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a fickle heart in five parts

Chapter Text

“Would you like to come live with me?”

Shigure almost felt as though he were asking his feet, rather than the boy sitting at them.

In the quiet, Yuki sat unresponsive. He was curled over himself in such a way where his head hung between his knees, serving as a loose vice over his ears. His hands sat limp at his sides, palms upturned. If he weren't sitting up, and if the vague wheeze of his breathing hadn't quickened at his question, Shigure might have thought Akito had finally done the boy in.

He stood patiently in the dark room waiting for a response. A glance at the door here, a glance through the long windows there. Waiting for even the smallest affirmative so he could leave what was, truly, a depressing room to spend even a moment in. The late afternoon light caught some wayward dust particles strung midair. Shigure wondered when the windows were last opened.

He had to give it to Hatsuharu. His young cousin had spent quite some time in here himself to keep Yuki company. Shigure had noticed this behavior some time ago when he was still living on the inside, at times catching the boy sneak down corridors with Rin in tow. But, he'd never tell. Though Hatsuharu’s fondness for the rat was an interesting development, it didn't particularly concern him.

“Why?”

Looking down, Shigure met Yuki’s eye, the boy’s head finally upturned. There was a glimmer of something behind them, behind the wash of defeat, but hope wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind. Longing, perhaps, but suspicion, most definitely.

Yuki had no reason to trust him, he knew. The thought hadn’t crossed his mind until Hatsuharu had begged him to take his friend out of this place, gripping his sleeve so tight he felt no option but to give an answer. Yuki, in general, didn’t cross his mind very often. He may as well have been another one of the ornaments lining the inner estate’s halls.

Do you think he’d trust me, of all people? sat on his tongue, but he didn’t pose the question to the boy. He had only hummed, amused, and told his cousin to call him “sensei” from then on out in return for his friend’s freedom. A small price, he admitted, but he couldn’t help it -- Hatsuharu looked desperate, and Shigure was bored, living all alone in his house in the woods. More than that, he knew it would burn Akito a little bit more to even entertain the thought of losing yet another one of her things in so short a time.

That alone was enough for him to consider taking his strange cousin away. Like punishing a child for doing poorly on a test, or being rude; you’ll get this back once you fixed what you’ve done...

When he had returned home and aired out an upstairs room, he wondered, then, how he would convince Akito to let Yuki go. It was his birthright, after all, and he had been well-cemented into the part. For her to let him out of the toybox, straight into a betrayer’s home, was probably a long-shot.

I’ll manage, he had thought. He always did. At the very least, it would be fun to see her reaction.

He tilted his head somewhat at Yuki’s question.

“You don’t have to come with me,” he said, “if you like staying here.”

A dodge. Yuki flinched minutely at the suggestion, though, and pressed his palms flat to the ground.

“I…” He struggled a moment before saying, “But what about Akito?”

Shigure offered a small smile. “Akito agreed to let you stay with me.”

Just barely, he thought, though he was surprised that she had relented at all. There had been the usual vitriol, the myriads of “I hate you” and “I don't want you in my sight,” but he had quieted her with a few delicately placed words. “He’s not a child anymore, you know,” and “They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder.”

She had paused to glare at a spot in the corner of her room. Hands clenched tight at her sides, ready to strike him.

“Take him.” Her words were acid as she turned away from him to instead face her window. “We'll see how quickly he leaves you to come back to me. Even an idiot boy like him can see how horrible you are.”

He had placated her with an “of course,” with a smile that she held only scorn for. He watched her shoulders draw tight, head stoop low, nails dig dangerously into her palms, until she told him to leave.

He did so. But as he moved to slide the door of her room shut, he stopped to observe her for a last, long moment. She always looked more fragile up close, but even from this distance, he could only see her for what she was: a small girl sitting beneath the looming shadow of her patriarchal title. Something stitched onto her unwilling bones, weighty and ancient. Forced and untrue.  

The door closed with a clack. He started his slow walk to the rat’s room.

The heart wants what it wants, after all.

Yuki’s eyes widened, only to be quickly overtaken by his brows pinching. He sat up a little straighter; he looked at the door, then back down at his knees. His hands curled.

“I don’t…” He mumbled something, then shot his hand up to cover a short cough. “Don’t… Don’t make fun of me, Shigure . ”  

Shigure couldn’t help but huff a small laugh. “Make fun of you?”

He knew what he meant. Still, he watched the boy squirm, no longer meeting his eyes as he returned his posture to a loose curl. His voice became achingly quiet, then, as he said,

“Akito wouldn’t do that.”

