ima, omae wa omae no me de
kono sekai wo mirushikanai
The phone call comes late, much later than he expects, but that's Kame. The man'll always find something to keep him on-set when any sane person'd be bolting for the door. A line of dialogue he doesn't like. Costume checks. Making bloody onigiri for the staff that for the next two months'll be living at the film lot. If Kame wasn't so fond of his own bed after a long day's work, Jin would probably never see him.
Whenever Kame's filming, their relationship shifts, and this time Jin's been christened his official taxi driver. No one says anything, but everyone knows Kame won't take a swing at him just for missing a turn-off. Everyone knows Jin'll swing right back.
He's been driving for the last four hours. Nowhere in particular, just around. He's been around the city twice and through it once, taking whatever streets look interesting. He's found houses with their Christmas lights ice-dusted and still blinking. He's found the remnants of a birthday party at one block of apartments, doors and stairways spilling over with gaijin and balloons. He'd been half-tempted to pull up and join them, but the music had been slow and synthesised, come-down music, and he doesn't need any more melancholy in his life so he'd kept on driving. Tokyo fascinates him and no more so than at night when the lights of the trains flicker between the buildings and reflections move: the entire city seems to be floating on a bed of black mist. One wrong step and it might sink like Atlantis into the sea.
That would have been a better name for the album, better than a mountain of gods. Atlantis. There for a second and then gone. It might never have existed at all but for the story it inspired.
Jin's been thinking a lot about stories lately.
The address Kame texted him isn't one he's been to before. Must've been filming on location. Yet when he pulls onto the street, one over from a brightly lit strip of karaoke joints and hostess bars, and he's driving at 15km/h to avoid the drunkards stumbling all over the road, his first thought is to wonder if he missed an update to his car navi. No film cameras or film vans in sight. No Kame. Just a lot of salarymen and all-night Chinese cafes.
One hand on the wheel, Jin fumbles for his iPhone and touches three buttons on the screen without looking. Kame's number's ringing as he brings it to his ear.
"Jin? Where are you?" Kame's voice is muffled, like he's trying to keep it down.
"Was about to ask you the same thing. What, were you filming another round in a host bar or something?"
"No, we finished early today---"
"What are you calling early?"
"Just after midnight."
Jin feels like banging his head on the steering wheel, and almost does when another drunken idiot staggers in front of the car. "Shi--! So what have you been doing for the last two and a half hours?"
"Went to see a movie."
"After midnight on a fucking Wednesday and you don't think to ask me if I wanted to come?"
There's a moment's pause on the other end of the line before Kame answers. "I didn't think you'd want to watch yourself for two hours."
"I see you, hold up," Kame says and then the line goes dead.
Further ahead, Jin sees a scarfed and hoodie'd figure stand up from a set of steps, a darker shadow on shadows -- Kame was always good at hiding, better than Jin. The only light comes from his cigarette. It flares, a venomous firefly as he breathes in the smoke, one last drag, then he tosses it down and crushes out its light underfoot. Such is life. Such a throwaway line.
Jin's already lighting up as Kame slips into the passenger seat and pulls the door quietly closed.
"So, um . . . what'd you think?"
Of all the questions to ask. Jin's hardly a conversationalist, not unless he's got something he wants to talk about and he's not sure he wants to talk about this. But it's a question and seeing he has nothing else, he asks it.
Kame hasn't said anything. It's dark and his face is locked up tighter than post-game traffic. He'd nicked Jin's cigarette then spent a song and a half staring at it as the fire slowly burned down the length.
"Look, if you think the film's shite just say it. I promise I won't drive us off the Rainbow Bridge."
"You couldn't. That's what the barriers are for." Kame takes another long breath of smoke and his hand's shaking, the glowing tip going back and forth, reflected threefold in the windows and the rear view mirror.
"Just tell me, yeah?" Jin says, a note softer.
