All That We Are

 

Chapter One

 

At an early age, Yata Misaki had no doubt of his place in life.

Actually, he wasn’t ‘Yata’ when he had that unwavering confidence. The early part of it started when he was old enough to question his father's lack of presence in his life – and to understand that he hadn't been a good guy. That moment was when he realized that he and his mother only had each other. It was them against the world, and he couldn’t let her down.

"You'll do fine, you know," his mother used to tell him, whenever he'd enter a new situation, and she'd smile at him with so much pride. "You're my son, after all."

He did do fine, because he was strong. He was his mother's son, so how could he not be?

Yata-san came into the picture, and then Minoru, and suddenly that position became questionable. ‘His mother's son’. Was he really? Minoru was the son with her real husband, and he was on the outside. So how could he be?

That comfortable confidence was gone. He felt adrift, out of place – unidentifiable, even. If he wasn't his mother's son, who was he?

In his first year of middle school, he learned about the soulmate system, and things started to make sense again. He was somebody's soulmate in the end; everyone was. And in the same year, he met Fushimi Saruhiko.

It really was fate – he was sure of it.

 


 

 

Fushimi Saruhiko learned about soulmates early in his life.

It was sooner than the school system would’ve preferred, but it couldn't be helped – the marks were too difficult to conceal entirely. Even though the woman who’d birthed him was a stranger he only saw on occasion, he was observant and his memory was good, and it was hard not to notice a large pair of black and white dice displayed on her right cheek, just across the cheekbone.

It was mirrored exactly on the man's left cheek, no mars or imperfections. A flawlessly crafted pair that could only have come from a true soulmate match.

He didn't remember asking about it. After all, it was pointless to ask that man anything, and the woman didn't have the time or patience for his questions. But he remembered them speaking together, her with cold tones and he with gleeful, and those certain words stuck in his memory.

"We're really a perfect combination, aren't we, Kisa-san? After all, there’s proof."

It wasn't a lie, he reasoned. The soulmate system was precise and cruel, just like that man. It was no wonder it could be used so ruthlessly.

Not that it mattered, because he’d already learned that caring was pointless. He wouldn't have a soulmate anyway, if he didn't care about anyone.

In middle school, he met Yata Misaki, and the flaw in his thinking became clear.

He wouldn't notice it for a while yet, though.

 


 

 

Early in their friendship, Yata had been keen to try and eat with Fushimi on the roof of their school. He found out pretty quick that it wasn't nearly as simple as it seemed in fiction; the door to the roof was locked, for one thing, and Fushimi didn't seem very interested in lock-picking.

"It's pointless," he'd said flatly.

"You could do it, though, couldn't you?" It was technically a question, but Yata threw it out there with confidence. He was pretty sure Fushimi could do anything. "Right, Fushimi?"

"If I had to." Fushimi clicked his tongue impatiently. "Why waste the effort? It'll be cold."

They ate at their desks in the classroom instead – or rather, at Fushimi's desk. Yata turned in his seat and straddled the back of his chair, his boxed lunch in front of him and Fushimi's just beyond. Fushimi decisively and methodically picked the bits of vegetable from his purchased meal, and Yata obligingly took and ate them without even thinking. It was routine now.

The window near them had been opened, and a very faint breeze cracked through the stuffiness of the room. It was only a small relief from the heat, and the feeling of being stifled in that boring class lingered like a bad smell that just wouldn’t wash away with the fresh air.

Yata was restless; he couldn’t help it. He finished his lunch in a hurry, pushing the box aside and resting his chin on his hand, idly watching as Fushimi slowly picked at his food. It seemed like most of the vegetable removal was done, and he was eating now at least, but he was slow. Yata tapped his fingers idly against the desk, following the movement of his friend’s hands as he separated each bite-sized portion before lifting them to his mouth.

Fushimi had light, dexterous fingers. Yata had seen them skitter against the holographic keyboard, graceful and confident – he could remember it clearly as he watched them now. The thought made his body shiver.

He’s amazing, after all.

“Quit it,” Fushimi mumbled, thin lips turning down into a frown despite his eyes still being on his food.

Yata stilled, grinning sheepishly in response. “My bad.” He let out a sharp breath, not holding back his frustration with the atmosphere. “This place sucks, s’all.”

“You think?” Fushimi muttered dryly, still focused on his food. The corners of his mouth quirked, though it wasn’t obvious if he was trying to smile or deepen his frown.

It was that mysterious part of him that Yata liked. He was slowly starting to get Fushimi, bit by bit, but there were things he couldn’t predict. It was thrilling whenever he could pull a reaction, though – especially one of Fushimi's rare smiles. They were becoming gradually more common, a fact that settled warmly in the center of Yata's chest.

It was greedy of him, maybe. But he wanted to see more.

It's natural, though, right? Because...

"What are you looking at?"

The sharp mumble pulled him out of his thoughts. Yata blinked then shrugged, letting the grin tug across his face again. "Hey, Fushimi," he started, ignoring the question, "what d'you think about the whole soulmate thing?"

There was a tiny but noticeable pause; for that one instant, Yata had the strong impression that he'd asked something significant – and not necessarily in a good way. Fushimi's expression settled into a neutral one. "What," he drawled, in that bored tone, "you actually care about that stuff? It's garbage."

That was an effective enough distraction from the weirdness. Yata frowned back, dissatisfied with the response. "Huh? Why?"

"You're seriously asking that?" Fushimi clicked his tongue, shooting him a disdainful look. "What's good about a system that matches you arbitrarily with a random person? No one can even be sure about the criteria. Calling it a 'soulmate' is wishful thinking if you ask me."

Honestly, Yata hadn't thought that much about it. He shifted in his seat, a little disgruntled. "Oi..."

