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to thine own self be true

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i. baby’s first steps

Haruichi doesn’t remember a time when metahumans didn’t exist. It seems impossible, like the earth being two thousand years old instead of four billion, but Mom and Dad have newspaper clippings and personal memory to prove that it once was so, that people who could coax saplings into giants and melt iron with a thumb had “no real historical presence.”

“It’s like footprints and fossils,” Mom explains as she collects the mail after work. Haruichi takes the newspapers from her, bundling them into his tiny arms and trailing after her into the house. “If something doesn’t leave footprints, how do you know it was there?”

Haruichi is struggling to read SOMETHING IN THE WATER? NOTABLE METAHUMAN DENSITY ALONG THE COASTS when Ryousuke saunters into the living room, hands tucked into his pockets.

“Hey,” Ryousuke says, and tips his chin in the direction of their room. “I’ve got something I want to show you.”

It must be exciting or terrifying or even both because Haruichi can read the edge of Ryousuke’s smile and it spells s-e-c-r-e-t. Climbing off of the sofa, Haruichi follows Ryousuke to the bunk bed and curls up next to him, secretly pleased to be allowed in Ryousuke's off-limits area.

“What is it, Brother?” Haruichi asks, SOMETHING IN THE WATER still clutched in his hands.

Ryousuke regards him calmly and produces a photograph from his pocket. Haruichi recognizes it as one of the few relegated to the curio cabinet, Mom and Dad smiling brightly at the camera with Haruichi and Ryousuke beside them.

“Whatever you do,” Ryousuke warns, “don’t scream.”

“Won't,” Haruichi objects, just as Ryousuke's face quivers, contorts, and transforms into Dad's.

Haruichi opens his mouth and closes it promptly, teeth snapping together. Don’t scream, Ryousuke had said, so Haruichi doesn't, just backs up so fast that his head slams into the wall with a dull thunk.

“Relax,” says Dad in Ryousuke's voice. “It's still me.”

It takes Haruichi a good minute to process. "You have a meta," he blurts out, pushing his bangs out of his eyes to get a better look.

Dad's features wiggle in a way that would be comical if the effect weren't so strange. "Obviously," Ryousuke replies. He waves the photo around. "I'm not that good at it yet. Photos help make it stay longer, but if I practice I think I won’t need them. And I can't do it with everyone, only people I've touched."

"Can you change your voice, too?" Haruichi wants to know, fear dissipating into fascination.

Dad's face wiggles again and this time it's Ryousuke-who-looks-like-Ryousuke who confirms, "And the rest of my body if I feel like it. You won't tell anyone, will you."

SOMETHING IN THE WATER, Haruichi thinks.

They're Yokosuka born and bred.

"I promise," Haruichi swears, crossing his middle finger over his index, and holds it over his heart like a pledge.

(A year later, Haruichi wakes up with the face of a character he crafted in his sleep, the evil doctor that he and Ryousuke defeat several times over in an epic dream saga he hasn’t quite managed to resolve. He alerts Ryousuke immediately, heart pounding in the soft crook of his arm, and Ryousuke smiles like he knew Haruichi would follow him there, too.

“Took you long enough, didn’t it?” Ryousuke says, satisfied, and Haruichi grins back.)

 


 

ii. so you think you can dance

Wind singing in his ears and heart singing in his chest, Haruichi gives a cry of delight when his phone lights up in his lap.

“Download complete,” he informs Ryousuke-who-does-not-look-like-Ryousuke on his left, bounded by the great glimmering swell of the ocean on his right.

The stolen car is roofless, sleek, and devilishly beautiful, dark wicked fast the way Ryousuke likes his rides. He’d had his eye on this one for days, spied it cruising down the street with the bass turned up and its windows rolled down. Tongue between his teeth, he’d snapped a photo of the license plate and texted it to Haruichi, trapped in high school a city away.

“What do you think? For the greater good,” the message had read, and Haruichi had smothered a laugh, sending a thumbs-up in reply.

Through trial and error they’d discovered that while Ryousuke could impersonate real human beings, Haruichi could only metamorphose into creatures of the imagination, people who did not exist. Hence, though Haruichi enjoyed unparalleled artistic liberty, Ryousuke excelled in true identity theft and relished it.

His strange new voice carrying over the white noise of cars on the highway, Ryousuke calls, “Give me the specifics, slowly now.”

Haruichi squints at the data, scrolling past an image of Ryousuke’s temporary persona. “You’re Sanada Shunpei, twenty-four today, and you’re an unlicensed tattoo artist. You live with Todoroki Raizou and Todoroki Raichi, father and son, and from the looks of your submitted tax forms you’re severely underreporting your income.”

Sadly, Ryousuke shakes his head. “What a villain.”

“You also texted eighty-three dollars over your messaging plan, which happens to be more than what you can afford with your stated budget.”

“Truly, the nastiest kind.”

“And you work part-time in a garage, owned by Todoroki Raizou, about fourteen kilometers from where we are now.” Haruichi swipes to access more financial details. “Actually, you make a fair amount on the side helping smuggle car parts, and the first installment of your monthly pay is due today.”

“But we knew that.” Under the setting summer sun, Ryousuke’s grin still retains its razor-sharp edge, the curl of the lip distinctly his own. “Any notable acquaintances?”

