by Talya Firedancer

The weather was clear and crisp but not particularly cold.

This was good for the redheaded young man lounging in the tree outside the low-lying traditional house on the Sohma property. He was propped in a crook of a tree that stood tall beside the shoji-shuttered house, observing it with an intense look of concentration. Despite the late season he was in short sleeves and had been motionless for hours.

"Kyo-kun?" A mournful voice floated from an open window. "Won't you come down from that tree?"

The redheaded youth shot a glare in the general direction of the window. "Who's asking?"

A dark head poked from the window. "How cruel!" Sohma Shigure accused, squinting up into the tree and shading his eyes with one hand. "Kyo-kun, you've been up there all morning."

"'Scuse me for that!" Kyo retorted, and did not seem prepared to budge one inch.

Shigure hung over the windowsill and appeared mournful. "You know, Yuki-kun isn't here right now, if that's what you're worried about."

"Worried!?" Kyo bristled like a ruffled cat.

This only made sense, as one of the Sohma clan was wont to transform when weak or embraced by the opposite sex into a member of the zodiac...or, in Kyo's unfortunate case, a cat. The cat, not being a true member of the zodiac, made Kyo into one not considered a true member of the Sohma family.

"Why would I be concerned about that person in any regard!?" Kyo yelled, brandishing a fist. With that vigorous motion he expressed the depths to which he was unconcerned. He also fell out of the tree.

"Kyo-kun~!" Shigure called dolefully, extending a hand.

Kyo scrambled to his feet, assuming the aspect of one who had, of course, not done something so spectacularly inelegant and ungraceful as to fall out of a tree. He cast a disgruntled look up at the tree. A cat simply did NOT fall out of trees, and so the fault must lie somewhere in its offending limbs.

Shigure's head disappeared from the window. A moment later, a shoji screen shushed aside on its runners and Shigure appeared in the doorway, seeming somewhat disheveled. He was a tall, handsome young man in a traditional-style plain kimono. "Kyo-kun, are you all right?" he said, seeming quite unperturbed.

"Bastard, you were laughing on the way down, weren't you?" Kyo said, giving him a resentful look.

"Well. At least you came down from the tree," Shigure remarked mildly. "Why don't you come in and have some lunch?"

Kyo said nothing in response, but followed him with clenched fists. As he entered the house, his stomach gave forth a loud hollow rumble. Shigure turned his head and gave him a slight smile, then continued. Kyo cracked the screen closed with unnecessary force.

"How long has it been?" Shigure mused, pouring tea into two cups, then picking his up and slurping reflectively. "Two months? More? You haven't been by since Yuki-kun came to live here."

Kyo's brow furrowed at the mention. He stared at the calm surface of the green liquid. "Six months," he said sullenly. "Why do you think I haven't been by to visit before?"

"Hmm, well, I assumed it was because of Yuki-kun."

They drank in silence. It was well-known that the cat did not get along well with the rat, whatever mythological reasons notwithstanding. From childhood Kyo and Yuki had been at odds; this resentment was furthered on Kyo's part by the other Sohma's consistent superiority in the martial arts.

Shigure seemed thoughtful, but then, he often seemed so.

Kyo glanced toward the front of the house frequently as he drank, as if expecting someone to come through the door.

At last they set their cups aside, and Shigure regarded him soberly.

"Training again?" he asked.

"Yeah." Kyo looked at him defensively, as if expecting him to say something more.

Shigure gave him a disarming smile. "Good for that."

Off-balance, Kyo glared at him. "So? I'm going to beat him some day!"

"I didn't say you wouldn't," Shigure said, sidestepping the whole issue quite neatly.

Kyo frowned at him, but let it pass as well.

"I'm glad you came by today," Shigure said suddenly. "I wanted to show you something."

"Huh?" Kyo set his head to the side and looked suspicious. "What's this about?" Of all the Sohma family, Shigure was the only one he trusted, apart from his budo-master. Shigure didn't treat him like an outcast. So for this reason he got up and followed the older youth from the room.

"You know, I wasn't sure if you would be by the house before then," Shigure continued, padding up the hall. "And Christmas is almost here..." He trailed off as they entered the living area at the back of the house.

