Hagu repeats it to herself, over and over, for the first few weeks after she moves her things into Shuuji's apartment upstairs:
We are living together.
She cradles the words in her hands, like miraculous seeds, so vivid and alive it feels like they might bloom between her fingers. They make her so happy.
And Shuuji is happy too, in more visible ways: he smiles at her, constantly. He hums around the house. He cooks big meals that he sets on the table with a flourish.
She just draws, and draws, and draws.
(As best she can. It is still hard, and frustrating, to do anything with her dominant hand, and she has been warned against overusing it; but she can't rest completely, especially not now, when she has more ideas than she's ever had before.)
So she manages, with her left hand, with clay and sculpture and collages, with Shuuji helping to mix her paints. A week ago, Ayu came over and helped her carve stamps out of potatoes and carrots. None of it is anywhere close to the images inside her head, but Ayu pointed out the value in that, saying that she often felt trapped inside her own head, that lots of artists would kill for a chance to break out of their own boxes.
It's true enough, in its own, difficult way: like this, Hagu can feel that she is different from before. Her art is different, and her thoughts are, too.
She's sometimes afraid of the transformation she sees in herself. Some days are endless and storm-colored. They bear down on her so deep and heavy that she trembles beneath them, so fierce they might break her if she were left to bear them alone. Luckily, she is never alone now; and the warmth that knowledge brings, the color and taste of it, is its own novelty.
She's known Shuuji forever, but this is unfamiliar to her.
It's not just the happy thoughts, though those are nice. Just looking at Shuuji brings a peculiar pleasure now. He will smile, and she'll feel a warm shiver, beating in her chest like the pulse of a second heart. His hand will brush her shoulder and the feeling will redouble. This doesn't happen all the time; sometimes she feels just as she did when she was in grade school, excited to spend the night at her cousin's house. But often Hagu finds that she can't stop looking at Shuuji, and can barely resist the impulse to grab onto some part of him and cling there.
(She doesn't know what would happen if she did get ahold of him. Her imaginings haven't stretched so far yet.)
It reminds her of Morita, only in that both feelings are so present: now, as then, she feels on all the time. But in every other respect, the experience couldn't be more different. Morita made her feel uncomfortable whenever she was around him, her stomach in a perpetual nervous clench, her chest so tight she could barely breathe. Shuuji is too familiar to feel frightened of. So she enjoys these feelings, even as she isn't exactly sure what they mean. She sometimes envisions them as little birds, cheeping encouragement at her: yes! that's it! you're getting closer!
She wants to ask, What am I getting closer to?, but they offer no answers.
She puts it all down, in oil and charcoal and finger paint, with clumsy, crooked lines.
Weeks go by, and she and Shuuji are still living together. He still hums, though he doesn't have time to cook as much. She doesn't mind. Some days they get frozen food, and she still isn't supposed to use the stove, but she is proud to commandeer the microwave.
She's started to let her hands do what they want, lately. She allows herself brief touches, in moments when they are already close, brushing Shuuji's arm when she gives him tea, resting her palm on top of his own when he's helping her with her rehabilitation exercises. They share a lot of hugs. She can see in Shuuji's eyes that he notices the change, and sometimes he gives her long, unreadable looks that make her breath come up short; but he never says, Stop that, Hagu; he never pulls his arm away. She lets herself take a little more, and a little more, dizzy with her own daring.
One night, they are on the couch, watching TV. She is curled into him. As a commercial comes on, something with singing ice cream, she rests her unhurt hand on his chest, and runs her fingers there gently back and forth. She savors the feeling of Shuuji's skin, so warm and solid beneath his shirt.
At first, Shuuji doesn't seem to notice what she's doing. When he does, she can feel it. His grip on her arm tightens slightly; the weight of his gaze shifts away from the TV screen and towards her. She keeps moving her fingers.
"Hagu," he says, quietly, his voice a little hoarse. She looks up. He's looking right at her, and it makes her feel spotlit and a little afraid. But she reminds herself, this is Shuuji, her Shuuji. She looks back at him.
"Shuu-chan," she says.
