Disclaimer: Standard disclaimers apply. Love Mode and all its characters belong to Shimizu Yuki-sensei.

Spoilers: All the way up till Vol 11. Worksafe.

Characters/Pairing(s): Reiji (pre-Naoya)/Shiki, Haruomi/Kiichi, Shuuhei

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The moment was finally here. Again.

To lose everything he had all at the same time, like he did three summers ago, Aoe Reiji did not think there was a person in the world other than himself who could still see beyond the blackness of his own reality and still pretend he was unchanged. All his youth, he had been denied nothing, save for the thing he most yearned for. Living under the pretense that the sprawling Aoe mansion was a haven instead of a prison his brother had been more accustomed to, there was yet a void in his heart he could not seem to fill-all the women he bedded, the men he befriended; all were merely playthings whose only purpose in life was to make him feel even more alone.

He thought New York was his answer. Broadway. Should be able to teach him a few things, he had thought. Life, as they say, is a play after all. A stage.

He roamed the streets of the Big Apple aimlessly, scouring the endless avenues which did not look the same only if he had had enough sleep, searching for any form of release from the looming shadows of the shackles bound to find their way to his wrists sooner or later.

When you're anonymous in the middle of the Times Square with a million people walking past you in every colour and size, are you still anonymous?

Not when Aoe Shougo was your playwright.

Running away simply was never part of the storyline, something he had to learn the hard way.

He found what he was looking for in England instead. Interesting how a string of unfortunate events could lead to a fateful meeting that would tear such a big fragment of the pathetic excuse of a life he had so painstakingly patched up in his haste to grow up, into shreds.

Come June, come July, as the day grew near, the summer sun would often visit with a gift, not wholeheartedly accepted, but welcomed nonetheless. And now he was dreaming again.

He welcomed the dream, for it was often the only company he could bear to spend any time at all with. In the dream, the play always went his way, and in the dream, it always ended the same way.

It always ended with him waking up in bed all alone, his fingers vainly grasping the bedsheet by his side for any remnant of warmth, of sweet intoxication of the night before, only to find himself grasping empty air. Then he would touch his face reverantly where he could still feel the long silky strands tickle his senses, a sweet, musky scent he had come to forget but would know anywhere.

It always ended with him whispering a name, a name he could shamelessly call and scream and shout as loudly as he wanted to in sleep, but scarcely bring himself to say in wake.

He never wanted the dream to end. But it did anyway. Three years ago.

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"You're getting thin," Kiichi commented at dinner that night. "If you're having trouble fending for yourself living alone, you know you are more than welcome to come back and live with us."

Reiji watched pensively as Haruomi ladled some soup into his bowl. "No offense, but that thought has never once crossed my mind."

Kiichi raised a delicate eyebrow. "Fair enough. The house is too big for just the three of us, is all." A slight upturning of the lips. "Too many ghosts."

Reiji was silent. Even Haruomi's eyes were downcast.

Kiichi studied his brother whom he had not seen in weeks. "Shuuhei told me you've not been going home. That you're spending way too much time at the office."

Reiji felt a pang of annoyance. His Kashima should stop telling the whole world every bloody detail of his life. Kiichi saw his face change and was quick to wave his hand dismissively. "Don't fire the boy just yet. I asked."

Ah. He should have known. Birds would migrate to the North Pole in summer if Kiichi were to have his way.

"It's the peak season. You know how it is."

"And yet you have cancelled quite a number of important meetings with your clients, apparently for no obvious reason."

A vein throbbed in Reiji's temple.

"He's just looking out for you. He was afraid you were going to make yourself sick."

"Kid should mind his own business. As should you."

Haruomi only listened half-heartedly as he tried to coax Kiichi into taking another helping of rice. He was not eating enough. No one in the Aoe family was eating enough. Good thing Kiichi was too distracted to notice the extra piece of chicken he had smuggled onto his plate, hidden beneath the mound of rice, which Kiichi probably was not going to touch anyway for he apparently was not done with the argument.

"You do know that sharing your feelings with another person is the key to a good relationship, right?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Reiji, it's obvious that something is bothering you. Now why don't you be a good little brother and just spill?" Kiichi leaned forward eagerly. "I, your Great Onii-sama, will personally see to it that whatever it is troubling you so, would trouble you no more."

Reiji only snorted. He calmly sipped another spoonful of soup. He had long since perfected the art of blanking (his brother), but it was no easy task though, at first. After all, this is Kiichi we're talking about.

"-whatever it is troubling you so, would trouble you no more."

Oh how he wished it was that simple. But if wishes were trees...Reiji would have an arboretum by now. And a personal gardener.

