Shion stared into the mirror. He fixed the boutonniere on his lapel. It still didn’t look right.
There was a soft knock on the door.
His mother entered. Shion smiled at her, at the lack of flour on her cheeks and in her hair. It suddenly occurred to him that his mother was pretty. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed it before.
“Look at you,” Karan said, smiling, familiar creases flocking to the sides of her eyes.
“Mom,” Shion said, letting her take him in her arms. He buried his face in his shoulder. He didn’t care that he was too old for this. His eyes burned, but he didn’t want to mess up her dress. He lifted his head. “You look so beautiful.”
Karan laughed. “Oh, Shion.” She wiped tears from the corners of her own eyes.
“Don’t cry, Ma.”
His mother tilted her head and gave him a small smile. “I have always admired you, Shion, for being who you are. You only care for others, you try so hard to do the right thing, you are so selfless. But sometimes, I think, you should be a little more selfish.”
“Ma?” Shion pulled away, confused.
“I want my son to be happy,” Karan confessed, smiling ruefully.
“I am happy,” Shion said, perhaps a bit too fervently.
Karan’s face turned serious. She lifted her hands and took Shion’s face between them, squinting her eyes at him. “Are you sure?”
“I – of course. Mom, the ceremony is in ten minutes, I have to be – ”
“Shion. For once, stop thinking about where you have to be. Where do you want to be, Shion?”
“I’m getting married, Mom. What are you talking about? I want to marry Safu – ”
“The vans are unloading in the back.”
“What?” Shion asked, his eyebrows knitting together. He blinked at his mother. Her hands fell from his face and she crossed the small dressing room to pull open the blinds of the window.
“There,” she pointed. “There is a back door that will lead you into that lot. You won’t have to pass anyone. It’s three doors down this hallway, to the left of this room.”
“Mom, why are you – ” Shion’s question lodged in his throat when he looked more carefully out the window and saw the black words scribbled on the sides of the vans. Onaji Hoshi.
Shion turned around, and his mother had left. He stared back out the window. His hands were shaking. Waiters swarmed the lot. He had forgotten, months ago, deciding that the Onaji Hoshi would be catering the reception. How could he have forgotten?
He turned away from the window and looked back in the mirror. He lifted a hand and touched his white hair, remembering the shock that had fizzed through his body when the grey-eyed waiter had touched it, so casually in the doorway of his apartment. His old apartment. Shion wondered where he lived now, if his bed was just as soft, if he still had a bed.
Shion studied his face in the shining glass. Did he look happy? He stared at his lips, his eyes. He wasn’t sure. What did happy look like? Had he ever been happy?
He remembered why he had first followed the grey-eyed waiter. He had wanted to change himself, he had thought Nezumi would be able to change him. He’d wanted a different perspective. He’d wanted to be better.
Was he better? Wasn’t it better, to leave Nezumi, to return to his high-class life, where he couldn’t hurt the boy any more? Or was that selfish? Was he just using his concern for Nezumi’s feelings as an excuse to stay in his comfortable life?
His mother had told him to be more selfish. She’d said he was too good, too selfless. Shion didn’t feel selfless, not when he remembered the words he’d thrown into Nezumi’s face before their last parting. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to be the person he wanted to be.
Shion walked slowly out of the dressing room. His time was running out. He turned left and walked three doors down. If he turned, he could still see the double doors down the other side of the hall that would lead him to the room of the ceremony, where he was supposed to be.
Shion closed his eyes. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. But any choice he made, someone would be hurt. Any choice he made, he would hurt himself as well. He didn’t want to have to make this decision. He didn’t want to have to make any more choices. There were too many choices in his life, from what meal to choose off a menu to what door to choose in that hall. It was supposed to be a good thing, this privileged life he had, where more choices were made available to him. He knew Nezumi had close to no choices, from where to work to where to sleep. But maybe there were two kinds of trapped – from having no doors, to having too many doors that it became impossible to choose.
Shion wanted to stop having choices. He wanted someone to choose for him. He couldn’t do it himself.
Shion opened his eyes. He rested his hand on the handle of the back exit that would lead to the lot, that would lead to Nezumi. He took a deep breath, then pulled his hand from the handle and turned around, walking slowly down the long hallway.
He had two minutes to get in place. In less than a half hour, he would be married.
Shion opened the door to the room of the ceremony and walked in, choosing the future that had been picked for him from before he was born, from the time his ancestors had gained enough wealth and status to be considered high class, and pass that label down and down and down to rest upon his shoulders.
