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Common Duality

Chapter Text

The cafes front windows were smudged with dirt and fog, the bitter air biting into the bones of every patron that wandered in past the swinging double doors. The weather had been in the records lately, with snow falling almost every night. It never stayed until the next morning but that did nothing to soften the sting in the air.

Glancing up from the counter he was wiping down Mahiru caught sight of a seemingly familiar head of light colored hair propped up against the outer glass, the strands clinging to the moisture condensed on the panes. He sighed and looked over his shoulder hoping to see a manager. When none appeared he took a deep breath and began putting together a small sandwich and drink.

The owner of the hair looked up slowly when Mahiru pushed open the door and peeked out around the frame. To say that he was unusual would have been an understatement and Mahiru was surprised to see that not only was he lacking a hat but also gloves, a coat, and even anything warmer than some beat to hell trainers. Soft hair fell haphazardly forward and obscured what appeared to be dark, unfocused eyes.

"Uhm, hi." He began, casting about for a normal way to offer food to what was obviously a young homeless vagrant. "I think I've seen you out here several times now and I thought.... you might like a sandwich?" He tried not to cringe when the eyes only continued to slowly blink up at him. "Er, I mean, not to be rude but my manager is starting to get suspicious you know? Uh." He ground to a halt again. "We can't really have people loitering around out here."

The man on the ground finally reacted, heaving a sigh and levering himself up. He stuck his shaking hands into his pockets and turned to go without a backward glance.

"Wait!" Mahiru cried.

The man turned around again.

"Won't you please take this?" He held out the sandwich, wrapped neatly in foil, and the drink. "I just made them. They're fresh and- and good for you!"

An eyebrow raised skeptically and Mahiru was just beginning to wonder if he was in fact interacting with an apparition when the man finally opened his mouth.

"Why bother?"

"Why bother with what?" Mahiru asked slowly, confusion painted across his features. "You need to eat!"

"It's such a hassle." The man (boy? he looked younger up close) said. "Just give it to an alley cat."

"Isn't it simpler if you just take it?"

A hand came out of a pocket and fiddled with a couple strands of hair before yet another heavy sigh escaped. "What does simple have to do with any of this?"

"Well, I made them for you." Mahiru said. "So, it stands to reason that you should take them." He waved the drink around for a moment.

The dazed eyes suddenly focused and widened fractionally. "You made them for me?"

"Yes?"

"Why?"

The question was so blunt and emotionless that Mahiru struggled for a moment to understand what it was referring to. "Why... did I make them for you?" He finally asked, hoping for clarification.

A pair of thin shoulders shrugged noncommittally.

"Because you need them!" Mahiru exclaimed in horror. "Why wouldn't I?"

The man slowly lowered his head until the unkempt bangs obscured the rest of his face and breathed out. "Man. You sure are something else. Thanks, but I'll still pass. See ya." And with that he turned on his heel and slouched off into the blustering wind.

Mahiru remained leaning out the door for several more seconds, watching the figure recede into the horizon, until a voice demanding counter service jolted him from his pondering. He frowned down at the sandwich he still held before tucking it into his pocket and planning on it for dinner. After all, he had paid for it with his own money. Oh well. You couldn't win them all he supposed.


"I'm not joking Sakuya!" Mahiru insisted, twisting a pencil through his fingers. "The guy was seriously wearing a long sleeve tee. Yesterday. Outside."

They were both seated on the end of the back row in the lecture hall. It was the one class they shared and though Mahiru made many complaints about Sakuya's inability to take anything seriously and its effects on his learning, he loved this two hour block when he could just relax and pretend that they were still in high school and all the stress of college and work was just a distant threat.

Sakuya turned to face him with skeptical eyes and a light frown. "You know that tall tales are my thing right?"

Fighting back the urge to scream Mahiru closed his eyes and returned the frown. "I know. But this isn't a story! It really happened!"

"And you had to go butt in and try to be all heroic, of course. Why can't you just leave well enough alone?" Sakuya propped his textbook up on the desk and leaned down behind it to keep talking as the professor entered the room and began writing notes on the board. "I mean, what if the guy had been dangerous?"

"Dangerous?" He scoffed, ducking behind his own book. "Outside the cafe?"

"Stranger things have happened!" Sakuya urged. "Remember just last week when that guy went psycho on the subway and ate that other guys face?"

Mahiru rolled his eyes. "I really don't believe that one. And even if it did happen, didn't you claim drugs were involved?"

"Drugs are always involved."

"Well, there you go. This guy was definitely not on drugs."

"How do you know?"

"I could just tell! He..." Mahiru trailed off, wondering how best to describe the strange man that had collapsed outside his workplace. "He looked..."

"Suspicious?" Sakuya suggested, grinning. "Drugged up? Outside his mind, high as a kite, dirty and-"

"Just like that!" Mahiru exclaimed, interrupting and pointing across the room.

Sakuya turned in time to see the student who had just slouched into the room handing a slip of paper to the professor. He glanced at it, seemed to ask a question, to which the new student just shrugged, and then waved his hand impatiently towards the back seats. The students shoulders managed to sag even more before he turned slowly and began trudging up the side steps.

"Oh noooo." Sakuya groaned beside him, head in his hands, just as Mahiru realized that the only open seat was the one to his left. "Mahiru, please, I'm begging you. Let this one go. Ok?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about!" Sakuya hissed. "This isn't going to be one of your do-goody pet projects. Say it with me. 'This guy is none of my business'."

Mahiru tilted his head to the side slightly to get a better look at the man walking towards them. He was scruffy for sure; his hair a mess from the wind, and the tattered sleeves of his sweater loose around the elbows. His shoes looked taped together and his jeans had seen better days, but, Mahiru was pleased to note, he appeared to have all his fingers despite spending the day outside yesterday without any protection.

"But what if he never ended up eating yesterday?" He whispered worriedly. "He looks like he's about to pass out."

"All the more reason for the real EMTs to deal with him." Sakuya muttered and looked away just as the subject of their debate rounded the corner and glanced up from the empty seat to who was sitting one over.

Mahiru could pinpoint the moment the other recognized him because he sighed and tipped his head back in defeat. "Of course it's you."

"Hello again!" Mahiru tried, smiling uneasily. "This is kind of funny isn't it?"

"I can't deal with this." He mumbled before sliding into the seat and dropping his head down on the surface of the desk. The loud thump had several people in the row ahead glancing back curiously but he seemed unconcerned.

"Hey, are you ok?" Mahiru leaned over a fraction, trying to see if he was still conscious.

He rolled his head slightly, just enough for one eye to materialize through the hair falling loosely over his shoulders. "Fine."

Mahiru frowned but turned back to his notebooks just as the professor dimmed the lights. He knew a project was coming up and didn't want to waste any class time, he had so little to spare as it was; but the presence beside him kept drawing his attention away from the overhead and to the soft hair, tinted blue from the slides. He hadn't moved since falling forward over the desk and Mahiru was beginning to suspect that he was asleep. Debating whether to wake him or not left Mahiru with the impression that, at least today, it would just be simpler to take two sets of notes. He felt Sakuyas eyes on his several times but steadfastly ignored it as his hand whipped across two pages, making identical copies of the paragraphs from the projector.

By the end of the first hour his hand was cramping spectacularly and he worried that the letters he was writing were becoming illegible. He couldn't have been more thankful for the small break they had before the second hour and sighed in relief when the lights flicked back on.

Standing up, Sakuya watched him massage his wrist for a moment before sighing. "It's never any good trying to talk sense into you, you know?" Mahiru just grinned up at him and shrugged lightly. Sakuya bit back a smile and slapped his notebook closed. "Fine, fine. I get it. What do you want to drink? I'm headed out for a breather."

"Coffee, please!"

"Too much of that stuff will stunt your growth!" He yelled back before ducking out the door.

Mahiru huffed and glanced over, only to jump in surprise when he was met with a very awake, very bored stare.

"It's not true. Probably. Sakuya likes to tell jokes. He says I'm gullible." He tried to explain, feeling his face heat a little as the other just kept staring. "Not that I'm all that short. I'm actually average!"

The boy next to him looked startled for one second before spitting out a small laugh. "And that makes you happy?"

"Average is a good, simple middle ground. There's nothing wrong with that!"

He sighed again and turned away, resting his chin on the desk. "What ever you say."

"I'm Mahiru."

"Mmh."

Mahiru frowned. "Now you tell me your name."

The boy yawned and squinted forward. "Too much trouble."

A moment passed in silence as Mahiru waited but, sensing that there was nothing more to come, he slid the second copy of notes over until they bumped the floppy sweater sleeve resting on the desk. Dark eyes flashed over to the notes, up to Mahiru, and away again.

"Those are for you." He said casually, unrolling a half finished map in front of himself. "The first half of class is always a lecture, then the second half we have time to work on our projects or ask questions."

Silence met this declaration and he eventually turned back to his homework. He had just started painstakingly highlighting paths through the network of mountains on the map, biting his lip in concentration, when a soft whisper reached him over the chaos of the other students.

"Kuro. My name's Kuro."

Mahiru capped his highlighter in favor of a pen and turned to his left, smiling widely. "It's nice to meet you!"

Chapter Text

Sakuya had been gone a good fifteen minutes and it had been ten since Kuro had finally told Mahiru his name. To say the silence was stifling would be incorrect. Mahiru could beat his way through any stony, awkward pauses in conversation. No, what the problem was, was that no matter what he said, Kuro shot it down with a dismissive huff or sardonic twist of his eyebrows. Mahiru had tried every possible topic he could think of and each one had been peeled apart and tossed over Kuro's shoulder like garbage.

He turned away, chewing angrily on his lip. This guy was impossible!

"You're gonna draw blood if you keep that up."

Whipping around so fast he thought he heard something in his neck crack, Mahiru stared angrily down at the white hair splayed over the table. "What's with you?!"

"Uh oh! Trouble in paradise already?" Sakuya exclaimed mockingly, setting down the two drinks he carried and sliding back into his seat. "What have you done to anger the ever patient Mahiru-sama?"

"Don't call me that." Mahiru muttered distractedly, noting that Sakuya had brought back exactly two drinks and purposely placed them in Kuro's line of sight. "What kind of coffee is that?"

"What? Oh, it's regular milk."

Kuro sighed gustily and closed his eyes again.

Mahiru tapped his fingers pensively against the desk for a moment before sliding the coffee in front of Kuro. "Would you like any?"

Kuro's eyes flew open and he turned to stare incredulously at Mahiru as Sakuya groaned loudly in the background. "What's your problem?" He asked sullenly.

"My problem?!" Mahiru burst out. "What's my problem?!"

"Oh, now you've done it." Sakuya intoned, taking a languid sip of his tea.

"Yes, your problem. Just leave me alone already. It's obvious to anyone with eyes that we won't get along. Why can't you just let it go?"

"He never lets anything go-"

"Shut it, Sakuya!" Mahiru interrupted.

"-Especially when that thing is a scruffy charity case."

Kuro flinched infinitesimally and Mahiru rounded on Sakuya. "He's not a thing!" Turning back, he saw Kuro staring at him with that same wide eyed, confused look before the shutters closed and his eyes once again had that unfocused, sleepy look. "And he's certainly not a charity case. I just thought he might like some caffeine so he could actually stay awake for 5 minutes."

"No thanks. That stuff will stunt your growth." Kuro said, the ghost of a laugh in his voice.

Mahiru felt his mouth drop open and barely registered Sakuya's roaring laughter behind him.

"But next time I might take a sandwich." And with that Kuro stood as the clock struck two. "Seeya."


The cafe was crowded. It was the kind of afternoon shift that always left Mahiru wondering if having a roof over his head and food in the fridge was worth it. He'd spent the last 3 hours bustling to and fro, taking orders, bringing drinks, and occassionally slapping together sandwiches. It didn't appear to be letting up anytime soon either. An agonized look at the clock showed him one hour left of his day before he could go home and collapse for a solid ten minutes.

"Mahiru!" A voice from the front called him and he cursed silently, turning to rush back up to the hostess. She gestured to two people standing to the left of the doorway. "These two requested you specifically." She winked and Mahiru shuddered to think what her conclusions had been.

The two by the door came forward and Mahiru had a moment to take stock of their appearrance before the shorter of them threw his hand out and demanded a table by the window. The other one, the tall, blond, model (?) one smiled politely and did nothing to lessen the blow of the brutal greeting.

"I uh, of course. Please, follow me." Mahiru stuttered, reverting to habit and force of will to keep his cool. He turned once they'd reached the table and gestured towards the menus stacked neatly against the wall. "I'll be back in just a moment for-"

"Nevermind that!" The little one pronounced impatiently. "We have bigger things to discuss."

"That is true, unfortunately." The blond one said demurely, flipping through the menu he'd picked up. "Oh Misono, they have strawberry tart. We should get one."

"Hush!" Misono muttered before turning back to Mahiru. "You had better tell the truth!"

"Uhm. The truth about what...." Mahiru muttered, completely lost. He had a feeling that today was going to be the kind of day that he woke up the next morning wondering if it had been real.

"That new friend you made!"

"New friend?" He repeated. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"Don't lie! We know you met up with him earlier and now you're in the same class. It's not a coincidence. Where do you know him from?"

Mahiru racked his brain for anyone that he'd met with outside of class or work lately and suddenly he was hit with a sense of foreboding so strong he could taste it. "You don't mean Kuro, do you?" He asked doubtfully.

"Is that what he's going by now?" The blond one said, glancing up for the first time. "I only know of his older name."

"Don't play dumb! What's he doing taking a university class? Why in this city?!" Misono demanded, slamming a hand on the table. The glassware wobbled precariously and Mahiru felt his brows draw down into the beginnings of a scowl.

"Please, Misono. Could you not cause a scene?"

"Lily! He's playing dumb!"

Lily turned once again to study Mahiru, who was still just standing there, feeling in over his head. "No, I don't think he is." He said thoughtfully. "Mahiru. Would you please tell us how you happened upon my brother?"

The word brother bounced around inside Mahiru's head for a while as he gazed into middle space wondering how he'd ended up in this kind of situation. "I honestly don't know what you two are talking about. Kuro collapsed outside this cafe the other day. I offered him a sandwich and then suddenly he popped up in my class. I didn't plan any of this."

"But he's been here before!" Misono cried triumphantly.

"Yes. Several times. That's how I recognized him. But he's never come in and we've never talked."

"A likely story." Misono huffed, crossing his arms. "Who would believe that?"

"It's true Mahiru." Lily sang. "If you're not friends, than what's he doing skulking around outside right now?" He smiled and pointed out the front window where a hunched figure could be seen lurking near the doorway, trying to stay out of sight.

Mahiru felt reality twist and crack, settling back into a completely different shape. "I'll... I'll be right back." He muttered, sparing a glance at the two seated calmly now at the table, before starting back toward the front.

"What do you think you're doing?" He hissed as he burst out of the door. Kuro started violently and sank back towards the wall, hands in his pockets and shoulders bent against the cold. He looked left and right several times as though he would be able to conjure someone else for Mahiru to be referring to. "Yeah, you."

Kuro sighed in defeat. "Well, honestly I-"

"It's freezing out here! Don't just stand around in the cold, you moron! Come inside! I'll make you something warm to drink. And don't worry, I'll just put it on my tab." He turned to head back in but a hand tugged on his sleeve, stopping him.

Kuro was pinching the fabric between his thumb and forefinger, staring hard at the ground. His features worked themselves into what resembled a frown and he glanced up. "Why?"

"Why what?" Mahiru asked impatiently.

"Why are you like this?" Kuro's voice was small and confused, almost pleading.

"Like what?! Come on, we shouldn't be standing out here in the cold like this. Come inside." He twisted his wrist to take hold of Kuro's hand and began pulling him inside. There was no resistance and within moments they were at the counter. "What would you like? You're not allergic to milk are you?" Mahiru asked, looking over his shoulder. "I was thinking something with milk would be good. It has protein."

Kuro's lips momentarily quirked up. "You're like a mom."

Mahiru's indignant sputtering was interrupted by a voice. "That's what we call him sometimes!" Koyuki's head popped up over the counter and he grinned. "Mom-hiru."

"Don't call me that!"

"It fits." Kuro muttered.

"No it doesn't!" Mahiru barely resisted the urge to stomp his foot. "If you don't have anything helpful to add I'll make you something and bring it out in a second. Go wait by that table." He pointed off to the right. "Your brother is already there."

In an instant Kuro's posture went from lax to rigid; his hands balling into fists, the tendons in his neck standing out. Mahiru glanced over at him worriedly, hesitating, wanting to reach out a hand and place it on that stiff, thin shoulder.

"Hey, are you-"

"What do you mean my brother." He ground out through barely moving lips.

Mahiru paused, baffled, before shrugging. "The tall blond one? Said he was your brother. He looks kinda like a model and he's showing way too much skin. He came in here a while ago with a little angry kid and they haven't shut up about you since."


Kuro relaxed marginally and sighed in a resigned sort of way. "I should have known. He always catches on first."

"Catches onto what?"

Kuro slid his eyes to Mahiru and then away. "Nothing." He fiddled with the chain around his neck. "I suppose you're not going to just let me off the hook now? Let me sneak out of here and away. I really don't want to deal with him."

"Of course not! It's like negative ten degrees out there! And I haven't seen you eat a thing. You're not leaving until you're warmed up."

"Fine. What a pain in the ass." He started off in the direction Mahiru pointed before turning back around. "Oh, and lots of sugar. I like sweet things."

Mahiru stared after him for a moment in bemusement and then went to prepare a drink. While in the midst of stirring in far too much sugar he decided to piece together a panini as well. They were warm and always seemed to cheer him up when it was a cold, gray day and Kuro seemed like he could really use some cheering.

Approaching the table Mahiru was greeted by a loud array of angry remarks followed by grumbled responses. Lily laughed politely into his hand just as he rounded the corner and caught sight of the situation; Misono was attempting to stand on his chair and glare down at Kuro who had his hands held in front of him and wore a painfully put out expression.

"I just don't see why it matters." Kuro was mumbling in the general direction of the floor.

"Because it does! It could change everything! Haven't you realized that yet, you buffoon?!"

"Please, Kuro." Lily interjected. "Let's at least discuss it?"

"No way."

Mahiru was tempted to laugh at the childishly stubborn look on Kuro's face but the tense atmosphere put him off. He slid the plate and cup onto the table. "Here. Eat while it's hot."

Kuro glanced at the plate and his eyes widened. "Is that for me?"

"Who else would it be for you idiot?" Mahiru asked exasperatedly. "And you better eat it this time. I don't like wasting food."

Lily hid a small smile before clearing his throat. "Pardon me, Mahiru, but perhaps you could help us out. Kuro is being quite stubborn and maybe as his friend you could convince him to hear us out?"

Mahiru froze at the word friend but a quick look at Kuro's tense, hunched shoulders had him nodding. "I can try! Not that he listens to me much."

"You see..." Lily trailed off, seemingly at a loss as to how to phrase it.

"There's someone else in town." Misono said loudly. "And it's no coincidence that he's popped up at the same time as Ash."

Mahiru chanced a look at Kuro, hoping for an explanation as to the name but Kuro was poking methodically at the panini and seemed unwilling to participate in the conversation. He turned his attention back to Misono just as he continued.

"Lily and I want to keep tabs on this person. It's imperitive. We think we know why he's here and unfortunately-" He broke off and shot a worried look at Kuro. "Unfortunately, that reason is Ash." He shook his head. "We require his assistance. And without it I don't think we can offer much in the way of protection."

"I don't need protection." Kuro broke in. "Least of all from you two."

Lily smiled again, while Misono puffed up a bit like an angry bird and pointed a finger. "You most certainly do!"

"Protection?" Mahiru asked. "What do you mean protection?"

"We think he's here to kill Ash."

Mahiru felt his blood turn to needles in his veins and whipped his head around to stare at Kuro, who had not reacted in the slightest to this declaration. He merely sighed noisily and laid his head on the table. "Man, what a pain."

"Kill?" Mahiru's voice was at least an octave higher than normal and he could feel his vocal chords catching on the sharp edges of the word. "What are you guys talking about?"

"This man. He's dangerous. You see, they used to-"

"That's enough." Kuro spoke lowly, but there was a bite to his tone that Mahiru had never heard before. He sounded... deadly.

"Ah, dear me." Lily murmured, hand to his cheek. "So you really didn't tell Mahiru here anything."

"Of course not." His voice had lost some of its intimidating tenor but he was still glaring darkly across the table at the other two, sandwich picked apart and forgotten on the plate. "And I don't intend to. So don't ask." He added, turning that hard stare on Mahiru.

"Well, we can't just leave you to go wandering off on your own!" Misono cried. "Once he's done away with you, he's sure to come after the rest, and that includes Lily!"

"Don't worry. I can handle myself just fine."

"Forgive me for not having enough faith in you to stay alive to take a gamble on his safety!"

"Misono, calm down." Lily murmured. Turning to Kuro, he rested his chin in his hand. "I'm just as worried about you, you know."

Mahiru watched as the blood drained from Kuro's face and he lurched upright, sending the chair back several feet. "Don't say that."

"But why ever not?" Lily asked sweetly. "It's true."

"Don't say that." One of his fists clenched on the table.

"Kuro..." Mahiru tried, laying a hesitant hand on his forearm. Kuro jerked away and Mahiru flinched in response. A voice in his head was chattering away, reminding him he was still on the clock and he had things he should be doing- helping customers, taking orders, sweeping, dishes; but somehow he couldn't drag himself away. "Can I help?" The words were out before he knew he'd thought them and every eye at the table turned on him in amazement. Under the force of the stares Mahiru felt his heart rate pick up and he began to wonder if he'd just volunteered himself for something far above his pay grade.

"Help?" Kuro asked disbelievingly. "You want to help?"

"Of course!" He put as much bravado as he could muster into the words. "If you won't accept help from them then that leaves me!"

Lily clapped his hands delightedly. "Oh, this is perfect!"

Misono seemed to be thinking it over, his arms crossed, a foot tapping rapidly on the tiles, and finally he snapped his fingers. Mahiru refused to look at Kuro, instead turning his attention desperately to Misono. "I do think that's a fairly good plan." Mahiru barely had time to wonder when they'd made a plan before Misono was continuing. "He can stay with you. It'll be unexpected, under cover, the perfect place! With Tsubaki hunting all over town looking for Ash, he won't have time to spare for weeding out our spy network!" Misono turned to Lily, a blush of excitement to his face. "And once we have all the intel we need we can make the first move!"

"Wait wait." Mahiru muttered, holding up a hand. "What do you mean 'stay with me'?"

"Well, isn't it obvious Mahiru?" Lily asked, smiling. "My brother is quite homeless."

Even though he'd been thinking it the whole time, Mahiru winced under the confirmation. It was one thing to have a theory and another to know for certain that the boy beside him had been skirting the edges of hypothermia for the last who knew how long. His protective instincts taking over, he tightened his hold on Kuro's arm. "He can stay with me as long as he needs!"

Kuro breathed a noise of disbelief and slid his arm out from under Mahiru's hand. "Are you kidding me?" The hollow rage in the tone had Mahiru turning wide eyes up to Kuro's face. His expression was neutral, his eyes hooded and empty, but underneath it all Mahiru could see a small trembling of emotion. "You don't even know me. Why are you butting in like this?"

"Who else is going to do it?" Mahiru demanded. "I can't just leave you on your own like that! Someone needs to help and it might as well be me!"

Something seemed to shatter deep within Kuro and he suddenly slumped forward, sighing. "Fine; do whatever you want. But I'm not taking responsibility for anything that happens." His eyes slid up to meet Mahiru's; they looked dark, almost the deep blue of an ocean, and so empty that Mahiru felt a tremor run down his spine.

What happened to you. 

"This is all on you."

Chapter Text

"Right!" Mahiru muttered, aiming for cheerful as he pushed open the door. "Then I guess... welcome home?"

Kuro simply shot him a dirty look before leaning down to undo the laces on his shoes. "I hope you're not going to be the kind of exhausting person who insists on greetings every day."

Mahiru frowned down at the mop of silvery hair for a moment before cuffing him forcefully on the back of the head. "Manners are a must!" Leaving Kuro by the door rubbing his head irritably, Mahiru made his way into the kitchen. It was late and with as long as it had taken to convince Misono that he was honestly taking Kuro home with him he was surprised there was even still a setting sun to cast a frail light through the curtains. Rolling up his sleeves he glanced back over his shoulder to try to catch sight of Kuro. "What do you want for dinner?"

Kuro's face peered out from around the corner of the hallway, his eyebrows drawn down in confusion. "Why are you asking me?"

"Because you still haven't eaten!" Mahiru shouted, his annoyance nearly boiling over. "Don't think I didn't notice that sad crumbled pile of sandwich on your plate!"

Thin fingers reached up to tug at a chunk of visible hair and Kuro's lips did something complicated. "I don't need a lot."

"I don't care what you think you need. I'm asking what you want."

A small silence filled the apartment as they stared at each other. The falling sun threw a warm glow over Kuro and for the first time Mahiru could see what he would look like healthy and cared for. The even tone to his skin, the soft fall of his hair, all painted with a heat from the sky that he didn't have in him himself. The gentle lighting smeared the dark circles under his eyes into nothing more than every day shadows and Mahiru found himself wondering how much sleep one had to miss out on to end up with such dark marks.

"... noodles."

It was a barely there whisper and Mahiru wouldn't have caught it if he hadn't been focusing all his attention on the other man. "Noodles?" He asked. "What kind?"

Kuro gazed at him for a seemingly infinite moment before he turned in on himself again. "Doesn't matter. Whatever is fine. It's such a bother when you start to fuss." He began to retreat back into the living room when Mahiru found himself lunging forward, grabbing a handful of lank sweater. Kuro looked at him in surprise but didn't pull away.

"I just care." He didn't know why he felt the need to stress that sentiment so much but he couldn't seem to stop the flow of words from falling from his mouth into the suddenly stagnant air. "You look near death. You're too thin and you've been outside almost all day in nothing but this sweater. You're going to get sick! I just want to help." He forced his mouth shut, feeling oddly put out. "I just realized... I've never seen you in anything but these clothes."

Kuro raised an eyebrow and sighed tiredly. "Mahiru. I don't have anything but these clothes."

Another long silence descended as Mahiru tried to digest this information without flying off the metaphorical handle. "Well. I guess you'll just have to borrow some of mine!" He ran a practiced eye over Kuro. "I think, except for height, we're pretty similar in size. And fortunately tomorrow is Saturday! We can head out and get you something more suitable for the long run. I'm afraid all I've got that will fit your legs are track pants." He laughed, mildly embarrassed.

Kuro shrugged his shoulders noncommittally and tried once again to back away, his eyes already mapping out the living room and what was discernible of the hallway leading to the back rooms. "Whatever."

Mahiru held on for a couple more seconds, studying him, before letting go and turning back towards the kitchen. "I'll call when it's ready." Kuro was already disappearing over the edge of the couch by the time he'd come around the edge of the counter.


Dinner was a quiet affair aside from a brief scuffle during which Mahiru attempted to put Kuro in a choke hold to force him to eat the broccoli that had been mixed in with the sauce. He'd noticed Kuro picking it out stealthily and lining it up along the side of the bowl and quickly intervened, but Kuro was stronger than he looked and Mahiru was almost immediately outmatched, finding himself pinned to the ground under the table as Kuro looked accusingly down at him.

"What do you think you're trying to pull?" He asked, flicking a displeased look up to his bowl and back again.

"You can't just pick out the vegetables!" Mahiru yelled, struggling to free his arms. "You have to have a balanced diet and broccoli is good for you!"

"I physically can not summon the energy to care about my health."

"Then I'll do it for you! Just eat the damn broccoli!" Kuro sat back, a look of soft shock on his face. "What?" Mahiru demanded, feeling caught. "What's wrong now?"

"Nothing." Kuro hopped to his feet. "I just don't understand you."

"It's simple." Mahiru insisted, sitting up and rubbing his wrists. "You need a certain amount of-"

"Yeah yeah. Spare me the lecture." Kuro held up a hand, looking away. "You're not my mom." Mahiru bit his tongue, lowering his gaze to study the cuffs of his pants. It was true, he supposed. But who was Kuro's mother?

A hand waved itself in his face, breaking him from his musings and he looked up to see Kuro leaning over him. "Come on. Get off the floor. That's my stick."

Mahiru grinned and grabbed the proffered hand, noting that the skin was pleasantly smooth and unexpectedly warm. "Hey, you wanna watch a movie?" He asked, still holding onto the hope that they could come to a compromise over at least one thing. Kuro's mouth quirked in surprise and his eyes flashed to the TV and back. "I mean, unless you'd like to get to bed. I'll have to make up the guest room really quick, I don't use it much." Mahiru tried to laugh but it came out awkwardly. "It's usually just me here because-"

"No romance movies." Kuro said quietly. "And I want popcorn."

"I can do that." Mahiru agreed, smiling.


Laying in the dark, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, Kuro found that for once he was incapable of sleep. Normally the second he was horizontal the dull haze began to pull at his mind and he found himself drifting down, beneath a tide of apathy and exhaustion. But now, his stomach full of expertly cooked broccoli, wearing soft, clean clothes, beneath fresh, crisp sheets, he found he could do nothing but gaze into the ink hovering near the walls and curtain edges, coalescing in the corners of the room, and worry.

He hadn't wanted any of this to happen. It was so much easier when he simply slunk from shadow to shadow, ignoring everyone and everything around him. The world was such a drag. Every day he felt the fatigue and weariness gnawing at his bones, down, down, down to the marrow until nothing was left but a bloody mess.

God, he was so tired.


Mahiru tried for the tenth time to stop his ears from straining for any sound coming from the room across the hall. It was obvious that either Kuro was asleep or taking great pains to remain absolutely silent. He considered getting up under the guise of getting a glass of water but rejected the plan as juvenile.

It wasn't that he felt uncomfortable with another person in the house. Quite the contrary really. It was a relief to know that were he to walk those twenty feet and knock on the door, someone would be there to answer. No, it was more a tenseness born from a worry that Kuro himself was uncomfortable. After all, hadn't he basically been forced into this? All concerns from his friends and real danger aside, he hadn't seemed keen on this solution, sulking and muttering sarcastic commentary all through the negotiations. But Mahiru had pressed on, just as he always did, and everyone had agreed, just as they always did.

Surely this had been the right choice?


The next morning broke overcast, the sun struggling to shine through the oppressive winter sky and Mahiru spent a solid twenty minutes fretting and fussing, trying to find something warm for Kuro to wear that would fit his lanky frame. His torment was finally put to an end by an exasperated Kuro who claimed that despite what a pain going anywhere would be he rather just go than stand there another second while Mahiru darted around the apartment in a tizzy.

"It's so tiresome." He muttered, wrapping a loosely knitted scarf around his neck and looking expectantly at Mahiru. "Let's just get this over with."

Mahiru hesitated only a second more before reaching up and rearranging the scarf Kuro had haphazardly tied, then bending down to lace his own boots, missing the perplexed look Kuro gave him.

"Ok! Then let's go!"

All had been normal, shopping bags adorning their arms, and wallet considerably lighter, when a sullen dimness unfurled from the alley and hurled itself forward. Before he even had time to shout Mahiru felt himself flung sideways, crashing against the bricks and falling to his knees. Looking up he was met with the sight of Kuro locked hand to hand with another man. His sluggish brain managed to piece together that the man was what had come skulking from the shadows but the idea of any one honest to god fighting (especially Kuro, his brain insisted) was something he couldn't quite process.

He struggled up to his feet, hands splayed out in front of him and took an unsteady step forward. "Kuro, I-"

The figure spun faster than lightening, ducking under Kuro's hold and came at him. Mahiru felt his body lock up in shock and wondered how this one moment could stretch so far when Kuro's yell pierced his abstraction and he felt rather than heard the heavy collision of Kuro with the back of the stranger. The man staggered under the weight and Kuro leaned over his shoulder, turning wide eyes on Mahiru.

"Run, you idiot!"

Mahiru stared back, unable to comprehend the command.

"Mahiru! Go!" Kuro continued frantically, his arms snaking around the neck of the man. "Not sure how long I can keep this up."

"Then let me help you!" He shouted, finally finding his voice, and jumped forward. Kuro's objections were lost in the sea of cursing coming from the man and Mahiru had just long enough to recognize the flash of silver for what it was before there was a spurt of red. Kuro fell back, hand to his head, and Mahiru's knees almost buckled at the sight. The blood was dripping down through his fingers, matting the hair on the left side of his face, staining the shirt he'd borrowed from a laughing Mahiru just that morning. It said 'feed me' in large font down the front and Mahiru had joked that it was the perfect shirt for a stray cat.

The words were being lost in the red.

A hand shot forward, grabbing the neck of Mahiru's jacket and lifting him up. His feet kicked through empty space and he had the distinct, surreal impression of floating just a centimeter from the ground before a second hand wrapped securely around his throat and a voice wormed its way into his ears.

"So this is the little troublemaker that stuck his nose where it doesn't belong."

Mahiru gasped, wishing desperately that he legs were just a touch longer, just an inch more, so he could at least try to kick his way free. Black dots were beginning to float into his vision and he had the passing thought that he hoped Kuro wouldn't feel responsible for this.

"Let him go." Kuro's voice was pitched low, darker than the edges of Mahiru's sight, and even in the throes of unconsciousness he felt a shiver run through his muscles. It was a voice unlike any he'd heard from Kuro. It was slow and deep, unconcerned. But more than that, it was dangerous.

The man turned his head just a fraction, opening his mouth to reply, when he was thrown backwards, grip pulling free of Mahiru's throat. He landed some ten feet back with a crash. Mahiru slumped to the ground, choking on the sudden influx of oxygen and looked up to see Kuro stalking towards the prone figure, hands clenched at his sides. He was snarling something Mahiru was too dizzy to parse the meaning of but his instincts recoiled in fear all the same and he attempted to stand, grasping at the wall to try to lever himself up.

"Kuro. Stop." His voice was too quiet, too weak to cross the gap of the alley and Kuro was right on top of the man now, his hands fisted in his hair, pulling him up off the ground until they were face to face. Mahiru breathed as deeply as he could and launched himself forward. "KURO!" He made contact and his arms immediately wrapped themselves around Kuro's shoulders. "Kuro stop!" Kuro went rigid beneath him and his fingers lost their grip. The man slipped to the ground and lay slumped over, breathing shallowly, staring up at them warily. "That's enough! Don't kill him!" Mahiru felt Kuro's breath hitch and he leaned his head against the side of Kuro's, his tears soaking into the white strands that were just as soft as they looked.

"Let go, Mahiru." Kuro muttered gently and Mahiru loosened his grip in small, excruciating increments until he was sliding unsteadily to the ground. He glanced down to see that the figure that had lain at their feet had at some point scurried away without their noticing and found he could only feel a vague sense of relief at the discovery.

"I don't... don't suppose that was one of his lackeys?" Mahiru attempted to ask in a casual tone, but it was ruined by the straw layering his voice and he saw Kuro's shoulders begin to cave in on themselves. "Kuro?"

"You should go home." It was said quietly and Mahiru leaned forward wondering if he'd misheard.

"You're right. We shouldn't stay here. Let's go." He scooped up the bags he'd dropped and looked over to see Kuro silhouetted by the weakly flickering streetlight, his face a perfect mask of shock. "What is it?"

"How can you say that?" Kuro's voice was disbelieving, almost sharp in it's utter confusion.

"We can't just stand here all night!" Mahiru exclaimed, feeling the anxiety beginning to work its way through the solid wall of adrenaline he had had dumped into his blood stream. "What if he comes back? What if there are more of them? We need to go!"

Kuro seemed to hesitate for just a second more before his expression clouded over and he stuck his hands in his pockets. He shuffled back to Mahiru's side and turned towards the mouth of the alley, waiting for Mahiru to take the first step. Mahiru opened his mouth, intending to ask if Kuro was in need of medical attention when he suddenly began to sway lightly, the air around him taking on an almost claustrophobic feeling. Perhaps he hadn't slept enough last night, maybe he wasn't breathing properly, or-

It was the last thought he had before falling down to the alley paving, his mind swimming in tar and shying away from the heavy waves of fear and panic coating his thoughts.


He jolted awake, a gasp forcing its way through his lips. Above, the widely paced headlights of cars flashed peacefully by on the ceiling of his bedroom. He turned his head, glancing at the clock on the table. The time read 1:34 AM. Slowly he flexed his fingers, then toes, noting that his shoes had been removed.

"What happened." He asked the empty room. "That wasn't a dream, right?" He sat up tentatively and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. When no dizziness assulted him, he stood up. Someone had carried him back. His last memory was the cold of the concrete in the alley pressing against his cheek and now here he was, wrapped up in a blanket, sleeping soundly in his bed. There was a small part of him that desperately wanted to just lay back down, pulling the blankets tightly over his head, pretending that a few more hours of sleep would alter reality.

But the strongest urge was to find Kuro. Because, thinking about it simply, it was obvious who had brought him home.

There were no lights on in the living room, the TV merely a dark shape against the wall, and Mahiru found himself tiptoeing quietly. A survey of the room had his pulse spiking until he noticed the even darker shape curled into the corner of the couch. It was silent save for the occasional slush of car tires through the streets and Mahiru wasn't sure what to say. What did one talk about in the middle of the night after surviving a knife fight?

"Thank you." He finally croaked, grimacing when his voice cracked. The figure on the couch flinched as though he'd screamed at the top of his lungs and sorrowful, ageless eyes locked onto his unerringly despite the endless night flooding the room.

"Did you hit your head?" Kuro asked, mock casually. "What are you thanking me for?"

Mahiru took several steps closer to the couch, watching for telltale signs that Kuro was about to bolt. "You carried me home, didn't you?" When there was no answer he went closer, spoke just a touch louder. "You saved my life, didn't you?" Still no response. "So thank you." He reached out and placed a hand on Kuro's shoulder.

"Don't thank me." Kuro murmured. "It was my fault this happened in the first place." Mahiru opened his mouth to argue when Kuro ducked out from under his hand. "I'll be gone in the morning, so don't worry."

Mahiru felt the breath leave his lungs, his hands growing cold. "What do you mean?"

"Once they realize I'm out of your hair they won't bother you again." Mahiru could do nothing but stare at Kuro, feeling the panic warp his features into something foreign. "Or I could go now." Kuro amended, misinterpreting the look on his face. "I just didn't want ya waking up alone, I guess..." A self conscious finger came up to fiddle with a curl of hair, lightly dig at soft skin. "But you're up now."

"Don't!" Mahiru cried, his hands shooting forward to grab the edges of the shirt Kuro had never changed out of. "Kuro, you-" He broke off, his eyes widening impossibly as he felt the dry flaking of the blood under his fingers. "Oh fuck! You got cut! How did I forget?!" He began to pull the other boy towards the bathroom. "Come on, we have to disinfect it. Who knows what was on that knife. Do you feel dizzy? Should we go to the hospital?" Silence met his questions and he looked back over his shoulder worriedly.

Kuro was half in shadow, his mouth tight, drawn down at the edges. As Mahiru watched, his fingers twitched, displaying the nervous energy that the rest of his body language hid so well.

"Kuro?" He whispered.

"What are you doing?" He asked flatly.

Mahiru scrunched his eyebrows together in puzzlement. "We have to get you cleaned up. And preferably to a doctor."

"Mahiru. You were just attacked. You were almost killed." Kuro said slowly, as though talking to someone hearing impaired. "You should be running as far as you can away from me."

"Why would I do that?" Deep inside Mahiru could sense his dread and fear bubbling up again, brought back by the reminder of the alley, but one look at Kuro's expression had the emotions crushed back down. "I said I'd help you, didn't I?" He squared his shoulders and strengthened the grip he had on Kuro's shirt. "Now come on. The simplest thing to do is to get you patched up, then we can decide what to do next."

Kuro exhaled weakly. "Just what are you?" He asked, dumbfounded.

"Your friend! Now come on."

"... What a pain."

Chapter Text

Despite what appeared to be extensive knowledge and experience with combat, Kuro turned out to be a lightweight when it came to pain.

"Mahiruuu," he moaned. "Stop it. It hurts."

"Suck it up!" Mahiru commanded, dabbing the antiseptic along Kuro's hair line. The blood had obviously continued to flow freely for quite some time, Kuro having done nothing to staunch it after returning to the apartment, and Mahiru had spent the better part of the last ten minutes cleaning away the dried remnants with a warm cloth and was now faced with his first real knife wound. "I wish you'd mentioned this right away." He fretted, frowning down at the deep gash. "This might need stitches."

"No problem. You look like you'd be handy with a needle and thread." Kuro yawned.

Ignoring the jab, Mahiru gently swept Kuro's hair back to get a better look. The cut had gone deep and far, running from the end of his eyebrow back past his ear. "I think you might have a scar from this." He said worriedly.

Kuro shrugged, unconcerned, and turned his eyes to Mahiru's in the mirror. "Won't be the first."

Mahiru felt his eyes widen and he had to bite down on his tongue to resist the urge to demand to know where the others were. As far as he'd seen, which admittedly wasn't much, Kuro's skin had been as unmarred as anyone else. But, he mused, if Kuro had gotten into fights like this frequently- and the way he'd reacted last night, immediately and confidently, spoke volumes- who was to say just how many threats he'd faced down. Mahiru was beginning to think that he had, in fact, volunteered himself for something far outside his expertise.

"I know I've asked this several times but are you sure we can't go to the hospital?" He asked, still staring down at the hair he was holding back. "I can try my best but it won't be anything comparable to what a real doctor could do."

"No doctors. No police." Kuro repeated.

"Fine, fine." He bit his lip." I honestly don't think it's safe to use regular thread for this. So a butterfly bandage is going to have to do it." He was turning to reach behind him for the first aid kit in the closet when a thought struck and he swung back around, locking his gaze with Kuro's. "You promise you'll tell me if you start feeling sick? Anything at all! Dizzy, or hot, or cold, or-"

"I promise already." Kuro muttered. "Jeez, you really worry too much, you know that? All that panicking is bad for your health. You're going to see an early grave with that worry wart attitude."

Mahiru huffed angrily, preparing to launch into a speech defending his stance on proper safety and precautions when he registered the teasing lilt to Kuro's voice. He lowered his gaze, a soft smile on his lips. "You're such a jerk."


"Misono! Please! Take a deep breath or something!" Mahiru pleaded, holding the phone an arms length away and staring helplessly at Kuro. On the other end of the line continued a nonstop stream of heated swearing and what sounded like glass breaking. Kuro shrugged, grinning for a moment before falling backwards out of sight on the couch. Mahiru stared at the worn fabric backing, feeling betrayed. "I already told you, we're both fine!"

"Bullshit!" Misono yelled. "That bastard! Picking fights in the middle of the afternoon! What kind of fucking shit is that?!"

"When should he have done it?" Kuro muttered sarcastically from beneath one of the couch cushions.

Mahiru grimaced in his general direction and set the phone down on the table. "I'm sure they could recognize me now. That's the real problem here."

Misono paused in his tirade, the sudden silence a clear question.

"Simply put, Kuro isn't safe here any more." The man in question popped back up over the couch, staring intently at Mahiru, who avoided meeting his gaze. "I don't think it's a good idea if he stays with me. If they know who I am, they know where I live."

"Mahiru listen." Lily's voice came floating softly from the phone speaker. "If that's really what happened then I'm sure they've had you pegged from the start. Neither of you should stay there."

Fiddling with the sleeves of his shirt, Mahiru took a deep breath. "So I was thinking... Kuro could come and stay with you two." Ignoring the argumentative sigh from the couch, he continued. "You have enough space don't you? And... if it's not too much trouble, I'd like to come with."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kuro leap over the back of the couch and come stalking toward him, his empty expression at odds with the tension held in his shoulders. Trying to duck around the counter and avoid him, Mahiru almost missed Lily's delighted laugh. "That's a wonderful idea! I was about to suggest the same."

"Lily! Lily, give me back the phone!"

"Calm down, Misono." Lily chided gently, his voice muffled. "Now then, when shall we pick you two up?"

"No one is picking any one up." Kuro's voice was suddenly directly behind him and Mahiru started and tried to dodge, but a hand snatched the phone from his and flipped it shut.

"What do you think you're doing?!" He demanded, rounding on a clearly irritated Kuro. "That was horribly rude!"

"What do you think you're doing?"

Momentarily at a loss Mahiru just stared up into eyes that were somehow deeply exasperated and endlessly exhausted at the same time. "It's not safe for you here. So, looking at it logically, the next best place is Misono's, right? They seem far more prepared to deal with this kind of thing anyway. I think we'll stand a much better chance there."

Kuro closed his eyes briefly, eyebrows drawing down before he handed the phone back. "Mahiru. Whether I go or not isn't an issue. Because you're not coming with me."

"Yes, I am!"

"You have no idea what you're dealing with." Kuro said flatly. "You're in way over your head. You're still free to walk away. And you're going to." He paused, searching Mahiru's face, and then averted his eyes. "Honestly, the way you are, you'll just get in the way and be a huge pain. I don't want to deal with it." He turned away, his expression lost behind the sharp curve of his cheek.

"Then I'll change!"

Kuro whirled around, dropping the spatula he'd picked up and been fiddling with back on the counter, shoulders slumping in shock. "What."

"Train me. Teach me to fight or whatever it is I need to do!" Mahiru exclaimed, taking a step forward. "I want to help you!"

Kuro took an answering step back, bumping into one of the chairs kept under the kitchen island. Soul deep annoyance was painted across every inch of him, but there was a glimmer of light just below the surface, swirling through the practiced act of disinterest. "You-" His hands came up to grasp the counter behind him. "You don't know what you're saying."

"I do!" Mahiru insisted, leaning forward. "I said I'd help you and I meant it! You seemed to really know what you were doing last night! You can teach me, can't you? I want to be your partner!"

Surprise crossed Kuro's face before it was replaced by what looked suspiciously like embarrassment. "Why do you have to phrase things like that?"

Mahiru stared at him in puzzlement before the possible connotations of what he had said registered and he felt his face heat in mortification. "Shut up! It's you taking them in a weird way!" The phone in his hand began ringing, interrupting the argument and they both glanced down at it in shock as though they'd forgotten it was there. Mahiru smiled sheepishly and hit the accept button. "Hey, sor-"

"-astard! How dare you hang up on me! I'll have you know that last time someone did that I- Lily! Lily, unhand me!"

"Mahiru?" Lily called over Misono's yells. "I've sent the car. It should be there in about thirty minutes. I hope that wasn't presumptuous of me."

"No, no! Thank you!" Mahiru blurted. "Uhm."

"The driver has your number and will text you when he's there." Lily said kindly. "You should pack for an extended stay."

"Alright. I guess we'll see you soon then." He muttered, hanging up and already filing through all the things he would need to either bring or secure around the apartment. He supposed they could come back if anything of importance was forgotten but that seemed like an unnecessary complication. He turned to Kuro and laughed. "I guess it's good I don't have any pets! I almost picked up a stray cat once but I found a better home for it." Kuro just stared at him silently and Mahiru felt his smile slip and he ducked back a step. "I have spare suitcases, so I'll go get you one!"

While searching through the hall closet he couldn't help feeling that once again he had overstepped his boundaries with the other boy. But Kuro seemed to need to be prodded into making any decisions at all, even when they revolved around life and death. Perplexed didn't even begin to describe Mahiru's thoughts on the matter. Seeing the bag he was looking for on the top shelf he jumped up, stretching up his arm to grab it. Well, no matter. He was certain he'd made the right choice.


Misono's house (mansion was more accurate) was astounding in it's proportions. Mahiru had never seen anything like it in his life. His nose pressed against the glass of the cars rear window, he could barely see to the top spire. Clouds seemed to be floating past bedroom windows and walls stretched farther back than the horizon line.

"Kuro! This place is amazing!" He turned in his seat to see Kuro hunched down, his fingers in his ears, scowling. "What's wrong?"

"Do you have to be so loud?" He complained. "I can't handle this."

"Don't you ever have any fun?" Mahiru asked, frowning. "I know this isn't the most ideal of circumstances but we can at least make the best of it!"

"You're so exhaustingly positive." Kuro groaned, pulling the hood of his coat down over his eyes.

Mahiru punched him lightly on the arm. "Come on! I'm sure it won't be so bad!" Kuro's brows furrowed and he rubbed the spot sullenly.

As the car pulled up the drive, a small child came running down the massive front steps, waving her arms excitedly. Behind her the doors opened wider and Lily slipped out, smiling lightly, a cigarette dangling from lax fingers.

"I didn't know Lily smoked." Mahiru said in surprise, watching the smoke curl upwards.

"Lily has many bad habits." Kuro muttered darkly, glowering at the jaunty figure leaning against the doorway. "That isn't even the tip of the iceberg."

Before Mahiru could ask what he meant, his door opened and a man leaned down. "Your bags sir?"

"Just take them to the blue bedroom, please." Lily interjected. At his approach the man bowed deeply and hurried around to the rear of the car. "Mahiru, Kuro, it's wonderful to see you two safe and sound."

"Yeah, yeah." Kuro leaned past Mahiru, wrinkling his nose. "Put out that cigarette, Lily. It smells terrible."

"Oh! My apologies." Lily sang brightly. "I forgot how sensitive you are to smells." He stubbed it out on his boot and straightened. "If you'd be so kind as to follow me, I'm afraid Misono has prepared a bit of a speech for you."

Sighing, Kuro stepped out of the car and turned back to offer his hand. Mahiru glanced at it for a moment before grabbing hold and hoisting himself up. Lily smiled cheerfully as his eyes focused on their clasped hands and inexplicably Mahiru felt himself blushing. He pulled his hand back quickly, earning a look from Kuro, and rushed forward. He shook his head, hoping to clear the remaining fog of unease from his mind.

When they entered the front atrium the air suddenly chilled and Mahiru shivered. Trailing behind him slowly, Kuro let out a low whistle.

"I see there have been no expenses spared." He said sardonically, raising an eyebrow.

"Of course not!" Lily waved a hand. "You know I don't believe in wasting financial windfalls." Kuro threw a threatening look at him and he smiled. "Oh, don't worry so much. I'm sure Mahiru will still think highly of you after he hears the story."

"What story?" Mahiru asked, glancing between them. "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing." Kuro muttered.

Lily looked at him sadly. "You can't keep him in the dark forever, you know."

Kuro opened his mouth to reply when a side door burst open, bouncing loudly against the wall, and Misono came charging out, a scowl on his face. "Lily, you told me you'd come get me when they were on their way!" Lily laughed and Misono froze, seeing them standing off to the side. "I hope you had a safe trip!" He intoned stiffly, arms at his sides.

Kuro rolled his eyes and heaved a put upon sigh, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I suppose this is going to turn into some merry little slumber party?"

"That was the idea, actually." Lily said, gesturing behind him. "In fact, Hugh and Hyde are already here."

Mahiru saw Kuro stiffen, eyes darting to the farthest door and away. "Who are Hugh and Hyde?" He asked curiously, ignoring the other boys obvious discomfort.

"Why, our other brothers."

"Everyone but you agreed right away to come here." Misono said harshly, crossing his arms. "And look how it turned out."

"Hey! It was your idea for him to stay with me in the first place!" Mahiru retorted angrily.

"I don't think-"

"Let's all retire to the sitting room, shall we?" Lily intervened, sweeping Misono before him. "I'm sure our other guests would appreciate some refreshments right about now."

As it turned out, the other guests included not only Hugh and Hyde but two others as well. They were seated around a small coffee table in the center of the room, watching as a boy with pitch black hair glowered at the fragile tea cup held between his fingers. One wearing glasses made a lunge for the cup and was promptly shoved bodily down to the ground by the former. He wiggled uselessly, his glasses slipping off and the tiniest laughed, pointing a finger.

Lily cleared his throat loudly and all four looked up. "Ah, Licht. Is the tea not to your liking then?"

The dark haired boy jumped up and rushed forward, ignoring the cries from his friend on the floor. He held out a hand to Lily, his expression grave. "It wasn't refreshing. Melon."

Lily blinked once, surprise etched across his features, before they melted back into a passive smile and he nodded. "Of course, right away!" He pulled out a small phone and typed something quickly before hitting send. "Give it ten minutes." He promised. Licht nodded, seemingly satisfied and turned his sharp gaze to Mahiru.

"Who are you?" He demanded.

"Licht you can't just ask people that!" The blond one still sprawled on the ground shouted. "It's rude!"

"Uhm, my name's Mahiru." He said hesitantly and bowed his head slightly. Based on his looks, Licht was only nineteen or twenty at the most but something in his gaze left Mahiru with the feeling that he was speaking with someone far older.

Licht continued to study him with an unsettling intensity before nodding lightly. "Not bad." He declared mysteriously and turned away. Seeing his companion still lounging around below the table he scowled darkly and startled Mahiru when he suddenly barked at the other. "Hyde! Off the floor!"

"But you kicked me down here!" Hyde whined, wiggling again. "You've wounded me!"

Licht's glare intensified. "We both know that's not true, you stupid rat."

"Hey-" Mahiru began when Hyde let loose a wild laugh and hopped lithely to his feet. He grinned ferally and his eyes slid past Mahiru to the shadow that was Kuro standing behind him.

"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" He exclaimed, mock surprise dripping from every syllable and Mahiru felt Kuro tense. "If it isn't everyones favorite problem child!" Hyde smiled again, his eyes taking on a manic light. "How dare you show your face here?"

Kuro pushed past Mahiru, bumping into his shoulder and sending him stumbling. His expression had grown foreboding, rage radiating from every tilt and shift of his cells as he stalked forward. Mahiru caught himself on a small side table and looked between them in utter confusion. The air had become heavy and stifling, every eye in the room locked onto the two now circling each other like wild cats. His hands tightened on the edge of the table and he tried desperately to quiet his racing heart long enough to have a coherent thought. He never would have believed it possible but Kuro was terrifying him.

"Hey, hey." Lily said placatingly, sweeping forward and trying to get between them. "Hyde please listen, I-"

Hyde snarled something that sounded like "fuck off" and lunged under Lily's out stretched hands and tangled his fingers in Kuro's jacket. Kuro balked, attempting to shake him off but his hold was too true and he hung on like a leech. He lifted Kuro from the floor, leaning forward until they were almost nose to nose.

"I'm gonna beat you senseless." He said cheerfully, tone jarringly discordant with his words.

Faster than sound Kuro's fist came around, connecting squarely with Hyde's left cheek. His glasses went flying and despite the sudden, overwhelming influx of white noise buzzing in his head, Mahiru distinctly heard someone gasp. Hyde's grip faltered and Kuro crashed to the carpet. He was on his feet again, crouched defensively in a second, his eyes fixed on the other.

Hyde glanced down at him in shock before, once more, his face broke into a grin. His lip was split and a small fleck of blood went flying as he laughed. "Still got it after all this time?!" He clapped his hands slowly. "Bravo. Based on your decrepit appearance I was rather expecting you to hit like a grandma."

Kuro remained silent, watching every move Hyde made, his eyes dark and steady.

Hyde cocked a hip and splayed his hands carelessly. "What, no come back?" He asked. "Ah, well... you always were a boring fight!" He shot forward aiming a knee at Kuro's face. Before Mahiru had time to so much as suck in a breath Kuro had dropped to the ground. Hyde's kick sailed harmlessly over him and he lunged forward, grabbing the leg Hyde was left standing on. With a powerful yank he fell back, successfully breaking Hyde's contact with the floor. He was already releasing his hold and on his feet, rushing forward, before Hyde had even pulled out of the back spring he'd fallen into. Kuro grabbed his shirt collar and jerked him up into the air; a perfect parallel to how they'd started.

Mahiru had watched all this with a sense of unstoppable dread, his feet glued to the floor, his hands numb and distant where they stretched away from his body to wrap around the lip of wood. Lily had said that Hyde was another of Kuro's brothers but this.... this wasn't how you were with a brother. Kuro hadn't had this killers aura even in the alley way, even when the man had pulled a knife. Even when Mahiru had been on the edge of consciousness. Kuro was....

Tearing his gaze from the soft fibers of the richly embroidered rug beneath his feet Mahiru saw the moment when Hyde's hand twitched, aiming for a pocket hidden among the folds of his jacket, and in an act of pure reactionary instinct Mahiru flew forward, throwing himself against Kuro's tensed arms. He heard Hyde yell and winced as his ribs collided with hard muscle. The gunmetal gray switchblade clattered to the floor and Kuro took a step back, twisting to catch Mahiru before he could follow it down.

"Enough!" Licht's voice rang out, shattering the icy veneer of the atmosphere. "Hyde what the hell do you think you're doing?" There was a barely there waver of tension in his tone.

Hyde snorted from his spot on the ground. "Weren't you paying any attention Angel?" His eyes slid over to Mahiru, bright and calculating. "I was greeting my dear older brother. It's been so long since we've seen each other after all."

Struggling to keep his expression inscrutable Mahiru met his gaze and held it. The circle of Kuro's arms still around his waist were a welcoming comfort and he managed to outlast Hyde, who lost focus when Licht kicked him squarely in the back. He tried to twist to see over his shoulder but Kuro's grip was still tight and the attempt proved fruitless. Contenting himself with leaning back until he rested lightly against the soft gray jacket he'd lent Kuro that morning, he barely moved his lips as he all but breathed, "Are you ok?" The arms around him loosened slightly and an answer was whispered into the hair just over his ear.

"Sure."


Hours later, after Lily profusely apologizing and Misono yelling and Hyde laughing maniacally and Licht throwing kicks right and left, Mahiru and Kuro found themselves sequestered in one of the mansions hundreds of spare rooms.

The walls were a calming blue, melting into the carpet and lending the room an almost aquatic feel. The weak evening light was struggling to permeate the curtains that Kuro had insisted be closed. After arguing for ten minutes Mahiru had simply thrown his hands in the air and surrendered, rationalizing that a semi relaxed Kuro was better than a panicked, paranoid one. Now, from his spot on the end of the bed Mahiru traced a single beam of sunlight across the floor to a worn sneaker. He hadn't managed to find a pair of shoes that Kuro would wear and suddenly, staring at it in all it's dirty glory, clashing with the lush velour of the carpeting, he found himself irrationally annoyed. Kuro had thrown a fit at every suggestion he'd made and refused to try on even one pair.

Irritation levels maxed out Mahiru stood up and squared his shoulders, determined to break the uneasy silence that had filled the room since he'd pulled the shades. Cautiously he approached Kuro who was resting on the arm of the little sofa across the way, his eyes trained on the locked door that lead to the hallway. Whether he felt trapped or was simply waiting for Hyde to make another appearance was anyone's guess but sitting here ignoring each other wasn't getting them anywhere.

"Kuro." Everything sounded unnecessarily loud after the heavy hush. "You know it's kinda spooky when you sit there like a statue." The joking tone was feeble and his voice threatened to shake but it was the best he could summon after the last twenty-four hours. "Maybe we should-" Suddenly Kuro swung around, leaning in until they were face to face and Mahiru tried not to jerk back, his gut twisting at the look on Kuro's face.

"How can you just sit there like that? You really must be crazy." He muttered, his delicate eyebrows and lips pulled impossibly down, eyes screaming, screaming, screaming in agitation.

Mahiru had wondered briefly if his little stunt earlier would land him in hot water and it seemed it had. A million things to say ran through his mind but all he could choke out was a breathy "I'm sorry".

Kuro's features melted into utter shock and he raised a brow. "What are you talking about?"

"You're mad because I butted into the thing with your brother earlier, aren't you?" Mahiru averted his eyes and chewed his lip. "I know it probably wasn't my place but I saw when he- I thought that- I just couldn't-" He broke off, unable to clarify what it was that he had suddenly found himself incapable of allowing. Was it the idea of Kuro or his brother hurting each other? Because they were family? Or was it just Kuro he'd been worried about?

Kuro's lips did something complicated and Mahiru watched tensely. "So, let me get this straight. You're apologizing for stopping me from potentially becoming a pin cushion, because you think, I think, it's not your place?" Kuro tilted his head curiously, disbelief rampant in his tone. Mahiru's throat had gone dry, parched, like he'd swallowed a gallon of desert sand so he only nodded. Kuro remained eerily silent as the driveway lights slowly flickered on outside, their beams replacing what little essence of the sun had been filtering through of the windows earlier. Heaving a sigh, Kuro shook his head, hair swinging wildly. "Man, you really are a total moron." Before Mahiru had a chance to respond Kuro shot an arm forward and around, catching him in the chest and pushing him onto the couch. He leaned down, eyes locked on Mahiru's, luminous despite the weak artificial light. "You're damn right I'm pissed." Mahiru flinched. "But not because I give a shit about that asshole. I'm angry because you threw yourself into the middle of a fight that you have no chance of holding your own in. Just what exactly do you think this is, Mahiru?"

The question caught Mahiru off guard and he found himself resorting to anger. "Well, I have no idea do I!" He almost yelled. "And I won't ever know if someone doesn't start explaining!" He snapped his mouth shut and glared with as much intensity as he could at the surprise flitting across Kuro's face. It was still just inches from his and he found himself examining the tired eyes that always seemed to be watching him. This close it was easy to see that they were actually a mix of steel grays and stormy blues; like a lightening storm, bright and airy, brighter than Mahiru had originally thought. Unable to look away he yelped in shock when a finger poked him in the sensitive dip below his collarbone.

"Were you dropped on your head as a baby?" Kuro asked lightly. "Because it's really the only explanation I can think of for you being like this."

"Like what?" Mahiru mumbled dazedly, finally tearing his eyes away.

"A complete and utter pain in the ass."

Mahiru huffed out a breath but refused to respond, staring sullenly at the wall over Kuro's shoulder and crossing his arms.

"Mahiru."

He closed his eyes.

"Mahiru....."

He pressed his lips together and grimaced.

"Ma-hi-ru." Kuro pulled the syllables out, turning it into an almost lilting whine and poked him again, this time in the ribs, and Mahiru struggled to keep himself from smiling but felt his lips wobbling traitorously.

"Fine, fine!" He blurted, turning his gaze back to Kuro's. "Think what you want but I'm here to help. And I can't do that if I don't understand. Please, explain it to me, ok?" He added.

Kuro frowned and finally leaned away, sliding sideways to flop down onto the seat next to Mahiru. "I don't want to. Honestly, it's just such a bother-"

"Don't do that!" Mahiru interrupted fiercely. "Don't hide like that; don't pretend that you're just too lazy to deal with life. I know you're not. So it won't work on me." Kuro turned curious eyes on him and he smiled. "I know deep down you're a good guy. So don't sell yourself short. And don't be afraid. I'm here for you."

What looked unbelievably like a blush forced its way onto Kuro's pale cheeks and he jerked his head away, reaching up to pull the collar of the jacket tighter around his neck. "How can you say such cheesy stuff with a straight face? Man, I can't deal with that."

Mahiru's face heated in response and he looked away too. "Shut up! You're the one always bringing it up! It's normal to reassure your friends!"

"What makes you think I'm good?" Kuro asked quietly, all hints of teasing gone.

Mahiru pursed his lips and stared up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. "A lot of things come to mind but I guess the biggest give away was the other night in the alley."

"A random guy pops out and tries to kill you for being with me and you translate that as me having the moral high ground?" Kuro muttered sarcastically.

Laughing, Mahiru shook his head before looking over, waiting for Kuro to meet his eyes. "No." He said softly. "It was because you didn't run away."

Chapter Text

Kuro's mouth fell open comically and Mahiru resisted the urge to laugh. "Don't look so surprised!"

"Your basis for my moral fiber is that I didn't run away and leave you with a knife wielding maniac in a dark alley?"

"Of course." Mahiru said calmly. "Really. You could have just used me as a chance to escape. Especially since..." He trailed off nervously. "Since you basically got forced into staying with me any way. I realized that I kind of just decided on my own and dragged you along. So I'm sorry for that too." He looked down at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap. "I tend to take charge and not think about how the other person feels."

A warm hand came to rest tentatively on his forearm and he briefly cataloged all the times Kuro had been the first to initiate any kind of physical contact. A quiet sigh drew him from his thoughts and Kuro squeezed once before letting go.

"I should be thanking you. I think-" He broke off and grimaced. "I think you're probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met." He looked out the window, his hair hiding the last quarter of his expression. "And that's after I tried my damnedest to piss you off. I didn't want any one interfering and complicating things. It's always easier if I just do it on my own. I get my orders, I do them, I sleep it off."

Mahiru bit his tongue trying to keep the boundless curiosity out of his expression. Kuro had just let slip something potentially revealing and though Mahiru had no way of knowing if it was accidental or on purpose, both options were welcome. Trust was trust even if it was subconscious.

There was a crash from the hallway and they both jumped, turning towards the door.

".... Hyde?" Mahiru asked uncertainly.

Kuro shook his head. "No. I don't think so."

Suddenly a child's giggle rang through the silence, followed by another shattering sound and Misono's agitated voice combating it.

Mahiru laughed as he realized that it must have been Misono chasing one of his friends through the house and running into things but broke off when he noticed the protective pose Kuro had taken; angling his body in front of Mahiru, arm out, blocking him from the door. It was a strange reminder that he had much more serious things to deal with. He needed to learn to hold his own. He needed to find a way to be something other than a hindrance to Kuro in a fight.

"What do you suppose is the little short ones deal?" Kuro asked, looking over his shoulder. Whatever expression Mahiru had was cause for his casual attitude to drop and he frowned. "What's wrong?"

Mahiru reached up and grabbed his shoulders. "I just remembered! You're supposed to be teaching me to fight!" Kuro groaned and Mahiru shook him a bit. "No, no! This is important! I don't want to hold you back!"

"Mahiru. Listen to me." Kuro ducked from underneath his hands and stooped so they were eye level with each other. There was a long pause as Kuro stared at him and Mahiru felt his heart rate increasing with his nerves, anticipating some undeniable argument, some reason he was going to be left behind, but when Kuro finally opened his mouth all he said was "I don't want to."

"Are you kidding me?!" Mahiru yelled exasperatedly. He clunked a fist down on top of Kuro's head. "I thought you were going to say something profound!"

Kuro sighed, rubbing his wounded scalp. "It was profound. I profoundly don't want to."

"But why." Mahiru demanded.

"It's a lot of work." He shrugged unconcernedly.

"Is that really the reason?" Mahiru asked slowly, reaching over to turn on the light on the side table, twisting so he was facing the opposite direction. Perhaps looking away would give Kuro some incentive to be more honest; Mahiru had been discovering that while he said any number of cruel, lazy, or insensitive things, Kuro usually had some hidden motive for saying them, a secret hint of what he couldn't bring himself to say, what he really meant. He seemed to hope and even depend on Mahiru to see through them. By looking away Mahiru wondered if he'd earn a somewhat more truthful statement.

A loud sigh fluttered through the air and Kuro slouched lower against the back of the couch.

Sensing a wall, Mahiru tried another approach. "It's Sunday."

Kuro glanced over at him, baffled. "So?"

Mahiru took a deep breath and held it a moment before blowing it out roughly. "What are we going to do about class?" He finally demanded, his lips tugging down in anguish. "And I worked so hard on that map too. Do you suppose I could mail it in?"

Not seeming to be able to help himself Kuro burst out laughing. "Are you seriously worried about that?"

"And the cafe! I don't work again until Thursday but I can't just keep calling in. And if they fire me I'm screwed!" What started as a ploy to distract Kuro had quickly become a convincing list of reasons to fret and Mahiru threw his head back and groaned. "This is the worst."

"I'm... sorry."

Mahiru glanced over to see Kuro with his head down, staring a hole into the ornate cushions, shoulders weighed down with guilt. He reached over and, after a moments hesitation, yanked on a lock of that shockingly soft hair. Kuro started and scowled at him, slapping his hand away. "Don't apologize. I'm glad I'm here with you."

Kuro stared at him silently before turning away to hide a small, timid smile as it worked its way stealthily onto his face. "So cheesy."


In the cold, harsh reality of day Mahiru was forced to come to terms with something he'd hoped he'd never have to do. He was going to have to call in to class. He was going to have to think of a convincing lie and fake his way through the conversation, ending the call before his guilt could strangle him. There was no way in hell anyone was going to buy it.

"I can hear you hyperventilating from over here." Kuro's sleepy voice was muffled by the quilt hiding him and Mahiru wondered how he could tell from underneath all that cotton (or was it silk?).

"I can't help it! I've never skipped class before!"

Kuro abruptly threw the covers off and eyed him across the space between their beds incredulously. "Are you kidding me? You've never cut class?" His tone had a suggestion of pity in it and Mahiru bristled.

"Of course not! Why would I?"

Kuro snorted. "Why wouldn't you?"

"I suppose you've cut class a lot then?" Mahiru asked offhandedly, reaching for his phone to check the time. It was just past 6 in the morning; he'd have to call soon. When Kuro didn't respond immediately, he looked up. Kuro was staring out the window, his hands loosely folded in his lap. Feeling Mahiru's gaze he turned to look at him.

"I didn't really have a chance. Never went to college. I skipped plenty of high school I guess, but that doesn't really count." He paused, blinked slowly, twitched a finger. "Doesn't matter, didn't graduate anyway."

Mahiru remained silent, unsure what to say. It was a conversational turn he hadn't been anticipating. He could be cheerful and encouraging all day without a second thought, without stopping to catch his breath, but somehow it seemed that his usual attempts did nothing for Kuro, or sometimes even seemed to make things worse. Perhaps just casual commentary was all Kuro required. "What were you doing in my class then?"

Kuro surprised him by smirking. "Snuck in. Just wanted a quiet place to warm up. Figured most college students slept through class so I wouldn't attract any attention." He pushed his hair away from his face and snorted. "Typical luck I'd get stuck next to you, the ultimate power student."

"Hey!"

"You were so eager I could have died." He stood and padded past Mahiru's bed toward the in suite bathroom. "By the way-" He paused, peering down from the corner of his eye. "Camp four is on the North Col of Everest, not the south." His chuckle echoed softly down the small hallway for just a moment as Mahiru gaped after him in astonishment.

The sound of the shower being turned on broke him from his stupor and he glanced back down at his phone guiltily. Who was he turning into? Skipping class. His uncle wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. All that money per month; all that work on that map! But suddenly he found himself grinning. The North Col! Really... Who would have guessed.

As he dialed the number for the school office he hopped out of bed, headed towards the door to the hall, intent on exploring whatever wing they had been placed in. Lily had mentioned last night that they were free to roam the mansion as they wished. He lingered by the doorway for a moment wondering whether to leave Kuro a note but ultimately decided against it. It seemed far too domestic.

Out in the hall the sun was just beginning to shine through the gauzy curtains lining the windows and Mahiru held his hand in the light, relishing the faint warmth it instilled in his skin. A voice from further down caught his attention and he meandered toward it, listening to the recorded message from the secretary. As he neared, he registered the faint agitation the voice held and flattened himself against the wall, inching closer and closer until he was right at the edge of the corner.

"Tell me what that was all about or I'll send you to hell right here and now!"

"Jeez, come on, come on. It wasn't a big deal. You're being really weird about this."

A resounding smack rang out, followed by a whine.

"Tell. Me. That was not not a big deal. Since when do you pull switchblades?"

Mahiru pressed zero to speak to a person and strained his ears to hear Licht and Hyde over the elevator hold music now playing cheerily from the speaker.

"Licht, come on. It was just typical brother stuff-" The sound of a kick. "Ouch! Typical for us. For us."

"Why is it typical?"

"I really don't see why you're so hung up on this." Hyde's tone had soured and Mahiru could picture the angry tilt to his brows. "My brother. Kuro." He sneered the name. "He's a dick, alright? The biggest cad to ever slouch about the planet; and I don't like having to look at his washed out expression. Especially with no warning."

Silence greeted this declaration and Mahiru almost dropped his phone when the tinny voice of the administrator blared in his ear. He turned and fled down the hall as quickly as he could, trying to sound casual. "Uh, yeah hi. Sorry- this is Mahiru Shirota. I was calling to let professor Neff know that I wouldn't be in class today. So I need to-"

"Alright, I'll leave a note in the emails. Anything else?"

"Oh? Uhm, no. Thank you-"

"Have a good day."

There was a click and the line went dead. He stared down at the screen in surprise. That was it? He'd always thought it would be a lot more.... difficult? When a hand suddenly landed heavily on his shoulder he felt his stomach clench, knowing without looking who the hand belonged to.

"My, oh my. Skipping class? How delinquent of you." Hyde whispered gleefully, pulling on his shirt and spinning him around. "Did my dearest brother befoul your good nature already? He is an awful influence I must say. Always besmirching everything and then running away like a coward."

Mahiru glared up, his hand clenching around his phone in anger. "He would never do something like that. Don't you dare talk about him that way."

Hyde's brows rose in mild surprise and he tilted his head. "Passionate words from someone who just met him." He smiled slyly. "What do you really know about him?" His whisper seemed to ring through the hall and Mahiru struggled to keep his expression from slipping.

"I know enough. Please excuse me." He roughly pulled away and tried to sidestep the other man.

