The first time Raikou ever kills someone in front of Gau is also the moment they meet, and Gau thinks that the fact that their relationship began with a murder-slash-rescue bodes very ill for how their relationship will end. Gau tries hard not to think about that - he never wants this relationship to end - but as an obsessive data analyst/trivia collector/hobo resident of every library within a ten kilometer radius, a certain amount of mythological superstition has sunk into his encyclopedia psyche. Gau does not walk under ladders and he does not mention certain gods by name and he does not trim his toenails at night; and although he approaches Raikou nine-tenths of the time with a reverence that borders on the fanatic (and, in his lower moments, the sort of live-wire lust that could stop hearts), he is also, one-tenth of the time, wary.

"Gau," Raikou says, serenely, giving him a sweet little tap on the shoulder and then pinching him, painfully hard, on the ear, "enough woolgathering. Have you found what you were looking for?"

"Owwww," Gau whines, petulantly. They are in a bookstore - cluttered, tiny, winding narrow paths between tall shelves painted a sickly shade of candy-floss blue - like Raikou's hair that first cold winter night, oddly fitting as it clashed against the dark red sludge of bloodstains on snow. "Uh..." What was he looking for? Ah, yes, a leisure book. A novel, something to read at the beach - Raikou had been vague and noncommittal about it, but Gau had divined that they were definitely going to the seaside in the near future based on the fact that Raikou had brought home a pair of some really fantastically hideous matching swim trunks.

- Right, right, a book - Murakami would do - his style of prose was crisp and thin and easy to swallow. (Like batter-fried yakitori - delicious, easy to wolf down, but you couldn't eat too many, you'd get sick. Something a dropout like Gau could read without feeling pretentious.)

"No," Gau admits, scanning the mocking blue undersides of the shelves above his head, a frown distorting his frequently-chewed lower lip. "Wind-up Bird Chronicles should be on the top shelf, is it there?"

"You could have asked for a stool to stand on," Raikou tells him, gently swatting him on the back of his head - well, it looks gentle, but it smarts, and Gau's eyes water as he snarls. He would have argued - all the employees here are girls, I can't ask a girl for a step stool, I'd never live it down - but Raikou is already thumbing through the volumes on the top shelf, extracting the elusive paperback, a tiny little grin on his aristocratic face. "Is this the one?"

"Yeah," Gau says, excitedly. "That's the one. It's supposed to be really good, and it's all about life and modern civilization and people losing control over their lives and there's this one character that Raimei really likes, this girl with a limp, I heard, and she said that when I got to the part with the well I'd totally -"

Raikou thumps the book soundly on top of Gau's head, leaving it to balance there as Gau winces. "We've been here almost an hour," he says, lightly, "and we do need to buy groceries."

"Ow," Gau says again, giving Raikou a pathetic look as he bows his head, lets the novel fall into his hands. "Sorry, Raikou-san. Um, the department store's grocery should still be open by the time we get there - we should take the train - "

Raikou's teasing grin gets just a little bit wider, and Gau thinks that it's just not fair, really, for Raikou to have the ingenious capriciousness, deviousness, and downright cruelty of a kitsune when Gau is the one stuck with the fox-eyes.

"All right, then, Gau," he says, breezily, turning his back and striding off to the cashier, obnoxiously certain that Gau will follow him. "I'll pay for the book and the train fare."

"You don't have to!" Gau protests, clutching the Chronicles in agitated fingers, struggling to keep pace with Raikou's deliberately elongated strides. "This is why I got a part-time job, Raikou-san, so I could -"

"Don't make me embarrass you in front of the staff, Gau," Raikou says, a mocking tenderness steeped heavily into his voice, and Gau shuts up.

Threatening me while buying me a present, he thinks, rolling his eyes. Raikou's gift-giving practices - like his hair, his atrocious fashion sense, his dubious moral code, and even the incomprehensible rescue of Gau, as if he were simply an abandoned animal that needed to be fed, watered, trained to kill - are so very unorthodox. In all things Raikou is a creature of violence - Gau thinks that maybe, possibly Raikou would self-destruct if he didn't have anything to fight, if he didn't have something to batter himself endlessly against, half samurai half psychotic -

"Hurry along, now," Raikou says over his shoulder.

