Summary: Everything Soubi has said to him is a lie, but Ritsuka is experienced in building his own reality. He might not be very strong, but he has courage for two. Slash.
Disclaimer: Don't own Loveless. Love it, though. Does that count?
Warnings: shounen ai (anyone surprised?), chan, sexual situations, mild violence, mild gore (it is, honest), mentions of child abuse, spoilers;
A/N: I used up a year's supply of 'I love you's on this fic. Kind of makes me feel proud that there's no fluff in there. Anyway, born of depression, this story is full of angst, drama, emotional turmoil and gives no answers to anything. Nevertheless, it's got a semi-happy ending. I tried to stick to the atmosphere of the anime, but there are some spoilers for manga in here, so beware.
No more of this coming. It's complete, finished and, I believe, there's nothing to add. Enjoy.
In that instance, with scraped knees digging into concrete and tears sliding down his cheeks, staring upwards into the pair of abyssal eyes, Ritsuka accepted that he was the one who had never seen Seimei clearly. Love came with pain, but not this much pain.
"I wish you had really died," he said, and turned his head to the side. In the cracked windowpane he saw the mirror image of Seimei's smile, and he closed his eyes before darkness swallowed him.
"I won't ask…" Ritsuka whispered to himself, pulling the strap of his bag over his head. Someone had painted the world in pastel colours, as if its softness meant that it couldn't hurt anyone – that it wasn't sharp and cruel and bad things weren't a part of the daily order.
Sometimes it seemed like they were less real than Soubi's pictures, like the real world was composed of butterflies of fantastical hues, ready to be pinned to a board but in their stupidity so free… Ritsuka enjoyed the idea, because that meant that the 'real' Ritsuka was just as unreal as himself.
Katsuko-sensei had said that he had a unique worldview, and she had smiled at him in a different way than she usually would, not so kind but more… something. Like her lips were stretching all by themselves, like she hadn't actually meant to smile.
"It's a promise," he added to himself, under his breath.
The tree – he couldn't tell what kind it was, but Soubi would probably know – had a large shadow underneath it, where the grass was less highlighted and more greyish, and he sat down, raking his fingers through the blades. He couldn't sleep here, but maybe he could read for a while, away from all the annoyances, pretending that from this bottom view, life didn't seem quite so oppressive.
(Pretending that Seimei had been his kind older brother who had always protected him and who had died in a horrible accident.)
Ritsuka pulled a book out of his bag and settled down, holding the pages open above his face in both hands. His neck hurt from hours spent reading and writing at the school-desk, and this way he could let the muscles relax for a while, before his arms would start to cramp.
According to books, reality didn't actually have to make sense, and that made Ritsuka sort-of wish he was a fictional character. Then again, maybe he was just a character, and it was the author's fault that nothing ever made sense to him. Maybe he was supposed to be stupid.
Maybe he wasn't even supposed to be, and he had just cropped up when the author messed up and forgot what the real Ritsuka in the first draft had been like.
If they were just someone's puppets, though, he hated the author for what had been done to Soubi.
Not that Soubi ever told, but Ritsuka wasn't blind, and he wasn't stupid. He watched Soubi's face, could tell his feelings from the way the skin around his eyes would tighten, sometimes folding in tiny wrinkles, like crow's feet, only not happy. He saw the tensing at the word 'sensei' and the casual shrugging-off of injuries, saw the indifference to his own well-being and the utter lack of aim whenever Ritsuka didn't need anything but stayed in Soubi's presence regardless.
(He saw the outright terror when Seimei's name was mentioned.)
"Ne, Soubi…" he spoke up, rolling over on the bed and pulling the pillow to his chest. One of its corners reached to his nose, and he absently nuzzled it out of the way. "Am I a butterfly?"
Soubi paused, and after a moment of hesitation lifted his brush from the canvas. "What are you asking?"
It made sense to Ritsuka, though. Why else would Soubi keep looking at him, but paint bright lilac and crimson and blue butterflies? Once in a while Ritsuka wished Soubi would paint him, just so that he could know how Soubi actually saw him. Still, he wouldn't ask. He had promised.
"You said I was beautiful. Why would you say that?" Ritsuka accused, scowling. His cheeks were reddening, he was sure, and he hid most of his face behind the pillow. With closed eyes, so that he wouldn't see Soubi's worried expression, he asked: "Will people want to make me into an exhibit? Is it because some me is actually real?"
There was a minute of silence, and then the soft sound of brush stroking the canvas resumed. Ritsuka was angry and sad at the same time, but he had learnt when insisting wouldn't make any difference, and then he had learnt to give up.
Giving up was actually really easy. Saved a lot of effort, too.
Suddenly, when Ritsuka's thoughts had already moved onto another topic, Soubi said: "Everyone finds something else beautiful. To everyone something else is real. You must pick who you want to be real for."
Ritsuka rolled onto his back and imagined reading strange words on the ceiling: 'tu est beau,' in Soubi's handwriting, right above 'je t'aime.' He laughed.
There was a rap on the door, Kio's voice cussed Soubi out and Ritsuka decided it was time to go back home.
Ritsuka loved his mother. Had loved his mother. Loved who his mother had been. Something like that. He knew how to dodge, and finally came to believe that it was alright to do so. Love came with pain, but not this much pain. He wasn't his mother's Ritsuka anymore.
This woman, though, wasn't Ritsuka's mother anymore either. Her eyes were empty.
"-give him back!" she cried, and he twisted his wrist our of her grip – finally strong enough to do so, though still very weak for a thirteen-year-old – ran and slammed the door to his room shut. She threw herself against it, but he turned the key in the lock, and the quiet snick signified an end of an era, end of a lie he had fed to himself for years, an idea of a family that had stopped existing when Seimei had pretended to die.
(Seimei, too, wasn't Ritsuka's brother anymore.)
Ritsuka was good at this: Katsuko-sensei, his mother and his meagre experience as a Sacrifice had taught him to rationalise, to give in, to not care. It saved him a lot of pain.
Hatred he had learnt all by himself. It had come easier to him than it would have to other people. He understood it better than love, more easily – it made sense to him and he could internalise it without any trouble. Hating people for being inhuman to one another was the most natural thing in the world – and Ritsuka knew Soubi. Soubi's scars were reason enough to want someone to die, in Ritsuka's book (whether that someone was Ritsu-sensei, or Ritsuka's own brother).
Misaki's cry rose into a keening wail, and Ritsuka shook his head. He didn't want to be here. It wasn't home anymore. Nowhere was home.
Letting go was easy…
The cell phone rang and the little light flashed red.
Ritsuka hesitated, but then he uncurled himself into a sitting position, his back against the rough bark of the tree, and glanced around. It was dark already, and the park was empty.
The phone rang again. Slowly, he brought it up to his ear, and waited for another ring before he opened it to accept the call. He was sure he wasn't doing the wrong thing, because in this world where there was an excuse for everything, nothing was right or wrong.
"Yes…?" he said quietly.
"Where are you?" the voice on the other end asked.
