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Rabbits Playing in the Grass

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The sky was darkening over Berlin. Under the masterful strokes of purple and orange spilling and mixing over the white clouds, a blond man in a dark-grey suit walked out of a huge, glass-and-titanium building that shone imposingly under the crepuscular light. He loosened his tie with one hand while carrying his suitcase with the other.

"Oh, Mr. Wilhelm, you're leaving early. Good work today!"

"Mm, good work."

He answered nonchalantly to one of his co-workers, a young woman with dark red hair, who greeted him on her way into the building. He unlocked his car at the parking lot and climbed in, sighing after closing his door. For so long he lived under the alias of "Noiz", he still felt taken aback when called by his birth name. And he really only used it in his workplace or inside his family. He started the car, going home.

 


 

After a period of what his parents would call "juvenile rebellion", Noiz had returned to Germany. When he was fourteen, he escaped his family home and travelled to an online friend's house, in Japan; even as the distrustful brat he already was at that age, he was so desperate he ran away to what he had closest to a best friend, even if they had never met before. It was stupid and risky, he thinks now, but he wouldn't have done differently.

Mizuki and Noiz were fundamentally different; Mizuki was an easy-going guy of twenty-one at the time, and he had a sort of "gang", which participated in what he had called "Ribsteez". Noiz was an aloof teenager who spent most of his time playing online games, and had no interest in this thing Mizuki treasured so much—these familial ties between gang members and the fight for territory—but both of them managed to find some common ground and they respected each other. Mizuki was the first person to ever earn Noiz's respect, not by force nor authority like all the adults in his childhood, but by being honest and mindful of Noiz's feelings. He lived with Mizuki for a year, paying rent against Mizuki's protests, and then he got his own apartment, with the money he got from selling and trading items in games, as well as the collecting and selling of information, since he was a skilled hacker.

When Noiz was seventeen, his younger brother appeared in his apartment.

After three years, Theo had managed to track him down, and upon sight, the boy fell into his older brother's arms and bawled his eyes out. He was not at all thrown off by Noiz's appearance; be it his face covered in piercings or the clothes that would have made their old-fashioned parents cringe. Having calmed down, he asked Noiz to go back to Germany with him. It was really uncomfortable; Noiz truly loved his brother, but he was sick and tired of their parents' abuse. Different from him, Theo was raised honestly and affectionately; he was clearly their parents "favorite". But Noiz never resented him for it, because Theo had been the only one to care for him when they were children.

Noiz was the eldest son, the one to inherit the family company, and as to be expected, he was burdened with expectations, to which he fell short in his parents' eyes. Noiz was what people would call a "problem child".

As far as he could remember, his childhood was entirely comprised of adults looking down on him. He soon took pleasure in making them furious, purely out of spite. When the boy was nine, he was prohibited from going outside for "bringing shame to the family"; Noiz was secluded inside his room, even getting a mini-kitchen in addition to his own bathroom. Thus, he became a prisoner in his own home, in his own house, living in a gilded cage.

His father said he was being "grounded", but after four years of looking at the world through the metal bars in his window, he knew that wasn't how grounding worked. He cried the first couple of weeks, even screamed, occasionally hurting himself banging on the door or trying to escape, but soon he settled for what little freedom he had inside his room. Being imprisoned in that space with no entertainment aside from his computer, books and videogames had turned him into the self-taught computer genius he was now.

When he was grounded, he was also banned from frequenting school, so he started taking his classes at home; he would go from his "cage" to another room, where he'd study English, French, German and Japanese, as well as other basic subjects. He was taught fencing, judo, and to play the piano and the violin, too, because a man from the Adlersflügel family had to be, in his parents' words, "strong, intelligent and refined".

All of his teachers had absolutely hated him; he was obviously smart, but the number of occasions when he was willing to pay attention and dedicate himself to the lectures could be counted on one hand. Things got far enough that, when he was thirteen, he was slapped by his piano teacher. And then he spat on the old man's face and things only got uglier from there and he got a beating from his own father for the first time, leading to a broken arm and nose. He still remembered how his father said he wished he had never been born and that he was never leaving his room again, as Theo cried and yelled in the doorstep, trying to run in his big brother's aid but being held back by their mother. A few months after that, after many other slaps and punches from his father and much planning, Noiz left in the dead of the night.