Kiichi must have sniffed out his skepticism, because his eyes instantly narrowed. "Is it The Blue Boy? Have you been working too hard?" The elder Aoe brother sighed. "Yes, we both know managing the family business is not one of my strong points, assuming I even have any, but if it's too much for you..."

Now it was Reiji's turn to sigh. "Kiichi."

"Hmm?"

"To quote the mother we never had, be quiet and eat. Your food's getting cold."

Kiichi grimaced. "You want to know what's cold? You."

"So I've been told."

"Hey, it rhymes! 'Cold', 'told'. Haha!" Kiichi gave him a sunny smile, his eyes disappearing behind his glasses.

"Oh my God are you twelve?"

Kiichi pouted. "I don't like you tonight, Reiji."

"Kiichi, I don't like you. Period."

Kiichi tsk-tsked. "That's what I get for showing a little concern. I just thought we needed to talk, that's all."

"Talk?"

"Yes, talk. A bit more."

Reiji frowned. "Why? I am comfortable with the way things are. I thought you were too."

Kiichi was quiet for a second. Reiji noted he had already pushed his dinner plate away, barely touched.

"I was." Reiji could see Kiichi was serious. There was no laughter in the eyes staring at him from behind the gleaming titanium frames. Only what he could interpret as the thing called accusation.

"You and I talk," Reiji argued, but it was a battle he knew he was losing even before it started.

"There is a difference between 'talk' and 'communicate'," Kiichi said calmly. "Neither of which we have done much of...ever since he-died."

He?

A long-haired apparition, an enchanting spectre all bonnet and billowing skirt and parasol, a sexually ambiguous vision of beauty and masculinity danced in front of his eyes.

Reiji blanched.

"And you were made to carry all the burden alone."

Oh. That him.

The familiar laughter, boisterous and merry, the laughter he would never ever hear again, tinkled in his ear.

Oh Kiichi. Why this? Why tonight?

"I'm worried about you, Reiji," Kiichi said sincerely.

"There is nothing to worry about," he mumbled. "I'm fine."

Kiichi stared at his brother for a long time. A cry for help. Everything about Reiji was screaming for it, but as much as Kiichi wanted to come to his aid, he absolutely had no idea where to start. He finally sighed.

"I'm done, Haruomi." Kiichi rose and left the table, leaving his overflowing plate untouched, the extra piece of chicken Haruomi had so painstakingly hidden, undiscovered.

Too absorbed in his own reverie, Reiji did not even so much as look up.

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"Cancel it."

"Demo, Owner..."

"What now? Go on and tell on me all you want. I don't care," Reiji said tiredly. The stifling heat of July was atrocious; his air-conditioned office offering no release whatsoever from the stagnant stench of summer.

Giku! Caught! Shuuhei flustered, but was quick to regain his composure. He cleared his throat.

"This is the third time you've rescheduled the meeting with our auditors. The board of directors will not be pleased."

"Screw them." Reiji distractedly thumbed through a new stack of invoices. "If they have time to complain then they have time to get off their arses and take some of this load off my hands."

Shuuhei had to contain his exasperation, but it was barely-concealed at best. "Owner," he began. "I may have imagined it all, but I seem to remember you deliberately declining the board members' generous offer of an all-expenses-paid vacation to any destination of your choice-"

"The same reason why you declined my offer to take time off work."

Shuuhei's face was grave. "Today is just another day. Sir."

Reiji studied his personal assistant in wonder. "You're taking this pretty calmly."

"Father is not coming back, regardless of my working hours."

A heavy silence fell over the room. "I don't know what to say to that," Reiji told his Kashima the truth.

Shuuhei was quiet for a while, but he finally shook his head, "It really doesn't matter, Owner." He mustered a brave smile. "Shall I get you your coffee?"

"If you want to kill me, please do," Reiji said viciously, loosening his tie. The heat was driving him insane.

Shuuhei grinned. "Some juice it is, then." He excused himself, and at long last, Reiji was finally alone.

He had left the Aoe mansion last night right after dinner and ended up sleeping at his desk in the office. Now his head was aching, along with everything else. Reiji rested his head against the plush cushion of his leather chair tiredly.

If he could just close his eyes for one second...

The drone of the air-conditioner buzzed in his ear.

If he could just shut down for a bit...

Gentle fingers threaded through his hairline, their feathery tips resting on his pounding temples, ice-cold to the touch.

Then perhaps the dream would come again.

