The lack of response hardly troubles Shouma. Between what they’ve just done and the warmth of their bed, he can see how Kanba’s priorities lie more within the circle of his arms and dozing off to sleep than making any attempts at passable conversation. It’s never easy to tell when he’s in the mood for pillow talk.
Kanba is no chef. He doesn’t consider himself to be one, anyway. That’s an area best left to Shouma (and sometimes Himari), where he knows his expertise will shine.
Still, when you spend a lot of days home from school to take care of your ailing sister instead, you end up watching far too much daytime television, and Kanba’s head is full of knowledge he never asked for in the first place. Who do they think he is, a housewife? Shouma’s a prime candidate for that, too, never failing to let him know when the opportunity arises.
These train rides are never pleasant. The red tint to each car and the swirling patterns on the floor are full of reminders of their past lives, past mistakes. It wouldn’t be such a surprise to see a red-eyed girl in a penguin hat pop up around the corner.
"I wonder what they’ll name them…"
"You saw, didn’t you? She’s gotta be carrying twins, or maybe triplets."
"I didn’t know you were such an expert about this…”
"Hey, I always was pretty knowledgeable with the ladies."
"I’m sure you were…"
Two figures stand near the head of the train. The irritation of the one is just for show, but that won’t stop the other from trying to smooth over the situation.
After a beat, they move closer to one another, white on black. Hands curl into the material of a heavy coat, features nuzzled below the neckline to avoid continuing to look at the nauseating sprawl of scenery that passes them by.
It’s no wonder that they prefer to travel through more conventional means.
"Probably. It’d be fitting, too, don’t you think?"
A thin line of lips can’t contain themselves from repeatedly pressing to the other’s brow, curving upward into a thicket of blue hair. The assault is unexpected, but the subdued nature of it—as well as where they are—keeps the mirth to a minimum.
"Could that have been us?"
"I’m pretty sure you can’t get pregnant, Shouma.”
Thud. ”You know what I mean.”
Clothing rustles, and white disappears into black a little more as arms encircle and tighten.
"…I guess it could’ve. Probably."
"Maybe Himari’d meet someone nice…"
"Over my dead body—!"
There’s some laughter, though it fades fast in favor of continuing to hold on, pressed together cheek to cheek.
"Mn. I hope they make it, though."
"Hey, they’re not us. They probably will."
Neither of them wants to acknowledge out loud that they’re the ones who aren’t meant to have anything resembling a future. It’d spoil the moment, and it’s nothing that they haven’t already known for years.
They don’t speak again until the train stops. A small, pink-haired girl is waiting for them as the doors open. Her smile is mysterious, eyes pinning down the boy in black in particular. The fact that she’s caught them in a mildly-suggestive embrace doesn’t seem to phase her in the slightest.
"So. Did you find what you were looking for?"
Eyes roll, and they make their way off the train, back into the real world.
"I think we did."
His tone is carefully neutral.
"Oh? Well done."
So is hers.
She—along with the train—disappear into the night, leaving the Takakuras in the center of a deserted station. Shouma worries at his hair, while Kanba shoves his hands into both pockets with a sigh. They’re exhausted; these trips often take a greater toll on them than they expect, in more ways than one.
"Let’s go someplace, then."
They’ll need time to process the rest of their day as they slowly make the journey toward the nearest ramen stand. There, they’ll reflect on the family that they never fully got to be, and the triumphs of their counterparts from another time, another place.
Shouma wants photos, if possible. Kanba just hopes the children will grow up happy and healthy. But who knows what the future will bring.
In the upstairs bedroom of their new home, there’s a keepsake box (or three) that Shouma likes to hide in the back of the closet.
As he gets older—though only on the inside—he finds that he harbors a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life, as well as the simple things done for him. Inside each box lies a bevy of material memories that he’s hoarded over the last decade or so; a minority of them are trinkets from the penguins and old items that remind him of Himari, but the majority of them come from Kanba.
It seems like a lifetime ago when their relationship was on shaky ground, nothing at all like the rock-solid foundation it has today. There’s no sense in dwelling on the far past when it’s full of mistakes that neither boy plans on making again. What interests Shouma are the series of events that followed in its wake, a second chance at a courtship with his brother that he thinks they missed out on the first time around.
Some tokens of their love are sillier than others: the first few months were full of more seahorse-themed gifts than Shouma thought he could handle. The more practical ones have been put to use in the kitchen and the front room, ranging from mugs to teapots, as well as a blanket that he’s unashamed of throwing over their couch in the winter months. He’s held on to the rest up here, jewelry that he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, yet intrigued enough by their designs to not bother with tossing them into the garbage. He has a hunch that Kanba knew this too, which explains why he’d never raised accusations about Shouma not wearing this or that.
Then there’s the otters, who nearly rival the seahorses in quantity. Initially Shouma wasn’t sure why he was getting so many of these when they were Kanba’s favorite animal, not his. In time he began to pick up on the assumption that these were supposed to serve as little reminders whenever Kanba was off on business. Before an unfortunate incident met with its untimely demise, Shouma still remembers a particular stuffed otter that he’d clutch tightly to him in the dead of night, occasionally plucking out the wrinkled, handwritten note that had accompanied it to read over and over again.
The note’s buried in one of the boxes, but having that by itself just isn’t the same.
He has other letters written to him from when Kanba was forced to roam for weeks at a time beyond the city limits. Many of them contained samples of his artwork that he’s steadily tried to improve since childhood, while a rare few are full of words of love and longing that Shouma never would have thought him capable of saying, not straight to his face. It’s these that he often seeks comfort from after a particularly bad day, or when something is keeping them apart for longer than he might have foreseen. Whenever such things get whispered to him in full, it’s even better.
Shouma’s proud of his collection. He’s guilty of sneaking up here on occasion just to bask in everything that Kanba’s ever given him. It gives him hope for their future, serving as an indicator that their indentured lives don’t have to be as hopeless as they sometimes feel. True, it’s a punishment, but there’s plenty of good things sprinkled among it that makes their daily existence more bearable.
Oops. He’s caught in the act; or almost is, shoving a box behind an old container of moth balls as Kanba sticks his head through the bedroom door.
"Sheesh, what’re you doing up here? I keep calling you…"
"S-sorry!" Shouma says, hurriedly shutting the closet doors to trot over to the doorway. "I was…cleaning…" Right, cleaning.
Kanba looks skeptical, but he shrugs. “Like you aren’t gonna have enough of that to do later. D’you really not wanna try my cooking that much?”
"You know I do," huffs Shouma, squeezing by the other to make his way downstairs.
Humming, Kanba watches him go, and takes a glance over at the closet before taking his leave. The wheels in his head are turning…but it’s something that he dismisses, trailing after Shouma to escort him.
Until recently, the Takakura brothers weren’t so sure. They’d spent the majority of their lives under the impression that they would never amount to anything, subject to whatever their cursed destiny had in store for them.
But now that their lives—their sister’s, too—have taken such a dramatic turn, there’s no telling what to make of matters anymore. Every day there’s a new trial to overcome, a new punishment looming over their heads, new and alarming feelings that threaten to swallow them whole, destroying everything in its wake. The world isn’t what it appears to be, not when it’s constantly overrun by bumbling penguins and a foul-mouthed hat that emphasizes the need for a certain drum, the key that will allegedly absolve those involved from their past transgressions, from their paths set in stone.
Bearing that in mind, the events of the last several hours are slow to sink in, process, comprehend. Two boys sit side by side in a hospital room that feels far warmer than it used to, given how safe and sound its current occupant is.
Takakura Himari rests easy, though the same can’t be said for the pair of good-for-nothing brothers watching over her.
Shouma, on the right, has a steadily-building need to break the silence that’s permeating the room. This is supposed to be a happy time, he thinks; Himari has recovered from her latest episode, their penguin companions are sitting quietly in a nest of knitted yarn (thanks to penguin number three), and, most importantly…Kanba is here.
Why wouldn’t he be? As bittersweet as it is to consider, Shouma didn’t think that his cries for help were going to go unnoticed if it concerned Himari. They hadn’t been on the best of terms for a span, and though it’s nothing unusual for them to be at odds with one another, they’re situations that Shouma is hardly a fan of, whether or not it’s his own fault. It’s twice as bad when the two of them have become fond toward each other in ways that they’re never meant to.
They’re fine with this, since they’re used to being abnormal, a black mark of a family who’s going nowhere.
Shouma clears his throat. “She’s stuck in bed for a while, huh?” He tries to keep his tone good-natured, neither wanting to put Kanba at unease or hearken back to the distress that he himself endured earlier in the evening.
When Kanba doesn’t react, he goes on: “We were lucky to have such a nice doctor looking after her—”
Nice, indeed, though he can’t if he’s ever see that particular pink-haired physician in the hospital before. But it’s late at night, and if he’s managed to make such a breakthrough with Himari’s condition, who is he to be so shrewd and suspicious? That’s more of Kanba’s field, and not his.
At no answer, Shouma turns to look at him. His face is blank, seemingly staring off into another world that’s far, far away from where they are now. All in all he seems incredibly gaunt and withdrawn, though the former’s to be expected when they’re both worn out from running ragged to this unexpected emergency, from having hearts in their throats as they awaited the verdict of precious little lamb either living or dying. The fact that she’s still with them is nothing short of a miracle.
Like a bear sleepily stumbling into springtime, Kanba shakes out of his daze, treats Shouma with an excess of enthusiasm he didn’t think he’d had. “You’re right!” he exclaims, then shifts to Himari with shining eyes that drink in her slumbering form. “Yeah…really lucky…”
This doesn’t bother Shouma, who knows how deeply Kanba’s devotion to Himari runs. He too can’t help but feel as though an immense weight is lifted from his shoulders; that for the first time, things seem as if they really will turn out for the best. There’s a deep, dark part of him ready to protest that, proclaim that there’s no escaping the punishments destined for their family, something that he’s choosing to selfishly ignore in favor of finding a small scrap of peace. He doesn’t know if or when the next opportunity for such a thing will arise.
What does affect him is the lack of warmth in the hands that were—still are, he notes with a waning smile—holding his, a paleness in the skin that he’s never seen in all his life. Is this all from fatigue, or is there something else that Kanba is hiding?
He turns one of Kanba’s palms over, lightly runs his fingertips over the creases there. That gets his attention, eyes widening as they blink rapidly in surprise—Shouma isn’t normally one to be so openly affectionate, not in public, not when a doctor or nurse could walk in on them at any time. Just sitting down and holding hands in their vigil was a feat that Kanba could scarcely believe when it first happened.
"Aah?" That’s his unintelligible question, not knowing what else to ask of Shouma when he’s so taken aback.
Shouma’s smile widens, though it’s quick to depart after he too looks over to Himari. “You’d tell me…if something was wrong…right…?”
The words drip slower than molasses, and make Kanba’s brow crease in a frown. “Wrong with what?”
"Us." Shouma’s eyes are fascinated with the floor tiles. "You."
"Of course I’d tell you—" It’s a reply that comes way too fast, way too sharp, and Kanba winces, fingers tightening across the expanse of Shouma’s hand. "Of course I would," he says, softer.
He isn’t lying. Mostly.
"But you will." Gaining a bit of confidence, Shouma lifts his gaze, roaming over Kanba again. Very thin, very pale, lifeless; he looks like he belongs in a hospital bed as much as Himari does. "You’ll tell me."
"Yes," says Kanba, afraid of what might happen if he dared to say anything but.
Green eyes close, not wanting to look at a matching pair as he does this. Don’t ask me stuff like this, I can’t— "…I promise."
"…okay." Shouma lets their hands fall.
Puzzled, Kanba watches him rise, setting his panic aside at the realization that he’s probably just getting up to stretch, needs a glass of water, a visit to the toilet that can’t wait any longer.
Instead, Shouma is peering out of the door to their room, checking for interlopers and passersby. When he finds none, he steps back to Kanba, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and pressing his face into a sea of stringy scarlet hair.
Kanba touches an arm that covers him, unable to do more from where he’s seated. “Shouma.”
The rest dies in the cotton of his mouth, and they stay like that for a time, till a nurse in white interrupts them with fresh tea and extra linens to warm them.
Penguins shuffle amongst aisles and aisles of books that stretch as far as the eye can see. They’re hard at work, while Shouma is not, tapping pen to paper as his brow furrows at the blank page. There’s something that he needs to jot down, but he can’t remember what…
Ultimately, it ends up not so much being a letter as it does a list of this and that:
cabbage rolls (what do you like to put in them) favorite novels favorite movies earl grey tea grey socks (you’re missing a pair for the winter) grey suits (you look nice in them) concert tickets call masako
The last entry is scratched out, and Shouma sighs at the sight.
He has a lot left to do in the day before this page of things to talk about with Kanba gets filled out completely.
In a plain, unmarked envelope handed off to penguin number one, there’s nothing within that really resembles a letter at all; instead, it’s filled with page after page of drawings, primarily of wildlife that Kanba’s seen on his travels. Included are more cartoonish caricatures of sea creatures, from sharks to jellyfish, whales, penguins, even kelp.
One particular sketch depicts an otter curled around a fishbowl, its nose lovingly pressed to peer at the tiny seahorse that floats away inside.
On the final page, buried in the confines of more miscellaneous pieces—silhouetted, faceless figures on a moving train—some space has been allocated for at least a few lines of words to be sloppily scribbled out.
Remember those poems we used to read at bedtime? I always thought that one about the general who kept seeing his wife’s face in his tea was kind of strange, but I think I get what it means now. I can’t escape your face either.
In the kitchen drawer, there’s a crumpled-up note that still bears the sticker of the golden star it was sealed up with. In the barely-legible characters of a six-year old girl, it says:
dont tell him i said this but i think kan-chan likes you alot
The bottom once read “Himari”, but the signature is long-since smudged.
Accompanying a pair of bejeweled, tree-shaped pendants, a certain letter reads:
To my sons
Your mother probably told you this already, but until your names started to stick, I just called you #1 and #2 a lot of the time. Sorry.
Anyway, now that you’re older, it’s time for me to pass these on to you. I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get an extra replica made for the both of you, so you’d better hold on to these.
If I had a say in it you wouldn’t need them, but it’s what your aunt wants, so I can’t really argue with that. You’re more than just Takakuras, after all.
Take care of them.
The scrap of notebook paper hastily handed to Kanba at two in the morning is no love letter; it’s a grocery list.
"Don’t forget the dried anchovies!" Shouko yells after him as he dashes out the door, ignoring the agitated kick in her belly for emphasis.
"Blech! Shouko-chan wouldn’t be caught dead in that!"
"Haa, you think so—?"
"I know so! Which is more than I can say for you, Kanba-kun…"
Adrift in the uncharted territory of a high-class department store, Kanba scratches his head in confusion. Maybe she’s right; he doesn’t know the first thing as far as jewelry concerned, let alone what makes for a good birthday present, or what looks fetching on Shouko.
