“What do you think was the hardest part about when she went missing?” his therapist asks.
Hidenori resists the urge to scowl at her. He doesn’t like talking about her in general, the time she went missing in specific, and he doesn’t particularly want to talk about it now. But, as Mari has pointed out before, she’s not footing the bill for the best trauma therapist in the city for him to sit there and glare at her, so he sighs and tries to give her a real answer.
“I didn’t...know,” he starts, halting, because he’s never been asked to put it into words before, never been asked to do anything but grieve and then get over it, and he didn’t even manage to do that right. “I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know if she was dead, or maybe she needed my help because she was stuck somewhere, or maybe kidnapped. Or maybe she wasn’t in trouble at all. Maybe that time she said she’d drop out of school and run away and join a wandering theater troupe, maybe she wasn’t kidding like I thought she was. Maybe she was happy. But I didn’t know.”
The thing is, intellectually, Hidenori knows what he’s doing, knows he’s the one sending messages between him and her. It’s a trick of knowing without knowing, thinking around himself, and it sounds hard, but he’s just so used to it, like his brain’s run itself into ruts he can’t quite get out of. He’s getting... better at acknowledging it, but better isn’t good, not yet.
Maybe he should feel guilty for using the memory of a girl he loved to soothe everything he feels, but he’s not there yet, either.
“So, lack of closure, then,” his therapist says. Her name is Tsukino, and instead of the kind-eyed older woman he expected her to be, she’s only ten years older than him, and remarkably good at not putting up with his nonsense. It had grated on him when this started, but he recognizes it makes her a pretty perfect fit for him. “The text messages give you some kind of closure? Allow you to know?”
It’s a difficult line of questioning. Sometimes, Hidenori is okay with exploring the fact that he’s the one sending messages from her phone. Sometimes he retreats behind his ability to not know that, and any questions on that topic are useless.
He’s willing to at least give it a shot today.
“I guess,” he says.
“And what if you were to get real closure?” she asks. “Even if it was bad, do you think that would still be better than not knowing?”
And just like that, Hidenori is done giving this a shot for today.
“We’re...taking a break.”
It’s been a year since she started her trip, and Hidenori has had varying success with distancing himself from her. He’d sent her a message last week - him to her, not the other way around - asking to take a break for a while, since they hadn’t seen each other in so long.
“Is that because of someone else in your life?” Tsukino asks.
Yes, Hidenori thinks, and waits to feel guilty, and doesn’t.
“Maybe,” he says instead.
Tsukino lets the non-answer slide, and shifts her position.
“How’s Masayoshi doing?” she asks.
This is easy. Hidenori could talk about Masayoshi for their entire sessions if he wanted.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe the trouble that idiot found himself in this time,” he says, rolling his eyes fondly. “Listen to the wild idea he came up with…”
Despite what the media would have everyone believe, Masayoshi has interests other than superheroes. Sure, they’ll always be his favorites, but he managed to hold a pretty demanding job for years before all the Samurai Flamenco stuff started, and he does things other than sit in his house and watch superhero movies. Just because that happens to be his favorite thing to do doesn’t mean he doesn’t do other things.
Take now, for instance. He’s plastered to Hidenori’s side, pointing out where cherry blossoms are starting to bud. It’s at least a month until they bloom, but Masayoshi is excited anyway. He’s not exactly like a little kid, but the simple joy he takes from something so small could be pretty easily called childish. Hidenori thinks he might find Masayoshi too naive if he didn’t know this is Masayoshi’s way of taking a break from all his World President duties.
Sometimes, not even superhero shows can cut it when what Masayoshi really needs is a change of pace.
“We should bring a picnic when they bloom,” Masayoshi says.
“You know curry isn’t a very good picnic food, right?” Hidenori teases.
“Goto-san!” Masayoshi complains. “I can cook other things now!”
“Sure you can,” Hidenori says, but it’s unbearably fond even in his own ears. “I’ll just end up making sandwiches myself.”
“You’d do that?”
It’s so easy to agree to when he knows Masayoshi’s eyes will light up at the promise. Masayoshi likes to take care of people, likes to be the reason they’re happier, the reason they’re okay, but it’s only more reason that he needs someone to look after him.
It’s the real reason Hidenori started going to therapy in the first place. Sure, Mari hounded him up and down about it because it had worked so well for her, she and Moe have never been happier, at least give it a chance Goto-san. In the end, though, it took Mari pulling out her trump card.
“You can’t belong to him if you still belong to her,” she’d said, nodding at an oblivious Masayoshi talking to Moe.
And God, but Hidenori wanted to belong to Masayoshi. Wanted them to belong to each other.
So he called the therapist she recommended, and when he balked at the cost, Mari offered to cover all the costs. Hidenori had protested - he’s an adult, and this is a decision he made for himself, he won’t accept charity - but Mari wouldn’t hear of it, insisting it was her gift in gratitude for the kindness he’d shown her.
