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tax benefits and plastic rings

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Joe barges into the apartment dripping wet.

Not that Sara’s really shocked, considering it’s pouring like hell outside, the rain so intense she can hear a symphony of little water droplets hailing upon the apartment roof. She stares at him as he shakes out his hair like a dog, splashing water all over the front entrance. His hair, still incredibly damp and long, sticks to the front of his face. He almost looks like a wet paintbrush and she withholds a snort at the thought. Joe awkwardly stumbles about, making a noise of alarm at not being able to see.

With a snort, Sara abandons her work in favor of helping him. Tazuna Joe has been her best friend since high school and they’d stuck together ever since. So it really isn’t a surprise that they decided to go to the same college. They’re in their third year now, the duo sharing an apartment a short commute away. Of course, if Joe was returning from college he probably wouldn’t be this soaked. The train station’s only a road away but his part-time job is not. She’d told Joe to bring her umbrella, really.

“Need a hand?” she snickers, grabbing his shoulder to get him to stop staggering about and pushing up his wet bangs so he can finally see the world around him. His face is cold to the touch, his hair so wet that water begins to drip down her arm. Sara plasters his bangs back with a chuckle, shutting the door as an autumn breeze slips in.

“It’s raining,” Joe tells her breathlessly, as though she hadn’t noticed before. She laughs, tugging a bit on his jacket so he’ll take it off. It’s drenched right through. Joe peels it off as though it were a second skin, dropping his school bag off right beside the door, a puddle slipping out the fabric.

“Is it now?” Sara hums, feeling some of her stress melt away. Joe nods and water splashes across her cheek. Joe wipes away the water without a second thought.

“Yeah, like cats ‘nd dogs,” he grumbles, running this hands through his hair with a displeased face. The mix of gel and rainwater is probably an unfavorable feeling but he shrugs it off and rubs away the mixture on his pants.

Sara tugs him further inside, splitting ways with him when he’s by his room door. “Go shower and change. There’s leftover take-out in the fridge when you’re done,” Sara informs, with the wave of her hand, giving his shoulder a light press in the direction of their one, cramped bathroom. Joe hums then begins to set off for the bathroom while Sara absently finds herself hovering back to her place on the crowded kitchen counter, her notes and textbooks scattered about. She begins to tidy up just a bit, scooting over the rickety wooden chair she sits on so when Joe returns he’ll have someplace to eat.

Soon enough Joe emerges from the other side of the apartment, ambling through the room with a creak beneath the shoddy wooden flooring. He opens the fridge (it’s old and there’s a peculiar leak that neither of them can be bothered to handle, since college is already wearing them thin) and retrieves the take-out, stuffing it in the microwave then leaning over the counter to watch Sara work. His fruity shampoo perfumes the air and Sara’s tense shoulders slump, relaxing in his presence.

“What’cha working on?” Joe murmurs, peering closer at her work. He wrinkles his nose at all the notes, “Ugh, words,” he grumbles, rubbing his eyes. “Disgusting.”

Sara snorts as the microwave beeps and Joe straightens out to grab his food. He pulls out the greasy leftover stir-fry and drops it unceremoniously in the spot beside Sara. He glances over her work, uncaring, then pauses a second later.

“What’s the date?” Joe asks through a mouthful of noodles and soggy broccoli.

“Huh?” Sara mumbles, feeling her brain turn to mush from staring at her notes some more without processing the words she’s written down.

“The date,” Joe repeats as he swallows down his food. “Isn’t it getting close to, y’know, rent time?”

This time its Sara’s turn to groan with disgust, rubbing her temple with her fingers. “It’s time to pay rent already?”

“Mm, and taxes,” Joe hums with his mouth full again, “Ibushi-san really said no rights for college students, huh?” Joe muses, trying to make light of the situation though his face is scrunched together like he’s eaten something sour.

Sara stares tiredly at her notes, calculating the loss of money from her bank account and feeling her irritation rise with every number she subtracts. Sara turns to Joe, her face dead set.

“Let’s just get married,”

Joe stares at her for a second, scrutinizing her apathetic yet tired expression as he slurps a noddle into his mouth.

“Mmhm, okay, what for?” Joe asks, chewing with his mouth open.

“Tax benefits,” Sara replies, “Let’s get married so we don’t go broke paying rent and taxes.”

“What does marriage have to do with rent?” Joe snorts, but not saying no to the idea.

Sara makes a weird noise from the back of her throat, then slumps over her work, resting her head on her textbook as she stares up at Joe. “Residence payment gets lowered after marriage. Also tax cuts.”

Joe nods sagely. “Okay, but aren’t weddings like, hella expensive?”

“We just need someone to officiate a marriage document for us,” Sara replies tiredly, “It’s like, fifty-dollars.”

“Fifty-dollars for tax benefits?” Joe mumbles through his noodles. Sara adjusts her position, lifting a hand to wipe away some of the grease on the side of Joe’s mouth.

“Mm,” Sara mumbles, “So let’s get married. I’m pretty sure Alice got that, y’know, the thing that lets you marry people off. I’ll just blackmail him and we won’t even have to pay fifty-bucks.”

“Oh hell yeah,” Joe says, letting out a cheer, “Let’s get married! Fuck yeah for tax benefits!!”

