place Makoto was looking for: Kaikaya By The Sea.

It takes another ten minutes for Haru to arrive, minutes that Makoto spends shuffling about in front of the entrance until a waiter opens the door for him and asks if he'd like to come in. He accepts the invitation with a surge of nerves and the desire to go back home, clinging to his wish to see Haru again in an attempt to calm down. The waiter shows him to the table Makoto reserved right after receiving Haru's text asking for a date with the specific request for them to meet at this very restaurant.
Hesitant to undress just yet, Makoto sits on one side of the small table and looks around.

It's crowded, just like the traffic outside suggested, but comfortably quiet. A cook is calling for the waiter who invited Makoto in, and the man takes off with a friendly bow. Surfboards decorate the far wall, accompanied by a multitude of paintings. A mermaid Makoto noticed on the building's front is greeting him from a nearby menu, presenting a rosefish in one hand and a seashell in the other. Kaikaya By The Sea, the menu reads, #1 in Shibuya seafood.

Despite his nerves, Makoto feels his spirits rise with the warm smell of rice and fish, and the large plates of sushi being delivered to the neighboring table finally alert him to his stomach's struggle for food. He realizes, belatedly, that breakfast was all he allowed himself to indulge in and that eight hours may be too long a time to go without any food at all.

Makoto is about to take a first look at the menu, if only to decide on what he wants to eat so he can order more quickly, when the door opens and Haru swings in with a timid nod at the waiter that showed Makoto to his table. Looking around, Haru finds him with ease and cuts through the room, seemingly unfazed by a group of young women turning after him with admiring glances and muted chatter.
Makoto understands their appreciation the moment Haru walks around the wardrobe and into full sight. His legs are clad in tight jeans, dark grey with faded parts on both knees and thighs. A black shirt and lighter grey blazer complement the look of casual indifference that fades as soon as Haru's eyes zone in on Makoto who is rushing to get up for a greeting. He almost trips over his stool's leg and his face feels like it must burst from the heat when he looks up again to find Haru smiling at him.
“I'm, uhm hi,“ He mutters intelligently and steps forward to offer Haru a seat, “It's good to see you. Are you – how are you? You're looking, uhm, looking really nice today. Not like you didn't look nice the last times I saw you, but – you know, that blazer is nice. Very nice.“
The other young man seems entirely too amused by his clumsy rambling, eyes flashing in the very same color his blazer's seams are woven with. Makoto feels himself drawn in by those eyes just as he did before, yet doesn't quite dare keep their gazes locked. He's aware that his face must be beet red by now, the women's table has started giggling in their general direction. Embarrassed, he steps back around the table after Haru sits down, feet tangling with the tablecloth. Haru catches the flower vase in the middle of the table with a quick swipe of his hand.

“I like the vest,“ Haru manages to reply with a small nod at Makoto's chest before replacing the vase. It's a simple compliment. Honest.
There's a soft rustling noise when Haru slips out of his blazer and gets up to put it on the coat rack. Makoto's hand is sneaking back into his pocket to close around his rubber ball, effectively clamping down on his rising anxiety. He tries to apologize but is interrupted by the waiter returning to their table with a small note pad and an easy smile. Bowing to Haru, he presents them both with the full menu, presented with pictures for each group of dishes. Makoto is expecting the man to retreat until they have made their choice, but is left in surprise when the waiter serves Haru with a glass of water and a second bow.

“Haru-kun,“ He greets with the same smile from before. Friendly and almost a little too familiar. “It's nice to see you in company this time around. Would you like the Assorted Sashimi, as usual?“

Haru nods in greeting, and Makoto is satisfied to notice his smile to be much slimmer than the waiter's. Much slimmer than the one Makoto received upon Haru's arrival, too.
“Yes please,“ He confirms but turns to Makoto without hesitation. “Please wait for my companion to choose before serving me though.“

The waiter's face falls a little at the polite rejection, but he brightens up quickly. Makoto admires his professionalism when the man asks them to call for him once they've made their choice, then turns around and walks off to the next table. He swallows around the receding lump in his throat.

“So you've been here before, and more than once, I take it?“ Haru nods, and Makoto feels even more stupid than he did during his rambling spree earlier. Of course Haru wouldn't insist on choosing the place if he didn't have experience with the restaurant and its food.

Makoto picks up his menu for distraction, but the dishes dance in front of his eyes until Haru speaks up. His voice is soft, but clear enough to ring across the table.

“What are these? Peonies?“ Haru is holding up the vase, eyeing the flowers with curiosity. “Don't peonies bloom in early summer?“

Makoto blinks and puts down his menu to lean in and take a look at the arrangement. They are indeed peonies, he realizes quickly. When he picks up the vase, his fingers brush against Haru's. They're surprisingly cold, as if he's just washed his hands in chilly water, but their touch is gentle. Carefully, Makoto pulls the flowers over and smells their blossoms. Their smell is sweet but much less prominent than he'd expect it to be on fresh flowers, the edges of the petals are rough against his nose when he pulls back.

“They're dried,“ He answers quickly and returns the vase to its position in the middle of the table. Haru leans in to get another look. “Normally they wouldn't be in bloom during this season, but they've been preserved. Honestly they're in really good condition, considering they must have been dead for a couple weeks at least.“
Haru purses his lips at that, sitting back on his chair to think.

“Doesn't it make you sad to know they're dead? They won't live to see another year.“

Makoto considers that idea for a moment before shaking his head. He's feeling calm now, focused on something he's good with and happy to share.
“The flowers wouldn't have survived anyway, their season was over. Also I doubt they cut down the whole shrub, so it's most likely still alive to see the next summer with fresh blossoms. To me, it's beautiful that we can preserve nature like this.“

Haru's face falls open with curiosity, and again Makoto falls victim to that blue gaze. He's still staring when Haru says, “I never thought about it like that. Your way of thinking is very special.“
Another one of those compliments. Its sincerity is throwing Makoto off, and he turns back to his menu.

“So, why did you want to eat here? Is there something you can recommend?“
Haru's eyes flash with a mixture of excitement and amusement that tells Makoto he's been waiting to answer that question.

“The sashimi is excellent,“ He gushes with surprising passion, “You get snapper, tuna, mackerel, yellowtail, shrimp and squid. The tuna collars are amazing too. If you like octopus, the grilled rock fish may be for you. The garlic and lemon seasoning is so good. Really though, what do you prefer? The special prawn sauce is fantastic if you're into spicy dishes. Oh, or maybe you like soup? They serve an unbelievable Miso Soup, the bowl contains more seafood than soup, really. There's too much to choose from if you like seafood.“

Makoto is blinking in awe by the time Haru is finished, startled by the amount of words that far exceed what Haru is usually willing to offer and amazed by the variety of dishes the other young man seems so excited about. From the diversity of recommended food alone he cannot choose, so he picks up his menu and tries to find what Haru suggested a moment ago. To his surprise, Haru slips from his stool and edges around the table to stand with Makoto and show him each of the dishes. His fingers dart across the paper, pointing at everything he listed and more. Again Makoto notices the tattoo on his forearm, delicate lines indicating the North and South directions with the circular compass design as their center. It's strangely fitting, he thinks, for somebody who seems to love fish so much to have this tattoo. Maybe Haru likes sailing? It would certainly explain the even tan to every inch of skin Makoto has laid eyes on so far.

When Makoto looks up to meet his eyes, Haru's cheeks are flushed from excitement, and his pupils are blown wide. Damn, he's beautiful. It's the first time Makoto considers kissing the other boy, but thinks better on it – it would be incredibly inappropriate to kiss him in public, especially on their first date. Still, the red glow on his cheeks doesn't fade until Haru rounds the table to sit back down and takes a sip from his water. His irises seem to flare for a second, then he quiets down, taking a peek at his own menu before putting it back on the table, obviously past the point of decision-making.

Makoto takes another moment to find out he wants the squid tempura with clams, garlic and lemon. Haru considers his choice for a moment before nodding, apparently satisfied. He orders for both of them and turns the waiter down another time when the guy tries to steal Haru for a drink at the bar after his dinner. Makoto finds he's becoming more annoyed with the man by the amount of times he's trying to hit on Haru, yet on the other hand it's impressive how Haru denies him so easily. The guy isn't unappealing, Makoto thinks, and the waiter's uniform does make his tall form look all the more attractive. Haru doesn't seem to agree, turning back to Makoto with a determined flick from one wrist that shows the waiter he's done talking.

“So,“ Haru says and watches Makoto with a hint of amusement in those blue eyes. “Why did you want to go out with me?“

Makoto blinks, realizes he should have expected this question and curses internally. He can feel his nerves fluttering with anxiety again, vines of ivy climbing the inside of his skull to slow his thoughts, and clamps down on the panic he knows is unwarranted. Instead of giving into the spiral of worry and self-doubt, he searches Haru's face for malicious intent and finds none.

