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“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The sun.”

Ritsu blinked up at his older brother, and the bright, shining orb outside a window filtered with thin, lacy blinds. The sort of design an eight-year-old could never deign to understand or appreciate, Rei liked to say with laughter in his tone, the statement usually accompanied with a generous ruffle of hair. Eight-year-old Ritsu would huff, make a show of grumpily swatting the offending hand away, but deep inside, he never really minded- this was Rei, after all. His strong, reliable older brother, soon to be in middle school and far taller and more knowledgeable than Ritsu could ever be. (Always had been, always would be.)

The sun was beautiful, Ritsu had to admit. Elusively hidden behind the cover of soft, fluffy clouds, radiating a gentle warmth that Ritsu could feel when he pressed his fingertips against the glass before him. It brought light into this familiar, too-large bedroom of his, eased the loneliness when Rei was away for class or gatherings or whatever it was he did when he disappeared for hours at a time, leaving Ritsu all by himself in this otherwise empty space. Your body is weak, everyone always said, bringing with them sad smiles and pitying gazes. Stay in your room, and be careful not to venture outside. The sun will burn you, you know.

So Ritsu stayed. He stayed in the comfort of his bed, huddled under the artificial warmth of the covers, the only bit of real warmth he got to experience being hanging a hand out his window to feel the rays of sun on his skin, or curling up against Rei when his brother came to see him. Rei would always bring tidbits of information, things about the outside world that Ritsu might never get to experience for himself. He was all Ritsu had, in this sorry excuse of a home, but that was fine- Ritsu wouldn’t whine, wouldn’t complain. (Much.) His parents had better things to do than tend to a small, sickly child who got headaches within seconds of stepping outside, and really, his older brother had proven himself to be all Ritsu needed to create a world that wasn’t all that bad. He bore tales of science and fiction, things that Ritsu could always only scarcely imagine existed- just like what was happening now.

“They say that over a million Earths can fit inside the sun,” Rei said from where he was sprawled out over Ritsu’s bed, sheets kicked to the side long ago to make room for the both of them without overheating. Rei lay on his back, arms and legs nearly hanging off the bed as Ritsu sat in the corner of it, by the window that breached the rest of this shining world. “Weird, huh? And yet, they call the sun a star- it’s so huge, compared to the tiny twinkling ones we usually see. You’d never think the sun is something like that.”

Ritsu was familiar with the stars at nighttime- the pretty, blinking lights that adorned the canopy of the obsidian skies he could walk under without feeling a lightness in his head, a burning in his skin. The night was his friend, he’d learned throughout the years, while in contrast, the day was his most tenacious enemy. Or rather, the sun was.

Which was why… “Does it hate us?”

Rei blinked, turning his head to look at Ritsu. “Hate us?”

“The sun.” Ritsu let his gaze wander outside again, to the swaying trees and autumn leaves, the chirping birds and gleaming skies. The sun, who was being a little shyer than usual today, peeked out from behind chunks of cotton candy rather than being her blindingly confident self. (Ritsu didn’t mind the sun’s shyness- he preferred it, really.) “It’s a star, right? Stars are kind to us. Gentle. So why isn’t the sun the same?”

There was a beat of silence, during which Ritsu watched a group of boys his age run around the park storeys below, listened to them joyfully shout and call to one another as he waited patiently for an answer. It often crossed his mind that he’d like to be down there with those boys as well, laughing and playing whatever sort of game that seemed to involve kicking a black-and-white ball around- it looked bright, glittering, like something fun and precious Ritsu had never had the chance to know. He hoped he’d get a chance to know it, someday.

“...I wouldn’t know,” Rei finally said, and then he was sitting up, extending a hand for Ritsu to take. “Anyways, come on. Mother and Father are abroad again, so I’ll make you chocolate chip pancakes.”

A burst of joy immediately surged through Ritsu’s chest, bringing an easy grin to his face as he eagerly took Rei’s hand and let his brother tug him out of bed. Chocolate chip pancakes were arguably the best thing to ever exist, and while their parents warned them against eating the delicacy too often, Rei was someone who liked to indulge childish whims, it seemed. “Can we share?”

“As if I’d let you have them all to yourself,” Rei scoffed, and the world was bright and shining inside this dark, quiet mansion, now that they were up and about and spreading light through the path they walked on the way to the kitchen downstairs. “Sharing is a given.”

