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Consensual Kidnapping Is Still Kidnapping

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Kaoru couldn't follow the conversation at all.

Of course it was less of a conversation and more of a one-sided verbal barrage from Chiaki, who was getting ready for work and apparently couldn't find the words to properly explain what he wanted to, since he kept starting and stopping and starting again.

"It's really simple," Chiaki said, rebooting for the sixth time. He got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath the cabinet by the front door. "Well, simple maybe isn't the right word. It seemed simple at the time? There was no other way. I'm sure you'll agree."

Kaoru tapped Chiaki's ankle with his foot. When Chiaki turned to look up at him, he waved Chiaki's missing transport card in front of his face.

Chiaki's face brightened. "Oh wow, Hakaze! You found it!"

Kaoru sighed and held the card out between his thumb and index finger. "What is simple? You've managed to say every possible thing about this—this thing for the past twenty minutes except what it is."

Chiaki fumbled and dropped the card. Kaoru bent down and crouched on the ground, getting on face level with his roommate. "Moricchi. What is it."

Chiaki laughed nervously. "It's nothing at all, Hakaze. Really. No. I mean—it's something, but—"

Kaoru rolled his eyes so hard, he fell back and landed on his ass. Chiaki fiddled with his sleeve and Kaoru glared at him in his best imitation of Izumi. "You're going to tell me what it is, so help me God, or I will call Senacchi and get him to rip the answer from your sorry head."

Six months ago, Kaoru had actually believed that he was getting an upgrade, moving out of the apartment he shared with Rei. Better Chiaki than Rei, right? At least Chiaki was a normal person who kept normal hours and ate normal food and wouldn't roll his coffin around from room to room saying he needed to "follow the warmth of the sun" even though he also claimed he was allergic to the sun and it was his enemy. Chiaki didn't even have a coffin. A huge plus. Kaoru almost wept with joy when Chiaki had texted him, asking if he still was looking for a place. Just at the right time as well.

Rei had been sad about the whole thing or at least Kaoru was pretty sure he had been sad. It was sometimes hard to tell with Rei. Even harder since the time Kaoru had walked into their living room to find Rei sobbing, shoulders shaking, breath shuddering over his phone. Kaoru had thought for sure somebody—Koga-kun, maybe, or one of his weirdo friends that he felt guilty about calling weirdos when one of them might be dead or, God forbid, his brother—had died and panic had briefly flooded his body and rooted him to the floor before Rei held up the phone and showed Kaoru the missed call from his brother, Ritsu.

"He called me first and I couldn't even pick up because I didn't know how," Rei hiccuped, snot dripping down from his nose and hitting the screen of the smartphone he should really learn how to use.

Kaoru didn't talk to Rei for a week after that.

"Well, you see," Chiaki said, scratching his cheek "You know that one job I had? You know...that...one." He glanced at Kaoru nervously.

"Keep going or I will buy nothing but eggplant for the next month."

Chiaki inhaled sharply. "Don't tell Sena or he'll freak out."

"You already said that. In five different ways."

"Look, Hakaze, I know I can trust you because remember that one time in high school when you had stopped skipping class to go plan dates with girls after school and I accidentally had gotten all the basketballs stuck behind the backboards after Sagami-sensei had specifically told me not to do anything stupid because Kunugi-sensei was on him to give me detention and if I got detention, I'd be suspended from club activities and the basketball team had a huge match coming up and I had to get Takamine into shape, so I absolutely couldn't miss any practices, not to mention the match, and you nobly sacrificed yourself for my sake and distracted both Sagami-sensei and Kunugi-sensei by pretending to skip class and then the basketball team made it to the finals?"

Kaoru furrowed his brow. "What?"

"Anyway, I stole a mermaid and now he's living in our bathtub and that's why I said you couldn't go into the bathroom last night; it's not actually flooded. Okay, well, I say stole, but it wasn't really stealing, it was more like consensual kidnapping but look, he's really nice and everything will get sorted soon and I know it's bad timing since I've got location work for the next three weeks, but you're also a nice guy, Hakaze, and I'm sure you two will get along."

Kaoru stared at Chiaki. "What did you just say?"

"You're a nice guy, Hakaze."

"No, before that."

Chiaki scratched his cheek. "How far back? Because if I go any further back than the bathtub part, I'll have to start from the beginning of the moment that really made our friendship and if I'm going to retell the story of how you became my lifelong friend whom I'd trust with my life, I'm going to need water and if I get water, I'll be late for work." Chiaki lowered his voice. "They weren't very happy with me last time I was late before a location shoot. It made me feel really bad."

"I don't care!" Kaoru scrambled to his feet and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. "You stole"—he squeezed his eyes shut—"a mermaid." He opened one and looked back down at Chiaki. "Merperson?"

"Mermaid? Merperson? I think they're the same, really?"

"Mermaidperson!"

Chiaki stood up and smiled then clapped Kaoru on the shoulder. "I knew you were paying attention, Hakaze."

"Of course I was paying attention! You looked me in the eyes and said, 'Don't freak out, but there's a fish person living in our bathtub. Can you take care of him while I go jump off exploding buildings for a living?'" Kaoru crossed his arms.

"So will you?"

"What?"

Chiaki tugged on his shoes as he hopped towards the door. "Great! Thanks Hakaze! I really think you two'll get along!"

Kaoru uncrossed his arms. "No," he said. Chiaki quickly opened the door. "No!" He leaped towards the entrance and attempted to grab Chiaki before he could step outside. "Don't you dare!" But Chiaki moved too quickly for Kaoru and managed to shut the door just as Kaoru reached it, making Kaoru slip and fall on his ass in his attempt to avoid crashing face first into it.

Great.

Wonderful.

He really should have stayed with Rei.

*

Kaoru hovered outside of the bathroom door for another ten minutes after Chiaki left. He could hear his phone buzzing on the kitchen table, presumably with messages from Chiaki both apologizing and telling him to be sure to give their new roommate a warm welcome. Kaoru touched the door handle and contemplated never opening it. If he never opened it, then the mermaid or merman or whoever could remain as Schrodinger's merperson.

Or something.

Kaoru was very good at ignoring things he didn't like. He was a master of turning a blind eye. It was a skill he'd acquired in fifth grade and perfected in middle school. By the time he got to high school, Kaoru knew exactly how to cherry pick reality and live his life in the most carefree way possible, sometimes at the expense of others. Oftentimes at the expense of others.

Always at the expense of others.

He supposed there was a choice here. For Chiaki, there wouldn't be. For Chiaki, there was never any choice. That's why he was Chiaki and that's why people loved him. Hated him. Found him tiresome and a burden. Thought of him as a hero and a friend.

But for Kaoru, there was always a choice.

He sighed, making his choice. He pushed down on the handle and opened the door to the bathroom.

The bathroom was unusually spacious and one of the reasons why Kaoru had decided to move in Chiaki, rather than one of his other friends from high school or acquaintances from university or a stranger. Chiaki and Izumi used to live together, before Izumi decided to move in with his boyfriend, and it was obvious that this apartment had been found and chosen by Izumi with little say from Chiaki. Chiaki would be fine living anywhere, Kaoru thought, as long as he had a place to sleep and old ladies to carry groceries and find cats for in the neighborhood. Izumi, on the other hand, had standards. Kaoru could appreciate those standards. Lucky him, reaping the benefits of those standards.

The bathroom had one wooden tub, big enough to fit Kuro on the occasions he crashed with them, against the wall opposite the door. There were windows on that wall as well, placed high so nobody could look in, and they let in a welcome amount of natural light into the room. Moving closer to the entrance there was a shower on the right wall, then a frosted glass partition separating the washing area from the sink and toilet.

The partition door was slightly ajar and Kaoru could hear the soft splash of water slipping over the edge of the tub accompanied by quiet humming. Kaoru's hands jerked up to cover his ears, a reflex from his childhood of siren stories his mother had fed him—real stories, from her days out on the field—but he let his palms fall back down when he considered the facts. Chiaki had said merperson, not siren. Surely, Chiaki was not stupid enough to bring a siren into their home. Surely—though sometimes Kaoru couldn't be sure.

It was entirely possible a siren song had wormed its way into Chiaki's ears and he had brought home an A Grade magical being into their F Grade apartment.

Well, he wouldn't refuse an encounter with a siren once in his life, Kaoru thought as he pushed open the door. According to his mother, they were very beautiful. He'd always been a fan of beauty, especially the feminine variety.

What he saw, though, was not a siren.

A blue-haired man lay in the tub. His arm draped over the side of the tub and his head was tilted back, exposing the pale skin of his neck, unmarked by the telltale iridescent scales of a siren. Kaoru swallowed as his eyes followed the beautiful curve of the man's throat down over his clavicle then to the surface of the water the rest of his chest disappeared into. The backs of his hands shone in the morning light coming through the windows, a sheen that went from purple to blue to green and back again.

And, of course, there was the tail.

The end of his tail poked out of the water, lazily waving back and forth and splashing water onto the tiled floor. His translucent fins flared out at the ends and had the same sheen to them as his hands.

Kaoru didn't know what to say, seeing this man looking so foreign amongst the mundane items of his and Chiaki's life strewn about on the floor, knocked off ledges and the remainders of an organization system Izumi had left behind. He hadn't had a game plan for introducing himself and he certainly didn't have one now, frozen to the spot, simultaneously trying to remember what his mother told him about merpeople and sort her stories from her research.

The man slowly lifted his head and turned to look at Kaoru. He only had one eye open, but the color was so arrestingly green, Kaoru immediately had to look away, breaking eye contact.

The man laughed and adjusted himself in the tub. Kaoru could see the water splashing over the sides and rushing down the drain in the middle of the floor. "You are 'Kaoru,'" he said and it felt like a thousand bubbles rushing past Kaoru's ears. "Chiaki 'told' me about you."

"Did he?" Kaoru tugged on his earlobe. "Funny. He didn't really tell me anything about you."

"Chiaki 'likes' you very much, Kaoru."

"Does he?" Kaoru could only seem to answer in questions. "Hopefully not too much. He's not my type." He suddenly remembered his manners. "Hello," he said, "I'm Hakaze Kaoru. Nice to meet you."

The man laughed and rested his cheek on his hand. "You are 'funny,' Kaoru."

Kaoru pulled harder on his ear, twisting his earring around. "Really? That's the first time I've been told that. Usually it's 'cool' or 'charming' or 'insensitive.'" He pushed the clasp of his earring tight against his skin. "Less of the last one now, though. I've been, uh, working on...things."

The man curled the end of his tail into the water.

Kaoru blinked.

"I'm Kanata," the man said.

"Hi Kanata," Kaoru replied, stupidly.

"Do you 'like' the 'ocean,' Kaoru?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Love it."

Kanata smiled, all the way up to his eyes. "I think we will 'get along' just fine, Kaoru."

*

"Excuse me?"

Kaoru had done the only thing he could think of following actually confirming the existence of a rogue, albeit very pleasant merperson in the bathroom. He called Izumi.

"There's a mermaid in my bathtub."

Izumi clicked his tongue. "Yes, yes, I got that. Do you want a medal or something? I'm sure you can contact the Intercity Mermaids Association to pick up your Mermaid Ally of the Year trophy next week."

"No. I just meant—There's a mermaid in my bathtub!"

"We all have mermaids in our bathtubs, Kao-kun."

Kaoru resisted the urge to hit his head against the table. "Well, what should I do!"

"First of all, you should report Chii-kun to the police."

"What?"

"Hello? He kidnapped someone. Chii-kun. Police. And, he thought that I wouldn't approve of his illicit activities which is just hurtful. I love when Chii-kun does something illegal. It almost makes me want to kiss him again. Also, give me your cell phone. Chii-kun's blocked my number."

"Smart of him."

"Ha, ha. I'm coming over." There was a scuffle on Izumi's end of the call. "Yes! I am!" Kaoru heard through the speaker. "And in case you've forgotten, I'm not talking to you right now!"

"Trouble in paradise?"

Kaoru could practically hear Izumi scowl. "You know full well I don't believe in fucking paradise." Kaoru held the phone away from his ear as Izumi shouted, "Yeah, that's right! Fuck off! Just try fucking biting me again where people can see. I'll end you."

He winced. Arguments with Izumi never ended well. That's why Kaoru did everything in his power to avoid them. "Are you—"

Suddenly, something cold and wet grabbed his shoulder. Kaoru jerked forward, letting out a half-involuntary "Oh my G—" before he twisted around, away from the fingers resting on his shirt. He fell backwards off his stool, hitting his head against the cabinets behind him.

"Hello? Hello? Kao-kun? Are you okay?" Izumi's voice barked out of the speaker, volume testing the limits of Kaoru's phone.

Kaoru reached back and rubbed his head. Ow. Jesus.

Then, he looked up.

A small mistake, to say the least.

He was greeted by an eyeful, to say more.

Kaoru didn't know which way to go and made the wrong choice of turning right to look away and hit the edge of the table. He let out a strangled noise of pain, punctuated by a quiet, "Fuck."

"Kao-kun? Kao-kun, are you there? Did you get murdered? You have too much potential to get murdered! You haven't perfected your skincare routine yet! And I haven't even had the chance to cut your hideous hair in your sleep!"

Wet feet hit the floor and walked over to the place where Kaoru had dropped his phone. "Kaoru is 'fine,'" Kanata said into the phone, perfectly pleasant, as if he hadn't lost his entire tail in the ten minutes since Kaoru had last saw him and gained two legs and—and, well.

Well.

Kaoru rubbed his eyes.

This was really not how he pictured today going.

"Mmhmm," Kanata said. "He 'hit' his head."

Kaoru attempted to pull himself up, but slipped on the water Kanata had tracked into the room.

"Yes? Yes, I am the 'mermaid.' It is nice to 'meet' you, Izumi-san. 'Mermaid' is 'fine.' It is what 'most' people say."

Kaoru grabbed a blanket Chiaki had left on the couch and threw it at Kanata's feet. "Put that on."

Kanata looked down at it then looked back up at Kaoru. He was still dripping water. Kaoru silently thanked his sister for forcing him to buy a more expensive, water-resistant phone last year. She could see into the future. He would never doubt her again. Many blessings upon her household.

"That is a 'blanket,' Kaoru," Kanata said, sounding slightly amused. He turned his attention back to Izumi on the phone. "Kaoru has given me a 'blanket.' Why? I do not 'know.' Let me 'ask.'" He looked over at Kaoru. "Why did you 'give' me a blanket?"

Kaoru pressed his hands into his face and took in a deep breath. "Because," he started, uncovering his face and gesturing at Kanata's naked body, "of that!"

"Ah," Kanata said, nodding. "Izumi-san, it is 'because' I have no 'clothes.'"

Silence.

Or, almost silence. Kaoru could practically hear the gears in Izumi's mind turning. And then came the most evil laughter he'd ever heard.

Kaoru didn't want to imagine what Izumi was thinking. He would never live this down. Izumi would never let him. He wished Kanata had been a naked girl. Izumi had no interest in that aspect of Kaoru's life. Kaoru's girlfriends? Fine, lovely. Izumi was still friends with some of his exes, especially the ones he worked with often. But, his girlfriends, naked? Izumi would have hung up the phone and left Kaoru to his own devices if Kanata had been a girl. End of discussion. No more interference. None of his business. On the other hand, Izumi always seemed to make it his business whenever he knew there was a naked man in Kaoru's living room.

Oftentimes, he had something to do with it.

"Izumi-san said I should 'ask' to wear 'your' clothes, Kaoru. Hm? The 'white' shirt and the 'blue' pants?"

Kaoru regretted ever drunkenly telling Izumi about how much he liked seeing his partners in his clothes. At the time, Izumi had called him freaky then snatched his drink and downed it one gulp. It was offensive, really. Kaoru knew some of the stuff Izumi liked doing. He had no right to call Kaoru freaky.

Kaoru picked up the blanket off the floor and handed it to Kanata, exchanging it for his phone. "Just"—he gestured around his own midsection—"do it. Please."

He let out a breath of relief as Kanata did as he was told and sat down on the couch.

Kaoru turned his attention back to Izumi on the phone. "And you—you conniving, little—"

Izumi hung up.

*

Kaoru had no idea what to do with Kanata.

It'd been several hours since the phone call with Izumi and the resulting message chain where Izumi implied that Chiaki bringing Kanata over was an elaborate blind date setup then turned it around and flat-out said that Kanata was much too good for Kaoru so he must be part of Chiaki's secret family he was trying to hide from them and the authorities. Kaoru let Izumi have the last word. He was too exhausting for it to be any other way.

Kanata seemed nice enough, if a bit out of place. His and Chiaki's place was much too normal for somebody like Kanata. The mismatch only became clearer as the day went on and Kanata interacted with more of the space, touching this and that, the blue-green sheen of his hands catching the light every now and then. Kaoru wondered where exactly Chiaki had picked him up.

Or maybe he'd picked Chiaki up.

Kanata seemed cheeky enough to do that.

For somebody Kaoru had only known for half a day, Kanata was certainly comfortable around him. Kaoru was surprisingly comfortable too, now that the initial shock of Chiaki attempting to dump him into Kaoru's lap before leaving on a work trip had subdued. And, well, it helped that it was Chiaki. He could trust Chiaki and everyone who came along with him. He always made friends with good people.

Izumi excluded.

Always an exception, Sena Izumi. Kanata was currently walking around the apartment, inspecting every nook and cranny: picking up pictures and setting them down again, examining the few action figures Kaoru had allowed Chiaki to display in their shared areas, opening and shutting their cupboards. And, because Izumi somehow got everything he wanted even if he wasn't physically present, Kanata was wearing one of Kaoru's white shirts and blue sweatpants.

Man, Kaoru really hated Izumi sometimes.

Or, really, he hated how Izumi was always right.

Kanata stood on his tip toes and reached up to take a mug off of a shelf.