“You don't think I'm weird,“ He answers simply, and now Haru is the one blinking curiously.

“Why would I think that?“

There's a beat of silence where Makoto feels like the whole room is waiting with bated breath for the truth he has to offer, then the chatter one table over picks up again and Makoto releases his breath. He rubs his neck and directs his gaze at the dried peonies, beautiful despite their demise, and figures that Haru deserves honesty. The boy has been nothing but friendly, his compliments unusual but never excessive. He says what he thinks, his words a terse reminder that there are still people who offer their mind instead of a charade.
Haru deserves to be treated as openly as he treats others, Makoto thinks and finally makes up his mind.

“I was sweaty when we first met,“ He swallows around the unpleasant memory of his shirt sticking to his back, too aware of Haru's eyes on his face. “You didn't judge. I asked the wrong questions and you made fun of me, but it wasn't judgmental. You noticed what I... the things I do.“ A nervous glance at the waiter passing by. “But you didn't think it's weird.“
Finally Makoto looks up and finds Haru's eyes that are flickering with something Makoto can't quite place. Sympathy?

The waiter returns and serves Makoto's grapefruit juice. Makoto is too caught up in Haru's eyes to even look at him when he offers his thanks, fingers fumbling blindly to find the cold glass and raise it for a quick sip.

“I don't have a right to judge the person you are,“ Haru finally says when the man has walked off with a sour reminder to call for him should there be the need. “I can only judge what I know, and nothing about that part is weird. You've been very nice to me.“
Makoto hurries to take a second sip of his juice before he can disagree, intent on not ruining his own mood for once. Haru seems to catch the sentiment from his rushed motions and the corners of his eyes crinkle in a way that makes something stir in Makoto's chest. He swallows thickly, voice stuck in his throat. Haru cocks his head to one side and huffs quietly.

“Does that mean you would go out with anyone who doesn't immediately judge you?“

Makoto can feel his brows shooting into his hairline, hands already rising to defend himself when Haru's lips tilt upwards the slightest bit. He pauses and snorts.
“You almost got me again.“

Haru's smile grows wider until he's grinning, and the boy quickly raises his glass against his lips to hide the obvious mirth on his face. They share a look of mutual amusement before the waiter interrupts them with their food, and Makoto forgets about the banter when his stomach growls. His mouth is watering from the smell alone.
They eat in relative silence, broken only by Haru's hums of approval and Makoto's impressed gushing about how good his tempura is. Over housemade cheesecake they talk about the hydrangea Haru bought, about his grandmother he got it for and her cooking skills.

“She seems like a charming lady,“ Makoto thinks aloud and receives a ringing laugh as a reply from Haru.

“She's really not,“ He says and grins around a bite of cheesecake. Makoto watches his lips move around his spoon, torn between his manners and the renewed wish to taste the cake from Haru's mouth. “She's the most stubborn old lady you will ever meet.“ His eyes grow softer, morning blue melting into something gentle, affectionate. “She's everything I've got.“

Makoto nods at that, too considerate to ask, and contemplates the idea of having a grandmother to care for instead.
“I have my mother,“ He offers, carefully, and watches Haru's face light up with curiosity. “And my siblings. My father died when I was fifteen.“

For a moment Haru looks like he wants to ask for details, then he falters and sits back, face stricken with a mixture of interest and worry. He turns the spoon over in his hand, doubts etched into his forehead.
Makoto smiles briefly, shoulders dropping with old grief.

“It was an accident. He went on business trips regularly, and his plane crashed. Nobody really knows why, but they fell into the North Pacific. It's likely that he drowned, they never found his body.“ Blindly his fingers find the leather band of his watch. “My siblings are much younger than I am, so my mom had her hands full after that. But she managed. I'll never not be grateful for what she's done for us.“

Haru's eyes are locked on the dark leather circling Makoto's wrist, forehead creased in a thoughtful frown.
“Did he give you that watch?“

Startled, Makoto lets go of the wristband. He nods and looks away.
“He wanted me to wear it for my birthday while he was gone, so he left it behind.“

The memories are old, the pain faded, and Makoto isn't even sure why he's telling a near-stranger about his family, but it doesn't feel wrong. There's an odd sense of relief to telling his story, like it's something he should have done a long time ago, and when Haru's cold fingers touch his wrist, Makoto meets his gaze without hesitation. Haru's touch is gentle, but not wary, his fingers circling around Makoto's arm until he finds his pulse. Makoto holds his breath when his blood seems to jump at the point of impact, nerves tingling with the brush of skin on skin.

Their eyes are locked together when Haru speaks up, his voice soft but full of sincerity.
“It looks good on you. I'm glad you're still wearing it.“

There's so much weight to his words, so much earnest feeling, and Makoto feels overwhelmed with the amount of understanding he's met with. There's no empty phrases with Haru, no small talk, just honest acceptance. It's all Makoto ever wanted. Carefully he turns his arm to rest his palm against Haru's, and their fingers lock together.

There's a second pulse against Makoto's now, and it's much faster than he would have guessed. Haru's cheeks are reddening again. He must be feeling it too.

They sit in silence, hands resting together, until the waiter approaches their table to pick up the empty plates. Panicking, Makoto tries to retrieve his hand but is met with the iron resistance of Haru's fingers closing around his wrist. He looks up to find Haru staring at him, lips pursed.
Makoto startles again when the waiter clears his throat, but Haru seems unfazed by the attention their linked hands are drawing. Unimpressed, he slides them over to the far end of the table to give the waiter enough space to pick up the dishes and is met with a pained expression from the man.

Makoto can only guess what this pointed gesture of rejection must feel like, and he's almost feeling sorry for the guy but is distracted from his bout of sympathy when Haru squeezes his hand. Easily he finds the other's eyes.
“I don't want this to be over yet. Walk with me?“

For a second Makoto isn't sure who's more surprised: him or the waiter, whose audible gasp makes Haru glare daggers at him. Haru's cool touch seems to repeat the question until Makoto finds the courage to squeeze his fingers and incline his head in the smallest of nods. It seems to be enough of an answer for Haru(,) who immediately perks up, shifting on his seat as he returns the nod with a small smile.
They share the bill and Haru seems honestly disgruntled about having to let go of Makoto's hand when they both retrieve their money. The waiter doesn't meet either of their eyes but bows politely before retreating into the kitchen. It's the cook who shows them out when they make their way for the door, offering cordial greetings to Haru and a friendly bow to Makoto.

They're not quite out in the open again when Haru's fingers find Makoto's hand again, and this time he returns their soft pressure right away.
It takes Makoto a ten minute walk to the Shinsen to realize that he doesn't even know where he's supposed to take Haru home to but decides to follow the young man when he boards the train for the Keio Inokashira line without hesitation. Several times Makoto sees people trail their eyes down their arms, but Haru stubbornly hangs on. It only occurs to Makoto when Haru edges closer to him to avoid a group of passengers that the boy seems uncomfortable on the busy train. Gently he squeezes his fingers and receives a grateful smile. They drive north and leave the train near Meiji university. Again Makoto is struck with the realization of how many things he doesn't know about Haru. Briefly he wonders if Haru is a student at the university but drops the thought when Haru retrieves a key from the pocket of his jeans and unlocks a small blue car parked near the southern exit of the campus.

“I'll take the car from here,“ He admits and glances at their linked hands, then back up at Makoto's face.
Makoto purses his lips, hesitant himself to let go just yet.
“Is it a long drive from here? I have no clue where you live.“

Haru meets his questioning gaze with a smile. Again his eyes crinkle at the corners, and Makoto feels his heart skip a beat.
“Where do you think?“

It's a tough question, and Haru knows it, Makoto is sure. He swings their hands back and forth and pulls Haru around the car in a wide arc. Haru follows, laughing.
“Kanagawa prefecture,“ He reads from the license plate and frowns at the implication. “You don't live in Tokyo.“

Haru tilts his head and shrugs. He seems unfazed by the fact that his drive home must take at least an hour from where they are.
“I don't. Do you?“

Makoto nods, brows still drawn together. He cups Haru's cheek with his free hand and watches the blue of his eyes melt the same way they did earlier until they look like ponds in the morning sun. Haru tilts his head to the side and rests his face against Makoto's hand, skin warm where it connects.

“I do. Can I see you again anyway?“

Haru's shoulders twitch with a chuckle, breath ghosting over Makoto's palm. He bows his head to press his lips against the heel of Makoto's hand, and Makoto holds his breath. His lips are warm, much warmer than his hands, and as soft as Makoto imagined them to be. For a moment Haru stays there, mouth firmly pressed against his skin, then he pulls back, eyes never leaving Makoto's.