It wasn’t until Rei had finished the pancakes and the two of them were sitting side by side at the kitchen counter, pouring maple syrup and carefully cutting pieces of the fluffy heaven to eat, that Ritsu remembered the question he’d asked, their conversation about the pretty, pretty sun. The sun that only favoured strangers, letting them walk down streets without umbrellas or play on the grass without the shade of trees- things that were utterly foreign to those who bore the name Sakuma.

“Why us?” Ritsu asked, as Rei stuck a forkful of pancake into his mouth and looked over at him curiously. Something seemed to twist a little in Ritsu’s chest as he spoke, which he didn’t quite understand- he hoped these pancakes hadn’t gone bad, or something. “Does it hate our family that bad?”

Rei stared at him then, mouth unmoving and jaw nearly slack, eyes slightly wide and the light that lived within them flickering, if only for a moment. And then that moment was over, and he was turning away, returning his attention to the syrupy plate before him as he dutifully chewed the pancake in his mouth. He swallowed the mouthful within seconds- Rei was a quick eater, unlike his younger brother- but even then, he didn’t raise his head to look at Ritsu again.

“It isn’t something we get to choose,” Rei said, and even at this age, ignorant and foolish as he was, Ritsu got the sense that his question was being evaded, that the former wasn’t quite answering the way he should be. He brushed it off, though, because this was Rei- regardless of whether Ritsu got his answer now or later, he knew he’d get it eventually, as long as his brother was around. He was the one person who’d always be there to talk to Ritsu, to answer his questions and teach him things about the vast, colourful world Ritsu could only reach out and touch with his fingertips in small moments of freedom, hoping not to get burned to a crisp. He was the one person who’d make Ritsu chocolate chip pancakes at the high of noon while their parents were away and the rest of their large, hollow home was deathly empty, when there was nobody else to cling to and make Ritsu his favourite thing in the world.

It would be fine, as long as Rei was here.

“I want the last piece, then!” Ritsu took advantage of his hastily-made excuse to jump at the last slice of pancake, poking it onto his fork and quickly depositing it into his mouth. Rei simply rolled his eyes, one hand reaching over to thoroughly fluff up Ritsu’s hair in retaliation (“Stop it, Onii-chan, I just combed that earlier!”) as he picked up their plate with another and moved towards the sink. Ritsu hopped off his stool to follow, adding his fork to the mix of china and cutlery Rei began to work at with water, a sponge and a good amount of dishwashing liquid.

Ah, yeah. He’d nearly forgotten. “Thanks for the pancakes!”

Saying his thank yous was something important, apparently. Ritsu didn’t quite get the point of it, since Rei should always know that Ritsu loved him and was thankful for him all the time anyway- but the older boy always insisted, so whatever. Ritsu didn’t mind, so long as it got Rei’s approval for ‘improving his manners’, or whatever it was these boring, wasteful words did.

Rei smiled at him from the sink, deftly rinsing off a plate and setting it onto the dish rack. “Anytime, Ritsu.”

(Years later, Rei would leave to explore the world like their parents were so fond of doing, and Ritsu’s chest would burn, far hotter than the blasted sun ever could, curling with a sort of stinging, painful ache he’d never felt in this intensity before. He’d gather up all the pancake-making materials and chuck them into the bin, then, the uncaring crashes and thumps of the objects resounding through this house, this damned house, this disgusting heap of stone and brick that was quieter and more desolate than it had ever been.)

•••

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The sun.”

It is. It truly is.

But how can something so beautiful be so, so cruel?

•••

“Hey! Heeeeeeey!”

Ritsu winced, instinctively bringing a palm up to press at his throbbing temples. It was hot out today, the sun showing no trace of her occasional shyness and rendering even the leafiest of trees failures in their attempts to shade. Sitting at the foot of the giant oak he often sought shelter from, Ritsu gingerly lifted his head to glare at the foolish newcomer- seven or eight, surely, not too much younger than Ritsu himself- shouting from about a metre away, hoping to all things holy and unholy that he would shut up before Ritsu’s head burst from the pressure of the heat and sound around him- but the boy was woefully coming in the direction of the tree, something that practically never happened, and, oh, Ritsu was sorely regretting leaving his bedroom today.

The noisy foghorn of a boy neared Ritsu irritatingly fast, and then he was crouching down in front of him, hair a brighter shade of red than anything Ritsu had ever seen in his life and his neon yellow t-shirt further reinforcing Ritsu’s idea that this boy was someone to be avoided. He carried a grass-stained soccer ball beneath one arm and held a hand out with the other, obviously for Ritsu to shake. “I’m Isara Mao! What’s your name?”

