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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. 

Chapter Text

"Brother, you look a bit annoyed."

Noiz raised his eyes from the papers he was reading aloud and looked at Theo, who was sitting at the desk in front of him. He had just finished briefing his brother on the beginning stages of a new project when Theo made the comment.

"Do I?"

"Yes. Well, I suppose your face didn't change much from the usual." His brother giggled. "But I can tell. Did something happen?"

Noiz blinked slowly. "Not really."

He was lying. But he didn't want to admit he was in a bad mood for such a small thing that happened two days ago.

It was Monday now, and he hadn't found Aoba on the weekend; he did find the pet store where he worked, but it seemed it wasn't Aoba's shift yet. He decided he would ask for these details if he met Aoba again, but he couldn't keep showing up in the store solely to ask about a part-timer, so he didn't have the faintest idea of when they could meet again. Seeing as the work took Aoba outside sometimes, they would probably miss each other even if he was to visit the shop during his shift.

Maybe I should hang around that park around that time frame again, he could be there. Or I could find out his address and-

Theo sighed. "It wounds me when you lie to me like that, brother."

Noiz furrowed his brow, and Theo chuckled.

"I'm just saying, you can tell me anything. I'm at least a good listener, if not good with advices. And you have to tell me if it's work related." His eyes grew serious.

"It isn't. I would've told you already."

The younger brother sighed as if in relief.

"So, is dad pestering you or something?"

Noiz sat down on a nearby chair, looking over the papers he was holding and rearranging them. "Not this week."

"What's with that story about you having to get married so I could get married too? Our parents are seriously..." Theo let out a disgruntled laugh, propping his chin on his palm.

Noiz scoffed. "Seriously stuck in the 17th century."

"I only ever saw this kind of things in old novels, too." He laughed lightly, and then sighed. "I'm sorry; when I called you here I didn't think our parents would still be that overbearing to you, after everything that happened."

"It's fine. They never had self-awareness, guess I shouldn't be expecting that now."

"Mhm... Well, then I give up. I don't know what could have you in a bad mood, so I won't pry any longer. Can you bring me the reports I'll need for the meeting at 6pm?"

"Yes. And these are the spreadsheets you'll need for the presentation, please don't forget it." At his brother's business-tone, Noiz flipped on his switch too, standing up and pulling out a series of paper sheets printed with colorful graphs from the top of the thin stack he had been holding.

"Right, thanks for reminding me."

Theo reached out for the papers, aligning them neatly by gathering them between his hands and bumping the bottom atop the desk with a sequence of soft thuds. He stuck a paper clip on the top-left corner and laid the papers in front of him.

"Then, I'll be taking my leave. I'll bring the documents soon enough." Noiz turned back and left his brother's office, heading for his own.

Or so he intended, but only a few steps away from his brother's office, he ran into the chairman. His father.

Speak of the devil.

"Wilhelm."

The cold green eyes, not unlike Noiz's, looked down at the younger man. This kind of situation never failed to irritate Noiz, considering how much it reminded him of his childhood, even though the difference in height was a lot more insignificant now. He schooled his features, keeping his mask of indifference in check.

Noiz nodded in greeting. "Good morning, sir."

He didn't mind adopting the polite speech in work, but it was still hard to act politely to someone he would rather flip the bird to. It would be just bothersome for him if he didn't abide by these social rules though, especially when it came to his old-fashioned father.

"Theo is in his office, in case you're looking for him," he added after his father's silence.

The man grunted in acknowledgement to the information, the thick gray streaks in his brown hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights. There was a pause before he finally spoke.

"You have been ignoring my suggestions for the marriage interview," the man said accusingly, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized Noiz's face.

Noiz sighed. "I'm sorry, father, but I thought I was clear on my disinterest. I don't have time for this kind of thing right now; I want to concentrate myself on this job."

His father stepped closer, trying to impose himself by towering over him; an old trick.

"Listen, Wilhelm. This is your job. Diefenbach's business is thriving just as much as ours, and a marriage between our families would be of great profit for both sides. I'm sure I have explained the benefits to you well and thoroughly already. This is a business decision above all else; falling in love can come after that, and-"

"Mr. Chairman, excuse me."

Noiz's father cut himself off, turning his head to look at the executive director, who stood behind him.

"Sorry to interrupt," the grizzly, short man continued carefully, his blue eyes gazing at the two calmly behind his thick-rimmed glasses before regarding only the chairman. "But may we have a moment?"

Noiz's father nodded, the corners of his lips curling only slightly.

"Of course. We will finish this later, Wilhelm."

The man gripped Noiz's shoulder and clutched it; a seemingly friendly gesture that was actually a reassurance that the subject wouldn't die there. Gratefully dismissed, Noiz made for his office, remembering to catch the reports Theo asked for, as his father stepped away in the opposite direction alongside the executive director.

Noiz sighed. Today was going to be a long day.

 


 

Noiz was beat by the time he managed to leave the company. His watch informed him it was 10pm; he had never wished for a hot shower and his bed like he did now. If he was honest with himself, things had been a lot worse during the period when he had just arrived in Germany. At the time, he wanted to rub on his parents' faces how competent he could be, so he worked himself to the ground. The rhythm had calmed down for some time, but now, things were just getting hectic at the office again and he could feel his free nights slipping through his fingers.

If anything, he was glad that his father never managed to catch him again today, and hoped he could keep avoiding him for as long as he could. Work alone was stressful enough; he didn't want to think about being forced into marriage with some girl he saw once or twice in social gatherings.

He distantly thought of how impossible it would be to meet Aoba again in these conditions. Still, as he drove past the park where they met, he let his gaze wander towards the tall trees and the water fountain.

That's why, because he thought it was impossible, his heart almost stopped in his chest when he saw a mop of blue hair peeking from the top of the bushes. It couldn't be anyone else.

And because of the weird position he was seeing Aoba's head, he turned the steering wheel in the direction of the park before he realized what he was doing. Noiz feared the man could be keeling over from hunger, considering the state he was in when they met before. He climbed out of the car and locked his doors, striding towards Aoba's location.

He wondered distantly if that would make him look like a stalker, when he stopped a few steps behind Aoba. He had his back to him and was completely silent, still crouching next to the bushes, exactly where Noiz had seen him from the street. For a second, Noiz was torn between calling out to him, or taking advantage of the fact that he hadn't heard his footfalls and just leave. But why is he here?

"... Aoba?"

The man flinched before slowly turning his upper body to look up at the newcomer. His eyes locked with Noiz's, and the blond was relieved to see that his face wasn't twisted in pain, nor was he sweating profusely; no visible signs of vomiting either. But Aoba had his eyebrows knitted and lips pursed in worry.

"Noiz... what should I do?"

"Huh?"

Aoba moved enough to the side that Noiz was able to see the reason why he was crouching there. He took a couple of steps closer to better assess the situation.

A tiny black puppy was lying down inside a dirty, old box, panting heavily with his tongue sticking out. After crouching alongside Aoba, he could see it was missing one of its legs.

"What is this doing here?" Noiz asked mostly to himself, but Aoba answered anyway.

"I was just leaving the pet store and passing by here when I saw someone in a bicycle drop this box here and just bolt away again. I was sort of curious, so I opened the box to see it and... well."

"You stopped to open a suspicious box a stranger had dropped in a park. Are you an idiot?" Noiz said without missing a beat. Shit. Even if he really thought it was dangerous and thoughtless, he could have said it nicer. It was only their second meeting, after all.

Aoba scowled. "Well, I'm sorry for being an idiot. But," he sighed and twisted his mouth in thought. "I guess you're right. That was really careless of me."

Noiz breathed a sigh of relief, internally. "So? Why were you asking me what to do? You intend on taking it home?"

Aoba sat down on the grass, holding his knees close to his chest. "I want to, but... I actually have to be at my next job in half an hour—I might even be late because I was sitting here not knowing what to do for too long—and the pet store is closed now and I don't wanna bother Haga-san at this late hour, and... I don't really have the means to keep a pet. They're not allowed in my building, you know." He gave a sad smile.

Haga-san is his boss' name, I suppose. "Then, I guess there's nothing you can do."

"I can't leave the poor thing alone! The weather forecast said there's 96% chance of raining later tonight, look at him, he could die from the cold!" As if confirming Aoba's affirmation, a thunder rumbled in the distance.

"Maybe that's what the person who abandoned it here was planning."

Aoba looked at him with horror. Noiz mentally chastised himself for sounding so grim.

"I'm- I'm gonna take it with me, then."

Noiz creased his brow at Aoba, who had turned his wide, determined eyes to his feet.

"Gonna take it where? To work?"

"Yeah."

"Can you even do that?" And why are you still going to work at this hour, by the way, he thought of asking.

"I... don't know if I can, but I'll manage. I just have to hold on to it until morning, then I'll be able to take it to the store and I'll talk to Haga-san. I'll see what I can do about my building too."

"Why go to such lengths?"

He could hear Mizuki telling him, like he had told him many times before.

Stop thinking of everything in this cost-benefit mindset.

He thought he had understood it. He understood that there were people who would do things not necessarily thinking of a reward. Mizuki himself was one of these people; housing and feeding a brat he had only known through a screen, not even thinking of asking for compensation. But he couldn't wrap his head around Aoba's attitude. Yeah, he looked like he really cared for animals, but what would he get out of protecting a deformed puppy? Things seemed to be hard enough for him alone, so why was it worth the trouble?

"It's because no one wants him."

Noiz turned his gaze to Aoba, who was still looking at his own feet with pain in his eyes.

"He was abandoned, and that's not fair."

Noiz sighed and sat on the grass, too. "The world is not fair, y' know."

"Still...!" Aoba turned his head to him, biting his bottom lip. "Why would you leave it to die like this...? Just because he's small, he's weak or he's missing a leg. That's just..."

They were silent for a few seconds, before Aoba spoke again, in a low voice.

"Everyone who's born into this world has a right to live free, and to be happy. No one should be shut away like this."

Noiz let out an unintended dark laugh. He wasn't laughing at Aoba, wasn't mocking him; he was laughing at the irony of what he was saying.

Even though that's exactly what happens in this world. All the time.

Inconvenient things were thrown away. That was normal and expected. Would Aoba have tended to the wounds of a fourteen-year-old runaway? Would he have fed him, even when he didn't even have food for himself?

Would he have opened the door of that dark, dark room?

Aoba wasn't aware of the whirlwind of thoughts going on inside his head though, so he really was under the impression that Noiz was mocking him. He frowned and got to his feet, grabbing the small box. The puppy whimpered pathetically inside of it, sensing the movement.

"I'm sorry, you must be thinking I'm an idiot again, spouting all of this conceited bullshit over an abandoned dog. Well, I'll be on my way."

"Wait." Noiz quickly got up on one knee and grabbed Aoba's arm to stop him. Having managed to do that much, he raised himself to his feet and stared at the other man, who didn't resist but looked like he damn wanted to do so.

"Sorry for calling you an idiot before, and for laughing just now. I wasn't mocking you, I just..."

Aoba kept silent, staring at him, and he proceeded, "I thought of how I'd like some people to hear what you just said."

"... I don't understand-"

"So," Noiz interrupted, finally releasing his arm. "You wanna a ride?"

Aoba's eyes widened. "... Eh?"

"A ride. You said you were running late, right?"

"I-I am, but..."

"Then, let's get going." Noiz started on the way to his car and Aoba stumbled to catch up to him, carefully carrying the box.

"But, but wouldn't it be a bother? Also, you appeared out of nowhere and still in your work clothes..."

"I was just leaving work and I looked at the park hoping to see you there. And you were there."

Aoba sputtered, and Noiz didn't need to look to know he was blushing. It occurred to him then that he should stop trying to play it cool; seeing Aoba's flustered face when he was straightforward was a lot more rewarding.

"S-so you were just leaving your job, you must be tired."

"Dead tired."

"Then...!"

Noiz waved him off nonchalantly. "This much is no problem. Relax."

The blond man took the car keys out of his pocket and unlocked his doors when they got to the parking lot. Aoba gaped for a few seconds before slipping into the passenger's seat.

"This... is your car?"

"Yeah." He locked the doors and pulled the safety belt over his torso.

Aoba followed his example, laying the box on his lap gingerly. "... Could it be that you're really loaded?"

"It depends. Would you like me to be really loaded?" Noiz didn't hold back the low husk in his voice.

Aoba groaned in mortification, covering his red face with his hands. "What the hell... I thought you were just a regular dried-out businessman."

"Does it make you uncomfortable?"

"Sort of!" He uncovered his face, still retaining some of its embarrassed flush, showing his bewildered eyes. Then he lowered his gaze, pouting slightly as he muttered, "Like... you're doing me some charity or something."

Noiz huffed. "I'm not into these things, rest assured. I'm starting the car so, show me the way."

 


 

"You can drop me off here."

"We're not there yet, are we? It's fine; just tell me the place and I'll leave you at the doorstep." Noiz glanced briefly at Aoba, turning his eyes back to the road.

"Well, I don't really go in through the front door-"

"Want me to escort you to the back door, then?"

"No! Geez..." Aoba was flushing, clutching the box where the puppy was sleeping.

"Are you embarrassed to let me know where you work?"

"...! That's... not it."

"From the way you just flinched, I'm pretty sure I got it right, though."

Noiz had been curious to know what kind of place was that where Aoba worked so late. But he could put the pieces together quite well already.

So it was with little surprise that he found himself stopping in front of a strip club, the name "Exposure" blinking in big neon letters on top of the glass doors. He killed the engine and looked at Aoba evenly. The faintest dust of red could still be seen on the other man's cheeks.

"Here we are."

"Mhm. Thank you for the ride."

He unlocked the car, but just as Aoba was opening his door, he spoke again.

"Wait."

Aoba turned his head slowly, his eyes careful.

"What is it?"

Noiz took one of his business cards out of his wallet and scribbled his personal phone number on its back before handing it to Aoba. The man took it between his fingers with a puzzled look.

 "Call me."

Aoba looked up at him, gaping. Then he started flapping his lips, slowly forming words and sounds as his face visibly filled with heat.

"I-I will."

Noiz smirked at him, and it was the last blow; the blond thought he could hear Aoba's neurons popping and exploding and he was more than satisfied. The other man climbed out of the car with the box, bowing slightly before closing the door and bolting in the club's direction.

Noiz looked at his retreating back until he slipped into the darkness of an alley next to the club to reach the back door. Noiz sighed, starting his car and finally making his way home.

He was thankful for his poker face, since he had been entertaining thoughts of Aoba stripping from the second they stopped in front of the building. Of course, he was completely ignoring the fact that Aoba could very well be just a bartender or something.

The rain finally started coming down outside. Noiz opened the door to his place and toed off his suddenly tight leather shoes with a sigh of relief at the entrance. He removed his phone from his pocket only to see that he had received two messages five minutes ago; it wasn't his brother or any of his business associates, but an unknown number.

>> WAIT, YOU'RE A BIGWIG AT ADLERSFLÜGEL GROUP? IT'S YOUR LAST NAME? WHAT THE FUCK.

>> Oh, it's Aoba, by the way. Thanks for the help tonight.

He sighed though his nose with a smirk playing on his lips, saving the contact number before answering.

>> It was nice seeing each other again.

He entered his kitchen, opening his fridge and leaving his phone next to him on the table.

In the dead silence of his house, his phone started ringing and his hand was grasping it again in a heartbeat. He accepted the call without looking at the screen and brought it to his ear.

"Hello."

"Woah, so fast." Mizuki's surprised voice cooed on the other side.

"Ah. It's you." Noiz could have clicked his tongue as he held the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he rummaged through his fridge. He fished out a plate with leftover pasta and promptly shoved it into the microwave to heat up.

"Ohhh, sorry, were you waiting a special call, young master?"

Noiz scoffed. "Not really."

"Are you embarrassed~?"

"What do you want."

Mizuki laughed, the static slightly muffling the sound. "I'll let it slide only this time, be grateful."

"That's just because international calls are expensive and you can't stop yourself from getting away from the main subject." Before it beeped annoyingly, Noiz took the platter out of the microwave, dipping a fork into the food and curling the noodles around the tines.

"Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I'm arranging things to visit you guys this winter! So, prepare your guest futon there."

"I already have another room here with a bed." He munched on the pasta, leaning on the kitchen counter with one elbow.

"No way, I'm a Japanese man through and through, it's no good if it isn't a futon."

"Why didn't you just call me on Skype or something? Speaking on the phone is kind of a pain." Noiz changed the phone to his other hand.

"I didn't pay the internet bill."

"And you want to come to Germany when you don't even have money to pay your bills."

"I just forgot, Jesus. I just haven't been browsing much lately; things are a bit hectic with Dry Juice, and I've really busy. We had a problem with another Rib team, and the police got involved at some point."

"Oh. Good luck with that."

"Yeah, thanks." Mizuki sighed, his tiredness seeping into it. "And how are things going with your job and stuff? We haven't been talking that often."

"Boring as fuck. We just started a project involving two new business partners, so now we have to stay in late almost every day because of paperwork and unending meetings."

"It's boring just to hear about it."

"And you encouraged me to come here. What a good friend you are."

Mizuki laughed loudly. "Yeah, I remember doing that." His voice went softer in the next sentence. "Do you regret it?"

Aoba's smiling face flickered in Noiz's mind. He knitted his eyebrows.

Is he a reason not to regret?

"Nah. I'm glad that I've finally started cleaning up the mess with my folks."

"Ohh, you sound so adult. Don't go getting girlfriends, okay? You're doing a great job and I'll make good on my promise. Tell Theo to stay single too!"

"You're full of shit."

"Well, I'm hanging up. I'm going to sleep only now, though it's morning already."

"Such an upstanding member of society, huh."

"Excuse you, I was staying up late for very upstanding reasons. Wasn't roaming the empty streets like you used to do. I'm gonna shower and head to bed. Bye!"

"Bye."

A beeping sound followed and Noiz lowered his phone on the table again. He finished his pasta, now gone mostly cold, and dumped the dirty platter and cutlery on the sink.

This is getting dangerous.

He took a quick shower, relishing on the feeling of warm water running over the tensed muscles of his back.

It's one thing to be interested, but do I really think it was worth it coming to Germany because I met him?

Noiz pulled on his pajama pants, not bothering with a shirt, and climbed into bed, moving his thumb over the screen of his phone, setting up the alarm for tomorrow morning.

I barely know him. How can I be sure he's not another one of those leeches who sets their eyes on me because of my money?

 He laid his head on the pillow, his eyes shut.

Aoba's smiling face.

Aoba's crying face, over a stupid burger of all things.

Noiz laughed through his nose, curling under the duvet.

Guess I'll just have to find out as I go.

 


 

The coldness of early morning was slow but steadily losing place to the warmth of the sun rising in the horizon, pouring its pale rays of light over the well-paved streets of Berlin. The ground was drying up after the downpour that dragged on throughout the entirety of last night. The birds chirped happily, ruffling their wings while perched on the high branches of the trees, looking down at the sluggish movement of cars, driven by tired office workers and other laborers who could only yawn in face of another day starting.

When the traffic was already heavy and the radiant sun was high in the sky, an old man climbed down the stairs on the side of a small two-story building; the second floor was his home, and he worked downstairs in his pet store. A small business, but it brought the food to the table, and he could even afford to have employees.

It was one of those employees that the man was surprised to find sitting in front of the store with his knees slightly bent, hugging a dirty box to his chest. He was easily recognizable by his unmistakable head of blue hair, head that was lolling over the box he held, unstable in obvious sleep.

"... Aoba-kun?"

The boy didn't answer. The owner of Heibon took the few steps to close the distance between the unconscious figure and himself, only to be stared at by one, bright brown eye, shining in the shadowy inside of the box on Aoba's lap. A small puppy was gazing at him, its pink tongue sticking out. Haga blinked over widened eyes and crouched beside Aoba. Using one hand to support himself on the roller shutter of his shop front, he lightly shook Aoba's shoulder with his other one.

"Aoba-kun!"

Aoba finally flinched, slowly raising his head and arching his slouched back with the creaking of tensed bones. He yawned ungraciously, lifting his hand to cover his mouth only belatedly. The young man squeezed his eyelids shut under the aggression of daylight, carefully opening them to look at his boss.

"Haga-san. Good morning, I'm so sorry for the trouble." His voice was drowsy.

Haga looked at the boy worriedly. "Good morning. Aoba-kun... since when are you here? Don't tell me something happened with your apartment-"

"No, no, everything's fine. I'm here since I finished up at my other work, so... 5am? But everything's fine, I'll explain it to you. Also about this." Aoba touched the puppy's head with a shy look.

Haga nodded, the cloud of worry dissipating from his face and a warm smile taking its place.

"Ok then. Well, since you're here, help me open up the shop! Daniel is going to be late for his shift today too, it seems..."

After Aoba helped his boss pushing up the metal door that hid the frameless glass of the shop front, they walked into the reception room. The off-white walls had colorful portraits of the dogs and cats the owner, a passionate pet lover, had taken care of throughout the years. The counter had hollows in its front, where the accessories and other items were displayed behind a sheet of glass, and there were small beanbag sofas laid around the room for the clients who wished to sit, whether to chat or to wait for their pets after an appointment with the vet or cleaning/grooming. It made for an inviting and cozy environment; a modest, small store, but it had a faithful clientele.

Haga sat behind the counter and Aoba slumped himself in one of the sofas, holding the box with the puppy while he told his boss about what had happened last night, leading to this course of events.

"I see... So, all of these things have happened since yesterday. That's quite the adventure, Aoba-kun." The man laughed gently, the wrinkles in his eyes deepening under his thick-rimmed glasses.

Aoba sighed, clenching the box where the tiny pup just watched them quietly.

"Yeah... So I brought him here, to ask for you to... check on him. I just realized that there seems to be something wrong with his eye, too. I need to treat him and clean him properly, he's so..." Aoba furrowed his brow, looking down at the pitiful animal. Then he lifted his head quickly, looking at his boss with panicky eyes. "Oh, but I'm not asking anything for free, Haga-san. Whatever needs to be done, please discount from my salary."

"Aoba-kun..."

"Please, I know we can't afford to give free service like this. Business is going fine as always, but it's a small store after all. It wouldn't be right to you."

"... Aoba-kun, what do you intend to do? I know of your difficult situation; if I rip off money from your salary, even this little will make a difference. Additionally... how do you plan on raising this puppy? What about your bills? You can leave him here for adoption if you want; we never had this here before, but..."

"No, please, I can't make such trouble for you, besides... Noi- um, my friend who was with me, he said that this puppy was most likely abandoned because of, well, his missing leg and other problems we'll still find out. I don't know... I don't want to think about people rejecting and ignoring him because of all this again. I want to take care of him, myself. About my bills... I'm sure I can manage." Aoba grinned brightly. Haga blinked twice in quick succession and then laughed heartily, noticing a faint trail of dried drool on the boy's chin.

"You're a good kid, Aoba-kun. Tae-san raised a fine man."

Aoba blushed faintly, but pouted, avoiding his boss's benevolent smile.

"Geez, I'm no kid."

Haga laughed good-naturedly; not like a boss but like an uncle. He left the counter, extending his hands in the direction of the puppy in the box. "Then, can I have the little... oh, right, does he have a name?" Haga asked.

"No, there wasn't a collar on him or anything... I didn't have time to think about it too." The small dog whimpered weakly as Aoba gave the box to Haga, taking him through the door that led to the examination room. In his pet store, Haga worked as the veterinary.

"Just wait for me, and take this time to think of a good name for him. Ah, and please, can you watch the store for me a bit until Daniel comes in?"

"Yes!" Aoba answered his boss, and heard the soft click of the door closing. He sighed, rolling his shoulders. Napping outside had really wrecked his back.

"Ah, right, I forgot..." He mumbled, taking his cell phone from the pocket of his ratty jeans. He had received a response from Noiz last night but didn't have the time to read it, being in the middle of work at the time.

The man swept his thumb on the screen, checking his inbox. Opening Noiz's message, he blinked, reading and re-reading the words. His lips curled in a goofy smile, a dust of red covering his cheeks. Aoba huffed a laugh, messing up his bangs with a hand, and typed a message back.

>>  Suggest a name for the pup! *( ^ v ^)*

He sent it. He thought of apologizing for not answering before, but he decided he didn't want their relationship to be this stiff. Also, he was still feeling embarrassed because Noiz saw the club and he definitely would get ideas in his mind.

 Given that the man was probably working, he knew better than to expect a quick reply. However, not half a minute later, the phone vibrated in his hand. He opened the new message.

>> Inu.

Aoba blinked in shock at the screen, then let out a guffaw. He was clutching his stomach, trying to calm down his laughing fit, when Daniel opened the door to the store. He gazed with startled brown eyes at the sight of Aoba almost doubling over on the floor.

"... Aoba? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine! Ahaha...haha.  Ahh, I'm sorry, Daniel. Gave you a fright, huh?" Aoba used the knuckles of his fingers to wipe away the tears blossoming in the corners of his eyes.

"Quite. What are you even doing here? Your shift's not until much later, right?"

"Yeah, just had to talk to the boss."

"Oh yeah, where's he, by the way? I really didn't mean to be late today, but my girlfriend showed up in the middle of the night with some huge bags from Anya's and-"

"Think before you finish that sentence, and think even harder if you want to justify your tardiness to your boss like this. Just to begin with, how sure can you be that he doesn't know Anya's?" Aoba teased. Anya's was a sex shop a few blocks away; it was more than likely that Haga-san knew it, even if he didn't happen to make his monthly shopping there.

"Oh. I guess you're right." Daniel dropped his backpack on the floor beside the counter and sat on the stool.

"And to answer your question, he's in the examination room with a dog."

"Ah, the day started off early today, then." Daniel ran his hand through his curly black hair distractedly.

Aoba didn't feel like giving details as to why exactly Haga had a dog so early, so he just stayed silent and turned his attention to his phone screen. He gave a short giggle again, seeing Noiz's stupid answer, and started typing his reply.

>> Inu is just 'dog'!! Zero creativity. ( - . - ')

"You're making a stupid face."

Aoba raised his head at Daniel's comment. "What?"

"You. Making a stupid face right now. All goo-goo eyes and blushy and smiling."

Aoba glared at him mockingly. He turned his eyes back to the screen and sent the message.

"Give my regards to your girlfriend."

"Pfft, you little..."

He put the phone away into his jeans' pocket again and stretched his back, sighing.

Geez, what's with me...

Chapter Text

The bell above the door of the café chimed to announce a newcomer. The store wasn't packed with people, but it wasn't empty either; there were enough people to keep the two restless baristas busy so they didn't have the luxury to stop and greet an arriving client.

"Noiz!"

The blond man walked away from the entrance and scrutinized the wooden tables that sat next to the glass windows of the store, searching for the one calling out to him. Immediately, he saw Aoba waving discreetly at him three tables away, with a small cup of black coffee and a half-eaten ham sandwich sitting on a plate in front of him. Noiz waved back with a small smile and went to the queue in front of the counter to make his order before going to their table.

It was three weeks after the puppy incident, and Noiz had been swamped with work, unable to meet with Aoba again, even if accidentally. However, since that day, they had become very active texting buddies, or at least, as active as they could be; as it turns out, both of them were very busy. Noiz learned that Aoba worked several jobs throughout the day, and most of them were customer service so he couldn't be firing texts all day. Noiz was unable to talk to him that much too, especially during those few hellish weeks, but in the end, it worked just fine for them. They sent messages when they could, and knew not to wait for a quick answer. When he had a break, Aoba would tell him funny things that happened around him, while Noiz would complain about the occasional blunder in his work and, just like that, they got to know each other slowly.

Now, they were in a café close to Noiz's workplace; he had managed to sneak out of the office for lunch, and Aoba just happened to have some time, so they agreed to meet there.

"Good work today!" Aoba said as Noiz sat down in front of him with a sigh, holding his cup of latte and a plate with two slices of a chocolate cake with orange sprinkles.

"Too early for that."

"And you're too young to play the worn-out, grumpy old man. Do you want me to pay for a rabbit art on that latte to lighten up your mood?" Aoba teased playfully.

Noiz grunted irritably and stabbed a piece of his cake with the fork, taking it to his mouth. Aoba laughed and took a sip of his coffee.

At some point during those three weeks, Aoba had asked how old Noiz was, and he was surprised to learn that the other man was four years his junior. Noiz didn't think the difference was a big deal, but Aoba would tease him about it every chance he got. It would probably be more annoying if Aoba didn't send cute emojis along with his dumb jokes; it couldn't be underestimated how entertaining it was to imagine Aoba actually making those faces.

"Also, is it really okay for you to be here? Don't you have work?" Noiz asked.

"Well, at lunchtime I'm pretty much always free. It's a bit more difficult when I'm working at restaurants or cafés like this one, though. Ah, I worked here two years ago, by the way."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. Good thing is that the owner likes me and I still have a good relationship with all the baristas so I can get a nice discount whenever I stop by." Aoba told the story with a mischievous smile and a glint in his eye. That's when Noiz saw it. 

"Ah."

"What is it?" Aoba asked at Noiz's sudden interjection.

"Your eyes. They have different colors." Noiz was staring at him intently.

Aoba blinked then laughed disconcertingly, feeling abashed under the cold green gaze. He dropped his head. "What are you talkin-"

"No, seriously." Noiz leaned over the small table, extending a hand to Aoba's face and making him look up. The older man gasped in surprise as he felt the cold fingertips touching his cheek, right under his left eye.

"We have only seen each other at night, and it was dark so I didn't pay much attention. I thought your eyes were just brown. But, hmm-" Noiz leaned again ever so slightly; the most he could without getting up from his seat. There was a hint of interest in his usually plain eyes, and the pads of Noiz's fingers brushed so gently against Aoba's cheek it felt vaguely ticklish, making him gulp as the blood gradually rushed to his face.

"... It is brown, but it's so light it looks almost green, and in the center," Noiz said, as he absentmindedly brushed a strand of hair away from the oh-so interesting eyes. Aoba felt a weak shiver as the cold fingers grazed over the warm skin of his ear. Noiz finally proceeded, "In the center, it's a deeper brown, sort of red-ish... Heh." He finally slumped back on his chair, withdrawing his touch and Aoba held back a sigh of relief.

Noiz smirked, completely aware of every touch he had inflicted and every reaction he drew out of Aoba.

"Pretty."

"You little-"

It was when Aoba had turned his gaze away from Noiz that he realized. They were being stared at by nearly everyone in a five meter radius inside the café.

Noiz followed Aoba's horrified look with raised eyebrows. It would be bothersome if someone got offended by their skinship and tried to start something, but rather than that, people looked at them with curiosity and amusement. The blush returned to Aoba's face even stronger than before, and Noiz would be lying if he said he wasn't having a great time teasing him, but...

"Can we help you?" Noiz finally said, in a clear voice that could be heard by all of the silent bystanders. He knitted his eyebrows in animosity to drive the point home. People blinked away and either smiled shyly or muttered apologies, returning to their own businesses.

Aoba looked at him disapprovingly. "Noiz..."

"You're welcome."

"It's your fault they were staring in the first place. Ugh, the baristas were looking at me funnily, they're definitely telling the owner and I'm gonna be bullied mercilessly."

"How can you live, caring so much about other people's opinions?"

"I have to care. I'm a working adult. And you should care too, what the hell! This is close to your office, what if a business associate saw you?"

Noiz scoffed. "No one important would see me here. They'd rather go to the fancy restaurants and eat the most expensive Sauerbraten with potato dumplings they can find."

"Oh? Then, don't you wanna join your important friends, and eat in an expensive restaurant for lunch too?" Aoba said sarcastically. His eyes were darker.

"No way. This sort of quiet place is a lot better," Noiz admitted nonchalantly.

Aoba laughed, the shadow cast over his face dissolving as fast as it had appeared.

"Ahh, is that so? Thank you for gracing us humble commoners with your royal presence in this fine day, Noiz-sama." He sipped on his coffee, raising the cup as though he was giving a toast.

Noiz clicked his tongue and said, "Knock it off." It barely had any bite, though.

Aoba was laughing again, and Noiz had even forgotten the motive, but whatever it was, it had been worth it.

Interrupting his fit of laughter, Aoba's phone started ringing loudly in his pocket. Noiz observed as the older man cursed under his breath, quickly producing the slightly scratched up device before giving a confused look to the screen and sweeping his thumb across the surface to answer it.

"Hello?" He looked down at the table with a furrowed brow, before his face lit up. "Ah, Koujaku!"

Noiz froze at the uttering of the name. Not taking notice of his weird reaction, Aoba laid his hand over the speaker, looking at the blond man with apologetic eyes as he moved to get up from his seat.

"I'm sorry, do you mind...?"

"No," was all Noiz said, suddenly unable to see through the maelstrom of thoughts and information unraveling in front of him.

Aoba nodded, smiling before getting up and turning his attention to the person on the phone.

"What's with this strange number? How's Midoriji...?"

His voice got inaudible as he walked away and through the door of the café, the bell tinkling above his head.

Noiz resumed eating his lunch, which had lain forgotten in face of his lively conversation with Aoba. The now lukewarm coffee dragged flavorless down his throat, and he exhaled.

"Koujaku" was about the last name he expected to pop up here, in Germany, from the lips of a man he knew for barely a month.

Because Koujaku was the name of one of Mizuki's friend, someone who belonged to his past in Midorijima. In any other situation, having heard the name from anyone else, anywhere else, he wouldn't have cared to be more than (unpleasantly) surprised; he and Koujaku didn't have a good relationship, exactly.

They barely had any relationship at all, Mizuki being the only link between them. The few occasions they were in the same space, they fought; Koujaku was hot-tempered and Noiz liked nothing more than tormenting the likes of people so easily ruffled. The only reason things never got straight up violent between them is because Mizuki would break up the fight before it got rough.

So Noiz wasn't feeling unsettled directly because of Koujaku, but because, now, that name linked Aoba to Midorijima, and in a way, to Noiz's life before coming to Germany. Aoba even mentioned the small island in his phone call just now. If Aoba knows Koujaku, Noiz thought as he downed the last gulp of coffee and ate his cake with a distant gaze, he probably even knows Mizuki.

When did Aoba come to Germany? He had to imagine how it would be if they had met in Midorijima. He didn't regret coming back, and he wouldn't change anything about how he met Aoba, but it was interesting how their lives had been somewhat intertwined before they even met.

Noiz leaned back further on his seat, carelessly playing with the last pieces of cake with the tines of his fork as he shook his head.

Hah. I shouldn't be too mesmerized by coincidences.

It didn't take long for Aoba to come back. Noiz was only jerked away from his thoughts when he saw the slender figure in front of him once again.

"I'm sorry..."

Noiz gave Aoba his trademark apathetic gaze as the man settled down on his seat. "No need to apologize, it was barely five minutes. We still have time for you to finish eating."

"Still, it was pretty rude of me to interrupt our lunch like this. But I hadn't talked with my friend for a long time, so I just..." He smiled shyly. Something in that look made Noiz slightly irked.

"Koujaku, huh."

"Yeah, he's a childhood friend," Aoba said, biting into his sandwich. His coffee was finished already.

"I lived in Midorijima too." Noiz blurted out. Although unplanned, he didn't feel bad revealing it.

Aoba gaped at him, the trajectory of the sandwich toward his mouth being interrupted by the ceasing of movement in his shock. He dropped the sandwich on the plate and leaned his body towards Noiz.

"Seriously?! What the hell, so when you said you lived in Japan...! What a coincidence!"

"Mm."

"But- Wait! You said that after I mentioned... So you know Koujaku?!"

"Yeah. His biggest dream was to punch my face, too bad it'll remain unfulfilled."

Aoba gave the brightest laugh of their entire meeting.

"Geez, you must've been such a brat to get on Koujaku's nerves. He's one of the most easy-going guys I know."

"That's a stranger to me."

Aoba laughed again, but his eyes had suddenly turned sad, and he resumed eating his sandwich.

"I left when I was eighteen. He could have changed a bit while I was gone, I guess."

If he was eighteen... It was possibly the exact same year that Noiz, fourteen at the time, had gone to Midorijima. Nothing more than a few months could have separated Aoba's departure and Noiz's arrival, and it could explain how they had never met there; they missed each other by a hair's breadth.

"Do you know Mizuki too?" Noiz inquired, not expecting the dark cloud that instantaneously descended over Aoba's face.

"... Why do you ask?"

Noiz was taken aback by the coldness of Aoba's voice; it was a tone he never heard in his usual upbeat speech, couldn't even imagine it before he was actually listening to it.

However, he brushed it off and explained, "Just that I knew him too. It was through him that I got to know Koujaku."

Aoba sighed before answering, "Yeah. I sure know that bastard," he muttered bitterly.

The situation only got weirder and weirder for Noiz. Mizuki was his best friend; someone who had put up with his teen angst and helped him when no one else would. He couldn't imagine that someone like that would put such an expression on Aoba's face, when Aoba was so forgiving... Or at least that's what he thought. It has been barely a month.

Aoba noticed the puzzled look on Noiz's face and smiled, although strained.

"Sorry, I... don't wanna talk about it, Noiz."

He didn't press the issue. Noiz nodded and waited until Aoba was finished eating his meal. By the time they crossed the doorway together, well-fed and satisfied, the weird atmosphere had dissipated.

"You should buy some gloves," Aoba stated suddenly. November was nearing its end, the ground was littered with dead leaves, wrinkled in all of its green-to-orange shades. The seasons were slowly changing, and the air was chilly even thought it hadn't been that long after noon.

"Why?" Noiz asked, though he knew why. Right now, he felt the wind biting into his exposed skin with the decreasing temperature.

Aoba chuckled. "Your hand was really cold when you touched my face before. It shocked me; it felt like the hand of a dead person or something."

Noiz couldn't resist the childish instinct; he immediately planted his palms on the sides of Aoba's face and the man shrieked, jumping away from the icy touch.

"What are you, five?!" He cried, rubbing at his face with his warmer hands.

Aoba's expression was so funny Noiz had to actually hold back his laughter. He just smirked at Aoba's stupid, harassed face.

"I guess I should buy some, yeah. Thanks."

Aoba pouted, still holding his cheeks. "Geez. Just go back to your boring office. I'm gonna check up on Ren before I head to my next job."

Ren was the name Aoba had chosen for the puppy he rescued. "Give him a good belly rub," Noiz teased, waving at Aoba before leaving for his company.

Aoba laughed and waved at him too. "You bet!"

 


 

From then on, Noiz and Aoba would meet for lunch whenever they could. After the first time, they started getting the tables in the far back because, in Aoba's words, "Noiz-kun likes to be getting up to funny business and when I punch you I'll at least spare you some of the embarrassment."

Aoba never punched him, though. And Noiz was a man who seized every opportunity.

On these days, he could survive hell in the office remembering Aoba's flushed face when he would brush his ankle up Aoba's leg under the table at their usual café. Noiz would do so with the blankest of expressions, observing how Aoba's shoulders would stiffen and his face heated up.

"Geez, you're relentless..."

Noiz merely huffed a laugh, drinking his coffee innocently.

"I'm serious, Noiz, what if someone..."

"Everyone's tables away from us. And this is nothing much, yeah?"

Aoba would nearly puff his cheeks, avoiding the green eyes in favor of looking outside the café. So cute.

After a few "dates" (Aoba had scoffed and tried his best to hide his embarrassment when Noiz had called it like that,) it became custom for them to wait for the other in front of the shop before entering. Aoba used to make a big fuss when Noiz tried to pay for both of them, but after some time, he let it go. Mostly because Noiz could put up a hell of a fight.

"I don't want to put a strain on your wallet, and I want us to meet whenever we can, so it'd be bad if you couldn't meet with me for being short on money. This is just me being selfish, so let me be," Noiz had said, looking into Aoba's hazel eyes.

Aoba stared at him wide-eyed, before glancing sideways at a smudge on the wall with a furtive look. "It's not like... it's only you who want to meet up. I, too..."

"I stand by my point though. I'm doing this for myself, mm? No need to feel like you're 'taking advantage', or feel like I'm doing charity."

Aoba sighed in defeat.

And so, a couple of weeks went by since they settled into that routine. Winter had arrived, and being as such, the temperatures started dropping and people walked the streets wrapped tightly in their thick coats and wool scarves, breathing puffs of air and passing by little kids playing around in the parks after the occasional snowfall happened.

In the commercial areas of the city, Christmas decorations and advertising were slowly but surely taking over the stores. Even in the lobby of Adlersflügel Group there was a bright, medium-sized Christmas tree, its colorful lights blinking even during the day. Noiz glanced at it and sighed as he left the company, making his way to his and Aoba's café.

He was surprised to see that Aoba wasn't waiting for him in front of the shop.

It was rare for him to arrive earlier than Aoba. He threw a quick glance to the windowpane of the shop front, and it didn't look like Aoba was in any of the visible tables inside.

"You didn't buy your gloves yet, did you?"

Noiz concealed his surprise at the muffled, yet recognizable voice coming from his back. He turned to see Aoba, clad in his now-mandatory thick grey coat and blue scarf, which covered his mouth. He was even wearing a wool beanie, and his headphones were probably being used more to protect his ears from the cold than to listen to music these days. People usually didn't start wearing all of those until the peak of winter in January, but it seemed that, even though he lived in Germany for years now, Aoba couldn't get used to the cold.

Noiz slipped his hands into the pockets of his black coat.

"I keep forgetting about it. And I never get the time to go to a store while it's still open."

He couldn't help noticing the dark circles under the other man's eyes. Aoba always seemed to be in some degree of "tired", what with working several jobs during the day—and the night. It wasn't a weird thing for him to doze off during their lunch meetings, and Noiz would let him sleep, if he didn't worry about Aoba not eating anything after that. However, it seemed to be getting worse since a week ago. He would fall asleep more often, even during conversations, and their meetings were becoming few and far between. He was obviously overworking himself and becoming sleep-deprived as well.

Aoba chuckled, jolting Noiz out of his recollections.

"Why are you frowning at me? Sorry I'm late..." He trailed off, pinching his eyes shut and turning his face to the side, sneezing.

"It's fine, I just got here. You alright?"

Aoba sniffled, rubbing at his nose with a grin. "I'm alright, I'm alright. Shall we?"

Noiz wasn't convinced, but he nodded. They entered the cafe.

 


 

Back in the company almost an hour later, Noiz entered his brother's office, his face completely plain. Yet, his brother perked up at his appearance.

"Oh! Brother, you look so happy today!"

Noiz glared at Theo.

"You're chipper for someone who spent the entire morning in a business meeting. How's Mr. Ackermann?"

Theo's smile fell before he heaved a sigh and slumped into his leather chair.

"Demonic, as usual. I don't think I can compete with thirty-five years in the field. I'm definitely dragging you with me next time, brother."

"I have even less experience than you do; pretty sure my presence would amount to nothing."

"Don't be like that! You know, 'two heads are better than one', and stuff!"

 Noiz rolled his eyes. "Well, how did the deal go?"

Theo grinned cheekily. "Of course, I fought tooth and nail for the best price! I mean, Mr. Ackermann kept bargaining but everyone was happy in the end."

Noiz smirked.

"Then, it's all good." He cleared his throat, then continued, opening the digital appointment book in his tablet. "I'm here to notify you on changes in your schedule for next week. We got the calls earlier this morning; the charity event was postponed, as well as two meetings with potential business partners. I've taken the liberty to assign a new date for each meeting without consulting you, since you were with Mr. Ackermann."

"Mm, it's fine. Then, tell me the days."

"Mrs. Dubois, which was on the 8th, was rescheduled for the 14th. Mr. Weber would be on the 10th, but it has been changed to the 22nd."

"Ah, mmm, I don't think I have any personal appointment on these days, so it's alright. My schedule for next week is pretty clean for now, huh."

"Also, the charity event's date was moved from the 12th to the 19th, and the location was changed because of a fire. I'll send further details to your e-mail."

"Oh, a fire? That's unfortunate, wasn't it Lennox's property? I should give him a call. I have the time now, so..." Theo searched the pockets of his suit, then pulled a drawer of his desk and searched its contents quickly. "Damn, I think I lost his card."

Noiz clicked his tongue, the business mask slipping from his features.

"Do you really need to call him right now?"

"It'd be best to do it before I forget it, and I should call as soon as I can. He helped me out a lot when I had just become the president. Mm, don't you have his number?"

Noiz huffed and powered down his tablet, laying it on his brother's desk.

"I have it, but not on my tablet. Wait."

He produced his phone from his pocket and started searching through the contacts. Before he could find Lennox's number, a notification blinked on his screen: a message from Aoba. He opened it automatically.

>> A little boy stopped me on the street to say my hair is really cool. It was really sweet but I don't know how I feel about being compared to a Power Ranger.

Before he could barely finish reading, his brother was yelling.

"Brother! You're smiling, wh- what are you doing?!"

Noiz sighed heavily.

"You know all that 'sigh sigh' doesn't work on me, tell me right-"

There was knocking on the door, interrupting Theo's banter. Both of them turned to the door, as the younger one allowed entrance with a steady "come in".

The door opened to reveal one of the staff, who entered carefully. He didn't let out in his stance, which was straight and composed, but the thin sheen of sweat on his temple and the way his lips were pursed betrayed his equanimity.

"Excuse me, sir. We have just gotten word that the chairman collapsed."

 


 

The entire day was chaotic from then on.

Noiz received the news not unlike a comment on the weather, but Theo's panic covered up his indifference perfectly. After the employee had explained the circumstances—apparently their father had fainted during a meeting with the supervisory board—Theo had left for the hospital, leaving everything in Noiz's hands and promising to call later to give him the details and discuss whatever came up while he was gone.

The story spread around the office faster than a wildfire too. Noiz glared at the people he found whispering to each other in front of their computers instead of doing their jobs, and the department heads were all notified to fucking control your subordinates. For the rest of the day, Noiz ran around attending Theo's appointments along with his own, making phone calls and sending out e-mails to cancel the ones that demanded Theo's presence personally, with long-winded apologies for such short notice changes.

Before he realized, it was 9pm and he was one of the last people in the office. He sat down in the break room with a long exhale, cradling in his hands a paper cup full to the brim with coffee.

He took a gulp and exhaled once more, feeling with relief how his insides warmed up with the hot drink. Just as he was loosening up his tie and taking off the constricting suit jacket, his phone started ringing in his pants' pocket. It was Theo.

"Hey," he said when he picked up.

"Hey. Good work today," Theo answered, sounding apologetic in response to Noiz's exhausted voice.

"You bet."

"Did anything happen while I was out?"

"Just everything possible. But it's all taken care of. I'll tell you later about the new dates for some of the appointments you had today." Noiz pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a migraine coming his way.

His brother hummed in agreement, and then they were quiet for almost a full minute. Noiz broke the awkward silence.

"So, what was so serious he couldn't just go to the infirmary?"

Theo sighed; an act so unbecoming of his cheerful, optimistic self.

"They said he had a mini stroke. There's no immediate danger to his life anymore, and the doctors told me he will be discharged in no more than three days, but... it was pretty serious, yeah."

Noiz was no more touched than before. But he knew his brother loved their father and he had been worried sick about him, so there was no use in saying something rude. "I see. So it was like that."

"I know you're tired, Wim, and I'm sorry. But can you pick up mom and bring her to the hospital? She's in a friend's house in the city, not in the manor; I'll message you the address. You should come see him too, even if for a short while."

Noiz held back his annoyed sigh. Theo was so hopeless, trying to make them into the family they never were, and never would be. Did he think they'd have a big emotional moment, hugging beside their father's hospital bed?

"Okay," was what he said, though. Going there wouldn't change anything, no matter what Theo hoped for them. It never was a big deal to play happy-Adlersflügel-family for the public eye.

They ended the call, and he gathered his things in his office before leaving the building.

 


 

Noiz's mother cried noisily in the passenger's seat of his car. They were nothing but a few blocks away from the hospital—which, surprisingly, wasn't the best, most luxurious one in Berlin, but it was the one closest to the office, and it wasn't miserable either, so it was more than enough in the middle of the emergency—and Noiz couldn't be more relieved. Not because he was in a hurry to see his father, but because his mother's blabbering was getting in his nerves.

"Listen, Wilhelm, your father has worked so hard his whole life to provide for you and your brother. Be thankful that he is okay this time, but age is catching up to him, after all."

"I've heard you've been refusing your father's requests for the marriage interview with sweet Agnes."

"You know your father and I would love nothing more than to see our sons happily married and to see the face of our next heir before we die."

"The Diefenbach is a family with genes as blessed as ours, yes. Their Agnes is so beautiful and brilliant, only a year younger than you. She's just what I'd want if I had a daughter of my own."

"Don't take for granted the empire your father and I have worked our entire lives to build for our family. You and Theo have to give your all to not let all of this go to waste."

Noiz's knuckles were white where he gripped the steering wheel when they finally arrived at the tall, pristine-white building. He drove to the parking lot, left his coat and suitcase on the back seat and climbed out of the car, followed by his mother. After the beep of the car doors locking, Noiz knew what to do; he held his mother's shoulders as they strode to the automatic glass doors of the hospital.

"Edmund Adlersflügel." The woman in the front desk typed out the name given by Noiz, looking at the computer screen and scrolling the mouse down before turning her eyes back to him.

"You are... Wilhelm Adlersflügel and Ursula Adlersflügel, I believe. We've been notified of your arrival. The patient is on room 105 at the ICU, third floor. The responsible doctor is... Ah, Dr. Trip!"

Noiz and his mother turned back to look at whoever the receptionist had spotted over their shoulders. The tall, well-built blond man clad in a white lab coat behind them seemed like he had just been interrupted on his way somewhere. He turned his body, regarding them with cold, viciously bright blue eyes.

The receptionist continued, "This is the family of the patient at room 105 of the ICU. You're responsible for that patient, right? Could you take them there, please?"

The doctor blinked slowly over uninterested eyes, his lips curling in the smallest of smiles. "Oh, sure. Follow me."

Noiz narrowed his eyes at the man's broad back before he and his mother started walking behind me. Something about him made his skin crawl in a way it hadn't since he had left the dangerous corners of Midorijima.

Trip pushed the button of the elevator, and the three boarded it the moment the doors opened for them.

"H-how's Edmund?" Noiz's mother asked tentatively, looking up at the doctor. Her dark green eyes were still wet with tears, and even as she was, wearing high heels, he was still more than a head taller than her.

"It was pretty alarming when he came in this afternoon, but it's all okay now. If his condition doesn't change for the worse, he will probably leave the ICU tomorrow and be moved to another ward until he's discharged," the man said evenly, his hands shoved into his coat's pockets.

"What a relief..." Noiz's mother sighed, her hand touching her chest.

Noiz remained silent. The doors opened and they walked out of the elevator, the two following Trip's wide steps into the bright, seemingly endless hallways, passing by other doctors and staff. The doctor opened the swinging glass doors of the ICU ward and they followed closely behind him, passing through the waiting room.

After some few more hallways and more swinging doors, Trip stopped in front of a brown door with a golden plaque written "105".

"Here it is. You can go in; I don't know if the kid who was with the patient before is still there. Now, if you'll excuse me." Trip gave them the same empty smile as he waved his hand and went to leave the ward.

His mother thanked the doctor shrilly before he crossed the doors and walked away. Noiz brushed off the man's weird attitude and walked into the room with the woman.

As soon as his father's figure—bed-ridden, surrounded by hospital equipments and connected to them by various wires—became visible, his mother was bawling again, running to his bed side. Theo, who seemed to be dozing off in a metal chair beside the bed, flinched at the sudden ruckus. Noiz rolled his eyes.

"Mnm... Mom, you have to be quiet here..." Theo mumbled to his mother, who ignored him completely in favor of holding her husband's hand to her cheek, crying copiously but considerably quieter.

Noiz stepped closer to the bed, staring at the man laid unconscious.

Again, he was no more touched than he was before. He wondered distantly if he really was the insensitive monster he had been called more than once or twice, by street thugs who tried to knock him down and by his own father too, in one or another occasion. But he had a feeling that, had it been anyone else in that bed, he'd have probably felt at least a twinge of sympathy.

He felt none of that for the pale man in front of him.

I wonder if that means I really haven't grown up.

A young nurse opened the door to the room, assessing the situation with wide eyes, before she smiled apologetically.

"I'm sorry, but only two visitors at a time are allowed in this unit."

"'S alright. I'll go get some coffee." Noiz immediately volunteered, passing by the nurse who went inside the room. She said something about "checking the patient's vitals" before the door closed behind her. Noiz sighed and followed the arrows leading out of the ICU, looking for the hospital cafeteria.

Before he even left the same floor to see where the cafeteria was, though, he saw someone just turning up in the corner, coming in his direction.

A downcast head of blue hair, wearing in his body the same grey coat he had on at lunchtime.

Aoba.

Before Noiz fully registered the sudden turn of events, he was hiding from the other man, watching him walk by. Old habits die hard, and Noiz's habit when he was met with a person of interest in an unusual situation wasn't to approach the person and immediately ask about it. It was to follow them and find out on his own.

The coffee had been long forgotten as he tailed Aoba. It was incredibly tricky; the hallways were semi-empty, and the smallest sound echoed down the corridors. Luckily, Aoba was wearing his headphones, possibly listening to music this time, so that helped Noiz's cover. Stepping as soundless as he could, he found himself coming back to the ICU, and Noiz was getting increasingly curious. Without thinking too much about it, his mind started trying to piece the information together. Maybe this was another one of Aoba's jobs? No, but he wasn't wearing a uniform. Then, visiting someone?

Aoba walked into a room not too far away from the one where Noiz's family was now. After the door was closed, the blond slowly walked towards it and looked through the small glass window in the wooden door.

He still couldn't see the patient's face because Aoba was sitting beside the bed and blocking the view, but he saw Aoba holding that person's hand, his pink headphones now encircling his neck, ambushed in the mess of blue locks. He wasn't wearing his coat anymore.

He saw Aoba craning his neck, leaning in to seemingly plant a kiss on that person's forehead for a moment. Noiz got a better glimpse of the person; it was definitely a man.

Aoba settled down again, and Noiz watched his shoulders rising. Tensing up. Trembling.

A full-body hiccup as the blue head sagged between unstable shoulders.

Noiz twisted the doorknob.

Chapter Text

Noiz stood in the doorway as Aoba slowly turned his head in his direction. Confused, beautiful hazel eyes gleaming with tears gazed at Noiz's face for a precious millisecond in which he didn't recognize the other man.

Aoba's tearful eyes widened, a couple of drops slipping down his darkening cheeks.

"... Noiz?"

"Yo," the blond answered easily. Inside, he wasn't feeling so calm.

Aoba didn't look like he knew how to act any more than Noiz did.

A strange situation.

A man with a blinding smile carrying a rabbit in the park.

A man blushing and pouting while drinking his coffee in a café.

Crying over a burger.

Crying while holding the hand of another man in the ICU.

Who are you?

"What are you doing here?" Aoba finally inquired, his brow creasing. He seemed to be getting in a defensive stance.

I'd ask myself the same thing, Noiz almost sighed. He was just spying, he wasn't going to open that door. He wasn't, but... it seemed like Aoba always stirred up something unknown inside him. Ever since the first time they met.

"My father is in this hospital. I just happened to see you coming here."

"... Your father?"

"It's nothing much. My family is with him now."

Aoba said nothing and looked down. Noiz closed the door behind him.

Now that we're here... Guess we'll just have to roll with it.

He stepped closer, causing the other man to jerk his head up again. Aoba watched as Noiz got on one knee beside his chair and wiped the Aoba's tears away with the sleeve of his shirt.

Aoba blinked, looking shocked as Noiz's thumb brushed over the corner of his eye.

"... Where's your handkerchief today?"

"Forgot it at the office."

Aoba resisted for roughly two seconds before laughing heartily. Noiz wanted to laugh too.

There was a pause where Noiz withdrew his hand and they looked at each other.

"Sit with me," Aoba said, almost in a whisper.

Noiz pulled another chair from the corner and did as he was told. He sat beside Aoba, and finally looked at the mysterious figure lying on bed that, somehow, went ignored until now.

He was clearly Japanese too, short black hair reaching the middle of his neck. He was doll-like and nearly phantasmagoric; his skin was white as a sheet of paper.

"Somehow... As your elder, I think I've been making a pretty bad impression out of myself." Aoba sighed.

Noiz leaned back on the chair. "Isn't that fine?"

"No no no, that's no good."

"Heh. I don't know what bad impression you're talking about, anyway. A crybaby is a crybaby no matter how old they are."

"Brat."

That's good. We're talking just like always.

They sat in silence. The heart monitor beeped monotonously.

"This person... is my twin brother."

Noiz glanced at him and squared his shoulders, waiting for Aoba to say more.

When Aoba remained quiet, he finally spoke up. "His name?"

"Sei."

Noiz felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He ignored it.

Absentmindedly, Noiz took Aoba's hand on his own, rubbing the pad of his thumb over the cold knuckles of the other man's hand.

Only then did he see a few papers lying messily on Aoba's lap, some of the words jumping into his vision, defocusing and focusing.

Life-support machine.

Switching off.

Remote possibilities.

Permission.

Organ donation.

"He's been asleep for almost five years now."

"I see," Noiz said simply, not stopping the soothing motion of his fingers.

"It's funny... The doctor's been asking about that for some time, talking about unplugging him. It never affected me like this before; I would just refuse it flatly. After I refused it, the doctor wouldn't ask about it again for a few weeks, a couple of months. But, just now, he handed me the paperwork, told me to think about it carefully... And it hit me. It's just a bit too real for me now." Aoba closed his eyes and leaned back on the chair, sighing.

"You don't have to sign it, though."

"I know. And I won't. It's just weird... to have this power over Sei's life."

"Well, you are his decision-maker."

"Yeah..." Aoba sighed again, opening his eyes but not looking at Noiz. "But I never once thought of pulling the plug until the doctor brought it up. From the beginning, I promised I'd take my brother back to our home, safe and sound."

It was clear that Aoba was trying his best not to cry again. Noiz glanced at him briefly, raising the Aoba's hand to his lips and leisurely planting kisses to his knuckles.

Aoba turned his head to him, his tired look becoming surprised.

"Felt like doing it. Problem?" Noiz explained, seeing the question in Aoba's eyes.

Aoba blinked a few times, speechless, and then huffed a short laugh. There was the faintest blush coloring his cheeks.

"No. It's okay."

Another long silence stretched between them, but it was a peaceful sort of quiet. Noiz didn't stop his ministrations, brushing his lips and his thumb on Aoba's fingers, slowly heating up the cold skin of his hand. Aoba looked at his brother with a tiny smile on his face, his eyes full of love.

"Thank you, Noiz."

He looked up, his lips leaving Aoba's skin.

"I... never had anyone to talk about Sei here. One or two people know about it, but they looked at me with so much pity when I told them that I just... avoid mentioning it altogether. I love Sei, and I'd take care of him for years and years to come, but... sometimes, it gets hard. I get tired and angry and sad. So... Thank you so much for listening to me, and comforting me without making my brother and me to be pathetic."

"Mm." Noiz turned Aoba's palm up and planted one last kiss, this time on the heel of his hand. He cradled the hand between his own two and grinned at Aoba. "You've been working hard."

Aoba's eyes got as wide as saucers, tears welling up once again and making the hazel color of his irises shine under the white lights of the room. He let out a shaky laugh, his eyes pinching shut with his usual blinding smile.

"Yeah."

Noiz was happy he had opened the door.

 


 

At some point, Noiz finally checked his phone, and read the message he had received from his brother earlier.

>> Where are you? It's been half an hour!

An hour now, Noiz thought. He typed out a reply and sent it.

>> Busy. You need something?

>> I was worried! You just disappeared, I even went to the cafeteria earlier and you weren't there.

>> Like I'm going to get kidnapped or murdered inside a hospital. I'm fine. Are you still with mother and father?

>> I am. But I think it's about time to head home. You're still in the hospital, right?

>> Yeah, ran into a friend.

>> ... I really want to ask "since when do you have another friend besides Mizuki-san" but I'm a bit too sleepy for this.

>> Go home already. And take mother with you, she nagged her head off at me on our way here.

>> Haha, okay, okay. Introduce me to your friend later! :3

"You're texting someone?" Aoba asked. They were sitting in the cafeteria now; Noiz finally drinking his coffee while Aoba simply made him company.

"Yeah, it's Theo."

Aoba searched in his memories. Noiz had mentioned that name before while talking about his office. "Theo... Ah, the brother you talked about before? You did say your family was here."

"Mm. He wanted to know where I was."

"Is Theo your big brother?" he asked, with a bit of a tease in his voice.

"No, he's my little brother. Two years younger."

Aoba seemed surprised at the reply. "Oh. Wow, you two are pretty young to be working in an office."

Noiz shrugged. "That's how this family is. They made us work ourselves to the bone because they wanted us to be ready to take the helm of the company before we were 20."

Aoba stared at Noiz for a while, then turned his eyes away and hummed in understanding. He could tell there was some baggage concerning Noiz's family, but he wouldn't pry, at least not for now.

"Well, I'm the younger brother."

Noiz scoffed.

"A couple of minutes aren't that much difference."

"Yeah, well, we have eighty days of difference."

Noiz blinked. They stared at each other.

"I have a feeling that Sei would probably still make sure everyone knows he's the big brother even if we only had a few minutes between us, though." Aoba added sheepishly.

"How did that happen?" Noiz asked, genuinely curious.

Aoba laughed at the twinkle of fascination in Noiz's eyes. He leaned back on his chair, smiling.

"Well, Granny told us that our mom was admitted to the hospital with intense contractions—Granny worked at the hospital, she was the one to deliver us—but it was way too early, so everyone was in a bit of a panic. Mom and dad were devastated when Granny told them that chances were that we'd die because we'd be too premature. Mom was very religious, so she prayed—prayed that we'd be born safely even if it took her own life, while dad prayed for all of us to be safe. Sei was born, but he was in serious risk, and then mom's contractions just stopped and I was kind of 'stuck' there."

Aoba shook his head and chuckled, as if reminiscing fondly. Noiz only listened, his eyes trained on Aoba's face.

"The doctors could've forced me out of the womb, but they decided it would be safer to wait and see. All three of us were in a very dangerous situation then, but Sei kept on fighting and two and a half months later, mom gave birth to me safely. Sei was a bit sickly for most of his life, but he always made it through whatever tried to knock him down... Mom gave him a name meaning 'life' so he would survive anything. That's why I know he's definitely going to wake up."

Aoba finished his story; a soft smile on his lips but a firm resolve in his eyes.

"Looks like both of you have been fighting to live since you were born. That's pretty cool."

Aoba grinned at him.

"It's getting late, shouldn't you go home? I can drive you," Noiz suggested, knowing that Aoba had to work early in the morning.

Aoba shook his head. "No, I'm spending the night with Sei."

Noiz frowned. "You've been pushing yourself too hard, you think I didn't notice? Today you almost dozed off face-down on your tuna sandwich at lunch."

Aoba flushed in embarrassment, turning his head to the side while grumbling.

"Yeah, it's just that I'm working more jobs than before, because I'm tight on money for the bills... That's why I want to stay with Sei for now; I've been neglecting him a bit."

Noiz stared at him for a few seconds, his brow furrowed, but sighed in defeat.

"Okay, then I'm leaving. Also, lunch tomorrow?"

"Sorry, I'll be busy at lunchtime," Aoba replied with an apologetic smile.

"No problem. Shoot me a text whatever happens, yeah? Good night."

"Good night!"

They waved at each other and Noiz walked out of the cafeteria, heading to the elevator.

Noiz was disappointed that his attempt at visiting Aoba's home had been intercepted, but he was sure a new opportunity would appear soon.

 


 

Soon was not "in a week", definitely, and Noiz wanted to kill everyone. Not because of that sought out opportunity (just a bit because of that, Noiz admitted to himself).

But, actually, because his father was completely recovered now and harassing him like no tomorrow, trying to use his stroke to make him feel bad and do as he wanted. His mother had jumped into the bandwagon too, and now the "high society" of Berlin talked of nothing but a possible union between Wilhelm Adlersflügel and Agnes Diefenbach. Everything was a big amalgam of emotional blackmail and public expectations, and Noiz wasn't one to bend to those easily, but he was drained.

Furthermore, Aoba and Noiz weren't able to meet even once during that week. Aoba was working like a madman, and even texting was rare nowadays. What happened in the hospital had been big. Every time he saw Aoba, he was learning something new about him—and he soon realized he craved for that. So it was irritating for him that they had gone so long not seeing each other right after that. He was impatient, and in an all-around shitty mood.

"Yes. I'm going to the banquet. With Agnes."

Noiz finally voiced his father's much awaited confirmation, mostly because the chairman casually questioned him with the executive and managing directors as well as five other people from staff behind him. He couldn't deny it in front of that crowd; the gossip would be a hassle, and he was too tired already.

His parents had changed the "marriage interview" to the upcoming Christmas banquet they were going to throw, to which they'd invite all the rich elite—including the Diefenbach. And, of course, they wanted to use that opportunity to force Noiz and Agnes together. While Noiz thought that was definitely better than an intimate meeting with the girl, he didn't like the idea of playing couple with her for his parents and their friends either.

"Are you really fine with that, brother?" Theo asked at the end of that day, when Noiz told him about how their father had finally driven him to a corner. They were in a small restaurant after leaving the office; a rare occurrence since they'd always be tired and craving for the privacy of their houses after a long day of work.

Noiz huffed bitterly, drinking from his glass of wine and looking off to the side, without really seeing the people conversing at the tables nearby.

"Not like I had a choice, right? I'm tired of their nagging, so just let them do as they please."

Theo was sad; of course, because he brought his brother back with promises of fixing the mistakes of the past, but he never imagined Noiz would be roped into playing in their parents' perfect miniature garden again. He had been naïve.

"Wim... please, don't yield so easily to our parents' schemes," Theo finally mumbled with downcast eyes, bringing Noiz's surprised gaze to his face.

The boy continued, looking up at his brother. "We're not kids anymore, so you won't escape, but that means you'll just let them do whatever they want with your life and... I didn't bring you back here for you to be unhappy and to be imprisoned again."

Noiz blinked, his eyes big while staring into his brother's identical lime-green ones. Then his face relaxed and his lips curled in a smirk.

"Everything's fine. Who do you think I am, anyway?" He flicked his brother's forehead, earning himself a pained "ow!" while Theo put his hands to the bruised spot.

"I'm not letting them rule my life or something like that. I just let them have their way this time because, aside from being tired of their insistence, this isn't really a big deal," he explained, cutting the meat on his plate and taking it to his mouth. He chewed as Theo knitted his brows, twisting his lips as he thought up his retort.

"It... isn't, but what if they force you to marry her after that?" He followed his brother's example and dug his spoon into his meal.

"Yeah, that's one reason why I resisted this whole thing so much, but they can't force me to do that. And while I won't escape, I also won't stand by and watch them turn me into their puppet."

Noiz went back to eating his dinner, and Theo smiled in a mix of relief and sadness.

 


 

Noiz's decision had been made and a few days later, on the night of the 24th, Noiz was driving to the Diefenbach manor. He was supposed to pick up Agnes and then head to his family's manor, where the party would take place. At least, the girl's home was in the city; the trip was long enough considering his parents' manor was so inconveniently far away.

After being allowed entrance at the front gates, he stopped in front of the house. He stepped out of the car, in his black tuxedo and hair slicked back. He didn't have to wait long in the shivering cold. Only a couple of minutes after that, the girl emerged from the double doors of the manor, wearing a glittery, long red dress that clung to her figure nicely. The dress was sleeveless and her mid-back length, brown hair was let down, spilling over her shoulders. She approached Noiz with a small smile on her pink lips and a red tint on her cheeks, barely visible in the dim lighting.

It was undeniable, blaringly obvious that she was a beautiful girl. Yet, Noiz could find no interest inside him.

Nevertheless, he went through the motions of "courting" the young woman. When she stopped in front of him, he muttered his "good evening" and bowed, taking her hand on his own and kissing its back. He straightened up and opened the door to the passenger's seat.

After she all but squeaked her reply to his greeting with a beet red face, she climbed into the car. Noiz closed the door and walked around the vehicle to get on the driver's seat, starting off to his parents' manor.

They spent the first twenty minutes of the trip completely silent, mainly because Noiz didn't really want to say anything, and Agnes was trying to steel herself, waiting to strike a conversation.

"A-Ah, how was your time in England, Wilhelm? I was there just recently," she asked, looking at Noiz's profile. He blinked, initially confused by her question.

"Mm? Ah, it was alright," he replied, after realizing she was referring to his parents little story for his disappearance five years ago. In one of the many dinners and business parties he had to attend in the months after he returned to Germany, someone asked him something similar and he was confused, until he realized that his parents had told everyone that he had been studying in England.

He didn't think of that before, but of course his parents wouldn't let his high class friends know that their heir had escaped from home.

Agnes looked taken aback by Noiz's curt reply. There wasn't much he could do about it; the last time he was in England was when he was a kid, he barely remembered enough to make up more lies, even if he wanted to.

The girl wasn't dispirited, though. She tried again.

"We never had the chance to talk since your return. Well, I guess even before that, we barely saw each other when we were kids."

Yeah, because my parents were locking me up in my room like a fucking animal.

"Indeed."

"Did you miss Germany a lot?"

Noiz held back a sigh. She's asking really difficult questions. At least, difficult to reply sincerely.

"Yes. I didn't see my brother for a long time."

"Ah, it's a given you'd miss Theo."

The entirety of the one-hour ride went by in that inconstant small talk. Agnes valiantly tried to make Noiz say more than ten words in a sentence, Noiz valiantly tried not to say something rude about his family since any topic of conversation revolved around it.

When they finally arrived at the Adlersflügel manor, the place was already packed with guests. The hall was well illuminated and decorated with warm colors; there were numerous round tables covered with red tablecloths and white flowers centerpieces, as well as ostensive chandeliers glinting still on the tall ceiling. There was also a stage with a podium, where a string quartet was already playing—Dvořák, one of his father's favorites, Noiz realized with a roll of his eyes.

Noiz had his arm looped with Agnes' as they navigated the hall, greeting the guests. Noiz always hated every second of these gatherings, and he hated it even more now that he had to endure the cheesy grins and pats on his back, the lecherous old men saying how beautiful Agnes was and how lucky he'd be to take her hand. Agnes looked slightly uncomfortable too, so Noiz gratefully sat with her at the table where his parents and Theo were.

His parents proceeded to shower Agnes with affection, talking about how gorgeous she looked. The girl graciously accepted the compliments, throwing furtive looks at Noiz, who occupied himself talking to his brother so he could ignore the casual jabs his parents' delivered while talking to Agnes.

"Our Wilhelm wasn't rude to you, right, Agnes?"

"No, not at all, he was nothing less than a gentleman."

"I sure hope so."

A heavy pat on Noiz's shoulder. His father.

"Sorry, this boy just clams up in front of people. He's been like that forever."

"Ah, well, I'm not very talkative myself, so I feel very comfortable with silent people."

"Then it's all good. We hope you will have a good time in our banquet! Use this opportunity to get to know each other better."

"Ah, yes." The girl laughed shyly.

After that, the string quartet stopped playing and Noiz's father walked up to the podium on the stage. There was a roar of applause around the hall as the man greeted the crowd. At that point, Noiz all but turned off his brain, watching his father's mouth move yet trying not to listen. Unfortunately for him, his ears were still working. He knew his father was thanking everyone for their presence tonight and talking about Adlersflügel Group's achievements this year. He probably made a joke at some point because there was laughing around Noiz.

"My first toast," his father declared, "is to my sons. Theodore, who now sits in the president chair of our company, built on the sweat and work of this family, and Wilhelm, who came back to our home this summer and is, now, working alongside his brother. Your mother and I are proud of you. Cheers!"

There was the collective clamor of "cheers!" across the hall as the guests raised their glasses. Noiz tried not to sigh. Everything was so fake. So suffocating.

After that, his father toasted to their mother, thanking her for all the help throughout their twenty years of marriage, then toasted to the company's success. He spilled a few more niceties, talking directly to some of his business associates and joking, before excusing himself and going back to their table. The string quartet was playing again, and couples got up to dance in the empty space between the stage and the tables.

Noiz knew Agnes was most likely expecting that he'd ask her to dance, so he proceeded to do so. He offered his hand and her eyes lit up as she nodded. Agnes held his hand, and so, they walked to the dancing floor.

He put his hand on her hip as he pulled her closer to him. They got into position; hands held together, her other hand on his bicep and his own at the base of her shoulder blade. Just like that, they started swaying with the music, Agnes' feet following his expertly.

"Ah," she gasped softly, then smiled. "That's Tchaikovsky's 'Sleeping Beauty'. I really like this one."

Noiz hummed in acknowledgement. Not feeling like fighting the silence, she opted to lay her head on his shoulder, and so he watched the movements of people around the hall over Agnes' shoulder; the other couples dancing, waiters and waitresses moving skillfully around the sitting guests with their trays holding drinks and dishes.

The two flowed hand-in-hand across the dance floor for five, ten minutes, until Agnes complained that her feet were starting to hurt. Noiz suggested they sit at their table again so she could rest, but the girl shook her head.

"Actually, I'd like some fresh air. Would you mind coming with me to the balcony?"

Noiz mumbled his "not at all", and they climbed the stairs on the right side of the room, which led to a balcony that overlooked the stage and guests underneath, and had a series of glass doors that opened to the well-lit terrace. Noiz opened the closest door for Agnes and followed her outside.

If he was honest with himself, he was relieved that Agnes' had decided to come here; he could use a breather after being stuck in that hall full of people, even if it was a bit cold. He realized that it meant that he had to be alone with her, but there was no helping that. He had to indulge this girl and his parents for tonight.

"Wilhelm."

Noiz raised his eyes at the soft uttering of the name he hated. He blinked, peering at Agnes' back as she looked away from him into the night, her hands gripping the marble railing. For a moment, it seemed like she had never said anything, but then she turned back slowly, her face serious.

"Where is your heart?"

Noiz stared at the girl blankly, not registering the absurd sentence immediately.

"What." He almost felt like scoffing at what he had just heard. He couldn't see where that came from.

"You know, Wilhelm, I like you. We have only seen each other from far away since we were kids, but because of the close relationship between our families, there's always been talk of marrying us, even your parents said so when they visited our home. Didn't they... ever say anything to you?"

Noiz raised one eyebrow. "They used to say lots of things when I was a kid."

Agnes sighed.

"Well... for the little girl I was back then, that was really amazing, and every time I'd see you, I'd remember. Being promised to marry someone is like something out of a movie or an old romance novel." She chuckled, walking to stand closer to where Noiz stood. "But then I didn't see you for a long time so I forgot about it; grew out of these childish fantasies and didn't think of that anymore. Until I saw you tonight."

Noiz remained silent, sensing that she wasn't finished. She breathed deeply, and looked him dead in the eye, with a sharpness he hadn't seen that entire night, nor had he expected to ever see it in the pair of blue orbs.

"Wilhelm, you've been nothing but gentle and considerate since you appeared at my house tonight. But I sense nothing from these actions. It looks as if you're just going through the motions of a mundane task, paying no mind to it. It isn't just because you're not interested in me. I can't see you. It's like you're not here at all."

Noiz huffed a laugh and broke eye contact, stepping around her and stopping where she was before. He settled his elbows on the railing of the balcony and leaned his back against it, facing Agnes.

"What, I didn't realize I was being observed so closely," he sneered, not worrying about handling her like a glass vase anymore. If she wanted a frank talk, he was more than glad to drop the act.

"I'm a rich girl, but I'm not stupid, Wilhelm." She crossed her arms under her chest, looking at him with raised eyebrows.

Noiz smirked, drawing a faint, reluctant blush from Agnes. Her all-knowing attitude was annoying, but stripped of all social high class niceties, talking to her wasn't that bad.

"I never said that. Anyway, where are you trying to go with this?"

She took a few steps closer to him. He straightened up with careful eyes, creasing his brow.

"As I said, I like you. Furthermore, marrying you is a duty to my family, to strengthen the ties between our companies and benefit each other from this union."

Noiz clicked his tongue and looked away, shoving his hands into his pockets.

"I have no intention of marrying you."

Her eyebrow twitched, but she smiled faintly.

"Yes, I realize that. I still want it but it wouldn't work if you don't want it too. So I want to know why. Why is that you look so out of place here, even though you were born into the Adlersflügel? Is there anywhere else you'd rather be other than here?"

Noiz glanced at her briefly, irritation tugging at his eyes.

"There are many places I'd rather be but here."

"Is there someone else you'd rather be with too?"

This question made him falter. He instantly could think of someone he'd rather be with.

She picked up on his sudden hesitance. Agnes didn't give him time to think further.

"Do you know if that person wants to be with you too? Would she be a better marriage candidate than me? Would your family approve...?"

"Shut up," Noiz finally rasped out, brow furrowed.

Agnes cut herself off, gulping at the anger burning low in Noiz's clear eyes. But she didn't back down, tipping up her chin to look at him squarely.

"There is someone, isn't it? Someone you like."

"There isn't," he spat. He wasn't feeling like baring his heart to this girl he barely knew.

But there was someone, wasn't it? Someone with rebellious blue hair and a smile so unlike any other he had seen before. Noiz told himself he felt lust for Aoba. Didn't deny he was attracted to him, and wished to act on it. But after more than a month, it was obvious that there was more to it than that. He could have kissed, even slept with Aoba already, but instead, he was trying to fork out the most time he could to spend it with him. He was irritated because they hadn't seen each other in more than a week. He himself didn't understand his feelings, didn't want to pay them any attention, so he wouldn't speak of them.

Romantic love was too far-fetched for someone who barely knew the warmth of a family and friendship.

Agnes seemed like she didn't buy that not even for a second, but played along, stepping even closer to him and trapping him against the railing. She stared up at him defiantly.

"Then you wouldn't care if I did this, right?"

She pulled him down by the lapels of his jacket, crushing his lips to hers. Noiz's hands slipped off his pockets and were frozen in air, momentarily surprised by the sudden turn of events.

Not two second later, having processed her words and the situation, his eyes narrowed and he settled his hands on her hips. Her tongue brushed his bottom lip, silently asking for permission and Noiz held back a scoff, following the movements of Agnes' lips.

That's right, I don't care.

Be it a kiss or any kind of touch, that kind of thing never meant anything to me. People's affection, they never...

Noiz's clenched his fists as he raised his eyes, looking over the girl's shoulder to the glass door that led to the hall. His heart skipped a beat when he saw a shadow behind it, but he realized with relief that it was just someone from the staff that was walking by, carrying an empty silver tray. If it was one of the guests, the gossip and gawking would be unbearable.

But then, something gave him pause about that person.

His mind rebelled when he looked at the pale skin and silky, straight black hair that came down to that waiter's shoulder. He remembered a man lying in a hospital bed, with a heart monitor insistently beeping beside him. But it couldn't be, how...?

Before the name could form in his mind, though, hazel eyes he knew too well turned to him and met his gaze head-on. Hazel eyes that sparked with recognition, surprise.

And then, hurt.

Noiz detached himself from Agnes before he realized what he was doing. Aoba was turning his back and hurriedly leaving the hallway, and Noiz stepped around Agnes to follow him.

Chapter Text

Wide, wavering green eyes watched as Aoba turned away from the balcony, hurrying to leave the hallway. Noiz thought the echo of his steps was too loud in his ears; probably a figment of his imagination, along with that feeling of one second lasting a few years.

Everyone could hate me for all I care. For someone who was hated by his own parents, the scorn of strangers was nothing. The world abandoned me once.

But only you... Only you can't...

"Aoba!"

He didn't know what was that flash of pain in Aoba's eyes. He didn't know what was the coldness rising from his stomach, gripping his heart like a vicious fist. A part of his brain said it was stupid, but the biggest part of it was moving his legs towards the glass door.

But then a hand closed around his arm, stopping him.

"Wait, what are you doing?" Agnes inquired, looking at him with shocked eyes.

He fixed her with the coldest, most vile look he could muster. Stepping up to the challenge, she too narrowed her blue eyes threateningly.

"Don't give me that look. If you go in there running and yelling, it's going to be troublesome for both of us. They are going to talk."

"I don't care." He pulled his arm from her hold, meaning to make for the door again but she grabbed it again, this time with both arms.

"You should care. You and I aren't kids, and even if you don't like it, we have to keep up appearances. I don't know what happened just now, but don't you dare make things difficult for me too."

Aoba was no longer on sight. If he had to look for him in the crowd... Noiz gritted his teeth.

"I get it, let me go. I'm not going anywhere."

Agnes sighed and released his arm. Noiz scrubbed his jacket's sleeve against his lips, intending to erase any traces of her lipstick.

Agnes looked behind him, to the glass door. "I caught a glimpse of someone running away... And what did you say? Ao..."

"Aoba," Noiz completed unthinkingly. He was looking at the ground, lost in thought, trying to make sense of what he saw and what he felt.

"... It's a name? You saw this person just now?"

Noiz refused to answer, still looking away from her with a tense expression. In a stark contrast to him, her face was softening.

"I thought I was never getting a real reaction out of you. It wasn't how I intended, but I'm getting the picture now."

Noiz narrowed his eyes at her. Was she making fun of him?

Agnes laughed. "Oh my, who saw you so gentlemanly this evening? You've been giving me nothing but death glares now."

"Don't you think you deserve them?"

"Of course not. I mean, you wouldn't be honest to begin with. But I guess I was kind of pushy trying to draw you out. Sorry about that."

"Why should I be honest with you? Do I fucking know you?"

Her eyes were wide, then she started laughing even harder. Noiz turned to leave again but, again, she grabbed his arm to stop him.

"Don't... leave. I'm sorry, just- You have to understand, it's like I'm seeing someone transform in front of my very eyes!"

Noiz aggressively pulled away once more, distancing himself from her.

"Sure it's amazing how you transformed since the start of this evening."

She smiled cheekily.

"You're not the only one who has to play a persona in public. It's part of being born in this kind of family. It's not like I was being fake, I was feeling quite bashful, but I've observed you enough to know how to deal with you."

Noiz was uncomfortable, to say the least. He was used to being the one reading people, knowing things they didn't expect him to know. He felt like he was wrapped around this girl's little finger and he still wanted nothing more than to look for Aoba and find out what the hell was happening.

"And why are you telling me all of this? Why are you so interested?"

Agnes rolled her eyes.

"I already said I like you. I want to know you. But," she said, voice softening in the next words. "Now I'm sure that you're in love with someone else already. So I'm no longer pursuing..." she gestured vaguely between them. "... this. At least I got to have a kiss."

She chuckled, and Noiz only blinked with an empty look.

Agnes turned defensive, crossing her arms. "Hey, I wouldn't have kissed you if you had just told me the truth right away. This Aoba person will have their hands full with such a stubborn guy. I feel bad for them already."

Agnes released a loud dramatic sigh, letting her voice bleed into it like a whine. She looked at the dark sky.

"You should see your face when you looked at them. You looked the most alive this entire evening... No, ever since the first time I saw you!" She turned her eyes to him. "You... are really afraid of what they're going to think of this kiss, right?"

Noiz glanced at her briefly and then looked away, his jaw locked. The coldness in his chest hadn't subsided.

"I'm sorry for creating trouble for you, I guess. But it seems like you have a lot of trouble already, if you can't admit this much aloud. There are a lot of things I want to ask you, but more importantly, are you two even dating?"

"Get your nose out of my business."

"Then speed it up, because this is sort of ruining my plans as the heiress of the Diefenbach and wasting many opportunities for both of our companies."

Noiz scoffed. "You sure seem satisfied being the Diefenbach puppet."

She smiled brightly. "I've committed myself to being the Diefenbach puppet. It was the choice I've made. Besides, it's not being a puppet if I'm just taking care of my own future. But, well, you have nothing to do with it anymore. So if you're going to be a stick in the mud and ruin our families' plans, you should at least make it count. Stop beating around the bush and be happy with your Aoba."

He sighed exasperatedly and she clapped her hands together.

"Anyway, let's go back inside. I think it's going to snow later, I'm freezing!"

 


 

There was the muffled sound of a car going down the street outside, blasting Christmas carols. Noiz wanted to die.

He didn't have the opportunity to approach Aoba during the banquet and Agnes didn't leave him alone the entire night. She insisted that she wanted to be friends, so to "offer her apologies for being pushy" and to "help Noiz drown his sorrows", she took him—forced him to drive them—to one of her favorite bars after the banquet was over. It was a small, elegant bar in the city, in a safe distance from both of their homes and companies. Noiz insisted he didn't like alcohol but apparently she was a big drinker, so she wouldn't be dissuaded. Ultimately, he threatened to leave her behind and she threatened to call his parents.

