They used to get dead drunk in high school—so drunk, that once, Shigure thought that he was honestly in love with Haa-san.
He even tells him so, his words slurred and his legs failing to hold his own body up, falling over Hatori with his arms and hands everywhere.
Hatori just shoves him away. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.
Later, Shigure wakes up all bruised and aching on the floor—still in the position he had kept as he fell—a crumpled, hung-over mess. He isn’t sure exactly what it was he’d said that makes Hatori look at him with such anger and such menace all through breakfast. Ayame can’t remember either. After they eat, they go to Ayame’s mother’s room to make good use of her bed, but ten minutes later Hatori is knocking rapidly on the door, a warning signal to come out, they’re back.
There is one teacher, a pretty woman with legs too good to be allowed in a boys’ school, that Shigure likes to think has a crush on him. Realistically, she is more probably out to get Hatori in her bed, but Shigure would never bring up such a possibility.
Not while sober, anyway.
History. Emperors. Akito? No. What the fuck is she droning on about?
A piece of paper lands by his elbow.
Gure-san. Wake up. You look like someone just hit you over the head with a hammer.
Shigure writes back Fuck you on a scrap of paper and throws it non-discreetly back to Ayame’s desk. The teacher is too busy checking out Haa-san to notice.
They go to a party at one of their classmate’s houses. Someone offers them drinks and Ayame takes two, graciously thanking his fine host. Hatori declines.
“Do you think Aaya has a problem?” Shigure asks, hours later. Ayame, when last seen, had his tongue down some poor bastard’s throat, three empty glasses on a nearby table, and an open bottle within arm’s reach.
“It’s so hard to tell,” Shigure continues, “because he acts drunk all the time. And you notice he’s never hung over? I hate that. I need to learn how to do that.”
“You could stop drinking,” Hatori suggests.
“That’s funny, Haa-san,” Shigure laughs. He laughs so hard he forgets why he’s laughing, and then he starts to slump down until he’s leaning his head on Hatori’s shoulder. Hatori looks down at him briefly, then pushes Shigure roughly away.
He lands on pillows, so it’s mostly okay, but still, best friends don’t treat each other that way.
“What the fuck?” he asks, still laughing.
“You are such a fool,” Hatori says, and stands up to leave. Shigure can’t stop laughing, even though inside he knows just how not funny it is when Hatori slams the front door shut and drives his car back home without them.
Shigure finds himself remembering an old girlfriend of his, an unfortunate side effect of too many drinks added to too many miles to walk before they reach the Sohma gates.
“Fucking Hatori,” Ayame is muttering, shuffling his feet down the road. “Fucking everything.”
“Is that a description of yourself?” Shigure asks dryly. He’s annoyed too, and tired, and depressed. The old girlfriend, a beautiful redhead, used to hold his hand in public even when he didn’t want her to, used to read his stories and tell him they were brilliant—he was brilliant—and that was why he let her stick around. She is haunting him now. He wonders rather absently if he wants her back. He saw her not too long ago, her arms wrapped around some fellow.
He’s pretty sure he’s fucked up this time. He treated that girl like a dog.
Despite everything, Shigure and Ayame have only had sex once. It was their first year of high school, early May heat driving Shigure up the wall, and Aaya stretched out on the floor of his room, rubbing ice up and down his cheeks and across his forehead. Hatori was out of town, visiting his grandmother, a woman he had only met once and who was dying.
Shigure had been so dreadfully bored.
“I hate my parents,” Ayame muttered. “I hate my whole fucking family. I hate this weather.”
“You’re acting so oddly, Aaya,” Shigure answered, picking at the sleeves of the shirt Ayame had left lying on the floor. “You’re usually so happy.”
“It feels like August,” he answered. “Feels like I’m going to melt into a puddle or something. I’d almost rather be a snake right about now. Tell me again why I don’t just…let it happen?”
Shigure could only think of one reason off the top of his head.
“Because then I couldn’t do this,” he said, and leaned down to kiss his old friend, a light then slowly deepening press of lips against lips.
They’d kissed before but it was never like this.