"Brother, please reconsider!" Theo pleaded with his older brother. Standing in his living room, he was only a year older than Noiz was when he had left the manor.

"Theo, you know exactly how bad it was. I'm not going back there."

"Mother and father really regret everything they've done to you! When you left, mother cried so much-"

Noiz let out a dry, sardonic laugh. "The only reason they would be disturbed by my absence is the loss of their precious heir." Noiz tilted his head in his brother's direction, his piercings glinting faintly under the artificial lighting of his living room. "But they still got you. And you always were a better candidate than me."

"Brother!"

"I bet they were relieved."

"Please. Wim." Theo then grasped handfuls of Noiz's shirt, looking at his brother with eyes filled with tears about to burst over red cheeks. "Come back home."

"I won't."

Theo crumpled his face, dropping his head on his brother's chest as a muffled sob escaped his lips, still holding onto Noiz's shirt for dear life.

Noiz was silent for a long time, hearing his little brother choking down tears and trying to put himself back together, fists crumpling his older brother's shirt as if he feared Noiz was going to disappear into thin air or, more realistically, try to throw him out of his house.

"You didn't tell them where I am, did you?"

His younger brother looked up; his entire face was red and shining with tear streaks. He blinked slowly, then shook his head.

"I didn't. They do know I'm not home, but I didn't tell them I was coming after you."

Noiz nodded. "Good."

Theo sniffled, letting go of Noiz's shirt as he clumsily wiped his tear-drenched face with his hands. Noiz searched his pockets for a few seconds, then offered his handkerchief to his brother. Theo blinked, before breaking into a wet, radiant smile.

"Thank you, brother." He took the handkerchief and wiped his tears away gingerly, blowing his nose with as minimal noise as he could.

"You can..."

"Mm?"

"You can visit, if you want," Noiz reiterated. "As long as you don't tell them about me, you can come here whenever you like. Just let me know."

His face was plain as always, but for someone who grew up with him, it was easy to see he was feeling abashed. Theo hugged his brother, the crown of his head coming up to Noiz's chin.

"Yes, brother!"

From then on, Theo would come to Midorijima to visit his brother, usually during his winter and summer breaks, but sometimes he would randomly show up last minute, making a detour during another trip he was taking. Every time he visited, he tried a bit harder to butter up his brother and talk him into going back to Germany with him. However, Noiz was impassive, and Theo would go home feeling disappointed after every visit.

"But damn, your brother is really cute," Mizuki said once, in January of the year Noiz was to be nineteen-years-old, after the two had bid farewell to Theo in the airport. Theo and Mizuki had been introduced in Theo's third visit to Midorijima.

Noiz looked at him with the most disgust he seemed able to invoke into his usually blank eyes. "Woah. Stop gawking on my little brother, you creep."

The red-haired raised his hands in surrender, trying to calm Noiz's spirits. "Wow wow, calm down, brocon."

Mizuki laughed while ducking and dodging Noiz's deadly hands.

 They began making their way out into the streets again. "I didn't mean it like that, I'm just saying that it's heartwarming how your brother comes down here every chance he can get, just to see you, and how he never gives up on taking you back to Germany."

Noiz sent him a suspicious look through narrowed eyes. Mizuki barked a laugh and slapped him in the shoulder unceremoniously, drawing a pained wince out of his friend.

"I'm serious, I'm serious. I'm not looking at your brother like that. You know I have my fiancé, I don't have eyes for anyone else except him."

They walked silently for a minute or two. Mizuki was greeting people everywhere they passed by, smiling and waving even at old ladies—the guy was a damn celebrity in Midorijima, what with having the largest Rib team—before Noiz spoke again.

"Actually, I don't know, since when do you have a fiancé? And a male one at that."

Mizuki whipped his head back to him, almost snapping his own neck, his eyes round with surprise. "Wait, you didn't know?" It was difficult for someone with dark skin like his to blush so hard, but he was doing a pretty good job of it.

"I didn't. You didn't tell me."

"... You're a freaking hacker, and an incurable eavesdropper at that. I was sure you knew!"

"You're saying I have no respect for people's privacy?"

"You do?"

"I don't."

Mizuki gave a long-suffering sigh. "So, what the hell?"