“Ah, but he did. Listen...” He lowered himself to kneel in front of Yuki, and the boy drew back slightly. “I have a room ready for you at my home, if you want it, Yuki-kun. And if I were you, I would take the offer before Akito decides to take it back.”

The mild threat made Yuki look at him again. His eyes seemed to search for a lie, or a catch, but Shigure only offered him a smile.

The boy’s eyes returned to the door. Shadows passed by under the strip, but didn’t pause. He coughed weakly into his hand again.

Shigure rose to his height, languid, and tucked his hands into his sleeves. With a shrug, he said, “But, it’s up to you.”

He started to turn, as though to leave, but Yuki shifted quickly. The boy’s hand shot out and grabbed the bottom of Shigure’s yukata, stilling him.

“Wait,” he said, and Shigure looked back at him. Though Yuki kept his head dipped low, the fierceness in his grip said enough. “I… I want to leave this place.”

Shigure paused. Then, he bent slightly to give Yuki’s head a small pat, though the gesture seemed to startle him, as his hand quickly retreated from Shigure’s robes. When he looked up, Shigure offered another smile, straightening again.

“Well, it’s settled, then. Let’s get your things, yes?”

Another pause. Yuki shifted somewhat until his arms were loosely crossed along his ribs, and his eyes again drifted around the dreary room before falling back on Shigure.

“...If you’re not lying, then…I guess…”

It was the closest to an okay that he would offer. As Yuki stood, he held himself gently, sparing a long glance out the window, out to the sparse garden that he had committed himself to watching in his long hours alone. When he finally faced the door, Shigure slid it open and stepped out. Though Yuki tried to settle the worry on his face, pin his arms to his sides, he still paused when he stepped over the threshold. Frozen, as though waiting for someone to round the corner and spot him, to tell him to get back inside and never leave again.

But, the hallway was silent, empty save for Shigure. And as they walked together to retrieve the boy’s things, Shigure couldn’t help but feel a little pleased when his cousin failed to hide a cautious smile behind his pale hand.  

Akito, he thought, can you feel him leaving?

Chapter Text

Shigure had never been one to be bothered by blood. He didn’t like pain, no, but the needles, the stitches, the harsh burn of antiseptic were always far worse than the wounds. It was a child’s right of passage, after all, to suffer from some small accidents.

Blood had never really bothered him. But as it poured from Hatori’s eye, seeped through his fingers and hit the floor in thick drops, he felt something in him churn. Despite the white hot fury spilling from Akito in unrelenting waves, her fight against his hold on her as she screamed, he felt his skin turn cold.

Kana knelt in front of Hatori. Trembling, unable to touch him.

“You aren’t needed,” Akito seethed. For someone so frail, so small, Shigure nearly struggled to contain her. A robin resisting capture, he thought. “You’re not wanted!

Kana,” he urged, forcing his voice above Akito’s, “get Hatori out of here!”

But she didn’t move. Couldn’t, he gathered, and as he watched her cover her own eyes instead, shoulders beginning to heave in panic, he noticed that Hatori, too, could do little but press his hand against his eye and grasp painfully at his knee. Could do little more than sit there, entirely helpless as the room, his world, his God, melted down faster and faster, moment by moment.

Shigure had never seen Hatori freeze so thoroughly.

“It’s your fault,” Akito continued, screaming, her own fury translating to a panic that Shigure felt flutter through her ribs as he forced her closer into his hold. “It’s all your fault!”

“Akito,” he said, voice lowered, “calm down.”

She didn’t. Some steps away, Hatori grunted, trying to bring himself to his feet.

“Hatori,” he warned, but his friend ignored him. Then, seeing that Kana still knelt frozen, surrounded by glass, before Hatori’s blood, he urged her name again.

Kana.”

Hatori staggered somewhat. But, he managed to hold his unoccupied hand up to Shigure, stilling his words.

Don’t, it said. It’s over.

Shigure felt his throat catch around the lump that formed there. There were few other times he felt his heart drop as fiercely as it did then, watching as his friend turned his back on the room and the things he held most dear. Struggling to do so, but doing so.

As Hatori managed to reach the threshold of Akito’s door, it slid open, revealing Akito’s servants. The younger of the two barely suppressed her startled shriek; the eldest was less fazed. She touched the younger servant’s arm, murmured instructions to her that Shigure couldn’t hear. There was a nod, and then the younger’s hand reaching out to Hatori’s arm. She led him away with a ginger hold on his elbow. They went noiselessly.

The eldest servant entered the room, surveying the glass, the blood, Akito heaving as she finally entered a settling stage. She locked her gaze with Shigure’s for a moment, but little was translated, other than what he could only understand as an embittered I told you so. She relented her look, then, and turned her attention to Kana. Kana, who knelt as though she were a statue, hardly responsive and hardly moving.