The cafe they sit in is less crowded than usual. The smell of freshly baked bread permeates the air as well as the peaceful chatter of the others surrounding them, amiably talking in their own cozy little booths. The shop is warm in contrast to the cold weather outside and Sara watches the rain fall upon the cracked sidewalk with an air of tranquility as her friend speaks on about going to a mixer together.

Hirose Ryoko stares at Sara with shining eyes, waiting for her brunette friend to agree to the plans—Even though Sara isn’t a fan of activities like that, she’d always gone so long as Ryoko were with her. Unfortunately for Ryoko, Sara shakes her head and says, with a shrug, “I can’t. I’m getting married to Joe on Saturday.”

Ryoko’s face falls and she processes the words slowly. Sara can almost see the buffering sign spinning round and round on Ryoko’s forehead. With an indignant huff, Ryoko reaches over their table and slugs Sara’s shoulder.

“That’s the shittiest excuse ever, Sara. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of going out but you don’t have to lie to me.”

Sara rubs her shoulder and frowns, her free hand fiddling with the pristine white ceramic of her tea-cup. “No, really, Joe and I are getting married on Saturday. Alice is gonna officiate the whole thing so I need to be there to sign the papers.”

Ryoko stares into Sara’s face, an incredulous expression blossoming upon her the longer she observes.

“Oh my god, you’re serious,” Ryoko murmurs, clenching her tea-cup so hard it looks like it might shatter in her grasp. “Y-You’re marrying Joe? I-I mean it’s so early… but it’s not like I wasn’t expecting that, especially after high-school,” her voice drops to a grumble as she reaches the end of her sentence, meanwhile Sara tilts her head in confusion.

“We’re getting married for tax-benefits,” Sara informs indifferently, taking a sip of her tea finally and eyeing her jelly pastry off to the side. Soon.

“For tax-benefits?!” Ryoko yells, sounding insulted somehow. Sara nods sagely, as though marrying someone for the benefit of lower taxes is an admirable cause.

“Yes,” she answers, “For tax-benefits.”

Ryoko makes a strangled noise, raking a hand through her short black hair, recently cut.

“I can’t believe the two of you are such morons—” Ryoko laments, slumping over the table. “Tax-benefits. For tax-benefits,” she mumbles, her voice hysteric.

Sara hums absently and bites into her pastry. “It’ll be fine, Joe and I will divorce after college, hopefully not totally broke because of our wonderful plan.”

“This plan is the living embodiment of sitting on a traffic cone,” Ryoko snarks, rubbing her forehead (“Hey!” Sara hisses, heat-rushing to her cheeks, “It was one time. Stop patronizing me.”). “You think it’s a good idea but one of the two of you is gonna fall—Or better yet the both of you if you haven’t already. You’re gonna get married, and then you’re never gonna stop being married.”

Sara processes the words and then wonders why Ryoko says it like it’s such a bad thing. Spending the rest of her life with Joe doesn’t sound terrible, it—

Sara pretends the fluster on her face is still from the traffic-cone comment. “W-whatever, argue all you want but our plan is feasible and worthwhile.”

Ryoko sighs and there’s a knowing grin on her face that tastes of bittersweet wistfulness. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever. But I call being the godmother of your kids one day.”

Sara kicks her under the table, Ryoko laughs, and the day continues on.

“I got us wedding rings,” Joe informs Sara, his words slurred as he barges into her room.

It’s a small space, barely enough room for her bed and wardrobe. There’s a plastic laundry basket filled with dirty clothes she still needs to wash and her school supplies lay cluttered at the side of her bed. There’s one window with a beautiful view of the brick wall of another building, obscured by Sara’s worn lavender curtains.

“What?” Sara snorts, tilting her head at Joe’s arrival. By now they’ve technically been married for a week or two.

Joe opens his palms to present two shitty, plastic rings with obviously fake jewels, glittering asymmetrically on the worn, silver-painted plastic.

“I got them at the dentist’s office!” Joe claims proudly, a smug grin on his face.

“...Didn’t you have to get like five cavities filled today?”

“Not important!” Joe cuts in, shoving the rings further into her face. “Chose one!”

Sara picks the blue one, leaving the yellow one for Joe (because she knows damn well it’s his favorite color). She slides it onto her finger, watching in amusement as it reaches her ring-finger knuckle and immediately gets stuck. She glances back up to gauge Joe's reaction and he gives her a dopey grin, causing her chest to fill with warmth. Joe always had a way of making something as simple as a plastic ring fill her with an indescribable happiness.

“It doesn’t fit,” she exclaims, gesturing to her hand. Joe waves it off, flopping beside her and scattering her notes. She’d be mad if she wasn’t so amused.

“I’ll get you a chain or something,” Joe waves it off, “Like they do in the movies. And when I’m at work you can dramatically touch it and look out the window and pray for my safety.”

Sara snorts and flops on her back as well, turning onto her side so she can stare at Joe. “Sure,” Sara proclaims, “Heavens know I always have to pray for your safety—Even though you work at a goddamn petco—considering you’re a huge dumbass.”

“You married me so you can’t complain,” Joe shoots back, flicking her nose.

“For tax-benefits!” Sara replies, poking him in the chest.

Joe grows a stricken expression, clenching a fist in front of him and throwing a hand over his heart. “You used me... For tax benefits!” He laments, a very fake sob dripping from his lips. “I see how it is, Sara! I’m trapped in a loveless marriage. One day, someone will come to sweep me off my feet, and then you’ll be sorry!”