Noiz shrugged. "No one's paying me to get into your business. So there's nothing in it for me."

"Gee, thank you for letting me know you'd get into my business if people paid high enough."

"You're welcome. Your price wouldn't even be that high."

Mizuki guffawed and kicked Noiz in the shins.

 


 

"You never told me you were gay."

Mizuki spat his coffree. "What-"

After leaving the airport, they had stopped by a café. The day was cold, and they were dying for a hot drink, so they were now sitting in a booth, getting some weird looks because of Mizuki's overreaction. Luckily, Noiz wasn't sitting directly in front of him.

"First you say my brother is cute, then I find out you're gonna marry a dude. So I gather you're gay."

The older one huffed, wiping his mouth with a napkin. "What, you got a problem?"

"Nah. I think guys are hot too."

"... Wow."

"An eventful day, huh?"

Noiz was smirking, and Mizuki couldn't help laughing.

"Well, that's nice I guess. But, umm, I don't know if I'm really gay, to be honest. I can find women beautiful, but I never involved myself with any. I've been... sort of promised to marry this guy since we were kids, we are childhood friends and-"

"My tooth is rotting from all this sweetness," Noiz said flatly.

"Shut your trap. Anyway," Mizuki continued, "I've been in love with him forever and... I think the same can be said for him. I hope. That's why we made that childish promise, but I always took it seriously. That's why I couldn't get involved with anyone else, be it a guy or a girl."

Noiz looked at him attentively, and then he sighed with a lopsided smile. "Now I can believe you."

"Eh?"

"You don't want anything with Theo. Not when you can talk about this guy and look like that."

"... I know a guy who's just right for your brother, though. And for you too, I-"

"You're a sorry excuse for a matchmaker. Don't try to push everyone into a rose colored world just because you and your darling are in one."

Mizuki laughed somewhat bitterly. "I can't help it. But well, my darling is not here at the moment. He's been in Germany for some years now."

"Germany, huh..." Noiz mused pensively, drinking his coffee while looking out the window.

 


 

During summer of that year, after Noiz's birthday, Theo asked him to go back with him again. Noiz sighed and was about to refuse for the umpteenth time when his brother interrupted him.

"You know, father and mother have pretty much accepted that you're not an option as heir to the company anymore. So I'm being officially prepared to take your place since the beginning of the year."

Noiz felt worry coiling in his stomach abruptly. His seventeen-year-old brother had barely finished high school and suddenly, he had that responsibility on his back; a responsibility that wasn't even his, to begin with. Noiz had wished for this. He was relieved that his parents had Theo, so even if he wasn't in Germany, they wouldn't bother with him, but he suddenly felt he had done something incredibly unfair to Theo.

"Theo... are you okay with that?"

His younger brother seemed to understand his worries and was quick to brush it off.

"Oh, please, brother, don't feel guilty! I was prepared for it, from the moment it became clear to me how much you hated the position you were in. Our parents, too, have had this mindset for some time already. So it's just that, now, it's become official, and I will be taking over the presidency of the company in a few months."

"... Isn't that too early? Have you even finished high school?"

"Ah, I finished early. It's been a year or so, and I started working in the company soon after that, to learn the ropes and such. In the beginning, I would mess up and the other employees talked a lot behind my back, saying I'm just riding coattails." Theo smiled awkwardly. "They're a lot nicer now, though! I don't resent you nor do I resent the role entrusted to me by our parents. I really... had it a lot easier than you, brother."

Noiz furrowed his brow. "What are you talking about?"

"Our parents... they really suffocated you. I can't blame you for escaping and not wanting to go back. They are to blame, even if I wanted to believe they really loved you despite their actions. But there's no erasing what they did to you. And I never helped you when you were being crushed by them. I, too, can be blamed for this outcome."

"Theo-"

"Wim. My worry is that you don't feel comfortable with my taking your place."

The boy raised his unflinching eyes to his older brother, not having to look up as much as he had two years before. Noiz blinked at him, before sighing with a bitter smile.

"I'm comfortable with it. In fact, I'm so comfortable it doesn't feel right. Sorry for selfishly making you shoulder my burden."

Theo shook his head. "It's not like that at all, brother. I'm glad to help both our parents and you. And I think I can do it, you know!" The boy tipped up his chin, smiling brightly.