"Of course you don’t know anything," Ringo crows next to him, reading his expression plain as day. "Why do you think I’m here?”
"…" Kanba can’t tell if this is a trick question or not. "Bonding…?"
Thunk. Ringo gives him a fair whack over his arm, shaking her wrist out afterward. He’s unsure of if he should thankful that it hurts a great deal less than her blows to him in the past have.
"Honestly," says Ringo, continuing to give him a piece of her mind, "your whole family can’t do anything without me, can you?"
That wins a short laugh out of Kanba. “I guess not.”
They stand shoulder to shoulder in front of a display case of earrings. Kanba was certain that choosing any of these would be a satisfying token for Shouko, but now that he’s gotten scolded for the idea, he’s starting to have second thoughts. Is it really so lousy?
Feeling some sympathy for the guy, Ringo softens by degrees, decides to enlighten him with what she thinks is best. “You can’t get Shouko-chan anything flashy from here,” she says. “It sounds like a great idea, but they’re just going to be hidden by all that hair of hers, you know?”
Kanba never considered that… “Her hair,” he echoes lamely, feeling foolish.
"That’s right. Sure, she could wear it up, but you know how much work that is for her."
Ringo forgives him for being…overwhelmed, and the patting she gives Kanba is only slightly awkward.
"Ah, is the happy couple having trouble making up their minds…?"
Their heads turn toward a busybody of a salesman, who’s either overheard their plight, or decided to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong. Nonetheless, Kanba puts his hands up in defense before the man can heckle them any further than he already has. A couple? Him and Oginome?
"Who, us—?! N-no, you’ve got the…" Stuttering, he looks to Ringo, who merely blinks back at him in silence. "No, not us, we’re…no, no, no, no, no, no…"
This goes on until the salesman picks up on the hint and departs, uttering some choice words under his breath that luckily escape everyone else’s ears.
Kanba sighs, slumping over—and gets hit more forcefully. “Ow!”
"Thirty-seven ‘no’s? Really?!"
"Do I not look like a catch to you, Kanba-kun?!"
"Jeez, I’m sorry…!"
"I’m telling your precious fiance when we get home!”
"Sorry, I’m sorry…" Kanba rubs at his probably-bruised arm, wincing.
Ringo still appears none too pleased, examining her fingernails closely. “I don’t know how she puts up with you…”
He doesn’t need to ask who. “Like an angel, thanks for asking…”
As she spins away from him, Kanba worries briefly if this is going to be the end of their outing. He doesn’t want to be stuck here by his lonesome, goaded into buying more things than he needs, when all he’d like to do is make Shouko’s birthday—her first adult one, at that—something special. There isn’t much time left to do so.
To his relief, Ringo’s moving on to a different display, seemingly forgetting their altercation. “Are you coming?”
Nodding, Kanba jogs to keep pace with her, fascinated at the other baubles strewn everywhere.
Ringo’s lips are pursed, as if thinking of something important. “Hey, Kanba-kun…”
"How much money are you spending on this, anyway—?" The girl stops, tilting her head over at Kanba. "It’s none of my business, but I know how much you’ve put into the wedding already, so…"
Kanba frowns again. This is a topic he doesn’t care to discuss so openly, but he supposes that she has somewhat of a right to know. “It’s…” He worries at his hair, unsure of how to phrase it. “It’s the last of that money, so…instead of having it lie around, I thought I’d put it all into this…”
Ringo taps her fingers against her chin, thoughtful. After she absorbs this information, she nods once, satisfied. “That’d make sense, huh? If you don’t do it now, there may not be another time…” Nodding to herself as well, she redirects her focus to a selection of necklaces. “Sorry for asking.”
"Nah. It’s good for you to know, too."
"If you say so."
Shrugging, Kanba follows her line of sight. Some of these look like they’ll be expensive enough for him to a foot a generous bill, but he’s as clueless as ever to what would suit Shouko the best.
"Maybe this one?" Ringo points it out for him: a delicate chain that carries a small pendant made out of diamond, if not something similar.
"Or if you need something bigger—"
"N-no!" Kanba’s face is getting flushed, and he gapes a little at Ringo. "I mean…are you sure it’d be okay?"
"You like her neck, don’t you?"
"Aah…!" Now he’s definitely turning red.
Ringo laughs at his pain. “Don’t be embarrassed, it’s one of Shouko-chan’s best features.” She would know, she’s thought plenty of it as well; though that’s information Kanba doesn’t need to find out. There’s no sense in tormenting him with her desires of a woman she can no longer win. “Really, though,” she says, “it looks pretty good to me, but I’m not her.”
"Well, if you really think…" Kanba inches closer to get a better look. The pendant, while noticeable, is a small enough size to not draw too much attention to itself. It glitters when the light hits it in just the right way, and its quality as a whole seems nothing short of superb to his untrained eye. Hopefully it still is to the right one, as well.
“I think you should go for it,” Ringo urges him. “Any woman would be lucky to get something like that.”
"Hey, I would."
Her comment strikes him strangely, but she’s looking away from him, so Kanba figures it’s a good idea not to pursue that.
Grabbing a less-pushy salesman than the one they encountered earlier, the purchase is made, and they soon find themselves standing out in the street, Kanba clutching a velvet box bewilderingly while Ringo looks upon him with pride.
"Well done! You’re a classier man than I pegged you for, Kanba-kun."
"Wasn’t it your idea to come here…?"
"Never mind that!" Ringo waves it off, and steers Kanba by his untouched arm away from the department store, and through the rest of the district they’re in. "Come on, I’ll buy us lunch."
"You? Buying me something?” Kanba can hardly believe it.
"Hey, if you’ve got more yen to burn…"
Now that she mentions it… “Ah, never mind.”
"As expected of the classy Kanba-kun. Now, hurry up!"
Struggling to catch up to the ever-exuberant Oginome Ringo, Kanba hopes that she doesn’t plan on making a habit of these outings as the days tick down to his wedding.
Kanba doesn’t need to think twice about who’s on the other end: this particular time of day is always set aside for Shouma, who likes to check in with him every two or three days when he isn’t otherwise occupied in the library annex. It’s a poor substitute for real contact, but it beats typing messages into their cell phones that eventually boil down to the same old wishes of I miss you so much, come home soon.
And it never hurts to get to hear Shouma’s voice.
"Hey," he says, silently wishing the rest of his body was as warm as his tone is.
"Hey yourself." Shouma doesn’t sound as exerted as he does—Kanba can picture him having just made dinner (or eaten it with the penguins, perhaps), settling down in the kitchen for a while to talk to his partner on the road.
Dinner sounds good right now. Kanba’s stomach growls, reminding him of the meals he’s skipped in order to make time.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by Shouma, apparently, whose begrudging concern can be heard from hundreds of miles away. “Jeez, Kanba, did you forget to eat again…?”
"Didn’t forget," Kanba explains, politely declining the dried fish that penguin number two holds up to him. It’d figure that on the week they decided to switch companions, he’d get stuck with the one that has food on the brain. "Just decided not to."
"Honestly…" There’s some rustling from Shouma, and any mental images of loitering in the kitchen are laid to rest. Kanba’s heard that enough times to know when and where Shouma’s probably laying…judging from the sound, he must be curled up in the faithful red chair that used to belong to their sister, not their newer couch or the recliner upstairs.
All of those sound like nicer places to be in than getting stuck out here in the cold. Kanba hums into his phone, a little wistful, not wanting to spark a lecture on how he should be taking care of himself while abroad.
Fate’s on his side tonight when Shouma deigns not to continue scolding him, moving on to other pleasantries. “Where are you?” he asks, often curious about the number of places that Kanba gets sent to, the lives he’s saving.
"Nagano," replies Kanba, breaths growing heavier as he walks. "It’s freezing here."
"I bet." There’s more rustling; Shouma’s moving around on the seat cushions, tucking his knees in to get more comfortable. He pats the head of a wandering penguin absently—oh, it’s penguin one—who climbs up with him, looking at the telephone with interest. "Looks like someone’s lonely," he adds, continuing with his brusque patting (Kanba’s penguin was never one for smothering signs of affection).
"I know the feeling…" Kanba stops to do the same, though it’s more in the form of plopping down unceremoniously onto a bench, holding up penguin two in his lap. "This little guy never shuts up when we bed down for the night."
"Is he okay…?" It wouldn’t be Shouma if he didn’t slip into the mindset of an overly-concerned mother every once in a while. "Are you feeding him? Do you take a lot of breaks? You know his feet get when you’re up for too long…"
What Kanba doesn’t tell him is how the poor thing ends up taking a ride on his shoulders more often than night. It’s lighter than it looks, so he doesn’t really mind—especially during the moments when he pretends that the beak nuzzling into his messy curls isn’t coming from a penguin at all, but from Shouma.
Like their phone calls, it’s a poor substitute, but he’ll take what he can get.
"That’s good." The answer seems acceptable to Shouma, letting some silence sink in for a spell while while he listens to his brother’s breathing, contemplates what he’s in the middle of doing right this second. "Did it snow?" is what he settles on asking, not willing to end their call just yet, but a bit clueless on what else they can discuss.
"Sure did." Kanba’s brushing some of the snow in question off of his bench, off of his shoulders, off number two, who couldn’t care less. "You’d think I could get sent somewhere else in the winter—like down to Okinawa…"
"Do you really want to go there?” wonders Shouma, skeptical.
Now Shouma laughs, wishing for a second that it wasn’t the smooth plastic of his phone that he’s unconsciously caressing. He stops after realizing what he’s doing, embarrassed, though there’s no one besides a sleepy-eyed penguin to see it. Said penguin appears to be much more concerned with holding his free hand in its flippers, anyway. Must be what Kanba’s in the mood for doing…
"Idiot," Kanba grumbles, equally distracted by a penguin curling into his chest. Like Shouma, he wants it to be somebody different, carding fingers through the fluffy feathers all the same. "…I miss you."
This is where it starts to break down. The smile Shouma gives into the receiver is wan, wiggling out of number one’s hold to brush a thumb next to its beak. “I know,” he says, well-versed in acting much more calmly than he feels on the inside. It wouldn’t do to blubber to his brother that he needs to come home, fill in the empty seat at their dinner table, the emptier space in their bed. “Are you leaving soon?”
"Hopefully…" There’s the momentary sound of rustling paper; Kanba’s flipping through the journal he keeps, most likely. "There’s a salaryman I have to track down tonight before he’s too drunk to remember anything."
Shouma rolls his eyes, not envying his position. “Make sure you don’t get drunk too, okay…?”
Kanba snorts. “It’s less fun without you,” he says. As an afterthought: “…everything is.”
Nothing articulate comes to mind from a clumsy compliment like that. Shouma’s mouth twitches upward, and he shuts his eyes, wanting to pretend he’s not just laying against the love seat cushions any longer. It’s fleeting, and he knows his bone-deep sigh is just as shared by Kanba, who does the same. “I’ll let you go,” he slowly says, figuring he shouldn’t make this more worse for them than it is.
"Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow."
??? ”You will…?!”
Kanba shrugs, forgetting that the other can’t see it. “Hopefully. I’ll try my best.”
"…okay." A pause. "I love you."
The shimmer in penguin two’s eyes—as Kanba sneaks a peak down at it—borders on nauseating, and he quickly looks away. “I love you. Goodnight.”
Both of them have a feeling they’re going to have to put up with some very out-of-character penguins tonight, but in the position that they are, it’s just par for the course.
Shouma doesn’t appear to have understood the question; he looks at Kanba, the store clerk he’s been chatting with, and back again.
"Why not? It’s a nice day, the sun is shining…"
That does sound nice, Shouma admits to himself. Being given an extra hour most afternoons from the powers that be to do as they please—lunch, presumably—isn’t something that the boys normally take advantage of. If they do, eating tends to be the last thing that’s on their minds.
Needless to say, it’s quite unexpected to actually be taken out today. The fact that it’s at this particular café simply sweetens the deal, in more ways than one.
Ah, he shouldn’t keep Kanba waiting. He nods once, smiling so broadly that his cheeks might be hurting a little. “Okay.”
That’s what Kanba likes to see. Pleased, he returns to his conversation, makes the arrangements, and moves to escort Shouma outside with a wink. “I knew you’d see it my way,” he says, though he wasn’t really expecting otherwise.
Shouma snorts, confirming as such. “Why would I say no to you?”
"I don’t know…" Kanba plans on leaving those thoughts unfinished. The past is the past, and there’s nothing they can do to change anything that’s happened.
He’d prefer to focus on the positives: Shouma’s eyes widening at the carrot cake placed in front of him, for instance. His big brother chuckles softly, less enthusiastic when it comes to his own slice of rum raisin, but still just as eager to devour it.
Before they start, buffered by Shouma’s subdued thanks for the tea, he stops, considers something. “You know—”
"Eh?" Kanba’s already muttered his blessings, and has a mouthful of cake as he looks up at Shouma.
Rolling his eyes at the sight—pity he can’t take a photo of Kanba’s stuffed cheeks at the moment—Shouma continues, “This isn’t really what I’d call lunch, Kanba.”
He’s just poking fun at him. The redhead shrugs at the comment, keeps eating. “S’not like we have as much of a need to…”
That’s true. After all these years they never have gotten around to determining exactly what it is that they’re supposed to be; cursed humans, ghosts, or perhaps some other type of individual entirely. As such, it’s hard to notice when they’re fatigued, starving, or any other kind of condition that would bog the average person down. Kanba often claims that he’s doing it out of habit, whereas Shouma doesn’t want to think about the possibilities of not being normal ever again, choosing to continue doing what he always does.
Regardless, they’re here for some cake and company, and they’re both content with that.
A comfortable silence reigns for a short while. Shouma spends a lot of his time watching Kanba, who slows down on his food, drinks his tea, meets his eyes periodically only to look away, face slightly flushed.
It’s cute, Shouma thinks, and he sighs happily. “We haven’t been here in a while,” he says, taking a look at the scenery, the people in the street who wander by.
"Not since that one time," agrees Kanba, choosing to let go of those thoughts as well. He doesn’t want to dwell on the first year or two they’ve spent on their own, the mistakes he’s made and what he’s tried to do in order to correct it.
Thankfully Shouma is of the same mind, nodding at him, finally taking a sip from his teacup. He’s happy to leave it at that, though his other hand rests on the tabletop, crawling along at a snail’s pace to reach for Kanba’s, let their fingers brush ever so slightly.
Kanba looks lost in thought, lightly reciprocating the action, but making no further movements. After a pause, he declares, “Haa, I remember when I first brought you here…”
Shouma isn’t prepared for that sort of statement. He blinks rapidly, giddier at that news than anyone should be; he knows the difficulty that the other has in remembering their past lives, distorted as it is from putting up with interference from the penguin hat multiple times. “You do?” he asks, leaning forward in anticipation.
