Yukiko dreaded returning home. There was a family of German tourists staying at the inn, and, naturally, the tourists didn’t speak Japanese anymore than Yukiko spoke their tongue. Of the entire inn’s staff, only her father spoke German. “A good language to learn for the tourist trade,” he had said vaguely when Yukiko commented on his fluency, in a way that suggested that he thought Yukiko ought to learn it. And what better way to learn it than by having her attend to the German tourists personally?
But more than that, she was bracing herself against a storm that could break at any moment. The week before, Chie had told her parents about the two of them. A more accurate description of what had happened would be that the news had fallen out of her mouth, but Yukiko didn’t resent that, not when she hadn’t made her fair share of slips, too. A casual remark she dropped into a letter to Souji had ended with an awkwardly worded, tentative congratulations that she had to turn aside, though she desperately wanted to accept it, and everyone who worked at the front desk had witnessed Yukiko kissing Chie goodbye at the door more than once.
The workers hadn’t said anything. The Inn’s staff had always been the epitome of discretion. No, what she was really worried about was the Satonakas making a call to her parents in the middle of the day, when she and Chie were still in school. She’d return home, and her parents would be sitting at the table, all terse and tense and silent. She’d walk in and know what they meant.
“You’re not fit to run this place,” they’d say. “How can we let a homosexual take this Inn?”
The thought made her stomach tie itself into knots. She had to be brave. Chie had been brave, and now it was her turn.
She just wished that being brave didn’t mean being terrified of the future at the same time.
Yukiko’s mother cornered her in the kitchens.
“You look pale, dear,” she said. “Kasai-san, could you make some porridge?”
“I’m not sick,” Yukiko said. “I’m just… I suppose I’m thinking too hard.”
“Nonsense. There’s no such thing. Tell your mother what’s wrong.”
“I’m seeing someone.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said her mother. “You? Finally?”
“I’m seeing another woman.”
She was doing more than just seeing, really, but she didn’t need to tell her mother that. And her mother had said, “Oh, for god’s sake!” and stormed out of the kitchen in a fit. Yukiko wanted to bury herself beneath the tatami mats and never come back up, but her legs and arms and body were frozen stiff and all she could do was to curse herself for saying anything at all.
Her mother was back in the kitchen, breathing heavily, but visibly calmer and less out-of-sorts.
“This is just a phase,” her mother said. “It’s just a phase. That’s all there is to it. You might think you’re in love today, but really, that’s not love, dear, that’s infatuation.”
“Don’t argue against me. I would have thought you would’ve gotten over this silly sort of thing when you were younger. You were always such a sensible girl.”
“It’s not silly, and it’s not—”
“Don’t argue against me,” said her mother, this time even more sharply.
“I’m not arguing,” Yukiko said. “You’re the one who is—”
“You must be feeling a bit sick. Yes, that’s it. When your father comes home, we’ll have a talk. Don’t think you can get out of it, dear, this is a family matter. I expect to see you at dinner.” And with that, she swept out of the kitchen.
Yukiko stared at the place where her mother had occupied a scant second before. Her father. She had known on an intellectual level that she would see him, yet—
Kasai put a plate of steamed buns in front of her.
“Your favorite, Yuki-chan,” Kasai said, squeezing her shoulder. “I know how much you love red bean paste.”
She hadn’t had much of an appetite, but she ate the buns, grateful for the silent support offered by the Inn’s staff. Maybe things would go well.
The ironic part of this was that two years ago, Yukiko would’ve used this opportunity to skip straight out of town. Except right now she was at the gazebo by the Samegawa feeling—feeling like an idiot. She had forgotten her phone. She couldn’t believe that she had forgotten her phone. She had been so—so angry when she left the Inn that she had more-or-less floated out of her room, hit the road, and wound up here before she knew it with a bag of clothes, a fan, and mismatched socks.
Chie would probably be trying to call her right about now. She wondered if her parents would answer the phone or throw it away somewhere.
She wondered if she’d be able to return home and pick it up.
Maybe she’d stop by Naoto’s house—but Naoto was out solving a case an hour away, and Yukiko didn’t know if Naoto’s grandfather would let her stay. Probably not. It was too short of a notice, and she didn’t want to face the scrutiny of a detective. She could imagine Naoto standing in front of her, making one deduction after another, and she didn’t want to learn what Naoto’s grandfather could figure out by piecing together a few rumors and a couple of off-hand observations.
Maybe Kanji-kun’s, but her parents were friends with Kanji’s mother, and that would involve passing through the shopping district. Too much risk, she decided. People might see her looking upset, and that would draw attention to the Inn. She still had her family’s reputation to think about, whether or not she had been kicked out of the Inn. Or if she had run out of it, whichever one it was. The fight had been one big blur, really, a mess of quiet, but steely, words and anger boiling just under the surface of every statement.
Her father had backed her mother immediately, and Yukiko, despite herself, was drawn into arguing with both her parents. The more she argued, the angrier they all became. Every word out of her parents’ mouths felt like an attack. It had been like… it had almost been like facing her Shadow, and hearing all her early doubts being, suddenly and pointedly, flung back at her. Words flew out before she could even think them through. It was the first time she had ever raised her voice to her parents, and no one was ready for how quickly the argument escalated. It had gotten to the point where she was afraid her father would hit her, but all he said was, “Get out of my sight.”
In her temper, Yukiko had said, “Well, fine, I will” and left straight away.
But it really wasn’t fine, was it? And even though Chie hadn’t talked too much about what her parents thought about their relationship, she tried too hard to deflect questions about what had happened on the night she told her parents, and... really, she’d go to Chie’s house if she weren’t afraid of being dragged into another fight. She couldn’t do it anymore. The fighting, the arguing, and the crying added up to a massive migraine and feeling as though she was a grain of sand at the edge of a waterfall. She wanted to talk with Chie. She wanted to do anything except sit here and stew in her own thoughts.
People were on the path. Yukiko moved to leave, seized by a sudden panic that it might be someone she knew. Then she regained her wits, and sat back down on the gazebo. Really, it was night. It wasn’t as though anyone would see her, sitting up here on a muggy summer’s night.
That was what she thought, until Nanako, of all people, spotted her and ran up to her. Dojima turned to face her, and practically blinded her with the flashlight.
“Amagi?” he said. “What are you doing up here?”
“I was just thinking,” she said quickly. “Nothing that you have to worry about, Dojima-san. Were you and Nanako-chan taking a walk?”
“It’s become a habit with the two of us lately,” Dojima said with a wry smile. “Are you here with someone? Your boyfriend, maybe?”
“What? Oh, no...” She trailed off without really meaning to. Something about having the flashlight in her eyes made her feel almost like a criminal.
Dojima’s eyes turned sympathetic. He switched off the flashlight and sat beside her on the bench. He bade Nanako to go play on the fields a bit more, and took out a cigarette.
“Do you mind?” he said. She shook her head. He lit the cigarette and breathed in. “I should quit one of these days,” he said ruefully. “When Souji was around, I smoked less. I don’t even smoke in the house now, but sometimes…” He stared out across the Samegawa, and then turned his attention to her again. Yukiko was taken aback for a moment. Of course. Dojima was a detective, too. “Are you running away from home again?” he asked.
“Really. I remember that your parents used to call the station at all hours of the night when you were a kid. You were always trying to sneak out of the town. I used to think you were doing it for attention, but there’s something else going on, isn’t there?”
The cigarette burned a faint ring of red, ashes forming on the tip and dripping down.
“This… this isn’t like the last times.”
“I see,” he said. He was resting his hands on his knees, the cigarette burning away into smoke. “Satonaka can’t take you in?”
“Her parents aren’t very happy with either of us right now.”
“Is that how it is.” ‘Is that how it is.’ When Yukiko was little, she used to think that was an incredibly adult expression. As she got older, she became more irritated by it: it seemed like a fast, easy way for people to ignore what she was saying, to avoid answering her questions, to avoid the subtleties in what she was saying. She didn’t sense any of that from Dojima. There were the words he said, yes, but then there was what was going on in his head. He was… he was thinking things out. Considering things. Using a bit of discretion, using tact.
She felt, suddenly, grateful and glad that it was Dojima who found her.
“If you have a place I could stay for the night,” she said, halting a bit because she didn’t want to press him, didn’t want to overstretch her boundaries. But she wasn’t going to get his house by waiting for him to extend his hand, and Dojima was a kind, honest man. She knew that.
But she didn’t want to come off as rude. Years of manners and propriety kept her from completing her sentence. She swallowed, and waited for judgment to fall.
Dojima nodded. He dropped the cigarette and ground it with his shoe. Then he bent down and picked up the stub and said, a bit sheepishly, “I shouldn’t be littering.” He took her bag for her. “Just until you can patch things up with your folks,” he said. “Got that?”
“Yes, Dojima-san,” she said, bowing her head to him. “I’m… I truly appreciate your generosity.”
Her gratitude seemed to embarrass him. It was embarrassing her a little, too, but she meant it.
“Don’t let it bother you too much,” he said gruffly. “Whatever it is, I’m sure you and your parents can talk through it. I’ll let you have Souji’s old room until things clear up. Until then, make yourself at home. God knows that I owe you and your friends a debt of my own.”
The three of them walked back home together, Dojima and Nanako in front, and Yukiko following.
The starry skies above the flood plains reminded her of nights she had spent with Chie searching for constellations and mythological figures stalking the dark skies. The thought of it made her miss Chie even more.
Waking up that morning had was more than a little surreal. Yukiko woke up, brushed her teeth, and washed her face, all the while thinking, “I’m not at the Inn, this isn’t my toothpaste, Nanako-chan will be surprised to see me in her house, this isn’t my house, Dojima-san should clean the mirror a bit, oh, well, while I’m here, I might as well—”
The next thing she knew, she was airing out the tatami mats and Dojima was looking at her a bit oddly.
“You aren’t going to school?” he said.
Yukiko had left her school supplies at the Inn the night before. The realization made her sick at her own thoughtlessness. She didn’t know if going home was the best thing to do right now. Undoubtedly, her parents’ anger would grow the longer she stayed out of the Inn—or would they be angrier if she dared to show her face to them again?
She couldn't tell. That rattled her more than anything else: she didn't know anymore. Maybe it was just her being hypersensitive, but she knew that her relationship with her parents wasn't the same anymore. She'd have to win their favor all over again.
“I…” She tried to find an excuse. There were none. “I don’t intend on going today.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Well, it is your decision. I can’t stop you. I won’t be back home until late today, so if you could watch Nanako for me—”
“Of course,” she said. “It’s the least I can do for you, Dojima-san.”
Dojima left early in the morning. Nanako was already awake and making breakfast. Yukiko decided that she wouldn’t risk trying to make something. There was, after all, such a thing as doing too much. Instead, she asked Nanako if she could use the phone.
Chie was probably still asleep. She never had been a good morning person, anyway. Trying to wake Chie up in the mornings was like trying to lead a cow down a flight of stairs, or asking Teddie to be a smooth operator. One ring, two rings. At the fourth, she was gripping the phone with an unnatural tightness. Her breath was catching. And then Chie picked up and said, “Hrrgh Dojima-san?”
“It’s me, Chie,” she said.
That seemed to wake up Chie a bit. “What?”
Everything came out: the mess with her parents, Dojima finding her in the flood plains, and did she mention because she had more or less been thrown out of the house or run away or was pushed into running away or whichever it was? Because she had.
Chie was silent for a moment. There was rustling on the other end, the rustling of clothes being shed and put on again, and the heaviness of Chie’s breath.
“Oh, Yukiko,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you call? I could’ve done something!”
“I left my phone at the Inn,” she said with a little laugh. “I’ll probably go back today, when mother and father are working.”
Chie was quiet, almost mollified, on the other end. “I love you,” she blurted out. “Just so you know. Even if people say it’s weird. Because—um… you know—”
“I love you, too,” Yukiko said, smiling a bit when Chie went quiet. She could almost see Chie on the other end, reddening with embarrassment—or maybe looking for her shirt. She tried to ignore the warmth in her own face. “Chie? Could you get copies of the assignments for me, and drop them off at Souji-kun’s place?”
“Of course! You can stay at my place. I wouldn’t mind it at all.”
“And your parents?”