But that isn't something to worry about, Gau chides himself, because there will always be evil in the world, there will always be promise-breakers and cheaters, ninja falling into temptation, and so Raikou will always, always have something to battle. There will always be a direction for Raikou to point his fundamental, chronic violence, and if a little of it leaks into his surroundings, that's fine, because Raikou is a good person the way saints are good people, and if it ever came down to the wire - if for some ludicrous reason they ever ran out of criminals - Raikou wouldn't hurt the innocent. (The guilty, yes, but never the innocent.)

... Nevertheless, Gau is wary. (Of what? he wonders, but does not press.)

"Do they have candied ginger?" Raikou asks, pouting in a way that Gau finds menacing. "We're out."

Because you ate all of it in one sitting, Gau thinks. He should have expected that Raikou would develop an infatuation with ginger candy as soon as he tried it - Raikou is the sort of adventurous diner who eats wasabi with a spoon and adds powdered habañero peppers to everything, claiming that if he spices his food strongly enough no one ever tries to steal it and besides, spicy foods are beneficial to the constitution - Gau wouldn't care, if he didn't have to eat Raikou's leftovers. "Not in the produce aisle. Maybe with the rest of the candy and snacks," Gau tells him, checking a head of bok choy for signs of insect damage in the leaves - none, thankfully, so into the basket it goes.

Raikou wanders off in the direction of the junk food, and Gau ponders their meals for the next week without distraction. They eat miso soup with rice and green tea every morning like honest, upstanding traditional Japanese samurai - unless Raikou is depressed, in which case Raikou eats hideously colorful breakfast cereals with unhealthy levels of dye and sugar and Gau is too nerve-wracked to eat anything at all - but Gau tries to make it a little less monotonous. He wonders for a few minutes if he should buy bonito flakes or kelp for soup stock, staring at both packages, and then he realizes, with a sense of despair, that he's seriously considering soup stock like it's some sort of complex metaphysical problem, and he remembers he read a newspaper article about pregnant teenaged girls dropping out of high school to become housewives and he thinks well, at least I'm not pregnant.

"The only kind they have are 1700-en," Raikou says, suddenly appearing behind Gau's left shoulder and giving him a minor heart attack. "In fancy box sets."

"That's ridiculous," Gau says. "It's just ginger and sugar, it'd be much cheaper to make it at home -"

Raikou gets an odd light in his eyes. Gau backtracks furiously.

" - but it'd take, oh, at least seven, maybe ten hours, and it'd be way spicier than the - than the kind you buy in stores..."

And that is how Gau ends up spending his entire Saturday slaving over a hot stove, having surrendered to his fate the moment Raikou said 'please'. It's not a difficult task (four parts sugar, one part water, bring it to a boil and then let it simmer; peel and wash and chop up the ginger, drop it in) it's just a boring one. You come back every forty minutes or so to stir (it keeps the sugar from burning to the bottom of the pot), scrape down the sides, and add a spoonful of water to make up for the evaporation; you burn your fingertips, and you watch with morbid fascination how the ginger slowly stains the syrup a pleasant, rich golden brown over the course of nine fucking hours.

By the time Raikou waltzes back into their apartment, carrying a bag of crushed ice and a bag of powdered sugar in either hand (Gau texted him to ask for both, having forgotten to buy them yesterday), not only is the apartment cleaner than it's been for weeks, not only is the laundry washed, dried, folded, and put away, not only is their elaborate dinner perfectly prepared and ready, but Gau is also ready and willing to murder him.

"Tadaima. Is the candy done, Gau?" Raikou asks, cheerfully. He's got a plum-colored bruise on his right arm, a long scratch on his left - he seems happy, as if all of his lambent rage has dissipated. "I was in Banten all day."

"Okaeri. Yeah, it's almost done, and I'm never going to - hey, you should've asked me to pack you a - wait, you went all the way to Banten?" Banten means Raimei and Miharu (and Gau forgets if Hanabusa's house is technically in Banten, but it's close enough). His heart skips a beat or two.

