Shion did not want to step foot in the Onaji Hoshi ever again. Unfortunately, the Onaji Hoshi was the restaurant for people of his class, which was the reason why he pretty much knew their menu by heart.
It was also the reason why his mother insisted on taking him and Safu there two nights before their wedding, one day after the conversation in the alleyway with the waiter he didn’t think he could handle seeing again, and definitely not so soon.
Shion’s only assurance was that for three weeks, he’d sat in nearly every section of the Onaji Hoshi, hoping it would be the section that Nezumi worked in. Not once was he seated at a table waited on by the grey-eyed man, and Shion was hoping this streak wouldn’t end.
He would have been more reassured if they’d reserved their usual corner table by the window, meaning they would most likely be served by Ann, their usual waitress, but Safu had made the reservations this time, and Shion had no idea where she had chosen, nor did he dare to ask. He still hadn’t spoken to Safu in five days, since before the kiss. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to her.
He did, however, know what he had to say to her. What he had to say were lies. Or more, truths that had expired, vanished because of a certain grey-eyed boy. Shion would have to pretend everything was how it always had been – he was in love with her, waiting impatiently for the day they would be married.
Shion wondered, on second thought, if this ever had been the case. He had always cared for Safu, he had always loved her, and knew he always would. But was he in love with her? Did his heart race for her, did his skin light on fire, did his thoughts scatter, did his fingers tremble, did his breath stop, like they did for the grey-eyed waiter?
Shion shook his head. It was no good to think of these things. He was being foolish. He had to do what was right. He would be content with Safu, and he knew this. He might even be happy, sometimes, on the rare moment that he was able to shake those grey eyes from his thoughts. This was enough, it had to be enough. He could not endanger the dark-haired waiter any longer. He had done enough damage, he had inflicted enough pain.
The table Shion, his mother, and Safu were seated at was in the way back of the restaurant. Shion had never been seated so far back before. There was a long window behind his seat, but it was nighttime, and only darkness looked back at him through the glass. Even the lights in this part of the restaurant were dimmed, as if the night had extended a hand through the window, just into their section.
Shion sat next to Safu. He thought he was speaking stiffly as he prattled on about every random thought that popped in his head, but she seemed not to notice, laughing genuinely, her bright eyes crinkled and her smile wide. She seemed happy, as a bride-to-be should be. Shion wondered what he seemed like. Did he seem as ecstatic as a typical groom-to-be? Could he have become that good at pretending – at lying – just from the little practice he’d had the night before?
“Shion, your eyes are red. I didn’t know you had allergies,” Safu commented.
Shion ducked his head. Of course, Safu would immediately conclude it to allergies. For what reason would Shion have to cry, when such a happy day was so close on the horizon?
“I, uh – ”
Shion was saved from having to reply by the arrival of the waiter, whose deep voice interrupted Shion’s stammers.
“Hello. How are you folks to – ”
Shion looked up so fast he thought his neck would snap off. The waiter had been glancing at his notepad – he didn’t need a notepad last time – but when he looked up, his words seemed caught in his throat.
His grey eyes were rimmed with red too.
His lips were parted, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem able to speak. Shion’s entire body was tense as he waited. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t think the waiter could either.
It was his mother. Shion ripped his eyes from the waiter’s and glanced sideways at her. She was smiling.
“I – yes. How did you – ?” the waiter stammered. Shion looked over quickly enough to see Nezumi steal a glance at him before looking back at Karan.
“You waited on us before, don’t you remember? Such a unique name, how could I forget?” Karan’s gaze slipped to Shion’s, but was gone in less than a second. Shion stared at his lap. What was she remembering, exactly?
“Nezumi?” Safu whispered wonderingly from beside him. Shion jumped. He had forgotten Safu was there. He had forgotten how close they were sitting, their hands entwined on top of the table. He looked back up at the waiter, wishing he could beg for forgiveness. He didn’t want to hurt him. It killed him, that he was hurting Nezumi. But he didn’t know how to stop.
“I remember you too,” Nezumi said finally, letting a small smile escape his lips. Then, as if he was donning a mask, his expression turned neutral, just like that. Shion stared. He shouldn’t have been surprised – he’d seen Nezumi do this before, mask his emotions as if they didn’t exist. He couldn’t deny that he was shocked, however, that today, not even twenty-four hours after what had happened, Nezumi could still act as if he didn’t care.
