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In your dreams

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The forest surrounds him on all sides, thick vines and branches snake out like a protective wall between him and the rest of the world. He walks through the narrow hiking trail, careful not to trip over tree roots and rocks in the way.

Finally, he sees it: A massive tree, towering over the rest of the forest like a wise old grandfather looking over all his children. He feels a sense of calm spreading over him as he looks up at the ancient tree. He feels so tiny in comparison, but also a strange feeling of comfort. The leaves on the branches rustle quietly as a gentle breeze passes through.

He reaches out to place his hand on the tree trunk…

And Yamada wakes up, blinking away the grogginess and wondering why his neck feels stiff.

“…to work today…” He can hear a voice speaking somewhere nearby, but he’s not awake enough to focus on it yet. Yamada rolls over to go back to sleep but is greeted with only air and then a face-full of floor. The jolt to his system wakes him up enough to realize he’d just rolled off of a couch, and that’s when he remembers that he had fallen asleep in Chinen’s apartment.

“Good morning,” he mumbles out, belatedly realizing that Chinen’s voice must have been the one he’d heard a second ago.

“I said,” Chinen repeated, “I think you’re supposed to work today. Your phone won’t stop ringing.”

Yamada bolts straight upright. “Shit.” He fumbles around for his phone and checks his messages. Once he sees the information about a newly scheduled meeting for his supposed day off, Yamada groans but resists the urge to bang his head on his friend’s coffee table.

“If you have a few minutes,” Chinen’s voice continues from somewhere, “I’m trying to make you breakfast.”

The idea of Chinen cooking fills him with more dread than being late for his meeting. “You don’t have to do that,” he says as he rushes to the kitchen where Chinen is trying to pick eggshells out of his half-cooked omelet.

“But it’s the least I can do if you have to work today after we stayed up so late last night,” Chinen protests, even as Yamada unceremoniously dumps the whole omelet in the trashcan.

“Did Keito leave already?” Yamada asks to change the subject. Food poisoning is not on his agenda for today. It’s bad enough that his eyes still burned from staring at the TV during their late-night video gaming session. He doesn’t need his stomach to feel the same.

Chinen nodded. “Yeah, Hikaru dropped by to pick him up early. They had plans today or something. Idk, I didn’t really ask.” He shrugged and sat at the table to watch Yamada hastily throw some bread into the toaster.

“Can I borrow a suit?” Yamada asks while he waits for the bread to crisp up. Not the best breakfast he’d ever had, but it’ll do on short notice. “I don’t have time to go home and change.”

Chinen disappears wordlessly into his bedroom for a bit, leaving Yamada with a suddenly calmer empty kitchen. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. The tree from the dream pops into his head, like it’s supposed to be comforting, but he doesn’t really have time to try to dwell on interpretations of the dream right now.

“Does this match?” Chinen’s voice brings him back to reality. He sees his friend standing in the doorway, holding up a jacket and pants while waiting for an answer. Yamada just nods. His toast is ready and time is running out for him to make it to the office.

Chinen sits back down at the kitchen table, snagging one of the pieces of toast for himself. He’s looking at Yamada with a calculating expression as he chews, like he can see right through Yamada’s skin and all of his vulnerabilities and flaws are like exposed wounds. Chinen has always been able to do that. It’s the downside of having a best friend, he supposes.

“What did you dream about last night?” Chinen asks.

He knows why Chinen is asking. He’s trying to be helpful, but Yamada doesn’t have time for a discussion on dreams and potential soulmates right now.

“What did you dream about?” Yamada shoots back instead. He’s just finished devouring his toast, and he’s shamelessly switching his clothes right in the middle of the kitchen. Chinen’s pants are just a smidge too short, but they’ll do for today.

“I dreamed about the ocean,” Chinen answers, looking wistful. “Like always. Endless wave after wave crashing on the shore.” He hesitates and adds, “I don’t think I’ll ever find my soulmate.”

“Don’t say that,” Yamada answers automatically, because Chinen says this at least once every few weeks. He pats down his pockets to make sure he’s slipped in his wallet and his phone. “Your mermaid man is out there somewhere.” The mermaid joke usually makes Chinen laugh.

Today, Chinen merely rolls his eyes. “Bring me my clothes back later, okay?”

Yamada nods and heads for the door. He wishes for a moment that he’ll be surrounded by a dense forest once he steps outside, ready to sweep him up in a warm embrace. But he knows that’s just silly wishful thinking.

And Yamada’s never had time for that.

***

It is a well-known fact that the universe works in strange ways, but Yamada thinks the whole soulmate thing is the strangest of all.

“There’s someone out there for you, just waiting to fall in love,” his parents had told him when he was a kid, when he got old enough to remember his dreams. Dreams of places he’d never seen and things he’d never done before.

Those were his soulmate’s dreams. And somewhere in the world, his mysterious soulmate was experiencing Yamada’s dreams too. They would keep dreaming about each other’s life until the day they finally fall in love. Then they’d start sharing dreams, experiencing them as one just as their lives merged together.

Yamada isn’t really a fan of the system. It always seemed needlessly complicated to him. Why doesn’t the universe just send him a piece of paper from the sky with the guy’s name printed on it? That would save everybody a lot of time and effort.

Mostly, Yamada just tries to ignore his dreams because he doesn’t have time for love. The recurring one about the tree is always the hardest one to shake, although it’s not as bad now as it was when he first started dreaming about it three years ago.

Yamada rushes across the courtyard towards the office building, trying to resist the urge to run and look less professional. But just as he’s almost there, someone crashes into him and he feels something hot running down his sleeve.

Yamada swings around to see another guy in a business suit, looking at him with wide eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” the person exclaims, standing there looking shocked and guilty about running into Yamada. His fingers are still clutching a now-empty coffee cup, and his arms fidget frantically as he tries to figure out how to clean up the mess he’s just made.

Yamada fruitlessly tries to use his hands to wipe away the coffee soaking into his clothes. The other guy is still apologizing in a panic.

“Really, I’m so sorry,” the guy continues, words spilling just as easily out of his mouth as the coffee had. “I just didn’t see you there. I’ll pay to clean your jacket, I’ll buy you a free coffee or something. Anything you want. I’m just really sorry.” He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and offers it to Yamada to help clean up a bit.

“Don’t worry about it,” Yamada says, although he’s really frustrated because now he’s late and sticky and he smells like espresso. The handkerchief at least mops up enough of the coffee to keep it from dripping down his sleeve anymore.

But the guy is persistent. “Really, I insist,” he continues. “What time do you get off work? I’ll meet you out here and pay you back as an apology.”

If he wasn’t running so late, Yamada would have kept arguing, but there’s no time to keep pushing the issue now. “Probably around 4, but I can’t guarantee that for sure.”

“No worries, I’ll wait until you get here,” the guy says. There’s an awkward pause before he apologizes for having to rush off, and then he dashes away again, running towards another of the nearby office buildings.

Yamada takes a deep breath to calm his frustration. Whoever that guy was, Yamada didn’t like him. A free coffee and a dry-cleaning ticket weren’t going to change that.

***

“Whatcha looking at?” Yuto’s voice startles him, making Yamada jump back from the window in a hurry.

“Nothing,” Yamada answers quickly and turns his attention back to the papers scattered on his desk, even though he’s finally done with work for today. He shuffles a few documents around to make it look like he’s searching for something, but his coworker knows him better than that by now.

“You were definitely looking at something,” Yuto says as he casually breezes across Yamada’s office to step up to the window himself. “Are there street performers outside? Someone giving away free food? Is it that crazy guy who yells a lot again??”

Yuto presses his nose up against the glass and then sighs when he doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the courtyard down below. “I was kinda hoping it was street performers again. They’re so cool.”

Yamada gives up and joins him at the window. He points down to the stranger patiently sitting on a bench, eyes scanning the courtyard like he’s waiting to meet someone. “That’s the guy who spilled coffee on me this morning,” he explains. “He said he’d make it up to me after I got off work today.”

