A/N: Wow. This is what I call a project. Shigure/Akito are such an incredibly interesting pairing, and I just had to write to this. It's a very long oneshot, made up of short scenes throughout their relationship, and I didn't feel that there was a good place to split it into two chapters, so I kept it whole at its 7000+ words. But please take the time to read, I think it's worth it! It's weird to say this (because I hope it's not ridiculous!) but I think this is one of my best - or at least favorite - pieces of work.

Also, I know the flower in the manga that keeps popping up in their scenes isn't a jasmine flower. Oh, well. Jasmine flowers have a nice meaning that seems to fit them very well, so for my purposes, it's jasmine. The other theme of this (well, jasmine is a symbol, but whatever) is probably "Duality" - both Shigure and Akito have really two-sided personalities and relationships, so I tried to incorporate that as many ways as possible in this fic.

Anyway, this involves some fairly explicit romance, but I think it's still a T rating. If you feel the rating should be changed, let me know.

Please, please, please leave a review - this is one of my favorite fics, I've worked really very hard, and would love to know what others think. EDITED: Fixed some typos, reorganized scenes, and adding a scene from the last volume.

Words: 7166
Characters: Shigure, Akito, Kureno, Hatori, Ren
Time: Before, throughout, and after the manga

Warnings: Spoilers for basically the whole manga. Also, pretty explicit sexual content for what I hope is still a T-rated fic.

Disclaimer: Everything you recognize belongs to Takaya Natsuki, not me. I've used some direct quotes/scenes from the manga as well.

A lone child stands amongst the jasmine bushes and ornate ponds of the Sohma house's innermost garden. Stone-lined pathways wind their way through a pale array of nature. In the center, skinny arms extend out of wide kimono sleeves, reaching for a white blossom.

A young man stands on a nearby patio, hidden behind a paper door, watching the lonely child for quite some time. He is one of the few who knows the child's true identity.

Shigure steps into the springy garden. With light footsteps, he approaches the rising head of the Sohma family. Little Akito. Her hair is cropped short around her ears, and she wears a man's kimono, no jewelry, no makeup. As Shigure approaches, her head whips around, and she fixes him with a penetrating glare that – even from a six-year-old's eyes – sends a shiver down his confident spine.

"Who are you?" she says. The jasmine blossom floats idly between her fingers.

"I'm your cousin," Shigure says. "Shigure Sohma, year of the dog."

"And therefore… my servant."

Her voice is so thin and high-pitched. And yet she speaks the words with such disturbing finality that there can be no doubting their absolute truth. Shigure, even at the invincible age of fourteen, is somewhat unnerved by this child. But the sight of her today, alone in the garden, stirs something deep in his heart.

Shigure kneels to meet her gaze more directly. Gently he reaches for her hand. Taking the fragile flower, he tucks it in her smooth, dark hair, right above her ear. "Your servant, yes. So, then… what are my orders, mistress? Akito-sama? In lack of orders, I must do as I see fit."

Akito only stares. Shigure's smile clearly catches her off guard. He wonders, vaguely, if anyone has ever truly smiled at her. With a little laugh, Shigure lifts Akito into the air and twirls her around, smiling all the more at the astonishment on her young face. When he finally places her back on her feet, she is speechless with shock.

"It doesn't hurt to smile every now and then," Shigure says. "Can that be my order, mistress Akito? To make you smile?"

For a few moments, Shigure ponders her reaction. Is he too bold, to treat the future head of the Sohma family so familiarly? But she is just a child. A child forced to live a never-ceasing lie, a beautiful girl both ashamed and proud of her extraordinary identity.

At last, the girl's pale gray eyes narrow, and she opens her mouth.

"Yes, Shigure Sohma," she says with a regal, cold authority. "Yes. That is your order."

When Shigure finally bows and takes his leave, he travels all the way back to the screened porch before looking back. Peering around the door, Shigure sees the little girl touch the jasmine flower in her hair, the barest wisp of a smile gracing her features at last.

He watches her hurry away in a different direction, a different path. But as Shigure studies the empty garden, shimmering with life and the approaching rain, he hopes she will return, and that he will be here, waiting for her, when she does.

"Shigure, do you like me?"

In their quiet garden, all it takes is a flower, a kiss, and a few whispered words. His hands close around hers, and he dips his head, a small smile playing on his lips as their faces touch.