"It's not that-- it was, god, it was phenomenal. It's heart-rending. Jin," and Jin has to tell himself to keep his eyes on the road and not the haze of streetlights and billboards passing over Kame's face. "How can you live after that?"
The man's eyes are black opals on the windshield. That Jin knows more or less what he means is telling in itself: how many conversations have they had like this? Vague sentences that might mean nothing to a stranger overhearing them on the street, and everything else written in the air, written on their skin, tattoos of silence only they can see?
"I'm not Natsu."
"But you are. Jin, something this big-- you don't act, you become." Kame turns to him and he can feel the widened eyes sweeping over him. "He's you now, too." Like Kame's searching for the scars where Natsu and Jin were grafted together. "You felt all that... you carried it all and you never said a word."
"You had enough on your plate."
And it had all hit so close to home. The sceptics hadn't been far off when they'd said he'd be playing himself. He's not Natsu, no, but in Natsu's story are more than a few pieces of his own. He'd struggled with the memories: of bottle kisses and alcohol-fuelled fights; of clocks and cups thrown against walls; of the furious, desperate fucks that had always followed. Once upon a time, he and Kame had torn each other apart.
Jin flicks the indicator and swerves into the inner lane, heading for the bridge and the north side of the city. It's brighter across the Sumida. Tokyo Tower stands like a compass needle, pointing her weary citizens in the right direction, wherever that might be.
What would Tokyo have looked like to him twenty years ago, if he could see it with the eyes of an adult, knowing everything he knows now? How different might his life be, if he lived in that Tokyo and not this one?
Kame's eyes are closed but the man reaches out with unerring accuracy, heat-seeking maybe, and rests a hand on Jin's thigh. It's warm in the car with the heater going full-blast, but Kame's hand is warmer.
"Tell me how it ends. The story stopped, it didn't end."
"That's where the script finished. I don't know how it ends."
"Yes you do," and Kame squeezes his leg a little, just enough to encourage, to quietly plead, "Tell me."
aa, yume no naka demo
anata ni aitai
1994, one day
The sun's half gone behind the skyscrapers by the time she finishes all there is to do for Miharu. Long days, long nights, sleeping with one hand on the phone, that's what Asako has to look forward to now. But now-- now they're finally getting somewhere. And it feels good, which surprises her a little. She's done the road to Oricon fame already and this feels more comfortable. This has been a long time coming, maybe a lifetime, if lives are counted by how many times they change.
Walking down the corridors of the studio, following the exit signs. The place is like a city of underground tunnels and Asako's been scrambling through them one end to the other all day. Click, click, new heels on her new shoes cracking out a beat. Her feet hurt but she can hear the music in her steps. The same song that's been playing in the back of her head all afternoon.
sono kanashimi mo
sono itami mo
She's mouthing the words along to her footsteps. An unconscious habit and when she realises, she bites hard on her lip. It's been nearly three years. She can't remember the last time she thought of Natsu more than in passing. And yet, passing open control room doors and bright-lit 'Recording Now' signs, seeing Yukari again... it's as though the building itself were whispering in her ear. Asako, you know he's here.
Three years and he's still wearing the same battered white t-shirt. Three years and he hasn't given up. Three years and with the studio lights behind him, he looks just like an angel.
"Otsukaresama!" the receptionist says brightly, too brightly, as Asako hands back her visitor's tag. It's Friday. Maybe the girl has a date she's itching to get to and can once everyone goes home.
"Otsukaresama," she echoes, trying to sound more energetic than she feels and failing. Every year the smiling façade gets harder and harder to fake, her heart's just not in it any more---
"Jin, that's you, not Asako."
"So we feel the same way about things."
"The only way you're the same is that neither of you can keep a single feeling off your face. She was content by the end and so were you. No one smiles like that when they're miserable."
". . . point taken."
-- "Otsukaresama," she echoes, sounding probably more genki than she feels with her blistered feet but it's Friday. Tonight she can soak in a bath until the knots in her shoulders unwind and then maybe she'll wander to the live house two streets down, where they know her well enough it won't matter if she's wearing slippers. Good music and a good stiff drink. Maybe then the memories will soak back into the grey matter of her brain where they can't do any harm.