Ritsuka wondered if he should tell the truth. He had forbidden Soubi to lie but Soubi lied and cheated and disobeyed and damn-near betrayed him anyway. Ritsuka needed some way of protecting himself, and Soubi was so much better at withstanding pain of any kind.
"Ne, Soubi," he said, blinking slowly into the light of street lamps. It was one thing to rather die than kill him, another to belong. "I know Seimei was your Sacrifice before me, but had there been anyone else?"
Soubi took a while to answer, as Ritsuka knew he would, but he did answer. "I had no name before Beloved claimed me."
What would it have been like to have his own name on Soubi's skin? Ritsuka didn't care for being Loveless, he didn't even much care about being Loveless… but something to show for the bond, to convince either of them that it was real, it was really there-
(-something to make in real, to erase Soubi's unwilling submission to the devil in their lives-)
Ritsuka gnawed on his thumbnail, pondering if he should ask. He had promised himself he wouldn't, but how was one lie worse than another? Katsuko-sensei said people lied to those they loved. Ritsuka sometimes thought he maybe hated himself.
"If Seimei told you to leave me and become his Fighter again, would you?" he whispered.
Soubi heard him, he was sure. He didn't answer, as Ritsuka expected he wouldn't. He had the grace to not pull out some platitude, like the worn-out 'I love you' or 'I'd do anything for you.' Ritsuka strained his ears, but when a minute later he still hadn't heard anything but the sound of footsteps, he hung up.
The evening was warm, and he decided he would sleep in the park.
He woke up in a bed, heard Natsuo yelling somewhere out of sight, and found that he wasn't wearing anything but his underwear and one of Soubi's t-shirts. Red-faced, he weaseled around, keeping quiet as possible, and found his trousers, shirt and jacket. His shoes were at the foot of the bed, socks nowhere in sight.
Ritsuka pulled on his trousers, tied the jacket around his waist, stuffed his bare feet into his trainers and climbed out of the window, feeling bizarre wearing something of Soubi's.
He prowled around the quarter, folds of the long t-shirt flapping around his knees as the wind picked up. People were giving him looks – it was Monday and he should have been in school. No matter, though; no one knew him well enough to put a name to his face.
"Damn truant brats," he heard an old lady with a fluffy poodle on a leash say as he passed by.
He checked the cuts on his hands, and the scratch – the big infected one – on his calf. They were healing. Being without a home wasn't so bad. Loveless. Homeless.
His phone rang, but he didn't pick up. Than it rang again, this time with the red light flashing too, and Ritsuka didn't pick up anyway. He was hoarding missed calls – was up to fifteen by noon. Ducked through narrow alleyways to stay out of sight from the school, avoided the park since that was where he had been found at night. Walked along the river for a bit, till houses gave away to shacks and shacks gave away to fields. Trekked a bit further and hid himself in rice. It was greener here than the plants were in the city.
Few cars, little pollution. Birds singing, somewhere off in a grove. A lone line of transmission towers.
Smelled like freedom.
His cell phone rang, and Ritsuka turned it off.
He met a stray dog on the dirt road and got a bit scared, but the beast ran off hunting rats and he was free to journey on. The horizon never got any closer, no matter how far he walked. There was always another and another one. The world was so wide, so diverse – it wasn't all like Tokyo.
Ritsuka sat on the steps in front of a shrine and thought of his family (or what was left of it). He found he truly didn't care. Soubi, though… Ritsuka was out of his reach, and that was a relief, but when he imagined how far he, maybe, could get, that Soubi would never again lie to him and play mind games with him and never tell him some of those clichéd phrases about love and devotion, all the freedom turned into a black abyss.
Instead of flying, he was falling.
He switched on the phone, ignored the record of missed calls and selected the first number on the list.
It rang twice before it was picked up. There was the sound of someone taking a deep breath, and Ritsuka blurted: "Soubi?"
There was a crash followed by the noise of something breaking, all of it distant; a gasp that sounded like someone was standing inches from him.
"Ri-tsu-ka…" Soubi said very carefully.
Suddenly, horrified, Ritsuka realised Soubi was crying. Soubi never cried. Never. He bled and coached himself in cold words and put on a genuine but mirthless smile, but no amount of pain affected him. He was untouchable.
"Who are you?" Ritsuka demanded, mad at whoever stole Soubi's phone and voice and made such a phony attempt at impersonating him.
"Where are you?" the Soubi sound-alike wanted to know.
"As if I'd tell just anyone-"
A different voice, mightily angry and almost believably Kio's, cut in: "Listen to me, Aoyagi! You come back this instance and see what you've done, or I'll find you and tan your hide-"
Ritsuka hung up and aimed for the nearest town. He wasn't that far from Tokyo outskirts, and there would be a bus station there, he was sure.
On Wednesday morning, Ritsuka had a new set of scrapes over the almost-healed ones, wore clean clothing (including socks), and entered the classroom as if he hadn't been missing for two days. Shinonome-sensei was used to him missing anyway, after all those times he had been at hospital or in a battle or just gone.
He was ambushed before he made it to his seat.
With Yuiko holding him in a bear hug and crying in the loudest fashion possible, it was no wonder that a teacher appeared in the doorway within seconds. A commotion started, and in the end he was called to Shinonome-sensei's office.
"What happened, Aoyagi-kun?" she asked, looking at him with worried eyes. "Are you alright? I called your home, but no one answered-"
Ritsuka, with entirely too much practice in this, smiled. "I'm sorry, Shinonome-sensei. We had a family emergency, and there was no time to let anyone know. We had to leave in a hurry, and no one was home…"
He wasn't sure if she believed him, but she let him go when the bell rang and the first period started.
Everything was the same as last week, he quickly found out. Classes hadn't gotten any less boring, Yuiko hadn't changed a bit, Yayoi never left the earshot and lunch was bland as ever. School smelled the same, even: a mixture of cleaning supplies, a large amount of people, and thousands other things. He tried to remember how unreal all of this had seemed to him while he was tripping through rice fields, or running from a stray dog, or just watching the clouds fly by overhead… all of that was little but a dream now.
He thought he, maybe, understood what Soubi was telling him about things being real or unreal depending on who you asked – and when you asked.
When he, after the last lesson, looked out of the window, there was a tall man standing at the gates of the school, breeze ruffling his hair and stealing the smoke from his cigarette.
"Ritsuka," Soubi said simply. He wasn't smiling.
Ritsuka said nothing. He didn't feel like he had had an obligation, like he had betrayed anyone by taking a couple of days off from life, but he admitted that it had been reckless, dangerous and irrational. It still didn't make him regret it. Sleeping wild had been – liberating.
The butt of the cigarette flew onto the pavement and died under the heel of Soubi's shoe. Ritsuka didn't, in fact, give a damn about him smoking, not anymore. The smell was familiar. He might have even missed it.
Soubi's hand clutched Ritsuka's elbow in a paraphrase of their first ever meeting, and Ritsuka let himself be manhandled along the way. Soubi asked stupid questions like "Are you alright?" and "Why didn't you call me?" as if the answers weren't perfectly obvious, and Ritsuka took turns ignoring him and glaring at him, until they came to the park.