I care about you more than I care about anyone else. And that… is the honest and unshakeable truth. I love you, Akito.

Her heart is trembling, but because he is holding her, her body remains still. She has heard his words but can barely comprehend their meaning. Not until he places her hand on his chest, so she can feel the steady beat of his heart, does she truly understand. The fierce reality of his presence is enough to give verity to his promises.

"I'll be here. For eternity… I'll be here."

Only one person in the world is allowed to offer Akito comfort after her father's funeral. Akito sends everyone in the family away. She sends her mother the farthest.

Only Shigure does she allow to even come into her sight.

It is strange, she thinks, for a twelve-year-old girl, barely on the cusp of becoming a young woman, to trust only him, a twenty-year-old man. But no, she is not a girl about to become a young woman. She is not a girl. She is a boy, her father's son and successor. That is the life that has been decided for her from birth. A god among men. She remembers clearly seeing her own pale face reflected in her father's wide, dead eyes. A god.

She wraps herself more tightly in her thin kimono, staring across the bare room. A small, intricate box lingers in the corner, but she can barely stand to look it, to comprehend it. It is merely a symbol of his death, not his life. That is all it can possibly be.

Shigure enters with his usual cool confidence. But when he sees her, his posture and his expression immediately soften.

"Oh, Akito," he murmurs. He crosses the room in a few long strides and kneels beside her. At once she curls her legs closer to her own warm body, an instinctive comfort, and shoots Shigure a look out of the corner of her eye. His gaze is empathic and kind, and his hand tangles tenderly in her hair.

Wordlessly Akito stretches out her hands and clings to Shigure's shirt. She allows him to pull her into his arms and rub her shoulders. She feels and hears every beat of Shigure's heart as she rests her head against his chest; her own heartbeat matches his in deafening pounds; the tears on her cheeks fall in a steady pattern onto his skin. Every tap reminds her of her own frailness, her delicate body and soul. His arms, so strong around her, remind her of the crushing weight thrust upon her tiny shoulders.

But also, only Shigure's arms around her keep her from falling apart completely. He holds all the pieces of her together and kisses each one with gentle words and a kind heart.

"I will not allow it!"

"Allow what, Akito-chan?"

Akito's head whips around at Shigure's entrance into the previously deserted room. Her eyes are wide and blazing. A few drops of blood and broken glass from a nearby window are scattered across the floor.

"How dare you address me that way," she hisses. "I am Akito-sama!"

She takes a cup from a nearby table and throws it to the floor with a resounding clatter. It is not glass and does not break, but instead it bounces and rolls to a stop at Shigure's bare feet. Carefully he steps over it and the shimmering window shatters until he is right in front of Akito. They are alone in this part of the Sohma house right now, he knows. Alone in Akito's darkness.

"Who was just here?" Shigure says calmly, motioning at the splintered window and the blood on the floor.

"Foolish children," spat Akito. "Believing they were in love, longing to be happy. There is no such thing. It is a lie. I am saving Kisa and Hiro from endless pain! My own mother never loved me - there is nothing that can redeem such a lie! I will make those who believe it suffer to save them from something much worse. The only love is their bond to me! To me! No one else!"

Coolly Shigure allows the head of the Sohma family to rage and storm, her breathing harsh. When her bitter tirade ends, he lifts her chin between his fingers, studying her violent gray eyes. There is something inside of them that he cannot understand.

"Love is a lie, is it?" he questions. "So… when I told you I love you… you thought I was lying to you?"

Her gaze narrows, but she says nothing.

"Why don't I prove it to you?" says Shigure. He lets his hand drop from her chin to her shoulder. He slides his fingers under the sleeve of her kimono, pushing it off. The loose fabric begins to fall to the floor. She twitches. A soft breeze from the broken window tangles through her hair and makes her robe billow around her chest. Shigure lets the other sleeve drop away, unties the knot that holds the kimono around the middle, and watches as it all falls away and remains in a silken pool at her feet.

"I will make you believe me," he whispers in her ear.

He then brushes his hand lightly across her body, feeling her involuntary shiver. He bends to kiss her neck, her collar, her tiny breasts. She has starved herself to keep her body from maturing. He kisses her ribs, her stomach, and holds her hips as he kneels in front of her. Her hands suddenly grip his shoulders, small fingernails digging into his skin. He smiles.

