Categories > Anime/Manga > Prince of Tennis

The Cuckoo's Child

by sesame_seed 0 Reviews

Yuuta, Tezuka/Fuji. Written for the first round of Subrosa_Tennis.

Category: Prince of Tennis - Rating: G - Genres: Drama - Characters: Fuji Shuusuke, Other - Published: 2007/06/29 - Updated: 2007/06/29 - 5296 words - Complete

The Cuckoo's Child

That year, Shuusuke missed Christmas dinner for the first time.

Their father called to wish everyone happy holidays, voice fuzzy with overseas static; Mother and Yumiko spent the entire day bustling in and out of the kitchen, denying him entry on pain of ladle-smack. Shuusuke looked like he was stifling a smile in its birth as Yuuta rubbed his stinging forehead, scowling ferociously: "Bet they would've welcomed you with open arms."

"I'm not reckless enough to test that theory," said Shuusuke, amusement tucked into the corners of his lips, and Yuuta opened his mouth to snap at him.

The phone rang on cue.

Yuuta took a step in its direction, but Shuusuke waved him back, "Let me," and uncoiled from the couch. Yuuta watched him pad over to the phone, lift it to his ear with the usual low "Moshi-mosh," that sounded older than his looks, older than his years. He watched as the amusement thinned out into a frown, and Shuusuke carried the cordless into the next room, out of earshot.

The call didn't last long. Shuusuke returned a few minutes later in that same unhurried pace. The frown had vanished, but Yuuta knew better than to take that as an indication of improvement -- it just meant that Shuusuke had shifted it to the inside, where no one could capture it.

"Saa, put this back for me, would you?"

He transferred his scowl to the receiver deposited in his hand.

"Your face will freeze like that if you're not careful, you know."

"Fuck you very much," he said, in a mutter even though there was no chance of the kitchen overhearing. The walls had been soundproofed over during Yumiko's heavy metal phase, layers of drywall added to every room.

Shuusuke reached out and touched his cheek, fingers sliding downwards.

"Shame, Yuuta. I knew that manager of yours would be a bad influence."

The idea of Mizuki-san promoting foul speech was so mind-bending that it took him a moment to process, and by that time Shuusuke was already pushing open the kitchen door.

If he came out with a ladle-print on his face, Yuuta thought, this would be the best Christmas /ever/.

The second hand of the cuckoo clock made two sluggish circles before Shuusuke reappeared, looking none the worse for wear. It figured. He sent a brief smile in Yuuta's direction -- the kind that Yuuta hated, a dime a dozen, disposable like Kleenex -- and started towards the closet.

Yuuta glared. Shuusuke's smiles might seem flimsy but they always had weight, pressing down uncomfortably. Made his stomach lurch.

The glare forgot to sustain itself when Shuusuke emerged again from the closet, thick winter coat over one arm, scarf in the other. "Where are you going?"

"Date-o," Shuusuke said, and winked. He'd lost some of the delicacy of feature that used to fool ignorant bystanders into assuming that Yuuta was on a date-o when then were seen outside together: his face had lengthened a bit, strengthened. He'd be out of a school uniform and into a college come next winter, where college girls would be all over him, because some things never changed.

"If you're not back by the time dinner's ready, we're not waiting up."

Shuusuke's lashes lifted. "I wouldn't want you to," as if it were the last thing he could be expected to suggest or desire, and Yuuta was silly for supposing otherwise. "But I've already asked Neesan to take a photo of your expression during the gift-opening, so I won't be missing anything -- you're sweet to worry, though."

Conversations with his brother did bad things to his lifespan. "Oh, just go. Go!"

"No need to be so pushy, Yuuta; it's the holiday season, the time for peace on earth and goodwill between men -- " Shuusuke paused in the doorway, snowflakes swirling around him as if greeting a compatriot. The night was clear and silent. "Merry Christmas," he finished, and closed the door between them.