"There's no guarantee that the matching marks don't actually indicate your worst enemy instead," Fushimi pointed out, without waiting for his interruption. There was an undertone of something spiteful in his voice. "It could be the system's way of mocking us pathetic beings."

"There's no way that's true!" Yata responded fervently, straightening as his confidence returned. "If that was the case, you wouldn't have all those happy soulmate pairs, right? They say that being with your soulmate feels more right than anything! And besides" – he could feel uncomfortable warmth climbing up his face as he considered it, but plunged onward with determination – "what kind of sense would it make if you find your worst enemy doing... y'know... doing that?"

Fushimi raised both eyebrows at him. "You can say the word 'sex', you know. It's not that hard." He clicked his tongue again, as if to cut off any possible protest. "Anyway, that's the worst part of it. What about those people who don't want to have sex? What about the ones who can't? The ones who are so ugly no one wants to do it with them?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "If soulmates are really as great as you say, don't you think it's a cruel system if it's going to lock people out on something so stupid?"

He didn't have a response for that either. Yata shifted in his seat again, impatient and frustrated with the sharp logic. "Well, yeah, but – "

"In the end, it's a faulty system," Fushimi talked over him. There was a dark edge in his voice, which lowered to something like a mutter as he continued. "What's the point of those marks, other than to show off to other people? You could get them from a one-night mistake, so what does it prove?"

"It means you have a connection, that's what!" Yata seized his advantage, quickly straightening again and meeting Fushimi's gaze boldly. "It means you belong with someone, and they belong with you." He clenched one hand into a fist and thumped it against his chest confidently. "Don't you think you'll know that person if you spend time with them, even before all the other stuff?"

Fushimi's expression was dubious to the point of dismissive. "Where did you hear that stupid theory?"

Yata grinned back at him. "Those are just my feelings. I'm pretty sure of it, though!"

"I should've guessed." Fushimi sighed. "You're an idiot through and through."

He didn't bother denying it. "Maybe so, but I'm an idiot who's someone's soulmate."

"What are you trying to prove with that?"

"Nothing. Just saying." Yata felt that same satisfied certainty settle within him and let his grin widen. "I’m someone’s soulmate, and I’ll devote my life to that person, just wait!"

Fushimi's thin lips curled down into a frown; he clicked his tongue again and mumbled, "Good luck with that. You could sleep with a thousand people and not find a match."

"I won't have to do anything like that," Yata responded confidently. "My feelings will guide me, right?"

"Don't count on it." Fushimi sighed, uncrossing his arms and returning to his food. "Do whatever you want. Just leave me out of it." Once again, that dark look seemed to flash in his eyes, there and gone in an instant. "I want nothing to do with that ridiculous system."

"Yeah, yeah." Somehow, even that derisive response didn't dim Yata's enthusiasm. He let the grin soften into a smile, watching Fushimi return to his meal, and felt more certain than ever. There won't be a problem even if you don't.

After all, he was Fushimi's soulmate, and he wasn't going anywhere. The rest could sort itself out eventually.

 


 

 

The first week of Fushimi’s senior year in middle school was sunny with a crisp edge – that uncomfortable transition period where it was too cold for summer uniforms but the winter uniforms were sweltering. He wasn’t fond of extreme temperatures in either case, so it was really annoying.

For that reason, the steady stream of complaints that had been coming from Yata since they’d returned to school after the spring break were satisfying rather than grating. He only had to drop a few words of agreement here or there and it felt like his own frustrations were vented properly.

At the moment, as they exited the school building, they were in the shade so the temperature wasn’t too bad. The front walkway was bathed in afternoon sun – a guaranteed influx of heat – and by unspoken agreement they turned off at the bottom of the steps that led down from the doors. Due to the angle of the shadow from the building, most of the yard was shaded.

The grass was cleanly cut and only held a small amount of moisture from the sprinkler system. It would have been easy to slip if they weren’t careful, but this path had become routine in their years of attending school. Fushimi tempered his footsteps accordingly.

Yata, of course, walked normally without any care for the slippery surface, but he didn’t have as much to worry about. Natural athleticism had always been one of his strong points – the ‘only one’ if you cared to listen to the useless idiots they had running the education system.

None of that is important anyway.

As they made their way across the field, Yata let out a sudden groan, stretching his arms over his head with exaggerated agitation. "Man, that was a waste of time! What the hell's with that, anyway?" He lowered both arms, letting the small bouquet of white flowers dangle carelessly. "Why do we need a class photo all of a sudden?"

You’re telling me. "Because it's our senior year, probably." Fushimi shrugged, allowing his own bundle of pale blue flowers to hang in a similar fashion. Those kinds of things were a waste of time, but it wasn’t any more or less of a bother than any other part of school. The only really annoying part was having to be uncomfortably close to his annoying classmates while standing in place for unspecified amounts of time.

As it happened, both he and Yata had been placed on the outside edge of the photo arrangement, he in the back with the taller students and Yata in the front with the shorter, and so they'd been given the flowers to hold and then told to take them home in the end.

It was useless, really. "Some idiots get sentimental about things like that. And we won't have time for it once we're focused on exams. Supposedly."

He added the last with heavy irony. The main focus in their age group – as it had been pretty much since the first year when they'd been given the official run-down in health class – was on soulmates. Sure, there would be something of a shift with exams coming up, but it was going to take a back seat, as with everything else. Even adults were like that, as disgusting as it sounded. The school system didn't like admitting that underage kids were having casual sex with their classmates, but that was the seedy truth. Nobody wanted to miss out on a chance of finding their match.

It was sickening.

"Who seriously wants to remember school?" Yata snorted, letting the bouquet bounce against his knee as he walked, pace unhurried as they made their way across the grounds. The smell of freshly cut grass was stronger now that they were farther from the pavement, but it wasn’t overpowering. "The sooner we can get the hell outta here, the better, right?"