Yuto’s eyebrows shoot halfway up his forehead. “Well, what are you still doing up here? We’re done for today. He’s waiting for you.” Yuto lightly pushes Yamada in the direction of the door.

Yamada is too tired to explain his frustrations to Yuto, and he figures that he’s made the stranger wait long enough. He’s watched the guy sit patiently on that bench for half an hour already. That’s a lot more patience than Yamada would have had.

“Okay, fine. You’ve convinced me,” Yamada sighs.

Yuto beams as Yamada heads for the door. “You better tell me all about this tomorrow, okay?”

When Yamada gets outside, the stranger spots him immediately, throwing his hand up to wave excitedly. It’s this kind of enthusiasm that makes Yamada want to take a step back, although thankfully the guy has no drinks in his hands this time. Instead, he’s already started digging through his wallet for the money he promised Yamada to clean the suit.

“I didn’t get to introduce myself before, but I’m Arioka Daiki,” the stranger says as he holds out several thousand yen for Yamada to take. “Again, I’m really sorry about running into you this morning. I’d overslept through my alarm and my train was delayed, so I was already running late. And then my usual coffee shop was crowded. You know usually I time it so I miss the big morning rush. Anyway, there’s a big project I’m working on at my job, so I was rushing to the office so I wouldn’t get reprimanded too badly, and that’s when I ran into you.”

Yamada just blinks because he doesn’t know how else to respond to the sudden onslaught of words from this Daiki fellow. Finally, he just shrugs and mutters “shit happens,” hoping that Daiki won’t dwell on it too much.

“If you want me to buy you a coffee or an ice cream or something too, I wouldn’t mind,” Daiki offers. He seems a bit calmer now that he knows he isn’t going to get yelled at. “I’m really not always such a klutz. It’s just been one of those days, you know.”

Yamada would have turned down the coffee offer—he’s had to smell the coffee stain on his arm all day long—but the mention of ice cream grabs his attention. That wouldn’t be so bad. He supposes that he deserves ice cream after the day he’s had. Not that he really wants to spend much more time with this Daiki guy, but he could manage it with free ice cream.

So he agrees and follows Daiki to a nearby ice cream shop, listening to the guy ramble the whole way there. Yamada only contributes to the conversation briefly to give his name. It’s not so bad though to listen to Daiki speak. The guy talks a lot, mostly about meaningless things, but he’s so cheerful about it that it’s hard for Yamada to stay completely grumpy.

“What flavor do you like?” Daiki asks when they get to the counter.

“Strawberry,” he answers automatically. He had never been able to resist strawberry-flavored things of any kind.

“Sounds like a good choice,” Daiki smiles and then orders the same thing for himself too.

Once they have their ice cream and settle down at a table by the shop’s front window, the conversation casually switches from Daiki’s one-sided monologue to a more balanced back-and-forth chat. Perhaps it’s simply the ice cream, but Yamada finds himself more and more comfortable talking to this new guy. And it helps that they both find common ground in complaining about their dull office jobs.

In fact, Yamada almost thinks he might have a new acquaintance to occasionally eat lunch with right up until the point where Daiki mentions the topic of dreams.

“This ice cream really is delicious,” Daiki says between bites. “I don’t know why I waited so long to try it, because I actually dream about strawberry-flavored food a lot. Do you ever have food-related dreams like that?”

Yamada freezes with the spoon in his mouth, the flavor of the ice cream suddenly going sour on his tongue. Sure, he’s dreamed about food before, but those were always much more nonsensical than his other dreams that he tried not to pay any attention to them. He always figured his soulmate was just really weird about food, and he didn’t care to think any further than that.

Daiki doesn’t seem to have noticed Yamada’s reluctance to discuss the subject because he continues speaking while pulling a tiny notebook out of his pocket. “Have you met your soulmate yet?” he asks. “I’ve always thought the dream aspect of it was such a fascinating idea. I write down all the dreams I think are important here, so that I’ll know when I find him. Or at least, I hope that’ll work anyway.”

Yamada has a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach and it’s got nothing to do with how fast he’s been eating the ice cream.

Daiki flips through a few pages and then shows the notebook covered in his messy handwriting to Yamada. “See, here’s one about strawberries. What about you?”

“Mostly I try to ignore my dreams,” Yamada answers. He thinks back to the dreams he has that aren’t about the giant tree—dreams of a comfortable home and loving family, video games, a feeling of being surrounded by lots of friends, his fingers over a DJ turntable. Lots of things that blur together in his memory now because he doesn’t keep track. The images usually fade but the feelings linger a little longer.

He would mention the tree, but the feeling associated with it seems so personal, too deep, to share with someone he’s only just met. But the DJ turntables are a recent dream and perhaps something he could casually mention.

Daiki’s eyes widen slightly with excitement. “I DJ at parties on the weekends sometimes,” he says, the words spilling out of his mouth like he’s too excited to hold them back. “I started taking lessons a few years ago, and it’s been really fun.”

Daiki pauses as though he’s trying to match up several thoughts in his head.

“I wonder…” he muses to himself before offering his notebook to Yamada. “Are these your dreams?”

Yamada feels like the vines from the forest dream have wrapped themselves around his insides, slowly squeezing all the air out of him. His heart thumps in a mix of dread and excitement as he opens up the notebook to the most recent dreams.

In Daiki’s scribbles, he describes a dream about playing video games late at night, surrounded by the laughter of friends. The descriptions are hazy because the details seemed to have faded too quickly before Daiki could jot them down.

A dream before that: a dinner table full of homemade food, the dishes overflowing with the amount of cooking prepared. A feeling of pride and satisfaction as he sits down at the table and picks up his chopsticks.

Yamada remembers throwing a dinner party for his friends a few weeks ago, spending the whole day in the kitchen, making sure all his dishes turned out just right, feeling proud when everyone told him how delicious it was.

Another dream before that: a room full of candles, all flickering together in the darkness, feeling exhausted but enjoying being able to see the shadows dance across the ceiling.

Yamada remembers lighting all the candles Keito and Chinen gave him on the day he moved into his new apartment, feeling a little sad to leave his family behind but happy to finally be living on his own. Independent and free.

Another dream before that: graduation day, cherry blossoms blown by the wind sticking to his hair as he clutched tightly to his diploma.

Yamada remembers his mother laughing as she picked pink petals out of his hair that day.

Another dream before that: running on a soccer field, eyes focused on the soccer ball and nothing else, feeling exuberant as he finally scores, hearing the crowd cheer all around him.

Yamada remembers scoring a goal in his first soccer game back after he’d twisted his ankle, remembers feeling like he was the champion of the whole high school for a few minutes that day.

The dreams continue, further and further back, detailing his changing hobbies, his shifting interests, his family vacations. Anything. All of the dates in Daiki’s notebook matching with the dates in Yamada’s head.

It’s too much to handle all at once.

Without saying a word, Yamada drops the notebook to the table and jumps up. He runs out the door, leaving behind an empty cup of strawberry ice cream and a confused Daiki.

***

Yamada reaches up a hand to knock on the door, but it opens at just the right moment.

“Oh hi Yamada,” Hikaru says as he adjusts his shoe, looking a little surprised to see him standing on the doorstep. “You look like a mess.”

“Is Keito home?” Yamada asks, not bothering to explain or wait to be invited inside.

Hikaru nods even though Yamada has already walked past him, barely pausing long enough to toss his shoes off. He really needs to talk to Keito.

“I’m going out to pick up dinner,” Hikaru calls out after him, but Yamada doesn’t stop. “You want me to bring you something too?”

As Yamada makes his way deeper into the apartment, he can hear Hikaru answer his own question by saying he’ll bring a plate back for Yamada too, and then the front door clicks shut.

“There you are,” Yamada says as he spots Keito on the living room couch with a guitar across his lap. He’s squinting at some sheet music spread out on the floor.

Keito looks up and smiles, but it quickly disappears once he gets a better look at Yamada. “You look like a mess,” he says, repeating Hikaru’s earlier words. “What’s all over your arm?”