“Does that matter?” Chie said. “My parents have always liked you, anyway, it’s not as though they’re going to say, ‘Oh, hi, Yukiko-chan, you’ve been kicked out of your house? I got the perfect idea how to solve that: lock you out of ours!’”
That did seem rather unlikely. “You’re right,” she said.
“Exactly! … You’re not going to come over, are you.”
“I was thinking about it…”
“We’ll talk about this when I get to Souji-kun’s place,” Chie said. “Oh, man, I can’t find my uniform—”
Yukiko waited for a few seconds while Chie dug about her room, looking for the mythical uniform. Not in the bedroom. Probably not in the dryer. Then… “Try looking for it in the bathroom.”
“… Huh,” said Chie. “You’re right. I’ll see you in the afternoon. I promise. Even if a train runs over Dojima-san’s house—”
They went on like that until Chie had to go down for breakfast. Nanako was staring at Yukiko disapprovingly. Had she found out? No, she was overthinking things. Friends said that they loved one another all the time. Besides, Dojima didn’t seem like the kind of person to hold fast onto traditions—no, maybe he was. Either way, she didn’t know how that might affect how Nanako thought. She wanted to laugh hysterically. Things had gotten to the point where she was worried about what Nanako thought about her.
“Your breakfast got cold,” Nanako said, pointing to the toast and eggs on the plate.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe I should go heat them.”
Or maybe she shouldn’t have, because now the Dojimas’ counter was covered with egg.
The Dojimas served their toast with jam rather than butter. By the time Yukiko finished cleaning the kitchen counter, Nanako had left for school.
She returned to the Inn just before noon. The workers and staff apparently hadn’t heard about the big fuss last night, just knew that Yukiko had stormed out of the house late last night and hadn’t come back until now. Kagami and Watatake were all over her in a flash, fussing over her: where were you staying, did you eat, are you okay?
“I’ve just come to get my cell phone,” she said. “And my bag for school.”
“Your mother was furious last night,” said Kagami. “Sit down, Yukiko-chan, you look tired.”
“I don’t want to waste your time,” she said.
“Of course you wouldn’t be wasting our time. You’re practically our employer.”
For how long, Yukiko wondered.
“I should get going,” she said.
She wound up staking out Chie at the school gates. The two of them went up to the hill and sat there and talked for a while. Yukiko was reluctant to stay at Chie's house. For one thing, Chie’s parents might have liked Yukiko, but they didn’t like the idea of Chie being involved with a woman any more than Yukiko’s did. Yukiko couldn't imagine that any girl’s parent would, really. If news of this got out to the rest of the town, the Inn might be ruined, or at the very least, her parents would think it was ruined. That sometimes mattered more than what actually happned.
“My parents mostly spent a lot of time pacing around and yelling at the dog,” Chie said. “They said that they don’t want to think about it for a while. But you know they like you. They’re not going to say no to you, Yukiko—”
“What about my parents?” she said. “I’m sure that’s one of the first places they’ll look for me.”
“Oh. Yeah, staying at Souji-kun’s place does give you an element of surprise…” Chie rubbed her nose, and frowned. She took Yukiko’s hand in hers and ran her thumb over the length of each finger.
“You should stay with me at the Dojima’s house,” Yukiko said, suddenly anxious. She didn’t want to leave Chie, not when going home might mean being disowned, or when it felt like everyone was pointing a sword at the back of her neck. “I mean it. I’m sure Dojima-san won’t mind, he’s…” She stopped herself, and swallowed her fear. Even she could sense how desperate she sounded.
“Well, first thing’s first,” Chie said firmly. “You’re not planning on leaving Inaba, are you?”
“No! Of course not.” Because of the Inn, mostly. The Inn had been a burden to her once, but now it was something that kept her standing, something that she had based her future upon. If that were to be taken away—she didn’t know.
If only she had done this two years ago, Yukiko thought, biting her lip. If only this had happened two years ago, when she would have wanted to take the first train on the city and never look back.
“Well, then,” Chie said. And then she said, “Well then,” one more time, as though just to be sure. “I guess we’re stuck. Knowing your mother, she’s probably more upset about this than your dad is… We should wait until she calms down. I’ll talk to my parents tonight and see if I can get you to stay at our place. I don’t think they’ll say no.”
“I want to stay with Dojima-san, for the time being.”
“Wh… why? I mean…” Chie looked almost as though Yukiko had just made the sky turn pink. “It’s not because of something I did or anything, right?”
“Oh, no! Not at all. I’m just—”
Nervous. Anxious. Too afraid to face the Satonakas. She had been avoiding them for a few weeks already, and really, what was another week or two going to do to her? Running away wasn’t the solution to her problems, but she was tired of the way people looked at her when they found out; tired of hiding, yet too afraid to come out.
She took Chie's hand in hers, as though that somehow explained everything.
“Chie… have you ever looked at another woman and thought that she was attractive?”
“Not until I met you.”
Chie's hand slackened. For a moment, Yukiko could see the gears in Chie’s head click into place, and then everything became muddled and confusing. She didn’t know whether to let go or to drop Chie’s hand. She didn't even know if she ought to be touching her at all. She expected Chie to yell or shout, but all Chie did was tilt her head to the side and say, “Huh.”
She must had come off as a little weird.
After all, it wasn’t really—normal to look at people of the same sex in that way—whichever way “that way” actually meant.
It wasn’t that she was gay or unnatural or weird, because she liked boys. Some boys, at least. Souji, for one, but Souji… he was something special, wasn’t he? It was hard to not love him. Of course, she liked looking at boys, but she also liked looking at—or, rather, sometimes she sometimes saw a particular girl in a different light, a way that made her eyes track them across halls and rooms and streets. It sounded a bit creepy, but really, it wasn’t anything perverted or strange (she hoped). Chie did the same thing with boys, too (but not too often now—… she really ought to calm down) and besides, it was a perfectly normal part of human development. She remembered reading in a book that it was normal for young children to have crushes on their teachers, regardless of the sex, but she was too old for that sort of thing, and Inaba had a severe shortage of sane, normal teachers, attractive though they might be.
It wasn’t as though Chie would dump her over this. After all, it was one thing for a man to tell his girlfriend, “I prefer looking at men, sorry,” but if she were to say to her own girlfriend, “I enjoy looking at women in addition to men, sorry,” well, what did that mean?
“I like what you’ve done with the house,” Dojima said a bit wryly from the couch. “I don’t think this place has looked so clean since Souji left.”
“It was already very clean,” Yukiko said. “I just had to do a bit of dusting, that’s all.” And rearrangement. And vacuuming. While she had been thinking, she might have gone a smidge overboard. “Although I’m sorry, I think I broke your washing machine…”
“No, that thing never worked,” he said. “Forget about it. I’ll do the dishes while you’re here. I’ve been making Nanako do too much housework lately, anyway.” His gaze lingered on his daughter, focused intently on the quiz show, and then he said to Yukiko, “Your parents weren’t at the station today.”
“Is it?” Dojima said. He rubbed his fingers together, and then tapped them against the arm of the sofa, as though flicking cigarette ash off the stub. “Because I don’t think it’s good. If anything, that worries me even more. One of my senpai at the force told me this. One day the boss was coming down hard on me. I couldn’t stand it. Wanted to quit and give up right there. Senpai pulled me aside and told me that I was being an ungrateful snot. When someone’s yelling at you and shouting at you, they’re doing it because they care. And if they stop, if they don’t come and pick you up when you’re down, that means they’ve given up on you.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and then put it down again. “I don’t want to upset you, Amagi, but whatever happened between you and them doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.”
“If you don’t do something about this, then I’ll have to kick you out. You can’t stay here indefinitely.”
“I understand, Dojima-san.”
Given up? What did that mean? She was pretty sure that her parents wouldn’t disown her over something like this. At the very least, they’d probably give her an advance warning… Nanako was glancing back at them. Dojima went outside, and a second later, Yukiko caught the smell of burning tobacco.
“Um!” Nanako said. “Yukiko-san? Can you help me with my homework?”
“Of course. Give me a second, won't you?” She followed Dojima outside. He was sitting on the porch, a cigarette between his lips, and hands laid, casually, between his legs. She sat next to him, and crossed her legs at the ankle.
“My parents… prefer to think before acting,” she said. “I’m sure that they’re not going to act impulsively over this.”
“That so,” Dojima grunted, and blew a cloud of smoke.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” Yukiko said. “But it must have come as a shock to them…” She sat on the edge of the porch. The last time she had stepped out here, it was in February for a breath of fresh air, after she and Souji made chocolates together. It hadn’t gone very well—or at least, Yukiko’s batch hadn’t gone very well.
Dojima was silent. He snuffed out the cigarette and said, “Damn awful habit to pick up. I can feel my throat drying up already…”
“You’re right, Dojima-san. I can’t keep sitting on my hands and waiting for something to happen. Eventually, I’m going to have to do something.” Something, anything. Procrastination was always a bad habit of hers: putting something off again and again until the future was pleasantly distant and far away.
The cigarette was still smoldering in his fingers. She wondered what he was thinking. After a while, he said, “Take it easy, Amagi. Call your parents in the morning and talk things over before things get much worse.”
She knew he was right, but it wasn’t something she wanted to do. But what good would running away do? She knew she had to do it, she knew what she had to do, even if she’d rather wait another day to do it.
At seven thirty in the morning, she called the Amagi Inn. Her mother picked up the phone.
“Mother?” Yukiko said. She was holding onto the wall so tightly that her fingertips were white. “This is Yukiko.”
“Your daughter, mother.”
Click. The sound of the dial tone flooded her ear.
Yukiko held the phone to her ear, as though doing so might get the phone to ring again, might make her mother return and say that she had been worried, where had she been, was she okay—?
Dojima was coming down the stairs. Yukiko quickly put the phone back and went to the kitchen.
“Skipping school again, Amagi?” Dojima said wryly.
Yukiko set the table with methodical precision. Her hands didn’t shake at all. She thought they should have, but they were steady, calm. Months of facing down Shadows inside the TV kept them even.
“I’m planning on going today,” she said. “I’ve never skipped an entire day of school before…”
“Really. Well, just make sure you contact your parents today. Best to get the nastiest part done and over with. Damn it, where are the coffee beans?”
“It’s all right, I got them.”
“Would you like me to wake Nanako-chan?”
“Don’t bother,” Dojima said. “You’re our guest here, not our servant. Although if you stay too long, I might start charging.”
“It was a joke. Lighten up a bit.”
“I know, Dojima-san.” With the plates set, the natural thing to do would be to put food on it. She could do toast, right? Definitely. Maybe definitely. Maybe it’d be best to wait for Dojima or Nanako to do it. She hadn’t been practicing her cooking lately, so she had probably gotten rusty. “I’ll go wash my face. Excuse me.”
Yukiko had been planning to skip school again, but ran into Yosuke on the way to school.
“Yo, Yukiko,” he said, greeting her with a nod. “Don’t see you running around here that often. Visiting someone?”
“This early in the morning?” Yukiko asked, falling into step with Yosuke’s bike. Yosuke slowed down so they were going at the same pace.
“Maybe not,” he said. “All right, spill the beans. What were you doing in this part of town?”
“Mm, I was up early.”
“You do seem like the kind of person to take early morning walks,” he said, nodding. “Chie said you were sick yesterday. Some kind of weird stomach bug?”
“Yes. I threw up all day yesterday…”
“Go back home and rest if it was that bad!” She laughed. Yosuke sighed and said, "Oh, one of your great jokes, huh. Yeah, yeah, make fun of the gullible Yosuke Hanamura. Geeze, I should’ve known better than to believe Chie. She told me you had come down with smallpox.”
Chie wasn’t in school that day.
Ryotaro Dojima didn’t make a habit out of sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, but this time he felt entitled to it. That Amagi girl was, after all, sleeping in his nephew's bedroom. He knew Yukiko’s parents. Hell, Yukiko’s father still invited Ryotaro to play cards with him and a few of the other Inaba families, and Ryotaro had been in the same class as Yukiko’s mother, all those years ago back in high school.