"I felt the need to test my sister's skills," Raikou tells him, setting the ice and the sugar on the countertop - Gau sagely interprets that to mean I had nothing to do all day and I thought I'd kick someone's ass and I didn't want you there in case she won. "She was quite enthusiastic." He offers Gau a supermodel smile, the sort of blissful expression that marketing executives for products like fine wine and imported chocolates would kill to put in a magazine, and just like that Gau forgives him, his rage melting into a little puddle of adoration. That's the trouble with hero-worship/hardcore crushing - everything Raikou does seems wonderful. Gau intended, at the very least, to complain, but -

"Um, you should spread the sugar on a big plate, and pack the ice into a tub," he says instead, and Raikou indulgently obliges him. The candied ginger chunks are dumped on top of the confectioner's sugar and rolled dry; the boiling reddish golden syrup is poured on top of the ice where it cools into a sticky taffy, and then rolled onto flat wooden popsicle sticks, an oozy mess of flavor.

"Mmm. You were right - the taste is stronger. We should share some with the Banten kids," Raikou says, popping a cube into his mouth and chewing. "Yoite might like it."

Gau lets out a sigh he was only half-aware he was holding in. "So Yoite's still -"

"He's taken up knitting," Raikou says, deeply amused. "You should visit." Then he picks up another ginger cube, and Gau thinks you'll spoil your dinner - but Raikou holds it out in Gau's direction, smiling, eyes just a little too dark. "Open your mouth and say 'aaaah'."

(Somewhere, in the back of Gau's brain, an alarm goes off. This means something, this is significant.)

He ignores it, and opens his mouth, staring into Raikou's too-deep eyes. "Aaah -"

(There is something inside of Gau - something that is always straining, arms and spine stretched out to their utmost limit, to reach. He does not know what he's reaching for; he knows that the alarm in his head - beware, beware - doesn't want him to attain it.)

Hard, heavy. It tastes fine - the sting of the ginger is a pleasant one. He is aware of the lingering brush of Raikou's fingernails against his lips, and he shivers.

(When Raikou smiles a little wider, shifts the tiniest bit closer, Gau thinks that whatever it is he's been reaching for - whatever it is he's trying to hold on to - is brushing, lightly, against his outstretched hands - almost but not quite within his grasp.)

"Dinner," he tries to say around the ginger.

"It's ready?" Raikou asks, tearing his eyes away from Gau's mouth and glancing, somewhat surprised, at the covered dishes on the table. Absentmindedly, he licks his lips.

Gau nods, chewing. "Yeah. Indian food. Remember when we went to that one take-out place? I asked the chef for the recipes for the stuff you liked." Aloo chole - that's chickpeas in sauce - and mattar paneer, cottage cheese with peas - and naan with coconut and raisins baked inside of it, as well as a heaping bowl of basmati rice with cloves and a stick of cinnamon for taste. Rich, but not expensive; they're not exactly rolling in money, so Gau rarely cooks meat. He made a lot - Raikou does behave like a wise elder brother/mentor/knight, but he still eats like a teenager. "I made it pretty spicy, but if you think it's too mild, there's stuff on the table."

Raikou pauses, and then lays a hand gently on top of Gau's head, smiling as if all of his pain, his bitter violence, has momentarily melted, like a brief glimpse of blue in an overcast sky. (Gau finds it a test of willpower to look away from Raikou's crooked grin, his lips.) "Well done, Gau."

Gau swallows his half-chewed ginger in one painful, deliriously happy lump.

"W-well, you know I live to serve, Raikou-san," he says, blushing like a ripe tomato, half joking half really not joking, not in the slightest, but hey, he can laugh at his own idiosyncrasies. "I mean, it wasn't really that difficult, just some of the ingredients were a little hard to find, and, uh, I thought it'd be okay to be a little more elaborate with cooking because you - uh, we - we don't have any jobs lined up, so it's not like I was taking time away from vital research - although, I probably could've spent a little more time studying -"

"Shut up, Gau," Raikou says, gently, pressing a long thumb over Gau's lips, and Gau shuts up in a hurry, because Raikou is touching him, touching him, and the alarm in his head (and in his heart) also, mercifully, shuts up. Gau doesn't want to have to think about anything, right now. He just wants to memorize the way that it feels to have Raikou's hand on his face before -

As if remembering reality, Raikou jerks his hand back, and laughs, heading to the table and sitting down. "Let's eat," he suggests, with his usual subdued aura of perpetual amusement, and Gau wonders why Raikou isn't looking him in the eyes anymore, chalks it up to his idol's flawless sense of propriety, and obeys.

