When Kotaro walked into the apartment, letting the door fall shut behind him with a dismal click, Hayato and Ryu knew it was going to be one of those days. They shared a look, and Ryu gave Hayato’s hand a gentle squeeze and headed to the kitchen, tying and apron and turning on the kettle before hunting for his biggest soup pot. Hayato put away his iPad and followed his boyfriend into the kitchen, but not before he motioned for Kotaro to take a seat at one of the stools at the counter. The boy dropped his bag on the sofa before complying, taking the offered seat in an even more subdued manner than usual.
“Tea or Hot chocolate?” Hayato asked him gruffly, opening a cupboard.
“Hot chocolate.” Said Kotaro after a brief pause.
Ryu made a sympathetic noise as he began cutting into a good-sized piece of pork. “Long day?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Kotaro stared down at the drink that Hayato had set in front of him in the faded panda mug they had bought for him when they first moved into the apartment, before looking back up at his brother and (almost) brother-in-law. Ryu offered him a smile, and Hayato was leaning against the counter trying to look disinterested but the stiffness in his posture gave him away.
“Taka and Kirin have been fighting all day and nothing I say will get through to them, Takuma got detention for forgetting to submit his homework again which also got him temporarily suspended from the football team, Kazuma’s been extra high stung because he’s been dealing with an art block and has to submit a piece for this completion in five days, and some boys in her class made Midori cry. Again.” Said Kotaro quietly in one breath, before taking a long sip of the hot chocolate to hide his face.
“Midori’s getting bullied?” asked Hayato with a slight furrow in his brow.
Kotaro shrugged. “They say her dad looks scary.”
Ryu winced. No wonder Kotaro seemed down. As his group of friends had grown older, his calm demeanour had somehow made him the emotional rock of the group. Sometimes it could really take a toll on the quiet boy, especially now that they were all in middle school and dealing with the particular issues that come from being teenagers. If Ryu knew his brother at all, his biggest worry was Midori, who didn’t have any of them in class to support her. He exchanged another look with his boyfriend and went hunting in the fridge for more pork.
Kotaro had taken a few more sips of his drink, Ryu had moved on to chopping onions, and Hayato had just managed to make the finicky kitchen radio play something that wasn’t static when the trio was interrupted by a commotion outside the door.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!?!?”
“What, so now I can’t talked to Ryu-ni either, is that it?”
“NOT WHEN I’M HERE TO TALK TO MY BROTHER!”
Hayato sighed and strode over to the front door. He took a moment to roll up his sleeves before yanking the door open and smacking Taka in the back of the head in one smooth motion. He looked between Taka and Kirin, and then over his shoulder at where Kotaro was looking wistfully at his hot chocolate.
“Come in idiots, you’re disturbing the neighbours.”
The two exchanged a sour look before fighting their way into the apartment and taking the remaining stools, Kirin on one side of Kotaro and Taka on the other.
“Tea or Hot chocolate?” Hayato asked feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu as he reached to turn on the kettle again.
“Tea please” said Kirin politely.
“Coffee?” asked Taka hopefully. Hayato glared at him, and he gulped. “Hot chocolate then.”
“So.” asked Ryu pausing to shoot a message to Kamitani sensei and Kumatsuka sensei about the whereabouts of their children and the possibility of them staying for dinner. “Do you want to tell me why you both were arguing outside my door?”
Taka glowered while Kirin flushed angrily and pressed her lips tightly together. Hayato handed them their drinks in their usual mugs, Kirin’s white with purple flowers and Taka’s red and covered in yellow lightning bolts. The silence was punctuated by the steady thwack of Ryu’s knife against the cutting board.
“I was just letting Matsumoto-kun borrow my Japanese notes, but idiot Taka yelled at me not to talk to him and dragged me away from him by my arm!” Kirin finally burst out, face red and unable to hold it in anymore.
“Matsumoto is jerk!” shouted Taka, face equally crimson.
“He isn’t, he’s my friend! And even if he was a jerk, you have no right to tell me who I can and can’t talk to!” replied Kirin, her voice trembling with fury.
“Oh yeah? Well I’m your friend too in case you forgot. Or maybe you did, since you seem to love hanging out with your ‘cool’ drama club friends!”