“Kuramochi Youichi, twenty-one, mechanic at the garage. He’s an engine specialist,” Haruichi notes with meaning, and casts a sidelong glance at Ryousuke.

“Explains the engine mods,” Ryousuke muses thoughtfully.

Nodding, Haruichi catches a glimpse of his face in the side mirror and turns away, jarred to find nothing of his real self gazing back.

“ETA, five twenty-two,” he says instead, and opens up a low-quality video feed to find samples of Sanada's driving style.

One turn before the garage, Ryousuke drops Haruichi off on the curb, lifting his hand in a casual salute.

“Counting on you, partner.”

Reluctant, Haruichi closes the car door with a click, hating that Ryousuke’s back will be open and unguarded for the few minutes that Haruichi needs to conceal himself near the garage, out of sight.

“And you too, Brother.”

Ryousuke pulls into the driveway the same way Sanada does, cutting across two lines of traffic in reverse and lining up neatly with the makeshift parking dividers. Seated on an oil-stained stool, the man inside the repair shop lifts his face in recognition. He’s got sharp eyes and sharper eyebrows, and from the way Ryousuke closes the door Haruichi knows that Ryousuke thinks he’s going to be an easy read.

“Where the fuck’ve you been?” Kuramochi demands, bouncing his leg in agitation. “We’ve been lookin’ all over for you, Raichi spent the whole morning pissing himself ‘cause he thought you got in trouble with the police.”

Sanada-Ryousuke looks stricken and then apologetic. “Sorry, sorry,” he begins, unlatching the trunk, “I heard about this new shipment of scrap parts and I went to check it out--”

“On your own?” Kuramochi interrupts, a deep frown aging him up maybe two years. He approaches anyway, turning over the day’s haul in his hands and examining the individual pieces. “I mean--the stuff’s not bad. How many did you get?”

Meek, Sanada-Ryousuke stuffs his hands into his pockets. “One, two… twelve coilovers, and five, six LSD’s. There’s more where they came from, I didn’t want to take ‘em all in one go.” He produces a squashed box of Mevius cigarettes and wanders toward the employee’s door, where the cash register coincidentally happens to sit. “So I’m guessing Boss dropped by already?” he asks, lifting an innocent-looking office envelope.

It’s Sanada’s unofficial salary, Haruichi realizes, straining to see, and the package is a little square around the edges, stuffed full of cash.

Kuramochi doesn’t lift his head, one hand on the edge of the trunk. “How come you didn’t tell me about this, man? I could’ve gone with you.”

That’s a bone Kuramochi’s got to pick with the real Sanada, and Sanada-Ryousuke opens his mouth to deliver a grossly fabricated excuse, except Kuramochi raises a hand to stop him.

“I don’t wanna hear it, yeah?” He shakes his head, leaning a hip against the bumper. “I just wish I could've helped you knock out the asswipe who decided it’d be, y’know. Funny to pretend to be you.”

For a moment Haruichi’s mind wipes out, blank sizzle-white radio static. Then Ryousuke makes a break for the car as Kuramochi lunges to catch him around the waist, a daring ballroom dip, and Haruichi slides out of the shadows, clutching a sleek wooden bat. Ryousuke ducks a mean right hook, jams an elbow into Kuramochi’s solar plexus, but in a flash of color Kuramochi cuts across the garage floor to block the driver’s side of the car, impossibly fast, metahuman fast.

Haruichi almost stumbles; even Ryousuke seems surprised, a flicker of interest darting across his face.

“Got a problem?” Kuramochi flashes Ryousuke a fierce grin, one hand curled over the door handle and the other wrapped around his stomach, protective. “I run fast, so what?”

“How did you figure it out?” Ryousuke asks sweetly, evading a wild swing. “Verbal tic, body language, do you have another meta?”

Haruichi ducks under a set of shelves, tracking bits and pieces of their movement through the steel layering. “Sanada counts with his fingers, he’s shit at keeping track,” Kuramochi snarls, caged against the car. “What’s the point, what’s your angle?”

“Well, there isn’t really one,” Ryousuke says. “We do it because we can.”

Like a dark curtain of water, Haruichi’s shadow parts over Kuramochi from behind. The resounding thwack of bat against flesh echoes in the open concrete space. Ryousuke follows up with a well-aimed kick, and as Kuramochi goes down Haruichi meets his eye, catches the trailing edge of anger mixed with something incomprehensible in his face.

Vaulting into the front seat, Ryousuke coaxes the engine to life. A few seconds later they're careening onto the street, tires screeching and inertia blowing back like leaves peeling off of a branch, the acrid sting of cool air mixed with grit.

“That was too close, Brother,” Haruichi sighs, looking back to check on Kuramochi. Ryousuke’s still disguised as Sanada, but Haruichi’s face is already shifting into the guise of a junior high schooler, chubby cheeks and wobbly chin. "He's fast, once he gets up he'll follow us.”

“Mmmmm,” Ryousuke hums, now an exact replica of their paternal grandfather, a small wrinkly man swamped in an oversized T-shirt. Pulling up by a crowded cafe, he swiftly yanks on a flower print button-down and rolls up the cuffs of his too-big pants. “Nothing to worry about. Is there a point in running fast if you don't know which direction you should be going?”

