Disclaimer: All the characters you recognise are not mine.
A/N: I am a very simple writer so please pardon the too simple story-telling and hope you'll enjoy this story (which I wrote in a jiffy after a sudden burst of inspiration) anyway.


"Oh my, whatever do we have here?" Shigure lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "Sohma Kureno, in the flesh! You've ventured out of the comforts of the Sohma Mainhouse and come to visit little ol' me! How nice."

"Shigure-nii-san." Kureno bowed courteously in greeting. "I apologize for the sudden intrusion. Thank you for having me."

"Nah," Shigure beamed sunnily. He showed him in. "I haven't done anything yet."

Kureno's stomach did a slow flip. As he sat down, he studied his cousin, surreptitiously eyeing the tall, lanky frame which had lost a visible amount of weight since their parting many months ago.

"It has been a long while, Nii-san."

"Not long enough." Shigure's eyes disappeared behind his smile. "I'm sorry I cannot offer you any tea. Tohru-kun is out, you see."

Lack of hospitality aside, Shigure appeared his normal, jovial self. At the very least he gestured for Kureno to sit.

Kureno kept his gaze fixed on the polished wood pattern of the beam above his head. It was his first time here. From the looks of things, Shigure seemed to be doing well, he realised with a unrestrained sense of relief.

They sat in silence for a short eternity, neither willing to initiate an attempt at a decent conversation.

"Am I so displeasing to the eyes that you find the need to look elsewhere but me, Kureno?" Shigure propped a hand on his chin.

The spell broken, Kureno reluctantly lowered his gaze. "Of course not." Then he avoided Shigure's eyes again.

Shigure sighed. "And here I thought I was being the ever gracious host."

Small talk was something Shigure never had problems with, but his guest today was special.

"I would have thought you'd steer clear of this house." Shigure's eyes roamed his ceiling in apt wonder. "Does it not remind you?"

Kureno could not follow. A small wrinkle formed in between his eyes. "Of what, Nii-san?"

Shigure stared at him. "Of the crime. For which I have been punished."

Sitting up stiffly, Kureno's throat constricted around his lie. "I do not know what you mean."

A lazy, deliberate blink. "Why have you come then?"

"She has not been well lately."

Shigure fussed with his yukata and pulled it tighter around his slight frame impassively. "I have been told. How is she faring?"

"She is doing better. She-" Kureno hesitated momentarily. "She was asking why you haven't been…visiting."

"Should I have?" Shigure asked absently.

Kureno's jaw tightened. "She misses you."

Silence.

"Does she now?"

"Hatori-nii-san must have told you?"

"Sore de?" Shigure dared him with an almost haughty look. "And so? What do you think I could have done?"

Kureno's throat worked thickly. "You could have…come."

To his surprise, Shigure agreed.

"I could have. If it weren't for you."

There it was. Shigure-nii finally said it. Kureno stopped breathing, the air heavy and still.

"Unlike you, Kureno…" Shigure tipped his head sideways to release a crick in his neck. "I cannot come and go as I please anymore. It is a right denied to the banished."

Kureno's dry throat prickled. "I-I see."

"But I am so lucky to have you care enough to come and see me here in my new home!" Shigure's eyes danced merrily. "Considering how I am not welcome inside that place unless summoned - I would not have been able to see you otherwise!"

Kureno's eyes smarted, hating the sight of the familiar smile…so genuine, yet so false. It did not look becoming at all on the person he once held such high regards for, and to an extent, still did. He wrung his hands in his lap.

"Where did we go wrong, Nii-san?" He asked, his voice so soft he could barely hear himself.

"I was not aware there ever was a 'we', Kureno," Shigure said, sounding amused yet bemused at the same time. A shock of glossy black hair fell over his face, masking the contemptuous look in his eyes.

The rooster spirit felt his face burn, but he fought to keep his voice in check. "You…you were important. To me."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Did you even enjoy it? Being with her?"

Kureno's face, so flushed a mere moment ago, drained of all colour. He had dreaded this question in particular, and no matter how much he pondered on it, and ponder he definitely did, extensively, yet he was still left with no answer.

"I-I…" Kureno breathed painfully. "I only did what was required of me."

"You made it sound like you had no choice," Shigure commented teasingly, yet his eyes held not a fleck of mirth. Instead they danced in a stormy, tumultuous spark of accusation.

Kureno's eyes peered at him imploringly, pleading for some sort of absolution-

"You betrayed me."

"I'm sorry," Kureno whispered, his fists clenching, and unclenching under the table. How he longed to reach out to his cousin, to touch his hand, to beg for forgiveness the way he had dreamt of for so long-

Shigure waved his hand carelessly.