And thus, they drank together until six in the fucking morning.

Noiz wasn't a lightweight but he had no supernaturally high tolerance too, so when they were finally finished, he was in no shape to drive them back. Agnes wasn't that much better, but she was sober enough to ask her friend who worked at the bar to call a cab for them.

And that was the sad Christmas tale of how Noiz woke up in the middle of his living room, face down on his carpet, still wearing his shoes and tuxedo. He made no effort to move in his first waking moments. His body felt as heavy as lead and his head throbbed painfully as the memories of last night were slowly flooding his mind.

The image of Aoba's distraught face in the banquet was crystal clear. More hazily, he remembered Agnes confiscating his phone so he wouldn't call Aoba when he was already too far gone. He was pretty sure he had cried at some point too, and his eyes still felt puffy. And worst of all, he still had to pick up his car at the bar.

Noiz wanted to die.

He rolled onto his back, and stared at the ceiling for long minutes.

How the fuck have things come to this?

He got up and sluggishly dragged himself to his sofa, turning his back to it when he was close enough. He let himself drop into the cushions with a drawn-out groan, his eyes closing. If he had a blanket now, he could even fall asleep again. With a jolt, he patted his pockets, and was relieved to find out that Agnes had returned his phone to him before they parted ways. He opened his eyes again and brought the screen to his face, tapping on it to turn it on.

He stared at the blinking "4:47pm" on the top of the lock screen. Although sleeping most of the day was a good Christmas activity on his book, he would rather have done so in his bed. He sighed and unlocked the screen with a sweep of his thumb. It didn't open to his home screen, but instead, his message box. He opened his inbox with raised eyebrows, seeing one unread message.

It was a message from an unknown number. He opened it and almost rolled his eyes immediately.

>> Haey took adcvantage of you weeakness to exchange numebrs.,. anyuway this si my nu mber,, save n report me o.n ur aoba boy byee fries -agnes

Noiz let the screen black out. From the timestamp, it seemed like she had sent the message when they were still at the bar. He hadn't even noticed when she did that,  not that it seemed like he noticed many things last night. And apparently she even knew Aoba's gender now. Not that he cared, but it was worrying that he wasn't sure of half the shit he spouted that night.

It only worried him for about two seconds before he was dozing off again.

 


 

Noiz was sprawled on his bed, aimlessly staring at the ceiling. It had been three days since the whole "caught kissing in the balcony" incident. The "got myself shitfaced and cried because I felt genuinely scared that you'd start hating me" incident. That last part was decidedly going to stay buried deep in the past and hopefully forgotten soon. During those last three days, Aoba and Noiz still texted each other—Noiz steeled himself to shoot the first message, and Aoba ended up beating him to it—but none of them addressed the issue.

They still couldn't talk that much, because even though Noiz had been off work since Christmas Eve, Aoba was still working. And when Aoba said anything, he seemed distant. When Noiz had finally gotten impatient and asked what that attitude of his was, Aoba just said he was tired from work. Noiz could've gone ahead and asked him about that night, but instead he just... stopped.

Noiz sighed. He was never the type to be tiptoeing around a topic; if he wanted to know something, he found it out. Be it questioning the person upfront or going behind their back and finding his answer on his own. Agnes had been annoying, but she was right, after all. He couldn't keep stalling like this.

When did things become so muddled up inside him? When did Aoba take up such space in his mind, and when did he start affecting Noiz so much? He was sure he was in control of the situation at first. At first, he was interested in Aoba, even entranced by that unguarded smile. It was amusing to poke fun at Aoba, push his buttons and make him blush.

But then, something different swelled up in his chest—for this weird man who cried over a burger, who rescued a puppy even when things were hard enough for him alone, who worked day and night to take care of his brother when anyone else would have lost faith. Aoba never said anything, but taking in Ren had obviously burdened him further; he already had his brother's hospital bills and his own livelihood to worry about. He started working himself to the bone to handle everything, never complaining, and yet, Aoba was nothing but human, Noiz knew when he saw those tears in the hospital.

Noiz got up from bed and headed to his closet. Slowly, Aoba went from "interesting" to "important". So important that Noiz couldn't let himself think too deeply about how much he didn't want to jeopardize their relationship. But he felt the full extent of that fear on Christmas Eve. He'd be damned if he let that fear take control of him, though.

Whether or not he was in love with Aoba, he knew for sure he wanted to be with him. He needed to see him, and find out what to do of these feelings, whatever name he decided to give them. Because if Aoba's face on the banquet and his behavior until now were anything to go by, he was probably feeling the same way. Noiz adjusted the tie around his neck and ran a hand over the surface of his suit jacket, looking at himself on the mirror briefly.

He grabbed his keys on his nightstand.

 


 

Noiz couldn't help reproaching himself for letting things get to this point. Aside from Mizuki and Theo, he didn't want to care for people; neither did he want them to care for him. That was the mindset he functioned under since he was a kid. Granted, he had to learn how to be cordial and sociable for his job, but that was it. Most people kept a safe distance from him and the ones who did get close were the ones who wanted something from him, be it money, favors, sex or whatever else. He learned that quite quickly after leaving the sheltered world of his family's manor. Nothing comes free in this world, and people are fickle in their desires and actions. Betrayal is expected. So isn't it easier and smarter to just live alone?

Despite that, Aoba, a complete stranger, slipped right under his defenses. Not a long-time friend, not a brother. And even though his old self would call him stupid, say he's just opening himself up for unavoidable betrayal, Noiz couldn't find it in himself to regret meeting Aoba, nor to resent him for talking to him that night in the park. Even now, he was happy that Aoba looked beyond his cold exterior and saw something he himself couldn't see.

Even though he reprimanded himself for the feelings he developed for Aoba, he was glad that Aoba got close to him, and that he got to know Aoba... Maybe he wasn't any less fickle than the people around him. Noiz smiled faintly.

Thinking that, he parked his car close to the strip club where Aoba worked. He crossed his arms over the steering wheel, laid his head on them and gave a shaky laugh.

It was 11pm on a Friday. He knew Aoba was working there today, and completely at odds with his cool attitude several weeks ago when he dropped Aoba off, he was a wreck. It was ridiculous, laughable even. He had confidently decided to stop this nonsense and find out once and for all what to do with himself and Aoba, and now he was so fucking nervous about seeing Aoba after more than a week without seeing each other's face properly—a few days after he became aware of the new developments inside himself and the feelings reflected on Aoba's eyes that night in the banquet.

Noiz opened the door of the car and left, locking it up, and made his way to the building. He thought distantly if Aoba would get mad at him for showing up there, when he was so embarrassed about it before. Noiz smiled at the thought. It would do him well to see that furious blush and rebellious snarl after so long. After going through the ID check at the front desk and paying the entrance fee, he stopped in front of the two tall bouncers in black suits standing on each side of the door, leaving his nerves behind and entering the main area.

His eyes were immediately assaulted by strong, pink and golden lighting. The music that was only muffled outside, now was thumping in his eardrums and inside his own chest. The bar took the right side of the room, situated in a slightly elevated ground, and in the center were small, round tables with two red leather chairs each, vertically lined up in front of Noiz. To the left was a stage with a single pole in its center and two to each side of it, more to the back of the stage. The room extended far beyond, showing other small bars and satellite stages in the back.

What surprised Noiz was that all the dancers and staff that he could make out from where he stood seemed to be men. And despite that, the clientele was formed of equal parts men and women. A number of them were sitting on the bar, talking to each other. There were those watching the stages with lascivious eyes and tipping the dancers and others were being given lap dances in their seats.

Noiz took a few calculated steps inside the area, scanning the unfamiliar faces in search of Aoba. The brown-haired, freckled bartender serving the patrons with an easy, professional smile as the black-haired trainee scrambled beside him. The masses of men in suits, women in glittery dresses and their grubby hands reaching out. The solitary semi-nude dancer flawlessly spinning around the central pole in the main stage with calm grace, his ivory hair sticking to the sweat in his face and euro bills either scattered on the floor or peeking from under the waistband of his booty shorts.

Taking one of the stools in the bar, Noiz absentmindedly paid for a drink and kept looking around, peering at the far back of the room where other customers surrounded a round platform where a different dancer tested the strength of his legs as he hung on the pole upside down, the ridges of his toned stomach glistening with sweat under the flashes of pink and purple. Noiz watched the performances with discreet fascination; while he had been to nightclubs in Midorijima, there were never exotic dancers and the like performing. And he could never stay too long in those because Mizuki appeared out of fucking nowhere and dragged him out by the back of his shirt's collar, yelling that he was a brat and should be sleeping, but that was another matter entirely.

When Noiz had just started thinking that perhaps he should have paid the fee for the VIP area so he could look around there too, he finally caught sight of bright cerulean hair weaving through the crowd, a hand holding up a silver tray much like the one in the banquet.

What he wasn't expecting was to see a pair of white rabbit ears peeking out of the top of the blue head.

When Aoba's body was on full-view, Noiz could see that he had a bow tie with a white collar on his neck, his chest and stomach completely bare, and was wearing black silk panties with stockings held up by a lacy garter belt. He even had a little rabbit tail stuck to the back of his panties. To top it off, he had black high heels on. Granted, Aoba never seemed especially clumsy, but Noiz definitely had never pegged him for someone that mastered the art of walking on those death stilts. But then again, said "death stilts" were doing a great job perking up Aoba's ass so Noiz was very grateful.

Noiz realized belatedly that all the other waiters seemed to be dressed in similar outfits, but in his (very biased) opinion, Aoba was the cutest one, scrawny compared to some waiters that were obviously more built. He seemed to have felt he had eyes burning into the back of his head, because he started looking left and right, until his smoky eyes locked with Noiz's.

He's even wearing makeup, Noiz noticed with amusement.

Aoba's eyes were wide before he turned his head away sharply, giving his back to Noiz. That annoyed him a bit. He sighed, finishing his drink and walking away from the bar counter. He wanted to talk to Aoba, but he didn't wish to disrupt his business, of course. He brushed shoulders with other patrons and went to watch the performance on the main stage, where the dancer seemed to be finishing his last song. But different from when Noiz walked in, now there was a customer on the platform with the dancer.

The middle-aged patron had his back pressed against the central pole, only watching with feverish eyes as the beautiful dancer ran his hand across the man's chest, taking accentuated steps on his bright pink stilettos to come behind him and whisper something in his ear, an arm still around his shoulders as his thumb caressed the man's neck as if distractedly. The audience yelled and threw more money on the stage, hoping the dancer would choose them next.

"Clear! Clear, look here!"

"I'm throwing hundreds here! C'mon Clear, pick me next!"

It was a mixture of feminine squealing and masculine growling when Clear pushed down on the patron's shoulder and he fell on his ass with no more than a look of surprise. He stayed with legs slightly parted and knees bent as he looked up at Clear, who rounded on him again, one hand on the pole, swaying his hips all the while until he dropped his body to straddle his hips. He slowly lied down between his legs, looking upside down at his audience with blissful rosy eyes. He stretched his arms over his head and arched his back, lifting his legs to cross them around the patron's neck and the pole behind him. The bills rained over his upper body and there were clients who tentatively touched Clear's arms.

The patron ran shaky but determined hands over the skin of Clear's outer thighs, reaching for the hem of his shorts and that's when Clear's legs descended and crushed the man's arms back against his body, making him wince briefly and stop on his ministrations. Clear was sitting up again in a second, facing the patron, getting on his hands and knees and perking up his back side, giving the audience a nice view of his ass. Amidst whistles and growls of "what I'd do with that ass", Clear was behind the man again, his chin resting on his shoulder as he slowly unbuttoned the patron's shirt, letting his fingers brush on the man's naked chest. He was whispering something again, and Noiz realized he was singing along to the song in the background.

 

 

I'm ready for trouble

Light me up and let me go

One more button. The audience screeched and the patron's shivered.

 

 

I'm ready for trouble

Tonight go'in to explode

Even from the safe distance Noiz was standing behind the audience watching, he could see the man was sporting a hard-on.

 

 

I'm ready for...

When there was only four buttons to go, the last song was over. Clear smiled and kissed the disappointed, yet overjoyed patron on the cheek. Clear and the patron were on their feet soon enough; the patron climbed down from the stage and Clear collected the rest of his tips. He blew a kiss to the audience and waved as he climbed down too, giving space to the next dancer.

Noiz sat on one of the rare empty tables, allowing his eyes to turn away from the stage as a new song started playing and a long-haired, blond dancer started his routine around the pole, held by only his hand and his folded leg as he slowly spun around. Noiz wasn't too used to such loud places and despite the good drinks and nice performances, he was starting to wish he was somewhere quieter before he noticed someone nearing his table. He raised his eyes to the man's face.

Aoba was walking beside his table with his chin held high, holding a tray and staring decidedly away from Noiz, until the blond stuck his hand in front of the waiter, stopping him on his stride. Aoba finally looked down at him, and Noiz smirked confidently despite the nerves at seeing the irritation in Aoba's eyes.

"I'd like a beer, Waiter-san."

"Don't talk Japanese here, stupid."

Noiz almost laughed at the toothless retort. Aoba huffed.

"... It will be right up, Sir," he still mumbled in Japanese, barely audible under the booming music. Aoba meant to sidestep Noiz's hand and keep on his way before Noiz spoke again.

"And drink with me."

Aoba knotted his eyebrows.

"I'm on the clock, I can't-"

"I'm sure there's no problem if it's only a little. I'm not here to cause trouble for you, Aoba."

"Hah. Is that so?" Aoba laughed dryly. "Well, whatever the patron wants."

He walked away and Noiz leaned back on the chair. Treating me like another patron... he sighed. He should've known this would happen. It's Aoba's job, after all. But he couldn't help his longing to see Aoba when he finally came to terms with what he had to do and, well, he couldn't help his own curiosity about the club and Aoba's work too.

Not five minutes later, Aoba was setting the tray with a bottle of beer and two mugs on the table and sat in front of Noiz. Aoba opened the bottle and filled the glasses, pushing one in Noiz's direction, which he took with a nod and raised it.

"Cheers?"

Aoba rolled his eyes, but the corner of his lips curled upwards if only a little and they clunk their mugs before taking a swig.

"Are you mad at me?" Noiz inquired immediately after swallowing the beer. He needed to confirm that, at least.

Aoba propped his chin on his hand. "So straight, as always."

"Considerably less straight after seeing you in this bunny costume."

"For God's sake, Noiz."

"And you're dodging my question."

Aoba sighed heavily.

"I am mad. It's kind of embarrassing to have you here, and today of all days."

"Why today-"

"Aoba!!"

A pair of arms looped around Aoba's neck, making the man jump as he was almost choked in a deadly embrace. The person squished their cheek against the side of Aoba's head, their snowy hair dripping wet on Aoba's own.

"Clear! Let me go, you're wet!" Aoba whined, reverting back to German, his bunny ears headband almost falling askew with the sudden movement.

Clear let go of the flustered waiter. "Sorry, sorry! It's just... you're looking so cute today! I'm glad the patrons voted for bunny costumes!"

Ah. So that's why.

"Ahhh, these heels are killing me! My feet need to breathe!" Clear took off his stilettos and settled it on the floor next to his feet.

Noiz eyed the dancer suspiciously as Clear braced himself on the back of Aoba's chair. He dropped his chin atop the crown of Aoba's head, between the rabbit ears, and looked at Noiz for the first time. Now that they were up close, Noiz could see he had twin beauty marks under the right corner of his lips. Clear's brow was furrowed before his face lit up in recognition.

"Oh, right, I just saw you before! You were watching my performance! And I didn't see you tipping me." Clear's eyes narrowed to slits comically and his glossy lips formed a pout.

Noiz drinked a gulp of his beer. That outrageously sexy guy turned out to be a bit of a dumbass.

"My apologies. Your fans were a bit rowdy and I didn't want to get an elbow to the nose while trying to tip you," he replied.

Clear laughed sheepishly and Aoba complained a bit more about his hair getting wet.

"Yes, they can get pretty lively. It's your first time here, right?"

Noiz nodded and Clear smiled widely.

"Well then, allow me to welcome you to Exposure! Follow the rules and be respectful to all the staff and you'll have the time of your life. Break the rules and Yoshie will find you and murder you!" Clear tilted his head sweetly with a grin on his lips that suggested he hadn't been talking of murder just now.

"Yoshie?" Noiz asked, glancing at Aoba.

"Ah, she's the owner. She's not Japanese at all, she just asked me to choose a Japanese name for her when she learned about my ethnicity. She doesn't like giving her real name to staff or patrons, and she likes changing it from time to time because she gets bored. She's a pretty interesting woman." Aoba smiled kindly, before drinking more of his beer.

"She has eyes all over the club, if she finds out about a patron bullying anyone, be it staff or other clients, they'll have hell coming for them. People feel safe here because of the respectfulness that runs in this place. It's not because this is a strip club that people have to behave like animals. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, everyone's welcome to come here to have fun and not be judged for it," Clear exulted with eyes pinching shut in a smile.

Noiz chuckled. The alcohol was doing a good job loosening him up.

"I'd say there's no way this would work, but... I saw it does right when I got here."

"Right?! Well, it's not like things have never gone awry before, but it's always taken care of and the troublemakers are punished appropriately!"

Aoba shifted in the chair, moving his head away from Clear's dripping hair, prompting a squawk from Clear as his own head lost its support.

"Clear, stop gushing about the club already. Shouldn't you be resting until your next turn?"

Clear pouted. "Yeah, well, I just wanted to tell you that your costume looks really pretty," he whined.

Aoba rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. "Yeah yeah, thanks, Clear."

Clear perked up. "You're welcome! I'm going to rest now, nice to meet you...?" He looked at Noiz, trailing off.

"Noiz."

"Ah, you use a fake name too? Well, I'm not going to question your reasons. I'm Clear, as you already know, but that's a fake too." He winked. "I hope we can be friends! I'm going to take a nap until my next dance, bye!"

Clear picked up his shoes and waved at them, walking to the back of the room—presumably to the staff area.

"That guy is so weird."

Aoba laughed, taking the last gulp of beer from his mug.

"He is, but he's really good-hearted too."

"Is he into you or something?"

A deep crease instantly formed in Aoba's brow, his eyes narrowed as if Noiz had just told him the Earth is flat.

"What? No, that guy is well married."

"Oh."

"Well, I'm done drinking, so I'm getting back to work." Aoba started getting up.

"Wait, Aoba."

The waiter looked back at him, and Noiz took his hand, holding it palm up. He placed the payment for the beer and his tip and closed the hand, still holding it.

Aoba twisted his lip, creasing his brow. "Noiz, €200 is not an appropriate tip for a cheap beer."

Noiz blinked, unsurprised. "Would you be fine with €500?"

Aoba huffed and tried to pull away from Noiz, who held his hand tighter.

"At what time will you be finished?"

"... 5am. Why?"

"I'll wait for you."

"...!! Noiz, that's a bit more than five hours from now!"

"I don't care."

"You're not even used to this kind of place, are you?"

"I'm not. But it doesn't matter. Is it okay if I wait?"

Aoba sighed. "It's fine, Noiz."

He released Aoba's hand and smiled.

"I missed you."

Aoba's eyes got big, an emotion flashing behind them too fast for Noiz to try and read it. There was a slight blush that climbed up to his ears when he tilted his head to the side, turning to leave.

"I missed you too."

 


 

The next hours flowed peacefully—as peacefully as they could in a noisy, lively strip club on a Friday night. Noiz got to tip Clear in his second turn, and Clear dragged him to the stage promptly.

Under screams of protest from envious patrons, Noiz found himself being unceremoniously thrown on the floor, Clear straddling his hips and swaying his own to the beat of the music. He would be lying if he said the motions weren't having a desirable effect inside his pants. Noiz meant to lift his upper body by bracing himself on his elbows, but Clear pushed him down again, pressing one hand against his chest and bringing the other to his lips. He winked with a sly smirk and licked his thumb, dragging it down the line of his chest and stomach as he rolled his hips slowly.

Noiz let his gaze wander from Clear's face and saw Aoba somewhere behind the crowd, watching the performance with raised eyebrows and lips curled in amusement.

This little...

Before he could finish that train of thought, he felt his tie being yanked up. Aoba and everything else became a blur, before he found himself surrounded by a sea of pink tourmalines, ignited with provocation.

"Are you distracted?"

Noiz felt the words blowing hotly against his lips before hearing them. He smirked.

"Not really."

Clear slapped away the hands that were creeping up his waist. Noiz exhaled something resembling "oh boohoo", before Clear was kicking him out of the stage with a slap on the ass and calling a woman from the audience. Despite himself, he laughed.

Throughout the night, Noiz also got to witness a few of the situations "gone awry" that Clear mentioned.

Since he had to sit there for hours, Noiz observed; he noticed that all women behaved themselves generally well and respected the staff, maybe only embarrassing them with invitations to meet outside the club. There was the occasional man trying to feel up a waiter, but most of them wouldn't persist if the waiter slapped their hand away. It just so happened that Noiz caught some of the persistent ones trying something funny with Aoba.

"C'mon, one more mug..."

The lecherous forty-something guy tried to push a mug full of beer on Aoba's face, while Aoba pushed the mug away. There was another waiter beside their table. He had red, shoulder-length hair and green eyes, and was trying to appease the customer.

"I- I really can't, sir. I have to get back," Aoba tried to reason with him.

"What th' fuck, I gave you a pretty fat tip, yanno," the man slurred loudly, and a few clients turned their heads to look.

"Sir, please, calm down." The other waiter said, his hands raised useless and his voice slightly panicky. He was probably a newbie.

Aoba sighed. "Like I said..."

"You're bein' such a little bitch, just-"

"Oi."

Before Aoba realized, Noiz was beside their table, pulling the drunken man up by the collar of his shirt. The newbie waiter seemed about to have a heart attack.

Aoba got up too, looking at the sweaty waiter. "Abraham, call one of the bouncers, now!" When the boy nodded and slipped away, he turned to the blond. "Noiz-"

"Didn't you hear what he said?" Noiz shook the man for emphasis; their faces were mere centimeters away from each other, and he looked down at the stranger with spite.

The old man snarled and pulled his fist back, preparing to punch Noiz. He smirked at the man's sorry excuse for attack, but before he could dodge or even lift his own fist, a single blow struck the man's chin from below. A few centimeters away from his own face, Noiz watched as if in slow motion as a high-heeled foot appeared seemingly out of nowhere, right in front of his eyes, and knocked out his opponent with frightening precision.

The man was out like a light in the next second, only held by Noiz's fist on his shirt. Luckily, they were at the far back of the room, so even if there were people who noticed the scuffle, most of the clients was concentrated on the dancers. Aoba lowered his leg gingerly, letting out a sigh.

"I hope he didn't bite his tongue."

Noiz scoffed, dropping the man on the chair. "I think it will do him some good, not being able to talk for a while."

Aoba crossed his arms, smiling self-satisfyingly. "Sorry for stealing your thunder. Were you trying to be the knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress?"

"Not really, but now that I know you have this killer kick on you, I really can't be left behind."

Aoba chuckled. "Well, the bouncers will be here soon. Thanks for the help."

Sometime after this instance, a few minutes into 4am, a man jumped Clear on the stage. The crowd screamed, not in enthusiasm but protest and shock, when the man pounced on Clear and held his wrists over his head, using his legs to press Clear's to the ground. The music was cut off and Noiz got up from his seat, eyes wide as he saw the man trying to force a kiss onto Clear's lips, but before anyone could do anything, a brown-skinned bouncer was jumping on the stage, pulling the aggressor away from Clear by the back of his dress shirt. When he resisted, he was put in a chokehold from behind, the bouncer snarling as the muscles of his arms tightened around the man's neck.

"Mink! Mink, it's fine, I'm fine!" Clear cried out, rubbing at his wrists as he stumbled close to the two men. The aggressor's eyes were rolling back, almost losing consciousness.

The man called Mink regarded Clear with knotted eyebrows and furious golden eyes, before loosening up his hold. The man fell on the floor, lying on his side, coughing repeatedly.

"Yes. Just take him away, and let Ms. Yoshie know about this, okay?" Clear smiled shakily.

The bouncer stared at him for long seconds—that almost felt like hours—before huffing, bending down to heave the aggressor over his shoulder like a potato sack. The crowd parted before the huge, long-haired man who carried the nearly unconscious patron to the exit door.

After that, some waiters, including Aoba, tried to help Clear down the stage, but he brushed them off saying he was fine on his own. The stage was empty for a few moments, but then a heavy, flamboyant-looking woman with brown curls and a pink dress climbed up with a microphone to address the event. She presented herself as Ms. Yoshie, the owner, and apologized for the inconvenience. She made a small speech much like the one Clear had made to Noiz at the start of that night, urging the patrons to abide by the club rules, otherwise there would be consequences.

"I wouldn't be able to take it if any of my boys got hurt on my watch! Clear, for example, is one of the favorites, I hear?" The patrons mumbled their agreements and some even cheered, specially the women. Ms. Yoshie giggled, a rich lilt in her voice.

"That's very good, then let's work together to create the best environment for all of us. Clear will be coming back at the end of the night, please look forward to it." She winked, grinning at the audience. "Nico will be taking over for now."

Yoshie left the stage and the patrons clapped. Noiz drank leisurely, watching as the pink-haired dancer, Nico, climbed up the stage and a new song started playing. The close relationship between the club managers and the clients were what allowed this sort of respectful agreement to take place, probably.

No more troubles cropped up and after Clear's last performance, nearing 5am, the club was closing and the last remaining patrons started leaving. Noiz had been drinking, but different from Christmas, he was barely feeling buzzed. He got up from his seat and looked around, searching for Aoba, but then he felt a soft pat in his shoulder.

"Aoba must be in the staff room, changing clothes," Clear's voice informed behind him. Noiz turned to look at the dancer, his brow creased.

"Well, I just assumed." Clear smiled sheepishly, in response to the silent question in Noiz's face. Then he turned serious. "You're not... stalking Aoba, right?"

Noiz huffed. "I'm not; we know each other outside from here. I came to check out and visit him. I told him I'd wait for him."

Clear sighed in relief. "I see. Well, you should go wait outside; we're still going to do some cleanup here. I'll let Aoba know you're still waiting for him."

Noiz reluctantly nodded, making his way to the exit with everyone else. He would rather wait inside, but it's a given they'd have to put the place in some semblance of order before closing up.

His phone vibrated in his pocket when he was just at the front desk. Noiz leaned against a wall, away from the stream of people leaving the club, and pulled out his phone.

>> Hey, I haven't heard from you since Christmas.

A message from Agnes. He closed his eyes momentarily, and typed his reply.

>> Who are you?

It was barely two seconds before the next message arrived.

>> Don't play games with me, Adlersflügel. You delete my number, I get your parents on your ass in five seconds flat.

>> It's 5am, don't you sleep? You seem too sober to be partying.

>> I need to pull an all-nighter, and someone is taking ages to answer my e-mail, so I'm using you to kill time! :3c

>> Very nice.

>> I still want those reports on your boy toy though. If you're not at least on the move, I'm going to tell the guy myself, give me his address.

>> I'm on the move and you're on the way.

A longer pause before the next reply.

>> Ahhh.

>> Yeah, bye.

>> So you're with him right now?

>> Not right now, but in a few minutes I'll be.

>> Send me a pic of him.

>> Fuck off.

>> WHAT, I HAVE THE RIGHT TO SEE HIM. YOU REJECTED ME FOR HIM, AFTER ALL.

>> No pics.

>> I'm such a lovely person and that's how you treat me.

Noiz clicked his tongue, putting the phone back into his pocket again. No way was he going to go along with Agnes' whims; that only got him a hangover last time. He remained waiting in the front desk, before he saw Aoba emerging from the door, wearing his normal clothes.

"Hey." Aoba barely finished his greeting before an irresistible, long yawn escaped his lips, forming tears in the corners of his eyes.

Noiz smiled. "Hey. Good work today."

They walked together to the door, Aoba fussing with the scarf around his neck.

"I don't even know why you've waited this long. I can't linger here, you know, I have to get home and sleep."

"Yeah, I guess, but I just felt like doing it."

"You just 'feel like doing' a lot of things."

Noiz chuckled as they crossed the glass front doors. "Well, at least I can give you a ride or- ah."

Aoba blinked, looking at Noiz. "What is it?"

Noiz was looking at the other side of the street, blinking slowly.

"Looks like someone raided my car."

Aoba whipped his head, following Noiz's eyes. He could see Noiz's car still parked at the other side of the street, but one of the windows was utterly shattered.

As dawn slowly broke through the veil of night, the first birds started chirping.

Chapter Text

"Aoba! Good work today... What? What happened?"

Clear had just exited the club and was met with Aoba's back. He strode to his side when he didn't turn around to answer him and peered at Aoba's face.

Aoba was looking fixedly at the other side of the street with his brow creased. Clear followed his gaze and saw a police car and Noiz talking to an officer, who was scribbling something on a small note.

"Aoba?" Clear tried again.

Aoba blinked and turned his head to Clear. "Ah, sorry, Clear. Good work today."

Clear smiled hesitantly. "What happened?"

Aoba twisted his lips worriedly, glancing at the other side of the street. "Someone broke into Noiz's car."

"What? That's terrible!" Clear looked over to where Noiz and the officer were talking, and he realized he could see another car, probably Noiz's, behind the police vehicle. There seemed to be another officer, a female one, looking over it and taking pictures.

"Yeah... although the guy himself doesn't look like he cares much. I don't know how no one saw anything, but I told him the club has cameras up on the front so it definitely caught something. He called the police and they've been talking for some time now."

A few seconds after Aoba was finished talking, Noiz nodded to the officer and shook his hand before walking back to where they stood in front of the club.

"So?" Aoba inquired when Noiz stopped in front of them.

Noiz shrugged. "I told them everything; they'll search for evidence and catch the thief. I handed over my keys so they can move the car to the station and examine it more closely. They'll contact me whatever comes up, but I think it's unlikely that anything will be resolved before a week."

"And what's the damage? Did they take something valuable?" Clear piped up.

"Ahh..." Noiz furrowed his brow slightly, looking at the ground as if in deep thought before he replied. "Only the windows were damaged. I'm pretty sure I had some hundreds in the car-" Horrified gasps from Clear and Aoba. "And I left my house key there too."

"What the fuck, and you say that so calmly?!" Aoba was visibly affronted by the notion.

Noiz blinked. "There's no use to being desperate, though."

"Easy, easy." Clear smiled kindly and patted Aoba's shoulder in an attempt to soothe him. Aoba seemed about to throw a retort, but he stayed quiet.

Clear looked at Noiz, worried. "What are you going to do now? You can't even go home like this."

Noiz slipped his hands into his pockets. "I'll manage, somehow."

Aoba sighed. "You're too reckless..."

Mink stepped out of the club, wearing casual clothes instead of the suit from earlier and carrying a black backpack. He looked down at the commotion, a crease of confusion forming between his eyebrows. Clear turned around at the sound of footfalls and beamed.

"Ah, Mink!" He skipped towards the hulking man and hugged his arm. He looked up at Mink with sparkling eyes. "Let's go home?"

Mink nodded, before regarding Noiz, his golden eyes scrutinizing.

"Who's that?" He inquired gruffly.

Clear went ahead before Noiz could say anything. "He's Noiz, Aoba's friend. Ah, Noiz, this is my husband, Mink!" Clear introduced him with pride swelling his words.

Noiz raised his eyebrows in understanding. He had been wondering if Clear was that handsy with everyone, but he realized he definitely didn't look at anyone that night the way he was looking at Mink now. Despite his stony front, Noiz could see that same light in Mink's eyes.

"I see. Nice to meet you, Mink." He extended his hand and Mink shook it politely.

"Likewise."

Clear smiled, then turned to look at Aoba, as if he had just remembered something.

"Ah, do you want a ride home, Aoba?"

"Um, but wouldn't it be a bother?"

Clear waved him off. "Of course not, you know it's on our way home too. And we could give a ride to Noiz too, in case there's a place he could crash in."

Clear summarized to Mink what had just happened with Noiz's car, and the consequences of it. Mink looked at Aoba and Noiz.

"Couldn't he sleep at Aoba's apartment? It'd be easier to drop you off together. You're friends, aren't you?" He suggested, logically and matter-of-factly. Of course.

Aoba's face burned red when he processed the idea and Noiz held back a grin. Aoba was embarrassed in light of the latest events between them and, mostly, because he had nothing but a single bed in his apartment. Noiz had finally gotten his lost opportunity to visit Aoba's place, from the mouth of a stranger of all things. He turned his gaze to Aoba, his face completely neutral.

"Is it okay with you, Aoba?"

Aoba creased his brow, his face still flushed, as if he could see right through his "innocent" act. It was the cute, rebellious snarl that Noiz had been waiting for all night.

"It's fine but... Ugh, the place is a mess."

Noiz smiled triumphantly.

"I don't mind that at all."

 


 

"Let's get to know each other!"

Noiz sighed—and he had the feeling he could hear Mink sighing on the driver's seat too. Despite the eventful night, Clear didn't seem tired at all, and immediately after Mink started the car, he was trying to get them to talk.

"We know Aoba, and Aoba knows us too, but Noiz is new so it wouldn't be fair to leave him in the dark."

"I'm fine with the dark." Noiz muttered, looking at the buildings passing by, outside the window. Aoba was beside him, going through cycles of sleep and consciousness, napping every two minutes before startling awake and then falling asleep again.

"But it's not right!" Clear turned to look at him from the passenger's seat, pouting. "We can't be friends if we don't know the bare minimum about each other."

"I already know that you're an exotic dancer at Exposure and Mink is a bouncer."

"Well, there's that too." Clear turned back to the front. "I'll talk for me and Mink, since he'll definitely refuse to talk."

The silence answered his indirect question.

"Let's get started! Mink is thirty years old, during the day he works at his flower shop—Aoba works there part-time too, by the way—and during the night, he works as a bouncer at Exposure, so he can protect me! He was such a hero today, wasn't he?" Clear beamed at Noiz and Aoba on the back seat before leaning to plant a chaste kiss on Mink's cheek.

"I'm driving," Mink reminded him nonchalantly. But Noiz still remembered the expression he had on his face when he tore that guy away from Clear.

"As if I could break your concentration just like that." Clear giggled, and continued. "Mink isn't German, but he's been living here for a long, long time. As for me, I was born here! I'm twenty-five years old, and I help with deliveries at Mink's shop when I have the time. I've been working as a dancer so I can pay my college tuition. I really love kids so I'm studying to be a kindergarten teacher!"

Mink remained silent but he held Clear's hand, running his thumb leisurely over the golden band on Clear's left ring finger. It hadn't been there when he was dancing, obviously. Noiz wondered distantly about where they had gotten married, since same-sex marriage wasn't legalized in Germany.

"Your turn now, Noiz."

Noiz sighed. Aoba, in one of his waking moments apparently, chuckled and elbowed him softly.

"Just go along with it, he's not dropping it."

Noiz breathed deeply before talking.

"I'm nineteen, and I work at Adlersflügel Group. I was born here, but spent some time abroad and returned this year."

"Ohhh, you are really young, I thought you were older than that."

"He also loves rabbits," Aoba grumbled, his eyes shut.

"Shut up."

Clear turned his head to them, beaming. "Seriously? I love rabbits too!"

For the rest of the ride, Clear tried pestering him for more details but Noiz wouldn't say anything. They finally stopped in front of a slightly shabby two-story apartment complex, metallic doors lined up horizontally across the wide beige walls on each floor, a metal-and-concrete staircase leading from the right side of the building to its upper landing. Aoba thanked them before opening the door.

"You're welcome anytime. I'll see you later tonight!" Clear waved at them as they climbed out of the car. The engine was soon roaring back to life and the car was going down the street.

"Well... we're here." Aoba smiled sheepishly, and made his way to the building with Noiz in tow. The sky was gaining the pink and golden colors of morning, slowly spilling from the far horizon to the entire celestial dome.

Aoba's room was on the far left side of the ground floor, so they didn't need to climb the staircase leading to the balcony above them. Aoba stopped in front of his room, fiddling with his keys before finding the right one at last and opening the door.

"As I said, it's messy so, please don't mind it," Aoba muttered, entering and flipping the light switch on the wall. He closed the door behind Noiz when he followed him inside.

They were in the living room, which doubled as kitchen too, apparently. It was a small space, but it accommodated the two "rooms" comfortably. Behind the kitchen counter, a stove and a refrigerator could be seen, as well as white cupboards mounted to the wall above the sink. On the wall to the right were two doors, distant from each other; presumably one leading to the bedroom and the other to the bathroom.

"Except it's not messy at all," Noiz commented with a raised eyebrow, looking around the room.

"Well, I don't know what you're used to at your house, so..."

Noiz huffed. "What are you getting all worked up for? My house is bigger, yes, but it's not that different."

Aoba watched as Noiz sat heavily on one of the two small sofas around the coffee table. He looked up at Aoba, his eyes curious.

"Anyway, won't you show me to your room? You're not gonna make me sleep on one of these tiny sofas, right?"

Aoba crossed his arms, staring off to the side with his brow furrowed and blood flushing his cheeks.

"Yeah, but there's only one bed, you know?"

Noiz smirked. "That's just fine by me."

After that, Aoba served him a cup of water, and went to the bedroom for a towel and a change of clothes, before heading to the bathroom to take a shower. He oriented Noiz to feel free to go to the bedroom if he wanted and to acquaint himself with the apartment. When he heard the sound of running water coming from behind the door Aoba entered, Noiz got up from the couch and walked to the bedroom door, left ajar.

Aoba had left the lights on, so Noiz didn't need to fumble around for the switch. The room was small and felt even colder than the rest of the apartment, but it seemed Aoba had just turned the heater on before he left. The walls were beige like the rest of the apartment, the paint peeling off in some spots, and a single bed was pushed to the opposite wall, a wooden nightstand right next to it. There was no wardrobe—he probably kept his clothes inside the drawers of the nightstand—so the room felt very bare. There were two big suitcases on the corner of the room, presumably Sei and Aoba's, and Ren was sleeping soundly in a small baby-blue cushion, with food and water bowls beside it. Aoba had told him about how the landlady felt pity for the puppy and allowed him to keep Ren, as long as he hid it from the other tenants and took good care of him. Ren was apparently very quiet even when Aoba wasn't there, so there had been no problems so far.

At last, Noiz noticed two long shelves mounted on top of each other to the wall next to the door. Instead of books, magazines or CDs, they only had a few portraits; Noiz counted five of them, three on the top shelf and two in the bottom one, each placed away from the other. The first one he noticed was a picture of a woman with pale rosé hair in a hospital bed, holding a baby with black hair, likely Sei, and a man with dark red hair, sitting beside the bed and holding a small Aoba, unmistakable with his tuft of blue hair. Both babies were asleep, cozily wrapped in blankets, and the adults smiled at the camera. So those were Aoba's parents.

The second picture showed Aoba and Sei still as kids, probably no more than five years old, but their parents weren't there. Instead, they were sitting on the lap of a wrinkled, old woman on a couch, her hair a few shades lighter than their mom's. She was hugging them, smiling with her chin touching the top of their heads and they were laughing, squished against each other.

The third picture had Aoba and Sei together again, but Noiz was surprised to see younger Mizuki and Koujaku beside them, smiling at the camera as well. For the first time, Sei had his eyes open in a picture and Noiz noticed they were much darker than Aoba's, which were their usual bright hazel even in that grainy picture. Noiz took his phone out of his pocket to especially snap a picture of Mizuki's bratty face, planning on sending it to him later.

And then, something clicked in his head.

It had been a month since he thought of that; more pressing issues had occupied his mind since then, after all. But he was reminded of the day he discovered that Aoba was from Midorijima, and knew Koujaku and Mizuki. It didn't surprise Noiz to see a picture of all of them together; Aoba did say Koujaku was his childhood friend. But that triggered the memory of a conversation he had with Mizuki in what seemed like ages ago, but it was, actually, a bit less than a year before.

"You know I have my fiancé, I don't have eyes for anyone else except him."

"I've been... sort of promised to marry this guy since we were kids, we are childhood friends."

"He's been in Germany for some years now."

Noiz stared at the framed picture before him, and felt like he could guffaw; his twisted sense of humor kicking in at the most appropriate of moments yet again.

There was no way he couldn't be mesmerized by coincidences at this point in time. Mizuki's fiancé was either a man who had been in a coma for the last five years, or the man Noiz was about to not-innocently sleep in the same bed with. Coincidences. Heh, more like the work of a capricious god.

Noiz shook his head lightly, driving away those thoughts. There was no use thinking about it. Now that he's put the pieces together, he could ask Aoba about it later and decide what he'd do based on it. He turned his eyes away from the top shelf and looked at the two pictures on the bottom one.

He recognized the scenery shown in the fourth picture. It was sunset in Midorijima, seen from somewhere in the Old Residential District, Noiz could tell—it was the place where he had lived in for five years, after all. The twilight golden rays touched the roofs of the buildings and created long shadows, illuminating the houses' red tiles. Noiz was reminded of Aoba's wish to return to his home with Sei, and smiled faintly. He wondered if that photo had been taken from the roof of their house.

The last picture showed Sei, lying in a hospital bed. He was deathly pale but smiling, not unlike the bright smile Aoba would show sometimes. It was the only picture that had Sei alone, so Aoba was most likely the one taking it. That picture was, at least, five years old.

"What are you doing?"

Noiz turned his head to see Aoba standing in the doorway, looking at him curiously. He was wearing blue pajama pants and a grey sweatshirt, a towel encircling his neck.

"Looking at your pictures."

"Ahh... Haha, that's a bit embarrassing." Aoba yawned, before adding, "You can use the shower if you want, there's a spare towel there and you can open the package on the unused toothbrush I have in the cabinet. Oh, and leave the door open when you leave, so Ren can go and use his litter box."

"Mm, thanks."

Aoba handed him a change of clothes before he went to the bathroom. It was minuscule, but it had everything necessary in a bathroom; there was even Ren's litter box, somehow squeezed between the toilet and the small sink. Noiz twisted the shower faucet and hissed at the cold water hitting his skin like needles, but was ultimately thankful for the effect it was having in relaxing his worn-out body.

The shortness in the pants' legs and the sweater's sleeves was barely noticeable; Aoba was shorter than him but those clothes were slightly oversized anyway. He turned off the lights outside and was drying his hair with his towel when he entered the bedroom and saw Aoba dozing off, sitting on his bed with his back leaning against the wall and his head slumped, almost touching his shoulder. That couldn't be comfortable.

"Aoba," Noiz called softly, still in the doorway. He jolted, straightening up and rubbing his eye with a yawn.

"Noiz."

"You should have just gone to sleep."

Aoba chuckled. "I'd have turned off the lights then, but I thought it'd be a bit lonely if you came back and I was sleeping and everything was dark."

Noiz couldn't help the small grin that took over his lips. He hung the towel on one of the hooks behind the door. "Idiot. I'm turning off the lights."

"Mm," was the only confirmation Noiz got, and they were shrouded in darkness with a small "click". He left the door ajar for Ren and navigated carefully until he felt Aoba's bed in front of him. The bed springs squeaked under the weight of his knee, and then he was lying down slowly, accommodating himself and immediately feeling Aoba's heat beside him. It was a small bed and there couldn't be much space between them unless Noiz wanted to sleep on the floor.

There was rustling beside him; Aoba was turning around.

"I didn't even ask you if you'd rather have the wall," Aoba muttered, and Noiz felt his breath hitting his face. His eyes were slowly getting used to the lack of light, and he could make out the most prominent lines of Aoba's face in front of him.

"It's fine like this," he replied simply.

"Well, if you say so."

"Aoba."

"Mm?"

"Are you Mizuki's fiancé?"

"WHA-"

It happened as fast as a car crash; Aoba recoiled so fast he hit his head on the wall behind him, and kicked Noiz off the bed, a sequence of thuds and pained grunts filling the room. Aoba rubbed the hurt spot on his head and Noiz lied sprawled on the floor, his shoulder blade aching from the impact. After a beat of silence, Noiz heard tiny footfalls next to his head, then the rough feeling of a small tongue licking his cheek.

"... Thanks, Ren."

"What?" Aoba asked from the bed, his voice muffled.

"Nothing." Noiz petted the dog's head blindly and Ren limped back to his corner, opting to fill up his belly before going back to sleep. Noiz got up and climbed back on the bed, ignoring the dull pain on his back.

"Sorry," Aoba muttered. He was sitting up now, his legs folded, and Noiz sat in front of him in a similar way.

"No problem."

Silence stretched between them.

Aoba squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, rubbing the pads of his fingers across his eyelids before opening them again and looking at Noiz with a furrowed brow.

"... What the hell was that question?"

Noiz released a breath he didn't realize he had been holding in. He cleared his throat discreetly before speaking.

"Mizuki told me once, that he had a fiancé, that this man was his childhood friend and was in Germany."

Aoba snorted, letting out a bitter laugh. "So he's still saying that, huh. Even though he's never called me in years."

Noiz gulped. It felt like his heart was sinking down to his stomach and pulling at the walls of his veins and his airways as it went under, suffocating him slowly. His breathing felt too shallow. He was almost light-headed.

"I'm not his fiancé, Noiz."

It took a second too long for his brain to arrange those words into something coherent. He blinked, processing the information. His lungs filled with air, and he inhaled deeply, gratefully.

"I see."

Aoba sighed, then yawned. "If you want to know more, I can tell you, but can we lie down at least? I swear I'm not kicking you to the floor again."

Noiz chuckled. "Okay."

They were lying side by side once again, and Aoba pulled the covers over both of them. Noiz thought of his relief, and thought of the fact that Mizuki's fiancé had been sleeping for five years. Did he know about it?

"Even though he's never called me in years."

Noiz looked at the mess of blue hair in front of him. Aoba had his back to him now.

"Mizuki... hasn't called in years?"

"That's right. Sei... he was hospitalized back when we still lived in Midorijima. As I said before, he was weak when we were children. Things got a bit better as we grew up, but he would fall sick randomly sometimes, prompting a visit to the hospital in the most worrying cases. Mizuki always fussed with him, and when he was hospitalized that time, it was a small thing and he was okay before long, but it led them to discover he actually had a brain tumor.

"It takes a delicate surgery to remove it, and the doctor recommended us to Dr. Virus, here in Germany, so I came all the way here with Sei. Our Granny is too old already and our parents aren't around now, so it could only be me. Mizuki had Dry Juice to take care of, and even though it was tearing him apart, he wanted to drop everything and come here, but I told him to stay. I was sure it was going to be fast; Sei would be okay soon and we would go home.

"My brother had his surgery, and everything seemed fine, but his health started deteriorating. Mizuki called every day since we got here, and he was panicking. I was panicking, and at some point, I didn't know how to reassure him, because I couldn't reassure myself. Mizuki stopped calling, and wouldn't answer my calls either. And Sei almost died one night—it was a huge commotion, but luckily, Virus and Trip were there, and they saved him. But he's been asleep ever since."

Noiz barely heard his last sentences. Aoba's shoulders were shaking by the time he finished speaking, his voice trembling and barely completing the story without stammering. The shock of the memories and reliving the helplessness of feeling his brother's life slipping away through his fingers... Noiz breathed deeply, and put his arm over Aoba's waist, pressing his body snugly against his and letting the smell of Aoba's damp hair fill his nostrils.

"Noiz."

"Mm?"

"Why are you doing this?"

"... Felt like it."

An exhale. Then Aoba was turning over, facing Noiz with eyes sharp and serious.

"Stop saying that. Be serious with me for once."

Noiz huffed. "I've been nothing but serious with you. When I say I 'feel like it', it's not because I'm doing it just on a whim or in the heat of the moment... I want to do it. Every time I see you, I want to do all of these things."

Noiz blinked, and everything in front of him had turned pitch-black in a matter of seconds. He didn't know why, and before the question gained form in his mind, he felt the feather-light brush of lips against his own, slowly pressing on him, molding to each other's shape. And too soon, they drifted apart.

"Did you ever want to do that too?" Aoba wheezed, almost like he had been running after a rabbit in the park.

Noiz inhaled; his heart thudded in his chest and he could be wheezing too. He was alive, and he smirked.

"No. A bit more like this."

He hooked his hand on the back of Aoba's neck, his fingers threading through soft hair and pulling him in for payback.

They were crashing against each other in the next second, lips smashed together. Noiz was still holding Aoba's neck in place with a firm grasp, his right hand slipping under Aoba's sweatshirt and kneading his hip. Aoba had his right hand grasping Noiz's shirt—his own shirt—and the left clasped flat on his cheek, the tips of his fingers dwelling in the disheveled blond hair above his ear.

And they were hungry. Without knowing, they had been starving for days, weeks. It was a passionate but tender velvety touch at first, but not one second had passed before Noiz's tongue swept across Aoba's bottom lip sluggishly, and he was opening his lips like a fool, seeking out to the delicious drag of sensation he had yet to know from that men's mouth. Aoba wrapped an arm around Noiz's neck while Noiz dug his nails into his hips. Their tongues slid back and forth against each other, testing and curious, and then Noiz left, opting to bite Aoba's bottom lip and drag his nails across a small expanse of Aoba's skin under his shirt. 

Aoba let out a small whimper and Noiz's breath hitched, before sucking on his lip and diving back into the wet heat of Aoba's mouth. Their tongues were active again, playful, and Aoba fisted his hand in a clump of Noiz's hair, tugging on it, earning himself an appreciative grunt. Noiz's leg found its way between Aoba's, his thigh rubbing once against his length, smirking against their kiss. Aoba's eyes, which he hadn't even realized were closed, flew open and he couldn't help the muffled moan he released into Noiz's mouth, goosebumps rising up his arms, and the back of his neck heating up as fire licked up his spine. Noiz's fingertips slid up his torso tantalizingly, and he needed more of that friction; he could feel himself getting hard.

Wait wait wait.

Aoba panted and broke the kiss, pushing Noiz's chest as much as he could without actually pushing him off the bed again. Noiz tried to follow his lips blindingly, clutching his fist on the back of Aoba's shirt, but he wouldn't budge.

"Noiz- Noiz, wait."

"No more of that."

"Yes more of that. Would you settle down?"

Noiz's voice throbbed with lust, pleading. "Aoba..."

Aoba almost faltered, but kept him at bay.

"Noiz, is this a game to you?"

Noiz was the one to falter. A deep crease formed in his brow, his eyes on fire with frustration and annoyance.

"Hah? Are you playing with me?

"Noiz, you were kissing a girl on the balcony at your parents' banquet. You were kissing Agnes Diefenbach, and you were with her the entire night."

Noiz stopped, blinking down at Aoba. Then he sighed. He was planning to start with that, wasn't he?

Aoba sputtered, embarrassed. "No... I mean," he muttered, eyes looking everywhere but Noiz's face. "I was shocked when I saw that, but I was more shocked with what that made me feel. I wanted to forget about it and go back to how things were, but it wouldn't go away... We don't have anything, and you don't owe me shit, I know, but..."

"Look," Noiz started, breathing deeply so he could calm himself and his overly enthusiastic dick down a bit. "The kiss with Agnes... It was a spur of the moment; she kissed me, and I let her, because I always thought that was no big deal."

Aoba only stared at him with confused eyes, and Noiz sighed again, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He couldn't choose his words well; he was losing his cool.

"I didn't want to be close to anyone. People have only ever given me reason to distrust them, and physical intimacy never meant anything. It's different with you. Kissing Agnes is nothing like kissing you. And I'm not in a relationship with her, by the way. After you saw us, I realized that... I didn't want you to look at me like that ever again. I was pretty terrified, you know." Their foreheads touched and Noiz ran his fingers through Aoba's hair, his other hand laid on his cheek.

"She told me she didn't want anything from me, because I'm already in love with someone else."

Aoba blinked over wide eyes for a second, but then he glared at Noiz, his cheeks beet red.

"Say it with your own words, you brat."

Noiz smirked. He absolutely had his own words with him now.

"I'm in love with you, Aoba. I want to know everything about you. I want to feel you. I want to-"

Aoba sputtered, covering Noiz's mouth with his hand.

"Now you're using your words too much."

Noiz blinked, then opened his mouth, licking Aoba's palm. He yelped, recoiling and wiping his hand on his shirt frantically.

"Will you let me kiss you now?"

Aoba did his best not to pout. "Like that's all you want, you perverted brat. Thanks, but no thanks; now I probably can't even sleep a full hour before I have to go to work."

"Just quit it. I'll get you a better job later."

Aoba looked at him, horrified.

"No way am I doing that. I'm going to sleep." He turned around, facing the wall.

"Okay." Noiz hugged Aoba's waist with one hand and slid the other under Aoba's neck as a pillow, spooning him. Aoba whispered a small "what am I going to do with you" and they were silent for a minute.

Noiz started to think that Aoba was sleeping and started to doze off, when Aoba's voice startled him awake.

"Noiz, you said..."

"Mm?"

"You said you wanted to know everything about me."

"I did."

"But... I feel like you know so much about me already. I'm the one who knows nothing about you. Even about what you said before, about how you don't want to be close to people, and your relationship with your parents, and the reason why you went to Midorijima."

Noiz sighed. "You want me to tell you about it?"

Aoba hummed in confirmation. So cute, Noiz thought endearingly.

"I could tell you, but don't you have to sleep?"

"Just give me the short version for now."

Noiz chuckled. "Don't you have a solution for everything."

Aoba laughed too.

"Basically, my parents were pissing me off royally, so I escaped to Midorijima when I was fourteen. Mizuki offered me shelter, since we had been internet friends for some time, so I stayed with him until I had some footing and got my own apartment. He really helped me out; he was my only friend for a long time. My brother found me after a few years, and this year, he convinced me to come back to Germany. So I did."

"... That's really short."

He pressed himself closer, his nose touching Aoba's hair. "Just doing what you told me."

"Smart-ass." A beat of silence before Aoba proceeded. "What did your parents do to piss you off so much?"

Noiz gave a long sigh. He didn't want to talk about it if he could avoid, but he supposed he owed it to Aoba.

"My parents wanted me to be their perfect heir but I was an insufferable brat. I got in trouble just for the sake of getting on people's nerves; I hated how the adults looked down on me, and how my parents' were driven solely by status and the public opinion. So, when I became too much of a pest, my parents locked me up in my room for five years. I could only leave the room for classes and I was homeschooled. My father beat me to a pulp after I fought with one of my teachers, and after that, he would hit me every chance he got. So I planned everything and Mizuki said I could stay with him, so I escaped."

Aoba was silent, but then he laid his arm over the one Noiz had around his waist, wrapping his hand around Noiz's.

"I see."

"Do you pity me?"

"No. I just wish I was there for you."

Noiz remembered something he thought about once. He smiled against Aoba's hair.

He would. He would have opened the door to that room.

"It's hard to believe there are parents like that out there, I'm starting to understand some things. I'm grateful that Mizuki helped you so much. Perhaps I can forgive him for forgetting his 'fiancé' exists, in the end."

Noiz snorted. "I think you should listen to Mizuki's side of the story when the time comes."

"Yeah... He must've had a good reason for doing what he did. The Mizuki I used to know would have one." Aoba had a smile in his voice.

Noiz yawned and Aoba laughed.

"Good night?"

"Good night," Noiz answered, tightening his hold around Aoba.

It hadn't been ten seconds after his eyelids had closed when a phone started ringing loudly on the nightstand.

"Jesus Christ, what now?"

"Sorry," Noiz muttered to Aoba, to which he replied with a wave of his hand and a simple "it's fine, it's fine", looking like he was ready to fall asleep. Noiz slapped his hand over his phone and brought it to his face, looking at the name at the blindingly bright screen.

The name "Mizuki" in blocky font was highlighted in the top of the screen, with a pictureless frame under it. Noiz looked over his shoulder and saw Aoba's sleepless hazel eyes burning red with anger.

Chapter Text

Noiz blinked slowly. The ringing of the phone in his hand sounded too loud, hitting against the walls of that small room.

What a good timing this guy has.

The phone was snatched from him, and Aoba brusquely sat up on the bed again with the device clutched in his hand. Noiz sat up too, lightly touching Aoba's knee as he looked at the light from the screen reflected on his glassy eyes.

"Aoba-"

The man swept his thumb across the screen and brought the phone to his ear. Noiz grimaced very slightly, but didn't try to stop him.

"Guess who's in Germany right now!" Mizuki's voice was upbeat on the other end of the line.

Noiz almost slapped his palm over his face in disbelief. Shit, this guy does have the best timing in this entire world.

"Finally remembered my brother's existence, I gather?" Aoba said coldly. It was just like when Noiz had mentioned Mizuki for the first time. His attitude was so different from the usual it made Noiz slightly nervous.

The line went dead silent. It was the sound of Mizuki paling from kilometers away.

"... Aoba? No, wait. W-wait, did I call you-"

"You definitely lost my number five years ago, since you mysteriously stopped calling me, so I think it'd be unlikely that you called me on accident."

"Wait, what is happening, why...? It's- This is Noiz's..."

The blond sighed and took the phone from Aoba's hand, slipping out of bed. Aoba turned to him sharply, his face retorting in protest as Noiz paced away.

"Noiz, give me the phone!"

Noiz looked at him with a worried crease on his brow. He would rather not have a livid Aoba fuming at him, but he owed an explanation to Mizuki.

"I will give it back to you; just let me explain things to him."

"I can explain it just fine!"

"Not right now, you can't. Just wait," Noiz sighed, turning his back to Aoba and putting the phone to his ear.

"... Yo."

"YO MY ASS. WHAT THE FUCK, NOIZ?!"

Noiz instantly distanced the phone from his ear. He brought it back closer. "Don't fucking yell."

"H-how the hell do you know Aoba?! What's happening?!"

Noiz breathed deeply, before replying.

"I've known him for a while, and I found out at some point that you two knew each other, and about Sei too." Mizuki winced at the mention of that name, though Noiz couldn't know. "I'm at his place now, and you decided to call right when Aoba was telling me how pissed he is at you. Good job."

Mizuki groaned. "Fuck, what is this mess...?"

"A mess you landed yourself in. And you better explain everything to Aoba; I'd hate to see my best friend get skinned alive."

"You wouldn't even lift a finger to help me, would you?!" Mizuki protested indignantly.

Noiz huffed. "I've already lifted my finger here. I could've just let you get chewed out from the get-go, you better be grateful." He turned back around, lowering the hand with the phone. Aoba raised his eyes to look at him from the bed, seemingly calmer.

"Here." Noiz threw the phone and Aoba caught it nimbly.

He sighed heavily and took the phone to his ear again.

"You got an explanation. Now give yours."

"Uh, do you really want to talk about this over the phone?" Mizuki stammered nervously.

"That depends. Would you be okay with taking a kick to the jaw if the explanation is not satisfactory?"

Noiz was climbing back on bed. Aoba was sitting with his back leaning on the wall beside of the bed, and Noiz did the same. Their shoulders brushed, and he settled down there, listening.

Mizuki sighed. "Fine... Ugh, damn. Aoba... I, myself, can't forgive what I've done. So I won't be surprised if you don't give two shits about what I'm about to say, but... I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I disappeared."

Aoba remained silent. Mizuki breathed deeply before he spoke again.

"Aoba... I don't have a good reason for what I've done. It's so ridiculous."

At the airport, Mizuki's gaze was lost in the tall glass windows. He looked at the sun rising in the sky, the planes parked on the ramps outside, and the staff workers crowding around the area. He sat down on one of the black leather seats at the terminal, his baggage next to his feet. He didn't know what to say.

"Aoba... I freaked out. I grew up with you and Sei. I remember in eerie detail every time Sei collapsed throughout the years we've been together. And every time it happened, it was terrifying to me. I was always relieved after it was over and it turned out to be nothing. But then, they discovered the tumor... And I thought that was it."

"You lost faith in my brother," Aoba said, deadpan.

"B-but I did plan on finding you! Now that I'm in Germany, I-"

"What about those last fucking five years, Mizuki?!" Aoba was almost shouting, and Noiz wasn't sure how to ground him before he lost himself.

"I just," Mizuki gasped, bracing his elbow on his knee, pulling at his hair. "Aoba, I just spiraled down. I'm such a coward. Every time I called, you sounded more scared, more desperate." He gulped, and it hurt. A huge knot was swelling in his throat.

Aoba laughed darkly. "And yet, you told Noiz and probably anyone else willing to hear that Sei was your fiancé!"

"I know! It's fucking disgusting, I fucking know! But every time- Every time... I called you... Or you called me..."Mizuki let out a sob, and he covered his mouth with his hand for a few seconds, trying to calm his breathing, before proceeding. "Every day, I thought I was going to wake up, and you'd tell me Sei is dead! And I didn't have the fucking balls to fly here. I d-didn't want to see Sei dying away."

"What the fuck, Mizuki."

"You're right. I lost faith in Sei. But I still love him, Aoba. God fucking help me, I love him so damn much." His eyes were burning, and there was no stopping the five years worth of tears pushing against his lids anymore. He gripped his bangs, biting on his bottom lip and trying to control his voice as the first drops fell.

"Not one day since he and I made that promise as kids... and not one day since he left, never did my feelings change. And I pretended, every day I pretended that Sei was a-alive and okay. And I hoped he really was, but couldn't bring myself to call you and find out. It had been too long already, and I was ashamed and still too afraid."

Aoba was silent, his eyes shadowed. Beside him on the bed, Noiz listened to the conversation with downcast eyes. That was a Mizuki he had never seen before. Not once during all those years he had known Mizuki, he imagined something like this was happening.

"Aoba. Sei is alive, isn't he?" Mizuki finally asked, blurted it out before his tongue refused to do as he wanted.

"I don't think you deserve to know."

Mizuki's voice was trembling on the edges. "I know. I don't. Sei would be disgusted at me too, but please. I need to hear it. I'm begging you."

Noiz looked at Aoba, and saw the humidity in his eyes.

"... He is." Aoba all but whispered, his voice thin.

Mizuki exhaled, and what little control he had was lost in that moment. He was crying like a child, his chest heaving with sobs as he curled up on himself on his seat, covering his mouth with a hand. He's alive. He's really alive, he repeated to himself, trying to muffle the ungraceful gasps and whimpers that escaped his lips. The people walking around the terminal, disembarking or boarding, looked over their shoulders, murmuring.

Aoba pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling to try and stop what was sure to come, but the tears still spilled over from his tired eyes. A ragged sob escaped from his mouth, and Noiz's arms were around his shoulders the next second. Aoba dropped the phone with a muffled "thump" on the mattress, and his hands clutched the back of Noiz's shirt, his face buried in the crook of Noiz's neck as he sobbed quietly. Every time he saw Aoba cry, it got that much harder to witness it.

The tears started to dampen the shirt and his skin, and Noiz kissed the side of his head, running his hand through his hair soothingly. With his other hand, he picked up the phone.

"Mizuki?"

He heard the murmuring of people close to the speaker, a couple of worried voices asking "are you okay?", "do you need water?", before he heard a cough from Mizuki, and he was speaking again.

"Hello?" he asked, his voice raw, unstable.

"It's me now. I can't pick you up at the airport, I'll explain to you later. For now, I'll ask Theo to go and take you to his place."

"What? No way, I don't want Theo to see me like this." Mizuki tried to joke, but it sounded just pathetic.

Noiz rolled his eyes. "Shut up. Text me what airport you're at and I'll forward it to him asking to pick you up-"

"Tell that asshole he's not forgiven," Aoba grumbled, his voice muffled.

Mizuki gave a small laugh on the other side of the line. "I think I got that."

 Noiz sighed. "Well, go wait for Theo at the entrance. Bye."

Mizuki reciprocated the "bye" and Noiz hung up. He looked down at the crown of Aoba's head.

"Let's lie down again."

Aoba nodded, and they accommodated themselves again; Noiz's arm still being used as a pillow, but this time, Aoba was turned towards him. The phone vibrated in his other hand with a message from Mizuki, and he forwarded the airport name to Theo, explaining the bare minimum. He glanced at Aoba, who was staring at him absentmindedly.

"Aoba, you should go to sleep. This is going to be quick."

Aoba blinked. His face was stained with tears and some remains of eyeliner, but he had stopped crying. "Well... It's just that I'm thinking it must be almost time for me to be up for work. I should just stay awake."

Noiz sighed and went back to typing for a few more seconds. He sent the message and placed the phone back on the nightstand, now in silent mode so it wouldn't make a ruckus again. He snuggled up to Aoba, his arm around his waist again.

"You're tired. Go to sleep already, you still have almost two hours left," he mumbled against Aoba's forehead, his eyes shut.

Aoba was silent for a few seconds, before breathing out a small "okay" and pulling at the corners of the thick blanket to cover them properly.

Huddled together, they fell asleep with legs tangled.

 


 

Noiz woke up when Aoba shifted beside him to get up. But that was just the first time.

He dozed off multiple times still, startling awake at the smallest sounds—Aoba flipping the lights switch on, or searching through his nightstand's drawers, or when he sleepily stubbed his toe on the doorframe while coming back from the kitchen and hissed in pain. Noiz would get glimpses of Aoba's back as he paced around the room, putting his shirt on, brushing his hair, getting ready for work.

When Aoba was saying his goodbye to Ren after refilling his bowls, Noiz pulled himself from his half-conscious state. He opened his mouth to speak, but a yawn escaped first.

"Aoba." He finally managed to grumble drowsily, looking at the other man under heavy lids.

"Ah. Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up." Aoba smiled apologetically. "You can sleep for however long you want."

"Mm. Goodbye kiss."

"... Eh?"

"Hurry." He opened his arms, extending them invitingly. The blanket had slipped to his chest.

Aoba looked at him weirdly.

"I'm a bit late already."

"So... hurry." Noiz's vision was clearing up and he could open his eyes properly now. He stared at Aoba, who sighed and stepped closer to the bed.

"What are you even- woah!" Noiz pulled him back to the mattress as soon as he was in his arms' reach, and Aoba fell with him with a squeaked protest from the bed springs. Noiz held him tight and pecked him on the lips while he was still too in shock to say anything.

"You... what the hell..." Aoba mumbled when he had mostly recovered.

"What is it?"

"Somehow... I knew you were a shameless brat, but you turned out to be a pretty spoiled brat too."

Noiz huffed, closing his eyes. "Shut up."

"... I said I have to get to work, right?"

Noiz opened his eyes, staring into Aoba's.

"Yeah." Noiz lurched forward to give him another quick kiss, and Aoba was about to protest, his face flushed, when Noiz's arms around him finally loosened up.

"Good luck at work today," Noiz said lightly as Aoba got up from the bed, smoothing over the wrinkles on his shirt.

"Yeah... Thanks." Aoba gave a small smile. He stood there for a second too long, like he wanted to say or do something else, but then he just turned around and walked out of the room, turning the lights off again before leaving.

Noiz heard the creak on the hinges of the front door being opened, and then the click of the doorknob as it was closed. He curled under the blanket, feeling like the room was a lot colder than it had been before, and fell asleep again.

 


 

>> I'm going to Theo's place. I thought it might be bad to hide the house key under a flower pot or something, so I'm taking it with me. Is that a problem?

>> Oh, no no, it's fine. I'm not coming back home today. But I'll be getting there early in the morning tomorrow, so I'll need to get the key with you...

>> It's fine, I'll go back there tonight. If you don't mind.

>> Ahh, no, of course I don't. But... why? ( ^ ^ ')

Noiz sighed heavily, looking at the screen.

"Brother!"

He finally looked to the side, at Theo, who had been trying to get his attention. They were in his car now, driving to his home after stopping by the police station, to Theo's horror.

"What is it?"

Theo was looking at the road, but those knitted brows and bewildered gaze were obviously meant for Noiz. "Aren't you going to tell me what exactly is happening? We just stopped by the police station, you took long there and you haven't explained anything to me! How do you think I felt with you texting me 'hey I don't have my car nor my house key but I'm fine, don't worry. Mizuki is at Berlin Tegel Airport, please get him and take him to your place' at 7am? And you just ignored my texts after that! And when I got to the airport, Mizuki-san was so weird? What-"

"I'll explain it properly when we get to your place."

Theo turned his head sharply, his eyes pleading. "Wim!"

"The road, Theo."

They arrived at Theo's house before long. It was a two-story building, much like Noiz's. It was large enough, considering both of them lived alone. Their parents only allowed him to get his own place after he became the company's president; before that, he lived in the manor. Noiz wondered sometimes if he didn't feel restless, living alone for the first time.

After putting the car in the garage, they entered the house, Theo leading the way. The white walls were covered in art pieces or pictures of their family, and there was a potted plant in almost every corner. They found Mizuki sitting on the cream-colored couch at Theo's pristine living room, looking at the ground in dead silence.

"See?" Theo whispered, shooting a look at Noiz beside him. They were standing in the doorway and Mizuki didn't seem to notice their presence. "His eyes were red and puffy when I picked him up at the airport, it gave me a scare! He brushed it off and tried to act normal, but he keeps spacing out..."

Noiz sighed and stepped forward, leaving Theo to stumble after him.

"Oi, Mizuki."

The redhead flinched, finally lifting his head. He gave Noiz his usual smile, as his friend sat beside him. Theo sat at Noiz's other side, peering at the two with confused eyes.

"Hey, Noiz."

"You look shitty." Noiz looked at him plainly and Theo gripped his brother's arm, chiding him for his rudeness.

Mizuki chuckled, too airily, too distant.

"I guess so."

"Why does it seem like you two are talking about something and not letting me in? You promised you'd explain, brother!"

Noiz leaned back on the couch, letting out an exhale and deciding to start explaining from the top, since Theo didn't even know about Aoba. Even Mizuki started actually paying attention when he began summarizing how he met Aoba and got close to him.

"Ah! So that's why you've been so different lately!" Theo piped in victoriously.

"I haven't been different at all," Noiz grumbled, glaring at his brother.

"Of course you have! Your emotions have started showing a lot more on your face!"

Noiz sighed heavily and ignored Theo, picking up where he left off. When he mentioned the strip club, Mizuki spoke up.

"Aoba, working in a strip club? What the hell..."

Noiz arched his eyebrow, narrowing his eyes.

"It's just a job like any other."

"No, don't get me wrong. It's just that I can't believe he could stay calm working as a waiter in a strip club, I remember him as this super bashful guy. Although he had his wild phase..."

Noiz blinked. That was something he hadn't heard before.

"Wild phase?"

Mizuki shifted slightly, his brow furrowed in deep thought. "Yeah, well... He was never a bad guy, of course, but he just had those couple of rebellious years where he would disappear from home for days and tell no one about it. He lingered with the bad crowds in the Old Residential District, got drunk and sometimes he would even get into fights. Sei... He worried a lot about Aoba. He thought it had something to do with how Aoba never accepted their parents' disappearance. But as I said, Aoba was never a bad guy, and he stopped completely when Sei was hospitalized and they found the tumor."

A plausible explanation to that vicious kick of his. "... I see."

"When I think about it... He was such a brat. You reminded me of him a bit."

"... Hah?"

Mizuki laughed at Noiz's skeptical expression.

"Just... You two had eyes like someone who had been abandoned by the world or something. Hah, completely stupid brats, wallowing in your angst when you had people around you who cared for you."

Noiz rolled his eyes.

"Look who's trying to be the wise guy now."

Mizuki jolted as if he'd been just slapped in the face. Noiz was about to apologize for going overboard, but he laughed bitterly, waving his hand to brush off his worry.

"Yeah, you're right. I don't really have the right to say anything, but I guess I'm just too used to acting like your older brother."

When Noiz told them what happened after he left the club, they were shocked. Theo had an idea of what had happened after they passed by the police station, but he was still terrified and curious about the case's details. Mizuki, much like Aoba, wanted to punch him for being so nonchalant about the robbery.

"I talked to the appointed detective and everything. He seemed like a capable guy, and he said it'll be an easy catch after looking at the report. I don't think they'll have too much trouble. The club's surveillance cameras definitely caught the guys."

"Well, they could've been wearing masks," Mizuki reasoned.

Noiz shrugged. "We'll have to wait and see."

Theo sighed. He was obviously tired from having all of that information dumped on him at once. He got up, smiling at the other two.

"I'm going to the grocery store. It's almost time for lunch and I'm out of ingredients."

Noiz blinked, his usually plain face showing a hint of surprise.

"Why don't you just order fast food or something? Neither I nor Mizuki can cook, y' know."

"I know how to make omurice and you said you liked it, you asshole."

Noiz proceeded to explain to Mizuki how not throwing the plate to the other side of the room didn't qualify as "like", and Theo chuckled at the display, shaking his head. "No, I'll be the one cooking. I've been learning but I generally don't feel like cooking just for myself... It'll be a lot more fun to cook with you guys here."

"Somehow... this is the nicest thing someone have said to me since I set a foot in this land." Mizuki looked at Theo with eyes big and emotional.

Noiz side-eyed Mizuki, and Theo laughed radiantly.

"Well, do as you like. We'll be waiting," Noiz said, crossing his arms.

"Mhm. Oh, I know!" Theo clapped his hands together, his eyes sparkling. "I'm making pork loin stuffed with plums and dumplings; I still remember how much you liked it when we were kids, brother. It'll be a nice first contact with German cuisine for Mizuki-san too!"

"Ohhh, that sounds really good!" Mizuki perked up.

Noiz huffed a laugh. It seemed like Theo had, indeed, been feeling lonely, living alone in that big house. He smiled at his brother.

"Okay, that sounds good."

"And don't think you'll just watch from the sidelines, you two may not cook but you will roll up your sleeves and help me out! Well, I'll be right back!" He waved to them with a bright smile and left the room.

The two sat silently, until Noiz sighed exasperatedly.

"Finally, you're starting to act like a normal human being again."

Mizuki turned to his head to him, looking startled. "Eh?"

"Tch. Idiot. You've been worrying Theo, you know."

"Ah. Haha, sorry about that." Mizuki smiled apologetically, and sighed.

"What have you been thinking about?" Noiz asked quietly.

"Just... about what I should do, now that I know that Sei is alive, when I've been running away from the possibilities for so long. It's so embarrassing, really. How much of a coward I have become." He ran his fingers through his hair, messing it up.

"You bet."

Mizuki chuckled. "At least try to comfort me, geez. But," he sighed. "I wanna see him. I know I want to do that, definitely."

Noiz creased his brow slightly. He wondered if Mizuki had realized in exactly what conditions Sei was alive. Though Noiz mentioned him, he had purposefully skipped the part where he was comatose in the hospital.

 "Good luck trying to convince Aoba to let you do that."

"Did you see Sei, Noiz?"

He hesitated for a second, and sighed. Just when Mizuki was acting normal again, he would rather not be the one breaking the news to him.

"Yeah, I've seen him," he said simply.

Mizuki looked at him for a few seconds and nodded, staying silent. After a while, he let out a low chuckle.

"That's going... to sound like a total excuse. But it's just another proof of my cowardice."

Noiz looked over to him, eyes questioning.

Mizuki proceeded, staring into nothing. "I don't know if Aoba told you, but his grandma has been sending out money to him since they left Midorijima, to help them cover living expenses, as well as hospital bills if need be. Of course, it's not enough that they could live only on that so it didn't surprise me when you told me how much Aoba's been working.

"At some point, I reached out to Tae-san, hoping to secretly send money to Aoba through her, but she was furious when she found out that I'd been running away from him—almost knocked me out with the smack she gave me—and when I worked up the courage to ask her about Sei, she refused to say a word. She told me I would have to call Aoba if I wanted to know anything."

"Sounds like Aoba's grandmother alright," Noiz said, almost in admiration.

Mizuki smiled faintly. "Yeah, she's really strong. While I sat there and did nothing, everyone was working so hard. I'll have to... prove myself from now on. Prove that I can stay beside Sei again, to Tae-san and Aoba. And Sei."

Noiz glanced at him and huffed. "Not just to them, but to yourself too."

"To myself...?"

"There's no way you will prove to Aoba, Sei and their grandmother that you can be beside him, if not even you think you can. Heh, who's the one wallowing in his angst now?"

Mizuki turned bewildered eyes to him, his voice an octave higher. "But how can I forgive myself before they forgive me? I don't have that right."

Noiz groaned exasperatedly. "Stop this talk about having or not having the right to do something. What you did was shitty, but you have to make peace with it. The past is the past; you can't get those five years back. But you can start over, beginning now."

The words resonated inside Noiz's chest too, like it had come from the mouth of a stranger instead of his own. He definitely wasn't the type to make speeches, but when he looked at Mizuki, he meant every word he said. Mizuki seemed as surprised as he was, and laughed heartily.

"Geez, I really feel like a man seeing his baby brother outgrow him!" He ruffled Noiz's hair with a playful grin. Noiz slapped his hand away, grumbling.

"You've really become an adult. It's a pity I can't make good on my promise anymore."

"Hah?"

"Before, I meant to introduce you to Aoba, but things happened on its own. I knew you two would work great together, who's the bad matchmaker now?"

They stared at each other for five long seconds.

"You're so full of shit," Noiz finally said, his face and voice completely void of emotion.

"I'm not! It's serious, though it'd be impossible to introduce you two while Aoba is angry at me..."

Noiz narrowed his eyes. "And who did you mean to introduce to Theo?"

Mizuki smiled tightly, nervously glancing away from Noiz.

"Uhh... Koujaku?"

Noiz got up from the couch, walking out of the room.

Mizuki blinked, looking at his back. "Um, where are you going?"

Noiz didn't look behind. "Going to the kitchen. Get a knife to butcher you for this stupid ass idea."

"Haha, oi Noiz, don't joke like this- Put that knife down, oh my God."

 


 

Despite having worked under Theo for almost six months now, when his brother came back with the groceries, he realized one thing for the first time.

Theo was a slave-driver.

"Mizuki-san, I can't believe you're messing up cutting onions!"

"I'm sorry, but my eyes are really stinging!"

"Brother, put those fries down, I brought currywurst as a snack! Your mouth is full of them, are you a child? Get to work!"

"Hmpf."

"Mizuki-san. I have a very heavy pot in my hand right now; stop playing around with the caul fat at this instant."

"Theo, you're not like this!"

"I'm going to throw this currywurst down the window or so help me, Wim."

By the time they were finished, it was well after lunchtime. Even after the currywurst, they were still starving, so when the smell filled the room as Theo set the tray on the dining table and started cutting the roasted-gold meat, they were almost drooling on the table.

"Tell me what you think. And be sincere, please!" Theo had gone from devil chef to schoolgirl showing her cooking to her crush as he set the plates on the table and served his friends. He sat on his chair and looked at the other two expectantly.

Mizuki and Noiz looked at each other momentarily and dug in. Noiz stopped after the first bite and blinked in surprise as the flavor spread into his tongue. Mizuki only stopped when he couldn't even chew properly and turned wide eyes to Theo, his mouth filled like a chipmunk.

"This is so good, Theo!" is what it sounded like when he almost spat on the table with his mouth full.

Theo laughed delightfully as Mizuki went back to his plate, the cutlery scrapping on the china as he fought to chew the meat and swallow it down. Noiz lifted his head and smirked at his brother.

"I don't know where you learned to cook like this, but it's really good."

"Thank you so much, you guys! I knew the basics from watching mother cook when we were little, but I've been learning on my own since I started living alone. I'm glad you liked it!"

Theo finally started eating after guaranteeing that he had done a good job. He hummed approvingly, his cheeks flushing pink and they ate in semi-silence for the next minutes. Mizuki, especially, devoured his servings like a man who had been starving in a desert. And yet, when all of them were satisfied, there was still more than enough for dinner.

"Oh right, I'll put some of this in a tupperware. Take it to Aoba-san later, brother." Theo smiled warmly at Noiz, before heading to the kitchen.

"Ahhh, now I feel truly at peace. I could take my post-lunch nap right here, right now." Mizuki cooed, patting his belly and leaning back on his seat.

Noiz huffed a laugh, but then felt his phone vibrate and start to ring in his pocket. He pulled the phone out, looking at the screen briefly, and answered it.

"Hello."

"Am I speaking to Wilhelm Adlersflügel?" It was the detective that was in charge of the case on his car's break-in.

"Yes, Wilhelm speaking. Good afternoon, detective." Mizuki listened curiously as Noiz conversed in German with the cop.

"We've caught the burglars who broke into your car."

"... I'm surprised to hear that. It was awfully fast."

The man snorted on the other end. "Yeah, they were very sloppy. I told you it was going to be an easy catch. Their faces were crystal clear on that club's surveillance camera, and we even got a set of fingerprints, close to the broken window. We will be comparing when they get here, since they're not in the database."

"So it really was more than one person as you supposed?" Noiz looked over to see Theo coming back from the kitchen. His younger brother looked like he had been about to say something, but kept his lips shut after realizing Noiz was on the phone.

"Indeed. It was two kids, barely of age; they didn't even have a record. I just got word that they were apprehended. They haven't come in for interrogation yet, but we will have everything settled in three hours tops. Then, you can get your belongings back."

"Then, I'll be showing up in three hours. Thank you for your service."

"Don't mention it."

They hung up, and Noiz sighed.

"What was it?" Mizuki inquired tentatively.

"The cops found the thieves. Told me I could go there to pick up my things in three hours."

"They worked really fast, it's amazing," Theo beamed with admiration. He had just finished depositing the slices of pork loin inside the tupperware.

"You didn't slip him some bills, did you, Noiz?" Mizuki sneered playfully.

"Hell no. It was pretty easy, as far as I can tell. But I wouldn't discard the idea of our last name having a weight on this. Considering that father didn't call me furious until now, I'm just glad it didn't get to his ears yet."

Theo scratched his cheek with a tiny smile. "It'd be bad if he heard about it, indeed. Well, I have some things to do in the city; I'll take to the station when the time comes."

They didn't talk for long before Mizuki whined that he really needed his post-lunch nap and sleepily walked to Theo's guest room. After that, Theo got his keys and they went to the garage.

"You don't mind following me to some libraries, right?" Theo asked as they got inside the car.

"I don't, but... Are you borrowing books? Isn't it easier to just buy it?"

Theo started the car and backed out of the garage. Noiz started thinking he wouldn't answer, but then he chuckled.

"It is, but I really like reading books that have been read by many other people. Sometimes there are even notes in the middle of pages, commenting something in the story. It's really fun!"

Noiz snorted. "Weird guy."

Theo laughed louder and the engine rumbled quietly as they left the premises.

Chapter Text

It was dark by the time Noiz returned to Aoba's apartment. That day, Noiz had followed Theo to no less than five libraries in the city, and somehow got roped into borrowing books too.

Theo had puffed his cheeks at Noiz when he refused his sudden suggestion to get some books for himself.

"I'm serious, brother! When was the last time you read fiction? I bet it's been ages since you read something just for fun."

Noiz opened his mouth to retort, but then realized his younger brother was right. He couldn't remember the last time he read fiction novels. The only thing he read those days were reports and technical books related to his job. And before that, in Midorijima, he wasn't the type to be caught reading books either. It wasn't because he didn't like them; books were some of his only friends when he was a child, and he read a fair amount of both fictional and technical books back then. But it was something he just didn't think about nowadays.

Defeated, he found himself walking out of the fifth library carrying a bag with three books. It didn't rival the two bags filled with ten books in total that Theo was carrying, though. His younger brother had smiled cheekily then, having gotten what he wanted.

"Those are all books I've read before and I really liked them. Tell me your thoughts on them when you're finished!"

Noiz glared half-heartedly at him but nodded at last, and in the evening, they made their way to the police station. He saw the kids' mug shots and, not unexpectedly, they weren't familiar to him at all. Noiz hadn't been very optimistic about getting back the money that was stolen from him, but surprisingly, most of it had been recovered, and his house key was also back in his hands. All things considered, the outcome wasn't half as bad as it could've been.

The detective had told him that upon search, they discovered the two thieves had other peoples' belongings too, and the police was investigating how many people they had robbed and trying to reach out to them. Evidence pointed to the possibility that all of those items had been stolen the night before. Theo was beside Noiz during the talk, and had frantically asked if his brother's identity had been protected and he wouldn't suffer retaliation when the burglars were free.

The man brushed it off with a calm smile. "No need to worry. Your brother didn't leave documentation in the car, amazingly—in most break-ins, burglars take documentation and it's a huge headache for the victims. So there's no way they knew who they had just robbed, unless they saw him leave or arrive to the car, which we have ruled out due to the evidences and their testimony."