Sara chuckles and gives him a light shove, feeling something in her gut twist with the idea. “Yeah, yeah,” she mumbles, staring at the fake ring that she’s pretty sure is cutting the circulation off from her finger, considering it is beginning to turn purple. She wriggles it off, but holds it in the palm of her hand.

The warm feeling returns, and she turns back up to Joe. “I’m not wearing this out.”

Joe blinks and then laughs a second later, shaking his head. “Of course you don’t have to, it doesn’t even fit on you.”

“...I’m still keeping it,” Sara adds, bringing the ring up to her chest, clenched gently between her fingers.

“I know you will, you don’t have to reassure me, Sara,” Joe snorts, flicking her nose again, “Unless you were planning on it originally until my heart-wrenching re-enactment won you over.”

Sara’s lips tug into a smile. “Oh it did, really got me there.”

Joe’s smile is warm and so is Sara’s chest. “Did it now?”

Sara hums and nods her head against her wrinkled comforter. Joe laughs again and Sara thinks she could drift off to the sound of it. They spend the rest of the night bantering and bickering on her bed, her classes forgotten, her ring pressed sweetly into her palm.

“Is there a difference?” Joe asks eagerly, having abandoned his studying to peak over Sara’s shoulder, “God, do I have enough money left to buy like, at least seven of those really good hot-chocolates the cafe by my job sells?”

“You could buy like, more than twenty,” Sara confirms, grinning down at their taxes for once in her life.

Joe grabs her shoulders, peering at her with disbelief, “Sara don’t play me like this,” Joe begs, “Please don’t lie. Twenty? I could buy like, twenty? Really?” His voice is brimming with hope. Sara nods.

Joe whoops loudly, scooping Sara right out of her chair and spinning her around their cramped apartment. The chair she was sitting on knocks over, toppling over the chair beside it in turn. Sara’s leg hits the fake, decorative tree garnishing the kitchen/living space and it tumbles to the ground. Joe’s in too much money-saving euphoria to notice.

“I am going to buy so many fucking hot chocolates,” Joe exclaims breathlessly, as though this is the greatest news he’s heard all his life. “And tea. What tea do you like again? Chamomile? I’ll buy you so much fucking chamomile, Sara.”

He grins up at her, still effortlessly holding her in his arms and something in Sara’s chest bursts forth with that warmth that only Joe can cause. Her cheeks are beginning to burn and things are beginning to click in her head. Oh no, oh no.

“Save your money, dumbass,” Sara chokes out, but only managing to smile back down at him despite her reprimands, “Or else we’ll need more than just these tax-benefits to survive college.”

Joe lets out a whine, pouting as he sets her down, his arms still snug around her, hands resting on her hips. Sara presses down the urge to fluster, Joe doesn’t even appear to realize what he’s doing. “Wow, we’re finally saving money and you’re banning me from spoiling you? This is slander Sara, I am being so considerate and you trample my kindness like this.”

“You can spoil me after college,” Sara offers with a shrug.

“But we won’t have tax-benefits then,” Joe complains, pulling away from her only to dramatically drape himself over her shoulder. “And I’ll be broke after college! And I’ll also have like, five dogs by then to take care of! Saaara…” he yanks on her arm like a toddler.

“I can’t believe you’re complaining about not being able to spend money on me,” Sara laughs.

“I have a job now so I get to pay you back for all those doner kebabs you bought me in high school,” Joe defends, puffing out his cheeks, “Dammit Sara, let me be grateful to you for once! I’ve got like, a debt to pay or something less dramatic.”

“I bought those for you out of the goodness of my heart,” Sara snorts, “there’s no debt.”

“Stop being nice, you’re decimating all my excuses!” Joe yelps, slamming a hand over her mouth. “Maybe I just want to spoil you, is that so bad to want?”

Sara’s cheeks catch flame. Oh dear, Joe’s not allowed to say things like that or her heart gets all weird and. Y’know. Beat-y.

“N-no,” Sara stammers, pushing off Joe’s hand, “Listen, that’s really sweet Joe, but we’re broke college students y’know? If you’re gonna buy me a gift, then just—It doesn’t have to be much, doesn’t have to be boxes of chamomile. I’m satisfied with just getting a tax cut, honestly. That’s my present.”

Joe frowns but nods, straightening himself up and pouting. “...You’re such a killjoy,” Joe sighs, (“Hey! I am not!” Sara rebukes with a pout of her own) “But I get it. That’s just like you Sara. A killjoy, and a terrible swimmer.”

Said girl makes a noise of disgruntlement and gives him a light shove. “I can’t believe you! I’m trying to be sweet by telling you to not waste your money on me and you—!”

Joe laughs at her expression and slightly flushed cheeks at her damaged pride. She always hates when he brings up how poorly she swims.

“You’re someone who deserves to be spoiled rotten,” Joe offhandedly mentions, patting her head. All of Sara’s shrill complaints about her swimming are suddenly lost, crammed back down her throat as his words process. Oh dear, has Joe always had this effect on her? Or is it more obvious now that they’re married?

(Oh god they’re married and it’s not even for the right reasons it’s for tax benefits, Ryoko had a right to be so incredulous didn’t she)

“I’ll surprise you with something, then,” Joe adds, beginning to finally move away. His own cheeks are dusted a shade pink and Sara finds herself laughing awkwardly.

