Kazahaya didn’t realize, until he and Rikuou returned from Suiryou Boys’ Academy, just how touchy-feely the people of the Green Drugstore were. Their first morning back in the shop, Saiga hugged them both very tightly while they were restocking the shelves, and Kazahaya nearly dropped the cool contact lens solution he was supposed to be squaring up. Saiga wasn’t shy with his hands, either, and thinking back, Kazahaya realized he’d never been. Shy, that was.
A lot of things made more sense now. He’d spent so much of his life with Kei, just the two of them together, that he’d never even known how much of the air he hadn’t been reading, but after Nayuki’s explanations, Saiga and Kakei’s relationship made more sense. Sort of. There were plenty of women in Shimokitazawa, after all, so there had to be more to it than just…copulation.
“We missed you, kid,” Saiga said when he finally released Kazahaya.
“Um, thanks,” Kazahaya muttered. “You too.”
He could see Rikuou smiling to himself on the other side of the aisle over the paper kitchen towels, but when Kazahaya opened his mouth to yell at him, he’d already turned away to the throat lozenges.
“Saiga!” Kakei said, looking over his glasses from his perch behind the counter. “The last thing we want is Kazahaya too sore to work.”
“Right, right!” said Saiga, with a knowing grin for Kazahaya. Reflected light from the street flashed off his sunglasses when he turned away, leaving Kudou momentarily dazzled. Saiga moved down the next aisle, towards where Rikuou was still sorting the orange lozenges from the lemon.
He heard Rikuou saying something in an undertone to Saiga, and Saiga’s quick reply, and when Kazahaya glanced up into the corner mirror at the rear of the store he caught the quick flash of—something—across Rikuou’s face. It wasn’t much more than a tightening of his eyebrows, but for some reason Kazahaya remembered that woman he’d seen, when he’d held Rikuou’s hand in the movie theater and he’d nearly passed out. What was her name?
Tsukiko, that was it.
Kazahaya was halfway through restocking the household cleaning products before he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to care about Rikuou, or what had happened to that Tsukiko person. He didn’t have a family, and he didn’t think the Green Drugstore staff were an in-group. He had himself, and that was all.
They’d only been back from Suiryou for a day, and Shimokitazawa still seemed too crowded, too narrow, too loud, too bright after the subdued atmosphere at the school. Kazahaya was almost grateful that the few customers who did come through in the morning seemed content to chat amiably with Kakei, and in the afternoon the high school girls only had eyes for Rikuou, who didn’t even seem to notice their giggles and whispered debates about what product was best to ask for his help finding. They certainly didn’t notice Kazahaya standing in the corner straightening the toilet paper display.
And why didn’t they notice him? He’d been the center of attention at Suiryou—he’d been the damned bride. Was there something weird about him, that only boys without girls thought he was pretty?
Kazahaya’s self-scrutiny in the eyeglasses-sampling mirror was interrupted by Kakei, who breezed down the aisle and said in passing, “Could I have a minute, Kudou-kun?”
“Oh, um, sure,” Kazahaya said hurriedly, brushing at the eyeglasses to hide what he’d really been doing before he turned and followed Kakei into the back room. Saiga was sprawled on the couch, one knee up and one leg hanging down, but he sat up and smiled sleepily at Kakei when the store owner poked him in the ribs.
“Mind the register, will you?” Kakei asked cheerfully, and Saiga smiled at him again before he stood up and went out front. He glanced at Kazahaya, standing just inside the door, when he walked past, though the sunglasses made it impossible to tell what he was thinking. Kazahaya wondered what he would see, if he touched those glasses.
Inconvenient when you’re kissing, Nayuki said out of nowhere in his mind. And even more so when you’re doing more than kissing!
“But Rikuou doesn’t—“ Kazahaya didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until Kakei shot him a look from over the tops of his own glasses.
“Did you say something, Kudou-kun?”
“Oh, er,—no!” said Kazahaya quickly. He didn’t think the store owner was fooled, but Kakei let the subject group.