Noiz smirked, patting his brother's shoulder.

"Ah, brother."

"Mm?"

"Would you... listen to my request?"

"Aren't you going to just ask me to go back with you again?"

"It does... entail to that, but not specifically!"

"Heh, what's with that?"

"Brother... now you're relieved of the burden of being heir to our company. You don't need to fear our parents anymore, and you don't need to conform to their every rule and live under their roof. Would you... come back with me, and help me in the company?"

Noiz blinked down at his brother.

"... What?"

"I mean! You have a secured job in Germany. And our family's influence is never bad. You can make your life there easily and," he dropped his head, like a sad puppy. "And you can come back, and we can make things right. As a family."

Noiz creased his brow pensively.

"Unless... unless you don't feel comfortable working under your younger brother, I'd understand- ow!"

His older brother had flicked him in the forehead. "Stupid, I don't care about this seniority crap and you know it."

"... Then?"

"I will... think about it."

Theo's eyes shone the brightest Noiz had ever seen in the last two years. The boy gave his brother a crushing hug, the eldest looking over his little brother's head flatly with his arms being pressed at his sides.

"I didn't say yes, y' know."

"I know! But... I got you to consider it, at least. I would like to know while I'm still here, but you can have all the time you need."

Theo was to stay for one more week, time enough for Noiz to think about the matter calmly. He mentioned the subject to Mizuki two nights after.

"Well?" Mizuki said, drinking his beer. They were at Black Needle, Mizuki's tattoo studio and bar. At the time, it was empty; they were the only two drinking in the counter.

"What?" Noiz retorted over the rim of his glass of orange juice. Mizuki thought he was funny, so he would give Noiz a different fruit juice every time he showed up at Black Needle. Noiz didn't really like alcohol, so he couldn't care less for the "you're a minor" joke.

"Why don't you go?"

"Why-"

"I mean, now you don't have the impending doom of inheriting your parents' multi-millionaire company hanging over your head."

Noiz sighed, unwilling to respond.

Mizuki downed a gulp of his beer. "Wasn't it the main issue? They were such assholes to you because of that, right? Like, you were a little rascal and they wanted some kid who pooped diamonds to take over the family business."

"You're disgusting."

"Thanks!"

"Well," Noiz huffed. "They are the main issue. I don't wanna see them and I don't wanna associate with them."

"Noiz... you gotta get over it, you know?"

The blond gave him the stink eye. Mizuki laughed.

"We have been friends for a long time. Years. Of course, we only found out we are both gay as hell last week-"

"Six months ago. Pretty sure you said you weren't sure you were gay."

"So, that probably shows we haven't been talking to each other properly-"

"I'm not gay, by the way."

"God, shut up- But, I know you. And I know what you went through with your parents. At least, I know what you told me. And yeah, it is shitty. Fucking shitty. If I see your father out there, he's not even gonna see what hit him."

Noiz chuckled at that.

"But... you're nineteen, Noiz. It's not like when I welcomed your snotty fourteen-year-old ass covered in bandages into my home. You're a grown man now; you won't need to deal with your father's shit and your mother's indifference like you had to as a kid. I guess you'll have to put up with them in the inevitable situations, but other than that, you can get your own home, your own job, even if it's in their company, and be done with it."

Mizuki was looking at him dead in the eye and Noiz couldn't help but sigh, taking the last sip of his juice. He pushed the cup in Mizuki's direction.

"More."

Mizuki stood up and took his glass. "I'm serious, Noiz. Your brother has been coming here nonstop for two years, in the faint hope of taking you back to your country. You gotta be a man, y' know. Go back home, suck it up, and get into a grown-up agreement with your parents. You don't need to apologize for anything if they don't do it first; you've done nothing wrong. If they don't even have the guts to acknowledge they were shitty parents to you, then you have nothing to apologize for. You all just have to be cordial to each other, and then you can be a family with your brother again, if he's the only one who matters."

Noiz smirked at his friend. "So that's the way of the grown-ups?"

Mizuki laughed loudly, slapping his back good-naturedly. "It is, it is. I'll be your loyal guide in your journey into adult society!"

"You're not that much older than me."

"I'm plenty older than you, little boy. And if you don't become a man of your word by next year, I'm not getting you a boyfriend."

