illustrated by marourin
“You’re Hiroshi Nakamura, right? I’m Shiro,” says the other student. “I’m your partner.”
Shiro has pale, messy hair and his shirt sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. He looks unkempt and has the air of sloppy dishevelment so many teenage boys try to emulate, a sort of bored elegance.
Hiroshi stares at him. “You’re twenty minutes late,” he says, very slowly and clearly. “You don’t even have a book, or the assignment sheet…”
“Details,” says Shiro, shrugging. His smile is a little too innocent.
Hiroshi wonders if he can get away with strangling his partner at this point in the class.
He knows that they are in the same level, share the same sort of classes, but they have never come face to face before. Everybody knows him. He is known to be charming, ‘so charming, but almost a little frightening,’ say the girls, ‘creepy guy,’ say the boys, but refuse to elaborate.
“You complicate things,” Shiro says and shakes his head almost reflexively. His eyes are an odd shade of gold in his pale, sharp face. He bends over a notebook during the whole period. Hiroshi watches him fill sheets of paper with straight black lines for an hour, puzzling. He tries to write a few ideas down, but his eyes keep straying back to the other student and he gives up on completing the project.
The teacher comes over once and asks if they were going to do anything during the period. Hiroshi watches Shiro fill in another black line, neatly, then erase it and fill it again.
“I guess not,” he says.
“It’s due tomorrow,” warns the teacher. Shiro doesn’t even look up. Hiroshi says nothing, but watches Shiro fill in slanting lines with pale, clean cut hands. His fair hair falls against his cheek. Hiroshi looks away.
The teacher says that time is up, and everyone goes back to their places. Shiro puts his notebook away and goes to sleep. Hiroshi looks back at him, half-slumped in his seat, part of his hair sticking out from underneath his scarf. Shiro doesn’t stir for the rest of the period, except to turn over in his sleep restlessly.
The other student only seems to wake up, groggily after the bell has rung. Hiroshi waits for him. Impatient, he reaches out to touch his shoulder, lightly, and finds his wrist caught in an iron grip. The other student blinks at him, surprised ,from sleep-dazed eyes. “Don’t,” he says mildly, and lets Hiroshi go. They duck into the corridor, moving in a mass of anonymous bodies, and he looks at the other boy.
“We should research the project,” he says.
Shiro looks at him with lack of interest. “Fine,” he says. “We’ll go over to your house.”
Hiroshi opens his mouth to protest. Shiro was scary. Even so- “Maybe we should go to the library.”
A girl tugs at his sleeve, and he looks down. He frowns, trying to place her. She sits beside him in homeroom. “Hiroshi,” she says boldly. She’s pretty and popular. “I was wondering what you were doing tonight?”
He looks at her for a moment, and realizes what she’s asking. “I’ll be at the library, researching my history project,” he says, and offers her a smile. “I’ve got to go now. Bye.”
He shakes Reni off and catches up to Shiro.
The other student slants him a look over his shoulder and Hiroshi realizes that he’s overheard everything. Something about his look makes the situation scornful and almost obscene. His wrist tingles. He doesn’t care for the implied amusement in his expression.
“So,” he says, too quickly and tries to avoid rubbing his wrist. “I’ll meet you outside when school ends?”
He finds Shiro waiting for him outside the school gates, hands in his pockets and hair blowing the wind. “So,” he says, and Hiroshi is startled by the sound of his voice, rougher and tired.
He looks more disheveled than before, and it makes him seem more alive. “Something wrong?” he asks.
Shiro’s amber eyes are amused. Hiroshi reminds himself that there’s something strange about this unknown student, too many variables.
“Do we have time to finish this?” Shiro asks.
“We should,” says Hiroshi. ‘We’ll have to stop by the library now that school is over.” He pulls the paper out of his bag, smoothing it out. “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, ” he reads aloud.
Shiro makes an involuntary movement, but he’s composed and superior by the time that Hiroshi glances at him.
“We don’t need to do this project,” he says, offhand. “The teacher wouldn’t dare fail you.”
Hiroshi studies him. “Or you?”
Shiro shrugs, easily. “Probably not,” he says. His smile is thin. “What does it matter?”
“I don’t feel like doing your work,” says Hiroshi. He knows that most people think of him as mature and responsible; they would do the same with Shiro, but he’s annoyed by a system that’s discomfited by its students. It seems like a waste.
They walk to the library in silence, whether comfortable or uncomfortable Hiroshi cannot divine.
