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It hurt, being so deathly hungry all the time.

He’d gotten used to it over the years- it being the constant gnawing in his stomach, the burning hollowness of an empty cavity that refused to fill itself no matter how much food he put in it. Being hungry was a more common occurrence than being full, and it wasn’t for lack of trying to keep himself sated. No matter how much he ate, no matter how satisfied he felt after a hearty, home-cooked meal, the results were always the same- a searing ache he couldn’t quell just by ignoring (he’d tried, many times), and a fervent need to eat something, anything that would rid him of this persistent curse and let him live as a normal human being.

Food that lasted other children four to five hours lasted Niki less than one, and unfair as it was, that was simply the hand he’d been dealt. He’d long stopped dropping to his knees and curling up into balls on the floor to try to elevate hunger pangs- crying over his plight didn't do a thing to fix him, but dragging himself to his feet and learning to cook food on the fly certainly did. (Even if only temporarily.) Somewhere along the line, his greatest wish had gone from be a world-renowned chef or make some friends or get mom and dad to stay home with me for longer than a week at a time to, quite simply, always have a full stomach. It was the basic needs that mattered, he learned, and if those needs- or rather, the one important need- stubbornly chose to evade him at every turn, he’d just have to catch it and keep it close himself.

He learned to keep himself from the brink of death, devising ways to fight the many-headed monster back in this tiny apartment he called home yet lived in all alone, his weapons nothing but a spatula and a frying pan, a kitchen knife and a wok. It was a cold, cruel world, he knew- one his parents had ventured out to explore without him, and one he didn’t have the right to complain about. While battling feral creatures daily without a single ally by his side was lonely and almost futile at times, he survived every time. He proved over and over that while he didn’t exactly excel at it, he could fend for himself, so wanting to keep his parents- or rather, anyone chained to him in Japan was a fool’s errand.

He knew it, accepted it, went with it. Still, it stung in ways that weren’t merely physical on days where he was so weak he could barely stand, much less cook a meal to sustain himself. On days where everything seemed to go wrong and his stomach was woefully empty and he couldn’t even keep himself from stumbling on the way to the stove that he might never reach, the difficulty of this game of life skyrocketed by a hundred levels. Being alone in this battle was the norm, a known fact he had to live with, but even as he knew it was useless to hope...

He wished, with all of his heart, that he had someone by his side.

It would make a world of difference, he knew, just having someone nearby as backup. Not as backup to eat, contrary to common belief (cannibalism seemed to be frowned upon by the general population), but as backup to make sure Niki didn’t just keel over and die every couple of hours, when his stomach decided it was thoroughly finished with whatever food he’d gotten into it beforehand. Someone to hand him a packet of convenience store bread that would give him just enough energy to rev up the stove and whip up something proper, someone to talk to as he fried a piece of fish large enough for two people rather than just one. Perhaps even someone to idle time away with, after finishing a meal that satisfied a diner other than the chef himself, because really, it wasn’t much fun when the only person’s reaction to Niki’s cooking he could see was his own.

It was a simple request, one he made in his heart every time he saw a family walking down the street, parents linking hands with their children, or when he dragged himself out of bed amidst blinding pains curling in his stomach and fought to make it to the kitchen alive. To have someone. Simple as it was, however, he soon gave up on the request- it wasn’t feasible in the slightest, and he wouldn’t get anywhere just by hoping and wishing.

(And then he met Amagi Rinne, who damn well could’ve been the cause of both their own disasters on that fated summer evening, yet somehow became Niki’s saving grace instead.) 

•••

“Pour the oil in, just a little- just a little, Rinne-kun, that’s not-!”

“You don’t even know how much I was gonna pour in!” Rinne pouted at him in a manner that was most definitely fake- hell knew how many times Niki had fallen for the act before he finally caught on to the older boy’s antics- and Niki groaned loudly, grabbing the container of oil from Rinne’s hands and jabbing him aside with an elbow. He most certainly did know how much oil the redhead had been about to pour into the pan, the slant of the container having signified about one to two eighths. Which didn’t seem like a lot, sure, but considering the tiny amount of vegetables they were aiming to stir-fry with it…

“Way more than needed, that’s for sure,” Niki said flatly, quickly drizzling an appropriate amount of oil into the pan before capping the container and setting it aside. “Get me the vegetables?”