People were streaming out of the building. The wedding must be over by now. It was time for the reception.
Nezumi straightened one of the forks so that it lined up parallel with the silver knife on the lace tablecloth. He ran his finger down the edge of the knife, gently. Of course, it was too weak to do any damage.
But sometimes, Nezumi knew, things that seemed harmless could turn out to have the sharpest blades of all.
eleven years later
It was over.
The contract, the debt. It had been twenty years to this day that Nezumi had stumbled into the doors of the Onaji Hoshi, young and desperate and scared. It had been twenty years since Nezumi had signed the paper that would trap him to this life, leave him no escape.
Now, technically, Nezumi was free. He pushed open the back exit that lead him to the dark alleyway, just as he had done every day for the last twenty years. He looked back at the door. He’d had the chance to let this be the last time he saw it, the last time he’d ever walked out of it.
Instead, when his manager had held out his hand, told him he’d miss him and the service he’d given twenty years of his life to commit to, Nezumi had shaken his head. He had asked to keep his job. He had asked to stay, to sign another contract.
The manager had thought this was strange. Nezumi was now thirty-three. The usual contracts at the Onaji Hoshi were for ten years. If Nezumi was to stay, he would be there until his mid-forties. Half of his life would be gone.
Nezumi had laughed lightly at this, and assured the manager he had no intention of staying at the Onaji Hoshi until just his mid-forties. He’d promised that after this contract ended, he’d ask to sign another one, and perhaps another after that.
The manager had stared. He had been surprised. Maybe Nezumi was too. He didn’t like contracts. He didn’t like debts. If he’d wanted to stay at the Onaji Hoshi, he certainly could have, without signing a ten-year binding contract.
And yet, without the contract, there would be no job security. The manager would be able to fire him on any whimsy. And with the current economical climate, especially in this part of town, Nezumi knew these “whimsies” could be frequent. He did not want to take this risk.
When he’d explained this, the manager had laughed. Nezumi, not wanting to take a risk? Surely, that was a joke.
Nezumi had only smiled lightly in return, and replied that things had changed. Now, he had a reason not to want to take risks.
Two reasons, even.
With that, he’d taken the ten-year contract from the manager’s limp hand, signed it, and returned it, with the usual “See you tomorrow.” The surprised manager had merely stared at him wordlessly, as Nezumi left out the back door he’d become so familiar with.
The walk down the empty alleyway was a quiet one. Nezumi recalled, many years before, how loudly the alleyway had echoed with a certain white-haired boy’s constant chatter. Nezumi smiled to himself, remembering this boy. The blatant joy always stamped to his cheeks, the easy smile that would appear any time he’d look at Nezumi.
Nezumi chuckled out loud then, at these memories. He thought of them often, of this red-eyed boy. He missed him, of course, his naivety, his innocence. His airheadedness.
Nezumi shook his head. Those days were long past, years and years ago. Nezumi remembered the first place he’d shown the red-eyed boy, when the idiot had wanted a “new perspective.” He retraced his steps now, crossing the street easily in the dark and following the sound of the black waves crashing against the shore. When he reached the dock, he ducked under, as he had eleven years before, but this time, there was no boy to peek his head out at and extend a hand to.
This time, there was no boy to follow him.
Nezumi walked on the well-worn path that would lead him to the view of – not the ocean, but the glittering rocks. He remembered the awe with which the red-eyed boy had beheld them, the stupid grin on his face. Nezumi rolled his eyes at the memory. Impressing him had been so simple. Amazing him had been so easy.
But then, maybe that was one thing about him that hadn’t really changed.
“Nezumi? You’re late.”
Nezumi looked up, at the man before him. His lips turned up without his permission. “I am not. Anyway, it was my manager’s fault. You would think he didn’t want me to renew my contract.”
“Well, I don’t blame him. Look at you, you’re always late for everything. You know, if I recall correctly, the first time you waited on my table, you were late too!”
Nezumi rolled his eyes and stepped closer to the red-eyed man. He remembered once more when this man had been just a boy – or, at least, had still looked like one – and laughed again at the thought. Even though he was still an airhead at times, he had definitely lost a lot of his innocence, his naivety. “Here, let me hold her.”
Nezumi outstretched his arms, and Shion placed the girl, who had long fallen asleep, into them. “She’s asleep?”
“How is that her fault? I asked her to stay awake for Daddy, but what with you taking your sweet time, she couldn’t stop her eyes from closing.”