The receptionist looks back at her for a moment as Asako signs herself out. Whatever the girl's saying with her eyes, Asako ignores it. There's Miharu's name right above hers, and Yukari's a little further down, still blank in the leaving column -- she's probably waiting for her husband. Miharu's new producer. This world they're coming into is incestuous, Asako had almost forgotten how much.
His name isn't on the list. No surprise, though she wants to kick herself for even checking. He'd always avoided the business side of things, anything that reminded him his job was more about selling music than making it.
In near-dark punctuated by headlights and streetlights, streaming like blood on the arterial freeway out of the city, Kame takes Jin's hand off the gearstick and threads their fingers together.
Outside, into the long light of dusk. It takes her eyes a few seconds to adjust. The concrete towers and powerlines might be cut-outs of black cardboard. To her left, the sky is burning in reds and purples, like it's bruising. The sun drags itself down inch by inch under the horizon; it limps and pulses, staggering home to lick the day's wounds. Someone told her that people used to worship the sun because they were afraid it might never come back. And yet . . . the colours streaking out from the sunset are soft and hazy, almost feathered. Maybe it's the pollution in the air that makes them glow. If the sun decides to stay in bed tomorrow, well, for a sight like this, it might be worth it.
"'Better to burn out than fade away'?" she murmurs to herself. Who'd said that anyway?
"Kurt Cobain." A voice says from below. "The guy from Nirvana. Offed himself last year."
Somewhere, maybe in the marrow of her bones, she'd known he'd be out here.
He's sitting on the step, elbows resting on his widespread knees. A breeze is blowing the smoke from his cigarette down along the pavement, curling it like dust or snow in the air. His hoodie's up, she can only see the movement of the fabric across his shoulders as he takes another lungful.
"Natsu-san," she says, not sure what else to say.
He leans back at that, tilts his head and unconsciously bares his throat to look her in the eye.
"Long time no see."
And he doesn't look all that surprised to see her either.
The first year had been the hardest, after she'd quit. Part time work had been easy enough to find, work that had nothing to do with singers or songs. Asako had unplugged her radio and kicked her headphones under the bed; she'd cut music out of her life as she would a malignant tumour. Whatever, anything that would help her forget.
It hadn't helped much. There were nights she'd lain awake from midnight to sunrise arguing with him in her head, trying to make sense of her own feelings, sweeping out every jagged niche of her anguish and her anger. She'd spent a year gritting her teeth behind forced smiles and biting her tongue to stop it lashing any substitute body in reach. She'd imagined running into him on the street on one of her lunch breaks and quietly stabbing him with verbal barbs, one for every gap between his ribs and counting each drop of blood as equal to each of the tears she'd shed for his stubborn, selfish hide.
Instead, she'd run into Miharu.
Standing on the first floor tier in the live house that night, she'd found herself breathing easier. A mix of smells, cigarettes and sweat and the pale blue gin in her drink, and underneath it like a memory, vinyl and the tang of wire guitar strings when they get hot. As her surprise at seeing Miharu behind the mic had worn off, the music had come up to take its place, pooling and pouring through her like warm water, washing away the stains of the year gone by. Standing on the first floor tier, Asako had realised then she could no more keep music from her life than she could stop herself unconsciously humming along with any tune she knew. So she'd offered to manage the band. And slipping back into the role, diary in hand, had felt strangely like coming home.
In the two years they've worked to get here, into a studio, into a major label deal, Asako has heard a lot of things about the people she used to know. Bits and pieces, snatches of gossip overheard on the train, a magazine headline read and understood before she could look away. She knows LANDS split, less than three months after she quit. She's heard the album Yukiya and Arumi put together on their own -- a kaleidoscope of melody and electronic effects that sold well enough but left her with a sick feeling in her stomach, as if the music had somehow suspended gravity and she couldn't tell which way was up.