"You're not excused." The voice was right in his left ear and Mahiru barely had time to blink before he was grabbed and violently shoved. He stumbled, felt his foot slip, and as he tipped he tried to twist to catch himself. Hyde reached back out and this time grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him upright again. "Let me tell you a little story." His free hand came forward, landing with a smack on the side of Mahiru's head, who briefly saw stars, tasting a strange biting twinge high in the back of his throat. "It's a story about your new boyfriend. My big brother. The defiler. Is that too dramatic?" He cackled. "You see it all started when he was just a little-" The rest of his words were cut off as something (a shoe, Mahiru realized as it rolled across the floor) came sailing from the opposite side of the hall and struck Hyde in the back of the head. His hold slipped as he lurched forward and Mahiru wiggled free, quickly backing up against the far wall and peering towards the source of the projectile.

"There will not be any more fighting in my house!" Misono roared. He was perhaps twenty feet back, his arm still midair from the throw, breathing heavily. "Now get downstairs before I clobber you with my other loafer!"

Hyde looked murderous for only a moment before he shrugged and sighed. "You're the master of the mansion." His gaze flickered over Mahiru briefly and he grinned. "Mahiru Shirota. Come find me if you ever get curious about that story." He spun on his heel and started whistling merrily as he strode off.

"Are you alright?" Misono asked quietly, coming up beside him as Mahiru tried to catch his breath. "I should never have listened to Lily and let that oaf in here. But I just can't say no to him." He smiled wryly.

"Thanks." Mahiru muttered belatedly, rubbing his shoulder. "Did you say 'loafer'?"

Misono turned crimson and scowled. "Shut up! That's what it is! It's a loafer!"

Mahiru laughed. "Can you show me downstairs? I'm not sure I'll be able to find my way. Your house is huge."

"Is it?" Misono's tone of genuine surprise took the sting out of the comment and Mahiru rolled his eyes.

"I'm pretty sure I could fit twelve of my entire house in your first floor." He said good-naturedly. "You'll probably think I'm living in my closet when you come over."

Misono began to sputter, throwing his gaze every direction but at Mahiru. "When I- when I- come over?"

Mahiru watched him, bemused. "Sure!"

"Well I suppose- I mean, if you insist." He pursed his lips and crossed his arms abruptly. "I will have to bring Lily with me, of course. He'll demand."

Mahiru sincerely doubted Lily would demand anything but he nodded all the same, playing along. "Of course."

Throwing open the door they had just reached, Misono stomped into the room and loudly proclaimed, "Lily! We will be going to Mahiru's when all this mess has been taken care of! You must be on your best behavior!"

Lily, sitting alone in the dining room, glanced up from the newspaper spread over his lap, eyes dancing. "Why Misono! When ever did you become such good friends to warrant a dinner invite?" He exclaimed, beaming as he watched Misono flush all over again. "I promise I will behave as a perfect guest. Thank you for the kind hearted invitation, Mahiru." He added, turning his amused gaze his way.

Mahiru barely refrained from rolling his eyes. "It's nothing." He tentatively sat down in the nearest chair and tried to subtly observe the ornate decor as Misono continued to orate on the finer merits of what society expected of a first time visitor to someones home. Wainscoting paneled the room and a massive, ostentatious chandelier hung directly above the table. The table itself, while set for only 7 people, was large enough to sit at least triple that number without the uncouth threat of rubbing elbows. Glancing down he noticed that the plate in front of him was of a pedigree of china unheard of in his household. The one plate probably cost more than his geography textbook. He resisted the urge to drop his head on the table.

"Oh, by the way Mahiru." Lily started, turning away from Misono mid sentence (something about taking ones own lemon for the finger washing bowl). "I wanted to thank you again."

"For what?" He asked, surprised.

"Taking in my brother, of course. He can be quite a handful." He said pensively. "I was afraid when we cornered you like that in the cafe that you'd run us right off!" His laugh was soft and light, like a chime. Mahiru was beginning to see why Misono found him so utterly irresistible. "But as I expected, you rose magnificently to the challenge!"

Mahiru frowned, reaching out for what he hoped was a pitcher of coffee. "I don't think he's a challenge."

Lily's eyebrows threatened to disappear into his bangs as he gently shoved the sugar bowl closer to Mahiru's grasping fingers. "No?"

"No." Mahiru said petulantly.

Lily smiled. "Well, I am glad to hear that."

Feeling rather wrong footed, Mahiru cleared his throat. "It's not that he's... simple. But he's interesting. And funny. Did you know that?"

"I was afraid I was the only one that did."

Mahiru found himself smiling warmly. "The first night he was there we fought. I tried to put him in a headlock. He was picking all the broccoli out of the sauce." He hurried to explain, misinterpreting the astonished looks both Lily and Misono were throwing at him. "It seemed such a waste! And, well, he needs to eat healthier..." He trailed off.

"You. You put Sleepy Ash into a headlock." Misono repeated, astounded.

"I tried." Mahiru clarified uncomfortably. "He's a lot stronger than he looks."

Misono snorted. "I should think so."

"Mahiru." Lily began. "The thing you must remember about Kuro is-"

Before he could say any more the door flew open for the second time and they all turned to see Kuro standing in the door way. He was trying far too hard to appear casual and Mahiru realized he must have been outside in the hallway, listening. He waited only a brief second before he wandered haltingly into the room. His eyes darted around several times and settled on the empty seat next to Mahiru.

"Kuro! Good morning!" Lily greeted him warmly, the first to recover. "I never expected you up this early."

"I wouldn't be." Kuro muttered, falling heavily into the chair. "Except this one woke me up with all his worrying." He jerked a thumb at Mahiru.

Misono made a strange noise and Lily chuckled. Kuro turned a quick glare their way before hiding under his arms and Mahiru wasted all of four seconds attempting to catch someones eye for an explanation, giving up when a steaming pile of scrambled eggs were deposited on his plate by a smiling maid. She walked silently and Mahiru hadn't noticed her approach but when she moved on to stand next to Kuro a small giggle escaped and her face glowed. Mahiru felt his mouth quirk in a displeased sort of way and he shook far too much salt over his eggs, wondering why he found her suddenly so annoying when before he'd thought her cute. Without looking up, Kuro held his plate out for her, his still shower damp hair obscuring his face. As he stared angrily down at his ruined breakfast Mahiru was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to see Kuro's expression, to know what he thought of the girl. Perhaps it wasn't just him that found her grating to the nerves?

"Kuro." He said sharply, startling even himself. Kuro peered up at him, waiting. "You had better eat." A defiant eyebrow rose and Mahiru glared at it. "Put that down. I have been with you for almost seventy-two hours and I have yet to see you eat more than a handful of noodles. You're going to die if you keep this up and, and-" He broke off, stabbing his fork into the toast now sitting stacked neatly next to his coffee mug. "And it's pissing me off."

There was a soft clatter as Lily failed to set his tea cup down in the center of his plate. "If what Mahiru is saying is true, you'd better have something." He said neutrally, the subtle twitching of his lips belying his mirth.

Kuro made a disgusted noise but reached forward nonetheless and scooped up a spoonful of grits from the serving bowl. "Whatever you say mom."

Mahiru's affronted sputtering was drowned out by Hyde's aggressive laughter from the door. "Just what did I walk into?" He asked delightedly, prowling into the room. "Brother. Two years away and you've acquired all sorts of new tastes."

Chair legs scraped loudly against the polished floors as Kuro lurched up, turning to glower at him, fingers still clenched around his spoon. Mahiru reached out and lay a calming hand on his forearm in worry but Kuro did nothing more than stand, hooded eyes watching Hyde circle the room slowly. When he finally chose a seat near the head of the table Lily let slip a quiet sigh of relief and forced a smile on his face.

"How nice of you to join us, Hyde."

"Don't thank me. I'd rather eat in my room where it doesn't stink quite so much." He said offhandedly, pouring coffee into his cup. "There's just something extremely odious lurking around in this room."

Misono opened his mouth angrily but, catching Lily's warning look, snapped it shut again, crossing his arms. "And where is Licht?" He muttered instead, still fuming.

Hyde winked at him and laughed. "Why in the shower, of course. Angels are fastidiously cleanly, you know."

"Why do you call him an angel?" Mahiru asked curiously.

Hyde turned a puzzled look on him before answering. "Well, he is one." When Mahiru continued to stare at him nonplussed he added, "Besides, I think the better question here is why are you acting so casual after this morning?" He sneered and leaned forward. "Are you a talented actor, Ma-hi-ru?"

Mahiru stiffened, refusing to meet Kuro's sudden gaze; he could feel it burning a hole in him. Somehow his instincts told him that if he gave in to Hyde and his prodding, Kuro would find a way to blame himself. Plastering on a neutral expression he sighed. "Not particularly. I just find that I'm not often intimidated by school yard bullying." The leer slipped off Hyde's face and his eyes widened in shock. "Anyway, I think it's best, given the current circumstances, that we all get along. There's strength in numbers after all." He slapped a dollop of butter calmly onto the already ruined eggs and mashed it forcefully in, maintaining eye contact. "On our own we probably don't stand much of a chance."

Lily cleared his throat and stood up suddenly. "Misono, could I speak with you for a moment?"

Sensing an oppurtunity to escape Misono too jumped up. "Of course!" He turned to glance cautiously at Mahiru, his eyebrows raised in question. Mahiru gave a small nod. "Let's go, Lily." He swept out ahead of the taller man and the door shut with a finality that had Mahiru fidgeting in his seat. He'd really stuck his foot in it this time.

"Let's go." It was said so quietly that Mahiru doubted Hyde could hear it from the other side of the table. Kuro had never sat back down and was now eyeing the door longingly. When Mahiru didn't immediately move he reached over and plucked at his shirt sleeve. "Come on."

Mahiru stood slowly, his eyes locked on his plate, thinking. He was fairly certain that he was about to get a lecture. Again. He frowned and made the mistake of looking up, meeting Hyde's bemused study. The fingers tangled in his sleeve again, tugging him gently away from the edge of his seat and Hyde's lips ticked up in a mocking smile. Shaking his head minutely he allowed Kuro to tow him out of the room and down the hallway. They'd passed several doorways when Mahiru realized that Kuro had no idea where he was going and no intention of stopping.

"Are you ok?" He blurted out without thinking and Kuro dropped his hold on the sleeve like his hand had caught fire, staring down at it before meeting Mahiru's worried eyes.

"Me?" He asked roughly. "What about you?"

Mahiru grimaced. "I'm fine."

An awkward silence descended as they stood facing each other in some abandoned hallway, in a gigantic mansion, in the middle of what appeared to be a street war, hoping someone would come tell them what they were supposed to be doing. Somewhere, a cuckoo clock struck the hour and the absurdity of it suddenly crashed over Mahiru like a tidal wave and he burst out laughing, almost doubling over. When Kuro's expression morphed into one of bewildered concern he only laughed harder, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.

"It's just- so funny-" He gasped. "What is even happening? How did my life become this?"

Kuro sighed. "Mahiru." The grave tone sobered him and he glanced up. "What did Hyde do?" Kuro seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes on Mahiru's, constantly meeting his gaze and then swerving away to the left or right, focusing on some neutral point over his shoulder. "Did he tell you anything?"

"Nothing." It didn't come out sounding convincing and Mahiru winced. "Really. He just pushed me around a little and then started talking like he was telling me a fairy tale or something. But Misono showed up before he said anything."

Kuro studied him intently for a moment. "He told you a fairy tale?"

"He was going to. He said..." Mahiru hesitated. "He said that if I got curious about it I should ask him." He took a deep breath and twisted his hands together behind his back, noting that Kuro caught the movement and followed it. "It was about you. When you were little."

What trace amounts of blood were in Kuro's face drained away and the dark look Mahiru hadn't seen for days dropped over his expression. "I see."

"But I won't. I won't ask him to tell me. I want to hear it from you."

Disconcerted eyes found his again. "I won't tell you."

Mahiru felt his heart cave in a bit, denting on the left side, a small dip marring the surface, and he bit back a despondent look. "Alright."

"Alright?" Kuro repeated incredulously.

"Alright." A bird took up residence outside the nearest window and it's lighthearted chirp, railing against the undoubtedly biting wind now picking up, bolstered Mahiru's spirit. He dredged up a small smile and pushed Kuro forward. "We should find Lily and ask him if there's an empty room we can use."

"You're saying weird things again." Kuro muttered in exasperation.

Refusing to let himself feel the embarrassment hovering below the surface at the implication ("your new boyfriend" bounced around inside his skull several times), Mahiru huffed impatiently. "To practice! I want to get a start on lessons."

"Lessons for what?"

"Fighting!"

Kuro pushed back against his hands and they came to a jarring halt. Looking over his shoulder he shook his head. "I'm not teaching you."

"Why?" Mahiru demanded peevishly.

"Because I refuse to take responsibility for you getting yourself killed in a fight that you jumped into without enough training and experience."

Mahiru blinked in surprise at the severity in Kuro's tone. "But I need to-"

"You need to butt out." He interrupted. "Just let it go, Mahiru. It's tiresome."

Sakuya's earlier plea to disregard Kuro in class and to leave him alone echoed through his mind as he studied Kuro's impassive face. He had absolutely no idea what Kuro was thinking or really meant. Surely he didn't truly view Mahiru as a bother? Although, looking back at the last few days, Mahiru hadn't really done much but yell and chastise, get in the way, and make sub-par meals. He felt his lips tug down, disheartened, and he took a slow step back. "I'm sorry." Kuro opened his mouth, looking unsure what he intended to say but Mahiru continued before he could decide. "I am going to look for Lily though. I'm sure they have a library around this city somewhere and I'd like to see if I can keep up with class work." He smiled weakly. "I'll see you later."

Chapter Text

As he wandered the halls looking for signs of life, Mahiru tried to dispel the vague shame he felt about running away from Kuro. It seemed childish now. So what if Kuro didn't want to tell him about his past? He didn't have to turn tail like a wounded puppy. And it didn't matter if he taught him to fight; Mahiru could learn on his own! He always did. His footsteps slowed and he frowned. Maybe he really was nothing but a bother? He was always the one helping, doing favors, offering advice, lending homework (Sakuya).... what did he have to give if he couldn't ease someone elses troubles?

"Mahiru!" The call pulled him from his rumination and he turned to see Lily waving from an open door. "Why don't you join me for a moment?"

The room he entered appeared to be some form of hybrid study and gym, one side containing a desk piled high with books and folders, bookcases lining the walls, while the other boasted foam mats on both the floor and walls. Lily was standing in the middle of the room, his coat folded over his arm, the ever present smile on his lips.

"I hope the morning finds you well." He said pleasantly.

"Yeah. This place is amazing!" Mahiru ran his eyes over several of the titles on the shelves. Yeats, Byron, Kate Chopin, Poe, and.... Mahiru squinted at the name skeptically, Anne Rice?

"Ah." Lily said, turning to see what Mahiru was inspecting. "I'm afraid occasionally my books get mixed in with Misonos. He says I have trashy taste."

"Erm." Mahiru blinked, unsure how to reply.

"No matter! Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, no?" When Mahiru didn't respond he continued. "Misono has asked a favor of me in regards to you. He should be here in a few moments but I'm sure he won't mind if I explain myself." Mahiru doubted Misono would be so forgiving but remained silent as Lily laughed mischievously. "I am sure that by now you have noted the level of..." He hesitated briefly. "Violence, that surrounds my brother. I must ask you, Mahiru. How serious are you about Kuro?"

"W-what do you mean?" Mahiru stammered, feeling his face heat, unwilling to consider the implications of the question.

"Do you intend to stick around? Are you willing to be put in danger for him?" Lily carried on, unperturbed. "It's more than understandable if you aren't. You have already done more than could ever be asked of you. After all, none of this really concerns you."

Mahiru bristled at the last comment and the flippant tone with which it had been spoken. "It does concern me! I decided to help Kuro and I'm going to!"

Lily broke into a beautific smile. "Wonderful! Then you are sorely in need of some training!" He clapped his hands, tossing his jacket to the floor. "I'm afraid that when it comes to combat I am the least proficient of my siblings but I'm sure I can show you the basics regardless. Tell me, what do you know?"

Mahiru could only shrug sheepishly. "Nothing really. I don't like fighting."

At the admission Lily raised an eyebrow. "And you are still willing to do all this? For Kuro? They may know your face but we have ways of keeping you safe without involving you."

Mahiru shook his head and began rolling up his sleeves. "No. I need to do this."

"Very well." Lily widened his stance, holding his arms at an angle from his body and clenching his fists. "I want you to start by finding and memorizing your center of gravity, your sense of balance. It's the most important aspect of reacting with speed and precision."

Mahiru attempted to copy his pose but found that his body kept pulling backward whenever he tried to relax his back.

"You're standing on your heels. You must focus your weight on the balls of your feet." Lily instructed, seeing him struggle. "Don't worry. Most people stand that way. It's a lot of work to break the habit." When Mahiru had finally convinced his legs to take his weight reliably he glanced up for the next direction. "Now, make a fist. Thumb outside your fingers. Good." Lily came to stand next to him, mirrored his stance and in one quick movement shot his fist out and back. "Twist your arm as you extend and back again when you withdraw. Keep tight to your body." Mahiru attempted to copy the move as Lily observed.

The lesson continued more or less in the same vein for the next several hours; Mahiru puzzled and feeling clumsy and Lily encouraging and endlessly positive as he corrected Mahiru's legs and pose and focus over and over. Misono had made a brief appearance but, seeing that they had moved onto the physical aspect, quickly excused himself, promising to return with water later.

"Good!" Lily exclaimed warmly after Mahiru had once again thrown his fist into one of the cushioned walls. "Your balance and stance is already much better."

"Thanks." Mahiru muttered, staring down at his sore knuckles. The reality was sinking in and he felt curiously nonchalant about the idea that he would at some point potentially be throwing these punches at another person. Looking up he found Lily watching him closely. "I guess I'm surprised at myself."

"Why is that?"

"I never thought I'd be doing this kind of thing." He answered honestly. "And I hope that I can be of some use."

"Why don't we try out what you've learned?" Lily suggested. "Come, try to hit me."

Mahiru looked at him dubiously. "Are you sure?"

Lily laughed. "I'm sure."

Mentally shrugging, Mahiru squared up to Lily and waited for him to put his arms up. When he just continued to stand there serenely Mahiru cleared his throat awkwardly. "Uhm. I mean, are you ready?"

"Or course." Lily replied brightly. "Take your best shot!"

Eyes widened in mild surprise Mahiru took a deep breath and lunged forward. Without seeming to move a muscle Lily switched sides, easily dodging Mahiru's punch. The upward tick to his lips never wavered. Mahiru had a moment to take in the wall opposite him and then the floor as it rushed up. His arms pinwheeled as he tried to catch his balance and then gave up, instead flying forward to break his fall. From the ground he processed first the sting in his wrists and then the soft breeze that was Lily's laugh.

"Far too much power behind that swing Mahiru!" He exclaimed, bending down and holding out a hand, eyes twinkling. "You do have a lot of confidence, don't you?"

Mahiru grimaced and grabbed the proffered hand. "How did you do that?" He muttered, amazed. "I didn't even see you move!"

Lily shrugged elegantly, straightening the lines of his shirt. "I assure you, it's nothing as impressive as you'd see from one of the others. Kuro will always win in a fight. Though Hyde gives him a run for his money."

Memories of the alleyway, and most recently, Kuro and Hyde at each others throats, all swirled together in Mahiru's brain and he amended his earlier judgement. He wasn't just in over his head, he was at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. "I asked Kuro to teach me. But he refused."

"I'm sure he's just doing what he thinks is best." Despite his words, Lily's tone suggested he doubted the truth behind his own assurances. "Mahiru, I think it's only fair that you know about-"

"Wait!" Mahiru cut him off, holding up a hand. "I appreciate it but... I want Kuro to tell me. I promised I wouldn't ask."

Lily's eyes softened. "Then at least let me say this- my brother has a gentle heart. He's easily hurt and often doubts. I'm always worried half out of my mind about him. But now that I've met you, I don't think I'll have to be so uneasy."

In the face of such overwhelming confidence and responsibility Mahiru felt his face heat while his heart chilled. "Thank you."

"And I think you're the only person I've ever seen who's even half as stubborn." He added playfully. "Do try to improve his diet, won't you?"

Mahiru laughed, relaxing marginally. "I'll do my best."

"Best what?" Misono asked, peering into the room. "How's it going?"

"Misono! I was just about to come find you!" Lily bent to pick up his jacket and swung it over his shoulder. "I think we're going to call it a day for now. But it went well. Mahiru here is a natural." He glanced over his shoulder and winked at the exasperated expression that crossed Mahiru's face at the jibe.

Misono failed to adopt the same tongue-in-cheek manner however and turned his attention to Mahiru. "Has he told you everything?"

"Nothing, actually." Lily interjected. "He's waiting for Kuro to explain."

"What?!" Misono all but shrieked. "What kind of idiotic, ill advised, short sighted-"

"I want to respect his wishes!" Mahiru cut in. "If he doesn't want me to know then there must be a reason!"


"You barely know him!" Misono exclaimed in a rage. "How can you be so calm about all this when you don't even understand what's going on? How can we trust you to act accordingly when you have no idea what's at stake?!"

"I trust him."

The sound of ceramic shattering reverberated through the room and they all turned to see Kuro, hunched over, hands outstretched, mid reach for the delicate vase that had been sitting on the table by the entry way and was now dashed on the floor. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. "I hope that wasn't one of your priceless family heirlooms."

"Not to worry!" Lily chirped. "It was. But we have at least five more."

"Great."

"Kuro, how did you find me?" Mahiru took a tentative step forward, trying to quell the quiet worry gnawing at him that Kuro had once again been listening at the door, but when he gave a typical Kuro-sigh Mahiru's muscles loosened in relief.

"Just followed the sounds of brain melting optimism and there you were." He shrugged.

Mahiru felt his lips turn up in a smile and he rolled his eyes. "Thanks a lot." He turned to Lily after glancing at the shards of vase spread around the floor. "Should I get a broom?"

Lily waved a hand blithely. "I'll have one of the maids sweep it up. This room could use a thorough cleaning anyway." This last statement was directed at Misono, who huffed and looked away. "Why don't you head back to your room, Mahiru? I'm sure you'd like a chance to cool down and relax after all your hard work." Lily smiled pleasantly, either heedless of or uninterested in, the cautionary looks Mahiru was throwing him. Kuro had inched further into the room and was quietly taking in the design and obvious purposes the room possessed; occasionally his eyes would dart to Mahiru, irritation the reigning emotion in them. Trying not to flinch under the scrutiny, Mahiru excused himself and strode out of the room, hearing his now familiar personal shadow start to follow.

Kuro was silent as they worked their way through the endless maze of halls looking for their room. The doors were all colored differently according to the interior decor (he assumed- their door had been a pleasant ocean blue) and made the search a little easier. As Mahiru pushed open what he hoped was the correct one he braced himself for whatever Kuro had managed to cook up on the way back. A lack of conversation when in Kuro's company was nothing new but he hadn't sighed even once and Mahiru had slowly become more and more tense as the seconds piled up. He hadn't thought Kuro capable of going more than a minute without complaining, sighing, or falling asleep.

"I should get dressed I suppose." He said loudly, aiming for cheerful and sounding mildly hysterical.

"Mahiru."

He stopped in his tracks and swallowed nervously, turning to look back at Kuro, trying to school his features into something decidedly innocent. "Yes?"

"Just what were you doing?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Kuro sighed wearily. "Don't play dumb. I know it's hard for you."

Too edgy to feel annoyed by the insult, Mahiru shrugged. "I was talking with Lily. What else?"

"That's my line. 'What else'?" Kuro's eyes were steady and grave as he waited, hands dangling at his sides. He had gone back to the room after breakfast as he'd added a jacket over the shirt he had on- a jacket he must have pilfered from Mahiru's suitcase, for the arms were just a touch too short, hitting above the wrist and accentuating the delicate curve of bone. Mahiru found his eyes drawn to it, once again contemplating that hand, that wrist, inflicting bodily damage so nonchalantly.

Giving in, he sighed. "Lily was showing me some of the basics of combat. I need to know at least that much or I'm just going to get in the way." When Kuro opened his mouth, no doubt to argue, Mahiru hurried to continue, "I know you don't want me involved. But I already am. I can't walk away now."

Kuro studied him carefully and crossed the last ten feet separating them. "You could. Why not just take the easy way out?"

Mahiru felt his lips twist sardonically and he huffed a quiet laugh. "Because the easy way isn't the simple way." Kuro just stared at him, his brows drawn in confusion. "I'll regret it if I walk away. Regret is the opposite of simple."

"What's there to regret?"

Mahiru remained silent. There was no easy way to explain because he himself wasn't sure what the answer was. All he knew was that if he left, abandoned this strange, lazy, contradictory, caring person, he would spend the rest of his life lamenting the decision. "I'm not sure yet."

"You're really not going to give this up, are you? Sakuya was right." Mahiru blinked in surprise at Kuro's casual mention of the other boy. "You're impossible when you set your mind to something." He sighed tiredly, his shoulders slumping. "I give up. It's too much work fighting you."

Mahiru felt a grin spread across his face. "So you'll help me?" He asked excitedly. "Lily said you're the best and if I'm going to be your partner we need to know how to coordinate!"

After a long pause Kuro shrugged. "Alright. Lesson one-" He turned and fell onto the couch, pulling the jacket hood down until it covered his face and leaned back, sinking into the cushions. "Relax."

"What!" Mahiru exclaimed. He ran over and lifted up the edge of the hood, peering into Kuro's weary eyes. "You're not taking this seriously!"

"Of course I am." He said patiently. "You said yourself, I'm the best. And I say that you need to learn when to take a break. And a nap." He added after a moment. "Now is a really good time for a nap."

"No, no, no! Get up! Show me something useful!"

"Mahiru." Kuro blinked solemnly up at him. "This is useful."

"How is this useful?" Mahiru demanded.

Kuro raised an eyebrow and sighed. "What good will it do if you insist on training when you're already worn out? You'll be sloppy and learn everything wrong. It'll become habit and you won't be any good. Trust me. Just lay down and think of something soothing. Like my wonderfully soft hair or melodic voice." He closed his eyes and turned away, effectively ending the discussion. "Take a nap."

Mahiru stared down at him in bemusement. Perhaps Kuro was right, but Mahiru's energy levels were almost constantly at full capacity; his need to do and accomplish were impossible to ignore and he didn't think he would be capable of laying down and sleeping, especially in the middle of the day. He turned to start gathering up the clothing that had been scattered around the room when a hand curled gently around his wrist and he glanced down, meeting a displeased expression.

"I'm just going to pick up the room a bit. Then I'll rest, promise!" He said earnestly. When Kuro didn't let go he groaned. "Alright, alright! I'll go lay down!"

Kuro smirked softly and released his hold. "Just for a bit. Then you can go back to saving the world or whatever it is you do." He was mumbling, already slipping out of consciousness, his eyes drooping. As his breathing mellowed, a tender smile flitted across Mahiru's face and he reached down, running his hand through the soft, tangled mess of hair tumbling out of Kuro's hood. Perhaps a small rest wouldn't be such a bad idea; he was feeling pretty winded after all of Lily's surprisingly aggressive teaching that morning. Not to mention the emotional workout he was getting being surrounded by all these maniacs.

As soon as his head touched the pillow he felt his muscles give and he sunk fully into the mattress. Since when had any bed been this soft? Why didn't he invest in something like this? It would be well worth the price, he was sure. After all, averaging 5 hours a night the way he did took a toll on him. If he had a bed this comfortable then surely he-

-he fell asleep before the thought could finish.

 

When he next opened his eyes the curtains were pulled back letting the heavy evening light in and the couch across the room stood empty. Mahiru bolted up in a panic before rationalizing that Kuro had most likely just gotten bored and went to look around. He forced down the blush creeping across his cheeks. He had already grown so accustomed to the his tag-along presence that waking up alone had been enough to get his heart racing. How lame....

He had swung his legs over the side of the bed and was stretching when a voice filtered from the farthest corner of the room and he jumped in shock, a hand flying to his chest.

"I told you you needed to rest." There was a ghost of a laugh in Kuro's tone and Mahiru's eyebrows fell into a disapproving curve.

"You should have woken me up! It's so late!"

Kuro materialized from the dark and shrugged. "Why wake you up when you need the sleep? Besides, we haven't missed dinner, so what's the big deal?"

Mahiru faltered. Dinner. Dinner meant facing Hyde again.

Seeming to sense his sudden discomfort Kuro yawned loudly and flopped down onto the bed next to him. "Or we skip. Personally, I'D prefer to avoid whatever deranged fiasco is about to go down in that ballroom." He slid his eyes up to Mahiru, shadows obscuring the tired lines and endless exhaustion normally painted in his every expression. "Up to you."

Mahiru took a deep breath, fighting back the unexpected rush of affection that threatened to drown him at Kuro's offer and shook his head. "No. No, we should go. It'd be rude not to, right?"

Kuro just stared at him before sighing. "How annoying." He slowly peeled himself up from the mattress and turned, offering Mahiru a hand. "We better go then."

Feeling a solid seventy percent better about the whole situation, Mahiru grinned. "Yeah, I guess we'd better."


"I can't believe you right now."

"Me? You can't believe me?"

"Yes, you."

"How is any of this my fault, in any way?"

"It's your stupid fault we're wandering down this endless hallway to hell."

"Why don't you know your way around the house where your brother lives?"

"Why would I know the floor plan to a house I've never been to?"

Mahiru threw his hands up, incensed. "Well I certainly wouldn't know it!"

"And you're the one who insisted we go to dinner." Kuro added sulkily, directing a disgusted look at one of the paintings to their right. "We've already gone past this hideous excuse for art."

"No, we haven't!" Mahiru snapped, throwing a furtive glance at the painting to double check. "Ok, this isn't getting us anywhere. We need to think about it simply."

Kuro shoved his hands in his pockets, his lips twisting. "We're lost."

"We're not lost!" Mahiru retorted, more out of reflex than real argument. "We're just.... taking the long way."

A long suffering sigh ruffled the unruly bangs perpetually hanging in Kuro's eyes and he slouched forward. "We're lost." He repeated mournfully. "We're lost and we're going to die here."

"No one's going to die. Like I said, if we just think about it simply-"

"It becomes simply obvious that we're doomed."

Rubbing his fingers on his temples, Mahiru counted to ten, his eyes screwed shut. "Just shut up for a second, will you?" He muttered and Kuro moaned again, albeit more quietly than before. Mahiru was about to cuff him when the gentle hum of voices filtered through the air. He and Kuro both looked up at the same moment, Mahiru opening his mouth to call out, Kuro reaching over and slapping a hand over his mouth and yanking him back against the wall. Over the rapid beat of Kuro's heart Mahiru could just make out what was being said.

"- just want to be sure before we go."

"Whatever you think is best."

"You always say that!"

"Well, you're usually right."

A beat of silence.

"That is true. Very true."

"Besides, Misono will be here. He can handle anything that might go wrong."

"Oh for heavens sake." The voice tilted in fond exasperation.

Throughout the exchange, Kuro had gradually relaxed his grip until his fingers were more caressing than confining, his other arm slackened, simply resting around Mahiru's waist. Mahiru gave an experimental nudge and the hand over his mouth fell away, Kuro taking an immediate step back. He glanced over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows curiously but Kuro only averted his eyes. The owners of the two voices came around the corner just as Mahiru turned back around and he was met with who he assumed must be Hugh and Tetsu (the only two he had yet to meet).

"Well! Who do we have here!" The shortest exclaimed. "You must be Mahiru! I saw you the other day in-" He broke off worriedly, throwing a look at Kuro and nervously adjusting a too large monocle (an honest to god monocle). "When we first arrived! I'm afraid we didn't have the pleasure of being formally introduced though!" He stepped forward, reaching out and up to shake hands.

By force of habit, Mahiru took his hand, attempting to conceal his shock at how small he was. "It's nice to meet you." His eyes strayed back up and to the much taller man standing just a few feet back.

Sensing Mahiru's gaze he too reached out a hand. "Tetsu. Hugh's friend."

"The best friend one could have!" Hugh declared abruptly. He leaned over to see behind Mahiru and his demeanor instantly turned dour. "Sleepy Ash, or was it Kuro now? And how are you doing these days?"

Kuro gave a halfhearted shrug. "Oh, you know. Gettin' by I suppose."

Mahiru narrowed his eyes suspiciously but Kuro refused to look his way.

Hugh nodded slowly, seeming to be debating whether to question Kuro further. "Well I'm afraid Tetsu and I were just on our way out. There is some business we must attend to post haste." He glanced at Mahiru for a moment. "We'll have a full report when we return!" He nodded self importantly and saluted as he stalked away, the tails of his coat trailing behind like a cape.

"Tell Misono I said see ya." Tetsu said as he followed Hugh down the hall toward the door at the end. "And that I'll be back soon so don't worry." He leaned back in through the doorway. "And if he wants me to pick anything up he can have Lily text me." He gave a solemn wave and slipped out.

"Good grief." Hugh muttered just as the door swung shut.

A confused and awkward silence beat down on them as they stood staring silently at where Hugh and Tetsu had exited. Mahiru braced himself and spun on his heel. "Well! Now I've met three of your brothers! How many more are there?" He asked boisterously.

Kuro ducked his head, a hand fiddling nervously with the gold chain that had been around his neck since Mahiru met him. "Two." He mumbled. "And Freya."

"Freya?" Mahiru said in surprise. "Your sister?"

Kuro nodded, almost reluctantly, and frowned.

Sensing that Kuro was closing up under the strain of the probing conversation Mahiru smiled and started off after the other two. "Let's follow them down. We had breakfast on the first floor, and thinking about it logically, the way outside much also be on the first floor right? So at least we'll have our altitude right." He grabbed Kuro's hand and began towing him down the hall.

 

Lily looked up as they came bursting into the room. "I was afraid I'd need to send a search party after you two. Have trouble with the hallways again?"

"Sort of." Mahiru said, shrugging.

Kuro snorted. "We were lost for an hour."

"Were not!" Mahiru spun around to face him. "It was 40 minutes tops!"

Lily chuckled. "Well no matter! We've kept everything warm. Hyde and Licht declined joining." His placid expression looked set in stone and Mahiru whinced, wondering why Licht had called off as well this time. He did his best to shrug off the anxiety as he slid into a chair, Kuro immediately taking the one next to it.

"Misono." Mahiru began, turning towards him as he speared a filet minon (he heart clenched at the dollar signs laying cooked and seasoned on his plate). "I've been meaning to ask you, do you think I could get a ride back into town? Or at least to the nearest bus stop?"

Misono looked up from where he was inspecting some kind of fruit tart. "Why?"

"Well..." Mahiru hesitated, feeling Kuro's sudden, intense stare. "I don't really know the way myself. And I'll need to get to work on Wednesday." He held his breath waiting for the explosion.

"Absolutely not!" Misono cried. "You can't just go back to your life like nothing happened! Are you crazy?"

Lily remained silent, though he was glancing worriedly down the table at Mahiru and drumming his fingers against the table cloth.

"I can't keep skipping class! I'll flunk out!"

"Then flunk out! It's that or get killed!" Misono stabbed the serving spoon into the fruit cocktail. "Just get a job after we figure this all out."

"Oh right, my mistake." Mahiru said sarcastically. "I'll just use all my social power and secure myself a nice career with no references or education!"

Misono flushed and turned a pleading frown on Lily.

"Ahm. Mahiru." Lily cleared his throat. "I think what Misono means to say is that whatever credits or internships you miss out on, we would be more than happy to help you make up. If it comes to that! Who knows!" He added cheerfully. "This might all blow over in a week or so!"

Kuro exhaled gustily from where he was laying face down on the table. Raising his head, he directed a scowl at Lily. "Stop talking shit. This isn't going to be over in a week." He turned to Mahiru, raising his eyebrows. "And you stop talking shit too. You're not going anywhere. You insisted on getting yourself into this mess and now you're going to deal with the consequences." Mahiru opened his mouth to object but Kuro beat him to it. "Class credits can be made up. You can't be brought back to life."

Something about the way he said it gave Mahiru pause and he didn't respond, instead meeting Kuro's gaze and holding it. As they stared at each other Kuro's expression slowly softened, his lips losing their tired tilt. "I won't die." Mahiru finally said, unsure of why he felt the need to make the assertion.

Kuro blanched, his eyes wide and unguarded for just a second, a hundred different emotions fighting for dominance, before closing them tightly. "You're impossible." He muttered.

The sound of Lily popping open a wine bottle drew all their attention and he grinned as he held it up. "Perhaps a little something to drink will calm everyones nerves." He magicked four wine glasses from a serving cart behind him and began pouring. "This is one of my favorites. A nice soft rose. Not that I indulge often." He assured them while Misono rolled his eyes and muttered something into his soup bowl. "Now, as I was saying to Misono before you two got here, I was walking down the street just the other day and the most wonderful man stopped me-"

 

Mahiru's head was spinning. Or maybe it was the room? He couldn't quite tell anymore. But something was moving, that much was certain. And it wasn't supposed to be, he was also sure of that. He frowned, looking around to find the source of the disturbance. But turning made everything twist even faster and he almost immediately gave up, screwing his eyes shut against the vertigo. "Ugh."

"Mahiru?" The voice sounded mildly worried. "Are you awake?"

Mahiru tried to find his tongue to say that he always had been awake but seemed unable to do so, much less form the words. He waved one of his hands (left? right?) instead.

"I'm not sure what that means." The voice said, amused. "Would you like some water?"

"No more wine." Mahiru finally managed to mutter. "I hate this."

"You sure are a light weight." The voice was definitely laughing now and Mahiru felt a stab of offence. "I said water. You should have some water."

A gentle hand slid around the back of his neck, urging him to sit up (because apparently he was laying down) and a second briefly touched his hand. After another insistent nudge Mahiru realized it was trying to hand him a glass. "Who are you?" He mumbled petulantly. "I don't know what you look like."

The voice didn't answer immediately and Mahiru was about to ask again when there was a soft sigh. "Who do you think I am?"

Mahiru frowned, thinking. "Probably someone more responsible than me." He decided eventually.

The voice gave a startled laugh. "If only." A pause. "Why don't you open your eyes?"

Mahiru grimaced. "Too dizzy. Feel awful."

"Maybe the sight of my calming features will make you feel better." The voice reasoned.

Sensing possible logic in this train of thought, Mahiru forced his eyes open. The first thing he saw was the far wall of the blue bedroom, the next was Kuro. He was leaning over Mahiru's prone form, a glass of water in one hand and a guarded look on his face. "Kuro!" Mahiru exclaimed in happy surprise. Kuro allowed a small smile to twist his lips momentarily. "What are you doing here?"

"Just waiting for you to regain consciousness." He held out the glass again. "Here."

Mahiru located his arm and then hand, finally reaching out to take it properly. "Thanks." Kuro's hand was still resting against his neck and as he tilted his head back to drink he felt his hair pull softly through the warm fingers. It felt nice; no one had run their fingers through his hair in years. He leaned back more, tipping his head to get more of the sensation. "That feels so good." He sighed, smiling as his eyes drifted shut. Kuro made a strangled noise and suddenly the hand was yanked away. Mahiru opened his eyes again to find Kuro and protest but the panicked expression he was met with stilled his tongue. He reached up a clumsy hand and softly patted the top of Kuro's head. "Don't be sad. Or... whatever that face is." He struggled to focus, willing his eyes to stay open. "It was nice."

Kuro's mouth opened and closed several times before he finally sighed. "Yeah."

Mahiru smiled blissfully and grabbed the collar of Kuro's shirt with his free hand to steady himself; he'd been starting to list to the side. "Kuro, why is that guy trying to kill you?" Kuro sucked in a breath, his eyes going wide, but he didn't pull away, and when he just continued to stare, Mahiru decided clarification must be necessary. "Not your brother. Hyde. He talks like he's in a play." He giggled. "It's so weird. No, no, I mean the other one. The uh- the gang leader? Is that what he is?" He turned huge, glassy eyes towards Kuro. "Is that why everyone thinks he's so bad?"

"Mahiru...." Kuro's lips turned down unhappily.

"I just don't understand!" Mahiru interrupted impatiently. Kuro remained silent and Mahiru felt his hold on wakefulness slipping again. He blinked quickly several times to clear his head. "I just don't understand." He repeated. "Who would want to hurt you?"

Kuro's expression crumpled and Mahiru tried desperately through the smog of alcohol and synthetic exhaustion to think of something cheerful to say, anything to wipe that miserable look from his face but he nodded off before he managed. His last coherent thought was that in the morning he'd talk to Kuro properly.


Though waking before Kuro didn't seem like it would be anything unheard of, Mahiru was still surprised when, in the early hours of the morning, his eyes cracked open and he didn't immediately expire. His head was pounding dully, his entire circulatory system feeling as though it had been dried out and filled with gritty water. Staring broodingly at the ceiling he made a vow to never drink again. Why the hell did people do this to themselves willingly?

He turned his head to check for a lump in the blankets that was Kuro curled up in the other bed and felt marginally more positive. At least they'd both made it back to the room. Though, he didn't actually remember getting here. In fact, he realized, frowning, the last thing he remembered was trying to convince Lily that a third glass of wine was really out of the question. Lily had laughed brightly and filled his cup up anyway. He didn't remember drinking it.

He also didn't remember Kuro drinking any. The revelation sent a rush of mortification through his system and he clamped a hand over his mouth in horror. He and Lily had been drinking. But Kuro hadn't. He must have made an absolute fool of himself. Misono had bowed out after one glass but even he hadn't been entirely sober. But Kuro... His eyes slid back to the pile of quilts in terror. The best he could hope for was that he didn't spill any unfathomably embarrassing secrets....

Bracing himself, he grabbed one of his pillows and whipped it with all his might at the other man. It hit dead center and bounced to the floor as the pile wiggled and a muffled exclamation filtered through the layers of fabric and feather.

Kuro's head popped out of the blanket burrito, looking entirely unimpressed. "Why am I not surprised you're already up, even after drinking almost an entire bottle of wine."

"Did I say anything dumb?" Mahiru demanded, cutting right to the chase. Kuro's eyebrows rose and he groaned. "I mean, did I tell you anything embarrassing? Please. I have to know."

Kuro's eyes darted away and he ducked back until only the tip of his nose and some loose hair were visible past the blanket fringe. "Nothing too bad."

"Kuro." Mahiru said warningly. "What did I say?"

A sigh echoed from within the confines of the quilt and Kuro slowly inched back out. His expression was a war of fabricated boredom and real hesitance as he mumbled, "Like I said, nothing much. Just a little about your uncle and... your mom."

Mahiru sighed and glanced down at his hands, twisting his fingers together and apart, together and apart. The silence stretched and he realized that, characteristically, Kuro had no intention of breaking it. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I don't know why I would have brought it up." He fibbed and chanced a look up; Kuro was still folded beneath the sheets, watching him almost cautiously. "I'm sorry."

Kuro frowned, blinked, grimaced, and finally sighed so hard it sounded like his lungs would pop. "Don't apologize. It's such a bother when you make a big deal out of it."

Mahiru felt that unfamiliar rush of warmth again and his face broke out in a blinding smile. "Kuro, I-"

"Don't smile at me like that. It's too bright. Jeez." Kuro muttered, shuffling back under the covers. "Now leave me alone. It's against my religion to be up before noon."

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday passed in a fog of hang over, practice with Lily, and watching Kuro from the corner of his eyes.

Lily was cheerful as always, seemingly unaffected by what turned out to have been two bottles of wine, and Mahiru suffered and squinted his way through their rounds as Lily dealt him blow after blow, holding back at the last second whenever Mahiru failed to block.

"Honestly, I'm rather impressed." Lily admitted when they paused for a break. "If Misono had drunk as much as you did I'm fairly certain he'd still be asleep."

Mahiru slid down the wall to the floor and hung his head. "I wish I was."

Lily chuckled. "I'm not surprised." A strange glint entered his eye and he crouched down next to Mahiru. "I'll tell you a secret. As a reward for doing such a good job!" He assured quickly when Mahiru turned a suspicious eye on him. "As I hope you remember, Kuro failed to indulge with us last night, but! Let me tell you, Mahiru. I've seen him drink before. And it is fabulous."

Mahiru raised an eyebrow skeptically. "What do you mean 'fabulous'?"

Grinning wildly, Lily leaned in. "He's a funny drunk."

Mahiru felt his eyes go wide and not for the first time he wished sorely that Kuro had been willing to join them last night in their ill advised debauchery. "I'd kill to see that." He said honestly.

"I'm sure some day you will. Kuro is just... under a lot of pressure right now. And he doesn't tend to let loose, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I kind of got that impression." He muttered. Lily glanced at him and he shrugged. "He talks a big game but... I don't know. I can tell he cares a lot. And I think he probably over thinks a lot of things."

Lily smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "I knew you were the one as soon as I saw you." He stood, ignoring Mahiru's inquisitive look, and glanced at the door. "I suppose we had better find Misono. He told me he wanted to talk to you."

"Sure thing." Mahiru said, standing as well. "Should I go find Kuro?"

Lily hesitated. "I think... it would be best if it were just the three of us."

Mahiru felt his stomach twist in trepidation but he crushed the sensation down and nodded. "Alright."

 

Misono was seated at the desk in the library, papers strewn about its surface. He'd drawn the blinds and had several lamps glowing mutely around the room. The lighting threw his features into sharp relief and Mahiru realized that he was actually quite comely. Perhaps it was the near constant scowl that hid the fact, he thought humorously. Or the yelling.

"Lily! You took forever!" Misono shouted as they walked in. "I've been here for hours!"

Lily smiled. "I told you I was going to go over a few things with Mahiru this morning."

Misono turned his intense gaze to Mahiru. "How did it go?"

Mahiru shrugged helplessly. "I didn't totally fail."

"You're going to have to do better than that!" Misono exclaimed, flinching when Lily cleared his throat from where he was pushing aside a couple throw pillows to sit on the delicate looking love seat under the window. "But I'm sure it was better than I'd expect." He added and Mahiru smiled bemusedly. "Now. What I wanted to talk to you about. Ash."

"Why do you call him that?" Mahiru asked curiously. "Did he change his name or something?"

Misono and Lily exchanged a look and Lily waved a hand through the air. "Something like that." was all he said. "I could go into detail but you expressed a wish to hear this from my brother himself and I want to respect that." A smile flitted across his face before he sighed. "Though it will make things difficult."

"Never mind that." Misono muttered. "I can work around it."

Mahiru perched on the edge of one of the chairs near the fireplace. He peered past the grating but it appeared that there had never been a fire lit in this particular hearth but sat back guiltily when Misono harrumphed and crossed his arms. "Sorry. I've just never been in a house with so many rooms." He admitted. "I'm a bit amazed."

With a casual shrug Misono side stepped the topic. "Aside from Ash's name, there are many other things you don't know." He leveled a scowl at Mahiru over the books piled on the desk. "I can do my best to explain and try to impart an appropriate amount of seriousness to you about our situation but I'm afraid that the only real way you'll be in the know is when Ash fesses up and tells you everything. Well, everything that's relevant." He amended sourly.

"What if Kuro doesn't want to tell me?"

"He will." Lily reassured him softly.

Mahiru looked toward him. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because he'll realize he has to." Misono interrupted and Lily smiled lightly before turning his attention back to the small book he'd picked up and was flipping through. "But that's not what's important right now. Listen closely, Mahiru. The reason I called everyone here, the reason you're here, is because of a man named Tsubaki." Misono paused, glaring down at his folded hands. "And he is bad news. I've run the scenario several times and it never ends well for us."

"What scenario?" Mahiru asked.

"In a fight. We lose."

Lily suddenly looked up, propping his chin in his hand casually. "But Misono, have you ever run the scenario with Kuro?"

Misono glanced over at him. "Of course not. You know he would never work with us."

"But what about Mahiru?" Lily asked cheerfully. "I'm sure that will change the variables."

Misono whipped back around to stare at Mahiru, who squirmed uncomfortably under the scrutiny. "That's true. I hadn't accounted for that." He muttered wonderingly.

"I'm sorry but you still haven't told me who this Tsubaki guy is."

"Lily, do you mind?" Misono asked suddenly. When Lily gestured with a hand to continue, he took a deep breath. "Tsubaki is what's most commonly referred to as a drug lord. But he's not just any regular criminal. He's a whole new league. Lily used to..." He broke off, his face twisting.

"I was in his gang." Lily said simply. "I was an orphan. I could see no other way to survive when the housing system that kept me started to sink under its financial strain. It had taken too many of us in, you see." Lily closed his eyes, head tilting softly to the side as he recited, "The organization offered me money. Power. I thought those were the things I needed. So I took them up on the offer. I was just a child." This last part was almost pleading and Mahiru jerked his gaze away to stare at the carpeting beneath his sneakers. "But of course, that kind of life is never what one dreams it will be. When I'd changed my mind... well, it didn't go over so well."

"I met Lily on one of my frequent hospital stays." Misono interrupted. "He'd been seriously injured in one of their 'missions'."

"So, that's why you're worried about Lily getting hurt." Mahiru murmured. "Because he tried to leave and now they might be after him?"

Misono hesitated only a moment, his eyes shifting down to the papers on his desk. "Essentially, yes. But there's more to it."

"I don't understand what that has to do with Kuro though."

"That's what we mean when we say there's more." Lily said gently. "There's so much more I could write a book." He sighed, staring out the window at the snow drifting down. "So much I remember and want to forget."

Mahiru bit his lip, thinking, hoping. "So... what can I do?"

"Your number one priority is to get Ash to spill all his dirty little secrets." Misono said. "I'll only give you a little more time and then I'm telling you what I know myself." He held up a hand when Mahiru began to object. "You don't get a say. I'll play along for now, but this is bigger than him."

"Mahiru. What Misono and I are doing is trying to stop Tsubaki and his gang." Lily said suddenly, turning his clever eyes on Mahiru. "It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be safe. This is why I keep telling you that you have every right to leave. You don't have to do this."

"Lily will be in even greater danger if we're discovered by Tsubaki. That's why I didn't want Ash being seen around here." Misono added significantly and Mahiru felt the inevitable conclusion break over him; his hands started to tingle as familiar anxiety began to gnaw at his bones and all the little pieces from the last few days piled up into a mountain.

"Kuro is doing the same thing. Isn't he?" He didn't need to hear an answer; he already knew. "He's trying to take on this Tsubaki guy. .... Alone." Lily smiled sadly, knowingly, while Misono merely nodded. Neither attempted to add any further comment and Mahiru was thankful for the time being. It was already so much to take in.

Kuro.

Kuro was going head to head with some dangerous gang leader who wanted him dead.

Without anyone to help him.

Mahiru's mind flashed back to Kuro at the cafe, avoiding Lily and Misono, trying to escape without being noticed, insisting he didn't want their help, didn't need it. Kuro. Alone outside in the cold, fighting an impossible fight, without anyone to turn to, refusing to accept support. Kuro. Sinking in on himself in the warmth of Mahiru's apartment, confused when asked what he wanted, nervous and frightened when confronted and cared for.

Kuro.

Mahiru felt his heart crush under the weight of it.

Looking up, he clenched his fists. "So what can I do?" He demanded again.

"Get the story from Ash." Misono repeated. "And once you have, if you're still in, convince him to join forces with us. If he's in town, then there must be a bigger lead here than I thought, and Lily and I could use all the help we can get."

Mahiru glanced at Lily, who leaned forward, an uncharacteristically somber look on his face. "Help Kuro, Mahiru. Protect him. He needs it more than he thinks."

"Leave it to me."


The lights were dimmed in their room and it took a few moments for Mahiru's eyes to adjust to it after the glare of the hallway. As he blinked quickly, he scanned the premise, looking for the telltale lump that was sure to be Kuro curled up somewhere playing video games. Midway through yesterday, aggravated by his constant fidgeting, Misono had finally snapped and thrown what appeared to be ten different gaming devices at him, shouting to take his pick and let the rest of them have some peace and quiet. Kuro hadn't set it down since.

"You're back late."

Mahiru jumped, turning towards his bed; Kuro was lounging against the headboard, gameboy dangling loosely from his fingers. "I-" He broke off, unsure what to say.

"Whatever." Kuro sighed, throwing his head back and staring at the ceiling. "How was training with Lily?"

"Good." Mahiru said cautiously. "I think I'm finally getting the hang of it." He slowly approached the bed. "But I doubt I'll ever be as good as you."

Kuro's eyes darted back down to him. "You're not going to trick me."

Mahiru's stomach flipped and he stuttered. "I-I don't know what you mean."

"I'm not going to be flattered into showing you any thing today." His eyes narrowed. "I'm sure Lily has shown you enough."

Feeling as though he were navigating a conversational mine field only he knew about, Mahiru gingerly sat on the edge of the bed. "But we're supposed to be a team! It would be much better to learn from you. I need to be able to compliment you, not just get in the way."

Kuro rolled his eyes and turned back to his game. "All I care about is that you can stop yourself from becoming mince meat. I don't need your help."

Swallowing thickly, Mahiru plunged. "But I need your help. With more than just training." He flinched as the gameboy tumbled from Kuro's stiff fingers and landed screen down on the mattress. The sounds emanating from the speaker were tinny and muffled.

Kuro was staring at him, his face impassive, hands still posed over his lap. "What does that mean?"

"Misono. And Lily. They... they told me. About Tsubaki."

The change in Kuro was instantaneous. Where he had been leaning back languidly, legs crossed casually at the ankle, looking barely interested, now he was on his knees, crouched in front of Mahiru, his eyes burning holes into Mahiru's. "What did they tell you." He bit out, lips barely moving.

"They're trying to stop him. And... so are you." Mahiru managed to push the words past his teeth but they lacked the conviction he'd had earlier. "Lily was in his gang and left when he realized it wasn't what he thought. And they're working under cover with the police now." Kuro's shoulders had relaxed marginally but his face was still tense, the fragile skin around his eyes pulled tight, as he continued to watch Mahiru's every move. "Misono said he was worried that if Tsubaki saw you around town that he would assume you two were working together and it would blow Lily's cover. And that he would get hurt."

Kuro sighed angrily. "Those two idiots. I-"

"But Kuro!" Mahiru exclaimed, grabbing him by the shoulders. "Doesn't that mean he knows what you're doing?"

Kuro's brows tilted in confusion. "What does it matter?"

"You're in danger!" He tightened his grip. "Why didn't you let Lily help you? To protect him?"

Kuro stared at him as several emotions crossed his face, finally settling on jaded. "Are you kidding?" He mumbled, turning away. "I just didn't want to have to deal with him. He's such a pain."

Mahiru frowned angrily. "Don't lie to make yourself seem like the bad guy."

"Maybe I just am."

Mahiru lunged forward, slamming his forehead against Kuro's, falling back on his hands as stars flew across his vision. "Don't say that!" He shouted. "Don't lie to me!" Kuro was gaping at him, a hand to his bruised head. "I don't know everything about you but I know that! I know you're not bad. You're thoughtful and caring, you don't eat enough, you hate broccoli, you like fuzzy blankets and spaghetti, you're lazy and awkward but you always try. And you're not alone anymore!" He had clambered to his hands and knees, and now clumsily reached out. "I'm going to help you."

Kuro stared at his hand in a kind of numb, stilted horror before shaking his head. "You're totally crazy."

"I'm not!" Mahiru declared. "I'm your friend!" He stretched the rest of the way across the gap between them, the small couple inches of empty space and mattress, clamping his hand over Kuro's cold fingers. "Now tell me what I can do!"

Kuro's gaze kept flying from Mahiru's hand to his face and back again. "Did they tell you.... why?" He asked quietly.

Mahiru shook his head vehemently. "No. I promised you I wouldn't go digging around. I want to hear it from you. All I know is that you've been trying to do this all on your own this whole time when you could have had Lily and Misono helping!"

"Are you mad?" Kuro asked in amazement, his eyes wide.

"Of course I'm mad! What were you thinking?! You could have been killed!"

Kuro glanced down at his fingers, still captured in Mahiru's for a moment, his brow furrowed in thought. "You want to do this, risk your life, take on a drug lord, without even knowing why I'm in this mess? Don't I strike you as the last person to jump head first into something this troublesome?"

"You must have your reasons." Mahiru said easily.

Kuro's mouth dropped open and he eyes darted back up to meet Mahiru's. "You're.... unreal." When Mahiru just smiled, he sighed wearily. "And so annoying I could die."

"At least tell me this- did Tsubaki follow you here? Misono said he was here to kill you."

Kuro frowned and seemed to struggle to force the words out through his pale lips. "Probably. But as to how he found me, I have no idea. I came here because-" He broke off, meeting Mahiru's gaze. "Because I was ordered."

"By the police?" Mahiru guessed.

Kuro nodded curtly, and slowly pulled his hand out of Mahiru's. "By the police." His voice curled venomously over the word but before Mahiru could think too much of it he continued, "I did everything I could to avoid Lily but I should have known his little spy network would hunt me up."

"And, Hyde and Hugh?" Mahiru started hesitantly.

"I have no idea what he's thinking involving those two. I wouldn't be surprised if Hugh butted in like he always does but Hyde... who knows why he agreed to come here."

Mahiru didn't respond immediately, his mind turning over too quickly for him to capture all the thoughts and questions he had tumbling around inside his skull. Kuro remained silent, watching him from under lowered lashes, his shoulders like blades of steel. "So, Misono came to the cafe the other day, to what? Convince you to hide? Leave town?"

Kuro flopped back, narrowly missing the head board. "He originally just demanded I clear out. But Lily started talking about hiding me at this ridiculous mansion. Misono always caves to him, even when the plan is stupid." His voice held a touch of affection.

"And you turned him down. And that's when I walked up." Mahiru concluded.

"Well, now you know where we stand." Kuro slid his dark gaze up to him. "What will you do, Mahiru?"

He glanced down at Kuro's prone form; his too thin waist, the rumpled shirt he wore riding up showing too pale skin, his eyes too old and heavy, long, gentle hair splayed over the pillow like a lions mane.

What would he do? What could he do? But-

"Let's take him down. For real."

Kuro's eyes widened comically as he stared up at Mahiru's fierce grin. For a split second an answering smirk whirled across his face before he closed his eyes, heaving a put upon sigh. "I can tell this is going to be such a pain."


"Well, this is cozy!" Lily said brightly. He took a sip of his coffee, eyes dancing as he studied Mahiru over the rim of the cup.

After laying in overwhelmed silence for half an hour, Mahiru had insisted that he and Kuro go find Misono and Lily and inform them that they could be counted in. Now, after an exhaustive search, they found themselves huddled together in what was an even smaller study than the first, this one littered with countless more books, some shockingly risque ("Oh my! Sorry, sorry~"), and quite clearly geared more towards passing the time than working.

"Lily." Kuro mumbled warningly, slouching over the arm of the couch he was currently occupying with Mahiru. "I'm too tired to deal with your jokes."

"Oh, but it wasn't a joke!" Lily exclaimed. "It's been so nice having so much family in the house."

Kuro rolled his eyes and groaned, dropping his head over his arm so his hair fell forward hiding his face.

Mahiru grimaced and realized it was most likely up to him to get the conversation headed in the right direction. "Right. So."

"So what have you decided, Mahiru?" Misono asked brusquely.

"I have a few more questions." He risked a peek over and saw that Kuro had stiffened, one eye focused on him intently. "Nothing big really, just... Well, first, why are the others here? Are they in on this too?" He shifted uncomfortably. "Who exactly are we agreeing to work with?" Whether Kuro registered his use of 'we' he couldn't tell but at least his shoulders had slumped slightly, relaxing back into their usual, casual indifference.

"I suggested we invite them here." Lily admitted, stirring a small spoon through his coffee absentmindedly. "I was worried. To be honest, I still am."

"Worried about what exactly?"

"You didn't think I was the only ex gang member in this house, did you?" He asked facetiously.

Kuro dropped his glass, wincing as it shattered across the rug, spilling bright red juice in a sharp crescent. "Sorry."

Mahiru glanced at him in annoyance. "Be careful! That's going to stain!"

"It's no problem." Lily said, waving a hand at the spill. "Hyde and Hugh were also members. We all lived at the same orphanage, after all. I'm sure you can see where this is going."

"Yeah, I guess I can." Mahiru said slowly, ignoring the urge to steal a glance at Kuro. "So you think that Tsubaki might be after them too?"

"Hugh most likely. Hyde, we just wanted somewhere we could keep an eye on him." Misono muttered darkly. "He's already proven to be too much of a hothead."

Lily laughed. "Well, he always has been."

"So, does that mean..." Mahiru finally turned towards Kuro, who shrunk back against the couch. "Kuro, if they're your family, all from the same orphanage, were you in this gang too?" He willed his face to remain completely neutral, even as his nerves screamed at him to react, to be surprised, to laugh at the absurdity of Kuro in a gang, of him hurting anyone. When Kuro just stared at him in silent dread Mahiru sighed. "Yeah, I kinda figured."

"Mahiru, I-" Kuro's voice cracked softly as he reached a tremulous hand out an inch. "I wa-"

"So that gives Tsubaki twice the motive to come after you." Mahiru interrupted him, frowning worriedly. "I was afraid of that. Misono, is that why you assumed Kuro was the reason Tsubaki was here? Because he ditched this gang too and started helping the police?" When no one answered, Mahiru looked up curiously, only to be met with three astounded gazes. "What?"

Misono recovered first, nodding. "Yes, that's about the size of it."

"I don't understand. How did Tsubaki find out that Kuro had gone to the police?"

"Aah, another story for another time perhaps." Lily murmured, looking surreptitiously at Kuro.

"All that matters now is that he knows. He clearly followed Ash-"

"Kuro." Mahiru corrected him firmly. "His name's Kuro."

"Right. Kuro." Misono said dubiously. "He clearly followed him here. And it puts Lily and I in even more peril. Originally, we had agreed to take on the smaller cases, just locals and subordinates. Anyone the police felt where below their notice." He frowned. "We're not equipped to handle someone of Tsubaki's caliber."

"But Kuro is?" Mahiru asked, perturbed, a worried crease forming between his brows. "You can't be expecting him to do all the heavy lifting here."

"Of course we aren't." Lily said gently. "But, Mahiru, as I was going to say before, what you must remember about my brother is-" He broke off and turned an inquisitive, almost encouraging look to Kuro.

"-is that I was the leader of that stupid group." Kuro grumbled suddenly. He blinked mutedly anxious eyes up at Mahiru. "Not like I wanted to be, though."

Mahiru found himself unable to respond for a moment as the new information (Kuro leading something?) lodged itself in the side of his brain, begging to be explained. All the things he'd learned about him from the last few days pointed towards the type of lackadaisical guy who avoided all forms of responsibility up to and including leadership in any way. "Alright." He muttered, distractedly. "Alright, we'll come back to that I suppose." He reached out a hand and patted Kuro on the head, ruffling the messy strands, grinning when Kuro scowled and batted his hand away sullenly. "So, if you've brought Hyde and Hugh here but they're not involved, do they know what's going on?"

"Not in entirety." Misono started shuffling through the notebooks littering the small desk he was sitting near. "Hugh and Tetsu both have agreed to have an eye out, help keep tabs on Tsubaki for us now that he's skulking about town, but that's the extent. It frees Lily and I up to focus on other things. As for Hyde, he's just a thorn in my side." He turned a grumpy look on Lily who averted his eyes, reaching for the carafe of coffee on the table.

"Hyde, and his friend Licht, are here to be kept safe. I had my hopes that they would lend a hand in some capacity but I admit, that might have been rather farfetched." Pouring the fresh coffee into his cup and humming appreciately at the steam, Lily threw a wink at Mahiru. "I promise you'd be impressed by Licht in a fight."

"So... you wanted to recruit them as some sort of combat special forces?" Mahiru blurted, flabberghasted.

"Precisely!"

Kuro groaned loudly, sliding down the back of the couch until he was almost falling off onto the floor. "Lily that is the worst idea you've had yet. And you've had a lot."

"I beg to differ!"

"So would I!" A new voice rang from the hall. "I didn't know I'd get the chance to beat the pulp out of evil doers." They all turned to stare as Licht kicked the door open and strode in, dragging a gleeful looking Hyde behind him. "Second only to demons; I live to purify."

Mahiru bit back a startled laugh.

"Oh my, Hyde, Licht, how long have you been outside in the hall?" Lily asked in mock surprise, slapping his hands to his cheeks. "I would have invited you both in if I'd known!"

"Oh for heavens sake, Lily!" Misono exclaimed, throwing the notebook down on the desk with a thwap. Lily smiled cheerfully at him for a moment before shrugging and going back to adding cream to his coffee. "Well, you're both here now so there's no helping it I suppose. Now that you know the real details, what do you say?"

Unexpectedly, Hyde slid his eyes to Licht in question, while the former crossed his arms and glared down his nose at them all. "What should we do, Angel-babe?" He asked humorously.

Without sparing him a glance, Licht swung a leg out and knocked Hyde to his knees. "Shut up, you waste of space! I'm thinking." He turned his sharp eyes to Mahiru. "What do you have to say?"

"Me?!" Mahiru cried. "I'm not in charge of this mad house!"

"But you're the only civilian here." Licht countered. "What's the least qualified to participate think of the odds?"

Mahiru glared. "I'm qualified!" Kuro scoffed softly but Mahiru ignored him. "Just, not as much. Anyway, I'm in. I promised to help Kuro and he seems to be at the center of this so..."

"Yes. 'So' indeed." Hyde murmured. leaning around Licht, unhinged gaze focused on Kuro. "He does always seem to be the center of whatever the most recent disaster is, doesn't he?"

Licht turned to look at Hyde, his eyebrows raised, but it was Mahiru that jumped up. "I've had just about enough of your attitude!" He said angrily, stalking forward and pointing a finger accusingly in Hyde's face. "It's not helping anything! If you have a problem then you should talk it out! You're brothers after all, aren't you?"

Hyde's lips disappeared he smiled so widely and leaned down until Mahiru's upheld finger touched his forehead. "You're a feisty one. I like that." He glanced towards the couch where Kuro sat tensed, his back tight as a bow string. "Where did you pick this one up, hm? He looks so plain but when he opens his mouth the most amusing drivel spills forth!" Kuro growled, flashing his teeth and Mahiru dropped his arm in surprise. "Tsk tsk, we can't have that!" Hyde said mockingly. "Mom just said to use our words."

"Words would be an improvement." Lily joked tersely.

"Hyde. I don't know what it is between you and Kuro, but everyone here could use your help. Can't we all just get along?" Mahiru pleaded. He had a feeling his request would fall on deaf ears but couldn't seem to stop himself from asking anyway.

Hyde threw an arm over his eyes, leaning back dramatically. "Get along, he says! Get along!" He glanced down, his fever bright eyes zeroing in on Mahiru. "We already had this conversation in the hall earlier but it was cut a little short, I'm afraid. Let me sum it up for you- when he's lost what I have, then we can get along." He leapt forward, grabbing Mahiru by the collar of his shirt and yanking him closer. "And that seems to amount to you." His other hand grabbed Mahiru's belt and suddenly he was being hoisted up, flipped and tossed as easily as a bag of potatoes.

For a sickening moment he was completely airborne, headed straight for the nearest wall, and had just enough time to close his eyes. When he hit it was strangely soft, dulled almost, as though he'd sunk into the wall instead of slamming into it. An arm came around his waist holding him in place and he finally overrode his instincts and cracked an eye open. Kuro had thrown himself between Mahiru and the wall, cushioning the impact and even managing to keep him from falling to the floor.

"What a drag." He grit out. His eyes darted down to Mahiru for the barest second. "You ok?"

"He can't even stick a landing!" Hyde was howling. "Big brother! Just what the hell are you thinking pulling him into this?! He knows nothing!"

Mahiru blinked several times to clear his vision and glanced up to meet Kuro's eyes. "What is going on?" He asked blankly.

Kuro sighed. "Something way too troublesome."

"Mahiru!" Misono yelled. "Are you alright?!" He was struggling to escape the circle of Lily's arms in an attempt to rush Hyde. "What the hell do you think you're doing you asshole!"

Licht had watched these proceedings with barely concealed disgust but now his expression twisted, becoming pure rage. He leaped forward, catching Hyde by the back of his shirt and pushing him to his knees. A shin was braced forcefully against the back of his neck, holding him down, and Licht leaned over to hiss, "What is wrong with you."

Hyde cackled, seemingly unaffected in the face of Licht's fury. "I told you, Angel! This is how my family does it!"

"That is most certainly not true." Lily said severely. His was frowning darkly at Hyde and seemed about to stick a foot in the others face himself. "You're making a fool of yourself, as usual."

"We're in." Licht announced suddenly. Hyde looked up, horrified, still hunched beneath Licht's knee. "We'll do whatever we can." Licht turned challenging eyes down to him. "And if you try to pull any more shit, I really will kill you."

"Are you insane?" Hyde bellowed. "You're doing this just to piss me off, aren't you?!"

Licht smirked. "Pretty much."

Chapter Text

Mahiru woke just before his alarm the next morning. He'd set it to a utilitarian seven o'clock, hoping that it would be before Hyde was up and after Lily or Misono were. His plan for the day (Wednesday, his watch informed him) was simply to get to work. Fortunately, he'd been assigned a rather lack luster schedule at work and so far hadn't been forced to call in for anything more than his classes Monday, but he couldn't afford to skip work, literally. His paychecks were tight and barely covered the essentials as it was (and he may have gone a little overboard buying clothes for Kuro). If he missed even one day he wasn't entirely sure he and Kuro could keep eating. He threw a cautionary glance to the other bed, making sure Kuro hadn't somehow miraculously sensed him and was now just watching in silence, judging. 

When he was satisfied he was still the only one conscious he slipped out of bed and dressed quickly in the dark. It was done mostly by feel and he held onto a weak hope that he wasn't going to step out into the hall to find that he'd combined anything too outwardly strange.

As he slipped his phone into his back pocket and aimed one last look to the pile of blankets that was his roommate he wondered if maybe this was a stupid plan after all. Surely Kuro would be cross when he awoke to realize that Mahiru had snuck out and gone to work when he'd just yesterday agreed that he would do no such thing. He hesitated, hand on the doorknob until an image of Kuro, staring morosely into the cupboard, whining that there were no snacks crossed his mind and he yanked the door open in amused irritation. What choice did that leave him?!

 

As he'd expected, Misono and Lily were both already ensconced in the dining room when he arrived. They glanced up as he slid into a seat and Lily passed him a cup and saucer. "Tea or coffee?" He asked mildly.

"Oh, tea please." Mahiru paused, hand held to the steaming pot as his brows wrinkled in thought. "Lily, you're always drinking coffee. Do you not like tea?"

"It's alright. But I prefer the robust flavor coffee offers."

"Why are you always using a tea cup then?"

He laughed and looked slyly at Misono. "Why, so that I match the setting, of course."

Misono jerked his head up, a flush spreading across his face. "You're free to use whatever cups you like!"

"Of course, of course." Lily murmured, smiling, and waved a hand nonchalantly. "But I'm afraid I've grown accustomed to using tea cups now."

Mahiru shook his head and began spreading a small amount of butter (real butter!) onto a bagel. "Uhm. I know I mentioned it before and we never really decided anything but... well, I still need to get to work today."

Misono sighed, slamming his fork down. "You really are stubborn, aren't you?"

"I don't really have a choice in this!"

Drumming his fingers in a staccato rhythm against the table he threw an aggravated look at Lily. "What exactly would this entail?"

Mahiru gave a silent, relieved thanks and leaned forward eagerly. "Nothing much! I just work a morning shift. I would appreciate a ride but it isn't necessary! Nine to three. Then I'll be right back here!"

"Are you sure you feel safe doing that, Mahiru?" Lily asked. "Wouldn't you prefer to have Kuro go with you? He draws attention but he's more than capable of protecting you."

"It's fine! Besides, I can't have Kuro skulking around the shop all day and he can't stand out in the cold."

Lily bit his lip pensively and then shrugged. "What can we really do to stop you? Other than giving you the wrong directions and allowing you to become hopelessly lost out in the country side until you've missed your shift and we have to come pick you up, I mean."

Mahiru's blood ran cold as a startling new fear that was equal parts respect for Lily sprouted up. "I would hope you wouldn't do that."

"Of course not!"

Misono rolled his eyes and shoved his chair back. "Fine then. You'll have a ride. Straight to the shop and then back here. And Lily and I will be stopping by to check on you." Mahiru began to protest when Lily clapped his hands and Misono looked away in embarrassment. "You can get that strawberry tart you wanted last time, Lily."

Hiding a smile, Mahiru reached back for his jacket and jumped up. "Let's go then."


He woke with the feeling that something was missing.

His heavy lids refused to lift so he just lay quietly, listening. It was always refreshing to wake up without having to immediately jump up and start running. Or try to shake blood and life back into frozen limbs. Maybe that was the worst. It was a close tie.

His brows pulled down when he realized that he didn't hear any movement in the room; not even Mahiru's soft breathing, or, what was more par for the course, his busy bustling as he moved about the room prepping and planning for far too many things all at once. It was a pain, always being startled awake by anxious muttering or a lid slamming, or even worse, Mahiru shaking him, demanding he get up. He sighed and turned over, pulling the pillow protectively over his head. Let the noises of productivity get through this rich-boy layer of down.

As the silence stretched Kuro felt his heart stutter just once in trepidation. Mahiru was never far, but when he was it meant trouble. Like convincing Lily to teach him to fight, or Misono talking him into joining in their crazy crusade and, by extension, involving Kuro as well, or, worst yet, arguing with Hyde.