"Itadakimasu," Gau says, eyes lowered to stare at his own empty white plate.

"Itadakimasu," Raikou says, and because Gau's head is respectfully bowed, he does not notice that Raikou is staring at him while he says it.

What would he do without Raikou?

Well, that's kind of a moot point, Gau thinks, because without Raikou he probably would have died, beaten to death in a dark alley, body eventually surfacing in the local morgue to be burned with a tag on his toe and an ugly split lip. But, assuming he had survived, purely for the sake of argument: what would he do?

Gau likes to think that he would've kept his chin up, but he knows that that's a self-indulgent delusion. He would not, in all likelihood, have scraped the cash together to be self-sustaining; he would, probably, have gone mad, railing against a world too cruel and too unjust, starving on the unfriendly street corners that reek of garbage and despair and sobbing himself to sleep, slowly freezing to death. He is a cheerful person, a fighter, but in the face of they killed your mother and they're going to kill you and no one, no one is going to help you, well, being cheerful can only take you so far.

It makes him uneasy to contemplate it, actually – like trying to imagine life without your lungs, or spine, or some other, deeply fundamental, thing. That which is essential is, in Gau's case, actually quite visible to the eyes; Raikou is his first and last thought every day, Raikou is his dreams, Raikou is the smell of home and the surcease of loneliness, the eternal companion, the bloody hand in his. The sun, and Gau is the moon, living on borrowed light.

And Raikou can't get rid of him because Gau will follow him, dog his heels right into Hell. That's probably a little unhealthy, indicative of a disturbed mind, a traumatic childhood – but so is murder, and though Raikou may be responsible for inspiring large swathes of Gau's perversities, homicide is not one such.

Because even without Raikou's dubiously positive influence, Gau would have at least tried to kill the fucker who orphaned him. And he knows now, from the seat of weary experience, that he probably would've died like an animal.

(They are not identical by any means, but in their sense of what justice is, what justice means, they are kindred proponents of eye for an eye.)

So that's the answer, he guesses, to that stupid hypothetical.

(And what will you do if Raikou dies? Follow, naturally.)

Somehow or another – between breakfast and lunch the following day – they decide to invite "the Banten kids" to the beach along with them, and so Gau is the proud bearer of that invitation when he finally arrives at Hanabusa's house (not Thobari's house, he refuses to think of it that way.)

"So, we're going to the beach," he says, casually, after a few rounds of Old Maid, as Raimei eats a peach and Miharu feeds thin peach slices to a silently knitting Yoite (and Yoite is kind of adorable to watch, honestly, as he knits and purls and bites into the peach slices without really noticing what Miharu is up to). "You guys could come along if you want. It's still a little cold for swimming, but it should be fun."

"A whole beachfront to ourselves," Miharu points out, nudging at Yoite's thin lips with an aura of distraction, "would be kinda nice." Yoite blinks, and gets a befuddled look on his face, as if he has no idea what's going on.

"Sure, whatever, I'll come, I got this really cute bikini," Raimei says, tossing her hair over her shoulders and smiling at Gau, and for a moment Gau can see Raikou in her face and it makes his heart lurch in interesting, confusing ways. "I hear that models have to like, wear swimsuits in the middle of winter, and they're a bunch of anorexic pansies. So I figure if they can handle it, I'll be fine, you know? It's not even that cold."

"Yes," Miharu says, very decisively, staring at Yoite's face. "Let's go to the beach." Gau realizes, when Yoite shrugs and nods, that Miharu enunciated so clearly because he was trying to let Yoite read his lips, and almost goes misty-eyed, because Gau is and always has been a sucker for that sort of romantic drivel; he plays it cool, and only sniffles a little bit.

