He woke up slowly, the white ceiling above him gradually coming into focus. Plaster was peeling from it like scabs from a wound. He thought it was evening.
But as he came fully awake, he realized that it could not be evening. There had been no morning and no afternoon before it. He looked at the small square of a window cut into the fissured cement of his room and saw that the pale light outside was not the blue and gray of evening, but the blue and gray of dawn. It was quiet still, the birds had not awakened and the crickets had gone to sleep.
He lay back on the pillow, expelling a little puff of breath in a little sigh. He closed his eyes, and tried to catch the last vestiges of the memory he had been dreaming of, but it slipped through his fingers like mist. There had been something about gold maple leaves, and smoke, and an old lady in a mint green wig sweeping clams from the stepping stones of a temple. Those poor clams, he had thought, don't hurt them! They clung to the stones with all their might, but the broom went swish-swish-swish and they went tumbling into a sea of green blades, clackety-clack went their shells.
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. He opened his eyes, and the light had turned yellow, bright and cheerful. It reflected unbearably off the tap above the little porcelain sink, hurting his eyes. He sat up, a tad too quickly, because the room started spinning and spinning and wouldn't stop. He pressed the heels of his palms to his forehead. Some parts of his body hurt terribly. It hurt to breathe. He was bewildered for a moment, and then he recalled the bar fight the night before. Oh yeah. Bar fight. A chair broken over my head. Sprained wrist.
Happy that he had unravelled the mystery, he swung his legs over the bed and went to stand before the sink. The cracked mirror above it showed him messy red hair, a bloodshot blue-gray eye and an expression he had seen on similar mirrors for years. He smiled slightly and touched the cool surface with his fingertips. "Who were you expecting?" he asked softly. The lips of the mirror Iori shaped those words as well, but there was no answer.
He turned on the tap and splashed water on his face. His red hair hung down the front of his face, sticking to his skin in strips, like streaks of blood. He brushed them away irritably. If he had a pair of scissors with him, or a knife, or a pair of garden shears, he'd cut them off. When he was a kid, one of the female servants would come on the last Saturday every month to trim his hair. She'd take him down to the large, airy kitchen, sit him down in an oversized chair and drape a woollen cloth over his body, tying it tightly around his neck. Her scissors would go snip snip and he'd feel strands of his hair falling away, drifting to land on the wooden floor, red against brown. Through the open doorway he could see butterflies flitting among the peonies and the dahlias, and he could smell the green scent of freshly cut grass. But the wool had smelt of smoke.
The small, temperamental refrigerator revealed nothing but a carton of milk and a glass container with a goldfish fossilized in ice. Its fish eyes were huge and mindless. He ignored it and reached for the carton, lifting it to his lips and kicking the door shut. He finished it and saw the date on the flap. Four days ago, huh, he thought sullenly. No wonder it had tasted weird. Briefly, he contemplated sticking a finger down his throat to get rid of the milk by vomitting, but he gave that up. He didn't like vomitting.
... hunched over the toilet, one hand braced on the wall, the other held close to his body, throwing up milky strings of saliva and half-digested food... most of it missed the toilet and spattered on his feet instead. Jolts of pain went up his arm, nerves tingling, and he couldn't see very well because his left eye was swollen shut and blood dripped into his other one...
Blinking, he shook his head, dispelling the long-ago memory. Well, it probably won't do any harm, he thought as he threw the empty carton away. I've eaten worse. He glanced at the clock. It wasn't evening yet. In fact, it was merely eleven in the morning. Six o'clock seemed very far away.
He dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt and went out into the sun. The bright light made spots dance in his vision. It's remarkably similar to the spots you see when you're about to pass out, he noted absently, starting down the sidewalk. A greasy smell directed him to a roadside vendor selling rolls. He went up to the vendor and said, "Give me one" in his usual manner. Hiroshi had liked rolls, he recalled, then furrowed his brow. Had he known somebody named Hiroshi in the past?
A pock-marked, boyish, smiling face. "Boku wa Hiroshi desu. Yorishiku." The smile never faltered in the face of his coldness and his silence. "Let's be friends, ne, Iori-kun?" Hiroshi took his hand, and he agreed to be friends, though he never said it.
With a start, he realized that the vendor was asking him something. "You all right? You look kinda pale there," the man was saying. He frowned and paid him, walking away without a word. Of course, he remembered now. Hiroshi was a distant cousin who had come to stay with the Yagamis, in the fall of Iori's twelfth year. Though the same age as Iori, Hiroshi was shorter, gangly, and brimming with so much childish innocence Iori had felt positively ancient beside him.
"Hey, Iori-kun! C'mon, the water's great!" Hiroshi, standing waist-deep in the river, waved at him. He stood carefully on the bank, arms folded. Incredibly self-conscious about his own body, he could think of at least fifty things he would rather do than strip in front of this boy. "C'mon, what's the matter?" Hiroshi hollered again. After a moment, Iori said, "The river's haunted." Hiroshi stared bug-eyed at him for a minute, then a large toothy grin broke out on his face. "Iori-kun, pull the other leg," he laughed.