Ritsu… wasn’t sure what exactly this situation called for. On one hand, telling this colourful, hyperactive boy his name was the last thing he wanted to do, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t be good manners to just ignore him. He settled for a compromise, carefully extending a hand to grip the other boy’s loosely, awkwardly, and gave it a single shake. Then he dropped it as quickly as societal norms dictated he could, pulling his hand back and surveying the kid’s reaction.

Unfazed. This guy was unfazed. “Your name?” He looked at Ritsu expectantly, like Ritsu had simply forgotten to introduce himself rather than not done it on purpose, and this kid’s the stubborn type, isn’t he.

“...Ritsu.” The name came out as quiet and mumbled as Ritsu could manage, because maybe if he said it unintelligibly enough, Ma- Ma-something? would just give up and leave him alone. The sun was unbearable, but the idea of going back home- where Rei currently wasn’t, for reasons he hadn’t disclosed- was far worse, and Ritsu didn’t want to stay in that large, creepily silent mansion alone any longer than he had to. The best course of action here would be to get rid of this pesky kid and continue building his tolerance to the merciless creature called the sun, no matter how much it hurt.

His intruder wasn’t giving up that easily, though. “Ri…?” He frowned at Ritsu, the expression one of evident confusion rather than annoyance, strangely enough. “Come again?”

Ritsu’s head ached, badly, and seemed to be getting worse with every second he spent listening to an overconfident stranger under the blazing rays of the sun. “Ritsu. Sakuma Ritsu.”

“Ritsu, huh.” The boy hummed in thought, now looking at Ritsu as if he was some sort of complicated math equation. “So, kind of like… Ritchan?”

Is that- a nickname? Ritsu stared at his new acquaintance in vague disbelief. He’d never once had anyone call him anything other than Ritsu or son or that gloomy kid over there, and now here was this kid he’d only known for all of two minutes, giving him a nickname right off the bat. It was… different, to say the least. A good different or a bad different, Ritsu wasn’t sure yet.

“You don’t like it?” Nickname Kid looked crestfallen, lips curving in a sad sort of frown, and god, much as some of the kids he met liked to call Ritsu a demon for kicks and giggles, he wasn’t enough of one to bear to put that look on this boy’s face.

“It’s fine,” he found himself saying quickly, and now that he was thinking about it, Ritchan really wasn’t all that bad. This boy had a certain way of saying it, a way of making the syllables sound pretty on his tongue, somehow- pretty, almost cute. “It’s- yeah. Ritchan. I like it.”

(For whatever reason, it didn’t feel like he was lying in the slightest.)

The boy’s face lit up in a beaming smile, any trace of apprehension from before completely dissipated. Ritsu averted his gaze out of pure instinct- this boy was too kind, too bright- and hurried on before the kid could say anything else, think up more newfangled things Ritsu might not have the strength to refuse. “And you’re, uh-” shoot, what was it again? M, starts with an M- “Maa-kun?”

There was a huff of clear amusement, and when Ritsu met the boy’s gaze again he felt his pre-pout give way to his mouth falling slightly open, eyes going wide- the child before him was laughing, the sound so utterly light and beautiful and his eyes crinkling at the corners with just how wide he was smiling, and oh.

Colourful clothes, bright and pretty hair, a smile that was equally, if not even more bright and pretty in ways Ritsu had never imagined of another human being in his life- the boy looked a little like the sun, blinding and enticing as he was. His ever-present demeanour made Ritsu think he might bring him to ruin one day as well, and perhaps he wouldn’t even mind when the time was right. But really, above all...

It isn’t fair, came the dizzy, broken thought, Ritsu blinking away the hints of white spots that threatened his vision as he gazed up at the boy in the light of the sun, digging his nails into his palms as he tried to keep the world from flashing and spinning the way it so liked to do. It really isn’t fair at all.

Why is he so blessed, to be able to dance so radiantly beneath the sunlight, while it hurts me to even lurk in the shadows?

The boy’s laughter was gradually dying down, however, and Ritsu forced the tightness firmly from his chest and returned his attention to his new acquaintance, who still looked wholly entertained by Ritsu’s blunder. “I’m Mao,” the kid reminded, and yeah, close enough. “You can call me Maa-kun if you like, though. I don’t mind.”

It was fair trade, he supposed- a nickname for a nickname. “I… guess? Are you-”

“Onii-chan!”

Ritsu’s head jerked upwards at the sudden call, Mao turning to look in the opposite direction as well- a young girl with red hair tied into neat, adorable twintails scampered towards the pair of them, her slippers pink and sparkly and princess-themed, and yeah, Ritsu could very well guess whose little sister this was. Skidding to a stop in front of Mao, the kid shifted her gaze to stare at Ritsu for a good three seconds before deeming him unworthy and looking back at her brother. “Mom made chocolate chip pancakes, so she asked me to come call you. Before they get cold.”