Theo sighed in relief, and the first thing they did after leaving the station with Noiz's car was going to a shop to fix it. Since the only damaged part had been one of the windows, the costs were nothing more than pocket money for Noiz. He had to be relieved that it hadn't rained at all last night, or it would've been more troublesome.

While the window was being replaced and the remaining glass shards were being swept away, the two brothers went back to Theo's house. When they arrived, Mizuki was awake, lying on Theo's couch and clicking away on his phone's screen. His olive-colored eyes caught the movement as Noiz and Theo entered the room, and Mizuki sat up, looking at them.

"Oh, hey! Did you work things out, Noiz?" He asked.

"Yeah, the car is getting fixed now."

"I'm going to get the tupperware for you, brother!" Theo announced over his shoulder, moving to the kitchen after leaving his library bags beside Mizuki.

Noiz hummed in acknowledgement and turned his eyes to Mizuki, who peered at the bags curiously. "You don't mind staying here tonight, right?"

Mizuki looked at Noiz and blinked slowly. "No, I don't. Why- Ah, you're staying over at Aoba's again, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Noiz confirmed, nonchalantly.

Mizuki smirked, not fooled by that indifferent front.

Noiz creased his brow, irritated. "What is it?"

"Nothing at all!~"

"Tch."

Mizuki's face turned grave. "If you're going to stay with Aoba... can I ask you a favor?"

"Are you going to ask me to talk to Aoba about forgiving you?" Noiz said, only half-serious.

Mizuki laughed, shaking his head. "Of course not. But I want you to arrange a meeting; I need to talk to him face to face."

Noiz stared at him for a few seconds before nodding. "Okay."

Theo was coming back from the kitchen as Mizuki said, "Just check with Aoba whatever time and day is best for him and let me know."

"Mizuki-san, do you want to come with us? I'm just going to drop brother off at the car shop and I can show you around the city! You didn't get to see much until now, right?"

"Ooh, that sounds fun! I'm coming with you, then!" Mizuki jumped to his feet enthusiastically, a big grin on his face.

Noiz watched from the back seat as Mizuki rode on the passenger's seat beside Theo. He looked outside the window almost like a big, stupid dog, his red hair flying haphazardly with the chilly wind. He seemed floored by the tall buildings being swallowed up into the dimming orange lights. Noiz would have been irritated in any other occasion, but after the early morning events, he was glad that Mizuki was having a good time. Even if he did look like a fucking idiot.

Theo and Mizuki waved at Noiz as they dropped him at the shop. His car was good as new when he arrived, the shop owner saying the service had been just finished. He paid the man and entered the car, dropping his library bag and the tupperware on the back seat. Noiz drove away from the shop, thinking of what he had to do before going back to Aoba's house. First of all, he went to his own place to check if no one decided to vandalize it too, but he was glad to find it as he had left it. After those three uneventful days, the last twenty-or-so hours had been so lively it felt as long as a week.

After a quick shower, he finally changed out of the stuffy suit he had been forced to wear again before leaving Aoba's place. He gathered some clothes and necessities in a bag so he wouldn't need to borrow Aoba's again and left home. Noiz thought back to Aoba's almost empty cupboards and fridge this morning and stopped by the grocery store, buying milk, bread and enough food for at least a month. He knew Aoba wouldn't be quiet about it, but he wouldn't hear any complaints.

Having paid for the groceries at the cashier and picking up the bags, he crossed the automatic sliding doors and got to the sidewalk, heading for his car, until his gaze fell on a building on the other side of the street.

A small drugstore, squished between a clothing store and an electronics shop. He stared at it blankly, seeing people entering and exiting through the glass doors.

He left the groceries in the car and crossed the street, entering the drugstore. The sickening smell of mixed medicine filled his nostrils immediately, but he ignored it, scrutinizing the shelves around the room until he found what he was looking for. He grabbed the bottle of lube and a box of condoms and walked to the cashier, placing it on the counter.

The man, who had been typing away on his phone, looked at the items before raising his dark-brown eyes to Noiz's face. After a second too long of staring, Noiz arched one eyebrow at the guy, and the cashier became flustered, hurriedly checking the prices and mumbling them to Noiz as he shoved the items into a paper bag.

"T-thanks for your preference!" The blushing man almost yelled as Noiz paid for his purchase and turned around to leave the store with the bag in hands.

Thus, after much venturing, Noiz finally stood in front of Aoba's door, trying to open it while balancing the many bags on his arms. Finally, he sighed in resignation and placed the bags on the floor, unlocking the door before picking up the heavy bags again.

Ren was sitting on the middle of the living room as Noiz pushed the door closed with his shoulder. The dog didn't make a sound; it was definitely unusual for a dog to not bark, but his wiggly tail showed he was happy. And considering his existence couldn't be revealed in that building, his silence was actually a very good thing.

"Perhaps I should talk to Aoba about taking you to my place, to take a load off his shoulders for a while," Noiz muttered to himself, moving to the kitchen area.

He stored the groceries in the cupboards and refrigerator, filling them plentifully. There was no way Aoba wouldn't eat a decent breakfast before leaving for work now. Tired from all the walking around of the day, he breathed a sigh of relief and stretched his arms up, his tense bones popping as he arched his spine briefly. Ren followed him to the bedroom, lying on his cushion on the corner of the room while Noiz refilled his bowls. He dropped the drugstore bag beside the bed, and rummaged through the library bag, picking up a random book and opening it as he lied on bed.

 


 

Noiz stirred up when he heard a "thump" on the front door. He scrambled for his phone on the nightstand. It was 3am. It seemed he had fallen asleep for half an hour. The book he had been reading lied open atop his chest. He used a random piece of paper from the nightstand as a bookmarker and put the book aside, getting up from bed.

That noise wasn't his imagination, and Ren's alert stance on his bed confirmed it. Noiz left the room and walked to the front door, his mind whirling as Ren limped behind him. The door didn't have a magic eye, so he could only...

Noiz twisted the key and opened the door. A weight fell on his chest immediately with a muffled grunt of pain and his arms flew to hold the body on instinct, feeling it would slip down to the floor otherwise. Blue hair sprinkled with white tickled Noiz's chin, and the body he had in his arms was frighteningly cold and trembling. It was snowing heavily outside.

"Aoba," he breathed, and the whistling wind almost drowned out his voice.

The other man didn't move nor respond. His arms dangled uselessly on either side of his body, and he seemed to be up only by Noiz's strength now, like a puppet that had its strings cut off.

"Shit..." Noiz firmed his grip on Aoba's body, arms enclosing his waist, and pulled him into the apartment, closing the door and locking it. He all but carried Aoba to the couch, sitting him up and dusting off the snow from his hair and shoulders, until he realized with a shudder that Aoba was hurt.

The corner of his lip was cut and a pretty nasty bruise was swelling in his cheek. There was blood caked dry under his nose, and a couple of smaller cuts around his face. Surprisingly, he still had most of his work makeup on, though he was wearing his normal clothes. His eyes were void, unseeing.

"Aoba? What happened?" Noiz asked softly, but once again, he received no reply. Aoba simply closed his eyes and breathed deeply. After one too many seconds, Noiz feared that he would fall asleep right there.

"Come with me." Noiz swung Aoba's arm around his neck, held his waist and pulled him up, carrying him to the bathroom.

It was crowded with two grown men inside the tiny room, but Noiz managed to sit Aoba on the toilet lid, and kneeled down in front of him. He took Aoba's hands in his own, and it was like holding frozen water bottles. He realized Aoba's right fist was hurt too, most likely from punching someone or something.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?" He stared into Aoba's eyes, holding his hands firmly. Aoba shook his head, but it was hardly convincing.

Noiz sighed, and tugged at Aoba's coat and his shirt, carelessly throwing them out of the bathroom door. Noiz frowned at the blossoming purple and blue marks on his torso. He got up, placing his hand on Aoba's shoulder.

"I'm gonna get the first-aid kit and heat up some water. Don't fall over."

He left the bathroom, picking up Aoba's discarded clothes to throw it in the laundry basket and the other man stayed still, sitting obediently.

Noiz came back ten minutes later with two buckets filled with steaming water, a washcloth, and the first-aid kit. Aoba was in the same position he had been left, head downcast, but his eyes seemed more conscious, which was a relief. Noiz kneeled in front of him and started untying his sneakers. Aoba grunted almost inaudibly.

He hoarsely pushed his first words through his lips. "Noiz... You don't need-"

"It's fine." Noiz removed his shoes and socks, and furrowed his brows at the swollen red feet. Aoba was quietly peering down at him, and Noiz didn't look up.

"How did you get here?" Noiz asked, his voice flat.

"I walked," Aoba replied simply.

Noiz sighed through his nose, and picked up the bath sponge on the sink. He remembered clearly that the car ride from Exposure took approximately fifteen minutes yesterday. He said nothing and filled the small plastic bowl in one of the buckets with water, pouring its contents on Aoba's feet.

Aoba shivered with the shock of temperature, and exhaled in what seemed like relief. In silence, Noiz kept scrubbing his feet with the sponge absentmindedly, first on the heel, then proceeding to the bridge, sometimes stopping to massage it with deft fingers.

"But... It's not red just because of the walk home. My feet are always like that after walking around on high heels."

Aoba was talking, and Noiz was glad to indulge him. "Do you always have to walk on heels at the club?"

"Not really. But the customers voted for that costume this week, so..."

After deeming that he was finished with that part, he washed the sponge on the sink and left it there, before washing his own hands thoroughly. He went back to Aoba and opened the first-aid kit.

"Noiz, I can do that part."

"Can you get up on your feet and go to the mirror?"

"Of course."

"Then do so."

Aoba stared at him for a moment, then turned his head away, glaring at the wall.

Noiz picked up the washcloth and doused it on the hot water. "If you're done, let me help you."

He proceeded to clean Aoba's face, trying not to be surprised every time Aoba flinched as the fabric grazed a small cut. Most of the makeup was gone by the time he finished; so it wasn't the fancy water-proof type, he mused. After applying some antibiotic on the small wounds and dressing the most significant cuts, he turned to his injured hand, which was in far worse shape. After cleaning it properly, he dressed his battered knuckles and the back of his hand with bandages, laying it on his lap.

"This doesn't look half-bad, actually," Aoba muttered, looking down at his hand.

Noiz shrugged and got up. "It's handy to know these things. Do you want me to help you shower?"

Aoba sputtered. "What?"

"You can use the rest of the hot water for that; taking a cold shower when you've been strolling around in the middle of a mild snowstorm wouldn't be the best idea."

"Uhh... It's fine, I think my legs have regained some strength." Aoba shakily got up from the toilet lid, but not three seconds later, his legs gave out and Noiz grabbed him just in time.

Noiz sighed impatiently, feeling Aoba's heart thudding against his own chest.

"You can just stay sitting down on the toilet. I'll dump the water on you just like that."

"It'll make a mess, though?"

"I'll clean it up, now sit. And take off your pants."

Aoba sat back on the toilet lid, glaring and blushing, and Noiz moved Ren's litter box to the living room before going back to the bathroom. Ignoring the naked body before him, he positioned himself behind Aoba now, and submerged the bowl into one of the buckets, throwing some water on Aoba's back. He watched the ends of his blue hair become soaked and stick to his slightly bruised skin. Aoba hunched his shoulders up, humming low.

"The water feels really good..." Aoba cooed.

Noiz handed him the sponge. "Here. I guess you can't wash yourself properly in this position, but the bare minimum can be done. Whatever else can wait until tomorrow."

Noiz poured water over Aoba's head, seeing the color of his hair darken. His back muscles moved as he scrubbed the sponge on his front.

"So... did you heat up all of this water? On the stove? And filled the buckets?"

Noiz creased his brows at Aoba's back.

"Yeah? Was there any other way that could have been done?"

Aoba laughed. "No, it's just that... you're really cute, you know that?"

Noiz didn't answer, opting to ball his hand on Aoba's hair and lift it up, exposing his nape. He could see the shudder in Aoba's back, but made no comment, raising the bowl and letting the water wash over the back of his neck. Aoba flinched a little, before chuckling.

"Geez, it's really getting messy..." Aoba mused. Noiz let his hair fall on his shoulders, completely exposing his back.

"Don't sweat it. And give me the sponge; I'll wash your back for you."

Aoba was still for a moment, before handing him the sponge over his shoulder.

"What a thoughtful guy. I thought you were angry at me."

Noiz rubbed the sponge on Aoba's back, and knitted his brows. "Why?"

"Well... you didn't answer my text earlier."

It took a fraction of a second for Noiz to remember. "Oh. Yeah, I was sort of mad."

For a moment, it felt like Aoba wasn't breathing. Then he finally spoke up.

"So you were, huh."

"You know why I wanted to be here. Don't pretend like you don't. It's annoying."

Aoba remained silent, and Noiz kept on doing his task. The water was steadily going cold.

"Thank you, Noiz."

Aoba was trembling again, from a chill or from something else, Noiz didn't know. But he dropped the sponge on the sink, got up and grabbed the towel hanging on a hook in the wall, wrapping it around Aoba.

"We're finished. Let's go to the bedroom."

 


 

Noiz picked random clothes and threw Aoba's way, choosing whatever seemed warmer to him. Aoba had stopped shaking, but his vacant stare was back as he sat atop the covers in his baggy blue sweater and black drawstring pants. Ren was on his little bed, looking at them with something that could only be described as worry. It was amazing how expressive he was.

Aoba's eyes wandered to the book on top of his bed, close to his leg, while Noiz was changing into sleeping clothes with his back to him.

"Captive... Princess?"

"Mm?" Noiz turned around, having finished dressing himself.

"This book, 'Captive Princess'. I didn't know you liked erotica."

Noiz snorted. He couldn't tell if he was joking or serious. He picked up the book and put it back in the library bag.

"It's not erotica. Anyway, let's go to bed."

Noiz turned off the lights and they lied on the small mattress together, easily adjusting to each other's shapes.

"Aoba?" Noiz called tentatively.

"Mm."

"Can you tell me what happened tonight?"

Aoba was silent for long seconds, and Noiz thought he would just ignore him, but then Aoba's arm closed around his waist, pressing closer to his warmth. His head nuzzled on Noiz's chest.

"There were a couple of men causing trouble again. They were trying to pick fights with the clients, but we managed to keep things under control, as always. I thought... it was weird yesterday, how two different people tried to cause trouble in a single night. You wouldn't know, but that's extremely rare. 'Exposure' is almost as good as some of the high class clubs closer to the city center, when it comes to the quality of its service and orderliness. When things started going downhill today too, I grew suspicious.

"And I was right. When everything seemed calm again... some guy yelled out and made a hostage out of a female client, holding a gun to her head." Noiz's eyes widened, but he made no interruption. "He made everyone surrender. He said he had people on the exits, so we couldn't escape, and he was demanding that we got Yoshie-san to come down. We tried to buy time, pretended we would get Yoshie-san, and I don't know who or how, but someone must've called the police, because we heard sirens at some point. Well, it's hard for one guy alone to keep control of all that people, I guess it was bound to happen. The gunner seemed shaken and the hostage took her chance to slip away from his arms. Everyone screamed, and the guy was just about to go after her, but Mink got to him first and disarmed him, knocking the guy out. But right then, one of the bouncers shot Mink—I realized right then that the guy had to be the one who got the gunner inside the club—and everyone was yelling, thank god they were all away from fire, and Clear- God, Clear..."

Noiz's hold on Aoba tightened slightly. Aoba breathed deeply.

"Clear... He almost went for the shooter's throat, and the guy seemed ready to shoot Clear too, but another bouncer came from behind and immobilized him, but hell broke loose after that. The six goons who had been guarding the exits came inside to see what was happening and the patrons—and most people from staff, even—ran off at the first chance they got.

"We, who stayed behind, shielded Mink and Clear, and those thugs started attacking us. Thank god they didn't have guns on them—though I think some of them had knives—but it had been some time ago since I took blows like that. I gave some good ones too, though." Aoba chuckled bitterly. "The police barged in not two minutes after that and it was such a big confusion. It seemed like Mink was going to be okay... He was conscious but the wound was bleeding a lot, he was shot in the shoulder. Clear was with him the whole time and I never saw him like that. He was so, so angry when Mink was shot, but then it was like that anger had withered away as fast as it appeared and he wouldn't stop crying..."

Noiz thought of how close Aoba had been to be the one shot. And with a twinge on his chest, he realized he understood Clear. He cleared his throat.

"Weren't those guys weirdly incompetent? Things could've easily gone down worse than that."

Aoba nodded. "Now that I can think of it clearly, I think so too. Honestly, we've seen similar stories in the news that ended in a bloodbath. Ugh, why did this..."

Noiz waited for him to get his thoughts together.

Aoba sighed. "... The officers apprehended the two shooters and the other goons, and they started interrogating everyone right there. After they were finished with me, I slipped away, got my clothes and left. I really wanted to stay because of Clear and Mink, but I was so drained. There was talk... of closing the club. You know, a club like ours, we have to work hard to stay out of the cops' radar. Once they get something against us, we're finished. And it's a problem for me if it closes down. It's one of the jobs I can get the most money from."

"I didn't think a waiter could make much."

"In lousy clubs it'd be like that, but we can make a reasonable amount in one night. It's not a fortune, but working four nights a week usually gets me decent money. And from time to time, I dance."

"... Like Clear?"

Aoba laughed. "Not like Clear, definitely. I've got ways to go before I can compare to him, but I'm decent enough that I can make really good money in one night, yeah."

"It's a pity yesterday wasn't one of those nights."

"Perverted brat..." Aoba sighed again. "I even lost the money I made today, in the middle of the scuffle. Well, it wasn't that much, since everything went to hell so early in the night."

Noiz was silent, but planted a kiss on Aoba's hair.

"It's fine."

"... What is fine?"

"Everything is."

"Haha, aren't you optimistic. But... you're right. It's not like this kind of thing has never happened in the past. Even if Exposure is to be closed down, I'll make it work."

"Mm."

They were quiet for a moment.

"You know, there was one time I worked at a diner." Aoba started suddenly. "This guy wanted to get someone to cover his shift a certain day, but no one could make it. Then, that certain day, I got a really angry call from the manager, saying I didn't show up for work. Turns out that guy had written me up for his shift. I tried to reason with the manager, but no luck there. I got fired on the spot."

"What the fuck."

Aoba snorted, his chest shaking with contained laughter. "Yeah. That was actually my first job here. I guess the guy just picked me because I was new, foreign and could still barely talk German. My manager didn't have the patience to put my broken German together, so I couldn't explain myself well. I think I probably insulted her accidentally, she looked really mad in the end."

"That sounds like a pretty bad first experience."

He sighed. "You're right. Though I can laugh at that now, it was really terrifying at the time. I know I can move through whatever obstacle now, but right then, I was desolated. Sei was still awake, and he tried really hard to cheer me up. But I could tell... he was feeling really guilty."

Silence.

"I miss Sei."

"... Yeah."

Aoba fell asleep first, and it wasn't long until Noiz followed him into slumber.

 


 

Aoba was confused, that was certain.

He couldn't tell where he was, before the environment around him changed completely. He couldn't even say for sure that he was paying attention to it. He ventured through endless corridors, and the texture of the walls was weird, incomplete, falling apart. The room was claustrophobically small in a second and before he knew it, he could barely see the walls, being so far away. Sometimes there were no walls at all.

Again and again, he saw the events of that night playing in his mind, with small variations each time. There was one where Clear was shot instead of Mink. There was another one where both of them were shot. He thought the scariest version had been the one where the staff and every single one of the patrons were suddenly dead around him, until the last turn, where Noiz had been there with him, the two being the last standing.

He wasn't supposed to be there, he thought, but Noiz stood in front of him, shielding him, wearing the same suit he wore the night he visited the club. Aoba was sure he was messing up the days in his head at this point. Noiz had his back to Aoba, facing the traitorous bouncer who stared intently at them with cold eyes, his finger on the trigger.

It was the weirdest feeling. His mind felt strangely suspended, and he forgot things a split second after perceiving them. His brain labored slowly towards the conclusion that it was all a dream.

In the blink of an eye, everything around him was engulfed in darkness, and everything was forgotten once again.

"Aoba..."

After what seemed like years, he felt conscious again. The world was pitch-black. Aoba didn't know if his eyes were open or closed. But his back was warm, and it felt good.

"Aoba..."

A voice was calling out to him, softly but slightly louder the second time. Aoba smiled.

It was Sei.

Before he could dwell in the fact that he couldn't find his voice to answer his brother, a body was basked in light right in front of him. Not like a spotlight shining upon him, but rather like he was producing that light himself.

Raven black hair, cut short above the shoulders, pasty white skin, and miraculously open eyes, as dark as his hair. He was so happy to see him, but once more, Aoba's lips failed to move as he wanted. As he spoke, Sei had that peaceful demeanor he would always carry.

"Aoba... you're here. Finally."

"I've been waiting. Waiting..."

"For so long."

Aoba felt himself flinch because of the second voice cooing alongside his brother's, and the pressure on his back that accompanied it.

Noiz.

Still no word came out of Aoba's mouth. He felt anxious.

"Aoba..."

It was now Noiz who was calling his name, whispering it in his ear. Aoba felt the weight of Noiz's head laying on his shoulder, and Noiz's fingertips softly moving down his arms. His hands covered Aoba's, fingers intertwining loosely.

"I've been... waiting." Sei's voice was hoarse, tired, but grateful.

Noiz was still whispering in his ear, but the meaning of the words slipped away from his grasp. It was like a completely different language, but he felt like he should understand it. Noiz's breath felt warm on his neck.

"You can give up."

One sentence fell into Aoba's ear, entirely meaningful. His eyes widened.

"You can sleep and never wake up again."

Aoba could almost feel the pressure on his throat, the painful scratch as he tried to scream, but he couldn't make a measly sound. The realization that it couldn't be anything but a dream didn't help him regain consciousness. His arms were lifting in front of him, still involved by Noiz's own. But it wasn't Noiz conducting the motions; he was lifting them of his own accord.

His hands closed around Sei's thin neck, his thumbs pressing down against the arteries pulsing under his skin. The warmth in his back had disappeared, but the pressure was still there.

"Do you want to feel good?" Noiz whispered, and his tongue darted out to lick across the shell of Aoba's ear.

His hands tightened around Sei's neck. Noiz's last sentence repeated in his ear like a broken record, becoming scratchy and low. He tried to scream, "no, I don't want this," but he felt his face distorting, his muscles twitching out of place against his will as a Cheshire grin spread on his lips. He felt as though he was stuck somewhere between dream and reality; his mind was imprisoning him. The world seemed to be skewing sideways, and yet, they were firm on their feet, never slipping or falling. Sei was smiling too, eyes heavy-lidded and joyous while blood started flowing from his mouth. Aoba felt with sickening clarity the warmth spreading on his arms as the viscous liquid poured on his skin.

The world around them started blinking with images, the darkness changing to various locations. Sei's hospital, the Old Residential District, the Exposure club. A park in the end of October.

He lost his footing and fell.

 


 

Aoba kicked reflectively and he jolted awake, his eyes flying open as a gulf of air invaded his lungs. There were sparks in the back of his vision, and the room was as dark as it would be with his eyes closed, but then he found the single ray of light coming from the barely open door of his room.

He was alone in bed, and along with conscience, came the soreness in his body, a reminder of last night's events. Unfortunately for him, his nightmare was still crystal clear in his mind's eye, too. He stayed still for a minute or two, catching his breath. His back felt soaked with sweat. He squeezed his eyes shut and got up from bed with a grunt of pain, blindly feeling out and smoothing the small bandages on his face. He was still sleepy, and he didn't want to risk dozing off and having another weird dream.

Aoba padded outside the room, squinting under the lights of the living room. It was Sunday, the only day in the week he gave himself some slack and didn't work in the morning. He wanted to—knew he needed any money he could get his hands on, but he was reasonable enough to know that collapsing from exhaustion would be much more inconvenient in the long run, so he had this one day to replenish his energy reserves. The apartment had no windows, so he couldn't tell what time it was, and he had left his phone in the bedroom. He reminded himself for the hundredth time that he should buy a wall clock whenever he had the money to spare.

He rubbed his bleary eyes and went to search for a piece of bread or a pack of crackers in his cupboards to satisfy his roaring stomach. What Aoba wasn't expecting was to have a package of instant noodles falling square on his face first thing in the morning as he opened the cabinet.

The cupboards were filled to the brim with food, to the point it seemed like something else was about to fall off soon. Bread, instant noodles, rice, coffee grains, freaking chocolate cookies. Everything was in there. Aoba closed the cabinet hurriedly, and opened the fridge. Same state as the cupboards; never once since he started living here had the fridge been so full of food like now. There was frozen pizza, meat and chicken nuggets in the small freezer compartment, and milk, apples, oranges and pears... He closed the fridge, running his hand through his hair.

You know what? Breakfast later. Peeing first.

He stalked towards the bathroom, his vision still wobbly, and opened the door unceremoniously.

"Woah."

The muffled interjection escaped Noiz's lips as Aoba burst into the room. The bathroom was clean now, and Noiz had a toothbrush in his bubbly white mouth, obviously interrupted while brushing his teeth. Aoba opened his mouth but made no sound.

Noiz had turned away from the sink to face Aoba, whose eyes helplessly dropped to the other man's body. He was dripping wet from a shower, presumably. The water droplets slipped from his blond hair, rounding his jaw and finally dripping from his chin. Aoba watched a lone drop slide down his sturdy chest to the smoothly toned abs, disappearing as it met the towel tied around his hips. What shocked Aoba the most, though, was the glinting silver piercing in Noiz's navel.

When his gaze returned to Noiz's face, he was smirking. He turned back to spit the toothpaste on the sink and brushed his teeth for another ten seconds or so, in which Aoba didn't move a muscle. He twisted the water tap open and washed his mouth, before twisting it closed again and looking at Aoba, wiping his chin.

"Morning."

"... I need to pee."

Noiz blinked over emotionless eyes, but his curling lips betrayed his amusement. He started walking towards Aoba, and the other man squeezed himself against the wall to give him space. Noiz looked down at him as he passed him by, seemingly fighting a shit-eating grin, and exited the bathroom.

Aoba closed the door behind him and sighed. He decided to ignore the heat pooling in his cheeks.

When he left the bathroom, he heard the crackling of oil and fire. The smell of eggs and bacon invaded his nostrils at the same moment he spotted Noiz in front of the stove, messing around with the frying pan while his right foot rubbed on his left calf, a hand on his hip.

"Didn't know you could cook," Aoba muttered, in lack of anything else to say. His head was still spinning with the latest morning events, and he leaned on the counter with his elbows, looking at Noiz's back. He still had the sweatpants he wore the night before, but was wearing a gray t-shirt now.

"I can't. But I live alone, I have to be able to do this much."

"Define 'this much'." Inconsequential small talk. He knew there was no reason or meaning to this, but he felt the need to fill the silence before he blurted out weird things, like you've been so unbearably sweet since last night, or why the hell are my fridge and cabinets exploding with food, you damned terrorist, or since when do you have a piercing and what the fuck, you're so hot.

Noiz glanced at him over his shoulder, seeming to notice the rare breath in Aoba's voice. But he turned his attentions back to the frying pan, as Aoba sat himself on one of the three wooden stools the little kitchen island counted with.

"Just this much. I can fry bacon, eggs, chicken, and I can cook frozen pizza and instant noodles. But most of the time I just order delivery pizza and pasta."

"You are pretty fit for someone eating so unhealthily."

"I could say the same about you."

Aoba didn't reply, and Noiz turned off the stove. He opened one of the cabinets on the wall to get two plates and cutlery, distributing the food between both. He left the dirty pan on the sink and pulled one of the stools to the other side of the counter, sitting across from Aoba as he settled the plates in front of themselves. He filled two mugs with coffee, putting milk on his own, and pushed Aoba's to him.

"... Actually, I want some milk too."

Noiz blinked at him. He had been drinking it black for as long as they knew each other, so he was rightfully surprised. Nevertheless, he pushed the milk jar towards him.

"Thanks," Aoba muttered, pouring the milk into his cup gingerly.

Noiz grunted in acknowledgement and they ate in amicable silence. Aoba stole glances, watching Noiz's jaw moving as he chewed on their breakfast. His hair was still damp from his shower. Aoba remembered he had to take one too.

"Are you okay?" Noiz asked suddenly, without raising his eyes from his plate.

"Eh? Um-" Aoba flinched, fearing that he had been caught staring. He laughed awkwardly. "... I'm fine. Why?"

"Just, a lot happened last night. You didn't have much of a quiet sleep."

"A-ah, is that so. I didn't kick you or something, did I?"

Noiz snorted. "You just tossed and turned for a bit."

Aoba hummed thoughtfully, forking a couple of bacon strips.

"You said Sei's name a couple of times. And mine as well."

His chewing halted for a few seconds, looking at the cheap marble countertop. He could feel Noiz's eyes drilling holes in his face.

He finally swallowed the bacon. "Ah- haha, weird, huh."

Noiz said nothing, and resumed eating.

They finished eating together, and Aoba insisted on washing the dishes. Noiz easily let him; muttered something about how he hated washing dishes anyway. Aoba chuckled and turned on the water tap as Noiz moved to the couch in the living room.

Not a minute later, a phone started ringing. Aoba didn't recognize the ringtone, so it could only be Noiz's. He could hear the heavy sigh coming from ways behind him.

Noiz had apparently picked up, because he could hear the gruff "what?" in the next second. He shook his head at Noiz's bad attitude. The voice on the other line wasn't so loud that he could identify the person or hear what they were saying, but when the name "Theo" escaped Noiz's lips, he quickly realized it was his brother.

"... Seriously? What a pain in the ass." A pause. "No, I'm still at Aoba's. Do you know if he called Agnes?"

The girl in the red dress. Noiz's hands on her hips. The memory of that kiss on Christmas Eve flashed in the back of Aoba's eyes, and it overshadowed his surprise at Noiz's casually mentioning his name to his brother. He washed the dishes more slowly than necessary and strained his ears to listen.

"Mmm... I'll call her just in case- Yeah, she will probably try to get something out of me for the favor. I'll see what I can do."

Aoba was absentmindedly scrubbing the frying pan with the sponge, probably about to drill a hole into the damn thing. It was quiet in the room for a moment, and he hoped Noiz wouldn't appear behind him and realize he had been stalling on purpose.

"Hey, Agnes." Aoba had to rein in the twitch in his shoulders. Noiz clicked his tongue. "Don't mind this small stuff. Did father call you? Mhm... Yeah, that's- Yeah, I am. Ugh, shut up. I wanted to ask, could you say I was at your house if he calls you?"

Oh. Aoba suddenly remembered. That's right. Wasn't Noiz supposed to be with this girl? He's the eldest son of a rich family, after all. He has duties.

His parents can't know that he's been sleeping at some nobody's decrepit apartment. Wasting his money on him, treating his wounds in the middle of the night. Holding, kiss-

Noiz's exasperated sigh shook him out of his thoughts.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever you want- No, not that. No pics, you weirdo."

Aoba furrowed his brow, squinting at the wall in confusion. Pics?! What the-

"Then I can count on you? Mm, we can work out the details later, thanks. No, leave me alone. Heh. Bye."

He was somewhat rude, but seemed so at ease talking to her. Aoba turned off the water tap and started drying the plates and cutlery.

He heard the scrape of the stool's leg against the floor, and knew Noiz was sitting at the counter again. Aoba waited for him to say something, but he was silent. He put the dry pan, plates and cutlery back in the cabinet where it belonged and turned around. Noiz was staring at him.

Aoba blinked, feeling the corner of his mouth twitch awkwardly.

"Uh... What is it?"

Noiz glanced away for a fleeting moment. "I just remembered I have something to talk to you about."

Aoba's eyes narrowed slightly, but he smiled. "Okay. Let's head back to the bedroom."

Even though he said he loved me, was he even serious? Did he even think it through? But, wait, he only said it because I told him to, didn't he? Say it with your own words, I said. I feel troubled because he's settled into my life like he belongs, but I feel troubled if he goes away too. Maybe I'm the one who has been playing a game.

This can't go on.

After switching on the lights, Noiz plopped down on the bed, and Aoba kneeled in front of his nightstand, pulling the drawers and gathering a change of clothes to dress after shower.

"Well? You can start on the thing you wanted to talk about," Aoba said, not looking behind himself.

"Mm. I'll wait until you're finished."

Aoba pulled the bottom drawer and a small paper bag beside the bed toppled over. He creased his brows and grabbed it, looking inside to see if he broke something. A drugstore bag? He didn't remember seeing that before-

He blinked, incredulous as he peered at the contents of the bag. He looked over his shoulder, seeing Noiz's blank gaze slide from his face to the bag in his hands.

"Oh, right. Sorry, forgot it there."

Aoba stared at him. He opened his mouth, but his mind was completely blank. The only thing that left his lips was a laugh. And then more laughter. And it wasn't stopping.

Noiz furrowed his brow. "Aoba?"

He panted between laughs, pushing the drawer closed and sitting on the floor, his back leaning on the nightstand. He knocked the back of his head against it softly, his laughter slowly dying down. He still chuckled once or twice after he thought it had stopped, like aftershocks of an earthquake. He breathed deeply, wiping a teardrop in the corner of his eye.

"What, I've been wrecking my mind over so much unnecessary shit, when we could just cut to the chase. That's the end goal, right?"

Noiz scowled at him. "Hah?"

Aoba sighed and got up from the floor, drugstore bag in hand. He walked towards the bed and climbed on it, Noiz's eyes widening as he perched himself on his lap, his knees sinking on the mattress on either side of Noiz's hips.

Noiz's hands clutched on the covers, his mouth slightly agape. Aoba dropped the bag beside them, pushed his sweater over his head readily and threw it aside, looking down at Noiz with eyes gleaming almost gold in the shadows that loomed over his features.

"Let's just finish this. Fuck me."

Chapter Text

"Let's just finish this. Fuck me."

Noiz had said that exact same sentence once; to a man he had bought information from. That guy had been babbling his head off, talking about his connections and most likely trying to impress Noiz, before the teenager cut him off.

He was sixteen at the time, and was already used to the prices that informants would charge him. Most of the time, money was enough. Sometimes, the person wanted a piece of information in exchange for their own. But there were also that handful of men and women that took a "liking" to him, and would ask for a quick fuck. Noiz was extra careful with those types; it hadn't been once or twice that they tried to take advantage of him, but he would usually oblige to their requests if the information was worth the price. Fucking or being fucked, it wasn't supposed to mean anything, and it felt good anyway.

He wasn't expecting to see the ghost of that sentence fall from Aoba's lips.

Aoba huffed impatiently when Noiz remained quiet and tried to pull the other man's shirt over his stony expression. Noiz snapped away from his thoughts and pushed the hem of his shirt down, resisting Aoba's efforts.

"Wait- Aoba."

"No more of that," Aoba whispered, his chin tilted with a sly grin on his face. Noiz gulped, then chuckled.

"Stop using my words against me."

Aoba blinked, a confused crease between his brows. Noiz proceeded before he could say anything.

"I think you're misunderstanding. Where did you get the idea that I'm just after a fuck?"

"You... Is that bag not enough of a hint? You think I'm stupid?"

Aoba had stopped pulling on the hem of Noiz's shirt, but kept straddling his hips, looking down at him with narrowed eyes.

Noiz sighed heavily. "You're jumping to conclusions. If I were only trying to do you, I could've just made a move yesterday."

Aoba frowned. "You're not the kind of person that would push it in that situation."

"But apparently I'm the kind of person that would spend time with you and even fake a confession just to get in your pants."

Aoba glanced away, his cheeks flushing crimson.

"But... you only confessed because I told you to. And I was only teasing then; I d-didn't expect you to be so blunt. How could I be sure you're being serious? You're always so flippant."

Noiz huffed, placing one hand on Aoba's hip and lifting the other to cup his jaw.

"Here. I'll show you something."

He craned his neck forward and Aoba bowed his head, meeting him halfway. Their eyes fluttered closed as they felt the plump touch of their lips. It felt almost hesitant as they tasted each other, and Aoba inhaled impatiently, wiggling on his lap. The motions dragged a low, reluctant groan deep from Noiz's chest, and Aoba tried to take control of the pace, biting on Noiz's bottom lip to try and pry it open. Noiz touched his thumb to the bandage on the corner of Aoba's lips and withdrew only enough to speak, his forehead touching Aoba's.

"Sit tight. I'm the one showing you something here." He whispered against Aoba's lips, peering at his close eyelids.

Aoba's lashes trembled and lifted over hazel eyes, staring into Noiz's green ones. He was obviously restless, his glare half-lidded. With the smallest pout, Aoba looked away before shutting his eyes once again.

Noiz pushed against his lips once more, still smoothing his thumb on the bandage on its corner. He sucked on his bottom lip, pulling and nipping on it gently, his thumb trailing across his cheek to settle behind Aoba's ear, stroking the patch of skin there. A shudder rippled through Aoba's back, and his shoulders tensed up before he slowly raised his hands to cup either side of Noiz's neck, his thumbs grazing the sharp edges of his jawline.

His mouth opened slowly for Noiz and he slipped inside promptly, his tongue moving leisurely to brush against Aoba's, leaving once and again to pepper his lips with small pecks. The hand on Aoba's hip moved to his back, the tip of his fingers sliding up the dip of his spine. Aoba gasped, his back arching, and Noiz's tongue rolled around his own, licking relentlessly, opening him up almost to the point he felt he was about to be devoured whole.

And still, it wasn't desperate. It was painfully slow, never becoming faster but fuller, building up with a firm resolve, and Aoba could tell that Noiz was being especially careful with the cut on the corner of his lip. He regretted pulling his shirt off, for he was sure that Noiz could feel exactly how hard his heart was beating, how feverishly hot his skin was becoming. So feverish his eyelids burned with contained tears.

Is he serious?

Noiz sighed contentedly against his mouth, and Aoba was undone.

They finally parted with a soft "smack", touching foreheads while breathing somewhat labored. Noiz was grinning self-satisfyingly.

"... So, what about that? The only thing I've realized from this is that you can be a hell of a tease," Aoba grumbled, blushing. Thankfully, those tears pushing at his lids earlier had subsided.

Noiz pecked him on the lips again. "Don't play dumb."

Aoba leaned away from him, glancing at the wall. "How is this kiss any different from the kiss you gave Agnes?"

He was trying desperately to hold on to the reasons that lead to his turmoil, but Noiz's kisses, touches and his very gaze seemed to sweep everything away, leaving Aoba to only yearn for one more second with him. It was safety and comfort he hadn't known for a long time. But I want it to be over. Didn't I want it to be over?

Noiz frowned. "I told you just how different it is."

"It's just... there's a lot unsaid between us, you can't expect me to guess everything."

"Aren't you the one who has been expecting me to guess on things?"

Aoba froze.

Noiz sighed, tightening his embrace around Aoba's waist. He didn't want to have that conversation so soon after last night's events.

"Sorry. You don't need to say anything, not now. But know that I don't lie to you. Never did."

Aoba let out a shaky exhale, his chest constricting painfully, and he wanted nothing but to apologize and accept everything Noiz had said, to forget that the world extended far beyond the walls of that room. He bit his lip.

"Your parents... They can't know that you're here, right?"

Noiz blinked before narrowing his eyes.

"Is that what's worrying you? The phone calls?"

"Shouldn't you worry? I completely forgot about it, but you're from a rich family, and they expect you to be with an equally rich girl, like Agnes. But you're here, in a run-down apartment with me, and I don't even know what we're doing, where we're going with this, but we shouldn't be together-"

"Then you want me to leave right now?"

"It would be the right thing to-"

"Nevermind this 'right thing' bullshit. I'm asking if you want me to leave."

Aoba opened his mouth to retort, but after a short moment, only a sigh escaped his lips. His thoughts were muddled up beyond understanding. He was tired of holding on to his feeble arguments, but he knew what he didn't want, despite everything.

"Don't leave."

Noiz stared at him for a moment, and almost imperceptibly, the corner of his lips curled upwards.

"I'll stay."

Aoba sighed, pulling away. Noiz didn't resist, and his arms slipped off Aoba's waist as he lay down on the bed, his head sinking on the pillow and his legs draped over Noiz's lap. He looked at the ceiling, apparently lost in thought.

"You know," Noiz started, getting Aoba to blink away from his reflections and turn his hazel eyes to his face. "You seem to be under the impression that you'll have to remain a secret if we are together, and you'll destroy my family line and that sort of thing.

"For starters, I couldn't give less of a fuck to the family line or something like that. Even if I had a child, I wouldn't let my parents get close to them. And I don't plan on hiding you, it's just that now wouldn't be the prime time for letting them know. You don't have to worry about my family in general, really. No matter what, I'll find a solution. We will find a solution."

"But... Agnes-"

"I'm pretty sure I told you that Agnes is not interested in me."

"But she kissed you? She must like you."

Noiz sighed, tracing patterns on Aoba's thigh with his fingers. "Yeah, she kissed me. But that was before. When she realized I was interested in someone else, she shrugged it off completely. She even knows about you."

He blinked. "How much?"

"She caught a glimpse of you at the banquet and I told her your name."

Aoba looked positively horrified now.

"Oh, but she didn't see your face properly, so rest assured..." Noiz was quick to add, but then something occurred to him, making him trail off.

"What is it?" Aoba inquired, peering at Noiz's face.

"... Your hair was black and short that night. Why?"

Aoba's cheeks blushed slightly, and he chuckled. "Ah, it's just that, in this kind of high-profile job, they usually look for sharp-looking waiters, so they prefer staff with short hair, black or blond. That was a wig; I use it for this kind of work."

Noiz stared at him blankly. "That sounds fishy."

"It's true!"

Noiz smirked. "Weren't you there to sneak a glance at me?"

Aoba snorted, seeming like he wouldn't dignify that accusation with an answer. However, a beat of silence later, he spoke up again.

"An acquaintance told me about the banquet. He was going to be serving at the party, but something came up and he couldn't make it, so he asked me to cover for him. To be honest, I really wanted to sneak a glance at you. It was convenient that you wouldn't recognize me with that get-up." He sighed, and smiled bitterly. "You looked nice dancing with Agnes. She's really cute."

Noiz blinked slowly. "You have the wrong impression about her. She taunted me that entire night, blackmailed me at least twice and got me drunk to extort information from me," he said flatly.

"... Rich girls are scary."

"Are they? I think 'annoying' is a better word."

Aoba laughed awkwardly.

Noiz turned his eyes to the ceiling, thoughtful. "But, well, even if the annoying part is true, she's not that bad, really. You shouldn't worry about her."

A short pause followed as Aoba said nothing after that, his gaze directed to the ceiling too. However, Noiz wasn't planning on letting him off so soon.

"Is there anything else bothering you?" He asked, and Aoba glanced at him, unresponsive.

"Be honest. I'm trying to prove to you why this is the 'right thing'." He smirked.

Aoba looked away, his face slightly flushed. "Just... You know, I've been living to take care of Sei for the last five years. T-this is going to sound ridiculous but... I haven't been with anyone for the entirety of my life in Germany. Not like I had the money or the time to spare with dates. I've been facing it as my duty, so now that all of this happened... I think I'm feeling guilty. I didn't see it coming, and now, I feel like I'm being negligent in my promise, like I've let myself get distracted. Maybe that's the reason why I had that weird dream. I'm used to relying solely on myself since I've come to this country, but it hit me this morning, how you just... fall in place here. Suddenly, I wake up in the morning and my kitchen is full of food I didn't buy, and I find you just brushing your teeth in my bathroom and then cooking breakfast like you've always lived here." Halfway through his speech, it sounded like he was talking to himself, rather than Noiz.

He arched one eyebrow. "And why does any of that bother you?"

Aoba blinked at him and sighed exasperatedly.

"Well, as I said, I feel guilty for... this thing we have, not only because of your family, but I feel like I'm getting sidetracked when I should be concentrating on working for Sei's sake, and I also feel like I've been relying on you more and more, and that's not right because I should be able to take care of myself, on my own. I can't count on a helping hand that may not always be there- ow!"

Noiz had pinched his thigh through his sweatpants.

"So you really were wrecking your mind over unnecessary shit." Noiz sighed, while Aoba stared at him with wide eyes. "You actually need me to tell you that you have the right to be happy?"

"W-well, when you put it that way..."

"It's the only way to put it." He sighed heavily, sounding almost tired. "How much of a brother complex do you have? I won't say anything; you're his brother, so you try to imagine how he'd feel about this self-sacrificing attitude of yours."

Aoba said nothing, and he proceeded.

"About the other thing... I'm not planning on distancing myself from you, and neither am I planning on forcing you to rely on me, but I'm not about to let you starve yourself to death."

Aoba frowned. "I'm eating just fine, thank you."

"Your ribs are showing way too much for someone 'eating just fine'." Noiz poked him in the stomach for good measure and Aoba yelped, curling up to protect his midsection.

"Well, but how else am I going to draw the line? Next thing I know, you'll try to pay my brother's hospital bills," Aoba wheezed, throwing an accusing look towards him.

"I'm not going to do that. I know you want to take care of that on your own, and I respect your decision. I only brought food over this time in a spur of the moment. I remembered the state of your kitchen and just passed by a grocery store on my way here. Doing this kind of thing once in a while doesn't hurt, mm?"

"It does!"

Noiz clicked his tongue, but he was smiling. "Stubborn."

"Brat!"

Noiz actually chuckled at that. He looked at Aoba's tenacious blush, briefly captivated, and flopped down on the bed beside him.

"It's too early, and it's still snowing outside. Let's sleep again." He nuzzled his shoulder, eyes slipping shut.

"No way, I was going to take a shower, remember?"

"That kind of thing doesn't matter if you're sleeping."

"Geez... Ah, didn't you want to talk to me about something?"

Noiz blinked one eye open lazily. "Ah... Yeah. Later."

Aoba laughed lightly. "Just say it already, you're so fussy."

Noiz pulled the covers over their heads, blocking the lights they were too lazy to get up and turn off.

"No, we're sleeping now. And I hope we've cleared up all misunderstandings and stupidities?" He stared at Aoba with stern eyes.

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

"Heh, is that so?"

"Yes, that's so!"

Noiz couldn't remember a time he felt so warm and satisfied like when he was lying beside Aoba on that tiny, cramped bed. He unceremoniously threw an arm and a leg over Aoba's body, his head still lying on his shoulder, and despite Aoba's protests, they dozed off again, into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

 


 

A nap was all they needed and could have, because Aoba needed to get ready for his job at noon. After showering and getting dressed, he was sitting on the floor of the room while brushing his hair with Ren lying on his lap, when Noiz finally breached the subject he had been meaning to bring up earlier. He had needed Aoba to be in the best mood possible, and it seemed he was right to wait for the most appropriate moment; Aoba's frown deepened with every word that fell from Noiz's lips.

"Mizuki wants to meet with me?"

"Yeah." Noiz shifted slightly on the bed, sitting with his legs folded and his back against the wall. "What do you think?"

Noiz was half-expecting Aoba to get angry like the day before, berate Mizuki and promise him an ass-beating, but the man just sighed, his eyes suddenly tired.

"He definitely wants to ask me to see Sei. Have you... told him?" His voice dropped, as if he expected Mizuki himself to be eavesdropping at the door.

"I didn't."

Aoba sighed again, the sadness that had been creeping in his gaze giving place to stubbornness. "Well, I don't want to be the one to tell him neither. The asshole gave me the run-around, he should just see for himself."

He stopped brushing his hair and started getting up from the floor, just slowly enough that Ren got the hint and gingerly left his lap. Aoba left his hairbrush on the nightstand and picked up the other brush he had been using for Ren's fur before.

"Then, are you going to meet him? He wanted to know the day and time you would be free."

"Yeah, I'll meet him." Aoba said, on his way out of the room. He was probably going to the bathroom to clean Ren's brush. After a couple of minutes, Aoba was walking back into the room and picking up from where he left off.

"Actually, I have some time today. I don't work at the pet store on Sundays, so I'm free in the evening." He threw a look at his reflection on the mirror above the nightstand, fiddling with his bangs. His face was definitely not in the best of conditions, still sporting bandages on the corner of his mouth and above his left eyebrow, but he was grateful he got off without a black eye.

Noiz nodded. "I'll let him know, and then I'll message you about the place and time for the meeting."

Aoba looked over to him and smiled. "Okay."

Noiz was sure Aoba wouldn't have time to eat anything until the evening, so he persuaded the other man to have lunch before leaving, saying he would make something. But it turns out Aoba was already running late, so they wound up eating cup noodles on the living room sofa, legs folded and knees poking each other.

"You know, eating cup noodles is not that healthy either," Aoba commented, laughing while slurping the noodles.

Noiz snorted. "What are you talking about? I lived off these for two years, if that's not healthy I don't know what is."

Aoba laughed even louder, and Noiz relished in the sound, reveled in the tremor of his shoulders beside his own. Too soon, a bundled up Aoba waved him goodbye, and this time he didn't ask for a kiss. The door clicked shut and Noiz held back a sigh, that unhappy gulf of air that seemed to always push its way out of his lungs every time Aoba walked away from him.

He stretched himself on the tiny sofa, uncomfortable as it was, his legs sticking off the armrest. Noiz couldn't understand why things were so off between Aoba and him. After the discussion they had earlier, those ideas hammering on Aoba's head seemed to have disappeared, and they were okay again. But at the same time, they weren't quite... there yet.

Aoba had been right, to some extent. His confession had a bad timing, and he had been too flippant. And despite being so sure of Aoba's reciprocity... He never heard the words from the man himself, did he? He wanted to believe that those reticent gazes, those long silences were signs of Aoba's oncoming confession.

Of course he will hesitate, he's too proud to lay himself vulnerable like that. Noiz had thought that, and just did as he pleased; he only thought of his feelings, and overlooked the fact that their relationship was unbalanced. That was the reason Aoba didn't know what to call it anymore, and even after their talk, his conflicting feelings wouldn't disappear just like that.

Noiz's phone vibrated next to his ribs on the sofa, and he shifted to retrieve it, shutting his eyes before accepting the call. It was from Agnes.

I have to fix this. There's just too much going on right now. I have to tell him again, at a time he will be able to return these feelings, without fear.

"Hey," he greeted, bringing the phone to his ear.

"Hello, Wilhelm. Your father just called me, like you said he would," she informed him in her breezy voice, slightly muffled by the static.

Noiz pressed his lips in a tight line.

"... So?"

"He bought my story, I think. I told him we had become good friends since the party, and we've been spending some quality time together."

"You make it sound so fishy."

Agnes snorted. "It has to sound fishy. I didn't want to say we were going out, but he has to at least suspect we are dating but trying to be discreet about it. He would be happy about it, wouldn't he?"

"You tell me. Did he sound happy?"

"Very much, actually. You're the only one who can see what he's losing out on," she said cheekily.

Noiz huffed out a laugh. "Well, is that all? I'm hanging up, then."

"Hold on."

He halted, but she didn't proceed immediately. When he was about to repeat he was hanging up, she spoke up.

"You should tell them already."

Noiz blinked, taking too long to put her words together.

"Tell my parents about Aoba?" he said slowly, as if waiting for her to correct him.

"Yes."

Noiz laughed dryly. "What makes you think that's a good idea?"

Agnes sighed. "Well, first of all, it would take a load off your back; I know this from experience. When I came out to my parents-"

"Came out? You're gay?"

"Bi. We were having a heart-to-heart at the bar and I told you about it, but I guess you were too drunk off your mind to remember that."

"I already remember more than I would like to."

She huffed. "But as I saying, my parents were actually very understanding. I was nervous, but they didn't yell at me or anything. They just told me they trusted me to be careful and not 'expose myself'. My point is; you can't hide it forever."

Noiz clicked his tongue. "I don't intend on hiding it forever, but now is definitely not the best moment to spring that on them. Besides, my parents are not like yours."

Agnes chuckled. "You're being dramatic."

Noiz frowned. "No, I'm not. But I don't feel like giving you details; just know that our situations are not the same."

She sighed. "Okay, fine. Well, I just wanted to tell you that. If your father ends up calling you, just confirm my story."

"Yeah. Bye."

They hung up and Noiz dropped the phone atop his chest. His neck was starting to hurt from the strain of his uncomfortable position on the sofa. He clutched his phone and got up slowly. He was about to head for the fridge; it was an impulse of his to look for something to nibble on when he was in a sour mood. However, the cup noodles had fooled his stomach enough that he didn't really feel like eating anything. So he just sauntered to the bedroom, throwing himself on the mattress.

There was a light rustle beside his foot, and he caught sight of the drugstore bag. He sat up enough to pick it up, then lay down again, staring at it.

Buying it had been at a bad timing too, probably. He was glad that they were able to clear up some issues, thanks to the push that the contents of the bag provided. For that reason, he wouldn't regret buying those (besides, he was certain they'd have a use for it sooner or later.) But he had been jumping the gun ever since his half-assed confession, pushing his boundaries too far. The bag had been the breaking point for Aoba.

He decided to leave the bag where it had been before Aoba found it, and searched Mizuki's number on his phone. He sent the first message, hoping Mizuki wasn't sleeping in.

>> Oi, Mizuki.

It took roughly five seconds for the reply to arrive.

>> Your wish is my command. uvu

>> ... Anyway, I talked to Aoba.

>> Oh. How did it go?

>> He accepted it and said he's free this evening. You game for it?

>> What? Today?? I was sure he wouldn't even accept it, that's too early. I'll have to prepare myself.

>> You're exaggerating.

>> No I'm not?? You never saw him fighting, so I wouldn't expect you to understand. But I'm afraid for my life, man.

Noiz thought back to that scene at Exposure. He smirked.

>> Actually, I've seen that kick of his.

>> Then you know! Protect me!

>> Shut up. I've seen you fight, you don't need protection.

 


 

"Wait, you really came to protect me?"

Noiz sighed at Mizuki's stupid greeting.

He and Aoba had just arrived at the restaurant where Mizuki had set up a meeting. It had been Noiz's suggestion; it was no fancy restaurant with long waiting lists, and it was close to the cafe he would frequent with Aoba before. The agreement had been to meet Aoba there, so Noiz supposed his presence could be surprising, indeed.

"Actually, yeah I did. I decided to drive us here when Aoba asked me to come with him because he couldn't trust himself not to fly off the handle and beat you up." They made themselves comfortable at the table, sitting opposite from Mizuki. Aoba was silent the whole time, and despite peering curiously at the bandages, Mizuki didn't comment on it.

"For a younger guy who wasn't even into Ribsteez to be better than me at fighting... hurts my feelings."

A waiter came to their table, handing them each a copy of the menu. He left as silently as he had appeared, and they sat in silence for a moment, reading over the available dishes.

"U-um... are you guys ready to order?" Mizuki inquired after a minute. He was getting increasingly nervous, as he wouldn't be able to delay his talk for much longer.

"Yeah," Noiz answered, and glanced at Aoba, who nodded in confirmation too. "Just leave it to me to order the food. I don't even know how you were able to talk to the staff when you arrived, you can't say two words of German."

Mizuki laughed lightly. "Theo helped me out before he left. He guessed I'd have a hard time. But y' know, I've done some studying before coming here. I know the basics."

"Oh? Then should I let you take care of the orders?"

"No, by all means, I may leave you to that."

Noiz snorted, and raised his hand to call out to one of the waiters.

After placing their orders (despite being able to do it himself just fine, Aoba let Noiz make his order too), they sat back and watched the waiter walk away. They'd have to wait at least five minutes, and the nerves started to get to Mizuki, who nervously wringed his hands atop the table.

"So," Aoba started, and Mizuki flinched like his soul was forcing its way out of his body. It didn't escape Aoba, who blinked over eyes a tad bit wider than normal. A chuckle blew through his lips shortly after, but there was no amusement in it. He sounded and looked rueful.

"I'm not going to attack you, y' know. I did ask Noiz to come along as a reassurance, but it's only because, in the off-chance I get angry, it wouldn't be good if I wound up making a scene. Even so, I'm not going to jump down your throat at the first chance I get or something like that. We are childhood friends, Mizuki."

Mizuki stared at him for a fleeting moment and gulped, nodding jerkily. He sighed.

"Right. I'm sorry; it's not that I was afraid of you. But this is... pretty important."

Noiz stood on the sidelines, watching them silently. After all, he was just accompanying Aoba; this was their business.

"Well, I don't really know why you wanted to talk to me. But I'll listen."

Mizuki nodded again, firming his resolve. "Yes, thank you." He breathed deeply.

"Well, I already told you most of the story over the phone. I guess there's no use in repeating myself. But I wanted to tell you... I'll work hard to prove I can be better than the man I've been for five years. I can't erase my mistakes, and I won't try to do that. I'm not going to forget what happened, but I can't move on if I wallow on self-pity; I can't sit and wait for you and Sei to forgive me. Noiz told me that." He threw a quick glance at his friend, who smirked at him. "You were probably expecting that already, but the main reason for this meeting is to ask you to let me see Sei. Would you... allow me?"

Aoba listened quietly, and sighed. "Yeah, I expected it. And I'm okay with that; I was okay with it even before you said all of these things, but I'm glad you've reached this resolve. You should see him while you're here... Sei probably missed you too." His gaze fell to the white tablecloth, his mouth curling in a thin, tight smile.

Mizuki's olive-green eyes were huge, shining almost to the point of tears. He briefly shut them tight, maybe in an attempt to stop the spill, and a wide, grateful smile plastered itself on his face.

"Thank you, Aoba."

A slightly awkward silence descended over the table as both Aoba and Mizuki tried to hold back their tears. Fortunately, it didn't take long for their orders to arrive, and they busied themselves with cutting and forking at their meals. A few minutes later, they even found themselves falling into light banter.

"And this guy just wanted to drop his studies and play games all day! I'm pretty sure I grew a few gray hairs those earlier years."

Aoba laughed lightly, and Noiz glared at Mizuki.

"When did this conversation veered off towards embarrassing me?"

"But well, he's smart so he had no problems with the exam and got his high school certificate just fine." Mizuki promptly ignored him. "He was still such a low-life though, he wasn't even fifteen and he wanted to go to nightclubs."

Aoba snorted, smiling softly. "Can you even hear yourself? You sound so much like a doting older brother."

Mizuki seemed to catch himself, scratching the back of his head with a light blush dusting his cheeks. "Yeah, well... It's one of the only things I've done right these past few years."

"And yet, I did it for the first time with an old guy whose face I can't even remember, and drank alcohol the first year I was in Midorijima," Noiz revealed nonchalantly, looking down as he cut a meatball on his plate.

Mizuki gasped, scandalized.

"Also, I was involved in life-threatening fights more than twice and you never seemed to mind that. You were the main reason for many of them too," he proceeded, glancing sideways at nothing in particular, thoughtful.

"I failed to protect your innocence..." Mizuki lamented, voiced muffled by the hands clasped over his face. Aoba was chuckling again, and it seemed like he was genuinely having fun now.

They carried on like that, until Aoba suddenly threw the question after finishing his food.

"You wanna see Sei tonight? I'd like to be there and I'm free for the rest of the night, so..."

Mizuki gulped, his eyes focusing on Aoba's face slowly.

"I'm... Yeah, I want to."

 

 


 

It wasn't a long ride from the restaurant to the hospital, but the thick layers of snow were making the traffic even slower than usual. It had been snowing periodically since the start of December, but the snowfall that started the middle of the night before and persisted until sunset had been the heaviest until now. Noiz drove past the park where he and Aoba met for the first time and they spotted the snowmen that had been built by children. Now it was too late for them to be still playing outside, and a couple of colorful buckets lay abandoned around their artworks.

"Before coming here, I had never seen snow before," Aoba commented offhandedly. Mizuki chuckled on the back seat.

"Yeah, aside from TV shows, there was no way we could've seen it, huh. We used to get mad over it as kids, remember? There was that time Koujaku visited the mainland, and he came back telling us about the snow, you even cried."

"I didn't cry," Aoba retorted sullenly.

Mizuki laughed. "Noiz was surprised when he started living in Midorijima too. Since it can get so cold here, and snow is just commonplace."

Noiz glanced at him through the rearview mirror before turning his eyes back to the road. He shrugged, advancing as the cars ahead finally moved a few meters.

"It's not that different from here. The climate in Midorijima is almost like what summer and spring feel like in Berlin, but it can rain there as heavily as it does here during the winter."

"But it definitely doesn't get as cold as here," Aoba said, his voice muffled by his thick scarf. Despite the closed windows, the car's AC wasn't turned on, because Aoba started trembling from cold as soon as they stepped out of the restaurant. Noiz thought it was sweltering, but it didn't bother him too much.

"You're damn right on that." Mizuki was as bundled up as Aoba was, and having even more trouble to deal with the cold. But different from Aoba, who was more than used to the German winter, Mizuki's eyes were glued to the window as he watched the buildings covered in white and the Christmas decorations that still dominated the shops and stores.

"Every winter is really hard because I can't get used to how cold it gets, but the first one was definitely the worst. I fell sick so many times and missed work, it was a miracle I was able to pay the bills. It was around that time, too..."

The white walls of the hospital, masked amidst the snow-sheeted buildings, loomed slowly over them as they approached their destination.

So softly that even Noiz had to strain his ears to listen, a whisper left Aoba's chapped lips.

"... I watched the first snowfall alone."

Chapter Text

It was summer break. The cicadas were screaming their lives away, perched on the burnt-brown bark of the trees and the sun was scalding hot above Midorijima. A wind chime sang delicately as it swayed in the breeze. Mizuki couldn't tell where, perhaps it was hanging from the ceiling in front of the house he had just run by.

His small feet dirtied up as he kept running, rounding the back of battered houses and earning himself the scolding of old ladies, lounging at their backyards. He finally stopped behind a tobacco shop, bracing his hands on his bent knees as he panted, briefly using the back of a hand to wipe the sweat off his brow. There was only so much running his nine-year-old body could take, and he was starting to worry he wandered off too far away from the Eastern District.

When he turned his head to the side, he caught sight of a small, dirty body curled up next to a dumpster. He sighed in relief, straightening his stance as he walked towards the person he had been looking for: Sei, a six-year-old with jet-black hair and pale skin. He embraced his scarred knees against his chest, looking forward defiantly with his pout barely hidden. His rebellious display was almost ruined by the tears quite obviously shining in the crest of his dark eyes.

The reason Mizuki had been looking for him was because he had, once again, stumbled upon Sei trying to fight Aoba's bullies. Though slightly younger, Aoba was taller and more lively-looking than Sei, who was feeble and often called a youkai by his classmates. However, Aoba was a bit of a crybaby and couldn't deal well with the mistreatment of the neighboring kids, who pulled on his long hair and called him a girl. As the eldest, Sei saw it as his duty to protect his little brother, but he was, after all, small and weak compared to the other boys, so he ended up hurt. Like the first time he saw it happening, Mizuki stepped in and fought off the bullies, either yelling at the more easily-intimidated ones or going fist-to-fist with the braver ones.

After scaring them off, he turned back to find only Aoba, crying in his hands. Luckily, Koujaku appeared at the prime moment, asking what had happened, and Mizuki instructed him to take Aoba home, while he would look for Sei. After Aoba sobbingly pointed the general direction Sei had run to, he went all out looking for the older brother—and finally, after what seemed like hours, he found the beaten boy.

"Sei... I told you to call for help when this happen." Mizuki sighed, sitting beside the other boy. He grimaced slightly as he peered at the scratches and bruises covering his arms.

"And I told you, I don't need help." Sei muttered. His lip was cut.

"Of course you do. You're no match to all of them."

"I can't depend on you. I have to protect Aoba and myself, on my own."

Mizuki blinked confusedly. "Why? You know you can always count on me and Koujaku."

"No, I can't. Mizuki and Koujaku can't always be with us."

"... Even if I promise I'll always protect Sei?"

Sei turned bewildered eyes to him, his brows knit together. "I don't want protection!"

"But you do need help, right?"

Sei glared at him for a fleeting moment before turning his stubborn gaze forward again.

"I don't need that too." He bowed his head, hiding his face from view behind his knees and causing his next words to be stifled. "Why do you always do that? I look so uncool when I try so hard to fight them off and then you show up and finish everything so easily."

Mizuki chuckled and patted Sei's head. He was surprised his hand wasn't swatted away.

"I do that because I care. I don't want Aoba to get hurt, and I don't want you to get hurt either."

A small voice retorted, "Granny calls a person like that a 'busybody'."

Mizuki laughed harder this time and Sei lifted his head to look at him.

"You pick up some funny words from Tae-san."

Despite himself, Sei smiled back.

"Call me a busybody, but I think we are stronger when we are together."

Sei pouted again. "You just mean you are strong."

"No, that's not it. Sei is definitely strong. But it's not the kind of strength that can fight off bullies physically. That's where I come in." Mizuki grinned brightly.

"So what can this strength do?" Sei asked warily.

Mizuki thought that over, before speaking slowly. "It's a strength that is very brilliant. You're important. When I'm with Sei, I feel like I can do anything. If there was an army of bullies, I would fight off every single one of them, even if I weren't sure I could do it at first. Because you're there."

Sei's eyes were wide, and his cheeks colored lightly.

"Then... I guess you're right. We are stronger together."

"Right?"

They were silent, but it wasn't uncomfortable. They could hear a dog barking somewhere, and muffled music playing some streets away.

"But then... How can we stay together?"

"U-uh... I don't know? Maybe tying our hands together? I think there was an anime like that... Ah, but it'd have to be a really long thread, because we can't always stay over at each other's houses?" Mizuki stammered, caught off-guard by Sei's question. His own face was turning red.

"A thread..."

They were silent once again, but it was a shorter pause, broken by Sei once again.

"Ah. I just remembered; there's a way Granny told us about."

Mizuki looked at him with wide eyes. "Seriously? Tae-san sure is wise."

Sei nodded, his eyes clear and honest as he stared at Mizuki. "Yes. By marriage."

Mizuki shot up to his feet so fast he almost got dizzy. "Wha-"

"Mhm. She said that's why mom and dad went away together. 'They're tied even if far away from each other. But it's painful like that, so no one could stay behind', she said." Sei got up too, but slowly. He dusted off his shorts and looked up at Mizuki.

"E-even if you say that... Marriage is really serious. It's something you must do only with the person you like the most."

Sei blinked, tilting his head. "I like Mizuki."

Mizuki's face looked about to boil over. That's no good, c'mon, I'm the older one! You have to be the voice of reason here!

"I-I like Sei too? But- No, that's not it. Marriages are not like that."

Sei frowned. "I know what marriage is, Mizuki."

"Then you know that marriages are between a man and a woman."

He made a face. "That's not really the point of marriage. Granny said marriage is a way to tie people's feelings and wishes. Gender doesn't matter, as long as they like each other."

Mizuki laughed awkwardly. "O-okay, but you're missing something, Sei. It's not that kind of like."

Sei's bottom lip stuck out. "... Then you don't like me."

Mizuki raised his hands helplessly, trying to physically stop Sei from making such a sullen face. He searched in his mind for words that could placate the other boy.

"I- I said I like you, didn't I? But m-marriage is something only adults can do anyway, it's not a solution for our problem, remember? We need to figure out how to stay together now."

"We could do a fake one? They do it all the time at school." Sei propositioned.

"Yeah, but it's always over after recess. It's not at all what we're looking for. Besides, don't you think it looks stupid when they do it?"

Sei looked away and nodded. "Mm... you're right."

"Then-"

His adamant eyes turned to stare into Mizuki's. "We can promise to get married."

"Why are you so insistent on marriage?!" Mizuki groaned, holding Sei's shoulders and dropping his head.

Sei blinked down at him. "It's just... when you said I made you stronger, that made me really happy. So this promise will tie us until we grow up. It's like an en... enraging?"

Mizuki sighed, lifting his head to look at him. "It's engagement, engagement. Anyway, you keep forgetting that liking is the most important thing, Sei. And really liking. You think it's fine now, but what will happen when you fall in love with a girl or something?"

He twisted his mouth. He was blushing again, and Mizuki couldn't help thinking how beautiful the color looked on his face. "And I keep saying—I like you. Really, really like you. If we could stay like this forever, wouldn't it be good?"

Mizuki was sweating a lot more than he should, even if it was sweltering. He dropped his hands from Sei's shoulders and crouched, sighing tiredly before looking up at Sei.

"So you don't mind it? Staying with me forever."

Sei huffed impatiently, crouching in front of him too. "I don't. That's what I keep saying, Dumbzuki."

Mizuki chuckled. "You're gonna change your mind."

Sei pouted indignantly. "I'm not."

"You promise?" He raised one pinky and looked at Sei, sneering.

Sei frowned at his hand for long seconds. Mizuki dropped his gaze, a thin smile on his lips.

I should just say it's a joke. Get it over with, let him get mad and then-

To his surprise, a smaller pinky curled around his own, and he raised his eyes to face the brightest smile he had ever seen Sei wear. Rosy cheeks and disheveled black hair, pink lips framing almost perfect rows of white teeth—the empty space his fallen baby tooth had left behind made it all the more spontaneous.

"I promise!"

The clouds parted before the blazing sun, sending rays of light to shower over the scene. The seemingly bottomless pit of Sei's eyes broke into a warm, chocolate brown. Mizuki breathed deeply, and he couldn't care less for his own two gaps when he grinned back brilliantly.

If it's like this... maybe we won't get separated after all.

 


 

Past the front desk, Aoba, Noiz and Mizuki walked quietly to the elevator, Aoba guiding them through the path he made more times than he could count for the past five years. The transit of doctors, nurses and visitors was thinning out as they marched towards the ICU, the hallways emptying out and their footsteps echoing louder and louder. Mizuki was almost solemn beside Noiz, his eyes decidedly turned forward and his lips pressed in a tight line.

Different from his first visit to that hospital, Noiz knew the way now, so it felt like a fast trip when they crossed the doors to the ICU. Smiling faintly, Noiz remembered the day he followed Aoba to his brother's room, seeing the drop and shiver of his shoulders and finding himself incapable of stepping away. It had been an important day for him and Aoba then, and this time, it was an important day for Mizuki and Sei.

They stopped in front of the door, the acrylic number plaque weakly reflecting the fluorescent light bulb on the ceiling. Aoba pushed the door open slowly and stepped aside, Noiz poising himself beside him and leaving Mizuki to face the room.

Mizuki didn't step inside. He stared at the white walls, the thick drapes drawn over the window, the machinery, the bed and ultimately, the man lying on the sheets. He parted his lips to say something, but he only sucked in a shaky breath.

"... How long?" he finally inquired in a whisper. In a corner of his mind, he might have thought that he wouldn't want to rouse Sei from a nap.

"For almost as long as we've been here." Aoba answered evenly. He peered at Mizuki's profile, though Mizuki's eyes didn't leave Sei.

Mizuki inhaled and exhaled slowly, nodding after a heartbeat.

"To some extent... I knew that already."

"You knew-"

"No. It's not like that. After yesterday morning... I had some time to think and I just... thought this might be the case." A pause as Mizuki swallowed dry and his eyes narrowed as if in pain. He turned his gaze to Aoba. "I'm sorry, Aoba. Do you think you can leave us alone for a minute?"

Aoba scrutinized him for a moment, and Noiz thought he was about to refuse, when he finally nodded. "Yeah. A minute."

Mizuki nodded and walked in, closing the door behind him. Noiz and Aoba stood facing the wooden surface for a second or two before Aoba tugged on his coat's sleeve and they quietly headed towards the waiting room.

It took Mizuki a full minute to take in all of his surroundings. The constant sound of the heart monitor beeping, the drip drops of the IV, and the dead silence that echoed on the back of those insignificant, yet so significant sounds. Not a rustling of sheets, not a hair out of place. Now the sound of his footsteps joined that once static orchestra, clicking on the floor like the ticking of a clock that started running again.

But the clock had been running without him. There was a chair already placed beside Sei's bed, one that Aoba had been occupying alone for half a decade. When he thought about it like that, he was terrified of how far he had gone. How long was he going to live running away? There was a small voice in the back of his head that said he obviously didn't care for Sei that much, if he was able to live so long without hearing a word from him. But as he sat down beside the bed and looked at that face he hadn't seen for five years, he couldn't believe that voice, not for a second.

He had been planning to seek out to Aoba when he came to Germany. When he decided to fly to Germany, he had been terrified but wanted to take that chance. He was protected by his overshadowing motive to visit Noiz, a trick to fool his mind out of the blaring fears that plagued him. It finally pushed him forward, instead of holding him back; the overpowering guilt and the certainty that he didn't know what he'd do with himself if it turned out that Sei had died a long time ago. The greatest irony of his life for five years had been that conflict inside him: wanting to be able to say his goodbyes to Sei, but wanting to steer his eyes away from a reality as cruel, as positively excruciating as his death.

Mizuki should be used to the fatality of living. To him, the fragility of life had been an inescapable truth for almost as long as he had lived. Be it his never-to-become younger sister, dead in his mother's womb or the subsequent death of his parents... he should be used to it. Losing the people he loved, feeling the very ground he stood on, crumbling under his feet...

He shook his head, silently begging for the forgiveness of his family. They had nothing to do with it; he only had himself to blame for the choices he had made, and it was high time for him to stop trying to rationalize those five years. It was done; he could only atone for his sins now.

He had been completely jerked out of his rhythm when Aoba was the one to pick up that call, but he was glad it happened. Bigger than any other fear, was the fear he felt right now, looking at Sei's face: he feared that he would've kept running away even after he landed in this country, and no one would stop him because no one knew, and he'd never get to see Sei. He took in a shuddering breath as shaky fingers hesitantly reached to Sei's pale cheek. As it finally made contact with his skin, he unknowingly flinched, heart thundering in his chest. His fingertips brushed along Sei's cheekbone tentatively, softly tucking his hair behind his ear. His wide eyes, then, pinched almost shut as he broke into a relieved smile.

"Sei...!"

It wasn't the right temperature. The lines of his face were sharper, though still delicate, especially in his slumber. His skin was dry. He was considerably thinner compared to the last time they saw each other. But it was Sei. And it was breaking him apart, being unable to see his smile, his rich black, but warm eyes. He wanted to hold him, but he was connected to various wires and tubes, and he wondered if Sei could feel pain from that slightly awkward position.

Mizuki could merely lay his head on the bed rail, unable to get closer. The padding was cool against his forehead. He turned his head to the side, towards the bottom half of Sei's body, and closed his eyes. It had no smell. Sei had been there for five years, but neither the room, nor the sheets smelled like him. He couldn't even tell if Sei himself smelled like he used to, either.

But it was Sei.

Mizuki opened half-lidded eyes. He reached and held Sei's hand, idly caressing the inside of his palm and his thin fingers, feeling his knuckles around his fingertips.

"Sei. I'm home."

A small pause followed. No answer would come, but he could hear Sei's slow, quiet breathing. And that was enough of a response for now.

"I missed you. But, well, that's my own fault. I'm working on it. I wanted to tell you... so many things, but now I can't think of a single one to start off. That's mostly because my brain was full of stupid shit and I convinced myself of... stupid shit. You'd probably make fun of my eloquence. Sorry.

"... Sorry. You always made me strong, but for the first time, I was too weak." He laughed weakly, ruefully. "I think we watched a movie once, when we were bored and rummaged through Tae-san's DVD collection. It was really old too, from before we were born. And someone in that movie said that love can bring out people's best, as well as their worst. Well, we didn't finish it because you said it was boring." He kept on twiddling with Sei's fingers, a soft smile on his lips.

"I've been to both extremes of the spectrum, and I've caused so much trouble for everyone. Tae-san is angry at me. Aoba is even worse." He closed his eyes and pressed his face into the padded rail. His mouth was unobstructed and his voice was barely audible when he proceeded.

"I'm so sorry, Sei. Give me another chance. Please—wake up so I can make everything right this time. Let us make good on that promise."

He stopped talking, but not because he expected Sei to magically wake up and respond to his plea, just like the movies and fairy tales. He wouldn't. He hadn't responded to anything for five years, and he could very well not respond for the next five, and the ones after that. Mizuki's presence... changed nothing.

He just stopped talking because he didn't want his voice to break. Quietly, he let his hot tears roll off onto the dark-blue padding of the bed rail, his chest shaking with muted, but poorly contained sobs. His hand tightened around Sei's, so much bigger than the hands of those dreamy kids from so many summers ago. That brilliant, sweltering day in Midorijima felt like another life when he was holding the limp hand of the man he loved in a foreign land, in a room with no smell, no presence.

His eyes were overflowing, again and again, and it went on for longer than he could count but for shorter than he certainly ought to. He cried until he was no more, and his head felt heavy, eyelids burning with sensitivity. Despite that, he finally lifted his face, wiping his drenched eyelids and cheeks, and smiled down at the first and, most likely, last love of his life.

"A lot has happened since you left, and despite my many mistakes, I did one thing right while you were gone. When you wake up, I want to introduce you to this really cheeky brat I've taken care of. He seems to have taken a liking to your brother." He chuckled, sniffling once. "There are five years to catch up to, but we have time."

 


 

"He's been in there for an hour and a half now," Noiz commented.

"Yeah," was Aoba's simple reply.

Noiz blinked down at Aoba's downcast head, and smiled. They had been sitting in the empty waiting room for the entirety of that one hour and a half in complete silence. Noiz was comfortable with it, and he thought Aoba might be thinking some things over. Even though he had nothing to do with Mizuki and Aoba's situation, he was glad that they seemed to be working things out. Mizuki was finally facing his fears and troubles head-on and Aoba was working towards forgiving his friend.

Aoba had his elbows braced on his knees, slouching while staring at the wall before them, unseeing. His face was stern, pensive, and a part of Noiz felt this increasing itch to mess with him, get his attention. Maybe that was the part of him that Aoba called a "brat" from time to time. Despite knowing that Aoba had a lot on his plate right now and he was putting his thoughts in order, he just thought Aoba looked a lot better when he was smiling, or scolding Noiz with just a hint of fondness.

It suddenly dawned on him that it had been a long time since he had seen that carefree Aoba, the one that smiled innocently and was clumsy and bashful. He was glad, and only a bit proud that, since meeting Aoba, he had seen many sides to that man, and he wouldn't change that for the world. He wanted to know everything there was to know about him. But he couldn't help feeling that Aoba didn't smile like that anymore, and he missed that. The weight of the world was crashing on his shoulders, and even if he bravely joked and laughed with Noiz, he knew it was taking its toll on Aoba. He hoped he could do something about it.

Or rather, he would do something about it.

They heard footsteps coming from the corridor, furiously trudging louder and louder on the tiled floor as it approached their location. Before they knew it, Mizuki was storming into the waiting room, eyes huge and fist crumpling a series of paper sheets.

"Aoba, what the hell is this?" he shoved the papers in front of them, his hand trembling.

Both Aoba and Noiz were startled, until they looked at the documents he yielded. Noiz recognized it immediately as the papers regarding the unplugging of Sei's life-support and organ donation. Not waiting for an answer, Mizuki rattled on.

"They want to kill Sei!? Is that it!?" Mizuki had the attentiveness to not scream in the hospital, but his low, hissing voice carried on his panic quite well.

Noiz rolled his eyes, but stayed quiet. After a last remaining second of shock, Aoba sighed tiredly. "Well, you could say that, yeah-"

"You're not thinking of signing this crap, are you!?"

Aoba inhaled sharply, a deep frown shadowing his features immediately as he got up from the chair. He swatted Mizuki's hand away.

"Of course not! What the fuck do you take me for, Mizuki?!"

He didn't have the same control with his voice, and Mizuki seemed to realize, right then, what he had just said. His mouth was agape and he dropped the hand holding the papers, taking a couple of steps back.

"I'm sorry, you're right. I'm really sorry, Aoba, I just saw the papers and I translated it on my phone a-and I just freaked out. Of course I didn't really think you'd sign it, but they were still there, so I kinda- ugh. I'm sorry."

Noiz got up slowly and glanced at Aoba, who breathed deeply.

"... It's fine. I just left them, because I didn't want to take them home. I forgot they were even there." His face was neutral once again, and he was looking away from Mizuki.

Mizuki bowed his head. "Yeah..."

"My my, that was quite the ruckus, Mr. Seragaki."

They all flinched, though for different reasons. A low, airy voice carried from the corridor, footsteps coming to a halt a couple meters away from them. Noiz and Aoba faced the figure while Mizuki turned back to see the person. It was a well-known face to Aoba, for the past few years.

It was a blond man, pale with strikingly blue eyes behind green-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a white lab coat and Noiz was immediately reminded of the doctor that had been responsible for his father many weeks ago. However, whereas the other doctor was tall and built, this one was slender, shorter, and sported smoother features, but his eyes looked even colder. He smiled sweetly, like a teacher good-naturedly scolding a misbehaving student.

Aoba stammered slightly as he smiled awkwardly. "I-I'm really sorry, Dr. Virus. That was-"

He never got to finish the sentence, because in the next second, Mizuki bolted in front of them and closed his fist on the lapel of the doctor's coat, unceremoniously slamming him against the wall.

The papers Mizuki had been holding fluttered to the ground, abandoned along with the doctor's glasses, which clattered as it hit the floor. Aoba gasped, moving to pull Mizuki from the other man and Noiz held back the whim to roll his eyes again. Mizuki and his stupidly hot temper.

"Asshole, I saw your name on those papers, you're that Virus guy that the old doctor recommended! You've been responsible for Sei for this long and you dare suggest pulling the plug!?" He knocked him back against the wall to emphasize his words and Virus winced slightly. "What the fuck is wrong with you?! What are you gonna get out of that, huh!? Do you want to get rid of Sei that badly!?" Unlike before, Mizuki wasn't trying to be quiet, neither did he stop to think that he was cussing out this German doctor in Japanese.

Despite Aoba's efforts, Mizuki didn't bulge and Noiz was finally opening his mouth to shake his friend out of his frenzy, when the doctor suddenly snickered.

"You make very grave accusations. I'm sorry, have we met? I don't think I saw you visiting Sei-san. Not once in five years," he said, an obvious accent coiled around his venomous words, but in otherwise clear Japanese.

Mizuki released his hold like he had been burned, taking a step back and narrowing his eyes at the other man. Aoba was shocked, staring at Virus as the doctor bent down to pick up his glasses.

"But... since when do you...?" Aoba croaked, now speaking in his first language.

Virus checked his lenses for cracks and absentmindedly used his coat to clean it before perching it on the bridge of his nose again. He smiled.

"Since when do I speak Japanese? A fairly long time. We studied under the doctor that treated your brother previously; it was inevitable. Trip knows it too."

Noiz raised his brows at the mention of the other doctor. He was suddenly reminded that Aoba had mentioned both their names once; apparently, they had saved Sei.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Aoba inquired as Mizuki huffed and walked away, plopping down on one of the chairs and crossing his arms.

Virus laughed musically. "I thought your slow learning of German was very amusing, and Trip just never bothered to tell you. It was adorable when you stumbled through your words and apologized profusely. I found it to be quite entertaining, to watch your perseverance throughout the years; you've come a long way, Seragaki-san."

Aoba looked pale and Noiz locked his jaw, glaring at the doctor. This guy was as rotten as he suspected. He didn't get to interact much with the Trip guy, but they were quite obviously two peas in a pod.

Virus' gaze collided with Noiz's, icy blue and acid green, and his perfunctory smile didn't move an inch. He turned his eyes back to Aoba.

"That reminds me; we have just finished studying the gathered data on Sei-san's condition throughout this semester." He motioned to the papers and x-ray films on his hand. "I wasn't expecting you to be at the hospital now; we could take the opportunity to sit down so I can brief you on Sei-san's status. Shall we head to his room?"

"A-ah, yes..."

"Well then." His eyes pinched shut with a wide grin as he conducted Aoba towards Sei's room with a hand on his back.

Virus exhaled a brief ah, like he had just remembered something, before looking over his shoulder at Mizuki with owlish eyes. "You could come along, since you have Sei-san's best interest in mind, but I'd suggest you cool your head first. The hospital cafeteria has a great selection of beverages." Mizuki's death glare intensified and Virus' smile didn't falter, though his gaze became stern in his next words.

"But before that, please tidy up the mess you made. Having papers thrown around the waiting room is unsightly and troubling for the cleaning staff." Then he turned his attention to Noiz. "I'd be grateful if you could help him, Edmund Adlersflügel's eldest son." There was a flash of maliciousness in his eyes as he nodded in goodbye and left the room with Aoba.

Noiz merely watched their retreating backs while Mizuki clicked his tongue and got up from his seat, bending down to pick up the documents. He glanced at his friend, eyebrows arched.