His hand on her other arm moves. Specifically, his thumb. Hagu nearly jumps at the touch, but remains still, as his thumb traces back and forth, back and forth, along a tiny patch of her upper arm. He's touching her like she's touching him; the thought fills her with an unexpected wash of joy. She hums happily, cuddling into Shuuji and surprising a laugh from him, as she puts both her hands around his middle and starts stroking them up and down his back, slowly, gently, appreciating the shape of him.
"Hey," he says, but it's not a protest.
"It feels good," she says, the closest she can get to an explanation. That draws a low, shuddering breath out of him. She asks, "Does it for you, too?"
"Of course it does," Shuuji says slowly. "I'm human. I never thought . . ." But he doesn't continue the thought, just squeezes her in his arms, tightly. She squeaks. He laughs again.
"Hagu," he says again, wonderingly, and brings a hand to her jaw. Hagu looks up instinctively. The emotion on his face is the most wonderful she's ever seen: warm and fond and familiar, a little lost, but kind. It make heat blossom somewhere indefinable inside her.
I made him look like that, she marvels.
"Is this okay?" he asks.
Of course it's okay, she thinks, lost in his expression. Words escape her. She settles for nodding, and squeezing her hands behind him.
Shuuji leans down, which catches her by surprise; she had been so focused on their hands that she had forgotten there was anything else. When he kisses her she goes perfectly still.
It's a strange sensation. It's different from the touching; more physical, unignorable, his lips on her lips (moist and soft and cool), but somehow colder and less. She's seen pictures and heard stories of kisses, about how they made the world shift beneath your feet. There is no shifting here.
But Shuuji only sustains the gesture for a moment, and before she can properly react he's pulling back. His face is flushed. He looks pleased and a little dazed.
He says, "So this is really happening." His tone is fond. Hagu smiles at him; when he bends back in to kiss her again, she can't bring herself to protest. It doesn't feel any different from the first kiss, but maybe kissing is something you get better at with practice, and she's willing to experiment if it means she can get closer to Shuuji.
While they kiss, she tries touching him again. He reciprocates and it feels good, reviving the warmth from earlier. He moves his mouth against her own, but she focuses on the warm roughness of his thumb just under her chin; she brings her own palms higher, to grip his shoulders.
At first, it feels like she's onto something. Every brush of skin kindles the intensity slowly building inside her, and she can tell Shuuji feels the same, his touch growing firmer, his hands wandering over increasingly wide swathes of her body. He sighs into their kiss, which has really turned into several kisses by now, and the noise makes her flush with heat; he murmurs low, incomprehensible things under his breath. This is all good.
But at some point the balance shifts again. The pleasure of Shuuji's touches starts to fade, while her own energy takes a sudden dip, and all at once Hagu is left with a host of sensations that are merely distracting: the pinch of hands gripping a little too hard, the scrape of his stubble against her cheek, the warm too-emptiness of his mouth. She feels suddenly lost; it is as though the path she was following until now has vanished into thin air.
By the time Shuuji notices her state, they are pressed against the end of the couch, their bodies nearly horizontal, one of his hands confusingly caught between the collar of her dress and her shoulder blades. Hagu feels him grow still above her; she stopped moving a while ago. He pulls away from her neck, which he was kissing, and she can tell how much effort it takes him. She can't quite make herself meet his eyes.
"I'm taking this too fast," Shuuji says. Not, "Am I taking this too fast?" -- She almost wishes he had made it a question, though she has no idea how she would have answered.
It is going fast, maybe too fast. But it's not Shuuji's fault. Hagu shakes her head.
"It's okay," he says. "We should stop." A rueful note has crept into his voice, and it alarms her.
"I don't mind," she says. "I don't." But Shuuji is already sitting up, straightening his shirt, running a hand through his now very disheveled hair.
She tries, again: "It's not you. I liked it." The TV is still on, she realizes. There's a drama on now, something with low, swelling violins. "Shuu-chan."
"I think we should stop, for now."
She tries to move toward him, but he leans back unexpectedly. She looks at him and tries not to show her dismay.
"It did feel good," she says. "That's why I wanted to do it."