Kyo looked around warily, tensed for flight. He seemed to expect to be tricked at any moment as he advanced into the room, fists clenched. Then he looked round the room and went utterly still, the pose of a cat spotting something that startled him.

Across the room on the wall hung three red stockings. Kyo stared at them, at the one on the right that bore his name, and took steps without thinking toward the far wall, lifting a hand. He rubbed his fingers over the velvety nap of the fabric, frowning.

"I have a gift for you, too," Shigure said pleasantly from behind him. "If you like."

"Why?" Kyo burst out, turning suddenly with a glare. "Why do this?"

Shigure raised one black brow. "Why? Why not?"

"That--" Kyo pointed at the neat row of stockings -- "is just another stupid foreign custom, an American tradition that has no meaning for us."

"Oh?" Shigure smiled enigmatically. "Like the stupidity of the foreign custom of the Chinese zodiac?"

"Exactly!" Kyo yelled, storming past him, slamming open the screen door that led to the back yard.

Shigure sighed. Taming a wild cat to the hand was a long, slow, patient process. The ridiculousness of a dog attempting to call a cat to hand was not lost on him, but he was above all things patient.

So he waited.

He cleaned up after their tea, and adjourned to his study. Surely, he thought, surely Kyo would come down before the possibility of Yuki's return from school. He worked on his latest manuscript, a shoujo-style installment he had started on a whim. He looked at the ceiling with a mildly worried expression.

At last he got to his feet. If he waited any longer, Yuki would return from school, Kyo would descend from the roof, and there went at least one of his shoji screens. The boys were so busy having their fun they rarely noticed how expensive those were to replace.

"Kyo-kun," Shigure called mournfully, emerging from the house. He shaded his eyes with a hand, peering up at the roof. He really would prefer not to go up there, but if he must...it was just that kimono made for awfully awkward climbing garments.

Just as he reached the ladder that would take him to the roof, an orange and black blur streaked before his eyes, thudding to the ground. Kyo straightened and looked up at him, tilting his head in that particularly defiant way that meant he was not angry at all; he was feeling, in fact, quite vulnerable and needed to smokescreen this as best he could.

Shigure smiled down at him calmly. "Are you hungry, Kyo-kun?"

"You offering to cook?" Kyo said in surprise.

"Of course not!" Shigure said, waving a hand. "I still have some bento boxes in the fridge. I'm no better at cooking than I ever was."

In silent accord, they headed for the house. He could sense Kyo glancing at him sidelong, stealing little glances of which he pretended he was unaware.

"About before," Kyo said, rubbing the nape of his neck. "I didn't expect that. I mean, I don't even live here."

The best way to respond to this non-apology, Shigure knew, was not to acknowledge it directly. The phrasing cut him to the quick. Kyo had no clear place among any of the Sohma family...not even the budo-master he trained with in the mountains. "You come here, though, and you can make it your home any time you like." He was sad. Before Yuki had come to live with him, Kyo had visited more often. He thought he missed it...no, he knew he did.

"It would take some great outside force," Kyo spoke bitterly, "to keep me here in this house with him."

Shigure looked down on him, unaccountably saddened by this expected response. Kyo came for two reasons...the warmth of Shigure's attention, and the lure of challenging Yuki. And neither was enough to keep him here.

"But you're here now," he replied, bending his head very slightly, bringing him nose to nose with the young man.

"Yeah..." Kyo muttered, russet eyes uncertain. "Dunno why. I'm not gonna fight Yuki, I'm in the middle of training and Shishou said to wait."

"Thank goodness for Shishou," Shigure murmured, mouth flush with Kyo's.

Kyo closed his eyes when he was kissed, Shigure knew from experience, and now he moved in to make him do exactly that. His lips were warm and soft despite all the time he'd spent on the roof, and he kissed back with a heavy open mouth despite his sharp words.

Shigure pulled back, thinking he tasted of the wind and perhaps a hint of snow from the mountains where he trained. "Let's go inside."

Kyo did not protest.

After, while Kyo lounged in a welter of dark sheets curled like a cat, rumbling and sated, Shigure went to fetch the spare bento boxes. He did not care about things like rice crumbs scattered among his sheets.