At this point, Yamada has almost forgotten the dried coffee stain adorned on his sleeve like a regrettable drunken tattoo. That’s the least of his worries right now, even if the coffee was what set this whole chain of events into motion this morning.

“Forget that,” Yamada waves off the concern. “I met my soulmate today.”

“What?!” Keito immediately springs up from the couch, sending his papers flying everywhere and almost drops his guitar on the floor. “That’s wonderful!”

“No it’s terrible!” Yamada shoots back. He runs his fingers through his hair, feeling stressed out as he begins to pace the music-free parts of the living room floor. He feels as though his whole world is spinning—like he’s wandered off the path and is now irredeemably lost in the forest. Keito’s apartment might be the only sane place left for Yamada.

He feels Keito’s hands grip his shoulders, halting his frantic pacing. His friend looks at him with familiar calming eyes, like an anchor he can grab hold to in his storm of emotions. “Okay, let’s breathe for a moment,” Keito says. “And let’s take off that suit because you smell like stale coffee. I’m sure I’ve got something around here you can wear.”

Once he had a comfortable pair of Keito’s pants and one of Hikaru’s old shirts, the two of them sit down so that he could explain his whole day. Yamada picks up Keito’s sheet music to give himself something to do with his hands while he talks. Keito listens patiently to Yamada, nodding every now and then until Yamada gets to the part where he ran away from the ice cream shop.

“You just left him there?” Keito asks, looking scandalized. “Ryosuke, that’s so rude!”

“I panicked,” Yamada explains. “I mean I…” He tries to find the right words for his swirling emotions. “I suddenly realized that this Daiki guy was my soulmate and I… I don’t like him. He’s not terrible, but he did spill coffee all over me and he talks so damn much, and I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to meet the guy I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with. I wasn’t looking to fall in love.”

He knows that his whole life is about to change. And he knows he’s not ready for that.

“And Chinen’s going to be so jealous,” Yamada mutters as an afterthought more to himself than Keito.

“Listen,” Keito begins, “I know that meeting your soulmate can be overwhelming at first, but give it time. The universe doesn’t make mistakes. You two are meant for each other.”

Yamada frowns and pretends to focus on shuffling through Keito’s pile of sheet music instead. He doesn’t really know any of the songs, but he can follow the melody a little bit, his eyes scanning across the black notes as they dance across the page.

“You’re just saying that because you got Hikaru as a soulmate,” Yamada grumbles in response. In hindsight, maybe he should have gone to Yuto for advice. At least Yuto would have offered him copious amounts of alcohol.

Sometimes Keito and Hikaru were so sickeningly cute together, he almost couldn’t bare to watch. They’d met two years ago and seemed like a perfect match from the start because of their love of playing music. Yamada had watched them fall in love quickly, had watched them mold their lives together—opening a music shop business and then moving into this apartment—until it was hard to remember what life had been like without the pair together.

The idea of being so dependent on someone else is terrifying. The idea of love has always seemed too synonymous with vulnerability for his taste.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Keito says. They can both hear the click of the front door as Hikaru returns with dinner for everyone. “I can’t explain it, but once you start sharing dreams, you’ll understand. It’ll be worth it.”

Yamada really wants to believe that, but skepticism is a hard habit to break.

***

The forest surrounds him on all sides, thick vines and branches snake out like a protective wall between him and the rest of the world. He walks through the narrow hiking trail, careful not to trip over tree roots and rocks in the way.

Finally, he sees it: A massive tree, towering over the rest of the forest like a wise old grandfather looking over all his children. He feels a sense of calm spreading over him as he looks up at the ancient tree. He feels so tiny in comparison, but also a strange feeling of comfort. The leaves on the branches rustle quietly as a gentle breeze passes through.

He reaches out to place his hand on the tree trunk…

And Yamada wakes up to the sound of his alarm ringing. He winces as he shakes off the grogginess, but the peaceful feeling from the dream lingers. He doesn’t understand why the tree is so important that it appears so often now, but he somehow doesn’t mind it as much as any of his other dreams.

It’s been almost a week since he’d run away from Daiki in the ice cream shop. He called in sick to work all week to avoid meeting Daiki in the courtyard where he might be waiting before he headed to his own office. But Yamada’s running out of sick days and falling behind on his work is going to be a pain to deal with. Yuto might help him, but he’ll still have to do the bulk of it himself.

So he drags himself out of bed, knowing that it’s finally time to face reality.

Sure enough, he spots Daiki sitting patiently on a bench in the courtyard, waiting for him as he arrives.

“Hey,” Daiki calls out with a friendly wave. The motion catches Yamada off guard because he’d been sure he was going to get yelled at for being rude. But no, Daiki just seemed pleased to finally see him again. “I was worried about you. Your friend Yuto said you were out sick.”

Yamada vows to kick Yuto later, but he has other things to deal with first. “Uh yeah, wasn’t feeling well, but I’m better now.” I think, he adds silently. “Sorry for bailing on you before. I was kinda overwhelmed when I realized...”

Daiki nods and then gestures for Yamada to join him on the bench. “That’s to be expected,” he says. “I mean, I certainly didn’t plan to meet my soulmate either that day, especially not by pouring a bunch of coffee on him.” He looks at Yamada, eyes shining with innocence and kindness. “I’m not asking you to date me or fall in love with me right away. We did get off to a rough start after all. I just hope maybe we could be friends at least.”

It’s not an unreasonable request, and it’s only Yamada’s reluctance to build a relationship that holds him back from answering right away. He knows he’s not ready for a soulmate to spend the rest of his life with yet. He had only just begun figuring his life out. It’s stubborn and selfish but he’s not ready to give that up.

“Friendly acquaintances,” Yamada answers.

Daiki laughs, unfazed by how difficult Yamada is being.

“I’ve waited my whole life,” Daiki says, “What’s a little bit longer?”

***

For the next few weeks, Yamada only meets Daiki for lunch once or twice a week. They take turns picking a restaurant within walking distance of their office buildings. There are things that still annoy him—Daiki has an infuriating habit of stealing food off of Yamada’s plate— but Yamada starts to soften up a bit as he learns more about Daiki’s life. The other guy loves to talk so much, and he really shouldn’t have been surprised when so many of the stories Daiki tells matches up with the few dreams Yamada can remember from years past.

But Daiki never mentions the giant tree, and Yamada doesn’t have the courage to ask about it yet.

The lunch meetups continue, but without Yamada even consciously realizing it, they begin to meet up more and more often as well. They trade off video games after work every couple of days, looking like a pair of incompetent drug dealers as they sneakily hand each other the colorful game cartridges. And then there’s one Sunday afternoon where Daiki convinces Yamada to go play soccer with him and his friend Yabu in the park. He hadn’t had the opportunity to run like that since high school, and he was grateful for the invitation.

So now that a few months have passed and Daiki is starting to seem like a fixture in his life that isn’t going away anytime soon, Yamada decides to plan a dinner party for his friends and include Daiki as well.

“Are you sure you need this much rice?” Chinen complains as he drops the grocery bag to the counter in Yamada’s kitchen. He dramatically droops over against the sink like he’d just been forced to carry a giant boulder up a hill. “This seems a bit like overkill.”

“Hey,” Yamada protests from the stove where he’s keeping a watchful eye on three different pots of boiling foods. “I’m the one cooking here, so I’ll decide what’s overkill or not.”

Chinen shrugs as he realizes his act isn’t getting any sympathy, and then hops up to sit on an empty part of the counter. “Well, I think it’s cute that you’re trying to impress Daiki, and it’s nice that the rest of us get some good food in the process too.” He picks up a jar from the counter and shakes it to figure out what’s inside.

Yamada glares at Chinen and takes the jar away before returning his attention to the stove. “I’m not trying to impress anyone. This is just how I cook for my friends. Go be useful and set the table or something.” He shoos Chinen off the countertop and away from all his hard work.

He can hear the plates and silverware clinking together as Chinen pulls everything out for the table.