“I may be a dog, but I never kiss snakes,” Shigure whispered, as Aaya rose against him, pushed him down.
“Never cheat on me, Gure-san,” Ayame said. He whispered the words, light and almost insignificant, against the skin of Shigure’s neck, right at that place where his collarbone stuck out and strained against the skin.
“Maybe we have something here,” Shigure answered.
It lasted twenty-four hours. Then, there was a party; there was drinking; there was Ayame, and some other boy, and not enough clothes for one person between them; and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. It was done.
He’d never been in love anyhow. With anyone.
They are sitting at the dining room table in Shigure’s house dealing out cards when Ayame asks Hatori what the hell he thought he was doing stranding them both at that party the other night.
“Did I?” Hatori asks, carefully sifting through his hand, not looking at either of his friends. “I don’t remember.”
“Hatori remembers everything,” Shigure says, and calls Haa-san responsible, his tone a dented version of their teacher’s, who always likes to compliment Hatori that way.
“I saw you both got home all right, anyway,” Hatori says calmly. “You always do.”
“Someday you’ll be sorry you said that,” Ayame says, coolly winning their money, pulling it toward him with one hand. “Someday you’ll find us dead and strangled by the side of the road. You have to be more careful with us than you are.”
“Because you know we are fragile boys who rely on you so much,” Shigure adds. “What would we do without our Haa-san!” he shouts up to the roof of the house. “Surely, we would not be able to go on!”
“Your turn to deal,” Hatori says.
One morning, it starts to snow. It’s a Sunday, and Shigure gets up early for no reason at all, and stands at the window and watches the flakes fall down. He feels an inexplicable happiness rising in him. He wants to go outside and throw snowballs and make snowmen and maybe even build a giant snow fort.
He calls up Hatori, then Aaya. Aaya’s phone is busy at first, and when Shigure calls again and Aaya’s mother picks up, finally, after about fifty rings, she sounds curt and snappy, and Shigure doesn’t press. Hatori is free and willing to come over.
“Okay,” Hatori says. He pulls the blanket up around him, moves closer to the heater. They are cold and wet from outside, and Shigure even threw snow down Hatori’s shirt, an action for which he will be apologizing still many years into the future. Shigure has stolen one of his father’s liquor bottles and laced their hot chocolate with it.
“Okay,” Hatori says, “I’ll tell you the truth. Sometimes, I think you use me.”
“Haa-san! You speak such terrible lies!” Shigure exclaims. “I would never use you! What kind of a person do you think I am?”
“I thought you said we were going to be serious,” Hatori says calmly, and takes another drink.
Shigure opens his mouth, then closes it again. He tilts his head. Looks at Hatori closely. “Maybe I did say that,” he admits. “And maybe…you know that I’m not against using people.”
Hatori nods. He reaches across to the middle of the table, and pours straight alcohol into his empty mug. Shigure doesn’t say that he is using Hatori, exactly, but he does puzzle it over in his head, whether or not such a statement could be true.
Things got dark sometimes. Shigure went, once—more than once, really, but each visit was the same—to visit Akito-san, in that room that was so open and so light, so big for such a small, weak, strong-willed god.
“I feel terrible,” he moaned, wrapped in blankets in the corner. “And the sun—hurts my eyes.”
Shigure walked over slowly to close the doors and darken the windows. “Is that better, Akito-san?” he asked.
Akito squirmed and pulled his blankets closer around his small body. “My head still hurts,” he said. His voice was quiet, but Shigure, with his perfect hearing, understood every syllable. He came to kneel by Akito’s side.
“You’ll feel better later,” he said, and gently brushed Akito’s hair back from his forehead.
“No, I won’t,” Akito answered sharply, and pushed Shigure’s hand away.
Shigure stood up slowly. He took a step back, another, and leaned heavily against the wall. He could hear Akito mutter.
“Someday, I’ll do something awful to you all.”
It keeps on snowing, and snowing, and snowing. No one can get into school on Monday. No one can even leave home.