*

Before first grade, he'd been proud of his brother and sister -- so clever and confident, bringing home plaques and trophies when Keiichi and Jun's siblings just brought back dirt and scars. 'My brother is worth ten of yours,' he'd said to them, resulting in a big X scar of his own, but that was all right, since all the books said honesty was a virtue. (One day Shuusuke would whisper into his ear, secret-sharing: "You read the wrong books.") Afterwards Yumiko blew on the wound, gave it a kiss, and when he went to bed he fell asleep to the memory of Shuusuke petting him and calling him brave and wonderful, the crown to a shining triumphant night.

He knew he'd be expected to follow in their footsteps, but didn't allow the thought to worry him. He was a Fuji, after all, and it would come naturally once he entered school -- something in their genes, like the light hair and skin that marked them as gaijin-blooded, putting everything within reach, and all he'd have to do would be to stretch out and open his hands. Wait for the world to fall in.

It confused him when the homework assignments first came back with poor marks, and the exam papers were bathed in red. For a while he muddled on, not understanding why what worked for everyone didn't work for him, growling at his classmates when they tried to commiserate, surly to teachers. The situation ended with Yumiko crooking a finger at him one afternoon, sitting him down.

"Are you even trying, Yuuta?" she'd said, eyes shifting towards her watch just a bit, a tactful flicker. Her hair was curled and she was what Shuusuke called 'dressed to maim'; she was fifteen, and had Activities. "Tachibana-sensei called today -- "

"I study just as long as you and Aniki do!"

That earned him her full attention. He squirmed under the sympathy there. "Oh, Yuuta," she'd said, leaning in to kiss him like she'd done on his night of triumph; the same person, the same kiss. Her lips were soft and warm, her hair smelled of those rosy girl smells that turned the bathroom into floral paradise after she left it in the evenings, and she was very beautiful. When he caught a glimpse of their reflection on the blank TV screen, he had to look away. "Yuuta, you're unique. You don't have to walk our path."

Something wrong with that statement that even he could sense, and he realized, vaguely, that at some point he'd taken to thinking of himself in terms of 'even'. "Neesan," he said, trying for casualness, "Unique means different, right?"

"Different in the very best of ways," she assured, running a hand over his head. ("So fuzzy, like a baby chick," Shuusuke had said the first time the barber cut his hair too short, reaching out to touch, and for some reason he had never allowed it to grow out again.) It stopped him from continuing the question: What does it mean, big sister, to be different from those who are different? Is it a special brand of difference, or --

His grades started picking up after that. He got along better with his schoolmates, the teachers, and they stopped looking as if they expected him to whip out a knife at any second. That year was a dividing point of sorts: before it, ignorance; after, disillusionment. A shedding of old ways. A division, too, of roads; every time he looked back, anxious for familiarity, his siblings were further away. They moved in a different direction, at a faster pace than his own, and he would have to learn, he realized, not to look back -- to do as they did, and go forward with no regrets.

*

High school wasn't much different from junior high: classes, classmates, tennis, all the old stuff. Girls, too. He hadn't paid them much attention in the past -- in some way, he suspected guiltily, he'd always compare every girl with Yumiko first, searching for that slant of eyes, the scent of nameless fragrances -- but realized one day during a spat with Sachiko in his class, who was short, pretty and cheerful, if not precisely as alluring as the definition of womanhood that Yuuta held in his mind, that maybe he'd been looking for the wrong things. He was comfortable bantering with her, had fun deflecting her barbs, poking back in return, a friendly give-and-take that was impossible at home.

He should have expected the teasing that ensued when she called him at home during spring vacation. Yumiko and Shuusuke gave out their home phone once in an Ice Age, set up a defense of cell phone numbers that they changed with the color of the leaves, and cut off the outside world with the touch of a button. Yuuta might have felt tempted to follow their example in this if he didn't keep forgetting to charge the batteries, which was typical of the way things worked.