"It's okay if I invite Minami-chan and Saraba too, right?" Ramei asks, and Gau's analytical brain thinks how neat, three and half of each gender and then he wants to belabor himself with the nearest item of carefully-selected home decor, which happens to be a tasteful urn. He's not supposed to know that Yoite is – is like that, in the first place – he overheard a conversation he shouldn't have between Yukimi and Kazuho – and besides, Yoite acts like a guy, so Gau is probably supposed to roll with that, except maybe it's something that he's just not supposed to think about one way or another and – and if Raikou were here he would've already decked him for over-thinking this, so Gau bites the inside of his cheek and calms down.

"Th-that would be great," he says, his voice a strained croak, standing up to leave; Raimei stands up with him, apparently appointing herself to the task of seeing him to the door. "I'll let Raikou-san know." And he exits, Raimei in his wake, to a small chorus of brief 'see you laters'.

"That'll be some fun, huh," Raimei muses, following him into the genkan, stepping from side to side in her bare feet on the chilly stone, sliding the door shut behind them to prevent a draft. "I might win against Raikou twice in a row."

"It was a fluke victory. Once in a lifetime," Gau tells her, not precisely sure why he feels the need to defend Raikou's honor, and she laughs and slaps him heartily on the shoulder.

"You two are so darn cute," she tells him, and then wrinkles her nose in a way that looks better when it's happening on Raikou's face, in Gau's totally unbiased opinion. "Two couples, huh... Maybe Miharu will let the rest of us have a turn babying Yoite if we distract him – you think Miharu would like beach volleyball?"

(A bunch of clashing mythologies all insist that Raimei just stepped far, far over some invisible line - you can't go around giving things names like that, it makes them real, or, possibly a worse alternative, if he tries to put a name on his relationship with Raikou it might disappear altogether.)

"Wh-what are you talking about?" Gau asks her, trying not to panic.

"Beach volleyball," she says, deadpan, and slaps him on the shoulder again. "You're right, Miharu doesn't seem the type." Carefree and merry, she steps back inside, and leaves havoc behind her.

In a way, Gau's presentiments of doom are entirely justified. All it takes is one careless remark, and the barrier in his brain dissolves.

Gau is ninety-nine-percent certain that he and Raikou are not, as Raimei suggests, a couple, at least not in the romantic sense; they live together, they eat together, they share a bathroom (Raikou uses some really inexplicable types of toothpaste, sometimes, like, he'll mix together the sparkly orange flavor and the shiny bubblegum flavor, but Gau sticks to boring mint), they know each other's habits and moods, read each other's expressions, and damn Raimei for bringing it up because it was hard enough for Gau to stifle those wayward desires already.

(Desires for what, exactly, he's not certain. Sex, love, intimacy, all that, of course, but something else. There is an intense endorphin rush whenever Raikou, for example, puts him in a headlock, but that's just the oxygen deprivation, and it probably has nothing to do with the pieces of his heart that scream yes, yes, my life in your hands – nothing at all.)

They aren't a couple and Gau is okay with that – he has to be okay with that.

But when Raikou grins, in that lazy, perfect way of his, as he orders Gau to pack for a trip to the seaside, the flush of ridiculous joy that leaps to Gau's face is difficult to control. Oddly enough, it is not the moments of terse quiet and barked commands that push Gau's buttons the most, but rather the warm, sweet afternoons between jobs when Raikou has nothing to do but needle him, gentle-rough as the ocean tides, stinging happily like saltwater. So it's not a perversion, Gau tells himself: it's just how he responds to Raikou-san, out of – oh, call it love.

Today, after a stiflingly silent car ride (Yukimi dropped them off, handed them a package with instructions to give it to Yoite, and then ran away as if scalded) they are all finally at the beach, and Gau has wandered close to the cold slap of the waves, the wet sand chilly beneath his bare feet. The salty sea air makes him think of fresh fish and saltwater taffy. Predictably, Miharu and Yoite have wandered off alone together, and Raimei and the other girls are building sand castles much farther from the water; Kouichi might show up later, but he might not. For Gau, the ocean is an invitation to brood, a trap full of metaphors he finds hard to ignore, such as -

The love I bear for you is far deeper than the seas are deep. Gau has never been on a boat, but he can imagine the unbearable vastness of the water, and that's the real problem right there, in a nutshell. He lets his imagination run wild to fantasies of a quasi-romantic tempest, distracting him from his constant flow of grocery lists, household management, data banks. It's pathetic. Something as small and insignificant and mundane as Gau in the grand scheme of things has no business containing an emotion so oceanic. He makes do the only way he can, given his limited means – by gritting his teeth and pretending it isn't there.