And. Well. She did live in his closet for a good long while.
“Do you think we have to plan early to get a good spot?” Masayoshi asks. “Won’t there be a lot of people?”
“It probably won’t hurt to plan ahead,” Hidenori agrees.
“Should we invite people?”
“It might get complicated to plan around everyone’s schedules.” And Hidenori kind of wants this to be a date for just him and Masayoshi.
“Still…” Masayoshi trails off as Hidenori’s phone rings. “Are you expecting a call?”
“No,” Hidenori says, pulling it out. Usually, the only people who call him are work or his mother. Sure enough, his mother’s contact information is on the screen. “I’ll take this quickly.”
His mother probably just has something she wants him to come down and fix, or she wants him to come down more often in general.
“When are you going to be back?” she asks as soon as they finish exchanging greetings.
“Mom,” Hidenori sighs. “We’re talked about this. I have a job, I can’t just leave whenever I want-”
“You haven’t been watching the news?” she asks, surprised obvious in his voice.
“From back home?” Hidenori asks. Why should he? She always tells him the town gossip whether he wants it or not. “No, not really.”
“But it’s about…” she trails off, and takes a deep breath. “They found a body.”
So, as it turns out, all that stuff people say about going numb in times of trauma is less true than anything has any right to be. All that stuff about feeling like nothing is real? Yeah, Hidenori wishes.
He can’t remember anything feeling more real.
By the time he makes it back home, preparations are already complete for the funeral. He doesn’t actually get to see the body. Not that he’d be able to recognize anything if he had. After all these years, she would have only been a skeleton. They’d have identified her through dental records.
He did bully a local policeman into taking him out to where a couple of kids playing in the woods found her body. He had a vivid memory of that exact spot. He must have passed right by her and never noticed in the search.
I could have given you this earlier, he thinks. He looks over at her parents. There are a few tears in her mother’s eyes, but not the unrestrained grief most people would expect of a mother losing a child. Her parents had mourned the loss of their daughter in a way Hidenori never could. I could have given you the closure you needed back then.
But in the end, he’s the only one that needed the closure.
Hidenori expected to be a mess at the funeral. He was certainly a mess when she first went missing. He remembers crying, remembers cutting himself off from everyone who tried to help him.
But having everything come together like this, losing any way to pretend it’s not real, and feeling everything he never allowed himself to work through all those years ago, it’s almost like it shorts him out. He stands there, unmoving, unflinching, as the storm rages inside him. He wishes the funeral would go by in a blur, but he feels every excruciating moment, right until he’s the last one left by her grave.
He doesn’t have a coping mechanism for this.
As stuck in the moment as he is, he’s instantly aware of the warm weight at his shoulder. Masayoshi leans into his shoulder, not enough to push, but just enough to let Hidenori know he’s there.
“She’s gone,” Hidenori says. His voice doesn’t sound like him. “All this time, she was just gone.”
And then all the grief he didn’t work through all those years ago crashes too hard, and the tears start coming.
Masayoshi pulls him into a hug, tucking Hidenori’s face into his shoulder. Hidenori clings to him and sobs, awful, heaving things that wrack his body and pound his ribs, the physical manifestation of a grief that was pushed down for far too long. He holds tight like Masayoshi can keep him from breaking apart, and maybe he can, maybe he’s still the hero he always has been.
Masayoshi never lets him go.
“I can’t make it go away,” Masayoshi says. “But I can stay. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You can’t…” Hidenori gulps. The worst of the sobs are done, and now he’s just soaking Masayoshi’s suit. “You can’t fight this off.”
“I know,” Masayoshi says. “But you still don’t have to do it alone.”
Hidenori just holds on, and as his crying finally stops, he feels a quiet inside himself that hasn’t been there in years.
“Hey, so, happy thirtieth birthday,” Hidenori says, laying a bouquet of flowers at her grave. “It’s supposed to be a big deal.”
“Goto-san, help me with the food,” Masayoshi calls.
“Yes, stop spacing out and help your husband,” his mother chides. Hidenori turns to see Masayoshi struggling with the containers, trying to pass food to everyone at once, and her parents chuckle at his antics.
Maybe it’s strange to have this picnic with his parents and the parents of his ex-girlfriend, but it’s become routine over the years. Hidenori comes out to lay flowers on her grave on her birthday every year, and allows any grief he has inside him to come out, and when he’s done, the people who loved her remember her.
And the horrible ocean of grief that lives inside him gets smaller as the years pass, becomes something quiet, something that shaped him but not something that defines him.
Masayoshi never left. Hidenori never expected him to break that promise. He’s still here, and so is Hidenori, and they can say goodbye to her and step forward together into the future, and that, Hidenori thinks, is a life. That’s what it’s made of. Stepping forward, and doing it together, and spilling rice on the counter or sauce on their hands and laughing and cleaning up and crying and moving on.
This is a life. It’s the one he built. It’s the one he’ll keep.