Still, he had never visited the Amagi Inn from the perspective of a concerned parent. Chisato used to go play cards with the Amagis and took him with her to keep him from being swallowed by his work, but after she died… Well, the last time he went to the Inn was as detective, and Kouki Amagi seemed remember that well enough. When he saw Ryotaro, his neutral smile faltered visibly, and then reasserted itself with a cooler, almost frosty, edge. It was one of those rare days when he was working at the front desk—probably, Ryotaro thought with a sudden, biting vengeance, because the person who normally would be at the desk, looking over the files, and studying the finances, was camping at his house and moping like a dog whose master had just been shot.
“Ryotaro-san,” said Kouki. “It isn’t often that I see you around here. Is Nanako-chan doing well?”
“She’s fine,” Ryotaro said, a bit shortly. “Mind if I step in? Got a few personal questions to ask you.”
“Our daughter isn’t feeling well right now.”
“I'm not looking for your daughter, Kouki-san,” he said. “I only want to talk. We haven't talked in a while.”
“Not since those incidents last April,” Kouki agreed. He eyed Ryotaro again before saying, finally, "Come in. I'll make tea for the both of us."
Kouki Amagi was a pleasant man, though he had a cool steeliness to him that could make anyone think twice about making trouble around him. Ryotaro remembered Kouki’s wedding, how nakedly happy and thrilled Kouki had looked as he danced with his new wife; remembered Kouki walking Yukiko through the shopping district, pointing this and that out to her. Remembered Kouki calling Dojima in the dead of night, nearly in tears. My daughter’s missing, Ryotaro-san, you have to help me, I don’t know where she could have gone. And then the next day, the pale, white of his face, every line in his body pulled tight with alternating anxiety and anger.
He knew this man, and Kouki Amagi wasn’t the kind of man who would allow his daughter to disappear for two days and not say anything.
Kouki took Ryotaro to the kitchens, and bade one of the servants to leave the room.
“I remember you prefer coffee,” Kouki said as he prepared the kettle. "But I’ve just sent Kagami-san to run to the store for a shipment of new beans for the main kitchens, so we have none.”
“The boy’s not causing you any trouble, is he?” Ryotaro asked. He adjusted his tie. He always had the impression that he was underdressed in the Inn. It was an old, respectable place, and so stiff that Dojima was certain the only appropriate attire here were hakama pants and a traditional robe.
“No, no, of course not. He’s a gentle boy. Very sweet. I can personally vouch for him, if you think he’s done anything.”
“I’m not here to ask about Kagami. I’m here to ask about your daughter.”
Kouki was silent. Ryotaro couldn’t see his face—Kouki was getting the tea ready—but he could see the tenseness that appeared on Kouki's face slowly working its way down to his shoulders, his back, his arms.
“She hasn’t been going to school recently,” Ryotaro pressed. “And I spotted her by the flood plains the night before last. I talked to one of your workers, and she said that you, Shizuka-san and Yukiko were having a fight a few hours before.”
“And that ended in a body hanging from a rooftop?” Kouki said dryly. “Forgive me, detective, but I don’t see what this has to do with—”
“Why isn’t your daughter here?” he said. “For god’s sake, why didn’t you file a report if she’s missing?”
“She’s feeling ill,” Kouki said. “I appreciate your concern, but this is a family matter. Do not interfere with—”
“Your daughter’s been living at my house! How is this not my business?"
He spun about so sharply that his tie snapped through the air. Spots of red were on Kouki's pale face, and then, suddenly, his entire face flushed red. “Well, better a whore than that thing she is now," he said. "You raise a child for seventeen years, and then she abandons your family for some silly teenage passion that she won't even remember in a few years! You think you know a child, and she becomes someone else entirely—I did not raise her to forget me! I did not raise her to become one of those—those—" For a long, horrible moment, it looked as though Kouki wished to articulate what that "thing" the Amagi girl had become, but he swallowed them down and said, “I let my temper take a hold of me. I'm sorry you had to see that.”
“Tell me what’s going on, Kouki-san," Ryotaro said. "I’m worried for the both of you.”
Kouki shook his head. He sat down, and rested his elbows against the table, and swore under his breath. That was what shocked him most. The Amagis were one of those proper families, which seemed to translate to being so “correct” that they were not allowed to let a single hair fall out of place. It was as though they went through life with a steel rod glued to their backs, and a filter on their mouths and a giant arrow painted on their foreheads with the words, “I have emotional vulnerabilities, but like hell you’re ever going to get me to admit to them” under the arrow's head. Shizuka had fit right in with the family.
Ryotaro hated the types of crimes those people could do, so clever and sly and entirely self-justified.
“My daughter told my wife something very… upsetting,” Kouki said wearily. “You know how Shizuka is. When she becomes upset, she throws a fit, and cannot be brought down. I… made the mistake of encouraging her. But what can I do? I can’t say that I like the news, myself.”
“You threw her out of your house for that?” Ryotaro asked, crossing his arms. It didn’t seem to match. What news had the Amagi girl told her parents? It didn’t seem as though he’d get an answer from either Kouki or Kouki’s daughter, but the girl was good-natured, if not stubborn to a fault. The news could not have been that awful.
“She’s welcome to come back any time she wants,” Kouki said. The kettle whistled. Kouki went to attend to it. “I promise that my wife won’t throw her out, but we’ve been talking. Mostly of asking her to break it off with… whatever she’s with. I thought about asking the Satonakas, but they haven’t seen hide nor hair of her. I asked Tatsumi-san and Kujikawa-san, and they say the same thing. Even those Hanamuras don't know a thing.”
He poured Ryotaro a cup of tea.
“I’m glad it was you who found her,” Kouki admitted. “You aren’t involved in the town business. It really makes it easier on us. Did she tell you what happened?”
“She’s as tight as a drum,” he said.
“Just as well,” Kouki said.
Ryotaro and Kouki drank their tea in silence. Ryotaro declined a refill, saying, “I should be getting back now.” He knew when he wasn’t welcome anymore. Kouki had been glancing at the clock ever since he sat down. “Nice talking with you, Kouki-san. Give my regards to your wife.”
Ryotaro swung back to his house in the late afternoon to pick up a few files from work. He expected to see Nanako watching TV and Amagi drying the dishes so hard that they’d become paper-thin, but instead found the Satonaka girl picking a bag of flour off his front steps. The flour, of course, was all over his lawn.
“Oh, man,” said Satonaka. “I’m so sorry, Dojima-san, I was running an errand for my Mom and stopped by here and then the wind blew and…”
Past the disastrous white splotch on his grass were eggs and cabbage heads. What was with the younger generation and their obsession with cabbages nowadays?
“Let me help you with that,” Ryotaro said, although really, he had no idea what to do with this mess. He’d have ask his neighbor later. He gathered the rest of the eggs and cabbages and stacked them neatly beside Satonaka. Then he went back inside and got new, stiffer bags. Satonaka was still trying to pick the flour out of the grass. He shooed her away from the lawn, and invited her inside.
“Don’t see you around these parts of town that often,” he said. “You were running an errand, you say?”
“Mom wants to try making homemade pickled cabbage,” Satonaka said, as she wiped her legs with a towel.
“Your mother’s Yoshie Satonaka?”
“Yessir. That’s her.”
“Tell her I wish her the best of luck.” Because gods knew that the only person in that family who could cook was Shinchi.
The Satonakas didn’t even live on this side of town. If Satonaka was coming from the shopping center, then she should have exited from the northern shopping district, rather than exiting from the southern… So what was she doing here?
He couldn’t help but think of this mini-case with Amagi like a detective. After all, it was a mystery. A fairly straight-forward one in the end: romantic entanglement. Why wasn’t he surprised?
That was obvious enough. Amagi had always seemed like such a reasonable girl. He was sure that she’d marry for the family, as her father had done. The Amagis were good with arranging marriages: he remembered overhearing Shizuka Ono talking about her new husband, saying that how honored she was, but she couldn’t imagine marrying him. Well, of course, Kouki-san was a nice man with good business sense and very handsome on top of that, but really, she couldn’t imagine marrying him. And then six months later, there she was on the altar, the two of them incredibly, almost painfully obviously, in love.
“Dojima-san? Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Is Yukiko staying here?”
“Heard the rumors?” Dojima asked.
Satonaka shrugged. “Well, she called me directly to tell me. I’m probably the only one she’s told, and I haven’t said anything.”
“Did she ask you to send any messages for her?” Dojima said. “Any letters for a boyfriend or something?”
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend,” she said.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said. Her smile had a secretive, giddy edge that gave away everything. Kouki’s words rang in his head again, sharp and heavy: “You think you know a child, and she becomes someone else entirely—”
For a moment, he couldn’t think of what to say. He had always pictured Amagi marrying some well-bred man, maybe from the town, maybe from the outside. But Satonaka? That was… no wonder her mother had thrown a fit. That Amagi girl was stranger than he had thought. Stranger, more daring, and ten times more foolish. If he were her, than he would've kept his mouth shut. If it had been him… he would have wanted other people to stay the hell out of his affairs.
It wasn’t really any of his business. It wasn’t as though there weren’t any homosexuals in Inaba, anyway, and Amagi and Satonaka were both good, smart kids. After an initial storm, things would clear up and go back to normal. An oddity, yes, but not worth throwing out one’s child for something like that. Then again, he tried to imagine his own daughter telling him that she was like that, and bit down on his lip. No. He couldn’t imagine it. He couldn’t see it happening at all. Not his daughter. No, not his.
The thought disturbed him more than he expected it to. No. Nanako would always be his daughter. She and Souji were all he had left.
When Amagi returned, Satonaka went up to Amagi's room. They stayed up there for about an hour—talking, mostly. He could hear an indistinct stream of conversation between the two that lapsed into a silence that was probably comfortable for the two upstairs, but embarrassingly awkward for Ryotaro.
He was tempted to light a cigarette, but in the end, decided against it.
“Well, at least I know you’re being fed and taken care of,” Chie joked, running her hand through Yukiko’s hair. They were on Souji’s couch—just how many people had sat on this thing, anyway?—Chie sitting sideways with her legs dangling off an arm, Yukiko lying with her head in easy reach of her hands. “Or at least, Nanako-chan’s keeping you well-fed.”
“Don’t remind me,” Yukiko said. “I feel guilty every time Nanako makes breakfast.”
Chie laughed, and shifted slightly. “I missed you.”
“Me, too. You weren’t at school today.”
“Your dad called my parents, and they made me sit down and listen to how worried they were, and how badly things could go if I mess up,” Chie said with a shrug. “And then Mom made me stay home while she railed at me for making Dad late for work. By the time she stopped, it was already noon, so I did a few errands for her instead of dropping by school. It’s no big deal. I mean, we’re on a talking basis.”
“Yes,” Yukiko said. “Yes, you are.”
“… I can’t believe I said that. I’m sorry, that was stupid of me.”
“No, don’t be. It was…” Just plain fact. What else could Yukiko say? Her mother no more intended to talk to Yukiko anymore than the seas intended to boil. Yukiko reached up, and Chie’s hand caught onto hers. “Well, you do tend to let your mouth run.”
Chie was quiet for a moment. Then she bent down to kiss the part of Yukiko’s hair, breathing the apology into the black strands. The breath traveled from her head to her fingertips, made every part of her tingle pleasantly. Yukiko, made an appreciative noise and said, “I was just joking.”
“No, you weren’t! Sheesh… I mean, I know that we normally don’t talk about stuff like this, but you… you should start. Talking to me. About… um, stuff with your parents and the Inn and things like that.”
“You told me back in middle school that it was boring,” Yukiko said, a smile flicking over her face.
“I was twelve!”
“Sheesh…” Chie slid down on the couch, so her knees were up against the coffee table. Yukiko rested her head against Chie’s stomach, but sat up a few seconds later. She was getting a crick in her neck. “Have you tried calling back yet?”
“My mother hung up on me when I called. You know what she’s like… If I could get a hold on father, I’m sure I could have a productive conversation with him.” Productive in the sense that she’d know whether or not she was being disowned or not. She didn’t actually say that. Saying it might make it real. “Well… it’s too late now, I think. Mother should be back home by now.” And she didn’t know the front desk schedule. Or if any of the people working at the Inn knew about the reason why she was staying at the Dojima house. Or if anyone at the Inn knew she was gone.