("Natsu ni uragiritte! . . ." It still echoes. Natsu-- you've betrayed him!)
She's heard whispers of Natsu: that he'd gone solo; that he'd retreated back to the live houses where he'd felt most like himself, singing for whoever'd buy him a drink afterwards; always, always singing. Following the music that had him by the scruff of the neck.
She never thought she'd see him again. But here he is.
Natsu stubs his cigarette out on the step before pushing himself, joint by cracking joint, to his feet. He's been sitting a long time. Hands jammed in his pockets, from the pavement he turns to look back at her.
"Feel like walking?" he asks. He tilts his head away from the sunset and the train station, back towards the bay, and Asako's hefting her bag and clicking down the steps before her brain thinks to ask if it's really a good idea. But then, she's waited and wondered three years for this. Of all the scenarios her imagination has come up with, the possibility of walking away never once entered her head.
The air smells of salt and something else that reminds her of the hulls of rusting ships. Tokyo's never without the smell of its industry. There's a trace of something burning on the air, somewhere nearby they're pouring asphalt. He's walking a little ahead of her, long strides from his long legs, his old boot soles scraping the concrete in time to whatever rhythm's spinning now on his inner stereo. A lifetime ago, she'd used to try and sing along.
"So," he says and pauses for a second, in thought and in stride. "What, uh . . . what have you been doing?"
Three years and it'd never occurred to her imagination that Natsu might be as afraid and unsure at this moment as she is.
"Miharu and I-- do you remember Miharu? We'd sneaked backstage together that time, when I lost my contact --" His face in profile is blank of any sparks of recognition. "-- when we met?"
Kame coughs. "Are you trying to tell me he doesn't remember every detail of the night they met?"
"Because if you are-- with the way you looked at her? The second he laid eyes on her, you made it . . . his heart's beating in his eyes the second he actually looks at her. He'd remember, Jin."
"Yeah but the point is he's so wrapped up in Asako, you think some random friend he saw once is going to stick in his head? Of course he remembers Asako! If nothing else her eyes were twitching like mad putting the contact in. Whenever I got within an inch of her eyelashes she'd tear up."
Not bothering to disentangle their hands, Jin eases the car back down into third as they come up on an interchange. Twisted excruciatingly, roads and ramps filter the traffic out into the northern wards. The truck in front of them rides its brakes down the bend, its taillights flickering only occasionally. Kame's fingers are radiating hot under his.
"Jin, when did we first meet?"
There's a fraction of a smile in his voice, and they're too close to the damned truck for Jin to risk taking his eyes away even for a second to check what kind.
Kame doesn't answer, doesn't say anything. The subject hasn't been dropped, no, he's just waiting patiently for an answer. In patience, Kame could put bodhisattvas to shame. And like the lotus-seated gods, he can remember just about every second of his life, probably right back to the day he was born.
"Backstage at-- some show or other, might have been Hadaka? They gave us the same blinding costumes and we spent the whole time thinking up better ways to use them before they shoved us onstage." Jin can't help a little smile of his own. "You remember the pants? I ended up nicking mine and turned them into a flag for the soccer team -- perfect colour and no one missed it for all the sequins. Made the perfect distraction for the other team when we were about to score."
"November 8th, 1998," Kame says quietly.
"Fuck off, we did not meet at the audition. You can't make shit like that up."
"November 8th, 1998. You moved pretty well but you were treating the whole thing like a joke. It's probably why you didn't make it through to begin with." The man sighs, though it sounds too shallow for anger or disappointment -- just one more drop in the pool of his apparent calm.
Kame's always been one to keep his surfaces smooth. In some moods though he's like the Seto sea, rip tides and whirlpools hidden waist deep, when you're in too far to step back if they catch you. Every time Kame drags him down and under, until he'd rather drown than face the naked hurt brimming in his partner's eyes. And Jin hates that feeling. And the damned traffic's still penning them in, keeping his eyes fixed on the road. He can't see: is the man angry? upset? or too exhausted for emotion all together?