“One for Ryosuke, one for mysterious Daiki,” Chinen mutters to himself loud enough for Yamada to just barely hear over the boiling water. “One for Keito, one for Hikaru, one for Yuto, none for Yuto’s girlfriend who’s still out of the country on her business trip. And then one for me, all by myself. Hm… I think this plate is cracked.” He stops talking as he rummages through the cabinet again.

A pang of guilt washes over Yamada, knowing how badly Chinen wants to meet his own soulmate. And Yamada, who hadn’t even been looking for his, managed to beat him to it. He didn’t want to be happy when his best friend wasn’t, no matter how supportive Chinen was trying to be. What he needed to do was just try to cheer Chinen up as much as he could.

“Thanks for coming over early to help me out,” Yamada says once Chinen pops back into the kitchen.

“Of course,” Chinen laughs as he rolls his eyes. “Who else could help? You know Yuto would have broken all of your dishes somehow and Keito would have accidentally set the kitchen on fire.”

Yamada scoffs. “Keito wouldn’t have set the kitchen on fire.”

“Oh, did you not hear that story from Hikaru??” Chinen’s eyes widen as he suddenly realizes he has good gossip to share. He climbs back up to sit on the counter. “Let me tell you all about it…”

This is better, Yamada thinks. Just the two of them chatting about their friends with the topic of soulmates far from anyone’s mind. It’s what the two of them have always done. By the time the food is prepared and everyone else shows up to Yamada’s apartment, Chinen is thankfully in a much better mood and even Yamada feels calmer about everything.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to Yamada that Daiki gets along easily with all his friends. Yamada spends a good portion of the dinner just watching him interact with everyone, feeling amazed that Daiki could juggle so many conversations so easily. He and Yuto laugh over a new movie they’d both seen. He discusses his weekend DJ job with Hikaru and Keito, looking overjoyed when they tell him they sell turntable stuff and vinyl records at their music shop. Daiki even miraculously finds something to talk about with Chinen even though Chinen is notoriously bad at talking with new people.

Yamada watches Daiki’s face light up as he laughs and listens and gives everyone encouragement in any topic they discuss. He’s almost blown away by Daiki’s amazingly optimistic attitude, his ability to see good in any situation.

It strikes Yamada how he’s quite the pessimist in comparison.

“You meeting Yama-chan by spilling coffee on him is pretty hilarious, but not as hilarious as how Hikaru and Keito met,” Yuto says, and then slaps the table while he laughs. “Come on, tell Daiki how you met.”

Hikaru grins and Keito just facepalms.

“I woke up one morning at my father’s house to find a bunch of flamingos in the front yard,” Keito begins to explain.

“Flamingos?!” Daiki exclaims over Yuto’s hysterical laughter, his eyes getting comically large. Even Yamada puts his hand over his mouth to hide his smile, knowing how this story ends.

“Plastic pink flamingos,” Hikaru clarifies. “I was trying to play a prank on someone, but I got the directions wrong and left them in the Okamoto yard instead. Best mistake I’ve ever made. Thankfully his dad wasn’t home that day.”

Daiki looks practically enthralled with the story, leaning forward and not even noticing that he’s dangerously close to putting his elbow in a bowl of soy sauce. “And then what happened?”

“Well, I sorta… volunteered to help him find the right yard…” Keito admits quietly. His cheeks turn a slight shade of red as he stares down at his plate.

“And the rest is history,” Hikaru concludes with a satisfied shrug. “The prank victim never knew what hit him. We make an excellent team.” He turns and hive-fives Keito, who still looks embarrassed but happy.

“That’s really awesome,” Daiki says. He glances over at Yamada and their eyes meet for a moment, before he quickly turns to focus on something else.

“Yeah it’s a fantastic story,” Chinen says in a biting sarcastic tone, from the end of the table where he’s digging into a pint of ice cream, looking every bit like the clichéd upset girlfriend character from any rom-com movie. Yamada’s not even sure when he sneaked off to the kitchen to steal the ice cream, since he’d been too focused on watching Daiki’s range of amazing facial expressions. “Some of us don’t have cute stories about meeting our soulmates because MINE IS A MERMAID.”

“Okay, buddy, that’s enough ice cream for you,” Yuto says and takes the tub away from Chinen like it had been a bottle of alcohol.

Daiki’s eyebrows furrow close together with concern as he tries to figure out the situation. The group, however, is quick to explain the mermaid joke and to also try to cheer Chinen up. Yamada chimes in a few times to negate a few of Hikaru’s unrealistically weird suggestions to make Chinen feel better, but for the most part, he keeps silent to see how things will play out.

“Why don’t you just go to the beach?” Daiki asks simply, not knowing that this suggestion had been rejected by Chinen years ago.

“He doesn’t know how to swim,” Yuto answers through a mouthful of ice cream which he’d started eating after taking it away from Chinen. Yamada glares at him to not finish off the whole container.

“I’ll teach you!” Daiki exclaims with so much excitement that they all sort of lean away from the table in shock.

“But I—”

Daiki cuts Chinen off before he can list the reasons why he’s afraid of drowning and the ocean. “There’s a local pool I go to that’s not too crowded,” he explains. “It’ll be easier there and very safe. Come on, let me help you out! I promise I’m a fun teacher.” Daiki smiles brightly at Chinen until the younger guy finally sighs and reluctantly nods.

“Okay,” Chinen says, although Yamada is absolutely sure that Chinen will figure out how to wiggle his way out of actually going to the pool later.

Now that the conversation had calmed down a bit, Keito chimes in to offer help washing the dishes while Hikaru whines that Yuto won’t share any of the ice cream. Yamada thinks it’s probably about time to wrap up this dinner party.

Yamada only has a few plates left to wash by the time Hikaru drags Keito home and Yuto rushes off to call his girlfriend. He can hear Daiki and Chinen talking quietly just outside the kitchen.

“Maybe I’m not the best person to give advice when it comes to soulmates,” Daiki says, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea to just waste away waiting for him to appear, you know.”

Yamada wishes he hadn’t missed the beginning of the conversation, and he slows his scrubbing so that he can hear better. He needs to be ready to jump in if Chinen starts to get upset again.

“What do you mean?” Chinen asks.

“I mean, like, go out and live your life,” Daiki answers. “Don’t let opportunities pass you by just because you’re sitting around in your house waiting for your soulmate to magically appear. I used to think like that too, you know. But then I realized that doesn’t help anyone. It just makes you miserable. I know we just met, but you seem like a wonderful person. Don’t hold yourself back and stay miserable. Don’t come learn to swim with me because it’ll help you find your soulmate. Do it because you want to swim. That’s all I’m trying to say. It’s up to you.”

Yamada is a bit surprised by Daiki’s words. He has a hard time imagining Daiki as someone so desperate to find his soulmate that he was miserable. He wonders if he should ask about it later, but he also doesn’t want to admit to eavesdropping on a personal conversation.

There’s a silence as Chinen thinks over his words before answering. “I never thought about it that way.”

“Just give me a call whenever you want to go to the pool,” Daiki says, and even though Yamada can’t see his face, he’s sure Daiki is smiling brightly again.

“I will.”

Daiki pokes his head into the kitchen and Yamada scrambles to look busy, dropping a plate into the sink and admiring the splashing sound it makes.

“Hey, I’ve got to head home,” Daiki says, hardly even taking a moment to breath between words, “but thanks so much for dinner. You sure you don’t need any more help?”

“I’m good,” Yamada answers with a soggy thumbs up as the suds drip off his hands. “Hope you enjoyed the food.”

“I’m so stuffed, I won’t need to eat for a week,” Daiki grins. Yamada only rolls his eyes, but he’ll admit Daiki’s enthusiasm is infectious.

Once Daiki is gone, Chinen comes into the kitchen and grabs a few dry dishes to put away. “He’s a good guy,” he says quietly. “I’m really happy for you, and I’m sorry I was being ridiculous during dinner.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yamada says. He thinks maybe it was better for Chinen to get it all off his chest at once. Looking back now, he had neglected his best friend the past few weeks because he was busy trying to balance his new friendship-relationship-thing (or whatever he should call it) and because he didn’t know how to make Chinen feel better either. Guilt piles up inside him because it felt like he’d abandoned his best friend.