But this time, Shion knew it was an act. He knew what was on the other side of that mask. He had seen it, just last night. It was raw, it was open, it was naked, it was hurt. He jaw was taut, his eyes desperate and rimmed with red, his hollowed cheeks slathered in the silvery grey of his melted eyes.
Shion could not endure this for the next hour. He could not endure it for the next minute.
“Shion, are you all right? Your face doesn’t seem to be a healthy pallor.” Safu put a hand on Shion’s cheek. Shion felt his face burn. He stared up at Nezumi, his eyes pleading. He needed Nezumi to understand. This was not what he’d wanted. This was the last thing he wanted.
Nezumi merely blinked at him, then pulled out three menus. Again, Shion was struck by his elegance. It was therefore difficult for Shion to believe that the following slip of his hand was purely an accident, especially when the menus fell right at the foot of Shion’s seat.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Nezumi said quickly, flashing another smile. It didn’t reach his eyes.
Nezumi stooped down, his head disappearing underneath the white tablecloth. Shion understood.
“Let me help you!” he exclaimed, his voice hoarse. He ducked down quickly to meet Nezumi’s grey eyes looming an inch from his.
The mask was off. “Do you want me to leave?” The words were quick, like bullets, and barely audible. Shion couldn’t think straight. Nezumi’s hot breath felt so familiar on his face.
“I—what?” he stammered.
“Do you want me to leave, Shion? Decide quickly. I don’t care. I’ll say I’m sick.”
Shion blinked. After the fuss Nezumi had made in calling out sick a few days before, now he was offering to do it without a hint of hesitation. For me, Shion realized. Even after what Shion had said, Nezumi was doing this for him. He knew Shion was uncomfortable. He was offering to lose another day’s worth of pay – a day he could not afford – just so that Shion, who had hurt him so painfully just the day before, might feel more at ease. His gaze was concerned, worried, anguished, as he awaited Shion’s response. He wasn’t angry. Why couldn’t he at least have been angry?
Shion’s heart fragmented further for the boy in front of him. He shook his head.
“N-no – ”
The word was barely out of his mouth when Nezumi’s face disappeared. When Shion reemerged from beneath the tablecloth, Nezumi’s mask was back on. So was his plastic smile.
“Sorry about that. Here are your menus.” Nezumi distributed the menus he had dropped. Shion hadn’t even noticed him pick them up. His heart was still pounding in his chest. He thought he might throw up. He had no idea how Nezumi was doing it, how he was standing before him, wearing that mask of apathy, donning a smile and speaking and moving and breathing as if everything was okay. Everything was not okay. Everything was wrong.
There was conversation around him, words being thrown, a giggle from Safu. Shion only noticed Nezumi’s deep voice, but couldn’t discern any words. The room was spinning. He felt faint, and gripped the edge of the tablecloth. He couldn’t do it. Not this dinner. Not the wedding. Not the life that had been mapped out for him from the time he was a child. He couldn’t do it.
“And you, sir? Sir?”
Shion looked up, startled by Safu’s hand on his arm. He glanced at Nezumi, who was looking at him expectantly.
“What would you like to drink, sir?”
Sir. It was worse than “Your Highness,” it was worse than “Prince.” This time, Nezumi was not mocking him. This time, he was calling him by the label Shion had asked to be given.
“I – umm… tea?”
Was that a real smile, that flashed on his lips? Shion couldn’t tell. It was gone too quickly, and then so was the grey-eyed waiter, walking away from their table. Shion breathed a sigh of relief, though he knew the waiter would be back. He stared down at his menu.
Shion didn’t pay much attention as Safu and his mother caught up on wedding details. He was happy neither of them spoke to him, though he felt his mother’s gaze on him several times. She said nothing, though Shion noticed a light crease between her eyes, one which quickly smoothed over whenever he caught her eye.
It seemed that there were several people masking their emotions that night.
Nezumi returned too quickly. Or had it not been quickly enough?
“Are you ready to order?”
Shion hadn’t even considered what he wanted to eat. He didn’t think he could eat. His stomach felt as if it was full of worms. He listened vaguely as his mother and Safu ordered, staring at the waiter’s face. Nezumi simply nodded, jotting things down in his little notepad, flashing his fake smile.
Then he turned his grey gaze on Shion. It gave away nothing. “And what do you want, sir?”
What did Shion want? He knew what he wanted. What he wanted was not on the menu. What he wanted was not the girl who sat beside him, holding his hand with her engagement ring digging into his skin. What he wanted was right in front of him, looking at him, waiting for his reply, always waiting on him. What he wanted was on the other side of the table, but he might as well have been on the other side of the world. He felt so distant, he felt so far away.
