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"I'm surprised those haven't killed him yet," Seimei said, to the back of Ritsuka's head.

The cigarettes slipped from Ritsuka's fingers. It was 17:43, Friday, dwindling clouds, at the FamilyMart over Kanayama station; Seimei had plucked this weekly stop from the records for Soubi's IC card. It had been years since they had crossed paths. Seimei noted, with a relief he hadn't realized he was waiting for, that Ritsuka and Soubi still didn't dovetail like a real unit: they collided as they turned. Soubi then stepped on Ritsuka's tail in their mutual haste to get in front.

Soubi recovered first. "He's dangerous," he said, seizing Ritsuka's jacket. With apparent reluctance, "He is alone, but he's influencing someone—"

"The cashier, unless Ritsuka would like an audience—"

Ritsuka said, "It's okay, Soubi. He's here for me." He unhooked Soubi's fist. "Aren't you? Seimei?"

"Come here, Ritsuka. I was afraid I'd never see you again. Didn't you miss me?"

He smiled into the pause. He didn't crook his finger; Ritsuka was like him, however much he wouldn't like to hear it.

Seimei's height still eluded him, but Ritsuka was sharpening. The youthful roundness was ebbing from their shared bones. His face, cupped around deep-well eyes: the lone value in Misaki, other than as a bludgeon Seimei could protect Ritsuka from. Ritsuka's tail hung high and motionless, like Seimei's, when he was thinking. Seimei let Ritsuka look back at him, at the mirror of their bodies, at the only person who had loved him without condition all through the decade he was helpless.

"Did you fear I stopped loving you?" Seimei asked, and let Ritsuka decide that, after everything, an abiding sentiment was enough to go on.

"Seimei," Ritsuka said, "how could you leave us like that—I thought you didn't need us any more—" and he tucked his chin down and hugged Seimei under the harsh fluorescent lights of the candy aisle.

"Always," Seimei said. To seal it, he added, "I'm sorry."

Ritsuka's ears softened. Seimei was folding and unfolding the furred cartilage when he registered Soubi staring, his tension obvious in the rigidity of his jaw. Someone had done a number on Soubi's carefully trained reticence; Seimei suspected the stubborn skull under his fingers. Well. Seimei had Ritsuka. To expect a beast to hide a distress Seimei himself had implanted—that would be too much, he admitted, after his neglect. His fighter had his uses. He could always be dragged back into the fold. "I love you," Seimei said, to Ritsuka.

Neither of them spoke to Soubi. Ritsuka was still pressed pliantly against Seimei when he uncurled a hand, from Seimei's waist, to hover in the air. Soubi exhaled. One of his hands clasped Ritsuka's. Soubi met Seimei's glare gamely: Ritsuka as good as ordered me, said that tipped shoulder.

Seimei had cut the loose ends before returning to Ritsuka, of course. But here was one that remained.

 


 

The last of the Agatsuma money had bought Ritsuka an airy apartment by the canal. In the morning, the triple blows of summer sun, reflection, and canvases, uniform in their primed white, verged on blinding. Seimei gently detached Ritsuka's best remora impression, stalked over to Soubi—whose face was pinched like he'd slept either two hours or three days—and hissed, "Stop that."

Soubi intoned Darkness balances mid-flip of his salmon. Despite his distraction, he gave the spell a flair; squares of shade checkerboarded the room. Touches of Ritsuka snapped into view in the posters, scattering of cartridges and plushies, and furtive crumbs. Seimei quashed an impulse to thank Soubi. Manners were for strangers, not dogsbodies with your name beneath their skin.

He Googled "innocent sibling activities near kanayama". The aquarium, he thought, for the day. He had always liked fish: the mute and luminous flashes of their lives, the long twitches as they died.

"Wait here," he told Soubi. "Or in class, if you haven't managed to graduate yet, I don't care. Do take those canvases with you; Ritsuka should be surrounded by beautiful things."

"Yes," said Soubi.

"He's never been to an aquarium before," Ritsuka said. His tail lashed.

"I... have missed you, master," Soubi said.

