The door slammed shut. A sense of finality came with it. Imai let out a shaky breath, burying his face in his rough hands. He had finally done it. After months of venting his frustrations at Atsushi, of raised voices and dismissals, Atsushi had finally slammed their bedroom door on his way out. Imai had wanted this to happen. He had been trying to make it happen. He thought that he was prepared for it, but it still hurt so much that it felt like he couldn’t breathe.
With a hand clamped over his mouth, Imai kept his mouth shut as his voice strained weakly in what should have been an expression of his agony. He didn’t want Atsushi to hear him if he was still in the house. He hasn’t heard the main door open or close yet, after all. Folding a leg in as a hand scratched the sheets, gripping tight, Imai found himself looking back on the past few months, on how a mere flu weakened his body so much at such a rapid pace.
At that point in time, Imai has already aged so much that Atsushi looked as if he was half his age. How they behaved in public no longer mattered. There barely was anyone left who remembered how long Atsushi has been around, and all their gestures looked like familial affection to others by then. Although it did bother Imai whenever customers kept trying to match-make their daughters with Atsushi, but that was besides the point.
Imai looked out his window, at the now silent harbour in the night instead of the seaside where the two of them resided at for decades. It was all because of his weakened state that Atsushi insisted on moving back into Imai’s old family home for him. No one else lived here anymore, but the idea of having nosey busybodies surrounding them was simply distasteful to Imai. Not that Atsushi heeded his preferences. Closing his eyes, Imai could still hear the crashing of the waves back at the cottage, the very same sound that lulled them to sleep many a night. Oh, how quickly things have changed.
It feels like yesterday when they just returned from one of their short trips to a nearby island, a trip that was no different from any other. The only thing that stood out was that Imai felt a little under the weather while they were docking. He didn’t think much of it despite Atsushi’s concern. Atsushi was right to worry though.
His discomfort erupted into a full blown fever that never seemed to stay down long enough, and now, even months after it has stopped bothering him, the symptoms still plagued Imai. His body ached whenever he moved, he never had any appetite or energy, most foods he ate couldn’t stay down either. Imai clenched his fists. His own body frustrated him. But as much as he tried to fight it, he could feel his body expiring.
Imai couldn’t imagine what it must’ve felt like for Atsushi, for him to have to deal with this. He didn’t deserve to be stuck with him. Atsushi…
Yearning suddenly stabbed into Imai, constricting his chest again as Atsushi’s voice and comforting embrace came to mind. Tears welled up in Imai’s eyes. He could almost feel Atsushi with him but of course, he was no longer here. After all, Imai chased him away.
No longer able to stay silent, Imai let out an anguished moan, tears rolling down his cheeks as he lay down on the bed. He had thought that he would be fine with being alone without Atsushi, but now, looking back on their years together, he was never truly alone ever since Atsushi came home with him. As much as it hurt him to push Atsushi away, Imai could not regret his decision. Atsushi needed to move on. He still has far too much life left in him for him to be stuck with a dying old man. But for now, Imai desperately needed something of Atsushi’s to hold. Anything.
His move to the edge of the bed where their bedside cabinet sat was slow and excruciatingly painful. His joints felt like they grated against each other and his muscles screamed with every bit of strength he exerted. At least physical afflictions distracted Imai from his emotional torment, and that, he was slightly thankful for.
Once close enough to the side, Imai reached down to the lowest drawer and pulled it open. He stared at its contents with mixed emotions. Atsushi’s iridescent robes were still inside. He didn’t take it with him. Imai gingerly picked up the almost weightless material, still as beautiful as the day he first set eyes on it. Clutching it to his chest, Imai buried his face in it, engulfing his senses with Atsushi’s scent that still clung to it. Smelling him made tears well up in Imai’s eyes again. All he needed now was Atsushi’s presence and all would be right again.
Lying motionless in bed, restless thoughts ran through Imai’s head. If the robe is still here, that means that Atsushi would have to come back for it, right? After all, he needs it to return to the sea. And that means that Imai will have to hand it to him… Just as the thought crossed his mind, Imai’s grip tightened, conflicting his supposed intentions. The contradiction made Imai cough out a weak laugh at himself. To think that even his will has weakened.
His momentary amusement eventually faded and Imai began to feel fatigue settling into his body. However, in spite of his tiredness, Imai knew that sleep would elude him. He hasn't been able to fall asleep unaided, not without Atsushi singing him to sleep ever since his body started weakening.