"What were you trying to accomplish, slamming the doctor responsible for your fiancé against the wall?" Noiz asked.

Mizuki huffed. Having gathered all the sheets of paper, he promptly ripped it on half, then in quarters, before throwing it into the garbage bin.

He dusted his hands nonchalantly. "Nothing, really."

Noiz sighed. "Your aggressiveness really shows up at the most annoying of times."

 Mizuki indignantly refused to go to the cafeteria when Noiz actually asked if he wanted to, almost making the other man laugh at how easily riled up he could be. Almost twenty minutes later, they saw Virus passing by the waiting room on his way out of the ICU, grinning at them briefly. Noiz easily held down Mizuki's wrist when he tried to flip him the bird.

Aoba came back right after him, and Mizuki straightened up.

"Uh... So, how's he?" He inquired hesitantly.

"Well, the same as always. He's been pretty stable for the last months. I used to get really anxious when there was nothing different every exam, but I learned to be actually happy that his health isn't deteriorating."

Mizuki nodded, pensive.

"Noiz, if you want to leave, that's okay. I think I'll spend the night here."

"Ah!" Mizuki sprung up to his feet. "I want to stay too!"

Aoba blinked. "You should rest. You only arrived yesterday; you must definitely be feeling jet-lagged."

"No, I got over that pretty easily yesterday. There's still a bit of a weird feeling, but it's nothing much."

"You're the one that should rest, Aoba. Since Exposure won't be opening today, you should take the chance to get a good night's sleep," Noiz suggested. The hospital didn't seem to have accommodations for visitors, so they usually slept on the only armchair in the room or beside the bed on one of the metal chairs. That was never comfortable.

Aoba gave a small smile. "It's fine, the club will most likely not open tomorrow either; I can rest then." He turned his attention to Mizuki. "But it's definitely not very comfortable to sleep here. Besides, there isn't a need for more than one person to watch over Sei."

"Well, you're not letting me stay overnight without you, right? If I stay this once, and you see that I can do it just fine, I could come every day while I'm here. I know you're busy and can't be here as much as you'd like. If I'm always here, I could tell you how he's doing anytime." Mizuki reasoned earnestly.

Aoba frowned.

"Staying here all day would be really, really taxing. If you're trying to compensate for something-"

"No, that's not it. I'm not trying to punish myself by tiring myself out, nor am I trying to compensate for the past five years. I wouldn't be able even if I tried. I just... really want to be with him!"

Mizuki and Aoba stared at each other head-on, their eyes serious. Before long, Aoba sighed in defeat.

"Alright, fine. Just don't complain about your back later."

Mizuki smiled brightly. "Yes!"

Aoba eyed him carefully. "Also, if you're going to be here a lot, you'll end up interacting more with Dr. Virus. You'll have to behave."

Mizuki's face dropped a bit at that, but he recovered quickly.

"I will, I will."

Noiz sighed. "So you two will really stay overnight?"

They nodded and Noiz wanted to sigh again. Somewhere in his little self-absorbed brain, he had wanted to finally spend a whole night with Aoba. Maybe it was better to cut this short, after all. His monopolistic desires were only increasing by the second, so he had better learn to keep himself in check.

"You're so stubborn. Mizuki, call me when you need me to pick you up. We'll get your things at Theo's house then. Aoba, call me if you need anything too."

Aoba pouted slightly. "Why should I?"

Noiz gave a lopsided grin. "I won't leave you alone if you don't."

"Geez..."

"Then, I'm leaving. 'Night."

"Goodnight, Noiz!" Mizuki and Aoba waved as he walked away.

Noiz left the hospital and drove to his house, his head overflowing with thoughts of pressing a kiss to the bandaged corner of Aoba's lips. He wanted to slap himself; he couldn't tell if this newfound sense of self-control was a blessing or a curse.

The images were etched to the wall of his brain and he kept debating on the possibilities, until he opened the door to his place and realized the lights were on already. He was faced with a man sitting on the couch of his living room, leg crossed casually, cigarette in hand. Lime-green eyes stared up at him and Noiz corresponded, coldly.

"Father."

Chapter Text

Noiz shut the door behind him slowly, toeing off his shoes at the entrance before stepping into the room, regarding his father carefully. He'd have to wonder how long his father had been sitting there, in one of his custom tailored suits, legs and arms crossed. It had to be long enough to saturate the room with the murky smell of his cigarettes. Noiz noticed he hadn't bothered to take off his shoes either, dirtying the carpet.

The man leaned towards the coffee table, smashing out the burning tip of his cigarette in an ashtray, his gaze downcast. "Wilhelm, I hear you haven't been home for the last two days."

Noiz had to bite back his retort, sighing instead. "I was at Agnes' for some time and then I just roamed around on my own. You could've just called me, if you were that worried."

His father narrowed his eyes at him. "When I called Agnes, she wouldn't put you on the line."

He crossed his arms, mirroring his father. "Because I wasn't with her anymore. She must've told you that."

"If I called her parents to ask if you really were there, would they confirm it?"

"Would you really let them know you're tracking down your adult son like one would do a small child? They might tell your other friends." His answer was immediate, plain.

The other man got up in that same instant. Noiz didn't move a finger when his father marched towards him and violently pulled him by the collar of his shirt, glaring down at him. The slap Noiz expected never came.

"There's a reason why it was decided that you'd marry Agnes. If I ever dream that you're running off to meet with some lowly whore..."

A fire burned in Noiz's chest, turning the tips of his fingers cold and making his stomach twist. He couldn't remember being so disgusted at that man in recent times like he was now. However, he remained silent, not a muscle twitching as he stared up at his father with a perfect mask of neutrality.

At last, the older man released his hold and took a few steps back, but they didn't break eye contact.

"There will be a New Year's Eve banquet. You're to come with Agnes again."

Noiz locked his jaw.

"... Understood."

Without another word, his father's eyes finally left his own as he stepped around him to reach the door. Noiz stood there, hearing the soft click of the door, then his father's footsteps outside, getting farther away. His eyes traveled to the coffee table; the man didn't even take his shitty ashtray with him. Noiz picked it up carefully, scrutinizing it with spiteful eyes.

Ultimately, he threw it into his kitchen's garbage bin.

Noiz sighed, leaving for his room to take a shower and head to bed. First thing I'll do tomorrow is get all of the locks changed.

Under the warm duvet, in his large bed, he didn't sleep as well as he did the past two days.

 


 

By 10am of the next day, he was paying the locksmith who had rekeyed his locks. He didn't even know how the hell his father had gotten a copy of his house key in the first place, but he'd change it every week, if need be. He reflected distantly on the possibility of getting a guard dog.

The sky was really dark despite the early hour, Noiz thought as he was lounging in his bedroom and watching the punishing rain, pouring outside the glass doors to his balcony. He checked his watch and realized it was nearing noon. When he started thinking that it was getting quite late, he got the call from Mizuki to pick him up at the hospital.

"Aoba? He was gone really early, probably." Mizuki answered when queried by Noiz, looking tired but content as he got into the car. "When I woke up, he wasn't there anymore. He just left a note, saying he didn't want to wake me up, and he had left to get ready for work."

Well, that's to be expected, he thought. It was Monday, and Aoba started his day early. They passed by Theo's house to get Mizuki's luggage, and after Theo gently scolded Noiz for not making Aoba eat his cooking yet and promised him pain for not reading the books he had recommended him, they left for Noiz's house.

The low click of the lock and the jingling of keys echoed in the room as Noiz opened the door, Mizuki pushing his way inside immediately and breathing out with something akin to relief, before coughing into his fist.

"Woah, your living room is reeking of tobacco! Don't tell me you're smoking now, Noiz," Mizuki chided, leaving his shoes at the entrance and crossing the room, carrying his bags.

"No way. You know I always hated the smell of these things. My father just decided to pay me a surprise visit yesterday."

"Yikes. It's good I didn't come back with you, then. Wouldn't want your father to think you're going out with a dude or something." Mizuki turned his head slowly to sneer at Noiz.

"Wouldn't want my father to think I'm going out with a guy who has a teardrop tattoo on his face," Noiz snorted, opening the curtains of his screen door. He wished he could slide it open so the air would circulate and take that foul smell away, but it was fairly windy outside.

"I will not accept aesthetic criticism from you, what a nerve. Now you saunter around in suits but I've been witness to your real fashion sense."

Noiz toured him around the house before finally taking him to leave his bags in the guest room. Noiz opened the door, but Mizuki only looked inside. They stood in the doorway like that for a while, until Mizuki looked back at Noiz with cryptic eyes.

"Where's my futon?"

"You can sleep on the grass outside if you want."

"What futon, I love beds. Western is the best."

"You didn't even sleep in a futon at your place, you asshole," Noiz muttered and left Mizuki ("I just really miss futons, okay!?") to get himself settled in his room.

Almost an hour later, the rain had let up. Having finished frying a few pieces of chicken and cooking noodles for lunch, Noiz was serving himself when Mizuki entered the kitchen, letting out an admiring whistle at the sight of food. He had changed clothes and his burgundy hair was darker, still damp from the shower.

"That's a nice smell. And you say you can't cook."

Noiz rolled his eyes. "That's the bare minimum. The leftover takeout went bad so it's either this or starving."

Mizuki chuckled and pulled a plate for himself from the cupboards, filling it generously while Noiz sat at the table.

"So, what are you going to do? Are you going to spend the day with Sei and come back to sleep or...?" Noiz asked when Mizuki sat across from him.

"Uh... I'm thinking. I kind of want to keep on spending the nights there."

"I think Aoba's right. You're overcompensating," said Noiz, an eyebrow arched.

Mizuki snorted, though ruefully. "That's not it, I told you. It's just... I'll be here for only two weeks and I want to stay with Sei the most I can. I'm an asshole but I really missed him." He sighed.

"Even if you can't talk to him?"

Mizuki was quiet for an agonizingly long moment, before he smiled.

"Even so. I kinda want to see... if I can make a difference by being with him. Aoba's always busy and can't be there as much as he'd like. Of course, it can't be helped and I'd never hold that against Aoba—it's mostly my fault, after all—but I think Sei must be a bit lonely."

"I think you shouldn't get your hopes up like that," Noiz muttered, eating his lunch with a furrowed brow.

"You suck at supporting your friends," Mizuki said, but he was laughing lightly.

Noiz fiddled with his spoon and shrugged. "Just saying it so you won't get disappointed later. But I'll help you, just say the word."

"You're so sweet, Noiz-kun!"

"Shut up, bastard."

Mizuki decided he'd spent the nights at the hospital and come back to Noiz's house to shower and have lunch. After they were done eating, the two headed out towards the closest bus stop, and Noiz taught Mizuki what bus he should take to go to the hospital and how to return to his place.

"I could just pick you up, you know?" Noiz reminded him, his hands stuffed into his pockets as he watched the traffic.

"Nah, that's too much trouble. And you'll soon go back to work, right? I don't wanna bother you."

"You're too prideful, just like Aoba." Noiz sighed exasperatedly and Mizuki laughed.

"Oh, the bus is coming. I'll text you if anything comes up, yeah?" Mizuki slapped his shoulder lightly and waved at Noiz before hopping into the bus.

Noiz's hand dropped after his curt wave and he roamed back home, looking at the movement of people on the sidewalks, going in and out of the stores. It was still very chilly and Noiz would be willing to bet that it would start raining again soon. The food carts that would usually be lined up around the commercial area were nowhere to be seen, probably because of the unstable weather. He just hoped he would be home before it started showering.

"Ah." He suddenly remembered something, a few blocks away from his home, and pulled out the phone from his pocket. He opened his message thread with Aoba and typed out quickly.

>> By the way, eat that thing inside the tupperware with an orange lid in your fridge before it goes bad or Theo will have me beheaded.

 


 

The ting-a-ling of a bell as the door of the café opened and closed. The white noise of people's conversations, sitting at the counter or neighboring tables. Noiz sighed.

"God, you're so rude," Agnes murmured. Her curly, chestnut hair was tied up in a ponytail and she dressed very casually, especially considering Noiz had only ever seen her in formal dinners and the Christmas banquet. She casted a jaded look at the man, her chin propped on her palm.

"What." Noiz idly stirred his mocha coffee with a little spoon. They were sitting together in a posh café that was only a few blocks away from the one he would frequent with Aoba.

"Didn't you say it would be okay for us to meet today?"

"I did."

"Then stop sulking!"

He lifted his eyes, creasing his brow in annoyance. "I'm not sulking."

Agnes was the one to heave a sigh this time.

"Fine, be that way. But didn't we reach an agreement that, at least for appearances, it would be best for us to meet like this once in a while?"

"Yeah. You kind of forced me into it, but sure."

"I didn't force you, I just showed you the correct path. And since you're such a reasonable man, you saw I was right."

"Whatever."

"You did say you were bored. And I was bored too so, come on, at least try to strike a conversation instead of sighing wistfully at the walls. Entertain me."

Noiz snorted.

"Did you know that there's gonna be another banquet? A New Year's Eve one," he asked lightly.

Agnes blinked over owlish eyes, lowering the rim of her cup from her lips.

"I knew. Your father told me when he called yesterday morning. Didn't you know?"

"No. I didn't really talk to anyone besides Theo after Christmas. But father told me yesterday night."

"Oh... I thought you knew about it, since he said you would escort me again."

"Seems like I was the last to know."

She laughed disconcertingly. "That's strange."

"Not really."

Agnes looked at him weirdly, but nodded.

"So, are you really coming? It sounds like you're being forced into it."

"Well, I was forced the first time too."

Agnes snorted at that. "Indeed, I got the feeling."

"So it's fine, really."

She smiled and dropped her head slowly, her eyes secretive.

"There's somewhere else you'd rather be. And someone else you'd rather be with, too. Do you really want a repeat of Christmas Eve?"

Noiz huffed, his chin held on his palm as he looked through the windowpane beside their table. It was well into the late afternoon and despite his earlier predictions, the rain never returned. It was unexpectedly warm, in fact. The sky was a pale blue with heavy strokes of full, billowy clouds, slowly welcoming the evening with soft pink lights that spilled across the dome.

"I'm not offended or anything. At least you're not trying to indulge me anymore. It was nice at first but then it got annoying."

"It was annoying from the beginning, for me."

Agnes rolled her eyes but only after she snorted, almost ungracefully.

"But that's water under the bridge. The thing is: no one can do what you want except yourself. I already told you that you should let your parents know..."

She was still talking but her voice was dwindling away and joining the background conversations between strangers. A silhouette passed by the shop front. Noiz's eyes rose to see Aoba's profile, his blue hair bunched up in a messy bun. For once, his scarf wasn't rolled up around his neck and Noiz was momentarily hypnotized by the fine strands fluttering over his uncovered nape.

"Wilhelm...?"

Noiz hadn't realized he got up. He didn't avert his eyes from the windowpane, fearing that he'd lose sight of Aoba, and muttered a curt "be right back" to Agnes before striding out of the café and into the street.

"Aoba."

The other man looked back at the same time Noiz grasped his arm, catching up to him. Aoba turned his body fully towards Noiz, his eyes wide with surprise. Noiz dropped his hand slowly, a continuous buzz filling his brain as he took in the soft lines of Aoba's face, his bright eyes and lightly blushed cheeks. Had he been capable of coherent thinking, he would think that Aoba looked unbearably cute.

He held back a sigh. It's bad.

"Uh, Noiz?"

Self-control, self-control. He had already made a mess because of his hastiness. It would only get worse if he kissed Aoba right then and there.

"Yo."

Aoba smiled, as though relieved he had received an answer.

"Hey. What are you doing here?"

"I saw you. I was at that café." He pointed behind him with a thumb.

Aoba looked at that direction and blinked quickly, eyes big and thoughtful as they returned to Noiz. "Were you... with Agnes, possibly?"

"Why you say that?" His voice didn't betray his concealed surprise.

His face got a bit redder with embarrassment. "Well, because..."

Aoba pointed behind Noiz again, and he looked back. Agnes flinched as they turned to where she was, barely hidden by the wall of the store beside the café. She resembled a stalker as she peeped at them.

Noiz creased his brow and she waved with a small grin on her lips. He turned back forward.

"Don't start imagining things," Noiz grumbled at him.

Aoba laughed lightly, but looked pointedly away. "I'm not imagining anything."

"Where are you going?" Noiz asked, a bit brusquely.

"Ah, I'm going to Heibon. It's my shift now."

Before Noiz could say anything, he felt a light slap on his shoulder.

"Hello! I'm so sorry for my rudeness, I just got curious when Wilhelm suddenly rushed out of the café!" Agnes popped up beside Noiz, smiling brightly at Aoba.

Noiz threw her a glare. "Oi-"

"I'm Agnes Diefenbach, Wilhelm's friend. Delighted to make your acquaintance!" She extended her hand to Aoba, no malice in her words or in her smile.

After recovering from the shock, Aoba smiled back just as warmly and shook her hand. "I'm Aoba Seragaki. Pleased to meet you, too."

She didn't seem surprised at all. "Ohh, you're the famous Aoba."

Aoba's face burned bright crimson and Noiz narrowed his eyes at her. Agnes laughed heartily.

"Not to worry, I won't reveal your drunken secrets, Wilhelm." Aoba wondered if the light pink filling Noiz's cheeks was a figment of his imagination. "My apologies for troubling you two, I will go back now. Remember what I said before, Wilhelm. Carpe diem, hm?" She pinched Noiz's cheek, prompting him to swat her hand away.

Agnes laughed at Noiz's sullen face and waved at Aoba. "We shall meet again, Aoba. I'll be waiting at the café, Wilhelm."

She walked away and Noiz sighed heavily. Aoba chuckled.

"Somehow... It seems you don't really know how to deal with her, huh?"

He huffed. "She does whatever she wants and I can never tell what goes through her mind. She's so damn capricious..."

"Noiz... it's almost like you're describing yourself."

Noiz scowled. "Hah? Like hell, we're not alike at all."

Aoba laughed louder now. "Is that so, is that so? Whatever you say. Ah." He checked his phone for a second.

"Sorry. I have to go now or I'll be late."

"Ah, okay." Noiz cringed at the lament lurking behind his words.

"Then, bye." Aoba smiled and waved at him before turning on his way.

Noiz's stared at Aoba's retreating back. A plan that had been forming inside his brain without his say was wrapping its tendrils around his skull like overpowering vines. The idea had been there before Agnes said anything. It had been there that morning when he woke up, probably.

It might've been there before his father appeared last night.

"Aoba."

He didn't know how loudly he had called him, but it seemed like it had been loud enough, because Aoba turned to look at him questioningly.

"What're you doing tomorrow?"

Aoba blinked confusedly.

"Huh? Uh... I'll work as usual. Ah, but tomorrow's New Year's Eve, right... the drugstore I work at will close down early-"

"Keep your night free for me."

Now Aoba was visibly startled. "Um... Huh? What are you-"

"I'm definitely going over to your apartment somewhere around 11pm. So wait for me."

"Okay...?"

Noiz smirked at him one last time before turning on his heels and returning to the café.

Agnes watched amusedly as he crossed the doorway and sat back at their table. They were quiet for a fleeting moment.

"So?" She finally asked.

Noiz sighed. "... We need to talk about tomorrow."

She grinned. "Of course we do."

"And don't get smug."

Agnes stifled her laughter theatrically.

 


 

The next night, Noiz and Agnes were arriving to his parents' manor. Noiz wore a dark blue tuxedo this time, and Agnes had her hair braided and was wearing a mid-calf, fluttery yellow dress. They entered the hall much like how they'd done before, arms linked and chins tipped up, but even Noiz would say he felt slightly more comfortable this time, without the pressure to pamper Agnes. Even people's disgusting behavior towards the two was severely reduced compared to last time, though the leering was still there.

Noiz had to applaud his parents' lack of creativity; the decoration of the hall was almost identical to that of the Christmas banquet, except everything was black and white. That and they had hired a female opera singer to go with the string quartet this time. He was almost sure the replica of Greek statues hadn't been there before either, and he found funny how every one of them contained close to no nudity. It didn't take long for him to remember they were only a few of the statues that were scattered around their manor; his parents probably handpicked the most innocent-looking ones to expose. He snorted lightly.

"What is it?" Agnes asked under her breath, glancing at him.

He smirked, facing forward. "Nothing."

It was like a long sequence of déjà-vus; they sat at his parents' table, they coddled Agnes and jabbed him less than discreetly while he ignored them in favor of talking to Theo. People's conversations, the music, the food. In this little world his parents lived in, everything followed a formula, a pattern, a rule. It was getting increasingly suffocating until Theo unknowingly threw him a lifeline.

"Oh right, how's Mizuki?"

Noiz blinked slowly, the cogs in his head moving and gaining speed again.

"He's fine. He's spending the New Year's Eve with Aoba's brother."

Theo's eyes grew with understanding; he didn't know much about Aoba's brother, but he knew the meaning this would have for Mizuki. He smiled candidly.

"I see."

Agnes was still happily conversing with his parents and Noiz was glad they weren't paying attention to the names being mentioned by him and Theo.

"By the way..."

Noiz looked back at Theo's somber tone, eyebrows knit together.

"What about the books? And the pork loin?"

Noiz huffed and almost flicked his brother's forehead like he'd usually do, before remembering where they were.

"You're being so fussy. The books aren't with me right now, I told you. I'll read them soon enough. And he sent me a text yesterday night; he had it for dinner and said it was really good." He smirked. "He asked me to give his compliments to the chef."

Theo beamed. "I'm so glad! I hope I'll be able to cook something really good for everyone next time!"

"Theodore, are you taking up cooking this time?" Their mother suddenly asked, and Theo flinched, face flashing bright red.

"Ah, yes! I knew the basics already but I've been learning new things since I started living alone..." He trailed off, visibly embarrassed by being put on the spot like that.

His mother smiled benignly though, tilting her head to the side. "You were always taking interest in many different things as a child; you really are the kind of person that can do whatever they want when they put their mind to it."

Theo blinked, scratching his nape absentmindedly. "Ah... Thank you, mother."

She giggled. "Both you and Wilhelm were very curious children. It was very amusing to watch the speed with which you were interested in things and, suddenly, you didn't care anymore."

Agnes perked up. "Ah, my parents always talk about that too. When I was a little girl, they said I suddenly started getting into stargazing. The first book I read was actually an astronomy one, and they said they couldn't take their eyes off me at night, because I'd escape to the backyard to look at the stars and count the constellations."

Noiz listened to their talk without really contributing to it. After all, he knew his parents weren't that liberal. If they didn't approve of their children's interests, it was over and done for them—and they just weren't the kind of people to approve of many things. But he supposed Theo had more freedom than him, even if a little. He didn't think much about that anymore; he guessed that, in his room, he learned to enjoy his own fashion of freedom. Though making peace with his situation as a child was quite different from forgiving his parents' behavior.

Before long, his father climbed to the podium to give his speech. Delivered almost mechanically, almost word-by-word of his speech at Christmas, with the occasional new joke or updated figures on the company's performance that ending year. It was easier to tune him out, now that Noiz already knew everything he'd say. Like the last time, the string quartet started playing again when he left the stage, but this time, the woman started singing along to the melody.

Again, there were couples getting up from their seats to dance, but Agnes didn't look interested in it this time. Instead, she was watching the concert. A waiter had just served their table, and she hadn't touched her food since the music started. Considering her gushing about all the songs being played in the last banquet, she was probably a music enthusiast or something.

Even his parents got up to dance at a certain point, and Theo was happily engrossed in a game app in his phone. He sullenly swatted his brother away when he poked fun at him for it, and Noiz chuckled at his pout as he kept clicking around on his screen, apparently feeding pixilated cats or something.

"Do you feel like going outside?" Agnes suddenly asked.

Noiz huffed. "Finally; I thought we were never leaving the table. You've been staring daggers at the stage."

She blushed, bewildered.

"I wasn't staring, I just really like the songs they were playing! But I don't like this one, so let's go get some fresh air already."

"Alright. Theo, we're heading to the balcony." Theo cooed a half-hearted "okay" as they slipped out of the hall, walking up the stairs and making an eerily familiar way outside.

Like last time, Noiz opened the door and Agnes stepped outside first. Unlike last time, it wasn't as cold and the sky was actually clear. Noiz remembered Agnes' stargazing talk distantly.

"I hope you won't turn around and force a kiss on me again," Noiz muttered, hands tucked into his pockets as he looked at the sky. He stood at her side.

Agnes laughed lightly and turned her head to glance at him. "Of course I won't, I'm over you. Completely over!"

"Is that so," he snorted, and they fell into comfortable silence, both leaning their forearms on the railing.

They were staring up at the dark sky, the moon nowhere to be seen, stars were rare. The silence that had been amicable not a minute ago quickly turned grating. Noiz wasn't one to care for making conversation, but he found himself seeking for something to break the weirdly intimate atmosphere.

When he glanced at Agnes, her eyes were full of something, something alien that he didn't recognize, that he never saw there before and felt like he shouldn't have seen. She looked exposed, but whether it was agitation, yearning or melancholy that was radiating off her, he wouldn't be able to tell. It was only natural, because they played couple for their families and associates when, deep down, they were little less than strangers. And Noiz had been okay with that. But Agnes actually wanted to be understood.

She needed something or someone—that much Noiz could tell. But she wouldn't find it at that banquet, and it couldn't be him; he couldn't care to pretend that he understood the turmoil in her gaze. To do so would be an insult to Agnes and she would catch on his act immediately. He snorted softly. It was troublesome and there was no need to disrespect her so gratuitously.

Maybe she needed to escape just as much as him.

After long minutes, he dropped his gaze to his wristwatch. He might've been taking advantage of her efforts to befriend him without a care for her, but they could help each other too. It's about time.

Noiz looked at her again. Her face was mildly pacific again. "Wanna go?"

She turned her eyes to him slowly, blinking, and a calm smile opened in her face.

"Sure."

He offered his arm for her and she automatically looped her own around it. They left the balcony, walking down the stairs gingerly, to find that Noiz's parents were sitting at their table again. It was the next part of their plan, and Noiz gratefully accepted the convenience of the situation.

"We are leaving," he announced evenly, looking down at the couple and his brother.

His father's eyebrow twitched very distinctively, but his features were otherwise neutral. His mother was the one to speak up, her eyes wide.

"Oh my, why so soon? It's not even midnight yet!"

Agnes smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Adlersflügel, I'm not feeling very well so I asked Wilhelm to accompany me somewhere less crowded. Though your banquet is truly beautiful and I'm grateful for your hospitality, would you mind if I borrowed Wilhelm tonight?"

His mother blushed and smiled widely, beaming. "Of course I wouldn't! And you're still so formal, Agnes! I told you to call me Ursula! I can imagine you two would rather spend this moment alone. New Year, new life! It's fine, isn't it, darling?" She turned gleaming eyes to her husband.

Noiz's father creased his brow slightly, but sighed in defeat ultimately, turning his hawkish eyes to Noiz and Agnes.

"Yes, it is fine. But it worries me to hear you're not feeling well. Could it be that the food upset your stomach...?"

Agnes was fast to put his mind to ease. "No, not at all, the food was excellent; I appreciate your fine taste, Sir. I suppose it's more psychological. 'New Year, new life', right? I've been feeling a bit anxious since early today."

Remembering her earlier demeanor, Noiz wondered how much of that excuse was true. Noiz's mother cooed a soft "oh, poor baby," and her husband nodded in understanding.

"I see, in that case, being somewhere you can be more comfortable would be recommended, indeed. Please let us know when you feel better."

Agnes nodded. "Yes, thank you so much for your kindness. We're leaving."

They waved at the three, Noiz more half-heartedly so, amused by Theo's slightly puzzled expression.

 


 

Noiz was now driving towards Aoba's apartment complex. He and Agnes had been completely silent during their trip back to the city, and as they had agreed previously, he dropped her at her best friend's house. Agnes said it was a girl whose family had no ties to the Diefenbach or the Adlersflügel and wasn't even rich. Good news, considering it was crucial that neither Agnes' parents nor Noiz's would find out they had parted ways after leaving the banquet.

Agnes had climbed out of the car after they agreed on what to do if their parents called either one of them (namely: ignore it). The streets were filled with teenagers playing with firecrackers and families celebrating the new turn of the calendar.

"Oi," Noiz called out from his window before he could change his mind.

Agnes, almost a meter away from the car, looked back with questioning eyes.

"Thanks for covering for me. I'll back you up if you ever need it."

Agnes looked flabbergasted, her mouth gaping and wide eyes blinking in shock. Five whole seconds later, she let out a boisterous laugh, doubling over and covering his mouth to muffle her scandalous cackling. Before Noiz could leave, she breathed deeply, recovering somewhat from her sudden attack.

"Of course you'll back me up, you owe me tons already!" she huffed, still breathless. "But, well, I'm thankful for your honesty. I'll be sure to take you up on your offer someday!"

She waved at him cheerily and jogged towards her friend's house. Noiz snorted and shook his head before leaving the curb, carefully driving around the kids laughing and running across the street.

It was only a few minutes into 11pm when Noiz left his car in a free parking area a couple blocks away from Aoba's house. The occasional firework exploded way above his head as he walked through the neighborhood, glancing at the house parties going on. It was less crowded than Agnes' stop, but there were kids running around with sparklers, drunken family members hugging and singing in their front yards. Noiz thought fleetingly that this kind of celebration was stupid, but infinitely more sincere than the banquet he had just left.

He knocked on Aoba's door, and after a moment of rustling on the other side, Aoba opened the door. He was sporting a bit of a bed head and wearing sweats, but it didn't look like he had been sleeping. The bruises and scratches on his face, reminiscent of Exposure's attack, were just disappearing too. Noiz was about to say something, when Aoba's shocked face gave him pause.

"What the hell are you doing in a tux?!"

Noiz blinked, before looking down at himself. "Oh. Yeah, I just came here from my family's banquet."

Aoba's voice was lower and his eyes narrowed when he proceeded. "So... you ditched your parents' fancy party to come over?"

"Yeah."

Aoba stared at him for a couple more seconds before cutting eye contact and huffing a laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. There was the faintest blush coloring his cheeks when he looked back up.

"You're so..."

Noiz shrugged. "It wasn't that hard a decision to make. It was just as boring as the first one. So, let's go? It'll be midnight soon."

Aoba's eyes went wide.

"What? You wanted to go out somewhere? Shit- You should've let me know, I didn't even shower after coming back from work!"

"I thought it was obvious."

"Of course it wasn't, geez. Now you'll have to wait, I'll shower and get changed real fast!" Aoba strode back into the apartment, leaving Noiz to lean on the doorframe. It'd be too much of a hassle to take off his shoes and go in.

"You look just fine in sweats." Noiz smirked and Aoba whipped his head back, flushing pink.

"Shut up!" He was storming into the bathroom, before poking his head out with a soft "oh", his eyes curious.

"But where are we going?" Aoba asked.

Noiz hummed in thought for a second.

"I don't know. Somewhere we can see the stars, I guess."

 


 

After some light banter (Aoba's bemoaning Noiz for making him look underdressed no matter what he had in his wardrobe and Noiz leaving his suit jacket behind at his place because it was "too stuffy",) they were walking towards the area where Noiz's car was parked.

"Wow, Mrs. Beringer is sure going strong on that wine."

Noiz watched Aoba wave at his neighbors as they shouted out "happy new year!" at them from their front yard.

"You know your neighbors outside of the apartment complex?"

"Sure! Well, I guess it could be weird, but you know, raised in a small town..." Aoba shrugged, smiling sheepishly.

"Yeah." Noiz walked beside him calmly, listening to the music buzzing in the background, the Christmas lights decorating the houses still blinking away and reflecting on Aoba's hair.

So distracted Noiz was, he didn't notice the kid running into him before he felt the soft impact against his stomach. Aoba gasped in surprise, taking one step away, and the kid, a small boy accompanied by another boy and a girl, backed up and looked at Noiz with eyes wide.

"Sorry, mister!"

The three of them were carrying sparklers and looked up at Noiz's blank expression in poorly concealed fear.

Noiz blinked, and he couldn't tell what it was, but the kids' faces softened up before he even opened his mouth.

"Be careful."

The kid who bumped on him grinned brightly. "Yes!"

He turned back and yelled "let's go, let's go!" to his companions and they went on their merry way, running past the two adults and up the sidewalk.

Aoba snickered. "I thought I'd have to intervene for a second there, but you even smiled at the kid."

Noiz arched up one eyebrow. "I didn't smile."

"Noiz-kun is so sweet to children~! Maybe because you're one of them?"

Aoba's shoulder bumped on Noiz's. He scoffed at Aoba's words, bumping back harder and shoving him off the sidewalk. Aoba let out an undignified squawk as he stumbled.

Chapter Text

It was complete silence, except for the far-away noise of music, fireworks and conversations.

"Noiz?"

"Mm?"

"Refresh my memory. Why are we here?"

They were seated on swings, in a playground that was right next to the area where Noiz left his car. Rather hilariously, Aoba thought, Noiz sat gingerly with his hands clasped to the chains on either side, not a care in a world for how his custom-tailored tuxedo and black coat looked in contrast to the very colorful playground.

"You were talking about children and how you missed the brats from your neighborhood and wondered how they had grown. We happened to be passing by and I wanted to take a look."

"For a second I thought this was actually the place you wanted to go with me."

"Do you like it?"

"Well, I see it all the time on my way to work and back home, but I never stopped by. Kids' parents would probably be freaked out if someone like me were to be hovering around the playground during the day." Aoba chuckled. "But it has a nice feeling to it at night, almost nostalgic... I guess I like it."

"Then it was the place I had in mind." Noiz said, matter-of-factly.

Aoba laughed freely. "You really didn't have a plan, did you? Geez, you're too laid-back."

"No, it was what I imagined. Or would you rather go somewhere flashier?"

"No no, I prefer the peace and quiet."

A brief pause, before Aoba snorted and added, "I mean, you're flashy enough on your own, even without the suit jacket. It would be embarrassing to be anywhere crowded with you right now."

"There you go, getting embarrassed over small things."

"It's not small, really." Aoba started swaying smoothly, not pushing himself but rather rocking back and forth on his heels.

Noiz said nothing but watched for a moment; the puffs of air leaving Aoba's mouth, the gentle movement of his hair. He let his gaze wander to the red-colored slides, the sandbox, the intricate structure of the climbers, and lastly, looked up at the sky.

It was the same sky as an hour before; no moon, only a few twinkling stars. But it felt nothing like the last time. It wasn't that it felt inspiring; the sky didn't look any more beautiful than it did before. But that moment, hearing the clanking of the chains in the swing, knowing that it was Aoba there, not anyone else... felt right.

It felt like belonging somewhere, the most perfect safety one could feel beside another. When they talked, they never ran out of topics, even if it was something stupid as the best type of coffee, and it didn't matter if they agreed or not in everything. And when they were quiet, the mere company of the other was soothing enough on its own. Noiz smiled to himself, looking at the beaten dirt under his shoes. Be it when they woke up next to each other, or when they shared meals and bickered, or right now... Whenever he was with Aoba, it was fun.

He was shaken back into attention when he heard Aoba taking in a careful breath.

"I visited Mink and Clear."

Of course, there were the parts that weren't so fun. He hadn't forgotten that.

When it became clear that Aoba wouldn't proceed, he opened his mouth. "How are they?"

Unexpectedly, Aoba chuckled and pushed himself the tiniest bit further, the chains creaking louder.

"They're okay, those freaking monsters. I've been told Mink was babbling about having to work the next morning and Clear yelled at him on the hospital's hallways. Clear's mental strength and Mink's physical strength could make for a hell of a fight."

Noiz snorted. "I'm glad they're so energetic."

"Yeah... Mink was discharged later the next day, and he's been resting at home. Well, 'resting'; he's still trying to work and I think Clear is one step away from smacking him. I saw them yesterday and Mink looked pretty good, though it seems like his arm will be staying in a sling for a good while."

"So neither of them has been working?"

Aoba shook his head. "The flower shop is being manned by me and other part-timers. Exposure hasn't been reopened since then too, so..."

A pregnant pause, before Aoba started speaking again.

"Mink's theory is that their main goal was to create trouble for the club. Seeing as that main shooter guy was very hesitant, Mink thinks he was probably afraid of actually shooting someone and, y' know, getting himself jailed for life." Aoba huffed out a rueful laugh. "Those ruffians were small fries no matter how you looked at them."

"The fact that they didn't even have guns made that obvious, yeah."

Aoba looked down. "If it was only them, things would've gone a lot smoother... But then that trigger-happy guy showed up—God, I'd never imagine he was like that, he worked there before I did—and well, things got messy."

"I'd never guess that woman had enemies that would go so far. She looked pretty mellow." Noiz had one eyebrow arched.

Aoba laughed. "Oh, she does look like that, but you heard Clear, didn't you? She can be very single-minded and forceful, and that coupled with her sharpness and good business sense... can get on some people's nerves. Some small things had been happening around the club indeed, like your car's break-in and that guy jumping Clear. We didn't look into it, but maybe everything's connected to them."

Noiz huffed out a laugh. "They really sucked at it, if everything was their doing."

He shrugged. "Still, they accomplished their mission. Many patrons complained about security so things aren't looking good for Exposure. I didn't see it, but Clear said it was on the news too. That's really bad rep for us, but, well, "Aoba smiled grimly. "I guess we had it coming for not having a contingency plan. I don't think something like that has ever happened. I'm sure it hasn't ever since I started working there."

"Well, it'll open up again in no time. It's just a temporary situation." Was that a sorry attempt at consolation? Not even Noiz could tell, and he tried not to laugh at himself.

Aoba sighed. "Either way, I'll... probably turn in my resignation letter when the club opens again."

They said nothing for a moment. Noiz blinked, peering at him. "... Didn't you say it pays well?  Why resign?"

Aoba's eyes were downcast, his gloved hands clutching the chains. "I don't think it's worth the risk."

Noiz snorted. "Oi, didn't you just say it had never happened before? It was just a slip-up; it's a given that they will have new policies placed so it doesn't happen again."

"I know, but..." His shoulders sagged, and he looked small all of a sudden. Aoba thought of Sei, bedridden, completely dependent on him. His life wasn't just his own.

He thought of the now hazy memory of that silhouette, standing before him in what seemed like a chance look into a parallel universe. The back of that head, covered in strawberry-blond hair he was sure it would feel prickly to the touch, like that one night, the only time he had let himself run his fingers through that hair. It had been all too possible. If he had been there one day later...

"... I'm afraid." Not much louder than a whisper, Aoba completed his thought.

As soon as the words left his lips, he hated himself for it. He hated how weak it made him look and feel. He was the older one, but he had been doing nothing but showing his most disgraceful sides to Noiz. Aoba glanced at the one beside him, searching for pity in his eyes.

Noiz stared at him, intense, considering. Aoba's own eyes widened and he held back a smile; he really ought to start giving Noiz some credit.

"I was afraid too."

"... Eh?"

Noiz's brow was furrowed in concentration, his fists clenched.

"That night, when you came back battered and on the brink of hypothermia... It was the most afraid I've ever felt."

Aoba's mouth was gaping as he looked at Noiz, speechless.

"So I wouldn't try to dissuade you if you really want to quit. I can tell how dangerous it can get. But if you're gonna stop and think too much about the possibilities, there won't be any line of work that isn't dangerous."

Aoba's lips flapped pathetically as he tried to find the right words. "I-it's not that I'm afraid for myself, it's just..." he looked down, and he would be damned if his cheeks weren't heating up with embarrassment. "I don't want to endanger the people I care about."

"Is that so? Either way, I stand by my point."

Aoba sighed.

In that moment, they heard the repeated whistling of the air around them, one after the other. Numerous glittering streaks rocketed into the sky, until they exploded into a brilliantly colored rain above the town. The subdued blasts of the fireworks around the dark dome brought the glow back to the sky, which had been left naked by the absent moon and stars.

"Hey," Noiz said gruffly, after the brief pause. His voice was almost drowned by some of the fireworks banging.

"Mm?"

"Isn't this the part where people hug and wish each other a happy new year?"

Aoba laughed. "I guess it is. Didn't think you liked this tradition."

"Not really. Japan's New Year is better, people mind their own business. It was annoying when Mizuki tried to drag me to the shrine though."

"Oh, yeah... I really miss that."

With the slightest jangle of the chains, Aoba got up from his seat and walked a couple of steps ahead, facing away from Noiz as he looked up at the colors and shapes dancing in the sky.

Noiz stared at his back. His shoulders were relaxed, his hands inside his coat's pockets. Before he could say or do anything, however, he felt the pressure on the back of his neck, his face heating up, and he sneezed loudly.

Aoba turned back to look, startled. Noiz growled irritably, sniffing and wiping his nose on the rough sleeve of his coat, going red from friction. Aoba laughed and walked back towards him.

"Now you look even more like a brat... Ah."

Noiz blinked at him as Aoba seemed to have noticed something. He crouched in front of him, huffing out a laugh.

"Geez, you never bought your gloves, did you?" He pulled his gloves off and cradled Noiz's hands in his own, hissing slightly as he felt the temperature. "Woah, you're freezing! You're gonna get sick like that, you idiot!"

"I'm not cold."

"You can be so high-maintenance..."

"...!! Oi, what are you-"

Aoba shoved his gloves on Noiz's hands unceremoniously, eyes still trained on his hands. "What is it, what is it? Brats who can't take care of themselves have no say~"

Noiz's lips were slightly puckered; he was not pouting. "If you do that, you'll be the one getting sick."

Aoba looked up, his brows knitted with stubbornness. "Well, maybe if I do get sick, you will feel guilty and finally take care of-"

His words were lost in a sharp inhale as Noiz's face closed in on his own. The fireworks were just dying out above them. Noiz stopped short of touching Aoba's nose with his, shamelessly looking at him straight in the eye. Aoba maintained eye contact out of surprise more than anything, but as Noiz proceeded forward, he shut his eyes tightly.

Noiz's breath hit his lips and he held back the squeak in the back of his throat.

"... Can I kiss you?"

Aoba's eyes flew wide open, and he found himself being stared down intensely. Slowly, the heat climbed his chest, shoulders, neck, until his entire face was boiling red hot.

"Wh- What the hell, if you're just gonna ask, don't-!"

In an impulse, he jerked his body backwards. His foot slipped in the same second he realized— and made peace with the fact—that he was going to fall square on the dirt. He screwed his eyes shut, bracing for impact. However, he felt fists closing around his wrists tightly and breaking his fall, leaving him hanging a few centimeters above the ground, arms stiffly bent against his chest.

He blinked his eyes open and Noiz was there, looking at him. After the fireworks show, it was silent again, and they stayed like that for maybe five seconds or an hour, but Noiz heaved a breath that had been stuck in his chest, and sharply pulled Aoba forward.

Led by the momentum, Aoba gasped in surprise and could only snake his arms around Noiz's neck as Noiz let out an "oof" from the impact of their bodies, the chains on the swing jingling loudly with the sudden movement. Noiz's arms embraced his waist as well, and his face was buried in Aoba's hair.

"So I don't have to ask?" Aoba almost didn't catch his muffled voice. He felt his face flushing hot again.

"W-well, it's... fine, if you don't just spring it on me."

"Mm, okay. You don't need to ask me too, by the way."

"I'm not gonna ask, brat."

"That's the spirit."

Aoba huffed and looked at the buildings across the street over Noiz's shoulder, waiting for him to say something else, or at least let him go. The seconds stretched into minutes.

"Noiz?"

"Wait."

He finally raised his head, and Aoba thought his mind was playing tricks on him when he saw the softest blush on Noiz's cheeks. Noiz averted his eyes, brows furrowed.

"I don't really care for that kind of thing, but, well. Happy New Year."

Aoba blinked, before he burst into laughter.

"You were the one who brought it up, though!" He accused between giggles, covering his mouth with a hand.

He shrugged. "Because it's you."

"Is that so, is that so?" Aoba said smugly, disentangling himself from Noiz and standing up, but the bright blush on his face betrayed his embarrassment. "And, um... Happy New Year to you, too."

"I hope we will keep on having a good relationship this year too."

"Are you my boss?" Aoba said flatly.

"That's just what people say, usually." Noiz's face was ever straight.

Aoba snorted. Noiz said it was "because it was him", but in his next breath he said something so weirdly formal... Aoba felt a twinge of satisfaction as he realized how easily he could figure out Noiz, even though he had been so clueless when they first met.

He was so cute.

"You're so cute," he said aloud, though injected with enough of a teasing tone to help him save face.

Noiz furrowed his brow and huffed, but remained quiet.

Aoba sat back on the swing beside Noiz, and not-so-sneakily peered at Noiz's profile. He was reminded of their first encounter, two months ago. Not unlike that first night, he was caught up in the chiseled lines of Noiz's jaw, cheekbones and nose. Back then, he had been intrigued by the cold light of his acid green eyes, the low drag of his voice, his quiet attentiveness.

There was no shadow of doubt in Aoba's mind that he had been crushing on Noiz since that very moment. He still found himself occasionally entranced with Noiz's obvious attractiveness, but it had been two months for both of them. Two months in which Noiz saw him cry, and he saw Noiz's worried face, embarrassed face, and they had even slept in the same bed. They had held each other, and they had kissed. He knew Noiz was a socially inept 19-year old who hated black coffee. He knew he had a piercing in his navel, and once, when Noiz was asleep beside him, he noticed the small piercing holes in his ears.

He knew he was an expressionless, seemingly emotionally distant guy, but he had shared food with him when they were complete strangers, comforted him when they met at the hospital, treated his wounds in one of the scariest nights of his life. He knew Noiz was bigger when it came to actions than when it came to words, but he still tried to make his feelings known, even if clumsily.

Aoba sighed, a wistful smile tugging at his lips. It had been impossible not to fall for him from the beginning. He had been so overwhelmed by his own problems, he hadn't believed Noiz's careless confession. He didn't even try. But it was just like him; jumping into things headfirst, careless, earnest brat he was.

It was about time for him, to let himself be a bit careless too.

"I think I really like you."

If it wasn't for the deep breath Noiz drew into his lungs, Aoba would've thought he hadn't heard him. Noiz didn't look at him.

"Now that... things with Mizuki have settled down, and I'm coming to terms with the Exposure incident, I finally can stop to think carefully about this. I'm sorry for being so evasive."

"It's fine."

Aoba waited. He could feel it in the thickness of the air, in the wringing of Noiz's hands.  Noiz wasn't finished.

"So you're not... thinking about that whole guilt thing anymore, are you?"

Aoba fidgeted, slightly embarrassed about how he had exploded that morning.

"Yeah, I get what you were saying now. Sei is my priority but... denying my own feelings to myself is doing me no good."

"Remind me again, what feelings are we talking about? Put more confidence in it this time."

Aoba huffed, his puffed cheeks blushing pink as he lifted his head. "Why, you little..."

"Should I take this as a permission to proceed then?"

Aoba's eyes grew wide when he was faced with Noiz's self-assured grin.

"I'll definitely chase away any doubts that are still in your mind. I'm not too patient, so you better pay close attention to me."

Aoba's eyebrow twitched and he snorted, shaking his head. Bigger when it came to actions. That was really like him.

"Aren't you being too confident?"

"Now that you said you liked me, I won't hold back."

"O-oi,oi, did you ever hold back?"

"I did. You better tell me right away if I do anything you don't like."

"I may or may not have just dug my own grave."

Aoba sighed long-sufferingly, but he felt his breath shorten when he peered at Noiz's mirthful profile.

 


 

That night, they stayed in the playground until 4am. At some point, an impromptu competition of who could fly higher on the swings took place—it started spontaneously, wordlessly. Everything was going well until the chain on Noiz's swing broke midair and he landed on his back on the dirt with an anticlimactic "whump" and a high-pitch scream from Aoba. They were shocked into wide-eyed silence, until Aoba sighed a quiet "oh my god".

Noiz snorted and Aoba ran to him, pulling him up by the coat. He looked around, at the buildings surrounding the playground, brushing off his back. To his horror, he could see the lights flickering on in some windows. Before Noiz knew, they were running away, Aoba's hand tight around his wrist.

"I'm fine, thanks for asking, but your grip is a bit too strong," Noiz teased him.

His fist loosened on Noiz's wrist, but didn't let go. "O-oh, oh, right, that's good. Sorry."

"Don't worry, if they call the cops on us, I'll pay for the swing."

"Oh my god."

Noiz laughed, genuinely, and let their fingers slip intertwined. For that moment, Aoba forgot about their small tragedy. He laughed alongside him.

That night, they talked about nothing and everything. Aoba told him he had read the "Captive Princess" book he had left at his apartment. Had Aoba not stopped himself, Noiz would've just let him spoil the ending for him. Aoba was excitedly ranting about his favorite parts, and Noiz just wanted him to keep talking.

Aoba was curious, so Noiz explained the scars on his hands and arms, and said things he had never voiced aloud—not because he refused to do it, but there had never been a need for it. Likewise, Aoba had his own scars (Noiz counted the ones on the palms of his hands), and he returned the favor. There were funny stories, weird stories, and sad stories behind every burn, cut and blister. The old, white scars had stopped hurting the ones they belonged to long ago, and started hurting the other.

And when it was no longer night, as the sun was rising in the horizon, Noiz slept pressed against Aoba's back, arm thrown over his waist, Noiz's slow breath blowing on his nape. That was another thing he had realized as they spent time together; the kid was big on physical contact. What he couldn't say with words, he said with his fingertips, with small gestures. He sought and provided comfort in that intimacy. But, from night to morning, there were no kisses, no heated touches. Noiz's clumsy eagerness was nowhere to be found. But he was just as warm as always.

Aoba never felt such heartache before.

From the moment he allowed himself to really let these feelings take root in his chest and sprout inside his heart, curling its vines up and down his veins and arteries, there wasn't much he could do to control it anymore. He could only try not to let it show too much on his face, if anything for the sake of his pride.

Aoba woke up the next morning without remembering having ever fallen asleep. The first thing he was conscious of was that, for the first time in five years, he specifically missed his bedroom's window. It had been a long time since he had woken up with the sunlight filtering through the curtains. Sometimes, it felt lonely to wake up in absolute darkness.

He wasn't able to feel lonely for too long, though, as he felt arms and legs tightening up around him, like he was sharing his bed with a big, cuddly octopus. The drowsy grumbling in his ear reminded him that it was a certain blond brat instead.

Aoba coughed softly to clear his throat. "Noiz. Lay off a bit, will you?"

More non-intelligible grumbling.

"I need to pee."

Noiz hummed and nuzzled stubbornly on the back of Aoba's neck, never letting up. Aoba laughed, despite himself.

"I'm seriously going to pee right here."

"That's fine. It's your bed; you should do whatever you want," was Noiz muffled response.

Aoba groaned in frustration, before he noticed something. Rather, felt.

"Noiz." His voice was even-keeled.

"Mm?"

"Your morning wood is poking me."

A silent pause followed, and Aoba fleetingly wondered if he had managed to fluster that guy for once. Then, Noiz wiggled his hips tentatively.

A squeak escaped from the back of his throat as the hardness rubbed under the small of his back. Aoba blushed furiously.

"Oi!"

Aoba felt the soft rumble of laughter on his back.

"I got it, I got it."

Noiz loosened his hold reluctantly and Aoba slipped away, his face burning.

After leaving his room, Aoba realized it was raining heavily outside. He checked the time on his phone and sighed, mourning such a good morning to sleep in. He considered going back to bed after using the bathroom, but he was completely awake, especially after stepping on the cold floor with his bare feet. Slippers, slippers. He should write these things down.

He was mixing ingredients in a bowl when Noiz padded out of the bedroom, stifling a long yawn and stretching his arms above his head. Aoba watched with mild amusement as his shirt hiked up just that slightest bit to show a sliver of skin—that sharp cut of his hip bones where his sweatpants hung low.

Noiz came close and settled his forearms on the counter, leaning forward with a snarky grin. "My eyes are over here, Seragaki."

Aoba glanced at him, placing the bowl on the counter for a moment and smirking back. He licked his thumb and Noiz's eyes widened a tad bit when Aoba pinched the corner of his lips, rubbing on the skin, seemingly for no reason, until:

"Go wash your face, drooling brat."

The slightest wrinkle appeared between Noiz's eyebrows and he pouted, rubbing the heel of his hand on his cheek and traipsing towards the bathroom, wordless while Aoba snickered victoriously.

When the door clicked shut, Aoba put his hands back to work, adding chopped chives and bacon bits into the omelet mix and stirring it. When he was pouring a portion of the mix on a frying pan, he heard the muffled sound of water running in the bathroom. He's taking a bath already? He didn't mind it much though, and carried on with the breakfast preparations, humming absentmindedly. He realized he hadn't stopped to listen to music for a few days now.

Aoba thought back to that morning three days ago, and he felt like pinching himself. It was the day after Mizuki had suddenly showed up again, finally confessing the motives for his disappearance. Exposure had been attacked, and he had lost money that would definitely be missed later. Noiz was there, but then the moment he thought he was safe in his slumber, he was stuck in that horrible nightmare. He was disoriented, hurting, and then the slightest things set him off; the food in his kitchen, the awkward breakfast with Noiz, his conversation with Agnes on the phone. The drugstore bag.

He chuckled and flipped the omelet with a spatula, cautiously. Noiz had looked pretty flustered then, when he just climbed on top of him. Though he felt bad for freaking out as badly as he did that morning, he knew he hadn't said anything wrong. He voiced doubts that had been buried deep inside his brain, and Noiz answered accordingly. And now... things were just moving forward.

"I think I really like you."

"I'll definitely chase away any doubts that are still in your mind. I'm not too patient, so you better pay close attention to me."

"Oh, man."

Aoba covered his face with his hands for a moment, blushing furiously at the memory. He really went and said it...!

He heard the pitter-patter of paws on the floor, and turned back to see Ren emerging from the bedroom, probably attracted by the smell of food.

"Ohh, hey, Ren! You slept in today." He laughed. "Hungry?"

The dog looked up at him momentarily, before approaching slowly and coming to stand at Aoba's heels, staring up at him with one purposeful eye.

Aoba laughed again, and averted his eyes from his dog to focus on the frying pan, as he slid the cooked omelet onto a plate and put it on the counter. He bent down to scratch behind Ren's ear.

"You sure are honest. But I can't feed you this; I'll fill up your bowl when I finish this up, okay?"

Ren got up on his one hind leg and placed his front paws on Aoba's pants, apparently determined on convincing his owner that he could have a little bit of omelet too. Aoba smiled at him and pet his head.

"C'mon, I have to go back to cooking. Go wait, hm?"

Ren reverted to his sitting position—most likely because he had tired himself out rather than having given up, seeing as he didn't leave Aoba's side. Aoba washed his hands and started pouring more of the mix on the pan, lifting the edges with the spatula.

If he was honest, it worried him quite a lot that Ren was so silent. While it was the most convenient for their living arrangements, it did look sort of unhealthy. But even so, Ren was really expressive and lively; Aoba was relieved that he looked happier than when he rescued him. Back then, he was easily scared and whimpered frequently. At first, it was a concern for him, whether Ren would be okay without him at home, but he was relieved that it turned out to be no problem for the dog.

He was just finished with the first serving and starting the second one when he heard the shower being turned off and the bathroom door opened.

"Aoba." Noiz's voice called, but Aoba didn't turn back as he was carefully pouring the mix on the pan.

"Yeah?"

"Get me a towel?"

"... You seriously didn't have a towel in there." Aoba almost laughed. He thought there had to be a towel there when he heard the shower running.

"It slipped my mind," Noiz answered naturally.

"Don't let this kind of thing slip your mind... Are you a little kid?" Aoba sighed.

"You're not gonna get it?"

"I can't, I'm busy right now. Just reflect on your mistakes and don't forget it next time," Aoba said in a mock-stern tone, carefully lifting the edges of the omelet.

"Okay," Noiz answered, and Aoba immediately furrowed his brow. That was too easy.

The next second, he heard the creaking of the door being opened wider and wet footsteps on the floor. He whirled around to see the freaking brat, bare-ass naked, ambling towards the bedroom and making a mess on the floor.

"HEY?!" Aoba shrieked eloquently.

Noiz turned around casually, and Aoba choked up a screech, darting a hand in front of him to hide the man's crotch.

"What are you doing?" Noiz laughed with an irritatingly attractive, shit-eating grin on his stupid face. Fuck him. Wait, no-

"What are you doing?!"

"We could keep this up the entire day." Noiz sighed. "We're both guys, aren't we? There's no problem, really."

Aoba felt almost faint. He smacked his hand over his eyes lightly.

"Geez, I really... can't keep up with you. Just go get your goddamn towel, you demon."

He turned back to the stove and heard Noiz snort, moving on to the bedroom. Aoba gasped when he realized one side of the omelet had overcooked and hurriedly flipped it.

"Damn you... You're gonna eat the burnt one, Noiz!"

Noiz hummed calmly behind him and Aoba huffed, not turning back.

While Noiz was cleaning the mess he'd made, having walked dripping wet everywhere, Aoba finished cooking the omelets and rolled them up, dividing the servings between him and Noiz—not forgetting to give him the burnt one. He placed Ren's filled bowl on the floor, next to the counter, so they all could eat together.

"You really try your hand at some fancy-looking dishes," Noiz remarked, sitting on the stool across from him.

Aoba laughed. "It's not fancy at all. I picked this up from Granny; I haven't cooked it since I moved here."

"Woah," Noiz interjected, mouth full after cutting the first piece and tasting it. "That's good. And this is supposed to be the burnt one."

Aoba beamed. "Thank you!"

Noiz couldn't hold back a smile in return. They ate in amiable silence, and Aoba soaked in the satisfaction of that peaceful morning. He glanced at Noiz, and hoped he could kick up into a great start for this year, beside that incomprehensible, cute brat.

 


 

"Are you sure you want to come?"

"Yeah."

Aoba and Noiz left the apartment, walking out into the cold, quickly darkening afternoon. It had been a couple of hours since the downpour had turned into a light drizzle and, finally, disappeared, but Aoba still carried an umbrella with him. Though Noiz joked about sharing it, they knew it'd just wind up with one of them getting ultimately wet, so they stopped by a convenience store on their way to the bus stop.

They were leaving together due to a conversation that had taken place after they had lunch.

"Today is my last day off," Noiz drawled out from behind his "Captive Princess" copy, sitting on a corner of the bed with Aoba's legs draped over his.

"Ohh. You're gonna live. A week is a lot of time." Aoba kept looking up at the ceiling, sprawled on the mattress with Ren dozing on his chest.

"That's not it." Noiz closed the book, marking the page he stopped, and put it aside. "Are you free today?"

"Not really," Aoba sighed, petting Ren's head. "The pet store opens up today, and I'll work the night shift at the drugstore too."

Noiz hummed, and then his mind lit up with an idea. "Can I go with you?"

Aoba turned his eyes to him with some difficulty, due to his position. "To Heibon?"

Noiz nodded.

 "What? Why?"

Noiz shrugged. "It's boring if I'm alone. And you said there were rabbits."

Aoba laughed at his teasing remembrance of their first meeting.

Thus, they were climbing out of the bus and heading towards Heibon. The cold wind hit their faces like tiny blades. Aoba trembled slightly, holding his arms, and Noiz was his ever cold-resistant self. Under Aoba's insistent pleading, he was wearing a pair of spare gloves Aoba had.

"You can come closer if you want to," Noiz suggested casually, and Aoba turned his red-nosed frown towards him.

"I'm fine, thanks. We're almost there."

"Tsundere..."

Aoba attempted to elbow him, and Noiz took the advantage to lace one arm around him, pulling him closer.

"Oi-"

"Ease up a bit."

He bit his tongue and kept quiet as Noiz's hold tightened up. The streets weren't too crowded anyway and, if he was honest, it did feel warmer like this. Though the warmth seemed to be concentrating on his face for the time being.

Noiz let him go when they were in front of the shop, and Aoba pushed the door open.

"Ah, Aoba! Hello!" greeted a girl behind the front desk. She had long, braided hair, brown skin and freckles dotting her nose. Her smile faltered slightly as she took in Noiz's presence.

"Hey, Liese." Aoba smiled at her, and checked the time on his phone. "I thought I was early for a second but... where's Günther?"

Liese rolled her eyes. "Late, as always. But it's only just turned 5pm; if he's not here in fifteen minutes, I'm letting Mr. Haga know."

"Fear not, milady!" The door dramatically sprung open behind Aoba and Noiz, letting in a blond, tall man with an undercut. "For I am here to free you of your shift."

"If you ever call me milady even as a joke again, I will kill you," Liese answered flatly, her face twisted with mild disgust.

The man, apparently Günther, snorted and walked towards the counter. Liese bent down to retrieve her backpack and gave space to Günther, walking around the desk and meaning to head for the doorway, but she stopped before Aoba for a moment, smiling lightly.

"Oh right, my ballet recital went well yesterday."

"Really? That's great, I really miss seeing you guys rehearse for the recitals. Sorry I can never make it." Aoba smiled apologetically.

"It's okay. They will finish editing the recording today, so I'll arrange things with this doofus so he can be properly late tomorrow and I'll show you." She jutted her thumb at Günther behind her as she spoke.

"Liese, I told you I have a girlfriend."

"Anyway, see you tomorrow." Liese promptly ignored Günther and waved cheerfully at Aoba, leaving the store. Noiz watched the entire exchange with concealed interest.

"So," Günther started after a beat of silence, "since when you're dating this guy, Aoba?"

Noiz blinked simply, but Aoba flinched.

"W-what are you talking about, Günther? I'm not-"

"This guy kinda looks like me, don't you think? You said I was your type."

This time, Noiz turned his head to stare Aoba down. The man was red to the roots of his blue hair, averting Noiz's eyes pointedly.

"That was three years ago! And it was just truth or dare, how can you take it so seriously?!"

"Well, it is called truth or dare. Geez, and I even asked you out on a date and you flat out rejected me-"

"And you ask me why I never went to your birthday parties again!"

Aoba was starting to sweat under Noiz's placid but heavy gaze. Please, God, save me.

"Aoba!" called a voice from a door beside the counter, and an older man with a kind smile and thick-rimmed glasses stood in the doorway.

"A-ah, hello, Mr. Haga. I just got here." Aoba stammered, thanking the heavens for cutting off that weird situation.

"Great, great. Juju has been waiting to have a look at the city before she's up for grooming... Oh, who's this gentleman? A client?" Haga looked from Aoba to Noiz, confusion tugging at the lines on his eyes.

"Oh, um, this is-"

"I'm Aoba's boyfriend, Wilhelm Adlersflügel. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Noiz bowed and, in an all too professional gesture, took two business cards from his jacket's pocket and offered to Haga and Günther, to Aoba's absolute mortification.

Haga's face lit up. "Ohh, I see! You're quite the capable young man, I'm glad Aoba found such a good partner!"

Noiz smiled pleasantly, making a quick glance at Günther's dumbfounded expression as he stared at the business card. Aoba wanted to die, right here. Just a lightning bolt to strike him down, end his misery.

"For now, take Juju for a walk around and bring her back in half an hour, right? She's starting to get stressed out." Haga smiled one last time and went back into the examination room, closing the door.

Aoba gave Noiz a fiery glare and Noiz smirked at him.

Chapter Text

"You can let go of my hand now, you know?" Aoba muttered testily.

Noiz snorted, but released his hand.

They were walking along the margin of a frozen pond, in a park full of couples and families with children playing. The long-haired gray cat Aoba had on a leash sniffed the ground curiously, an ever-present frown on its face.

It was mildly surprising to see so many people outside in such cold weather but the couples were seemingly using the cold as an excuse to huddle together. There were food carts around the park, the vendors merrily selling cups of hot chocolate and currywurst, döner kebab and pretzels to the lovebirds, thriving off the weather and the cuddling pairs.

"Günther's eyes almost bulged out when you grabbed my hand. I'm going to be teased mercilessly tomorrow, I'm sure."

Aoba sat on a nearby bench when the cat decided that it didn't want to walk anymore. As though it was only natural, the cat jumped on his lap and curled itself there, whiskers twitching before it opened its mouth wide in a yawn. Noiz sat beside him, taking his phone out and sweeping his finger across the screen.

"You care too much about these things." He didn't look at Aoba, distracted.

"It's easy for you to say." Aoba pet the cat's head absentmindedly, and it purred in bliss.

"Ah," Noiz interjected flatly.

"Mm? What is it?"

Noiz blinked slowly, unreadable eyes downcast before turning the phone screen towards Aoba. It was a message thread with Mizuki's name on top of the window.

>> [attached image]

>> This is the single most frightening thing I've ever seen in my life.

It was a blurry picture of Virus and Trip side by side, apparently talking to each other and smiling.

Aoba chuckled. "It was kind of like that when I saw them together for the first time too. I guess it's sort of creepy how they're so alike, even though you can tell they're definitely not related."

"Isn't it a matching couple thing?"

Aoba laughed in earnest then, and Noiz's chest tightened up in that way he would never admit aloud.

"I really don't think so, but they've been like this for as long as I've known them. It's not like I'd ask anything about their past, though; they wouldn't answer sincerely anyway."

They kept on talking about the hospital; Aoba seemed much more relieved now that Mizuki was there to help out. It seemed that his resentment couldn't triumph that easily over years of friendship, in the end. Aoba was forgiving like that.

He laughed when Noiz told him that Mizuki opted for showering and eating lunch at Theo's place for today instead of getting a spare key for Noiz's place, in fear that his father would appear for another impromptu visit while he was alone there. He also looked worried when Noiz nonchalantly explained that his father had pretty much broken into his house three days ago. Aoba was caring like that.

At some point, their conversation died down, and they simply stayed quiet. It would probably be more peaceful, if the flirting between the couples around them couldn't be heard. They loudly whispered sweet nothings to each other, prompting giggles and half-hearted protests from their partners. Looking at it from an objective point of view, Noiz and Aoba stuck out like a sore thumb, being the only two guys alone there. Even the children with parents roaming around the park had already gone home, leaving only the young couples loitering about.

"And that constellation is Cassiopeia." They heard a male voice saying. Aoba glanced in the direction of the voice to see a man and a woman in a bench a couple of meters away from them, the man pointing at the sky. "It has that name because of the Queen Cassiopeia. It's said to be one of the most beautiful constellations."

"Then she must've been a beautiful queen, huh." The woman sighed dreamily.

"Not as beautiful as you." The man replied with a goofy smile.

The woman blushed lightly and punched him on the shoulder. "Shut up, you."

Aoba turned back with a disgusted grimace, and found Noiz wearing the same expression. They looked at each other and Aoba could barely stifle his laughter. The cat on his lap grumbled grumpily.

"Gross." Noiz muttered simply.

Aoba coughed, his laughing fit easing away. "God, we need to get out of here. It's almost time to go back anyway. C'mon, Ada."

He picked up the cat, Ada, on his arms and she climbed easily on his chest, looking around with an air of superiority. He and Noiz got up and walked away from the park, the sounds of conversation dwindling away until they were completely out of earshot.

"I have no idea how couples can be that lovey-dovey with each other. I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face."

Noiz hummed noncommittally.

As they got closer to the pet store, Aoba let Ada leave his arms. She hopped to the ground eagerly and roamed up the sidewalk, almost as if guiding them.

"Would you mind it? Dating."

Aoba stopped dead in his tracks. Noiz walked a few steps ahead of him, before he realized he wasn't being followed. He stopped and turned back to look at Aoba.

The yellow streetlights garnered in his sharp, green eyes, gleaming dimly. Aoba realized that wasn't just Noiz asking for his personal opinion on romantic relationships.

Suddenly, his mouth was dry.

Noiz stood there, patiently waiting for his reply. Aoba surveyed his choices in his mind. He could joke his way out of it, mention Noiz's lie to Haga-san and make light of it. Something like "I thought we were dating already?" and he'd laugh to cover up his embarrassment, cover up the loud thudding of his heart. He could play stupid, pretend he didn't understand just what was the implication behind Noiz's question. Noiz might give up and they'd go on just like that. No unexpected changes, no bumps and lurches.

His avoidance instincts really were something, sometimes.

It was a silly line of thought; Noiz wouldn't let him escape anyway. And how could he try to escape, when he was faced with that open, serious gaze? He'd already decided that denying his own feelings to himself wasn't good. So he should stop denying Noiz's too.

"Are you asking me out?" He still queried, not because he was trying to fluster Noiz, but he really ought to make sure that they were on the same wavelength here.

"Yeah."

God... this is so embarrassing.

Aoba wanted to cover his burning red face, but that would be even more embarrassing. His eyes darted everywhere except for Noiz's face, which was as composed as ever. He searched for words that would make him seem at least a bit cool about it, but how could he cover up for how obviously flustered he was?

Ada meowed loudly, pulling on the leash, and Aoba flinched, letting out a surprised yelp.

Noiz started again, slowly. "I suppose you wouldn't want it, since you were so shocked when I said that we-"

"Stop."

Noiz blinked at him, lips clamped shut, and Aoba finally sighed, trying to control the nervous trembling of his lips.

"I wouldn't mind it." It left his mouth steadily, and he almost threw a victory punch in the air. In a corner of his mind, he reflected on how unromantic it was. But that was just like the two of them. Stumbling through their way, clumsy but never insincere.

Noiz's eyes brightened up just a slightest bit, and he nodded wordlessly. Aoba was always swayed by the smallest changes in his physiognomy, and the perk in Noiz's heels didn't go unnoticed as he turned and resumed his walk. Ada was still pulling on the leash and Aoba stepped forward obligingly, quickening his pace to catch up to Noiz with a tiny smile on his lips.

When he stopped beside Noiz, Aoba felt a hand close around his. He said nothing, but tightened up his hold reassuringly. The warmth on his fingers coursed up his arm and his chest burned like it was on fire, suffocating in the best of ways.

"This one is the last, and after this you'll go to your next job, right?"

Aoba nodded. "I'll stay to help around the store until it closes, then I'm leaving for the drugstore."

They stopped in front of Heibon. "Mm. I have some things to organize before work tomorrow, so I'll leave now."

"Oh, okay. Text me later?"

"Yeah."

Aoba was just turning away from Noiz when the grasp on his hand tightened up. He looked back at Noiz and his eyes were contemplative, staring into his Aoba's and then, dipping towards his lips. He looked up again, as if looking for rejection, for permission. Noiz closed the space between them slowly, giving Aoba time to turn away. He didn't.

Their lips met in a chaste touch, and their eyes fluttered shut automatically. Noiz was about to pull away, when Aoba's hand clutched his coat's lapel, holding him in place. He sucked Noiz's bottom lip lightly, eliciting a shiver from the other. He felt Aoba smiling against the kiss.

Aoba marveled in the softness of Noiz's lips. It was easier than he thought, to let himself be swept away by those feelings. Avoidance be damned, this was their first kiss under the right circumstances and he had been waiting long enough. Noiz asked him out before he could gather the courage to do so himself, but he could still one-up the other man.

Noiz peeked out from under one eye and peered at the glass walls of the shop front. The man at the reception desk, Günther, was looking at the display wide-eyed. Noiz let one hand lodge itself on the small of Aoba's back for show. For someone who had been worrying about being teased not twenty minutes ago, Aoba sure could be shameless.

They parted with a light smack, breathing shallowly. Aoba laughed at Ada, who was still pulling on the leash and grumbling impatiently.

"Sorry, sorry, you must be getting cold." He looked at Noiz and smiled. "Good night, Noiz."

He waved and Noiz waved back, turning to walk away from Heibon. He had to pick up his car, and then deal with the pile of paperwork waiting for him at home. Greedy of him, but the thought of going home alone and working after what had just happened was absolutely excruciating.

 


 

Noiz knew nothing good would be waiting for him after returning from a week-long break. Be it his co-workers nursing hangovers over steaming hot cups of coffee, or the occasional fake "Mr. Wilhelm, I've missed you!", or the document on his desk first thing in the morning, notifying him of a three-day business trip he'd have to go on tomorrow. "Tomorrow", but in practical terms, it would be late tonight, since the flight would leave at 3am.

Needless to say, Aoba's good morning text was the only thing keeping him from throwing death glares around the office. Noiz let off some steam by complaining to him about everything, from the annoying click of a secretary's high heels on the tiled floor to the sudden trip he would have to make.

>> So, you'll be away for the whole weekend?

>> Yeah. I knew the old man would get up to some shit as soon as I got back to work.

Despite both of them being back to work full-time, they tried to reply to each other as fast as they could. For Noiz, it felt a lot worse than before. After spending most of the past few days together, he found himself missing Aoba all the more. The prospect of travelling at this point in time wasn't making him any happier either. He had exposed himself completely to the dangers of being too attached, and he didn't even care anymore.

>> And where are you going?

>> England. Not too far away, I guess.

>> I see D:

Before Noiz could answer, another message came in.

>> Well, bring souvenirs! ( ^ . ^)v

Noiz snorted. He almost typed out "what would you like to get?" but he stopped himself. Instead, his mind was quickly occupied with thoughts of what would be the most surprising gift.

Noiz wanted to get some work out of his way during his lunchtime, but he still had to talk to Mizuki about the trip, so he headed home. They were eating on the dinner table at his place when Noiz explained his current situation and pushed the spare key towards him wordlessly. Mizuki could do nothing but begrudgingly accept it.

"If your old man gives me a heart attack, you'll pay the hospital bills, you hear me?"

"I didn't take you to be such a scaredy cat."

"You're also going to pay if he calls the police on me thinking I'm trespassing!"

"Money is not a problem..."

"You're really annoying, you know? I didn't raise you to be like that-"

"But I can leave a signed document declaring that you're my guest, and I left you to look after the house."

"... That would give me some peace of mind, actually."

Thus, there was a document. Noiz typed it out quickly in his office, printed it and signed it while Mizuki owlishly peered over his shoulder. Though it was more or less like a joke to them; more to Noiz, less to Mizuki, obviously.

"So you don't want me to see you off at the airport?"

"No. It's just a three-day trip anyway. And it's at night."

Mizuki blinks. "... So what?"

Noiz scoffed, a smile sliding lopsided on his face. "I know you're glued to Sei the most during the night. You really are a worrywart."

Mizuki blushed, and kept quiet.

Noiz picked up his keys from the coffee table. "Well, I'm heading back now. Lock the door when you leave."

Mizuki shooed him away. "Alright, alright. I don't wanna have to pay up if anyone steals your Picasso's or something. Trust me on this."

"Ah."

"Mm? What is it?"

"What do you want as souvenir?"

 


 

"Ohh, could this be for your girlfriend?"

Noiz sighed heavily at the old lady's words. She was manning the stall where souvenirs were being sold, a good-natured smile on her lips, wrinkled eyes crinkling shut. He could hear a group of girls giggling behind him, whispering to each other.

That damned Mizuki.

"Huh?" had been Noiz's response then, scowling at his friend.

"What, is there a problem with it?" Mizuki asked, lips puckered annoyingly.

"I was sure you'd ask for booze or something. But a teddy bear? Wearing the Royal Guard uniform?" He turned his back to the door fully.

"It's cute!" Mizuki defended, hands raised in a pacifying gesture.

"This is too damn specific, I'll never find it. You're trying to get a rise out of me, you bastard?" Noiz closed in on Mizuki mock-threateningly, grabbing his wrists with a death grip.

Mizuki gasped and tried to fend him off, incapable of swatting him away but valiantly fighting to not be subdued. "I'm not! I just want it, dumbass!"

They continued struggling, pushing and pulling at each other until Mizuki faltered and Noiz took full advantage of it, spinning him around and locking him in a chokehold.

"Now, what do you really want," Noiz drawled coldly.

"N-no, honest, I... want th-that..."

"Then what the hell do you want a teddy bear for, Mizuki?"

"Sei... had a teddy bear... co-collection..."

Noiz blinked.

"Your fiancé is not even here to defend himself, what kind of shitty excuse is that?" He tightened up his hold and Mizuki squeaked.

"I'm serious, N-Noiz! Time out, time-"

Mizuki started coughing, pawing at Noiz's arm around his neck until Noiz ultimately let him go. He doubled over, hands braced on his knees while he tried to pull the air back into his protesting lungs again.

"That... that has to be one of the weirdest ways someone has ever asked anyone to pick a present," Mizuki panted, massaging his neck.

"You're a loser. Pick a souvenir for yourself, idiot."

Mizuki smiled shyly. "No, seriously, this one. But, well, if it's too difficult, get whatever teddy bear you see."

"You must be the living definition of 'whipped'."

"I'm in love, that's what. And if you're an honest man, you'll bring a teddy bear for Aoba-chan too." Mizuki crossed his arms, lips puckered in a ridiculous pout.

Noiz scoffed and turned to the door once again.

"Like hell I will," he threw over his shoulder before leaving.

And back in his hotel room in England, Noiz threw himself on his bed, letting the paper bags with souvenirs escape his grasp and fall to the foot of the bed. He had to search ten different souvenir shops and stalls to find that specific plushy, damn Mizuki to hell. His briefcase was somewhere on the floor too, as it had been the first thing he'd abandoned when he entered the room.

It was his second day in England; he was supervising the opening of a bank in London that was affiliated to their company. The first day had been filled with board meetings, formal introductions, reviewing of company policies and a gala dinner in the evening to boot. It goes without saying that it was absolutely exhausting. For that reason, Noiz was relieved that the second day had been a lot lighter, and he took the time to search for Mizuki's souvenir. He got presents for Theo and, though it was in a whim, for Agnes too.

The one thing still swirling around in his mind was his present for Aoba. He was sort of fussy about money so he'd probably prefer something reasonably priced. Aoba was most likely expecting a keychain or a cup holder.

Basically, something expensive and unexpected was in order.

But Noiz should get some things out of the way, first. He pulled his phone from his jacket's pocket and typed out a message for Mizuki.

>> So, Aoba doesn't have a secret teddy bear collection too, does he?

He sent it and waited, sitting up to shrug off his suit jacket and undo his tie. A few seconds later, his phone vibrated with a reply.

>> Not that I know of, LOL

Okay, so Mizuki's suggestion before really was just bullshit. He just needed to clear that possibility. He went to take a shower, mulling over the options in his head.

He had a good grasp on the things Aoba liked, Noiz believed. He liked music and animals. He liked Ren. He liked comfy clothes because he got cold easily. He liked food, and secretly had a sweet tooth. He didn't wear jewelry, so Noiz should cross that. Aoba wasn't a big drinker too, apparently. And he was pretty sure Aoba wasn't into cutesy things like teddy bears.

Noiz washed off the shampoo from his hair and twisted the faucet. It drip-dropped behind him until it was silent and he dried himself with the towel. Making that decision was proving to be much more difficult than he thought it would be. He wasn't too into souvenirs and presents anyway. Maybe he should just Google it after all.

When Noiz stepped back into the bedroom, towel draped around his hips, the first thing he registered was a muffled thud on the wall. He blinked. Then, a heavier, louder thud and distant voices. He squinted at the green, plain wallpaper, confused, and then a feminine moan erupted from behind that wall, almost as if it was inside his own room. He raised his eyebrows.

Oh.

... Who knew that happened to real people?

He sat on his bed, turning on the screen of his phone nonchalantly as the sex orchestra was escalating in earnest in the background. He clicked away, checking his e-mail, faintly noting the crescendo on the woman's voice, the encompassing creak of the bed springs. For such a fancy hotel, he expected it would have thicker walls. Well, he didn't care at all as long as they weren't still going at it when he needed to sleep.

But if he stopped to really pay attention... her voice was really annoying. It was too high, too exaggerated, like she was trying too hard. The guy panting like a pig under her moaning was probably not doing that good a work if she had to soothe his ego like that. At closer inspection, it was more like an orchestra conducted by a monkey with badly attuned instruments. Well, Noiz hardly liked orchestras, but this wasn't even worth jacking off to.

He dropped his hands on his lap, heaving a sigh.

And yet, what the fuck was he getting hard for?

He splayed himself on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. He had been neglecting himself and now his body was reacting to fake, cheap moans, coarse grunts and thuds on his wall. He wasn't the type to need release frequently, but it had been an awfully long time, so he resigned himself and unfastened the flimsy knot on his towel.

His breath hitched when he closed a hand around his still considerably soft length, feeling the piercings along the shaft. He wondered fleetingly if he should just let it go, since there was no way he could come with such weak stimuli. But the itch wouldn't go away. The heat climbed his spine and he stroked himself slowly, breathing regularly.

The woman yelled out and at this point, Noiz was quite sure everyone on their floor must've heard it. That couple was in the last room at the end of the hall, so if they were lucky, Noiz would be the only one to witness their night activities. No thanks to that woman, though. And what was that guy doing anyway, killing her?

Noiz tightened the hold on his cock as he went from the base to the head and back, stopping to tease the slit with his thumb. He trembled, letting out a huff.

Even though that cheap pleasure had been enough to set him off, no way he could be satisfied with that. Rather than that, he wanted groans stifled in his shoulder, to breathe the sighs out of the other's mouth, to feel the seams of their lips swelling under the pressure of their kisses, tender, lovingly bruised. He wanted to see lashes fluttering, hazel eyes darkening with lust from their molten center, strands of long, blue hair spilling from between his fingers.

Rather than this, the thumps and muffled groans and moans of loud strangers, he wanted to hear more of Aoba's song.

He remembered the slide of his fingers against Aoba's waist that night, and he felt himself growing to full-mast, precome further facilitating the motions of his fingers. He was really too easy to rouse, Noiz thought with a laugh. Think a bit about Aoba's creamy skin, unmarked chest and shoulders and neck, slender figure, gleaming eyes, and he was hot and heavy in his hands. At some point, he realized that the couple in the other room was silent once again and that was good; he was sure those moans and gasps would be more of a turn-off at the moment, even if it had been his trigger.

Noiz knew all the places that felt the best for him, of course; he thumbed at the ridge under his cockhead, tugged on his piercings unceremoniously, massaged his balls. But nothing could topple him over the edge. He wondered if he should finger himself—maybe it was the final push he needed, since it had been such a long time since he had done it last. But he hadn't brought lube with him, so it would be just uncomfortable.

He felt the vibrations of his phone, laid abandoned on the mattress beside him, and tilted his head towards it, breathing only a bit too heavily. It was a call. He swallowed, and picked it up with his left hand.

Aoba.

Of course it was him. It was 10pm now. Aoba had called that same time yesterday, and they talked for an hour and a half before Noiz started nodding off, exhausted after having escaped the gala dinner as early as he could. But had Aoba promised to call every night?

He accepted the call before it could go into the message box, but his other hand didn't leave his cock.

"Noiz?" Aoba's voice was slightly muffled, but somewhat perky.

"Hey." Noiz answered, perfectly neutral.

"Oh, hey. What are you up to?"

He played with the idea of telling the truth, but it was no fun if he couldn't see Aoba's face. He licked his lip, stroking over himself more leisurely.

"Just took a shower, lying on the bed," he said lightly. Just omission, not a lie.

"Ah, are you going to sleep? I'm sorry, I-"

"Don't sweat it, I wasn't sleeping. And you, what are you doing? How was your day?" He quickly shifted the attention to Aoba.

"The same, the same." Aoba made a small noise that escalated into a muffled moan, and Noiz's dick twitched. The rustle of fabric under the static suggested he had been stretching on the bed. "Got back from Heibon, ate dinner, took a shower, now I'm in bed. Today was so cold, I'm glad to be home again..." He trailed off, apparently burrowing in the covers, sounding cozy.

"Missing me?" Noiz asked with a twinge of sarcasm, but he was curious for Aoba's reaction.

Aoba sputtered. "W-well, even I- why would I call if I didn't miss you... brat?"

Noiz chuckled at the grumble that left Aoba like an afterthought. Of course he would get all bashful about it. He decided to prod him a bit further.

"I miss you too. Especially how I would cuddle up to you in the middle of the night when you started kicking the covers." In a bed a lot smaller and warmer than the one he was in right now. But he could remember the smell of Aoba's hair as if he was there now, the prickling against his lips and cheeks.

Aoba was silent for a heartbeat, probably blushing. "You're such a lug, draping yourself all over me."

"And what about that guy? Still looking weirdly at you after seeing us kiss?" He asked with purpose, reminding himself of the soft but memorable kiss they shared in front of Heibon. His hand picked up the pace around his length.

"Ugh, stop reminding me... I can't believe I let myself go like that. What if Haga-san had seen it?"

"It's okay. He gave us his blessing. Didn't you say he's like family?"

"Even so! What am I gonna do if he tells Granny? I wanna tell her myself and..."

