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soulmates and snowstorms

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Nezumi opened his lips, and his line came out as an exhale of cool breath.

            His left hand, outstretched in front of him, had two words written on it in hasty, slanted handwriting.

            knitting needles

            Nezumi stared at the words, half expecting them to disappear the moment after he read them, but they remained on his hand, dark black ink standing out on pale skin and only more illuminated by the spotlight shining over him.

            “My dearest love!”

            The shout called Nezumi’s attention from the scribbled words on the back of his hand to his castmate, who stared at him meaningfully.

            “My dearest love,” the castmate repeated, slowly and deliberately in a way that was mildly annoying, though Nezumi didn’t feel as annoyed as he’d expected.

            He was confused, more than anything.

            Knitting needles?

            Of all things, knitting needles?

            “Duncan comes here tonight,” the castmate was continuing, just as slowly, and Nezumi took a breath, looked out into the empty chairs where his audience would fill that night.

            At least, Nezumi thought, the first time he ever missed a line was during a dress rehearsal rather than a performance that mattered.

            He took a breath, straightened up. “And when goes hence?” he asked, in just the right pentameter, just the right cadence.

            He’d been thrown off, admittedly, but only for a moment, hardly even that.

            The rest of rehearsal went perfectly, and Nezumi did not look at the words on his hand again until he almost forgot they were there in the first place.

*

Shion exited the arts and crafts store satisfied and eager to get home.

            He strung the handles of the shopping bag over his right wrist, then lifted the sleeve of his left to check his watch.

            7:42.

            He had enough time to get home and help his mother with the last batch of customers at the bakery before helping her close for the night.

            A pull of his jacket sleeve covered his watch again, but not the words he’d written on the back of his hand during his last meeting at the lab, and he stared at them now, stopping so abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk that he almost tripped over his own jarred momentum.

            knitting needles

            It had not even occurred to him, scribbling the sudden idea for Safu’s Christmas present on the back of his hand when he was meant to be measuring ten milligrams of hydrogen peroxide, that this was the first time he had ever written on his skin.

            That these were the first words that his soulmate would receive from him.

            Shion cupped his right hand over his lips, the newly bought needles in his shopping bag jostling merrily, his exhales hot into his palm as he stared at his handwriting.

            He almost wanted to laugh.

            knitting needles

            What a ridiculous set of first words.

            Coworkers at his lab had been conversing with their soulmates through their skin for years. Shion knew of one coworker who drafted letters on notebook paper before transcribing them on her right thigh for her soulmate to read nightly, receiving letters on her left thigh in return.

            The idea of a soulmate intrigued Shion, but he was too busy to deal with the stress of communicating with his just yet. He certainly hadn’t meant to, with his knitting needles. He’d completely forgotten about SSTC – Soulmate Skin-Transmission Communication – when he’d written on himself, and the thought of his obliviousness had him actually laughing into his palm.

            Too focused on work, his coworkers loved to accuse him of being, and now, he had to agree. No one else he knew could just forget about SSTC. It wasn’t something a person forgot.

            Shion shook his head, took his hand away from his lips, and continued the twenty-minute walk to his mother’s bakery. Wind pulled at his hair and slipped up his jacket sleeves. Shion curled his shoulders beneath his coat, shoved his hands into his pockets, his bag of knitting needles for Safu flicking against his thigh with each step.

            Shion had never been concerned with SSTC. He was young, in the heat of his career as a biomedical researcher. Time for soulmates could come later.

            His soulmate, after all, had never written to Shion either. SSTC was a two-way street, but it had never occurred to Shion that he would be the one to write the first word – or words, as was the case.

            He tilted his face up, felt as the season’s first flakes of snow slipped over his skin. People thought about their first SSTC words for days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. Shion had considered what his might be before, but never very seriously, never with much thought.

            Even so, knitting needles were not what he had in mind.

            Shion licked his lips, feeling as they chapped in the wintry wind, and figured it was too late to change his first words now anyway.

            No use to dwell on them.

*

Nezumi’s mug of tea was cooling in his palms. He wanted to heat it up, but knew to leave the sanctuary of blankets on his mattress would risk the chill of his apartment. 

            He stayed where he was, sipping the lukewarm liquid between pages of the novel propped against his bent knees.

            On the third chapter of Sense and Sensibility, Nezumi turned a page of his worn paperback to again notice the words on the back of his hand, now because they seemed to be shifting.

            He watched with some degree of fascination before realizing they were not shifting – the words were fading, in quick sweeps of erasure.

            Nezumi stared for a moment, then set down his mug, sat up, and touched the skin of his hand as though he might feel the words before they left completely.

            His skin felt the same. Cold. Unremarkable.

            On lifting his fingers, Nezumi saw that he could hardly read the hasty script. Knitting needles could barely be made out, and then it was gone completely, though Nezumi squinted still, as though he might uncover it once more if only his eyes could readjust.

            Pale skin remained pale, empty. Nezumi glanced away, at the small alarm clock on the wooden chair he left next to his bed to use as a nightstand.

            Ten past midnight.

            So his soulmate was a late sleeper too.

            Nezumi narrowed his eyes. Felt strange to be thinking of his soulmate like this, as if Nezumi might know anything about this person who bothered writing knitting needles as their first SSTC.

            It’s not like Nezumi thought about first SSTC’s like a lot of people wasted their time doing – seemed to find enjoyable, even – but even he had expected something better than knitting needles.

            Nezumi took Sense and Sensibility from his lap and placed it on the floor beside his empty mug. He turned off the lamp on his makeshift nightstand, then laid on his back in the darkness.

            A moment passed, and Nezumi outstretched his left arm straight up from his body, in front of his face. His eyes adjusted to the dark of the room to see the emptiness of the back of his palm, which had never seemed empty before those two ridiculous words blemished it for just a few hours.

*

Shion rubbed his sudsy loufa over the back of his empty palm once more, just in case.

            The steam of the shower had him sweating, but he didn’t lower the heat of the spray.

            The heat slipped into his skin, loosened his muscles, and Shion knew it would tire him, make it easier to fall asleep.

            It was late, but Shion was used to racing thoughts, ideas he had that could not wait until morning. For the first time, Shion considered that his thoughts before sleep might center around something other than work.

            Might center around knitting needles. Or, not quite those words, but the eyes that might have read them today, noticed them scrawled in Shion’s rushed handwriting.

            There had been no reply to Shion’s knitting needles, but that wasn’t altogether surprising.

            They weren’t really an easy sort of SSTC to reply to. Even Shion wasn’t sure how he’d react if he’d seen such a thing written over the back of his hand in a handwriting that wasn’t his own.

            He would probably think his soulmate was insane.

            Shion smiled in the shower spray. He didn’t mind if his soulmate thought he was insane. He realized that just the thought of his soulmate thinking of him at all had a certain heat thrilling through his body that had nothing to do with the hot water of his shower.

            He tried to peg down the twinge of his body, the odd contentment spreading over his skin as he finally turned to shut off the water.

            In the steam of his shower that lingered in a thick fog until Shion opened the shower curtain to disperse it, Shion thought he figured out what his strange feeling might be.

            Anticipation. Or something better, even – Hope.

            He hadn’t planned on communicating with his soulmate, but now that he had, Shion knew his life would not – could not – be the same.

            His SSTC had begun. Even for Shion – a vehement workaholic, as his coworkers teased him of being – there was excitement in the prospect of finally meeting the person he was destined to spend the rest of his life in love with.

*

After knitting needles, Nezumi’s life remained the same.

            This was not surprising. Nezumi was not concerned with his soulmate. Just another person in the world. No real connection but for SSTC, and what did skin transmission ability have to do with love anyway?

            It was a genetic mutation. Some fault in the human genome that happened to be replicated exactly in one other person in the world. Nezumi still was unsure how people had tricked themselves into thinking gene sequence could have anything at all to do with some sort of happily ever after.

            Nezumi did not write back to knitting needles. He had nothing to say to knitting needles. Nothing to say to his soulmate.

            Two weeks passed, and Nezumi forgot about the words completely, even stopped checking his palm as if they might reappear.

*

“If you did not care, you would not bring it up at least once per conversation. Simply write something else, Shion, and let me get back to work,” Safu complained.

            The public library was louder than usual. Shion couldn’t concentrate on the dissertation he was studying, hopeful for insights on the cure for systemic lupus erythematosus he and his team at the lab had been working on for five years.

            Shion rested his cheek on his hand, peered at his friend who was typing on her laptop with a speed that suggested that by the end of the night she’d be done the academic textbook on the psychoanalysis of the ideological and indoctrinated mind that she was drafting.

            “I don’t care! I just think it’s weird nothing has happened. It’s been two weeks since knitting needles, Safu. Usually, within two weeks of starting SSTC you’ve already met your soulmate!”

            Safu glared up from the top of her laptop screen, then sighed and closed it.

            “Usually, SSTC doesn’t start on accident when writing down Christmas present ideas for a friend on your hand. Usually, SSTC continues past first communication rather than the silence you two are harboring. Usually, the soulmates are eager to see each other since birth, unlike you, Shion, who I’ve never known to even have given your soulmate half a thought,” Safu laid out.

            Shion picked at his sleeve. “I have given my soulmate half a thought. It’s just not a good time, really, we’re swamped at the lab, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere with the – ”

            “If it’s such a bad time for a soulmate, stop the needless obsessing with yours,” Safu interrupted shortly, opening her laptop again to indicate the end to the conversation.

            Shion stared at the text of the dissertation in front of him, watched it blur.

            Safu was right – as usual. Shion hadn’t even meant to write to his soulmate. He’d had no intention of starting regular communication. Even less intention of meeting his soulmate, of falling in love.

            It wasn’t a good time in his career to fall in love. It was lucky, really, that nothing had come out of his knitting needles.

            Shion reminded himself of this as he bent down, rummaged through his messenger bag, pulled out a black pen.

            The same black pen that had produced knitting needles.

            The click of the pen was jarring, reminded Shion that he didn’t know what to write, that he didn’t want to write anything anyway.

            “What will you say?”

            Shion looked up from his empty hand to see Safu peering over her open laptop screen.

            “I don’t know,” Shion admitted.

            “Let’s see. Standard first SSTC’s are, ‘Hello,’ or a similar simple greeting, your phone number so that communication can be taken off the skin, an address if you would like to be forward, your name, an ice breaker question such as to inquire what your soulmate’s favorite movie might be, a request for a date – ”

            “I know what the standard first SSTC’s are, Safu,” Shion interrupted. “I already wrote my first SSTC anyway.”

            “I assumed you were going to pretend the knitting needle incident didn’t happen and start over fresh,” Safu replied.

            Shion looked down again at the back of his left hand, his skin empty, clear.

            A click of the pen closed, a click open again, and then the tip of it pressed to his bare skin.

            The number one rule when communicating with one’s soulmate, the SSTC informational committee always said, was not to worry.

            Soulmates were soulmates. Every word, picture, mark, or symbol offered through SSTC only solidified that bond.

            The second rule, if still nervous despite the first, was to imagine oneself speaking face-to-face with one’s soulmate – what would naturally be said?

            Shion pressed the tip of his pen into his skin, watched the shallow dip of his flesh, saw the mark of ink left behind as he moved the pen.

            “What are you writing?” Safu asked, closing her laptop once more to allow herself space to lean further over the table.

            “What I’ve been telling my soulmate in my head since I wrote knitting needles,” Shion admitted.

            He’d written the first words he could think of, when imagining himself face-to-face with his soulmate, and realized only then that these were the same words he’d been thinking daily.

            He lifted his hand to show Safu when he finished, and she smiled faintly.

            “That is not a standard first SSTC, Shion,” she replied, and Shion glanced at his hand.

            No, it was not, but it wasn’t his first SSTC anyway.

*

It’s your turn to write to me.

            The handwriting was less hasty, but just as slanted.

            Same black ink, same placement on the back of Nezumi’s left hand.

            The moment he sat down at his dressing room table and the make-up girl came over talking about trying winged eyeliner for that night’s show, Nezumi cut her off by holding his hand out.

            “You need to cover this,” he replied.

            Visible SSTC’s were against theater policy.

            Nezumi was not particularly concerned with theater policy, but he’d enraged his manager enough by skipping practice the previous two nights, and wasn’t in the mood to be shouted at twice in one day.

            “What is – ? Oh! I didn’t know you started your Soulmate Skin-Transmission Communication! Since when? Who wrote first? What did you say? Who is it?” the make-up girl chattered, and Nezumi blinked at her, amazed for a moment by her enthusiasm.

            But of course, how could he forget? Everyone was smitten with the idea of soulmates. It was almost fascinating, how gullible society could be, believing in such a hoax.

            “I’d love to tell you everything, but I’m running late,” Nezumi replied, adding a flash of a smile, and the make-up girl flushed and apologized quickly, removing her wide-eyed look from Nezumi’s hand to rummage through her make-up bag.

            She produced a tube of SSTC cover-up, appropriate for the palest skin-shade, Nezumi noted on his glance at the label.

            “You’re right, you’re right, I’m sorry. Was it the manager?” she asked, while Nezumi took the make-up bag from the table and pulled from it his eyeliner.

            He leaned closer to the mirror to apply it, used to doing half his make-up thanks to his manager’s lengthy pre-show reprimands cutting his make-up time down to five minutes on most nights.

            “He should be fine now, I think I managed to pull the entire stick out of his ass,” Nezumi murmured, focusing on his eyeliner as he felt the girl rubbing SSTC concealer over the back of his palm.

            “The blend isn’t quite right, I’ll have to look for a lighter shade, I think they’ve got one in a different brand,” she said, dropping Nezumi’s hand, and he looked away from the mirror to glance at it.

            The concealer covered the words, but the girl was right. Nezumi could clearly see the patch of make-up over his skin, a half shade too dark.

            “It’s not noticeable,” he replied.

            “Eve! Get your ass out there, you’ve got lines in less than a minute!” came the hiss of his manager.

            Nezumi didn’t bother looking to the door of the dressing room where he knew his manager’s face would be sticking through.

            “No time for wings today,” Nezumi told the make-up girl, who took the eyeliner from his fingers.

            “Next time,” she promised with a smile, and Nezumi stood up, glancing back in the mirror once to make sure he hadn’t smudged his eyeliner before heading out of the dressing room towards the stage.

            It was the last week of Macbeth. Afterward was the usual Christmas show his manager forced them to put on, and Nezumi wondered vaguely which would be chosen.

            If it was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer again, he was going to quit.

            On stage, Nezumi delivered his lines perfectly. He glanced at his hand from time to time, noticing the slight discoloration for hardly a second before putting it out of his mind again.

*

Shion bent to stretch under a table, sending crumbs whisking to the corner with a sweep of his broom.

            “Jetstar Japan still offers those discounted ticket prices for soulmates that save their first-meet for the holiday season. You should find out where your soulmate lives and meet a week within Christmas to save money,” Safu suggested.

            Shion swept the crumbs from the corner into the pile he’d already collected by the door. “Isn’t that promotion only for flights within Japan? My soulmate might live farther away.”

            “You could ask to find out.”

            “I can’t ask now, I’ve already told my soulmate it’s their turn to reply. I’d look like an idiot, sending a double SSTC,” Shion sighed, straightening up and finding Safu in front of him, holding out the dust pan.

            Shion took it, bent back down to brush his crumb pile into the pan.

            “Hm. That is true,” Safu conceded, smiling when Shion stood up again and glanced at her. “What if your soulmate doesn’t reply?”

            Shion ran a hand through his hair. He needed a haircut.

            “I’m not going to dwell on this person forever. I can’t afford the distraction,” Shion replied, and Safu tilted her head.

            “It’s not just a person, Shion, it’s your soulmate,” she teased, stressing the word and waggling her eyebrows, and Shion laughed.

            “Soulmates are supposed to be the other half of your soul. It’s a concept based on an ancient Greek myth, where people were created with two faces, four arms, and four legs. Zeus feared they had too much power, and the people were split in half, left to roam around searching for the other who would complete them.” Shion shrugged. “I don’t feel incomplete. So really, I have no great desperation to meet this person.”

             Safu smiled, stepped past Shion and elbowed him as she did so. “I always did like how you refused to give in to society’s brainwashing and the obsession of soulmates. You almost had me worried for a second,” she said, heading to the door, and Shion turned to watch her, holding the dustpan steady so no crumbs could escape.

            “I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked, and Safu waved, halfway out the door, the bell rattling above it cheerily when she opened it.

            “Coffee on me! Don’t be late, I’ve got a meeting afterward,” Safu called, and then she was gone.

            Through the glass window, Shion caught the huddle of Safu’s shoulders beneath her coat, the toss of her hair by the wind.

            He watched her until she was out of sight, then looked again at his hand, as if a reply might have found itself onto his skin, but still, there was only his unanswered statement.

            It’s your turn to write to me.

            Safu had never had any interest in meeting her soulmate, or even communicating through SSTC. Her soulmate, apparently, had no interest either, seeing as they never began SSTC with her, and Shion always liked this symmetry, found that it was some proof of soulmates – two soulmates would both have the same opinions on the frivolity of SSTC, wouldn’t they?

            It was the same with Shion and his soulmate, he’d always thought. Most people began SSTC at young ages, met up around their teens, at the very least by the time they reached twenty.

            Shion was twenty-four. Soulmates were usually the same age, or around it, though there were of course news articles on the rare soulmate pairing that was ten years apart, or twenty, even thirty.

            Another look at his hand, and Shion shook his head, walked to the trash can with his dustpan to empty it, then finished cleaning and locking up the bakery before heading out.

            The night outside was a sharp sort of cold with raking wind. Shion curled himself away from it, walking with quick steps, eager to be inside again.

*

In the morning, It’s your turn to write to me was gone.

            There was nothing in its place on the back of Nezumi’s hand; Nezumi noticed the new message in the shower.

            It was scrawled in cramped writing higher up this time, on his arm below his left shoulder, just high enough that a t-shirt sleeve might have hidden it.

            Nezumi blinked at the large mass of it after attempting to scrub it out, then realized that it was not some strange dirt but an SSTC – and a long one, at that, practically a novel. He washed the conditioner out of his hair, turned off the shower spray, and stepped out of the shower, drying off his skin and dressing in sweats and an undershirt before attempting to read it, having to twist his neck in an annoying way to do so.

            I don’t care to speak to someone who does not wish to speak with me. My first SSTC to you was an accident, as I had no intention of speaking to you as yet. But now that I have, I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, which is distracting me from my work, and I’m at an important development period. It’s inconvenient. If you could give me one word to indicate whether you would like to communicate at this time or not, that would be appreciated. Otherwise, I’ll assume not, but I rather dislike making assumptions. Decisions based on fact are much more prudent.

            Nezumi had to read the passage twice, and even then, could hardly wrap his head around it.

            Was this person insane?

            What kind of person complained about their soulmate distracting them from work?

            I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, seemed a normal thing for a soulmate to say, but the rest was complete nonsense. The person was a lunatic who clearly had no idea how to speak to other people, not to mention his alleged soulmate.

            Nezumi shook his head, looked away from his arm, and stalked into the kitchen to make himself tea, feeling somewhat disconcerted without knowing why.

            The message was annoying, that was why, he figured, downing his tea when it was too hot, and he felt the skin of the roof of his mouth burn, knew it would peel.

            He ground his teeth as he washed the mug, headed to his bookshelf to distract himself with reading, but two pages into Don Quixote, Nezumi was contorting his arm to read the SSTC again.

            It’s inconvenient.

            “Inconvenient?” Nezumi asked, the word ringing in his empty room. “Inconvenient is leaving marks all over my body, don’t call me inconvenient, idiot,” he muttered, not noticing that he was talking to himself aloud.

            He tossed Don Quixote aside, replaced it with The Princess Bride, which got tossed as well to be replaced with Frankenstein.

            Frankenstein didn’t last more than ten pages, when Nezumi was up again, stalking to the kitchen to glare into his fridge and find it just as empty as he knew it’d be.

            He slammed it shut, grabbed his coat, shoved his feet in his boots, and was out the door of his apartment on the way to the market, even though he’d planned on going there on the way back from his show at noon.

            If you could give me one word…

            “One word? What kind of idiotic request,” Nezumi muttered, shoving his hands deep into his jacket pockets.

            The cold was biting and fresh, and Nezumi regretted leaving his apartment. He got to the market quickly, picking up necessities and intending to pass by the usual SSTC shop, though after taking a step past it, he backtracked, let himself in.

            The concealers were lined up on a wall by the front, and Nezumi scanned them quickly, locating the brand and shade his make-up girl had used on him, then finding beneath it a lighter shade that looked more accurate to his skin color in a different brand that was significantly pricier.

            Nezumi grimaced. He wasn’t about to shell out this kind of cash for something like this.

            He turned and left the shop, ignoring the salesgirl asking him if he needed assistance.

            Back home, Nezumi unpacked his groceries and shed his jacket, glancing at the spiel on his arm before going into the kitchen to make eggs.

            An idiot, he’d gotten stuck with an idiot.

            The idea came hours later, as Nezumi was watching his make-up girl give him winged eyeliner for the midday show.

            “Can I borrow that?” Nezumi asked, holding out his hand when the girl finished, and she peered at him, placing the eyeliner pencil between his fingers.

            “Are they uneven? I guess the left one is a little less – What are you doing?” the girl shouted, a hand over her mouth.

            “You got the new concealer that matches my skin tone, right? Should be no problem to cover up,” Nezumi replied, finishing his first SSTC, placing the eyeliner down, and glancing at his reflection in the mirror.

            The word read backwards across his face due to the mirror, but was still clear.

            Nezumi would show his soulmate inconvenient.

            “Um,” the make-up girl hesitated, then rummaged through her bag, pulling out the new tube she’d showed Nezumi earlier that day. “Are you – Mad at your soulmate?” she asked tentatively, as she applied the concealer to Nezumi’s face, his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.

            “Mad?” Nezumi asked when she finished, looking in the mirror to see that the word he’d written had disappeared completely. “At my soulmate? Of course not, unless you mean madly in love.”

             “Oh. Right, ah, okay.”

            Nezumi flashed a smile at the make-up girl, stood up, and left to go on stage.

            It was one of the last showings of Macbeth, and he gave it his all, having to repress the smirk he felt pulling at his lips when he thought about the one word he’d offered to his soulmate.

*

Everyone was staring at him.

            “What?” Shion asked, looking around the conference room and rubbing his nose self-consciously. He expected to be looked at while giving presentations and heading their weekly update meetings, but not in such a concentrated, wide-eyed way that had him nervous.

            “Ah, your soulmate…um…”

            Shion blinked at his coworker. “My soulmate? Oh – Did they write something?”

            “On – On your face…”

            “What does it say?” Shion asked, bewildered at both the location of his first received SSTC, as well as the sudden creep of heat from the pit of his stomach, spreading.

            His soulmate had written back!

            His lab team stared back at him, then quickly looked away at their notes.

            “What?” Shion asked again, staring at them all in turn, but no one would look at him, so Shion shook his head, gave up on a chance of a response. “All right, I’ll be back, excuse me. I apologize for the unprofessional nature of this interruption, I was not expecting an SSTC right now.”

            He left the room quickly, headed to the bathroom and saw feet away from the mirror that his SSTC was just one word, written in huge block letters over his face.

            Idiot

            Shion blinked at his reflection. The word was reflected backwards in the mirror, but Shion could tell without a doubt what it said. He walked closer to it in slow steps, stared at his face, reached up to touch the letters gently but of course could not feel them, of course they did not budge as he rubbed his fingertips over them.

            The letters were black, but Shion was unsure what sort of ink was used. It didn’t look quite like pen. Sort of chalky and liquid at the same time. Smooth and smudged.

            Though he knew he could not rub it off, Shion touched each line anyway, each stroke of whatever this utensil was.

            The same word had to be written over his soulmate’s face as well. Shion considered this. Perhaps his soulmate had SSTC concealer on hand.

            Shion did not have SSTC concealer. It had never been necessary.

            He rubbed the mark of the word once more, his fingers freezing when he caught his reflection smiling.

            His soulmate had written Idiot in large, clear letters across his face. Shion wouldn’t be able to get it off, or cover it until he could buy SSTC concealer, and that would have to wait until after work.

            There was no reason to be amused by such a childish prank, really, but Shion couldn’t help it.

            His soulmate had written back to him.

            It was irrational to feel as warm as Shion did, but there was the feeling at the core of his chest, all the same.

*

Thank you for responding! I hope we can continue our SSTC at a time that’s better for both of us.

            It read like an automated message. This time, the slanted and increasingly familiar scrawl had found itself on the inside of Nezumi’s left forearm.

            Nezumi read it in bed, the morning not fully settled as yet. He pushed his bangs from his eyes, rubbed the back of his hand over his lips. Read it again.

            His soulmate was thanking him for writing Idiot across his face.

            There was something incredibly wrong with this person.

            Nezumi turned his head, pressed his face into his pillow for a second, then unraveled himself from his bed in a fluid motion, heading to the bathroom.

            In the mirror, his face was empty. He’d washed his concealer and eyeliner Idiot off a little past midnight the night before, just before bed.

            He assumed the SSTC on his forearm would be gone soon, and that his SSTC’s would cease for a while.

            This was fine with Nezumi. He didn’t much care for the notion of an idiot getting to write anything on his body whenever they pleased.

            How the hell was that considered romance?

            Brushing his teeth, Nezumi glanced at his forearm only four times. He wondered, vaguely, and without much real curiosity, how long the words would linger there before they were washed clean, his arm left empty again.

*

Chapter Text

Safu slid an envelope across the counter.       

            “What’s that?” Shion asked, glancing up from the register drawer, where he was counting that day’s earnings.

            “Open it and see for yourself,” Safu replied, leaning against the counter and waving behind Shion, who turned to see that his mother had appeared from the kitchen. “Hi, Karan!”

            “Hello, Safu. That scarf is lovely, did you knit it yourself?”

            “Just finished this morning, thanks for noticing. Unlike your son,” Safu said pointedly, and Shion blinked at her, taking in the striped blue and pink scarf around his friend’s neck.

            “Oh, um, sorry, it is nice,” he offered weakly, feeling the gentle squeeze of his wrist and glancing down to see his mother’s hand.

            Safu waved her hand dismissively. “You’ve been distracted, I didn’t expect you to notice. Hence the envelope. An early Christmas present, to lift your spirits.”

            “Lift my spirits?” Shion asked.

            “Hon, you didn’t think we wouldn’t notice, did you?” Karan asked, and Shion turned to his mother, bemused.

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Oh, did you not want us to notice?” Karan asked, smiling and lifting her hand from Shion’s wrist. “I have to finish in the kitchen, I just wanted to say hello, Safu.”

            “See you, Karan!” Safu called, then turned back to Shion, who stared at her.

            “What are you guys talking about?”

            Safu gave him a too knowing look. “Shion. Since you stopped your SSTC, you’ve been moping. In your silent, secret way, of course, but your mother and I know everything about you. And please don’t try to deny it, that will just get tiring. Open the envelope!”

            Shion rubbed his palm over the back of his neck, but listened to Safu and didn’t attempt to deny that he missed his unconventional, nearly one-sided SSTC.

            It didn’t make sense, but after two weeks, Shion was tired of trying to rationalize his own feelings.

            “What is it?” he asked again, warily now as he closed the register before picking up the envelope, flipping open the top and pulling out two tickets.

            “The last showing. I do not normally have an interest in the creative arts, but this performance has gotten incredible reviews. Especially for the actor who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s tonight, actually, so hurry up and thank me profusely so we can get going.”

            “Macbeth?” Shion scanned the information on the tickets. Eight o’ clock. Final showing. The Same Sky Theater.

            Shion had passed this theater a few times, but never gone in. He didn’t know much about the performing arts.

            “I already told your mom, she’ll close up the front of the shop today. Come on, we have to go,” Safu said, stepping back from the counter, and Shion ran his fingers over the tickets before focusing, looking up to Safu’s beckoning nods, and walking around the counter.

            “Mom, I’m leaving with Safu!” he called to the kitchen, and his mother called back –

            “Have fun, sweetheart!”

            Out of the bakery, Safu rushed them along while Shion kept peering down at the tickets, now between gloved fingers.

            “Oh, I just love Christmas lights,” Safu said, and Shion looked up and around them, noticing the lights for the first time.

            “Since when have these been up?”

            “This is what I mean by distracted,” Safu chastised gently, winding her arm through Shion’s and squeezing.

            Shion glanced back at the tickets. “I’m really grateful, Safu, but you know, I don’t know anything about the theater.”

            “You don’t have to know everything about everything, Shion.”

            “Well, of course, it would be impossible to know everything about everything.”

            Safu laughed and groaned at the same time. “Give yourself a night of enjoyment, will you? It’s not good to be so obsessed with work, on a psychological level. I’m an expert, you have to listen to me,” Safu said sternly, and Shion offered her a smile, slipped the tickets in his coat pocket.

            “All right, all right. What were you saying before? About the actress playing Lady Macbeth?”

            “Actor, not actress. His stage name is Eve. He was on the front page of the paper the other day – did you not see? Shion, you really have to pay more attention to world news, the universe does not exist solely inside your lab.”

            “Eve…That sounds familiar,” Shion mused, letting Safu guide him across the road and around the corner to the street on which Shion knew The Same Sky Theater sat.

            “He’s pretty famous in our little town, I’d be disappointed if he didn’t sound familiar. He’s been acting for a few years at The Same Sky Theater in both women’s and men’s roles. He’s supposed to be quite beautiful.”

            “Beautiful?” Shion glanced at his friend, but at that moment they had reached the theater, and Safu seemed distracted from the conversation, whisking Shion inside and guiding him to the right entranceway.

            The theater foyer was packed, but Safu weaved seamlessly through the crowd, and Shion slipped his hand into hers, allowed her to pull him through. At the doors of the stage, he handed over their tickets, which were taken in exchange for two playbooks.

            He and Safu wove through the seats, finding their own and sitting, and only then did Shion offer a playbook to Safu before opening his own, flipping through it.

            “That’s him,” Safu whispered, leaning against Shion’s shoulder and pointing at a black and white picture of a young man who stared straight into the camera without any expression – and yet, Shion thought, there was not emptiness on his features, but a sort of pulsing emotion he could not name.

            Or perhaps that was just what Shion felt, upon looking at him.

            Eve was written beside his photograph, but no info was offered, unlike the other actors and actresses listed underneath him, accompanied by small blurbs of information.