The as if on their own volition, the fingers began to work, moving in circular motion, skilled and precise, kneading just the right spot, pressing on where it ached the most. They travelled down to the back of his neck, icy and inviting against his hot skin. Reiji almost groaned in pleasure, involuntarily, unconsciously dropping his head forward to allow those wonderful fingers full access to his screaming muscles.

The massage worked its magic from the base of his skull down to the back of his shoulder blades. And it felt so, so good...

"If it's painful, say it's painful." The dream voice said.

"Hmm," he murmured. "Shiki..."

The fingers stopped.

His eyes flew open.

And suddenly he was not alone anymore. There was someone else in the office. Standing right behind him.

His face drained of colour. Reiji pried the hands off his shoulders and twirled around, his heart hammering in his chest.

Shiki?

The blood rushed back to his head, and his vision cleared-

And there he stood, the devil incarnate himself, in an impeccable grey suit and expensive loafers, and not a hair out of place.

"You look like you've just seen a ghost."

"Making house calls now, Kiichi?" Reiji cleared his throat loudly, barely keeping his temper in check. He was still badly rattled from the half-dream, not to mention the sudden intrusion of his privacy. Kiichi had better explain himself.

Kiichi only smiled kindly. "You look tired, Reiji. You need a break."

"I don't need anyone to tell me what I need and do not need."

Kiichi tsk-tsked. "And here I caught you dreaming of the four seasons just a second ago."

Reiji frowned.

"Look, I think your grumpiness is cute and all, but please, take a look at what I brought you." Kiichi tossed a sealed folder onto the table. When Reiji made no move to open it, Kiichi rolled his eyes. "Humour me, will you? Your big brother came to pay you a visit and you sit there like an idiot. Open the bloody thing."

Reiji sighed, and obliged. "I'm going to dedicate my first grey hair to you, just so you know." Kiichi merely laughed.

Brochures. Reservation confirmation letters. VIP passes.

"All paid for. My treat. We leave tonight."

"You're taking me to the-beach?" Reiji frowned.

"A little sun, a little sea-it's good for you."

"Tonight."

"Well, once you get off work of course. Which is anytime you feel like it." Kiichi gave him a sunny smile. "The convertible's back from repairs, so we can take that-"

"I'm not going."

"Eh?" A frown.

"I do not wish to go. And that is final."

"Come now, Reiji, a little time off is not going to bankrupt you," Kiichi wheedled.

"Serves you right for making plans for me without consulting me first. I'm sure that breaches some sort of professional conduct you doctors live by. Is it not part of your job description to always obtain consent from your patients before doing anything to them?"

Kiichi feigned professional ignorance instead. "How is that relevant to the situation at hand?"

If looks could kill...Kiichi would not have even been alive to start this stupid argument in the first place.

Reiji's fingers and lungs itched for a gasper.

"Give me one good reason why you won't come with me."

Reiji shook his head and merely started writing something, pretending to be busy just for the sake of pretending, hoping his brother would take the hint and leave. But Kiichi did nothing of the sort.

"Reiji!" If Kiichi started stomping his feet anytime now, he would not be surprised.

"You know why," Reiji mumbled, hiding his face behind his bangs.

"Because it's his death anniversary?" Kiichi's voice had taken on a shrill note.

When Reiji didn't answer, Kiichi became even more heated. "Are you mourning his passing for real, or is this just for show?"

Mourning. Mourning was something he had never quite succeeded at quitting. He hoped Kiichi would be satisfied with a white lie for now. "I have been told to expect some people who are coming to pay their respects. Someone needs to be here, on behalf of the Aoe house."

The glint in Kiichi's eyes was every bit as biting as his next words, but his casual, gentle tone toned them down, albeit only slightly. "To think you had to resort to putting on airs, Reiji-I didn't know you cared so much about what other people think."

Reiji slammed his expensive fountain pen down onto the table, splattering droplets of black rain all over the pristine white writing pad. "And you? Why are you so eager to get away all of a sudden? Why on this day every year?"

Kiichi threw his shoulders back. "Because it's my annual leave, and I intend to enjoy it."

"Then enjoy it. Just leave me out of it." Reiji made a sweeping gesture at the paperwork on his desk. His annoyance managed to get the better of him, and before he knew it, the sneer had passed his lips. "If you haven't noticed, I am not so free. I have no such thing as 'leaves'. You of all people should know."

Kiichi's face changed.

Reiji's heart skipped. Oh fuck-

I am not so free.

Kiichi's throat felt tight all of a sudden. Ah. So it is.

"Kiichi-" Reiji started.

"I see." Kiichi finally blinked. He conferred his brother a broad smile, but to a trained eye, it would have looked utterly false.