Ritsuka decided he didn't like the place. It was either too full of people or too tranquil, and too many things had happened to him there causing much upheaval in his life. The first time someone told him they loved him. His first kiss. His first battle. Such a banal place, frequented by so many banal people, didn't deserve that degree of importance in his life.
Free of Soubi's grip (he wasn't sure when and how that happened), Ritsuka gravitated toward 'his' tree. He knelt on the grass and raked his fingers through it. It was dry.
"This is the place I found you-"
Ritsuka's glare yielded no response. Soubi sat down a little way off and pulled out his phone.
It hadn't been stolen, after all. That didn't mean that Ritsuka would believe that Soubi had – no, Soubi wouldn't have. What a stupid idea…
The phone on the string around Ritsuka's neck rung and flashed red. He picked up.
"Hello, Ritsuka," Soubi said in an odd stereo – the voice came from the man and the machine barely a second apart. Wonders of technology. "How have you been?"
Ritsuka accepted the offered chance to solve, if not them, then at least this. "Okay. Went on a trip. It was nice."
"What did you go to see?"
"Rice fields," Ritsuka replied. "A scarecrow in one of them. I liked him. He seemed lonely." There had been crows around, sure, but a lone person-like silhouette in a ripped coat and a wide-brimmed hat had stood in the middle of a field and Ritsuka edged around all the metaphors for which he could have used it.
Suddenly not in the mood to play the game anymore, Ritsuka threw the cell down. He pressed his palms into the ground next to his knees to push himself up to his feet, but Soubi was there, gripping his upper arms, face inches from Ritsuka's, semi-smiling without a iota of happiness in it, saying "I love you, Ritsuka."
"Love you, love you," Ritsuka mocked, angry. He gave a token fight, but even if he was strong enough to break his mother's hold, he was nowhere near able to get away from Soubi. "That's all I get from you! The same thing over and over! For a Fighter, you suck at invention!"
Soubi put one arm around Ritsuka's back and crushed him against himself, with so much force that Ritsuka's ribs protested. It was still better than if Soubi had kissed him in front of the people, but pretending that he conformed to social norms had never been a problem for the damnable man.
"Stop telling me you love me!" Ritsuka hissed, ears turned down. "If you want me to know, show me in actions. Words don't mean anything!" Soubi had single-handedly managed to cheapen the phrase 'I love you' so much that Ritsuka's instinctual reaction to it was annoyance.
"Next time you want to get away, come to me, Ritsuka."
A string with the cell phone on it was dropped around Ritsuka's neck. Soubi was still smiling, and Ritsuka wanted to hit him.
"If you're angry with me, I'll leave you alone in my apartment. I want you to be safe."
Ritsuka snorted. Yeah – alone. Sometimes, if they felt like hanging out, with Zero. The two weren't bad, but definitely not the kind of people he wanted to be friends with. They were even worse than Yuiko. Yuiko at least was honest. It made Ritsuka a hypocrite, but, hey – he was damaged. He had a right to a little leeway.
"Let go," Ritsuka ordered, and was obeyed. He walked away (Soubi followed him like a detached three-dimensional shadow) thinking 'no, thank you.'
Weekends sucked. Page after page rustled, turned from left to right; thousands of words came and went, and none of them managed to make sense of the world. Why some people thought it was possible to analyse others, why they had the presumption to call themselves experts on human thinking, Ritsuka couldn't understand. Katsuko-sensei, too, thought she could take everyone apart, could explain how they felt and why – as if there were any whys.
He was fairly certain there was no logical explanation for why his mother hadn't noticed he had been missing for two days. He had broken curfew, of course, and for that there had been punishment and the obligatory yelling.
("You're not my Ritsuka!")
"Good morning, Mum," he said, smiling – without happiness, as if he had adopted Soubi's expression. He ate his breakfast in silence and left. Sometimes nothing was better than something… Maybe, though, having no one was always worse than having someone, and people were willing to suffer a lot just to be acknowledged. Ritsuka thought he might have reached his breaking point, and felt like such a lightweight.
Life (Seimei) had taught him that love and desire to possess were very different things, but could be used interchangeably. Then there were other feelings, words he was too scared to even think. His soul longed for it, but a heart once broken was thousand times as wary. Blinded by love, crippled with obsession, crushed under the weight of trust – he had seen it all. Such a unique capacity to hurt was own to mankind.
He had thought he had friends, but really there were two people in his class he would even consider spending time with voluntarily and, aside from Shinonome-sensei, who through his disillusioned child's eyes seemed nice but a sad case, he only had Soubi to go to if he didn't want to be alone. That kind of dependence angered – and frightened – him.
"Aoyagi? Hey, Aoyagi-kun!"
"Kio-san," Ritsuka said, staring at the little waves on the surface of the river. He hadn't thought of this man before, when he had considered his acquaintances. He tried to concentrate some kind of opinion, and came out feeling strangely sorry for Kio.
"Are you going to see Soubi?" the man asked, suspicion mixed with resignation, idly swinging a bag with the logo of a supermarket. It was a pertinent question – Ritsuka was in the area and contemplating Soubi.
"No?" Kio repeated, bemused. He watched Ritsuka while Ritsuka watched the water, and then sighed. "Maybe you're not like your brother, but I don't think you deserve him," he muttered. "He's been hurt so badly and you go on hurting him, like you don't see how much he needs you there."
The corners of Ritsuka's mouth turned downward. He pointedly continued staring at the river, without the least intention of speaking with Kio or about Soubi, not to mention both at once. A bright-coloured can appeared in front of him, balanced on the railing.
"Drink," Kio said and walked away.
Ritsuka left the can there, walking purposely in the opposite direction, still too apathetic to stand up for himself and what he didn't want to admit he wanted.
For an instant the entire world turned blue, and then Ritsuka was running. Vaguely he was aware of voices calling him back, probably his classmates, but he was already flying through the streets. He didn't know where; the harder he tried to follow his instincts, the less he actually got from them, so he let his legs move by themselves.
Someone was expanding their system. At first this had occurred just occasionally, but then the frequency of the challenges rose, and suddenly he didn't have a week to take off from his dual life. In the beginning it had been the students Septimal Moon had sent, then Seimei's not-quite-organisation and now-
Ritsuka wasn't sure who they were fighting against or why. It seemed to him like they always were fighting and always would be. He couldn't see the point. He would have been happier – or at least more content – just living his life, but these foreigners kept on coming, pair after pair, Sacrifices and Fighters of all ages and races and genders, until they ran together in his memories. Ritsuka had promised himself he wouldn't make photos of people who had come for the sole purpose of hurting Soubi.
The world suddenly darkened and the street faded out of existence. He ran on toward a silhouette on the backdrop of black, heard words being cried out and lights flashing. A triple helix made of luminescence shot out and Ritsuka put in a burst of speed and skidded on his trainers in front of Soubi. The light slammed into him-
There was pain and dizziness, but he only fell to his knees and panted to catch his breath. Chains hung from his neck and wrists. That was alright. He felt – good. Needed. For Soubi, he would try to be the best Sacrifice he could be. He could learn to hurt people, even, maybe…
He was lifted up off ground and pulled against a solid chest. Strands of light hair fell onto his shoulder, and he felt the warm puffs of breath touch his ear.