“Sit down, Kudou-kun,” Kakei said instead, and Kazahaya had just taken a seat on the still slightly warm couch when the door opened again and Rikuou stepped through.
He dropped down on to the other end of the couch without a word or glance in Kazahaya’s direction, leaning forward slightly to look at Kakei. “So?”
If Kakei was bothered by Rikuou’s usual rudeness, he didn’t show it. Instead he said, in that serious tone of voice he used sometimes, “I received a request from a client while you were away at Suiryou. It wasn’t time-sensitive, and the client was happy to wait until your return to put it to your consideration.”
Kakei never revealed anything about a client, ever. That was another thing Kazahaya had never noticed before.
“I’ll do it,” he said immediately.
“Yeah,” said Rikuou quietly. Kazahaya had kept his eyes on Kakei, so he didn’t see whether his fellow shop boy glanced at him or not. Probably not, though.
“Excellent,” said Kakei, with another of those sunny smiles. The only person he’d met who smiled like that had been—Nayuki, actually. Kei’s smile had never had that knowing edge to it.
“As I’m sure you’re both aware, it’s momiji season here in Tokyo,” Kakei began, and he actually slid one of those little pocket train maps towards them across the table. Kazahaya didn’t take the train much; he rarely had to go anywhere far enough that made paying the fare a better choice than walking. Actually, he rarely left Shimokitazawa at all.
And everyone knew it was maple season; coming back from Suiryou, the mountains had been a blaze of colors, red and orange in particular. And even if you hadn’t seen a tree in years, you’d know from the maple Kit-Kats he’d spent an hour putting into their cardboard display last night, not to mention the little sprays of fake maple leaves decorating the shopping arcades.
“It seems the client desires a certain—plectrum,” said Kakei.
“Plectrum?” said Rikuou.
“What a performer uses to play a shamisen or a koto,” Kakei explained, and he laid a color photograph down on the table over the transit map.
“That’s tortoise-shell, isn’t it?” Kazahaya asked, surprising himself. Both Kakei and Rikuou were looking at him, he knew, but instead he leaned forward and twisted the picture so that the flare of the gingko leaf-shaped tool faced away rather than toward him. Yeah, it was tortoise-shell.
“So it seems,” Kakei said. “Did you see anything, Kudou-kun?”
“No,” said Kazahaya. “I’d be surprised if I did, really.”
“That’s too bad,” said Kakei. “Still, the request stands. The client would like you to find this bachi. Additionally, the client believes that if you go to Rikugi-en, in Komagome, during the momiji season, you may find it there.”
“Did the client say why?” Rikuou asked.
Kakei was laying train tickets on top of the photo and Odakyuu pocket map he’d already placed on the table. “Not to me, Himura-kun.”
* * * * *
Kakei gave them off the next day, and after a more leisurely breakfast of rice and pickles and miso than usual, they set off for the station. Kazahaya waited at the foot of the stairs while Rikuou locked the door, and then they headed out without further conversation.
He’d have died rather than admit it, but he didn’t like Shimokitazawa station. He’d nearly died there, a little less than a year ago, in the sight of the same salarymen and commuters who thronged it at rush hour every day. If Rikuou noticed that Kazahaya had deliberately set their alarm to just miss the morning crowds, he didn’t say so.
They approached from the south side, Kazahaya wondering whether it was too soon to suggest stopping at the McDonald’s across from the station entrance. Instead he followed Rikuou through the Odakyuu turnstiles and up on to the platform for the Shinjuku-bound Odawara line.
The express to Shinjuku was crowded, and quiet except for a group of foreigners at one end of the car speaking English in loud voices. Or at least, Kazahaya thought it was English; he had no idea, really. He stood close to Rikuou and gripped the overhead strap, grateful that no touch-memories floated up in front of his eyes. That was the other reason he liked walking.
At Shinjuku they changed to the outer loop of the Yamanote line, and the good thing about the Yamanote line was that no sooner had they lined up on the platform than the chimes were announcing the arrival of the next long train. Kazahaya followed Rikuou aboard; his height made it easier for him to clear a path.