“You know… Yuto stole the rest of the ice cream…” Yamada says, getting a sudden idea. “Let’s go out and get more.” He gives Chinen the same devious grin he always does when he suggests an adventure.

Chinen laughs. “You’re buying.”

“Of course I am,” Yamada half-chuckles, half-sighs, but he doesn’t really mind. Chinen needs him, and he’s going to make up for lost time.

***

Yamada wakes up from a dream about DJ turntables. He tries to hold onto the pleasant feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. In the dream, he’d just let the music wash over him as his fingers moved automatically. The images in the dream—the dancing crowd, the vinyl records underneath his fingertips—are harder to grasp as he becomes progressively more awake, but the comfortable happy feeling lingers.

It’s a welcome change from the persistent dream about the tree.

He’s known Daiki for a couple months now, and he can safely say that they’ve become friends, but he doesn’t think he’s in love yet. Hell, they’re not even really dating or anything like that. Just hanging out when their schedules match up. With that thought in mind, he thinks maybe he should go talk to Keito.

The music store is not particularly crowded when he arrives. Hikaru is helping a young customer interested in guitars, but Keito is just organizing records in the music section of the store.

“Hey Jude,” Keito says with a dorky laugh once he spots Yamada walking towards him. Yamada tilts his head in confusion for a second before he realizes the record Keito is holding is actually the Beatles song. Keito slips it into the right place and then turns all his attention to his friend. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to look at the music,” Yamada answers as he browses over the choices in front of him. He can’t bring himself to mention the real reason why he’s here, suddenly feeling embarrassed.

“Looking for something for Daiki?” Keito asks.

“No,” he answers but Keito is already digging out records to place in his hands.

“How are things with you two lately?” Keito continues as he shuffles through the music for something in particular.

Yamada realizes that he doesn’t even know what kind of music Daiki likes, although Daiki strikes him as the kind of person who would like everything. But even someone who enjoys it all has a few preferences.

“What happens if I never fall in love with my soulmate?” he finally blurts out.

Keito looks at him and laughs. “You worry too much, Ryosuke. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“You do, at least once a week,” he replies. He arbitrarily picks up a record with a colorful cover to add to the stack already in his arms. Daiki’s sunny demeanor always makes Yamada think of bright colors.

“You two are meant to be together, even if you can’t see it yet,” Keito says.

Yamada wants to feel reassured by these words, but it’s hard when he has Keito and Hikaru as a comparison. “You and Hikaru fell in love, what— two weeks?—after you first met. It’s been five months for me. What if the universe made a mistake and we’re not really compatible at all?”

Although deep down in a part of his mind he wants to ignore, he might admit he finds Daiki attractive. Sometimes.

“You also overthink things too,” Keito rolls his eyes. He’s silent for a moment as he tries to gather his thoughts into words. Yamada watches as he glances across the room to Hikaru with a fond look on his face.

When Keito finally speaks again, it’s not what Yamada was expecting. “You ever notice when you spill drops of water on certain types of fabric that the water doesn’t soak all in at once? Sometimes it just sits on top like a shiny diamond for a long time until it finally works its way into the fabric. Love is like that too for some people. They don’t always mesh together right away.” Keito waves his hands in a few incomprehensible hand gestures as if that would help get his point across.

Yamada is a little stunned by the metaphor. He’ll need more time to think it all over, but at least it gives him a little peace of mind for now.

“Hey, that’s a pretty good metaphor,” Yamada says, putting on a more cheerful face for Keito. “Did you come up with that yourself?”

Keito blushes and turns his attention back to his records. Finally, he answers in a quiet voice that Hikaru had said it to him first.

After Yamada purchases a few of the recommended records, he browses around the shop. He can’t play any of the instruments, save a few notes on the saxophone, but he always enjoys looking at what the store has to offer. And before he leaves, he takes a moment to watch Keito and Hikaru interact. The two of them are having a quiet conversation by the cash register. Keito laughs at whatever Hikaru is joking about, and Hikaru reaches to brush a stray strand of hair out of Keito’s eyes. They look like they fit together so perfectly, like two trees that had grown up intertwined.

Yamada really needs to learn to stop comparing himself to others.

***

Everything reeks of chlorine and there’s a weird echo inside the building and the humidity makes it feel like he’s got a wet towel clinging to his skin, all of which serves to remind Yamada of how much he dislikes indoor pools. He takes a sip of his coffee and notes that it also has a hint of chlorine flavor to it. Or he could be imagining that.

It doesn’t much matter anyway as the lifeguard on duty sternly tells him that food and drinks are not allowed at the pool. Yamada reluctantly tosses the rest of his coffee in the trash, and then picks a spot on the edge to dip his feet in. Daiki’s already in the water and Chinen is slowly easing his way in as well.

Yamada’s here this morning for moral support. After a month of thinking about it, Chinen had finally decided to take Daiki’s offer of swimming lessons, but he still had asked Yamada to come along. He’s proud that Chinen was actually braving his fear of water to learn. He never thought he’d see the day.

There are only a few other people splashing around the pool right now, and most of them are diving in the deep end, so at least Chinen doesn’t have to worry so much about other people being in the way.

“First we’re going to float, okay?” Daiki says in his usual cheerful tone.

Yamada watches as Daiki explains and demonstrates what to do, and then Chinen slowly copies him. Every now and then, Chinen will glance over at Yamada, who gives him an encouraging thumbs up to keep him going. And if Daiki swims too close to him, he’ll splash some water at him for fun. He likes the partly annoyed look Daiki throws at him each time.

His mind wanders as the swim lesson continues, thinking back to earlier in the morning. Again, he’d woken up with the same dream about the huge tree. Yamada is beginning to see a pattern to when he dreams it. It tends to pop up whenever Daiki is concerned or worried over something and needs reassurance. He still hasn’t asked Daiki about it because it must be quite a personal memory if Daiki hasn’t already volunteered the information yet.

There isn’t much Daiki doesn’t talk about.

Yamada is curious but he doesn’t want to pry into it. Especially when it seems like the dreams Daiki experiences at night are much less exciting. Daiki had thrust that cup of coffee in his hand as soon as they’d met up that morning, saying that he’d dreamed about coffee last night and knew that’s what Yamada had wanted.

Now he wishes he’d been able to finish drinking it before he had to throw it away.

“You’re doing great,” Daiki says to Chinen as he finally gets the hang of treading water. But another person entering the pool area catches Daiki’s attention, and he stops to wave hello. Yamada isn’t surprised. He’s sure Daiki probably knows half of Tokyo.

“Oi Takaki,” Daiki calls out cheerfully to the other guy who’s tall and tan and has the sort of nice hair that makes Yamada jealous. “You working today?”

The guy—Takaki—shakes his head as he climbs into the pool. “Just came to swim a few laps for fun,” he explains and then adds a polite hello to Chinen. Daiki takes a moment to introduce them, explaining that Takaki Yuya works sometimes as the lifeguard at this pool and that Chinen is learning how to swim. Yamada watches to make sure Chinen isn’t ready to bolt at the addition of a new person, but Chinen seems calm. Perhaps knowing that Takaki is a certified lifeguard helps.

Instead of swimming like he’d intended, Takaki sticks around to help Daiki teach, and it’s not long before it’s clear that Takaki is the one with more expertise. By the time Daiki decides to take a break, Takaki has already gotten Chinen to swim halfway across the shallow end of the pool.

Daiki hops up on the side of the pool to sit beside Yamada. Water dripping off of Daiki lands on Yamada’s still-dry bathing suit, but before he can watch how fast the droplets soak into the fabric, he’s distracted by Daiki speaking.

“I hope you’re not incredibly bored,” he says. “But Chinen’s doing a great job so far.”