Rinne swiftly lifted a chopping board topped with the mishmash of greens and oranges, and with a nod of approval from Niki, neatly pushed the chopped-up kale, spinach and carrots into the hot pan. The vegetables sizzled pleasantly as Niki stirred them around with his trusty wooden spatula, eyeing their surprisingly uniform shapes and sizes as he tried to get them as evenly spread out over the heat as possible.

Rinne had taken vegetable-chopping duty today, and over the past month or so, Niki had learned that the teenager had brilliant knife skills, for whatever reason. Forget cutting up vegetables, Rinne could fillet fish and debone chicken with perfect ease, which was just plain weird, considering he was utterly hopeless at literally any other kitchen task. God, Niki hoped his new housemate wasn’t secretly a serial killer, or something.

Though even if he were, Niki mournfully supposed as he checked on the fire and turned it down a little, Niki wasn’t sure he’d have the heart or the willpower to throw Rinne out. The guy was a demon, as well as an absolute moron at times (he’d screamed and tried to kill the toaster the first time he heard it ding and pop bread out- a toaster, had he really never come across one in his life?), but at heart, he didn’t seem to be that bad of a person. Plus, while Niki would never admit it aloud, having Rinne around was some of the most fun he’d ever had. This once-lonely apartment was now always full of life, raucous laughter filling the air more often than not and the two of them fighting over the television remote becoming a common occurrence. Niki hadn’t felt this bright and warm all over in… how long, exactly?

And besides, Niki reasoned as he added a spoonful of oyster sauce to the vegetables and mixed it around, a serial killer would’ve already killed him by now. Probably. He hoped.

“Go check on the rice,” Niki instructed, and Rinne, who had just been starting to fidget owing to the boredom that struck him after being left alone for more than twenty seconds at a time, immediately perked up and moved towards the rice cooker. “If it’s looking okay, then you can start to scoop. The vege’ll probably be done in a few minutes.”

“Someone’s getting bossy,” Rinne teased as the soft pop of the cooker lid being opened met Niki’s ears, and the younger boy rolled his eyes. Always talking back, yet never without instigating fondness, somehow. He hummed softly under his breath as he poked at the now-shrunk vegetables to ensure they were cooked, before switching the stove off and grabbing a bowl from the nearby countertop. Smoothly plating the food and stopping by the microwave to grab their heated-up leftover pork from the previous night, Niki ceased his tune to stare at Rinne- who was staring right back at him , eyes slightly wide and rice cooker still completely open, letting steam out into the otherwise cool air.

Stepping towards their small dining table and setting the food down, Niki frowned at the redhead. “What is it? You’re letting the rice go cold, either scoop it out or close the cover so I can do it myse-”

“You have a nice voice.”

Niki blinked.

“I have a…?” Surely he’d misheard Rinne somehow- it didn’t make sense for him to say something like that, after all. A compliment, completely out of the blue, and about Niki’s voice, no less. “You’re going to have to say that again, Rinne-kun, I don’t think I-”

“You heard what I said,” Rinne snorted, grabbing the rice scoop and turning back to the cooker, finally getting to work. Niki felt his cheeks go slightly warm, and he was pretty sure the symptoms had nothing to do with the heat from the food, or all the electrical appliances they had running. “Keep up the whole modest act and I’ll never compliment you again, y’know?”

“I’m not being modest, I just-” Niki groaned, stepping over to retrieve cutlery from a nearby drawer in far more of a fluster than he cared to admit. “You’re being weird. Most people call my voice irritating, which definitely makes more sense. Ah-” he placed the forks and spoons at their ritualistic places, neat sets on opposite sides of the table- “that might just be when it’s paired with my personality, though.”

Annoying, the kids at school liked to declare, and Niki couldn’t really find it in himself to blame them. He was a strange one, he knew, a boy who never brought his parents around and couldn’t take hints and only ever talked about food, food, food. Stop talking, already- just the sound of your voice annoys me.

“I don’t think so.”

Hand reaching out to take a bowl of rice from Rinne, Niki froze. “You don’t think what?”

“I don’t think your voice is irritating.” Rinne gave the bowl he was holding a slight shake, as if threatening to drop it if Niki didn’t hurry up and take it. Niki darted forwards and grabbed the bowl from him at the speed of light, quickly getting the rice safely on the table, where it should be. By the time he returned his attention to Rinne, the older boy was busying himself with the rice cooker again, his back facing Niki as he spoke. “Your personality is- fine as well, for the matter. Don’t listen to people if they’re just being assholes on purpose.”