"Soubi…" he whispered. Disgusted with his own weakness, he swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried again. "Soubi, I order you to win with minimal damage to either of us."
"So that is Loveless," a mocking voice spoke. "He doesn't seem as useless as we were led to believe."
Ritsuka looked up. The man was young, still more of a boy, but he had no ears. Attractive, with sharp blue eyes, he smirked at his companion (the Sacrifice – a young woman of fairly average looks and shy demeanour) and stood with his hand on his hip. He was so cocky it made Ritsuka self-conscious and irritated at the same time.
Soubi gave their opponent a long, searching gaze, and then leaned deeper over Ritsuka, who looked up. "I didn't want-"
"Even if you prevent my body from being wounded, my heart hurts that much worse," Ritsuka said, doing his best to come across uncompromising.
Soubi smiled at him, amused by the momentary show of authority. He leaned in yet deeper and, for a brief moment, they were kissing – their fifth kiss, unless Ritsuka had miscounted. He didn't think so, but once you lost your memory, you never quite believed your recollection.
"Hey, bastard! Pay attention to the fight!"
Soubi straightened. Ritsuka felt him relax a bit; flinging harmless words instead of spell-words when he had had the perfect opportunity marked the enemy as a fool, and fools were defeated.
"Silence," Soubi spoke, freeing one of his arms to gesture, "stillness and tranquility, unmoving and immovable, surround!"
"Motion! Thunder, earthquake, tear the ground and swallow-"
In the absence of sound that followed, Ritsuka realised he was utterly powerless. He had sacrificed himself for Soubi, relied on him so completely that if the cocky guy opposite aimed an attack against which Soubi's defence failed, Ritsuka could die. He was terrified out of his wits but, at the same time, the idea of letting go and relying on someone smelled of comfort to him.
The blackscape broke and Ritsuka felt sunrays on the skin of his face. The sky was faded blue. Everything hurt.
Soubi didn't let him go, tightening his one-armed hold when Ritsuka absently pushed up his sleeves to inspect the damage and found bruises stretching from palms to elbows and bits of scraped-off skin hanging off of his right wrist. He was fairly certain there was a matching bruise around his neck.
"Ritsuka…" Soubi said, pained. Ground disappeared from under Ritsuka's feet, and he buried his face in Soubi's shoulder. Curled up in the strong arms, he wished Soubi would kiss him again, but didn't know how to ask.
'Soubi,' he thought, but didn't say out loud. There was the familiar whisper of brush on canvas, and Ritsuka opened his eyes. He was facing the wooden wall of Soubi's apartment. The pillow carried a scent similar to the one of Soubi's shirt – Ritsuka had taken enough whiffs after the battle before exhaustion had caught up to him.
He didn't know what had happened to their opponents. He knew Soubi well enough to not be surprised if they would turn up dead.
He rolled over onto his back, surprised by how acutely parts of his body made themselves known. "Ouch…"
"Don't move," Soubi said in a clipped tone that raised Ritsuka's hackles. A moment later Soubi was there, pulling the covers down; cold fingers touched Ritsuka's face and Soubi inspected his throat. "I shouldn't have let you get hurt."
"I'm not made of glass!" Ritsuka protested, moving to avoid the touch, but ultimately unsuccessful. Seeing that Soubi was going to argue, Ritsuka went on: "It was my decision! You told me we had a bond – a bond between a Sacrifice and a Fighter! Why don't you let me be your Sacrifice then?"
"You're too young," Soubi said, and it was such a banal, arbitrary answer, that it made Ritsuka lose all will to fight.
It was obvious now. He staggered out of the bed, aching but promising himself that he was strong enough for this, and turned to face Soubi, wide-eyed with hurt and incomprehension. "You don't want me," he said quietly. Incredible, how long it had taken him to notice.
Soubi was frowning, but Ritsuka didn't waste time reading the expression; he ran out, barefoot, trying to escape that indescribable, impalpable pain in his chest. He needed to get somewhere, anywhere but here.
He didn't look back, because he desperately didn't want to see the empty doorway and know that Soubi hadn't come after him.
The plant in the corner of the room was so still that he doubted it was a real plant. It looked more like an artificial imitation. The sofa was soft and accommodating. The absence of almost anything fear-inducing made it easier to relax.
"Katsuko-sensei," Ritsuka spoke after a while of quiet deliberation. "You said we lie to people we love. Someone who says they love me keeps lying to me, and it hurts. I want them to stop." More than anything, he wanted Soubi to want him, as much as he hated himself for it. Barring that, Soubi getting out of his life would probably hurt less than if they met daily and Ritsuka was confronted with the rejection every single time.
(That would never happen; Seimei had ordered Soubi to take care of Ritsuka, and Soubi would follow Ritsuka to the end of the world and beyond.)
Katsuko-sensei hummed and set her pen down on her desk with a low click. "Have you thought they might be protecting you?"
"Protecting me?" Ritsuka repeated. Of course Soubi was protecting him; it was part of the 'take care of Ritsuka' order. It wasn't working, though: how could someone who claimed to love him not want him? It didn't make sense. Of course, people as such didn't make sense, but this made Ritsuka's head – and other parts – hurt.
"Perhaps if they told you the truth, you would be hurt worse," Katsuko-sensei suggested, shifting in her swivel-chair.
What could hurt worse than having a psychopathic brother who loved violence and obsessed over Ritsuka in the sickest way imaginable? Were there other secrets Seimei had ordered Soubi to keep, or was it really just Soubi's wish to avoid having to worry about his duty making him lie? Either way, Ritsuka resented it.
If Soubi wasn't Ritsuka's Fighter, then Ritsuka wasn't Soubi's Sacrifice. It would make sense that Soubi didn't want him. Ritsuka had learnt to expect Soubi to lie, but at the time Soubi had told him this, Ritsuka had accepted it at face value and later forgot to reconsider it.
"I'd get hurt either way, then? And they just decide which way I'd be hurt?" Ritsuka was too much like a butterfly, after all.
Katsuko-sensei smiled gently. "Sometimes there are no good choices, Ritsuka-kun, but we must choose anyway. Have you heard the term 'lesser evil?'"
Who hadn't? It was the simplest excuse of all the excuses. People were using it all the time, always finding a reason why fighting for something better would be just a waste of time and energy. Ritsuka was becoming like that, too, ever since he had learned to give up. He didn't hate it a bit less, though. "There's already so much evil in the world. I don't want to add to it."
"Even if doing so would prevent something much worse happening?"
Ritsuka felt helpless. He pulled his knee up to his chest and hugged it close. "Why do such things happen anyway? Why does it have to be my choice? I haven't done anything wrong…"
Still smiling, though now with an edge to it, Katsuko-sensei replied: "There are many trials in life, Ritsuka-kun; this is but one of them. Making difficult choices, taking responsibility for them – that is what it means to be strong."
Saturday night was broken by a flash of blue light.