They nab a table where they can barely be seen, concealed behind the fronds of a large potted plant. As per request Haruichi pulls out a chair for Ryousuke, who argues, “I'm an old man now, aren't I? I deserve material comfort.”

Grandpa-Ryousuke’s eyes are full of dark humor, his voice worn and soft like crushed gravel. When he speaks, he pats Haruichi’s hand in a gesture so achingly familiar that it sends tiny white goosebumps skittering over Haruichi’s skin.

“Kuramochi will see the car parked outside and hover by the curb. When he gets impatient, he'll come in to check whether we're still here or if we left in a second car. The only thing he'll be able to recognize is our clothes. If we sneak out while he's scanning faces, we'll lose him once we get on the highway and make some choice turns.”

“Because he won't know where to start looking,” Haruichi tentatively supplies, voice overwhelmed by another fresh wave of customers rolling in.

Grandpa-Ryousuke’s mouth takes on a smug tilt and Haruichi dips his head down to hide his grin.

“Grandpa, you always have the best ideas.”

 


 

iii. sugar in the dark

The air is nighttime wet-oil slick with fog on the wind, gasoline stains in the concrete, late evening shutdown hour. Youichi closes shop most days, Sanada opens whenever he doesn’t have other commitments, and in their free time they struggle through Raichi’s homework with Raizou coaching from the couch. It’s not a bad life, Youichi thinks, hosing down the floor. A part of him will forever be anchored to this place, Raichi and Raizou arguing over tonight’s take-out in their living quarters upstairs, alley cats and the silvery sound of their footsteps on corrugated tin roofs.

A couple of days ago, they’d found Sanada’s car abandoned out in Sagamihara, an hour’s drive from the garage’s base in Yokohama. The LSDs and coilovers had been left behind; Sanada’s pay and Youichi’s carefully-integrated engine mods had not.

“At least they saved us a couple of presents,” Sanada had observed, sporting an egg-sized bruise on the back of his head. Youichi hadn’t managed a response--I lost them, he’d wanted to say, lost sight of them, people like me, people like me and Raichi. It was like the world had shifted under his feet and he hadn’t moved with it, carpet burn on his knees, a bright red rash under his skin. 

And now the tire marks from two weeks ago won’t come out, two ragged train tracks dividing the length of the garage floor. Maybe Youichi doesn’t want this chapter to close here. Maybe he wants to see their real faces, learn their real names. Or maybe he’s driving himself into a dead end, the skeleton of his attention span laid flat beneath his feet and the burnt-in tire skid, its little bones disorganized and disassembled.

“Shop still open?” somebody asks, not too far away.

Youichi’s head jerks up and the hose splatters water over his shoes. “Shit--no, sorry ‘bout that,” he answers, flustered. “We’re seven to five weekdays, eight to six weekends.”

Stranger-Danger’s kind of small, with smiling eyes and a smiling mouth and a lot of knife-sharp something concealed in that soft build. “That's fortunate. I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

Youichi clears his throat, scuffing his heel over the segmented tire marks. There could also be an arrest warrant in the front seat compartment. “You wanna schedule an appointment or something?”

Stranger-Danger’s face shifts and wavers into Sanada’s face, then back. A spark of visceral understanding shoots up Youichi’s spine like an electric charge, better than any caffeine shot, and he’s already heading toward the car when the engine starts to purr, a warning to stand off, stay away.

“Finish closing up,” Stranger-Danger says, simultaneously sweet and commanding, and Youichi’s half-pissed and half-intrigued by the attitude, the gently mocking smile, the conflict of motive.

“What do you want, why’re you here?” Youichi waves the hose like a viable weapon, except it snags on a corner and won’t unravel itself. “Oh, fuck, c’mon--”

Idly, Stranger-Danger rests his chin in his palm. “You’re not curious?”

Youichi turns off the hose and swears a little more. “The hell d’you mean? I should tell Sanada--”

“You’ve met other metahumans, then?”

The word, magnetic, sinks between them like an iceberg looming in the dark.

Shucking off his work apron, Youichi nods his head once, curtly. “Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“Yeah, kind of, they don’t like to talk about it, alright?”

“Unlike us,” Stranger-Danger prompts, the glimmer in his eyes bright and aware.

“You stole Sanada’s--”

“And you sell illegal aftermarket car parts. Your friend also tattoos without a license, and commits income tax evasion.” Stranger-Danger raises both eyebrows at Youichi’s silence. “We’re all common criminals around here, aren’t we?”

The car is red and unsubtle, a machine that proclaims its presence as much as its owner demands instant recognition.

“It’s alright to want to know,” Stranger-Danger says, reassuring. “I do too.” He’s got a voice as smooth and velvet as a lullaby, but there’s a double-edge buried within all that promise, Youichi knows. Youichi can feel it.

“Lemme get my stuff,” Youichi grumbles under his breath, half-sold and guilty for it, too far gone and too lonely to care. “This doesn’t mean I like you!” he adds hastily, unzipping his blue work uniform.

Stranger-Danger inclines his head in skeptical acknowledgement. As Youichi disappears into the back room, he barely catches the sharp-fragile edge of Stranger-Danger’s smile, like he’s in on some great cosmic joke that Youichi wants desperately to be in on, too.