Rinne’s words came gruff, maybe even a little awkward, and Niki felt his lips turn upwards in a slight grin. He really isn’t a bad guy, huh. “So you’re saying I should never listen to you?”

“Wh- you fucking brat,” Rinne cackled, and then he was grabbing Niki’s shoulder and ruffling at his hair hard enough that Niki yelped, hurriedly smacking at Rinne’s insistent arm and trying to get away before his head damn near bruised from the force. Nope, nope, nope, Niki thought frantically as he gave Rinne a hard kick in the shins and the redhead let go of him with a laugh-mixed groan, grey hair slipping from Niki’s neat tie and falling over his shoulders as he hopped out of danger. I take it back, I take it all back. Amagi Rinne was a rude, terrible brute that Niki never should’ve picked up on that overheated summer evening, and Niki would likely rue the day he did until the very second he died. This, he was ultimately sure of.

(They ate dinner opposite each other at the dining table regardless, Rinne cracking jokes and Niki rolling his eyes as he redid his ponytail with the new hair tie Rinne had miraculously pulled from his pocket, as if he’d been waiting for the opportune moment to mess up Niki’s hair and present it to him all along. Rinne was never direct with his gifts, Niki had long learned, always preferring to aggravate Niki as much as possible before presenting them, as if he thought he needed a reason to be openly nice. What an absolute handful.)

(And yet this whole song and dance was something familiar, a constant Niki could always count on. Something he found he didn’t mind as much as he claimed, because this was them, he supposed- and he wouldn’t trade that for the world.)

(-except for the whole hair thing, of course. Niki would definitely, definitely trade that.)

•••

The television played on low volume, its moving images casting the rest of the small living room in steady colours and a gentle glow. A cooking show of some sort played onscreen, a handful of people weaving their way around one another in the wide, utterly dreamily equipped kitchen- Niki eyed the giant industrial oven a chef pulled open with ease, and felt as if his mouth might begin to water if he kept watching- the number of pastries that could fit in that glorious hunk of machinery and be baked to perfection all at once was delectable, and the fancy equipment the chefs had set up was nothing to scoff at, either. Maybe when Niki was older, he’d be able to get his hands on apparatus like that, working at some high-class restaurant uptown where the pay was good and he’d be able to sample whatever he wanted...

“Who’s the guy on the left?”

Niki blinked, snapping himself sharply out of his daydream- if it could even be called that, with the sun having long ended its descent outside their window, the sky once streaked with oranges and reds now giving way to a plain, dark canopy of glittering stars- and turning to look at Rinne. “What?”

“That one.” The redhead pointed, and Niki followed the line of his outstretched finger to where a man was mixing an enormous bowl of what seemed like mascarpone and blue food colouring onscreen. How the cook had enough arm strength to pull that off manually, without the use of an industrial mixer, was beyond Niki. “His clothes are different from everyone else’s, aren’t they?”

It seemed that they were. “That’s the sous chef,” Niki replied, shifting a little to cross his legs on the couch, Rinne obnoxiously taking up at least half the space where he was sitting a few inches away. The piece of furniture was swamped in throw pillows of all shapes and patterns as per usual, and Niki grabbed one to hug to his chest, absent-mindedly twirling a pink tassel between his fingers. “Different kitchens have their chefs in different colours, but in this one, the head chef’s in white, and the sous is in black. The underlings have stripes.”

“The hell is a sous chef?” Rinne said, looking vaguely revolted as his tongue stumbled over the foreign syllables, and Niki snorted. That earned him a sloppy swat over the head, which he neatly dodged, fighting back a grin at Rinne’s don’t push me, brat expression.

“He’s sort of like- the head chef’s assistant? You do know what a head chef is, right? Hey!” Niki quickly ducked as a pillow soared over his head in response to the tease, and really, his instincts were improving every additional second he lived in the same apartment as Amagi Rinne. “Don’t do that, you’ll dirty it- anyway,” Niki stressed as he reached over the edge of the couch to grab the pillow and chuck it right back at Rinne’s face, the older boy catching it deftly (damn his ridiculously good reflexes) and tossing it aside, “the sous takes care of things when the head is gone, and does stuff like supervising the lower rung chefs. Along with their usual cooking duties, of course.”

