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The Unknown Infinite

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Chibita was a late bloomer. He knew that. His teachers knew that. All the other students knew that, too. He was fourteen already and the only child in his class with bare wrists. He had weekly visits with the school nurse now, who clucked over his height and his weight and his wrists like he was something fragile, something small and thin and on the verge of broken.

“It’s okay,” she’d say, running gloved fingers over unmarked skin. “Sometimes puberty just hits some children later than others.”

But she always sounded doubtful. Chibita knew he was small for his age. Soft. Underdeveloped. It wasn’t okay. The girls had started coming into school with their wrists covered in elementary school, and the boys hadn’t been far behind. Twelve was normal for boys, they said. Thirteen was late. Fourteen was a problem.

Chibita was a problem.

The other kids could sense that, he thought. They sensed something weak and wrong in him, the boy who came to school dressed in tattered clothes and bandages that he’d earned in countless fights. They sat away from him. Tripped him when he left school. Taunted him as he crawled home, or to what passed for one.

Kids were cruel, especially when you were different. His classmates were no exception to that rule, and the Matsunos — well, those shitty sextuplets absolutely embodied it. They’d fought since they were little, sure. Those guys were assholes and they weren’t happy unless everyone unfortunate enough to be around them knew it. But it’d gotten worse over the years. After they’d gotten their wrist coverings with neat stitches and loving embroidery. Homemade by their mother, he was pretty sure. Names of love covered up by cufflets of love, just the way it was supposed to be. One family protecting you until you were ready for the next.

But Chibita’s wrists were bare, and the cufflets he’d set aside for when they weren’t had been cobbled together with a child’s hands. They would have bullied him for that, too, had they known. But they hadn’t seen Chibita’s wrist coverings, shoddy as they were. No one had. Because Chibita’s Name hadn’t shown up yet. Not a girl’s name on his left arm, or a boy’s name on his right. His wrists were bare, and he couldn’t bear to cover them up and pretend a Name had come to him in the night. Some people did that, he knew. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. A soulmate, a real one, that was something far too important to lie about.

A soulmate would love him. Would care about him. Would help him bandage scrapes from sticks and bruises from fists. Would kiss his wrists and hold him close and be everything he’d ever wanted. A soulmate would give him a home.

He wouldn’t do them the disservice of lying about their existence. Not even if Choromatsu held him down while Osomatsu kicked him, or Karamatsu threw sticks at him, or Ichimatsu chased him home while Todomatsu yelled taunts. Not even if Jyushimatsu bit him again.

A soulmate was worth being brave for. They were worth being honest for. He just had to have faith that one day, one day they’d show up. That a name would materialize on one of his wrists, he didn’t even care which, and he’d be lucky enough to find the person who it belonged to. That one day there’d be a family name written there on his skin, a family that would adopt him, him, and they could all be happy together. He’d be loved. He wouldn’t be alone.

One day.

But every "one day" must find its "today", and Chibita's was no different. He woke up, bones sore and black eye aching, with an itch on his right wrist. He was scratching at it idly, hoping that the mosquitos hadn’t returned to the dump, when he realized that he wasn’t scratching at bare skin. He was scratching at a name. His Name. The name of the person who would love him. Who would give him a home. Who’d stand up to all those assholes right there at his side. Them against the world.

His eyes sharpened in the dim light and he squinted at the dark lines stark against his skin.

Ma-tsu-no.

Chibita lurched out of his ratty little futon so he could scrabble with his cufflet, drag it down over those characters, hide it away like all Names were supposed to be. And then he threw up.

Fuck.

* * *

Chibita fiddled with his cufflets and remembered the first set he’d worn almost a decade before. They really had been pretty shitty. Sewn together somewhat haphazardly from old clothes he’d found in the dump, they’d been piebald and awkward, never fitting quite right. He’d gotten better at it eventually. He’d scrimped and saved until he could afford to go out to a craft store and buy one of those kits — not a good one, he still didn’t have nearly enough for that. But one of those cheap ones designed for kids who’d been lucky enough to find their soulmates early. Soft cotton and plastic needles and embroidery floss thick enough that even he couldn’t fuck it up — which was good, because he’d ended up making them without instructions. The little booklet had been all congratulations and encouragement, and he’d thrown it into the trash without a second look. Technically, cufflets were supposed to be made by your parents or your soulmate. As it was, though, Chibita had had access to neither. So he’d just made them himself. They’d been simple, but they’d been his.

He’d improved since then. His cufflets had changed as his life had, and at least he was normal in that respect. The soft material that had gone well with his junior high uniform was replaced with sturdy leather that wouldn’t get torn up when he did odd jobs around town as an older teen. Now his cufflets were moisture-wicking, light and breathable, and easily washed. They were an oden master’s cuffs, and he was proud of them. His stitches were small and straight now, skills born of long years’ practice, and he’d been able to afford good materials.

Yeah, he thought to himself, as he rearranged his cuffs so they wouldn’t bunch up as he chopped, these were good ones. Just right. Or as just right as they’d ever be as long as he was making them himself.

Which, he thought, looking out at his evening guests, would be forever. All six dumbasses had shown up tonight, squabbling and stuffing their faces by moonlight, and he fought not to fidget with his cufflets any further. He always seemed to when the Matsunos showed up, for reasons that he refused to think about. It was just too depressing.

The only small consolation he had was that all six of them still wore parent cufflets — probably because they were all so fucking obnoxious. He had a feeling that even a fated soul link would have a hard time making its way through all that shitty NEET-ness. Hell, even Mama Matsuno’s cufflets were a lot less tidy than they’d been when they were kids. Maybe she was as done with them as everyone else was.

Wasn’t his place to speculate, though. Maybe she was just tired.

Chibita yawned. God knew he was. “How much longer are you idjits gonna hang around here, anyway? Don’t you have shit to do in the morning?” he asked.

The six of them exchanged glances, and he immediately realized that had been a stupid question. Shitty NEETs never had anything to do. That was what made them such shitty NEETs.

“Another,” Todomatsu said instead, handing his plate back to Chibita.

“Me too!” Osomatsu said, raising his beer glass for a refill.

Ugh. They’d have him out here all night again, he was sure of it. Which meant they were probably going to try to make a fucking run for it. Again.

Not tonight. Tonight he’d keep up with them. He would. For sure.

But Chibita was a man who worked all day, odd jobs and shopping trips and oden prep, then manned a cart all night. His core was strong, but the flesh was weak. He was no match for six assholes who had all day to conserve their energy.

He woke up to empty seats and a handful of change and garbage sitting on his counter. And after the yelling, the tantrums, the righteous indignation against a pile of fucking assholes who never cared about anyone but themselves, he stood there looking at it. Spare change and acorns wouldn’t pay the goddamn rent, and he was not going back to the dump just because his most regular customers were also the stingiest.

The six of them were so spoiled. They were so fucking spoiled. They didn’t know what it was like to work hard every day just for the assurance that there’d be a roof when you went home. They didn’t know what it was to come home sore and scraped and aching because there was no safety net when he fell. No parents who would bail him out and kiss away the pain.

Again, he found himself fingering his cufflets. He knew what it was like to have no one to depend on. He had only himself and his own two fists. They hadn’t gotten a lot of play in the last few years, not since they’d all grown up a little, but maybe it was time to stop babying those stupid NEETs. Their mother had done it and their father had done it and Chibita, with his ever-mounting tab and ever-shrinking forgiveness, had done it, too.

One of them was his soulmate, maybe. The knowledge was depressing but constant in the back of his mind. And he’d realized quickly that he couldn’t depend on that, but maybe he still wanted his mysterious soulmate to depend on him. Chibita knew he had a tendency to take in strays at the best of times, but the Matsunos were different. There was the barest spark of hope in him every time he did something nice for them, one that had been doused again and again and again.

The wind started to blow, cold on an empty night, and he felt his own back stiffen. Maybe it was time to stop letting the Matsunos pay with hope and start making them pay with cash. His bank account depended on it. His pride did, too.