Well, of course they knew. She worked with them often enough, helping them greet the guests, cleaning the rooms, discussing the recent happenings. Just recently she had been in the kitchen with half of the kitchen staff, and learned how to cook a lobster without melting it.
“My dad was saying that I should’ve dated Yosuke or something,” Chie said. Her breath was warm on Yukiko’s face. There was a little smirk playing at the edge of her mouth and around her eyes. “And you know what Mom said? ‘The last time I saw that Hanamura boy, he was rolling around the yard with his head in the trash can. At least Yukiko-chan would never do anything like that.’”
Yukiko laughed, unable to contain herself. She clutched Chie’s jacket, and laughed until even she was getting a little worried.
“And then,” Chie said, “Dad looked at Mom like she was crazy. ‘Maybe she can date that Ichijo boy.’ And then Mom says that she heard a rumor from Daisuke’s mother that Kou likes polishing balls too much, and at least Yukiko-chan has good habits. I told them that it wasn’t like you’d be polishing any balls in the near future—”
“Chie!” There she went, laughing again.
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
“… I… I can’t stop laughing, and I don’t know why…”
“Yukiko.” Chie was pulling away now, a little red in the face. “Um, what you said yesterday, about liking girls and if I’ve ever looked at any other girl like that before—”
“I…” Yukiko’s face was mirroring Chie’s, only with a much, much stronger blush. “Do we have to talk about it? Because if you want to forget about it, then—”
“Listen to me,” Chie said. She blinked rapidly, and took a steadying breath. “I don’t want to look at anyone else except for you.”
In theory, that was supposed to be a romantic line. The atmosphere wasn’t that bad, either, yet… yet… “… snk.”
“H-hey! That was a killer line in that Jet Li movie!”
“J-just—the way you said it—h—hahahaha…”
“Oh, shut up,” Chie sighed. And then she moved in for the kiss.
After school the next day, Yukiko received a call from the Inn on her cell phone.
“This is your father. I’m by the back entrance. Come into the car.”
There was no one else in the car. There was no one else on the road. No one saw her leaving the school through the back entrance. It occurred to her a second later that she and Chie were supposed to walk home together that day. She sent a text message to tell her she couldn’t make it, and the car drove her to the floodplains in dead silence.
“Remember this place?” her father said, stepping out of the car. He was still dressed in a business suit, though he had discarded the jacket and left his tie at home. He lit a cigarette, and breathed in. “I took you here when you were eight. You fell into the river and nearly drowned in waist-high water.”
“Are you saying I’m doing the same thing right now?” Yukiko said, carefully. Her father wasn’t a careless speaker, and had probably spent a good deal of time thinking this over, picking what to say. He was looking out for her, she knew. She just wished it was in a way that didn’t involve telling her that she was somehow mentally ill.
“A lot of the time, people struggle because they aren’t paying enough attention to what’s going around them. If you knew the water was that shallow, would you have kicked such a fuss?”
He remembered the water being waist-high. For her, it had come up to her nose.
“We want you back in the house,” said her father. “The staff is beginning to get worried. In any case, we can have another discussion back home. Are your things still at Ryotaro-san’s house?”
“Go get them,” he said. “You’re coming home.”
The staff greeted her warmly, which was such a pointed difference from her mother’s cold shoulder that Yukiko seriously considered eating dinner in the kitchens rather than going to eat with her parents in the dining room.
The conversation began with, “How was your day at school?” which threw Yukiko completely off-balance. How was her day at school? It had gone just fine. And then her mother berated her for leaving the Inn for so long, didn’t she know that she made her father work at the front desk for two days, and that they had to speed up Rie Yasuda’s training because she wasn’t there? It was even worse than those days last year when she would disappear for entire afternoons when she was supposed to be working…
As usual, her mother did most of the talking at the beginning of dinner; unlike the normal dinners, her father did not pick up the conversation when Yukiko's replies fell short. Yukiko and her father ate dinner in stifling, dead silence.
“Well, at least you’re home again,” her mother said. “Where were you staying? At that person’s house?”
“No,” Yukiko said.
“So did you break up?”
“Well, I’ll be,” her mother said, scandalized. “Why didn’t you?”
It said something about her life that this represented the high point of her relationship with her parents, Yukiko thought. She swallowed the last of her soup, set her chopsticks across her plate, and squared her shoulders. No backing out now, not when it’d be impossible to salvage this conversation, anyway. She didn’t know what to say, she couldn’t say anything, she should just let this blow over…
“If you keep seeing this woman, then who is going to take over the inn?” her mother said. Her chopsticks dropped down to the table, and her mother was rising up, her anger no less intimidating for her bony frame. “How dare you continue this nonsense. Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Why are you doing this to me?”
“What does it have to do with you?” her father said. “Sit down, Shizuka.”
“What is the name of this person you’re seeing?” her father said, speaking over his wife.
Her father’s face actually changed color.
Her mother, for her part, took a breath so deep as to be audible. “How could you do that to the Satonakas? Did you at least ask them before—before roping their daughter into your eccentricities?”
"It's not something I realized I needed to consult them with," Yukiko said. "I didn't know that I needed to ask for your permission to see any-"
"Stop seeing her,” said her father. “For your mother’s sake. It’s… it’ll be embarrassing for us if news of this affair gets out. Our Inn’s reputation will be at risk. We worked hard to build this Inn to where it is today, for your sake. Before me, this Inn belonged to your grandmother, and to her father, and his father, and his mother before that. I don’t want this to end at you.”
“I’ll take the Inn.”
“And then who after you?” her father asked. “You’re putting our family business to an end, just for that one girl! What are you thinking? Are you even thinking at all?”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” her mother said. “The two of you are good friends, that’s all. It’s perfectly normal for you to mix that up with—with your sexual deviancy, or whatever it may be.”
“I love her,” Yukiko said, louder. “I don’t care what you think, I’ve lived my entire life according to what you’ve told me to do! Why can’t you let me have Chie? You didn’t mind her before—”
“That was before you started confusing friendship for… for that,” said her mother. “Honestly, what will happen with you and that girl if you break up?”
“I’m not confused.”
“Of course you aren’t, dear, you’re only doing those experiments.”
It wasn’t like that, but there wasn’t anything that she could say that her parents would hear. No point in even trying, she couldn’t even understand why she was back, she should’ve stayed away and out of here. She still had her bags packed, or maybe she could go straight to bed—she set her chopsticks down, and rose from the table. Her face felt cold, her back hot, she could barely even dismiss herself from the table—
“Yes, run away. That’s what you do best, isn’t it?” her mother said.
She wanted to spit her response back into her mother’s face—and if I was ever good at running away, then it was because you were holding the door—but she bit her tongue. No. She couldn’t say that. Not when the door really was open. She settled on, “I’m not confused, I’m not experimenting, and I’m not putting anyone’s future at risk.” She wanted to make a dramatic exit and storm out of the room, but the moment was gone. Her parents were already returning to their dinner, as though she hadn't been there at all. She managed a half-angry, entirely tepid, “Good night” and walked, quietly, to the door.
She was halfway out of the Inn when she ran into Kanji.
“Uh,” he said. “H-hi, senpai. Didn’t think I’d run into you here. I-I wasn’t eavesdroppin’ or nothing.”
“I live here,” Yukiko said blankly. There were bolts of cloth, wrapped in paper, in his hands. “Oh. You’ve come to drop things off?”
“Y-yeah. Going somewhere, senpai?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m just taking a walk.”
“Let me go with you,” Kanji said quickly, before Yukiko could have a chance to push him away. “Gotta go back home somehow.”
Yukiko, a little reluctantly, allowed it. It was Kanji-kun, and for all of his new piercings and tattoos, he was still a very sweet boy underneath. It wasn’t the kind of sweetness she wanted now, but what she wanted now was to leave Inaba for good and escape into the city, promise to stay or no promise to stay. She had none of the patience for it. If she wanted to, then Kanji would listen, but she didn’t want to listen to him.
Kanji was scratching the back of his head. “Er,” he said. “Fightin’ with your parents? Kinda weird…”
“It’s a private matter,” she said, maybe too sharply.
“Yeah, kinda figured. Just—not what I thought would happen, y’know? You bein’ you and all that shit.”
Yukiko smiled at nothing in particular. “My parents and I often have… disagreements. I’m sure you’re familiar with them.”
“Yeah.” Kanji cracked his knuckles, and scowled like an ogre in the direction of the shopping district. He towered over her now, younger or not, and the past year had seen him turn from an angry boy into the beginnings of a man. Not all the way there yet, Yukiko thought with a little smile, but somehow… Somehow, he felt closer to adulthood than she did. Souji-kun would have been proud. “Got a lotta disagreements with those pansy bikers.”
That was pretty funny. The image of her taking down the bikers in the shopping district dressed in leather and carrying a chair and wrenching her shoulder—
She banished the image with a sharp exhale.
Kanji’s arms were swinging by his side again, only jerking awkwardly whenever they got close to her.
“So,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Uh. You and Chie-senpai, huh.”
She glanced over at him. Still so bashful. It was almost as though they were dancing, and he was afraid of stepping on her toes. “Yes,” she said, and a part of her felt as though it was floating. Her mouth curved up almost on its own volition, and she brought a hand to her mouth almost instinctively to push it down. “For the last few months.”
“Yeah, well. Good for you.” Kanji nodded his head so hard that it was more like a jerk of his chin to his clavicle. “Kinda figured it back in June” (they hadn’t even been dating then, Yukiko thought with some dismay) “but it’s nice hearin’ it from your mouth. Ownin’ up to the truth and all that shit.”
“Mm,” she said. This time she let herself smile. “Thank you, Kanji-kun.”
She walked with Kanji back to the textiles shop, and meant to head back home. Instead, she was staring at the Dojima’s door again. What was she doing here? She had really meant to return home, but her feet led her here and walking alone kindled her temper all over again, and by the time she calmed down she was already here.
She really ought to go home. She had packed everything and returned the spare key to Dojima. She shouldn’t accept anymore of his help, not when he had already done so much for her. She rang the doorbell anyway, and Dojima answered a second later.
“Amagi,” he said. “Come on in. Nanako and I were just finishing dinner.”
“I’m sorry for being a bother,” she said. “I didn’t mean to come while you were eating.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I set the table for three tonight, anyway.”
By now, nights at Dojima’s house were almost comforting. Tatami mats, the smell of freshly cooked rice, soft, burning incandescent lights. It was almost like home, if her home had plaster walls instead of shoji. After working, Dojima liked to sit out in the backyard and, on occasion, smoke a little.
Everyone seemed to be smoking lately, even the ones who were technically underage—well, especially them. She spotted some of the staff, especially the younger ones, smoking in the back of the Inn during breaks. Her father still smoked, from time to time, much to the annoyance of her mother. She joined him sitting in the back while Nanako watched TV. The noise of the game show swallowed her thoughts, and the dark, heavy heat invited her to relax, taking maybe a few moves to swat a mosquito or two away here and there. The grass was swaying in the breeze. In the distance, she could see other families on the porch, lighting their cigarettes and trying to smash watermelons.
The show went to commercial, and all the tension flew back into her body, and she straightened up as though someone had shocked her with a live wire.
Dojima chuckled at something—he was chuckling at her. “If you want to mow the lawn, be my guest,” Dojima said.
“Your grass looks wonderful to me,” she said.
“You think so?” Dojima laughed, and smoke curled around his nose and cheeks. “Are you going back home tonight?”
“If you want me to—”
“I’m not asking you what you think I want you to do,” he said. “I’m asking what you want, Amagi.”
There was nothing special about the way he said it. There was the sense that he had been waiting to say it for a while, waiting for the right moment—yet when it came out, it had felt so natural that Yukiko was halfway through a sentence when the full force of the question hit her. What did she want? Her mouth curved into a half-smile. She knew what she wanted. She just thought it was impossible to have it. All of it, at least.
But not was not the time for keeping things together, or chasing after things she might not be able to hold onto. Now was the time to salvage as much as she could.
“I’m going to Chie’s house after this,” Yukiko said. “I… I want to be honest with you, Dojima-san. You’ve gone out of your way for me, without asking for anything in return. I’m really, truly grateful to you.” She took a breath. And then she said, “I’m dating Chie Satonaka.”
He could blow smoke rings. It was an impressive trick.
