“No, you idiot!” he overheard Kazu yell one morning, before they were supposed to head to school together. “It’s supply and demand.”
Curious, Mikio peered into the kitchen, where Kazu was supervising a batch of pudding that would go to Makio in between study sessions with Kuroi today.
Shineda, another one of his brother’s men, looked back at Kazu in absolute befuddlement. “S-s-supply and what?” he asked.
Kazu rubbed at the bridge of his nose in the same way Mikio did when he’d spent too long reading one thing and his eyes hurt. “If aniki wants five puddings and you only make three, you didn’t have enough supply, right? Or if aniki wants five puddings and you make six, that means one goes to waste, doesn’t it?”
Shineda continued to stare. “Uh… yes?”
“So that’s why you have to find out how many puddings aniki wants before you make them, fucking moron,” Kazu shouted, and kicked at Shineda’s rear somewhat viciously.
Shineda yelped, apologized, and trotted off to do just that. Kazu sighed and stormed out of the kitchen, nearly running into Mikio as he did.
His eyes went wide as he turned to look at the clock in the hallway. “Argh, sorry bocchan, are we late?”
“A little,” Mikio conceded, as Kazu scurried to get the door for him. “So you finally understand supply and demand, then?”
Kazu looked embarrassed, but not unhappy at the acknowledgement. “A little, maybe.” Then he added, with a scowl, “Those damn graphs still don’t make any sense, though.”
Mikio shook his head. “No sense whatsoever,” he agreed.
The week after that was relatively peaceful, even though Kazu moaned at how boring Dante was, and how much more he liked Homer over Virgil but Virgil over Ovid. He didn’t understand opportunity costs or what caused deflation yet either, and the debates Mikio poked Kazu into when they were in the TA offices had his fellow graduate students sending him irritated e-mails about how he and his boyfriend should be less noisy and more concerned with being discrete when in public. When Mikio read those messages out loud to Kazu, the yakuza’s ears turned pink and he started throwing things, which Mikio found incredibly amusing. At one point, Choi e-mailed them saying it sounded like they were having sex and he could hear it from all the way down the hall. He also included an unsolicited link to his church group and a comment about how prayer could save them, which was marginally less amusing.
Kazu took to glaring pointedly at Choi the entire time they were in lectures together from then on, and at one point, kicked over the other TA’s bag and snarled, “Mind your own damn business, you freakin’ eyesore,” in a way that also implied stabbing with sharp objects. The fact that he didn’t comment on Choi’s suspicions or Mikio’s lifestyle choices in one way or another made Mikio wonder if this meant he and Kazu were friends now.
That would be nice, he allowed. He’d never had a real friend before.
He treated Kazu to coffee at his favorite café during the weekend because he was in a good mood. Kazu drank three cups and didn’t once shut up about how now, whenever he watched Anikinder, all he could think about was, “that guy with the thousand faces you were tellin’ me about. The fellas thought I was talking about some sort of horror movie.”
Mikio smiled more genuinely than he had in a long time.
“Niisan will be returning to school next week for the new semester,” Mikio began randomly on a Thursday afternoon, while Kazu was puzzling over the Odyssey at his request. He was curious to know if it still mattered to Kazu or not.
Kazu paused in his ramblings about why someone as powerful as Poseidon would care about some random little guy like Odysseus in the first place. He stared at Mikio in confusion. “I know,” he answered. “When I asked if I could tailor his uniform for him last night, he punched me in the head and told me to concentrate on this job again,” he added, and curled in on himself a little, like a dog that had been beaten by its beloved master and couldn't figure out why.
Mikio felt a pang at that, not out of conscience, but because of the sure signs that despite the education Mikio had been giving Kazu out of the goodness of his heart over the last few weeks, Kazu still held Makio to higher esteem. Here he was, opening up worlds for his bodyguard, and still the only thing that mattered to him was Mikio's boor of an older brother. Mikio felt his mouth curl at that, as an unpleasant but familiar churning began to build up in his stomach. It made him ache.
