It had been a quiet night at Sia la luce. After the usual dinner rush, the restaurant became near-empty due to the downpour outside- save for Cherry, who had arrived shortly after closing up his own shop for the evening and mooched a bottle of white wine off his partner- and Joe was actually able to send his employees home early. Upon the official closing time, Joe had every table and chair wiped down and all of his dishes and utensils washed and put away. Cherry was finishing up his second glass of wine, looking much more relaxed than Joe had seen him in quite some time. The other man had finally been let loose from his wheelchair confinement and had been given a clean bill of health from his doctor almost two weeks earlier, and he had hopped back on his skateboard the moment he was allowed.
Now, Joe was ushering his partner out the door, eager to get home and hit the hay a few hours early. There was no ‘S’ that night, and the restaurant was having a late opening the next day. Joe and Cherry would have plenty of time to cuddle up to one another- not that Cherry would ever admit to ‘cuddling up’ with anyone, god forbid his own partner- and sleep-in to their hearts’ content.
Cherry chuckled and made a sly joke about Joe being in a rush to get somewhere, but Joe was too tired to fight back. Cherry, after knowing the other man for so many years, allowed a comfortable silence to lapse between them when he realized just how exhausted Joe was. Running a restaurant- even a small one- was not an easy task. Not to mention that the couple had been going to ‘S’ more often than not in order to oversee the boys and make sure they weren’t getting into trouble, which led to one too many a late nights.
The downpour from earlier had yet to ease up, so Cherry held his umbrella above his and Joe’s heads as his partner locked up the front door. His back turned to the street, Joe hadn’t noticed the figure- hood pulled over their head, slouching forward, staring down at their feet- until Cherry said, “Sorry, but we’re closed for the… Reki?”
It definitely wasn’t rare for any one of the boys to show up at Sia la luce randomly after-hours- and traditionally Joe would still be locking up and welcome them in- but Joe had been rather certain that Reki was spending the night with his parents. The boy had been bouncing up and down with excitement at having dinner with his entire family that night- apparently his father worked a lot and was out on business trips often.
However, sure enough, when Joe turned around to see the figure that Cherry had called out to, he saw Reki’s signature red hair sticking out from under his hood. The boy’s face was obscured by his bangs, his chin tilted downwards so that Joe couldn’t see his eyes. But it was the state of the boy’s body that had Joe growing concerned.
Reki was slouched over, his hands shoved into the pockets of his hoodie. His shoulders were shaking, and he was completely drenched.
“You’re soaked to the bone,” Cherry murmured as he moved the umbrella away from Joe and over to shield the shivering boy from the harsh weather. Joe huffed a bit but couldn’t really be bothered about getting wet- not when Reki was so visibly uncomfortable.
Cherry reached out a delicate hand as if to brush Reki’s bangs aside, but at the man’s motion, Reki’s entire body lurched in a violent flinch.
Something cold rose up in Joe’s chest, his stomach growing uneasy.
“Kid?” Joe called out to Reki, blinking away the droplets of water that fought to obscure his vision. “Reki, what’s going on?”
Reki’s shivers only worsened, and Cherry- choreographing his motions slow and wide, as to allow the teenager time to reject the movement- wrapped an arm around the boy’s upper back, squeezing tight. Rather than flinch away again, Reki seemed to melt into the touch. The teen laid his head down against Cherry’s shoulder, and Joe was startled to hear a broken sob rush from the boy’s lips. It was obviously an unbidden noise, one that ripped itself up out of the child’s very soul, and it nearly crushed Joe under its weight.
“Oh, Reki,” Cherry crooned, stroking the boy’s bangs back from his face.
And… the sight of Reki’s face.
It had Joe’s uneasy stomach nearly upending itself, and the coldness in his chest quickly turned into an ice-cold knife stabbing away at his heart.
Reki’s bottom lip was split and quickly scabbing, and his nose was sluggishly bleeding. There was a harsh red mark over his cheekbone- complete with about an inch of split, bloody skin- that Joe knew would turn a sickening black and blue over the next few days, and the boy’s eye was beginning to swell under it.