Not yet, Seimei thought. He caught Soubi's neck. A hard push braced him against the cabinets. "Have you?" he said. A throbbing lie demanded a righting.

Ritsuka was shouting Leave him alone; how could his Ritsuka so lamentably want his fighter without understanding how he ticked? Color was flowering across Soubi's cheeks and the scars thrummed warmly beneath Seimei's palm. Soubi was clearly hard, although he had the grace to tilt his flank away. His lips parted, and stayed there, as though he had suddenly recalled to whom he was about to mouth off. An answer crept up on Seimei. What need to sever their bond—to draw it taut and crack it, like a sugar rope—when he could mold it to his yen?

"Perhaps it's better if you come," Seimei said, "in case the sharks get any ideas." He released his hold.

Seimei watched Ritsuka watch the fish, intercepting his hand whenever Ritsuka made to touch the glass. Ritsuka split a cone with Seimei, then bolted down another on his own. Seimei had, he remembered, ordered Soubi to cook greens, roots, mackerel—the vaunted foods of longevity. An accidental foresight. He'd set himself up as an indulgence.

Soubi kept at a distance, but even in the dawdling crowd he couldn't miss Soubi's height or the long screen of hair. He could feel Soubi's wary presence, even at his back. Did scarecrows never tire?

 


 

Seimei had possibly overdone it when he told Ritsuka to Relax. Ritsuka was yawning.

"Sei-mei," Ritsuka murmured, tugging the blankets back up. Seimei had only wanted to look. Daytime Ritsuka could be shy and slippery, and unwilling to hear he was beautiful. "Are you still here?"

"Now, and always." For the ordinary animals saying something didn't make it true, but for Seimei the world could—twist.

"Why are you back?" Ritsuka must have noticed how his question landed, for he hurriedly added, "Now, I mean. Why didn't you come back earlier?"

"I found someone I was waiting for," Seimei said. "They can't trouble us any longer."

Ritsuka yawned again. "Nisei?"

"Were you worried, Ritsuka? Don't be. It was no one you knew." A smile lodged on Seimei's face, gauze-thin. He'd enjoyed the hunt less, to his annoyance, than the finality of succeeding at it: in the end he'd mostly felt tired when he struck his fear in the blood and flesh. It had been like crushing a lawsuit. Fate had judged Ritsuka: no other claimants. "No one you need to know."

 


 

Seimei dropped Ritsuka off at school. Then he took to the apartment roof.

"But you wouldn't feel like this about me," Soubi was saying on the recording, "if I didn't want to kiss you, Ritsuka."

Seimei had heard it before, of course. He'd had the apartment bugged since the freezing day Ritsuka first moved in—but he had merely skimmed for unforgivable acts. Until Seimei was ready, he had treated Ritsuka like a wrapped present, and the fighter the protective box.

"I'd like you better, dummy!"

"Maybe so," said Soubi, and he was laughing. "But you wouldn't do this."

A protesting squeak of the mattress, and the soft whuff of a thrown comforter and sheaf of paper. The thwack of Soubi's body falling on Ritsuka's. There was less of spindly-built Soubi than one might expect from his freakish height, but certainly enough to crowd Soubi's chest into Ritsuka's. Seimei could imagine Soubi's wide, vacant eyes so close Ritsuka risked poking them with his nose. Seimei didn't; he could as pleasurably infect himself with a worm.

Ritsuka shoving Soubi. Soubi's coat muffling Ritsuka's "Hey!", but the unmistakable thud of Soubi's legs landing on the floor. Ritsuka muttering about Not letting me use your bed like a normal person, Will that homework meet a pot of coffee, Ito-sensei already loves you. Asking to be hit, although no such sound followed. And You don't need to pretend for me, Soubi. I know I don't understand, but it's not like we're racing the bell. I'm not worried. I'm serious, okay? You're okay?

Ritsuka growing, somehow, into the new Ritsuka under Soubi's care, as slowly and piecemeal as Soubi had grown into an altered Soubi.

Seimei removed his headphones. Ritsuka might eventually train Soubi to act like a human being—like Ritsuka himself, really. But Soubi's fault lines were still obvious.