It took some coercion, but the servant eventually managed to bring her to her feet. Kana, too, staggered out the room, the servant’s steady grasp on her arm guiding her. With a clack, the door was shut again, leaving Shigure to hold Akito in a now numbing quiet.

It was some time before he could let her go. Her frantic breathing had subsided, and she was left cool, stony, in the aftermath of her Plinian eruption. The well deep within her hadn’t emptied, he knew, as it would remain fiery and constant, churning and refueling, despite the wake of casualty. A force of nature feigning subconsciousness.

She slouched away to her window, leaving Shigure standing in the middle of the room. It wasn’t often that he felt his heart so strongly pulled in different directions -- as he longed to stay with her, watch her, and despite his own upset, hold her, he just as well wished to find Hatori. Wished to make sure he was all right, even though he couldn’t be. Some part of him longed to apologize, too, but the words for what for, and why, wouldn’t come to him.

He stood frozen in rare silence. Wondering, helpless in his own right, until Akito graced him with instruction to leave.

And though he did so, he only milled about outside her room, finding himself unable to stray.

Chapter Text

“You know a way to break the curse, don’t you?”

It didn’t sound like a question, coming from her.

There was a careful intensity that Rin carried. It hadn’t always been there, at least, not on the surface; she had been happier as a child. Always at his heels when the time allowed, always asking questions, curious for curiosity’s sake. He would indulge her mostly with blatant lies or half-truths, at which point the shallow pool of her frustration would bubble up, contorting her face as she called him a liar. He’d laugh, and while Hatori scolded him for being stupid, gracious enough to answer their young cousin’s questions more sincerely, eventually her pouting would ease away, quickly replaced with another litany of curiosities, questions and things she had learned and wanted to share.

But, things do change. Questions become demands. Curiosity morphs into desperation. Things never stay simple for very long.

He sat back in his seat. She knelt beside him, purposefully close. Idly, he scanned over the mess of books and papers, story outlines and half-opened mail, the general minutiae of his room, and wondered when the clutter had piled up again.

He tapped a pen against the edge of his desk.  

“What ever gave you that idea?”

“You’re always at Akito’s side. He trusts you,” she said, as if it were obvious. He bit back a laugh. “You’re one of his favorites.”

“One of his favorites?” He smiled at that, but a hollowness stirred behind it. Of all the words to describe how Akito felt for him, favorite scraped the bottom of the list. No matter her draw to him, it was scorn that now colored what was once a rosy screen. Whatever thing she had felt for him once -- longing, love, need, want -- if it was at any point pure, it had been marred by now.

Not beyond repair, he reminded himself. Probably.

A small laugh escaped him.

“That’s funny,” he continued. Lifting a hand, he shielded part of his vision, avoiding the harsh stare Rin burned into him. “And since I’m a ‘favorite,’ I know all the secrets. Is that it?”

She sat quiet, expectant, her breathing stilted. He almost wanted to laugh at her for believing, but brushed away that hint of cruelty. She did admire him once, after all. And he was probably her only resort.

Still.

“Even if that were true,” he continued, “why would I trouble him by telling you? Do you have some type of collateral?”

At that, she pressed her hands against the arm of his chair, pushing herself higher on her knees and bringing herself closer. She took his wrist and pulled his hand away from his face to uncover his vision. To bring those demanding eyes as close as she could manage, to bore them into him.

He looked at her, back into that burning stare. No longer burning with demand, but with something more discomforting. Distress, he thought, with a cool veneer of obstinance.

She brought his arm closer to her, close enough for her long hair to brush his fingers.

“I only have myself,” she said. “Use me however you want for the rest of my life.”

Her words settled between them, but she remained stony in the following quiet. The look aged her some years, he thought, or if not that, looked misplaced on her. A child wearing the airs of an adult, caught up in problems within and beyond her. He thought of who sat on the other end of that look, and itched at the memory of Akito sitting indolent in her room, the window still wide open.

As he twined a strand of her dark hair under a finger, he wondered vaguely if she could have possibly known what had sent him to this house in the middle of the woods -- what he had done, with whom. She couldn’t have, but wouldn’t that have been devious. Wrongly assumed, but devious nonetheless.

But, it rounded down to a coincidence. Something terribly sad, pathetic, even, in a way that he had suspected she would slip down to.

You shouldn’t play into Akito’s expectations like this, he thought of her. Especially not with me.

Rin’s willful guise held strong. He offered a fond smile.

“You’re that desperate, aren’t you.”