"Good for me I have no faith in your matchmaking skills."

 


 

After that, Noiz had finally complied to Theo's request, making his brother almost explode with rosy smiles and tears and hugs and promises of doing their best in Germany. He removed most of his piercings, so he wouldn't shock his folks too much, but he kept the ones that his clothes could cover because it was too much hassle to remove them all.

"So, are you gonna pay my tickets to visit you?" Mizuki asked him, when he and Theo were about to board the plane to Germany.

"Like hell. I know you have enough money to afford it."

Mizuki laughed, momentarily turning his eyes to his feet. "Yeah... I guess a visit to Germany has been long overdue. Well," he looked up again, smiling brightly. "We will soon see each other again. Bye, Noiz, Theo."

"Bye."

"Bye, Mizuki-san!"

"Oh right, Theo, I have someone to introduce you-"

"Eh?"

"Knock it off, Mizuki. C'mon, Theo, our flight will be right up." Noiz pushed his little brother's back forward, the boy looking over his shoulder at Mizuki with big, confused eyes.

"Remind me to introduce you two when you come visit me. Until next time!" Mizuki waved at them with a bright smile.

 


 

And Noiz was here now, months later, stuck in a traffic jam in Berlin. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He was considering killing time in a nearby park, until traffic had calmed down a bit and he could get home without waiting with people honking and cursing left and right.

After some minutes of waiting and driving forward one meter at a time, he could easily turn to the park, so he did; leaving the stressed drivers behind, he drove to the parking lot, locking his car as he left and walked into a McDonalds that was close by, deciding he would just sit on some bench eating a Big Mac until the way to his home was a bit cleared up. In that sense, he really missed Midorijima, where everything was in walking distance, but he didn't regret coming to Germany.

It had been a few months since his return to Germany; he had appeared at his parents' home, face fresh, hair slicked back and brushed, clad in a teal three-piece suit, alongside Theo. Their parents were "thrilled", they cried and held him and, in Noiz's opinion, it was downright disgusting. Still, as Mizuki had so eloquently put, he "sucked it up", explained his disappearance and agreement with Theo. They didn't get into the subject of parental abuse, no. But soon, they were on the same terms. Noiz even shook hands with his impassive father, who seemed satisfied enough that his eldest son had become more socially presentable. His mother hugged him, to what Noiz corresponded politely. He was simply relieved by the time it was over; relieved because he was done pretending that he was okay with them, and relieved because after five years, he had finally settled things with his family, and if he didn't lie to himself, it was liberating. He had been escaping this entire time, but now he had faced the two people who had made his childhood miserable while believing they were doing their best. The best for themselves, perhaps, Noiz scoffed internally.

He sat on a park bench with ten Big Macs and five milkshakes. He realized distantly that he had, perhaps, bought too much, but he was tired of those lunch meetings with business associates, eating food that had no taste at all in pristine restaurants playing ambient music; he missed pizza. He was definitely dialing one up when he got home. For now, this will do, he decided as he took a bite on the first burger, slurping on his milkshake straw.

He looked over the well-groomed trees and bushes surrounding the park, colored by flower beds of various species. The yellowing leaves of autumn made it all look even more colorful. At the center of the park, behind the bench where Noiz was seated, was a water fountain with the marble sculpture of a woman clad in a fluttery long dress in its center, holding her arms around her body elaborately as though she was dancing, water spilling serenely from her fingertips to pool around the hem of her dress. Noiz always found those "classic" things to be just tacky, having grown up in a home that was almost a museum, but he could recognize that it had been well-made.

From the corner of his eye, Noiz had detected movement. As someone in a potentially dangerous line of work who was friends with a known Rib leader, he had been caught up in threatening situations more than once while living in Midorijima, so he had to learn how to fight and to become especially aware of his surroundings.

What had caught his eye, though, hadn't been some thief or gang member.

It was a white rabbit, twitching its nose while hopping easily on the grass and fallen dead leaves, close to the bushes to Noiz's right. Its ivory fur seemed to shine brightly, especially against the dark background. Noiz blinked down at it, memories of his childhood suddenly surging into his memory.

He remembered vividly, the first time he saw a rabbit. He was five, and he saw this white fluff ball hopping in the garden of their manor. He remembered being fascinated, it was like a walking piece of cotton candy, or a sentient snowball, he couldn't say for sure. He stepped carefully, closing his distance to the small animal, and just as he was reaching for it, he heard one of the maids calling out to him, hurried steps coming behind.