"I was talking to Nakamaru, he and I had run halfway across Shinjuku to get there, and you happened to stumble into us -- you looked like you'd been following an invisible butterfly. It was your fault but Nakamaru being Nakamaru, he apologised anyway."
Jin doesn't remember any of this, but he smirks nonetheless. Was there ever a time in his life when Maru wasn't a sucker for punishment?
"And you know what you said? 'Don't worry, I'll forgive you.'"
It sounds like something Junior High him would have said, a hopeless joke to try and break the ice.
"And you grinned your idiot grin and you said, 'Remember me, I'm gonna be famous one day'. That's how we met."
The silence weighs for a moment or two.
"I'm . . . sorry?"
"For what? Being a prick or not remembering me?"
Finally, finally, the truck signals its way over to the left hand lane, veering off for the Saitama exit, and Jin can finally put his foot to the floor. The cars almost melt past them; Jin's only requirement for a set of wheels is that they go faster than anyone else's. With the highway an open page before him, Jin looks over to the passenger's seat. Kame has his head laid back against the headrest and the muscles in his face and neck are relaxed. One corner of his mouth quirks upward like a fisherman's hook.
"You're lucky," Kame says and slides his eyes across to drink in the sight of Jin's grudging contrition. "I fell in love with you anyway."
"Well anyway, Miharu started singing and I've been working as her manager for the last two years. That's, that's why I was here, today. She's recording her label debut."
"She any good?"
"She's like you," Asako says before she can bite the words down. She's got his attention now, he's turned to her with his brows raised and question marks in his lacquer black eyes, and she can't help pulling short her step, putting a few more centimetres' safe distance between them. "She's committed, is what I mean."
Natsu's eyes narrow a little.
"I mean it's-- as if she's breathing sound rather than air, if that makes any sense. Her whole life is music."
It takes a moment -- even when she knew him best, maybe of anyone in Tokyo, she never knew what was running through his head and it's no different now -- but Natsu nods, once. Understood, acknowledging the compliment or just the fact it's true. And he keeps walking but he slows up a bit. His concession to match hers. Once upon a time maybe that would have set her confused heart to fluttering. Now though...?
The buildings and their shadows stretch out and then curve back away across the bitumen. A salt-crusted fence runs along the edges of the dock. There's not much further they can go but Natsu keeps walking, hands tapping out an unconscious rhythm in his pockets. It's not a landscape painting opening in front of them. The bay-side buildings are turning red with rust and salt crystals that might shine on a sunny day in August, but it's overcast and the light is getting weaker as dusk drags on. The water below is sluggish, it can barely manage a ripple; every time it does, the floating Asahi cans scrape gently against the concrete wall. She's breathing in the sea mist and it tastes rancid. But from here, propping her arms on top of the fence, Asako can see the opposite shore stretching both ways uninterrupted. One by one, the streetlights and billboards switch on. All the stoplights in the city are switching from red to a consenting yellow -- lay down your pencils, rulers, calculators and slip out of the office while the boss is on the can. It's Friday night. Come 10pm the lights will turn green and the city will kick up its heels and forget for another weekend. There's rubble on the ground and garbage in the bay, but at sundown the lights will always be pretty.
Natsu turns his back on it all and leans against the fence, already fishing for another cigarette. It takes him three tries to get a spark from his lighter.
She shouldn't be this happy to see him again. Anger, ambivalence, a few threads of lingering resentment, they should be knotted round her heart like a shield. But three years is a long time. It's hard to remember the harshness when he's standing here next to her, slumped like an oversized sack of rice. Her memories have lost their accompanying sound tracks, the events play out like a silent film, at a distance, as if she's sitting in a theatre looking up at the screen, as if it all happened to someone else who at the end of the day took off her make-up, slipped into some more comfortable shoes and went home. Is it the brain's way of coping, to edit scenes out and leave them to warp on the cutting room floor?