Rinne gave a soft hum, eyes fixed wonderingly on the television screen. Even after over a year of living with this once-stranger, Niki still found it slightly astounding, the way Rinne didn’t know the simplest things and was lacking in knowledge that Niki himself- and surely the majority of society- found obvious. But everyone was different, Niki supposed, and Rinne was Rinne. He certainly had a wide range of painfully obscure knowledge to make up for what he didn’t know- things like traditional clan rituals or weaving headache-inducing amounts of thread together into colourful bracelets they now both wore each day (Rinne said he hadn’t intended for them to match, and Niki was willing to give him the benefit of doubt), or how to effectively hunt fowl from a whopping three hundred metres away. Rinne’s natural resourcefulness paired with that quick mind and a silver tongue of his was… quite something, to say the least.

“So, kind of like the second in command?” Rinne clarified, something alight in his eyes the way there usually was when he’d gained some new piece of information, be it how to work a blender or, as the situation currently stood, the blanket definition of a sous chef. A grin curved at Rinne’s lips, not the sinister or scheming sort, but the type that was simply bright and filled with pockets of joy, the way the smile of an ordinary teenager should be. “That makes way more sense. I know Hiiro’s built to be something like that- y’know, back at my hometown, there was this one time we snuck out into the forest in the middle of the damn night, and he-”

The words came to an abrupt halt as Rinne froze, eyes going glassy and nearly achingly blank for a moment or so, hand utterly still where it’d lifted to gesture alongside the storytelling. This happened from time to time, when Rinne accidentally said something a little too personal, a little too close to home. Niki stayed graciously silent, and then the hand was falling back down onto the pillow Rinne had grabbed for himself, and the older was blinking himself out of his temporary stupor to continue on an entirely different tack, as if to make up for his slip-up. “Anyway. What I’m saying is that those two-” he waved a hand at the television screen, which now showed both the head and sous chefs working side by side- “look kind of like us in the kitchen, huh? I’m your sous.”

“I… guess?” What Rinne was saying did make sense, never mind Niki’s not-so ironclad principle to never let his already egotistical housemate know when he was right. “We’re not a bad team.”

“Yeah? You should totally marry me, Niki!” Rinne laughed, and sure, this was probably just another on-the-fly crack at diverting Niki’s attention away from the more important things Rinne had said, but jeez Niki felt his cheeks heating up and mind being overrun with fluster anyway. The older boy continued, either completely oblivious to his plight (unlikely) or simply not giving a crap and choosing to delightedly worsen it instead (far more likely). “I’d treat you right, y’know. You wouldn’t find a single person better than me out in this shitty world.”

“I’m pretty sure I could,” Niki spluttered, never even mind the fact that Rinne would only be turning just eighteen in a month or so, and was definitely, supremely jumping the gun with this. They were still centuries away from being at marriageable age, no matter how many times Rinne decided to joke about it. (Niki wondered, briefly, what exactly the customs for marriage were back at Rinne’s hometown.) “The other day, you headlocked me right outside the grocer’s for literally no good reason, I nearly died-”

The redhead looked scandalised, or at least vaguely affronted at Niki’s statement, and the crystal clear what the hell expression on his face made Niki snort. “I wouldn’t have killed you, I only did it ‘cause that weird dude who always hangs around the alleyway was looking at you like some sort of meal, or something! Like hell I was gonna let him eye you up like that and do nothing!”

That- was news to Niki, actually. He knew his observance had the tendency to take a dive when the prospect of food was involved, but he didn’t think he was that unobservant. A slight shiver went down his spine at the thought of the creep who usually loitered around stores down that street in particular, and he was suddenly very, very glad that he had Rinne around for company. Still- “You could’ve taken my hand, or just told me like any other human being would’ve!”

Rinne rolled his eyes spectacularly, turning back to the television as if he saw the point in Niki’s words but just refused to admit it. “Well, that wouldn’t have been any fun at all, would it?”

“Not for you, sure,” Niki grumbled, shifting a little closer to his fellow warm body on the couch. Their heater had conked out somewhere around mid-autumn, and now it only worked when it felt like it (just like a certain someone Niki knew)- so it was cold, on these blasted nights where the wind howled against glass panes and the moon was at its highest in the sky. Rinne seemed to think so as well, if the way he ruffled Niki’s hair and slung an arm around him to pull him closer was any indicator of it. A blanket was retrieved from the corner of the couch and shaken open to tug over them both, as was the norm, and then all was quiet again, save the ever-present warbling of the show onscreen and the faint chirping of crickets through the roof.

