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Yeah, rack your brains over it. Also, I forbid you to call yourself ‘stupid’, got it?

-compared to Nii-san, I am stupid. Everyone says so.

Oh, so everyone saying something makes it right? That’s news to me, and I don’t think so… and if I can’t accept something, that means it isn’t right.

•••

Subservience was something learned, and if every child were to attend some gruelling, fantastical school that actually specialised in teaching that particular value, Hiiro would probably graduate with top honours and a degree.

Such terms, such qualifications were foreign- high-class education like that didn't exist in this rural village of theirs, and what Rinne knew of it was little. Still, he wasn't the one who'd been brought up to just keep his mouth shut and his mind even more so, granting him the freedom of using his brain the way it'd been created for him to do. He grabbed bits and pieces of information and actually used them rather than storing them away to rot, thought as far out of the box as his meagre knowledge permitted and thought up all the ways to grasp what he wanted with his fingertips at minimum. It was allowed, even encouraged to some extent (though that extent was never far), for a future village chief had to be strong enough, confident enough, smart enough to think on his feet and make decisions in the name of hundreds on the fly.

The chief’s younger brother, on the other hand- well.

“What colour do you want to paint it, Hiiro?”

Collecting rocks was a pastime every childlike creature found it in itself to enjoy, be it rowdy pups who grabbed dangerously jagged stones in their mouths and shook their heads back and forth in place, or human children who found smoother, prettier ones to gather into their palms and bring them home to older siblings. Painting rocks was an activity only humans indulged in, as well as one Rinne and Hiiro indulged in fairly often. The younger boy tilted his head to the side where he was sitting opposite, the two of them cross-legged on rough, natural floors with a pile of rocks and some homemade paint between them. A thousand colours could be devised from bits of dirt and pigment from leaves and flowers, leaving them with an impressive array of options- green, brown, pink, the works.

All the options they had, however, would never be of any use to someone who didn’t want to choose one. “Whatever colour you like, Nii-san,” Hiiro said seriously, his eyes on his brother’s so childishly direct, earnest. “That’ll be the best one.”

It most certainly will not be. “I don’t want any particular colour,” Rinne replied, tapping at the floor with his precious brush of carefully cut wood and animal fur. “I want you to choose one.”

“I need your opinion, Nii-san.”

“My opinion doesn’t matter, Hiiro.”

Hiiro blinked at him, hands obediently clasped together on his lap, just the way he’d been taught to do. (Rinne had been taught to do that, too, but only actually did it when adults were around to see him.) “Then mine matters even less.”

A negative value of an opinion. He had no formal education in mathematics, but still knew enough to come to that conclusion. Heaving a large, completely unsuppressed sigh, Rinne fixed his sibling with the sternest gaze he could muster, expression firm and eyebrows curved and all those strict things he’d watched his father do in council meetings. “Hiiro. Pick a colour.”

He was given a slight frown- nothing but the tiny, usual crease in brows to counter Rinne's deliberate own. “Are you commanding me to?”

“I-” It was brilliant, somehow, the way Hiiro managed to take a single question and turn it into a full-fledged conversation that seemed to be going nowhere. “Sure, whatever, yeah.” He'd agree to anything at this point, if it got this obstinate child to just make a decision on his own for once in his life. Really, Rinne wasn't sure that anything in the world would ever be able to achieve that outcome, anyway- his brother was stubborn, and would likely stick to his guns and refuse to pick a damned colour up until the very day he died-

Hiiro reached out a hand, let his index finger hover over their array of paints for a brief second, then brought it lightly down onto the tiny bowl of blue.

…Rinne was going to scream. He really was. He was going to run right out of this room with his hands over his head, screaming like a madman who deserved to be locked up with the animals out back so he never had to deal with the ordeal so disgustingly dubbed human beings ever again. “Oh, so now you choose to do it?”

The boy before him looked- confused, for whatever reason, as if Rinne had asked something only an idiot would ask. “You said it was a command, didn’t you?”

-oh.

(You should’ve anticipated that. You should’ve anticipated that, it’s your job, you should’ve-)

“Hiiro,” Rinne said slowly, fighting to keep his voice steady, non-judgemental. “You’re telling me you only did this because I made it a command.”

His brother was young, innocent, a law-abiding fool- just as he'd been shaped to be, just as he was expected to be. (Even Rinne expected it at this point, though that didn’t mean he had to like it.) “Yes? I’ve got to follow orders, so… it makes sense.”

It did make sense. The logic was firm, solid, so perfectly and unbelievably stupid Rinne hadn’t a clue how this village of theirs had even lasted this long, for decades and decades of endless idiocy. If their second in command was meant to just stay silent and follow the first’s lead without a single opposing question, a single opposing thought, what happened when the first was wrong?

Was the first ever allowed to be wrong?

(It was scary. Terrifying, even. The feeling that he was carrying the entire village in his fragile, inexperienced hands, the knowledge that every inch of Hiiro's very existence was permanently riding on the things he said, the decisions he made. If he slipped up just a single time, failed to get the results he so severely needed to with his own strength and mind, since there was no one else to rely on in this stiff, time-frozen place…)

(His heart felt heavy, as did his shoulders, even though he was allegedly just a child and the village elders always claimed children weren't supposed to feel like that. They were supposed to run about with wind in their hair and the widest smiles on their faces, drawing in sand and playing jumping games and climbing every tempting tree in sight- but perhaps those rules only applied to normal children, those who weren't slated to take up the highest political position a person could possibly be born into in this tiny, pathetic village.)

(It was all he could think about, as he painted his rock with that pretty shade of blue Hiiro had blessedly picked out- and he wondered, not for the first time, when he'd finally get to live not for his village or for his younger brother, but for his very own self.)