            “Nobody knows anything about him. That’s part of his charm, I think.”

            Shion examined Eve’s picture for another moment, then forced himself to learn about the rest of the cast, reading each of their blurbs in turn.

            He had finished the playbook and returned to examining Eve again as the lights flickered, and his attention was caught by the front stage, where a curtain was closing.

            The lights were off completely then, and then there were sounds of thunder, flashes like lightning, and the curtain opening again on three frightening, haggard women.

            “When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

            For the first time since knitting needles, Shion found himself sitting back and forgetting completely about his soulmate.

*

Nezumi had been cast as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

            He pinched the bridge of his nose and went off to find his manager and inform the asshole of his immediate resignation, but his manager found him first.

            “Eve! A completely booked show last night! Incredible! Amazing! The paper today, have you seen it? Front page, Eve! You make me famous, my love for you is boundless, Eve, Eve, Eve!”

            Nezumi glared down at his manager, a short man wielding a newspaper and too much enthusiasm for this early in the afternoon.

            “Find another reindeer,” he said, shoving the newspaper out of his face and stalking to the backstage exit of the theater.

            His manager, predictably, followed.

            “What – Oh, ah, yes – Wait! Eve, listen, I know we’ve had our differences, but – ”

            They reached the exit, but when Nezumi reached out to open the door, his manager slammed his entire back against it.

            He looked up at Nezumi imploringly – a disgusting sight.

            Nezumi grimaced, stepped back.

            “Yes, yes, I know. You dislike the thought of being a reindeer, I understand, Eve, I do, but you’re not just a reindeer – You’re Rudolph. Rudolph! The one and only red-nosed – ”

            Nezumi pushed his bangs from his forehead. “Move.”

            “Ten percent pay raise,” his manager said, his imploring look replaced with one of seriousness.

            His business face. Nezumi knew it and didn’t like it much better than the simpering one.

            “Don’t make me laugh,” Nezumi sighed.

            “Fifteen percent, and you wear the red nose.”

            “Get out of my way, old man.”

            “I’m not made out of money, Eve, don’t make me beg.”

            “Please don’t,” Nezumi muttered, stepping back.

            There were other exits.

            His manager’s hand caught Nezumi’s arm, and Nezumi flinched, revolted by the touch.

            “Twenty-percent, and you write your own lines. Change whatever you want. I mean, within reason, this is a classic story and – ”

            “Are you deaf? Or just stupid?” Nezumi snapped, pulling his arm free of his manager’s weak grip.

            “Twenty-five percent raise, you write your own lines within reason, and you pick the next four shows we put on. No limits. My stage is yours, Eve, my heart is yours, my career is yours. Do with it what you will.”

            Nezumi closed his eyes. He would have loved to crush his manager’s simpering little heart and career all at once, but a twenty-five percent raise was too good to pass up, and the offer to pick the next four shows too enticing.

            “Shit. Fine,” Nezumi snapped, and turned so that he wouldn’t have to see the happiness he’d just given his manager.

            He shook his head, heading to the exit at the front entrance of the theater that he rarely used.

            He walked quickly through the grand foyer, was out the door and on the street too abruptly, the wind catching him in a rough gust, nearly throwing him back inside the doors.

            Nezumi stood his ground. Braced himself, having no desire to head back in and start rehearsal for this ridiculous show.

            Winter had hit hard, was unrelenting, and within a few steps the wind was paired with a grating snow, fast flakes that skimmed Nezumi’s cheeks in shards.

            Nezumi made it only three blocks before having to dip into the nearest shop.

            His teeth chattered, shoulders hunched, snow caught in his eyelashes. Nezumi unearthed his hands from his pockets, wondering where he’d misplaced his gloves, and pulled his hair from his face, the wind having swept it around and into knots.

            As he tied up a ponytail and attempted to thaw, the smell hit him.

            It was incredible.

            Nezumi blinked, disoriented by his sudden hunger, and took in his surroundings.

            He was in a bakery. Warm and small, with windows along the walls that showcased the growing storm outside.

            Inside were tables, a few of which seated customers, and at the front a counter of baked goods.

            Nezumi stepped towards it, not thinking. Drawn by the smell, the sudden ache it carved in his stomach.

            There was no one in line, and then Nezumi was in front of the counter, glancing through the glass. He’d seen this bakery before. Karan’s Bakery. He knew of it.

            Had never been inside because baked goods were frivolous things. Unnecessary.

            “Eve.”

            Nezumi looked up. He had been recognized before. It was a tiring process, but he was good at putting on a smile, charming his fans, wooing his audience.

            Nezumi knew how to sell tickets.

            The man behind the counter wore an apron. His eyes were red. His hair was white. There was a red mark on his cheek that seemed to wrap around his neck, slink down underneath the collar of his button down shirt.

            Nezumi blinked. His fans were a blur of faces he did not care nor bother to notice, but this man was impossible not to.

            Nezumi realized his lips were open, but he had not said anything.

            He straightened up.

            “You recognized me,” he said, then realized this was not his usual line to fans.

            He couldn’t remember what his usual line was. He knew there was an act he put on – he became Eve, rather than himself, the alluring maiden whose charm seduced anyone in the public, sold tickets and filled his audience.

            To slip into his role of Eve was never a problem. Was not something he thought himself capable of forgetting.

            The man in the apron tilted his head. “Of course. You’re incredible. Were, I mean, last night. I saw your show. You were incredible.”

            Nezumi stepped back. Watched this man warily.

            He was used to compliments. He was used to adoration.

            There was something different with this man. Something too genuine in this man. Nezumi did not know what to do with it, the look this man gave him, the bluntness of his words.

            “Thank you,” Nezumi finally said, slowly, not particularly grateful.

            He did not want to be here anymore. He would brace the cold, get swept up in the sudden storm, blow away rather than be looked at by this man a second more.

            Nezumi’s skin prickled. Restless, he was restless. His chest felt smaller than it should have been. There was no reason for any of it.

            “That was your last show of Macbeth, right? Last night? What is your next performance?” the man asked, as if Nezumi’s life was any of his business, but Nezumi was used to that as well.

            Fans acting as if they knew him. As if they had a right to know him. To touch him, take pictures with him, speak to him.

            This man felt more prying, somehow. More intrusive, and Nezumi wanted to take another step back but stopped himself.

            “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” he said, not knowing why he said it but perhaps to incite some reaction from this man.

            Disappointment. No, that wasn’t quite right. Nezumi didn’t know what he wanted from him. He didn’t know why he even wanted anything from this man at all.

            The man blinked, and then his lips were spreading, and it was a smile that stretched over his face, wide and creasing his eyes – red eyes, Nezumi could not stop noticing them.

            The man laughed, a full sound, an unhindered laugh as Nezumi had rarely heard one, and there was warmth pooling in his abdomen that he ignored because there was no reason for it to be there.

            The man was biting his lip. Perhaps realizing his laugh was not appropriate. The warmth it put in Nezumi was not appropriate. Nezumi did not want it. Did not understand it.

            Nezumi was annoyed by how much he was not understanding about this man who was just another fan, after all – a noticeable one, but a fan all the same.

            A bakery boy. He wore an apron, for Christ’s sake. He was not remarkable, had no reason to be remarkable.

            “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that. Will you be Rudolph?” he asked, and Nezumi glared at him.

            “Do you just ask anything you want about your customers’ personal lives?” he asked, and the man tilted his head again.

            “But this isn’t your personal life. It’s your professional life. Your real name isn’t even Eve, is it? So really, none of this is personal,” he said, in a strange explanatory tone as if he were the speaker at some lecture, and Nezumi stared at him, taken aback.

            What was with this guy?

            “Professional or personal, it has nothing to do with you, does it?” Nezumi muttered, and the bakery boy smiled again.

            He smiled too much. The sign of a psychopath. A serial killer. A very dangerous individual.

            “I suppose not. Let me be more professional. What would you like to order today, Eve?”

            Nezumi did not like that this man just threw around his stagename like they were anything but a customer and a man who worked at a bakery.

            Names were something that had to be earned. Here was just another fan, thinking he’d earned Nezumi’s because he’d sat at a stupid show.

            Nezumi felt his jaw clench. He didn’t know why he was getting so annoyed by this guy. His uncertainty only fed into his annoyance.

            It was a growing cycle, and he was getting pissed off about it.

            “I’m not here to buy,” Nezumi snapped, not thinking, and the man continued to stare at him.

            “Then why are you here?” he asked.

            Nezumi ground his teeth. “To get pestered by some nosy bakery boy, apparently,” he muttered, shaking his head and turning away from the man.

            He didn’t care for this conversation, did not want it to continue, did not enjoy the odd way his pulse felt, as if it had risen to the very surface of his skin.

            “Wait!”

            Nezumi did not wait. Was at the door of the bakery when there was a hand on his arm – the second of the day, and this time Nezumi tore his arm away, astounded at the fact that people found it acceptable to simply touch him when they pleased.

            “I’m sorry,” the man said, freed from behind his counter, closer to Nezumi than Nezumi preferred.

            Nezumi stepped back, placing deliberate space between himself and this stranger.

            Stranger.

            The man was a stranger. Nezumi was unsure why he had to remind himself of this fact when it should have been obvious.

            “I think I’m just amazed to see you. You must hear this all the time, but you really are incredible, Eve. I’m honored to get to speak to you. I didn’t wish to pry.”

            Nezumi looked out the glass windows at the falling snow to have something else to look at than those red eyes.

            “Don’t worry about it,” he said, easily.

            He didn’t care. Just another fan, just another act Nezumi was putting on. He would leave this bakery, he would forget this man, he would blur this face into all of the other faces until it was gone from his memory.

            “My name is Shion. It’s only fair, if I have something to call you, that you have something to call me in turn. I know Eve is not your real name, but I don’t have a stage name, so my real name will have to do,” the man said, and Nezumi glanced at him again, amazed again.

            The guy really could talk a lot, couldn’t he?

            It wasn’t normal. Nothing about him was normal.

            “I don’t mean to make a scene. You can go, of course. I only wanted to properly apologize. It must be tiring, to be so famous. I know I could never manage it,” the man said, shaking his head, like he truly meant the words he was saying, and Nezumi squinted at him.

            He didn’t need some random bakery boy empathizing with him.

            Shion. He’d said his name was Shion, but really, he was still a stranger.

            “Apology accepted, Shion,” Nezumi said lightly, mostly to try out the name on his lips, and Shion’s eyes widened at the word, another smile spreading.

            Psychopath. Serial killer. Dangerous, and certainly not to be trusted.

            Not that Nezumi had any intent on trusting the man. He would never see Shion again. They were strangers, with paths that had no reason to cross past this once.

            “I hope you will come back again with intentions of buying next time. Keep warm, Eve, there’s a storm out there,” Shion said, and Nezumi felt a crease fall between his eyebrows as he stared at this man, telling him to keep warm, telling him he hoped Nezumi might come back to splurge on frivolous baked goods.

            After a moment, Nezumi was looking away from him, turning and letting himself out from the bakery, the cold replacing the warmth in an instantaneous gust.

            Nezumi refused to let his shoulders curl in. He walked against the wind as if there was nothing pulling him back, as if he couldn’t feel the entire force of the storm attempting to shove him roughly back to the bakery that he regretted stepping foot into at all.

*

Shion stopped thinking about his soulmate and started thinking about Eve.

            Safu frowned.

            “Why does it matter what society thinks? We know those who share SSTC aren’t actually soulmates, so of course it wouldn’t matter if you dated someone who wasn’t your alleged soulmate. Why would you even ask such a thing?”

            Shion sighed. Safu was not a reliable source when it came to asking about soulmates, seeing as she didn’t believe in their existence, or at least, if she did, she didn’t believe that existence was connoted by two people’s ability to share SSTC.

            Shion asked his mother next, while they were frosting cupcakes before the bakery opened.

            “Mom?”

            “Mm? Oh, honey, careful there, don’t put so much icing on one cupcake, it will sag off.”

            Shion moved onto the next cupcake. “Sorry. Mom, I wanted to ask about… Well, is it at all socially acceptable to have a relationship with someone who’s, um, not your soulmate?”

            Karan stopped icing her pan of cupcakes, turning her eyes on Shion.

            It was early in the morning, but they were both morning birds, alert without any ounce of sleep lingering on their features.

            Karan’s gaze was soft but sharp. “Socially acceptable?” she asked, after a moment.

            “Well, I mean, is it okay? Do people ever do such a thing?”

            Karan smiled softly. “When it comes to matters of the heart, Shion, I don’t think you need to be thinking about what society expects from you. What does society know of your heart?”

            Shion nodded vaguely, turned back to his cupcakes, iced another one. It looked sloppy. He tightened his grip around the icing bag.

            “It seems wrong. My soulmate is waiting for me, it must be some betrayal to think of someone else in such a way.”

            Shion iced four more cupcakes before Karan spoke again.

            “Honey, just as it’s foolish to let society come in the way of your heart, surely it’s equally unfair to base matters of the heart on matters of the skin, don’t you think?”

            It took Shion a moment to understand what his mother was saying, and when he did, he looked swiftly up at her.

            “You don’t think SSTCs indicate your soulmate?” he asked.

            He was used to Safu’s discourse on the topic. He was used to his own trouble with the concept, had come to terms with the fact that, yes, he believed SSTCs were shared between soulmates – though of course he could never admit this so blatantly to Safu.

            But his own mother?

            “I believe that falling in love has no restrictions. It is the product of free will, Shion, and nothing else. Many people find their soulmates through SSTC, and that is a lovely thing. To find one’s soulmate through other means is no less lovely, whether it’s less traditional or not,” Karan replied, looking up from her cupcakes only once to offer Shion a serious glance, then returning to finish her pan.

            She slid Shion’s unfinished pan in front of her, started on the row left icing-less.

            “I don’t know that he’s my soulmate. I just….” Shion couldn’t explain how he felt on seeing Eve, then again more forcefully on speaking with him, and only tenfold on touching him, though the contact had been brief, through the fabric of Eve’s winter coat.

            No, that wasn’t right. He could explain how he felt, but the explanation was absurd, embarrassing, nonsensical.

            Longing. A physical, magnetic thing. He’d wanted to follow the man out into the storm. He’d wanted to battle the wind with him. He’d wanted to feel the cold slip into his chest, if only to stand with him a moment longer.

            Shion was fully aware he did not know this man. But no one knew their soulmates either, and they still managed to fall in love. That was how it went, wasn’t it?

            Vaguely, Shion recalled the thrill of receiving his soulmate’s only SSTC – Idiot­ across his face. There had been a warmth from that, but this warmth was muted compared to the burst of it that flooded every inch of Shion’s skin on watching Eve examine the items in the glass counter at the front of the bakery.

            “Honey, emotions are not like science. There is no calculation for it, no genetic identifier for it. If there is a person you like, you must not let anything but yourself stand in the way of that.”

            Shion watched his mother ice the cupcakes, her perfect swirls that made his own – though they were perfectly adequate – look messy in comparison.

            He didn’t know that he agreed with her. Emotions were connected to science. There was the hippocampus, the amygdala. There was adrenaline, the fight or flight response, the racing heart and sweating palms, the dilation of the iris.

            Emotions were scientific, and it seemed logical to him, despite what Safu might have argued otherwise, that the epidermis had links to emotion as well, that writing on the skin could transfer to the person with whom one was destined to be with.

            “Come, help me put these in the display case, and then you need to be getting ready for work, right? Don’t worry to much about silly things like soulmates, honey. These things tend to work themselves out in the end,” Karan said, reaching out to squeeze Shion’s hand as she finished icing the last of the cupcakes, and Shion took the pan from her out to the front of the shop.

            He and his mother set up the bakery for opening, and then Shion unlocked the doors, turning the SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED sign to COME IN, WE’RE OPEN and bidding his mother goodbye as he left the bakery for work.

            He walked a different way today, passing The Same Sky Theater as he did so, but it looked deserted. Perhaps rehearsals did not start until later in the afternoon.

            Not that it particularly mattered. Eve, like Shion’s soulmate, did not seem very keen on forming a relationship with Shion, no matter how strongly Shion felt the contrary.

*

Nezumi slammed out the back door and nearly walked straight into some idiot loitering on the sidewalk.

            “Yo, watch yourself!”

            “Oh, sorry – Oh!”

            Nezumi let go of the arm he’d held onto, only because he’d nearly toppled over the guy in his way.

            He should have let him fall. It was that bakery boy, but without the apron. What the hell was he doing here?

            “Shion,” Nezumi said, remembering the name as he took in the red eyes that were skating over his features in a quick sweep.

            “Eve! I didn’t think anyone was in there,” Shion said, glancing at the back door of the theater. “Are rehearsals this early?”

            Nezumi considered the man. His jacket was open – idiot, it was too cold for that in this wind – and below it was a button down shirt and a tie.

            Rather dapper, for a bakery boy.

            “Where’s the apron?” Nezumi asked, not caring to go into the fact that he was not at rehearsal, but going over the new lines he’d scripted for Rudolph with his manager.

            All of his lines were vetoed, and again Nezumi threatened quitting the play. He’d managed to get his raise up to thirty percent, and was wondering how long it’d take to get up to fifty.

            “What apron? Oh, you mean – No, I don’t work at the bakery. It’s my mother’s shop, I just help out for fun. I work at a lab for medical research.”

            “The glass building down the street?” Nezumi asked, glancing in the direction. He’d passed the building several times. It was close to his apartment building.

            “You know it? Yes!” Shion said, looking ecstatic that Nezumi knew about this building, and Nezumi scrutinized him.

            “So you’re finding the cure for every disease and ailment. That’s what they do in there, right?” Nezumi asked.

            A crease slipped between Shion’s eyebrows. “I wouldn’t say every disease and ailment. That would be highly implausible, although it is a flattering concept. Thank you, I’m honored you think I’d be capable of such a feat.”

            Nezumi stared. “Do you always talk like that?”

            “Like what?”

            “Like you swallowed a textbook,” Nezumi muttered.

            “I don’t speak like I swallowed a textbook,” Shion replied.

            Nezumi rolled his eyes. “You’re right, you’re more annoying than a textbook. Why are you here? Stalking me?”

            “No, I’m on my way to work. I should get going, actually, which way were you going?” Shion said, glancing at his watch, then back at Nezumi again, who narrowed his eyes.

            He was heading home, but that was in the same direction as this idiot. He didn’t particularly want to walk with him, but he didn’t want to walk in an opposite direction for no reason at all, especially not in this cold.

            He sighed. “Same way, my building is by yours,” he said, starting to walk and hoping Shion wouldn’t catch up, but the guy was right beside him in an instant.

            “That’s great! I meant to ask, when do showings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer start at the theater?” Shion asked, as if just because they happened to be walking in the same direction, they had to start some kind of conversation.

            Nezumi wanted to remind the man that they were strangers.

            “You want to see it?” he asked, not knowing why he was permitting the conversation to continue.

            “It’s a classic.”

            “Do you know what it’s about? It’s about a reindeer who saves Christmas with his nose. His red nose. Why the hell would you want to see that?” Nezumi asked, not only questioning Shion, but the entire town, really.

            Who wanted to see that shit?

            “Of course I know what it’s about, everyone knows what it’s about,” Shion replied, glancing at Nezumi, who glared back and quickened his stride.

            The sooner he got to his apartment, the sooner he could get rid of this guy.

            “Then why would you want to see it?” Nezumi muttered.

            “I don’t particularly care about the play itself. I want to see you, Eve.”

            Nezumi nearly tripped, caught himself. Stared straight ahead, away from Shion.

            They crossed the street in silence, and Nezumi hoped the silence would remain, but of course it didn’t.

            “Will you tell me your name?” Shion asked, and Nezumi peered at him.

            “Why would I do that?”

            “I told you my name.”

            “I didn’t ask for it,” Nezumi retorted.

            “I could continue to call you Eve, but seeing as that’s not your real name, that seems impersonal,” Shion rambled, like he was making any sense at all.

            Why should they be anything but impersonal? Why was he even walking with this guy anyway? How had this happened?

            Nezumi shook his head. He’d had a long enough morning having to deal with his manager’s obstinacy at the crack of dawn. He didn’t need to entertain lunatic fans who stalked him outside the theater as well.

            “Eve, can I ask you something?” Shion asked, and Nezumi almost laughed at the notion that lack of permission would stop the guy.

            Nezumi didn’t reply. Shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. The morning had felt cold, but now he was oddly warm.

            “Do you have a soulmate?”

            Nezumi glanced at him, but Shion was looking away, straight ahead.

            They were four blocks from Nezumi’s building. It had never seemed so far from the theater before.

            “Everyone has a soulmate. Isn’t that the point?” Nezumi replied airily.

            “Well, yes, I suppose. I mean – Do you know yours?” Shion asked, looking at him now, and Nezumi contemplated the man’s expression.

            He couldn’t quite tell what Shion was thinking, and that bothered him even though it had no reason to – Shion was a stranger. Nezumi was not supposed to be able to know what he was thinking.

            “Everyone knows their soulmate. It’s your other half, isn’t that what they say?” Nezumi asked, not caring to get into the fact that he found the idea of soulmates ridiculous.

            This idiot would no doubt attempt to get into some stupid argument, and Nezumi didn’t care to argue about the existence of destined partners dictated by words on skin at the moment. Or ever, really.

            “Yes, that’s true. What I mean is, do you know yours? Do you speak to yours? Have you met yours?” Shion asked, a quick-fire of questions that seemed so genuine that Nezumi was somewhat startled.

            He took a moment to collect himself, remind himself that Shion was a stranger – a lunatic, at that, who was just some weird oversharing brand of a fan that Nezumi had surely encountered before, though perhaps not one so persistent.

            “Why? You want to stalk them too and ask them my name?” Nezumi asked, and Shion’s serious expression gave way to a small smile.

            “I didn’t know names were such precious things,” he replied.

            “I don’t give my name to fans, especially not those who stalk me and follow me home. That would defeat the purpose of a stagename.”

            “That reminds me, you never answered my question,” Shion said, apparently ignoring Nezumi’s reply, and he wondered why he bothered speaking anyway. “When does Rudolph start at the theater?”

            “You’re actually going to waste money on that shit?”

            “I’m not paying to see the play, I’m paying to see you,” Shion said again, like he had no filter.

            He was actually a stalker, Nezumi realized. A complete madman.

            “Paying to see me, hm? Like a whore. That makes me feel cheap,” Nezumi replied smoothly, hoping to shut the man up.

            One more block and he’d be home. Away from this idiot who seemed to think he could say whatever bullshit his brain churned up.

            The idea of him working on medical cures for diseases and ailments was somewhat concerning.

            “Then let me take you out to dinner first,” Shion said, which had Nezumi freezing, watching Shion walk two more steps before realizing he was walking alone, and turning around.

            The wind blew his shocking white hair around his face, then right back off again.

            “What?”

            “Do you think about the shit that comes out of your mouth or just start speaking and deal with the consequences later?”

            Shion smiled lightly. “You’re right, dinner is too forward. How about you come by my mother’s bakery tonight after close, around seven. I’ll close up and we can have tea and any of the baked goods leftover from the day.”

            Before Nezumi could reply that the man was crazy for thinking Nezumi would actively seek more time to pass with a stalker, Shion was pointing.

            “That’s my building. I have to go, Eve, I’ll see you tonight,” he said, then was walking down the walkway beside him, and Nezumi turned to see that they had in fact stopped right in front of the large glass medical building that Nezumi passed every day on his way to work and back home.

            He stared at Shion for a second, then walked forward, shaking his head as he finished the block left to get to his apartment on his own.   

            He felt the cold all at once as he walked on his own, sudden and abrupt and relentlessly gusty, but he didn’t mind it. The shiver of his bones was a necessary distraction from the conversation he’d just had, and the strange man he’d just had it with.

*

Shion just finished wiping down the last table when the bell over the front door jangled, and he lifted his head to tell the customer that they were closed for the day.

            “Sorry, we’re – Oh, hi.”

            Eve had walked in with snowflakes like stars caught in the dark night of his hair. Shion watched the man run his fingers through the sweep of his bangs, glance around the bakery before letting his eyes fall softly on Shion, who felt his heart stammer.

            “I didn’t think you’d come,” Shion said, and he could see clearly that Eve had not thought so either, seemed unsure of how he had found himself in this bakery.

            It was an odd thing, to see uncertainty linger on Eve’s features. The man normally seemed so confident, so sure of himself, but Shion thought him especially beautiful now, with snow melting in his hair and his lips gently parted.

            “I couldn’t disappoint my number one fan,” Eve said, his certainty back in the sweep of his smirk over his lips, in the way he reached up, pulled his hair from around his face and collected it into a low ponytail that hung over the shoulder of his coat.

            Shion smiled. “I’m honored. You can pick any table, I’ll get us some tea and sweets. Do you have a particular request?”

            Eve slipped his hands into his jacket pockets. “Surprise me,” he said, watching Shion with narrowed eyes, and Shion allowed his scrutiny, didn’t mind it.

            He wanted to be watched by this man. Felt warm knowing this man was looking at him while he walked from the front room to the back, pouring the kettle of tea he’d warmed for only himself – not at all suspecting Eve would show up – into two mugs, then deliberating over the leftover baked goods for a moment before settling on one he hadn’t sampled in a while – cherry pie.

            He’d eaten cherry pie often as a kid, but since moving out from the second floor of the bakery where his mother still lived and going to college, he’d had it less and less, not at all in a year or two, if he thought about it.

            He held the mugs in his hands and balanced two plates of pie and a fork each on his forearms easily, experienced from when he’d helped out in the bakery more often when he was growing up, bringing baked goods to his mother’s customers during rush hours, fresh from the kitchen.

            In the front room again, Eve had chosen a table in the corner, beside one of the windows, and Shion walked up to him, placed down the mugs and plates before sitting down.

            “Cherry pie,” he said, as Eve looked away from out the window to the plate in front of him.

            “Thank you,” Eve said quietly, glancing at Shion quickly in another assessing sweep of his eyes, and Shion wondered what Eve made of him.

            He seemed to be always watching Shion carefully, as if he was wary, as if Shion might be something dangerous, someone who needed to be watched.

            Shion held his mug between his palms. He looked away from Eve, allowing the man to watch him if he wanted to, wanting Eve to trust him.

            Outside the window, the snowfall was soft, not like the harsh storm of the night before. Snow drifted down as if it had all the time in the world to reach the ground, or the rooftops, or the trees where the strung Christmas lights had been turned on, glowed gently in the muted darkness.

            When Eve spoke, it was in a whisper as soft as the snow. “Holy shit.”

            Shion turned to him, saw him sitting with his fork halfway to his lips, empty.

            Eve looked from his plate to Shion. “This is amazing.”

            Shion smiled. “My mother’s recipe. She’s good, isn’t she? I keep trying to learn her recipes, but whenever I try them on my own, they never turn out quite right.”

            Eve was eating another forkful. “This is seriously good,” he said, and Shion bit his lip.

            “I’m happy you like it,” he said, trying a bite of his own slice, instantly feeling as if he were a child again, sitting on the counter with a plate of pie and watching his mother clean the kitchen after a long day of work, the warmth of the oven heating the entire room, making Shion sleepy.

            They didn’t speak again for a while, the silence interrupted only by gentle clicks of silverware on their plates, and then the plates were empty, shoved to the side of the table and replaced with their mugs of tea, now cool enough to drink but still warm enough to heat up the insides and spread around the entire body.

            Shion’s mug was between both of his hands again when he broke their silence.

            “You won’t tell just anyone your name. I understand that. What do I have to do to earn it?” he asked.

            Eve rested his elbow on the table, his cheek on his palm. He was watching Shion in his careful, quiet way again.

            His eyes were a silvery grey that blended with the steam rising from his mug of tea.

            “I don’t give my name to my fans,” he said, but in a slow, deliberate way that made Shion think he was choosing his words very carefully.

            “I doubt you have tea and pie with your fans either, but here we are.”

            “Are you denying that you’re my fan?” Eve countered, his expression smooth and calm, steady and unfazed.

            “I’m just making an observation,” Shion corrected, leaning forward in his chair, and after a moment, Eve leaned back.

            “A tea and a piece of pie are not enough to earn someone’s name,” Eve replied coolly, stretching his arms over his head, and Shion marveled at the length of him, the graceful movements that were so natural to him.

            “Most people give out their name for free,” Shion reminded.

            It was incredible, how Eve’s smirk was familiar by now, when Shion barely knew the man. “I’m not most people.”

            “No. I suppose you’re not,” Shion agreed, and Eve’s eyes were narrowed again, there was that careful scrutiny again. “What if I helped you rehearse? For Rudolph.”

            This time, Eve laughed. “You? What do you know about the theater?”

            Shion shrugged. “I know about the plot of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Isn’t that all that’s relevant in this case? I didn’t know you were taking this role seriously. What part are you, anyway? You never told me.”

            Eve shook his head. “I don’t need your help to rehearse, I’ve got a manager who happens to be an artistic genius,” he replied.

            “Really? Did your manager used to be an actor too?” Shion asked, brightening, eager to learn more about the theater.

            He’d never had an interest in it before, but he’d never had an interest in asking strangers to have tea and pie with him after closing the bakery, so he supposed his interests were expanding since meeting Eve.

            “Are you familiar with the concept of sarcasm?” Eve muttered, and Shion blinked.

            “Of course I am.”

            Eve looked at him flatly. “Forget it.” He waved his hand. “I’m not bothering with this play anyway, it’s an insult to the theater.”

            Shion frowned. “What does that mean?”        

            “It means I’m skipping rehearsal as we speak, and I don’t plan on attending another, nor any of the shows. Is that clear enough for you?” Eve sighed, shaking his fingers quickly through his bangs before dropping his hand to his mug, taking a rough sip of tea.

            Every one of his movements fascinated Shion.

            “If you’re not going to your rehearsals, that’s only more reason for me to help you rehearse, don’t you think?” Shion asked, and Eve stared at him.

            “You’re incredibly stupid,” he said.

            “I’m actually rather intelligent,” Shion corrected, which had Eve staring at him a moment more before he was laughing again, this time in a softer way until his laugh faded into a smile.

            Shion exhaled hard, and his lungs felt sore for it.

            “Tell me this, genius, what good is rehearsing with you going to do if I don’t plan on taking the role nor attending any of the actual shows of this idiotic play?” Eve asked, sounding more amused than exasperated, cupping his neck with his palm now and leaning forward.