"I believe you," he says. Still he doesn't come back to her, and there's a worried line forming in his brow. It makes Hagu want to be contrary, to insist, Let's not stop. But for all that she can't form the words. She doesn't actually want to keep going.
She can't let him misunderstand, so she says, "I really did." Her voice grows shaky, as she admits, "I liked it at first. And I love you. I don't know what happened."
Shuuji looks at her, his eyes soft and sad. When he speaks, his voice is painfully kind.
"You know, you never have to do anything for me. This, or anything else."
"But I want to do things for you," she says. She feels frustrated enough to cry.
He pulls her close.
"I know," says Shuuji. "It's okay."
She wants to stay there for a long time, curled into him, pressed secret and close. But after a few minutes, her foot cramps up; they shift apart; and eventually Shuuji gets up to go to the bathroom. In the dark, Hagu holds onto herself, and wonders what to do.
She talks about it with Ayu. Ayu is scandalized, at first; then she is very nearly angry at Shuuji, until Hagu convinces her that it wasn't Shuuji's idea, it was hers, that he didn't pressure her into anything. She explains how things went wrong; how the exciting feelings she had been chasing had dimmed into something dull and ordinary, and how she'd been left adrift. And it wasn't because of anything Shuu-chan did, she insisted. He'd been a perfect gentleman.
A part of her had hoped Ayu would laugh it off, and reassure her that this was a perfectly normal thing to have happen, that it happened with Ayu and her boyfriend all the time. But Ayu looks concerned.
Ayu says, "Are you sure you really like him like that?"
This seems like an absurd question. "I love him."
"Well, but there are lots of ways to love someone," she persists. "I mean, you can love someone as a friend, or love them like family. It's different from /being in love/ with someone. When that happens . . . you usually want to kiss them, and do other things. You don't have to think about it; it just feels good."
"Do you want to do things? With your boyfriend?"
". . . I do," Ayu admits. Then she goes bright red, and shakes her head. "Don't make me say things like that!"
Hagu laughs, but inside she feels knotted and confused.
"But look, you shouldn't worry. I've made mistakes, too. Lots of people have. It's okay if Shuuji ends up not being the guy for you."
But that's not it, Hagu wants to say. She doesn't know how to word it in a way that will convince Ayu, but she's sure Shuuji isn't a mistake. She can feel it, inside -- in the way he makes her happy, and the way she wants to be around him; in the way she wants to make him happy, too. And then there are the shivers, and the way she sometimes can't make herself look away from him.
Ayu sees the frown on her face, and course-corrects. "Or you could have just been nervous. You just tried it once, right? Sometimes these things . . . um . . . they take practice."
This seems plausible, when Hagu thinks about it afterwards. She hadn't thought she was nervous, when she started things on the couch, but she might have been, secretly, without recognizing the feeling for what it was. It's true enough that she hasn't practiced kissing, or anything that comes afterwards, very much at all. That's a more hopeful explanation than the alternative. She wants hope, and she nurtures the thought.
But then when she does practice, or tries to, it goes terribly.
She had calculated a plan of attack: on a morning when Shuuji didn't have any errands to run, she would approach him after breakfast. She would make sure to kiss him first, to show she didn't mind what happened before; and once they were kissing, she would try to feel as much as she could, so that when things escalated she was ready.
She kisses him first. After some initial surprise, he reciprocates. Things look like they might start to escalate, and Hagu is trying to be ready, but the daylight and the familiar living room setting keep disrupting her concentration; every time she feels like she might be tapping into that elusive pleasure, she abruptly notices that she is too warm, or that some part of her itches, or that her neck or her shoulder is sore. A voice starts up in her head, reminding her that If that person is right for you, you don't have to think about it. That Shuuji will be disappointed if he sees how distracted she is right now. That she doesn't feel anything but bored.
Shuuji does notice her distraction. He stops. She feels like shriveling up into a ball right there on the carpet.
"Hagu." His voice is heavy.
"You don't need to be sorry. I'm the one who should be sorry."
"Wait," she says. "Don't leave."