Imai let out another sigh, closing his eyes as his longing turned into yet another dull, constant ache that tormented his body. Glancing down into the still open drawer, Imai saw his worn, leather bound journal lying a the bottom, next to the antique musical box that belonged to Atsushi. An inexplicable feeling squeezed at his chest, bittersweet as Imai recalled the day he woke up on the ship and found himself being whisked home without Atsushi. Was that pain similar to what he felt now? Or was this worse? Imai could barely tell.
Slowly reaching over again, Imai picked up the journal, lay it next to him, and then took the musical box out as well. With both items next to him, Imai stared listlessly, quietly letting the memories play in his head. He put a hand on the journal and lifted it’s pages, listening to the stiff paper cracking from years of neglect as the words flitted past his tired eyes, turning into images in his mind.
Imai could see the night view from their dwelling, the full moon hanging low over the horizon at night amidst the numerous stars. He could see the light from the fireplace lighting up Atsushi’s lustrous skin. He could see Atsushi chasing Bonnie around, feeding her scraps from his bowl. He could see Atsushi’s undersea cave, lit up by the bright blue luminescence. He could see the sunlight filtering through the surface of the sea, hitting Atsushi’s scales and making him glow as he frolicked. There was so much more that he recalled but the one scene that his mind seemed fixated on was the first time Atsushi appeared before him as a smiling intruder who teased him for his low alcohol tolerance.
What he wouldn’t give for the chance to do everything all over again.
Brows furrowing again, another wave of despair over his physical state hit Imai. His mind still worked fine, but his body was giving up. And although he has lived much longer than his other friends and family members did, Imai found it hard to feel satisfied when he always had Atsushi right next to him. He couldn’t help but compare his condition with Atsushi’s, only to grow envious of Atsushi’s almost non-existent ageing. He had often wished to get his youth back, and now more so than ever.
Imai swung his hand aside, pushing the journal away only to hit against the musical box. Feeling the hard impact against the back of his hand, Imai glanced at the box and pressed his lips thin. Out of their entire collection back in the cottage, this was the only one Atsushi brought over with him. Imai brought it closer to him. Clutching it in his shaking hands, Imai slowly cranked the handle once… twice… thrice… and let it play.
Watching the cylinder turn and pluck the fine toothed comb, Imai felt his body relax, his heartbeat turning calm and his breathing slowing down as the music played. It felt like his body was finally giving in to the physical and mental exhaustion that had built up in him and his mind was finally growing quiet as a strangely calming sensation taking over. With Atsushi’s robes still in his grasp, it was as if Imai was being enveloped by Atsushi’s scent, comforting him as his eyes slowly closed.
In the darkness behind his eyelids, Imai suddenly felt his longing for Atsushi grow unbearable, sweeping the peaceful calm away as his mind and body screamed for the chance to see and hear him again. All of it finally stopped when his mind conjured up the image of Atsushi smiling at him, reaching towards him, and caressing his face with a hand. Calmed by these visions, tranquillity returned, putting a smile on Imai’s face before he let Atsushi lead him away into the silence.
Atsushi woke up with a jolt, eyes large and heart racing. Something was wrong. He grunted, pushing himself off the floor, knees and back aching from falling asleep while seated, leaning against their bedroom door. Atsushi barely took a moment to stretch the kinks away but just as he was about to open the door to their room, he paused, suddenly recalling the events of last night. His face scrunched up, distressed, as his jaw tensed.
Imai was being his petulant self, venting his frustration and throwing sharp words around as if he hated Atsushi. He started acting like this towards Atsushi and only Atsushi a couple of months ago. It completely baffled him. He couldn’t understand what sparked this change in Imai. Imai was never this mean to him even before that, when it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to return to his original state again. At least Imai never hit him, even if he did come close to it once or twice. Although that would’ve definitely hurt less than what he said last night. Letting out a woeful sigh, Atsushi’s lower lip trembled as the words rang in his head again.
“I should have never gone back for you.”
This one line and the stony look that Imai gave him as he uttered those words finally made something in Atsushi snap. He could still remember the chill that spread through his body in that moment. Atsushi let out a shuddering breath, clutching his hands together as he stared at the two gold rings on his fourth finger with blurry eyes. With his illness plaguing him, Imai lost so much weight that his ring no longer fit his finger, forcing Atsushi to wear it in his stead.
A tear fell on Atsushi's knuckle. Was that the moment when Imai decided that he longer wanted him around? Recalling a previous occasion when Imai suggested to Atsushi that he should ‘move on’, another tear rolled out of his eye and hit his fingers. That was long before things took such a toll on Imai though.