Ayame calls at eight. “I’ve tried Tori-san’s number ten times,” he says, his voice worried and ragged. “There isn’t any answer.”
“Calm down,” Shigure says easily. “He’s here with me. I tried to call you yesterday but your mother sounded like she was ready to strangle me…Yes, even over the phone…Anyway, I reached Haa-san and we spent quite a day. In other words, we passed out around six and never got up.”
“So he…spent the night over there?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Aaya,” Shigure says, and hangs up.
Spending this much time—over twenty-four hours now—with Hatori, alone, is an interesting experience. Shigure spends a lot of time sitting in silence and pondering if he is using his best friend. He ponders other things, too: like, what did he ever feel for Ayame, and, is he an alcoholic? Hatori sits and reads books. Shigure, though he loves nothing more in the world than a good book, just cannot concentrate on the words today.
“What are we going to be doing ten years from now?” he asks Hatori. They seem to be in a very small space all of a sudden, Shigure’s room tight and airless and the snow falling, lightly now but still, outside.
“I don’t know,” Hatori answers. This response is disappointing. Shigure always thought Hatori knew everything.
One day, there were great celebrations in the street. There was shouting and singing and dancing. The black clothes were exchanged for bright colors, and the mourning sounds ceased echoing through the middle of the night. Shigure sat staring out of his window, seven years old, burdened in his heart, crying until he thought he had no more tears left.
It was only the second time he’d ever cried in his life, and the last at the same time.
Ayame and Hatori showed up together at his doorstep, and the three of them alone let their misery take them over, until it subsided and a burning happiness filled them. It was painful in a way they could not yet understand.
“I want to see him,” Shigure whispered.
“The Juunishi meet him tomorrow, all of us together,” Hatori answered. His voice was calm, as always, but Shigure could hear the hint of agreement there, too. He wanted, he wanted like Shigure wanted, in a primal and animal way that scared him. It didn’t scare Shigure at all—it only made him excited.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve never felt this before ever. I dreamt again last night—”
They nodded. They knew. The earth was shifting beneath them. The sky was falling. The trees were shaking. There would never be a day like this again.
They could each feel the curse pulling them away from themselves.
Sometimes, Shigure feels he has all the power in the world. He goes out with Aaya and Haa-san and raises hell, drinks so much he can’t see straight, kisses—at least once—everybody he sees, and Aaya more than once, in the bedroom of their host, on every inch of skin he can find. He makes Haa-san dance even though Haa-san hates to dance. He promises ten girls he will call them. He never actually does. Ayame gets too hot and transforms, and Hatori tells them later they were lucky no one saw, but Shigure knows it wasn’t luck at all. It was their invincibility coming through. Hatori pulls them both out by their arms and drives them home. Only later will Shigure realize how sick it must have made Hatori feel, to think he would have to wipe clean the memories of their classmates and friends. It is not a talent Shigure envies. He almost wishes Haa-san would talk to him about it, but Hatori never tells him what makes him nervous, what makes him scared, what makes him feel anything at all.
“Sometimes, I really envy Tori-san,” Ayame said, in a tone of neutral seriousness Shigure did not recognize. He sat up and closed his book without marking his place.
Ayame was lying on his parents’ bed, looking serenely out their window and watching for their car to come inching down the road. “Did you say something?” Shigure asked. All of a sudden he wasn’t sure, wondered if maybe he was just hearing voices.
“Yes. I said that I envy Tori-san. Sometimes I don’t want to be like this at all, like I am. I drink too much, you know. And I’m never serious. And no one’s ever really loved me, not even the people who have to.”
“I would love you, Aaya, if I was the type of person who loved other people.” Shigure didn’t try to sound consoling, because he knew that even if he could, Ayame could never believe him.
“Oh, I know,” Ayame said, and smiled. “It’s not your fault you don’t have feelings, Gure-san. But I meant what I said about Tori-san. Some days, I just want to be exactly like him.”
Shigure did not want to hear this. He was not used to Aaya being honest in this way. So he picked up his book and opened it again and stared down at the words that didn’t mean anything and said, “Haa-san is miserable. You don’t want to be like him, Aaya. You wouldn’t be able to stand it.”