Reiji attempted to say something else, but Kiichi was already heading for the door, his stride stiff and jerky. "I apologize for dropping in so suddenly. I'll leave you alone now."

Kiichi...

"Call me if you need anything." The door slammed shut.

A hand slowly reached up to rest on his forehead. The migraine was back.

"Damn it," he whispered. "Damn it all to hell."

Why didn't he tell Kiichi the truth? The truth wouldn't have said such cruel things.

The look on Kiichi's face...Reiji gave himself a mental shake, trying to erase the image from his already troubled mind.

Kiichi meant well, there was no doubt about that. It was just...

He had his own reasons, personal reasons, too private to even share with his brother.

It had never been brought into the open, an issue the Aoe brothers prefered to lock away at the back of their minds for no amount of pondering and regretting is worth the heartache and pain if it were to be openly revisited in any of their frequent yet occasional conversations. They were the only ones left, and it was with unspoken understanding that each brother accepted the way of life Aoe Shougo had chosen for them even in death. No blames, no arguments, just acceptance.

It was not Kiichi's fault.

He had once told Shiki: Never make fun of people who are truly worried about you.

Guess even Aoe Reiji forgot his own advice sometimes.

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Haruomi settled quietly onto the sand half a foot away from him, close enough for him to feel the body heat emanating from the one and only person in the world who did not seem to mind being in his company right now.

How cruel Kiichi was. Caging Haruomi in his lonely, lonely world. A place of no respite, a place where love budded perhaps only by chance. Serendipity was a precious commodity in a world where true happiness held no meaning. He had known that for a long time.

That was why he refused to fall back onto Haruomi's waiting arms, to lose himself in an embrace he knew would always be there, as he would have normally done.

Haruomi waited for what felt like hours. The playful Kiichi he knew would have snuggled against him the moment he sat down. Especially in a romantic setting such as this, the North Star but a twinkling jewel in the midst of millions of others, with not a cloud in sight to mask the silhouette of the moon reflected across the water in an uneven tier of glistening daubs.

He stared at the stiff curve of Kiichi's back, the tightness of his body, only thinly wrapped in a flimsy silk robe. He must be freezing to death.

For a physician, Kiichi sure knew how to dress for the cold, he thought crossly. Or perhaps staying warm was indeed the last thing on the doctor's mind.

Haruomi waited still. But Kiichi did not so much as budge. The only thing restraining Haruomi from wrapping his arms around the shivering frame was the silent understanding that Kiichi's strange behaviour warranted a show of wariness, not to mention some carefully-worded probing. He did not want to upset Kiichi further.

When he was finally sure Kiichi was really just ignoring him and feigning oblivion to his presence, Haruomi reached out to caress the back of his neck. "Kiichi."

Kiichi closed his eyes as Haruomi's long fingers gently traced an ascending trail up the back of his neck, resting at the base of his skull. Haruomi marvelled at the glossy strands of black silk bunched in his rough, calloused hand. How very fine it was, Kiichi's hair.

"Kiichi..."

"Hmm?"

"It's late. Will you come inside? You're going to catch a cold."

"Hmm."

Haruomi leaned forward and boldly planted a trail of kisses down Kiichi's cervical spine, very aware that he was making Kiichi shiver even more.

"What are you thinking about?"

As if Kiichi had anticipated the question all along, he answered right away.

"Everything. Nothing." Crisp, contrite.

"Can you think inside? It is going to be trouble to move you once your turn into ice." Haruomi attempted a humorless joke.

"Just a bit longer, Haruomi. It's alright. It's Reiji's beach anyway," Kiichi said lightly.

Haruomi forgot to blink for a second. He never would have expected such an answer; Kiichi's nonchalance was but a poor attempt at disguising the bitterness he was feeling inside, and Haruomi felt like gutting himself for not realizing it sooner. He let his hand, balled into a fist, drop onto the sand.

Kiichi sighed. Propping one elbow on his knee, he rested his forehead in the palm of his hand, the cool night breeze breathing sand and salt into his face, his hair; but the ache in his heart? It was all his to bear. "I'm sorry for making you come with me, Haruomi."

Haruomi closed in the distance between them, but was careful not to touch Kiichi. My place is here with you, he answered silently.

"So selfish sometimes, am I not?" A bitter smile. "We lost our fathers both at the same time. I'm sure he meant a lot to you."

So do you.

Haruomi traced something on the sand with his index finger absently, but the wind took the message away with it even before he could make out what he'd actually written

"You should be home. With your family."

"Here, or back in Tokyo, it doesn't matter where I am."