"Yuuta-kun's growing up," said Yumiko kindly enough, lips curving, but she was as suited for kindness as she was for grungy tracksuits. The speculation in her eyes made him twitch.

Shuushuke chose that moment to prowl in from the kitchen, a straw poking out jauntily from his carton of cactus juice. ("Did you know that the blood of my children tastes like raspberry?")

Their house was blessed with excellent soundproofing, but Yuuta had long since become resigned to the fact that his older siblings shared ESP, or maybe the house just spilled all its secrets into their laps because it liked them more. "You'll have to be careful with that," said Shuusuke, looking grave. "I wouldn't like to become an uncle before entering college. It's such a great responsibility -- "

"Shut up," he snapped, nettled. "I'm not like that. I'm not like you."

Shuusuke's pale eyebrows flew up like wings, then slid back downwards. He smiled, quick and sunny, just a flash of teeth. "And we're all very grateful for that. Life would be so humdrum without you to brighten our days, wouldn't it?"

During his months in Seigaku, he'd learnt to deal with envy, boys and girls who called him Fuji-otouto and rhapsodized over how great a brother he had, how kind, never minding the glares or cold shoulders. You can have him if you're such a fan, he'd say, and didn't say: you don't know, you don't understand. He doesn't waste his energy; he only ever hits where it hurts the most.

How strange, that there were some kinds of pain you could never build up a tolerance against.

"I'm glad to amuse you." He tried to keep his voice steady.

"...I'm sorry, Yuuta." Shuusuke looked genuinely regretful -- typical of him, to soothe after he bit. It didn't mean that he wouldn't bite again. "You know I'm always happy to see you around."

"Yeah, well, can't say the same," he muttered, angry that the words could still wound; another Fuji Life Lesson that he seemed incapable of learning. "I'll be throwing a party the day college drags you out of here."

"Yuuta," said Yumiko, low warning -- Yumiko who never interfered, preferring to smile at them fondly from the sidelines. He glanced at her, but her eyes were on Shuusuke. When he looked back at Shuusuke, Shuusuke was smiling again.

"Neesan," he sighed, too gentle for comfort.

Yuuta felt an uneasy thrill; his brother and sister never, never clashed horns where he could see. They gazed at each other, and it was like looking at two dolls, Yuuta thought, two blank masks of nothing. Seven years between them, but at times like these they were twins. He shifted his feet and wondered if there was a hole in the ground he could sneak into.

Finally Yumiko shrugged, relaxing into an answering smile. Yuuta breathed again. "If you need advice from the cards, you know where to find me," and the threat of tempest passed.

*

Biology class. The central subject of the year was ornithology; Yuuta learned, over the weeks, to identify, to preserve, to recognize the different mating calls of the various species. He yawned a lot during those hours between two and four, picked up the hang of pen-spinning, and generally got more sleep in class than he was getting at home.

It was in this forum that he was presented with the first great revelation of his life.

"This," said Tanaka-sensei, using the pointer to indicate the unremarkable black bird cocking its head quizzically on the projector screen, "is the brown-headed cowbird, found in vast numbers in North America."

Keiichi passed him a note under the desk. BO-RING WANNA GET ICE CREAM AFTER SCHOOL?

"The common male cowbird is black, about 20 centimeters long, with a brown head and breast, while the female is gray." Snap, and the black bird on the screen became a gray one.

He scribbled back a reply: no $

"The cowbird's most notable characteristic -- and this is important, so I expect to see you taking notes -- is that it is a brood parasite. Can anyone tell me what a brood parasite is?"

HAVE BROTHER USE HIM

He kicked Keiichi's ankle. Wrote down /NO/, and underlined it twice. Shuusuke always had money, and Shuusuke wouldn't mind, but he'd rather die, he thought, than let Shuusuke know he'd blown his allowance in the arcade last week.