 


 

iv. deep time, passing

“Would it kill you to give me more than ten minutes’ notice,” Youichi complains without real heat, throwing his bag into the back of the car. Ryousuke simply gazes back, tips down the edge of his glasses to give Youichi a shrewd stare, and Youichi struggles to maintain a straight face before breaking out into a grin.

“I came on a whim,” Ryousuke responds serenely, rolling up the windows. “Whims don’t give notices. Whims give head-starts.”

“Don’t get what you're talking about, but it’s good to see you anyway.” Youichi rubs the back of his neck, feeling Sanada and Raichi’s curious glances boring into his head. When he sneaks a peek over his shoulder, Sanada flashes him a distant two thumbs-up. “Hey, so is it okay that they know?”

“Specificity, please,” Ryousuke murmurs, guiding the car onto the main road.

“They know I’m seeing someone--”

“Seeing?”

Youichi drops his head to the dashboard with a thud. “Cut me some slack, man, I’ve had a long day.”

Ryousuke’s voice is tinged with amusement. “They don’t know who I am, though.”

“Nah. I can be subtle too, c’mon.”

Turning his face to the side, Youichi can see Ryousuke reflected in the window, the passing streetlights upright and stern, cutting the world into separate frames.

“Does it matter if they do know?” Ryousuke asks, tone and expression indecipherable.

The things that Youichi’s learned about Ryousuke can be counted on both hands plus a foot, give or take a toe. What Youichi really wants is to understand, to understand what it means for Ryousuke to drive half an hour from YNU to drag Youichi out for food, what it meant for Ryousuke to casually fork over Sanada’s stolen profit like he and Haruichi hadn’t fought tooth and nail to get away with it.

Explaining what happened had been complicated and awkward--“So the guy who took my money hunted you down to give it back?”--but Sanada was family, family came first, and Youichi got to walk away feeling two-thirds less guilty for fraternizing with the enemy. Ryousuke might’ve known what Youichi needed, but the question was what Ryousuke wanted to achieve, what he saw in Youichi then that he sees in him still.

“D’you want me to tell ‘em?” Youichi tries, eyeballing Ryousuke for a reaction. The orange lights paint the deep curves of Ryousuke’s face green and black, his hair a rusty peach. “I didn’t know if you wanted--I didn’t know if you wanted me to give them your name, ‘cause of the car thing. I guess it’d be kinda cool for Raichi and Haruichi to meet--”

“You mean, like a play date?”

The car glides to a comfortable stop at a red light while Youichi splutters and laughs. Ryousuke smiles with a hint of teeth and continues, “I’m sure Haruichi would like to meet Todoroki Junior. He’s got a meta too, hasn’t he?”

“Ryou-san, you’re gonna destroy me someday.”

“That’s the plan,” Ryousuke agrees, and adds, “I’ll bring Haruichi along next time.”

“I--sure. Yeah. Do that. Or not, I gotta check if Raichi’s got baseball practice, and...” Youichi closes his eyes and leans his head against the cool glass of the window, the undersides of his eyelids catching orange, red, purple lights. “Look--Ryou-san... I’ll tell ‘em if you want.” The low hum of cars and motorcycles reverberates in the silence. “Ryou-san?”

Ryousuke sounds light, somewhat indifferent. “That’s your decision, isn’t it?”

“I want to know what you want,” Youichi insists. The vehicle lurches into motion, lines of shadow passing up and over the windshield and dashboard. “Give in a little, Ryou-san. Give in a bit.”

 


 

v. to bring joy

Raichi’s got the widest eyes. They’ll look like his father’s eyes someday, Haruichi predicts, all the wild leonine edge of them distilled and refined into the purposeful focus of a man who knows where he wants to be and how to get there.

Haruichi doesn’t know where he wants to be yet. And Raichi, as Haruichi discovers, doesn’t either.

Operatively they’re in the library, huddled in a corner while Ryousuke and Kuramochi peruse the movie section a couple of rows down. Haruichi’s got J-STAGE pulled up, searching online academic databases for last month’s scientific papers, but Raichi’s fidgeting with a baseball glove below the table, picking at the stitching and eying the window like he’d do anything to be out on the field, the brim of his cap stained with sweat.

“What--are you looking…” Raichi begins exaggerated stage-whisper and stutters out into silence, eyes fixated on a gleaming coffee stain on the desk.

“Yes?” Haruichi says kindly.

Raichi just shrugs a shoulder, miserable.

Haruichi frowns. “Are you missing baseball practice?”

“No, I--... day off.”

“Ah.” Haruichi waits for a response and receives nothing. “What position do you play?”

“Third--” A little too loud; heads turn and Raichi flushes to his ears, slouching into his hoodie, lips a thin line. “Third base. And. Sometimes pitcher.” Hope blooms on his face. “Do you, uh, do you also?”

“Brother and I like to play second base.” Before Raichi can follow up Haruichi hastily adds, “I’m not a part of a club, though, so I don’t think we’ll ever have an official match with each other--”

“But it’s--do you like it?” Raichi twists the end of his sleeve, unbearably earnest. Haruichi takes note of the frayed edges and mentally records the gesture as Raichi’s focusing strategy: twist, unwind, pull, repeat.

“It’s my favorite sport,” Haruichi confesses, giving away his first card. Raichi blinks twice, fast, and Haruichi feels the disappointment as keenly as he did when he chose the journalism club instead. “Did Kuramochi tell you? About what Brother and I can do.”