Kiichi frowned. "Do you not believe family should come first, Haruomi?"

I saw what yours did to you.

"We are family only in name." It was true. The Kashimas may have taken him under their wings as how the late Aoe Shougo had decreed, but there were only two people in this world whom he cherished more than life itself. One of them he thought he had lost forever but later found as how fate had wanted it, the other...was sitting right in front of him.

Kiichi had barely spoken a word to anybody ever since he left The Blue Boy that afternoon. Even their five-hour journey here had been tense, silent. Reiji was supposed to come, that was part of the plan. But when Haruomi saw Kiichi walk out the office alone, somewhat stone-faced, he knew the plan had backfired.

He did not know what Reiji had said to Kiichi to upset him so, and although it was killing him to be in the dark, he knew better than to ask. "You know he would have come if he could. Reiji must have had his reasons."

"I don't want to talk about it."

Haruomi's heart sank. Frustrated, he knew he had to leave. Kiichi needed to be alone.

"Do you need anything?" Anything. Company. A blanket. Hot tea, anything. Just...let there be something.

Kiichi frowned. What I need...

"What I need...isn't here, Haruomi."

Haruomi hung his head low.

To each of them, the tragedy held diffferent meaning. Kashima Yukihiko was as good a foster father as Haruomi had expected him to be. Not that he was expecting very much, never having one all his life. Corrupted, yes. But he was a good man. His passing was unfortunate. His death had not done Haruomi enough good nor bad for him to romanticise it any other way.

As for Kiichi...he was one of the first few who flew to the crash site that fateful night and the world saw how devastated he was when the search team failed to recover his father's body. Devastated for all the wrong reasons. How Shougo could still mock him even in death, to deny him that one morsel of satisfaction, of triumph, to know that the son of a bitch was truly dead, and he was alive.

For Kiichi, Shougo's death meant freedom.

For Reiji...chains.

Perhaps it was a mistake to even think for one second Reiji would rejoice in the celebration of the bastard's death. Perhaps this was another one of his selfish schemes to satiate his own need to feel close to the only family he had left, his little brother.

You fool, Kiichi berated himself. You self-absorbed fool.

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"Reiji." Despite his surprise, their esteemed housekeeper did not appear to be the least bit perturbed to see him standing at the door.

"Okairi-nasai mase, Owner," Shuuhei quipped as he stepped into the light of the garage. Reiji tossed him the car keys. Haruomi stepped aside to let the master of the house in, his face unreadable as usual, but he offered to take Reiji's outer coat at the very least.

"We were not expecting you." His brother's Kashima eyed him curiously. "Kiichi would have mentioned something if he knew you were coming home for the weekend. Or are you here to just pick something up?"

Reiji's mouth felt dry. In normal times he would not have felt the slightest bit compelled to explain himself to anyone.

"I'm here to-" apologize, He almost said, but caught himself in time. "-have dinner. And sleep. The apartment's too hot." He fumbled with the lie clumsily, but maintained his composure.

"I trust you and Kiichi had a good time?" He asked, eyeing the Kashima's lightly-tanned skin.

"Yes." Haruomi's posture was stiff as he proceeded with the serving of dinner. Reiji had long since acknowledged Haruomi's importance in the household, even thought of him as kin, and it was obvious from his stiff posture and formal, monosyllabic answers that Haruomi was far from pleased with him.

Reiji winced inwardly. He wondered if Kiichi had told him what happened. But even if Kiichi hadn't, Haruomi would have figured out for himself.

"Will you be taking a shower first, Reiji-sama?" Shuuhei walked in with an armful of clean bath robe and towel.

"Hmm." Reiji dropped onto the antique rocking chair in the middle of the living room, noticing Kiichi's glasses on the side table. He wondered if his brother would be glad to see him. "Is Kiichi in the bath?"

Shuuhei nodded.

Reiji took a deep breath. "No, that's alright. I'll just shut my eyes here for a while. Wake me up once Kiichi's done and we can have dinner together."

"Hai!"

Reiji smiled to himself. Kiichi had not sounded angry when he called him this morning to ask about the trip, deliberately leaving his plan to come home tonight out of the conversation. He knew Kiichi always looked forward to having dinner together with him so perhaps this time, he should surprise him with an unexpected visit-and an apology.

But for now...he cracked a large yawn.