He doesn't leave. He's backed away, but he keeps still, and she can see how she's gotten him all out of order. His shirt is wrinkled, tugged out of his pants on one side. His face is flushed. It's a confusing, captivating sight.
"I could help you," she says. "Just you. If you want."
The words make Shuuji's expression tense, all the expression there locking up, shutting her out.
"Don't ask me that," he says, quietly.
It's worse than any anger. Shuuji sounds disappointed; Hagu has heard the tone before, but never directed at her, never because of something she did. She feels shock. Surprise. It washes over her in little dreadful quakes.
Shuuji must notice, because just like that, his demeanor thaws again, and he reaches out. She lets him hug her shoulder and pat her on the head, but she's too busy thinking now to appreciate the contact.
I'm breaking things. She can feel it: a paper-thin fissure in the ground between them, narrow, slight, that wasn't there before. She did that, without even meaning to. Anything else she tries could very well widen it. The possibility alarms her.
"I should work," she says awkwardly, turning away. She can't show him her distress; he'll think it's his fault. She can hear how forced the words sound, but she needs to leave, before her calm breaks.
She clumsily shifts away and pushes herself to her feet; Shuuji lets her. She can feel his eyes on her back as she scurries to her room.
One disastrous kissing experiment was nervousness, maybe; twice is a pattern. It confounds Hagu, who finds herself thinking back to the two incidents constantly in the next several days, with a mix of heat and queasy discomfort. She isn't sure what's wrong with her, that it can't just be all heat. She knows that she wants to want Shuuji, very badly; but wanting alone doesn't seem to get her anywhere. If anything, it makes it harder to enjoy Shuuji's company than ever before.
Things have grown awkward between him and her since that second morning. Hagu can feel it in every interaction they share; it frightens her, because she's never felt self-conscious around Shuuji in the past. But now each conversation is a potential minefield, each second of eye contact or accidental touch a chance for her to unwittingly drive him further away. So she doesn't risk anything. She keeps to herself, even though she wants nothing more than to anchor herself at Shuuji's side. She can feel his eyes on her, concerned, whenever they're in the room together and she is looking elsewhere; but when she turns to him, he always looks away first. When she brushes close he's the one who pulls back. It makes Hagu feel lonely.
She keeps drawing and painting as a way to order her thoughts. The pictures are far from how she wants them to look, but they help to fill a void: they are her ear; her reflection; her voice. It almost seems fitting that they turn out so poorly, the weakness in her hand perfectly mirroring the confusion in her thoughts, the frustrating enigma of her body. She hides each of them away when they're finished; if Shuuji ever wonders what it is she's working on, or where it all goes when it's done, he is kind enough never to ask.
His kindness is half the problem. If he weren't so nice about everything, Hagu might feel glad for the space he's giving for now, for how patient he's always been. Instead, Shuuji's generosity just makes her feel hopelessly selfish, and like she ought to apologize; that she's doing something wrong.
One night she dreams of pleasant possibilities. She and Shuuji are sitting at the living room table, and she's finding that all the words she's wanted to say come easily to her. Boldly, she confesses: Shuu-chan, I've been doing this because there is something I want, I'm sure of it -- I just don't know what yet. Can you help me find out?
Shuu-chan, if we can't work this out, will you still like me?
Dream Shuuji laughs, and tousles her hair, and says that he knows she loves him, that they can work together to figure out ways for her to show it. It brings a palpable relief that lingers even after Hagu wakes up and remembers that she hasn't yet managed to explain anything to Shuuji.
For almost an hour afterwards she is flush with confidence, sure in the knowledge that she can still explain -- that the dream was her clue on how to move forward, a sign from the universe that everything would be all right. Her certainty falters when she goes into the living room to get breakfast and Shuuji is nowhere to be found; by the time he comes back an hour later, with groceries, she can hardly remember where her optimism came from at all.
She hovers uneasily at the threshold of the kitchen while Shuuji unpacks, trying and failing to make herself say Shuu-chan, we need to talk. I have so many things I want to say to you. The words get stuck in her throat, trapped by all sorts of new dreadful possibilities that her sleeping self had never anticipated. What if Shuuji doesn't believe her when she tells him about her feelings? What if he thinks she's being childish? What if he thinks he's to blame? In the glare of the late-morning light all the scenarios in her mind are sharply lit, with harsh edges and unforgiving corners.