            Shion took a sip of tea before replying, thinking it over.

            “I’ll help you realize the merits of the play, and you’ll want to be a part of the show.”

            “There is no merit in playing a red-nosed reindeer.”

            “So you are Rudolph!”

            “Am I the only one incapable of understanding why the hell a red-nosed reindeer even has a play? Who wrote this story? The asshole was probably drunk, and some idiot read the thing and loved it, and now we’re all stuck with it as some sort of Christmas classic when really it’s the stupidest piece of writing I’ve ever come across,” Eve snapped, in a whirlwind of annoyance, a crack in the composure he’d kept since Shion had met him, and Shion could not help but feel so incredibly grateful to get to see this crack, this human part of Eve that he knew without a doubt no other fans got to see.

            Shion was not just a fan. He knew this. He didn’t know what he was, to Eve, but he wasn’t just a fan.

            He tried not to smile at Eve’s abrupt discomposure.

            “Isn’t this your job? What will you do until the next play if you refuse to be Rudolph?”

            Eve folded his arms over his chest, glared at Shion. “I don’t see how that is any of your business.”

            “You could work here,” Shion offered, not knowing if in fact this was true as technically it was his mother’s bakery, and they’d never had anyone else working there, but Karan was getting older, and Shion couldn’t keep coming in so often anymore what with his work getting so busy.

            He supposed, really, he would not have had time to help Eve rehearse after all, but he chose not to mention this to Eve, since it was a moot point anyway.

            “Where?”

            “This bakery. My mother needs help. You could learn to bake, or just work the counter and clean up around the front room. It wouldn’t be difficult.”

            Eve looked at Shion for a moment, then shoved his chair back from the table in a grating sound that was startling in the otherwise quiet.

            “I don’t need your charity,” he snapped, shrugging on the coat that he’d slung over the back of his chair and already on his way to the front door of the bakery.

            Again, Shion went after him, standing quickly and stepping forward and, like just the day before, wrapping his hand around Eve’s wrist.

            This time, Eve did not jerk as violently away, though he did flinch.

            “It’s not charity. You’d be helping us out. My mother can’t deal with the bakery all on her own anymore, and Christmas season is especially busy for us.”

            “Still sounds like charity,” Eve said, voice hard, and Shion searched his face for some way to get this man to trust him.

            “I don’t want to take you away from the theater. But if you really don’t plan on being a part of that play, then please consider this as an alternative. Come in tomorrow morning, we open early. My mom starts baking at five, but I usually get here at around quarter to six, so you can do the same. The shop opens to the public at seven. Please consider, Eve. I know I’m a stranger to you, or worse, a fan. But everyone starts as strangers, don’t they?”

            Eve looked at him for a moment, then freed his wrist from Shion’s grasp in order to pinch the bridge of his nose.

            “Everyone starts as strangers? Did you get that out of a hallmark card? That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.”

            “Will you come?”

            “As long as you don’t say shit like that to me ever again,” Eve muttered, shaking his head and dropping his hand.

            “Really?” Shion asked, his pulse sudden and sharp as lightning, whipping up across his skin.

            “I’m not going to promise you anything, jeez, don’t look at me like that. Why don’t you wait until tomorrow and see?” Eve grumbled, sounding annoyed, so Shion nodded, stepped back, gave him space.

            “Okay. I hope to see you, Eve.”

            “Yeah, whatever,” Eve said, waving his hand dismissively and opening the front door, the bell going off cheerily above him.

            Eve stood in the doorway for a moment, and Shion watched the roll of his shoulders, like he was preparing himself for the cold outside that was quickly sneaking into the bakery around him.

            Eve turned back, offered Shion a quick glance. “Thanks for the pie,” he said, and then he was gone, and Shion watched him through the glass of the door as it closed.

            The snow had collected – not thickly, but enough so that Eve’s steps left footprints, and Shion watched them form a trail behind the man until he disappeared.

            Shion stood for just a moment more by the door, then turned to collect their dishes, eager to clean them and finish closing up the bakery so that he could head to his own home and get an early night, already excited to wake the next morning and get to the bakery and wait to see if Eve would keep the promise he refused to make.

*

Chapter Text

Five-thirty was too early a time to wake in the morning.

            It was hardly morning yet. Night still clung to the walls of the room, cold across Nezumi’s skin when he pulled himself out of bed.

            It stuck to the heaviness of his arm as he brushed his teeth, the bleariness of his eyes as he washed his face. It tripped him as he dressed, weighed him down as he waited for the kettle to boil.

            There was some night left outside still as well, when Nezumi made it out of his apartment. It was trapped in the sky, darkening the clouds and caught in the tops of the trees. It dragged across the ground, ensnared by the tips of frosted grass.

            Knuckles rubbed over eyes, and Nezumi blinked into the not-yet morning, wondering vaguely what the hell he was doing up in the first place. His shoulders huddled further beneath his jacket, and when he yawned, a puff of his breath was produced, visible like smoke in front of him.

            The walk to the bakery was long, but once inside – the door opening beneath his hand despite the sign against it reading SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED – warmth coated Nezumi like a second skin. He stood still for a moment, listening to the bell jangle and stop above his head, taking a deep breath to inhale the smells of cinnamon, warm apple, rich chocolate, and above all else, flour, thick and soothing.

            “Eve.”

            Nezumi opened his eyes. He hadn’t realized he’d closed them.

            Shion stuck his head out from a doorway behind the counter. “Come on back.”

            Shion’s voice was soft, probably so as not to disturb the night still lingering outside.

            Nezumi stepped forward, and Shion disappeared, only to be seen again once Nezumi was through that doorway himself, which took him down a hallway and into the kitchen.

            “You can hang your coat here, and take an apron from that line of hooks,” Shion said, and Nezumi did as he was told, glancing over Shion only once he’d gotten his own apron on.

            Shion looked softer now, blurred edges and smudges of flour on his cheek and the apron he wore. His hair was in slight disarray. When he smiled at Nezumi, it looked natural, like his lips might settle into such a position when he slept.

            Nezumi blinked, looked away from him, down at the strings of his apron to tie them.

            “Eve, this is my mother, Karan,” Shion said, so Nezumi was forced to look up again, saw then the woman behind the island counter, who came out from behind the counter to extend a hand to Nezumi.

            Nezumi took it, found it alarmingly warm, doughy like she had shaped her skin herself with the same flour she baked with.

            “Eve. Thank you for coming to help us in our little bakery,” Karan said, smiling the same smile of her son, and Nezumi nodded stiffly.

            He couldn’t think of a reply, his voice caught in his throat, which he cleared.

            “Shion will talk with you later about your salary, if that’s all right with you. Mornings are always a bit of a rush, trying to get the baking done in time for our early customers.”

            “That’s fine,” Nezumi said, not knowing why he was saying it, but he couldn’t think too long, as Shion was taking his wrist, guiding him to the counter.

            Shion’s hand was as warm as his mother’s on the bare of Nezumi’s skin. He didn’t pull away.

            “We’ll be prepping. Mom does most of the mixing part, I can never quite get the measurements right, so we ice the cakes and cupcakes and pour pie mix and stuff like that. We also clean – wash dishes, dry, make sure Mom has what she needs – and a little later I’ll show you how to set up the register and the front room to get it open for customers,” Shion said, and Nezumi nodded, not knowing how Shion was so comfortable saying we when Nezumi had never stepped foot in this kitchen until five minutes before.

            Four pies sat on the counter in front of them, and Shion showed Nezumi the strips of dough he’d already cut, how to lay them atop the pies in a lattice weave. Shion’s fingers moved naturally, as if he’d been doing this since birth, and Nezumi thought perhaps he had – at least, since he could walk.

            Nezumi’s attempts were less successful, his fingers getting caught with the dough, the strips falling into the wells of peach tart and apple crumble, but Shion was remarkably patient, even when Nezumi tore a strip of dough in half.

            “Ah, shit, sorry,” he mumbled, but Shion simply took the two pieces, melded them back together in a swift movement of his fingers Nezumi didn’t quite catch.

            “Let’s try it again. Be gentle with the dough, it’s very fragile,” Shion said.

            Nezumi glanced at the man, the concentration of his expression but also the ease. He was clearly relaxed here, in this bakery kitchen, crafting pies like they were works of art rather than simple baked goods.

            Nezumi lifted his hands to attempt it again, but his fingers were caught by Shion’s, and he flinched back, surprised.

            “It’s okay,” Shion said softly, as if Nezumi were some wild animal, and Nezumi felt like one, his heartbeat rampant in his chest. “Like this,” Shion was saying, guiding Nezumi’s fingers, so Nezumi allowed this touch, only because Shion’s fingers were so warm, only because Shion handled him as delicately as if Nezumi, too, was made of raw dough that had to be dealt with gently, as if he were fragile.

            Baking proved to be more difficult than Nezumi had expected. He still didn’t feel as though he’d gotten the hang of it – honestly, felt as though he were more of a hindrance than an asset – when Shion was pulling him out of the kitchen, that hand on his wrist again as if it was allowed there, and Nezumi didn’t shake it off.

            In the front room, they took chairs off tables, opened the curtains, wiped down the windows – Shion informed Nezumi that he usually did this last task during close, but he’d been in a rush to get home the night before. Shion took him behind the counter, showed him the register, and then they were bringing out finished baked goods from the kitchen, setting up the display case, putting cards into little wire holders to indicate what was what.

            By five minutes to seven, morning had finally arrived, and Nezumi felt comfortable in the front room despite having felt out of place in the kitchen.

            Shion had just finished telling Nezumi to feel free to check in on the kitchen during slow times, as his mother baked until midday, sometimes even until the afternoon on the busy days, and could use help.

            He proceeded, then to offer Nezumi his hourly salary – fifty percent higher than minimum wage. More than what Nezumi made at the theater, and Nezumi was the highest paid actor in town.

            Nezumi stared at him.

            “I can’t take that,” he said, not knowing why he said it.

            If Shion was going to be stupid enough to offer such a price, Nezumi should have just taken it.

            Shion squinted. “I discussed this with my mother, we both agreed. Why can’t you take it?” he asked, head tilted, and Nezumi scrutinized him.

            The bakery was small, quaint. Shion seemed humble enough, as did his mother.

            But Nezumi, for the first time, began to suspect that these people were significantly well off. They could afford a little bakery in a prime location. They could afford to hire another employee on a whim and offer such a steep wage.

            Nezumi swallowed his retort. Nodded. “Fine, it’s fine,” he said, and Shion held out a hand, so Nezumi shook it, finding the gesture somewhat ridiculous despite this being akin to a business deal.

            “Great, I have to get going to work now, so I’ll leave you. After work I come back to help out and then to close most nights, so I should be back around five thirty, and at seven I’ll show you the ropes with closing, though it’s pretty simple and you’re clearly a fast learner,” Shion said, taking off his apron and disappearing into the kitchen, where Nezumi could hear him saying goodbye to his mother.

            He reappeared a moment later with the apron gone but a coat on, beckoning to Nezumi to follow him, so Nezumi walked out from behind the counter and went with Shion to the front door.

            “It’s seven now, so we’re open. I usually turn the sign as I leave for work, but just in case, remember to do it yourself,” Shion explained turning the sign to COME IN, WE’RE OPEN, then glancing up at Nezumi. “Any questions?”

            Nezumi shook his head.

            “Great,” Shion said, smiling. “I’m really happy you came to work with us, Eve. I’ll see you this afternoon.”          

            Nezumi nodded, and Shion opened the door, inviting the cold into the bakery so that Nezumi should have wanted the door to close again as quickly as possible, but instead he reached out, stopped the door from closing with one hand and wrapped the other hand around Shion’s wrist the way Shion had his own so many times that day.

            “Nezumi,” Nezumi said, and Shion looked back at him, blinked in obvious confusion.

            Nezumi cleared his throat.

            “What?” Shion asked.

            “My name is Nezumi,” Nezumi offered, his voice quieter than he’d intended, and Shion looked at him another moment.

            “Nezumi,” he repeated, slowly as if unsure of it, but then he smiled. “Okay. I’ll see you later, Nezumi.”

            Nezumi let go of Shion’s wrist, then, and Shion turned, left, the door swinging closed behind him.

            This time, Nezumi didn’t stop it.

*

A week passed with Nezumi helping out in his mother’s bakery.

            Shion was eager to wake up each morning, to bake with Nezumi in the kitchen, who was quickly learning to be less clumsy with the dough.

            Shion didn’t mind Nezumi’s clumsiness. It was proof that the man was human, a side of him easy to forget when Shion had first seen Nezumi on stage – when he’d only known Nezumi as Eve.

            To have the man’s name was incredible. Shion said it often and was aware of this, but Nezumi did not object to it, though sometimes he gave Shion lingering looks, that scrutinizing gaze.

            Shion was just as eager to return to the bakery after work. To find Nezumi there, sometimes leaning against the counter reading a book, sometimes talking to a customer, other times missing completely when Shion walked through the front door so that Shion knew he’d be in the back kitchen getting baking tips from Shion’s mother.

            Once, Shion had caught his mother and Nezumi baking together, and he’d been surprised that the pair of them, after only a few days, seemed so natural with each other. Nezumi appeared much less guarded around Shion’s mother than he did around Shion, and Shion couldn’t place why that was, what was it about himself that made Nezumi so wary.

            He didn’t mind it. As long as the man stayed, Shion didn’t care at all.

            After a week had passed, it was six in the afternoon, and Shion stood with Nezumi at the counter, helping him with the line that winded out the door.

            Karan had just introduced her Christmas cupcakes, and Shion was darting from the front to the back to help out in the kitchen.

            Nezumi was a natural with the customers, offering them charming smiles that had Shion fascinated.

            It was an act, Shion realized. Even when he was not on the stage, Nezumi was constantly acting, putting on different personas to get the best out of his interactions. Shion might have wondered what Nezumi might be like without any of these acts at all, but Shion didn’t have to wonder because he thought he’d already seen this Nezumi.

            This was the Nezumi Shion had in the early mornings, when the man stumbled into the bakery with sleep still around his eyes and lips, turning them soft and heavy, and in the clumsiness of his fingers curling his hair from his face, and in the thick lowness of his quiet voice when he asked Shion if he was icing the cupcakes correctly.

            In the afternoons, Nezumi was awake, sharp, quick flashes of his charming smile and deft movements at the register and around baked goods he wrapped, bagged, or plated.

            “And you as well,” Nezumi said, in his customer-service voice that Shion knew well by now, and then the customer was leaving and a short man stood in front of them that Shion didn’t recognize, but Nezumi clearly did. “What the hell are you doing here?”

            The customer-service voice had dropped completely, and there was a sharper one, instantly annoyed.

            “I should be asking the questions! Of course I heard the rumors, but didn’t dare believe them until I saw it myself. My glorious Eve, my masterpiece, here? In a bakery?

            “We’ve got a line, show yourself out, will you?” Nezumi sighed, pushing his bangs from his forehead as Shion watched this interaction, forgetting that he could easily have assisted another customer while Nezumi dealt with this man.

            “Get your ass back in the theater! We’ve got rehearsal, I’ve had enough of you playing a commoner. The show starts in a week, do you even know any of your lines? Dammit, Eve, I put up with a lot when it comes to you, but you’re really testing me here, you know that?”

            “Did you say playing a commoner?” Nezumi asked, laughing, and Shion knew this laugh in the spectrum of Nezumi’s laughs he’d been collecting.

            When Nezumi laughed like this, he was not amused. He was angry, annoyed, pissed off.

            “Not everything is so dramatic, old man. Buy something or get out, you’re holding up my line.”

            “Your line is in the theater!”

            “Give me a break,” Nezumi muttered. “Next customer, please!”

            “Did you just say please?” the man asked, looking rather astonished, and Shion figured by then that this was Nezumi’s manager, whom Nezumi had sporadically complained about, not enough for Shion to know much about him other than that Nezumi had a strong sense of dislike for him.

            The woman in line behind Nezumi’s manager walked up, and Shion smiled at her.

            “Hi, what can we get you today?”

            “Eve! Don’t do this to me, I’ll throw myself at your feet, you must come back, you are my star, my light, my sunshine, my evening rain – ”

            “I’ll escort you out if you don’t leave.”

            “Um, could I possibly get a box of the Christmas cupcakes?” the woman asked, tentative, glancing at Nezumi and his manager just as Shion was, and Shion looked away from them, offered her a reassuring smile.

            “Of course,” he said, stepping away from the counter, but Nezumi was faster.

            “I’ll get them, ring her up,” Nezumi said, already heading to the kitchen as they’d run out of cupcakes at the front.

            “What the hell are you doing, stealing my best actor?” Nezumi’s manager asked when Nezumi disappeared into the back, and Shion blinked, realizing the question had been directed at him.

            “I’m sorry, sir, this is a busy time for us. If you came back later, I’d be happy to have this discussion with you, but right now I’m with a customer,” Shion said, offering a smile, and Nezumi’s manager glared at Shion in a frightening way, then walked off with flourish.

            Shion watched him for a moment, then proceeded to ring up his customer’s cupcakes, which were brought out by Nezumi a minute later.

            “She’s running low, I’ll deal with the line, you get back there,” Nezumi said, his shoulder brushing Shion’s as he set the box of cupcakes on the counter. “Anything else, miss?”

            “Oh, no, that’s all, thank you,” the woman said, gaping at Nezumi, which Shion was used to.

            Many of the customers stared at Nezumi. Shion couldn’t blame them. He was beautiful, and when he offered his charming smile to them, Shion knew well enough what must have been done to each customer’s heart.

            “I got rid of that man – Was that your manager? He might be back later though. Call me if you need help up here,” Shion said, stepping away from the register and allowing Nezumi to take his place as he went back to the kitchen to help his mother.

            She was nearly covered in flour from head to toe, but looked up when Shion walked in, smiling broadly.

            “This is wonderful, isn’t it? I love the Christmas rush. Oh, do get those cupcakes out of the oven, honey, will you? Then wash those two empty pans over there while you let the cupcakes cool before icing.”

            “Sure,” Shion said, grabbing oven mitts and going to the oven.

            “I’m so happy you asked me to hire Nezumi. He’s just what we need right now, and such a good boy,” Karan said, as Shion set the cupcakes on the counter and headed to the sink.

            It was odd, hearing Nezumi referred to as a boy rather than a man.

            “I think his manager just came in. He wants Nezumi to go back to the theater.”

            Karan hummed. “Well, you know, Shion, he will have to go back. That is his passion, isn’t it?”

            Shion scrubbed the sponge in each well of the cupcake pan. “I know that. This is just temporary.”

            “As long as you remember that, honey,” Karan said, and Shion didn’t know why she was pointing this out, as he obviously knew it.

            Nezumi was not a permanent part of this bakery. Of course Shion knew that.

            That didn’t mean Shion would never see Nezumi again. Just because Nezumi was temporary in the bakery, didn’t make him temporary in Shion’s life.

            Shion wasn’t quite sure what would happen when Nezumi left the bakery to act again. But he knew he was no longer just a fan.

            He was something more. Not just a coworker either. Something better, something bigger. Something real.

*

Two weeks passed with Nezumi working at Karan’s bakery.

            When the rushes hit in the afternoons when Shion was back from work, it was Nezumi now, who ducked into the kitchen to help Karan with the baking.

            He’d picked it up in the past week, came earlier in the mornings and stayed after closing with Karan in the kitchen to learn more tips so that now he was not only on icing and prep duty, but could mix as well.

            He understood now, why Shion had trouble with this part of baking. Karan didn’t use set measurements. She changed the ratios every day, depending on how old the flour was, how large the yolks of the eggs were after they were cracked, the temperature of the water, the number of times the batter was mixed.

            Karan’s type of baking was based on intuition rather than a recipe. Shion, the scientist, would have trouble with it.

            “Don’t feel bad,” Nezumi said, elbowing Shion, who frowned at him.

            “You’ve gotten awfully cocky,” he muttered, and Nezumi laughed.

            It was the end of the day, and they were cleaning up the front room, Shion sweeping and Nezumi wiping down tables.

            Nezumi glanced at Shion. Working in the bakery all day, he found himself exhausted at nights. It was hard work, and Nezumi was impressed that Shion did this mornings and nights even though between his shifts he went to a full work day at his lab.

            Right now, Shion had his tie loosened around his neck, a few buttons of his shirt undone as he always did by the time they closed. His sleeves were folded up to his elbows, and Nezumi stopped wiping for a moment to watch the man sweep until Shion was glancing at him.

            “What?” he asked, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead.

            “How’s saving the world going?” Nezumi asked.

            “I’m not saving the world,” Shion replied, smiling.

            “Well, maybe you should stop slacking off and get to it.”

            “We’re working on medications for lupus right now. Well, a cure, really,” Shion said, crouching and reaching out to get under a table.

            Nezumi watched him a second more, then resumed wiping, careful to collect the crumbs in his palm so that they wouldn’t fall on the floor Shion had just swept.

            “Sounds tricky.”

            “I like it,” Shion said, which wasn’t surprising.

            He was a workaholic. Occasionally, he had meetings or conferences instead of his usual work in the lab, and in between them he’d pop into the bakery to quickly take a few customers before dashing off again.

            The man was going to self-destruct, but Nezumi didn’t bother saying anything.

            It wasn’t up to him to take care of Shion. If the guy wanted to work himself to death, that was his business.

            Nezumi didn’t say anything, and after a sum of silence, Shion was breaking it again.

            Nezumi was used to this by now. The man liked to talk, and Nezumi had stopped minding so much.

            “I never meant to get into medicine. I wanted to work at this bakery, actually, to take it over as my own,” Shion said, as Nezumi moved on from wiping the tables to the windows.

            Outside, it was already dark, and the Christmas lights blinked cheerily, casting bright colors across the glass.

            “But when I was sixteen, I got sick. Just a common cold, we thought, until I had to be hospitalized. Something had gone wrong, nobody could tell what it was. I haven’t always looked this way, you know. My hair and eyes used to be brown. But overnight in the hospital, my hair turned white, my eyes red. This scar appeared around my entire body. My mother thought I was going to die, I remember waking up to her crying.”

            There were not many smudges on the glass, but Nezumi was careful anyway. Didn’t miss a spot. Stretched to the top where Shion couldn’t reach, wiped there too, then bent all the way down, got along the bottom.

            “From then on, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My mother, thinking I would die. I decided to work with medicine, to try to find cures for ailments that had none. I knew about the medical research center down where you live, started visiting there, got internships before I graduated high school. One of the lab technicians taught me classes after school, and then I just started working there while getting my degree. I’ve been there ever since.”

            Nezumi finished the window stretching across the front of the shop, moved along to the side wall.

            “A regular hero,” he commented.

            “I don’t think of it like that. I love my work. I’m simply doing what I love. That’s what you do at the theater too, isn’t it?”

            Nezumi laughed. “I don’t save lives, Shion.”

            “Your work is incredible, Nezumi. I agree that it’s important to save lives. But it’s just as necessary to change them, don’t you think?”

            Nezumi had finished wiping the windows, but kept his cloth against the glass, did not turn around.

            He knew without looking that Shion was watching the back of him.

            Maybe now was when Nezumi was supposed to tell some touching story of why he got into acting, but he didn’t have one.

            There was no mother crying at his hospital bedside. There was no mother at all. There was just Nezumi, and too many cold nights, and the need for a job, and there was the theater, hiring, and there was Nezumi at the audition, and there was the rest of his life.

            He enjoyed acting. But that was not why he did it. He did it because it was necessary, and that was how he got through life.

            Doing what he had to do. Shion didn’t understand that, couldn’t understand that, and there was no use trying to explain it to him.

            He was only a coworker, after all, and Nezumi was not used to telling his life story to anyone.

            It was not a story, anyway. It was just a life, and there was nothing remarkable about that. Everyone lived lives, everyone had to make it to the next day. That was the point.

            Only people like Shion thought there was something special in that, in every day.

            “Well, all right, I think we’re done for the day, right? Are you staying back to get more lessons from my mom?”

            “Nah, she seemed tired today, I told her we’d take a break tonight,” Nezumi replied, taking his towel to the back, and Shion followed him, placing the broom in the cleaning closet.

            They grabbed their coats from the hooks in the kitchen, and Nezumi turned off the lights behind them as they headed to the front door, where he produced the keys from his pocket and handed them to Shion, who was still rummaging in his own pocket.

            “Oh, thanks,” Shion said, taking the keys from him, locking up.

            Nezumi turned. They lived in opposite directions – Nezumi on the street of Shion’s work building, Shion the other way closer to the center of town and the market district.

            “See you – ” Nezumi cut himself off when Shion’s hand was around his wrist, turning him, and then there were Shion’s lips, soft on his own, lingering for a moment and then gone again.

            Nezumi had not flinched away. He had hardly acknowledged the actual kiss until it was over, and Shion’s lips, as well as his hand on Nezumi’s wrist, gone.

            “Goodnight, Nezumi,” Shion said, his hand in Nezumi’s pocket, and Nezumi glanced down, realized at the slight jangle that Shion was returning Nezumi’s keys to the bakery.

            Nezumi did not say anything as Shion turned and began walking away from him. He did not know why Shion had kissed him, but that was not what he was wondering. He was wondering if it was hot or cold outside. He could not tell at all even though it was snowing, faintly, the sort of snow that was hard to notice.

            Nezumi turned so he would not have to watch Shion walk away, then began walking himself, lifting his hand after a moment to touch his lips.

            Though he could not feel the temperature around him, his lips were warm against his fingertips, and of this, Nezumi was completely certain.

*

Safu pointed her chopsticks and the piece of sushi caught between them at Shion.

            “You kissed Eve.”

            “His name is Nezumi. I know you know that.”

            “More than once,” Safu said, undeterred.

            Shion smiled without meaning to, but he’d been doing that a lot, had stopped trying to stifle himself.

            “Safu, you’re embarrassing me.”       

            “You’re not embarrassed, you’re practically glowing. You give Eve a kiss every night before you leave the bakery? And every morning before you go to work? Why are you acting like an old married couple?”

            “I’m not!” Shion said, defensive. “I’m going slowly, he’s very guarded.”

            “And you haven’t talked about it at all. You just kiss the man, then leave the bakery, then come back to the bakery and not talk about it or refer to it. And nothing else has changed.”

            “Safu, you really don’t have to repeat everything I’ve told you,” Shion complained, laughing a little and squeezing his Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands.

            They were in the cafeteria at Shion’s lab, where Safu had met him for lunch. It had been three weeks since Nezumi started at the bakery, one week since Shion first kissed him.

            Shion hadn’t really known why he’d done it. Only that he’d wanted to, and only more so after every time he kissed the man again.

            “That is very strange behavior, Shion. Don’t you think it’s odd he has not even acknowledged that you kiss him twice daily? Or that you don’t act differently towards each other despite these kisses?”

            “I really haven’t analyzed it, Safu,” Shion murmured, sipping his coffee.

            Safu chewed her sushi thoughtfully. “Have you considered he doesn’t want to kiss you or be kissed by you, and simply allows it because you are his employer? It may even be considered workplace harassment.”

            “What? I’m not his employer! My mom is. And it’s not harassment,” Shion argued, defensive.

            Nezumi hadn’t said anything, but that didn’t mean it was a bad thing.

            Shion blinked, fingers loosening around his coffee cup. “Do you think he doesn’t like it? I don’t know that Nezumi is the kind of person who would let himself be taken advantage of,” Shion mused, but doubt was cold along his arms, and he took another sip of coffee, attempted to warm himself up.

            “Maybe not. I don’t really know him,” Safu agreed, but Shion wasn’t altogether comforted.

            He continued to sip his coffee, uncertainty settling under his skin.

*

Shion’s hesitance was clear since the moment he walked into the bakery after work.

            At the register, he stood inches away from Nezumi, who was used to having to push Shion away, as the man often crowded his space.

            After close as they cleaned, Shion was not as full of chatter as usual, and they spent most of the time in silence, which Nezumi did not particularly mind, though he wondered why Shion was suddenly shy.

            He could guess it was about the kisses. But they’d been going on for a week now. Something had to have set this off.

            Nezumi found Shion’s hesitance interesting. Shion was not altogether cocky, but he wasn’t shy. This was a side of him Nezumi hadn’t anticipated, in the careful calculations he’d been making about this man, the loose solutions he’d been forming.     

            It was almost cute, the way Shion would hardly meet Nezumi’s eye the entire night.

            Somewhat annoying, too. Nezumi had gotten used to the forwardness. The way Shion acted like he had a right to carry on long-winded conversations, to ask Nezumi questions he would generally avoid, to chug on ahead anyway and dish out his own personal life.

            The way he just started kissing Nezumi when he left to go to work, then again at nights before they walked their separate ways back home.

            The first time Shion had kissed him had been the first time anyone had stolen a kiss from Nezumi, and he had expected to be angry, but he wasn’t.

            He was intrigued. By his own reactions, by Shion himself.

            What might more than a kiss feel like, from this man?

            Did Shion want that? What the hell did he want? And wasn’t the entire thing pointless anyway, wasn’t Shion one of those idiots who believed in soulmates?

            Nezumi wouldn’t have guessed that he was, due to what he’d learned about Shion during the past few weeks. Shion was not like other people. He was bizarre and outspoken, absurdly intelligent and seemingly shameless. He was passionate and eager, but also soft and now, hesitant.

            Wary, almost.

            But Nezumi recalled, still, one of the first conversations he’d had with Shion, when Shion had still been just a fan, a stalker, really.

            He’d asked Nezumi about his soulmate, the way everyone did, because soulmates were all people cared about. Shion, too, must have been swept up in the entire ordeal, which made the kisses strange, out-of-place.

            They were not soulmates. Shion had no reason to be kissing Nezumi. It wasn’t frowned upon to have relationships with people who were not soulmates, it was unheard of.

            It didn’t happen.

            Nezumi wondered, vaguely, if his castmates had discussed scandals in the newspapers of people having relationships outside their soulmates. Maybe it was an occurrence, albeit a rare one, but Nezumi couldn’t be sure. He’d never paid much attention to their gossip, their trivialities. The idiocy of soulmates as a concept annoyed him entirely.

            Shion was no longer just a fan, a stalker, the way he had been the first and only time he’d asked Nezumi about his soulmate.

