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The Man I Met Online

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I: Sugawara Koushi

 

Sugawara Koushi was the name of the man standing on the bridge, people would say. It was early evening, not yet late enough to be dark but not early enough for the sun to cast its rays over the town; it was the lull between day and night, like the pause of swells between the tides.

Sugawara couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was he liked about this time of day. Perhaps it was its gentleness, how the sky turned such a soft hue, a colour Sugawara couldn’t name, not blue and not purple but the most beautiful colour he had ever seen. Perhaps it was the day seemed to revolve like a carousel, sluggish and slowly like the children dragging their feet back home from cram school or club activities. It was such a kind time of day, like a hug, but not really. Because he was alone, blissfully and absolutely alone, with only the fading dusk and the misty water flowing beneath him.

He was pressed against the handrail, shifting his fingers every now and again to move his hands from the warmed metal to chilled. It was cold for November, but Sugawara liked the cold, and was wrapped up tightly in his coat and scarf and the beanie on his head. Stars had begun to twinkle high up in the sky, little flecks of white like snow against a windscreen.  Sugawara looked up at them, but somehow they were looking elsewhere.

He became suddenly conscious of a faint buzzing in his pocket. He fished out his phone, holding it close to his ear against the faint rush of traffic two streets over. “Hello?”

“Suga, hey, could you pick up some tinned salmon from the store on your way back?” It was Kiyoko, Sugawara’s roommate and close friend. She sounded distracted. “We’ve run out.”

For Sugawara, it was no problem. He shouldn’t have been loitering around like that anyway, not really. it was just something he did without thinking, a mechanical habit that really wasn’t a habit at all, but was more of something like an instinct. He left Kiyoko to do whatever she was doing and put his phone back into his pocket, leaving his hand there to warm his icy fingertips.

Thin ice crunched under the soles of his shoes, leftover from the snap freeze they’d had that afternoon. It had rained the night before, leaving shallow, glistening puddles all over the sidewalk. The freeze had turned them from water to ice, and they were like constellations against the cement. Especially now, when they reflected the emerging stars as perfectly as mirrors, and Sugawara wondered what it would look like if the whole road was made of mirrors, or was one big mirror; he wondered how it would look - how it would feel - to walk on the sky.

He walked around the corner from the bridge to the convenience store on the end of his apartment block’s street. The neon sign above the door had a steady flicker, blue light going dark for only a fraction of a moment before lighting the road with dingy, harsh light again. He ducked inside the doorway, pushing aside plastic flaps, and squinted in the fluorescent lights like he’d walked from a dark room into sunlight. The shelves and industrial fridges were packed with produce and dried food, frozen fish and berries, toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, hair dye, elastic bands and paperclips, and tinned salmon. Bright labels leaped out at him and reminded him very much of a field of brightly-coloured flowers.

Sugawara ended up buying more salmon than Kiyoko would have needed - it was better to be safe than sorry after all. Plastic bag in hand, he left the shop and traversed the stretch of pavement to his apartment block.

Sugawara Koushi had notoriously bad luck when it came to love. Not even that: he was bad at relationships, period. When people first saw someone like Sugawara, their first thought is something along the lines of ‘he must be very happy’. He must have a beautiful girlfriend who loves him very much, and he must love her very much, because his smile was beautiful and  bright like the sun, and only happy people smiled that way. That is what they thought. Sugawara just looked that way; he looked happy, even when he wasn’t, and he was always beautiful, even when he didn’t feel it. Nobody - except a select few - had seen him a mess before. Sugawara’s appearance was a blessing, because he was beautiful, but it was also very much a curse.

 

Ending relationships was a tough game to play, too. Sugawara had it lucky, most times, in the respect that he was able to end relationships on even ground. He wasn’t the type of person to get into arguments, so he didn’t, not if he had a choice. Most of the time his relationships broke up they parted as friends, memories of dusky youth like faded polaroid photographs. Sugawara was unlucky in love, and no matter how cliched it sounded, it was true. A beautiful person unlucky in love? Some people would call it a waste. Sugawara just called it tiring.