It felt as if he had only closed his eyes for fifteen seconds when something, someone jerked him awake-

"Reiji-sama! Nii-san!" A shrill cry cut through the stillness of the night; piercing, alarming-

"Reiji-sama!" Reiji lifted his head just as the younger Kashima threw the door open, his eyes immediately narrowing. He ignored Haruomi who had just entered the dining room from the kitchen upon hearing his brother's panicked cries-

"What is it, Shuuhei?" He growled, more than a little annoyed. Apparently, a quiet, peaceful doze in his own house was too much to ask.

Shuuhei was still breathing laboriously but there was a wild look in his eyes Haruomi had never seen before; he took hold of his brother's arm. "Shuuhei?"

"Nii-san!" Shuuhei released his death grip on the door knob and seized Haruomi's elbow instead with a stinging ferocity. "Kiichi-sama-!"

Kiichi? "What is it?" Haruomi pressed.

"You have to come! Kiichi-sama, he-"

A chair scraped noisily across the floor.Reiji scrambled away from the table and grabbed Shuuhei's other arm, almost stumbling when Shuuhei hastily started pulling on them.

"What happened, Shuuhei? What about Kiichi?" Has his brother been kidnapped again? Or worse? "Tell me!"

"I was walking past Kiichi-sama's his room but there was no answer to the door, and I thought he's been in the bath for a long time, so I looked in the bathroom-" Shuuhei babbled breathlessly, totally unaware that Reiji, whom he had served since Kashima Yukihiko died, he had never even so much as touched before. Now Shuuhei was clutching his arm so tight it was almost painful.

"I think Kiichi-sama has fallen in the bathroom!"

Reiji's face paled. His eyes met Haruomi's, and he saw a similar glimpse of confusion and fear in them. Haruomi grabbed Shuuhei's shoulder and twirled him around roughly.

"How badly?"

"I don't know-I looked through the glass and he was lying on the floor, and-and he wasn't moving-"

Reiji broke into a run, with Haruomi in hot pursuit, and as their footsteps thundered down the corridor all Reiji could think of were Kiichi's drowning games; how he would hold his breath underwater, sometimes for longer than necessary. That used to scare the hell out of him. But this time, there was a strange feeling in his gut. This was not another one of Kiichi's never fortuitous attempts to escape the hellish golden cage he had come to accept as his life.

"Kiichi!" Reiji's knees slammed down against the hard cobble flooring of the exquisitely furnished bathroom; Haruomi crouched anxiously next to Kiichi's prone, half-naked body, his heart hammering in his chest at the sight of one closed eye, long lashes lying against a pale, pale cheek, the other side of the face ominously hidden, pressed against the cold, hard floor-

Haruomi's hands reached out hesitantly, fearfully, afraid that even the slightest touch would hurt Kiichi more. He couldn't even tell if Kiichi was breathing.

It was with gratitude that Reiji noted the towel Shuuhei must have hastily covered the lower half of Kiichi's body before he started hollering his head off for help, and carefully he laid a hand on his brother's bare shoulder, wincing at the icy skin under his touch. Kiichi must have already been out of the water for quite a while before Shuuhei found him.

"Kiichi." A little shake. "Kiichi!"

With more ease than Reiji would have expected but was overwhelmingly relieved at nonetheless, an eyelid fluttered open. "Kiichi, are you alright?"

Kiichi's forehead furrowed slightly. His mouth worked but for a second, no sound emanated from his dry throat. "Rei...ji...?" On his other side, Haruomi grabbed his cold hand, knowing Kiichi couldn't see him, but wanting Kiichi to know he was there anyway.

Reiji nodded. "I'm here."

"W-Where am I?" Kiichi whispered, his lips a pale, bluish colour. "C-cold..."

Without looking, Reiji reached backward and groped for a towel off the bench behind him. He used it to cover his brother's shivering body. "What happened? Did you faint?"

"Faint?" Kiichi closed his eyes again. "I-I don't think so..." A dry cough. "I must have slipped..."

Reiji frowned. "Does it hurt anywhere?"

"I'm a little...dizzy...But I'll be okay-"

Kiichi tried to lift his head, but a heavy hand atop the back of his head stopped him. "Haruomi?"

Reiji's face, full of concern a moment ago, was unreadable. He shook his head. "You shouldn't move. You could have hit your head. Shuuhei, call an ambulance."

Kiichi started to protest. "No ambu-"

"Kiichi, be quiet!" Reiji barked suddenly. Kiichi froze.

Reiji's head snapped up, his eyes flashing as he glowered at Shuuhei who was kneeling a feet away. "Didn't you hear me? Go!"

Albeit a little startled himself, Haruomi simply gave his foster brother a knowing look. The younger Kashima knew he needed not be told twice and quickly excused himself, slipping out the bathroom with haste.