Pancakes? And chocolate chip ones, no less. Ritsu felt a sense of sheer longing wash over him like a wave, and if this were one of those cheesy, cliche movies his brother liked to watch, surely his mouth would be watering right about now. Rei hadn’t made them chocolate chip pancakes in a long while- he was out of the house more often than not, these days, meeting new people and talking to strangers Ritsu had never seen or heard of in his life. It was an easy thing to miss the fluffiness of cooked batter when cut into with a clean, sharp knife, the chocolatey goodness that filled his mouth with every bite, and most importantly…

He missed spending time with Rei, who seemed to be drifting further and further away with every passing day. Rei, who was beginning to brave the horrors of the sun far more frequently of his own accord, and unconsciously pressed his younger brother to do the same- Ritsu didn’t want to get left behind, after all.

“You want to come along?”

Ritsu blinked in surprise, banishing the thoughts of older siblings (and lack of so) and finding a pair of expectant green eyes fixed on his instead. And that wasn’t the only pair- Mao’s little sister had her gaze fixed on him as well, though she clung to her brother from the back as if she was wary of him, and needed a sort of protective barrier between them. “What?”

“For pancakes,” Mao clarified, waving the hand that wasn’t occupied with his soccer ball, and his sister gave a brave, tiny nod in solidarity. “Mom says my friends can come over whenever they want.”

Your-

Friend?

Ritsu opened his mouth- and closed it again. Did it once. Did it twice. Mao was still waiting, head tilted slightly to the side, and Ritsu found his words, frantically grabbed ahold of them and forced them out. “I- if we’re really- if it’s okay, then-”

“It’s definitely okay,” Mao reassured, and then he was bending down to grab Ritsu’s hand and pull him up from the ground, sending thrums of dull ache through his skull and making him rapidly blink the spots from his eyes, but this feeling- this vivid, shimmering feeling that had suddenly burst forth in his chest with the light of a thousand fireworks- it was worth the pain, wasn’t it?

The Isara household (yes, he’d memorised the surname, as well as Mao’s- Isara Mao’s) was bright and homely, the equivalent of those cool, perfectly normal neighbourhood houses Ritsu saw on TV. Mao’s mother was kind and easy with her smiles, though strict when it came to mud and grass being tracked over her clean floors (Mao was sent upstairs to take a quick shower and change, and Ritsu had to hide his giggles behind a hand at his friend (friend!)’s endearing grumpiness). The woman didn’t seem to mind Ritsu’s delayed verbal responses after frantic thought about how to reply, and her chocolate chip pancakes were nearly on Rei’s level- something Ritsu had once thought was impossible, but had now been proved wrong about.

When Mao waved him goodbye around four o’clock that evening, Ritsu found that somewhere along the line, his headache had completely evaporated.

Friend.

I made a friend.

He couldn’t keep himself from smiling at that.

•••

Rei arrived home late that night- not that that was an issue. Nighttime was the domain of their family, after all. “You’re back!” Ritsu yelled, lunging forwards and ambushing his brother mid-hallway, the latter evidently on his way to his bedroom. Rei’s eyes widened in surprise but his limbs moved right on time, as per usual- he caught Ritsu in a tight hug, arms slipping around the younger boy’s shoulders as he clung to him tightly. “I’ve got so many things to tell you, I made a friend, I went to his house and we ate chocolate chip pancakes. Yours are still the best, of course, but his mom is really nice, and his sister’s nice too, and he- he’s so cool. He likes manga, and his room’s got wall-to-wall shelves of them, and-”

“Slow down, slow down,” Rei laughed, carefully maneuvering himself so they could both walk to his bedroom still stuck together like a hermit crab and its shell, a small, lonely creature and its everlasting home. Ritsu couldn’t see where they were going, courtesy of himself still facing Rei, but whatever- he knew this house from top to bottom, and his brother didn’t have the heart to walk him straight into a wall. “Tell me what happened, start to finish.”

And tell him Ritsu did. There was a peculiar sort of smile on the older boy’s face when he finally ended his excited spiel, and Ritsu could feel a smile dimpling at his own cheeks at the very thought of what had happened today, but Rei’s smile was… different. Sad, somehow. Did that mean anything?

Maybe Ritsu was just misinterpreting it.