Atsushi started to sob but he caught himself, forcing himself to swallow the ball of emotion that remained stuck in his throat. He had already cried himself to sleep last night. He didn't need to let Imai see him like this, lest it adds to his misery.
Hastily wiping his eyes on his sleeves, Atsushi mentally steeled himself for Imai's prickly attitude. He was determined to get through to Imai that he had no intention of leaving, somehow. Clearing his throat before swallowing once more, Atsushi pushed the door open and went in.
The sight that greeted him gave Atsushi a sinking sense of foreboding, gripping him as he was reminded of the dread that rudely awakened him. Imai was lying in bed, on his side, seemingly asleep as he clutched Atsushi's robes tightly in his hands. Within his reach on the bed were things that Atsushi could recognise in a heartbeat; Imai's journal from when their time on the island, laid open with its pages fluttering weakly from the breeze coming in through the open window, and the old, half-broken musical box that Atsushi held so dearly, paused mid-song.
Sunlight was starting to stream in through the window as Atsushi, filled with trepidation, took slow, wooden steps towards Imai. “Hisashi?” he called softly, hoping to wake Imai. With all the pain that his body brought him, Imai had turned into a light sleeper. His call should be enough to wake him but Imai didn’t stir.
Trying to push down the emotion that choked him again, Atsushi swallowed as he forced a smile onto his face. He knelt on the floor by the bed, bringing himself close to Imai as he managed a whisper, “Look at you, you actually managed to fall asleep without my help last night?”
A small voice started speaking in Atsushi head. He's not asleep.
“Hisashi?” Atsushi called again, ignoring the voice. He stretched an arm out on the bed, circling around the top of Imai's head. For some strange reason, Atsushi found that he was afraid to touch Imai.
“Hisashi, you need to wake up soon,” Atsushi breathed, his voice shaking towards the end of his sentence. “Don't you remember? Your favourite niece, Hina is coming to visit you today,” he reminded softly. Atsushi’s hand shook as he brought his other hand up towards Imai, fingers gently grazing his skin as he brushed his frazzled white hair away from his face.
“Did you forget to shut the window, Hisashi?” Atsushi asked, running his fingers through Imai’s hair. “You didn’t even tuck yourself in… Remember that time you slept without covers?” He chuckled despite himself, laying his head down as he gazed at Imai’s peaceful form, caressing his face again and brushing his thumb against Imai’s lips.
“Aren’t you afraid of the cold without me? You know my robe doesn’t help at all,” Atsushi whispered, voice growing small. His eyes lingered on the way Imai had half his face buried in Atsushi’s robes, skin stained with tears despite the small smile on his face and the loose grip he had on the fabric. Tears welled up in Atsushi’s eyes, fingers gently caressing Imai’s still damp cheeks as he muttered, “I know you still love me.”
“But why did you leave me?”
Emotions slammed into him with a force akin to waves crashing against a cliff. Atsushi slammed his fist on the bed, burying his face in the sheets. With his mouth open in a silent scream of anguish, his fingers clawed the fabric and he bunched the sheets up in his fists, tears seeping into the cloth that he pressed against.
Why did this have to happen on the one occasion when he leaves Imai alone? On the one night he lets Imai’s words eat into him? When he wasn’t around to soothe his aches? Why did Imai push him away? Why didn’t Imai call for him?
“Why do you hurt me?” Atsushi cried breathlessly, his body crumpling in on himself.
Looking up, Atsushi noticed something among the blank pages of Imai’s journal. As the breeze blew on the pages again, they turned and settled open on that very page.
In these last moments, I, Imai Hisashi, leave all my worldly possessions to my lover and lifelong companion, Atsushi who hails from the sea.
When did he write this?
The words branded themselves in Atsushi’s mind. Pain. They brought him nothing but pain as he gathered Imai up in his arms, cradling his cold, lifeless body in his embrace, keening and weeping without restraint. Atsushi buried his face against Imai, breathing in deep, taking in whatever was left of Imai’s scent. It was the only thing that could allay his pain, even if it was marred by the cloying smell of sickness and death, even if Imai's lack of response only intensified it again.
“Did it hurt?”
“Were you scared?”
“I’m here now.”
“I’ll never leave you again.”
The little stall that he made his yearly pilgrimage to was still up and running, but there were a couple of things that were different this year. First of all, the two men who usually operated it were not around. They have been replaced by a middle-aged lady and her teenage son. The other thing was a heavy solemnity that hung over the area, a vast difference from it’s usual lightheartedness.