The town goes like this: the streets forming the main part of the town with convenience stores and gas stations run sideways and loop around each other. The high school is next to the main part of town, but considerably further, and the library sits in between them. Because people gravitate towards the shops, the little restaurants and hometown cafes, they assume that this is the center of town. Very few have ever figured out that the center of town is not, in fact, the shopping center, but somewhere between that and the high school.
Neither have they come up with a reasonable explanation why a small town with an uninteresting location and no particular prospects or industries urbanized so quickly, or why people visit constantly and often decide to stay.
The library is next to an abandoned mansion in what used to be the good part of town. Nowadays, the land that they are placed on is worth far more than the houses themselves, but they are registered as historical landmarks. Prospective buyers are understandably dismayed, but the town stands firm upon it. They’ve become accustomed to modernization, but they refuse to allow some things to change, even if, as time goes on, they don’t have a specific reason why.
“We have to write a report, right?” says Shiro. “About the story.”
Hiroshi looked at him in surprise. “I though you were sleeping.”
“I was,” said Shiro, “but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening.”
They go to the library, but because neither of them have cards, they search online and print the story out quickly. Hiroshi reads it. It’s a good story, and he likes it, but it bothers him vaguely. Something about it seems familiar.
As they leave the library, Reni and a person Hiroshi assumes is her brother approach them. The family resemblance is unmistakable.
“Hiroshi,” she says, and smiles at Shiro. “I’m Reni Mihara. What are you doing your project on?”
“A fairy tale,” he says. Something about it still bothers him.
“What happens?” she asks.
“A moon girl and an Emperor fall in love,” says Hiroshi. “But her time on earth ends, and she goes back home.”
“Why?” asks Reni. “If she loved him so much, why didn’t she stay?”
“Because,” Shiro says. “They were from different worlds. It had nothing to do with love. It was about living.
“She left him a part of her immortality, but he didn’t take it. He didn’t want to live his life without her, so he tried to get rid of it.”
A crow calls, harshly. Hiroshi looks up. There are a few circling around their heads. Actually, when he turns to look, there are quite a lot more. They are sitting neatly on telephone wires, all in a row. There is something about the way they are waiting that makes him nervous.
He stares at them and starts to walk a little faster. As if it were a signal, the birds leave the wires and start to circle overhead. There is a black cloud of them now.
There is something strange about their eyes.
‘Hiroshi-” says Reni, nervously. “What’s going on?”
Her brother steps back and cups his hands over his eyes. “They don’t usually gather like that,” he says, puzzled. “Not unless there’s a lot of food around, or a carcass, and we’re the only ones- ” he falters to a stop, his gaze still fixed on the birds.
His sister tugs his hand, harshly. “Come on!”
“Reni,” says Hiroshi, pushing them forward, “walk quickly, but don’t run. And don’t stop.” The street is empty, except for the occasional house hidden in the trees. He looks up at them warily.
Their eyes don’t have the brightness of a bird’s eyes. They’re just hollow circles, as if someone punched out holes and left them.
Shiro’s face is closed. He’s moving smoothly, unhurried except for a slight tenseness in his walk. “The old house,” he murmurs to Hiroshi. “There won’t be any alarms, and it’s made out of brick.”
The birds are following them, closer to the ground now. They start to change, as if they are losing their shapes.
“They can’t be real,” the Mihara boy says, staring at them. “They look like something out a fairytale.”
Reni trips. One of the creatures has part of itself wrapped around her ankle, and is dragging her towards them. Hiroshi reaches her, and tears at the creature. It almost covers her face. Parts of it come off in his hands and stick to him, as he tries to pull it off her. Shiro is suddenly there, pulling them away. The thing lashes at him, cutting at his back. Hiroshi has a moment of pure, blind panic, but Shiro straightens and keeps running.
The parts of the creature burn when they come in contact with his skin. He doesn’t want to think about what it must have done to Reni.
Somehow they make it into the old house. Shiro smashes the doorknob, and barricades it behind them.
Hiroshi is out of breath. He feels like he’s drowning, like this is some strange nightmare. He’s never been so afraid and simultaneously angry; he never realized how weak being human felt.
Shiro bends and rummages through his bag. He sets aside books, folders, and notebooks neatly and finally pulls out a gun. He loads it, casually, and offers it to Hiroshi.
“You do know how to shoot this, don’t you?” he asks.