“I—Er, yeah, okay, fine. Just one thing,” Sara mumbles, tugging on her uneven bangs.

Joe grins and Sara’s stomach twists into knots.

Oh no.

(Ryoko was right when she said this plan was the living embodiment of trying to sit on a traffic cone. One of them would fall, and Sara should’ve known from the start it would be her)

“You should go on a date, Sara,” Ryoko advises, staring at her with a raised brow. “I know it’s not like, your thing, but goddamn your classes look like they’re eating you alive. Someone needs to treat you for once. To like, a doner kebab. And a really good one.”

Sara rubs her eyes tiredly, turning her gaze away from the slightly cloudy sky, then shakes her head as she regards Ryoko. “I’m tired, sure, but I don’t need a date to deal with that.” Sara pauses, then adds, “Besides I’m a married woman.”

The park is somewhat crowded, a family plays with a golden retriever in the grass and a couple chatters sweetly at one of the nearby picnic tables. In front of them a woman joyously bumbles down the street, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of her young child who flings about a muddy stick in the air, giggling happily. The trees whisper with the touch of the wind, leaves beginning to sprout off their bare branches in budding green bundles. The sun peeks out from behind the white clouds, kissing Sara’s cheeks with a golden hue. The spring air is chilly, but beneath the glow of the sun Sara stands unbothered by the cold.

“But it’s not real marriage, y’know?” Ryoko points out with a snort, falling into step with Sara as they begin to walk, “Seriously, Sara. I don’t wanna pressure you to get in a relationship if you’re not ready, but it’s fun to test the waters sometimes.”

Sara frowns, feeling herself shrink into her shoulders. Absently her hand lifts, and fiddles with something at the hem of her shirt. “...I dunno,” Sara mumbles, “I just… Maybe I’m fine without a relationship. B-besides, if I got in one, wouldn’t they find it weird that I’m like, married? And that I live with my best friend and am, y’know married to that friend? And it’d be so much effort to explain the whole situation plus I’m not looking to move out of the apartment soon—Joe and I got married so we could live there without consistently being broke, anyway, it’d seem like such a waste to—”

“Sara, you’re rambling,” Ryoko interjects, and Sara feels her grip at her collar tighten just for a second. “Besides, those all sound like excuses to me. But I digress, I’m not gonna force you or anything. If you’re not spending any money on dates it means you can spare some cash when we go out for doner kebabs together.”

Sara feels her shoulders slump, a bit of relaxation returning to her. The idea of going out with someone now feels… Wrong. Of course, it’s probably because she’s just busy with school and work and—Yeah, that’s it. That’s all there is to it. Plus her whole thing with Joe. Not that there’s anything between them, bad or good, it’s just, the whole situation gives way to misunderstandings and it’d be so exhausting to correct them—

“Sara, do you have a rash or something? What the hell are you doing?” Ryoko pipes up, raising a brow at Sara’s hands, still fiddling about her neck. Sara feel her heart jump in her throat.

“Uh, nothing really,” Sara says, awkwardly pulling her hand away. There’s an urge to return it to its place but she jerks it away again, firmly gripping the edge of her pants to resist the temptation.

Ryoko catches a glimpse of silver and quirks a brow. “Holy shit, did you actually buy yourself some jewelry? I’ve never seen you wear any—” She moves to pull out the necklace and Sara makes a choked noise.

“Ah, wait! I-it’s nothing really, it’s nothing—!” Sara awkwardly exclaims, voice rising in pitch due to her panic, trying to bat Ryoko’s hand away. The black-haired girl, however, persists and pulls out the necklace. It’s a simple silver chain, glittering in the light of the sun. At it’s end lays a plastic ring, a blue gem placed awkwardly atop it.

“...What the hell is this?” Ryoko laughs as Sara shoves it back beneath her shirt, flustering.

“...It was a gift,” Sara replies vaguely, “A-and I thought it was sweet and so I, y’know, I wanted to wear it.” She looks incredibly sheepish, her hand unconsciously returning to touch the silver chain.

Ryoko looks like she’s going to drop it, turning ahead to look down the sidewalk before she snaps her back to face Sara. Her gaze is oppressive and Sara begins to sink back into her shoulders.

“It’s from Joe, isn’t it.”

Sara makes a noise, shrinking in on herself some more and clutching onto the chain.

“Oh my god it’s from him. I knew it. You both love each other and you’re in denial about it,” Ryoko raves, raking a hand through her hair.

“We don’t—! It’s not like that,” Sara chokes out, but Ryoko’s knowing glare makes her turn away her gaze. “...It’s not like that for him, okay?”

“Fuck,” Ryoko groans, “You both are so gross. Just confess.”

“No!” yelps Sara, flustering when she notices she’s caught the attention of several passerbys. “I, um, can’t do that,” Sara repeats, quieter this time, “I mean, if he doesn’t like me back then what? Will that ruin our friendship and we’ll get divorced early and I’ll be settled with more taxes and he’ll move out and I’ll have to pay the rent by myself, and I’ll be all alone, oh god I’m gonna—”

Ryoko slams a hand over Sara’s mouth. “Jesus, you overthink everything Sara. Do you really think Joe would do that? To you? Just up and abandon you?”

