Karin, when she’d traveled with Atsuma, had thought the two of them shared something. At least, as gruff as she was with him, he always greeted her with cheer. Then again, she thought now, watching him drag Toya toward them for a ‘mayoral party,’ it may have simply been her own rose-tinged glasses showing her what she’d wanted to see.
The day was bright and warm, the buildings of the city once more reaching proudly for the sky. Yokohama gleamed, its golems once more calm. Atsuma waved at the pizza-face golem by its pizza parlor, but walked them past there. When they walked up to the city’s entrance, she’d been faced not with a thick wall of ice, as she had before they’d defeated the Devil Golem, but with a city nearly back to its feet, its people once more returned, the tragedy they’d survived memorialized on a long plaque, the list of dead covered somewhat at the bottom by the piles of flowers and cards.
Even back when they’d been chasing down the Queen of Ice, she thought as Atsuma ducked around a group of tourists and greeted her and Raigar with a wave, he’d had his eyes on one person. And it hadn’t been her.
She waved back as he came near. He’d invited all of them to the party. A desperate person – one she’d been a month or so ago – might have taken that as a sign of deeper feelings. Except everyone had been invited, including Yuki, who had been left behind specifically, since she was an interrupting influence. She had no idea how Atsuma and Toya had ditched Makoto, but she was glad they had. If Yuki was good at interrupting, Makoto was a god at the skill. What she had planned would have been nearly impossible with that guy hanging on to Toya, as usual.
“Atsuma,” she called. He swerved his way through the sparse crowd – it seemed the crowd simply made way for Toya, though it didn’t seem willing to do the same for his closest friend. She didn’t even have to look at Raigar; he was already doing as she’d ordered, pulling Toya slightly to the side as they approached and asking about Yokohama City’s fiscal situation, now that restoration was pretty much complete.
Atsuma bounded up to her with a grin, his cheeks nearly rosy in hue. He’d never looked that happy when they’d been together. “Hey, Karin! So you could make it, after all! I’m glad. What about Yuki?”
"She’ll be coming in a bit.” In fact, Karin had told the brat the wrong time. For all of Atsuma’s faults, he was a good guy, and that meant he was never without friends. Nor was Toya; already a crowd was beginning to converge on their little group. If she was going to do this, then she was going to have to do it now. “Atsuma,” she said again, catching his attention with her change of tone just as it begun to wander. This guy. She sighed and shook her head. “You’re horrible for making a girl say this, you know.”
“Eh?” He scratched his head. She eyed that right arm of his. “Make you do what?”
She stomped her foot. Thankfully, Raigar’s distractions were working perfectly. The questions were even being backed up by the gathering crowd, and Toya was left explaining Yokohama’s situation to half the city.
She’d chosen to do this, hadn’t she? So what if she still had feelings for Atsuma? So what if she’d rather be selfish? Watching this dance of theirs was even more pathetic than admitting she loved a man who could never love her back. “I know you’re a little bit thick, so I’m going to help you figure yourself out. You’d better thank me!” She pointed her finger in his face. He just stared at it. She curled her finger into a fist and straightened her shoulders. “You’re in love.”
Atsuma blinked. “Huh?”
She closed her eyes and willed for patience. Sometimes she wondered why she loved this idiot so much. “Think about it. You wake up and you think of him. You see something and you think of him. You accomplish something and you want to tell him. You’re alone and you want to be with him. And then, when you are with him, you want the moment to never end. Look at him, Atsuma. Look at Toya.”
Atsuma’s face was nearly contorted in his confusion, but he did as told. He looked back at her. “Okay?”
“Look back! And keep looking.” Atsuma’s brows furrowed; he was clearly questioning her sanity. He looked over his shoulder, then turned fully around to face Toya. It seemed subconscious. “I guess, compared to Makoto, what you feel seems tame. That guy probably taught you what you thought a man loving a man meant. He’s wrong, you know. That may be how he loves Toya, but for you, it’s different. More… steadfast? Like he’s the most important thing in your world, but you don’t want to chain him up. You just want to be by his side. More than anyone else’s.” She bit her lip. “Say I told you I got attacked on my way here.” Atsuma turned, mouth open, eyes wide, but with a hiss, she made him keep his silence. “And if I told you someone had done the same to Toya?”