I can't, Hagu thinks, There's no way I can ask him. It's the most she can do to help put the vegetables in the fridge when Shuuji's down to the last bag of groceries, and even then she can't make herself say anything to him, not even Thank you or Where do the mushrooms go? or How was your morning?.
One thing Hagu knows is that she can't sit still. It's just like with her hand: nothing will get better if she doesn't work at it, every day, from all sorts of different angles.
So even when she can't make any headway with Shuuji, she doesn't give up, but tries different sorts of exercises on her own. In her room, during the afternoon on days when she's absolutely sure Shuuji won't be home, Hagu lets herself fantasize; she experiments in her thoughts, with her hands on her body, the way she knows from clandestine conversations with Ayu and other friends that most girls do when they're alone. One day she even sneaks some beer from the fridge and downs two cans in rapid succession, hoping the looseness will help her to reach some physical epiphany, but it just ends up putting her to sleep. She wakes two hours later badly needing to pee, with her hand still curled under her skirt between her legs. It's all she can do to rush to the bathroom, wash her hands very thoroughly, and try to stop blushing before Shuuji gets home.
Nothing she does to herself feels half as good as it felt when she first brushed Shuuji's skin. She doesn't understand. If it were anything else she would ask Shuuji for help, but she can't trust him with this; the evidence is too damning, and he would surely take it to mean that she wasn't ready to be physical at all, or at the very least wasn't interested in him. He might even worry that he was pressuring her. It's my choice, she could say, I want to know too -- but really, she feels like she's running out of choices altogether at this point.
In the last week of April she paints a rush of watercolors, oils, inks; faces, noses, hands; huge swatches of black and brown and red. She draws one picture and covers it all up in bruise-colored paint. Another she tears into pieces. She arranges the scraps in her notebook, pasting them into apologetic arrays of color and mismatched line.
She draws self-portraits that don't look like her. She draws picture after picture of Shuuji, and doesn't show them to anyone.
She doesn't talk about it.
On the first day of May, the weather is unusually nice, and Hagu decides to go on a walk. She brings an umbrella in case of sudden showers but the sky remains clear and insistently blue above her head, as she wanders down the neighborhood streets that have become familiar over the past four years. When she gets thirsty, she buys a bottle of oolong tea from the vending machine, remembering all the times she did so before on the spring days when she was walking to campus. Back then she didn't even think of how it might be hard to twist open the cap with only one hand. Now she struggles to manage it.
No one who passes by her on the street is anyone she knows, but Hagu still imagines that the other pedestrians look at her and notice the brace on her wrist, and that they can see the sadness knotted up in her heart. She imagines that they give her pitying glances. It's a shame. She seemed so ambitious before.
There is a poisonous mood rising up within her. Hagu picks up her pace, hoping that it will burn off with effort. She veers away from the specter of campus and walks instead toward the river, but every step tightens the feeling inside her, and when she gets to the river bank she feels like she can't stop. She ducks through a shopping arcade onto a street she's only been a few times, on the way to other, busier streets, and keeps going, farther than she ever has before.
Eventually her tea is almost gone and she's in a part of town she's never been, where there's hardly anything on the street besides gas stations, empty-looking storefronts and one incongruous convenience store. An employee is standing outside the store, dressed in a blue apron and idling on his feet; aside from her, he's the only person in sight. Hagu avoids his eyes and shuffles down the block, not stopping until she's turned the corner onto some even more isolated stretch of sidewalk. Once she's in the clear, she realizes that her feet have started hurt. It makes her wonder just how long she's been walking. The sun is high overhead. She checks her cell phone, shading it from the glare of the light, and sees that it's nearly eleven.
She ought to turn around and go back home, if she wants to make it back in time for lunch; instead, she finds a tucked away corner of the sidewalk, in the gap between two buildings, and sits down on the cracked pavement.
In the silence of the street she counts her breaths. She looks down at where little bits of grass are poking through the cement at her feet, and picks one piece between her fingers. She wonders if Shuuji wonders where she is.