“I'll visit you, don't worry,“ He hums around a smile and raises their joined hands. “You'll have to let me go for now, though.“

The wind picks up and brushes strands of black hair from behind Haru's ears. They fly around his face, and Makoto reaches out to swipe them back. Haru's cheek is warm under his touch, weight of his head immediately pressing into his palm again. There's a soft whimper when Haru turns his face further into his hand, lashes fluttering when his eyes close, and Makoto's heart seizes with the urge to be closer than this.
Conscious thought seems like something that is lost on Makoto when he leans in and lifts Haru's chin with his hand, noses brushing against each other. Haru sighs quietly as if this is exactly what he needed and his fingers squeeze Makoto's when their lips finally touch.

It's a hesitant kiss at first, too careful to be passionate, but the way their hands seize around each other speaks volumes of both their need for this, the smell, the taste, the touch. Makoto's blood surges in his body when Haru wraps his free arm around his neck and pushes up, lips craving more. He circles Haru's waist with his arm, bodies sliding together in a way more natural than anything Makoto has experienced before. There's simply nothing else he could have done, needing the breath Haru must have been holding in anticipation all this time.

There's a smile on Haru's lips, and Makoto can feel it against his mouth, its pressure gentle but firm, unyielding, as if Haru refuses to back off just yet.

It's not Makoto's first kiss, but it is the first one that matters, the kiss that makes him realize he doesn't want to kiss anyone else after today. It's like something explodes inside of him, like his soul is set ablaze with need and want and please don't let this end.

Haru keeps pushing until Makoto's back hits the car and honestly by this point Makoto doesn't remember how to breathe. He draws the air he needs from their points of contact, from the way Haru's hair seems to glow in the setting sun of the day, from the heady taste of cheesecake on his lips.
Their hands are squeezed against Makoto's thigh, but even so he feels the soft touch of young leaves climbing along his fingers, snaking around their wrists. Haru seems to feel them too, and he draws back far enough to look down. Makoto is tempted to hide their hands, trying to yank his fingers from Haru's firm grasp, but Haru hangs on, curious rather than frightened. A pensive hum stirs the space between them – heavens, when did that distance evaporate? – as he raises both their hands to eye the small branches erupting from Makoto's palm like they're rooted there, white buds springing forth between his fingers.

“Gardenia,“ Haru huffs incredulously, “You're growing gardenia.“
Makoto whines softly, desperately looking for a way to slip away without disappointing Haru, but Haru turns to look at him for a mere second before surging against his mouth for another kiss, this one rougher than the first. Makoto is stunned for a moment, face hot with a mixture of embarrassment and panic. He can feel his fingers twitch where the buds start to open, blossoms pushing into the space between their palms as if yearning for the sun, as if Haru is what they need. There's no attempt from Haru to push back, to crush the life growing between them, and finally Makoto dares kiss him back.
It's like falling into the kiss with his whole body, giving in, and Haru catches him easily. When another gust of air pushes Haru's bangs into Makoto's eyes, he laughs. The wind tastes like relief now.

When Haru pulls back, their noses touch and Makoto steals a last kiss from Haru's lips before dropping the arm wrapped around Haru's waist. A few loose leaves are carried away by the breeze and Haru catches them with his hand.

“Definitely gardenia,“ He mutters under his breath.
Makoto can still feel the blush on his nose but decides to pay it no mind this time. Smiling, he regards Haru, takes in the curve of his lower lip and the sharp line of his nose. Blue eyes watch him intently.

There are no words for this moment, no coherent thought that would fit the feeling in Makoto's chest, so he settles for a glance at his watch. Haru follows the motion with his eyes, mouth twitching.
“You're nervous,“ He says, and it's not a question. “Are you feeling weird again?“

Makoto feels his shoulders tense and tries not to look guilty. Hesitantly he looks back up and nods. There's a gentle sigh when Haru raises his hand holding the leaves and opens it, allowing the wind to take what's his and carry the unassuming green across the parking lot. He raises their joined hands and carefully pries his fingers from Makoto's without tearing the blossoms from the stems. A large white flower rests in his palm, two smaller blossoms peak from between his fingers.

“This,“ Haru states simply, “This is too beautiful to be weird.“
Makoto stares at him, too stunned to answer. It seems so easy to accept, so easy to take for the truth. Everything seems so easy with Haru.

Something about his expression must have changed because Haru leans back and smiles openly. He cups the flower sitting in Makoto's palm with his hand and inclines his head.
“What are you doing with this? It can't stay there, right?“

Makoto rolls his eyes in fond exasperation. Of course he can't walk around with flowers growing from his hand, yet he's had to find ways to hide them too often already. This time there's no need to stuff them into his pockets until he's home, and so finds the flower's stem with his other hand and gently pries it from his skin. There's a sharp sting upon removing the stalk from his palm, but no blood. Carefully Makoto repeats the process for the other two blossoms growing between his fingers and places all three of them in Haru's hand.

“Take them along,“ He says and closes his hand around Haru's. “Maybe your grandmother likes them.“

This time it's Haru who rolls his eyes.
“These are flowers you grew yourself. On yourself. I'm not giving them to anybody.“

Makoto feels his hand slipping into his hair before he can help himself. He laughs sheepishly.
“Fair enough. Just make sure to cut them before you put them into water.“

Haru nods earnestly, fingers closing around the flowers. He watches Makoto for a long moment, searching and, apparently, finding something in his expression that makes the corners of his eyes crinkle again.
“I will,“ He replies before raising his head to look up at the darkening sky. “I should get going.“

Makoto is trying his hardest to clamp down on the feeling of disappointment stirring in his stomach but doesn't quite manage. The air is filled with the fresh smell of the gardenia flowers and Makoto doesn't feel ready to let go just yet, but Haru is turning to open the driver's door.

“Haru,“ Makoto calls and takes a step forward. “When will I see you again?“

Haru glances at him over one shoulder, eyes glowing in the shine of the lanterns snapping to life now. A genuine smile claims his features, lips curling with it.

“Soon,“ He promises and slips into the car, “I'll text you.“

A heavy sigh grounds Makoto as he watches Haru close the driver's door, and he steps off to the side to allow the car to pass through. The wind brushes against his mouth and makes his lips tingle with the memory of their kissing. His face is burning hot when he makes his way back to the train station.

-

Makoto spends the evening tending to his balcony, cleaning fallen leaves and fertilizing the soil of his potted plants. The lanterns mounted on his walls illuminate the space filled with small trees, with pots full of herbs and flowering shrubs, as he works. When he catches himself checking the clock for the umpteenth time, he finally gives up and grabs his phone from the table. With nervous fingers he starts typing.

Hey, Haru. It's Makoto.

He pauses, stares at the screen and deletes the whole line. Of course it's Makoto, Haru probably has his number saved anyway. A vine brushes against his leg and he startles, almost dropping his phone over the railing. Frowning, Makoto slips back into the apartment and sits at the kitchen table.

Hey, did you get home safely?

For a moment Makoto hesitates, considers the possibility that Haru might feel bothered by his concern, and his finger hovers over the Send button until a shadow leaps into his lap and almost makes him drop the phone again. When he regains his balance and checks the screen, the text has been sent. A sigh falls from Makoto's lips and he puts the phone on the table to wrap both arms around the bundle of red fur kneading his thighs with determination.

“You're impossible,“ He chides the cat who immediately stretches up to rub her head against his chin. Laughing, he scratches her ears which makes her purr and go back to pawing at his legs. “I wasn't even gone that long, Rina.“

His phone buzzes, and Makoto feels his focus shift immediately. He runs a hand along Rina's spine and unlocks the screen with his other hand.

I got home fine.

Makoto purses his lips at the curtness of the reply but considers putting away the phone to avoid getting on Haru's bad side when the screen flashes again.

Eating with you was very nice. I'd like to do that again.

A wave of joy sweeps through Makoto's body. He picks up the phone and braces his forearms against Rina's back to type.

I liked it a lot, too! The squid was amazing.

He almost writes You were amazing, too but catches himself just in time. His face feels about to split open with the grin he can't cage in as memories of their kisses flash before his eyes. Quickly he presses Send to keep his fingers from making a mistake.

Rina meows at him and presses her back upwards against his touch to demand scratches. Makoto gives in easily, waiting for his phone to buzz again. When his screen finally lights up, Makoto is surprised to find an image attached to the text.

Your hydrangea loves my garden.

The picture shows the flower in question on a wide patio, blooming in mesmerizing shades of blue that are just bright enough to stand out against the low light of half a dozen torches surrounding the patio. There's a vast darkness beyond, broken by something that looks like a large mirror, and Makoto realizes it's a lake. A line of lanterns in the far distance indicates a road or even a promenade along the waterside. He only notices he's been shifting around on his chair when Rina digs her claws into his knee to make him stop moving, and he flings a string of curses at her as he pries her paw from his leg.