Hiroshi looks at him. “You’re insane,” he says, then wonders how much worse a gun is compared to hundreds of supernatural spirits.
There’s something about this house. It doesn’t bother him, exactly, but there’s a certain quality to it. It feels like it’s been waiting for a very long time. It feels appropriate. He doesn’t know why, but he feels grounded in it, centered.
Something smashes against the door, and Reni cries out.
Shiro is watching him. There might be sympathy in those golden eyes. He tilts his head and he’s so prosaic, so perfect. Hiroshi. Hiroshi.
His voice sounds like something underneath the ocean, underneath the sun, inside him and around him.
They say that in the water, you can hear anything.
They say, in the water it doesn’t matter how far anything is, the sound waves, no matter how faint will carry.
They say, just listen.
“Shut up,” he says, cocking the gun.
Reni screams, quickly, and he slaps her. She takes a gasping breath, readying herself for another scream, and he looks at her, looks into her wide eyes and says, “Don’t scream.”
He forces his own worry down and tries for calm. “If you scream, they’ll know where we are. They’ll come after us. Don’t say anything. Don’t make any noise that you don’t have to.”
Reni’s panicking. Any moment now, she’ll lose control. He doesn’t know what to do.
Shiro steps forward and put a protective arm around her without actually touching her.
He’s sheltering her. His voice is kind and firm. “Reni,” he says. “Come with us. Live.”
They break into one of the rooms. He pries the cupboards open and finds a rusted knife, cobwebs, the remains of something’s bones, and matches, as well as a half-open tin of salt.
He looks at the salt, and swallows, remembering his spirit lore. Hiroshi takes it and scatters around the living room; the largest space, relatively unencumbered, as they huddle together and try to rest. Shiro looks at Hiroshi, and smiles that familiar half smile. He looks tired. Discomfited. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay.”
“Watch them,” says Hiroshi, and loads his gun. The Mihara boy has regained some of his courage.
“That won’t protect us against spirits,” he says, a little scornfully. “They don’t have bodies.”
Hiroshi looks at him. Locks eyes. “I know,” he says, wishing he could explain why he’s so sure that they can hold the spirits off, but he doesn’t understand it either. He knows what will work, but he doesn’t remember learning it.
It grows darker. He prowls their circle, restless. The things pressing against the windows, frustrated, aren’t human. Reni stirs, and he brushes her hair from her forehead, checking what he knows. Her skin is clammy with sweat. She looks at him.
He turns away, and looks towards the windows, his gun across his knees.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean–”
He says nothing. Shiro wakes up, smiling faintly. “Oh. Ignore him, Reni, he just likes to brood.”
Hiroshi makes a sound, not exactly dissent, nor protest. He’s astonished to find himself laughing.
“We’ll be all right,” he says, and he’s not sure if he means it but he’ll be damned if they die. He isn’t sure what to say. “Your back is hurt,” he says. “We should take care of that before it gets infected.”
“Everything will be fine,” Shiro says. He arranges Reni gently on the floor and looks at Hiroshi. They go upstairs, quietly, and Hiroshi makes another circle of salt.
“Reni would be upset if you were badly injured,” says Hiroshi. His mouth is dry.
Shiro almost smiles. There’s something strange in his expression. He reaches for Hiroshi and wrapped his hands around his wrists. It feels familiar, comfortable.
Shiro’s hands are reassuringly chilly, his palm calloused, and he slides him closer and puts his forehead to Hiroshi’s.
“It’ll be all right,” he says. He’s grim and laughing at the same time. “I know it will,” he says and let Hiroshi go.
He smiles. “Besides, little Reni would be so devastated if you weren’t there to comfort her. She would never find comfort in my promises of undying love. I’m much too blunt, too callous, too cruel…”
“You’re never intentionally cruel,” says Hiroshi automatically. “You just say things that you cannot–will not mean.”
“No?” Shiro says, and his voice is dangerous, light and easy.
Hiroshi sighs, and starts to unravel a mass of bandages. He keeps first aid equipment in his backpack for some sport or another. Now it seems very far away.
“Turn around,” he says. His hands are gentle on Shiro’s back, smoothing balm into the scratches. Shiro’s mouth curves into a smile. “Why?” he asks. “Do you think I’m so helpless that I can’t even protect myself, let alone Reni? Do you think I’m incapable of caring?”
Hiroshi’s eyes flicker up to meet his. “No,” he says evenly. “You’re not weak. Caring about people doesn’t make you weak. It just means that you’re a decent person. But I don’t think you can keep that promise.”
