She pushes the feeling aside the first time it happens. Shizuka-kun is baiting Kimihiro-kun, but they’re both happy. Kimihiro-kun is rolling his eyes and telling Shizuka-kun to get the sake himself; Shizuka-kun scratches his arm and blandly replies that Kimihiro-kun is a bad host. Mokona appears from nowhere with the two girls, chanting ‘bad host, bad host, Watanuki is a bad host!’ as they dance around the table.
Kimihiro-kun stands up, grumbling about annoying leeches, and stumbles. Shizuka-kun is suddenly there, arm around Kimihiro-kun’s waist to keep him from falling. Kimihiro-kun seems to relax into it for a moment, and Shizuka-kun’s hand lingers a fraction too long as Kimihiro-kun pulls away. Her stomach clenches and she wonders what it would be like to be held by Shizuka-kun.
It takes her by surprise, the seemingly sudden invitation. She and Himawari-san have never been close – Shizuka-kun and Kimihiro-kun have always been around when they were all together, and Himawari-san always seemed to sit as far from her as possible.
They meet at a bakery that Himawari-san tells her about the day of Kimihiro-kun’s birthday. Himawari-san apologizes for the imposition. She tells her it’s nothing, and they sit down. Himawari-san orders two afternoon tea sets.
Himawari-san makes small talk while they wait for their food to arrive. The owner comes out for a moment to chat with her until a crash from the kitchen sends him scurrying, a very annoyed ‘Ohno’ on his lips. Himawari-san takes it in stride and explains that it happens quite frequently when she comes here.
One the tea sets come, they fall into silence. Himawari-san eats slowly, but the look on her face makes Kohane think that the food doesn’t taste that good. She picks up a cucumber sandwich and tries it. It’s very good, but nothing like Kimihiro-kun’s. Suddenly she understands.
They finish their sets just as the owner brings out two fruit tarts. He tells them that it is compliments of the chef and Himawari-san asks him to relay their thanks. He just shrugs and goes back to the counter.
They arrive at the shop just as Shizuka-kun does. Himawari-san greets him cheerfully and Shizuka-kun nods. There is a shadow of a smile on his face, and she feels her stomach clench. She can feel her face begin to heat up as something close to anger surges through her. She excuses herself and dashes towards the shop.
It starts out simply – after all, love is always just as complicated as it is uncomplicated. She has known him for years. He has been a mentor, a friend, a shoulder to lean on. He is a rock, and she is the helpless girl clinging to him in the midst of a storm. She doesn’t understand, at first, because he is Shizuka-kun, Shizuka-sempai, Shizuka-sensei. He wears so many hats for the small lonely girl that she mistakes infatuation with admiration.
That is why she doesn’t understand her sudden resentment for Kimihiro-kun. She knows who Shizuka-kun’s priority is – understands why – and she has never felt anything other than the utmost respect and pride that, even though Kimihiro-kun is trapped, he still has them. He still has her and Shizuka-kun and Himawari-san, even though Himawari-san cannot be with them. They are his world, and while he is a large part of her world, he seems to be Shizuka-kun’s entire world.
She is sure that Shizuka-kun knows – he always seems to know when something is bothering her – and she is immensely grateful that it is not in his nature to push. She has always come to him on her own terms, and she is sure that he believes this to be no different. But she cannot go to him because this problem is her own, and she must be the one to solve it.
She doesn’t make him bento like the other girls. She knows that he already has one, and that it was prepared by the only cook that Shizuka-kun recognizes. But she does share her bento with him – Kimihiro-kun has taken to punishing Shizuka-kun by lessening his portions – and he always accepts with a small smile. She can feel the glares of the girls, bento in hand, as Shizuka-kun steals a croquette from her lunch.
They begin to follow her. It is getting tiring, dodging them as she walks to Granny’s. She has stopped coming to the shop completely, partly because the lump in her chest when she sees Kimihiro-kun is still there, and partly because the girls know where Shizuka-kun’s registered residence is – they do not need to know where he truly lives.