Atsuma’s fists clenched. A second later, he shook his head. “No. No one’s tried to hurt him. People love him! Besides. I would know.”
She had to bite her tongue to keep from demanding to know why he didn’t think everyone loved her. She knew why. She knew. “Yes,” she said finally. “You would know. Without a doubt. And not just because you live in the city, and not just because you live close to him. It’s because you make it your business to know.” She made a circular motion with her finger, a silent command to turn around again. Atsuma huffed, but he knew better than to argue. “And if Makoto kissed Toya and Toya kissed him back?”
Atsuma laughed. “That’ll never happen.”
Karin’s eyebrow ticked. How could the idiot not know what that reaction meant?! “Fine, then! What if I want to go kiss Toya! Huh?”
Atsuma turned around again, those wide eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. She watched tension rumble beneath that red and black jacket. This time, her efforts to get him to turn back failed. She cursed. She was running out of time. The crowd was only growing, even as Toya wound down his speech. If she wanted the hot-headed, off-the-cuff reaction to happen, she would need to do it at just the right moment, when the chaos died down and Atsuma was at his least level-headed. She also needed to finish before Makoto sniffed them out and interrupted. Again.
“Do you?” Atsuma asked. “Do you want to kiss Toya? Do you like him? Is that what this is all about?” There was a tightness to his voice. She perked up. Perfect!
She lifted her chin. “So what if I do?” she asked, and saw the tightness ripple across those shoulders and down that back. Those gloved fists clenched again. Finally. She had him. “I’m just making sure the competition is out of the match before I make my move.”
Atsuma was a good guy. A really good guy. If that was his dominant trait, she very well might be in trouble now.
Thankfully, it was not Atsuma’s dominant trait.
“What?” the idiot said, his voice rising several octaves. He took a step back and held up a hand as if to guard from an attack. “No!”
Toya stopped his speech mid-sentence and turned to Atsuma, his brows furrowing low. Raigar looked over for a moment, as well. He seemed to be pressing his lips together tightly – keeping from laughing. The jerk. She flushed and lowered her voice. “No, you’re not giving up, or no, you’re not even in the running?”
Atsuma sputtered. Flushed. “Neither!”
“Atsuma?” Toya pushed gently through the crowd, ignoring the questions people asked him. He touched Atsuma’s arm. “Is everything all right?”
Atsuma jumped. He looked down at the hand on his arm. Karin smirked. “No. Yeah. Everything’s fine.” He gave a nervous laugh, just in case Toya might have actually believed that line, and shrugged off Toya’s hand. Toya’s eyebrows shot up. The man’s shoulders rose up around his neck, a sign of vulnerability she hadn’t seen in him before. Karin’s smirk widened. Her chest ached; of course it did, as she was forced to watch Atsuma’s eyes fall to the side and Toya’s lips press together as he drew nearer to his friend, daring to reach up again after having just been brushed away.
That, of course, was when Makoto showed up.
Bounding in like some cockblocking hero, Makoto inserted himself between Toya and Atsuma with a long call of Toya’s name. The man wrapped an arm around Toya and leaned in close – close enough that Toya grimaced, though he tried to hide it. “Yay!” Makoto said, grinning widely in Toya’s face. “Congrats on becoming mayor! You were the obvious choice, of course.”
She tuned the man out as he continued and followed after Atsuma as he deliberately placed distance between himself and Toya, his gaze turned away from the scene before him. She cocked an eyebrow the instant she managed to catch Atsuma’s attention. The man bristled like a cat. “I’m not!” he hissed. It didn’t slip past her that he was careful to keep his voice down. “I’ve always helped – I mean, why would I let Makoto kiss Toya if I…” But the idiot fumbled at the word. He stalked away from the group entirely.
“Atsuma!” Toya called.
As if just remembering why he was there with them all, Atsuma stopped. It looked like he wanted to keep running. She inched near, aware that Toya was watching her with narrowed eyes, and leaned up on her long legs to reach Atsuma’s ear. “You can’t tell me it wasn’t reassuring,” she said, and wished Atsuma would shiver, at least at the touch of her breath on his ear, “to see how, even after everything he’d done for him, Makoto still wasn’t even on Toya’s radar.”