“Why do you have such a problem with this? Kota doesn’t, and neither do the twins!”
“I- you- th-that’s not the point!”
Kotaro, trapped in between them merely sighed and took another sip of his hot chocolate.
Hayato raised an eyebrow at Ryu and simply got a raised eyebrow back. His lead on this one huh? Okay then. He sent up a quick prayer that Kumatsuka-san never found out about this argument or he might have to actually defend his idiot brother. He cleared his throat, the sound bringing the bickering teenagers to their senses.
“So you,” he said pointing to Kirin “Might have been neglecting your old friends for new ones. And you,” he turned to Taka “are being unreasonably jealous.”
“That’s not true!” Kirin exclaimed.
“I’m not jealous.” Taka mumbled into his cup.
Hayato simply looked at them calmly, until their faces reddened and they looked anywhere but at him. “You’re not babies anymore, so I’m not going to make you apologize to each other, but you should probably think about this whole thing at once and then at least apologize to Kota. Kid looks like he’s never going to smile again.”
The two shot a surreptitious look at their friend and had the decency to look sheepish.
The boy inclined his head at them. Moments passed in silence, during which Hayato began to help wash the vegetables, and Ryu pulled out some leeks, which Kirin favoured over cabbage, from the fridge as he swapped some radishes for carrots which he knew Taka liked better. The silence was punctuated by the sizzle of meat and onions in the pot. And then-
Hayato shot a glance at the kids at the counter in time to see Kotaro flash his embarrassed friends a blinding grin.
The kids had just moved to the dining table to get started on their homework when a long, slow ring of the doorbell broke their peace. Ryu saw Taka jump up to get it out of the corner of his eye, so he concentrated on adding broth to the meat and vegetables already in the pot. He did freeze, however when he heard Taka mutter a quiet “Oh jeez.”
Turning towards the door, he saw the Mamizuka twins trudge in, both looking equally miserable for once. Hayato, who had turned at the same time he had let out a long breath through his nose.
“You two still like that weird fruit tea?” he asked, not unkindly. They both nodded and he busied himself getting it ready.
“Why the long faces?” asked Ryu, leaning his elbows on the counter. He half expected he already knew.
“I’m dumb and I can’t play soccer anymore.”
“I can’t art.”
Ryu nodded slowly, and sent both Mamizukas a quick text message letting them know the boys were over and everything was fine. Once the he was sure the message went through and he wouldn’t have a crying Mamizuka-san at his doorstep, he turned to the boys, opting to deal with Takuma first.
“What makes you say you’re dumb?”
Takuma looked down at his hands, and Ryu hated the way there was no sign of his normally cheerful expression.
“I know I have homework, but it’s really hard for me to get it done. I keep trying to finish it, but I just can’t focus.” he muttered.
Ryu hummed thoughtfully. “Do you have trouble with the questions too?”
“Sometimes… it takes me longer to understand what the question is saying.”
“Well maybe it would help if you worked on it in a group. It might help you focus and you could get help on the questions you can’t figure out on your own. You’re always welcome here to work with Kotaro, Taka is around more often than not anyway and you know how often the rest of you drop by.” He said, giving the boy a small smile, and was happy to see a hint of his usual grin in return. “Hey, worse comes to worst, Hayato and I are always there to fall back on. And don’t worry, you’ll be playing soccer again in no time. How long are you suspended for anyway?”
“Until after the next practice match.”
Ryu saw Hayato wince out of the corner of his eye and had to hide a cringe himself. “Well nothing says you can’t keep practicing in the meantime. I’m sure Suekichi and Kichi would be willing to help you out.” That got a real grin out of Takuma, and Ryu smiled back before turning to Kazuma, who had been quiet, letting his brother take the lead as usual.
“Art competition giving you trouble?”
The boy made an uncharacteristically frustrated noise, which Ryu took as a yes.
“What’s the topic?”
“That’s a pretty broad topic.”
“Everyone’s going to do mountains, or lakes, or some scenery, and I want to do something different, but nothing feels right.”
Now Ryu knew Kazuma was genuinely upset, the boy wasn’t one to speak so much otherwise. He wasn’t much of an artist himself, and didn’t really have any advice on that front, but he had a feeling that that wasn’t what Kazuma needed. He placed a calming hand on his shoulder.