Tanaka-sensei seemed to take the apathetic response of his class in stride; he'd certainly had long enough to get used to it. "It tricks other birds into raising its young for it, so it doesn't have to spend time incubating or foraging for them. Imagine the time they save like this."

SPOILSPORT

shut up

"The cowbird drops its eggs into the nests of other birds and leaves them there. Sometimes the host will discover the addition and bury it, making it part of the nest, preventing it from ever hatching -- but a great many never realize or don't care, so the cowbird chick hatches with the other eggs, into a family to which it doesn't belong."

He concluded afterwards that it was fate that had him tune in on that last sentence, like the fairy-tale heroes that always managed to overhear the crucial bit of conversation that would make their fortunes.

/MAKE ME/, Keiichi wrote with a >:D face drawn next to it. Yuuta shoved the scrap of notepaper into his desk and ignored Keiichi's indignant huff.

Cowbirds were his brothers, he thought. They knew what it was like to always be apart, always outside the joke, laughed at and unable to laugh with. They knew what it was like to hear, "You're Fuji's brother?" in incredulous tones, like it was some kind of brand name, like the name itself had meaning, as if to be born under the heading of unique was an assurance of being so.

The teacher was still talking, intruding on the sudden warm glow of fellowship. "Of course, the cowbird mothers are wily, and tend to leave their eggs in nests where the other birds are smaller and weaker so that it's easier for them to out-compete their nest-mates when feeding time comes around. It can often become the only survivor of a nest, and is responsible for the near-extinction of the Kirtland's Warbler."

The feeling of kinship vanished. Cowbirds /sucked/.

Maybe Yumiko and Shuusuke were the cowbirds, he thought, trying to dispel the vague sense of guilt at comparing his siblings to such terrible creatures.

It wasn't their fault that they were better at everything, after all. He pictured them laughing together, long white limbs, elegant turns of wrist and neck, and the way they faced life, as if they wouldn't merely live fully but live forever as well.

My mother had bad eyesight, he realized, and stabbed the point of his pen into the textbook. She dropped me in with a family of cranes.

*

Mizuno brand, blue with black laces, probably a size eleven or eleven and a half. They lay innocently by the shoe rack.

It was the size that gave them away. Yuuta didn't make it a habit to go around noticing his brother's shoes, but he did take pride in the fact that he had outstripped Shuusuke in at least one aspect.

His first thought was that Father had returned for a surprise visit, but father didn't wear tennis shoes, unless there was some kind of mid-life crisis at work here. They'd rarely had visitors in the past; there was rarely anyone home to entertain, after all, and after the 'incident' that he didn't like to dwell on, rarely became never.

Maybe, he speculated, it was an insurance salesman lured in to his doom. There would be an article next day in the paper about an unidentified corpse missing its shoes, but no one would ever think to look for them in the respectable Fuji home.

The fantasy built up idly; he was up the stairs, halfway to his room, giving the salesman a name (Kuwabara) and a company (Siemen's) when Shuusuke's door opened.

" -- orange juice, shaken, not stirred," Shuusuke was saying merrily, as if the smile trapped in his lips had moved into his voice and lodged there. Light spilled out from his room; facing west, it was always the brightest part of the house in the afternoons. He stopped when he saw Yuuta.

Yuuta stopped, too. The temperature was close to freezing, but his brother's collar was open.

It was open to the navel.

The salesman hadn't died; he'd just gotten lucky.

"Aniki," he said.

Shuusuke shut the door and leaned on it, as if Yuuta would have rushed in for an eyeful otherwise. "I didn't expect you home so early," and the musky stink of sex didn't detract an iota from his composure.

"Obviously," he replied, because there was nothing else for him to say, and I didn't know you were screwing boys would have slipped out otherwise. "You should consult with Neesan in the future."

"Oh, it's no fun without a bit of risk," and god, he didn't want to know about any of this.

-- well, maybe just one thing. "Who is he?"