You live by a lake! His fingers fly across the screen too quickly and he has to correct half the sentence before sending it off. Is that why you like our water gardens so much?

Haru's reply is spontaneous, and Makoto feels himself grinning widely at it.

I like water. I also like you.

Not sure if it's appropriate to return the confession, Makoto turns the phone over in his hands. Rina rubs her cheek against it, demanding more of his attention, but Makoto isn't ready to give it to her just yet. The confession that Haru likes water doesn't come as a surprise, really, considering his love for fish and his tendency to reach into the ponds at the garden center. The ink adorning his skin makes even more sense now.

Makoto starts typing but is interrupted by another text from Haru. It contains a picture of a plain water bowl holding a bunch of pebbles and the gardenia flowers Makoto gave to him floating on the surface.

I know you like me too.

Warmth floods Makoto's cheeks. He recognized the flower and its meaning immediately as it started growing from their linked hands but kept hoping that Haru might have missed it. That hope, he realizes now, was in vain from the beginning, and Makoto isn't quite sure if it's unnerving or relieving to know that he doesn't have to say it. He swallows against the nervous twist of his stomach. Rina settles into his lap, back pressed up against his belly, and her purring eases his nerves enough for him to type out a reply.

I do. I wouldn't have kissed you otherwise.

His hands find Rina's head, fingers digging into the warm fur.
It takes a moment for Haru to text again, and Makoto uses the time to shower his cat with the affection she deserves for being his comfort pillow. Too many times has he come home unnerved or upset. Every single time Rina seemed to sense his agitation and sought him out, small body vibrating with bouts of purring that seem to soak through Makoto's nerves and make him feel at ease again. It's another thing he is grateful to his mother for. It was her who brought Rina home, having found her outside in the rain with nothing but a trash bag to protect her from the rain, deciding on a whim that having a cat would be good for her oldest son. Makoto couldn't have agreed more.

When his phone flashes and he picks it up again, there's a stubborn little claw poking his thigh to remind him of his duty to provide head rubs, and he complies absentmindedly.

I'll be busy this week, so I don't think I can come see you. Maybe there's time on the next weekend. I will let you know.

Makoto directs a dry smile at the phone and sighs.

“Of course he's busy now, it's not like I want to kiss him again as quickly as possible,“ He mutters under his breath and meets Rina's insistent nudges with one hand. “He also totally didn't ignore my text there.“

That's okay, you've got work to do I'm sure. That reminds him of how little he knows about the other's everyday life. I don't think I asked before, what do you do?

Haru's reply is quick.

Local water resource management and ecosystem conservation. I check on bodies of water and their inhabitants.

Makoto blinks and reads the text again. The official label sounds complicated, but Haru's interpretation seems easy enough.

I think that suits you! Do you like swimming?

It's been too long since he's last taken a real dip, Makoto thinks as he tries to remember the last time he sunk into more than his tub. When his mind tries to picture Haru approaching a pool with nothing but swimwear on, he has to forcefully interrupt his train of thought to stop the heat already crawling up his neck.

I've spent most of my life near water. Of course I like swimming. Don't you?

I used to be in my middle school's swim club, but my high school didn't have one, so I didn't swim much since then, Makoto admits. Rina yawns and makes him glance at the clock above the sink. 11:21pm. He winces.

Hey, Haru. Aren't you tired?

Haru doesn't start typing immediately this time. With the amount of texts they've been sending back and forth Makoto is considering to just call Haru for an easier exchange but isn't sure if the quiet boy would appreciate that. He sighs and gets to his feet, pulling Rina onto his arms to give her a quick full-body snuggle before setting her down. She meows indignantly and stalks over to the kitchen counter where she knows her food is waiting in a closed cabinet.

Makoto passes away the time until his phone buzzes on the table by feeding his cat and changing out of his dirty balcony clothes. When Haru replies, he snatches the phone off the table immediately, half tripping over Rina's food bowl. She glares.

Too tired. I just dozed off.

Makoto winces sympathetically.
It's gotten very late. Do you want to sleep?

I don't think I could stay up even if I wanted to, Haru replies right away. I will text you tomorrow. Thank you for dinner and the walk back, it was very nice.

Makoto is making his way through the bathroom and to the back of his apartment where his bed awaits while reading. He almost stumbles over one of the large tree ferns growing from underneath the carpet in his hall.

Thank you, Haru! It was a lovely day, I wish it wasn't so late already. Please sleep well.

Haru types, deletes something and starts typing again. He repeats this a whole four times, and Makoto settles into bed with his phone, waiting patiently. Rina joins him a moment later, her cat food breath the aroma of Makoto's nightmares. He swats at her when she tries to lick his face, now at her height, and turns around to stare at his phone's screen. There's a muffled yawn as the cat flops down at his back, her weight settling in between Makoto's shoulder blades.

By the time Haru finally sends his text, Makoto feels his own eyes droop. He blinks owlishly at the brightness of his screen glowing with the new message, then startles and stares, suddenly much more awake.

It was my first kiss. I'm glad I didn't waste it. Good night, Makoto.

Makoto stifles a curse, reads the text again and groans. He rubs his face with one hand, then buries it into his pillow. Incredulous, he recalls the events in the parking lot, remembers the taste of Haru's breath on his lips and the feeling of the other's arms around his neck. There was no way he could have known –

You're kidding, right? That couldn't have been your first kiss? Oh god I'm sorry, I didn't mean to steal it, Haru! I'm so sorry, that was never my intention!

The ticks next to his message don't change to green to indicate Haru read it, and his account doesn't show as Online anymore. Makoto spends the next thirty minutes with his eyes glued to the screen, mind spinning and conscience rebelling, until he finally concludes that Haru either succumbed to his exhaustion or is too upset to still read his messages. Sleep finds him much too late, and he dreams of stolen kisses and overgrown lakesides.

-

Haru doesn't text on Sunday. His status changes to Online twice during the day, and Makoto's message displays the Read symbol the second time around, but there is no reply.

His mother drops by in the afternoon and they cook together, talking about work and the twins, the tan lines on Makoto's arms (his mom finds them endearing, while he feels a blush creeping up his neck) and their plans for the upcoming week.
Ran and Ren are spending the late summer heat at the local swimming pool, and even though Makoto is slightly jealous of their amount of free time, he admits that it's his own fault for not joining them at the pool when he's off work. They consider spending the next weekend together until his mother realizes she's got work on Saturday but insists that Makoto take his siblings out for the day anyway. He's hesitant to agree at first, remembering full well that Haru mentioned being busy all week but desperate to hope for a date at its end.

It's a tug of war inside of him, trying to decide if he wants to let his mom in on his crush, and despite the fact that she's always been supportive, Makoto isn't sure he's ready to share his feelings just yet. They've never talked about his abilities and she graciously ignores the way bellflowers climb his kitchen walls, roots hidden underneath the floor boards, or that strawberries grow from his cabinet. It's an open secret, one they've silently agreed not to mention over the years, but something Makoto has never really let on is his sexuality, and he's always tried to keep his mother out of his relationships for that very reason. A girlfriend is not something he'd have to hide, of course, but Haru is quite far from that.

In the end Makoto decides to wait and see where time will take him with Haru. He agrees to pick up his siblings on Saturday to take them on a trip to Shiroyama Park. He's always loved strolling around the Flower Park and its terrace garden, while Ran is an avid fan of water sports, and they've taken multiple trips to Shiroyama for its proximity to Tsukui Lake in the past. Ren usually tags along for everything they set their minds to, satisfied with observing the swans and, sometimes, the owls that hunt near the lakeside as the sun sets.

-

Monday morning begins too early and, as Makoto finds with a disappointed sigh, with too many clouds covering the sky.
It doesn't get light until after eleven, heavy grey covers only interrupted by the occasional lightning strike in the distance. It's quiet at the garden center, with few customers outside the normal Monday pick-up clients who recollect their batches of flowers for their business.

Aki argues with a young boy who is trying to discern peach trees from apple trees in foliage and fruit and fails but refuses to admit it. It's quite the sight, Makoto finds and leans on the stick of his rake to watch as they discuss the fact that peaches are fuzzy while apples are not. The boy complains that nobody taught him about that fact, and while Aki is still trying to explain that their education system must be lacking in terms of proper botanical literacy, his mother comes to pick him up and interrupts the show at its peak.

“What do these kids even go to school for,“ Aki groans and shakes long strands of strawberry blonde hair out of her face. The wind has picked up an hour ago, driving clouds across the horizon at an alarming speed. The air smells like rain, Makoto thinks and hurries to finish raking the soil around the young pine trees.