“I’m fine,” Yamada answers because, despite the cloying chlorine smell, he’s enjoyed watching Daiki’s lessons. “But I think my toes are getting prune-y. Do you want to walk around the pool for a bit?” He can still keep an eye on Chinen while they walk.

“Sure,” Daiki hops up.

“Thanks for helping out Chii,” Yamada says quietly as they start walking, leaving a trail of wet footprints on concrete in their wake. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop that night, but I heard what you told him at my dinner party. About going out and living instead of waiting around for his soulmate to appear? I think that’s something he needed to hear from someone other than me.”

Shrugging a bit sheepishly, Daiki smiles. “I was just speaking from experience,” he admits. “And he seemed so upset that night, I just wanted to help however I could.”

Yamada appreciates how Daiki always wants to help others, and he wants Daiki to know just how much he’s helping Chinen now. “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever see him learn to swim or even attempt to get in a pool. He’s pretty terrified of water even if he hides it well.”

Daiki looks shocked. “He does hide it well. I really had no idea.” He glances back to where Chinen is watching Takaki demonstrate proper form for the breaststroke.

“He almost drowned in the ocean when he was around four years old,” Yamada explains. “Another older kid happened to be nearby and pulled him out in time, but of course the whole experience was traumatizing. And it doesn’t help that most of his dreams are about the ocean, so for years they were more like nightmares to him.”

“That’s awful,” Daiki frowns. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have insisted on forcing him to swim.”

Yamada laughs a little. “The important thing to know about Chinen is that you can’t force him to do anything. He’s here today because he actually wants to swim, amazingly enough. Honestly, the older we get, the better he seems to handle his fear. I think he started getting obsessed with meeting his soulmate as a way to cope. But I don’t really know. I’ve known Chinen forever but he’s a hard person to figure out.”

“He’s not the only one,” Daiki teases to lighten the mood.

“I have no idea who you’re talking about,” Yamada plays along, trying to look as innocent as possible.

“Sure you do,” Daiki continues with a grin. “He’s a short guy with—woah—”

As soon as the word “short” comes out of Daiki’s mouth, Yamada’s arm automatically shoots out to push Daiki into the pool. The splash he makes is immensely satisfying, and Yamada doesn’t even care that everyone else in the pool is staring at him as he laughs. Daiki pops back up to the surface quickly and vows revenge, reaching out for Yamada’s ankles.

Yamada immediately escapes, ignoring the lifeguard yelling at him that there’s no running allowed at the pool. There’s no way he’s going to let Daiki catch him and win.

***

Yamada lands an important project at work, and for the next few weeks, all thoughts of love and normal everyday life are pushed out of his head in favor of focusing on his task. He still spends time with Daiki, but he feels more distant because he can’t focus, and he worries that he’s disappointing Daiki somehow. Not that Daiki ever lets his optimistic demeanor slip, but Yamada has a gut feeling about it.

It’s late on a Tuesday night when Yamada leaves the office and finds Daiki waiting for him on the bench outside.

“You didn’t have to wait,” Yamada says, feeling guilty. He knows Daiki probably had planned on eating dinner with him, as they do most days now.

Daiki shrugs. “I don’t mind,” he answers. “Most places are closed, but I figure we can find at least one place still open for take-out and go eat at my place. It’s closer than yours.” He starts walking in the direction of all the nearby restaurants. “You look tired,” he adds, looking concerned.

Yamada wants nothing more than to lean against Daiki’s shoulder and fall asleep, but he can’t exactly do that while they’re walking down the sidewalk. “Work sucks,” Yamada whines, putting all his frustrations into one neat little complaint. Sometimes it feels better just to say things out loud and let them go.

“You’ll make it through,” Daiki encourages him by wrapping him up in a quick one-armed hug. “Don’t worry.”

After all these months becoming friends, this is the first time Yamada has actually been to Daiki’s apartment. He sets his takeout container on the kitchen table, not sure exactly what he expected but still shocked by how disorganized the whole apartment is. Not unclean, but it definitely looks like Daiki has too many things crammed into not enough space.

While they eat, he lets Daiki do most of the talking. Listening is easier, especially with work still hovering around the edges of his mind to distract him. He really needs something else to focus on, so he zones in on Daiki’s voice talking excitedly about some strange food he’d eaten the other day. He wonders if perhaps Daiki’s voice is what he likes most about the other guy. The way he stretches out some syllables and shortens others, the way the words roll off his tongue like butter. Daiki’s descriptions of foods are always borderline incomprehensible, but Yamada enjoys listening anyway.

But then Yamada’s phone rings to interrupt Daiki’s weird description of some melon bread he’d eaten last week. Chinen’s name comes up on the caller ID, and Daiki gestures for him to answer it.

I found my soulmate!” Chinen blurts out before Yamada can even say hello.

“Your mermaid man!? You found him?!” Yamada exclaims. Daiki’s eyes light up and he motions for Yamada to switch to speakerphone, just as eager to hear all the details too.

He’s not a mermaid,” Chinen protests after adding a quick hello to Daiki. “It’s Takaki from the pool. You remember him, right? We all went to dinner together last week.

Yamada did vaguely remember Daiki dragging him to dinner with Chinen, Takaki, and Yuto sometime not too long ago. He didn’t realize that Chinen had been hanging out with his swim teacher other than that though. Yamada suddenly feels worried that he’s been unintentionally neglecting Chinen again.

“If I had known it was Takaki,” Daiki says, “I would have introduced you two sooner.”

Chinen laughs. “It’s okay, Dai-chan. You helped plenty.” Yamada is glad to hear Chinen sounding so happy which helps to alleviate a lot of his worries. “And actually,” Chinen continues, “here’s where it gets really crazy. We were just talking about things and realized we’ve met before. Takaki was the kid who saved my life all those years ago. He pulled me out of the ocean the day I almost drowned. Can you believe that?

“What?!” Yamada shouts in disbelief before he can stop himself. He remembers the story of the day young Chinen had almost perished beneath the ocean’s waves. Chinen rarely spoke of it, but his sister had told Yamada the whole story about a slightly older boy who had saved him but then disappeared before they could even say thank you.

It’s amazing how life works out sometimes, right?

“So amazing,” Daiki agrees with a nod even though Chinen can’t see that. Yamada is too stunned by the coincidence to say anything else at the moment.

Anyway,” Chinen continues casually, as if they were just discussing the weather and not some life-changing event for him. “I’ll let you two get back to your date. Yuyan is waiting for me. Talk to you later!

Before Yamada can correct Chinen’s date assumption, the phone has already disconnected. “Yuyan?” he mutters in confusion. But before he can put his phone away again, he gets a quick text message from Chinen.

You don’t have to worry about me anymore, okay? You can live your life too.

Yamada shouldn’t be surprised that Chinen had known all along that Yamada had been holding back a little for the sake of Chinen’s happiness. Although even with Chinen’s blessing, he’s not sure he can let go of his stubborn inability to fall in love just yet. He feels like he’s on the precipice but too afraid to lean over the edge.

Daiki is grinning when Yamada looks up from his phone again. “You know what this means?” he says. “It means Chinen actually met his soulmate before any of us.”

Yamada groans. “Ugh, you know he’s going to be insufferable as soon as he figures that out,” he complains as Daiki laughs.

They get back to eating dinner, but the word date still rests on Yamada’s mind. He hadn’t thought of spending time with Daiki as a date, but he wonders if that’s how Daiki thinks of it. He wonders if Daiki is secretly disappointed because Yamada hasn’t been able to return his affection yet, like he’s some sort of defective toy not able to live up to performance standards of making people happy.

Daiki, oblivious to Yamada’s internal struggle, switches conversation topics randomly as usual to tell him about a small bookshelf he’d purchased last week on a whim. He points to the corner where it’s still resting in the box and explains that he was thinking about using it to store his growing video game and DVD collection.

“Daiki,” Yamada interrupts, “where the hell are you going to put a bookshelf in here?” He gestures to the crowded living room.

“Yeaaahhhh,” Daiki looks around the room as he sheepishly scratches his temple. “That’s why it’s still in the box.”