It was a mug Kaoru had bought a long time ago, back when he'd just moved into his own place and only had two dishes and a pair of chopsticks to his name. He'd walked into a shop full of odds and ends—cabinets of star sand mixed with jupiter pearls and shelves of various household knick knacks filling the space between bolts of colorful fabrics and stationery displays—and managed to find a round, red ceramic mug shaped to look like an Atlantic Footballfish, complete with teeth and a yellow lure.

It'd brought a smile to his face so suddenly that Kaoru bought it right away and kept it through all his moves from that sad studio, to the even sadder shared apartment, all the way to Rei and now Chiaki.

Kanata held it up in front of his face, eyes sparkling. "Is this 'yours,' Kaoru?"

"Yeah," Kaoru said. He stood up and walked over to Kanata in the kitchen. "It's pretty old. I accidentally broke the lure off once, look." He pointed at the crack above the yellow ball. "Luckily, I was dating an art major at the time and she helped me fix it, even though she hated it. Said it went against all of her design sensibilities." He laughed.

"I think it is 'beautiful,'" Kanata said.

Kaoru leaned against the counter. Beautiful certainly wasn't the word he'd use for it, but Kanata seemed so genuinely taken by it, he kept his opinions to himself. "Well, consider it yours, then, while you stay here. What do you drink? Coffee? Tea?"

"I do not like 'hot' drinks."

"Water?"

Kanata nodded. He rubbed his ankle with his opposite foot, maintaining his balance perfectly.

Kaoru placed a hand on the counter. He had thought that it was a long and hard process for merpeople to change their tails into legs. Usually involved both a magical care specialist and doctor at the very least and a stay at a special facility. And yet, Kanata had managed to pull it off in ten minutes in a medically and magically non-sterile environment.

Well, it was entirely possible there had been new advances recently. Or even, not so recently. Kaoru hadn't paid much attention during biology classes in school. So what if he'd spent the better part of his high school years slacking off just the right amount to get through school painlessly without failure or a permanent mark on his record? So what if it just so happened that biology classes always fell in the afternoon and the girls' school down the road got out earlier than he did in high school and he just really didn't have any choice but to skip?

Merpeople were, at best, B Grade magic, anyway, and even those few B Grade merpeople in the world lived far into the sea, where they couldn't be bothered by people on land. Being on land, Kanata was probably C or D Grade, which made him a small-fry in the grand scheme of things. Nothing to worry about.

He looked away from Kanata's legs and walked towards the fridge. It was probably a rude question to ask a merperson. How they got their legs. And, well, Kaoru didn't particularly care. It was none of his business whatever Kanata did in that bathroom to get his legs. Good for him, though. Now he'd actually be able to use his own bathroom and not have to go to the public baths three streets down.

"You hungry?" Kaoru opened the fridge. "I'm not the best cook, but I'm passable. Or, if you want, we could go out or order something."

Kanata's head popped out from under his arm. "Hmmm," he hummed, tapping his lips.

Kaoru looked down at him, amused. "See anything you like?"

Kanata pulled open the freezer. "Ah!" He reached in. "Fish!"

"Fish?" Kaoru took the package from Kanata. He raised an eyebrow. "You sure? Isn't this like eating your cousins or something?"

Kanata laughed lightly, shoulders shaking, then stood up to his full height. He shook his head. "Silly Kaoru," he said and smiled. "Humans are our cousins."

*

That night, when Kaoru offered the use of his bed to Kanata, since it seemed rude not to and also rude to offer Chiaki's room to him, Kanata shook his head.

"I 'have' to 'rest' in the water," he said.

"Oh." Kaoru put down the pajamas he had started to pull out for Kanata. "Okay." He picked up the pajamas again. "So, you don't need these?"

Kanata laughed. "No, I do 'not.' Unless Kaoru 'wants' his clothes to get 'wet.'"

Kaoru dropped his pajamas into the drawer. "You're right. Laundry is already enough of a hassle as it is."

Kanata bent over and lifted up the ends of his pants, looking at his legs. He wiggled his toes. "Ah, I think I 'need' to go 'in' now."

"Is there anything else you need? Like a pillow or...or something? Oh, there's an extra toothbrush in the cabinet. What else...what else..."

Kanata straightened and pinched his shirt forward. "What should I do with this?" His hand moved down to the hem and he motioned as if to take it off.

Kaoru instinctively took a step back and turned to look away.

"Heh," Kanata said, poking Kaoru's cheek. Kaoru blinked and turned towards Kanata's finger. "Kaoru is 'surprisingly' cute. Chiaki 'did not' say that."

"I am not cute," Kaoru said. He grabbed Kanata's finger and pulled it away from his face.

Kanata smiled. "Good 'night,' Kaoru."

"I have to brush my teeth."

Kanata backed out through the door and waved. "Good night."

"Hey, wait!"

Kitchen sink it was.

*

It was ridiculous how Izumi always insisted on wearing a disguise every time they met in public.

"Don't be stupid," Izumi had said when Kaoru had first brought it up. "Of course I need to wear a disguise. Fans are rabid."

Kaoru wanted to point out that his fans were the ones paying his bills and, besides, he didn't have nearly enough fans for him to be recognized off the street, but he had kept his mouth shut and reached over for his drink.

Kaoru reached over for his drink now, too, keeping his mouth shut as Izumi rattled off a string of questions buried beneath exasperated barbs at Chiaki for being Chiaki and at Kaoru for being Kaoru and unable to ever stop Chiaki.

"I would have gotten the full story out of him in ten seconds," Izumi said, picking at the cheesecake in front of him.

Kaoru said, "I don't know why you got that when you're never going to eat it."

Izumi glared at him. "Shut up." His fork fell against the plate with a clatter and he pushed the plate towards Kaoru. "You don't have to bully me to get a bite."

Kaoru took the fork and ate a piece of the cake. Sweet. "So, obviously you got this to bribe me."

"Who says?"

"You don't like sweet things."

"Your teeth are going to rot out of your gums."

"You wouldn't have been able to get the full story out of Moricchi."

Izumi reached across and took a sip of Kaoru's iced coffee. "I would have done a better job than you. Really, Kao-kun. Chii-kun is the hardly the hardest person to break."

"I was working under a time constraint and—"

"Let me guess, you don't really care about the whole story."

Kaoru shrugged and popped another bite of cake into his mouth.

Izumi shook his head. He leaned in close to Kaoru over the table. "One day, Kao-kun, you're going to admit that you want things the most out of all of us. You're just too chicken to admit it."

Kaoru sighed and shook his head. "Senacchi, I think you're severely underestimating how much you want things."

"I want a lot of things. I don't lie to myself about them, though."

"Really."

Izumi waved his hand, dismissing Kaoru. "Tell me more about fishboy. Where is he? I thought you were bringing him today. I wanted to see Chii-kun's latest project."

"He's not a project. He's a person."

"So was Takamine. Didn't stop him from becoming a Morisawa Chiaki project."

Kaoru leaned back in his chair. "Stop it, Senacchi."

Izumi raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" he said, then smirked. "Oh, that's right. He's hot, isn't he?"

"Moricchi doesn't have projects. He doesn't think far enough ahead to have projects. He just does things and because he's so goddamn himself, it just works out."

Izumi said, "Oh, wow," and touched his fingers to his chin. "He must be really hot."

"Actually, no. Really, if you think about it, Moricchi's project is trying to make the world a better place where people can be heroes and other people—people who need to be saved or—or want to be saved can be saved. A place where people who are kind can stay kind and not have their efforts corrupted and wasted. It's admirable, really."

Izumi blinked. "Okay." He pulled the cheesecake back towards himself. "Either fishboy is beyond description or you've come to a sudden realization that you're in love with Chii-kun."

Kaoru rolled his eyes.

"Look, I'm not sure if Chii-kun's really looking for a side piece right now, but, you know, if this is the path you want to take in life, I'll—"

"Oh, shut up."

"You don't get to tell me to shut up, Kao-kun." Izumi shoved the fork into the cheesecake. "I have the cheesecake; I hold the power."

Kaoru shrugged. "He didn't want to come out. That's all."

A fork of cheesecake stopped on its way to Izumi's mouth. "You know what? You're right. It's silly for me to eat something like this when a fuller face suits you better anyway." He pushed the plate over to Kaoru.

Kaoru looked at the cake laden fork. "Am I supposed to eat that?"

"What? Would you like me to feed you? Is that the price I have to pay for this goddamn story because I thought I already paid that by gracing you with my presence."

"And the cheesecake," Kaoru added.

"And the cheesecake," Izumi echoed.

Kaoru sat up a little straighter.

"Kao-kun, please say 'No, Senaizu, I do not want you to feed me cheesecake in public while you are dressed in your least attention-catching but perfectly stylish clothes and a hat.'"

"Senaizu, I do not want you to feed me cheesecake under any circumstances."

Izumi nodded. "Acceptable. Proceed."

"He's"—Kaoru shrugged and tugged on his ear lobe—"fine."

Izumi threw his hands up into the air. "Well, Jesus, Kao-kun. You're going to have to give me more than that, you know."

"Look, it's just…" Kaoru fiddled with the fork.

Izumi waited patiently.

Well, patiently—for Izumi.

Kaoru took a deep breath in. "Okay, you're right. He's"—Kaoru reached for his earring—"attractive. But, anyone would think that. Like, what? Am I blind? Am I just not going to notice that he's attrac—"

"Stop doing that." Izumi swatted at Kaoru's hand.

"Hey, I don't say anything about your napkin shredding."

"Yeah, because you're not allowed to and are too afraid to approach me when I've entered napkin shredding mode." Izumi raised an eyebrow. "So—attractive? And?"

"And...a little weird?"

"Well, Chii-kun did pick him up. That's unavoidable. And, look at you. A Sakuma as a roommate? With their family history? Not to mention that dog boy that's always hanging around. You're a weird magnet."

Kaoru frowned. "I don't mean—"

"Yes, yes, you don't mean to be mean." Izumi leaned back in his chair. "Honestly, Kao-kun, I prefer you a little callous. You're a lot more fun then."

"He didn't want to come out."

"You've already said that and I'm beginning to lose interest. I get it. He didn't want to meet me, the only decent friend you and Chii-kun have." Izumi crossed his legs.

Kaoru shook his head. "No, you don't understand. He didn't want to come out at all. It was—He got excited for a moment? Like when I mentioned that you were a friend of Moricchi's, but then when I said that we'd be meeting you outside, he just sort of…" Kaoru swallowed. "Moricchi said he stole him and, well, I thought it was just a joke at first, but there have been other things, too, and..."

Izumi pressed his lips together. "Chii-kun hasn't accidentally gotten involved in something super shady again, has he? I swear to God—"

"If he has, he doesn't know. Or, he didn't think it'd be good to tell me."

Izumi scoffed then pointed a finger at Kaoru. "He told you not to tell me, right?"

Kaoru nodded.

"The two of you spontaneously gaining a third roommate as part of one of Chii-kun's harebrained, accidentally illegal stunts—that, I don't really care about beyond it being fun gossip or whatever, but"—Izumi tapped his fingers against the table—"I entirely do not approve of him getting himself involved with something legitimately dangerous when he doesn't even know what he's up against."

"I—"

Izumi looked at Kaoru.

"Look, I don't think—"

"Yes, famously, you don't think—especially when somebody you're interested in is involved."

"Senacchi." Kaoru remembered Kanata laughing in the kitchen as Kaoru tried to stop him from pouring soy sauce on everything. He remembered Kanata humming in the bathtub as Kaoru brushed his teeth and Kanata drawing cartoon fish on the whiteboard on the fridge door, having Kaoru guess the names of each fish and writing down both Kaoru's made-up name and the correct one before moving onto the next doodle. "I don't think he's dangerous."

"Kao-kun." Izumi placed his phone on the table, facedown. "I'm not saying he is. But, I really would like it if two of my closest and dumbest friends didn't get themselves killed because they didn't know how to turn a blind eye when they should have."

"I'm not Moricchi. I can turn a blind eye perfectly fine."

"I know you can, Kao-kun." Izumi stood and picked up his phone. He looked down at Kaoru. "Just not when Chii-kun and beautiful boys are involved."

*

Kaoru's brain compartmentalized Kanata like this:

A third roommate, a friend of Chiaki's, and a bathroom hog.

In his room, Kaoru stood in front of his bookshelf. His hand hovered between two jars, one clear and one opaque. Behind the jars, there were vials—some full and some partially emptied out—a lidless box filled with marbles, and two velvet drawstring bags Rei had given to Kaoru as a moving-out slash birthday gift and Kaoru had been too afraid to open.

Kaoru eventually decided on the clear jar, filled with white sand. When he shook it a little, the sand started to glow. Good. It was still useable. He reached back and picked up four of the vials. He hesitated for a moment before he also picked up as many marbles as he could hold. He didn't have to use them, he rationalized. Taking them with him didn't mean that he had to show Kanata them. Not if he didn't want to.

Experimentally, he flicked one of the velvet bags lightly. Something solid was inside. Teeth, maybe.

Bones.

Kaoru withdrew his hand quickly.

Better to leave those alone.

He made his way over to the bathroom, where Kanata was currently resting. He knocked on the door, trying not to drop anything. "Kanata-kun, can I come in?"

"No," came Kanata's voice, clear and sweet, through the door, "you 'can' not, Kaoru."

"Oh." Kaoru looked down at the objects filling his hands. It had been a stupid idea anyway. Kanata had probably seen all kinds of magic already. He wouldn't be impressed by whatever mediocre, secondhand spells and sands Kaoru had. Only kids liked them anyway. Adults went for proper spells—like ones to find lost things or ones to keep the kitchen floor dry or the one Chiaki had installed on the balcony, which stopped blankets falling off the railing as they dried. Kanata was magic. This would be nothing new to him.

He didn't know why he had wanted to share this with Kanata. He should probably get rid of them. And the creepy bags Rei had given him. So what if there was a curse on them. He could handle it. Rei had used him for that weird blood ceremony his family did one year. Surely that gave him some protection from whatever blood magic the Sakuma clan did.

Or maybe it made him more susceptible.

He'd take his chances.

The bathroom door clicked open.

Kanata stuck his head out. His cheeks were flushed pink. "Kaoru?" He reached out to touch Kaoru's arm. "I was only 'joking,' Kaoru."

Kanata's fingers brushed against the underside of his arm and Kaoru jumped back, dropping one of the marbles to the ground. It rolled down the hallway. Kanata retracted his hand.

"I, uh...," Kaoru started.

Just then, he heard the marble hit the wall. The impact must have opened it because there was a slight breeze that pulled past them both, sending pieces of his hair into his eyes and mouth and making the piece of hair at the top of Kanata's head sway back and forth. He looked to his right and watched as a blue fish, made of pulsing light and magic, swam over to them.

It went above their heads first before turning around and coming between their faces. The blue glow made Kanata's eyes light up and he opened the door to the bathroom fully. The fish swam around his body, looping around before it circled Kaoru's ankles and disappeared into white particles that glowed brightly for a heartbeat or two before blinking out of existence.

Kanata looked up. His eyes sparkled. He pulled Kaoru into the bathroom by the elbows, too quickly for Kaoru to react. He walked backwards through the partition and Kaoru followed, trying not to drop anything else and trying to ignore that the shirt Kanata had put on for Kaoru's sake wasn't completely dry and clung to his chest and the line of his shoulder in a way that—

That didn't make Kaoru think anything. Really. Totally.

Well, it made him feel gratitude. Thankful that Kanata hadn't ever walked around naked again after the first day.

He stumbled forward as Kanata stopped in the middle of the room.

Kanata cupped Kaoru's hands and brought them up between their chests. "Do 'another,' Kaoru."

Kaoru swallowed. "What—What do you want to see?"

Kanata looked at the vials and marbles and jar and pointed at a vial with a dark blue liquid inside. "That 'one.'"

Kaoru gently lifted his hands off Kanata's and squatted down to place the rest of the items on the floor. After standing again, he uncorked the vial. "Hold out your hands," he told Kanata, who immediately did so, cupping his hands together.

Kaoru poured the contents of the vial into Kanata's hands. Instead of leaking through the gaps between his fingers, the liquid solidified and started to smoke. Blue flames erupted in Kanata's hands.

"It's not 'hot'!" Kanata laughed.

Kaoru smiled.

The flames burned until there was none of the original potion left. Kaoru reached down and picked up one of the other vials—this one a pearly white—and the rest of the marbles. "This is one of my favorite combinations," he said. "I used to do it all the time when I was a kid, especially after—," he caught himself. "Well, just back then. Especially as a kid."

"What will 'it' do?"

"Ah-ah." He wagged a finger at Kanata. "Not telling you. Have some patience, Kanata-kun."

Kanata pouted. "Then move 'faster,' Kaoru."

Kaoru laughed and held out the marbles to Kanata. "Here, you use these."

Kanata peered down at them. "What are 'these'?"

"You'll find out."

"Hmph. 'Then,' how do I 'use' them?"

"When I finish pouring this out"—Kaoru shook the vial—"crush them in your hands and blow."

"Blow." Kanata tilted his head.

"Like," Kaoru said and grabbed Kanata's wrist, holding his hand palm-up between their faces, "this." He blew gently across Kanata's palm, the last tendrils of navy smoke rising up and floating away.

Kanata looked at Kaoru and suddenly Kaoru was aware of how close they were standing. How close Kanata's face was to his and how green his eyes were even in the dim light of the room. How he was still holding Kanata's wrist and how—if Kanata simply curled his fingers up, just so—Kanata's fingers would brush against his chin.

Kaoru cleared his throat and broke eye contact. He took a step back then, before he let go of Kanata's wrist, poured the marbles into Kanata's palm. Kanata's fingers curled around them.

"Are you, um, ready?" he said.

"Yes."

Kaoru uncorked the vial and poured the contents out in front of him. The liquid dripped out slowly at first, but then rushed out like ocean waves crashing into the shore, white foam turning into the blue of the water as it climbed the walls. It soon reached their knees, their hips, their chests, but it was merely the memory of water, bottled up into glass with magic and love.