Sara shakes her head but feel anxiety tug at her insides, as though her stomach has gained consciousness and is squirming around in her abdomen.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Joe wouldn’t hurt you like that. Listen, you can’t just…” Ryoko gestures around vaguely, “Stay married when you actually love him which—God that’s what marriage is actually about we wouldn’t be having this issue if you both hadn’t married each other for tax benefits.”

“I’m sorry that I’m broke, Ryoko, is that what you want me to say? You want me to confess that I’m a dumb, broke bitch, that’s it, huh?” Sara grumbles, pouting to herself and feeling thoroughly shamed.

“Jesus fuck—Joe’s dumb dramatic responses are rubbing off on you,” Ryoko says, exasperated, “you both are so dumb and, ergh!” Ryoko makes a strangling gesture with her hands before taking a deep breath. “You owe me a tube of red lipstick is all I’m saying. I’m going to run out tonight all because of this dumb situation.”

“Wha—Ryoko, what is that supposed to mean?” Sara prods, but Ryoko is already continuing on.

“I’m not gonna force you to do anything, Sara, but know the longer you let this sit, the more it might hurt when you rip off the bandage—Whether that means divorcing him, or confessing,” Ryoko exclaims with an air of finality. Sara bites her lip, her anxiety spiking. With a sigh, her companion grabs at her arm.

“Anyway, let’s go. You owe me a tube of red lipstick and like, five doner kebabs.”

Sara’s aware of strong arms around her, carrying her gently throughout the apartment. She’s not surprised or alarmed, many a time has she crashed at the kitchen counter hunched over her notes and had to be relocated to her room midst the night to prevent back issues. Only weird thing is that Sara’s pretty sure it’s summer currently, and with summer came their college break. She’d probably crashed because of the warmer weather then, hm? Her sleepy pondering is cut short as she opens her eyes to assess the situation.

“Oh, did I wake you?” it’s a soft voice and the moving has stopped at her awakening. Sara tilts her head and tiredly meets eyes with Joe, who adjusts his hold on her just so he may brush the hair out of her face.

Sara shakes her head and feels the metal of her necklace shift against her front, the ring digging somewhat into her skin. The summer air makes their apartment humid and Sara feels sweat drip at the base of her neck, the metal cool beneath her hair. One of her hands drowsily reach up and touch Joe’s cheek, while the other absently fiddles with the plastic ring resting against her collarbone. Joe leans into the touch of her outstretched hand with a somewhat strained grin, eyes flickering from her face to the hand playing with the necklace.

How long has it been since they’ve been married? Almost a whole year now, is it? Sara’s hand closes over the ring completely. Her secret affection bubbles in her chest, bubbles through her exhaustion without pause. Drunk with sleep, Sara leans further up against his chest with a hum.

“I love you,” she murmurs against his shoulder. Absently, she hears his breath catch. Her eyes, beginning to shut, catch a glimpse of his darkening cheeks, his strained grin hiding a lingering shame. They don’t truly process in her exhausted thoughts, though.

“...Yeah, me too,” Joe murmurs after a moment.

Sara hums, feeling both the heavy hands of sleep pulling her under and the soft press of Joe’s lips against her temple.

Sara stares anxiously across the campus gardens to Joe’s figure, conversing with someone she’s never seen. Sara’s never considered herself possessive nor an easily jealous person, but there’s something that knots up her insides at the sight of this unnamed person flustering as they speak to Joe.

Joe does that one thing he usually does when feeling sheepish—The way he rubs the back of his neck. Sara feels her hand touch her ring, hidden beneath her shirt as always. The plastic ridges dig almost painfully into her skin but she ignores it.

“Oh my god,” a new voice breaks in, exasperation apparent in their tone, “Y’know what I take back what I said about me meddling and forcing you to do something all those months ago. Just confess.”

Sara jumps and turns to see Ryoko pinning her down with a knowing stare. She slumps, holding her pre-packaged lunch against her chest while Ryoko takes a long, irritated gulp of her black coffee.

“I’m not gonna do that,” Sara grumbles, gripping the ring through the cloth of her shirt. It’s become a habit to touch it for comfort.

“Then like—ugh I can’t believe I’m saying this to you when we’re this young—Get a divorce,” Ryoko advises, “You shouldn’t have married in the first place if it wasn’t for love.”

“You know, of all people I thought you would support me getting married for tax benefits,” Sara grouches, sinking into her shoulders. “It was a good plan.”

“I would’ve supported if you were doing this with anyone else but Joe,” Ryoko retorts. Sara gives her a questioning look, and so Ryoko wordlessly gets the message to explain. “You’ve been in love with Joe since like, high-school, of course this was going to be a disaster. Smart plan, terrible execution.”

Sara huffs, pouting shamefully, “It… It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she admits then flusters as she realizes that she never denied being in love with Joe earlier before. She frantically opens her mouth to protest, but Ryoko beats her to it.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ryoko mumbles, waving her hand dismissively. “Let’s go eat. And stop moping about Joe talking to another girl amicably, you know he’s friendly with everyone. Some other poor girl was bound to fall for him too.” Her tone is bitter and wistful and Sara is unable to read her expression as she turns away from the scene.

Sara holds the ring through her shirt again and moves to follow Ryoko, wondering where she wants this situation to go. She spares Joe one last glance. He’s laughing with this unnamed person and Sara’s lips thin before she forces it into a smile.