"Trust me, Akito," Shigure says, glancing up at her. "Because… I love you. More than anyone else." He places his mouth between her legs and kisses her there, too. She gasps above him. He merely tastes her, a fleeting touch, before pulling her down to crash on top of him, her fingers splayed on his chest. At Shigure's guidance, she begins to explore his chest with her hands, unbuttoning his shirt. With her sitting bare and damp across his legs, he curses such complications as buttons and zippers.

But her deft hands move with confidence now, though her expression is still awestruck. When she pushes off his shirt and moves to his belt, Shigure flips her so she lies willing on her back. Her body rests over her fallen kimono. He kisses her skin again, everywhere; she longs for more of his touch and begs him with desperate hands.

"Is this love?" Shigure asks between kisses, briefly meeting her fevered gaze. "Or is it merely desire, Akito-chan?"

He, for one, knows the answer to such a question.

"Do it," she murmurs. Even in her breathless rapture, it is still very much a command. Her eyes flicker, but she catches Shigure's lips once again in her own. She explores his body as if she is dying of thirst and he is her water, her life; he finds himself dominated by the beck and call of her inexperienced yet impatient hands. At her wordless request, he touches her until her breathing comes in ragged gasps; he kisses and bites at her skin till she cries out her command yet again, tracing bloody furrows into his back with her small fingernails.

He realizes, then, that he is doubly cursed. Even here, in his domain, he cannot disobey her orders, and he cannot hold her responsible – and he would not do so even if he had the ability. He is blinded by love for her – a warped kind of love that has no real reason for existing. He cannot possibly understand why she fascinates him so. Perhaps it is her youth, her ally and her advantage over him that she wields so skillfully; perhaps it is her situation, for she sits trapped in a madness of her mother's creation, fed by her own fears.

But here and now, he sees in her eyes a reflection of her distant heart. She aches for the release so nearly within her reach.

And when he obeys her, pressing her down into the hardwood floor, sharp pain tears through Akito's body and mingles with her newfound desire in a sweet, heady mixture, each component soon indistinguishable from the other.

Akito finds more than release, more than pleasure, more than desire in Shigure's touch. She finds the impossible.

She finds truth in a myriad of lies.

A familiar man steps out of Akito's sickroom. Shigure glares at him as he walks emotionlessly past. They both nod shortly to each other. Kureno's eyes glitter. As soon as he turns a corner out of sight, Shigure storms into Akito's presence, unswayed even by the sight of her lying with a cooling cloth on her forehead and Hatori's medical supplies at the foot of the bed.

"What was he doing here?"

"He is my servant, the same as you."

"We are not the same," Shigure hisses. As he crosses to her bed, his eyes alight on a small vase of flowers on the bedside table. They are a mixture of white and yellow miniature blossoms. Idly Akito raises her head to smell them.

"Aren't they nice? Kureno left them."

There is a short, tense pause. Akito's hand moves with deliberate care and sensuality around the flowerpetals. In one smooth movement, Shigure sends the glass vase shattering to floor and grabs Akito's hand. Water pools around his feet. The glass bits glitter like carved diamonds.

"We are not the same," Shigure repeats, though with less venom this time. He lets his grip on Akito's fingers loosen, and slides his hand up her arm, to her elbow, her shoulder, her collar. He touches the bare skin there and feels goosebumps under his palm. Now his words are light and casual. "Kureno means nothing to you. Kureno does not stir anything inside of you. Kureno… is not me."

He bends so their faces are inches apart. Her cheeks are flushed; whether from fever or emotion, he cannot tell. His hand still on her chest, he kisses her, reveling in her soft, young lips beneath his own. By the brushing of her eyelashes against his cheeks, he can feel her eyes widen. She is only fifteen, after all. But her eyes hold a cruel knowledge of the world that no child ever has. She returns his caresses with sudden fervor.

"I love you," Shigure whispers between kisses. "Very much."

But then the door behind them creaks open, and Hatori enters. Just in time, Akito shoves Shigure away. Shooting a winning sort of smile at his friend, Shigure cheerfully explains the broken vase and warns Hatori to watch his step. Hatori's eyes narrow, but he says nothing.

As he turns to leave, Shigure feels Akito's sharp eyes upon him. They hold a challenge, as clear as day, and Shigure's heart races until he is out of her sight.

She needs Kureno like an addict needs his drug, his release.

