Utsumi opens her eyes the morning after, her room still dark, dark enough that she feels lost in it and questions whether she's even awake. It shouldn't be possible she's alive, the thought squirming up through the dense dirt of heavy sleep. She turns her head and buries her face in her pillow.
He wanted no Christmas gift, but what he's given her...
Yukawa would hate the sentiment, would probably tell her she owes him nothing, but she does. There's no way hijacking his portable range and making him a meal would ever suffice in repayment for disarming a bomb. For giving her this day.
For saving her life.
Snow falls, soft and slow, for the first time in a long time. Utsumi tips her face up to it, and pictures an unattainable image: it clinging to every bit of the sadness that permeates Yukawa, carrying it away into the ground, distributed so fine that it will never find its way to him again.
She had a gift she bought him, but can't bring herself to give it. Maybe her presence is enough, for now, until he can look at her without regret in his eyes.
Two for two, she wants to tell him. Christmas should never be sad and fraught with pain, and yet that's all it's brought them so far.
As December approaches, Utsumi starts to end the days with tightness across her shoulders, with wariness a buzz at the corners of her eyes. Two years gone. The decorations that begin to appear, negligible at first but more and more prevalent as days go by, make her feel like a stranger lurks at her back.
Kusanagi pulls her aside one day, cautions her about overwork, about candles burning at both ends and she ends up blurting out too much unguarded nonsense, asking if Yukawa is behaving the same way and if he'd pull him aside too and....
Kusanagi just stares, confusion a dark cloud across his eyes and counters with, "Well, you'd know best." A clap of realization thunders in the wake of that lightning-quick response, and Utsumi gapes; blinks.
She has no way to explain what she was trying to communicate, so she just says, "You're right." Leaves it be.
Kusanagi wants her to call for Yukawa's assistance not long after and she argues him out of it with the promise of only asking if it's absolutely necessary. Tells him she'll get results without Professor Galileo's help.
Too close to Christmas, and this is her gift to Yukawa, and she owes no indepth explanation to Kusanagi. The agony Yukawa went through was kept carefully from him, and she's not the one to make it clear.
She took that burden on willingly. Notches a mark, invisible to all but her, in her memory, in her life, in her future.
The solution, it turns out, is simple, and when Kusanagi tells her it was good work, she takes the compliment with quiet pride.
Christmas Eve, she sets her purse down on Yukawa's desk, takes the gift from last year out of it, and says, "Thank you for another year."
She'll remember his expression as being full of ghosts, a window with a shadowy figure inside. She'll remember she blinked, and then it was gone.
She'll remember the flare of suspicion that he saw the same ghost looking out through her own eyes, that he can tell this is another year she's failed as exorcist. It shivers across her back.
She pushes the gift to him, says, "Open it," and tightens her jaw against a twist of guilt. She feigns cheerfulness for the rest of her visit, long enough to get a faint reflection of it back.
Christmas never seems to touch him, even as it creeps into his lab bit by bit, a red bow here, a nicked and tattered Santa Claus figurine there. Each subtle touch says nothing about how he feels about the holiday, but much about how he allows his students -- and maybe Kuribayashi -- free reign in decoration.
Of course, he notices, just like she does, even if he seems oblivious to it. Three years now, and maybe, maybe he's ready. Maybe she is too. Maybe it's beyond time.
"What are your plans for Christmas?" she asks him; keeps her voice light, as she wraps her scarf around her neck. Go easy, she reminds herself.
"None," Yukawa answers.
"Would you consider dinner with myself and Kusanagi?"
"You don't have family plans?" His voice sounds tentative; even though she wants to assign it no weight of importance, she still feels the caution in it rippling inside herself, dispersing through with the motion and meaning that he, perhaps, cares.
She shrugs; tells the truth. "They decided to go on a trip. Kusanagi is on board, if you want to, otherwise it's just fried chicken and dramas for me." Self-deprecating humor in her tone... a joke dripping with too much truth.
Always that little bit of doubt that he'll agree. Always that little bit of doubt that she's not worth his time. Maybe she'll never shake it, but she won't allow it to drown her. Not this time.
She smiles. "Come and I'll tell you then."
"Will you still want the fried chicken?"
"Maybe. Don't worry, I won't make you suffer the choice."
Yes, beyond time, she thinks, to step back into a routine. She can't be alone in it. Dragging him along seems the only way to keep going.
She folds herself over his work table and is still. Of course he says nothing to this and maybe that's for the best. Heaven knows she needs the silence.