"…" Kanba raises an eyebrow, patting his hand. "Calm down," he laughs, and slouches in his seat, trying to think.
A minute passes before he can properly say what he wants to. “I saw a TV couple while you were out,” he explains. He can’t remember if he was watching the news, a television drama, or something else. It might be the second one, given his daytime habits, but he wouldn’t want it to be revealed, and made fun of some more. Clearing his throat, Kanba adds, “I guess I wondered what it’d be like if we tried…doing some of that stuff…”
Looking back on it now, of course, he couldn’t be happier that he made the decision to, even if the so-called “date” was a little rough at the beginning.
Shouma just smiles at him. “I’m glad we did,” is all he says.
The silence returns, and Kanba shoves the last piece of cake into his mouth, faintly sad now that it’s gone.
Not knowing if he can finish the rest, Shouma pushes his aside, wonders if his next question is worth asking. “Do you…remember anything else? From that day?”
He doesn’t expect him to, secretly impressed when Kanba mentions, “Parts of it…”
Since he doesn’t elaborate, Shouma’s willing to drop it, smiling further when more of his fingers are caressed and held across the table, not minding his sibling’s feeble attempts at a public display of affection. They could do plenty more, but he appreciates the discretion.
Their hour is running out, and while Kanba hates having to be the voice of reason, one of them is going to have to do it eventually. “We should go,” he sighs, swallowing what’s left his tea.
Humming in agreement, Shouma nods, takes their dirty dishes into the café. He doesn’t need to, well aware that it’s the staff’s job, but it wouldn’t feel right if they simply left them alone, in his opinion.
It’s something Kanba shakes his head at, taking his hand fully as they leave, cinching their fingers together.
After the first block, he says, “I never did get to thank you.”
"…?" Shouma’s confused. Thank him for what?
"Back then," Kanba clarifies, hesitant to look over at him, though he does. "For coming along."
Oh, that. It…makes sense, Shouma supposes, given how fresh their relationship was at the time. They hadn’t officially established what their arrangement was going to be past Kanba pinning him to the floor every other night, making near-unreasonable demands every time he tugged him into an empty restroom at school, or under the bleachers after one of them had finished with gym class. At that juncture he could have easily said no, scolded Kanba for setting his sights so high, that what they were already doing was fine. They didn’t need to be a real couple, that pretended to do so was twice as wrong as what they were up to.
He could have, but instead he said yes, let’s go, wondered what it was that Kanba had in mind.
"You’re welcome," Shouma says at length, preoccupied in warmly remembering all the other things they did that day; the happenstance of the hot springs, their train ride, Kanba’s startling gentleness when they were alone in their room and where exactly that took them.
It’s impossible to tell if Kanba is thinking the same thing as they go further down the street, but the way that he’s tugged closer and learned on as they walk is enjoyable all the same.
He wouldn’t mind spending more afternoon breaks like this.
Kanba is distracted; not by their menial discussion over tea, but by trying to figure out what it was that happened to them the night before, how they ended up tangled together like long-lost lovers, and why he’s having such difficulty in finding the answer.
They aren’t legal adults, and it wouldn’t be Shouma’s style to accept alcohol in the first place, so they can’t blame it on anything of that nature. He also doubts that it had to do with any outside interference, seeing as how the last thing that stalker girl would probably want is for her tentative acquaintance with Shouma to end up compromised. Doesn’t she have a thing for him, besides? Kanba’s memories are muddled on that as well, though that has more to do with an overall lack of interest.
He shudders to think who else might be behind this. Masako? Plausible, perhaps, though unlikely. She’d have nothing to gain from this when the reputation of the Takakuras, as far as he’s concerned, was already run into the ground for years.
As much as he hates to admit it, this might be something he needs to ask Shouma about.
"I’m going to take a shower."
Kanba watches Shouma leave the table, retreat to the bathroom. The sensation of a penguin tugging on his arm stops him from having second thoughts, and it’s after a long moment of indecision that he gets to his feet, following after him.
He has no idea what’s convincing him that he’ll find his answers underneath a showerhead, or why it sounds so good in the first place to join his brother in there, but it’s something that he can’t just leave alone.
II. The first 1,000 minutes
Shouma can’t go back to sleep, but that isn’t something he wants to publicly announce, not when it’s still pitch black outside. He considers leaving the futon—he can’t tell if it’s his or Kanba’s, now that one of them is missing—then realizes that there aren’t many other places he can go. With a flashlight or candle, he supposes he could read a book, double-check his homework while he has the time, or some other quiet activity that won’t disturb his bedmate.
On the other hand, that would mean having to leave him. As…strange as this arrangement is, part of him doesn’t think it’s so terrible, either, to be laying beside his twin. His head’s been pillowed on his chest for the majority of the night, feeling a lot more secure and at ease in this position than he thought he was going to be. It helps that Kanba hasn’t tried any funny business ever since they retired, partially dreading (and yearning) to be seized like he was two times prior, made to moan and writhe and so many other unspeakable things he never thought he would do.
Underneath him, Kanba stirs, and his heart stops for a split second, anxious to know if his mind is being read somehow and their so-called adult activities are going to begin anew. Shouma’s ashamed to feel so relieved when all he does is roll over onto one side—
—bringing him along for the ride. Oh.
Is he asleep? Kanba’s movements are sluggish, so it’s a possibility. Being trapped in the circle of his arms like this still isn’t something that Shouma’s fully adjusted to; like earlier, it’s nothing loathsome or troubling, though it does make his face grow hot, and his body restless when he recalls the other ways that Kanba’s embraced him today.
They haven’t specified whether this was a one-time affair or not. It surprises Shouma that he’s not necessarily opposed to the idea of having it continue, the longer that he thinks about it.
A shudder courses through him, huddling closer to Kanba, parting his legs with a thigh in spite of the thinness of their pajamas. He can’t be entirely certain but he thinks he can still feel Kanba moving above him, face tilting down to sleepily at his bangs, press his face into the hollow of his neck and kiss him there. Briefly Shouma wonders if it’s going to escalate from here, relaxing slightly when there’s nothing further past a soft sigh and the continual slow sweeps of his lips that eventually come to a stop.
If every night was like this, Shouma definitely wouldn’t see a reason to say no.
III. The first 1,000 days
Three years—or something close to it, give or take—is a long time for anyone of the same age to have a lasting relationship, in Shouma’s eyes. He’s seen countless couples split up for arbitrary reasons, ones that never would have it past three days, let alone as long as he has.
The beginning was by no means easy, and until recently, things weren’t always so nice. But he thinks that he and Kanba are in a fairly comfortable spot at the moment; they understand now what’s expected of them as boys who are no longer of this world, and any former grievances they may have had with one another are, for the most part, laid to rest. He knows there are days where Kanba struggles with his guilt, feels responsible for the position he’s put them in and the trouble he caused in their old lives.
It’s on those days where Shouma will reassure him that it’s fine, that he loves him now more than ever. And it’s never not a thrill to be told the same ten times over, especially when they’re backed up by a pair of extremely persuasive hands, and additional saccharine-sweet words he wouldn’t expected Kanba to say, not to him.
Occasionally they can’t shake the thought that this isn’t where they’re supposed to be, it isn’t how their story planned on ending. Kanba often laughs at bringing it up, brags about the notion that they’ve somehow cheated fate, given God a taste of his own medicine by ruining his plans. Shouma doesn’t know if he can say the same, not with all the restrictions they have to adhere to, how they can’t see Himari and live normal lives.
Then again, if their love for each other can survive a thousand days, if not longer, then perhaps there’s something to be said for feeling at least a little smug over their relative success.
He has to fight the urge to call her Shouko-chan, like when they were younger—chances are that it’d hurt more than help.
Kanba sighs into his pillow, at a loss for what to do.
"You’re still mad, aren’t you?" he asks.
Given that Shouko won’t roll over to him in their futon, it’s safe to say she’s definitely still mad.
Contrary to popular belief—and periodic reassurance from his sisters—Kanba is neither a perfect big brother, or boyfriend, or husband. He’s tried hard to be the first two in the recent past, tries hard now to be the third, but often comes up short through no fault of his own. Generally these slip-ups are minor, and easily forgiven; so it’s all the more frustrating when he’s had to endure the silent treatment for the last three days without knowing where he’s gone wrong.
So far he’s spent that time hoping to determine what it is that’s rubbed Shouko the wrong way. Was it because he forgot to bring in the laundry? Bought her decaf instead of regular coffee? Is it due to…no, he’s held himself back from getting too amorous. They haven’t made love in over a week, no thanks to their busy schedules that never give them room to meet in the middle, unless it’s right at bedtime. By then they’re too exhausted to bother, which clearly means there’s something else amiss.
If he could, Kanba would ask why, but it’s that same busyness that hasn’t given them the free time to talk about it. Not to mention the likelihood that Shouko wouldn’t reveal her secrets, or at worst, give him a sound smack to his solar plexus that would leave him reeling for ages to come.
At least he won’t ever have to fear if his wife can take care of herself or not…
However, since they’re both wide awake well after midnight, there may be some merit in an attempt to get Shouko to open up. After all, how can Kanba fix what’s wrong if he can’t find out what it is?
Here goes nothing. “Is…something the matter?”
As he thought. Grimacing in the dark, Kanba inches closer to her. The space in their futon has gotten so vast lately that he sometimes wonders if it’d be less lonely to sleep on the couch, or in Himari’s old room.
Himari would know what to do here. Too bad he can’t call her right now, see what she has to say on the matter.
Moving as close as he can without touching Shouko, he tries again. “Is it me?”
That earns him a rustling within their blankets, and what he assumes is Shouko finally turning to glower at him over his shoulder. It’s no concrete answer, but it is progress.
"It is me," Kanba confirms, dread creeping into his voice. Great. So what was it he did?
The frown on his face deepens, shifting to find a more comfortable position as he gives it some thought. If he doesn’t play his cards right, his line of questioning won’t lead him anywhere, and they’ll be more worse off than when they started.
First: “Did I forget something?”
"Did I lose it?"
"Did I…wear it…?" Anything to get a reaction from her.
It does provoke another glare, accompanied by a weary sigh. Shouko’s beginning to grow frustrated, something Kanba hadn’t set out to do, so he recoils, fingers crossed that the physical distance will help cool her down.
Under her breath, Shouko mutters a string of unintelligible words that Kanba can’t quite hear.
She does it again, features turning petulant as she stares at her spouse, expecting him to have understood everything there is to in that long, jumbled-together sentence.
Shouko breathes out, her ire fading into despair as she looks away, curls into herself. Though it tugs at the string’s of Kanba’s heart, that’s quickly replaced by her grumbling: “My pan.”
"Your what?" Kanba didn’t hear that.
"You ruined my pan.”
And there it is, the thorn in her paw from three days ago. Unfortunately, Kanba doesn’t recognize what she’s referring to. Which pan does she mean? With over a dozen tools in their kitchen to choose from, he frequently loses track of what goes there, whose is whose, plus…
"—gah!" He remembers now. "Y-your pan…" How could he have forgotten?
Shouko’s pan is—or was, now that it’s beyond saving—her most prized item in the kitchen, ever since she’d inherited it from her parents. Though she’d cooked with many pans before, and several since, none ever matched up to her favorite: it conducted heat evenly, cooked everything to perfection, was never a nightmare to clean, unlike certain non-stick hand-me-downs that were always more trouble than they were worth. But now…now…
The memory leaves Kanba squirming. How was he to know that from a couple of minutes of neglect (on the phone, he said, which was probably true) and a plastic utensil left in the thing it’d leave such a horrendous and irreparable mess?
Shouko cried for half an hour straight. Kanba thought it was due to the news of Ringo not being able to make it out to see them for the weekend (were they really still that close? he’d thought).
It’s funny how crying over the loss of a frying pan makes so much more sense to him.
"Ah, ah…" What to say? For the rest of that day he’d said ‘sorry’ countless times, and since that hasn’t seem to have done any good, he’s sure it’d fall on deaf ears here as well. Kanba’s mouth twists, struggling to come up with a solution that will have Shouko less distraught, if not on speaking terms with him again.
"H-hey…" He stutters, fails, and has to start over completely. "Hey, we could…get you a new one…?"
Shouko’s head hakes vigorously.
"I can pay for it?"
The sound that falls from Kanba’s lips doesn’t quite pass for a whimper. He’d swear by it. “Why not—?”
"S’not the same," mutters Shouko, clutching their blankets tighter to her.
She’s never acted so childishly before, not even when they actually were children. Kanba can’t decide if that’s bothersome, or really, really cute.
He chooses cute, what with how her bottom lip is jutting out.
"Maybe not," concedes Kanba, "but if it came from me, that’d still be something, right?"
"…I guess…" Shouko doesn’t look too thrilled with the idea.
Not willing to give just yet, Kanba resumes his advance, slightly anxious when he thinks he’s put himself too far, being nose-to-nose.
"C’mon, we can pick it out together?"
"I don’t know…"
"It’s not the same pan," Kanba says, "but it can be a new one for a new family. That’s not so bad, don’t you think?"
It’s a gamble, praying that he’s said something that sounds right. They’re a bit past the newlywed phase by this point, but it’s early on enough where he’s guessing that sounds significant.
According to Shouko, it does, who draws into herself less and peers up at her husband with wide eyes, all negativity seemingly forgotten at this. “Really?”
"Of course." After giving it some thought: "If you really want, we could replace a lot of other stuff, too…"
"—not the toaster."
Kanba blinks at her. “Not the toaster?”
"It’s a…" Shouko stops, unsure of why she’s bringing this up. She huddles back into her nest of blankets, suddenly very sheepish about the whole thing. "Really good toaster…"
They both laugh after a span, and Kanba can only assume that he’s (partially) forgiven. Shouko isn’t shoving him away when he closes what little distance remains, arms tight around her as he pulls her near, bedding and all. The night’s too warm for him, anyway, so she’s welcome to have them.
"…I’m sorry about your pan," he says, still seeing the need to deliver one final apology.
Shouko huffs against him. “I think I’ll just demote you from here on,” she says eventually.
"Hah?" A demotion?
"To my…" Ah, what is it she wants to say? She hides a smile in Kanba’s shoulder, continuing, "…right-hand man in the kitchen, I suppose."
That doesn’t sound terrible. It just means he probably can’t cook unsupervised any longer. But it sounds fair, so he chuckles softly into her hair.
Someone is watching the Takakura house. They’ve staked out the area for the better half of an hour, not daring to move a muscle as they lie in wait. In particular, their eyes are trained on the front door, dying to know if there’s anybody coming in or out. Thus far there’s no trace of a single soul, but that could change in a heartbeat.
Five minutes turn to ten, then fifteen, and right when the figure squatting in the bushes is convinced that enough is enough, the door opens, revealing a bumbling-yet-determined blue penguin. It mops its brow with a handkerchief, scans the perimeter with intense eyes, and once they land on what it thinks is the right spot, it sticks a thumb in the air in confirmation—or would, if it had more at its disposal than a pair of flippers.