It wasn’t a question. Though she kept her stare steadfast, something in her expression faltered.

“For Hatsuharu’s sake,” he elaborated. The facade slipped further, and with that, he touched her cheek with the back of a finger, still holding her hair. Then, he glided the dark strands away from his loose grasp. Her hand left his wrist, and he looked away.

Was it noble, he wondered, or stupid to sell yourself so short for someone else’s sake?

“But…” He sighed. “Unfortunately, I don’t know of a way to break the curse, either.”

Rin inhaled sharply. He heard her hands grip the arm of his chair, nails threatening to pop the stitches. The air around her became harsh. An aura he was accustomed to, on more severe levels. His heart remained calm.

Upstairs, he heard the far-away voices of Tohru and his cousins cleaning up the glass of the broken window. Laughing, bickering, unaware.

“I don’t have the answers you hoped for,” he concluded. “Sorry to disappoint.”

Knowing, he thought then, was a far cry from speculation. Rin seemed to care little for the gap between the two, as suddenly, her hand was twisted into the collar of his yukata.

“You’re lying,” she spat, “Liar, don’t try to fool me!”

“I’m not lying,” he said. She gaped, wanting, he knew, to call him a liar again, and ten thousand more times, but her rage slowly simmered to the mere tremble of her fist. He focused his gaze on an open book lying page-down on his desk. He continued, “This seems like a good time to tell you that you shouldn’t put your faith in a guy like me. It’s not like I’m especially trusted by Akito. I’m not particularly important.”

Silence. The fiery aura cooled, and her grasp on him loosened. Slowly, he stood, and her hand once again fell away from him.

“I have no strengths.” He stepped around her, re-adjusting his clothes. “I’m of low calibre, worthless. The worst kind of man.”

He felt no particular hurt admitting these things out loud -- they were, after all, parts of himself he had identified some time ago. Words initially placed at his feet in a fit of cool anger, words he could have ignored and instead scooped up and wondered over. Weighed their truths, whether they were truly as bad as they seemed, before shrugging and accepting them as a base part of his being. As you wish, he had thought. As you say.

This easy acceptance caused a stir among his family and his few friends. People who told him he could do better, to put in a real effort, to stop hiding behind these excuses. They didn’t understand that these things didn’t hurt him, that these words weren’t something to fight. They were as natural as moonless nights, as scabs forming over wounds.

Whatever will be, will be.

He stepped towards the door. The patter of footsteps overhead, a dampered call for Tohru, the creaking footfalls of someone coming downstairs made the air in his room feel stale.

“If you really want to learn how to break the curse, you’re better off trying something else,” he said.

Rin shifted behind him.

“Something else?” she asked, voice tinged with suspicion. “Who else would know?”

He hummed. “Well... you could try asking God himself.”

That quieted her again. Maybe it was a bit cruel, but she was smart enough to understand. He reached for the door, believing the conversation to be done, but then she spoke again, words low.

“Gure-nii … don’t you care that you’re cursed?”

He paused at that, the door somewhat ajar. Something far inside his being shifted; a shrug, and then a heavy yet definitive no, not really, not me.

“To be honest,” he started, “those who do care… they should do something about it. Like you, for instance. As for me… I’ll just reap the rewards if you succeed.”

She shifted behind him. He glanced back at her and met her eye. The last of her burning stare had faded, leaving behind only the sad, lightless moon of her eye, hovering over the deep mar on her shoulder.

He placed his palm on the edge of the door. The far-off rings of laughter, the tune of happier conversations, fell at his doorstep. They soured there.

“Didn’t I tell you?” he said. “I’m the worst.”

Chapter Text

“Shigure.”

“Yes?”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Of course.”

He didn’t falter. That affirmation bloomed from him, as a child outstretches their hand to their mother. Reaching from deep within him, not of his own will, but entirely so, to the great something that overwhelmed his senses, flooded his entire being.

“How long has it been?”

“Too long.” Then, within the same breath, he said, “I’ve missed you.”

“And I, you. We will meet again soon enough.”

“I know.”

The name escaped him here, but that woman held God in her belly. Unknowing of the power captured within her, for only a short while. He felt like weeping. But the tears wouldn’t form here.

“When I am with you, in that new form, will you still love me?”

“I have loved you always,” he said, “and I will love you still.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

He wanted to hold onto this feeling that overtook him. Pin it down, give it a name as impossible as it was. It warmed his chest, touched his soul, made him feel like everything and nothing, a basin filled with the sea with no life dwelling in its sands. He wanted to weep. To fill his hands, his room, his life, with these sad and joyous tears.