They stood near the doors, and between Shin-ookubo and Takadanobaba, Kazahaya heard himself saying quietly, “Did you know about Saiga-san and Kakei-san?”
“Know what?” said Rikuou. He was looking out the doors, out at the city. That jacket he’d worn at Suiryou looked good on his long body.
Yeah, that school did turn me weird!
“That—you know—that,” Kazahaya hissed.
At Takadanobaba the doors opened on the opposite side, and they stepped back to let other people get on and off. When they were zooming towards Mejiro, Rikuou glanced back at him. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess I did.”
“Oh,” said Kazahaya.
They got off at Komagome nine minutes later; Kazahaya felt distinctly the ire of the people behind him while he fed his ticket through the turnstile rather than slapping a Pasmo or Suica card like almost everyone else seemed to be doing.
Outside there were signs pointing towards Rikugi-en, which they followed southeast along the expressway. The bright autumn sun—it was a beautiful day, the garden would be crowded—felt good after the artificial light of the train.
They paused at the next intersection while Rikuou consulted the sketch map Saiga had drawn them. They could see the garden, or rather the treetops over its walls, across the street. “The entrance is around the eastern side,” he said after a moment. “It’s a bit of a hike.”
Kazahaya didn’t say anything. He should be so lucky, if long walks were the worst things he encountered on one of Kakei’s jobs in future.
“Do you think,” he said after they’d stopped at a convenience store for canned coffee, which they promptly chugged as quickly as they could outside, “that Kakei-san and Saiga-san—“
“What?” said Rikuou, and Kazahaya didn’t look at him, because if he looked he’d see that the bastard was laughing, and then he’d never be able to finish.
“Nayuki said,” he continued, “that it was—he said that guys have needs, even if there weren’t girls around. But Saiga-san and Kakei-san—it must be something else—connecting them.”
“Yeah,” said Rikuou, slotting his can into the recycling bin. “Like love.”
Kazahaya choked on the last of his coffee.
* * * * *
“What,” said Rikuou, halfway up the street, “you didn’t think it was just sex between Mukoufujiwara and Nayuki, did you?”
Kazahaya remembered the look on Mukoufujiwara’s face, in the student council lounge. I want to be dependable, for Nayuki. And who would go through all that, with the ring and putting in the request to Kakei and paying for them to go out there and infiltrate the school, if he didn’t care? And they’d been paid well, too.
“But,” said Kazahaya, after they’d waited for the light to change and crossed the street both ways, so that they were walking with the garden walls on their right, “Nayuki and Mukoufujiwara—they didn’t really have, well, many people to pick from, right? But Saiga-san and Kakei-san—“
He nearly jumped out of his skin when an older woman rang her bicycle bell literally right behind him, and he ducked behind Rikuou with what he knew was a not very polite expression. She ignored him and pedaled away.
Rikuou was looking at him. “You really are a cat.”
“Am not!” Kazahaya retorted, which, well, wouldn’t win him any prizes for intelligence.
They’d gone maybe another hundred meters down the street before Rikuou shrugged. “Do you love someone because you’re with them, or are you with someone because you love them?” he said.
“Yeah,” said Kazahaya. “Exactly.”
He glanced at Rikuou, but Rikuou didn’t seem to be paying attention. There was a distant expression on his face, and Kazahaya didn’t have to touch him to know he was thinking of that woman. Tsukiko.
Neither of them said anything more while they rounded the corner and went in through the garden’s gate, joining the queue for tickets. Rikuou paid when they got to the booth, and the woman inside handed them each a picture ticket and a brochure. Kazahaya stuffed his into a pocket without looking at it; he couldn’t read most of the characters.
Two old men were standing just beyond the ticket booth, proclaiming loudly that anyone who liked could wait five minutes to take a free tour. Already quite a few people had gathered, almost all women. A few were even wearing kimono, something Kazahaya hadn’t seen since he’d come up to Tokyo.