•••

Leaves crunched soberly beneath their soles in the throes of autumn, and it seemed that for all of Rinne's prowess in walking soundlessly on the majority of surfaces, nature just fought to make things difficult every time. “Careful,” he called behind his shoulder to the boy who was trailing just a few steps behind him, flatly refusing to walk by Rinne’s side no matter how much the older boy tried to convince him to. “The leaves are pretty dry, but you can still slip on the stubborn ones.”

Hiiro nodded, taking a sombre hop over the dirt-caked ground in the exact same path that Rinne had, and the latter allowed himself no more than a single sigh before bringing up the exact same thing he’d already brought up three times within the past ten minutes. “Y’know, this would be a lot easier if you just walked with me. I wouldn’t have to keep looking back at you, and you wouldn’t have to keep staring at the ground.” 

He was given a look that was nothing short of scandalised, along with a verbal reply that made Rinne want to fling an arrow into a nearby tree. “A chief should always be three steps ahead of everyone else, Nii-san. That’s what grandma said.”

Whether or not the woman had meant the saying in a literal sense, Hiiro had definitely chosen to take it that way. “Not physically, Hiiro. She means I need to always be prepared for anything, and beat everyone else to the punch while they’re still thinking of their next moves.”

Hiiro blinked up at him confusedly, his innocence almost jarring amongst the maze of hundred-year oaks and long-grown greenery they navigated. “Have you been getting into fistfights, Nii-san?”

Persevere in the face of adversity, be patient with your young, and you, as a man, will always know success. “Yeah, sure. Fistfights,” Rinne muttered, trying to channel the more useful brands of his elders’ proverbs into his soul and failing miserably. Oh, he could hear the makings of Hiiro’s disapproval at his little lie already- “Alright, anyway. We’re supposed to be looking for those cute little herbs for medicine, and look, there some are! Easy,” he said airily, confident in ways that always placated his younger sibling into thinking that everything was fine, that his Nii-san had everything under control- even when that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Hurriedly shoving a hand into a familiar bush, he turned to wave Hiiro closer, grinning at him as he finally complied. “See these? There are the red ones and the purple ones, but what we need are the reds. Know why?”

Sidling up to his side, Hiiro stood on his tiptoes and peered at the bush his brother was expertly plucking tiny red leaves from, avoiding the similarly available greens and purples. “Purple is poison?”

“Exactly. Kind of the opposite of medicine,” Rinne snorted, shoving his current handful of herbs into his homemade sling bag’s leather interior before moving on to another bush right beside them- one with its scarlet wares still sitting present and proud. Herb-collecting was a regular practice between the two of them, not requiring that much attention paid to the deed after so many years of going through the same robotic motions. Another hand in a bush, another mouthful of words as he faced Hiiro once more and felt out the red leaves by their telltale smooth texture- far more pleasant than that of their rougher brethren. “If you ever feel like staging a coup, just grab a bunch of those purples, grind them into a powder and slip the stuff into my food, I’ll knock right out-”

“Nii-san, watch out!”

His eyes barely had the time to widen before he was being wrenched forwards by a small hand tight around his wrist, leaves falling haphazardly from his grasp as he was somehow pulled behind Hiiro in a feat of superhuman strength. There was an animalistic snarl that made all his hair stand on end, and a warning was only halfway out of his mouth as he tried to drag Hiiro back as well when a golden, fur-coated creature lunged savagely out of the bush he’d been rummaging around in seconds before and came straight in their direction, and-

-Hiiro’s cry of pain seared itself into his brain as cleanly as a sharpened blade through meat, and his fingers curled around the hilt of the knife in his pocket as quickly as breathing. Yanking his brother back by the arm earned himself another pained hiss that his mind stumbled over like a child over pebbles, his focus entirely fixed on tracking the path of that wretched animal that was cowardly sprinting in the opposite direction. Blood thudding dangerously in his heart and ears, he drew his right hand back and willed it not to tremble as he aimed for half a second, two-

Throw.

The sickening squelch of metal through flesh did nothing for him, but the dying scream of the animal definitely did. Properly safe from harm, yet having no time to dwell on it- “Hiiro,” he choked out, whirling around and nearly tripping in his haste to survey the damage for himself. Navy sleeves were stained shades darker to match the scarlet that marred the paler skin of Hiiro’s left arm, fabric ripped by sharp claws and exposing an obvious wound to the cold forest air. “Hiiro, are you-”

“Did you get hurt, Nii-san?”

The fear that tinged the younger boy’s tone was palpable, and Rinne felt his hand freeze in mid-air where he’d been reaching out to check the bleeding wound. Hiiro’s gaze ran frantically up and down his brother’s taller, stronger form as if he were the one who’d been attacked by a wild animal, as if Hiiro himself hadn’t had the quick and dismally terrifying instincts to shove Rinne out of harm in favour of getting hurt himself. “You can’t get hurt, Nii-san, you’re not allowed, so-”

“I’m fine, you’re the one who got your arm half ripped off,” Rinne interrupted, quickly taking hold of that limp, injured limb with as much care as possible and forcibly shoving away the guilt that threatened to submerge him as Hiiro winced at the slightest touch. You’re the one who’s hurt, and yet, and yet- “Worry about yourself for a change, the wound’s deep, I-” his tongue stumbled over syllables and his throat fought not to swallow his own words whole, his own fingers quivering where they gripped a small, thin wrist that was so horribly fragile like the rest of this boy was. The blood was so much, too much, and surely Hiiro’s tiny body couldn’t have been holding all of this crimson liquid in itself all this time, but the fact that it had been meant that there was so much more to lose. Panic flooded his senses like it’d diffused into the surrounding oxygen and he was inhaling it with every laboured breath, and keep it together, you have to keep it together- (but I can’t, what if I can’t?) “I can’t fix this, we have to go home, we-”

“I’m fine, Nii-san,” Hiiro said shakily, and Rinne’s head immediately jerked up to look at him again. The child’s face was deathly pale and his cheeks were wet with tears that pooled in his eyes with every passing second, but other than that, there was no evidence that he was feeling any pain at all- as if he were a doll, a clockwork toy who only did and said and felt at other people’s command. “It only hurts a little, so- a chief shouldn’t have to take care of things like this, I’ll just-”

“Are you stupid?”