(I expect the grapes were sour anyway, said the fox.)

Undeniably real waves slap his heels. As if to provide theme music to Gau's frantic struggle to maintain his ignorance, a few nearby gulls – petulant, shabby grey-white pests - begin to cry.

"You're awfully quiet," Raikou says, appearing at Gau's shoulder out of the blue. His feet are bare as well, his toes long and slender, jointed to elegant ankles. The swim trunks – form-fitting, neon technicolor vomit – are like a joke, completely ruining the effect of Raikou's (magnificent) bare chest, and not for the first time Gau wonders if Raikou might be selectively colorblind. "Something on your mind?"

"Uh, nothing you need to concern yourself with, Raikou-san," Gau sputters, but Raikou – firm shoulders drawn back into a tense line, a hint of latent aggression in the set of his jaw, the narrowness of his eyes – doesn't seem to buy it. He's really unfairly attractive when he's pouting, especially half-naked; Gau has seen that particular face in more than one lust-thickened dream.

"Raimei … said something that gave me pause," Raikou admits, and Gau realizes he was staring and hopes that the look on his face was more 'concerned' than 'strangely aroused'. He coughs in the back of his throat, tries to act suave.

"She's pretty hot-headed sometimes, so don't take her too seriously," he quips, waving a hand dismissively, and Raikou's mouth twitches into a smile; then his eyes flicker downwards to stare at the black swim trunks Gau managed to find in the back of his closet, and Gau remembers that oh, yeah, I'm half-naked too.

"She had some things to say about our relationship," Raikou says, finally, crossing his arms, his pink hair fluttering about the harsh lines of his face in a sudden, strong gust of wind. "She told me I'm too controlling and condescending, and that I shouldn't jerk your chain so often, because you're so gullible. It occurred to me that -"

"She said I was what?" Gau fumes. "She's the one who tries to have conversations with potted plants, so I don't see how -"

"Gau," Raikou says, very gently uncrossing his arms and laying his hands on Gau's bare shoulders, fingers cool, palms warm. "Do you think she's right?"

"I'm not gullible," Gau protests, biting his lower lip, and then he realizes that Raikou is technically holding him and that actually, this is kind of related to what he was thinking about before, and he slowly turns a deep, embarrassing shade of tomato-red. "Oh, the other stuff. That's... Raimei doesn't know what she's talking about."

"Really," Raikou says, thoughtfully. "I thought she hit the nail on the head, actually." Stormclouds gather in his stare and Gau's thoughts shift to a litany of curses. "I frequently step outside the bounds of propriety, where you are concerned."

"But I don't – It's not like I mind," Gau stammers, "it's not a problem, really, I'm happy no matter what." How many times will he have to say this, he wonders. "Because – because I just want to stay by your side."

"...Why?" Raikou asks, very quietly, almost to himself, and for a lurching second Gau feels a tremendous sense of vertigo, as though Raikou has, with that one word, pushed them both over the edge, and they are tumbling in freefall. It makes it so easy to open his stupid mouth and waltz right into a danger zone, where everything could vanish in an instant.

"I..." Don't make me say it, don't make me say it, please, don't make me –

"You're burning a little," Raikou interrupts, smiling in a way that hurts to watch, not making him say it after all, not pushing. "I'll go get some sunscreen."

Politely, and very, very graciously, he turns to leave.


No, wait -

As Gau flounders in wordless protest, Raikou starts to walk away, and the world narrows into a single dance on the head of a single, slender pin.

One tenth of the time, Gau is wary – but of what?

Of having that violence, that brutal precision, aimed at him? No, that's not it. Raikou is conscientious; he would never overstrain Gau's capacity to bear his cruelty. Raikou is a gentle giant, if riddled with sadism - knows his own strength.