All clear. Kanba emerges from his hiding spot, breathing out a sigh of relief.
He feels silly for doing this, but outside of calling his partner—which he doesn’t want to be caught doing, or it’d spoil the surprise—he has no way of knowing if there’s a person lurking around indoors, or if they’re hard at work inside the library annex upstairs. The fact that he’s given the go-ahead by penguin number one means that Shouma isn’t up there, and if he were in the house at large, he’d surely have come out by this point, if only to determine what Kanba’s penguin is doing around here without its owner.
Now he can set his plans in motion, though they don’t really amount to much. He just wanted to give Shouma a pleasant surprise by showing up from his travels abroad a day or two ahead of schedule. If he were a different young man, a young man privy to gaudy gestures and bouquets of red red roses, he’d do more than simply sit atop the plastic giraffe in their front yard, swinging his legs, waiting patiently. Shouma’s probably out getting groceries for the evening—he’ll return soon. As an afterthought he does send his penguin scurrying into the house for a few items, figuring it’s nicer to do than to loiter here with nothing to offer.
At some point between the leaves changing color and what would have been the Takakuras’ eighteenth birthday Kanba has tried his utmost to be on his best behavior. He knows that he has hundreds of days of miserable treatment to make up for, and although it’s time that plays the bigger part in healing their wounds, that doesn’t stop him from wanting Shouma to feel warm and welcome at home, see a smile on his face, tell him he loves him without seeing a shred of doubt in the other’s eyes. They’ve reached the stage where the boys can say that they’re comfortable with one another, which may not be exactly where they were in the past, but Kanba hopes to get there one of these days.
And doing things like this certainly can’t hurt.
His back straightens stiffly when he thinks he’s spotted Shouma at one end of the street, surrounded by penguins with grocery bags in hand. “I knew it,” he mutters to himself. At this time of day, when the sun’s beginning its lazy decent into darkness, where else would his partner be?
"Hah?" Shouma is slower to recognize the shape that’s taken residence in his front yard, head curiously cocked to one side as he closes the distance. No one ever comes to visit, and the mail carrier is always perplexed when they place envelopes into the mailbox of a house that doesn’t seem to exist. The boys haven’t questioned why that is, assuming it’s a side effect of not quite being in touch with reality.
He’s less suspicious after catching that shock of red hair, and he relaxes visibly. Ah, it’s just Kanba.
…wait, Kanba? So soon…?
"You’re home early," he says, but he’s smiling widely.
It’s a look that Kanba help imitating, eagerly leaning forward on his perch. “H-hi,” he croaks, mortified at how he sounds, so he clears his throat and tries again. “I mean…hi.”
"Hi," Shouma echoes him, then pauses, a bit confused. Why is he outside, anyway? If he’s thinking of laying a trap in the main room again…
On instinct, Kanba winces, looking away nervously. He’s seen that look enough times to know when the other’s suspicious of something being amiss. “N-nothing’s wrong,” he stammers, all the anticipation of running into Shouma making him clumsy. “I just got here, so I thought I’d…wait…”
When his intentions sail over Shouma’s head, he swallows and adds, “So I’d be the…first thing you saw…”
Ah, now it makes sense. Shouma’s smile widens, and he laughs behind a free hand, shifting one of his bags over to the other. It’s sweet of him, though he won’t tell Kanba that, letting him figure it out for himself instead.
It doesn’t immediately click for Kanba either, who frowns, furrows his brow, belatedly realizes that he probably isn’t being made fun of. Clearing his throat for a second time, his gaze shifts elsewhere, to the glow of the sun sinking ever further below the horizon as the evening crawls closer.
He knows what else he can do, once their awkward silence passes on. “Hey,” he says, sitting up straighter. “Come sit with me.”
"Eh?" Shouma rapidly blinks at his brother, looks to the bags he’s holding, then back to Kanba. "But I…"
Kanba waves his hand vaguely. Ahead of them both, penguin one’s returned from its trip to hold congress with its fellow feathered friends, who all chirp in agreement and wrestle the groceries away from Shouma, carrying them into the house.
"…" Shouma stares after each of them, bemused. At length he turns to Kanba, eyebrows raised. "Did you plan this?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, Kanba’s reply is a slow one. “Slightly,” he admits, sharing a glance with his penguin, who winks at him and ducks through the door behind the rest of the entourage.
Shouma shrugs it off, though his eyes are wary as they rove over Kanba up and down. He’s sitting alone with his hands planted behind him, legs kicking idly in mid-air, a peculiar contrast of posture when he’s still wearing his darkened outfit that he always goes traveling in.
If he’s noticed how it makes him look, he doesn’t seem to care, shrugging at Shouma in turn. “Come sit,” he insists, scooting over on the giraffe.
Hesitant to do so—he remembers the last time that Kanba made an effort like this, when he ended up bent over one of the other animals in their yard filled to the brim instead—Shouma worries at his hair, thinks about it, and finally comes close, hopping up on the giraffe next to Kanba. There isn’t a lot of room, legs bumping together as he wiggles around to get comfortable, no easy feat when this isn’t waht the poor animal was designed for.
But Kanba’s clearly happy to see him here, grinning at him from ear to ear as he settles down. “The sun’s setting,” he explains, as though Shouma hasn’t noticed it before. “I thought we could watch it…”
Oh. That’s ten times more innocent than Shouma expected, and he nods at the suggestion, pleased. “I’d like that.”
There isn’t much for them to say past that—they catch up on things that have happened since Kanba’s gone away, gratefully accepting the mugs of tea that penguin number one carries out to them. It’s amusing to watch it try its hardest as well, doubly so when it sits in the entryway with number two, getting fed an assortment of chocolates that it can’t entirely fit into its beak. It has nowhere near the appetite of penguin two, who curls up at its side and pats its belly lovingly regardless.
The boys have learned to take these actions and more from their penguins in stride, and they shake their heads, redirecting their attentions to the colors streaking across the sky. It’s a pleasant view, red and gold giving way to orange and later purple, then a deep blue as nighttime blooms in full.
"We should probably go," Shouma says, half of his mind on the grilled eel he wanted to cook for dinner. He didn’t account for setting an extra plate tonight, but he’s bought plenty, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
The rest, however, is on the smooth set of lips that softly press to the side of his neck and do no more, listening to Kanba hum in dissent. “In a minute,” he says, loathe to leave when Shouma’s hair smells good, and his hands are so soft and nicely-fitting when they’re nestled within his.
That minute becomes five, then ten and twenty, and it isn’t until long after the moon is out that they find the incentive to slide off the giraffe they’re sitting on and stroll indoors, hand in hand.
By now, Shouma’s learned to anticipate coming home to some sort of reception after spending far too long up in the annex. On many occasions he’s greeted by a gaggle of cheerful penguins who weren’t already slaving away with him. On others, it’s just Kanba, happy to hand the boy a bottled drink, a fresh change of clothes for him, or even a few encouraging words for a job well done. Moments where he chooses to welcome him with an overabundance of affection are less common, though by no means turned down.
Still, with his back to the wall and his pants around his ankles, Shouma can’t help himself in thinking that he’s supposed to be the one on his knees holding something delicate past his lips, not the other way around.
There’s no rhyme or reason behind Kanba’s whims of wanting to have him in his mouth; whenever he’s made the decision, there’s little that can be done to sway him. It used to trouble Shouma more than it presently does, which by all accounts, shouldn’t be troubling him at all. When your body refuses to age past sixteen—closer to seventeen, Kanba says, but who’s counting—any manner of stimulation is never a bad thing, so long as it’s seen through to the bitter end.
But that doesn’t stop Shouma from oftentimes finding it difficult to endure. In this position he can’t normally grab on to Kanba like he would with a hand wrapped around him, can’t huff excitedly into his collar, feebly fumble for some reciprocation that Kanba always bats away.
"Not now," he’ll murmur, thicker than the shaft that glides through his fist. "This is for you."
And though he’s currently incapable of speaking up now, Shouma’s certain he’d be hearing something similar from his sibling if he could.
Instead, Kanba’s spoken surprisingly little, past his declarations of what he planned on doing, and a muffled “please” against the front of Shouma’s slacks that sounded so deep and desperate he felt as though he had no choice in the matter. Far be it from him to deny the other what he wants, especially when it’s a rarity to see him act so wanton over such a small thing.
Well, maybe not small at this juncture. It doesn’t take a lot to get Shouma where he needs to be when he’s so inexperienced with anything that doesn’t involve the sometimes-slick palm of his or Kanba’s hands. From the start it’s clear that he doesn’t have the same aptitude for this that Shouma does, but it makes him no less eager to suck him down halfway, pull back to the tip, and use his dominant hand to cover the distance, gliding over him in ways that Shouma never would have expected.
He never breaks eye contact—which only makes it worse for Shouma—exhaling loudly when he needs a break to nuzzle at the base, claw at his trembling thighs, skim his mouth further below on places Shouma can’t bear to look at.
That won’t do. Kanba’s practically salivating all over him, just from the sight of his cock bobbing at empty air. “Look,” he says, knowing that it’s the last thing Shouma wants to do.
True to form, Shouma’s eyes are tightly shut, reluctant to gaze down on what’s being inflicted upon him. It’s enough of an ordeal to feel it, let alone see what he wishes he were doing.
Ever-persistent, Kanba laughs, unaware of how quickly it turns into something more strangled as he claws at Shouma again for leverage, painting the underside of his length with his tongue. “Shouma—” He’s not in the mood for arguments when he’d prefer to watch him come, uncaring of where it lands (though he wouldn’t object to lapping it up).
"Nn—" Shouma’s eyes open in time to witness that tongue wiggling its way back to the crown of him, putting him at his limit.
The whine that Kanba makes from the first splash into his awaiting mouth is the most obscene thing that Shouma’s heard in weeks, he thinks.
He’s oblivious to everything else that follows, his breathing stuttered as Kanba drinks his fill, rubs his face into hip and lets out a heavy sigh. What he lacks in ability he more than makes up for in showmanship.
After Shouma finally finds his voice again, it’s to tell him that next time he’ll be getting that twice over, and then some.
It’s a transformation so subtle that Shouma almost didn’t notice—he’s slow to pick up on these things when it counts.
He doesn’t know when exactly it started. Long nights weren’t anything new for Kanba, so Shouma never thought to question him when he returned home later and later. The excuses were always the same: a wearily muttered “not now” as he stumbled into their bathroom, or an absent-minded that they’d discuss it in the morning. By breakfast it was forgotten, lost in a jumble of uncharacteristic affection from Kanba, and laughter over coffee.
That was all right. Probably just his part-time job working him to death, Shouma surmised, nodding to himself when he only had a penguin to greet him. It must be tough, making ends meet to cover Himari’s hospital bills.
But after Himari had returned home safe and sound, it continued. Shouma didn’t know if this was supposed to bother him, though it didn’t seem to bother HER any…
"Kan-chan’s probably just worried about more mouths to feed," Himari would say. "He’s been taking care of just you for so long…"
Taking care is one way of putting it. The boys have yet to reveal to their sister what it was that they were doing in her long absence. Half-heartedly following he will of the penguin hat goes without saying—as for the rest, they haven’t had a prime opportunity to explain it, or so Shouma’s guessing. At some point he thought they were going to need to explain why there’s merely one futon in their living room instead of two, but Kanba’s kept his lips sealed, and is never there at night anymore to help fill that small space, anyway.
Something is very wrong.
Shouma wants to trust his older brother, believe in him when he says that there’s nothing going on, to leave everything to him. What he wants more, perhaps, is to keep things between them the way they’ve been. Striking up an…intimate relationship that blossomed into something significant was bizarre, to say the least. It’s a bond that he’s come to treasure, however, so to let it go just because Himari’s returned doesn’t sound all that logical to him. He doubts it sounds like that to Kanba, either, which is puzzling since it’s one of the boy’s stronger assets.
And then there are the voices in his head, something that he thought he’d gotten rid of entirely. They used to be faint, if not nonexistent, but as time marches on, they become louder, more insistent, unsettling. They warn Shouma of the future, though they don’t specify what it is he needs to be looking out for, other than that nothing is as it seems, and that if he lets Kanba go, he’s going to be making a very, very bad mistake.
He feels he should know the answer to this, as if this situation has replayed half a dozen times before. His head swims anytime he tries to examine in greater detail, consuming his everyday thoughts.
What’s so important?
Why Kanba? Why them?
It gets worse when a shady journalist stops him on his way home from school. He’s already convinced that he won’t like what he’s going to hear, proven right after he’s flashed a grim smile, and grimmer news.
"You’re one of them, aren’t you?" The stranger croons all fake pleasantries that make Shouma’s skin crawl. "I’ve heard about your make-believe family—you know what they’re saying, right? About what your brother’s doing for money?"
There’s no denying the photographs he’s being shown. He can see Kanba clear as day, and he knows who the men in black surrounding him are, what the thin envelopes they hand over to him imply. This explains how their family can afford to stay afloat, why Himari was allowed to stay in hospital for so long. In spite of it, Shouma yearns for nothing more than to pull the wool back over his eyes, pretend that this doesn’t exist, that he’s trapped within the thrall of a nauseating nightmare.
His eyes screw shut, and he shakes his head to and fro. “No…”
"It’s a scoop. Can you tell us more?"
Shouma doesn’t say anything. He needs to get out of here. He needs…
The voices are louder than ever, begging him not to run into the shopping district, search frantically for all the hangouts that he knows his brother frequents during this time of day. I have to confront him, he thinks. I have to know the truth—
You’ll be sorry, those voices sneer. Don’t do it now.
He wants to ignore them, wants to press onward. But in the heart of Ikebukuro, Shouma’s legs turn to lead, and he sinks in a sea of passersby who pay him no mind as his knees touch the ground.
He remains unaware of the glittering eyes of a stubby penguin who watches him from behind a certain statue, sighs a mournful gyu in his direction, and slips away.
At home it’s business as usual. Today is Curry Day, though not officially; Himari is open to the idea, and Kanba’s gone ahead to roughly chop the carrots (he can’t seem to look Shouma in the eye, setting his sights on their sister instead), so there’s no sense in debating everyone’s dinner plans.
It tastes flat, lifeless. The others don’t appear to notice, not even the penguins.
Shouma wonders if it’s because of how he feels inside.
Getting to lie next to Kanba is a rare treat. The futon mystery is still unexplained, and the redhead is motionless with his back facing Shouma, but it’s better than not having him there at all.
A lot better. He hasn’t noticed how cold his heart has gone, how tangible the pain in it is. With Kanba so close, a hair’s breadth away from touching, it’s assuaged, albeit just. No one’s said a word, staring at opposite walls, breathing out of rhythm while one of them waits for sleep to claim him. It doesn’t.