One of them was wearing a happi nearly the same shade of Kei’s favorite, and Kazahaya quickened his pace, ignoring the volunteers’ words. He thrust his ticket at the attendant standing by the entrance to the garden proper and immediately headed left, towards the pond.
“Oi!” Rikuou’s voice brought him up short, and he stopped to let the other boy catch up. “What are you doing, idiot?”
“Nothing.” Kazahaya was already sick of the sideways looks people were giving them. High school students were in class on Wednesday mornings, and without cameras and cell phones they clearly weren’t in college; they were out of place.
“Come on,” he said to Rikuou, “let’s get this over with.”
Rikuou frowned, but he didn’t say anything, and he followed.
They headed northwest around the pond’s perimeter, dodging clumps of women taking pictures and ostentatiously admiring the garden views, particularly the perfectly trimmed island in one end of the pond. All of which, Kazahaya could see, really were beautiful—the noble who’d laid this place out had had taste, even if the surrounding skyscrapers and the background wash of street noise did intrude. There weren’t many maple trees, but here and there they were in brilliant scarlet color.
Rikuou was asked to take pictures for people every few meters, while Kazahaya was ignored completely. He was just as happy to return the rudeness.
“Something wrong?” Rikuou asked after he’d returned the camera to the latest group, refusing their offers to reciprocate the photo taking. “Did the cat drink sour milk this morning?”
“No!” Kazahaya sputtered. “Just—it’s like when I was a kid. This place.”
Rikuou didn’t say anything, and Kazahaya looked out at the pond, not really seeing the ducks swimming across its surface. Instead he was seeing Kei’s face. Had they loved each other because it was natural, or because they’d had no one else?
Would they have made those same promises—promises he, Kazahaya, had willfully broken—if they hadn’t always been alone?
Rikuou took the lead as they followed the path farther around the pond’s edge, almost to the halfway point. And there, sitting on a bench beneath a pine tree looking back out over the pond and the pine trees that dotted its edge, was a man in full kimono with a shamisen in his lap. The bachi in his hand shone in the sunlight.
The path widened into a little cleared space between the benches and the bamboo fences keeping people from falling in, and they stopped walking when the man lifted the plectrum and began playing. “Is that—“ Rikuou said in an undertone, ducking his head a little so that Kazahaya, shorter, could hear.
He shook his head. “I can’t tell for sure unless I touch it.”
They moved to one edge of the clearing, trying to stay out of the way, though the man seemed unaware of everything but his music, and the sightseers kept snapping pictures. Kazahaya was no expert, but he could tell that they were in the presence of a master.
He couldn’t have said how long the notes continued trailing through the air, vibrating like a pool after a pebble had been tossed into it, or like the lights of fireflies, winking off and on against silent darkness. The spare, sparse music seemed to harmonize with the light breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, every so often dislodging some of the crimson maple leaves. They drifted down onto the trimmed lawn and onto the ripples of the pond, a visual counterpoint to the melody, which seemed composed for this time and place exactly. Kazahaya thought of Kakei: maybe it had been.
He’d thought the man hadn’t noticed his audience, but when the last note had vibrated into silence, the instrumentalist looked over at them. Rikuou and Kazahaya both ducked their heads in acknowledgment.
“That was a treat,” said Rikuou. He even sounded sincere about it.
“Thank you very much,” said the man. “My skill is meager, but—“ He smiled slightly. He was good-looking, Kazahaya thought, with thick dark hair and broad shoulders, and calm dark eyes: one possible older version of Rikuou. “It’s always a privilege to find an appreciative audience.”
“Oh, well—“ Kazahaya said politely, but he took the opportunity to edge closer. “That’s not tortoise shell, is it?” he asked, nodding at the plectrum in the man’s hand.
“It is,” said the man, and he held the bachi out to Kazahaya. “Do you play?”