Just then, to her great surprise, her phone rings. It nearly makes Hagu drop her umbrella. When she looks at the display, hardly daring to hope, she's filled with momentary wonder, because the name on the screen reads Shuu-chan.
She opens the phone without a second's hesitation.
"Hagu?" Her reception is weak out here; Shuuji's voice crackles.
"Yes?" she says, barely letting herself breathe. It's like he knew.
"Hey, I was just about to head out to the art supply store. I was wondering if you wanted me to pick you up anything?"
Hagu sinks a little inside.
". . . Oh," she says. "No. That's okay."
"All right. I'll be back before noon."
"Shuu-chan . . ."
There's a pause on the other end of the line. "Yes?"
She ought to say something else, but she can't speak. Instead there's a threatening tightness, just starting to build in her chest. She bites her lip.
"I'll see you when you get back," she says at last, quietly.
"Sounds good," says Shuuji. He sounds a little unsettled, though that could be her imagination. "Hey, if you're in the mood, we could go out to lunch. Where are you now?"
"Not too far," Hagu says. She swallows. "Hey, I have to go."
She hangs up on him.
In the silence the street is emptier than ever. Hagu looks numbly down at the cell phone. Then she sets it down, delicately, on the ground beside her; and curls her legs up into her chest; and sits there, with her head buried in her knees, just breathing, for ages. When the phone rings a second time, she doesn't pick it up. She probably sits there for as long as it takes Shuuji to make it to the art store and back, maybe even longer still. She knows she can't make it back to the house in time for lunch now. She knows Shuuji will worry, but she can't face the idea of seeing him right now.
A man's voice breaks through her daze, sending a jolt of surprise through Hagu's chest, and she scrambles back to sitting, wiping her eyes hastily with her sleeve. She blinks, as her vision clears. It's the man from the convenience store. He's keeping a careful distance from where she sits, but she can see that his face is creased with unsure concern.
"Are you all right?" he asks.
"I -- I'm fine," says Hagu. She feels suddenly ridiculous, and is sure she must look it, too, sitting on the ground in an isolated neighborhood in the middle of the morning. She grabs for her phone and her umbrella. She's sure she must be blushing. "I was just . . ."
"Do you need any help? Are you lost?" The man's tone is kind, but there's an oddly coddling quality to his words that throws Hagu off; it's the sort of tone she's used to hearing from teachers and doctors, even though this man doesn't look any older than she is. She realizes in a burst of realization that he must think she's much younger than she is.
". . . No," she says, face red, shaking her head. "No, I -- thank you." She knows the way back home from here, or at least, she can probably find it. Suddenly she wonders. ". . . I . . . I'm trying to make it back to Hamadayama."
Instantly, the man's face brightens.
"That's no problem," he says. "There's a station right near here. Come on. I'll walk you there."
Hagu's eyes widen. This seems above and beyond the duty of a concerned passerby. But she can't muster up the courage to protest, and before she can do anything else, he's already starting to lead the way, leaving her no choice but to to jump to her feet and scurry after him to catch up.
The subway station is only a few blocks away, down a side street Hagu hadn't even thought to investigate. Once they arrive at the entrance to the station, Hagu bows and apologizes, but the convenience store man laughs it off.
"Hurry on home," he says. "Your parents must be worried!"
Hagu blinks, then feels herself flushing again. She doesn't correct him, but nods, and thanks him one final time before turning away to enter the station.
On the train, she thinks, He looked a little bit like Takemoto-kun. She hasn't heard from Takemoto recently but he's promised to send letters, and she knows that he will stay true to his word. She can imagine him doing just this same sort of helpful thing; It pleases her to think that in the middle of a strange neighborhood in Tokyo she found a memory of her friend.
It's not until Hagu transfers to her own line and gets in a car bound for home that her thoughts turn back to Shuuji , and her heart grows anxious again. Her cell phone feels heavy in her pocket; she can almost feel it blinking at her from within the folds of her dress, silently scolding her. She should send a text to Shuuji, if nothing else, but she can't make herself open the phone, not until the overhead speaker sounds and she's already at her stop.