Shuusuke's gaze slid to the side, back to the closed door. "Does it matter?"

"You brought him home."

"Don't be such an old mother," and the mirth that formed two dimples at the corners of Shuusuke's lips flashed into view, mocking him. For a second he had to stop himself from stretching out to touch them.

He thought of those shoes, an athlete's shoes that had seen much wear, and a game he'd watched with fanatic fervor, once, twice, countless times, and it was like some of the vaunted Fuji intuition had finally opened up for him.

"I thought he'd gone off to Germany." Nothing to be done about the accusation in his voice: what's he doing /back/?

The dimples disappeared; Shuusuke's face became smooth and composed, characterized only by lack of expression, and Yuuta realized that it was the first time it had done this for him. "They have vacations there, too, you know."

"Was he the one who called on Christmas Eve?"

Shuusuke reached out, gave him a small push. "Go put down your things, Yuuta. We'll talk later," mild as tapwater, perfectly inflexible, and as always, when Shuusuke didn't want him around, he left.

*

Yumiko's fourth boyfriend in high school was tall and slim and, apparently, an excellent kisser. Yuuta knew this because when he walked into the kitchen after school in search of a fruit knife, she had her arms hooked around his neck and was making the throaty encouraging sounds that he'd only heard before in the porno flicks Keiichi sneaked from his brother's stash.

The poor guy probably hadn't been expecting to be beaned by a grapefruit.

"Get off of my sister!" Yuuta snarled, tossing his schoolbag to one side. It was almost comical, the way the youth drew back instinctively behind Yumiko, red-faced and panting. Yumiko was an excellent kisser, too.

Granted, it was the most effective strategy he could have chosen. Yumiko stood with head tilted, lips pursed, and it would have taken -- well, Shuusuke -- to face that steady gaze without beating a speedy retreat.

When Shuusuke returned home an hour later, the guy had been asked (kindly, by Yumiko; with a waving fist, by Yuuta) to leave, and their mother was still sweeping up the broken glass. (The grapefruit had bounced.)

After that, it became an unspoken and unbroken consensus, one of the household rules that Yuuta obeyed without quite understanding: this is home. Leave the outside world where it belongs.

*

When the white rectangular envelope addressed from /Deutsche Akademie fur sehr begabte Spieler/* to 'Mr. Shuusuk Fuji' appeared in the mail, it was almost expected, almost not worth getting upset about. Shuusuke did everything well; if he'd decided now to put aside the family for something better, he'd do it with a vengeance. Yumiko had known, of course, and Mother more than likely. Father, only if Shuusuke intended to visit and didn't want to give an old man a heart attack.

This would be his way of telling Yuuta. Worse than breaking up on a post-it, he thought, and left the envelope on the dining table with the rest of the letters.

When they met that night over dinner, the mail had already been gathered away, and Shuusuke looked just as usual, as if the entire incident was an illusion stemming from repressed anxiety. A night terror that had sneaked into daylight.

The meal that night was leftover spaghetti; he watched Shuusuke winding the noodles round and round his gleaming fork, and the words came like they'd been spooled out alongside.

"I saw."

Shuusuke's fork paused, hovered, continued on its way. He didn't ask what Yuuta was talking about. "Careless of me. I was hoping that you hadn't."

"Yeah, sure." Liar, liar, pants on fire -- they'd learned the English rhyme together, Shuusuke helping him with pronunciation. "Did you expect me to throw a tantrum?"

Shuusuke looked amused: cute little Yuuta, always great for entertainment value. "You think such terrible things of me. It wasn't important, that was all."

They were tiny things, the straws that brought down camels. He stood and slapped his palms down on the table, making the plates rattle. It gave him an unwarranted rush of satisfaction.

"It's important to /me/," he snapped, supressed temper flaring, ten years of recrimination. "Just because it's meaningless to you doesn't mean it's the same for everyone else. I don't think you're so smart if you can't even figure that out."