Kazahaya braced himself, and took a deep breath along with the plectrum. He’d barely registered it as smooth and slightly cool to the touch when the rush of images overwhelmed him.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough—a woman with cat eyes wearing kimono, a tortoise shell cat turning the same eyes on him, and weirdly, the thrum of a shamisen’s strings, no, two shamisen playing a duet—to know that this was the plectrum they’d been requested to obtain.
Kazahaya opened his eyes, and he saw that the man was looking at him consideringly. “No,” he said, swallowing, “I don’t play,” and he handed the plectrum back.
“That’s too bad,” said the man, settling his shamisen in his lap. He wore black and white striped hakama over his black kimono, and thick-rimmed black glasses. “But you know that shamisen are made using the skin of cats.”
“You mentioned the skin of a cat,” Rikuou interrupted. He had his arms crossed, but he still seemed more open than usual. It must have been the music. “When you were holding the plectrum.”
“Oh,” said Kazahaya, and he could feel that he was blushing furiously. “That’s—er—“
“There are quite a few people in this would who can see what many can’t,” said the man. He was looking out toward the pond, not at them. “Memories, thoughts, feelings. The future. Spirits.”
“Yeah,” said Rikuou noncommittally, but the man had turned to look directly at Kazahaya. His hands moved, plucking out notes on the shamisen at random.
“What would you do,” he asked, “if you knew you couldn’t stay, that you had to leave absolutely everyone and everything behind? Would you just leave, or would you try to say goodbye somehow?”
Kazahaya took an involuntary breath. “I just left,” he admitted.
“I see.” The man looked away, back out over the pond. They stood like that for a while, notes from the shamisen falling into the stillness. Sightseers streamed past, but they didn’t pay attention to what they hadn’t come to see.
Eventually the man put the plectrum to one side and rewrapped the shamisen in the cloth lying next to him on the bench, tying it securely with cords. Then he stood, slinging the wrapped instrument across his back like a pilgrim in the Edo period.
He bowed to Rikuou and to Kazahaya. “It was a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience.”
“Wait,” said Kazahaya, “don’t forget your—“ He snatched up the bachi, which the man had left on the bench, but the musician shook his head when he held it out to him.
“Keep it,” he said, “as a souvenir, if you like. I won’t need it where I’m going.”
Beside Kazahaya, Rikuou frowned. “Where—“
“Goodbye, then,” said the man, smiling politely, and he turned away up the path.
“Um, thanks!” Kazahaya shouted just as the musician disappeared around the next bend. He raised a head in acknowledgement, but didn’t look back.
“That was easy,” said Rikuou, and he reached out to pluck the plectrum from Kazahaya’s grasp. “What did you see?” he asked, wrapping it in a handkerchief.
Only Rikuou would have a handkerchief. “A cat,” Kazahaya answered. “And a woman with cat’s eyes. I think—I think he misses them. It felt—sad, anyway.”
Rikuou tucked the plectrum into one of his jacket pockets, then looked at Kazahaya. “What?”
“I left,” said Kazahaya, looking down at his feet. “But I wish I’d said goodbye. Do you think—“ He looked back up at Rikuou, not sure what he was looking for. There was so much he wasn’t sure about.
“I think there’s lots of reasons you can’t see someone you love,” Rikuou said flatly. “But it doesn’t mean you love them any less.”
He set off down the path, the line of his shoulders somehow sharper than usual, and Kazahaya hurried to catch up. Rikuou usually matched his stride to his own shorter legs.
Thinking about it, though, he thought Rikuou was probably right, though he’d have died before he said so. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t go back; what mattered was that he still wanted to see Kei, even if she didn't want to see him anymore. Because he loved her.
He managed to catch up to Rikuou by the time they reached a little stone bridge separating the main pond from a smaller pool surrounded by pines and maples. Their colors looked particularly pretty with the sun hitting them from—
“Cheese!” someone practically shouted from the other end of the bridge, and Kazahaya nearly jumped out of his own skin. He actually moved far enough that he stepped too close to the edge and lost his balance and started to fall, flapping his arms—
“Idiot!” Rikuou reached out and grabbed him by the wrist, hauling him back from the edge with enough force that Kazahaya nearly stumbled into him, but Rikuou caught his other wrist and steadied him forcibly. “You’re right that you’re not a cat,” he said; “cats have much better coordination.”