“You’re shapeshifters,” Raichi supplies, intent.

“Yes, exactly. When I was a first-year I was working on controlling it, like Brother did when he was a first-year. So imagine: a ball flying at you, maybe one hundred forty kilometers per hour, or a surprising play, or a moment of exhaustion, and your body reacts the way it wants to react--like a reflex, a tendon pulling on a muscle. It chooses the best available option--and suddenly you’re standing on the field with an extra couple of inches in height or a few less, two different hands and mismatched feet.” Haruichi blushes under Raichi’s unwavering stare. “I have it under control now. It was more of a problem for me than for Brother. But back then, we had no other choice. Dorm life was also an issue--I still transform in my sleep if my dreams are especially vivid, it’s really uncomfortable.”

“I’m--” Raichi swallows his eagerness, backpedals a tad. “D’you know what I am? My--”

“No, Brother didn’t tell--”

“I can talk real loud,” Raichi blurts out, voice rising. “Not--wait.” He holds up a hand. “Not like other people, like you and... I mean--I can… when I found out--I thought I was talking normally--but I.”

“When you found out?”

“I… was four, Dad was in the garage working on a car, and I stepped on--” Raichi winces. “Something that hurt--and I, I opened my mouth to scream--and all the windows just went.” He sweeps an arm across the table animatedly. “Boom. Glass everywhere. And another time I messed up ‘cause I got excited and Dad’s ears started bleeding and stuff and we had to go to the hospital and everything and the ER was asking for details and I didn’t wanna say anything ‘cause I was so--I didn’t wanna--I.” He stops.

An idea clicks into place. “It’s hard to train yourself when every time you speak--”

“‘Cause people’s ears are gonna,” Raichi starts, and drops his eyes. “Gonna explode or something.”

“Ah.”

Much to Haruichi’s surprise, Raichi turns bright red. “Sorry. Sorry, didn’t mean to, like--uh--”

“No, no, I understand,” Haruichi says, and really, he does, he gets it. He’s never met another metahuman his age, both third-years in high school, and it’s strangely magnetizing, like two opposite charges moving toward each other across a plane of words that want to be said, confessions that want to be acknowledged. “Thank you for--for telling me.”

“Mmmh.” Raichi returns to twiddling with his sleeves, eyes darting between Haruichi’s face and the ground. It had never occurred to Haruichi that a meta could behave as Raichi’s did, modifying things outside of the body, outside of immediate touch--

Haruichi shoots up very very straight. “Hold on--do you know what this means?”

“N--no…?”

“It means--” Haruichi tilts his chin to the side. “Ochiai Hiromitsu’s closed circuit theory, have you heard of it?” When Raichi shakes his head Haruichi’s fingers start flying over the keyboard, tap-tap-tapping away. “It’s a theory on metahumans--in his paper on entropy, chaos theory, and meta, Ochiai Hiromitsu coined the term ‘closed circuit’ to describe how meta--here we go, his website--it says ‘how meta involves the energy within a metahuman’s domain of influence’.”

Raichi sends Haruichi a perfectly blank look.

“As in--a metahuman’s ‘domain’ consists of their body, which is itself a system of energy, and anything they happen to be touching, though whether a metahuman can affect what they’re touching depends on the meta, of course, but what I’m saying is--you can affect things you don’t touch--” Haruichi slows down. “I wonder if sound waves count? But--am I going too fast or talking too much?” Raichi looks like a deer caught in headlights. “Ah, I’m sorry, it’s just--”

“Im--important,” Raichi attempts, unraveling a long gray string in his sleeve cuff.

“Yes, important. To me. But not to everyone.” Embarrassed, Haruichi waves his hands. “I’m not saying you have to care about it. I only wanted to share, you see, since--”

“Closed circuit means--things in your, uh, domain...” They’re silent for a moment. Haruichi cracks an encouraging smile. “Things in your domain are affected, so you--shapeshifter… your ears,” Raichi guesses, also shooting upright, alert. “Can you change--change your ears to not break, like--”

“We can practice,” Haruichi affirms. “In an abandoned shipping center, I’m sure there’s one somewhere near Yokohama. My father used to work as an operator in one that closed down in Yokosuka, so there’s another option. I can close off my ears, and hopefully you can’t bend metal...”

“Don’t think so,” Raichi says eagerly. “Do you think--can I learn--”

“Yes,” Haruichi says. “You can learn to control it. And you won’t have to worry about--”

“Blood--glass, and--”

“Yes--”

“No more--”

“Yes--”

The grin fights its way onto Raichi’s tanned face, battling for centimeter after centimeter, bright and bold and true.

(Haruichi has one equally big to match.)

 


 

vi. take me down

“They’ve been practicing together,” Kuramochi says as he digs into his omurice with gusto. “By the ports or something, Raichi’s been real cagey about where.”

Ryousuke watches him break the chopsticks neatly down the middle, peel off a stray fiber. It’s the small things with Kuramochi, the minute details, the fine print: a crescent-shaped scar on a knuckle where he’d put his fist to someone’s teeth, the careful curve of his hand against Raichi’s shoulder, how he’d grinned at the kid in the family restaurant where they’d ordered take-out and how the kid had grinned back.