All Shouma has to do is shift over an inch, wrap an arm around Kanba’s waist, and they could be together again, like they were a few weeks ago. He can imagine himself using a knee to part the other’s, entangle their legs, sigh warmly into the sprinkling of hair of his neck. Maybe he’d kiss him there, graze him with his teeth (Kanba often enjoyed that), whisper how much he misses him, longs for him. It’d be so easy to roll him onto his back, use the momentum to straddle his waist, run his palms underneath his pajamas. They may not be of one flesh, but they’ve had plenty of practice at pretending like they are, or evoking a union that’s generally the same principle.
He’s on the verge of making his dreams a reality when Kanba stirs at last, shuffling out of their bedding to cross the room and grab a change of clothes.
Why would he get dressed to go to the toilet?
Still no response, save for the sound of a zipper that cuts through the air like a knife.
There he goes. He’s gone.
Shouma frets with indecision. Does he stay, or does he go? This probably isn’t the first time that Kanba’s snuck out of the house in such a manner, figuring that Shouma must have fallen asleep by now. Part of him thinks it might be for the best to leave him alone, let him do he has to if that’s what he wants.
But is it what Shouma wants?
His feet move on their own, carry him out the door.
Kanba stands there, unmoving. Was he waiting for him, or…
Again, there’s no reply.
The silent treatment won’t stop Shouma. “Where are you going?”
Finally, some progress.
Shouma chooses not to call his bluff, aware of the fact that, technically, he does have a job to do. The problem lies in what he’s doing, who he’s doing it for.
He’s afraid to ask this, but: “…it’s for them, isn’t it?”
This exchange is already tiring for Kanba, who scrubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand. Since he won’t turn to address Shouma directly, the gesture goes unseen, though he doesn’t think that matters. “Why does it matter who it’s from? Work is work.”
"Of course it matters," insists Shouma, determined to see his through, shaky though his voice is. "How could you stoop so low? You know they used to be—"
"You think I don’t know that—?" Kanba’s irritated enough now to move his head, throw a glare over his shoulder. "What else were we going to do?"
"I don’t know! Not this…" His stomach is lurching at the thought of all the dirty money that’s been changing hands. Their money. Their parents’ money… "We could always find—"
"Another way?" Sarcasm drips from Kanba’s every word, his glare intensifying. "Bullshit. We had to do something, so I did it. What d’you think’s going to happen if we don’t?!"
Shouma wishes he didn’t know the answer to that. He also knows something BAD will happen if Kanba leaves them. His hands are tied.
"…Himari." He meant to ask why, what he was doing all of this for, but he’s skipped ahead to the obvious truth.
"Himari," agrees Kanba, and his stance relaxes a fraction.
It all makes sense now. The long nights without a warm body curled up beside him, the increasing distance between them. Both brothers didn’t want to acknowledge the crossroads they were going to have to come to sooner or later, deciding which was the higher priority in their lives: themselves, or Himari.
But Shouma didn’t think that it was going to come to this, that Kanba would be doing something so dire, so wrong. At worst he expected their romance—if it could be called that—to be put on hold while they scrimped sand saved to support their sister, further fuel her recovery. As long as someone was making money, as long as someone continued the hunt for the penguin drum, he didn’t believe that it would matter, that everything would be okay…
Never mind all the warning signs, the cautionary whispers in his head, the doctor’s dreadful news.
Shouma speaks without thinking. “You don’t have to do this,” he says, frustrations on the rise. “You don’t have to go anywhere, we’re family, we can work through this—”
As he goes on, he drags himself toward Kanba, desperate to pull him back indoors. He reaches out, hoping that he’s the right thing, only to realize how badly it’s backfiring when Kanba swats him away, expression turning sour.
"How long did you think we could keep that up?"
"Did you think we could play pretend forever?"
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.
"That we could live together happily, not worrying about who we are? Where we come from?!"
Shouma can’t stomach this. “We’re…” The words are stuck in his throat. He tries again before Kanba can whirl around and disappear. “We’re family—”
Kanba’s laughter is nothing short of mirthless. “We’re nothing. We never were.”
"But what about—"
Waking up intertwined that time on the bathroom floor, all those stolen moments from then to now—
"No…!" It can’t end like this. Shouma has to do something, he has to…
Too late. Kanba’s leaving.
Shouma stumbles after him, latches on to his arm, only to be tossed aside, nearly hitting the concrete.
Kanba doesn’t turn around. “I’m saving Himari,” he says, increasing his pace. “Don’t get involved.”
"There’s nothing to save!" The words are out before Shouma can stop them. "You idiot, she’s still going to d—"
The stars in his eyes are the last thing Shouma sees for a split second. When he comes to, the side of his face is swollen, bruised, with Kanba’s clenched fist to blame.
They’ve been here before. But they threw a barrage of punches then. Not here. Not now.
"How dare you." The light has left Kanba’s eyes.
"Go back to playing house, if that’s what you really want. We’re done here."
And that’s it. Shouma’s trembling limbs won’t cooperate, and he loses sight of Kanba as he fades away into the night, penguin number one trailing at his heels.
He couldn’t stop him. Couldn’t stop fate from mocking them one more time.
It takes over an hour for Shouma to find the strength to get to his feet, wobble back into the house and flop bonelessly onto his futon. He thinks of rousing Himari, telling her what’s happened, but it’s a hurdle too painful for him to surmount at the moment.
His heart’s still raw from what Kanba shouted at him, the undeclared love that he threw back in his face. He’s gone, unlikely to return till his plans with their family’s accomplices come to fruition.
Just what is he planning on doing…?
Shouma shudders, heaves a muffled sob into his pillow at the realization of never, ever wanting to know, even if he already does.
Black shadows, a dimly-lit train, bombs as far as the eye can see…
Kanba always hates this part, but the sentiment is doubled now that he’s thinking of all the memories he’ll have to leave behind here on the beach.
A lot has happened over the last ten days or so, more than he’d ever imagined. Part of him still feels slightly suspicious of everything that’s taken place, pinching himself at least a few times per day to make sure that he isn’t actually dreaming. The last thing he wants is to wake up in another cold sweat from another unfulfilled fantasy, and in most cases, a big problem that he wouldn’t feel right in relieving when his sisters are sound asleep right across the hall from him.
Now that it’s somewhat sunken in for him, the concept of courting one of those sisters isn’t as strange to him as Kanba thought it might be. It helps that they aren’t officially bound by blood; otherwise it’s not something he’d probably have the nerve to follow through with. The back of his neck prickles at that idea for reasons that defy explanation, quick to put that out of sight and out of mind. Standing here on the shore by himself isn’t a very opportune place for him to be analyzing such things. He’ll examine it more closely later on.
He’d prefer to concentrate on Shouko. As nice as it’d be to have had her escape outside with him, Kanba left her with the other girls while he sought his own slice of peace and quiet. In retrospect he should have asked her to come along—his hands are lonely now that they have nothing to hold, shoved deep into the front pockets of his jacket. They haven’t come up with a solution for how they’ll address that at home just yet, but he’s confident that they’ll be able to manage in keeping it all under wraps, and not crowd Himari out in the process. The city they live in is considerably large, and so long as they avoid any of the places their classmates hang out in, they should be free and clear of potential persecution.
"There you are!"
Speak of the devil.
Without registering who it is, Kanba’s shoulders tense up automatically, assuming that it’s either Oginome who’s come to grill on him on more and more details—if not ask that he’s really super sure he wants to go through with dating Shouko—or Himari, who feels like she needs some bonus time with her Kan-chan before they start packing for tomorrow.
He turns; thankfully, it’s just Shouko.
Just Shouko. That means…if they’re alone on the beach again…
Well, any time they can spend with no one interfering—that doesn’t involve one of them being half-asleep—is considered a blessing.
"Hey," says Kanba, a belated greeting. "Looking for me?"
Shouko smiles back at him, equally as shy. He’d like to think that they’ve both made minor progress over the last couple of days, ever since the date that they went on. His heart hasn’t stopped hammering a mile a minute at the sight of her, but his voice is marginally more steady, and his face only turns beet red every once in a while now.
He steps away to give her some room to watch the oncoming waves. To his surprise, she draws closer to him instead, though her hands are clasped behind her back as she looks out with him.
"Mm—" Shouko shakes her head in the negative. "I just like to come out here to—"
"—think, I know."
They have a good laugh over that, and Kanba hopes that it’s nothing too serious this time around.
Sadly, what Shouko is up to will have to remain a mystery, as she offers no further comment for a couple of minutes. The silence isn’t so uncomfortable, in Kanba’s opinion, so he takes to looking at her, memorizing every wrinkle in her outfit, every strand of hair out of place in its messy ponytail.
"I’m going to miss this place," she finally adds, features turning wistful.
There’s a softness to them that has Kanba feeling the same, which makes him slow to respond as he struggles for the right words. “Me too.” Here, specifically. ”I never thought Oginome would’ve had a place like this. Guess I underestimated her.”
"Why, Kanba," Shouko grins, "I think that’s the first nice thing you’ve said about Ringo-chan all week."
"…!" Okay, maybe Kanba still gets flustered sometimes. "I say plenty of nice things," he grumbles. "Just not a…huge fan of her…"
"Oh?" Though she thinks that she might know the answer, Shouko thinks that it’d also be fun to pry it out of her big brother nevertheless. She tries to peer up into his face—unusually bold, what with how their vacation has gone—but he keeps trying to look away. "Why is that?"
"You know…" He’s clearly hesitant. "She’s so…"
"…?" Now she’s lost, tilting her head at him quizzically.
He’s going to have to say it, isn’t he?
"You know…! Touching you all the time…" Maybe less so, now that Kanba’s intentions are crystal clear, but that’s not the point. "I don’t want anyone being so sweet on my woman—"
He stops before he can get any further. Both of them share a long look, and it’s Kanba who caves in first, sputtering, “Wait, I didn’t mean—well, I did, but—”
Ugh. It’s what he wanted to say, but not like that!
His fears melt away when Shouko only giggles behind her hand at him. To her, it doesn’t sound as bad as he thinks he does. It’s…nice, in fact, to be viewed in such a fashion. Kanba’s woman. She could get used to that, over time.
"It’s all right," she says, hoping that it’s reassuring enough. "I guess it is true, isn’t it?"
Of course it is. That’s one thing Kanba can’t be more sure of, and he relaxes, sighing out heavily.
Shouko comes closer still, moving ahead of him slightly so that she can lean back against his body. She doesn’t suppose she’ll have to encourage him to put an arm or two around her by reaching behind, and she breathes out quietly when he takes his own initiative. It’s a side of him that she’s certainly more fond of, not having to worry about coaxing the poor boy.
Kanba too is pleased at being able to do so without a considerable amount of panicking. Thankfully, she can’t see the pink tinge of embarrassment in his cheeks, something that he’ll will away as soon as he can.
It’s easy to do when they’re preoccupied by the tide rolling out and in, lulled by the sound. He’d stay out here forever if he could, and there’s no doubting that she’d feel the same way.
Out of politeness, there’s still a need to ask her, “Should we head back…?” The girls might be waiting for them, as nice as it is to linger on the beach and hold Shouko to him firmly.
She hums in thought, not entirely sure herself. “…in a little while,” she decides, head turning a fraction to rest her cheek against the same slim torso that’s served as her makeshift pillow for the last handful of nights. She’s as reluctant to let that go as she is to leave here altogether.
Kanba’s not the only one who doesn’t want summer to end.
There’s a lot of things that can be said with a single look.
Shouma used to always be aware of the way Kanba’s eyes followed their sister Himari; from an early age he noticed how full of fascination they were for her, shimmering with interest and something else that neither of them were old enough to define.
It didn’t really bother him, not in the beginning. Strange though it was to adjust to a house that felt a lot fuller than it once did, it wasn’t necessarily bad to have a new brother and sister, whether they spent their time laughing and playing with him or having one unconsciously fawn after the other. If there was anything that got underneath his skin about it, it’s that Shouma didn’t think he could fully grasp the amount of devotion Kanba had in him, already starting to fill to the brim. He didn’t fully grasp the concept of love, the look in his eyes whenever they were trained to Himari, the same ones that were mirrored when she looked to Shouma in turn.
So it made him jealous, for a while, to not be able to experience this to the same depth. What did they figure out that he hadn’t?
Of course, this was a private shame, kept to himself in order to keep their family atmosphere running smoothly. As life went on, and things grew more tumultuous, this was slowly let go of—it was more important to blindly follow Kanba’s orders and aid their increasingly-sick sibling in any way that they could. By then, Shouma figured that this was part of what love was: if anything bad happened to Himari, something bad would happen to Kanba by extension, and vice-versa. For that—for wanting to see them happy—it made sense to give them their all, do his best.
Was that love?
After their home became emptier, then full again, it was plain to see that Kanba’s amorous glances were starting to get…a tad more serious. Most of the time his focus was still on Himari, constantly distraught over the fact that the penguin hat could snuff out her life whenever it saw fit (hopefully it wouldn’t). Every minute spent around her could, in theory, be their last. Which is why it never ruffled Shouma’s feathers too badly (though it does annoy him at times) to be barked at to do this and that, bend over backwards for the so-called penguin drum. Without it they were effectively screwed.
And yet he was being watched, too. He remembers coming home from an exhaustive afternoon with that Oginome girl, collapsing in front of their water heater for some fresh tea. His head hung lowly, shoulders hunched together. All he wanted was a warm mug cupped in the palms of his hands, a long bath, and a longer night’s sleep, but he lacked the energy to make it past the first step.
That’s when Kanba wandered into the kitchen, penguins in two as they gracelessly shoved bags of groceries into the refrigerator.
"…" Shouma expected a full scolding, how he’s not trying hard enough to pry that accursed diary from Oginome’s hands, lead them to the penguin drum so that they can all put their lives back in order.
Instead, Kanba had patted his back roughly, hand lingering slightly longer than was probably necessary. Through the thin layers of his school uniform, it felt so hot.
It was hotter still when Kanba pointed out to him, “Try not to overdo it,” and walked away.
He wasn’t sure of it back then, but reflecting on it now, he thinks there was a faint hint of adoration in those eyes that looked at Himari a little too much. They’ve never done that for Shouma before.
They did, however, continue to do so ever since. In his ignorance, Shouma didn’t catch it again until after he’d been bedridden for days. Had he the capacity to at the time, his hazy memories would have reminded him that this happened during a long night on a trip out of the city as well, though that’s neither here or there.
He recalls soft-but-blunt fingertips parting the bangs of his hair away from his brow, presumably intended as a comforting gesture. The lights in the room were low, voices from the television a quiet murmur in the background—left that way so he wouldn’t be disturbed while someone was in the same room, most likely. The gesture repeated itself several times prior to coming to a stop, hand resting next to his pillowed hand on the futon.
Creaking open his bleary eyes confirmed that it was Kanba. He hadn’t been smiling, but that didn’t stop his gaze from seeming overwhelmingly warm.