All he'd wanted was a quiet, easy trek through town and a short as possible report back to those knuckleheads that there was nothing amiss here.

What a big joke.

Heaving another sigh he sat up, the pillow falling to the side and onto the floor. A scan of the room confirmed his suspicions; Mahiru was, in fact, not there.

"What a pain."

He sullenly gave in to reality and swung his legs over the side of the bed, hissing in annoyance when the cold floorboards sent a shock through his feet. Without preamble he marched out of the room and down the hall, knowing that the most likely place that a bunch of annoying early birds would be at this hour would be breakfast.

When he threw open the door to the warmly lit dining room he was met with a shocked gasp from one of the maids as she fumbled the platter in her hands and it clattered back to the table. She winced and blushed. "I-I'm terribly sorry, we were told to clean up. The master and Lily, they went out early this morning. I assumed they had everyone with them. I'm-"

"Whatever." Kuro muttered, cutting her off, and turned on his heel. "Although." He peered back over his shoulder and she almost dropped the glasses now clutched in her fingers. "Do you happen to know where they went?"

 

Fury was too strong a word to describe Kuro's current mood. No, it was definitely too much effort to be furious. It was more like a light dusting of vexation. Mahiru had promised yesterday that he wouldn't run off and throw himself in the warpath, that he wouldn't do anything impulsive. And yet here they were- Mahiru off in town, doing who knew what while Lily undoubtedly left a wave of chaos in his wake and Misono yelled himself hoarse (the little shit).

After taking a languid shower and laying on the bed for approximately an hour, Kuro had finally come to the conclusion that going after Mahiru was too much work. It served the nosy little bastard right if he got into trouble. And going to all that effort was bound to accomplish very little, aside from tire him out and waste his time. Lily could keep an eye on his exasperating new warden; he would stay here and catch up on all the updates he'd missed on his game during their little 'meeting' last night. He rolled his eyes and burrowed deeper between the pillows. They didn't know how to live.

When the black sedan that Misono employed for casual travel returned, the sound of its heavy all weather tires crunching up white granite gravel echoing across the grounds, Kuro flipped off the overhead light and pulled the blankets over his head. Let them find him if they could.

 

Admittedly, his eyes had strayed to the clock several times throughout the afternoon (though never enough to lose him any lives, so it didn't count) but when it struck five, he sighed and set the gameboy down in defeat. He knew from eavesdropping that Mahiru worked until three this afternoon. Even assuming they'd stopped for some ridiculous thing in town and then got stuck in traffic, they still should have been back by now; he'd heard the car leave two hours ago.

"I'm not going." He told the empty room. "It's not my problem." Silence met his announcement and he frowned. It just wasn't the same when there was no one to fly off the handle at him.

The curtains had been closed all day and now, without the strong afternoon sun to creep through the cracks, the room had grown almost pitch black. He reached over to turn on the bedside lamp and squinted in the sudden glow. He was running a hand through his tangled hair when a knock thundered against the door, startling him. Before he had time to react, the door burst inward and Licht threw himself into the room.

"What do you think you're doing?" He demanded. The hall light illuminated him from behind so that he appeared to actually glow, at odds with the sour look on his face.

"You mean other than trying to avoid all of you?" Kuro muttered.

"Why did you let Mahiru go off on his own?"

"He's an adult, he can do whatever he wants."

"He's a child."

"And what does that make you?" Kuro asked, amused. "His grandfather?"

"Lily texted me. They blew a tire halfway there and had to get a tow."

Kuro raised a sardonic eyebrow, all the while forcing down the worry trying to claw it's way up his throat. "And?"

"And so Mahiru said he'd take the bus." Licht looked at him as though he couldn't quite believe he was having to explain this. "And he isn't back yet."

His muscles locked as he stared at Licht, and he willed his voice to remain passive. "Have you tried calling him? I'm sure he just saw some timed sale he couldn't pass up and is lost in a supermarket wonderland."

Licht frowned. "I did try calling. A man picked up. Said he found the phone on the bus."

Kuro clenched his hands beneath the sheets, nails biting into the soft skin of his palms. "That's not possible."

"So. What are you going to do?" Licht said, glaring unblinkingly down at him.


Mahiru stared up at the tiny window twenty feet above his head. Beyond it he could see the russet glow of the setting sun as it hovered mockingly behind blurred winter clouds. It was by far the most interesting feature of the small room he was currently being held in. What kind of old school thugs had a useless little window like that in their cells anymore anyway, he thought in irritation.

He'd been hanging his uniform up in his locker when he'd gotten a text from Lily. Reading it had given him a pinch of apprehension but he still declined waiting for them to stop by with a rental car, reasoning that he could make it back sooner and save them the effort if he just took the bus. With a little time to spare to the next departure he'd stopped by a small bakery near the depot and picked out three pink and orange, sprinkle coated peach tarts for Kuro. Humming to himself as he slid into an empty bus seat, he grinned down at the small bag holding the pastries. Kuro's face when he saw the tarts would be worth the price. Torn between insult at the childish implications and delight at being given anything sweet was surely a look that would suit him.

"I love that shop!"

Turning to look over his shoulder Mahiru was met with guileful ocher eyes. "I've never been before. But they smelled delicious." He said, smiling hesitantly.

"Are they for anyone special?" The man asked deviously, a smirk reaching around and twisting his lips up. "I hear that's where everyone does their shopping for their lovers~"

Mahiru felt his face heat and he tightened his grip on the bag. "No, no! Nothing like that! They're for- they're for a friend." He glanced towards the front of the bus, hoping to see the driver but the seat remained empty. "I just thought it'd be funny to see his reaction."

"Ahh, are you sure?"

Mahiru frowned, bewildered. "Who are you?" Stealing another look around the bus he realized too late that all the other seats were still unoccupied even though the schedule said there was less than fifteen minutes to departure.

"I think the better question here is, who are you to Ash?" The man sang, before lunging over the seat backing, slapping a cloth over Mahiru's mouth. "I have to say, when they sent me out to pick you up, I was expecting something different. But well, there's no accounting for some mens taste, I suppose." He laughed. "Don't worry about a thing. I'm being paid top notch for this so I promise I'll do it right."

When Mahiru next awoke it was to find himself locked in this room with nothing more than a chair, a small metal cot, a cup of water, and that mocking little window he could neither reach nor fit through. He rattled the door handle one last time before sighing and walking over to the chair. It looked like there really was no escaping. He picked up the chair and swung it with all his strength against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut as wooden shrapnel flew everywhere. Retrieving the largest remaining piece of leg from across the room, he began to carefully, meticulously sharpen it against the crude edging of the bed frame, lips pursed grimly. When that door opened again, he was going out it, one way or another.


Kuro had finally managed to shake Licht off at the staircase, commanding him to go find Hyde and drag him down to the library, and was now taking the stairs two at a time, phone in his hand, already ringing. It only took Lily three to pick up but it was two too many and Kuro couldn't keep the vitriol from his voice.

"Lily, where are you?"

"Misono and I are at the local tire shop. Did you know they don't stock Mercedes tires in store?" He asked cheerfully.

"Cut the crap. Mahiru never came back." Kuro said, glaring down at the lace doily framing the flower center piece on one of the tables adorning the base of the staircase. It looked stupid.

There was a very static silence on the other end for only a second before Lily breathed deeply. "Have you tried calling him?"

Kuro barely resisted the urge to crush his phone. "That angel-freak already did. Some dude answered and said he'd found the phone on the bus."

"Well, at least we know he made it that far!" Lily interjected optimistically. There was the sound of a door opening and voices and then he muttered quietly, "Misono, wake up. We have a bit of a situation." Misono gave a garbled response and Lily chuckled lightly. "No. I'm afraid Mahiru never made it back to the house. It would seem, for all intents and purposes, that he has been kidnapped."

Kuro took a deep, calming breath, willing his patience to remain intact. "You two are stranded and useless, give me the number of someone I can call to send to the bus depot. We need to start looking immediately."

Lily was still murmuring something to Misono when a loud crash tore through the phones speaker. "Misono! Please. I tried to warn yo-"

"Y-you lazy b-bastard!" Misono was breathing heavily, clearly having employed all his strength in wrestling the phone away from Lily. "There's keys on the hooks in the garage, take your pick and get your dumb ass out there and find Mahiru!"

"Any other orders, your majesty?" Kuro muttered tetchily, though he was already headed towards the kitchen walkway that led to the gigantic attached garage. He threw open the door and froze.

"Yes! Call Tetsu. He and Hugh are staying somewhere in the metro area. They should be able to meet you there and help."

"Why don't you call your boyfriend?" Kuro demanded, staring in horror at the three cars still lined up against the wall. "All your fucking cars are manual."

Misono's sputtering was over powered by Lily sighing loudly. "Yes, Dodo insists. Says an automatic is the quitters way."

"I'm not so great with shifting." Kuro ground out, eyeing the sets of keys labeled by model and hanging innocently next to the Volkswagen.

"I am."

He spun around to find Hyde and Licht elbowing each other aggressively as they both tried to get through the door first. "You?" He asked, stunned. Without a second thought he shut his phone, effectively silencing whatever tirade Misono had moved on to.

Hyde finally forced his way around Licht's flailing arm and almost fell on his face as he staggered down the steps. "Yes. Me. What else am I supposed to do when Angel spends hours a day practicing and I'm not allowed to watch?" He asked defensively. "So I took up HOBBIES."

"You sully my heavenly aura when you lurk around the concert hall!" Licht said, punching Hyde in the back of the head. "And driving isn't really a hobby."

"It isn't when you can't even tell the brake from the gas!" Hyde countered, flicking a finger against Licht's ear.

Licht growled and kneed him in the stomach, crossing his arms victoriously as Hyde doubled over with a muffled "oof". "I don't need to drive. I can fly."

Feeling his patience finally erode completely, Kuro grabbed a set of keys at random and threw them with all his might at Hyde. "Then get your stupid ass in the car and get us to town."

Hyde straightened and easily caught the keys, glancing down at them almost casually as his eyebrows rose. He whistled lowly. "The STI. Not a bad choice, bro."

"Shut your trap. Let's go." Kuro muttered and stalked over to the blue sedan that had flashed its lights and chirped when Hyde hit a button on the key fob. Yanking open the door, he tossed himself roughly into the back seat and leaned back out. "Unless you plan on continuing your lovers quarrel until we die of old age."

Hyde immediately colored but Licht only tossed a cursory glance at him before sliding into the passengers seat. "Get over here, you cretin!" He barked, then bent forward to start fiddling with the radio. "We'll need proper atmosphere for this."

Kuro blinked in disbelief but Hyde merely laughed as he clambered into the drivers side. "Angel, you never fail to amuse me!"

"I'm not here to amuse you, rat!" Licht retorted without looking up. "I'm here to keep your evil in check and dispatch you the second you prove too filthy for this world."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, sweetheart." Hyde said humorously as he turned the key, the engine roaring to life, and slammed the car into gear. "Let's see what this baby can do."


Mahiru estimated that it had been about an hour and a half from when he'd been spirited off the bus. They'd taken his watch but judging by the lighting it was a safe guess. He glanced down at his wrist again and frowned. He'd really liked that watch.

A click and small creak as the door nudged open drew his attention and he quickly grabbed his improvised spear, hiding it as best he could behind his back. He shuffled back until he was in the farthest corner and held his breath. His heart was hammering and he could feel the beginning of quaking in his legs but a quick review of his situation assured him he'd (most likely) done everything in his ability to be prepared. A second thought followed on the tail of that, simply that, were he to die here, he was sure Kuro would spend the rest of his life wallowing in guilt.

A tumble of black hair peeked around the edge of the door, followed by those same mischievous yellow eyes. They scanned the room quickly before settling on him and crinkling at the sides. "Mahiru! You're awake!" The man said brightly, pushing the door the rest of the way open and stepping lithely into the room. "I'm so glad!"

"I have been for a while." Mahiru said stiffly. "Who are you?"

The man grinned and rolled forward on the balls of his feet, his arms folded behind his back. "Who am I? I'm surprised you don't know!"

Mahiru frowned in confusion, his brows drawing down. "Are you with Tsubaki?"

He threw back his head and laughed loudly, the sound bouncing off the cement walls. "WithTsubaki?" He fell back to sit cross legged in front of the still open door. "Oh my. You really are behind the times, aren't you? Would you like me to tell you a story?"

"What is it with you guys and stories?" Mahiru muttered in exasperation.

"Stories are great! And for the right price can tell any truth you want." The man grinned and patted the ground in front of him. "Why don't you have a seat and I'll tell you a reaaaally good one. Free of charge!" He winked.

Chapter Text

"Aren't you supposed to stop at those?" Licht asked mildly as they blew past a stop sign.

Hyde threw a cursory glance in the rear view mirror before flicking his eyes back to the road. "Those are just suggestions."

Kuro snorted. "Yeah, just like those two red lights were suggestions." He muttered sarcastically and glanced at his phone again, impatient, waiting for Hugh to text him back. He'd sent the message the second they'd raced out of the garage, informing him of the situation and requesting he and Tetsu meet them at the depot. As he flicked the screen unlock an email pinged through. He stared hard at the sender, and his finger trembled slightly as he clicked it open.

"Kuro!" Licht turned in his seat. "What is it?"

Kuro started and slipped his phone back into his pocket. "Nothing."

The screen clicked off, the email still open; 'have someone waiting for you :) hope you finally decide to check your messages before it's too late!'


"I don't think I'm really interested in any of the stories you have to tell me." Mahiru said casually, leaning back against the wall, the spike still nestled between his shoulder blades.

"Oh, but you'll love this one!" The man insisted. He twisted his fingers together anxiously for a moment before bolting up and approaching Mahiru, who shrank as much as he could into the corner. "It's about your new friend! Although, I'm not sure it will leave you feeling too optimistic." He smiled sunnily. "Now, how about we take a seat over here?" He gestured towards the bed. "I happened to notice that your chair seems to have exploded."

Mahiru blanched and felt the air leave his lungs. Knowing this may be his last chance, he lunged around the man, pulling the spike from behind himself and brandished it. "I think I'll pass!" He turned, making a break for the door but a hand grabbed the end of the stick and tugged him easily backwards. He gasped and held on desperately as the man tried to tug it loose from his hands.

"Now, now! There's no need to get violent!" He laughed. "I told you! I just wanna talk!"

Mahiru spun on his heel, hand still clamped around the splintery wood. "Then why did you kidnap me from that bus?" He demanded.

"More to the point, why hasn't Ash told you anything about me?" The man asked lightly. A small pout pulled his lips down. "I'm hurt! I thought we were friends!"

"You mean Kuro?" Mahiru felt his interest piqued despite himself and unconsciously loosened his grip.

The man's eyes flicked down and back up and he gave a sudden wrench, pulling the spike away from Mahiru and throwing it nonchalantly across the room. "Now! Since we've gotten that out of our system, let's commence with the formalities!" He held out a hand. "My name is Tsurugi. It's nice to meet you."

Mahiru hesitated briefly and took his hand. "Mahiru. But you knew that already."

"I did!" Tsurugi agreed. "But it's nice of you to tell me all the same."

"So what now?"

"Well, I still think it's in your best interest to hear what I have to tell you." Tsurugi glanced around the room. "But I'm sure we could find a much nicer place to talk in. This room is so unfriendly!"

"How do I know this isn't a trick?" Mahiru asked suspiciously.

Tsurugi crossed his arms, humming as he thought. "Well, I could show you my badge?" He grinned as Mahiru's mouth fell open and snapped his fingers. "Ah, my bad! I should have started with that, huh?"

"You think?!" Mahiru yelled.

As Tsurugi rummaged around in the pockets of his over large cardigan, a phone fell loose and clattered across the floor. The screen was lit, displaying an incoming call and he gasped. "Oh no, I left it on silent!" He raced towards it and flipped it open all in one move. "What's up?" He flinched as the person on the other end hollered something unintelligible and then smiled widely, laughing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I left it on silent!" He looked at Mahiru and shrugged jokingly. "I won't do it again, I promise! But you knew where I was going anyway!" He listened intently for a moment and his eyes slid towards Mahiru one last time before he nodded. "Yes, yes, I understand. Come on! What do you take me for?" He laughed again, lightly. "An idiot?! Ah, so mean! Alright, alright! Let me finish up here and I'll be right back!" He ended the call and sighed. "I'm sorry, it looks like I don't have as much time as I thought. But, let me show you this!" He pulled up an app and held the phone out to Mahiru expectantly.

Mahiru stared at it warily, debating whether he should try to make another break for the door or just take the phone.

"It's very interesting!" Tsurugi chirped, wiggling the phone. "Come on, Mahiru! Don't you want to see a famous police detectives secret emails?"

Mahiru sighed and reached for the phone, keeping one eye on Tsurugi, but he did nothing more than smile and step back. He looked down at the screen and saw a string of emails, dated from 2 weeks ago to now, all sent to and from the same accounts.

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: new town
hey! hope youre having a great time out there in the country! but if not good news! new location, your bus leaves 6 am. tickets at the counter. ask for the name Hildenstern! haha that one was my idea! :D

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: didja make it?????
tell me when youre there! i have to get the cards to you!

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: yumi says my emails are annoying
tell him hes wrong!!1

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: responses needed
heyyy i know your bus reached destination! you have to respond to these emails!

 

TO ; detTsuru007

SUB: fine
get the cards to me in P.O. box 812

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: so mean
youre so curt! i sent them, dont forget to stay under the radar. you know whos on the move. :0

 

TO ; detTsuru007

SUB: downtown metro
nothing going on here so far, send me the files too. havent seen him yet. ill check in in a couple days.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: sent them
are we talking about the same person??! id never stop you from seeing family! maybe he can help :3 never hurts to ask~

 

TO ; detTsuru0007

SUB: butt out
it hurts me, so no thanks. too much trouble.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: tracking
sent some prototype trackers to the po box. they might be of some use! watch your back, hes leaving footnotes on the local sites (ive been watching them for you!!) think hes onto you.

 

TO ; detTsuru007

SUB: drama king
saw him outside the post office, going to switch boxes. got those trackers. they seem worthless.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: saw who???
you mean the big kahona or your brother?

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: you ok??
havent heard from you in a while so just checkin in! mr grumpy says you havent even turned the trackers on (he can tell you know!) and wont shut up about it so i need an explanation.
>n>

 

TO ; detTsuru007

SUB: have i mentioned your account name is dumb?
still alive. no use for the trackers so i tossed them, hope they werent expensive.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: i think its fun!
dont forget to keep everything logged! theyve changed our filing system so i need at least HTML format or i have to retype it all!!!! :(

 

TO ; SLeepingAss54

SUB: rePORTS
hey i havent gotten any updates!! grumpy grandpa is after me about it!

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: hes threatening to not buy my lunch any more!!!1!!
THIS IS SErIOUS

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: still waiting
im going to have to intervene at this point. i hope you havent been doing anything unapproved. you know how the company views vigilantism. ;(
they want you to check in here as soon as you get this.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: last chance!
i can only stall for so long, theyre gonna start pulling out the big guns (which might be me)! hope youre alive.

 

TO ; SleepingAss54

SUB: guess what
have someone waiting for you :) hope you finally decide to check your messages before it's too late!

 

Mahiru let his hand drop, the phone dangling from his fingers. His eyes found Tsurugi's and he felt his lips twisting into a frown, heart thudding erratically as several more things fell into place and formed the edges of a dangerous picture. He handed the phone back dully, unsure where to start.

Tsurugi smiled, though it was twinged with a friendly sadness. "I thought you might want to read those. I can see you know enough to guess at their meanings." He glanced out to the hall and back again, taking a slow step back. "I really do have to go. But let me leave you with this- you may be his friend and you know what he's up to, but Mahiru, could you still take the hand of a killer?"

Mahiru lurched forward. "Wait, take me with you! We need to talk!"

"Sorry!" Tsurugi said, ducking out the door. "I can't! But I'll be back!" And with that he slammed the door shut. Mahiru heard the snick of the lock and knew he had lost his chance to escape.


They were standing outside the bus depot waiting on Hugh and Tetsu and Kuro could feel the years peeling off his life. He knew where he had to go to get Mahiru back, but he didn't want this little rag tag teaming following along. They'd prove nothing but a hindrance and frankly, despite his sudden explainable willingness to assist, he knew Hyde would flat out refuse to step foot in that place.

"I wonder what's taking them so looooong." Hyde moaned, falling back against the white cement walling. "You texted them ages ago."

Licht threw him a dirty look. "Shut up. You're annoying me. And who knows where they have to come from."

"They didn't say." Kuro mumbled, pulling out his phone for the tenth time. It had now been almost three hours since Mahiru had disappeared. He couldn't afford to wait much longer. He sighed, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to have to bring these two dunderheads in on it. "Hey. I think I know where Mahiru is." He said it quietly, hoping that neither would hear and he could chalk it up as having tried and move onto plan B, which was sneak quietly away, but they both whipped their heads towards him, identical looks of shock on their faces.

"You what?!" Hyde howled.

"What did you say, you ass?" Licht demanded.

Kuro sighed once more for posterity. "I said I think I know where Mahiru is."

"Why didn't you say that right away?!" Hyde threw his hands up and jumped away from the wall. "Let's go then!"

"Ah, well. That's the thing." Kuro stalled, scratching at the collar of his shirt, looking away. "You're not gonna like it."

"I don't like him being kidnapped in the first place!" Hyde was quickly building up to richtous anger. "I won't let another innocent person be killed because you're an unfeeling bastard."

Disregarding him, Kuro continued in a soft mumble. "Well. He's probably with C3. They uh, may have been trying to contact me."

Hyde's features immediately froze over, an icy darkness transforming across his entire posture into something threatening. Licht looked between them, crossing his arms and glowering. "Why do I feel like I'm being purposely left out of the loop? Hyde." He stomped a heavy soled boot against the side walk. "Explain. now."

Hyde took a loping stride around Licht, completely ignoring him, and approached Kuro as though it were against his will, his face contorted in terror. "Why. Are you. In contact. With them." He hissed with every step.

Kuro shrugged, pulling his hood up and shuffling back. "This and that. It'd really be a lot of work to explain." He chanced a look behind him, waiting for a break in traffic to dart across the street. "Stay here. I'll go myself."

Hyde threw back his head and laughed bitterly. "Now where have I heard that before?!" He turned a steel gaze to Kuro. "It was just as funny the first time."

Kuro frowned. "We don't have time to-"

"Oh, now we don't have time?!" He exclaimed. "When will we ever have time?"

"Hyde-"

"Don't you ever call my name again!" He lunged forward, crumpling the fur lining of Kuro's hood between his fingers, pressing close until all Kuro could see were his eyes, frenzied and shining. "You've lost every right for that. So don't you ever-"

"I know!" Kuro shouted finally. "Alright? I know. So just... let me go. I have to save Mahiru."

Hyde stood transfixed for a moment, thoughts tumbling behind his blank stare, before he shook himself and snarled. "A worthy jest. But I'm not falling for your bullshit ever again!" He leaned back as though to smack their foreheads together but gave a strangled cry as Licht threw his arms around his neck.

"I'll take care of this stupid devil. You go get Mahiru." Licht leveled a surprisingly rigid stare at him despite Hyde's thrashing. "And don't bother coming back without him."

Kuro nodded and melted back into the crowd crossing the street, hearing Hyde's continued screams even as the cars began to fly past once more.


Tsurugi returned perhaps an hour later looking somewhat more bedraggled than when he'd first left. He sidled in awkwardly and smiled when he noticed Mahiru seated on the edge of the bed, facing the door, spike back in hand. "Good to know you're always prepared Mahiru! But I thought we were past that part."

Mahiru shrugged, keeping his eyes on the other mans hands as they floated back behind his back. "Maybe. But you left on a sour note."

Tsurugi grimaced apologetically. "I'm sorry! But when Yumi calls, I must answer!" He gently nudged the door closed and sat down, his back to the wall. "I promise you're not going to be hurt. There's no need for weapons."

"Nice try."

He laughed. "Fair enough. Keep it if it makes you feel better!" He turned unexpectedly shrewd eyes to Mahiru. "Did you think about what I said?"

"I didn't." Tsurugi blanched and Mahiru tilted his head to the side casually. "I don't care."

"You don't.... care?" Tsurugi repeated cautiously. "That your new friend is a cold blooded murderer?"

Mahiru shrugged again. "Cold blooded depends on the circumstances."

Tsurugi suddenly smiled hugely, leaning forward. "Mahiru, I'm dying to know; how did you get mixed up in all this? You're fascinating."

Not sure how much Tsurugi could be trusted, Mahiru stripped all but the bare essentials from his explanation. "Kuro needed help. So I stepped up." He looked away, down at the handmade spear he was cradling in his lap. "Who else would?" When he glanced back up, Tsurugi's wild smile had changed, had warmed.

"That's a very admiral philosophy." He murmured. "But, how do you know if the person deserves it?"

"Everyone deserves help." Mahiru said firmly. "And-" He hesitated, tightening his grip on his spear. "And especially Kuro."

Tsurugi clasped his hands in front of his knees, leaning forward on them and twiddling his thumbs. "And how do you propose to survive this ordeal?"

Mahiru couldn't help himself and laughed. "Haven't you been listening?" When Tsurugi raised his eyebrows questioningly, he grinned. "Kuro."

"I see." Tsurugi jumped up and held out a hand. "In that case, might I offer my services?"

"What services?" Mahiru asked in surprise, eyeing the proffered hand.

Without answering, Tsurugi flew forward, stealing the spear from Mahiru's slack grip and twirling it over his head. Holding it out, point hovering an inch from Mahiru's heart, he winked. "At a discount rate, of course. Mahiru, would you like to learn some neat tricks?"


As he had expected, C3 had guarded themselves to the teeth. Just the south side of the building boasted at least fifteen security cameras and seventy eight square feet of barbed wire. Kuro sighed, rustling the leaves of the bush he was hiding in. This was going to be work. Ignoring the jaded voice in his head asking whether it had been wise to come here alone, he slunk out and along the tree line, watching for a telltale lag and blind spot in the camera views as they panned.

A flash of lightening illuminated the edges of the building as he darted forward, realizing too late that he probably wouldn't be able to sneak his way in without attracting at least some form of attention. He hopped the second line of shrubs and scaled the fence. Ah well, he thought tiredly, it was this or waltz in the front door. He clenched his teeth and with as much of his sleeves as he could get wrapped around his hands, grabbed the wiring, lifting himself as quickly as possible. When he touched back down on the other side, he allowed a hiss of breath to escape as he flexed his fingers, watching blood seeping through the material. Mahiru was going to be mad; this was his favorite jacket.

When no sirens immediately went off he sighed, forgetting his hands, and took off towards the buildings wall. After running a couple hundred feet along it he found an inlay-ed door, sunk half in the ground, as though leading to a root cellar. He crouched down and examined the lock, snorting when he saw it was a standard padlock. He pulled a small pin from a pocket sewn in his shoe. Those pompous idiots.

 

The hallways were all deserted, long gray walkways with doors spaced every thirty or so feet, the lighting overheard a sickening fluorescent, and inside every room was the same; benches, walls of cabinets, what looked like sinks, outlets from floor to ceiling, and the occasional sectional sofa, pushed haphazardly into a far corner. It was all leading Kuro to a rather anticlimactic sense of paranoia. No warning bells, no traps, no guards, no sirens. It was far too easy, too at odds with the overwhelming security surrounding the perimeter, and yet, here he was. He glanced left and right and darted across yet another empty intersection. It seemed as though the most difficult part would be just finding Mahiru. His heart clenched uncomfortably at the reminder of the other boy; here somewhere, trapped alone in the dark no doubt, pulled into this stupid mess against his will, scared and lost. A growl slipped past Kuro's lips and he yanked another door open roughly. This room too was empty. Just like the twenty or more before it.

Realizing he was in the very den of stupidity, and more than likely this had all been designed to simply waste time, time he didn't have, he decided to give up all pretenses entirely and slammed this latest door shut with all his power. The sound ricocheted down the hall, bouncing from wall to wall to ceiling to floor. It was bound to attract attention. Let them find him, and when they did, they'd take him to Mahiru.

As though by magic, a security light near the ceiling began blinking vapidly and Kuro grinned. Showtime.


"You call these tricks?!" Mahiru threw himself to the side, barely dodging Tsurugi's shoe. "This seems more like actual combat!"

"All combat is just tricks when you get right down to it!" Tsurugi sang, spinning in a graceful circle, his leg still extended, before coming to a stop and dropping down to his hands. "Besides, you'll need to be better than this! Or you'll die the first five minutes!"

"I feel like- you're supposed to be- more encouraging." Mahiru panted. He ran the length of the room, hoping desperately to find the spear that Tsurugi had chucked over his shoulder before pouncing some thirty minutes ago. It had hit the ground, clattering away but he hadn't seen what direction.

Tsurugi laughed brightly. "Is Kuro this easy on you?"

Mahiru spared a glance over his shoulder to throw a disgruntled frown at Tsurugi. "He refuses. So Lily is teaching me."

"Lily?! Reaaaallyy?" Tsurugi paused, lost in thought and Mahiru took the chance to throw himself under the bed, hands grasping. "That IS interesting! But I have to say, if given the choice-" Hands wrapped themselves around Mahiru's ankles just as his fingers fluttered over the rough grain of the once chair leg. "-I'd demand-" He tightened his grip around the weapon. "-Sleepy Ash teach me!" Tsurugi finished cheerfully, pulling on Mahiru's legs. He flipped at the last second, shoving the pointed end of the leg upwards as he cleared the edge of the bed. Tsurugi gave a startled gasp and jumped back. "Veeeery good!" He clapped, grinning, as Mahiru levered himself up, arms shaking, still holding the spear out. "You're very inventive Mahiru!" He praised. "I almost feel like even a broom would prove dangerous in your hands."

"Thanks." Mahiru said, dropping his arm. "I actua-"

A soft buzzing emanated from Tsurugi's pocket and he held up a finger as he pulled his phone out. Glancing at it he laughed, typed in a quick reply and looked back up. "I've had such fun with you! But it looks like our time together is just about up."

Mahiru felt his expression sharpen in instinctual fear and he took an unconscious step back.

"Oh no no! Not like that!" Tsurugi laughed. "I just meant it seems as though your ride is here." As the meaning of the words sunk in, Mahiru could hear someone shouting and what sounded like running foot steps nearing the room. "I think we have a little longer before he gets through all that though, so! Let's have a lesson review!" Tsurugi clapped his hands. "I know this all must seem very strange to you, but I promise, I only want to help. I like you, Mahiru! I want this to turn out ok for you in the end."

Mahiru remained silent, studying Tsurugi seriously; his easy posture, the light smile still ghosting across his lips, his fierce, intent eyes. He nodded and smiled in return. "Yeah, I like you too." He hefted the chair leg up to waist height and paused. "And thanks. This has been interesting." He took five rapid steps forward, brought the leg back and up like a baseball bat and grimaced, preparing to swing it with all his might.

The door to the room flew open, colliding with the wall and leaving a spiderweb of cracks radiating from the door knob embedded in the drywall. They both turned as Kuro staggered in. He glanced up wearily, eyes widening as he spotted Mahiru, make shift bat still poised over Tsurugi's head. "Mah-"

"Kuro!" Mahiru exclaimed, letting the chair leg droop. It bounced softly off Tsurugi, who chuckled. "You're covered in blood!" He dropped the leg to the ground and rushed over, his hands outstretched. He was trying and failing to fathom the sheer amount of maroon splattering coating Kuro. His jacket was torn, tattered beyond repair, and his knuckles bruised, a shallow cut running dangerously close beneath his left eye. "What happened to you?!" He hesitated an inch from Kuro's face, his fingers trembling slightly.

"Mahiru. What-" Kuro cut himself off, his eyes darting to Tsurugi, still loitering near the bed, and his expression darkened. He reached out, grabbing Mahiru and shoving him roughly behind him. "What did he do to you?" The question was directed to Mahiru but Kuro's attention never wavered and it was Tsurugi who answered.

"Nothing really!" He smiled sunnily. "We were just in the middle of practice when you barged in. You really do know how to make an entrance don't you?" He made a show of peering over their heads out to the hall, hand to his brow and standing on tiptoes. "I hope you didn't cause too much damage. Why didn't you just come in the front door?"

Mahiru glanced at Kuro and then back to Tsurugi. "I'm sorry. What are you talking about?" He leaned back, keeping his hold on Kuro's jacket, seeing out past the doorway, and gasped. "What..." The hallway was littered in broken paneling, faint splatters of blood arcing up towards the ceiling. Near the end, around the corner, Mahiru could see a pair of legs sprawled on the floor. He choked back his panic and leaned into Kuro, breathing in the soft sugar cookie smell of his hair, feeling the cotton of the hood tickle his nose. After a moment, calmed somewhat, he grabbed Kuro's hand. "What happened?"

Kuro flinched, turning a nervous eye over his shoulder, pupils blown wide. "Mahiru. They took you," was all he said.

Mahiru frowned. "You mean Tsurugi?"

"Guilty as charged!" Tsurugi interrupted. "I did technically abduct you. However! We never had any intention of hurting you." He aimed a mischievous grin at Kuro. "Not that I did anything to really leave that impression with Ash." He shrugged when Mahiru turned a horrified look on him. "We needed him to report in. When someone ignores serious work emails for long enough then desperate measures are called for."

"Don't you think this is a bit of overkill?" Mahiru demanded, his voice spiking up an octave.

"Mahiru. If your friend here had any sense at all, he'd realize that the police don't harm civilians." Tsurugi blinked, his expression turning stormy. "Just people who break the law."

Kuro made a noise low in his throat and Mahiru tightened his hold on his hand. "I also don't think the police are supposed to kidnap civilians." He said quietly. He gave Kuro's cold, wet fingers a squeeze and tried not to think what the wetness was from.

"Fair point!" Tsurugi admitted, eyes glinting in the muted light still flashing from the alarm system. "But as I was going to tell you earlier, we're a special branch. We have a little more power and a liiiiittle less morals."

"Kuro." Mahiru leaned forward, trying to see his expression. "Are you alright?"

It took him too long to respond, as though his reactions were filtering through a heavy fog, but he finally nodded infinitesimally. "M'fine."

"You're free to leave, Mahiru." Tsurugi said cheerfully. "All we need is Ash."

"I'm not going anywhere without him."

Kuro turned a baffled look to him and tugged his hand free. "Are you stupid?"

Mahiru bristled, offended. "No! I just don't have any intention of leaving you here by yourself!"

"It's no bother either way!" Tsurugi assured them. "But we really do need to get started on those reports. You're terribly behind and I can't stand another minute of Yumi yelling!" He laughed. "Now that that's settled, let's go!" He started forward, passing within an inch of Kuro and leaned down, whispering something in his ear. Kuro stiffened and turned a feral eye up to him, his fingers twitching.

Mahiru reached forward and grabbed his hands again, worried he was going to attack Tsurugi but when Kuro winced he glanced down and noticed that the fluid dripping steadily from between their clasped hands was in fact Kuro's blood. He tugged their hands up and gently unfolded his fingers, finally seeing the tattered shreds, the deep jagged claw marks in Kuro's skin, covering his palms, everywhere. He felt his eyes water and blinked quickly, embarrassed. "Kuro..." He whispered it, terror tangled in his repulsion.

Seeing where he was looking, Kuro grimaced and shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Let's just get this over with." He began following Tsurugi out the door and left past the pair of legs still spread eagle on the floor.

Mahiru was unbearably relieved to see them twitch as they passed and he bit his tongue to stop from asking if they needed an ambulance. Tsurugi had glanced at the person, looking distantly curious and then continued on so surely they would be alright...

They came to an elevator and Tsurugi swiped a card, stepping in and waiting expectantly as they hesitated. "Oh come on, you don't want to take the stairs after all that, do you?" He laughed.

Mahiru was the first to move and Kuro kept close, almost brushing against him, and crowding him into the corner, as far from Tsurugi as they could get. Frowning, Mahiru jabbed an elbow in his side. "Scoot! You're crushing me." Kuro sucked in a breath and paled and too late Mahiru realized there were probably more, unseen, injuries. Without a thought he took a handful of Kuros shirt and unceremoniously yanked it up. Kuro gave a startled yelp and Tsurugi turned surprised eyes on them. "Let me see where you're hurt! We have to treat it!"

"Mahiru, oh my god." Kuro muttered heatedly, trying to pry his fingers loose and flinching. "Stop, this hurts."

"Then just let me look!"

Tsurugi burst out laughing. "I didn't know he was your personal nurse too!"

Mahiru blushed but refused to back down, finally winning the tug of war. He kneeled down, tentitively prodding Kuro's stomach, taking note of when and where he would gasp. There was a slowly spreading bruise working it's way from under his left arm and down across his ribs. The color had already turned a murky maroon black and Mahiru chewed his lip worriedly, trying to decide if it was indicitive of internal bleeding. There were several more, smaller marks scattered across his torso, and one shallow slice from right hip bone to lower ribs. "This is bad." He whispered.

Kuro shrugged, staring hard at the rows of numbered buttons across from them, jaw clenched. "I've had worse."

"You always say that!" Mahiru argued, looking up just as the elevator doors slid open.

"Oh?!" A tall, blond man was standing on the other side, reaching up to tuck a long strand of hair behind his ear. He stared at them in horrified silence, eyes wide and disbelieving. "What the fuck?!"

Tsurugi stepped forward smoothly, slapping a hand on the mans shoulder. "See Yumi? I told you you'd never get bored; we get up to all kinds of stuff here!"

"I didn't think you meant shit like this!" He snarled. He turned enraged eyes on Mahiru. "Not in the elevators!"

"Not what!" Mahiru exclaimed, mortified. He jumped up and rushed out past Yumi, who was still staring in transfixed awe. "Kuro, come on!"

Kuro mumbled something under his breath and ducked past Yumi as well, angling his face away.

Tsurugi led them to a door covered in cut paper flowers and grinned over his shoulder. "Like it? We sometimes get a lot of down time here." Kuro snorted and Mahiru grimaced. "Ah, maybe that makes us sound rather unreliable?" He asked humorously, twisting a key in the lock and throwing the door wide. "Come on in! We can use my computer. A charge of 5 an hour of course!"

Mahiru stared up at the ceiling, wondering if he'd wandered into some kind of fantasy realm. A huge tree stood near the window, its branches reaching up and through the ceiling tiles. It seemed as though they had built the room AROUND the tree and, upon closer inspection, Mahiru noticed that the trunk went down into the floor, taking root presumably several levels below. Perhaps a hundred paper airplanes hung from the ceiling and branches of the tree, all different colors and patterns, folded crisply. Tsurugi had approached a desk against the far wall and was punching in a pass code on the computer, the only normal thing in the room, humming to himself.

There was the sound of pounding steps and Yumi came skidding around the corner to the office, throwing a file folder to the floor. Papers exploded every where, falling like giant snowflakes as he yelled, "Tsurugi, you dickwad! I told you in triplicate, not quintuple."

Tsurugi bent double, howling in laughter. "I warned you not to leave it to me! You know I don't know what all those fancy terms mean!"

Yumi ran forward, grabbing him by the throat and shaking him violently as he continued to laugh, tears in his eyes. "You. Are. The. Worst. Person."

Mahiru turned to Kuro hoping for a point of normalcy but felt his hope crushed when he saw him leaning back in one of the chairs near the desk, already almost falling asleep. He sighed, wondering whether it would be acceptable to just walk out the door and never look back when there was an explosion from the hall and a second set of security lights began flashing. He saw Kuro jolt awake from the corner of his eye, a startled look on his face.

"Now what?" Yumi asked disgustedly, glancing over his shoulder, hands still wrapped around Tsurugi's throat.

"It sounds like the front desk security system!" Tsurugi chirped. He pried Yumi's hands loose and straightened the neck of his sweater. "We should probably go check it out."

Yumi turned to stare dis trustingly at Mahiru. "What about them?"

"What about them?" Tsurugi waved a hand. "They can just wait here. He has two weeks of paperwork to catch up on anyway." Yumi seemed to accept this and bolted out the door after only a moments hesitation. Tsurugi glanced at Mahiru on his way past and winked. "Try not to get into too much trouble."

As soon as Tsurugi was out of sight Kuro materialized behind Mahiru and sighed loudly. "I don't suppose we could use this chance to escape?"

"And have him come kidnap me again?" Mahiru demanded. "No thanks! Just do your reports or whatever. Although..." He broke off, eyes roving over Kuro's pitiful appearance. "Are you sure you're going to be ok?"

Kuro glanced down at his hands, seeming almost surprised as a frown twisted his expression. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Mahiru asked in disbelief. "You-"

"This is your jacket." Kuro mumbled, holding out his hands, the sleeves, bloodied and ripped beyond hope, covering his upturned palms. "I kind of used it to shield some of the barbed wire. I wasn't thinking. It's covered in blood so I don't know if...." He trailed off, looking unsure, his eyes distant, mouth soft and defenseless.

Mahiru was overcome with a burst of affection so strong he could do nothing but throw his arms around Kuro and gather him close, burying his face in his hair. "It's ok, it's fine! It doesn't matter." He murmured into the soft strands. "Thanks for coming to get me, Kuro."

For a second Kuro didn't respond, merely standing there, stiff and unyielding, until he tentatively raised his arms, wrapping them around Mahiru's waist. He breathed deeply and a shudder ran down his spine. "I can't deal with you."

Laughing softly, Mahiru ran his fingers up and down the back of the ruined jacket, pointedly ignoring the many tears he could feel in the thick fabric, deciding to deal with them later. "It's ok. I get that a lot." He let his thoughts drift as he contemplated how warm Kuro was, like a personal heater, and how pleasant it was. Perhaps after all this was over and they were back at Misono's he could run Kuro a warm bath. Some lavender and chamomile tea infused in the water would do wonders. Would he allow a doctor to be called? Or did Misono's family have a personal physician they could borrow? They would really need to get his hands looked at by a professional; there could be nerve damage for all he knew-

"-hiru. Mahiru." Kuro's voice filtered through his abstraction and he started, drawing back and meeting Kuro's exhausted eyes. "Do you hear that?"

"Hear wh-" He broke off as the sounds from the front atrium, shouts and ticking, the occasional clatter of breaking glass, and above it all, voices calling their names, trickled back into the forefront of his mind. "Oh."

There was a soft explosion and several yells as an opaque red smoke drifted through the doorway and a voice laughed stoutly, quilting the chaos with a thin layer of surrealism. "You see?! I told you I could make a smoke bomb!"

As one, Kuro and Mahiru rushed the door and threw themselves around the corner into the fray, eyes wide as they took in the mayhem filling the room. The smoke had cleared enough to see the buildings guards populating the room, several unconscious near the front entrance, the rest scattered about the room engaged with the four members of Kuro's strange pseudo family. They seemed to have opted out of stealth and just blown up the front doors, leaving behind glittering shards of glass across the linoleum and a healthy amount of sulfur smoke still lingering around the ceiling.

Near the front desk, Hugh was tilting precariously on Tetsu's shoulders, several small bags dangling from his fingers. Tetsu was holding was appeared to be a long handled lighter and lifting it up to Hugh, who leaned forward, holding the twist of one of the bags in the flame. Across the room Licht aimed a kick at a guard and sent him flying, Hyde ducking out of the way of the flying body just in time. He threw his arms over his head in anguish. "Hugh, no more! I already can't see anyone in this mess!" He dodged the flailing arm of another tumbling guard. "Licht, I told you to wait outside! It's dangerous, this is a police headquarters!"

"Shut up!" Licht yelled in response, dropping to his knees to avoid a well timed swing from one of the men attempting to subdue him. "I'm here to make sure no evil escapes!"

Hyde tore at his hair. "This isn't the time for your crazy angel hallucinations!"

"With my smoke bombs, we can slip past the guards and find Mahiru!" Hugh said, tossing another flaming bag towards the elevators. "They'll never see us coming!"

"It's way too late for that!" Hyde howled. "Why did I follow you idiots here?!"

"Because you couldn't bear to have your precious Licht come to harm!" Hugh laughed uproariously. "You're so predictable!"

Hyde flushed a worrying shade of maroon and with a shout of rage, ran forward, clocking one of the men surrounding Licht. "I am not!"

Licht turned in surprise at his shout, and smirked. "You are completely predictable." He whirled, his back against Hyde's and his smirk became a full on grin. "But I like it that way."

"Ah, you always know how to sweet talk me, Angel." Hyde laughed. "Who knew we'd get along so well?"

"We don't!"

An arm slipping around Mahiru's shoulders and a soft breath in his ear were all the warning he had before Tsurugi tugged him backwards. "Do you think you could do something about your friends? They're making quite a mess and I don't like cleaning." His tone was light, friendly, but beneath the humor was a dark warning and Mahiru nodded immediately, trying to regain his balance. Kuro was on the edge of the battlefield, looking torn between joining in and throwing himself at Tsurugi. Mahiru gave him a small, encouraging smile, hoping to assuage some of his worry and took a deep breath, running forward and diving into the still wafting smoke. "Hey! I'm right here! Stop it!" It took several seconds for his shout to register but slowly all signs of fighting ceased and Yumi, after ducking and dodging his way through the crowd, flipped a switch on a keypad, turning on one of the large overhead fans. As the smoke cleared it became obvious that there were more than just regular hired guards in the room; what appeared to be personal specifically from C3 were lurking about in the corners, under cover and waiting. Mahiru tried not to think about what it was they were poised to do.

"Oh good!" Tsurugi exclaimed. "I was afraid you guys were going to leave all the clean up to me and Yumi."

A man stood up from behind the reception desk and squinted through crooked glasses. "You know better than that." He said chidingly. "Besides, whose fault is all this anyway?"

"His!" Tsurugi sang happily, pointing at Kuro.

All eyes focused on the bloody figure standing alone in the middle of the room. Kuro tensed, his eyes darting from side to side, counting enemies and obstacles and Mahiru felt his throat close as he tried to think of something to say. Suddenly he caught sight of Hyde, near the far end of the room now, eyes watching Kuro coolly. Surprise loosened his tongue and before he could think better of it he called out. "Hyde! What are you doing here?"

Hyde flinched back, lips drawn in a snarl. "Rescuing you, obviously."

"I don't believe it." Yumi said curtly, looking away from the switchboard he'd been pressing buttons on, trying to disarm the security system. "I never thought I'd see you again."

"Shh, Yumi." Tsurugi interrupted. "You know he's free to go any where and do whatever he pleases now." He turned bright eyes to Kuro. "Isn't that right, Ash?"

Kuro's face clouded over and Hyde scoffed, throwing a glare at them both. "As if he has anything to do with me!"

Tsurugi's lips formed a small O and he suddenly laughed. "Oh no! Ash! You didn't tell anyone?!" He shook his head, eyes wide. "This is too good."

"Shut up." Kuro growled, advancing on Tsurugi. "If you have any idea what's good for you, don't say another word."

Tsurugi smiled crookedly and held his hands up. "Hey, I won't tell you how to live your life. But it does seem an awful waste."

"A waste of what?" Hyde looked between them wildly. "What's he talking about?"

"Will Lily and Misono be joining us as well?" Tsurugi asked sweetly, ignoring him. "I haven't seen Lily in so long and you know how much I like him."

Hyde sucked in a breath and turned disbelieving eyes on Kuro. "What's he talking about?" He demanded. "He and Lily aren't friends. Why does he know Misono?"

"We are friends! I had coffee with Lily just last month actually. Thanks to Ash I've finally found someone who enjoys my flavor of sordid romance."

"What have you done?" Hyde yelled, betrayal oozing over his voice. He reached blindly behind him, fingers splayed, searching, and Licht smoothly stepped forward, grabbing the flailing hand.

Kuro stared back at him helplessly for a moment and then spun and grabbed Tsurugi by the collar, pulling him forward and glaring at him. "I-"

"Yes, what have you done?" Tsurugi hummed softly, grinning up from beneath half lidded eyes. "Why don't you tell everyone?"

 

 

Chapter Text

"That's enough!" Mahiru yelled, stomping his foot. "This is utterly ridiculous!" Everyone turned to stare at him and he clenched his teeth, stepping forward and carefully prying Kuro's fingers loose from Tsurugi's shirt. "Kuro is hurt, I want to go home, and this place is a mess. It's all gotten so dramatic I feel like I'm in an action movie. Hyde!" He barked and Hyde started, almost slipping in the dust coating the floor. "Kuro and Lily are working with the police to stop Tsubaki and now so are you. Congratulations." He turned to Tsurugi. "And you're just causing a ruckus for no reason. Stop it."

Tsurugi smiled innocently and Yumi snorted.

"These are not the police, Mahiru." Hyde exploded.

"He is technically correct." Tsurugi agreed, holding up a finger, his eyes dancing. "I told you earlier. I and my friends here-" He pointed to Yumi, the man in glasses behind the desk, and another with crooked bangs, leaning through the farthest doorway. "- are all members of C3. You could call it a division of the police I suppose, but our rules and end game are a liiittle different."

"I said it before and I'll say it again- I don't care." Mahiru snapped, irritated. "Whatever twisted past I'm dealing with here, I don't care. Just get me a doctor and everyone stop trying to kill each other for like ten minutes." He took a deep breath and turned back to Kuro who was watching him with wide, startled eyes. "How are your hands? You really shouldn't be using them so much with them injured like this. You need to take better care of yourself." He reached out and lifted them gently up, almost cradling them against his chest.

Kuro made a small noise but Tsurugi laughed, obscuring it. "I'll call our local surgeon shall I?" 

Mahiru looked up quickly. "Is it that bad?" His eyes darted back down to Kuro's hands, still held protectively in his own, fear creasing his brow.

Tsurugi's eyebrows rose and he crossed his arms. "No, I don't think so. Though-" He leaned forward attempting to get a closer look at Kuro's hands. "It doesn't look good."

"Would you please? Should we wait in your office?"

"Mahiru, we're not staying." Kuro muttered. "Not here."

"Well you won't go to a regular doctor so what am I supposed to do?" Mahiru demanded. "We're staying until you get examined and then we'll get all the things you need for these reports and I'll type them up when we get back to Misono's."

Kuro was staring at him in shock, seemingly at a loss for words and Mahiru became distinctly and uncomfortably aware of the audience they still had. Hugh had crossed his arms on Tetsu's head and was leaning forward watching raptly while Tetsu stood by placidly; Licht had dropped Hyde's hand but they were standing shoulder to shoulder and Hyde appeared torn between watching the C3 members like a hawk and ignoring the increasingly insistent looks Licht was throwing at him. He dropped Kuro's hands quickly, heat searing across his cheeks momentarily.

Tsurugi threw him a playful smile before making a gesture of agreement and turning to leave, signaling for Yumi and the man behind the desk to follow. "I'll have him meet you in my office, Mahiru, not to worry! And I'll stop by and bring you all the necessary forms I need filled out."

The man in glasses stopped near them and held out a hand to Mahiru. "It seems we'll be seeing each other again. Jun."

"Mahiru." He answered, taking Jun's hand. "I'm sorry about all this."

"No, this is on Tsurugi. His methods are... dodgy at best." Jun muttered. "I'm sorry for all the trouble. You should never have been involved like this."

 "Make sure it never happens again." Kuro said suddenly, hostility roiling beneath his calm. He had shuffled closer, almost leaning into Mahiru's back, and was glaring blackly at Jun. 

 Jun glanced at him casually and nodded once before following Tsurugi and Yumi from the room. The previously unconscious guards were beginning to show signs of life and were being helped from the floor by some of the others. Those who hadn't inhaled too much smoke were gathering near the exits and keeping wary eyes on Licht, Hyde, Hugh, and Tetsu. The man with the crooked bangs had sidled into the room hesitantly and was now circling from group to group, writing things down on a notepad and handing them what appeared to be uppers.

 Mahiru turned to Kuro, accidentally bumping his arm and reached out to steady him worriedly. "Should you really be talking to him like that? Isn't he one of your superiors?"

 "None of these jokes are my superior." Kuro spat and Mahiru raised his brows in shock. "They're all sorry excuses for law enforcement."

 "Kuro..." He murmured, placing a hand gently on one of his stiff shoulders. "Don't you think it's time we talked?" He looked around the room, noting that Licht was yelling something at Hyde while he sulked, arms crossed; Hugh and Tetsu had disappeared along with crooked bangs. As he predicted, Kuro shrunk in on himself, backing away and glancing around as though looking for an escape route. "Please. Even you have to admit at this point, it's just simpler if you tell me what's going on."

 Kuro blanched and swallowed thickly. "I- I just.... I can't."

 "But why?" Mahiru insisted. Eyes wide in panic, Kuro shook his head mutely and Mahiru sighed, frowning. "I'm here, aren't I?"

 Before he got an answer Hyde came barreling over, Licht close on his heels. "Brother! Tell me! What was that ass talking about?!"

 "It seems like you've been keeping a lot of secrets." Licht added. "I think it's time we all got on the same page."

 Feeling Kuro starting to cave under the pressure Mahiru took a step between them.

"First, we need to get everyone's injuries looked at. Are you two ok?"

 Licht scoffed and looked away, a pout pulling his lips down. "I'm an angel."

 "I don't know what that means." Mahiru muttered in exasperation.

 "He's fine. I think." Hyde said, giving Licht a cursory once over. "But I suppose it's best to get the all ok from a professional." He paused, staring Mahiru down. "And you two. You'll be back at Misono's?" When Mahiru nodded, he relaxed slightly. "I'll wait until then, but then I'm getting the whole story. I don't like when people fuck around with my life in secret. It tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth if you know what I mean." 

 Throughout this exchange Kuro had been edging slowly backwards, eyes cast down, and now he flinched, glancing up, tortured expression digging shadows into his skin, and Mahiru felt his chest constrict. "Of course. We'll be back just as soon as this is all taken care of." He met Hyde's gaze firmly. "I promise."

 "Good enough for me." Licht said and grabbed Hyde by the back of his shirt. "Come on, let's get out of this demon haven. I don't need a doctor. And I want dinner." He began to drag him towards the door as Hyde scrabbled to loosen his collar where it was biting into his neck. "Your treat for bringing me here."

 "But Angel! You insisted on coming with!" Hyde protested. "I tried to tell you!" His shouts were cut off as the door swung shut.


The forms, as Mahiru had feared, were indeed in triplicate and he could feel the headache coming on already, staring at the grainy print. It seemed like Tsurugi had worded everything as confusingly as possible and when he'd handed the folders over he had grinned maniacally and winked. Mahiru had been unsure how to interpret that but now, pen poised over the page, he knew. It had been a taunt. He scowled and pressed the tip of the pen to the paper. He liked Tsurugi but there was definitely something wrong with him. He was even crazier than Hyde. And that was saying something.

 Speaking of- he glanced across the room to the bed where Kuro was curled up beneath the blankets. After Tsurugi had dragged a rather perturbed looking doctor of some sort to his office, Kuro had been given a thorough exam and several pain medications which he refused to take until they were back under Misono's roof. No matter how Mahiru had begged and commanded he had rejected the idea and stubbornly hobbled his way out. It was a miracle he'd made it back to the car and up the stairs to the room considering the three fractured ribs, sprained wrist, and extensive damage to his hands. Mahiru frowned, paperwork forgotten as he stared at Kuro. His hands were wrapped now but a trace amount of blood had already begun to seep through the bandages and he seemed restless in his drug induced slumber.

 Though Mahiru was thankful to Tsurugi for taking the brunt of the blame for the whole fiasco ("Well I did wonder if this would happen!") he still couldn't quite calm his irritation that Kuro wouldn't be so badly hurt if Tsurugi hadn't turned it all into some bizarre game. None of the personal had been injured beyond a concussion and a couple bumps and bruises; it seemed Kuro, in his mad fight to find Mahiru, had held back, dealing only defensive blows and allowing himself to suffer the consequences.

 Mahiru tapped the pen against the desk pensively. It didn't really surprise him, given what he knew about Kuro, but the actions still disturbed him. It didn't seem like the type of move someone who was in the middle of a gang war should take. And how he'd justified breaking into a government building, destroying property, and attacking employees Mahiru would never understand. He turned back to the desk and sighed, resting his head in his hands. If Kuro had been the one in danger, could he have done anything?

 Suddenly unable to stand the muted lighting in the room a second longer he jumped up and folded the files closed. He'd finish them later; Tsurugi, prompted by a stern Jun, had agreed to extend the deadline by a week in apology. He'd go find Misono. Surely there was some kind of plan in the works, and he wanted to be part of it.

 The mansion was quiet as he walked the halls, small dust motes twirling innocently through gentle moonlight, the dappled flooring reflecting nothing but a clear night sky. The worry that he would run head first into Hyde was muted by the assurance from Lily earlier that he and Licht were still in town running amok. It seemed Licht had insisted on a night out to "air out their demons" whatever that meant.

 Mahiru snorted and glanced out the nearest window only to stop short, staring. Underneath one of the courtyard trees was a figure. For only a moment it felt like they made eye contact and then it whirled around and hopped behind the trunk. Mahiru blinked several times and ran to the edge of the window, leaning forward and peering out. It had happened so quickly he couldn't be sure he'd really seen anything at all, but-

 "Mahiru!" The voice startled him and he almost bashed his forehead on the window glass. "So sorry, chap!" Hugh laughed. "What were you studying so intently there?"

 Mahiru cast one more look at the tree before turning to find Hugh and Tetsu standing behind him. "I thought I saw something but..." He trailed off and laughed awkwardly. "It was probably just a trick of the light. When did you two get back?"

 "Just now." Tetsu said. "Misono told us to stay behind and talk to the police for you guys."

 "They were very hung up on my genius smoke bombs!" Hugh muttered petulently. "They should have been congratulating me! Do you know I made those with only-"

 "How's Kuro?" Tetsu interrupted, watching Mahiru closely. "I didn't really see him while we were there but Lily says he got pretty banged up."

 Mahiru winced and looked away. "Yeah. He's... not good."

 "This isn't your fault, Mahiru." Tetsu said calmly.

 "Not in the slightest." Hugh added. "He should really know better by now."

 Still staring down at the floorboards Mahiru could do nothing but twist his lips halfheartedly. "I suppose. But I still feel like all this wouldn't have happened if it weren't for me. I keep butting in, trying to help, and then I do nothing but cause even more trouble and Kuro gets hurt." He sucked in a breath, and tried to still the faint trembling of his shoulders.

 A hand landed on the top of his head and he looked up to find Tetsu standing over him. "Hugh says it's cause he cares."

 "What's because he cares?" Mahiru asked, baffled. "About what?"

 Hugh smiled and skipped forward a step, motioning for them to follow. "Kuro lives to perform at the lowest level of activity possible. He's hurt now because he stormed a police headquarters to get you back." He turned a shrewd look to Mahiru as they rounded a corner. "Don't you think that seems to go against his mantra?"

 "You mean because he doesn't want me getting in the way?"

 "Oh lord." Hugh muttered, crossing his arms. "You're just as impossible."

 Tetsu smiled and shrugged. "Don't worry, Hugh. They're not as smart as you. But I'm sure they'll figure it out."

 "Figure what out?" Mahiru cried. "You two are talking in code."

 "Oh, nevermind." Hugh huffed. "Right now we should be deciding on our next step."

 Momentarily distracted, Mahiru filed the strange conversation away for later study and nodded. "I was on my way to find Lily and Misono now actually. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do." He hesitated. "How did you two end up at C3 with Hyde and Licht? And why were they there? Hyde..." He trailed off fretfully.

 Hugh sighed, he eyes narrowing. "Yes, Hyde can be a difficult creature. But I assure you his heart is in the right place. Though I am sure he was talked into helping by his strange bedfellow."

 "Licht seems like a nice guy." Tetsu added and Hugh glanced at him in disbelief. "I'm sure they'll be helpful."

 "So, what is it that you guys are doing anyway?" Mahiru asked. "I know that Lily had some crazy scheme to use Hyde and Licht as an attack team. And he said that you were-"

 "What we are doing is of far more importance than some brutish display of neanderthal strength!" Hugh exclaimed. "We are gathering intelligence!"

 "Hugh has lots of friends who have agreed to keep an eye out for anyone peddling Tsubaki's brand on the streets. They tell Hugh and Hugh tells Misono."

 Mahiru hummed, thinking about it. "And then... he and Lily-?"

 "Arrest the ne'er-do-wells!"

 "I see." Mahiru said dubiously. "And how exactly do they do that?"

 "They have their own methods." Hugh answered obscurely. "Anyway, I personally am curious as to your role in all this, Mahiru!"

 "Ah well..." Mahiru scrunched his eyebrows together and tried to think of even one semi useful thing he could or had done so far. "I guess it was all a mistake at first." Tetsu turned to him in surprise and Hugh laughed. "You see, Kuro was always hanging around where I work and Misono thought that we were friends, I guess? He came storming in and demanded to know what I was up to."

 "That does sound like Misono." Hugh mumbled slyly, glancing up at Tetsu. "He does like to jump the gun sometimes."

 "Anyway, some things were said and I may or may not have offered to have Kuro stay with me.... Lily said he was homeless!" He added defensively when they stared at him. "What else could I have done?"

 "Walked away!" Hugh said cheerfully. "He would have been fine!"

 Mahiru bit his lip and watched his feet, step by step. "How can you be so sure?"

 "He always is." Hugh glanced back over his shoulder and smirked. "Why else would he be in this situation?"

 "Ah well, you see... that's the thing. I don't actually know why he's in this situation." Mahiru admitted sheepishly. "He doesn't want me to know."

 Hugh stopped in his tracks and whirled around, throwing his arm out. "He hasn't told you anything?!"

 Shrugging, Mahiru averted his gaze. "Lily says he will. Eventually."

 "So why are you involved in this if you have no clear knowledge of his motivations?"

 "I promised I'd help him."

 Hugh stared at him silently for a moment before turning to Tetsu and holding out a hand. "You see? I told you."

 Tetsu shrugged casually and resumed walking. "I believed you the first time."

 "Believed him about what?!" Mahiru yelled, following them out of the hall.


"I truly believe it in our best interest to lay low." Hugh concluded, drumming his fingers against the armrest of the sofa. "I have all the latest intel and things are not looking good."

 Misono turned from the window and sighed. "Of course it's in our best interest. It's not like we can do anything now anyway."

 "Why not?" Mahiru asked. "You said yourself, we don't have time to wait around until Tsubaki pieces together even more of the situation."

 "Tsubaki is exactly why we're stuck." Misono said impatiently. "As I mentioned before, Lily and I are only equipped to handle the small fry. We aren't capable of dealing with someone like Tsubaki, and with our fire power out of commission, we're dead in the water."

 Mahiru glanced up at the ceiling. "Kuro isn't the only-"

 "No, he isn't." Lily cut in gently. "But he is the only one who can go toe to toe with Tsubaki." Seeing the stricken look on Mahiru's face, he continued. "Not that I expect that to happen! As long as we can take out the supporting structure of the organization, there's no reason to confront Tsubaki in person." He tapped a finger to his lip in thought. "In fact, it might prove easier to avoid him with him here. You know what they say! 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer'!"

 Misono smacked him in the back of the head. "Don't be an idiot. The absolute last place we want Tsubaki is on our doorstep."

 "Are you sure it's safe for Hyde and Licht to be wandering around town?" Mahiru asked worriedly. "Wouldn't Tsubaki recognize them?"

 Lily frowned. "It's possible. But I honesty doubt Hyde will be reckless enough to get noticed." At the skeptical look Misono directed at him, he grinned. "Hyde may be a hothead, but he's not dumb. And he knows what getting caught will mean for his little angel."

 Misono rolled his eyes and flopped down in a chair by the fire. "All that aside, I suppose our only recourse for the moment is to stay hidden and bide our time until Kuro recovers. In the meantime, Hugh, I want you to continue keeping tabs on the shipments and members movements. In addition, add a tag to anyone who seems to be in the inner circle. We need to dig even deeper if we're going to successfully crush his empire, and from the looks of it, we don't have as much time as I hoped."

  Hugh saluted dramatically. "We will do what we can."

 Misono glanced at Tetsu, who was nodding off on the love seat, and his brows furrowed. "Just be careful. There's no way that Tsubaki doesn't know something is up. I know he followed Kuro here, but the question remains: how did he find him in the first place?"


The room was dark and silent when Mahiru nudged the door open slowly. He had lost track of time talking downstairs and it had grown late. As he carefully snicked the door shut a cold breeze blew across his back and he froze. He'd specifically made sure the windows were closed and the curtains drawn when he'd left. Thinking that Kuro had woken and wanted fresh air he turned to check if he was still asleep and stifled a gasp. A dark shape was poised over the second bed, something thin and deep black aimed into the pile of blankets. As Mahiru's eyes widened a single silenced shot snapped through the air and feathers exploded from the pillows and quilts, landing all across the carpeting and the tips of Mahiru's trainers.

 A thick lightheadedness overtook him and he stumbled a few steps forward in disbelief. The figure lurched backward and came to a stop next to the now open window. It's long cloak was blowing in the wind flowing through the curtains and Mahiru was left with an impression of a priest. He choked out a noise (was it a name?) and finally his legs moved, his feet felt the floor, and he flew to the edge of the bed. His arms shook as he plunged his hands down into the mangled blankets, searching, hoping, fearing-

 "Fascinating response!" A voice chuckled loudly from his right and Mahiru spun around, hands itchy from down. A second shape bled from the shadows and white teeth flashed in a wide grin. "After seeing you I didn't expect such a brave, though admittedly stupid action!"

 A strangled whimper worked it's way out of his constricted throat and he stumbled back, bumping against the mattress and falling to the plush carpet with a soft thud. His back hit the other bed and then a muffled whine caressed his ear. He whipped around, breath caught, heart frozen, and came face to face with a disgruntled looking Kuro. His hair was sticking up messily, his eyes unfocused, obviously still fighting the narcotics in the medication.

 "Mahiru?" His voice was rough from sleep and he squinted in confusion. "What are you-"

 Mahiru lunged forward and threw his arms around Kuro's shoulders, taking the first deep breath of his life. The relief hit him full force and he felt a wave of dizziness flood his mind. 

 "What are you doing?" Kuro sounded a little more aware now and struggled lightly against Mahiru's grip. "What's going on?"

 "I admit, I didn't expect Ash to sleep through our break in, but sometimes you just- get- lucky." The man said, clapping with each word. "Now. Why don't we get down to business, hm? Mahiru. What do you say I take this troublemaker off your hands?"

 As soon as the man had started talking Kuro had turned to stone in Mahiru's arms and and now laboriously sat up, pulling Mahiru with him. "Who are you?" He grit his teeth as a light sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead and he folded into a protective posture. "What do you want with Mahiru?"

 The man laughed and fell back into one of the reading chairs, crossing his legs and casually readjusting a cowboy hat over his brow. "I don't want anything to do with him. It's you I'm after Ash."

 Kuro's breath ruffled Mahiru's bangs as he sighed. "Man, I'm really sick of this."

 "I should be the one saying that!" The man tilted his head and smiled wickedly. "Do you know what a hassle it's been getting here? And for what? To find out it was you that dragged Misono into all this? Honestly, just thinking about it I could-"

 "Mikuni." The quiet voice came from the black figure still looming by the window. 

 Mikuni stopped dead and blinked. "Well, anyway, as I was saying. Why don't we just keep this simple, as you so like to put it, Mahiru." Another fleeting smile. "You pack up, clear out, and Ash here can stay with me. I can put him to a lot of good use."

 Mahiru bristled, pushing down the creeping fear trickling up his spine. "I'm not going anywhere."

 Mikuni raised a brow and propped his chin on his fist. "Oh? Are you sure that's your answer? It doesn't seem to me that you have the slightest clue what you're doing."

 Mahiru cringed, feeling his face heat. "I'm figuring it out as I go!"

 Mikuni's eyes passed over Mahiru, settling on Kuro. "And how does Ash feel about that? Worried? Bothered? Regretful?"

 Mahiru opened his mouth to say- something- he wasn't sure what yet, but Kuro beat him to it, sliding out of bed and standing in front of him, shoulders squared. "The only thing I'm regretting is having to listen to you." He fluttered his fingers and took a step forward. "Why don't you just fuck off?"

 Mikuni continued to stare at them calculatingly and hummed. "What do you say, Jeje?"

 Kuro immediately faltered, turning towards the mountain of black robes in the corner. "What."

 Jeje remained immobile, only his robes undulating in the night air. "You already know."

 Mikuni laughed brightly. "Ah yeah yeah, so you've said. I just like to double check you know!" There was the sound of a gun cocking and Jeje raised a long arm, pointing it steadily across the room at Mikuni. "Oh, come off it! We both know you won't do it!" 

Mahiru levered himself up and tried not to wobble on his numb ankles. What he wouldn't give to just lay down, just for ten minutes, without someone breaking in or pointing guns or bleeding or-

 "You're with this lunatic?" Kuro demanded, staring hard at Jeje.

 "Oh, we go way back!" Mikuni sang, standing up. "Jeje is such a gentle soul, you know. He needs someone to protect him!"

 For the first time Jeje reacted, taking a quick step forward and re-aiming what Mahiru now saw was a pack-rifle at Mikuni. He had a hood pulled low over his face and Mahiru couldn't see his eyes but he got the impression Jeje didn't need a clear line of sight to hit a target. "Stop."

 "He's also a man of few words." Mikuni whispered amicably, as though he were confiding a secret. "It's so refreshing!"

 Feeling as though he'd lost the plot somewhere about ten minutes back, Mahiru clenched his fists and leaned around Kuro. "I still don't understand what you want."

 Mikuni's gaze zeroed in on him and he sighed showily. "Just what I said. I want you out of here. Never to talk to Misono again. And I'll take Ash with me, to be sure he doesn't go around stirring up any more trouble."

 "Why are you upset about Misono?"

 "And now that I think about it," Mikuni continued, ignoring Mahiru. "I think I'll just clear out this whole house of all the riffraff. What do you say, Ash? Shall we take the others with us too? Hyde, Hugh, and little Lily?" Kuro stiffened and a gutteral hiss issued from his lips. "Oh! Didn't like that did you? Well, the feeling's mutual." He tipped his head down, eyes glinting from beneath the rim of his hat. "Now, your answer?"

Chapter Text

The barrel of Jeje's gun clunked roughly into Mikuni's skull and he grinned, not bothering to turn around. "Oh please. Are you going to get all riled up too?"

 "Leave them out of this."

 "Who?" Mikuni crooned sarcastically. "You were fine when I suggested we take this sorry excuse for a man with us but one little mention of darling Lil-" He broke off roughly as the barrel butted him again, knocking his hat askew. He shot a silent glare at Jeje and sullenly pushed the tip of the gun away with a finger.

 Mahiru took the distraction for what it was worth and turned to Kuro. He was holding himself lopsidedly, his teeth clenched in a way that had Mahiru's nerves jangling. Surely Kuro wouldn't agree to go with these two, but how could he expect to fight them off like this? He glanced up, meeting his eyes, stormy and resigned; in them he could see Kuro's refusal as clear as day. He nodded once and faced forward. Right. Fight it was.

 He backed away as slowly as he could and reached under the bed for the mop he'd stashed there earlier. It wasn't ideal but it was the best he could do given the current circumstances and Tsurugi's voice echoed in his head laughingly- "even a broom". Kuro saw what he was planning and made a face, shaking his head minutely, eyes wide in alarm but Mahiru ignored him; what else could they do at this point? Kuro wouldn't last ten seconds in his condition, it was up to him.

 When Mikuni turned back genuine surprise lifted his brows as he took in the sight of Mahiru lifting the mop and taking what he hoped was a balanced stance. "What's this?"

 "He's not going with you." Mahiru declared. "And I'm not leaving."

 For a moment Mikuni showed no sign of response, merely standing there, mouth slightly open, as Mahiru desperately tried to plan out the best sequence of actions to take; Jeje had a gun and in any fight, that topped, so he was going to have to pray that Mikuni had been truthful when he said Jeje wouldn't use it. Midway through his frantic calculations Mikuni finally sputtered a laugh, eyes watering in mirth. "So- you're going to fight me- with a- broom?" He elucidated between laughs. "Are you kidding me?!"

 "Unfortunately, no." Mahiru said grimly. "This is what I've got to work with."

 "Oh, I like you." Mikuni purred, stalking forward. "You are such a charmer!" His hand hovered near his belt and and he smiled. "Sadly, you've chosen the difficult way." He unfurled a whip (what, was he Indiana Jones?) and cracked it against the leg of the chair he'd been sitting in. "Last chance Mahiru~"

 Mahiru pressed his lips together and tightened his hold on the mops handle. "No thanks."

 There was a beat of deadly silence and then Jeje raised his arm, pointed straight at Mahiru and Kuro threw himself across the room at a speed Mahiru would have thought impossible. As the two collided, Mikuni drew back his arm and snapped the end of the whip towards Mahiru, who raised his makeshift sword in time to have it successfully wrap around the long handle instead of his chest. With a millisecond to spare he widened his grip and fell back, letting his entire body weight pull the broom loose. He could feel the wood threaten to give but the cord released and he landed on the floor before it could splinter. Mikuni gave a low whistle and rushed him as he scrambled up.

 "Not bad! I see you've been practicing!"

 "As much as I can!" Mahiru gritted out as he braced himself, anticipating the sting of the whip just before it bit into his arm. 

 Mikuni yanked his end, pulling Mahiru forward and leaned in, bringing them face to face, a breath apart, and smiled. "It won't save you."