She almost falls asleep, until he spoils it by saying, "You could have stayed at home."
She sighs, takes her time answering. "That wasn't an option and you know it."
"It's a good thing Kusanagi isn't your direct superior or you'd never stop hearing about how you're slacking off."
"I don't remember either of you stopping me."
"Did you eat?" he asks.
"Of course I ate. And I drank water! It didn't help." She raises her head enough to see him shaking his own. Utsumi pouts, rebellious against the disappointment that's coming off Yukawa. Just that little motion up, even with her chin on the table, was enough to cause a pounding at her temples, so Utsumi lays her head down again and says, "I came here to rest, not have you judge my choices."
"No, of course not. So you reminded us last night."
A smug amusement tangles around his words and Utsumi's head bolts up. She winces, and swallows, but still says, "Oh crap, what did I do?"
He smiles and reaches for a stack of papers off to his side, conveniently looking away from her. "Kusanagi was very amused."
"Nothing more than you can remember, I suspect. That would be enough, right?"
"Why didn't you stop me?" she whines.
"Because you told us not to. You said -- "
"You said you felt safe enough not to."
Utsumi groans. "Oh, how stupid am I."
"You had fun, though, didn't you?"
"Too much." Her face is burning, so she brings up her arms and hides in them.
Yukawa leaves her alone after that, goes about his business. Utsumi rests, eyes closed, but unable to sleep.
She can remember now, after she runs through the previous night's events. In the painful illumination of her embarrassment she remembers fond but indulging looks, as though... as though she were, perhaps, a favored cat.
Safe enough, she'd said. Safe with them. How right she'd been is still the most humiliating part, stupid but right. A loose tongue and an alcohol-lightened heart and she spills secrets. A mistake now irreparable. A warning now for the future.
Tracing branches of what-ifs for anything to come, however, is a liar's game, no matter how she breaks it down. What she spills should be more closely guarded.
There are no bars on her phone; the signal has been out for the last half-hour, but that does nothing to dispel her hope that she'll have some kind of message.
She flips the phone over in her palm a few times, stares out the window as she does it, watching snow fall, a depthless blur of steady white. The chill from the glass feels like fingers reaching for her. It would be foolish to go out, much less drive, in that freezing temperature.
At least she made no promises this time, no bids for attention, no calls for a commitment of Yukawa's time. She would have had to face him for that, would have had to explain --
Maybe it was a stupid whim, anyway, to come up here wanting to see snow. If she'd stayed there would have been no hope of it. The temperature in the city has been too warm for years. No white Christmases. It was the better choice of an excuse, to be told to anyone who asked, but not even her family knows she's here.
She raises her phone, but no notifications await, no lights blinking. Her reflection is dark on the screen, but she can still see the faint line of lingering discoloration across her nose.
She deserves a holiday. Even Kusanagi said so.
The town here is buried in cold, covered in white, and it feels clean and undemanding. She's alone, and has no one to answer to, and no need to pretend that she's fine. She's safe and warm, has a bed she could stay in all day, with no one to answer to except herself and no need to lie about wanting to be lost here, a desire that she only faces when sleep pulls on her.
That night, she dreams that she's in her car, almost asleep, her head against the window, and she's shivering, shivering. She dreams that Yukawa rests his hand on her head, attempting to rouse her, dreams his palm a steady warm comfort smoothing away her shivering. She understands it's a dream then, understands he's doing this to wake her, understands that he wants to keep death from creeping over her, freezing and quiet, whispering of rest.
She tries to force herself to wake, in the dream, to turn to reassure him, to fold herself up against him. She tries again and again, each time slipping down into paralysing sleep.
When actual wakefulness comes, it's just as disorienting as the recursive dream. It's just as cold and hollow, because she's still alone.
It doesn't snow on Christmas, but it rains and freezes. Tree branches crack and fall, and when the power goes out, Utsumi's prepared. She has wine and an oil lantern, a charged phone and laptop, and fried chicken; because this she can have even if she's far away from home. She's warm by the time she's done toasting to most of her time in America gone.
It doesn't snow on Christmas, but it snows three weeks prior, on the day she mails a package to Yukawa. It's small and contains a toy -- tiny round rare earth magnets that cost her twenty-five dollars. She almost passed it up; two point five millimeters square hardly seemed worth the price.
The snow was fat and soft when it fell and covered the ground, and when night fell, everything was snowbright with reflected city light. It was beautiful.
It took Utsumi two nights before she went back to buy the toy. She filled the space around the toy with candy, cheap silly stuff from convenience stores she bought to try and now thinks to share with Yukawa. It doesn't surprise her that this is what Yukawa questions when he notes that he received the package.