“Reki,” Joe croaked out, moving to be under the umbrella and clasp his hand gently over the teen’s wrist. “What hap-” But when the man’s hand touched Reki’s arm, the boy hissed in pain, wincing backwards. Joe looked down at his wrist, but was unable to see the extent of whatever damage lay beneath Reki’s sleeve. Swallowing his rising bile, Joe spoke calmly, “Let’s get back to the apartment; we’ve got a first aid kit.”
Cherry voiced his agreement, and Reki nodded wordlessly.
It was a tight fit with three of them huddling under the umbrella, and Joe was momentarily worried about Reki’s possible reaction to being pressed so closely to the two men, but Reki’s posture seemed only to relax when Joe pressed up against his left, Cherry to his right. Joe slung an arm around Reki’s shoulders, his hand coming to rest on the back of Cherry’s neck, and Cherry still had his arm wrapped tightly around Reki’s back. Yes, it was a tight fit, and the rain seemed to be splashing more on Joe’s face and neck than should be possible with an umbrella above him, but he was much more concerned about how Reki was slightly limping over the sidewalk- not to mention how cold Reki’s body felt beneath his soaked hoodie.
The walk to the apartment was blessedly short; Joe had made it a point to find an apartment within walking distance of the restaurant when he first opened it up, and Cherry didn’t seem to mind having to ride his motorcycle to his shop most days. Opening up the front door, Joe held it open a crack and urged Reki and Cherry inside, slipping in behind them with no little ease as he tried to keep the rain from getting the flooring too damp.
By the time Joe had taken off his shoes and shaken most of the raindrops from his hair, Cherry had already grabbed a pair of towels from the bathroom and settled them on the couch for Reki to sit on. “Kojiro will get you a change of clothes,” Cherry reassured the boy. When Reki blushed and opened his mouth to protest, Cherry shushed him. “I’ll go ready some tea, and then we can talk, yes?”
Reki’s jaw snapped shut with such force that it made Joe wince. Mutely, the boy nodded, and then went back to slumping into himself and staring at his feet.
Cherry exchanged a worried glance with his partner, and Joe tried to muster up the courage to smile reassuringly, but he must have fallen short because Cherry only pursed his lips and looked more concerned. Sighing in defeat, Joe made his way over to their bedroom, rummaging through the dresser for clean clothes. With what Reki normally wore, the man figured he’d prefer one of Joe’s large hoodies to one of Cherry’s yukatas. Grabbing up his softest hoodie- a light pink color that Joe had certainly not bought because it reminded him of someone’s long, sakura-colored hair- and a pair of Cherry’s sweatpants (Cherry was must closer to Reki’s build, and Joe’s sweatpants would have just fallen right off the teen) Joe walked back into the living room and handed them over to Reki.
The boy hesitated at first, but at Joe’s coaxing, he took the clothes in a shaking hand and excused himself to go change in the bathroom.
“Kojiro…” Cherry’s voice called out to him from the kitchen.
“Hm?” Joe mumbled back, staring at the door to the restroom. Reki had locked it tight and tested the knob to make sure it would stay that way, and Joe couldn’t help but feel concerned about the action.
“Kojiro,” Cherry called again, a bit more firmly.
Wrenching his eyes away from the door, Joe sighed and walked into the kitchen. “Yeah?” he grumbled, earning a swat to the shoulder.
“Don’t huff at me,” Cherry chided his partner. After a pause, Cherry lowered his voice and asked the inevitable question, “What do you think…?”
Something was nagging at the back of Joe’s mind. Something to do with the dinner Reki was supposed to have with his family. Maybe the boy had gotten into an argument with his parents? Maybe he’d run off and gotten himself jumped on his way to Sia la luce? Then again, the fear on Reki’s face when Cherry had first reached out to him and the boy’s uncharacteristic silence throughout their walk to the apartment spoke volumes. Volumes that Joe really, really didn’t want to consider.
But Reki was just a kid. A kid that, no matter how much Joe tried to tell himself he wasn’t responsible for, had wormed his way into the man’s heart. Joe felt a fierce protectiveness over all of his friends and family, but over the three boys in his life most especially. And Reki- precious Reki, so old of soul and yet so young of heart- reminded Joe so much of a younger Cherry. Back before ‘Cherry Blossom’, Kaoru had been an anxious and self-deprecating youth as well. Reki was much more cheerful than Kaoru had been, but he definitely held the same amount of soul-crushing self-hatred that Kaoru had back then. Reki made off-handed comments much too often about how Joe and Cherry were wasting their time on him, that Langa and Miya were the ‘real’ skaters, that Reki was just an annoying, bothersome brat that they shouldn’t have to deal with.