“Think of it as their secret clubhouse,” Ryousuke suggests, propping his own bento against the steering wheel. “Telling us would be breaking the rules.”

They’re parked in an empty lot bordering the beach, the ocean one long seethe of glistening, lava-black tar along the horizon. From where Ryousuke is sitting, the dark outline of Kuramochi’s profile blocks the rest of the view, upturned nose and the gleam of his gelled hair backlit by streetlights.

It's not an altogether unflattering addition to the scenery.

“Did you know they’re doing their homework together?” Kuramochi asks, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. Ryousuke pretends that he didn’t zero in on the wet sheen of Kuramochi’s lower lip, like if he practices lying to himself he’ll lose the sensation on a hairpin turn. “Being in school stresses the hell outta Raichi, he withdraws and doesn’t engage. Doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want to stay. Just wants to get out and get on the field.”

“And why’s that?”

“I guess social factors, plus he’s afraid he’ll hurt someone if he says too much. People talk down to him a lot, don’t take the time to explain things.”

Ryousuke makes a neutral sound, the spiciness of his meal filling his mouth like a red hot balloon. “Pity he and Haruichi don’t attend the same school, then.”

“I mean, this’s good too, where they are now, what they’ve got. It’s something they both wanna try for,” Kuramochi remarks.

If Ryousuke likes the way Kuramochi looks at him (in this instant, all the time), he doesn’t voice it. 

“My,” he says instead. “Wise words from someone who’s been there and back.”

Kuramochi coughs, ears going red. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what I mean.” Kuramochi is cute when he's dancing around the subject, trying to repackage it into a topic he can talk about without saying too much. “What makes you want to try?”

“I--well.” Gruff, Kuramochi tugs up the sharp edge of his collar and scratches his nose. “My mom,” he says, after a second. “The Todorokis. Sanada--we kind of had a thing, but it’s whatever.” A pang shoots through Ryousuke’s stomach, a weird white-hot streak of envy. “And now I guess. I mean. You and Haruichi. Like--” Kuramochi shakes his head, bites the inside of his cheek. “Never mind, Ryou-san.”

Their conversations are seldom so quiet, the ceaseless push and pull of the waves swallowing speech, rewinding the clock, fast-forwarding.

Abruptly, Ryousuke says, “The first thing I did after I told Haruichi about my meta was steal.”

“What--?”

“I swindled a kid on the playground out of a bag of bokun habanero. Then I started pocketing homework solutions and licorice sticks, swiping things from the classrooms. I had better plans, bigger ideas, but soon Haruichi found his meta, and motivations changed.” Ryousuke pauses. “Don’t be mistaken: I still do what I want to do, when I want to do it. But sometimes, I try.”

Kuramochi’s irises are that cat-like golden color under the hazy half-light, pupils blown in the dark. “Why are you telling me this, Ryou-san?”

“That was a secret for a secret,” Ryousuke says.

“Huh.” The collar of Kuramochi's coat fails to hide the cut of his neck, the way his skin stretches over his Adam’s apple and the fragile mechanisms of his throat. The omurice sits in his lap half-eaten, chopsticks on the dashboard, and when Kuramochi opens his mouth Ryousuke cuts him off.

“I have another secret.”

Kuramochi turns to look at him, his expression trapped in that odd place between hope and reticence. “About what?”

“About something that I want to try.” Ryousuke feels the telltale headrush of a transformation, except he’s not changing, skeleton stable and strong. It’s the seed of a flower beneath the flesh, a challenge, a wish, an urge, and he reaches out with two fingers to catch the slope of Kuramochi’s jaw. “Something that I think you want to try, too.”

Ryousuke must have said the right things, picked the right lines, because Kuramochi’s gaze drops down to Ryousuke’s mouth and back. “I--yeah. I do. Are you--?”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Never been more sure,” Ryousuke replies, and stubbornly locks down on the part of him that insists on making this one count.

Kuramochi’s eyelashes flicker against his high cheekbones, handsome boy, and then he’s leaning in, eight seconds to bend forward and slot his mouth against Ryousuke’s, the taste of omurice and something distinctly Kuramochi behind it all. Normally Ryousuke would’ve been disgusted if not vaguely put-off, but the cautious way Kuramochi puts his hand on the back of Ryousuke’s neck fascinates him, reels him in like a silver fish on the line, flashing scales and high arc of a fin.

Flushed a sweet shade of pink, Kuramochi pulls back like he’s the one drowning. “So what’s the verdict,” he says, breathless and well-kissed. “Do I get a ten outta ten or what?”

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Ryousuke admits. “A temporary score of nine.”

That was too close, Haruichi’s voice says, emerging from a hidden pocket of memory, too close, Brother, and Ryousuke knows he’s at the knife-thin edge of the line he’s always toed, the balance beam of caring too much and caring too little.

Kuramochi glances at him, once, twice. “Your mouth tastes like spice,” he mumbles, and wets his lips.

“If you don’t like it, then don’t do it again,” Ryousuke casually advises, but Kuramochi jerks his head to the side in clear disagreement.

“Ryou-san.”

“What now?”

“Nothing.” He rests his cheek on Ryousuke’s shoulder and laughs, three half-step notes one after the other. “Ryou-san.”

His warmth is distracting, though the weight of him feels so very right.