And Seimei had the trump card. It was only that he wanted an understanding with Soubi before playing it. He summoned him with a jerk of the fighter bond; the indelicacy of it would reopen the collar of scars. An unsubtle reminder would put Soubi in the right frame of mind.

A fighter could bear one name, and he would bear it forever.

"You are the fighter for Beloved," Seimei said. Soubi had knelt as soon as he climbed through the rooftop door; but his lashes stayed up. Soubi regarded Seimei with all the jagged luster of the city below glittering in his eyes. The wind sliced his hair into tendrils of gold; Seimei, who had planned to be looking elsewhere to make a point, found himself drawn in. "Even a blank like you has had long enough to think about it. Tell me about my name."

"You need no one to survive other than those who love you," Soubi said, slowly. "And we who love you will always love you, however you respond to us. Doors have always opened for you because you are loved. In my gaze, everything about you is a torch aflame, a lacerating light. A spirit that glows under your own power. You—are a god unto yourself."

"Now tell me about Loveless."

"Please don't ask me," Soubi whispered.

It was gratifying how he had wilted and rocked back at the name, but not Seimei's primary intent. He stepped forward, bracketed the space before Soubi's knees between his feet. "Your name has been written, and I am your sacrifice. Tell me. Tell me the truth."

"Fate has given Loveless no one but himself. Loveless can't rely on the whims of others. He must become braver than anyone, because he must choose to fight for everything he cherishes. Ritsuka—the name comes between us—" The words were dredged up, as if from a deep well. "I love Ritsuka. I wish... I could be enough for him."

"Don't you think my love is all he needs?"

Soubi's head bowed. "Your love is all he needs."

"Don't just parrot my words back at me. I've changed, too, in my time away," Seimei said, resting one fingertip on the sleek roots of Soubi's hair. "I may not abandon you yet. I want to know what's obeying me, Soubi, and that line was transparently unfinished."

"He wants me to stay," Soubi said. "It's been so hard for him to keep what he wants—" One could almost miss the reproof in that voice, frailer than china. "I would wear both your names if I could."

"You cannot," Seimei said. He nudged his heel over to one of Soubi's spread hands and ground deliberately into the thumb until Soubi cried out. "Be quiet," he said, and Soubi looked back up. Pain focused Soubi in proportion to his owner's quality of aim. "You are the fighter for Beloved. You love Ritsuka. Don't you agree it's an excellent thing, then, that Loveless is not and will never be written anywhere on Ritsuka's body?"

 


 

Ritsuka sat—perched—next to him on the sofa. The tension would eat his spine someday. "Seimei?"

"Ritsuka?"

"I have a question."

Seimei touched Ritsuka's cheek. Soubi, who'd never appreciated the evening rains, was hunched by the balcony, idly flipping a pack of Seven Stars. Sometimes the apartment was too small, for all its glass. "I would give you anything."

"I don't need everything!" Tone aggrieved, with fuse unapparent, until he said, "It was just... I was thinking. About that boy you set on fire."

"He was a danger to you." Seimei heard Soubi breathe in. As a caution, he yanked at the bond.

"You... you killed him. In my classroom. And you crippled that pair who came after me when I was alone."

Seimei considered, and said, "Yes, Ritsuka. It was me. Why did you ask?"

"I... Soubi told me about them," Ritsuka said. Soubi had, evidently, been tender with him; Soubi was not as stupid as either brother liked to call him and kept the Septimal Moons' numbers in a notebook. He had surely figured out more of Seimei's work than that. "I didn't know if you would admit it."

"Would it matter to you? Whether I confessed to you—does that touch your heart? Happiness has a price. I love you and want you to be happy—but do you want to hear this, Ritsuka?"

"Yes!" Ritsuka huffed. He batted away Seimei's hand when he tried to stroke the flattened ears. "If I don't listen about before, how can I know if you'll do it again?"

"I swear to you," Seimei said, "never again."

He thought it would be true, on balance. There were no more loose ends.

Ritsuka stared into his eyes, as if he could detect anything Seimei hadn't broadcast. And then he said, very quietly, "Soubi? I'm trusting you."