“I would happily give you back if Father would allow it,” he said, somewhat facetiously. “However, that isn’t the case.” He managed a bitter smile as they waited for his section of students to arrive. “So we are stuck together for now, though we may not want to be.”
Kazu shrugged, missing the barbs completely, and looked back down at his book. “Guess so,” he murmured. “But it's not so bad. At least we’re not this guy.”
Mikio supposed he could concede the point. He told himself that friendship was illogical anyway, unless both parties were actually benefiting equally from the relationship. As it was, Kazu was more like a leech than a friend, though that sounded harsh even to Mikio’s own ears.
He remembered vaguely, a day when his mother had sat him down and explained to him that he would never be like his brother, that he couldn’t be like his brother, and that was okay. Makio was the heart between the two of them, she said, just like Kiichi was between him and her. Mikio and she were the heads. According to her, head and heart had to work together in order for there to be happiness. One couldn’t be whole without the other.
But all he heard when he thought of her words of wisdom now was that while he did have Kazu’s mind to shape however he liked for a few hours every day, it was still his older brother who would always, always have the men’s hearts in his hand.
For the first time in a long time, Mikio began to question how much being the head was worth in the long run.
Mikio hated it when his father was right.
As someone unconnected to the dealings of the Sharp Fang, Mikio had assumed that his safety was guaranteed simply because attacking him would gain any of his family’s enemies absolutely nothing. He knew nothing about the Sharp Fang's business dealings, could offer no real information about his father’s plans, and on top of all that, the wrath of his brother alone was something no one in their right mind should be willing to face after Makio's open show of battle prowess at St. Agnes last spring.
To the savvy yakuza, attacking the civilian son of a fearsome gang boss that could net them no information or strategic advantages and whose capture would likely only gain them nothing but the terrible retribution of a renowned brawler was a bad decision. Doing it in broad daylight in a public place was an even worse decision.
Mikio should have known by now that the people who joined the yakuza were not necessarily known for making good life choices.
What was unexpectedly clever about the whole incident was that they managed to recruit the nerdy graduate TA from Korea to do their dirty work for them.
The morning of the attack, Mikio was grading papers in the TA office while Kazu fiddled uneasily with his Milton reading, clearly not focusing on the text as he glanced from the page to Mikio to the page to Mikio over and over again.
“Is something the matter, Kazu-kun?” Mikio intoned eventually, not looking up from a horrendous small business proposal he'd gotten from one of his first year students. No one in their right mind would invest in a mesh clothing store.
“Nothing’s the matter, exactly,” Kazu muttered, rubbing at the back of his head like the feel of his short-buzzed hair against the palm of his hand was soothing.
“Did you find something you didn’t understand?” Mikio asked next.
Kazu shook his head again, dictionary in his lap and well used at this point in their relationship. “It’s just that…aniki started going to school again today,” he began.
Mikio felt the tension in his shoulders increase. His eyes narrowed slightly. “And?”
“And so I talked to the boss last night…”
Mikio steeled himself for what was coming. He expected some sort of impressive begging to come from Kazu, about how much he needed to stay by Makio and watch out for Makio and serve Makio’s every whim like everyone else in their godforsaken family.
What came next, as was usually the case with Kazu, was a bit of a surprise.
“…I sorta asked him if he wouldn’t mind me going back to school too.”
Mikio stared. “Excuse me?”
Kazu turned away, clearly self-conscious by how astounded his charge was. “I mean, I know, it’s probably stupid, you know, for an idiot like me, but…”
“It’s not,” Mikio answered, before he could formulate a more erudite response.
Kazu blinked. “Yeah?” The ghost of a smile began forming on his bodyguard’s lips. “I mean, since I been doing all this smart person stuff with you, and I dunno, I kinda like it, you know? The reading and stuff. The stories, and um, the business stuff, and even that weird art class you take drawing the naked people ain’t so bad, once you get used to the flappy old person bits, I guess.” Pause. “Plus, I’d get to go together with aniki.”