She needs Shigure like a drowning man needs his last gasp of fresh air.

She does not know which is more binding, more real, or which is right. Who is it that she is most afraid to lose? Kureno, who broke her soul when his bond was released, yet stays with her out of desperate pity? Or Shigure, who holds her fragile heart, her darkest secrets, in his careless hands? If either of them were to abandon her, like her father did, leaving her to the mercy of a disintegrating curse and a despised mother, she did not think she would survive.

She would drown in her own isolation.

Every day, Kureno stays with her, while Shigure's visits are short and flighty. She has to keep Kureno close, after all. He has escaped the Zodiac curse, and if his spirit has left her service, she refuses to allow his body to do the same. Every day, he is by her side. Shigure notices, she can tell. But Kureno's presence so close by does not change the passion between them. Akito and Shigure meet in common moments, a mere glance or a brushing of the hand the only reminders of what they share in their private hours.

But sometimes, Akito goes far too long without Shigure's touch. She knows his personality. She knows he smiles at other girls. She knows that he loves her, and yet, she is desperate for something that he is not always present to provide.

Kureno, however, is always there.

It happens in a fleeting moment, in a fit of fancy; she grabs Kureno's collar and commands him, and he is powerless to refuse. His eyes even soften, pitying her, and he agrees.

In the height of her pleasure, she realizes Shigure is there. With a slight tilt of her head, she sees him at the cracked door. He has a bouquet of jasmine flowers in his hand. But his eyes are wide with shock, and the whole scene seems to be frozen for long, long moments, until he slams the door and disappears.

I am God. I may do as I please. Shigure has no hold over me. I am his master! I am his master!

She repeats these words as a mantra inside her head, determined, demanding. But she cannot prevent the small tears beginning to leak from her eyes. She can only wonder at the wrenching pain in her heart, so violent that her body collapses to the floor, and Kureno steps aside to give her space. They are both gasping for each breath. He only stares at her as she cries.

"Leave me," she whispers. "Leave me!"

He slips back into his clothes, his shirt unbuttoned as he hurries out the door. He pauses, glances back at her, and Akito shouts again.

"Leave me!"

When he is gone, Akito scrambles to her feet and throws a robe over herself. She waits until even the echoes of his footsteps have disappeared before rushing out the door. But all too soon, she finds herself crashing to the ground again, her foot slipping on fallen flower petals. Shigure's bouquet lies scattered around her splayed legs. She stares at the crushed flowers, starkly pale against the dark wood of the floor. So fragile.

Akito clings to her aching body and lays her head helplessly on the floor. She cries alone until her eyes run dry, her power lost, her strength vanished.

Again and again, Shigure slams his first into Kureno's face. Blood streams down his pale Sohma skin, but he makes little effort to resist, his eyes blank. Shigure throws him to the ground, unable to control his shaking limbs, unable to temper the fury racing through his veins. He wants to rage and storm, scream until his throat runs hoarse. He wants Kureno to fight back, so he can have the satisfaction of destroying him utterly, rendering him as helpless as Shigure had been as he watched Akito with someone who was not him.

But none of that can happen. Not even here, the darkest corners of the Sohma estate. Kureno is special, Akito said. But special how? How does he have the right to stand always by her side, to hold Akito as Shigure has so often held her? He has taken her, touched her, pleased her, all as Shigure has done so, so many times.

How can Akito have betrayed him, so fully, so thoughtlessly?

"Why did you do it?" Shigure growls. "You are not one of us. I know it. You bastard!"

He punctuates each accusation with a kick to Kureno's stomach. The man barely makes a sound. Eventually, Shigure cannot stand it anymore; he whirls around and races through the house, leaving Kureno bruised and bleeding and alone. Pathetic.

Windows and doors and flash through the corner of his vision as he runs. He does not know where he is headed, but his feet and his subconscious take him to a familiar destination, one of the inner Sohma houses. It is the one very near Akito's house, but secluded, separate. It is Ren's.

Now, every step is a cold calculation. The pain that Akito has wrought upon his heart has torn his love and his morality into pieces. They are still there, of course; they will always be there. But the broken pieces now merely pierce him into further action, like sharp earth under his bare feet, daring him to rush to the smooth edge as fast as possible lest the pain tear his soles into bloody shreds.