The snow has stopped and paths have been cleared in the streets. Hatori pauses at the door, and Shigure asks him the one question he’s been wanting to ask, now, for the 36 hours they have been kept together in one room.
“Are you miserable, Haa-san?” he asks.
Hatori looks at him as if he had been speaking in some sort of foreign tongue. He is square in the middle of the doorway and the wind is blowing in around him and chilling Shigure’s skin.
“I said once that you were miserable and I’m not sure if I meant it or not,” he adds.
Hatori stares at him for a moment longer, his face unreadable, searching Shigure’s face, which is far from unreadable itself.
“No. I am only realistic and practical, and nothing like you.”
Then he steps fully outside and closes the door.
Shigure has dated many different types of girls, and one very specific type of boy, but has never actually loved any of them. One girl, a pretty, thin girl who said she liked to look into his eyes, had even told him she was in love with him. She was an idealistic sort, who always talked about the healing power of positive thoughts—a little mystic, a little bit stuck in the clouds. Hatori hated her, and even Aaya used to say, when they were alone in a dark disused classroom, so close they could not see each other’s faces, that she was not his type and what was he doing with her anyway. Shigure was afraid to answer them, their accusations and their questions. The only answer he had was the one he did not want to give to anyone. He did not know.
“Do you believe that we can fall in love?”
He isn’t drunk when he says it, not really. But he can hear these voices, far away and then closer, beyond the bathroom door, and the side of the bathtub is cold against his skin. Ayame’s voice is out there, with all of those other voices, laughing and falling and climbing again, as he flirts with everyone around him, waiting for them to fall for him.
Hatori’s voice is closer, and clearer, and he is pressing a cold washcloth to Shigure’s forehead. The tips of his fingers accidentally brush the skin of Shigure’s cheek. Shigure leans in to the touch.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Hatori says.
He is making an effort to sound calm. He is trying to be soothing. Shigure smiles because he realizes this. Don’t try so hard, Haa-san, he wants to say, it’s okay to let yourself go. It’s just the two of us and we’re friends, aren’t we?
Some day it will all be over.
Shigure knows this the same way he knows the taste of Aaya’s skin, or the feel of fall leaves swirling at his ankles, or the weight of Akito’s small body in his arms. It is not a fact but a feeling. It is not something good or bad, but a heavy weight of truth he carries with him, so close to his center that he sometimes forgets it is there. But it is always there.
Some day it will be over, and they will be free.
And before that, they will have to force their way to that freedom, and they will lose so much along the way. He does not fear that time. There is too much inevitability about it for fear. But he does feel the pain of knowing that some day Ayame will think of him and shake his head in disgust. Some day, Hatori will not even be able to look at him.
“You’re sick, Shigure,” Hatori’s voice says, somewhere above him. Shigure’s eyes are closed, and he’s finding it difficult, now, to place anything in a definitive space in the tilting, twisting world around him, but he recognizes Hatori’s voice.
“Yes!” he answers, and laughs a little. “Yes, I am sick. How astute of you to realize this. Yessssssssssssssssssss. You will be a wonderful doctor, Haa-san.”
“You have a fever,” Hatori’s voice continues. “You’re delusional.”
Shigure doesn’t think he has a fever because he doesn’t feel warm. In fact, he feels rather…cold. He reaches out until he finds Hatori’s body, and wraps his arms around Hatori’s stomach, leans his head against Hatori’s chest. “I’m not delusional,” he murmurs. “You just want me to be delusional because I asked you that question about love.”
“You’re right,” Hatori’s voice says, stiffly, after a few moments. “You’re not delusional. You’re perfectly lucid. But I stand by my other diagnoses.”
“You mean about the feeeever?” Shigure asks, and pulls Hatori closer. It is a difficult task; Haa-san is always uncooperative when it comes to being close to someone, touching someone, even another boy, as if he had more to fear than just his family’s curse.
“About the fever,” Hatori answers, “about the being sick—the last place you need to be right now is the bathroom of Rika-san’s house.”