 "Mahiru!" Kuro's yell came only a moment before Mikuni brought the free hanging portion of cording up to Mahiru's neck, deftly looping it and pulling tight. There was a scuffling and heavy thud but Mahiru couldn't turn to see if Kuro was alright, the light was being sucked from his vision, the already gloomy room dimming farther. He reached up, trying to shove his fingers between the whip and his neck but there was no give. He distantly heard Kuro cry his name again. Soon his arms came back down to dangle uselessly at his side; he was losing his train of thought, forgetting why it was important that he do this. 

 Mikuni's eyes glowed in the lamplight as he drew even closer, his nose inches from Mahiru's. "I tried to warn you. I even asked politely." There was another loud bang and Kuro snarled something but Mikuni never broke his gaze. "If you'd only-"

 A knock on the door interrupted him and his head whipped up and around, eyes momentarily wide. The door knob turned a fraction of an inch and Lily's voice floated in from the hallway. "Mahiru? You left the rest of Kuro's medication downstairs, I just wanted to bring it up for you for in the morning!" A short beat. "Mahiru? Are you asleep?" The door knob once again began to turn and the beginnings of a crack of light appeared around the edges of the frame.

 "Mikuni." Jeje mumbled solemnly and Mikuni laughed and dropped his hold, the whip falling loose and tumbling down around Mahiru's shoulders, who managed to remain upright for a second more before collapsing at his feet. Mikuni stared blankly down at him for a moment before smiling and flicking the whip at the bedside lamp, shattering the bulb and plunging the room into darkness. A single word and the rustling of the curtains and Mahiru and Kuro were once again alone. 

 Lily opened the door and peered in, shock overtaking his expression at the sight of Mahiru, kneeling between the beds, hands pulling his shirt collar away from his throat, and Kuro just barely holding himself upright against the wall, the lamp shattered, glass sparkling in the warm glow from the hall. His hand flew to his chest and his brows pulled down. "Oh dear."

 "'Oh dear' is a fucking understatement." Kuro said roughly, trying and failing to take deep breaths. "I can't believe I'm the one saying it but we have a real problem."

 "What happened?" Lily asked, hurrying into the room and after a moment of hesitation, closing the door and locking it. 

 Kuro finally gave in and slid down the wall, groaning. "Jeje."

 "It was an understatement." Lily murmured pensively, and bent down, his hands hovering gently inches above Mahiru's shoulders. "Mahiru, are you alright?"

 Mahiru opened his mouth to give an affirmative but all that came out was a rusty croak and he lost himself in a fit of coughing. Lily's hands finally made contact and he rubbed comforting circles into Mahiru's back. As the uncontrollable hacking began to subside, Mahiru looked up to find Kuro limping his way over, his face shadowed with anger. "Kuro-" He grimaced at the abrasive static coating his voice and tentatively rubbed his throat. "Are you ok?"

 Kuro threw him an incredulous look and eased himself down on the side of the bed next to him. "I should be asking you that." His lips twisted and he reached out to delicately touch the bruises forming around Mahiru's neck. "Look what that psycho rancher did to you."

 Looking between them several times and hiding a small smile, Lily stood up and ran a hand through his hair. "You said this was Jeje?"

 "Well. He was here. But he didn't do this." Kuro's eyes took on a sharp light as his gaze traveled over Mahiru again. "Although he did shoot my pillow." He added sadly after a moment.

 Lily started, glancing at Kuro's bed. "I'm sorry- he what?"

 "Shot my pillow." Kuro repeated. "I suppose by extension he also shot the mattress but, man, that pillow. It was so soft. The ultimate pillow." He sighed wearily. 

 "I can get you another." Lily murmured, waving his hand distractedly. "But if he didn't do-" he turned to look at Mahiru, "-this... who did?"

 "There was a man with him." Mahiru explained. "He was blond and... dressed a bit like a cowboy?" 

 Lily's easy manner dropped like lead in the ocean and his face drained of color. When he spoke it was a hollow tone. "A cowboy you say?"

 Confused, Mahiru nodded. "With a hat and everything. And a whip. His name was something lik-"

 "I see." Lily interrupted and turned away, chewing on a nail. "I see. And this cowboy, did he say anything to you?"

 Mahiru gave Kuro a bewildered look and Kuro raised one shoulder halfheartedly in response ('I don't know'). "Yeah... he said..." Mahiru rested his head on his knees and sighed. "He said that he wanted me to leave. To never talk to Misono again, and that he-" He broke off, unable to get his words around the sudden lump in his throat, and swallowed painfully. "That he was going to take Kuro with him. For something. All of you. Hugh, Hyde, and you, Lily."

 When there was no response, Mahiru glanced up to see Lily across the room, staring out the open window, his silhouette a dark blur against the swaying curtains. He had his arms crossed and was worrying the hems of his sleeves, long fingers twisting in and out of the fabric. When he finally turned back around there was a masterfully crafted smile on his face.

 "Well, I think we're safe for the rest of the night. But I will call out our guards and have the perimeter watched until noon just to be safe. You two should get some sleep." He paused, uncharacteristically tenebrous eyes focused on Mahiru. "And I will have another room prepared immediately." He glanced at the destroyed bed, some of his easy calm beginning to flow back. "That is absolutely overkill."

 "I think he was trying to scare us." Kuro muttered, hand unconsciously coming to rest on Mahiru's shoulder. "He knew I wasn't in that bed. It was just an act. To get a rise out of Mahiru."

 "But why?" Mahiru demanded, distress clipping his syllables into something staccato and heavy. "What was the point?"

 "I don't know." Kuro said lowly, staring hard at Lily. "Do you have any idea?"

 Lily tried to look shocked and crossed his arms defensively. "Why would I know? Why don't we talk about this in the morning, alright?" He turned pleading eyes to Mahiru. "Please. Everyone is exhausted and should get some rest."

 Despite his desire to have answers, Mahiru could feel his body dragging under the strain of the last day, anxiety at max, adrenaline running his system ragged. He nodded in defeat. "Yeah, alright. In the morning."

 "I'm leaving this here for you." Lily placed the small paper bag of pills on the dresser and backed towards the door. "Don't forget it! Good night, sleep well." He slipped out to the hall, already pulling his phone from his waistband, presumably to notify the staff of the break in.

 As the door clicked shut Mahiru sighed heavily and stood up. "Let's just go to sleep." He walked over and slammed the window shut and locked it, before glancing at the bed and freezing. His shoulders slumped as his overly taxed brain categorized the scattered feathers and tattered sheets. Lily had already left, seeming, in his panic, to forget his offer of another room, and if he was being honest, Mahiru was just too damn tired to go after him. He sighed once more and began to gather up what he could find of usuable bedding, intending to tough it out on the couch when an exasperated noise reached his ears. Turning, he found Kuro, already tucked in up to his chin, eyeing him critically. 

 "What do you think you're doing?"

 "What?" Mahiru asked perplexed. "I'm not sleeping on the couch without a blanket."

 "Correction: you're not sleeping on the couch." Kuro replied, lifting the edge of the quilt an inch. 

 Mahiru stared at him, feeling his brain rolling over in mystification. "There's a hole in the bed." He said blankly. "I'm not sleeping in a hole."

 Kuro closed his eyes in irritation, a soft dusting of color creeping across his cheeks. "Not that bed, you simpleton. Just- get over here, will you?" He wiggled the corner of the blanket once more.

 As the meaning of his words suddenly dawned on Mahiru he felt his own face heat and he flinched back a step. "N-no. It's fine! I don't mind the couch. It's probably worth more than my bed at home anyway!"

 "I'm not dealing with you tossing and turning all night. It's troublesome. And don't make me come over there and get you. I'm tired and injured so just do as I say." 

 Mahiru wavered, glancing back and forth between the couch, abrasive and cold, and Kuro, snuggled in, holding the blanket up, a strangely unsettled look on his face. 

 "It's my fault you don't have a bed anyway." He muttered, looking away, brows drawn down guiltily.

 "....Okay." Impulsively Mahiru dropped the sulfur smelling sheets in a pile and marched to the other bed. "But I do have a question."

 Kuro shrunk back and curled his arms protectively around his chest. "What." His voice was stiff, thick with tension.

 Doing his best to seem casual, Mahiru stripped off his sweater and rolled lightly beneath the sheets, turning on his side to face Kuro. "Why are you in my bed anyway?" He tucked his hands against his chin and tried to hold back a small amused smile when Kuro blanched and his eyes darted up to the ceiling, lips clamped tightly. "Because when I left you passed out it was definitely in the other one."

 Kuro sighed dejectedly, his fingers fiddling pensively across his arms beneath the sheet, and after a pause so long Mahiru was beginning to wonder if he'd get an answer at all, he rolled his head to the side, hiding his face and mumbled, "It's warmer."

 The words seemed to be saying something else but Mahiru was too drained to find the meaning and so he just nodded slowly. "It is warm." He agreed and Kuro relaxed marginally, his eyes darting back to Mahiru's face and away so quickly it might not have happened at all. 

 As a pleasant silence descended, the quiet, solitary concert of a cricket picked up somewhere across the room. Mahiru could feel the energy deserting his limbs and falling heavy upon the mattress, his panic and shock melting away, leaving only a curious buzzing behind.

 "Sorry." Kuro whispered into the dark.

 His eyes already slipping shut, Mahiru tried to respond, to tell him he had nothing to apologize for, but the words, the breath, seemed stuck in his lungs and he couldn't find his lips to move them. He summoned every ounce of blood left in his body to his hand and forced it out until it bumped against Kuro's forearm. He wrapped his fingers softly around the thin wrist and sighed.

 An immeasurable amount of time passed while Mahiru drifted in and out of reality when suddenly, hesitantly, cold fingers grazed across his neck once more and faint words brushed his cheek, "I won't let it happen again." He smiled lightly and fell asleep wondering if Kuro would be interested in going with him to replace that jacket.

 

 Sunlight showered warmth across Mahiru's face and he twisted, eyes still shut. It was morning but he couldn't bring himself to get up. He was so comfortable, heated inside and out by the satin quilt covering his shoulders and the legs- his brain ground to a halt. The legs? He tensed as his sleep addled brain grasped the fact that the legs tangled in his own were, in fact, not his. Squinting fearfully over he was met with a tumble of bright hair, a few enterprising, wispy strands of which were laying across his pillow and tickling his neck. Kuro was still sound asleep, face lax and for once peaceful. The delicate skin around his eyes smooth and relaxed, his mouth a soft pout that took years off his appearance. Mahiru found himself smiling gently, loathe now to move in fear that it would disturb him.

 He contented himself with blowing out a breath and turning his gaze to the ceiling. Across the stippled surface shards of light danced, reflected from the fountain in the courtyard below. He'd forgotten to pull the curtains last night and was sure to get an earful from Kuro when he woke, but for now he was thankful for the yellowed glow that fell across them. Sneaking another glance, he admired the way the lighting cast shadowed, almost aquamarine, low lights into Kuro's shocking hair. Paired with such blue eyes he sometimes looked almost like a painting come to life, flopping listlessly across Mahiru's kitchen counter, moaning about breakfast. He bit back a laugh and wiggled his fingers, surprised to find that his hold on Kuro's wrist hadn't been broken in the night, their hands now curled modestly around each other. A searing heat flowed across his cheeks and he carefully extricated his fingers, breathing a sigh of relief when Kuro simply grumbled and dug his head deeper into the pillow.

 "Oh jeez." He whispered softly into the air, worry pulling his brows together.

 "What'd you say?" Kuro slurred, eyes opening. Mahiru turned to meet his gaze and saw the moment he too fully registered the situation and tensed, his jaw clamping tight.

 "Nothing." Mahiru said, trying to sound sleepy. "How are your hands?"

 Kuro stared at him in puzzlement for a moment before pulling his hands up and inspecting the dingy wraps covering them. "Dunno. Could use some clean bandages I s'pose."

 "We should do that. And you need another dose." He scowled when Kuro gave a disgruntled scoff. "Yes, you have to. So don't ask." He paused, rubbing his eyes and then sighing, throwing his arms down across his stomach. "And then I guess we better go talk to Lily."

 Kuro made a noise and pulled the blanket over his head. "Don't want to." Floated out from within the heap and Mahiru snorted. 

 "Doesn't matter what you want. We need to. That was..." He trailed off, biting his lip and clenching his hands. The fear from last night, the certainty that he'd die that time, came tumbling down on top of him and he felt his chest compress with latent anxiety.

 Kuro popped back out from beneath the blanket and studied him solemnly for a moment before rolling onto his back. "Are you ok still?" He asked tentatively, carefully looking away and feigning intense interest in the painting hanging over their bed.

 Mahiru closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing his heart to stop pounding such a rapid beat. Instead of whips and shattered lamps, he thought of Kuro's whispered words from the night before; whether real or a dream, they gave him comfort, and he could feel the fright leaving him. "Yeah. I'm fine." He opened his eyes and grinned. "But I do want breakfast."

 Kuro sighed and ducked down, failing to hide a small, relieved smile. "If there is one. Lily is usually in charge of that and he seemed pretty messed up last night."

 Frowning worriedly, Mahiru sat up. "He did... Not to be insensitive but he was acting really suspiciously." 

 "He's always been weird about Jeje." Kuro muttered. "They were close, though I could never figure out why. Jeje disappeared a few years ago and Lily has always been wound up about it." He sighed and pushed himself shakily up, groaning. "What a pain."

 Catching himself at the last second, Mahiru pulled his hand back from where it was about to touch Kuro's shoulder and cradled it in his other, staring hard at the lines running across his palms. His spirit had lifted in unbridled joy at the ease with which Kuro had seemed to unconsciously confide in him and he was struggling to keep his expression neutral. "What should we do?" He tilted his head, eyeing Kuro curiously.

 "You're asking me?' He demanded.

 "Well, he is your brother." Mahiru reasoned, humor coloring his words.

 "Like that means anything."

 Mahiru rolled his eyes and made to stand up. "I will never understand your family dynamics." He reached out to pull the covers back but a pale hand flashed out and grabbed his arm, swiftly twisting it.

 "What is that?" Kuro asked slowly, eyes trained on the shallow, bruised gash across Mahiru's forearm.

 "Ah." He grimaced. "I forgot about that. It was that stupid Indiana Jones whip he had. I should clean it." He pursed his lips, debating whether a splash of hydrogen peroxide would be enough, when a low rumbling reached his ears. Turning in surprise, he realized Kuro had continued to stare down at his arm, something akin to fury splashed across his features. "What?"

 After a loaded second, Kuro released his grip, fingers stiff and slow. "Nothing." He muttered and slid out of bed. "Let's go before anyone gets any funny ideas."

 "Funny ideas about what?" Mahiru asked, bewildered. Kuro glanced back at him over his shoulder but didn't reply and Mahiru was left sitting alone in bed and confused, as he watched Kuro slouch away towards the closet.

 Throwing open the double doors, Kuro ducked inside and began tossing out jackets and shirts. "Just pick something so we can go." His voice was muffled and he said something else but Mahiru missed it, laughing. Kuro leaned back out, frowning in annoyance.

 "Sorry, sorry. I've just never seen you actually in a hurry." Mahiru joked, jumping up and picking up two of the farthest flung shirts. 

 Kuro sighed wearily. "I'm not in a hurry." He pulled off his shirt and was raising the new one when he froze, face creasing in pain. Shirt half way to his shoulders, he glanced over, eyes wide and perplexed. "I can't lift my arm any higher." He finally said blandly.

 Torn between distress and amusement, Mahiru padded over. "Here." He murmured, pulling the shirt from his wrists and bunching it up. Kuro lowered his arms and Mahiru slipped the collar over his head. When Kuro's hair frizzed out wildly from static he couldn't contain it any longer and burst out laughing. Kuro sighed and pulled the sleeves over his arms as Mahiru dug around, finding an acceptable jacket and holding it out. "This too. It's cold today."

 "Yes, mother." Kuro intoned dutifully, slipping the jacket on as well. "What about you?"

 "What about me?" Mahiru asked. "I know how to dress myself." He turned around to switch shirts and missed the bemused look Kuro shot at him. "Alright. Fresh bandages, pain meds and let's go."

 

 After wandering the halls for an hour, Mahiru was finally forced to admit that perhaps Lily was not here. They'd checked every room they could think of, and even opened several unmarked doors, peering into the darkened caverns and quickly retreating, and Lily was nowhere to be found.

 "Now what?" He asked, propping his arms on his knees as they sat in one of the many window seats along the main atrium. 

 Kuro glanced at him and sighed, letting his head drop forward, hair obscuring his face. "I don't like this."

 Mahiru bit his lip, trying to hold back the disquiet nibbling at his nerves. "There is one other thing we can try." He finally ventured hesitantly. When Kuro didn't respond he continued, "Licht and Hyde are in their room. I heard them yelling. And... I promised we'd talk with him anyway." He risked a look at Kuro to see that he was sitting stiffly, spine rigid, the tendons in his wrists standing out against the soft skin. "I can go by myself if yo-"

 "Let's just go." Kuro interrupted, standing up quickly and wincing. "But I can't guarantee that he won't try to kill me." He stared tiredly down into Mahiru's surprised eyes, holding out a hand to help him up.

 Mahiru ignored the offer and shot up like a spring, leaning too far forward and ending within inches of Kuro. "I won't let him do anything!"

 Kuro smiled weakly in amusement for a moment before the expression dropped and he turned away. "Lead the way, then."

 

 Mahiru hovered his knuckles over the door fearfully as he listened to the sounds of fighting coming from within the room. Hyde was hollering something, puncuated every few seconds by a thud and Licht's slightly lower alto voice threatening him. He turned concerned eyes to Kuro but he was leaning against the wall, refusing to look at him and he sighed and turned back to the door, finally rapping loudly against it three times. Inside the sounds immediately stopped, silence descending for perhaps five seconds before quick steps approached the door and it was thrown open, revealing Licht, his hair in disarray.

 "What do you want?" He demanded, frowning through his messy bangs.

 "U-uhm." Mahiru stuttered, and took a deep breath. "We were... hoping you could help. And I wanted to talk to Hyde."

 "About what?" 

 Taken aback by the aggressive tone, Mahiru took a small step back, bumping into Kuro's outstretched leg. "About what happened last night."

 Licht's expression eased and he yelled back over his shoulder, "Hey, dickbag! The trial deity is here to see you!"

 "The what." Mahiru whispered. Kuro shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets, shoulders tensing at the sound of Hyde running out from the bathroom.

 "There you are!" He exclaimed, skidding to a halt just centimeters from the doorway. "I waited up all night for you!"

 Licht cuffed him on the back of the head and snorted. "No you didn't. You fell asleep  the second we got back."

 "Which was like midnight!" Hyde retorted. "That's all night!"

 "But you didn't wait for anyone!"

 "The principle is the same!"

 Mahiru felt his temper rising and began tapping his foot impatiently against the carpeting as he listened to them bicker. Kuro had remained out of sight in the hall, casting nervous glances around, and avoiding making eye contact and Mahiru was about to drag him closer when Hyde suddenly broke off and grabbed his arm.

 "I'm rather surprised you showed up! Curious about that story after all?" He asked teasingly. Kuro lurched forward and into view and Hyde immediately iced over, his almost friendly, if neurotic, demeanor going sour. "And I'm in utter disbelief that you did." He sneered, hand tightening around Mahiru's forearm.

 Mahiru winced as the gash in his skin twisted and seared and Kuro reached out in a flash, ripping Hyde's hand from his arm. "Don't touch him."

 Hyde's eyebrows flew up and he dropped his hands. "Alright, alright. What's got you all in a tizzy?" His eyes slid back to Mahiru and he grinned. "Still so worried that your little boyfriend here won't be able to stand the sight of you when he finds out what you're really like?"

 Kuro opened his mouth, anger sketching deep lines across his face but Mahiru jumped in before he could say anything. "Do you know where Lily is?"

 Hyde softened, his eyes widening slightly. "Lily? Isn't he here?"

 "No." Mahiru fretted. "We've been looking for him all morning and can't find him. I was hoping you'd seen him."

 "We haven't left the room." Licht said, leaning against the door frame and crossing his arms. Hyde turned a curious shade of pink and jerked his head away, muttering something under his breath but Licht ignored him. "What did you want with him?"

 Mahiru hesitated, glancing at Kuro and away quickly. "Well. We had a bit of a situation last night and Lily was acting strangely. I think he might know more than he's letting on."

 "Situation?" Hyde repeated, staring hard at Kuro. "What situation?"

 "Ah, well you see...." Mahiru paused, debating how much to say before realizing that Kuro was going to refuse point blank to participate and so just decided to take things into his own hands and be blunt. "This crazy cowboy guy and your brother Jeje broke into our room last night. He tried to kill me. I think." He frowned. "Lily interrupted so I'm not sure he really would have but..." 

 "Jeje. Was here?" Hyde's hands balled into fists. "And when were you going to mention any of this?" He almost yelled, glaring at Kuro.

 Scowling back, Kuro finally responded. "We're telling you now you beatnick. What more do you want?"

 Something seemed to snap in Hyde and he suddenly sighed wistfully, pushing his hair back and retreating into the room. Licht followed him curiously with his eyes but otherwise didn't move. "Oh, you are rich. Do you know that?" Hyde spun around and pointed at Mahiru. "How do you put up with all his bullshit? Because I would have slaughtered him by now." 

 Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, Mahiru didn't answer. 

 "I think this calls for a little tit-for-tat! Let's be honest with each other. We're all friends here right?" Hyde laughed wildly. "Mahiru! I'm going to give you the greatest gift of your life! The truth." His eyes sparkled maniacally as he paced back towards them and Kuro clenched his jaw, pulling his hands from his pockets. Before Mahiru had time to react, Hyde had grabbed his shirt and pulled him into the room. Kuro shouted something but Mahiru couldn't hear what it was over the heavy thump of his back hitting the wall as Hyde tossed him forward. "Why don't you just shut your trap?" He said conversationally, whipping his head around to stare at Kuro. "Or you could try to stop me?"

 As if waiting for the invitation, Kuro lunged forward and Hyde grinned before reaching out, meeting him halfway, locking hands. Kuro flinched as the pressure twinged through his ribs and broke the tentative bridges of skin in his palms. Mahiru made to step between them when Licht appeared by his side, arm out, blocking him. "Just wait." He said, eyes on the two fighters. Mahiru bit back a retort and turned a worried gaze forward, trying desperately to catalog Kuro's weak spots, hoping he wouldn't fall prey to Hyde's insane strength.

 "Why is it, I wonder-" Hyde grunted as he shoved at Kuro. "That you're so desperate to keep this quiet? And, oh how sinful! To think you have more secrets! Secrets even I am not privy to." He smirked and twisted as though in a dance, lifting their interlocked arms over his head and Kuro gasped, his grip going slack as his ribs protested, his already sprained wrist creaking dangerously. "I'm going to crack open all your little hollow places and watch as you bleed out." He pulled up and Kuro sagged under the strain, falling to his knees. Hyde dropped his weight down on Kuro's back and Mahiru gave a strangled yell. "Now that we're all comfy, let's have a chat."

 Mahiru pushed past Licht's arm and rushed forward only to come to a sudden stop when Hyde pierced him with an angry stare. "Whatever you're talking about, I'll listen." He babbled, ignoring the renewed strength in Kuro's struggling. "But let him up. Please."

 "I don't think I will." Hyde sang, smirking. "Besides, do you really think we can have any kind of civilized conversation with my brother running amok like a wild animal?" He propped his head on his free hand, the other still holding Kuro's wrists captive, and smiled up at him easily. "Come now, I know you're curious."

 Apprehensively, Mahiru nodded, meeting Kuro's gaze and quickly looking away in guilt as he saw the fear cloud his eyes, lips going bloodless. "I am." He admitted. "But I want to hear it from Kuro."

 "You think this sniveling coward will ever tell you?!" Hyde yelled, features twisting in shocked outrage. "He'll keep his dark little mistakes all hoarded up until the end of time! No, what he needs- what we all need- is a little prodding." He pushed down on the folded arms beneath him and Kuro stifled a gasp, face going even whiter. 

 "Hyde!" Licht's voice broke in, thick with warning. 

 Laughing, Hyde turned his eyes to Licht. "Relax, Angel. This guy is tougher than he looks." He bore down on Kuro again, who this time managed to remain silent. "And you have been up my ass about this ancient history for days now. Don't you want to hear it too?"

 Licht paused, a scowl spreading across his face as he thought. "Fine. But don't push me."

 "I wouldn't dream of it." Hyde murmured. He looked down, searching Kuro's face and grinned. "Now, would you like to tell them or shall I?"

Chapter Text

"It's all gone wrong." Freya murmurs behind him.

 A splash of blood and Kuro closes his eyes.


Ducking the blade he jumped back, his spine hitting painfully against the edge of the dumpster he'd previously been hiding behind. The attacker advanced, brandishing what turned out to be a standard kitchen knife, handle a jarring neon green, and Kuro felt his eyes widen in dismay as he took in his opponents appearance. He couldn't have been more than twelve. Wrapped in a too big jacket, a knitted stocking cap falling over his brow. Just a child. Never mind that Kuro himself was only sixteen.

 "Just think about what you're doing for a second." He muttered, hands up in surrender. The cold pavement had soaked cold through his dilapidated trainers and he was searching for a way around, a way past.

 The kid sneered and ran forward, knife out, and Kuro sighed.


A shout forces his eyes back open and he turns in slow motion to see Hyde leap out from the back room, terror etched across his face as he races across the empty space. In the middle of the room, her back to Hugh's, stands Ophelia. She's grimacing determinedly, holding a small blade steady in her hands.
 

"What are you doing here?!" Hyde yells. He has managed to dodge almost every runner that came at him and he is almost to her, almost close enough to reach out and touch her yellow corn silk hair.

 She looks over at him, grinning. "What do you think? I'm here to protect you!"

 "Idiot! I don't need protecting!" He slides to a stop and his hand shoots out to take the knife from her, to scoop her up and carry her back out the door she'd snuck in, somehow picked and opened, following them stealthily into the nest. "Just get out of here before you get hurt!"

 Kuro remembers the other night, when he'd called them all together to ask for their help, to explain this newest task they'd been handed. He hadn't closed the door all the way, hadn't insisted on absolute secrecy. Why bother with Izuna in class and Ophelia miles away working at the homeless shelter? Who was there to overhear? He sees her turn to look at Hyde, sees her hair swing back and away as Hugh instinctively ducks behind her and the bat hits her instead. He sees the way Hyde's eyes go wide and he freezes, hand still outstretched. He sees, always, over and over, he sees the way her expression morphs into one of shock, her mouth a small "o" of surprise before she tumbles down. And through her briefly water-falling hair his eyes meet Hyde's and he sees his brother fall too.


 "Isn't that exactly what they'd expect though?!" Hyde exclaimed from where he sat in the corner, flicking bloodied bangs impatiently from his eyes.

 "Not necessarily." Lily whispered. He was holding his left arm tight to his side and seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. "It looked like they were as surprised as any of us." He glanced nervously around the dark, spacious warehouse room they were currently huddled in.

 "That is not something I care to experience again." Freya turned her sharp gaze on Kuro and he tried not to shrink down, to hide behind the crate he was crouched on. "What do you say?"

 He frowned. "What does it matter what I say?"


There is a long moment of silence as Ophelia settles on the floor, her skirts swirling one last time and dust falls over her like snow, then everyone is moving. Hyde, his face drained of blood is unstoppable; he tears into everyone within his distance, hands like claws, rapier quicker and deadlier than lightening. 

 Hugh glances over his shoulder in horror, seeming to know what he's going to see. He scrambles to his knees, hands shaking and searching her neck for a pulse, for anything; he digs through her hair and finds her skin, presses down on her throat, flinches back in revulsion as her bones creak and twist beneath the pressure. He stares into her hollow eyes for an eternity and then jumps up. 

 Kuro hears Freya breath behind him and doesn't look.


 Kuro stared down in disgust at the papers in his hand and then back up into the glinting glasses. "And what if I refuse?"

 "Then you'll have to sort that out with him on your own." Wild laughter. "I don't envy the janitor that has to clean you up."


 "You guys, we gotta go!" Ildio comes barreling into the room now too, two men hot on his tail. "I think I may have entered the code wrong!"

 Freya stands and looks down at Kuro, her eyes dark and unreadable. "Are you ready?" She asks quietly, and Kuro isn't sure what she's referring to but he nods anyway, sighs and climbs to his feet. She's a blur as she darts over the railing and down to the ground floor, landing as though she tumbled two feet instead of fifteen. A brief glance over her shoulder, back up to see if he follows, and then she intervenes where Lily has been backed into a corner, his fists bloody, his staff broken long before.

 Kuro wastes a second watching the carnage, considering flubbing his jump and landing on his neck. But he can't leave them here like this. So he locks away his thoughts and throws himself over that same metal bar and hits the ground gracefully, his arms already tensed and up.


 Freya pushed open the door and waltzed in, balancing a tray with glasses of tea in her arms. "I thought you'd be here."

 Kuro looked up, shoving the files back in to the large mailing envelope. Freya's eyes followed the movement but she didn't comment and he breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Yeah, where else would I be?"

 She shrugged unconcernedly and set the tray down. "Izuna is coming over."

 "Oh?" Kuro raised a brow. 

 "She made cookies." Freya said by way of explanation. She handed him a cup and took her own, leaning back against the bed. "Sugar cookies."

 Kuro took a sip of tea, wincing when the steam burned his lips. "Just as sweet as she is." He murmured and Freya smiled.


 The sounds are louder on the ground floor and Kuro has to hold back a shiver. The smell of blood is wafting up like a noxious gas, coating his throat as well as his lungs and he wonders if he'll ever smell anything else again.

 A distant explosion sends rubble raining down from the ceiling and Ildio cheers as he tosses a man dressed in fatigues over his shoulder. "I guess I got it right after all!"

 Lily spares him a tired smile and a weak laugh. "Thank god."

 Freya has successfully fought off the crowd surrounding Lily and now it's just Kuro and the man that has snuck up behind him. He's been distracted and let his guard down; this whole mission he's been thinking about everything but what they're doing. It's dangerous and about to get him killed. His eyes find Ophelia's body and his heart stops; standing over her is a white figure, long hair glistening. He chokes back a scream and leans over, kicking back and knocking the man over. He falls with an 'oomph' and Kuro spins, slamming a heel into his chest, down to his knees, an elbow in his throat, he's out cold and Kuro pulls himself up slowly.


 "Admit it, brother!" Hyde sang, jumping up and down in front of him. "You're just jealous!"

 "Of what?" Kuro muttered, side stepping him and kicking open the door.

 "Of what a beautiful, smart, perfect, brave, amazing girl I've got!"

 He sighed and tripped lightly down the porch steps into the front yard, shielding his eyes from the bright afternoon sun. "Not likely."

 Hyde tossed himself over the railing, landing noisily next to him, crushing several of Izuna's tulips beneath his boots. "You don't like girls?" He asked, surprised.

 Kuro snorted, turning to look him in the eye. "Caring about someone is a pain."


 "Now where?" Lily asks stiffly, staring mournfully down at the splintered remains of his staff.

 "Well, not back that way!" Ildio says loudly, jerking a thumb over his shoulder cheerfully, back towards the source of the explosion. "Went and blew the place sky high! Just like I was supposed to."

 Kuro glances first at Ildio, than to Freya. In her expression he can see wariness and worry, anger and exhaustion. "That's all we were here to do. So let's get out of here." He says stiltedly.

 "Yes, but how." Hugh mutters. "Ildio blew up the storeroom- already." He shoots an irritable look over at Ildio who answers with a shout. "And the only other way out that we know of is back there." Everyone turns slowly to observe the steel door, rivets running it's length, molded track blocked by fallen debris that has tumbled down in a kind of domino effect set off by Ildio's bomb. "And that's not opening."

 Ildio turns a sour face to Hugh and snorts. "I didn't know there was an appropriate time to blow something up!"

 "There is when it's our exit." Hugh says angrily.


 Ildio tore a second strip of cloth from his tattered shirt and wrapped it expertly around Hugh's leg where the red had leaked through the fancy dress pants he always insisted on wearing. His hands were shaking and Kuro had to look away. Unable to hold it in anymore Ildio dropped his hold on Hugh's leg, took a deep breath, and slammed his fist down on the bench Hugh was perched on. "Who the fuck brings a gun to a knife fight?!"

 "We did." Lily said mildly, eyeing Jeje.


 "Why not up?" Jeje mumbles quietly from his place behind Lily. He lifts a black clad arm and points up to the balcony Kuro and Freya had jumped from.

 "There's miles and miles of tunnels." Kuro says tersely. "We'll get lost."

 "You have a better sense of direction than you give yourself credit for." Freya says, staring at Kuro. "Why not try it? It's not like it will take any longer than it would to move all that concrete."

 Lily chews his lips, turning nervous eyes from Freya to the balcony and back again. He opens his mouth several times, as though to protest, before snapping it shut again, wringing his hands in trepidation.

 Kuro watches this for a couple seconds and then sighs. "Fine. Up we go. Anyone not fit to run?"


 The screams cut short and Kuro froze, looking back over his shoulder.

 Hyde dropped down from the fire escape just as the girl fell, scrambling to get away from the dark shape looming over her. She raised a shaking arm, shielding her face as the figure bent double and Hyde ran forward, throwing his foot into the shapes side and sending it flying.

 Kuro stifled a groan but turned to go back regardless. They didn't have time for this.

 Hyde put the works on the mugger and sooner rather than later the man threw in the towel and hobbled away at top speed. When Hyde made to follow, Kuro whistled once, sharply, and he paused, glancing back and nodding. Kuro could only summon enough energy to be glad that he hadn't had to step in.

 The girl looked up, ivy eyes shimmering with un-shed tears and thankfulness and Hyde flushed lightly and offered her his hand, pulling her gently up from the alley paving. She took stock of her person for a moment before throwing her arms around his shoulders and bursting into tears. He patted her awkwardly on the back several times, turning bewildered eyes to Kuro over her head. Kuro shrugged, looking away, and stuck his hands in his pockets, leaning against the wall to his left.


 No one says anything for a solid minute, all spending the momentary lull to inspect themselves. Kuro runs a practiced eye down himself, no stranger to the powerful anesthetic properties of adrenaline. When no gaping wounds are present he let's his shoulders fall and leans back against a structural pillar and watches.

 Freya has quickly checked herself over and is now holding a threatening stance over Lily, trying to see his hands, while he flinches back in terror and Jeje lurks behind him, a mute shadow. She reaches forward one last time and Jeje meets her, grasping her wrist and shaking his head slowly. He mutters something, Kuro can see his lips move, and she nods, shooting Lily a rather dejected look before turning away. Lily sighs deeply, hand to his chest and smiles up at Jeje.

 Hugh and Ildio, still embroiled in a verbal spar have none to less done each other the honor of cataloging the others injuries. When both have given the all clear to the other they cross their arms and turn away in a huff.

 Kuro counts in his head- one, two, three, and four, five- one missing. His eyes travel the length of the room and finally come to rest on Hyde, half in shadow, head bowed. Kuro follows his line of sight and stiffens when his eyes fall on Ophelia. She hasn't been moved and Hyde seems unable to bring himself to touch her. His hands shake at his sides, his shoulders hunched and face dark.


 "How could you have let this happen."

 The voice sent shivers down Kuro's spine and he bit his tongue until the bitter sting of copper drowned his panic. "I didn't let anything happen." He said roughly. Beside him Lily flinched.

 Dark hair reflected the fluorescent lights overhead and Tsubaki peered at him over the tops of his glasses. "And why exactly would I believe that?"

 "Because it's true!" Hyde yelled, slamming his hands down thunderously on the table. "Why the fuck would we lose everything on purpose?"

 "It just seems awfully convenient." Tsubaki sneered.

 "It's not." Kuro ground out, fists clenched angrily in his lap. "It's a shit load of trouble."

 Tsubaki burst out laughing, hand coming up to cover his mouth. "My my. Well I suppose you'll just have to make it up the next time, no?"

 Kuro glared.


 Slowly, one by one, their gazes lift and float to Hyde. None offer a word and simply stand, still statues, covered in blood and soot, tired bones protesting the gravity that fills the room. He either doesn't notice or refuses to acknowledge their looks, keeping his silent vigil over her body. Small clean speckles have appeared on her cheeks where his tears fall and Kuro temporarily loses his grip on reality.

 "Ildio." He says sharply and Ildio snaps to attention. "Did you leave any explosives?" When he frowns sulkily Kuro sighs. "Ok. Who still has anything resembling a weapon then?" Freya brandishes a pair of brass knuckles and Jeje gives a small nod towards his belt still half full of loaded clips, but Lily, Ildio, and Hugh all grimace and shake their heads. Kuro stares down at his empty hands and frowns. "Then we better not need them."

 "Listen to yourself." Hyde's voice is uneven and weak but covers the room easily. He looks up, eyes burning with yet more unshed tears and suddenly he smiles, a sharp and mean thing. "Just listen to yourself!" He shouts.

 Kuro flinches slightly and Lily stifles a small gasp as Hyde's voice bounces around and around them. 

 "Hyde." Freya says kindly, taking several small steps towards him, arms outstretched. 

 "Don't!" He continues to yell, and then laughs. "Don't touch me." 

 Kuro sees Hugh shoot him an unsure look and he can feel his tenuous grasp on the situation, barely there to begin with, start to fray and strip away. Not unlike most times in his life, Kuro is completely lost, undeniably unaware of what the proper action to take is.

 Hyde opens his mouth again, to begin shouting and laughing and Freya quickens her pace and Kuro thinks he might just pass out, but then comes the sound of other screaming, yells and orders. It's originating from the tunnels and Kuro realizes that they have maybe two minutes before they're once more surrounded.

 He steps forward and dips his head to Jeje. "Take her." He says. Jeje crosses the room in a swirl of cloaks and before Hyde can even register the intrusion, scoops the body up and into his arms. "Freya. Get Hyde." She doesn't turn, doesn't acknowledge his order, but lunges forward, grabbing Hyde who miraculously, thankfully, goes limp. "Time to go." Without checking to see if they follow, he leaps up the stairway to the balcony and down the nearest hall. There's no way to know if this is the correct direction but there's no time to think.


 "What's your favorite kind of pie?" Izuna asked, leaning over Kuro's shoulder. "I'm making pies next."

 He didn't respond, choosing instead to pretend she wasn't there, and continued to stitch up the most recent rips in his good gloves. 

 She giggled and reached past him to take the needle from his fingers. "You're really bad at this!" Sitting on the edge of his desk she held out a hand, eyes twinkling. "I'll do it for you."

 After a moment of hesitation Kuro relinquished the glove and sighed, dropping his head to the worn wood surface and closing his eyes. "Peach."


 They've ducked into an empty room, almost a closet. It's been an absolute miracle that their group of bedraggled, thread bare members have managed to slip past the people running through the halls, Kuro thinks. Freya would claim it's his intuition, but he knows better. Knows it's just luck. He glances up from the floor where he's been watching for shadows beneath the door signifying passing feet just in time to see Hyde throw himself at him. He ducks and slips to the side, ending several feet to Hyde's left.

 Howling, Hyde spins on his heel, fist flying and Kuro dodges the punch and shuffles quickly back once more. Hyde is hunched over, breathing heavily and now glares up at him. "I'm going to kill you."

 "Hyde." Ildio says warningly. "Stop. There isn't time for this!"

 "There wasn't time for her either!" He shouts, pointing behind him, arm unsteady. "She never had time. It wasn't enough. It wasn't enough time and it's not fair."

 Kuro closes his eyes, shoulders falling. "Hyde."

 "No!" He roars. "Don't you dare speak!"

 Ildio clenches his fists and throws his empty backpack to the ground. "Don't be an idiot! We can't do this here!" 

 "Then whenever shall we find a more prudent occasion?" Hyde laughs wildly. "Based on our dear brother's actions, we're all doomed anyway!"

 Kuro glances back at the still closed door. So far Hyde hasn't seemed to manage to blow their cover but it is far too late for them to turn back to the storeroom and they can't hide forever. "Let's go. We need to go." He mutters.

 "And what about her?!" Hyde is still yelling at the top of his lungs and Kuro winches. "I'm not leaving her!"

 "There's nothing you can do now." Freya tells him softly. "Ash is right. We need to go."

 Hyde turns betrayed eyes on her and his mouth falls open. "You out of everyone. I thought you'd get it. I thought-" He gives a sob, almost falling to his knees. "I thought that I'd get to tell her."

 Freya frowns sadly and loops an arm around his back, holding him up. "We don't always have the chance to say what we need to." She glances up, tangled hair falling wildly across her face, chasing the shadows both physical and metaphorical past her eyes. "Ash. Find us a way out of here. Jeje, Ildio. Help us carry her."


 Kuro started as a shape dropped down next to him, the soft rustling of leaves his only warning.

 "Did I get cha?!" Ophelia exclaimed excitedly, eyes shining as she plucked several small twigs from her hair.

 Shrugging, Kuro backed away from her subtly. "What exactly were you trying to do?"

 "I'm proving a point!" She reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out an apple. "Several points actually." She amended, holding it up to him.

 He reached out and plucked it gently from her fingers, turning it over in his hands, refusing to meet her eyes. "What points are those?"

 She held up three fingers, counting down on them. "One, that I can gather enough apples for Izuna's pies without having to buy any! Two, that I can sneak up on you, and three, that I can be of some use!"

 Almost dropping the apple in surprise Kuro shot a bewildered gaze at her. "Use for what?"

 She smiled, the sun that had dodged the tree branches and leaves above them dappling her in golden yellow. "Use to Hyde!"

 His brow furrowed and he blinked. "By sneaking up on me?"

 She burst into delighted laughter and clapped her hands. "So I did get you?!"

 He studied her silently for a moment before giving a small bemused nod. 

 She beamed and rocked back on her heels. "Well, I admit the two are a little unrelated but! He said if I could manage to catch you off guard he'd teach me how to fight!"

 "Ophelia..." He muttered roughly, feeling his lips twist. He looked away, back down to the crisp red fruit in his hand. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

 "I want to protect him!" She smiled and conjured a second apple, biting into it. "I promised."


 It is slow going with her body in tow. Kuro can see Jeje and Ildio switching between them the bulk of her weight. It's a foolish thing to do, bring a dead body with you, when you are trying to escape and stealth and speed are your biggest assets. And when more than half the group was already injured and only just moving of their own volition, he amends, watching as Lily stumbles and winces. Freya's eyes are traveling from one to another, never lingering more than a few seconds, just long enough to get an accurate reading on their condition, whether they can make it another few yards, and then swerving on to the next. Her brow is heavy, her hair matted, and she keeps fiddling with the little pendant around her neck, raising it every once in a while to her lips and whispering.

 Kuro jerks his gaze away before she can catch him staring and his eyes land on Hyde. He has insisted on walking next to Jeje, despite his shorter stride forcing him to almost jog to keep time. He isn't looking where he's going, his gaze never leaves her face, but he won't touch her, won't even get closer than a couple feet. And Kuro wonders what it's like.


 Freya's eyes were watering, though whether from emotion or wind Kuro couldn't tell.

 "Hey. Freya. I mean-" Hyde cut off awkwardly, shifting from leg to leg. "It wasn't-" 

"I know." She interrupted calmly. 

 Hyde frowned helplessly and watched as she began to scrub the blood from her hands in the river.


 "I can't." Jeje says blandly, slowly, standing stock still, Ophelia draped in his arms.

 They've made their way to a lower level and Kuro has found a sewage line. The grating is loose, the pipe not big but not too small and if they're lucky (lucky he scoffs) it will lead outside past the premises and they can escape.

 They all turn to Jeje, his head almost brushing the ceiling and realize that he means Ophelia. That he can't possibly carry her through the tunnels. None of them can.

 "No!" Hyde screams, thrashing wildly in Freya's sudden hold. "No! I won't go without her!"

 He breaks off in a sob and Hugh glances up worriedly at Kuro. The look clearly asks what they do. None of them have a clue and it's up to him. It's his ideas, his orders, his will, his fault. Kuro desperately grips the edges of his sanity and holds them together, pulling, forcing them closer and closer until they align momentarily and he walks up to Hyde and Freya, silent. He glances at both of them and then punches Hyde with all his force. He is winded and goes limp, compliant. "Leave her then."


 He fingered the switchblade in his pocket nervously and took a deep breath. It was still a foreign weight in his hand and he couldn't imagine ever feeling comfortable enough with it to consider it an extension of his body the way they told him he would.

 "Hey." Hugh's whisper shook him from his thoughts and he looked over. "Don't you think this kind of thing is a little below us?" He was glaring at the ground, the recently created rain puddles, beginning to scum over with oil, reflecting his annoyance back up at them.

 "No." Kuro muttered. "I don't know about you but I like the easy stuff."

 "But why us?" Hugh protested. "Why not Freya, or Jeje even? He's newer than us."

 "By a month." Kuro scoffed. "Now shut your trap. We're supposed to be keeping watch."


 The rain washes some of the filth from their bodies, the cold bringing clarity to misty, wavering consciousness. Hyde is a silent ghost, shuffling along between Freya and Lily, eyes empty. Kuro looks away, up into the falling drops and sighs, breath fogging.


 A soft knock on his door startled Kuro from a restless sleep and he bolted up. The room was steeped in shadow- it was still deep night, and that narrowed the options for who was currently standing out in the hall. He eased out of bed, creeping whisper quiet to the door and flicking the lock, poised to strike.

 Lily poked his head in, smiling when he noticed Kuro hidden behind the door. "I hope I didn't wake you?"

 "Not at all." Kuro sighed, dropping his arms. "What is it?"

 "Oh, I just hoped for a lively chat. Something involving cliche gutter romance or perhaps the obvious lies about Area 51." Lily said brightly and smiled, but behind it his eyes shook with nerves. "I'm afraid my sense of time has gone a bit off." He added apologetically.

 Kuro backed away, gesturing for Lily to come in and slouched tiredly on the edge of his bed, running a hand through his hair. "What makes you think it's all lies?"


 Lily has been slowly closing the distance between them and Kuro is terrified that he wants to talk. Because he can't. He just- can't. Not right now. Maybe not ever again. He stiffens as he senses Lily finally reach his shoulder, steps slowing to match Kuro's pace. He keeps glancing at him from the corner of his eye, mouth set uneasily and Kuro resolutely does not look over, does not acknowledge him.

 "What do we do about Hyde?" He asks softly after an eternity. 

 Kuro feels like he might throw up. Or die. Or sink into the mucky earth and never resurface. "I don't know." He says instead.

 Lily chews on his lip, rubbing his hands together to ward off the chill. "I don't know how she managed it."

 This startles Kuro and he mistakenly looks over, meets Lily's eyes and he's trapped now.

 "I don't know how she followed us." He clarifies, expression confused and pitiful. "I was in the back the whole time. I was behind Jeje and I swear there was no one behind me. I was supposed to be keeping watch!" His tone has turned on it's side, gotten sharp and is verging on hysterical and Kuro realizes that he's blaming himself for her death.

 Cold and dead tired, lifeless and falling apart from the inside out, Kuro reaches over and gently grips Lily's shoulder. "It's not your fault." He forces out past his numb lips. 

It's mine.


 "She says she doesn't care."

 Kuro glanced back, watching as Freya melted out from behind a tree. He kept his expression neutral and waited.

 "I told her what it is we're always up to."

 Kuro bit back a sigh and turned his eyes forward. "Whatever you wanna do."

 "And Ophelia didn't object either." 

 "Mh."

 "Mh." She agreed after a moment. "Izuna wants to bring desserts from class tonight. What kind do you like best?"

Chapter Text

 Mahiru felt the tear slip from his eye before he even realized he was crying. It traveled silently but Hyde saw it immediately and its acknowledgement reverberated louder than any scream or sob could.

 "So you see, it's quite the tale, no?" He asked conversationally. His eyes were dry and sincere, no sign of his habitual insanity shining through, as though he had just relayed an interesting news story rather than a compilation of suffering and death. "My brother here, his soul is stained by more than inaction and cowardice. It's red as a pomegranate seed; with blood and pain alike." He sighed softly and cocked his head as he stared down at Kuro's still figure. "I'm glad we're all on the same page finally."

 Licht hadn't moved an inch since Hyde began and Mahiru could sense the anxious energy rolling from his shoulders in waves. When he spoke his voice was low and stiff. "Why would you keep this secret?"

 Hyde glanced up in surprise. "Why would I tell you?"

 Licht winched slightly and looked away, lips pressed thin. "Don't you think this is something I should know?"

 "Not particularly. It has nothing to do with you so why would you care?"

 "Is this why?!" Licht took a step forward. "Is this what the hang up is?"

 Hyde's easy demeanor fell away and he frowned angrily. "It's not a hang up. It's everything."

 Before Licht could respond Kuro appeared to summon every last ounce of his strength and threw Hyde off his back. Hyde's grip, loosened in distracted anger, fell away and Kuro stood and stepped back in one fluid motion. His eyes flitted around the room several times, finally landing on Mahiru and going wide and fearful. He flinched back, shaking his head softly and mouthed something that Mahiru couldn't understand. They stared at each other for one more second and then he turned and ran from the room. Mahiru reached out as he bolted past, his fingers brushing the very edge of Kuro's jacket, but grasped nothing but empty air.

 "Ah, you see?" Hyde said casually, watching as Mahiru bit his lip and lowered his arm. "Just like always, he runs away."

 Mahiru whirled around to glare at him. "What you did just now-"

 "What I did?!" He laughed. "I see you're more blind to him than I thought. Let me try again then." He jumped to his feet and advanced on them, slinging his arm around Licht's shoulders. "Do you know what happened after that little massacre, after our failures piled too high to scale?" His eyes sparkled madly and Mahiru could do nothing but stare. "He left."

 "What?" Mahiru whispered, his heart going cold and heavy in his chest.

 "Oh yes." He grinned. "He left us. There at that orphanage, in that goddamned gang. Left us in the midst of all that blood and death and danger, just packed his bag and fled in the night."

 Mahiru felt his eyes go wide and his mouth fall open. He clenched his hands and tried to argue, tried to find a justification but-

 Hyde clucked his tongue as though he could hear Mahiru's thoughts and frowned mockingly. "No, there's no way to explain it. Believe me, I've tried. We all got sucked in and initiated and then what does our big brother do? He leaves." His voice cracked on the last word and he blinked and looked away awkwardly.

 "You're too hung up on this garbage!" Licht suddenly cut in, tone caustic and biting. "Just get over it already. Why give up a brother in addition to your girlfriend?"

 Hyde turned bewildered eyes to Licht, their noses just inches apart now. "You think that's all she was?"

 "Well, I guess not, since you never got the guts to tell her how you felt!" Licht sneered, watching in vindictive pleasure as the blood drained from Hyde's face. "That's all on you."

 Mahiru glanced between them in fear. "Licht, don't you think-"

 "How. Dare. You." Hyde breathed out. He leaned closer and closer, until their exhalations mingled, their gazes never wavering. "You weren't there. You never knew her. You know nothing of it."

 Licht smirked and tilted his head, bringing his lips within centimeters of Hyde's. "I don't need to have been there to know that it was your own dumb fault. There's no use in regretting it now. She's gone and there's nothing you can do to change that."

 "Then what's the point anymore?" Hyde spit out, rage and fear pulling at his voice in equal measure.

 "All that matters is what you do with your time now." Licht said simply.

 They stood frozen like that for several seconds, silence coating the room, their bodies tensed as though before a fight when finally Hyde frowned. "Then what do I do?" He sounded lost and unsure and Licht's expression changed minutely, loosened at the edges.

 "What do you want?"

 Hyde paused, searching Licht's face for something. "I don't know any more."

 Licht scowled, his earlier irritation returning in a flash. "Then you deserve to suffer and die. Grow up! Decide what you want and take it! What do you want?" He demanded again, eyes fierce. "Make it yours!"

 Without warning Hyde leapt forward, grabbing Licht's free shoulder and crashing their lips together. Mahiru jumped back in alarm, bracing himself to intervene but Licht only snatched a handful of Hyde's hair roughly, twisting his fingers through it and holding him in place. When they finally broke violently apart Hyde fell back a step, shock crossing his face in waves, and Licht grinned and kicked him in the shin. He looked up and when their eyes met Licht's grin widened as he crossed his arms. "About time you decided, you loser."

 Hyde looked as disoriented as Mahiru felt and slowly reached up to touch his lips as though in awe. "What..."

 "Good. Now that we have that sorted out you troglodyte, let's go get your stupid brother before he hurts himself." Licht strode to the door and raised a brow when they didn't move to follow. "Well?"

 "I'm sorry, I..." Hyde turned to Mahiru in bafflement, his face soft in confused vulnerability. "What have we sorted out?"

 Mahiru shrugged helplessly. How the hell should he know?

 Licht glared at them. "You have decided to stop wasting your life moaning after a ghost, who's death is no one persons responsibility or fault, and now we're dating." His gaze briefly flew to Mahiru. "And Mahiru has decided to adopt your brother into his divine shadow."

 Diplomatically choosing to gloss over the many dubious layers to unpack in those statements, Mahiru sighed. "Hyde. You need to talk- and I mean talk- to Kuro."

 For once the sentiment didn't immediately invoke wrath; Hyde stared down at his hands in contemplation and breathed out heavily. "Yes. I suppose I do." He raised his head, a small smile, unfettered by sorrow and madness for once, on his face. "I don't think it'll go over too smoothly given his tendency to panic- and my past behavior of course!" He hastened to add when Mahiru glared at him. "But I'll try."

 "You don't think Kuro will really... try to hurt himself or anything do you?" Mahiru finally asked nervously. He fidgeted back and forth, battling his desire to immediately flee from the room in search of him. 

 Hyde's expression scrunched up in thought and he shrugged. "Not likely. He's more the type to run off and skulk around in the shadows feeling sorry for himself." 

 "So let's go already!" Licht snapped, tapping his foot impatiently. "I haven't got all day."

 Hyde laughed and sprang across the room to his side. "Oh yeah? And what exactly did you have on your calendar that's so pressing today, my little angel?" He leaned in until he was crowding Licht, a grin on his face as he ruffled the raven black strands along Licht's neck. Licht slapped his hand away but didn't move.

 "None of your business you blasphemous monster."

 "Can we please just go?" Mahiru groaned, as Hyde laughed and tried to wrap his arms around Licht. "If possible, you two are even more annoying now!"

 As he was turning to slide past them, Misono came flying around the door frame, a paper clutched in his hands and a wild look on his face. "Mahiru! I've been looking everywhere for you!"

 "Me?"

 "Yes! Tell me what this means!" He shoved the paper into Mahiru's hands and bent over, bracing himself on his knees, trying to catch his breath. "I mean, obviously I can read it, but I haven't a clue what it means."

 "Probably a doctors note to up your cardio!" Hyde chortled, breaking off in a shout when Licht punched him.

 Mahiru turned the paper over several times, looking for more writing but there were only two lines, written at a hasty slant near the top of the page:

 'Must attend to some family business! Won't be long, please try to stay out of trouble and don't mention anything to Kuro or Mahiru, they'll only worry. All my love.'

 He tilted his head, puzzled. "There's no signature. Do you know who wrote it?"

 "Of course!" Misono shouted at the floor, struggling to drag himself upright. "It's Lily's handwriting."

 Mahiru squinted at the words for several more seconds and then suddenly a light flicked on in his head and he felt his face fall. "Oh no."

 "What, what?!" Misono shouted, snatching the page back and staring at it. "What did he mean? I've never not known what he meant..."

 "I think... he's talking about Jeje." He said slowly, scrutinizing Misono for any reaction. When his face remained puzzled and tense, Mahiru sighed. "Listen, I've been looking for Lily all morning. We needed to talk to him about last night but I got distracted." He stared hard at Hyde and Licht who both appeared suddenly fascinated by the wallpapering. "You see, last night, this guy broke into our room, with Jeje, who is apparently another brother." Still Misono looked merely confused and Mahiru could feel a great weight settling inexorably over him. "Kuro, Lily, and Hyde's brother?" He hedged.

 "I..." Misono trailed off, staring down at the carpeting, eyes wide. "I never knew anything about him."

 Abruptly Hyde started laughing. "Looks like I'm not the only one being kept in the dark! What a relief!"

 Mahiru huffed in annoyance. "This is not good news. It means Lily went off on his own to duke it out with a crazy person. Maybe." He scowled at the gash on his arm. "Hyde, do you have any idea where he might have gone?"

 "Don't ask me!" He exclaimed. "I haven't talked to Jeje in two years. Not since-" He broke off, grimacing and glanced hesitantly at Licht. "Not since that last time we were all together."

 "Would anyone else know where he is?" Mahiru insisted. "Your sister maybe?"

 "Freya?" He shook his head wildly. "No way! She disappeared almost immediately after Kuro left." His face creased in dejection. "I miss her."

 "Anyone else?" 

 Hyde ticked off his fingers as he listed, "Kuro has run off, Freya is MIA, Hugh would have told me, Lily is being a sneak, and as far as I know Ildio isn't even on this continent. That's everyone." Licht was staring at him and sensing the intense study he looked over. "What?"

 "What country?"

 Hyde raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "Hell if I know. Maybe Italy?"

 Licht nodded and took Hyde's hand. "We'll go to Italy."

 "Will we?" Hyde asked in amusement.

 "Hey, what's up with you two all of a sudden?" Misono demanded, staring between them.

 "We're dating now." Licht informed him proudly.

 Misono remained silent for a moment, brow creased in confusion. "Weren't you already?"

 Mahiru burst into startled laughter as Licht's expression fell. "No, no, they've made a breakthrough." He choked out between laughs. As Misono continued to stare at them curiously, Mahiru had a sudden idea and he gasped. "Misono! What about Tsurugi? You and Lily work closely with him. Would Lily have told him anything?"

 "Why would he tell him and not me?" Misono, for the first time, sounded small and hurt and Mahiru could feel his heart squeeze in sympathy. "He tells me everything."

 "Tsurugi is probably privy to lots of information because of his job and if he's looking for Jeje than maybe he thought Tsurugi might now."

 "I suppose that's possible." Misono said slowly. "But why leave such a vague note." He scowled down at the crumpled paper in his hands, tightening his hold and wrinkling the edges more. "Lily has been acting strangely for a while now. I'm worried to be honest." He chewed his lip for a moment before looking up and locking eyes with Mahiru. "I'm going to call him. You're probably right about-" He broke off as his phone let out a shrill beep and he glanced down in surprise, hoping flying across his face. He pulled it from his pocket and flicked the screen on, glaring when it didn't work the first time. As it opened to his messages his face fell, melting into an anxious expression that Mahiru had never seen on him before.

 "What is it?" He asked uneasily. "Was it from Lily?"

 "No." Misono shook his head slowly. "It's from Tsurugi." He looked up, eyes wide and unsure. "He's asking if we made it. He said he told Lily to text him when we arrived and he hasn't heard from him."


He glanced once more at the clock over the mantle. 1:38AM. It was late. But not too late surely. He shoved the guilt and worry back down as he thought of Misono, out like a light upstairs; but no, he couldn't bring him. It would be too dangerous and lead to too many questions. Especially if Jeje was running with who he thought he was. That confrontation would lead to nothing but trouble. But he couldn't let what had happened stand; he couldn't allow someone to target Kuro, and all the rest of them, and do nothing.

 He tightened the scarf around his neck and tucked it beneath his coat, slipping out the door and locking it securely behind him. No, he would not allow guns to be drawn and pointed at his brother, even if the origin was another member of his family. Besides- he dug the key ring from his pocket and unlocked the car he'd hidden beneath the trees farther down the drive- he had to see Jeje.

 The air blew ice cold from the vents and he hastened to turn the blower off, a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature creeping across his skin. The silence was eerie but he didn't dare turn on the radio; it would be a distraction. Navigation was never his forte and the directions Tsurugi had given him were haphazard at best. He grimaced, recalling the whispered call he'd made as he ran from Kuro and Mahiru's room. Tsurugi had picked up immediately, much to his surprise, and been more than willing to assist after fessing up to being the reason Jeje knew where they were.

 As the tires crunched over the white gravel lining the end of the drive before it became a private road he flipped on the fog lights and sped up a little. Yes, Tsurugi had been most apologetic; shamelessly begging for forgiveness after admitting that Jeje and Mikuni (for Lily was positive that that was who this mysterious man was, had been even before Tsurugi confirmed it) had been there and he'd let slip of Misono's involvement. Mikuni had flown off the handle ("It was terrifying! I thought he'd strangle me with that silly whip of his for real this time!") and demanded to be told where Misono was. Tsurugi had caved and coughed up the address, conveniently forgetting to mention the three other ex-gang members currently residing under the same roof. Without a doubt Mikuni had gotten the shock of his life when he snuck into that room and found himself face to face with the infamous 'Sleepy Ash'.

 Lily snorted. What he wouldn't give to have seen the look on his face.

 The house looked abandoned from the street but after sneaking closer, following along the line of hedges across the side of the yard, Lily could see a single small light burning in one of the inner rooms. It had taken him almost two hours to find the right place and he was at the end of his rope. Throwing caution to the wind he marched up the steps to the front door and knocked loudly four times. He just had time to question the decision and then the door swung open roughly and he forgot to breath.

 "My, my, myyy. It has been a while, hasn't it?"

 Lily took a shaky step back, his hands flying to his wrists and curling tightly, protectively, around the thick wool of his mittens. The porch light clicked on and the sudden glow glinted off small lenses ,obscuring the eyes behind them, as the man tilted his head.

 "Is this all I get for a hello? I thought you'd be happier to see me!"

 Lily shook his head minutely, his blood frozen in his veins and legs trembling. "How could-"

 "I think you know." The man said cheerfully. "Why don't you come in?"


Misono's hands were shaking as he dialed Tsurugi's number and Mahiru was worried the phone might just tumble from his grip and hit the ground before he managed it. At some point Hyde had crept up behind him and now slung an arm around his shoulders.

 "So Lily went to the scum of the Earth for help, huh?"

 Mahiru quelled the instinct to shove Hyde off and back away and instead shrugged. "Tsurugi isn't so bad."

 Hyde gave a sharp laugh. "Yeah, right. Let me tell you something. Tsurugi, and all his little 'associates', are most definitely scum. They're worse than scum." He flicked his gaze to the side, meeting Mahiru's, and raised his brows in sincerity. "You can't trust them as far as you can throw them."

 Mahiru hummed. "As I recall, you can throw people quite far."

 Hyde flinched and looked away. "I'm just saying. 'Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me', yunno?"

 "Twice, huh?"

 "Kuro really has kept you in the pitch dark on this hasn't he?" Hyde asked almost in awe. "What a pompous idiot."

  Mahiru glared at him. "If we're going to make this work you really need to drop the attitude."

 "He can't help it." Licht said, on Mahiru's left. "It just comes naturally to him to be an unbearable asshole."

 "It's true!" Hyde agreed, surprising Mahiru and Licht both. "What can I say? He brings the worst out in me. Anyway, I'm not saying I don't love the bastard but he really does make a horrible mess of things quite frequently, you have to admit."

 Mahiru looked away and remained silent. He couldn't really bring himself to agree with Hyde (it felt like a betrayal to Kuro) but all the same, he couldn't really argue either. On the other hand- a small smile wound its way around his lips- it was a relief to hear Hyde's true feelings finally. He'd had his suspicions the whole time but if Hyde himself was unaware of how he really felt it would be the same as if he truthfully hated Kuro. Now the only remaining question was how did Kuro feel?

 Before he could dwell too deeply on the thought Misono gave a shout and made to throw his phone across the room, but just before his fingers loosened he thought better of it and just swung his arm wildly. 

 "What's the hell spawn got to say?" Hyde asked casually.

 Misono turned to stare at them, lips pulled tight. "He... he wouldn't explain. He just told me to come to the station. Immediately." His eyes darted to Mahiru and widened infinitesimally.

 "I'll go with you!" Mahiru said, taking a step forward. "I'm worried about Lily too."

 Misono didn't seem grateful but his tensed shoulders lowered slightly. "If you must. I'll be down in the garage in five minutes. I won't wait." And he darted from the room.

 "Oi, oi! what about us?!" Hyde exclaimed, jumping back and forth. 

 "What about you?" Mahiru asked blankly. 

 "We're going too." Licht flicked a finger against Hyde's forehead. "You can't hope to destroy such pungent evil without the help of a purifying light."

 Mahiru stared at him in stupefaction before shaking his head. "I have no idea what that means but shouldn't you two go look for Kuro?"

 Hyde waved a hand blithely. "Who knows where he skulked off to. It could take ages to find him and Lily is missing now."

 Mahiru bit his lip, thinking. He was worried about Kuro but Lily disappearing seemed a dangerous problem and one that required an immediate solution. "Ok, ok, fine. But one of you text Kuro. Tell him we're going to town and will be right back!"

 Rolling his eyes, Hyde pulled out his phone. "Like he's going to notice we've left."

 "He will!" Mahiru argued. "Probably."

 As they made their way down the stairs a thought crossed his mind and he glanced back. "Licht, where are your parents?"

 Licht raised his brows as he stared imperiously down his nose. "In America."

 "They're playing with a touring orchestra!" Hyde cut in excidedly. "My little angel comes from a long line of amazing musicians and he was-" He broke off as Licht jabbed him in the throat.

 "Don't brag. It's a sin."

 "But I'm bragging about you!"

 "Sin."

 Mahiru rolled his eyes and turned back, watching his feet hit the stairs one by one by one and letting the white noise of Hyde and Licht fight flow over him. It was relaxing in its own way he supposed but he much preferred the occasionally endless silences that stretched between him and Kuro. It was almost as though they barely needed words to communicate, sensing and even sometimes anticipating each others thoughts and feelings. It was strange given they'd only known each other for less than a week, but even from the start, finding him languishing in the cold, Mahiru had felt like there was something familiar about him, some innate understanding between them.

 He was still puzzling over it when they reached the garage where Misono stood, tapping his foot impatiently and yelling at a harassed looking Dodo.

 "I said the fastest one!"

 "This is the fastest one. Aside from the Porsche. But Lily took that one."

 Looking cowed Misono turned away, grumbling under his breath and crossing his arms. "I just don't want to be late."

 "Relax. I'm sure Tsurugi just didn't know how to explain over the phone. Or maybe he just didn't feel like it. You know how weird he is." Mahiru said bracingly. 

 Misono frowned skeptically but didn't respond and they waited in silence as Dodo finished up whatever checks he was doing for the car. Both jumped in surprise when Licht and Hyde broke out in a loud scuffle after about five minutes, throwing kicks and trying to claim shotgun, only jumping apart when Dodo slammed the hood of the car down significantly, staring at them over it.

 "You guys ready to go?"

 Mahiru nodded and tugged open the rear door. "Yes." 

 As they pulled back and away from the house he spared a thought for Kuro, wandering somewhere around the mansion alone. He hadn't responded to Hyde's text (unsurprising) and Mahiru was doing his best to hold his anxiety at bay. He could sense the looming guilt threatening to surge up and flow over him, drowning him. He shouldn't have left, shouldn't have let Kuro run away believing that Mahiru felt- well, any differently. He didn't. But how could he portray that to Kuro? The inability to answer that question had been part of the driving force ushering him from the house so hastily in search of Lily. 

 When they got back he would have thought of a way to explain to Kuro.


"Oh, you brought everyone! How nice!" Tsurugi exclaimed brightly, opening his office door and seeing all four of them standing there. "Well, I suppose if you don't mind the extra ears hearing, it's no bother to me!"

 "I have a right to know!" Hyde yelled, pushing his way forward and trying to get past Tsurugi who was still leaning in the doorway. "Lily is my brother!"

 Tsurugi looked caught off guard for just a moment before laughing. "I never said he wasn't! But I was under the impression that this was a Misono-Lily situation." His eyes slid to Mahiru. "Although I'm not surprised to see you here, Mahiru." He grinned and finally stepped back, waving an arm behind him. "Please come in." 

 Hyde immediately rushed in and then skidded to a halt, looking around wildly, unsure of where he was supposed to sit. Licht had followed after at a more sedate pace and as he walked past, he cuffed Hyde on the back of the head. Misono attempted to appear casual as he strode into the room and took the chair farthest from the desk but his nervous twitching belied his nerves. Mahiru purposely hung back, last to enter and paused in front of Tsurugi. "What did that mean?" He asked curiously.

 Tsurugi smiled and shrugged playfully. "Oh you know. You seem like a busybody, Mahiru~" When Mahiru made an indignant noise he ruffled a hand through his hair. "Don't worry! It's a good thing, a good thing! You're a kindhearted person." His demeanor darkened and he stared at Mahiru for a moment, uncharacteristically somber. "Just be careful. People like you get taken advantage of." Without giving an explanation his grin returned and he spun into the room, clapping his hands. "Now that we're all settled in and comfy! Let me tell you what I know."

 Misono was almost vibrating with impatience and Mahiru was afraid he might leap across the room and try to strangle Tsurugi if he didn't start talking soon. He had his hands fidgeting in his lap and was tapping both feet incongruously across the bottom rung of the chair he was perched on. As Tsurugi propped himself against his desk and rearranged his shoulders, Misono raised a hand in a circular "get on with it" gesture and Tsurugi laughed. 

 "As you know already, Lily called me last night in quite a state! He insisted that I tell him what I knew about Jeje." Tsurugi paused here and turned a shrewd eye on Mahiru. "I of course feigned innocence at first but Lily is terrifyingly persistent." Misono snorted and Tsrugui smiled. "Anyway, long story short, Jeje and Mikuni-" A sharp intake of breath halted him and he turned an expectant look to Misono, who was slowly turning white, shoulders stiff beneath his overcoat.

 "What- did you- say." He ground out. His eyes had yet to leave Tsurugi and he was clenching his jaw so tightly Mahiru was worried for his teeth.

 Seeming unperturbed by this reaction, Tsurugi shrugged and began inspecting his nails. "I said Jeje and Mikuni. They're old friends of mine."

 Slowly, inch by inch, Misono unfolded from his chair and began pacing unsteadily forward, never blinking, never breathing. "Why have you not mentioned this."

 "It didn't seem relevant." Tsurugi said casually, his eyes tracking every jerky step Misono took towards him. 

 "How could this not seem relevant?" Misono's voice was increasing in volume and the color had returned to his cheeks but he still looked peaky. "Mikuni is- is-" He broke off, seeming unsure of what Mikuni was.

 "In case you've forgotten, I am not a free source of information." Tsurugi had taken on a frosty tone. "The intel I give you is on a strictly need-to-know basis. You are not privy to everything just because you volunteer."

 Looking at a loss for words, Misono opened and closed his mouth several times and then suddenly deflated. When his eyes met Mahiru's they were distant and lost.

 "Hey!" Mahiru heard himself yell angrily. "How can you talk to him like that after everything he's done for you?!"

 Tsurugi clucked his tongue and frowned. "This is what I meant, Mahiru. You'll get taken for all your worth with that attitude." When Mahiru too jumped up, he held up his hands placating-ly. "But fine fine. I don't think it'll be any comfort but I'll tell the little plum here what I know." He glanced at Misono, gauging his composure and sighed. "I really feel like this might be a bad idea."

 "Who is Mikuni?" Mahiru finally asked. "Is that the cowboy guy that attacked me?"

 "Attacked you?!" Misono whispered, aghast.

 Mahiru shrugged uncomfortably. "Last night. With Jeje. I... who is he?"

 Misono jerked his face away, shoulders trembling, and Mahiru almost didn't hear the small gasp of an answer. "My brother."


The floor was cold. Marble if he had to guess. Perhaps a nice granite. But that was stretching it. No, it was radiating too much eternal chill to be anything but marble.

 Lily blew a strand of hair off his forehead and strained his eyes, trying to see to his far right. The way he was laying he couldn't turn his head but he knew from the quick look he'd gotten that the door lay in that direction. It didn't sound like it had opened since he'd been tossed in here but then, he'd lost consciousness several times so who knew. 

 Logically it was almost a guarantee that he would sense another presence in the room but... he'd let himself slip recently. Misono spoiled him; he'd grown complacent. It was dangerous and foolish, not only for himself but for Misono. He was meant to protect him but here he was, tied up and powerless, not even positive he was alone. How disgraceful.  

 He frowned and the movement tore the newly scabbed slice over his cheek. As the fresh blood oozed down and into the corner of his mouth he allowed himself a small sob. Misono must be worried sick. He had no idea of the time but it was almost certainly daybreak or after. He'd meant to be gone a couple hours, maybe six at the most, but it'd been at least twelve, possibly as many as sixteen. He should have made the note more coherent. He should have woken Misono and explained. He should have told him how much he means to him. He should have he should have he should have-

 He grit his teeth and tried again to roll over. The rope circling his torso, binding his arms tight to his sides and around his back, burned into the already abused skin and he gasped. What an absolutely disastrous mess he'd made. Anger burned hot through his veins and he twisted again, throwing himself to the side. Finally he managed to gather enough momentum and he fell neatly onto his back, remembering at the last second to splay his fingers open and land harmlessly on his palms.

 A look around confirmed that he was alone, the door perhaps thirty yards off, the walls dark and bare. There were no windows and only a single upright reading lamp flickering in the corner. Even as he watched, the bulb sputtered and dimmed. It was only a matter of time before he would be in the pitch dark.