Natsu breathes the smoke in deep, slowly lets it go. "You heard LANDS split?"
"Yeah, I did." She props her chin on her arms, watches him out the corner of her eye. She thinks of mentioning Yukiya and Arumi's album, then thinks better of it. ('Natsu ni uragiritte!') "What did you do afterwards?"
"Not much. Kicked around, went to Hokkaido --" Asako smirks a little in spite of herself; at least his fixation on Hokkaido is still going strong. "-- came back when I couldn't feel my fingers to change gears---"
"You drove?!" And her voice is a little louder than she'd intended, but who drives to Hokkaido? --
"People who want to see more than a check-in counter and an in-flight magazine on the way?"
"I'm getting there, hold on!"
-- and Natsu turns a blank-eyed look on her, like driving a thousand-odd kilometres is nothing strange and she's the mad one for widening her eyes to the size of dinner plates.
"Shinkansens are fucking expensive," he says.
"...that's it? That's your only reason?"
Jin feels the corner of his mouth quirk. "You've never been that hard-up, have you?" He says it gently, despite the teasing tone. Kame goes quiet all the same.
It used to piss Jin off more than anything when they were young. The clueless baseball kid with his confused looks wondering as clear as if he'd shouted to the whole room why Jin never bought his lunch in the cafeteria, just scavenged from Pi and Ryo and Jimmy Mackey, and why Jin wore his pants slung so low, when it was obvious he was trying to hide the fact he'd outgrown them and couldn't afford another pair. It had taken Nakamaru -- idiot, all-seeing Nakamaru -- whispering in his ear to brighten the light bulb over Kame's head. And that was when Kame had started learning to cook, bringing onigiri and curry rice to work, enough for everyone but Jin had always had an inkling, even then. By rights Jin should have been furious -- he wasn't a charity case and his pride had felt the sting -- but even at thirteen, Kame had known how to make things taste good, and it was harder to feel indignant with a full belly.
Years later, Kame had asked him when he'd first started to fall, and Jin had answered in all seriousness 'the first time you made me curry from scratch'.
"Out with it," Jin says into the silence.
"I wasn't going to say anything."
"No, but you were thinking it."
"I'm not allowed to think to myself now?"
"Nope." Tell-tale signs are all there: the way the man inclines his head, eyes downcast, an unconscious half-bow of apology. "You might as well have an uchiwa over your head, flashing in giant letters, 'Beating myself up, do not disturb'."
Kame sighs a little, smiles a little, like he's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Yeah... just, you'd think playing Kyouhei, someone who's broke all the time---"
"Shout me dinner and we'll call it even." Jin had learned early and well, any guilt-ridden Kame rant is best derailed before it can build up any steam.
The man blinks, cut off mid-thought and with the lights overhead flickering past he looks a little like the clockwork clowns Jin had seen in America, mouths open, eyes blank, waiting, moving their heads mechanically from one side to the other. Kame's mask of defence gives away nothing except the fact he's been caught by surprise. Then someone throws a switch, tips a ball down the throat, music starts up and the mask is pushed back slowly. (Back, but never completely off -- that's something Jin's had to learn to live with.)
"...why do these conversations always end in me buying you food?"
"Cos you're a rich bastard and you like taking care of me?"
A burst of breath comes from Kame's lungs that's halfway between a chuckle and a scoff.
"Get on with your story before I'm tempted to let you starve." But it's said affectionately and in the strobing light Jin can see the self-deprecation sinking back under Kame's skin, quiet and benign as it should be and is now most of the time.
Jin looks back to the highway, stretching out in front of them far into the darkness like the roots of a giant vine. They're not far from the next tangle of an interchange -- so many routes and paths converging together to form new roads with different names and numbers, heading off in every direction across the country.
They've both come a long way to get here.
"Shinkansens are fucking expensive," he says, as if that explains it all.