Ryousuke sighs and brushes his hand over Kuramochi’s side.

“I hear you,” Ryousuke says, and Kuramochi wordlessly winds his arm around Ryousuke’s waist, holding onto him, heart pounding so hard Ryousuke can feel it as if it’s right against his own, two precious rhythms unfurling.

 


 

vii. wayward birds

At around two in the morning, a red car pulls up in the driveway and Youichi steps out, pulling on his coat. Shunpei watches from the garage as Youichi crosses to the driver’s side and ducks his head into the windowspace, hand braced against the roof. Two seconds pass before realization pings in Shunpei’s brain--lovebirds, he thinks--and he swallows down a laugh with a mouthful of beer.

Youichi’s still tracking the trailing tail lights of the car when Shunpei approaches, pressing an unopened can of Asahi to Youichi’s neck.

Youichi yelps. “Fuck!”

Shunpei waggles his eyebrows. “Well, were you?”

“Shut up,” Youichi grumbles ominously, swiping the can out of Shunpei’s hands. “Damn it, you scared the shit outta me.”

Snickering, Shunpei follows him to where Raichi’s hovering in the back entrance, blocking the stairs to the Todorokis’ apartment. “You were just too busy making eyes at the rear bumper of a car to notice.”

“Real funny, man, keep trying.”

“Some drifters came by asking for you,” Raichi hesitantly interjects, settling down next to Youichi on the step. He’s looking snug in his awful pink bunny slippers, and Shunpei can see the rough patchwork of callouses on Raichi’s hands, bumpy knuckles curled around a mug with a painted porcupine.

“They can drop by tomorrow if they want to.” Youichi pops the lid of the beer, concern winging over his face. “Are you both up ‘cause I was out?”

Raichi nods vigorously as Shunpei flips a switch above their heads to lower the folding garage door. “And ‘cause we were waiting for the details,” Shunpei singsongs, cupping a hand under Raichi’s elbow to move him to the side. “You figure out where you are yet? Friends with benefits, what?”

Youichi scoffs, but Shunpei can read the telltale signs of hesitation in the set of his jaw. “Nah, man. We’re just--cool.”

“Cool,” Shunpei echoes, unconvinced. Raichi looks between them like a small rabbit caught between two dead ends, no exits in this one-way street, and Shunpei jostles him with his knee to let him know it’s not going to be a fight or a struggle; they’re okay.

“I know what I want,” Youichi says, bouncing his leg impatiently. “And I’ve got what I want.”

Shunpei waits. “There’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere.”

“But I--” Youichi sighs. “I dunno if what I want is what he wants.”

 


 

viii. is this the world you meant

“You’re a good fuck,” says Ryousuke, reaching over with a half-finished cigarette between index and ring finger. His eyes are almost black in the dim and something in his face seems to be laughing. “Light me up will you, my ember’s burning out.”

Youichi obliges him, striking the match on the tip of a thumb.

“Does that ever hurt?” Ryousuke asks.

“Nah.”

“You always smell like ash.”

“Gasoline and soldering iron,” Youichi corrects.

“Have you ever tried that trick with other flammables?” Ryousuke’s gaze is dangerous and inquisitive, unsated by sex. “Run so fast the friction started a fire?”

Chagrined, Youichi rolls onto his stomach. “I’m not starting a getaway explosion for your next heist, if that’s your aim.”

“You’re a walking torch,” Ryousuke replies vaguely, sucking on his cigarette and smiling. He has small white teeth and just glancing at the corner of his lip makes Youichi want to kiss him. “Besides, it was a fair question.”

Youichi grunts, face half-buried in his pillow.

“Pessimist,” Ryousuke teases, stroking Youichi’s spine with the knuckle of his cigarette hand. “We know what we’re doing.”

Youichi feels the barest scrape of teeth against his backbone and strains to catch a glimpse of Ryousuke, a smear of pink where his peripheral vision peters out into darkness. “Want to know what you want,” Youichi grumbles, quieter than he means to be.

Ryousuke’s breath is on the back of his neck, between his shoulder blades, disembodied and delicious. “What I want,” he says, “is to fuck you this time.”

Fuck zings through Youichi’s nervous system in a crash-sparks feel-good tingle and he reaches back to pull Ryousuke closer. “And what else?”

“Is there anything else?”

“What d’you want that you’re so scared to tell me, Ryou-san?”

Ryousuke lapses into bemused silence.

“Well,” he says. “Aren’t you good at taking a man apart.”

Youichi leans up to kiss the edge of Ryousuke’s sleek jaw. “Gimme a hint, something, anything. What’re you afraid of?”

“The little creepy-crawlies of the night.” Youichi groans and Ryousuke continues, the line of his teeth a thin silver crescent. “Skeletons in the closet. Appetizers, parking tickets, and bad rip-offs of The Shining.”

“Ryou-san--”

“And all the things you’re just as afraid to want.” Ryousuke pauses and Youichi stares back, a little wide-eyed. “Don’t look at me like that. Is that really so shocking?”

“What am I afraid to want?”

“Why don’t you figure it out before you ask me the same question?”

Youichi touches Ryousuke’s forearm, tracing untouchable inside skin, purple grapevine veins. “I don’t--I don’t want anything to change. Between us.”

After a beat, Ryousuke inquires, oddly gentle, “Is it so bad that things already are? Changing.”