It is odd because it is true. Shizuka-kun is different from when they first met all those years ago. He has grown and is more determined than he once was which, she muses, is saying something. The Shizuka-kun she knew was always determined, but had a dark sense of humor. She would see it whenever he and Kimihiro-kun were together – the way Shizuka-kun’s eyes would light up and the bland provocations that made Kimihiro-kun flail. The Shizuka-kun that she knows is serious – too serious, she sometimes thinks – and is only truly alive in the one place he cannot stay.
She is cornered by a trio of girls – she vaguely recognizes them from Shizuka-kun’s Japanese Folklore lecture – and sighs. She does not lower her head, nor does she call out. There are students passing by, giving them curious looks, but she keeps a pleasant mask. They demand to know her relationship with Doumeki-sensei. She says nothing. She knows that any answer she could give would be the wrong one, and she has developed her own pride over the years. Her relationship with him, with Kimihiro-kun, is precious, and these girls and their accusing glares will not rip them apart.
One of the girls reaches for her, and she stays still. She does not attempt to dodge the attack, nor does she close her eyes. She stares the girl in the eyes, and she feels a bit of the recklessness that she accuses Kimihiro-kun of flare within her. There must be something in her eyes because the girl backs off and tells the others that she isn’t worth their time. The insinuation that she is a hanger-on – one of Shizuka-kun’s fan girls – burns, but she watches them go, words choking her throat as she stays where she is. She waits until they are out of sight before taking a breath.
She picks up her bag which lays discarded beside her feet and begins to walk. Suddenly, Shizuka-kun is next to her and she feels her cheeks burn. Snippets of conversation with Kimihiro-kun drift back to her – conversations about Shizuka-kun’s overprotective personality, and how he would always appear out of nowhere whenever Kimihiro-kun didn’t need him, thank you very much – and she thinks she knows how he must have felt all those years ago.
Shizuka-kun doesn’t ask – she assumes that he has heard everything he needed to hear – and she doesn’t volunteer any information. They walk to the train station in silence.
It is rash and dangerous and insane. Her mind is no longer her own – thoughts of Shizuka-kun swirl through her thoughts, tempting her. Her dreams are a dangerous place, and the guilt is beginning to overpower her. She has not seen Kimihiro-kun in close to a year. She spends her time either alone or in Shizuka-kun’s shadow. Neither comforts her.
Himawari-san is sitting under the sakura on campus. It is Kimihiro-kun’s birthday, and she has come to meet them. Shizuka-kun, she knows, still has an hour of his lecture before he is free, so she makes her away across the yard. The smile that Himawari-san bestows on her causes a sob to catch in her throat, but she quickly chokes it down and smiles back.
She is getting married. She tells them over tea and she catches the fleeting look of surprise on Shizuka-kun’s face before it settles into his usual mask of complacency. Kimihiro-kun is smiling and congratulating her, but she isn’t fooled. She can tell by looking at them that their hearts are breaking. There are tears in Himawari-san’s eyes, and Kimihiro-kun’s smile looks pained. She feels tears prick her own eyes and she quickly adds her own congratulations before excusing herself.
She is standing in front of the sink when Kimihiro-kun finds her. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to – she is not a naïve child any longer. She can read his looks; sometimes can even see past the façade that he wears. All it takes is his gentle smile and an offer to help with dessert before it all comes spilling out. She cries and screams and sobs. She says things that she’ll want to take back later, but it feels good, so good, to get it off her chest. She tells him she hates him and she loves him. She says that it isn’t fair – that Kimihiro-kun and Himawari-san love each other, truly love each other, but she’s marrying some unknown man. She blames him for Shizuka-kun’s preoccupation. By the time she is done, there isn’t anything left of her to continue.
Kimihiro-kun smiles at her sadly and gathers her in his arms. She cries herself out.
She gets the invitation in the mail a week later. Granny is invited, as well, but she declines, claiming her body couldn’t possibly make such a journey. She accepts.
She is seated with Shizuka-kun in the second row. His face is impassive and his shoulders are tense. He has not met this man that is taking Himawari-san from Kimihiro-kun, from Shizuka-kun. She thinks that she may have made a mistake coming here, because now she knows that as much as Shizuka-kun loves Kimihiro-kun, he loves Himawari-san just as much.