"Okay, you drove back from Hokkaido...?" Asako's not really sure if she believes him or not. Last time he said he was in Hokkaido, she'd wound up riding an ambulance to hospital with Yukari and he'd casually turned up in the waiting room an hour later to drive her home.
"Drove back from Hokkaido and some arse had taken up the rent on the place in Kabukicho -- 's the only reason I left's cos I thought the place'd still be empty when I got back."
"Where are you living now?"
"Now?" He blinks a second. Her interruption has knocked the needle off his record, and he's not exactly sure where to set it going from again. "Now, Yukari... she's got this place, she found it through a classmate or an ex- or something, I'm living there. For now." He blinks again, takes an absent drag on his cigarette, and she sees the moment when it twigs, that he hasn't actually answered her question. "Kanda. It's five floors up in Kanda."
"Ah," she says, for something to say. Conversations with Natsu are always like this, circling round some vague point in the centre that won't stop shifting.
"And what about you?" he asks, turning to glance at her through the screen of smoke as he breathes out. Like the incense box her mother keeps by the family altar, a hundred years old, the lacquer burnished with a century's soot and scent, his eyes are too old for his face and far too dark, the kind of darkness that demons and dream-eaters haunt. More than once looking him straight in the face had left a strange fear gnawing at her insides. Now, though...
Maybe it's the smoke, or the way the light's falling from the sunset and the streetlamp overhead, but there's no nightmares staring out at her now. The water in the bay looks more sinister. There's something in him, a contentment that he'd never found in LANDS. It's odd that she's remembering him now as he was with the band, his stupid smiles and gestures in rehearsals, tripping over his own feet and plowing into Kenji backstage, trying to cheer up the ever-storming Arumi and being threatened with death for his trouble. Asako had laughed at him, she couldn't help herself, and whatever the curse or gesture, he'd bite it off, shove his hands in his pockets, and let an embarrassed and grudging half-smile show. As if her laughter made the abuse worth it.
'And what about you?'
What about her?
Maybe, in those moments, she'd loved him a little.
"I've got a place in Kawasaki. Miharu does a lot of shows in Yokohama, it's a lot cheaper getting a taxi back if we miss the last train."
She feels a touch of guilt lying to him, even for something as small as this -- the bento her mother handed her this morning digs a little in her ribs. But she'll be living in Kawasaki soon enough.
Jin holds up a hand even as Kame's taking breath to ask why.
Natsu only nods, his thoughts somewhere else. Maybe the thought of following her home never entered his head, but Asako's not really sure she wants to take the risk: three years she's worked for what peace of mind she has. Though, from the relaxed lines on his face, maybe in those years Natsu found a little of himself too.
"Yukari said you were recording today," she says.
"Are you with another band or...?" she asks when he doesn't elaborate.
"Fuck no. Tried that after Hokkaido, ended up in a war zone worse than LANDS. Head of the company reckons I don't play well with others." He chuckles at that, a ghost and a memory of the self-loathing that had clung to his back like a hair shirt. "Nah, Yukari dusted me off and dragged me back into a recording booth after that. She's a bitch most of the time but gotta give her credit, she scored me a solo debut. It's what we were working on today."
The indigos and purples of a Tokyo dusk are darkening and bleeding into each other like drops of dye, they move in ever-widening circles over the surface of the sky. Asako remembers the state of Natsu's hands some mornings, after he'd been up writing all night with studio markers on the back of sheet music.
Natsu's cigarette's gone out. She watches him, watches the thought play over his face, wondering if it's worth the effort to try and coax a spark from his dead lighter. This time, his lazy streak wins out. He pivots slowly round, gravel grinding under his feet, to fold his arms over the top bar of the fence and flicks the cigarette butt down into the water. For a moment they watch it, a pale smudge against the ink black and then it's gone. And then it's just the two of them, his elbow almost touching hers but not quite.
"Did Yukari tell you I've got a kid?" he asks casually. He's looking out to the lights on the opposite shore, so he doesn't see Asako's struggle to keep her jaw from dropping. Not that she's surprised, but . . . no, actually she is. Very surprised.