Chibita sighed and started collecting the dishes, the beginnings of a plan coming together in his head as he worked. Those assholes only seemed to care about themselves, but perhaps that would be their downfall as well. Maybe all he had to do was put a crack in those unbreakable sextuplets.

Maybe.

* * *

Or maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was just one more fuck-up in a long series of fuck-ups.

Chibita had needed to wash his cufflets three goddamn times to get the scent of sea spray and smoke from the fabric. Sea spray. Fuck, he hoped it had been just sea water and not the salt of tears. He’d fucked up. He’d seriously, royally fucked up.

It’d just been so easy to look at all those little cufflets, all those neat stitches and thoughtful details, and think well, of course they’re loved. But they weren’t. Not all of them, anyway. Not the way he’d thought.

He thought about the way Karamatsu had hung there on a post in the ocean, miles away from humanity, and just looked…tired. Like he’d been abandoned, but not for the first time. It made Chibita want to hold his hands tight and go to bat for this man. It made him want to show the rest of that shitty family just what Matsuno Karamatsu was really worth.

But look how well that had gone.

Alone at his cart, Chibita clutched at his right wrist and rubbed his thumb over the material there. He’d thought about it before. What that name on his wrist meant, what it really meant. When he’d been a child, it had just represented a dream denied to him. Unless there were even more Matsunos rattling around in his life (god forbid), his soulmate was a bully. His soulmate hated him. All that hope he’d been holding close to his heart was for nothing.

As he’d gotten older, though, he’d thought about it a little differently. He didn’t know which Matsuno was his soulmate, but there was a solid chance that it was a member of that fucked up family. Which meant that if things did work out somehow, like if maybe one of the sextuplets got a fucking head injury and his personality completely changed, that family would become his own. A mother who cared enough to make cufflets for six rowdy children. A father who cared enough to provide for all eight of them. Five brothers to roughhouse with and depend upon. And his soulmate. It wasn’t an ideal soulmate scenario, but, well, Chibita had always wanted a large family.

Now, though. Now he knew what it was really like inside that “loving” family. Within those “unbeatable” sextuplets. If there was no room for Karamatsu, sweet, simple Karamatsu, there was certainly no room for him. And he wasn’t even really sure if he wanted them anymore. He’d hung up his phone and looked over at Karamatsu and thought, He’s been abandoned. We both have.

Chibita had seen a lot of cruelty in his life, but the dog-eat-dog world of the Matsuno family was still a shock to his system. And he could have felt bitter. He could have felt lost and alone. But he just felt sad and mad and guilty. Because Karamatsu deserved so much better, and they had not given it to him. And neither had Chibita.

Some fucking family.

The evening was just starting to dwindle when he heard an odd, mismatched sort of shuffle coming his way. Chibita glanced up from the fish cake he’d been carving into little shapes, then nearly dropped his knife when he realized what it was outlined against the setting sun.

“Karamatsu!” he said, coming out from behind the cart. “Here, let me help you.”

The poor guy did not look good. He’d been patched up somewhere down the line, but he’d required a lot of patching. Between the crutch and the sling, Chibita didn’t exactly know where to touch, so he just sort of looped his arm around Karamatsu’s waist to steady him as they hobbled to Chibita’s bench.

“Jeez,” Chibita sighed as they flopped down on the bench. “What the heck are you doing walking around, idjit? You look like you should be in bed.”

Karamatsu gave him a half-shrug, awkward around the sling. “I wanted to see you,” he said.

Chibita blinked. “Me?” Why the hell did Karamatsu want to see him? He’d — he’d caused a lot of problems. Then he winced. That was probably exactly why he’d come, wasn’t it? “Look, Karamatsu, I’m really sorry about — about all that shit. I never expected it to get so out of hand.”

“I know,” Karamatsu said simply enough, and Chibita wasn’t sure quite what that meant. It definitely wasn’t an “it’s okay”, but it wasn’t an “I hate you”, either.

Chibita looked down at the countertop instead of those big, brown eyes. Shit. Karamatsu was a lot easier to deal with when he was wearing those stupid sunglasses of his. “I thought… I dunno, I thought they’d just come by with the money, I could pay my rent, and we’d all go home happy,” he said, and was embarrassed to hear his voice crack just a little bit. “I didn’t think they’d… y’know.”

Karamatsu shifted beside him. “You couldn’t pay your rent?” he asked, low.

Chibita sighed. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out.” He shot Karamatsu a look and a half-hearted smile to match. “Always do.”

And hell, whatever Karamatsu had owed him before this evening, Chibita had more than taken his due. Accidentally or not, Chibita had taken that debt out of Karamatsu’s hide, and he had the bandages to prove it.

He still didn’t look angry, though. Karamatsu was just giving him a sideways look, quietly assessing in a way that Chibita was starting to learn was far more common than he’d thought. “You work hard out here,” he said, a statement rather than a question.

Chibita shrugged. “A man’s got bills to pay,” he said. He couldn’t just take off for some grand adventure whenever he wanted.

Chibita felt movement against his leg and realized that Karamatsu was tapping his good foot restlessly against the pavement. “But then why oden? It’s not very…” Karamatsu stopped midsentence, perhaps considering how very likely Chibita was to murder him for what he was about to say. “Um. Reliable.”

Well. That was true. Oden wasn’t exactly as popular as it used to be, and convenience store oden cut into his best business on cold days. His best customers were probably Karamatsu and his brothers, and if that didn’t say something about the state of his bank account, nothing did. Still. “There are things more important than reliability, Karamatsu. Like love. And passion.” His lips twisted into a little half-smile, and he nudged Karamatsu gently in the ribs. “You should know all about that.”

Karamatsu gave him a plaintive look that clearly asked him why he was being kicked while he was already down, but his lips turned upward. He knew when he was being teased. “And you love oden?” he asked.

“Of course I do,” Chibita replied, bristling. “It’s the best food in the world, isn’t it?”

“Uh… Sure…”

“And…” Chibita hesitated for a moment, feeling the steady rhythm of Karamatsu’s leg against his own and wondering if it was really right to share. But Karamatsu had asked, hadn’t he? And maybe he deserved something a little personal after what Chibita had put him through. “It was reliable. When I was a kid, I mean. It was simple and cheap and even a junk rat like me could get it. Not always, but whenever I found some money or sold something cool I found in the dump. Or if the guy just… I dunno, felt bad for me. I ate a lot of oden back then.”

The scent of oden had come to mean warm skin and a full belly back then. A stick of oden meant he’d get through another night. Winters were hard when you were a kid with no place to live and no mom to cook for you. Iyami had helped him sometimes, when he wasn’t stealing from him. But he hadn’t been exactly reliable. Oden had been, though. He could depend on the generosity of the oden sellers. They were coarse enough, or maybe kind enough, that they didn’t say anything about his dingy clothes or tattered cufflets. None of them ever bullied him about his bare wrists. They just slipped him an extra skewer of oden and listened to his troubles.

And that was what he wanted to be now. “I guess I just wanted to pay it forward a little bit. I wanted to feed people and make them feel safe the way I did then.” His cart was small, but just right to take in strays. It was old-fashioned, but in a way that made him feel nostalgic. It was homey. Hell, his cart and all the carts that had come before it, that was probably the closest thing to a real home he’d ever had. His apartment was just an empty place to sleep.

Beside him, Karamatsu had stilled. Then, very quietly, “I think I get it.”

“Yeah?” Chibita asked.

Karamatsu hummed a little in agreement. “Maybe.”

Chibita glanced up at him, and shit, the look in Karamatsu’s eyes almost hurt to look at. He looked so — so unbearably sad. And if it wasn’t quite pity that he saw there, it was a kind of sympathy that made Chibita’s skin crawl. Chibita looked away again. “Don’t look at me like that, idjit. I’m not some charity case.” Not anymore, anyway.

“No,” Karamatsu agreed. “But I think you’re a good person.”