When Aki sends him to feed the koi in the water garden, he scurries along the rows of potted plants they have transported into the vicinity of the subtropical hall to be able to put them inside in case of heavy rain. The ground is slippery where Aki watered the angel's tears, he realizes too late and almost dives face first into one of the hedges surrounding the water garden.
Thunder cracks through the air and Makoto swears he can smell the soil opening up in anticipation of the downpour that is sure to come soon when a voice cuts through to him.

“Your purple star lotus is growing too big. You should cut it back. In time, it will cover the entire surface. The oxygen content seems quite low already.“

Startled, Makoto perks up, head snapping into the direction he didn't expect that familiar voice to be coming from today.
And really, Haru is sitting near the small pond on the East side of the garden, a blue plastic box by his side and a test tube apparently containing water in one hand. He's shaking it resolutely, watching its color turn a very light blue. Humming to himself, he retrieves a clipboard from the box and adds something to his record.

Makoto can't help but stare, entirely too confused to reply to the accusation. He flinches as another bolt of thunder shakes the air, feeling like every single hair on his arms is raising with the electric tingle of the storm brewing above. His neck is prickling with the same sensation, and he stares over his shoulder to glance at the entrance to the subtropical hall.

From the corner of his eye he sees Haru get up, shaking his head to get the hair out of his eyes. Curious, he turns again to watch the boy empty the test tube back into the pond, faint ripples spreading from the point of impact.

“Haru, why are you here? Didn't you say you were going to be busy?“

There's a small twitch at the corner of Haru's mouth before he straightens up and turns his face into the wind.

“I am busy, yes. You never asked me where I was working, though. I'm responsible for the aquacultures in this center, so I check in regularly. Thanks to our chats last week I had to delay my monthly tests, so I'm back now.“

Makoto can feel his jack slacken and knows, he just knows he must be looking like an idiot, but it's nothing compared to how stupid he's feeling. His eyes dart from the logo on Haru's white polo shirt to the very same logo on his blue box – a testing kit, Makoto realizes now – and something finally clicks.

“You're the aquaculturist. Your name –“ Makoto thinks hard, tries to remember, and he sees Haru's lips twitch again, “Your last name is Nanase, isn't it. You were checking on the aquariums last week.“

Haru's brows furrow.
“I'm not an aquaculturist. Not really. Aquaculture is more about breeding fish and less about the purity of water. I focus on keeping the lakes clean and safe. I don't like aquaculture. It's polluting the ocean.“

They share a look, and Makoto is painfully aware of how shortsighted it was to not draw this conclusion from the start. He could have asked for Haru's full name, he should have realized that nobody visits a garden center just to look at its ponds. There's a beat of silence before Haru steps up to him and finds his hand to put his own fingers into, blue eyes never leaving his face.
Makoto watches the storm swipe dark strands of hair into Haru's face, and the boy tries to shake them back but loses the fight against the blasts of wind pushing against him from behind. For a moment he considers pulling back and leaving Haru here, as some sort of childish punishment for not telling him the whole truth in the first place, but he figures he should have known better after Haru led him on a merry dance before.

Carefully he combs his fingers through those dark strands, pushing them back and holding them there so he can look Haru in the eyes. They seem darker than usual, he thinks, the irises framed by a rich grey ring he hasn't noticed before. He remembers the last text he received from Haru on Saturday evening and feels his forehead crease in thought.

“You're so brutal with your honesty, yet you keep secrets for your entertainment. Why didn't you let me know who you were? I kept you from doing your work in the end. And why didn't you tell me you hadn't kissed before? I wouldn't have – I didn't mean to...“

Haru interrupts him, eyes blazing with a sudden intensity Makoto can't look away from. His voice is low, but there's an edge to it that almost sounds angry.

“I told you who I was. I'm Haru. You're too hung up on knowing everything when you're not ready to understand everything at all. I made the decision to talk to you instead of working, which is why I'm too busy to go out with you this week, but it was worth it. I'd do it again. I'd kiss you again, too. Don't assume I didn't want it when I was right there to deny you all along.“

Makoto blinks once, then again, before he remembers to close his mouth. He's feeling called out for some reason, like he's the one causing this whole mess, and he's about to apologize when Haru's eyes crinkle at their corners. There's a fondness to the expression, like a hidden meaning only Makoto can see, that makes him feel like he didn't mess up after all.

A first heavy drop of water lands on Makoto's head, making him peek at the sky just in time to see twin bolts of lightning cutting through the cloud cover at once. Haru's fingers seize in his hand, and Makoto turns to see him raise himself on tiptoes, eyes glued to the spots the lightning struck down from. His pupils are blown wide, eyes impossibly dark, and the hand Makoto holds is shivering. He squeezes it, not sure if Haru is cold in the wind or simply excited about the promise of rain.
Rain is water, too, he thinks, so maybe it's for that reason that Haru seems to be glowing with anticipation now. Makoto on the other hand is very sure that he should finally do what he came for and feed the fish before Aki comes searching for him. The prospect of having Aki find them holding hands is embarrassing at the very least, and he wouldn't want her to finish their work by herself.

With a regretful sigh, Makoto pulls back and lets go of both Haru's hand and his hair that he's been keeping out of the boy's face. Thick drops of rain are starting to fall now, sprinkling the path with a pattern of differently sized dots. The rich earthy smell Makoto knows and loves is starting to rise from the ground, warm but pleasantly refreshing.

“I have to feed the koi and get back to work,“ He admits, “And I think you're still working too, right?“

Haru blinks past the curtain of hair the wind is hiding his face behind, dancing with every gust of air.

“I have to perform tests on two more ponds, then I'm heading over to the fish farms. I don't think I'll have much time to chat before I leave, the koi basins are a disaster.“

Makoto can feel his face fall. Haru himself seems largely unsatisfied with the prospect himself, but doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth. Sighing, he kneels to retrieve some sort of sensor and monitor, connected with a long cable, from his testing kit.

“I may be home early tomorrow; I'll text you then.“

Tomorrow. Tuesday. Makoto feels his shoulders rise and tense. He smiles but feels the awkwardness in his own expression.
“I won't be home tomorrow evening. Tuesdays are busy for me. Maybe the day after?“

Luckily for him, Haru doesn't ask. He shrugs, unimpressed, and turns to the pond he's about to run tests on. Rain is making his shirt stick to the line of his shoulders.
“Fine by me. Just let me know when you're available then.“

Makoto releases a breath he didn't know he was holding and nods before realizing Haru's got his back turned on him. He hums his agreement and hurries down the path to retrieve the bucket of koi pellets from the wooden storage box near the garden's exit. Feeding the fish is a quick task, one he doesn't need a lot of attention for, and he can feel his focus slip when he sees Haru's shirt ride up his back as the boy squats down to lower his sensor into the large pond at the other end of the water garden. His skin there is tan, Makoto notices immediately, much more so than he thinks his own back would be, and it speaks of hours upon hours spent shirtless. Makoto can feel his mouth grow dry.

Haru did mention that he likes swimming, that he likes all kinds of water, really, so this shouldn't come as a surprise at all, but Makoto's brain seems to short-circuit at the idea of seeing the boy topless. The curve of his hips is toned, his spine framed by ridges of muscle as he leans forward. Does he work out in his free time?
As if sensing the attention, Haru slowly turns to look over his shoulder, a cheeky smile on his face. Makoto's head snaps around and he realizes belatedly that he's overfeeding the koi in the star lotus pond. Quickly he moves on to the next basin, finishing his job there in record time.

As he stands next to Haru to feed the fish in the pond the other boy is working on, Haru whips his hand from the water as if burned. He reads numbers from the monitor in his other hand, proceeding to scribble them onto his clipboard as if nothing happened. Makoto eyes him for a moment to see if his hand is alright but can't find anything out of the ordinary.
Pushing dripping hair back from his own forehead, he walks up to the water to toss a handful of pellets into the pond. A warm weight settles against his leg, just heavy enough for him to shift his own center of gravity onto the other foot. Makoto looks down and finds Haru leaning against him, shoulder pressing against his thigh.

“I didn't sleep well,“ the boy mutters and fishes the sensor from the water to put it back into his tool box.

Makoto watches him for a moment, heart swelling with the unexpected contact. It's adorable how Haru's head seems to be too heavy for himself to hold up at the moment, hair drooping with its additional weight from being soaked. Carefully Makoto kneads a hand into his hair, massaging his scalp in gentle circles. Haru is relaxing into the touch, and when he rests his cheek against the other's hip, Makoto feels like he might burst with happiness.

“Oh, you've got to be kidding me!“ Aki's voice is nearly drowned out by a crack of thunder over their heads.

Makoto startles enough to drop the whole handful of pellets he's been holding into the pond, adding to the original amount of food by entirely-too-much, and Haru sits up so quickly he almost slips on the edge of the pond that is sodden from the rain. Makoto grabs the white collar with his now-empty hand, feeling the embarrassment crawl up his neck with a prickling burst of heat.