Oh well, she’d only ever want Joe to be happy.

(She misses a pair of warm brown eyes that glance her way and watch her back as she leaves the courtyard, a distracted laugh and an excuse to cover up the shift of attention to his companion)

It’s raining, Sara idly notes as she stares out the window of their apartment. The view isn’t anything grand, only of the cracked and littered parking lot, coupled with the gas station across the street and then the towering city buildings, shooting up from the ground like stalks of metallic bamboo.

Her fingers twist around the metal chain of her necklace, thumb rubbing over the plastic gem glittering an artificial blue. How long will this charade go on?

“Sara,” hums a cheerful voice, and said girl turns to regard the man currently occupying her thoughts. Joe scampers over, offering her a cat mug, steam wafting out the opening. “It’s chamomile tea,” he adds, awkwardly adjusting his hold on the fuzzy blanket draped over his arm which is a hard feat, considering he is also holding a matching dog mug no doubt filled with hot cocoa.

Sara gratefully takes the cup and watches as Joe settles beside her on the couch, their legs brushing as he pulls his knees up to his chest, mirroring Sara’s current position. The apartment is cold and Joe moves to slide the blanket over both of them. Sara scoots closer and Joe lets her without argument.

For a moment they sip their drinks in silence, watching the rain fall.

“Our anniversary is coming up soon,” Joe pipes up with a chuckle. Sara turns to Joe with a strained smile of her own then averts her gaze to her tea, the smile dissipating into a frown. Her eyes flicker back up to Joe.

“...Hey,” Sara murmurs, “Was this really a good idea?”

“Hm?” Joe mumbles, glancing up from his mug with a ring of hot chocolate on his upper lip. Unconsciously Sara leans forward and wipes it away with her hand, then cringes at her own actions. She drops back into her spot, looking somewhat uncomfortable.

“Getting married,” Sara says, “Was that a good idea? I mean, for tax-benefits it was wise but, you know… Marriage is a huge deal. I feel like I—We—I encouraged us to...” Sara pauses, her nose wrinkling up as she tries to think of a phrase to describe it. “I don’t know. Transpose on something sacred? Ugh, no just...”

“It’s fine,” Joe waves off, “I don’t really mind, y’know? We’re just doing things like we’ve always been doin’ ‘em. If anything this’ll be a fun story to tell in the future.”

Sara’s frown deepens and she fiddles with the ring some more, taking a sip of her tea. They sit in silence for another few seconds until Sara disrupts it.

“...Maybe we should get divorced,” She mumbles, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear. It was intended to sound offhand, nonchalant. Instead, her words sound heavy, dragged down and she resists the urge to cringe at the poorly-hidden discord of emotions pooling beneath her statement.

Joe blinks and his expression blossoms into one of surprise and confusion. He appears so shocked he cannot say a single word. His mouth opens as though to say something but the words come out silent until he finally shuts his mouth and just doesn’t say anything at all.

They become cocooned in a tense, unbreakable silence. Sara takes another sip of her tea and, unable to face Joe, turns to look out the window at the rain pouring down. The sky casts a silver glow with its expense of gray clouds, hovering over the horizon.

“...Is it ‘cause I’m, y’know, too much?” Joe abruptly speaks, sounding ashamed. Sara turns back to him, tilting her head in confusion but Joe’s own gaze is centered on the wall to his right, brows furrowed together. “I mean, we just got together to save money right? ‘Nd we’ve got one more year of college to go so… I dunno, maybe I’m being annoying and you don’t want to associate something like marriage with me ‘nd—Just, y’know! I wouldn’t blame you, ahaha, I know my doner kebab eating talent must’ve driven you mad with envy—”

His voice is heavy—As heavy as her own and there is a lilt of hurt buried in each word that slips from his mouth. He tries to play it up by acting lighthearted Sara feels her chest ache at the display.

“No,” Sara interjects, feeling baffled by his conclusion. “I… No that’s not it at all.”

Joe’s shoulders slump and his expression grows a bit guilty for having thought so. A humorless chuckle breaks past his lips and he rubs his thumb anxiously about the lip of his mug. “...Are you, uh, pursuing someone, then?” Joe cringes at his poor word choice after. “Y’know, you got a crush on anyone so you wanna put an end to this?”

Sara flusters, staring into her cup of tea. “That’s… Not it, exactly. Maybe something like that.”

“You don’t want them to get the wrong idea, then?” Joe prods. A laugh comes out of his mouth but it’s just as strained as the grin plastered on his face, “Man, Sara, you have a crush and you didn’t tell me? I’m hurt, I thought you trusted me with everything. We’re even married!” Joe pauses, his smile twitching before he forces it back up again, “Well, not for much longer but...”

“...I want a divorce because I’m in love with you and I want to do things in the right order,” Sara admits, feeling her chest grow light at confession. Joe’s strained grin freezes and his eyes snap open, staring blankly at the wall as her words process. The weight in Sara’s chest returns tenfold and an inferno begins to burn on her cheeks as she realizes the impact of what she's just said.

Joe opens his mouth, still staring at the wall, fake smile still plastered on his face but again no words come out. Eventually the smile falls and that look of confusion and surprise again blossoms on his face. Bile climbs up Sara’s throat and a terrified laugh bursts from her mouth as she abruptly stands up, almost dumping her tea all over herself in her haste.