(The next day, and all the days after that, the two of them walked to the grocer’s hand in hand, and who had reached out first was of little importance. The little habit extended to them going anywhere, really, and Niki didn’t question or mind it the way he thought he might have in the past- the gesture made his heart warm, somehow, brought an instinctive smile to his face as his heart sped up and stayed comfortably steady all at once.)

(Maybe it was just heartburn. Yeah, that was it- he often heard that he scarfed down his meals far too quickly, after all.)

•••

Their relationship changed the same way the seasons did- slowly, predictably, yet still with countless elements Niki never would have expected, because nothing involving Amagi Rinne could ever be given the satisfaction of being fully predictable.

It was quick presses of lips to cheeks or foreheads before leaving for work, and hugs that came with smiles that were a little warmer in nature rather than inciting suspicion with their roguishness. It was the two of them wordlessly abandoning their equally unspoken rule of you stay on this side of the bed, and I stay on the other, in favour of curling up against each other for warmth and even comfort, on nights where minds were restless and sleep didn’t come easy. It was arms wrapping snugly around his waist from the back as he tended to food on the stove, and him not shaking them off even when a head moved to rest on his shoulder as well, soft yawns and quiet words tickling his skin pleasantly as he poured batter into saucepans, or flipped eggs the way he always did.

Things changed, and yet they never discussed it- never felt the need to discuss it, rather. Groundbreaking as all this probably had to be for other people in their own relationships, Niki couldn’t find it in himself to be fazed at all. Perhaps it was an aftereffect of living with Rinne for so long, but these small, steady changes were never a big deal- some were a little startling when they first appeared, sure, but he took it all in stride. Opposing any of this had never occurred to him, and when he did think about the reason, he found that it was probably because he wasn’t actually opposed to any of this at all.

He quite liked it. He quite liked Rinne. (That second bit was something he still questioned his sanity about from time to time, but he’d more or less come to accept it.) Being around the redhead had brought him some of the brightest memories he’d ever had, even if they came in the form of simple (harrowing) things like chasing each other down crowded streets because Rinne had made off with one of Niki’s sandwiches like the demon he was, or kicking at each other beneath the dinner table as they ate together amidst banter and tease that never eased up even as they grew older. In a place where he’d once thought he’d be left completely alone for a sizeable portion of his life, Niki had found a constant- someone he’d brought into his home of his own accord, yes, but a constant nonetheless.

It was a pity, he supposed, that all good things had to come to an end.

The room was silent save the occasional pattering of raindrops falling from awnings onto rails, leftovers from the short downpour Niki had heard rather than seen, and his own breaths came quiet and laboured, only barely existent to his ears. The surface beneath him was hard and deathly cold, leeching every ounce of life from his straggling veins, and he wondered, not for the first time in his life, what it would feel like to die.

Maybe I’ll be finding out way sooner than expected.

The pain was ever-present, unignorable, poisoned barbs digging deep into his insides and dragging themselves over his internals in fits to scar and bleed. Being torn apart from the inside out wouldn’t be a pleasant way to go, but he’d always suspected that he’d meet his end this very way- curled up on his bedroom floor like a child who didn’t know any better but to go fetal, the position doing nothing to sate the hollowness of his cramping stomach that rendered him useless, immobile. Nails dug into the fragile skin of his palms, his body burning and trembling as he begged for the pain to stop, to at least allow him to stand, maybe even crawl over to the other side of the room where he kept his emergency rations, but his very existence spat on itself and refused, damning itself to the fate of having to stay. 

(All alone in this empty, empty room, as if there was no one but his own self to fight the world with- just the way it used to be. In hindsight, he should have seen this coming- the chicken and the egg, and all that. Life was a never-ending cycle, and no matter how many times you walked a path of a circle, you’d always end up at the exact same point you started at. He’d started off alone, and he’d die the exact same way as a complimentary dish to match. Having understood this for years, he’d long come to accept it.)

(He didn’t want to accept it.)