“That’s good. I’m glad,” Rei said softly, reaching out to give Ritsu’s hair a gentle ruffle. The two of them were seated on the former’s giant, Sakuma-style bed, filled with considerably less pillows than Ritsu’s but still sufficiently comfortable. “Keep ahold of that friend, alright? You won’t be lonely, then.”

Ritsu blinked at him. “Why would I ever be lonely? You’ll always be here, won’t you?”

That sad sort of smile seemed to deepen, if only in the slightest, and Rei turned away.

•••

Maa-kun ♡♡♡♡, 10.37 pm: hey want to come over? my parents and sis want to celebrate the venus cup thing, even though it isn’t that big of a deal

Maa-kun ♡♡♡♡, 10.38 pm: there’ll be chocolate chip pancakes

Ritsu turned his head to look at the heavy wooden door that shut this piano room away from the rest of its large, lonely mansion- thought of the hallway just outside it, one that led to an abundance of empty rooms and restless memories. Let his mind wander to the bedroom upstairs that mirrored his very own, yet the first of which hadn’t been stepped foot in by its true owner in weeks.

Why would I ever be lonely? You’ll always be here, won’t you?

(He’d badgered Rei for a reply after that, nearly ending up in tears when his brother tried to evade the question further. Rei had swiftly caught on to the dangers of a terrified younger sibling in time, however, and quickly soothed him the best he could. He’d said all sorts of things, then- of course I’ll always be here, Ritsu. Of course I will.)

(Promise? Yes, all of that. Anything you want, alright?)

(Lies, lies, lies.)

Ritsu, 10.39 pm: of course it’s a big deal

Ritsu, 10.39 pm: but it’s fine, thanks. say hi to your family for me

He shut his phone off and dropped it onto the piano bench he knew from experience could fit two people side by side, but only seated one, now. Fighting back the tightness in his chest and the unrelenting poison digging deep into his heart, he straightened his back, poised his fingers over familiar black and white keys, and began to play.

(The otherwise abandoned walls of the house echoed with music until the very stroke of dawn.)

•••

It had been years since the first time Rei had made his little brother that alluring chocolate treat he so, so loved- years since the second, third and fourth time, too. Good days, bad days- both types of occurrences would end in the same brand of joy, the same sweet, molten warmth and fluffy texture to go with it. When the sun was at its highest in the sky, when his bedroom was kind and cozy yet utterly lonely, he’d be tugged out by the hand and led to the kitchen, and he’d be served something that never failed to lift his spirits, to drag him out of the miserable slump he was in. It had been a routine, almost, one that shattered and fell to pieces when a certain someone went away, disappeared into thin air and left their dependant to his own devices.

He wondered why he was thinking about all of that now.

The once-sacred practice had been long forgotten, Ritsu knew, the fact ever-present as the glare of the sun burned into his skin, his flesh, his bones. He’d been sitting under the blazing rays for over an hour now, willing it to stop, willing it to do the reverse and stay as relentless as Ritsu had known it to be for as long as he’d lived. There’d be shade if he just ventured deeper into the garden terrace, tables and chairs and the cover of leafy trees available to seek shelter beneath- but for whatever reason, his body refused to move, and his mind refused to force it- there wouldn’t be any point in hiding, anyway. Sooner or later, the sun would shift to accommodate his relief, with the sole purpose of wrenching that temporary kindness away and singing him black and grey all over again.

Just today, perhaps, he would let it.

His head ached, white spots dancing behind his eyelids when he squeezed them closed and taking up nearly all of his vision when he opened them once more. Rei had once told him, back in the days where they were both children and that blasted (beloved) brother hadn’t left Ritsu all alone to fend for himself against this darkened, yet so utterly bright world, that staring the sun straight in the face would blind him- take one of his most important senses away, rendering him frozen, immobile. He said that the sun was cruel, that she would have no mercy for those who dared to challenge her- and how right that young, enigmatic boy had been, for there wasn’t a lick of mercy granted to Ritsu right now as he forced his eyes open again and again, albeit only with slivers at a time. His body was limp against the cool, mocking wall his back was pressed to, the solid concrete a sort of blessing and a curse all at once- it soothed the heat in the slightest, but also hinted at the respite Ritsu could give himself but simply refused to do.

Not that it mattered. It wasn’t as if his body would obey him even if he wanted to move away, anyway, and it wasn’t because he’d gone blind. (Yet.) He felt weak, throat parched and lips dry and cracked, stinging with every gust of wind that blew itself through the open space. His stomach was utterly hollow in a fit to match his empty chest, yet something in his heart ached and the finest of barbs pricked at his eyes and windpipe, threatening to push themselves in and rupture something or other. The sun watched on, gleeful in her antics, playing a one-sided game of tag as her rays chased and caught, chased and caught- all for the sake of this tired, fragile boy who wouldn’t mind being caught a thousand times over. He was already a demon- ‘it’- in his own right, after all.

