Rei opens his eyes, the harsh sunlight streaming through the blackout curtains he had forgotten to close, and knows that today is not going to be a good day.
He loathes being awake this early, but resents the weakness that clings to his limbs even more, a reminder of how feeble the curse of his birth makes him with every creak of his weary bones. He nearly trips down the stairs, stumbling as he blinks his bleary eyes - it’s so early and so bright and he wants nothing more than to go crawl into somewhere dark and go back to sleep for a century.
But, he reminds himself, there’s work to do - a networking opportunity for UNDEAD that he couldn’t pass up despite the early hour, and so he nearly drags himself to the fridge and wraps one pale hand in a death grip around a bottle of tomato juice. He nearly collapses at the kitchen table with it in hand, staring into the red liquid and wondering if he could find the strength to go out under the harsh morning light within its depths.
His slumped shoulders must make for a pitiful sight, shying away from even the sliver of light that breaks through into the kitchen, because the quiet good morning, Sakuma-senpai from Isara as he carries Ritsu out the door sounds a little wary.
But time waits for no man or monster, so Rei wills himself to get ready for the day, forces his feet to take him to the door and out into the burning light of the sun, hiding as best he can beneath the wide shade of the black parasol he carts in one hand and cursing the hot, heavy air the rest of the way.
The work is unpleasant, but necessary. He musters all the reserves of his strength to stand tall and proud as he mingles with those who dangle opportunities above them, like houndmasters baiting their beasts into ferocity. The idol industry is cutthroat and cruel, and Rei can’t let these opportunities for UNDEAD slip from their grasp.
At the very least, he thinks as he charms some executive with a warm smile, some part of him always remembers how to be the Sakuma Rei he created - even when he feels like the feeble, writhing creature he was born as, the weakness of his body trapping him in the shadows.
When he finally makes it to class, once the work is over - and he really can’t skip again, because his attendance still teeters on a knife’s edge and he does actually want to graduate - he’s met with an unwelcome sight. Neither Wataru nor Kanata are in class today, and as he slides into his seat and nods wearily at Tsumugi’s sympathetic smile it feels like all his muscles are screaming in protest. With their absence he actually has to stay awake and listen in class, rather than relying on Wataru’s mimicry to answer in his stead - and though he cannot begrudge them their absence, as all his fellow eccentrics are both fickle and impossibly busy, there’s a pang of loneliness he can’t quite fight when he’s feeling this miserable.
It’s a very, very long day.
When he’s finally released he feels both like he can’t leave the room fast enough and like he’s painfully sluggish - the exhaustion weighs him down like an anchor, dragging his feet even though the call of his coffin, warm and comfortable and a promise of sleep, spurs him onwards. He passes several marks on the halls that he knows are signs of Natsume’s hidden passages, winding paths leading to his secret chambers beneath the school, and though it is tempting to simply hide away in their depths he presses onwards - better not to bother their youngest, who is surely working hard, not impaired by the same weakness Rei is plagued by.
The clubroom is quiet and empty when he reaches it, the twins apparently busy and Koga - well, wherever he is, for once Rei is grateful for the odd silence that permeates the room without the cacophony he always brings.
As he lowers himself into the coffin - finally, finally getting to rest, hidden away from the sun that haunts his every step through the daylit school - the string that runs through his window begins to move erratically.
Rei sighs - not with irritation, because he cannot begrudge Shu anything, but with the way his day is going his mind can’t help but conjure up all manner of terrible, disastrous things that could have occurred. He gingerly picks up the cup attached to the string, holding it to his ear.
“Ah, Rei, you picked up.” There’s a faint rustling on the other end, an echo of Kagehira’s voice in the background, “I must say, you gave me quite a scare when I saw you walk by just now.”
Rei hadn’t even realised the handicrafts clubroom had left its door open today - typically, Shu had the thing practically bolted shut to avoid interruptions.
“I didn’t think you were the type to jump at every passer-by - this is a school, you know.” Rei retorts, sliding down in his coffin so that his head can rest on its edge, eyes fluttering closed almost against his will.
“Who do you take me for?” Shu retorts with an indignant sniff, “I meant because you looked like you were about to keel over. You don’t actually have to be dead to sleep in that box of yours, you know?” Shu’s voice loses some of its edge, tone softening, “What happened?”
Rei sighs, trying not to feel entirely pathetic.
“Really, nothing of importance. I had some work early this morning outside of the school - and regrettably, I’m far past the point of begging leniency on sleeping through my classes.” Shu hums in response, and Rei tries to inject a little more strength into his tone, “I’m quite alright, but thank you for worrying about me. You’re far too kind~”
“You went out in the sun on a day like this?” Shu prods, tone clipped, “I hope you’re resting properly now. Honestly, such foolishness.” The last words are said under his breath, and Rei smiles at the concern hidden behind them. He leans forward, listening to Shu, no, not you, Kagehira, I’m in the middle of a telephone call, and opens the tiny fridge that’s wedged in the end of his coffin.