He knows how Akito will suffer when she finds out what Shigure has done. Bittersweet victory reigns in his mind as he savors the idea. He can see the madness behind her tears and hear the ripping agony in her screams. But all the same, he does not let his path waver. They are lovers, and they share in everything, from love and body and soul to pain and betrayal. In his mind, in his shredded, shattered heart, he is doing this out of his twisted love for her.

He loves her so much, too much, that he will crush her with the power of it.

Ren's rooms are still and silent as he paces through them. He knows Akito will be aware of this. Somehow, someway, Shigure assures it. He will tell Hatori, and Hatori will tell Akito as he embraces her in pity instead of love, and all will become clear. Akito will scream. Perhaps even young Yuki, the boy so often at Akito's side, will learn of it, for Akito will scream so loud.

She is waiting for him around the next corner. In the darkness, her hair seems to trail to the floor, to flow as one into the night; her dark and sensual eyes gaze over Shigure's body. She wears only a sheer nightdress, and her figure glimmers like moonlight, as full and soft and beautiful as a goddess. Her breasts heave when she takes a breath, sending the fabric of her gown rippling through to her narrow waist and slender legs. He can see everything.

And yet, all he can see is Akito. But it is a different Akito, mysterious and mystical. He imagines a different world, a different life, where she would have been able to live as she was born. Akito would look so like Ren, he thinks. The same fierce beauty, alluring without fail, the slope of her cheeks and the lines of her lips identical in every way to her mother's.

"I knew you would come for me," Ren says. "I knew you never loved her. No one could ever love her."

Shigure remains silent. He does not bother to correct her. He studies her body as it is: an object for his pleasure and vengeance rather than a person. Ren is nothing more than a means to an end. She must know that he is using her, even if she can't know how the love – the impossible, eternal, despicable love – he holds for Akito has driven him to do so.

He takes hold of her dress in a harsh fist and pulls her close so he can feel her proud curves, her intense femininity. His free hand finds her breast and tightens there, his leg pushes hers apart, and he presses himself hard against her until she gasps like the whore she is. He can smell her desire. She breathes like she is in ecstasy. She breathes like Akito breathes, trembling onto his shoulder, trembling onto Kureno's shoulder.

There is no hesitation now. No tenderness, no loving care, no teasing embrace.

There is only lust.

He smells of sweat and sex when he leaves the inner Sohma residences. Idly he locates his cell phone in his mussed clothes. No missed calls. Akito is probably too busy with Kureno to call him, Shigure guesses. But he does not feel bitter towards her any longer; Ren's taste in his mouth fills him with enough bitterness to last a lifetime.

Shigure presses one button to call Hatori. Hatori is the first number on his speed-dial.


"Yes, Ha-san," he says lazily. "You weren't asleep, were you?"


"Meet me at the corner store outside the house, then," Shigure says, and hangs up before he can hear Hatori's response. He knows he will come.

When Shigure reaches the corner store, one of the few midnight lights in the small neighborhood, he enters and hears the chime of a little bell. The cashier, a skinny tattooed man, looks up from his magazine, and then glances back down again without comment.

Without glancing at name or label, Shigure grabs the nearest pack of cigarettes and slams it on the counter. He buys with a credit card and does not look at the price or pick up his receipt. When he leaves the store, the little door's bell dangling cheerily at his back, Hatori is waiting for him, gray eyes glimmering. Wordlessly Shigure picks out a cigarette and tosses it to him, then flicks his fingers to ask for Hatori's lighter. Hatori had started to smoke after Kana left.

Shigure has to suppress a cough at the first gasp of the acrid, bitter tang. He chokes even more on the stinging exhalation. Hatori stands silently by until Shigure can breathe again. Sighing, Shigure puts the cigarette to his lips once more.

"It gets easier," Hatori says. Smoke surrounds his words.

"So easy that it becomes a necessity," says Shigure. "It is inevitable, is it not?"

He takes another few drags of his cigarette. At last, he doesn't cough. Hatori's lips twitch, and their knowing eyes meet for a long time, words rendered unnecessary.

"Bow before me," Akito yells. "Grovel! Beg, like the dog you are!"

Shigure does not move. Part of him longs to do as she asks, but he is obstinate, and refuses to submit until he loses every last thread of control. His whole body shakes with the force of his resistance.

"You are banished!" Akito continues, turning red with rage. She spits poison at him. "Banished! Leave the Sohma house! You – that woman - accept my verdict, and bow to me!"