Nezumi adjusted the girl in his arms, shifting so that her head rested on his shoulder. “She’s getting heavy,” he said.
Shion rolled his eyes. “That’s what happens when you grow.”
They were both speaking quietly, so as not to wake her. Nezumi leaned over and brushed his lips against Shion’s cheek as a greeting, then made to pull away, but the man reached out and grabbed his collar. “Hey,” Nezumi protested. “What are you doing?”
“You call that a kiss?” Shion asked.
Nezumi’s smile was cut off when Shion pulled him closer and pressed his lips against his. The lips parted, and Shion’s tongue felt familiar against Nezumi’s own, exploring the corners of his mouth as if it didn’t already know them by heart.
Nezumi pulled away. “Hey, calm down there, Romeo. I’m going to drop her.”
“What kind of father are you?”
“What kind of father are you?” Nezumi countered, sitting beside Shion on the blanket Shion had brought. He lay the girl in his lap as Shion poured them champagne in glasses he’d brought.
“Where did you get that?” Nezumi asked, pointing to the bottle in Shion’s hand.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Shion, you know we can’t afford – ”
“Nezumi, hush. This is a special occasion. Freedom from a twenty-year debt. You deserve this.”
“Freedom, huh? Even after I have a new contract?”
Shion looked at him, his gaze so potent Nezumi had to look away. Still, after eleven years, he was not used to the way Shion would sometimes gaze at him, his red eyes so fervent. He looked down at his daughter and pulled down her shirt, which had risen slightly to reveal a strip of her pale skin. He tucked a few strands of her hair behind her ear and ran a finger over her cheek.
Nezumi sighed and looked back up. “Hm?”
“You are free, now. Contract or not. It wasn’t your job that made you feel stuck. Don’t even pretend to be sulky.”
Nezumi smiled. He gazed at the man in front of him, he felt their daughter shift in his lap. “I know. I forgot how much you hate my acting.”
Shion grinned back. “Will you still be waiting tables, or just singing now?” He handed Nezumi his glass of champagne, and Nezumi took it.
“Both, I think.”
Nezumi shrugged. “I’ve realized, I don’t really mind waiting tables. Some of the people aren’t so bad.”
Nezumi grinned. “Yeah.” He lifted his glass. “To the customers of the Onaji Hoshi.”
Shion raised his own glass, clinking it lightly against Nezumi’s. “To the waiters.”
Nezumi leaned against Shion, resting his head on the red-eyed boy’s shoulder and letting Shion slip his hand in his. Together, they watched the trickle of the ocean stream over the rocks, lighting it up like diamonds on fire, like stars. They came here often, to watch the magnificent ocean – what had always been acknowledged and cherished, framed in the showcases of palace windows – and the simple rocks – what had always gone overlooked, thrown in sewers – collide to make something brilliant, something that lit up as brightly as the stars above them.
Nezumi lifted his head from Shion’s shoulder, looked down, and leant in to rub his nose against his daughter’s, who was blinking up at him. “Hey, sleepyhead.”
“Your breath smells funny. Is that alakal?”
“What do you know about alcohol?” Shion asked, peering down, his soft hair brushing Nezumi’s cheek.
The girl laughed. “Nothing,” she said, winking clumsily at Nezumi.
Shion turned on him. “Did you give her alcohol?”
“One time. Just a sip – she just wanted to try it!” Nezumi said defensively, raising his palms.
“Unbelievable,” Shion muttered, but Nezumi saw, even in the dark, that the corners of his lips were rising slightly.
“Hey, I thought that was our secret,” Nezumi said, looking back down at their daughter.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
Nezumi smiled. “That’s okay.” He stuck his tongue out at Shion, and the girl laughed.
“Go back to sleep, hon,” Shion said.
“Bedtime story!” she shouted.
Shion and Nezumi both groaned.
“Which one?” Shion asked exasperatedly.
“The best one.”
“Pick a different one, I’m tired of the best one.”
“No! The best one! It has to be!”
Nezumi looked at Shion with his eyebrows raised, and Shion sighed. “If it has to be, how can you say no to your own daughter?” Nezumi asked.
Shion glared at him. “Why do I have to tell it?”
“I told it last time.”
“Papa tells it!” the girl shouted, and Nezumi grinned at Shion in victory.
“Go ahead, Your Highness.”
Shion rolled his eyes and put down his glass, taking a deep breath. “Long ago, before you were born, there was a prince.”