Of course Shuuji is already home by the time she gets back to their apartment. When she steps up from the entryway and turns the corner into the living room, he's sitting at the table with a book, and looks up at the sound of her approach. The art supplies he bought are in a bag beside him on the floor.
"Welcome back," he says.
"I'm home," she mumbles. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"Nothing to be sorry for." His voice is completely normal. "Are you still hungry? It's not too late to go out."
Hagu is hungry; she didn't have much of a breakfast that morning, and it's past one now. But the last thing she wants to do is go to a restaurant.
"I'm tired," she admits, finally.
Shuuji is quick to adjust. He nods efficiently, moving to stand up. "You should go lie down. I'll fix us something."
I would rather sit with you, Hagu thinks helplessly, but to ask would mean imposing more than she already has -- when she's the one who came back late, and messed up Shuuji's lunch plans. He must be hungry too; she's sure he didn't eat anything while he was waiting for her.
It's such a little thing, but it catches at her, overwhelms her all at once. She thinks of Shuuji sitting and waiting at the table. How he's always, always having to wait for her. It must be so disappointing.
"I'm sorry," Hagu blurts out.
"What, for lunch? Don't be." Shuuji smiles at her. "You were out for a long time. We can go out to eat later."
She shakes her head. That's not what she meant. She should explain, or at least smile back to reassure Shuuji, before he starts to worry about the way she can't seem to move from the doorway. But she's in a strange mood, and she's so tired of trying to figure out ways to fix everything.
She means to say Of course. That sounds good, Shuu-chan. Let's do it. Or even, Let me help you with lunch.
Instead, she just stands there, stuck to the floor. She opens her mouth to speak, something normal and reassuring that will keep the tension at bay, but what ultimately ends up slipping out is,
"Can I hug you?"
The lonely sound of her own clumsy words makes Hagu wince. Shuuji looks confused, then concerned.
". . . Of course," he says. "Any time. Is something the matter?"
Hagu shakes her head again. She watches his face, and tries not to feel childish, as she admits, "No." She swallows. "I mean . . . it's just, lately . . ." her voice dropping almost to nothingness, "it feels like maybe you don't want to."
He looks at her for a long time.
"Come here," he says at last, and she can't clamber around to his side of the table fast enough. She burrows into his arms. There's moisture beading at the corners of her eyes, and maybe Shuuji can feel it, because he brings a hand up to rub her back in soothing circles.
"Hey," he says, "hey."
"I got lost," she says. Her voice is tight. "I missed you."
"I'm right here." He tugs her closer. She can't think of anything to say; she just breathes him in.
In the silence, Shuuji says, "I think we should talk. I evidently have some things to apologize for."
"You don't," Hagu says, shaking her head. "You're perfect."
She can feel him exhale.
"You have to believe me," she says.
"Of course I believe you." He redoubles the back circles.
"I just don't want to see you sad."
"You never make me sad," she says.
He laughs a little, self-deprecating. "Then I wish I could help make you happier."
In his arms, feeling his voice so close, Hagu feels a rush of emotions. It takes a long time clutching at his shoulder for them to subside, and for her to have any chance at getting her bearings back. When she does, Shuuji is waiting for her. She scoots back and looks at him.
"Can we really talk about it?"
He nods. "I think we'd better."
She has to resist the impulse to lean back in and cling to him again. She can see the art supply bag in the corner of her vision. An idea starts to dawn, modest, slow, in her mind: a note to set, before everything else.
"All right," she says. She swallows. "Can I show you something first?"
Shuuji is more than willing to help her pull out all her sketchbooks and paintings from the past two months, though she can see he's wondering why as he does it. He saw her make a lot of these -- helped, in some cases -- but he's never asked for explanations for more than a few. There are more pictures than she remembers finishing. They make an impressive, messy pile on the table in her workroom.
"I wanted you to see my art," she says.
Shuuji doesn't point out the obvious -- that they're already looking at her art, and that he's already seen much of it before. He just looks attentively as she picks out the picture on top of the pile.