A soft click reverberated through the seemingly endless space of this tiny apartment, the minuscule sound bouncing and echoing off walls and floors until it reached Niki’s ears. Then came footsteps, ones that Niki had long learned were naturally quiet in nature, owing to a particular upbringing that put worth in these sorts of things. He liked to think that he was one of the very few people who knew about this- Rinne tended to mask his hunter-like abilities beneath booming steps and boisterous tones, and Niki would know, since he was the redhead’s very first test subject. Rinne had scared him half to death countless times during their first month or so living together, never making a single sound even when crossing the creakiest of floorboards, and- upon being faced with Niki’s inevitable reactions- had changed the way he moved to fix it.

(The new ways of moving and carrying himself had then seemed foreign to Niki, however- as if he was living with an entirely different person. He didn’t quite mind the noise, but it also seemed wrong, to have Rinne as good as walking on eggshells in what had gradually become their apartment, their home. So Niki had brought up the matter again, and just like that, he became aware of Rinne’s on and off switch- loud and attention-grabbing he remained among outsiders, but when it was just the two of them, his footsteps quietened and his behaviour grew a little less brash- a little more like the boy Niki had first met all those years ago, in ways that were familiar to Niki and not many else.)

(Along all of that, Niki adapted as well- he could map out Rinne’s movements around their home with just the barest of hints offered to him, things like the vibrations in the wooden flooring that sent aching darts through his head. This quiet, this familiarity- it was comforting, even as his chest felt hollow and his stomach cramped so badly it brought stinging tears to his eyes. Just a little longer, just a little-)

(-it’d be over, soon.)

Keys clinked into the bowl they kept by the doorway, and the door was shut, footsteps coming slightly louder and more distinct in their timbre. There was the sound of suction being pulled from its cups, perhaps magnets of opposite poles being woefully separated from their lovers- a sign of their fridge being opened, no doubt. (Help me, help me.) (You can’t speak, and even if you could, he wouldn’t be able to hear you.) Glass bottles clinked against plastic shelves, and goods were shifted around, packets rustling and dishes sliding across smooth surfaces. The fridge was shut, and then the barely-there footsteps padded down the hallway, in Niki’s direction. He wondered what time it was, where Rinne had been- perhaps at some gambling parlour he liked to frequent. When his housemate got lucky, Niki often found mysterious wads of cash appearing in his wallet, or pinned under things on his bedside table, and he dimly wondered if that would happen again today. 

He wondered if he’d survive long enough to find out.

It felt as if his insides were shriveling up and curdling in some sadistic ritual, sending slivers of pain through his veins and spreading to the rest of his limbs, making him gasp and tremble and curl up even tighter, if possible. Moving hurt, but not moving would surely be fatal- if he didn’t do something to alleviate the sheer torture he was being wracked with, he’d die not only on an empty stomach, but utterly miserably while he was at it- and nobody wanted that. “Ni-ki, ” came a muted, singsong call, one that was commonplace yet unnaturally submerged beneath chants of it hurts it hurts it hurts and make it stop, make it stop and I’ll never ask for anything ever again. (That would likely prove itself to be a lie in the future, but Niki wasn’t enough of a saint to not use everything at his disposal if it meant getting to live.) A doorknob far above was twisted with a faint squeak, and then the door was being swung open, the sudden draft of air it brought making Niki shiver. “I got us groceries, and that weird-ass bread you like, it’s out on the- Niki!”

Footsteps thumped in evident haste, threatening to shatter the fragile world around his ears before hands gripped at his shoulders and shook him quickly, urgently. Niki winced, teeth gritting and eyes squeezing more tightly shut, the rough movements doing nothing to soothe the pulsing ache in his temples and the acrid burning amidst the pangs in his stomach. There was a litany of various swears, each muttered curse bringing something new and unique to the table as the points of contact disappeared and everything, everything disappeared for a brief moment, long enough for Niki to wonder if he’d been left all alone again- for good, this time. Before long, however, the hurried footfalls were back, along with the tantalising scent of something that made Niki’s stomach feel as if it was about to cave, yet also pried his eyes forcefully open and roused his failing senses. This smell, this smell...