Shion felt his eyes water. Nezumi blinked. His eyes flashed. He gave the slightest shake of his head.
You. You, Nezumi, I want you. Now until forever, until every star in the sky has burnt out and we are encased in darkness, but I can still see because you have the light in your eyes, the only light I ever need. Don’t you understand, Nezumi? Why do you have to ask, why would you ever need to ask? I want you, only you, always you.
“…spaghetti,” Shion blurted out, the first food he could think of.
Nezumi nodded. He didn’t write it down. He collected the menus and was gone again.
Shion didn’t eat any of his meal, when Nezumi brought it. Safu asked him what was wrong, but Shion only shook his head. He heard his mother tell Safu it was just wedding jitters. Her voice sounded as if it was coming from a tunnel. Everything seemed so far away. Shion felt as if he was alone on an island, stuck, trapped.
When they finally got up from their table, Shion left five gold coins as a tip. He turned back as he walked out, right before the table was out of sight, and wasn’t surprised at all to see the grey-eyed waiter drop the coins in the trash with Shion’s uneaten meal.
On the day of the wedding, Shion woke up and threw up twice. He’d been dreaming of a bed. The waiter sat on it, on the very edge, his lips parted, his eyes closed. Shion had leaned closer, he’d closed his own eyes, he’d waited for the feel of those lips on his, the electric shock that would course through his body.
It didn’t come. Shion opened his eyes. The waiter was gone. Shion was on another bed. There were clouds around him – no, it wasn’t clouds. What was it? White fabric. Billows and billows of it, Shion was drowning in it, he struggled through it and breathed deeply when his face was free, only to see that it was a dress.
A wedding dress. Safu lay next to him, watching him, waiting.
“Kiss the bride, Shion,” she said.
Shion stared at her. She leaned closer. Her breath was not warm on his cheeks. It was cold, icy, like eyes that had melted in a dark alleyway in the middle of the night –
And then Shion had woken, stumbling from his bed, running to his bathroom, wishing his life hadn’t become as uncontrollable as his nightmares.
“You’re not waiting tables today.”
Nezumi blinked. He had not slept all night. He watched his manager pace up and down the kitchen.
“Cooks, get to work! We’ve got a big job. Nezumi, you’re my best waiter.”
Nezumi said nothing. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to escape. He glanced at the clock. Six in the morning. Eight hours remained until…
“A wedding. We’re catering a wedding. Not just any wedding. One of the biggest weddings of the year for our grand city. Nezumi! Are you listening to me?”
Nezumi gripped the counter, his knuckles white. He closed his eyes.
“Like I said, you’re the best we’ve got. But lately you’ve been…well, you’re in a funk. I understand, it happens to everyone. But that’s over now, do you understand? Whatever was going on before, that’s over and done with. Got it?”
“Yes,” Nezumi said quietly. He knew this. He knew it was over, he’d heard it loud and clear.
“Good, I’m happy to hear that. I need you in top form this afternoon. You’ll be singing too, after the meal is served.”
Nezumi nodded. What else could he do? He couldn’t do what he wanted. He couldn’t break down and fall to his knees and cry and shout and scream and rip the tiles from the walls and run away until he couldn’t move any longer, couldn’t feel any longer. He could never do what he wanted. He lived to serve other people, to answer the needs of other people, to wait on other people. He was a servant, surrounded by masters. He was a subject, surrounded by kings.
He was a waiter, surrounded by customers. He did not get to order. He did not get to eat.
And you… you’re just the waiter. That can’t change. It will never change.
“Okay,” Nezumi whispered. He would do whatever the manager asked. He would fulfill his debt and work without objection for the next eleven years, and then he would work some more. He would keep working there, at the Onaji Hoshi, and for one reason only.
He would be surrounded by high society everywhere he turned, answering to their every call. He would serve politely the people who disdained him. But every so often, he might catch a glimpse of the boy who disdained him most of all. The boy with red eyes, the boy who’d given him hope, only to come to his senses and put Nezumi back where he belonged.
In the sewers, in the dark. Nezumi was filth. He would not forget that, never again.
Even though this red-eyed boy might regard him with contempt those of his class were raised to have, Nezumi could not change how he felt, and knew he never would. And so Nezumi would stay at the Onaji Hoshi, just so he might, once in a while, see the boy he would never stop loving, if only from a distance.