Of course, Cherry and Joe were quick to negate those thoughts and feelings, as were Shadow, Miya, and- of course- Langa, but it didn’t change the fact that Reki’s brain was still hardwired to function on those depressive wavelengths.
It would take time and lots of tender, loving care to get the boy to see himself the way his friends saw him.
“Kojiro?” Cherry murmured, lightly patting his partner’s cheek and drawing Joe’s attention back to the present before going to repeat himself. “What do you think-”
But then the bathroom door was opening, and Cherry was quickly removing his hand from Joe’s face, hiding any sign of affection he may have for his partner. Joe rolled his eyes, and Cherry glared at him, but neither said anything in favor of toting three mugs of green tea and the accompanying kettle of hot water into the living room.
Reki had brought one of the towels on the couch up to dry his hair, and the motion had the sleeve of his borrowed hoodie falling down a few inches. Joe’s eyes tracked the blistering red handprint on the teenager’s wrist, and the cold feeling in his chest started giving way to a boiling rage.
“Who did this to you?” Joe only barely managed to ask normally, fighting back the snarl that was building in his chest. Cherry could clearly sense that his partner was growing angry, though, and shot him a fierce glare as he sat down next to Reki.
Reki was quiet. Silent, really. He didn’t make a peep as Cherry leaned forward and handed him a mug of tea. Oddly enough, the boy didn’t even say ‘thank you’. He nodded his appreciation, but Joe found the lack of the bright, cheerful ‘thanks!’ that the teen normally spouted to be severely unsettling.
Allowing Reki time to gather his thoughts, Cherry sipped away at his tea. Joe took the hint and left the room to gather the aforementioned first aid kit.
Coming back into the living room, Joe crouched in front of the couch and coaxed Reki into lifting his face up enough so that he could dress the cut to the boy’s cheekbone. The split lip he couldn’t do much about, and the bloody nose had dried up during their short walk. But Joe put a butterfly bandage over the split skin of Reki’s cheek, handing the boy an icepack to hold up to his swollen eye.
“Can I see your wrist?” Joe asked, upset and yet not surprised when Reki winced. “I just wanna make sure nothing’s broken, kid.” And then, as an afterthought: “Please.”
Slowly, Reki acquiesced. His hand was shaking as he offered it over to Joe, and the man took Reki’s wrist as gently as he could in his grasp, pushing the boy’s sleeve up to get a better look at the handprint bruises.
Cherry ‘tsk’ed at the markings, looking more upset than Joe had seen him in a while. Mimicking his actions from earlier, Cherry wrapped an arm around Reki’s back, tugging the boy in for a gentle hug. It made Joe have to turn his face down so his partner couldn’t see his fond smirk. For all that the man teased Joe about being too affectionate, Cherry sure was an tender softy when it came to the kids.
After Joe announced that Reki’s wrist wasn’t broken- likely just sprained- and had wrapped it up with athletic tape, he moved on to the boy’s ankle. Fortunately, it wasn’t too terribly sprained, and would likely not even need bandaging so long as Reki didn’t put pressure on it for a few days.
When Joe sat back on his heels, sharing another look with his partner, Cherry cleared his throat.
“Reki…” the shorter man spoke slowly, clearly trying to not sound accusing or threatening. “Unfortunately, I must insist you tell us how you’ve received these injuries.”
Clearly the teenager wanted to object, but it took a mere raised eyebrow from Cherry before the boy was relenting.
“I… I had dinner with my parents tonight,” Reki croaked out. “Koyomi’s at a sleepover and the twins and my grandma were already in bed… I’d come home late from Langa’s, but my parents waited on me…” A biting silence filled the air. Reki’s pause was full of anxiety, twisting in the air and making Joe’s stomach knot up. “I…” Reki started slowly. “I came out to my dad… He- he wasn’t… happy.”
The puzzle pieces came together quickly, forming a grotesque picture that Joe didn’t want to see. He grit his teeth, fighting back the bubbling rage that built up in his chest. Cherry made an affronted noise at Reki’s admission, and his grip on the boy’s shoulders tightened.