            Nezumi wasn’t quite sure what Shion was. A man that kissed him once in the morning, once at night. A man with easy smiles in the early morning, a startlingly booming laugh that Nezumi had only heard at full capacity once, when Nezumi had dropped an open bag of flour on the counter so that the flour swooped up, covered his entire face.

            A man Nezumi had caught watching him at unexpected times, a man who had given Nezumi this job, a man who worked harder than anyone Nezumi had ever known even though Nezumi had a feeling Shion could get by fine without working at all.

            Nezumi didn’t understand Shion, and while that wasn’t particularly rare, what was strange was that he wanted to.

            He wanted to understand the meanings behind Shion’s actions. How Shion could be so cheerful when he was exhausted, how he could put so much trust in a stranger, how he could talk so much about his own life while gaining no information in return.

            How he could kiss Nezumi in his quiet, natural way, without making a fuss of it, without bringing it up later, without seeming to expect anything more.

            Nezumi stood by the table he was meant to be wiping down, watched Shion at the register where he counted bills, saw the way Shion’s lips moved with the numbers even though he counted silently.

            Nezumi was not indifferent to kisses from these same lips.

            He thought about them. He wanted them. He anticipated them every morning and night, yet was both surprised and relieved every time he was offered one.

            He would wait for his kiss tonight, and knew despite wishing he could deny it that he would be disappointed if he were not to receive it.

*

Shion watched Nezumi lock up as he had every day for the past three weeks.

            Safu’s words still rung thickly in his ears, but despite Shion’s doubt, he knew before Nezumi finished locking up that he would kiss Nezumi again, as he had the last seven nights.

            It was a reflex, now, if anything, and more than that Shion wanted it, wanted Nezumi’s lips on his.

            The weather had gotten so cold, and here was something warm, the mouth of this man, the heat of this man, even if it was only for a second, or two seconds as Shion sometimes allowed himself.

            When Nezumi turned from the door, he looked at Shion, who was already leaning towards him, already tilting his head up.

            Shion kissed Nezumi as he had the past week, with his heartbeat right in his lips, pressed against this man’s skin for him to feel as well – how it raced, how it shook him.

            Shion leaned away as he had the past week as well, after only a second of pressure, with warmth still on his lips, not yet swept away by a wind that was gentle tonight, though the night was still cool.

            “Goodnight, Nezumi,” Shion said, also as he had the past week, while he turned away from Nezumi, but this time he was not allowed to turn fully.

            There was a hand on the front of his coat, pulling him back, and it was Nezumi’s hand of course, and then there were lips on Shion’s again, and they were Nezumi’s lips of course – Shion knew these lips, had kissed these lips for the past week, though not quite like this.

            The lips were open now – Nezumi’s lips, Nezumi’s lips were open now, and hot breath was on Shion’s lips which happened to be open too, and he gasped this breath into his mouth, took in the warmth of Nezumi and felt it settle in his chest where it hadn’t been before, since it had only ever been against the surface of his lips.

            But now the warmth was inside of him, and Nezumi’s hand on his jacket pulled him still, as if Shion still was not quite where Nezumi wanted him to be, as if Shion was supposed to be closer, was forgetting his cue, so Shion allowed himself to be pulled, to be kissed in a deep, sinking way that fell below his skin and the layers of his being, sunk down into his bones and mixed with the marrow, weakened Shion’s very skeleton so that just to stand was much more difficult than it should have been, than it ever had been.

            This kiss was longer than a second. Than even two seconds, on the nights when Shion had dared to steal that much. It was long enough to liquefy Shion, to melt him when the air outside was cold and he had no right to be melting in it.

            Shion’s knees did not buckle because he had no knees to buckle at all. The only part of him that felt solid were his lips where Nezumi’s still were, soft in a melting way, warm in an impossible way, parted in a lovely way.

            And then Nezumi’s lips were gone, and solidity fell again upon Shion all at once so that he had to blink at the disorientation of it. 

            “If you’re going to kiss me,” Nezumi was saying, and Shion fought to find his gaze, to meet the grey eyes that were steady on his, “do it properly.”

            Shion inhaled to fill his lungs more than they could bear.

            He nodded because this was a command, and he agreed with it.

            He would kiss Nezumi properly, from now on. He would not waste either of their time with one-second kisses, with shallow kisses, with shy kisses.

            He could not imagine why he had bothered with those in the first place, when there were kisses like these to be shared.

            “Okay, Nezumi,” he said, and Nezumi looked at him a second more with that steady gaze, then walked away from him.

            Shion turned, remembering he had to be walking home too because this is what they did – they kissed, and then they walked home, their separate ways.

            He realized only after the fact that he had lifted his hand, was touching his lips with the very tips of his fingers.

            He felt Nezumi’s warmth sinking into his fingerprints, rearranging them as if giving him an entirely different identity.

            Marking him, permanently, because he would never be the same.

*

Chapter Text

Though Shion had not done it before, it was not altogether a surprise that when Karan left the kitchen the next morning to grab the broom from the cleaning cupboard, Shion pulled Nezumi to him and kissed him deeply, his lips open now, his breath hot.

            Nezumi kissed him back, even though this was not the allotted time for their kisses. Shion’s hands were on Nezumi’s apron, wet and sudsy from the dishes he was washing, and Nezumi lifted his hand to touch Shion’s cheek for the first time, felt his skin and the trickle of his white white hair in his fingertips for only a moment before they heard the cleaning cupboard door closing, and Shion broke their kiss, moving away from him to resume washing the dishes as though nothing had happened at all.

            Karan did not seem to suspect a thing, cheerily complaining about how clumsy she was that morning, spilling an entire bowl of apple pie mix, if Nezumi would stop drying the dishes for a second to mix another batch while she cleaned up the fallen one.

            Nezumi did as he was told, looking up from peeling apples every once in a while to watch the movement of Shion’s shoulder blades beneath the fabric of his work shirt as he continued to wash and dry the dishes on his own.

            Before Shion left for work, as he stood with Nezumi behind the counter sticking the correct name cards in their wire holders to identity the baked goods in today’s display, Nezumi caught him by the waist and turned him around, pushed him back against the edge of the counter as he kissed him, felt Shion’s hands in his hair now, weaving and warm.

            Nezumi squeezed Shion’s waist, liked feeling Shion’s body underneath his hands despite the layers of clothing between them, but then he had to push Shion away, reminded Shion he had to get to work and they had to open up the bakery, it was seven already.

            The afternoon after Shion returned from work continued much in the same way, where their kisses turned to hands slipped up shirts and three-more-than-usual of Shion’s shirt buttons undone in the cleaning closet even though there was a line at the counter, and Karan was backed up in the kitchen, needed help.

            And after closing, when Karan was upstairs and the bakery was completely empty, they kissed with Shion sitting on the island counter in the kitchen that Nezumi had not yet wiped down, with Nezumi standing in front of him between the man’s legs, with their skin heating up not only from the leftover warmth radiating from the oven, but from their hands on each other, from Nezumi’s lips slipping down to Shion’s neck, from Shion’s knees squeezing Nezumi tightly between them.

            Nezumi wasn’t sure why they stopped, only that they did – there were Shion’s hands pushing gently on Nezumi’s chest so that he stepped back immediately, looked up at Shion who looked down and away from him in a way that stopped Nezumi from saying anything.

            Instead, Nezumi took a few more steps back, then proceeded to continue cleaning the kitchen as they had been before, as they always did every other night, although tonight, Shion did so with a stain of flour on the seat of his pants.

            At the door, as always, Nezumi locked up, turned to Shion and was unsure what would happen, but then Shion was leaning forward, kissing Nezumi who kissed back, wondering why they saved these kisses for outside where it was cold instead of inside where it was warm and there were locked doors and they could do anything.

            Shion leaned away, not as quickly as he usually did, but too quickly all the same.

            “Goodnight, Nezumi,” he said, like he always did, so Nezumi did not argue, did not pull him back.

            He licked his lips. Nodded.

            “Goodnight, Shion,” he offered, as he hadn’t ever before, and he waited this time for Shion to turn and start walking away first before doing so himself.

            Nezumi looked up at the Christmas lights strung on the trees as he walked home. Shion loved Christmas lights, and now, as Nezumi looked at them, he thought he could understand why they were, despite their uselessness, sort of beautiful.

*

Shion wanted to know where Nezumi came from.

            If he had been born in this town, if so, where he had gone to school, why Shion had not seen him in their halls even though Shion was placed in the gifted classes.

            He wanted to know about Nezumi’s family. What his parents were like, if he had siblings, if he had a large family of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, or a small one, if they were quiet like him, sharp like him, soft like him, intense like him, if they were nothing like him at all.

            Shion wanted to know if Nezumi planned on working in the theater forever. Why he had gone into acting. What he loved about it. What he hated. If he’d wanted to be something else as a kid, if he still wanted to be that something else now.

            Shion wanted to know Nezumi’s background, and had wanted to know this for some time, but now he wanted to know it only more fervently.

            More than that, though, Shion wanted to know about Nezumi’s soulmate.

            Shion had been trying to ignore the existence of soulmates at all, of his soulmate, of Nezumi’s soulmate, but now Nezumi was no longer just a fascination, just a daydream.

            Now Nezumi, or rather, Shion’s relationship with Nezumi, was real. It was kisses and more than kisses. It was grasping hands and hard breaths. It was Nezumi laughing when he accidentally dropped Shion in the cleaning closet while they’d made out with Shion’s legs wrapped around Nezumi’s waist, it was knowing Nezumi watched him from across the room as they cleaned up at night. It was the anticipation of the next time he would touch Nezumi even if he was touching Nezumi at that very moment.

            They had only been stealing kisses and more than kisses in the bakery for three days. Usually, Karan or the time or a customer or the timer for the oven going off stopped them from getting too far, but at nights it was Shion who stopped them, inevitably, when there was nothing else to.

            Nezumi did not say anything to being stopped. Did not question Shion, did not pressure him. Only looked at him in his calculating way, but not for too long, not enough to make Shion feel bad.

            Shion didn’t want to stop them, the course of their actions. He didn’t want to keep going separate ways after they closed up at night.

            But he couldn’t stop thinking about their soulmates.

            That day, it was an hour and a half to close, and there was no line, and Nezumi read at the counter while Shion straightened up the items in the display case, adding new ones where some had been sold.

            “Nezumi,” Shion said, and Nezumi didn’t respond.

            Shion knew he was finishing his sentence, or a particular passage, and allowed the man to take his time.

            After half a minute, Nezumi left his finger in the crease of his book and glanced at Shion.

            “Cleaning closet?” he asked.

            “No. I wanted to ask you something.”

            “Hmm, I’m busy,” Nezumi said, looking back at his book, and Shion elbowed him.

            “Nezumi,” he said again, waited again, and this time Nezumi looked up with a sigh, folding the corner of his page and closing his book.

            He turned to face Shion fully, and again, Shion was taken aback by the beauty of him.

            He let himself just look at the man for a moment before speaking.

            “What about your soulmate?” Shion asked, and Nezumi’s expression did not change but for the slight narrow of his eyes, nearly unnoticeable but for the fact that Shion noticed everything about Nezumi.

            “What about my soulmate?” Nezumi asked slowly.

            “Don’t you feel, I don’t know, guilty?”

            “For what?”

            “Nezumi.”

            “Shion,” Nezumi said, copying Shion’s tone, then shaking his head. “Don’t worry so much about silly things.”

            “Soulmates aren’t silly things. They’re actual people. They’re your other half.”

            Now, Nezumi’s narrowed eyes were much more pronounced. “I don’t understand how you actually believe that shit.”

            Shion stared at him. “You don’t believe in soulmates?”

            “Of course not, Shion,” Nezumi said tiredly.

            “What about your soulmate?” Shion asked, aware that his voice was rising in his incredulousness and working to lower it.

            “You already asked me that.”

            “I mean – Don’t you have one? Didn’t you say – I thought – I thought you had one,” Shion stammered, completely confused. He’d asked Nezumi before, and Nezumi hadn’t said he didn’t believe in soulmates.

            He had acted like he had one. Like he was in contact with his.

            Hadn’t he?

            Shion tried to think back. Couldn’t quite remember. It felt like ages ago, but really, it was only a few weeks, a month at most, but not even that.

            “Do I have someone who writes on their skin, and it shows up on mine? Yes, I have that. That doesn’t make them my soulmate. It makes them… an inconvenience,” Nezumi said, saying the last word like it was a solid thing on his tongue.

            Shion shook his head. “Nezumi – You’ve talked to this person? Through SSTC?”

            “Sure.”

            “Do they think you’re their soulmate?”

            “If they’re stupid, probably,” Nezumi replied, not seeming to care.

            “Well – Don’t they want to meet you? And, you know, do soulmate things with you?”

            Nezumi laughed. “What are soulmate things?”

            “A relationship. Marriage. What we’ve been doing.”

            “We’ve been getting married? You should have told me, I would have rented a suit,” Nezumi replied.

            Shion fought to keep his frustration from his voice. “Nezumi, come on. We’ve been kissing, and, you know, other stuff. That’s not – We’re not supposed to – We’re not supposed to be in a relationship, we’re not soulmates, your soulmate is expecting this from you, and mine from me, and it’s not fair to them to just carry on a relationship and let them think…” Shion trailed off, unsure how to say it, and Nezumi was looking at him in a strange way that made him nervous.

            “Oh, are we in a relationship?” he asked.

            “Don’t be like that.”

            “Like what?”

            “Nezumi. Take me seriously. Don’t patronize me. I know you understand what I’m saying,” Shion said, refusing to let Nezumi make him doubt himself, doubt what they’d been doing the past few days, the past few weeks, really, since Nezumi had first stepped foot in this bakery.

            Shion was not just his fan. Not just his coworker. They were something more, whether Nezumi felt comfortable admitting it or not.

            Shion didn’t care if Nezumi didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to label them. That didn’t matter to him. But this conversation did.

            “I don’t give a shit about what my soulmate expects from me. I don’t owe anybody anything, whether or not they can write on my skin,” Nezumi replied, voice hard, and Shion saw that he was serious.

            Shion understood this. What Nezumi was saying. That soulmates took away free will – yes, he knew that. That to have a soulmate was to owe a part of oneself to someone else, even before meeting them.

            But it was more than that. Soulmates were, well, soulmates.

            The person one was meant to be with. To fall in love with. Fate. Destiny. Biology.

            “Shion.”

            “What?” Shion asked, focusing, realizing he hadn’t been paying attention.

            Nezumi was watching him in his scrutinizing way. “What about yours?”

            “What about my what?” Shion asked.

            He again felt nervous, again could not name why.

            “What about your soulmate?” Nezumi asked slowly, and Shion thought about knitting needles, about Idiot written over his face, about the warmth in his abdomen, spreading from just those marks on his skin, proof he belonged to someone else, someone else belonged to him.

            He didn’t have a chance to answer, as the bell above the door went off, signaling a customer’s entrance.

            Shion turned to help her, aware of Nezumi’s eyes on him, but after the customer received her slice of cake, Shion pretended he’d forgotten the conversation, and Nezumi did not bring it up.

            That afternoon, again, they found themselves in the kitchen, Nezumi against the sink now, Shion in front of him with hands up Nezumi’s shirt.

            Shion allowed Nezumi to unbutton all of his shirt buttons, but stepped away when Nezumi’s fingers fell to the waist of Shion’s pants.

            “Nezumi,” he mumbled, because Nezumi was still kissing him, and then Nezumi stopped, pulled his hands away, pushed his bangs from his forehead.

            “Yeah, okay,” he said softly, the first time he’d ever said anything when Shion stopped them, and he walked away from Shion to the front room.

            Shion stood very still, could hear Nezumi lifting the chairs onto the tables so that they could sweep.

            The rest of the night, they did not speak, and outside after Shion watched Nezumi lock up, he kissed Nezumi but was not kissed back.

            He leaned away after only two seconds.

            “Nezumi – ”

            “Goodnight, Shion,” Nezumi said, and his voice was not angry or indifferent, only gentle, unlike the wind that attempted to push Shion after the man, as Nezumi turned and walked away.

*

When Shion was at work, Nezumi preferred when the front was slow.

            He could slip into the kitchen, then, after putting out the bell on the counter and the sign that said, Ring for Assistance!

            He could immerse himself in the smells of Karan’s baked goods, he could bake himself. His favorite thing to bake was apple pie, and he thought this may have been because it took the longest.

            He had to peel the apples, cut them in the perfect pieces. Melt the sugar and butter together. Soak the apples, add just the right amount of cinnamon. Let them sit while he made the batter for the crust, while he rolled that out, no cracks, as close to a circle as he could get it.

            Lay that out in the pan that he’d rubbed with melted butter first. Careful with the corners as he pushed the dough in, then shaped the edges of it with his fingertips.

            Cook that until it was just the right brown, add the soaked apples, cook that again.

            Then was the lattice.

            Apple pie, Karan said, usually did not have a lattice top. But she liked the weaving motion, and did it anyway, so that was what Nezumi did as well, using dough from the crust, rolling it out again, not too thin, not too thick. Cutting it in careful, fragile strips. Weaving it just the way Shion had showed him, with gentle movements.

            Nezumi had learned to do all of this quickly, in the rushes, so that he could make other baked goods as well, and hop back to the front when the line formed.

            But on slow days, he took his time. Let his one apple pie take up the entire day, and then it was five, and Nezumi would head out to the front, place his pie in the display case, stick a name card that said apple pie in its wire holder beside it, and open a book so that he could be reading when Shion walked in, so that he didn’t have to be staring at the door, looking as though he had been waiting for the man the entire day since he’d left in the morning.

            Nezumi hadn’t been waiting, anyway. He’d been making a perfect apple pie, and the smell of it, he knew, still lingered on his skin, and sometimes Shion would comment on it, later in the cleaning closet, or the kitchen if they’d already locked up and Karan had already gone upstairs to bed.

            Shion would kiss Nezumi’s neck, tell him he tasted sweet as cinnamon like it was a secret, and Nezumi would pretend not to hear this rush of a whisper, hot on his skin, but he would hear it.

            He would hear it.

            The thing with cinnamon, though, was that it was not sweet. Nezumi had tasted it once, wanted to spit it out in the sink, had to wash out his mouth while Karan laughed and reminded him that she’d warned him.

            Nezumi wasn’t sure how it smelled so sweet, when it tasted so bitter. He’d thought the senses were connected. That smell influenced taste.

            He thought Shion would know. Shion knew a lot about things Nezumi didn’t think anyone knew.

            But he didn’t ask Shion.

            Unlike Shion, Nezumi didn’t go around asking anyone anything he pleased.

            Shion had asked about Nezumi’s soulmate the day before. Now it was the early morning, and Nezumi mixed batter for the Christmas cupcakes, while Shion stood beside him, an inch farther away than usual, icing the cupcakes that Karan had already finished.

            Nezumi didn’t care about soulmates. But Shion did. And while Nezumi had already known this, he hadn’t really thought about what it meant.

            That Shion thought whoever could send him SSTCs and receive them in turn was the person he was supposed to spend his life with. Was the only person he could fall in love with. Was the only person he should have a relationship with.

            Not that it really mattered. Shion could do whatever the hell he wanted. Chase after his soulmate, find that sworn by happily ever after in some forced relationship based on completely arbitrary means.

            Nezumi did not care. It explained why Shion pushed him away, at the end of the night when they finally had time and no one and nothing to interrupt them. It explained why he told Nezumi goodnight instead of asking to come home with him, or taking Nezumi by the wrist, leading him to his own home.

            Nezumi did not care to have a relationship with Shion. What they were doing was just to pass time. It was satisfying, it felt good. It didn’t have to mean anything, and it didn’t mean anything, and it couldn’t mean anything because Shion thought the only kisses that could ever mean anything were those between soulmates.

            Which was fine.

            There were just a couple weeks until Christmas, a couple weeks until Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was replaced by an actually respectable play, a couple weeks until Nezumi left the bakery and returned to the theater, a couple weeks until Shion was out of his life altogether again.

            Nezumi didn’t know if Shion talked to his soulmate. He hadn’t seen any SSTCs on Shion, but the man worked in a professional field, probably used concealer. Shion might have talked to his soulmate that morning. He might talk to his soulmate after he kissed Nezumi goodbye and left for work. He might have stopped talking through his soulmate through SSTC because they talked in person. He might have lived with his soulmate, for all Nezumi knew.

            Good for him. If he believed in that shit, if that made him happy, Nezumi couldn’t care less if Shion wasted his time on someone who could write on his skin.

            Nezumi was not one to get in someone else’s business, to care what other people did, even if it was stupid, even if it made no sense.

            And just because Nezumi shoved the guy against the wall with hands up his shirt a couple times in a cleaning closet, just because Nezumi pressed his lips to the guy’s neck a few times in the kitchen, just because Nezumi had tasted the skin stretched over the guy’s collarbone, didn’t make Shion anyone special.

            Didn’t make Shion an exception.

*

Shion wasn’t sure if he was the one being distant, or if it was Nezumi, but he didn’t like it either way, didn’t want the distance either way, the space between them.

            That night, he watched Nezumi lock up the bakery as he always did. It was the night after he’d asked Nezumi about his soulmate, and in turn, Nezumi had asked about his, and Shion had not answered.

            Shion regretted asking. He could tell that it had upset Nezumi, though he wasn’t sure in what way.

            Had it made Nezumi angry? Sad? Confused? Bitter? Resentful?       

            Shion couldn’t tell. But he knew it made Nezumi distant, or maybe that was wrong, maybe Nezumi was the one who tried to stand closer now, and Shion had to step away from him more often.

            Shion didn’t really care to analyze it. He only wanted it to stop.

            He forgot to lean in and kiss Nezumi after Nezumi slipped his keys back into his pocket, so it was Nezumi, this time, who kissed him softly, only on the corner of his lips.

            “Goodnight, Shion,” he said gently, and Shion knew what happened next.

            What happened next was Nezumi turned and walked away. What happened next was Shion turned and walked the opposite way. What happened next was they returned to their own homes, went to their own beds.

            Shion didn’t want what happened next. So he changed it.

            “Come home with me,” Shion said, and Nezumi stepped back, but maybe he’d already been about to step back before Shion had spoken, only did so afterward because he was already in motion.

            He didn’t turn around. He didn’t walk away.

            He only watched Shion in his careful way, almost wary, the wind tossing his bangs over his eyes, then back off again.

            Shion shivered, huddled underneath his coat. Waited, but realized that Nezumi was not going to say anything. Was maybe waiting too.

            Shion did not want to make Nezumi wait, not in this cold. He tried again.

            “My place is this way. I’ll make us tea, or we can have a drink, I think I have a bottle of wine somewhere,” Shion said, and he wanted to reach out, take Nezumi’s wrist, pull him along, but he didn’t.

            He gave Nezumi the option to turn around. To walk away.

            Nezumi slipped his hands into his jacket pockets. He looked away from Shion, over Shion’s shoulder, in the direction where Shion walked every night away from Nezumi, in the direction of Shion’s apartment.

            After a moment, he nodded once, still not looking at Shion.

            “Okay,” he said, and the wind snatched the word nearly the moment it left Nezumi’s lips, but Shion still heard it.

            Shion smiled, turned, started walking, checked beside him to make sure Nezumi was there, and he was, steps matched to Shion’s.

            The walk felt shorter than usual. Shion told Nezumi about his research at the lab. How they were getting close to a cure. They’d moved onto human trials. Volunteers were pouring in.

            He glanced at Nezumi’s profile to see his reaction once, and Nezumi was looking right back at him, but his bangs had been swept over his eyes at that very second so that Shion could not tell at all what the man was thinking.

            Shion stared straight ahead for the rest of the walk, at the storefronts and the Christmas lights on the trees that Shion loved, and then they were at Shion’s apartment building, and he let them in, through the lobby, to the staircase because he preferred stairs over the elevator.

            Their footsteps were loud on the otherwise empty staircase. Echoed up all three floors, and then Shion led Nezumi out the staircase, down the hallway, to his little apartment.

            He could afford more, but didn’t need more. It was only him alone, and he rarely spent time in his apartment anyway.

            The door opened up nearly directly into the kitchen, where Shion went, grabbing a kettle and filling it reflexively because it was what he did every night.

            He glanced at Nezumi as he turned the stove on to see that Nezumi had drifted into the living room, all the way to the window, was surveying the night they’d just left.

            “Do you want something to drink? I’ll put on tea, but there are other things,” Shion offered, and Nezumi shrugged to the window.

            “Tea’s fine.”

            Shion stayed by the stove, watched Nezumi’s back, watched how after a minute, Nezumi was shrugging off his coat like he didn’t even notice his own actions, tossing it over the armrest of Shion’s sofa beside him.

            His hair had been up, but he reached up, and with his back to Shion, Shion could see clearly as he pulled loose his ponytail, as his hair fell around his shoulders, but he caught it back, pulled it over his shoulder and tied it into a low ponytail there.

            He was only wearing a t-shirt, and Shion did not know how the man could go outside with just a t-shirt underneath his coat and not get sick. It was white, and through it, Shion could see the movements of Nezumi’s shoulder blades, the wide stretch of his shoulders, the expanse of his back.

            Nezumi had scars on his back. Shion hadn’t seen them, but he’d felt them, slipping his hands up Nezumi’s shirt, around his back. He hadn’t asked Nezumi about them, hadn’t gotten any explanation for free.

            The water boiled with Nezumi still not looking away from the window, Shion still not speaking to him. He looked away from Nezumi to fill mugs, place teabags in each, knowing Nezumi, like himself, liked his tea strong.     

            He set them on the counter, then walked over to Nezumi, who finally turned from the window then to glance at him.

            “Do you want a tour?” Shion said, even though he’d meant to tell Nezumi the tea was ready.

            Nezumi’s eyes narrowed only slightly, but he nodded.

            Shion turned from him, led him out of the living room, down the small hallway.

            “This is the bathroom,” he said, pointing to a closed door on the left, “and this is my bedroom.” Shion opened this door, walked in, turned on the light and found his room in a disarray he really hadn’t noticed before.

            There was paperwork from work on his floor, clothes in a pile by the door of the closet, and his sheets had been kicked to the end of the bed, unmade.

            “It’s messy, sorry,” he apologized, looking at Nezumi, who glanced around quickly but was looking at Shion now.

            “I didn’t know you were such a slob,” Nezumi said, his familiar smirk playing along the edges of his lips, and Shion wanted to kiss it.

            He reached out, caught the hem of Nezumi’s t-shirt in his hand. Pulled it gently, and Nezumi along with it, over to his unmade bed.

            Shion didn’t know what to say, thought maybe he didn’t have to say anything. And then they were sitting on the edge of Shion’s bed, and Shion peeled off his coat he hadn’t realized he still had on, and then yanked his tie over his head, unbuttoned his shirt, tugged it off his arms, reached down to the hem of his undershirt and pulled that off as well.

            Nezumi watched him do all of this without moving, and he still did not move as Shion reached over, grabbed the hem of Nezumi’s t-shirt, pulled it up – only then did Nezumi move, raising his arms over his head, allowing Shion to undress him from the waist up.

            Shion looked at him for a second, then kicked off his shoes and scooched back on his bed, laid on his back but propped himself up on his elbows to watch Nezumi bend over where he still sat on the edge of Shion’s bed, his back curling to Shion.

            Shion guessed Nezumi was untying his own boots, taking them off as well. He could see the knobs of Nezumi’s spine, wanted to touch them. He could see what he knew immediately now were old burn scars splotching Nezumi’s back, and they fascinated Shion, he wanted to touch them too, but couldn’t, didn’t have the chance to because Nezumi was turning then, climbing on the bed on his knees, over Shion.

            He bent down, and Shion stopped leaning on his elbows, laid down fully so Nezumi had to bend down even further in order to kiss him. The end of Nezumi’s ponytail brushed Shion’s shoulder. Nezumi’s hand was in Shion’s hair, another on his waist.

            Shion opened his mouth to taste the warmth of Nezumi. He reached up, touched Nezumi’s chest.

            He wanted to touch everywhere.

            They did not speak at all, but for when Nezumi murmured Sorry because he bit Shion’s shoulder so hard he yelped out, more out of surprise than the hurt of it.

            It was some time until they were both naked. They took their time touching each other. Shion wanted to know everything about Nezumi. The man fascinated him still, even now, more than before, even. Every part of his body, even the parts Shion had seen before, touched before, kissed before, felt secret.

            When they had shed their pants and boxers, they touched each other still for a minute more, but then Nezumi was pulling away, saying his name – “Shion.”

            Shion still lay on his back, and Nezumi still hovered over him. Shion took his hand from Nezumi’s skin, looked up at the man, whose hair was loose around his face now, as Shion had pulled his low ponytail out completely so that he could run his fingers through the ink of his hair, hoping he might stain his fingers.

            “Can we have sex?” Nezumi asked.

            He did not ask the question if he was asking permission, as if he was imploring. He asked the question as if he really did not know, as if he was curious.

            Shion wondered, for a moment, why he did not ask Do you want to have sex? but then he thought maybe Nezumi knew. Nezumi knew Shion did want to have sex with him. That it was not wanting that got in the way.

            Shion in that instant realized Nezumi had asked because Nezumi knew what Shion was thinking.

            And what Shion was thinking about was his soulmate. And that he was saving himself for his soulmate, because everyone saved themselves for their soulmates – nobody kissed anyone but their soulmates, but Shion had already kissed Nezumi.

            Nobody touched anyone but their soulmates, but Shion had already touched Nezumi.

            Nobody undressed anyone but their soulmates, but Shion had already undressed Nezumi.

            Nobody had sex with anyone but their soulmates, and Shion had not yet had sex with Nezumi.

            Shion wanted to say yes. He wanted this, he wanted to have sex with Nezumi, he didn’t want to save himself for anyone else – How could there be anyone else?

            But Nezumi had not asked what Shion wanted.

            “I can’t,” Shion mumbled, shy suddenly, when before he’d only been curious, fascinated by the body over his.

            He realized, now, he was naked, which he had noticed before, but not in a way that made him feel at all vulnerable, at all exposed.

            Now he felt both of these things. On top of them, he felt nervous. Uncertain.

            Nezumi nodded. His hair fell around his face so that his skin was surrounded by a curtain of what could have been liquefied night. Shion knew his eyes were a silvery grey, but now they looked colorless, and Shion wondered if that was the same thing.

            They were soft, like clouds, drifting over Shion’s face.