An opened packet was shoved towards him with no small degree of urgency, and he found his fingers instinctively gripping the item and bringing it to his lips. One bite was followed by another, then another, and before he knew it the entire piece of food (sandwich?) was completely gone, nothing but empty wrapper crinkling in his hands to accompany the growl in his stomach that had, at the very least, calmed itself into something slightly quieter. The fog clouding his mind seemed to dissipate in the slightest, things beginning to fade back into focus and energy slowly coursing from his heart to his limbs at the bare minimum of paces, if he dared to think it. Blinking a couple of times to make sure his vision was properly behaving itself, Niki gingerly pulled himself up into sitting position- good, his arms and legs were working, too. This would, at least, be just enough to drag himself over to the kitchen and whip up a quick-

“The hell happened to your emergency food?”

Good question. Niki looked up at Rinne with a sheepish grin, the older male looking both disbelieving and a little like he’d toss Niki out a window if given a good enough reason. “I… didn’t have it with me?”

There was a loud, long-suffering groan, and then Rinne was dragging Niki into a bone-crushing hug, squeezing him so tightly Niki felt the air rush straight out of lungs in a single go. “Rinne-kun, don’t- I’m still hungry, so if you don’t let me go-”

“I brought dinner home,” Rinne grumbled, and oh, that was a pleasant turn of events. The redhead was blissfully warm, being someone who’d run hot since the day they’d met each other, and the comforting heat only drew itself up a notch as Rinne buried his face in Niki’s neck with a soft sigh. Usually, he might have complained about Niki’s hair tickling his face or getting into his mouth, but for whatever reason, he was quiet this time. “You aren’t doing a thing tonight, y’hear me?”

“Sounds good,” Niki laughed, because it really did. Cooking was his lifeblood, his passion- but at the same time, taking it easy after nearly starving to death was generally a welcome occurrence. If Rinne was adamant about spoiling him tonight, then Niki definitely wasn’t going to stand in his way. Leaning up to press a kiss to the former’s cheek was an instinctive action, as were most of the affectionate gestures the two of them had slowly grown into over the years- it had always been easy with Rinne, allowing himself to go with the flow (within reason) and let these sorts of natural reactions bud and bloom.

-or so Rinne would probably say. As for Niki, he preferred to liken this whole progression to a slow cooker- meat going in carefully, maybe even reluctantly at first, before its toughness gradually melted down into soft muscle and delectable warmth.

(Tantalising, delicious- maybe even his favourite.)

•••

“We’ve got a fucking crisis on our hands, boys!”

The words were hollered in a fitting accompaniment to the door of their practice room flying noisily open, hinges squealing like they hadn’t been oiled in years. Niki blinked, lifting his head from where he’d been searching up dinner-related things on his phone and let his gaze fall upon Rinne instead- Rinne, who had just barged into practice twenty minutes late with a large box firmly in his grip. Making a beeline for the table his housemate was sitting at, Rinne set the cardboard cube down with a surprising amount of care before darting right off to the shelves at the back of the room, clearly seeing no reason to give any further explanation.

Pulling himself up to his feet from what had to be the world’s most perfect (and possibly painful) split, Kohaku abandoned his stretches in favour of making his way towards the table, his fellow pastel-haired unitmate following. Niki himself leaned up to inspect the drop-off, peering inside the box and- ah, perhaps he didn’t need to worry about dinner ingredients, after all.

Delicately resting on a square of soft-looking cloth, a brown-chested bird lay inside of the box, small and frail and positioned at a rather odd angle- one of its wings was injured, Niki surmised. The creature’s bones twitched and only the barest of feathers managed to minutely flutter as it tried to take flight, but ultimately stayed chained down to the ground. A soft, forlorn titter left its tiny beak, and now that Niki was thinking about it, maybe this wasn’t the sort of bird people usually cooked for meals, but there was a first time for everything. There was a louder, far more boisterous call, then, coming from the opposite end of the practice room- “Guess what we’re gonna do with him!”

Kohaku tilted his head slightly to the side, eyebrows creased in evident thought as he surveyed the hurt bird. “Hunt it?”

“Kill it?”

“Eat it?”

Pausing his rummaging in the nearby shelf, Rinne turned to stare at the three of them, having the gall to look incredulous, of all things. “We’re going to save it, idiots.”

HiMERU raised an eyebrow, looking a little like he wanted to stick a finger into the box and give the bird a light poke to ascertain its remaining life force. “Are you aware of how to do that without worsening the situation?”