He realizes the absurdity of arguing with Shiro, who pulled a gun out of his bag and Hiroshi’s surprised that anyone found it strange. He scrubs one hand across his face. The hours of running and shooting and stress are getting to him. Shiro has gone oddly still. “I didn’t mean it like that. I mean- fuck. I’m sorry. What are you doing?”
Shiro is halfway out of the bed, putting on his jacket. He turns his head and smiles slightly at Hiroshi. “I’m going to go check on Reni and her brother. I’ll—” his golden eyes flicker up to Hiroshi’s face.
“Later, Hiroshi,” he says. “We can talk later.”
Hiroshi gives Shiro some space–they both need it after what they’d been through. He examines his bag again for possible supplies and found a bottle of water. There isn’t much use saving it and becoming dehydrated. He goes downstairs.
Reni is awake. Her fever has gone down, and she seems calmer.
“Hiroshi, is something wrong?”
“No,” he says, propping her up from the ground gently. “Drink some water. It’ll help.”
She opens her mouth obediently and drinks a little water. Hiroshi sits down next to her.
“Is it safe to go outside of the circle?” she asks.
“I wouldn’t do it until you’re completely well,” says Hiroshi. “I’m faster than them, anyways. The salt should be enough for now. Shiro left to check on you. I’m not sure where he is.”
Reni starts. “What if he’s dead? What if they got to him?”
“He’s the only one I’m not concerned about,” says Hiroshi. “Besides, he has the gun. He should be fine. I think I upset him. He’s probably angry with me.”
“Shiro-kun doesn’t dislike you,” she says. “He acts like he knows you. You do everything as honestly as you can; even through sometimes you’re too blunt. You’re so direct. It’s why I –admire you. I always have.”
“You should rest,” he says, and hesitates. “It should be over in the morning.”
Hiroshi goes in search of Shiro. He’s still wary of the way the spirits crawl and coil around the house. He can hear them scratching at the holes between the boards, but they’ve been hurt before, and he’ll do it again.
The clouds have dissipated, but the sky is faintly purple. He walks past the rooms, and looks up the winding staircase. It’s short and cuts across the upstairs; because of the way it curves it hides whatever is above him. Hiroshi climbs the stairs. He needs to find Shiro; they have too much to discuss and so little time.
Shiro is standing in the landing, looking out a small window. His face is tilted up to the moonlight, and he looks pure and at ease. His skin changes and ink drawings of feathers appear on the back of his neck, his forearms and wrists, and brush alongside his temples. They shift and grow more realistic, more detailed as Hiroshi watches. He’s beautiful.
Hiroshi doesn’t make a sound, but Shiro looks up quickly and steps out of the moonlight. The marks vanish.
“Hiroshi,” he says. “Believe me, I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Who are you? ” asks Hiroshi.
“No one,” says Shiro. “I’m no one. I’m not one of them.”
He’s still the same, pale gold hair and golden eyes. They were all like that.
“I recognized that you weren’t human from the first time I saw you,” Hiroshi says simply. “You’re one of the Moon people from the legend.”
“So?” Shiro asks. “Why didn’t you try and get rid of me then and there?”
“I didn’t have a reason to,” Hiroshi says. “Look, what you were doing was your own business. I won’t interfere.”
Shiro looks away, abstractedly cruel. The viciousness in his voice was apparent. “What if I want you to? What if I told you that what I was doing was affecting you, was your business?”
He presses closer, his fingers catching in the front of Hiroshi’s shirt, and yanked him upright. “What if I wanted the same thing as everyone else, that lovely face and body and all that lovely power? Would you kill me then?”
The gun barrel presses against his stomach and Hiroshi’s gaze is steady. He has no hesitation left inside him.
“You’ve gotten accustomed to me. Can you bring yourself to kill me?”
Hiroshi swallows, but his grip never wavers from the gun.
He looked at Shiro, and knowing how futile it was, dropped the gun. It clattered at their feet. “You haven’t hurt anybody.”
“Not yet,” says Shiro, picking the gun up, and shoots him.
The bullet goes through him cleanly. It hurts. It tears his clothes, but there’s no blood. He steps back and presses his hand to the wound, and there’s nothing there but a hole in his shirt and unmarked skin.
Shiro reaches for him.