            “Okay,” Nezumi said. “No sex.” He did not sound angry, or upset. He sounded as if this was the response he had expected. “But this, the rest, is all right?” he asked, his voice very soft, very gentle, like Shion was a fragile thing, and he felt like one, lying naked beneath Nezumi.

            “Yes,” Shion whispered, but that was a lie.

            This was not all right. Being touched and kissed and examined by Nezumi was not all right – it was incredible.

            He wanted more, he wanted more, and he wanted Nezumi to know this, but he did not know how to say it, could only hope Nezumi could tell.

            Nezumi’s hand was on Shion’s waist, then, and it trickled down to his thigh, around it, between Shion’s legs, and then Nezumi was leaning down, lips pressing to Shion’s jawline, rising up, at his ear.

            “Tell me if we need to stop,” he whispered, and Shion nodded, but really he felt like this was a silly thing to ask.

            He doubted he could tell Nezumi if he needed Nezumi to stop, when Nezumi was touching him like that. He could hardly breathe, so how was he supposed to speak?

            He could hardly hear his thoughts over his heartbeat, so how was he supposed to form a sentence?

            He didn’t explain these complications to Nezumi, as Nezumi had dropped his lips to Shion’s now, so Shion kissed him back.

            Nezumi’s mouth was warm and wet, and Shion wanted it all over him.

            Wanted to forget about soulmates, that they even existed, that he even had one at all. Wanted to find his other half instead in Nezumi, who, if he did not strictly belong to Shion, at least felt overwhelmingly right, in this moment.

*

Nezumi woke before morning.

            He could not remember having fallen asleep.

            He had not forgotten where he’d fallen asleep, though, and turned without surprise to see Shion beside him, lying on top of his arm.

            Nezumi tried to move his fingers, was not sure if he’d succeeded. His entire arm was numb.

            He didn’t try to pull it free from under Shion’s body. Instead, he looked sleepily at Shion, who was lying on his back, one of his own arms over his head, the other bent over the flat of his stomach.

            Although he laid on his back, his head was turned towards Nezumi, and his lips were parted, fell against the top of Nezumi’s arm that he was otherwise lying over.

            Nezumi reached out with his free arm, ran his fingers through Shion’s hair, froze at Shion’s sigh against the top of his arm, his deep exhale skating all the way up to Nezumi’s bare shoulder.

            Nezumi took his fingers away from Shion’s hair. Closed his eyes again. Felt sleep sinking back into his limbs already.

            He did not know what time it was, but either way, he’d have to wake early to get to the bakery.

            There wasn’t time to watch Shion sleep beside him, though Nezumi had a strange feeling, wispy as it was at whatever hour of the night it happened to be, that he could be content to do so forever. A strange thought, when Nezumi had never before even contemplated the concept of forever, preferring to think of now, the immediate future at most.

            Now, suddenly, did not seem like enough time. This moment was not enough to have this man fast asleep on top of his arm, and Nezumi did not want to think of what amount of time would be enough.

            Nezumi had a feeling, sleepy and slow as his thoughts were at that moment, that no amount of time could be enough to let his arm go numb underneath Shion’s sleeping form.

            Even forever seemed too brief.

*

Chapter Text

Shion’s alarm went off, but he had already woken a few minutes before it, was looking at Nezumi beside him when it rang out and Nezumi groaned before moving.

            “Shut the hell up,” he muttered, voice low and scratchy, and Shion smiled.

            He had to stretch to reach over Nezumi to his nightstand, hitting his alarm.

            “I’m going to shower, Nezumi. Will you come?”

            Nezumi rubbed his eyes with his knuckles before opening them. He blinked blearily at Shion, all fuzzy edges, haziness. His fingers fumbled in his scattered bangs.

            “Hi,” he said, and Shion felt his heartbeat at the base of his throat.

            “Morning,” Shion offered. “Shower?” he reminded.

            Nezumi propped himself up by his elbows, though one fell and he slumped down. “Ow.”

            “Sorry, I think I fell asleep on your arm.”

            “It’s doing the prickly thing,” Nezumi muttered, covering his face with his other hand.

            Shion sat up fully, climbed out of bed, noting his nakedness in an odd way, as he usually never slept naked. He didn’t know if he should cover up, felt strange walking through his room without clothing, but it would be stranger if he put on clothes only to take them off in order to shower.

            “I’ll get the water warm,” he told Nezumi, leaving the room while Nezumi’s hand was still over his face and he couldn’t see Shion walking through his room naked, even though Nezumi was naked too.

            In the bathroom, Shion turned on the shower spray to warm before rummaging around for a spare toothbrush. He could find none, and took his own toothbrush with a squirt of toothpaste into the shower with him after testing the spray with his hand.

            He closed the curtain, started brushing his teeth as the spray soaked into his hair, and then the curtain was opening abruptly, and there was Nezumi, stepping in.

            “Move,” Nezumi muttered, still sounding groggy, and Shion moved aside so that Nezumi could be under the spray as well.

            “Don’t hog all the water, we have to share it,” Shion argued.

            “Give me that,” Nezumi said, taking Shion’s toothbrush from him and sticking it in his own mouth.

            “That’s gross, Nezumi.”

            Nezumi didn’t reply, and Shion stood out of the spray that Nezumi hogged, getting cold despite the steam of the shower around him.

            He didn’t mind the cold so much. He watched the water from the spray darken Nezumi’s hair and plaster it to the sides of his face, his forehead, his shoulders.

            He looked down Nezumi’s body, where the water coated his skin in rivulets, and Shion wanted to trace the line of each drip with his fingers, map out Nezumi’s body this way, in trails that pooled by their feet before slipping down the drain.

            “You’re staring,” Nezumi said, words clumsy around Shion’s toothbrush.

            Shion turned away from him and grabbed his shampoo bottle, squirting some on his hand before holding it out to Nezumi. “Here, hurry up, we have to get to the bakery.”

            Nezumi held his hand under the bottle, and Shion squirted shampoo into it, placed it down before shampooing his own hair, watching Nezumi wash his.

            “Conditioner?” Nezumi asked, when his hair was full of suds that quickly ran down his shoulders under the shower spray. He removed the toothbrush from his lips and handed it to Shion, who took it grudgingly.

            “I don’t have.”

            “Seriously?”

            “Let me wash my hair out, move a little,” Shion said, pulling Nezumi gently aside, not wanting him to fall.

            “My hair will get in knots, Shion,” Nezumi complained.

            “Then brush it.”

            “I’m guessing you don’t have a hairbrush either,” Nezumi muttered, and Shion didn’t reply because Nezumi was right.

            Shion grabbed his loufa, soaped it quickly and rubbed it over his body before handing it to Nezumi, who grimaced but took it all the same.

            “I don’t want your germs,” Nezumi said.

            “You brushed your teeth with my toothbrush,” Shion reminded, moving aside so Nezumi could wash the soap off his body.

            He opened the curtain while Nezumi was still rinsing suds off of himself, stepped out of the shower and grabbed his towel from the hook beside it.

            He was not finished drying himself when he heard the shower spray turn off, and his towel was snatched from him.

            “Nezumi, come on!”

            “Air dry,” Nezumi replied, walking out of the bathroom even as he dried himself, and Shion had no choice but to follow, stopping at his hallway closet to grab a clean towel.

            Shion finished drying himself in the hall, wrapped the towel around his waist before going to his bedroom where Nezumi stood naked, Shion’s towel wrapped in his hair.

            “That’s a good look for you,” Shion commented.

            “Have you got any clothes that will fit me?” Nezumi asked, walking to Shion’s closet and peering into it.

            “I doubt it. Just wear your clothes from yesterday.”

            Nezumi stepped back from Shion’s closet, bent down to rummage through the clothes Shion had left on his floor, then stood up again, freeing the towel from his hair and tossing it on Shion’s floor beside his clothes.

            Shion wanted to yell at him, but he was still taking in the fact that Nezumi was casually standing naked in his bedroom, his wet locks in clumps that fell to his shoulders.

            “Still staring,” Nezumi commented, walking over to his own clothes beside the bed, pulling on his boxers that Shion had pulled off the night before, his jeans that Shion had unzipped.

            Shion stopped staring, knew he had to get dressed himself, and did so quickly, pulling on a clean set of boxers, his work pants, a blue button down.

            “Here, we’re going to be late,” Nezumi said, as Shion was buttoning the last button of his shirt, and he looked up to see Nezumi holding a tie up to him.

            “Thanks,” Shion said, taking it and looping it over his neck, watching Nezumi leave the room as he tied it.

            When he finished, Shion went to the kitchen to find Nezumi looking into his open fridge as he braided his wet hair.

            Shion glanced at the time on his microwave.

            “No time for breakfast, Nezumi, we’ll eat at the bakery,” he said, and Nezumi sighed, kicked the fridge door closed with his boot.

            Shion noted that on the counter were two full mugs of tea that they hadn’t drank the night before.

            He pulled on his own shoes and coat that he’d brought in from his bedroom, waited for Nezumi to get his from where it had been draped over the sofa in the living room, and led them out the front door, locking it before heading to the stairs with Nezumi behind him.

            “Let’s take the elevator,” Nezumi muttered, while they were already going down the stairs.

            “Button up, it’s cold out. Why are you only wearing a t-shirt?” Shion asked, turning to see Nezumi had left his coat open.

            “Leave me alone,” Nezumi complained groggily.

            Their shoes clattered on the steps as they descended them quickly, and the early morning air was a slap over their faces as they stepped outside.

            “Shit,” Nezumi breathed.

            It was still dark, but it always was when Shion headed to the bakery on winter mornings.

            “At least it’s not snowing,” Shion offered.

            They walked quickly, the arms of their coats sliding against each other with each step, and then they were at the bakery, the door of which Karan always unlocked when she got up in the mornings.

            Shion opened the door, and Nezumi led them in, walking straight to the kitchen at the back with Shion following.

            Karan was mixing batter, and looked up at them.

            “Morning, boys,” she said happily.

            “Hi, Mom,” Shion said, going over to his mother to kiss her cheek.

            Nezumi grumbled something incoherent as he peeled off his coat.

            “He’s tired,” Shion supplied, taking off his own jacket as well and handing it to Nezumi to hang up.

            Nezumi took it, handed him an apron in return.

            They quickly got into their routine, Nezumi starting on a batch of scones while Shion checked the pies that were in the oven and got to weaving their lattice tops.

            The morning passed quickly, and Shion left Nezumi to continue baking while he went to the front to set up.

            Nezumi joined him at five to seven, sliding his hands around Shion’s waist as Shion stood at the register, refilling the receipt tape dispenser.

            Shion smiled when Nezumi pressed his lips to the side of his neck.

            “Skip work,” Nezumi murmured into his skin. “Stay here.”

            He sounded sleepy still, his words heavy and slow.

            “I can’t do that. I have to check on the human trials.”

            “Someone else can do it.”

            “No, they can’t. You’ll be fine until I get back after five,” Shion said, turning to glance at Nezumi, who removed his hands from around Shion’s waist.

            He must have been very tired, Shion reasoned, to be acting like this. Shion didn’t mind this rare side of him. Wouldn’t have minded getting it more, decided he’d make Nezumi even more tired tonight, keep him up even later.

            Nezumi wrinkled his nose in distaste, took over replacing the receipt tape, which Shion had forgotten he’d been in the middle of doing.

            Shion glanced at his watch. “Shit. I gotta go, I’ll see you later.”

            Nezumi glanced up as he closed the receipt machine over the new roll of tape, reached out and grabbed Shion’s tie, pulled him closer by it while Shion laughed.

            “You’re choking me!” he complained, the last of his words muffled by Nezumi’s lips, and Shion kissed him back, liking clingy Nezumi, hoping he would still be around when Shion got back to the bakery after work.

            He had to push Nezumi off of him after a minute.

            “I’m late,” he laughed, while Nezumi let go of his tie.

            Nezumi didn’t say anything, just looked at him, and Shion contemplated him for a moment, then reached out, tucked the loose strands of Nezumi’s bangs behind his ear.

            “See you, Nezumi,” he said, then forced himself to turn around, walked out from behind the counter and to the front door, turning the sign to COME IN, WE’RE OPEN before he left.

            Sometime while they’d been prepping the bakery, it had started snowing, the flakes fat and slow, and Shion tilted his head up, opened his mouth like he hadn’t in years to catch some on his tongue.

            He thought maybe he felt happier than he ever had in his life, and the idea was so startling Shion stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk for a moment to contemplate it, to wonder if it was true.

            Yes, he decided. It was true.

            Snowflakes caught in Shion’s eyelashes and the corner of his lips as he continued walking, and he laughed without knowing why, not caring if the other people on the street thought him crazy for it.

*

Nezumi had only closed his eyes for a second when a hard knocking on the door startled him, and he woke, disoriented.

            “What?” he snapped.

            “Morning, sleeping beauty. Hard at work, I see.”

            Nezumi blinked, thinking the last thing he wanted to see when first waking was the ugly mug of his manager.

            He straightened up, wiping his lips with the back of his palm and running his hand quickly through his bangs as he glanced around the bakery, making sure everything was in order before focusing on his manager, realizing what he’d thought was knocking on a door must have been his manager’s knuckles on the counter.

            “What time is it?” he asked.

            His manager rolled his eyes, glanced at the pocketwatch he kept that Nezumi had always thought was a prop that didn’t actually work.

            “It’s three in the afternoon, Eve. Clearly, you don’t take this job any more seriously than you do the theater.”

            “What do you want?” Nezumi asked tiredly, rubbing his eyes and hoping he hadn’t lost Karan any customers. He tried to remember when the last time he’d looked at a clock was. There were customers in the bakery that he’d remembered serving still sitting at tables, so he figured he couldn’t have been asleep for that long.

            “Nobody wants to see Rudolph,” his manager said.

            “Surprise surprise,” Nezumi muttered, loosening his hair from his braid.

            It was still wet from that morning since he’d had it in a braid all day, and he shook it out over his shoulders, smelling a waft of Shion’s shampoo.

            “Don’t give me that shit, people love the Christmas play. Last year it was a hit. It’s because you’re not in it. I need you back, Eve. I’ll match whatever they’re paying you here and double it.”

            “Shut up, old man, and get out.”

            “Double isn’t enough? Fine. Triple your salary. There’s a week and a half until Christmas. Two weeks of wages that are triple whatever you’re making here,” his manager said, leaning over the counter, and Nezumi leaned back.

            “If you’re not going to buy anything, you’re wasting my time.”

            “I don’t need a pie, Eve. I’m here to buy you.”

            “Not for sale,” Nezumi sighed, waving his hand dismissively, too groggy for his manager’s dramatics. “Don’t make me ask again, I won’t be so polite.”

            “What’s the issue here, Eve? Come on, talk to me. Can’t be money, I’m offering triple your salary. You’d be a damn fool to turn that down, and you’re a lot of things, but that’s not one of them. So what then? Pride?” his manager laughed, and Nezumi narrowed his eyes.

            He lifted his hand, tucked his bangs behind his ears.

            “You’re too selfish to worry about pride. You came to my theater as a little boy and begged for a part – ”

            “Well, now that’s just a lie – ”

            “And I thought, here’s this useless piece of shit, but I can turn him into some talent. And I did that for you. And this is how you repay me? Deserting me at my time of need?”

            Nezumi glared, crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t owe you shit. I worked for all the money I’ve made at your goddamn theater. The people don’t come to see your badly directed plays, they come to see me. What is this ridiculous scene you’re putting on, a guilt trip? Let me tell you, you greedy asshole, I’ve got nothing to be guilty for. You underpaid me when I was a kid, don’t think I don’t remember that. You gave me pennies for long hours for years until I smartened up, if anyone should be repaying anyone, it’s you, old man,” Nezumi hissed, leaning over the counter now.

            Nezumi’s manager stared at him for a moment, then his face lit up and he smiled. “Now that’s the passion we’ve been missing since you’ve been gone! Oh, do come back, Eve, I miss you sorely, the world misses your presence on that glorious stage!”

            Nezumi gaped at his manager, then leaned back, exhaled, shook his head, his arms falling loosely by his sides.

            The guy had always been a dramatic nuisance.

            “I’m not coming back until you get rid of Rudolph,” he said flatly.

            “Fine. Rudolph’s gone. You’re breaking my heart, you’re breaking tradition, but we’re not making money without you. You pick the next play, we’ll start casting for whatever it is tonight, rehearsals start tomorrow, shows will open next week. You win, you win, you always win.”

            Nezumi blinked, and his manager pointed his grubby finger too close to his face.

            “What’s that?” his manager asked gleefully. “Surprise? Did I manage to surprise the infamously apathetic Eve? Why, golly, this is a day to mark on our calendars, isn’t it!”

            “You’re getting rid of Rudolph?”

            “I’m in the business to make money, Eve, not to spread holiday cheer. My Christmas plays are a hit so long as you’re in them. If you won’t be, all right, I’m no fool, I’ll adjust. Not everyone is as stubborn as you, darling.”

            Nezumi detested being called darling by this asshole, but said nothing about that.

             “I still want higher pay,” Nezumi said, thinking for sure if his manager had already compromised, he wouldn’t do so again, but again to his surprise, his manager nodded, waved his hand.

            “Yeah, yeah, you can still have triple pay. Come on now, hang up that apron and let’s go.”

            “You’ll pay me triple my wage here to do whatever play I choose?” Nezumi asked.

            “You bet your money-making ass I will.”

            “Have you lost your mind?” Nezumi asked, and his manager peered closely at him, his eyes narrowed.

            “Not at all. Losing you on this play has showed me how valuable you are, Eve, I won’t make the mistake of letting you go again. The question is, have you lost your mind? Since when have you cared about anything other than money? I’m offering you buckets of it, to do what you love – and don’t tell me you don’t love to act. I don’t know much about you, Eve, but I’ve seen you on that stage for years, it’s where you belong, it’s where you thrive. Not in this bakery where you can’t even keep your eyes open to stand at a counter. Why the hell are you hesitating? What could possibly have such a hold on you?”

            Nezumi flinched. Nothing had a hold on him. He was here to make money while he refused to play a reindeer, that was it.

            Now that had changed. He could go back to the theater, so he would. He wasn’t hesitating. He just wasn’t used to trusting his manager’s bullshit, that was all.

            He shook his head. “I’ll come back tonight.”

            “Come back now, I need you to look through the scripts and pick a play so I can get word out to the crew about auditions tonight.”

            “I’ll come back after five. They need me here until then,” Nezumi said, not budging on this.

            He was supposed to have the bakery until after Christmas, but this was only a week and a half earlier than anticipated.

            It was better, anyway. He missed the theater. His manager was wrong about most things, but he was right about this – Nezumi belonged on the stage.

            And there was nothing holding him to this bakery. He’d been here for the job. That was it.

            “Who needs you, Eve, and since when did you give a shit about what other people need?”

            Nezumi ground his teeth. His manager needed to get the hell away from him before Nezumi hit the guy. He was being frustratingly annoying.

            “I’ll be there tonight. Pick the play yourself, something Shakespeare, I don’t care.”

            “We just did Macbeth, Eve, pick something else.”

            “You said I had my pick, didn’t you? I want Shakespeare.”

            “So freaking difficult,” his manager muttered. “I want you at auditions, you’ll be holding half, it’s too much for me to do on my own in such a short amount of time. Five o’ clock, Eve.”

            “Five thirty.”

            “Eve – ”

            “I’ll be there at five thirty, I’ll do half the auditions, I’ll do all of them if you’re too lazy to bother. I’ll show up to every rehearsal. I’ll be your perfect actor. Just get the hell out of my face right now,” Nezumi snapped, his hands in fists on the countertop, and he saw his manager glancing down at them, then back at Nezumi, his eyes widened in surprise.

            “Well, all right then. I’ll see you later, Eve. It’s good to have you back.”

            His manager took a step backwards, watching Nezumi with a startled curiosity Nezumi hated, before turning and walking out the rest of the way.

            The bell above the front door jangled in its cheerful, familiar way, and Nezumi glared at it.

            He felt hot, annoyed, and told himself it was just because he’d had to deal with his manager.

            The guy always had a natural knack at pissing him off. That was it.

            Nothing else.

*

Shion walked into the bakery to find that Nezumi no longer seemed sleepy as he had that morning, but annoyed.

            “Long day?” Shion asked, after he’d grabbed an apron from the kitchen and said hi to his mother, then came back to the front.

            “I have to go,” Nezumi said, looking up from the book he’d been glaring at.

            “It’s slow today, I just talked to my mom in the kitchen. She doesn’t need any help, stay up front with me.”

            “The theater. They’re switching plays, my manager’s giving me a raise. He wants me back. That’s my job, Shion, this was just temporary, you knew that, don’t start with me,” Nezumi snapped, and Shion blinked, stepped back.

            He didn’t know why Nezumi was so angry. He wanted to reach out, smooth the lines creasing Nezumi’s eyebrows, but kept his hands by his side, thinking that this Nezumi would not want to be touched by him, unlike the Nezumi from this morning, from last night.

            “Okay. You have to go back,” Shion said, thinking to agree might soothe the man, but Nezumi only looked angrier, his eyes narrowing further.

            “Right,” Nezumi said, nearly ripping his apron off, and he shoved past Shion, disappearing into the back.

            Shion watched the kitchen door, absolutely bemused, and then Nezumi was emerging again, coming to the counter to collect the book on it before leaving again.

            Shion reached out before Nezumi could get too far, caught his wrist.

            “Hey. What’s wrong with you?”

            “Nothing,” Nezumi snapped, flinching his arm from Shion’s grasp.

            Shion didn’t want to take this personally, whatever was going on, but it felt personal.

            Nezumi’s anger did not seem like his general anger. It seemed directed at him, focused on him.

            “Nezumi, I don’t understand. Talk to me, tell me what’s going on.”

            “Nothing is going on, Shion. Nothing was ever going on. I worked here, now I don’t, and that’s it, isn’t it?” Nezumi asked, staring hard at Shion, who stared back.

            He thought maybe Nezumi was not only talking about his job. He thought maybe Nezumi was talking about them, but he didn’t know why that had to change.

            They both knew Nezumi would go back to acting. They both knew he wouldn’t work at the bakery forever.

            That was fine. What did that have to do with their relationship? What did that have to do with them?

            “What time will you be done tonight? I’ll come by. Or you can just come to my place. I’ll be awake. I’ll wait.”

            Nezumi squinted like Shion had said something insane. “Why the hell would I do that?”

            “Do what?” Shion felt like his heart was in his throat. His skin was too hot. He didn’t understand what Nezumi was saying, could see clearly that Nezumi didn’t understand what he was saying.

            Nezumi looked at him for another moment, then closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. “Whatever, Shion, fine.”

            “Fine what? Nezumi, I don’t – ”

            “I have to go,” Nezumi said, dropping his hand from his face as he turned so that Shion couldn’t see his expression before he was gone, out the window with a jerk of the door, the bell above it jangling in a startled way.

            Shion blinked at the man’s back through the door and then the windows as it disappeared from view. His shock settled slowly into his skin.

            Nezumi was gone. He wasn’t going to work at the bakery anymore, just like that. Shion wondered, vaguely, if Nezumi had even told Karan, or if that would be left up to Shion.

            Nezumi’s absence in the bakery seemed much too noticeable, and Shion tried to understand how empty space could take up so much room.

*

Auditions were taking forever.

            Nezumi wove his fingers through his bangs, held them out of his eyes.

            “Next,” he called, in the middle of his castmate’s line, and the actress stared at him blankly for a moment before shaking her head and stomping off the stage.

            “Asshole!” she shouted from backstage.

            “Yeah, that’ll get you Juliet,” Nezumi muttered, not bothering to look up at the cast member who had replaced her. “Start reading, I haven’t got all night!”

            The actor started on Mercutio’s lines, was decent, and Nezumi glanced up, recognized the cast member who often played the leading role opposite Nezumi.

            Nezumi had no idea why the guy was reading Mercutio. He’d be a decent Romeo, and Nezumi made a note of that before interrupting him.

            “Yeah, enough, next!”

            It was past eleven. Since he’d started at the bakery, Nezumi had been going to bed early, around nine most nights since he had to wake up before dawn.

            The night before, of course, he’d been up longer. He was already sleep-deprived. Did not need this shit on top of everything.

            “Didn’t I say next?” Nezumi shouted, glaring up to see who was wasting his time, and the actor paled. “Start talking or get off the stage,” Nezumi snapped, so the actor started on, “Romeo, oh, Romeo,” and Nezumi tuned him out, forgetting he was supposed to be listening.

            Shion had wanted him to go to his place, and Nezumi didn’t understand that.

            They were done. They hadn’t been in a relationship. They’d messed around because they were in the same place, it was convenient. Nezumi went home with him the night before because there’d been no reason not to.

            Shion didn’t even want to start something with Nezumi. He wanted his soulmate, was saving himself for his soulmate, what the hell was he doing, telling Nezumi to come over to his place after work?

            “Next!” Nezumi shouted, even though he’d hardly heard a word the guy said.

            He crossed the actor’s name out, figuring if he couldn’t keep Nezumi’s attention, he didn’t deserve a decent role.

            The auditions continued. Nezumi pulled his hair off his neck and face and tied it into a loose bun.

            It no longer smelled like Shion’s shampoo.

*

Shion was in bed when he heard a buzzing and leaped up, went to his kitchen where the intercom box was.

            He pressed the button. “Hello?”

            “Let me in,” Nezumi said, his voice staticky, so Shion pressed the correct button, smiling without meaning to.

            He looked at the time on his microwave, saw that it was quarter to one. He’d have to be up in just over four hours.

            He went to his door, unlocked it so Nezumi could just come in when he got up, and went to the stove to put on tea in case Nezumi wanted some. The snowstorm had picked up from that morning when the snow had been soft and slow, was billowing by the time Shion had walked home. He walked up to the window in his living room, pressed his face almost to the glass to see through the dark of the night that the flurries were still racing down.

            His door crashed open then, and Shion turned to see Nezumi slamming it closed, looking windswept and freezing.

            His nose and cheeks were pink.

            “Fuck,” Nezumi muttered, rubbing his hands together, and Shion quickly went to him.

            “You need gloves,” he said, taking Nezumi’s hands between his own, trying to rub the cold from them.

            “Lost them ages ago,” Nezumi muttered, and Shion looked up at his face, his red nose and cheeks, his hair full of snow, quickly melting.

            “Come shower.”         

            “You have to get up in four hours.”

            “Your teeth are chattering, Nezumi, come on, I’ll get the hot water going for you.”

            Nezumi blinked. Melted snow formed dewdrops caught in his eyelashes.

            “I don’t need you to take care of me, Shion,” he said, but not angrily.

            His voice was oddly hollow, and Shion nodded, not wanting to argue.

            “I know you don’t. Come,” he said, not allowing Nezumi to protest, pulling him to his bathroom, turning on the shower and helping Nezumi undress.

            He had just pulled Nezumi’s t-shirt from his arms when Nezumi grabbed Shion’s wrist with an icy hand.

            Shion glanced at him, saw Nezumi looking at him intently.

            “You still want to do this?” Nezumi asked, in a serious way, and Shion blinked.

            “I – What?”

            “The theater keeps me afternoons and evenings, late. You work early mornings and the day. It’s not easy anymore, Shion, it’s not some simple shit we can just do because it’s convenient.”

            Shion felt a sudden chill, like Nezumi had brought the snowstorm with him, and it was only just hitting him. “What are you talking about?”

            Nezumi shook his head, his anger from earlier coming back, but it looked weak over his windswept features, with his nose still pink and his cheeks still flushed.

            “I don’t know what the hell you want, Shion, I’m just trying to figure that out. You say shit like you’ve got your soulmate to worry about, then you want me coming here after work when you had to know I’d get here in the middle of the night and you’ve got to be up in a few hours. What the hell do you want?” Nezumi snapped, and Shion understood his anger now, though only bits of it, not completely.

            Enough to know what to say, for now.

            Shion reached out, cupped Nezumi’s cheek, this skin of it startlingly cold against his palm. “Nezumi. I want you to be here right now. I want to sleep next to you tonight. Is that okay?”

            Nezumi closed his eyes. Shook his head marginally, but didn’t move away from Shion’s palm.

            “Yeah,” he sighed. “Okay, Shion.”

            He sounded tired. Shion took his hand from Nezumi’s cheek, didn’t feel as though he’d completely comforted Nezumi, but he wasn’t entirely sure what Nezumi wanted to hear.

            Most of Nezumi was still a mystery to him. He didn’t know anything personal about the man, his background, his life.

            Shion only really knew how comfortable he felt around Nezumi. How right. How drawn he felt to this man, to be beside him, to talk to him, to touch him.

            Shion helped Nezumi undress completely, though Nezumi was more thawed out by now, and left Nezumi to shower while he went back into his room, searched for clothes he might offer for Nezumi to sleep in, remembering the man was already in his clothing from the day before.

            When Nezumi came out of the shower, Shion was sitting up in bed, pretending to read a book but really waiting for him. He watched Nezumi pull on the boxers Shion had left out, a little short on Nezumi’s thighs.

            Nezumi didn’t bother with the large t-shirt Shion had found in the back of a drawer.

            He flipped the light and climbed on Shion’s bed, his hands finding Shion’s torso, slipping up his shirt, warm from the heat of his shower.

            He wrapped his arms entirely around Shion, pulled Shion down lower on the bed and into him, and Shion allowed it, liked the heat radiating from Nezumi’s body.

            He turned his head, pressed his lips to Nezumi’s forehead, felt the trickle of Nezumi’s wet bangs against his nose.

            “I’m tired,” Nezumi murmured, and Shion nodded.

            He was tired too.

            “Let’s go to sleep,” he offered, and Nezumi squeezed him gently, a slight tightening of his arms.

            “Goodnight, Shion,” he breathed.

            Shion smiled, his chest aching without reason.

            “Goodnight, Nezumi.”

            He didn’t know about Nezumi, but he fell asleep almost instantly.

*

Chapter Text

When Shion gave Nezumi a key, Nezumi didn’t complain.

            Guessed it was so that he didn’t have to wake Shion when he got to Shion’s apartment late at nights, though usually Shion stayed up for him.

            Nezumi wasn’t sure how Shion was doing it. The man had started looking dead on his feet, and Nezumi didn’t really know the point of what they were doing, but didn’t protest.

            He’d been working back at the theater for a week. He’d slept at Shion’s place very night since the first.