“Not the first critter I’ve dealt with,” Rinne said airily, waving a hand as he pulled a miniature spray bottle out of a shelved basket with his other. “I’ve got a kid brother who used to bring this stuff home by the bucketload. Birds, frogs, hounds, baby foxes- we’ll be fine.”

How the hell do you care for an injured frog, was followed by gross, and then a small smile that Niki couldn’t quite keep off his face as the redhead energetically made his way back to the table. He’d never forgotten the way Rinne used to clam up and go utterly quiet after letting something slip about his family, his life back home. The fact that he was able to talk about things like that so joyfully and openly now was… a relief, in some way. 

“Go get some water,” Rinne commanded, tossing the bottle to HiMERU with its cap already removed. “Make sure it’s clean and warm. We’re gonna spritz the lil’ guy really carefully- can’t be comfy being caked in blood like that, can it?”

“If birds feel it the same way humans do, it’s a mighty big no,” Kohaku muttered, looking at the bird darkly. “Gets all weird an’ sticky, and only worse when it dries. Absolute nightmare.”

That sounded- a little too personal for comfort, but maybe his unit members just had overactive imaginations as a whole. (HiMERU had left the room mumbling about how Amagi Rinne was the absolute bane of their existences and would lead them all to ruin, as well as the world to catastrophe, all while doing what the latter had asked him to, anyway.) Messy of a home the four of them were, they were still exactly that, so… “I could look up stuff for birds to eat. Even if we aren’t keeping him for long, it’ll be fun to figure out meals for him.” Was feeding chicken to a bird considered cannibalism? Maybe.

“Gotcha,” Rinne said with a wide grin, leaning over to plant a smacking kiss to Niki’s cheek before hopping up to greet a returning HiMERU at the door, nabbing the now-filled spray bottle deftly out of his hands. He tended to the bird carefully yet efficiently, and Niki had no doubt that he really did have experience in this sort of field. Maybe their unit leader secretly had a second calling as a veterinarian. An animal clinic-merged-restaurant, a food-providing vet…

“Niki-han. Did ya get drugged?”

Tearing his gaze away from Rinne’s unnaturally focused (yet soft) expression as he handled their little winged charge, Niki blinked over at their group’s youngest in turn. “I don’t… think so? Why?”

“You let our prized idiot kiss ya,” Kohaku said, glancing over at Rinne suspiciously for a good moment or so before turning back to the grey haired. “If he’s keeping ya hostage or usin’ brainwashing of some sort, you’ve gotta tell both me and HiMERU-han, hear me? We’ll bust you outta that dumpster and get this clown to the cops before ya even have the time to blink.”

“You guys’d better know that I have ears,” Rinne said loudly, evidently proving that he had a mouth, too. Carefully placing the bird back in the box, he fussed with the linings until satisfied and gave a triumphant hum, making his way out of the room- to wash his hands, Niki supposed. “Don’t touch the bird for a bit, let it chill out a little before we do anything else.”

He’d been so disguisedly polite, unnaturally proper when they’d first met- all formal words and serious expressions and every bit the image of a child who’d been forced to grow up far too quickly. It’d been strange to watch the way Rinne operated back then- and it still was, at times- but now, at least, Niki could sit in a room full of comfortable chatter and uncontrolled expressions with the knowledge that the redhead had found a sort of home here in the city- the exact same way Niki had found a home in him. It wasn’t perfect (none of them were), and conflict would rise and fall just as easily as fire being lit on a burning stove, but even amidst all of that...

Maybe, just maybe, he was glad he’d picked Rinne up all those summers ago. Fated evenings, fated lives-

-and then Rinne was sprinting back into the room and ambushing Kohaku with his mist bottle (“hey, there’s still some water in here!”) before being bodily tackled to the cold, hard floor (deserved), and the older male was screaming, making Niki whip his head around to stare in alarm- Kohaku had gotten their unit leader in a headlock while threatening to jab Rinne in the eyes with the muzzle of the spray bottle (also deserved), bringing about a round of undeterred laughter amidst pleas for mercy. Niki sighed, rolling his eyes as hard as humanly possible- he knew that Rinne was capable of breaking out of their youngest member’s hold if he really wanted to (though he also knew that Kohaku wasn’t going all out with his attack, as to keep everyone physically intact), but for whatever reason, Rinne stayed under siege. Exaggerated yowls, half-amused eye contact with their other remaining member in the room...

...yeah. This was home, alright.