The Solitary Flame of Vanity.

"... playing a role for others and for oneself — in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity — is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them.' Friedrich Nietzsche."

The Ritsuka that comes back from the hospital is more his than ever before. Their mother refuses to see him and locks herself up Ritsuka's room. Their father seems sad and sort of resigned, even as he pats Ritsuka's head gently, as if he was a wild animal and he wasn't sure what to say.

"Welcome home."

Ritsuka doesn't answer him. Their father is familiar to him mostly by the pictures he has shown him and the two or three times he visited his son while he was hospitalized. Seimei squeezes Ritsuka's hand gently and Ritsuka's clean - if slightly afraid - eyes finally drop from their father's face as he nods.

Ritsuka doesn't quite cling to him, for all that his hand doesn't let go of his. Seimei ignores Soubi's phone call and he spends the rest of the day walking his brother through their home, showing him pictures and all the secrets a lifetime in that house would've shown him instead, all the while thinking "mine, mine, mine" until he's almost giddy with the knowledge.

Ritsuka picks up an old photo. His other self was grinning there, dirty while holding a football.

"Your brother seems happy." Ritsuka mutters, uncertain. He looks small, fragile, awkward on the brightly colored clothes the old Ritsuka had easily worn. Seimei puts the photo down and pulls Ritsuka until he's in his arms. Ritsuka goes willingly, head against his shoulder, but he doesn't hug him back.

"You are my brother," he tells the boy with no previous memories of existing.

Ritsuka tenses for a moment, just like he has done the past few weeks before he gives a small nod against his neck.

Even when their mother starts trying to act like normal, Ritsuka still sleeps in his room. Seimei does nothing to stop this, rather he gives his brother room and then tucks his small body against his, Ritsuka's head pillowed against his arm, his brother's breath against his neck.

-...-

Seimei finds Ritsuka reading his Philosophy books, Nietzsche and Plato and Descartes surrounding his ten years old brother as he reads. Ritsuka is frowning a little as he reads, reading slower than he usually does, a dictionary by his side.

He remembers the old Ritsuka and his scorn for Philosophy and studying and he feels no regrets at all, would trade the old Ritsuka for this one who is so sweet and lovely and who looks up to him so much everyday if he should.

"These are too complicated," he tells his brother, messing his hair. Ritsuka bats his hand away without really meaning to; his hand lingers against his, so genuinely happy that Seimei doesn't resist falling to bed with him, hugging him tightly. Ritsuka giggles and squirms in his arms.

"Seimei!" He laughs, happy and warm, smelling so sweet and feeling so tender. He settles down after a few moments, though, and Seimei can feel his tail over his thigh, almost teasing. "I want to be as smart as you."

He presses a kiss to Ritsuka's forehead, rubs at his ears the way that makes Ritsuka hum.

"Patience, Ritsuka," he rolls them over, feels a book or two fall to the ground but he pays them little notice as he pulls his brother underneath him and he pulls away, so that he's all that exists in Ritsuka's eyes and world. "You've time."

His brother seems hesitant before he gives him a small nod, reaching his arms to wound them around his neck, smiling to him and for him and no one else.

-...-

"I'm sorry," Ritsuka apologizes. His eyes are downcast, ears pressed against his hair. Anger burns low inside Seimei but steady, constant; his hands don't shake as he cleans the blood from his brother's arm and face, but he hates Justice's Fighter and Sacrifice so much, and he despises Soubi for having been so slow.

"It's not your fault," he tells Ritsuka. It's a long stretch of a wound this time, it runs from his brother's wrist to above his elbow, an angry red that still bleeds a little despite Ritsuka's previous attempts to stop it from doing so, but it isn't so deep that it needs stitches. It will scar, though, and Ritsuka flinches when he disinfects it, keeps his eyes down, still hunched forward like he was in the hospital, small and scared and broken.

Anger burns deep and slow inside him, deep and slow and when he finishes bandaging Ritsuka's arm, he hugs him tightly. Ritsuka's head is against his shoulder and he can feel the way his brother is trembling.

"It's not your fault," Seimei tells Ritsuka again. It takes a few moments before Ritsuka nods once.

Neither of them let's go.

-...-

It's not, he supposes, Soubi's fault being an unwanted Fighter. Seimei doesn't quite blame him for that and he is, at least, strong enough not to be useless.

If Seimei absolutely has to be linked with someone and he cannot choose, the other person will at least be strong.

He still wouldn't change the feel of Ritsuka's hands holding unto him for anything else in the world.

-...-

"Happy birthday," he smiles, watching Ritsuka tear unto the package's wrapping, barely resisting the urge to hug him, at least for now.

"Seimei..." Ritsuka's eyes are huge as he holds the camera, holding the box ever so gently, as if he was still uncertain.

