108
by Serious Black

Sohma Hatori entered without ringing. There was snow caked to his shoes; he hadn't stamped them clean on the porch, just slid open the front door and toed the loafers off to drip themselves dry. He set his gym bag next to his shoes, careful not to upset the kadomatsu pine and plum boughs. Hatori wasn't worried about ruining the symmetry of his cousin's New Year display, but he did want to avoid making noise.

Shigure could be difficult to catch unawares.

Thinking about that, and about the nature of the task he'd set himself in coming here, Hatori gave his earlobe an uneasy tug. His free hand came up to pat at his breast pocket for the cigarette packet, long-since discarded. He'd picked the wrong year to quit smoking.

"Aaaah Hatori-saaan!" rang out on his blind side. He pivoted in shock.

"Dammit, Shigure." Hatori clutched his chest and glared. Shigure doubled up with silent laughter. "Don't do that! And anyway, how did you know I was here?"

"Ahaha," Shigure answered solemnly, straightening. "Booby traps. If I can't hear Mii-chan coming for my manuscripts, I can't escape, after all. Hatori, I haven't seen you in three months." The apparent non-sequitur rolled off Shigure's tongue with warmth and surprise. It didn't match his expression, though: the smiling face was masklike in the winter twilight of the front room, betraying nothing. Hatori thought he saw new hollows there. The charcoal eyes were rimmed under with dark circles.

Hatori squinted. "Turn on a light, why don't you?"

"Oh. Sorry." Shigure fumbled an armload of pine branches onto a table, then clicked on the lamp. "The decorations are just so pretty in the dark. And here I thought I'd be admiring them all alone! Ahh, if I'd known you were coming, I'd have asked Tohru to set a lunch aside."

Hatori ignored the verbal cue. "Where has Tohru gone for the holidays? She's not alone, surely…?"

The sometime-dog bustled about, propping up branches, plucking at strings of New Year cards in doorways, dusting surfaces with absent swipes of his sleeve. "No, no, she's off with Uotani-san and what's-her-name…the sexy one with the invisible antennae." He smiled. "They'd never allow her to be by herself tonight, any more than Yuki or Kyo would. Speaking of which…" Shigure glanced back at his cousin. "How are they faring at the main house?"

"Surprisingly well." Hatori kept a careful eye on the writer as he moved around the room. "Yuki is avoiding Akito, who's permitting it. For now. For Kyo's part, I think secretly he's just as happy to be excluded from the feast. He and Hatsuharu have been training together. And Kazuma's staying over as well—that helps."

"Kazuma!" Shigure registered surprise. "Is anyone missing this year?"

Hatori looked at him. "Only you."

"Hn." The inscrutable smile. He turned away. "Hatori, you really can't imagine the pressure I've been under with these deadlines. And looking after the kids, well! Let's just say it's a full-time job in and of itself. Sometimes, you know, sometimes I think I should be paid for running a boarding house for spastic minors. At least that might cover the damages every time Kagura goes into a snit over Kyo, or Yuki falls headfirst through a door because he can't function before 10 AM, or whatever else is bringing the roof crashing down around my ears this week. Don't even get me started on the monkey. Ah!"—he clapped a hand to his forehead, clearly enjoying himself—"and Mitsuru storming the fort every other week, clamoring for pages. I'm not a machine, Hatori. Only a pitiful man. You don't drop in a dime and press a button and pop! out comes your novel. Do you want a drink, by the way? Aya sent a bottle of brandy, it's not old but we could—"

"When was the last time you saw Ayame?" Hatori interrupted.

Shigure paused. "Oh, who knows. A couple months ago maybe? You know Aya, he comes and goes and disappears for as long as he—"

"It was four months ago. Longer even than you saw me last." Hatori kept his voice low, but moved a little closer.

"Oh?" Shigure tapped a finger on his chin. "That long already? Well, like I said, I've had some deadlines. Are you sure about that drink?"

"Shigure. When was the last time you saw anyone in the family besides the kids?"

The other looked at his hands. When he raised his head again, he was grinning. "Is Hatori-san worried about me?" He laughed. "How flattering! Your devotion is a beautiful thing—I'm touched, Hatori, really I am--but there's no need—"

There was no need, it seemed, for Hatori to interrupt again. Shigure's voice died a natural death at the expression on Hatori's face. He resumed the examination of his hands.

"You don't look like you've been sleeping," Hatori spoke into the hush. A fresh snow began to whisper against the mulberry paper shojigami. He saw that it had been freshly-mended, probably by Shigure, alone. "Or eating, either, though I know Tohru cooks like a demon. Kyo says he's barely seen you out of your office in weeks. And now it seems you've stopped returning phone calls. Aya's stopped by three times, but never manages to find you in. He's ready to break your door down."