“Rika?” Shigure whines, then, and even forces his heavy head up and his heavy eyelids open to look into Hatori’s face. It is as impassive as he had imagined it would be. He wants to tell him that if he is going to get that medical degree, he should get a better bedside manner to go with it, but there are other, more important things to say at the moment.
“I hate Rika. She’s annoying and vapid—”
“Just your type.”
“Not funny. Whose idea was it to spend our precious Saturday night at her house?”
“Well,” Hatori answers, and slowly begins to stand and pull Shigure up with him, “it wasn’t mine. So I would guess Ayame. Now—”
Hatori is trying to pull him forward, but Shigure won’t budge until he’s said what he has to say. His brain feels muddled and dizzy, and the room is amorphous and vague in the corners, so the only thing that is really in focus is Haa-san, and the shades of worry falling like veils over his face.
“Ayame,” he says again. “Do you want to know something about Ayame?” (Doesn’t wait for an answer.) “I am not in love with him.” (Lines forming between Haa-san’s eyes.) “I was never in love with him.” (Words feel so good—he’s never said them out loud before.) “It’s always been you, Haa-san. Always—”
Suddenly the lines are gone and the veils are gone and Hatori’s face looks just as it always does. Shigure realizes this first. Then he realizes his knees are on the floor. Then he realizes Hatori is pulling him up again and slinging his arm around Shigure’s shoulders and practically dragging him out the door to the back of the house, through the back door, across the dark, deserted back yard, under the three quarter moon and million stars that will, when he wakes up later in his own bed again, be the first thing he remembers of this night.
Shigure drifts in and out of consciousness through the ride home. Ayame is sitting in the front seat, asking Hatori questions like
will he be all right?
do you think Rika-chan has a crush on me?
Shigure lets their voices lull him back to sleep. He lets the feeling of falling under consciousness wash over him, just as Hatori’s voice says calmly from the driver’s seat, he’ll be fine. I know you worry about him. I do too. He’ll be all right.
Ayame’s parents never catch him, even when he is careless. His father disappears for long periods of time, complacent to everything. Shigure sees this well enough, but he will never understand Ayame’s mother: a cold, hard woman of harsh lines and harsh tones, with nails like talons and eyes like ice crystals.
“My brother’s afraid of her,” Ayame said once. “But I know what she’s about. She’s a mess. And she’s inhuman.”
Shigure almost told him that he, Ayame, was the one who was a mess. But instead he answered, “Inhuman just like me.”
This was when Shigure’s parents kicked him out, after they found the empty bottles, and half-empty bag of weed, hidden in the recesses of his room. They told him he was ruining his life. He stayed with Hatori until it blew over. A week later he moved back in.
Hatori interns with the Sohma family doctor. Shigure has seen this man often, going into and coming out of Akito’s room, but he has spoken to him only once. It was a short conversation. Shigure was twelve, and still scared and unsure, and he asked uncertainly if Akito-san was going to die.
“No,” the man answered. “His fever is breaking. He is sick, but it is not surprising. He is getting better. He will be fine.”
The doctor is tall, taller even than Hatori, and would be quite imposing if he was not so thin, if he did not have such prominent dark circles under his eyes. He sighs often. He is not an elderly man, but, sometimes, his fingers shake, and the first cigarette that Shigure ever smokes, he steals from the trashcan where the doctor had thrown his last pack away.
Hatori says he is very skilled. He also says that his appearance is only proof that he works hard, and that his job is very stressful, and nothing else. He also says that he, Hatori, has much to learn.
The doctor is not part of the Zodiac. When he dies, and he does die, two weeks after Shigure’s twenty-first birthday, no one fears for their unborn children.
Hatori’s face is the first thing Shigure sees when he wakes up. He feels bleary, tired—as if someone had drained him dry and he is only now filling up to himself again. There is soft morning light filtering in through the window. He is not in his own bed.