"You don't have to tell me." Fushimi clicked his tongue, but there wasn't much irritation in it. Not that he particularly minded being by himself, but there was something satisfying about having an ally against the boring idiots who comprised the rest of the world. And for all he had enthused about soulmates, Yata had done shockingly little to pursue one. Even discounting the sex part and going by his words from their first year, it didn't seem like he was actively seeking people out and trying to catch whatever those nebulous 'feelings' he'd harped about were.

Well, it's not like I mind. Maybe Yata had given up on that idea. Or maybe he just couldn't handle the bold sexual come-ons that went with the soulmate frenzy.

The latter was probably more likely, come to think of it.

"Guess I'll give these to Mom or something." Yata bounced the flowers back up so he could eye them balefully. "Seriously, they should've had girls holding them. What guy wants a bunch of flowers?"

"You could just throw them out," Fushimi reminded him dryly.

"That'd be a waste, though, right?" Yata scowled, as if the bouquet had offended him somehow. "Man, why'd I get the cheesy white ones? At least yours are blue."

Fushimi shrugged. "What difference does it make?"

"I dunno. They're kinda nice, I guess – they match your eyes." Once the words were out, Yata sucked in a sharp breath, as if he'd slipped up and was trying to draw them back in. When Fushimi glanced at him, his face had colored noticeably. "I mean... damnit, you know! Right?"

Something in his chest buzzed a little in response, a strangely comfortable tension settling within him. Fushimi turned his eyes to the bouquet in his hand, raising it a bit and studying the tiny blossoms critically. "What are you going on about?"

"N-nothing!" Yata reached up with his free hand to rub at the back of his neck, his lips bunching like he couldn't decide whether to scowl or not. His face was still red. "Forget it, okay?"

"If you say so." Fushimi put aside the confusing feelings. It was like that with Yata – he could strike hard sometimes, catching Fushimi off-guard. The moments had been harder to classify before he'd noticed it could mostly be categorized into points, zero and one hundred with a whole range in between that he barely bothered to keep track of. Yata was more interesting when he swung to either extreme, evoking the stronger feelings that Fushimi had begun to crave.

He wasn't sure exactly when that had happened, but somehow by the time he'd noticed there was no sense of alarm. Yata was a constant in his life now, a release from the tedium and aggravation that made up the rest of his existence.

"Hey, Fushimi." Apparently Yata had recovered from his embarrassment; a sideways glance revealed an intent gaze. "Are your parents soulmates?"

The abrupt change of subject would have been jarring enough without the sudden rush of dread and discomfort that formed into what felt like a black hole in Fushimi's stomach. He clicked his tongue to cover the unpleasant moment, trying not to think of the pair of black and white dice. He saw them too frequently above that hateful smirk. "What does it matter?"

"I dunno. Just curious, I guess." Yata's gaze flickered away, a tiny frown settling on his face. "I was thinking about it before, y'know, with my mom's situation."

Fushimi hadn't speculated much about Yata's family. They were normal enough, probably. The only unusual part was the earlier divorce, and what Yata had said about not feeling like he belonged. It was hard for him to understand. From all appearances, Yata's parents cared about him, his siblings looked up to him, and the dynamic was unremarkable. Aside from that one naked admission on the roof, years ago, they hadn't talked about it much.

When he compared it to his own...

It wasn't worth dwelling on. "What? They're not soulmates?"

"Huh?" Yata blinked at him, clearly surprised. "No – no, I'm pretty sure they are! They're happy, right?" The reasoning was weak, but he plunged onward just the same. "I mean, I wonder about my – my mom's first husband."

In other words, his biological father. "Didn't you say he was no good?"

"He is! Obviously, right?" Yata scowled down at his handful of flowers, as if dissatisfied with his own inability to explain his reasoning. "But she had a kid with him, even though they weren't soulmates."

"Plenty of people do that." It was more practical, Fushimi thought. There was a chance you could spend a lifetime and not find a match if you didn't give it up and settle eventually.

Those people are better off than the rest, really.

"I guess." Yata's eyebrows were still knit together. "Guess it's lucky she left him and found a match, huh?"

That again. Stop being tedious. "You don't even know that for sure."

"I said I was pretty sure, okay?" As if the disagreement had snapped him out of it, Yata raised his head again, expression clearing into a grin. "You're still sour about the whole soulmate thing, huh?"

Fushimi clicked his tongue. Zero points. More out of spite than because Yata hadn't hit a bullseye. The entire topic was beyond stupid. "I don't care."

"Right, I thought you'd say that." Yata let out a brief huff of a laugh. He hesitated for a moment, silence falling between them as they approached the far edge of the school property. The yard was gated, of course, but at the corner of the fence there was a break that took them out onto the street. It wasn't exactly a shortcut – they didn't save any time – but the additional time in the shade was worth it.

It also meant they didn't have to deal with anyone else for that short period of time.

Fushimi preferred it that way. Other than Yata, there was no one at that school worth bothering with in the first place.

Beside him, Yata took in a breath, as if bracing himself. When he spoke again, his tone was oddly serious. "So," he started, and there was another awkward pause before he added, "Saruhiko."

He stopped there, as if that was all he had to say. Just that: 'Saruhiko'. It was enough. Fushimi turned his head to stare, unable to help it.

It wasn't like that man was the only one who called him by his first name. Sometimes the various maids who were hired to work at his house called him by it, and he'd gotten it frequently from teachers when he was smaller. It was different too – when that man said it, he never used the full name, just the part that amused him. The constant reminder of the true intention behind the composition of his given name. The other adults in his life said it properly, just the way that Yata had done now, and so there shouldn't have been anything that felt different about it at all.

There shouldn't have been... but somehow there was.