"Young master, please!" The woman grabbed him from under his armpits, making him stumble back a few steps away from the rabbit, which had gotten scared by the loud voice and bolted away. Noiz could only watch as the small critter made its escape, while the maid was spouting something about not touching dirty things he didn't know where had come from, wiping his hands with a towel.

The rabbit now looked exactly as the one from that day.

After that first occasion, Noiz had seen the rabbits in the breeding pen at the zoo—to where he would run to as a child when he was upset—and he had seen rabbits as other peoples' pets. Looking back at things—like the fact that he had three rabbit keychains, and that his characters in games frequently referenced rabbits... he should admit to himself that he really liked rabbits. However, he had never been able to actually touch one. Which is why he was, now, feeling strangely tempted to repeat the scene of his childhood and try to reach out for the one he was seeing in the park.

He got up from his bench quietly, and watched his step as he got closer to the animal. He crouched in the grass, and just as he was reaching out to it, just like it had happened fourteen years ago, a voice interrupted him.

"Ah-ahhh, there you are, Laura-chan!"

Noiz was surprised to hear the male voice speaking Japanese; for half a second, he didn't know if he really was in Germany or back in Midorijima. He also found that the rabbit wasn't running away like the one in his memories, instead looking up at the approaching figure behind Noiz with its sparkly, milky red eyes. Noiz got to his feet, slightly embarrassed and turned to have a look at the man, maybe scowl at the stranger for catching him in a weird situation.

The man looked unusual, that much was clear. The first thing one would notice about him was his blue-colored hair, chopped short around his face, with longer strands falling over his shoulders. His face was good natured, cheekbones prominent under brown eyes and his lips were thin, obviously exhibiting East Asian features. His face was dusted red, perhaps from the slight chill of the night air, and judging from his light panting, he could've been running until not long ago.

The man looked at Noiz, suddenly apologetic.

"Ah, I'm sorry, sir. Did the rabbit do anything to you?" The man said, now in German. He spoke easily, but he had a strong accent. Noiz found himself intrigued, watching the words roll off that man's tongue.

"I understand Japanese, so you can speak if it feels more familiar for you." The other man's eyes rounded as Noiz spoke to him in Japanese. "And your rabbit didn't do anything. I just reached out to it because I was curious."

"Ah... Ah, I see." The blue-haired man laughed shyly, now saying the words in his mother language. He looked sheepishly at Noiz and sighed. "Sorry, some people here get a bit weird if they hear me talking Japanese, so I kinda..."

"Mm. Your German is fine, but talking in one's first language feels more comfortable, so I thought I'd let you know it's fine."

"Mhm, thanks." The man nodded, crouching to take the rabbit into his arms. "It's quite rare to meet someone here who speaks such perfect Japanese, and you don't look Japanese, so..."

"I was taught the language since I was a kid and I lived in Japan for a few years, so I guess my Japanese is almost as good as a native's." He shrugged.

"I see! Well, I just came down here a few years ago too, but I had to learn from scratch, so that's why my German is a bit chopped." The man smiled disconcertingly.

"Your accent's pretty strong, but it doesn't hinder the understanding."

"Thank you, I'm glad you think so. I've had some bad episodes concerning it, though..." He scratched his head, looking at his feet. Then he raised his eyes to Noiz's face again, smiling broadly. "I'm Aoba, by the way. Seragaki Aoba. What about you?"

It was an uncommon name to the blond man. Aoba.

"Noiz."

"N- Your name?" Aoba chuckled. "That doesn't sound like your real name at all."

The blond put his hands in his pockets. "It isn't. But I don't really like my birth name. So I only use it inside my family and for business matters."

Aoba looked at Noiz from head to toe. "Business, huh... I'm sorry if I'm being rude, but it's kinda funny to see a man clearly out of the office, still in his suit jacket, trying to make conversation with a rabbit in a park."

Noiz's furrowed brow didn't portray his real feelings; he actually found this man amusing, with his contagious smile and easy talking. Even though they had just met, they were conversing so easily. Noiz's unfriendly disposition usually didn't make this sort of encounter possible.