There was it. The high lilts on his voice when he was distressed, to the point you knew it had to be scraping on the walls of his throat. It wasn't shrill or irritating, but rather endearing. That was something that Noiz had just started noticing on Aoba; how different his voice was, compared to everyone else he knew. Malleable, expressive.

"... And I'm thinking of this seriously, okay? She doesn't say anything but I think she's sad that she doesn't get to know how I'm doing..."

The lower, gravelly tones that swayed like the waves washing over a sandy beach. Those he used when he was serious, solemn. It was a voice that was suited for him; ever-changing, simple but unpredictable, either soothing like silk or sharp like a needle. It was so singular with Aoba's character that it could go unnoticed, especially when his clear eyes and blue hair gathered enough attention.

It was the incongruities of Seragaki Aoba and at the same time, the pieces of his puzzle that fell perfectly in place, in a way that was so satisfying and you kept going in for more. It made him impossible to ignore, impossible to not be completely invested in.

"Noiz? You're quiet, are you falling asleep?" Aoba asked. Noiz let out a breathy laugh; was he that good in pretending he wasn't about to come in his hand or was Aoba just that dense?

"I'm dozing a bit, but don't stop talking. It's helping me." Concentrating on the vibrations of Aoba's voice, despite how the call didn't do justice to how it sounded in a face-to-face conversation, was doing wonders on helping him peak. Even more when he re-imagined the dips and curls of his voice around a moan, a whimper, a groan of his name.

He tilted his head away from the phone so he wouldn't huff on the speaker.

"Helping? Were you having trouble falling asleep?" Aoba asked, sounding worried. Noiz smiled, and he would have pinched Aoba somewhere, anywhere, because he was so cute and oblivious.

"Yeah. So keep talking. Tell me more about your day." Noiz let his eyes fall shut.

"U-uh, okay. Mm, let me see..."

That time before had provided him with some material. Muffled moans, whimpers. The tightening of his abs under his touch. It wasn't nearly enough, but his imagination was doing a good work by picking up from there and conjuring new sounds, molding it to his pleasure.

"When I left the house this morning, there was a heavy fog outside. It looked kind of creepy..."

"Noiz."

"... But by the time I got to work, most of it had dissipated. Ah, and..."

How would it be if it was Aoba's mouth instead of his hand...? Instead of fingers, a pair of lips stretched around his cock, the softest graze of teeth against his head as Aoba bobbed up and looked him in the eye.

He reined in the growl threatening to rumble in chest, his rhythm almost vicious.

"... Don't you think it's weird? I don't know why people like to..."

And what if he returned the favor? Would Aoba squirm under him, trying to control the buckle of his hips? He would certainly try to hold back the sounds that left his lips, and Noiz wouldn't let him. Of course. Of course, because he had been waiting ages to hear it.

"Ngh- Noiz, more."

Noiz would finger Aoba too, and his hips would stutter at the invasion. He wondered if Aoba had ever done that before. Would Aoba push against his fingers, meeting his thrusts with a satisfied sigh once Noiz found his sweet spot? Would he like it from the start, or be initially uncomfortable? Either way, Noiz would make him come in the end, undoubtedly.

"... When I got there, he was leaving to have lunch, so we talked in passing and I went up to..."

He felt intoxicated, like there was a sweet mist covering his head, clogging his lungs. And he didn't want air from anywhere else but from Aoba's lips, kissing him senseless before sliding into him, first slowly, then plunging deep with purpose. He wanted to feel the digging of Aoba's heels on the small of his back, the insistent hold of his arms around his neck. He craved the tantalizing movement of his lips against the shell of his ear. What would he say, then?

Noiz trembled, his back arching off the bed, and his orgasm burst forth. He pressed the phone against the mattress immediately, his eyes opening wide and narrowing as he stifled the moan stuck in his throat, arm against his mouth and shoulders tensed up. It wasn't only for Aoba but for how he had become knowledgeable on the failed construction of that hotel's walls.

He came down from his high with a soft huff, pulling the bath towel from under his ass to clean himself up. He picked up the phone again as he walked to the bathroom, where he left the soiled towel.

"Noiz? I thought I heard something, are you still awake?"

"I am, I am. Can you repeat from the part where you left for lunch?" He controlled his labored breathing, hoping Aoba wouldn't catch on.

"You're not even paying attention; I bet you fell asleep just now. C'mon, you're being stubborn."

"I don't wanna sleep yet. I can tell you're in a really good mood today, so just keep talking."

"When you say it like that, it sounds like I'm usually in a bad mood."

"You're being nitpicky. Just get on with it."

"Alright, alright."

Noiz only bothered to put on underwear before turning off the lights and climbing into bed, pulling the duvet over him.

"I went to see Sei during lunch, and I caught Mizuki when he was just leaving to have lunch himself. We just talked for a minute or so and I went up to Sei's room. I met Virus and he told me that Sei's latest exams showed an increase in his brain activity, and he's showing good signs. That's happened before but... I can't help getting my hopes up."

"That's good. Does Mizuki know about it?"

"I messaged him about it. He was thrilled, but I kinda feel bad about it. He just got here, so he doesn't know how it's like when things seem to be looking up but... nothing changes."

Aoba seemed to be getting in a gloomy mood, and Noiz was fast to change the subject.

"Did you finally get to see the ballet recital video you were going on about?"

"Ah, yes, I did! Liese brought it over today, apologizing for having taken so long with the editing." Aoba laughed, and went on to describe the video.

Noiz had had his curiosity piqued after overhearing the conversation between Liese and Aoba, and asked him if he had danced ballet before, by any chance. Aoba laughed and explained that he worked as one of the cleaning staff in a dance studio once. Liese danced ballet in this studio, and that's where they had met. He just watched the rehearsals frequently, but he did admit that Liese taught him to do splits and the like after class. Noiz was surprised; he knew how dedicated Aoba was, but he distantly wondered if there was anywhere in town where Aoba hadn't worked yet.

He had succeeded in cheering up Aoba, who was now insisting on hearing about Noiz's day. After alerting him that it was boring, he described the endless meetings and the annoying people he had to deal with (to Aoba's mirth), but didn't mention the souvenirs. Aoba had probably forgotten about it, if he hadn't asked on his own, and it was better like this.

"Will you call tomorrow again?" Noiz wanted to know, after announcing he was going to sleep.

"... I was planning on it, but if I can't, it's-"

"No, that's not it. Call me. It'll be boring as hell in the airport."

"What time is your flight?"

"Half past eleven o'clock."

"Okay then. Text me when you leave the plane. Goodnight~"

"'Night."

They hung up. Noiz put the phone on his nightstand and rolled to the other side, closing his eyes.

Tomorrow was his last day in London. Whether it would be a souvenir or a normal present, it was his last chance to make a decision.

 


 

Noiz made his pick after leaving work, but he was slightly nervous. He had bought it in a bit of a whim, and then started questioning himself on whether it was the right choice. There was a huge risk riding on it, but it was done, and it was the closest to his intentions for a present, so he held on it tight.

Aoba didn't call. Not 10pm, not 11pm. Noiz boarded the plane without thinking too much about it. Maybe he finally got a job to fill in for the empty spot Exposure had left. He would've messaged Noiz about it, but maybe he forgot because he was so excited. Maybe he was too busy, or maybe he fell asleep because he was too tired.

That should have been the first sign, in hindsight.

Almost two hours later, Noiz walked through the terminal, dragging his wheeled suitcase behind, and took his phone out of flight mode. No messages, no missed calls. He stopped, scrutinizing the screen. After a pregnant pause, he went into his messages and selected one of the threads, typing a new message.

>> Mizuki, I'm back in Berlin.

Like Aoba, Mizuki had asked him to let him know when he got back. Noiz sent the message and waited. Even half past 2am, ten seconds was usually all it took for a reply, one minute at most.

After ten minutes, he made his way out of the airport and hailed a cab. During the entire ride, and the time it took for him to drop his luggage home and drive to the hospital, he waited for the phone to vibrate. There was no need for him to feel that twinge of panic in the bottom of his stomach, he reminded himself as his knuckles turned white where it gripped the steering wheel. He had nothing to do with it. It wasn't personal for him; he was but an outsider.

So when he walked into the waiting room, and saw Mizuki and Aoba whip their heads up to look at him, eyes equally rimmed red and brimming with tears, he felt an impact on his chest that had everything and nothing to do with the shock of Aoba's body against his as he ran out of his seat and crushed into him, arms around his neck.

"I-I thought... I thought I was going t-to lose him." Aoba's voice and body were trembling badly, holding itself on a thread. "Noiz- I almost lost him."

Noiz had seen Aoba cry before, so the slow crumbling of his voice as he tried to hold himself together wasn't unfamiliar to Noiz. But it was never like this.

And when Aoba's sobs turned into full-blown, unreserved crying, voice climbing twisted and breathless and ringing against the walls with Mizuki's own echoing him, Noiz felt his gut twisting painfully. His arms locked firmly around Aoba's waist.

He was an outsider. It had nothing to do with him and it wasn't personal for him. But Aoba and Mizuki had everything to do with him. Their pain was personal for him. And if his eyes filled with tears then, he said nothing and neither did the other two.

Chapter Text

Noiz didn't ask anything as he held Aoba and almost had to carry him back to his seat, since it looked like his legs were about to give out under him. Aside from those short sentences he had offered him when he arrived, it looked like Aoba was incapable of doing anything but crying at the moment.

He still kept quiet as he sat between Aoba and Mizuki, hearing their breaths evening out, the quaking of their hiccupping shoulders easing away. Mizuki was pale like Noiz had never seen before, eyes turned dull after that brief moment of attention when Noiz entered the room. Considering Aoba's earlier worry, and Mizuki's circumstances, Noiz couldn't imagine how hard he was taking this.

After half an hour, Aoba got up from his chair, taking in a deep breath. Noiz raised his gaze to the back of his head.

"I need to think alone for a bit. I'll be back later."

It didn't look like he'd answer if Noiz asked him where he was going. So he didn't.

Aoba's steps pattered away and out of the ICU. Noiz watched as the occasional nurse or doctor walked in and out of the ward, muttering quick "good evening"s to each other. They were all polite and solicitous, but the bags under their eyes betrayed their exhaustion. Noiz wondered if he'd look half as bad when he turned in for work in the morning.

Mizuki suddenly shot up beside him and Noiz snapped his head to look at him, alarmed. He was about to ask what was wrong, but the question died in his tongue as Mizuki immediately bolted somewhere else, pressing a hand to his mouth, and Noiz followed behind him unthinkingly. Mizuki didn't look back once and pushed his way through a door brusquely—and then Noiz realized they had been running to the men's room.

He walked in slowly and was greeted with the sound of Mizuki retching loudly in one of the cubicles. Noiz sighed and closed the door behind him.

 "Need me to hold your hair up?" Noiz said before he could help himself.

Mizuki said something, probably cussed him out, but was soon puking again. Noiz didn't want to pay attention to that, but he realized it didn't sound like Mizuki was getting much out anymore. He heard Mizuki coughing and squinted at some random door, since he wasn't sure which one Mizuki was behind.

There was the sound of a toilet flushing and Mizuki ambled out of one of the cubicles, heading to the sink to wash his hands. His reflection on the wide mirror looked even worse than before, if possible.

Noiz crossed his arms and leaned against the tiled wall. "I know this wasn't the first. How many times have you thrown up already?"

"A couple," Mizuki croaked, washing his mouth and dragging a wet hand down his face.

Noiz rolled his eyes, but didn't press the issue. That blatant lie was enough of an answer. He pushed off the wall and opened the door.

"Let's go to the cafeteria. You look like you're about to pass out."

"It's nothing."

"I'm not asking. We're going."

Mizuki followed him easily enough, muttering something about throwing up anything he put on his stomach.

"Well, you're still puking when there's nothing in it anymore, so it's all the same," Noiz answered, and they were quiet the rest of the way.

They got to the cafeteria, and Noiz pushed a pudding cup and a bottle of water into Mizuki's reluctant hands. He bought a café au lait for himself and they sat down, choosing freely among the many empty tables.

Noiz glanced at Mizuki after sipping on his coffee. "So, can you tell me what happened tonight? It's okay if you don't wanna talk about it though."

Mizuki fiddled with the plastic spoon, poking the pudding. It looked like he was getting nauseated again, but when he opened his mouth to speak, another voice reverberated in the cafeteria.

"Sei-san was under a new treatment, but he reacted badly to it; he collapsed around 11pm and was only completely stabilized at 1am. He's on a ventilator at the moment, since he can't breathe on his own for now, but we hope we can revert this situation as soon as possible."

Noiz quickly recognized the voice and, surely, Virus and Trip's figures were walking towards them in their usual scrubs and lab coats. Virus grinned at them while Trip made a beeline for the vending machines, disregarding them.

"Several times it looked like he wouldn't make it, but the worst seem to be over. We just left his room, but the nurses will call us if anything comes up."

"You wanted to turn off his machine. You probably put him on that treatment knowing this would happen." The anger seethed in Mizuki's voice, but it lacked the strength from his first encounter with Virus. He was too drained for that.

Virus blinked owlishly. "Of course not. We wanted to try something new, now that Sei-san's condition was at its best for the first time in years. We had Sei-san's health in our greatest interest and Aoba-san gave us his permission. Everything was done accordingly to the hospital policy."

Mizuki glared at him. "You two smell like trouble. There's no way you'll convince me you didn't do something under wraps."

"Now, that's insulting. We do have work ethics, even if we are questionable fellows." Virus smiled benignly, his eyes squeezing shut behind the lenses of his glasses. Trip was coming back to tower behind Virus, passing him a lidded cup and a pack of cigarettes.

"Yeah, what good would do us to harm a patient? That's our job, and we do it like it's supposed to be done," Trip said, voice slightly muffled by the straw held between his teeth. Apparently, he couldn't be bothered to stop drinking his strawberry milk even to hold a proper conversation.

"Manners, Trip." Virus threw him a stern glance and Trip grinned. Turning his attention back to Noiz and Mizuki, his tone didn't change much. "Mizuki-san, I don't expect you to understand our perspective as doctors. It's been years and Sei-san shows next to no signs of recovery, and we know that Aoba-san can barely get around to paying all of the hospital bills. And all of Sei-san's organs are still fully functional; it might save someone else's life, but some of them might not be salvageable if we wait until the bitter end."

Noiz was ready to hold Mizuki by the back of his shirt's collar before Trip could tackle him away from Virus, but nothing happened. Mizuki was silent, motionless like the dead as he stared a hole into their table.

A heavy sigh left Noiz's lips.

"That's not the best speech to give someone who almost lost his fiancé tonight, sensei."

"I apologize." Virus bowed his head, looking not a bit sorry. "But Mizuki-san has to know all of that. I'm sure Aoba-san, too, is carefully weighing all of his options right now."

Noiz narrowed his eyes at him, and Virus smiled emptily.

"He must be standing by the windows to the courtyard. That's where he was the last time this happened."

Virus and Trip left the cafeteria after that, saying something about the coffee and slipping the cigarette pack into his coat's pocket as they turned around the corner.

"I can't believe you just let Virus say all that and just walk away. Just eat the pudding already, for fuck's sake, get some energy back."

"... Like I can get much energy from a pudding cup, dumbass."

"I'll get you another one, then."

Mizuki groaned, but finally started eating. At the end, Noiz bought him four more.

"Then? Aren't you going after Aoba? That bastard Virus, acting like he knows everything." Mizuki took a big gulp of his water bottle, slamming it down on the table.  Noiz snorted at that; he seemed to be getting back to normal.

"He said he wanted to be alone. It didn't look like I should..."

Mizuki huffed. "You don't need to handle Aoba like a glass vase, you know. It'd be bad if you insisted on going after him right then, yeah, but it's been long enough now. I'm sure he'll be happy that you worried for him, and he'll tell you if he's not comfortable."

"Fine, fine," Noiz sighed and got up from his chair, looking down at Mizuki. "Are you going to be okay, though?"

"You're grossing me out today."

"Shut up, I'm the one who had to hear you spilling your guts out at the restroom like a big old cat."

"I'll be fine, you lovesick idiot. Go get your boyfriend." Mizuki shooed him, picking up the disposables on their table to throw into the garbage bin.

Noiz decided to let him off without a kick to the ribs and left the cafeteria, heading to the ground floor.

 


 

It was even snowing just like that night, Aoba realized.

Everything was a blur in his mind. He was just thinking that it was about time to call Noiz, holding the phone when it started vibrating in his hand. It was Mizuki, yelling that something was wrong and the doctors had kicked him out of Sei's room. Aoba barely caught his coat and put on his shoes before running out of his apartment. (He secretly hoped he had locked his door, because he couldn't remember for the life of him.) Aoba couldn't calm down to stop and wait for a bus so he ran and ran, but he ultimately drained himself dry and hopped into a bus that had been turning around the corner just in time.

It took longer than the last time. An hour went by, every second ticking on the wall clock like the hammering of nails on a coffin, and he was sure it was over now. He lost count on how many times Mizuki ran to the bathroom. And even after a nurse showed up to nervously tell them that Sei was mostly out of danger, he couldn't shake off that coldness gripping his chest. He was stuck in that night again, five years ago; chilled to the bone, alone, nearly penniless, struggling to understand as Virus explained to him what had happened to Sei. After almost five years, it was happening again. Did it mean nothing had changed? No matter what new treatments they tried, how much work he poured into ensuring his brother's well-being, was there no salvation?

Is it all just a matter of time?

Then there was the clatter of footsteps, doors opening...

"Aoba."

He jerked his head to the side and saw Noiz calmly walking towards him, hands tucked into his trousers' pockets. He stopped beside Aoba in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows that showed the broad courtyard garden. The lamp posts were all lit up, illuminating the thin sheet of white snow that was building up on every surface. The winter had taken away all of the garden's greenery, but gave it beauty in its own way.

"I must've worried you, sorry for not calling," Aoba said after a moment, evenly.

Noiz's hands slipped out of his pockets and he shook his head. "It's okay."

"You're tired, aren't you?"

"A bit. It's fine for now."

Noiz's hand closed around Aoba's hesitantly. Aoba intertwined their fingers in reassurance.

"How are you?" Noiz huddled up closer to Aoba's side, testing his boundaries. Aoba didn't seem to mind, even letting his head drop on Noiz's shoulder.

"I'm tired."

"I suppose you'd be. Don't you wanna sit down somewhere else?"

Aoba shook his head. "No, I like it here. Helps me think."

"Okay."

They stood there, watching the snowflakes lightly falling from the sky. They swayed in the air, singular, before mounting with millions and millions of others on the ground, on the clawing branches of naked trees, on the flowerbeds, on the benches. There was the faint movement of people in the hallway at the other side of the courtyard. Mostly doctors and nurses, burning the midnight oil, business like usual.

"Am I prolonging the inevitable?"

"Huh?" Noiz interjected and looked down at Aoba, surprised at the sudden question.

"Am I making Sei go through more pain than necessary? Making everyone go through more pain the necessary?" Aoba's eyes were downcast, his fringe falling over them.

Ah. It's getting longer.

"Why do you say that?"

"Well- Like I said, you know. He got a little better. I knew I shouldn't, but I still hoped. And then I went and told Mizuki, and it was so much worse. And then everything came crumbling back to earth." His voice was trembling, unstable, like a train about to run off the tracks. He took a steadying breath and sighed. "I feel like I've been an idiot."

Noiz let go of Aoba's hand in favor of wrapping his arm around his waist instead, bringing him closer to his side.

"I'm pretty sure that, at the state Sei's in, he's not in any pain. Besides, this everyone you talk about... they would probably choose the pain of waiting over the alternative."

"I guess, but..." Aoba all but burrowed his head on the crook of Noiz's neck. "Noiz, what is the right choice?"

Noiz's eyes widened. Aoba had never asked for his express opinion on Sei's affairs. He never gave it any thought, either; it was completely outside of his reality. But he tightened his hold around Aoba and thought of it honestly.

"I don't think there's a right choice," he started slowly. "The people who have chosen to wait, and the ones who have chosen to let their loved ones go... there's no good or evil, right or wrong between the two. They were all thinking of their loved one's well-being but, mostly, thinking of themselves. There's no selflessness in either of the two sides, so you should be selfish, and make a decision you can live with. Never mind what Virus or Mizuki say."

"I think I've been plenty selfish from the beginning," Aoba muttered.

"Then you should just keep being that way," Noiz sighed, and planted a kiss on Aoba's hair. "You worry too much about doing what's 'right'. That's damn annoying."

He could hear the pout in Aoba's voice. "Well, sorry about being annoying."

"You're not annoying. I just hate how you use that to kill your feelings and desires. Don't make this decision based on what's best for everyone else. It has to be the best for you and Sei. It doesn't matter that Mizuki can't let go of Sei, or that Virus thinks it'd be best to pull the plug. It matters how you feel about this."

Aoba lifted his head to look at him, scrutinizing. "Somehow, you're being really emphatic."

Noiz arched an eyebrow. "Didn't you want a serious answer? I'm trying."

Aoba chuckled and pulled away gently, eyes still focused on Noiz and holding his hands.

"Yeah, and you answered seriously. Thank you."

Noiz smirked. "Does this mean I helped?"

"You did. I'll refrain from making any life-changing decisions tonight anyway. I need to clear my head a bit more, but..." he smiled ruefully. "I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to tell them to just pull the plug."

"See, the answer was easy like that."

Aoba pulled his hands away to lightly slap Noiz on the arm. "Shut up, brat. Ah- where's Mizuki? Now that I think of it, he was really sick earlier. He was throwing up all the time."

"Must've gone back to the waiting room. I dragged him to the cafeteria so he could eat something and not faceplant onto the floor."

They started walking back to the waiting room, arms brushing every step of the way. Aoba frowned in pensive concentration. "What is he even doing about food? He only leaves the hospital to eat lunch at your place, right?"

"Yeah, and I'm pretty sure he only leaves because he has to shower at least once a day. As far as I know, he makes some snacks and just brings it over to the hospital with him. Sometimes he brings some of my leftover pizza with him too, that bastard."

Aoba laughed, pulling a strand of hair behind his ear. "Well, he has to. If his cooking hasn't improved since before, I don't think there's much he could make to bring with him."

Noiz watched the delicate movement of Aoba's finger and huffed. "I really think he's going overboard, spending this much time here. But he looks happy, so there's no use to saying anything."

Aoba smiled to his feet. "You can tell too, huh. I think his presence is helping Sei a lot as well. Maybe he's part of the reason Sei got a bit better."

"That guy would probably cry tears of joy if he heard you saying that."

Aoba snorted, shoulders shaking with contained laughter. Somewhere along the way, their hands were clasped together once again.

 


 

It took some convincing, but Noiz managed to drag Mizuki back to his place, and made Aoba accept his offer for a ride home. Sei would be under observation for, at least, the remainder of the night; neither of the two would be permitted back in the room, so there was no use to staying in the hospital. They were obviously anxious, both of them entertaining less-than-optimistic thoughts, but they ultimately relented to Noiz's insistence.

During the ride, Aoba seemed lost in thought. More than once, he jumped in surprise when they called out to him. After Noiz questioned his behavior, he let out a sigh.

"Well, I'm just thinking of what to do next. There will be additional costs, now that Sei's on a ventilator too... I hope he'll be able to go back to breathing on his own soon."

"Um," Mizuki started, uncertain. "I actually have some money saved up. I'll have it transferred to you. We can arrange things tomorrow."

Aoba was caught off-guard, and hurried to refuse the offer. "Wh- No, no, that's fine. I can't accept-"

"No, Aoba, please let me. I should be helping you from the start. I was saving this up for Sei, anyway; I thought it could be needed someday, and I was right."

Aoba only blinked in disbelief, gaping. Mizuki was adamant.

"Damn, Mizuki... I don't really know what to say but thank you."

Mizuki smiled and shook his head.

"Don't thank me. I'm glad to be helpful, finally." He sighed, and leaned back on the car seat. "This Sunday, I'll fly back to Midorijima. Give me a week, okay? I'll settle everything with Dry Juice and Black Needle, and I'll come back here, to stay. You won't work for Sei all on your own anymore."

Aoba's eyes were impossibly wide. His body buckled against the seat, and he let out a huff, almost a breathless laugh. He blinked down at his hands, and a small smile stretched in his lips.

"Okay."

A sacred silence dawned over the car, until Noiz broke it with a low murmur.

"Woah, so that's why you were such a cheapskate. It's been four years that your air conditioner is dripping all over the place and instead of actually buying a new one you just keep three buckets in your room."

"Wha-" Mizuki started, indignant, and Aoba guffawed.

"You also keep using the shittiest internet plan just because you don't want to pay for the better, but pricier one. Holy shit."

"I'm sorry if I wasn't born rich like you and I actually use my money wisely!" Mizuki defended himself, blushing furiously. Aoba was fighting for air in the background, chortling into his hand.

After Noiz listed a few more of Mizuki's money-grubber moments, he dropped Aoba at his place. Aoba thanked him and, after a quick, red-faced kiss on the cheek, they were headed to Noiz's place.

Mizuki glanced at him furtively. "Okay, I know I've been joking a lot about this, but... are you two actually dating?"

"Yeah," Noiz answered easily.

"Since when?"

"New Year's Day."

"Woah- Why didn't you tell me?!"

"Did I have to?"

"Well... Not have to, but c'mon, that's pretty big. I'm happy for you and Aoba."

Noiz shrugged, eyes never leaving the road. "I don't really feel the need to announce things just like that. And it's not like we're getting married or something. That's your thing."

Mizuki steered his eyes away, but his ears were pink.

When they arrived at their destination, yawns escaped the two of them; they were absolutely exhausted. It was so bad that neither of them thought of having something more substantial than puddings and coffee before turning in for the night.

When Mizuki was about to enter his room, Noiz called out and threw him a charcoal-colored bag. Despite his surprise, Mizuki caught it deftly and looked into it with a puzzled expression.

It contained a brown teddy bear wearing the Royal Guard uniform.

Mizuki's eyes turned watery, glistening as he held the plushy in his hands, but he didn't make a sound. Noiz turned back to his room, equally silent.

 


 

The next day, Noiz wanted nothing more than to sleep in. His head was throbbing with a strong headache and his joints had seen better days, but he ultimately got up and readied himself for work, popping some pills to handle his pains. He didn't bother Mizuki—the guy definitely needed a real night's sleep in a bed—and headed to the office.

Drinking copious amounts of coffee, Noiz braved through the hazy, chilly morning. Theo was grave in his office when Noiz went to turn in his report regarding the bank opening in London, eyes glued to a stack of papers on his desk. After raising his gaze and seeing his brother, he naturally broke in a calm smile that turned into wide-eyed curiosity when Noiz announced that he'd brought gifts from England.

"You didn't have to!" Theo protested politely, but the pleased blush on his cheeks betrayed his excitement. Just like a kid in Christmas Day, Noiz thought with a chuckle.

Noiz placed the green bag on his brother's desk, and Theo fumbled for it, fishing into it for the contents. His eyes grew the size of saucers, bright with mirth and he hugged it to his chest, laughing heartily.

"The guy kind of reminds me of you." Noiz grinned teasingly.

"I'm not like him at all, meanie! Though I want to cook like him someday."

It was the complete DVD box set of UK's Kitchen Nightmares, a British cooking show starring a demon chef. Brand new, not a scratch on its surface. He knew Theo would appreciate it or it would, at least, elicit a great reaction out of him.

"That's not even an actual souvenir, Wim." Theo wiped a tear in the corner of his eye.

"He's British, it's a British show." Noiz shrugged.

Theo let out another delighted giggle. "That's so like you. But I loved it, thanks."

He got up and rounded his desk in a hurry to hug Noiz tightly. Though he was surprised, he corresponded sincerely.

There wasn't a similarly positive response to his other souvenir, though. But he was quite content with it.

"Seriously?" Agnes asked rhetorically, turning the white t-shirt in her hands. They were sitting together in the same café as before, talking over cups of coffee and empty plates during Noiz's lunchtime.

"You've been to England many times before. I had to make sure it was something you didn't have."

"Okay, but this?!" She turned the front of the shirt towards him. It read "I like my men like my tea: hot and British!" in black, blocky letters, with the British flag filling the picture of a steaming cup of tea under the sentence.

"I thought it was kind of funny." Noiz smirked.

Agnes groaned in frustration, leaning back on her seat and spinning the shirt around again, staring at it with a scrunched forehead.

"I have a cute girlfriend, I don't have to deal with this."

Noiz blinked at Agnes' sudden and obvious attempt at flaunting.

"Good for you. I have a cute boyfriend," he retorted flatly.

Agnes blinked back at him. A brief pause followed as they stared at each other. And then, Agnes extended her hand.

Silently, they shook hands. It continued for a few seconds, but suddenly, Agnes pulled on his hand, bowing her head slightly.

"It is Aoba, right?" she stage-whispered.

Noiz rolled his eyes. "Of course it is."

"Oh, okay." Agnes grinned and they went back to shaking their hands respectfully.

"Congratulations on finally ending that annoying pining of yours, Wilhelm."

Noiz huffed. "I wasn't pining. Congratulations on finding someone willing to put up with you."

She let go of his hand and slapped it, pouting.

Noiz noticed she didn't look helpless like she did on New Year's Eve anymore. When her eyes flitted to the café's windowpane, it didn't look like she was searching for something. He didn't know for sure what had happened then, but she seemed to be feeling well again. The steam of coffee swirled between them as Agnes grumbled that she wouldn't be able to wear that shirt in public. Noiz found that he was genuinely glad for her.

"Sooo," she cooed, grinning widely, "when did you two start dating? Was it on New Year's Eve? Should I charge you for my part on it as the cover-up expert?"

Noiz snorted and took a gulp of his coffee. He grimaced slightly at the taste; too thin, sort of bland. The mocha from the café he visited with Aoba really was better.

"It was on New Year's Day. Well, actually at night. And you should just be satisfied that I'll pay for lunch."

She gasped. "You're paying? You should've told me; if I knew, I would have ordered the key lime pie!"

"You can order for yourself if you want." He shrugged, and Agnes perked up in excitement, almost running to the counter. He took his phone out of his pocket and checked his e-mail.

A message from Aoba popped up on the corner of his screen and he tapped on it immediately.

>> They finally let Mizuki in Sei's room again, apparently. ( ^ v ^ )

Not a second after he finished reading, a second message came in.

>> But he's getting annoying with the sappy texts he's sending me. If I didn't need him to tell me how Sei's doing, I'd have blocked him by now. (¬ _¬')

Noiz huffed out a laugh and typed a quick reply.

>> I know. He tried to wax poetry about your brother in my inbox last week.

>> ... And?

>> And I threatened him. So I guess it's your turn now.

Agnes plopped down on her seat in front of him again. His phone vibrated again; Aoba had answered with the emoji of an angry character flipping a table. Noiz huffed out a laugh.

"Aw, love looks so good on you," Agnes sighed dreamily, chin propped on her hand.

Noiz threw her a glare, and she snickered.

"No need to get yourself all riled up. I really am happy for you- oh!"

One of the baristas came to their table and placed a platter with two slices of an extravagantly decorated white-and-green pie in front of Agnes. The girl thanked the employee effusively and dug in.

"Mmmm, so good! It almost makes me like your ugly shirt!"

"Well, you really don't have to deal with this, though. Wouldn't you have more fun in a date with your girlfriend?" Noiz asked without a drop of aggressiveness or displeasure.

Agnes scooped another piece of her pie and took it to her mouth, chewing joyfully. After she swallowed it, she answered.

"Of course I would, you're a complete bore!" She pouted, but laughed right after. "But that doesn't matter, does it? I know you'd rather meet with Aoba too, but we have duties. At least for now, we should let our parents think that there might be a chance we could get together. And then, we can tone it down bit by bit, and then we say it didn't work! They won't be able to say we didn't at least try, right?"

Noiz blinked, reflecting on her plan. He didn't know she had thought it through like this; he was sure she was just trying to please their parents... and partially meaning to mess with him.

Agnes huffed. "You didn't have a clue, huh? Perhaps because you spent your teenage years in England; you were away from them, so you didn't learn how to appease them and not let them get their way every time."

She smiled softly, almost wistfully, and Noiz huffed. Agnes really went a lot deeper than the shallow reflection he'd seen on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it was even okay to not consider her one of them, after all.

"I wasn't in England. I just fled to Japan when I was fourteen."

Agnes' fork halted halfway towards her mouth and the piece of pie stabbed on it crumbled, falling back on the platter pathetically. The girl was gaping at him and, if anything, it had been worth it telling her just for her comical reaction.

She blinked. Once, twice, and then too many times to count.

"... What?"

Noiz chuckled amusedly. And then he told her the real story. Not his parents' perfect fairy tale, but the truth about his disappearance five years ago. From his parents' abuse to his escape and then, the moment Theo convinced him to come back.

He wasn't known to flourish his words too much, so he let the hard, objective truth come out. It was just enough time for them to finish their cups of coffee and for Agnes to finish her pie. Just idle lunch chit-chat.

"Wow." Agnes laughed airily, eyes still wide and blinking after hearing everything. "I feel like my entire life was a lie. Though I hardly thought of you until we saw each other again this year."

"That's good. That'd be creepy."

"Oh, shush. But... I see everything in a new light. Thank you; I understand a lot more about you now."

Noiz frowned. "I didn't want understanding when I told you this. Just thought you deserved to know what really happened."

She sighed. "Well, I wanted to understand you. But I'm glad you told me either way, thank you."

Noiz paid their bill and they bundled up again, leaving the café into the cold January afternoon. It had started to snow very lightly while they were inside, and Noiz berated himself for not having an umbrella with him.

He glanced at her. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but this can't-"

"Not a word from me. This conversation didn't even happen."

She grinned at him and he snorted after a brief pause. They waved at each other and went on opposite directions, until Agnes called out to him.

"I forgot to ask you something." She said, tone secretive.

He arched his brow. "What is it?"

"What was your gift for Aoba? I mean, you got me this shitty one, so I'm guessing..."

Noiz blinked at her, and her eyes widened gradually until she suddenly hopped in place, pointing at him with a squeal.

"Oh my gosh, you're blushing! Oh god, where's my phone-"

Agnes started fumbling for her phone in her purse and Noiz turned around, stomping resolutely back to his office. That was a mistake.

"Ah! You're escaping, you little...!"

Yes, he was definitely feeling his face heating up, and he brought his scarf over his nose. He quickened his pace, but Agnes didn't try to catch up. Still, he barely caught the shrill "bye bye, Noiz~" behind him. Definitely a mistake.

Chapter Text

The week was flowing orderly, workload heavy with the start of a fresh new year. The days were cold, a lazy drizzle falling over the city every morning, and one needed to be careful not to slip and fall on the patches of ice on the sidewalks. The Christmas decorations were finally disappearing, and people waited eagerly for the arrival of spring.

It was the third day when Noiz confirmed that he was being spied on.

He was no stranger to that prickling of the fine hairs on his nape, a burning sensation buzzing under the skin of his arms—the sensation of eyes following his back. It was one thing when it was just a stranger looking for a second too long, but he could tell when there was someone on his trail. Making business in the dark corners of the Old Residential District had allowed him to hone these abilities.

Noiz had sniffed them out at day one, naturally. But he had to make sure of that person's intentions and whether they were alone. The first thing he concluded was that they weren't trying to attack him; he gave them plenty opportunities to jump him alone, but nothing happened. He quickly took note that it was a single man, apparently with no backup. The conclusion was simple; it was a man marking his steps. Most likely a private investigator.

That day, Noiz ended his lunch with Agnes and followed to the office, a light but stubborn rain falling from the grey sky. His black umbrella mingled with the dozens of colorful ones as the human waves moved up the sidewalks, some going home after a good bout of shopping while others were returning to their jobs after lunch break, like Noiz.

The private investigator, a pale, lanky man with coarse brown hair and big ears, shook the wet hem of his dark-green coat, holding his umbrella precariously. When his eyes swept through the crowd, his subject was nowhere to be seen. He gulped. It wasn't the first time he lost sight of that man—Wilhelm Adlersflügel. It made the job quite nerve-wrecking, but he was always quick to find him again. He knew his only possible destination now was the Adlersflügel Group building, but he had to take notes of any irregularity. He quickened his pace towards the direction he had last seen his subject.

That was, until a ghostly, strong hand pulled him into a tight alley between clothing stores.

His open umbrella flew out of his hand. A huff of breath was punched out of his chest as he was shoved face-first against the dirty brick wall, but any sound was stifled when a firm hand pressed over his lips. His arms were twisted behind his back uncomfortably, the alley only big enough to accommodate him and his attacker. He couldn't move or scream, not even bite the gloved hand.

"Move a centimeter and I'll break your arm."

The investigator shuddered at the low threat by his ear. He chastised himself mentally—what was he doing, letting himself get robbed in the middle of work? He couldn't lose his belongings, especially his cell phone. He gritted his teeth.

He chanced a move with his foot, trying to get enough space so he could get his pocket knife and intimidate the burglar—and only intimidate; for god's sake, he was a law-abiding citizen who just couldn't lose his work materials. He did manage to get his arms free and reached for the blade, turning towards the attacker, but a hand slapped his wrist immediately, causing the knife to fly away. It clattered dully on the ground as fists closed on his coat's lapel and a powerful knee-kick was driven up his groin. A sharp pain sparked throughout his body, making his ears ring and his legs lose strength.

When he looked up at his attacker's face, jaw locked tight and vision focusing slowly, it was none other than Wilhelm Adlersflügel, his subject. His strawberry-blond hair was wet and mussed, expression ruthless.

"You're way too weak to try such bold moves, asshole," he drawled out, staring down at him with razor-sharp green eyes.

He looked up at his subject, completely confused. It was him, undoubtedly, but it had nothing to do with the profile he had been provided. That was no look a nineteen-year-old rich boy would give.

Noiz arched his eyebrow when he received no response, but proceeded.

"Now you know I'm stronger and faster. I'll get you again the second you try some funny shit, so you better cooperate. I know you're following me. Who hired you?"

"I-I can't... divulge my client's-"

One of Noiz's hands closed lightly around his throat. "I could beat you half to death right here. It'd be no big deal for me; everyone's hurrying to their homes and workplaces now. No one would look here, and I'd make sure no one would hear you."

Frightened blue eyes were captured by Noiz's green ones, like a prey under the predator. He recognized the cold honesty in those words, and the danger of defying them.

Noiz smirked, and his hand fell away from the man's neck. "Or I could double up what your client's paying you. Settling things non-violently would be best for both of us; you just have to do as I say."

The investigator felt his eyes almost burning with tears as he took in a relieved breath, nodding enthusiastically. What the fuck was that, he only covered cheating boyfriends, lying daughters and other domestic scuffles. He never asked for this!

"So, from the top. Who hired you?"

The man gulped, muttering, "E-Edmund Adlersflügel. Your father."

Noiz clicked his tongue, and the investigator flinched.

"I fucking knew. And your name?"

"Franz... Franz Baumhauer."

"Mm. Give me your phone."

Franz turned defensive. "I can't do that, I-"

"I won't mess with anything that isn't related to me. And I'll pay for it."

He hesitated, but finally gave in. He slipped the phone out his pocket and unlocked it, passing it to Noiz, who tapped around the screen for roughly five minutes, concentration etched in his face.

"These photos are documenting everything I've done for the past three days, correct?"

Noiz looked over the screen at Franz, who nodded quickly.

"And you have more people working with you too."

"Y-yes. I'm responsible for watching your e-every move. But there's someone who watches your house exclusively, and another guy."

"Their names."

"Um, Herbert Blumenthal and Adam Faerber."

"What were your findings until now? Don't even think of lying to me."

Franz scrambled for words, the chill in his spine being only partially blamed on the cold and the errant drops of rain that found its way into that dingy alley, falling over them.

"W-We know about the man who's been coming and going over to your house. We know he's named Mizuki and when he leaves your house, he goes to the Königsmann Hospital. We were supposed to check the hospital and then-"

"Don't get even close to that hospital. That's my first order."

Franz blinked, but nodded.

"What else?"

"We know about your meetings with Agnes Diefenbach. We were still planning to hack into your e-mail and look through your phone's records."

Noiz chuckled dryly. "You wouldn't be able to but alright. Is that all?"

Franz nodded. Noiz had avoided meeting with Aoba on purpose these last three days, and he was glad that it didn't look like they had gotten any inkling on him. Though he didn't have much of a choice to begin with; Aoba was even busier than him.

"How much have you reported to my father?"

"He knows about everything until now."

Noiz sighed exasperatedly. That was going to be so annoying.

"Firstly, call the other guys." He threw the phone back to Franz, who caught it clumsily.

"W-what should I do?"

"Just say 'our client's changed'. Then I'll take over."

Franz nodded and called one of them. Apparently, they were together staking out near Noiz's place. It was convenient, and Franz repeated what Noiz said. Then, Noiz talked to the other two men, made his case quite peacefully and they all agreed on meeting after Noiz left work that night, to talk contracts and payment.

"If anything else gets out to my father, I'll know. So you'll do well to carry out your part of the deal." He warned.

He let Franz go, apologizing curtly for his rough treatment. He was at least half an hour late for work, but he was glad to have finally cleared that troublesome issue.

 


 

Except for that small flare of action, Noiz's days were just what you would expect of an overworked office drone, churning up reports, market researches, bowing and smiling to old men. It made him somewhat miss the days full of danger in the Old Residential District. Despite Mizuki's financial help with Sei, Aoba didn't slack off with work, and with Noiz's own worries, they wound up not meeting at all. They were only texting back and forth these days.

Noiz's negotiations with the private investigators went swimmingly. He didn't need to press them too much; they weren't criminal detectives, so their jobs never involved anything more dangerous than a girl beating them with a purse and calling them pervs. Besides, they liked the sound of "the payment, plus double the payment" as much as anyone would, and easily agreed to act as "double agents" on Noiz's order. He scoffed at the memory of Franz's shocked face in the alley. His father didn't know the life he led for five years; there was no way he could've alerted those men.

He was watchful for a possible breach of contract on their part, naturally. Until now, nothing had rung his alarm, but he was feeling reassured either way. The only good side to not being able to meet Aoba was that he was protected even if those investigators turned against Noiz. He wasn't one bit worried about his father finding out about his relationship with Aoba, but he was very worried about that man coming in contact with his boyfriend.

He balled his fists. No way was he going to let his father hurt Aoba.

"Who's this man named Mizuki who's been frequenting your home?"

Noiz looked up at his father, eyes only slightly wide with feigned surprise before he returned to his neutral expression. He had been summoned to his father's office, and he was expecting for that topic to come up soon.

"A friend from Japan. He hosted me when I lived there, so I offered him lodging when he said he would need to stay in Berlin for a while."

His father smiled almost pleasantly.

"It's good to hear that you made such good friends there. He's been going to the Königsmann, I hear? Is he fairing well?"

Noiz had to actively try not to grit his teeth. "Yes. I don't know about his affairs at the hospital, and it seemed to be personal, so I didn't ask. I'm just glad he's visiting."

"I see; that's tactful of you. And how are things going with Agnes?"

Noiz went along with his father's chit chat until he seemed satisfied and dismissed him. He left the office and sighed heavily.

Sometimes, he wished he could do just as Agnes said and tell his parents once and for all that he was not marrying her in a million fucking years and that he was in a relationship with a man. But he couldn't ruin everything by being impulsive and he didn't want to put Aoba in danger. Though he knew his father wasn't enough of a demon to physically hurt Aoba, there was no telling what he would instill in Aoba's head if he ever got to him.

Noiz supposed there wasn't much morality left to a man who said the things he had said to his own son. He would know.

That long week was slowly coming to an end. With it, Mizuki's time with Sei was ending too, and he'd have to go back to Midorijima and settle things before thinking of returning. Though he knew he was coming back, the man was very visibly reluctant to part from Sei again, and Noiz couldn't tell if that was mildly touching or downright annoying.

He was decided on the latter when Friday rolled around.

"I'm so happy now that Sei's completely off the ventilator. It was so scary to see him connected to all those tubes, he looked so fragile. Well, there are still a lot of tubes, but it's just the necessary. I think he's getting a bit of color now, and the nurses let me cut his hair too. I was so nervous, I'm no Koujaku but-"

"One thing is making me listen to you rattling off about your fiancé day in and day out, but now you're mentioning that guy too." Noiz's head was starting to throb irritatingly and his mood was going to shit with it.

"Aw, c'mon, I know you don't have any hard feelings on Koujaku. You were always laughing together."

"We were sneering at each other while trying to determine when the other was attacking."

"Geez, I'm calling Koujaku out on this when I return, he's too old for this shit."

Noiz coughed, blinking bleary eyes at the food on his plate. He drove to his place to fetch some files and decided to stay and have lunch with Mizuki, but he really wasn't finding the appetite to finish it.

"Noiz, are you okay? You're really pale, you know."

He sniffled. "It's fine. Think I caught a cold."

Mizuki frowned and left his dirty plate on the sink, rounding the table to place a hand on Noiz's forehead, lifting his other hand to his own front and comparing the temperatures.

"Oh, thanks for not doing this like in those shoujo manga you read."

"Shut up, you ain't even cute- What the hell, Noiz, you're burning!"

"Am I? I didn't really feel."

"I never saw you sick before but apparently you turn into an idiot. You can't go to work like this, what the fuck. Since when are you sick?"

Noiz sighed. "My throat has been sore since yesterday. It's manageable."

"Did you even take any medicine?"

"Took right when it started, but I forgot to take it again. It's just a cold anyway; it'll go away in a flash." Noiz shrugged and picked up his briefcase, leaving the half-empty plate on the table.

"You seriously shouldn't go to work like this," Mizuki warned him, eyebrows knitted.

Noiz huffed. "You already got your sick boyfriend to worry about, relax."

He closed the door behind him and Mizuki sighed heavily, scratching his head.

"This guy really has no self-awareness, does he..."

 


 

Noiz saw blurry colors. His eyelids were so heavy, it was impossible to keep his eyes open for longer than a second. His head was pumping furiously, his skin prickling hot and cold at the same time.

He was quite familiar with colds, being as careless as he was once, but that had to be the worst so far.

His brain worked slowly, sluggish. He recollected the day's events, stumbling through hazy images and voices.

"Brother, you look like you're about to pass out."

Theo had looked at him worriedly then. Noiz was relaying the last details about Theo's trip to Munich, very obviously swaying on his feet.

"I'm fine."

"You're not. Mizuki told me you're sick."

Noiz chuckled. "What, so now you're plotting against me together?"

Theo sighed. "He told me to look after you, since you're so stubborn. You really should've stayed home today, Wim."

"You're going to Munich tonight. I had a lot to take care of before that."

Theo got up from his chair, smoothing the wrinkles on his suit. "I can't tell you how glad I am that you take the company so seriously, but you really worry me sometimes. Well, we should call it a day, it's about time. Come, I'll take you home, okay?"

After much insistence, Theo drove him home, which turned out to be for the best, because Noiz's body completely gave out on him after leaving the office. He did almost faint, and Theo had to half-carry him into his house. His memories were just darkness after crossing the doorway.

"You really are an idiot."

That line wasn't from a memory. Apparently, his sleeping brain was just starting to make sense of the information his auditory system was providing, but it still felt like he was hearing underwater, muffled and distorted. He felt something wet on his forehead and he flinched automatically. He heard again, someone "shhhh"ing.

He fought to open his eyes once more, trying to focus his vision. Slowly, he recognized his own room and, though it was still bleary, he could see Aoba beside his bed, gently looking down at him.

"Who are you calling an idiot?" Noiz asked hoarsely. He sounded like shit.

Aoba laughed lightly. He sounded beautiful.

"The idiot who turns in for work even when he's running a high fever and proceeds to pass out and give his brother a hard time. That idiot."

Noiz blinked slowly to clear his vision. He coughed.

"Why are you here?"

Aoba wiped the sweat on his cheek and Noiz leaned into the touch. It was the right texture and the right temperature.

"Mizuki told me you were sick earlier. I came here after leaving Heibon and I got to know your brother; he's a really good kid. Completely different from your bratty self and all."

Laughter shook Noiz's chest, but he was soon coughing again.

"He left ten minutes ago because of his trip, made me promise to take good care of you. I feel like it was a... sort of disguised way to see off one's soon-to-be-married daughter."

"So you're saying I'm your bride?" Noiz croaked, lifting one hand to stroke Aoba's on his face.

"Absolutely." Aoba smiled down at Noiz.

Noiz closed his eyes again. He was too damn tired for the seemingly herculean task of staying awake. Still, his grip on Aoba's hand was firm. He felt Aoba's thumb smoothing the bags under his eyes, saying something that was regrettably lost as Noiz drifted off to sleep once more.

When he came to again, he could smell something. At least, he could more or less; he was just starting to feel his nose congesting. It was the prime moment for him to sneeze, and a point in his head stung painfully. Noiz's vision spun when he opened his eyes, so he shut them tight again for a moment. It had been enough to see that Aoba wasn't there anymore; the smell was probably from him, using the kitchen.

Noiz slowly blinked his eyes open, and the room around him stopped swaying like the inside of a boat. Atop his nightstand was a small bowl with water and a tissue box. He pulled a couple of them immediately to blow his nose. He tried to look down around his bed to find the trash basket but a nauseating pressure at the back of his eyes made him give up almost automatically.

Being careful not to move his head too much, he finally located the basket beside his bed and threw the rolled up tissues in it. Noiz sighed and picked up the cold cloth that had slid from his forehead when he sat up, putting it in the bowl on the nightstand before leaning back against his pillows. That entire ordeal just to wake up, wipe his nose and discard the tissues; he had truly forgotten how illness was a pain in the ass. He must've looked pathetic and before, he would've hated having someone hovering about, trying to meddle and care for him.

And yet, from the wet cloth to the foresight of placing the tissue box and trash basket closer to his bed, as well as the pleasant smell coming from the kitchen, Noiz felt Aoba's kindness. He wanted to indulge in it, take advantage even.

Being sick might not be so bad if he could be nursed back to health by that guy.

"Oh, you're awake."

Noiz had gone on a bit of a dazed state and didn't realize when Aoba pushed the half-open door with his shoulder, holding a tray with a ceramic bowl in his hands.

He opened his mouth to greet him, but a strong cough was all that pushed through his mouth. Noiz covered his lips just in time to stifle it.

Aoba smiled awkwardly. "This cold is really doing a number on you. It might not even be a cold. What were you up to these days, honestly..."

"Just fighting on dark alleys in the middle of the rain, that kind of thing."

Aoba laughed and Noiz might've laughed too for entirely different reasons, if he didn't think he would start hacking his lungs out like an old dog.

He grinned at Noiz, sitting again at his bedside. "You really mellow out when you're sick. I wouldn't have imagined it."

Noiz just snorted, and peered curiously at the bowl Aoba had.

"What's that?"

Aoba chuckled, blushing slightly. "Chicken soup, you never saw it? It's a well-known food for sick children."

Noiz ignored the subtle jab for the moment. "Never saw it. Why do that, anyway? I'm not really hungry."

"You wouldn't be, but you have to eat something before taking your medicine."

Noiz smirked. "You talk like a professional nurse."

The blush on Aoba's face darkened considerably. "That's just common sense, brat."

"Okay then." Noiz pushed himself on his elbows slowly and sat back on the headboard. "Will you spoon-feed me too?"

He had been half-joking, but now Aoba's face was entirely red.

"W-well, it's just that it'd be hard to eat in bed like this. Don't think weird things."

"But we are dating now, right? It's not weird at all." Noiz's lips were curled in a teasing grin. He felt quite like death warmed over but playing with Aoba made it easily bearable.

"Yeah, yeah, so let's start eating now, okay?" Aoba declared grumpily, and straightened himself on the chair. He scooped some of the soup in his spoon.

"Scoot a bit closer or it might drip on your sheets." Noiz obliged and Aoba grinned mischievously, lifting the spoon and blowing on it briefly.

"Here comes the plane~" Aoba cooed and Noiz glared at him. Still, he opened his mouth and let his lips close around the spoon while Aoba snickered.

"Good boy," he complimented, and Noiz decided to blame his heated cheeks on the fever.

"Do you think it's too late to order a sexy nurse costume online?" Noiz asked, vindictive.

It worked, at least a little bit; Aoba frowned bashfully. "I wouldn't wear it in a million years."

"I should've thought of it in advance."

"Geez, shut up and eat your soup, pervert."

They carried on amidst mild bickering and the to-and-fro movement of the spoon, until the bowl was empty. Noiz felt too warm inside when he finished, sweating profusely.

"Are you alright?" Aoba asked, a crease of worry on his forehead.

"Just too damn hot," Noiz sighed, lying back down on his pillows and sticking his legs out of the duvet. He was completely sprawled out on the bed, hair mussed and sticking to his sweaty skin.

"I looked around earlier but didn't find it; do you even have a thermometer?"

"Nope."

Aoba sighed. "I should've expected. If I knew, I would've fetched mine on my way here. I guess it'll have to do without it."

He got up from his chair with the tray and walked towards the door, but then he turned sideways to look back at Noiz.

"Oh, can you loan me some sleeping clothes? And a towel too; I'll shower and bring your medicine around when I'm finished."

"Sure..." Noiz trailed off, feeling the tickle on his nose a second before he was sneezing potently.

Aoba chuckled and Noiz watched him leave before blowing his nose noisily.

Noiz was typing a message to one of the investigators, giving his last instructions for their daily reports to his father, when Aoba returned. While Aoba handed him the pills and a glass of water, he stole distracted glances at the small towel over Aoba's shoulders, the slowly dampening spots under his wet hair on his borrowed shirt.

"You should dry your hair properly," Noiz said lightly, extending a hand to catch a strand of Aoba's hair between his fingers. "Or you might catch a cold too."

Aoba blinked at him, mouth agape. Noiz realized belatedly that he might've interrupted Aoba in the middle of a sentence. He wasn't even sure; his attention was really everywhere today.

"But, well, you're already at risk, being in a closed room with me," he amended, smirking.

Aoba seemed to have recovered, as he laughed. "I guess you're right. About drying my hair and about the risk."

Noiz let his hand fall away as Aoba slipped the towel off his shoulders and rubbed at his hair with it.

"I have a guest room; Mizuki should've been using it, but, well, you know. You can stay there, if you want."

The toweling stopped. Aoba seemed surprised again, but he smiled thinly.

"Really? I was sure you were going to insist that I sleep with you."

Noiz snorted. "Of course I won't."

Aoba flinched almost imperceptibly, but Noiz was still talking.

"If I pester you, you won't be able to say no. You're too nice to refuse and tell me you can't afford to get sick at a time like this."

Aoba frowned. "I wouldn't say that."

Noiz quirked up his eyebrow. "See?"

He rolled his eyes and dropped the towel on his lap. "I wouldn't say it because I wouldn't feel like this. I don't. But if I did, I would say it. You don't have to worry about that kind of thing."

Noiz stared at him dubiously. It irked Aoba, but then Noiz was nodding, looking at his uncovered toes.

"Right."

Aoba kept on looking at him, brow furrowed, and sighed heavily.

"I don't get sick that easily anymore, rest assured," he said and, just like that, slipped under the covers with Noiz.

"Oi-"

"You know, Noiz," Aoba started, ignoring his protests with his face buried on Noiz's chest as they lied on their sides. "I didn't forget what you did for me the night Exposure was attacked. If it weren't for you... I don't know what would've happened to me. Of course, I wouldn't die but... it would've been a lot harder to go through."

Noiz listened carefully, and thought. What a curious situation. Despite having grown in the dark streets of the Old Residential District under the philosophy of only doing what would earn him compensation, he realized he never once thought of getting anything back when he cared for Aoba that night.  And he actually hated that Aoba felt the need to do that.

He sighed. "You don't need to pay me back for anything. Besides, the situations are totally different; I wasn't at risk of getting sick from taking care of you."

Aoba looked up, eyes wide. "It's not like that! I don't wanna be by your side right now because I feel indebted, I... I do because I wish you'll feel the same way I felt then. Though I was still terrified, I felt protected. You treated my wounds, helped me shower and even picked me clothes because I couldn't get up from bed to do it myself. You were still there when I fell asleep.

"Maybe you don't know... how big that was for me, because the shock was still there the morning after and I was so anxious over too many things. The bad things clouded over my reasoning and I wasn't able to show it... But I'm happy that you're with me."

Noiz was staring at him in awed silence. Aoba felt his face heating up from the undivided attention.

"And, well, about the last part. I know enough about you to know that you wouldn't care even if I was sick then. So please... don't think I wouldn't do the same for you."

Noiz blinked slowly, and just hugged Aoba as tight as he could in his condition—which wasn't too tight. Aoba balled a fist on the back of Noiz's shirt.

They stayed like that until Aoba looked up hastily, looking apologetic.

"Ah- sorry, you said you were feeling too hot, it must be sweltering with me."

Noiz smiled. "No. It's fine like this."

Aoba got up some time after that to change the water for the compress and they talked until Noiz started feeling sleepy again. At that point, even Aoba was tired too, and they lied in bed together; Aoba spooning Noiz, because despite Aoba's bold declaration, Noiz insisted that he didn't want to sneeze or cough on Aoba. The bed was bigger than Aoba's, but they were still snug together.

 


 

On Sunday morning, Noiz drove Mizuki (and a sleepy Aoba) to the airport. He had woken up on Saturday not much better than the night before, thus he had to take the day off. Aoba couldn't afford to do the same and worried about leaving him for work, but Noiz could already walk without puking, so things turned out just fine. Now, he only had his stupid runny nose to complain about.

"Y' know, you said you two weren't getting married, but that was some married life I saw yesterday," Mizuki sneered, dragging his wheeled suitcase past the entrance.

"You don't have any right to joke about that kind of thing," Noiz sighed tiredly, wiping his nose with a tissue.

"He was so tired from taking care of you all night that he blacked out in the middle of the ride, even though he said he'd see me off." Mizuki wiped an inexistent tear mockingly and Noiz rolled his eyes. Having left so early, Mizuki bought a cup of coffee at one of the shops and they stood beside a garbage bin, for Noiz's convenience.

Mizuki had returned to Noiz's place the night before. Noiz guessed the guy would stay glued to Sei's side until the last minute, but he had to go back and pack his things. In addition, Aoba had nagged him to sleep properly before his flight because he had complained that he couldn't settle down to sleep in a plane and wound up tired. Thus, he had been there, third-wheeling the entire thing.

"Do you think you'll really be able to come back in a week? You have a lot in your hands," Noiz mused casually, looking around the lively airport. There was more than enough time before Mizuki needed to check-in his bags.

By the floor-to-ceiling windows, one could see an orange light rising over sparse clouds in the horizon, breaking into the pale blue morning and painting the underside of the thicker puffs of clouds with fiery reflections of the sun. Compared to the last few days, it was an overwhelmingly colorful dawn.

"Well, I did say that, but... I'm pretty sure that's impossible." Mizuki laughed disconcertingly, sipping on his coffee. "I'll try my best but it wouldn't be weird if I only came back after two or three weeks."

"And I doubt you're swimming in money for tickets too."

Mizuki waved his hand dismissively. "Don't mind the small problems, don't mind."

Noiz sighed. "Just make sure you actually let Aoba know. Different from five years ago, now I know what's happening and I will drag you back here by your ankle if need be." 

Mizuki flinched at the blow. Quickly recovering, he huffed indignantly. "You're a really cruel guy, you know. That won't happen."

Noiz scoffed. "Yeah. I believe you."

Mizuki looked at him sullenly, but then his eye glimmered with a devilish glint.

"Indeed, I should take you as a role model when it comes to relationships. By the way, I saw the gift you got for Aoba."

"What- How?"

"Yes, yes, you really are a sly guy, huh? You-"

"MIZUKIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!"

The blood-curling scream echoed in the open area; Mizuki almost spilled coffee all over himself in his shock and conversations around them seemed to have been cut short, leaving a deafening silence in its wake.

Noiz looked over Mizuki's shoulder as the man himself turned around to look at the airport doors.

About forty meters away, Aoba was bracing his hands on his knees, head down as he panted frantically, trying to maintain enough air in his lungs. Murmurs started bubbling in the area and Noiz was about to step around Mizuki to check on Aoba, but the man grabbed at the doorframe—his phone clasped in his hand, Noiz realized—and rasped something under his rare breath.

Noiz started jogging towards him, frowning worriedly.

"What did you just-"

Aoba raised his head, not completely spent yet, apparently. From that distance, Noiz could see that his eyes were reddened. He inhaled and Noiz stopped in his tracks.

"Sei- Sei woke up!!"

After another long silence followed, everyone was getting fidgety at the seemingly Japanese man yelling in apparent Japanese in the German airport. But Noiz only looked back to see Mizuki staring right through him (and through Aoba too, most likely), mouth gaping open and eyes almost bulging out of his skull, clearly undecided on whether he should scream back or faint on the spot.

He opted to drop his unfinished cup of coffee right there and almost run over Noiz and Aoba on his way outside. Aoba followed right behind him and Noiz sighed, walking back to Mizuki's abandoned suitcase and apologizing briefly to the cleaning staff that was coming towards the mess of coffee on the previously pristine floor.

Noiz exited the airport with the luggage to see Aoba practically dragging Mizuki from one side of the sidewalk to the other—he had probably rescued him from running in the exact opposite direction to the hospital. Noiz approached the two, throwing them a withering look.

"We came here on my car, you know, what the hell are you scampering around for?"

They jumped into the car and followed to the hospital, Aoba trying to calm Mizuki down while not being able to even calm himself down. Noiz valiantly ignored Mizuki asking if they were there yet and couldn't he go faster, and in record time, they were climbing out at the hospital. Noiz had to glare at the fretful duo so they wouldn't run all the way there, and so, they walked in very hurried steps.

Noiz could hear Mizuki trying to hold back tears as they walked out of the elevator at the third floor. Aoba's mouth was set on a firm line, hands clenched in trembling fists. He let them take the lead as they approached the room, and when Aoba pushed the door open, Noiz only watched over their shoulders. Mizuki stifled a sob with his hand.

Seragaki Sei was reclined on his pillows, eyes open as two nurses stood by his bed and Dr. Virus was right beside him, saying something while holding a clipboard. They all turned to the door at the ruckus and Sei blinked, looking over at them too.

The early morning's warming sun broke over the concrete mountains of the city and invaded the room, bouncing off the white walls and bathing everything in amber light. It was bound to be a warm day, a faint prelude of spring when Sei smiled faintly. That moment, Mizuki realized his poor memory would never do justice to the experience of seeing the deep-space darkness in Sei's eyes dissolving into rich, warm brown under the sunlight.

Chapter Text

"Did you hear? About the Japanese kid?"

"Yes, yes! Sei Seragaki, right?"

"I heard about it, but I never saw him..."

"He's in this ward. After five years... It's like a movie, huh?"

"Mhm, his family must be over the moon! If I remember well, he had a brother?"

"He does, I'd see him sometimes when I went to check on..."

Noiz watched the three female nurses chatter away as they passed by the waiting room. Aoba was the only one allowed in Sei's room, so despite Mizuki's lemon-sucking frown to Virus (who, naturally, grinned at him petulantly), he had to sit outside with Noiz, who didn't want to go in anyway, due to his cold.

Like those three, other staff had walked by them at this point, all of them commenting on Sei. It didn't come as a surprise to Noiz; a guy suddenly waking up after being in a coma for half a decade, that should be a topic at least in this ward. In contrast to those murmurs, the space beside Noiz was quiet.

"Mizuki," Noiz called out.

Silence.

"Mizuki?"

After being ignored again, Noiz focused his gaze on his friend. Mizuki was staring off into space, unblinking, lines of tears dried down his cheeks... It was a bit of a comical picture.

"Oi, Mizuki." Noiz tried again, voice firmer.

That seemed to pull Mizuki back to Earth. After flinching in alert, he turned his head towards Noiz.

"... Are you okay?"

In response, Mizuki only blinked slowly at him before a spark spread in his eyes. Then, Mizuki looped his arms around Noiz's neck—probably supposed to be a hug, but he tightened his hold like a viper. Noiz coughed a choked up breath and called out to Mizuki with a few pats on his back.

"Shit," he finally muttered, and Noiz blinked.

"Huh?"

"I'm so happy. I think I'm gonna die."

"You better not. Your love story is tear-jerking enough as it is."

"Thank you."

"... For what?"

"I don't know. Everything, I guess."

Noiz snorted and patted his back.

"I'm glad for you and Aoba. Now let me go, clingy old man."

Aoba came back almost an hour later, eyes glassy and puffy from crying so much. He sat at Noiz's other side and sighed heavily, leaning back on his seat.

"Um, so..." Mizuki started hesitatingly, shifting on his seat to look at him.

"I can't believe this is happening," Aoba blurted out, looking at the far wall. "I've been waiting all this time but... I'm so happy, damn."

He let his head slip towards Noiz's shoulder, and then leaned up to properly lace his arms around his neck, face dipped into the line of his collarbone. Noiz blinked down at him, entertained.

"Is this a popular thing to do now?"

"Noiz-kun... That happens when people are so happy they can't fit all that happiness inside them. So they want to share it with the ones dear to them," Mizuki explained with one finger raised, eyes owlish.

"Thanks for the footnote."

"It seems you still have a lot to learn about human emotions."

Aoba chuckled at their antics and raised his head, wiping a stray tear on the corner of his eye.

"I don't even know what I'll do with myself today. There's no way I'll concentrate at work like this."

"And uh, how's he?" Mizuki asked carefully.

Aoba tilted his head thoughtfully against Noiz's. "Well... Virus' still checking his responses to see how he's fairing, and he'll run some tests too. Sei's awake, but not entirely aware yet, it seems. He's a bit slow to process the things he sees and hears, but it's too early to determine what's temporary or not. Virus said he was surprisingly calm when they came in, and he managed to mutter a couple of words... Virus said it sounded an awful lot like our names."

Mizuki gasped joyfully and Noiz huffed when his friend hugged him from his other side again, hands settling over Aoba in the process. At that point, it had turned into a bit of group hug, except Noiz was just lost in the middle.

"Stop squeezing me, are you that eager to get snot all over you?"

Mizuki sighed condescendingly. "Noiz, if you're going to talk about snot when we're having a moment, we'll have to kindly tape your mouth shut."

Noiz clicked his tongue, but stayed put. Let them do whatever they pleased. It was constricting, but he had to admit it was just a little nice.

 


 

Later that morning, after they came to terms with the news and managed to settle down, Mizuki finally remembered he had purposefully ditched his flight and lost his non-refundable ticket. Noiz thought it was amusing to see Mizuki lamenting over his money going down the drain and Aoba wanting to scold him but having no room to do so, since he was the one who had come into the airport screaming.

Still, Mizuki was sure that, had he found out that Sei had woken up after landing on Midorijima, he would've jumped into the first plane back. Everything paled in comparison to opening that door and seeing Sei's smile. The money would have been spent one way or another; at least he didn't have to make the long journey to Japan and then back.

Mizuki woke up the next morning to a message from Aoba, saying that he'd be allowed to see Sei today and giving him the new room number and floor he had been transferred to. After answering the text, his phone suddenly started vibrating in his hand; Aoba was calling. Blinking in confusion, Mizuki picked up, heading to Noiz's kitchen.

"Mizuki?"

"Hey... What's up? Aren't you in the middle of work?"

"Yeah, but I asked for a little break. There's something we should talk about."

Mizuki felt his gut twist uncomfortably at the somber tone in Aoba's voice.

"Okay, shoot."

Aoba exhaled on the other end. Mizuki could almost see him fiddling with his hair nervously. "I guess we should've talked about this properly before. I know I can take anything, but... you might be expecting a lot of things from Sei after waking up."

"Well... I'm honestly relieved that it seems that he remembers you and me, at least."

"I was too. But you have to understand something; Sei has sustained serious brain damage. There's no way he came out of that coma unscathed. Yesterday... It didn't especially look like he had recognized me when I went into his room. He wasn't even awake most of the time, he didn't move or say a word for a long time." Then, surprisingly, Aoba laughed. "But I think he called me old before falling asleep at some point."

Mizuki huffed out a laugh, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.

"That isn't exactly wrong. It has been five years."

Mizuki could hear the weak smile in Aoba's voice. "Yeah. But Virus is monitoring him even more closely than before and he alerted me to be ready for anything, from physical disability to personality changes. There are all kinds of story, you know—people changing completely from who they used to be."

Mizuki gulped. He did know about everything Aoba was talking about; he knew a five-year-long coma wasn't just a little nap, and he thought he could take anything as long as Sei made out alive. But, as the reality sank down on his shoulders along with Aoba's words, there was a chill in his chest; like having a hole drilled into it and feeling January's wind blowing through, prickling at his innards.

He had been so single-minded in waiting for Sei to wake up, but the Sei that was alive now... might not be the same as before. And now, at the eleventh hour, he realized that it did matter to him—in the pit of his stomach, he feared that Sei would look at him like a stranger. It wasn't easy, admitting to himself that he still wasn't as selfless as he would like to be for Sei. There was no telling whether their relationship could survive this or not.

"Mizuki, are you there?"

He flinched at the calling, his mind quickly returning to their conversation.

"Uh- Yeah, I am. Sorry."

Aoba sighed. "Just... I thought you needed the warning. When he collapsed, I thought for a moment if I should just let him go..."

"...! Aoba, what-"

"Shh, don't even," Aoba cut him off, and Mizuki clamped his lips shut. "I thought about it. I had to consider all of my options, and my head was filled with thoughts of doing what was right for everyone. I thought my head would explode. That night, Noiz told me I should be selfish and take only myself and Sei into consideration.

"Because I was selfish and stubborn, Sei woke up, but neither you nor I can be selfish anymore. Now, if we choose to stay by his side, we have to be clear on the fact that it's entirely for him, and to support him, and understand that he may just... not be grateful."

Mizuki let out a shuddering breath, nodding even though Aoba couldn't see.

"I know."

"I'm saying this so you won't be too hurt, but honestly, it'll be inevitable. Just try not to... take it personally if he blows up at you or doesn't want you to be around. And don't resent him if, by the time he recovers, he's not the same Sei you grew up with. Please."

Mizuki breathed deeply, hardening his resolve.

"Okay. Thanks, Aoba." They hung up and he left his empty plate and cup on the sink before preparing his bag with snacks for a day he hoped to be able to spend with Sei.

The bright, warm Sunday seemed like little more than a mirage when Monday came with heavy, tempestuous clouds. Mizuki headed over to the hospital with his furled umbrella held tight in one hand, ready for the eventual downpour. Sunday had been a one-day-miracle, and Mizuki couldn't deny the poetic beauty of Sei waking up on such day, but it filled him with unease at the same time.

Hearing the low rumble of thunder, he opened the door and found Sei lying on his bed, eyes closed not unlike two days back. It was like a dream— a recurring one that would slowly sway him back to consciousness every time. His bleary gaze would settle on Sei's bed, the same for days and years, and he'd watch the image before him waver, distort and burn his eyelids.

When the door clicked shut behind him, Sei's eyelashes fluttered and he blinked slowly. His hair, cut three fingers shorter by Mizuki's clumsy hands, swished on the pillow's fabric as he tilted his head towards the sound. Sei's dark eyes peered silently at him as Mizuki smiled, shaking away memories of treacherous mornings.

"Sei, I'm home."

Sei blinked slowly, eyes narrowing as though he was trying to place Mizuki's face. A long, nerve-wracking silence followed and Sei furrowed his brow, twisting his chapped lips. He looked irritated and Mizuki nervously hovered by the door.

Before, Sei would've said something witty. He'd smile cheekily and ask Mizuki if he intended to stand there all morning. Now, Sei was just long silences, unknown expressions and mannerisms.

Carefully, Mizuki stepped away from the door and sat on a metal chair placed beside the bed.

Sei's expression softened and he closed his eyes again, suddenly sighing. Mizuki was relieved that he had, apparently, done the right thing.

"Um... Sei? Sorry, it's fine if you can't talk, but it's okay if I do, right?"

Sei simply leaned back on his pillows, lashes fluttering and throwing faint shadows over his cheeks. Mizuki's chest swelled up with warmth to the point it felt like exploding.

As always, Mizuki was kicked out by nurses over the course of the day, as they had to do things like checking Sei for bedsores and repositioning him. Sei also had to leave the room to undergo various tests, but it was a fairly peaceful day.

As he had been doing for the last two weeks, Mizuki talked about Midorijima and what had happened while Sei was unconscious. He was careful not to talk too quickly and reduced the volume of his voice when he realized Sei was getting antsy.

While he talked, Sei would look at him with blank eyes, but sometimes he'd close them, or avert his gaze altogether. It didn't seem to have any specific pattern to it, so Mizuki didn't mind. There were also times where it seemed like Sei was about to talk and Mizuki nearly had a heart attack, but then nothing left his lips. The only movement Sei ever did was with his eyes.

However, after dark, when Sei fixed him with a glare for the first time, Mizuki scrambled for an appropriate response.

"U-um, do you want me to shut up?"

Sei was still glaring at him.

Idiot, he's probably not even catching half of what you're saying. You're just like a fly buzzing at his ears! I need to be careful not to overload him.

Mizuki smiled weakly. "You must be tired. I'll come back tomorrow, okay?"

He got up slowly, but a faint gasp made him stop and turn back.

Sei blinked up at him, eyes wide and focused. Mizuki stared at him as he slowly lifted a trembling hand and lightly bumped his fingers on Mizuki's, brows knitted as though he wasn't sure how to go the extra mile and firm his grip.

Mizuki found his fingertips held precariously between two of Sei's, shifting uncertainly as if it was so easy to slip away. It probably was; and the fact that Sei was using all of his strength to reach for him almost made Mizuki cry on the spot. With a small grin, Mizuki closed warm hands around Sei's and placed it back on the mattress before sitting on the chair once again.

He shut up after that, and it seemed to be the right answer, because Sei looked calm again, eyes slipping shut.

A couple of hours later, Sei seemed to have fallen asleep, given his regular breathing. Mizuki had leaned forward, folded his arms on the side of the mattress and settled his head for a quick nap, just a little rest until he had to go to the armchair in the corner of the room. At the hospital, his sleep was always light, fitful. The faintest of sounds roused him—it had been like that, the night Sei collapsed.

Mizuki was almost asleep when he felt fingers in his hair and heard someone humming low. It was a song that tickled at his memories; felt like wind beating at his hair and tasted briny on his tongue. It could be something from his childhood, but he couldn't quite place it. Completely giving up on the considerably more comfortable armchair, Mizuki let the tension melt from his body under the unstable rhythm of Sei's lullaby.

 


 

Instead of the usual broken, repetitive and hazy dreams he'd usually have, Mizuki found himself back in a memory. Despite the long years gone by, it was still clear in his mind; a salty but refreshing smell, the all-encompassing sound of waves washing over the shore, a church bell ringing distantly. The warmth of a hand on his, the barely-there breeze caressing his hair, the sand crunching under his sandals.

"Thanks for bringing me here," said a soft voice beside him. Sei.

As his vision cleared before him, showing a long stretch of dampened white sand before them, Mizuki turned his head to Sei, a few good centimeters shorter than him.

Mizuki chuckled. "It was nothing. You've been saying you wanted to come here forever."

On Sei's sixteenth birthday, Mizuki had taken him to a beach, specifically the beach where he'd go with Aoba and their dad when they were children. Sei wanted to revisit it, but the coast was quite far away from the Old Residential District so Tae-san didn't allow him to go alone. He tried asking Aoba to go with him but Aoba refused, resentful of his missing father's memories.

Thus they were here, under a mild weather and birds chirping as they flew over the coast and into the forest, the oncoming evening painting the sky orange and pink. It was also a school day for Sei, which possibly classified Mizuki as a bad influence—Sei had joked about it earlier. They spent most of the afternoon watching the waves, getting the hem of their pants wet once or twice, but now they needed to get to the bus stop and return home.

A chilly wind swatted the shore and made Sei's raven hair fly haphazardly around his face. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed flush to Mizuki's side.

"Cold!" Sei interjected in a whine, one hand tightening around Mizuki's while he raised the other to his brow and opened one eye, looking over to the sea.

Mizuki felt his face flushing as he peered down at Sei, feeling his warm body so close to his own. The big, wooly grey shirt Sei wore had shifted slightly; the collar slipped to show the pale juncture of his neck and shoulder, inky hair spilling over in a stark contrast of night and day. Before he could be caught staring, Mizuki shut his eyes and turned his head to the other side.

It had been a while since he started looking at Sei with those eyes; not only loving and cherishing anymore, but lustful, longing to touch. He wasn't proud of it, but he had slept with some people for the sole purpose of getting his mind off it when it got too bad—when he found himself one inch too close, a bit too intoxicated by his scent. It was ridiculous even for himself, how quickly he had been overcome by that greed.

Mizuki was a soon-to-be nineteen-year-old who couldn't stop envisioning scenarios where he'd mark and bite at the shoulder blades of his sixteen-year-old childhood friend. His most likely virgin childhood friend, who he had more-or-less promised to marry ten years ago. They never talked about it again, but they existed around each other as though both accepted their shared destiny as fact.

"I can get our jackets out," Mizuki offered, patting the messenger bag he was carrying as the bouts of wind eased off. It wasn't summer, not even close to it, but he was counting his blessings that it wasn't raining at least.

"No no, it's fine. It can wait until we get to the bus shelter," Sei replied, never undraping himself from Mizuki's side as they left the beach and followed the paved path to the bus stop.

Sei started humming a song on the way, the cadence of it flowing familiarly through Mizuki's ears.

"What song is that?" he found himself asking, peering at Sei's profile.

"Ah, um... it's a lullaby that Granny would sing to me and Aoba when we were little, but I don't know the name."

"Tae-san? Singing?"

Sei's laughter trilled in the air.

"Well, she hummed, just like I'm doing now. Her voice got too rough from scolding us, but maybe I'll ask about the song's lyrics one day."

Mizuki laughed lightly, and they fell into silence once more, nearly in front of the bus stop. He missed Sei's humming, and momentarily chided himself for cutting him off.

"Mizuki?"

"Huh...?"

The moment he turned his head to Sei, the boy in question was springing up on his toes, breath rushing over Mizuki's face in the next second. All he could see were eyes like black holes, overpowering, drawing him in.

Mizuki's hand slipped off Sei's as he jumped away with a choked up yelp. He blinked bewilderedly at Sei, who fixed him with quirked up eyebrows and a small, impatient pout.

"W-what are you d-doing?" Mizuki stammered, face red like a boiling octopus.

Sei's shoulders slumped, frowning slightly. "Mizuki, you know... I'm not dumb."

"... Huh?" was his eloquent retort. Sei snorted.

"You look at me like you want to kiss me."

A lot more than kissing, but sure, let's go with that. "Oh..."

"So why won't you?"

"Well... you're barely a sixteen-year-old and..."

"Huhh?" Sei looked at him like Mizuki was the dumbest living creature walking the Earth and, to be fair, Mizuki did feel like that. Or, at least, he should be a strong contender on that side of the coast at the moment. "So what? Most sixteen-year-olds have kissed, that much is normal."

"Yeah, but... once we kiss, I don't know if I can... I'll want to do more."

Sei blinked at him, traces of his exasperation bleeding out slowly as realization dawned on him. His cheeks flushed profusely, and he had to actively close his gaping mouth.

Mizuki, feeling embarrassed for himself and Sei, turned his back to him and went to sit on the bench at the bus stop shelter, evading his eyes.

He heard a heavy sigh and nearing footsteps as Sei walked towards him and sat by his side.

"Well, Aoba isn't a virgin anymore. I guess I could do it too."

"Wha-"

"That reminds me," Sei cut him off. "He did say he saw you hanging around the clubs in the Southern district, and that Koujaku told him you're suddenly taking people home."

Sei didn't say those words with an ounce of accusation, but rather like a comment on Japan's current political climate. Despite that, Mizuki felt shame prickling up the hairs on his arms, throat closing up uncomfortably.

"I..."

"Hey." Sei knocked his shoulder on Mizuki's, prompting him to lift his head and look at Sei, who was smiling softly. "You don't need to make excuses for me. I mean," he turned his eyes to his feet, shuffling on concrete. "It's not like we are dating."

"I think promising to get married as kids is quite strong a bond, though," Mizuki remarked weakly.

Sei laughed heartily. "I guess you're right."

They heard thunder rumbling distantly in the quickly darkening sky; their luck was nearly running out, apparently. At least the bus stop had a roof and a rear wall. Mizuki glanced at his watch; the bus would be there in half an hour, give or take.

"I won't stop you," Sei started again, laying his head on Mizuki's shoulder and snaking one arm around his. "But I'll admit it does make me jealous."

Mizuki looked down at him, eyes blown wide. It was a bit too cold for comfort but he could feel sweat beading at his neck, rolling down his back. He turned his flushed face to the other side.

"W-well... I didn't kiss any of those people," he confessed in a grumble.

There was a pause during which Sei processed the information and Mizuki waited to be laughed at. He felt Sei's head shifting on his shoulder to look in his direction.

"Really...?" He asked, seemingly more to himself than seeking a confirmation. Mizuki nodded anyway.

"Just. Didn't feel right."

"And you never kissed anyone?"

"No..."

Sei hummed in understanding. The weight of his head on Mizuki's shoulder disappeared.

"Then," he said after a moment, and the playful smile was audible in his voice. "You should just kiss me now."

Mizuki ducked his head. "I told you I will..."

"Yeah, you did. And, to be honest, you're right; the idea of sex is a bit too much for me, at least for now. But I doubt you're the uncontrollable beast you're painting yourself as."

Sei fit his hand under Mizuki's chin and drew his face towards him, locking their gazes; dark, coffee brown fixed on clear, sea foam green.

His next words were soft, but uttered with firm certainty. "I know you won't do anything I don't want you to. You'll never hurt me. I trust you with my life, Mizuki."

Mizuki looked into his hard, determined eyes, and an objection never made to his tongue. Never even formed inside his brain.

After the first tentative drops, the rain started pouring on the bus stop's roof in earnest, wearing the scene in streaks of glass and crystal, the almost rhythmic pulse of fat raindrops hitting their shelter louder than the buzzing in Mizuki's ears as he leaned forward, eyes fluttering shut as Sei's warm lips enveloped his own.

That moment, Mizuki knew for sure that he was ruined for anyone else.

 


 

Mizuki woke up to a hand shaking his shoulder and a subsequent jab of pain on his lower back.

"You slept in a really bad position," said a breezy voice in Japanese. Mizuki's mood soured immediately as he recognized it: Virus' voice.

Mizuki righted himself, grunting low. Sei was apparently asleep, his breathing rhythmic and deep.

"I'll need you to step out for a while," Virus said evenly, and Mizuki had to swallow down his automatic suspicion, like every day for the last two weeks.

"Alright." Mizuki said, getting up with yet another grunt of pain and grabbing his bag, heading out of the room.

He ended up having to wait for longer because, apparently, Sei woke up and asked to bathe immediately. When he started staying with Sei, he thought of asking nurses to let him deal with that, but with Sei's body being more fragile, he decided against it after all. Besides, his English was only a little less awkward than his German, so he avoided talking to the staff as much as possible.

When he came back into the room, Sei looked refreshed, eyes closed and leaning back on the pillows with a faint smile. Mizuki couldn't stop his lips from curling up in much the same way.

"Good morning, Sei."

Sei opened his eyes and his smile grew a bit wider. Pursing his lips to keep himself from grinning like an idiot, Mizuki sat by Sei's bedside.

"What are you doing here?" Sei queried, a bit too slurred and slow but otherwise understandable.

Sei's voice had always been soft but it was even more now, having gone unused for so long. His throat might've been a bit hoarse from his time breathing with the ventilator too. Mizuki swallowed down the knot in his throat.

"I have been visiting you for some time now," he answered, quickly brushing off his confusion at the question.

Maybe Sei had forgotten about yesterday, but it had happened either way. The touch of his fingers, the lullaby. Mizuki would commit everything to memory.

It was Sei's turn to blink confusedly.

"But... We are all the way in Germany. You should be in Midorijima."

"I should, but I came here to see you."

"Oh... okay then."

Sei grinned bashfully, cheeks dusted pink and eyes alight with affection. Mizuki couldn't help but mimic the expression. He wondered if that was the "rose-colored world" Noiz had talked about so many months ago, but he reminded himself not to get too attached to these moments. Sei was having a good day for now, but it might change and he had to be prepared.