Joe took in a deep breath through his nose, closing his eyes as he let it out through his mouth slowly. Blinking up at the bruised teenager before him, the man reached for confirmation. “Your dad did this to you?”
“…yes,” Reki’s voice cracked. And then, to Joe’s abject rage, tears welled up and started falling down the teenager’s cheeks. “I- I told him that- that Langa and I were d-dating,” Reki choked out, his shoulders shaking once more. “I- I thought he’d be h-h-happy for me…” the teenager sobbed, his hands going to grab at his knees, fists bundling up the fabric of his sweats as he cried. “W-Why does he h-hate me?”
Cherry’s own voice sounded rather close to tears when he whispered, “Oh, Reki…” The man pulled the boy to his chest, dropping a kiss to the crown of Reki’s head as his free hand came up to card through the teen’s damp hair. “Reki…”
Joe felt the urge to say something along the lines of ‘I’m sure he doesn’t hate you’, or ‘He’ll come to his senses’, but his gut was telling him not to lie. From the scene lying before him, from the bruises and blood marring Reki’s skin, Joe knew he couldn’t reassure Reki with empty promises. So instead, he leaned forward and pressed his lips gently to the teenager’s temple.
A sob louder and more violent than all the others wrenched its way from Reki’s chest, and then he was wrapping his hands up in Joe’s shirt, leaning forward and burrowing his face in the man’s shoulder. Snot and tears ran freely down the boy’s face, getting Joe’s shirt all kinds of messy, but the man couldn’t find an ounce of concern about that amid the sea of worry he was currently feeling for the boy before him. Wrapping his arms around Reki, Joe hunched over the boy as if to shield him from the world. Cherry leaned forward as well, his arms and hands leeching onto his partner and the child who wasn’t theirs (but felt so deeply important to their little family).
“I-I d-don’t know what to d-do-” Reki moaned into Joe’s shoulder. “I l-l-love Langa, but- but I can’t- he t-told me not to c-come back,” the boy sobbed. “My dad, he- he told me not to come b-back until I’d f-fixed myself.”
Fucking bullshit, Joe wanted to shout. Your dad’s a right fucking bastard, Reki. But instead, the man simply spouted, “That’s bullshit, Reki. There’s nothing about you that needs to be fixed. You know that, right, kid?”
Reki was quiet, which told Joe all he needed to know.
Cherry sighed loudly, nestling his chin over Reki’s shoulder to speak dulcetly into the boy’s ear. “There is nothing wrong with you, Reki Kyan. Nothing.”
Joe nodded his agreement. “Reki, kid, you’re bright. You’re so bright, like the sun. You’re creative and brilliant and wickedly skilled. But more than that, Reki, you are so, so incredibly loved. Maybe your dad can’t show it- not right now- but we love you, Reki. You’ve gotta know that, kid. And if you don’t…” Joe pressed either of his hands to Reki’s cheeks, lifting the boy’s face up so that he was staring into the teen’s amber eyes. “Well, if you don’t know it yet, I’ll keep reminding you until you do. Okay?”
Sniffling madly, Reki nodded against Joe’s hands. “O-Okay, J-Joe,” he giggled wetly. “Didn’t take you for the s-softy…”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up!” the man teased right back, ruffling Reki’s hair before pressing one last kiss to the boy’s forehead.
Reki giggled for a few minutes more. Joe caught Cherry’s eye, the two exchanging small, hopeful smiles.
But then, Reki’s giggles died off. His voice tense, the teen asked, “What now? I… I can’t go back home… Not while he’s so angry… And- and where will I go? I’ve still got a year before I graduate and can find a job and an apartment, but he made it pretty clear I can’t come back home, but I’m not breaking up with Langa because I- I love him and I-”
Reki’s breath was picking up, panic clearly beginning to form, but before Joe could speak up to reassure the teen, Cherry was saying, “You’ll stay with us, of course.”