It is small, their world. She doesn’t let others into her life easily, and can count on one hand the people she cares about. She wonders how confining a world with so few people truly is, whether or not they are wasting away. Shizuka-kun’s world has gotten smaller with his father’s death, and she wonders how much longer it will be before she loses someone as well.
Granny’s funeral is quiet. The sun shines brightly overhead, giving the illusion that its rays will cut through the chill wind to warm them. There are some people she hasn’t seen before – a girl with long dark hair and an oddly cheerful black hat is accompanied by a tall man who nods at Shizuka-kun – and some she knows as Granny’s customers.
She listens as the priest begins the ceremony, and Shizuka-kun takes her hand. She looks up in surprise, but he is steadily staring ahead, lips moving in silent prayer.
Kimihiro-kun looks at them with a sad, knowing look when they arrive. There is tea and sake on the table, as well as Granny’s favorite foods. She is not hungry, but sits and pours the tea. Both Shizuka-kun and Kimihiro-kun place small amounts of food on her plate, and she dutifully takes small bites of them.
While Shizuka-kun is clearing the table, Kimihiro-kun gives her the koden. The black ribbon is arranged artfully like a bird. She gives him a small smile and places the envelope in her bag.
He seems to be around more often. She is aware of his presence – has been for the last year. What was once comforting is now uncomfortable. She can’t seem to get enough air. He is there after class, waiting. He walks her home. He invites her to dinner.
It bothers her, this sudden change. Part of her is enjoying the attention, but the more cautious part is worried. She doesn’t need protection, not the way Kimihiro-kun did, and she wonders if she is becoming a substitute. Kimihiro-kun doesn’t seem to need protecting, and what is Shizuka-kun without that?
It angers her to think that she is a substitute. She and Kimihiro-kun are not the same.
When he calls, she doesn’t answer.
Her graduation is in a week. She is in the shop helping Kimihiro-kun clean the treasure room when she comes across a small box. It is remarkably dust-free and placed next to an ornate case for glasses and some old red ribbons. Carefully, she picks up the little box.
Kimihiro-kun walks in at that moment and tells her to open it. She asks whether it’s okay, and he smiles. Slowly, she opens it to reveal two shiny gold buttons. One is scratched up but gleams brightly, while the other one is in perfect condition. She frowns, confused.
Kimihiro-kun explains that they are his and Shizuka-kun’s buttons from their high school uniform. She swallows thickly and closes the box.
She gets home late that night and finds the box on the side table. There is a note attached. She reads it and smiles.
On her graduation, she wears a nice suit. A gold chain gleams around her neck, securing two gold buttons that rest close to her heart.
Nothing changes. She still goes to the shop once a week to visit with Kimihiro-kun and help him with various chores. She and Shizuka-kun have dinner together once a week. She still calls her mother once a month to chat and say hello to her step-father.
No, nothing has changed.
A week passes before she is able to get to the shop. Shizuka-kun is not there, and she pushes past the disappointment. She knows that he is busy, but she has not seen him since the previous week.
Kimihiro-kun is watching her with a look akin to amusement. She goes an hour before she turns around and politely asks what he finds so humorous. Mokona, who has been sitting on her shoulder as she makes the strawberry chiffon frosting, laughingly tells Kimihiro-kun that she is much more patient than he ever was. Kimihiro-kun rolls his eyes.
He shrugs his shoulders and leans against the kitchen counter. There is a noise toward the front of the shop, and she stiffens. Kimihiro-kun’s hand is on her shoulder as he explains that it was just the girls – Shizuka-kun will not be here today.
She relaxes and tries to keep the disappointment from showing. Kimihiro-kun sighs and picks up an empty bento.
The gates to the shrine are somehow terrifying. She has been here countless times – she even stayed here for a few days when Granny died – but today, she can’t seem to put one foot in front of the other and walk through. She blames Kimihiro-kun, even though she knows that he is trying to help.