Seemingly of their own will, his legs bend; his knees slam painfully into the floor. He braces himself with fisted hands. High above him, Akito laughs madly, crazed with her own authority and anguish.

"See! You are nothing! Nothing before me! No one can take that away, not even her! You are my slave!"

"There," Shigure says coldly, his teeth gritted, his face to the floor as he listens to her cackling laughter. Distantly he feels tears on his cheeks. "There. I made you smile."

And all too easily, he is gone.

Even years later, his face haunts her twilight hours.

His last visit was to inquire about the Honda girl. It is no matter, Akito thinks, to allow her to stay. She will prove beyond all doubt that the Juunishi are hers and hers alone. This girl, this pathetic, foolish girl, will never steal their hearts away from her.

Yet when he leaves, her legs tremble. She closes her eyes, but still sees him, and the futility of forcing him from her mind makes her bite her lip so hard that it begins to bleed. She feels the blood trickle down her chin and drip onto the floor, and yet she feels no pain.

Her blood looks like any other. It looks like Hiro's, Hatori's, or Rin's. It looks like Kureno's, the many times she has hurt him as he serves her. It looks like Shigure's, when she scratches her nails across his back in pleasure and later finds traces of it on her slender fingers.

Akito stares until her blood runs dark and dry.

Her hand seems to fly from nowhere, pulling him back, halting him on his way to the door. Her breath suddenly tickles at his cheek, sweet and familiar. Her lips brush against his, and she presses herself so close to him that he can feel her slight curves even through her formal clothes. All her denials are worth nothing now.

"For someone who's denied her womanhood," Shigure says softly, coolly, "you sure do resort to using it quickly."

Without explanation, he tugs at her tie, undresses her, as smooth and careless as he has always been. It has been so long since they have done this, and yet they fall into their pattern as if it were yesterday. As if nothing has changed.

Kureno's words echo in Shigure's head.

The one person, more than any other, that she wants at her side… is you.

Shigure holds her naked body, hears her breathless gasp, feels her impatient touch. How he has longed for this moment, he thinks. He has always been waiting for this day. Waiting for her to be born, then waiting for her to love, then waiting for her to return. Always waiting. And now, at last, he is at her side again. In his heart, he has never left. But his heart, his twisted, scheming, careless heart, pales in comparison to hers.

Only now is he once again at her side in her heart. Their mutual betrayal had not broken their love, only driven it astray; and only now, he realizes, has it returned to its proper place.

He kisses her breasts as carefully as if she were made of porcelain. He smiles when she growls at him, burying her hands into his hair, demanding more. With a nip of his teeth, he obliges her, and she rewards him with a gasp and a shiver. Shigure strands straight to kiss her lips, and Akito slides her hands under his kimono so she can trail her fingernails lightly over his chest and stomach. Her lips follow. His whole body reacts to her touch; he has forgotten how easily, how wholly, she can affect him. Control him.

There is no more pretense between them. In this room, in their common cloak of pain and desire, twisted tightly around their heated, intertwined bodies, they are merely two people determined, for the moment, to become one.

Akito falls asleep after they are finished. Shigure knows he has to leave. But he knows, his time, his departure will be temporary, and he will be here again when it most matters.

Her slender body is loosely covered by their discarded clothes. He can still see patches of her pearly skin, slick with sweat. One of her hands rests loosely in the air, and Shigure touches her fingers lightly as he pulls his kimono back around himself.

When he at last draws away, he imagines he can still feel her hand in his, and the thought brings a smile to his melancholy heart.

All around him, he knows people are crying.

Crying with no attempt to prevent it. Crying from the pain of a broken heart, the joy of a shining new world, the fear of the unfamiliar and sudden loneliness, the hope of love and life and laughter.

A few have already cried for this, he guesses. Kureno, Momiji, Hiro. He can't feel their tears.

But in one instant, he knows cheery Kagura and anxious Ritsu are crying. He knows young Kisa, perhaps unable to truly understand the reality of their entrapment, is crying. He knows even Rin and Haru are crying, though they have longed desperately for this for so many years. None of them can stop the momentary heartbreak. He knows Kyo is crying, perhaps in Tohru's arms, as Shigure had so carefully planned. He knows Yuki, who has hated and feared Akito for his entire life, is now crying for the loss of her. He knows proud Ayame and quiet Hatori, his lifelong friends and companions, are both crying.