Joe’s jaw went slack as his eyes flashed over to his partner, and Reki mimicked the expression as he stared up at Cherry in awe. Cherry’s expression was nonchalant, but his voice was no-nonsense as he continued on. “We have a free room, and you already hang around us more than your parents,” Cherry droned on, taking a sip of his tea before continuing. “Of course, Kojiro and Hiromi will escort you to gather your things, and I can speak with your mother about making arrangements for you to see your sisters and grandmother, should you wish. Your father, however…” Cherry’s nonchalant voice suddenly grew very grave, and his golden eyes fixated on Reki with a sort of fierce protectiveness that Joe rarely saw from him. “Should your father choose to be stupid enough to show his face or attempt to harm you in any way, shape, or form at any point in the future- well, I would loathe to go up against three angry, athletic men myself, especially one as wild as this gorilla.”
Joe rolled his eyes, but didn’t protest as the words seemed to have a calming affect on Reki. “Not to mention,” Joe droned on, “that two certain teenagers would be pretty pissed, too. And nobody wants to be on Miya’s badside…”
Cherry nodded in mock seriousness. “That is very true. The boy has a likeness to a rabid racoon thrown into a cold shower when he’s angry.”
Reki threw his head back and gave the men a real laugh for the first time that night, which sent a wave of relief washing over the couple. “More like a fluffed-up kitten!”
Then, through his giggles, the teenager yawned. Joe shared a secretive smile with Cherry, who inclined his head towards the guestroom.
“C’mon, kid,” Joe said as he stood, cracking his back and popping his neck. “Let’s get you set up for the night.”
Stifling another yawn behind his hand, Reki allowed himself to be pulled up off the couch and led over to the free bedroom. Joe gave the teenager toiletries and towels and told him to feel free to sleep in the following morning. Reki blushed and bowed his head, verbally exclaiming his gratefulness to the man. Joe waved him off and ruffled his hair, making Reki stick out his tongue in retaliation.
“No thanks necessary, kid,” Joe told the boy. “It’s what fa- friends do, right?”
Family, Joe had wanted to say. But that was too close to home after everything Reki had been through that night, so Joe would save the sentiment for another day.
Once Reki was tucked in- exhausted and quick to fall asleep- Joe made his way back into the living room. Cherry was nowhere to be found, but the teacups, towels, and first aid kit had been cleaned up, so Joe meandered towards their bedroom.
Cherry had changed into his night robes and was settled on the bed with his legs crossed. His hair was pulled out of its low ponytail and was laid out on his shoulder as the man ran a brush through it. Joe hummed, getting changed into his own pajamas, before going to sit behind Cherry. Gently wrestling the brush from his partner’s hand, Joe tugged Cherry’s hair back over his shoulder, watching it cascade down the other man’s lithe back. For a minute, Joe just stared at the pink strands, watching them shine in the dim moonlight that filtered in through the window. Then, he began to brush out the few knots that Cherry hadn’t gotten to. Cherry leaned back into Joe’s touch, humming contentedly.
Joe wanted to ask if Cherry thought Reki was going to be okay. He wanted to ask what would happen next. Would they contact the police about Reki’s injuries? Would they try and press charges against the boy’s father? Not to forget, how could they care for a teenager when they themselves were still so immature? Sure, they were older than the boy, but Joe and Cherry were still so young in comparison to Reki’s biological parents. They had no experience in parenting, so how were they going to do this?
Then again, they’d been helping the boys along for the better part of a year. Joe gave Reki advice and taught Langa new skating tricks. Cherry helped Miya with homework and tutored all three boys in their studies. Hell, Joe and Cherry had sat Reki and Langa down for the talk when the two had finally admitted to dating. (It had been a somewhat hilarious experience, if not a time that Joe didn’t really want to ever have to repeat.)
Sure, they weren’t going to ever be Reki’s real parents, but what Joe had said to the boy still held truth.
“We love you, Reki.”
And it was true. Joe had never thought he’d feel such paternal instinct rise up in his chest, but all three of their boys had managed to wrangle the feelings out of him.
Finishing up with Cherry’s hair, Joe set the brush aside and laid down in bed, taking in a deep sigh as the events of the night replayed in his mind. Cherry hummed softly, lying down with his head on Joe’s chest, his hand tracing shapes into the man’s firm chest. Curling into his partner, Joe allowed Cherry’s warmth to seep into him and finally grant himself the relaxation he so required after such a long day.
Humming a soft tune, Joe’s eyes flitted over to stare out the window into the moonlight. And he realized, with a small smile, that the rain was finally letting up.