Mikio felt his emotions sour on the final note. “And….what did my father say to this request?” he managed, after a beat.
This was when Kazu turned anxious again, just the slightest bit. “He said I’d have to ask you. That is, you’d have to tell him it’s okay for me not to be your bodyguard anymore.”
Mikio hesitated, torn between not wanting to lose the easy companionship he’d managed to build with this unlikely person and being flattered that he could have profound enough an impact on another human being’s life that it would make that person want to change himself for, perhaps not the better, but at least the wiser.
Mikio knew the right thing to do would be to release Kazu from this assignment and let him finish his education. Kazu certainly had the discipline to tough it out even if he wasn’t necessarily the quickest of learners.
Mikio also knew he had a reputation for being the selfish one in the family. In that moment, he wanted to live up to it. It was another strawberry eraser fiasco all over again. Makio always took everything from him. Makio always got the best of everything. It wasn’t fair.
With each passing moment, Kazu began to grow less and less hopeful in the eyes.
Mikio took a deep breath and opened his mouth to answer.
But it was at that exact moment that Choi peeked into the room, looking a little bit pale. “Sorry to be a bother, Sakaki-san,” he said, in his thickly accented but functional Japanese, “could you please come with me? The professor won’t be in tomorrow because of a family emergency and he wants us to each prepare to teach a part of the lecture for him instead.”
Mikio sighed. “Yes, of course,” he answered, somewhat relieved that he wouldn’t have to answer Kazu right away. “Kazu-kun, could you separate the finished papers into different piles based on their grades for me? This shouldn’t take long.”
Kazu moved to protest. “But bo…er, Mikio-kun,” he amended, somewhat awkwardly in front of Choi, “I’m not supposed to… you know.”
Choi gave them both a nervous, impatient look. Kazu glared back. “What the hell do you want, four eyes?” he barked, causing Choi to stumble back a step.
Mikio coughed. “My dear,” he said, voice slightly saccharine and fond, “I know it will be hard to spend even a moment without me, but this would really be of help. I’ll be back before the hour is finished.” He gave Kazu his most quelling look with his eyes, though took care to wrap in an unnervingly neutral smile for Choi’s sake.
Choi looked vaguely disgusted with their being so openly gay in front of him, which gave Mikio a fleeting sense of satisfaction, while Kazu subsided helplessly back into his chair. “Yeah, sure,” he said, though not without a significant glare at the other graduate student.
Mikio gathered his notebook and moved to go before Kazu remembered what a bodyguard was actually supposed to do, and that he answered to Kiichi’s orders rather than Mikio’s requests. With this little reprieve, he’d at least have some time to distance himself from Kazu’s ridiculous wet kitten expression and make a more rational decision about what would happen between them from here on out.
“Choi-san,” he began, glancing at his watch, “did Professor Kameda send out his outline for the lecture already? I didn’t get it yet.”
“Uh…” Choi began, fumbling nervously with his bag.
Mikio moved to shut the TA office’s door behind him with a click. When he turned around to repeat the question, perhaps more slowly and in more simplistic Japanese just to be rude, Choi answered rudely first, by elbowing him into the wall and sticking something sharp and cold into his neck.
The world went fuzzy and dark around the edges almost instantly.
When Mikio awoke for the first time after that there was noise and light. Both of them were painful, one making him wince and the other making his stomach rebel. He vomited on the floor in front of his knees almost instantly, while crashing and screams and the sounds of shattering glass bombarded his ears and made him dizzy. The last time he’d felt this weak was when he was eight and had pneumonia. He remembered his mother’s hand on his forehead and her soft humming soothing him back to sleep.
This time wasn’t nearly as peaceful, and once he finished vomiting, he fell backwards against a wall for support. He blearily surmised that whomever had hired Choi to kidnap him was now realizing the error of their ways. They'd gotten nothing out of Mikio, and from the sounds that were making his head hurt, his brother was probably breaking all of their things as he beat them bloody. He wondered if it would comfort them to know that Makio was probably doing it all without any malice.