Does it hate us?

The sun. It’s a star, right? Stars are kind to us. Gentle. So why isn’t the sun the same?

If Ritsu was a demon, then surely so was the sun- and surely it was alright for a demon to die, as long as it was vanquished by the hand of its own kind. The sun was gentle in her own way, bringing a constant familiarity in the way she cut and burned. There was never need to doubt her intentions, for the answer was always one and the same- to show love in the only sick, twisted ways she knew how to, ways that Ritsu would find it in his heart to forgive. To be hated would be one thing, but as long as the sun loved, loved, loved-

-it would be alright, he supposed, to let her burn him straight down to ash.

Strands of hair left sharp, surely bloody trails where they tickled at his neck, feigning kindness yet truly showing none at all. His breaths came slow yet ragged and his head spun like a child was using it as a plaything, a top, making it dance its morbid, repetitive routine for as many times as it survived to allow. It was deathly quiet out in this garden terrace, everyone surely at class or at work, and he had no one but the sun for company- the sun, who unforgivingly seared him to the bone with her pretty flowers, flowers made of petals and flames. Tears fell from his eyes with every quiet blink, and his chest grew tight, suffocating him with his own skin in some ironic theatre.

It’s bright. It’s so bright it hurts, and-

(Anyways, come on. Mother and Father are abroad again, so I’ll make you chocolate chip pancakes.)

(The sun had never once taken pity on him, no matter how hard he cried- so he’d keep his dignity, this time, fully grown and old enough to simply blink the tears down his cheeks in a silent funeral march. There would be no fighting, no kicking and screaming- he’d just let it happen, the way he’d let so many other things do, the way he’d witnessed a thousand precious things slip through his fragile, trembling fingers. And once it was all over, once he fled this brooding, pathetic life he’d never fought hard enough to keep...)

(...maybe he’d get to indulge in those childhood memories once again, those memories where welcome sweetness had swept over his tongue and laughter had filled kitchens made lively with the spirits of two carefree boys. He hadn’t had that beloved dish in ages, literal years- it was an oath of sorts, a silent, undeclared one he couldn’t quite explain. He’d thought, at some point, that forgoing such creature comforts would be a practical way of letting thorns sink into his porous skin, if only to vent his frustration, and then maybe the sun would catch sight of his efforts and grant him some relief from her everlasting love. His mind was hazy, his thoughts ran sluggish and pale- he couldn’t quite think.)

(It was beautiful in it’s own way, wasn’t it? The sun.)

Tap, tap, tap.

Blinding lights, stinging eyes.

Tap, tap, tap.

The sounds were so far away, yet drifting closer- perhaps it was some lonesome child on their way to becoming a little less lonely, a child in search of someone they knew would love them.

Tap, tap, tap.

Closer, closer-

Tap.

Just a little bit-

Tap?

Silence. So loud, so deafening, but silence nonetheless. A strange familiarity, nearly washed clean away by the fatal heat of the sun, but-

“Ritsu!”

...oh.

The brightness gave way in favour of another sort of light, one whose owner Ritsu had been so captivated by from the very first day he’d met him- on that sunny, painful day that had brought Ritsu so much joy in all the time that came after. Light green eyes so drenched in worry, wine-red hair falling prettily, haphazardly against cheeks. The sun, the sun-

There are two of them, now.

“Idiot, fucking idiot, Ritchan-” he could feel himself being lifted, his head lolling powerlessly to the side as his vision flickered in and out, in and out. At least, he silently reasoned, I’ll be able to see him as I go. The sun, my sun, the one I love so much.

It’s a pity he isn’t here, too.

Cool (freezing) fingers carefully swept his eyes shut, and just like that, the world disappeared.

•••

He was being boiled alive, suffocating fabrics sticking and clinging to his skin with melted glue and disgusting sweat. Every inch he moved was sluggish, burning, yet his body forced him to toss and turn throughout every waking second, desperately trying to rid itself of the residual glaze that consistently seeped from his insides and submerged him in hot, strangling goo. He could hear whispers of this and that, the sounds scarcely meeting his ears and not continuing to his brain even when they were detected, and suddenly something cold and wet was being placed over his forehead, making his body jolt and tugging a broken, pleading whimper from his throat. His eyes remained tightly shut but the gentle whispers continued, carefully parting the goo that encapsulated his entire body from time to time and providing the barest of relief.