“Shut up!” said Kazahaya, though he’d meant to say thank you. Rikuou’s hands were warm.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” said the voice that had shouted; it belonged to a young woman with close-cropped dark hair. She had a chagrined expression on her face, which only made her look cuter. “I didn’t mean to startle you—are you all right—I’m so sorry, I can delete the picture—“
“Picture?’ said Rikuou, finally letting go of Kazahaya’s wrists. The bones ached a little, from the strength of his grip.
“Yes, I, that is, er—here!” The college student—she had to be a college student, and sure enough two other girls the same age were standing at the far end of the bridge, looking embarrassed—simply handed Rikuou her camera. After a moment, he gave the device to Kazahaya.
The trees in the background were a perfect vermillion; it would have been a good picture if she hadn’t captured Kazahaya at the start of his near-fall off the bridge, looking startled, while behind him Rikuou was torn between laughter and—concern?
Kazahaya opened his mouth to ask which button would erase it, but Rikuou, grinning, grabbed the camera and handed it back to the girl. “That’s a good one,” he said; “can you send it to me?”
“Sure!” she said. “Just give me your address—“
She pulled out her cell and punched in the email address Rikuou recited. Kazahaya, rubbing his wrists, decided she looked familiar, but couldn’t think why. And since when did Rikuou have an email address? Neither of them had a cell.
“Hina, come on!” one of her friends called when she’d put away her phone.
“Coming, Emi-chan!” The girl, Hina, gave them one last smile and a quick bow. “See you later, Himura Rikuou-kun!”
“Later,” said Rikuou, and she took off running towards her friends, who smiled and shook their heads at her as they walked away.
Kazahaya was just as glad she hadn’t asked for his name; he’d been wearing Asahi Hinata’s old school uniform when he’d had to impersonate a girl, and he’d met Rikuou under the tree—
From his smirk, Rikuou remembered that too. Or maybe he was smirking at Kazahaya for almost falling into the pond.
“It was a good picture,” he insisted when they passed the little teahouse in which Asahi and her friends were visible, laughing. “Really captures who you are—“
“A guy who thinks you’re the worst?” Kazahaya snapped.
“A guy who screams like a cat, and bristles like one,” said Rikuou.
“Oh, just shut up already!”
But as they left the garden Kazahaya thought that if it weren’t for Rikuou he’d be dead. Rikuou had plucked him out of the snow at the station, and brought him to Kakei-san, and that had only been the first time.
He’d never tried to hold that over Kazahaya’s head; in fact, he’d never said a word about any of it, though Kazahaya couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t done it, so much so that Kazayaha didn’t really notice it anymore. The sky was blue; Saiga wore sunglasses; Rikuou saved Kazahaya.
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Kazahaya said when they had taken places on the platform at Komagome. The next train would arrive in four minutes.
"What doesn't matter?"
“Whether you love someone because you’re with them, or whether it’s the other way around,” said Kazahaya, looking at the yellow stripe at the platform’s edge. His blush was from the autumn breeze, obviously. “It’s still the same love either way, right?”
“I guess it is,” said Rikuou after a minute, and Kazahaya did look back up at him then. Light from one of the buildings outside the station bounced back in towards the platform, shining on Rikuou’s face until he turned slightly. Nayuki had been right: he was handsome.
“Right,” said Kazahaya, just when the chimes announcing the train began. “It’s what you feel, not why or how or whether it’s right.”
The wind from the arriving train flapped their jackets around them, but Kazahaya heard what Rikuou said distinctly. “Maybe you’re not a complete idiot.”
Kazahaya smiled. “Yeah, maybe not.”
He and Rikuou waited for the stream of sightseers leaving the train to dry up before they stepped inside. The doors closed behind them, and then they were zooming back across Tokyo, towards Shimokitazawa and the Green Drugstore and home.