Atsuma shook his head. Hard. “For such a reason…”
Toya pried Makoto off his arm and stalked forward. He grabbed Atsuma’s shoulder, deftly placing himself between Karin and Atsuma. She humphed. An echoing sound came from behind her, and she looked to see Makoto watching Toya, his arms crossed over his chest. She pulled away and tried to tell herself that anyone she was ceding the love of her life to would have to be at least that protective of him. “Atsuma,” Toya said. He wasn’t leaning up or speaking into Atsuma’s ear. Nonetheless, she trailed the line of a shudder and it traced a path up that long spine into the white fringes of hair on that neck. Toya squeezed Atsuma’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Atsuma’s breath hitched. “I… think I’m fine. Yeah.” He nodded. Karin couldn’t see his smile past Toya’s head, but she could imagine how fake it looked. “Thanks, Toya. Sorry to worry you on this big day. How about we go grab our food? Where’s Yuki, anyway?”
“She’s coming. She’ll be another five minutes or so,” Raigar said. “Miss Karin and I can wait for her, if you can tell us which restaurant you’ll be going to.”
She backed off. She nodded to Raigar and almost got caught when Toya sent a glare at her from the corner of his eye. Atsuma may have to take time to accept what he’d just learned about himself, but it wouldn’t take long. She would see the fruits of her labor soon enough.
Four days later, and no fruits! All her effort, and she didn’t see any change in Atsuma – no confessions, no post-confession freak-outs, no newly-high-on-life grins or tears or accusations of her ruining his friendship. Heck, she hardly saw Atsuma at all. She practically had to pull him out of his house, and even then, she usually needed to remind him that she had come to vacation because of his insistence. The time of the mayoral celebration was at its end, however, and she had little reason to remain for much longer. Yuki had already left.
She could leave it. She understood the denial, the anger, the pain. Her love hit the wall of unrequited about as soon as it blossomed. Atsuma could feel – and perhaps was feeling, if he’d gotten past the denial stage – the agony of a love with nowhere to go. But he didn’t need to. And there were several things she would grab on to with greedy fingers if given the opportunity, but she would never let her greedy hands become chains.
Which meant, if she wanted something to happen, she was going to have to push it forward. Again.
There were only two reasons for this continued standoff. One: Atsuma was burying himself twelve feet under into a mass grave of denial. Two: he simply refused to tell Toya, even after accepting how he felt.
Either way, going to Atsuma again would be useless; the dumbass clearly couldn’t be left to his own devices. That left only one other person.
Toya’s office was still too new to have much in the way of furnishings. The large desk set up opposite the office door was a dark cheery color, polished in a way that said it was as new as its occupant. Behind the desk, the only decorations so far, and placed in a position of pride, no matter how the man demured, were the pictures and awards naming him mayor, framed in matching cherry wood. Toya stood beside the desk, looking over some papers that looked like they’d never been creased in their short lives. She knocked on the door and entered before he could do more than look up.
“Miss Karin,” he greeted, taking the name she’d insisted he take back when they’d first been properly introduced. He stood straight and placed the papers down.
Toya was, at first glance, Atsuma’s opposite in every way. In looks, Atsuma was a stand-out in every way that made someone weird. Heterochromic eyes, bright white hair, garish clothes, loud, boisterous voice. Toya was the exact opposite – hair so black it shone blue, dark eyes, reading glasses, dark clothing, a calm, even voice. The only external sign that he was like Atsuma was the small spot of rebellion – a long, long line of dark hair that led to his waist, pulled conservatively into a horsetail. He was ice to Atsuma’s fire, calm to Atsuma’s boisterousness, contemplative when Atsuma was rash. He stood quietly while Atsuma yelled, wise to Atsuma’s idiocy. Yet for all that, he was forceful, opinionated, caring, and protective. He also had an adventurous streak tempered only by his consideration of the rules. Oddly, just when someone thought the two couldn’t be more disparate, they ended up showing off how nearly alike they were.
Sort of like how, when she stepped further inside, the new mayor of Yokohama City tilted his head just slightly when she asked, point-blank, “you love Atsuma, don’t you?” The man’s face went perfectly blank for only half a second before he ducked his head down and gave a soft smile.
“I do. He’s like a brother to me. And you love him as well, am I right?”