Pushing down the sudden rush of confusing feelings, Fushimi eyed Yata evenly. "What?"

"Eh?" Apparently that hadn't been the question Yata had expected. He looked startled - and then he abruptly colored again, shrugging awkwardly. "Uh... nothing. Just.." He reached up to scratch the back of his head. "We've been friends for a while, so I kinda thought... you know..."

The red on his face was spreading to his ears. It was a fascinating sight. "What? You want to be on a first name basis?" Fushimi let his voice draw out, falling back on mockery to cover the inexplicable squirming of pleasure at the pit of his stomach. "Are you sure about that, Misaki?"

Yata's head whipped up again at the sound of the forbidden name. If anything, the red on his face deepened, but his gaze didn't waver. "Yeah." His mouth screwed up again, before settling on a frown. "Just don't call me that in public, got it?"

Obviously he'd been thinking about it for a while, if that was the only reaction. Once again, Fushimi felt the tightening in his chest. It was a bit difficult to breathe; he wondered how he didn't feel suffocated. He was ready to let me call him that... Clicking his tongue again, he turned his gaze forward. "Do what you want."

Yata let out a long breath. "All right!" There was a mix of triumph and relief in his tone. "Then I'll call you that from now on."

"Just remember you're the one who asked for it." Fushimi shot him a wry look. "No regrets, right, Misaki?"

Somehow, that earned him a grin instead of a grimace, though there were still traces of pink around it. "Damn right!"

Slowly, the edges of Fushimi's own mouth turned up in response, almost against his will. One hundred points.

They'd reached the gap in the fence by that point, and the merciless light from the sun was visible beyond. Once they were through it, they'd be heading in opposite directions. A small seed of disappointment sprouted in Fushimi's stomach, and he mercilessly squashed it. Inevitably, they'd always have to part ways. There was no point in wasting time or trying to draw it out.

Still, the weight of the warmth pounding into his back as he stepped through seemed unreasonably heavy.

Yata – Misaki – hesitated once they were back on the sidewalk, turning to face him with a thoughtful look. "Hey, Saruhiko," he started, drawing out the name a bit as if testing how it felt on his tongue, "you said you didn't care about the flowers, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So..." Misaki shrugged a bit awkwardly, and blurted, "Let's switch! Okay?"

Fushimi frowned at him, puzzled by the sudden demand. "Why?"

"No reason. Yours are nicer." Misaki shifted on his feet, clearly embarrassed. "I mean, Mom likes blue. It just works, right?"

"They're kinda nice, I guess - they match your eyes."

The strange, pleasant twisting feeling was back. Fushimi sighed sharply, ignoring it. "Fine."

They exchanged flowers. Misaki's fingers brushed his on both hand-offs, and his eyes were bright when their gazes met. "Thanks, Saruhiko!"

"It doesn't matter to me, so I don't need thanks."

"Yeah, well, I'll still give it even if you don't need it." Misaki grinned back at him before turning to head in the direction of his own home, waving with his free hand. "See ya tomorrow, Saruhiko!"

You don't need to keep saying my name. "See you." Despite the thought, Fushimi still felt like testing it himself; he waited a moment to get some distance between them and then mumbled under his breath, "Misaki."

It felt good on his tongue. Easy.

Deliberately pushing that pleasant feeling down – it wasn't doing him any good at the moment, anyway – he turned to begin the slow trek home.

As he walked, Fushimi glanced down at the flowers in his hand. They were tiny white buds – some kind of lily, he thought. Misaki had asked 'why'd I get the cheesy white ones?' but it seemed appropriate in a way. White meant purity, and Misaki was exactly that. Not in terms of sex or anything, although there was irony there when Fushimi thought about how flustered the subject made him. It wasn't even his strangely unsuitable name. But in spirit... He was that honest, and he couldn't keep his feelings to himself. His face lit up and his eyes sparkled when he was excited. Everything about him dimmed when he wasn't in that bright mode.

Purity wasn't a bad word for it.

It’s funny I’d even recognize it, all things considered.

There was a light on in the house when Fushimi approached it. He felt his stomach tighten, the sensation unpleasant this time, and paused on the sidewalk.

For a brief moment, he considered what it might be like to put Misaki's flowers in water. Maybe just a plain vase. It wouldn't be difficult to get plant food, and if he changed the water frequently, they could live for a while. Not as long as they could if they were planted properly and took root, but it was still possible. If he was diligent and took care of them, then maybe...

A surge of something painful rose at the back of his throat, nearly choking him. Fushimi shut his eyes briefly, swallowed around it, and let out a sharp sigh.

Don't be stupid.

When he turned his back on the house and walked away, he tossed the bundle of flowers into the nearest garbage can without hesitating or looking back.

 


 

 

Partway through November in their senior year of middle school, Yata found a place to move with Saruhiko.

It was kind of sudden, but the decision to move in together felt natural in a whole pile of ways – getting Saruhiko out of that house that couldn’t be called a home, first off, and for the sake of the great things they were going to do together one day, second – but mostly, Yata was being selfish. Living together meant they were with each other all the time, and he pretty much got Saruhiko to himself.

Well, that should go without saying! After all, he was Saruhiko’s soulmate.

Still, he kind of had an idea what his mom would say about it, so he’d spent a full day sneaking his things out of his house. In the end, though, it didn't seem like there was much point.

He was just making his last trip, with a duffle bag full of the random belongings he’d gathered up in his final sweep of the house. He’d left the game consoles for Minoru – his dad had paid for them, after all – along with a whole selection of games that he and Saruhiko had already finished. He had his handheld console and a few PC titles they were going to try and set up on the computer Saruhiko had already moved into their new place.

That was probably fair enough, he reasoned.