"You never said..." Kyo said slowly, then shook his head. "Never mind."

"What is it?" Shigure prompted, slipping out of his loosely-wrapped yukata and back into bed again. He passed a lacquered black box over to Kyo.

"You put up the stocking...and...well..." He ducked his head, opening the bento lunch and absentmindedly prying his chopsticks apart.

"Ah!" Shigure lifted a finger, saying in a singsong tone, "Kyo-kun wanted his present after all!"

"I don't need any present!" Kyo snapped, sitting up and turning his back, huddling over his bento as he shoveled rice and pickled plum into his mouth.

"Well, if you don't want it..." Shigure said sorrowfully, setting his own aside and focusing his large brown eyes on Kyo's backside. He had quite naturally perfected the puppy-dog look.

One russet eye peered over bare shoulder.

"I guess...if you've already gone and gotten something..." Kyo grudged.

"Ahh! I'm so excited! Kyo-kun has deigned to accept a present from me!" Shigure said with enthusiasm, leaping up from the bed and dashing about.

"Idiot! Put some clothes on!" Kyo exclaimed, face redder than his hair.

From the bottom drawer of his dresser, Shigure excavated a wrapped package that had waited there for some time. If Christmas had not come along, he could have found some other occasion to allow for its gifting. He passed it over to the boy on the bed, who seemed to be trying to burrow his way beneath the heap of sheets and yet eat his lunch box at the same time.

Kyo accepted the package with a mixed expression. That made Shigure wonder how many presents the boy had received over the years. Not for the first time, he thought that something should be done, that Kyo should not be punished simply because his cursed form was the one among all the Sohma clan that was not a member of the zodiac. Yet he, a Sohma, was unable to do anything more than alleviate Kyo's feelings of alienation. He was part of the problem simply by virtue of what he was.

He tore open the fine wrapping with his callused hands, face expressionless. Then he shook out the garment and held it up, looking surprised. "It's a sweater." It was a hooded blue jersey, good thickly-woven fabric, to provide warmth without being bulky. Kyo looked up at Shigure. "I...I can really use this," he said awkwardly.

This was Kyo's way of saying 'thanks.' Shigure smiled back at him, replying, "I noticed you didn't seem to have anything for winter."

"I don't. I..." Kyo dipped his head, and muttered something that might have been 'thank you' before returning to the bento and cramming his mouth full. The sweater lay across his lap, arms trailing over his thighs.

Shigure began to hum something contentedly as he returned to bed once more. It was quite a large bed, lavish and soft and quite Western, out of place in the rest of the quite traditional house. Shigure had purchased it shortly after the first time Kyo had stayed. It really did make things more convenient.

"After you're done training," Shigure said, "what then?"

Kyo stopped eating to glare at him. "After I beat him--" he began indistinctly.

"I can't understand you with your mouth full," Shigure said pleasantly, chiding him.

Kyo upped the voltage in his glare, but finished his rice. "After I beat him, then I'm the only one who'll live with you in this house," he put forth, setting down his chopsticks on the empty box. "Then I'll be a real Sohma."

Shigure looked away. Did he really think that would change things? And did he really think for one second Yuki would ever drop his guard enough to even land a blow? He was saddened again.

Kyo smacked a hand on one knee. "I'll be back. And then we'll just see about the shitty rat."

Shigure laughed, and Kyo bristled. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing!" Shigure singsonged. "Tension breaker, just a tension breaker..."

"Weirdo..." Kyo muttered, but he was smiling now.  

Elsewhere, a door opened and closed. "I'm home," Yuki's cool-as-cucumber tone floated from belowstairs.

Kyo stiffened, and scrambled for his clothes. He slipped the blue sweatshirt on over his black tee, then cast one look at his older cousin. "I'll see you later?" he said, half-entreaty, before shaking himself and springing for the window, shouldering it open, and leaping into the tree outside.

Following him to the window, Shigure looked out for a moment. "Come back soon," he said with a wave, before closing it. Perhaps some day Kyo, like Yuki, would stay for good.

On the floor below, a neat row of stockings hung. And beside the other two, Kyo's waited at a jaunty tilt for the day when the cat would come back.