“I, yeah! Well, I think I’m needed elsewhere. I have, um, a lot of notes to study, y’know! A whole lot of them. I’m going to go to my room and you might not see me for the rest of the day. Or week.” Her inane rambling is topped off with more hysteric, terrified laughter. She sets down her cup, stumbling to her feet after struggling to throw off the blanket. She begins to inch away when Joe slams his cup down on the coffee table and springs to his feet, grabbing at her wrist before she can make her escape.

“...You’re really bad at jokes, Sara, like worse than swimming,” Joe laughs, tugging a bit on her wrist to get her to face him. His brows are furrowed and he looks incredulous, a grin of sheer disbelief lighting up his features. “That was a joke, right, Sara? That… You weren’t being serious, right?”

Somehow his words insult her and her face twists up as she gently tugs away her hand, pulling them up to her chest and over the ring. “...Is there something funny about the way I feel?” Sara grumbles, her gaze falling to her feet, “Because I fail to see how it sounds like a joke.”

“Sara if you’re pranking me this really isn’t funny,” Joe states seriously, reaching out to touch her hand. She lifts her gaze and this time Joe’s expression appears desperate. “Are you being serious?”

“Why would I joke about something like this?” Sara retorts, feeling her cheeks burn, “Of course I’m being serious.”

Joe’s hand drops and his cheeks begin to darken, and Sara thinks about the sakura trees that blossom around the campus how their buds start out pale and white before flushing into their pink hue. It’s quite similar to Joe’s own fluster. Sara’s mouth goes dry and she waits for Joe to say something, suddenly in less of a hurry to read her notes.

“...Oh,” Joe utters finally. It’s quiet and light and Sara can’t tell if it’s relieved or not.

Sara swallows and it feels like a hot coal is sliding down her dry throat. “Yeah,” she mumbles, not sure what she’s confirming. Joe’s hands move and touch her’s again, curling over them, holding them gently and Sara thinks her heart might explode in her chest.

“...We uh, we really did this backwards, didn’t we?” Joe muses, a nervous chuckle dropping from his mouth. Sara blinks and stares hopefully up at him, unsure of what to say to this. “I mean, I’m pretty sure marriage shouldn’t have come first.”

“...What?” Sara inquires, dumbfound. A nervous and confused chuckle slips out of her mouth.

Joe’s fluster darkens and he does the thing—The cute way he awkwardly rubs the back of his neck when he’s sheepish or nervous and a matching smile is pulling at his lips. “When two people get together, it doesn’t usually start with them getting married.” Joe pauses, then rushes to add, “I mean—If we’re planning on actually getting together I don’t know how that’s going to work with our whole marriage-for-tax-benefits if we wanna stay this way and then actually get married or—” Joe’s cheeks burn bright red and he stumbles over his words, “Uh—Y’know if we actually decide to get married, not for tax benefits and y’know, for the sake of actual marriage—”

Another dumbfounded “What?” drops from Sara’s mouth. A swirling confusion is twisting up her insides, like some weird intestines tornado. Okay, bad description, but that’s how it feels. Sara vaguely remembers once going to a ribbon celebration, where five girls danced around a wooden pole topped with streaming ribbons and in their dance they had woven the ribbons together. Yes, that’s how Sara’s insides feel. Knotted up.

Joe stops talking for a moment, eyes staring quietly at their connected hands, his thumb rubbing against her white knuckles and finally talks once more. “Oh, I uh, I didn’t say it back, did I?” Joe stammers, more nervous laughter chasing away the words but his grin more confident, absolutely beaming down at her as he takes both her hands. “I love ya’, Sara!”

Sara’s heart stutters in her chest as the words process and it’s her turn to go quiet, eyes wide and cheeks ablaze. She untangles one of her hands from Joe’s and pinches her inner wrist, still staring up at him. He doesn’t disappear, standing firm in her vision, still smiling and that familiar warmth pools through her in tranquil waves. Joe finds her hands again and she lets him tug her a bit closer, watches him lean closer to her and—Oh god this is happening they’re

They miscalculate everything and their noses slam together awkwardly. Sara spits out a curse while Joe backs up, releasing her hand to rub his face with a whine.

“Dammit, that was supposed to be romantic!” Joe complains, face bright red with embarrassment. “Can we—Can you just pretend that didn’t happen? Let’s just—” Joe makes a noise of disgruntlement as Sara laughs, “Don’t laugh! Saaara!

Sara steps back into place and grabs the side of his face, gently leading him back to her. His lips are chapped and taste of his hot cocoa, left to go cold on the coffee table. His hands are shaking and uncertain, dropping onto her shoulders before timidly tracing a path up her neck to bury into her hair. Sara’s not sure what she’s doing but she knows that it feels right, feels like things have clicked into place. The warmth of her affection fills her entire body, from her head down to her toes and she lets Joe tug her a bit closer, his long hair falling like a curtain against the side of her face. His fruity shampoo permeates the air and a bubble of joy is bursting from Sara’s mouth, giggling against Joe’s mouth. She feels giddy and content, pulling away for a breath of air then meeting Joe back in the middle.

They stay that way for a bit before finally breaking apart, observing each other with soft eyes and swollen smiles. Sara finds herself stepping forward and dropping her head against Joe’s chest, a laugh breaking from her mouth.