Brief as the respite was, that single moment was blissfully enough for him to slip right back into the heaven of unconsciousness.

•••

Temperature tipped and swayed, rose and dropped. His existence was a plaything, and the world was a spoiled, beaten child so insistent on having its merry way. Perhaps, over time, the child would grow bored and fed up at the pretty things it had and lash out in a fit to kill, and that would be the final end.

-that didn’t seem to be so. Oppressive pieces of warmth pressed to his glacial, frozen skin here and there, only lasting for the fewest of seconds at a time, and then the festering goo that clung to his heart and limbs was being peeled mercifully off- only to be replaced by something still overwhelmingly stifling yet also crisper, cleaner. The leftover goo bled right into the new cast of fabric, and if this went on, it’d just harden into an empty shell for a second time, and this would all be for naught.

Go back to sleep, came the muted sounds, and he couldn’t find it in himself to disobey.

•••

He couldn’t quite move. But that was fine. (The sun would take care of him, the way he always did.)

•••

His head pounded and throbbed in a fit to burst when he next awoke, and the universe was just too swelteringly, agonisingly hot. His clothing seemed to be dryer than last time, but the heat from the sheets beneath him was just far too much. He winced, feeling a quiet, groaning sound leave his lips as he dragged himself upwards in a daze, weakly trying to disentangle his sweaty limbs from irritatingly heavy blankets. That proved to be a fatal mistake, however, his entire body lurching and his head feeling like it’d been scrubbed bloodily clean with salt water and filled to the brim with dizzying air. He doubled over with a fractured gasp, eyes squeezing shut and hands instinctively reaching up to clutch at his aching skull- it was easy to regret every decision he’d ever made in this sordid, miserable life of his, from ever enjoying something as pathetic and menial as chocolate chip pancakes to idiotically facing down the sun years later as a result-

“Ritsu!”

There was the sound of footsteps darting straight towards him (he hadn’t heard the door open, then?), and much as he tried to pry his stinging eyes open, the blinding pain in his head prevented him from doing anything but fight back an overwhelming level of nausea and force his breathing into regulation. Hands pressed against his lower back and shoulder, painstakingly gentle in the way they guided him backwards and rested him against something soft and plush, and then fingers were stroking his hair for the shortest of seconds before disappearing again.

Don’t go. The words lodged tight in his throat and stayed right there, and he didn’t want to be left all alone in that empty place again, in a place where sticky things clung greedily to skin and the earth was both a smouldering cesspool and a whirlwind of broken ice. It was terrifying, not knowing who his friends and allies were in such a sightless, treacherous world, but at the very least-

“I’m here, I’m here,” Mao said hurriedly, the fretfulness in his tone ever so evident and making Ritsu’s heart throb with guilt that he was the very cause of it. There was a myriad of touches in quick succession, over his neck and back and forehead and all those places Ritsu couldn’t seem to keep up with, followed by a heavy sigh of relief and gentle caresses over his cheek, as if in reward. “Your fever broke, good. Fuck, Ritsu, what the hell were you doing out there-”

He felt a soft whine leave his throat, almost involuntarily as he squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and turned his head to bury into his pillow. He deserved a telling off, deserved at least a hundred from Mao, but not yet, not yet- not when his head was still burning and he felt like he’d crumble to ash at the slightest provocation. Five minutes. Give me just five minutes-

There was a quiet sigh, one that sounded almost resigned, but the care with which fingers carefully pushed the hair back from his sweaty forehead told him that Mao didn’t hold a grudge- not while his lover was in this fragile state, at the very least. “Later, then,” came the murmur that was more of a statement than a request, but Ritsu didn’t have the leeway nor the will to complain. “You’re still tired, aren’t you? Nap for a bit. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

For once, Ritsu didn’t have to doubt those words at all.

•••

He was well enough to go back to school a few days later, and well enough for him and Mao to walk home side by side, the sun dipping down beneath the horizon and the coolness of late autumn coming out to dance. “You know, I’ve been wondering, ever since you told me what happened,” Mao said as they stepped neatly over a crooked brick in the sidewalk, their shoulders bumping comfortably and the redhead’s scarf hiding his pretty neck from view. “Would you want to make chocolate chip pancakes again?”

That was… a loaded question, however little Mao intended for it to be. “With you?”

He was given a shrug he knew to mean yes, and words accompanied by a hand reaching idly upwards to catch the sun-browned leaves that drifted over their heads in the breeze. “It’d be fun, wouldn’t it? And I know you still love them. It’ll be like when we were kids, that day we first met and you came over to my house for pancakes specifically.”