Mikio's eyes fluttered shut just as, in the distance, he thought he heard his name.
When Mikio awoke the second time it was in a familiar, dimly lit room with Kuroi at his side. His room then. He groaned and tried to sit up, head spinning and mouth feeling dry and foul inside at once.
“Bocchan, please drink this,” Kuroi prompted quickly, moving a glass of tepid water in front of Mikio’s face. Mikio for once, was too addled to protest and drank obediently, in a series of small, slow sips at Kuroi’s discretion. While his throat felt better, there was still a pounding in the back of his head that wouldn’t go away.
“Are you feeling okay?” Kuroi asked after a moment, keeping his voice low even as the pounding grew stronger.
Mikio nodded wordlessly and closed his eyes for a little longer.
“Shall I call the physician?”
Mikio shook his head.
“Kazu-kun?” he asked, when he could find the energy to speak again.
Kuroi didn’t bother to hide his surprise. “With the boss,” he admitted, somewhat reluctantly.
It was only then that Mikio realized the pounding sounds that he thought were in his head were really the sounds of actual fighting and shouting, muffled through the floor.
He shot out of his bed and stumbled down the stairs to his father’s office.
When he pushed open the door without knocking he saw exactly what he expected to see: Makio with his hands wrapped from punching his knuckles bloody, Kazu, black and blue on his hands and knees on the floor, and his father in his chair, looking silently enraged.
They all turned to him as one when he threw himself into the room.
“Mikio. You shouldn’t be here,” Kiichi began automatically.
Kazu yelled, “Bocchan, are you okay?!” before remembering himself and cowering back down on the ground at Kiichi’s quelling look.
Makio didn’t say anything at all right away, giving his brother a slow, appraising once over instead. Eventually, he turned to their father and said, very seriously, “He should probably be here, boss.”
Everyone looked at Makio in surprise.
Makio squirmed a little bit under the scrutiny before squaring his shoulders and steeling his expression. “I uh, I mean, he is the one who got kidnapped.”
“It was my fault!” Kazu barked from where his forehead was touching the ground. “I should pay with my life.”
“Shut up,” all three Sakaki men said as one, perhaps for the first time ever.
Kazu shut up.
“You are going to be punished though,” Kiichi intoned, voice menacing. “Severely.”
“He’s already pretty beat up,” Makio pointed out.
“Did you do that?” Mikio croaked at his brother, incredulous.
Makio looked back at him with the same amount of incredulity. “Fuck no,” he said. “The guys that took you did that.”
Mikio considered his brother, then relaxed a little. “And how do those guys look?” he asked around the rasp in his voice.
Makio grinned. “Even more beat up,” he said, holding up his fists, which were beginning to bleed through the bandaging. Ostensibly from punching things a lot. From the look on Makio's face, it was apparent that he was indeed capable of some malice after all.
Mikio swayed a little on his feet in relief and had to lean against the doorway to keep from falling. Kiichi and Makio both moved to support him, but he waved them off stubbornly.
“What’s going to happen now?” he asked.
“Well, I was going to declare war, but your brother thinks the better plan would be to charge the Yamamoto-gumi with kidnapping a civilian once you give your testimony to the police.”
Mikio looked at his older brother in surprise. “Really?”
Makio shrugged. “Being in prison sucks way worse than getting stabbed,” he rationalized.
Mikio shook his head, which was still fuzzy. He had to focus. “I didn’t mean about the Yamamoto-gumi,” he said with a wave of his hand. He didn’t care if they were alive or dead, to be perfectly honest. “What I meant was, why and how are you punishing Kazu-kun?”
Kazu winced from his kowtowing position on the floor. Kiichi turned his glare back on his underling. “Well, since this moron doesn’t seem to understand the definition of bodyguard even though he always has a dictionary with him lately, I guess we’ll have to have the rest of the boys kick his ass for a few hours until he learns it.”