There must have been some furtive signal on Soubi's face; Seimei read nothing from the shared glance, but Ritsuka shook himself out of it and nodded. Seimei offered his hand again, this time where Ritsuka would have to move himself to accept it. Ritsuka didn't. Ritsuka slid his fingers under Seimei's chin and his tail tickled Seimei's arm. "It's dumb of me to trust you," he said, and his words were tumbling out. "After you left, I practiced on the microwave. If that bastard shows up, bang the door. ... Or run out of the shop, whatever. I'd never, never see you again. You hurt Soubi so much. But I asked him yesterday, should we leave? Would you ever stop hurting him? And he said..."

Seimei held his tongue. For perhaps the first time in his life he had no idea where Ritsuka was leading. His heart was in mutiny, thump bmff thump.

"He said no. I hope not. As long as he hurts me, he means to keep me. I told Soubi he was sick. He said he loved you, and he had that look like sixteen questions in his head were waiting to be let out. And I said I was sick too, and..."

"I love you," Seimei said. Like a prompt. Ritsuka finally knew what it meant.

Ritsuka said, "I love you." His weight shifted, half on his toes, half on Seimei's thighs. Soubi hadn't pressed any real lessons on him, after all: Ritsuka's kiss was a damp smash onto Seimei's dimple, hair swinging between their eyes and lips like veils. Seimei brushed most of it aside and met him with every centimeter of guile he possessed: the act was new to him, but Ritsuka was not. He kissed Ritsuka's brow, and Ritsuka's nose, and Ritsuka's mouth.

"Set up the things in the bag," he ordered Soubi. Ritsuka opened his mouth again: so Seimei sealed it for him, over and over, as though he could subsist on that one breath.

 


 

"Let me give you my name," Seimei said, a little afterwards.

"None of us would be here if you could just give people names," Ritsuka said. But he clearly didn't believe it; he would need to learn to treat more carefully with the truth.

"I can. You have no name to unwrite, no bonds to unchain. Unless you don't want this one?" Uncanny how hating the very existence of a bond denied it from your hands. Ritsuka and Soubi's bond came easily to him, now. "I could tear this now like wet silk, but Beloved will strengthen it a thousand times over."

It was Soubi who lifted that narrow golden thread from him, and said, "Master."

He knelt as he held out the gloves, antiseptic, and tattoo gun. Seimei looked at that pale, alien, resigned face, wound his fingers through his hair and hauled him up. Having closed the gap, he regretted not deciding first what he intended; nothing to do, then, but to seize Soubi's mouth and bite it. In an instant the blood welled up. Seimei let go and spat, but Soubi looked frankly, disgustingly ecstatic.

Seimei took the things. "Where will it go?"

Ritsuka, halfway bared, pointed at his heart as if Seimei were an idiot. Soubi caught that hand and kissed it, leaving Ritsuka to struggle out of the rest of his shirt. The greater idiot.

"This name will stay with you unto death," Seimei said, and it couldn't have been truer if he had used force. He could hear his own voice falling away from his control: it had gone low and raw, with a queerly aching hope. "You will be Beloved. I will sink knives into their throat if you are betrayed by any you cross. You will set every space alight."

"Not the knives," said Ritsuka, crossing his arms. "But I will be Beloved—" This as if it could ring.

Magic had been lapping at Seimei all afternoon like a devoted sea. He said Come here and it coalesced around them, eddies and golden swells, silver on every strand of their tails. Not that it mattered to the ritual, but a name was only written once. Shouldn't Ritsuka remember it? The magic picked out where the bond-light would noose fast around their crooked shadows, all the rest of their lives, if he were willing.

Seimei thought Ritsuka had always been willing. Even if he had not always known.

"You don't choose the world you're born into," he said, "although I'm sure I'd choose Ritsuka every time. And if you could—look at Soubi. What would he choose? He doesn't want to choose between us. What did I do, to earn his devotion? I hacked a path through the woods of his mind and lit the trees on fire—

"But your choice, Ritsuka. That's everything. Will I always be good enough for you?"

Ritsuka said, "I love you."

Seimei began.