He'd finished the roll and it was still not six o'clock yet. He stopped in front of a movie theatre. The unrelenting sunlight was starting to make him dizzy, and the interior of the theatre looked dim and cool. Mind made up, he bought a ticket and went in in the middle of a movie. He picked a random seat and sat down with a sigh. On the screen a young high-school couple was beginning to realize that fate was probably trying to pair them up. The girl, who looked like a younger Nakayama Miho, blushed when she saw the boy of her dreams sitting across the table from her. "Kaneda-kun, how long have you been here?" she asked. "It's okay, Hitomi-chan. I'll just sit here and wait till you finish," he said sweetly, indicating the books spread out before her. Her blush deepened.
Iori started to fall asleep. Hiroshi, he dreamed, was stuffing his face with rolls. "Tokyo," Hiroshi lamented, "has terrible rolls. The rolls in Shizuoka, Iori-kun, have meatballs in them! Meatballs! And sauce too." He was speaking while having about three rolls in his mouth, and bits and pieces kept flying out. Now Iori knew immediately that this was a dream, because otherwise he would never have understood what Hiroshi was trying to say through his mouthful of food.
But it isn't a dream at all, he thought, waking up in the darkened theatre. Hadn't it really happened? Hiroshi was from Shizuoka... he'd never seen snow before... There was a crink in his neck. He wondered how much time had passed. Things were not going well for the couple in the movie. "But I love you, I love you..." Kaneda-kun said, tears pouring down his face. "Forgive me..." Iori froze. "But how could you do this to me!" the girl cried, "How could you do this!"
... "But I love you... I love you, Iori... How could you make me do this to you? You mustn't, you mustn't make me angry, I'm not myself, don't you see? Do you understand, Iori, you must never make me angry! I cannot be held responsible, don't make me do this to you again..."
They were both weeping, on the screen, the boy and the girl, holding each other, confessions of love choked out between the tears.
... crying alone in his room, staring at the moon, and wishing... wishing for nothing because he had no wishes left.
He felt very tired. "What is it about childhood," he whispered to the weeping children on the screen, "That haunts us so?" Those two lived happily ever after. He left the theatre after the movie ended.
The light outside had turned from the cheery brightness of morning to the dull, throbbing heat of late afternoon. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes against the sun. He had never liked to be out in sunlight. It felt like golden hammers to him, the light, pounding and pounding on every surface. But other people enjoyed it, he noticed, they revelled in it as if they were flowers and the sun filled them up inside.
He took his hand away and saw a familiar face in the crowd. Groaning inwardly, he ducked his head and looked surreptitiously around for a suitable place to - disappear - for a while. He wasn't in the mood to socialize. Not that he ever was, but today he was even more anti-social than ever. She hadn't seen him. He saw a dark alleyway. Ah, he and dark alleyways were well acquainted. He couldn't count the number of times he had woken up in one.
His sigh was inaudible as he turned to face the woman who had called his name. Kagura Chizuru was tall, not as tall as he was, dark-eyed, and had a way of carrying herself that suggested that she may have been a ballet dancer as a child. Her jet-black hair fell in shining waves down her spine, held back from her face with a headband. The man with her was middle-aged, bearded, and was looking at him with an intensity that made him vaguely uncomfortable. Iori flicked him a glance, frowned a little, and looked back to Chizuru.
"Kagura-san," he said, pointedly ignoring her companion.
Chizuru smiled at him. "This is Kusanagi Saishyu," she said, gracefully.
"I am... acquainted with young Yagami-san," Saishyu murmured.
Iori frowned again, but before he could say anything, Chizuru turned to him with a cheery smile and said, "This is a beautiful day to be out, isn't it, Yagami-san?" Before he could answer, she went on, "Kusanagi-san and I are going to the Midori-ya for some tea. Would you like to join us?"
"No," he said. After a little pause, he added, "Thank you."
It didn't seem to sink in because Chizuru was absorbed in looking him up and down. She took in the T-shirt and the frayed jeans and the dirty sneakers. "Why, Yagami-san! You actually look your age, for once. You look like - like one of those college kids out on a stroll."
Iori's hand twitched. Two references to his age in less than a minute. He was beginning to feel a headache coming on.
"How is your father?"
Saishyu's voice had been quiet but for some reason, Iori felt as if he had shouted in his ear. "I don't know. I haven't seen him for... for some time," he replied. His hand drifted to his forehead. Golden hammers pounded all around him. "Kagura-san, I must go. Goodbye." He walked past them. He thought he heard Chizuru saying something, calling his name, perhaps, but he did not look back.
By the time he reached the park, the sun had gone behind some clouds and the air was actually cool. He bought an ice-cream for the headache and sat on a wooden bench to eat it. When he'd finished, the clock tower chimed five. He tilted his head and rested it against the back of the bench. A small breeze sprang up and brushed his hair gently across his face.