“Don’t trust me,” Shiro says, his mouth moving against Hiroshi’s throat. Hiroshi puts his arms on his shoulders, lightly. “Hiroshi…”
He lifts his head from Hiroshi’s shoulder and kisses him, hands sliding into his hair. He lets go and exhales, golden eyes locked on Hiroshi’s face. “This was a mistake,” he says. “I can’t—”
“Why can’t you?” murmurs Hiroshi, and greatly daring, slid one arm around him. Shiro laughs at him, pulling away.
“You don’t know what you want,” says Shiro. “You don’t even know what you are.”
“You could have died,” says Hiroshi. “I thought—”
Shiro smiles mockingly. “You were worried about me? You always seemed so indifferent to me; so casual–you never cared about anything in particular. You were never interested in anyone, aside from protecting Reni- san. I can’t produce a reaction from you other than anger.”
“That’s not true!” says Hiroshi. “Passion—it’s what sparks between us, keeps my life active, keeps me alive, and nobody was ever so awake. I always felt like I was sleeping before, and now I feel like I’m alive.
I don’t know what to think about you.”
Shiro looks like he’s going to say something else – more protests, more reasons, and Hiroshi presses his mouth to Shiro’s, desperate, clumsy, trying to prove a point. His hand curls around Shiro’s shoulder. He thinks he’s never wanted anything so much. Shiro staggers back, taking Hiroshi with him. They kiss frantically, tearing off each other’s clothes.
They tumble back onto the bed, and Shiro pins him down, knees on each side of his legs. Hiroshi uses the same balm they put on Shiro’s scratches to coat his fingers. He presses one finger to Shiro’s entrance, lightly brushing the inside, and Shiro buries his face in Hiroshi’s neck.
His golden eyes are intent, questioning, as Hiroshi eases into him, and he bites Hiroshi’s shoulder, muffling sounds. He’s hot and slick and leaves scratches on Hiroshi’s back as they move, desperately, soundlessly. Hiroshi had no idea that it would be like this. He’s kissing Shiro, fucking Shiro, inside Shiro, and the idea is enough to bring him over the edge. He catches Shiro’s mouth with his own and swallows his cry as he comes. Shiro holds on for a few minutes longer, then shudders.
Afterwards, they lie in bed. Hiroshi feels cold and almost empty. Shiro was still, but he could feel the tension in him, coiling underneath his skin. Hiroshi reaches for his shirt and Shiro turns around, and puts his hand on his lover’s throat. Hiroshi looks at him, desperate, golden even in the dust of the room and the shadows. The windows were closed, and a thin strip of moonlight fell in the corner of the room.
He feels the futility of the gesture sharply.
Shiro says, sharply, “So that’s it? You’ll just run away?”
“You’re the one leaving,” says Hiroshi, slowly, still putting it together. “You wanted my immortality and you’re welcome to it. I don’t need it.”
“It’s not that simple,” says Shiro, “Otherwise I would have taken it long ago. It’s been far too long, and it’s part of your bloodline now–it hasn’t expressed itself for many years. Immortals don’t breed well, but now that you’ve awakened, other…things… will want it.
“Even when I’m far away, I can feel you,” he says. “Your life doesn’t feel like any other human. No matter where you go, I’ll always know where you are.
“People will want it, all your life. They’ll want eternal life and they’ll do anything to get it. You’ll be a myth; you’ll be a science experiment. You”l never stop running. You can’t escape, so I have to take you with me.”
“I’m sorry,” says Hiroshi. There is a breathless pause, as Shiro catches his eye and knows that he was genuinely apologetic, but there was no room for indecision.
“I would,” he says. His voice is gentle. “But it’s not my choice to stop living. Because I realized that I want to live, and there are things worth living for. I want to use my time to do everything that I’ve ever wanted to do and didn’t, to experience everything to the fullest, even when it’s bad.”
“You’d become accustomed to the moon, in time,” says Shiro, wistfully. “You wouldn’t miss anything, and gradually people would forget you, because it’s so much easier.”
“I know,” says Hiroshi, and kisses him again. The shutters blow open abruptly, flooding the room with moonlight. He kisses him, and gradually Shiro vanishes, fading inside his outline. Hiroshi watches him turn into air, watched the wind blow though him and take everything away.
Hiroshi sits on edge of the rumpled, big, empty bed. The sheets have turned cold already.
He goes downstairs to wake Reni and her brother when the sun starts to come up, and to tell them that everything was going to be fine. It was chilly, but the coming day was going to be golden and magnificent.