Yamada sets his chopsticks down on the table, feeling a bit more energized now that he has a mission in mind to distract him from his thoughts. “I’m going to find a space for it. I hope you don’t mind me rearranging the furniture.” He’s already pushed up his sleeves in preparation without waiting for Daiki to answer.

Daiki doesn’t seem to mind at all because he laughs at Yamada’s declaration. “If that’s what you want to do, go for it. Let me know what to do to help.”

They spend the next half hour moving things around and shuffling boxes of junk until they have a space next to the TV big enough for the shelf.

“Thanks for the help… wait, why are you opening the box?” Daiki looks confused as Yamada continues to work.

“Might as well put this together too while we’re at it,” he explains. Anything to keep his hands busy and his brain occupied so he doesn’t start thinking about things like soulmates and love and how stupidly domestic this is starting to feel. He dumps out the contents of the box onto the floor and starts sorting.

Putting together a so-called simple bookshelf turns out to be more frustrating than anticipated. They get into three separate arguments while putting the pieces together, twice over misinterpreting the directions, and once over the fact that they had to spend twenty minutes searching for a hammer in Daiki’s apartment until they found it in his closet.

(“Why was that even in there?” Yamada asks.

“Honestly… I don’t remember.”

“I’ll be coming back next week to reorganize your closet then,” Yamada says.)

But by the time every nail is in place and the bookshelf is sturdy enough to support the weight of Daiki’s video games and DVDs, Yamada feels a sense of accomplishment. He flops down like a starfish on the floor and sprawls out while Daiki lies down beside him with a satisfied sigh.

“You’re really amazing, you know,” Daiki says.

“It’s just a bookshelf,” Yamada answers. And he’s pretty sure the lower shelf is slightly crooked even if it still functions just fine.

“Yeah but it would have taken me at least three days to put it together,” Daiki insists. “I get distracted, and maybe I would have given up halfway instead. I don’t know. But anyway, I mean you’re amazing for more than just your household skills.”

Yamada keeps his eyes trained on the ceiling because he knows Daiki is looking directly at him, their bodies almost uncomfortably close. Yamada puts one hand over his eyes because all of a sudden he feels like crying for no reason and he doesn’t want to do that in front of Daiki.

“If I was really amazing, my job wouldn’t be causing me this much stress and exhaustion,” Yamada mutters, although work just scratches the surface of his worries.

Daiki’s hand grasps his own and pulls it gently away from his face. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, I want to forget about it. I wanna forget about everything,” Yamada answers impulsively and he makes the mistake of turning to look directly into Daiki’s eyes. There are so many emotions swirling around behind those brown eyes, a mix of sympathy and fondness and worry. And probably love too.

Yamada is almost certain Daiki wants to kiss him, as if that would make his problems magically disappear or at least provide some semblance of comfort to him. But the thought terrifies Yamada. A kiss would make everything from the past few months feel more real. It would mean pushing his off the precipice and onto a bridge of no return.

The tension of the moment, however, is broken by Daiki suddenly bolting straight upright from his spot on the floor. “I have an idea!” he exclaims and then scrambles to find his phone nearby. “There’s only one place to go when you’re having an existential life crisis.”

Yamada narrows his eyes suspiciously. “Am I having an existential life crisis? Do you even know what existential means?”

But Daiki isn’t paying much attention to his protests. “Perfect, there’s a red-eye flight we can catch if we leave right away for the airport.”

“The airport?!” Now Yamada bolts up off the floor too and follows Daiki into his bedroom where he’s already throwing some clothes and things into a small travel bag. “I’m not going to the fly anywhere. I have work in the morning.”

“Tell them you’re sick or something,” Daiki brushes off the concern. “I promise this is worth it.” He grabs Yamada’s hands, and he looks so excited that Yamada is finding it harder and harder to say no to whatever this is. He reminds himself that he does still have a few sick days left.

“This is absolutely crazy,” Yamada says as one last ditch (but mostly half-hearted) effort to convince Daiki to change his mind.

But this only makes Daiki grin. “Everyone needs crazy in their lives every now and then. You ever think that maybe we’re soulmates because we balance each other out?” He zips up his travel bag. “Also, are you okay borrowing some of my clothes? We don’t have time to stop at your place on the way to the airport.”

By this point, Yamada doesn’t know how to react anymore, especially since it’s almost midnight and he’s apparently getting on a plane to who knows where to do who knows what. His head feels like it’s spinning with everything happening so fast. He’s so tired, he just lets Daiki lead the way. Daiki’s reassurances that he can sleep on the plane are good enough.

The plane tickets say Yakushima on them, and Yamada’s geography skills are a bit rusty but he remembers that’s an island down south of Kagoshima. But he wonders less about the destination and more about Daiki’s earlier comment about balance. Yamada likes plans and organization and details while Daiki is spontaneous and a disorganized mess. But together they temper the worst of these traits.

Maybe the universe just likes playing elaborate pranks on him?

“Are you going to tell me anything about this place?” Yamada asks through a yawn once they arrive at Yakushima in the early morning. He managed to get a few hours of sleep on the plane, but not long enough to dream about anything. Daiki just smiles and doesn’t answer his question.

While Daiki buys them both a pair of comfortable hiking shoes at the visitor center, Yamada thinks about the email he’s just sent to his boss explaining that he won’t be in for work today and possibly tomorrow either. The odds of him getting fired are very slim, but he still wonders if he made the right decision letting Daiki talk him into travelling here.

“We should head out soon,” Daiki says after he buys breakfast for them and snacks to take along the way. He gestures towards the hiking trail that leads towards the woods and it suddenly hits Yamada where they actually are.

“We’re going to see that giant tree, aren’t we?”

Daiki looks over at him, curious. “Have you been here before?”

“Only in a dream,” he answers and then sets off down the trail amidst the trees and vines and moss. After a few steps, he looks over his shoulder to see if Daiki was following behind him. But he’s just standing there looking as though he’s thinking very hard about something. And then, his face brightens like usual and he catches up with Yamada.

It surprises Yamada when he feels Daiki’s hand slip into his. It surprises Yamada even more when he doesn’t feel like he should pull away.

“Do you mind if I lead the way?” Daiki asks quietly.

Yamada only nods and they set off hand in hand down the hiking trail and deeper into the forest. Daiki is actually quiet for a while as they walk together. The only sounds are of their footsteps over tree roots and the rustling of leaves. It’s peaceful and nothing like what Yamada is used to back in Tokyo. He’d walked through this forest thousands of times in his dreams, but it pales in comparison to the actual experience. The longer he walks, the more he feels like all his worries are peeling away.

It’s just Yamada and Daiki and nature. That’s all.

About an hour passes before Daiki finally speaks as they stop to take a break on some moss-covered rocks. “I came here three years ago,” he explains, “because I wasn’t happy. I didn’t think I was good at anything, and I was worried that I was wasting my life away with nothing to show for it.” He pauses to take a sip of water.

Yamada finds it hard to imagine Daiki as anything other than the cheerful teasing ray of sunshine he usually is, but Daiki looks serious. Yamada remembers Daiki telling Chinen that he used to be miserable waiting around for his soulmate.

“So I decided to go on a trip,” Daiki continues. “I ditched work right in the middle of the week even though we were really busy. I felt bad about that, but I also felt if I didn’t go right then, I would never have the opportunity to change. I’d be stuck as nothing forever.”

“You’re not nothing,” Yamada interrupts but Daiki puts up a hand to stop him.

“I know that now,” he says, “but things were different then.”

Yamada thinks back to three years ago. His dreams then had been a bit darker and duller with the feelings disappearing quickly whenever he’d wake up. At the time, he hadn’t thought much about it.

“So you came to see the giant tree?” he asks.