A breath audibly caught in Hiiro’s throat, his eyes widening and going glassy once more though a fresh batch of tears had just blinked themselves down his cheeks. The implications of Rinne’s own words only slammed into him a second or so later, and he flinched as if he’d been physically struck, nearly dropping Hiiro’s delicate arm and only catching himself at the very last second. “I didn’t- no, Hiiro, I didn’t mean it like that, you aren’t stupid, I just-” 

There was a tiny sniffle, and Hiiro only lifted his right hand to scrub at his streaming eyes and face, his injured one still being held by Rinne- still so achingly obedient, even his chest heaved a quiet sob that could’ve been attributed to the pain, but was probably for something a little more. “If everyone says it, and Nii-san says it, then-”

“Hiiro, just-” he’s crying, he’s crying and he’s hurt and there’s so much blood and there’s metal in the air and there’s a dead animal lying somewhere on the ground with a knife in its guts to match the blood on your hands, and- 

-isn’t it your fault Hiiro’s hurt in the first place?

“We’re going home,” Rinne said tightly, and his skin felt like it was burning, sizzling like acid that only grew more corrosive the longer he held on to Hiiro’s still-bleeding arm, so he let go- only to quickly wipe the blood off on the black sash of his clothing the best he could before turning right back to Hiiro and slipping his arms around him to lift him in a princess carry. “You aren't walking in this sort of state, so cooperate.”

A hand gripped weakly at one of Rinne’s shoulders for support as they began to move forwards, and there came the inevitable protest amidst another sniffle. “But- your knife-”

“I’ll come back for it later,” Rinne snapped, and he felt the younger boy recoil. Perhaps he was meant to be kinder, to pat Hiiro’s head and reassure him that everything was fine and nothing was wrong, but that would be a lie, because everything about this was wrong, and it seemed like Rinne was the only person in the world who knew it. “Seriously, shoving me back and jumping in front of me to get hurt like that, what were you thinking-”

“It’s what I’m supposed to do,” Hiiro said quietly, head bowing slightly in shame, though he likely didn’t even know what he was being ashamed of at all. “The adults said- you’re the chief, so you aren’t allowed to get hurt. You’re the priority, so if anything happens, I should be your shield and armour, and-”

“And you just listened?”

Hiiro lifted his head to timidly meet his gaze, and more tears streaked down rosy cheeks with every blink. “Aren’t I supposed to?”

If they told you to drown yourself in a raging stream, walk into a burning forest of spirits, drive a blade into the spot where your heart dares to beat, all for my sake, would you simply obey as well?

(There was only one answer to all of that, and it wasn't a good one at all.)

The rest of their walk home was silent but for the occasional sniffle from Hiiro, and when they did make it back to the village, the elders and the children rushed to tend to their future chief with blood on his clothing rather than their second-in-command with blood on his skin. Hiiro was given quicker care as a result of his sibling's insistence, and the matter was seen as closed.

(The moon took her place as the night's lonesome guide soon enough, and a little after Rinne heard the village elders go to bed and the crying of children and animals to die away, he balanced his rucksack a little steadier over his shoulder, triple checked his pockets and tied his headband around his ankle where it wouldn't be seen. Feet light and perfectly soundless, he stole out of the village without a single look back or a single goodbye. This place that was as good as a noose around his neck, bore systems that pushed a mere child to stake his life for the sake of another just because he was told to-)

(He was done here. It'd be better for himself- for the both of them. Flowers would continue to grow, animals would continue to feed, and the world would keep spinning even if so many things inside of it chose to finally change.)

(He never went back to the forest for the knife. It'd stay there for as long as it could take, he supposed, tarnished and bloodied in the remnants of a rotting corpse- and perhaps someday, the ground would swallow it up in a pitiful, loving gesture, and it'd be crushed and morphed into a second beginning.)

•••

“-I’m telling you, it’s seasoning first, and then you fry-”

“Yeah, and this is my kitchen, Niki countered, giving his housemate’s hand a firm smack with the handle of a spatula and making him yelp. “Put that little of this seasoning at the beginning of the cooking and the flavour just fizzles right up into nothing. Ton of seasoning first, then a bit at the middle, then again at the end. Final rule.”

Niki was small, even for a bratty schoolkid who still stumbled over his shoelaces before sprinting off in the mornings to “make it before the bell”, whatever the hell that meant. Still, it seemed that size was no proper indicator of strength, especially when paired with use of kitchen utensils- Rinne winced, rubbing at his slightly reddened wrist that had faced the brunt of the smack after one too many attempts at taking the reins from the resident chef. “I’m just saying. Back at my village, we always did it in that certain way, and it tasted good, so-”

“Your village isn’t the only place that exists in the world, y’know?” The younger boy spoke mildly, as if whatever rings of fire he’d put up around himself had immediately simmered down after Rinne had stopped trying to grab at the spices near the stove. Perching on his tiptoes, he squinted down at the fish sizzling merrily in the wok that was at least three times larger than his head, then reached over to add some pepper. “You can teach me some of your hometown dishes sometime, and then I’ll follow all your orders, but for now, this is my food. It’ll be good, so just trust me.” He took a hearty sniff at the admittedly heavenly aroma that was filling the space, then turned to Rinne with an outstretched hand. “Pass me the ginger?”