Chapter Text

 "Your brother?" Mahiru repeated in astonishment. "He- I mean- What?"

 Misono was turned away, refusing to meet his eyes, his shoulders hunched and shivering. No one in the room had uttered a sound and now Licht snorted from his spot in the corner.

 "He sounds like a dick."

 Spinning around so quickly he almost slipped, Misono pointed a shaking finger at Licht and glared. "Don't talk about him like that!"

 Licht raised a brow and crossed his legs, leaning back against the wall. "What, that's what we're all thinking."

 "I wasn't thinking that specifically." Hyde refuted mildly. 

 Licht threw a scowl his way and then returned his focus to Misono. "So why do you not seem to have any idea what your own brother is up to?"

 Misono flinched and glanced back at Tsurugi, still propped against his desk, arms braced behind him languidly. When he saw Misono staring he smiled virtuously and tilted his head to the side, an invitation to explain. "I haven't seen Mikuni in years." Misono finally said quietly. "He ran away and- and no one knew where he went or heard anything from him again." He closed his eyes and exhaled shakily. "It was after his mother..."

 "After his mother what?" Mahiru asked softly. 

 A whisper, almost a breath, "After she killed herself. Because of me."

 Mahiru bit his tongue, letting the pain take the edge off his desire to vehemently deny the statement. Misono was definitely the type of person to take all the blame, even for acts of god, and bottle it up inside himself until he exploded. "Misono, I don't think-"

 "You're wrong!" He yelled helplessly. "It was my fault. I know it was. Everyone knows." He tipped his head back, a hand over his eyes. "I've mostly come to terms with it but sometimes...."

 Mahiru chanced a look at Tsurugi. He was watching Misono, a meditative look on his face. When Misono fell silent he closed his eyes, a nonplussed smile flitting across his lips and shook his head.

 "Whatever she did is her own fault." Hyde said suddenly. "You can't take responsibility for the choices someone else makes." Licht and Misono both threw him startled looks, a soft smirk forming on Licht's face, a crumbling frown on Misono's. 

 "You don't understand." 

 "I do."

 Misono didn't respond and Mahiru took the chance for what it was. "Tsurugi. How do you know Mikuni and Jeje? It seems like a wild coincidence." He raised his eyebrows significantly. 

 "Mikuni and I went to school together!" Tsurugi chirped. He hopped up on the desk, swinging his legs. "I decided I wanted to fight crime and enrolled in the academy. Poor little Mikuni had no other ideas so he tagged along after me like a puppy! He was so cute back then." Misono made a derisive sound and he laughed. "Anyway, he dropped out after a couple semesters. Something came up at home. I'm guessing I know what that was now." He glanced at Misono before continuing calmly. "I honestly hadn't heard from him again after that. Not for years. Then just a couple months ago he showed up at my door! He had Jeje in tow and was insisting they help us. He did always seem the type to prefer vigilante justice." He added thoughtfully.

 "So you agreed and... wait! They're in on this too?!" Mahiru exclaimed. "Then why did they attack us?!"

 "Ah, you have me there! I couldn't begin to explain Mikuni's thought process."

 Mahiru groaned and threw his head back against the wall. "I don't understand anything anymore."

 "That makes two of us!"

 "Don't you say that!" He scolded, scowling. "So then where is Lily?"

 "That does seem to be the most pressing question." Tsurugi agreed cheerfully. "Second only to this- where is Ash?"

 Mahiru flinched. "We uh, uhm."

 "They had a fight." Hyde chortled. "Don't worry. Kuro is off doing what he does best, sulking alone in the shadows."

 "It wasn't a fight! And whose fault do you think it is anyway?!" Mahiru demanded, pounding a fist on the arm of his chair. "If you hadn't-"

 "Where did you send Lily?" Misono interrupted. He was still staring down at the floor but was standing straighter, his hands relaxed at his sides.

 "To see Jeje. I can give you the address if you want." Tsurugi replied, already pulling out a pad of paper. "If you think it's a good idea. He might be there, you know."

 "I know." Misono took a deep breath and raised his head. "But I have to get Lily." 

 Tsurugi smiled warmly and began folding the sheet into an airplane. "I'm jealous. I wonder what it's like to have someone love you like that." He tossed the finished plane to Misono who reached up and caught it effortlessly. "Be sure you don't regret it."

 "I won't."

 

 They had crossed three bridges already and Mahiru was beginning to lose track of which direction they were headed. He glanced back over his shoulder, looking for a familiar landmark but came up blank. It all looked new. He really wasn't made for big city living.

 "Are you sure you know where you're going, shorty?" Hyde demanded, trying to pull the paper from Misono's hands. "Let me see that! I can get us there no problem!"

 Misono danced out of reach and cradled the sheet protectively against his chest. "No way! I'm navigating!"

 "But we're just walking in circles!"

 Mahiru was opening his mouth to intervene when there was a rustling from below them. He looked towards the edge of the bridge just in time to see two shapes flip up and over, landing silently in front of the railing. The others turned in surprise as the figures ran forward. The larger aimed a kick at Mahiru, the shorter veering off to the side. He couldn't dodge in time and squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation but a yell had them flying back open as Licht leaped past him, knocking the leg aside. They skidded to a halt a few feet away and Licht immediately dropped into a defensive stance, a scowl flooding his face.

 "I didn't know there'd be so many." The tallest muttered in annoyance.

 "It's going to be a problem." The littler one agreed. She flipped her skirt and deftly tied the sides back forming a fluffy looking set of pants. "Which do you want?"

 "This one pissed me off." The man said, flicking a cigarette stub over his shoulder. "I'm going to teach him some manners." He cracked his knuckles and took a few deliberate steps forward.

 Licht sneered and circled to his left. "Take you best shot, old man."

 "Oh, I intend to."

 The woman watched this with a fatigued expression before sighing and turning her attention to Mahiru. "I guess it's you and me then." She reached into a pocket and extracted what looked like a few metal straws and fanned them between her fingers. "Please don't bother taking this personally."

 Mahiru yelped and dove to the side just as she tossed two of them. They stuck in the ground where he'd been not seconds before, quivering, a soft peal emanating from the vibrations. "Who are you?!"

 "What does it matter?" 

 He had a vivid flashback of Kuro, mournfully asking the same question as he shivered in the snow, before he was jarringly brought back to the present by Misono grabbing his shirt and pulling him backwards as another sank into the cement where he left foot had been. "Fine then! New question! Are these senbon?!"

 A flicker of emotion crossed her face before she nodded. "But they aren't ordinary senbon." With a flash of her wrist she landed three more just centimeters from their arms. "They're coated in poison."

 "Oh, of course!" Mahiru yelled acerbically, looking around wildly for anything he could use as a weapon. "Why wouldn't they be?!" He backed up as quickly as he could while keeping an eye on her, aiming for the large tree branch he had spotted laying in the gutter. 

 In his periphery he could see Licht toe to toe with the man. He seemed to be holding his own but was slowly being backed towards the railing. Just before his heel hit the curb Hyde flew out of nowhere, taking a punch meant for Licht, and as he fell to the side, a look of awe crossed the mans face. It was all the time Licht needed and he jabbed forward, landing a solid hit to the others throat. He wretched and stumbled back a few steps; enough to allow Licht room to grab Hyde and retreat.

 Turning his attention back to the woman he realized she had changed focus and was advancing on Misono who was scrambling away, trying to keep her in sight but still avoid her lightening quick throws. He hastened to grab the branch and ran towards her. He didn't expect to make contact but was pleased when it proved enough of a distraction for Misono to take cover behind one of the trees lining the road.

 "That's so crass." She murmured, pulling a larger needle from her hair.

 He scowled and took another swing. "Well, excuse me! I'm working with what I've got!"

 She seemed to almost smile before glancing back at her comrade. "This will be troublesome."

 Mahiru followed her gaze in time to see Hyde use Licht like a springboard and hurl himself on top of the man. As the man flailed, trying to get purchase of him, Licht crept up from the side and, looking up and locking eyes with Hyde, threw a lethal kick into the mans side just as Hyde released his hold and fell backwards. Catching himself on his hands, he sprang backwards and landed next to a haughtily smirking Licht. 

 Mahiru grinned and turned back towards the woman. She seemed unnaturally distracted and he saw his moment. He ran forward, branch poised over his head and swung with as much force as he had. At the last second she ducked and the branch whistled harmlessly over her head. She sighed and her fingers flexed; Mahiru stumbled back as quickly as he could, trying to get as much distance between them as possible before she started throwing those needles again. It was a bad match, he thought wildly. Close range vs far. 

 "Hey!"

 Hyde's shout caught his attention and Mahiru once more threw a look to the pair. At some point the man had recovered and now had his hands buried in Licht's collar. He made a dash for the edge of the bridge and tossed Licht over the railing in one smooth motion. Just before disappearing from sight Licht managed to shove his foot into the mans face, shattering his nose. His triumphant laugh was the last thing they heard before he tumbled out of sight below the wall.

 Without a second thought Hyde grabbed the railing and threw himself over after.

 Mahiru felt his eyes widen in alarm and he took a hasty step back. It was just him and the other two now. His worry over Hyde and Licht fought with his instinctual fear for himself; he had no illusions that he would be able to take them both on his own. He had a moment to wish painfully for Kuro before the man straightened up, still clutching his face, and grinned.

 "You don't look so good, kid."

 As they circled closer Mahiru struggled to think of a plan, anything that could buy him some time. He was honestly considering making a run for it and jumping off the bridge too, when Misono crept out from behind the tree, a good sized rock clutched in his hand. The woman seemed to have forgotten about him and now had her back to the tree he had hidden behind. His steps were steady and measured, quiet enough that she never even blinked before he'd cracked the rock down against the back of her neck. She stumbled once and then fell to the ground silently. The man turned in surprise and swore under his breath.

 "Mahiru!" Misono yelled as he hurriedly retreated. "What now?!"

 "It's not as though this is above my pay grade." The man muttered thoughtfully, still staring down at the body of his unconscious partner. "But to be perfectly honest, I'm tired. And I really don't think it'll accomplish much." He shrugged and then bent, scooping the woman up. "It's been interesting, but I'm going to head out. Good luck." He added lowly, grinning. In a flash he turned and sprinted away.

 They wasted just a moment staring after him in astonishment before rushing to the side of the bridge where Licht and Hyde had fallen. As they desperately searched the churning, freezing water below a muted hollering traveled over the waves to them. Looking up they saw a small barge in the distance, growing smaller with every second, and on top of the trash filling the back stood Hyde and Licht. Hyde was waving his arms over his head frantically.

 Mahiru cupped his hands to his ears and leaned forward, straining to hear what he was saying.

 "Going to just wait- out- meet up with- when we find a way off-I- don't worry!"

 Sighing, Mahiru glanced at Misono. "Well, looks like it's just you and me now."

 Misono met his eyes, frowning in dismay. "Oh no."

 

 Mahiru kicked a small stone out of his path and sneaked a look at Misono; his brows were furrowed as he stared at Tsurugi's messy handwriting and chewed on his cheek, trying to decipher the next direction. He took a deep breath and put his hands in his pockets, clenching his fists out of sight. "So." He started and Misono glanced up curiously. "If you don't mind my asking.... what do you plan to do about your brother?"

 Instantly Misono closed off, a sudden chill shrouding him. "I don't really know." He whispered.

 Mahiru nodded and looked away. "Do you have any idea why Tsurugi would have kept it secret?"

 "Because he's a bastard." He spat without hesitation.

 A surprised laugh escaped Mahiru before he frowned, looking up and watching the deceptively fluffy clouds drift by over their heads. "Did Lily know about your brother?" He slid his gaze back to Misono to gauge his reaction and was surprised to see he had relaxed somewhat.

 "He's known since the beginning." Misono shrugged and folded up the paper. "As I explained before, I met Lily years ago during one of my frequent hospital stays. I happened upon him in the courtyard one morning. He was catching butterflies." He smiled, expression distant. "I thought he was wonderful and spied on him. He noticed me immediately, of course. Asked me to join him. Just like that-" He laughed once and then imitated Lily's lilting cadence. "'Won't you join me? I'm capturing beauty in real time'." He snorted. "What an aristocrat."

 Mahiru grinned. "You two suit each other."

 "Do we?" Misono asked in surprise. "I suppose so. Something about him just seemed.... familiar."

 Concealing the jolt of dejavu that suddenly slapped him Mahiru shrugged. "Sometimes you find people that you meld with."

 Misono hummed mindfully. "It does seem like I've known him a life time." He paused and his lips tugged down in dread. "What will I do if we can't-" He broke off and hunched his shoulders, making a show of pulling out the map again and staring at it.

 "Don't worry. We'll find him." Mahiru promised instantly. 

 "Right." Misono seemed to brace himself. "Right. The only explanation is that he got caught up in my brothers ilk. He never was good at excusing himself from tedious social situations." His tone dropped and his fingers tightened around the page. "And my brother has never been one to behave like a civilized adult."

 "Did Lily ever- I mean did he ever meet your brother?" Mahiru hedged. "Because when I described him he seemed to know who it was immediately."

 Misono shook his head. "No, they never met. Mikuni left about a year before I met Lily. I did show him pictures though. I'm afraid he's rather distinctive in that he always wears a stupid cowboy hat." Misono glowered down at the pavement. "I always thought it was absolutely ridiculous but he insisted on it."

 "It was, er- distinctive." 

 Misono gestured down the street to their left and they turned up the hill. "I just wish he'd found some place to stay that was closer." He huffed grumpily. "I never imagined we'd have to walk this far."

 "Well at least this way we have a better chance of escaping notice. Although who knows where those two ran off to."

 "I doubt they've followed us. If their intention was our capture he would have taken us both then. No, I'm more worried they were after Hyde." Misono bit his lip pensively and cast a cursory look around.

 "I guess Lily wasn't being paranoid when he wanted everyone to stay together after all." Mahiru muttered. "I hope Kuro doesn't do anything stupid."

 Misono glanced over, his expression puzzled. "I've been meaning to ask you, why on Earth did you volunteer to take him in?"

 Pausing to think it over, Mahiru could still only shrug helplessly. "I don't really know. I just said it before I really thought about it." He laughed awkwardly. "It was pretty reckless of me, I guess. But I heard you say that someone was out to kill him and I-" He broke off, goosebumps rising on his arms as he remembered the way Kuro had scoffed, unconcerned by the notion, had seemed flabbergasted that anyone was upset about it. He had no explanation for his reaction but thinking that Kuro could end up dying, that he wouldn't lurk around Mahiru's work or sneak into his class and snark his way through the lesson anymore- it had stolen the air from his lungs. He'd never felt so helpless before. "I just couldn't leave him."

 Misono gave him a rare, soft smile. "I think I understand what you're trying to say." When Mahiru tilted his head in question, he continued. "I was discharged after about a week. I was distraught to think I was leaving. I usually hated staying in the hospital but Lily had made my week so.... different. I couldn't bare the thought of never seeing him again. I ran to his room and begged him to come home with me. Needless to say he was quite shocked." Misono snorted, the smile still lingering around the corners of his mouth. "I had asked him before why he was there but his answer changed by the day. First it was the flu, then carpel tunnel, appendicitis, a slipped disk, on and on. I still don't know why he was really there. But I didn't care that he'd lied. I knew him. From the first moment we talked, I knew him." He sighed wistfully. "I pulled quite a few strings and had someone give me his file. When I found out he was an orphan... I knew that there was no other option but to bring him home."

 "How did you finally convince him?" Mahiru asked curiously.

 Misono surprised him by throwing his head back and laughing. "I told him he could have as many feather quilts and silk shirts as he wanted and all he had to do was make sure I passed my language class."

 Mahiru smiled ruefully. "That does sound like Lily." 

 They allowed the topic to drop and the silence settle over them as they traversed street after street, down an alley, past a shop, up a hill. After approximately forty minutes Misono signaled him to stop and flicked his head towards a darkened building across the street.

 "Is that it?" Mahiru murmured softly. Misono only nodded so he took a step forward, his foot hovering over the edge of the curb. "I'll go first."

 As they made their way across the street, Mahiru thought he saw a blurred shape dart from behind the house to disappear beyond the fence but when he blinked he began to doubt himself. It had been so fast. There was no way that a person could move like that. He was turning to ask Misono if he'd seen it too when there was a strangled yell from the upper floor of the building. They both blanched, momentarily frozen in the street, before rushing to the porch and up the steps. Mahiru pushed the door open without preamble and they leaned in together.

 The front room was dark and appeared empty. There were covers on several of the pieces of furniture scattered around, the ends waving in the slight breeze from the newly opened door. Mahiru could see a few feet into the dimly lit kitchen from where he stood and noticed that the coffee pot on the counter still had a light on. It couldn't have been long since someone was here.

 "Should we go in?" He whispered. 

 Misono's brow furrowed for a second and he nodded. "Who knows who that was upstairs. But we should be cautious." He glanced over. "We're not the strongest and without Hyde and Licht we need to favor flight over fight now."

 In answer Mahiru pushed the door open just a bit more and crept in, Misono a small shadow behind him. It felt wrong to be in a strangers house without the owner there but another strange squawk issued from up the stairs and he shelved his worries about propriety. Gesturing to the hall, he snuck along the wall, crouched as low as he could be and still move quickly. As he got closer he could hear more of the background sounds; there was what sounded like elevator music and murmurings that could be from a tv left on or from two people. Unsure which it was, he took a deep breath and decided to just go up and see.

 He considered telling Misono to wait downstairs so that he could still escape if Mahiru ran into trouble but fingers grasping the back of his sweater told him Misono had followed him up the stairs. He smiled faintly and crossed his fingers metaphorically. 

 At the top was a small hallway and at the farthest end a door was left slightly ajar. A heavy blue light emanated from beneath the door and Mahiru instantly thought of the lighting from Kuro's video games. Without pausing to think he approached the door and peered through the crack. His breath caught in surprise and he slapped a hand over his mouth. 

 Too late.

 The two men in the room froze, falling deathly silent, and both tilted their heads minutely, listening. Mahiru tried to calm his breathing, sweat breaking out between his shoulder blades as he agonized over the way his lungs seemed to wheeze and the air whistle deafeningly from his dry throat. Behind him Misono had stilled as well, sensing Mahiru's fear.

 "Did you hear that?" One of the men asked quietly. He cocked his head a bit more, the light from the tv screen reflecting off a matte black eye patch. 

 "Are you just trying to distract me so I lose?!" The other yelled. "That's cheating!"

 "Will you shut your mouth?!" The first one hissed. "I heard something. Out in the hall." They both turned to stare at the door and Mahiru cringed back, bumping lightly into Misono. He was trying to decide whether to remain as still as possible or turn tail and run as fast as they could when the loud one jumped up and began to prance towards the door.

 "Well I'll just look then! And once you see there's nothing there, and admit to your intense paranoia, then we can go back to me trouncing you at this game!"

 Mahiru turned, ushering Misono back desperately, scanning the rest of the hall. They didn't have time to make it to the top of the stairs, they'd have to hide somewhere- anywhere. He shoved Misono roughly forward, towards what he thought was the bathroom. Praying with every fiber of his being that the door would be unlocked and silent, he shot his hand over Misono's shoulder and twisted the handle. It clicked open easily and he bodily propelled Misono into the room. He spun and eased the door shut just as the one down the hall creaked open a bit more and a head of bright red hair peeked out.

 "You see? Nothing out here." 

 Eye-patch leaned out as well, looking over the others head. "I swear...."

 "You swear about everything!" The redheaded one complained. "Everything is always 'oh woe is me! blah blah drama!' with you!" He stuck his tongue out and threw the door the rest of the way open. "Just relax! This is the easy part of the job!"

 Mahiru turned to check if Misono was hearing this as well and felt his eyes fly open in horror when he saw him hunched over next to the sink, both hands over his mouth and nose, eyes watering, as he tried not to sneeze. He met Mahiru's eyes, brows drawn in terror and shook his head frantically. Mahiru rushed forward, reaching out to- well he wasn't sure what- but was too slow. Misono almost seemed to deflate in defeat and then sneezed explosively. 

 "There's so much dust!" He whispered defensively when Mahiru threw his hands up.

 The sounds from the hall ceased and foot steps hastened towards their hiding spot. Just before the door flew open Eye-patch crowed triumphantly. "I told you there was someone here!" The two men stared down at Mahiru and Misono in shock and Mahiru had a moment to note that they were wearing very strange suits before the loud one leaned farther in and pointed a finger at them.

 "You're not who we're waiting for!"

 "No, definitely not." Eye-patch agreed and frowned. "Just who are you two?"

 Mahiru opened his mouth but all that came out was a creak like a rusty door hinge. He threw an arm out protectively in front of Misono but it was pushed it out of the way as he stalked forward. "Who are you?" He demanded. "What are you doing in my brothers house?"

 Success flashed across Eye-patch's face and he stepped into the room. "Your brother, you say?"

 "No!" Mahiru shouted. "No, he didn't!"

 Eye-patch grinned and glanced over his shoulder. "Belkia. I think our job just got a lot easier."

 Belkia shrugged in response and flipped his hair back. "If you say so. But I still wanted a crack at that frickin' weirdo!"

 "You'll have your chance." Eye-patch muttered impatiently and returned his gaze to Mahiru and Misono. "Why don't you two come with us?"

 "I don't think so!" Mahiru exclaimed and, grabbing Misono's arm, jumped up and pushed his way past the two startled men. He hurtled towards the stairs, pulling Misono in front of him. "Misono! RUN!"

 Misono turned worried eyes to him but tripped down the stairs two at a time without comment. The sound of one of the men pursuing them was growing closer and when they reached the first floor Mahiru veered to the right, pulling Misono along with him, towards the kitchen. He began throwing open drawers looking for anything sharp or heavy. Even a soup ladle would be better than nothing, he thought frantically.

 As though he were being laughed at by fate, he finally came across a gigantic, solid metal handled serving ladle in the very last drawer he opened. He grabbed it and spun to face the entry way just as Belkia leaped around the frame. His hair was wild and his smile even more manic than Hyde's best. Mahiru clenched his teeth and moved to stand in front of Misono. 

 "Found you~" Belkia sang, creeping forward, hands raised. "Just be good little piggies and come with me. I have a surprise for you!" His eyes were trained on Misono and Mahiru felt him tense at his shoulder. 

 "I'm gonna pass on that!" Mahiru said firmly, tightening his hold on the handle. As Belkia laughed wildly and crept infinitesimally closer to Misono Mahiru could do nothing but beg the universe for all he was worth that Kuro would come crashing through the front door. Looking back on it later he would wonder why his first thought had been Kuro and not the police detective who not only knew where they were but was armed and uninjured, but in that moment, facing what looked to be a very unpleasant fate, all he could wish was that Kuro were there.

 Misono inched closer to him and grabbed the back of his shirt with shaking hands. "Now what?" He asked softly, his voice barely reaching over Belkia's annoying cackling.

 Mahiru crushed the desire to shrug and instead closed his eyes for a moment. "Now we hope we're lucky."

 "Right." Misono said dubiously.

 "Belkia! Shut up!" Eye-patch yelled as he skidded into the kitchen. "What's taking you so long? I've got the car around front. Do you mean to say you can't handle two kids?"

 Belkia stopped laughing and threw a frosty look over his shoulder. "You're no fun at all Shamrock." He sighed mock-wearily and then turned back to Mahiru. "Looks like the funs over! Off we go!" And he lunged forward.

 "What do you mean 'fun'?" Shamrock said angrily. "This is business!"

 Mahiru swung his ladle as soon as Belkia was in range but he ducked it easily, and grinned. "I mean this fun! Have you seen this kid?! He's going to fight me with a spoon!" He laughed again as he arched his back bending at the waist and evading another of Mahiru's swings.

 Shamrock sighed loudly, a hand to his brow. "Why do I have to put up with this."

 "Speak for yourself!" Belkia retorted, losing focus and glaring at Shamrock. Seeing the opening Mahiru leaped forward and whacked him solidly in the cheek. He gave a yelp and stumbled back, eyes wide. "How dare you!" His glee transformed into fury, expression clouding over. "You'll regret that." 

 Mahiru tried to stop the trembling in his knees as he sensed the change in Belkia's attitude. Before he'd been playful, threatening but almost funny; now he was nothing but raw danger. He darted a look to Misono to find that he'd managed to sneak around to their left unnoticed. Just as Belkia lunged forward drawing a wildly decorated short sword from within his jacket Misono jumped between them, pushing Mahiru back. The blades path intersected with Misono's shoulder and sliced cleanly through his coat, into his flesh. Blood splattered out in a speckled arch, falling darkly across Belkia's face. Mahiru felt the oxygen disintegrate from his body as Misono slipped sideways, a mildly surprised look on his face.

 "No!" Mahiru wasn't sure if he yelled it first or Shamrock, but they both rushed forward at the same time. Falling to his knees in the small glistening pool of red gathering around Misono he placed trembling hands to his arm. "Oh no, no, no-" He broke off as Misono's eyes flickered open, meeting his. Mahiru slammed his mouth closed and fell forward until he was almost curled over him, listening.

 Misono's mouth creaked open slowly and a small amount of blood bubbled near his lips. "I think- I just did something- really dumb." He rasped. 

 Mahiru gave a choked laugh but gasped when Shamrock grabbed Misono, dragging him forward and scooping him into his arms ignoring his pained breathing. "What do you think-"

 "Belkia. Grab him. And don't damage him." He commanded, nodding towards Mahiru and strode to the door. "We must get this one to Ootogiri."

 Belkia glared after him and sheathed his sword. "What a worry wort." He muttered, turning back to Mahiru who was now backed fearfully against the cabinets. "Time to go!" He reached forward, effortlessly plucking the ladle from Mahiru's hands and tossing it across the room. "I promise not to cut any more ribbons from your friend if you come with me~"

 Mahiru could only nod and take a shaking step forward. There were nothing else to do.

 

 The room he was tossed unceremoniously into was dark, darker still after the blinding light of the hallway. He landed with a hollow thump and didn't bother to try to chase the retreating figure through the door. His mind was still full of Misono; he couldn't scrub the delicately pained expression he'd seen on his face whenever the car turned too sharply from his mind. He'd never seen so much blood and his heart constricted achingly every time his thoughts fell too closely the more fatal of possible outcomes. 

 He shook his head. No, he couldn't worry too much. Shamrock, while stern, hadn't seemed overly concerned and Belkia had held true to his promise. As long as Mahiru complied, Misono was as safe as he could be.

 A soft scuffling from the far corner had his skin crawling and he scrambled back until he smacked into the wall. The dark had receded somewhat as his eyes adjusted and he could now make out a figure lying prone on the floor. He gathered what was left of his shattered courage and called out hesitantly. "H-hello? Are you ok?" He widened his eyes, willing himself to see more clearly and almost shrieked when the shape lurched up and swiveled towards him.

 "Mahiru?" Lily whispered, anguish lacing his voice. 

 "Lily!" Mahiru yelled, throwing himself across the room. "What are you doing here?!"

 "I could ask you the same thing." He leaned forward and his eyes traveled quickly over Mahiru, pausing momentarily at the blood stains on the knees of his pants. "What on Earth has happened to you?"

 Mahiru's vision had finally calibrated and he could see the stricken expression pulling at Lily's face. It was almost startling enough to distract from the blood leaking from his lips and cheek, the dark bruise forming on his brow, the strange way he held his shoulders. Brows twisting worriedly, Mahiru reached out a tentative hand and touched one of the lapels of his torn shirt. "I think you're a little worse off than I am."

 Lily grimaced and looked away. "This is nothing."

 "Your whole family talks like that." Mahiru observed. "But it still doesn't answer the question. We've been looking for you all day!"

 Flinching, Lily's eyes darted back up. "We?" He repeated.

 "Ah. Hyde, Licht, me and... Misono." Mahiru said slowly. "But we got separated from Hyde and Licht hours ago."

 His body language turning frantic, Lily blinked several times, scanning the room again quickly. "But where is Misono? Why isn't he with you?" 

 With herculean effort Mahiru managed to stave off the sudden onslaught of tears that threatened to burst from his eyes. "I- we-" He broke off, unable to find a way to explain. Lily's panic was seeping through the air, infecting him, and he could feel his heart rate accelerating, trying to break through his ribs. "We went to Tsurugi. To see if he knew where you were. He sent us to Mikuni's but when we got there there were these two men. Belkia and Shamrock. I tried to- I tried to fight them off but they were so fast and he pulled a s-sword. Misono- he pushed me out of the way but-" He took a deep stuttering breath. "He saved me. They took him to someone. A doctor I think. He'll be ok!"

 Throughout his explanation Lily had broken apart, his face cracking and caving under in devastation. "Where is he?" He asked again, almost emotionlessly.

 "I don't know." Mahiru whispered brokenly. "They took him and threw me in here."

 "I see." Lily leaned back, his eyes hooded and dark. 

 Mahiru studied him apprehensively for a moment and reached out a hand again. "Lily...? Are you-" He started hesitantly,  flinching back when Lily flicked his icy gaze to him.

 Instantly the chill melted from his posture and Lily frowned softly. "Mahiru! I'm so sorry! How careless of me, I've been a fool, and now look at you...." He trailed off woefully.

 Mahiru glanced down at himself, noting the blood speckling his clothing and the bruises across his arms. "It's not really that bad, I just-"

 "No! No, I apologize. Sincerely." Lily said earnestly. "I have made a grave many mistakes. But I'm afraid that we have very little time to discuss them. We are in a precarious position." His eyes darted to the door and away. "We must think of a plan."

 Dredging up a grin, Mahiru nodded. "Plans I can do."
 

 Hours later, or perhaps only twenty minutes, the door squeaked open. Mahiru blinked dazedly in the sudden light as Lily shifted slightly in his place near the center of the room. They'd spent what felt like an eternity picking at the ropes holding Lily's arms but made little success. Mahiru had managed to fray it just slightly at the expense of his fingertips but the metal bands winding the ends of the ropes into loops would not budge, nor would the enormous padlock linking the loop.

 Mahiru ran through what they'd discussed once more in his mind. As Lily was thoroughly incapacitated it was up to Mahiru to be the fire power. Anyone that came through that door was going to be his target and Lily his distraction. He didn't like the implications but Lily had refused to accept any other option. His main goal was to allow Mahiru as much time as possible to escape and look for Misono. Mahiru had argued that they had promised not to hurt him as long as they cooperated but Lily had simply leveled a grave look at him and asked what made him think they would stay true to their word. A shiver had crawled up his spine at the question and once again he had been forced to reevaluate his perspective.

 The door pushed the rest of the way open and Mahiru cast a glance to Lily sitting just outside the range of the light darting in from the doorway. He had bitten his lip, gaze focused on the figure in the door when suddenly his expression morphed into one of horror and, his wide desperate eyes finding Mahiru, still cloaked in the darkness behind the door, he shook his head wildly, mouthing "no no no no" over and over and over. Mahiru had a moment for the confusion to clog his mind before a silky voice flowed into the room.

 "As energetic as ever I see." A soft laugh followed and Lily flinched back as though he'd been slapped. "What a shame. Have you thought about what I asked?"

 Lily remained silent as he stared at the figure, terror shaking his bones like leaves in a storm and Mahiru could no longer resist his instincts and stepped out into the light.

 The man in the doorway turned his head slightly, eyebrows raising. "Ah, and another appears. Who exactly are you?"

 "My names Mahiru." He answered steadily, fists clenched at his sides. "Who are you?"

 "How rude!" The man laughed louder this time, his shoulders shaking. "But fine, Mahiru. Shirota was it? Oh yes, I know all about you." He added when Mahiru blinked in surprise. "We'll play by your rules then, shall we?" He stepped closer, holding out a hand and staring intently at Mahiru. "It's very nice to finally meet you, Mahiru. My name is Tsubaki."

 Mahiru reared back in shock, his eyes wide as his brain struggled to comprehend what had just been said. "You're..."

 "Tsubaki, yes. Not what you expected?" He asked humorously. "I'm afraid they-" he turned his sharp gaze to Lily "-like to exaggerate. I'm really not so bad!"

 Mahiru attempted to keep his expression neutral and only nodded. "How is Misono?" At the mention of the name Lily perked up, his eyes losing some of the fear that edged them. "I'd like to see him."

 "Oh, I'm sure you would!" Tsubaki exclaimed. "But I'm afraid he's still out cold. Poor thing. Quite a nice little wedge Belkia put in him." He smiled, something twinged with madness and a small almost unnoticeable pinch of melancholy. "No, it will be a bit before he wakes up I'm sure. In the meantime, why don't you and I have a little chat?" Mahiru blanched and couldn't help casting a look over to Lily, still standing silently at his side. "Oh, he will be coming as well." Tsubaki assured him, seeing his reaction. "Now let's go. I haven't got long."

 As he turned without a backwards glance and swept from the room Lily's shoulder pushed gently but insistently into Mahiru's, urging him forward. "Go, it's best not to make him wait." He whispered into his ear. "I'll be right behind you."

 

 They came to a large warehouse looking room and Mahiru couldn't help staring up in awe at the gigantic windows lining the walls near the ceiling. Beneath them ran a series of walkways, converging at the far end of the room and ending with a staircase down to the floor where they now stood.

 "This is my favorite room in the whole place!" Tsubaki said happily, throwing an arm out, gesturing to the space behind him. "Why you ask?! Good question!" He twirled around, his coat tails spinning out like fan blades. "Because with these windows I can see everywhere!"

 Mahiru knew better than to point out that the windows were at least fifty feet above their heads and instead forced himself to un-clench his jaw and agree. "They are very... impressive."

 "Aren't they just?!"

 "What- what did you want to talk about?" Mahiru felt Lily freeze up behind him when he asked but resisted to urge to look back at him. 

 Tsubaki deflated slightly and crossed his arms. "You're all business aren't you Mahiru?" He asked, sounding almost disappointed. "How in the world do you manage to put up with Kuro with that attitude?!" Prickly dread pierced his skin and Mahiru practically bit through his tongue. "Oh, yess. I know you've been hanging around him. You seem very fond of the little coward!"

 "Mahiru, you mustn't let him get to you." Lily murmured softly. "Ignore what he says. It's a game."

 "Quiet!" Tsubaki shouted, the word echoing around them. "No talking about me!"

 Lily cringed back and snapped his mouth shut but his shoulders remained as firm as his stance.

 "Mahiru, I'm sure at this point, having spent the last week with these fools, that you've been told this before but, how about I tell you a story?"

 Mahiru was gripped by the intense desire to burst into unhinged laughter but a quick pinch to his own arm quelled the urge. "I have been hearing that a lot lately. What's your story?"

 Tsubaki grinned widely. "Oh, it's not my story. No, no, it's Lily's here." Lily let a small squeak escape and Tsubaki's grin stretched until white teeth flashed in the fluorescent lighting. "It's your favorite! It's about how your second life started. With sweet Misono and all your little friends. But don't worry! If Kuro's sordid past hasn't scared Mahiru off I'm sure he'll take yours in stride as well."

 "Why are you doing this?" Mahiru demanded. "What's the point?"

 "Point?" Tsubaki repeated, eyes wide in confusion. "There's no point. I just want to."

 "Alright then, fine. Let's hear it."

 Taking a deep breath Tsubaki put his hands on his hips and leaned forward. "Lily here has a secret. A secret from you, from Kuro, even from Misono."

 "Don't!" Lily suddenly shouted. "Please!"

 "Even I was surprised!" Tsubaki continued as though he hadn't spoken. "I was sure after what I'd observed that Lily would tell Misono everything. But it seems that's not the case!"

 Lily took two unsteady steps forward, trying to block Tsubaki from Mahiru's view. "I'm begging!"

 Tsubaki stared coldly down at him for a moment before sneering. "There is one other that knows this secret, of course. I don't know if you've had the pleasure of meeting him yet but you won't forget him when you do. Jeje is the keeper of this juicy little tidbit." 

 Lily rushed forward, stopping just a foot from Tsubaki. "Not another word!"

 Tsubaki leaned around him, and raised his eyebrows glibly. "Gee, it really sounds like this secret should be shared with the class!" He brought his arm around like lightening and connected with Lily's shoulder, effortlessly flinging him to the side. "But first! Let's add our newest student!" 

 As though on cue, a side door swung open and Misono was half dragged, stumbling, into the room. As soon as the man gripping his collar released his hold Misono sagged down to his knees, gritting his teeth when the fall jarred him shoulder.

 "Misono!" Lily exclaimed, making a move to jump up. Tsubaki's foot landed on his back and he breathed out forcefully.

 "Uh-uh-uh. I don't think so!" 

 Misono glanced up groggily, his gaze floating wearily around the room and finally landing on Lily. Some of the haze cleared from his eyes and he struggled up, paling from the exertion. "Lily, thank god! I've been looking everywhere for you!" He began pacing laboriously forward, heedless of Tsubaki still looming over him. "What were you thinking?!" He finally got within reach and collapsed, head bowed and panting. "Do you have any idea the shit I've been through today?!" Raising his head he glared hotly at the startled expression on Lily's face. "Why do you look so surprised?" He demanded.

 Lily opened his mouth but seemed lost for words. Without warning, tears gathered thickly at the corners of his eyes and he gasped. "I'm so sorry, Misono! So sorry! I didn't mean for any of this! I was just- I thought-" He broke off and wiggled as close to Misono as Tsubaki would allow. "I should have told you. I should have explained. I thought- I didn't know if you'd come for me." As he'd talked his voice had slowed and quieted until the very last words were barely audible and he looked away, guilt and fear and relief all tugging at his features.

 "Why wouldn't I?" Misono asked and Tsubaki let loose a giggle.

 "Perhaps I could clear that up!" He took his foot off Lily's back and danced a few steps away. "Misono! Mahiru didn't seem very excited to hear what I had to say but I dare think you will be!"

 Misono turned to him with a disgusted expression. "Why would I be?"

 "Because! It's about Lily!"

 Mahiru saw the moment Lily took a breath in preparation before hurling himself to his feet and running at Tsubaki. At the last second he jumped and kicked out in a move starkly reminiscent of Licht. Tsubaki easily sidestepped and Lily landed heavily a foot away, spinning immediately and aiming another blow at his ankles. Once again he evaded, hopping over Lily's leg like a jump rope. He touched down and threw his own hit, catching Lily squarely on the left shoulder blade. Lily breathed out in pain and lost his balance, tilting to the side, unable to catch himself before he hit the ground. 

 Misono spit out a strangled yell and Tsubaki laughed. "You'll have to be a million times better than that! Haven't you learned anything? Why hasn't Ash taken pity on you?"

 "I've let myself grow complacent." Lily growled from the floor, spitting fresh blood to the side and glaring. "And I doubt Kuro would ever agree to teaching any one."

 "He does prefer to deal with things on his own. Not to mention he was always rather protective, if I remember correctly." Tsubaki said gaily, his eyes sliding to Mahiru. "Still is, I assume."

 "Very." Lily agreed darkly, his gaze fixed un-waveringly on Tsubaki. "I'd be careful if I were you."

 Tsubaki smiled and shrugged. "Perhaps I should be, but first! Misono." He clapped his hands. "Shall I clear something up for you?" When Misono raised an eyebrow sardonically he laughed. "He never told you why you two met. He lied. About why he was in that hospital and who brought him there."

 The blood drained from Lily's face and he turned terrified eyes to Misono. He remained silent but Mahiru could hear his unvoiced screams as he stared desperately at Misono as though he could spirit him from the room through sheer willpower alone.

 "I don't really have any interest in the things he chooses not to tell me." Misono said stiffly, refusing to look at Lily. 

 Tsubaki balanced himself on one leg, the other propped out casually. "Even after what happened with your brother?" Misono froze, eyes going wide as he clenched his jaw. "You see, I happen to know why he left! He told me himself in fact!" When Misono flinched back Tsubaki grinned. "Oh yes. I know he left because of you. Because his own mother couldn't stand the sight of you and killed herself!" He flipped a hand nonchalantly and tilted his head. "Personally, I don't see much connection between the events but then, Mikuni has always been a bit odd, hasn't he?"

 "How could you-" Misono sounded like he was choking, the air strangled in his lungs as he tried to breath past his panic.

 "I already told you. I have observed. Anyway, more importantly, and more interestingly, is how this all pertains to your precious little Lily." Tsubaki hopped to his other leg and folded his arms behind his back. "After a little thought and investigation I came to realize the reason that Lily would keep something like this from you. After learning you have an intense hatred- shall we call it contempt- of suicide- for stealing your brother, for stealing your mother- it's obvious that Lily, who loves you oh so dearly, would never admit that-"

 "NO!" Lily screamed, the word tearing from his throat, raw and enormous. "Don't!"

 "- he was there from a suicide attempt!"

 Mahiru turned to stare at Lily in disbelief. Lily, who always had a smile and clever quip, who was helpful and caring, Lily, who drank too much wine and laughed like a wind chime. Lily had tried to kill himself?

 "What are you talking about." Misono said coldly.

 Lily had caved in on himself but now jerked his face up to Misono, a flood of torment pouring from his eyes. "Please. You have to understand. I didn't know. I didn't think there was any other way. I wanted-" He broke off on a heaving sob. "Whatever happens, I don't regret it. I'm glad I failed and met you! I want to live! Please don't think any differently of me, please don't hate me! I-"

 "Lily." Misono interrupted him and Lily flinched back at his tone. "Be quiet." Staring hostilely at Tsubaki he struggled to his feet, free hand grasping his bandaged shoulder where the blood was beginning to seep through. "Get up and pull yourself together." He glanced down at Lily, still curled up on the floor. "Why would this change anything?"

  Four shots rang through the air shattering the heavy silence and the window directly behind Tsubaki exploded inward, raining glass and dust down on them. Mahiru jumped back, narrowly avoiding a falling chunk of plaster, and looked up just as Mikuni threw himself in through the broken pane.

 "How's it going?!" He exclaimed, grinning widely as he skidded to a halt at the edge of the walkway. "I think that's enough talking for now, don't you?"

 Jeje stepped in smoothly behind him, and nodded. "Yes."

 "Fabulous!" Mikuni reached up and straightened the hat perched precariously on his head. "Now what do you say we get this party started?" He tipped his head, staring down at them as he unclipped the whip laced to his side. "I'd hate for there to be any more misunderstandings."

 Tsubaki turned to meet his gaze and hummed. "Mikuni, I had my suspicions but now I know for sure, I suppose." He threw his head back and laughed. "Oh, this is funny!"

 "Well! There goes our cover!" Mikuni said cheerfully as Jeje sighed. "Guess we'll need a new place to stay."

 "You sure know how to make an entrance." A third voice muttered irritably from outside the window and Mahiru felt his heart stutter and all his fear lift and evaporate as Kuro ducked in after Jeje, a hand over his head as he stared grumpily at the hanging shards of glass grazing his hair. "Couldn't we just use the door?"

 "Kuro!" Mahiru shouted, running forward, all danger forgotten. He stopped just beneath the broken window, feet crunching through the shattered glass, and Kuro glanced down at him blandly. "What are you doing here?!"

 "Honestly, Mahiru. Can't you go one day without getting kidnapped?" He asked wearily. "I need a vacation." His eyes darted to Tsubaki and shadowed. "We're taking one just as soon as we get out of here."

Chapter Text

Mahiru followed Kuro's gaze and spun around, watching apprehensively as Tsubaki took several languid, almost aimless, steps forward until he was directly beneath Mikuni up on the walkway. Fumbling back towards the wall as quickly as he could, Mahiru cursed himself, appalled that he could have forgotten the gravity of the current situation just because of Kuro's sudden appearance. His foot bumped into a large wooden crate and he placed a steadying hand on it, his gaze drifting unconsciously back up again; Kuro hadn't moved from where he stood behind Jeje. His hands were hidden in his pockets and his eyes half lidded but his posture radiated nothing but vigilance.

 "Tell me Mikuni." Tsubaki said pleasantly. "When exactly did you change your mind? Or were you a back stabbing fool from the very beginning?"

 Mikuni hurled a hard laugh down at him and jumped up on the railing, balancing easily. "I wouldn't call it being a fool! Just an interested party."

 "Oh? And what are you interested in?"

 "My brother!"

 From the corner of his eye Mahiru saw Misono step back, wide eyes trained on Mikuni as though he were seeing a ghost. Next to him, Lily had climbed to his feet and at Mikuni's admission cast a worried glance at him and edged closer, his shoulder brushing softly against Misono's uninjured one.

 Tsubaki made a contemplative noise and glanced back at the pair as well, eyebrows raised. "Your brother, huh? From what you told me it seemed like you couldn't give two shits about the little bastard."

 A storm passed over Mikuni's face and his eyes flashed dangerously. "Watch your mouth." He began to pace steadily across the railing, arms thrown out akimbo as though walking a tightrope, his eyes fixed on Tsubaki. "I thought you would be accustomed to the idea of telling your enemy what they want to hear."

 "Can't say as I've ever had the pleasure." Tsubaki shrugged, sounding bored. His gaze flickered to Kuro and his lips twitched slightly. "Now here's a familiar face! What threat finally pulled you out of the gutter where you've been hiding?" At the remark Mahiru glared, taking an unconscious step forward in ire. The squeak of his sole drew Tsubaki's attention and he turned, understanding brightening his face. "Ah, I see." 

 Kuro threw a panicked look at Mahiru and stepped forward, around Jeje. "Nothing really." He muttered, staring hard at Tsubaki, his expression tense. "Just thought I'd like to get everything settled once and for all."

 Laughing loudly, Tsubaki tucked his hands into the bell sleeves of his jacket and began pacing slowly towards Mahiru, dropping one foot after the other heavily, almost like a march. "That's rich. Since when are you upfront about anything?" He was within fifty feet, now thirty, and Mahiru had already crammed himself back against the shipping containers as far as he could, trying to make himself as small as possible. There was no where else to go. He was trapped and he didn't have a hope in hell of slipping by Tsubaki at this range.

 "Not so fast!" Mikuni sang suddenly, twirling a finger dramatically. He had reached the end of the railing and was poised at the top of the stairs, arm raised. He smiled widely and brought his arm down, tilting his head. "Jeje."

 At his call Jeje flung his sleeves aside baring not one but two of his ridiculous semi automatics. Mahiru had been correct when he assumed Jeje could and would treat guns as a natural extension of himself; his aim was flawless, peppering the ground just a few inches in front of Tsubaki's shoes. He jumped back quickly and Mahiru took the opportunity to slip to his left, inching along the edge of the container until he rounded the corner and could get some reasonable distance. He took a deep breath and sprinted in a wide berth around Tsubaki, who was still being kept in place by strategically placed bullets. 

 The gun fire ceased as he reached the stairs leading up to the walkway and he grabbed the handrail, swinging himself around and up to the first step, almost colliding with Mikuni. This close he could see the family resemblance between them; Misono had the same sharp, intelligent eyes, the arched brows, the high hairline, but Mikuni carried all these features cloaked in a kind of radical madness. He was twinged with impatience and something like sarcasm, as though he were about to burst into cruel laughter any moment.

 "Whoa there!" He exclaimed, dodging around Mahiru at the last second. "Exit's that way!" He pointed towards the largest of two sets of doors.

 "But Kuro-" Mahiru began.

 "Can take care of himself." Mikuni scoffed. "Get out while the gettin's good." He threw a curious look up the stairs for a moment and then back to Mahiru. "I'd really advise you to let that one go." And he jumped off the last step, darting towards Lily and Misono. 

 "Mikuni! What do you think you're-?!" Misono's yell was cut off when Lily bumped him forward into Mikuni's waiting arms.

 "Take him." He said solemnly, his eyes trained on Tsubaki. Jeje had ducked out the window as soon as Mikuni had passed by Mahiru and now Tsubaki was casually dusting off the front of his jacket, expression blasé, as he trotted slowly towards them.

 "Lily! What in the world are you talking about?!" Misono struggled as Mikuni began dragging him away, an arm around his throat and the other gripping his waist, carefully avoiding his bandaged shoulder. "You better not-"

 Lily turned towards him and smiled lightly. "I'll be right behind you." 

 Mikuni tossed a small switchblade to him and, slinging Misono over his shoulder, took off without a backward glance. Lily spun and caught it, flipping it open and slicing through the ropes. As they fell he stood to find Tsubaki watching him curiously.

 "What do you intend to do?" He asked, tone dripping with amusement. Without answering Lily twirled the blade around in his hand and raised it. Tsubaki quirked an eyebrow. "Ah, I see. Ending things officially now are we?" Lily blanched, standing frozen for one second too many and Tsubaki leapt forward, knocking the blade from his hand. "There's no need for that. I promise I'll take care of it myself."

 Without thinking Mahiru ran towards them and threw himself full tilt into Tsubaki's back. He stumbled forward, Lily barely sidestepping in time to avoid being knocked over, and Mahiru vaguely heard Kuro's shout before Tsubaki reached back and grabbed his collar, yanking him around roughly. He felt his teeth clack together from the force and Lily gasped.

 "You're really in over your head, aren't you?" Tsubaki asked him brightly. "Let me teach you a lesson- when your rescuer leaves, so should you." He pulled back an arm but hesitated, a thoughtful expression crossing his face. "Kuro. What do you think would happen if you weren't here?" Mahiru's brow creased in panicked confusion and he jumped when Kuro's voice sounded from just a few feet away. 

 "What-if scenarios are a bore."

 Maihru barely had time to blink before Kuro lunged forward, wrapping an arm gently around his waist and raising the other, blocking Tsubaki's downward strike. He grit his teeth, buckling under the force and they went tumbling to the ground. Just before Mahiru's head hit the ground a hand curled around the base of his skull, cushioning the impact. Through the flashes of light flaring in his eyes and ears he heard Tsubaki laugh.

 "You're just as quick as ever!" He laughed once more, then frowned, sighing. "But, it's still not good enough." He brought a booted foot down on the center of Kuro's chest. 

 Mahiru felt hands push at his shoulders a moment before Tsubaki made contact and he went tumbling a couple feet away, coming to rest on his stomach, the world still spinning as he listened to Kuro's ear piercing gurgling. He braced his hands against the damp cement and pushed himself up, arms shaking and mouth dry. Desperately forcing his eyes to focus he almost fell back on his face when his eyes met Tsubaki's.

 "Better go while you can!" He said gleefully, grinding his heel down, grinning when Kuro let out another hacking gasp. "You have about two minutes before I'm finished with this cretin."

 "I- wh- why-" Mahiru could barely draw enough breath to stay conscious, least of all speak, and he felt the room tip once more, the pain in his head radiating out through his entire nervous system. "Yu-"

 "Not the smartest, are you?" Tsubaki chuckled. "Well, no big loss than, right?"

 Kuro bared his teeth and grabbed Tsubaki's ankle, twisting it with all his might and shunting it to the side. He overbalanced just enough for Kuro to roll out from under him and throw himself to his feet, snapping out with a kick so fast Mahiru didn't even see him move. Tsubaki jumped out of the way easily and turned his attention back to Kuro.

 "Defending him, are you? Or perhaps you just don't want to die?" He rolled his head, lips twisting into a writhing sneer. "If there's anything you were ever any good at it was using other people to make your escape. You are such a fan of second hand murder."

 Kuro straightened, his hands loose at his sides, and turned his head, empty gaze finding Mahiru. "You should go." He said blandly. His eyes flitted over Mahiru's shoulder and he blinked once. "Make sure he doesn't come back."

 Mahiru was opening his mouth to ask what the hell he was talking about when hands wrapped themselves securely around his upper arms and Lily leaned forward, smiling apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mahiru, but it's time for us to go." He gave a pull and Mahiru went stumbling backwards, his eyes wide in shock, still locked on Kuro.

 "Wait! We can't just-"

 "We have no hope of winning this. We must subtract ourselves from the equation if Kuro is to have any chance of getting away." Lily whispered, still tugging him roughly towards the door as Mahiru tried to pry his arms free. "Our time is limited, his more so if we are in the way."

 "That doesn't make any sense!" Mahiru yelled angrily. "We can't abandon him!"

 "Trust me." Lily pleaded. "This is the only way."

 "Bullshit!" Mahiru wrenched free, wincing when Lily's nails dug shallow trenches in his skin. "That's not how it works!" He ducked under Lily's grasp, narrowing his focus to nothing but the two standing thirty yards away.

 "Mahiru! No!" 

 Kuro's shout was too late. He had already reached them, his eyes fixed on Tsubaki. As he came within reach he tilted on his feet, skidding sideways, coming to a stop between them. Throwing an arm back, he caught hold of the sleeve of Kuro's jacket and pulled him behind him. "Please! Can't we just talk this over?" He said frantically, staring up, trying to keep his face and voice from cracking in fear.

 Tsubaki's lips twitched once, twice, and suddenly he fell back, doubling over in laughter. "Are you serious?!" He raised his head, his hair falling over his eyes. "You think now's the time to talk?"

 Kuro sighed explosively and his breath ruffled Mahiru's hair. "I can't deal with you."

 "And what exactly do you propose it is that we talk about?" Tsubaki asked, eyes bright.

 Mahiru searched his face for a moment, trying to gauge his seriousness but gave up, finding nothing but a deep pool of incongruity lurking beneath the fragile surface tension of faux curiosity. "I don't understand why you're doing all this. Why did you kidnap Lily?"

 "Ah! That's easy. I went to drag that bum Mikuni back here but he wasn't at home." He forced his features into a comic pout and shrugged. "And who did I find instead? Lily! It was a curious thing. What was he doing there, why was he alone, did Mikuni know? So many questions!" He threw out his hands and leaned forward. "I couldn't possibly just leave him there! So he came home with me. I've had such an interesting night with him."

 Mahiru felt his lips twist down in turmoil. "But why?" He demanded, praying with every fiber of his being that Tsubaki had no suspicions about Lily's involvement. "And why are you after Kuro?"

 "After Kuro?" Tsubaki repeated quizzically, brows raised.

 "You followed him here!" Throwing caution to the winds, Mahiru took a shaking step forward and continued. "Why?"

 Once again, Tsubaki laughed hysterically, running a hand through his bangs, pulling them back taut against his brow. "Why? There's no why!" He shook his head, still grinning.

 Faltering in confusion, Mahiru's eyebrows furrowed. "Aren't you trying to kill him? What's the reason?"

 Tsubaki's eyes flew wide, surprise etched across his face. "There's no reason! I just want to."

 Mahiru blanched, his heart pounding an uneven staccato rhythm on his ribs and he took a wavering step back, bumping into Kuro. A bandaged hand touched his shoulder, sliding down his arm, and gently wrapped around his wrist. 

 "Don't do this, Mahiru." Kuro murmured softly. "Just get out of here."

 Biting his lip, Mahiru shrugged the hand off abruptly, never looking away from Tsubaki's inquisitive stare. "Forget it! I'm not leaving you here!" When Kuro made a frustrated noise he brought his other hand up, willing his arms not to falter. "I promise I've been practicing! I won't get in your way! I'm going to-"

 "No!" Kuro snarled suddenly, his voice breaking in rage. "I won't let you! You're not dying a pointless, stupid death because of me!" He pushed forward. "You won't be like her, you won't-"

 Mahiru turned in shock, forgetting Tsubaki, forgetting the warehouse and the empty, cold air, forgetting his fists, clenched and shaking, and saw instead only Kuro standing next to him, eyes wild with fear, quivering in desperation. Mahiru relaxed one hand and touched his fingers tenderly, thoughtlessly, to Kuro's cheek. Kuro's frantic gaze met his and he saw now, all the guilt and horror and sadness that were locked up in his mind and heart; a mountain of snowy regret and terror avalanched on top of one honest, gentle person, crushing everything into stasis, an entire life frozen in time. Blinking back the sting of tears he tried to smile, his lips trembling. "Kuro." He whispered it, barely breathed it, but still Kuro flinched as though struck. He firmed the pressure of his finger tips against Kuro's pale, chilled face. "I can't protect you, but I'm going to help you."

 Kuro's eyes, impossibly, widened further, his bloodless lips parting. "What did you say?"

 Mahiru's smile strengthened and he let his fingers trail down, grazing over the sharp jaw  and warm, fragile skin of Kuro's neck, ending at the collar of his shirt and hovering there. "I'm going to help you. You can't do this on your own, and neither can I." He refused to blink, willing his assurance to bridge the gap between them, to begin tunneling through all that heavy packed snow. He watched raptly as Kuro's gaze softened, the razors edge of madness and desperation starting to recede.

 "Mahiru. You truly are insane." Kuro said slowly, cautiously, but his expression was warm. "I suppose I can't stop someone so stubborn, can I?" His eyes glittered suspiciously and he jerked his face away, bit his lip once, hard. "Well then knuckle head, what do you suggest we do?" 

 Kuro's voice was rough and lumpy, but steady, and Mahiru felt his heart twist sharply in response, stealing his breath. "I was hoping you had a plan." He admitted, unable to squash the ridiculous grin working it's way across his face. 

 "You already saw my plan." Kuro said, and sighed. "You didn't seem to like it."

 Astonished with himself, Mahiru couldn't help but laugh. "That's because it was a stupid plan." 

 The edge of Kuro's cheek lifted in a quick smile before falling again, his shoulders stiff. "We could run?" He offered hopefully.

 "I'm afraid that is an even worse plan." Tsubaki cut in cheerfully. "As fascinating as all that was, I just don't have the time to chase you two all over the country. As it is, I'm going to have to stop this right here. I had so hoped for a more showy ending to this chapter but, well-" He sighed and shrugged, expression pinched with regret. "-what can you do when your hand is forced?" His heavy gaze fell on Mahiru and he frowned. "You really have butted in at the worst possible time."

 "I guess it's what I'm good at." Mahiru said, returning the look as firmly as his rising panic allowed.

 Suddenly the sound of a siren broke the air and all three turned to the door in surprise. Flashing lights could be seen between the door and the ground, blue and red alternating to leave a bright purple afterglow. It was so unexpected that Mahiru at first could not fathom what it was from, but as the familiar sound worked it's way past his thundering heartbeat and into his mind, his shoulders relaxed a fraction, his hands dropping. 

 It was a mistake.

 Tsubaki darted forward, arm raised and Kuro intercepted, pushing Mahiru roughly out of the way. He stumbled but caught his footing, looking up just in time to see Kuro swing his leg, grimacing but never hesitating, and land a glancing blow on Tsubaki's thigh who had contorted to avoid the brunt of it. But Kuro hadn't released his hold on Tsubaki's wrist and his evasion was cut short when Kuro yanked him forward, balling his free hand and drilling it into the exposed side of Tsubaki's throat. His eyes went wide and he gasped, buckling.

 Without waiting to see if he had floored the other man, Kuro turned and grabbed Mahiru's arm, pulling his back towards the rear of the warehouse. His steps were uneven and even in his abstraction Mahiru could see that Kuro was at his limit, all the running and defending pulling the last remaining strength from his battered body. He ignored the instinctual fear that bubbled up when he realized he was keeping easy time with Kuro and instead flung himself forward shoulder first into the door Kuro had led them to, cracking the old wooden frame and forcing the door open. They burst from it in a tangle of limbs and gasps, diving into the bushes lining the woods.

 As they crouched amongst the brambles, small twigs digging into their arms and drawing fine trails of red across their skin, Mahiru listened to the sounds of the riot police barging into the now, surely, empty warehouse. Tsubaki had not followed them but Mahiru had no doubt that he had escaped in his own way.

 He turned to Kuro, almost scared of what he would see, and reached out to lay his hand over Kuro's in the dirt next to him. Kuro jumped at the contact but didn't pull away, though his expression darkened and he chewed his lip for a while before finally meeting Mahiru's gaze.

 "I hope you don't plan to go in there and try to 'talk to them'." He muttered mockingly, one eyebrow twitching nervously as though he really thought Mahiru might insist. 

 Smiling sardonically, Mahiru curled his fingers around the hand beneath his. "No." He whispered softly. "No, I don't."

 

 They had waited beneath the leaves of the shrubbery for twenty or so minutes before Kuro sighed and motioned for Mahiru to crawl out. He had reservations but perhaps it was just fear tugging at his nerves; sitting around in the dust and watching the sun bleached siding of the building wasn't doing them any good, they needed to find Misono and Lily, and perhaps Mikuni and Jeje as well.

 "Are you sure they're gone?" He whispered worriedly, pushing a particularly springy branch away from his face. Kuro glanced back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised in sarcastic surprise and Mahiru felt a blush work it's way up his neck. "The police I mean. You don't want to run into them do you?" His voice cracked embarrassingly and he rushed forward, hurrying past Kuro and out into the open.

 "They're gone." Kuro said quietly, coming to a stop next to him.

 "Alright. Let's find the others then."

 They kept to the shadows lining the wall, steps slow and quiet. The building seemed even larger from the outside and Mahiru began to worry that they were, in fact, completely alone, the others having left long ago, when they rounded the second corner and caught sight of Lily's unmistakable honey blond hair glittering in the sun. Kuro gave a low whistle and the rest of Lily popped out from within the trees, a look of relief obvious on his face. Misono followed closely at his heels as he loped quickly across the small clearing.

 "Thank goodness! We've been waiting for quite some time! We were so afraid you'd been caught up in the ruckus inside!" Lily reached out and, surprising everyone, pulled Kuro into a forceful hug. 

 Misono crossed his arms and fixed Mahiru with an irritable look. "Where have you been?"

 Shrugging, Mahiru scuffed a shoe through the loose gravel, watching bemusedly as Kuro struggled to extracate himself from Lily's arms. "Hiding in the bushes. Same as you."

 Misono had the grace to blush before sighing and relaxing. "We should get out of here."

 As if on cue, Mikuni burst from the forest, waving his hat wildly and grinning. "Good news! No one found our car! Hope you losers don't mind two to a seat belt!" He smirked when he saw Mahiru blanch in shock and draped an arm over Misono. "Made it out, did you? I was beginning to think you'd sacrificed yourself like some stupid action hero."

 Lily made a noise in the back of his throat and seemed to forget Kuro in favor of pinning Mikuni with a withering stare. "He'd be one of the few then, wouldn't he?" He muttered angrily.

 Without a word Misono turned and began picking his way back across to where they'd been hiding. Mikuni watched him for a moment before glancing back at Lily and grinning. He winked and stuck his hat firmly back over his ears. As he strode away, whip swinging merrily against his hip, Lily growled lowly once more, squeezing Kuro tightly again and earning a pained exclamation. 

 "I'm so sorry!" He yelped, throwing his arms wide and stepping back. "I didn't hurt you too much, did I?"

 Kuro rolled his eyes. "I'm more worried about what you're planning for that ten gallon hat hick."

 "Nothing!" Lily answered too quickly. "Nothing at all. I just find him... distasteful."

 Kuro made a noncommittal noise and suddenly grabbed Mahiru's hand. "Come on, before they leave us here and we have to walk back. I can't tell you where the hell we are after the way that crazy bastard drove."

 Mahiru stumbled a few steps when Kuro gave his arm a yank, looking back to be sure Lily was following, and bit his lip. Lily was indeed there, but a few feet away and after a few minutes of walking in silence he couldn't keep himself from asking any longer. "Kuro, how did you end up here with Mikuni?" 

 "Ah, well. It's a long story." He mumbled evasively.

 "I think we have some time on our hands."

 "I'll tell you later." 

 Deciding that was the best he was going to get for a while, Mahiru nodded. "Fine. But I'm not letting you forget."

 "I don't think I could."

 Before he had time to wonder what that meant, they cleared the trees and Mahiru saw, parked lopsidedly near the edge of the forest, a lime green BMW of some sort. Surprisingly, Jeje was seated behind the wheel, Mikuni leaning into the back seat. A heel shot out, catching him in the stomach and he staggered back, smiling grimly. 

 "I don't need your help!" Misono shouted. "I can buckle my own damn seat belt!"

 "Oh sure sure." Mikuni agreed. "No need of my help at all." There was no response to this and he turned at the sound of Mahiru's steps across the road. "Just in time! We were about to leave without you!"

 "We were most certainly not!" Misono yelled from within the confines of the back seat. "Lily! Get over here!"

 Twisting to hide a pleased smirk, Lily stepped around Mikuni and folded himself into the back next to Misono. "As you wish." He murmured gently, and reached over to buckle the belt Misono was still struggling with.

 An irritated look flitted across Mikuni's face before he bowed, beckoning them around to the other side. "Plenty of room for two more." He said pleasantly, smiling, the expression not reaching his eyes.

 Swallowing down a sense of foreboding, Mahiru followed Kuro around the rear of the sedan and into the back seat. He ended up squished next to Misono in the center seat after a brief scuffle in which Kuro insisted Mahiru take the middle because he was so much shorter. The heat in his cheeks still prominent he crossed his arms in a huff and Kuro slid in next to him, throwing him a cheerful smile before slamming the door closed.

 "All set?" Mikuni asked, leaning around the front passenger seat. "Hold tight! Jeje drives even worse than I do!"

 Mahiru saw Kuro pale and clench his jaw just as Jeje hit the gas and the car's tires spun, spitting rocks and dirt behind them wildly. His stomach flipped and he unconsciously reached out, grabbing hold of Kuro's sleeve. He turned wide eyes to his right to find that Misono and Lily were braced against each other, expressions bland and resigned. An uncontrollable laugh forced its way from his mouth and Kuro shot him a perplexed look. Mahiru shook his head, unable to explain, his laughter fueled by the slightly green twinge to Kuro's skin. He had no doubt that the feeling of being sea sick would be very much akin to this.

 The entire drive back to the mansion passed in a wobbly sort of silence and Mahiru couldn't help the deep breath of relief he gave when Kuro finally threw open the door and they tumbled awkwardly out onto the drive way.

 "I see nothing much has changed with you, Jeje." Lily said happily.

 Jeje turned slightly, staring down from beneath his hood. "Not much." He agreed and Lily beamed.

 As Mikuni pulled open the front door, waving Misono in before him, Mahiru froze halfway up the steps, his skin going numb in cold dread. Kuro stared at him in panic, opening his mouth to ask what was wrong when Mahiru reached up, pulling at his hair in horror. "We forgot about Hyde and Licht!" 

Chapter Text

At Mahiru's shout Misono turned and snorted. "Maybe you forgot, but I certainly didn't." He waved his phone around. "I called them right after calling the police."

 His blood pressure easing, Mahiru trotted up the rest of the steps and grinned. "You really do think of everything!"

 Misono's cheeks exploded in color and he stomped away into the foyer, one shoulder hunched. "Stop that this instant."

 "Stop what?" Mahiru asked, dashing after him. "I was just saying that it's a good thing you're here!"

 "Cease and desist!" Misono bellowed, quickening his pace, eyes trained on the far staircase, as though he hoped to vault up it and escape.

 "Hey, hey, hey. What about me?" Mikuni demanded from the doorway. "You know, the one who kicked down the doors and unleashed the tides of mayhem and salvation on your sorry asses?!"

 Lily sniffed loudly as he stalked past. "More like the pitter-patter of unruly intrusion."

 "Oh, yeah. Cause you were doing so great on your own!"

 Jeje paused in the doorway, hovering menacingly over Mikuni. "Don't."

 "Don't what!" Mikuni muttered, his lip jutting in a pout. "Don't you start in on me. I can't stand another second of your special brooding."

 "He does not brood!" Lily exclaimed, turning so quickly he almost slipped.

 Mikuni rolled his eyes and pushed roughly past Jeje, reaching up to take off his hat and toss it into one of the empty chairs lining the hall. "Sure, whatever you say, your lordship. I'm off for a nap. It's been one hell of a day." He cast one last, longing glance towards Misono before scowling and sweeping off up the stairs.

 Jeje tracked his movements across the upper hall and left down a passageway before turning back to Kuro. His hood had slipped back slightly and one eye glittered sharply in the flickering lamp light. Kuro crossed his arms and raised a brow.

 "I suppose there is much to discuss." Jeje mumbled.

 "You think?"

 "You wish to discuss it?" Jeje asked, sounding almost surprised.

 "Of course not." Kuro muttered, looking away and frowning, his gaze settling on Mahiru a few feet away, still talking animatedly with Misono who he'd trapped in a corner. "But I don't think we're really gonna get away with ignoring all this, do you?"

 Seeming to think about it, Jeje paused, and finally shrugged. "Most likely not."

 "Then might as well just do it."

 "As you say." Jeje inclined his head slightly. "But first, I need sleep." A small chuckle escaped the confines of his hood and Kuro's mouth dropped open. "You do not know exhausted until you have spent an entire day with Mikuni." There was the smallest glimmer of affection in his words and he beat a hasty retreat as though in embarrassment, stopping momentarily to pat Lily on the shoulder before disappearing the same way Mikuni had. 

 Kuro watched him go feeling lost and jumped when Mahiru came up behind him, following his line of sight.

 "So that's Mikuni and Jeje." He said simply.

 Kuro sighed. "Yep. That's them." He waited, knowing instinctively that Mahiru was stewing on something and there was no stopping him from bringing it up.

 True to form, Mahiru took a deep breath and plastered a manic grin on his face. "Well! What do you say we grab a little something to eat?"

 Kuro narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Are you hungry?"

 "Not particularly. But you need to eat. And I won't take no for an answer!"

 "Do you even know what time it is?" Kuro asked, hoping to stave off the inevitable if only for another couple hours.

 Mahiru's brows drew together in confusion for a moment but he just shrugged. "Not exactly, sometime in the afternoon? Honestly, I've lost all track of time." He confessed, his eyes losing their focus, a small frown tugging at his lips. Kuro felt his lungs clench and shoot a dose of guilt and hurt into his system at the look but did not interrupt. "But!" Mahiru continued, brightening. "I do know it's time we relaxed for a moment. And talked." 

 He tacked this last bit on hesitantly, almost hopefully, and Kuro gave up any desire to bother arguing. If nothing else, he owed Mahiru a full explanation. "Fine then." He sighed, gesturing ahead of them. "Lead the way. And you're cooking."

 Mahiru shot him a pleased look and, taking his hand, pulled him off to the kitchen.


"Lily."

 He flinched but pretended not to hear, continuing on, eyes focused on the alluring soft pink of his bedroom door.

 "Lily."

 "Ah, Misono!" He exclaimed, turning and gasping. "I didn't hear you!"

 Misono stared at him for moment before sighing. "Lily, where are you going?"

 Trying to resist pulling at the suddenly tight collar of his shirt, he chuckled nervously. "I was headed to my bed. I have to admit that Jeje had the right idea and I do think it is past time we all rested. It has been- qu-quite a day." He stumbled over the last words and worked to keep the easy smile on his face.

 Soft disappointment filled Misono's expression and he cut his eyes to the side, chewing his lip. "So it has."

 "I-" He broke off, unsure what to say. "Good afternoon, Misono. I hope you sleep well and I will see you this evening." He nodded and turned, his hand inches from the doorknob when he felt his shirt tugged violently backward. 

 "Don't be like this." Misono pleaded. "Have you forgotten what just happened? It wasn't a nice little surprise party. And Mikuni and... and Jeje, aren't just going to disappear. They're here, right now, and they're staying." He released his hold on Lily's shirt, grimacing as his arm came back to rest at his side. "I-" He studied Lily intently. "I know why I almost died. But I'd like to know why you almost did."

 Lily flinched back, his shoulder colliding with the door. His vision blurred as he listened to the door swing inwards and his mind involuntarily conjured an image of the room empty; all his things, all his many gifts from Misono, packed and thrown away; the halls and libraries and smoking rooms forever forbidden to him.

 Misono frowned, reaching out again. "Lily, I-"

 "No, no." He interrupted, voice tight. "You're quite right. You deserve an explanation and I suppose that I had hoped- hoped to put it off for just- just a little while." He swallowed, willing back the tears lining his throat. "But you are right. I should tell you now so that you may rest easy." He blinked quickly, appalled when he felt a single tear escape down his cheek. He grinned waveringly. "How silly of me."

 Suddenly Misono scowled and advanced until they were almost nose to chest. "Lily, if you say one more idiotic thing I will strangle you myself. Do you truly think that anything you say can make me hate you?"

 "Ah, once again," he whispered. "You see right through me."

 Misono sighed, his expression twisting. "I've always seen right through you." He said softly.

 "Indeed. You have." Lily murmured. "Very well. Let us at least be comfortable." He slid around the door frame and flicked the light switch, flooding the room with soft gold. "Even my taste in decor is something you instinctively seem to understand."

 Misono snorted, pulling the door closed behind him. "It's not hard to guess. What's the most comforting, expensive style you could find?"

 Despite the black terror eating away at his soul, Lily laughed. "Yes, I suppose that is rather easy."

 As Misono eased himself into a chair by the fire Lily wandered from window to window, pulling the shades, dousing the room in ever gentler light. When he had finished, the rest of the world blocked out, the room beginning to warm from the fire, he halted, nerves beginning to quake. There was no going back and nothing else to procrastinate on; Misono was across the room, watching him intently. He took a deep breath and strode forward, falling into the chair opposite.

 "Where to begin?" He joked lightly, eyes lingering on the dancing flames. "I'm terribly afraid-"

 "That you don't know where to start?" Misono supplied curiously.

 Lily smiled grimly, raising his gaze to meet Misono's. "No. I'm just afraid."

 Looking for all the world as though he were entirely unconcerned with the current conversation, Misono leaned back, propping his chin on his hand. "Well there's no use in that is there?"