Mikio glared at his father. “He’s not my bodyguard,” he blurted.
Kiichi blinked. Then Makio blinked. Then Kazu looked up, and probably would have blinked, if both his eyes weren’t mostly swollen shut.
“Huh?” Makio said first.
Mikio cleared his throat. “This morning, I officially relieved him of his duties as my bodyguard,” he managed, with a surprising amount of power for how weak he felt. “So he didn’t technically fail me.”
Kiichi rubbed at his temples. “What are you talking about?”
“He told you yesterday, didn’t he?” Mikio asked, though he looked straight at Kazu as he said it. “He wants to go back to school too.”
Makio turned to look down at Kazu now. “Hey, really?”
Kazu nodded sheepishly.
The two of them grinned at each other, and Mikio tried not to feel jealous about it. He was going to take the high road here, the one time in his life. For a friend.
He pressed on. “And you told him specifically that he would have to have my permission before he could go.” Mikio forced himself to sound nonchalant. “Well he had it, from the moment he told me he wanted to do it,” he said, which, while half a lie, was half the truth too. He was a man who lived in shades of gray.
Kiichi considered this. “Yet he still allowed you to get kidnapped.”
“It wasn’t his job to stop it at that point,” Mikio argued.
“It’s always his job to stop that stuff!” Makio and Kiichi said as one, not unreasonably.
Kazu nodded in agreement. “They’re right.” He hung his head again. “I have to be punished.”
Mikio really wished Kazu would help him out a little bit here. They’d had an entire hour long conversation on subtext the other day.
Mikio sighed and decided to make his intentions overt instead. “Well, since he was supposed to be looking out for me and didn’t, why don’t I choose his punishment?”
Kiichi considered this. Then nodded. “That seems fair.”
“I dunno, does it?” Makio asked, looking a lot more wary of Mikio’s magnanimous offer, like any plan for punishment concocted by his wily little brother would always be way worse than the physical beating to end all physical beatings.
Mikio smiled. Maybe school was making his brother smarter after all.
They ended up calling the physician anyway, because Kiichi was always treating him like he was perpetually on the verge of being completely broken. After a perfunctory check up, Mikio was ordered to stay in bed for at least twenty-four hours and told he was not to do anything too taxing for the next few days on the offhand chance he had a delayed reaction to whatever it was Choi gave him. Mikio hoped the Yamamoto group's promise to pay off Choi’s student loans was worth the sudden and swift deportation notice he was going to get sometime in the middle of the next grant and award season. If it were up to Kiichi, Choi would be swimming with cement shoes in the sea between their two countries right now, but Mikio had managed to convince his father that the shame of failing at life and having to live with that failure would be far worse for a graduate student than death. Also, the interest on their student loans were ridiculous, and killing Choi would simply be putting him out of his misery before they began accruing charges.
After the doctor left, Mikio fell asleep to the sounds of Makio not understanding what accruing interest meant at all, and that, in its familiar simplicity, was enough to convince Mikio that nothing in his world had changed much after all.
He was the head, Makio was the heart, and now Kazu could go to school and follow that heart like he always did. Mikio's new bodyguard would be some other ape-faced subordinate of his father’s that he could torment until he was bored and all would be as it ever should have been. Nothing was any different than before
Maybe it was for the best.
When he woke up it was close to evening time. He was surprised to find Makio sitting at his bedside, reading from a grade nine English primer. Mikio was fairly certain his brother was holding it upside down.
Makio grunted when Mikio cleared his throat, and somewhat sheepishly threw his workbook behind him. “Hey,” he said, peering down at his brother’s sleepy face, “how you feeling?”
“Why are you in my room?” Mikio asked, in lieu of answering. He felt awful, for the record, but mostly because his internal clock was a mess rather than because of any of the harrowing things that supposedly happened to him today (especially given that he was unconscious for about 98% of them).