He also didn’t seem fazed by the revelation at all. “I know,” he said. “Not a bad choice. Good kid. Heard she wants to become an officer.”
“Oh… yes, she did say that.” The image of the stern Dojima working with Chie made her lips twitch a bit. “Um… if I may ask, how did you find out?”
“Detective’s intuition,” he said. “Need a ride to Satonaka’s place? It’ll be a long walk from here.”
Chie’s father’s welcome had a cheerfulness so false that he could have gotten it patented. The cheer eroded as the meal went on; once he accepted that Yukiko wasn’t likely to jump Chie during the middle of dinner, his expression went from ‘strained smile’ to ‘suspicious glaring’ to ignoring her altogether. Yoshie Satonaka, in turn, reacted with an exuberant enthusiasm, and nearly cracked Yukiko’s ribs with a hug. Yukiko had dinner for the third time that night, and slipped a good third of it off to the Muku before Chie began kicking her under the table.
After dinner, Yoshie Satonaka nearly shepherded Yukiko into Chie’s room, and did Yukiko need a bath, because she could arrange for one to be set later that night—at which point Chie went, “Geeze, Mom, we can take care of things ourselves!” and shooed her mother back downstairs.
“Sorry,” Chie said once the coast was clear. “Mom’s trying to be… supportive.”
Yukiko didn’t mind it. It was, at the very least, more than her parents were doing, and Yoshie Satonaka had always been something of a second mother to Yukiko. Almost an aunt, really. “She’s just like you.”
“… Hey!” Chie wrinkled her nose, and then said, “You didn’t really mean that, did you?”
“Well, she is pretty… And her cooking’s on the same level as yours.”
Chie smacked Yukiko’s shoulder, and tried to tackle Yukiko onto the bed. Yukiko shrieked, rolled out of the way, and Chie bumped her head against the corner of the bed.
“Oh no you don’t,” Chie said, grabbing Yukiko by the wrist and pulling her down. Yukiko made a token resistance, and then, laughing, went down, too. They were close, now, bodies nearly pressed together. Chie was grinning, catching her bottom lip against her teeth and looking rakishly seductive. Or as rakishly seductive as a hormonal girl with messy hair and a tank top could look which was, Yukiko thought with a rush of heat in the bottom of her stomach, very. “Mom’s beginning to like the idea of you as a daughter-in-law.”
“I told you that she liked you. She was all, ‘oh, what a nice catch Yukiko-chan is, don’t you think?’ to Dad. And Dad’s… he’s Dad. I guess he’s okay with it because Mom’s been going on about how you’re always so helpful and how I have child-bearing hips—”
“I know! She’s so weird…” Chie buried her face in Yukiko’s hair, and then, her breath light on Yukiko’s skin, kissed her neck. “I bet she’s sitting at my door,” she whispered, “waiting for us to start going at it—”
“You do have nice hips.” Very nice hips. Chie squirmed a little when Yukiko’s hand pressed against her hip through the skirt, and then made a disappointed little noise when Yukiko removed it.
“And if she doesn’t hear the bedsprings creaking in a few minutes, then she might come into the room and try to give us advice.”
“That’s… Did you have to bring your mother into this?” Even as she said that, she was shifting into Chie’s reach, exposing more of her neck. She stroked Chie’s hair and pressed Chie’s head closer to her neck, her other hand rolling up the hem of Chie’s shirt.
“What if it was Souji-kun?” Chie said. “I should’ve known you’d start laughing at that—”
“C-can you imagine… h-hahahaha…” The image of the entire Investigation Team by their door, ears pressed against the walls—
“He and Yosuke are there—I don’t know what they’re doing, maybe they’re taking notes or jerking each other off. And then Naoto’s there, too, making all kinds of detectively deductions like, ‘oh, I do believe that Chie-senpai is groping Yukiko-senpai.’” For emphasis, she did just that, her hand sliding down to rest on Yukiko’s hip, and Yukiko, almost instinctively, rolled up into the touch. And then Chie was looking at Yukiko, eyes bright and mouth curving and breathing shallow and fast. And—and forget about how funny Chie could be, Yukiko wanted to kiss her, so she did that. When they parted, Chie said, “Okay. Should we start going at it now, or should we wait until you take that shower?”
Both scenarios were equally arousing. Especially if they were bathing together. Still… “Has it really been that long since we had some private time?”
“You make me sound like some kind of sex-depraved maniac! Geeze… you should make it up to me,” Chie said, pouting a bit, but was grinning like a goof. Yukiko considered the proposition, then figured, well, why not? She peeled the jacket off of Chie’s waist, and ran her hand along Chie’s side, fingers curving around Chie’s ribs—
Chie’s hand pressed, suddenly, into Yukiko’s back, and her mouth covered Yukiko’s again. Yukiko nearly forgot what she was doing with her hands until Chie rolled underneath her, and everything vanished in a curtain of black hair except for something warm, right under her hands, nearly joined to her from shoulder to torso, pressed against the inside of her legs. As crude as it was, Chie was hers. With a sigh, Yukiko rested her head against Chie’s breasts, taking comfort in the familiarity and the warmth.
She meant to go home that night, but in the end, didn’t make it back until morning.
Dinner the next night was the same.
No, I’m not confused. No, I’m not going to stop seeing Chie just because you say so. No, there’s nothing wrong with me. No, I’m not putting anyone’s future at risk. It was a constant stream of no’s, and by now she hardly cared that she and her parents were arguing. Nothing they said would sway her, anyway. Not too much. Maybe not at all.
“Anything you do reflects on us,” her father said. “You realize that—”
“She’s just tired, Kouki, that’s all,” her mother said, putting a hand on her father’s arm. Then she looked to Yukiko and said, “Isn’t that right, Yuki-chan? You’re on another one of your diets again, aren’t you?”
“I’m not tired, and I’m not on a diet,” Yukiko said.
“At the very least, stop making your mother cry.”
“Yuki-chan,” said her mother, “you really don’t mean any of this, do you? You can still go back if you sit down and—”
“I’m bisexual, mother.”
“That’s an illness, and they have cures for that.” The crispness of the first statement became razored when her mother suggested, “Why don’t you go to your room?”
Yukiko hated them, for a little while. She really did.
Yukiko didn’t think she was angry until she went to the school library and inspected the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders. The suggestion that she must be ‘sick’ or mentally ill had hurt the first few times, but now she was angry. She turned a page so quickly that a little tear appeared on a page by the binding.
Homosexuality was not listed as a mental illness. The closest thing she could find was an entry under “sexual disorders not otherwise specified.” Something to do with marked distress about one’s sexual orientation, but she was fully oriented, and with little distress. The only distress she had was her parents persistent and continued refusal to even admit that she might actually be in love with another woman, and that, she thought bitterly, was not something she could explain away with an easy diagnosis, or something she could hope to find a cure for.
“Senpai?” someone asked.
She din’t bother looking up. “Hmm?”
“Um… never mind.”
Yukiko lifted her head from the books, suddenly embarrassed. She thought there was something familiar about that voice. “Rise-chan?” she said. When she made eye contact with Rise, her face warmed. Of all the things she needed to do today, snapping at close friends was not one of them.
“Hi, senpai,” Rise said, waving a little. “Sorry, I thought you didn’t want to be bothered, so I… you know. Maybe should go and find Kanji-kun and Naoto-kun?” She gestured, vaguely, at the door, but had an inviting smile. It was as though she was trying to emulate Souji’s gentle promptings to make people open up, and she did a fine job in mimicking him.
“I was doing a bit of personal research,” Yukiko said. She shut the book so that its back cover was facing Rise, rather than the front. “Do you need something, Rise-chan?”
“Weeelll,” Rise said slowly, drawing out the words, “I was at Grandma’s shop when I heard a rumor from Kagami-chan that you were arguing with your parents. And Kanji-kun says that he knows something but won’t tell me or Naoto-kun no matter how much I tease him, so I thought that I should stage an intervention.”
“Everyone else thought I was being nosy.” Rise rolled her eyes at the implied ‘everyone else’ and dismissed them with a gesture Yukiko had seen Naoto and Yosuke using to blow something off. So who had started it: Rise, Yosuke, or Naoto? Rise didn’t look as though she was in the mood to joke. She fixed Yukiko with a serious stare and said, “I don’t think I’m being nosy, senpai. Everyone I’ve talked to from the Inn says how badly things are going, and it’s worrying me. Even Souji-kun is worried.”
Of course Souji would have heard by now. Yukiko didn't know why she was surprised. Everyone still talked with Souji, still valued his imput and his advice and his guidance. Even though Yukiko preferred communicating with him with messages sealed in envelopes, that didn’t mean that the others weren’t taking advantage of e-mails and talking amongst themselves. Rise probably already had an idea of what was going on anyway, so it wasn't as though there was a point in hiding it any longer. “I told them I was dating Chie.”
“I… oh, wow, really?” Rise blinked a few times. Her mouth made an ‘o,’ and then she clapped her hands together. “How long?”
“Three or four months or so? Around White Day, I think…”
“Congratulations, senpai! Of course I knew something was going on, but wow!” Then Rise said, “So your parents aren’t taking it too well?”
“They’ll manage,” she said. “It’s not something worth getting too worked up over, anyway. I don’t intend on giving in to them.” She nearly shocked herself with her own words. It wasn’t often that she bared her teeth at her parents, and there had been a time when she thought she never would. Even when she was planning on running away, she had never told her parents directly. After all, telling them that she was planning on running away and never coming back would have broken their hearts. She wound up changing her mind, anyway, so it was for the better that they hadn’t known.
But they must had sensed it in her, a need to burst free, a need to go away, a deep confusion within her. Had they been worried? Were they glad when it went away?
She wasn’t confused about Chie, and… and it wasn’t like keeping it hidden from her parents would have spared them in the end. So really, she was doing them a favor. A painful one, but this was the right way to do things.
“Here,” Rise said. “Let me treat you to some tofu.”
Yukiko wasn’t allowed to talk on her cell phone inside the house. It might make her mother upset, her father said. Her father intended Yukiko to leave her phone in his posession—presumably so he could check if she was having inappopriate or unwanted conversations with Chie or not. The plan was so absurd that she hadn’t taken it seriously at first, but the next day he came into her room demanding to know why he didn’t have her phone. They fought over that for almost two days before she agreed to take all her calls in either the main lobby or outside or in her room.
Really, she was indulging her parents. Yukiko didn’t think that it was worth making a permanent break from the Inn, and she loved her parents too much to leave. Life went on. She and Chie told Teddie (“Ooh, yes, Chie’s a very hot stud—ow!”), Naoto, Souji, and Yosuke in the same week that Rise found out. Of all of them, Souji took it the best, and Naoto the least gracefully, though with wholly good intentions. It had involved a lot of stammering, a lot of awkwardness, and a bad joke.
Yosuke, for his part, took things surprisingly well, even if he winked and grinned at them whenever they walked together, and made poorly timed remarks when they even as much as looked at each other. Once the novelty wore off, or after Chie followed up on one of her threats to kick him in a sensitive region, he returned to his usual behavior. Chie later said that it only went that smoothly because he thought it’d look hot.
She told the staff of the Inn mostly as a formality. Half of them had known for months, and the other half had heard everything from Kagami, or by passing through the halls when Yukiko and her parents were arguing. She asked Kasai to help her spread the news, and hardly anyone blinked an eye or said a word aside from a congratulations, or by thanking Yukiko for telling them, and immediately brushing it under the rug once more. That same weekend, her mother fell under the influence of a strange spell. Her mother burst into tears while attending to some of the guests, and the next thing Yukiko knew, some of the guests were looking at her oddly, and others were congratulating her. The confusion doubled when one of the guests proclaimed that she was too pretty to be a man.
Her father had her mother put to bed immediately, and Yukiko found herself with more work than she had time for. When she went to check up on her mother, her mother screamed at Yukiko and asked her to leave and bring back the real Yukiko; Yukiko, who had suspected her mother had harbored those words in her heart for the last two weeks, retreated wordlessly, and went about with the Inn’s business. Regardless of how her mother felt towards her, Yukiko did not intend on leaving the Inn, and knew that her parents would never throw her out of the house. They might hold the door open and give her a push, but throw? No. That wasn’t the way things were in this family.