Rolling his eyes as openly and obviously as he possibly could, Rinne took a step back to lift the chopping board with sliced ginger on it and handed it over. “Whatever you say, chef.”

It was strange, being the one to follow orders rather than give them himself, being the one people expected to obey rather than having it the other way around. Some adults were fussy about attitude, sure, but Rinne tended to get his way among children and peers more often than not- kids like Hiiro were practically born to obey him, and others just shared the common belief that Rinne was to be respected and catered to constantly at best, or completely avoided owing to his authority at worst. (Or maybe being avoided hadn’t been all that bad- loneliness was better than being fawned over by a bunch of idiots who didn’t feel anything real towards him, but just behaved the way they did as a result of brainwashing and gullibility.) Shiina Niki was, to date, the only child who’d ever had the guts to stand up to the eldest Amagi son, and somehow…

…it wasn’t all that bad. Part of Rinne was surprised at himself- annoyed as he felt from time to time when Niki was ridiculously stubborn and refused to listen to a single word he said, he couldn’t find it in himself to harbour any animosity towards the younger boy the way he might have had towards some of those village kids. It was fun, even, getting to quip and banter and have actual conversations that were of differing opinions and kicked ankle fights under the table, rather than just the future village chief saying this and that as everyone else nodded their heads and agreed like a bunch of halfwits. Niki not knowing a thing about the significance of Rinne’s position back at his hometown meant that to him, Rinne was just Rinne- not someone to revere and pander to, but someone he could engage in heated debates over peculiar gelato flavours and the best way to skin a goat with. There was no walking on eggshells or hurried hushing of tones when Rinne came by, all of that discomfort and total awkwardness replaced by boisterous laughter and cheeky remarks and swatting of hands away from biscuit containers.

Rinne voiced his points, and Niki fought back, and it wasn’t until a week of living with the younger boy had passed that Rinne realised just how much he appreciated that.

Maybe he was going insane. (And maybe it didn't matter.) The name Amagi meant next to nothing in the city, and in a place where he wasn't the future chief or the eldest son or the boy who had to hold himself prim and proper to be the village's prized example, he could be as insane and off his rocker as he wanted. Everything about this modern place was a breath of fresh air- the area, their home, and of course, Niki himself. It was as if the noose around Rinne’s neck had abruptly loosened mere seconds before it’d been about to snap his neck clean, leaving him gasping for oxygen with burning lungs and a hundred times more alive than he could ever be as a result.

“-adding the spring onions, too. Rinne-kun? Rinne-kun. Don’t doze off in the kitchen, you’ll get yourself burned,” Niki chastised, ever the stickler when it came to cooking safety and etiquette. Nodding towards the tiny bowl of chopped greens placed on a nearby countertop, he flipped the fish expertly in the wok with awe-inspiring amounts of arm strength that Rinne was slowly learning was normal. “Pour the stuff in for me, and I’ll keep sizzling them.”

Sizzling, huh. City slang was weird. “I wasn’t dozing off, I was just- spacing out,” Rinne defended, and the raised eyebrows Niki gave him were testament to how ‘spacing out’ clearly wasn’t any better of an alternative, but he couldn’t just say nothing. The spring onions were scraped carefully onto fish and gravy with the tip of a knife, and then both the utensil and bowl were deposited neatly into the sink. “You’re always asking me to bring ingredients over for you, how did you ever survive without your strong, dependable Rinne-kun by your side-”

“You’re free labour, so I get to exploit that,” Niki said brightly, adding a pinch of something or other into the gravy and stirring it around. “I don’t have to keep asking you for help, if you really don’t want me to. I can manage just fine on my own.”

That, Niki could indeed. Following him home on the day they’d first met, Rinne had imagined the sort of parents that would be waiting for them when they arrived- the sort of parents who’d brought up a kid willing to pick a stranger off the streets and bring him home with far too little suspicion, after speaking with him for no longer than a few meagre minutes. An equally kind, virtuous couple, perhaps, a home filled with love and closeness and all those magical things that rarely actually existed-

-but instead of having the door opened for him with a warm greeting, Niki rummaged around in his pockets for his own key to the apartment and let the two of them in together. Instead of the expected ruckus and chatter, they were met with empty rooms and pin-drop silence that Niki didn’t seem all that bothered by, creepy as living all alone in a home made for three had to be. Some ornaments were dusty and the photographs on the walls were years outdated, and while cabinets and cupboards seemed to be full of cutlery and assorted dishes worthy of plating up a feast, only a single bowl and a pair of lonesome chopsticks sat drying on the dishrack. The laundry basket was filled with clothing that could only belong to a child, and a stool had been pulled over to the stove to make up for the inadequate height of a middle schooler. Niki was certainly managing well on his own, questionable as his survival instincts were to give a stranger his only meal while on the verge of death himself, and Rinne…

…Rinne could respect that. Soldiering on and keeping oneself alive all alone in this rancid world was no easy feat, especially for a fourteen year old. Surely it got tiring, having to cook and clean and live each day without a single soul by your side, everything routine and quiet and so utterly lonely-

(-is Hiiro feeling lonely, too?)

(He’s younger than Niki is, yet you left him empty and defenceless in a place that won’t even try to recognise his worth. He looks up to you, thinks the world of you-)

(-even when you don't deserve it at all.)

If Rinne ever returned to that village, would he return as someone better, someone worthy of the love he'd been so unconditionally given? Would Hiiro even still be there, having waited all this time for a brother who left without a single whisper of farewell-

"Aaand, you're spacing out again," Niki declared with an exaggerated sigh, neatly hopping off his stool and leaving the stove in favour of grabbing a clove of garlic and ridding it of its skin with maximum efficiency. Any other kid might've had trouble wielding a silver, sharpened kitchen knife meant for adult-sized hands, but Niki used it to chop his garlic into perfect little cubes with practised ease. "At least get your head out of the clouds long enough to plate the fish. Everything's still boiling hot, though- careful."