"Something to eat and something to play with," she replies. "What more could you ask for?"
"I used to celebrate alone," he says, and it's a measure of familiarity that she recognizes it as outright whining. It scrapes at her, scratching away at a veneer of good will she's been trying to keep unharmed all day.
"You didn't celebrate at all, you were always just alone." She unwraps her scarf, turning her back to him so she can hang it up. The rack is already full to bursting with other scarves and the sound of chatter drifts to them. Not surprising, she thinks, that no one has come to greet their arriving yet.
Behind her, Yukawa's silence is enough indication that she hit her mark. She turns to face him as he reaches past her, placing his own scarf next to hers.
Her voice lilts upward, as do her eyebrows, inquisitive and sharp. "I'm surprised at you. I would think Christmas would have been a perfect time for Kusanagi to have dragged you out with him on group dates?"
"Now you take up all my time," he answers.
"What a pity," she says. She slips her shoes off, turns them around, and straightens up, right into Yukawa's space. He doesn't move away. "They're waiting for us." She doesn't look up, despite his proximity.
She shifts weight to move past him, and he catches her, an open hand across her, sliding down and away before she even feels imposed on, but the glancing touch stops her anyway, makes her look up at him.
"We could leave," he says.
"This just isn't you?" Past him, she can see movement, the side of someone just around the corner.
"Not usually. I didn't bring you here to torture you or myself. Just to have fun."
"Seems more like an obligation that you've dragged me into."
Past his shoulder, Kishitani Misa has appeared, eyes wide, watching them both.
"You'd rather leave... and then do what?" Utsumi asks, looking back to Yukawa, even as she notes that Misa steps forward and then back, her eyes flickering between them and the room beyond.
"For starters, maybe," Yukawa says, "find out why you're being tense and defensive."
Utsumi's throat closes up. Yukawa holds her -- pins her -- with his presence and his eyes and his quietness, and the moment threatens to snap with a backlash of something harsh, so when he reaches out and flips a strand of her hair over her shoulder, she flinches. She doesn't dare look to see if Misa is still watching.
"I don't want to talk about this, not right now," she says, can't keep it from coming out fierce and low.
Indecision flickers across Yukawa's face, but then settles into determination. "You're upset. Why force yourself to do something --"
"I want to be here," she says.
"So. You're saying you'd rather be alone and it was a waste of time for us to even come --"
"I don't -- I don't know what you wa -- Kishitani is right there, eavesdrop --"
"I don't care who's there. You cannot always hide how you are feeling from me even if I don't understand the reasons why."
"I used to be better at it with you."
"No. You used to be more clear. We don't have to be here. Not if you would rather not."
"I just wanted --" she falls silent. The thought that she'll have to go in there now is unbearable, impossible, if he's not at her side.
"What?" Yukawa asks. "What do you want?"
She looks up at him, even though everything in her now feels raw and panicked. She looks up at him, expecting to see hardness and displeasure. Instead there's a weary sadness and although he doesn't look away from her, she can't keep looking at him, overwhelmed now with the sense that this honesty, more than anything else, will come back to hurt her, even more than it is now.
"I wanted -- I want to be here with friends, and I don't -- I don't want to do it alone. Is that too much to ask?" Utsumi lifts her chin as she asks the question and when Yukawa doesn't answer straightaway, it comes down again, along with the corners of her mouth. She starts forward again, and Yukawa moves aside enough for her to see the hallway is clear now. Misa is gone.
Utsumi notes this, but with a curious numbness, all forward motion halted now. Even as she registers Yukawa saying something beside her it gets lost in a hum of thought that gets louder in her head before she can calm it. She now faces a question she hopes Misa will not ask. She now faces herself, making choices that gain nothing, only because she's made them time and again and the road feels smooth. She feels a touch at her sleeve and closes her eyes, hears Yukawa ask, "Are you all right?"
"Yes?" she answers and then, shakes her head a little, and looks up at him, now seeing worry in narrowed eyes. "I'm listening. You were saying?"
"I said, no, it's not too much to ask. We could still go in," he says. "They're expecting us, after all. Except --" He sighs. Utsumi watches him. "I don't want to be here," he says, simply. "Your company, alone, is what I would wish for."
Yukawa nods, a rueful tilt to his mouth.