Nezumi leaned his head back against Shion’s shoulder and closed his eyes as he listened to the man’s familiar voice.
“The prince was supposed to marry a princess, but three months before the wedding, he met a lowly rat with captivating grey eyes.”
“No, that’s not right. Alluring,” the girl objected.
“Oh, right, sorry. He met a lowly rat with alluring grey eyes.”
“Like the ocean.”
Nezumi could feel Shion nodding. “Like the ocean at night, when the moon reflects on the dark surface. The prince immediately fell for this rat, but he was conflicted. He had known he would marry the princess for his whole life. He was stuck. How could he change his mind now?”
“How?” the girl asked, breathless, even though she’d heard the story countless times before.
“Well, at first, he didn’t know. He couldn’t figure it out, so after spending many weeks with the rat, he thought he had to end their friendship. The rat had been working less, to have time to play with the prince, and because of this, he had lost his home. The prince thought this was his fault, and told the rat they couldn’t be friends anymore.”
“And then I came in!”
“No, not yet.”
“Oh right, I forgot. Keep going.”
“And then came the day of the wedding. The prince was confused, but thought he knew what he had to do. He thought he had to marry the princess, even though his heart belonged to the rat with the grey eyes. He watched the princess walk down the aisle, his heart thumping in his chest.”
“And then grandma – ”
“Shh, let Papa tell the story,” Nezumi said, his eyes still closed.
“Sorry Daddy,” the girl whispered.
Shion’s hand squeezed Nezumi’s. “And then, as the prince stood there, his eyes locked on his mother’s, and she didn’t look happy. Why wouldn’t a mother be happy on her son’s wedding day, the prince wondered. And then he realized, his mother was merely a mirror of himself.”
“Then Daddy punches him!”
Shion laughed. “Not yet. Then the prince pulls the princess aside, before the ceremony can start, and tells her he loves her, but he is in love with someone else. And the princess, because she loved the prince back, tells him that she cannot trap him, and that he must be with the one he truly loves.”
“I like the princess.”
“Me too,” Shion agreed. “So the prince left the wedding and ran outside, to where the rat had been working. And he ran up to the rat and apologized and confessed his feelings and begged for forgiveness. And then the rat punched him.”
The girl giggled, and even Nezumi grinned.
“But after he got a little angry and did some pointless shouting, the rat took the prince back, and they kissed, and lived happily ever after.”
“You forgot me!”
“Oh, right. A few years later, the prince and the rat realized that even though they could never be lonely again, their hearts had grown so much while they were together that there was room for someone else in them. The prince and the rat didn’t know what to do, and wondered where they could find someone to fill up this room.”
“Where did they look?”
“They looked on the ground, but there was no one special enough. They looked in the ocean, but there was no one beautiful enough. Then one night, the rat had an idea, and pointed to the sky. ‘Up there,’ he said. ‘One of the stars, the brightest one.’ So the prince and the rat climbed and climbed and climbed until they were high enough to pluck one of the stars out of the sky, and bring her back to Earth, where she turned into a beautiful girl.”
“What did they name her?”
“Hm, I can’t remember.”
The girl giggled. “Yes, you can!”
“No, no, I’m getting old, I’ve forgotten.”
“Daddy! Help Papa remember.”
Nezumi opened his eyes and peered down at the girl. “I think, and I might be wrong, but I think her name was… Hoshi?”
“Yes! Hoshi! My name is Hoshi!”
“Are you sure?” Shion asked.
“I promise, I’m sure!”
“Well, if you promise.”
“I think she’s sure.”
“Then it’s settled. The prince and the rat stole a star and named her Hoshi. And that’s when they lived happily ever after.”
“The end,” Shion agreed. “Now time for bed.”
“No, not again.”
“Will Daddy carry me home when I fall asleep?” Hoshi asked, her voice already fading.
“No, we’re going to leave you here.”
“Hey, Daddy, will you carry our lovely star back home when she falls asleep like a good girl?” Shion asked.
“Your wish is my command, Your Highness.”
“Hm?” Nezumi asked. Shion had reached behind him and pulled out Nezumi’s ponytail. Nezumi felt his hair fall around both their shoulders.
“Why do you call Daddy that?”
“Because,” Nezumi replied, closing his eyes again as Shion’s light fingers brushed his hair from his face, “he’s my prince.”
“And are you his rat?”
Nezumi laughed, and felt Shion’s lips graze the top of his head. “No, Hoshi. I’m his waiter.”