They weren't able to keep up conversation for long—not only because it was draining for Sei, but it was hard to get very far when he confused words or neither of them understood what the other was saying. Mizuki had been more than glad to make up for it by speaking non-stop, even when Sei seemed to be asleep. This time, Sei did tell him to shut up, and he obeyed immediately with a sheepish smile.

After a long silence, Mizuki's phone rang in his pocket and Sei immediately winced, shoulders hunched.

Mizuki jumped from his seat, hands flying to his phone and hanging up the call on reflex. "Sorry, Sei! That-"

Sei raised his hands slowly, trying to cover his ears. "Loud."

Mizuki flinched, lowering his voice. "Sorry."

After a tense moment, Sei's hands came down to rest on his stomach again and his face softened into a placid expression. Mizuki sat down on the chair once more and checked the call he refused. His eyes widened.

It was one of the guys from Dry Juice. Of course... he was supposed to be away for only two weeks. What's more, in his euphoria with Sei's awakening, he hadn't remembered to notify them about his stay stretching a bit longer, and they had been left in the dark. His team, being the biggest team in the Old Residential District, couldn't go leaderless like that.

When he failed to put his phone in silence mode and it rang one more time, Sei gave Mizuki the metaphorical kick to the ass with a strained "get out", and he was quick to oblige. Mizuki was sure he would have yelled if he had the vocal potency at the time.

Making into the waiting room of that area, Mizuki took the chance to return the call to Sakazaki, his second-in-command.

After relieving him of his worries, telling him to let all the members know that he was completely fine, Sakazaki started talking about the many emergent issues that needed his attention. Besides the protection of their turfs and the bonds with other Rib teams they had to care for, Mizuki had to worry about his bar and tattoo parlor, Black Needle, too.

Mizuki hang up the phone and sighed. Dry Juice couldn't go on leaderless and any weakness shown by them would be like a gaping wound exposed to the more ravenous, power-hungry Rib teams. The Old Residential District was an area forgotten by the law, stuck between the corrupt police force and the rabid Yakuza. There were people depending on Mizuki's protection.

Besides that, there was Black Needle, and his financial reserves for his two-week stay were nearly exhausted. Mizuki had to come to terms with the hard reality that he would have to leave soon. His Rib team couldn't go on any longer without a leader, nor could his business go on without its owner, and money was a problem all on its own. He had to head back to, at least, settle things for good and return to Sei's side.

When he returned after lunch, Sei didn't seem opposed to his presence, so he stayed. Sei didn't speak at all, either napping or zoning out most of the time. Mizuki left him to his own devices, reading a book Aoba had borrowed him. From over the tome, Mizuki let his eyes hover around the room and couldn't stop thinking about how bland it looked. The first time he saw Sei, it had bothered him that the place he had lived for the past few years was so sterile, impersonal. It was still the same in this room.

At some point of the night, Sei noticed him and asked about the book he had.

"Oh... I don't really know, I just started reading. I think it's about a group of kids trying to save their favorite amusement park from closing down."

"I want to read it."

"Now?"

"Yeah. Gimme."

Mizuki was a bit taken aback, but complied. Sei was probably getting bored from being cooped up in his room and only leaving for medical exams and, starting today, rehabilitation. He returned the book to page one and put it open on Sei's extended hands, watching his stiff fingers trying to get a firm grip on it.

When Mizuki's hand crept closer, meaning to help him, Sei batted his hand away. The book fell on Sei's lap as Mizuki stared, wide-eyed with his hand frozen in the air. Under Sei's scowl, which he admired and feared at once, he pulled away and stayed quiet as Sei tried to pick up the book again.

After a ten-minute struggle, Sei raised the open book before him with a victorious little grin and a trembling grip, and Mizuki had to hold back his own smile, leaning back on his seat. Sei's eyes skimmed the lines of words and sentences as Mizuki looked on, but his smile was quickly vanishing and with it, Mizuki got increasingly worried.

Sei dropped the book closed on his lap, eyes squeezing shut before hiding them behind his hands.

"S-Sei, are you okay?" Mizuki asked hesitatingly.

"I'm okay," Sei snapped immediately, though his face was calm.

Mizuki didn't press the issue, and didn't get too surprised when Sei told him to leave him alone for the night.

 


 

"They don't allow flowers in that hospital, Mizuki."

He groaned at Aoba's words, holding his phone to his ear as he poured coffee in a cup. It had been his first thought when he decided to take something to Sei's room to liven up the place.

"I don't know what to take, then. What would hospitals have against flowers anyway?"

Aoba laughed on the other end.

"Why don't you take the teddy bear? Isn't it in your room right now?" Noiz asked from his seat at the table, finishing the last of his toasts.

Mizuki blinked, and then stared at his friend fixedly. Noiz tilted his head with a raised eyebrow.

"You're a genius, Noiz! Geez, what a smart boy I've raised!" Mizuki ran up to him and patted his head as Aoba cussed him out on the phone for yelling in his ear. Noiz swatted his hand nonchalantly.

"So what, your big mystery is solved?" Aoba questioned petulantly.

"Indeed, thank you for your guidance, Aoba. We'll talk later, okay?"

Aoba huffed. "Yeah, yeah, I need to get to work now anyway. Bye."

Thus, Mizuki headed to the hospital in high spirits, holding the bag with the teddy bear.

When he pushed the door open, he saw Sei awake and seemingly bathed already, with the book from yesterday in hands. Mizuki didn't look too much nor did he comment on it.

"Good morning, Sei. I brought you something."

Sei raised his eyes from the tome with arched eyebrows.

Mizuki pulled the teddy bear from the paper bag. "Ta-da! What do you think?"

Lowering the open book on his lap, Sei stared at him deadpan. "I'm not a kid."

At that, Mizuki visibly wilted. "But you like teddy bears."

Sei averted his gaze. "I don't know about that."

Mizuki started putting the teddy bear back in the bag, when Sei spoke up again.

"You can put it on the table."

Mizuki had half a mind to ask Sei why he had been so defensive if he was going to let him put the plushy there, but Mizuki just placed it on the bedside table as requested. Sei went back to reading immediately, and Mizuki wondered how he was fairing, wondered if he had been trying to get the hang of it since yesterday.

That morning, the female nurses that showed up to check on Sei commented on how cute the teddy bear was. Mizuki laughed disconcertingly while Sei ignored them in favor of reading, if he wasn't sleeping at the time.

"Bring more books if you can," Sei said at some point, breaking the silence.

"Huh?"

"I... want to try reading more."

"Ah... Okay, I'll talk to Aoba about it."

Sei nodded and went back to the book.

After returning from lunch, Mizuki was told by one of the nurses that Sei was doing rehab, so he stayed in the waiting room, texting Noiz and bugging him just because he could—until Noiz blocked him. Under Aoba's and Noiz's message threads, the number of unread threads increased as he stopped opening the texts from Dry Juice members, always telling himself he'd get to them later.

Mizuki raised his gaze from his phone screen as he heard someone clear their throat. It was a young, blonde nurse that looked slightly nervous.

"Excuse me. Your friend is back to his room," she stammered, getting tongue-tied in her English pronunciation.

"Ahh," Mizuki tried to smile reassuringly. "Okay, thanks."

She perked up and nodded, seemingly happy that she was understood, and strode towards another waiting nurse, saying something in quick German before they went on their way.

Mizuki got up from his seat and headed in the opposite direction. He passed by the other doors as he walked through the long hallway, faintly humming Sei's song. As he pushed the room's door open, he found Sei crying and sobbing profusely in his bed, arms lifted at both sides of his downcast head, pulling at his hair.

"Sei!" Mizuki ran to his side, panic rising up his spine and making him nearly light-headed.

"Shut up shut up shut up..." Sei mumbled between sobs.

"Sei, talk to me, please," Mizuki pleaded, hands closing around Sei's wrists.

That was when he snapped. Sei sprung up at him with eyes filled with rage and despair in a way he had never seen before, face marked with tears and shining red, mouth twisted in a snarl. His next words were spat on Mizuki's face.

"SHUT UP!" he screamed.

"Sei...!"

He continued, words slurred and strung together almost unintelligibly. "You're not the one stuck with a fucking useless body!! You-"

Sei broke in a coughing fit, trying to cry and gurgle out words at the same time. The heart monitor's beeping, which had long turned into background noise for Mizuki, was spiking up dangerously. He took the chance to press the nurse call button on the bed rail, before snaking his arms around Sei.

"Sei, please, listen, we are going to make it through this. Please, please let me help you-"

Sei coughed, trying to resist Mizuki's grip with little to no success. He babbled, "You can't help shit. I can't- and I have to keep eating and pissing out of tubes because I- can't even do this much by myself."

"Please, don't-"

"Fuck you and Aoba for this... Why, why did you..." The nurses rushed in before he could finish that sentence, to Mizuki's relief. He wasn't sure he could hold himself together if he had to hear it from Sei's mouth.

He stepped away and let the two nurses, a man and a woman, take care of the situation. Listening to Sei thrash and sob, spilling profanities and half-baked, garbled phrases, they seemed to have decided to sedate Sei, as Mizuki saw the woman injecting something into the tubing of Sei's IV while the man held his arms down, saying something in German. The room was soon quiet again, and the nurses let out a collective sigh.

Mizuki fidgeted undecidedly a few steps away, and the nurses naturally noticed him on their way out. The woman said something in German but, realizing she wasn't understood, she twisted her mouth before finally speaking up slowly, in English.

"Sorry. You should go."

Mizuki exhaled through his nose, shoulders slumping as he nodded, and the nurses walked out. Mizuki grabbed his bag and left right after, taking his phone out of his pocket and looking at the messages sent by people from his Rib team. He was running out of time with Sei, and it looked like he was making no difference being here anyway.

Later that night, Noiz was surprised to get home and find Mizuki draped on his couch, but after yesterday, he knew what that meant and didn't make any stupid questions.

"Are you even thinking about your plane tickets?" He asked instead, which was not much better for Mizuki either.

He sighed. "I am, I am. I'll buy it tomorrow, but... Honestly, I don't even have money."

"I'll borrow you," Noiz offered simply on his way to the kitchen, making Mizuki spring up on the couch.

"What?! No way, I don't want your rich people money-"

"All money is the same," Noiz argued plainly, as if it was a century old debate he was forced to participate in every time.

"I'll manage, don't worry," Mizuki said stubbornly.

Noiz huffed, plopping down on the couch beside Mizuki and putting a beer can on the coffee table before him.

"Cut it out already, you can pay me back later. You can't stay here forever and leave your business to the rats. You'd do the same for me."

"But I-"

Noiz clicked his tongue. "Stop complaining and drink up. You look like shit."

Mizuki glared at him but complied, opening the can and letting the bubbly liquid wash down his throat. He contemplated the possibility of going to sleep drunk like a raccoon so he wouldn't have to think about Sei's crying face in bed.

 


 

Thursday morning, Sei was calm and seemingly aware. He wasn't reading the book today and Mizuki slipped into the room after his customary "good morning", sitting at Sei's bedside. Sei looked like he was lost in his thoughts and Mizuki leaned back on his seat, letting them soak in the silence, only interrupted by the rain battering on the window.

Aoba and Noiz showed up to fetch Mizuki for lunch. Sei actually reacted when Aoba bashfully introduced Noiz as his boyfriend, his dark eyes wide and nearly gleaming. Mizuki had a blast watching Noiz being impeccably polite to Sei, who had a faint smile on his lips.

When the older twin candidly asked Noiz to take care of his brother, Noiz threw a cryptic smirk towards Aoba, saying "see? Now you're my bride too." Of course, neither Mizuki nor Sei understood Aoba's smiling pout.

An hour later, Mizuki returned and Sei was reading the book again. Dark brown eyes looked over the tome at Mizuki's approaching figure, reassuming his place at his bedside. Sei couldn't pinpoint it, but there was something wrong, he knew.

"Sei? Can I tell you something?" Mizuki asked suddenly, looking up at Sei, who blinked slowly at him before nodding.

"... I'm going back to Midorijima tonight." He had begrudgingly accepted Noiz's money for the ticket, promising to pay back as soon as he could. It had been bought an hour ago.

Sei blinked. "We are in Midorijima right now?"

Mizuki smiled. It wasn't the first or second time he mixed it up. "No, we're in Germany. This is another hospital."

"Oh, right."

He was met with silence. Mizuki chanced a glance upwards, and saw the downward pull on the corners of Sei's lips and his glazed eyes looking over Mizuki's head, staring at the rainwater trickling down his glass window.

"You're going already?"

Just like that, with Sei's barely audible whisper, Mizuki's heart broke in tiny million pieces. He felt as though they had lodged themselves in the spaces between his ribs like glass shards and poked his lungs, made it hard to breathe.

"I-I'm sorry, it's just... I have unfinished business with Dry Juice, see, and- I promise I'll be back in a heartbeat..."

"Huh?" Sei interjected, having a hard time making sense of Mizuki's stuttered and clipped response.

Mizuki caught himself and started again, more slowly, "U-uh... I need to settle things with Dry Juice. My Rib team."

"I know what Dry Juice is. Are you dissolving it?"

"No, I would never. I'll just withdraw and pass the leadership to Sakazaki and then I'll come back to stay for good."

Sei frowned deeply. "Don't do that. Dry Juice is your family."

Mizuki, like many times for the last few days, got lost in the changing lines of Sei's face. He had become so used to Sei's placid complexion during his coma that anything that warped his features more drastically was a sight, not unlike the first splash of paint on a canvas, or the rippling of pebbles on previously still water.

But he didn't want to see it distorted around tears and those resentful words ever again. To his ears, the walls seemed to be still ringing with Sei's screams, and the added hoarseness to Sei's voice hadn't escaped his attention.

"You're my family," Mizuki finally said.

Sei dropped his gaze for a moment, thoughtful.

"Maybe, but I know how important Dry Juice is for you. Don't make this decision because of me." Sei smiled, eyes on him once more, but it was strained.

Mizuki gulped. He had chosen Dry Juice over Sei once before. He didn't think of it like that at the time, but now he could confidently say that's what had happened, and he regretted it. He didn't want to make the same mistake again.

"So, what do you want me to do?" he asked, the slightest tremor in his voice.

"Why?"

"I'll do whatever you say."

A short pause. "Go. Wait for me."

"I can tell you don't want me to go," Mizuki said defiantly.

"Doesn't matter. You have to go."

"Sei, I let you go once. You came here with Aoba and I stayed behind, but I should've come... If I had come too..."

Sei simply blinked at him, eyebrows arched. Mizuki sighed heavily.

"Am I... that useless? Aren't I helping?"

Sei's eyes flitted away for a moment. "This is my business anyway. You're never useless; you and Aoba pulled me out of that... dark place. But you have other things to take care, and I have to recover. I'll work hard to go back as soon as possible."

Mizuki wanted to hold on to these words, but there were no guarantees that Sei wouldn't collapse once again while he was away. He wasn't entirely out of danger, and Mizuki had been worried enough about leaving to settle his affairs and go back, but to stay and wait... Mizuki couldn't imagine what he would do with himself if he didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Sei. He was sick and tired of running away. At least, he had to...

"Sei," he started, gathering all of his courage and firming his voice. "I don't know... what might happen. I've regretted not saying this before you fell sick, and I'm not testing my luck anymore. Sei, I-"

Sei brusquely shoved his hand over Mizuki's mouth, stifling his subsequent words. Mizuki's eyes grew wide.

"Don't say anything just because you're afraid you may not get to do it later. You will. I don't want to hear this under these circumstances..." Sei sighed, shoulders slumping, and he suddenly looked very tired.

Mizuki tried to say something again, but Sei shushed him.

"It's okay. But please... Tell me this when I'll know for sure that I'll answer accordingly. Tell me when I'll know for sure I'll never forget about it."

His hand brushed away from Mizuki's lips to cradle his jaw. His fingers were always twitching.

"Sei..."

"Have some faith in me, Mizuki."

Mizuki felt a jolt from the depths of his soul. There was nothing but a faint buzz in his ears, and an angry voice yelling undecipherable words. It sounded an awful lot like Aoba.

"You lost faith in my brother."

He breathed in, and then out. Sei stared up at him, pleading like Mizuki had never seen before—Sei had always been more on the "gentle coercion" side, rather than pleading. He was seeing so many new sides to Sei, and not all of them were beautiful, but if Sei allowed him, he wanted to know about every one of them. Mizuki wanted to relearn Sei and love him, love him every day until he died.

Mizuki got up from his seat, grabbing Sei's hand and slowly bringing it to his chest, over his beating heart. He grinned at his love.

"I have more faith in you than I have in myself."

He leaned down, but hesitated when Sei gasped and flinched under him.

"Sorry. I want to kiss you. Can I?" He asked softly.

Sei blinked owlishly at him, but nodded at last.

He dipped down and planted a delicate kiss on Sei's lips. He pressed against Mizuki in response, and they pulled away enough to bump foreheads together.

"I'll wait for you."

"Promise?" Sei asked, eyes locked with Mizuki's.

"Promise."

Chapter Text

"So, you're not coming back," Noiz said, deadpan.

"Nope! I promised Sei I'd wait for him!"

"And you're okay with that?"

Mizuki held his smile for an admirable amount of time before he sighed long-sufferingly. He visibly wilted on the spot, holding his suitcase and handbag at the same place they had been standing almost a week ago, when they weren't even thinking of Sei waking up any time soon.

"I miss him already. He said I should wait for him if I trust him, but... ugh, I don't wanna leave...!" Mizuki whined. Noiz rolled his eyes. The airport was a lot emptier, compared to before.

Noiz shoved his hands into his pockets. "Well, you'll have to anyway. But... don't you think you trust his words too much? Sei might not have been entirely lucid when he said those things. He could've regretted it already."

"No worries!" Mizuki assured him, puffing up his chest. "I asked whether he was serious so many times he kicked me out of his room again!"

"The hospital staff must be so sick of you."

"And I talked to Aoba, and he wasn't as mad as I thought he'd be. He trusts Sei's decision too."

"Your love story is really novel-worthy," Noiz intoned boringly, looking down at his watch. "Now, you should get going."

"Yeah, thanks. And though Sei wants me to wait for him, no one said anything about visiting! I'll let you know~" Mizuki waved cheerily and walked away to check-in his luggage and head to his gate.

Noiz waved with an amused smirk on his face and turned in the opposite direction, walking out of the airport as a mask of neutrality fell over his features. Under the open sky once more, his senses were alert, sharp green eyes skimming through the dark corners. His guard had been up since the news he had gotten, three days ago.

After only a week, his father had laid off Franz and the other investigators. Having received report after report only describing Noiz's uneventful and less-than-incriminating days, seeing pictures of Agnes and Noiz's lunch dates and getting lackluster information on Mizuki, he apparently got tired and dismissed their services. It was a calculated risk Noiz had taken when he started controlling the flow of information his father was getting, but he wasn't expecting his father to drop the investigators so fast. Now, he was ready to feel another pair of eyes following his back at any moment, knowing his father wouldn't back down like that.

When Noiz had just toed off his shoes at his house's entrance, his phone rung and vibrated vehemently in his pocket. He pulled it out and slid his finger across the screen to accept the call after looking at the contact name.

He held the phone pinched between his ear and his shoulder as he pulled his socks off his feet. "Theo? What is it?"

"Brother... this just crossed my mind, and I'd just like to confirm..."

Theo's voice on the other end of the line was grave. Noiz blinked, shrugging out of his suit jacket. At this hour, could it be about work?

"Yeah...?"

"You returned the books to the library, right?"

Noiz stopped in the middle of tugging off his tie. He squinted at a smudge on the wall of his living room.

"Wim..."

"I forgot."

"Wim!"

Noiz almost felt like laughing; what a stupid reason to call late at night. But he was glad it wasn't some office blunder he'd have to look through now, on top of everything else. He had completely forgotten about the books, since he left them at Aoba's place. Furthermore, Theo would probably not like to hear that he only got to finish one of them.

"It's fine. I'll pick them up at Aoba's tomorrow," he said easily.

"It's not fine, it's almost three weeks late! Go pick them up now."

Noiz huffed. "Let it complete three weeks then. I can't do that now, either way; Aoba's not at his place. But I won't forget it tomorrow."

"Geez..." Theo sighed. "I sure hope you at least finished reading them. And Mizuki-san? Did you drop him off at the airport?"

Noiz purposefully ignored the bait. "Yeah. He was spacing out the whole time, but he went."

"Aww, I bet he really didn't want to go. We should get together some day, all of us. I want to hang out with Aoba-san and Sei-san too!" By the end of the sentence, his voice had turned perky in a way that was entirely Theo. His smile was audible in his words.

Always the people person. Noiz snorted. "Yeah."

They said their goodbyes and hung up. After dinner and a quick shower, Noiz headed to his home office to finish some work he had to bring home. He yawned, conditioned to think of his bed after his nightly bath and looked at the clock on the wall of his study; it was almost midnight. Aoba was at the drugstore, downing cups of coffee most likely.

While his computer was starting, he sent a message to Aoba.

>> Can I get those books at your place tomorrow? Have to return them.

The answer came quickly. The drugstore wouldn't be too busy at midnight, after all.

>> Sure! Now that I think about it, I had them for way too long. Some fine you're gonna pay...

Noiz huffed and opened his e-mail address to get the files he'd need before sending a reply.

>> I could've gotten into the library's database and extended the return date, but too much trouble for just a fine.

>> Hey hey, that's overdoing it. (^ ^') Well, I completely forgot about it too, even though I read all three of them.

>> Theo will be all over you to discuss these books then. I only finished the "Captive Princess" one, he'll be pissed.

>> Haha, you should borrow them again and give them a read, they're really good! I've always been more into videogames than reading, but I don't really get to play these days.

Noiz arched one eyebrow. Now, that piqued his interest. How had they never touched this subject? He leaned back on his chair.

>> Is that so? Next time you come over, I'll dig up my old consoles. Prepare for the ass-beating of your life.

>> Ohhh, I tell you the same ( ò w ó )!!!! It's a date! Which ones do you have?!

They discussed old games they liked to play growing up and found they had many favorites in common, until Noiz realized two hours had gone by and the screen previously showing his e-mail inbox window had blacked out.

 


 

The moon was waxing, but all celestial bodies were hidden away by the thick, purple clouds cloaking the vast expanse of the night sky. Even though Noiz had been walking around with an umbrella at all times, it hadn't rained once the entire day. He thought the tempestuous weather might be all bark and no bite, but perhaps the show was about to begin, and the faint growls echoing from the heavens until now were all part of the build-up for the main course.

 Not that any of that mattered much to Noiz as he locked his car and made his way to Aoba's apartment; he had his overnight bag with him, so he wouldn't need to brave through a storm to return home tonight.

The moment Aoba opened the door, Noiz could tell something wasn't quite right.

The smile was there and his voice carried steadily, dipping and rising just as it would when he was being cordial. He joked around, and it was clearly genuine. He stepped aside to let Noiz in, closing the door behind them. Ren sat in the middle of the living room, silently greeting Noiz if not for the light tapping of his wagging tail on the floor.

"You have work tomorrow, right? Are you sure it's okay for you to stay over? " Aoba asked after Noiz left his bag in the bedroom.

"It's manageable; I just have to be up a bit earlier."

"Mmm, if you say so. Oh, I'm about to have dinner, are you up for it?"

Noiz nodded, the smell of pizza invading his nostrils the moment he stepped into the apartment. He observed as Aoba's eyes flitted to corners of the room as he gathered plates and cutlery. The movement was light, absentminded, as though he was catching a mosquito flying just at the edges of his vision but missing it soon after.

Aoba would get lost in thought in the middle of a phrase for half a second before he blinked. They talked and he'd answer accordingly to anything Noiz said, but then his mouth would fall slack at the end of a sentence as his gaze floated away. When they fell into silence during dinner, he stared unblinkingly through Noiz's chin, at something that definitely wasn't in the room.

"... He hates watching TV, but he's been trying to read. He doesn't say anything, but I think he really misses Mizuki; he seemed pretty happy when I gave his phone back to him, though he got mad trying to get the hang of using it again... I just hope he doesn't get stressed out from being confined to the bed with no one to talk to. Since I can't be there all that much," Aoba was saying after dinner, the snip-snaps of scissors serving as backdrop.

Aoba was sitting on the floor with his back to the couch, cutting small paper flowers on his coffee table. After they washed the dishes, Noiz had followed Aoba to the living room like it was natural, even though they'd usually head to the bedroom. When Aoba sat down and opened a big plastic bag full of art supplies, Noiz had asked what it was for; apparently, Clear had asked for his help with the flower shop's spring decoration.

Noiz was behind Aoba now, lying on the couch and letting his legs dangle over the arm cushion. He hummed lightly at Aoba's words.

"But he's begun rehabilitation already, right? That must be a good change of scenery for him," Noiz remarked, looking over Aoba's shoulder at his working hands.

Aoba flinched almost imperceptibly. Almost. Noiz's eyes narrowed at the tenseness on Aoba's back, the slightest twitch of his fingers. Found it.

"Yeah, I guess," he answered easily.

Noiz looked at Aoba's profile. "Isn't it?"

"Huh?" Aoba interjected, turning his head to look at Noiz with wide eyes.

In the back of his head, Noiz realized they were in a convenient distance for kissing, even considering his awkward position on the couch. He filed that observation for later experimentation.

"You've been acting a little weird," he finally said, not accusingly.

Aoba laughed. "I think you're imagining it."

Noiz huffed and carded his fingers through blue strands of hair.

"I don't think I am, but it's fine if you don't want to tell me."

And it was forgotten like that. Aoba turned back to his task and Noiz absentmindedly stroked his hair. Despite his curious and impatient nature, he didn't want any information that wasn't freely given by Aoba.

Noiz's fingertips brushed against the fine hairs at his nape and Aoba shuddered under his touch, too surprised to conceal it.

"Noiz, you're distracting-"

"Isn't your hair falling on your face? Don't you want to put it up?"

Aoba was silent for a couple of seconds, before humming in thought.

"Actually, you're right. But- uhh..." He looked down helplessly at the delicate folds of paper he was holding and gluing to create the flowers Clear wanted.

Noiz started getting up. "I'll get a hair tie."

After Aoba yelled out that there were some on his nightstand, Noiz fetched one and walked back to the room, sitting on the couch with his legs folded, directly behind Aoba.

"Don't do anything strange with my hair," Aoba said in a warning tone.

Noiz huffed, gathering Aoba's hair in his hands. "Don't you trust me?"

Aoba grunted noncommittally and Noiz smirked.

"Well, no one other than us is here to see it anyway."

"Honestly, you..."

"It's done."

"Wha-"

Noiz steered his hands away and Aoba moved his head from side to side, looking up as though he could see what had been done to his hair. Noiz had bunched it up in a bun, not unlike the one from the day before New Year's Eve.

"Geez, not being able to touch is really... Well, I can kinda tell it's a bun. Wouldn't it be simpler to put it up in a ponytail?"

"Not really. It's fine like this."

"Well... if you say so."

Aoba was soon engrossed in his work once more and Noiz reassumed his previous position on the couch. Ren went back to the bedroom at some point, probably searching for his bed; his leisurely lifestyle was causing him to put on some extra pounds and hearing Aoba fret about it made Noiz laugh. He fiddled with the collar of Aoba's shirt absentmindedly as he hummed to some song that rung faintly familiar to Noiz's ears.

"Why don't you tie your hair like this more often?" Noiz asked.

"Ah? Mm... I don't usually put my hair up, and when I do, I guess it comes more naturally to me to tie it in a ponytail," he explained, hands unstopping.

"Hmm. I guess ponytails are nice too, but..." Noiz dragged the back of finger up his nape and Aoba's shoulders tensed up, turning his head to scowl at him. Noiz grinned. "As I thought, you look better like this."

"What, is that a fetish or something?" Aoba sneered, but Noiz saw the faint blush high on his cheekbones before he steered his head forward again.

Noiz furrowed his brow though the corner of his lips was still tugged up. "It's just common sense, liking things that look good and saying so."

"'Common sense', you- ngh!"

Noiz grazed his knuckles lightly across the back of his skull, where thin, shorter strands lay untroubled. He was sure he wasn't imagining the goosebumps that trailed down Aoba's neck and under his shirt.

"Noiz, I'm trying to finish this," Aoba muttered, but there was no power in his words.

"You're really sensitive here, huh?"

Noiz pulled on the fine hairs, weakly enough to not pluck them but strongly enough that Aoba swallowed a squeak, his shoulders hiked up further and head cast down.

"Oi..."

Noiz cut him off. "I really feel like kissing you now, but it's kinda hard to reach you from this position; you'll have to meet me halfway. Can you do that for me?"

Aoba whipped his head to glare at him once more and his cheeks were crimson red, forehead scrunched up. He grumbled something under his breath, but regardless, his face was closing in on Noiz's. He gladly bridged the remaining gap between them.

"Y' know," Aoba started between soft pecks. "I'm really gonna kick your ass-" Smack. "-if you keep on being condescending like this."

"Well... you can't move so-" A grunt as Aoba sucked on his bottom lip. He grinned. "-I'm safe for now." 

"Ahh, so that's what you think," Aoba cooed dangerously. Noiz blinked his eyes open in alarm and it was just in time to see Aoba twist around, facing him more comfortably. He clasped his hands on each side of Noiz's face and dived into a fiercer kiss. Aoba's fingers were cold and sticky on his skin, but he couldn't care less as Aoba licked into his mouth with fervor.

Noiz groaned, hungry for more. But then Aoba was pulling away too soon and their lips parted. "I was only being considerate, little brat."

"You'll leave that thing unfinished like that?" Noiz asked, peering at the unfinished paper flower abandoned on the coffee table. Aoba very purposefully spread his fingers clammy with glue and glitter across Noiz's cheeks.

"There's still time until I have to give those to Clear. And you'll help me, for having distracted me." Aoba cocked his head slightly, grinning at him.

Noiz knew Aoba's switch was flipped, and his own—which was under enough pressure already—gave in equally.

He leaned in and Aoba followed his cue, their eyes closing automatically. Without breaking their kiss, Noiz moved to sit up and his hand grabbed tightly on Aoba's shirt, groping around for the lithe curve of his waist. Aoba moved his hands to Noiz's shoulders as he climbed onto the sofa with him, straddling his thighs.

"It might be... too cramped here," Aoba nearly wheezed, his tongue finally sticking out to lave across Noiz's lips. He answered the motions by brushing his own against Aoba's, letting out a soft sigh.

After a brief pause in all talking in favor of tasting and feeling, Noiz said, "This much is alright."

Noiz's hand slipped under Aoba's shirt and his fingers slowly brushed up the column of his spine, teasing. Aoba let out a shivering sigh into his mouth and retaliated by grinding down against him. Noiz tensed up and groaned low, following up with a dark laugh. He got a tight hold of Aoba's hips and brought him down once more, thrusting upwards to further the friction.

Aoba's subsequent sigh lilted into a faint moan and Noiz brought his face into his neck, but then Aoba stiffened.

"Ah, don't-"

"Mm?" Noiz hummed, rearing his head back to glance up at him. Aoba was beet red, but Noiz couldn't say much when the heat scattering across his own face was undeniable.

"Don't... leave marks where they can be seen," he muttered haltingly.

"Okay," Noiz replied, before snorting softly. "Then let's make things easier a bit."

Noiz tugged at the hem of Aoba's shirt, pulling it up and over his head. Aoba was immediately copying his movements, quickly throwing Noiz's dress shirt in the same direction his own had been tossed to.

"I'm not going to be the only one shirtless here," he explained, prompting a throaty chuckle from Noiz.

Noiz was soon back to his interrupted task, lips trailing across Aoba's neck, feeling the thrumming veins under his skin. Aoba had quieted down, fingertips softly tracing the lines of Noiz's torso. The touches were exploratory, tentative, lacking the urgency from before; now, it felt like they were getting acquainted to each other's body.

"For a moment I was surprised by your piercing again," Aoba confessed, his finger lightly grazing over his navel, feeling the temperature of the metal.

Noiz grinned crookedly. "So you noticed it before."

Aoba shivered visibly at the hot breath hitting in the crook of his neck.

"You think it's hot?" Noiz continued when Aoba said nothing, the very tip of his nose brushing up and down the side of his neck.

"Um," Aoba started eloquently. "I don't know, it was sort of unexpected. Doesn't it... hurt?"

Noiz let out a quiet laugh and licked the juncture between Aoba's neck and shoulder. He trembled under him, and Noiz's lips briefly closed around the area in an open-mouthed kiss before he bit down hard.

Aoba choked a gasp, voice climbing into a high moan as Noiz sucked on his skin. His hips bucked and Noiz felt his clothed length hardening against his stomach. It made his own twitch in response, and he gathered what little patience was existent in his body so he wouldn't start rutting against Aoba just yet.

Seemingly self-conscious over the noise that had left him, Aoba buried his own face in Noiz's shoulder. He glanced sideways at the head of blue hair.

"Did this hurt?" Noiz asked while placing chaste kisses up his neck, stopping behind his ear.

"N-not really," Aoba answered tremulously, hands travelling down the sides of Noiz's torso with more purpose, as though he had just been remembered what he should be doing.

"Mmm. I put this piercing after I moved to Midorijima. When one gets close enough, they can see the holes from piercings I had in my face and ears; you must've noticed them," Noiz explained, littering small love bites under Aoba's collarbone, relishing the low groans that left him.

"Yeah, some of them," Aoba admitted airily, eyes half-lidded.

"So, basically, it doesn't hurt at all. Didn't hurt much to get it either," he finished, maintaining his voice steady despite the heat of Aoba's touch, trailing up and down his chest.

"Didn't you have any in your nipples?" Aoba asked, his fingertips having found the soft nubs. He rolled his thumbs on them, experimenting.

Noiz's breath caught in his throat. Exhaling, he answered, "No, but if you're interested, I definitely should've done it." He chuckled, nearly breathless.

Aoba scooted back on his thighs, enough to be able to duck his head and capture one of Noiz's nipples between his lips. He rolled the tip of his tongue around the perky nub, biting ever-so-slightly. Noiz repressed a shudder.

"C'mon." He let out a breathy laugh, patting Aoba's back. "That doesn't look comfortable, come back up."

Aoba glared up at him, and ultimately sucked a hickey right beside his nipple. Noiz moaned low and Aoba was straightening himself up again.

"You're doing this just because I finally found a weak spot," he grumbled, eyes narrowed.

"No way. You can do whatever you want later, but let's do something else now." He smirked at him and grabbed Aoba's ass, pulling their hips flush. Aoba held onto the back of the couch and Noiz undid the sloppy bow of his pants' drawstring. He heard Aoba's breath hitch, but he did nothing to stop Noiz.

He pushed Aoba's sweatpants and underwear down his thighs and, surely, there was his cock bobbing up, hard and slick with precome. Aoba inhaled sharply at the exposure, but then he was quickly on the move too. He unbuttoned Noiz's trousers and looked up, heeding any signs of rejection on Noiz's part; he found none, naturally. Noiz smiled lightly and Aoba went on to pull the zipper down, prompting Noiz to raise his hips. His trousers and boxers were only halfway down his thighs when Aoba gasped in surprise. Noiz's grin broadened.

"Y-you're... covered in piercings here? What the-" Aoba gaped, staring at it red-faced.

"What do you think?" He asked teasingly, hand sliding up Aoba's side as he admired the purpling marks on his skin.

"Now I'm really worried about pain."

Noiz snorted and pulled Aoba's pants all the way down to his ankles. After letting it fall in a heap on the floor, Noiz pulled Aoba closer and fisted a hand around their flushed lengths, eliciting groans from himself and Aoba as they bumped together.

With a breathy laugh, Noiz finally said, "Don't worry about that kind of thing."

Aoba moved his hand to join Noiz's but was lightly swatted away. He blinked quizzically at Noiz.

"Let me do it. Your hands are still sticky."

Aoba pouted, but relented. It would be a nightmare to wash it all away afterwards. He kept his hold on the back of the couch and started bouncing on Noiz's lap, hips gyrating slowly. Noiz shuddered and laid his head against the back of the couch, letting out a huff.

His one hand alone couldn't get quite a firm grasp on both their dicks, so he concentrated on stimulating Aoba, teasing the slit with his thumb. That, combined with Noiz's tantalizing fingers on his nipple, brought Aoba's head crumbling to his shoulder, muffling a shameless moan.

"Noiz..." Aoba sighed with an edge of desperation, and fuck if that wasn't even better than his imagination.

Noiz groaned in response, pulling Aoba even closer and mouthing at his neck once more.

"Seriously..." Aoba wheezed, taking an awfully long time to construct coherent sentences. "We can't... make too much noise..."

"Okay," Noiz threw breathlessly, more as an automatic reply than a legitimate answer.

"Geez, are you even list- Ah!"

Aoba stopped and smothered his face on Noiz's shoulder to stifle his gasp when he bit and sucked at Aoba's shoulder again. The electricity sparking up Noiz's spine and his fingertips was no joke; his mind was becoming foggier by the second.

"Aoba..." he nearly whispered, licking the new indents he'd left on his lover's skin.

Aoba exhaled harshly and pulled him in for a sloppy kiss, nipping on his lips. Noiz answered enthusiastically, fist tangled in blue strands of hair as they ravaged each other's mouths. Aoba whined as their tongues glided together and Noiz didn't know why it tasted so sweet when he was sure it shouldn't feel like anything other than the pizza they'd just had.

They couldn't go any slower; their motions were tempered with emergency, steadily speeding up their pace. With a tight fist pumping Aoba's dick while using his other hand to fondle his balls, Aoba came first with a cry. Noiz let out a moan of his own in appreciation as Aoba's come splattered up their sweaty stomachs and Noiz's hand.

Aoba fell over Noiz's chest, breathless and shuddering with post-orgasm oversensitivity. Noiz huffed, one hand coming to rest on the small of Aoba's back. He looked up at the ceiling, not moving an inch; both of them couldn't care less for how dirty they were.

"Noiz," Aoba muttered into his skin, forehead damp with sweat against his shoulder.

Noiz hummed in response.

"You didn't come yet."

"Yeah. I'm close though."

Aoba looked up at Noiz, brows furrowed. Aoba looked absolutely gorgeous like that; hair sticking on his sweaty skin, face red and hazel eyes defiant. Noiz snorted, but before he could say anything, Aoba was climbing up to his face again, kissing him slow and sensually. Noiz's eyes fluttered shut and he opened his lips with a groan, letting Aoba in.

Adding to the sly motions of his tongue, Aoba was grinding their hips again and Noiz felt the tingling heat of his peak, but then Aoba stopped and his lips left Noiz's. He huffed before climbing off his lap and pulling him closer to the edge of his seat. Noiz looked at him confusedly, but his mind cleared when Aoba kneeled in front of him.

"Hold the base for me. I won't use my hands," Aoba said as he pulled Noiz's pants off his ankles and held onto his thighs, feeling the give of flesh under his fingertips.

Noiz did as he was told and looked down at the blue head of hair, unable to conceal the expectant spark in his eye.

Briefly smiling up at him, Aoba wrapped his kiss-swollen lips around Noiz's cock. He inhaled sharply as Aoba rolled his tongue around the head and then let it slide down the underside of his shaft, pressing the flat of his tongue on the line of piercings.

Before long, Aoba was gingerly bobbing his head up and down; Noiz could tell he was trying to take more of him into his mouth, but he was having trouble. He thought of telling Aoba that he didn't really care for that, take your time, but the words always left him in the shape of unintelligible huffs and groans.

He let one hand bury in Aoba's hair, soft and cool to the touch. Aoba diligently licked his slit with the very tip of his tongue and looked up at Noiz.

"Your piercings really don't hurt?" He asked, and a lesser man might've come in the spot, faced with such an innocent-sounding question coming from plump pink lips and teary eyes. Noiz gulped.

"No, they don't," he answered seriously. He pushed Aoba's bangs away from his face, almost considered dragging him up for a kiss.

Aoba looked somewhat dubious but nodded, eyes cast downwards once more. "Tell me if this bothers you, anyway."

Noiz blinked, but then Aoba bit and tugged at one of his frenum ladder piercings and he gasped, hand tightening on Aoba's hair. The gust of hot breath hitting his cock as Aoba moaned made him shudder. He sighed Aoba's name like a dear, nearly forgotten memory.

Aoba took the chance to mark his thighs, sucking hickies close to his crotch, and soon, his head was bobbing on his cock again. Aoba's teeth grazed its head and Noiz saw stars, very nearly toppling over the edge. He locked his jaw, moaning low when Aoba pulled at the piercing on the head of his dick.

"Aoba...!"

He didn't need to complete the sentence for Aoba to feel the urgency, but instead of pulling away, he slapped his hand over the one Noiz's had on his hair and lead it to push his head down deeper onto Noiz's cock, going back and forth until the blond took the hint. Aoba looked up with glimmering hazel eyes, face flushed alluringly.

Noiz gulped and started fucking into Aoba's mouth of his own volition. Aoba's hand dropped to his hip as they picked up the pace, not one bit as hesitant towards the piercings as before. His nails dug into the flesh of Noiz's thighs, unfazed even when his nose came down brushing on Noiz's pubes. Aoba's groans vibrated around his cock and, not ten seconds later, Noiz was coming down his throat, letting out a growl.

Aoba didn't pull away fast enough; Noiz grabbed his arms and brought him back to his lap, stealing his breath away before Aoba could protest. He moaned into his mouth as Noiz tasted himself on his tongue, distantly registering that Aoba was rock hard again, just from sucking him off. Before Noiz could think of doing anything, Aoba stroked himself to completion, not giving a shit about the dried glue and glitter in his hands anymore.

Drained after coming a second time, Aoba laid boneless over Noiz and they slid down onto the couch, lying in a heap of long limbs awkwardly sticking off the small furniture.

"You wanna go again?" Noiz asked, a grin tugging at the corners of his panting lips.

"I wanna sleep," Aoba said drowsily against his skin.

Noiz chuckled, looking up at the ceiling. He could go another round easily, but he had been expecting that answer. They stayed like that until Aoba spoke up again.

"Do you have a preference? For, y' know, top and bottom?"

Noiz blinked a couple of times and stroked Aoba's hair lightly.

"Not really, I'm fine with either. You?"

Aoba had his face tucked into his chest, but Noiz thought he could see his ears reddening.

"I'm fine with either too. But I wanted to try, with you... Bottoming, I mean."

Noiz raised an eyebrow, not understanding his bashfulness, but then it dawned on him. He grinned wolfishly.

"You really are curious about the piercings, aren't you?"

Aoba glared at him, propping his chin on his folded arms atop Noiz's chest.

Noiz huffed, idly wiping the sweat off Aoba's brow. "I've imagined how it'd be like to top you too, so that's fine by me."

Aoba pouted, but pushed himself forward to kiss Noiz on his forehead, legs swinging lightly in the air.

"But I still want to have my way with you later." He tilted his head, voice gone syrupy with a wicked grin.

Noiz laughed breathily, smirking, and they kissed softly. "Bring it on."

 


 

"Good work today!" Some of the staff sang lightly to Noiz as he passed by them on his way to the elevator. He answered with either a "yeah" or a grunt, the speed of his steps growing steadily.

He was impatient that day, though no one in the office dared to make a comment or throw an innocent question about it. Not that Noiz would have answered, either way. He wasn't really paying attention to the attitude he was displaying, instead thinking of his morning with Aoba.

"Exposure is reopening today," Aoba had said conversationally over breakfast.

Noiz let out a low "oh?" mid chewing.

"I'll turn in my resignation letter tonight. I've talked to Yoshie-san about it already; that'll be just to make things official."

"Right. What you'll do after that?"

Aoba shrugged.  "I've dropped by a few places. I hope I'll fill up the spaces by next week. Clear was pretty sad about it but, well..."

Noiz glanced at Aoba and wondered if that was what had been plaguing his mind last night. His eyes did look less flighty than yesterday.

"Want to stay over at my place tonight? Tomorrow will be Sunday so no worries about having to be up early," he suggested nonchalantly.

Aoba blinked, peering at him before smiling softly. "Alright. I'll let you know what time I'll be able to get there."

Noiz didn't know how much of that was him trying to distract Aoba and how much of it was him taking advantage of Aoba's temporary freedom. Either way, Noiz had carried on with his day; worked, returned the books to the library, had lunch, returned to work, only looking forward to the night.

Agnes was the only one to poke fun at him during lunch, having picked up on his listlessness. She teased him by bombarding him with questions, but eventually got bored when Noiz would only glare at her in response.

"Mr. Wilhelm!"

Noiz sighed heavily at the shrill voice coming from behind and he turned on his heel, looking back.

"Isaak," he answered simply, scrutinizing the nervous-looking guy jogging towards him. He was thin and blond, older than Noiz but at least ten centimeters shorter.

"I apologize for stopping you when you're about to leave," he muttered, fixing the round glasses perched on his nose as he stopped before Noiz. "It seems the chairman couldn't reach you, so he asked me to catch you before you left. He needs copies of the market research conducted last month."

Noiz arched one eyebrow. "Now?"

Isaak bowed his head slightly. "It is urgent."

Noiz sighed again, huffing a quick, insincere "thanks" before heading back to fetch the document and get it over with. Fucking capricious old man.

His father, naturally, had a fake, polite smile in his lips when Noiz came up to his office. He was momentarily blindsided by the sunset's glare on the floor-to-ceiling windows behind his father's chair. His figure was shrouded in long shadows, but nevertheless, Noiz walked steadily towards his father's desk.

"You're leaving early today," his father observed.

"We're resuming the normal pace now that the New Year's rush is almost over." He placed the copies on the desktop. "And you must've looked into our reports regarding the bank in London and Munich?"

"Yes, I'm planning a board meeting to put the pros and cons on the table. Good work."

Noiz raised his eyebrows minutely, taken aback by the sudden "praise". His father picked up the stack of papers and looked up at him. His eyes were hard and focused on Noiz, who stared back at him. He was supposed to be dismissing him right now, but his mouth was pressed in a tight line.

"Wilhelm," he called, at last.

"Yes."

The older man leaned back slightly, relaxing, and pointed his index finger to his own neck, eyes locked on Noiz.

"There's something on you. Right here."

He furrowed his brow at his father, brushing his hand on his neck, but coming up with nothing. He pulled his phone from his pocket and used the darkened screen as a mirror. He didn't remember Aoba biting his neck last night, but could it be that...

There was a small trail of glitter under Noiz's jawline. He almost huffed out a laugh; despite making sure to scrub everything away last night and this morning, he hadn't seen that. It must've been obvious under the beaming sun.

"Indeed. Thanks for pointing it out."

"Well then. You're dismissed."

Noiz nodded briefly and turned back towards the door, taking large steps.

"Aoba Seragaki..."

The lazy drawl of that name made Noiz freeze. Not only in his motions; his skin felt cold in the surface, though underneath it was burning, blood pumping quicker than he'd like to admit to himself. It was an adrenaline Noiz hadn't felt in a long time; like playing chess as a kid and seeing all of his pieces falling until his father's white knight was closing in on his black king.

He hadn't played chess in years. These games with his father weren't precious memories; he never once won, and it always left him feeling exposed, helpless.

"Is that name familiar to you?"

Noiz clenched his hands in fists, trying to control the slightest twitches of his fingers, and angled his body to face his father. The older man was solemn, blinking slowly as he appraised his son with a thin smile.

"I wonder why you're so easy to read from your back, but your face is still as expressionless as ever, Wilhelm."

Chapter Text

Three knocks came from the door, but Noiz and his father didn't turn their gazes away as they stared each other down.

"Uh, sir?" said a hesitant female voice, muffled behind the polished wood—the executive director's new secretary, Noiz judged by the faint familiarity.

"I'm busy at the moment, would you come back later?" Noiz's father said, steadily.

"A-ah, right! My apologies."

Hurried footsteps echoed from the hallway and faded into the distance. When they lapsed into silence once more, the chairman coughed briefly.

"Then? Who's this man you've been hanging around lately?"

Noiz blinked slowly, his neutral facade working wonders to hide the maelstrom of questions and hypothesis swirling in his head. He'd have to proceed carefully and plan his next move. Noiz had never asked where his father got his information—he wouldn't start now.

"A friend," he finally said, stomach churning in disgust.

His father leaned back on his chair, lips barely curling upward.

"A friend, whom you've met through the man named Mizuki."

Noiz knitted his brows. "Yes..."

The chairman's smile broadened.

"He said the same thing."

Noiz didn't react. Not outwardly, at least.

"My apologies for holding you up, Wilhelm. You may leave now." The man picked up the handset of the phone on his desk and brought it to his ear, tapping on the keys and leaving no room for further commentary.

Noiz turned away as he heard his father speaking on the phone. The woman from before was just walking back towards the door and jumped in shock as Noiz left the room. Her red-lipped smile twitched nervously.

"Mr. Wilhelm! What a scare, are you leav...?"

She trailed off as Noiz breezed by her without a word.

His head felt ice cold, a striking contrast to the nervous burning in his chest. No one was able to trigger such frustration in him, only his father. Noiz would be happy to get rid of these feelings, but he hadn't gotten around to it, not in all of his nineteen years of life. Replying emptily to anyone who greeted him on his way, Noiz's hands were closed in fists until he walked out of the company.

It had been hard to not jump down his father's neck right there and pull the answers directly from him. Might've been an easier path towards the truth, but Noiz would be damned if he ever let his father see him despair. He hadn't talked to Aoba once over the course of the day; hardly uncommon, but with this sudden turn of events...

Noiz banged his car door closed after plopping down on his seat, and sighed heavily.

His first instinct was to take his phone out; he searched Aoba's number but came to a halt, thumb hovering uncertainly above his name. No. I'm getting the order wrong.

Noiz jumped to another number and dialed it, hearing the beeping tone as it rung. When it was about to drop, there was the soft thump of the call being picked up.

"Mr. Wilhelm?"

"Franz. We need to meet right now."

 


 

>> I'm sorry for not messaging you earlier. I don't think I'll be able to make it tonight.

Noiz looked down at his phone, the screen slowly darkening and blacking out on Aoba's message. Noiz had been expecting that; it was the final confirmation that his father hadn't been bluffing earlier. The fucking prick.

After a long interrogation with the three nervous investigators and a quick but thorough look into their electronic interactions with his father, Noiz had confirmed they hadn't given his father any lead on Aoba. It was only natural; Noiz knew there were no holes in his guard, but that meant there had to be a fourth party involved. The puzzle pieces were falling in place, haphazard but gradually, the answer unraveling before Noiz. He only needed a bit more.

It was dark by the time Noiz was finished with the investigators; he received Aoba's message after finding the Pizza Hut on his way home already closed down for the night. Parked in front of the LED sign, he dialed up Aoba and waited until the call was picked up.

"Hey," Aoba's voice was quiet on the other end of the line. Noiz frowned.

"Are you okay?"

"Ah, yeah. Sorry to worry you."

"Why can't you come over?"

A sigh grated in Noiz's ear, crackling with static.

"Just decided to stay here with Sei. I'm worried about leaving him alone."

So he's at the hospital right now. He glanced at his watch quickly; it was half past nine.

"Okay. I'll pick you up at midnight."

"E-eh? No, I'm-"

Noiz interrupted him, stern. "Aoba, I know what you're doing. I'm not letting you run away without a talk."

A long pause followed his words; Noiz could only tell Aoba was still there because he could hear his breathing. As Noiz waited, he looked over to the window, watching the employees of a clothing store nearby closing everything and rolling the shutter door down.

"I can't. I want to stay with Sei," Aoba finally muttered.

Noiz felt something stir in his stomach at Aoba's weak tone and pushed his thoughts on the cause for later examination.

"I'll have that taken care of. Don't worry."

"You don't have to worry about my family in general, really."

"Noiz..." Aoba started, but seemingly had nothing to counter him with.

"No matter what, I'll find a solution. We will find a solution."

Shutting his eyes briefly, Noiz breathed in. "... Remember what I told you. See you later."

Noiz hung up, interrupting Aoba's "what?" on the other end of the line. He drove home to drop his things and make preparations to, as he had eloquently put, "take care" of this, making plans as he went. Two hours and a half were more than enough time to have everything prepared.

Aoba was incredibly easy to lead on just by slightly prodding questions. Noiz had decided to wait until they talked personally and he could hear the details, but he believed he had the key facts with him, based on what he already knew and Aoba's attitude on the phone.

Noiz laughed dryly to himself. He had been naïve in expecting his father to stay quiet, but that old man didn't know near as much about him as he liked to think. Noiz was prepared for whatever he threw at him; he only had to worry about how this would affect Aoba.

With ten minutes to spare, Noiz arrived at the hospital. Just as they had previously agreed, Noiz met Franz and Herbert waiting by the elevators at the ground floor. Not looking like their regular selves, no—Herbert was wearing the black uniform for the hospital's security guards while Franz was discreetly disguised, only enough to not be easily identifiable.

"You do know we aren't actual trained guards, right? We can infiltrate in places just fine but what will happen if someone actually comes for the kid?" Herbert queried, sharp brown eyes under the shadow of his cap sweeping around the area as he and Franz followed Noiz into the elevator.

"This is just a precaution. I'm hoping things won't go in this direction but... well, we can't run the risk," Noiz explained, looking at the numbers blinking one after the other above the door.

"Won't we look suspicious?" Franz asked worriedly.

Noiz simply blinked. "That's the reason why you two are disguised."

"Sure, but in a worst-case scenario, Herbert will have to go away and someone might find it weird to see me lingering around," Franz said, fiddling with his scarf.

"Mmm. If it comes to that, one of you will have to get yourself hurt and be admitted."

Their joint "WHAT?" reverberated in the elevator and Noiz's face pinched up, ears nearly ringing with the noise.

Noiz clicked his tongue. "It's partly your fault things have come to this. And I'll pay you for your work."

"We were only doing our job!" Herbert protested.

Franz buckled against the wall, head lolling weakly. "I knew things looked too easy when that man offered us so much money just to spy on his son. I need to quit this job."

"Despite my father having cut some of your payment before he booted you, my price is still the same. By the time you finish this job, you'll be able to quit and live comfortably without working for quite a while; a few broken bones hardly matter in the grand scheme of things," Noiz reasoned lightly as the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open to a long corridor.

They climbed out after him and Franz glanced at Noiz's perfectly blank profile. Realization shook him as a chill rode up his spine; the talk about broken bones... was that his idea of a joke?

"We really landed ourselves in hot water this time." Herbert sighed, but walked beside Noiz dutifully.

Noiz scoffed at their wimpy laments. "You only need to stand on watch for tonight; the staff won't find it weird as long as you act your part. Just don't look too guilty when you pass by the nurses' station. But if it does become necessary, I'll need you to come again. Then, you can worry about injuries."

He raised his hand, signaling the two to wait for him a few steps away from Sei's room. From his place at the bedside, Aoba turned his head to look at Noiz when he entered, Sei looking sleepy in his bed.

"You ignored my messages." Aoba had his eyebrows knit together in frustration.

"Didn't need to reply," Noiz replied simply, walking to the other side of the bed.

Aoba watched bemusedly as Noiz picked up Sei's stuffed bear—the one Mizuki had put on the bedside table a few days ago—and started seemingly fiddling with it, his back turned to the brothers.

"You...! Noiz, you're playing around, I'm serious!"

"I'm serious too. Didn't I tell you I'd find a solution no matter what?" Noiz countered gruffly, sitting the teddy bear back on the table and turning back to a confused-looking Sei.

"Can you hand me your phone for a second? I'll input my number."

Sei blinked, looking lost, but let the device slip into Noiz's hands. He tapped around the screen quickly and was soon returning it to its owner.

"If anything happens, call me or send a message."

"Something's wrong?" Sei asked.

"Your idiot brother is just too much of a worrywart." Sei turned his eyes to look at Aoba, who was bristling behind Noiz, but said nothing as Noiz continued talking. "He doesn't want to leave you alone but I'll have to borrow him tonight. Is that alright?"

Sei nodded. "It's okay. He's been looking all somber, it's annoying. I don't know what's going on but you should make up already."

Noiz quickly wished him a good night and pulled on Aoba's wrist, but he shook Noiz off. Not affected, Noiz turned his gaze to him, finding Aoba scowling.

"Let me say bye to my brother properly. Wait for me outside."

He looked at Aoba for longer, but ultimately sighed. "Fine."

Noiz walked out, and the two investigators outside approached him. They were about to bombard him with questions, but he stopped them, waiting for Aoba.

When Aoba finally did exit the room, pulling his oversized brown jacket over his back, the annoyance in his face turned into confusion as he saw Noiz's company.

"Who are those two?" He asked, eyes narrowing dubiously towards Noiz and the two men standing a few steps away.

"These guys will stay here to watch for any suspicious activity tonight."

"... What?" Aoba gaped at him wide-eyed, a deep crease between his eyebrows.

Noiz continued, "They won't go into his room, just-"

"Wait wait wait." Aoba breathed deeply before proceeding, bewildered. "Are you paying private guards for this? They're disguised right now?"

"They're not guards, just private investigators. They'll only stay here on stake out and let me know if my father or anyone shady shows up," Noiz tried to pacify Aoba, to no avail.

Aoba's wide eyes shifted between Noiz and the other two. "Why the hell are you paying private investigators for this?! And this is so risky, I told you I would-"

Noiz groaned impatiently and ran a hand over his momentarily closed eyes and hair, frustration seeping into his voice. "I was already paying them to not spy on me for my father, it's all the same."

That gave Aoba pause. He reared back, unblinkingly staring at Noiz.

"What?!" His voice climbed an octave, disbelieving.

A scandalized female nurse passed by them, casting Aoba a reprimanding glare. Noiz exhaled harshly.

"Just shut up for now, alright?"

"What is wrong with your family?" Aoba practically moaned, but he was apparently calming down. Noiz turned to Franz and Herbert, who watched their interaction in confusion.

"Herbert, you're pretty much covered, you know what to do. Franz, you can stay in the waiting room of this area; you'll look weirder if you just stand around on the hallway. Don't confront anyone." They shook their heads, muttering "we won't, we won't".

Noiz turned his attention back to Aoba. "I left a mini camera in the room."

Aoba's eyes widened and he looked keen on protesting, but Noiz went on.

"In the off-chance my father really is up to something under-handed, he won't be half-assed about it." He jutted his thumb at the two investigators. "Someone disguised as a doctor or nurse could easily go into the room, and these guys wouldn't see a thing. If my father wanted, he could do something like that."

Aoba was steadily blanching under the fluorescent lights of the hallways.

"Which is why I left the camera there, and these guys' friend will be watching the footage. If things go south, he'll let me know and these guys here can call security. All bases are covered and Sei can also contact me now, so what I mean is," he clasped his hands on Aoba's shoulders and pressed lightly, gaze steely. "Stop worrying so damn much."

Aoba held his gaze for a long moment and sighed, shoulders sagging tiredly.

"Alright. You'll have to answer some more questions after we leave here though."

Noiz's expression softened. "No problem. And you two," he glanced at Franz and Herbert, not threateningly but still firm. "Don't fall asleep or leave unless I tell you to."

They nodded, lips pressed in a tight line.

"Let's go then." He placed a hand on Aoba's back and they walked down the corridor, towards the elevator.

 


 

A bit more than twelve hours ago, Aoba had entered that same elevator after making a visit to Sei during his lunch time. He was cutting it close for enough time to actually eat, but he wanted to spend as much time as he could with Sei.

Aoba knew in a corner of his mind that he was being conceited, but it was his duty to always be there for his brother and make sure he would lack nothing. Sei mostly appreciated the company, but he hated when Aoba neglected himself for his sake, and he saw exactly that when Aoba overstayed during lunch time.

In the end, Sei threatened to call a nurse to kick Aoba out, and he left the room at last. Aoba laughed as he remembered their conversation, waiting for the elevator to open its doors. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, looking at the digital clock on the lock screen. It might be better to eat on his way to work; there were quite a few food carts stationed around every bus stop.

Aoba heard a soft ding as the metal doors opened in front of him and he lifted his head only long enough to check if it had enough space for him in the elevator. Seeing only two people, he walked in and pressed the button for the ground floor, wondering if he should message Noiz.

"You have an interesting hair color, young man."

Aoba was surprised when he heard the person to his right speaking. That was uncommon around him, people making small talk—what's more, in the elevator. He glanced at his neighbor, a taller, older man in a grey three-piece suit.

Something about his profile and facial structure seemed familiar.

"Ah, I guess it is."

"It's very beautiful."

"T-thank you," Aoba stammered, looking away in embarrassment. He felt even more embarrassed when he remembered the other person in the elevator—a female nurse, he noticed. Who was that guy?

"I've never seen hair like that, most people must find it unusual. Could you be visiting someone?"

"Yes... I am." Or was. Aoba didn't feel like reformulating aloud. "Are you too, sir?"

"Indeed I am. Or rather, I was looking for someone." At that, the man finally turned his head to regard Aoba fully.

When Aoba looked at him, uncomfortable with the stare weighing over him, he found himself reflected in familiar lime-green irises. Familiar, but the power behind them was completely different from Theo's and even Noiz's.

Memories from a banquet from seemingly years ago flooded Aoba's mind.

Noiz's father smiled pleasantly, the lines around his eyes deepening.

"I'm Edmund Adlersflügel, pleased to make your acquaintance."

He extended his hand and Aoba reciprocated the gesture, trying to not look too stiff as they shook hands.

"Aoba Seragaki. Nice to meet you, too."

Edmund raised his eyebrows, eyes flitting away for a moment. "Oh? You're precisely the person I was looking for. How fortunate."

"U-uhm, is that so?" Aoba mused dumbly; he couldn't hear himself over the buzz in his ears.

"Yes. You see, I have great interest in my children's lives, but they rarely share anything with me," Edmund explained, somewhat forlorn. "Especially Wilhelm. That boy lives in his own world and promptly shuts away anyone else." He glanced sharply at Aoba, who could do nothing but stare back.

"So I feel like I should look into it when I find out that people outside of our family were able to draw him out."

Aoba didn't answer, eyes dropping to the floor, and the man's eyes widened.

"Oh, do forgive me, you're in fact Japanese-born, isn't that correct?" Aoba looked up with a start at the sudden shift from German to Japanese. "Now, do you understand me better?"

"Ah, uh, no, it's-"

Edmund raised his hands. "Not to worry, I take up any opportunity I have to exercise my Japanese. I'm proud of the Japanese ancestry in my family, although it's in my wife's side and she doesn't carry much of the features, nor did she pass it down to our sons. Did you know that Wilhelm can speak Japanese, Aoba-kun?"

Aoba distantly reflected on how Noiz's father was a bit too talkative, especially in contrast to Noiz.

He shook himself out of his reverie and answered, obeying the shift in language, "I know. We talk mainly in Japanese."

Edmund hummed thoughtfully. "May I ask you, Aoba-kun, what's your relationship with my son?"

The elevator doors opened in the hospital lobby, and Aoba inhaled slowly as he looked at the lights and shadows of people's movements reflected on the tiled floor. The nurse left first, ponytail swishing against her shoulder blades as she walked away.

"We're friends," Aoba finally said, walking out of the elevator with Edmund in tow. He glanced briefly at the older man, trying to read a possible detection of his lie on Edmund's face.

"Did you possibly meet through Mizuki-kun?" He asked, voice even.

"Yes, he's a friend in common." Though he was caught off-guard once more, Aoba was glad that he didn't show his shock. He was being bombarded by questions to which this man seemed to already know all the answers.

A nauseous feeling was pooling in his gut.

"I thought so. I wished to introduce myself to him as well, but these last weeks were quite grueling for my company. Has he returned to Japan already?"

Aoba muttered a small "yes" and smiled awkwardly.

"What a pity. I heard he came here quite often; it is my understanding that he's been visiting someone—the same person as you?"

"Yes..." Aoba confirmed once more, and did an active effort to not walk faster towards the doors.

"It is a great hospital, the Königgsman. I've even donated to them after I was treated here for a mini-stroke last year. I was good as new in a week."

Edmund's words tickled at the memory of Noiz's figure sitting with Aoba at Sei's bedside. Noiz's tentative, soothing kisses on his palm. This hospital's walls saw their beginning.

Was it seeing their end now?

When they did finally get to the entrance, Aoba held back a sigh of relief. He couldn't tell whether that tension in the air was something his own mind was creating or it stemmed from Edmund Adlersflügel's presence.

"There is much I'd like to talk to you about, Aoba-kun. Would you mind accompanying me to lunch?"

"U-uh, I'm sorry, I have work so I should..." Aoba trailed off, one foot stepping back already.

"Oh, I understand. Either way, it's been a pleasure to talk to you." He bowed slightly. "Congratulations on your brother's awakening."

Edmund straightened up, smiling pleasantly while Aoba tried to will the blood back to his face.

"You would do anything to protect your family; I can see that in you. I'm the same. I will do anything and everything in my power to protect my family, so I'd like to ask a favor from you."

The nausea was worsening and Aoba concentrated on breathing in and out without making it look like the conscious effort it was.

"If... if it's in my power," he answered.

"Oh, it's nothing too big. Since you're such a close friend to my son, I'd actually like you to talk some sense into him." Edmund smiled almost apologetically. "Do you know that he has a fiancée?"

Aoba gulped. "I, uh..."

"He probably didn't tell you, what a troublesome boy. You see, I think he's been fooling around with some girl and neglecting his fiancée. Even though we've talked so much, he keeps on being selfish and doing whatever he wants."

The older man shook his head disapprovingly and Aoba felt irritation roiling among fear in his stomach. He faintly remembered Noiz telling him what his father had done to him, and hearing him talk like this...

He put a lid on his agitated feelings. It wouldn't help to be rude right now, even if he was starting to get seriously irked.

"He doesn't really listen to me either. But I'll talk to him," Aoba lied through his teeth, just wanting it to end.

"Oh, I'm extremely grateful!" Edmund forcefully shook Aoba's hand once more. "Please do talk to him; it might have some effect if it's his dear friend talking. In exchange..." He slipped his business card onto Aoba's hand, the smallest grin on his lips. "I know it can't be easy to take care of your brother's hospital expenses all on your own. If you ever need help, I'm at your disposition."

"It won't be necessary," Aoba said and Edmund blinked at the blatant coldness in his voice. "But I appreciate your courtesy. Have a good day, Mr. Adlersflügel."

In his goodbye, Aoba had reverted back to German. Edmund chuckled lightly, and followed his lead with no comment.

"Likewise, Mr. Seragaki. Take good care of your brother."

They shook hands once more and followed in opposite directions. Aoba headed to the bus stop, lunch forgotten as he quickened his steps and clenched his fists.

... Aoba finished his recollection as Noiz stared intently at the road, fingers tight on the steering wheel and lights dancing across the hard lines of his face. Noiz had been the one to ask what had happened, but he didn't say a word of reply.

When Aoba had questioned him on why he seemed so eerily prepared at such short notice, coming as far as installing a wireless camera in his brother's room, Noiz only said it was something he was used to, thanks to his previous job. Noiz hadn't been too thorough with his explanation, but he seemed to know what he was doing, so Aoba calmed down. His only choice now was to trust Noiz, either way.

However, Aoba couldn't read Noiz's behavior after hearing his story. He was still silent when they arrived to Noiz's place. After leaving the car in the garage, they walked up the stairs that led into the house. Aoba watched over Noiz's shoulder as he checked something on his phone and opened doors, checking inside quickly before following to the next. Checking for signs of an intruder, Aoba soon realized.

Noiz threw his coat over the back of the couch after turning on the lights in the living room. The two stopped in the dark kitchen's doorway and Noiz turned around, staring at him sharply. Aoba was just opening his mouth to ask what was wrong when Noiz closed a hand in his jacket's front and enveloped his lips in a rough kiss.

Aoba answered uncertainly, feeling Noiz's tongue easily breaching through the seams of his lips, his back hitting against the wall. He inhaled sharply and pushed at Noiz's chest, growing insistent as his hold wouldn't cease but, at last, Noiz pulled away.

"I told you I don't like it when you spring it on me like this," Aoba muttered, voice heavy and stilted. 

Noiz sighed harshly and Aoba thought he was irritated for a moment, before the muffled "sorry" came as Noiz buried his face on his neck.

Aoba laced his arms around Noiz's back, peering down at him.

"Are you sulking or something?" Aoba broke the silence.

"I'm not," Noiz snapped. Aoba laughed airily and Noiz sighed, straightening up and looking down at Aoba.

"I'm angry. I knew this would happen if he ever got to you."

"What do you mean?"

"The intimidation, the attempt at bribery. He even put those guys to stalk me when he grew too suspicious."

Aoba frowned. "Oh yeah... But wait, if that's so, weren't they the ones to tell him about me?! Why did you...?"

Noiz shook his head. "I caught them before they could see us together and report to him. But they did tell my father about Mizuki and the hospital before I got them on my side. They fed him half-assed reports until my father dismissed them, but I didn't think the old man would just piece things together himself and get his hands dirty."

"... B-but there's still no way he'd find out about me. The people at the hospital, they're prohibited to give out this kind of information about a patient and their family, but he knew everything, he even knew about Sei's coma and..." Aoba babbled helplessly, eyes wide.

Noiz snorted and distractedly brushed Aoba's bangs away from his face.

"You don't know how he's like; he's used to getting his way with money and influence. Plus, the staff has been talking about your brother's recovery this entire week. Being at the right place, at the right time, he could easily overhear some nurse or doctor talking about it. Then, he probably smooth-talked someone for more details and slipped them some cash. It might've been Virus-"

Aoba shook his head vehemently.

"No, Virus wouldn't."

"Aoba..."

"I know what you and Mizuki think of him. Even I get a bad feeling from him, but... as a doctor, Virus has an ethical code he follows to the letter. And though Trip doesn't care, he copies everything Virus does so he definitely couldn't have done it either."

Noiz sighed. "But he could've definitely gotten a nurse or even a security guard to talk. Right?"

"I guess," Aoba admitted in defeat.

"That being said... He might've just hired another investigator. I didn't notice anyone following me again, but he could've got them to sniff around the hospital directly. I don't know which option is more annoying." Noiz kept on twiddling with Aoba's hair, as though absentmindedly. "But just so you know, I've only taken so many safety measures tonight to put you at ease. Even if my father has the power, he wouldn't actually send an assassin for your brother or something."

"Are you joking again?" Aoba said exasperatedly.

"No, I'm not. He's a shady old man, but he's not corrupted like that. I doubt he will do so much as touch a hair on Sei's head. Don't worry; either way, Sei will be just fine."

Aoba looked down and Noiz kissed his head.

"You must be hungry. I'm gonna order some pizza, yeah? Wait a bit."

Noiz stepped away as he pulled out his phone and rung a late night delivery place. Aoba watched his suit-clad silhouette for a moment as he spoke on the phone. After finishing his order and giving his address, Noiz turned back to see that Aoba hadn't moved an inch.

"Aoba?"

The other man inhaled and exhaled, pensive. He didn't raise his gaze as he spoke up.

"Sei can't walk anymore."

Noiz furrowed his brow quizzically, but Aoba was continuing.

"He never told me, but I hear about his status directly from Virus, so..." He sighed, one side of his face barely illuminated by the living room's light. "He's not exactly paralyzed but he's just... making very little progress in PT, and I heard from the nurses that he nearly had a breakdown because of it a few days ago. Mizuki didn't say a word of it to me even though he was there, that little..."

"So that's why you were weird yesterday night," Noiz presumed sharply.

Aoba smiled sheepishly and nodded. "The point is... At least for now, Sei still depends on me for many things. It's a really delicate time for him, not knowing what he can or cannot recover from. He'd get really angry if he heard me saying this and I swear I don't underestimate my brother's strength, but that's just how it is now. Sei is my top priority."

"... So what do you mean? You want to break up because I'm putting your brother's recovery in risk?" Noiz asked evenly.

Aoba's eyes widened. "No! But... I do feel we should... stop seeing each other. Not in that way, just to... put some distance between us while Sei is still recovering. The best for you would be to keep pretending you're dating Agnes."

Noiz laughed dryly. "So you're fine with not seeing each other for months? Because that's how long it'll take for Sei to be fully recovered, even years."

"I-"

"And in the mean time," Noiz interrupted, voice climbing louder but steadfast. "I'm supposed to pretend that I'm dating Agnes, living a life with her I was supposed to live with you. I might be forced to really get engaged; will you be okay even if I kiss her or have sex with her?"

Aoba looked gut-punched, mouth gaping open and eyes wide, harassed.

Noiz said nothing more as his stomach twisted uncomfortably, wondering whether it was anger, frustration or shame that was causing that tightening in his chest. Aoba cast his strained gaze towards his feet and Noiz couldn't find his voice to apologize, didn't trust himself not to spout any more harsh words. It wasn't supposed to go like this.

They stood there for long minutes in what was almost a trance, until the doorbell rang and a chirpy voice announced the pizza delivery.

Pulling further away, Noiz sighed deeply and Aoba looked up at him. Noiz didn't look angry anymore, but rather... resigned.

"There's already so much more distance between us than I'd like."

The doorbell rang once more, growing insistent, and Noiz went to get the delivery, not waiting for an answer.

After paying the deliveryman, he left the three pizza boxes on the coffee table and looked over to where Aoba was standing awkwardly in the shadows of the kitchen doorway.

"Are you going to stay there all night?" Noiz drawled easily, beckoning him over with a tiny, smug grin.

Aoba scrunched his forehead, but stepped closer tentatively.

"I thought you'd want me to leave after that," he mumbled, slotting his hand with Noiz's beckoning one.

"If I let you go just like that, I'll never be able to bridge the distance between us again."

Noiz yanked Aoba over the back of his white couch without warning, making him yelp and easily slide onto the smooth surface, falling with a "whump" on the cushions. Noiz plopped down beside the scrambling Aoba, who struggled to assume a sitting position.

"W-what are you...?"

"If you want to dump me so bad, I'll just make the most of tonight. Don't even think of sleeping early."

Aoba finally sat down properly, fixing his disheveled hair. "So you're... okay with it?"

Noiz huffed, scooting to the side. "Of course I'm not." He dropped his head on Aoba's lap, gazing up at him. Aoba blinked owlishly, staring down at him just as seriously.

Often times, like this one, Noiz looked at Aoba and thought he looked like some otherworldly being; the clear amber of his eyes glowing in the shadows cast over his face, framed by deep blue sea colored hair. Noiz wasn't one to wax poetic and, for that reason, those musings of his would never make it through his brain-to-mouth filter. But there were a few simple words that could envelope this sentiment and even more—all of the little, intangible aspects of Aoba's nature and personality that made him not otherworldly, but overwhelmingly human.

All of these were things that Noiz held close to his heart.

"I love you, Aoba."

Aoba's eyes widened, shining. His mouth opened to reply but Noiz wasn't finished yet.

"It was true the first time I said it, and the only difference now is that every moment I've spent with you since then made me love you even more."

Aoba's face was beet red now, lips flapping dumbly. Sensing he was about to try and hide himself, Noiz grasped his wrists.

"This is why I don't like your idea at all. I'm getting more and more used to always having you around, and I don't want you gone. I want you even closer."

"...! I'm the same, but I can't just-" Aoba worried his lower lip.

Noiz sighed, giving a weak smile.

"I know. Even more than not wanting you away, I don't want my father hounding you. Since he's such a nosy bastard, I'd come clean to him right now, but..." He lifted one hand to lay it on Aoba's cheek. "You're right to worry about yourself and your brother. Even if he won't harm you directly, Sei shouldn't go through any stress now." He laughed briefly. "Mizuki would kill me too if I put his fiancé in danger. I'll keep my distance."

Aoba frowned, as if he hadn't been the one to suggest that, and Noiz sat up once more, placing a quick peck on Aoba's lips.

"That is, starting the moment you leave for work tomorrow. Until then, you're mine." He started getting up, smoothing the wrinkles on his clothes. "And I found my old Nintendo 64 so, prepare to die."

Aoba blinked quickly, before his surprised face broke into bright laughter. "You're gonna eat that confidence. But first, the pizza. It's getting cold, c'mon."

The gloomy mood quickly dissipated after that, even if their minds weren't completely settled with the changes that would follow the moment Aoba put his foot outside that house. Noiz refused to wrack his mind over it now; they'd cross that bridge when they got to it.

They pushed the coffee table to the side to clear space between the sofa and the TV.  With coats and jackets crumpled in a corner, Aoba sat on the couch with folded legs and picked the pepperoni on the pizza while Noiz connected cables to the TV and game console.

 


 

The hours rolled around peacefully; they ate pizza and drank a couple of soda cans Noiz had sitting in his fridge. Noiz lost to Aoba three times in Super Smash Bros—the match, the rematch, and the re-rematch because "you're just good playing with Fox"—causing him to sulk for five entire minutes. Not that he didn't deny it vehemently when Aoba accused him. It had to be unfair how attractive cockiness looked in Aoba, with his snarky grin and dark-green sweater sleeves rolled up to his elbows. It enfuriated Noiz, but he also felt he didn't see it nearly as much as he'd like.

"You fell into the lava in all of the three laps," Aoba said, deadpan, munching on pizza as they watched the Mario Kart ending cutscene. Noiz won the first time, but Aoba won the rematch.

"You were squished by the thwomps in all of the three laps too," Noiz retorted, eating his own piece of pizza. He wasn't even mad this time; they both saw it coming by the second-to-last tournament.

 "Yeah, but I won."

"It's just been too long since I've played with controllers; I'm more used to keyboard now." He sighed and leaned back on the couch. "Let's play something else. I'm sick of this soundtrack already."

"You're just sulking again~"

"Shut up."

Aoba was the one to get up and rifle through the bag of cartridges this time. He hummed lowly to an unknown tune while Noiz flipped the cover on the empty pizza box, lying down on the couch and typing something on his phone.

Noiz was surprised by a loud gasp as Aoba lifted something in his hands.

"Harvest Moon! Oh man, I haven't heard of this game in years!"

Noiz frowned. "That's not multiplayer."

Aoba turned back partially, eyes sparkling. "C'mon, don't be stingy! You can even play some of the days?"

"It's fine, I don't like this game much anyway. Too slow."

"I'm starting to get the impression that you have a bad taste in games."

Noiz scoffed, but didn't say anything as Aoba inserted the cartridge into the console and sat down on the edge of the sofa with the controller.

"C'mon, Noiz, don't drape yourself all over the sofa," Aoba chided.

Noiz ignored him, lying on his side as he watched the menu screen on the TV.

"I should've gotten some booze or something, don't you think?" He asked instead, reaching for one of the empty soda cans on the coffee table.

"No, we'd just wake up with a hangover tomorrow and potentially forget everything."

"Didn't expect you to be a lightweight."

Aoba mock-glared at him before turning his attention back to the game. Noiz thought of teasing him with "so you don't want to forget about tonight?" but decided against it. No time to think about annoying things. Instead, he asked Aoba to open the second pizza box.

Noiz wouldn't mind watching Aoba play alone if the game wasn't so utterly boring. The background music was about to make him sleep, and it was sort of like a farming RPG, and Aoba was just chopping bushes every single day in the game.

It was pretty cute to see him gushing over the small pixelated dog his character had gotten, though.

"Aoba," Noiz called, poking Aoba's sides.

"Geez, what do you want," he groaned.

"Let's play strip poker."

"I don't know how to play poker."

Noiz scoffed. "What's with that?"

Aoba didn't say anything else, eyes focused determinedly on the screen. Noiz watched him for a couple of silent minutes, before speaking up again.

"So strip poker is off the table-"

"Yes, it is," Aoba sighed.

"Who's stingy now?"

Noiz limited himself to poking Aoba to get him to mess up in the game, earning himself some slaps and nasty pinches on his arm and Aoba whining at him to stop being such a brat. Despite everything, he really didn't mind not playing anything and just watching.

That was, until Aoba started yawning and it wasn't even 4am yet.

"Okay, let's play something else. The boring game is finally getting to you." Noiz got up, stretching his arms and back.

"Don't call it boring, you..." Aoba trailed off, lips opening wide around another yawn. Noiz stuck his finger into his mouth but pulled it out before Aoba snapped his teeth together.

"Brat," Aoba muttered, scowling.

Noiz laughed as he walked to the console, and Aoba couldn't hold the grumpy face for much longer, smiling coyly.

"I have my PS2 with me too, by the way," Noiz announced, sitting with folded legs on the floor and disconnecting cables from the TV.

"Ah, cool. You didn't even mention it before, though."

Noiz shrugged. "All of the multiplayer games didn't work when I tested them out. But I just remembered something that might be interesting for you to play."

The alarms blared in Aoba's head. He watched the screen light up as the PS2 was connected.

"Ah- ahaha, is that so? What game is it?" He asked lightly to Noiz's back.

Noiz got up after sliding the disc into the console's drive and turned to Aoba, face completely blank. "Fatal Frame."

"I'm not playing that," he was shooting before Noiz was even finished.

Noiz followed, not even blinking. "The rule is, you shed one article of clothing for every scream-"

"You're seriously making this into strip-horror game right now?!"

"C'mon, you were about to fall asleep. We need to liven it up."

Aoba huffed. He grabbed the remote and turned off the TV, getting to his feet and marching towards the console. "Honestly, I'd rather just get naked already than go through all this mess beforehand."

Noiz raised his brows, grinning slyly as Aoba sidestepped him. "That has to be the most straightforward thing I've heard you say."

Aoba threw him a glare over the shoulder and pressed the button to open the console's driver. Before he could get the disc, though, Noiz held him around the waist and pulled him away, eliciting a garbled squawk from Aoba. They stood in the middle of the room and Noiz laid the side of his head on Aoba's shoulder, trying to peer at his annoyed face.

"Are you that scared of horror games?" Noiz asked.

"O-of course not. I'm okay with it."

"Then let's play it. I kind of want to hear you scream."

The words blew hot on Aoba's ear and he tensed up, goosebumps trailing up his neck.

"Don't want to," he managed to say steadily.

"Why?" Noiz's arms tightened up around Aoba's waist.

Aoba stayed quiet and Noiz sighed, loosening his hold and letting go. For a moment, Aoba feared that Noiz was upset, and he turned around to try and placate him, until:

"I'll just ask Sei then, he must know." Noiz was looking down at his phone and tapped on the screen.

"Nonononono!" Aoba jumped to take Noiz's phone out of his hands and they backpedalled onto the couch. Noiz plopped down on the cushions and Aoba hovered above him, straddling his lap. Noiz held the phone just out of reach.

"Then tell me," Noiz cajoled.

"Okay, okay! It's just bad memories!" Aoba dropped his head on Noiz's chest, but he was having none of it. He patted Aoba's shoulder.

"Don't hide your face, that's the best part."

Aoba raised his head, sending him a red-faced scowl. Somehow, his eyes were shining all the brighter. Definitely the best part.

Noiz kissed the tip of Aoba's nose and smirked as he watched the blush intensify.

"What bad memories are these?"

"They're bad memories, Noiz. Who wants to revive bad memories?"

"I'll take responsibility and soothe the pain of these memories afterwards," he promised, lips curled up in amusement.

Aoba groaned and Noiz pulled him closer.

"Now, shoot."

"Fine, fine," Aoba huffed, not looking Noiz in the eye. "W-well, I was ten at the time, okay? And I was a huge crybaby so I hated horror games, but I thought it'd be okay because Sei, Mizuki and Koujaku were there.

"Well, it wasn't. We were all brats and we were playing this game at night. There was no one at Koujaku's because his mom had to go on a last-minute trip to the mainland. We just tagged along because Granny was working the night shift at the hospital and those two dumbasses promised her they would look after us." Aoba sighed heavily. "Turns out someone needed to look after them."

"What, you all got scared shitless?" Noiz sneered, mentally archiving the blackmail material.

Aoba frowned defensively. "The game was pretty scary, alright? I cried, Mizuki screamed at some point, Sei escaped. There was a power shortage when we were halfway through it and, of course, I panicked really badly and Mizuki was panicking too but he tried to look brave and Koujaku sagely decided to call it a night." He sighed.

Noiz waited for the rest of the story with an arched eyebrow and an expectant little grin. Aoba inhaled slowly.

"We were all going to sleep, but Koujaku wanted to use the bathroom. Now, I don't know what really happened because I wasn't there, but Sei told me some of it. We thought he was upstairs already, but turns out that he had been using the bathroom when the power went down; he was stranded there, afraid to leave after the lights went out. So, Mizuki was taking me upstairs and Koujaku went to the bathroom and everything was fine, until Sei called out to him from behind the shower curtain."

"And?" Noiz prompted when Aoba didn't continue.