"Right," Rinne said numbly, picking up one of their deeper dishes from the countertop and moving towards the wok. He transferred the fish and gravy into the deep, china plate like one of those automated characters that showed up in video games he found and played from time to time- controlled by some higher power, or maybe just programmed to behave in a fixed, certain way- nothing more, nothing less. (But he could change, he was definitely capable of it- he'd make himself capable if it was the last thing he did.) Rinne was fine here, so surely Hiiro was, too- the younger boy had the rest of their family and hometown for company, even if his brother had completely vanished off the face of the earth, where their village was concerned. There was little loss here, and Hiiro was better off- maybe even safer- without Rinne around, anyway-

There was a sudden, scalding point of contact against his skin, eliciting a pained hiss from between his teeth as he instinctively jerked back from the heated wok. "Fuck," he winced, hurriedly shaking out his burnt hand in some attempt to soothe it and ultimately failing to keep his balance with the other- the fish-gravied dish wobbled and tilted for a single, terrifying moment, before-

"Watch it!"

A hand swiftly lifted the other side of the dish upwards, not unlike those volleyball players Rinne sometimes glimpsed on passing sports channels, diving to the ground and making sharp, upward motions with their hands to keep airborne spheres from hitting the ground. Smooth gravy slopped right over the opposite rim of the dish and onto the floor, but the dish itself stayed steady enough for Rinne to quickly deposit it onto the countertop with an extra push from Niki’s end. An immediate glance downwards brought the sight of once-spotless tiles now stained with bludgeoning, unmistakable brown, and oh, that wasn’t good at all.

(He remembered a more familiar area, a more traditional kitchen, one where women wore clothes in darkened red and blue as per their village’s trademark hues. Those who wielded knives and ladles tended to be strict, and mistakes like this were always a disaster- a chief is meant to be graceful, a chief should never be so clumsy, a chief should be ashamed to waste the fruits of his subjects’ labours in such a devil-may-care way-)

A real chief would never be as careless and incompetent as this.

“Sorry,” Rinne blurted, hastily letting go of the dish and whirling around to search for tissues, or a cloth, or just something to sop up this horrying mess with. His burnt hand stung and throbbed by his side, but he gave it no attention save a slight wince he couldn’t quite suppress. Niki was younger than him by years, and by rule of hierarchy, Rinne didn’t need to apologise so profusely as if the boy was a middle-aged woman four times his senior wearing an authoritative apron and a disapproving frown, but- “Sorry, sorry. I- I’ll clean it up, don’t-”

It hasn’t even been a month, don’t be disappointed in me yet.

“Your hand,” Niki interrupted, eyes unnaturally wide and making his housemate freeze on the spot. Small palms were hurriedly wiped off on an oversized graphic tee before the former grabbed Rinne’s forearm and tugged him towards the sink, neatly stepping over the spilt gravy on the floor and prompting Rinne to instinctively do the same. His head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton, everything fuzzy and muted as his hand was pulled under running water that made him inhale sharply at the stark coolness of it, but even then, he couldn’t quite speak. He wasn’t one to be struck dumb very often, but when it did occur, he could never be sure of why. He let himself be pushed and pulled, Niki retrieving a small tub of ointment from a drawer and spreading an index finger’s worth of the pungent substance over the burn with care, speaking words like you’re lucky it isn’t bad and I told you to be careful and it could’ve been worse, so-

“Sorry,” Rinne whispered again, and he’d always been told that a chief wasn’t to lower himself to the levels of the masses by expressing his regret one too many times, but somehow, it seemed apt now. “Really, I- I didn’t-”

Niki blinked, tearing his gaze away from where he was placing the tub back in the drawer and pushing the furniture shut. “Y’know, it’s really weird when you apologise this much. Not just ‘cause of your whole high-and-mighty chuuni village thing, but this is a kitchen, remember? People mess up all the time.”

Yeah, but I’m not ‘people’. He was the leader, the authority, the older brother, the chief-

(...except you aren’t all of those things anymore, are you?)

He’d forfeited most of that- maybe even all of that- the moment he’d stepped out of his village for good. For better or for worse, he was a complete nobody in this endless maze people called the city- nothing but a persistent, snot-nosed kid to the adults he tried to get gigs with in attempts to further his dreams, nothing but an outlandish still-acquaintance to the person he’d had the luck to run into and be taken in by. Not a sibling, not a chief, but a nobody.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that quite yet. It was disorienting, sometimes, when he reached for power on instinct and found that he had none of it inside of him at all. But there were also moments like this- moments where his lack of power and title worked to his advantage, and maybe if he played his cards right, he’d be able to use this image of being a nobody to his advantage out in the real world as well.

No gambler put this much into a game only to fold, after all.

•••

Being forced to roll out of bed at the crack of dawn daily for a good portion of seventeen years tended to take a toll on a person, the routine embedding itself into one’s body and influencing their internal clock forevermore. Still, though Rinne found himself automatically waking up at ungodly hours of the morning more often than not, there still came outliers like this morning, where the alarm clock on Niki’s bedside table displayed a neon green 11 as the redhead groggily lifted his head from his pillow to check. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday…

Saturday. Niki was probably already up and about in their apartment, then- weekends meant the blessing of no school for thousands of overworked students across the country, and Rinne’s pint-sized housemate was no exception. The kid always seemed more eager to be awake than asleep, though, itching to try new recipes or watch some episodes of whatever cooking show was airing on a particular day, leaving the other half of their bed empty whenever Rinne opened his eyes on mornings like these. Flopping onto his back with a muffled groan, he blinked at the ceiling ten slow times before finally mustering up the willpower to drag himself upright.