“Just wanted to, you know, say thanks,” Makio said. “About Kazu.”
Mikio sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. “Come to speak on his behalf then? How very boss-like, niisan.”
Makio gave him a strange look. “He’s downstairs cooking. He doesn’t even know I’m here. I just, you know, wanted to say thanks for showing him all those books and stuff. I couldn’t figure out how to prove school could be fun, but looks like you did it without trying.”
Mikio had a hard time taking compliments from Makio, mostly because part of him really wanted them and another part of him really hated himself for wanting them in the first place. “Well now you two can run off to school together and discover the joys of learning side by side,” he murmured against his pillow.
Makio snorted. “Are you kidding me? He’s gonna be grades below me. Plus we can’t hang out on account of Kuroi saying it’ll blow our cover.”
That made sense. It didn’t make Mikio feel better though. He fumbled for the water glass Kuroi had left on his end table earlier and nearly knocked it over. Makio’s quick reflexes caught it, and before Mikio could protest, his big brother was hauling him up into a sitting position one-armed and helping him drink, like he used to do when they were little and Mikio had the flu.
Mikio drank delicately while Makio watched. “You got that sour expression on your face that means you’re brooding,” Makio commented after he helped Mikio put the glass aside.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, niisan,” Mikio sniffed.
Makio put his index finger in between Mikio’s eyebrows and pushed a little, which Mikio hated, because he’d never been strong enough to swat his brother’s arm away before. “Right there,” Makio said. “That little vee thing in your forehead.”
Mikio couldn’t help it when his hands came up to slap at Makio’s finger at that point, however ineffectual a gesture it might have been. Makio subsided, withdrawing and plopping back into his chair. “What’s the matter?” he asked, like he cared.
The fact that he probably did care, even after everything Mikio had done to him, was worse than actually getting kidnapped. Mikio never felt as weak as he did right at that moment. “Nothing's the matter,” he pushed.
“Liar,” Makio said. “Tell me, or I’m gonna sit on your feet and flick your nose, Bean Pole.”
Mikio glared at him, but Makio just grinned back and ruffled his hair. “You mad ‘cuz Kazu wants to come back to school?”
“No,” Mikio insisted, though even he could tell it sounded more like a yes. Makio gave him a strange look, and Mikio eventually conceded that his brother had a weirdly endearing face that made people want to confide in him and share his strength, or something to that effect. Mikio drew his knees up against his chest to keep the big idiot from following through on his earlier threat. “I'm upset because he wanted to go to school with you,” he admitted eventually.
Makio stared at him.
Just when Mikio was going to give up on trying to have a heart to heart with his brother at all (it was frustrating when half of the conversation’s participants had no idea what the other half was talking about), Makio suddenly snapped his fingers in realization. “Instead of school with you,” he grunted, with an understanding nod. “That’s why you’re being all weird.”
It sounded so juvenile when Makio put it that way.
Makio didn’t laugh at him though, just continued to nod in understanding. "Hold on, lemme think about this," he said, as his eyes rolled up in his head in what was apparently his thinking face.
About ninety very long, very bizarre seconds later, Makio’s eyes came back into focus. “I got an idea,” he said,” and Mikio was worried for his brother, more so now than ever. He was also worried about himself, because the only idea he had about the whole situation was to sulk quietly in solitude like he usually did, until another opportunity to embarrass his brother or anger his father came along and he snatched it up in a clever enough way that no one could really blame him for the fallout afterwards. If Makio was coming up with plans in his stead, they were all in trouble.
“Did you, you know, pick a punishment for Kazu yet?” Makio asked.
Mikio had, actually. “I was going to forbid him from making sweets for the next month,” he admitted, waiting for Makio’s reaction.
Makio just looked confused again. “Why the hell would you do that? He don’t even like sweets that much,” he pointed out, like maybe he thought Mikio might have forgotten. He didn’t seem to understand who the punishment was really aimed at in the slightest.