“Be patient, Shigure. Wait for me. Do not be so late this time.”

“I’ll be here,” he said. “I’ll be the first to meet you.”

He felt his God smile. Within it, a thread of melancholy. Bittersweet joy.

“I look forward to it, my friend.”

And with that, God left.

--

Shigure woke.

The morning sun warmed his bed, his skin, his heart.

And at last, Shigure wept.

Chapter Text

“Who knows, Akito -- this might be a good test for them.”

Akito seemed lax at the suggestion. Shigure sat beside her on the engawa outside her room, watching as a breeze disrupted the trees. Sunlight flickered before them, spots growing and diminishing on the path that stretched beyond to nowhere. Some of the light just barely hit his feet; Akito stayed tucked under the shadow of the roof.

“A complete outsider…who does she think she is?”

It almost seemed like a genuine question, if not for the tinge of aggravation that clouded her voice. Shigure breathed a chuckle.

“I don’t believe she thinks she’s anyone in particular. Believe me, she’s completely and utterly normal.”

“Believe you,” she muttered. “Is she stupid, then?”

“No, no. Just normal.”

Shigure recalled the night before, thinking of the stranger lying on his floor. A girl his cousin’s age, feverish and spent, stubborn flecks of dirt still clinging to the undersides of her nails as she clutched at the blanket pulled out of storage. As he sat beside her, she talked about her mother. Spared no words about herself, or her troubles, or the only things she owned trapped under a mudslide in a tent she resorted herself to living in. Just the remaining dredges of her grief and guilt, and her final memory of the person in the photo she was desperate to retrieve.

Her strength was admirable, he thought, but he couldn’t help but feel disquieted watching her. To have such a lack of concern for yourself was a feeling unknown to him.

“Yuki,” he continued, shifting his position slightly with a sigh, “seems a bit fond of her. Classmates, I think.”

“Does he love her?”

“You’re funny. They hardly know each other.”

Her face became harsh then, but settled. She seemed tired, which, he supposed, was lucky.

“And the monster?”

“Oh, they’ve already started off on the wrong foot. He looks like he’s going to crawl out of his skin every time they’re in the same room together.”

“So he finds her revolting, then?” Akito huffed a laugh. “That’s quite funny.”

From a tall bough, a goldfinch came down and settled near them. It pecked at the ground, investigating twigs and wayward blades of grass. Shigure watched Akito as she stared at it with some intent.

“And what about you, Shigure? What do you think of her?”

He hummed. Endearing was the word that came to mind. Pure-hearted, selfless. Gentle. Kind. Another slew of things that Akito was not, and had rarely been. It almost made him laugh.

“I think,” he said, “that she’d be a good addition to the house. I’ve already wrecked the place, you know. A total stye.”

Akito turned her head to glare at him. He smiled.

“Answer me,” she said.

“Well… She’s quite different from you, Akito-san . I’d venture to say that she’s your opposite.”

Her shoulders tensed at that. She directed her stare back at the bird, watching it hop around. Picking up and dropping things, discontented with everything it found. Shigure watched the light dance on the path as the branches swayed far overhead.

“It’s not good,” he said, “or bad. Which is why I think you might enjoy seeing how the boys respond to her. I know you’ve been waiting for me to finally scare off Yuki-kun, but I think an outside influence might be a better test.”

Akito went mum. Then, she bent forward slightly and held out her arm, a finger extended. The goldfinch stopped perusing the ground and, after some pause, fluttered and hopped to reach her finger. As it perched itself there, she sat back up slowly, careful not to jostle it.

It was, Shigure thought, one of those rare moments.

“I see,” she said at last. “Very well. I’ll trust this ‘Tohru’ person. This might be a good opportunity, for Yuki, for Kyo...and for me.”

She raised her arm higher, and the bird flew away, back into the cacophony above them. Shigure watched it until it disappeared in the midst of foliage, and he smiled lightly.

You underestimate her, he thought, and those two.

“I’m glad,” he said instead. “We’ll see how everything works out, hm?”

“Yes. We’ll see.”

Akito drew her legs closer to herself and fell into a contemplative silence. The air between them, though tremulous, wasn’t stifling. Shigure felt an urge to reach out and touch her, then, but kept his hands tucked in his sleeves. This wasn’t the time.

I hope things do work out, he thought. As another breeze jostled the trees and underbrush, the sunlight flickered as though sparkling, until an overpassing cloud slowly and discreetly snuffed it out. And as he sat beside her in the sudden grey, he felt that familiar push and pull disrupt his chest. That feeling so inherently ancient, as primitive as a heartbeat, yet elusive as a dream.

For your sake, Akito.