Shuusuke blinked. His lashes dipped. "What I meant," he said carefully, humoring the madman, "was that I'm not going. -- You can use the brochure for scrap paper, if you'd like."

Yuuta stared at him.

Suddenly he felt foolish standing on his feet, towering melodramatically. His face burned; it made him, irrationally, even angrier.

"So you're dropping him, too. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise."

Shuusuke laid down the fork and folded both hands on the table. No more amusement from him, just the smooth blankness that it had taken him years to realize was Shuusuke's blush, Shuusuke's bitten lip, Shuusuke's anger that rarely made it past the surface. "Is there something you want to say, Yuuta?"

"I thought that at least he might be different." His resentment had turned quickly to a secret satisfaction; proof positive here that the lack had never been in him, which was something he'd been telling himself ever since junior high, but Yumiko and Shuusuke made it hard to believe -- in anything, much less their own flaws. "I thought -- never mind. I'm just surprised he allowed you to dump him. Or were you finally on the receiving end for a change?"

The image formed in his mind: "You're holding me back," spoken with finality, and Shuusuke expressionless, like the words didn't touch him at all. It caused a brief flutter of uneasiness.

"No," said Shuusuke, recovering his smile, and Yuuta blinked. He didn't think Shuusuke would lie to him now, but there was something odd in Shuusuke's voice, in his smile and the dimples in the corners of his lips. He felt, again, the urge to rest his fingers there, drag out through contact the secrets that refused to emerge otherwise. He wondered if that was how he did it, by kissing them out.

"Really?"

"Don't you trust me?"

No, he thought; /no/. "So he's just going to let you go?" Hard to think of Seigaku's captain letting anything go, but then, it was even harder to think of Shuusuke succumbing.

Shuusuke looked at him and didn't respond. His shadow loomed on the wall behind him, as if it would swallow him. There was no sound other than the quiet ticking of the clock, nothing to suggest that this room wasn't the entirety of the world, and for a second Yuuta felt a surge of the old misgivings, thinking of the cork in the walls, that his family was too well-insulated against everything, the outside world and each other, trying to teach him to build up walls of his own when he just wanted in on theirs.

The creak of joints broke the silence as Shuusuke stretched out his hands, lacing them together and flexing outwards.

He remembered this; when he'd announced his decision to transfer from Seigaku, and Mother had asked for everyone's opinion, Shuusuke had held this position for a few minutes as they waited, then looked up and smiled. 'As long as you're happy,' he'd said, and Yuuta had felt like hitting him.

Now he was lifting his head, unclasping his hands.

Yuuta leaned forward over his cooling pasta before he could think better of it, trapping them, ignoring Shuusuke's surprised "hmm?" It had been years since he'd touched Shuusuke's skin with his fingers. Years since he had been the one reaching out.

It was cooler than he remembered, smooth and impenetrable, and he knew that what separated them was more than skin, more than distance, as cold and hard as the polar icecaps that never melted, untouched and untouchable at the very top of the world. He hated it. Hated /them/.

But. But. "If he really dumped you, just tell me and I'll go kick his ass," he said, meaning it.

For a second Shuusuke just looked at him out of narrow eyes, and then the laughter came on cue, spilling brightly into the air like golden bubbles, disappearing if pricked -- but you'd never have the heart to touch them in the first place.

"Oh, /Yuuta/," said Shuusuke between gasps, "no, nothing like that. Although I'm so tempted to see -- but no. He's a gentleman, you know. Takes his responsibilities seriously. Like you."

He blushed at that, to his embarrassment. "So, what? He's just another notch on your belt?"

The laughter faded away; Shuusuke flipped their hands so that his thumbs lay against Yuuta's palms. "I could tell you, but you might not like it."

He rolled his eyes. "And that's stopped you before, when?"