When Kanata crushed the marbles in his hands and blew, schools of brightly colored fish started to swirl around them, followed by a pair of stingrays, then one turtle. Kaoru exhaled and bubbles rushed out of his nose. He reached down and grabbed the jar of star sand. After opening it, he took a handful and tossed it up.

The room lit up like moonlight was hitting the water's surface. Light refracted down; the patterns of the waves drew lines on the floor.

Kanata stepped back and looked around him. He extended his arms out. The fish wrapped around him and the sheen of his skin shifted colors as the star sand's light roamed around the room, pulled by an invisible current.

"It is 'beautiful,'" Kanata said. He touched the back of one of the stingrays as it swam past. "This is 'beautiful,' Kaoru."

Kaoru swallowed his urge to deny and deflect and said, "I'm glad you think so, Kanata-kun."

Kaoru didn't have any magic. It didn't run in his family. There was no magic in his mother's side and certainly no magic in his father's side. Perhaps a long time ago, forgotten somewhere along the line, there had been a mage with a focusable trace of magic, but now there was not even a single pinch of magic in Kaoru's blood.

Magic was always attracted to magic. Spells and baubles, fun party tricks like star sand worked fine if you didn't have any magic, but it always worked better when there was a little power inside of you for it to borrow from.

Kanata had magic. Of course he did, being a merperson, but it was clear now, as he directed the light fish around the room. He caught one in his hands and he whispered something between his thumbs, bubbles forming and floating away. When he opened his hands again, a rush of fish erupted from his palms, an explosion of light.

In Kaoru's experience, when people had magic, they didn't think anything of it. Rei thought nothing of snapping his fingers and having the towels Kaoru was folding turning into a flock of bats. And Kuro didn't bat an eye whenever he waved his hand—nails growing into claws and scales flipping back, erupting from his skin and running up to his elbow—over a skillet to cook everything inside. It was perfectly normal to them. Magic was perfectly normal to Kaoru, too.

Just a part of life.

But, there was something in the way Kanata looked around the room, smile on his lips and sparkle in his eyes, that made Kaoru unable to tear his eyes away from him. It had just been an idea Kaoru had—for Kanata to have some fun, even as he was under some kind of self-imposed house arrest. For him and Kanata to get to know each other better in a way, so that when Chiaki came they could all be on the same page and Kaoru wouldn't be shut out. It wasn't supposed to be anything more than something to amuse them both. And yet, here Kanata was, acting like this was the first time he had ever seen anything like this. Acting like Kaoru hadn't just done a passing courtesy for him as a third roommate, a friend of Chiaki's, a bathroom hog—whatever.

It made something press against his chest, hard. It squeezed and Kaoru inhaled sharply as the light of the star sand settled on Kanata's face, the white refraction of the water settling over his skin and hair like a veil. The turtle swam over to Kanata and he smiled and Kaoru's chest squeezed again. A part of Kaoru thought, maybe, he knew what this was—this feeling in his chest that gripped him hard, but that part of him also knew he shouldn't name it for what it was. Wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't—he'd been around long enough, given in enough times, to know how it ended. To know how to ignore it, so it didn't take that wrong turn.

He didn't want this to turn sour.

He didn't want to ruin things, again.

He'd make sure there'd be nothing to ruin.

The pressure on his chest released. He breathed in and out. It had just been the memory of something, just like the water around them was merely a mage's memory.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Kanata touched the head of the turtle and everything came to stop. The world Kaoru had first created in his bedroom, then recreated over and over again to remember and to forget, to escape and to comfort, started to swirl together around Kanata's fingertip. The memory of water and sea creatures disappeared around them until it was all gone, concentrated into a ball of light.

Like all magic before the end, it pulsed once. Twice. Thrice.

Then it flickered out of existence, absorbed back into the world around them.

*

"Thank you, Kaoru," Kanata said later, elbows propped up on the edge of the tub.

Kaoru breathed in, controlling his expression. Then, he turned around and smiled. "Anytime, Kanata-kun."

*

"Senacchi's convinced you've gotten yourself involved with something dangerous, you know?" Kaoru said. He pulled a dress off the rack and gave it a once-over. No, definitely not right.

"Dangerous?" Chiaki laughed. "No, no, no. Well..." He paused. "I guess if something went really, really wrong, I could die, but if anything went really, really wrong in any line of work, you could die. Like if Sena accidentally stepped out too far in front of traffic when he was posing in the streets for some magazine. Or, if some huge lights fell on him in a studio. Huge lights could fall on me, too, you know? Actually, huge lights could even fall on you, Hakaze."

"Thanks, Moricchi."

"Don't worry," Chiaki said, assuredly. "I'm sure you'll be fine."

"Oh wow," Kaoru deadpanned. "I was getting really worried about big lights." He eyed the chandelier in the middle of the store. "Though I'll be sure to avoid the big light currently in my life on my way out."

"Did you find anything yet?"

"No. I know I said I'd get her present this year, but honestly I'm regretting not just letting Senacchi take care of it."

"I'm sure you'll pick out something perfect, Hakaze! I believe in you."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." He squinted at a blue shirt and shook his head. Totally wrong. "It really means something coming from you."

"You're welcome!"

"Izumi's probably still going to get her something, huh?"

Chiaki laughed. "Of course. I've already got her present. And you still got her those earrings last year even though we decided Sena would be the one to pick something out."

"What is it?"

"Not telling."

Ugh, no. Not that yellow. "Senacchi wasn't talking about your job, by the way."

"Hm?"

"What I was saying before. About him being worried about you."

Kaoru could hear the crinkle of paper. Fries, probably. "Huh? What would it be about then?"

"What color do you think I should get?"

"Red."

"Typical." He wondered if he should just get jewelry again. "He meant with Kanata-kun."

"Ah." Chiaki stopped moving. There was silence on his end.

Kaoru said, "He's fine, by the way," deciding against a purple skirt. "It's as if he's always been around. I was actually thinking that maybe you shouldn't come back. He's a better roommate than you."

"Hey!"

"For one, he doesn't hog the TV on Saturday mornings."

Chiaki sounded indignant. "You don't even watch TV! You do everything on your phone!"

"Yeah, but now I can use the TV as a mirror. It's great. Also, Kanata-kun doesn't always try to sneak figures and DVDs onto the living room shelves."

"But, there's all that empty space you're not doing anything with."

Kaoru smiled. He liked teasing Chiaki so much more when he wasn't there to tackle Kaoru the moment he started to feel a little sensitive. "You know nothing of aesthetics, Moricchi. That's why you're never allowed to pick Anzu-chan's official gift."

"Why are you talking like Sena?" Kaoru could hear Chiaki stuffing a handful of fries into his mouth. "She liked the Phoenix Ranger Featherman Pink Argus figure I got her two years ago...She still has it..."

"You should probably tell Senacchi there's nothing dangerous about the situation with Kanata-kun." He exited the store. Forget clothes. Clothes were Izumi's forte. He was much better with jewelry. "You know how he gets. Pretends he doesn't care if we live or die, but then the second you turn up in the hospital with a broken whatever, he's hovering over you like a hawkish mother-in-law from hell."

"Well."

"Well, what?" Kaoru sighed. "Don't tell me there's actually a situation."

"Welllll..."

"I thought you just ran across him stranded on a beach or whatever and brought him home with no regard for our lease."

"It was a river, actually."

Kaoru frowned. "He was stranded in a river?"

"No, no. He lived there. I met him there a few years back. It's the river that runs through the forest around an hour and a half out of town. I was there to film some countryside scenes for the show I was doing at the time."

"And you never said anything?"

Another rustle of paper. "We weren't roommates at the time, Hakaze."

"Yeah, but we were friends!"

"I'm sure I mentioned something. You've just forgotten." Then, he said, mouth full of fries, "Sena definitely heard about it."

"Don't talk with your mouth full. Senacchi doesn't remember anything unless it can be used as blackmail or grudge."

"True. You know he still hasn't let go of that one time in college when I gave Sakuma's younger brother some of my blood?"

Kaoru laughed. "Man, that was stupid of you."

"He said he was dying! What was I supposed to do? Not give him my blood?"

"Yeah," Kaoru said.

"He was dying!"

"He's a vampire." Kaoru looked into the window of a jewelry shop he often frequented.

"He said my blood tasted too much like exercising, you know. I don't even know what that means," Chiaki muttered. "What would Sena's blood taste like then?"

"Kanata-kun doesn't look like river merpeople."

"Huh? So?" Chiaki opened what sounded like a fridge door. "I think Sena's blood would taste like cough syrup."

"His tail. The scales aren't the right color."

"Like you know he exists for a good reason, but he's really jarring and bad at first and then you get used to him after the initial shock has disappeared, but then sometimes you keep it in your mouth too long and you don't want to swallow because—"

"Can you stop talking about Senacchi like he's something edible? I am not comfortable."

"Or maybe he'd taste like pills that start to melt in your mouth too early."

"Beyond uncomfortable!" He'd have to come back out for Anzu's present. He was leaning towards an earrings and necklace combination, but a watch might be good too.

"Why does it matter, anyway? That his scales aren't right."

Kaoru hesitated. "I guess...it doesn't? I mean I've been giving him salt to put in the water, so I kind of feel stupid now."

"Huh, I didn't even think about the saltwater thing. He was closer to the city the night I brought him in. Oh, but I guess it was a pond that time, though."

Kaoru chewed on the inside of his lip. "So, why did you bring him here?"

"Why?" Chiaki said, slightly confused. "What do you mean why?"

Kaoru shrugged, even though Chiaki couldn't see him.

Then, Chiaki said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Because he asked for my help, Hakaze.

"Because he asked me to save him."

*

Kanata was curled up in the corner of the couch. He balanced a photo album on his lap and poured over each sheet, looking at each picture carefully before he turned to the next page. Kaoru remembered that photo album. Anzu had made it for him for his birthday one year, the same year Madara came back to the country and, for once in his life, had something happen entirely by chance. Kaoru hadn't believed it at first, when Anzu told him that Madara hadn't known that she was working at the production company he came back to Japan to help out, but it turned out it was all genuine.

Unorchestrated.

Fate or chance, take your pick.

Kaoru preferred the latter.

An unintended side effect of Madara dropping back into her life had been the bout of sentimentality that held Anzu in its grip for a good few weeks in September and October. Just in time for his birthday, as well as Rei's and Izumi's shared one. As a favor to Rei, since Ritsu was still refusing to acknowledge his birthday, they'd just had a casual gathering that weekend for all of their mutual friends.

Anzu had gifted them each with their own individualized photo album with pictures starting from their third year of high school, when Anzu had transferred in by chance of an administrative mistake, and going through all the way up to the current year. At the time, Kaoru had wondered how Anzu had gotten her hands on all these photos, but he had long since learned not to question her out loud. She was capable of great things; Anzu-chan was.

Kaoru was convinced there was nothing in the world she couldn't accomplish if she set her mind to it.

Kanata was currently looking at the pictures of the sports festival from his third year. Kaoru leaned over and laughed at a picture of Chiaki chasing after him with a bean bag. Kanata looked up and patted the spot next to him on the couch.

"Come 'join' me, Kaoru."

Kaoru plopped down next to Kanata and tapped on Chiaki's face. "Would you believe me if I told you he was a huge nerd in high school?"

"You mean Chiaki is 'not' a 'huge nerd' now?"

Caught off guard, Kaoru just stared at Kanata for a moment.

Kanata snickered quietly at his own joke.

"You're right," Kaoru said, grinning. "I take it back. Only a huge nerd would have the amount of tokusatsu merch that he does." Kaoru thumbed through the next few pages, until he got to a picture of Chiaki, Izumi, and himself in class. Chiaki was smiling and had his glasses on. Izumi looked angry that he had posed unconsciously for the photo he obviously did not want to take. Kaoru looked genuinely happy, so he supposed it had been Anzu behind the camera. "I just meant he used to wear his glasses all the time. Like a huge nerd."

Kanata brought the side of his hand down on top of Kaoru's, chopping it slightly. "I was not 'finished.'"

"Right, right." Kaoru put his hands up. "All yours."

Kanata went through the next few pages meticulously, occasionally asking Kaoru the context of the photos, which he happily provided if he remembered. Some of them were just photos out of time—moments like Izumi taking the glasses off a sleeping Chiaki and passing them off to Kaoru, who posed in them until Keito, who sat behind Kaoru for a term, rolled up his papers and hit Kaoru over the head.

Kanata lingered on a set of photos of Kaoru and Anzu from university at the local aquarium. It was after they hadn't seen each other for a while and the two of them were just lonely enough to attempt to go on a date together. It hadn't grown into anything else, just as the two of them had originally thought, but it'd still been fun. Before, Kaoru had often thought that everything in his life would have been better—everything in life would have just fallen into place and worked out—if he had somebody like Anzu at his side. After, he'd realized what he should have known a lot sooner: nothing in his life was going to just spontaneously work out with no effort on his side.

He'd apologized to Anzu that day. For pushing her too much in high school. For putting too much unnecessary expectation on her shoulders.

She'd shaken her head then. He still remembered her patting his hand on the ride home as they sat in an empty train carriage, city lights rushing past them. "You just wanted me to be a girl who loved you, Kaoru-san," she said. "Believe me, that was the least expectation anybody put on me in high school." She smiled slightly. "Though it was the one I was the most afraid of."

Kanata said, "You look happy, Kaoru."

"I was happy, that day. I'd waited a long time for that date."

"Did you love her?"

"Yeah. I still do, really. She's great."

"Is she your 'girlfriend'?"

Kaoru shook his head. "Nope. I wanted her to be, at one point. It didn't happen, though. I don't think either of us really wanted it."

"Not even you?"

"Not even me."

Kanata made a small noise of contemplation and then turned the page. There was a picture of Chiaki and Kaoru with Anzu at one of the first events she organized for her university.

"Did she 'save' you?" Kanata said.

"I..." Kaoru hesitated for a moment then shrugged. "If she saved me, then she saved a lot of people I know. She's special. Anzu-chan."

Kanata was quiet for a few seconds, before saying, "Chiaki saved me." He stared at Chiaki's smiling face so hard, Kaoru thought it was going to burst into flames. "He is like the 'sun.' He will 'extend' a hand to 'anyone' who needs it. If you 'want' to be saved, he 'will' save you. If you 'need' to be saved, he 'will' save you."

Kanata closed the album.

"And he 'will say' he did not 'do' anything at all."

He put the album on the table in front of the couch and leaned back into the cushions. "The day Chiaki 'brought' me here, it was 'dark' and 'cold.' But, his hand was 'warm.' He was warm." Kanata closed his eyes. "I 'loved' him from that 'moment.' He extended a hand to me and I fell in 'love.'"

Kaoru swallowed. Hearing someone talk so candidly about love made his heartbeat quicken in a panic. He didn't know how to give a genuine response to Kanata. He didn't know how to approach such feelings of love and gratitude. They were so simple at their core. Human feelings that connected people across worlds and experiences.

Kanata's expression—open and unguarded, his feelings blatant on his face—made Kaoru's mind creak to a stop. So, instead of any appropriate response an appropriate human being would give, he said, "You know Moricchi has a boyfriend, right?"

Kanata's hand came down on Kaoru's head. "I do not 'mean' that love," he said, frowning.

Kaoru winced. "That actually hurts, you know." He pulled Kanata's arm away.

"It is 'supposed' to." Kanata sniffed. "This is why Kaoru does not have a 'girlfriend.'"

"Hey! I told you I'm just not looking for anything right now."

Kanata shrugged and brought up one knee, hugging it to his chest. "If that is what you 'want' to think."

"It's not just!" Kaoru frowned. "What do you even know about relationships, anyway, Kanata-kun?" he said, poking Kanata's arm.

Kanata poked him back. "I know 'many things.'"

"What? Do you have someone waiting for you back in the ocean or something?"

Kanata smiled and folded his hands on his knee. Tilting his head, he glanced sidelong at Kaoru and said, "Maybe I 'do,' Kaoru."

Kaoru immediately broke eye contact and stretched his legs out in front of him. It'd be very hard to ignore the drop of his stomach after Kanata had spoken, but he believed in himself. He concentrated all his energy on the red action figure Chiaki had put next to the TV. It was very red. Kaoru wondered if the helmet was removeable or if that was just its head. "Good for you," he said, trying to shove his hands into his pockets then realizing he didn't have any. "Glad to know everyone around me is in a happy relationship while I wallow, alone and unwanted."

Kanata laughed. "Should I introduce 'someone' to you?"

"Please do. I'm starting to think I'm going to die alone."

Kanata elbowed Kaoru lightly. "No, you 'don't.'"

"You're right. I don't. I just wonder how much longer I can keep up the revolving door of dates I've had going on since high school."

"Oh?" Kanata rested his head on top of his hands and Kaoru's gaze flicked over at the movement. "I thought you've had 'girlfriends.' That is not 'revolving.'"

Kaoru shrugged and crossed his ankles. "Yeah, but everything always fell apart at the 'Meet the Family' stage of things."

Kanata nodded. "I see; I see." He smiled wickedly. "Kaoru 'fell' for their mothers instead."

Kaoru elbowed Kanata who just let out a little laugh in response. "More like the other way around. Mothers love me. I'm the perfect boyfriend: charming, well-mannered, and good-looking."

Kanata tutted. "Calling 'yourself' good-looking…"

"Parents love me," Kaoru insisted, loudly. "I can sway anyone to my side, no matter how difficult. They'll see the charms of Hakaze Kaoru soon enough."

"Will they?"

"Stop sounding so genuinely doubtful, Kanata-kun! You're hurting my feelings!"

Kanata reached out and patted Kaoru on the head. "Sorry, Kaoru. I am 'sure' all mothers love you."