The Inn was so busy that she and her father did not have any time to sit down and eat. They ate in the kitchens standing up, helping themselves to leftovers and sampling dishes while pouring over schedules, inventories, and reservations.
Her father had seemed a little strained; maybe that was why they ate in near silence. She didn’t want to talk to him, and avoided looking at him altogether, really, in fear of starting another row. She didn’t know what to expect from him: blame for her mother’s spell, a softer conversation now that her mother’s fits weren’t there to flare his temper, or nothing at all. She didn’t know which one she wanted.
After a while, her father said to Yukiko, “There is something your mother and I wanted to tell you today. Sit down.”
She did so, though he did not. He was fingering an envelope, size A4, with something that wasn’t really nervousness. She had never seen her father nervous. Afraid, yes. Worried, yes. But nervous? Never.
“Your mother and I recently contacted an old business partner of ours,” said her father. “Do you remember Arata Doi-kun?”
“We’re going to his parents’ house over the summer vacation. Consider marrying him. You might think that this… this bout of experimentation will last forever, but when you’re as young as you are, nothing does.”
“I don’t intend on marrying anyone,” Yukiko said.
He took a measured breath. Then he raised his hand, and smacked the edge of it against the counter. “Why do you have to be so stubborn about this!” The staff in the kitchen instinctively took a step back. Yukiko, too, yielded ground to him, though he hadn’t even as much inched towards her. He was turning away, running a hand through his graying hair, and then, after a moment, clapped his hands together and said, “When I was a child, if my father said ‘no,’ then I had to stop doing whatever displeased him. I understood that he was looking for my best interests, even when I thought he was wrong, and I grew to be a better man for this. You know what you are doing is wrong, yet you’ve purposely gone out of your way to agitate both me and your mother, all for the sake of this one girl. We’re your parents! Do you care for either of us, or have you become that selfish that you don’t care if my heart bursts?”
“I’m not doing this because I hate you,” she said. He smiled bitterly. She rubbed her hands together and said, “Really, father, I’m not…” She wasn’t. That wasn’t what she wanted at all. But when he put it in those words, she sounded like a horrible daughter. If she were to listen to him, she would be miserable. If only they would see things her way—and there she went, being selfish again. But it wasn’t always wrong to be selfish, and this wasn’t being selfish, or maybe they were both being selfish—she couldn’t tell anymore. Everything had gotten so confusing.
“You won’t consider meeting Doi-kun?” he said. “Not at all?”
“I’ll meet him," she said, "but only as a friend.”
He bent over, almost collapsing into himself, and caught himself against the kitchen counter with his elbows. He rested his mouth against his right hand. He braced his arm against his leg.
“You’re making life difficult for all of us,” he said. His skin was white where his fingers were pressing into the flesh.
“If you were truly sorry, then you would marry Doi-kun,” he said. “For our sakes. Do you know how difficult you’ve made things for us?”
“You’ve made things difficult for me, too,” she said.
“You’re the one who has been making things difficult,” he said. “You run away from home, get Ryotaro-san involved, tell everyone at your school, defy us at home—how can a man keep his family together these days? When you go into the real world, who will be there to protect you from other people? From your own mother? Or from someone who won't understand you and your homosexual inclinations? You're putting yourself in danger for no reason at all except for your friend’s sake.” He laid both hands flat on the table, and took two long, deep breaths with his eyes closed, and a quiet prayer on his lips. Then he opened his eyes and said, “There’s really nothing we can do?”
Yukiko, on impulse, extended her hands out to her father's, and held it tightly. The hand that once seemed so large as a child was still bigger than hers, but less so than before. It had become more bony, more lined over the years, but no less warm.
“No,” she said. “There isn’t anything you can say or do to change my mind.”
He looked at her for a long moment. It was as though the world had been pulled out from under his feet. And, unexpectedly, he began to cry.
When Dojima returned home, he spotted a figure sitting at his front door. Amagi again, he thought, and was prepared to yell at her for not ringing the doorbell, but the person sitting there was too short to be Amagi. In the dim summer sunset, he could make the faint outline of a jacket, and a vague impression of green on his eyes.
“Satonaka,” he said. “You haven’t run away from home, too, have you?”
“What?” she said. “No, not me. My parents are doing great about it. I mean, they’re not really too happy about it, but they aren’t shooting fire or anything. I was trying to reach Yukiko, and I couldn’t get to her, so I thought she might turn up here soon, and… um, she’s not. Here, that is.”
Young love: so dramatic and passionate. He was beginning to feel old already. Chisato had been too level-headed and reasonable to get caught up in that kind of thing. He envied those two, in a distant, far off way. Kids would be kids, after all.
“Did Yukiko tell you already?” Satonaka said. “About… uh, us?”
“If she hadn’t, then you would’ve just given yourself away,” said Dojima. Good lord. He was never going to be able to trust her with information more sensitive than “Dojima-san likes coffee.”
“I dunno, Dojima-san. I thought it was pretty ambiguous.” The Satonaka girl scratched her ear, and then said, “So she told you?”
“A while ago,” he said. “I figured it out by myself a few hours before she told me.” When Satonaka looked at him with awe, he said, “You’ll figure it out eventually,” and tapped his temple with two fingers.
Satonaka, missing the point entirely, looked at her own hands with a frown. “It’s because I cut my nails, isn’t it?” she said. “There was this one girl in my class who was convinced I was gay because I cut my nails. She says that all lesbians do that. I mean, when I think about it, it kind of makes sense, but it’s not like—”
“I can’t say I’ve ever thought that,” said Dojima before she could say anything she might regret. “Frankly, it’s not my business who or what you’re sleeping with.”
For god’s sake, Adachi had liked cabbages. That would stretch any man’s tolerance to a pretty far limit, right there.
“Does everyone at the force smoke? Because I see officers lighting up all the time, and I was wondering if it’s some kind of weird hazing thing or what.”
“What are you talking about, Satonaka?” he said, laughing at the sheer absurdity of the statement. There were hazing rituals at the station, all right, but none of them involved cigarettes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She bounced to her feet, rolling her shoulders. “I guess—I guess I started talking without thinking again. Nice talking to you, Dojima-san!”
Strange girl, Dojima thought as Satonaka jogged down the streets back home. She’d better not hurt herself on the way back.
“You have six new voicemail messages waiting for you.”
That and about four text messages from Chie. Yukiko felt a little pang of guilt as she scrolled through the text messages. She didn’t bother reading through all of them, but instead dialed Chie’s number and huddled herself into a far corner of her room so her parents wouldn’t hear her talking. She slid one of the outer doors open, and sat out on the veranda, her feet just barely brushing against the wild grass.
“Oh, thank god you called back,” Chie said. “I thought you were at Dojima-san’s place again, so I ran over there and waited for you for an hour—”
“What? Oh, Chie, you shouldn’t have.”
“I know, I know. I was kind of worried, you know? Since you weren’t picking up for the entire weekend. Um… so… what were you doing? I called you like ten times.”
“My mother had some kind of nervous fit yesterday, so I had to pick up some of the work. I turned off the ringer. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to inconvenience you.”
“No, it’s not inconvenient at all! Well, it was, but—oh, man, don’t feel bad about it, I was just…” She trailed off, laughed a little bit, and said, “I kind of feel like a jerk now, for getting all angry. Was it that bad?”
“It was…” She couldn’t tell. There had been the menial tasks, the administrative work, the dull slog of day-to-day management. And then there was her mother’s sudden fit, her father in tears, the guests’ alternate congratulations or disdain…
“My parents wanted me to marry someone,” she said. “A business partner of theirs.” What was their name? She couldn’t remember. It was important, but not important to her.
“I told them that I wouldn’t,” she said. “… Um… I don’t know how to say this, but you’re the only one I want to be with for now, Chie.” There was an awkward pause on the other end. Yukiko cleared her throat.
And then Chie was laughing. “Yukiko… when you’re saying that kind of stuff, don’t add the ‘for now’. Geeze, it sounds like you don’t think we’ll be together later on.”
“Is that how it sounds?” Yukiko got caught up in Chie’s laughter, to the point where she was wiping tears out of her eyes. Really, it hadn’t been that funny, but the most menial, trivial things could make her laugh now. People were shuffling outside the door, and for a moment she was afraid she had given herself away; but no one was there except for her in her room, and Chie on the phone. She’d be happy with just listening to Chie breathe, she thought. She’d be happy just being Chie’s friend, too, but she didn’t want to go back to the way things were. Not after knowing how… how happy Chie made her.
She really did feel bad about making her parents upset. They were her parents; she owed them so much. The longer this dragged out, the worse she felt. Things would never be the same again. She had broken apart their expectations and futures for her over a matter of hours, and dragged it out over the course of days. No wonder they felt so badly. They had such high hopes.
It was selfish of her for thinking this way, but as long as it was Chie on the phone, she felt like she could think it. Hadn’t she lived up to their expectations long enough? What was wrong with this? She would still take the Inn, she would still manage it, and she would find a way to arrange for an heir to keep things within the family… And it was terribly selfish of her to want both Chie and the Inn, but the two things were so much of her. She couldn’t imagine living without one or the other. Oh, she could be happy without the Inn, but she’d never be satisfied with it. She would be restless and nervous for the rest of her life. But trying to imagine a life without Chie, or a life where Chie was there, but then abruptly torn away from her—
She couldn’t do it. The thought of it made something in the bottom of her stomach ache and throb.
“Um… that Jet Li movie… Did it have any other ‘killer one liners’?”
“Oh, sure. You want me to say a few? Uh… let’s see. ‘You… you are my private god. I could worship every inch of your long, golden hair—’”
Long golden hair? “Did he ever work with Americans?”
“I think so? I mean, Europeans don’t have blonde hair unless they’re Russian, right?”
… Something about that statement felt a little off, and she didn’t know why. “Yes, you’re right,” she said vaguely. “Can you keep going?”
“‘You are my rising star and my...’ I can’t keep saying this, it’s too embarrassing. You’re going to start laughing at any moment.”
“I think it’s sweet.”
“You say that now, but in about five minutes…”
“Um… Let me think of a good poem… ‘A gold bug/I hurl into the darkness/and feel the depth of night.’”
“I… I hate bugs.”
“I love you?”
“Don’t think you can get away with talking about bugs just by saying that! Geeze, I’m hanging up, Mom’s knocking on my door. I’ll talk to you later, okay? I’ll see you at school tomorrow. And, um… I love you, too.”
“Good night,” she said. She hung up and counted the stars until she became too tired to see straight. The entire sky looked like a blanket. She returned to her room before she could become sick.
Her parents stopped mentioning Chie. Yukiko never realized how much she talked about Chie until her father told her that she should stop, for her mother’s sake. Dinner conversations were never quite the same. When they weren’t eerily silent, they were purely business, cool and almost indifferent. The staff was as warm as ever, but even Yukiko could sense that some of them were distancing themselves from her.
How long had it been since she had asked her parents about their day at work and gotten an answer other than, “It was fine?” How long had it been since they laughed together? They said that she was making life hard on them, but it wasn’t as though she wasn’t hurt by their silence or refusals. It wasn’t as though she was doing this out of childish spite.
There were some up sides. She became closer to Dojima, and even closer to Chie’s parents. She checked out business schools in the area, and then a few beyond that; winter was coming, and with winter came college applications and studying for entrance exams. Chie was looking for a few colleges, as well, and with Dojima’s help, plotted out a course for her future.
In the middle of summer break, her parents took her south to visit the Doi family. The first meeting had been full of awkward formality, as their parents had sat at the meeting. Yukiko knew that technically, this was a business meeting. As Arata Doi and Yukiko were the heirs to their respective businesses, it was only natural that they’d be brought along. In a few years, after all, they would be meeting like this by themselves; yet there was an uncomfortable air of two families meeting to discuss a marriage, instead. Doi, too, seemed to sense it, for he was very determinedly avoiding looking at her in the eye.
The next day, her mother (none too subtly) suggested that she and Doi-kun were probably bored of sitting around and listening to other people talk, and wouldn’t it be lovely if Doi showed Yukiko around town?