Anyway, since it was going to be the last time he’d be there for a while, Yata took an extra few seconds to linger just outside the entranceway, breathing in the familiar scent of home cooking and the faint lemon from the cleaning products used to keep the place fresh. It was stuffy at night now with everyone inside and the windows all closed to keep the late autumn chill from filling the house. But with the sun having set a couple of hours ago, it wasn’t unbearable. The sound of the TV playing and Minoru’s steady stream of questions tapered by his father’s low, patient tones and Megumi’s high pitched giggling was like background noise by then; it was the norm for evenings in their place.

The familiar cramped quarters and paper-thin walls still had the comforting feel of home sunken into them, and he had a momentary surge of loss at the thought of no longer living in this place. It was dumb considering the number of times he’d felt like an outsider – and the fact that he was pretty excited about the place he and Saruhiko had found – but it was something that had risen automatically within him, so he couldn’t exactly help it.

Well, I’ll get over it pretty soon. Pushing aside the strange feeling, Yata turned and headed for the door.

"Misaki." His mother's voice, which he was used to hearing in fond, exasperated, or stern tones, was quiet. Not in a sad or weary way, but... serious.

He froze with his hand on the doorknob. All day long, she'd ignored his constant comings and goings, but he probably couldn't really put this off. If he just disappeared, he'd be labelled a runaway and they'd look for him, right? But somehow he'd thought if he was very careful, it wouldn't be noticed right away and he could just send them a message or something...

Shoulda known. Yata turned around slowly, trying to avoid looking guilty. With his duffle bag slung over one shoulder, he looked pretty conspicuous no matter what. And it was hard to avoid in the first place - this was his mom, after all.

Still, he gave it his best, forcing a grin in response. "Hey, Mom - need something? I'm just meeting Saruhiko, so – "

"I've talked with you about lying, Misaki." Despite the stern words, there wasn't much rebuke in her tone. Her gaze was direct as she stepped into the small entranceway to join him. "I thought about waiting until you came to me first, but this is good enough, I think. You're moving out?"

Caught. Yata grimaced, ducking his head without thinking. "Yeah, well..."

"With Saruhiko?"

That helped him summon up his resolve again. Yata raised his head quickly, determined. "It's getting crowded here anyway, right?" he blurted, gripping the strap of his bag in tightly as he made his appeal. "Minoru and Megumi are growing up, and I'm already too old to be sharing a room now. This just makes things easier. Plus, Saruhiko is – well – his home life and all..."

He was fumbling with how to explain his own feelings without talking too much about things he didn't understand, but thankfully, his mother seemed to know what he couldn't quite put into words. "That's enough, Misaki." She let out a soft sigh, sounding almost rueful. "I wasn't planning to stop you. If it's something you've decided for yourself, then nothing I say will talk you out of it." Her smile was wry. "In that sense, you really are my son."

The old familiar words set off a little ping in his chest; Yata swallowed, momentarily at a loss. It feels different now. He couldn't explain it, but there was none of the old meaning behind it. He didn't feel like he could hold his head up with pride and feel the truth of it resonating in his soul.

Because what gave him that feeling now was...

"I gotta do it. I'm his soulmate." Yata pulled in a breath, drawing himself up. "Saruhiko's, I mean."

He could hear it when his mother's breath caught; her eyes widened. "Misaki...?"

"Wait – no – n-not officially or anything!" That was not something he'd wanna let his mom think. Yata waved both hands frantically. "I-it's just a feeling I have. I know it, okay? I'm not gonna do anything, I swear!"

"Soulmates..." She repeated the word slowly, staring at him for a long moment as if deep in thought, and then shut her eyes. "I see."

Something in her tone felt off. Yata watched her face apprehensively. "Mom?"

"It's all right." His mother opened her eyes again, offering a smile that was an odd mix of resignation, fondness, and a kind of aching sadness. "You really are my son, after all."

It was an expression he'd never seen before, and the sight of it made his skin prickle. What's happening here? "Y-yeah," was all he could manage in response, a blend of anxiety and uncertainty swirling in his stomach. His fingers tightened around the duffle bag strap.

She would still let him go, wouldn't she?

"Well, don't just stand there." In the next moment, she let out a huff, the strangeness seeming to drop away in the wake of the knowing smile he saw every day. "If you're planning to leave, you can at least give your mother a hug before you go."

That seemed to clear the air. Yata grinned back sheepishly. "Right, sorry."

There was still something awkward between them - like there should've been more to the conversation, maybe – but when her arms wrapped around him, Yata experienced a moment of sharp nostalgia. He didn't have to force it when he hugged her back tightly.

Just one more time is okay, right?

When they pulled back, she took his face in her hands and leaned in to kiss his forehead. "I love you, Misaki." The tone was matter-of-fact; his mother grinned crookedly at him as she straightened, releasing him. "You know that, don't you?"

Yata squirmed on his feet, vaguely embarrassed by both the words and the gesture. "Yeah, I get it. Love you too," he added hastily, not wanting a lecture when he should've left already. "So..."

“Oh, right!” She made a fist and bumped it onto her open palm, then quickly turned to head back into the main portion of the house. “Wait right there! I just have one more thing before you go…”

Seriously? Yata stared after her, shifting impatiently on his feet. “Mom…”

"Saruhiko's waiting, right? I’ll be quick!” Her voice trailed off a bit as she spoke, almost to herself. “Now where did I put it…? Ah!” There was the sound of footsteps hurrying back, and then she appeared, a wide book with a thick cover in her hand. “Here.” She held it out to him, with a bit of a smile. “Take this.”

He reached out for it without thinking, and blanched when he recognized the cover. It was an old collection of kids’ stories that she used to read to him when he was little. The cover had worn spots, but the binding was in good shape and it was thick and heavy in his hand, just like he remembered from all the times he’d carried it to her back then.