And he knows Akito is crying, too.

Shigure staggers with the weight of their shared pain, and then, with the shock of that weight lessening. Soon the tears on his face are only his own. Shigure touches them, then stares at his hand, at his heart. He touches his chest to remind himself that, somehow, miraculously, his heart is still beating, all on its own.

This is what he has longed for. What he has worked for relentlessly, endlessly, using any means necessary. Vague ideas flash through his mind that he cannot control – Akito's love, Ren's madness, Tohru's innocence. He has used them all to achieve this goal, this freedom, this overwhelming emptiness of soul.

He cries and stumbles until he reaches Akito's house. He knows she is inside, but how he knows, he can no longer tell.

She is curled in a loose kimono on the floor of her room. Her body is shaking with quiet tears, and he knows that she feels the blankness more than any other. Shigure kneels at her side and touches her chin, so she will look at him. Her eyes are rimmed with red, her hair is tangled, her clothes are in disarray. She looks at him without truly seeing.

And yet, she is beautiful to him.

"They have all left," she gasps. "Everyone… has left me. I am alone… I am nothing."

She does not question. She believes.

"The last banquet has ended," says Shigure simply.

She nods. More tears escape from her eyes. She looks almost like a child again, alone and helpless. Shigure pulls her into an embrace and buries his face in her soft shoulder, and he feels her arms encircle him tightly, desperately; she clings to him and fists her hands around his clothes. Her sobs echo throughout the empty room. Only by holding her so close does he begin to feel a sliver of their familiar, lost companionship sneak neatly into his heart again.

"But you are not alone, Akito. You will… never be alone anymore."

"I guess you could call it a farewell present."

She doesn't touch it, but she knows the fabric will be smooth. The intricately woven flowers shimmer, almost faerie-like, spirit-like. In his hand, the kimono wavers gently; his hand is as steady as can be, but he is only human. Her eyes travel back to his impassive face.

"I hate you!"

Akito flies at him, screaming, her lungs tearing with the pressure. She feels flesh rip under her fingernails as she claws his cheek, and he makes no move to resist. She wants to drive nails into him to force him to stay, to deafen him with her yells so he is forced to remain by her side, anything, anything to prevent him from abandoning her, that secret fear buried like a stone in her heart, becoming heavier and heavier with each passing second until she could no longer bear it.


One word.

Shigure's hand catches her flailing wrist, but there is no need. She is frozen at his command.

"Who said I was abandoning you?"

"You… you said 'farewell.'" Akito's heart hammers. She feels Shigure's lips begin to caress her fingers, drawing them across the familiar contours of his lips, rubbing her palm kindly. Her terror is so powerful that his words almost disappear into the air; her mind cannot comprehend them.

"You've finally said goodbye to the person your father wanted you to be."

Akira. Ren. God. I am God. Akira. I am…

"Now you're turning into someone new, right? So this is a present to commemorate that."

I am… Akito.

"Congratulations. It's nice to meet the new you. And I look forward to seeing how you live from here on out."

His words are so careless. So easy. Without meeting her eyes, Shigure drops her hand, drapes the kimono over her shoulder. A flicker of indecision crosses his face for the briefest of seconds as he makes to leave. Somehow, it seems he cannot leave her. He grasps her wrist again.

"Your only actions were cruel ones. It makes me wonder. How on Earth can you make up for that?"

"Shut up!" Akito screams. Her voice is raspy, hoarse. "Just stop talk - "

"I'm honored. I didn't realize I that weighed so heavily on your mind."

"It's not that!"

Words spill from her mouth now. Painful, honest words, her secrets, expelled so violently that they almost break her delicate heart and secret soul. You were always the one I was most afraid of. I could hold you back the least, you feared me the least. There were so many times I thought I had you… but then you would flutter off and go to the others.


The simple word catches her so by surprise that she stammers, and Shigure seizes the opportunity.

"I'm cunning and childish."

But I am the child. I am…

"I don't like getting hurt. I hate losing. Once I've gotten hold of something… I don't like letting go. And I don't like sharing."

He moves as if to grab her, to take her by force, but by instinct Akito jerks away. Her eyes are wide and frightened as she stares up at him, at this terrifyingly familiar man.

"That's right," he says teasingly. His hand freezes, his arm drops, and he draws away slowly.