Seimei smiles. He knows about the diary that Ritsuka keeps with his pristine, uniform writing, has read the pages for the last six months of 'still can't remember' and 'I'm afraid of forgetting' and he almost felt guilty, almost but for the warmth of Ritsuka's body against his during the night, of the way Ritsuka's face only lightens up for him.

"Pictures are a way to record history," he tells Ritsuka, smiling gently.

Ritsuka's expression changes again and suddenly his arms are full of trembling, sniffling Ritsuka who keeps muttering 'thank you' against his neck.

Ritsuka gifts him the first picture of the camera, his hand on his brother's shoulder as Ritsuka leans against his side.

-...-

Ritsuka cries in his nightmares.

No.

Stop.

Don't want to...

Seimei!

He always calls for him. Seimei waits until Ritsuka sobs his name, tears spilling down his cheeks before he gathers his brother in his arms, kissing his forehead, his head, the salty track of tears, shushing him, promising that everything is okay.

-...-

Ritsuka gives a heavy sigh, almost pouting at him. Seimei laughs and pulls him to the bed, arms around him, almost pinning him to it, and pays no mind when Ritsuka squirms against him, as if trying to break free.

"I'm too small," Ritsuka complains. Seimei barely resists the urge to tickle him again and instead he hides his smile against his brother's shoulder and waits a few heartbeats before he answers.

"You're still growing up."

This seems to calm Ritsuka, for all that his brother squirms and twists enough that he can rest his hand over his shoulders, eras perked again.

"You think I'll grow as tall as you, Seimei."

He hums, considering, frowning a little as he looks at his brother, waiting for a moment too long, just to see Ritsuka grow annoyed. Then he chuckles, warmly and softly, and shrugs a little.

"Well, we are brothers."

That seems to calm Ritsuka, who just snuggles closer to him and exudes calm.

-...-

The idea that his Ritsuka might be the same as those fakes, as those Zero, manipulated, ready to be given to someone else...

No. No.

He feels no regrets as he orders Soubi to defeat those two girls.

Ritsuka is his, and if he has to be given to someone else, has to have an slave, Seimei will give him the best.

At least Nisei will finally prove himself useful, like the Fighter has been asking for months now.

-...-

"You will serve Ritsuka," he orders Soubi, feels the Fighter's eyes hungry on him.

"Understood."

Soubi, he thinks, is perfect for Ritsuka to practice, for Ritsuka to break him.

-...-

Ritsuka never wakes up when he goes out, barely even moves from where Seimei left him. Sometimes, if the night's cold, he curls beneath the covers into a small ball, holding tightly to the pillow, only relaxing when he can latch unto him again, his body relaxing against his.

Once he comes out of the bath, he can't quite resist getting inside the bed, Ritsuka mumbles something but he doesn't complain as Seimei pushes him away gently, just enough so that they both fit. He's getting to big for a single bed, Seimei realizes, all coltish limbs and a soft grace.

Once he comes back to be with his brother again, once they are together again, Seimei will see it that they've a bigger bed.

He doesn't regret what he is about to do, all but for the fact of leaving his brother alone.

But if Ritsuka is strong, he will make it. It only matters if Ritsuka is strong. If he is, then the time they'll be apart is worth it.

Seimei moves a hand and touches a scar on Ritsuka's face, moves his hand down to touch his brother's throat, feeling his pulse. Ritsuka mumbles something else in his sleep but he doesn't fight his touch, if anything draping himself closer, his arm curling against his chest, a leg on top of his.

Ritsuka smells clean as Seimei breaths near his brother's head, and Seimei moves his hand gently to the small of Ritsuka's back, just above his tail, rolling them slowly and carefully so that Ritsuka is on his back. Ritsuka doesn't even stir, completely trusting his touch. It makes sense, Seimei thinks, that Ritsuka thinks that his touch is even more familiar than his own.

He moves his hand gently down Ritsuka's side, feels the sharp bones of his hips – too skinny, that woman with her tests scaring his brother – and presses a hand over Ritsuka's belly, long fingers teasing the stripe of skin that shows with slow strokes.

Seimei shifts a little, just enough that he can mouth at one of Ritsuka's ears. His brother squirms in his sleep but he presses closer to him, and Seimei does it again, gently, paying attention to the way Ritsuka breaths as he moves his hand away.

Ritsuka sighs his name and Seimei smiles, leaning forward to kiss his brother's forehead and then, gently, his lips.

"Sweet dreams."

-...-

"Who was that person?" he asks Nisei, keeping a handkerchief pressed against his nose to try and ignore the smell of burnt flesh that is making his stomach turn.

Nisei grins. It's an ugly sight. "You really want to know?"

He's still too disobedient. He'll have to teach him better. Seimei doesn't glare but he stares at Nisei until he loses his smile. Much better.

"I won't have my Fighter being disrespectful, Nisei. This'll be your one warning about displeasing me."

He doesn't wait to hear if Nisei says anything else, thinking that Soubi wouldn't have even thought about not answering his question immediately.

Well, it doesn't matter right now. Everything is about to begin.