Aw man… Saruhiko’s gonna laugh at me. Yata looked up at her warily, trying to gauge how serious she was. “Mom, this book’s for kids! What am I gonna do with it? Minoru and Megumi should – ”

“It’s fine. They’ve got their own.” His mother crossed her arms over her chest, fixing him with a grin and a knowing look. “My father used to read this one to me, so there’s a legacy behind it. You can open it whenever you’re feeling like being a grown up is overwhelming – that’s what I used to do.” Her gaze turned serious – the look that meant business if he disagreed. “Just humor me, Misaki. And take care of it, all right?”

He wasn’t gonna win this one, that was for sure. Yata suppressed a sigh, tucking the book into his bag and shifting some of the other stuff so it was buried. If he didn’t bring it out, maybe Saruhiko wouldn’t notice he had it. “Got it.”

 Her expression softened, the grin settling into a familiar fond smile. "Don't forget to call home often."

"Yup." He turned to reach for the doorknob again.

"And come back for dinner sometimes, all right?"

The door opened under his hand. "Yeah, sure."

"Don't get into any trouble out there!"

"I won't!" Yata paused partway out the door, a little disgruntled. "I got this, Mom, I swear!"

She raised both eyebrows, but didn't comment. "Well, if you get into any trouble, call right away."

"Yeah, yeah." There was no way he was calling. He wouldn't survive the hit to his pride if he had to rely on her after leaving the house on his own.

Besides, I'll have Saruhiko with me. There was nothing they couldn't handle together.

"Take care of yourself," his mother added, in a tone that was somewhat mollified.

He stepped through the door, tossing her a grin over his shoulder. "Yeah. Bye, Mom!"

She returned the smile, but somehow, even as he stepped out onto the sidewalk and left his old home behind, he couldn't help but think that her expression was still troubled.

 


 

 

"Goddamnit!" Misaki's controller dropped forcefully, its owner falling back against the wall behind him with a dull thud. "I almost had it!"

Fushimi lowered his own PDA more carefully, raising an eyebrow in response. "You think so?"

"It sure as hell seemed like it!" Misaki let out an impatient huff of breath, letting his head fall back to hit the wall as well. "How are you so damn fast?"

"It's not that difficult." Fushimi shrugged.

"Yeah, says you." Misaki shot him a disgruntled look, which was broken half a second later with a rueful grin. "You're too good at this, Saruhiko."

The praise wasn't exactly at its usual level, but Fushimi didn't mind it. They had been living together now for roughly two weeks, which meant the winter break was approaching – and along with it, Jungle’s surprise party. Settling into a routine in their new place had been surprisingly simple. It wasn’t a large place to begin with, but the lack of space wasn’t stifling. He only needed to retreat up to the loft where his computer and futon were set up if he wanted solitude, and Misaki would generally take the hint and either head out with his skateboard or start up his handheld console in the space beneath the loft that was his, muttering swears as he struggled with whatever game he was playing.

Those times were rare. Spending his free time with Misaki wasn’t exactly an unpleasant prospect.

He no longer had the funds to be careless about spending, but Misaki took care of the chores, including shopping, and so he only had to scrounge up enough through online games to contribute to rent. It had been something of a nuisance when the weather had cooled down and the loft where he slept became colder than he liked, but some additional effort online had earned him enough for a small space-heater and that had solved that problem nicely.

For that reason, they’d been spending a lot of their time in the apartment alternating between the kotatsu that they’d salvaged and the loft – when Fushimi felt like inviting Misaki up into his personal space, that is.

Most of the time it was fine. Right then, he had a specific reason.

Earlier, Misaki had been wishing they could afford a game console, and so he'd put together a rough emulator on his PC with an adjacent program for the PDAs to serve as controllers. It had been a nice break from working on his programs for Jungle's surprise party, and when he'd called Misaki up and demonstrated, the enthusiastic response had made the work worthwhile.

His chest still felt oddly warm when he thought of Misaki's sparkling eyes.

"If you're giving up, we can always play co-op instead." When they played versus, he usually had the advantage – although there were a few games Misaki could beat him at. It went easier if they could team up. Sometimes he thought he could even get a sense of what Misaki liked to boast about – that whole "us versus the world" thing.

Well, that's not exactly bad.

"Hey, yeah!" Misaki lifted his head, seeming to perk up a bit. "I mean, it feels kinda wrong to quit without beating you once..." He frowned a bit. "But if we're gonna work together, I'll let it pass!" Just like that, the frown was gone, spreading up into a bright grin. "Feels like we can conquer anything, right, Saruhiko?"

The bright assertion pulled a little smile out of him – not that he resisted it much. Something within him had relaxed, a lull seeming to settle over the anxious places, when he'd moved into this place. Since he'd come to live with Misaki, he felt content. Happy, even.

It felt like they could conquer anything.

"Well, we can handle this game, at least."

He was going through the menu with his makeshift controller when Misaki spoke again. "Hey... Saruhiko?" His voice was oddly subdued.

Fushimi paused. "What?"

"You think...?" Misaki stopped there, frowning a bit as if reconsidering his words. His expression was an odd mix of agitation and uncertainty. "I mean, we work well together, right? We're a team. The best team! Everything just clicks when it's you and me – there's nothing we can't do together. That's how I honestly feel."

Why is this coming up all of a sudden? Fushimi took advantage of the brief pause when Misaki caught his breath, cautiously interjecting with, "What are you trying to get at?"

"Don't you think...?" Once again, Misaki seemed to have one of those false starts, but this time he plunged on boldly, eyes bright with determination and conviction when he blurted, "Don't you think we're definitely soulmates, Saruhiko?"

It felt like his throat closed up, an icy hand closing around his heart and causing his chest to constrict painfully. Soulmates. Even the word was repugnant.