Arata Doi was a senior in college, with a strong jaw and a surprisingly deep, smooth voice. She vaguely remembered meeting him when she was a child. He brought along his pet dog, and cried when the dog liked Yukiko better than it liked him. In the ten (twelve? thirteen?) years since then, he had become a sensitive, reserved young man who rarely smiled with his mouth. Yes, his mouth moved when he smiled, but it wasn’t the same. He smiled mostly in his eyes and his brow, and had laugh lines already.
Doi was a good guide. He had his own car, a blue top-down with a license plate with a rather sharp dent in it, and took her around town in it.
“Thirty thousand people,” said Doi. “It doesn’t seem that small, but it really feels like it is. How big is Inaba?”
“Just under six thousand. Most of the town is rice paddies.” None of these long stretches of road, none of these tall, gleaming buildings. The tallest they got in Inaba was Junes and radio towers. “It’s a very nice town,” Yukiko added hastily, lest he get the wrong impression. “It’s just a little small.”
“Oh, yes…” Doi said, a little distracted. He was waving to a girl off on the street.
“Do you want to talk to her?” Yukiko said.
“What? No, that’d be—”
“Is she your girlfriend? It’d be rude if you just drove on without even saying hello.”
“I can’t believe a high schooler is lecturing me on how to treat my girlfriend,” he said, but pulled over and chatted with the girl. The girl called him Doi-chan, and he called her Ikumi. It was, she thought, a little strange. She couldn’t imagine calling Chie “Satonaka;” the thought of it made her stomach do a little flip.
He introduced her as just plain “Amagi,” and Yukiko had to reintroduce herself with her first name.
“Mayu Ikumi,” said Ikumi. “Call me Mayu.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Yukiko said.
“Well, why not?” Ikumi said. “If you’re going to be marrying Doi-chan, I might as well get to know you.”
“Ikumi,” Doi said. “Don’t be like this. Calm down, won’t you? I’m just showing her around town.”
“Let me in the car,” Ikumi said. “I want to ride with you.” The request was more of a demand, really, because she was already opening the door. “Where are you going, Doi-chan?”
“We were on our way to the botanical gardens,” Yukiko said.
“Oh, the gardens,” Ikumi said flatly. “Yay.”
The gardens weren’t as impressive as they could have been in the spring, but the summer flowers were beautiful, tall, and strong. Ikumi grabbed Yukiko by the arm and dragged her away from Doi.
“Go stand there and look at the flowers,” Ikumi said. “Yukiko-san and I are going to have a talk.”
Doi smiled a bit tightly, and mouthed “sorry” to Yukiko as Ikumi hauled her to a hot, humid corner of the gardens.
“So?” Ikumi said. “What do you think of Doi-chan?”
“He’s very… focused.”
“He’s not a bad catch,” Ikumi said.
“I don’t really see him that way,” she said. “Really. I’m already seeing someone in Inaba, and I’ve already told my parents I don’t plan on marrying Doi-kun.”
“How do you know they won’t make you?”
“They respect my wishes.”
“They’re normally not very happy with them, but they’re… willing to live with it.” Willing to live with it. She was pretty sure her parents were waiting for her and Chie to break up, but it had been more than a month since the initial fight, and nothing had really changed between the two of them. If anything, they had gotten closer.
“Oh, really?” Ikumi said. “So who are you dating, some backwater hick who lives in a shed?”
“It’s… it’s not really any of your business,” she said. “Excuse me.”
“No, come on, I’m curious.”
“I see no reason to tell you anything,” Yukiko said.
“I’m sorry,” Ikumi said. She had a really straight-forward, blunt personality, didn’t she? Not very Japanese at all. Did she study abroad? Maybe she had some foreign blood in her… “So tell me what he’s like. At the very least, tell me his name.”
“Wow. That’s such a girly name. Poor guy. So what is he like?”
“She’s very strong. She always tries to look out for me, and make me laugh. When I’m with her, I… I feel like she sees me for who I am, all the parts of me. The good ones and the bad ones. And she loves them both, she really does, even if I hate them. She… she gives me something to live for.” She was vaguely aware that she hadn’t bothered to change her pronouns, and didn’t really care. She was also aware that she sounded like a complete sap.
“Oh, wow,” Ikumi said. “That’s amazing.” She looked, in fact, very relieved. “You… you really don’t want Doi-chan at all… I’m really glad.”
“Yes,” Yukiko said, a little bewildered by Ikumi’s reaction. Had Ikumi not heard what she had said? “I’m really not interested in Doi-kun.”
“Great,” Ikumi said. “Let me show you where they keep the best flowers. Doi-chan!”
Almost as though on cue, Doi came around the corner.
“She didn’t harass you too much, did she?” Doi said.
Yukiko shook her head. “She’s really very sweet.”
“She’s lying,” Ikumi said with a smile. “I was terrible to her. She was just telling me about her boyfriend, Chie Satonaka-kun.”
Doi’s eyebrows shot up towards his hairline. “Boyfriend?” he asked.
“Oh… something like that,” she said vaguely.
Ikumi hooked her arm in Doi’s, and they strolled through the gardens together.
“So?” Yukiko’s mother said in the car on the way back to Inaba. “Did you like Arata-kun?”
“Yes,” she said.
“See?” said her mother to her father. “I told you.”
“Let it be, Shizuka,” said her father, a biting disgust in his voice. “She won’t listen to us. Nothing we say will get through.”
Yukiko stared at her hands the rest of the way home. Dojima’s words kept echoing in her head: they’ve given up on you.
Was that what she really wanted them to do? If she couldn’t make them accept, could she make them set their arms down and walk away from the fight?
"He was," she started.
"Don't," said her father. "Don't say anything."
Towards the end of summer break, the amount of reservations at the Inn spiked upwards, and Yukiko was so busy that she kept falling asleep while on the phone with Chie. The most words she got on the phone was, “Hi, Chie… oh, sorry, I keep nodding off… no, keep talking…” And the next thing she knew, she was waking up with her phone on and the sound of Chie snoring a little into the phone.
She was helping the staff air out the linens when her mother came in, rolled up her sleeves, and said, rather brusquely, “You’ve been working long enough, why don’t you take a break and sit over there?”
She was, in truth, a little relieved. She had helped with the linens because it was, at the very least, something that did not involve staring at tables and punching numbers into a calculator. The linens swayed slightly in the wind.
“Do you have your sunscreen on?” her mother asked.
The linens swayed gently in the wind, rows of billowing white sheets opening up their wings to the wind. Yukiko allowed herself to relax, for her shoulders to loosen and drop.
“What didn’t you like about Arata-kun?” her mother said, shaking another sheet out.
“He was fine, mother. Very gentle.”
“Did you think he was cute?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t marry him just because I thought he was cute.”
“We all thought the two of you would be a good match. You look very nice together, too.” She was speaking distantly, but without the overbearing anger towards Yukiko, or any disappointment. It was… detached. Matter-of-fact. “Although Arata-kun was already seeing someone else, wasn’t he? Some girl from the town. It’d be a shame to break them up. You should apologize to your father, you know. He’s really quite upset.”
And she wasn’t? If Yukiko recalled, it had been her mother who most often went on tirades about Yukiko’s state of mental health. Her father… her father spent most of the time being quietly disappointed.
“I’ll consider it, mother,” she said.
“Just a, ‘I’m sorry for making you go all the way to visit the Doi family for nothing’ would be enough.” The last of the linens was pinned to the line. Her mother sat next to Yukiko, and sighed. “Well, at least things are back to normal now.”
Were they? Yukiko didn’t think so. Her mother might be able to trick herself into thinking things were ‘back to normal’, but she knew that things wouldn’t be the same between her and her parents again. Between the yelling and the running away and the weeks of sniping at one another over the dinner table, she knew one thing was certain: her parents thought too much of her. They didn’t know how deeply a person’s darker side could run. Maybe… maybe they hadn’t expected her to be any different than the person she tried to be for them.
Now they knew better, and that had changed everything. The veneer was the same, yes, but beneath the surface, running low and deep, was a new undercurrent.
Had her thoughts shown on her face? Her mother wasn’t looking at her. She was thinking, just as Yukiko was: thinking somewhere far away from the Inn.
“I’m going to Chie’s house tonight,” she said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead,” said her mother. “I’m sure we’ll be able to manage on our own.”
Chie was out seeing Dojima again, so Yukiko wound up waiting in Chie’s room, thumbing through a few of the books she had left behind the last time she stayed over. If Dojima were about twenty years younger, would she be as jealous of Dojima as Ikumi was jealous of her?
It was a very strange thing to think about. She couldn’t imagine what Dojima had looked like twenty-five years ago, for one. It was as though he had sprung out of the womb at the age of thirty-five, handcuffs and red tie and all.
She never did find out why he always wore that red tie. She kept meaning to ask, but never did. Maybe Chie had already asked.
She heard the door opening downstairs, then footsteps racing up. Chie stuck her head into the room, her face still flushed from the jog over and said, “Hi! I’ll be back in a sec,” and then ran back downstairs just as fast as she had come up.
There had been a coffee maker in her hands. Yukiko decided to not ask what it was for. She continued reading—where had she been in this book, anyway?—until Chie came back upstairs, and fell backwards onto the bed.
“You want to know what happened to me today?” Chie said, resting the palm of her hand on her forehead. Yukiko lay down beside her, and giggled when Chie looked at her with wide puppy-dog eyes.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Dojima-san says that every cop needs to be addicted to something,” Chie said with a little grin. “He says that the only acceptable addiction these days is coffee, so he gave me his old coffee maker. And then on my way back, I run into Yosuke, and you know what he says? He goes, ‘Hey, Chie, make me a sandwich.’”
“And then you threw the coffee maker at him?”
“Yeah. Guess what? Glass bounces. The rest of it kind of broke, though.”
“Hahaha.” Chie rolled over to face the opposite wall. Yukiko turned her back over and said, “Is it normal to have coffee with a sandwich?”
“What? Of course not. That’d be… weird.” Chie sat up, and then, dramatically, fell back onto the bed. “I’m sorry, I keep blabbing on about myself. H-how was your day?”
“Oh, it was fine. Busy, but fine. The last of the party will be leaving the day after tomorrow.” Yukiko checked the clock, and said, “Um… do you always stay out so late with Dojima-san?”
“Well, I’ve been doing some odd jobs around the neighborhood,” Chie said. “When you left during the middle of break, I needed something to do, and then I remember that Souji used to run around doing stuff for people. I was looking for someone’s cat, but wound up in Dojima-san’s yard again. You know what he told me? He said that if I kept coming over, he’d start charging me rent.”
“Is that it?”
“Huh? What does that mean?”
“It’s—I was worried,” she said. And then, blushing, she said, “I was worried… that you were jealous over that incident with Doi-kun.”
Chie looked up at the ceiling, thinking hard. She sat up, and rested her elbows against her knees. “You know something?” she said after a little pause. “I think I am. When you first left, I was worried you were going to dump me for him.”
“I told you—” Yukiko started, pushing herself up.
“I know, I know! It’s totally irrational, right?” Chie laughed, nervously. “It’s just—I thought your parents would put pressure on you, and then I thought of you marrying that Doi guy, and... and it made me so mad, I thought you’d actually do it, so I picked up all those jobs… And then you come back and were avoiding me because of work... I guess I was jealous.”
“I was jealous of Dojima-san.”
“What? Really? But he’s so—he’s as old as my father! That’s—that’s so…” She was grinning, though, with a hint of nervous giggles on the edge of her lips.
“It was kind of irrational,” Yukiko said. “But you were right. I did consider marrying Doi-kun. Not seriously. Just to think of what would happen.”
“Oh, really,” Chie said. The smile was fading. “So why didn’t you?”
“Because he wasn’t you,” she said, honestly. “Because you’re the only one I want.”
“… Huh.” Chie rubbed the side of her face. “So you actually thought about it?”
Yukiko hesitated. Her mouth was open to say something, she knew, but what could she say?
“I’m not angry or anything,” Chie said. “I just want to know what you were thinking. Well, I’m a little mad, but I’m… I really want to know.”
“Well… first I thought about it from a business perspective.” Chie grinned at that. “Doi-kun’s family sells tatami mats and traditional furniture, and we buy a lot from them. So I was thinking about the money we could save.”
“I feel kind of bad for Doi-san now, if that’s all you were thinking.”