Hesitant to look up, Makoto hurries to let go of Haru's shirt and retrieves the last share of pellets from the bucket of koi food before returning it to the storage box.

“I'm almost done!“ The high-pitched edge to his voice is audible even to Makoto's own ears, and he sees Haru wince sympathetically from the corner of his eye.

Aki is watching him, hands on her hips, before turning on her heel and running back to the arboretum, calling “You better be“ over her shoulder. Makoto can barely hear her over the blood rushing in his ears.
There's a soft nudge against his arm when Haru steps up to him. Makoto snaps around, a dozen different thoughts spinning in his head.

“Isn't she your boss? I think you should get going,“ Haru says and squeezes his elbow with one hand.

“Superior,“ Makoto grinds out, dropping the remaining pellets in one fell swoop. The wind picks up the lighter pieces and throws them into the grass. Haru's eyes are critical as he kneels to pick up what he can. He waves off Makoto's apology and shoos him away once more, insisting that he make sure not to get himself into trouble.

It's hard to approach Aki when Makoto returns to the outdoors exhibition. When he glances at the large clock above the entrance to the indoors halls, he realizes with a start that “feeding the koi“ took him half an hour.
Aki is watching him from the entrance area, relatively dry where she's working, and straightens up when he tries to sneak past her.

“Oh, don't you dare run off now,“ She huffs, and Makoto is surprised to see a smile in her eyes despite the annoyed twist to her mouth. “This is your date? You had the nerve to go ahead and tell me you hadn't met the guy when in reality you were going out with him? I wanted to meet him!“

Makoto stares at her, dumbfounded, unable to remember any coherent way to phrase his thoughts for the moment. He was expecting to be reprimanded for slacking off on the job but forgot about Aki's original request to check out the “Nanase guy“ for her. In retrospect it's obvious that he couldn't have fulfilled her wish, not having known who Haru was in the first place, but Aki seems half-indignant, half-amused by the situation at hand.

“He's cute, damn it! I would have liked a chance at least. Then again...“ She eyes Makoto up and down and sighs. “If he's into you, I doubt he would have been into me. Still!“

Aki proceeds to rant about how Makoto should have told her the truth right away until he finally grasps what little coherence he can force into his thought process and explains the situation to her. For a long moment Aki seems incredulous, and Makoto can't blame her for doubting his story. It's a real mess, and he knows it. Then, finally, the exasperation slips from her features and she snorts.

“Well he's definitely handsome,“ She admits and grins when Makoto nods a little too quickly, “And you're obviously head over heels for him. Relax, I'm not even mad. It's harder for you to hook up with someone than it is for me, I guess, and I'll still hear about him if you're spending your time with him, so it's barely a loss.“

Makoto feels his shoulders sagging with relief, shivering when a gust of air hits him from behind. The rain has drenched his shirt and hair, and with the stormy wind the weather feels more like a mild day in fall than late summer. Aki is eyeing him critically before waving him into the subtropical hall.

“Go in, get warmed up,“ She orders, “Can't have you getting sick. I still need you to tell me everything about your date, now more so than ever.“
Makoto is happy to comply, seeking the heated air in the halls while trying to sort his thoughts. Haru is still outside, where the thunderstorm has reached its peak and the rain is pelting against the ground, making shrubs shed their last blossoms and the young trees rock with the wind. He can see the entrance to the water gardens from where he tends to the ferns, but there's no white shirt peeking through the hedge, no bright blue eyes shining in the distance.

It's late in the afternoon when Makoto's phone buzzes in his pocket, and he's alarmed at first, considering he never receives messages at this hour, but blinks in elated surprise upon retrieving his phone. The text is from Haru. Wiping his hands on his working shorts, Makoto swipes at a smudge on his display before opening the messaging app.

I miss you. Got some extra work to do here, so I can't come for a chat again today. Koi breeding is disgusting.

Makoto catches himself snorting at his phone but feels familiar warmth spreading through his chest at the introduction. Haru is missing him.
Are you going to be okay out there? It's still raining.

It takes a while for Haru to reply, and Makoto uses his time to prune the potted honeysuckle. They leaves follow his movements, branches seeking his touch even when he's cutting parts off them as if they know it's necessary for their growth. When the soft buzzing of a new message vibrates against his thigh again, Makoto takes a moment to finish trimming the tall woodbine plants before checking his phone. Again he leaves dark smudges on the screen and rolls his eyes.

I'm fine. Any weather is good so long as it matches the season. Do you get sick easily?

His mother would say so, Makoto knows, but her iron constitution is hard to match in any case. Smiling, he texts back.
Not really. Sniffles happen, but I spend too much time outside to be susceptible to weather or cold.

Haru doesn't send another message until Makoto is back home and freshly showered, damp hair dripping onto his display. It's almost impossible to have a clean screen by this point, Makoto figures(,) and gives up wiping at it.

My grandmother liked your hydrangea a lot. Can you pick another one to match the one you sold me last time?

Smiling, Makoto sits at his table and kicks at Rina who's trying to lick his bare toes. She's stubborn about it so he ends up picking her up and putting her into his lap to remove her from the vicinity of his feet.
Of course! I'll do it tomorrow morning. Did you get home okay today? It's quite the drive for you.

The reply is quick this time, and Makoto can already assume Haru has made it home just fine if he's got time to tend to his phone now.

It's normal. I wouldn't want to move anyway.

Makoto already starts typing when another message pops up on his screen, and he freezes.

Why are Tuesdays busy for you?

Rina perks up when Makoto tenses, mouth twisting as he stares at his phone, unsure how to reply. Tuesdays are therapy days, so he spends the afternoon with his psychologist.
For a moment he doesn't want to answer, feels like he should put his phone away and leave Haru in the dark for once. He's ready to put his phone away and try to find distraction in cooking shows or a gardening magazine, but something is holding him back. Minutes pass, and Makoto is still struggling to decide on a course of action. Haru can probably see he's still online. He's not going to push the question if Makoto doesn't reply, or so Makoto hopes, but a small voice at the back of his head is questioning his insecurity.

“Why would you want to keep it a secret?“ It asks.
“Why would you try to hide it? He already knows you're weird. If he's okay with your flowers, he'll be okay with your brain.“

Shivers run up and down Makoto's spine as he considers the possibility of just telling Haru, revealing his weakness to somebody he barely knows. Chances are that Haru wouldn't mind. But what if he does? Is it going to trample the shoot of emotion between them Makoto is putting his hopes into?

He's overthinking, Makoto knows, and it's something his therapist told him not to spend too much time with. A leap of faith is the only choice he sees, so he takes it.
I'm seeing my therapist. I've suffered from anxiety since I've been a teenager, so Tuesdays are reserved for therapy.

Now he's putting the phone away and squeezing his eyes shut against the pressure behind his brows, brain clocking out with a sudden bout of silence. Rina's purring is drowning out the pounding of his heart, but he still feels it underneath his ribs, loud and agitated, hammering against his throat as if to accuse him of not shutting up in time. It's a challenge to remember how to breathe for a moment, but Rina's head keeps nudging Makoto's chin until he lets go of the tension and rests his face against her fur.
The quiet buzzing from the table alerts him to a reply, but he doesn't dare check the screen for another few minutes. When he finally does, he's surprised to find an image instead of text.

White blossoms on a tree, five-petaled, delicate. It's a pear tree, Makoto recognizes, and he startles a laugh when his frazzled mind finds its meaning in one of his mother's esoteric magazines. Affection. Comfort. Hope.

He blinks when his phone's display seems blurry all of a sudden, and he swipes at the screen to find it wet. It takes him a moment to realize he's crying, tears blurring his sight and dripping onto the display. It's almost ironic, he thinks, how it's flowers that have made his life so inexplicably hard sometimes but are still the thing he can relate the most to. Like they're woven into his life to a point where he'll understand a flower better than any words offered to him, and Haru recognized that fact, that inherent need, and catered to it.
Shivering with emotion, Makoto opens the picture of the pear tree in its full size and saves it to his phone for later. It's small, he notices now, like it was only planted a few years back, but its branches hang full and heavy with blossoms. It must have carried a load of fruit this summer.

Is that your tree?

It's a weird question in reply to Haru's considerate message, Makoto knows, but it's something he's really interested in, and Haru seems more than willing to answer, judging from the spontaneous response.

It's my grandmother's. I planted it for her. Will you feel up for texting after therapy?

Another considerate message. No judgement, no pushing the topic.
Makoto feels another wave of emotion rolling through him, and he finds Rina's head with both hands to bury his fingers in the fluff at her cheeks. She purrs and presses into his palms. A smile breaks through the tears as Makoto picks up his phone from the table and takes a picture from Rina where she's resting in his lap. He sends it along with his next message.