Kaoru lost his train of thought for a moment—his mind strangely empty for a second as Kanata's hand stroked his hair. He felt heat rising up his neck as he scrambled to find a thread of anything to grasp onto and move past whatever weird, momentary shutdown that had definitely not been induced by Kanata's touch. It couldn't have been. Totally unrelated.

"It—It was never a problem with the family of the person I was dating," he said as quickly as he could, tripping over his words slightly. "It was always my family."

Kanata's patting slowed to a stop. He slowly moved his hand down the side of Kaoru's face, lingering slightly as his fingers gently touched the edge of Kaoru's ear and his palm pressed against the curve of Kaoru's cheek, before he withdrew his hand, fingers curling in as he brought his hand back into his chest.

Kaoru swallowed.

He didn't really like being this candid with anyone. Not his sister, not Chiaki; not Izumi or Rei or any one of his friends. Certainly not his kouhai who, despite everything, he wanted to look at him in a good light. He didn't want them to see him as weak.

He kept things close to his chest. Guarded. Locked away. There were a few times—back in high school, when he thought he was more discreet than he actually was—when he had slipped in front of them and felt uncomfortable at the thought of his own weakness and inability to stop his feelings from bubbling up to the surface. He waited for a similar feeling to come over him now as Kanata looked at him, but no such discomfort clawed its way up his throat, rooting itself in his chest and threatening to take over his entire being.

All there was—

Was the beating of his own heart.

"It's my father," Kaoru said. He felt strangely calm. "We never really got along when I was growing up. We still don't, not really, so I never want to introduce him to my girlfriends or anything and then they ask why they can't meet him when I met their families and then I ask him to just drop it and sometimes they do but…" He took in a breath and smiled ruefully. "It always comes back up. It's my fault, honestly. I have a type. I like persistent people." He sat up straighter. "My mom always told me that the only thing that matters is that I'm happy, but my father has different ideas. With him, finding happiness is a side effect. Status and business always come first. Duty, you know? And I've never been very good with stifling things like that."

"Your mother sounds like a 'nice person,'" Kanata said. He rested his cheek on his hands once again. "I am 'sure' Kaoru's 'girlfriends' would like to meet her."

Kaoru's throat went dry. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, um—" He tried to swallow, but it was difficult. He needed water. He needed—He didn't usually react this way. It happened a long time ago. He had grown used to glossing over her in conversations. She could be present tense, past tense, future. She could be dead or alive, visiting family or living abroad—anything to make conversation easier to handle. Anything so he wouldn't have to answer questions. Anything so he wouldn't have to live through awkward pauses and looks of pity.

But, sometimes, all there was to do was run away.

Sometimes, he—

There was something in the earnestness in Kanata's voice. The ghost of Kanata's touch against his face. The sincerity of his gaze and his words.

It made it all too much to handle.

Kaoru stood up suddenly. The pillow next to him fell to the floor. He picked it up quickly and placed it next to Kanata. His eyes flicked over to Kanata then back down. "I've—I've got some work to prep for tomorrow. I'll see you later. Tomorrow. Whenever," he said in a rush, before Kanata could reply. He rubbed the back of his neck.

Kanata was silent. He lifted his head and lowered his feet to the ground.

Kaoru stepped backwards, away from the couch. "It's really. Yeah. I totally forgot about it. I—" He took another step and said, "Bye," before he turned around and fled.

*

It was strange, having a dead parent.

Some days, he didn't feel the loss at all. It was just how the world was. Other people had dead parents, too. Absentee parents. Missing parents. Parents they didn't even get a chance to know.

Other days, it colored his entire world. It felt like the defining characteristic of his being. Motherless Hakaze Kaoru. He'd spent more years without a mother than with one. On those days, the knowledge rested heavy on his chest as he wondered what his life would have been like if she hadn't died.

It was best not to wonder.

It was always better to not imagine the impossible possibilities—the incarnations of his life he would never know because he couldn't know them.

The more time that passed, the more Kaoru felt the memory of his mother drifting away. He remembered the day he smelt one of her scarves and realized that the last of her perfume had disappeared from the fabric. He'd felt so empty. His chest had felt scooped out. Hollow. It'd sent a ton of realizations crashing down on him. His mother would never hug him again, envelop him in her arms, her body as warm as the perfume on her skin. Vanilla. Almond. Musk. It was home. She was home, her hand holding his as she walked him around the aquarium, crouching down and pointing up at the different fish. And he'd lost his home. He'd watched as she disappeared from the world and now everything she touched would disappear, too.

For a while, Kaoru had been angry about her death.

Why her? Why somebody so good? So kind? So young? Why someone who had more to do in the world? Why someone who he had loved and who had loved him?

Now, the better days outnumbered the bad. And after the bad days, Kaoru never felt the need to explain himself. Nobody ever brought it up. He certainly wasn't going to.

Better for others to forget anything weird he'd said or done.

Except now, Kaoru found himself lingering outside of the bathroom door. Kanata was inside, singing a song Kaoru didn't recognize.

Kaoru closed his eyes. The trouble with avoiding ever explaining himself was that he had no idea how to go about it. What should he do? What should he say? He wondered how Chiaki did it. How Chiaki could be so forthright with everyone and put everything on the table, unable to hide anything beneath. An apology from Chiaki involved utmost sincerity and actions accompanied by heartfelt words. Kaoru still remembered the time that Chiaki had accidentally dropped one of Kaoru's dishes and Kaoru came home to Chiaki with his head bowed, acting like he had done something unspeakable. He was glad to find out it was only a dish.

Chiaki could be so dramatic sometimes, but he still meant every word he said.

Kaoru wasn't like Izumi either, though, who was equal parts forthcoming and deflective and spent his life on the attack. No, Kaoru was comfortable living in a world of shallow words where there were no consequences to things said or done, because there had been no weight behind them at all.

Feather light.

As carefree as the breeze.

He sat down on the floor and leaned back against the door.

Here's how Izumi would apologize: he wouldn't.

Not unless he was backed into an impossible corner, unable to wriggle himself out. Or if it was a matter of life or death, literally or otherwise. There'd never been occasion for Izumi to truly apologize to Kaoru for something, but Kaoru had heard rumors, before. Back in the day. From before they were tenuously friends. From before they were even really acquaintances.

Well, that didn't matter now.

He knocked his head back against the door lightly.

Rei would make fun of him for overthinking things. He hated when Rei did things like that: coming over pretending like he was merely playing a guessing game at what Kaoru's current state of mind was, but hitting the nail on the head with plain thoughts expressed in cryptic words. That was one of the reasons why they didn't last long as a couple. Kaoru lacked the straightforward and bullheaded attitude that was needed to break Rei down and get him to drop his acts and speak plainly.

Only Koga was really suited for the job. He was the only one who truly believed in Rei, the human, beneath the concepts of creature and humanity he draped himself in as protection and self-sacrifice and whatever dumb ideas he had about himself.

Good riddance to them both.

They were so in love it made Kaoru sick to be around them sometimes.

He dreaded the day they'd actually take his jokes seriously and get married.

He knocked his head against the door once more, but this time, it opened up behind him. He fell back against the floor. His head hit the ground and he winced.

Kanata stood above him.

"Hey," Kaoru said.

Kanata crouched down. Water dripped off the end of his hair and fell onto Kaoru's face. "I 'thought' you were 'knocking.'"

Kaoru wiped his face. Another drop fell onto his skin. "I...well, I guess. Sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you."

Kanata wiped the water away this time, thumb against Kaoru's cheek, and then tucked his own hair behind his ear. "Kaoru 'never' disturbs me."

Kaoru opened his mouth to speak, but he found he had no words to say. Nothing. His mind was empty. Emptied.

Kanata slipped a hand beneath Kaoru's head, cushioning it from the floor. "Did it hurt?"

"When I fell from heaven?" Kaoru said absentmindedly, then immediately realized what he said, flushing. Embarrassment rose up his chest. What was he doing?

Kanata laughed and smiled. "No," he said and poked Kaoru's cheek. "Your head, 'silly.'"

"No, it didn't. It hurts now, though. I'll have to go nurse my wounds," Kaoru said. "In the dark. Alone."

Kanata brushed a lock of hair away from Kaoru's eyes.

Kaoru squeezed his eyes shut. "Actually," he said, "I came here to..." He smiled awkwardly, close-lipped. "Say sorry." He opened his eyes again.

Kanata's hair was slipping free of his ear. A few strands fell into his face and Kaoru resisted the urge to reach up and tuck them back again.

"Why?"

"Because..." He took in a breath. "I shouldn't have just left you without explaining myself."

Kanata shook his head. More hair fell free. "Kaoru. You do not 'need' to explain—"

Kaoru sat up and turned around to face Kanata. "No, no. I—I don't—" He gestured with his hands as if it would help him put the feelings at his core into words. "My mom is dead," he said. He rubbed his hands together. "That's why, when you brought her up, I acted...weirdly." He pressed his palms together, hard. "I thought...I th—No, I...I wanted to tell you." He smiled awkwardly. "I don't? Usually tell people? The either knew or they find out, somehow. Yeah. My family usually isn't something I talk about. Ever. My mom or my dad. Her being gone and him being who he is. But, for some reason, with you—it's been a weird couple of weeks. Sorry. I'm supposed to be helping you until Moricchi comes back, but instead I'm just unloading all these weird things on—"

Kanata reached out and held Kaoru's hands in his. "Kaoru," he said. He locked eyes with him. "It is not 'weird.'"

Kaoru swallowed.

"I 'want' to tell you something," he said. "I think…" He tucked the stray hairs behind his ear once again. "I know you will 'understand,' Kaoru." Kanata leaned forward, moving a hand behind Kaoru's neck. His mouth was next to Kaoru's ear. He breathed in and out. He wet his lips. Then, he said, "I ran away. From my family."

His hand was cold.

"Do you know them?"

His fingers pressed into Kaoru's skin.

"The Shinkai clan."

*

His father had dealings with the Shinkai clan.

Any person with a certain level of importance or ambition did. They had deep ties, deep roots in the soil of the city, extending down to the water below and out to the ocean and her bounty.

They were a household of old spirits and old gods.

Duty. Responsibility. Tradition. Expectation.

Kaoru thought, maybe, he could understand where Kanata was coming from. Maybe he understood, even if it was only the shallowest of understanding shadowed from his own experiences.

And, listening to Kanata, maybe that was all he really needed.

*

Kaoru dreamt, one night, of his mother.

They were walking along the seashore. There was a slight breeze, still welcome though they were in the waning days of summer. She held his hand. He was a child once more, six or seven, and he flung sand around wildly every time he picked up his feet.

His mother squeezed his hand and smiled down at him. He squinted up at her. She was dazzling, like the sun above them. Light glinted off the waves.

"Look at what big steps you're taking, Kaoru-chan," she said. Her voice filtered in and out, quiet one moment then normal the next.

He smiled and let go of her hand, saying something before running out in front of her and taking big, giant leaps back to where he started.

She laughed and patted him on the head. "You're such a good boy, Kaoru," she said and it echoed like a recording taken in a big room. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you."

They sat on the sand, a blanket she had brought spread out beneath them. It was soft and scratchy at the same time. He jumped up and down slightly in place to indent the sand beneath him. Their feet touched the water. "No, I'm sorry, dear. There's no way for you to become a mermaid." She hugged him to her side. "Even half-mermaids aren't born with tails or scales. Ah, look there!"

A spurt of water erupted from the middle of the ocean.

"Yes, you're right. There are old stories of mermaids who could walk straight from the earth into the water and grow a tail instantaneously—"

Static in his ears.

"Instantaneously means right away, Kaoru."

Static.

"Yes, just like that. What a smart boy you are!"

Her hand rubbed his arm.

"They're just stories, dear. It takes quite a lot for a mermaid to walk on Earth. Lots of hospital visits and help from mages."

She reached over and folded the cuffs of his pants up higher so the water wouldn't reach them.

"Well, some mermaids want to live on land, Kaoru-chan."

She laughed.

"I know you'd like to live in the ocean," she said, touching his nose. "But, there is a lot more opportunity on land, these days. Also," she added, brushing aside a piece of his hair, "sometimes they fall in love with people here."

She nodded.

"Do you remember Miyamoto-san? From the park? Sumire-chan's mother." She leaned down then looked around furtively. "Can you keep a secret, Kaoru? Oh, yes, silly me, of course you can." She paused for dramatic effect then whispered, "She's a mermaid."

She smiled.

"Yes, she is. I actually helped her out at the start, then your father and I went to the wedding together. I can show you pictures when we get home."

She shook her head.

"Ah, no. Sumire-chan won't be able to go back to the water. She's a half-mermaid. Remember what I said? She won't be able to grow a tail." She stroked his head gently. "She will be able to hold her breath longer underwater, though. And she will be an excellent swimmer."

She laughed and squeezed his cheeks softly.

"That's right. Nobody will ever be as fast as you."

The far reaches of the ocean disappeared first, rushing away in a white mist. Then, everything around him folded in on itself and suddenly he was standing in the hallway of his family home, older, but still young.

"Kaoru-chan," his sister said. She extended a hand towards him.

He huffed and she rolled her eyes.

"Fine. Be a big baby, then. I was just trying to be nice. Nii-san won't help you, you know? He'll just say that you got what you deserved for being so contrary." She turned and ran down the hallway.

He ran after her, but no matter how he tried, he couldn't catch up. She was always just out of reach. He wanted to call out to her. To make her stop and wait for him. It wasn't fair. She got a head start. Where was their brother anyway? He was the one who started this. Why did he have to race against the two of them when they were older than him? Older, taller, smarter, stronger.

He slowed down.

Maybe he should just stop.

They were going to win anyway.

He'd just take the shortcut to meet them at the end.

He opened the door.

"Oh, Kaoru-chan," his mother said. She lowered herself to his height. "It's only going to be a few weeks, okay? Then I'll be back. I promise." She extended a pinky out to him.

He glanced to the back of the room. A ghostly version of her was talking to his father in low tones.

"Are you sure you need to do this?" his father asked her.

She gestured with her hand. "I don't know how I can say no."

"Can you quit?"

She shook her head. "Quitting wouldn't solve this, not that I know what's happening now. I need to be there. They'll do it with or without me and I'd much rather it be with than without."

"Promise me that you'll call me if you need anything."

She smiled and patted his cheek. "Of course."

His father smiled back.

His mother moved back into Kaoru's line of vision, blocking the other version of her with her hair, the same color as his own. "Kaoru-chan?"

"You promise?" Kaoru said, looking at her pinky.

She grabbed his hand and wrapped their pinkies together.

"I promise."

*

Kaoru prided himself on being rather good at household chores. Cooking, cleaning, laundry; he could do it all with flying colors.

Fixing things, on the other hand. That, he wasn't so great with.

When he lived with Rei, the role of handyman often fell to him out of necessity. It wasn't to say that Rei was useless; it was just that—

He was absolutely useless.

Chiaki enjoyed playing the role of fixer-upper, though, which Kaoru had felt quite relieved about for the first few months. But after an incident involving a hammer, nail, and water pipe, Chiaki had been retired from handyman duty and, once again, it fell upon Kaoru to do all of the dirty work.

At least Chiaki was cleaner and much more eager to do the right thing than Rei.

His heart was in the right place even if his habits weren't exactly up to par.

Kaoru adjusted his footing on the far edge of the tub. At first, he had stood with both of his feet on the edge closest the wall, but there hadn't been enough room for him to stand comfortably. So, he moved one foot back and balanced himself over the bathtub like he was standing on a surfboard.

Easy enough.

Of course, it would have helped if Kanata hadn't insisted on staying in the water while Kaoru attempted to fix the windows, but at this point, Kaoru had spent enough time with Kanata to know that he should just roll with the punches.

He patted his pocket, looking for the screwdriver he'd put in there earlier. Not there. He stuck his hand in his other pocket. Nothing except for some red star dust that clung to his fingertips.

"'Here,' Kaoru," Kanata said and tugged on the hem of Kaoru's pants. He held the screwdriver up for him.

Kaoru reached down and grabbed it. "Thanks," he said as he rose back up to tighten the window handle.

A big storm had swept through the city the previous night and Kaoru, stupidly, had forgotten about the windows in the bathroom and left them open only to be slammed shut by the wind in the height of the storm. They'd both been in the living room at the time, he and Kanata, and part of Kaoru's brain had thought that Izumi had been right and Chiaki had yet again gotten himself involved in matters way too beyond his control and now there were people with guns shooting up their apartment.

So, he'd felt kind of stupid when Kanata looked at him and said, "The 'bathroom.'"

They were lucky, he supposed, that the glass hadn't broken and everything had just gotten a bit loose. He put the screwdriver into his pocket again and, this time, felt as Kanata pushed himself up and plucked it out to hold in his own hands.

Kaoru looked down at him. "What do want with that anyway?"

Kanata smiled. "I want to 'help.'"

"You could help by draining the tub and using your legs."

Kanata shook his head, still smiling. "I 'do not' want to. I am very 'comfortable' in here."

"Cheeky," Kaoru muttered and checked to make sure the middle window was in working order. Perfect.

One more to go.

He got to work on the last window, dropping the screwdriver once as it slipped out of his grip and glaring at Kanata when he suggested, in a sing-song, that maybe he should do it if Kaoru felt he couldn't handle the tools. Kaoru dipped a foot in after and kicked some water over towards Kanata's face. "It's your fault, you know. Getting the screwdriver all wet."

Kanata only laughed.

"There," Kaoru said, pushing himself back to look at the finished window. He stood confidently, balancing himself with his hands on his hips. Didn't look that different, but it was a lot more stable than it had been before. Man, maybe he was getting better at this kind of stuff.

He pressed a hand against the wall and reached back with his foot to find the outer edge and hop down from the tub, but he underestimated the distance and felt his foot slip down into the water. No. No, no, no. He tried to reach forward to grab onto the window and regain his balance, but he missed and his other hand slipped down the wall and then he twisted and—

It was all over.

Down he went, crashing into the water below.