Ritsuka jumped out of the bed and dove for the chair with his clothes thrown haphazardly in it, before he remembered that he shouldn't go anywhere. He sank to the floor and clenched his teeth very hard. His body wanted to move, his heart wanted to cry. He couldn't stop shivering…
But this was Soubi's fight. They came after Soubi – never after Ritsuka and never after the two of them – so it stood to reason that they were someone from Soubi's past. Maybe they were even affiliated with Seimei. None of that really mattered, only that Soubi had made it very obvious that he didn't wish for Ritsuka to act as his Sacrifice.
They weren't supposed to fight together. They had different names and Soubi's bled every time Ritsuka took a hit… Ritsuka had had to wash the dried blood out of his hair after the last battle.
Still, how long could Soubi go on Auto before he met someone against whom he lost? Ritsuka understood what Katsuko-sensei had told him about hard choices: would he stay put and risk Soubi getting hurt (killed, never coming back with ludicrous proclamations of love) or would he go, risk his own life and face Soubi's resentment?
It was difficult for him to be selfish, but he knew that if he had been in a danger of getting hurt, Yuiko wouldn't hesitate; similarly, if something could happen to Yuiko, Yayoi-kun would do his best to help her. People were selfish when it came to those they cared about. It was normal.
Ritsuka threw on his clothes and ran.
It had been the worst battle he had participated in yet, Ritsuka recalled as he woke up. The memory was hazy: he had been tired and scared, his mouth had tasted of Soubi's blood (like iron), and there were real wounds instead of just restriction-inflicted ones this time.
A machine beeped and he, belatedly, recognised the smell of antiseptic. Hospital.
He opened his eyes.
A nurse was professionally smiling at him, although he was sickened by the pity she didn't manage to hide. "Hello, Aoyagi-kun. There's no need to worry – you're in hospital, and someone will be here to see you in a minute. We were, unfortunately, unable to contact your parents but-"
She prattled on and on and Ritsuka listened with half an ear, picking up an actual piece of information here and there. There was a police officer outside, waiting to take his statement. A woman had died in the incident; another was in intensive care and didn't look like she would wake up again. Ritsuka had gotten off lucky.
"-called the ambulance, such a nice man – do you know him?"
Ritsuka blinked. "Know whom?" His throat was scratchy. If the nurse would stop talking for another second, he would ask for some water.
"That handsome man!" Her cheeks were flushed as she continued mindlessly puffing up pillows on the other bed. "What I wouldn't give- Anyway, his name is Agatsuma-san and-"
"Could you bring me a glass of water?" Ritsuka cut into the woman's monologue.
She beamed at him. "Certainly. I'll be right back!"
The instant she was out of the door, Ritsuka tried to sit up. He gingerly moved his limbs. Everything hurt like crazy – but everything worked. He pulled the IV out of his arm, amazed that the doctors found a place to stick it in among the burns.
Standing up was a bit harder, but doable. He found his trousers, wallet and cell phone in the cabinet doubling up as bedside table. It was Monday evening, according to the phone. He had missed school again but, more importantly, he had been out of it for two days. He didn't want to talk to the police. He didn't know what to tell them, didn't know if they had already spoken with Soubi and if so then what he had told them, and he very much didn't want to think about having been party to killing someone-
His feelings were a mad knot inside his chest. He was angry at Soubi for the killing, but maybe there hadn't been any other way, if the fight had stretched Soubi's abilities so far that Ritsuka had had to be checked into an hospital, despite how Fighters and Sacrifices did they best to take care of their wounds in private. (As Youji and Natsuo had told him, doctors would ask questions. Ritsuka didn't have a clue what to tell them.) He was mad at the stupid people who just wouldn't stop fighting. Why did they keep attacking? Why couldn't they damn well leave them alone?
"Aoyagi-kun?" The nurse, with a glass of what looked like water, stood in the doorway. "Right back into the bed with you, young man!"
Ritsuka gave her a disinterested look. His eyes strayed to the blank face of a middle-aged man standing behind her shoulder – the promised police officer.
Ritsuka sat down on the edge of the bed and shook his head. "I'm fine."
Getting out of the hospital was a hassle. Without a moderately sane mother to check him out, Ritsuka technically couldn't leave. It took the joined forces of a 'convenient' accident that threw the lobby into a flurry of activity, Youji and Natsuo's mock-fight driving the personnel up the wall and Soubi leaning in very close to the woman at the desk and talking in a low voice that sent goose-bumps down even Ritsuka's arms.
Despite lacking his guardian's signature, Ritsuka was set free at last, and two days earlier than he should have been. If he hurried, he could make it home before curfew, too.
"Thanks, guys," he said, eyes on the pavement. "Gotta go, though."
He set out in a run – or he would have, if Soubi's arm hadn't come around his stomach – one of the few injury-free spots on his body.
"Let go," Ritsuka said, too aware how indecisive he sounded. Soubi's arms around him felt good. Then again, he crashed all the worse when he remembered the 'take care of Ritsuka' order and realised that all this was out of duty and- "You don't want me!" he snarled. "Let me go! I know I'm a nuisance to you-"
"I love you, Ritsuka," Soubi repeated – for the thousandth time – into Ritsuka's hair.
"What a load of-"
Natsuo chuckled. "Our cue to disappear."
"Thanks for the food, Soubi," Youji added, and they were leaving – leaving Ritsuka in Soubi's grasp helpless, tired and hurting.
A torrent of words spilled out of Ritsuka's mouth, and he was powerless against it, unable to stop it no matter how hard he tried. "I know I'm not Seimei, or even like Seimei. I could never be and – damn it, I don't want to! I know I'm a failure as a Sacrifice. I have no training, I don't know what to do… And you have to fight at half your power even when I'm there and you bleed every time because some stupid 'fate' decided to give me a 'true' name and you'd been… been branded like cattle…"
He was crying – another torrential wave, this time of tears, just as incontrollable. Soubi pressed a slow, deliberate kiss to his hair, tightened his hold, and softly said: "I wish I were branded with Ritsuka's name."
Then he called a taxi and forced Ritsuka to spend the night in his apartment, arguing that going home would just put Ritsuka back into hospital.
It took two weeks, two sessions with Katsuko-sensei, three battles and a reiteration of 'Ritsuka's name' before the proverbial light-bulb above Ritsuka's head lit and he figured out what Soubi was telling him.
It was horrible. Piercing Soubi's ears had been nothing in comparison, and Ritsuka remembered how terrifying that had been, how much he had wanted to puke afterwards. This was – a whole different level. He couldn't do it, couldn't hurt someone that much…
…but how much future hurt would he be saving Soubi? It was just like Katsuko-sensei had told him: he had to make a choice about what pain would be inflicted on Soubi. It was unfair, and he was so afraid that his hands trembled when he just thought of it. Katsuko-sensei said he had to be strong.
Ritsuka felt more like he had to be far more courageous than he was.
Ritsuka looked up and stared at the blackboard. It was blank. "Err… Could you repeat the question, sensei?"