He noticed how she felt about Atsuma, yet in the same breath, he dared label his own feelings as familial. She was going to break both their necks. “Like a brother, huh?” she asked, and flipped her hair back. Nonchalance wasn’t a look she wore well, but she attempted to affect it, nonetheless. “That’s good. After I tell Atsuma that’s how you feel, maybe he’ll finally let you go and go out with me.”
That fake smile disappeared. He blanched. “What?”
Oh, ho! Once again, they showed off their mutual stupidity. “Oh? You saw how I felt, but not him?”
The blood did not return to Toya’s face. His legs wobbled a bit. Toya actually turned toward his desk, leaned over, and placed his hands on the surface to steady himself. His horsetail fell over his shoulder. “What are you saying?”
“Hm?” She clung to her air of disinterest with something akin to desperation. He looked ready to break into a million pieces. “Oh. It’s why we argued during your little party. He has this ridiculous crush on you. I told him there was no point. You weren’t interested in Makoto, after all.”
“Atsuma isn’t Makoto,” Toya said, teeth gritted. His eyes widened. He clamped his mouth shut.
She sent him a shuttered look. She had no idea why these two danced around their feelings like this. Were they afraid to lose what they had? Was the relationship between them as precarious as that, after everything that had happened with the Queen of Ice? Or were they just that pathetic, that they would rather be miserable in a great friendship than miserable without it?
Well, if that was pathetic, then she was pathetic, too.
“He is a man,” she said, pressing him. “And your friend. If you’d wanted him, you’d have said so by now.”
A flush. She’d known it. She could call it women’s intuition, or someone in love recognizing someone in love, but in reality, these two just weren’t subtle at all. She was lucky Toya closed his eyes and grimaced then, considering how wide her smirk got for a second.
“Well, thanks, at least. With that ‘brother’ confession, I think I can finally get him to accept what I’ve been saying.”
Toya’s body trembled as if glass-blown. His fists clenched. That heat-worked glass cooled and hardened before her eyes. Toya’s gaze, when it turned back to her, looked adamantine. “I’m sorry, Karin,” he said. He pushed himself off of the desk. “I can’t let you do that.”
“Why not?” she asked. She put her hands on her hips, barely remembering how to glare properly. It didn’t mater; he turned his gaze from her as if she no longer existed and marched to the door. “Wait! You said he’s just like a brother to you. Why are you so upset?”
He yanked open the door, then paused. Without looking back, he turned his head. “I lied.” Then, with a soft click of the door, he was gone.
She dropped her hands from her waist and snorted. Unbelievable.
The room turned oppressively silent as the seconds ticked past. She looked at the desk, glared at the cherry wood that one would not originally think Toya would like, went up and read every word on the awards naming Toya mayor. Done that, she tapped her foot on the floor. Blew out a breath. Paced for about two seconds. Then, bored out of her mind, she went to the door.
She could only imagine what was happening now, even though she’d put so much work into this entire venture. Would Atsuma blunder again? Would Toya pull an Atsuma and flake out at the last second? Would they accept how much they loved each other? Would they deny it until they died?
All this worrying was going to give her premature wrinkles. She was going to have to find out what was happening. It was only fitting. When they inevitably messed up, it would be up to her to fix it, and if she didn’t know what went wrong, then how could she go about doing so?
Besides, she decided, walking quickly through the door and down the long hall, she deserved some sort of recompense for what this good deed was costing her.
It took her quite a while to find them. Yokohama was not a small city, and those two knew it like the back of their hands – unlike her. They had a million hangout spots, and she likely only knew a few. She tried the pizza place, but the golem denied even seeing them all day. She checked the ice cream parlor, the mayoral office again, their homes, their old dormitory, the university, even the hotel in which she and Raigar stayed. Finally, she found them sitting at, of all places, the bench where Atsuma had forced Toya to accept a kiss from Makoto. Toya was leaning close to Atsuma where they sat side by side; Atsuma’s head hung low, lower than his shoulders, almost; his lips moved, but she couldn’t make out what he said. She dared move closer, despite the sparse crowd. Thankfully, they seemed completely absorbed in each other.
“…risk it, Toya.” Atsuma linked his hands together. His fingers squeezed around one another so hard they turned white. He didn’t look up at Toya, let alone Karin, who dared inch past a small group of university students standing in the middle of the street. They gave her an odd look as she sneaked past them.