And that… It felt so strange. Like a sip of hot dashi warming him all the way down. He hadn’t felt that in a long, long time, and he felt his cheeks redden with the heat of it. “Sh-shut up. Idjit. Don’t say weird stuff like that,” he muttered.

Karamatsu just hummed again, then reached out with his good hand, the one he’d been using to maneuver his crutch and keeping tight against his body otherwise, and patted Chibita’s knee.

Chibita looked down at that hand — and blinked, hard. And then rubbed his eyes quick, just to be sure of what he was seeing. But it was still there, just as it had been before. Smooth, unbroken, uncovered skin. “Karamatsu! What the fuck! Why aren’t you covered up?” he yelped. Now he could see why Karamatsu was wandering around all hunched up like that. He was just a couple steps up from naked.

Karamatsu yanked his hand back as if it’d been burned, and Chibita could see him go so deeply scarlet that it was a wonder he didn’t pass out. “They got—” He cut himself off and looked furious with himself, or at least furiously embarrassed.

It took Chibita a second, but then he got it. “Wait. Shit, did I fuck them up?” he asked, and he could feel his voice tilting upward into something shrill in his throat.

“They just— They just got a little burned,” Karamatsu said, tucking his good hand away into his hoodie pocket. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But you have more, right? At home?”

Karamatsu hesitated. “Our mother is trying to encourage us to sew,” he said, somewhat diplomatically.

“You have one hand!” Chibita snapped. He’d been sewing his own cuffs his whole life, and he knew exactly how difficult it was to do while injured. It wasn’t like his fights had stopped once his Name had come in, after all.

Karamatsu sighed. “She said no more new cuffs after Jyushimatsu lost his last pair.” He paused. “Jyushimatsu has…lost a lot of pairs.”

Well, that explained why the newest pairs had been looking so damn slipshod. Either Mama Matsuno no longer gave any fucks at all, or he’d been looking at the nascent attempts of some shitty NEETs. His money was on the former; they would have been coming in with a lot more band-aids if it had been the latter. “But you’re all the same size, aren’t you? Can’t you just borrow your brothers’?”

Karamatsu’s mouth went flat, flat, and Chibita could have kicked himself. If they couldn’t even be bothered to wake up when he was on fire, of course they weren’t going to give him their cufflets, especially not if they were now a finite resource. “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to — to fuck those up,” Chibita said, and he meant it. He’d been careful while binding Karamatsu’s wrists. Not careful enough, though, apparently.

Next to him, Karamatsu just breathed out slow, then slowly pulled his good arm out so he could massage his temple. “I know. Don’t worry about it. I’ll…” The corner of his mouth quirked up, but it wasn’t quite a smile. “I’ll figure out something.”

And jeez, way to throw those words right back in his face. Chibita looked down. It was hard not to sneak glimpses of Karamatsu’s bare wrist, but he did his best. It was… It was blank anyway.

Right wrist. Blank.

Chibita ignored the weird little tug in his guts and tried to shrug it off. So it was his left wrist that was marked. No big deal. He was always babbling about his Karamatsu Girls, so it wasn’t exactly a shock that he was a left-wrister. Most guys were.

Chibita didn’t realize that he was tugging on his own right cuff until he forcefully made himself stop.

Stop.

It wasn’t even his business anyhow. One day Karamatsu would probably find a girl who was just as painful as he was and they’d be very happy together. Chibita should have been happy, even. One Matsuno down, right? It’d definitely make his own search a lot easier.

He didn’t feel happy, though. He just felt weird and awkward and itchy. Well. He supposed it was kind of weird to see a grown man’s wrist. Maybe that was what was making him so uncomfortable.

“Hey, you can still eat oden with that arm, right?” he asked.

Karamatsu blinked at him, surprised by the apparent non sequitur. Well, what the hell was he expecting to get at a goddamn oden stand, anyway? “Um. Yes?”

“Good,” Chibita said, and he swung his legs around the other side of the bench so he could get to his feet. “Then one Headache Cure Special, coming up.”

“What’s a—”

“Trade secret, Karaboy. Don’t worry about it.”

* * *

The next day, Chibita was surprised to see Karamatsu limping his way toward the cart yet again. Two days in a row. That sure as hell wasn’t typical.

He looked a little better today. His limp wasn’t quite as pronounced and he’d managed to fit those stupid glasses of his on around his head wrapping. They were sort of askew, but, well, Chibita wasn’t going to be the one to tell him that.

Chibita came out from behind the cart, but Karamatsu waved him off, making his way slowly but very purposefully to the bench all on his own. Still, nothing was stopping Chibita from sitting down next to him.

“So how’re you feeling?” Chibita asked, nudging Karamatsu’s leg gently with his own. “Better?”

Karamatsu smiled at him, and it was barely even painful. “A little. I brought something for you.”

Chibita frowned. “For me?”

He nodded. “A small token of consideration from a tender soul, brethren to yours in consolation,” he said, and Chibita snorted. Now he really could believe Karamatsu was feeling better, if he was spewing lines like that one.

“You know you don’t have to do anything like that, Karamatsu. If anything, I owe you,” he said, and he shifted uncomfortably where he sat. He had his own “token of consideration” burning a hole in his pocket, in fact, and was still trying to decide if he really wanted to give it to him. It was kind of weird, as far as “sorry I kidnapped you” gifts went, but there wasn’t exactly a manual of etiquette he could look at for that one.

No, no,” Karamatsu said, in English as if that made any difference at all. “It’s — it’s yours, after all.”

He reached in his pocket and pulled out some money. Scratch that, a lot of money.

Chibita didn’t touch it. “Holy shit, Karamatsu, did you rob a fucking bank?”

“No! It’s just — it’s just some of the money we owe you.” His smile went a little crooked. “A man’s got bills to pay, right?”

Chibita’s mouth turned down. “I’m not taking your money, idjit. I think you’ve more than paid for what you took,” he muttered. He could still see the edges of a mottled purple bruise peeking out from under the bandage on his cheek.

“Well,” Karamatsu said, stretching out the word a little and ducking his head. “It’s not exactly my money. Not all of it, anyway.”

Chibita stared at him. “You said you didn’t steal it!” he said.

“No,” Karamatsu corrected. “I said I didn’t rob a bank.”

Chibita nodded towards the stack of bills. “Then where the fuck did that come from?”

Karamatsu was silent for a moment. Then, “A house well-lived has a thousand hiding places, Chibita, and a million secrets. A true explorer knows them all.”

Chibita wrinkled his nose, trying to translate Karamatsu-speak into normal Japanese. “Are you saying you stole this from your family?” he asked.

Karamatsu shrugged again. “My brothers are very bad at hiding things. And it’s yours, isn’t it?”

“So most of this is your brothers’ money,” he said, eyeing the stack of cash. “How much?”

“Altogether? Uh…”

“No,” Chibita interrupted. “How much of this is theirs?”

Karamatsu considered the money. Then he reached out with his good hand to separate it into two piles, one much larger than the other. “That’s theirs,” he said, nodding towards the larger pile.

“Well, I’m not going to take your money,” Chibita said. It’d be wrong, and they both knew it. “But I’ll sure as hell take theirs.”

Karamatsu’s snicker was purely wicked, and Chibita found himself joining in. Once upon a time, he would have associated that snicker with bodily harm that was about to be inflicted upon his person, but today it just made him feel sort of warm. Like there was a joke, but for the first time he was one of the ones in on it.

He felt that warmth streaming out of him, bursting through his wobbly seams, and he grinned at Karamatsu. Karamatsu’s answering grin seemed oddly true, wide and genuine with glasses still off-balance, and the warmth in Chibita’s stomach only deepened. Feeling that heat in his core was starting to happen worryingly often around Karamatsu.

He could feel it there in his pockets, the gift he’d stayed up all night sewing for Karamatsu. It had seemed so foolish then, so presumptuous, and if Karamatsu weren’t smiling at him now, wide and foolish and bright as the sun, he might never have given it to him. But the heat in Chibita’s stomach gave a little roll, and he found himself reaching into his pocket. “I have something for you, too,” he said.