Two elderly women walked into the stall and seated themselves. The lady served them their stew and after a moment, she headed into the back of the stall, leaving the customers to themselves. He walked towards the store and seated himself in the opposite end from the women. It was quiet enough that he could effortlessly eavesdrop on their conversation.
“It sure does taste different, now that the old man and his son are gone.”
“It's such a pity, isn't it? Though haven't I already told you? They're not father and son.”
“The boy is his nephew, then?”
“Well, they must be related by blood, somehow, right? They seem too close-”
“ Lovers .”
“Is dementia starting to get you, woman?!”
“I'm telling you, I was here when the stall just started out. The young man has not aged a day since then.”
“We should visit the doctor after this-”
“Bah! Forget it!”
The woman on the left chuckled at the other's exasperation then sighed. “It truly is such a pity though. Did you hear about how they found the boy?”
“Absolutely devastated. Still as the old man's corpse.”
“My friend's daughter's friend whose husband was one of doctors who got called over by the old man's niece-”
“It was a good thing she decided to visit that day, isn't it?”
“It definitely was. Anyway, they said that the boy fought against anyone who tried to take the old man away from him. He even bit some of them hard enough to draw blood!”
“Oh, you must be exaggerating!”
“I saw the bandages myself when I met them outside the marketplace just now!”
“Didn't the young man run away though?”
“Yes, he took the old man with him. I think it was the niece who made the the doctors leave them alone. It was probably in that moment when he ran away with the old man."
“Do you know where they went? I overheard that the boy returned to the cottage by the sea. You know, the one outside the city, where they originally lived in. But when the niece brought the doctors to visit the next day, there was no one there.”
“No one?! Those drunkards’ story might have some truth in them then…”
“I'm not even sure how believable this is, but they said they saw the young man standing at the edge of the cliff on the other side of town carrying a man in his arms. They said that they were shrouded in some kind of glow.”
“Glow? Must be the moonshine in their eyes.”
“Must've been. Because those drunkards said that they blinked and the two men disappeared.”
“Sounds like the alcohol must have gone to their heads. Hallucinating and seeing ghosts.”
“It's either that or…”
“You don't think…?”
“… There haven't been reports of bodies found, right?”
“Well, it was only a couple of days ago that-"
One of the women suddenly cleared her throat, cutting the conversation off the moment the lady who tended to the stall came back out to the front. There was a certain bitterness in the lady's expression as she forced herself to keep a smile on her face. She probably overheard the conversation that the two women had. Paying for their meal, the women hastily took their leave, as if embarrassed. He was now the only one left seated at the counter.
Once the women were gone, the grief that the lady felt surfaced and showed blatantly on her face. She slowly took the bowls from the counter, sighing as she turned to place them in the sink.
Suddenly, she froze. The lady turned back to the counter and looked at him, noticing his presence for the first time. She blinked once, then once more, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment longer, disbelief apparent in her behaviour.
He smiled. “You remember me.”
“When I was a child… at the beach-”
“I spoke to Hisashi, yes.” His smile widened.
“He said I should not speak to you,” she whispered.
“And yet.” He shrugged, gesturing towards her with an open palm.
The lady was silent for a moment before she asked, “Why are you here?”
“I'm not sure if Hisashi has ever told you, but I visit them once a year,” he replied. “Only problem is, no one was home this year.”
“He's not here either,” she responded, her voice now barely a whisper.
“So I gathered,” he remarked. Breathing in deep, he let out a sigh and raised his brows as he added, “They've been the talk of the town, huh?”
The lady's expression darkened. “It is not appreciated.”
“Atsushi drew too much attention to himself after all.”
Falling silent, the lady stared sadly at the bowls behind her counter, fingers lightly tracing the grain of the wood furniture.
Footsteps came from further inside the stall and her son stepped out. “Hey, Ma, is there anything else-” He caught sight of him. “Is… this… man a customer?”
“He's…” The lady paused and considered her answer. “He's a friend of your grand uncles’.”
Her son leaned in towards her and whispered, “But he looks so young .”
A smirk tugged at his lips.
“Your grand uncle Atsushi looked young too, didn't he?” she reminded.
“So he's… like…?”
“Yes,” he answered, smiling up at the mother and son pair.
“I thought grand uncle Atsushi was the only one…” her son muttered, mystified.
He laughed. “That's ridiculous. You can be rest assured that there are far more of us than you think there are. We just prefer not to be seen,” he said. “Though Atsushi is probably the only one I know who has… interesting preferences.”