“Oh god, Ryoko’s never going to let this go,” Sara breathes, feeling Joe hesitantly wrap his arm around her waist. The duo collapse back on the sofa, the rain murmuring their congratulations against the glass window before them. Sara feels as though she’s won an entire Kendo tournament, her arms are shaking from an unknown exertion and sweat has collected at the base of her neck and forehead, sticking stray hairs to her skin. Joe brushes her bangs out of her face and peers down at her with an unending amount of affection, Sara feels like she might drown in it. “She’ll bring this up at our wedding. God, Ryoko’s going to expose us.”

Sara pauses, then flusters at her own words. “Not that I meant to assume,” she rambles, “But I—”

“We probably deserve it, considering how much bullshit Ryoko’s put up with when it comes to us,” Joe points out with a fluster to match her own. Sara chuckles, picturing the mix of irritation plus relief crossing Ryoko’s face when they finally tell her the news. She’ll probably chug down a large cup of her usual black coffee, stare dead into Sara’s eyes and say, “Fucking finally.”

Joe pauses then looks a bit frazzled, “Do you uh, think she knew? That we love each other?”

“She’s been yelling about it to me since we first got married,” Sara replies.

“God it’s weird to think that we’re actually married,” Joe announces, “I mean I know our intentions weren’t, y’know.” He gestures vaguely with his free hand, “...It was for tax benefits but we still love each other. God, are we gonna get divorced? Do we need to do that? I mean, the tax benefits are really helping us out. Doesn’t it cost money to get divorced?”

Pondering on it is ruining the sweetness of the moment and so Sara merely shakes her head, “Let’s deal with that problem when we get to it, right now I just wanna...” Sara makes a vague gesture, then slumps against Joe, letting him hold her in his arms. They’ve done this a million times before but it’s different now.

“Good. Let’s use the not-divorcing-yet money to adopt a dog!” Joe declares and Sara snorts, nudging him with her elbow as he pulls the blanket, earlier discarded on the couch, back over them. Sara’s hand clasps over the plastic ring by her heart and Joe’s follows. She wouldn’t trade this—This ring, this shitty apartment, this dumb tax-benefits-marriage—for anything in the world.

“...If our anniversary is coming up soon, doesn’t that mean taxes are coming too?” Sara blurts abruptly, the realization hitting her out of the blue. Joe’s smile vanishes and he groans, slumping against Sara.

God fucking dammit

Seemed like there was still reason to continue staying married for now.

Sara and Joe never really did get that divorce. Oh well, sometimes love is meant to be found out of order and tax benefits for life isn’t a negative anyway.

omake

Ryoko realizes they love each other in their second year of high-school. She watches with naive eyes as Joe flusters at Sara’s abrupt laughter, the way Sara’s apathy softens in the face of Joe’s rambunctious energy. She tells herself at first it is only friendly, whatever warmth that is held between the two is platonic. The way they automatically reach for each other’s hands, the way they silently know what the other is feeling without looking for too long, the way they offhandedly mention each other whenever the topic allows. It’s friendly, she tells herself, it isn’t love, we’re too young to know that.

Ryoko paints a picture on her face in second-year, a visage of what she really is. The red pigment is heavy and sticky and she thinks maybe she deserves it. The red smudges with with the tears until the pigment rubs itself on her pillow. She pictures happy-endings with a boy who does not dream the same, if he dreams of weddings she knows beneath the veil will lay another girl with violet eyes rather than blue. She is the fool who clings desperately to the boy already fallen for someone else.

She lets go at the end of their third year. “We won’t really have time for relationships in college, will we?” she laughs it off and there’s a moment where Joe seems sad and Ryoko wonders if she ever really had a hold on him in the first place. Hope blossoms quickly in her gut and she wonders if she should backtrack, then Sara reappears and Joe looks at her like she is the only salvation he’ll ever get.

Ryoko goes to college with them, reminds herself she has let go, and watches them fall deeper in love. They are clumsy and clueless, they dance around each other with the grace of a professional ballet dancer and at the same time the poise of a one-legged goose—Carefully avoiding each other’s feelings so that neither never notice, but so caught up in each other they failed to remember the bystanders watching them flail about.

They weave their own trap though, Ryoko watches them flounder in their own marriage, watches them realize the feelings that have always festered between the two, a wall of roses blossoming and blooming without restraint.

She wonders if they are still too young to know what love is, if she is too young to know what love is.

(the duo say they married for tax benefits, admit it with a sheepish laugh or an embarrassed flush and Ryoko cannot help but wonder if, unconsciously, they had married for love too)

There is a moment she catches between them, watches the way Joe tucks Sara’s hair gently behind her ear and her hand comes up to touch the plastic ring she’s strung along the silver chain on her neck. The brunette girl flusters sweetly, smiling up at Joe who gives her a matching grin.

It’s nothing new, Joe has done this ever since they were in high-school, Sara has reacted in the same way since high-school and Ryoko feels that same ache in her chest, the one she’s felt since high-school, too. There is an abundance of love, unfaltering and strong, heavy and present. It was always there, even as young teens who barely knew what love was supposed to be—They had unconsciously found it.

Joe and Sara aren’t too young to know what love is now, Ryoko isn’t either.

(she smashes her tube of red lipstick and cries into the night. this is letting go, this is moving on. this is knowing love, this is knowing heartbreak. oh she’d been hopeless from the start.)