Karamatsu immediately perked up. “For me?” he asked, and Chibita almost laughed again to hear his own words repeated back to him.

“Yeah,” Chibita said, and pulled out a little package. He’d just wrapped them with leftover newspaper; it was all he’d had around the house. Still. Maybe Karamatsu would like them after all.

Karamatsu took the package from him, a greedy little light visible in his eyes even through his dark lenses. Then he frowned. “I can’t open this,” he said, waving his cast a little helplessly.

“Oh, right, fuck,” Chibita muttered. He picked up the package himself and gave it a good rip. He always used too much tape when he was wrapping gifts, anyway. As soon as his gift was visible through the hole in the paper, though, his stomach stopped rolling and started flipping, the heat there giving way to cold anxiety. Wait. This was actually a really stupid idea, wasn’t it?

Next to him, Karamatsu’s smile had fallen right off his face and Chibita could see him staring down into the little package with wide eyes. And then, a quiet little echo. “For me?”

Chibita swallowed hard and pulled the cufflets he’d made from the paper. “If you want them. Just— Just until your mom makes you a new pair, okay?” They were thicker than Chibita’s usual coverings, and warmer, too. He’d cut up a soft old scarf to make them. It was getting colder, and he’d just — he’d thought that maybe Karamatsu would like a little bit of warmth between his jacket and his gloves. But now, looking down at the ragged fabric, the little embroidered stick of oden on each cufflet, he realized that anyone would know just looking at them who’d made them. And then… Well, they’d probably get the wrong idea. Jeez. He was such an idiot. Of course Karamatsu wouldn’t want to wear these.

Karamatsu was still quiet, was still looking down at them with an expression that Chibita couldn’t read for the life of him. Chibita felt his guts curdle, and the brave little moment that had him pulling the cufflets out was gone. He reached out with trembling fingers to sweep them back up, paper and all. “I’m sorry. That was stupid,” he said quickly, and he knew his stupid, foolish voice was shaking. “I just thought that— Y’know, since it was my fault that you lost your last pair…”

“No,” Karamatsu said, catching Chibita’s hands with one of his own. “It was…” He cleared his throat. “It was very thoughtful.”

Chibita’s hands stilled in their work. “Then…”

Karamatsu turned towards him a little, bare wrist outstretched. “Can you help me put the right one on now?” he asked. He colored a little. “I’m still not used to the cast.”

“Yeah,” Chibita said. “No problem.” He was careful as he slid the cufflet in place, taking pains not to brush his fingers against the sensitive skin there. Blank or not, it wasn’t his right to touch Karamatsu there. It was only one person’s, and her name was covered up by Karamatsu’s cast. Small mercies, he supposed. It would have been a lot worse if it had been his Named wrist that had been left uncovered. It was only tradition and personal comfort levels that dictated that a blank wrist was covered as well. That way someone couldn’t get any information about a soulmate just by looking at both wrists and eliminating one.

Names were such a private thing, and yet Chibita couldn’t help but fight back a tiny twinge of sadness that he couldn’t see Karamatsu’s. If it had been his right wrist that had gotten hurt, then he wouldn’t have known. It wouldn’t have been so clear that Karamatsu wasn’t his wrist’s match. And he wasn’t sure he even wanted Karamatsu to be, but… Chibita felt Karamatsu shiver beneath his fingers, and he sighed. Karamatsu was just so nice. If it had to have been any of them, Karamatsu… well, he wouldn’t have been such a bad soulmate.

Hell. It was probably a good thing that they were getting Karamatsu’s wrists covered up fast if Chibita was already this discombobulated after one goddamn day.

“There,” he finally said. “How’s it feel?” He’d had to sort of guess at Karamatsu’s wrist size, but it hadn’t looked that much bigger than his.

“It’s good,” Karamatsu said, flexing his wrist, and Chibita felt a private little thrill of pride at the way his work looked on someone else’s wrist. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. And then Karamatsu frowned.

Chibita’s happiness doused itself, and really, that little splash of cold water was actually a good thing. It was rude to stare at someone else’s wrists, even if it was his handiwork that covered them. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“They fit really well,” Karamatsu said, frowning at them. “But they shouldn’t. Your hands are a lot smaller than mine.”

And — oh, Chibita got it now. “No,” he said, his cheeks heating. “They’re not my old ones. I made them for you. Last night.”

And hell, that… He wasn’t even sure which felt more strangely intimate, sewing new cufflets for Karamatsu or the idea of letting him wear his old ones. His heart beat hard, a little uneasily, and Chibita sat back in his seat. It was just a favor for a friend, he reminded himself. One whom he’d wronged.

He chanced a look up at Karamatsu’s face, and aw, hell. He was even redder than Chibita was. “Oh,” he said. “Thank you.” Then, a moment later. “I can’t believe you made these in one night.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Chibita said — then winced. Well, that was one way to remind someone that he had to make his own cufflets.

Karamatsu winced a little, too, but he softened it with a ginger smile. “I can tell. They look nice.”

And, well. Sure, it wasn’t “shimmering like asteroids dancing in the Milky Way” or “delicate as the breath of a young goddess”, but right now, Chibita was more than willing to take “nice”. “Thanks,” he said.

Karamatsu’s smile went a little truer. “Maybe one day I’ll try making you a pair, too,” he said.

Chibita would have really liked to say that he wasn’t tomato-red at this point, but he was pretty sure that’d be a lie. Idjit. “Um.”

And then Karamatsu seemed to realize what he’d said with that fool mouth of his and he dropped his hand away from Chibita’s like it’d been burned. “Not um — not like…”

“No, I know,” Chibita said, and tried not to let that hurt. “I knew what you meant.”

It was awkward then, quiet for a long minute, and then Karamatsu sighed. Whatever moment they’d stolen together was certainly gone now. “Uh…” He motioned to the pile of bills. “How much oden can I have for that?” he asked.

And finally, finally, another laugh. Chibita felt all that stale air that had been stopping up his lungs leave them in a rush, and he got to his feet. “Don’t worry about it. Today it’s on the house.”

* * *

Weeks passed, and Karamatsu became a permanent fixture at his cart. Maybe he was bored. Maybe his family had gotten tired of his convalescent whining and thrown him out. There was really no way to tell why Karamatsu had started showing up at his cart a couple times a week, all by his lonesome. A small part of Chibita, though — the lonely part, maybe — hoped that Karamatsu had felt a little bit of that warmth in his belly, too. Or something.

He’d sort of halfway expected Karamatsu to stop coming after the cast came off. He’d be free to roam the city making eyes at girls and getting into stupid scrapes with his brothers once he was fully healed. He certainly didn’t expect Karamatsu to show up at his cart with no cast and oden-stitched cufflets on both arms. Chibita had made him a set, sure, but he’d just sort of thought that… Well, that they were temporary.

“Your mom still won’t make you a new set, huh?” he asked as he made Karamatsu a skewer of his favorites. He ignored the double-beat of his heart and told himself that he really didn’t care about the answer. He was being stupid anyway.

Karamatsu gave a half-shrug, looking like he felt a little awkward with his new freedom of movement. “She did, actually. I think she started to feel bad. I alternate them with these to make washing easier for her, though,” he said.

And oh, that stupid, stupid part of him had the nerve to get butterflies.

Dumbass, he told himself. Don’t be such an idjit. You know he’s not the one.

Or rather, Chibita knew that he wasn’t Karamatsu’s one. Hell, maybe it wasn’t even the right family. Maybe there really were more shady Matsunos in this city. Tokyo was pretty fucking big, after all. The butterflies in his stomach refused to settle, though, and it was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking. “Isn’t it kind of weird, though? To wear another guy’s cufflets so much?” he asked.

He really wasn’t sure what he wanted Karamatsu to say to that. Did he want him to agree? Did he want him to just take the damn things off so Chibita’s stomach would stop behaving so strangely whenever he showed up? Or did he want him to argue? To insist on wearing them even longer, to stoke that fire inside Chibita until he burned right up?