 "I suppose not, no." Lily whispered, staring back into the flames. "There never has been time to be afraid, though I feel it so well." He sighed and reached out with poker, watching the sparks float up and around in the wafting smoke. "The best place to start is always the beginning, no? Even when that is the beginning of the end."


"And where exactly do you propose we go?" 

 Lily flinches back, trying to shrink into the shadows lining the hall as he listens to Ildio laying into a silent Kuro. His voice had carried up the stairs and drawn Lily from his room almost ten minutes ago, and hadn't let up since, though Lily had yet to hear Kuro say anything in return.

 "Or! If you haven't even thought that far! How will we go in the first place?!"

 Biting his tongue to keep from bursting into the dimly lit kitchen Lily almost misses Kuro finally sighing and the sound of his chair scraping back across the worn linoleum.  

 "I hadn't thought even that far." He mutters.

 The sound of Ildio smacking his hands flat on the table echoes sharply. "Perfect. What a fucking perfect mess."

 "Don't you think I know that?" Kuro hisses. "For fucks sake."

 "Well a fine way to show it!"

 "And what do you have to suggest?" Kuro inquires bitingly.

 There is silence for a moment and then, "Hell if I know." Ildio says.

 Lily barely has time to scramble back from the door he had had his ear pressed against before it flies open, a tall, stiff figure back lit in the doorway.

 "Well, shit." Ildio sighs lightly, staring down at him.


"He's been gone for a week." Hugh says pensively, staring out the window into the night, an unlit cigarette dangling forgotten from his fingers.

 "Yeah, and he ain't coming back!" Hyde yells, punching the back of the couch, rattling Lily's bones from the shock. He glances back over his shoulder in worry but Hyde's head is bowed, his face in shadow.

 Freya shoots him a complicated look as she folds the blankets from the laundry but remains silent.

 Ildio offers a scathing snort, his feet propped up on the battered desk they'd crammed into the corner of the room. "And what the hell makes you so sure?" He snarls. "You implyin' Ash got himself X-ed out?"

 "You can't know that." Lily argues frantically. "He might have just been held up! We can't think that- there's no way he's-" He cut off in terror, eyes wide. 

 "He's not dead." Hyde interrupts roughly, angrily, his eyes riveted to Ildio. "Of course not. But the bastard's still gone for good."

 Freya frowns down into the laundry basket as Hugh tosses the cigarette into the trash and stomps from the room leaving a tense silence in his wake.


Lily turns anxious eyes to the tall black shadow that is Jeje behind him. "Is there anything else?"

 "Else?"

 "On the list." He clarifies, shuffling his feet and flexing his fingers around the handles of the grocery basket. The humming of the overhead fluorescents is giving him a headache and he can't seem to focus, to think clearly.

 Jeje silently shakes his head and turns for the front of the store but Lily reaches out, grabbing his sleeve and keeping him in place. Just ten more minutes, ten minutes away from that cavernous house and those empty rooms. He'll do anything to just stay away a little longer.

 "What?" Jeje asks softly.

 "Do you think- we could walk through the park on the way back?"

 There is no response for a while and then Jeje nods once. "If you wish."

 But Lily's relief is short lived, for as they step onto the path carving its way through the sunny community park he hears Jeje sigh and he winces, knowing he is about to be confronted.

 "Why do you suddenly want to walk in the park?" Jeje asks, though he probably already knows.

 Lily sighs, his gaze drifting out over the small pond, counting the two swans, the three children, the four parents, the two paddle boats. "I don't want to go back." He pauses. "Hugh's empty room has been bothering me." 

 Jeje hums thoughtfully, following Lily's line of sight. "Me too."


It's quiet that night. It's been quiet every night since Ildio disappeared. Even Izuna's bubbling chatter cannot distill the heavy atmosphere. Several times she seemed to realize it wasn't doing any good but when she would fall silent in worry, Freya would nudge her, would ask about her latest classes and favorite restaurants.

 Lily sighs as he flips through the pages of an old, dusty tome he's never read from the unused shelf in the living room. He's trying not to look at Izuna, now propped against the couch, leaning back as Freya braids her hair, the fresh tear tracks on her cheeks glistening un-repentantly in the low light.

 "I don't see why I have to." She says again.

 Freya breathes softly, giving a pull on one of the twines of hair in her hands. "Because I say so."

 "And why do you say so?" Izuna persists stubbornly, her lower lip jutting in a pout as though she hasn't made this argument four times already tonight.

 "Because it is no longer safe." Freya says simply and Lily places the book quietly back on the shelf and leaves.

 Following the cold hall back to his small room and tired, frayed bed, he lays softly back, listening to the sounds of Hyde punching his closet door in a fit of rage. He does this most nights, some bouts more aggressive than others, and Lily finds that the constant noise, the undeniable reminder that Hyde is there, helps him to fall fitfully asleep.


"Why are you assholes surprised?" Hyde yells as he holds his head in his hands, bent over the scarred surface of the dinner table. "Why the hell would she not go with her? If Freya meant to send Izuna away, it would only make sense to go with her."

 Lily scratches his nail slowly along one of the deeper indents in the wood. "But we're her family. How could she abandon us for..." He trails off, glancing up to find Hyde glaring malevolently at him and hunches his shoulders.

 "Well she could and she did." He spits. "And don't think for one second I wouldn't do the same if that bastard hadn't robbed me of my opportunity to." He pushes away from the table and slams the door shut behind him.

 Jeje watches Hyde cross the road and duck behind a parked car from the window over the sink. When he turns to Lily there is a question in his eyes and Lily is afraid. Because there is only one answer to give and it is too terrifying to contemplate.

 "We can't!" He exclaims. "We can't leave him here on his own!"

 Jeje doesn't say anything, just continues to study him over the edge of his water glass.

 Lily twines his long fingers together in his lap, frowning. "What?" He finally asks sharply.

 "Are you afraid?"

 Imagining he can hear the soft sounds of the dust motes settling across the counter-tops Lily looks away and lets the silence stretch. Was he ever not afraid? What good does admitting it do when they could all see it from the very beginning? What makes a person brave when every choice is wrong?

 "He wouldn't... he said he wouldn't leave." Lily tries again, softly. "We can't."

 Jeje nods once and turns to pour the remaining water into the sink. "Alright." He agrees.



Three days after Hyde's disappearance Lily wakes to find the house empty. He wanders from his bed to the stairs, eyes glazing past the doors lining the hall, all slightly ajar and untouched now. The one next to his had been open this morning too, but no faint wafts of coffee steam or heady herbal teas were there to greet him in the kitchen doorway. It is cold and unused; the glass he left by the sink last night still stands at attention next to the soap dispenser and he feels a curious drop as his heart breaks the last few millimeters and settles below his rib cage, cold and heavy.

 He turns on the tap and forces his head under the freezing stream, water running down around his ears and into his eyes. He leaves them open, feeling the trace of added chemicals sting at the corners. When his hair is thoroughly soaked he stands, turning numbed eyes to the table, but no plates, no toast, no newspapers, have appeared.

 The tub upstairs is an old claw foot that Ildio forever complained about and Hugh defended. More often than not, with the seven of them, there was not enough time or hot water for a bath and Lily smiles blandly as he watches the steam rise from the slowly filling metal bowl. His earlier worries of the water cooling before the gigantic tub had fully filled have ebbed away and he tests the temperature with a finger tip. The water burns and he withdraws his hand calmly, unmoved by the residual sting in his finger. 

 Four days of sitting in the kitchen, his back against the cupboards below the sink, eyes trained un-waveringly on the barren table, have left him stiff and curiously unaware of temperature and sensation. He ate nothing and as he straightens now, the edges of his vision distort, a faint black fog hovering in the distance. Almost the end.

 Running gentle fingers across the blade of the paring knife in his hands he sighs. It's not the sharpest but it's the best he can do. It's the best he could ever do, and sinking into the broiling water he hisses as the liquid flames bring some life back to his shattered nerves and pain shoots through his extremities. It's hotter than he thought it would be but it's not anything he can't get used to; he wastes immaterial time floating, adjusting, staring at the cracks running through the cheap plaster ceiling and wonders if this is really the only option. 

 But of course it is. He's not brave like Hyde, he's not empathetic and gentle like Freya, not fast like Ildio, he's not smart like Hugh, or talented like Jeje, he's not strong like Ash. He's not anything but afraid.

 He could never escape this, not on his own. There is no avoiding Tsubaki and his maniacal reign, no way to stay invisible to the horde he feels ashamed to call coworkers. No, he was permanently ensnared the second he acquiesced and at the first subtle flare of light in his forearm as he parts the flesh he leans back and frowns. Is this fear? he thinks, moving to the other arm. Is this endless swirling storm of uneasiness and regret, this simple action of carving an exit the only way he knows how, fear?

 He drops the knife carelessly over the rim and listens to the echoes of it clattering against the tiling. It's almost a shame that this will leave a stain with no one to clean it up. But that seems a fitting metaphor for his life. Freya would frown, Ildio would scoff, at his melodrama but.... perhaps he can take just that last moment for himself and will it to be what he wishes.



"The next thing I remember is waking up in that hospital room hooked up to all those IVs and machines and wishing for death." Lily exhaled roughly, still gazing into the fireplace. His hand had gone lax, the poker now simply resting against his knee. He couldn't bring himself to look up to see what face Misono was making and his vision was now spotted from the heat and intensity of the flames he'd been staring at for half an hour.

 Misono shifted suddenly and Lily stiffened catching the movement from the corner of his eye. His knuckles went white around the handle of the steel poker and he grit his teeth, waiting, but nothing happened. Unable to resist any longer he glanced up just in time to get a face full of Misono's hair as he sprang forward across the divide and wrapping his good arm around Lily's neck. He gasped as his shoulder jarred but gave no other sign of discomfort and pulled himself closer in an awkward one armed hug.

 "Wha- Misono! I-"

 "Just shut up." Misono growled, giving a suspicious sniffle, his head bowed to Lily's chest. "I can't do anything but this. I don't really have any experience w- with feelings." He stuttered, embarrassed. "I've never tried to understand them and I've never wanted to. But I can't think of a single person I rather try for."

 After years of being beaten within an inch of his life, seeing his family suffer and break apart from the impenetrable force of life, after eons of fear and regret, of wondering why anyone ever tried anymore, Lily felt his shoulders straighten and the air around him grow lighter, if just an ounce. And surprisingly, he found that he had no more tears to give, having left them all behind, flooding his old, dingy room and achingly cold kitchen, drowning that dirty warehouse, and now could only laugh, bright and clear and honest.

 Misono started and turned wide, disbelieving eyes up to him, his expression shadowed with trepidation and worry. "Have you finally gone mad?" He asked warily, though his grip on the back of Lily's shirt didn't loosen.

 Lily shook his head, smiling hugely. "Of course not! No." He brought a hand up and ran it softly through Misono's hair in wonder. "No, for the first time in years, I think I'm finally sane."

 "I'm not sure I understand what you mean." Misono said slowly, brows furrowed in irritation.

 "I can't thank you enough, Misono." Lily whispered, closing his eyes. "You've saved me so many times, times where I didn't even know I needed it." He paused but Misono did not break the silence and Lily let his rigid back relax a fraction, listening to the warm crackling of the embers. "How shall I explain it? I've spent so long afraid- of death, of pain, of regret, of secrets. And never once did I imagine I'd get the chance to stand back from my failures and look at them as they should be looked at; through the eyes of love." Misono scoffed lightly and Lily smiled, glancing down. "I could never stop blaming myself for the choices I had made, and the choices those I loved had made. But I should never have tried to punish myself for situations outside of my control simply because I was afraid and had no idea how to deal with them- to coin my dear brothers motto." He laughed once more and shook his head. "But yesterday, and today, you've shown me that I'm more than the mistakes I've made and that looking past them and changing for the better is not running away, it is accepting the love that I've been so blessed to receive."

 "You deserve to be happy." 

 "Do you think?" Lily asked lightly. "I would like to believe it. But, even if it isn't true, I'm going to live like it is. I hope that I can spend that kind of life here."

 Looking away, a harsh red fanning across his face, Misono scowled. "Of course. That's what I've been trying to tell you this whole time."

 A gentle smile wound it's way across his lips and Lily patted the wild cowlick in Misono's hair that he always teased him for. "You should be resting. We all should." The grip on his collar tightened and Misono's gaze turned suspicious, the blush still lingering across his cheek bones. "And so! It is my proposal that we have a quick nap right here. My room is already nice and toasty and I fear that our chances to relax will be greatly numbered when Hyde and Licht return." 

 At his suggestion Misono's hold finally loosened and he took a small step back. He patted down his jacket self consciously but made no move to bolt from the room and Lily took it as an acceptance. Grinning, he stood and went to the bed, turning down the fresh, crisp linens and fluffed the pillow. 

 "Two pillows, Lily." Misono demanded, his tone almost recovered, regaining its imperious clip.

 "Of course, Misono." Lily smiled. "On the right side, just like always."


There was a hair raising lack of servants in the kitchen when Mahiru burst in through the doors and Kuro felt his shoulders stiffen involuntarily, as though anticipating a blow or the shattering of a glass an inch from his head.

 "Well this is convenient!" Mahiru said boisterously, surveying the room in approval. "Now, we can make whatever we want!" He glanced back over his shoulder, trying to catch Kuro's eye and smiled widely. "I can guess what you're going to say, but I doubt Misono has anything like that so you're going to have to make do."

 Kuro shrugged, not bothering to respond, and crept slowly, carefully, closer to the nearest chair. His hand was trembling when he reached out and he scowled, biting his lip roughly for a moment. The pain distracted from his nerves and the subtle shaking lessened. Satisfied with the small victory he pulled out the chair and was just sitting when Mahiru slammed a glass of milk down on the table in front of him and he jumped. He looked up in time to catch the sight of Mahiru's back as he whirled away, back over to the counter where he had already amassed a small mountain of vegetables and what looked like wheat bread and cheese. Despite himself, Kuro felt a small amount of both admiration and surprise well up in his throat, battling to escape the dead lock of his teeth.

 As the tense silence dragged on, Mahiru began to hum loudly, off key and haltingly, as though he weren't sure what song he was singing. The melody was choppy and twisted in on itself, winding out and through the air like a drunk caterpillar, but all the same, leaning back in the chair and tentatively reaching out and wrapping his aching, burning fingers around the cool surface of the glass, Kuro could feel himself slowly relaxing, giving into the exhaustion and relief of escape, no matter how temporary. And it was temporary; he couldn't lie to himself about that. He had finally spat in the face of his problems and there was no avoiding the retribution that those problems would bring to him. His gaze floated back towards Mahiru, now tapping one foot softly, still humming, while he cut up a couple tomatoes, and his lips twitched, a traitorous smile forming against his will; but it just as quickly melted away. He couldn't bring any more trouble to Mahiru, to this confusing, annoying, optimistic, warm-hearted, recklessly brave boy who had already done more for Kuro then he could ever know.

 "What's wrong?" 

 Mahiru's voice broke him from his worrying and he flinched, slopping a bit of milk over the rim of the glass. "W-what?" He grimaced at the stutter and felt himself flush lightly when Mahiru raised a brow.

 "Are you ok?" Mahiru's eyes were warm, showing nothing but gentle concern and curiosity as he stood looking down at Kuro, a plate of steaming grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches in his hands.

 The simple question tunneled slowly through his ears and into his brain and lodged itself there, seeming to shatter the grey matter it touched. All the calm acceptance, the unwilling relaxation he had begun to understand, started to dissolve and fade away, replaced by the tireless anxiety and endless circling of regret that wore him down every minute of his life. As he numbed he could see Mahiru's face, as though from a great distance, melt in worry and he lowered his head, stared down at the surface of the table, at the dirtied bandages that were his fingers tightening around the glass, and willed his expression to remain neutral.

 "Kuro?"

 "Fine." His voice was rough and unconvincing but it was at least out, fallen flat along the plains of the heavy atmosphere. 

 Mahiru studied him for another moment before smiling and holding out the plate. "Have a sandwich! They're best when fresh." He set the plate on the table and turned away. "And I know they seem strange but it's what my mom always made when I'd had a bad day. They really hit the spot!"

 Kuro tuned his sunny chatter out and directed his attention to the pile of glistening, perfectly toasted bread and cheese sandwiches. They were evenly browned, warm and welcoming, turned with a skilled hand. He reached out, meaning to pick one up but stopped with his fingers within centimeters; they were shaking again, dirty and uneven. He curled them into a fist, biting back a hiss as the pain flared through his wrist, and pushed his hands down into his lap. Suddenly he just wasn't hungry.

 Watching for when Mahiru was thoroughly absorbed in his task, he slipped from the chair and snuck out of the room, toeing the door closed silently before fleeing down the hall and back into the maze of doorways and vaulted ceilings.

 The burning in his hands increased with his distance from the kitchen and he cursed, kicking the light blue door to their room open and slamming it shut again with an elbow. A bright pain shot through his forearm and he grit his teeth, adding the bruise to the running tally he already had. Rather than lock the door he simply slumped down in front of it, his back already protesting the push of the solid maple, and closed his eyes.


Parring knife in hand, Mahiru turned from the counter to ask Kuro whether he preferred sliced or whole apples, and froze in shock at the empty table and untouched sandwiches. They had long since begun to cool and the heady aroma was dissipating from the kitchen. Dropping the knife into the sink he approached the table as though it were a wild animal and slowly reached out to pick up the half empty glass of milk perched near the edge. It was still cool to the touch and he could feel a sadness wash over him, as cold and overwhelming as the ocean, its waves lapping at his struggling composure. He set the glass back down and frowned, trying to find the best course of action.

 It didn't take long to decide where he had gone wrong and after carefully putting away the unused ingredients and gathering up an extra plate and a couple napkins, along with the sandwiches, he flipped the light off in the kitchen. He caught one last glance of the glass sitting alone on the table and felt his resolve strengthen and his doubts recede to a misty, inconsequential horizon line in his subconscious. The sandwiches would be a peace offering and he would be a forceful rescue.

 

 He stood staring contemplatively at the closed door for only a breath before reaching out and knocking softly. There was no response and he knocked once more, but barely waited this time before nudging the door open with his shoulder and sticking his head through the crack. The room was dark, the lamps unlit and the curtains still pulled. His eyes adjusted to the gloom after a moment and he noticed a slightly darker shape crouched just past the door frame. Slipping inside, he set the plate down a few feet away and then knelt in front of the hunched figure.

 "Kuro?" There was a barely discernible movement and Mahiru took it as acknowledgement. "I want to apologize."

 Finally Kuro lifted his head, shock evident in his eyes. "For what?" He demanded in anguish. "What could you possibly have to apologize for?"

 Mahiru tried to smile and shrugged weakly. "Lots of things. But mostly, how I've treated you."

 "I don't know what you're talking about." Kuro said flatly, his eyes drifting back down to the tops of his knees. "You've been nothing but kind and helpful."

 The hollow tone tugged at the already ragged edges of the hole opening up in the front of Mahiru's heart and he swallowed thickly. "I've tried. But I haven't done a very good job. I'm not smarter than you, Kuro. And I'm not wiser or braver. I'm younger than you and... I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully understand your experiences. I didn't know if it was my place to say any thing." He paused, waiting for Kuro to glance back up, to meet his eyes. "But that's where I was wrong. It is my place. And I owe it to you." Kuro opened his mouth but Mahiru shook his head and continued. "You're not ok."

 Kuro blanched and his shoulders pulled in impossibly tighter, arms compressing his sides, shrinking down into his jacket and closing his eyes. "Mahiru, please."

 Unable to resist any longer, Mahiru reached out and slid his arms around the thin, steady shoulders he'd come to admire, leaning forward until he could rest his head on top of Kuro's. "Tell me about it. About everything. I want to hear it all. I should have asked you before, a million times already, should have forced you to tell me, but I thought I was being kind. I thought waiting until you were comfortable and wanted to tell me was the right thing to do. But I realize now that I knew from the very beginning that you would never do that, I knew and I pretended I didn't. But I care, so I'm saying it now: tell me."

 A soft tremor worked it's way up through Kuro's spine and into Mahiru and he heard the sound of a dry, deep breath being sucked in before Kuro finally answered, bitter and resigned and fraying at the seams. "You've already heard. Hyde made sure of that."

 Mahiru shook his head, though it ended as more of a nuzzle. "No. I heard what Hyde said. Now I want to hear what you say."

 "What's the difference? You already know." 

 "Because I'm sure that wasn't everything." Beneath him, Kuro flinched and he knew he had been right. "Tell me." Silence descended and he calmly studied the minuscule floral pattern of the wallpapering behind them; when he'd counted fifty seven rose buds and eleven of Kuro's breaths, he tightened his hold. "I know it's only words right now, but please trust me."

 Finally Kuro seemed to relax, and they sunk down a few inches as he slumped forward under Mahiru's weight. "I do trust you."

 Unseen, Mahiru smiled into Kuro's hair. "Let me be what you are to me."

 "And what's that."

 Finally Mahiru pulled away, his arms dropping down. He twisted, leaning back against the wall, mirroring Kuro's posture, their shoulders barely brushing. The silence was heavy as he stared down at his hands, now resting on the tops of his knees, his brows furrowed in thought. He imagined he could see the blood flowing through the veins just beneath the skin and came to a decision. Turning, he grinned crookedly, hopelessly bright.

 "Vital."

Chapter Text

 The word lingered in the air. 

 Vital. 

 That's what he'd said. And that's what he meant, he realized with startling clarity. Sitting there, his back numbing against the chilled wall, unconsciously matching his breathing to Kuro's, he'd suddenly come to understand the feeling that had been flooding his every thought from the moment he'd met Kuro.

 Importance. Necessity.

 Without even noticing, he'd come to depend on this man, this stranger he knew nothing about and yet knew with all the certainty in his heart. The contradiction set his pulse racing, to put faith in such a fragile belief was something he never would have considered before, but here he was, trusting his whole life in the hands of this morally ambiguous-

 He broke the thought off, mentally shaking his head. No. Kuro was not, in any sense of the word, morally ambiguous. He peeked over to see Kuro's head still tilted at a slight angle, his wondering gaze flying over Mahiru's face in fearful disbelief. No. Kuro was perhaps the most morally bound person he'd ever met.

 He smiled once more, softer, and looked away. "So? What do you think?"

 Instead of answering Kuro hung his head and took a deep breath, his fingers relaxed, his hands dangling limply from his wrists, still propped against his knees, and began to speak-


"That was not good."

 The temperature in the room drops ten degrees at Ildio's words and Kuro flinches, slouching down further, as though to hide within the fibers of the chair. It has been unspoken between them that they not discuss it. A botched job. A dead friend. 

 "What, are we just going to pretend nothing happened?!" He continues to demand loudly. "Are we just-"

 "Shut your fool mouth, for once in your life!" Hugh exclaims. He glances momentarily, fearfully, towards the stairway, leading up into the dark recesses of the mostly unused bedrooms where Hyde now exists. 

 Ildio scowls and throws himself back in his chair, the legs creaking pitifully. "I think it's a load of bullshit. That's what it is."

 Freya steeples her fingers over her plate, piled with still untouched, now cold, potatoes and gravy. "And what is IT?" She asks softly.

 Ildio flinches but does not surrender. His brows twist more, his eyes glowing fiercely in the low light spun from the flickering candles on the table. "You know. Ophelia."

 A collective shudder warps the rooms air and no one moves. Somewhere in the distance, in another land, a clock continues to tick and Kuro feels the lines and consistencies of his existence begin to tangle and fray.

 "If you all are too chicken to say it than I will!" Ildio laces his fingers together behind his head and stares them all down. "It was a huge fuck up and we need to do something about it."

 This time, to everyone's surprise, including his own, Kuro is the first to respond. "And what do you suggest we do?"

 Ildio's gaze swings to the right and he pins Kuro with a hot glare. "Why don't you think of something?" The rest of what he thinks goes unsaid, 'it's your fault after all'. 

 Lily clears his throat nervously and pushes his plate a few inches farther away. "Ildio." He murmurs slowly. "That's not fair."

 "Tough shit! Life's not fair!"

 Freya's brow darkens into the beginnings of a scowl and Ildio quickly shoves away from the table and stands. When no one moves to stop him he pushes his hands into his pockets, pulling the straps of his overalls tight, and scoffs before turning and stalking angrily from the room.

 "Well." Hugh says after a tense moment. "I can't help but notice he didn't have any suggestions either."


It's been days and no one has seen hide nor hair of Hyde. Kuro isn't even really sure he's still up there. But unable to think of a way to ascend the loft stairs, no excuses or reasoning coming to his rescue, he continues to simply pass by the entry way, casting worried glances up into the dark recesses and then shuffling past. Each pass lends another brick to the towering pile slowly burying him beneath his guilt and worry and it is his thirty eighth journey by, his shoulders now bowing under the weight, that Jeje stops him, raising a hand in question.

 "What?" His voice is rough from disuse, the empty halls and rooms of the house, before so lively and loud, now inhabited by mute ghosts having pulled his ability to speak out through the top of his head.

 Jeje inclines his head momentarily and then leans down until they are eye to eye. "He wishes to see you."

 Kuro knows immediately who he is but he can't help the vindictive pleasure that seeps into his veins when he forces out 'who?' and sees Jeje frown in irritation.

 "The master."

 Suddenly the shallow joy bleeds from his body, leaving him tired and oddly numb, and he nods once. "Fine. I'll get down there as soon as I can."

 Jeje nods in turn and without another word or glance, sweeps past him and into the kitchen. The door swings back and forth several times, Kuro watching it, killing time, waiting. When it finally settles he sighs and casts one last glance up the stairs and into the swirling dark at the top. Nothing looks back and he stuffs his hands in his pockets and heads towards the front hall and down, out the door, down the steps, and onto the street, forcing his feet to carry him off to the sewer depths of 'head quarters'.


The mission is suicide he thinks as he stares down, aghast, at the papers in his hands. There is no earthly way for them, even at their best, to pull this off. They're all going to die. He closes his eyes, tips his head back, back, until it hits the concrete wall behind him, and tries to calm his heart. Here in the pitch black it occurs to him that most likely that is the purpose behind this. To murder them all neatly and en mass.

 His blood still thundering, ribs threatening to shatter from the force of his heart beat, drowning him in a broken dam of anxiety and fear, he fails to hear the steps as they approach and nearly falls to the ground in shock when a voice whispers in his ear.

 "Well hello there~ This is unexpected, isn't it?"

 His eyes fly open and he is met with the amused ocher stare of a cat. His hand is halfway through the air in reflex when the eyes step back and Kuro can see they belong to a tall, thin man dressed in a ridiculous poncho. His steps are quiet, impossible to detect even in this empty, echoing subway cavern, and he is smiling, obviously ignoring the impending threat of Kuro's fist.

 "I never thought I'd find you this easily! Not to mention, I just walked right up!" He laughs and Kuro frowns.

 "Who are you?"

 The man smiles serenely and tsks, wiggling a finger in front of his face as though chastising a child. "No, no. I can't tell you that right now. First you must answer me a question!"

 Feeling suspicion, thick and distracting, flood his mind, Kuro narrows his eyes, trying to discern from his clothing who this man is but he's dressed so strangely no clues are forthcoming. He clenches his left hand and hears the papers crinkle. Remembering what had led him here he throws caution to the wind and sighs. "Alright then. Let's hear this question."

 The man takes a small leap forward and twists, landing on the bench mere inches from Kuro, his smile never wavering, his legs crossed neatly at the knee. "Do you want to escape?"

 Kuro blanches and jerks back, eyes wide. The man doesn't react, just continues to study him intently. "What are you talking about?" He tightens his fingers, more, impossibly, around the crumbled forms and tries to edge them back, between the bench and his side.

 "That mission." The man flicks his gaze down at the papers and back up. "It's impossible. Do you want to escape it?" His eyes dance with good humor and he leans back, relaxed, against the advertising lining the benchs rear, his chin propped in his hand. 

 "Who are you?" Kuro asks again.

 "Your answer please." The man fairly sings, eye brows raised mockingly.

 A split second to think and Kuro finds himself nodding once, his jaw tight. "Yes. I do."

 "Detective Tsurugi at your service, Sleepy Ash!" The man- Tsurugi- exclaims, holding out his hand. "Nice to meet you!"

 Kuro leans forward, teeth bared and brain fuzzy. "No tricks you snake."

 Tsurugi blinks his wide eyes once, innocently. "No tricks! Just an enterprising party here to offer you an alternative to certain death." He smiles again, wiggling his hand around a bit. "So, are you in?"

 Kuro stares down at the long, pale fingers. His family, as broken as it might be, flashes through his mind and he glares. "Not just for me. All of them."

 "Not just you." Tsurugi agrees. "All of them."


"Absolutely not!" Hyde shouts, pounding his fist on the table. The dishes rattle and Lily grimaces, reaching out to steady his glass of wine. 

 "But Hyde-" Hugh tries, leaning forward, unmindful of his tie, now dragging through his soup. "This could be it."

 "Hah." Hyde barks a laugh, cold and sarcastic. "Like I believe that."

 This is the first time in weeks that Hyde has come down from the attic to join them and Kuro could throw himself from a cliff for choosing this night, regardless, to bring up the deal he had struck. He'd hoped to take on the burden alone, to shoulder the price himself, but upon hearing it, he'd known his only recourse was to ask for their help.

 "Why not?" Lily asks quietly, still staring down at his wine, worrying his lip. "Why not take whatever chance we can?"

 Hyde throws him a disgusted look and rolls his eyes. "You think what awaits us were we to, as is inevitable, fail, would be better than just sticking it out?" He stands and paces the several feet to stand behind Lily, leaning down and peering over his shoulder, whispering lowly. "You think this null hope chance is worth the risk of facing him when it doesn't work?"

 Lily shudders involuntarily and scoots back, keeping his eyes angled away.

 "It could work." Jeje says suddenly, earning several startled looks.

 Kuro folds his arms and lays his head down on them, wishing with his entire being to sink into the woody grain of the table top, to melt into the floor, to fall back through space and out the window behind him, anything to not be here. 

 Hyde has changed; it is undeniable and Kuro isn't sure how to deal with this new person. Where once he was optimistic and cheerful, easy to anger but always ready to fight it out and make up, now he is dark and oppressive, always lurking just out of sight, a wordy nihilistic comment perched on the tip of his tongue. He strikes first and then dances back, laughing off any attempt at responding. He is far where once he was near, cold where warm, and dead where before burning with life. 

 Kuro closes his eyes, holding back the groan when the sharp fingers of intangible anguish lace themselves once more through his ribs and into his lungs. Deep breathing and counting to ten is all he can do; over and over until the pressure eases and he can once more look up, his face neutral and unreadable.

 Hyde is staring at him in silence, his hand splayed on the table just inches from Lily's steak knife, and Kuro tenses. Hyde sees and grins ferally before straightening, fingers dangling lax at his sides, the picture of non-aggression.

 'Some day I will kill you', his eyes say. "How dare you to presume to speak for us." He says instead.

 Kuro swallows, his throat dry, and sighs, watching as his over long bangs momentarily lift with the slight breeze. "I only meant to speak for myself."

 The face Hyde makes clearly screams that he doesn't believe him and every eye in the room looks carefully away, refusing to insert themselves between these two titans. Lily has been picking nervously at his sleeve buttons and now one pops off, skittering across the table and he gasps quietly.

 "I'll do it myself." Kuro mutters, pushing himself up slowly. "None of you need to interfere."

 "Now listen here!" Hugh yells, incensed. "You think we'd let you just go off by yourself? You need us!"

 "He doesn't need anyone." Hyde sneers, his lips twisting meanly. "He can do everything all on his own."


Kuro paused, glancing up bemusedly, to watch the surprised anger flitting across Mahiru's face. He could tell he had something he was bursting to say and so remained silent, waiting. After a moment, just as predicted, Mahiru leaned forward, his eyes shining with righteous fury.

 "How could he say that?!"

 "Say what?" Kuro asked, smiling lightly, quick silver in the dusky lighting of the room.

 "That!" Mahiru exploded. "About you being full of yourself and- and-" he broke off, shoulders rolling with the force of his breathing. "After everything you did!"

 Kuro shrugged, looking away and fiddling with a stray string curling out from the sleeve of his jacket. "I tried to do a lot and most of the time it never worked out. I deserved it."

 "No!" Mahiru was right in his face now, brows furrowed, his hands pressed insistently into the fur lining of Kuro's hood. "Don't say that!"

 Feeling awkward and off balance, Kuro just shrugged once more. "It doesn't matter anymore."

 Mahiru opened his mouth to argue but seemed to think better of it and instead leaned back, pressing closer, and tilted his head, peering up at him from the corner of his eye. "So what happened then?"


"And you thought that this was a better option for us?" Freya asks calmly, her face carefully blank. "It seems far riskier."

 Kuro sighs again, for the hundredth time. "You didn't see him handing me all that info, see the look on his face. I've looked at the blueprints and the location, the shipments, the deck hands. All of it. It's impossible. He planned it that way. He wants us out of the way."

 "And I wonder why that is." Hyde snarls, throwing a half eaten bagel across the table. "I truly have no idea why he could possibly want us to suffer. It's almost as though we've done something to offend him."

 Kuro squeezes his eyes shut, counting his breaths, waiting out the rage and hurt and anguish. It is all he can do anymore when the black ooze churns up from the depths of his lungs. When finally it has abated, he glances over, watching Hyde twirl his knife, blade down, against his plate. He isn't looking up but Kuro can feel him watching through his other senses, waiting for Kuro to make a move.

 "I'm for it!" Hugh exclaims. "What have we got to lose if that's the case?"

 Jeje crosses his arms, the dark space beneath his hood quietly observing Kuro from across the room. After an eternity he nods just once, slowly. Kuro can't quite decide if he's relieved or worried to have Jeje's approval and files away the undefinable feelings for later, turning his attention to Freya instead. She has been staring down at her hands, curled loosely in her lap, for several minutes and now looks up. Her eyes are tight around the edges, her lips a thin line, but Kuro can read sadness and worry in the shape of her brows, in the stiff pull of her shoulders. She shakes her head and he looks away.

 "I'm sorry, but no. I cannot condone this type of action." She murmurs.

 "You're insane!" Ildio yells. "What could have possessed you to do this?!" This is directed at Kuro and he bites his tongue against the flow of words that bubble up, trying to escape his locked jaw.

 You possessed me. 

 "I don't want to die." Kuro lies stiffly. He lays his head back down on the table, closing his eyes. "Go die yourself if you want."

 Ildio snorts but doesn't respond and Kuro tallies him as "against".

 The clock ticks away the minutes hour by hour until Lily finally shifts in his chair; an awkward rocking motion as though he is trying to get comfortable, and Freya darts a curious look his way. Quaking under the study Lily none the less clears his throat and turns his gaze to Kuro, waiting until he has lifted his head, looked him in the eye.

 "I agree."

 Kuro would be lying if he said he wasn't shocked and the feeling swirling up in his gut is one of both respect and fear. He hadn't known until that very moment what he truly wished Lily's deciding vote to be, but now, having won his wager, he stares at them each in turn and knows it's relief he feels. After all, he plans to make the final blow alone.


Mahiru's fist landed with startling force against the top of his head and Kuro tipped sideways from the hit and its accompanying surprise. Mahiru's face was warped in anger and tinted with an oppressive pity and sadness that made Kuro feel as though he was sinking slowly through cold pudding.  "What was that for." He demanded, refusing to look up.

 "For being stupid!" Mahiru shouted. 

 He was trembling softly and Kuro just barely suppressed the urge to reach out and run his fingers through the soft spikes of brown that always seem to fall and layer just right across Mahiru's forehead.

 "Sorry." He muttered after a moment, embarrassed, when Kuro didn't respond. "I guess I got too emotional."

 Kuro remained silent watching him grow more uncomfortable as time went on, debating what to say, before shrugging and throwing him a quick smirk. "I'm just a world class story teller. There's no helping getting invested."

 "You idiot!" Mahiru laughed. "It's just because it's about you."

 Kuro's blood froze and needled it's way through his veins and into his heart as Mahiru gasped and jerked away, putting his hands against his cheeks as though to hide the tell tale flush. 

 "I- I- I mean...." He stuttered, his body still angled away. "I-" He broke off and suddenly turned to face Kuro, his eyes intent and steady. "No, I meant it." He said earnestly. "I meant it. I care because it's about you and you mean so much to me."

 Kuro felt his lungs turning to cement, completely useless as the oxygen in his blood evaporated ounce by ounce, and pushed Mahiru away, his eyes closed tightly. "Stop, just stop. I get it. You're a big mush and you care about me. Stop telling me." He swallowed and stared down at his worn sneakers, the sole of one hiding a small knife, the side lining of the other housing a useful little lock picking kit, both of which Mahiru had no clue about. "Please."

 Mahiru frowned softly but instead of agreeing, he leaned forward, his arms looping out and around to pull Kuro into another hug. It was awkward and stiff, their knees knocking together and Kuro's left foot sliding out from beneath him, jerking him suddenly to the side, but Mahiru didn't let go, just tightened his hold and buried his face in Kuro's neck.

 After a few moments of soft breathing Mahiru lifted his head just an inch, enough to clear his mouth of Kuro's skin and sighed, his breath warm were it ran down the collar of Kuro's shirt and across his chest. "Don't say things like that." He whispered.

 After an eternity and a century of hard fighting Kuro managed to force a single word, heavy with confusion and irritation, out of his mouth and into the stuffy air. "Why." It sounded petulant even to his ears and he grimaced. 

 "Because." Mahiru countered, mirroring the childish tone.

 Against his will a smile wound it's way across his face and Kuro breathed a short laugh. "Because why."

 Mahiru shook his head wildly, his hair flying out and tickling Kuro's nose. "So what was this brilliant plan that you signed up for?" He asked quickly, obviously trying to change the subject. "It must have worked, because here you are." As if in demonstration his arms tightened momentarily around Kuro.

 In surrender, Kuro sighed. "Fine."


"Does everyone understand?" Kuro asks quickly, daring to raise his voice enough for it to carry over the boxes and through the shelving to the rest of the dark figures hidden in the room. There are several noises of confirmation and Kuro closes his eyes for just a moment, living in the deep pitch of his mind, unhurried by worry and the trickle of seconds as they fall past, before taking a deep breath and looking up. "Ok then. Let's go."

 He steps out from the shadows, swears he can feel the slip and slide of them falling away from his body, and stands in the center of the room. The door creaks open slowly and his face falls in confusion.

 The mirrored look of surprise on the face of the guard is momentary. A split second after he spots Kuro, Ildio has fallen from the beam above his head and landed squarely on his shoulders. He crumples down, taking Ildio with him and with a soft 'oomp' is knocked unconscious.

 Kuro stares down at the prone form and clenches his fists. Trouble already.

 "There is not normally any one posted here." Freya murmurs unnecessarily, peering over his left shoulder, her soft hair tickling his neck. "It seems we have already been deceived."

 "Well fuck." Ildio adds, standing and dusting off his hands. "Now what?"

 They both turn to stare at Kuro and he grits his teeth. "Keep going." He leaves the rest unsaid, 'there's no turning back now.'

 Freya nods and Ildio sneers, spitting down just inches from the body at his feet.

 "Where were we supposed to meet up again?" Ildio asks as they creep carefully, slowly, down a hall and deeper into the recesses of the building they have no clearance to enter. 

 "South wing." Kuro mutters.

 He had managed to instill at least some of his back alley thievery skills into Lily and they had split up, one to each group, a lock picker to get them in, and everyone else to keep them alive. Kuro had let them decide on their own, willing the choices to be logical and had breathed a silent sigh of relief when he'd seen the outcome. Freya and Ildio had been a surprise but they were strong, in more ways than one, and Kuro was glad they'd decided on him when he thought back over his dubious plans. He hadn't discussed it, hadn't even brought it up, not wanting an argument, and now no one could interfere with his decision. He had gotten this whole mess started and he would be, could be, the only one to finish it. And if things went to shit he was prepared to be bait. Freya and Ildio could no doubt take care of themselves; Jeje and Hyde would ensure that Lily escaped as well. It seemed that as many of the loose ends as he could imagine had been neatly tied up and if nothing else he could breath easier for that.


"Bait?" Mahiru's eyes were fixed on the far wall. "What does that mean?"

 Kuro sighed, sliding down and splaying his legs. "Just what it sounds like, I was going to be the bait. If we got caught someone had to stay behind and draw the fire."

 "The fire?" Mahiru echoed incredulously. "You mean you were just going to stand there and get shot at?"

 Rolling his eyes, Kuro waved a hand through the air. "Of course not. I'd have had to run to be a distraction." He could tell Mahiru's temper was flaring and it was almost worth the giddy sensation the empathetic reaction brought until Mahiru punched his arm roughly.


They'd gotten farther than his pessimistic side would have ever believed and now, staring up at the door leading into the planetarium the Master had renovated into a meeting room, Kuro could only feel a creeping sense of dread. 

 "The lights are still on." Ildio mutters, glancing around them in interest. "I thought you sent Hugh and Jeje on ahead to fry the switchboards and fuses."

 "I did." 

 Freya comes up behind them and meets their inquisitive gazes evenly. "Every hall still has lights."

 "We can't just stand out here like fucking idiots." Ildio insists. "We have to go in. Dark or no dark."

 "But that was the signal." Freya argues. "And you know we will need every advantage we can get."

 "I still don't see what advantage you think we'll have over them in the dark."

 Kuro tries in vain to tune them out, straining to focus his hearing on whatever is going on beyond the door they are standing in front of. If anything he has been told is to be believed, the Master is in there now, unguarded and unaware, Tsubaki miles away. Swoop in and capture him, kill the lights and somehow sneak away to Tsurugi and the waiting police squad. That was the bullshit excuse for a plan that had been presented to Kuro in a damp, cold, subway tunnel. 

 When pressed for details, Tsurugi had simply shrugged, his smile wide, and said that was all he could offer. He asked Kuro why- if he had more to go on, more intel, more hope- on earth would he have come to him in the first place, why would he share confidential details. "I don't work with criminals." He'd said and Kuro had let the topic drop. Only his promise, his offer of asylum, protection, a way out, for not only Kuro but the rest of them, Lily, Hugh, Freya, Jeje, Ildio, Hyde, had been enough to spur Kuro into action.

 He tunes back in in time to hear Freya give a rare sigh of exasperation and glare at Ildio. "It was just going to be the hallways we needed. That is why we studied the buildings schematics before. If Hugh has not managed to commandeer the lighting then he has also most likely failed to manipulate the security systems."

 "I'm just saying." Ildio retorts, his arms crossed as he leans forward. "I still don't think we should be here in the first place, so-" He breaks off as an alarm begins to ring and Kuro freezes, his hand still raised to his ear against the door. Freya and Ildio both turn their attention to the ceiling as though searching for the offending siren and it takes three of Kuro's yells to recapture their focus.

 "We need to go!" He projects over the hair curling electronic screeching. Without waiting to see if they have understood he spins, meaning to take off down the far hall when the door swings open and out walks the man they've come so far to find. Kuro's eyes go wide as he stares up into the weathered face of what, in another life, was an adoptive father. The laugh lines are all the same as Kuro remembers from that haunted night 6 years ago, the large, deceptively kind eyes staring into his own without a flicker of emotion. 

 "What are you three doing here?" He asks and Kuro breaks.

 "Do it now!" He roars and true to her promise, Freya leaps unhesitatingly into motion, a damp cloth already clutched in her hand. She gets within an inch, her hand out, fingers stretched to clamp the rag over his mouth but he's still quick and ducks and her arms goes swinging harmlessly over his head. Grim surprise shows on her face and she spins, a complete circle, poised for another attack. 

 Kuro glances over at Ildio and sees that he is staring down the adjoining hallway in horror, completely oblivious to Freya's plight, and when a high pitched shout echoes across the vast expanse he understands why. Hyde is running towards them, Lily in tow, and he looks scared.

 "What is it?!" Ildio shouts as they near. Hyde seems to register his question but doesn't break stride and as he shoots past them he gives one answering scream- "RUN".

 Time slows as Kuro realizes that they're royally fucked. His emotions draining away in a swirling torrent, he pushes Freya back, accidentally thwarting her latest attempt, and throws himself at the Master. As he feels his hands collide with a still solid chest, he turns his head, eyes desperate, and sees Freya, understanding crossing her face like a storm, clamp her lips thin and step back. 

 She understands, he thinks with relief, and returns the entirety of his attention to the man before him.

 "Ash." The single word holds such disdain and disappointment and Kuro has to bite his lip, teeth snapping straight through the soft flesh, to keep his arms from giving in hurt. As the sounds of Freya and Ildio's steps fade away he braces himself, legs already cramping, and gives a shove. The force barely accomplishes anything but does add a couple scant inches between them and Kuro looks up, immediately meeting the cold gaze and sighs.

 "Master."


Kuro paused, taking a deep breath, feeling the tingling in his skin recede some, and chanced a look at Mahiru. He was still leaning back against the wall, his fingers interlaced over his knees, a crooked frown on his lips. As though feeling Kuro's stare he turned.

 "Did you love him?"

 The question startled Kuro and he floundered for an answer. "No." He finally muttered, closing his eyes, trying to block out the blinding light of Mahiru's gaze. "How could I?"

 Mahiru hummed. "There wouldn't be anything wrong with it. If you had."

 "He was a criminal. And a murderer." Kuro almost stuttered over the last word, a voice in his head accusing him of his unending hypocrisy, 'you're a murderer too' it whispers, screams, and Kuro can barely hear himself thinking any more.

 "Maybe so." Mahiru said slowly. "But that doesn't make someone unlovable."

 His heart fluttering and twisting in a desperate attempt to accept Mahiru's claim, Kuro sighed. "Maybe."


He has been breathing his very last ounces of strength into every fiber of his muscles and still it is not enough. Whether physically he is weak, or psychologically, he isn't sure, and now is not the time to dwell on it.

 "Come now! You used to be better than this!" The Master goads him, swinging forward, catching Kuro squarely in the jaw, throwing his head to the side. As the swatches of light flash and then dim he feels another fist connect with his ribs and the air is knocked from his lungs.

 Staggering back, he blinks quickly, clearing his vision in time to see the Master rushing forward, a strange twisted grin on his face. There is no clear escape and here, alone in this hall with just one man, the alarms still screaming, he is doing no good. He has to get towards the front of the building, draw as many with him as he can. He grits his teeth, tasting blood swamping his mouth. He needs to be quicker. At the last second, before the large, warm hand grabs his throat he ducks and pivots, throwing all his weight to the side. He lands just on the edges of his balance, his shoes squeaking across the tiling, and with just an instant to adjust, takes off, praying that he will be followed.

 All the hallways look the same and as he passes each juncture his heart beats double in fear of seeing a familiar figure, one of them that hasn't escaped, but each time, as though followed by a divine luck, the hall is empty, and Kuro rushes past still trailed by his living nightmare.

 Just as he feels his stamina finally giving out he spies what he knows to be the large opening room leading to the central entrance. He could give a shout of joy but for the tightening of his lungs, the cramping, empty space now taking up all the room in his chest. He has done all he can, lured every guard and cohort that he passed with him to the front and now, finally slowing his steps, ragged breaths drying his aching throat, he turns to face him.

 "I don't know what exactly your plan was Ash, but I must say, it seems to have failed spectacularly."

 It is a jab at his pride, meant to trick him into reacting, but unfortunately, Kuro has no pride remaining. Only a withering sense of accomplishment, slowly being drowned in primal fear, remains. 'They are all outside the building', he chants to himself over and over, and breaths.

 "I assume that-" The master breaks off, a strange look passing over his face, and Kuro instinctively turns to look over his shoulder just as the first bullet shatters the window to his left.

 He dives to the side, ducking the spray and hits the thick carpeting with a dull thud. His eyes have remained open and he sees the first splash of red dripping down the unfathomably still crisp white button up of the Masters suit. The look of vague surprise has morphed into rage and the master manages several steps forward, eyes trained on the windows, before he finally falls prey to the hail of bullets and falls. His arms are out, hands reaching, and they land just feet from Kuro who flinches back. When he meets the eyes staring at him they are already empty and dark. He dreams of them every night.


After hours of interrogations, of lies and promises and whispers, of anger and cold, numbing acceptance, Kuro is released. As he staggers down the front steps of the police station he stumbles. His feet are nerveless, chilly from the metal box of a room he'd been forced into, from sitting still for centuries, and he struggles to remain upright. It is a long walk back home and if he doesn't start now it will be dawn again before he can close his door and mind and finally sleep.

 A snigger from the top of the stoop reminds him that not only fresh morning light and exhaustion await him if he fails to get a good pace going; Tsurugi had tried his best and garnered him a head start, but the mission having been a "failure", as he had put it, meant their agreement was null and void. They were still wards of a warrant state, but now without even the dubious protection of a feudal era dictator to dull the blow.

 Kuro clenches his teeth, frustration tearing at his joints and tendons. It had been a set up. From the very beginning. That much had become clear from the long stretches of accusations that had been hurled at him from the mouth of the officers across the slick metal table. Perhaps Tsurugi, in his honesty and desire to serve, had not known exactly what he had offered Kuro all those nights ago; his horror and confusion had seemed genuine enough anyway. No doubt his bid to clear a path for Kuro's timely escape had been a grasp at the straws of apology.

 As he darts into an alley, choosing the quickest way home he knows, Tsurugi's final words fill his mind. 

 

 "Ash, there's nothing much more I can do I'm afraid." Tsurugi rings his hands in trepidation, his brows wrinkled. "But I can say this, I'm up for my promotion and I know what case I'm going to get." He pauses to let the idea land and settle across Kuro's back before continuing. "I want to... hire you. In a way. I know you haven't had the best experiences-" He breaks off at Kuro's harsh bark of a laugh and smiles sardonically. "But I can promise the same. Protection. Anonymity. Their freedom. All of them. For just you."


Mahiru jerked as though waking from a heavy dream and turned wide eyes to Kuro, deep disbelief and horror pulsing through his scalp in turns. He could feel it pricking and prickling it's way from one side to another and he lifted a hand, brushed it through the soft tufts of brown. Kuro's gaze was steady as it bored into his and he saw in his mind, as though watching boxes stacking on top of each other, all the things he'd heard and seen and been told, piling up into a castle more all encompassing and terrible than he could have imagined.

 "So now you know. Absolutely everything." Kuro muttered lowly. He turned away, his shoulders bunching beneath his shirt.

 Mahiru couldn't seem to think of anything to say and so just stared at Kuro, at the soft fall of his hair, sliding bit by bit over his shoulder to hide his face. Just before the last few strands settled, he reached out once again and lightly touched the small sliver of skin that showed between the fall of the jacket and the sleeve of a shirt. It was pale and soft, surprisingly warm, and it sent a jolt through Mahiru's heart and seemed to awaken his mind from the fugue state it had fallen into. Just as he was working up the courage to break the silence, Kuro beat him to it, sighing heavily and asking the one question that Mahiru still wasn't sure he had an answer for.

 "Why are you here?"

 As though pulled from someone that wasn't him, he heard his voice from far away, distorted. "Because you came for me."

 Kuro started, his fingers spasm-ing against his knees. "What?"

 "Because you came to rescue me." Mahiru repeated more firmly. "Even though- even after everything Hyde said and I didn't do anything to stop him. And I didn't go after you." He clenched his hands as the steady snowfall of guilt increased again, flowing over him like a solid press of arctic air.

 "I left." Kuro said softly. 

 "You came back." 

 They stared at each other in silence and Mahiru held his breath, sensing somewhere deep in his core that this was it. This was the defining moment for how the rest of their relationship would play out. This was what it all balanced on and now all he could do was hope that he'd said and done the right things, or at least enough of them to count.

 Kuro was the first to move, his brows drawing down in faux exasperation as he turned just slightly away. "Yeah, I did. Even though you're a major pain in the ass." He glanced over from the corner of his eye, his heavy gaze sneaking through the fall of his hair. "How could I not?"

 A beaming smile spreading across his face, Mahiru shook his head and laughed softly. "You're such a jerk." He let the smile take control and relaxed into the heady feeling of joy that was filling his chest, leaning back, listening in amusement to the cracking of his vertebrae as they resettled after sitting tensely for so long. After several moments of comfortable, warm silence, he murmured, low and careful. "I don't think any differently of you, you know."

 As a testament to everything that had changed, Kuro merely shrugged. "Couldn't blame you if you did."

 "Tsurugi said something about it to me." Mahiru continued, still smiling. "He asked if I could befriend a 'cold blooded murderer'." This time Kuro did flinch but Mahiru pushed on. "I told him that cold blooded was a subjective term."

 Kuro burst into startled laughter, throwing his head back, his eyes squeezed shut. "I can't handle you." He gasped. "You're unbelievable. Who says that?"

 "I meant it!" Mahiru exclaimed in irritation. "He was trying to convince me that you were dangerous!"

 Suddenly Kuro fell silent, leaning over, his head tilted curiously, and looked up into Mahiru's eyes. "You don't think I'm dangerous?"

 Mahiru's heart skipped a beat and he felt a hot rush of blood pool in his cheeks. "Of course not!" He insisted stoutly, ignoring the sensation of falling that had suddenly stolen over him and leaning back, trying to put some space between them. "You'd never hurt me." 

 The playful look fell from Kuro's face and he straightened. "No. I wouldn't."

 "Well then, I was right wasn't I?" When Kuro raised a brow in question, Mahiru grinned. "You're a good friend."

 Kuro sighed, his own face coloring slightly as he slouched down, ending flat on his back, his gaze fixed somewhere over the door to the right. "You're such a sap."

 "Maybe." Mahiru conceded lightly. He studied the calming, steady rise and fall of Kuro's chest for a second before a thought almost foreign it seemed so ancient wormed it's way back into his mind. "You haven't been taking those antibiotics!" He shouted in horror and Kuro jumped, turning wide eyes to him. "You have to right now! Oh, I hope it's not too messed up!" He crawled haphazardly over to the bed side table he'd placed the bag in the day before. Behind him he could hear Kuro sigh but, and maybe it was just wishful thinking, it sounded just a touch affectionate to Mahiru's ears.

Chapter Text

 The morning after his talk with Kuro Mahiru slept until twelve; when he'd finally opened his eyes and seen the clock he'd been sure it was wrong. A look across the room revealed Kuro still tucked in, seemingly unmoved from the night, though his eyes peeked over the edge of his quilt, qiuckly darting away when Mahiru met them.

 "Is it really noon?!" He asked, horrified and somewhat amazed. "I've never slept this late in my life." 

 Forgetting that he had been feigning slumber, Kuro scoffed. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

 Throwing back the covers, Mahiru leapt up and crossed the divide between their beds, leaning down to inspect Kuro for signs of ill health. His eyes were clear and bright, though still ringed by worryingly dark circles, he was not unusually pale, and the cut under his eye was healing well. Satisfied, Mahiru sat down on the edge of the mattress. "What have you been doing?"

 Kuro shrugged, watching Mahiru cautiously. "Nothing much." His hand sneaked out from beneath the blanket, clutching the DS. "Finally cleared level 47."

 Mahiru took a moment to contemplate spending that long on a game before smiling. "You were getting mad about that one."

 His eyes narrowing, Kuro tossed the DS lightly to the foot of the bed. "It was cheating. So I did too."

 Mahiru laughed brightly. "Of course you did. Does it really count as passing then?"

 "I still beat it, didn't I?"

 "I suppose." There was a beat of silence, almost awkward but for the palpable relief still filling the air, and then Mahiru stood back up. When Kuro glanced at him questioningly he gestured to the hall. "I'm going to take a quick shower and then get something to eat."

 Last night, after resorting to sitting on Kuro to force the antibiotics down his throat, Mahiru had tried to tempt him with the tomato cheese sandwiches he'd brought up with him all those years ago, but they had grown cold and even Mahiru couldn't argue that they were no longer that appealing. Rather than go back downstairs they had settled on empty stomachs and a movie on Kuro's phone, falling asleep before either could get too hungry.

 Sometime after one AM Mahiru had jolted awake, dropping the phone in his lap. Beside him Kuro was still propped against the headboard, sleeping soundly. Carefully, Mahiru had eased him down beneath the blanket and then crept to his own bed (replaced thank god by Lily) and quickly fallen right back into blissful unconsciousness.

 Now, the hot water streaming over his head in billion dollar torrents, he could feel his body protesting the lack of food and non stop tension of the last week. Though, he thought to himself, it might need to learn to deal with that kind of thing. The fact that he would be spending the next immeasurable amount of time with Kuro had his stomach twisting in a startling, pleasant kind of way and suddenly, shampoo still dripping down his neck, he couldn't quite hurry enough; the idea that perhaps he had dreamed everything, no matter how improbable, and that Kuro was not, in fact, still lounging about in their room, had his heart pounding. He scrubbed down frantically and jumped from the shower, wrapping the first towel he could reach around his waist and running back towards the bedroom.

 He skidded around the corner from the hall to the sight of Kuro, laying on the floor, legs propped comically above his head on the chair, turning to stare at him in shock. As his reason caught up with him he felt himself flush and clutched the towel closer, watching Kuro's eyes glint mischievously. 

 "See a spider in the bathroom?" He asked, lips twitching. He shut the DS and laid it on the chair seat, twisting to his stomach and propping his head on his folded arms.

 Mahiru scowled, looking away in embarrassment. "No." He ground out, fuming. He was the biggest idiot there ever was.

 "Out of tub cleaner?" Kuro guessed, now grinning.

 "No!"

 "Need help washing your back?"

 Mahiru almost slipped, his legs giving an involuntary spasm, and he pulled the towel ever tighter, unsure why he felt so mortified. "No. I just... I needed my clothes." He lied, deciding to hide the pile already folded neatly on the bathroom counter until later. Trying to feel dignified, he stalked over to his suit case and threw the lid open. Immediately he realized about half were missing and he glanced over his shoulder in annoyance. "Why do you always take mine?"

 Kuro shrugged and pushed himself up from the floor. "They're comfier."

 "They're smaller!" Again, Kuro only shrugged, one hand tugging absentmindedly at the sleeve that was riding up past his wrist, and Mahiru sighed, letting the lid fall shut after pulling out a shirt and pair of jeans.  "I'm going to freeze at this rate." He muttered, stomping back towards the bathroom. "You'd better take care of me when I'm sick in bed!" There was no answer but suddenly a large knit something fell over his head, the telltale scent of cookies and coffee filling his nose. He pulled the sweater down, turning in time to catch the last of Kuro escaping out the door and down the hall, and frowned. Glancing down, he realized it was the now washed and repaired sweater he'd first seen Kuro wearing. Puzzled, he wrote it off as a mystery and brought it with him to the bathroom.


 
 When he made it downstairs and finally found his way to the dining room in a vain hope that there would still be food left from breakfast it was to find Kuro standing outside the door, indecision clear on his face as he stared at the sliding handle.

 "What's wrong?" Mahiru asked as he neared.

 Kuro turned and when his eyes settled on the sweater Mahiru had fairly draped over his shoulders they widened momentarily before he brought a hand up and pulled at the collar of his shirt, mumbling into his fingers. "Such a bother."

 "What is?"

 "Mikuni and Lily are in there." Kuro said tiredly. "I don't want to deal with it."

 Mahiru glanced at the deep mahogany of the door and shrugged. "How bad could it be?"

 Kuro threw him a disgruntled look before reaching out and sliding the door open. He stepped back and gestured for Mahiru to enter first, his expression still sour.

 "Pass the salt would you?" Lily asked politely without looking up from his newspaper.

 Mikuni, two seats over, sneered into his cup. "Get it yourself."

 One of his brows twitching, Lily turned, staring over Misono's head, and skewered Mikuni with a syrupy sweet look. "Are you having trouble distinguishing the two? I know how difficult it is for drop outs."

 Mikuni's fingers tightened around the handle of his cup and he stabbed his knife into one of the sausages on his plate, smiling darkly. "You would know, wouldn't you?"

 Between them Misono tapped a bit of salt over his eggs and took a bite; when he glanced up and saw Mahiru and Kuro lurking in the doorway he waved them in, looking completely nonplussed. "It's a little late for breakfast but I'm afraid we all woke up rather late." He said apologetically. "Is there anything specific you'd like?"

 Mahiru felt his mouth drop open and would have stood there all day but for Kuro nudging him forward, peering over his shoulder and mumbling something about toast and avocado. As he took the few steps into the room Lily suddenly met his eye and smiled, all traces of the anger gone.

 "Mahiru! It's so good to see you! I didn't know whether to expect you or not."

 "I'm sorry I slept so long." Mahiru managed, feeling oddly nervous as he slid into an empty chair. "I guess I needed it." He hesitated, procrastinating, watching Kuro ladle some sort of oatmeal into a bowl. When he'd finished he added blueberries and a bit of cinnamon with a flourish and then pushed it in front of Mahiru, placing a spoon gently next to the bowl. Mahiru felt himself smile and finally turned towards Misono who was staring at him intently. "How are you feeling?"

 Misono started, his eyes darting away as he fiddled with the fork in his hand. "Fine." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "Quite fine. I'm good. And... you?" 

 Mahiru laughed. "I feel better than I have in a long time."

 Finally Misono relaxed and nodded. "I'm glad to hear it." He tapped his fingers against the rim of his plate a moment, seeming to think and then sighed, defeated. "It's all been a complete mess. You can say it."

 Again, unable to feel down with all the joy still bubbling through his veins and the warm presence of Kuro perched in the chair to his left, Mahiru simply chuckled. "I guess you could call it that. But, I think we did more good than bad."

 "Perhaps." Misono mumbled, his chin propped in his hand as he stared unseeingly at Mikuni's plate of eggs. "And our numbers have grown."

 At his words, both Mikuni and Lily scoffed, then whipped around to glare at each other. Misono seemed completely oblivious to this and Mahiru chose not to comment, letting the two throw metaphorical daggers at each other as Misono pondered. He glanced sideways and noticed Kuro methodically cutting his toast into triangles and couldn't hold in his snort of laughter. At the exhalation Kuro turned baleful eyes on him while continuing to trim the crust from the lightly browned whole wheat.

 "What are you doing?" He asked, trying to look stern and instead just grinning.

 "It's too dry." Kuro muttered petulantly. 

 "Well, at least you're eating." Mahiru said before he could stop himself and clamped his mouth shut. Kuro looked over and eyed him curiously, about to ask something Mahiru was sure he himself didn't want the answer to, when suddenly Licht shoved Hyde in through the door, his countenance stormy.

 "I don't want to hear any more of your blubbering, you leech!" He was saying loudly. "You promised and so you'll do it!"

 Hyde pulled one of the chairs out and dropped into it without looking at any of them, burying his head in his arms. "Would you please shut the fuck up."

 Licht threw him a truly dirty scowl and kicked the nearest leg of the chair. "You will not speak to me like that!"

 Smiling sunnily, Lily placed his tea cup down forcefully on the table, the thin china creating a stunningly loud clack. "Licht, if you'd please- those are antique chairs."

 Licht tsk-ed, crossing his arms.

 Mahiru threw a furtive glance in Kuro's direction to find him hunched in his seat, studiously avoiding looking at Hyde, who, upon closer inspection, was peering out from between his bangs, eyes shining wildly as he stared intently at Kuro. Sighing into his spoon in resignation, Mahiru slowly set it back on his plate and folded his hands on the table in front of him. Across from him, Lily, the only one to notice his movement, grinned, leaning forward, his hands cradling his chin.

 "I don't think I want to be here right now." Mikuni muttered quietly but didn't move to leave.

 "Hyde." Mahiru winced when his voice carried farther and more sharply than he'd meant, and swallowed, struggling on valiantly. "I'm glad to see you and Licht have made it back. I'm sor- Thank you for all your help the other day. We could have never done what we did without you. I'm sorry that I could not be more help to you. I have a lot to work on."

 Throughout his speech Hyde had been growing steadily more red, his lips thinning until they occupied negative space and now he blinked, raising his head and darting quick, hopeful glances at Kuro.

 Mahiru kicked Kuro roughly under the table, his foot making an audible thud as it collided with shin and Kuro flinched. "Kuro." Mahiru said stiffly. "Hyde and Licht risked their lives to protect me and Misono and rescue Lily." When his prompting garnered no response he closed his eyes, counted to five, and then leaned forward until his face was almost buried in Kuro's hair. "And I think it would just be wonferful if you thanked him properly."

 Kuro groaned, letting his head fall forward for just a moment before glancing back up, meeting Hyde's gaze. "Thank you. For-" He broke off, visibly tensing. "I mean-" He sighed violently and stood, walking over to Hyde who almost toppled out of his chair in a bid to sit up straighter. "Thank you. For keeping Mahiru safe. And for helping me whenever I've asked it of you."

 The quiet in the room was a heavy, physical, blanket and Mahiru was torn between crying and running from the room in second hand embarrassment. Hyde stared up at Kuro who, in his nerves had stepped too close, was now almost towering over him, his hands clenched at his sides, and as the awkwardness crescendo-ed and Mahiru could tell everyone was about at their limit, he abruptly burst into tears and threw himself forward, wrapping his arms around Kuro's waist as he wailed. 

 "I'm so sorry! For everything! I've missed you and it's so good to see you!"

 Behind them, Licht smiled softly and Mahiru breathed a sigh of relief as Kuro blushed from the roots of his hair to his collar. After a moment of hesitation, he raised his arms and placed them tentatively around Hyde's shoulders, pulling him closer for just a second before stepping back, frowning when Hyde tried to keep hold of him. 

 Lily clasped his hands together, a brilliant smile on his face, and sighed dreamily. "It's so nice to have every one here." 

 Mahiru laughed as Misono grinned into his palm, shaking his head in amusement, and Mikuni rolled his eyes, lifting his cup and leaning back in his chair.

 "I should have listened to you! I should have believed in you!" Hyde continued to sob, jumping out of his seat and stalking unsteadily forward. "You were right and I was a terrible brother and all these years I thought-!" He choked and lunged, capturing an alarmed Kuro, and they tumbled to the ground in a heap. "I thought you didn't care, about any of us-!"

 "Please!" Kuro shouted desperately, trying to free himself from Hyde's frantic hold. "It was as much my fault!"

 "No! No, I should have known better!" Hyde insisted, winding his arms around Kuro's neck and nuzzling his face into his hair. "I'm listening now! Tell me everything!"

 Kuro threw Mahiru a panicked look and tried to push Hyde off. "Please, I'm beggin' you. Not now."

 "Yes now!"

 "Why?!"

 "It's been too long already!" Hyde raised his head, eyes red rimmed and bright. "I'm sorry I blamed you for everything. I'm sorry I doubted you."

 Kuro fell backwards, throwing an arm over his face, his brows pulled down in sufferance. "You had every right to doubt me. I never told you anything, what were you supposed to think?" 

 "Why did you leave?" Hyde asked, voice breaking softly. He sat up and rubbed roughly at his eyes as he stared down at Kuro.

 Sighing, Kuro slowly lowered his arm and glanced at Hyde. "It was the only way to keep you safe."


"Do you feel better?" Mahiru asked, tipping his head back to look at Kuro, propped against the couch behind him. It was early evening and after a somewhat subdued meal, he and Kuro had begged off after dinner coffee, claiming exhaustion, and retired to the relative safety of their room.

 "I guess." Kuro sighed wearily and Mahiru snorted. "I didn't really want to have that conversation in front of an audience but...." He groaned, letting his head fall sideways, gently on Mahiru's. "I guess it's nice to all be on the same page."

 Mahiru smiled at the borrowed phrasing and hummed. "I'm glad you got the chance to talk it out."

 "Sure, sure. I suppose you're going to give me one of your 'I told you so' lectures now."

 "I thought about it!" Mahiru muttered, scowling. "But I like to think you've learned the value of good communication." He could feel Kuro's shoulder rising and falling with his breathing and when the silence lingered, allowed his eyes to drift shut, relaxing. Sleepily, he found himself murmuring, "You're a good person, Kuro." 

 Kuro's breath hitched and he shrugged carefully. "Maybe."


"Ahhhhh!" Mahiru sighed happily, stretching his arms over his head and glancing around the lecture hall. "This is the life!"

 "You're cheerful for someone who's missed two weeks of class."

 He spun around in surprise, eyes wide. "Sakuya!"

 "Hey-o." Sakuya waved, uncharacteristically subdued. His lips were pulled down in worry and Mahiru felt a prick of guilt stab him. "Mind telling me what was so important you couldn't even give me a heads up you were leaving?"

 "I'm so sorry." Mahiru said, twisting his hands together. "I didn't have time to explain."

 Sakuya raised a skeptics brow and sighed. "Let me guess, it was another hopeless charity case."

 "No!" Mahiru huffed, swinging his bag over the back of his chair. "It was-" He faltered, Lily's parting words echoing back to him, 'Mahiru, it's best if you keep all this quiet, as I'm sure you know. We might seem to have a slight advantage right now but there's no telling who could spread the wrong kind of information'. He sat down heavily, leaning forward against the desk. "It was just some family business." He winced when Sakuya turned concerned eyes to him.

 "Hey, sorry. I didn't mean-"

 "It's fine! It's fine." Mahiru exclaimed, hands raised in supplication. "It's been taken care of. No lasting damage."

 Sakuya eyed him curiously before nodding. "As long as everything is ok."

 "I think-" He broke off as someone shouted his name and he felt dread pool in his stomach. Carefully keeping his eyes trained on the table in front of him he willed the voice to disappear. It didn't work.

 "Mahiruuuuu~ 

 He winced at the wavering volume, picturing it floating across the hall, shattering lights and desks alike. Finally glancing up, he saw Hyde and Licht near the door, Hyde waving his hands wildly over his head as he yelled. Licht was staring moodily up at the ceiling but Mahiru thought he saw him deign to give an aborted nod. Catching Mahiru's eye, Hyde bounced forward and began climbing the stairs to the back row.

 "Friends of yours?" Sakuya asked, his tone laced with irritation and curiosity in equal measure.

 "Ah. Sort of." Mahiru muttered. Struggling to think of an explanation, he missed Hyde's final leap, and fell back in surprise when he landed on the chair next to his.

 "Mahiru! You should have told us what room you were in! It took us forever to find you!" He whined and reached out, snatching the mug Mahiru had brought with him from the table, taking a long drink and pulling a face at the straight black coffee inside.

 "What are you guys doing here?" Mahiru bit out, staring heatedly at his now half empty mug.

 "Security detail!" Hyde sang brightly, leaning back and propping his ankles on the desk. "Ain't that right, angel cakes?"

 "What, like babysitters?" Sakuya interjected gleefully, his lips tugging up in a cheeky smile.

 "No! Not like babysitters!" Mahiru flushed, his temper rising. "And you two aren't supposed to be here!" He continued, lowering his voice to a whisper and fixing his glare on Licht. "Misono and I had a deal."

 "Plans changed." Licht said simply, pulling out the chair next to Hyde and folding himself gracefully into it. "When's lunch?"

 "Hold on. Where's Kuro?" Mahiru asked slowly, glancing first at Hyde and then to Licht, feeling his stomach flip when neither would meet his eye. "Well?"

 "He's-" Hyde scratched the back of his neck nervously, his gaze darting around the room several times as he avoided looking at Mahiru. "Uh."

 "He's away on business." Licht supplied.

 His chest growing grotesquely hollow, Mahiru swallowed, fingers gripping the tables edge so tightly they bleached white at the tips. "What business?"

 Sakuya, looking between them suspiciously, leaned forward around Mahiru's shoulder. "What's going on?"

 "Just some business." Hyde emphasized, rolling his hands around each other in some kind of gesture, eyebrows raised pointedly. "Don't sweat it! He'll be back tonight!" 

 Mahiru, mindful of Sakuya's stare, nodded stiffly and sat back, folding his hands tightly in his lap. A thousand fingers of worry had scratched themselves across his back and he could still feel the distracting itch; doing his best to resist wiggling back against his chair, he forced his lungs to contract and push the stagnant air through his throat and out his mouth in a haggard chuckle. "I'm not worried."

 Licht threw him a lightening quick glance, his eyes narrowed, but before Mahiru could think too deeply on it Hyde stretched across the desk, dangling his fingers over the far edge and sighing gustily. LIcht's attention switched to him immediately and he scowled, slapping Hyde on the back of the head.

 "Don't make a scene!" He said darkly as Hyde jerked and wrapped a hand over the offended spot. 

 "You're one to talk." Sakuya muttered and Licht huffed, crossing his arms and staring straight ahead.

 Knowing that the next three hours were bound to be nothing but torture, Mahiru took out his notes and braced for combat.

 

 When class let out an agonizing  two hours and thirty four minutes later it was all Mahiru could do to keep himself from running from the room in a panic. Hyde had lasted all of twenty minutes before growing bored with advanced geothermic theory and had begun to flick small wads of spit damp paper at Licht who, in a dubious bid to appear to fit the scene, had been trying to take notes. Licht had responded explosively, beating Hyde over the head repeatedly with the notebook now filled with incomprehensible sketches and paragraphs of rock formations described with human names. As the professor had called a halt to the lesson, demanding they leave the premises, Sakuya had laughed himself hoarse, hidden behind his laptop and Mahiru had wished death on every one of them. Hyde had promised they'd wait for him in the hall and escort him to work and really, could he get a past life reading? This punishment was fitting only of mass genocide or perhaps child trafficking.