“Not if they're changing so you’re walking to me and not away.” Ryousuke’s expression washes open, a clean vulnerable wound waiting for the taste of blood. Youichi’s heart jackrabbits into his throat. “Shit. Ryou-san--”

“Is that a confession?” Ryousuke interrupts, the shadow of his upper torso falling over Youichi like a dark, silky curtain.

Twisting about, Youichi winds his clumsy fingers around Ryousuke’s wrist like a challenge, a plea. “What if it is? Then what would you do?”

The outside world speeds up as the inside world slows to a stop, Ryousuke’s soft mouth half-pursed around an answer Youichi isn’t sure he can handle. Three weightless seconds float off the clock, converted into eternity, and tomorrow Youichi will lay down his cards, let the morning tell him what he couldn't in the moment.

 


 

ix. wish fire would

Ryousuke has an hour-long lunch break between classes, which he typically chooses to spend with Tanba. They don’t have time for anything fancy, just an orange juice and a small homemade lunch, and halfway through his (terrible) fried rice, Ryousuke catches a glimpse of a leather-cut jacket and colorful high-tops. Upon second glance it’s clear it’s not Kuramochi: the hair is too light, the center of gravity too high, and Ryousuke doesn’t know why he feels disappointed until he remembers it’s been a week since he’s seen Kuramochi and promptly spills his drink on his sleeve.

Tanba gives him an odd look, passing a napkin over the table as Ryousuke tidies up, stemming the flow of orange with a miniature wall of tissues.

“Did you hear anything I said?” Tanba asks, and Ryousuke sends him a tiny beatific smile, the kind found on cherubs and garden gnomes.

“Something about game theory and the Kakutani fixed-point theorem.”

“That was about five minutes ago, Ryousuke.”

Ryousuke dabs at his sleeve in lieu of an explanation. It’s a cream-colored cardigan and it’ll clean out fine, but the stain bothers him anyway, like a memo he forgot to cross out.

Quietly, Tanba adds two more napkins to Ryousuke’s mini-fort. “Is this about where you’ve been going in the dead of night?”

“You sound like my scores are suffering for it.”

Tanba flushes. “I’m not worried about that,” he objects, “I’m worried about your mental--well-being, or something. You’re distracted, it isn’t like you.”

“Just as distracted as you get when what’s-his-face wanders by,” Ryousuke drawls.

“That’s not what we’re talking about.” Tanba frowns. “I thought it was going well. You looked--”

Ryousuke would rather not think about how he looked, and smiles at Tanba to communicate his meaning. After a beat of resistance, of friction, Tanba relents.

“Please be kind to yourself,” Tanba says at last. “Not everything you want is a crime. I mean--it’s okay to want things, and accept them when they’re given.” He’s dedicated every inch of his face to his Tanba-esque resolute concern, the kind that expresses itself less in vocalized empathy than in small helpful gestures, and Ryousuke allows himself to be distracted by a muted ping from his phone.

“When are you dropping by, Brother?” reads Haruichi’s message. Ryousuke can see beyond the surface, realizes that Haruichi really wants to know if Ryousuke plans on visiting the garage anytime soon, and there it is, that sensation of vertigo, of the edge pulling closer on a tight turn, curb and streetlights tilting inward, the outer rim of a fishbowl.

“Give me time to think,” Ryousuke had said to Kuramochi. He’d wanted to see if the feeling would wash away with distance, if the moment had been a trick of the light, Kuramochi’s startled gaze and the warm line of his arm pressed to Ryousuke’s, elbow to shoulder; it sits now above his floating ribs, a persistent ache, some strange curious craving for things Ryousuke did not think he would ever need.

There is no answer so neat as to be tucked into the four corners of a digital message, a blinking icon hovering in Haruichi’s inbox, but Haruichi will understand.

“Tonight,” Ryousuke texts back. He closes his flip phone to find Tanba trying not to watch him too intently, eyes darting between his own meal and Ryousuke’s face, gauging his reaction.

“I’ll take your advice,” Ryousuke announces, sugar-sweet, “if you do too.”

Tanba opens his mouth to protest, but thinks better of it, teeth clicking shut.

“Double-edged sword, giving out advice,” he mutters, not without humor, and Ryousuke laughs.

“I’m serious. I’ll hold you to it.”

(It rains early evening, and the streets are soaked and humid, light trapped in puddles and the stuffy half-damp color of sidewalks. Traffic is bad, and by the time they pull up in the driveway of the garage, Kuramochi can be seen sitting under the awning with a can of unopened beer, still in his work uniform. Haruichi darts out, but not before sending a glance Ryousuke’s way, a surreptitious, shy look, and as Haruichi disappears into the house Kuramochi starts walking toward the driver’s side, hands stuffed in his pockets, trying not to slouch too much.

Ryousuke knows what Kuramochi will smell like, car exhaust and grease and sweat; how his hands will feel, half-gritty and stained, broad in the palm and a little sticky from the heat. The humidity’s making Kuramochi’s hair stay down, a forelock curling over his forehead, and before Kuramochi even comes close Ryousuke’s got the words at ready, the confession they need to hear: I missed you, I like you, and when Kuramochi says it back, fiercely, like a secret he’s been waiting to say, Ryousuke tells him, I know.)