Kaoru squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the back of his head. Damn. He'd hit it on the way down and he knew it probably wasn't so bad and that the pain would disappear soon, but still. Fuck. He tried to lift himself up, but it was hard to find purchase on the sides and, God, his clothes were all wet, so he'd have to change and—

There was a tail.

Kanata's tail.

Moving.

Kaoru opened his eyes wide and panicked trying to get himself up off Kanata. Oh God, what if he'd hurt Kanata by falling on him? He didn't know how delicate merpeople were. What if they were super weak? What if he'd broken all of Kanata's fish bones or something? They'd have to go to the hospital. But, Kanata couldn't go to the hospital—not with his family looking for him. And how would he explain Kanata anyway? A visitor? A friend? A friend who he had injured in an awful, horrible—

Kanata twisted himself around and came face-to-face with Kaoru. Kaoru tightened his grip on the edge of the tub.

"Are you alright? Are you—"

"Shhh," Kanata said, putting a finger against Kaoru's lips. "I am 'fine.'"

Kaoru blinked and breathed in, suddenly aware of how close Kanata was to him. He almost didn't want to breathe again; they were so close together. Kanata let his hand fall back into the water to help prop himself up in front of Kaoru. Kaoru licked the water Kanata's finger had left behind.

"Are you 'okay,' Kaoru?" Kanata asked.

It was distressing, how beautiful Kanata was. Kaoru had known many beautiful people in his life. He'd admired some from afar, some up close, but he'd never felt so arrested by someone's looks before. There was this urge within him to reach out and press his hands against Kanata's face, to feel the heat of his skin beneath his touch, to line the curves of his bones and flesh beneath his fingertips. He wanted to run a hand through Kanata's hair and touch his spine at the base of his neck and trace it down and down until he reached the small of his back. His lips were right there, so close, if only he brought his face a little a closer, a little forward, a little—

Kaoru slapped a hand against his face and rubbed hard. "Yeah, totally fine! Nothing to worry about here!" he said, shaking his head clear.

Kanata moved forward, pressing their bodies together, and Kaoru suddenly remembered a fantasy he'd had when he was younger, of washing up on a beach and waking up to find a mermaid watching over him, the sunlight illuminating them from behind, creating a halo of light around their head, and their smile, so dazzling in his groggy mind. He squeezed his eyes shut again, trying to destroy the image of Kanata's smile from his mind, and attempted once again to blindly lift himself up.

He managed to prop an elbow on the outer edge of the tub, but he realized too late that it was a mistake as he felt the pressure of Kanata's stomach between his legs.

His eyes opened.

Kanata tilted his head up to look at Kaoru. His bare shoulders rose out of the water and droplets dripped off the ends of his hair.

Kaoru's own hair was damp, he realized, and he became aware of how his shirt clung to his chest, the neckline skewed to the right, exposing more of his skin than he'd planned when he first put it on that morning.

Kanata's gaze flicked down, first to Kaoru's chest, then up to his lips. A cold panic settled over his shoulders. He wanted to—

But, he didn't want to—

Not. Not like.

He was so close for someone so far out of reach. Kaoru didn't want him to disappear beneath his fingertips. He didn't want to have him turn into seafoam beneath his touch.

He wanted and didn't want.

Couldn't want.

It would be better like this. Better for Kanata. He deserved something more, Kaoru was sure of it. Something beyond what Kaoru could give. Because Kanata was so much and Kaoru was so—

Not.

"Kanata-kun," Kaoru said roughly.

Kanata snapped to attention. His eyes locked with Kaoru's for a moment and in that split second, Kaoru thought Kanata was going to close the distance and bring his lips forward to meet his own, but, instead, he backed away, pushing himself off Kaoru. He curled up at the opposite end of the tub and trailed a hand in the water. He cupped some of it in his hand and frowned as he let it fall back into the tub.

"I 'think' you should 'go,' Kaoru," Kanata said quietly.

And so, Kaoru did.

*

The next morning, when Kanata woke, Kaoru was up making breakfast. After Kanata walked into the kitchen, Kaoru wiped his hands on his pants, then said, "About last night, I—"

"There was 'something' in the water," Kanata said. He opened a cabinet and took out a glass. "Do not 'worry,' Kaoru. It was just 'magic.'"

Kaoru swallowed, then turned back to the eggs frying on the burner. "Oh," he said, "is that was it was?"

Kaoru poured a glass of water and said, "Yes. That is what 'it' was."

They didn't speak of what happened, afterwards.

Nothing had happened, after all.

*

Chiaki came home on a Thursday night and it was as if he'd never left in the first place.

"How was the trip?" Kaoru said, plopping down onto the living room floor. He left the couch to Kanata and Chiaki. He'd had enough of accidentally being smacked in the face by Chiaki's gestures for a lifetime.

Chiaki's eyes widened and he leaned forward. Kaoru grabbed the bottom of his beer can so the liquid wouldn't slosh over the edge. "It was amazing!" he said. "It's going to look so great once it's all put together. Everyone really outdid themselves this time."

Kaoru looked at Kanata and pointed a finger at Chiaki. "D'you know what he does for a living?"

Kanata tilted his head and looked at Chiaki. Kaoru wanted to point out that Kanata was sitting in the Chiaki smacking danger zone, but Kanata seemed to have a good sense of Chiaki's timing as he leaned back out of reach of Chiaki's arms when he swerved around to look at him.

"I do stunts!"

Kaoru took a drink of his beer, then swung the can back and forth between his fingers. "He says he does stunts, but what the people want is a demonstration, right Kanata-kun?"

Chiaki stood up and looked down at Kanata. "Wanna see?" he said, smile wide across his face.

Kanata sat up straighter and smiled in return. "Yes, Chiaki, I 'want' to see."

"Give me your drink," Kaoru said. He reached up and gestured with his fingers. "Otherwise you're going to make a mess out of yourself and this living room I have fought to keep clean."

Chiaki handed his beer to Kaoru and immediately went into a couple of cursory stretches. "What should I do? What d'you want to see?"

Kaoru set his and Chiaki's drinks on the table and leaned back on one hand. He cupped the other around his mouth. "You need an assistant," he said, then looked at Kanata, raising an eyebrow. "He needs an assistant."

Chiaki gestured out towards Kanata dramatically and offered him his hand. "Yes! Kanata! Be my assistant!"

Kanata laughed and took Chiaki's hand. "Of 'course,'" he said, standing. "What 'should' I do?"

Kaoru reached back and grabbed a book from the shelf. Some shoujo manga Rei had thought it'd be funny to give to Kaoru one year. "Here, Kanata-kun." He handed it over. "Hold it as high as you can. I want to see Moricchi pull a muscle."

Chiaki guided Kanata into position, then did a rather impressive high kick that, by all accounts, should have sent the book flying across the room. Kanata stood his ground, however, which made Kaoru raise an eyebrow.

Interesting.

Kaoru, for his part, had screamed the first time Chiaki kicked something out of his hands. Not that he'd ever admit it. He did explode a pencil case all over Kaoru, though, and sent Kaoru's entire collection of mechanical pencils and pens flying across the street which counted as sharp objects flying towards Kaoru's face, so really, the screaming was completely justified.

Kanata started to clap, eyes bright.

"Oi, Moricchi," Kaoru said, stretching his legs out in front of him. "Tell Kanata-kun about the time you split your pants doing that."

"No!"

"Okay, I will." Kaoru picked up his beer again and took another drink. He turned towards Kanata. "There was this one time in high school when he'd landed some kind of job at one of the local hero shows and—"

Chiaki ran over and grabbed the front of Kaoru's shirt. "Hakaze, please, my dignity."

Kanata pulled Chiaki back onto the couch and placed a hand over his mouth. "Kaoru," he said, smiling, "please 'go on.'"

Kaoru laughed.

Chiaki's shoulders slumped.

"So, he was practicing at school for this show. Then, he thought it'd be a good idea to have an audience for one of his practices, so he got me and a couple of other people to watch." He smiled. "One of them was our friend, Anzu-chan. Remember her? The pretty brunette. Well, it went pretty well for the first couple of minutes and everyone was impressed. But then, he got to his high kick and"—Kaoru laughed—"there went his pants. Right down the middle. And right in front of Anzu-chan, too. She just shook her head at him, remember Morricchi?"

Chiaki shook his head sadly and pulled Kanata's hand off his mouth. "I've been trying to forget for years."

"Then she went and got his track pants for him and told him that he should probably only practice in them."

"She sewed my pants up for me, though."

"Did she? Anzu-chan's too nice."

"I asked Kuro to, but he couldn't stop laughing, the traitor."

Kaoru snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. I got her birthday present."

Chiaki sat up. Kanata's hands fell to his shoulders. "Anzu? What did you get her?"

"This earring and necklace set. It's really nice. Gold. I think it'll look great on her. I almost got her a ring to match, but I think Mikejima-kun would have killed me in my sleep."

Kanata frowned slightly. "Mikejima?"

Chiaki turned towards Kanata. "Oh? Do you know him? Mikejima Madara."

Kanata's expression darkened. "Ah. Him," he muttered.

"So you do know him!" Chiaki said brightly.

Kaoru tugged on the hem of Chiaki's pants and mouthed 'No' at him. Kaoru didn't know what was up with Anzu's boyfriend and Kanata, but it was nothing good, by the looks of it.

Chiaki raised his shoulders and mouthed 'What'.

Apparently, Kanata tightened his grip on Chiaki as Chiaki twisted suddenly, saying, "Ow, ow, Kanata! That hurts!"

Kanata let go. "Oh," he said, "sorry."

Kaoru made an X with his index fingers and shook his head slowly. Then, he smiled at Kanata. "Sorry, Kanata-kun. Moricchi can be stupid and insensitive sometimes. It's not his strong suit."

Chiaki frowned. "I'm perfectly sensitive."

"He's not," Kaoru said, still looking at Kanata.

"I am!"

Kaoru shook his head and wiped an imaginary tear from his eye. "I still weep remembering the time he told a girl that all he wanted was a homemade lunch from his girlfriend and when she came the next week with a homemade lunch obviously made for him, all he could say was 'Oh! Takahashi! I can't possibly take your lunch from you! You have to eat it yourself! I'll just get something from the cafeteria!'"

Chiaki threw a pillow at Kaoru. Kaoru dodged it.

"Well! Kanata! Did Kaoru tell you about the time he got mobbed on Valentine's Day and he had to lock himself in a closet to escape and call me and Sena for help?"

Kaoru scoffed. "That just shows how popular I am, Moricchi."

"Kaoru is 'popular'?" Kanata asked Chiaki in a stage whisper.

"Hey!"

"Oh, yeah, he sure is! He's always been really popular!" Chiaki answered earnestly.

Kanata gave Chiaki a look.

"Oh." Chiaki cleared his throat and leaned back in the couch. He waved a hand around. "I mean, Hakaze? Him? Never."

"I hate you. Senacchi and Kanata-kun are clearly terrible influences on you. Where did my Moricchi go?"

Chiaki reached out and grabbed Kaoru's wrist. "I'm sorry Hakaze! Please forgive me!" He kneeled and wrapped his arms around Kaoru, who yelped and said, "Hey! Hey! I have a drink! Be careful!" as they fell back to the ground. Kaoru stuck his hand with his beer up, hopefully out of Chiaki disaster range.

Kanata laughed and walked over to them. He crouched down and smiled. "You two are 'very good' friends."

"You want him, Kanata-kun? I'll gladly give him up. Take him off my hands; I'm begging you."

Chiaki squeezed Kaoru harder. "I'll never give you up, Hakaze!"

Kaoru pushed on Chiaki's shoulder with his free hand and sighed when Chiaki wouldn't budge. "You see what I have to deal with?"

"I think it is very 'nice,'" Kanata said. He plucked Kaoru's beer out of his hand and placed it on the table. "I think I want to 'join.'"

"What?" Kaoru said.

Then, his eyes widened.

"No. No, Kanata-kun, don't—!"

Kanata came down on both of them, laughing. "Kaoru 'likes' pancakes, so let us make 'him' one, Chiaki."

"Great idea, Kanata!"

Kaoru closed his eyes.

Curse whoever put him and Chiaki in the same class in third year.

*

When Kaoru got home from work, the apartment was unusually silent. First, he walked up the hallway to the bathroom, a habit he'd built up these past few weeks, and found it empty. Then, he checked the living room. The kitchen. Balcony. It was only when he was walking down the hallway towards the bedrooms that he heard them.

"Are you sure you don't want to talk about it?" Chiaki's voice was low. Worried.

The door to his room was open slightly and Kaoru could see the vague outline of him and Kanata sitting on the bed.

"If...," he said hesitantly. "If you tell me more, I could help you. I—"

"Don't ask me," Kanata said. "Please do not ask me about 'that.'" He jerked his hand away from Chiaki.

Kaoru felt rooted to the spot. Hidden in the darkness of the hallway, looking at Kanata and Chiaki was like watching a shadow play. Like what he was seeing wasn't actually reality, just a mere reflection of what could have been.

Kanata placed his hand back down on the bed. "Promise me you won't ask anymore," he said quietly.

Chiaki shifted. "Are you...Are you sure, Kanata?"

"Promise me," he said more forcefully.

"Okay," Chiaki said. He reached out and placed his hand over Kanata's. "I won't ask anymore. I promise. You have my word."

Relief draped itself over Kanata's shoulders. "Thank you, Chiaki." He lifted his head up and looked over at him.

Kaoru didn't know what this feeling was in his chest. He felt strange, watching the two of them, like he was stuck in a world just out of sync. Like he was forever ticking two seconds behind everyone else, the beat of his existence the eight note to others' quarter.

He remembered what Kanata had said about Chiaki, before. It was uncomfortable to recall—those words of love, those feelings of affection—seeing the dim outline of their figures together. Kanata had said it wasn't that kind of love, but the sinking in Kaoru's chest made him think otherwise now. Who wouldn't love the person who saved them like that?

For a second, a venomous thought possessed Kaoru, holding him in its grip. He wished he could have been the one to save Kanata. He wished—in this world, not some hypothetical world out there in the sea of time—that he could have been the one to reach a hand out to Kanata when he needed it the most and answer his call to be saved.

He wished he could have been Kanata's hero.

Not just a hero, but his.

He'd never felt so clearly that he would never be Chiaki. Kaoru knew, of course, that he could never be Chiaki—that the only person in the world, really, capable of being Chiaki was the one and only Morisawa Chiaki. But now the space between him and Kaoru, Kaoru and him, seemed so vast. The distance—unbreachable.

Kaoru could try for the rest of his life to become someone like Chiaki and he wouldn't even be able to become a shadow of him.

Facts were facts.

Life was life.

Kaoru was never meant to be anyone's hero. He was never meant to be a hero to all.

He didn't want to, anyway. That wasn't his life's desire.

He was fine—perfectly fine—being him.

But, right now, in this moment, he wished he could have been a hero, just once. He wished, so it could have been him sitting opposite Kanata right now as the chosen savior and the saved.

A definable and unbreakable relationship.

"Hakaze?"

Kaoru took a step back.

"Oh, Hakaze, you're home!" Chiaki stood up and walked towards the door. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Kaoru shook his head.

"Did you eat yet? Kanata and I already had dinner, but there should be enough leftovers for you."

Kaoru's gaze slid over to Kanata. He was sitting on the bed, looking at Kaoru, eyes unreadable in the dim light.

Kaoru closed his eyes for a moment then opened them again, smiling. "You know what? I'm actually—I'm going to head out again, yeah." He took another step back. He smiled bigger and laughed. "Totally forgot to grab dinner."

"Are you sure?" Chiaki jerked his thumb down towards the kitchen. "It'll be super quick to heat stuff up for you."

"Nah," Kaoru said. "I'm like, super hungry right now. Weird how I didn't even realize it. Well!" He slipped his shoes back on. "I'll leave you two to it. Don't mind me; you won't even notice I'm gone."

Chiaki laughed. "Okay, okay, Hakaze. See ya," he said, leaning against the wall and waving.

Kaoru saw Kanata's shadow walking towards the entrance.

Then, he hurriedly opened the door behind him and slipped out into the night.

*

He walked at first, then quickened his pace. When his heart started to beat faster and his breaths became shallower, he broke out into a run.

Down the street and around the corner, past brightly lit houses and dark ones—he ran and ran until he couldn't anymore and collapsed onto a bench in a neighborhood park. There was an empty playground in front of him. The wind swung the swings back and forth lightly. His heart pounded against his chest. A numbness travelled down his neck and onto his shoulders.

His phone buzzed in his pocket.

He ignored it and rubbed his face instead, mind empty. He inhaled. Exhaled. His mouth hung open as if the air he was breathing through his nose wasn't enough.

His phone buzzed again.

He looked at the caller. Chiaki. He ran a hand through his hair and leaned back against the bench, staring up at the leaves above him, then answered the call. "Hey," he said.

"Kanata!" Chiaki said. He was frantic. "He—he ran off after you left! I was in the kitchen and I just thought—have you seen him? I'm—"

Kaoru stood up. His heart sank. "Kanata?"

"Yeah, he's not—I'm out looking around our place, but he's not here. I haven't seen him. Hakaze, can—"

"Of course," Kaoru said. He gripped his phone tighter. "I'll find him, Moricchi."

"I'll call you again if I manage to find him, okay?"

"Yeah, same."

Kaoru hung up just as two bare feet came into view. He looked up.

Kanata.

"Why did you 'do' that?" Kanata frowned.

"I should—" Kaoru took in a deep breath and waved his phone around. "I should be asking you that!" He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. "Moricchi's really worried, you know? Knowing him, he'll run around this entire city looking for you. Won't even rest until he knows you're alright." He stuck his phone out at Kanata. "You should call him."

Kanata looked at the phone, then looked back over at Kaoru. "Why did you 'do' that?" he repeated.

Kaoru stood up and grabbed Kanata's hand, placing his phone into it. "Call him or I will," he said.