"Go to sleep," he’d said, using those same fingers to pass over Shouma’s eyes, gently closing them again. "I love you."
…admittedly, Shouma may have dreamed that last part.
Nevertheless, he feels as though it might have been around that time—if not sooner—that he finally began to understand a lot of what went over his head as a child. The signs seem so obvious now, but he wasn’t ever made fun of for it.
Kanba likes to laugh and tell him that he at least had the bravery to realize what was going on first. It took him a lot longer to accept, let alone admit out loud.
To say I love you isn’t so hard anymore, though it’s still easier to convey with a single look.
Who calls at this time of day to blurt out things like that?
"This morning. You ran out before I could give it to you…"
The nerve! She has half a mind to—
—give the stranger on the other end of the line the benefit of the doubt.
No, it’s definitely someone she…knows, though that doesn’t make him any less strange.
"Your jokes are still terrible," Shouko sighs, cupping her hand around the phone’s receiver. "Why are you calling me here…?"
"I just told you, you didn’t bring your lunch."
Now it’s starting to sink in: the mad rush of waking up late, fumbling to strike a balance between finding a sensible outfit and putting it on in enough time to make it out the front door…
Oh, and completely bypassing her husband with a bento box in one hand and their daughter in another.
"—didn’t even say goodbye, and since someone left her cell off—” It’s no skin off of Kanba’s nose, who’ll continue to talk whilst Shouko’s thoughts catch up with her.
"Hold it!" She stops him before he can finish. It’s sweet of him to go to the trouble of reminding her, she supposes, but what does this ultimately have to do with anything? With her noontime break imminent, discovering her lack of lunch would have been inevitable regardless, so why is he… "…"
Shouko’s lost her nerve at the last minute. Hearing a low laugh from Kanba rumble into her ear isn’t helping with that.
"Just look outside," he says, and their conversation’s cut short.
Skeptical, Shouko turns from the papers she’s grading, daring to take a peek out of the closest window. At only a couple of stories above the ground, she’s not sure what she was expecting; her spouse wasn’t really one of them.
He’s waving the crux of her dilemma in one hand, calling out to her. “Want this?”
She’s never ran so fast. Save for this morning, but it’s clear that Shouko hasn’t spared a lot of thought towards that.
Nor has she when it comes to where she’s going, narrowly avoiding students and staff alike as she races outdoors. It takes a strong arm to pluck her mid-flight, hold her steady, and present her with a very familiar oblong turquoise box, subsequently.
"That’s—you really—" Shouko’s out of breath.
Kanba beams down at her. “Like I said, you forgot it.”
He didn’t have to do that…
Even as her lungs labor for air, the power of such a kind gesture—especially when it’s from Kanba—isn’t lost on Shouko. Yet it’s all she can do to cling to her lunchbox like a lifeline, stare up at her redheaded husband dazedly.
"…you didn’t shave." That’s not what she meant to say.
"Ah…" Kanba strokes his chin absentmindedly, guilty as charged. Whiskers don’t become him, but he’s prone to sporting a bit of stubble whenever he grows lazy. It’s a shame that it took ten years to fill out… "I guess you’re not the only forgetful one."
"Tch…" Considering what he’s just done for her, Shouko’s willing to let that slide.
She’s starting to feel more like herself, albeit hungry. Her eyes flit from the bento to Kanba and back again. She settles for a simple smile, since time is of the essence. “Thanks.”
"Haa, that’s it? I figured a big errand like this calls for something more…"
He’s pushing it. Shouko huffs, looks around hem. She doesn’t think that anyone’s watching them from indoors, and even if they were, she’s a married woman, so…
"Fine." Honestly, it’s not the sacrifice that she’s making it out to be, but even after so many years she still likes to pretend that Kanba has to earn his rewards.
In this case, she intends for it to be a short peck on the cheek. Leave it to Kanba, however, to turn it deeper for the briefest moment.
Or two, or three. It doesn’t quite match up to the passionate exchanges of their youth, though the sharp nip to her bottom lip afterward speaks volumes nevertheless. Wasn’t she supposed to be commending him, not the other way around…?
"…thank you," Shouko says at length, backing away before any more damage can be done.
It’s a hint that Kanba understands well enough, and he’s laughing some more, shoving his hands into his pockets as he brushes past his wife to take his leave. “I’ll see you at home,” he crows, all smiles.
Not if I see you first, is what Shouko wants to grumble, but her empty stomach does that for her.
Maybe she should sleep through her alarm more often, if this is the result it gets.
Taking things by force isn’t really suited for Shouma. It never has been, never will be. He’s okay with not being the one in control, letting someone else take the reigns, lead the way so that he won’t have to.
He’s okay with it, though as he grows older, Shouma thinks that he can see at least a little of the appeal in imposing some order. Not that he extends his influence very far—it’s mainly limited to the kitchen, household shopping, the billiard tables that his partner’s suckered him into having a fondness of. He likes to decide what goes into his dishes, which deals will get him the best bargain, where he wants his odd-numbered balls to go (#3 is his favorite, for obvious reasons).
What he likes more than all of these combined, however, involves Kanba. As far as…intimate matters are concerned, Shouma knows that he won’t share his penchant for a filthy mouth, firm commands, a firmer grip that’s all too happy to push and pull him any way that he pleases, so long as they’re both in the mood for it. And that’s fine, it isn’t what Shouma aspires to.
The small things are what he finds the most satisfaction in. After getting more comfortable in his own skin, he’s started to notice things that eluded him in the past, like the flutter to Kanba’s eyelids when he’s instructed to go so faster, the way he complies so easily when his head is nudged to kiss someplace different, ready and willing to oblige him for anything that he wants. It’s exciting to see him follow directions, though Shouma would like to think that they’re more gentle suggestions than anything else. In the end, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t the one whose wrists are held fast or suffocatingly shoved into the nearest pillow, but he is the one who determines what’s fine and what isn’t, when to stop and when to go. He’s in charge of whether or not Kanba will be kicked toward the bathroom with his hand tightly coiled around his throbbing shame, or if the beast inside him will be let loose from a few choice words, mortifying to say as they are.
Shouma’s a modest fan of the end results. They don’t entirely compare to the delicate favor of his soup broth, a few hundred yen in savings or a perfect game, but he’s content with Kanba’s sleepily-sated murmurs and his secret eagerness to please all the same.
"Yeah, I guess that doctor knows what he’s doing after all."
"I wonder if she’ll be released soon…"
"Ah, we should do something when she is. Like a party."
"I don’t know…"
"C’mon, it’ll be fun. We can invite Oginome, too."
It’s not often lately that Himari gets treated to a visit from both of her big brothers, but it’s put them in relatively good spirits. They talk together as they exit the hospital, laughing and elbowing one another.
They’re pleased to see that she’s doing so well, too; though Kanba doesn’t want to say anything out loud, it’s as he expected, considering the amount of money demanded of him for the girl’s treatment. This is something he’s hid from Shouma, however, not wanting him to worry over the extra lengths he’s going to so their sister will be happy and healthy. He’ll save that information for later, if the need arises.
Until then, he’d like this peace between them to last. Things haven’t really been going wrong recently, but Kanba’s learned that he likes to see a smile on Shouma’s face when he can, and it’s all the more sweeter when he’s the source of it.
"—and if the pork’s expiring in two days, I guess we should—hey, are you listening?!"
"Hah?" Apparently he wasn’t, since Shouma’s rambled on the entire time.
"Stupid…I asked what you wanted for dinner," Shouma huffs, skipping a few paces ahead of Kanba, who scratches his head sheepishly.
"Anything’s fine…" He’s clearly preoccupied, primarily from thinking about Shouma, as well as the chat they just had with Himari.
It wasn’t as difficult to be in the same room with her as he thought it’d be. Kanba would like to think he’s gotten a lot better when it comes to acting normal in public, resisting the silly urges to pull Shouma into his arms, muss his hair, or kiss him deeply like a normal couple would. Granted, it also means that he has to keep his mouth shut regarding their big secret—before entering the hospital, the boys agreed upon the fact that it still wasn’t a proper time or place to reveal it to Himari, not when it could potentially have an adverse effect on her recovery.
So everything proceeded as it always does. If not for the change in scenery, it almost felt like a typical afternoon in the Takakura house. Even the penguins were getting along splendidly, relieved at reuniting after being apart for so long.
Maybe things are looking up for all of them, so long as fate chooses not to intervene.
A cold gust of wind snaps Kanba out of his reverie as they reach the crosswalk. In front of him, he takes notice of the say that Shouma’s shoulders draw inward, hunching close to his body for warmth. Neither of them remembered to take into account the weather at this time of year, dressing more lightly than they probably should’ve. The penguins waddling behind them don’t seem to have this problem, well-acclimated to the chill, though they do appear to be walking closer to each other than they absolutely need to.
Penguins don’t have to be self-conscious about anyone stopping and staring when hold hands (flippers), curling around one another in the middle of the street.
Kanba wants to be a penguin, he thinks…
Furrowing his brow, he trots up to Shouma. “You cold?”
"Eh?" Shouma blinks, looks down at himself. He supposes that he might be—slightly—though it’s gone unnoticed until Kanba pointed it out. "Ah…maybe a little…"
"…" Out of habit, Kanba looks to the left and right, ensuring that the street they’re standing on either isn’t too crowded, or isn’t putting them in a position where they can be easily seen.
It’s all right to indulge in a small (affectionate) gesture now and again, in his opinion. So he has no qualms with slipping his jacket off, wrapping it around Shouma before he can protest.
”???” But he does it anyway. “Eh? You don’t—”
"No, it’s okay." Kanba’s hands automatically shoot out to rub at his arms briskly, assuming that the friction will add to the warmth offer. In his long sleeves, he’s sure that he can manage to endure both the walk and the train ride back to their home.
Shouma, a little humbled by the offering, looks away from him, bashful. “If you’re sure…” he mutters, eyes on the stoplight. They’ve missed two signals by now, and they’re on the verge of missing a third if they continue to stand there.
But Kanba’s in no hurry, whose hands linger, smooth down to his waist in a brief hold. “Sure I’m sure. I’ll keep you warm.”
That just makes Shouma twice as flustered, turning red around the ears from more than the cold.
His twin laughs, lets him go as they wait in silence for the next indicator to cross the street. He’s had his fun, and he’ll wait till they’re hidden at the end of a subway car to lay hands on him again.
Shouma won’t say he’s in love because he’s still not sure what that fully means.
He loves his family without question, regardless of the curse he inherited from his parents. Knowing what he does now, he might love them a little less, but the feeling remains, though he tries to avoid dwelling on it if he can. It’s bittersweet, something that he can barely stomach on most days.
He loves Himari, he thinks, both as his precious sister and as a bright spot amidst all the darkness surrounding his life. While he may not share the same…fanaticism for her that his other sibling does, there’s arguing that she ranks the highest among his most important things. Even as a young boy, all he wanted was to see her smile, show her that she didn’t have to feel so useless in the world.
That’s a fate exclusively reserved for him and Kanba.
Kanba is…a tricky subject, tricky to figure out. It goes without saying that Shouma loves him like the big brother he was told to call, and it’s true that he’s admired him over the years for a number of things: helping to support their household, taking care of Himari when he’s otherwise indisposed, pulling the family together through troubling times, and so on. For that, as a fellow Takakura (if just in name), he can say that he loves him, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But to go beyond that—going deeper—is trickier still. Shouma hasn’t fancied himself as a type of person who gets caught up in tender feelings, romantic notions. So he has no frame of reference for the warmth in his chest that spreads any time Kanba draws near, and recedes when he’s not around.
It wasn’t always like that, and he has yet to determine when his breaking point was, when this all had gotten set into motion. He doesn’t think that this started the afternoon they woke up entangled, though he definitely remembers how suffocating that sensation was back then. To call that love, however, doesn’t seem appropriate in the slightest. Compulsion, perhaps, or arousal; fascination for something new that he never realized he was starved for.
As for the present, it’s largely unknown. Shouma wouldn’t say that he’s in denial of his feelings, it’s more that he’s…in an awkward stage of trying to determine everything, while simultaneously going along with what Kanba’s cooked up for them next.
To his credit, Kanba’s evolved leaps and bounds from the lecherous figure that he used to be. He’s gone from being an overly-sexual dynamo to a clumsy-but-earnest lover who now struggles to meet Shouma comfortably in the middle of the two. It’s endearing, to say the least, seeing him work so hard to make things right, if not easier for them.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either, deep down.
Shouma won’t say he’s in love, but there are days where it’s not so impossible, when he’s nudged in the right direction.
The Takakura brothers aren’t known for being star students.
At best they’re…proficient, with Shouma picking up the slack more often than not, since Kanba seems to have so many other things on his mind.
It makes sense, given his unusually long nights that Shouma’s stopped bothering to question (if something were wrong, he’d have spoken up by now, wouldn’t he?), the extra money he’s bringing in for both Himari and their household, and the tumultuous events of the last few months in general. With all of that burden to handle, it’s pointless for Shouma to yell at him every time his test scores aren’t up to par, or if he spends a week without ever setting foot inside a classroom.
On the other hand, he can only watch Kanba fall behind so far until he feels the need to help get him up to speed. His heart is in the right place for this, simply wanting to see his sibling succeed.
Which is why they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder at Penguin’s Coffee, pouring over an array of notes and textbooks alike. It’s almost more studying than Kanba can stand, compared to Shouma, who looks as though he’s in his element.
"So if you carry the—jeez, aniki, put that down—"
"I’m bored," is all Kanba says, thumbing through different screens on his phone.
"We’re not here to have fun, we’re here to study.” The firm grasp of a mother hen pulls the device out of Kanba’s hand, and into one of Shouma’s awaiting pockets.
"You’ll get it back when we’re done."
Silence reigns after that, interspersed by the scratching of pencil to paper, and Shouma’s quiet explanations whenever Kanba makes an obvious mistake.
Kanba sighs, chews on the end of his eraser. For the fifth time today he wishes that they were elsewhere, preferably alone, and doing something that didn’t involve numbers, or menus, or anything that isn’t of major importance. His eyes follow Shouma’s profile, the flutter of long lashes and the slim line of his neck. These things are much more interesting to look at than the messy scrawl of math problems and history notes he’s scribbled down.
The movements of his hands are equally fascinating. It’s a shame that now isn’t the time to reach out and hold one of them, play with his fingers, tickle the lines of his palm.
He doesn’t realize that he’s staring till his nose is pinched shut, taking him by surprise.
There’s a hint of laughter in Shouma’s eyes, though his face is stern. “Focus,” he says, rapping Kanba with his pen for good measure.
He can’t win, can he?
"…" Not wanting to risk another pinch, Kanba’s gaze mournfully returns to his work. To him, it isn’t a matter of struggling in school per se—it’s just that it’s hard to squeeze school into his head when it’s already been consumed by worrisome thoughts about their sister, her sinister doctor who insists on more and more money for proper treatment, and the way his heart flutters nowadays from a mere glance in Shouma’s direction.