The sight that greets him is deeply unwelcome - a barren, empty box.
The whining noise that escapes him is entirely unbefitting of the former demon king of Yumenosaki - but thankfully, the club room is empty, and no one is around to see how he pathetically slumps even further into his coffin, wishing the plush lining would open up and swallow him into its depths.
“What’s wrong, Rei?” Shu’s soft voice prompts him - and in his despair Rei had entirely forgotten that he was still on the phone.
“Ah, it’s nothing.” He says, tone deliberately mild and feeling slightly embarrassed over his childish reaction, “I seem to have run out of tomato juice again. No matter, it’s easy enough to replace.”
Although truthfully, it’s easier said than done - nothing that awful had even happened today, but somehow every moment seemed nearly insurmountable, and he wanted nothing more than to sleep until it was tomorrow.
“That can wait for later.” Shu prodded, tone sharp again, “Get some sleep for now. For God’s sake, you sound terrible. Don’t let your unit see you like this - and I’d better not see you wandering around either.” There was a pause, Shu seeming to weigh his words, “I know what you’re like, but don’t push yourself. The world can wait.” There’s a clatter then, and Rei knows that Shu has hung up.
There is much more for him to do, in truth - more work, more practice, more things to organise, more jobs to pursue - but even if it’s just a convenient excuse, the thought of the tongue-lashing he’d receive if Shu saw him walk past the clubroom again was enough to convince him to draw the coffin lid back, enveloping him in a sweet, welcome darkness.
Rei wakes to a rhythmic tapping on the lid of his coffin, light and sharp and oddly persistent.
He cracks the lid open cautiously, moving it to the side as slowly as he can - because certainly neither the twins nor Koga would wake him in such a fashion, and he did not wish to startle whoever it was that so urgently needed him.
What he finds, however, is not what he expects.
There are several doves in his club room, one of them hopping awkwardly on the lid as he sits up, sliding it further out of his way. Another flits anxiously between the window and the rim of the coffin, a piece of paper tied to its leg as it coos insistently. Yet another two are on the floor beside his coffin - and somehow, a can of tomato juice sits between them, seemingly carried by their tiny feet.
“How on earth does Wataru train you so well?” Rei asks them, and they flutter closer. The one with the note attached comes to rest on his hand as he reaches out, and he pulls the paper free of its leg just in time for it to coo loudly again, seemingly a signal for the others to leave as they all take flight at once and exit through the half-open window, leaving Rei staring after them bemusedly.
Though they were all the Oddballs, equals by virtue of their abilities far beyond humanity, Rei still found himself trapped between baffled and awed at some of the things Wataru did sometimes.
He leans over and rescues the can from the ground, still slightly cool and a welcome relief to his dry throat as he cracks it open and takes his first sip. The note expels rose petals in a plume as he opens it, seemingly appearing from nowhere, and Rei doesn’t fight the delighted smile that blooms across his face in response, reaching out to catch some of them in his hand.
My dearest Rei, the note reads, the handwriting elegant and curled grandly across the page, a little birdie, though not one of my own, told me of your inauspicious day.
Rei rolls one of the petals in his fingers, the sweet and familiar scent of roses filling the room.
Please accept this gift with my love, and apologies for my absence today.
There is an odd feeling that lodges in Rei’s chest, growing as he shifts the letter back and forth in the fading light, watching the iridescent ink Wataru had signed his name in shimmer as it moves. Amazing, he thinks, because he still feels that old sense of love and wonder sometimes, the one that had sunk into his bones and never left since the Five Oddballs were given their name - a weapon that had been fashioned against them, stolen from their enemies and fashioned into a shield, a bond of love forged in the fires of war that had stood the test of time, of distance, of their frantic and separated lives.
There’s a distant sound of splashing from the window and it draws him out of the coffin - and he is feeling better after a nap, with the fresh taste of tomato juice still on his tongue and the sun beginning to set. From the window he can see Kanata drifting absently in the fountain, a delighted giggle drifting across the empty courtyard, and when he’s spotted peeking Kanata reaches out of the water to wave dreamily at him.
Rei returns the gesture, and then thinks oh, why not?
His thoughts have made him wistful, missing the days when they spent more time together - and since UNDEAD didn’t seem to have any pressing need for him, perhaps he could go say hello to an old friend.
He wanders down the halls, the darkness beginning to crawl across the sky bringing strength back to his weakened limbs, and as he passes another one of Wataru’s doves perching on a windowsill he gives it a grateful nod. Kanata’s head pops out of the fountain as soon as Rei exits the building - he was expected, it seems.