It was a struggle to keep his face still, to keep the panic from shortening his breath. He didn't want that word applied to himself. He didn't want it applied to Misaki. To them. What they had was...

What they had...

"We're really a perfect combination, aren't we?"

"Shut up," he muttered, before he could stop the immediate reaction. That man was gone. Not dead - not yet, anyway – but not in his life. There was nothing but memories left to pester him, and yet still...

Why? Leave me alone already!

"Saruhiko?" Misaki was staring at him now, confused and clearly anxious, his nerves betrayed by the way his hands had fisted in his lap, the PDA abandoned.

The sight was enough to ground him. This was Misaki, after all. Fushimi breathed in slowly and let out a low sigh, feeling some of the tension leave him. That clear, honest gaze seemed to burn into his soul, bringing clarity. Misaki, who thought soulmates were amazing, who believed whole-heartedly that he could recognize the real thing without confirming it officially. Misaki, who was convinced that they would do amazing things together and conquer the world – whose belief was so pure and solid that Fushimi had started to believe it right along with him.

There was no way the two of them could be anything like soulmates in this corrupted system.

That conviction was enough to bring the rest of the world back into focus. "You still believe in that nonsense?" he managed to say mumble in response. "Don't be stupid."

"Huh? What's that mean?" Misaki's eyebrows knit together in puzzlement. "Of course I believe – there's all kinds of evidence that – "

Fushimi flicked him in the forehead. "That's not what I meant, idiot. Of course soulmates exist. But you still believe it actually means something, don't you? Haven't you given up on that already?"

Misaki looked a bit disgruntled at that response, but even as he rubbed his forehead, his expression quickly settled into a stubborn frown, eyes set. "I dunno why you're so against it, but I'm telling you, it means a lot! It means we're meant to be together – haven't I always said that?"

It's not the same, idiot. Fushimi clicked his tongue. "That has nothing to do with being soulmates," he muttered out loud. "You're acting like it's confirmed, but what proof do you have outside of your so-called 'feelings'?"

For a moment, Misaki looked hurt – it was a fleeting impression that crossed his features, as though he'd flinched back at the words. The reaction was satisfying on a surface level, but somehow unnerving as well – a sliver of something like discomfort wound in Fushimi's stomach, and he wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

Well, it wasn't that he enjoyed hurting Misaki, but he didn't want to have this conversation either.

The moment passed quickly enough, either way; Misaki's mouth turned down sharply again. "Nothing, but still..."

"That's what I thought." He drawled the words out, raising both eyebrows to drive the point home. I'm right. You know I'm right, so drop it already. "There's no way we could be – "

"I-I'll prove it!" The unexpected outburst had him glancing up sharply; when he met Misaki's gaze, those eyes were burning again with fervent conviction. "Any time. R-right now, even." He drew himself up, eyebrows coming down into something close to a glare. "Bring it on!"

Fushimi started at him, nonplussed. "Idiot... do you even know what you're – ?"

"I know! I know it, okay?" There was red spreading across Misaki's face, fierce, flustered embarrassment evident in the grimace on his lips and the way he squirmed, one hand reaching up to rub at his neck almost reflexively. But his eyes didn't waver. "I-I'll do it with you any time! Whenever you want! I-I want to, okay?"

The declaration struck him dumb. Fushimi swallowed thickly, his mouth feeling suddenly dry. It was a difficult motion with the way his throat felt like it had swollen. He wasn't sure how to react.

Misaki had just stupidly declared that he wanted to have sex with him.

Seriously, how far is he willing to take this?

He clicked his tongue again, ready to make some sort of scathing remark, but Misaki beat him to it, bulling ahead again with his voice full of honest emotion. "I-It's not like it's just to prove it or anything! I mean, kinda, but you know..." He hesitated for only a second, before plunging in again, "I want to. With you. There isn't anyone else I'd – you know..." A frustrated breath interrupted that. "You know what I mean! Anyway, if – if we do it and it turns out we aren't soulmates, I'll admit you're right about everything." That came with another stubborn, halfway embarrassed scowl. "But if you're gonna do it with me, then you better prepare yourself, Saruhiko, because I know we are!"

You don't know anything. The words stuck on his tongue before he could get them out. Fushimi looked away, irritated with the prickle of pleasure that seemed to have crept up along his skin at Misaki's declaration.

"I want to.

"With you.

"There isn't anyone else".

There was a dull ache in his chest, rising up fast at the back of his throat. Fushimi had given up on truly wanting things – too many years of unsatisfactory return. He mostly thought himself above that now, but there were times when this feeling caught him by surprise. Usually, it was fleeting and when it passed, he could push it to the back of his mind, but this...

Every second he sat there seemed to increase the intensity. He wanted. Blindly. Fervently.

It was unsettling and alarming, but he couldn't deny it.

Misaki cleared his throat; when Fushimi glanced at him, he seemed to have shrunk back in his seat, confidence clearly wilting in the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between them. His gaze was uncertain. "If – if you don't wanna – "

"All right."

It came out flatly, more of an immediate reaction to the possibility of Misaki retracting his offer than from Fushimi consciously agreeing to the idea. He'd even surprised himself with it, somewhat. It was like something in him had... panicked.

Misaki blinked at him. "Eh? Wait... really?"

Now that it was out there, he didn't feel like taking it back – and actually, the more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed on a rational level. Fushimi clicked his tongue. "I said 'all right', didn't I?"

If he did it, then that would be the end of any soulmate talk. The chances of them actually being soulmates were slim, after all. If being soulmates meant the kind of relationship that man had with his wife, then it was obvious that what was between the two of them wouldn't qualify. It was obvious that those sparkling eyes and that bright, pure spirit had no place in whatever poisonous dynamic could result in matching marks.

And besides, if I'm doing this with him... If it's with Misaki, then...