It’s doing that now, shyly looking up his latest equation to catch him mid-sip in his cup of coffee.
For a change, Kanba’s mind isn’t going straight to the gutter and whirling around thoughts of where he’d like to see those pretty pink lips wrapped. But they’re nice nonetheless (everything about Shouma is), and he hurries to resume his studies before he gets caught in the act again.
He’s not sure if he saw him blushing. Kanba definitely was, shoulders hunching to work harder than ever. While this isn’t the sort of knowledge he’d like to be bolstering, he supposes that this is a better alternative than having to heed some other tutor from West Garden.
He thought he was—he’s read a dozen novels, watched twice as many movies and more television shows than he can count trying to figure this out.
He’s not a very romantic person. He wants to be, but that’s a difficult thing to do when he feels so self-conscious the minute he opens his mouth. Thus far, Shouko’s never minded it too much, which he supposes is to the good. Still, he wishes that he could master the fine art of the grand gesture, something that will make her heart melt ten times more than it ever has before.
After all, it’s not every day that he plans on proposing marriage.
Except there’s no plan at all. Buying a ring is the farthest that he’s gotten in this quest, nervously opening and closing the velvet box he holds in the palm of his hand as he thinks. It can’t just be a matter of “popping the question”, as they say. His Shouko deserves something with more dignity than that, a story that she’ll be able to tell their future children and look back on fondly. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?
And then there’s always the (slim) possibility of her saying no. Realistically, Kanba doesn’t know why she would; they’ve overcome a lot of hurdles since their relationship began, he’s seen to all the legalities of it, and in his eyes they’re in a relatively comfortable place. She’s happy, they’re happy, why not take it to the next level?
But a part of him will never feel completely confident. It’s like his first confession all over again, dreading how Shouko would react, if she’d be appalled at the idea of seeing her big brother as someone more than he already was. Bound by blood or not, there’s no looking past the overall strangeness of courting a member of your own family. Though Kanba doesn’t regret it for a second, he’s curious too on what may have happened if he were just a normal, sensible human being who sought his soulmate in the same way that the bulk of society does.
Then again, she said yes the first time, didn’t she? Said she loved him (too), though not outright. Maybe she’s waiting for the big question, the dazzling sapphire ring Kanba threw his hard-earned money on as soon as summer vacation was over. Maybe.
Damn it, he’s not prepared in the slightest.
Closing the box a final time, his head swivels to the nearest clock. Shouko said she had an errand to run this morning, wouldn’t say what. Would he be interrupting something by giving her a call, asking her to meet somewhere?
He still doesn’t know what to do, but the longer that he fusses over it, the sooner he’s going to lose his nerve, save this challenge for another day.
If not now, when?
Nearly toppling over as he reaches across the table, Kanba fumbles for his cell phone, falls down anyway.
Sometimes, when Shouma thinks he has nothing better to do in his library annex, he likes to look away from his work and divert his attention to the ring on his left hand.
It wasn’t all that long ago when it’d been bestowed to him, but it still feels like a lifetime since that blissful evening. They’ve had yet to find a matching silver band for Kanba, who’s had yet to determine its origins. All he said was that his mother was the original owner, and that’s all his birth sister divulged to him. He’s tried to contact her again to no avail, finding either a busy phone line, or a maid-in-waiting impatiently reminding him of how busy Miss Natsume’s schedule is.
Which is fine, there’s no rush. Besides, even if it were one of a kind, it’s the gesture itself that matters more than where the thing came from. A tacky, low-quality piece of jewelry from the department stores that Kanba frequents (Shouma knows this, says nothing, laughs softly to himself at the idea) would work just as well as something that cost ten times the price, or in this case, a family heirloom.
Judging from the presentation, the craftsmanship, it’s likely that it’s the same as Kanba implied: a wedding ring of some sort.
Shouma smiles at the memory, the connotations of it. The person he was from over a decade ago couldn’t have begun to imagine what he’d be like as somebody’s husband, playful jibes from both of his siblings aside. For a lifetime he was convinced that that would never be his fate, best left to an individual who could actually amount to something. Being only human, there’s no denying that his eyes have strayed toward certain girls from time to time, but they were always fleeting thoughts at best, quickly dissipating in the face of affairs to tend to at home—a sick sister, an older brother growing increasingly tense for reasons he declined to say. For that matter, being betrothed to that same brother was the absolute last thing he’d have ever expected.
Not in a bad way, of course. To reflect on it now clenches his heart in a manner that he’d be happier to avoid when he can’t spare a second to dart back into the real world, check his phone, see if Kanba’s puttering around and fill a void for contact he hasn’t realized he’s longing for.
He’ll have to settle for picking up penguin number two, rescuing a stray leather-bound book from being gobbled in the process. It’s looking a little lonely as well, immediately curling up into Shouma’s chest once it’s found a good place to burrow. It’d be nicer if he was looking down at red hair instead of blue feathers, but if it were possible to have everything he’s ever wanted, he wouldn’t still be here.
All he knows is that later in the day will probably be a good time to track Kanba down in some form and tell him just how much he loves him.
They’ve done this so many times that Shouma can’t even begin to keep count. Fast, slow, indoors, outdoors, in a myriad of positions he’d never have imagined himself in.
What perplexes him is how much care Kanba’s putting into it now. Neither of them have really spoken a word from the minute the front door was opened, using their bodies to make up for what they choose not to say. Every kiss tells a different story—I love you, I’ve missed you—every discarded article of clothing a reminder of how many days they’ve been apart.
It’s too soon in this new life of theirs to be accustomed to the way that gentle hands lay Shouma upon their bed; some of him expects things to still be how they were in the past, from being handled with a certain roughness to an unspeakably crude narration of how he was going to be tortured, teased, fucked. He didn’t expect to get treated with a reverence that borders on awe, soft whispers of adoration between them that he doesn’t think his sibling has ever uttered before, neither to him or the most attractive woman he’s attempted to woo.
He’s used to the stretch and burn down below, knows that in his infinite amount of newfound patience, Kanba would prefer to skip this formality and dive straight into him. But his methods remain methodical, betrayed by the little longing moan that wriggles into Shouma’s ear as soon as his hips start moving in turn.
Slick digits are replaced with something slicker, and it takes an eternity for Kanba to ensconce himself and bring their reunion full circle. They don’t have the luxury to be doing it this slowly when either of them could be separated at any time—to do this is a defiance, an indulgence that they may not get to take another part in after this. It’s what Shouma always assumes, what Kanba doesn’t want to otherwise risk. Getting too complacent wouldn’t bode well for them.
Kanba stops when he’s fully sheathed, his breathing off-rhythm from his brother’s, hanging heavily in the air. Marginally smaller hands scramble for purchase on his back, splaying over underdeveloped muscles, soothing him as best they can.
Shouma doesn’t mind this, the closeness between them, the blood-red fringe of hair that tickles his features as the other hunkers down. In some ways this is a private indulgence for him as well, to have Kanba so near, so accommodating, so undeniably his. Hands continue to roam, plunge into the looser hair at the back of Kanba’s head, scratch at his scalp just the way he likes it. He knows he’s done it when a puff of hot air fans over the side of his neck, a content sigh that’s chased by another hungry moan he doesn’t mean to make.
So patient. He supposes they’ve done enough waiting.
There’s something about Yamashita Yosuke that Kanba’s never really liked. It isn’t for a lack of trying on his end—having anyone befriend a member of the Takakura family is a rare thing indeed, and if it’s someone who can keep Shouma company in the absence of him or Himari, then so much the better.
That reason alone should have been enough to stomach the other boy’s presence, but he’s becoming increasingly irritated whenever Yamashita comes to call, dragging Shouma off to school with him, or stopping both brothers on the sidewalk when they’re on their way home, insistent on turning them into a jolly trio and walking a little too close for comfort next to Shouma.
Every time it happens, it takes more willpower than Kanba cares to admit to hold himself back from clubbing the other boy upside his head, or worse.
He’s tired of it, tired of watching Yamashita wrap around Shouma like he’s a second skin, coo the most ridiculous things at him (if he has to hear him say Takakura’s little brother one more time…). Lifelong companion or not, he wishes he’d learn the meaning of personal space, stop setting off Shouma’s phone six times an hour, stop whisking him out of sight where they could be doing virtually anything.
It comes to a head when Kanba passes their classroom on the way to lunch. The sight of Yamashita leaning over Shouma’s desk is nothing new, but the look on his face has the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There’s a certain longing to his features that Kanba instantly recognizes, knowing now from experience how he’s cast that toward his blue-haired brother on more than one occasion.
No wonder his presence is so agitating; he’s a potential threat, one that could interfere with the relationship he’s bumbled to build with Shouma if he lets it.
Granted, the likelihood of that occurring is slim to none, or so the rational side of Kanba wants to say. After all, Shouma’s never acknowledged his friend in that way in the past, so why should that change anytime soon? Shouma isn’t like him, isn’t someone known to break hearts at the drop of a hat, change partners on a whim just because his current arrangement is growing too stale.
"Excuse me—" The redhead tries not to sound so stern when he creeps up around the pair, coming in from Shouma’s unprotected side. "I need to borrow this."
It’s not unusual for him to grab Shouma in the middle of the day, presumably to speak about Himari, the penguin drum, or in recent days, something of a different nature altogether high on the rooftop, or in a locked bathroom stall where they can’t be seen. He ignores his stuttered protests and goodbyes as he pulls him out of the classroom and into the hallway, away from curious onlookers, away from him.
"Aniki, what’s the big idea—" Shouma’s cut off by a very unexpected kiss, and a solemn talking-to of why he shouldn’t run off with Yamashita, and stay with him instead.
Shouma doesn’t know whether to laugh or puff his cheeks out in frustration. This doesn’t seem like a very good time or place to be talking about this sort of thing, especially when they’re still in earshot of their classmates and the faculty, who’d be all too happy to put a stop to their burgeoning romance (such as it is) then and there.
In the end, he simply tells Kanba that he’s crazy, that they’ll finish this later at home, and squeezes one of his hands before ducking back into the classroom.
The outcome isn’t what Kanba expected, staring dumbly after Shouma as he’s left alone in the hall. It is, however, a slight comfort to see him pick up his belongings and purposely remove himself from Yamashita, relocating to a different side of the room to eat his lunch in peace.
With a shake of his head, Kanba turns to go, spooked once his phone starts vibrating while he’s halfway to the school cafeteria.
He blinks at the message on the screen, unable to contain his smile for several minutes thereafter:
I’m flattered that you like me that much, though. - Shouma
More than “like”, Kanba thinks, but he’ll keep that secret to himself.
Actually paying to attend a concert is decidedly less fun than it is to sneak into one, in Kanba’s humble opinion. The company isn’t helping matters much, feeling unbearably self-conscious when he has to be seated in between two of the most important figures in his life.
Or maybe it’s the bow tie cinching his neck. Tuned into fashion though he is, this is way too formal, even for him.
Every time he reaches up to adjust it, wiggle it around, it earns him a mild look from the woman to his left. He harbors a hunch that if he were anyone else right now, those cold eyes turned to him would be more frigid still. Kanba wrinkles his nose in embarrassment, letting his hand fall away before it can do any more damage.
To his right, there’s a light pat landing on his forearm, the lingering caress of fingertips that probably wouldn’t mind doing more if they were someplace less…exposed. The smile that greets Kanba as he turns is wan, but encouraging. He opens his mouth to say something, only to be shushed back from the left. Muffled laughter has him grumbling, sinking further into his seat as the symphony plays on.
Great. How come he can’t make any noise while Shouma gets away with it?
Satisfied, the gaze of his once-sister returns to the stage. Masako hasn’t made up her mind just yet if it’s worth continuing to let the Takakuras tag along on her own evenings out, but they do bring a certain amusement with them that she’s hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Kanba just wants to be at home, doing more than merely holding hands.
Shouma sighs in frustration, holding on to his bundle of penguins a little tighter in the dark. He supposes he can forgive Kanba for sounding slightly cross when he’s the one who’s sent him stumbling through their house for a box of candles to light their way.
They aren’t as prepared for a blackout as they could be: there’s no flashlights to be found, and Kanba lamely pointed out how his cell phone was too dead to illuminate them at least slightly. As for Shouma, his excuse is lamer still, not knowing where he last left his phone. There’s a passing concern that he might have left it with one of his other classmates on accident again. Hopefully it’s not Yamashita, given that he sees enough of him as it is.
"How about now?"
A dull thud is his only answer. How many things can Kanba bump into?
"Damn it—sorry, I got them…"
Shouma wrinkles his nose as the telltale smell of sulfur cuts through the air, accompanying the flick of a match that lights their first candle. Kanba’s holding it in front of him eagerly, as if waiting to accept his praise for a job that hasn’t been done exceptionally well.
"Yes, yes…" Shouma reaches out to pat his big brother’s arm, blinking with concern at one of the penguins (number one, judging by the bandage he spies) as it takes the candle and places it on their small table in the main room.
Kanba puffs up with pride nonetheless. “Do we need more?”
"A few…maybe…" Honestly, Shouma isn’t certain how many they’re going to need to get by. There’s no telling how long they’ll have to suffer with the lights going on—if they can’t make it until the morning, he’s going to have to take everything out of the ice box, see which items they can salvage, which ones they’ll have to throw out…
Kanba flicks his forehead with a couple of fingers. “I know what you’re thinking. Stop it, we’ll be fine.”
"…" Another sigh huffs past Shouma’s nostrils, but he says nothing, eyes trained on Kanba as he gets back to work, lighting several more candles and placing them here and there in the house.
By the time he’s done, their main room and kitchen is awash in a dim glow of flickering light. Their flames, Shouma notes, hold a momentary fascination, doing interesting things to his brother’s red hair, the planes of his face as he finishes moving around.
He’d like to think that this is why his heart speeds up ever-so-slightly when the other nears him, why he doesn’t squirm when he sits a tad too close to him. Everyday affections are something that both boys are still adjusting to, and it’s tricky know what does and doesn’t cross the line at the wrong place or wrong time.
For the moment, it’s okay.
"What now?" Shouma blurts out. The television doesn’t work, their phones are missing in action, and with their luck, Kanba’s computer probably isn’t functional, either. Save for schoolwork or calling it an early night, what else can they do?
"…" Kanba’s tempted to give him a few raunchy ideas of his own, but he shyly looks away at the last minute, holding his tongue.
The turn of events is surprising, and it’s endearing him to Shouma that much more, who shakes his head, not startled at all when Kanba’s suddenly laying his onto his shoulder.
It’s good, in a way, since it allows him the room to start stroking through that hair that’s still caught candlelight nicely. All in all, it’s not the worst way to spend an evening.
