Shigure struggled with his physics classwork for five minutes straight – a minor victory – before he slammed his pen down and pinched the bridge of his nose. Lately, his eyes resisted whenever he tried to focus on something between the end of his nose and the reach of his arm.
In the next desk over, Hatori scribbled quick calculations in a column down the margin of his paper and murmured low, "Focus, Shigure."
"Just need a passing grade," Shigure hissed back. He cradled his pencil between pointer and thumb, though, and pressed the heel of his palm into one eye to prop up his head. The ache was less when he only had one open, anyway.
Ayame kicked the back of Shigure's chair, and leaned forward to stick an intricately folded paper down the back of his collar. When Shigure had wriggled and twisted enough to get it out, the note read:
Do you like me? Yes/Yes
Also – pay attention more.
"You're painfully undiligent," Hatori scolded.
Shigure just huffed an unamused laugh and tried to work out the difference between a three and an eight in this font.
When the girl in front of Hatori – cute, loud, social, hair a lighter brown than average but not by much – turned in her desk to glance at Shigure, he almost didn't notice.
He certainly didn't remember it.
Ayame spooned up his lunch – which he maintained was filet mignon at its most gelatinous extreme – as quickly and deftly as he could with his left hand, while he scribbled haphazardly across his paper. It was becoming stained, slowly but surely, by the residue on the cafeteria table.
Shigure watched this with dark expectation. Soon, a blob of food would slip sideways and splatter over the design.
Hatori lay down his disposable plastic utensil (how did he eat so fast without breaking his cool etiquette?) and said, "Ayame. Do you know the definition of insanity?"
"No I do not!" Ayame said cheerily, all in one breath and without the appropriate punctuation.
"You're just going to spill all over and ruin it. Why do you bother?" Shigure sighed. He didn't want to deal with Ayame sniffling for the last two classes of the day, after this.
"Because!" Ayame laughed breathlessly and dropped his pencil in his pudding mashed potatoes, then held the design up with a flourish. "I am going to be your most fashionable friend when I grow up."
"Only friend," Hatori reminded him, disinterested.
Shigure took the design. It was a dress, shaped for a male's wide shoulders and narrow hips. He handed it back, only ostensibly careful not to drop it in Ayame's lunch. "Shouldn't there be less lace? It looks ridiculous."
"It is ridiculous," Ayame agreed enthusiastically. "Such is the wave of the future."
"The wave of the future won't include skirts for men," Hatori said, with his classwork spread over the table. "Your sense of dress is too extreme."
"It's a bit campy," Shigure resolved. "And the soft lilac color is out-and-out gay."
Ayame shrugged and laughed dismissively. "You two! No hopes or wishes for the future. Pessimists, all. No wonder everyone near you feels the need to escape from your dour-dark cloud!"
Shigure shook his head and smiled mostly ruefully, and his eyes met staring caramel ones. The girl, the one that sat in front of Hatori in science, sat a few tables away. She held Shigure's gaze for a few inscrutable seconds, then turned her head a few degrees and dove into a lightning-fast exchange with her tablemates.
This time, Shigure took notice.
The next day, they were sweating through PE in hot weather.
Ayame tugged his hair out of its tie, then gathered it all up again in a new ponytail to keep it off his neck. Long strands were plastered, dampened down to slate gray, to the sides of his cheeks and neck.
He whistled, low and long. "Someone remind me that I need to pass this class to graduate."
Hatori, lurking in the shade of the building and standing ramrod straight and giving the impression of busy at the same time, which was definitely some kind of magic, said, "You need to pass."
Shigure, slouching into the angle of the building and the ground and pulling the front of his shirt away from his chest, panted, "Careful. Hatori's going to call you lazy, now."
"I won't. He, at least, is standing."
"Yes, but." Shigure scowled, and accused, "You're not doing anything."
"Ask the coach if I am a shiftless student."
"He'll disagree," Ayame informed Shigure merrily, saving him the trouble.
"You take all the fun and mystery out of the world. You know that, don't you?"
"No, that's Hatori."
"Fair enough. But you also detract from the overall experience considerably."
Shigure looked out across the blacktop field, his classmates still awkwardly trying to play basketball and learn teamwork, and stuck on one girl. She was standing, elbows hanging away from her body like she was in the middle of a jogging step when she stopped. She was close enough to eavesdrop.
Shigure sat up, and his mouth was half-open to call out to her when she kept jogging away and didn't look back.
He grunted thoughtfully to himself. "Hatori? If I'm not interrupting your little sabbatical, what's that girl's name?"
"What girl," Hatori asked, but it wasn't much of a question.
"Sits in front of you in science."
"I neither know nor care."
Ayame said, "Think it's Akari. I don't know her personal name."
Shigure rolled his eyes, because of course Ayame knew. "She keeps looking at us."