 "What took so long?!" Hyde exclaimed as Mahiru attempted to sneak from the doorway and cross the crowded hall unseen, having promised an impatient Sakuya that he would text him after work. "Misono said class was out at one!"

 "It is." Mahiru grit out, balling his fists around the strap of his computer bag, trying to force his breathing to calm. "It is precisely one oh seven."

 "Let's get a move on then! You have work at two right?"

 Mahiru sighed, releasing his fragile hope that they would leave him in peace while at work and nodded. "Yes, at two. Until nine."

 "That's such a long time." Licht said suddenly, his face slack in shock. "Is that legal?"

 As Mahiru stared at Licht's wide, innocent eyes, and contemplated just dropping his bag and running, Hyde rolled his eyes. "Yes, it's legal. It's only seven hours!"

 Licht glowered down at his hands where they were tucked into the front pocket of his hoodie. "How do you have time to practice?"

 "Practice what?" Mahiru asked bemusedly.

 "Piano."

 "I don't play the piano." Mahiru glanced at Hyde to find him grinning feral-ly as he twisted to face Licht.

 "Angel, not everyone plays."

 Licht seemed unsure if this latest declaration was a prank or not and after staring hard at Hyde for a moment, pivoted and grabbed the nearest passing student, his fingers digging into the lapels of his jacket. "Do you play the piano?"

 The terrified boy shook his head, his mouth open in surprise, and Licht grunted, letting his hold drop. The student landed on his feet, wobbling worryingly, and took off without a backward glance. Licht was already striding forward, hie eyes locked on a group of three young girls near a drinking fountain when Mahiru leapt after him, grabbing a desperate handful of his hoodie. He dug his heels into the hard marble tiling of the hall but it did little to slow Licht's progress.

 "Licht, what do you think you're doing?!" He demanded, tugging at the black cotton with all his strength.

 "Asking if they play piano." Licht muttered, his eyes still fixed on the girls. 

 "You are a menace!" Mahiru yelled as Hyde burst into laughter; Mahiru shot him a dirty look. 

 "You are always such a wonderful surprise, my little Gabriel!" Hyde exclaimed, holding his sides as he rocked in mirth.

 "Shut your filthy mouth." Licht growled loudly, finally garnering the attention of the girls.

 Wide, startled eyes traveled from Licht to Mahiru and back again several times before they seemed to decide he was a threat and began inching backwards. Their hesitant footsteps brought them up against the wall and they then slid sideways, all the while keeping Licht in their peripheral. As they increased the distance, it became obvious that one of them had failed to move. She was standing stock still, books clutched in the crooks of her elbows, her eyes bright circles of mountain sky against her salty blonde hair. Her gaze was frantic and disbelieving as it settled on Hyde, having assessed and disregarded Mahiru and Licht both, and as though someone had suddenly given her a violent shove, she stumbled forward, dropping her books and folders at her feet, the papers scattering across the hall, trod upon by her uneven steps.

 "Hyde!" Her voice was light and airy, like a small bird taking flight and it stilled the air as it seemed to wrench itself from her very bones. Hyde had stopped laughing the moment she'd cried out and he wore an identical look of incredulity, watching as she ran the small length from one side to the other, an eternity seeming to exist between each step. When she reached him she gave a breathless laugh, closing her eyes, and leapt into his open arms.

 "Izuna!" Hyde crushed her in a strangle hold hug and buried his face in the scarf wrapped around her neck. "Izuna!"

 She continued to laugh as she pulled back, cupping his face in her hands. She was flushed and smiling so widely Mahiru worried her lips would crack. "Hyde! What are you doing here?!"

 "I could ask you the same thing!"

 She shrugged, her small shoulders lifting up to her ears sheepishly. "Still school. You know."

 "I do." Hyde agreed, his eyes glowing as he took her in. She blushed anew and he grinned. "You were always the smartest of us."

 "Stop!" She laughed, swatting him with one of the hands still behind his neck. "You can't fluster me like that anymore!"

 Licht chose that moment to clear his throat, his glare strong enough to kill. 

 Hyde started, looking up at Licht as though he'd forgotten where he was. "Angel!" He disentangled himself and then carefully took her hand, leading her over to Licht. "I want you to meet someone!"

 "I don't have any interest in meeting new-" Licht broke off as Hyde punched him in the chest.

 "You have interest in meeting her."

 Mahiru turned around, his eyes roaming the hall idly as he listened to them argue. He refused to admit that he was looking, pointlessly, for Kuro, but when he failed to spot a head of bright, soft white, he felt his heart drop and his shoulders slump. The strength of his disappointment startled him, but before he could start to forge a deep worry about it he heard Hyde calling his name. Glancing back he saw him waving wildly, his hand on Izuna's shoulder. She, for the most part was still smiling, though it was tempered with a somewhat humorous ill ease directed towards Licht.

 "Mahiru! Come over here! This is Izuna!" Hyde was grinning, his expression so bright Mahiru feared sunburn, but it was infectious and he felt himself beginning to smile as well as he looked at them.

 "Alright already!" He yelled, stomping over. "Don't shout in the halls!"

 "Mahiru!" Izuna rushed forward as he neared and he had just a second to brace himself before she jumped, her small arms wrapping surprisingly tightly around his chest, forcing a wheeze from his lips. "It's so nice to meet you!"

 "Uh- you t-too." He stuttered, his face heating. "Uhm."

 "Oh, I'm sorry!" She pulled back as though she'd been shocked and grinned up at him, her face clouded with embarrassment. "I guess I got a little excited. It's just so great to see Hyde again!"

 "So, how do you two...." Mahiru trailed off as her name suddenly registered in a long ago story he'd been told and he gasped. "Izuna!"

 She seemed to understand the look of comprehension as it crossed his face and smiled softly. "That's me."

 "You have to come to lunch with us!" Hyde burst out, unable to contain himself any longer. "We were just going now!"

 She looked startled for a moment before quickly smoothing the expression out and twiddling her fingers together shyly. "Oh, I'm not sure I shou-"

 "I insist!"

 Licht threw Hyde a disgruntled look, his mouth open, an insult waiting, but then glanced at Izuna and paused. His sharp eyes widened infinitesimally and finally he let his lips tick up just a beat, like a soft breath. "Just come with us." He said, conceding, though his tone was still surly. When Izuna turned to him he softened his expression further. "Our treat."

 "If it's really alright!" She answered quickly. "I'd love to!"

 Hyde wild cheer cut out when Licht kicked him swiftly in the knee and Mahiru sighed. He'd never graduate at this rate. Rolling his eyes to the heavens he reached out blindly, grabbing Hyde by the hood and took off, towing him down the hall. "Let's just get out of here." He muttered.


 
 Pushing open the doors to the cafe, Mahiru froze, rubbing a hand across his eyes. It did nothing to change the view in front of him and he almost took a step back out the door but his sense of responsibility flared, biting at his ankles and propelling him forward, farther into the room where Misono and Lily sat at a table, stirring copious amounts of sugar into a large tea pot while Hugh stacked cookies into a precarious tower.

 "What is this." He asked flatly.

 Lily looked up, smile already spreading across his face. "Mahiru! Just in time!"

 "Time for what."

 "For work, of course!" Lily glanced slyly at Misono before picking up his cup and taking a small sip. "You start at two, correct?"

 Refusing to fall for the innocent tone Mahiru frowned. "Yes. And I believe that the constraints of our deal were that I was allowed to go to class and work, uninterrupted." He turned to glare pointedly at Licht and Hyde, noting that they were dangerously close to spilling the entire display case they were flicking each other over.

 Lily placed the cup gently back on the table and pinned Mahiru with a steady gaze, his eyes uncharacteristically serious. "I promise we will not interrupt or disturb your work, Mahiru. We are simply worried about you. Misono felt it better for you to be within sight at all times to ensure there are no more..." He hesitated, rolling the word from his tongue delicately, "accidents."

 "It was unacceptable!" Misono suddenly declared, his brow troubled as he pounded a fist on the table. "Completely and utterly ridiculous!"

 Beneath the bluster and irritation, Mahiru could taste Misono's guilt and regret and it was that more than anything else that finally dowsed the remaining embers of his anger. Sighing, he ran a hand through his hair. "It wasn't your fault." When they both just stared at him he smiled. "And if you do cause any trouble, you'll be out on your asses faster than you can say sorry!"

 "Can't kick them out of their own shop." A voice muttered as the kitchens swing door opened and Kuro slunk out, a tray in his hands.

 Mahiru spun around, his heart pole vaulting to somewhere near his collar bone. "Kuro!" Without thinking, he darted across the shop, only slowing his steps when he remembered the other eyes all watching and registered Kuro's look of mild surprise. 

 "Hey." Kuro said softly. "What's up?"

 "Why are you-" Mahiru trailed off, taking in the black, frilled apron tied haphazardly just below Kuro's belt and the tray, covered in small sandwiches, in his hands. Suddenly, what he'd said caught up as his worry and distract retreated and Mahiru blinked in fearful confusion. "What do you mean 'their shop'? And what are you doing here?"

 Kuro shrugged, his expression one of almost painful disinterest. "Misono bought the cafe. And now I'm being touted as a bus boy."

 "An unending-ly cheerful and charismatic bus boy!" Lily sang brightly.

 Kuro turned a sulky look to him and sighed. "Of course, of course. I live to serve. I am here to please."

 At the last word Kuro's gaze flickered to Mahiru, meeting his eyes for the span of a breath, before flying back to the table where Lily sat whistling jokingly while Misono stared in shock. Struggling to regain his composure, Mahiru couldn't help but find himself contemplating the subtle roll of Kuro's tongue, the soft pull of his lips, as he said 'please' and all of a sudden his blood boiled, igniting his face, and he ducked around Kuro, frantically reaching for the door to the back. "I'll be right there!" He called over his shoulder, wincing when his voice cracked dryly and only breathing again when the door clicked shut behind him.

 After several minutes of controlled breaths and temporarily successful meditation in the dark, tepid confines of the employee closet, Mahiru reemerged, clad in his own apron. He had feared total upset when he returned but despite it's current occupants, the room was by and large rather quiet. Lily and Misono were sitting silently, mulling over their plates of desserts, while Hugh seemed to have tired of his cookies and was now crouched in front of the small fire place feeding twigs and brambles to the cheery flames. Hyde and Licht were ensconced at their own table and arguing over something about which Mahiru vowed to not ask. As he turned to look for Kuro the front doors chime gave a ring and Izuna came skipping in, just as she'd promised. 

 The whole drive over Hyde had fretted and worried that they shouldn't have let her leave, should have forced her along with them in the moment, his mind no doubt spinning tales of her inevitable disappearance and when she crossed the threshold, his entire face lit up and he sprang over his chair, leaving Licht staring moodily down at their now empty table.

 "You're here!" He exclaimed, grabbing her small hands in his and twirling her around as she giggled.  

 Mahiru couldn't help but imagine him with a wagging tail and soft, floppy ears, and didn't quite stifle the chuckle that escaped. At Hyde's call, Lily had glanced up but, to Mahiru's surprise, he had not risen, had merely sat hunched in his chair, large, fear drenched eyes fixed on Izuna. As she spun nearer his table she caught his eye and her smile widened further still as she released her hold on Hyde and turned a lightening fast pirouette towards him. She stopped just inches from one of his trembling knees and without preamble, threw her arms around his neck, tears dripping softly down her cheeks.

 "Lily! I can't believe it! Hyde didn't say anything about this!" Her words were hard fought to distinguish from her increasingly hiccup-y sobs and finally Lily reacted, wrapping his graceful arms around her shoulders and smiling tensely.

 "Izuna. It is such a wonderful surprise to see you."

 "I thought it would be a good surprise!" Hyde confessed to Hugh as he drew near, drawn from his place by the fire by the commotion. 

 "I should say it's a surprise!" Hugh agreed, staring thoughtfully at Lily and Izuna's somewhat awkward embrace. "But for who? Does this mean Freya is here too?"

 Lily flinched noticeably at the name and Izuna leaned back, wiping at her eyes. "She is! We moved here for my schooling! But she's at work. I would have called her immediately other wise!" She grinned and walked swiftly to Hugh, scooping him into her arms as well. "Hugh! I can't believe you're still shorter than me! I sent her a text to come by when she's out!" She sang happily over his head.

 "Oh, good!" Lily intoned, high pitched and staccato. "I really must head back and make sure proper arrangements have been made. And I most certainly must change, a shower too, perhaps a weekend away to refresh-" He cut off when Misono nudged him, an eyebrow raised.

 "What's wrong?" Izuna asked worriedly, staring from Misono to Lily.

 Hyde laughed roughly, and shook his head. "Lily, get over it. She will be so pleased to see you."

 Swallowing stiffly, Lily gave a single nod and forced a benevolent smile across his lips as he turned to Izuna. "I will call the staff and have a lasagna prepared for dinner. I still remember that as her uncontested favorite."

 She beamed in response and let her strangle hold on Hugh go slack. As he stumbled away, her eyes flickered shyly to Misono and she nibbled lightly on her lip for a moment before taking a breath. "I hope I haven't imposed! And I hope we can be good friends!"

 Misono choked, as though suddenly suffering from a mighty jab to the solar plexus and flushed. "I- I- well, of course it's not-" He turned wide, pleading eyes to Lily but quickly took a hold of his composure when Lily merely grinned wickedly and looked away. "There is no imposition. We would be more than happy to welcome you to our home for dinner." He finally managed to say, back as rigid as a board.

 Mahiru watched all of this happen with a light smile, feeling his heart float warm and content in his chest as he observed each broken, mourned bridge, rebuild. Izuna now turned to him, her face open and friendly, a greeting on her tongue, when her eyes slid over his shoulder and settled on something. Instantly the life drained from her face and she took an unsteady step forward, her gaze never wavering.

 Only the soft intake of breath and radiating warmth gave Kuro's presence away and Mahiru glanced back only to heave a small gasp of his own. Kuro stood several inches away, hair pulled back by two ridiculous barrettes, his hands frozen around the empty tray held before him. As Mahiru stared, Kuro's eyes dilated and everyone jumped when he allowed the tray to land loudly at his feet.

 "Ash?" Izuna's voice shook and threatened to fall but her steps were sure as she strode forward. 

 Kuro flinched back, attempting to duck behind Mahiru but he wasn't quick enough and she managed to reach out and catch hold of his sleeve, tugging him back into view. His lips were clamped tightly, expression pained, as though he were being inexorably crushed, able to do nothing but watch his doom approach; but she ignored all this to shove her face in his chest, her hand still clutching a fistful of his shirt. Mahiru had a second to worry she was going throw a punch when suddenly she burst into violent, wracking sobs, her shoulders shaking as her legs wobbled and she slid down. Only her inhuman grip on his shirt kept her upright, Kuro too frozen to offer support.

 As her cries crowded the room, Kuro closed his eyes, standing loosely, making no attempt to comfort her. His arms dangled at his side, moving slightly with the rock and pull of her ragged breathing, and after what seemed an eternity she leaned back just far enough to clear her mouth. "Ash." She whispered again, her lips fluttering wildly as she tried to reign in her grief. "Are you ok?"

 This last question seemed to be the limit of what Kuro could endure and he took a swift step back, effortlessly breaking her hold. "Izuna." He greeted her roughly. 

 Sudden, blazing rage kindled in her eyes and her hands flashed back out, regaining their hold on his uniform. "Is that all I get?!" She cried. "After all these years! After everything!"

 Mahiru's gaze tracked the steady shivering of Kuro's shoulders, his heart begging him to intervene but just as he was about to step in, Kuro suddenly straightened, his eyes finding Izuna's and holding her in place. Without seeming to move at all he placed a hand on her head gently, his fingers sinking into the fluffy strands.

 "I owe you an apology." He murmured. "I don't know how to go about it."

 Once more she melted and fell forward, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. Kuro caught her easily and this time did not hesitate to pat her lightly on the back as she sniffled into his shirt. "You don't have to apologize! I don't care what you did or why!" Here Kuro winced, his eyes darting over her head to Hyde, but he said nothing and Izuna continued uninterrupted. "How could I not be happy to see you?! It broke my heart when you left. When we left." She turned quickly to stare at Hyde, Lily, and Hugh in turn. "I'm so sorry! I'm sorry I couldn't do a-any t-thing." Her head tilted back and she gave a renewed half shriek, half sob. "I've missed you all s-s-so m-m-m-much." 

 Hugh shuffled his feet uncomfortably, seeming unsure what to do with this onslaught of emotion. His looked to Kuro, but Kuro was not fairing any better, his shoulders hard as diamonds, a panicked paleness stealing the life from his face as he regarded Izuna with something akin to instinctual fright; Lily sat still in his chair, face stiff and decidedly distant, though his hands were clenched tightly in his lap. Only Hyde seemed unaffected as he smiled brightly at her, either ignoring or immune, to her powerful mixture of grief and rapture.

 "You had better stop crying or Freya will think we've been bullying you!" He exclaimed jokingly, nudging her in the ribs.

 She choked on a giggle and swiped quickly at her eyes. "You're right! I can't worry her." She glanced shyly up at Kuro for another moment, her earlier reaction seeming to embarrass her as she calmed down. "Freya will be glad to see you, Ash."

 Kuro studied her silently for a moment before sighing, his shoulders slumping. "I sure hope so." 

 She laughed happily and reached out taking one of his hand in hers, peering closely at his knuckles in thought, frowning in worry as she inspected the bandages. She wrapped her other around it as well. "I know she will." She hesitated, indecision marring her expression as she squeezed their hands together once and then looked up. "I hope nothing has changed...." Her words tripped up in an almost question and Kuro raised a brow. "I'd like that! If we could be like we were!" She finished in a rush, blushing. 

 "It's too much trouble to start over." Kuro muttered, his gaze cutting to the side. His free hand twisted in the loose tails on the front of his shirt as he frowned down at the floor. "And I don't think it could be any other way."

 As Izuna beamed up at him in something close to wonder, Mahiru felt an unfamiliar itch twinge up his spine, his mind suddenly clouded with an almost violent curiosity. Not knowing what they were really saying, for the first time being unable to decipher Kuro's double speak, feeling like an outsider, all these thoughts and irritants burrowed their way into his bones and he dug his fingers into the warm flesh of his forearms, unaware that he had ever crossed them at all. When Kuro glanced at him, he fought to smile, his lips heavy and unyielding. The effort must have been only semi successful for Kuro's eyes narrowed in question and Mahiru found himself looking away, turning and busying himself with the counter, rather than facing that honest, capturing gaze.

 Something was deeply wrong with him he concluded, when, Izuna appearing at his elbow asking joyfully if she could be of any help, all Mahiru could feel was a deep desire to have her far and away, out of his vision. She had done nothing wrong, indeed had been nothing but pleasant and polite and lovely and here he was wishing with every secret hollow of his heart that she had never walked down that hall this morning. Her role in their stories and life left him with an odd sort of numbness, as though he were being dunked in electrified water. After asking her to see if she couldn't tidy up the front counter and she had skipped away, Mahiru finally pegged the feeling as jealousy and envy and the surprise of it almost had him dropping the cup he was polishing. As he set it down unsteadily, the glass clinking quickly several times against the counter top, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. It was ridiculous. It was completely pointless to feel this way, he told himself sternly. The past was the past and yearning for it, especially a past that was never yours to begin with, was an exercise in futility. Izuna was a wonderful, bright, charming girl. It was little wonder that she had captured their hearts and stayed alive in their thoughts. 

 He snuck a peek over his shoulder to find her laughing as she watched Hyde and Kuro sneer harmlessly at each other over a disagreement on the placement of the menus, and his lungs shook with the epiphany: she was beautiful. Radiant and warm in a way that he rarely saw. And her angelic attention was still fixed on Kuro. Shivers crossed his back as he watched her reach out and ruffle Kuro's hair, still laughing. He batted her hand away grumpily but Mahiru could see the young smile tugging at his lips, one which he made no move to hide as he always had before, and something little and sharp seemed to burst in Mahiru's chest. The sudden pain of it forced a soft huff from his lips. Kuro immediately turned, his eyes on Mahiru, who had hunched over in shame, silently begging and pleading with any deity in range that Kuro would not come over to investigate. 

 Willing himself not to quake like a sapling in a storm, he walked hastily towards the rear door, hoping, needing, to be alone in the back, alone and quiet as he sorted out these mutinous thoughts and strangled them into pulpy mounds of acceptance. 

 The kitchen was still cool, un-warmed from the heat of the oven as Misono had apparently felt no need of business today, and Mahiru could feel an immediate sense of relief sweep through him. It was one thing to keep his calm in front of customers or alone in his room, and quite another while surrounded by a group of strangers he had mysteriously begun to hold in high esteem.

 The surreal-ness of the situation was just beginning to gain a hold and rattle his bones when there was a soft tap on the swing door. He jumped, clutching the front of his shirt and spun to find Lily poking his head in, a hesitant smile on his face.

 "Sorry, Mahiru." He said softly. "Would you mind if I came in?"

 "No, no! Go ahead! Come in!" His voice almost cracked but he hid it with a cough and covered his face with his hands, scrubbing them up and down frantically during the few seconds it took Lily to lean back out and open the door. "Are you here to explain to me what Kuro meant when he said Misono bought the cafe?" He asked stiffly, taking refuge in his newly pinked cheeks and blustering through his shaking nerves, hoping Lily blamed it on anger.

 Predictably, Lily smiled grimly, his hands folded behind his back. "Ah, well." He paused and turned a shrewd eye on Mahiru. "Are you sure you are quite alright?" There was a soft touch of humor beneath his words and Mahiru bristled instinctively. "I don't mean to pry, of course!" Lily raised his hands in surrender. "I was merely checking. We've all had... quite a week."

 "Don't remind me." Mahiru sighed, slumping back against the kitchen counter. "I feel like a tool saying it but, I could use a drink."

 Lily's eyes took on a manic gleam and he ran a finger over his lip in thought. "That is not a bad idea, Mahiru."

 "Oh, no. No." Mahiru shook his head, scowling. "No more of that. No."

 "But why ever not?!" Lily demanded happily, twirling in place. "It's the perfect refresher! I promise it won't get out of hand!"

 Mahiru crossed his arms. "No."

 "Mahiruuuu~" Lily sang, leaning forward and grabbing his collar, gaze pleading and just a bit childish. "Please?" 

 Staring into Lily's soft honey eyes Mahiru could feel his resolve slipping. What was the worst that could happen, after all? And no one said he had to drink, or well, over drink. And he was a university student, wasn't he?! That's what you were supposed to do in university; have friends and relax and drink too much and regret it the next morning. It was the quintessential experience. 

 "And wouldn't you like to see Kuro drunk, Mahiru?" Lily purred, leaning closer still and batting his eyelashes. "I promise it will be worth your while."

 If he hadn't already convinced him, that was the final prod and Mahiru found himself nodding wearily and sighing even as his heart leapt in gleeful anticipation.

 "What's going on."

 They both jumped and turned towards the door where Kuro stood, one hand propped against the jam as though holding himself up. His eyes were flitting back and forth between them, a small crease in his brows betraying his unease.

 "Kuro!" Mahiru exclaimed, struggling to extricate himself from Lily's hold, feeling his face heat. "What are you doing back here?!"

 "Fresh cups." Kuro held a teetering stack of mugs aloft in his free hand by way of explanation. 

 "O-oh." Mahiru found his mind, for once, completely devoid of thought and so just stared dumbly as Kuro finally took a few hesitant steps into the kitchen, allowing the door to swing shut behind him. When it had clicked into place, Mahiru threw a glance at Lily only to find him propped back against the counter, a smug grin curving his lips.

 "Am I interrupting something?" Kuro muttered lowly, his brows drawing down as he stared at Lily. 

 "Of course not!" Lily waved a hand through the air and darted a sly look over at Mahiru, winking when he caught his eye. "I was just discussing tonight's agenda with Mahiru. I don't suppose you have any entertainment suggestions for us?" For the first time since entering the kitchen he seemed to lose some of his poise and gave a nervous sort of twitch, lacing his fingers together tightly. "After all, F-Freya, will be joining us it would seem."

 A barbed half smile drifted across Kuro's lips at the reminder and he sighed mockingly. "Perhaps you could play a round of poker with her?"

 Lily paled and rolled his eyes away, up to the ceiling and back down. "I think I'll pass. Someone must be there to monitor the staff properly."

 Kuro snorted and set the dirty mugs in the sink, the porcelain giving a worrying clink. "Like they've ever been supervised before. Who was it you two had over last year? The British prime minister?"

 "Belgian." Lily corrected stiffly. "Mahiru, I'm sorry but I really must go. There is much to do before tonight!" He gave an aborted, apprehensive chuckle and ducked out of the room. "Be home by six!" He called through the door before hurrying away, the ends of his coat flying like agitated tails.

 "Mmh." Mahiru forced out, wincing at the suddenly awkward atmosphere. The pathetic attempt at clever commentary fell flat and Kuro stood all the tenser at his side; though he made no move to leave, Mahiru could feel the displeasure rolling off him.

 "So what are tonight's festivities?" He asked dully.

 Mahiru stared up at him for a moment, taking in the empty landscape of his expression and on an impulse reached out, wrapping his fingers around Kuro's wrist, sliding them hesitantly down and around Kuro's own. He started, eyes darting down to their joined hands and then up to Mahiru. "Lily wants to have a little wine with dinner." Mahiru finally forced out, proud when his voice did not dip or waver. "Should I be wary of Freya?"

 As though the last few minutes had not happened, Kuro shot Mahiru a fleeting grin. "Just don't piss her off."

Chapter Text

Mikuni sat with head bowed over steepled fingers, the glow of his eyes barely discernible in the shadow seeping from beneath the brim of his hat. The lights in the room had been extinguished but whether correctly or permanently was anyone's guess. Jeje let the door close softly and swept across the room, refusing to play into Mikuni's constant power struggle. To indulge his moods was to ask for those moods to persist to the end of time.

 "You don't want to go to the cafe?"

 Finally Mikuni glanced up, the smirk ever present on his face sliding away.

"Of course not."

 Jeje nodded, looking carefully away. "I see."

 "You aren't going to ask me why?" He taunted softly, letting his hands fall lifeless to the arms of the chair. "No interest in my recent suffering?"

 Jeje suppressed a weary sigh and un-clicked the links holding his rounds securely to the belt around his waist, listening to the satisfying clink as they fell to the bed. "No." 

 Mikuni threw his head back, laughing dramatically, an arm flung to the ceiling. "How you hurt me!"

 Counting through the spent cartridges quickly, Jeje began a mental list of supplies that needed replenishing- bullets to buy, cleaning clothes and oil to smuggle, a small pin spring that he had noticed was incorrectly sized for the-

 "I thought we were friends!" Mikuni exclaimed, interrupting his thoughts. "How could you string me along all these years?!"

 Supposedly Mikuni was one of the brightest, most gifted students to slink through the halls of the police academy but now, after close encounters of the constant, Jeje was seriously beginning to doubt such advertising. He finally let the sigh pressing on his lungs out and was restarting his inventory when Mikuni jumped up, his shadow the only warning before the man himself vaulted across the small space and landed on the bed with a teeth clenching explosion.

 "You know I hate to be ignored."

 "How unfortunate."

 "What am I supposed to do with you?"

 "Hopefully nothing." Jeje turned an unimpressed eye to Mikuni, his expression neutral. "I never asked for anything beyond your assistance in destroying Tsubaki."

 Mikuni's lips curled up playfully. "I've been meaning to ask you for, oh, years now I suppose. What exactly do you mean by "destroy"? You see it's possible that you and I have wildly varying definitions of the word and I'd hate for-"

 "Kill. Eradicate. Remove. Incapacitate. Take your choice."

 His secret smile grew and he laughed. "Just when I begin to forget why I keep you around you remind me!" He paused, watching in quiet interest as Jeje stripped the first rifle down. "Just don't forget what you promised me."

 "I won't."


"I'm just really not sure about this." Mahiru muttered hesitantly as he stared at the gigantic glass, containing a fruity concoction of some sort, that Licht had just pushed into his hand. The florescent liquid blue that the copious slices of pineapple floated in didn't strike him as a particularly edible color.

 "It's refreshing." Licht said stonily, his expression unchanged from his usual veneer of irritated boredom. "I love it."

 Mahiru raised a brow skeptically and Hyde turned from his place across the room, a scowl on his face, the drink in his hand sloshing violently.

 "Angel! Who taught you how to advertise?! That was the worst, coldest, most impersonal pitch I've ever heard! My dead grandma could be more convincing and she only spoke Welsh!"

 Licht, too, spun on his heel, immediately forgetting Mahiru. "I'm not a billboard! I am a heavenly deity. An angel! Do your own networking you worthless mass of flesh!"

 "Have you begun to run dry of insults my little Raphael? They've lost some of their shine!" Hyde stalked forward, eyes fixed on Licht as he waved his drink around wildly, the bubbly mix spilling all along the carpet behind him. "I can't have you going and getting boring on me."

 Lichy sneered as he met him toe to toe in the center of the room. "It's not possible for me to be boring. Perhaps you've just finally rotted your brain?"

 Hyde laughed uproariously. "And how would I have done that?!"

 "I don't think I have time to list all your bad habits and demonic tendencies." Licht scoffed, crossing his arms. "Don't waste my breath on such banalities."

 "Oh! How your vocabulary has improved!" Hyde exclaimed, clapping slowly. He pressed forward, tilting his face, pausing just inches from Licht's neck, his lips drawn slowly back over his teeth as though he meant to sink them through the pale skin. "I dare say the credit for that goes to me, but whatever shall I give as a reward?"

 "I demand you stop this at once!" Misono shrieked, his face twisted in horror and hands clenched along the edge of the table as though he were holding it up through the sheer power of his will. 

 Lily smothered a laugh. "Oh, don't mind them! Let them have their fun. Perhaps if they relax enough we will even be privy to their little adventure on the-" He cut off, trying to hide a snort. "- their little- garbage barge-" He finally broke down, the laughter rolling from his lips light as a spring breeze. Hyde and Licht both turned insulted looks over their shoulders and when he saw their expressions it only fueled his mirth. 

 As Lily braced himself against one of the chairs, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes, Misono frowned, glancing at him thoughtfully before sitting down and leaning his head on his hand. "As you wish."

 "I think I might just go back to my room." Mahiru muttered to the drink in his hand. It was already shaping up to be a much more idiotic time than he'd anticipated and, perhaps because of the lack of sleep, or recent beatings he had taken, he just didn't feel up to dealing with it. Even the potential promise of Kuro getting tipsy wasn't enough and he was just trying to decide where to leave the conspicuous looking concoction when Kuro materialized at his shoulder, expression stolid as he watched Hyde and Licht taking turns attempting to throw the other onto the table.

 "You couldn't pay me enough to get in the middle of that." He commented, taking a casual sip of whatever was in the solo cup in his hand.

 Mahiru caught the unmistakable whiff of rum and whipped his head to the side just in time to catch Kuro's eye as he took another purposeful mouthful. 

 "What?" He asked slowly after he'd swallowed. "Did you want some?" He held the cup out and Mahiru turned his gaze hesitantly down. The liquid was a pale golden brown and smelled even stronger this close. "It's just Malibu."

 Mahiru frowned, remembering the cup in his other hand. He hadn't planned on having anything to drink; his pride was still wounded from the spectacular hangover he'd suffered the last time. "I think I'm good, thanks."

 Kuro shrugged and turned his attention back to Licht and Hyde. They were now embroiled in a struggle to put the other in head lock and had moved the scuffle to somewhere in the vicinity of under the table. "It's a shame that Licht wasn't around before."

 His adrenaline spiking at the nonchalant offer of information about the strange rag-tag family's past, Mahiru slid just a bit closer and made a show of taking a hesitant sip of his own drink. "Why do you say that?"

 Kuro shot him a quick, crooked smile, and shrugged. "Seems like he's the best at keeping Hyde in line."

 The questions piled up on the tip of Mahiru's tongue faster than he could comprehend them and as he struggled to sift through the mountain of burning curiosity Kuro snuck a peek at the cup he had again forgotten in his hand.

 "What is that?"

 "What is what?" Mahiru asked blankly, aghast at what he sensed was his chance to pry slipping away. Kuro simply nodded down at the cup and he grimaced. "Oh. I don't know. Hyde had Licht trying to convince me to drink it."

 Without comment, Kuro reached out and grabbed it, lifting it to his lips and taking a taste. He blinked once and snorted. "Blue Hawaiian."

 "Excuse me?"

 Kuro raised a brow, his lips quirked to the side in what was almost amusement. "Blue Hawaiian. It's just pineapple juice, coconut creme, rum, and blue curacao."

 Stupefied, Mahiru glanced down at the drink and then back up to Kuro. "How did you know that?!" He demanded.

 Kuro shrugged again, twitching the fingers of his free hand nervously around the strings dangling from his hood. "Dunno. That's just what it tastes like."

 "But how did you know?"

 "I just knew." His shoulders bowed and he looked away, shielding himself behind the curtain of his hair. "I like.... that kind of thing."

 "Drinking?"

 Hiding what looked like a flinch, Kuro shrugged. "I guess."

 Realizing how what he'd asked sounded, Mahiru floundered for something to say, but was spared the struggle by the sound of the door flying open. Everyone turned in surprise to find Hugh dragging a tired looking Tetsu into the room.

 "I told you! Everyone will be in attendance and it's absolutely mandatory that we too attend! Besides, Misono is finally back!"

 At the mention of the young billionaire, Tetsu perked up slightly, eyes sweeping the room until he found Misono, still seated at the table, watching dispassionately as Licht kicked Hyde in the back of the head. 

 Kuro's sharp gaze had followed them as they entered and now he closed his eyes, blowing out a weary breath. "Geez. This is just too much."

 "What is?" Mahiru asked, feeling completely lost. Surely what little he'd had of his drink couldn't be affecting him already? He shook his head, suddenly worried about just how strong 'blue curacao' really was. 

 "Those two." Kuro nodded over at Tetsu and Misono, now embroiled in some sort of discussion. "I don't have the energy to even watch."

 "Watch what?"

 Kuro threw him a pitying look. "Awkward, teenage flirting."

 His eyes widening in shock, Mahiru glanced over just in time to see Tetsu ruffling Misono's hair, a soft smile on his face. Misono reached up, blushing about five different shades of red, and swatted at him; but, Mahiru noted as he watched, he didn't seem to really be trying to remove Tetsu's hand. 

 "See?" Kuro asked quietly, his expression almost cocky. "Told yah."

 "I..." Mahiru trailed off, unsure what to say, and took another reckless drink to cover his pause. In his haste he swallowed wrong and coughed roughly into his hand several times, feeling the heat of embarrassment creep up the back of his neck. "Erm-"

 "Does it bother you?"

 Kuro's question caught him even more off guard than anything else he'd experienced that night and he found himself blurting the first thing that came to mind. "Of course not! Love is love!" When he finally managed to look up, tears from the tickle in his throat blurring his vision, it was to find Kuro watching him intently, an almost timorous look on his face. "Does it bother you?"

 Kuro almost laughed, transforming it into a scoff at the last second. "Caring about that kind of thing is a pain. Besides, how could I when I'm surrounded?"

 Before Mahiru had a chance to ask what he meant, the door from the foyer opened and what could only be described as a warrior turned model sauntered in, her heavy purple hair swinging behind her back like a cape. Her combative gaze flooded the room and it was only a millisecond before she had swept across it and lifted both Hyde and Licht from the floor by their collars, holding them out and away from each other as though they weighed nothing more than sacks of flour. Mahiru took a worried step forward only to freeze when Hyde smiled widely, his eyes bright.  

 "Freya! I've missed you!"

 "How have you been?" The woman- Freya- asked solemnly. She still had the two of them dangling by their shirts and didn't seem the least bit concerned when Licht began to thrash around, an angry frown on his face.

 "So-so." Hyde answered. "You know how it goes."

 "I do."

 "Is.... is she mad at Hyde?" Mahiru asked softly, cupping his hand over his mouth to mask the words further.

 Kuro glanced over, surprise written clearly across his face. "No. Why?"

 His words attracted Freya's attention and she immediately dropped Hyde and Licht, not bothering to look when they both landed rather unceremoniously on the ground. Her brows were drawn sharply down, framing her large piercing eyes, and perfectly accentuating her pursed, severe lips, and Mahiru couldn't help faltering back, his heart beat picking up. Kuro seemed strangely relaxed; far calmer than when they'd first met Hugh or Hyde, or even Lily, and he stepped forward, hand out. 

 "Freya, I-" He broke off with a explosive exhale when Freya scooped him into her arms and seemed to be attempting to squeeze the life out of him.

 "Ash. You look better."

 Kuro grimaced, his gaze flickering to Mahiru and away as quick as a blink. "Thanks. Things have improved a little I suppose."

 Freya now looked up, pinning Mahiru with her icy hot stare. "Hello."

 Knowing his mouth was hanging open and unable to do anything about it, Mahiru automatically held his hand out. The manners that had been beaten into his subconscious were still alive and well it seemed, he observed distantly. "My name's Mahiru." He managed to spit out. "I'm-" He paused, turning a worried eye to Kuro, unsure how he was supposed to describe himself.

 "A college kid who stuck his nose where it doesn't belong." Kuro supplied without missing a beat. When Mahiru felt his lips twist a bit in hurt, Kuro rolled his eyes and stepped smoothly between them. "He's a friend. Be nice."

 "I'm always nice." Freya responded, peering past Kuro and straight into Mahiru's soul. "Thank you for interfering. Ash is in need of someone to take care of him."

 "Ooooook." Kuro groaned, his cheeks coloring slightly. "That's enough. Go find Izuna. She's lost somewhere in this labyrinth of a house."

 "She texted me that we would be staying for a while. Where should I put my bag?" 

 "Depends. What's in it? Knives or makeup?" Kuro asked casually.

 Mahiru choked on the awkward sip of his drink he'd taken to distract himself and almost missed the snort from Freya. When he looked up she was staring intently at Kuro, her eyes narrowed as though in insult.

 "That's funny. I'm glad to see your sense of humor survived along with the rest of you."

 Kuro shrugged.

 Freya turned back to Mahiru and smiled for the first time. It transformed her face from an incisive landscape of ice into a startling kiss of warm sun and Mahiru struggled to keep the shock from his expression. "Do take care of him. He acts like an intolerant ass, but he's actually quite kind-hearted."

 Unsure what the proper response to a declaration of that sort was, Mahiru simply nodded, pointedly ignoring the furious blush working it's way up from Kuro's neck. "Of course." It seemed to be the right answer for she smiled even brighter for just a moment before turning away. 

 "I'll see you two in a bit." She called as she marched back out the door, stopping to sling a gigantic backpack over her shoulder before going out, slamming the door shut behind her.

 Before the echoes of the door had completely faded, Lily popped out from beneath the table near their feet. Mahiru jumped, successfully drenching his shirt with Blue Hawaiian, and couldn't keep the irritation from his voice as he stared down at Lily's sheepish grin.

 "What do you think you're doing?" He snapped, picking at the front of his shirt where it was now sticking to his chest.

 "Is she gone?" 

 "Who? Freya? Yes, she just left."

 Lily visibly relaxed and crawled out from behind the chairs, pulling himself up with as much dignity as a man that had just been hiding under a table could muster. "Thank goodness."

 "I thought you said she was nice."

 "She is!" Lily confirmed, looking around as though he'd misplaced something. 

 Mahiru let the silence stretch until it was nearing an awkward pitch, his eyes fixed on Kuro, who refused to meet his gaze. "Do you guys listen to yourselves? Ever? I'm just wondering."

 "No." Kuro finally answered. He took another drink, fighting what looked suspiciously like a smile as he stared at Lily. Lily returned the look for a moment before sighing dramatically and turning to Mahiru.

 "Ah, well, you see.... the thing is...." He trailed off clumsily. "She is just- that is to say I-"

 "He's terrified of her." Kuro muttered smugly. "Absolutely petrified."

 "That is a gross exaggeration!" Lily exclaimed, but laughed flinching-ly at the look Mahiru gave him. "Well, maybe I do find her a bit.... intimidating."

 Sighing, Mahiru crossed his arms, grimacing at the chill pull of the wet fabric. "Don't you think it's kind of silly to be afraid of your own sister?"

 Lily paled and began twisting his fingers in the cuffs of his sleeves. "Mahiru, you don't understand." He leaned forward, his eyes darting back and forth across the room several times, and when satisfied, whispered, "She's a monster!"

 Mahiru scoffed, his brows pulling down. "I doubt that." He glanced at Kuro, meaning to ask if he thought the same, but paused when he realized Kuro had been completely ignoring the conversation, his attention fixed on the far corner of the room. Turning the same direction, Mahiru noticed Izuna shifting hesitantly from foot to foot, her hands folded in front of her. As though sensing their scrutiny, she looked up; when she saw Kuro she began to make her way across the room, a blinding smile on her face.

 Fighting down the strange heart burn like feeling in his throat, Mahiru turned pointedly away as she neared, waving a hand over her head happily. Kuro had not moved to leave but he did take several steps to the side as though to put distance between them before Izuna could properly see them. As he half listened to her shouted greeting he accidentally looked up, meeting Lily's curious gaze. When their eyes locked, an impish smile spread over Lily's lips and Mahiru felt himself blushing for no discernible reason. To cover his embarrassment, he grabbed his half empty glass from the table and chugged the remaining liquid.

 "Careful, Mahiru." Kuro murmured.

 "I'm fine!" He coughed, rubbing a bit of the sticky blue drink from his lips. Already the room had taken on a cottony feeling and it was a moment before he registered Kuro patting him cautiously on the back. "I'm a college student!"

 "You sure are." Kuro agreed levelly, continuing his ministrations. "Just don't get black out drunk cause I'm not sure how to deal with it."

 "You don't have to!" Mahiru insisted, setting the empty glass down, missing and hitting the edge of the table the first time. "I'm just fine on my own!" In his mild haze he missed the distressed frown Kuro shot him and turned instead to Lily. "I would like to try something less sweet this time!"

 Lily, ignoring the glower Kuro was leveling him with, clapped his hands. "Oh goody! I have just the thing for you, Mahiru!" He reached out and secured a hold on the sleeve of Mahiru's jacket and began pulling him away, around the table. "Come with me, never mind Kuro the wet blanket. I shall show you what a good drink is!"

 Perhaps it was a testament to his deteriorated mental state, or simply a low alcohol tolerance, but the cunning grin Lily threw him over his shoulder did nothing to deter him from following after, knowing even as he went that Kuro was staring disapprovingly at his back. Maybe, he thought hazily, it was that alone that was spurring him onto this course. Refusing to puzzle out his un-explainable desire to go against Kuro's suggestions, he took the glass that Lily was now pushing into his hand and was surprised to see that it had only an inch of liquid in it.

 "What's this?" He demanded, looking up to throw Lily an annoyed glare. "I thought you said-"

 "Ah, but Mahiru~" Lily sang, reaching behind him for a bottle and holding it up. "This is Japanese coffee whiskey! Just that thumb full alone would put even the most experienced drinker under the table." 

 Mahiru blinked once in suspicion of Lily's choice in metaphors but gave it up when the thinking began to make his eyes feel like they were shivering. "I can handle it no problem!"

 "I'm sure you can!" Lily agreed happily, watching raptly as Mahiru tossed back the shot. "But do promise to drink some water after this."

 Mahiru scoffed, staring down at the now empty glass. "I don't need any water."

 "Mh." Lily hummed noncommittally. "In that case, be sure to stick close to Kuro alright?"

 "Phahh. He doesn't want me to!" He challenged, tipping the glass around several times, watching as the meager drips of remaining whiskey flowed from side to side.

 "Oh? And why is that?"

 Mahiru sneered down at the edges of the glass and then remembered Lily was above him. Redirecting his expression he sighed. "He's too busy."

 "Busy?" Lily's tone was disbelieving.

 "Yes." Mahiru said loudly, his earlier irritation and hurt peaking into a storm. "Busy with whatever it is he does. I'm sure he wants time to do- do-" He paused, unsure how to explain all the inexplicable things Kuro did. When he saw the confusion painting Lily's face he clenched his fingers around the dangling sleeve of Kuro's sweater that he was still wearing. "Do whatever. Off on his own with Izuna probably. They have a lot to catch up on." The thought burned his throat and he bit his lip, trying furtively to find where Lily had set the bottle of whiskey; he wanted just a bit more.

 "Oh, I seeee." Lily breathed, glancing across the room to where Kuro stood with Izuna. They were deep in conversation but every few moments Kuro's gaze would refocus on Mahiru and Lily smiled, the corners of his lips curling in devious delight. "Mahiru, do you like Izuna?" He asked, gently taking the whiskey bottle from Mahiru who had been struggling to unscrew the cap.

 "Of course!" Staring down at his empty hands, Mahiru frowned. "I mean, I think so. She seems nice. But sometimes..." He trailed off and Lily grinned, leaning forward so that his shoulder blocked them from Kuro's sight.

 "Sometimes what?"

 "Sometimes I just... don't want her around." Mahiru said in a small voice. "I don't know why."

 "What times?"

 "Like when she's smiling and she's so bright and warm and beautiful and Kuro is talking to her and she looks at him like-" He broke off and his hands dropped to his sides. "Like she really knows him and he doesn't mind." 

 When he glanced up, distress and loss shadowing his features, Lily couldn't help a soft intake of breath. "Oh, Mahiru."

 "I don't think, I mean I wish... I don't think that I look like that to Kuro."

 Lily smiled sadly, forgetting the game he'd been playing and laid a gentle hand on Mahiru's shoulder. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. I think Kuro sees you in a very special way."

 Mahiru frowned down at his shoes and sighed. "I think I need to sit down."

 "Of course." Lily led him to the small day sofa beneath the east bay window. "Just stay put for a second, alright? I will be right back." When he was sure that Mahiru was going to heed his command, he turned and swiftly crossed the room to Kuro and Izuna. At his approach Kuro's head snapped up, his brows furrowing in worry.

 "Where's Mahiru?" He asked, almost before Lily was within ear shot.

 "Over there on the sofa. He got a bit dizzy I'm afraid." Lily said placating-ly. "Although I have to say, his absolute ping-ponging between boisterous and maudlin' is slightly worrying."

 Kuro snorted. "Wait til you see him go from sober to drunk to sober in five minutes."

 Hiding a laugh with her hand, Izuna turned to Lily. "Mahiru seems very nice! Kuro was just telling me about him!"

 Smiling, Lily nodded. "He is indeed an astounding man." He turned amused eyes to Kuro and jerked a thumb over his shoulder, back towards where Mahiru was slumped dejectedly on the sofa. "But perhaps he could use a friendly face at the moment?"

 Without another word Kuro stepped around them and began to make his way across the room. Lily watched him go for a moment before peering down at Izuna, a mischievous lilt to his mouth. "So what do you think?"

 She grinned, her eyes still trained on Kuro's retreating back. "I think someone has found just who they've been looking for."


Mahiru was leaned back, his head against the window sill when Kuro first walked up. The exposed skin of his throat was pale and there were still ghosts of the bruise from Mikuni's whip circling it; Kuro had to clench his fist, focusing on the sting, to stop himself from running out of the room and throwing Mikuni out the nearest window. At the sound of his steps Mahiru's eyes flew open and he sat up. 

 "Kuro!" His eyes had that glassy look of the recently tipsy and he seemed rather unsteady, even sitting. "What are you doing here?"

 "Just passing by." Kuro said quietly, slowly lowering himself onto the cushion next to Mahiru. "How are you feeling?"

 Mahiru pursed his lips in thought and blinked several times before shrugging. "Ok I guess."

 "Just ok?"

 "Just ok." He confirmed, his gaze traveling sluggishly over Kuro's shoulders and down his arms before settling on his hands, laying limply in his lap, where they widened comically. "Your hands!"

 "What about them?" Kuro asked, startled. 

 "They're hurt!"

 Feeling as though he'd missed a step somewhere, he peered over from the corner of his eye, trying to decipher if Mahiru was joking. "They're not that bad."

 "They're terrible!" Mahiru argued emphatically. "The worst!"

 "My hands?"

 "No, no!" He shook his head, his hair flying wildly. "No, it's bad that they're hurt. I like your hands. They're beautiful." He reached out and gently tented his fingers over Kuro's own, his eyes soft in a way that had Kuro's stomach somersaulting similarly to the way it did in the tense moments right before a fight. It had a different tone but he was just as uncomfortable and wary, he decided after looking too closely into Mahiru's eyes. "I had a dream-" Mahiru broke off, looking confused for a moment, and then blinked, the focus coming partially back to his gaze. "I had too much to drink." He finally muttered, sitting back.

 "What did Lily give you?" Kuro asked, trying to ignore the ping of regret he had felt when Mahiru withdrew his hold. 

 Mahiru shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure? He said it was some kind of whiskey, but I wasn't really paying attention, I just drank it." He chuckled nervously, a curious twinge of color misting across his cheeks.

 Rolling his eyes and leaning back against the pillows piled against the wall, Kuro sighed. "You're too trusting."

 "It was Lily!" Mahiru protested.

 "Even more reason to be suspicious." 

 Mahiru scoffed, fiddling with the edge of his shirt. "You don't really think that do you?" When Kuro raised a brow in question he took a deep breath and continued, "I mean, you don't really think that you can't trust him, do you? He's your brother."

 "What does that really matter?" Kuro asked, watching as Mahiru blanched in what seemed like horror. "Whether someone is your brother, mother, or cousin, it doesn't stop them from betraying you. What matters is your bond. Isn't that right?" He demanded in embarrassment when Mahiru's eyes widened and he started to smile. 

 "That's exactly right." He agreed, still radiating that warm, gentle light that seemed to be specific to him and made Kuro feel like he was being smothered by a blanket fresh from the dryer. "And you can find it in any one."

 It seemed a statement apropos to nothing but Kuro could see that he was angling for a certain response, and, feeling that he knew pretty well what that response was, he sighed again, closing his eyes and waiting to see if Mahiru would say anything else. When the silence simply stretched on he grimaced. "You've made that pretty clear." He said, opening his eyes and pinning Mahiru with what he hoped was a serious look. "And while I don't approve of it in the slightest, in fact I think you might be a genuine full blooded moron-" Mahiru made an affronted noise but he ignored it "-you don't have to worry." He wondered briefly if making such a baseless promise was a smart thing to do, it felt a bit like tempting fate, but one look at the grin spread across Mahiru's face, like he'd just told him he'd won the lottery, left him without a single ounce of room for regret.

 "I know." Mahiru murmured, finally looking away. "I guess I knew from the start."

 "Knew what?"

 "That I could trust you."

 Completely stone cold sober Kuro would have tapped out at this point, or possibly far before it, but slightly intoxicated, newly emotionally rejuvenated Kuro still had both feet planted firmly on the ground of the conversation and he shook his head, answering before he could think twice about it. "I don't see how you could have known that. I was standing outside in the cold in a sweater and talking in riddles. You must have thought I was some crazy homeless guy."

 "I did think you were homeless." Mahiru admitted sheepishly. "That or a ghost. But I was right! You didn't have anywhere to stay!" He reached out to wave a finger in triumph but over shot it and just jabbed Kuro roughly in the chest. "But not any more!"

 "Have I moved in permanently?" Kuro asked blandly, leaning back to avoid another finger stab.

 "If you wanted to." Mahiru blurted, his eyes wide and sincere in the way that Kuro would have originally argued was only obtained by the plastered. Now, having met both sober and drunk Mahiru, he could honestly say that the expression never wavered between states. 

 "You shouldn't say things like that." He muttered roughly. "Like I said, you're too trusting." Before Mahiru could draw a breath to respond he stood up. "You should have some water. Just stay here and I'll be right back." He didn't wait for a promise and instead spun on his heel and paced away, feeling and unable to stop, the creeping tension building up his spine.


It took Mahiru's addled mind several moments to comprehend the entirety of the exchange and by the time he had found a good counter to it Kuro was already out of sight. He vaguely recalled being told to remain seated but now thinking about it, hadn't Lily told him that? And he hadn't come back. So maybe he was meant to follow Kuro? The thought was comfortable with the weight of "right" and so he struggled up, wobbling only slightly and looked around. The room was no smaller then before but the setting sun had finally given in and now only wall sconces and the huge chandelier above the table lit the space and Mahiru was beginning to think that perhaps he was very, very drunk when he realized that at least half the people he was seeing where just doubled vision.

 "Oh no." He muttered to the drapery. "I am in trouble." 

 The statement elicited a giggle when he recognized it as one of Sakuya's shitty memes and he took a slow, experimental step forward, hoping that the movement wouldn't dump any more alcohol into his system. Just as he was applauding his achievement a hand slapped itself heavily on his shoulder and he tipped sideways with a startled exclamation.

 "Whoa there!" Hyde yelled, catching him before he could hit the floor. "What's gotten into you?!"

 "Whiskey." Mahiru informed him proudly. "And coffee?"

 Hyde raised a brow and set him back on his feet. "Coffey whiskey?" He asked, clearly uncertain. "Lily does love that stuff."

 "That's the one!"

 "Hooo!" Hyde shook his head, scowling softly. "I just want it pointed out to anyone concerned that he offers that shit to everyone but never dares take a drink himself."

 "I'm not concerned."

 "What?"

 "I'm not concerned."

 Hyde stared at him blankly for a moment before bursting into laughter. "Oh shit, you are even more hilarious when you're drunk!" He doubled over, clutching his stomach in what Mahiru considered to be a gross overreaction.

 "I beg your pardon?" Lily's voice floated in over his hoots and Mahiru turned to find him just a few feet back, lips quirked in displeasure. "I assure you I have had plenty of it myself."

 "Oh suuuure." Hyde drawled, smirking wickedly. "Alone in your room with not a witness to be found, I attest."

 Lily scoffed, crossing one arm beneath the other, which held a rather large wine glass. "I prefer to limit myself when in company."

 "Mhmm." Hyde shrugged and rolled his eyes casually. "Me thinks it be more a case of being a wimp."

 "You will eat those words." Lily grit, stalking closer, his expression a mask of serenity.

 Leaning forward until they were face to face over Mahiru, Hyde winked. "As you wish! Get Hugh. He'll want in."

 "Excuse me." Mahiru cut in loudly. When they both glanced down at him in surprise he frowned. "I would just like to know where Kuro is."

 It seemed a totally normal, reasonable request but for some reason they met each others eyes and grinned in identically malicious ways before grabbing one of Mahiru's arms each and leading him towards the table.


It had just been to the small inset sink in the half kitchen and back but, when Kuro again found the small day sofa where he'd left Mahiru, it was empty. He felt his expression darken in irritation and set the glass he held a little more firmly than necessary on the side table. It was just like the little busybody to run off as soon as Kuro looked away. It was like he was a magnet for trouble, or, even more horrifying to consider, perhaps he generated all this disturbance. Just the thought left Kuro with a bitter taste in his mouth. How was he expected to spend the rest of his life dealing with all this bothersome work he was being forced to put in? 

 Not that Mahiru wasn't worth the hassle, a small voice whispered sharply, what about that?

 He closed his eyes and counted to ten. Now was not the time for that. Find Mahiru. That was the number one priority.

 Once again he opened his eyes and surveyed the room, reasoning that Mahiru couldn't have gotten far based on the unsteady shiver of his gaze and the lack of depth perception. The idiot truly was the definition of a light weight. It was almost funny; if not for the fact that a single glass of wine transformed him into not only an annoyingly louder version of himself but one that was, impossibly, even more reckless and daring than he was normally. Just the thought of him loose on the streets, where there was an endless number of puppies to rescue from dumpsters and old woman to help across the street, sent a shiver of dread down Kuro's spine. That's why he had to stay near Mahiru; to keep him safe and alive. 

 And because you like the way he makes you feel, sang that treacherous cold silver voice.

 "Where did you go?" Kuro muttered, ignoring the continued murmuring of the ghost in his head. Finally, after several moments he spotted him, seated at the head of the over large dining table flanked by both Hyde and Lily. His eyes widened in dismay when he noticed that both were offering Mahiru shot glasses, wicked grins smeared across their faces. "Fuck."

 Despite his best efforts, he didn't make it there before Mahiru had grabbed both shots belligerently and tossed them back. Hyde clapped wildly when he did and Lily only looked worried for a second before he laughed.

 "Oh, Mahiru! I knew you'd be the best to have at parties!"

 "What have you done?" Kuro asked quietly as he approached. "He's going to be completely useless for hours."

 "I'm sure you could find a use for him~" Hyde sang, waggling his eyebrows shamelessly. 

 Kuro felt himself blush furiously even as he glared. "You don't know what you're talking about."

 "Oh, don't I?" Hyde murmured, grinning when Mahiru suddenly jumped up and grabbed Kuro's sleeve, pulling him closer.

 "Kuro! Where have you been?! I looked all over for you! I was worried!"

 "I-" He broke off, swallowing past the painful lump in his throat. "I was looking for you, you nincompoop."

 Mahiru grimaced and looked down, staring unseeingly at his hand, still tangled in Kuro's sleeve, while behind him Hyde raised his brows pointedly, a smirk still plastered across his lips. "I went to follow you because...." He trailed off confusedly, now drumming his fingers in a nonsense rhythm. "Because I promised I wouldn't leave and you disappeared?" He looked up as though asking for confirmation and Kuro felt the heat in his face increase even as his stomach dropped, though not completely unpleasantly.

 "I said to stay put and I'd get you some water." He said roughly, trying, unsuccessfully to ignore the snide little winks Lily kept throwing him. "You always wander off when I look away."

 "I do not wander!" Mahiru protested hotly. 

 (And oh god it was cute.)

 Feeling his life slowly spiraling out of control, Kuro ran his free hand down his face, peering out from between his fingers. "You do. And it's such a pain I could die."

 "Don't die!" Mahiru exclaimed, his face twisted with terror. "I'm trying to save you!"

 That was enough, Kuro thought vaguely, and reached out, looping his arm around Mahiru's shoulders and tugging him away from the table. "Come on, you should lay down for a while." He refused to acknowledge the whistle Hyde spit loudly and stalked away, half dragging, half carrying Mahiru. He was loathe to have Lily and Hyde audience to the true pure-hearted generosity of Mahiru's spirit. It was something special, something that Mahiru himself should be free to choose who he revealed it to. And, Kuro could admit, while he was still unsure how long he could trust in it to last, he wanted to keep it to himself for just a fraction longer, because one day, when Mahiru saw the truth, it was sure to become nothing more than a memory.

 "-and that's when I told Sakuya that I was worried that you'd be missing fingers!" Mahiru was saying animatedly. "He said I should let the EMTs figure it out but I was concerned that you would be lost to the cracks in the system."

 Kuro snorted, tuning back in. "Cracks in the system, huh?"

 Mahiru nodded sagely. "Yes. There are many. I almost fell down one myself but my uncle saved me and now I'm going to save you! Because I think we should reach out our hands to people and because I think you deserve the best of whatever I can give you."

 Trying not to choke, Kuro jerked his face away. "What are you even talking about?"

 "The system!" Mahiru yelled. "It's flawed and not made to really offer the kind of support that orphans and lonely kids need." 

 Quelling the surprise that welled up when Mahiru batted not even an eyelash while speaking of what Kuro could only surmise was his broken childhood, he sighed. "Of course not. There's just too many unforunate kids."

 "So I should do my part! I should make your life better."

 "I'm not a kid." Kuro pointed out softly.

 "That doesn't matter to me." Mahiru insisted. "You deserve to be happy."

 On a sudden impulse, fueled by that damn whiskey no doubt, Kuro paused, considering, hesitating, before letting the words fall from his lips into the warm silence of Mahiru's declaration. "But do you even know what would make me happy?"

 "You'll just have to tell me!"

 "I was afraid you'd say that." He muttered sardonically.

 They had once again reached the two person sofa and Kuro guided Mahiru down onto the plump, paisly cushions. Once he was settled he turned a blinding smile up at Kuro and patted the seat next to him. Kuro raised a brow and stared at him but he just continued to shine unrepentant and after a surreptitious glance around the room, Kuro finally acquiesced. Taking the glass still sitting on the table where he'd left it, he held it out.

 "Drink this."

 Mahiru took the water obligingly but paused at the last second, the glass raised to his lips. His brows furrowed and he threw a suspicious look over. "What is this?"

 "It's water."

 "How do I know?"

 "What else would I give you?" Kuro asked in exasperation; it seemed Mahiru was taking his earlier warning seriously, but why in just this particular instance?

 Kuro's question seemed to stump him and after a careful moment of consideration he finally took a sip. "It's water!"

 Sighing, Kuro leaned back, making sure to keep on eye on Mahiru. "I told you it was."

 "That's true. You never lie to me, Kuro." He said happily, pinning him with eyes so honest and soft that Kuro worried he had in fact given Mahiru something other than water. "I love that about you."

 Heart slowly trying to beat it's way out from behind his already sore ribs, Kuro frowned. "You really shouldn't say things like that."

 "But I know you don't!" Mahiru exclaimed, leaning forward and sloshing water onto his leg. "I can trust you."

 "Are you sure about that?" He muttered, looking away, across the room. His frown deepened when he noticed Lily and Hyde leaning against each other, watching raptly, as though it were the final match in a season game. 

 "I am." Mahiru finally answered. "I can tell."

 Kuro leaned an elbow on his crossed leg, chin resting in his palm. "You can, can you? Do you have a sixth sense or something?" He watched as Mahiru swirled the last dredges of water around the bottom of the cup, thinking. When he looked up, it was with a slighty more grounded gaze.

 "I don't think so. But sometimes I can just tell. When I meet someone, they seem special, or different maybe." He closed one eye, squinting up at the ceiling. "I'm not sure how to explain it. Like when I first saw you." He paused and Kuro raised his brows in encouragement. "I mean, I was just going to give you that sandwich and hopefully get you to wait somewhere else. Originally. But when I actually talked to you, and Misono said you needed somewhere to stay... I don't know. I just realized that I needed to do everything I could to help you because..." He trailed off and huffed in frustration. "I don't know how to explain!"

 "It's alright. You don't have to. I think I might know what you mean."

 "Do you?" Mahiru turned to him, hope blazing in his eyes, his lips twisted into a tentative smile. "It was like I'd always known you. Like you were someone that I had... forgotten, until we met again."

 It wasn't anything like Kuro had been expecting to hear and he blinked in surprise. To think that Mahiru had formed some kind of connection to him, something so personal, from the very beginning, it was mind boggling. He had been running on the fumes of the assumption that he had been exactly as his rude green friend Sakuya had joked- a charity case; that he was just someone that had the right qualities and looks to have triggered Mahiru's innate need to protect and care for.

 "Is that too weird?" Mahiru asked fretfully when he remained silent too long. 

 "No. It's not weird." He cut his eyes to the side, trying to place the look on Mahiru's face. It was almost like regret, but it was more warm than that. Something bitter sweet and comfortable. "I thought you just couldn't resist a starving street bum."

 Mahiru laughed and shook his head. "I would never invite just anyone into my home! You don't have to worry about that!"

 Maybe he didn't have to worry about that, but being the type of person that Mahiru did invite home was a whole new problem in and of itself. A problem that he would think about later. "I just want to be paid to take naps and rate them on a scale of one to ten. I could start a blog. List the best places and times to nap. Combinations of drinks and blankets that lead to the best dreams. Something like that."

 Mahiru smiled softly. "You'd be good at that."

 The look was back on his face; something like affection but more forceful and more painful. Kuro closed his eyes, trying to block out the strange flutterings of empathy that the expression produced in his own heart. "I'm good at everything."

 Again, Mahiru chuckled before taking the last gulp of water. "I think the water is helping. I feel a little better."

 "Good. I can't handle another night of black out maudlin' Mahiru." Kuro murmured jokingly, one eye cracked to see if Mahiru was offended. To his surprise he only rolled his eyes as he set the empty glass on the floor by his feet. 

 "How was I supposed to know that wine would knock me flat like that?"

 I feel like being 'a college student'-" Kuro quoted mockingly. "-would clue you in to the types of drinks you can and can't tolerate."

 Mahiru shrugged, unconcerned. "I've never drunk before."

 Kuro felt his jaw unhinge and dangle open in a decidedly unattractive manner. "Are you shitting me?"

 Smiling, Mahiru shook his head slowly. "Nope. That was the first time."

 "Ah man, Lily took your liquor virginity." Kuro moaned into his hands. "What a pain."

 "Don't say it like that!" He exclaimed, swatting Kuro in the back of the head, his face bright red. "It's so... crass."

 "Crass?" Kuro repeated incredulously. "crass?"

 "Oh just shut up." Mahiru crossed his arms, looking away, embarrassment tying his features into a tangle. 

 "You're spending too much time with the little prince." Kuro teased. "Soon you're going to need a gallon of gel to keep your hair flat." He reached out and tousled the honey brown strands, marveling at the gentle warmth that trailed over his fingers and up his arm.

 Mahiru pinched his lips together, trying not to laugh. "No problem. I'll just make you style it for me every morning."

 "Not a good idea. Have you seen my hair?" He shook his head a bit to illustrate the complete lack of care he put into it. "It's a mess."

 "I like it." Mahiru said softly, tangling his fingers in a few strands and staring, seemingly transfixed, as they ran through the bright coloring. "It suits you."

 Unsure how to respond, Kuro remained still, waiting patiently as Mahiru continued to pet him slowly. The touch was gentle, not hesitant but caring, and it took every ounce of Kuro's will to resist leaning into it. Even as he struggled to remain impassive, what sounded embarrassingly almost like a purr snuck free. Mahiru's hand stuttered in it's motions and he turned wide eyes to Kuro.

 "Did you just-"

 "No. No I did not."

 A smile was winding around his lips and Kuro felt himself flushing. 

 "I think you just purred."

 "Tell anyone and you're dead." Kuro muttered stiffly, jerking his gaze away.

 A calculating gleam entered Mahiru's eyes and he glanced over to Lily and Hyde, both still shamelessly spying on them. "Is it really that well kept a secret?" He mused, smirking when Hyde threw him a thumbs up. "I'm sure that at least one of them knows."

 "I rather swallow bleach than find out."

 Laughing, Mahiru pulled his hand back. "Please don't do that. It's poisonous you know."

 "Oh, I know." Kuro agreed, sighing.

 Something in his tone must have set off Mahiru's alarms for he suddenly stilled, his shoulders tensed where before they had been relaxed. "I've been meaning to ask you..." He trailed off, chewing worriedly on his lip. "Well."

 "That's a bad habit you have there." Kuro said blandly. "You'll draw blood if you keep it up."

 Startled, Mahiru let his lip slip free and quickly covered his mouth with a hand. "You said that before." He mumbled. 

 "What was it you wanted to know?" 

 Dropping his hand back in his lap, he fixed Kuro with as intense a stare as he ever had, ruined only slightly but the unfocused, intoxicated look, and frowned. "I wanted to know what happened after you ran away from Hyde and Licht's room. And how you knew where to find me."

 Kuro sighed, leaning forward over his knees, allowing his hair to swing out and around, shielding him from the questioning look in Mahiru's eyes. "I knew you were going to ask that." He paused, waiting to see if Mahiru would perhaps argue, but no such luck, he remained completely silent, concentrating heroically on the answers he was hoping to pull from Kuro. "It's a long story."

 "Then maybe you should get a drink." Mahiru interrupted. Before Kuro could respond he had already walked off, his unsteady stride taking him quickly out of sight. As Kuro sat staring blankly at the floor he found that he was less unwilling to explain than he would have expected, but still, the thought of telling Mahiru everything (though what was left to tell?) left him itchy and anxious.

 "I didn't know for sure what you'd want." Returning more quickly than seemed possible, Mahiru held out a mug filled with a rum and coke mixture that was eighty percent rum. "But I was handed this. And I got something too." He smiled crookedly. "Couldn't let you drink alone."

 The act of solidarity sounded strange in Kuro's ears and he huffed a laugh. "Yeah, couldn't have that. Fine, give it here." He took the proffered cup and, resigning himself to his fate, took a large drink. "Have a seat and prepare for a story of woe." He muttered against the rim of the mug.

Chapter Text

 The sound of car tires rushing over gravel echoing through the now empty house startles him as he darts through the halls. Flinching back a step, he turns and glances out the nearest window, from which he can just see the tail light of the SUV disappear between the trees. A frown twists his lips down and he closes his eyes, telling himself he doesn't care, nothing is wrong, this is just a mid afternoon stroll.

 But the thoughts are weak and hold no sway over the sudden crushing anxiety that craws at his bones when he thinks of Mahiru, now most likely alone but for Hyde as protection, headed, once again, towards danger. This thought, if none of the others, is what spurs him into action. The almost humorous rage at Mahiru's audacity, his bad luck, his ability to attract trouble from miles around, these all swirl together and finally drown out the paralyzing desire to run and hide and forget.

 A quick trip to their room to grab a jacket from the pile he'd left laying next to Mahiru's suitcase that morning and shoes and he is headed out the kitchen door to the garage. If nothing else he will spend the rest of his life paying Misono back for the clutch he is most definitely about to burn out of this car. The keys are two less on the hooks and he reaches out blindly, snatching a set, and hitting the button on the fob. A cheerful beep meets his ears and he sighs. It is now or never.

 As it turns out, following another car stealthily is almost impossible, much more so when said car has a good fifteen minute lead. Fortunately for all involved, Kuro is a masterclass lurker and has learned his fair share of tricks, one of which is an uncanny ability to glean almost all information necessary to enact a slap-shod rescue plan at the drop of a hat. And perhaps, his inability to leave Mahiru alone, his need to understand and be near him, has played a part, forcing him to linger, to return to the room after the car speeds away and find the note that Misono dropped in his distress; a note that Kuro, in all his wisdom had also immediately understood, just as Mahiru had. And so now, here he is, standing on the door step of Tsurugi's office, almost positive that he has missed Mahiru by seconds.

 Frustration fuels his knocking and it is an eternity before Tsurugi opens the door, a poor imitation of surprise on his face. As the knowing curl of his lips whispers up his jaw and his eyes sparkle with mirth, Kuro glares, finding that his anger and betrayal have still not run their course, even after all these years. His hand finds Tsurugi's shoulder and pushes him backwards, back into the empty office, and he snarls.

 "Where did you send them?"

 "Who?" Tsurugi croons and the tone, the question, the arrogant self imposed ignorance, forcibly reminds Kuro of another twisted expression in the night and he pushes again, finding satisfaction at the small exhalation of breath he earns.

 "You know who."

 Tsurugi smiles, this time softly and innocently, a smile that Kuro also remembers, from long ago. "Yes. I know who. Mahiru is most likely on his way to Mikuni's right now."

 "And where is that?" Kuro asks slowly, leaning forward, watching as his shadow overtakes Tsurugi's.

 A strange light enters Tsurugi's eyes and he grins. "I am, of course, more than willing to tell you. But first I need you to do a little something for me~"

 Anything, Kuro's brain screams.

 Tell me now, his instincts screech.

 "What?" He grits out, his hands tightened into fists, fingers numb from the pressure.

 "Paperwork!" Tsurugi sings, pulling a large manila envelope from behind his back. "As I'm sure you're aware, I sent this all home with you two the other day but as of yet, I have heard nothing back!" He sighs, brows pulled down in exaggerated disappointment. "Fortunately, here you are! And I just so happen to have extra copies of everything you need!" He raises a finger and wiggles it, clucking his tongue when Kuro draws a deep breath. "Ah ah, no, you don't get to argue! After all, without your mandated reports there is no proof you are anything but a criminal on the run. Is there?"

 The silky words pierce Kuro's distracted panic and he clenches his teeth, recognizing the veiled threat for what it is. He reaches out and snatches the folder, his nails cutting into the thick folder from the force of his grip. "Fine. Give me a pen and stay out of my way."

 "I am more than willing to help!" Tsurugi adds, pulling a pen from his sweater pocket. "I wouldn't want you to hurt your hands any more." 

 There is genuine concern in his mocking tone but Kuro simply scoffs, turning towards the desk. "They're fine. You'll just slow me down."

 "Perhaps." Tsurugi hums as he folds himself neatly into a chair. Without further ado he slides a pile of bank printer paper towards himself and begins what looks like a complicated origami project. 

 The silence is unbroken again until with a sigh of relief Kuro allows the pen to slip from his fingers and fall to the desk with a soft clink. He stuffs the papers all back into the folder and slams it shut in one smooth motion. Tsurugi is still sitting where he had been, a mountain of paper animals and airplanes surrounding him. He glances up curiously and smiles when Kuro stands.

 "All finished?"

 Kuro doesn't answer, instead just stares silently at Tsurugi, his blood heavy in his veins.

 "Okedoke, then~" He picks up one of the paper airplanes and tosses it softly. "There are your directions. Please try not to make too much of a mess, alright?"

 Without acknowledging the sly smile or the parting command, Kuro turns on his heel and dashes from the room, perhaps the fastest he's run in a while. It's been such a waste of time here, filling in dates and blanks, filing, chronologically dating entries, and for what? Mahiru was probably already gone, or maybe he's run into trouble with Mikuni? Jeje was sure to be there but how much could Kuro depend on his cool head? And after all, it's been years, perhaps he's changed? 

 The questions pile up and nearly overwhelm him as he runs, runs through the halls and to the atrium, out the doors and without a backwards glance, towards the car. The lights in the parking lot have already flickered on and he looks up to see the burning pinks and purples of approaching twilight fanning across the horizon. It's been hours, far longer than he thought he'd been there. Rage bubbles up and he pours on more speed, anger and panic pushing him faster.
 