"Fair enough," and Shuusuke traced his thumbs down Yuuta's life lines, making him twitch. "I gave him something else. He seemed to think it was worth it."

"What was it?"

"A key," said Shuusuke, and then, "a promise."

"Oh, god." Eyeroll, repeat; if crypticness was a rope, Shuusuke would have hung himself on it long ago. "So what was the promise?"

Again, the twist in Shuusuke's smile, like the pale shadow of a tadpole staining clear water. They had gone hunting for tadpoles once, nets in hand, and Shuusuke had slipped on a rock and skinned his knee -- not badly, just enough to make his lips twitch when Yuuta asked him if it was serious, dimples puckering into whirlpools. He looked like that, now; like what he was saying hurt him. "Well. That I wouldn't change the locks."

Shuusuke's grip was stronger than it looked.

"It's fine," he bit out, and tugged. Still no give. Shuusuke's fingers were pressing firmly into his skin.

"Yuuta," said Shuusuke, "Yuuta," which was one of Yuuta's first memories, lying in a soft place with eyes closed and hearing that voice stumble over his name; he had no defenses against it.

He closed his eyes now. "Does he know that you don't keep your promises?"

A pause, and then, "Yes," so kindly that it hurt like nothing else would, which told him all he needed to know. It fell neatly into the slot left by the other puzzle pieces in his hands: that Shuusuke had never made a promise like this before, that the act of making it was a statement in itself.

He opened his eyes, looked around at the dining room, spacious and airy, elegant, impersonal. Just as it had been this morning, but something was different.

The first root of a creeper had inserted itself, and walls were breaking down. He thought of the house without Shuusuke, Christmases without Shuusuke, an empty room that would become a shrine to things past, while he remained the only one left in the nest. Too much to hope that Shuusuke and Yumiko wouldn't spread their wings sooner or later, but then, he'd never been smart with his wishes, wasting them on the impossible: I want to be like you, I want to be better than you, and then, I want you never to leave.

He wondered how it was possible, to trust them not to. To have that courage.

Maybe the lack had been in him, after all.

"I didn't even know your door had a lock," he said inanely, in lieu of anything else to offer that didn't make his stomach twist. It had always been enough to know that it was Shuusuke's room, and he didn't want anyone inside.

A tug on his hands, and Shuusuke's grip was very strong indeed, because he found himself sprawling towards the surface of the table, chin almost making contact. "Wha -- "

Shuusuke released one of his hands to cover his mouth, muffling it. He looked vexed with himself, a novelty. "If you repeat this to anyone I'll have to kill you," he said, sounding perfectly serious, before leaning over so that his lips almost touched Yuuta's ear, breath warm, voice low, the way he did when he used to tell Yuuta to watch out for this, don't let down your guard around that.

This time he said, "It doesn't, for you."

He stared as Shuusuke seated himself back down; returned to his pasta, which must be cold by now, red and white and disgusting -- but Shuusuke never minded the disgusting part -- digging in with composure. Shuusuke eating dinner as he'd done for almost two decades, but something was different.

The blood crept up his neck.

In Biology class, they'd learned that the only way plants could gain a foothold into walls was if the walls themselves were cracked in the first place. Maybe, maybe they'd been ready to crumble if anyone had ever gone as far as to test them.

But no one in the family would --

No one except --

Cowbirds needed their foster homes for nutrients, care, survival, but maybe, he realized, there was something the cranes needed from them, too.

"You still suck," he said, emphasizing the words while plopping down red-faced. Unique, Yumiko had told him, but he hadn't understood. Not a problem in any family except this one, where conversations were drawn through irrelevant topics, and no one ever said what they meant. Except him. "But -- I'm a little glad you're not going. Just a little. You know. XS size gladness."

He discovered, when Shuusuke smiled at him, that the accompanying weight that came with it, the little dip and rise of his stomach, was called happiness.



End

* German Academy for Very Gifted Players. Literally. Also, very probably ungrammatically.
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