“If you intend to speak ill of my uncle-”
“Oh, no, no,” he chuckled. “You don’t really think I’d let him have Atsushi if I thought that he was a bad person, do you?”
The lady raised her brows. That was clearly not what she expected to hear.
“In any case, since they no longer live here, do you intend to keep running the stall?”
The lady looked down at the counter. “I’m… not sure. I can’t seem to get the flavours right-”
“Ah, you can blame Atsushi for that,” he smiled.
“Excuse me?” she muttered, perplexed.
“I assume Atsushi was the one who did most of the catching?”
“I’m sure you understand their relationship well enough that he wouldn’t give Hisashi anything but the best.”
“But you’ll do just fine,” he assured as he stood up. Smoothing his hands over his robes, he asked, “Well then, will you give me a reason to return next year?”
“What?” the lady blurted. “Why would-”
“I do quite like having places to go and people to meet,” he said, stepping away from his seat.
“But if we decide to close the stall…?” her son suddenly asked.
“Then I’ll meet you in the cottage where they lived,” he answered simply. “After all, that is where I used to go. Nice and quiet place. And I quite fancy the tea that Hisashi favours, even if there are far too many musical boxes for my liking. I swear, Atsushi probably has hoarding tendencies with they way he piles things up…”
Mother and son exchanged a look.
“Aren’t you going to have something before you leave?” her son asked.
“I had my fill before stepping on land,” he replied with an inscrutable smile. “I always make sure I do.”
The lady’s expression seemed to darken again, realising what he meant. Hisashi must have mentioned something to her before.
“In any case, it looks like I’ll be leaving these waters earlier than usual this year,” he sighed. “I guess I could spend some time looking for them before heading off.”
A spark seemed to enter the lady’s eyes at his words. “What do you mean?”
He smiled thinly. “Will you have me as a guest next year?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“I’ll do my best to keep the stall going,” she replied with a determined look in her eyes.
He chuckled as he nodded. Turning to walk away, he remarked, “You are their favourite for a reason after all.”
“So… what did you mean?” the lady asked again, calling out from behind her counter.
“I’ll let you know if I see them,” he replied without giving much of an answer. Waving his hand casually, he bade them farewell and wandered away, melding into the shadows of the city.
He cracked his eyes open. There was a light shining down from above him. It seemed to warp and shift. There was a weight over his entire body. But he felt well rested. He felt sand under him, cushioning the space on which he lay.
A fish swam by.
Panic spasmed through his body. He was hit by the sudden realisation that he was submerged underwater. He thrashed and flailed his arms, reaching up as his instincts raged at him to head for air. He could hear the water churning, his heartbeat racing, and his body taking in and expelling water as his chest heaved.
Just when it felt like his mind was going into overdrive with both urgency and futility, a pair of arms gently wrapped around him, pulling him in. The hushed cooing of a warm voice filled his ears, coaxing his anxiety away as a calming wave spread through his body. Letting it relax his body, he let out a sigh and then groaned, squeezing his eyes shut against the light beaming down towards him before turning away, plunging his vision into darkness as he buried his face against whoever held him.
Gentle touches caressed his body as that same voice now began humming a tune he heard before. He could feel the vibrations from the humming and his skin being stroked in time with the quiet song. As fingers went through his hair, it suddenly struck him that all of this felt familiar. He knew that voice. He knew all these little touches.
A burst of energy rushed into him and his eyes shot open, suddenly fully awake. Turning in the embrace, he spun around and looked up at the face of the man who held him so tenderly.
The moment their eyes met, relief flooded into Atsushi's eyes. He felt a hand on the side of his face, a thumb caressing his cheek as Atsushi began to smile. Once again, he found himself mesmerised by Atsushi’s smile, by the way his long locks of black hair floated weightlessly around him, guided by each minuscule movement of his head, and by how it was dark enough to block out the sun in some parts yet still have it filter through in others to make Atsushi glow so brilliantly.
He reached up towards Atsushi, vaguely registering the sight of his gold ring on his own hand. Hasn't it been quite a while since he was able to wear it?
As his fingers carefully traced Atsushi's jawline and rested against his cheek, he noticed that the wrinkles on his skin were gone too, and so was his scar. But that didn't seem to matter to Atsushi. He looked so happy that nothing could shake him. Atsushi clasped a hand over his, holding it as he turned to nuzzle against his hand and plant a shy kiss in it before letting him caress his cheek again.
As they continued to gaze at each other, Atsushi’s smile widened. Giving his hand a squeeze, Atsushi’s lips parted and he whispered, “Good morning, Hisashi.”