Shinonome-sensei sighed and let her hands down in exasperation. "Please, pay attention, Aoyagi-kun. You're missing school too often as it is."
Ritsuka nodded and smiled at Yuiko, who was watching him with a worried expression. She beamed back, and Ritsuka returned to his musing.
What could it have been done with? Scars so wide, but legible. How were they so dark? Must have hurt a lot. (Seimei would have made it hurt as much as he could.) Could it be made to hurt less? Local anesthetics? But no one would sell stuff like that to a kid…
"Ne, Soubi," Ritsuka asked, sitting on the window ledge, swinging his feet, "would you love me if you'd never met Seimei?"
Soubi lifted the palette and dipped his brush into the crimson paint. "Would I paint butterflies, had I never seen one?" Soubi replied without answering.
Having read so many books, Ritsuka wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the idea of causality, but he was more of a practical philosopher. He was talking about feelings, not effects, and to him that wasn't the same. If Soubi and Ritsuka had just met on the street one day, would Soubi have even given him a second glance?
"How am I supposed to believe you, then? You keep lying to me all the time! If you thought it would hurt me that you don't love me, you would keep telling me you do even if you don't…" He managed to thoroughly confuse himself, but Soubi made it look like he understood.
"You could make it impossible for me to lie to you."
Ritsuka shuddered and stood to leave. There were other places he could go to brood, places where the edges of the world were more smudged, so that people could fool themselves into not seeing the uncertainty that permeated everything. So used to measuring everything in absolute values, they never stopped to think that what they believed might not be true at all, and once it was revealed as false their realities would fall apart like houses of cards.
Ritsuka was accustomed to never-ending questioning of what was real and what was not. It hardly ever surprised him when something turned out to be a lie, or a pretense, or a mere appearance. He had long since stopped crying, because the lack of truth had long since stopped disappointing him – he had learnt to expect it.
Sometimes, though, he wished there was something he could rely on.
"Will that be all?" the cashier asked, ringing up the paper tissues.
"Yes," Ritsuka replied in an even voice, proud of himself. He handed over the wad of notes and let the woman count off how many she should return. He didn't care if she gave him the correct amount; this faux nonchalance was taking all of his concentration.
His purchases were innocuous at best: a bottle of ink, a marker, a year's supply of paper tissues. No one blinked at a school-boy buying those. He wished he could buy a box of courage, too, but they didn't carry those at supermarkets.
"Thank you and come back again!"
Ritsuka nodded and threw everything into a plastic bag. He felt spent, exhausted by this brief foray, even though he had not yet convinced himself he was going to use the supplies he bought. Maybe he would just take them to school…
He had to go home and sleep and think and do his homework.
Ritsuka scowled at his reflection in the mirror and pulled on his ear. Hard. It hurt. What was the point of it if he had perfectly usable human ears? He used to love them, believed foolishly that they meant something, were the symbol of some kind of idea worth striving for. Society tried to reinforce that view but, truly, they just got in the way. The tail was quite neat – but only if you were a kid.
Ritsuka tried to be objective about himself, just for a little while, and came to the conclusion that he didn't give a damn. Quitting was just so much easier…
He had something he wanted for himself, something more selfish than anything he had ever allowed himself before. It made him feel better – and worse at the same time – that he had to pay a heavy price for it. It seemed, at least on the very surface, as more fair. It was a platitude, an excuse, but he was susceptible to its self-deluding effects.
"Bye, Mum," he called, passing by the kitchen. An even thud, thud of the knife hitting the board was his only response.
Ritsuka wasn't sure whether he would be disappointed or relieved if he had to return for dinner. He kind of hoped he wouldn't be back until at least tomorrow. He took out the bag of trash (the last of his bandages were there after he had decided he didn't need them anymore) and chucked it into the container in the street, before he headed for the river to clear his head.
When his phone rang, he didn't touch it.
Last vestiges of sunlight were mixed with the orange glow of streetlamps when Ritsuka felt that he had to decide now: was he going to be a coward, or was he going to take the risk? He knew he would hate himself either way and, trembling, lifted his hand to knock.
Soubi opened the door before Ritsuka touched it. His hair was down and the smell of tobacco sharper than usually, suggesting that for once he hadn't been painting. Ritsuka tacitly toed off his trainers and socks, and padded inside, tail swinging behind him in a superfluous expression of excitement and apprehension.
"I was worried. You weren't picking up-"
"Take off your shirt and lie down on the floor. On your back," Ritsuka said. His voice wasn't even this time – it was empty.
Soubi, as he sometimes did, decided to obey this particular command. Ritsuka meanwhile locked the door, pulled off his jacket and shirt and deposited them on Soubi's bed. His knees threatened to fold at any moment, but at least they had carried him this far.
He sat astride Soubi's chest and pulled out a letter-opener he had sneaked. "I couldn't get any anesthetics," he warned. "It's going to hurt."
Soubi smiled, closed his eyes and lifted his chin, baring his throat as he could. "I promise I won't make a sound."
Ritsuka's heart was beating wildly, but he reminded himself that Soubi wanted this, had asked for this, and if Ritsuka could just stop his hand from shaking and do it, then today was the last time he would see the damn letters bleeding…
He smoothed Soubi's hair out of the way and lifted his weapon.
'L' was made of two lines, simple and clean, except that the tip of the letter opener copied the shaking of his hands and the lines came out a bit ragged. No matter, though. Soubi's heartbeat was regular, slow, visible in the fluttering of his jugular. Ritsuka tried to make the characters in the same size, even to imitate the handwriting, so that it looked like it was meant to be that way.
(He was fooling himself, since Seimei's taint wouldn't really come out of either of them.)
'E' then, below the 'L' of BELOVED. Four lines. Less ragged this time. Careful to keep it shallow – there were all kinds of veins and tendons here.
(Trust Seimei to choose a painful and dangerous place for his brutal body-art.)
'S' was curved. Ritsuka decided he hated the letter. He had to be extra careful, so much that he even tuned out the horror of the situation. Another 'S' below the 'V'.
Soubi's breath caught; he reached for Ritsuka's left hand, brought it up to his mouth and kissed the sweaty palm.
With stinging eyes, Ritsuka put the blade onto a tissue and unsealed the bottle of ink. It was barbaric, but he wasn't going to stop now. Soubi remained calm, used to worse hurts. With stretched-out arm, Ritsuka snagged one of Soubi's clean brushes. He dipped it in the ink and traced the cuts he had made. With another tissue he wiped away the blood and did it again. Slowly, the bleeding subsided, and the ink remained in the wounds.
Soubi had hardly moved throughout the entire procedure. Fingers traced the side of Ritsuka's leg and came to rest on his knee, calming, encouraging.
'B', 'E' and 'D' had to be obliterated. Ritsuka reached for the letter opener again, glad for the sharp edge, because otherwise this would have been so much messier, so much more painful. He had to scrape off almost half a square inch of skin for each letter anyway. His insides were cramping, his jaw ached from how hard he was clenching his teeth. Soubi was watching him, but at least he wasn't smiling. That would have made Ritsuka feel twice as bad.