"Ah, sorry, sorry, I really was offensive, wasn't I?" Aoba shook his hands to Noiz, as though in attempt to physically fix this blunder, face blushing even harder at the thought of being rude to this stranger (he could shake his hands like that because at some point, Noiz noticed even more amusedly, the rabbit had climbed to Aoba's shoulder, sitting there like he belonged).

"No, it's fine." Noiz tried to school his features; since his childhood, he had a bad time expressing his feelings correctly through his face.

"Anyway, I should get go-" Aoba's sentence fell dead in his lips as his rumbling stomach decided to make a statement.

Noiz wondered if he had ever seen someone's face flushing with blood to that point.

"You wanna eat with me?" The words escaped his lips before he realized.

Aoba's eyes nearly jumped out of its sockets. "What? Ah, no, it's fine, that's just, I didn't have lunch today so that's just-"

"Didn't have lunch? It's night already, though. What did you eat today?"

Aoba smiled in embarrassment. "An, uh... Bread for breakfast?"

Noiz didn't feel pity; he never felt it because he sure as hell didn't like people pitying him. What drove him was the selfish desire to spend that much longer with that man, and the will to hold on to any excuse he could get.

And because slightly, just slightly, mind you, he felt this sudden urge to... take care of him. How weird, he thought, to feel protective towards a stranger.

"... I mean, I don't think I could get away with it, but rabbit's meat is pretty good, I've heard-"

"Don't cook your rabbit," Noiz said, awaking the other man from his ramblings, making him look up in surprise.

"Ah-hahah, it's a joke, a joke."

With those glassy eyes and trembling grin, that didn't sound like a joke at all.

Noiz sighed. "I bought too much for me alone, anyway. Just accept the invitation. You'll be helping me."

Aoba laughed nervously. "W-well, since you insist."

Noiz smiled despite himself, as he walked with the man behind him.

They settled down on the bench Noiz had been seated before. Aoba looked like he wasn't going to touch anything of his own accord, so Noiz had to shove one of the milkshakes and a Big Mac into his hands. The rabbit was now serenely lying down on Aoba's lap, unknowing that his owner was willing to cook him only a few seconds ago. Noiz still wanted to touch it, but he was embarrassed to ask, so he settled for gazing at it.

Noiz heard wet sniffling and raised his eyes to Aoba's face, alarmed.

And surely, tears were running down the man's face as he nibbled on his Big Mac, slurping noisily on the straw of his milkshake. In a corner of his mind, Noiz wondered if he was twisted to think that was kind of funny; he had never seen someone crying while eating McDonalds before.

"What's wrong?" Noiz asked flatly. He thought it was funny, he thought but... he felt his chest squeezing just a tiny bit as he looked at Aoba's red, wet cheeks.

Aoba stopped eating and laughed, trying to brush off the embarrassing display. "Just... It's been a long time since I've eaten a Big Mac. I even forgot how meat tasted like. It's more delicious than it ever was before, haha." He bit into the burger again, looking really happy.

"To be healthy, and being able to work and even eat this now... I'm really fortunate."

Healthy... says the guy who barely had one meal in a day. Hah. His nose is even running, what a mess. Noiz took out his handkerchief and handed to the other man before he realized what he was doing.

Aoba looked down at Noiz's hand and broke into free, loud laughter. It wasn't mocking or sarcastic; Noiz felt down to his bones that this laugh was a pure manifestation of happiness, with not a drop of ill intent. Whereas his chest had been squeezing, now he felt warmth spreading.

The blue-haired man wiped the tears off his eyes with his knuckles, and as he raised his head to look at Noiz, his eyes widened and he was panicking again.

"O-oh, sorry! I wasn't mocking you, you see-"

"I'm not angry though."

"But your face was so... cold, I thought for sure I had offended you."

Noiz tried his best to bring his emotions into his face. He smiled. "It's okay, even if I look mad."

Aoba gaped at him, a slow blush creeping up to his eyes and down to his neck.

"Ah-ahaha, I see, I understand. Well, as I was saying, I wasn't mocking, it's just that I think it's amazing how polite you are and we met ten minutes ago and you're being nothing but kind and- wait you're still holding the handkerchief for me I'm so sorry I humbly accept it." The man went on and on without pause for breathing and he took the handkerchief from Noiz's hand after laying his burger next to his leg, burying his face in the white cloth and blowing his nose noisily.