Shit. Chibita tugged at the edge of a cufflet and forced his stupid mouth shut.

Karamatsu was looking at him, a crease right there between those painful brows of his, like he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to say to that, either. Finally, “I don’t think so. I like them.”

It was a simple statement, but it sent a shiver right down Chibita’s spine.

Karamatsu kept frowning, though, tilting his head like Chibita was a puzzle he wanted to figure out. “Does it make you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“What?” Chibita asked blankly. “No.”

The corner of Karamatsu’s mouth turned up at that. If nothing else, at least he seemed pleased.

Chibita… not so much. He plated Karamatsu’s food and handed it over, tapping a scattered little melody against the counter with his free hand. “Don’t you ever wonder about it, though? Who your soulmate is?” he asked.

Then immediately regretted it. Karamatsu’s face shuttered, going blank in a way he hadn’t seen since the night of the kidnapping. He’d said something wrong, clearly. “No,” he said. “Not really.”

Chibita blinked. And he knew it was a bad idea, he knew it. He knew Karamatsu was already coiled up tight. But honestly, that didn’t make any damn sense. Karamatsu was the most romantic, pie-in-the-sky dreamer he’d ever met. Of course he had to wonder about that. Everyone did. And frankly, Chibita had never been especially tactful. So he said, “Seriously? Not ever? That doesn’t sound like you.”

Karamatsu looked up at him and he opened his mouth. Whatever he was going to say just hung there in his throat, though, and the silence stretched between them. Finally, he simply shut his mouth and sank back into his seat. Sulking. The guy was actually sulking. “You don’t know me at all.”

And jeez, was this Karamatsu trying to sound mysterious again? Because Chibita thought he actually knew Karamatsu pretty well by now. They’d been hanging out for weeks and they’d known each other almost as long as they’d known air. Karamatsu saying those words in that voice, leaden and dull, that…hurt.

“The hell are you babbling about, dumbass?” he asked, and if it came out a little sharper than his usual teasing, well, Karamatsu had probably earned it. “Are you trying to pull that lone wolf bullshit again? Because that’s really not as cool as you think it is.”

“No,” Karamatsu insisted, and there was some bite to his voice this time. “I just think there’s more to love than soul marks.”

Chibita huffed a little and leaned forward on the counter. “Shouldn’t you be all about star-crossed lovers or indelible ink or whatever? You know, all those shitty love songs?”

“No,” Karamatsu repeated, more stubbornly this time. “You can definitely fall in love with someone who’s not written on you.”

Chibita blinked. There was an odd quality to Karamatsu’s tone that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Perhaps wistfulness? Or melancholy? His own heart started to beat a little faster, no matter how he scolded it. “What, are you saying you’ve fallen for someone you’re not supposed to?” he asked.

Karamatsu bit at his lower lip and looked downward, his expression gone stormy. “There is no ‘supposed to’.”

Chibita shrugged, still staring hard at Karamatsu’s downturned face. “Sure, I guess. Lots of people are happy with people other than their soulmates.” And there, right there, a tiny relaxing of tight shoulders. “But there’s something romantic about someone who’s meant for you, isn’t there? It’s like… I dunno. Like there’s a home out there for you somewhere. Just waiting for you to find it.”

“That doesn’t sound like you,” Karamatsu said darkly. “Would’ve thought you’d be some rebel who thinks you should build your own home. Isn’t it more romantic to actually choose to be with someone?”

The words hit harder than he would have liked them to, and he had to gather his spine back up before he could reply. “Fuck that, Karamatsu. I’ve been building my own home my whole fucking life. What’s wrong with wanting someone to help me?” he asked, and there was a tremor in his voice, he knew, but that didn’t mean he’d let his backbone shake.

Now Karamatsu looked like the one who’d been hit. He muttered something, too quiet for Chibita to hear, but Chibita wasn’t about that life. If he was gonna have a fight, he was gonna do it at full volume. “What was that?”

Karamatsu swallowed. “Just… You don’t need a soulmate for that. Other people— There are other people who would help you,” he said, still far too quiet for Chibita’s taste.

“Like who?” Chibita snapped. “Clearly no one else has ever given a shit about me up to this point, so maybe I need to believe that the person who’s got ‘Chibita’ written on their wrist will be different.”

Please, please let them be different.

Karamatsu opened his mouth to say something, and Chibita had a feeling it wasn’t going to be something he particularly wanted to hear… but then his mouth snapped shut and he just looked confused. His nose wrinkled just the slightest bit, and this time Chibita was too annoyed to think it was cute. “It wouldn’t say that, though, would it? That’s your first name.”

“Thanks, Karamatsu, I hadn’t noticed,” Chibita said, rolling his eyes.

“But Names are family names,” Karamatsu said. “You’ve got a family name on your wrist, right?”

Without really thinking about it, Chibita brought his right wrist up to his chest, bang against his heart, and rubbed at its covering. “Yeah…”

Karamatsu’s eyes followed the movement, and he saw a flash of, of something before it was gone again. “So wouldn’t your family name be on their wrist?” he asked.

Chibita’s mouth twisted. “I don’t have one,” he said shortly.

Karamatsu’s mouth opened, then closed. “Wait, seriously?”

Chibita stared at him. “You didn’t know? What, idjit, did you think that we knew each other all this time and I just didn’t bother telling it to you?” he asked.

Karamatsu shrugged, and it looked a little sheepish this time. “I thought if I asked now, you’d probably hit me,” he admitted.

Admittedly, Chibita probably would’ve. He crossed his arms. “Well, I don’t have one. So whoever’s got me must say ‘Chibita’.”

Karamatsu was giving him an oddly speculative look, and Chibita didn’t like it one little bit. It made him feel like he was a bug under a microscope. “Maybe it doesn’t say anything at all,” Karamatsu said. “Maybe they’re blank.”

Chibita flinched. He knew he did. But just the idea of that made his spine feel like ice. “That can’t be,” he said, his voice terse. “Blank wrists are for dead people.”

Karamatsu's expression tightened a little — no one liked talking about things like that — but it was true. Only corpses and widowers had blank wrists. That was the theory, anyway. Some people never developed names on their wrists, and all those guys in the white coats said it was because their soulmates had died in childhood. It made sense. People’s soul marks disappeared from their bodies when they died, and their name would slowly fade from their soulmate’s wrist. It made sense that a perpetual blank wrist just meant that the mark had never had the chance to develop in the first place.

If not having a family name really meant that his soulmate had a blank wrist, though… He felt a sudden burst of nausea. Then he wasn’t on anyone’s wrist. He was a nobody with no family and no soulmate. And that — that was even worse than being marked Matsuno. That was the worst fate of all.

But that couldn’t be right. It couldn’t. “I have someone’s name on my wrist, though,” he said, somewhat defensively. “So I have a soulmate.”

“Yeah,” Karamatsu said, but he still had that strange look in his eyes. “But they wouldn’t know it.”

“Stop it,” Chibita commanded. “Is this just because I called you a dumbass earlier? This isn’t funny.” The very idea of it. Of walking right past his soulmate and never even fucking knowing it. Because his soulmate thought he was dead. Just the idea of it was enough to make his throat stop up, to make his eyes burn embarrassingly. He didn’t like this side of Karamatsu, the side that went all mopey and argued with him and treated him like some question in a textbook that neither one of them were smart enough to read. He didn’t like feeling like this one little bit. It felt like his heart was constricting, too small and too large for his chest all at once, and it hurt.

Karamatsu blinked at him. It was like a switch had been flipped and he was abruptly seeing the here and now instead of whatever was going on in his head. That strange, intense look in his eyes faded away and it was replaced with a look of sudden clarity, of remorse and concern. “Are you crying?”

“No,” Chibita lied. “Just don’t say things like that, you asshole.”

But Chibita was a simple kind of guy. He was no actor, and anyone with half a brain could tell he was upset. And it turned out that Karamatsu, shockingly enough, had at least half a brain in there somewhere. His eyes went wide and his brows went down and then he was up out of his seat, he was blundering back behind the cart where he had absolutely no business being.