Shigure could not meet the other's eyes. "Why hasn't he?"

"I asked him to let me come instead." They stood side by side, a little awkwardly. "But not to lecture you, Shigure. I'm no good at it anyway. Do you have a cigarette?"

Shigure crossed to a desk in the hall, opened a drawer, returned with a cigarette and a matchbook. He offered them to Hatori. He waited while Hatori closed his eyes against the deep slow pull of smoke inside his chest. It felt wonderful. For a long time neither spoke.

"I came to give you something," Hatori said. "Not a gift. Something I should have given you long ago—given back to you. Something I took. That's why I'm here."

A little crease appeared between Shigure's eyebrows. He looked up at Hatori, but didn't say anything.

Hatori turned to face him fully. "It will only take a moment, but you'll have to trust me. This isn't what it seems." He hesitated, struggling.

And then he placed his right hand over his cousin's eyes.

"No!" Shigure jerked away with a hiss. "What are you—"

"You'll have to trust me, Shigure." No apology, no entreaty. He simply looked at the other man.

Shigure's mouth opened, then closed. "All right," he said, finally. "All right."

Hatori's hand was cool against his flushed skin. Both of them looked a little afraid. For a suspended moment nothing happened; then a flash illumined the room, coating corners with light like white paint and swallowing shadows. It was unremarkable, could have been an electric flash from any child's camera.

Shigure stumbled back, gasping. Hatori lowered his hand slowly.

The writer hunched against a wall and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Oh," he whispered.

Hatori watched him, feeling a fool. He started to reach out but stopped himself. His arms and legs seemed too long suddenly; he didn't know what to do with them—a mortifying sensation culled from adolescence. Finally he walked to the doorway, slid his shoes on, and finished his cigarette out on the porch.

He had just begun to consider fleeing, coatless, into the night when the door slid open with a rasp behind him. Shigure now had a cigarette dangling from his own lips. He motioned Hatori back inside with a jerk of his hand. The two of them walked into the kitchen and sank, shivering slightly, into the warming blankets of the low table.

Shigure's face was calm, but pale. Hatori saw that his hand trembled when it rose to hold the cigarette. He cleared his throat and began, "What I said, that time—"

"I don't want to talk about that." Shigure exhaled quickly, shaking his head. His eyes were narrowed to surgical pins. "Not yet. I have a few questions for you."

Hatori waited.

"If…how long have you been able to do that? Give memories back?" Shigure demanded.

"I could always do it," Hatori said. "Or at least, I've known it was possible. I never truly take memories in the first place. I only…seal them away. I can't describe the process, but when you do it you sense that it can be just as easily reversed. It's intuitive."

"How interesting." Hatori glanced up, looking for signs of irony. He saw none. Only the cool, acute stare stretched thin atop some roiling emotion—was it betrayal? "But you've never…before?"

"No."

"Not for Kana. You did it for me, but not for her?"

Hatori took a steadying breath. "Not for her."

"I should feel honored." Another long drag on the cigarette. "Somehow, I don't. This memory—" his eyes shuttered closed. "It's such a small thing. Fifteen seconds we shared. No more. Fifteen seconds out a lifetime. Why, of everything we've held between us, would you pick those fifteen seconds to steal away? I wonder."

"I was…just a kid. An embarrassed kid. Since then I've stolen plenty of moments from many pe—"

"But not from us!" Shigure hissed, leaning forward. He banged the cigarette out on the table. "Never from us, Hatori—not from the Juunishi! That was never part of the deal. I want to know," he went on, throat constricting, "how many of us have you done that to? How many of the cursed?"

"…Just one," Hatori murmured. "One other."

"Who?"

"Shigure, what difference—"

"Which one of us, Hatori?"

Silence.

"Tell me!"

Hatori looked him in the eye. "Yuki."

Shigure laughed, then covered his face with his hands. "Yuki," he repeated. He took his hands down. The smile on his face frightened Hatori. "Where did you do it? Here? In my house?"

"No, not here. I did it six years ago. At Akito's house." Now he thought, bleakly, that he had been a fool to leave there. "But…not at Akito's request."

Shigure's smile faltered. "I don't understand. Why…?"

"It was done at Yuki's request."

Yuki, who had always regarded Hatori's gift as an unspeakable violation. What could he, barely thirteen years old, have wished so desperately to forget that he would submit himself to that…?