"That's a still life," she says, gesturing at the paper. "It's cups, from our kitchen." It was one of her early left-hand drawings, and it shows. She had tried to make up for the weakness of the line with color, but the picture remains disappointingly off-balance. She tries not to resent it, and slides it out of the way, revealing the next one in the pile.
"That's Ayu," she says.
"It's a good likeness."
"It took me a long time. Longer than it would have last year." She moves the picture aside. Below it is a charcoal drawing, one of the ones she'd been too embarrassed to show Shuuji when she first finished it. She'd drawn it right out of the hospital, from memory. It looked like a cat had scratched out the lines.
"That's you," she says.
Shuuji quirks an eyebrow, and leans in to scrutinize it more closely.
"You gave me a nice nose," he says.
She scrunches up her face at him, then pulls out another picture from beneath it, one of the collages she'd done with photos from magazines he'd found for her.
"That's you too," she says.
She doesn't stop there, but pulls out one picture after another. Many of them are unfinished, and some are so rough she feels embarrassed to be showing them to anyone, but she knows she has to share them all. Shuuji's brow furrows.
"That's you sleeping," she says. A clay sculpture: "That's your hand." And another picture: "That's you when you first wake up in the morning."
Not all the pieces are of Shuuji, but a sizable fraction are, enough to rouse the suspicion of anyone with a mind for guesswork. It was why she had avoided showing so many of the pictures to Ayu, though Hagu thinks she might have guessed anyway.
All together, the portraits form a whole life: Shuuji smiling, Shuuji cooking, Shuuji worrying about work, Shuuji helping her with her own work, the house when Shuuji is gone, Shuuji's neck and hands and shoulders. The potato stamp picture she worked on with Ayu makes an appearance. So do a number of other pictures Hagu drew in the past few weeks, self-portraits in ink and pen that are crowded with question marks and jumbled body parts. There are nudes of herself and a few shirtless pictures of him, which she would blush at if she hadn't already shown him so many other embarrassing things already. Shuuji takes it all in without comment.
"And this is what I drew last week, after I got drunk."
"You got drunk."
"Just a little. I wanted to see if it would help. But I just thought about you the whole time."
She feels the touch of his palm, warm and steady on her shoulder. She shivers, and leans into it.
"So, you see, it's not that I don't feel anything for you. I feel this much." She gestures to the table.
Shuuji contemplates the mountain of papers piled there.
"That is an awful lot," he agrees.
"I just don't know what to do with it," she says. She looks up into his eyes. "Can you help me?"
He looks at her for a second longer. There's something aching in his eyes, a fondness so deep it almost saddens her.
"Yes," he says.
It's a long conversation they have, in the end. They have a lot to talk about. It doesn't even really wind to a close -- but after enough time Hagu really does get hungry to the point where it can't be ignored any longer, and so they break for lunch. Omelette rice has never tasted so delicious; she's not sure how much of that is her appetite, and how much is just the relief of seeing Shuuji sitting across the table, smiling at her. She smiles back. It feels like something is finally starting to grow between them, new and green and slow, poking shy leaves through the cracks she'd so carelessly wrought in the weeks before.
She and he are a sculpture, Hagu thinks. Their own work in progress. This whole time, when she was worried about standing still, they were both being changed -- by time, by the weather, by the wind, by the force of his feelings and hers. All of that has brought them here. It will keep on moving them, whether she wants it to or not; but it doesn't mean they have to grow apart.
She looks at Shuuji, and thinks: I want to give you something, too.
That afternoon, she sets up a big canvas, the largest one she has, and starts to paint with broad, sweeping strokes. She doesn't know what she's making, but the scope feels appropriate to the degree of feeling that's thrumming inside her right now. Her heart bleeds out into the brush. She ends up working for hours, losing track of time; and when the mounting soreness of her hand finally does compel her to stop, she's only filled half the canvas, but that's all right. She has plenty of time tomorrow and all the days after that to finish it.
Outside the window of her workroom, the sky is dark. Her canvas glows under the ceiling light, the rosy color of a sunrise.
Hagu sets down her brush, pulls off her smock, stretches her arms, and goes out to meet Shuuji for dinner.