Matsuyo glanced at the clock again as she wiped down the kitchen counter. 3:37. She sighed and moved to the fridge next, busying herself with rearranging its contents.
"It's already past midnight. Where has that boy gone?"
"I'm sure he's fine, mom," Osomatsu assured.
"I'm worried about him... I'm going out to look."
"No no no, you stay here. I'll go out and find him. You wait here just in case he comes back, okay? ...Don't worry, mom, everything'll be fine. I promise."
Nevertheless, Matsuyo worried. It was a mother's nature to worry, after all. And it's not as though she didn't have good reason.
Karamatsu was usually so chipper and energetic, and eager to please. Perhaps a little full of himself at times, but he cared just as much for others, and even more so, for his brothers.
Lately, though, she'd noticed a change in him. At first, he just seemed quieter than usual, and Matsuyo didn't think too much of it, assuming he'd surely be back to normal in no time. However, he started to grow even more quiet and withdrawn. He seemed more tired, as well, and frequently went back upstairs to take naps, along with being the last to get up every morning. He was still interacting with his brothers, but it was different. It was almost imperceptible, but Matsuyo could see that his reactions were a bit strained and forced. Any comments about his mood shift were quickly dismissed with his usual flair. If someone pushed the subject, Karamatsu would continue, or find some distraction, but not give up until the topic was dropped and forgotten. These interactions usually preceded an extended absence from Karamatsu. He would slip away as soon as it seemed no one was watching, and spend the rest of the day out of sight.
But Matsuyo noticed. They were her children, so she was long used to watching out for them. She'd grown used to them trying to hide to avoid feeling vulnerable, and for Karamatsu, especially so.
He'd been a fairly typical child, and just like his brothers in almost every way. But they each had their quirks, even then.
As children (and especially siblings) tend to do, her boys would have their mean streaks every so often. They would side against each other or single one brother out to be picked on. This is where Matsuyo noticed one such quirk in Karamatsu. It was small, but he always seemed to take this teasing to heart a little more than the rest. She didn't worry too much, though, as he would always forget it happened just as soon as the rest, and they'd have moved on to the next game before Matsuyo could even blink.
Perhaps that trait was related to this current shift in Karamatsu. But Matsuyo couldn't be sure. As much as she'd like to think she knew her sons better than anyone, she had to admit that they got better at hiding as they got older. Karamatsu, in particular, was sometimes completely unreadable. Matsuyo had tried to get him to open up a few times, but Karamatsu always deflected, assuring her she had nothing to worry about. Matsuyo was unsure how true that was.
"I'd like to talk to you about something."
"Eh~? I was just about to head out!"
Osomatsu stopped his whining when he heard her serious tone.
"Hm? What's up? Is something wrong?" Osomatsu took a seat across the table from his mother.
"Is something going on with your brother lately?"
"Karamatsu. He seems a bit off recently."
"Eh~, that guy's always at least a bit off," Osomatsu laughed. "Ow!"
Osomatsu rubbed the top of his head as Matsuyo retracted her spatula.
"Nevermind," Matsuyo sighed, going back to her cooking. "Honestly, what am I to do with you boys?"
Osomatsu got up as well and dug through the fridge, pulling out a pudding cup. He sat back down and opened it, eating it half the time and absent-mindedly stirring it the other half.
"Well," Osomatsu started after a minute or so, "maybe I did notice something."
"What is it?"
Osomatsu hummed in thought. "Eh, it's not much. He's just kinda standoffish. And he's been spending a lot of time alone, I guess? But that's not all that weird, for him."
"Is that really all?"
"Why, do you think there's something up?"
"I don't know. I just wish he'd say something if there's something wrong, rather than trying to deal with it all on his own."
"Karamatsu just doesn't want to bother anyone, I think. He's too selfless, ya know? I'll whine about anything!" Osomatsu laughed.
Matsuyo tutted at him. "I know you will."