 As he'd dreaded, the lights at Mikuni's are out. The building framed by cold stars and endless black sky. He throws the car into neutral and stares at the windows, willing a curtain to move, a door to open, anything. Just as he's about to give up a black shape rounds the back corner and almost crawls up the front steps. He's out of the car, door left wide open, quicker than a breath and all but flies across the street. 

 At the last second the figure freezes, one foot poised over the bottom step and Kuro almost collides with Jeje, his arms out to break a fall that never comes. Jeje has grabbed him, held him up and is now staring down in a mixture of irritation and worried surprise.

 "What are you doing here?" He mumbles, dropping his hold and stepping back stiffly.

 "Where's Mahiru?" He demands, the last of his patience burned away with his apathy.

 Surprisingly Jeje frowns and the words come clearly for the first time in Kuro's memory. "Do you mean to say he was here?"

 "Was?" He latches onto the past tense, the fateful phrasing that he thought he'd been prepared to hear. "What do you mean 'was'?"

 Hesitatingly Jeje shifts from foot to foot. "If he was, he is not now. I only saw what I believe to be four men."

 "They seem to have broken in and cleared my high score in Mario Cart." Mikuni says brightly, kicking open the front door, his posture so, so relaxed. "Ash! What a lovely surprise."

 Kuro glares at him, taking three lightening fast steps forward, until they are but a few scant inches apart. "You seem awfully un-phased." He accuses.

 Mikuni smiles widely and shrugs, wildly nonchalant. "What do I have to be upset about, aside from my burglar'd home?"

 For the first time, Kuro grins. "You are so behind the times. Don't you realize Misono was with him? They were coming to look for you."

 Mikuni's expression drops like lead, his demeanor turning stony and alien. Behind the glitter of his eyes burns a look that Kuro can easily imagine having seen in a mirror once upon a time. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

 Still smiling sharply, Kuro slips around him and in the door. "Not very good with surveillance are you? What did you think you were seeing? Four small hedgehogs from the bushes across the street? Can't recognize your own brother?" Mikuni is trembling and Jeje has crept closer, an unnerved tilt to his brows. "They shook Tsurugi down for your address and then came here."

 "And where were you?"

 The question is like a bullet to the gut and Kuro flinches. His lips drawn tight and nerveless, he simply meets Mikuni's gaze. "Not here, obviously."

 "Obviously." Mikuni echoes. His hands are fluttering around his hip, fingers searching for the handle of his whip which, for the first time, is nowhere in sight. "Ash, if you would kindly get out, I have come business to attend to." He pushes forward, giving Kuro's shoulder a jarring shove, and, slowly gaining momentum, bolts up the small stairway.

 "Hey!" Kuro yells, following at his heels. "There's no running away from this! Tell me who those men were!"

 Surprisingly it is Jeje's voice that answers him, just several stairs below. "They were here when we returned from, uh- dinner." He stutters stiltedly over the word and Kuro feels his brows raise in amusement, but forgoes the questioning. "I did not see them clearly but I have strong reason to believe they were Tsubaki's men." Here he darts a look to Kuro, eyes analyzing his rigid posture for a moment before continuing. "However, I did not stay to find out for sure."

 "What makes you think that?" Kuro asks sharply.

 Jeje actually sighs, shoulders slumping comically. "Mikuni is a truant at heart. He has been skipping out on Tsubaki and thusly we are on his "to-be-found" list."

 "You said you saw four men. Couldn't it just be that it was Mahiru? He left with Misono, Licht, and Hyde." Kuro forces himself to take a deep breath and it clears some of the black moss hovering on the edges of his vision but he still feels light headed, his arms tingling as though static electricity is running over his skin in a gentle wisping caress. He is reeling with the idea that Jeje has had anything to do with Tsubaki but for now all he can seem to focus on, to pour his lowly remnants of energy into, is Mahiru.

 Shaking his head Jeje frowns apologetically. "No. It was not your friends. Two were here when I investigated; two more entered as I was leaving. There was an altercation and the last two were carried out. I can not say for sure what happened."

 The world has turned on its side and Kuro pauses long enough to marvel at the cold, nauseous drop in his stomach; trying to find his footing in a reality that has suddenly become slippery and treacherous, his hands finally gain desperate purchase off the dirty stair railing. It rattles when he grips it and it takes a moment for him to realize it is his own shaking, and not the houses, that is creating the unsettling clinking coming from the plaques of wood screwed haphazardly into the plaster.

 Jeje has watched this strange meltdown with veiled concern and now leans forward, a hand cupped to his mouth to hide the words he whispers. "One was bound and walking on his own, one was carried, unconscious." And with that he sweeps up the stairs, presumably to follow Mikuni. Not two minutes later both return, Mikuni jamming on his hat even as he skips the first three steps, landing heavily just an inch from the edge.

 "Move." He commands when he almost barrels into Kuro who is still standing like a statue on the stairwell.

 Kuro looks up slowly and he is unsure what his face looks like but Mikuni pauses for the barest breath, his eyes wide and unsettled. "I'm going with you."

 Mikuni opens his mouth, maybe to argue, maybe to scream, but closes it again and nods once. "Fine."

 Kuro pulls the keys from his pocket even as Mikuni vaults over the porch railing but he and Jeje turn right, around back of the house instead of across the yard as Kuro is. He spins, a shout ready and waiting, when there is a flare of lights and a large, hideously painted BMW roars to life and swerves wildly around the far corner, broadsiding into the yard, not three feet from where Kuro stands.

 "Get in loser!" Mikuni says leaning out the drivers side window, a manic grin stretched across his face. "We're going hunting."

 

 The warehouse has changed some, Kuro thinks dully, staring up at the immense expanse of beige siding. It used to be more of a dark, Gotham type building and now- he turns to glare as Mikuni laughs loudly, slapping Jeje on the back- now it is just another building in a long line of buildings that has housed monotonous daily tasks and unspeakable acts of depravity.

 "Why the long face?" Mikuni sings, slinging an arm around his shoulder. 

 Shrugging him off roughly, Kuro suppresses the growl rising up from the depths of his chest. "Call me a pessimist."

 "I'd rather call you a fruitcake."

 This earns nothing but another gurgling half growl from Kuro and Mikuni winks. As Jeje finally reemerges from the bushes surrounding the warehouse, Mikuni turns a quick circle, his arms thrown out gaily, asking if he found anything and Kuro swears he sees Jeje roll his eyes. Their dynamic is something Kuro is sure he'll never understand, even if he had a hundred lifetimes to live.

 "Then let's go!" Mikuni crows when he has received a confirmed negative, tugging on Jeje's over long sleeve. "I have a plan!"

 "I hope it is not to burst in through the front door." Jeje mutters.

 Ignoring him, Mikuni points up to a walkway that runs along the back wall, just below what appears to be a clogged gutter dangling precariously from rusted brackets. "That is our ticket in!"

 "Oh, good." Kuro intones dryly. "And what do you propose we do? Call the fire department and report them for a safety code violation?"

 Mikuni turns, his arms crossed defiantly. "Ah, to be so unimaginative. No, little lion, we are going to go in the best way you can." He grins, teeth flashing white in the frail morning light. "Through the window!"

 

 It isn't until Mikuni has shot up the place and thrown himself in through the raining jungle of glass like a maniac that Kuro truly comprehends the fact that perhaps this isn't the best approach. After witnessing it, it occurs to him that this way is flashy and loud, sure to attract far more attention than necessary. It will blow their cover, expose them, and potentially be the reason their lives are snuffed out this very night.

 As Mikuni had crouched near the cold panes of weathered glass, his ear pressed eagerly to the crystal surface for several minutes, Kuro asked pointedly whether he meant to present himself as a sitting duck. Mikuni merely shooshed him impatiently, his hand flapping through the air as clumsily as a five year olds, before insisting that he is waiting for the opportune moment.

 His thoughts and too late objections all crumple and dry up on the tip of his tongue though when he climbs grumpily in after them, hand raised to shield his head from any further abuse, and sees Mahiru down below, dirty and disheveled, blood covering him from head to foot, face pale and exhausted. His eyes are unfocused and he seems to be on the verge of hysterics, his frantic gaze darting between Mikuni, up on the balcony posturing like a true douche-bag, and Misono and Lily down on the floor, both also looking the worse for wear. 

 It steals his breath the way the mingled relief, relief to see Mahiru standing of his own volition, at the very least alive, and rage, rage that someone could have possibly done this to him, mix and force their way into his chest, borrowing down and punching molten holes in his organs. Without thinking he steps over the final boundary and into view, destroying any last fleeting chance he has to leave and sneak in another way, increasing their chances of success, and sighs.

 "You sure know how to make an entrance don't you? Couldn't we just use the door?"

 It's all an act, just as so much of his life has been, but when Mahiru darts forward, his face shining, assuaged of burden, as though he truly believes that Kuro can solve any problem, he can't help the small smile that escapes before he schools his features into an apathetic mask worthy of his name. 

 "Kuro!" Mahiru exclaims, completely oblivious of the way Tsubaki is watching him curiously, his head cocked to the side. "What are you doing here?!"

 "Honestly, Mahiru. Can't you go one day without getting kidnapped?" Kuro sighs, hands clenched tightly within the pockets of his jeans. "I need a vacation." He tries to drink his fill of the view Mahiru presents- alive and breathing and warm and right there- before glancing at Tsubaki, feeling his brows furrow in anger. "We're taking one just as soon as we get out of here."

Chapter Text

 Mahiru blinked in surprise when Kuro broke off mid sentence to glare at him.

 "And that's something I've been meaning to talk to you about!" He lifted his glass and took a drink, expression barely changing at the taste of what was surely by this point just pure rum. "What was that shit you pulled?" He pointed a finger in Mahiru's face, the aim only slightly off.

 "Uh, what shit?" Mahiru asked hesitantly. Finally he could feel the effects of the alcohol, the confusing endless fog of adled thought, lifting, just in time it would seem, he thought ironically, to trade places with Kuro.

 "You know! Back at that crummy warehouse. With Tsubaki." Here Mahiru flinched but Kuro seemed unmoved, blatantly oblivious to the connotations now associated with the name. "I told you to leave." The words sounded like a command and Mahiru bristled. 

 "Hold on just a second!" He exclaimed. "I was trying to help!"

 Kuro scoffed, waving his glass. "Could have fooled me. Looked more like you were trying to get yourself killed." He tilted his head down, fixing Mahiru with a stern look. "I told you to get out of there because it was the only way I could think to protect you. There is no way in hell that you could have taken Tsubaki on."

 "But I did." When Kuro paused, surprised, Mahiru pressed on. "We did."

 "But why didn't you just run?" He looked lost, his eyes bright with innocent confusion. "Why did you risk your life?"

 A sympathetic smile flitted across Mahiru's face and he closed his eyes, struggling to remain upright when a familiar bitter sweet hurt began to burn in his lungs. "Why do you think, idiot?" As he fully expected, Kuro remained silent. "I couldn't leave you there."

 "It wasn't a big deal."

 It sounded like Kuro was trying to convince himself more than Mahiru and the thought was enough to force his eyes back open. "It was. It was the biggest deal." He said angrily. "What would have happened if I'd left?" He didn't wait for an answer, fueled by the swirling post- event rage that was filling his veins; just the idea of any one leaving Kuro to fend for himself was enough to make him want to set fire to everything within reach. "You'd have gotten hurt! Tsubaki would have seriously injured you or worse- you'd be dead." He looked away, up to the vaulted ceiling, to the wide bay windows filled with silver liquid stars, and back to the vulnerable, almost embarrassed look on Kuro's face. "So I stayed."

 Expression twisting into something complicated, Kuro shook his head. "I don't understand you."

 "It's simple." Mahiru smiled. "We're partners."

 Kuro seemed to think about this for a moment, his brows pulling down as he steadily grew more irritated. "If that's true, then why are you the only one allowed to risk his life?"

 The question hit Mahiru like a rock to the head; reeling, he blinked several times, his mouth hanging open. Looking at it one way, Kuro was right, it did seem as though he were the one making all the decisions, choosing always to interfere regardless of what Kuro wanted, but in another, he was wrong; Mahiru would soon need a list to keep track of the number of times that Kuro had saved him, either by literally jumping in front of a knife or by simply being there. When he glanced back up, Kuro was still studying him closely and he couldn't stop the grin that flashed across his face. 

 "You're the most selfless person I've ever met." 

 Kuro leaned back, clearly unsure what had brought on this statement, and frowned. "Do you become a bald faced liar when you're drunk?" He looked down into his glass, the last dregs of rum and melted ice reflecting pensively back at him. "If we're partners, why didn't you trust me to take care of it?"

 Mahiru could have laughed at the absurdity of the question but seeing that it was genuine, he reached out and gently placed his hand over Kuro's wrist. His fingers rested just above the pulse and he thought he felt it speed up at his touch. "It's not a matter of trusting you." When Kuro looked up warily, he leaned just a breaths width forward, his eyes wide in sincerity. "It's because we're a team and we can't do this alone. I trust you to be my other half and I'll be yours. We're strong together. That's why I couldn't leave you. I need you."

 It hit a little closer to home than Mahiru had been intending. The residual mortification of his earlier revelation was still coating his mind and reiterating the sentiment so specifically to Kuro, even if he was on his way past tipsy, was enough to leave him flushed. But he just couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut when it came to this ridiculous man.

 Something looked to have short circuited in Kuro's brain; he was still as a statue, his wrist, where Mahiru still held it lightly, felt like warm marble. Studying the contrasting tones of their skin against one another, Mahiru waited quietly for him to say something. It was an awkward, almost agonizing silence, but he knew that anything more he said would just be interpreted negatively- a gift that Kuro seemed to excel at. Finally he glanced back up, but it was to find brows drawn in worry, something regretful and hesitant, and he felt his heart drop.

 "Mahiru, I-"

 "There you are!" 

 It was Izuna's voice that cut him off and Mahiru closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, before turning around, a smile forced onto his unwilling lips. Kuro stole once last look at him, his eyes darting across his face like gentle probing fingers and turned as well. 

 "Izuna." He greeted her lightly. "Where have YOU been?"

 She smiled sheepishly, tugging at the laced collar of her dress. "I got lost." Her gaze swept over Kuro and then to Mahiru, stopping in surprise on their still clasped hands.

 Mahiru ripped his hand away, ignoring the inquisitive look Kuro gave him and tried to laugh. "You're not the only one! The first time I tried to get back down here for breakfast I was wandering the halls for forty minutes!"

 "It was an hour." Kuro muttered and Mahiru swiftly kicked him in the ankle.

 "That sounds kind of terrifying." Izuna admitted. "Lucky for me, Freya has a great sense of direction! She found me somewhere on the fifth floor and brought me down."

 "Where is she?" Kuro asked suddenly, glancing over Izuna's shoulder.

 "Getting us something to eat! She pointed me to you two and then said not to wander off so I guess you're stuck with me!" She laughed lightly and then tugged a chair over, sitting not a foot from Kuro. "So what were you talking about?"

 Her interest was casual, her expression expectant and bright, but it took all of Mahiru's will not to blush and throw himself under the table in a bid to escape. Now, here with Izuna, was not the time he wanted to have to explain himself any further. Just as Kuro opened his mouth to reply, Mahiru waved his hand nonchalantly. "Oh, nothing important. I was just saying that I was impressed with Misono's decorating. It's all very posh and coordinated."

 Kuro raised an eyebrow in question but nodded along after a moment. "Kinda lame if you ask me. I'm not really a fan of the I-have-so-much-money-I-pretend-I'm-a-Victorian-Vornic vibe."

 Izuna giggled into her hand before shaking her head. "Vornics aren't Victorian."

 "Ah, silly me." Kuro muttered. "You know you're smarter than me."

 Mahiru squirmed uncomfortably, feeling as though he were listening to a completely different person. This one was considerate and informed, seemed intent on keeping the emotional peace and stability, where as normal Kuro couldn't even be bothered to participate in a conversation centered on himself. As Mahiru rearranged his fingers around each other once again, Izuna glanced over, a wily light in her eyes. 

 "Mahiru, tell me. How did you meet Kuro? I'd love to hear the story."

 Staring at her in stupefaction, he clenched his already bloodless fingers yet tighter and struggled to think of something to say. For some reason he couldn't bring himself to admit that it had all been a misunderstanding, that his presence in Kuro's life was just a string of ridiculous, incomprehensible jokes; that he had taken it upon himself to interfere, to tag along and get in the way despite what Kuro had to say about it. To tell her- she who was someone this strange little family had chosen- that he was merely an interloper, someone who had lucked out enough in the random lottery of life to find himself face to face with Kuro.

 "Mahiru is the common mans hero." Kuro said, smoothly interrupting his existential crisis. "He picked me up like a stray and has been keeping me alive with his cooking and naivety."

 Latching onto the insult like a life line, Mahiru glared over at him. "Naive?! I'm not naive!" 

 Suddenly Kuro grinned, bright and open. "You are so. I do believe you are the guy that wanted to 'talk it out' with the drug lord that kidnapped and beat you to a pulp."

 Mahiru swallowed, trying to think past the giant neon sign that had lit up in his mind proclaiming "Kuro's smiling", and huffed an irritated breath. "For the record, Tsubaki didn't touch me. It was his crazy henchman that-" He cut off, an image of Misono on the kitchen floor, bleeding out in front of him, flashing before his eyes. "That hurt us." At his pause Izuna had smiled sympathetically, reaching over and placing her hand lightly on his knee. Looking down at it now, Mahiru was struck by the realization that he could probably completely cover her hand with his. She was so small and delicate, and yet, she was who they'd chosen. She was the one who had managed to prove herself.

 "Then they'll all pay." Kuro said casually, meeting Mahiru's surprised gaze evenly. "I promise."

 Feeling his face go slack, Mahiru found himself more worried about Izuna's feelings on this little declaration than on the fact that Kuro had just pledged revenge-murder. "You don't need to say things like that. It was my own fault I got caught. He's surprisingly proactive." Mahiru insisted, turning desperately to Izuna. "I can't believe some of the things he says." He laughed awkwardly, hoping that she would let it go, and breathed a silent sigh of relief when she only glanced momentarily to Kuro before looking back and smiling.

 "I've heard my fair share of crazy, I assure you!"

 Somewhere behind him, Kuro gave a long suffering sigh and stood up. "I'm getting another drink. I can smell Freya and her meddling approaching and I'm too dry for that tonight."

 He had only been gone perhaps thirty seconds when a shadow passed over Mahiru and he looked up to be met by a hard, severe stare. Freya was standing just next to him, her clothes now formal wear and her hair pulled back into a neat bun.

 "Hello." 

 Her monotone greeting raised the hairs on his neck and it was all he could do to hold out a hand, the motion more reflex than thought.

 "Freya! You're wearing the dress I bought you!" Izuna exclaimed happily, clapping her hands. "I'm so glad! It looks so nice."

 Freya raised a brow, looking down to inspect herself. "I like the color."

 "That's what caught my attention too!" Izuna agreed, reaching out and giving the flowing train of the dress a little tug. "It matches your hair so well. Don't you think?" She turned to Mahiru, the fabric still clutched in her hand.

 "I- uh." He trailed off, noticing that Freya was now watching him closely as well. It was a bit like what he imagined a mouse would feel like being watched by a hawk. "It is lovely." He smiled, and though it felt brittle, it was at least there. "I've always appreciated clothing choices with thought put into them."

 Inexplicably Izuna snorted into her hand, her expression twisted in humor. "Oh, do you?"

 "I do?" Mahiru confirmed hesitantly. "Why do-" He cut off when Kuro crept back into view, taking his original seat, and Mahiru noticed the absolutely nonsensical array of clothing he had on. He felt his brows drawing down in irritation when he noted both his favorite jacket and shirt, in addition to a worn pair of jeans and of all things, a scarf; all glaringly mismatched in color and pattern.

 "You're dressed as strangely as usual." Izuna said happily.

 Kuro breathed out into his drink in response, not bothering to look up.

 "And as talkative too." Freya added in what Mahiru assumed was supposed to be a light tone.

 "Looks who's talking." Kuro muttered.

 Freya shrugged and reached out, patting Izuna roughly on the head and smirking when she chuckled and leaned sideways to avoid it. "It's a nice night."

 "That it is..." Kuro murmured thoughtfully, his eyes over the rim of his glass serious as he surveyed the room. "And, about to get better." 

 Mahiru was just debating whether or not to ask what he meant when Misono, dragging a heavily protesting Lily behind him, came up to the small circle they had formed.

 "- being completely absurd!" He was yelling, tugging on Lily's arm, wincing when it pulled his injured shoulder. "Just get it over with!"

 "But Misono, I assure you! There's no need for-" Lily broke off with a small peep, his wide, fearful eyes fixed on Freya. He seemed to have gone mute and Misono took the opportunity to shove him bodily down into one of the open chairs.

 "Hello."

 Mahiru held in a quiet laugh; it seemed that Freya, despite her wealth of intimidating looks and tenor, was just as horribly awkward as the rest of them. It was a somewhat relieving discovery and now, having spent some time with her and having begun to grow accustomed to her strange mannerisms, he thought he could see why, out of all of them, Kuro was most comfortable around her.

 Lily flinched noticeably, his shoulders straight as an arrow and pulled taut and Freya frowned, leaning forward. When she was directly in front of him she held out her hand, expression sharp.

 "I said hello."

 Looking on the verge of tears, Lily cut his eyes away. "H-h-hello. How have y-you b-been?"

 Mahiru glanced back to see Kuro, glass held up and hiding his face, watching with what could only be described as amusement. He seemed to feel Mahiru's gaze for he looked over and raised his brows humorously. His expression darkening in disapproval, Mahiru turned back around, intending to step in, only to find Lily sitting almost completely backwards in his chair, now talking animatedly with Freya. "What."

 Looking over, Freya tilted her head, several strands of deep black hair falling across her forehead. "What what?"

 "I-" Mahiru paused, brows furrowed and then sighed, giving in to his curiosity. "Lily, what are you doing?!"

 Still facing the ornate rose embroidered backing of the chair, Lily chuckled good-naturedly. "What do you mean what am I doing? I'm catching up with Freya. It really has been too long."

 She smiled in response and patted him on the back, ignoring the way he buckled from the force. "It has. I've missed you."

 As they went back to their talk, conversing in a newly relaxed way, Mahiru grabbed Kuro's sleeve, pulling him roughly closer. "Alright. Explain what is happening."

 Kuro, so close his chin was on Mahiru's shoulder, laughed quietly into his ear; it sent shivers through Mahiru's blood, so distracting he almost missed his words. "It seems Lily's fear is sight based. When he doesn't look at her, there's no problem." He chuckled again and gestured to them with the hand holding his glass. "I just wish he'd discovered that little trick earlier. It would have saved me a lot of trouble."

 Light headed from Kuro's laugh, Mahiru could only nod dumbly, watching as Lily reached blindly back to find Misono's hand, holding it up as he said something to Freya. She nodded and was about to place her hand on his shoulder, now very subtly wrapped in fresh bandages, when Izuna darted forward, stopping her.

 "So, Misono!" She said frantically, her arm still curled around Freya's, restraining it. "I've heard some amazing stories today! But they were from Hyde so you can imagine that I'm taking them with a grain of salt. What happened to your shoulder?"

 Her unprecedented broach of the topic stilled the air around them and Mahiru bit his lip, unable to keep his eyes from seeking out Kuro's. He had stiffened, his skin stretched tightly over his knuckles, despite the drunken atmosphere still hovering over him, and Mahiru, without thinking took a deep breath and leaned forward.

 "He saved my life." Five sets of eyes turned to him and he winced, hoping his expression was something inspiring instead of the forlorn lost puppy look he was imagining. "I, uh, got into a bit of trouble and this guy pulled a sword." It sounded absolutely ridiculous spoken aloud and he dug his fingers into the fabric of his pants, struggling on, praying his voice didn't crack. "I wasn't fast enough but Misono jumped in front of me." As they watched him in silence, he felt rather than saw, Kuro clench his jaw in anger and pasted a boisterous smile across his face. "I should have seen something like that coming by now! It's my fault."

 Before Kuro could say whatever was boiling beneath the surface of his tense calm, Misono shrugged lopsidedly. "What else could I do? That's what f-friends are for." He stumbled over the word, scowling darkly, and blushed. "When they're in trouble you step in."

 Mahiru felt an inexplicable desire to cry and wished fervently that he still had a drink in his hand to wave around or, at this point, even shot gun- anything to break the suddenly awkward air. Pulling strength from his overwhelming feelings about watching Misono take an actual sword to the chest for him, he smiled. "Thanks, Misono. I'm lucky to have you for a friend."

 Impossibly, Misono flushed even darker, and Lily laughed lightly, snapping his fingers. "This calls for a drink!" Somehow, without turning around, he stood and paced swiftly away, towards the small drink cart that had been rolled in at one point. When he returned, several shots in each hand, Mahiru felt a trickle of unease. 

 "I don't think so, thanks though."

 "Oh, come now, Mahiru!" Lily chided him brightly. "It's just one shot! To companionship!" He had handed the rest out and now only Mahiru's and his own remained in his hand. "It's just regular vodka. Nothing very strong." He said reassuringly.

 Feeling as though he were betraying his uncle, his GPA, and his own ideals, Mahiru took the small glass and lifted it to his lips, waiting for Lily to sit back down. "What do we say?"

 "To friends!" Lily sang, lifting his glass.

 "To family." Freya added, her gaze riveted to Izuna, who lifted hers also, returning the look.

 "To love." Kuro intoned softly, and threw back his drink.

 Mahiru had no time to question Kuro's choice of word before everyone cheered and followed suit. At a loss, he did as well, eyes watering at the bite of the liquid as it burned through his nose.

 "This is not vodka." Kuro said suddenly. "This is UV Blue. Lily, you know I hate this shit."

 Lily laughed, winking. "But it's your favorite color! And it is technically vodka, you know."

 Kuro scoffed, tossing the glass over his shoulder, apparently unconcerned about it breaking on the window sill. "This is kid stuff. Give me Grey or give me death."

 "Oh, please." Freya muttered. "You know that's just marketing."

 "Oh, go please yourself." Kuro shot back at her. "It's top shelf for a reason."

 "Because the bottle is pretty?" Izuna asked cheerfully.

 "No." Kuro snorted. "The bottle is a representation of the inner charm. The inherent quality of the drink." He waved a hand loosely, almost clocking Mahiru who ducked at the last minute. "There's no need for gimmicks and pictures of geese when you have a pure substance of such-"

 "What the fuck are you talking about?" It was Misono who spoke, his face twisted in  disgusted confusion, and Mahiru clamped his lips against the laughter fighting to get out. 

 "Ah?" Kuro glanced over at him blearily. "I'm talking about the sacred art of alcohol, you little purple munchkin. Not that you'd have any clue, being all of seven years old."

 Misono turned several shades of red and gasped. "I am seventeen!"

 "Seriously?" Kuro leaned forward, squinting comically. "You don't look it. Lily!" He barked, glancing over at his brother. "How dare you corrupt such a young child! I thought you were adopting him but now I see you-"

 "Oooookay, that's enough!" Lily smiled uneasily, clamping a hand over Kuro's mouth. "You really do become such an unruly bastard when you drink."

 "This is your fault." Kuro mumbled behind his hand. "You give me this pathetic excuse for vodka and expect me to just let it go?"

 "Why yes, I do." Lily muttered. "Although considering the amount of rum Hyde slipped into your drink earlier, I'm rather surprised that you're still standing at all."

 "That was nothing! You think I didn't know it was just straight rum the third time?"

 Caught between fascination and vicarious embarrassment, Mahiru watched as Lily struggled to subdue Kuro, pushing him back against the couch and frowning at him. When it appeared that he was going to stay put, Lily stepped back and sighed anxiously, a hand resting gently against his down-turned lips.

 "Please, will you just behave? I worry about your fractures."

 Kuro scoffed, looking around for his drink for a moment, before giving up and closing his eyes and reclining. "It's no big deal. I earned these fractures! Isn't that right, Mahiru?" He reached out quickly, somehow accurately pinpointing where Mahiru's arm was despite his closed eyes, and grabbing his sleeve. "No one got hurt but me."

 Mahiru jumped when the long, nimble fingers wrapped securely around his wrist and glanced around the curious circle uncomfortably. "Uhm." He trailed off, unsure how to speak past the lump that had formed in his throat. Leaning forward, he brought his voice down to a whisper. "Kuro, it's not a good thing that you got hurt. You don't think that, do you?"

 "Better me than you."

 Something small and sharp trickled down Mahiru's spine and he couldn't stop the frown that tripped across his face. "No, that's not better! What's wrong with you?"

 Kuro's eyes opened in surprise and he glanced over. "Nothing's wrong with me, what's wrong with you?"

 Childish betrayal filled Mahiru's mind and he sighed; this was just regular self deprecating Kuro, with perhaps just a touch less reserve. Lily had tricked him again. And now what was he supposed to do? Kuro was far too drunk to leave on his own, but he certainly wasn't about to fall asleep. He paused in his ruminations in time to see Lily glance back over his shoulder, face falling in annoyance. Mahiru didn't have time to wonder at the source of his displeasure as it soon became apparent when Mikuni sauntered into view, an entire 5th clutched loosely in one hand.

 "What's up, losers?" He asked cheerfully. "I have deigned to grace you with my presence for the night!"

 "Lovely. Why don't I pour you a drink, and you can enjoy it right outside?" Lily smiled, gesturing to the window behind Mahiru which was a two story drop to the courtyard below.

 "Now, now!" Mikuni sang, leaning down and resting his elbow on the back of Lily's chair. "I know it can be hard to know how to act around the guy that saved your life, but I assure you, I need nothing more than your undying respect and loyalty."

 "And I assure you will have neither." Lily retorted coldly. 

 "That's a real shame! I was just thinking about what I'd have you do first as my indentured servant. I came to the conclusion that-"

 "That's enough!" Misono barked, his hand clenched tightly around the glass he had resting on his knee. 

 Mikuni cast his lazy gaze over Misono who seemed to be trying not to flinch, and smiled. "Is it? Enough, I mean. Look at Mahiru!" He tipped his head in Mahiru's direction and winked. "He hasn't the faintest clue what's going on and yet he's insisting on butting in every chance he gets! Now, that's the spirit! That's the kind of enterprising attitude we need! He's weak as a day old puppy and behold, he runs heedless into the face of danger!"

 "Mahiru's strong." Kuro interjected suddenly.

 "Oh, is he?" Mikuni asked softly, his tone sly in a way that immediately reminded Mahiru of Tsurugi. "And what makes you say that, Ash?"

 Ignoring the name, Kuro sighed and pinned Mikuni with a tightly composed look. "I say it because it's true. He's my partner."

 His face burning, Mahiru groaned into his hands as Izuna turned to him, her mouth open in shock, soft eyes wide. Now was definitely not the time he wanted to be at the center of a fight, not with so much alcohol still burning through his veins and so much un-dealt with stress propping up the fragile feeling bones of his body.

 "Oh my~" Mikuni's lips curled up, like a cheshire cat, and he stepped out and around Lily's chair. "Partner, you say?"

 "Business partner!" Mahiru shouted, jerking forward and knocking over the empty glass by his feet. "I agreed to do what I could to help out with this whole Tsubaki thing! As you already know." He added, his hand coming up unconsciously to rub at the light purple line still ringing his neck.

 "Business partner?" Kuro asked stiffly.

 "Oh, no." Lily murmured worriedly.

 "Ah, jeez." Izuna sighed tiredly.

 Mikuni threw back his head and laughed. "Mahiru! I just knew you'd be my favorite!"

 "Wrong!" Without warning, Kuro stood up and took a quick step forward. "I'm going to be your favorite! Play me."

 "Excuse me?"

 "Play me. Chess. Every lost piece takes a shot of Del Toro."

 Casting a smugly dismissive look over Mikuni, Lily stood as well. "I'll grab a couple glasses, shall I?" He asked sweetly.

 As the group broke up to reconvene around the table where Misono was now warily placing a chess board, Mahiru caught Lily's sleeve as he passed. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" He asked pensively.

 Lily smiled and winked. "Have some faith, Mahiru."

 He grimaced but released his hold, watching as Lily practically skipped away. Taking a moment to clear his head, he turned his gaze to where Kuro now sat across from Mikuni at the large dining table. They both had a glass in front of them and were haggling over colors; Kuro reaching for white and Mikuni slapping his hand away. Mahiru felt his blood boil just a degree hotter at the look of pain that flashed across Kuro's face but before he could get to his feet, Lily had leaned over them, calmly sliding Kuro the black pieces, suggesting that they swap first move. Irritation marred Mikuni's casual expression but in the blink of an eye it had transformed into a grin and he agreed, throwing his hat over the back of his chair. 

 "Prepare to lose, 'Sleepy Ash'." He murmured, his eyes bright in the soft glow thrown waveringly from the chandelier.

 "You have to earn the right to call me that." Kuro said lightly, nudging a pawn forward. "Your move."

 

 As far as Mahiru could tell, the two were fairly evenly matched; for every piece that Kuro lost, Mikuni was sure to suffer an equal casualty next, and despite the tequila enforcing a rather devil-may-care atmosphere to the whole game, making every subsequent move that much more difficult after a loss, they seemed to be taking it rather seriously. Just as Mikuni threw his hands up in victory, tossing Kuro's bishop across the room, Izuna came up behind Mahiru, her arms crossed as she watched Kuro scowling rather worryingly.

 "I never thought I'd see the day."

 "What, that Kuro played chess?" Mahiru asked, glancing over.

 "Oh, no!" She laughed. "No, the day he had someone he trusted."

 Mahiru could only stare down in horror at her open expression, wondering what he was supposed to do. It was possible she was referring to any one in this room, but thinking simply, it was obvious she was talking about him, and as far as he could tell, there were only two options- one, that she was jealous and irritated that he had dared butt into her relationship and was now confronting him in as gentle a way as possible, or two, she was hurt by his interference and, again, was confronting him. Both were horrific to consider and he could feel his face draining of color.

 Izuna, seeming not to notice his slowly encroaching mental breakdown, turned back to the two players, her head cocked slightly. "It's odd really. I wouldn't have guessed it being someone like you. But then, I also never suspected that someone could be so outwardly ordinary and yet so feisty!" She laughed brightly. "I've heard so much about you since I got here, I feel like I know you."

 "You know, Izuna, I-" He was cut off in his attempts at an apology, or whatever it was he'd been planning on saying, by Freya walking up behind them and wrapping her arms around Izuna's waist, her head resting gently on top of soft cornflower hair.

 "Who's winning?"

 Izuna smiled up at her, hands coming up to lay over Freya's, oblivious to Mahiru trying desperately not to ogle. "No one yet. They're tied. But my money's on Ash- ah, I mean Kuro."

 "Your money is always on him." Freya countered.

 Her sullen tone left Mahiru wondering what it was that Izuna always found to bet on, but the larger portion of his brain was hung up on the name 'Ash'. It had been said with such familiarity despite the heavy history it conveyed, he couldn't help but begin to debate his own odds of ever knowing Kuro that way. Looking at it objectively it seemed so unlikely and he felt his heart twist just a half turn, stealing his breath.

 "Don't you, Mahiru?" Izuna asked cheerfully, interrupting his melancholy thoughts. 

 He started guiltily. "Uh, sorry, don't I what?"

 "Don't you think Kuro looks cute when he's concentrating like that!"

 He choked, almost falling over and winced when Freya blinked at him in surprise. "Erm, well, I-" Glancing back over, he watched as Kuro, hunched over the edge of the table, squinted down at the chess board for a moment before reaching out and using just his middle finger to push a piece forward into one of Mikuni's. Said opponent huffed in annoyance and Kuro flicked a small smirk up to him before scowling when Mikuni waved his empty glass in his face.

 And it was cute. Almost unbearably so. But what was the proper protocol here? You couldn't just tell a girl that her ex-maybe-now-again-boyfriend was cute when she was standing right there and you'd been practically living with the guy for weeks while she apparently had no idea he was even alive.

 Having not yet reached a conclusion, Mahiru's chaotic, swirling storm of anxiety ground to an abrupt halt, leaving him almost dizzy, when Freya leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to Izuna's cheek.

 "I'm going to go make pancakes."

 "Pancakes?" Izuna giggled. "It's night time!"

 "Pancakes are always good."

 "Are you allowed in the kitchen?" Izuna asked suspiciously. "You should ask Lily first."

 "It's fine. Would you like me to see if there are strawberries?"

 Immediately forgetting her earlier unease, Izuna grinned. "Yes, please!" Freya nodded, and pressed one last quick kiss to her forehead before striding away; Izuna turned to Mahiru, her hands clasped beneath her chin, eyes huge and sparkling. "Strawberries!" Was all she said and Mahiru couldn't help laughing.

 "I'm sure there are some; I've seen the kitchens. They're quite impressive."

 "Ah, that's right! Kuro said you cook!" She edged closer, a puckish expression giving her even more of a fairy-like quality. "He said you were practically a chef!"

 Mahiru snorted. "He did not."

 She laughed and shrugged. "Ok, not exactly. His exact words were 'he's like the perfect house wife, it's kind of scary'."

 "How cruel." Mahiru muttered, eyebrow twitching as he stared at Kuro, willing him to feel his ire.

 "Oh, don't pout! It's a good thing!" Izuna slapped him roughly on the shoulder and grinned. "Every one wants a wife that can cook!"

 "I'm a man!" Mahiru exclaimed, rubbing his shoulder, where no doubt a red spot had formed.

 "Well sure, but what does that matter?" She asked cavalierly. "I mean, if you're happy with someone then what's the difference? Besides, Kuro likes people who can cook." 

 The remaining calm drained from Mahiru's system and he almost stumbled sideways, whipping his head around to stare at her. She was smirking at him in a way that made him feel almost afraid, and as he scrambled for a response she reached up, patting his cheek. "You'll figure it out!" She turned and skipped away, towards the table beside which Mikuni was now hopping angrily, his hands in his hair, as Kuro leaned back triumphantly.

 Gazing after her in astonishment, Mahiru jumped when Hyde's arm snaked around his shoulders, the following breathy whisper tickling his ear. 

 "So, how's your night going?"

 Scowling, Mahiru crossed his arms. "You are so drunk. You smell."

 "Ah, ah, not really! Licht, my talented little love bug, dumped an entire pitcher of beer over me a while ago!" Hyde sighed dreamily. "He was mad because I forgot his mothers birthday. What an angel."

 "You're insane." Mahiru amended.

 "Perhaps! But what is sanity but a temporary reprieve?" Hyde sang. "Besides, you're not stacking up any better!"

 "What's that supposed to mean?"

 Hyde turned a pitying eye on him. "Oh, Mahiru. You disappoint me! Don't be so obtuse!" He shook his head, eyes closed in faux exhaustion. "You and I both know that you still haven't pieced it together yet! And it's so obvious."

 "What is obvious?" Mahiru demanded angrily.

 "Just this once I will take pity on you!" He glanced around as though looking for hidden cameras and then leaned even closer. "Freya and Izuna are not your competition."

 Mahiru raised a brow. "Competition? For what?"

 Hyde clucked his tongue. "Nope! That's it for hints. I like you, Mahiru! But if you can't even figure this out then you don't deserve the answer!"

 "The answer to what!"

 Grinning, Hyde danced back, shooting ridiculous finger guns at him. "Let's go see what happens when one of them finally loses!" He spun on his heel and hopped away, his scarf reaching back and brushing once against Mahiru's ankle.

 Sighing, he decided there was nothing left to do but follow Hyde. At least Kuro and Mikuni would provide a distraction to his tangled thoughts, and if nothing else, hopefully the end of the game would signify the end of this confusing, tiring night.

 "I don't see the point in the slightest." 

 A scant distance from the table Mahiru paused, just behind where Lily and Misono stood arguing. Lily was frowning in that soft, "dote on me" kind of way he had, but Misono seemed unaffected, waving his arm around, scowling like a demon.

 "But, Misono. Don't you think it would be better to-"

 "No, I do not." He jerked his face away in a huff, eyes widening when they landed on Mahiru standing not two feet away. "Mahiru! What are you doing here!"

 "I've been living here." He said jokingly.

 Lily chuckled while Misono blustered embarrassed-ly. "I knew that! I meant- how has your evening been so far?"

 "To be honest, very exhausting."

 "You sound like Kuro." Lily said, smiling. "I apologize if it was in any way Misono's fault."

 "What!"

 Mahiru shrugged noncommittally, his eyes floating back over to Kuro, now staring grimly down at the chess board while Mikuni smirked. "No, it wasn't either of you. More like, I'm beginning to think maybe Mikuni is right and I really don't know what's going on."

 Lily and Misono exchanged a glance and Lily bit his lip. "Mahiru, please don't take anything that heathen says seriously. He's deranged."

 At his words, Misono threw him a withering look, but did nothing to contradict the statement. "Far be it from me to say, Mahiru, but while you may not understand all the nuances of our current situation, you have indeed been a help. One we are very grateful for."

 Mahiru stared down at the tops of his trainers for a moment, digesting the unexpected praise. He wanted desperately to believe them but he still couldn't help wondering, looking back on everything, if he hadn't needlessly complicated all of it. Might as well bite the bullet, he decided sardonically, "I just feel like I've complicated things. And caused a lot of trouble."

 "Ah, but Mahiru! Without you we would not have Kuro helping us, would we?"

 He darted a surprised look up to Lily, now smiling softly at him. "You wouldn't?"

 "Of course not!" Hugh scoffed, descending on them like a dramatic miniature Bela Legosi. "He would still be sleeping in subway tunnels and lying to us about where he is."

 "Why would he lie?" Maihru couldn't help asking, even after seeing the pained expressions that flirted across Hugh and Lily's faces. "Why does he always try to keep you away?"

 "That is the question, isn't it?" Hugh said sagely, tapping a finger against his nose. "But as Misono here was saying, you enter the scene and suddenly here he is!" They all turned momentarily to the table in time to see Kuro hurling a chess piece at Mikuni. "I never thought I'd see the day."

 "Yes, it is surprising." Lily murmured, a delighted smile hovering behind the hand over his mouth. "He seems much calmer."

 "Izuna said..." Mahiru hesitated, watching Lily closely for any reaction to his next words. "She said that she was surprised that Kuro trusted me. But, well-" When Lily gestured for him to continue, he sighed, trying to think of a way to phrase what had been bothering him. "I mean I've heard everything now and I don't see why she could think that, that it's odd that he trusts me. I mean, not when he's always had you all to-"

 "Mahiru." Hugh interrupted him solemnly. "He had us behind him, he had faith in our abilities, but he never trusted us."

 "I don't understand." He admitted. "How could he not-"

 Lily sighed, shaking his head sadly. "Never once were we trusted with anything beyond following a plan and not getting killed." He glanced over, a soft lilt to his lips. "Mahiru, has Kuro ever talked to you about how he feels?"

 Mahiru started, his brows furrowed. "I mean, I guess he's told me... when he's..."

 "There you have it!" Hugh exclaimed, brandishing a long handled smoking pipe he'd produced from his inner vest pocket. "Lily, give me a light."

 "I don't smoke."

 "Oh, come now. I know you'll never give it up." He insisted, waving the pipe in the air.

 Lily laughed, giving in, and pulled out a bright pink zippo. "You do know me so well, even after all these years."

 "I should think so!"

 Mahiru was staring into the distant cold outside the window, trying to wrap his mind around what he had been told, attempting to deconstruct the concept of living with and clearly caring for someone but not trusting them, and then reapplying it to not only Hyde and Lily and Hugh, but to Izuna in some understandable way, when Hugh's next words pulled him violently back into the present and he jerked towards them.

 "-Can't say I'm surprised they're still together though!"

 Lily hummed, tugging on a lock of hair as he thought, a newly lit cigarette dangling laxly from his other hand. "No, I'm not surprised either. But I do have to say, I thought they'd be married by now." He laughed lightly. "Although, who wears the dress?"

 Hugh snorted. "Izuna obviously. All preferences aside, there isn't a dress long enough to fit Freya."

 "You don't think?" Lily asked casually, cocking his head to the side. "About preferences, I mean. Freya is an odd one but she always struck me as rather feminine."

 Hugh seemed to consider this for a moment and then shrugged. "Perhaps, but she never was one to go out with Izuna and Ophelia." He rolled his eyes. "Every time those two ran out to the mall, Freya would beg off."

 A humorous glint entered Lily's eye and he bent forward, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "What if she was just too embarrassed?" He chuckled. "Ah, poor, dear Freya."

 "I see you've recovered admirably." Hugh added. "You haven't even stuttered her name."

 "I admit my fear is almost completely baseless, but please, Hugh. You'd be crazy not to find her intimidat-"

 "Hold it!" Mahiru yelled wildly, the last few minutes of conversation finally connecting coherently and finding their way into his conscious mind. "Izuna and Freya are dating?!"

 All three, Hugh, Lily, and Misono, turned startled eyes on him, and Lily, the first to recover, smirked. "Mahiru, you didn't know?"

 Ignoring the question, Mahiru glanced across the room, his face creased in confused horror, and met Hyde's sudden gaze. As they stared at each other, Hyde grinned widely and winked.

Chapter Text

 Well then.
 

It was.... it was not what he had been expecting. 

 Ok, so Freya was rather hands-y, and she had that "I could kill you with my bare hands" vibe, but Izuna? He shook his head. No, stop and think it through simply, start from the basics. Izuna. She did have that look; like she was head over heels in love, but Mahiru was sure it had been Kuro; what else had that strange reunion scene been about? But... it wasn't. It was Freya she was in love with. Ok. Fine. There was nothing wrong with that. It was just surprising, that was all.

 But why did the knowledge leave him with a fresh relief like a spring rain sweeping through an open meadow? Why did his chest suddenly feel clear and his mind light? Because it meant that Izuna wasn't interested in Kuro romantically? Alright. And why did that matter? In fact, why had he felt such a kinship with Izuna, right from the start? Why had he empathized with her so easily whenever he thought she was being shunted to the side in her own relationship? Why had he felt so horribly like he had done something wrong when it looked as though Kuro held him in any kind of similar regard as he did Izuna? Why-

 His thoughts broke off as the full implications of it hit him and he almost fell over, his heart stopping and eyes wide. Hyde, still watching him, seemed unfazed by this reaction and instead, after a quick, flirty little salute, turned back to Licht who had joined him at some point. When he reached out to ruffle the long messy black strands, Licht ducked and punched him in the chest.

 "Mahiru?" Lily's voice wafted past his defenses and he realized he'd stopped breathing. "Mahiru, are you alright?"

 He looked up to find Lily and Hugh both leaning towards him, worry painted across their faces. Lily reached out a hand and placed it gently on his shoulder, his frown deepening. Realizing that he must look like he was having an episode, Mahiru tried his best to stop the jitters running through his muscles, and smiled stiffly. "I'm fine. Sorry. I just- got dizzy."

 Lily's lips pulled to the side in skepticism but he removed his hand. "Alright. Goodness! You gave us quite a fright!" He laughed. "It looked like you'd just had an earth shattering revelation!"

 Mahiru forced a heady laugh from his throat. "Yeah..."

 Hugh, who hadn't stopped his intense study, tapped a flurry of ashes out onto the carpet and raised a brow. "Well then? What was this great epiphany that struck you dumb about?"

 "Uh." Mahiru tried to swallow his panic, praying for an excuse to come to him. "Well, I wouldn't say it was really anything all that important-" He paused, his eyes flying to Kuro against his will. "I just realized I haven't talked to my uncle in quite a while. I worry about him all alone on his business trips!" He was warming to the lie and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, feeling the cold sweat that had broken out. "I guess it startled me that it's been so long!"

 I guess it startled me to realize that I'm probably really in love with Kuro.

 Lily smiled. "I'm sure he's fine! Why don't you call him in the morning? It will be nice to catch up."

 "Ah, yeah." Mahiru nodded and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, fingers balled into tight fists. "I'll do that. For now, I think I'll get a little water." He turned away, searching for the quickest escape from the room and missed the odd little grin Lily shot Hugh before patting Misono on the head and asking if he wanted any coffee.

 He had almost passed around the far corner of the empty hallway beyond the dining room, almost made good his get away, when a hand grabbed the back of his collar and he stumbled to a halt, an awkward gagging sound forcing itself free.

 "Where do you think you're going?"

 Looking up, he was met with vivid, sharp eyes, carved out of a face framed in deep inkwell black tattoos. His gaze traveled farther up, landing on needle like, bleached hair and he felt his will to fight slowly slipping away in apathetic annoyance. Once again, it seemed he had been caught by an all out delinquent. The sheer audacity of the universe was enough to leave him seething.

 "Tell me where Ash is right now!"

 The name startled some life back into Mahiru's body and he began to struggle, his hands tangling in the neck of his shirt, trying to pry it free of the vice like grip it was being crushed in. "Like I'd tell you!" He shouted, not even thinking of denying knowledge of the name. Let this punk do whatever he wanted, like hell he'd tell him ANYthing. His feet fluttered teasingly above the floor and he had just a second to wonder just why he had to be so much shorter than everyone else before a new voice entered the fray.

 “Who the hell is this?!” 

 Twisting in the rigid grip, Mahiru could just see over his shoulder to where Misono stood near the far door, staring in shock. Behind him Lily came running out, a grim expression in place. "I have no idea!" Mahiru exclaimed, his voice breathy. "He was just-" The man holding him shook him a little and he broke off, teeth rattling against each other.

 "I said-" The rough demand halted, the man turning his piercing gaze on Lily. "What the fuck."

 "Oh my." Lily sighed, a hand to his cheek. "Ildio. You've gotten more tattoos."


 "It was Freya?" Lily repeated incredulously, pouring yet more steaming coffee into the mug Ildio held aloft.

 "That's what I said, ain't it?"

 "Well, yes. But it is rather surprising."

 "Why?"

 "You up and disappeared, didn't you?" Hugh cut in scathingly. "I just find it convenient that she still knew how to contact you."

 Ildio pointed a bagel across the table at him. "Not like you didn't pull a neat little magic trick yourself." He took a violent bite of the poppy seed muffin in his other hand and then turned back to Lily. "Anyway, it's not like we were pen-pals or anything. I haven't even been in the country til about two weeks ago! We ran into each other."

 "That is convenient." Lily muttered humorously. "Ildio, what in the world were you-"

 "Shit!" He suddenly yelled, pushing back his chair. "Nicco's still downstairs!"

 "Who?"

 "I'll be right back!" And with that he stuffed another bagel in his mouth and bolted from the room.

 Mahiru had watched all this unfold with a sense of surrealism and found the only thing that came to mind when he glanced at Kuro, slumped rather crookedly in his chair, was- "So, is that everyone then?"

 Kuro tossed him a half-hearted sneer and sighed, falling forward onto the table. "Yes. That's everyone. Welcome to the family, Mahiru."

 "Misono." Lily said contemplatively after a moment. "I've thought of something."

 "What?"

 "Well, clearly none of the staff let him in." He tapped his fingers against the rim of his tea cup for a moment. "That can only mean he broke in."

 "I don't even care anymore. All I want to know is is he going to be any use to us?"

 "Oh, yes. I dare say he will be."

 Ildio, after seeing Lily, had dropped Mahiru like a sack of potatoes and rushed over, startling Misono so badly he'd actually made to jump in front of Lily. At the last second though he stumbled, Lily lurching forward to catch him, and they all three had collided. As they'd righted themselves Lily had sighed, rubbing his forehead. 

 "It's good to see you're as boisterous as ever."

 "Where is every one?" Ildio had demanded and Lily had grinned weakly, gesturing behind them, back into the dining room.

 "Most every one is there. Although I do believe Freya went down to the kitchens and Izuna joined her a little while ago."

 Without responding, Ildio had darted forward, throwing open the half closed pocket doors and leaping into the room. Mahiru, still laying dizzily in a puddle on the floor, could hear him yelling and what sounded suspiciously like chairs being toppled.

 "Ash! You bastard! Get over here!"

 Another crash, followed by Kuro shouting something, had had Mahiru sitting up worriedly, only relaxing when Lily held out a hand to help him to his feet, laughing lightly. "They're getting along better than I expected."

 "Are you kidding?" Mahiru had asked doubtfully, flinching when the sound of someone landing on the table echoed back to them.

 "Oh, don't worry about Ildio." Lily had reassured him. "He's loud but harmless."

 Mahiru had had his doubts but now, watching bemusedly as Ildio stomped back into the room towing someone behind him, he couldn't help be think Lily might be right. The stark eyes were narrowed in irritated concern and as they passed the door frame he turned back, frowning.

 "It's not like they can't afford a new window, so don't worry so much! And you've still got dirt in your hair! I told you you didn't have to hide in that plant."

 The man that followed him in was not at all what Mahiru had been expecting and he felt his brows raise in surprise. He was tall, taller even than Lily, but perhaps most shocking was the waist length, jet black hair that flowed loosely against his shoulders. Contrasting with pale skin and an almost scholarly, albeit timid, look, he was just about as polar opposite as you could get to Ildio.

 "I'm not worrying. I just thought that maybe it would have been better to knock, or, better yet, just leave. We don't have to be here at all."

 "Bullshit!" Ildio yanked out a chair and waved his friend down into it. "I'm not about to let them all sneak away again!"

 The man shrugged weakly and reached up, tugging anxiously on several unruly locks of hair that had fallen forward around his face. "Whatever you say."

 Ildio snorted and pulled out a second chair, throwing himself into it and propping his feet on the table. Lily gave a small twitch, as though about to say something but only clenched his jaw tight and turned to the new guest, who jerked back as though slapped when he noticed Lily's attention.

 "And am I correct in assuming this is Nicco?"

 "Niccolo, actually." Ildio said casually. "Found him when I went to Italy."

 "Ah, so that is where you were." Lily murmured. "And do I want to know HOW you got there?"

 "Probably not."

 "I see."

 After a beat of almost awkward silence, Mahiru cleared his throat and leaned in. "It's nice to meet you." His voice betrayed him, lilting up near the end as though in question, and he distinctly heard Kuro scoff from where he lay, still face down on the table.

 "And who're you?" Ildio asked abrasively. "I don't think I've ever seen you before."

 "Er, no. I'm with Kuro." Mahiru pointed to his right, and one of Ildio's brows threatened to disappear into his hair and Mahiru blanched, rushing to clarify, his nerves twisting around in a panic. "That is, I mean, I promised to help him."

 Ildio grinned, unconcerned. "I gotcha. No need to worry, kid. I don't judge."

 "No, you've got it wrong, you see I-"

 "Ash!" Ildio barked, interrupting Mahiru's desperate rambling. "How old is this kid?"

 Without looking up Kuro heaved a sigh. "I don't actually know."

 "I'm nineteen." Mahiru supplied flatly. "I'm not a kid."

 "There, you see? He's not a kid, so fuck off, Ildio." Kuro waved a hand through the air.

 Feeling deeply unimpressed with Kuro's defense, Mahiru folded his arms on the table, fixing Ildio with a stare. "I don't see what my age has to do with anything."

 Ildio shrugged, stealing the cup of tea that Lily had placed in front of Niccolo and taking a drink. "It matters a lot! Take Niccolo for example!" Said man glanced up warily, his expression pained. "He's 24! Almost middle aged, really. But knowing that, I can make the proper accommodations! And between you and me, I like older men." He winked, grinning wolfishly.

 Completely at a loss as to how to counter this statement, or in fact, what to do about the way Niccolo looked to be about to spontaneously combust, Mahiru jumped when Lily slapped a hand down on the table, a fixed smile on his lips.

 "And that, I think, would be a good note to end the night."

 "Oh ho! Why do you say that? It's just getting good!" Mikuni crowed from the other end of the table. "I don't know about you, but I want to hear more about our new friends taste in partners!"

 "I thought you went to bed." Lily grit out, his brows twitching in poorly concealed agitation.

 "So early?!" He exclaimed, leaning back in the chair and twirling his hat around on a finger. "What am I, a baby? I am allowed to stay up as late as I want!"

 "And apparently drink as much as you want." Misono muttered darkly, cutting his eyes away.  

 "What? What was that?" Mikuni jumped up, keeping his balance admirably, and waltzed over to Misono's place. "Are you speaking to me again?"

 Misono's lip jutted out in defiance and he twisted in his chair. When Mikuni simply skipped to the other side, he turned yet again and Mikuni's expression, for the barest second, fell into a sullen sort of grief.

 "Misono, I think you ought to take your medication and get some rest." Lily murmured gently. "We can discuss this in the morning, when everyone is fresh."

 "What's there to discuss!" Mikuni stuck a boot on the edge of the table and leaned his elbow across a knee. "I say we just storm the castle now!"

 "And what castle is that?" Mahiru asked exasperatedly.

 "Once again, the little lion tamer makes a point!" Mikuni held up a finger, pausing dramatically until every eye was on him. "We don't have a clue where to look next."

 Misono sighed as Mikuni grinned brightly. "I shudder to think who I'm agreeing with at this point, but that is correct. We don't have any new leads."

 "Hold on, what's all this about leads?" Ildio interjected, spraying cookie crumbs across the immediate vicinity.

 "Fabulous. Another veritable genius joins our midst." Mikuni muttered, hopping up to sit on the table. "What a relief, I was beginning to worry that we were actually going to make some head way!" He began inspecting his nails, crossing his legs. "Just so everyone knows, I am the reason we found dear Lily in the first place."

 "You're also the reason the place got raided." Kuro mumbled, slowly raising his head. "Tsubaki will never be seen there again."

 Ildio dropped the spoon he'd been wiggling some jello in, the tinny clang of it hitting the table sounding like an alarm. "Tsubaki?"

 "Ah, what a pain." Kuro sighed, closing his eyes. "Yes. Apparently we're all a vigilante group now. Welcome to Team Dumbass."

 "Oh, hell yeah." Ildio roared, grabbing Niccolo's shoulder and giving him a rough shake. "What did I tell you, they're all completely insane!" He grinned widely. "This is the kind of family reunion I can get behind!"

 Mahiru's mouth dropped open and he turned slightly, to try to meet Kuro's eye, hoping for some kind of explanation, but even after several seconds of Mahiru's blatant staring he refused to look up; Lily however, caught his gaze for a moment and smiled thinly, just a touch of unease bonding with the amusement in his eyes. Suddenly realizing the room seemed far too quiet, Mahiru darted a quick look around. "Where are Hyde and Licht?"

 Misono snorted disdainfully, stirring a fork idly around his lukewarm tea. "They claimed to be going to rescue Izuna and Freya from the kitchens."

 "They're just going to go suck each others faces off in the freezer." Kuro muttered petulantly. "Hyde is a slut for temperature play."
 While Lily burst into laughter, Mahiru choked, feeling all his tendons pull tight in terror, the last vestiges of his sanity threatening to jump ship along with his will to live. "What!"

 Kuro glanced up at him, blinking slowly. "Temperature play. It's a type of sexual-"

 "I know what it is!" He yelled breathlessly, hands clenched in his lap. "But why are you-"

 Ildio slammed a hand down on the table, leaning forward. "Mahiru! You mean to tell me Ash hasn't let you in on lifes dirty little secrets yet?" He turned to Kuro. "And you call yourself a man."

 "I do not. And it's not Ash any more."

 "Bah, I'll never remember that!" He propped his chin in a hand, his eyes sliding to Niccolo, still sitting silently next to him. "Hey Nicco, what do you think? Does he look more like a Kuro?"

 Niccolo jumped, digging his fingers into the sleeves of his jacket. "I-I-I don't think it's really any of my business."

 "I'm asking yuh, so it is now!" As Niccolo darted a quick look at Kuro, his stare tinting with panic when Kuro met his gaze, Ildio blew out a breath of amusement. "Say, Mahiru, you and I are pretty alike, yunno?"

 A kind of paranoid suspicion wound it's way up through his bones and Mahiru frowned. "Do you think so?"

 "Oh yeah! Ash over there, he's twenty three you know." He gestured roughly at the silent pile of fabric that Kuro had become, slumped over the steaming cup of tea Lily had slowly been inching closer to him the whole time. "Like I said, older men." He hummed knowingly.

 Feeling himself slipping ever faster towards a fatal heart attack, Mahiru sputtered loudly, trying to ignore the way Mikuni was staring at him. "I told you! It's-"

 "Let's just get one thing straight!" Hugh proclaimed loudly. "Tetsu and I are duty sworn to gather every last dreg of information that is available and within our grasp none shall escape! Tomorrow we will-"

 "Yeah, yeah." Mikuni sighed. "We got it. You're the king of information. You're the ruler." He turned back towards Mahiru. "But on a more interesting note~" 

 "There is no note more interesting than mine!" Hugh argued, stepping up on to his chair and flinging his hat at Mikuni. "You shall listen! Tetsu is-"

 "Frankly, I couldn't give less of a hoot what that overgrown toddler is going to-"

 "Mikuni." Jeje's monotone whisper floated in from the doorway and they all turned to find him towering there like a fantastical dark shadow but for the strange pastel sleeping cap perched crookedly on his head. "Bed."

 Mikuni almost fell from the table, a soft touch of color coming to his cheeks and he blew out a breath of air. "As I've told you time and again, I am an adult, and thus, I will make my own decisions based solely on intellect and sound judgement."

 One of Jeje's brows raised beneath his cap, though his constantly blank expression remained immobile. "That would require intelligence in the first place."

 After a quick look around the room, Mikuni slid grumpily from the table, his hands crammed into his pockets. As he scuffed his way across to where Jeje stood waiting, he began mumbling something under his breath and Jeje frowned, the act successfully making him seem twice as menacing.

 "What did you say?"

 "Isn't that my line?" Mikuni asked mockingly, staring up at him and putting his hands on his hips like an offended mother. 

 "I do not mumble." Jeje murmured, clearly having had this same argument a hundred times before and still finding it completely uninteresting. 

 Suddenly, Mikuni smiled, almost affectionately, and threw back his shoulders, pushing past Jeje quickly. "How do you know you're just not speaking loudly enough to be heard from the top of Mount K2?"

 Jeje turned to follow him, whatever he said lost to the emptiness of the hallway, and Lily whistled. "This night is just filled with surprises!"

 Mahiru glanced at him questioningly but it was Kuro that responded, sighing into his arms where they were folded beneath his chin on the table. "I've never seen anyone give quite so much lip to Jeje and still be standing." He rolled his eyes. "He's always been so sensitive about his height. It's so exhausting to deal with."

 "Ah, that's probably why he always sat by me." Lily laughed, shrugging. "I'm almost as tall."

 Kuro opened his mouth as though to argue but seemed to think better of it and instead stood up. "Anyway, I think he had the right idea. The sweet embrace of alcohol is brief and I can already feel lifes sharp claws digging back into my meager existence."

 "You become quite the poet when you drink." Mahiru muttered, squinting up at him. "I wouldn't have believed it."

 "Why? Don't I seem like the artsy type to you?"

 "Not really." Mahiru admitted.

 Kuro frowned for just a moment before shrugging. "I know I have the looks of a model, but there's a brain under this perfect hair, you know."

 Holding in a laugh, Mahiru took a sip of tea. "You're also very contradictory."

 "Who isn't?" Kuro shot back, staring at him darkly, before he blinked and seemed to come back to himself. "Let's go."

 "Where?" Mahiru asked blankly. 

 "Where else? To bed."

 His face erupted in flames and Mahiru choked on his tea, snorting it into his own face. He distinctly heard Lily laugh and took a deep breath, trying to strangle the panic that was pushing against his skin. It hadn't meant anything! It hadn't. He said that kind of shit all the time. Get a grip! he thought harshly, wiping the tea from his face. Don't let your own feelings color everything around you; it never ends well. "Go ahead if you want." He finally managed, voice rough from the sugar now lodged in his sinuses.

 Kuro raised a brow. "What, were you planning on staying here with these morons for the stimulating conversation?"

 Misono made an angry noise but before he could articulate anything, Ildio shot up from his chair, glowering. "You're just as cranky as ever!"

 Rounding on him, Kuro sneered. "Everyone just has so many opinions tonight!"

 Shocked Kuro had raised his voice with so little provocation, Mahiru lifted a hand weakly. "Please, everyone's had a lot to drink. Let's go. You're right, I am tired."

 Kuro didn't seem to be listening, his unwavering gaze on Ildio as he stepped back and around his chair. "I knew it would be too good to be true to get everyone together and think all that old bullshit wouldn't come back up."

 "Oh, please! I haven't said one word, you sensitive, senile, old coot!"

 Niccolo was watching Ildio, his eyes widened in unbridled terror. "U-u-uhm, maybe-" He mumbled, pulling violently on a lock of hair. "Perhaps we could-"

 "Funny to hear from the last to show his face!" Kuro accused, pointing a finger across the table. "How would you have any idea?"

 "And whose fault has that always been?!" Ildio yelled, tossing his own chair back. "When have you ever kept any of us in the loop, hm?"

 "You and Hyde should consider going out for dessert! I'm sure you could both find plenty of comical ways to drag me through the mud!"

 "Kuro!" Mahiru exclaimed in horror. "What's wrong with you?!" He was unsure where all this tension had suddenly come from but glancing at Lily, who was staring worriedly at Ildio, he thought maybe he could guess. Jumping up, he grabbed Kuro's shoulder and tugged him back from his defensive posture. "You're being an idiot!"

 Kuro turned to him and hurt flashed momentarily through his eyes before he glared. "What do you know?"

 Refusing to let the barbed accusation leave a mark, Mahiru frowned. "I know this isn't like you. Why don't you just be honest?"

 Ildio scoffed, his arms crossed as he watched them through narrowed eyes. "He doesn't know how."

 "You-!" Kuro broke off when the door slid open and Hyde sauntered in, holding out a tray of garlic bread.

 "Look what we found!" He said cheerfully. "We-" He froze, wide eyes flying over the room. "What's going on?"

 Peering in over his shoulder, Licht clucked his tongue. "Looks like a fight."

 "But why?!" Hyde asked in disbelief. 

 "Who cares!" Licht darted in around him, his fists raised. "Let's go!"

 Dropping the tray and ignoring the little loafs that scattered across the floor, Hyde grabbed the back of Licht's sweater. "Hey, hey! Hold it right there, little angel!" As Licht tugged half-heartedly against his hold, he frowned. "Now, what the hell is going on? I was only gone half an hour."

 "Is that all?" Lily asked brightly, though the tense way he smiled belied his nerves. "My, it seemed like at least two hours."

 Hyde shot him a confused look before dragging Licht farther into the room and depositing him in an empty chair. "Someone, preferably someone NOT drunk, tell me what's going on."

 No one seemed willing to own up and as Hyde stared them down in perturbed silence Mahiru sighed and dropped his hand from Kuro's shoulder. He wanted dearly to shelve this whole situation until the morning, but one look at the diamond cut of Kuro's shoulders and the roiling sea of heavy rage in Ildio's eyes he was forced to admit that, once again, ignoring it would only exacerbate the problem. "Er, well. We were.... discussing." Misono snorted violently into his tea but Mahiru grimaced, refusing to acknowledge him, and pressed on. "Things. And now it's time that every one be honest and say how they feel." He glanced pointedly at Kuro but he only ducked down, hiding behind his collar.

 "I see. And what exactly were you discussing?"

 Lily gestured vaguely. "Oh, you know. The past."

 Hyde's expression dropped and he sat next to Licht with a heavy exhale. "I see." 

 "We were not!" Ildio shouted, banging a fist on the table. "This guy just flew off the handle for no reason and I-!"

 "I did not." Kuro muttered darkly, staring down at the floor, arms shaking from his rigid posture.

 Hyde gave Kuro a sympathetic look and sighed, letting his head fall to the side in defeat. "Ok, ok. I get it. Ildio, sit the fuck down, will you?" After Ildio, surprisingly, did as he asked, Hyde steepled his fingers and flicked his gaze to Mahiru over them. "Ok, Mahiru. You're the only one with any sense at the moment, so tell me. What shall we do?"

 "Me?!" He exclaimed, pointing at himself. "Why are you asking me?"

 "Like he said, he thinks you have any sense." Kuro mumbled next to him. "Shows he doesn't know you very well." 

 Glaring, Mahiru brought his fist down on Kuro's head. "Shut it! This is your fault! Take a seat!" He waited until Kuro had huddled down in his chair before sitting himself. "Well? Why don't you explain why you lost your mind just now?"

 Kuro turned a sulky look on him, his lips pursed in a way that almost had Mahiru smiling, but he kept a firm grip on his vexation and returned the stare until Kuro finally looked away. "Fine. Maybe, and this is up for debate, I've had too much to drink." He winced when Mairu kicked him under the table. "Ok, ok! I might be a little overly sensitive because-" He broke off, sighing in disgust. "Because I feel bad, ok?"

 "About what?" Mahiru prompted him, smiling small-y in encouragement.

 Kuro glared at him blackly, but straightened just a fraction and his voice came softer but clearer. "About everything."

 Hyde grinned, propping his chin in an upturned palm. "Oh hoho, everything~?"

 Mahiru shook his head disapprovingly but to his astonishment, Kuro rested his face in his hands and after an agonizing moment simply whispered, "Yes. Everything."

 Silence descended as everyone took in Kuro's hunched form, Lily frowning sadly, Ildio fidgeting uncomfortably; only Hyde seemed at ease, grinning away as though without a care in the world. "There! See, Ildio? We've all learned a valuable lesson. Say your bit so we can get this over with and have garlic bread."

 Ildio opened his mouth, gaze flying to Hyde, but he only stared for a moment before smacking a palm against his forehead. "Oh, give me a friggin' break! This is just bizarre!" He stood up and reached across the table, grabbing Kuro's hood and pulling him upright. "Get over yourself! No one cares any more. If you've got Hyde on your side, then you can count me in!" When Kuro frowned pensively, Ildio growled impatiently, releasing his hold. "If you have to, I can give you five minutes to tell me why you up and disappeared. Five minutes."

 A shade of a smile flirted across Kuro's face and he closed his eyes. "Like I've been forced to say a thousand times already, it was to keep you all safe. And out of prison."

 Ildio raised a brow in confusion and Hyde rolled a hand through the air nonchalantly. "He made a deal with that two-timing tramp Tsurugi. He agreed to work undercover for that scum sucking, so-called organization in exchange for us to go free on our merry little ways." His tone was bitter and resigned, but finally Mahiru could hear that it was directed simply at the way they had been double crossed and taken advantage of, and not at Kuro for his dubious choices.

 "What the fuck do you mean?" Ildio asked, rounding on Hyde.

 He sighed wearily. "Ildio, haven't you ever found it the least bit curious that you just up and wandered off, got a job, lived somewhere, left the country even, and it was all fine? Didn't you think that perhaps it was a bit odd that no one ever came looking for you? No one ever flagged your ID, no one ever arrested you? We were the main support of an international drug cartel. That kind of thing isn't just forgiven."

 Ildio seemed to digest this new information for a moment, ignoring the way Niccolo was staring at him with frightening intensity. "I thought I was just-"

 "You are not that good at hiding." Hyde interrupted him flatly.

 "So, this whole time, you've been working for them? Then that night, after.... after. When you didn't come home?"

 Kuro sighed wearily. "I was already on a plane to a safe hold for briefing. I wanted to tell you but- I couldn't. They were non negotiable stipulations."

 His face scrunching up, Ildio ran a hand through his hair. "Well, shit."

 "Indeed." Lily agreed amicably. "It's been quite the ride these last few years, hasn't it?"

 "And what's your story? Actually, how the fuck did we all end up here?"

 When it became obvious that Kuro was going to offer no further information, Lily took a sip of his stone cold coffee, pulling a face at the temperature. "Well you see, Kuro was not the only one to take to the other side of the law. I just happened to find myself much more comfortably situated." He pointed to Misono, now trying valiantly not to fall asleep, and smiled softly. "I made quite the friend. When I realized what Kuro was doing, after a fortuitous little run in with him one day, I asked Misono to help me do what I could to take Tsubaki out. I had wanted to from the beginning, you see, but I suppose it was seeing Kuro again after all those years that finally gave me the push I needed." Kuro glanced at him in shock but he gave no acknowledgment and continued on, spreading his hands. "So here we are!"

 "And the whole crew is here because?"

 "Oh! I recruited them, of course."

 "Of course." Ildio repeated hollowly. "For fucks sake, Lily."

 He laughed lightly. "There you have it, Ildio. So, what do you say?"

 Ildio peered around the table, pausing here and there, on Hyde, sitting relaxed, and Mahiru, doing his best to appear competent and like he knew what he was doing. When he'd come full circle, his eyes resting once again on Niccolo, he crossed his arms and frowned. "I know what I want to say. But I'm not sure I can."

 Mahiru was just trying to formulate some kind of speech, something to convince Ildio to help them, when Niccolo surprised him by leaning forward against the table, his hair sweeping over and around his shoulders like a living cape. "There's only one answer, you know it as well as I do. Let's just hope we get out of this in one piece so we can still take that trip through Switzerland." When Ildio raised his brows in question, Niccolo began tapping a finger against the chairs armrest nervously. "Look, I'm just saying. It's the right thing to do. Isn't it?" He turned suddenly, eyes wide in question. "I think it is."

 Slapping a hand on his shoulder, Ildio grinned. "Yeah. It's the right thing."