Living with Niki for a good few months had brought about countless changes- learning every turn and hallway by heart, being upgraded from the couch to the bed (“If you kick me off, you’re going right back to the couch.”), and of course, being granted a space for his own toothbrush right by Niki’s in their now-shared bathroom. He got through his morning routine with his brain lagging behind his movements every few steps, then set off on his usual trek to the kitchen- the heart of their little home, for obvious reasons. There was music playing on the radio (loud enough to fill the space, yet quiet enough that it couldn’t be heard from the bedroom- Niki was considerate about the strangest things), and something Rinne assumed to be soup boiling on the stove, if the heavenly scent of it was anything to go by. And then, of course…

“You’re finally up,” Niki said brightly from the table at the centre of the room, looking up from the colourfully covered magazine he had propped up in front of him. Rinne gave a tired grunt in response, grabbing his usual glass from the dish rack before moving towards the plastic jugs on the countertop to pour himself some water. “I was wondering when you would- we’ve got to go to the shops later, we’re nearly out of sponges.”

“Roger that,” Rinne mumbled, waving his glassless hand as he stopped by the toaster oven to get the plate of fried bacon Niki tended to cook for his own breakfast, then leave extras of in this magical metal cuboid to keep warm until his housemate got up. Setting the meat and water down onto the table, Rinne took his designated seat, pulling some bread and butter towards himself to put a hearty sandwich together. “What’re you reading, a gossip magazine?”

“Found it in a drawer, it isn’t that interesting,” Niki said with a shrug, idly twirling a strand of hair around his fingers where it hung loosely by his cheek. “Ah- it’s got a couple of games you’re meant to play with friends, though, and those are pretty fun.” Clearly abandoning whatever article he’d been skimming through beforehand, the younger boy flipped through the smooth, glossy pages at record speed before reaching the one he was looking for. “Up for a questions game?”

“Still asleep, but we can try,” Rinne yawned, neatly topping off his sandwich with a buttered slice of bread. His brain was still in the process of getting itself together this morning, though taking an enormous bite of his food did help. “Do your worst.”

“It isn’t that kind of questions game. This is more of…” there was a contemplative hum as Niki let the magazine fall flat onto the table, resting a cheek on his palm as he peered at dual columns of text on each page that Rinne couldn’t read- his upside-down skills needed some work. “If you could only drink one type of beverage for the rest of your life, which beverage would you pick?”

“If I…” That sort of situation seemed highly improbable, but maybe the point of the game was to get one’s mind working in ways it usually didn’t. “I don’t know. Maybe that… citrus flavoured thing they sell at the supermarket downstairs? Lemon squash something.”

His housemate wrinkled his nose at him. “Isn’t that alcohol?”

“The one downstairs isn’t, but I could probably try mixing some beer into it,” Rinne muttered, and hey, maybe this game was pretty fun. “Their lager’s pretty cheap, I could get a can of each drink and-”

“Changing the subject,” Niki said loudly, though his expression looked a little more amused than exasperated at the idea of impromptu cocktail-making. “I’d pick… water, I guess. Most versatile, and I can still use it for cooking.”

Rinne arched an eyebrow, tapping two fingers against the edge of his plate. “The question doesn’t say you can’t use other stuff like wine and whiskey for cooking, it just says you can’t drink them.”

“Everyone knows you’ve got to taste stuff as you go, Rinne-kun.” Uppity, I see- “Alright, next one. Would you rather fight a raging crocodile or a raging tiger?”

“Crocodile,” Rinne replied immediately, syllables coming out a little muffled around his bread and bacon before he swallowed and continued. “A tiger could probably chase me even if I climbed onto a roof, but crocodiles are short. They wouldn’t be able to do shit like that.” Well, probably. “You?”

“Honestly? I think I’d just die.” That was a valid strategy, Rinne supposed, though he wasn’t a fan of it himself. Just rolling over and taking things without a fight wasn’t the style he’d been brought up on. (Some people were brought up on different principles, however- he knew that well.) “Okay, maybe something different. No food questions, no animal questions…” A careful finger moved over printed characters as Niki scanned the lines of text, only finding a fresh question at the bottom of the page and raising his voice a little to say it. “If the house- well, apartment- were on fire, would you choose to save a pet, your most prized possession, or the person you live with?”

The response came prompt, automatic- so quickly Rinne wasn’t even sure he was the one who’d said it at all. “You.”

Silence.

The older boy blinked, taking another generous bite of his sandwich before lifting his head, slowly chewing. Niki was staring at him with widened eyes, looking more or less dumbstruck, and that really wasn’t helping Rinne’s half-assed confidence that he was the one who’d given that reply. “What?”

“I-” The word came short, hesitant, cut off so quickly it was a miracle it’d found itself spoken at all. “Really? Me?”

What the hell were we talking about, again? Running through a quick mental playback of their conversation made him realise that he didn’t remember all that much of it, but regarding what he did remember…

Huh. He supposed he had chosen Niki, and actually meant it, no less. “I… guess? It’s not like we even have a pet to begin with, and prized possessions aren’t all that cracked up to be, and you’re pretty important, so… you’re fair game.”

“But-” it seemed that even after being awake for far longer than Rinne, Niki’s own verbal comprehension was the one that had taken a sharp dive. “I don’t really- you’d be better off saving a toaster, or something. Or a stove. Or a necklace to sell and buy another house with.” There was a faint laugh that sounded more uncertain than anything, and Niki wrung his hands together for a second or so before quickly dropping them onto his lap. “I’m not worth all that much, you know? All I can do is make food, and even then, I eat faster than I cook, so…” he gave a one-shouldered shrug, gaze fixed on the edge of the dining table. “Pretty useless on the whole.”

Rinne stared at him, mind still chugging along in some fuzzy attempt to piece together what the hell was going on. After a good moment of forcibly dragging his train of thought back onto the rails and properly rousing himself once and for all, he ended up with, “Are you fucking listening to yourself.”