Kanata's fingers curled around the phone. Kaoru let go of Kanata's wrist. "Don't run away," Kanata said. He looked at Kaoru cautiously.

Kaoru sighed. "You have my phone. At this point, you might as well be holding a leash in your hands."

Kanata grabbed onto the edge of Kaoru's shirt. "Just 'in case,'" he said, then showed the screen of the phone to Kaoru. "Call Chiaki, 'please.'"

Kaoru did as requested and Kanata shifted back and forth as he waited for Chiaki to pick up.

"Chiaki?" Kanata said. His grip tightened on Kaoru's shirt. "Yes, I am 'fine.' I am with Kaoru 'now.'"

His expression softened at something Chiaki said. Kaoru looked away. Playgrounds with no children were strange places. The streetlamp beyond the swings flickered on and off. He wondered how many kids had gotten scraped knees at this park. He remembered falling at a park much like this one, once. It probably happened more times than that, but one instance stuck out in his mind.

The switch from excitement to horror as his brain, unable to compare the pain to any other experience he'd ever had, overloaded in shock. His sister crouching down to look at his injury. His brother standing off to the side, caught between concern and annoyance. His mother rushing over and brushing the gravel off his skin and telling him that everything would be okay.

He still had a scar from that incident. Faint and raised on his left knee.

He'd forgotten he had that.

"Do you 'want' to talk to Kaoru?"

Kaoru looked back at Kanata and held out his hand. Kanata placed the phone into it. "Moricchi?"

Chiaki's voice was quieter than he expected. "Would you talk to him, Hakaze?"

"What do you mean?"

"I just—"

Kaoru cut him off. "Wouldn't it be better if you did? You're...you."

"Hakaze," Chiaki said, "he doesn't want to talk to me. I tried, but..."

Kaoru swallowed.

"He likes you, you know?" Chiaki said, slightly hesitant. "He's comfortable around you. You must know that, right?"

"I..."

"Hakaze, please."

Kaoru closed his eyes. "The both of you. Thinking that a 'please' is all I need."

Chiaki laughed softly. "Well, it is, isn't it?"

"I didn't need you to ask me, you know."

"I know, Hakaze. But, sometimes, you..."

"What?"

"You just need"—Chiaki exhaled—"a push."

Kaoru paused. "You sound like Senacchi."

Chiaki laughed weakly.

Kanata sat down on the bench, still holding onto Kaoru.

"We'll see you later, okay?"

"Yeah. See you," Chiaki said and hung up.

Kaoru put his phone in his pocket. "You can let go of me. I'm not going to run."

Kanata shook his head.

"Who do you think I am?" he said, exasperated, and sat down next to Kanata.

"Kaoru," Kanata replied.

"And that means running away, I guess. Thanks." He tapped Kanata's knee. "How are your feet?"

Kanata brought his knees up to his chest, putting his feet on the bench. He wiggled his toes. "Fine."

Kaoru sighed and grabbed one of Kanata's ankles. He lifted up his foot and brushed it off, then did the same for the other. "Sorry, this is the best I can do right now. Don't exactly carry first-aid kits around with me."

Kanata hugged his knees.

Kaoru reached down and took off his shoes. He placed them in front of Kanata and said, "We should be around the same size, I think."

They sat in silence for a few moments before Kanata spoke up.

"Why did you 'leave'?"

Kaoru rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know," he said.

Kanata tapped him with his elbow and Kaoru sighed.

"If I'm going to be honest with you, then you have to be honest with me, Kanata-kun," Kaoru said, tapping Kanata back.

"I am 'always' honest, Kaoru."

Kaoru shook his head. "Takes a liar to know a liar. Maybe you don't think of yourself as one, but..." He shrugged. "You hide a lot of things. And, well, I do too."

Kanata was silent.

"I don't—" Kaoru breathed in. "I don't mean to tell you that you should always tell me everything, but making people worry? I've done that a lot in my life. Sometimes it's easy to gloss over. Brush aside. It's part of being human, after all, right? Struggling and fighting and being selfish. But, Kanata-kun?" He wet his lips. "People like Moricchi? They're hard to come by. You can't just make them worried like that with no explanation."

Kanata turned to look at Kaoru. "People like 'you' are hard to 'come by,' too," he said quietly.

Kaoru shook his head. "People like Moricchi will stick around. They'll stay worried, but they won't say anything about it. They'll keep it in because they're good people and then it'll kill them. And people like me," he said, looking at his hands, "will just do stupid things like get angry because we're hypocrites."

"Why did you 'leave'?" Kanata asked.

"Because..." Kaoru hesitated for a moment. "I was jealous," he said honestly. That's what he'd promised, right? Honesty. The truth. He hated it sometimes.

"Of what?"

Kaoru shifted his weight. "You and Moricchi," he said, grimacing.

"Why?"

"No," Kaoru said. "Your turn. Why did you run off?"

Kanata blinked, then simply said, "Because you did."

Kaoru shook his head and opened his mouth to say something—about that not being a good enough reason, about how Kanata shouldn't even be outside, not with his family looking for him—but Kanata cut him off.

"If I did it first, you 'would have' followed me."

"So would've Moricchi."

"That does not..." Kanata sighed and placed his feet back on the ground. He kicked at Kaoru's shoes. "That does not mean you 'do not' matter."

Instinct kicked in and Kaoru started rattling off the first things that came to mind. "I would have given up sooner. Just waited for you to come back. I wouldn't have spent all night looking for you. I—"

Kanata reached over and grabbed Kaoru's face. He looked into Kaoru's eyes. "Kaoru. I am not 'comparing' you to 'anyone.'"

There it was again. That feeling in his chest. Rising up and up and expanding and pressing against his ribs. Squeezing. Twisting. "Kanata-kun, I—"

"I am going to tell you something 'important' soon, Kaoru," Kanata said. He looked serious. "But I need to 'go away,' first."

Kaoru touched Kanata's hand. "Why?"

Kanata released his face and patted the top of Kaoru's head. His hand slid down again like it did the first time when they sat in the living room together and Kaoru let his feelings about family bubble up to the surface and spill out. He tucked some pieces of Kaoru's hair behind his ear. "I will 'come back' soon."

On impulse, Kaoru grabbed Kanata's hand and intertwined their pinkies. "Promise."

Kanata leaned forward and pressed a kiss against Kaoru's cheek. Then, into Kaoru's ear, he whispered, "I promise."

*

Explaining Kanata's disappearance to Chiaki had been—

Well.

He did it.

"He has to do something with his family," was how Kaoru put it. It was true, but he also felt guilty for knowing that Chiaki wouldn't fully realize what that meant.

"I see," Chiaki had said. "Well, he knows where we are, if he needs our help."

With Kanata gone, Kaoru had been thinking about his situation more. The Shinkai family. Kaoru wasn't sure how to best go about it without potentially making things awkward between them. Kanata kept his familial issues close to his chest. Kaoru got that. He did it as well, after all, but Kaoru didn't want to accidentally find out something Kanata didn't want him to know.

He'd rather hear it from Kanata, himself.

He wanted Kanata to offer it freely to him, as friends. Equals.

As a human, Kanata had said once, quietly, as they stood opposite each other in the hallway of the apartment.

All he could do was wait. He could do that, he thought. He was patient.

Kanata could take all the time he needed.

But, there was also the question of his transformations.

With distance between them, Kaoru could see more things more clearly. Doubts and questions that he had simply brushed aside when Kanata was here with him were brought back to the forefront.

How did Kanata manage to move between water and land so easily? A few cursory searches told Kaoru that his initial feeling hadn't been wrong: it really was a process for merpeople to be able to live on land with two legs. And yet, Kanata did it without batting an eyelash.

There'd been stories—stories his mother told him—of merpeople who'd been able to do so, but they were just stories. Things his mother told him on their trips to the beach. The little things she'd whisper into his ear when they went to the aquarium, just the two of them.

It'd always just been the two of them, for those trips.

He'd been the only one who loved the sea like she did.

If she was still here, he could have asked her. He'd been thinking more, recently, about his mother and her research. He hadn't really taken an interest in it before. He always thought of his mother as just that. His mother. He left her work alone, instead simply sticking with the memory of what she'd told him.

He had been too young to really understand what it was she did and because of that, he knew there was a whole other side of his mother—a whole other person, really—he didn't know about. His mother, the scientist. His mother, the researcher.

Kaoru knew that she had been involved with the ocean, of course. Sea creatures were her focus, both magical and otherwise. He also knew that she was well-respected in her field. But, he couldn't help thinking that there was something he was forgetting.

He sat down at his laptop one day, ready to search her name—something he had never even considered before, but he stopped before he could actually follow through. It felt wrong. It felt weird to look up his own mother on the internet, looking at her from a perspective that wasn't his.

He backspaced—deleted her name from the text box and slumped down in his chair. What did she always talk to him about? What were her stories always about?

Fish, sure. At the aquarium. Dolphins, whales, octopi—all of those, too. But, she spoke more of selkies. Sirens. Mermaids. Her stories, her tales of them could fill a book. Books, even.

Humanoid beings that lived in the water.

He stood up.

She had a journal. He remembered; it was filled with words and words he couldn't decipher, her handwriting a mystery to him as a child, but there had also been drawings. Sketches. He remembered flipping through it, looking for her pictures and admiring how beautiful everything looked. Some, beautiful and kind. Others, beautiful and scary. Always surrounded by looping script.

He needed to find that journal.

*

Kaoru's favorite magic shop was tucked away on a hill on the outskirts of town. First, he took the train. Then, a bus. Finally, he walked up the hill, along a stone path surrounded by trees and greenery that twisted and turned, staircases that led to open clearings and empty houses scattered about. He made sure to keep an eye out for the sign to the shop.

It moved, sometimes.

Rei was the one who had introduced him to this particular shop. It was owned by someone dear to him, he'd said, back in the comfort of their air conditioned apartment. He'd sounded less breezy as they trekked up the slope of the hill, parasol in his hand. Halfway up the hill, Rei had crouched down and scowled up at the path. "I hate it when it does this," he'd said, venomously, sounding closer to the Rei Kaoru had first met, all those years ago in high school.

It made Kaoru laugh. He'd gotten so used to the current incarnation of Rei that he'd forgotten how he used to be.

Rei scowled more. "Keep laughing and I'll drain you," he said.

Kaoru immediately shut up.

Rei held out a hand. "Now help me up so we can find that accursed shop."

They were almost at the top of the hill when they spotted the sign. There was no name on the wood, just some symbols that Kaoru supposed meant something to mages and a carving of a smoking cauldron.

"Good riddance," Rei said, closing his parasol and shoving it at Kaoru. "I need to have a talk with Natsume-kun about the proclivities of his shop. I don't think my old bones will last the trip back."

That first time, when they'd opened the front door to exit, Kaoru had been surprised to see that they were in a completely different location from before.

Rei had hummed in approval. "Thank you once again, Natsume-kun," he called back, then opened his parasol again and went down the steps.

"Uh," Kaoru said when they walked a mere two minutes and made it back to the main road, "what's happening?"

"Magic, Kaoru-kun," Rei said. "I assumed you were familiar with it."

"Was the—? Was that—?"

Rei looked at Kaoru and smiled, amused. "Is it so surprising to you that a mage's shop would be magical itself? How adorable." He patted Kaoru's cheek. "You're like a little baby."

"Shut up," Kaoru said. He swatted away Rei's hand, but not before Rei got in a pinch.

"Ah, to be young again."

Kaoru rolled his eyes.

This trip, the shop was only a ten minute walk from the main road. He turned to the right and followed the stone steps up to the door. It was a quaint, little shop with a garden and an extension out the back, which Kaoru assumed was either living quarters or a laboratory. From the outside, it mostly resembled a western-style cottage, with ivy growing up the sides, but its roof was done in the Japanese style.

A woman exited the shop and smiled at Kaoru in greeting. She was a comfortable kind of beauty with brown hair that had some white streaked in. Wakamiya-san, if he recalled correctly—and he always did. It was rare that he ran into other people at the shop. He didn't know if it was because Natsume-kun had warded the shop to only show up when the previous customers had finished to prevent overcrowding or if the pool of regulars was just small, but the few people he had run into before, he remembered.

Kaoru waved at her. He'd met her two or three times before and she always wore the nicest perfume. A really clean scent. It reminded him of waking up from a nap on a sunny spring day.

"How are you doing, Wakamiya-san?"

"Very well, Hakaze-kun." She patted her bag and Kaoru could hear the crunch of the paper Natsume-kun wrapped the glass jars in to protect them. "I'm trying out a few different dream sands today. All new recipes, apparently."

Kaoru smiled. "Should I wish you sweet dreams then?"

She laughed. "I think it is safe to assume that my dreams will be sweet, yes. Are you here for something in particular?"

"Ah, yes. No star sand for me today. I'm here for a spell."

She nodded. "Well, you're at the right place then, Hakaze-kun. I've never been let down."

"Neither have I."

"I'll let you get to it then," she said. "Have a nice day, Hakaze-kun."

He wished her the same, but she took a mere two steps down the path before she turned around again. "Ah, actually, come over here," she said, smiling and waving him over.

He walked over and she reached into her pocket and handed him a piece of candy.

"It reduces stress," she said, as if that explained everything.

He put it into his own pocket and said, "Thank you."

She smiled deeper, the corners of her eyes crinkling and making her look kinder. "You certainly picked an auspicious day to come," she said and continued back down the path, leaving Kaoru slightly confused.

He shrugged. A certain percentage of patrons of specialty magic shops had to be eccentric in some way, he supposed and walked up the path to the shop.

Bells jingled slightly as he entered.

On the wall adjacent to the door, there was a large window that looked out into the garden. A table was set beneath the window and on it, there were various teas displayed, each with a small card that explained their purpose and various effects. Dried plants and flowers hung from the ceiling, both for aesthetic and practical purposes, Kaoru guessed and on the wall opposite the door, there were large cabinets filled with various vials and potions. The star sand lined the wall behind the counter where Natsume usually stood, stored in large jars to be measured out to order.

Natsume-kun was on the shorter side, with asymmetrical red hair that had white streaks going through it that Kaoru wasn't completely sure was purely for looks or if his hair was actually that color. He certainly wasn't going to ask Natsume, himself. He tended to avoid unnecessary conversation with him. Actively avoided it, actually.

Today, however, Natsume was not behind the counter.

Instead, it was—

"Amazing! To think I would see you here, Kaoru-kun!"

Kaoru immediately reached into his pocket and ate the candy Wakamiya-san had given him earlier.

On the list of things Kaoru actively avoided, Hibiki Wataru was definitely at the top. A good friend of Rei's, Wataru was easily the person in Rei's circles that Kaoru found the most difficult to deal with. He was just so loud. So big.

So...much.

"Why the long face, Kaoru-kun? It has been so long since we last saw each other!"

"I told you to stop calling me that, Hibiki-kun," Kaoru said. "And what are you doing here anyway? I need to talk to Natsume-kun."

"Ah, you see, Kaoru-kun"—at this point, Kaoru had to assume that Wataru was just borrowing Rei's manner of speaking to Kaoru to annoy him—"Natsume-kun had some business to attend to." He spread his arms out wide. "So, I, Hibiki Wataru, will be filling in during his absence."

"And when will he be back?"

"What is it you require? I am sure I will be able to assist you with your needs." He propped his elbows on the counter. "Tell me, tell me. What will it be today, Kaoru-kun? A love potion? You know they are outrageously illegal, right? Well, we do have ways of circumventing the regulations here, though I will get an earful if word gets out. Though," he repeated with emphasis, "if you promise to keep it a secret."

He winked.

Kaoru took a step back.

Wataru shook his head. "Always so cautious, Kaoru-kun. We're just joking here, as friends."

"Friends?"

"Any friend of Rei's is a friend of mine." He smiled.

Kaoru would rather not have Rei's friends as his own.

Wataru looked expectantly at him. "Some atmosphere star sand, then? They're perfect for dates. Anyone would be charmed by an afternoon walk through a forest. Or Natsume-kun has made some new planetarium sands. Perfect when you're trying to become closer to your special someone. Just turn off the lights and watch as the walls of the room turn into the night sky. Bewitching."

Kaoru had to wonder what exactly Wataru thought of him.

He cleared his throat and stepped towards the counter. "I—None of that," he said.

He took another step forward.

Wataru stood up straight and tilted his head slightly. "So, what warranted this trip then, Kaoru-kun?"

"I know Natsume-kun can, but..." The candy melted away completely and a calm settled over his shoulders. "Hibiki-kun, can you do spells?"

Wataru laughed and shook his head, as if Kaoru's question was the funniest thing he'd heard. "Can I do spells? Of course I can, Kaoru-kun." He held the back of his hand to his mouth. "You didn't hear it from me, but I taught Natsume-kun everything he knows about them. He might have surpassed me in physical magic, but if it is a spell you're in need of..." He smiled brightly and swung his arms out wide. "Your very own Hibiki Wataru is at your service."

"Okay, one, you are not my Hibiki Wataru," Kaoru said, "and two..." He swallowed. "Will your tracking spells work for something that's not mine, but was owned by a relative and was touched by me?"

Wataru surveyed him carefully. "Well," he said, "how long ago did you touch it? That's very important."

Kaoru grimaced. "Um...around fifteen years ago?"

Wataru looked at him in silence.

Kaoru knew it would be a long shot, but he'd hoped that Natsume would be able to work a miracle for him. Because if anyone would be able to work miracles, it'd be one of Rei's friends. For all of their eccentricities, they were some of the most remarkable people he'd ever met. He knew Wataru probably hadn't been lying when he said that he'd taught Natsume about spellcasting, so to have him wavering and searching for words to tell Kaoru about how it was impossible and he should give up was...

Wataru suddenly broke out into laughter and reached across the counter. He placed a hand on Kaoru's shoulder. "Just kidding, Kaoru-kun. Just jokes! Of course, I can make you a spell for that. I am the accomplisher of impossible tasks."