Akito's mouth moves, but she cannot produce any sound; she doesn't know why. But even her control over her own body has fled her now. Shigure smiles.

"If you're planning to reject me… now's your chance."

Even once outside, Akito can still feel their eyes on her. The former Juunishi. She feels their shocked gazes, but senses no forgiveness, no sympathy. She does not expect any. She is worthless without the bonds, after all.

She is a traitor. She is separate, selfish. She has wanted all of their love - and his most of all. Shigure, the most distant, the most fearless, the most fleeting… she is a child in the way she has longed to possess him. And yet he still smiles at her. He tells her he was honored by her notice, as if she is still the powerful one, the elevated one, when in reality she is as weak and helpless as a talentless infant. But with his eyes sparkling, Shigure has given her a choice, and now is when she has to decide.

If you come to me one more time… You know what's going to happen.

Her life is now hers to create.

He is the only one who does not join with the others to listen to her apologies and admissions, for he already knows her so well that it doesn't matter. He sits outside, on the same porch and in the same garden, where he first kissed her, and he waits for her to join him. For he has to know, he must know, she thinks, what she will choose. How could she possibly never come near him again? Shigure, the only one she has ever truly wanted at her side?

When she sees him sitting there, his back turned, her whole body trembles. She longs very much to touch him, to hold him, to surround him completely, so all he can feel is her and her alone. It is an unfamiliar feeling, this love, this burning desire that is so undeniably feminine.

His head turns just the slightest bit. Just enough to see her, and just enough so that she can see his kind smile. There is a small red cut still on his cheek from where she had hit him before. When she sits beside him, his eyes follow her, soft with sympathy as she explains the others' reaction. She thinks – perhaps hopes, perhaps imagines – that she can see a bit of pleading anticipation in his eyes.

"I tried to apologize," she whispers. She stares at her hands folded in her lap; they are pale against her floral-print, dark kimono. "But I couldn't. It was hard. I was telling them that it was the end. But I… I am still a Sohma. I will still work to protect them. Their freedom. They don't have to accept my aid… but I will give it. I will remain a Sohma. I will even talk to Ren, if I have to, in order to set things right."

Shigure doesn't reply at once. He tilts his head and studies her, that small, familiar smile lingering on his lips. "Do you want me to be with you in that kind of life?"

"Are you angry?"

"A little," says Shigure, shrugging. "Can you blame me? After all… I've waited a long, long time for you to come back. As a girl, as a woman. You sure took your sweet time." He touches her cheek, his face calm and happy. His fingers flutter to the jasmine flower placed very decidedly in her hair. "It suits you. You are… beautiful."

She leans her face into his palm. His touch is so gentle that she relaxes at last. A shiver sends goosebumps down her skin, every time he looks at her, every time he touches her. Then she hears words that she thought were lost forever, broken, as disparate and ephemeral as the Juunishi bonds. But from Shigure's lips, whispering next to her ear, they are as whole and real as the sparkling garden in front of her.

"I love you."

His kiss is a new promise, a new bond, that she knows will not be broken. Her heart opens to him, and only then does it begin to heal.

I love you.

It is an odd feeling, he thinks, to be like this with her. It is extraordinary to simply walk hand in hand down the street as if they are normal people, just a girl and a boy in love. Shigure glances over at Akito, whose features are softened with a touch of the makeup that they have bought together. Her hair brushes right above her shoulders now, and she wears a dress, and she is stunning.

"Let's go to the beach together," Shigure says suddenly.


"Or the lake. Or the theme park. Or the zoo."

"But… she's leaving tomorrow. Tohru Honda."

"I know. So let's play today, right?"

"Everything is so simple to you."

"Are you really not going to say goodbye, Akito-chan?"


There is a small pause between them, but Shigure doesn't mind the silence. They are comfortable together. Her small hand twitches inside his, and he glances down at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Will I have to come with you to the send-off?" she says artlessly.

Shigure stares in amazement. Then he laughs, pushing her cute hat down over her blushing cheeks and teasing smile. "You cunning child," he says, dropping her hand so he can slide his arm around her waist instead. He kisses her forehead and rejoices in how easy it is to do so. Akito even laughs, so calm, so carefree.

Her head dips onto his shoulder. Her presence beside him, gentle, kind, and fearless, is all he needs.

His love and his life.