"And I should tell you; kids in our school used to call Sei a youkai. It was really mean, but he did have that ghostly look to him. So when Koujaku heard someone eerily moaning his name from behind the curtain... he bolted out of the bathroom, screaming as if his hair was on fire. So much for his tough guy act." Aoba sighed. "Mizuki and I ran out of the bedroom to see what was going on and... you remember that big scar on Koujaku's face?"

"Yeah," Noiz snorted.

"It's from that night."

Noiz sputtered, barely holding in his chortling. "What the hell?"

Aoba chuckled weakly. "Yeah. Honestly, I only know that his face was bleeding already when we came downstairs. Sei was apologizing tearfully and Mizuki fucking fainted, there was broken china all over the floor. I didn't even know what was happening so I just ran out of the house and honestly, we got into so much trouble for that night. We got the scolding of our lives from Granny and Koujaku's mom..."

Noiz buried his face on the crook of Aoba's neck, shaking with silent laughter. For a moment, Aoba peered down at the blond head of hair and was mesmerized into silence. He could barely glimpse the flushed tip of Noiz's ear. It was like that, every one of the rare times he saw Noiz lose himself, but feeling the warm puffs of air soaking into his sweater was a plus.

"I love you too, Noiz."

Aoba heard the falter in Noiz's breath, and his laughter dying down slowly. Noiz lifted his head, and his eyes were so soft on Aoba's that he was sure that being exposed to that gaze must've turned his insides into goo.

It was only natural for them to close the distance between their lips.

Chapter Text

It started out as an innocent kiss, but it heated up fast enough. As it would be expected, Noiz took the leverage and ran with it, tugging on Aoba's chin to open his mouth wider and deepening the kiss. It would be easy for Aoba to blame it all on him, but he, himself, got agitated pretty fast and urged Noiz on, only fanning the flames of pleasure when he squirmed on Noiz's lap and whined against his lips.

 Noiz's hands slid under Aoba's sweater, fingertips brushing up his sides hungrily. With a shudder, Aoba broke the kiss and inhaled a much needed bout of breath, holding on tight to Noiz's shoulders.

Aoba laughed airily, eyes still closed and head downcast.

"It's the couch again, huh?"

It took a bit longer than necessary to put the words together. Aoba raised his head slowly to see Noiz blinking away the haziness clouding his eyes.

Oh. It was Aoba's couch last night.

"Does it bother you?" Noiz asked breathily.

"Eh? No no, I'm fi- woah!"

Firming his hold on the back of Aoba's thighs, Noiz hoisted him up as he got to his feet, letting out a small huff of breath at his weight. Aoba gasped and flailed briefly before tightening up his arms and legs around Noiz in a panic, darting his wide-eyed gaze between the ground and Noiz's face.

"What are you doing?!"

"Changing locations," Noiz muttered matter-of-factly, moving to the stairs. Aoba squawked, hanging off Noiz like a baby koala.

"Let me go, brat, I can walk!"

Noiz paid no heed to his protests and walked up the stairs slowly. Aoba started trembling in his arms.

He sighed. Was Aoba that afraid of falling? "Oi-"

"Pfft- hahaha!" Aoba tossed his head back, wheezing with laughter. "O-oh my God, you really are climbing the stairs while bridal-carrying me! Do you want to break your neck or something?! Haha- ah!" Aoba squeaked as Noiz jerked him up into his arms suddenly, adjusting his hold. "Don't do that, you asshole! Hah- hahaha..."

"Stop laughing..." Noiz grumbled, though he didn't mean a word of it.

With a quick turn of the doorknob, they finally emerged into Noiz's room, dark with only a pale ray of light shining through the balcony doors. Noiz dropped Aoba on the bed but was dragged down along with him, landing on his knees and elbows on the mattress.

Noiz hovered above him and Aoba blinked owlish eyes at him, hands still gripping at Noiz's button-down. The blond was just diving in to pick up where they had left off when Aoba pushed against his chest gently.

"U-uh... I guess it's kinda obvious now, but... do you want to go all the way?"

"You don't want to?" Noiz asked, scrunching his brows ever so slightly.

"I do! But..." Aoba blushed, and looked off to the side. "I want to shower first."

"... Huh?" Noiz snapped, and Aoba turned a glare to him.

"I haven't showered since this morning and I've been walking around all day, alright?"

"I don't care about that," Noiz said, returning Aoba's scowl with a bored gaze.

"That's not the point. Besides, I have to p-prepare. And it's been a long time." Aoba's voice got almost inaudible by the end of his defense.

After a thought-filled silence, Noiz relented with a sigh and got off Aoba, sitting down to the side and glancing at him sullenly.

"Don't take too long."

Aoba smiled softly, staring at Noiz before pinching his bottom lip (which had been sticking out in a pout) and getting up from the bed. Noiz glared at his back with no real heat, which dropped with a sigh.

"Well, I guess I'll shower too."

"You can't shower with me," Aoba alerted, turning narrowed eyes towards him.

Noiz snorted. "Yeah, I thought you'd say that. Don't worry though; I'll shower at the common bathroom."

Aoba's features softened with a cheeky grin. He hummed in understanding and bent down to press a peck to the corner of Noiz's mouth.

 


 

It had been half an hour since Noiz had lied down on his bed again, fresh out of bath and only clad in boxers. He was talking to Franz on the phone when he heard the shower in his en-suite stop running. As Noiz lowered the phone from his ear and hung up the call, Aoba stepped back into the room, a towel hanging around his hips.

Aoba's eyes zeroed in on the phone in Noiz's hand. The evident worry prompted Noiz to talk before Aoba said anything.

"I called to check up on things. Everything's alright."

Aoba blushed slightly but nodded, sighing in relief. Noiz sat up on the edge of the mattress and reached for Aoba's hands when he was close enough.

"Okay?"

Aoba smiled. "Okay. But, you know," his grin turned reprimanding, eyebrows quirking up. "I didn't even bring a change of clothes, since you just dragged me here."

Noiz shrugged, eyeing the line of fair skin right above the towel. "I can lend you something if you need. Clothes won't be too necessary for the remainder of tonight though."

"You... How can you say that with a straight face?" Aoba muttered, frowning.

Noiz blinked innocently. "What, does it bother you to sleep naked?"

Aoba groaned and Noiz chuckled, tugging lightly on the towel.

"But yeah, clothes would be a bit of a hindrance for this, too."

"Perverted brat..." Aoba muttered and moved Noiz's hand away, unfastening the knot on his towel easily and letting it fall around his feet. With one knee dipping into the edge of the mattress, Aoba bent down to kiss Noiz.

Noiz smiled against the kiss and let Aoba push him down on the bed. They were draped sideways across the bed, the faint smack of lips and tongues gliding together sounding deafening in their ears. Noiz soon felt an insistent pull on his boxers' waistband.

"I can't be the only one naked head-to-toe," Aoba complained between kisses. Noiz obliged with a hum and raised his legs to let Aoba cast down his boxers.

"You're coming off a lot more aggressive than I expected," Noiz remarked in a ragged breath, looking up at Aoba as their lips parted.

"What, can't I?" Aoba grumbled testily.

"No, I like it, but," he grabbed Aoba's waist and flipped them over, towering over a disheveled and wide-eyed Aoba. "I waited for a long time, so... let me collect some compensation."

"Huh?! Oi-"

"Relax," Noiz said calmly before bringing their lips back together.

Despite his protests, Aoba didn't show any interest in resisting. He let Noiz take the lead as he went in, lips sliding together like silk on silk. Noiz nibbled and pulled lightly at Aoba's bottom lip, and the next time he came down, their tongues met in a sluggish rhythm. Aoba raised his hands to fist them on the back of Noiz's head, tugging on his hair and pressing them even closer, angling his head to deepen the kiss.

Grunting at the sparks tingling down his nape, Noiz let his hips drop on Aoba's slightly. Both of them trembled at the naked contact, sighing into their mouths. They broke apart as Noiz smirked, looking down at Aoba.

"Half-hard already?"

Aoba turned his head to the side, averting Noiz's taunting gaze and unknowingly baring a beautiful stripe of his skin to Noiz, the tense line of his neck like a single thread of light in the dimness of the room.

"It's only natural. I did prepare earlier."

Noiz huffed. "That you did." He finally dived in and licked at Aoba's neck before biting down, eliciting a shiver as Aoba's breath hitched.

"What did you do? Opened yourself up, cleaned inside?" Noiz mused, breath hot on Aoba's skin. He followed by sucking at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, biting down mercilessly right beside a dark purple hickey he had made last night. Aoba moaned low, eyes shutting tight as his body tensed up under Noiz's ministrations.

"If I did?" Aoba managed to hiss, and Noiz chuckled airily.

"Honestly, I'm getting hard just imagining it," Noiz admitted, lifting Aoba's hips off the bed and grinding against him once.

"Ahn- ngh!"

"But that was unnecessary. There's no way you can be dirty."

Aoba had no time to contest his words. Noiz flipped him on his stomach, hearing him make a tiny, muffled sound of confusion into the mattress. Finding that he had never looked at Aoba from this angle, Noiz slid off the bed and marveled at the lines of Aoba's back. Noiz slid one finger down the dip of his spine, feeling every knob and prompting a shudder Aoba, sensing it under his touch just as much as he saw it, eyes trained on his silhouette. Noiz laid his hands on the flesh of Aoba's buttocks, sliding them down the back of his slightly quivering thighs.

Aoba gasped when Noiz grabbed his thighs and yanked his lower body over the edge of the bed, legs left hanging. "W-what are you doing?"

"Tell me if you don't want this," Noiz said as he kneeled down on the floor. He parted the pert, small cheeks and brought his face closer, breathing against Aoba's skin. Noiz didn't need to say anything for Aoba to know what he was planning on doing. When Noiz was answered with nothing more than the light jostling of his legs and a sighed "yes", he licked across Aoba's hole.

"A-ahn—!" Aoba shuddered, hips jumping with a startle. Noiz stared at the tense line of Aoba's spine, skin turning rosy, shoulder blades trembling with stray strands of hair spilling over.

It was the first time Noiz was doing this, and he wondered if it was Aoba's first time receiving it; he was reacting quite strongly. When Noiz slid the blade of his tongue harder over the puckered skin, circling it with the very tip and hearing broken, desperate moans in response, he only lamented that he couldn't see Aoba's face like this.

Noiz would have to settle for seeing him after eating him out good and reducing him to a quivering mess of tears and sweat. He felt a shiver rippling through him, only by envisioning glassy, narrowed hazel eyes against flushed red skin.

Noiz's hands weighted down on Aoba's hips, which were going near wild under the stimulation. Noiz liked the reaction a lot, but it was making his task a tad more difficult. His tongue kept on following circular patterns, until he ultimately pushed it into Aoba, who jolted violently and cried out. Noiz heard a loud thump on the floor beside him; Aoba had probably kicked it on reflex.

"Fuck! N-Noiz...!" Aoba's voice rose in a high-pitched moan and Noiz gripped his hips tighter, not sure whether he was grounding himself or Aoba. Noiz distantly wondered if it would leave bruises.

It needed no small amount of force to push his tongue in, but it had slid in a lot easier than he expected. Aoba had fingered himself, after all. The images blinking in his mind's eyes pushed his tongue deeper inside, dragging a groan from Aoba as it brushed against his inner walls.

Noiz let out what could've been a breathy laugh if his lips were able to form around it. Filled to the brim with the sounds of Aoba's voice bleeding into his frantic huffs of breath, Noiz pressed his face even further into the cleft of Aoba's ass, lips hot on his skin as his tongue circled inside.

Aoba whimpered, half-formed words spilling out of his lips, and it only got worse when Noiz started thrusting in and out, slow and torturing. Aoba's hips stuttered under Noiz's hands, and he tried to push into the unrelenting tongue, seeking more friction, more of anything, but he came up with nothing, only left with a burning that increased and couldn't be satisfied only with that.

"Noiz... eno- enough..." Aoba's huffs made Noiz's skin crawl with excitement, and his rhythm only grew more enthusiastic. Aoba moaned almost tiredly. "Not that. More... m- mph!"

Noiz withdrew his tongue, but only to suck at Aoba's entrance. A short-lived sigh of relief broke as Aoba cried out in equal parts surprise and pleasure. Noiz couldn't tell if it was his precome or Aoba's dribbling on his thigh, but it could easily be from either of them. He, himself, was so hard at this point it almost hurt.

Impatience gnawed at Noiz; he couldn't wait anymore. Not when there were goosebumps raising the hairs on his arms and nape, a feverish heat stinging on his skin as Aoba chanted his name and babbled half-baked sentences between groans. Noiz got up and grabbed Aoba's shoulder, flipping him up unceremoniously and looking at his face.

Apparently not thinking clearly enough to hide himself, Aoba flopped on the mattress with arms thrown over his head, reddened face shining in an indiscriminate mix of sweat and tears, blue hair a bunched mess, sticking to his face or haphazardly thrown into the backlight of off-white sheets. Hazel eyes half-lidded and framed by wet lashes, bottom lip pulled slack and glistening pink, and lower—his heaving chest, the twitch of his muscles. A lesser man could've peaked from that sight alone and, quite honestly, couldn't be blamed for it.

For a moment, they only stared at each other, letting their rushed breaths fill the space between them. Noiz's lips were red and swollen from friction, hair mussed and green eyes glowing almost neon with hunger.

Noiz leaned in to claim his lips, but Aoba placed a hand over Noiz's mouth before they could come in contact.

"I'm not kissing you when your mouth has been there," Aoba said, slow and clear as his breath was just normalizing.

Noiz frowned down at him, but it came as fast as it went, expression reverting to calm neutrality. "Fine."

"'Fine', you say..." Aoba echoed, brows slightly knitted as Noiz pulled away.

After a quick rummaging into the nightstand's drawer, Noiz's hand reemerged with condoms and a bottle of lube, to Aoba's quiet expectation. Noiz climbed back onto bed, pulling on Aoba's wrists to come with him. Aoba followed, if a little confused, as Noiz settled against the headboard and drew him to his lap.

He put the bottle of lube in Aoba's hand and smirked.

"Show me how you finger yourself?"

Aoba's eyes widened. He stammered, cheeks flashing redder by the second.

"W-why?"

Noiz snorted. "Because I want to see, obviously. Besides, you won't let me kiss you." He grabbed a handful of Aoba's ass and brought him closer, lifting his hips. Aoba gulped as Noiz closed his lips loosely over a pink nipple and looked up. "So I'll have to give attention to other places."

Aoba bit his lip, forehead scrunching up. "You're so embarrassing."

"I'll show you how I do it too, if you want," Noiz offered, and didn't break eye contact as his tongue circled around the nub. Aoba's surprised face tightened up as he gasped, holding on to Noiz's shoulders.

That seemingly persuaded Aoba, though, because Noiz heard the snap of the bottle cap opening, the dribble of liquid, and then another click as it was closed. Noiz concentrated on the roughness of Aoba's voice in his ears as he groaned hoarsely, one arm reaching behind himself. Noiz let one hand slid up to lavish some attention on the other nipple as he bit at the one on his lips, a merely provocative graze of his teeth before he sucked on it. 

Aoba shuddered and rolled his hips once, bumping his erection against Noiz's.

Noiz sighed against Aoba's sweaty chest and felt Aoba's unoccupied hand closing into his hair. He kept on nibbling at Aoba's chest, very purposefully leaving red, purplish marks around his nipple, until Aoba tugged on his hair, pulling him away. Noiz obeyed, letting go of Aoba's skin.

Aoba was panting above him, sweat dripping from his chin and he was absolutely beautiful in the dim light of the room, throwing shadows at the sharper angles of his face, glistening. For a moment, Aoba forgot what he was going to say; he saw the same beauty in the man under him, disheveled like he never saw before, green eyes glowing sharply in the half-light.

"Look at me," Aoba blurted out. He certainly meant to say it in a way that didn't sound so demanding—it annoyed him that Noiz asked to watch, but was too wrapped up in making a plaything of his chest—but it ended up coming out like that.

He opened his mouth to reformulate, but Noiz's blooming grin blew a hole through his lungs, shutting him up immediately.

"Right." Noiz leaned back against the headboard with an unbeatable smirk, hands coming down to rest over Aoba's thighs, feeling the give of flesh with a sudden pang of hunger.

At this point, Aoba's entire body was glowing pink, feeling almost crushed under the pressure of that scrutinizing gaze, but he wanted that; he craved the pressure of his studying green eyes. Aoba steadied himself by holding a hand on Noiz's shoulder and arched his back, his other arm bent towards his back as he already had two fingers inside.

Aoba's eyes were half-lidded on Noiz's, twisting his fingers inside with a flick of his wrist. He shut his eyes tight and moaned when he brushed against his prostate, but he startled when he felt another hand over his entrance.

"N-Noiz?" He gasped, looking down. Noiz gazed up at him under fair eyelashes, an almost sheepish grin in his lips, and said nothing for a moment.

There was the faint sound of the bottle of lube being opened and closed again. Following that, Noiz's smeary fingers grazed over the back of Aoba's hand, trailing down his knuckles and lightly touching Aoba's entrance.

Aoba jumped in his lap, breath hitching and blunt nails digging into Noiz's shoulders. "What...?"

"I can't really see what you're doing from here, so," Noiz licked his lip, closing one eye briefly as a drop of sweat rolled down his brow and over his eyelid. "Let me in too?"

Aoba trembled, gasping as Noiz's finger pressed down on the rim of his hole. His breath was suddenly too sparse; his toes curled up and he chastised himself for getting so hot from mere words.

He nodded haltingly and scissored his fingers inside, unable to hold back the moans in the back of his throat. Noiz watched him almost unblinkingly, and before Aoba knew it, Noiz had slid his middle finger right between his two. Noiz moaned in response to Aoba's loud groan, craning his neck to nibble at Aoba's jaw and slipping his finger in deeper until he was past the second knuckle.

Noiz took over the pace after this, hand over Aoba's and moving their fingers together inside, thrusting in and out and pressing against his prostate until Aoba was a blubbering mess, moaning out unintelligible sentences. Noiz hated seeing Aoba cry, but he was willing to open an exception for Aoba's tears of pleasure, which trailed down his face and neck as he panted for more and more and harder and not quite there, yes yes yes.

"Aoba..." Noiz sighed, voice trembling at the edges. If he wasn't careful, he might just come untouched.

"Noiz... Stop, please, please..." Aoba pleaded, cheeks bright with tears streaks, lips twisting and pulling over his teeth. Noiz blinked, a bit alarmed.

"Are you okay?" He asked, motions slowing to a stop.

Aoba gulped, breathing hard, head lolling to the side. Noiz could feel his thighs quivering, growing tired of holding him through such an onslaught of stimulation.

"Gonna come..." He panted, and Noiz's lips curled up minutely.

"It's fine, just come-"

"No," Aoba protested. "Today, I... want to come with you, inside."

It was Noiz's turn to swallow dry. He debated on just making him come like this because he looked just too gorgeous right now, but decided to obey Aoba's wishes. Their fingers slipped out of Aoba, who winced slightly and whimpered with relief and solitude at the sudden emptiness.

Aoba took the condom in his trembling fingers before Noiz could snatch it, but hesitated. He blinked quizzically at Aoba's shallow frown.

"Aoba?"

"Is it okay if we don't use it this time?" He asked, not looking at Noiz.

Noiz furrowed his brow slightly. "Well. I'm fine with it."

Aoba nodded jerkily. "Alright then."

Noiz stared at him for two more seconds, confused at the sudden question; until it dawned on him. He smiled mischievously.

"It's the piercings, isn't it?"

Aoba finally looked at him, glaring and blushing profusely. Noiz would have kissed his face then, but Aoba was soon wrapped up in his next task.

He poured a generous amount of lube over Noiz's length and dropped the bottle to the side, climbing up to line himself with Noiz.

"Aren't you too tired?" Noiz asked, brows knitted.

"I'm not," Aoba answered stubbornly, lips pouting.

Aoba descended slowly onto Noiz's cock, one hand on his shoulder and another on his thigh behind him to steady himself. Noiz's groan wasn't low by any means, but it was completely muffled by Aoba's subsequent moan, which rose into a breathless cry as Noiz entered him slow but surely.

"You okay?" Noiz asked, an edge of worry in his plain voice.

Aoba shivered visibly, mouth hanging open around huffs of air and trying not to clench tight as the row of barbells entered him, one by one.

"Great. Just give me time," he nearly choked out, shudders breaking through him.

Noiz helpfully closed a hand around Aoba's cock and started pumping the shaft slowly, his other hand holding Aoba's hip in a firm grip.

Aoba gritted his teeth briefly before sighing, his voice bleeding into it sweet and hoarse. His eyes fluttered shut and Noiz licked his lips, only wishing he could bite and lick and suck at Aoba's reddened, plump ones.

The handjob worked its magic to help Aoba relax and get used to the additional pressure of the small metal balls against his inner walls. Soon, he was fully seated and exhaled with relief, hazel-colored irises emerging under curtains of thick lashes to settle on Noiz's face.

Noiz opened his mouth, but Aoba beat him to it.

"You look beautiful."

Aoba was smiling softly, like he was looking at a miracle happening before his eyes—like people usually looked at a flower blooming or a new butterfly leaving its cocoon. Noiz stared at him, eyes wide and lips gaping open, and for the first time in forever as long as he remembered, he was stunned into silence.

Shut up.

You're the beautiful one.

You're the one good part of me.

No words seemed right in the face of Aoba's sincerity. Noiz pursed his lips in a tight line, brow furrowed, and he could feel warmth spreading across his face even if he tried not to take notice. Aoba's smile only widened.

"I think I'm good to move," he said, and started dragging himself up, slowly.

Aoba's breath stuttered every time he felt the piercings brushing inside him, but it was quickly going from weird to good. Noiz's hands were encasing his hips in support while Aoba undulated on his lap, biting his lip and growling lowly at the friction.

Before long, they were going at a steady rhythm, breathy moans streaming out of both of them. Noiz thrust upwards in the exact moment Aoba was coming down. Noiz's hands clutched on his hips, grunting and sighing as Aoba mewled, trembling at the pressure of Noiz's girth inside him and the constant drag of his piercings up and down his walls.

The earlier talk got lost amidst soft moans, broken sighs and feral groans, the wet slide of skin against skin too loud in the silent room. Noiz enclosed his arms around Aoba's waist, pressing their chests together and thrusting into him in earnest, to what Aoba responded in kind, feeling his own forgotten, precome dribbling cock sliding roughly against Noiz's abs and navel piercing. The barbell's small, rounded tip dug into his shaft and the underside of his cockhead and he didn't expect that but it felt so good.

"F-fuuck..." He couldn't help but sigh, throwing his head back.

"Feels good?" Noiz huffed against his collarbone, gazing up the long line of his sodden, flushed neck.

"Yeah... good- Ahh—!" Aoba cried out when Noiz thrust up especially deep, and he felt Noiz's lorum piercing smack lightly against his ass.

Aoba could feel the tell-tale of heat simmering in his belly and riding up his spine, tingling sensation numbing his toes and fingers as the pressure on his cock became near suffocating. He was so close to the edge, and the rush felt so good and he wanted to never end but he needed to take that fall.

"Noiz! Noiz, I'm- gonna—"

His mouth worked a bit too late; halfway through his stilted sentence, he was already spilling on their stomachs with a shout. In his blissed-out state, he barely felt as Noiz tossed him back onto the mattress, fucking him feverishly and grunting until orgasm washed over him and he came inside Aoba, thighs shuddering and brows furrowed. Aoba whimpered weakly at the warm feeling inside, looking up at Noiz's cutely scrunched, sweaty face and burning it into memory before pulling him down aggressively for a bruising kiss, arms locked around his neck.

Noiz replied enthusiastically, lips sliding together and tongues roiling and caressing. Aoba exhaled and Noiz appreciated the short break, breathing hard.

"Didn't y...you say you weren't kissing me anymore?"

"Changed my mind." He dragged Noiz down again, stealing his air and completely disregarding how filthy they both were, covered in come and sweat.

 


 

In spite of how fiery Aoba was and how willing Noiz was to rile him up further, both of them had been exhausted from the day's stress, so they sluggishly dragged themselves to the bathroom to clean up after their quick make out session.

Aoba had gasped when they returned to the bedroom and saw the sky outside the balcony clearing into a gloomy, pale blue, heavy with clouds. Noiz snorted and Aoba punched him on the shoulder, chiding him for keeping him up until that late while Noiz pulled the curtains closed. While he set up his alarm for less than five hours from then, lying on his side, Noiz crept up behind him, an arm around his waist and face buried in blue hair, like it was natural. Aoba slowly realized it was natural as he covered Noiz's hand on his stomach with his own.

In the next minute, they were both breathing steadily, their collective warmth enclosed under the thick duvet and making them dream of winter nights spent in front of the fireplace, campfires in the summer or just this exact same situation—being in each other's arms and feeling safe.

Noiz didn't hear Aoba's shrilly alarm, but stirred awake the moment he felt Aoba moving away. Reflexively, his arms tightened up around Aoba's hips and he heard the man gasp in surprise before laughing and greeting him good morning. He blinked confusedly, seeing nothing but complete darkness. Feeling warm skin against his cheek, he realized he was smothering his face on the small of Aoba's back.

He meant to say something, he knew; his brain labored to string coherent words together, but he merely grumbled gibberish, prompting another laugh from Aoba.

"Let me at least open the curtains so you can wake up properly."

More often than not, Noiz was the kind of person that never got up from bed the moment he woke up. He needed a thirty-minute to one-hour-long nap before he could start assimilating the world around him and feel like being productive. The exceptions were, of course, the days he missed his alarm and woke up late for work, resulting in forgetfulness and a generally shitty mood.

Today was another exception; he dragged himself out of bed after Aoba, sensitive eyes still protesting under the assault of bright light. The first thing he was able to see was Aoba's cheeky smile, commenting over his shoulder that Noiz looked like a duckling trailing behind him. Aoba turned to scrutinize him fully, and Noiz only blinked blearily, not entirely present in that realm yet.

The sun flooded into the room, reflecting off the vinyl wood flooring. Aoba's gaze floated over barely open, shimmering apple-green eyes, disheveled blond hair and the red lines on his face from where he had been pressing it on Aoba's hair in his sleep. He grinned brightly and leaned in to kiss the corner of Noiz's (drooly) mouth. This guy was just too damn cute.

After that, Noiz was latched onto Aoba like glue and, of course, he didn't let up even when Aoba roamed into the en-suite for a shower. He tried in vain to make Noiz let him go, but after much grappling, he accepted his fate and they went into the bathroom together. Aoba had to admit (at least to himself alone) that it was fun washing Noiz's hair, face scrunched with soap and bubbles covering his head, but Noiz was slowly waking up as the warm water washed over them. Soon, Aoba was busy batting his creeping hands off his hips as he washed his own hair.

Not that they didn't wind up making out, getting too riled up to let it end there and jacking each other off to finish up. If Aoba weren't worried about being late to work, he might've had called on Noiz's offer from yesterday. You're so easily manipulated, he chastised himself as Noiz grinned at him on their way out of the shower.

They had breakfast together—which was just the pizza from yesterday and a banana and apple smoothie Aoba prepared, secretly relieved that Noiz actually had healthy things in his fridge—and talked about trivial things, like common acquaintances from the Old Residential District and games they didn't get to play yesterday. Shortly, Aoba was getting ready to head out and the conversation dwindled into silence. Noiz had grown significantly quiet, only watching as he brushed his hair.

Noiz didn't own hairbrushes before, since his hair was kept short, but the day after Aoba slept over for the first time and he saw tangles on his hair, he waited until Mizuki came in for lunch and sent him out again to buy it. It had been on his nightstand ever since, but Aoba never commented on its sudden appearance, just like he hadn't asked about the absence of it before.

"Thanks for lending me the sweater," Aoba told him, breaking the silence. He tugged at the piece of clothing in question for emphasis. It was navy blue and only slightly big on him; it'd be impossible to notice under his jacket.

"It's nothing," Noiz replied from the bed, as unruffled as ever, phone on hand and tapping leisurely.

"It's the investigators?" Aoba asked, eyes on Noiz's phone.

"Yeah. Everything went fine so I'm telling them they don't need to stake out again."

"I can't imagine how much you must be paying them for this." He laughed awkwardly, picking up his own phone on the nightstand.

Aoba would have more than enough time to pass by his place on his way to work; he woke up early enough to do so, because he wanted to check up on Ren. There was no need to borrow clothes; he could easily make the walk of shame to his apartment and change before going to work. He knew all of that and said nothing. Noiz, too, knew of that, but offered his sweater anyway.

They were made of significant silences that morning. Both knew they never met as frequently as they would like, to begin with. But they found that, being too busy to meet some days of the week and being incapable of seeing each other for months was quite different, in the end.

"Well, I'm heading out now," Aoba announced lightly as he and Noiz stood by the doorway.

"Yeah, good luck at work. Remember to get rid of the camera."

"Yes, yes."

Aoba looked sheepish and Noiz looked hesitant. He didn't want to kiss him like a goodbye, their situation wasn't terminal like that. It was supposed to be like any other farewell, but the stakes were high and the pressing need to kiss him before he never got to do it again was enough to chase away any pretenses he could have for "acting normal".

While people were distant from each other, they changed. Their situations changed. The world wouldn't stop spinning on its orbit.

Noiz startled away from his thoughts when Aoba sighed.

"You're frowning so much. It almost looks like you're in pain."

"I'm alright," he said evenly.

Aoba grinned like he didn't believe him at all and brought a hand to Noiz's cheek before leaning in for a tender kiss.

It was only a sweet, slow glide of lips, smooth against each other as Noiz and Aoba angled their heads in a well-loved, well-practiced dance. Tongues caressed, circled and roiled but never teased, never tried to prolong the moment any more than necessary. It didn't have to be a kiss to last them months and years; it only had to convey that it wasn't the last.

They parted with a low smack and Aoba's grin was there again as he rubbed his thumb on the space between Noiz's brows.

"Yes, yes, finally the grumpy crease is gone."

"I have-"

"Eh?"

"I have something to give you. Next time."

Aoba blinked, wide-eyed, and laughed as a beautiful pink pooled in his cheeks. Noiz's expression was blank, but there was a determined glint in his eye.

"Now you're making me curious. 'Til next time, then."

Noiz watched as Aoba opened the door and nonchalantly pulled the fur hood of his jacket over his head, tucking his ever eye-catching blue hair into it before walking out. He was just turning and walking up the sidewalk when Noiz noticed the mild weather today. If he had work, he would've been able to forgo the coat.

Sharp green eyes didn't leave Aoba's unnecessarily bundled up silhouette until it disappeared at the corner of the street. Then, they skimmed around the neighboring houses, parked cars and the sidewalk before him. Noiz ignored the sting of nails biting into his palms.

 


 

"How did things get this bad?" Agnes groaned, poking her lasagna with the fork.

Noiz snorted. He let his eyes roam over the warm ambiance of the overly ostentatious Italian restaurant, crystal chandeliers hanging off the golden ceiling and soft music playing in the background. They were out for dinner in one of their customary "dates", three days after the last time he saw Aoba.

He was used to spending three days without seeing him, but his brain kept on making things worse by reminding him that was only the beginning. They tried to call and text as much as they could, but Aoba was completely engrossed in taking care of Sei and working, now that he had filled up for the empty spaces Exposure left. Noiz put Franz and the others to work and look for hints, but he still didn't know for sure how his father had caught wind of Aoba's existence, and he had to ask himself if he was really keeping Aoba safe like that.

"Wow, I've seen at least three emotions cross your face just now. Are you alright?"

Agnes shook him out of reverie, brows raised. Noiz rolled his eyes.

"I'm just pissed off."

She huffed, stabbing the piece of lasagna she had been poking and taking it to her mouth. "Let me remind you who told you to talk to your parents from the beginning..."

Noiz answered with an utterly caustic gaze and Agnes snorted, smiling almost apologetically.

"Well, you just tell me 'it'd be worse' and never give me any details, so don't blame me for not completely understanding why you two just parted ways like that instead of just getting it over with."

Noiz opened his mouth to retort but she raised a hand, proceeding. "But I do understand when I'm getting into something personal. You already told me about your family, so I know this has to be very important if you're not willing to disclose.

"I also know that your parents, especially your father, won't take the news too well; you made this much quite clear. I'm not holding your situation to the same standards as mine anymore. But, Noiz, telling them is the only way for things to advance."

"Thanks for stating the obvious," Noiz sneered, cutting a piece of porchetta on his plate absentmindedly.

"If it's that obvious and you haven't done it yet, I'm guessing you're afraid for Aoba then. He really didn't strike me as fragile, but since I'm in a bit of a disadvantage in this argument, I'll have to skip over these blank spots and trust your judgment. If that's the case, you just have to make sure Aoba's safe, right?"

Noiz scoffed. "You make it sound simple."

"Well, I'm trying to make sense of this situation even if I'm in the dark. That's the only logical answer I can come up with. Unless you're expecting me to accept you with open arms again." She grinned impishly.

"Out of question." He bit into his food while Agnes laughed.

"I'm glad we're clear on that. But," her tone grew serious again. "You won't be able to hide behind me for too long, you know."

"What do you mean?"

Agnes blushed lightly. "I'm planning to tell my parents about Emilia next week."

Noiz raised his brows, blinking.

"It's that serious between you two?"

She pouted. "Why wouldn't it be? Didn't I tell you about how perfect we are for each other?"

"For someone who was completely willing to marry someone she barely knew a thing about, I thought you'd be more hesitant to go against your parents' wishes. But then again, you might just be impulsive."

"I'm not going against their wishes; they know I'm bi and never restrained me for it. And I'm not being impulsive, I properly thought of it."

"Whatever you say."

Agnes glared at him half-heartedly. "This is why Aoba dumped your rude ass."

Noiz coughed out a dry laugh and downed his glass of wine in one go.

Chapter Text

"Wim, are you okay?"

Noiz stopped mid-sentence and blinked up from the report he had been summing up for Theo. Though his little brother was fussy and frequently fretted over his well-being, it was very unlike him to break the business atmosphere so readily, going to the point of interrupting him, even.

"Yeah. Why?"

Theo's little frown deepened for a short moment before he smiled faintly.

"Nothing. Just a feeling I had, sorry. Please proceed."

Noiz obliged, but made a mental reminder to ask what that was about, later. Not only that, but also the worried looks Theo had been flashing his way for the past few days. Noiz wondered if he heard about their father's little games; Noiz made a point not to tell him anything since Theo would just get needlessly concerned, but his father might have spilled it. Or Noiz himself might've unintentionally tipped Theo off with his recent behavior though he couldn't imagine how.

Finished with their little assembly, Noiz made the walk back to his office, tapping on his tablet. He was doing boring desk work even when he wasn't at his desk. He needed to look over Theo's schedule, organize documents for upcoming meetings, reply to e-mails from business associates before they got submerged under other messages, as well as looking over his own private matters. Namely, the private investigators who were still trying to find out how his father discovered Aoba.

Noiz lowered his tablet and glanced at his reflection on the glass windows, faint but still discernible in Wednesday's grey light. He didn't look any different from two weeks ago.

He wouldn't look any different. One week and a half had gone by and he missed Aoba, way too much, but it wasn't uncommon for them to not see each other for this long. It was ridiculous to stop functioning normally like he had been disposed of and, he reminded himself, they hadn't broken up.

Even though Aoba's answers to his texts were getting increasingly late and he never had time for calls. Even though Noiz himself was quite busy with his own tasks, and he felt himself getting more and more impatient at the ever-widening abyss between them. Yes, their relationship remained the same.

Noiz told himself that as he bumped on a short, flustered-looking woman from HR, apologizing absentmindedly before nearly breezing past his office door.

He sighed harshly. This is annoying.

Closing the door behind him, Noiz dropped on his chair with a huff. That had only happened because he was immersed in thoughts for a moment; he had been making sure to keep his focus at work and never let his frustration surface, especially in front of his father. Theo was just too perceptive for his own good—so much so that he would see things that weren't really there sometimes.

That was how Noiz ended up being dragged into accompanying his brother to dinner after work that night.

Noiz peered at his brother's profile as he cheerfully made their order to the waiter. He had told himself that he'd like to ask why Theo looked so concerned of late, but he couldn't expect it to be a one-sided conversation; if he was asking, Theo would most likely start making his own questions. That was the part he dreaded, because it would just make Theo even more worried and even sadder for their father's schemes.

By this point, Noiz didn't feel anything other than antipathy for his father's manipulative ways, maybe anger at the most extreme—like his recent stunt. His father, himself, never felt anything other than righteousness from the beginning; he'd never see his acts for what they really were, but rather as necessary measures to protect his family and name.

His mother was always indifferent; standing in the sidelines like a mere onlooker, someone who just couldn't help, which turned her into an accomplice. For how she burst with emotion in every other situation, she was completely inscrutable when Noiz was being jerked around like a rag doll. In retrospect, Noiz might've taken his poker face from her.

However, Theo was always divided between two worlds, from when they were kids and he couldn't do anything other than cry and watch, to now that he singlehandedly brought Noiz back to try and salvage what he could of their relationship. Theo could never want to support Noiz through their parents' disapproval without being reminded of how much they hurt his older brother. If Noiz could help it, he would try not to drag Theo into their conflicts.

It really looked like one of those situations he couldn't help when Theo turned big, expectant eyes to him.

"Brother, you've been looking weird lately."

"What do you mean?" So I did tip him off, somehow.

"You seem unhappy."

Noiz knitted his brows and let out a breathy laugh. "I'm fine, Theo."

Theo shifted uncertainly, having detected the darkness in Noiz's tone. "I can't really pinpoint it. I guess there's no difference to how you hold yourself usually, and that's the problem."

"Now you're making no sense," Noiz accused with an edge of impatience.

Theo looked down briefly before staring Noiz in the eye. "It's just... you've gained some transparency to you, see, and it showed until not long ago. I'd catch glimpses of you looking at your phone and smiling, or I'd see you walking around the office impatiently, and I found it funny. But now... it just seems like you're hiding yourself again. You still smile when you check your phone, but now you look almost sad."

Noiz blinked, eyes widened minutely. They stared at each other for long enough that, soon, the waiter was placing their dishes and drinks before them. Theo broke eye contact to thank the waiter, who bent at the waist briefly and left.

"Something happened with Aoba-san, right?" Theo pressed.

Noiz sighed sharply. If Theo really had no inkling, he'd rather not say anything.

Theo frowned at his unwillingness.

"Please, Wim, I want to help if I can."

"You can't help, Theo."

His little brother visibly flinched. Noiz bit his tongue, immediately regretting his overly harsh tone. He quickly amended, "Thanks for your concern, but... it's alright. You don't need to worry about that."

Noiz made sure to say that as nicely as he could, but Theo looked even more dejected, lips puckered with an ever deepening crease in his brow. Noiz huffed; knowing Theo, he'd keep this up all night and harass him until he talked.

"Fine," he relented at last, and Theo beamed at him. Noiz picked up his fork and talked while cutting a section of roasted beef on his plate.

"Father found out about Aoba."

"Oh, Wim..." Theo intoned sympathetically, brows drawn up.

"Of course, our father had to go and creep him out, and Aoba asked that we not see each other for a while. He's afraid for Sei."

Theo paled, jaw dropping in shock. "D-did father threaten Sei-san?"

Noiz scoffed with a thin smile on his lips. "Not blatantly, but you know his mind games. Or, well, I guess you don't."

"I can't believe..." Theo's eyes fell to the untouched plate in front of him. "This is so vile. Poor Aoba-san."

Noiz clenched his jaw, trying to seal up the anger boiling over.  "Yeah."

"So... does that mean he knows you two are together?"

"No; he talked to us separately and both Aoba and I said we're only friends... which pisses me off the most, to be honest."

Theo cocked his head to the side quizzically. "How so?"

"It's annoying enough that I have to walk on eggshells for our father. I hate making Aoba feel that he has to lie and hide himself too." Noiz sighed heavily, leaning back on his seat. He thought back to Aoba retelling his encounter with his father, and the morning when he left Noiz's place, hood pulled over his blue hair.

"Aoba deserves better," Noiz affirmed, looking down at his plate. "But I'm not letting him go."

Theo's eyes grew wide, and he smiled thinly before digging into his meal.

"That sounds really selfish, brother."

"I'm fine with selfish," Noiz said simply, poking at his food with the fork.

"If Aoba-san really wanted to go, he'd definitely get to do that."

Noiz laughed breathily, almost bitterly. "I know. I want Aoba to be selfish with me too."

"But he doesn't want to go, Wim. I'm sure of that."

Theo was looking at his brother resolutely as he talked. Noiz raised his eyes to him, one eyebrow quirked up.

"You didn't see how worried he was when I told him you had collapsed that night, and he looked so proud when he told me you were dating. Oh, by the way, one dinner doesn't come even close to compensating for hearing such great news from anyone other than you."

Noiz snorted. "I'll pay this time too."

Theo huffed indignantly, but then briefly dropped his gaze, a faint blush covering his cheeks. "Sorry if I'm being conceited. I guess... you would know best, having spent so much time with him, but I can tell he wants to be with you. I feel like... you're always waiting for people to leave you, Wim. Please, trust Aoba-san."

Noiz exhaled deeply. "I do. I trust him."

"Then, good!" His little brother nodded, grinning kindly.

Their dinner progressed calmly after that, quips and retorts being thrown back and forth over food until they were finished eating. They didn't mention their father again, but Noiz couldn't force himself to not see the fleeting glances Theo tossed his way when he thought Noiz wasn't looking. Once or twice, Theo lost himself in the middle of conversation, distractedly staring at something on the tablecloth's print. Noiz knew he was worried and trying to find a way to help and, seeing his silence, he must've been coming up with nothing.

Like he'd promised, Noiz paid for the bill and Theo waved at him cheerfully before they parted ways. His brother's car left the parking lot while Noiz sat on his driver's seat, peering down at his phone's dark screen. It had already been a couple of days since the last time he had talked to Aoba.

With a sigh, he turned on the screen and opened his messages, typing out a message in Aoba's thread.

>> Had dinner with Theo. Have you eaten yet?

Noiz let his phone flop onto the passenger's seat and started the car, trying not to wait for his screen to light up with an answer too soon. The familiar sight of his street was soon passing by his windows, but as he drove towards his driveway, he saw something from the corner of his eye.

There was a small, hunched up figure beside his front door, hood pulled over their downcast head. Noiz thought of just going into the house through the garage's passageway and ignore the situation, but his curiosity got the best of him. Shutting the garage's door, he took slow and silent steps towards the stranger.

After his initial thought that it might be a homeless person, his second (delirious) guess was that it was Aoba, but he almost immediately discarded the possibility; that person was too small, and he was seeing brown, thick hair spilling from under the hood, not blue.

The person stirred when Noiz carefully stepped closer, and his worries eased away for half a second before skyrocketing when the figure lifted their head, shadows scattering away from their features.

"Hey. Can I call up one of those favors now, Noiz?" Agnes said, barely above a whisper, wearing an indecisive smile.

 


 

Noiz sat on the sofa after handing a cup of tea to Agnes. She cradled it in her hands and sipped, eyes closed before lowering the cup and exhaling softly.

From the puffy eyelids to the shiny, dried up trails down her cheeks, it was obvious she had been crying. Noiz never thought she even owned jeans, considering she only ever wore high-end fashion, be it inside or outside social gatherings. The faded orange hoodie and ripped jeans were a far cry from her intricately patterned dresses, pastel skirts and chiffon blouses, making her actually look like a normal eighteen-year-old. Furthermore, she had what looked like an overnight bag.

She still hadn't said a word, but Noiz had a good idea of what must've happened.

"You told your parents about your girlfriend."

Agnes' shoulders flinched at the direct statement. There was the slightest, nervous twitch of her fingers around the ceramic cup as she looked down at the green liquid's surface.

"You figured out, huh."

Noiz blinked. "Of course. It was obvious."

Agnes sighed and settled back of the couch's cushions, eyes still glued to her tea.

"I told them. And just like you said..." she sighed again and gulped up more of the warm tea. "I just... didn't expect they'd react like that. At all."

"You were just being too optimistic. We've been going on fake dates for a few weeks now; we had a reason for doing that. Remember?" Noiz asked blandly.

Agnes drank to the last drop of tea and placed the empty cup on the coffee table. Her face was openly crumpled up, doing her most not to cry.

"I just expected them to be happy for me. I told them I liked her so much, and they just... brushed me off, said it was a child's game and 'I should know better'. They even threatened to place my younger brother as the new heir." She laughed humorlessly. "Apparently, they thought I just liked fooling around with girls and never thought it was possible that I might have a serious relationship with one."

"Well, considering how fast you fell in and out of love with me, I really can't give you too much credit."

Agnes turned her head to look at him, eyes wide. After the brief pause during which they merely stared at each other, she laughed despite herself, shaking her head incredulously.

"You're seriously the worst."

Noiz scoffed lightly, a smirk draping itself on his lips.

"So, you want me to put you up for a night? A week? You obviously escaped your house and apparently robbed someone else's wardrobe."

She rolled her eyes. "I didn't rob anything; these clothes are mine. Why would I need expensive clothes to sit outside your door for almost an hour?"

Noiz shrugged, still amused. Slowly, she was getting riled up by Noiz's teasing and forgetting her earlier desolation.

"But you're right. I did escape, although I wasn't scampering away in the dead of the night like you. They saw me leaving, but I'm sure I wasn't followed."

"I'll be a suspect anyway. Which means they must call up my parents soon, and then they'll call me," Noiz concluded.

Agnes sighed. "I guess..."

"Why didn't you go to your girlfriend's place?"

Agnes held her knees to her chest, mouth twisting. "I... didn't have the face to show up on her doorstep and tell her what happened. I hyped her up so much before, thinking my parents would readily accept us. I really was an idiot. I'm just glad I didn't tell her I'd do it today."

Noiz narrowed his eyes. "Did you give her name to your parents? They might track her down, thinking you went to her house."

Agnes looked at him, a finely manicured eyebrow raised. "I didn't. Never got this far. Anyway, tracking? Wha-"

"Either way, you staying here won't be a secret for long. If my father has another investigator on my track, he'll hear about this in no time," Noiz muttered, almost to himself.

"... 'Another' investigator?" Agnes looked more and more baffled with every word that left Noiz's lips.

"Yeah."

"Y-your father..."

Noiz snorted derisively, giving a half-shrug. "Point is, they'll ultimately find out you're here. But, well, that might actually help me figure out what my father's up to."

"I, honestly, have no idea what you're talking about," Agnes said slowly, squinting at Noiz.

"That's fine." Noiz got up from the couch, pulling his phone from his pocket and sweeping his thumb across the screen.

Agnes' eyes followed Noiz as he walked into the kitchen and before long, she heard him talking, voice slightly muffled. Frowning lightly, she shifted in the couch, tilting her head towards the kitchen doorway and strained her ears.

"... That's it?" A pause. "His security is tight, I suppose you wouldn't get anything sniffing around. I'm pretty sure I could bug his phone if I tried though." A brief silence followed before Noiz clicked his tongue. "Yeah, if he found out about her without their call, that'd be a clue. There might be some backlash; in that case, I'd need you to watch over Aoba. Yes. Be on standby."

After bidding the other party farewell, Agnes heard a sigh. Soon, Noiz was padding back into the living room, massaging his temple.

"Sounds like you have a lot in your hands," Agnes muttered, starting to feel a twinge of guilt.

Noiz waved her off dismissively. "Don't mind it. I told you I'd back you up if you needed."

"You're worried about this affecting Aoba, right?"

"If I know that old man, he'll connect the dots and try to make sure I won't do the same as you." Noiz dropped himself on the couch again, heaving a sigh. "I want to take care of that personally, but jumping in headfirst would be stupid. Hovering around Aoba now wouldn't do any good."

Agnes looked down at her hands, wringing on her lap. "... It's kind of your fault, you know."

"Huh?" Noiz turned to her, brows arched.

"I need to get some things off my chest now, and I just want you to listen. Nothing good ever comes out of your mouth," she rattled off, eyes hard and mouth set in a thin line.

Despite his frown, the corner of Noiz's lips tugged up in a tentative smile. Agnes took his silence as consent to proceed and sighed heavily.

"Being 'Diefenbach's puppet'... is really exhausting. I thought it'd be okay to stay like that, and I'm the kind of person that will unhesitatingly make difficult decisions for what I think is a greater good. Even when I fell in love with Emilia back when we first met in high school, I just... let her go. She wasn't part of my parents' plans. But, after Christmas Eve, and after seeing you and Aoba... I envied you. I wanted this freedom you seemed to have; not the freedom for doing whatever you want, because you're chained to your family just as much as I am to mine, but the freedom to want something else.

"I made fun of you, acted all high-and-mighty, but then I watched you reach out for what you wanted, even if clumsily. And I?" She sighed, shoulders slouching. "I couldn't even get past step one. When I finished high school, I started making some concessions; I partied, I drank until I dropped, I made out with nameless girls, because I wanted to believe I wasn't captive; I accepted myself as I was. I believed my happiness could be the same as my family's happiness, and it'd be okay if it was, but it wasn't. I can't fit their mold perfectly."

"And what will you do? Abdicate your throne as the Diefenbach heiress to be with Emilia?"

"I told you to zip it up," she admonished, tossing him a tepid glare. Then, "I'm not doing that. I envied you, but that doesn't mean I'm the same as you. I want to be the heiress, but I don't need a fake marriage for that. I'll break the mold and lead Diefenbach into a new era—I'll do that with Emilia, and no one else."

"Big words from someone who escaped home after her parents opposed her," Noiz taunted.

She huffed indignantly. "Shut up, I just needed a moment. I guess... you were right about not giving me much credit. Even I believed I could just have flings with people and then marry a man—namely, you—to further our company's success. In hindsight, it's no surprise they had the same idea even though things changed. I found Emilia again, and I don't plan on letting her go."

Noiz heard the echoes of his own earlier words in Agnes' last sentence and smiled thinly. Perhaps Aoba was right and they were really very similar. It was probably the reason why they were always going for each other's throats as well—there's no way they would've ever worked as a couple.

"Heh, I see," Noiz said after a moment's contemplation and got to his feet. He picked up her empty cup on the coffee table, heading to the kitchen. "You can stay however long you want. Had dinner?"

Agnes looked over her shoulder at Noiz's retreating figure. "Uh, no, not yet."

Hearing the sounds of a fridge being opened and the clatter of cutlery, she let her eyes wander, thoughtful. Her gaze soon hardened with determination. "I'll head back home tomorrow night. Anything more and I'd be just avoiding the issue."

"Enough time to launch an attack?" Noiz's sarcastic voice resounded from the kitchen.

Agnes scoffed. "Just enough. Also, please tell me you're not cooking."

"No, just looking for something edible. I had dinner already and I wasn't expecting guests."

"Oh, I do apologize for not notifying," she chirped petulantly.

"I don't have alcohol in the house, by the way."

"Pff. What kind of opinion do you have of me, my friend?"

Noiz reappeared at the kitchen's doorway. "There's yesterday's pasta and cup noodles on the table. Feel free to choose."

She laughed breathily and got up from the couch. "I'll take pasta."

 


 

"Evidence is still inconclusive," Franz said on the other end of the line.

Noiz sighed, phone pinched between his ear and his shoulder as he fixed his tie blindly. Behind him, Agnes was merrily chomping down on buttered toasts and humming. She seemed to be in much higher spirits compared to yesterday. In a stark contrast, Noiz had overslept and his humor couldn't be grimmer.

"What should we do?" Franz asked. Noiz knew what Franz was expecting him to say, but the truth was that he had no inkling of what would be his father's next step. He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, where a barbell used to be.

"For now, that's all. But wait for my call."

Noiz hung up at the same time Agnes piped up from the table, announcing she was going to brush her teeth.

"I'm off," Noiz said, picking up his briefcase.

Agnes whirled around to look at him wide-eyed. "What? No, wait for me!"

Noiz turned back. "Huh?"

"You're expecting me to stay cooped up in this house the whole day?"

"That's the impression I got when you said you'd go to your parents' at night."

Agnes sighed. "I plan on doing that, but I talked to Emilia yesterday, so I'll spend the day with her before the attack!"

Noiz huffed out a dry laugh. "Alright. Then I'll..." He started turning to the door once more.

"No! Give me a ride!"

Noiz groaned. Yelling and mornings weren't a good mix for him, especially in his current mood. "Two minutes."

"More than enough! Don't go without me!" Agnes ran to the bathroom and Noiz went to wait for her by the front door.

Agnes' knack for annoying Noiz reached new levels as she played loud music on her phone and sang along in the car, which culminated in Noiz almost kicking her out of his car into the sidewalk. Despite his hurry, he had to stop and shake hands with the slightly chubby woman who ambled out of the house they were in front of, red hair rolled up in a sloppy bun and wearing sweats.

"Hello, I believe we weren't introduced yet. I'm Emilia Kantorowski," she said, a bright smile opening in her round face. Noiz blinked in surprise at the soothing flow of her voice, faintly remembering that Agnes had said she was a singer.

Noiz nodded. "Wilhelm Adlersflügel. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Thank you for putting her up for the night. Troublesome kiddo..."

"I'm only two years younger than you," Agnes whined in the sidelines.

Emilia hadn't been blatant, but the strong hold of her handshake and her lingering, observant glance showed that she seemed wary of him. He wondered if Agnes would be happy to know her girlfriend was jealous of her—not that she'd ever hear it from him.

There wasn't much time for relief when he got to the office just in time, since he had work on his lap before he even managed to sit down. The first part of the morning was filled with the sound of keys tapping and phones ringing distantly, the humidity of the air outside clinging to his nape even hours after he had walked into the building. The second part of it made the early hours seem eerily peaceful, as Noiz was suddenly caught up in a storm of phone calls and e-mails from the people over at the bank in London.

Mr. Chadwick, who Noiz had followed closely during his trip to England, spent the good part of an hour lamenting over a recent falling out with a common associate. Noiz quickly recognized the surreptitious attempts at having him smooth things over between them and, although Noiz didn't want to get himself or the company involved in whatever mess had happened, it could very easily backlash on them if he didn't do anything either. So he agreed to help, if only to stop the frantic man.

By the time it was all over, it was already lunch break. Despite his lack of appetite, Noiz stepped out of the office to buy burgers and fries before heading back, meaning to finish quickly and get back to work. Theo, who was just leaving the building when Noiz returned, chided him for his unhealthy eating habits.

"There's history of gastritis in our family, Wim!" Theo reminded him from behind Noiz as he walked past his younger brother.

Noiz scoffed. He would sooner have ulcers from stress alone rather than bad eating.

"If it's supposed to come, it'll come," Noiz retorted, not looking back.

"That's not how it works at all!"

Noiz waved him off nonchalantly and Theo sighed dejectedly, resuming his walk while still grumbling to himself. Hearing his brother's voice ebbing away, Noiz huffed and tugged at his tie, feeling terribly constricted in that suit as he headed to the break room.

Noiz's phone vibrated just as he was walking into the nearly empty room. As he settled the plastic bags beside him on the bench, Noiz wondered if the weather today was really as sweltering as he was feeling. He pulled his phone out to check his message.

>> Lunch break!! (/ ^ o ^ )/

It was Aoba. He seemed happy. Noiz felt the corners of his lips tugging up, but there was still a dull throbbing in his chest, seeing the timestamp on his text from yesterday and the one on Aoba's. Not even Agnes barging into his home and the paperwork waiting for him at work this morning made him forget that; every time he picked up his phone since yesterday, he noticed the lack of new messages.

Noiz hated the exasperation he felt at Aoba's lack of address to his ignored message. It gnawed at him, pooled in the bottom of his stomach like poison. He hated that, in a corner of his mind, he vindictively thought of not answering it now.

A part of Noiz, specifically the part of him that had been dormant for weeks now, muttered words that grew louder and louder and echoed in a corner of his mind. He easily ignored the calls for "self-preservation first", "you dropped your defenses" and "it's not too late", but there was one thing that still rung true to his ears, and it still made his stomach turn with anxiety.

People are fickle.

Noiz let himself be deeply affected by Aoba's presence and even now, he didn't regret it. Aoba turned his life around in the most innocent and imperceptible of ways. He opened himself and Aoba let him in too—and the fact that he was being unreasonably morose over something he wouldn't have thought of twice before proved just how afraid Noiz was of losing this connection.

People are fickle, but Aoba is not; that should be a relief, but it wasn't. Sei had been the constant in his life, and Aoba had already shown that he had no qualms about abandoning everything for his brother. Be it dropping jobs he deemed too dangerous or asking to not see Noiz once their connection became a liability to his brother's safety... Noiz had to wonder how long he could hold out until he was squashed under that firm resolve.

Breathing deeply, Noiz typed out an answer, seeing it pop up at the bottom of their conversation thread as he sent it.

>> You're in high spirits.

>> Of course, I finally get to eat! And I'm outside in the courtyard with Sei today.

Noiz blinked in puzzlement. In the courtyard with Sei?

He sent exactly that question in his next message. His feet shook to no rhythm on the floor as he waited. One minute. Two minutes. His screen lit up with a notification and then another, as Aoba sent two messages.

>> Ah... I forgot to tell you. Sorry. ( ^ ^ )

>> They're letting Sei use the wheelchair since Monday! Virus thought he might feel sick, but he's been just fine until now.

Well, they hadn't talked at all for the last few days, so Noiz supposed it was only natural he didn't know. Aoba had a lot in his hands, he couldn't message him at any new thing that happened to him. It had always been like this, so there was no use to getting sullen over something this small.

There was no...

Irritating. Irritating, irritating, irritating.

Noiz answered shortly.

>> I see.

Noiz turned off his phone's screen and looked at the plastic bag sitting on the bench beside him. In all honesty, he didn't feel like eating it before and felt even less now, letting out a huff and wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. The heat was starting to make him feel sick, furthered by how disgusted he felt at his own passive-aggressive attitude.

His phone started ringing in his hand and Noiz started. Bringing it closer to his face, he felt a faint coolness in his chest that wasn't one bit relieving; Aoba's name showed on the top of the screen.

Noiz accepted the call and brought the phone to his ear.

"Hey," Noiz greeted, maybe a little too breathily.

"Noiz? Hey," Aoba said, and Noiz could hear the hesitance in his voice, mingled with a smile.

"Why are you calling? Aren't you with Sei?"

"It's fine, he doesn't mind. Anyway," Aoba seemed to breathe deeply. "Are you... perhaps mad?"

"No," Noiz denied promptly, keeping his tone casual. "Why?"

Aoba sighed. It didn't look like he was buying into Noiz's answer. "Not even you are this monosyllabic in normal situations. Even before that, you were a bit... I meant to apologize for these last few days. It's understandable that you're mad, you know."

Noiz grimaced. "I told you I'm not mad. You're imagining it."

There was a war inside of Noiz; the side of him that wanted to be unreasonably pissed at Aoba was winning out. It was the side of him that most likely deserved to be called a brat. The part of him that he wished was stronger, that knew just how hard Aoba was working was putting up a fight, but it was only serving to make his heart all the more agitated.

"Noiz... There's no need to lie to make me feel better."

Don't.

"I'm not lying."

Don't.

"No, look, I'm sorry for-"

"Don't apologize!"

Noiz realized too late that he had nearly shouted into the receiver. His voice rung in his own ears and inside the break room, and he felt keenly conscious of eyes trained on him, seeing the only other two people at the room from the corner of his eye. Noiz exhaled, rubbing the pads of his fingers over his closed eyelids. When was the last time he even raised his voice like that?

It was already bad enough that he was making Aoba feel bad for being rightfully busy, now he was even yelling at him. Why was his brain such a mess? There were words... There was something he should say to disperse that atmosphere.

"I won't apologize if you just come out and say it!" Aoba cried out in frustration, definitely not as loud as Noiz, but still instilling enough power into his voice.

"And I said there's nothing wrong." Noiz sighed and got up from the bench. The weight of other people's gazes on him and the heat of the room were making it impossible to stay there. He felt hyper-aware of the sweat clinging to his skin, the dizzying movement of the room before him as he moved.

"Stop lying, that's not like you-"

Oh, fuck. It felt like someone had just pulled dark curtains over Noiz. Fuzzy shadows were eating into his vision from the corners of his eyes, buzzing like insects inside his brain. Aoba was still talking? His voice was muffled and distant, garbled and distorted into something far from Aoba's real tone.

"—talk, there's just so much that's happened—"

Noiz's head felt light on his shoulders. Was he breathing? Noiz couldn't look into himself and make sure his lungs were, in fact, functioning. His fingers trembled. He thought he saw some movement out of the corner of his eye, but he was too busy clawing to his consciousness.

"—Noiz? No...—"

The room jostled sickeningly around Noiz, but he couldn't quite register the images before him. There were voices he wasn't sure were inside his head or not, and he distantly heard a thud before it all disappeared.

 


 

The first thing Noiz registered as the harsh surface of cloth pressing against his face. Even as he blinked his eyes open, he couldn't really see anything. He grunted and then felt a hand on his cheek that gently pushed him back against a wall. Only then did he realize his face had been smothered on someone's shoulder. His head lolled weakly on his neck and his vision started coming into focus.

"Oh, thank god, what a scare!" The words barely made sense to Noiz's ears as the person he had been leaning on held his head securely. It was a woman with shoulder-length black hair, wide green eyes behind round glasses skimming around his face. "I apologize for my forwardness, Mr. Wilhelm, but you were about to crack your skull on the floor! I'm Paula from the IT department, how are you? Can you breathe?"

Noiz coughed, feeling nauseous but amazingly (gratefully) he didn't throw up on the woman. Still, she stepped out of the way warily, but kept a hand on his shoulder, crouching beside him.

"Sorry you're sitting on the floor now. I could barely hold you until you fell, and I'm not strong enough to pull you up. My friend will soon be back, he's getting some water."

Noiz slowly recognized her as one of the employees who were in the break room when he entered. If they weren't there, he really might've cracked his skull on the floor.

"How long I was out?" Noiz croaked, the darkness slowly receding from the center of his vision though he was still fairly dizzy.

"U-uh, probably not even half a minute? I just ran out of my seat when I saw you falling, thank goodness I wasn't farther away- Oh, finally, Eric!" She exclaimed when a man—the other person who had been in the break room before—walked in with a glass of water. She took it out of his hand and offered it to Noiz. "Here, Mr. Wilhelm."

Noiz drank it slowly, feeling a weird sweetness he knew had to be sugar. His vision was clearing up and he didn't feel as wobbly as before, and his mind caught up to him.

... What the fuck just happened? The last time I fainted was when I was a kid. Mizuki can never know about this, and during a call...

A call. Aoba.

He turned his head down hastily and his head spun.

"Hey hey, calm down, Mr. Wilhelm," the man said, patting a hand on Noiz's other shoulder. "If you'll excuse me..." He carefully pulled Noiz up, sitting him back on the bench.

Noiz gulped, feeling a new wave of nausea. "My phone..."

"Oh," Paula interjected as she looked down, her eyes searching quickly around where she was crouched and reached for something. "Um, here it is, but..."

She slipped the phone into Noiz's open hand and he almost groaned. The screen was shattered, and it had turned off with the hit, apparently.

"Brother!" Came the cry from the door and, this time, Noiz did groan.

Theo bounded into the break room, his phone clenched in his hand as he kneeled before Noiz, his other hand immediately flying to his forehead.

Noiz sighed, "Theo..."

"Aoba just called me, what happened? You're pale and so cold!"

"It was nothing-"

"Okay, never mind if you're just going to lie to me." Theo rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the fidgeting duo. "Can you tell me what happened? You're from... IT?" He queried, looking at the ID card hanging from their necks.

"Ah- yes, sir! I'm Paula and this is Eric," she stammered, pointing to herself and the man at Noiz's other side, who nodded to Theo. "Um, Mr. Wilhelm fainted while talking on the phone. He wasn't out for any more than a minute, I believe, and we gave him some water. If you'll forgive our impertinence, I'd suggest taking him to the infirmary."

Noiz mentally beat himself up for not thinking of sliding them some hush money before things got like this.

Theo smiled at her and got up. "Yes, you're right. Thank you so much for helping him, you two."

Paula was blushing furiously and Eric took the front, answering with a smile of his own. "We only did what we should, Mr. President. Now, if you'll excuse us."

"Don't say a word to anyone," Noiz said, more roughly than he intended, and Theo chided him softly.

Eric didn't seem to mind, nodding with a stern gaze. "We won't."

The two left the room and Theo sighed, firming a hand on Noiz's shoulder.

"C'mon, let's go to the infirmary."

Noiz huffed. "There's no need to, I'm fine."

"Alright, if you convince him, I won't force you." Theo pushed his phone towards Noiz, and he saw on the screen; a call in progress from "Aoba-san".

Noiz heaved a sigh and took the phone, placing it on his ear.

"Go to the infirmary," Aoba said immediately, leaving no room to objections. Noiz heard someone talking in the background—possibly Sei.

"I'm fine, it was just momentary weakness, I-"

"I'm worried about you! Do you have any idea how I felt when I heard people yelling and then the call was cut?!"

"Sorry," Noiz grumbled, sounding grumpy despite the fluttering in his chest from hearing Aoba's genuine concern.

Aoba sighed, and Noiz could hear a smile in his next words. "It's fine, just... go check yourself, alright? Let me know what's up, and don't think I'll hesitate to ask Theo if I even so much as dream you're lying to me."

Noiz laughed lightly at the threat in Aoba's voice. Then, he was talking again, in a much more hesitant voice.

"And... we will talk later, alright?"

Noiz smiled forlornly. "Alright, I'll call you later. Bye."

After hanging up, Noiz slipped his phone into his pocket and got up from the bench, a bit wobbly but mostly firm on his feet.

"Brother-"

"It's okay, I can walk on my own." Gently, he pushed Theo's hesitating hand away, but let himself be escorted to the infirmary by his fretting younger brother.

Chapter Text

After being lied down on a bed in the infirmary for longer than his lunch break allowed him, forced to drink a sizzling thing on a cup of water, poked and questioned by the doctor, the woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a white lab coat finally deemed that he didn't need to be rushed to the hospital.

As Noiz sat up on the edge of the bed, she settled her elbows on the arms of her chair, legs crossed as she scrutinized Noiz with piercing golden-brown eyes.

"I could see you're a pile of stress even without hearing you grumbling about how much work you have. People don't just up and fall from stress, of course, but the fact that it caused you to forget about rehydrating and eating anything when you already have low blood pressure really must've helped things along," she intoned nonchalantly.

"So, it's best for him to rest for today, right?" Theo piped up beside the bed.

"Indeed," she confirmed, picking up a notepad on her desk. "He's already well enough to walk; he should go straight home from here. Rest and take care of your body from now on."

"Are there specific things he should eat?" Theo queried again and Noiz rolled his eyes. This was like having a doctor's appointment with an overbearing mother.

"Right... Well, sudden drops in blood pressure might stem from vitamin B12 deficiency, so I'd recommend to try eating a bit more of food containing it. He said he rarely drinks alcohol, so just keep avoiding it. His condition is not worrying at all; you won't faint again as long as you don't neglect yourself," she muttered vaguely, scribbling on her notepad.

Before Theo could speak again, she ripped the sheet of paper and handed it to Theo, who looked at it for half a second before Noiz snatched it away from his grasp with a half-hearted glare. He looked down at it and Theo peered over his shoulder.

"I've written down some examples of foods he should eat, as well as other tips. Apparently you've had low blood pressure for years and it was never a bother until now, so you should be fine. Most of all, as the kids would say, just chill for a bit," she droned with a lazy smile, chin propped up on her palm.

Noiz snorted. Her laid-back attitude was a striking contrast to the fidgety IT staff from earlier. They would have probably thrown a fit, seeing her being so casual to them.

"Easier said than done," he replied and she laughed lightly.

"You're taking the afternoon off, brother," Theo sighed, arms crossed.

Noiz furrowed his brow. "I still have some things that need my attention today though."

Theo shook his head. "I know you're busy overlooking my matters, mostly. I'll be fine for a day."

"I have to leave some documents for the chairman-"

"Father actually called to let me know he'll be busy with meetings outside the office all day today. I had some things to show him too, but it's fine if we give them tomorrow. So," he clapped a hand on Noiz's shoulder. "Just head home, alright? I'll ask for one of the drivers to drop you off."

Noiz ultimately relented to his brother's persistence and thus, he was hauled back home. Closing the door behind him, he ended up feeling a lot more pathetic, being reminded of the last time he had been bedridden and how Aoba took care of him. Aoba wouldn't come even if they hadn't made that promise; it was a Thursday afternoon, and Aoba must've been swamped with work.

He threw himself on his bed. There was a time Noiz didn't care even if he was alone. It was around the same time he didn't really care if he died in a ditch either. Mizuki helped him understand that life could be enjoyable and, for all their teasing, Noiz considered Mizuki to be the one who saved him. In turn, Aoba was the one who made his life the most enjoyable, made it worth being saved.

Noiz's ears tingled and flushed pink with embarrassment as he remembered his disastrous phone call with Aoba. In the beginning of their relationship, he had rushed too much into things and pressured Aoba. Noiz thought he had learned his lesson, learned to wait for Aoba, but no such luck, apparently.

Noiz wasn't known for his tact and thoughtfulness, and for anyone else, he wouldn't bother to try. But Noiz had been trying for him. Consciously, he knew he wasn't entitled to Aoba's time and attention, but somehow he had still pushed too far, still managed to make a complete idiot out of himself. Noiz huffed out a laugh; he had become truly burdensome.

After eating whatever he was able to throw together, he pulled his laptop and tablet, seeing what paperwork he could get started on instead of loitering around the house feeling lonely. For hours, he had been so immersed in his work that the sky had already darkened outside by the time he started thinking about how his brother hadn't been bothering him.

Then Noiz remembered with a start that he hadn't even tried to turn on his phone again.

Noiz huffed impatiently as the screen lit up; the rough feeling of the cracks against his fingertips was mildly annoying. He wouldn't mind to keep using this phone if the cracks weren't so deep and spread out across the screen it made things difficult to read. Plus, it wouldn't look professional to use a phone like that around the company. Such was the business of appearances.

His phone vibrated as the numbers flipped one after another in the corner of the envelope icon. He opened his inbox and read the messages, first from his brother.

>> Wim? Are you okay at home?

>> Please tell me you didn't eat whatever leftover takeout you had lying around your kitchen.

>> Why are you not answering? Oh, maybe you're sleeping... Then, let me know when you wake up, please!

Noiz snorted and typed out a quick "I'm okay" in reply before turning to Aoba's messages.

>> Sei got upset and it's all your fault, you know.

>> It's insane how he's so attuned to every difference in the mood.

>> I explained what happened and he said he's worried about you too.

>> Remember to let me know what the doctor said, okay? ( ^ ^ )

>> I got a bit antsy so I texted Theo and he said you should be home. He didn't tell me anything about the doctor, though.

>> I'm sorry I must be annoying and you're probably resting but I'm really worried. Do you even have food?

>> I'm sorry.

>> I really want to see you.

Noiz felt his throat constrict and swallowed dry to chase away the sensation. In spite of that, he felt the tension on his chest loosening, and he could suddenly breathe better. He typed an answer.

>> I cracked my phone's screen and I forgot it was turned off, so I only saw your messages now. The doctor said it must've been because I was too caught up in work and forgot about eating.

He sent the reply, and his fingers hovered above the screen before he sent another message.

>> I told you not to apologize. I want to see you too.

Noiz dropped his phone to the side, knowing an answer wouldn't come any soon. At this time of the night, Aoba was probably helping close up Heibon before heading to his next job. His room was once again filled with the dull tapping of keys, stopping a few times when Theo answered his text and bombarded him with questions.

Aoba's reply came almost an hour later, when he was just about to push work to the side. However, it wasn't the single vibration of a text; his phone was ringing loudly beside him. He put his laptop and tablet away and picked up his phone, lying back on bed.

"Yo," Noiz said coolly into the receiver.

"Why didn't you eat at all?!" Aoba cried out on the other end of the line.

Noiz snorted. "Overslept so I didn't have breakfast."

Aoba heaved an exhausted sigh. "Honestly, I don't know what do with you... Anyway, take it easy at work, okay?"

"I can't really do that," Noiz said, looking over to his laptop.

"If you're gonna work yourself to the ground and forget about taking care of yourself, yes you can. Workaholic brat," Aoba droned testily.

Noiz huffed out a laugh. "Some nerve you have to call me a workaholic and diss me for my eating habits."

"Say whatever you want, but I've never collapsed at work."

"It won't happen again, don't worry."

"And buy a phone case like the rest of humanity, idiot," Aoba grumbled, more subdued.

"Alright, alright."

Aoba sighed once again, and they slipped into a nervous quietness. Noiz could nearly feel Aoba's fidgety energy emanating from his phone.

"Before I hear another 'sorry' coming from your mouth," Noiz started, sensing that Aoba was about to break the silence himself. "It's just that... I didn't think it would be this hard. I'm just finding out about some annoying parts of myself, but it's okay already."

"You don't sound too convincing," Aoba said with a tint of accusation.

Noiz scoffed. "You said it yourself. Lying is not like me."

"It really isn't," Aoba laughed. "Things have been... a bit hectic lately, but it's only temporary. It's hard for me too, you know."

Noiz laughed at the pout he could hear in Aoba's voice, and ignored the lightness he felt in his chest. Was it okay to think he wasn't so ridiculous if Aoba felt the same way? Noiz hadn't dared to think too hard on it—on whether he had been capable of affecting Aoba just as deeply as he had been affected by him. But maybe, it'd be hard for Aoba to drop him so easily after all. Masking his own elation, Noiz poked fun at Aoba for it, asking if he had missed him that much.

From time to time Aoba had to excuse himself, since he was still at work. Noiz would catch the sound of Aoba's polite voice as he worked the register at the drugstore, the faint rustling of plastic bags and a second, unknowing voice murmuring in the background. Those sounds and their banter slowly lulled Noiz to sleep, despite not being that late. When his eyes closed at Aoba's light-hearted "goodnight", he faintly realized the scraping of the cracks under his fingers didn't bother him at all anymore.

 


 

In the morning, Noiz woke up even before his alarm—regretful, to say the least. After trying and failing to fall back asleep, he pushed himself off the bed sluggishly. Before anything, he went into his closet and pulled a big plastic bag from a section; it was filled with cell phone boxes, different models and colors showing in the packages. His father would probably give him a disapproving look if he saw his son using that battered phone, so it was good that he could change it fast.

Like the mini-cameras he had at hand, that was just another thing he kept prepared due to his previous line of work, when he had to keep in contact with various people with diverse interests and have eyes in many places. These things had gone without use for months, but when his father started making suspicious moves, he was glad to have been one step ahead.

Noiz pulled out whatever box and opened it, transferring his SIM card to the new phone and cleaning up his old one, making sure no one would look into his files if they got their hands on it. Being a bit paranoid never served him badly.

When he turned the phone on, completely reset to default configurations and cleaned up, Noiz suddenly remembered that his almost three-months-old message thread with Aoba had been lost. Not even a second went by and he caught himself with a scoff before he started thinking too hard on it. Noiz stored the broken phone into the bag, in case he ever needed it, and placed it back in the closet before getting ready for the day.

As though they hadn't talked yesterday, Theo jumped out of his seat as soon as Noiz entered his room. He ran up to him, eyes brimming with concern, and Noiz considered that his worrywart ways put Aoba's to shame.

"Wimmm! Are you sure you're okay to be here? You had breakfast this time, right? Does anything hurt?" He fretted, holding Noiz's face in his hands and shifting it around as though he was expecting to find something lurking under his chin or behind his ears.

"I'm fine-"

"Are you sure? I could let you off today," Theo offered, holding Noiz's face square before his with eyes shining earnestly.

"I'm sure, Theo. Let me go."

"Okay, sorry." He released Noiz's head and stepped back, stationing his hands on his hips. "But we're having lunch together, okay? I'll make sure you're eating healthy!"

Noiz sighed heavily. Theo was exactly the type of person that got dangerous when they were too fired up; he'd always go through with anything he posed himself to do, no matter how unnecessary or extravagant.

Walking through the office's corridors, Noiz was extremely relieved that no one was looking at him weirdly or pulling him to the side to ask about his health—apparently, the IT couple had done as told. At some point of the morning, the woman, Paula, passed by him and smiled shyly, nodding in greeting before heading in his opposite direction.

Five minutes before lunch break, Theo barged into his office.

"Let's go to a restaurant! We'll eat a hearty meal!" He announced cheerfully.

Noiz huffed, his eyes glued to his monitor as he typed. "I have to finish this and take it to the chairman."

Theo marched towards him determinedly. "It's alright, it's alright; father isn't at the company right now."

"Huh?" Noiz turned his gaze to Theo, one eyebrow arched. "I'm sure his schedule said he should be at his office."

"Yes, he was supposed to be, but he changed it yesterday. He went to the hospital for a check-up; it was completely out of the blue, so I'm not surprised you didn't know. He should be returning this afternoon, so you can finish this after lunch! Come-"

"Wait," Noiz cut him off, an uncomfortable heat seething in his stomach. "He's at the Königsmann?"

Theo tilted his head to the side, puzzled. "That's right...?"

Noiz dropped his eyes to the papers scattered on his desk. Before he could form a solid thought on his father's underlying motives for this sudden check-up or even think about calling Franz, a knock came from his half-open door.

"Sir?" called a voice from the doorway. A man wearing a sleek black suit with a white dress shirt pushed the door a bit wider, respectfully bowing his head of short raven hair to the two brothers. His black cap and similarly colored gloves denounced that he was one of the company's drivers. "Excuse me, I've been requested to find Mr. Wilhelm."

"Uh, I'm sorry, we are about to head out for lunch..." Theo trailed off, trying to hold the politeness in his voice despite his confusion.

"I apologize for stopping you on your run. The chairman just called, asking to be picked up from Königsmann Hospital. I was about to go, but... he specifically requested Mr. Wilhelm to drive him back."

 


 

Noiz expected his father to be waiting by the front doors, but the older man was nowhere to be seen. He parked the car and roamed inside, bracing himself for whatever nonsense had led his father to make this unreasonable request.

When he asked for his father at the front, he only heard that the man had already been discharged after spending the night in the hospital. Noiz couldn't hold back an exasperated sigh before thanking the receptionist, letting his eyes skim over the visitors and staff walking around the area.

Noiz's feet halted as he wandered by the windows to the garden courtyard. Different from the first time he'd seen it, the space wasn't covered in snow; the quarry tiles on the ground were completely visible, the mild, wintry sunlight bathing the low benches as well as sets of tables and chairs that weren't there before.

Under the shelter of the covered area stood Aoba, his back facing Noiz, but he would recognize that silhouette from miles away. There was an IV pole and a wheelchair in front of him—possibly where Sei was sitting. The sunlight barely reached Aoba and, albeit moderate, glistened on blue strands of hair.

Over Aoba's shoulder, Noiz could distinctly see his father's face. Lime-green eyes like his own, pinched in a benevolent smile. They were standing at the edge of the shade provided by the shelter, and his father was saying something, something that was definitely bad news, if past occurrences were anything to go by.

"Shit," Noiz hissed under his breath and walked resolutely towards the door leading to the courtyard.

"... And those are extremely capable doctors! My father, who sustained severe brain trauma after a car accident, was able to make much progress thanks to their innovative treatment! He was able to live a long life and-"

"Excuse me," Noiz started, surprising Aoba as he spoke from behind him. He turned his head to look at Noiz, who merely glanced at him before looking back at his father. "I've come to drive you back, sir."

"It is rude to interrupt people's chat, Wilhelm," his father chided with a light tone, but his gaze was sharply trained on him. "Won't you at least greet your friend?"

Noiz shifted slightly before looking at Aoba as he angled his body to face Noiz.

Aoba looked absolutely terrified. Noiz's nails bit into the skin of his palms; Aoba wasn't a weakling, he wasn't a scaredy cat and Noiz knew all too well just how strong he was. But that was the look of someone being dangled from a thin thread above tormented waters. Or rather, seeing his most important person hanging from that thread.

That was the power of his father's measured words and his indulgent yet piercing eyes.

Sei, himself, looked antsy in his chair, eyes moving furtively and hands wringing in his lap. His gaze never moved from the ground. It was the worst possible situation Noiz could think of meeting them under.

And yet, when he met Aoba's clear, hazel eyes, he had to consciously school his expression into something milder lest he would smile like an idiot.

"Aoba," he said, simply, the corner of his mouth tugged up minutely.

"Hey... Wilhelm," was Aoba's reply. Noiz saw the moment the tip of his tongue froze between his teeth, when Aoba stopped himself short of saying his nickname and changed it to his name. A name for strangers, for his parents... in Aoba's lips. It sounded foreign, wrong.

Sei looked up curiously, onyx eyes finally settling on Noiz's face.

"I was talking to Aoba-kun about the hospitals in UK and America. There are many researches on treatment for brain damage and its after-effects. Sei-kun seems to be recovering marvelously, but under the right observance, he could be closer to who he was before, don't you think?"

Noiz stepped closer, almost protectively covering Aoba and his brother. Trying to keep his voice level despite his irritation, he answered, "Indeed, but I believe Sei is already being very well-treated here. Now, I suppose Aoba wants to seize the rest of his lunch break with his brother before he returns to work. Right?" He turned to look at Aoba, who dropped his head self-consciously.

His father blinked over wide eyes. "Oh, you're right. I'm sorry for my insensitivity, Aoba-kun. We'll be taking our leave, please do take care."

Aoba seemed one second away from heaving a relieved sigh when Sei's hand suddenly closed around Noiz's wrist.

"Noiz?" He asked, trilling voice clear around the syllables.

Noiz looked back and smiled thinly at Sei, who stared at him intently.

"Yeah, it's me. Hello, Sei."

"Oh... Hello." His eyes shifted towards Aoba for a moment.

"What's 'Noiz'?" his father inquired, cocking up an eyebrow.

"It's a nickname," Noiz explained indifferently.

The older man's expression twisted with distaste, but he made no comment.

"Aoba misses you. You broke up?" Sei asked, words no less slow and recited than the last time Noiz had talked to him.

Aoba visibly flinched where he held the wheelchair's handles. Noiz could feel the burn of his father's eyes on the back of his neck.

"... No, we did not. We're just busy, it's all," he said easily, unruffled. Despite the smallest thrill of surprise he felt in his spine, Noiz had been expecting that to happen from the moment he walked up to them. It had been a perfectly laid trap, had his father realized or not.

Noiz wanted to do this when Aoba wouldn't be at risk, and yet, here he was, admitting to their relationship with Aoba and Sei right in front of his father. It couldn't be worse, but he was sick of walking on eggshells.

"You're lying," Sei accused.

"I'm not. Your birthday's in two days, right? I'll bring you a present."

Sei's eyes brightened and he nodded, a tiny smile in his lips.

"Bye, Sei. Aoba. Shall we go, sir?"

Despite his scathing gaze, his father bowed politely at Aoba and Sei, heading towards the doorway behind them. Noiz followed after him dutifully.

"Don't you two ever kiss?" came Sei's perfectly audible question as they crossed the doorway into the building.

Aoba hissed, "Sei...!"

The walk to the car and the ride back to the company were made in heavy silence. Noiz knew that was only the calm before the storm and, rightfully, enjoyed the quiet. He was fully intending to lie on that bed of nails, even if he had to hold Aoba securely on top of him.

Despite only having ten minutes left of lunch break, Theo kicked into his office for what felt like the tenth time today and put a container with grilled shrimp, rice and mushrooms on his desk. Noiz didn't breathe a word of what happened when Theo set a second container on his desk, pulled a chair and announced they were having lunch right there.

A few hours into the afternoon, Noiz headed to his father's office, meaning to give him the documents that were supposed to have been turned in yesterday.

"Brain damage is quite a powerful thing, isn't it?" Noiz's father started, talking for the first time since they had left the hospital. "A kid like that, so young, saying such scandalous things."

Noiz laid the stack of papers on his desk guardedly, stepping back and simply staring at his father, silent.

"Surely, he has a long way ahead of him. Both brothers do," the older man continued, smiling inoffensively while he picked up the papers and looked over them.

"Say, Wilhelm. Did you know about Agnes?"

Noiz blinked, aloof. "What do you mean?"

"She's admitted to her parents that she's been in a relationship with another woman. Escaped their home and returned yesterday night, demanding her rights as the heiress with her partner in tow."

"Why would I know about that?"

His father's eye twitched as Noiz persistently flipped his questions back on him, but kept his tone neutral.