Kaoru blinked. "So, you mean—"

"Yes, yes!" Wataru reached beneath the counter and brought out an empty jar. He unscrewed the top and held his hand out, palm up, towards Kaoru. "I will need your hair, then, Kaoru-kun."

"How much?"

"One strand will suffice."

Kaoru pulled one out and placed it in Wataru's hand.

Wataru whispered some words, staring at the hair, then placed it into the jar. His hand hovered over the opening and he closed his eyes, saying another incantation, before he screwed the top back on. A ball of light suddenly exploded in the middle of the jar, Kaoru's hair disintegrating within it, and Kaoru had to look away; it was so bright.

After a few seconds, the light dimmed and Wataru slid the jar over to him.

Kaoru started to ask how much he owed Wataru for the spell but his question was cut off by someone slamming the door to the shop open. He jumped slightly, but Wataru seemed completely nonplussed, smiling at the figure in the doorway.

"What are you doing here?" a dark-haired man asked, storming over to the counter. He reached over and grabbed Wataru by the collar. Smiling, Wataru let the man pull him forward. "You're supposed to be on set!"

"Now, now, Hokuto-kun. You perfectly well know I am on set," Wataru said, touching the man's nose.

Set?

Hokuto tugged on Wataru's braid childishly. "Sending one of your dolls to set does not mean you're on set!"

Dolls?

"Ah, not one of my dolls, though Shu did make them specially for me."

"I don't care that you didn't make them. Why are you here and not there?"

Wataru carefully pried Hokuto's fingers off his shirt. "Why are you here and not there, Hokuto-kun?" he asked, innocently.

"Don't turn this on me. I'm not the one who has a puppet filming a show downtown."

Filming?

"Ah, but nobody else can tell it's a puppet, can they?" Wataru smiled. "Only you can, Hokuto-kun."

"That doesn't make me happy," Hokuto said flatly. He turned towards Kaoru and bowed his head in apology. "I'm sorry if he has caused you any trouble. I've told him to stop playing in shops."

Something suddenly clicked in Kaoru's brain.

"Hidaka Hokuto. You're Hidaka Hokuto."

Hokuto nodded. "Yes, I am."

Actor, Hidaka Hokuto. Kaoru needed another stress reducing candy. One of his exes had been a huge fan. What a small world. "Hibiki-kun didn't cause any trouble," Kaoru said. "He actually helped me a lot."

"Kaoru-kun!" Wataru said, sounding touched.

Kaoru bit back a response to telling Wataru to save his gratitude. He was only doing this because Wataru had helped him and given him a spell. Honestly, he'd rather not be involved at all.

Honestly.

"I see," Hokuto said. "Well, for that, I'm glad."

"I'll just be on my way then, after..." Kaoru looked at Wataru. "The price?"

Wataru waved his hand. "The price is nothing. Anything for a friend of Rei's." he said, then added, nonchalantly, "And Kanata's."

Kaoru froze. "Kanata-kun?"

Wataru smiled. "I have heard quite a bit about you recently, Kaoru-kun."

Hokuto sighed and hit Wataru on the arm softly. "You have no time for teasing. I still have more to say to you."

"Well, Kaoru-kun, it was a pleasure seeing you again. I hope my spell helps you find what you're looking for. And Hokuto-kun." Wataru turned towards him and grabbed him gently by the collar. "You'll find that I'm not really here, either. Put the sign to closed after Kaoru-kun leaves, will you?" He placed a kiss on Hokuto's lips then backed away, grinning.

"Wata—"

Before Hokuto could reach him, though, Wataru disappeared in an explosion of yellow smoke.

Hokuto sighed.

"I hate it when he does that."

*

Kaoru looked up Wataru when he got home that evening.

"I can't believe I thought he was just Rei's weird friend," he muttered, scrolling through pages of results about his magic performances and various appearances on TV and film.

Chiaki looked over Kaoru's shoulder. "Oh! Hibiki Wataru? I love his fireworks!"

What kind of world did they live in?

*

Using spells was easy. All you had to do was open them up and let them envelop the target in their light. Everyone had their own preferences when it came to using spells, especially on themselves, but the recommended way to use them was to sit comfortably in a dimly lit room with your eyes closed.

Kaoru found that spells were generally more effective lying down than sitting, but it was true that using spells when sitting made it easier for other people to break through to you in case of emergency.

Everything with Chiaki was an emergency, though, so Kaoru had no qualms about opening the spell jar Wataru had given him and lying down. A tracking spell was a quick one, so at most he'd be out for a few minutes as the spell worked to find what was lost.

He closed his eyes.

Everyone's magic felt different. Rei's magic, the one he was most comfortable with, always made him a little drowsy, like he was trying to stay awake after taking cold medicine. It'd been a while since he'd had someone's magic working on him, but he didn't think that it particularly affected his impression of Wataru's magic. It was a touch overwhelming, just like the person was. Nothing surprising there.

Kaoru wondered what Kanata's magic felt like.

Probably really nice.

He opened his eyes and found himself in an office. Kaoru frowned. He didn't recognize it. He looked out the window. He could see the aquarium which meant that they were still in town, but he had no idea what building he was in. That'd make getting the journal from here hard. He looked around the room, opening drawers and pushing aside papers to try to find the book. Why was his mom's personal journal here anyway? Who could possibly have it?

There were voices outside of the door.

Kaoru froze.

That had never happened before.

As far as Kaoru knew, you weren't supposed to encounter anyone during a tracking spell. They just showed you where to find things that were lost and the world they showed you was supposed to be empty—simply a shadow of the real world where the object was.

He dropped the papers he was holding and tried to rearrange everything on the desk as he had first found it.

The door handle turned.

He looked around, desperate to find a place to hide.

There was nothing. Not even a plant to duck behind.

He closed his eyes and braced himself for a scream. He could explain this. He could totally. It was completely explainable.

There was no scream.

No reaction at all, actually.

He opened his eyes and his stomach dropped. In front of him, talking to a woman with long blue hair fancily pinned up, was his mother.

She looked exactly as he remembered her: blonde hair curling just past her shoulders, bangs brushed aside and tucked behind an ear to reveal kind eyes. Her mouth was set in a line and there was dimple in her right cheek, something he'd forgotten his sister had inherited from their mother.

Kaoru took a step forward and the blue-haired woman passed through his outstretched hand like he was made of nothing but air. He looked at his hand.

He'd just asked for a tracking spell.

What was this?

Kaoru's mother took a seat behind the desk and the blue-haired woman sat in the chair his mother indicated with a gesture of her hand. Her wedding ring glinted in the light.

The blue-haired woman had a sharp gaze, the kind that Kaoru actively avoided, if he could help it. She sat with her back straight and a confidence in her shoulders. She was rather beautiful, really, with fine features and a delicate mouth and a long, elegant neck.

Beautiful, but scary.

"Hakaze-san," the blue-haired woman said, crossing her legs. "I assume you know why I have requested this meeting."

Kaoru's mother folded her hands on her desk. He'd never seen her look this serious before. "I do," she said, "Shinkai-san."

The name made Kaoru freeze. Shinkai-san? Surely, she wasn't. Surely, she couldn't be.

He took a step forward, looking carefully at the woman again. Her hair was a darker shade than Kanata's, but she glanced to the side and, as if impossibly sensing Kaoru's presence, locked eyes with him.

Her eyes were as green as Kanata's.

When she looked away, he let out a breath he didn't realized he'd been holding.

Beautiful and scary.

"Good," she said. "Then you know what I require."

Kaoru's mother hesitated for a moment and the woman—Shinkai—seized the moment and said, again, "Hakaze-san." The emphasis she put on it and the look she gave his mother made Kaoru think that they'd had this conversation before.

Kaoru's mother twisted her wedding ring around her finger. "Yes, I have been Hakaze for quite some time now," she said.

"As you have been Shinkai," she added.

Or, maybe, they'd known each other before.

"People don't believe in their gods anymore," Shinkai-san said—a statement of fact.

Kaoru's mother's gaze softened. "Perhaps the gods aren't what people need right now," she said gently.

"Don't be foolish," the woman snapped, mouth set in a line. "Everyone needs their gods. Even you, Hakaze-san."

His mother shook her head. "I really don't think..." She reached across the desk and placed her hand on the surface in front of the woman. "Don't do anything you'll regret." She frowned slightly then said, in a lower voice, "He's just a child..." She swallowed back a name.

The woman became the ocean herself, waves crashing and sharpening rocks into dangerous points. She pushed aside his mother's hand and stood up.

Kaoru pressed himself against the window. He could feel the heat of the sun against his back.

She was as beautiful and frightening as his mother was beautiful and kind.

"I will regret nothing," she said. Her voice was icy. Cold. As sharp as the winter wind. Kaoru felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff in January, looking down at the white waves below. "I regret nothing. To you, he may be a child, but to me—to me and countless others—

"He is a god."

*

Kaoru opened his eyes, back in his room.

It was all too much to process. What had happened? What spell had Wataru given him? He shook his head, chasing away all of his thoughts. He could worry about all of that—everything—later. Right now, what was important was his mother's journal.

Speculation could come after. He couldn't let it sink in now.

Couldn't face it.

The spell hadn't shown him where to find the journal.

But, Kaoru had the sinking feeling that might have been because he knew where it was all along. There was only one place, after all:

Home.

*

Kaoru hadn't been home in two years.

It felt strange, to call it home. It wasn't. Not really. Before, his home had been his apartment with Rei. The place where Adonis and Koga crashed on the couch and annoyed him like two younger brothers he didn't want and had no intention of acquiring, but had come into his life and stuck around anyway.

The place where Chiaki had drunkenly grabbed Kaoru and declared that they had to get married because he couldn't imagine his life without him and when everyone else pointed out that there were many other people Chiaki couldn't live without, he retracted his declaration and said, to cheers, that he was going to marry everyone at the party.

The place where Izumi had brought a beautiful cake he had made and decorated himself for the sole purpose of smashing Kaoru's face into it as payback for Kaoru's attempt to smash cake into Izumi's face the previous year.

The place where Rei had once jokingly offered to turn Kaoru into a vampire and once, one night, seriously offered.

And now, his home was his place with Chiaki. His room, with the Izumi-approved organizational system. The living room, with the worn-in couch and all of Chiaki's hidden and blatant DVDs and figures. The kitchen, where Anzu had sat and confessed to Kaoru that things were becoming serious with Madara and that, even though part of her was scared, she was so happy. Then, the bathroom—that bathroom.

Kaoru felt stupid for being emotionally attached to a bathroom of all places, but he couldn't help it.

It was home, despite all of its faults and shortcomings. It was home for all of its imperfections and annoyances because when Kaoru stepped into it at the end of the day, he never felt like running out again.

Because he wanted to be there.

Because he was wanted there.

His father still lived in the house that had seen his brother, his sister, and him all the way through high school. He expected his brother and sister still had rooms there. His was probably another guest bedroom now.

No matter.

He rang the doorbell.

His father was a creature of habit. He was usually in this time on Sunday. In the years Kaoru had been away, he hadn't changed at all. He answered the door.

"I see you've finally come back," his father said. He left the door open and stepped back into the house. When Kaoru didn't immediately follow, he turned around and frowned. "Well, come in. If you're not, then close the door. I don't want bugs to come in."

Kaoru made a face and stepped into the house. His father watched him as he took off his shoes for a moment before walking into the kitchen.

"Do you want something to drink?" his father asked.

Kaoru blinked. "No," he said carefully. "I'm not planning to be here for long."

His father nodded.

It was strange to call this place home, but it was even stranger to have his father acting this way. Kaoru didn't know how to have a relationship with him. He'd stopped trying after he'd made remarks about a girlfriend Kaoru had in college—about how he hoped Kaoru hadn't changed his ways because this was certainly not the girl to change for. Kaoru hadn't been particularly serious about her, but he'd liked her just as he'd liked all the other people he'd dated and he was tired of his father. He was tired of having to put up with his constant remarks about him and his life. He was tired of being looked down upon.

He was tired of having aspect of himself evaluated and inspected like his existence didn't matter unless he met certain standards. Certain criteria.

It was clear his father didn't know how to have a relationship with him either.

His father grabbed a cup of coffee and took a drink from it. "Well, why are you here? You certainly didn't come here to talk to me."

Something snapped inside of Kaoru.

He could hear it, ringing in his ears.

His heart seized and he said, "It's not like you'd listen even if I had something to say."

His father lowered his cup. "You're right," he said. "I'm not, especially if you start every conversation with me like an over-emotional child."

Kaoru couldn't remember the last time his father had called him by name. To others, he was 'that boy.' To his face, he was simply 'you.'

"I'm not a child, if you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I perfectly well know you aren't. Your behavior would be a lot more excusable if you were."

"I don't want to be excused."

"That's wonderful, considering you didn't manage to spend ten minutes in this house without starting a fight."

Kaoru clenched his fist. "I didn't start a fight."

His father sighed and rubbed his eyes. He looked older than Kaoru remembered. More tired. There was grey hair at his temples. "What did you come here for?"

Kaoru squeezed his fist tighter then relaxed it. "Where are Mom's things?"

His father set down his cup. "What do you want of your mother's? If it's clothes or jewelry, you're out of luck."

Kaoru shook his head. "I want her journal."

"Ah," his father said, "that old thing."

"I know it's here."

"Thinking ahead, good. How do you know?"

"None of your business."

His father studied Kaoru's face. "A spell," he concluded.

"No spell would be able to find a book that's fifteen years lost."

His father shrugged. "Maybe not. I think I'd find a way, though." He glanced at Kaoru. "And perhaps you did, too." He nodded to himself and walked out of the kitchen.

Kaoru shook his head, trying to clear it, before exiting as well. "Do you know where it is?"

His father walked up the stairs. "Why didn't you have your sister get it for you?"

Kaoru hesitated, then followed. "I didn't want to bother her. She's busy."

"I'm glad you keep in contact with her," he said from behind a door. His voice was slightly muffled.

Kaoru stepped closer.

His father was rummaging through a drawer. "Your sister has always had a good head on her shoulders. A clear view of her place in the family." He straightened and looked at Kaoru. "You're going to take that the wrong way; I know you will."

"I didn't say anything," Kaoru said, even though he had been thinking exactly that.

Kaoru's father made a vague noise of disagreement before he returned to the drawer. "Your mother spoiled you when you were younger. I didn't do anything to stop it because, at the time, I saw no reason to find fault in her indulgence of you. You looked so much like her, after all, and you were more like her than your brother or your sister."

He paused for a moment and moved onto the closet. He opened it and took down a box from the top shelf. "You probably didn't realize it and probably still don't, but even your siblings spoiled you. They protected you in ways you couldn't see, but you could reap the benefits of." He pulled out a glass owl figure from the box and placed it back in. "I was proud of them, after she passed," he said.

Kaoru shifted his weight in the doorway.

Up went the box and another came down. He crouched down next to it. "I was proud of how they handled themselves. How they took care of you. They were always the responsible ones. The ones who knew how to deal with what life gave them." He pulled out a journal and flipped through it. The cover was a dark brown. Leather. He held it out to Kaoru. "This is what you wanted, isn't it?"

Kaoru swallowed and took the book. "I know how to handle myself," he said, because he didn't know what else to say.

His father put his hands on his knees and stood up. "I know that." He dusted off his pants and exhaled. "I know that now, Kaoru."

*

When he was a child, he thought his mother held the secrets to the universe. In her journal, in her mind—she must have known everything the world had to offer.

Now, as an adult, he found the secrets to her universe between grocery lists and additions from him and his siblings. His brother signed one page, in an imitation of her signature. His sister decorated one page with stickers and hearts. Kaoru drew a portrait of his mother with a big smile and long hair next to a big flower.

He touched a page with the words "Shinkai-san" and "hybrid mermaids" written in pen and crossed out with pencil. He felt the grooves of her strokes beneath his fingertips.

Perhaps some secrets were too big for the pages of a book.

*

He spotted Kanata in a crowd.

In the sea of people, there he was—blue hair curling around his face, white shirt tucked into his pants. He stood on the opposite side of the street from Kaoru. He looked like he came from a different reality from everyone around him. Like they were all pen and ink and he was watercolor. Like they were all occupying the same plane and he was standing on a rift, a reflection of the heavens.

Like they were human and he, a god.

When the crossing signal turned green and everyone moved around him, he stayed still. Kaoru walked forward. He was too afraid to blink.

There he was—Kanata, finally, after all these weeks—and he wouldn't lose him.

I know, Kaoru wanted to say. I pried and now I know and there is nothing that can happen to change it.

So, please come back.

So, please—escape to me.

Kanata stepped back and slipped into a wave of people. They carried him down the street and Kaoru followed. His mother's journal burned a hole in his side. He patted it over the cloth of his bag.

The wave brought him to the aquarium.

Kaoru bought a ticket. Adult. General Admission. All exhibits and animal presentations included. The stingray touch: open all summer. The next aquatic show: in an hour. Enjoy.

The aquarium was the emptiest he'd ever seen it. When was the last time he came here? Probably in university, with Anzu. He walked past the tanks, eyes adjusting to the low blue light. Jellyfish pulsed up. Colorful fish circled around and around. A stingray scaled the glass, exposing its underside.

He found Kanata in a half-hidden viewing room. There was a circular window that looked into the biggest tank of the exhibit and Kanata sat on the bench in the middle of the room, looking out at the schools of fish cascading by. He was otherworldly in the light, even more so than Kaoru remembered. It made Kaoru's breath catch in his throat.

Relief and affection; calm and desire—Kaoru wondered when Kanata would stop making him a mess of emotions. He pulled at his heart and stretched it out; Kaoru would let him hold it beating in his palms, exposed for all it was. Jealous. Contrary. Untruthful. Selfish. Small.

Weak.

"Kanata-kun," he said and felt dismayed at how his voice sounded—how much love he'd let through.

Kanata looked at him. "Kaoru."

His name had always sounded so right coming from Kanata. He wanted to hear it every day for the rest of his life.

