Back then, she was 6 and he was 12.
The first time they meet.
Having a little one cling to his shirt is rather novel, but Haruyoshi doesn’t mind. The little thing has a sad background story, and the fact that he’s been mistaken for a female does not rankle as much as he’d thought it would. As he stands and scoops up his trembling bundle, warm piss soaking his front and running down his leg, he marvels at the trust he’s been bestowed with, and vows to treasure it highly.
To this little girl he is ‘Mika’, an important friend who’s the only one she has to stay by her side and comfort her when she’s down; a figure to look up to for love and protection. As two children playing together then, they could spend hours in each other’s company, in comfortable chatter or comfortable silence. And he was content with that role for a while, because even if he couldn’t erase one sliver of her pain, at least he would never have been a possible cause of it.
Soon, she was 8 and he was 14.
It really isn’t fair that he’s grown up this fast, Haruyoshi thinks. It really isn’t fair that he’s starting to look at this child, this former peer, newly with the eyes of an adult. Even worse, they’re the eyes of an adult man. But he can only keep this to himself; can only whip his hand away when Asahi licks it, can only stop himself from moaning in the nick of time. God, it’s almost too much for him to take. It chills him to think that a gesture formerly so unaffected and childlike could be imbued, in an instant, with darker and more dangerous connotations than he’d ever thought possible. At night, when Haruyoshi’s alone in his bedroom, he lies in the cool swathe of his sheets and imagines the moist warmth of Asahi’s tongue on his flushed skin, or her little pants of breath that feather over him as he strokes himself to completion. These are insidious things, and they cloud his judgement, lap at a forbidden desire.
When she says to him, that day in the playground, that “your pain…should be mine”, he thinks of how untrue that is. Because this pain of his cannot be hers, not unless he shows her how this pain can become pleasure. His cheeks flush sharper when that thought forms, mixed as it is with the sensation of her tears falling on his now hyper-sensitive skin.
He’s begun to curse the fact that he’s male. Still, no matter how much he scrubs and lathers and rinses and soaks, the dirty part of his thoughts refuses to be washed away with the suds. As much as he wants this ablution to work, it won’t. He cannot be reborn an innocent girl, and his thoughts continue to mature along with his heart and his body. Adam’s apple, pubic hair, broader shoulders – yet those would mean nothing if he had no treacherous thoughts. He’s turned into a monster Asahi should never have to be around, some wolf in sheep’s clothing that smiles benignly in crisp shirts and billowy skirts, hiding the urge to kiss and fondle, hiding the beginnings of erections.
Eventually he hides himself away from her. The visits to Asahi at the institution stop.
Now, she is 14 and he is 20.
Haruyoshi hasn’t seen Asahi for six years now, even though he continues to make trips to the institution whenever necessary, on behalf of his father or the company. That jet black hair of his was never cut short, it’s grown out now and he wears it in a ponytail, loosely but neatly secured by a band so it doesn’t fall into his face. It is the chauffer’s remark that pricks at his long-suppressed feelings. As the car pulls up and he finds himself again propping an elbow against the window and gazing at some point in the distance, Haruyoshi feels like berating himself for being so silly. Six years is a big gap between their ages, and six years have passed since he last saw her. In six years he still hasn’t been able to forget her, or forget his base desire for her. Though as his heart has matured, the wanting to have sex and the wanting to always love and protect have seen that they aren’t able to be separated when it comes to her, to his Asahi.
She’s now the same age he was when he started to have adult thoughts and adult dreams, to look at her with adult eyes. It was an understanding he didn’t welcome at all, but he wonders what it’s been like for her. But whatever she realises won’t help him anyway, because in her memory ‘Mika’ is a woman. Haruyoshi wonders if Mika is asked for, asked to breeze in and explain the mysteries she’s beginning to discover about herself. If Mika were still around, would Asahi request that she explain some strange ache or pain, would she have to provide reasons for why heat pools in the belly a certain way, or why she sometimes wakes up with a hot slick at the apex of her thighs? Would Mika get to demonstrate the right ways to touch down there? How to think of a man as not a purveyor of pain, but a purveyor of pleasure?
He strides faster down the corridors, clamping a hand half over his eyes. The wicked thoughts remain in full view.
As Haruyoshi approaches the director’s office, he can hear raised voices: a panicked one, an indignant one. So the director isn’t alone, there’s also a girl and an old man in there, probably wrangling over the adoption. Then suddenly he hears it – “no…Mi-“
Haruyoshi freezes. Did I just hear someone start to call Mika? Only Asahi would ever ask for Mika. He springs forward and bursts into the room, shielding the girl from the grasping hand of the old lecher. He’s sorry, really, for having to show her that her Mika is actually a man, and a wave of revulsion consumes him. He needs to hurl. When he raises a hand to clap it over his mouth, he sees Asahi flinch from the corner of his eye. His vision blurs, and he bolts.
Falling to his knees on the washroom’s tiled floor is painful, but he’s too numb to wince – he simply leans over the bowl and retches, then lets himself cry with abandon, all keening sounds from the heart and great heaving sobs that wrack his frame, echoing off the four walls of the small room. When Asahi steps up behind him and silently proffers him a towel, he can only gape. Oh, why? She looks daunted yet determined, and he feels his insides clench with the whiff of hope her visage has given him – he screws his eyes tightly shut.
These tears that bead at the corners are tears of relief (that she can stand to face him without screaming), gratitude (that she reached out to the undeserving him), and a very poignant sort of wistfulness (she shouldn’t even have bothered to remember this Mika who suddenly abandoned her) – Haruyoshi can taste them when they roll down the planes of his cheekbones and seep in from the cracks between his lips.
It’s cold and salty, bitter and warm.
When Asahi finally becomes an adult, how old will Haruyoshi be?
He’s counting down the days.