He could feel it again – that pleasant tightness in his stomach - but he deliberately squashed it. This was just to prove a point, nothing else. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”

It was fascinating to watch the way Misaki’s lips twitched as color spread across his face again. “I – well – it’s not like – I mean, we can figure it out, right?” His hands, clenched into fists in his lap, seemed to tremble just a little. “Lots of people do it. Can’t be that hard! Right?”

Even idiots are doing this with no problem. Still, it was unnerving to go into an unknown situation without any particular preparation. Fushimi resisted the urge to fold his arms, turning his head to regard Misaki with a deliberately dubious look. "If you say so."

"Yeah." Had there always been such a small amount of space between them? Misaki swallowed noticeably, shifting in his seat so that his body was angled more towards Fushimi's. His cheeks still held some red, but he sucked in a breath and seemed to draw in his courage similarly, eyes bright and straightforward as always but with a hint of something softer beneath as he leaned in - and then hesitated. "Is it okay if... y'know...?"

Something about that look sent an odd shiver of heat down along the length of Fushimi's torso; he could feel it pooling in his stomach, and had to fight for control of his reactions. Two equally strong desires warred within him: to withdraw from the situation entirely... or to close the distance himself and take hold of Misaki with his own hands.

The contrast was what kept him sitting there instead, caught between those warring forces, and he managed a non-committal, "Mm," in response, hoping Misaki would catch the acceptance behind it.

He did - or, at least, he seemed to. The space between them seemed to narrow at an agonizingly slow pace. Fushimi let his eyes go lidded, watching through the remaining slits as Misaki shut his own eyes, letting out a shuddering breath that Fushimi could feel as much as hear. His heart picked up in speed and intensity and he let his own lids lower completely, sparks firing off in his stomach before he even felt the hesitant brush of lips against his own.

It was simple and awkward, but the echo of that clumsy touch seemed to reverberate across his bones. Misaki's mouth was set unevenly against his, and his breathing stuttered against Fushimi's cheek, proof of his frazzled nerves. But he was warm - so warm - the strong familiar scent of him more prominent than ever. His lips were soft.

Somehow in his mind, Fushimi could imagine the natural downturn of them on Misaki's resting face, the curve and fullness, and it felt like some expectation he hadn't known he'd been holding had just been met.

After a brief pause, Misaki pulled back, hesitated for a single tense moment, and then readjusted and plunged back again, more forcefully.

There was nothing substantially different in the second kiss aside from the degree of pressure against his lips, but the flurry in Fushimi's lower body intensified. Without thinking fully, he pressed back, turning his head to adjust the angle at which Misaki's mouth sat against his.

Misaki made a little sound, like an involuntary reaction to the movement, and his breath hitched. He pulled back again, this time not hesitating before closing the tiny space that separated them, parting his lips and brushing the line between Fushimi's with the tip of his tongue.

It was a sensation he hadn't prepared himself for. A soft thrumming noise rose up at the back of his throat, but Fushimi didn't pause to process the mild embarrassment, for once driven by instinct rather than his own logic. He let his lips part, granting access to that tentatively questing tongue, and drank in the answering shudder that wracked Misaki's frame greedily.

It feels good.

The thought drifted to the front of his mind without his consciousness behind it, but Fushimi wasn't concerned with that. The wet heat of Misaki's mouth was open to him, and the ache he felt building in his lower body as their tongues brushed could only be desire. It was heady and warm, filling him pleasantly, and he felt that foreign surge of want coursing through his veins like a drug.

He wanted to continue more than anything - to take this all the way to its inevitable conclusion. With Misaki's scent around him, Misaki's mouth on his, Misaki's body pressing against his...

One of Misaki's hands slid hesitantly onto his thigh, fingers trembling just enough to be noticeable, and Fushimi felt the telltale tightening between his legs in response to that light touch. It felt good. Right. Perfect.

Through the pleasant haze that had settled over his brain, one thought seemed to cut through with precise clarity: Maybe we really are soulmates, after all.

Ice seemed to skitter down his spine. Fushimi stiffened.

"... a perfect combination..."

That was it. Heat and pleasure lost in the cold grip of panic, Fushimi pulled back, turning his head before he could catch more than a glimpse of Misaki's dazed face, and shifted to pull his legs up in preparation to move, effectively dislodging that hand.

"S-Saruhiko...?"

"I changed my mind." He cut across the confused protest sharply, pushing himself up into a crouch so that he could shift forward towards the ladder leading down from the loft. Wicked clarity was settling over his brain in the wake of that haze of arousal, and he was already feeling unsettled – and more than a little disgusted with himself. The intensity of those sensations had caught him off-guard, but it was worrisome just how quickly and easily he’d lost control. His heart still beat wildly, remnants of the overwhelming rush of alien feelings still making their presence known throughout his body. "I don't want to."

Is it always like this? All they had done was kiss, and his entire body felt strange, his mind scrambling to collect itself in the aftermath. How did the rest of those idiots cope?

"Eh? But..."

As he turned to climb down, Fushimi couldn't help but catch another glimpse of Misaki. He was flushed and clearly confused, eyes still a bit glazed from the brief contact. When their gazes met, his brows knit together with obvious bafflement, as if he couldn't quite figure out why and how that had gone wrong. The initial protest trailed off and died, Misaki’s mouth trembling as he closed it into a frown, anxious uncertainty written all over his features. A tense silence spread between them in its wake.

Fushimi clicked his tongue, turning his gaze aside. You don't need to know. There wasn't any need for the past to be brought up. Even less need for anything related to soulmates between them. Those things aren't useful to anyone.

Turning aside from that honest gaze and deliberately closing off the memory of the heat that had threaded through his body during the attempted kiss, Fushimi descended the ladder.

It's better to forget all of it.

 

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