Kanata patted the spot next to him. "It has been a 'long' time."

"A month," he said. He sat down. "Is that long?"

"Yes," Kanata said, easily. He smiled. "Too long."

Heat rose up the back of Kaoru's neck. "Oh, um," he said, "same. It was too long for me too."

The corner of Kanata's mouth quirked up and he looked back at the window. A shark swam past. "Have you been 'busy'?" he asked.

Kaoru cleared his throat. "Yeah. Yeah, I have."

"Wataru told me he 'saw' you," he said. Then, almost like he read Kaoru's mind, he glanced over and said, "We 'have known' each other. Rei and Wataru and I. We are 'old friends.'"

"He made me a spell," Kaoru said, looking away from Kanata and back at the tank. "It didn't work like it was supposed it."

"Wataru is fond of 'such things,'" Kanata said. "What did it 'show' you?"

"My mother." He hesitated, then added, "Your mother, too."

Kanata closed his eyes and hummed. "She is 'the ocean,' my mother," he said. "Some days she is 'still' and 'calm.' Other days she is a 'storm,' come to 'take.' Sometimes, she is 'quiet' and it is a 'trap.' Other times, she is 'rough' and it is no 'trap' at all." He looked down at his palms, then tilted his head back, lifting his face towards the ceiling. "But, she is 'always' beautiful. 'Always' beautiful and 'always' scary."

He looked at Kaoru.

"What did she 'say'?"

Kaoru bit his lip. He searched for the best thing to say. "She said...people need their gods. Everyone needs them." His voice was quiet, even to himself.

Kanata nodded and sat up straight. He placed his hands on his thighs. "I have not been 'enough' for her," he said calmly. "I was not a 'good child' as she wished." He flipped his hands over, palms up. "As she 'prayed.'"

Kaoru's fingers touched the top of his mother's journal.

"'God' died when I was born," Kanata said. He laughed softly at his choice of words. A smile and an exhale of breath. "So I 'took' his place."

Kanata held his hand up to his face and turned it slowly. The light from the window caught the sheen of his skin, sending a streak of color flashing down his arm. "We all 'came from' the sea. The ocean is the mother of all 'mothers.' She is the 'start' and 'end' of all life."

He set his hand back down in his lap.

"And I am her 'messenger.'"

He looked down at his fingers then faced forward once more, chin tilted up. "And I am her 'god.'

"I am her 'god,' made."

Kaoru's fingers curled into his pants. Made. They made him this. They needed a god, so they made him into one—the living god in the vessel of a child. Kaoru's brow knit together. "Kanata-kun, I—"

Kanata shook his head and smiled faintly. He reached out to touch Kaoru's hair. "Oh Kaoru," he said, "you are such a 'good child.'" His fingers grazed the side of Kaoru's jaw. "You are 'kind.'"

"You're not a god," Kaoru said suddenly. He grabbed Kanata's wrist. "You're not my god. You're my—" He faltered. "My—"

Kanata pulled Kaoru's hand towards him and placed it on his face. "I am Kanata," he said, "and you are Kaoru."

Kaoru's thumb stroked Kanata's cheekbone experimentally. Kanata closed his eyes and leaned into Kaoru's touch.

Kaoru didn't know why he wanted to cry.

"Kaoru," Kanata said, "you used to come 'here,' didn't you?"

His mother—crouching down with a hand around his waist, pointing up at the fish above him, sharing him the world she loved with him in hopes that he would love it as well.

"Yes."

Him, as a child—pressing a hand up to the glass and wanting to inhabit the colorful world in front of him.

"I saw you," Kanata said, softly. "There was a 'beautiful' woman who would always come with her son. Her smile 'felt' so kind. Like the smile a 'real' mother would have." He smiled at Kaoru and Kaoru thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "You 'looked' so happy, Kaoru." He closed his eyes and said, quietly, "I 'wanted' to be that happy."

"How did you know it was me?" Kaoru swallowed. "It could have been anyone."

Kanata shook his head. "No, Kaoru. I know."

He stood up and grabbed Kaoru's hand. He lead him to the window in the front of the room. He held his hand as he watched the fish swim by.

And Kaoru watched him.

*

He didn't want to be a god.

Worship, tribute—he didn't want that.

All he wanted was to be human.

To live—freely. Selfishly. Painfully.

As a human.

*

Outside of the aquarium, in the waning light of day, Kaoru asked Kanata if there was anything he could do.

"If you want to be human," Kaoru said, "you're going to have to learn how to ask for things. You're going to have to learn how to be selfish and ask for help and demand things and rely on people, because that's what humans do. You're going to have to learn how to apologize after worrying people and how to share your burdens with others, because sometimes life is too much for humans."

Kanata smiled and shook his head. "You have 'already' done enough, Kaoru."

"I—," Kaoru started and the rest of his words followed in a rush—the things he'd kept in since that night in the park, "I can't save you Kanata-kun. I'm not like Moricchi, who will help anyone he sees because he wants to. He needs to. I can't do that." He tugged at his earlobe, twisting his earring around and around. "I know you didn't ask me to, so this is—It's just—" He pressed his lips together. "I'm not a hero. I'm an escape." He smiled faintly at Kanata and said, like a confession, "So, please escape to me."

Kanata looked down and hooked his index finger with Kaoru's pinky. He said, "I don't want you to be my hero."

Then he said, more firmly, "I want you to be Kaoru."

He let go of Kaoru and walked a few steps away.

He turned around.

"We will 'meet' again, Kaoru," Kanata said. The wind played with the ends of his hair. "I promise," he said, "because I 'want' to. And it is not 'wrong' to want things even though you 'think' you are not worthy of them.

"It is not 'wrong' to want things as a 'human' and not a 'god.'"

*

Koga invited him over for dinner.

"Leon misses you," he'd said on the phone, because Koga was incapable of saying anything straightforward to Kaoru without five diversions before. "Rei's also worried 'bout you. Keeps telling me he's afraid you're all skin and bones and I want him to stop cryin' all the goddamn time, because it's so awful sounding and dumb, so you should come over so he can see you're alive."

Kaoru counted on his fingers.

"Senpai," Koga said, "I don't know what's happened and you don't have to tell me, but come. Please. I'll cook."

Kaoru smiled. "Ah, what's that, Wan-chan?" Kaoru teased. "You miss me? Oh my, is this a confession? Should I tell Rei-san that I'll be disrupting your little love nest? I—"

Koga hung up then.

Kaoru was actually surprised he made it that far, honestly.

It was always nice to see Leon. He was getting on in years, but he still greeted Kaoru enthusiastically at the door, angling for a pat on the head. Kaoru picked him up. "Ah, Leon," he said, "how about eloping with me, far away from your boss?"

Leon licked his face.

Kaoru looked up at Koga. He was standing on the threshold and scowling. "I think that was a yes," Kaoru said.

"Like hell it was," Koga snapped.

Kaoru set down Leon and he immediately walked through the living room into the kitchen. Kaoru was pretty sure Rei was using some kind of vampire magic to extend Leon's life. He wondered if Koga knew about it. Maybe.

He wouldn't put it past Rei to do it without saying anything, though.

Rei appeared at the start of the hallway leading down to the rooms, casually leaning against the wall. "Kaoru-kun," he said grandly and Kaoru rolled his eyes.

"You can drop that," Kaoru said, taking off his shoes. "Koga-kun told me you've been crying. Wailing, by the sound of it."

Rei put a hand against his heart. "Why I never. Betrayed by my adorable lover."

"Please stop using that word." Kaoru wrinkled his nose. "I hate how it sounds coming from you."

"Lover?"

"I hate you."

Koga said, sticking his head out of the kitchen, "That's my line, assholes."

"Kaoru-kun, I think you should leave. My dear, sweet Koga has turned into a monster in your presence. You're poisoning his ears."

"You sure it's me and not you?"

Rei's eyes opened in mock surprise. "Me? Provoke Koga?" He walked into the living area and looked over his shoulder at Kaoru. "I have never heard of such a thing."

Kaoru rolled his eyes. "You need any help in there, Koga-kun?" Kaoru said.

"Keep your ass out of my kitchen, senpai."

Kaoru looked at Rei. "My assistance is not needed."

Rei patted Kaoru's shoulder and sat down on the couch. "I, too, have been summarily banned from the kitchen."

"For good reason," Kaoru muttered as he sat next to Rei.

"Pardon?"

Kaoru smiled a false, bright smile and said, in a bad imitation of Rei's voice, "Why, nothing at all, Rei-san."

"And people call me the devil."

"Aren't you?"

"No, Kaoru-kun, he is merely a distant relative of mine."

"Like humans and mermaids," Kaoru said absentmindedly.

Rei propped an elbow on the arm of the couch and rested his head on his hand. "And what do you know of mermaids, Kaoru-kun?"

"Stop saying my name; all I can think of now is Hibiki-kun."

Rei smiled, fangs catching his lower lip. "My questions will not be so easily evaded, Kaoru-kun."

Kaoru shrugged. "My mother studied mermaids," he said, purposely obtuse. "And, like you already know, there was the mermaid situation with Chiaki a few months ago."

"Is that how you're referring to Shinkai-kun now? The 'mermaid situation'?"

With exaggerated politeness, Kaoru said, "Well, forgive me for not wanting to discuss my activities with Kanata-kun with someone who neglected to mention that they were and still could be considered good friends." He leaned back into the couch.

Rei laughed. "Now, now, Kaoru-kun. Don't go sulking on me." He extended an arm across the top of the couch, behind Kaoru's head.

"Koga-kun?" Kaoru said loudly.

"Shut up, playboy, I'm trying to make somethin' beyond your wildest dreams in here!"

Rei raised an eyebrow and leaned forward towards Kaoru, a suspicious smile creeping across his face.

Kaoru held out a finger in warning. "Don't. I don't want to hear it. Really."

Rei shrugged, feigning innocence. "Suit yourself." He sighed dramatically. "All I was going to do was suggest that I tell your fortune."

Kaoru grimaced. "No thanks."

"Ah, that's right. I forgot. You hate having your fortune told."

"Wow, thanks for remembering."

Rei sat up and appraised Kaoru. "Then, here is something: a bit of knowledge shared from friend to friend," Rei said. "The tie has been severed. What was once made is now unmade."

Kaoru frowned. "What?"

Rei smiled.

"I hate it when you get cryptic," Kaoru said, throwing a pillow at Rei's face.

"Okay, assholes," Koga said, exiting the kitchen. He had a huge smile on his face that made Kaoru somewhat afraid. "Dinner's ready."

*

Chiaki was spending the night at Kuro's. Kaoru suspected it must have been a last minute decision, judging by the amount of typos in the message Chiaki had sent. Really, they were outrageous—the typos. It was as if Chiaki had just rolled his cheek across the keyboard and pressed send.

Well, whatever.

Good for him, getting some.

Meanwhile all Kaoru had was fantasy and an overactive imagination.

The doorbell rang.

Kaoru glanced at the time. It was way too late for anybody to be coming over. He pressed the home button on his phone. No messages.

Huh.

The doorbell rang again.

"Okay, okay," he said, standing up.

He walked over to the door and opened it.

Kanata.

His smile was wan as he started to say, "Kaoru," before collapsing forward. Kaoru caught him.

"Kanata-kun?" Kaoru pulled him inside and shut the door behind him, making sure to use all of the locks at his disposal. Just in case. He didn't know how the Shinkai family did things. "Kanata-kun, what's wrong?" Panic ran down his spine. His heart started to beat faster.

Kanata pressed his face deeper against Kaoru's chest. Kaoru staggered slightly against the weight.

"Water? Should we get to water?"

Kanata made an undecipherable noise.

That was it.

Kaoru picked Kanata up, bridal-style, and carried him to the bathroom. He kicked the shower on and the water, cold at first, hit them both like a shock.

Kanata wrapped his arms around Kaoru's neck. "It is 'over,'" he said softly.

"What's over?" Kaoru said. He rushed and almost tripped over his own words. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Are you okay? Is this okay?"

The water started to warm up. It soaked their clothes through.

"Good," Kanata said. "Everything is good." He tucked a piece of Kaoru's hair behind his ear. "You can 'put' me down now."

"Are you sure?" Kaoru asked.

Kanata smiled. "Yes, Kaoru."

Kaoru carefully set Kanata on his feet out of the spray of the shower.

"I 'did not' know Kaoru was strong enough to carry me," Kanata said, teasingly. He seemed to be regaining his strength.

Kaoru's heart fluttered for reasons other than panic. He'd missed him. He'd missed Kanata so much. He'd been gone for so long and now he was here, in front of him, smiling. Talking. Kaoru's chest felt ready to burst.

Kaoru loved him.

He knew that, with certainty.

He loved Kanata.

He would do anything, to keep loving him. This love, it made him better. It built him up.

He was a kinder person, with this love.

"Man, what do you think of me, Kanata-kun?" Kaoru said, a smile tugging at his lips.

"Hm..." Kanata pondered. "Do you 'really' want to know, Kaoru?"

"Yes. No." Kaoru wavered. "Are they good or bad things?"

Kanata hummed again. "'Everything' can be good or bad."

Kaoru shook his head. "No, no. I'm too fragile for bad things right now, Kanata-kun. You scared me too much. Save them for later."

Kanata took a step forward. Their bodies were almost touching. "I think I would 'rather' tell you now," he said.

Kaoru wanted to reach out and feel Kanata in his hands again. "Okay, then, if you want. I can be strong for you. Tell me."

Kanata reached out and placed a hand behind Kaoru's neck. "Actually," he said, stepping back into the water and bringing Kaoru with him, "it will be 'easier' to show you."

He kissed him.

Kanata kissed him beneath the spray of the shower. His lips were soft. Kaoru closed his eyes. Water rolled down his cheek and Kanata's fingers pressed against the sides of his neck. His hands were cold. Kaoru wondered how much it would take to warm him up and tilted his head to the side as he parted his lips and placed a hand on the small of Kanata's back. The inside of Kanata's mouth was warm. His tongue was warm. Wet. Inviting. Soft.

They broke away and came back together. Kaoru pressed his tongue against Kanata's and his chest cracked open. It consumed him. Kanata consumed him.

He opened his eyes. Droplets clung to Kanata's eyelashes. Kaoru's vision blurred. Kanata was so close. Kaoru wanted to be closer. Mouth on mouth. Skin on skin. Surely, there was something more than this. Closer yet. Deeper still.

Kanata pulled away and licked Kaoru's lips. "Kaoru," he said. "Kaoru." He repeated his name over and over and Kaoru caught Kanata's bottom lip between his teeth. Kanata pressed him against the wall. Water ran down his face into his mouth.

"I love you."

He kissed the side of Kanata's jaw and Kanata turned his head to the side to give Kaoru better access. The line of his neck stretched taut in front of Kaoru. Exposed. Vulnerable.

Kaoru thought he understood vampires in that moment—the hunger in his core rising up and bursting out. He trailed kisses all the way down his neck. Kanata reached his hand up Kaoru's shirt, feeling across his abdomen and up to his chest.

"Off," Kanata said into his ear and Kaoru obliged, taking off his shirt with Kanata's help.

Kanata's skin, visible beneath the wet fabric of his clothes, sent heat down his body and Kanata, noticing, let the neck of his shirt fall down his shoulder. He laughed.

Kaoru shook his head and Kanata pulled Kaoru forward towards him by the waist of his pants. They kissed again and again and Kanata made a noise at the back of his throat that made Kaoru's mind go blank and impossibly full at the same time.

Gods were holy. Untouchable.

They stood at distance from those who worshipped them.

But here, there was a god made of flesh, soft under his fingertips. Here, there was a god made of flesh and blood, stirring beneath his touch.

Wholly touchable.

Not a god.

Kanata.

Just Kanata, come home.

*

That night, they slept in Kaoru's bed.

Kanata's feet were cold.

Kaoru wouldn't have it any other way.

*

"Kaoru," Kanata called.

Kaoru looked around, trying to find the source of his voice beyond the stacks and stacks of boxes. "Kanata?" He walked around the apartment.

"Kaoru, in 'here,'" Kanata said.

Kaoru paused near the bathroom door and sighed. "Really, Kanata? We're not even done unpacking yet and"—he walked into the bathroom and placed his hands on his hips—"you're taking a bath?"

He propped his elbows up on the edge and waved Kaoru over. "I am 'lonely,' Kaoru," he said. He pouted.

Kaoru noticed Kanata's shoulders were bare. His gaze flicked over to the pile of discarded clothes on the side.

"It is so 'lonely' here. I need 'someone' to warm me up."

Kaoru smiled. "Oh, really? Why don't you come out and help me with the boxes then. Two for one: you won't be lonely and you'll warm up."

"Hmph," Kanata said. "Kaoru is 'no fun.'"

Kaoru walked in, closer to Kanata. The bathroom was as spacious as the one in the apartment he had with Chiaki. Big. Open. A bath big enough for two. He looked down at Kanata. "You seem perfectly fine to me, Kanata."

Kaoru realized his mistake when Kanata smiled wickedly and reached up to pull him in.

"Kanata! Kanata, wait, I still have—!"

He should have known by now that resisting Kanata was a futile effort.

Kanata smiled sweetly. "'Thank you,' Kaoru."

"Sometimes, you're a real devil, you know," Kaoru said. He tried to keep a smile off his face, but failed.

Kaoru thought he had been happy before. He thought he'd been happy for a while, with his friends and his sister and her family.

It'd been happiness, that was true, and it was still happiness with them, but—

Compatible ideas of happiness.

His and Kanata's shared happiness—of choice, of being able to come home to a place where someone loved them and was waiting for them. The happiness of knowing that there was someone to share your life with, completely. The good and the bad. The happiness in the simplicity of having somebody who was yours—wholly.

Unconditionally.

Kanata's foot pressed against his chest.

He hadn't had a tail in months.

"Can I 'come over,' Kaoru?" Kanata said, smirking.

Kaoru smiled and said, "Always."