Utsumi says, "Yukawa? I -- I --"
She has no words, so she goes with impulse -- reaching out, she takes his hand, and pulls on it. And there, there, in that little space, the words come. "I got lost in my selfishness. You're right about me dragging you here out of obligation, but I also did want to come and enjoy this party as much as possible, with you."
"You could have told me earlier," he points out.
Utsumi nods. "I could say the same to you, but I just want to know -- what shall we do now, then?"
Yukawa looks down, and brings the hand she has not captured over to cover hers holding onto his. He says, "Sometimes you think decisions should be either-or."
His hand is warm over hers. Utsumi says, "A little time here, a little time not here."
"Exactly," he says.
"For you," he says, and sets a box in front of her.
It's not wrapped and it's clear exactly what's inside from the embellishment on the top, though she almost entertains the thought that it lies. "Candy?" she asks anyway, as she opens it to find that the promise of the outside is indeed fulfilled by what's within. "Is this some kind of ironic joke --" she stops herself, but it's slipped out now and she can't call it back.
"A joke? No. You sent me candy from America. I'm just repaying the favor. A little late, perhaps."
Utsumi's eyes well with tears before she can help it, and she tries to hide them by closing the box.
"You shouldn't have," she says. "That was just -- just me being dumb."
"What's wrong?" he asks.
She shakes her head, and pushes the urge to cry away, successfully enough to smile.
She passes her fingers over the raised mark of the rather famous confectioner's seal.
"I... it's from a place I've wanted to buy from, but I've never gone in. Thank you."
"Interesting coincidence," he says, tone suspiciously flat.
"Is it?" she asks.
He doesn't answer. Utsumi reaches out again, touches the seal, and smiles. "So you're getting better at this, huh?"
"Are you going to share?"
"No, it's all for me. Right?"
She looks up in time to see a satisfied smile before he turns away.
"You remember our first Christmas?"
"Next year we'll have known each other for ten years."
"Ten? Ah, it has been that long. You never did allow me to explain my thoughts on Santa Claus."
"That's the first thing you mention?"
"What exactly should I sa --"
Utsumi holds her hand up, palm out. "Save it. All this time, and I've been trying to do something impossible."
"And what would that be?"
"You put me in an awful position then. I don't even think you know what every Christmas brings up, every little bit that I do in an attempt to --" She looks away and shrugs.
"An attempt to..." he prompts.
"It's stupid but... I remember thinking you --"
"Could have failed?"
"No! No, I said that then and it's still true, but -- if you -- did you ever consider that?"
"Time didn't allow for it."
At the huff that escapes her, he asks, "Do you find that funny?"
She winces, screws up her nose, and shakes her head. "No! I just... all these years. This close -- All these Christmases and that's all I can think about every year, that here I am again because of you."
He hums, the sound gentle and reflective. "Did you forget I could say the same to you?"
"Utsumi. I didn't fail, because of you." The reminder throws Utsumi back to that night -- what was at stake, her part in it all, but that's not what triggers a response instinctual. Not what starts a quiver in her mouth that she tries to keep in check. No, it isn't that she's never considered that he followed her instinct and that it was the correct one.
No. It's that his face and his voice held softness, that he looked straight at her and hid nothing away as he did, as he is now, with what she thinks is, remembers is, the same expression, holding her with sincerity and a deep quiet fondness.
"I've been trying to pay you back," she says, and her voice quavers. "For saving my life."
"That's an impossible debt."
"I know! I said it was. I can't help that I want to."
"Consider it done, then. Almost ten years now."
"A gift is not a debt, but if you want to consider it that, then it's paid. Do I have to explain how?"
"Please don't act superior. Don't do that to me, after all this time."
"Please don't deliberately misread me."
Utsumi closes her eyes. "You've always gotten under my skin. From day one."
She feels the back of his hand touch her face, the slide of his knuckles brief on her cheek, and opens her eyes to see him smiling at her.
"It didn't deter you then."
"I still ran away. Eventually."
"You were always free to leave. I didn't earn your returning. Yet, you did."
She breathes in a slow deep breath, lets it out the same way, releasing the tension she'd let support her through this, now no longer useful in the face of Yukawa's acceptance. "Ten years," she says.
"Ten years," he repeats. "Yes. But that's still to come."
Utsumi lets her head hang, coming into contact with Yukawa's chest, feeling him breathe under her. His hand comes up to her head, rests on the back, and Utsumi sighs and relaxes at the feel of it, settling closer, with Yukawa warm beneath.
Planning for the future is still a liar's game, but truth is made of hope and sadness, and clear eyes. The moment is, and what's to come will be met, regardless, with what she has, and what she has is good.