With you, yes. Do you like cats?

Haru's reply is instant and much less considerate this time.

Very much. Can I meet her?

Makoto laughs, and it's a relieving kind of laugh, as if emptying his lungs until he's wheezing allows him to breathe out his anxiety with the air.

I'm sure she'd like that. She lives with me, so you'll meet her sooner or later.

They talk about the stray cats Haru likes feeding and the kitten he took in once but released once it had grown up as his grandmother is allergic to cat hair. Makoto finds out Haru shares the house with his grandmother and has been taking care of groceries and chores for her since she had a stroke a year ago. They chat about seasons – both boys agree that they like summer best – and about the decline in bee populations.

It's almost nine when Makoto realizes he hasn't had dinner yet, and he keeps texting over his food until Haru tells him Good Night. Makoto wonders about his early bed time at first but learns that Haru gets up at dawn thanks to his long way to work and is quick to tell him Good Night as well.

He slips into bed with a light heart and warmth curling in his belly. He sleeps well that night.

-

Makoto does feel up for texting after therapy. Haru's first message hits him bare minutes after he's closed the door to his apartment, and he finds it's oddly comforting to have somebody's thoughts with him as he takes a shower and feeds both himself and Rina with the remaining eggs and bacon he finds in his fridge.

Haru is a patient texter, icon switching to Busy whenever Makoto takes a little longer to reply, and he sends images of a wooden dock with a small boat in the low water on one side. Makoto learns that it's his late grandfather's boat and that Haru likes taking it out for small trips onto the lake near his house. Water testing, he says and attaches a picture of his blue testing kit Makoto knows by now. An easy smile slips over his face, and he's surprised to find it's real.

Tuesdays are exhausting normally, the emotional struggle to explain his anxiety without revealing too much of the underlying issues as draining as many hours of physical work. Haru makes it easy to talk, allowing him to vent some of his frustration with his therapist's continuous attempts to make him spill his real concerns and to remain quiet when he feels he needs a break. They chat idly, with and without meaning, and only when Makoto's fatigue reaches a new peak does he check the clock and realize it's well beyond Haru's bed time. Worried, he urges the other boy to sleep, but Haru insists they talk a little more.

It's almost midnight when Makoto takes a picture of the wisteria covering his curtain rod, its lavender blossoms covering most of the actual curtain to the point where Makoto has considered removing the width of fabric altogether. The moon's pale beams of light are reaching through the long branches, flooding the room with an eerie glow.

Haru's reply is immediate.

Is that inside your house? You really manage to grow anything anywhere, don't you? It's beautiful.

Beautiful.

Makoto blinks at his screen for a long moment, not quite believing that somebody is able to spot so much positivity in the random growing of flowers, anywhere, anytime. He should be getting used to it by now, slowly, steadily. It's just so absurd to him, having somebody like Haru, the most gorgeous thing Makoto has seen in a long time, if ever, call his damned ability beautiful.
He shakes his head in fond exasperation and sends a timid Thank You along with his wishes for a restful night to Haru. Haru returns them with a picture of the moon above a mirror of water.

The rest of the week flies by, late summer heat drenching its every hour in sweat and the desperate desire for more rain that doesn't fall. There's a thunderstorm on Thursday evening that leaves nothing but an oppressive stickiness that clings to Makoto's skin, soil cracking with the drought of too many rainless weeks. He feels like all he does is drinking a life supply of water and sweating just as much. The garden center sets up barrels of drinkable water near every entrance and exit, and Makoto has to refrain from stealing a cup of water every time he passes by. It's cold, much colder than the bottles they keep in their stash, every drop a blessing on Makoto's tongue that feels heavy and dry in his mouth.

Haru calls that night, his voice a quiet hum against Makoto's ear as he tells him about the trout farm he visited during the day and the horrific conditions the fish are raised under. There's anger in his tone, Makoto recognizes, although he's sure Haru is trying to hide it. To distract the boy from his irritation, Makoto asks about his grandmother and the house they share. Haru is more than willing to tell him about his home that he's very clearly proud of. His grandfather built it from the ground up, he explains, as a home to his little family. It's admirable, Makoto finds, to form a family and provide for them. To build a life for yourself.

It's a merry image until an unhelpful voice at the back of his mind breaks through the happy chatter and reminds him that he's not likely to have children of his own. His voice almost cracks at this point.

Their conversation grinds to an awkward halt when Makoto admits that he can't imagine having a family of his own anytime soon and Haru goes quiet. The silence is wearing on them until it feels like the pressure is seeping into Makoto's every bone and he buries the fingers of his free hand in Rina's fur. For a minute or two he doesn't know what to say, wonders if he already revealed too much, then Haru speaks up again.

“Family is something you find for yourself, and I don't think age matters in that,“ He says. Makoto exhales through his nose and Rina nudges his chin with the top of her head, soothing, encouraging. Quietly he counts the breaths he's been holding longer than he wants to admit. There's a quiet rustling noise from the other side of the phone that sounds like the flipping of pages before Haru hums to himself.

“I'm free on Sunday. Do you think we could meet? There's a restaurant I wanted to try.“

Makoto smiles despite himself, fingers tensing around the phone in anticipation.
“I'd like that! Is it fish again?“

Haru confirms the suspicion and they both laugh at the obvious choice of food. Easy chatter takes them through the evening, and Haru requests to say Hello to Rina who happily purrs into the wrong end of the phone. Haru still insists he heard it.

-

It's Friday afternoon when Makoto realizes he promised his mother to take the twins out for a trip the next day, and he's about ready to call it off due to too much heat (and a nasty sunburn on his nose and both ears) but thinks better on it. It's the first time in weeks that he'll get to see his siblings, their life a constant shift in focus and priority where he needs stability on most days. He'd be a fool to call this off, especially because his mom specifically asked for this favor. The tall leaves of a potted Aloe reach out to him when he shuffles through the apartment, brushing along his elbow. For a guilty moment Makoto considers abusing it for its sap but swings by the bathroom to retrieve the cooling lotion and apply it to his face and ears.

Saturday morning rolls around with blazing sunlight and a sky as blue as Haru's eyes. Makoto's stomach tightens when he remembers the taste of Haru's lips and realizes it will be another day until they meet again.

Just one more day.

The skin on his nose feels tense and uncomfortable, but it's not as red as it was when he went to bed, so Makoto decides to be satisfied with that.

Ran still calls him out for it when she opens the door.
“Gee, have you still not learned to use sunscreen? You're so immature, Onii-chan.“ Makoto whines when she reaches up to poke at his earlobe.

“I tan easily, so I don't expect to burn at this time of year,“ He tries to defend himself, but Ran is merciless. With a clap of her hands she bolts back into the house and spreads the news to her twin brother and their mother who insists on checking the sunburn herself. Makoto purses his lips but submits to the attention.

The four of them leave the house together and Makoto drops his mother off at the hospital she works at. She presses a gentle hand against his cheek before hopping out of the car, waving through the side window.
“Take good care of my kids,“ She calls, “And don't swim in unsecured stretches, no matter how calm they look. I don't want to pick you up in a casket.“

Ran laughs at the obvious exaggeration, but Makoto can see Ren's shoulders tense in the rearview mirror. He turns around with a reassuring smile.

“Don't listen to her. We're not swimming today.“

Ran stares pointedly at his nose and grins.
“You should avoid the sun anyway. You already look like a clown.“

For a second Makoto has to resist the urge to cover his nose with his hands, but the way Ren's face lights up at the distraction is reasons enough for him to do it anyway. Both teenagers giggle at his display of embarassment and their mom leans in through the window for a last squeeze to each of their arms.

“Be good. I love you.“ She slips out again and steps back from the curbside, waving as Makoto starts the engine.

The drive to Tsukui Lake takes them an hour and a half and two bottles of water that they pass back and forth in the car. Ran is complaining that she could have spent the day swimming until Makoto decides that it's getting too warm and turns on the air conditioner. There's an audible sigh from Ren when he sinks into the backseat and Ran slips out of her sandals to push her bare feet against the air vent. She wiggles her toes with a blissful groan that Makoto has to agree on.

Shiroyama Park is as vast as Makoto remembers it, the untouched nature a welcome sight after a week spent between potted plants and cemented roads. He slips into the shadow of a group of large cherry trees as soon as he leaves the car, low branches bending slightly to brush along his shoulders. He shoos them away with a quick flick from his wrist, afraid the twins might notice.
Ran hurries to retrieve the backpacks from the trunk while Ren climbs out of the backseat with a little difficulty. Makoto remembers his mom mentioning leg pain due to his brother's recent growth spurt and decides to ask Ren about it later. The memory of his own limbs hurting for weeks thanks to his quick growth is still fresh in his mind and he wouldn't wish the same experience on anyone, yet Ren already towers over his sister by a hand's length and it doesn't seem like he's finished growing.