“I’m sorry,” he said, pulling Chibita into a tight hug. “I didn’t mean it.”

But that was the opposite of what Chibita wanted. He didn’t want to be held right now. Because that warm chest, that tight embrace, it just seemed to squeeze the tears right out of him. What an idea. What a fucking horrible idea. His soulmate, wherever he was, growing up how Chibita had, no Name and no hope. But unlike Chibita, he’d never gotten his Name. He just had a blank wrist because he had a shitty, broken soulmate who didn’t even have a family name and who’d been too stupid to even think that might’ve been a problem. They’d never meet. How could they? How could they — how could he — have anything? Any of the things he’d always dreamed of?

Chibita’s back was shaking and he knew he was just, ugh, totally soaking Karamatsu’s shirt, but Karamatsu held on tight. “I’m sorry,” he was saying. “It’s not like that. It can’t be. There’s that — what’s it called, the linguistic thing? Linguistic drift.”

“The language thing,” Chibita mumbled.

“The language thing,” Karamatsu agreed.

No one was quite sure how it worked, not yet. No one knew how Names seemed to adapt across languages and cultures. Chibita had heard elderly folks moaning about how kids these days never got their Names in kanji anymore, just basic kana, and he knew that the Names adapted to the linguistic styles of a new culture — eventually, anyway. But it took a long time, and those confused-looking news anchors had said it had something to do with self-conceptualization or some bullshit like that. How people thought of themselves and how they thought of others. How they thought linguistically and culturally and societally. Hell, he'd even heard of Names showing up places other than the wrists.

“But outliers don’t count,” he said. That’s what they always said. Names shifted with the culture. Outliers didn’t count. “What if that’s me?”

Karamatsu was quiet for a few minutes as he stroked Chibita’s back. “Then you just have to find the person with a blank wrist who completes you, then build a home with them,” he said. “You’ve got their name, right?” Then, even more quietly, “Just think how happy they’ll be to find you.”

And Karamatsu sounded so quiet for a moment, so lost, that Chibita wondered. What would it do to a person, to grow up with no Name? To grow up in a family feeling so unlovable? So wrong? Would they overcompensate, go so over-the-top with love that they’d make everyone around them nauseated? Would they feel alone even with five rowdy brothers? Would they feel broken?

For a moment, Chibita really wondered. He’d never seen Karamatsu’s other wrist, so how could he help but wonder? But that — that couldn’t be. He remembered when Karamatsu had gotten his cufflets from his mother. All six of them had gotten them within a week of each other, and he’d caught a glimpse of them being naughty and comparing their Names. They’d always been such shitty children. Karamatsu had been just like the rest of them, taunting him over his bare wrist.

He shook his head slowly against Karamatsu’s chest. He was being a shitty child, too, he knew. Hoping that Karamatsu — what, that he’d had a horrific childhood? That he’d been emotionally wrecked? That was such a horrible thing to hope for. So what if he had a little crush? Karamatsu was right: people got crushes all the time. Hell, people fell in love all the time, and with people whose names didn’t match the ones written on their bodies. Not everyone found their soulmate. Not everyone wanted to.

But Chibita wanted to. He wanted to find the person who was meant for him. The person who’d love him for all his faults. And he was sure that Karamatsu, for all his blustering, wanted to find his person, too.

It just…wasn’t him.

Chibita sighed, long and low, and gave himself one more moment to lean into Karamatsu’s solid chest. He thought about the name written on his wrist and the way he’d never been able to bear to extricate himself from those horrible, shitty NEETs because what if? What if one of them really was for him? Maybe it was time to let go of those hopes. Maybe they’d been holding him back all along. Maybe he needed to open a damn phone book for once and see just how many Matsunos lived in Japan. That made a lot more sense than letting all six of them walk all over him just in case.

He needed to just let the fuck go. Because what if Karamatsu was right? What if he really did need to go out and find what was his? What if his soulmate was never going to come find him?

Chibita stepped back, pulling himself out of Karamatsu’s embrace. And as Karamatsu leaned forward so he could wipe the tears from Chibita’s eyes, he allowed himself just one more moment of weakness. Fuck, I wish it was you.

* * *

Chibita contemplated making his trip as he poured Osomatsu another beer. As it turned out, there were hundreds of Matsunos all over Japan. And, well, he wasn’t exactly about to start pulling people out of the phone book so he could show up at their doorstep, but there was nothing wrong with a little reconnaissance. Not if someone was waiting for him.

And frankly, nights like tonight weren’t exactly going to make him miss Akatsuka Ward while he was taking his break. All six of them tonight. All six. And all six of them were varying degrees of plastered.

“More, please,” Karamatsu said, handing his plate to Chibita, and Chibita willingly took it. At least he was being pretty well behaved. His face was red as all get out, but at least he wasn’t passing out in his food like Jyushimatsu had.

Or shooting death glares like Ichimatsu was. “Stop sucking up,” he commanded.

Karamatsu blinked at him, the movement a little sluggish. “Eh?”

“The,” Ichimatsu gestured a little helplessly. “The ugly cuff-covers. Those things.”

Karamatsu frowned at him and held one of his wrists protectively. “They’re not ugly. Chibita made them.”

Ichimatsu shrugged, and the movement seemed to slither through his whole body. God, he was drunk. Chibita really should have cut them all off two drinks ago. “Still ugly. Still wearin’ ‘em just to get better oden.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Chibita felt a headache starting to grow right between his eyes. “Karamatsu doesn’t get special treatment just because he wears some very not-ugly cufflets to the cart,” he said.

Ichimatsu huffed and kicked Karamatsu under the table. Maybe that was what made him say it.

“Karamatsu gets special treatment because he’s not an asshole like the rest of you,” he finished.

Ichimatsu’s heavy eyes widened. He went very still for a moment, barely even wavering in his seat, and that was the only warning any of them got before he said, “He doesn’t even need to wear those things! It’s not like there’s anything under them.”

Karamatsu froze and the rest of the table went very, very quiet. They had no love lost for Karamatsu, Chibita knew, but there were some things you just — you just didn’t talk about. Not at home and certainly not in public. Even Ichimatsu seemed to realize that he’d gone too far. He shot a little panicked look at Karamatsu, but Karamatsu didn’t say a word. He just stood, looking far more sober than he had a few minutes before, turned on his heel, and walked off.

Chibita watched him go, and he didn’t even realize that his mouth had been hanging open until he went to swallow and found his mouth dry as sandpaper. “He really — nothing?” he stammered.

They all turned to look at Ichimatsu, who just sank down in his seat looking vaguely ill.

Chibita started to take off his apron as if on autopilot. His brain wasn’t functioning, not all the way, not yet. “Don’t—“ He had to take a second, reorient himself enough to finish that thought. “Don’t touch anything, you stupid fucking assholes.

And then he stalked off into the night.

* * *

Karamatsu hadn’t gone far. Chibita found him in a playground a few minutes away, his sparkly jacket making him easy to spot in the moonlight. He was sitting on a swing set that was far too small for him, but he wasn’t swinging. He was just hanging there like he couldn’t bear to go forward or backward, or anywhere but where he sat suspended. As Chibita neared, he recognized the cufflets he’d made lying on the ground by his feet.

“Jeez,” he said, any false casualness in his voice coming out dead to his ears. “I worked hard on these, idjit.”

Karamatsu didn’t say anything, didn’t move. Chibita hadn’t really expected him to. He’d seen Karamatsu shut down before.

Chibita walked a little closer. “Karaboy? Are you okay?”

No answer.

He took a step closer, so close now that their knees knocked every time the breeze pushed Karamatsu forward. “Let me see your wrists,” he said, quiet.

Karamatsu’s head shot up, and he looked stricken. “You can’t—“

“What?” Chibita asked. “I can’t just go up and ask someone that?”