Whatever malice Makio had managed to conjure up earlier was completely gone at this point. It was incredibly worrisome.
“Well either way, forget that one. I got the perfect solution,” Makio assured his brother, looking unabashedly proud of himself and whatever good idea he’d apparently had with his eyes rolled up into the back of his head like an epileptic.
Now Mikio couldn’t help but be curious. “And that would be?”
Makio clapped him on the shoulder, a little bit too hard, like he must do with all his men. Mikio wasn’t sure if he was flattered or if he wanted to withdraw and make it very clear to his older brother that he did not, in any way, intend to become his underling.
“Look, Kazu wants to go to school with me, and you wanna still have time to hang out with him, on account of you being friends…”
“We’re not friends,” Mikio protested, automatically.
Makio snorted. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Well, you wanna hang out with him even though you ain’t friends, I guess… seriously, you’re a grown ass man, stop being shy about shit.”
Mikio was somewhat affronted. “He wants to be your friend, not mine.”
Makio looked like he had a headache, which was probably something that consistently happened not long after his ninety second bouts of thinking. “Who the hell says a person can only have one friend?” he demanded.
Mikio snorted. “Kazu-kun is not my friend.”
Makio frowned. “Well he sure as hell isn’t downstairs making rice gruel for some random guy he hates right now.”
“He’s doing it out of guilt, niisan.”
Makio’s frown intensified. “Was it his fault you got kidnapped?”
“Of course not.”
“Then what the hell’s he gotta feel guilty about?” Makio finished, clearly thinking his logic was infallible.
Mikio wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was fairly certain his expression was deeply judgmental though.
Makio didn’t notice. “Christ, for someone so smart you sure are weird sometimes,” his older brother muttered, putting his elbows on his knees and glancing up at Mikio in a concerned manner. “You sure you didn’t hit your head when you got kidnapped?”
Which just prompted Makio to laugh, almost in a fond sort of way. “Just hear me out, will ya? I figured out exactly how to fix this so you won’t be all in a snit anymore. Well, I mean, Sakuranantoka kinda figured it out way back when, but you know, I’m evolving his idea or something. Making it real.”
Mikio fought the automatic urge to protest and then snidely make a comment about how Makio’s attempts at being clever were like their father trying to be fashionable, but he was too tired, and in all honesty, he was genuinely curious as to what his brother considered the perfect solution to this imaginary problem.
“Okay, so Kazu starts class next Monday, right? Well, he’s already pretty much a week behind the rest of his class, and lemme tell you, those little squirts at Sorafune really pick up on shit pretty fast, so that’s like, probably, a month behind in the real world, or something. So the way we deal with this punishment thing is…”
He leaned over to whisper into Mikio’s ear then, like his epiphany was something that had to be shared as a two-person conspiracy in order to work.
Upon hearing his brother out, Mikio conceded that maybe Makio wasn’t as stupid as he looked after all.
But then again, he’d have to be.
On Monday morning, Mikio was driven to Keioh by his new babysitter, who was some hulking mass of mindless staring called Yamada. He went about his classes in the usual manner, though the students and the other TAs gave him strange looks when he took his seat unaccompanied by his now familiar shadow. Choi was also conspicuously gone that morning, though Mikio hadn’t given the order to drop the hammer as of yet. It was probably Choi’s own guilty conscience keeping him out of school today, which was luckily a weakness Mikio didn’t harbor himself. Choi would get his just desserts when Mikio saw fit, and Mikio would lose exactly zero hours of sleep over it afterwards. That was guaranteed.
Yamada, unlike Kazu, lingered in the shadows of the lecture hall the entire time, quiet and out of sight, probably because that was what Kuroi had told him to do. Yamada seemed like a young man who had never been burdened with an original thought in all his life.