The twins join him to cross the bridge near the parking lot and Ran gasps when the lake comes into sight. Nestled against the mountainside, Tsukui Lake is surrounded by a vast forest, its blossoms long wilted during the summer but the rich greens still covering the mountain slopes. The lake itself lies calm and peaceful, its surface as smooth as glass in the morning sun. Rays of light break through the tree branches along the promenade and dip the grainy path into a myriad of colors. Ran skips ahead with a happy cheer, and Makoto realizes belatedly that she's left her shoes in the car, bare toes digging into the ground as she runs to get a better look at the lakeside. Groaning, he asks Ren to wait for him as he bounds back to the car and retrieves the sandals from the backseat.

The heat is much more bearable by the waterside, Makoto notices quickly, and if it's not a little cooler in the lake's vicinity, then the soft breeze definitely is. Ren raises his nose into the wind when it picks up and shatters the stale heat with refreshing gusts of air. Makoto spends the first hour strolling along the mountainside with Ren by his side and they both share looks of amusement at Ran's constant chattering. She's walking backwards, arms crossed behind her head, as she talks animatedly about how she's set as a starting member for the upcoming swimming tournament at their high school, and Makoto is happy to listen. It's been too long since he's really been involved with his siblings' life, the trouble from quitting his previous job and starting over at the current one a sink of his time since the beginning of the year. Ran doesn't seem to mind the amount of information they have to catch up on, and she starts barraging him with questions as soon as she's done spilling her news.

Makoto is happy to tell the twins about his work at the center, Aki and her dislike for precocious customers, the water gardens and his hydrangea nursery. Ran loses interest in his ramblings when he starts elaborating on the species he's especially proud of, but Ren watches him intently, his eyes bright with something Makoto can't place until he speaks up.

“You're finally better. I'm really happy for you.“

There's a deep sincerity to his tone that makes Makoto's throat feel unnaturally tight so he only nods in affirmation, head spinning with the realization that he didn't manage to hide how poorly he's been handling the struggle of the past months regardless of how much he tried. His mom wouldn't have spilled it to the twins, he's sure, and he never breathed so much as an implication of him doing anything but alright in his siblings' direction. The look Ran is giving him over her shoulder is as bright as her brother's, and Makoto is suddenly too aware of the tears stinging his eyes. He turns to look up the mountainside, muttering something about the unusual size of these cherry trees thanks to their excellent sun exposure, and Ran exhales on a laugh.

They have a picnic near the entrance to the Water Park, on top of a hill that allows for a perfect view across the lake. Makoto agrees to play softball with the twins, and they all collapse into a panting heap of limbs and flushed cheeks after a while. Ran climbs around the backside of a fountain to dip her hands into the cold water where the park's wardens can't see her and returns to shower her squirming brothers with the remaining water in her palms until Ren tackles her and Makoto pins her to the ground for a very one-sided tickle fight. Ran is a giggling mess by the time Makoto slumps back into the grass and watches a few clouds drift overhead. He's blissfully content with his t-shirt riding up his sides and the grass tickling his bare skin where it's revealed, cold soil pressing into the small of his back. The wind is cooling the sweat on his forehead.

For a second Makoto wonders what Haru may be doing but chases the thought out of his mind in favor of catching the softball Ran is aiming directly at his face.

As the sun rises higher, the siblings seek the shadows of the Flower Garden. The car takes them around the south end of the lake and into another parking lot. Old pine trees provide them with a path of blissfully cool shade, their looming trunks a welcome protection from the heat. The twins endure Makoto's excitement about the camellias and azaleas for almost half an hour before taking off to the sightseeing center. Makoto sighs and lets them go, well knowing that the wardens will keep the teenagers in check as he wanders the long rows of hydrangeas towards the eastern side of the garden. Most of them have ceased blooming weeks ago, but a few bold shrubs still reach out for the sun with their remaining blossoms of pink, red and white. Makoto runs an appreciative hand along their vibrant petals and is rewarded with the rustling of leaves where he walks.

He finds the twins at the exit of the Flower Garden where they're gazing down upon the lake, wide eyes locked onto a stand with a bright orange canopy that reads “Ice cream“. Makoto laughs and takes them both down to the promenade until they spot the ice cream stall. A short line of people is waiting at the stand and Makoto leaves the twins to amble along the waterside as they wait impatiently.
The promenade ends here, at the western side of the flower garden, and transitions into a sandy path that seems to lead into nowhere at first, but descends to a secluded bay right at the water's edge after a few steps. Makoto walks slowly now, feet digging deep into the gritty path, and is surprised to find a house nestled into the cove, its wooden front worn from the weather, but well preserved. The forest envelops the house's backside like a blanket, the mountainside rising above. A wooden dock leads from the wide patio out onto the lake, the path framed by blue hydrangeas.

Makoto is fascinated. It seems impossible for somebody to live down here, right by the waterside, with nothing but the ruins of Ushima Castle for company. Plenty of tourists visit the lake and the park's site every day, but it's unexpected to find a private home in this place. He's ready to explore a little further when a figure emerges from the house and crosses the deck to the boat that's tied up at the dock. A white t-shirt clings to a muscled back and arms, and Makoto recognizes the fine black lines etched into one forearm before the boy turns his face into the breeze. A compass.
The disbelief about finding Haru's home by chance is quickly replaced by confusion when the boy slips out of his shoes and climbs into the boat. Makoto considers calling out to him(,) but is interrupted by a gust of wind that agitates the surrounding trees. The boat sways in its wake, but Haru balances himself easily. Makoto's eyes are glued to his back when he gracefully maneuvers his way around the boat, picking up rope on one side and tying it up on the other, all the while seeming entirely unfazed by the weather's antics.

The breeze shifts to shake the lake with powerful blows, water rising with a tide that should not exist in this environment. Haru meets its gusts with an unflinching step forward before pulling the white shirt off his shoulders. Makoto swallows and considers turning away when the planes of tan skin come into sight. He knows he should. He can't. There's something drawing him in, legs taking him closer to the secluded bay when he knows he should be turning around. Up the hill, Ran says something and her brother starts giggling uncontrollably, but Makoto can't listen. His eyes are glued to Haru's hair shifting with the wind, black strands sweeping around his head like a force of nature.

There's a hum in the air, Makoto can feel it before he recognizes it, and the soft shaking of the ground catches him by surprise. He freezes, feet rooted in place, and gazes across the churning water to watch Haru's shoulders tense momentarily. For a second he thinks he's caught, expects Haru to turn around and call him out, but loses all train of thought when the boy starts shaking.

Thorny scales erupt from the small of his back and along his spine, climbing his ribs until they're covered in gleaming pearl-white. There's bright blue scaling spreading from his neck down to the curve of his shoulder blades, and Makoto forgets how to breathe when Haru reaches back and pulls part of the armor off his spine. It melts to fit the shape of his hand, stretching until the slender spear matches Haru's height, tip branching off into a sharp trident. The wind seems to exhale, a powerful gust shaking the boat when Haru tilts his face into the sky. More scales burst from his shoulders and wrists, forming planes of deep sea blue and connecting to each other until the joints are covered in glowing sheens of plated armor. His shorts reveal layers of scales in flat apricot on his thighs, enveloping his knees in protective scaling that fades into the same pearl white that reflects the sun off his back. The tips of something that looks like a crown made of seashells grow past Haru's hair, white cone shells a stark contrast against the black of his hair. It's an image of grace and power, and Makoto's frazzled mind supplies “Royalty“ when he desperately tries to find a word for what he's seeing.

Once more Haru stretches, rolls his shoulders, and the dark blue armor curves with his movements, muscles flexing underneath. The spikes along his spine stand on end when he raises the spear, and the churning lake calms down. Then, before Makoto can catch a coherent thought, Haru dives in, body merging with its reflection until he disappears into the deep. No bubbles breach the surface.

Haru & his spear

It takes Makoto several minutes to realize that Haru isn't resurfacing anytime soon, barely able to contain the tension that's rattling his very being. He's shaken, nails biting into his palms, shoulders raised until he hears Ran's voice from above. With an effort, Makoto focuses on making his way back up to the promenade. He trips twice, once over something he suspects was his own foot, and Ran has to repeat her question until he realizes he's expected to answer. In the end Ran picks the ice cream for him, and Ren gives him a concerned look.

Makoto doesn't remember how he gets home that evening, but he spends half the night googling for an explanation of what he witnessed at the lake and finally concludes he must have lost his mind when he doesn't find one. He can't sleep until sunrise, and the memory of scales erupting across a beautifully tanned back haunts him throughout all of his dreams.