It wasn't as easy as he had imagined. It felt like the letters were protesting, like they didn't want to leave (like Seimei was holding them there). Ritsuka was watching himself doing it, burying that sharp metal into Soubi's warm, living skin, pushing and pulling, tearing through the body (even if the cut was shallow), and this time Soubi tensed. Ritsuka's hands took over and finished opening the horrible, bleeding squares all by themselves, steady and certain in their movements. Ritsuka was but a witness to his own reprehensible actions.
The instant it was over, he thrust the blade to the side, grabbed a handful of tissues and pressed them to the wounds, lowered his head and, spontaneously, kissed Soubi's chest just below the collarbone.
Soubi's fingers stroked his hair, and Ritsuka heard a quiet "Thank you," before he let himself cry. It had been simpler and more difficult than he had imagined. He didn't yet feel changed by what he had done; he was numb, out of touch with his heart, scared and guilty.
Soubi, predictably, said: "I love you, Ritsuka."
In the morning Ritsuka went to school straight from Soubi's apartment. He had to borrow a book from Yuiko, but she practically fell over herself to offer it – as Ritsuka knew she would – and they had fun working together. He still felt detached from himself, but he could smile and laugh, and apart from a few askance looks Yuiko didn't seem to have noticed anything strange about him.
Apparently, the cruelty he had found he was capable of wasn't branded into his skin.
(It was branded into Soubi's, but Soubi was happy about it.)
"Bye, Shinonome-sensei!" a trio of boys called and sped down the hallway.
"Are you busy this weekend?" Yuiko asked as they were leaving the class. "Maybe we could go somewhere tomorrow?"
"Let's go see the butterfly museum!" Yayoi barged in, never too far away when Yuiko was planning an outing. "Yuiko-san will love them! They are so beautiful! And colourful! Like-"
"You two go," Ritsuka said, mustering an apologetic smile. "I'll be busy, and I don't really like butterflies."
"Ritsuka-kun doesn't like butterflies?" Yuiko was stunned. "Everybody likes butterflies!"
"Well, I don't," Ritsuka replied. "Have fun. I'll see you on Monday."
"Bye, Aoyagi-kun!" Yayoi called, obviously over the moon.
Ritsuka put in a burst of speed, which was the most certain way of avoiding questions on why he was busy this weekend, or with whom, and turned two corners before he slowed down to a casual pace. He surveyed the houses he passed; a quiet neighbourhood, lots of kids, low criminality – except for some odd cases of assault with no known perpetrator lately. Ritsuka could, maybe, see why some people were happy here.
He wasn't, though, and this time he knew where he wanted to be. If he, Aoyagi Ritsuka, couldn't shed the name Loveless, than he at least would grasp all the good that came with it (if it really was good, because the relativity of everything wasn't going to be put on hold because of his feelings).
"Mine," he tried out the word. It sounded wrong. He shook his head. "With me. For me." None of that worked. Ritsuka ultimately abhorred the idea of owning another human being, no matter how metaphorically the expression of ownership was meant.
With all his school-things packed and a change of clothes in a plastic bag, Ritsuka arrived. Soubi was on the terrace, smoking. The wind played with his loose hair and with the smoke of the cigarette, and Ritsuka's hand twitched with the impulse to stride over there, snatch the roll of cancer away and crush it into the ground.
He didn't, though. There was precious little to Soubi that was his own, anyway: his disdain for butterflies, his cigarettes, and maybe, hopefully, his love for Ritsuka. (Unless smoking had been Seimei's order, too, in which case Ritsuka was banning it.)
"I gave you the phone so we could talk," Soubi said, letting Ritsuka in.
Ritsuka paused and looked over his shoulders. "Do you want me to leave?"
A chain with something cold and metallic on it was clasped behind Ritsuka's neck. He pawed at it and pulled it up to inspect it. The pendant was a key.
"What's mine is yours," Soubi said by way of explanation.
Ritsuka set his bags down and absent-mindedly tugged on the chain. "Had you given one to Seimei?" he asked. It might have been cruel of him, but at the moment he was being practical. If Seimei could enter at any time-
"Yes," Soubi replied calmly. "I had the lock changed today."
There was too much content, too much substance to the words, and Ritsuka couldn't say anything. This was real. It hadn't even hurt that much – hardly any pain was involved compared to some of the battles. He felt sullied by his actions, but that was life for him, and some of the scars could, perhaps, finally stop bleeding.
If it really had worked. (If Seimei wasn't watching them all the time and this hadn't been on his orders, too.)
"Why did Seimei pretend he was murdered?" Ritsuka asked, feeling more jaded with every second that passed between them.
"Because Seimei wanted you to become like him. You were supposed to be conditioned as what he thought was the ultimate Sacrifice, he-" Soubi paused and continued in a marginally quieter voice. "Sensei believed that Seimei could only love himself, and therefore wanted to make you into himself so that he could love you."
Ritsuka swallowed hard. His stomach roiled, but he took several deep breaths (the air smelled of Soubi's cigarettes) and calmed down. He stepped closer to Soubi and touched the tips of his fingers to the bandage around Soubi's throat.
"I can take it off, if you want," Soubi offered.
Ritsuka shook his head. He didn't care either way. "This makes me worry that I'm not as different from him as I'd like to be," he explained, imagining the wounds he had inflicted yesterday.
(It still could have been for nothing – Seimei might have ordered Soubi to tell everything, to pretend that he was free of Beloved. Uncertainty never ended. Ever.)
"Seimei never did anything to make me happy," Soubi said, startlingly. If anything, Ritsuka would have expected another 'I love you'. "I was always meant to serve and expect no consideration. Ritsuka is – too considerate."
Ritsuka nodded. 'Too considerate,' he knew, wasn't a compliment, and although he wanted to take it as such, he couldn't. It was how he was, and he wanted Soubi to be happy if at all possible, even at a cost to himself. Soubi would neither understand nor appreciate it, but that was a paradox that couldn't be solved.
"I want you to take my ears," Ritsuka said. "And, Soubi, this isn't an order. I want you to do it because you want to do it."
Soubi half-smiled and, with utter lack of shame, began to take off his clothes.
Ritsuka couldn't do it like that. His fingers were cold and clammy, and he was doubly glad he didn't have any buttons to undo. He messed up his hair even worse as he pulled his t-shirt over his head, and on the way down, his fingers grazed the ears. He stroked along the edge, feeling the softness, noting the sensitivity, and the uselessness.
Soubi was sitting on the bed, naked, watching Ritsuka with a blank face and a look in his eyes that bordered on lost. When he noticed he was being watched back (and Ritsuka knew with terrible momentary certainty that it was the improbable, inhuman beauty that drove the men in Soubi's lives to hurting him) he spoke: "I want to do it because you want me to do it. I love you, Ritsuka. I will do anything for you."
Ritsuka had not, fortunately, expected that there would be no catch. He might not have realised before just how broken Soubi had been during his training, but he knew now. Soubi – even Kio had noticed this – needed someone to take care of him, and he was used to the care coming in the form of orders.