Ritsu blinked, feet coming to an abrupt, unintentional halt. “You… remember that?”

Mao snorted, nudging him in the side to get him moving again and inspecting a rogue leaf between his nimble fingers as they walked. “I might not remember everything, but I remember some things. Give me a little credit, would you?”

Anything you want. “My place doesn’t have the stuff we need, though,” Ritsu mumbled, kicking at a pebble with the head of his shoe. “It all got… removed, a long while ago.” He hadn’t forgotten the day he threw out all their pancake-making things in a fit of childish fury, venting his frustrations at an older brother a couple thousand miles away. (If Rei noticed the sudden lack of certain cooking and baking items in their kitchen when he returned, he didn’t say a word.)

“We can make them at my house,” Mao replied, waving a hand and letting his leaf soar daintily away with the wind- setting it free, letting go. “So, is that a yes?”

Ritsu considered it. “Pancakes would… be nice.”

The smile Mao gave him rivalled the sun itself.

(They made good on their word at the Isara household that evening, and everything was warm and kind and just so much fun- the way it’d been all those years ago. Ritsu felt just a touch brighter, a whole lot lighter-)

(-and he shared his favourite thing with someone he loved for the first time in years.)

•••

“...about all this pancake stuff.”

Mao turned to look at him from where he was placing a washed mixing bowl onto the dish rack. “What about them?”

Special bowl, a properly-sized whisk, the perfect pan. “Could I- borrow some of this, maybe?”

“My family wouldn’t mind,” Mao said with a shrug, moving away from the sink and leaning in to press a kiss to Ritsu’s cheek in an absent-minded manner. “They know you’d never hurt baking tools. Why, though?”

Ritsu gave a soft hum of assent, tugging the redhead closer to fondly press his lips to his forehead, letting himself linger for just a moment before pulling away. “Might need to use them a bit.”

•••

Everything was completely quiet at this time of the morning, though Rei supposed that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

The Sakuma household was in no way known for its (non-existent) life before the clock hit noon, and on some days, even noon was being generous. Today was a weekday, however, leaving neither him nor Ritsu the luxury of sleeping and sleeping until they were forcibly roused by insistent phone calls or a separate person bodily shaking them awake.

(He and Ritsu had always been the ones to wake each other up, as children- Rei gently calling for his sibling to awaken in spite of sleepy mumbles and groans, Ritsu hopping onto his brother’s bed and straight-up tackling him into the mattress with yelled instructions to get up, Onii-chan! Those days were long gone, now, and perhaps...)

(...perhaps Rei only had himself to blame. To think that that hasty, messy promise he’d made to always be here, that careless utterance he’d made as a young boy, would come back to haunt him like this. He hadn’t been thinking, back then, the only important thing on his mind having been stop my beloved little brother from bursting into tears right in the middle of my bedroom, and that had been the element of his downfall. If he hadn’t been so reckless, if he’d just thought for a moment before making all the decisions he had-)

(Well, no matter. What’s done was done, and the stinging, aching feeling in his chest wouldn’t be alleviated just by agonising over its cause. He’d made his bed, so he’d lie in it as the world intended. A fitting metaphor for a creature of the night like him, one who would rather be still dozing off in bed rather than walking down the stairs in search of breakfast in the kitchen. Ritsu had likely already left for school, so the place would be especially silent today, but this was no time to brood about it- if Rei didn’t hurry and somehow get to Yumenosaki within twelve short minutes, he’d be late.)

Step down onto the landing, make a practiced left. Enter the kitchen with a wide, stifled yawn-

-and abruptly freeze in his tracks.

There was a single plate of something or other on the dining table, at the place where he usually sat for meals and the like. (About a billion years ago, it had always been Rei on one side and Ritsu on the other, but he digressed.) Stepping closer with no small degree of caution, Rei took in the bottle of maple syrup, the familiar butter dish, and on its once-designated plate...

...chocolate chip pancakes.

There was no message, no note. Nothing but the uncharacteristic tidiness of the dessert and the shine of washed utensils and bowls neatly arranged on the dishrack. Still, there was only one other person in the world who knew the significance of this sacred sort of thing, and the knowledge of that was- disarming, to say the least.

Disarming, but not unwelcome.

Smiling in the slightest, Rei pulled his chair out, sat down and began to eat. A fork and knife had been neatly placed by the dish for ease of use, and maybe being late to school this morning wouldn’t be all that bad. The pancakes were light and fluffy, the periodic, gooey chocolate in them to die for, and somehow, some way-

-they were still so, so warm.