“Relax. I’m sure you’ll get an idea soon, and no matter what your friends and family will be proud of you, right?” he asked, turning to Takuma who nodded and threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders. Hayato chose that moment to appear with the tea in matching Tanuki mugs. Ryu took it at his cue.
“Maybe you could get started on the group study thing.” He hinted broadly nodding at the group at the dining table who were trying hard to look like they hadn’t been listening in on the conversation. Takuma gave a determined nod, jumping off the stool and grabbing his mug before dragging his brother towards the table.
Ryu looked at the ramen he had set aside to add to the broth, which still had a ways to go, and glanced back at the dining table, which now held two more heads bent over notebooks.
“Hayato, I think we’re completely out of soba noodles, can you run to the store and get some?” asked Ryu, pitching his voice to carry.
Hayato glanced at the ramen, and back at him, the corners of his lips twitching. He knew exactly what Ryu was doing.
“Sure.” He said, grabbing his keys on the way to door.
Ryu put the ramen back into the cupboard. Dinner would take a little longer to get ready, but the look on the twins’ faces when he’d mentioned soba made it well worth it.
When Hayato returned from the store with the noodles Ryu had asked for and the tub of ice cream he hadn’t, it was to find Midori standing at his door, hand poised to knock. He took one look at her red, swollen eyes and pursed his lips. He opened the door with one hand, placing the other gently on her shoulder and steering her inside. The kids seemed to have finished what little homework they had for the day, and had taken up comfortable positions on the living room furniture. They all looked up when they heard the door, and each made a noise of understanding when they saw Midori standing there.
He removed his hand from her shoulder and she made a bee-line for the sofa. Hayato gave Ryu the noodles, put the ice cream in the freezer, and wordlessly started making hot chocolate. He looked over to where Midori was nestled in between Kotaro and Kirin, looking moments away from bursting into tears again. Ryu followed his gaze and began chopping spring onions with more force than necessary, before pulling out a couple of eggs from the fridge to add to the broth in the end. Hayato knew at least one of them would make its way into the distraught girl’s bowl.
“Is it those boys again?” asked Kirin every syllable drenched in anger, as Kotaro placed a protective arm around Midori.
She nodded miserably. “They keep calling papa names. Said he looks like a mountain man, and like he beats people up for a living.”
“That’s just stupid.” said Takuma, annoyed
“Your dad’s really nice.” Kazuma agreed quietly.
“You want me to beat them up?” asked Taka cracking his knuckles.
Hayato snorted at that, drawing attention back to him. He knelt down in front of Midori and handed her the monkey mug he and Ryu had gotten her for her last birthday. He watched her wrap her hands around it and soak up the warmth from the beverage within.
“Anyone who knows you or your dad doesn’t care how he looks, got it?”
Midori nodded, and he gave her the smallest of smiles, before heading back to the kitchen to help Ryu wash up and send let Sawatari sensei know where her daughter had gotten to.
Dinner had been ready for a while know, but Ryu couldn’t bring himself to disrupt the scene in front of him. Kirin had Midori on the floor in front of her and was trying to follow a YouTube tutorial for some fancy hairstyle. The younger girl was giggling, troubles forgotten for now. Kotarou and Taka were pressed together, playing a game on the 3DS that Taka had just bought, while Takuma had his head on Taka’s lap, reading a manga and occasionally giving the other two advice on their game, his legs hanging over the edge of the couch. Kazuma was seated on the floor in front of him, smiling softly as he sketched in the book balanced on his knees.
Ryu almost jumped as he felt an arm snake around his waist. Hayato stood next to him, smiling in that soft, fond way he reserved just for him.
“You’re such a mom.” He said lowly, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
“You’re one to talk.” he replied with a laugh, “You knew we wouldn’t be able to get out of this the minute Kotaro walked through the door.”
“That’s fair.” said Hayato, blush tinting his cheeks the way it always did when Ryu so much as implied that he may have a marshmallow centre. Ryu beamed at him, pulling him down for a proper kiss. He pulled back, only to find six teenagers smirking at him. He sighed, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.
“Dinner’s ready?” he offered.
The resulting cheer almost enough to cool his blushing cheeks. Almost.