No, it's not Raikou, in the end, that Gau is most wary of, although there are some portions of him (screaming, screaming like a mad thing, bringing Gamon down again, again, again, in a rage that could tear apart continents, rip men to shreds, and the blood is everywhere and stinks like a rotten body in the summer heat but Raikou won't stop screaming, won't stop cutting until white bone, yellow fat, gray brains are all a pulpy mess on the sorrowful parched grass) that are, undeniably, very fucking scary.

In the end, it is really the beasts lurking within himself that give him pause.

(How far will he fall, and to what depravities might he sink? And what might he destroy, if he were to set the snowball rolling here at the very top of the mountain?)

But in the end, there is only one concrete, unshakable truth: that Raikou is retreating, and Gau can't bear it anymore, can't bear it at all.

(He is always reaching for something.)

Impetuously resolved, he lifts his hand, and grabs Raikou's left arm. "Wait," he hears himself say.

"Yes?" Raikou asks, placid as a still lake under the cloudless sky.

And it's stupid, insane, ludicrous for Gau to gamble with what he's got in hopes of something more – because he could live on this, this universe of shopping receipts and late night library trips and the occasional stint as back-up vigilante, forever, he could do it, he could stay right here and never, ever test the glass ceiling (that is, for Raikou, a glass floor), and he could reach for the rest of his life and be content if he never got to hold. But -

"D-don't you already know?" Gau stutters. And he doesn't mean to say the next bit, but it leaps out of his throat before he can help it: "It's because I – I'm in, uh, love with you. That's why."

...Cat's out of the bag, I guess. And so clumsily, too.

Raikou is stillness itself, as if inside his head he's turning something over, something weighty and terrible. "Gau," he says, very gently, "you're sixteen."

"Yeah, and you're twenty. And how many people do you think I've killed?" Gau snorts – and oh, that was the wrong thing to say, Raikou looks positively stricken, why must he always shove his foot into his mouth with such catastrophic bad timing? "Raikou-san," he says hoarsely, tightening his grip, hand clenched so hard it's shaking, "the point is, you know, I stopped being a kid years before I met you."

"I don't want to hurt you," Raikou says, simply, a glitter of naked want flickering out between the slats of his iron self-control, darkening his eyes. And Gau thinks yeah, right, you scrap like a dirty street fighter, but he thinks he knows what Raikou means. A few bruises and scrapes, here and there, that's one thing, but he doesn't want to damage Gau, and that's something a little more complicated. Shit, this is so embarrassing.

(Because how the hell do you explain that sometimes, in your lowest strangest moments, you think about him losing his control, and it gets you really hot and bothered? How do you explain that a wicked, twisted part of you is downright gleeful to suffer for his sake? And how, without sounding like a melodramatic idiot, can you say that you want to drain all the bitterness out of him, swallow it whole? How do you even start?)

"The only thing you could do that'd really hurt me," Gau says, careful like he's walking a gauntlet or the edge of a knife, "would be to leave me." There. An ultimatum of sorts. He's thrown down his glove, and all that's left to do is wait.

"... All right," Raikou says, and for a heart-stopping moment Gau thinks he's talking about leaving, and is just about ready to bawl or punch him, when he continues: "We – We'll discuss this at dinner."

"Okay," Gau breathes, the words bursting out of him like bubbles, rising jubilantly, like his heart is stuck in his throat. The gulls, inappropriately, continue to cry, but they're not the brightest of creatures, so one can forgive them their poor sense of mood. "O-okay, at dinner, yeah, I was going to make bok choy with peanuts."

"And meat?" His face is flushed, hopeful, radiant, and Gau drinks it in.

"Tofu," Gau murmurs, apologetically, even though Raikou is the one with the compulsive shopping habits.

"It's fine, everything you make turns out edible. Let's go get sunscreen," Raikou says, the pretty slow-lazy crooked grin inching back into his face, grabbing Gau by the hand, "you're turning red." And Gau thinks, with a surge of relief: It's going to be okay. We're definitely going to work something out.

It's only on the long drive back, with a pang of regret, that Gau realizes he never read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. He resolves to finish it another day, perhaps when it rains.

TBC. Apologies for any characterization issues.