            Romeo and Juliet’s first showing was that night. There were three nights until Christmas. Nezumi had been pulling overtime at the theater to get the cast ready in just a week, co-directing with his manager as well as playing Juliet.

            He got to Shion’s place around one in the morning every night, sometimes later. Shion was always awake to let him in, and sometimes they fooled around, sometimes they just went to sleep. While in the mornings, Nezumi could sleep in until noon, Shion still had to get up early.

            “Stop arguing with me,” Shion said, rubbing the back of his neck.

            Nezumi had stopped in at Shion’s building on his way to the theater from his apartment. He only really went to his apartment to grab changes of clothes, waking at Shion’s place, heading to his own to change, then going to the theater for rehearsals.

            They were in the cafeteria of the medical building, and Shion was drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup, but it didn’t really look like it was giving him any more energy.

            They were not arguing about the key Shion had just given Nezumi. They were arguing about Nezumi’s opening show.

            “It’s at nine, Shion. You’ll fall asleep in the audience. Just go home after closing the bakery and sleep, will you? You’re going to pass out,” Nezumi snapped, hating that it was up to him to talk some sense into the guy.

            Shion was a freaking medical researcher. He should have been more aware than anyone of what his lack of sleep was doing to him.

            “I want to go to your opening show, what’s the big deal?” Shion asked tiredly, then reached out, pushed Nezumi’s arm. “Go to the theater, you’ll be late for rehearsal.”

            “Take care of yourself, will you?” Nezumi snapped, turning away from the guy.

            He wanted to keep arguing with him, but worried that arguing would only make Shion more tired.

            At rehearsal, Nezumi had trouble focusing. He kept picturing the bags under Shion’s eyes. He wanted to check in on the man, make sure he was okay. Shion was going to make himself sick, staying up so much. He was going to pass out at work, or on the way home, maybe in the middle of a snowstorm.

            “Eve!” his manager barked, and Nezumi shook his head, made himself pay attention.          

            He wasn’t used to worrying about other people. It was distracting. It was inconvenient. It was getting in the way of Nezumi’s own work.

            But Nezumi could care less about a goddamn play when he remembered Shion’s tired smile as he’d promised Nezumi he’d be at his play.

            What a fucking idiot, that man was.

            For what, though, Nezumi couldn’t quite figure out.

            They still hadn’t had sex. Which really wouldn’t mean anything or matter to Nezumi at all but that Nezumi knew Shion wanted to, could easily tell, and the man had practically told him the other night when they were fooling around, anyway.

            Nezumi knew the only reason they hadn’t had sex was because of Shion’s soulmate. Which meant Shion was still saving sex for his soulmate. Which meant Shion still wanted his soulmate.

            So what was the point of keeping himself up until one in the morning every night to see Nezumi only to have to wake up four hours later?

            What was the point of coming to Nezumi’s opening play when he was dead on his feet?

            What was the point of giving Nezumi a goddamn key?

            What was the point of what they were doing, when Nezumi wasn’t Shion’s soulmate, when Shion obviously didn’t think what they were doing mattered?

            Nezumi was annoyed at himself for thinking about it so much. Didn’t want to think about it. Couldn’t stop himself because he knew Shion was thinking about it too, thinking about his goddamn soulmate every time they slept together at nights without sleeping together.

            “For fuck’s sake, Eve, if you can’t pay attention now we’ll never pull this off tonight!”

            “Shit, yeah, I’m fine,” Nezumi said, pinching the bridge of his nose, shoving his bangs up from his forehead, pulling his hair back out of his face into a ponytail.

            He’d never thought so much about anything. Shion was going to drive him insane.

            There were a million reasons to just stop seeing the guy completely, to stop going to Shion’s place, to let Shion catch up on sleep and get back into his normal schedule, to stop torturing himself with having to worry about Shion.

            There was no reason to keep this up. When Nezumi had worked at the bakery, it had been convenient and fun. Now, it was neither.

            But Nezumi didn’t want to stop. And it didn’t make sense to him, but a lot of things had stopped making sense to him since Shion had first shown up in his life.

            He was getting used to it, honestly.

*

Nezumi was holding his hand.

            Shion was fully aware of this, though he was not aware of much else.

            “Your eyes are closed,” Nezumi said.

            “No, they’re not,” Shion argued.

            “Shut up,” Nezumi said, so Shion did.

            Only for a minute.

            “Where are we?” he asked. He thought maybe he’d stopped walking. Wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be.

            “Elevator. Fuck the stairs,” Nezumi said, which struck Shion as hilarious.

            “Fuck the stairs,” he repeated, giggling.

            “Jesus, Shion.”

            “Where are we now?”

            “Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Nezumi muttered, but he didn’t really sound angry.

            Soft, really. Gentle and nice.

            “You were lovely as Juliet,” Shion said, forgetting he was supposed to be shutting up.

            “Shit, where did I put the keys you gave me?” Nezumi murmured.

            “Really, really beautiful, Nezumi. You’re incredible.”

            “This way,” Nezumi said, and Shion let Nezumi pull him.

            “I’ve never seen anyone more gorgeous than you. More talented. You take my breath away, do you know that? When you act, it’s like actual Juliet, like you disappear completely and there’s just Juliet up there, do you know that?” Shion asked, blinking up at Nezumi, trying to focus.

            He was so incredibly tired, but it was important to him, to know that Nezumi understood how amazing he was.

            Sometimes, Shion worried, Nezumi did not understand. Did not see the great in himself the way everyone else did.

            “Shh, enough of that,” Nezumi said softly, offering Shion a gentle smile like he was appeasing him.

            Like he still didn’t understand.

            “No. Nez – Nezumi, listen to me. I need you to understand. To know how much you amaze me. Really, Nezumi.”

            “Don’t be so serious, it’s weird. Are you tearing up? Jeez, Shion, you need to sleep. Here’s your bed, there you go,” Nezumi said, guiding Shion to his bed, and to lie down was incredible.

            Shion never wanted to get up.

            “Oh wow, it’s amazing.”

            “You can’t work as hard as you do and get less than four hours of sleep a night for an entire week, okay? No more of that. It pisses me off, honestly, I’d yell at you if I thought you’d even understand me right now,” Nezumi said, and Shion could feel Nezumi’s hands on him, shifting him – undressing him, he realized.

            “Leave me, let me sleep,” Shion complained, wanting to shove Nezumi’s hands away but not wanting to move.

            “I know, you’re in your work clothes. You’ll strangle yourself with your tie.”

            “Leave me,” Shion whined. He couldn’t see anything, and this was confusing until he remembered he’d closed his eyes.

            He felt Nezumi’s hands on him still. His shoes, he thought. His pants. The buttons of his shirt, his shirt, his undershirt, and then Nezumi was gone.

            “Nezumi?” Shion whispered, not opening his eyes. He didn’t know where Nezumi had gone.

            “I’m here, give me a second,” Nezumi whispered back. “I’ve got to use the bathroom.”

            “Nezumi,” Shion breathed. He felt so heavy. Like his blood was solid. Everything was solid and on top of him and dark.

            Shion was almost asleep when Nezumi was back, a shift in the mattress and fingers jostling his hair.

            “Nez?” Shion couldn’t get out the rest of the syllables he loved so much. He hardly heard his own voice at all. His lips felt heavy too.

            “It’s okay. Go to sleep now.”

            “Mmm…”

            Shion thought he’d fallen asleep, but then he heard Nezumi’s voice again, some minutes later, sounding a little broken, maybe, a little sad –

            “Thank you for coming to my play, Shion.”

            Maybe he was dreaming, Shion thought. Yes, that seemed right. He was asleep, and he was dreaming, dreaming that he heard these words and realized at the sound of them that he was completely in love with the man who’d said them, that this was the man he was destined to be with for the rest of this life.

            He had to be asleep to dream such a crazy thing – that his soulmate might be, not his soulmate at all, but the wrong person entirely.

*

Nezumi propped himself on his elbow.

            Shion’s lips were open. He breathed quietly, almost silently. His chest rose and fell deeply though, and Nezumi liked this, this proof of his life.

            Nezumi had worked at The Same Sky Theater for twelve years – half his life, as he was twenty-four years old.

            His manager always said the crowds came for Eve, and Nezumi knew, on some level, this was correct.

            He knew he was the prized actor. He knew he was moderately famous in this town. He knew he drew crowds, he knew he had fans, he knew he was beloved, in this sense.

            He knew he sold tickets.

            But never before had someone come to his play for him, to see him, the way Shion had.

            People all over, from outside of this town, came to The Same Sky Theater to watch Nezumi act.

            But Shion hadn’t come just to watch Nezumi act. He’d come to support him, and there was a difference, and Nezumi had never known someone in the audience supporting him was missing until this man, fast asleep beside him, had done just that.

            All at once, Nezumi felt the sadness of twelve years, of no one there at all. Of a packed audience but really, of an empty one of anyone that mattered.

            A heaviness. An ache. Nezumi swallowed. He’d never felt this before, this hurt in his chest, or maybe he had, but he’d been young, then, and he’d gotten over it, and he hadn’t felt it ever since.

            Now, it was foolish to feel it again. Tonight for the first time since he’d lost his entire family, since he’d lost everything and everyone, someone was there for him.

            There was no reason for it to hurt now.

            There was no reason at all.

            Nezumi sank back down onto the mattress. Didn’t touch Shion but wanted to in a way that hurt even though there was no reason for that.

            “Thank you for coming to my play, Shion,” he whispered.

            And when his voice cracked, it didn’t matter, because Shion was not awake to hear him.

*

Shion woke feeling like he was dead, so he didn’t bother opening his eyes, and fell asleep rather quickly again.

            The second time he woke, he shuffled his limbs, rubbed his lips with his hand. He stretched, then opened his eyes, saw that Nezumi was not beside him.     

            He frowned. Sat up slowly in bed, glanced at his alarm clock to see that it was past noon.

            Shion shot out of bed so quickly he fell off the edge, picked himself up, grabbed his alarm clock and looked at it closely, noted that the numbers were not just jumbled in his head, it was really 12:14pm.

            On placing his alarm clock back on his night table with mild panic, he noticed the note, picked it up.

            Don’t lose your mind, I got up to help prep the bakery this morning. If you’re late for work, it’s not the end of the world. Take a shower and eat something before you go, I stocked your fridge with groceries after opening the bakery, so you don’t have an excuse to not eat. I’ve got a show tonight so I’ll be back late, don’t keep yourself up till I do. If you wait up for me to get back, I’ll stop coming over at night. Seriously, Shion. I don’t enjoy being worried by idiots who can’t be bothered to take care of themselves.

            Shion read the note twice, smiled, ran his fingers over the words, then suddenly stopped smiling.

            A soulmate wouldn’t bother writing on paper. They’d write on their skin, and it would appear on Shion’s, and that was how it was supposed to be.

            Shion closed his eyes.

            He didn’t need that. He didn’t need what he was supposed to have.

            He needed Nezumi, and it didn’t make sense, and it was wrong, but it was also right, and he couldn’t deny that, could he?

            There was a pen left next to the note, and Shion picked it up. Glanced at his arm for a moment, then started writing.

*

He noticed it in the dressing room, when he was changing before the dress rehearsal.

            Actually, it wasn’t Nezumi that noticed it, but his make-up girl.

            “Oh, I’ll cover that up for you. Juliet’s dresses don’t show her shoulders, but just in case, you never know,” she said, and Nezumi glanced at where she was pointing.

            An SSTC was written on his arm, another small paragraph even though it’d been weeks, over a month, since the last.

            Nezumi turned his arm, tilted his head to read it.

            I don’t know how to tell you this, but I know I need to, you deserve to know – I fell in love with someone else. I didn’t mean to, it was just so easy, like I was supposed to, like I was meant to. Like it was fate, even though you and I are supposed to be fate. I don’t know what to say to you. I am so sorry.

            Nezumi read the message only once, and was simply staring at the words without reading them when the make-up girl interrupted him.

            “May I?” she asked, holding a bottle of concealer, so Nezumi dropped his arm.

            He knew she would read it. People were obsessed with SSTCs. They thought they were something special. Something incredible. Something real.

            Really, they were just bullshit.

            “Oh, Eve,” the make-up girl said quietly.

            “Did you cover it?” Nezumi asked lightly, even though he knew the girl hadn’t, as she hadn’t even touched him yet.

            “Are you – Are you sure you want to go on tonight? I’m sure the manager would understand – ”

            “Cover it, please, I’d like to finish dressing,” Nezumi interrupted, keeping his voice light.

            He was not upset. He didn’t give a shit about his soulmate. He didn’t believe this was his soulmate anyway. He didn’t believe in soulmates at all.

            People didn’t fall in love because they were meant to. It wasn’t any sort of fate, any sort of destiny. It wasn’t written in the stars, and it sure as hell wasn’t written on the skin.

            Falling in love took work. Took hours. Took days, took weeks, took getting to know a person, took being annoyed by that person, took being angry with that person, took laughing at that person, then laughing with that person, took wanting that person, took waiting to see that person every morning, then every afternoon again.

            Falling in love had nothing to do with words on skin. To fall in love, there needed to be conversations. There needed to be silences. There needed to be early mornings that weren’t really mornings, but nights that hadn’t yet expired. There needed to be easy smiles that looked natural as if they took no effort at all. There needed to be shy kisses that weren’t acknowledged but in that moment. There needed to be grasping hands in cleaning closets.

            To fall in love, there needed to be nights with only four hours of sleep. There needed to be worry that was inconvenient, that was distracting, that was maddening. There needed to relief at the simple rise and fall of a chest at night. There needed to be snowfall, the gentle clumps of snowflakes that were slow in the mornings, and there needed to be snowstorms, the harsh race of sharp snow that was biting in the dead of night.

            Nezumi’s soulmate did not love him. This person who was allegedly supposed to love him simply because they could write on his skin could not love him.

            Fine. Nezumi didn’t need them to. Didn’t want them to. Didn’t give a damn that they couldn’t, even though they were the one person who was supposed to, even though if they couldn’t love him, maybe that meant no one could, maybe that meant no one had to.

            Nezumi took a breath. Closed his eyes. Felt the cool of the concealer on his arm as the make-up girl rubbed it in.

            He would focus. He would slip into Juliet, escape his own self. This was why he acted.

            He got to be someone else. Someone who was not alone. Who had a family, who was loved.

            Nezumi didn’t give a shit about being loved. He really didn’t, he swore he didn’t.

            But Juliet did. So when Nezumi became her, it was okay for him to feel a little winded. It was okay for him to feel a little betrayed. It was okay for him to feel a little worried that if his soulmate couldn’t love him, no one ever could, no one ever would, not even the one person that mattered, the one person Nezumi had been starting to think it might be nice to be loved by.

            It was okay, because it was not Nezumi who was worried. It was just Juliet, and she died in the end anyway, so what the hell did it matter what she thought or how stupid those thoughts were?

            It didn’t. It didn’t matter one bit.

*

Shion did not stay up, but he woke when Nezumi slipped into his bed, propped himself up on his elbows and peered at the man beside him.

            “Hi,” Shion said sleepily.

            “I didn’t mean to wake you,” Nezumi replied.

            His voice sounded strange. Shion had to think about it, for a moment. Sleep still lingered like a fog inside his head.

            Empty.

            That was how Nezumi sounded.

            Shion felt more awake now. Rubbed at his eyes to look at Nezumi more closely in the dark of the room.

            The man had lain on his side, his back to Shion.

            “Nezumi.”

            “Yeah,” Nezumi said quietly, not turning.

            Shion wanted to reach out, didn’t. Felt as though he couldn’t, even though the man was right beside him.

            “How was your show?” Shion asked, but what he wanted to know was – Is something wrong?

            Nezumi didn’t say anything for a moment. Then – “It was just another show, Shion. You should go back to sleep.”

            Shion looked at Nezumi’s back. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and Shion could see his burns, burns Shion still had no idea how Nezumi had gotten, what had happened to him, what had hurt him, what the extent of his hurt was.

            Shion laid back on the mattress, on his side, facing Nezumi and the scars of a past Shion did not know.

            Shion did not say anything, but what he wanted to say was – I’m in love with you, Nezumi.

            What he wanted to tell this man who had so many secrets was – You can tell me anything, Nezumi. How you feel right now. How you’ve felt in the parts of your life when there was no one to tell how you felt.       

            What he wanted to promise this man who still looked at him sometimes in his scrutinizing, wary way was – You can trust me, Nezumi. I will never hurt you.

            Shion did not say any of this. It was late, and he knew Nezumi was tired, that Nezumi had gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before so he could wake up early for the bakery to let Shion sleep in.

            Thank you for caring for me, Shion wanted to say, but instead, he let Nezumi sleep, and closed his eyes, waited to fall asleep as well.

            As much as he loved to be awake beside Nezumi, Shion thought maybe he loved to be asleep beside him more.

*

Nezumi couldn’t sleep.

            He didn’t know why he’d come to Shion’s apartment. He hadn’t planned to. He’d meant to go to his own apartment after the show, but then he was in front of Shion’s building, and it was too late to turn around at that point, the snow had just started falling thickly, and Nezumi was so tired.

            He hadn’t wanted to wake Shion when he’d gotten into bed, but then there had been Shion’s voice, soft syllables shaping his name, and it had taken everything for Nezumi not to touch the man, even just his cheek, even just a few locks of his white white hair.

            Nezumi listened to Shion settle back down behind him. Nezumi had never slept with his back to Shion. It was strange, not to touch him. Felt unnatural, not to lie with some limb overlapping his.

            It shouldn’t have. It should have been natural not to touch Shion. Shion wasn’t his soulmate. Wasn’t his other half.

            Nezumi didn’t have a soulmate, apparently. Didn’t have anyone, apparently, but this man in bed beside him – but Shion wasn’t really his, anyway, and Nezumi didn’t want him.

            No, that wasn’t quite right.

            Maybe Nezumi did want him. Maybe just a little.

            But he didn’t need him, and Nezumi was not used to getting things he wanted, wasn’t used to wanting things in the first place.

            He was used to working for what he needed, and nothing more. He was used to living each day just to survive it, and for nothing else.

            He was used to sleeping on his own, without the warmth of another body, even when the nights were cold and snowstorms raged right up against the thin windows.

            Nezumi was used to this, and just because he’d forgotten it for a few weeks didn’t mean he couldn’t remember it again.

            Tonight, he would sleep beside Shion because he was here, and it would be stupid to leave.

            But he wouldn’t touch the man. And he wouldn’t come back again.

            Nezumi did not bother going where he didn’t belong, where he wasn’t wanted. He wasn’t so desperate as that. Wasn’t so needy as that.

            Wasn’t so lonely as that.

*

Chapter Text

Usually, Nezumi slept through Shion’s alarm, but this morning he woke, pressing his hand to his face and groaning in a soft way.

            “Sorry,” Shion said quickly, reaching over Nezumi’s body to shut his alarm off. “Oh, and happy Christmas Eve,” he added quietly, sliding off the bed.

            “What?”

            Shion turned back to see Nezumi leaning up, one of his elbows digging into the mattress.   

            “Happy Christmas Eve,” Shion said, surprised Nezumi had gotten up, acknowledged his words at such an early hour.

            “Happy Christmas Eve,” Nezumi echoed, like the words tasted strange to him.

            Shion stared at him for a moment, then made himself smile, made himself act like Nezumi was not worrying him.

            He walked around the bed to Nezumi’s side, leaned down, kissed Nezumi only barely on the corner of his lips, unable to kiss his lips fully without knowing why.

            “You’re half-asleep. Go back to bed,” he said quietly, though he didn’t actually think Nezumi was half-asleep.

            He thought Nezumi looked very awake.

            When Nezumi looked at him, it was in a way Shion couldn’t recognize, in all the looks he had collected from Nezumi.

            But while he could not recognize it on Nezumi, he could recognize it on these features, and realized only after he had turned from Nezumi, left his bedroom, undressed in his bathroom, gotten into the shower, applied shampoo to his hair, that this was because he had seen this look before from Nezumi when Nezumi was someone else.

            When Nezumi was acting, on stage.

            When Nezumi was Juliet, looking down on Romeo’s body with her heart broken.

            Nezumi looked heartbroken. Hurt. Like there was an ache inside of him, and Shion had put it there, and at this realization Shion cupped his hand over his lips, still could not stifle his gasp.

            His eyes stung, but not from the water dripping down from his soaked hair.

            His skin burned, but not from the shower spray he’d let heat up before stepping beneath it.

            Shion did not know what he had done. Tried to think back, went over every conversation, every moment with this man, but there were so many and they jumbled up and all he got were snapshots: the smell of cinnamon on Nezumi’s skin, the tug of his tie against his neck when Nezumi pulled it so that Shion was close enough to kiss, the flash of Nezumi’s charming smile at unsuspecting customers, the rough scratch of Nezumi’s chair against the bakery floor after Shion offered Nezumi a job and Nezumi accused him of offering charity, the clumps of snow caught in Nezumi’s hair like stars that always burned out before Shion could touch them, the pink of Nezumi’s nose and cheeks after a snowstorm had caught him.

            Shion could not remember. Could not think. Turned off the shower even though there was shampoo in his hair and he hadn’t yet scrubbed his clean skin with his loufa, grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his waist without bothering to dry himself as he went to his bedroom.

            Nezumi was not in bed.

            Shion stared at the bare mattress for several seconds, at the sheets kicked down to the foot of it. Then looked up, around his room, as if he might have missed Nezumi standing right there, but the room was empty.

            Shion turned. Walked through the hall. Checked the hallway closet, the bathroom as if somehow Nezumi had slipped by him without noticing. The living room, the kitchen, left his apartment and stood in the hallway and stared down both ends, but Nezumi was absent from everywhere.

            Shion stood still for several moments, dripping onto the hallway carpet, then returned to his apartment. Closed the door but didn’t lock it in case Nezumi had gone out for some reason but would come back, forgetting that Nezumi had his own set of keys.

            He returned to his bedroom and looked at his bed again, half suspecting Nezumi to be there, fast asleep, as if Shion had simply missed him the first time.

            “Nezumi?” Shion called, and he listened to the silence that was returned to him, waited for a response long after he knew there would be none.

*

His goddamn soulmate still hadn’t washed off the SSTC, and Nezumi was forced to notice it again when his shower washed his concealer off.

            Out of the shower, he pulled on a t-shirt, glad at least the sleeve was enough to cover it, still annoyed knowing the words were underneath.

            If his soulmate, or whatever the hell this person was who could blemish his skin, didn’t want anything to do with Nezumi, Nezumi had no idea why he hadn’t gotten rid of the SSTC as yet.

            It was selfish, really.

            Nezumi headed to the theater even though it was much too early, it was hardly past six in the morning and there wasn’t even a midday play today and rehearsals didn’t start until afternoon to give the crew a chance to rest after the late night.

            Nezumi didn’t want to rest. He was restless. He had his own set of keys, headed to the theater, went straight to the stage, stood in the very middle and looked out into the empty audience.

            His performance the night before had not been good.

            It was not bad, either. Nezumi had never messed up a line during a performance, and he had not done so last night.

            He had not missed a cue, he had not paused too long, he had not looked the wrong way.

            But he had not become his character, not totally, not completely. He had performed the way the rest of his cast mates did, when Nezumi would watch them and see clearly a cast mate acting like a character rather than the character itself. Nezumi had noticed moments the night before when he was not Juliet, but himself, standing on stage in Juliet’s dress, delivering Juliet’s lines, but underneath all of this, speaking as himself.

            Nezumi did not know if his uncharacteristic performance was noticed by any of the audience, by any of the cast. But his manager had been able to tell, and it was one of the first times Nezumi respected the man.

            One of the first times that Nezumi realized that as full of shit as his manager was, he understood theater, and he understood Nezumi’s talent.

            After the curtain close, off stage, his manager had walked into Nezumi’s dressing room, grabbed Nezumi’s arm, and Nezumi had been too tired to pull away, too tired even to step back when his manager had leaned in too close and spoke directly into his face.

            “My other actors can act like that because that is what I expect from them. That is not what I expect from you, Eve, and if you try to get away with giving me a performance like that on my stage again, you can call that show your last. Do you understand me?”

            Nezumi had looked away from his manager. Didn’t need that shit. He was well aware of what his performance had been, well aware that it was not what was expected of him.

            “Yeah, fine,” he’d replied, tiredly, because he was tired, he was so tired.

            His manager had left the room, then, and Nezumi had taken off Juliet’s dress, pulled on his own clothing, left out the back entrance and gone to Shion’s place instead of his own apartment, even though he hadn’t meant to, even though he hadn’t wanted to see Shion.

            Now, in hours too early to call morning, Nezumi stood on the otherwise empty stage and took a breath. He would practice on his own, rehearse his lines that he could recite in his sleep, say them until they were the only words he had left.

            He would speak Juliet’s lines loudly, shout them if he had to, until he could not hear his thoughts over them. Until he could not hear Shion’s voice just an hour ago, wishing him a happy Christmas Eve, until he could not hear his own voice, returning the words, the strange taste of them. Until he could not think about how this was the first time in twelve years anyone had ever said those words to him, until he could not think about how this was the first time in twelve years anyone had expected to hear the words back, simple words as they were.

            He would slip into Juliet until he could erase himself, the way he always had been able to do whenever he stood on this stage, the way he always had needed to, because it was easier that way.

            To forget, just for a little while, that he had a life outside that lived by his characters.

            To pretend, just for a few scenes, that there was no Nezumi at all, just a character on a stage who might not always get a happy ending, but at least if it was a tragedy, he would know ahead of time, would not have to bother at all with hope, that flimsy, fragile, terrible thing.

*

Shion wished Nezumi was his soulmate only so that he could write – Meet me for lunch today – everywhere on his skin and know Nezumi could not miss it, could not fail to see that Shion was thinking of him, wanting to see him, needing to talk to him, having to be near him.

            But they were not soulmates, so Shion did not write Meet me for lunch today on his skin, could not even call the man because Nezumi didn’t have a cell phone, and ended up texting Safu and getting lunch with her instead in the cafeteria of his lab building.

            “You shouldn’t worry, he’s a grown man,” Safu said.

            “It’s not that I don’t know where he is. I think he’s upset, but I don’t know why. I think it’s my fault,” Shion said, running his hand through his hair, tapping his plastic spoon against his bowl of soup.

            Shion had been sure that he would have found Nezumi in the bakery making Christmas cupcakes with his mother when he left his apartment that morning, but Nezumi was not there. And while Shion knew Nezumi was grown, could take care of himself, he still couldn’t help but worry.

            Nezumi didn’t like to wake early. Always made a fuss at getting out of bed. But he must have done so in the five minutes Shion had been in the shower, must have done so quickly, must have wanted to get out of Shion’s apartment in a rush, without having to see Shion, without having to tell him why he was leaving so early, why he was leaving at all.

            “You haven’t done anything, so it’s silly to feel guilty,” Safu replied, taking a sip of her coffee. “I’m sure it will all be fine.”

            Shion shook his head. “Maybe,” he mumbled, then to change the subject – “I wrote an SSTC to my soulmate to tell them about Nezumi.”

            He realized, after speaking, that he hadn’t really changed the subject at all. But it was hard to discuss anything but Nezumi at the moment. Shion couldn’t stop thinking about Nezumi, how something was wrong with him, something Shion couldn’t pinpoint, couldn’t fix.

            “What do you mean?” Safu set down her Styrofoam coffee cup, looked at Shion fully.

            “I sent an SSTC explaining that I fell in love with someone else. And apologizing,” Shion added, looking away from Safu’s gaze, at the steaming surface of his chicken noodle soup.

            His soulmate had not replied. Shion wasn’t sure if he was relieved by this or not.

            Although his only contact from his soulmate was having Idiot written on his face, there were not many people who did not believe in soulmates. Safu and Nezumi, and apparently Shion’s mother, Shion remembered, were probably among the very few people in the world who did not believe in soulmates, who did not care to spend a lifetime with theirs.

            Shion’s soulmate had probably, like Shion himself, imagined meeting his soulmate. Falling in love with his soulmate easily, naturally, because that was what one was supposed to do. Living with his soulmate, marrying his soulmate, spending his life with his soulmate.

            Shion no longer thought those things. But that didn’t mean his soulmate’s thoughts had also changed. His soulmate probably had not fallen in love with someone else, purely by accident, purely by fate.

            This was not normal, after all. People didn’t just fall in love with others who were not their soulmate. It was practically unheard of. It was definitely wrong.

            “You know you’re in love with Nezumi?” Safu asked, and Shion blinked, had to replay the question in his head, still didn’t quite understand it.

            “What?”

            Safu waved her hand. “I knew you were in love with him, you’re rather obvious about your feelings. But I didn’t know you knew. I thought you’d be in denial, since he isn’t your soulmate.”

            “I thought you didn’t believe in soulmates,” Shion accused.

            “Of course I don’t. But you do,” Safu replied, easily, and Shion stared at his friend, who smiled gently at him. “I don’t mind that you’re a little delusional. Of course I think it’s ridiculous. But you’re my best friend. I can forgive you for having an occasional ridiculous thought if you must. I knew you wanted me to think you didn’t believe in them, so I let you pretend.”

            “Oh.” Shion couldn’t think of what to say to that, but Safu didn’t seem bothered.

            “Have you told Nezumi?”

            “What?” Shion asked, confused, having forgotten what brought about this discussion of soulmates.

            “That you love him,” Safu said, leaning closer across the table, speaking slowly, and Shion rubbed the back of his neck.

            “I don’t know that those are words Nezumi would want to hear. At least, not now. I told you, he’s guarded. To say something like that might scare him, and it’s only really been a few weeks, anyway. To just love him for now is enough, and I think he must know it anyway, subconsciously. I don’t think he would want it explicitly acknowledged by either of us,” Shion said, thinking about Nezumi as he spoke, that wary, scrutinizing gaze.

            Safu nodded. “I agree with you. I don’t know much about Nezumi, obviously, but from what you’ve told me, it’s easy to deduce that he’s the sort of person who is more comfortable with denial than acknowledgement when it comes to relationships with other people. I asked you because you said you wrote an SSTC telling your soulmate you’d fallen in love with Nezumi. Where did you write it?”

            Shion felt a crease pinch between his eyebrows. “How would Nezumi have seen my SSTC? He’s not my soulmate.”        

            “He wouldn’t see it on his own skin, Shion. He’d see it on yours. You sleep with him, don’t you?” Safu asked, and Shion felt his lips opening despite the fact that he was not speaking.     