The unspoken question hung between them. Hatori let the other man pose it to himself; watched him reason it to its correct, hideous conclusion. Understanding broke in a flush over Shigure's face. It was the last expression of a man exposed to a dose of some slow-acting but lethal poison.

Hatori supposed he had been, in a way. They all had been.

"Yuki has no idea…?" Shigure asked.

"None," Hatori said. "That's the point, you see."

Shigure got up and went into the front room. When Hatori came to the doorway, a few minutes later, the writer was fiddling with bamboo stalks in the kadomatsu stand. Hatori watched him.

"I lied," Shigure blurted finally. "The deadlines are no problem, they're never a problem. It's just, lately, I don't…I can't be with anyone. Can't be near them. For the first time, I can't see how to make things happen. All I can do is brace myself for who'll get hurt next, then watch it happen. These changes, they're going on all around me: soon Yuki will move out, and the others, they all have a chance to—to experience what we never—and I'm grateful," he breathed, face twisting. "I'm so grateful everyone's moving on. There's hope now. But, Hatori, that hope means we can't stop planning—I can't ever stop—and with this much at stake, I'm…just—"

He turned away, ending on a whisper. "…so tired."

Hatori moved across the room—not to Shigure, but to the window. Beyond it, snow piled in drifts and whorls. They looked clean.

"Somewhere out there," Hatori said, "our cousins are playing karuta. Or cooking the ritual cakes. Or thanking the gods for a year that was better than the last. With every expectation that this year will be better still. Better, because of you."

Shigure turned, frowning. Hatori raised his hand. "Yes. Listen. You, who never let Ayame forget his younger brother's name. You, who took that same younger brother into your home, but never tried to replace Aya in his life. You, who've made room at your table for every child Akito ever hurt or whipped or cursed or blinded—smiling at him all the while, smiling while he kicks you like a dog--" he took a breath. "You. Sitting in your office, spinning your little worlds. Playing out your dramas on paper. Keeping the players in line. I've read every book you've ever written."

Shigure looked stricken.

"Do you know what they have in common? They all have happy endings--every single one." Hatori leaned his forehead against the cold windowpane. "And I think…you may be the author of our happiness in that way, Shigure. All of us. Even Akito, someday, if he lets you carry on with your manipulations. Because you were the first to see Honda Tohru—not just the girl, but what she would become to us. Just like you saw what Aya and I couldn't, as children.

"It has to end. With us."

Hatori walked over to face his cousin. Shigure's arms were crossed over his chest, the dark circles beneath the eyes wet now. Gently, Hatori reached out and laid a hand over his.

"What I said that day—it's still true. Though I've been too selfish, too embarrased to tell you since." And leaning in close, he said again (as he had so many years ago):

" 'Shigure-kun…is very dear to me. Dearer than anyone in the world. And always will be.' "

They stayed like that for a moment, riding the silence out comfortably. At last Hatori released the other's hand and walked to the front doors, where he knelt to pull his shoes on. "Will you come to the feast? We'll miss you if you don't—Momiji says he has a gift for you. And the bells will ring in a few hours. I'd like to listen to them with you."

Shigure laughed, a painful sound. "A million and eight tolls aren't enough for the sins of this family." But his smile was genuine enough. "Hatori…why today? After waiting for so long?"

The doctor looked at him as he pulled his coat on. "Because you needed to hear it today. And maybe because…I haven't felt…" he fumbled with his gloves. "Clean. In a long time. The susuharai is no good if you've got soot inside."

Shigure nodded.

"Anyway, I want to do my best to start this year differently. Just knowing that Yuki is back at the feast after avoiding it for so long…. And Kyo, come so far from where he used to be." He smiled. "This sunrise will look very different to me than last year's, I think."

"Are you sure you won't stay and watch it here?" Shigure asked. "Not too late to play hooky with me. You've earned it."

"Can't." Hatori hoisted the gym bag. Tiny bells tinkled inside. "It's my year to dance, didn't you know?"

And with a whisk of the paper-panelled door, he disappeared.

Shigure blinked. A flurry of snowflakes like confetti blew in on a breeze that promised early Spring.

A/N: This story contains many references to the traditions of Japanese New Year (Oshogatsu), which is more sacred in that country than Christmas is in Western ones. Susuharai ("sootsweeping") is the ritual cleaning of the home during that holiday week, and was the original title for this fic; but I found out it was already taken. The title 108 is derived from another relevant Oshogatsu ritual: At midnight on New Year's eve temple bells…are rung 108 times (joya-no-kane), each toll representing a human vice. By listening to the bells people will be relieved of their sins.