"Your hair, Iori-kun, is like fire."
He closed his eyes. It was quiet save for the wind rustling the leaves above him, and faint voices in the distance, sound of laughter and a child crying somewhere.
He woke up with a start, a gasp dying on his lips. A cold sweat had broken out on his brow, and when he placed his hand on his chest, he could feel his heart beating madly. He couldn't remember the nightmare. Some time must have passed, because there were more people in the park now and a boy was standing next to the bench and staring at him.
He stared back. "What do you want?"
"Can I have my ball back, niisan?"
Iori looked down and saw a yellow-and-red striped ball between his feet. He bent down, and a sudden pain flared in his chest, making him catch his breath. He froze, waiting for the pain to pass. It didn't, but he made himself pick up the ball and handed it to the little boy. He tasted something metallic and faintly sweet in his mouth. He swallowed. It wouldn't do for the boy to see a total stranger spewing blood in front of him. The kid'll probably faint or something. Or maybe not. Iori stared at him. He didn't understand children.
"Thank you very much, niisan." The kid bowed. "Would you like a sweet?"
"Would you like a sweet, niisan?" the boy repeated.
"It's very nice." He rummaged about in his pockets and finally produced a sweet wrapped in pink. "It tastes like strawberries."
"If you like strawberries, why don't you eat strawberries instead of sweets that taste like strawberries?"
The boy's reply was instant. "But strawberries don't taste nice." He lifted Iori's hand, rather bravely, Iori thought, turned it palm upwards and dropped the sweet in it. He stepped back. "Bye." Iori watched him run back to his family. A spike of white-hot pain lanced through him and made him bend almost double. He covered his mouth with his hand, but blood leaked through his fingers and dripped to the ground, thick and viscous. His blood was red. He thought it should be green, or black. Shouldn't tainted blood be black?
"Hate the Kusanagi, Iori! Kusanagi is the reason the clan made the pact with Orochi centuries ago, Kusanagi is the reason the curse continues to exist in our blood, Kusanagi is the reason we are shamed! Hate them, hate them, hate all of them!"
The pain faded, slowly, leaving him sore and exhausted. He straightened and wiped his mouth with his hand and his hand on his jeans. For some reason, he thought of Hiroshi. He'd been thinking a lot of Hiroshi today. Where was he now, he wondered. He had left before winter had come.
"Iori-kun, do you know there are fish in this river?"
"Of course." Iori gave Hiroshi a look. The river ran through the Yagami estate. Iori was very well acquainted with it.
The other boy looked up from where he crouched on the riverbank. He smiled. "They have the world to roam, but they stay here, in this place."
"The river ends farther down," Iori informed him.
"But rivers don't end," Hiroshi laughed, "They go on and on and maybe underground for a little while, and then they reach a lake or maybe the sea. And then they go on to other rivers in other places." There was a sparkle in his eyes so Iori didn't know if he was teasing him.
Hiroshi stood up and skipped away through the maple wood, Iori following at a more sedate pace. Hiroshi turned around so that he was facing Iori and walking backwards. "Would you like to see all those other places, Iori-kun?" he asked, grinning.
Iori stopped walking so Hiroshi stopped as well. Iori blinked. It seemed as if the falling maple leaves swirled in front of his eyes, coalescing into a whole, and then scattering again. Or perhaps it was just him. His left eye was still slightly swollen and he couldn't see very well with it. When the leaves parted, Hiroshi was suddenly standing right in front of him.
Hiroshi lifted his hand and touched the white gauze on his forehead, then his left eye. Iori closed his eyes when he felt fingers brushing against his lashes. "Did your father do this to you?"
"No," he answered automatically. He looked at Hiroshi, who looked back at him, and for once his face was grave and serious. It didn't suit him at all, Iori thought. "Tell me about Shizuoka," he said.
It took a moment longer, but Hiroshi's face finally broke into his customary grin. "Shizuoka, Shizuoka!" he sang, doing a little dance, his feet kicking up little clouds of golden leaves. "They sell rolls even in the candy shops, Iori-kun!"
Iori smiled. He sat down cross-legged on the ground, feeling the crackling leaves like a thick carpet beneath him. Hiroshi danced round and round, butchering a song at the top of his lungs. Finally he collapsed beside Iori, laughing and wheezing. He flopped on his back, arms out. There were a few moments of silence as he got his breath back.
"Iori-kun," he said, finally. Iori looked down at him. Hiroshi was smiling, but his eyes were serious. "You must see Shizuoka with your own eyes. Come to Shizuoka with me, Iori-kun. Kaasan will love to have another kid to fuss over. All the girls will take one look at you and fall in love." He grinned, but his eyes were still serious. "The divorce should be final by now, so Kaasan will never see Tousan again, or any Yagami ever again. Your father doesn't scare her. Leave this place, Iori-kun. You must leave your father. Come with me to Shizuoka. Please."
Impossible, impossible, Iori thought as he stared at Hiroshi, but
he said nothing.
To be continued