            It hadn’t even occurred to him that Nezumi might have read the SSTC on his arm. He tried to think back, to remember.

            He’d written the message the day before, just after noon when he’d woken and read the note Nezumi had left him. He’d only seen Nezumi again late that night, when Nezumi got back from his play, but Shion had been wearing a t-shirt in bed. The sleeve would have covered his SSTC.

            Had it rolled up? Had the fabric been shifted to bunch at Shion’s shoulder during his sleep? Had Nezumi seen it? Was that why he’d sounded so empty? Was that why he’d disappeared so quickly the next morning?

            “Safu! What if you’re right? What if he saw? What if he read it, what if it freaked him out?” Shion asked, his stomach dropping.

            Nezumi would overreact to something as simple as being loved.

            But perhaps it wasn’t an overreaction, to him. Shion still didn’t know much about Nezumi. Didn’t know about Nezumi’s family, if he even had one – but recently, Shion had been suspecting he didn’t.

            Shion had scoured the audience at Nezumi’s opening show for Romeo and Juliet. There had been no one that even close to resembled Nezumi. No one that seemed to know Nezumi at all, but as Eve, and surely, that was strange at an opening show.

            Surely, someone should have come for Nezumi. Surely, he had to have somebody, he couldn’t be completely alone.

            But maybe he was. It would explain the wariness. It would explain the distrust. It would explain Nezumi’s secrecy, and it might even explain the burns on Nezumi’s back, though Shion refused to speculate so far, felt sick at the thought of what might have happened to Nezumi, what might have happened to his family in the past that Nezumi refused to ever speak about.

            “It’s probable,” Safu supplied, unhelpfully.

            Shion covered his face with his hands. “Poor Nezumi,” he said, words muffled by his palms.

            “It’s not a bad thing to be loved, Shion,” Safu said gently, and Shion dropped his hands.

            He knew this. He just wasn’t sure that Nezumi did.

            Shion had a feeling, a terrible, aching feeling, that perhaps it had been so long since Nezumi had been loved that the idea of it had become something terrifying, something dangerous, something uncertain and temporary and something it was safest to run away from, even if it was at an early hour of the morning when the night had hardly even finished, and the cold still stained the outside air in a biting, sharp way, and it would have been warmer to stay in bed, it would have been easier to fall right back asleep.

            “I have to find him,” Shion said, already standing without remembering going through the motions of it, and he glanced down and saw that his soup bowl was still full.

            “Your lunch ends in ten minutes,” Safu pointed out.

            Shion shook his head. He didn’t care. His work could wait, would be there when he got back. Was not nearly as important as what Nezumi might have been feeling at that moment, might have been thinking at that second.

            “I’ll text you, okay?” he said, and Safu nodded, not seeming surprised that Shion was grabbing his coat, pulling it on, already walking away from the table.

            The problem, Shion thought, leaving his building and heading in the direction of the theater, was that Nezumi was not his soulmate.

            If he was, then Shion’s heart would not have been pounding so hard in his ears. If he was, then Shion would not have felt so anxious, so itchy, as if he were too warm under his coat even though it was snowing, he realized, only after flakes of it had already caught in his eyelashes.

            If Nezumi was his soulmate, then Shion would know everything would work out, because that was the way it was with soulmates.

            They were fated to be together, and so they were.

            But even though he felt this way about Nezumi so strongly it often surprised him, Shion was not fated to be with him.

            There was no assurance that everything would be fine.

            There was no guarantee that anything would work out.

*

Chapter Text

“Nezumi.”

            Nezumi didn’t know if it was the voice around his name or the touch of hesitant fingers grazing his wrist that woke him, but he opened his eyes without alarm, without flinching despite being touched.

            There was Shion, and Nezumi felt nothing but relaxed despite the close proximity of the man, closer than Nezumi had ever allowed anyone to come to him.

            Shion was the exception, wasn’t he?

            Nezumi pushed his bangs off of his eyes. Sat up, his back sore from the stiff back of the seat.

            “You shouldn’t sleep in a place like this, it strains your body and prevents you from falling into a full REM cycle,” Shion said, while Nezumi stretched without rising from the audience seat that he’d fallen asleep in.

            Shion sat in the seat beside him, and Nezumi looked away from the concerned red eyes, up front at the stage on which he had acted for twelve years.

            It was empty, but if Nezumi closed his eyes, he could easily picture himself up there, his cast mates, the props of the play, the voices and gestures.

            “I came here to apologize to you,” Shion said, and Nezumi still didn’t look at him, still didn’t open his eyes.

            He was watching a play on that empty stage.

            “How did you get in here?” he asked, after a moment.

            “The back door was unlocked,” Shion replied, and Nezumi opened his eyes.

            He must have forgotten to lock it behind him. That was unlike him. That was careless, stupid.

            But Nezumi was tired. He hadn’t gotten a full night of sleep in two nights. And while he was used to not getting full nights of sleep, while he had done so for most of his life, since meeting Shion, since working at the bakery, Nezumi had fallen into a sleep schedule.

            His body had forgotten sleep deprivation. His body had forgotten how to make do.

            It bothered Nezumi, but he tried not to think about it, and couldn’t, really, as Shion was speaking again.

            “I didn’t know you would see it. I’d forgotten it was there, and I know now you must have read it. Nezumi, this doesn’t have to mean anything, or change anything, I don’t want you to worry that – ”

            “Shion, shut up. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nezumi muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose, still not looking at Shion.

            The guy could talk so much, at such an early hour of the morning.

            Nezumi recalled, vaguely, that it was not morning. It was probably close to midday. The rest of the cast was not at the theater, but they wouldn’t show up until the afternoon. Nezumi didn’t feel very well rested, could not have been asleep for too long.

            “My SSTC,” Shion said, and at this, Nezumi turned away from the stage.

            Sometimes, Nezumi forgot Shion had red eyes. Or, not so much that he had red eyes, but that these eyes were shocking. That they were strange. That they were unnatural.

            It seemed to Nezumi, looking at Shion’s eyes, that red must have been the most natural eye color. That perhaps everyone in the world had red eyes. That these eyes looked so incredibly right, so incredibly human, so incredibly warm that there was nothing shocking about them.

            If anything, they seemed familiar.

            But really, they weren’t. Nezumi had known Shion for a month and a half, give or take. Not long. Just as long as the Christmas lights had been strung on the trees of their town. Just as long as the snowstorms had started raging daily. Just as long as it had been getting cold out, the kind of cold that slipped up jacket sleeves, that sent hands deep into coat pockets.

            “Your SSTC,” Nezumi repeated, because maybe he had heard incorrectly.

            Shion was not an insensitive person. He was, Nezumi suspected, the most considerate person Nezumi had ever known. Considerate to a fault. It weakened him. The man gave his heart to anyone and anything that asked. That even looked his way. That walked into his goddamn bakery, only to get out of the cold, only for a small break from the wind outside and nothing more, definitely not a heart, Nezumi had never wanted that, still didn’t.

            Shion leaned closer, and Nezumi did not lean back.

            He didn’t want to. He didn’t like to be far from this man.

            “I’m sorry. I don’t want what I wrote to upset you. I just – I had to write it, I had to confess to my soulmate, it would have been unfair otherwise, do you understand?” Shion asked, sounding earnest, and only after a moment, only after the words sunk in, did Nezumi flinch.

            He jerked back, away from this man.

            He didn’t want to care, but he did, and that was the truth, that was what this goddamn bakery boy had done to him.

            Shion’s eyes widened in a way Nezumi noticed because Nezumi noticed everything about Shion, even though Shion was just a fan, and Nezumi didn’t notice his fans, didn’t give them a second thought. “Nezumi – ”

            “I don’t give a shit about what you say to your soulmate. Don’t fucking apologize, it’s none of my business, is it?” Nezumi snapped.

            Shion was wrong. Nezumi hadn’t seen whatever Shion had written on his skin for his soulmate to read.

            It was easy enough to imagine. Shion had said it himself – a confession – and Nezumi knew how people felt about soulmates, how Shion felt about soulmates, still, despite Nezumi because what was Nezumi but a fun distraction, but a way to warm the cold winter nights, but a brief respite from the snowstorms falling against the windows?

            Fine. Shion was the same thing to Nezumi as well. Nothing real. Nothing important.

            “Please don’t be upset,” Shion started, and Nezumi shook his head, stood up abruptly and felt the soreness in his back and limbs from having fallen asleep on this stupid seat.

            “I don’t care, Shion. I really don’t give a shit, don’t kid yourself that I do,” Nezumi replied, working to calm his voice, to keep his words cool.

            There was no need to get worked up. Not over this man.

            Maybe Shion had written – I love you – a standard, simple confession.

            Maybe Shion had written – Happy Christmas Eve! Love you – as it was Christmas Eve, after all, and Shion had said it to Nezumi but that didn’t mean he didn’t have other people to say it to as well.

            Nezumi only had Shion, but that didn’t mean Shion didn’t have someone else, and of course he did, he had his godforsaken soulmate and their damn SSTCs that they’d probably been sending to each other all this time – how could Nezumi have let himself imagine otherwise?

            “You’re clearly upset,” Shion said, standing up as well, reaching out as Nezumi stepped back.

            “Why would I be upset?” Nezumi replied coolly, wanting to look away from him, those familiar features that shouldn’t have been so familiar, why had Nezumi let them get so familiar, why had he let his guard down, even for a second, even for a night?

            “Nezumi, I promise you. Nothing has to change. I don’t expect you to – ”

            “Why shouldn’t it?” Nezumi interrupted, and Shion blinked.

            “What?”

            “Why shouldn’t it change?” Nezumi asked, because for as much as he wanted not to care, not to think about whatever Shion said to his soulmate, whatever Shion felt for his soulmate, he couldn’t figure the guy out.

            Why was he bothering? What was the point?

            Nezumi had been a fascination. Sure. He understood that. Many people were entranced by Eve, and Shion had first seen Nezumi on stage, and it made sense, that Shion would be a little fascinated, that he’d be a little intrigued.

            Nezumi knew the effect he had on people. He was used to stares. Knew he was the object of fantasies, and of course he had been the object of Shion’s as well, that wasn’t a surprise.

            Shion got what he wanted. They’d spent nights together, Shion got his fling, got his fantasy, but clearly, he wanted his soulmate, it didn’t make sense for him to want to continue this with Nezumi.

            How long was Shion going to keep this up? Didn’t he want to be with his soulmate? Get over this little rebellion against traditional soulmate routine and live the life he was supposed to, with his soulmate and with no one else?

            “What – What do you mean?” Shion asked, looking thoroughly confused, and Nezumi stared at him.

            What did the guy expect? Nezumi had thought he was smart, thought he was some kind of genius, couldn’t he understand this simple thing?

            Did he really think he could have a relationship with his soulmate, have his happily ever after with his soulmate, and have Nezumi on the side for his entire life? Did that make any sense to him? Was that really what he wanted?

            It didn’t seem like the Shion Nezumi knew, but Nezumi didn’t know Shion, had to remind himself of this.

            They weren’t anything but strangers, really. It was impossible to know a person after only a few weeks.

            It was impossible to love a person after only a few weeks, and Nezumi had been kidding himself, thinking anything otherwise.

            Nezumi shook his head. He was done with this. Done with kidding himself. Done with being a fascination, a fantasy, a goddamn mistress, really, and he winced at the thought.

            “I’m tired, Shion, and I really don’t have time for this shit, all right?”

            Shion’s confusion gave way immediately to a look Nezumi knew well, because he’d had to adopt it many times for the characters in his plays.

            Heartbroken, Shion looked heartbroken.

            “Nezumi, don’t say that,” Shion said, but really, it was just a whisper.

            Nezumi swallowed. Clenched his jaw, but wouldn’t let himself care about this man because he had no reason to, no obligation to.

            “Let’s just be done, all right? Here,” Nezumi dug into his pocket, pulled out the keys he’d collected – one to the bakery, another to Shion’s apartment.

            He tossed them to Shion, who didn’t reach out, didn’t catch them, and they fell to the floor by his feet, clattering cheerily.

            “Nezumi – ”

            “We had a good run, right? Don’t ruin it,” Nezumi said, then turned, walked away from him.

            Only when Nezumi was near the exit of the room did he hear the slight jangle of keys, knew Shion was picking them up off the ground, pocketing them.

            Good. He could give them to his soulmate now. That was whom they belonged to, anyway.

*

Shion didn’t follow Nezumi. He also didn’t go back to work.

            He went to the bakery, which was absolutely packed, and walked straight back to the kitchen.

            He was going to make a cherry pie.

            Karan popped back while Shion pulled on his apron.

            “Oh, honey, I’m so happy you’re here. Can you man the front while I put some stuff in the oven?”

            “I’m going to bake a cherry pie,” Shion replied, glancing at his mother, who blinked at him, her expression shifting.

            She stared for another moment, then nodded once. “Okay, sweetheart,” she said softly, giving him a gentle smile, then leaving the kitchen again.

            Shion was glad that he was not questioned. Did not know what he would say if he were. Did not know if he’d be able to say anything.

            He knew the bakery was packed. It was Christmas Eve. His mother had endless orders.

            He knew baking was not his strength. He would be more useful in the front with the customers, while his mother baked quickly, with ease.

            But Shion didn’t care, at that moment, to do what others expected of him. What others wanted from him. What would be most helpful, what would be most considerate.

            He wanted to bake a cherry pie, and so he would do it, and he wouldn’t care about the rest.

            As Shion mixed the flour for the pie crust, he did not think about Nezumi jerking back from him in the theater, but about how much water he was supposed to add to the batter.

            As Shion rolled out the dough, he did not think about the cool of Nezumi’s voice, as if he didn’t care at all that Shion loved him, but about how he might smooth out the cracks that formed in his imperfectly circular crust.

            As Shion pressed the crust into the pan, he did not think about how Nezumi claimed to not give a shit about what Shion had written or how Shion felt about him, and instead wondered why his nails kept ripping the crust when he was being so careful with it.

            As Shion prepared the cherry mix, he did not think about how Nezumi did not want anything to do with him anymore, just because Shion had fallen in love, and really, it had been an accident, really, Shion hadn’t meant to do so at all – instead, he thought about whether or not the mix was too liquidy, whether or not the consistency was right, whether or not he should add more cherries or if he’d already added too many.

            As Shion poured the mix into his crush, he did not think about the keys Nezumi tossed to him, and instead, he remembered that he was supposed to bake the crust before adding the mix, then wondered if it would be worse to pour the mix back out and bake the crust or just bake it all at once now and chance whatever happened.

            As Shion cut strips of dough for the lattice top while his pie was in the oven, he did not think about the words Nezumi had tossed at him – We had a good run, right? – as if that was all it had been. Instead, he concentrated on cutting the strips evenly despite the fact that none of them looked even at all when he was done with it.

            And as Shion took his pie out of the oven, got to work on weaving the lattice top, he did not think about Nezumi’s back, the hard lines of it as the man had walked away from him. Instead, he thought about how this dough was delicate, fragile, and he had to be more careful with it, as he kept tearing his strips, he kept messing up his lattice, he kept ruining this pie until he was done and it almost exactly resembled the first pie Nezumi had made, the disaster of it that Nezumi had sighed at, running his hand through his bangs and getting flour in his hair that looked like snowflakes, soft white trapped in the dark of his hair, and Shion had watched it, waiting for it to melt in the heat of the bakery kitchen.

*

The Christmas Eve show was the biggest show of the year.

            The manager reminded the entire cast of this during rehearsal, even though he’d been reminding them for weeks.

            After rehearsal, while Nezumi let the make-up girl rub concealer over the SSTC on his shoulder that his soulmate still had not washed off, his manager came into the room.

            “You should knock, I might have been indecent,” Nezumi supplied, not looking away from the mirror, from where he watched his make-up girl’s careful application of concealer onto his skin.

            “What’s that?” his manager asked, pointing.

            “A tattoo of your mother’s ass,” Nezumi muttered, weaving his fingers through his bangs.

            “You’ve got a soulmate?”

            “Doesn’t everyone?” Nezumi asked tiredly.

            Why did everyone care so much about soulmates? Nezumi was going to go crazy for it.

            “That poor bastard, getting stuck with you,” his manager replied, and Nezumi gritted his teeth, then was only more pissed off for having been bothered by his manager’s words.

            He never let his manager’s incessant chatter get to him.

            “What’s it say?” the manager continued on, while Nezumi worked to relax himself.

            “It says get to your fucking point, old man. What the hell do you want?” he snapped, then took a breath, wishing he’d sounded calmer.

            “Don’t be so testy, Eve, show some respect for once. Just came to remind you of our chat last night. Don’t give me another half-ass performance, not tonight.”

            “The benefit of having a chat last night is we don’t have to have one right now. Get out, I heard you the first time,” Nezumi sighed.

            “I thought he performed very well last night,” the make-up girl cut in, and Nezumi closed his eyes to his reflection.

            “Very well isn’t good enough. I pay Eve to be spectacular. To be otherworldly, ethereal, to make people question if they are watching a human or a myth, a goddess, a deity.”

            “You definitely don’t pay me enough for that,” Nezumi muttered, looking at the underside of his closed eyelids, the darkness of them tinted a reddish orange from the light in his dressing room.

            “You’ve been distracted, Eve. Is that it? Your soulmate?”

            Nezumi opened his eyes. “Do you not know how to mind your own business, or do you just prefer not to?”

            “I prefer not to,” his manager replied flatly, as the make-up girl dropped her fingers from his skin.

            “It’s covered, you can get dressed,” she said softly.

            “Deal with your love affairs on your own time, Eve. Not on my stage. Got it?”

            “Are you done repeating yourself, or will you have another go?” Nezumi asked, finally turning to look at his manager, who narrowed his eyes, but said nothing and finally left.

            “I don’t think your performance was off, Eve,” his make-up girl said, as Nezumi stripped and pulled on Juliet’s dress.

            “Thanks,” he said, not caring to get into it, sitting and allowing her to apply his eyeliner.

            There was a pause, and then – “But it would be understandable if it was. Off, I mean. Your performance. I’m sure, if you told the manager, even he would understand – ”

            “Let’s skip the winged eyeliner today, I want to give my lines another read-through before the show,” Nezumi interrupted, and the girl fell silent, understanding her cue.

            She finished his make-up and left Nezumi to himself for the remaining minutes before he had to get on stage.

            He looked at himself in the mirror, waited to become Juliet, to live in Verona at a time when there was no such thing as SSTCs, no such thing as soulmates, no such thing as bakery boys with red eyes and white white hair.

            He became Juliet, and he stayed Juliet throughout the entire play, and he was not distracted, he was not off.

            After the play finished, Nezumi did not stick around to sign his fans’ playbooks the way he usually did on Christmas Eve, just to get his manager off his back for the rest of the year.

            Instead, Nezumi slipped out the back door, went home, straight to his shower. He scrubbed the concealer off his arm, was still scrubbing a minute later and wondering with vague annoyance if the concealer was sticking to his skin with unnatural resilience before realizing that there was nothing on his arm at all – not concealer, and not the words that had just been underneath it.

            The SSTC had been washed clean, and with it, Nezumi acknowledged, all contact with his soulmate for the rest of his life, in all likelihood.

            It was a relief. To first have Shion out of his life, to then have his soulmate out of his life, all in one day. Now, Nezumi would be at peace again, no more nuisances, distractions, inconveniences.

            He would be alone, the way he was used to, the way he preferred, the way he had been since he was twelve years old and the only way he knew how to be, the only way he cared to be, the only way he wanted to be.

            Or maybe this was not what he wanted. But Nezumi had always been an incredible actor, and if he could fool an entire town, a filled audience for twelve years’ worth of shows, then surely, at this moment, he could fool himself.

*

Chapter Text

Shion took Christmas off at the lab to work in the bakery.

            In the morning before opening the shop, he did prepwork in the kitchen, but as soon as he opened the bakery, Shion stayed at the front, where customers were consistent, a long line soon winding out of the bakery.

            Shion was glad to be kept busy. Was glad for the chatter of the customers, the constant rush, the line out the door and onto the street, the cocktail of smells from numerous baked goods wafting from the kitchen.

            Because Shion was not going to the lab later, he wore just a t-shirt. He was still sweating by eight, just an hour after opening the bakery. He ran his hand through his hair, felt the sweat slick back his bangs. He smiled at another customer. He took another order.

            He didn’t think about Nezumi.

            He was not given the opportunity to think about Nezumi, not allowed the excuse, not until noon, when Shion handed a bag of cookies to a customer before facing the next.

            It was not Nezumi, but Nezumi’s manager.

            “How can I help you?” Shion asked, but really he wanted to step back, away from this man who reminded him of Nezumi because Shion didn’t want a reminder.

            He didn’t want an opportunity to think about Nezumi. He didn’t want an excuse.

            “You know Eve,” the manager said, and it wasn’t a question.

            Shion swallowed. There was a line. People waiting to collect baked goods so they could return to their families, resume their holiday celebrations.

            “I remember you,” the manager continued, speaking slowly as if Shion had time to speak to him about Nezumi, to be reminded of Nezumi, to miss Nezumi. 

            “Sir, do you have an order?” Shion asked, his voice even despite the way his heart felt – rampant, shaking his body.

            “I’ve known Eve for a very long time,” the manager mused, as if he hadn’t heard Shion, and maybe he hadn’t.

            Sometimes, when Shion thought about Nezumi, he forgot to notice anything else. Maybe it was the same, with Nezumi’s manager.

            “I’ve never once seen him distracted. I’ve rarely seen him with any emotion other than those of his characters, but lately he’s been different. He used to seem robotic. Hardly human. Unaffected, do you see? But since I’ve scooped him back from this bakery, he’s been, ah, how to put it… Softer, I suppose. Not quite as smooth and undisturbed. Do you see what I mean?”

            Shion pressed his hands flat against the counter, thought about each word before speaking it. “I don’t know what to tell you, sir. I wish I could help, but – ”

            “I think it’s his soulmate. He was covering up an SSTC last night. I didn’t know he had started communication with his soulmate, but now it makes sense. That’s the change,” the manager continued, and Shion forgot about the line winding onto the street.

            Forgot about the packed bakery. Forgot that it was Christmas, and customers wanted to get their baked goods and get back to their families.

            He forgot that he didn’t want to think about Nezumi. He forgot that it hurt, to think about Nezumi.

            “Of course, Eve won’t speak a word to me. Detests me, always has.” The manager laughed a bit, as if he found it amusing to be hated by Nezumi, when to Shion, the thought was paralyzing. “But perhaps he’s spoken to you,” the manager continued, and Shion blinked.

            “About…his soulmate?” Shion asked, trying to understand.

            “I saw you after the opening show of Romeo and Juliet, leaving with him from the theater. He didn’t slip out the back door. He sought you out, didn’t he? You weren’t just a coworker, you were a friend when Eve does not have friends, has never in his life had friends, I can promise you that.”

            There was a line. The bakery was packed. There wasn’t time for this, there wasn’t any time at all.

            “I don’t know about his soulmate,” Shion said, finally, attempting to recover, to not think about how Nezumi had never had friends before, had never had anyone before.

            “Are you sure about that?”

            Shion took a breath. “He doesn’t believe in soulmates. That’s all I know.”

            “Oh yes, he’s mentioned that before. He’s lying, though, isn’t he?” the manager asked, leaning closer, and Shion blinked at him, forgetting that he didn’t have time to talk about Nezumi, didn’t have time to think about Nezumi.

            “What does that mean?”

            “Oh, Eve won’t speak to me unless it’s to complain about something or other. But the girl who does his make-up, you see, she found it unfair that I was being hard on Eve for his lackluster performances recently. Of course I am hard on him! He’s stunning, why should I let him settle for anything less? Well anyway, the girl came to me last night after the show to explain that Eve really wasn’t to blame, anyone would be distracted if they received an SSTC like he did.”

            This wasn’t Shion’s business. Nezumi’s SSTCs, whether he sent them, whether he received them, what they said, they weren’t any of Shion’s business. He knew this. If Nezumi found out his manager knew about his SSTCs, that his manager was telling Shion about them, he would have been enraged.

            It was a break of Nezumi’s trust. But then, Nezumi had broken Shion’s trust.

            Or, at least, he’d broken Shion’s heart, and that had to be just as important, didn’t it?

            Even so, Shion found himself shaking his head. “I have to ask you to leave if you’re not going to buy anything. I’m sorry, but today is a holiday, and we’re very busy – ”

            “Eve’s soulmate doesn’t want him. Can you imagine? The entire town wants Eve, but his own soulmate doesn’t. The irony, it’s almost hilarious,” the manager continued, and Shion knew his lips were open, but couldn’t remember how to conjure his voice, couldn’t think of a thing to say, couldn’t think at all.

            The manager, despite his words, did not look very amused, Shion was able to note.

            He looked almost sad, and Shion wondered if this man who had known Nezumi longer than anyone actually cared about him.

            Despite the snide remarks, despite Nezumi’s own hatred, maybe this man cared.

            “Eve says he doesn’t believe in soulmates, but now his soulmate doesn’t want him, and he’s finally cracking. Doesn’t seem like a coincidence, does it?” the manager asked quietly.

            Shion closed his eyes. He had seen Nezumi cracking too. He had watched the man get hurt, hadn’t understood why, had blamed himself, but maybe it hadn’t been him all along.

            Maybe the entire time, it had been Nezumi’s soulmate.

            “And you happen to be Eve’s only friend. I was hoping you might, ah, cheer him up, let’s say. Talk to him, seeing as you may be the only one who doesn’t find a conversation with that man unbearable. Do something, I can’t imagine what. I’d be the last to know what could possibly lift Eve’s spirits. But I thought, perhaps, you might. I would never deign to attempt to help Eve, stoically independent, ruthlessly autonomous as that bastard is. But you are the exception, aren’t you?” the manager said, and Shion opened his eyes, finally realized why Nezumi’s manager was standing in his mother’s bakery, holding up the line, telling Shion that Nezumi’s soulmate did not want him.

            Nezumi’s manager was pleading, in his own way. Like Nezumi, Shion realized, this man had pride. This man didn’t like to acknowledge the truth when the truth was that he gave a shit, when the truth was that he was worried about Nezumi, the truth was he cared about Nezumi and it wasn’t all about money, it wasn’t all about Nezumi’s performance in his plays.

            It was about Nezumi himself. His feelings. His well-being. His happiness.

            Nezumi’s manager, who could not do so himself, wanted Shion to help Nezumi. To talk to him. To make everything better, to bring back the Nezumi his manager used to know, the Nezumi he missed.

            Shion exhaled slowly. “I’m very sorry. I wish I could help. But Ne – Eve – doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. I don’t think he will speak to me,” Shion admitted, though the words hurt, though he had barely let himself think of them, and to say them out loud scalded his throat, his tongue, the roof of his mouth, burnt his lips on the way out.

            The manager did not seem particularly surprised by this. He nodded, stepped back, took a breath that rose his chest visibly.

            “Ah. I see. It was a gamble anyway, seeing if anyone could reason with Eve. I suppose he did always prefer to be alone. Thank you for your time, and I apologize for holding up your line. I’d get a pumpkin pie myself, but alas, I’m on this retched diet. Cholesterol, you see. Oh, and happy Christmas,” the manager said, then took another step back from the counter, turning as Shion called out to him.

            “Wait!”

            There wasn’t time for this. The next customers in line were probably getting impatient, but Shion hardly noticed them, barely saw them.

            The manager turned, not seeming surprised to be called back. “Yes?”

            “Did the SSTC – Did his soulmate – Did they say why? Why they couldn’t love him?” Shion asked, not knowing why he asked it when it was none of his business.

            Maybe because the thought was so impossible.

            How could someone who was meant to be with Nezumi give up that chance?

            How could anyone who had their other half in Nezumi let him go?

            The manager smiled a wane smile. “A classic tale. It appears poor Eve’s soulmate found love in someone else. The wrong person, much like Romeo and Juliet, as it would be. Star-crossed lovers, such a romantic thought, but then there’s always Paris, isn’t there? Supposedly fated to find love, but left alone in the end. Some might say that’s a better destiny than death, but loneliness might make for an even colder winter, don’t you think?”

            With that the manager turned and left, and Shion might have laughed at the dramatic nature of his exiting stride had he not been replaying the manager’s words in his head.

            Poor Eve’s soulmate found love in someone else.

            There was a line that whipped out the bakery. The customers were waiting. Christmas was the bakery’s busiest day, and there was no time for anything but work.

            Even so, Shion found himself stepping away from the register. Still stepping away until his back hit the wall, and then he was turning, unsure if the customers were calling out to him because his ears were full of cotton, or maybe it was snow, soft and fragile and melting in the heat of the kitchen where he finally found himself able to hear again as he spoke to his mother.

            “I have to go,” he said, and Karan looked up from where she was weaving the lattice of a pie.

            “What was that, honey?”

            “I’m sorry, Mom, but I have to leave. Right now. It can’t wait, I’m sorry, I know it’s busy,” Shion said, words rushed. He grabbed the sweater he’d hung on the hook beside his coat, pulled it on, grabbed his coat next.

            “Is everything all right?” Karan asked, and Shion turned to her, one arm in his coat, the other searching for the armhole.

            “Yes. Everything is right,” he agreed, and then his arm found the armhole, and his coat was on, and there was no excuse to stay still any longer.

            But Shion didn’t want an excuse.

            He wanted to find Nezumi.

            He wanted to find his soulmate.

*

Chapter Text

The next play was Antony and Cleopatra, and they’d be starting auditions the next day.

            That night – Christmas night – would be the last showing of Romeo and Juliet, even though it had only been in the theater for a week.

            Nezumi lay on his back on his bed, reading the scriptbook for Antony and Cleopatra.

            Another Shakespeare. The manager had given Nezumi the playbook after that morning’s rehearsal. Told Nezumi he wanted him as Cleopatra, and they hadn’t even had auditions.

            It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Nezumi’s manager wouldn’t have done two of Shakespeare’s plays in a row – three, if Rudolph wasn’t counted – for no reason at all. And as Nezumi had been slipping out the back after the Christmas Eve show, he’d seen his make-up girl talking to his manager, could make a good guess as to what they were talking about.

            It didn’t matter. The SSTC was washed off, and Nezumi didn’t care if his manager thought Nezumi needed pity or a pick-me-up or whatever gesture this goddamn play had been.