From now on, Soubi belonged to Ritsuka, and that meant that Ritsuka had to become adult, responsible, capable of taking care of both of them. His ears coming off was just a paltry physical sign of this, utterly irrelevant in the bigger scheme.
Red-faced and curling unto himself, he stepped out of his clothes, and froze when Soubi moved to turn around and kneel. Fuelled with anger, his voice came out stronger, more authoritative than ever before. "I will be the submissive."
"But that will hurt-"
"Make it hurt as little as you can," Ritsuka ordered.
Soubi was right in warning him it would hurt, but Ritsuka was right in claiming that he was not made of glass. He had read once how it worked with the ears and tail, how some veins would jam and the flesh would go gangrenous, the cartilage would come loose and the muscles atrophy, all of it happening unnaturally fast. It was more complicated with the tail – detaching vertebrae and all – but living through it was different.
Usually, the book had said, it would happen while the person was asleep. He didn't feel like sleeping, though, so he ended up with his ear – the one he would be keeping after this – pressed to Soubi's stomach, staring at the wall and revelling. Love came with pain, and whether or not it was love, this pain he welcomed.
"You could wear fake ones," Soubi said, pulling a piece of a dead flesh out of Ritsuka's hair.
"I'm not ashamed," Ritsuka said. Other people mattered little; Yuiko would find out either way, and his mother knew he wasn't 'her' Ritsuka already. One little change wouldn't make that much of a difference. "There's a bond between us."
"Yes," Soubi agreed. "We are Loveless."
Ritsuka wanted to laugh. The man who told him he loved him in the same breath proclaimed them untouched by such emotion. It just proved how falsidical the 'true' names were. Ritsuka refused to be a slave to fate. His decisions were his own – it was his courage they demanded.
"We are Agatsuma Soubi and Aoyagi Ritsuka."
Monday was rainy and bleak. Electric lights gave a stark contrast to everything, and stole away the little colour that things in Tokyo had left.
Ritsuka wasn't really different from the Ritsuka from Friday, but at the same time he felt like he had changed almost beyond recognition. The little things, like his schoolmates staring, and pointing, and some of them yelling for their friends (he had heard a couple of nasty words attached to his name) was unimportant. The teacher that gaped at him with wide eyes, then scowled and marched off, presumably to tell Shinonome-sensei, didn't bother him.
It didn't concern them. They lived outside his world, in their own little bubbles of fraudulent certainty.
"Ri- Ritsuka-kun?" Yuiko stammered, eyes glued to the top of his head.
He smiled. "Good morning, Yuiko."
"A-A-A-Aoyaaaa…" Yayoi trailed off, and then fainted. Fortunately, he hadn't stood up from his seat, so he merely sagged and banged his head a little.
"Ritsuka-kun," Yuiko repeated, tears streaming down her cheeks in a worryingly quiet fashion. "Your ears…"
"Gone," Ritsuka repeated. "Is it a problem?" He didn't think Yuiko would break off their friendship for such a little thing, and maybe she would finally give up on him and look around for a love-interest of bigger potential - regardless of whether it would be Yayoi, who seemed hopelessly devoted to her, or someone completely different.
"N-no…" Yuiko got out before her grief overwhelmed her and she ran out of the classroom, banging into Shinonome-sensei on the way.
Ritsuka didn't bother sitting down; he shifted the strap of his bag on his shoulder and followed his teacher to her office.
"Aoyagi-kun," Shinonome-sensei repeated for the third time, "you must tell me who did this to you. If someone hurt you, they must be punished!" She was crying almost as hard as Yuiko had been.
Ritsuka sighed and did his best to remain patient. "I had a consensual relation with someone I care for, Shinonome-sensei. I hardly see why that is scandalous, although I imagine you can't exactly understand." He looked at her own ears, perched on her head. Maybe to her the topic was so enigmatic as to have grown into a taboo. Maybe she never would get over her fear and lose the ears and tail. Neither of that was a reason to disparage – or pity – Ritsuka, who had enjoyed lying with Soubi very much. He was, most certainly, going back for more.
"I will have to tell the police-"
"No, you don't have to," Ritsuka said, not entirely certain if he was right. "And if you do, I will tell them the exact same thing I told you."
Shinonome-sensei cried harder, and Ritsuka stood and went back to class, smiling when he felt staring eyes following him every step of the way. They would get used to it soon enough, and then he would be just another face in the crowd again.
Still musing on why Katsuko-sensei had kept watching him with those demure eyes (he had said as much as he would on the topic of his loss of ears, and he had excluded Soubi's name, just in case), Ritsuka deposited the last hoard of things he had scavenged from his mother's house into the chest. Everything he had left behind he didn't really care about.
He had tried to say goodbye to his mother, and received a couple of bruises and a close miss with a knife in response. He took the cry of "My Ritsuka would never leave!" as a farewell and moved on. Gave up.
"Ne, Soubi," he asked, "do you really want me here?" He wasn't sure if he had any other options… except for returning to his mother, but that was becoming more dangerous now that she used knives, too. One day he might not survive it.
"I want…" Soubi still sounded lost, but he had noticed that Ritsuka scorned his pre-prepared answers, so he tried for some honesty, "…to be near Ritsuka, so that when you need me, I will be available."
Ritsuka nodded. It was more or less what he had expected.
"I want to protect you," Soubi said suddenly.
Ritsuka turned sharply. That was new. He scrambled to his feet and Soubi caught him in an embrace, one arm locked around Ritsuka's stomach, chest pressed to Ritsuka's back, kissing the top of his head where cat-like ears had once been. Soubi's other hand sneaked down, brushed a hipbone and cupped the inner side of Ritsuka's thigh, over the marking (hidden beneath trousers now) that had appeared no one knew when and suddenly just was there. Loveless.
Ritsuka felt a spike of pleasure and entrusted his weight to Soubi; his eyelids drooped and he concentrated on his breathing as Soubi traced a lazy circle with his thumb.
"A life without Ritsuka… I couldn't…"
Cold wind bowed the branches of trees. Raindrops stung on skin, and Ritsuka's hair was plastered to his face, neck and shoulders. The cuts on his forearms were already ceasing to bleed, circulation sluggish in the frigid atmosphere. Droplets of red fell from his fingers into the stream of water running down the footpath, and disappeared.
Soubi stood and rubbed his wrists. He shook his head. Their enemy hadn't survived.
Ritsuka closed his eyes, thought a short prayer for them, and looked forwards. Across the parking lot, on the curb, stood two familiar men: one grinning in self-satisfaction, the other slightly bored.
"Hello, Ritsuka," Seimei said, and then froze when Ritsuka ran his hand through his wet hair.
(Seimei, notably, wouldn't let anyone who wasn't himself touch him, and thus his cat-like ears now flattened in anger.)
"Seimei," Ritsuka said coldly. "Nisei."
Seimei growled. "Soubi, pick up Ritsuka and bring him here!"
Soubi took half a step closer and leaned down and Ritsuka said, quietly enough that the noise of the rain had drowned his words before they reached his erstwhile brother: "We're staying right here, Soubi."
Soubi nodded, straightened and, when Ritsuka took his hand, clasped it.