In reality, though, Osomatsu had a mask of his own. They all did. Really, Matsuyo had her work cut out for her...
Well, there really wasn't anything left to clean in the kitchen. Matsuyo moved to the living room, though there wasn't much to do in there, either.
Though she tried, the cleaning wasn't helping very much to keep her mind off things.
"Hm? You're still awake, mom?" Osomatsu peaked into the kitchen as he entered the living room.
"I had a few more things I wanted to get done tonight."
Matsuyo heard the hint of suspicion in his tone, but didn't acknowledge it. Osomatsu sat at the living room table while Matsuyo started the dishes.
"And what are you doing up?"
"I wasn't tired. Can I have some tea?"
"You can make yourself some tea," Matsuyo offered.
Osomatsu sighed dramatically, but got up anyway. As he waited for the water to boil, Matsuyo finally broached the topic hanging in the air.
"Have you seen Karamatsu today?"
"Nope. He was gone before the rest of us got up this morning."
"Do you know where he went?"
Osomatsu shook his head. "He didn't say anything to me."
"...Do you think he seems different lately?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, that's what you said before, right?"
"I mean just this week."
"...I think something changed. There's just a different look in his eyes."
Matsuyo looked over to gauge her eldest's reaction, but Osomatsu was busying himself with pouring his tea.
Matsuyo went to the entryway to see Osomatsu off. As she reached the living room door, she saw him quickly stuff something in his jacket pocket.
"What was that?"
Matsuyo put one hands on her hips and looked at him expectantly. Osomatsu sighed and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
"I told you boys to stop bringing those home!"
"I'm not smoking in the house, I promise!"
"That's not the point-"
"Anyway, I'm heading out now. Bye, mom!"
Osomatsu stuffed the pack back in his pocket and took off before Matsuyo could respond.
"...Please, just come home safe, both of you."
Matsuyo continued to fret, dusting the living room cabinet for the third time that night. She told herself that it would be alright. That Osomatsu was a good older brother, despite his shortcomings, and that he'd surely find his brother. They'd both walk in before she knew it, and she'd take the chance to finally sit her second eldest down and have a proper conversation about all this.
Nevertheless, her mind drifted, getting caught up in imagined scenarios of her worst fears.
Matsuyo heard the front door slide open and she rushed to see who it was, her heart pounding. She was greeted by the sight of her eldest, alone.
"Osomatsu? Where is he? Did you find him?"
Osomatsu looked down, his expression unreadable.
"...Osomatsu? Where is Karamatsu?"
Osomatsu didn't look at her, but his jaw tightened and his shoulders sunk.
"Where is he?" Matsuyo cried. "What happened? Tell me, Osomatsu! Please!"
But Osomatsu didn't answer.
Matsuyo began to cry and sunk to the floor, already sensing what Osomatsu wasn't saying. Osomatsu finally looked at her, his expression twisted in guilt.
"...I'm sorry, mom."
Matsuyo was startled out of her thoughts by sound of the front door opening. She looked toward the living room door, frightened to open it to see who had, or hadn't, made it home. And for a few tense moments, she waited.
"Come on. Let's go get some rest, okay?"
Matsuyo rushed toward the door upon hearing the two voices and flung it open. Karamatsu looked up, startled. His eyes were red and teary. Osomatsu's jacket was draped over his shoulders, and his appearance was a bit frazzled. He glanced quickly back at the floor with a pained, ashamed expression. Matsuyo paid this no mind, rushing forward to embrace the both of them.
"Where have you been?" Matsuyo said tearfully. "I was so worried about you!"
Karamatsu's shoulders heaved, and he buried his face in his mother's shoulder as he returned her hug.
"...I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Matsuyo assured him that it was fine, that he didn't need to apologize, that he was loved. She assured him over and over, and she would continue to do so as long as he needed to hear it.
Matsuyo didn't mind the waiting and the worrying. As long as her babies came home safe and sound, she didn't mind such a thing at all.