His protests dying down, Kiichi's eyes consequently met Reiji's reluctant gaze. Dazed as he was, his perceptiveness was rivalled by no other. He chose to obey his brother, not just because of the monstrous headache hammering in his head, but also...what was he was seeing in Reiji's eyes? He saw concern. Worry.

Panic too, but that was probably just his imagination. Reiji's heart was made of steel, as was his, most of the time.

And something else.

Fear.

"Reiji, blue really doesn't suit you. You can breathe, really," Kiichi quipped weakly.

The longest seconds passed before Reiji finally tore his gaze away, his teeth clenched together so tightly his jawbones protruded white against his skin. He had long since learnt to steel himself against such invasion, such threat to his privacy, his inner thoughts, that his brother's penetrating looks often posed. But this time perhaps, Kiichi saw too much.

He swallowed hard.

Oh God. Dear God. It was all happening again.

"Where the hell is the ambulance!"

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An hour later, Kiichi was resting in a private room at the hospital, sporting an angry-looking welt the size of a golf ball on one side of his forehead, which was already on its way to become a festive medley of purple, blue and black.

"How are you feeling, Aoe-sensei?"

"I'm feeling just fine," Kiichi stressed for what felt like the hundredth time that night.

Reiji just glared at him. "Like hell you are."

Dr Saionji eyed the emesis basin which appeared to have been hastily shoved under the bed. Guiltily Kiichi gave his younger co-worker a sheepish smile. "Maybe just a little sick to my stomach, Saionji-kun."

Dr Saionji used his penlight to check Kiichi's pupillary reflex again. "That was quite a nasty fall you took. How's the headache?"

"It's go-" Kiici's lips worked soundlessly around the half-lie, but decided he could not win with Reiji glaring at him like that. "It's still there. If this is what a concussion feels like, I don't think I'd want to stick around for much longer. What do the scans show?"

"Well, the good news is, there is no sign of skull fracture on plain X-ray-"

"Well, that's all very good. That means I can go home."

"However I am a little concerned about the headache and nausea so-"

"It's really not all that bad..."

"We need to keep you under observation, sensei, you know that. Someone will be over shortly to take you to radiology for an emergency CT-"

"I don't need a CT," Kiichi insisted. "I feel fine."

"Just do as the doctor says, Kiichi," Reiji spoke through gritted teeth, clearly agitated.

Dr Saionji smiled apologetically as the fight finally left him and Kiichi slumped back against the mountain of pillows, clearly unhappy at the thought of spending a night at the hospital. He surreptitiously eyed the monitor by his side.

He stared unblinkingly at the screen for a few seconds before shooting Dr Saionji a questioning glance. Knowingly, the younger doctor nodded and cleared his throat before addressing Reiji and Haruomi politely. "Aoe-sama, Kashima-san."

"Could you two gentlemen leave us for a while?" Grim-faced, the doctor held out a hand toward the door. "There's a few things I need to discuss with Aoe-sensei alone. I hope that's alright."

"What things?" Reiji spoke up, alarmed. Haruomi gave his lover a hard stare, but without explanation, Kiichi averted his gaze. In defeat, he gave Kiichi's hand a light squeeze, his heart fluttering lightly at the answering pressure, and reluctantly made his way out the door. Reiji made no such effort to do the same.

"Just wait outside for a while, Reiji," his brother said calmly.

Reiji's glance shifted from the doctor to his brother, then back to the doctor again. Lips pursed tightly, he marched out the door, clearly not happy. Kiichi followed him with his eyes, before finally turning his attention back to the doctor. Dr Saionji's face was grim. With a thundering heart, Kiichi decided to cut to the chase-

"How long have I been this hypotensive?"

"Ever since we brought you in. But you've been very coherent and we already ruled out a fracture, so it probably isn't extracranial haemorrhage. The blood tests came back normal and you're in perfect health otherwise-"

Kiichi's face was pale. "Intracranial pressure monitoring?" A sudden increase would not be able to maintain adequate blood flow to his brain, with a blood pressure that low.

"Already done." Dr Saionji sat on the foot of the bed and clasped the clipboard to his chest. "It is very slightly elevated, but within normal tresholds. The CT scan will tell us more." Upon seeing Kiichi's stricken face, the younger man gave him a reassuring smile. "I am sure there is nothing to worry about, Aoe-sensei. The hypotension could just be a temporary effect from the fall, mildly affecting the vasovagal response perhaps. If there's any intracranial bleeding or lesion, it'll show up on the CT."

Kiichi merely nodded, uneasiness evident in his clouded eyes.