"I've been under the impression you were the one she was in a relationship with."

"We were nothing but friends from the start. She never told me anything about this and I never felt the need to pry into her personal affairs."

"And you can tell me for sure that she wasn't at your house two nights ago?"

"She wasn't."

His father stared at him intently before leaning back on his seat, seemingly immersed in his thoughts. Noiz wondered if he should take his apparent ignorance as proof that there wasn't an investigator on his trail after all.

"In any case, it is disgraceful for us. She doesn't intend to marry you or hide her relationship with this woman. Her parents are devastated."

Noiz tipped his chin up, looking at a point behind his father's head. "We're in the twenty-first century. There's no real necessity to further ties between families through arranged marriage anymore; neither our company nor Diefenbach are in such bad shape. Same-sex relationships are hardly uncommon either. I'm sure Agnes' capability as Diefenbach's heiress exists independently of her civil status and sexuality."

Noiz's father looked over the sheets of paper at him, green eyes swirling with ill-concealed disapproval.

"If you'll forgive my forwardness," Noiz amended, out of contempt rather than formality or sincere servitude.

"You might be correct, Wilhelm," his father said after a significant pause, tone casual. "I do admire your adaptive thinking. You grew up in a world completely different from mine and your mother's, after all. With no doubt, Theodore and you will lead our company into a new era."

Noiz's eyes narrowed at his father's deceitful words, seeing the glint of the blade peeking through carefully crafted praise.

"Our business partners over in England, too, highly appreciated your quick decision-making and smart use of resources. You made a very good impression on Mr. Chadwick; he sent me an effusive e-mail a few days after your return. I realize I should've told you and congratulated you then, I apologize. Good job, Wilhelm."

Noiz bowed stiffly, thanking him.

"In fact, he was so taken with your work, he asked me if I wouldn't hand you over for a few months. Of course, I initially denied; you're my precious elder son, one of the pillars holding Adlersflügel Group here, letting you just go was inconceivable. However," and he got up from his seat, luminous eyes boring levelly into Noiz's. "I've realized I'm being selfish and getting in the way of your growth. You have only been here for nearly six months; there's still much room for improvement. I believe you would want to take the chance, wouldn't you, Wilhelm?"

Noiz watched as his father walked around his desk to stand directly before him. From the tug at the corner of his mouth to the inflexible light in his gaze, Noiz knew that decision had been already made. He held onto his wrist behind his back, staring directly at his father.

"Yes. Please allow me."

 


 

Aoba felt like he was waiting for the apocalypse, or less dramatically, for someone to come from behind and strike him across the head with a bat. Less dramatic, but pretty violent still.

Aoba hadn't worked the nerve to message Noiz after their meeting at the hospital, and he had received no texts either. No matter what Noiz said about how his father wouldn't hire someone to finish him off or something, Aoba got all the wrong vibes from the older man. He could only hate and fear that man, who had done so many terrible things to Noiz, and was still doing it. Must've been doing even worse, now that their relationship was out in the open.

With a start, he realized it had been only a bit more than a month since the night he wormed his way into the Adlersflügel family's Christmas banquet. At that time, Noiz was only a friend; a captivating yet puzzling man he had been texting and going out to lunch with. A stone-faced brat who got a kick out of flustering him, stealing touches and glances whenever he could. Aoba didn't know when he had started to wait for his teasing and, in fact, begun to take advantage of it.

"Stone-faced" was what Aoba thought then, but he realized he had been completely wrong when he saw Noiz waltzing into the banquet hall that night, standing tall in a black tuxedo, arm linked with a smaller, brown-haired girl in a red dress.

No snarky smiles, no lingering glances, no lasting touches, no chinks in his armor. Noiz was completely closed-off. Though he had never struck Aoba as an open person, from the beginning he had been weirdly spontaneous, outwardly cold but warm in the smallest gestures—sharing food, wiping his tears, letting him in little by little.

There, standing beside other people from the waiting staff, Aoba felt the divide between them for the first time—a growing distance as Noiz danced with Agnes Diefenbach, a hand on her waist and dull green eyes staring over her shoulder. Aoba suddenly realized how full of life Noiz had been beside him.

It was with the same detached movements that Aoba saw Noiz hold Agnes tighter and kiss her on the balcony that night. Aoba wanted to be the one taken by those lips, but he didn't want it like that. He wanted to feel the fire in Noiz's feverish touch, fingertips tumbling with intent instead of cold calculation.

Just as he started to realize how hard he was falling for him, he could see the chasm between them opening wider, deeper and darker before his eyes. Noiz sat beside him on a park bench, but Wilhelm Adlersflügel was at the opposite side of the abyss, kissing another person. They were one and the same. So Aoba ran.

It had been scary; Noiz looked so much more like a stranger than the night they first met, and Aoba didn't understand why, didn't know how to stop that growing distance. But after listening to Noiz's story, and having met his father, Aoba had his answer. In his parents' world, that was who Noiz was. He was the eldest son, Wilhelm Adlersflügel; silent and smart, promised to marry Agnes Diefenbach. A nineteen-year-old back from a long time abroad, who had, for some reason, passed on his status of heir to his younger brother.

Aoba wondered if Noiz's parents knew about his everlasting love for pizza, or if they ever got close enough to see the piercing holes in his ears. Aoba had talked to Noiz's father, but he had only caught a glimpse of Noiz's mother in the banquet; a short, dainty woman with pale blond hair tied in a loose braid, wearing a navy blue dress. She didn't look like a bad person, but perhaps that was only because Aoba didn't talk to her.

He didn't know about her, but Noiz's father seemed to believe piously that he loved his children—that everything he had done so far had been for the good of his family. That was the most frightening thing for Aoba. It was so different from his own memories with his parents, however scarce they may be.

Aoba's parents... in spite of how much resentment he still held for them, he could only say they were always kind and loving in his memories. His mother used to praise his hair and, only for that reason, even through the school kids bullying him for looking like a girl and through his teenage angst... he kept it long. He remembered when his father brushed it for him after he ran out of the shower, and he still held on to that feeling.

 His grandmother, the one who had truly raised him and Sei for most of their lives, was a strong-willed woman with a boisterous voice. She also had knuckles made of steel if her smacks to their heads were anything to go by. She was extremely severe, but incredibly fair too. If she ever yelled at them or gave them smacks, it was because they were misbehaving. The neighboring kids probably wouldn't have believed it if Aoba and Sei told them about how Tae-san, the feared old lady from Eastern district, read them bedtime stories, talked and listened to them as seriously as she would an adult, and never made them feel uncomfortable in their own skin.

Aoba wouldn't change a thing about Noiz. The things both of them had to go through led them to where they were now, made them who they were. But he caught himself wishing they had grown up together. It wasn't wrong, wanting to be the one to relieve your beloved's pain, was it?

"Aobaaa," sang a chipper voice. Aoba snapped out of his introspection with a face full of Clear, rosy eyes sparkling at him.

Aoba blinked quickly, a disconcerted smile forming in his face. "What is it?"

"Don't daydream like that, I was talking to you!" Clear stepped away from the counter, hands on his hips.

All around them, there were flowers of many shapes and colors. It felt like an indoors garden, a myriad of scents flowing around the shop. Some might say it was a bit cluttered, with various flowers covering the walls and a small display right in the middle of the room, potted orchids and ferns balanced on top of wooden stumps. But it was the concept of that shop led by Mink and Clear; a simple, spontaneous environment for the plants and flowers.

And in front of Aoba was Clear, wearing a denim jacket over a rock band shirt, tucked into a knee-length tulle skirt, puffy and white like a camellia. His similarly ivory hair was growing shaggy; it would soon need a trim.

"Sorry, what were you saying?" Aoba asked.

"Look!" He stepped off to the side and kneeled beside his husband, who was sitting on a wooden stump. Clear's hand motioned to the flower crown resting gingerly atop Mink's head. The pinks and pale yellows contrasted with his brown hair and skin. "Doesn't it look super cool?!"

Mink looked completely done but the blush on his cheeks betrayed his embarrassment. After years of marriage, Aoba found that Mink still blushed a lot around Clear and he found that adorable.

Aoba sighed, smiling weakly. "It does look cool, but you shouldn't do that with the flowers, Clear."

Clear placed his chin on Mink's shoulder, arms lacing around him. "Don't worry, these ones were going to waste. I've wanted to do this for weeks!"

Aoba laughed as Clear took pictures of a sullen-looking Mink on his phone, when the shop door opened.

Mink turned alert immediately, arm flying to snake around Clear's waist, but he relaxed when he recognized the newcomer's face.

In a contrast to Mink, Aoba had gone completely stiff.

"Noiz!" Clear cried out joyfully, jumping out of his place on the floor and rushing towards Noiz, who blinked surprisingly at him before the shop's co-owner crashed onto him in a hug.

"Yo," Noiz answered simply.

"Wow, it's been so long! How have you been?" Clear released him, stepping back and smiling brightly.

"I've been fine. Cool clothes," Noiz said, not a hint of mockery in his voice.

Clear preened while Mink shifted in his seat slightly. "Thanks! Though it's kinda boring that you don't look surprised."

"I did see you wearing high heels."

Clear laughed. "But everyone was wearing heels! I'd wear these clothes all the time, but Mink is a worrywart." He walked back to where Mink was sitting, standing beside him with a hand carding through his long brown hair. "People get weird sometimes so Mink doesn't like when I go out alone in feminine clothing. Even though I have a sixty-kilo grip strength and I can crush a man's skull with my thighs." Clear huffed pompously.

Noiz's lips curled up ever so slightly. There he went, looking innocent while talking about maiming people. Mink sighed tiredly, like that was a century old argument he didn't feel like having anymore.

"Cool crown," Noiz commented when he turned his eyes towards Mink.

"Thanks," Mink said simply.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I got carried away since we hadn't seen each other in forever, but you must be here to talk to Aoba, right?" Clear smiled coyly, momentarily turning his gaze to a rapidly blushing Aoba. "You walked in with your eyes locked on him."

"Yeah," Noiz admitted easily enough, steering his eyes to the flustered Aoba. Clear chortled merrily and Mink cleared his throat discreetly.

"That's all well and good, but you have to buy something, yes? Do you want some time to talk alone?"

Noiz raised his eyebrows, blinking. "Would you do that for me?"

"Of course! Our clients won't start coming in until halfway through the morning. You have ten minutes, mm? Let's go, Mink." Clear pulled at his sleeve, ushering the other man to get up.

Mink got to his feet without fuss and followed his husband as they walked towards the entrance. "You should get changed if we're going outside."

"It's alright, won't you be there to protect me?" Clear chirped, hugging Mink's arm like the time when he introduced him as his husband to Noiz.

Mink seemed to have forgotten that he still had the flower crown on his head and Clear seemed to have no intention to remind him. As Mink started saying something, they closed the door behind themselves.

Noiz came to stand in front of the counter and, for a moment, they only stared at each other. After ten long seconds, Aoba ultimately broke, dropping his head and laughing breathily.

After a moment, Noiz laughed too. "What is it?"

Aoba lifted his head, controlling his laughter. "Nothing, nothing. Just," he breathed deeply and smiled, kind and sweet. "Hey."

Noiz smiled back as openly as Aoba had ever seen. "Hey."

Aoba's smile turned wary. "I'm happy to see you, but... why are you here? Shouldn't you be working now?"

"I took the morning off. I had to give you something."

"Eh?" Aoba blinked dumbly as Noiz placed a brown bag on the counter.

"It's Sei's birthday present. You said he's been working hard to read books, right?"

"U-uh, yeah, I said that." Aoba fished into the paper bag and picked up a hard-cover book, golden-lettering reading "Captive Princess".

"Apologize to him on my behalf for not taking it to him personally."

"It's fine, but... why?"

"Why what?" Noiz asked amusedly.

"Why... everything, I guess," Aoba answered weakly.

"Mmm... I saw it at the bookstore and I thought it was a good idea. You told me he's been diagnosed with visual clarity issues so I checked whether the print was big enough. It has some really nice illustrations too—I don't know if that'll help him get through the book more easily, but it's there. I did promise him a birthday present, after all."

"Okay... what about your father? Is it okay for you to be here?"

"He already knows everything, Sei made that clear," he smiled, clearly meaning that he didn't resent Sei at all. "I wished I could've gone through it more tactfully but he was bound to find out one way or another. I told you; I never intended to keep you a secret."

Aoba didn't know whether he should feel relieved or not. "But you won't go to the hospital."

Noiz looked away, mouth twisting in distaste. "I would, but I'll have to go on a trip tomorrow. I'll be too busy to visit the hospital."

Aoba narrowed his eyes minutely. "A trip? Like last time?"

Noiz looked reluctant to talk, but Aoba wasn't sure if it was just his imagination.

"Longer. It's England again but I'll stay there for three months this time."

Any expectations for spending time together shattered in front of Aoba's eyes at the same moment he realized he had been harboring such hopes.

"That is pretty long," Aoba commented, in lieu of anything better to say.

Noiz shrugged. "It could be worse."

Aoba noticed he didn't really look like he believed his own words.

That was how Noiz's father was taking his revenge. Noiz had been right to say the man would never do something harsh like trying to hurt or even kill him, but there were many ways to knock someone down without really laying a finger on them. And that might be just the beginning of it—Noiz's next words confirmed it for him.

"With everything that's happening, having to find a place to live there temporarily and such, I won't be able to pay the investigators to watch over you and communicate me. It's already put a bit of a dent on my economies to pay for their services up until now. I could try and infiltrate into my father's online dealings, but I don't want to ring any bells for him. Although his security is tight, I could get in, but it'd be nearly impossible to make my presence undetectable..."

Aoba watched the frantic glint in Noiz's eyes even though his voice was calm and collected. With cold certainty, he could see how Noiz had quite literally driven himself to the ground because of stress.

"Will you let me know if anything happens?" Noiz asked at the end of his ramblings.

Aoba breathed deeply and looked at the wooden countertop. "Okay."

They were silent for a moment, until Noiz called, "Aoba."

"Eh?" Aoba lifted his head, and his vision darkened as warm, pliable lips pushed against his own.

Noiz was quick to claw a hand on Aoba's nape, pulling him in and trying to coax his mouth open. When Noiz went to suck lightly on his upper lip, Aoba nipped at Noiz's lower lip and blindly, drunkly, let him in, tongues gliding only hastily enough to be feverish, but not rushed. Teeth were nipping and nibbling on lips playfully, hands exploring necks and shoulders until Aoba seemed to come back to his senses and pushed Noiz away, holding him at arm's length before stumbling back, bringing the back of his hand to his lips.

"What are you doing?" He nearly gasped, voice stifled.

Noiz leveled him with a blank look, but his lips were tugging up. "What? It's a kiss."

"You can't do that here!"

Noiz chuckled and stepped away to look at the flowers displayed in a glass case and up the walls. Aoba watched him dumbly until Noiz turned his head to him.

"Excuse me, I think I'll need some personal help, mister," he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Aoba huffed out a laugh, but walked out from behind the counter. "Of course. We're at your disposition."

They roamed through the displays and Noiz pointed at different flowers, asking their names. Aoba answered patiently, amused by Noiz's disinterested tone but undivided attention as he told him the flowers' names and even their meanings. Casually, Noiz intertwined his fingers with Aoba's. Before he could make a comment on that, Noiz was pointing out another flower, and they indulged.

"Time's up! Hope you're not just window shopping!" Clear greeted cheerfully as he returned, Mink walking right behind him.

"I'm taking the himmelsherolds and white orchids," Noiz said in reply, turning to the shop owners.

"Ohh, lovely choice! I-"

"Can you do another flower crown? Like that." He pointed to the colorful headdress still resting on Mink's head. For all of his earlier reluctance, he didn't look too interested in removing it.

Clear perked up. "Yes, I can! Didn't know you actually liked flower crowns, Noiz!"

"Oh, it's not for me. It's for him." Noiz jutted his thumb towards Aoba, who gave a surprised "ehh?!"

"Ahh, I see. The blues and whites will look beautiful on his hair! Give me half an hour and it'll be done!" Clear picked up the potted flowers and skipped to a back door, leaving a resigned but still pink-in-the-face Aoba, heading back behind the counter, with Mink and Noiz sitting in the corner of the room to talk.

Amidst pictures of Clear almost choking Noiz and Aoba with both arms around their necks, winking and blowing a kiss for the camera, and pictures of Mink being dragged into the mix by a relentless Clear, Noiz set a particular one as his phone background as he left the flower shop that morning.

Aoba, in his navy-blue turtleneck sweater, blushing up to the tips of his ears with shoulders hunched, brows knitted grumpily and eyes sending a half-hearted glare to the camera. On top of fluffy blue hair sat a delicate white and blue flower crown, and despite all of his embarrassment, a tentative, almost sheepish smile still tugged at the corners of his pink lips.

Chapter Text

There wasn't even a shadow of a snowflake on the ground when Noiz returned from England. At that point of May, when flowers were in full bloom and girls left their houses in colorful, knee-length dresses, the ruthlessly cold winter looked like a lie. In that temperate, comfortably cool Berlin, there was no place for memories of waking up to one meter of snow outside your door.

Noiz had hated his city, his state and his entire country when he was a little kid looking at the outside world through bars. It was an old city; traditional, rustic, archaic, tacky. Just like his parents and their world. It didn't suit him. But after returning almost a year ago, he could see and admit to the fact that it could be a good city to live in. It could be a modern city—a creative, daring, spontaneous city.

It depended largely on where one looked. His family manor, their company building... it was all part of his parents' world. It was the manipulative, suffocating part of this city he hated. His home and their parents' empire were his first contact with society, no wonder he thought there was nothing good about the world altogether.

But when he looked at the line of blooming cherry blossom trees cutting the avenue he took on his way to work, the pizza places, the musicians playing in dingy restaurants, a particular park close to his office in a particular night, a flower shop tucked in a quirky corner of the town... He saw that things weren't so square, so monolithic.

For that reason, he felt relief when he landed in Germany after three months in England.

England, besides its own interesting specificities, shared some characteristics with Germany, but unfortunately, it lacked the most important ones. Even if it had been done as a punishment, Noiz's father had been right; his experiences in London helped him grow as a professional, and he was glad for that. But it had been long, long three months.

Three months of all-nighters, energy drinks, piles and piles of paperwork, meetings, and messages that grew rarer and rarer as the weeks went by. Three months wherein hazel eyes and silky blue hair was something he saw day in and day out in his phone's background, but that frozen image was all he had. Even if he had the time, Aoba wouldn't have been able to video-call him; he didn't even have a TV at his place, let alone Wi-Fi.

Aoba said he was busy too, so when he didn't answer to his messages, Noiz didn't press it. He had already blown things out of proportion once; he wasn't making the same mistake again. Aoba made him want to be patient, thoughtful, better. Just one month and a half to go, just a few weeks to go, just a couple of days; that's what he thought. And then he'd be able to see Aoba in the flesh again—no need to worry about the fact that he didn't hear about him for a month. They had time.

Theo was, of course, happy to receive him in the airport. He hugged him tight, kissing all over his face despite Noiz's glare and the heads turned towards them. He pulled Noiz by the hand, cheerfully dragging him out of the building and into the early morning light. Theo offered to cook breakfast for both of them, so they headed for Theo's place together.

Naturally, Noiz didn't miss the furtive flicking of Theo's eyes when he thought Noiz wasn't looking. However, he waited for the right opportunity, sitting quietly and listening to Theo babbling about the company as he drove them to his place.

"It's been really hectic without you," Theo said, stirring something on a frying pan. In the big kitchen of his apartment, his voice was almost drowned by the sizzling of oil, his back turned to Noiz. "I had an assistant helping me out, but it wasn't the same thing."

"A temp?" Noiz asked from his place, sat on a stool at the kitchen counter.

"Yes. He was competent enough, but there were affairs that couldn't just go through his hands—you know the risk of corporate spies, and it just wasn't something for a simple assistant—so I had to deal with everything."

"You had it hard," Noiz commented simply. He was sure this was the reason why he wasn't sent to England for longer; Theo needed his support, and his father would rather have his grief of a son in the helm of the company with him than a stranger.

Theo laughed. "You had it worse, from what you told me. But it was a good experience, wasn't it?"

Noiz smiled to himself, thin and nearly imperceptible. "Yeah."

They let the conversation die after that, the sounds of burning oil and the clatter of kitchenware filling the silence for them. Theo hummed while preparing the food and Noiz looked out at the window on the kitchen's side wall, which poured bright light into the room. At some point, Noiz asked if Theo didn't want his help, and his younger brother quickly brushed him off, saying he had missed cooking for other people so he'd be fine on his own.

"This is way too much for us alone," Noiz remarked as Theo put the sausage loaf he had prepared on the middle of the table and spread jam pots, baskets of bread and plates with cheese, bacon, liverwurst and shlackwurst around it.

"Well, I don't know about you but I'm starving, so I could eat half of this with no problem," Theo said, sitting across from Noiz and piling things on his plate immediately.

Noiz hummed in understanding and an idea struck him. "Oh, I was planning on surprising Aoba later, but I could go pick him up now and we-"

"Ah!" Theo interjected loudly and Noiz froze with his phone in hand. Theo was staring at him wide-eyed, mouth gaping open and hands gripping at the edge of the table.

"... Theo?"

"Uh... um-" Theo's gaze moved up, then down and to the sides, as if expecting the right words to fall from the ceiling or roll out of the bread basket. "Uhh- Let's just- Have a brothers' time right now? Then you can see about Aoba-san."

Noiz frowned, eyes narrowing. "... What's going on?"

"Nothing," Theo answered, seemingly shrinking on himself.

Noiz said nothing for a moment, then got up from his seat, hand clutching his phone as he walks out of the kitchen. To think his weird behavior was related to Aoba... Noiz had to stop himself from gritting his teeth. Theo was behind him the next second, hand closing around his brother's arm.

"Brother-"

Noiz brusquely pulled away from Theo's grasp, opening his contact list on his phone. He was about to press the "call" button on Aoba's number when Theo snatched the phone from his hand, stepping away with it pressed to his chest. His eyes, just as green as Noiz's, were wide as though he was surprised at his own boldness. Noiz stared at him incredulously.

"What the hell are you up to, Theo?"

"C-can't we just have breakfast? Then we will talk about it."

"I can't just eat breakfast with you when you're obviously hiding something from me!" Noiz snapped with a growl and Theo reared back, looking as though Noiz had just slapped him.

Noiz caught himself and exhaled heavily, trying to breathe the frustration out of his chest. He looked down at his feet, hands closing in fists no longer in dismay at his brother's secrecy, but over his own rashness. Noiz didn't want to blow up at Theo like that; he needed to get his emotions in check. But what could he do when Theo was behaving like that? He knew Theo wouldn't do anything to Aoba-

A broken sob shook him out of his reverie.

Noiz whipped his head up and, surely, Theo's face was red, his bottom lip pulled down and quivering. He sobbed once more and big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks.

"Theo-"

His younger brother suddenly dropped to the floor, crouching with his head hidden behind his knees and arms around his legs.

"I'm sorry!" Theo wailed, starting to cry in earnest.

Noiz dropped on one knee before his brother, hands raised in a futile attempt to placate him. Theo hadn't bawled like this even when they met again after years, his choked up sobs nowhere as loud and ragged as the current gasps and whimpers escaping his lips. It reminded Noiz of the few times he made Theo cry when they were kids, and it was just as terrifying now as it was then—even if there was no one to yell at him here.

"Sorry, Theo, I didn't mean to-"

"Aoba m-made me promise not to tell you! I'm sorry, so sorry..."

Noiz shelved his brother's words for later discussion and extended his arms to awkwardly hug Theo, rubbing a hand on his back soothingly. The kid couldn't craftily hide things or lie to save his life; how long had he been holding on until he finally crumbled under this pressure?

"It's fine already. We'll talk about it after breakfast, alright?"

Noiz managed to pull Theo back to the kitchen table and they went back to their plates. Slowly, Theo recomposed himself, his sniffles diminishing until he was eating in complete silence. The food was delicious, but both of them were strained, from their movements to their breathing, as if waiting for a bomb to blow in front of them. When Theo sighed and leaned back on his seat, Noiz chose the moment to break the silence.

"I'm sorry, Theo. I really didn't mean to blow up at you."

 Theo smiled apologetically. "It's okay. Sorry for hiding things from you, too—I'm really bad at this kind of thing, aren't I?" He laughed faintly and extended his hand over the table, offering Noiz's phone back.

Noiz grabbed it, but made no motion to use it. "So you'll tell me now?"

"I think it'd be better if you asked him yourself. You haven't called him recently?"

Noiz's eyes fell to the tablecloth. "No. We were too busy, and I didn't let him know when I was returning."

"Ahh, I see. Um, he's not using the same phone number anymore. I'll send it to you so you can call him now." Theo pulled his own phone out of his pocket and tapped around on it, lifting his head briefly to smile at Noiz. "You can go do that in the living room while I clean up, don't worry."

"Ah... alright," Noiz replied while Theo was already up on his feet and putting plates in the dishwasher.

Noiz walked out of the kitchen and into the living room, feeling little difference when the walls of the house were all white and covered in art pieces. After settling down on the couch, his phone vibrated with a message—most likely from Theo—and he opened his inbox.

The first thing Noiz noticed was the country code. That phone number wasn't German. It was Japanese.

Drawing in a deep breath, Noiz saved the number and called. His foot tapped on the floor compulsively as the call rung, letting that sound alone fill the forefront of his brain instead of the scenario forming in his mind. If he got to hear Aoba's voice, hear what happened...

A dull clatter. "Hello?"

Noiz froze.

"Hellooo? Uh, Aoba's away for now, but-"

"What the fuck are you doing picking up Aoba's calls?" Noiz gritted out, the still air in his lungs rushing out sharply.

"...! This voice- You're that foreigner brat!"

"I'm surprised an old man like you has such good memory. Pity you still don't have manners at your age."

Koujaku scoffed, sound crackling with static. "What a joke! Aoba doesn't mind if I pick up his calls, we grew up together! Who the fuck are you to Aoba?!"

"I'm his fucking boyfriend, that's what," Noiz snapped in answer, jealousy rearing its ugly head and sending a fire up his spine.

"You're... what?" Koujaku muttered dumbly, and Noiz took great pleasure in hearing the confusion in his voice. A self-satisfied grin wobbled at the corner of his mouth.

"Boyfriend, it's what I said. Put him on the phone."

"You bastard...! It's your fault!" Koujaku suddenly surged back, deep voice booming on the other end.

"What are you talking about?"

"Aoba's been all mopey because of some guy! He never told me he had a boyfriend but I'm not stupid-"

"I wouldn't have imagined it."

"Shut the fuck up. What are you doing calling only now, anyway? Your phone number's not even saved. Aoba's been here for almost a month already!"

Noiz huffed sharply; he didn't have to justify himself for that brawns-over-brains bastard, he didn't but... "I didn't know he had left Germany, I-"

"Some good fucking boyfriend you are, then. Where were you when Aoba was in trouble? If aunty and Nine-san hadn't been back-"

Noiz snarled. "What the hell are you talking about? Give the phone to Aoba!"

"So you really don't know shit?! Let me tell you then; Sei was suddenly dismissed from that hospital and Aoba couldn't pay for a lawyer to get them to let Sei stay longer, so they had to come back to Midorijima! All because, apparently, the old geezers decided that Sei had hit his limit with..."

Koujaku's voice dwindled into nothing—Noiz stopped listening. The puzzle was assembled in his mind, up to the very last piece.

Noiz hung up the call, not caring for what else Koujaku had to say. They were never supposed to be talking in the first place, he was never supposed to hear all of that from Koujaku. He let the phone fall with a dull thud on the couch, eyes unseeing.

Even though he had asked Aoba to tell him whatever happened... No—It was Noiz who got himself so absorbed into his own problems that he completely overlooked the warning signs, the risk Aoba was in. He had to rush back to Midorijima with Sei because Berlin wasn't safe for him anymore. Noiz had done this. Aoba didn't tell him anything. Aoba left him out, and Noiz didn't press, didn't try to make sure Aoba was okay.

He tried to do everything right this time, so why...

Noiz got to his feet, feeling nervous energy coursing through him like never before. Even the times he had a knife to his throat and tasted death in his tongue, he never feared. The dark corners of the Old Residential District never scared him. He didn't care much if he died or lived then. He still felt that he didn't really care, but he wanted to see Aoba.

Theo's car keys lay on the coffee table, glinting in the window's morning light.

 


 

"Young master, please-"

"He's here, isn't he?"

"T-the master wishes not to be disturbed, and he's not expecting any visits-"

Noiz roughly pushed the heavy wooden doors to the lounge room. The creaking of old hinges was stifled by the subsequent loud bang of the doors hitting against the wall. It echoed down the hallway—behind him, the flustered butler quickly skittered away.

In the luxuriously decorated room, his father sat regally on a cream-colored chesterfield sofa with golden details, not at all roused by Noiz's uproarious entrance. A large window in the front wall bathed the room in natural light, reflecting on the polished wooden surface of the coffee table, where a tea set was placed.

The older man's face split up in a smile as he looked at his son. "Wilhelm! I see you've returned, how-"

"I'm quitting the company. You'll receive my resignation letter tomorrow morning."

His father's smile quickly vanished, leaving a wary crease in his brow, eyes narrowing dangerously.

"What does this mean?"

"Exactly what I said. I'm leaving," Noiz said, still in the doorway.

His father scoffed and looked down, picking up the ceramic tea cup from the coffee table. He swayed it in circles, stirring his beverage.

"You can't 'quit', Wilhelm. From the moment you were born, your life was for this family—this company. You already spent five years neglecting your duties and, furthermore, you were relieved of your position as heir by your younger brother. Aren't you being too irresponsible?"

Noiz walked into the room, unfazed by his father's little speech. He stood before the older man, watching him sip on his tea and put it back on the coffee table between them.

"I will quit."

"Is this about your little male whore?"

Noiz's vision flashed red, a rush of heat washing over his face. He had to hold back the impulse to kick the coffee table on his father—by this time, one year ago, he might've just done so.

"I was under the impression you learned his name when you stalked and intimidated him," Noiz gritted out.

His father laughed dryly again. "I don't stalk anyone, but you're correct—I did learn his name. Aoba Seragaki. Are you happy that I remember it?"

"I'd be happy to see you calling him by his name instead of slurs." But happier to scrub his name off your pernicious tongue.

The older man huffed pompously. "There's only two types of people worth remembering the name; the ones who are useful to me and the ones who are a thorn in my side. And, from these two, only those in the first group are worthy of being called by their names. The people in the second one won't be around for much longer, see."

Noiz only vaguely registered his mother appearing by the doorway.

"Good for you, and thanks for confirming my suspicions. But the next time I hear you call Aoba by anything other than his name, I'll fucking kill you."

"Wilhelm...!" His mother gasped from the door, meaning to enter but being stopped by her husband's placating hand.

"Stay where you are, Ursula," he warned, a smirk crawling across his face as his eyes didn't leave Noiz.

"But, dear..." No one heeded her muttered words.

His father got to his feet calmly, drilling a piercing stare into Noiz. "Wilhelm... What a disgrace of a son you've become. You come back to this manor where we've raised you, threaten to abandon this family and raise a hand against your own father."

"I don't remember a time when I wasn't a disgraceful son; my earliest memory of this speech opener is when I was five years old. Don't you think it's only fair, father, that I raise my hand against you when you've raised your own against me?"

The other man's nostrils flared up indignantly. "It's different, I'm your father and-"

"And I'm your son, and it's not different at all!" Noiz snapped, but breathed in deeply before speaking again, more even-keeled. "But rest assured, I don't actually mean it when I say I'll kill you or raise my hand against you. I'm not like you."

Slowly, Noiz's defiance was getting to his father's nerves. The trembling of his arms, the slow reddening of his face as a thick vein on his temple pulsed pointedly—it was all eerily familiar to Noiz, like watching a movie play in the TV and recognizing bits and parts of it, only enough to know it isn't the first time you're seeing it.

Noiz's father hadn't touched a hair on his head since he had returned to Germany. He had come close to snapping, but he kept himself in check, never crossing the line. Noiz hadn't called him out on his abuse, but his behavior indicated that he knew just what he had done.

Six years ago, too, his father had never harmed him physically, until the day his self-control blew up. Noiz didn't know any good then. He thought it was normal that his father could nearly brutalize him. It was the way things worked. He's the father. I'm the son.

Noiz knew better now, and his father was about to snap once again.

"Yes, you're right," his father said, voice rough around the edges and nearly shaking with barely contained rage. "You're not like me at all. You've been a pest from the moment you were born. Never took your duties seriously. Always disrespected your servants, your parents and your teachers." His father didn't take his eyes away from him as he stepped around the coffee table, coming towards his son. Noiz held his gaze firmly.

"You're lazy, ungrateful and when I give you a qualified woman to marry so you can at least give us a new heir, you can't even do that because you're enamored with a...!"

"A man who's greater than you at all counts," Noiz completed, voice raised but steadfast. "He's kinder, stronger and cared for his family like you never will."

"I don't care for my family?!" His father hissed dangerously and fisted a hand on the collar of Noiz's button-up. "You'd never know about that, Wilhelm! Your grandparents raised an empire for this family from the ground up, and I've perpetuated their work, made our company bigger and stronger than they could've imagined! You are the one that never cared for this family!"

Noiz winced as his father shook him with every word. "With an example like you, there's no way I could care for this charade of a family!"

His father was nearly foaming at the mouth. Noiz's skin prickled, waiting for the thunder to strike. A button on his shirt popped out, hopped to the floor with the pitter-patter of footsteps.

"I'm the reason you exist today! Ungrateful rascal, I curse the day you were born!"

Noiz laughed, almost maniac-like. He could hear his mother's voice, but he was too busy with his own affairs to pay attention to her own scuffle. "So do I! And yet, here we are and you're still grasping at straws, trying to protect a family that never really existed!"

The older man growled and jostled his son onto the hard tiled floor. Noiz grunted in pain as he fell on his back, face twisting in a grimace. His eyes unfocused for a moment, and when he propped himself up on his elbows and looked up, he saw the familiar looming shadow of his father pulling a punch above him.

Ah. A perfect family picture, just like six years ago.

"Wim!!"

In the blink of an eye, there was something between him and the shadowy figure, and Noiz's vision was completely darkened. He felt a warm body almost completely draped over his own, covering him protectively. There was agitated panting somewhere above his head, and a heart, thudding against his cheek, beating with the vivacity of a mockingbird's wings.

"Theo..."

His younger brother pulled him up into a sitting position, arms around his back and head, pushing his face into his collarbone. Noiz felt Theo's chin digging into his hair.

Theo tried to control his breathing, hand rubbing almost absentmindedly on the back of Noiz's head.

"Wim, Wim... are you okay?"

Noiz opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out.

It was like a balloon had started swelling up in his throat in frightening speed, choking him and making it impossible to produce words. He felt, with surprised horror, as his face heated up, not with anger like before, but with relieved tears that pushed against his eyelids and washed down his cheeks without his say, ignoring all rational thought.

He couldn't hold back the first sob, but damn if he didn't try to drown out every single one after that. He gasped quietly against Theo's shirt, and his younger brother didn't say a word, but tightened his hold around him.

"Father," Noiz heard him say. "I'm not watching you tear Wim apart again. I c-can't do this anymore." Theo shifted against Noiz, turned back enough to be able to make eye contact with their father. "You'll have to hurt me before you get to him, and even then, I won't let you touch him."

Noiz realized his mother had been crying for a while now, still hovering by the doorway.

"Leave my sight. Both of you," his father growled after five full seconds of silence.

Theo helped Noiz up to his feet. Recovered from his sudden crying spell and thoroughly embarrassed, Noiz wiped at his face as they walked out of the room, no further words coming from their father. The door banged shut behind them.

 


 

Noiz was leaning on the balcony's steel railing, feeling the cold metal biting through his shirt's long sleeves. He stared down at the cars driving down Theo's street, the neighborhood kids playing in their house's backyard pool and making a ruckus.

The sun was high on the sky, only a couple of hours into the afternoon. The balcony's shelter protected Noiz from the more aggressive sunrays at this time of the day, looking less like spring and more like the oncoming summer. Maybe it was transitioning already.

He heard the door slide open behind him. "Brother."

Noiz turned partially to see Theo clumsily closing the balcony door, holding a small plastic bowl with a spoon in each hand. He passed one to Noiz and stood beside him, looking over at the city's landscape.

"Where did you get this from?" Noiz laughed, digging his spoon into the pink-colored ice cream.

Theo snorted. "I forgot I had it in the freezer. Sorry for not offering earlier."

"No problem."

"You're just as sweet-toothed as always, aren't you?"

"I could tell you the same," Noiz grumbled defensively, prompting a louder laugh from Theo.

They fell silent, hearing the kids next door yelling at each other and the occasional car go up or down the street. Noiz calmly shoveled strawberry ice cream into his mouth, letting it melt in his tongue.

"Wim?"

"What is it?"

"Are you really leaving?"

Noiz thought of an answer. It left him as a sigh.

"I have to leave. It's my fault things got out of hand. I should've protected Aoba."

"Didn't you talk to Aoba-san?"

Noiz grimaced. "No. Some asshole friend of his picked up the phone."

Theo frowned slightly. "Ohh. You should try calling him again. I mean, I found your phone abandoned on the couch this morning, Aoba could've called back since then."

"Oh. That's right," Noiz muttered, remembering that he hadn't yet retrieved his phone. "I'll... do that soon."

"Well... heed the time difference, okay?" Theo said, and dropped his spoon in his empty bowl with a clatter. He sighed. "Wim."

"Mm?"

"Please, don't leave."

"Theo..."

"No, listen. I'm sorry I'm making selfish requests again but... Don't go away now. If you go now, things with our parents will just fester beyond salvation."

"There wasn't any salvation from the beginning, Theo."

His younger brother hesitated, measuring his words. "Didn't you feel like... things started changing today?"

Noiz opened his mouth, then closed it. After a pause heavy with meaning, he inhaled.

"Because of you."

Theo smiled softly at him. "I'm happy that I finally have the power to stand up for you now. I'm sorry I didn't do anything back then."

"Don't be stupid. You-"

"'Couldn't help it', right?" Theo breathed deeply, turning his eyes to the sky extending before them, way beyond their vision until it turned into a deeper blue. "I know, but... I don't like making excuses. Besides, it wasn't all me. You, too, made things change today, brother."

Noiz scoffed at him incredulously. "What do you mean? I was doing the exact same thing as back then—pissing off the old man until he snapped."

"On the surface, yes. But this time, you weren't just rebelling; you shook up the very foundations of father's beliefs as the Adlersflügel patriarch. Now, he knows we won't accept it passively when he tries to manipulate us."

"He won't change because of that, Theo."

His younger brother smiled ruefully. "I know. Father's too stubborn and proud. I can't understand how he thinks and... he may never accept you and Aoba-san."

Noiz sighed, and finished his ice cream at last.

"But you know," Theo said. "Did you see it?"

"What do you mean?"

Theo smiled very slightly. "Mother. She was crying."

Noiz snorted. "That was just because I threatened to kill our father.

"Maybe, partially, but I think there was more to it. You never really tried to understand mother's feelings, but I can't hold that against you. Either way, that's something else that has undoubtedly changed, right?"

Noiz thought back to her stony expression when his father manhandled him, and compared it to her anguished tears as Noiz and Theo left the lounge room.

"You could say that, yeah."

Theo took the bowl from Noiz's hand and piled it with his own, the spoons clattering together in it. "This situation is salvageable, Wim. We're not going back to how it was before—things are bound to change for the better." A rare smirk graced Theo's features. "Didn't you say it before, that you weren't running away anymore, brother?"

Noiz blinked bewilderedly at his brother and barked a surprised laugh.

"That's playing dirty, Theo."

Theo laughed too, smiling sheepishly. "I have to use all of my cards. What I mean is... if we leave things as they are now, everything will have been for naught. This is the perfect opportunity to build something better out of our family's mishaps. Please... Let me prove I can protect you too, Wim. Aoba-san is not the only one who loves you."

Noiz looked at his brother's back as he left the balcony, carrying their dirty bowls.

Today, history almost repeated itself. But with a simple twist, it went in the complete opposite direction. Theo's reassuring presence between Noiz and his father had been so jarring that he had lost control of his emotions. It was suddenly clear to him—how much he and Theo had grown in six years. Even when he didn't have Mizuki and Aoba, he had never been truly alone, and Theo proved that today.

He wanted to see Aoba. He wanted to work hard for Theo. He wanted to be the adult Mizuki told him to become so many months ago. But Noiz couldn't do all of those at once; there was an order he needed to establish but was reluctant to do so, because he didn't want to lose anything. He was immature, a brat just like Aoba said so many times. He was greedy just like Mizuki was. But even Mizuki learned to put his priorities in order, and it never meant he was accepting to give up on any of the things precious to him.

Noiz had heard Theo's reasons, now there was only one last thing left to do before he put his own duties in order. He headed out of the balcony, leaving the sounds of playing children behind the glass door.

 


 

"Noiz!" came the relieved, much missed voice from the phone.

He almost breathed a sigh of relief at not having to hear that guy's deep, grouchy voice when he was expecting Aoba's. Noiz couldn't go through that shock twice on the same day. Aoba was as expressive as ever, even leagues away.

"Aoba. Sorry I didn't get your call back."

"Geez, I freaked out when Koujaku told me. Well, when I forced Koujaku to tell me. I'm sorry he said those things."

After the initial alleviation of his nerves, hearing Aoba's voice after so long started doing weird things to Noiz. He felt was though he was being spread thin, breaking at the seams. Hearing his concern, his apologetic tone...

It hurt.

Noiz felt physical pain at the distance that had opened between them without his knowing. It hurt specially... because Aoba had left him out. He didn't give him a chance to help him when he needed most, and especially because it was his fault... Aoba worried about him all the time but never let Noiz worry about him too.

"Aoba," he started, voice even. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Silence stretched between them, and Noiz allowed it. He let Aoba put his thoughts in order.

"I'm sorry," Aoba said quietly at last. Noiz breathed deeply.

"I asked you to tell me if anything happened. I trusted you'd tell me. Doing this... did you want to break it off after all?"

"I didn't! And I swear, Koujaku made things look much worse than they actually were!"

"But I still wanted to be able to help you! It's my fault you were dragged into this!"

"I chose to be with you, that isn't your responsibility!"

Noiz huffed heavily, covering his face momentarily. What were they doing, yelling into the phone? He was just falling into old patterns; that wasn't taking them anywhere.

"I'm going back to Midorijima."

"No, you stay there," Aoba contested without pause.

Noiz blinked. "Huh?"

"I know what will happen if you come back to Midorijima in this situation. Your father won't-"

"I already talked to him."

"... There's no way that ended well."

"It didn't."

Aoba sighed loudly. "God, I'm never letting Koujaku touch my phone after this."

Noiz scoffed. "I sure hope so."

Despite himself, Aoba laughed briefly before reassuming his serious tone. "I'm sorry for not telling you anything. The truth is... you were obviously busy and I could tell how important a time it was for you. I knew that, if I told you about your father, you'd just drive yourself into the ground with stress again, and you'd try to come back before you were due."

Noiz didn't know what to tell Aoba. He might've been right—he was embarrassingly right, in fact—but he still wanted to have known. To leave Aoba alone in a situation he had put him in... was something he couldn't easily forgive himself for.

"Please, don't blame yourself," Aoba started again, as though he was reading his thoughts. "It was pretty scary when I suddenly got the notice—and when your father appeared, making small talk in the elevator again, I knew he had been the one pulling strings. He even tried to get me to accept money from him again, probably to make sure I'd disappear for good." Aoba laughed humorlessly. "That was him, kindly telling me to fuck off and stop messing with my family. I didn't know what to do, but I knew I couldn't bother you with that.

"But I was never in any real danger. When I called Theo to make sure he wouldn't let you know, he even offered to help me cover the expenses to come back, but I easily refused it, because it wasn't necessary. My... parents, they returned, you know."

Noiz's brows rose almost halfway up his forehead. "When...?"

"It was some time after we stopped meeting each other, in January. They contacted Granny, and when they heard about Sei's coma, they came back. I meant to tell you but... well, you remember how things got back then.

"When I was notified by the hospital, they gladly helped me pay for the travel and stuff, along with Granny. I think they all secretly wanted us to come back soon. Mizuki was furious with the hospital but I made him keep a secret from you, too. I really wanted to talk this out with you properly when your job was over, but things got all... tangled up, apparently. Please, don't be mad at him and Theo."

Noiz heaved a sigh. "I'm not mad at either of them."

Aoba let out a sigh of his own, then laughed lightly. "I miss you every day, Noiz. You might think I'm lying, but my feelings haven't moved an inch."

"Then why don't you want me to go see you?" Noiz asked impatiently.

"I said it already, didn't I? It'll wreak havoc in your family. It's already happening, from what you told me."

"Wouldn't you rather have me without my family's shadow looming behind me? If I leave now, my ties with them will be all broken off, for sure," Noiz reasoned, voice as earnest as he had ever heard it in his own ears.

Noiz could hear the weak smile in Aoba's voice as he answered, "Theo is your family too, isn't he? I'm sure... your family has hurt you many times now, but you returned to Germany to make peace with your past, didn't you? You don't have to forgive your parents, but it was because you had the courage to return and face your problems head-on... that we were able to meet, right?"

Noiz stayed quiet, but Aoba knew he was there, and he continued.

"If it comes to the point where you have to leave your family behind forever, it should be with a clean cut. I don't know what happened, but you said yourself that things didn't go well. If you leave now and come to me... it's just the same as when you were fourteen. That'll be something you'll definitely regret."

"Did you perhaps talk to Theo already? You two are saying the same things," Noiz said sarcastically, and Aoba laughed.

"I didn't, but if he said that too, it's even more reason for you to stay and work things out with your family. Theo loves you, Noiz. You said he brought you back to fix things with your family—please, don't leave him behind.

"I... too, have some familial issues to deal with. My parents returned, but it's been years and I resented them so deeply when I was a kid, even though I never stopped loving them. I accepted their help begrudgingly, and they're saying they'll stay here at least for a while. We are trying to rebuild our relationship. Midorijima is actually doing wonders to Sei's recovery—it is our homeland, after all. But we're progressing in baby steps. Virus told me that, given how long he has been in a coma, it's amazing that he can even speak, but it's highly unlikely he'll be able to make a full recovery. Still, we can't stop trying until we hit a wall."

Noiz smiled. "So you're saying you're too busy to receive me?"

"Maybe~" Aoba sang, then chuckled lightly. "I think... both of us have more pressing issues right now. It's okay, isn't it? The distance hurts but our hearts won't move at all."

"Are you learning these corny one-liners from Mizuki?"

"It's an original! Didn't I make you heart skip a beat just now?"

"Shut up," Noiz grumbled.

Aoba snickered on the other end while Noiz covered his face, thankful that Aoba wasn't there to see the blush creeping into his cheeks. It was just a dumb joke for Aoba, but these simple words made him so unbearably happy his chest felt light.

It was a relief. Nothing really changed over the past three months.

"Promise me you won't leave me out like this again."

Aoba's voice was soft, free of its previous playful tone as he said, "Sorry. I promise. This was my last selfish act."

Noiz let out a breathy laugh, leaning back on Theo's couch.

"Idiot. Don't talk about being selfish when you obviously have no idea what that is."

Surely, it'd take years to teach this guy to be selfish. While Noiz did like challenges, he thought it was okay to stay like this.

Chapter Text

The sky was catching on fire. That's what it looked like when Noiz looked over at Midorijima's skyline from Mizuki's balcony. Even though it had been so dark when Noiz walked to Mizuki's place. It was so dark, he had been sure it was bound to stay that way—a spotless void, mercilessly swallowing the world. However, what looked like complete darkness had morphed into a gloomy blue for no apparent reason. Like cheap ink soaking into fabric, slowly clearing.

Then, it was like the fabric was being torn to shreds, or burning. Quite literally burning. In the far horizon, behind taller buildings and acres and acres of trees—something shined in red and yellow, scorching the bottom of billowy clouds. They caught in flames and the gloomy blue receded slowly, subdued by yet another arbitrary stroke on the canvas. The scenery was changing fast, and it was disconcerting. Noiz wouldn't say scary. He wasn't scared of anything.

Noiz left everything behind last night. Hateful things. Scary things.

It didn't scare him, to see a flame rising in the sky, shedding warm light over the houses' roof tiles and seeping into his chilled skin. Even though he had never seen that before. It was hard to believe in light, when darkness was everywhere—spilling from behind a door closing shut, lurking in a father's eye before it shadowed his features altogether, hiding the side of a mother's face as she turned her gaze away.

"Noiz," Mizuki called from behind him, standing at the balcony's sliding door. "Come inside. We have to change those bandages."

Noiz turned around, body suggesting he had heard Mizuki, but his eyes were distant, unresponsive. Mizuki fixed his young, battered body with a kind, but careful gaze. Without a word, Noiz stepped away from the light's warm but fickle presence.

 


 

"Seeing that you went to the office normally over the week, am I to believe you gave up on leaving? Wilhelm."

Noiz stood in front of his father's desk in his study. He had been summoned to the manor right after arriving home, Saturday's evening sky slowly burning out in angry orange clouds when he met the chauffeur at his doorstep. It had been quite surprising, since Noiz was expecting his father to not want to see him for at least a month after what had happened.

Waiting for Noiz's answer, the older man looked at him evenly, frameless reading glasses perched on his nose.

"Yes," Noiz answered. At least for now.

"Am I to believe you've given up on that man?"

"No."

His father's eyes hardened, but he said nothing. Instead, he sighed heavily, pushing his glasses to his brow and rubbing at the bridge of his nose.

"You're aware that Agnes came public with her partner last month, right?" The older man said, in what looked like a sudden change of subject. Noiz knew what he was getting to, however, and nodded.

Despite the fact that they weren't exactly celebrities, the picture of Agnes kissing her girlfriend behind her birthday cake was in nearly every news website home page and social media. Their relationship was met with mixed reactions, as one would expect, but Agnes didn't seem one bit affected by it.

He was relieved that his name hadn't been mentioned in any articles, and yet, their closest business partners, who knew about their supposed relationship, reached out to him even though he wasn't in Germany then. After making small talk, they gave him the metaphorical pat on the shoulder, as though he had been abandoned on the altar. It'd be quite amusing, if it didn't feel like Agnes was being painted as the villain.

"You can't do the same thing she did. I have realized I can't stop you from being with whoever you want, but I still won't allow you to bring unwanted attention to this family."

Noiz blinked blandly. That was a big concession his father was making now. Still...

Is this all the change we can make, Theo?

Shifting the weight on his feet, Noiz thought for a moment before saying, "I don't feel any need to put myself or Aoba in this same situation. For Agnes, that might've been important, but not to me."

His father leaned back on his chair, a satisfied smile draping itself on his face, but Noiz wasn't finished.

"However, I won't hide Aoba from anyone. If you're afraid I may announce this relationship to the public, you can rest assured; I won't. But don't expect me to lie about him."

The older man's eyes turned cold. He stared at Noiz for long seconds, as if trying to will him into submission. His father might've made a big concession, but Noiz wasn't about to pat him on the back for it. When Noiz stood unwavering, he looked down and pulled a stack of papers to his vision.

"You may go, Wilhelm."

Silently, Noiz acquiesced, leaving his father's study with a curt bow. Thinking only of heading back home as quickly as possible, he was turning to one side of the hallway when a voice called from behind him.

"Ah- Wilhelm!"

He blinked, looking back to find his mother, standing by the study's door as though she had been waiting for him. She wringed her hands nervously, eyes swerving between his face and the floor.

"Could we... talk for a moment?"

Noiz ended up agreeing, if anything for the weirdly nervous look on his mother's face. He had lost count on how many times he had been pulled into private talks with his father, but he barely ever talked with his mother in this type of setting. The rare times it happened were coincidental and she only ever parroted her husband.

His mother guided him out through the back of the manor and into the knot garden lying beyond; four intricately patterned compartments were separated by pathways crossing it horizontally and vertically. Between the boxwood edges in each compartment, flowers of varied colors grew, filling the garden with a sweet scent. They walked down the path and around the marble fountain sitting in the middle, reaching the stairs leading to higher ground.

They walked up the concrete steps and crossed the entrance between short espaliered apple trees, white flowers stark against the green leaves. Surrounded by flowering trees and thickets of well-pruned shrubs, there was a glass-and-aluminum structure—his mother's conservatory, he quickly realized. The lamps spread around the garden flickered to life as the sky put on its evening wear, tinged purple and blue with heavy clouds.

She opened the door and welcomed him inside, pressing a button on a small controller to lit up the crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the roof, bathing the small room in yellow light. There were other lamps around the room that remained turned off, as well as a loveseat covered with a white cloth, various decorative plants and different knick-knacks, like a wooden abstract sculpture, sitting daintily on a small stool.

In the middle of the room, there was a sophisticated wooden table with two cushioned chairs on each side. His mother sat down with a sheepish smile and Noiz followed her example, carefully waiting for her to break the silence.

"I'm sorry for holding you up, Wilhelm," she started, tone politely kind.

"It's nothing."

Noiz felt her eyes on him, but he wasn't really looking at her face. She blinked, attentive.

"How have you been?"

That was a question that might've not been weird coming from any other mother out there, but to Noiz, hearing those words out of his mother's mouth was surprising. She usually rattled off on whatever she had to tell him, not bothering with such niceties.

"I'm alright."

"Ah... I see. I'm glad." She looked down momentarily, eyes glancing around the conservatory. "You probably don't remember, but I used to always bring you here when you were a baby."

"Really," Noiz intoned.

"Yes. I usually did it when you were crying too much; I think the flowers calmed you down."

Noiz hummed flatly. He really didn't have too many memories of his mother being very "motherly" around him. He had no memories of them ever coming to this conservatory either. She did cook for them up to when Theo was six, and then they started being tended to mostly by the maids.

She sighed. "I'm sorry. It's my fault our relationship has grown so distant."

Despite the fair share of plastic surgeries done to conceal the effects of time, the lines on her face became more noticeable when her expression was slack like now, a downward pull on the corners of her lips.

"Should I say 'I forgive you' here?" he asked, point-blank.

His mother blinked up at him, eyes wide. Her shoulder hunched as she looked down again. "No, it's understandable that you can't forgive me. It's natural you don't. I was complacent when you were hurting—it's the same as hurting you myself. But... would you listen to my side of the story?"

Noiz stared into her dark green eyes, moist with tears. That didn't move him, but he nodded, allowing her to speak.

"Wilhelm, I want to tell you that I understand your father better than anyone does, probably. And I do believe in his brand of family protection. I do think I was doing the right thing when I pushed for you to marry Agnes, and even now, I don't want your relationship with Mr. Seragaki to be publicly known. This is something I can't apologize for, even if I know you may hate us for it.

"I am... the only person your father trusts wholeheartedly—he's told me that much explicitly. And I stood by him in everything he's done in the twenty-one years we've been together. He needs me, and I need him. I only realized the biggest mistake I've committed in my misguided faith last Sunday. I never interfered when he... lashed out at you, because I didn't want to betray him. I thought it was okay, because our parents were extremely severe and we got our own beatings as kids—we were both from very strict families.

"I didn't realize we had crossed the line until that happened Sunday. When I saw..." she quickly wiped the tears starting to spill from her eyelids, clearing her throat. "When I saw how you reacted to Theodore coming for your rescue, I finally realized... I should've been the one to do that, so many years ago. If I had done it, perhaps you wouldn't have escaped then. In fact, if I just had been more caring, more interested, instead of brushing you off as a problem child who had 'no solution'... Things would be different."

"But they are as they are," Noiz said.

She looked at him briefly and nodded. "Yes. They are. Which is why I'm asking... please, don't leave us behind again. I... haven't been the mother you deserved for twenty years, but I still have time to start, if you'll let me." She stared at him intensely, pleading. "After Sunday... I talked to your father and for the first time, I defied his ideas. But he accepted my criticism and actually put thought into reconciling things. He's working on his mistakes."

"His conclusion just now wasn't too comforting for me."

His mother smiled apologetically. "There are some things that can't be changed. This is the nature of our family, Wilhelm. I'm sure Edmund will keep on being stubborn, but I will do what I can so you won't feel so restricted. And, um..." she blushed, evading his eyes. "I don't know... how your relationship with Mr. Seragaki is going, but... If you'd let me, I'd like to meet him formally."

Noiz's eyes widened.

"Why?" was all he was able to utter. The sweat beading on his forehead was starting to bother him. Rather than his sense of self-preservation, his protective instincts were kicking in, remembering everything his father had done to Aoba. Now, his mother was...

"I want you to be comfortable to share these parts of your life with me, Wilhelm, and I swear I do not mean to harm that boy. I'm sure that... now is too early, and I'm making incredibly selfish requests, but I have to start somewhere. Seeing how brighter Agnes became after finding someone she loved made me realize I want to stand by you if you're this happy with someone, even if it's not a woman or someone useful to our company."

Noiz dropped his gaze to the tabletop. Why was she suddenly saying all of those things? It was too late. She wasn't any better than a stranger; he couldn't drop his guard around her, couldn't feel safe by her side. It felt disgusting to hear her spouting apologies and promises when she had been silent for so long. Why would she sound so heartfelt, so regretful? That was either a plot between her and his father or-

"... I'm sorry, I must be overwhelming you," his mother said, noticing his silence. "Just... let us prove we can be part of your life, Wilhelm. A good part of it. I'm sure... your father will keep on being stubborn for a long time, but I'll do what I can to make him see your relationship in a better light. If, in the end, you still can't bring yourself to forgive your father and me, that's alright. In fact, you don't even need to give me an explicit answer—either way, I will do what I can from now on."

As she was finishing her sentence, Noiz got up from his seat, pushing the chair back with a screech against the hardwood floor. He didn't feel comfortable when he entered that room, and he was feeling increasingly worse. There was a conflict boiling up inside him that he didn't want to address, not even to himself.

"I should go."

She blinked surprisingly, but got to her feet too, smiling faintly. "You may go. The chauffeur will be waiting for you in front of the manor."

He nodded curtly and left the conservatory without looking back, taking large steps as he made his way back to the manor.

 


 

When Aoba returned home, the clatter of pans and pots coming from the kitchen alerted him that his Granny was starting dinner preparations. Slipping off his shoes by the entrance, he padded towards the kitchen and poked his head inside.

"Granny, I'm home! I brought some mackerel too." He raised the hand carrying a plastic bag, contents rustling with the movement.

The old woman grunted in response, profile unreadable behind a strand of pink hair as she was arranging pots on the stove.

"Need my help with anything?" Aoba queried, blinking curiously at her motions.

"Not when you've barely stepped into the house," she grumbled and turned towards him, pushing her hair behind her ears. Aoba had missed that permanent scowl in his grandmother's wrinkled face. She grabbed the bag from his hand and put it on the sink. "Go drop your things and take a shower. I could smell your fish stench from the genkan."

Aoba laughed. "Roger that!"

He turned around, adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder, and climbed the stairs with light footfalls. A few steps into the hallway, he stopped and slid the door to his room open.

"Sei, I'm home... Gh, Mizuki, don't you have a house anymore?"

Aoba blinked down at the scene in front of him; Sei on his wheelchair with Ren sleeping on his lap, turning his head to owlishly peer at his brother. In front of him was Mizuki, sitting with his legs folded on the edge of Aoba's futon, holding one of Sei's feet while diligently applying blue nail polish to a toenail with his other hand.

Finishing up in the next second, Mizuki slipped the brush into the little bottle and turned his head to the doorway, wiping the sweat off his brow.

"My house is where Sei is, Aoba!" he claimed petulantly.

"That's cool and all but I put my futon away after leaving every morning, and every time you do this. Geez..."

Aoba slipped the messenger bag off his shoulder by the computer's low desk, heaving a sigh as he plopped down on the cushion in front of it. He felt more relaxed at home, but the truth was that he hadn't quieted down once since returning to Midorijima.

After keeping Sei in Midorijima General Hospital for almost a month to make sure he could be safely disconnected from his tubes and heal any wounds from it, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. Despite how much Sei had been asking to go home, tired of staying in hospitals and clinics, Aoba convinced him to stay as an impatient at least initially, and then transition to being an outpatient when it was safe.

Now, it had been a week since he had started staying at the Seragaki household and Aoba was glad to see that the home environment was really helping him. It was thanks to his grandmother's connections as a retired medical surgeon that they were able to keep Sei going to a rehabilitation clinic for a reasonable price. Since Sei started coming home, Mizuki had been stuffing himself into Aoba's room too. He'd probably sleep over if the house wasn't so full already.

Sei had his own bedroom, but it was being used by their parents, so he was sleeping on Aoba's bed and Aoba was sleeping on the futon. This small place hadn't been so lively since before their parents left, and now... it was like going back in time. Their grandmother's frown was ever-present and she was always complaining about how her "stupid daughter" still disappeared when it came to house chores or how Aoba kept forgetting to lock the door on his way out, but the faint smile that would sometimes sneak into her features showed how happy she was to see her house brimming with energy once again.

"Sorry, nii-san," Sei said, eyes serious.

"Oh, it's fine, don't worry." Aoba smiled at his brother, and it was sincere. He did nag Mizuki but he was happy that he was so present.

"You stink," Sei remarked bluntly in his next breath, pulling a guffaw from Mizuki.

"Working at the market is really something, huh?" He mused, pushing the red hair away from his eyes before resuming his task on Sei's toenails.

"If I didn't like fish so much I'd never want to see one again," Aoba answered lightly while grabbing his towel and a change of clothes from his wardrobe.

"It'd be hard to never see fish when you live in Japan," Sei muttered, petting Ren's head.

Aoba's subsequent laugh was interrupted by his grandmother's thunderous calling from the kitchen.

"Shit, I have to help Granny with dinner." Aoba was about to run out of the room, but stopped short at the door, turning back to Mizuki and Sei. "You two better finish your thing and come help too! Where did you even get nail polish..."

"Mom and dad aren't here?" Sei asked him.

"Mmm, I think I heard them saying they would visit a friend and come back by dinner."

"Haruka-san is really smart escaping dinner preparations," Mizuki said with a hint of admiration.

Tae yelled from downstairs again and Aoba could almost hear the vein on her temple pulsing from his room.

"Yeah, she is, but you two need to help!"

After a collective sing-songed "yes~" from the couple, Aoba left and slid the door shut behind him, feet pattering towards the kitchen to placate his grandmother before heading to the bathroom.

By the time Aoba was washed up, changed in sweats and, thankfully, smelling like his lemon body soap, Sei and Mizuki were already downstairs. There wasn't much Sei could do in the kitchen, since he was still doing therapy to relearn the finer movements of his hands, but they quickly learned they couldn't just leave him out. On the first day he was back, he had grown antsy and stressed out because they were all working on dinner and he was sitting around doing nothing.

During the first two months Sei stayed in the hospital, he would blow up from time to time, but now that he was more emotionally stable, it hadn't happened in a while. So, it was a big surprise (and fright) when he started crying, and then screaming from the living room when they were in the kitchen. Amazingly, Tae was able to calm him down by talking and regulated his breathing when he looked about to hyperventilate. Both Mizuki and Aoba committed her words and method to memory.

Thus, now, Sei was at the sink, washing vegetables while Mizuki would cut them. When Aoba entered the kitchen, his grandmother immediately hauled his ass to make miso soup and she started grilling the pieces of mackerel. Strategically, their parents showed up fifteen minutes later, complimenting the smell as Aoba was placing the bowls of soup on the table and Sei was grating daikon to put atop the pieces of grilled mackerel.

Granny shot them an ugly look over her shoulder as she flipped the fish on the pan.

"How do you two always show up when most of the work is already done?"

The twins' mother, Haruka, laughed sheepishly. Her long pink hair was braided, flopped delicately over her shoulder.

"Sorry, Tae-san," her husband, Nine, said coolly. The old woman grunted dismissively and turned back to the stove.

"The kitchen is already so full without us, anyway. I wouldn't want to get in the way of the kids' fun," Haruka explained, holding on to Nine's arm.

Despite both of them being over forty now, they didn't look much older than they did when Aoba and Sei were children; perhaps because they were the exact opposite of "sedentary" and had been travelling ever since they left. Leaving aside the deeper lines of expression etched to their brows, eyes and cheeks, they aged very little.

Not even ten minutes later, everything was ready and they sat around the table to eat. They'd be brushing shoulders at the small table these days, occupying it completely from one side to the other. When Sei had shown trouble eating with chopsticks, Aoba immediately suggested they all eat with spoons, confessing he had grown too accustomed to it after living so long in Germany. Therefore, they hadn't been using chopsticks for a week now.

Still, Sei made a habit of having his chopsticks beside his plate and trying to get used to the necessary grip on it. Mizuki smiled as he glanced at Sei, successfully picking up a little block of tofu from his miso soup.

They didn't talk much on the table, except for complimenting the food. Haruka praised her sons for having the cooking talent she lacked and Tae casually asked Aoba about her friends who worked at the market with him. Soon, the food was gone and the kitchen was filled with the dissonant chorus of "gochisousama" and chairs being pushed back. Sei, as always, insisted on washing the dishes and Mizuki accompanied him, telling Tae to rest since she had done most of the work alone.

Aoba was sitting at the kitchen table, making small talk with Mizuki and Sei as he waited for them to finish up when his phone vibrated with a new message.

>> Are you home?

He smiled down at Noiz's text and quickly typed out a reply.

>> Yeah. Just had dinner.

>> I'm free now. Call on Skype?

>> Okay, just a sec ( ^ ^ )

"Mm? What is it?" Mizuki queried, looking over his shoulder when he noticed Aoba's silence.

Aoba motioned with the phone on his hand and got up slowly. "It's Noiz. I'm heading over to my room; call out to me when we need to get Sei upstairs, okay?"

"Oh, alright," Mizuki said before turning back forward, bracing himself to convince Sei for the hundredth time not to be mad about the fact he needed help for that much.

It was the one thing in the house that made Sei's everyday life inconvenient; the stairs, and the fact that his room was on the second floor. They were still working up a way to get around that, but for the time being, it was impossible to make any construction work in the house. Aoba sighed as he climbed up the stairs towards his room.

Noiz picked up his call immediately and Aoba realized he was calling from work. He had never been to his office but that was definitely not the background of Noiz's room.

"What time is it now? Shouldn't you be working?" Aoba laughed, seeing the clarity around Noiz's open, but lazy expression.

"Lunch break," he simply said, briefly lifting a takeout container that had been just out of Aoba's field of vision. "Theo had a lunch meeting today so he couldn't drag me to his favorite risotto restaurant."

"Were you lonely?" Aoba asked with a cheeky grin, cocking his head to the side.

Noiz scoffed. "Just glad to have a time window I can call you."

Aoba blushed, but glared half-heartedly at him. "Theo is worried about you, that's why he makes sure you're eating healthy," he chided.

Noiz rolled his eyes. "It's been months. I already told him it won't happen again and he still won't let up. If I give him a little leeway he'll run with it."

"Did you fight or something?" Aoba asked, unable to hide the concern knitting his brows and seeping into his voice.

Noiz blinked, looking almost surprised. "No, we didn't. It's just... he's been getting more and more fussy. A few days ago, he even asked me whether I had thought of seeing a psychologist." He huffed out a laugh, as if it was preposterous.

"A psychologist?" Aoba asked, carding a hand through his hair absentmindedly and finding a tangle. He clicked his tongue.

"Yeah. It was really out of the blue. Told me there was no shame in it and that he had consulted with one a while ago too."

Aoba stretched a hand to grab his hairbrush atop a stack of magazines beside his desk.

"Is it because of the thing with your mother?"

Noiz sighed, and Aoba could clearly see the tension in his shoulders. "I guess."

Aoba watched the impassiveness growing in Noiz's attitude, visible even through the grainy camera footage.

"... Why don't you do it?" Aoba said easily. "It's not a bad idea."

"'Why'..." Noiz echoed, one eyebrow arched incredulously.

"Mizuki is doing it too, you know."

Noiz frowned, out of confusion rather than irritation. "Mizuki is seeing a psychologist?"

"Yeah. He started because Sei is seeing one and Mizuki wanted to make him feel more comfortable about it, but he did need it too. I think it's really helping him come to terms with... everything that's happened over the past few years. I would give it a try myself, but we are not exactly swimming in money." He smiled bashfully, untangling his hair by brushing it absentmindedly.

"If you want, I-"

"Don't even start," Aoba warned flatly.

Noiz laughed lightly and Aoba followed him, watching the blond relax. While Aoba was relieved, Noiz ignored the longing he felt from something as mundane as seeing Aoba brush his hair.

"It just sounds like too much of a hassle," Noiz said after a while.

Aoba hummed in understanding. "Just think about it."

Noiz nodded at last, and he looked serious. "And how are things going with your family?"

"Things are... progressing slowly," Aoba smiled disconcertingly. "We're holding things up just fine, and Sei is slowly warming up to our parents again. I'm getting used to them too. They're too carefree, but I know they love us and they're good people. It's easy to get angry when they're far away, but impossible when they're here." Aoba laughed lightly. Then, he felt his face heating up as a memory took the forefront of his mind's eye.

"Mmm?" Noiz interjected knowingly, seeing the flush in his face and knowing it had to be something good. Aoba pouted slightly; he meant to tell him anyway, but more casually. Now, he had successfully made a big deal out of it.

"I just... I told Granny about you," he said, barely clear enough for Noiz to catch.

Noiz raised his brows. "What, now?"

Aoba burned redder. "W-well, I just had a lot in my hands! You didn't even know I was here until the start of this month so I waited to tell her, since I wasn't sure how you'd... feel after everything that happened." His voice had dropped down in uncertainty by the end of the sentence.

"You're an idiot."

Aoba huffed indignantly, putting his hairbrush down. "And you're a brat! Point is, I told her I had a boyfriend in Germany and..." He furrowed his brow, looking troubled. "She said 'oh yeah?' and went right back to washing the dishes."

Noiz let out a snort, grinning widely. "I like the sound of your grandmother."

Aoba pouted, but his lips were tugging up in a smile. "Don't you think that's totally insensitive? I was super nervous too!"

"Your grandma didn't know you like men?"

"No."

Noiz scoffed. "Maybe that's just what you think."

"Well, she is almost clairvoyant. But... ah-ahh, that just means I was nervous over nothing."

Noiz chuckled at Aoba's dispirited face as he dropped his head, but he was soon springing back to life.

"Oh, but my parents were eavesdropping and they want to meet you."

"Ahh, the pressure's on now," Noiz deadpanned sarcastically.

Aoba was about to throw a retort when Mizuki called from downstairs.

"That's Mizuki?" Noiz queried.

Aoba started getting up. "Yeah, we have to bring Sei upstairs. Can you wait or...?"

Noiz was looking at something off-screen and smiled lightly. "I still have some time until my break is over."

Aoba grinned brightly at him in response and strode out of Noiz's sight. The thud of the door being closed followed his exit.

Noiz leaned back on his seat, staring at the static image of the room seen through the camera. They didn't talk nearly as much as he'd like, what with their workload and the time difference. But he wouldn't complain; Aoba looked healthier than ever, free of the worries that plagued him when he lived in Berlin. That island is Aoba's home after all, he thought with a rueful smile.

Hearing Aoba's and Mizuki's voices growing closer, Noiz made a mental reminder to at least take a look at some psychologists the next morning.

 


 

As May turned to June, summer started in earnest. The days in Berlin became warmer, but not hotter than Midorijima's summers in Noiz's memories. As consequence for the rising temperature, rainfall increased exponentially too. It wasn't surprising for mornings to be scorching hot and then have torrential rain start in the middle of the afternoon, closing the night in a murky, humid mess.

Meanwhile, Noiz dawdled. Theo gave him the number of the psychologist he saw—amazingly, not once pressuring his older brother into calling fast—and Noiz delayed the call, left the number steeping in his contact list until he knew he was only pretending to ignore it. In fact, the seemingly innocent sequence of numbers burned to a very specific degree on the back of his brain every time he was forced into an interaction with his parents.

After one strained chance meeting with his mother, wherein she tactfully asked about Aoba's well-being, Noiz felt something snap inside him. Not breaking apart in anger, but coming together in a decision. Two weeks into the Cold War with his phone, Noiz called the psychologist's clinic.

"Tomorrow is your birthday, isn't that right?" the doctor asked him, looking at something in her clipboard. It was his third meeting with Dr. Horowitz, a fifty-something woman with a soothing, calm air to her, which did wonders for Noiz's self-preservation instincts.

Noiz nodded with a low hum of confirmation.

"Happy early birthday," she offered kindly. "How do you plan on spending it?"

"I don't really have any plans. Usually I treat it like any other day, but my brother has been counting the days since Monday, so I guess he'll be one person that won't leave me alone."

"No plans to spend it with the rest of your family, then?" she prodded lightly.

Noiz huffed out a laugh. "No way. I had enough of those as a kid."

"What about your mother?"

"I don't think she will insist on seeing me or anything." Noiz shrugged. "She's doing a pretty good work respecting her boundaries. I don't see her a lot, but I'm trying to be a little more conscious of her in a good way. I can't really take her being too overbearing, but..."

The doctor shook her head, smiling softly. "That's okay. Your relationship won't change overnight, and it'd be unhealthy if it did. I'm sure things are progressing slowly for her too."

Three weeks ago, Noiz had come to her clinic with a set goal in mind; he was willing to improve his relationship with his mother. Truthfully, he was going for "cordial"; he had neither the desire nor the intention to become a loving son like Theo. But if there was someone other than his brother in that family who were willing to accept Aoba, Noiz wanted to try making things work. He didn't want that family to be a threat to Aoba again.

Their weekly sessions were usually at 7am, so they finished right when Noiz had to be at work; it was a good thing that her clinic was a stone's throw away from his office. When Noiz arrived to the company that Friday, he was received in Theo's office with the loud declaration that Noiz's birthday would be tomorrow, as if Noiz didn't remember it himself.

"I've already arranged for both of us to have the day off, so no worries!" Theo babbled amidst the jumble of plans he was spouting at his brother during lunch.

"That's not very becoming of a company president," he remarked.

Theo brushed him off dismissively. "The company will survive without us for one Saturday. Nothing big or urgent ever needs our attention on the weekends anyway. That's what being the bosses is good for, right?"

Noiz laughed at Theo's cheeky smile. "That's abuse of power."

"Haha, perhaps... But weather forecast says there's less than five-percent chance of rain tomorrow! We can't possibly lose out on this." He went on and on, and Noiz let him talk.

Honestly, Noiz couldn't imagine how his father could've taken that lightly—and he surely must've heard about Theo taking a day off for both of them. Knowing him, he wouldn't let them skip on work for such a measly excuse, and yet, he hadn't heard a peep from the man.

Noiz shrugged it off in the end; having a day off was something he was never passing on if he could and Theo was right that they didn't have any pressing issues to be looking into for the weekend. He had been working non-stop since returning from London; he could afford to relax.

However, relaxation was not what happened when he woke up to insistent honking in front of his house at the ass-crack of dawn the next morning.

Noiz was nearly trampled over when Agnes and Theo barreled into his home after he opened the door, bleary-eyed and positively crumpled from head to toe. He would've made himself a bit more presentable, but it was already quite a feat that he had cared to put on a bathrobe instead of walking out in his boxers.

"Good morning, sleepy head!" Agnes yelled as she walked in, because that was her thing; yelling in the mornings since no one else with common sense would.

"What have I done to you," Noiz asked flatly.

Theo laughed as he roamed in, right behind Agnes. Both of them were carrying big plastic bags, he realized. She huffed exasperatedly.

"Since you're a sad, sad man that has a total count of four friends and half of those are over the ocean, I accepted Theo's cry for help to give you an awesome birthday!"

"No friends of mine wake me up on a day off at seven o'clock," Noiz grumbled.

"Yes, they do, don't be picky," Agnes chided him.

"We're going to make breakfast now. Come at least make us company in the kitchen, since you're not touching anything at all," Theo announced with a bright smile.

Agnes amended, "Because you're the birthday boy, not because you're a safety hazard in the kitchen, which you are."

Noiz sighed, already exhausted from his exposure to their early morning energy. He didn't even have the energy to ask why exactly Agnes was so certain he was bad at cooking when she had never even seen him picking up a spatula. Noiz followed them to the kitchen and sat at the table as they went around, putting on aprons they had apparently brought over and rummaging through the cupboards.

Agnes sighed wistfully at some point, her back turned to Noiz as she put eggs to boil in a pot. "I really wanted to bring Emilia too, but she said it was impolite to show up at your house uninvited when you're not very familiar with each other."

"You could learn a thing or two from her," Noiz said, properly awake after having slipped out to take a shower and change clothes.

Theo stifled his laugh against his shoulder as he chopped mushrooms on the counter. Agnes turned back to stick her tongue out at Noiz before turning her attention back to the hard-boiled eggs.

It was a fact that every time Theo was cooking, he went overboard. But Agnes' company might've just made things worse. By the time they were finished, there wasn't enough space in the table anymore. Besides the customary coffee, juice, baskets of bread and toppings like jam and butter, there was a small cake with a single candle on top, ham rolls with sauerkrat, omelets and he didn't know when they had done it, but there were even strawberry crêpes on the table.

"You two really overdid it," Noiz remarked as Theo shoved the food they couldn't fit on the table into Noiz's fridge, putting some plates in a plastic wrap before putting them in.

"It's fine, it's fine, you can just eat the rest later," Agnes cooed, waving her hand.

"You'll need lots of energy because we're dragging you around with us for lots of fun!" Theo chirped, closing the fridge door and cleaning his hands.

Noiz groaned.

The two aspiring cooks untied their aprons and left them on the counter. While Theo busied himself lighting up the candle, Agnes threw an arm around Noiz's shoulders and put a party hat on his head. Noiz flinched as the elastic cord snapped on his skin.

"Now, let's sing happy birthday and dig in!"

Noiz groaned again as the other two started clapping and singing, but the situation was so ridiculous he felt laughter bubbling in his chest.

 


 

"Aren't you happy now, that we stuffed ourselves up with food earlier?" Theo asked as they walked around the shopping mall.

Noiz blinked, frowning slightly. "I'm... not really, I'm getting tired from walking so much and I'm pretty sure Agnes is just buying things for herself instead of getting gifts."

Theo laughed as Agnes returned to their side with a new shopping bag hanging from her arm, in addition to the other three. "Hey, sorry! I just had to go into that store..."

"It's okay," Theo said breezily.

"Is it okay for us to be in a shopping mall so close to the company?" Noiz asked, looking around the shop's displays.

Theo snorted. "Of course it is, Wim. It's not like we called in sick or something- Ah." He took his phone out of his pocket and raised his hand to them, asking the two to wait as he jogged to a quieter corner of the area with the phone held to his ear.

Noiz caught a glimpse of Theo's serious face as he walked away. He sighed. "The more I think about it, I realize it was probably a bad idea for us to skip work today."

Agnes rolled her eyes. They leaned side by side against a wall, waiting for Theo to finish talking on the phone. "For someone so lazy, I didn't expect you to be so diligent with work."

Noiz glared at her half-heartedly and she laughed.

"Besides, we're already halfway through the afternoon. Too late for regrets, mm?" She said with a lopsided smile.

"Sorry, had to get this call," Theo said sheepishly, coming back to them.

"That's alright," Agnes assured him.

Noiz pushed off the wall. "How long are we going to walk around, anyway? We've been here since lunch."

"Naggy~" Agnes cooed.

Theo chuckled. "No, I guess he's right. I'm getting a bit sick of the ruckus here, and we bought quite a lot already. Let's go."

Agnes whined but it was a lost debate. They took the elevator to the ground floor and soon, they were getting into Theo's car in the garage and leaving the shopping mall.

"Agnes," Theo called from the driver's seat, the street's view passing by their windows smoothly.

"Mm?" she answered lightly from the back seat.

"Do the thing."

"Aye!"

Noiz furrowed his brow in confusion. "Wait, wha— !?"

Agnes' hands came from behind his head and put a cloth over his eyes. Noiz tried to turn his head towards Theo but Agnes pushed his chin back forward with a click of her tongue.

"Oi, Theo-"

"Shhh."

Noiz ignored Agnes' shushing and continued, "Don't tell me you're dragging me to some birthday surprise party or something."

"It's not a surprise if I tell you about it!" Theo trilled, chipper.

Agnes fastened the blindfold on the back of his head and Noiz huffed. If Theo took him to their parents' place, he would take a car from the manor and leave in the next second.

That's what he told himself, but under five minutes, he heard the car come to a stop. Noiz frowned, turning his head to the sides as he heard the back seat door being opened. Before he could open his mouth to ask what was happening, his seatbelt was sliding off him with a soft hiss against fabric and he was being pulled out of the car.

The door shut smoothly somewhere behind him and Noiz staggered slightly, lost without his vision. "Where are-"

"Bye bye, Noiz~" Agnes sang behind him and, to his surprise, he only heard a door being shut—most likely Agnes'.

"You can take off the blindfold in five seconds, Wim. Call us later!" Theo called, clearly still inside the car.

"Oi, what are you-"

Noiz heard the engine rumbling and the car speeding away before he managed to finish his sentence. He sighed heavily—what the hell were those two up to?

He pulled the blindfold off his eyes and over his head, blinking at the brightness of the scenery. As his eyes got used to the lighting, he walked off the sidewalk and onto the graveled path parting freshly cut grass. The tall trees rustled its deep-green leaves in the wind, towering with bishop's weed circling its trunk. The flower beds surrounding the park were even more colorful than the last time Noiz had been there, sided with full, green shrubs.

Behind the sculpture of a woman, its dancing figure decorating the center of the park's fountain, Noiz was just barely able to see a head of blue hair and shoulders leaned back on the bench's rest. Like an image burned in his retina, he could see the same silhouette sitting on a different bench, with a McDonald's bag beside him and rabbit on his lap, orange leaves scattered in the grass around his feet. A brilliant smile in the dim light of the park, shimmering tears.

With bated breath, Noiz rounded the fountain, passing the bench where his life took a twist almost eight months ago. It hadn't been a lurching twist, but a slow turn; the beginning of a long process, a build-up of puzzle pieces falling haphazardly but finding their place sooner or later. A picture that wasn't finished—wouldn't ever be and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Hey," Aoba greeted him when Noiz stopped in front of his bench.

His deep-blue hair was longer than Noiz had realized in their video calls, hazel eyes nearly sparkling like the rocks in the bottom of a clear river. Aoba's cheeks were pink, plump with the bright smile that was stretched in his face. Noiz couldn't help but see the juxtaposition between now and the night they first met. He was beautiful even that night, and now he looked livelier under the mild sunlight.

"Hey," Noiz answered after what was probably an embarrassingly long pause. His throat felt dry—forty-years-wandering-the-desert dry.

 "Happy birthday." Aoba's smile was quickly turning cheeky as he saw Noiz's face filling with color and his inability to look away from his face.

"Thank you. You... even though we didn't get to spend yours together..."

Aoba laughed lightly, and Noiz was completely gone. It was quite a feat that his face remained straight.

"What's important is that I'm here now, right?" He got up and that's when Noiz saw.

In Aoba's arms, there was a small white rabbit with floppy ears, tips colored grey just like its twitchy nose. Noiz nearly gaped as Aoba walked up to him and motioned it to him, prompting Noiz to raise his arms so Aoba could safely put the bunny in his hold.

"Where did this come from?" Noiz asked, voice not giving off half of his surprise as he held the rabbit securely.

Aoba gave the tiniest grin and went on in a secretive tone. "I guess you didn't know, but Clear actually has a rabbit. She had her first litter around my birthday and he wanted to give me one, but I had a better idea. So this is for your birthday instead." Aoba's smile broadened, eyes pinching shut.

Noiz opened his mouth.

"I don't know how to raise rabbits," he admitted, and Aoba laughed heartily.

The bunny shifted slightly in Noiz's arms as Aoba leaned in, pressing his lips against Noiz's. It was nothing but a short brush and slide between the two, but Noiz's breath rushed out of his half-open lips, feeling goosebumps prickling up his arms.

"It's okay," Aoba said, hands on each side of Noiz's jaw as they parted, foreheads still touching. "We can learn together."

Together. The sound of that word struck a chord in Noiz's heart, even though it was hardly the first time he heard it. The old vowels and consonants were made new in Aoba's voice as it was whispered like a secret to him. Like a promise, personal and unique, made only for the two of them to keep.