Noiz watched the entire display in silent awe. Aoba was like nothing he had ever seen, be it in Germany or Midorijima or anywhere else. So amusing.

The other man pulled his face away from the cloth and looked down at the handkerchief, scrunching his nose before looking up at Noiz. "And it's such a nice handkerchief too, I'm sorry I'm ruining it."

"Don't sweat it."

Aoba sighed. "I really have to compensate you somehow, this doesn't sit right with me..."

"Then, let me pet your rabbit," he blurted out. It was too late when he realized and he refused to act embarrassed now.

"You wanna pet the rabbit?!"

"If you don't mind-"

"Nah, I don't." Aoba nonchalantly dropped the small critter on Noiz's lap, who was suddenly very agitated.

Aoba was quietly observing the situation while he started munching on a second burger.

Noiz carefully brought his hand to the rabbit's fluffy head. His fingers tentatively brushed through its white fur. The little red eyes fluttered shut in appreciation.

Woah, it's so freaking fluffy, just like I imagined.

Noiz's face was completely plain, but Aoba thought he could see a fascinated shine into his lime-green eyes. He thought it was adorable.

"Also, I think you're misunderstanding. Laura-chan isn't mine, exactly."

"... So you stole this rabbit-"

"I didn't, dear lord. I work at a pet store, a pet store. Well, only part-time, though."

"So it's part of your job? Taking the animals in walks and stuff."

"Yeah, they get stressed out if they have to stay locked up in a cage waiting for their turn, and I gotta be really careful when I walk them. If something were to happen to them, I'd make huge trouble for my boss." Aoba petted Laura's head absentmindedly. "That's why I was in a panic when this girl gave me the runaround."

"Even though you considered cooking her."

"God, it was a joke."

"Whatever you say."

They continued eating in amiable silence. Noiz was genuinely enjoying this man's company, even if they weren't saying a word to each other.

Too soon, there was a ringing sound, and Aoba sprung to his feet, producing his phone from his pants' pocket.

"Damn, I have to get back to work! Laura's owner will be over to pick her up at 8pm!"

Noiz was surprised as he realized that Aoba had eaten five Big Macs and destroyed three milkshakes. Now, there were two Big Macs and one milkshake left. He put it in the plastic bag and shoved it into Aoba's hand.

"Here."

"...! No way, I already took so much advantage of your kindness, I can't accept-"

"I'm pretty sure I'm not eating it when I get home. It's best if it doesn't go to waste." Noiz shrugged easily.

Aoba bit his lip and nodded. "Thank you very much."

"Mm."

The man picked up the rabbit from Noiz's lap. "Feel free to visit the store, we get lots of rabbits there! It's not too far from here, if you go straight in that direction," Aoba pointed at a street that opened next to the park. "You'll see it right away. It's called Heibon."

"A Japanese name?"

Aoba smiled sheepishly. "The owner is Japanese, like me. He's an old friend of my Grandma's, so he got me the job. The name is written in romaji, and people think it's a 'quirky' name, so it actually doesn't do any damage to the business."

"Huh. Well, bye, Aoba. It was nice meeting you. Bye to you too, troublemaker." Noiz petted the top of the rabbit's head, which leaned in Noiz's direction and rubbed its little nose against his.

Noiz widened his eyes and Aoba laughed, caressing the rabbit's fur.

"Bye, Noiz. Thank you so much for the food. Come by the shop, okay?"

He felt a bit of a tug in his stomach by listening Aoba finally uttering his name. Damn, do I have the hots for this guy, he mused distantly.

Noiz watched Aoba walk away, and both of them had the same thing in their minds: neither wanted to ask for the other's phone number, fearing they would seem too eager in a first meeting. Aoba hoped that Noiz would come around the shop and, at some point, he could casually get his contact information. Noiz was less innocent in his first thought; with his stalker-ish ways cultivated by his years of work in Midorijima, he assumed that knowing Aoba's full name and workplace was more than enough to find out his phone number, home address or whatever he wanted.

And then he realized Aoba wouldn't appreciate it if he appeared in his room in the dead of the night or started shooting him random messages from an unknown number.

He decided to swing by the pet store in the weekend.