"You and I used to share things when we were little, didn't we? You probably thought I would not mind letting it go this time too, didn't you?" He shook his head in almost affectionate exasperation. "A pardonable oversight, Kureno."

At his words, Kureno's eyes brightened slightly. Maybe…maybe Shigure could forgive him after all-?

"Pardonable to the others perhaps…" Shigure muttered, playing absently with the knuckle of his left forefinger, as if twisting and turning an invisible ring.

"But not to me."

And the light in Kureno's eyes dimmed as his heart sank.

Shigure had now moved on to his middle finger; the act seemed to have a somewhat calming effect on him.

"My... feelings for Akito-san may have been of small value to you…" Shigure's voice trailed off and despite the temperate September weather, Kureno found himself breaking into a cold sweat. He could not understand why Shigure was smiling, or why Shigure was leaning forward across the table-

"But there is no other I yearn for as I do her." Shigure's whisper seared hot against the flesh of Kureno's ear.

When he pulled back, Kureno was amazed to see Shigure's smile still as serene yet conspiratorial, like he had just told a juicy secret.

"You understand, don't you?"

Kureno nodded numbly. He knew of nothing else to say. He had never been a man of many words, but he had no idea it was going to be this difficult.

"I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me one day."

Shigure's features darkened.

"Might be a long time coming, Kureno. I may not even have one." Shigure's eyes were cold, grey steel. "Or so I've been told."

Kureno's own heart wrenched in pain.

You do. Nii-san, you do. I have seen the kindness it was once capable of.

Kureno lowered his gaze onto the table, resting his eyes on the long, fine fingers resting atop an unread newspaper, clasped as if in sombre prayer-

On the delicate yet strong hands that once took hold of his own, just the two of them, in their own world of adventure and tales of fantasy…a lean, long-limbed boy leading his little cousin to one of the quiet benches in the gardens of the Sohma manor…frantically flipping through the pages of a book, one after another, delighting the small child in his charge with stories of the long gone and of the mystical…

The Shigure he once knew…did he still exist? Kureno braved a silent thought but dared not contemplate any further. Perhaps he already knew the answer, and not only did he not like it, it shattered every hope Kureno had of absolution; he could feel it sinking to the lowest of low, and along with it, his heart did the same.

"I didn't know…Nii-san…" A tear fell onto Kureno's knuckles. "I didn't know…"

Kureno's sudden crying piqued Shigure's interest. More intrigued than moved, he peered at his cousin curiously. "What didn't you know?"

"How much she meant to you."

It must have been his imagination, but Kureno could swear he heard Shigure's nails scrape the table as his grip around the edges tightened suddenly. Shigure stared at him long, and hard.

"Out of all of you, you are among the few who never take me for a fool, Kureno." Shigure was smiling no longer. "It makes no difference to me if you did."

"You would still have done it anyway."

Kureno was stunned into silence.

"She owns you. That has always been your excuse." Shigure reached out slowly and Kureno's eyes widened in sheer disbelief at the sudden feel of Shigure's warm hand against his cheek, the caress of Shigure's thumb as it feathered along his lower eyelid and across the arch of his cheekbone-

"You love her too."

Kureno's breath caught in his throat with a gasp, grating and harsh.

They always said Shigure-nii-san was more than he seemed. His views of the world perspicacious bordering on selfish; with his words, he wounded, and loved. With his words, he forgave, and he did not.

Smart, gentle, mischievous, all-knowing Shigure. All him.

All unforgiving.

Kureno closed his eyes. There was to be no more running. He had done enough of it. "I…do."

His own hand reached up and clasped over Shigure's, clutching it tightly against his face, feeling the warmth suffuse into his cold skin…and with a heart heavier than a leaden weight, he pried Shigure's hand away gently.

And then there was nothing left to say.

Of their own volition, his legs rose off the floor.

As Kureno walked down the driveway, a gentle breeze swept through the air and as the autumn leaves swirled around them in the dance of nature one always associated with the coming of winter, Shigure celebrated the good timing with a polite cough.

"I may feel nothing but hate for you now, Kureno," Shigure said casually, tossing his words to the wind. "But I did love you once."

Kureno wavered in his steps, his clenched hands giving a visible, stiff jerk. Shigure felt no satisfaction. He was telling the truth after all.

"Back then anyway. Remember that."

Shigure's voice held no malice, but Kureno had never felt more like weeping.

Kureno turned around so very slowly just so he could see Shigure-nii's face, perhaps for the last time-

His kind eyes spoke nothing but the truth. Kureno had wanted closure, so now Shigure was giving him one.