“Is that why you never told me? Oh, Atsuma.” Toya reached out and covered Atsuma’s hands. Karin’s heart squeezed so hard she thought she might be bleeding. She forced herself to breathe.
“I didn’t even tell myself!” Atsuma cried out, capturing the attention of the group Karin had just passed. “I didn’t let myself – I was in total denial. Karin had to point it out to me! How sad is that? That I didn’t even recognize how I felt?”
She winced as Toya jumped at the news. That idiot! He’d just ruined everything!
Toya looked up toward the mayor’s building for a moment, one so long it made Karin antsy, but he didn’t back down or walk away. Instead he leaned even closer, until both of their heads were buried low, until their hair mixed together. Black and white. Ice and ash. “What did Karin say, Atsuma?”
But Atsuma just shook his head. “Did she talk to you? She said she was going to. But even though I knew that – even though she’s great, and smart, and strong, and she’s a leader, too, and – and even though I know you two would be a good match… I just can't. I don’t…” Atsuma ran his hands through his hair. “I’m sorry, Toya. I know you don’t want your guy friends to all love you. I know you don’t like Makoto’s attentions. I know it’s wrong.”
“Atsuma.” Toya looked like he’d taken several punches to the gut. She felt like she had, too. “It’s not wrong. And you’re not wrong.” Toya pulled his hand from Atsuma’s and wrapped it around Atsuma’s neck, turning it until Atsuma did, as well. Toya leaned his forehead against Atsuma’s. “I love you, too.”
She couldn’t see what was happening very well. Tears rolled down her cheeks as Atsuma stared into Toya's eyes. Toya was smiling. There were tears in his eyes, too. Atsuma’s mouth hung open for countless moments before, tremulously, he returned that beautiful smile. He laughed, and suddenly Toya was laughing, and so was she. She covered her mouth with her hand and ducked her head. Tears spilled to the ground.
“So. It looks like you did it.”
She jerked. Makoto stood beside her, looking over to the two on the bench with arms akimbo. Makoto turned to her and cocked his head. His lips were pulled into a deep frown. “You’ve managed in a single week to undue everything I’ve done in the past several years.”
She lifted her chin. She was fairly certain she looked ridiculous with tears streaming down her cheeks, carrying her makeup with them. When she spoke, she spoke in a whisper, terrified of ruining Atsuma’s moment with her presence. “You were keeping them from this on purpose? How could you?”
“How could I?!” Yet Makoto, too, was keeping his voice down. He also hadn’t interrupted them. “I’ve worked my butt off to get Toya to notice me! And every time, it’s always Atsuma this and Atsuma that. Who wouldn’t notice how he feels for him?” Makoto’s eyes shined bright, but unlike her, his tears didn’t fall. “I wanted Toya. But after I nearly lost him – it makes you think a bit harder about what you want, you know?” Makoto turned back to the sight before them. She did, too, for a moment, before she had to look away. As happy as she was for Atsuma, she felt like she was falling apart. “After Toya’s reaction to my kiss at the festival, I knew. But I’d done my harm by then. I couldn’t get them to be anything, whether I kept being myself or tried to pretend to be someone else again.” He tsked. “Yet you managed this in just a few days.”
They weren’t kissing. They were just… leaning against each other, shoulder to shoulder, Atsuma’s head on top of Toya’s, their eyes closed as they just… rested. Together. It hurt so much, yet she couldn’t help the brightness in her heart. No matter how many times she wiped the tears away, they fell again, unceasingly. “I love Atsuma,” she said, daring to say the words she’d never spoken aloud. They hurt. They felt like poison. Like the lancing of a wound. “I’ve loved Atsuma for months. Before I ever saw what he looked like with Toya. For those few weeks, he was mine.”
Makoto closed his eyes. “Toya was never mine.”
She nodded. She understood. Even when she’d thought Atsuma was hers, his gaze had always been on someone else.
She turned. She didn’t need to see any more. “It’s time for me to go. Tell Atsuma I said good-bye?”
Makoto made some noise of assent. It came out garbled; the only evidence that he felt as she did. “I’ll tell them.”
She nodded and hurried off.