“Rei~” Kanata calls with a dreamy smile, reaching out and taking Rei’s hand as he sits on the fountain’s edge, “I hope you weren’t ‘lonely’ during class today.”
Rei returns the smile, squeezing the wet hand that grasps onto his.
“No, just a little tired.” It’s a half-truth, and Kanata tugs at his hand again insistently, the slightest furrow forming between his brows.
“Let’s ‘make’ it up.” Kanata keeps pulling on his hand, and only Rei’s greater strength from the encroaching night stops him from toppling right into the water. He pauses for a moment, but his odd mood has made him feel whimsical, and he stops only to empty his pockets beside the fountain before he slides into the water beside Kanata.
“Ah, it’s quite cool at night.” He murmurs, and Kanata laughs delightedly.
“Yay~!” Kanata takes his hand again, using it to anchor himself in place rather than float away, “We don’t get to ‘puka puka’ together very much, Rei.”
“No, I suppose we don’t. We’ve had very busy lives this year, haven’t we?” The water is more pleasant than he’d expected on his skin, cool but not chilling, and he thinks he can understand the appeal a little more. Kanata hums, his other hand making gentle waves in the water’s surface, but otherwise doesn’t answer, letting the silence stretch between them aside from the gentle sound of the water.
“We have to work ‘hard’, living among the ‘humans’.” Kanata eventually says, long after Rei loses track of time, “But it’s important to ‘rest’, too. Make sure you don’t ‘work’ too hard, okay, Rei?”
Rei laughs again with a wry smile, turning his gaze back to the handicrafts room. He can see a glimpse of pink at the window, Shu looking down at their antics, and the smile grows into something more genuine.
“Do you all gossip about me that much? I appreciate all of your concern, but really nothing extraordinary happened today.”
Just the weakness that would haunt him for the rest of his days, the cruel nature of his birth, always waiting to topple his carefully-laid plans like a house of cards.
“Even if a ‘day’ is just ‘bad’,” Kanata says, shaking his head slowly, ‘the people you ‘love’ can make it ‘good’.” He floats closer to Rei, their knees bumping together, clear eyes boring into his face, “We’re always ‘together’, even when we’re ‘apart’.”
There’s truth to his words - Rei’s day had seemed so insurmountable a few hours ago, but so many of his dear friends had reached out their hands in aid.
“That’s right.” a familiar voice interrupts, “Rei-nii-san, Kanata-nii-san, this is an unusual sight.”
As Rei turns he sees Wataru and Natsume standing patiently behind them, a towel draped over Natsume’s arms.
“Ah, Sakasaki-kun, Hibiki-kun.” He says warmly, “How rare for so many of us to be together like this.”
Kanata is already lifting himself out of the fountain, water dripping all over the surrounding stone, so Rei follows suit. A chill hits him as soon as he stands, the breeze making him suddenly aware that he is very, very damp, and the sun having very nearly set. He graciously takes the towel Natsume offers him, gingerly removing his jacket and trying to wring the moisture out of the rest of his clothes.
“Is it?” Natsume says mildly, and Rei’s gaze sharpens as he meets his eyes, “If you need anything, you only have to ask, Rei-nii-san.”
“Ah, I would not trouble you all for such minor things.” Their concern is touching, but Rei feels a phantom of guilt in exchange, that he made them worry over so small a thing, “We lead very busy lives, after all - it is natural that it keeps us apart.”
“I would not call your problems minor,” Natsume retorts, “even if you think you can manage them alone.”
“That’s right, Rei!” Wataru exclaims, “Your worries are our worries, your troubles are our tribulations - can we not fret over one we hold so dear?”
“There’s a spell cast over this school, you know,” Natsume continues, smile growing, “that we eccentrics might never know loneliness, that we can always find the aid we need.”
Rei opens his mouth to retort, but Wataru’s voice cuts across before he has a chance to speak.
“Oh, and it is one that is simply amazing!” He spins, hair flowing dramatically, still shining even in the dim light, “Can you guess its name? You helped cast this spell, after all.”
And Rei thinks he knows this magic, its feeling across his shoulders and its formless weight in the air. It’s in knowing Shu is only ever a cup phone away when he needs him, the faint sounds of Kanata in the fountain that he can hear from his clubroom. It follows him in the halls when he sees the signs of Natsume’s hidden passages and drifts by when Wataru’s doves fly overhead. It’s in the coffin Natsume built him, each costume Shu makes, thick in the air when they file into the back rows to see Wataru’s performances.
“Of course,” he answers, with Wataru’s hand grasping his arm and Natsume staring up at him, Kanata’s faint humming by his side and Shu’s gaze heavy even from his distant window, “its name is love.”