Remember the love you yourself let die.

Remember the leading hand I once held out to you.

Remember the brother and friend you have lost, Kureno.

Kureno's eyes watered.

"I will, Nii-san." His smile remained brave, forced as it may very well be. "Thank you, for everything."

Shigure nodded pleasantly.

If this is the price I have to pay for breaking your heart, Nii-san…

Kureno's body ached for him, he wanted nothing more but to break into a run and throw his arms around the older man, anything to make the pain in Shigure's eyes go away-

"Goodbye, Nii-san," he whispered.

Shigure retrieved a hand from inside his kimono to give him a small wave. "Goodbye, Kureno."


Shigure did not walk back in the front door. Instead he cut through his lawn barefoot, barely aware of the thorny brush and sharp leaves of weed biting into the soles of his feet; his plants seemed to bow toward the ground, as if offering some kind of resort for the peculiar aching in his heart.

He took his time climbing up the small wooden steps, taking them one at a time and trudged along the shallow verandah outside, his footsteps slow and heavy. He felt strangely disheartened.

Shigure sat once more at the table. He clasped his hands once more atop his newspaper. He stared at the spot Kureno had vacated.

He stared at its emptiness for a long time.

"Haa-san..." Shigure spoke suddenly.

The numbness in his cousin's voice was almost palpable to the touch, and Shigure had only called his name.

In that instant, Hatori knew… just how deeply he had hurt him.

A pang of guilt assaulted his heart, and it only heightened in intensity as he sneaked a glance through the narrow slit of the shouji doors Kureno had left ajar in his haste.

Shigure's black hair hung limp about his hunched shoulders.

"If you have heard enough…you can come out now. Or leave, whichever."

Hatori did not answer immediately; his footsteps slow, deliberate and tentative as they creaked across the floorboard, coming to a stop until his knees were a hair's breadth from the ramrod stiffness of his cousin's back.

Shigure neither moved nor spoke. The wrinkled pages remnant of the morning paper uncrumpled by themselves, decaying into a dry rustle in the gentle afternoon breeze. There was no other sound.

"Eavesdropping on us, weren't you? Haa-san, you're so naughty," Shigure chided lightly.

In despair, Shigure doubled over, his head bowed low, so low it almost touched his lap.

Won't you say something? He wept inside.

Hatori looked down on the top of Shigure's head and opened his mouth to speak, only to have his breath halted mid-inspiration. He stared, his gaze fixated on something just beyond the shadow of Shigure's bowed head..

Shigure clenched the table corners even tighter, oblivious to the splinters digging into his nailbeds, as abused enough already as they were. In the few seconds he gave in to the pain in his chest…there was no other person he hated more, than the person standing behind him.

No one knows, Hatori.

So close, yet so far. He could feel the heat enveloping his back, could smell his cousin's familiar scent, strong yet always soothing…but not today.

He took a long, shuddering breath.

How your silence kills me. Everytime.

"Why did you bring him here, Haa-san…" Shigure's small voice was broken in places, imploring Hatori to answer.

Say something, Shigure begged silently.

Haa-san, if you love me, say something. Anythi-

Something warm pressed against his scalp, large and heavy. His heart skipping, in his haze, Shigure dared not take another breath, and ironically, he did not know why.

Hatori's palm stayed clasped to the top of his head for a long time, long practiced fingers stroking Shigure's hair unconsciously in gentle, sifting movements.

Hatori's caress was saying something a thousand words could not, that Shigure knew, somewhere at the far back of his mind…but he was too far gone, too tired to try to understand.

His eyes ever so slowly, fluttered closed.

Shigure did not know how long they stayed that way, but when they opened again, the hand was gone. Wildly, Shigure whipped his head around, but the door was now wide open, the hallway empty.

Hatori was gone.

"Hatori, you're always so strange," Shigure whispered to himself. A hand reached up to feel briefly the warm spot where Hatori's hand had been, and while the other shakily brushed his hair out of his eyes, he wondered what could have possibly possessed Hatori to act in such a-

Shigure stared down at the newspaper strewn across the table in front of him.

Curiously, he fingered the numerous coin-sized spots on the front page where the ink was smeared, rendering bits of it unreadable; his fingers came away black. And damp.

Hmm?

As Shigure touched a hand to his cheek, he almost wanted to laugh.

Ah, I see. So that's why.

His tongue unconsciously darted out. Finally tasting the salt on his lips, he gave in and chuckled silently at his own stupidity. How could he have not realized? Shigure slowly plucked the hem of a sleeve with one hand and pressed it to his eye with the other; first the right, then the left…until he was crying no more.

The kids would be home soon.

THE END

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