“Sorry!” Niki huffed another laugh, this time quieter, almost self-deprecative as he waved his hands in a frantic never mind gesture- one that Rinne had never liked him using, really. The grey-haired boy had a smile on his face, but even an idiot would be able to tell that the expression was strained, and those hunched shoulders and slightly ducked head said far more than anything verbal ever could. “It’s just- yeah. Never mind. I’m probably pretty slow on the uptake, anyway, everyone always says I only know how to use my brain for food and nothing else at all-”

…compared to Nii-san, I am stupid. Everyone says so.

“-and I guess I am just a chef, so I should stick to that. I’ve heard Dad saying that I’ll never amount to anything else, which is kind of a good thing, right? I’m not sure I completely get the stuff he says half the time, but if a chef’s all I’m able to be, then at least I’ll be good at-”

“Niki,” Rinne interrupted, “shut up.”

The boy immediately did. Some quieter, more subtle part of Rinne bristled in irritation at how easily he’d obeyed, how quick he’d been to shut his mouth the second he’d been given the command to- everything about this was eerily similar to Rinne’s memories of a boy left behind in a village long gone, a village that had stepped over a chief’s younger brother and would’ve seen him dead were it to save a life they deemed greater. Even if that life was that of a boy no greater than any stupid, bumbling child- even if all lives were worth the same, and some even had shared blood to back it up. He hadn’t thought about this at length before, hadn’t had the reason to think about it, but now that he was staring straight at Shiina Niki, sandwich sidetracked and the latter’s words echoing around the insides of his head…

…the similarities between these two children were striking. The boy left behind, and the boy who’d been newly found- Hiiro, ever so headstrong and adorably stubborn when situation called for it yet maddeningly docile when given the chance, and Niki, a boy with endless confidence whenever he wore an apron and held a spatula in hand, yet ultimately lacked that confidence the moment he stepped into his regular clothes and put the utensils away. There was still a point of difference between the two, however, something Rinne hadn’t been able to ignore since the day he’d met Niki, and probably wouldn’t ever be able to.

The boy was naive and underconfident, quick to speak yet also quick to go quiet, but he also argued back over kitchen matters and hollered at Rinne to replace the toilet paper and kicked his senior rather painfully in the ankles when provoked in the slightest. Insisting on the most ridiculous seasonings, dragging Rinne by the hand to hunt for things in the shops no matter how much Rinne complained that he didn’t want to be here- Niki had his own mind, and though that could be said for every other human in the universe, this child wasn’t afraid to use it. He still retained his fighting spirit even when it directly contradicted that of another person, hadn’t been born and deliberately moulded into someone inferior and subservient and second in command-

(Perhaps one day, Hiiro would prove this all wrong. Perhaps one day, the boy would fight his way out of the boxes he’d been deluded into thinking he was trapped in, and he’d find his way to Rinne in the most unexpected ways, bringing with him all the drive and surety in the world. But for now, while the universe was uncertain, while everything was uncertain save the thoughts in Rinne’s own head, the things he knew were right-)

He couldn’t, wouldn’t let Niki fall into the arms of that thousand-headed creature that flung children straight to the ground and downtrod them beneath its feet. Silently nodding and letting others have their way, thinking he was worth nothing more than another person’s sibling or child (Rinne had heard Niki talk about his father, he’d heard him), throwing himself in front of furious animals for the sake of another person, maybe intrinsically out of love but also almost solely because he’d been given orders to do so-

Niki had the base potential for all of that, surely, if given the horrid chance. He was simple-minded in the worst of times, exceedingly vulnerable in moments of hunger and desperation, and above all, he’d been left all alone in a city Rinne himself couldn’t make heads nor tails of from time to time- and if Rinne could be at loss in the face of so many things daily, surely Niki found himself in similar situations as well. Left behind without a care, made to believe that he only had one single, straight-laced path ahead of himself in a life that had so much more to offer than just being a chef, or being an advisor to a chief…

Rinne would help him, then. He’d pry Niki’s options open and give him junctions rather than one-way roads, give him the choices that Hiiro never had- the choices that Rinne never had, but learned to fight for himself. Teaching Niki to do the same would probably be a Herculean task, but he refused to see the boy become all meek and obedient and all those horrible things people tended to dip into so easily. He’d push Niki this way and that, challenge and rile him up whenever he could, because at least that way, Niki would fight back the way he always did, and Rinne would know that the boy still had a spark in him, still had a life in him, a free will that made this universe worth existing in to begin with.

If you really think you’re this useless, if you really think a chef is all you’re capable of being in this world that lets us do practically anything, then…

…I’ll just have to prove you wrong.

“Hey, Niki,” Rinne said aloud, tapping lightly at the top of his sandwich with a finger and, upon brief consideration, lifting it to take another bite. “How good are you at singing?”

•••

The stage lights were just beginning to dim as Rinne stumbled behind the curtains with a bright laugh, one arm slung around Niki’s shoulder to hold him close as he dragged Kohaku along with his other free hand amidst the inevitable protests. “Best live ever,” he declared with a wide grin, and from the look on his unit members’ faces, the equally inevitable you say that about every live was definitely coming, so he hastened to intercept it with a forceful ruffle of their youngest’s hair. “Kohaku-chan really went all out tonight, sure knows how to work a crowd-”

“He went all out because he loooves us,” Niki teased, and the granola bar he was reaching for suddenly winked out of existence before he even got a finger on it. “Wh- stealing food’s a low blow, c’mon-”

“Y’know, there are a ton of other things you could eat if you’re down bad,” Rinne said conversationally, wiggling his eyebrows in the most convincing manner possible. “Maybe something like my- ow. I was going to say biscuits-”