“He was handsome,” she said, and Chie was pushing her down onto the bed, taking Yukiko’s hands and putting them above her head. “He has a very nice jaw line—” She squirmed, as Chie nipped at her ear. “—and good facial structure. His hair was very dark, and he had a cheap blue sports car.”
“Cheap?” Chie asked, momentarily distracted.
“I don’t know. It was a convertible.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“And he was very tall. My eyes came up to his shoulders—his very broad...”
“Go on,” Chie said, the very picture of innocence, as though she wasn’t sucking at Yukiko’s neck a second ago.
“People will be able to see if you do it there,” she said.
“They’d better,” Chie said, but moved her mouth a bit lower anyway. “Because you’re not marrying any guy named Doi. I don’t care what your parents say or what you think. Keep going.”
“And his hands were twice the size of mine. But his fingers were really dexterous. I was really impressed.” She couldn’t see Chie’s face, but she could feel Chie’s tongue, swirling on her neck, her hands unclasping Yukiko’s bra (when had her dress ended up on the floor? She couldn’t remember, and didn’t care to), and feel the brush of Chie’s eyebrows as they furrowed. “You should take off your shirt,” Yukiko added.
“Because Doi-san would have?” Chie said.
“Because I like looking at you. I like looking at your body.”
Chie blushed, but wiggled out of her shirt. Yukiko reached over to help, but Chie shook her head and said, “You don’t get to touch. The only thing you get to do is tell me what you were thinking about Doi-san.”
“And tell you to strip?” she asked, laughing a little.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I think that seems like a pretty good deal.” Yukiko’s breath caught as she watched Chie smooth her hair back, the lines of her body shifting with each movement. “If you don’t start speaking, then I’m going to add a, ‘you don’t get to look, either’ rule. Where were we? Doi-san's dexterous fingers?” Chie’s hand rested on Yukiko’s breast, and, almost casually, traced concentric circles around the nipple. Yukiko’s back arched into the touch. The nipple was getting harder, even though Chie’s fingers weren’t anywhere near.
“Doi-kun isn’t a tease, either,” Yukiko said, and pressed her knee between Chie's leg.
“Well, I’m the one you’re stuck with, so you’d better get used to it,” Chie said, and kissed Yukiko. Then she brought her mouth lower, to the valley between her breasts, and ran her tongue against it. “Well, I bet you’ve never kissed him, so you wouldn’t know if he was any good with his tongue.”
“He—” She gasped, and took a shuddering breath. “He was a pretty quiet guy.”
“See? You’re better off with me.” Chie’s hand rested on Yukiko’s ribs, and moved down to her stomach. “I mean, I can say a lot of things. And do a lot of things—”
“Do a little more and talk a little less, then.” To make her point, she wrapped a leg around Chie's waist, and pushed down.
“A lot of things,” Chie repeated, and brought her tongue down on Yukiko’s nipple. Just as a sheen of sweat worked its way onto Yukiko’s brow, Chie lifted her head up and said, “What would Doi-san call you in bed?”
“No, I’m curious! Tell me!”
“A-Amagi,” Yukiko said. “He would’ve called me Amagi. … That would make you Satonaka-chan.”
“Yukiko,” Chie said, and a jolt of—of something—shot through her stomach, up her spine, flooded her all over. “Yukiko,” Chie repeated, and her mouth moved lower.
Her parents probably thought Yukiko went to Chie’s house to have sex. Sometimes she’d tell her parents that she was going to Chie’s house for the night, and her father would look at her and say, “There is more to a relationship than the physical component. Consider that, before you go,” which infallibly made Yukiko run to the bathroom and splash her face with cold water to cool her face down.
It was part of the reason, but not the entire reason. Having sex with Chie was a regular occurrence, yes, but it wasn’t an every hour of the night thing, or even an every night of the week thing. She spent a lot of time sitting next to Chie and reading a book while Chie zoned in and out of wakefulness. They spent even more time talking about nothing and holding hands, or watching movies, or playing with their dog.
Not that she ever told her parents that. Things were settling back to normal, but Yukiko still didn’t dare to invite Chie over to the Inn when her parents were in the house. Sometimes Chie snuck in through the back and they’d chat a bit during the breaks or after dinner when Yukiko couldn’t get out of the Inn for the night. For the most part, Yukiko went to Chie’s house when she wanted to spend extended periods of time with Chie. It wasn’t that her parents were any happier about the idea of her and Chie: it was just that they no longer bothered to tell her. Life went on normally. Her parents, over time, spoke more freely to her, and if not for the continued unofficial banishment of Chie Satonaka from the house, an outsider would say that nothing had changed.
But a lot of things had changed. Yukiko spent even weekday nights at Chie’s house. Her parents would sometimes talk about her when they thought she couldn’t hear them in low, worried voices. Every now and then, a family friend would bring a young son over to the Amagi Inn, and Yukiko would end up holding very polite conversations with them that left a bad taste in her mouth. It was almost as though they thought if she found a man she liked, she would instantly throw Chie aside and marry her way back onto the path of The Way Things Used To Be.
It never happened, and most likely never would. By the time she started seriously studying for college exams, her parents quietly stopped inviting the men and their families to the Inn for the night. As the sun began to set earlier, her father told her at dinner, “You should consider inviting Satonaka to stay the night.”
Yukiko dropped her piece of Chinese cabbage into her lap.
“Your father and I still don’t approve of this… relationship,” her mother said. “But we would feel safer if we knew you were walking outside in daylight, rather than in the dark.”
“I… I see,” she said. And then she realized that the cabbage was staining her dress.
It was still another two weeks before she actually invited Chie, just in case her parents changed their minds. Her mother was curt, even cold, to Chie, rarely stopping to say more than a sentence or two to her, and even going as far to stop talking to Chie’s mother for a time before a mutual friend reprimanded Yukiko’s mother for letting a good friendship go to waste. Her father acted nearly exactly the same towards Chie as he had before Yukiko told him about their relationship, but his usual farewell of, “You’re welcome to come back any time you’d like” had changed to, “Have a safe trip home.”
In the winter, she was accepted to a business program in Tokyo. Chie, after much agonizing and deliberation, decided to attend Tokai University, the same school Dojima had gone to. Both schools were in Tokyo, though in very different parts of the city.
“We’re going to get lost a million times trying to see each other,” Chie said over the phone. “Or we’re going to take the subway and get really lost—I heard that the system’s like a thing of evil.”
“I don’t care,” Yukiko said. “As long as we’re close to each other. If you had taken the exams for a school in Akita, I would’ve gone there, instead.” Still, Yukiko made a mental note to find a good way to navigate Tokyo. This was going to be her first time living away from Inaba, and the prospect was both terrifying and thrilling, even if she would be returning home in four years.
“We might be able to find Souji-kun in the city,” she said. “Isn’t he going to Tokyo U?”
“He’s very smart. I wasn’t surprised when he got in.”
“Well, it’s not like Waseda’s something to sneeze at, either…” Chie sighed into the phone. “Man, we’re really done with high school, aren’t we? In a few weeks we’ll be graduating, and then we’ll be gone off to college for more exams and lectures. Whoopie.”
Yukiko giggled, and took a look outside. “Chie…”
“I want to meet you by the gazebo at the floodplains.”
“Are you busy?”
“Nope. Give me a second, I need to look for Cho… Cho… Muku! His name is Muku. Look what you’re getting me to call him!”
“Geeze, all your bad habits are rubbing off on me! I’ll see you there, okay?”
It was snowing in Inaba again. Dojima didn’t know why he even pretended to be surprised. It had been cold all week. Only a matter of time. Nanako, though, found the idea of snow to be irresistible. She had been in the hospital the last time any real snow fell in Inaba, so she insisted on taking a walk through town while there was white stuff falling from the sky.
“Real snow, Dad!” she said, bending down to the ground to scoop a handful of it. “Oh! It’s cold!”
“Why don’t we walk to Junes and get you a pair of real gloves?” Dojima said with a laugh, ruffling her hair. And so off to Junes they went, her hand in his.
They walked through the floodplains on the way back. Nanako was hoping there might be a big snowball fight there. Dojima personally doubted it; it was a Sunday, and most of the kids would probably be playing in their yards, but he saw no harm in indulging a wish. But while passing the floodplains, he spotted a girl in red sitting at the gazebo, warming her hands with her breath.
“Nanako, you go play in the snow, all right?” he said. “Make sure you stay out of the water.”
“Okay, Dad,” she said. When he turned his back to her, something cold and small hit the back of his head. Probably just a snowflake. A snowflake the size of a seven year old’s fist.
“Amagi,” he said.
Amagi, upon seeing him, smiled and said, “Dojima-san.”
“If you’ve run away from home again, you’ll have to share your room with Souji,” Dojima said. “He’s coming to visit for Christmas.”
“I came out here with Chie,” Yukiko said, nodding to the far end of the field, where Chie was chasing after a reddish-brown dog, shaking her fist at the dog all the while. “But our dog got out of the leash, and now…” She gestured, and cackled. It was the only real way he could describe the laugh. “Are you here with Nanako-chan?”
“She’s over there,” he said. Any second now, that beast of a dog would barrel right into Nanako, he realized. Well, he remembered that Satonaka said that Muku was a big, hairy fuzzball, anyway, so it wasn’t like she’d get hurt. And if Nanako did get hurt, then Satonaka would pay. “Your parents don’t mind that you’re out here with Satonaka?”
Amagi’s smile became a little tight. “I didn’t tell them I was coming with her. They’re… getting used to the idea. I don’t think they’ll ever like it, but this is good enough.”
“I… I never really thanked you,” Amagi said. “For how you helped me in the beginning. I… I really thought I had nowhere to go, but you gave me somewhere to stay until I could get myself back together. If you weren’t there, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
“Please,” Dojima said, laughing a little. “It was nothing as impressive as that. You’re a pretty tough kid. You would’ve made it.”
“My father told me that you went to the Inn and told him where I was staying.”
“What?!” Dojima didn’t know what to say to that. It was true, yes, but embarrassing to have to own up to that deed. He cleared his throat and said, “Your father deserved to know, anyway.”
“Yes,” Amagi said. “You’re too modest, Dojima-san. I really appreciate your help. It was… after I told my parents about Chie, it was like I was on a sinking ship in the middle of the ship. Everything around me was trying to pull me down, or to make sure I never got back up again. It sounds very melodramatic, but it wasn’t... it wasn’t a good time for me. Having you there was a real boon for me. I know Chie thinks the same thing.”
She was looking out, watching Satonaka and Nanako and the dog playing together. Dojima knew well enough that she was mostly watching Satonaka, but what couple wasn’t guilty of a bit of tunnel vision now and then?
“Dojima-san.” And suddenly Amagi was close to him, on her tiptoes. She kissed his cheek and said, “It’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I thought I’d give you a little present.” She reddened a bit, looked down at her watch and said, “I should be heading back to Chie’s house now. It’s almost time for dinner. Goodbye, Dojima-san. Thank you for everything.”
“Glad to help,” Dojima said. Amagi smiled at him over his shoulder, then went to fetch Satonaka. The two of them walked home together hand-in-hand. Dojima watched them leave the floodplains, and then extended his hand out to Nanako. “Did you have fun?” he said.
“Uh-huh,” Nanako said. She looked a bit tired. Dojima picked her up, and put her on his shoulders. She hit his head when she did that, complaining that she didn’t need to be carried, but after a weak struggle, relaxed and cleared some of the snow out of his hair. “Dad?”
“Yeah?” Dojima said. Damn. In another year or two, doing this would be impossible, wouldn’t it? She was growing up faster than he could keep track…
“You’re happy, right?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “So you’re not sad that Chie-chan’s not going to be my Mom?”
“… I… what?”
“Well, Chie-chan’s been over at our house so often, and I thought that you might want her to be my new Mom, but when I asked her, she said that she was already dating someone.”
“I…” Dojima’s mouth worked open, then closed. “No, Nanako. Satonaka’s young enough to be your sister.”
“Then who are you going to spend Christmas with?”
“You and your big brother, of course.” He adjusted Nanako’s weight on his shoulders. “Let’s get home for dinner.”
“Mm. Okay, Dad.”
The world was quiet and white. Somewhere out there, people he loved were happy. And that, he thought, squeezing Nanako’s hand, was all he wanted in the end.