"No." She manages at least to keep her voice steady.
"Yeah, a little girl. She'll be a year old come March. I try and see her as much as I can, but her mum doesn't like me hanging around -- grandparents don't approve, all that shit." He looks over, strands of hair falling in his eyes and he rakes them back, vaguely annoyed when they fall straight back into place. Asako tries to keep her face blank of shock and a traitorous rush of guilt. "You wanna see her?"
He's already digging in his pockets before Asako can decide either way.
The photo he pulls out of his wallet is a little creased and worn around the edges, a bit like Natsu himself. It's the only influence he has in his daughter's life, to be the man that keeps her picture and carries it with him everywhere he goes, never forgetting. His daughter sits on a sheepskin blanket, wearing a striped yellow dress and a sunflower hat. She has a curled hand up to her mouth and she's giggling at something. The delighted little crinkles around her eyes look as if they're saying 'I know everything about you'.
"What's her name?"
"Natsuki." Of course. She's Natsu before he fell.
"Yeah, she is."
Even with the fat in her cheeks and the two dimples on each elbow, there's no question this little girl is Natsu's. She has the same slight cleft in her chin and her wide black eyes like peeled almonds are angled just a touch outward. They're clay figurines, she and Natsu, shaped by the same sculptor's hands, the same thumbs tweaking their edges and smoothing their lines. The same fingerprints are embedded just under the surface of their skin.
Asako hands over the photo -- watches Natsu take it back almost reverently -- and wonders if one day this little baby will grow up to break as many hearts as her father has.
"It's funny." He doesn't slip Natsuki's picture immediately away, for a second just stares down at his child's mischievous face and chubby hands. "Shiori turned me down too when I asked her. You know, if she wanted to get married."
"Huh?" Jin has one hand on the wheel and the other buried in a bag of grilled salt chips, all Kame had brought back from the combini where he'd ducked in to use the bathroom. Kame's curled up in the passenger seat facing him, an omniscient look glowing on his face and Jin will do just about anything to prove him wrong, if just because the man's usually right. "Stop what?"
"Projecting." Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a soft little moue of affection stretching Kame's mouth and hollowing his cheeks.
"What do you mean?"
"Natsu doesn't have a baby. However much you might want him to." And Kame reaches in for another chip. Their hands brush, oily and salt-rubbed, inside the bag. Jin's never met anyone fussier about their food.
"How would you know?" Sounding more petulant than Jin intended or would have liked. Kame takes a delicate half-moon bite out of his chip and swallows it down before finishing the rest.
"He didn't give up on Asako, not even after she said no, and you know what came of that." Kame shifts a little. Jin can feel the man's eyes boring into his left shoulder, right where the ball joint slips into the socket. "Would you be happy, living away from a child of yours?"
"Of course not, but that's differ--!"
"So would he look so content, carrying his daughter's picture everywhere and not knowing when or if he'll ever see her again? Would he be able to sing like that, living away from a little girl who'd mean more to him than probably anything else in Tokyo?"
". . . no."
Jin pulls his hand away empty from the bag, his appetite gone, swept away with the heat from the air conditioning vents. His fingers are covered in salt. He wipes them on his jeans without thinking. There'll be tiny oil stains on the denim when he takes them off tonight.
With sleepy movements, Kame reaches over and pulls Jin's hand into his lap, rests it on his bent knee, between his palms. It's his way of soothing and placating, no words, just gentle touches over Jin's skin. No harm done.
"And besides, I want a happy ending to this story." He lifts Jin's hand to his lips then, presses a kiss against the flat of his fingernails. "After all they went through, don't they deserve that much?"
Just like us? Jin thinks and the smile he can feel stretching against his skin tells him Kame's thinking it too. To rather stay close and corrode than even consider letting go. There's not many people who could forgive someone for feeling that deeply, but Kame had, and maybe Asako would too.
Gently, gently, Kame licks the last of the salt from Jin's fingers.