Shouma’s spent the last several days being bedridden. Life passes for him in a nauseating blur, barely able to eat or drink, let alone move around on his own. He isn’t even sure if this is his futon he’s laying in or not—the ceiling is hazy and not altogether familiar, and could just as easily be someplace different as it is the same one he’s spent the better half of his sixteen years under.
He wonders if the blue shapes that occasionally wander by are still his penguins, or if they’re some other creatures entirely. What little brainpower he can spare is put towards what other kinds of animals are blue. Whales, sharks, songbirds…
The sky is blue, too. He rarely sees it when the sole thing on his mind is moving toward the toilet without toppling over, and not taking a brief look out the window.
Stubby flippers pat his body from head to toe. Shouma knows that they mean well, that the penguins only worry about losing yet another member of their household. The concerned chirping from penguin number two is undeniable, not looking in the best of shape itself, and the watchful eyes of his older brother’s penguin are equally felt.
What he likes feeling more are when a set of cool digits and a cooler cloth descend upon him, breaking through the fog to provide him with a fleeting moment of clarity. He’s never more grateful to see Kanba’s face when that happens, increasingly so with each reverent press of wind-chapped lips to his brow, like he’s some sort of ailing prince lying in wait for the sinister spell on him to be broken. Shouma doesn’t have the nerve to scold him and rasp out that if kisses were the answer, he’d be well on his way to recovery by now.
As he drifts in and out of restless slumber, he can’t help but consider the possibility that this is how Himari felt whenever he or Kanba would fuss and fret over her. He isn’t jealous; to the contrary, he’s decided that if so, he can rest safe knowing that they’re both being cared for with very, very capable hands.
Now, if only he could give voice to his fears of sleeping alone. A mountain of blankets can’t stop the chill in his bed from its other occupant seemingly refusing to be there.
Hopefully that will change sooner rather than later.
Kanba doesn’t want to think of it as “lagging” so much as he’s letting Himari run ahead to take in all the sights and sounds of the holiday season. If it means he gets to hang back with Shouko, hold her hand a little tighter and grin at her bashful expression, well, that’s even better.
"Don’t go too fast!" Shouko can’t tell if their sister’s listening or not—she’s already rushed ahead, oohing and aahing at a number of store displays.
The penny-pincher in Kanba wants to frown upon that. He’s fairly confident that they’ve got at least a bit of extra cash left over to spend at the end of the year, but it’s in his nature to worry. What would happen if they can’t give Himari the best Christmas she could hope for? It wouldn’t hurt to impress Shouko, either, now that they’ve been…slowly getting to know each other better.
Transitioning into romance wasn’t as difficult as he thought it’d be, though there’s still some adjustments that they haven’t completely gotten the hang of yet. Finding time alone, whether it’s just to talk or do something mildly intimate, isn’t always easy, especially when they’re in the home stretch of finishing school.
Plus, everyone’s minds remain muddled from the mysterious events that took place just before summer started. But Kanba isn’t worried about that, not today. Today is for Christmas shopping and sight-seeing, as well as a healthy amount of fresh (if not cold) air.
"Later, hm…" The prospect amuses Shouko, who’s helped turn the term into a sort of private joke between them over the months. Neither of them has ever figured out why it’s as funny as it is, but they’ll continue to run with it as long as they can.
There’s more laughter, and Kanba shakes his head.
To him, it’s more interesting to keep his eyes on Shouko as they walk along than it is to take a look at the city streets, admire both the decorations and vendors alike. He’s picked out his biggest presents well ahead of the holiday rush, tucked into the deepest parts of the linen closet that he could find. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if either of his sisters found them in advance, though it’s more prudent for him to keep it away from Shouko than Himari, for obvious reasons.
"Well, now what?"
"Ah…" Shouko taps the edge of her lips with a fingertip, thinking. "I guess we do still owe you a milk tea, don’t we?"
Originally Kanba had been reluctant to leave the house. Although he adores any amount of time spent with both of his siblings, one quick trip outside to bring the laundry in told him enough of a tale that he didn’t want to go anywhere. Cuddling up to Shouko for warmth was more than an excuse to be near her, for once. The allure of a milk tea and some private moments around Shouko finally convinced him to grab one of his heavier coats and shuffle out the front door.
"Now?" Kanba feigns surprise, looking around. "I guess…"
Fate is on their side when a cafe quickly appears in their view. The slight crowd doesn’t bother them, happy to wait in line and carry on a quiet conversation with their fingers intertwined. It’s startling to suddenly be at the head of the line, and more so when Shouko hands over the yen to pay. “We owe you,” she mouths at him, though Himari had nothing to do with this. She doesn’t feel bold enough to accept the entire responsibility, figuring tha Kanba isn’t going to mind either way.
They take both drinks—coffee for Shouko—outside, unwilling to go through the trouble of finding an empty table or booth inside. Drinking and talking is fine, besides.
"Hey—" It’s Kanba who notices it first, a few stray snowflakes falling from the sky. Did the weatherman report this? He doesn’t remember hearing anything about snow…
"What?" Shouko’s slower to pick up on it, but when she does, her eyes grow wide. For someone who’s no stranger to snow, she still holds a childlike fascination with it every time she sees it. Her expression almost makes Kanba wish he’d brought a camera along, or something else to capture the moment by.
Instead, he laughs again, nudging Shouko to get her attention. As soon as he does, he’s planting kisses on both of her rosy cheeks, ignoring her squeals of surprise.
"What was that for…?!" she stammers, far from offended, but needing some space after laughing herself breathless.
Kanba shrugs, indulging in a mouthful of tea. A light dusting of snowflakes are melting into his gloves and making them wet, but he’s ignoring that, too.
"Found a better reason to be out here than milk tea, that’s all."
It earns him a playful roll of Shouko’s eyes, and a light shove further down the street.
At the rate they’re going, it’s going to take a long time to catch up to Himari. That’s not such a terrible thing—she’s a big girl, she can look after herself.
At first, Shouma wasn’t so opposed to the idea. It’s nothing that they hadn’t already done as children, and it wasn’t as though they had a lot of other options at their disposal; with no second futon anymore, where else are they supposed to sleep? Himari’s favorite chair is no place for that, nor her bed, whether or not she’s at home or in the hospital. The very idea had turned Kanba’s face as white as a ghost, and Shouma doesn’t doubt looking much of the same as soon as he suggested it. Stupid…
What he didn’t expect was how restless of a sleeper his big brother had become. It’s less noticeable when there’s a foot or so of space between them; but when they’re sandwiched together in a very small space, an arm flying into his face here and a head lolling onto his collarbone there is a completely different story. This isn’t the same Kanba who pulls him in tightly after sex and dozes off that way, no, no. He almost wishes that they had the luxury of doing that, as it’d pave the way for a better night’s sleep than what he’s getting accustomed to.
Then again, he’d rather put up with this than not lay next to Kanba at all.
The trick, Shouma’s learned, is to hold on as tightly as he can. It stops Kanba from tossing and turning so much, and as an added bonus, it tends to earn a pleasing reaction whenever he’s caught half-awake. A fond grumble (that he probably isn’t aware of making), perhaps, or clumsily yanking the cap off of Shouma’s head to snuffle through his hair. He’ll take any of it, so long as it means he’s getting attention.
One of these days he hopes to train him to do that in other areas that don’t necessarily involve a bed. It’s worth a try.
Kanba hears the question, but he’s pretending that he doesn’t, feigning interest in the cup of coffee he holds in his hands. If he looks up, he’ll be staring into the face of his sister’s self-proclaimed best friend, and he knows he isn’t going to like what he finds.
He’s expected to have this conversation for a while now; all the signs are there, though he can’t say that he’s thrilled about the timing. Things in his life—his family’s lives, really—aren’t really going very…smoothly for the time being, and his plate is full enough without having to be subjected to an interrogation that he’d hoped to avoid for a little while longer.
Besides, did she really have to open with that? Cut straight to the chase?
"Love who?" She’s too smart to fall for his playing dumb. It’s just a ploy to stall her, exasperate her in the unlikely event that she’ll be in no mood to handle his antics and try again at a later date.
Much, much later. Maybe another month, six months, next year…
"I’m not falling for that!"
As expected of Oginome Ringo. Kanba expects the slam she delivers to the table they’re sitting at as well, both palms flat, glaring daggers in his general direction. “Just answer the question!”
"I don’t date girls, you know that…" Because it’d only make everything worse.
"I’m not talking about—ooh…" Ringo’s fingertips curl into her hair in frustration, tugging at the strands. Kanba finally spares a glance up at her, wincing at the thought that she probably wants to be doing that to him instead.
Ringo sighs, making another, slightly gentler attempt to pry out what she wants to know. “Shouko-chan,” she says, struggling to keep her voice even, “I’m talking about Shouko-chan, you idiot.”
"What about her?" Kanba’s eyes are dim. He hasn’t slept well in weeks. Why couldn’t she just wait?
"Stop playing games!"
The girl’s second outburst startles some of the customers surrounding them, and she shrinks back into her seat, fidgeting. It’s starting to dawn on her how little these accusations are affecting Kanba, that he’s barely reacting, barely blinking. This isn’t what she anticipated at all. Is life in the Takakura house much more worse than she already assumed? Shouko told her that everything was fine, she’s getting back to normal (whatever that means), but…
"I’m sorry." She looks down, pushes the crumbs of what’s left of the dessert on her plate back and forth. "Just…I know everything’s been bad, but I see how you’re acting around Shouko-chan, and I just…"
Or so she says. It seems as though Ringo’s all but forgotten the real story her, the one of his oldest sister not actually being who she claims to be. She doesn’t answer to Shouma anymore, doesn’t recall the conversations that they’ve been having, won’t say anything about a brother-turned-lover of her (his) own or a penguin drum, which he’d never gotten a clear answer on what that was.
It worries him, makes him doubt his sanity, feel his stomach clench in the same way it did on the morning when Shouko wasn’t rejecting his mild advances like she often did, laughing it off as sibling mischief, pushing him away. Something is definitely wrong, but since he can’t determine what that is, then there’s nothing that he can say.
Does he love her? Kanba assumed that had been obvious from a long time ago. The only person blind to it is the one who needs to see it the most.
Ringo breaks the silence that’s settled onto them. “…you’re right. I’m sorry. This isn’t a good time.”
At last. Kanba’s waited for those words, slumping over in relief.
"We’ll talk about it again…later…"
This is awkward. Ringo leaves her money for the check, says her goodbyes. Kanba doesn’t have the heart to point out to her that she’s complicating matters that he’s trying to forget about.
Family comes first. Until Shouko’s better, that’s what they have to focus on. The rest—Kanba’s feelings—are going to have to wait.
Did his other self, if he really exists, have to go through something like this too? Kanba wishes he could pick his brain, ask him how he did it, if it was anywhere nearly this painful.
Maybe, maybe not. He makes up scenarios in his head as he finishes what’s left of his coffee, cold and bitter.
A week has passed since the Takakura brothers spent a rainy evening in each other’s arms on the living room floor. Kanba thinks that he wants to make another move, and Shouma thinks that he might want him to, but neither of them can rustle up the courage to say so.
They haven’t spoken of it—the fading bruises at the base of Shouma’s throat, suspicious stains on their remaining futon, the palpable ache whenever they aren’t at arms’ length—having heavier things on their minds, like their sister’s hospital stay (which is going well), or the penguin drum that they have no leads on.
Is it worth laying to rest, never bringing up again? At this stage it’s easy to chalk this up to idle teenage curiosity, experimentation between two boys who’d never think about it otherwise if they weren’t in the situation that they’re in. Times are tough, tensions are running high with so many obligations of their own, so it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to take a leap in logic and chalk it up to a basic need for comfort, for a warm body and warmer hands to lay on one another at the end of the day.
That’s how Kanba chooses to rationalize it, despite knowing full well that those aren’t the real reasons at all. As for what they are, it’s something that he still doesn’t have enough room to define, at a loss on the specifics of the things that he and Shouma have done, want to do, probably will do in the very near future. It’s just a matter of seeing which one of them will bend or break first.
Kanba watches Shouma cook their meals, struggle with his schoolwork, worry at his hair while he mulls over his private thoughts in front of the television. He’s seeing him in a new light, one that makes both his heart and his groin swell when one of them brushes past the other, elbows knocking, faint flashes of soft skin that he wouldn’t necessarily mind revealing more of.
It’s early in the morning when he’s decided that enough is enough, that he’d rather be slipping Shouma’s off instead of on, lazily watching him put the finishing touches on his school uniform. And that’s what he intends to do, pushing himself away from the wall that he’s leaning on, crossing the short distance between them, and curling his hand over the scarlet scrap of fabric to pull him in and press their lips together.
His design wasn’t to make them late for their first class, though it’s inevitable after their kissing grows more heated, their hands more animated (Kanba’s shoved into a pair of unbuttoned pants, Shouma’s clinging for dear life onto narrow shoulders), and both of them tumbling back to the floor where it may or may not have began.
There’s no telling what this could be the start of—only that neither of them wants this to ever really stop.
In Hot Blooded, Shouma Takakura and Kanba Takakura cross paths in one steamy encounter after another. But as they become closer, Shouma discovers that Kanba has a horrifying secret—he’s a vampire doomed to a bloodthirsty immortality!
With danger haunting their every kiss, Shouma falls for this creature of the night… while Kanba dreads revealing one final secret that could doom their intoxicating love.
Shouma and Kanba meet at the library…
…A man in a black leather jacket gazed down, one arm stretched to hold back the skewed bookcase that had nearly fallen on Shouma. “Pardon me,” the stranger murmured with a slight smile, and with a smooth movement, he turned and tipped the heavy bookshelves back into their proper position. “My name is Kanba. Are you all right?”
”All right?” Shouma asked distantly, looking up into the depths of the man’s hypnotic gaze. “I guess so, sure.”
Kanba nodded. “May I help you up?” His voice was like his clothing, soft, rich, almost beckoning. The dim light fell gently on his red hair and shoulders as he held out his arm. His hands were strong, long-fingered and strangely pale.
Shouma grasped the other man’s arm—and the touch made his skin tingle with pleasurable sensations as he was pulled to his feet. As Kanba reached up to stabilize the bookshelf, Shouma watched the muscles of the stranger’s slim body shifting under his snug-fitting clothing. Shouma didn’t even want to think about the heavy, dusty books crashing down on him.
”Thanks for the rescue,” Shouma said with a grin. “You’ve got some killer reflexes there.”
“I find them to be useful at times.” Kanba smiled, teeth reflecting brightly in the dim aisle. His voice held all sorts of sensual promise. “Your own reflexes, however…”
“Yes, sometimes I get so lost in my research that I don’t notice what’s around me. Or in this case, nearly on top of me.”
The unintended double meaning in his words made Kanba smile crookedly. “It would seem so. It was fortunate I was passing by.” His eyes gleamed. “Who knows what position you might have found yourself in?”