She is still standing there when Shizuka-kun comes around the corner, suitcase in hand and tie loose around his neck. He raises an eyebrow at her and she quickly gives him the bento, stammering that Kimihiro-kun was worried that he wouldn’t eat if he didn’t come to the shop.
Shizuka-kun rolls his eyes – presumably at Kimihiro-kun’s words – and invites her inside. Suddenly, the gates aren’t so forbidding, and she crosses the threshold easily.
She doesn’t want to say that they’re dating – dating implies going places, and they only really go to dinner or the shop – but she wonders if her definition of dating is outdated. Even Kimihiro-kun has been joking lately that her taste in men is unfortunate and that she is too good for a louse like Shizuka-kun. Shizuka-kun never says anything except to ask for more sake.
The women who come to her for their fortunes always comment about what an attractive couple she and Shizuka-kun make. The waiters have begun to give them pointed looks and seat them in enclosed, private areas.
Her mother wants to meet Shizuka-kun. She is not sure how she feels about this, because their first few meetings did not go so smoothly. She remembers Shizuka-kun’s angry eyes and the barely contained anger in his body as he held her mother’s hand back at the station.
To her, it’s still so new. The last few months have felt unreal. The only thing that has been grounding her is Shizuka-kun and Kimihiro-kun. The only thing that has changed is people’s perception of their relationship.
She asks Kimihiro-kun if he still loves Himawari-san. The question seems to catch him by surprise, but he answers. It’s painful to hear that he will always love her. ‘But,’ he says, ‘that is also why I wish her the utmost happiness.’
She doesn’t ask about Shizuka-kun. She has seen the way he goes out of his way to avoid touching him. It has been driving Shizuka-kun mad, this sudden shift. It reminds her of the way he changed after Himawari-san got married – how he would put a little extra space between them, how he made sure their hands didn’t touch when he passed her something.
The difference between Shizuka-kun and Himawari-san, she knows, is that Shizuka-kun won’t quietly accept it.
She isn’t there when it happens. She only sees the aftermath. The shadows in Shizuka-kun’s eyes. The way Kimihiro-kun averts his eyes when she comes to the shop. How neither of them speaks the other’s name except when they think she isn’t paying attention.
Kimihiro-kun still makes too much food, and Shizuka-kun isn’t eating.
She begs Kimihiro-kun to call, pleads with Shizuka-kun to go to the shop. Neither will relent, and she is caught in the middle, helpless.
It is Himawari-san who fixes it. It is Kimihiro-kun’s birthday and Shizuka-kun makes his excuses when she comes to the temple to collect them. She cheerfully ignores his words and links her arm through his, motioning for Kohane to lead the way.
Kimihiro-kun seems surprised to see Shizuka-kun. They haven’t had any contact in months. Himawari-san sits on one side of Kimihiro-kun, placing Shizuka-kun between Kohane and Kimihiro-kun.
She watches in fascination as they fight to keep from touching. The more they fight, the more they touch. She catches them giving each other nervous looks, and Kohane excuses herself.
The next day, everything is back to normal.
She moves in with Shizuka-kun in May.
He kisses her for the first time in June.
She can’t help but think about what would have happened if Kimihiro-kun hadn’t made that wish. If he was free and with them in their world. She thinks that maybe Shizuka-kun and Himawari-san would be happier. Maybe Himawari-san would have married Kimihiro-kun.
But she also knows that her relationship with Shizuka-kun wouldn’t have happened. Because as much as Himawari-san loves Kimihiro-kun, she also loves Shizuka-kun.
He would be with them, and as much as the thought pains her, she wonders if that wouldn’t have been for the best.
He still doesn’t touch her often. When he does, she feels as though she could die.
She tells him she loves him in September. He says thank you.
She is washing dishes when something Kimihiro-kun said ages ago comes back to her. She isn’t sure she would have the strength to let Shizuka-kun go so that he could be happy.
She calls Kimihiro-kun and asks him. He is silent for a long time before he tells her that it wouldn’t make him happy. She hangs up feeling lighter and heavier at the same time.
She lets herself think that, just maybe, she is what he needs. That she can give him something that they can’t. She tries to ignore the fact that there is so much that they can give him that she can’t.