“If everyone’s inherent need to act like a five-year-old has been duly satisfied,” came the interruption with a minute sigh, “it might do us all good to remember that we have a guest.” Right, we do- HiMERU had been entertaining their accompanying manager for the past few minutes, it seemed, just as charming with his public persona as ever. Always coming in clutch when they needed him- praiseworthy, the man was. "As I was saying, Aoi-san, tonight's performance was indeed thought up by Amagi. We did find the idea slightly far-fetched at first, but-"

“But I’m just so much of a genius you guys came around, yeah?” His interjection earned him an abysmally loud snort of derision from Kohaku, the latter currently engaged in a silent debate with Niki over the status of his granola bar. Trying to swipe the snack as a third party bore Rinne no fruit, so it was back to steamrolling ahead. “Absolute confidence in your leader’s nothing to sniff at, I guess-”

“More like, Rinne-kun might be a little off his rocker sometimes, but things work out. Usually,” Niki shrugged, giving a soft whoop of victory as he finally snatched the granola back and peeled the wrapper open in a single, practised motion, shoving about half of the flattened cuboid into his mouth to chew and swallow in record time. His words took on a more cheerful tone, then, mood clearly having improved after getting some much-needed nutrition. “And even if they don’t, everything'll end up fine- no matter what our idiot leader does, we’ll always be here to back him up.”

“Or rather, we’ll be here to pull him back on track,” HiMERU muttered, smoothly dodging Rinne’s attempt at smacking him over the head with minimal amounts of force. The former’s expression didn’t change even a millimetre, something that was sometimes intriguing, sometimes worrying, and more often than not had the potential for a future comedy skit. “Amagi tends to deviate so severely it’s a wonder we get anything done at all-”

“Ganging up on your poor lil’ leader again,” Rinne lamented, earning a soft titter of laughter from their listening manager. “You guys’re supposed to listen to me, be the good working bees you are and-”

“Just because we listen to ya fr’m time to time doesn’t mean you’re automatically king,” Kohaku scoffed, aiming a sharp, probably painful jab at Rinne’s ribs that he avoided by a hair, quickly jumping backwards and sticking his tongue out at the younger male like any decent, professional adult would. “We might be yer subordinates on wretched paper, but when it all comes down to it we’re equals in a game, aren’t we? I’ll take ya down in mahjong for the twentieth time later, not a lick of mercy fer a lout like you.”

…and jokes aside, that was exactly it.

Natural as the urge was to have control, to sound out the pawns and the strategies that always came with the game of chess called survival, it was a little less all-consuming these days- or at least something he could keep from being all-consuming. Part of him had been taken aback, all those months ago, around the very beginning of their formation of this little functioning system they called a unit- subordinates these three people were, and accustomed to Niki’s brazenness as he was, a smaller, more traditional part of his mind had automatically bristled at his underlings being so unservile. He’d been taught, as a child, that the members of a pack who disobeyed the orders of a higher power or majority tended to lead their entire clan astray, but…

Your village isn’t the only place that exists in the world, y’know?

They’d achieved a tenuous sort of balance here at Crazy:B- or perhaps the sort of balance that only seemed tenuous at first glance, but was really anything but. Constantly dragging one another rowdily around, squabbling and starting contests over the most meagre of things, regularly protesting against their poor, darling leader (he could feel Kohaku somehow sensing his thoughts and planning a fitting attack in response)- everything about the way they did things made outsiders roll their eyes, or even look down on them in disdain. Order was dismally rare, traditional principles like subservience were practically non-existent-

-yet there was still respect hidden beneath the words they said, the things they did. Respect that didn’t just stem from their roles of leader and subordinates, but rather from their roles as human beings- because they were just people at the end of the day, not kings or chiefs or leaders born for greatness that the world never let you get ahold of, anyway. Hierarchy existed, but only for the sake of it, for any decision that came to them was livelily debated over games of poker or mugs of hot coffee regardless of personal standing. (Unless, of course, Rinne took the initiative to make the decisions before anyone else had the chance to stop him.) There was no tiptoeing around one another under the blanket excuse of respect and inferiority, no keeping their mouths shut not because they genuinely agreed, but because the rules dictated they were meant to.

The environment they were cultivating, fighting for, living in at this moment was so blessedly far from that stuffy, suffocating village Rinne had escaped from all those years ago- he was freer now, given the chance to spread his wings and just do things without constantly worrying about getting things wrong or having the weight of the world his shoulders. (He wasn’t the sole person carrying the burdens around here, anymore.) Messing up wasn’t a cause for emergency, wasn’t some catastrophic deed- because even if he did, the rest of his unit would support him nonetheless, and even if he was completely hopeless, they still knew how to fight for themselves.

(That was important. It wasn’t as if he was completely absolved from responsibility, of course, but knowing that these people didn’t need his protection the way so many others once had, knowing that they were perfectly capable of handling themselves, with or without his direction or say-so… it provided a sense of security, a fallback that would never fail. They weren’t weak or helpless, didn’t blindly nod or pander to him in ways that made him want to rip his skin off, or scream at them to raise their heads because he wasn’t the sort of person people were meant to worship like some holy child put on a pedestal that made him want to retch. He was free to run amok as just another member of their unit rather than a leader specifically, and if he ever went too far, then- well, the other three would just pull him right back by the collar.)

(He had trust in that. Trust in them.)

Maybe they did rely on him just a little, as was natural. But when it all came down to it, he relied on them a fair amount these days, too, so what’s fair was fair. He wasn’t sure what exactly he’d been expecting when he stole off in the dead of the night all those years ago as a child, possessions slung over his shoulder and heart heavier than any object, any living thing was meant to be, but…

…it seemed like somehow, someway, he’d managed to fight just hard enough to get Lady Luck on his side, after all.