            Nezumi didn’t care what other people thought, especially not his manager. He liked Shakespeare, and it didn’t matter that the play was only picked because his manager felt bad that Nezumi’s soulmate didn’t give a shit about him.

            His manager had always been an idiot anyway. Nothing new there.

            Nezumi shut the scriptbook, dropped it onto his mattress. He knew the play anyway. Another tragedy. Another betrayal. Another heartbreak. Another death.

            Nothing new, but this was a good thing. Nezumi had never liked change.

*

Shion checked the theater first, but all of the doors were locked.

            He headed to Nezumi’s apartment next, walking past his lab building on the way, hardly glancing at it.

            There was no buzzer to get into Nezumi’s building, and Shion let himself in, rode the elevator because the stairs would take too long, bounced on his feet in the elevator because he didn’t want to keep still.

            As he’d checked the theater, then walked to Nezumi’s building, Shion had been putting it together.

            Nezumi hadn’t read the SSTC on Shion’s skin at all. He’d read it on his own arm. He didn’t know that Shion loved him, and he hadn’t known that when Shion had apologized for the SSTC in the theater the day before.

            Nezumi had thought Shion was apologizing for a confession to his soulmate, and of course he had assumed this confession was of love – for his soulmate, someone who was not Nezumi.

            “Idiot,” Shion mumbled in the elevator, shaking his head, but smiling all the same – unable to stop smiling, and he felt a little silly for it, but there didn’t seem to be much he could do about it.

            The elevator doors opened, and Shion all but launched himself out of them, and then he was at Nezumi’s door, and then he was knocking, and it wasn’t opening but then it was, and then there was Nezumi, standing in the doorway, looking so beautiful it emptied Shion’s lungs and he could not speak at all.

            “Jesus, Shion,” Nezumi muttered, shaking his head, stepping back, and Shion stepped forward, placed his hand flat against the door in case Nezumi was planning on shutting it.

            “Do you have a pen?” Shion asked, his words coming out in a rush when he was able to breathe again.

            It was alarming to him, his body’s reaction to Nezumi, just the sight of this man, just the sound of his voice, even after weeks of being around him, of speaking to him, of looking at him.

            He should not have felt so unraveled. He should not have felt so hot. He should not have felt so shaken. He should not have felt so overwhelmed.

            All at once, Shion felt the ache of missing Nezumi, even though it had hardly been a day since he’d seen him, even though it made no sense to miss Nezumi when the man was right there, in front of him, looking at him with careless eyes.

            It was not that wary, scrutinizing gaze. Nezumi’s gaze was light, like air, an indifferent sort of look, as if Shion was anyone, just a fan, just a stalker, just a stranger.

            “Believe it or not, I’m not a shop in the market,” Nezumi returned, nothing at all in his voice but disinterest, but Shion didn’t let it bother him.

            He knew Nezumi was a good actor. He knew Nezumi was a good performer. He knew Nezumi was a good liar.

            “You have to have a pen, Nezumi. You don’t have to let me in, just let me use a pen. Just for a second, then I’ll go if you want. I forgot to bring one, I was in a rush, I completely forgot.”

            “Sorry, no pen,” Nezumi said, shrugging, glancing away from Shion, behind him as if someone was there.

            Shion watched Nezumi reach up. Weave his fingers through his bangs, pushing them up off his forehead before dropping his hand again so that it hit his thigh lightly.

            “Anything to write with,” Shion insisted.

            “Here’s an idea,” Nezumi said, leaning closer, his eyes not as light anymore. Colder, now, an ice to them that made Shion wonder for a moment if he was not inside at all, but still walking to Nezumi’s apartment, trying to stop himself from running. “Turn yourself around, walk on home, and get your own damn pen. How’s that?”

            Shion fought not to let Nezumi’s tone affect him, not to step away from that glare. “I could do that,” he said, trying to sound casual, to keep his own voice light. “But then I’d just have to come back. An unnecessary trip, and it’s cold outside. It just started snowing on the walk over, and the flurry has probably grown into another snowstorm by now, if the weather is anything like it has been the past month.”

            Nezumi stared at him in such a way that Shion almost expected the man to hit him, but instead, Nezumi took another step away from Shion, crossed his arms over his chest.

            “Why do you want a pen?” he asked, and Shion couldn’t read his voice at all, couldn’t tell at all what Nezumi was thinking.

            “I want to show you something,” Shion replied.

            He could simply have explained it to Nezumi, but he had a strong feeling Nezumi wouldn’t believe him.

            Shion could have left, then, if Nezumi didn’t believe him. He could have gone home, gotten a pen, written Nezumi a million letters that he wouldn’t have been able to deny, wouldn’t have been able to ignore, but Shion didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to take a step away from this man.

            Now that he was beside Nezumi again, he didn’t want to be anywhere else.

            Nezumi smirked, but it was not the smirk Shion usually provoked from him, the slightly amused one, the just-a-little-bit fond one.

            This one was dry. Devoid of any humor. A tilt of the lips and nothing else.

            “Is it a magic trick?” Nezumi asked dryly.

            “Come on, Nezumi. Please, it’s important,” Shion said, and Nezumi’s smirk flinched, and then the man was turning away.

            Shion stayed in Nezumi’s doorway. Did not go inside of Nezumi’s apartment. Watched Nezumi walk to the chair he used as a nightstand, look down on it, then go to his bookshelf, glance around it, then disappear into the kitchen where Shion couldn’t see him.

            And then he was back again, this time disappearing into the doorway Shion knew was the bathroom.

            He came out with a pen in his hand, though when he returned to the doorway, Shion saw that it was not a pen at all.

            “Happy?” Nezumi snapped, and Shion could see the man was not indifferent anymore, not cold anymore.

            He was angry.

            Shion reached out, took what was shoved at him by Nezumi’s long fingers – black eyeliner pencil.

            Shion uncapped it. Lifted his hand.

            “You have to do that here?” Nezumi demanded. Mixed into the anger of his voice was shock, and Shion understood this.

            Nezumi thought Shion was writing an SSTC to his soulmate. And he was right.

            But Nezumi didn’t understand everything. He didn’t know who Shion’s soulmate was. He didn’t know whose skin Shion’s SSTC would show up on.

            “Yes,” Shion replied, glancing up to see that Nezumi’s expression had shifted once more.

            Gone was the anger, even the shock.

            All that was left was an emptiness, as he looked at Shion. A vulnerability, maybe, but Shion had never seen such a look on Nezumi, had never stripped away that constant guardedness so completely to unearth a look like this, couldn’t tell if he was just imagining it, maybe he was wrong, but he didn’t have time to figure it out because Nezumi’s door was slamming in his face.

            Shion was too late to stop it, had already moved his hand from against it in order to take the eyeliner pencil from Nezumi.

             “Wait, Nezumi – ”

            “Get the fuck away from me.” Nezumi’s voice was hollow, soft, barely traveled through his closed door between them so that Shion hardly heard it but as a whisper, and maybe it had been a whisper all along.

            Shion winced at the squeeze of his chest. Made himself look away from the door, lifted his hands again, and wrote on the back of his left with Nezumi’s eyeliner, unable to stand the thought of hurting Nezumi for a moment longer.

*

“Nezumi. Nezumi, look at your hand, okay? Can you just do that?”

            Nezumi could not look at his hand, as both of his palms were raised, the bottoms of them pressed hard against his eyes.

            He was not crying. There was no reason to cry because he wasn’t hurt, he didn’t care, it didn’t matter.

            He just didn’t want to see his closed door, knowing Shion was on the other side of it, writing a goddamn SSTC to his goddamn soulmate, having the nerve to come all the way over to Nezumi’s apartment to write his soulmate a love letter – what the hell was wrong with the guy anyway?

            How messed up could a person be?

            How sick and twisted and callous and –

            “I’m your soulmate, Nezumi. Just look at your hand, just look at it,” Shion was saying, his voice loud and clear despite the door between them, and Nezumi heard it even though he didn’t want to because his hands were over his eyes, not his ears.

            Nezumi froze, but he had not even been moving in the first place. Maybe it was just his lungs that froze, then. Maybe it was just his heart. Maybe just his pulse, or maybe it was every single system, every single organ, every single cell in Nezumi that froze as he heard what Shion was saying because he could hear the man clearly, so clearly.

            It took a moment, for Nezumi to unfreeze. And then he dropped his hands from his eyes. Opened his eyes. Looked at his hands, the palms of them, and they were empty but he didn’t expect to see anything anyway.

            He turned his hands over, almost flinched at the words on the back of his left hand in the slanted handwriting he knew well.

            The same handwriting that had chosen knitting needles as their first SSTC. The same handwriting that had told him a soulmate would be inconvenient at this time. The same handwriting that had told him his soulmate had fallen in love with someone else. The same handwriting that had apologized, as if Nezumi gave a shit what this stranger did, whom this stranger fell in love with.

            Now the handwriting said something else.

            Please open your door, Nezumi.

            Nezumi stared at the words. Was aware that Shion was still speaking through the door, and though the sound of his voice was still clear, the words were not. Nezumi had no idea what he was saying. Didn’t care about what he was saying.

            He touched the words on the back of his hand. They were clearly written in eyeliner, not pen. The lines a little blurrier, a little messier, a little thicker, a little darker. Nezumi rubbed at them hard, knowing how eyeliner smeared, but they didn’t.

            Of course they didn’t.

            Nezumi stared at them for several more seconds, then listened to what they said, not knowing why he was taking orders from words on the back of his hand, not knowing why he was taking orders from a stranger, not knowing why he was doing anything at all.

            Shion was still talking as Nezumi opened the door, then abruptly stopped.

            Nezumi wasn’t looking at Shion’s face. He was reaching out through the doorway between them, grabbing Shion’s wrist, and it was the wrong one, Shion’s hand was bare and holding Nezumi’s eyeliner pencil, so Nezumi dropped it, grabbed the other wrist, knew his grip was hard and didn’t care.

            “Nezumi – ”

            Please open your door, Nezumi.

            The words were on Shion’s hand. Nezumi lifted his thumb, rubbed it hard against Shion’s skin, watched the eyeliner smear over his own name, the same smear appearing on the back of Nezumi’s hand, distorting the syllables that Nezumi had offered Shion for the first time in the doorway of his mother’s bakery.

            The same doorway where Shion had grabbed Nezumi’s wrist, apologizing for offering charity when he’d really only been offering a job. The same doorway where Shion had kissed Nezumi for a week, too quick to count. The same doorway where Nezumi had kissed Shion back after a week, long enough to matter. The same doorway where Shion had asked Nezumi to come home with him for the night, the same doorway where Nezumi had agreed to go home with him for the night. The same doorway where snow had caught in their hair, blending into Shion’s like it wasn’t even there at all.

            The doorway where they stood now was not the bakery doorway. It was the doorway of Nezumi’s apartment, but for a second, Nezumi forgot that.

            For a second, he forgot everything.

            “Nezumi,” Shion was saying again, the sound of his name in that voice bringing Nezumi back to the present, though he wasn’t sure where else he could have gone.

            He still wasn’t looking at Shion’s face. Only at their hands, at the words Please open your door, at the smear that was where his name had been.

            “I was giving a presentation when you wrote Idiot on my face, you know. That was pretty immature of you,” Shion was saying, his voice soft, a smile in it that Nezumi refused to look at, hated himself for hearing because smiles weren’t audible.

            Nezumi was still holding Shion’s wrist. He didn’t know if he was holding it tightly. He didn’t know if his fingernails were digging into Shion’s skin. He didn’t know if he was holding it loosely. He didn’t know if Shion’s arm was slipping from his grasp, if they were barely touching at all.

            “Nezumi,” Shion said again, and now Nezumi dropped Shion’s wrist, now he stepped back, now he felt a little sick and he didn’t really know why but that he wanted Shion to get away from him, he wanted these words off his hand, he wanted this man out of his doorway.

            His soulmate. Shion was his soulmate.

            Nezumi didn’t think he was breathing correctly. Maybe not at all.

            “Nezumi, look at me. You know this doesn’t matter to me, right? I know you must have gotten my previous SSTC. I didn’t need you to be my soulmate to desire you. You know that’s not why any of this happened. I only just found out, Nezumi. I only just realized it. I never needed you to be my soulmate. I never needed a reason to fall in love with you. I never needed permission, or an obligation. It was never anything like that, and it isn’t now. It’s just – It’s just more convenient, that’s all. That’s all it is.”

            Nezumi closed his eyes.

            Yes, he knew this. He remembered clearly his previous SSTC – I fell in love with someone else. I didn’t mean to, it was just so easy, like I was supposed to, like I was meant to.

            Shion had written that. The someone else was Nezumi. Had been all along.

            Nezumi opened his eyes, saw Shion watching him very carefully, very gently, like Nezumi was something fragile, delicate like the dough he weaved into lattices on top of cherry pies.

            Nezumi looked away from him. He didn’t want to be something fragile. He didn’t want to be breakable, especially not by Shion. 

            “Explain yesterday,” Nezumi said, thinking he had to say something. His voice sounded lower than he’d intended.

            It was one thing that didn’t make sense. Shion had apologized for his SSTC. He must have thought Nezumi had seen what he’d written on the top of his arm, and of course Nezumi had seen it – just on his own skin.

            “Yesterday?” Shion asked.

            “Why did you apologize?”

            Nezumi did not want to look at Shion’s face, so he looked down at his hand again. The words Shion had written.

            This entire time. It had been Shion this entire time. Since I fell in love with someone else. Since I hope we can continue our SSTC at a time that’s better for both of us. Since I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, which is distracting me from my work. Since It’s your turn to write to me.

            Since knitting needles.

            “I thought you saw the SSTC on my arm, I thought you were upset because I’d written that I was in love with someone else, which was obviously you. I thought I’d freaked you out,” Shion explained, slowly, like Nezumi was a child, and Nezumi looked at him again.

            “Why would that freak me out? I’ve been confessed to several times,” Nezumi replied coolly, and Shion smiled gently.

            “I’m not surprised.”

            Nezumi narrowed his eyes at Shion. He never could figure this guy out.

            “Is that okay?” Shion was saying.

            “What?”

            “That I’m in love with you? I don’t want to put pressure on you, Nezumi. You weren’t even supposed to see. It’s not an obligation for you, and neither is being my soulmate. I don’t think you owe me anything. This is just how I feel.”

            “I’m well aware that I don’t owe you anything,” Nezumi replied, ignoring the rest, thinking this guy talked far too much, it was ridiculous, honestly, Nezumi should have known from the start that it was Shion from the paragraphs his soulmate would leave.

            His soulmate. Shion was his soulmate.

            Nezumi looked away from him again. At his hand again. Couldn’t stop looking at that slanted handwriting, the smudge of eyeliner that had been his name.

            Nezumi glanced at the pad of his thumb on his right hand. There was a stain of eyeliner there, from where he’d smeared the letters of his name on Shion’s hand. Shion must have had a stain of eyeliner on his own thumb now.

            It was too much. It was ridiculous. The whole concept of soulmates was absurd, it was a gene mutation, it had nothing at all to do with love, this wasn’t love, a smudge of eyeliner wasn’t love.

            Shakespeare wrote of love. Of passion. Of true feeling, and that had nothing to do with what could be written on whose skin.

            “Nezumi – ”

            Nezumi didn’t want to know what Shion said next. Probably something longwinded. Probably something insane and logical at the same time, in that annoying way he did.

            “I still don’t believe in soulmates, Shion,” Nezumi interrupted, to the pad of his thumb. He didn’t want to look at Shion. He thought Shion terrified him a little bit, but that made no sense, that couldn’t be right.

            “I didn’t expect you to. I don’t want you to. I just want us to go back. To before – before it all got messed up somehow. Before we hurt each other.”

            Nezumi shoved his hands deep into his pockets so he wouldn’t have to look at his damn SSTCs anymore.

            “You never hurt me,” he said, because Shion hadn’t hurt him, Shion couldn’t hurt him.

            “I didn’t want to,” Shion said.

            “You didn’t,” Nezumi snapped, glaring up at the man, who looked calmly back.

            “Well, that’s good then. I’m happy to hear that,” Shion said quietly, nodding once, then looking at Nezumi a moment more before stepping back, away from Nezumi. “Anyway, that’s all I had to say to you. I have to get back to the bakery, I left my mom there alone, and it’s the busiest day of the year. Oh, that reminds me – Happy Christmas, Nezumi.”

            Nezumi did not believe that Shion was going to leave just like that.

            That’s not what Shion did. He was basically a stalker. He was insanely dedicated to anything he put his heart into. He didn’t give up until he was satisfied with the outcome. He worked for what he wanted, and he didn’t leave until he got it.

            And he wanted Nezumi – hadn’t he only just said that? Isn’t that what he’d meant?

            That he wanted Nezumi, that he’d wanted him all along, soulmate or not – wasn’t that the truth?

            Shion lingered just a moment, but Nezumi was certain he’d stay longer, waited and was proved wrong when Shion turned, when Shion walked away.

            By the time Nezumi finally got around to whispering – “Happy Christmas, Shion” – his soulmate was gone.

*

Shion had to run to the kitchen, leaving the front of the shop unmanned, when the fire alarm went off.

            Karan had left a set of cupcakes in the oven for too long, swamped as she was with orders and the back-up that formed when Shion left the bakery to find Nezumi.

            After the fire alarm incident, Shion ran back and forth from the kitchen to the register, taking care of customers between helping his mother so that by the time Shion had returned to the bakery for only an hour after finding Nezumi, he was completely covered in flour and sweat.

            He was in the back, icing a fresh, not-burnt set of cupcakes, when Karan pointed.

            “What’s that on your hand, honey?”

            “What?” Shion asked, because it couldn’t be his SSTC, seeing as the eyeliner had rinsed right off when he’d washed his hands upon returning to the bakery.

            There was still the smear of it on the pad of his right thumb, though, that he couldn’t wash off.

            Shion glanced at his hand, distracted, and squeezed the icing bag too hard on accident, a large glob of chocolate frosting landing on a cupcake.

            2 apple pies, 1 pecan, a dozen xmas cc’s

            “Oh, that’s Nezumi’s handwriting, isn’t it? That’s rather convenient. I’m so happy he’s here, we do need the help. Christmas cc’s…? Ah, cupcakes, of course. Good thing we’ve got that batch done. Honey, bring them up after you ice them, all right? And fix that one, that’s too much icing,” Karan said, after leaning down to read Shion’s hand, which Shion was still staring at.

            It was Nezumi’s handwriting, but of course it was – Nezumi was his soulmate.

            Shion stared a moment more, but then his mother was squeezing his wrist gently, reminding him that they were in a rush, so he got back to icing the cupcakes, fixing the one he’d messed up before taking them and the pies to the front, where Nezumi was at the register, flashing his charming smile at the customers in the front of the line.

            The two girls giggled as Shion walked up to the counter, placing the baked goods beside the register.

            “One apple pie. Have a very merry Christmas, ladies,” Nezumi said, smiling again and sliding a pie to the girls, then ringing up the pecan pie for the next customer, the second apple pie for the couple after that, and the cupcakes for the family behind them.

            Shion, meanwhile, stood and stared until Nezumi glanced at him, his charming smile slipping into a smirk, this one familiar, this one warm.

            “Stop staring like an idiot and do some work, will you? As much as I enjoy having you drool over me, we’re a bit backed up,” Nezumi said, and Shion wanted to go along with this familiar banter but for the part of him that wondered if it was all just happening inside his head.

            “What are you doing?” he asked, and Nezumi raised his eyebrows.

            Shion fully expected Nezumi to say something along the lines of I’m trying to get an idiot to bake some pies while I ring up this line, but instead, Nezumi’s smirk fell into a soft smile.

            Not quite like his charming smile, and not a smile Shion had seen often from this man, though he had seen it before.

            In the early mornings, when Nezumi was soft and sleepy and sometimes let these smiles slip if Shion stole a kiss from his cheek when they set up the front of the bakery.

            “You wanted to go back to before. Before we hurt each other. Isn’t that what you said?” Nezumi asked, and Shion stared at him.

            Yes, he had said that. He vaguely remembered saying that. He vaguely remembered Nezumi denying it. He vaguely remembered the way this denial had squeezed the pit of his stomach as he stood just outside Nezumi’s doorway.

            He managed to nod, and Nezumi reached out, rubbed his thumb over Shion’s cheek, and Shion could only imagine there was flour there, as there was flour everywhere.

            “Consider it a Christmas gift. I expect something good in return, so start thinking about it. But think while you work, you’re holding up the line, really, this isn’t the day to be slacking off.”

            Shion blinked at Nezumi a moment more, then glanced at Nezumi’s hand, gone from his cheek now, saw indeed the orders for two apple pies, a pecan pie, and a dozen Christmas cookies.

            He felt himself smiling, turned before Nezumi could see, returned to the kitchen feeling as though all of the heat from the oven he opened to check on the scones was swirling in his chest.

            He started peeling apples in order to pretend that everything was normal and was halfway through when his mother, beside him mixing chocolate chip cookie dough, turned to him.

            “Did you just ask me about whether it was all right to fall for someone who was not your soulmate to dissuade suspicion, then?” she asked, and Shion finished peeling the apple in his hand, trying to figure out what she meant, before glancing at his mother.

            “What?”

            “You’re in love with Nezumi, and clearly he’s your soulmate at least as far as SSTCs are concerned. So did you only ask me if I thought it was all right for you to love someone who was not your soulmate so that I wouldn’t suspect you two?”

            Shion stared at his mother, who raised her eyebrows.

            “What is it, honey?”

            “How did you know about Nezumi and I?” Shion asked, and his mother laughed lightly.

            “Oh, sweetheart. There is not a thing I don’t know about that goes on in my bakery. That includes the cleaning cupboard, honey,” she said, and Shion was glad he wasn’t currently peeling an apple, as he had a feeling his hand would have slipped and he’d have peeled his own skin.

            “You – But – I didn’t – We – ” Shion could think of nothing comprehensive to say, felt his skin burning, but his mother seemed thoroughly unconcerned with his embarrassment.

            “So why did you ask about whether relationships outside of soulmates were unacceptable, or at least, deemed so by society, as I believe you put it?”

            Shion fought to compose himself, took a breath before replying, still feeling completely sheepish. “I just found out today. That he’s my soulmate.”

            “Really? Oh, well that’s lovely,” Karan said, and Shion watched as his mother poured chocolate chips into the batter.

            “Why?” he asked, thinking a whole lot of heartache could have been saved if they’d just known from the start.

            His mother glanced at him, her head cocked. “Oh, it’s always better to fall in love because you want to, rather than because you think you have to, don’t you think? I never believed that soulmates were romantic, really. Loving someone because it’s set in stone that you must – where is the beauty in that? There’s something to be said, in finding someone all on your own, loving them only because you want to, only because the world would seem so much colder if you didn’t.”

            Shion glanced away from his mother, down at his wrist where Nezumi had written 3 chocolate scones because Shion’s entire hand was full with orders by now.

            Shion smiled down at the order.

            Yes, he thought. There was something to be said in finding Nezumi all on his own. In loving him only because he wanted to, only because it was the only thing that made sense.

            Only because even the constant snowstorms raging for the past month and a half had felt warm with Nezumi beside him.

            “It is rather useful, though, using your SSTC for orders,” Karan added. “I wish you’d figured it out sooner, imagine how much easier it might have been.”

            Shion laughed, shook his head and went back to peeling apples.

            Halfway through the next apple he peeled, he watched as Nezumi wrote below the order for scones, 2 lemon tarts, a dozen cinn buns.

            He wondered, if by the end of the night, his skin would be full of orders, full of baked goods, full of Nezumi’s loose handwriting, the easy scrawl of it that Shion could get used to having over every inch of his body.

*

“Can I get your autograph, Eve?”

            Nezumi pushed his bangs from his eyes, turning to offer his pen to his next fan – grudgingly having obliged to his incessant manager’s orders to sign autographs tonight since he’d skipped out the night before – only to find an idiot grinning in front of him instead, red eyes crinkled with the unnecessary width of his smile.

            “Didn’t I tell you I’d meet you at your place? It’ll be a while till I can get out of here,” Nezumi said, shaking his head at the idiot.

            Shion smiled wider, as if that were possible. Nezumi wondered how his face didn’t split right in half.

            “I can’t leave without my autograph. You can just sign it somewhere on yourself, I’m sure I’ll get it,” Shion said, and Nezumi rolled his eyes.

            The guy was so stupid it was too much to bear.

            “Get out of here. My entire arm is covered in concealer, by the way, thanks to you.”

            “You’re the one who started writing orders on your hand, I definitely didn’t tell you to do that,” Shion pointed out.

            “Yet somehow I still blame you. Go on, I’ll see you there, I’ve got a line of crazy stalker fans.”

            “None of them as crazy as me though,” Shion said, still grinning, and Nezumi had no idea how he could be so happy.

            Thought it might have been because of himself, but then made himself ignore the thought because it was embarrassing, frankly, how warm the idea made him.

            “Definitely not,” Nezumi muttered, shaking his head, and then Shion was leaning up, kissing him quickly on the lips like those very first kisses he’d stolen in the doorway of his mother’s bakery, and again, it caught Nezumi off guard to have such a quick kiss stolen from him, just like that.

            The fans surrounding Nezumi started shouting, prompted by this idiotic kiss, no doubt, but Nezumi didn’t have a chance to yell at Shion, as the man was already slipping through the crowd, only his shock of white white hair visible amidst the rest of Nezumi’s fans.

            Nezumi shook his head, suppressing his smile as he turned to offer his autograph to his next fan.

            By the time Nezumi managed to get out of the theater, it was past one in the morning.

            Technically, that meant it was no longer Christmas, but the Christmas lights were still on, flashing brightly amidst the tangle of tree branches and store fronts and the moonlit swathe of dark night.

            It was snowing, as well, but this was no surprise. Nezumi couldn’t remember the last day it hadn’t snowed.

            He didn’t mind it so much. The flakes were thick tonight, fell slowly in large clumps, and Nezumi made footsteps in the freshly fallen heaps of it, forging a trail all the way to Shion’s apartment.

            Shion had slipped his keys in Nezumi’s pocket when Nezumi had left the bakery to head to the theater earlier that afternoon, probably thinking he was being sly about it, and Nezumi let him think it.

            He let himself into Shion’s building, took the stairs up to Shion’s floor, got to Shion’s door and unlocked it as well, kicked his boots off by the doorway so as not to track snow onto the carpet.

            He shed his jacket as he walked through Shion’s place, stopping at the bathroom to wash his face and pee before heading to Shion’s room, stripping the rest of his clothing down to his boxers as he made his way to Shion’s bed.

            When he got in bed beside Shion, the man shifted, red eyes opening and finding Nezumi.

            “Oh, I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” Shion murmured, rolling over to his side.

            Nezumi reached out, strung his fingers through Shion’s hair. “It’s fine. Go back to sleep. I’ll yell at you in the morning about the rest of my fans who kept asking me for a kiss after your senseless display.”

            “I didn’t give you your Christmas present,” Shion mumbled, his voice thick from sleep, and Nezumi trailed his fingers down from Shion’s hair, to his eyelashes, his nose, his lips.

            “Too late now, Christmas is over,” Nezumi replied. He could feel Shion’s exhales against the pads of his fingers, the cool skate of his inhales.

            “Oh. It was going to be sex,” Shion said, and Nezumi laughed.

            “You’re so predictable,” he replied, even though Shion was anything but.

            “I’m tired, let’s do it tomorrow,” Shion murmured, closing his eyes again, and Nezumi nodded against his pillow even though Shion’s eyes were closed.

            They could do it tomorrow. Nezumi would be here. He would be in this bed the next night too, and the night after that.

            This was where he belonged. And it was not because Shion could write on his skin and it would show up on Nezumi’s, or vice versa.

            It was not because this was where Nezumi was supposed to be, or fated to be, or even needed to be.

            It was because this was where he wanted to be. And it was about time, Nezumi thought, that he got what he wanted, even when what he wanted terrified him a little bit, even when what he wanted distracted him from work, even when what he wanted worried him, even when what he wanted was his soulmate, and he’d never believed in soulmates anyway.

            Nezumi wanted Shion so much he forgot to care about every other problem that came with falling for him, or maybe it was just that they didn’t seem like problems, really.

            They just felt like things that didn’t matter, not in comparison to this man he wanted beside him, not only during the cold nights, but every other night too, and every single day between them.

            “Nezumi,” Shion whispered, and Nezumi glanced at him, thinking for a moment he was sleep-talking before seeing that Shion’s eyes were open again.

            “Hi,” Nezumi said, and Shion smiled lazily.

            “This means it’s okay, right?” Shion asked, and Nezumi wondered if the man was aware he was making no sense.

            “Don’t talk to me if you’re half asleep,” Nezumi replied, shifting closer to Shion only because there were inches between them, and Nezumi didn’t see the use of that.

            “Being soulmates. That I love you. Are you okay with that?” Shion asked, and Nezumi concluded that the man was half asleep.

            Shion could be pretty senseless, but he’d never been as naive as this.

            “Don’t ask such stupid questions,” Nezumi muttered, closing his eyes.

            “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

            “If you already know the answer, it’s a stupid question,” Nezumi replied, not knowing why he was allowing the conversation to continue.

            “I don’t know the answer. That’s why I asked,” Shion said, and Nezumi opened his eyes so that he could narrow them at the idiot.

            “Weren’t you almost asleep? Go back to that.”

            “I think we’ve had enough miscommunication for a while, don’t you? I just want to be clear,” Shion said, and Nezumi rolled his eyes, but reached out all the same, wrapped an arm over Shion’s torso because the man was so warm, Nezumi couldn’t help wanting him closer.

            Nezumi sighed. “To be your soulmate, Shion, is the biggest honor that could possibly be bestowed onto me. To be loved by you is the highest glory I expect to receive in the whole of my life. Is that good enough?”

            Shion laughed, a sleepy, breathless laugh that had Nezumi nearly flinching at the heat instantly coating him.

            “I could have done without the sarcastic tone, but I guess that’s pretty good. For now. Sincerity goes a long way, you know, you could work on that.”

            “Subtlety goes a long way too,” Nezumi murmured. “As does silence.”

            Shion laughed again. “Goodnight, Nezumi.”

            Nezumi closed his eyes. “Happy Christmas, Shion,” he whispered, even though technically Christmas was over.

            Somehow, it felt as though the holiday was only just beginning.

 

THE END