Karamatsu shook his head slowly. No one did things like that. It was like lesson one in the Stranger Danger lecture they all got in school.

“I’m not asking,” Chibita said, and held out his hands. “Show me your wrists.”

Karamatsu stared at him, and Chibita’s heart fucking hurt to see the haunted look in his eyes. How long had that been there, hidden behind smiles and glitter and shades? How long had he been hurting like this?

Slowly, without breaking eye contact, Karamatsu laid his wrists face-up in Chibita’s hands, and Chibita couldn’t stifle his quick intake of breath. It was true. They really were fucking bare. Both of them. The alienness of it made his heart hammer against his ribs, and guilt settled dark and heavy in his gut. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Karamatsu said, and the words sounded wooden in his mouth. He’d said them too many times, thought them too many ways. That was what they told children who never developed names, right? That it wasn’t anybody’s fault. It just was.

But this time was different. “I think it is,” Chibita said, his voice barely wisps against the wind. He felt one tear roll down his cheek, then the other. He didn’t bother wiping them away. Because this was his fault, somehow. He’d never asked for any of this. He’d never asked to be abandoned. To be fucking homeless while Karamatsu was growing. To be nameless when Karamatsu’s Name should have been growing dark against his pale skin. He’d never asked to saddle Karamatsu with the same emptiness he felt every time he saw a family walking home together past his cart. But he’d done it anyway. He’d made Karamatsu like this, and he’d never even considered that he had that power. It wasn’t until Karamatsu pointed out the possibility that he’d even thought about the life he might have ruined just by having the temerity to exist. He hadn’t even thought that the breaths he was taking might have come from someone else’s lungs. Hell. Maybe that was what being a soulmate really was.

No wonder some people wanted no part of it.

And he — he could have just excused that as being stupid. Ignorant. Hell, it’s not like he’d ever even made it to high school. But Karamatsu had told him. Chibita had seen that dark wonder, that calculating almost-hope, and dashed it with his own sorrow. He’d thought — he didn’t even know what he’d thought, that Karamatsu was messing with him? Talking to him like he was some kind of weird scientific marvel? Maybe he should have examined why the idea of Karamatsu playing with him like that hurt so fucking much. Or why the idea of Karamatsu being blank scared him.

He’d felt guilty for even hoping that Karamatsu was his, but it felt a thousand times worse knowing that he actually was. That he’d hurt him so badly without even knowing it. And then, worse, that he’d hurt him because he was too weak to look at a truth that scared him.

Chibita gently ran his thumbs over the sensitive skin of Karamatsu’s wrists, and hummed comfortingly when Karamatsu made a choked, broken noise. What was it that he’d always dreamed about when he was little? A home? A family? Someone kissing his wrists and holding him close?

Chibita wanted to kiss him there, wanted it so fucking badly. He’d always dreamed about tracing his name on someone else’s skin, but even just — just touching the skin that he knew now, he knew was his. He wanted it so bad.

But it wasn’t his. Not yet. Not until Karamatsu gave it to him.

Chibita swallowed and dropped Karamatsu’s hands, his heart aching a little when Karamatsu whimpered at the loss. Bereft. He sounded bereft. And only Chibita could give him what he needed.

He breathed in slow, steady, preparing himself for something he knew was going to be hard. Slowly, with shaking fingers, he stripped off one covering, then the other. Left, then right. He let them drop to the ground to mingle with Karamatsu’s. And then he raised his wrists so Karamatsu could read what they said in the moonlight.

Karamatsu just stared at his skin for a moment, his eyes quick and greedy as they drank in what Chibita was showing him. It was — fuck, it was an intimacy that Chibita had never known before. No one had ever looked at him like that. Like he was an oasis in the desert, like he was the most beautiful goddamn thing in the world. And no one had ever looked at his Name at all.

“I’ve never shown anyone else,” Chibita murmured. The school nurse had taken his word for it, knowing better than anyone how embarrassed teenagers could be about their changing bodies. And it wasn’t like he’d ever had parents who'd needed to measure the dimensions of his wrists. He’d done all that himself.

“But you showed me,” Karamatsu breathed.

“Yeah,” Chibita said, pulling his blank wrist up to his face so he could scrub at his eyes. “Because I think you might be my soulmate.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything? To any of us?”

“None of you even liked me,” Chibita said, wiping his hand on the edge of his shirt. Fuck. He should have kept the apron. “I thought maybe there was a mix-up somehow. Or some other Matsuno out there somewhere. And then — then there was you, and you liked me. And I really, really liked you. But I saw that your right wrist was blank and I thought…”

Karamatsu’s eyes widened. “You thought there was a girl.”

“Who wouldn’t?” Chibita asked. Most guys wanted girls, and Karamatsu being straight was a lot more likely than him having blank wrists.

Karamatsu’s legs had parted, and Chibita wasn’t sure he'd even realized he’d done it. But Chibita wasn’t about to say no to an invitation like that, so he scooted forward so he could stand between Karamatsu’s legs. Close. He was so close now. Karamatsu had to look up slightly so he could look Chibita in the eye, but he wasn’t doing that. He was looking straight forward at Chibita’s lips. “And you… really, really liked me?” he asked, tentative.

Chibita swallowed hard. “I wanted it to be you so badly,” he whispered. “But it was such a horrible thing to wish for. I didn’t want…” Karamatsu’s hands came up to hold onto his hips, and that was exactly the grounding he needed. “I wanted you, but I didn’t want to have hurt you like that. I didn’t want to think that maybe I…”

“You didn’t.”

“I did,” he said. “I ruined—“

But Karamatsu clearly didn’t want to hear it. Or maybe he was just tired of waiting for his soulmate to kiss him. Either way, he’d taken matters into his own hands, pulling Chibita close and kissing him deep.

It was so good. Fuck. It was even better than he’d thought it’d be. He’d heard about it before, the way the whole world went a little hazy when soulmates finally found each other, but he’d sort of thought that was just in movies. It wasn’t. God, it wasn’t. Karamatsu fit against him so perfectly that he was almost dizzy with it. Chibita kissed him and kissed him and kissed him, hands coming up to grasp uselessly at his chest, his shoulders, his neck. Finally, he managed to hold Karamatsu’s face in his hands and tilt him upwards so he could get a better taste. Fuck, fuck, it was so good.

Karamatsu broke away, but just for a minute, turning his head so he could steal kisses against Chibita’s wrist. And that… Chibita’s eyes watered, and he refused to call them tears, not even if Karamatsu’s lips were heartbreakingly tender against his own name. Chibita’s Name. His soulmate.

Fucking hell.

“Neither of us are alone now,” Karamatsu murmured against his skin, and Chibita had to strain to hear him. It was worth it, though. It was so worth it. “Not ever again.”

Chibita looped his arm around Karamatsu’s shoulders so he could pull him in, rest those pretty eyes of his, wet with tears as they were, against his collar. “I’m sorry,” he said again. For leaving him alone for so long. For not figuring things out sooner. Karamatsu made a displeased noise against his shirt, though, so Chibita pressed a kiss to his hair and hugged him tight. “I love you.”

Hell. Like that had ever even been in question. Chibita had known that he was hopelessly, helplessly gone on Karamatsu before he’d even imagined he might have him. Now that he knew that Karamatsu was his, that he always had been, for better and for worse…

Those overly-expressive brown eyes were his, and so were Karamatsu’s stupidly soft lips. His heart and his mind and every single one of those painful pick-up lines. They were all his. And Karamatsu’s wrists…

Chibita pulled back, pulled away until he could manage to detach one of Karamatsu’s arms from their death grip around his waist. Right, left, did it even really matter anymore? He caught Karamatsu’s hand in his and twined their fingers together. He could see Karamatsu’s bare wrist now. At least it looked bare. Chibita knew, though, that his claim had been marked there in invisible ink. Just neither of them had known how to look.

He knew now. He felt like he knew everything, and he felt like he knew nothing. He felt like he could finally see a road leading far away into the distance, and he knew that he had the rest of his life to walk it. They had their whole lives to learn each other.