“Jomon-sugi,” Daiki says its name with a nod. “I don’t know what it is about the place, but it’s very calming, very peaceful. I stood in front of that tree, feeling very tiny in comparison, but I felt like I was reenergized. That tree is thousands of years old, and it’s still there despite whatever nature throws its way. So I felt like I could go out and do anything too. When I got home, I signed up for DJ lessons.” He laughs a little at the memory. “I thought coming here might help you feel better too. You’re worried about more things than work, aren’t you?”

Yamada stands up, suddenly afraid to expose his feelings. “I think we should keep moving. We still have a long ways to go, right?”

Daiki looks unsatisfied but he continues along the path with Yamada anyway. Their shoulders brush against each other but he doesn’t reach out for Yamada’s hand anymore. Daiki’s silence is deafening.

“I’m just really stubborn,” Yamada blurts out after another half hour of walking in silence.

Daiki’s head whips around to give him a confused look, and he almost stumbles over a tree root in the process. “What?”

“Your question from earlier,” he clarifies. “I’m worried about more things than work, right? Well, the truth is that I’m worried I can’t fall in love with you.” He loses his balance on a slippery bit of moss, but Daiki’s arm shoots out fast enough to stabilize him.

“Okaaaay… but how does that connect to you being stubborn?” Daiki looks confused but relieved that Yamada is finally opening up to him.

Yamada shakes his head to gather his thoughts. “Sorry, I had been thinking about everything so long, I forgot that I hadn’t said anything out loud. I mean… oh, what do I mean?” He wasn’t quite sure how to explain. “I grew up never really focused on finding my soulmate. There were so many things I had to focus on and people to take care of—like Chinen—I didn’t have time to think about love. And so I told myself I’d rather be independent than rely on another person. I had to be the strong one so that others could lean on me. And well, I’m so stubborn, it’s hard to give that up.”

It feels kind of nice to finally say all these things out loud, but he can’t bring himself to look at Daiki’s face. He’s sure that his words will just make Daiki feel disappointed.

Yamada frowns. “I’m sorry the universe stuck you with someone as broken as me,” he says quietly.

“Is that how you see yourself? Broken?” Instead of the sad look Yamada expected, Daiki looks incredulous. He grabs Yamada firmly by the shoulders so that they’re facing each other directly. “You’re not broken. I told you before. You’re amazing. Listen, I’ve spent my whole life dreaming about you and your life. I dreamed about scoring goals on the soccer field, feeling the wind on my face as I ran. I dreamed about cooking delicious meals, measuring out each ingredient with careful precision. There was even that time when I dreamed all about homemade soap-making for like two whole months… which admittedly was kinda weird and I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.” Daiki stops a moment to get back on track. “But what I’m trying to say is that I’ve always thought you were amazing, even before I knew you. There was a period in my life where I thought I might never live up to how amazing you are, and that you’d be so disappointed when you met me.”

“I’m not disappointed,” Yamada tries to interrupt, but Daiki is not deterred.

“You inspired me to go learn how to do things myself,” Daiki continues. “I realized I’m not too good at cooking or soccer, so I branched out and tried things I was interested in. I happen to be a damn good DJ, you know. And I never would have known that if I didn’t go and try it. I really learned a lot about myself because of it. So don’t think of yourself as broken. You’re not.”

Daiki takes a step back, letting go of his shoulders, almost looking embarrassed for breaking out into an impromptu speech. His ears look a little red around the edges. But he smiles likes he always does.

“I think that’s the good thing about loving someone, you know,” Daiki adds, much quieter this time as if he’s not sure he should say this last part. “Love means working together to become better than how you were at the beginning. It’s not really about losing your independence at all.”

Yamada doesn’t know what to say.

Daiki laughs to break the weird tension that’s settled in the air, and then he gestures back towards the path. “We should keep going or we’ll never make it to the tree. I’m sorry to just go off on tangents. Maybe it’ll make more sense when you see it.”

It’s quiet again as they keep walking, although now Daiki will occasionally chime in with a comment about the trees or the weather. But Yamada is too focused on all the thoughts swirling in his head. All that stuff about inspiring each other to be better and him being too stubborn to just let go and fall in love.

Is it actually stubbornness? Or is Yamada just afraid?

The rational part of his brain keeps telling him all the downsides of love, the bad parts of being in a relationship, all the what-ifs of things going wrong. His feet keep walking forward but his mind keeps going in circles. His heart is pounding, but he doesn’t know if that’s from the hike or something else.

“We’re here,” Daiki says, stopping suddenly and spreading out his arms in a gesture to towards the tree, as if Yamada could miss the hulking mass in front of them.

The tree is just as he remembers it from the dream. A wide trunk with old gnarled bark and thick branches spreading over them like a protective canopy. Everything hits Yamada at once. A feeling of calm, a feeling of peace. He feels so small compared to the tree, but it’s somehow a comforting feeling.

Just like Daiki had said earlier, the tree had withstood the elements for thousands of years and still looked just fine. Yamada can imagine fierce storms rolling through, battering the leaves, twisting the branches, but the tree remained firm. It protected the smaller trees and bushes around it. He can imagine animals and people passing through, trying to tear the tree down but giving up because it wasn’t meant to move. It was steadfast, unyielding.

When thinking about the persistent dream of the tree, Yamada always focused on it alone. But now that he sees it in person, he really notices the whole forest growing around it. Living in harmony together, protecting each other, thriving side by side.

Yamada closes his eyes and takes a deep breath as everything seems to click into place.

Maybe for once, he wants to do something impulsive.

Maybe for once, he wants to let go of all his worries.

Maybe for once, he actually just wants to fall in love.

“Daiki,” he says to get the other’s attention, and when Daiki turns to look at him, Yamada leans forward and presses a gentle kiss to his lips. He pulls away to see if Daiki’s reaction is good, but Daiki wraps his arms around him and kisses him back. Yamada doesn’t even try to take control of the moment; he just lets the pleasant feelings wash over him like he’s standing under a waterfall. He feels like he’s forgotten everything including why he waited so long to do this.

“Daiki,” he says again once he’s gained control over his senses again. “Daiki, I think… we really do balance each other out.”

Spontaneity and independence. He could learn to have both, and he had his whole life to figure out how to have that balance. He’d do it with Daiki at his side.

With that bright smile on his face, Daiki laughs. “I love you too,” he says, knowing that this is as close to a confession that he was going to get for now.

Yamada looks back at the old tree, feeling like a weigh has been lifted off his shoulders.

“We should probably start heading back now, if we want to make it to the hotel before sundown,” Daiki says.

“Yes,” Yamada agrees, grabbing Daiki by the hand and pulling him towards the path. “There’s no way in hell I’m sleeping in the woods tonight.”

“Definitely,” Daiki laughs, and then he points to the ground. “Watch out for that frog down there.”

Yamada lets out an undignified screech as he jumps away, almost twisting his ankle over the tree roots underneath his feet. But Daiki, as always, reaches out to stabilize him before he lands on his butt.

“I’m kidding,” Daiki says between bouts of breathless laughter. “There was no frog.”

“I take everything back,” Yamada grumbles as he glares at Daiki. “I actually hate you.”

But, of course, he doesn’t let go of the warm hand resting in his own.

***

The forest surrounds them on all sides, thick vines and branches snake out like a protective wall between the two of them and the rest of the world. They walk through the narrow hiking trail, careful not to trip over tree roots and rocks in the way.

Finally, they see it: A massive tree, towering over the rest of the forest like a wise old grandfather looking over all his children. They feel a sense of calm spreading over each other as they look up at the ancient tree. They both feel so tiny in comparison, but also a strange feeling of comfort. The leaves on the branches rustle quietly as a gentle breeze passes through.

Yamada reaches out at the same time as Daiki to place their hands side by side on the tree trunk…

And then Yamada wakes up, slowly blinking away the grogginess as he opens his eyes. He looks over to see Daiki slowly waking too, scrunching his face up cutely like he wants to sleep a little longer.

“Good morning,” Daiki says as he stretches his arms out.

“Same to you,” Yamada answers, laughing a bit as he runs his fingers through Daiki’s messy hair.

The pleasant feeling from their dream lingers, like new roots settling firmly into the dirt.