Mikio finished his lecture, his lunch, his seminar, and his two TA sections for Monday off in that exact manner, for all intents and purposes alone while Yamada trailed after him like a mindless golem there only to do its master’s bidding. By three in the afternoon, they were driving home in utter silence, mostly because during lunch, when Mikio had asked Yamada how he liked the class and if he had learned anything, Yamada had answered with a very severe, “I learned where all the exits are, bocchan.”
Needless to say, Mikio wouldn’t be giving his new bodyguard any classical literature to pore over any time soon.
When they returned to the family compound it was almost four. Mikio dismissed Yamada as quickly as posible, shedding the young man like dirty clothes as he strolled into the study, where he found Kazu and Makio already stationed, bickering good-naturedly at the table about whether or not Kazu had made any friends on his first day and if he understood how to balance chemical equations yet, because Makio sure as hell didn’t. There was a plate of exactly five pudding cups at Makio’s side, and at the head of the table, between a stack of workbooks, sat a small plate of rice crackers and warm tea.
Makio and Kazu looked like two admittedly aged school boys doing homework together. It was almost idyllic.
From the doorway, Mikio cleared his throat, intent on breaking it up.
Both his older brother and his former bodyguard went still at the sound, turning to look at him with vaguely apprehensive expressions.
“Are you ready to start, Kazu-kun?” Mikio asked, and smiled at them in the way he knew sent shivers down Makio’s spine.
“Yes!” Kazu answered quickly, and hastened to pull out the chair at the head of the table for Mikio to sit in.
Mikio subsided into it gracefully before moving the plate of rice crackers aside and helping himself to the tea. “How was your first day of high school?” Mikio asked first.
“Pretty good,” Kazu answered, while Makio ate his pudding. “Some punks tried to take my phone but I smacked them around a little bit and took theirs instead. You know, nothing too bad.”
Mikio tried not to wince, while Makio just grunted in appreciation of Kazu’s tactics around a mouthful of pudding.
Then, Kazu surprised them both when he held up the battered copy of Paradise Lost that Mikio had given him the week before. “Plus none of the beady-eyed little bastards in my class had any clue what this was about or even what it was, so I’m pretty sure I’m gonna wipe the floor with them when it comes to all the brainy stuff too.” He grinned broadly. “School is awesome.”
Mikio managed to hold back a laugh, because if he showed weakness now, the entirety of what he had planned for Kazu's first afternoon of punishment would be shot. Instead, he schooled himself carefully and pulled an older book out of his bag to set on the table between them. It was a copy of his ninth grade geometry book, marked with notes and smelling vaguely of hospital disinfectant. “Now, if you two are done with your snacks, Kazu and I should get to work.”
“Yes, sensei!” Kazu answered, while Makio tucked his remaining two pudding cups under his arm and gave Kazu a pitying look.
“Good luck, man,” he told his subordinate very seriously, before skulking off to do his own homework with Kuroi.
Kazu started to look apprehensive, which was exactly what Mikio had hoped for when he agreed to this.
“I promise that you will wipe the floor with your classmates when it comes to all the 'brainy' stuff,” Mikio began pleasantly as he flipped his book open to the first pages, “because my teaching style is far more exacting than that of any high school teacher. Today, we won’t stop until you get every single problem right.”
Kazu sighed as his very expensive home tutor prompted him to take out his workbook and prepare to learn about the differences between theorems, proofs, and postulates.
Mikio sipped his tea while Kazu dug out his homework and supposed that when Makio put some actual effort into thinking, he could maybe be a little bit smart after all. As it was, this idea wasn’t half bad.
Approximately thirty minutes later, and to the surprise of no one, Makio made Mikio take back his charitable thoughts when he popped his head into the room, looked at Mikio's writing on the whiteboard, and declared, “I thought postulates were Mexican pastries.”
Kazu lit up at the news. “Hey, then I've perfected those already.”
Mikio, in rare moment of advocating brawn over brains, took the time to smack both of them upside the head with a ruler before shutting the door in Makio's face.
For the first time since Mikio last hugged his mother, he felt that both his heart and his head were in perfect accord.