"In any case, we're going to have to keep you under observation for a while, make sure there's nothing seriously wrong, and then I shall happily discharge you and hopefully you'll be back to work in a week or two."

"You picking up the slack for the old man?" Kiichi asked teasingly.

"Hardly," Dr Saionji had to laugh. Then he shrugged. "Couple of shifts, here and there. Who needs sleep, right?"

"Right." Kiichi smiled. "I think you should let my brother in now. He's about ready to punch a hole through the window."

Dr Saionji happened to glance at the window partially covered by the curtains and winced. Aoe-sensei was right. "Will do. Aoe-sama seems very concerned about you."

"Naturally. He's next of kin, after all." Kiichi shrugged. "Runs the family business. He's probably got a list of buyers ready once my organs go on sale." He winked.

At Dr Saionji's horrified expression, Kiichi burst out laughing. "I am only kidding! Don't tell me you really believe that?"

The younger man shook his head ruefully. "I can never tell with you, Aoe-sensei." But his face was still grave. "I'll be leaving now. But if you start feeling unwell, I want you to page me. Any sign of alteration, visual disturbances, pain, dizziness, please report it immediately. It is very important."

"Hai, hai," Kiichi waved him away. He had said the same line thousands of times to his own patients before; he knew it by heart.

The frosty look Reiji gave the young doctor's retreating back as they walked back in almost made Kiichi laugh.

"What were you talking about?" Reiji wanted to know.

"The weather," Kiichi answered cheerfully. Haruomi gave him a reprimanding look. Kiichi had to roll his eyes. "I'm surprised you two didn't hear a thing, from the way you were eavesdropping on us."

"We did no such thing." Haruomi brought two armchairs forward, one for Reiji, one for himself on each side of the bed.

"Uhuh." Kiichi stared at him curiously. "What are you doing?"

"Don't tell me you're spending the night here?" Kiichi's cries of protest went unheard as Reiji wordlessly took his seat, his arms crossed; an unmistakable act of defiance. "Oi, chotto-"

He took a deep breath. "I am a fully grown man. So it goes without saying I do not need two fully grown men hovering over me like I'm some kind of-"

"Shut up and go to sleep," Reiji growled.

Again, Kiichi inhaled deeply. His stomach was rolling again, and the light was hurting his eyes. "I can't just yet. The radiology guy'll be here any minute."

"So shut up till then," his brother said irritably. Then his voice toned down a little. "Another scan? Is there something seriously wrong with you?"

"It's standard procedure, Reiji. Nothing to worry about." Now that the doctor was gone, he felt very tired all of a sudden. The night's stressful event was finally taking its toll on him. Kiichi closed his eyes. "I'm supposed to be on my leave, for God's sake..."

His eyes blinked open languidly. "I'm sorry, Reiji. You didn't even get to finish your dinner."

Reiji nodded, studying his brother closely. "You don't look too good."

"Just feeling a little seasick." The pounding headache was back, and was waging a war against his already queasy stomach.

"Do you want me to get you anything?" Haruomi asked anxiously. "Ginger ale? Lemonade?"

"Orange juice." Kiichi gripped the side of his bed with one hand, bracing himself for another wave of nausea. Reiji saw how tightly his other hand was gripping Haruomi's, obviously not wanting to let go.

"I'll get it," he heard himself say, and before he knew it he was out the door. Haruomi followed him with his eyes, before pulling his chair in closer toward the bed.

"The worrywart. God knows what he'll do once I'm gone." A wistful smile.

"Kiichi!"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Reiji stood rooted in front of the vending machine, staring dully at the shiny rows of blinking lights. Could this be considered smuggling? He had no idea if Kiichi was even allowed to have orange juice. Oh well. He knows best. I hope.

So much for a peaceful family dinner.

As he inserted the coins one by one into the slot, he realised with a sinking feeling that his hand was trembling.

Kiichi's going to be alright.

Hmm. Orange juice...with pulps or no pulps?

Kiichi's just fine. You brought him to the hospital, didn't you?

With pulps. It's nicer.

Just then a loud resounding beep over the speakers shook him out of his reverie, and he nearly dropped the can of orange juice. He turned his head just in time to see a man in a white coat and a group of nurses running past him, brushing against his shoulder. Dr Saionji?

Reiji walked slowly toward the hallway, wondering what the commotion was all about. Hmm?

Hey you've got the wrong room, he was about to shout-

That's Kiichi's roo-

His eyes widened in horror, as realization dawned on him. Something's wrong. Something's wrong with Kiichi-

The juice can fell unceremoniously to the floor as Reiji broke into a run.

TO BE CONTINUED...