"All day. And yesterday."
"Maybe you're imagining it?" Ayame offered.
Hatori snorted. "Or he's exaggerating."
"Or outright lying!" Ayame cheered, ponytail swaying pendular across his back.
"That's worse, Ayame. Don't be so excited," Shigure whined. "No, seriously. I keep catching her staring."
"Maybe she likes you," Hatori suggested.
Ayame beamed. "Can't imagine why."
Shigure scowled at them for not listening seriously, then ran his fingers through his hair to pull it back and get air to the scalp. "Never mind. I'll ask her about it tomorrow, or something."
"Go ask her now," Hatori said decisively. "At least then you'll be walking."
Shigure debated internally for a few seconds, then levered himself up to his feet. As he walked between the other two and toward Akari, he called over his shoulder, "If she's a stalker and this gets me killed, my blood is on your hands, Hatori."
"I think we all knew that it would eventually come to that," Hatori acknowledged coolly.
"I knew him well," Ayame mourned. He was pulling his ponytail out again and winding parts of his stiff-drying hair together in a braid. "Despite my best efforts."
Shigure would have flipped them off over his shoulder, but he really didn't need to get called to the principal's office, and they weren't worth it.
He cornered Akari when she tried to smoothly slip away from her team to avoid him. A girl called her, and Akari disengaged as fast as she could, but by then Shigure was looming up behind her.
He turned on his Mellifluous voice, of which he was exceedingly proud. He'd only gotten the hang of it last month, because his voice was finally done cracking. "Do you have something you would like to discuss with me?"
She fidgeted and tugged the bottom hem of her gym shorts further down her thigh. "Um. I apologize, Sohma-san, if I've intruded."
"Oh, never mind that," he said dismissively, and stepped in closer, because it was fun and absurdly easy to make girls self-conscious. "I'm curious about why you've intruded."
She cleared her throat. "It would be impolite and intrusive to say anything."
"I find that those two go hand in hand, yes," Shigure prompted.
Akari's mouth twisted down, and she screwed up her courage. In a rush, she asked, "Are you friends with them?"
Shigure was very passably nonplussed. "With whom?"
"Your cousins. Sohma Hatori and Sohma Ayame." Her face was turning red. "Are they your friends?"
Shigure ran his hand through his hair again, thinking. "Ye-es," he said after a pause. "Yes, I suppose so."
Now that it was out, she was determined to go on. "It's just that – you all treat each other cruelly."
Shigure laughed, genuinely. "Exceedingly cruelly, yes. That's just what friends do."
"No, it's not," Akari said firmly. "Friends also sometimes say nice things to each other, or converse pleasantly. It's not always cruel."
"We tell each other true things," Shigure said. "The truth is never pleasant."
She made a face. "It's… none of my business."
"No, it isn't."
She winced, and her mouth shut tight.
"Say your piece and be done. Hatori and Ayame are… family."
"You three genuinely seem to hate each other. People don't always get along with family," Akari pointed out, and now Shigure saw the disconnect.
"No," he said gravely. "But we don't have a choice."
She shook her head and looked away. She didn't understand. "But if you did have a choice. You wouldn't be friends with them."
Now, Shigure started to smile. "I like to think I would."
And, with no other explanation, he turned around and sauntered back to his friends.
Ayame had arrayed his hair around his head like a peacock's tale – another form of magic to perform with one hair tie – and bounced forward to ask. "What was it?"
"She confessed," Hatori answered for him.
"Almost," Shigure said. His smile sharpened. "It was you she was looking at. She wanted me first, but I intimidated her with my rugged charm. You're a distant second, though."
Ayame giggled. "When Hatori's a doctor, he can fix up that bad sense of judgement for her."
They all glowered at each other and pretended that they didn't notice the others glowering back.
Then, Shigure tossed his head back and laughed, full, deep in his stomach. The others stared at him, with varying degrees of impassivity, and Shigure got himself under control enough to say, "We definitely need to be nicer to people. Who're. You know, not us."
Ayame's nose scrunched. "Ew. Why?"
"They can't handle the truth," Shigure chuckled. After a moment's deliberation, he added, "And I think we should make up nicknames for each other. They're beginning to think we're weird."
Hatori said stonily, "There will be. No. Nicknames."
Ayame's face lit up like a sunrise. "You have to be Gure!"
"None. No shortenings of any kind."
"That sounds like a pug dog's name."
"It matches your shining countenance."
"Oh! You can be Ayaa."
"Like what grandmothers say when they're fed up with something?"
"A perfect fit."
"No fits. No nicknames. At all."
"Hmm. What about Hatori?"
"Do you both hear me?"
"Yes, yes! I'll make tea-ee, just for Ha'ri-ee!"
"I will end you, Shigure."