“Your fever broke an hour or so ago,” Hatori says. His voice is level and emotionless. “We took you here because it was the closest. Ayame called your parents; they said to stay as long as you wanted, until you felt better.” He pauses slightly, blinks, and in that moment Shigure can almost see concern shift over Hatori’s face. “I told you that you seemed ill recently,” he adds.
“And I told you I thought you just wanted to use me as a medical experiment.” Shigure laughs a little, a laugh that turns into a cough that turns into a clearing of his throat.
“If you tried to give your body to science, science would reject it,” Hatori says coolly. Shigure only smiles appreciatively and asks, after a few moments, if Aaya is around.
“He went home,” Hatori says. “He wanted to stay. But—”
There is another silence. Shigure stretches his legs, and sits up so that he can better view Haa-san’s face. It is an unreadable face. But he knows that Hatori cares because, when Shigure was dizzy and falling into rough corners and everyone around him probably just thought he was drunk, again, Hatori was the one holding the cool washcloth to his face and telling him that it was going to be okay.
“I hate being sick,” he says, finally. “Where’s your mother?”
“Out. She left a note. Said she’d be back in the afternoon.”
Hatori and his mother used to be close. The truth is that they are still closer than Shigure is, or ever has been, with his own parents.
“So I guess now it’s just us,” he says.
Hatori brings him water to drink and asks if he wants anything to eat. The thought of food makes Shigure’s stomach twist grossly, and he dismisses the offer roughly, more for fear that Hatori should see his pain than for fear of the pain itself.
Hatori nods without really answering, and starts to walk out the door.
“You never answered my question about love,” Shigure says. He speaks mostly to stop Hatori from leaving. Hatori pauses in the doorway with one hand on the wall.
He sounds like he’s trying to hide the confusion and fatigue in his voice.
“When I was sick and you thought I was delusional, I asked you if you thought that we could fall in love,” Shigure explains, slowly and carefully, as if he were speaking to a child.
Hatori gives him a blank look. He remembers, Shigure knows—it’s not that he doesn’t remember. It’s that he doesn’t know what to say, and he’s always confused and overwhelmed at situations where he has no words. They are rare. Hatori always has words.
“Well, do you?” Shigure asks. “Do you think the Juunishi can fall in love? Do you think it’s possible?”
All of the taught muscles of Hatori’s back and shoulders relax, and he slumps down against the wall. “If some of us can’t,” he says, “it’s not because of the Curse. And if none of us are ever happy, it’s not because we cannot love. It’s because we never know what to do when we are.”
One day, Shigure woke up with Aaya’s warm body pressed against his, Aaya’s arm slung around his waist, Aaya’s nose against his nose. His head was full of half-remembered dreams and his vision was blurred with late afternoon sun. He ran one hand down the skin of Ayame’s bare arm, hoped his movements wouldn’t wake him, was happy when they didn’t. He imagined beautiful sentences. For once in his life, this beauty could be applied to him, to something he had done. It was a fascinating thought.
And after that day, nothing changed. They touched more, kissed more, felt more skin. But they were always interrupted, and the interruptions did not matter. Nothing they did had any meaning. Everything was empty.
Now all Shigure says, all he can say is, “You’re right. I don’t know what to do when I’m in love.”
He’s terrified that Hatori will take this as a confession. He’s terrified that Hatori will see that he is admitting that he is in love—that he, Shigure, feels a real emotion. He’s terrified because it is a confession, and because he does feel, and because this proves that he is not as invincible as he thought.
Hatori walks back into the room, and sits on the bed at Shigure’s feet. “Neither do I,” he says.
Shigure doesn’t remember the night he told Hatori he was in love with him. That memory, like many of his memories, is nothing but a vague, shadowy blur, a half-remembered dream he never calls forward, never tries to recreate. So he does not know, now, that Hatori is sitting there and thinking about it. He does not know, and so he is tempted to try another confession. He is tempted to say, “I love you.” As if it were an experiment. As if it didn’t matter. But he cannot do such a thing to Haa-san, so instead, he is silent. Hatori is silent, too, and the silence stretches over them, stretches so far and so long that, finally, it is no longer awkward, and they no longer have to wait for one of them to speak and break it.