Kimihiro-kun still welcomes them when they come to the shop as though nothing has changed. She can’t fool herself anymore – everything has.
Sometimes, when she is awake in the middle of the night and Shizuka-kun is lying next to her, she thinks she is happy. It would be nice if she thought he was, too.
Her relationship with Kimihiro-kun has become strained. She is now thirty, and she is beginning to see the marks of aging. There are slight lines on her forehead and the fashions that she once wore look ridiculous on her. She has taken to tailored pants and loose tops. She keeps her hair long, though rather than wearing it free, it is usually artfully pinned back or in a simple braid down her back.
Shizuka-kun has lines around his mouth. He still wears his suits or yukata, and his hair remains short, though there are strands of gray appearing here and there.
She thinks that they are aging gracefully – she is still mistaken for her mid-twenties and Shizuka-kun late twenties – but whenever she sees Kimihiro-kun, she can only feel old and decrepit. If Shizuka-kun feels the same, he doesn’t let it show.
The only thing about Kimihiro-kun that has aged is his eyes. They are so much darker and their gaze heavier. It seems out of place on his perpetually youthful face.
So she begins to visit less. There is a part of her that wants Kimihiro-kun – kind, brave, sweet Kimihiro-kun – to remember her as the child he met all those years ago.
It doesn’t matter that she never was one.
Shizuka-kun talks in his sleep. It is rare, and when he does, she can only make out syllables here or a word there. She pretends not to understand what he is dreaming about when she hears ‘ki’ or ‘ri’ or when he begs in a voice so soft that she can feel his heart breaking.
She is long past her resentment of them, but in the dark of night, through her self-delusion, their futon feels far too small.
Sometimes, she dreams of Kimihiro-kun. She tells him about her life and apologizes for not coming to see him more. He never says anything. Instead, he sits next to her, a comforting presence, and wraps her in the sickly-sweet smell of incense that reminds of her the shop.
She always wakes up from those dreams feeling disoriented.
He asks her to marry him on her thirty-first birthday. It is unexpected and expected at the same time. They have been living together for six years, together for more. He still hasn’t told her he loves her in words, but the ring speaks volumes.
She tells him she needs some time to think. He nods.
She hasn’t been to the shop in over a year. She finds it odd that he is the one she runs to when she is confused. He is the one who advises her on Shizuka-kun, even though she knows it must be painful for him.
He is waiting for her when she arrives. She throws herself into his arms and he pats her on the head.
He offers her tea when she releases him, and she lets him leave, grateful for the time to compose herself. When he comes back, she doesn’t feel quite so ridiculous.
The tea is good. She quietly sips the warm liquid, and Kimihiro-kun waits patiently. The silence is broken when Mokona appears out of nowhere, demanding sake and asking where Doumeki is. Kimihiro-kun shrugs the creature off and tells it to get its own sake, and doesn’t Mokona see that the big louse isn’t here?
Mokona disappears back into the house, and she places her cup on its saucer.
‘You should follow your heart,’ he tells her when she explains her reservations. Neither of them mention the real reason that she’s hesitating.
She marries him because she loves him and they want the same thing – for Kimihiro-kun to not be lonely, to have someone like they have each other and like he has them, except she knows that he won't have them forever. She understands that Shizuka-kun will never be truly happy so long as Kimihiro-kun is alone and trapped by his own short-sightedness. So she marries him and while it's not what she wants, exactly, it's close enough.
Kimihiro-kun isn’t at the ceremony. Himawari-san comes alone.
As she gets ready to walk down the aisle, she places a thin gold chain with two gold buttons around her neck while her mother ties old red ribbons in her hair. Her mother doesn’t understand why these two things are non-negotiable, but doesn’t say anything, even if her face speaks louder than her silence.
The people who understand are the ones that matter. And while she is the one marrying him, she understands that he belongs to them, as well. So she walks down the aisle where Shizuka-kun is waiting, the frayed edges of Himawari-san’s ribbons peeking from beneath her traditional headdress, the gold chain with two buttons gleaming against her white kimono and, for the first time, is happy.