He brought their linked hands up to his mouth and pressed his lips to skin he’d waited his whole life to taste. It didn’t taste like forever, and it didn’t taste like destiny. It just tasted like Karamatsu, and Chibita knew that was all he’d ever wanted. The rest would come with time.

He felt Karamatsu start to shake with the weight of silent sobs, and he knew all those things could wait for another day. For now, he was just a man with a soulmate, and the two of them would help each other. Would care about each other. And together, they’d make a home.

Chibita held Karamatsu close and rocked him as he cried.

* * *

“I thought I said no glitter,” Chibita said warily. “It’s gotta be oden-proof. You know that.”

“Don’t worry, my treasure,” Karamatsu said, the endearment dropping from his mouth like it was nothing. Chibita knew it wasn’t, though. He knew in every dumb endearment, every painful compliment, Karamatsu was putting a little bit of his soul on the line. And so far, Chibita had been very careful to catch it. “This gleam is woven into the fabric. There’s no glitter.”

No glitter, no sequins, and none of Karamatsu’s goddamn face. Those had been Chibita’s only rules for his new cufflets. And Karamatsu had obeyed, sort of. They were a midnight blue and… Chibita picked at the fabric a little suspiciously, but the sparkles really did stay put.

“I wanted them to sparkle like all the stars in the sky,” Karamatsu said. “Like the moonbeams in your eyes.”

“Ugh,” he said, but he couldn’t help the smile tugging at his lips. “Fine. Put ‘em on me.”

Karamatsu beamed at him, and Chibita knew that he hadn’t been in the least bit subtle with that smile. “Of course, my love,” he said, and he caught hold of Chibita’s…elbows. That wasn’t — but Chibita quickly caught on as Karamatsu first kissed up his left arm, then his right. His tongue darted out for a taste against Chibita’s wrist, just barely tracing the lines of his name there, and then he pressed one more smacking kiss right in the center of Chibita’s palm.

Chibita laughed a little weakly as the sensitive skin of his wrists burned, a tingling echo of Karamatsu’s kisses. “If you want to put those on, don’t kiss me like you’re taking them off.” He paused. “Idjit.”

Karamatsu laughed softly and pulled him in close for a proper kiss, lips and tongue and — what had they been doing again? Oh right. “Cuffs,” Chibita reminded him, his voice wavering in his throat.

Karamatsu just kissed his throat, right where his voice had caught. “It’s just a fitting, love. They don’t have to stay on for long.”

“Fuck.”

Karamatsu took pity on his goddamn libido after that, though, pulling the cufflets gently down over his wrists until they covered up what they were meant to. “There. How do they feel?”

Chibita flexed his fingers once or twice, then his wrists. “Perfect,” he admitted. The material Karamatsu had chosen was softer than it looked, and it fit him like a second skin. The man was far handier with a needle and thread than Chibita had expected.

The smile he was treated to then was pretty enough to make his breath catch in his lungs. God. And he’d seen that smile so many times lately. He’d never seen Karamatsu so happy. He’d done that.

“Just think how happy they’ll be to find you.”

He’d been slow, and he’d been late. Neither one of them had understood what they both had right underneath their noses. But it was theirs now. Both of theirs.

“Here,” Chibita said pulling out his own cufflets for Karamatsu to try on. He’d had a lot more time to work on these. He’d been able to stitch on more than one stick of oden this time, as well as a secret inside the one on the right. Soft, blue fabric this time. He was pretty damn sure by now that it was Karamatsu’s favorite color.

Karamatsu took them from him and pressed them to his lips. “They’re so soft,” he said with a happy little sigh. “Like the fresh-shed down of a summer dove.”

“Mmhmm,” Chibita said, taking them back. “Sure. Gimme your hand?”

“You can have a lot more than that, baby,” Karamatsu purred, and Chibita was forced to bury his giggle in Karamatsu’s palm.

“Not sexy,” he said, his breaths coming in little gasps. “At all.”

“I’ll have to try harder.”

“Don’t you dare, idjit,” Chibita warned, but he knew that warnings didn’t do much good if you were squeezing them out around giggles.

“Fortune favors the bold, my love,” Karamatsu said, and wiggled his eyebrows in a way that had Chibita muffling his laughter even as he slid the left cufflet on. “I’ll just have to wait until you least expect it.”

Chibita just gave him a mock-severe look and grabbed his other hand. “If you wake me up in the middle of the night again, I swear to god…”

“Ah. No, I understand now that a being so radiantly lovely as yourself, um, requires his beauty sleep.”

Yeah. He’d learned that lesson real loudly at about two in the damn morning. Chibita smirked to himself as he remembered the way Karamatsu had yelped. But then his gaze softened again as he realized just what his fingers had done while he was distracted. The right cufflet was on, nice and snug, and his fingertips framed the fabric on either side of where Karamatsu’s Name should have been, where Chibita’s name should have been written — if he’d had one to give.

He couldn’t help but nuzzle in close, pressing his nose up against the fabric he’d so carefully worked and the skin hiding beneath. He breathed in deep, inhaling the point where their two scents mingled. It was so hard not to touch now that they’d found each other.

“Ichimatsu has two, y’know.”

Chibita squinted at him even as he pulled away. “Two what?”

Karamatsu wiggled his fingers. “Two names. One on each wrist.” He paused. “They used to say that he’d stolen mine.”

Chibita bit at his bottom lip and tried to keep his fingers steady against Karamatsu’s pulse. “They?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“My brothers.”

Ugh. Those shitheads. They were such complete and utter shitheads. “Fuck, I’m glad I got you,” he muttered, not for the first time.

Karamatsu didn’t say anything, so Chibita glanced up just in time to catch an utterly soft, open expression on his face before it was buried under another couple layers of painful. “Yeah,” said Karamatsu, and his voice had gone a little thick. “Me too.”

Chibita swallowed, then slid his thumb in under the fabric to caress where Karamatsu’s Name should have been. They’d been so lucky. Stupid, but so goddamn lucky. Karamatsu might never have figured out Chibita’s name situation. Ichimatsu might never have spilled the beans. Chibita might never have gone after him.

He liked to believe they still would have fallen in love. That even without fate, they would have found each other. But he knew that he might have always kept himself away from Karamatsu, waiting forever for a soulmate he’d already met. And Karamatsu might have just kept believing that there was no one in the world just for him.

They were so fucking lucky. Karamatsu had to know that. Chibita pressed a little kiss to the fabric, right above the sensitive skin of Karamatsu’s wrist. Then he nudged the fabric aside, just a bit, so he could give Karamatsu’s skin a proper kiss. “I’m so lucky,” he said, out loud.

To have this. This intimacy. This happiness. To have Karamatsu.

“Me too,” Karamatsu said again, soft. He scooted a little closer so he could lean in and down, laying his head on Chibita’s shoulder. “I love you so much.”

Chibita turned his head so he could press a kiss to his hair. Karamatsu still hadn’t noticed the surprise inside his new cufflets yet, but he would. The stitching on the inside of the cuff, subtle enough that it wouldn’t itch, but tangible enough that Karamatsu could feel it any time he slipped a finger inside his cuff. A trail of little Xs and Os, right over where Chibita’s name should have been written. So even though it wasn’t inked there, wasn’t the visible reminder that Chibita knew Karamatsu still craved, Karamatsu wouldn’t forget that Chibita knew it was there. That Chibita knew this was real.

That Chibita loved him, helplessly.

They were kisses and hugs for when Chibita couldn’t be there, because he never wanted Karamatsu to look so terribly alone ever again. He never wanted Karamatsu’s eyes to go dull and hopeless, never wanted to see his lips wobble down into a frown. That was his responsibility now. Because soulmates cared for each other and protected each other. They bandaged each other’s hurts and loved them through all the hard nights. They were home and hearth and family, and they were all Chibita had ever wanted. Karamatsu was all Chibita had ever wanted. He wanted to be all Karamatsu had ever wanted, too.

And they could face the world, side by side.