It didn’t necessarily matter to him, more or less. He had friends and he had family, both of whom he loved and was loved by, and he had no want of affection. Relationships were a fun thing for him, and he nervously avoided the commitment of them, because it frightened him as much as it titillated him. What kept him going? He hadn’t a clue. He just knew he liked the feeling of lying beside a warm body, waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning to a hospitable, sleepy smile a sweet hair, soft skin and legs entangled with his, knotted in sheets. To see someone’s eyes light up when they saw him. He liked the feelings he got when he loved somebody romantically; they were the kinds of feelings one could get from anything they enjoyed (sailing, rearing children, holding meetings, whatever), and he just happened to derive them from being in a relationship.

It was a mental partnership, too. Sugawara didn’t really invest himself fully in that aspect, but he still liked it, more or less. To be conscious that someone is looking out for you - it’s nice. To Sugawara it was, nevertheless.

His last relationship hadn’t worked out too well. He usually ended relationships without snapping too many threads, but there were always fights, it was something inevitable in human interaction. Sugawara knew that, he expected it. But each time it happened, each time somebody raised their voice or their fist, every time somebody cried or argued, it was like a fresh punch to the gut that would leave Sugawara reeling for days. He was delicate like that, for reasons even he didn’t understand. For reasons nobody really understood. His last relationship had ended well, of course, but there had been an overwhelming sense of disappointment that he knew certainly didn’t originate from himself.

She’d been a nice girl - Sugawara didn’t much mind who he dated, as long as he was attracted to them. After consulting one of those online quizzes (as part of a joke, honestly) he figured he was 67% gay, which led to the inevitable conclusion of pansexuality, which didn’t turn out to be that much of an issue - but she’d had bigger dreams in life than early-morning snuggling and standing on bridges to watch the stars. Her ambitions rose higher than Sugawara’s, like a helium balloon, and he felt wrong, as if he was the child’s wrist the balloon was attached to. So he cut the string, and she was grateful even if she didn’t realise it until after it was all over. “You’re magical,” she’d said, honestly awed. “You can just anticipate people, snap, like that. Amazing.” She was gone, now, and Sugawara was alone again.

Except, really, he wasn’t.

Sugawara pushed open the gate to the apartment building. The lights of the foyer were dim, glinting off the small square letterboxes that filled half a wall near the door, envelopes and junk mail sticking out from their openings like wagging tongues. In the half-light they were beasts, shadows dripping, saliva frothing at their lips. Sugawara chuckled to himself and begun up the stairs. He only lived in the fifth floor (the apartment block was six storeys high, so he took the stairs on principle. It kept him fit, now he didn’t have time to play sport anymore, what with university and his part-time job at the bookstore three blocks to the east. He just didn’t have the time. His lean muscled body had softened, lost its definition, but between stacking books and reading them he hardly noticed at all.

He shared his apartment with one roommate, Shimizu Kiyoko. Kiyoko was his childhood friend; they went way, way back, and she was one of the people who had seen him as a mess. She was almost cripplingly beautiful - funny that two such attractive people should be roommates; their apartment had earned the name ‘Heaven’s Closet’ - with a slender face and lustrous black hair and eyes that glittered like black onyx gems. Bespectacled, graceful, and overwhelmingly demure, Kiyoko was the kind of girl boys dreamed of having and girls dreamed to be. She was surprisingly open-minded and not-so-surprisingly clever, having earned a place in the law faculty, and everybody loved her, just as she really did love everyone.

Kiyoko was quiet, but she was good. She was skilled in so many ways that Sugawara had forgotten most of them; she had no talents except that strange one that allows a person to pick up almost any skill as if it was a second sense. Kiyoko was quiet and a walking oxymoron. Sugawara loved it, and he loved her. But not in that way (they would insist).

Shimizu Kiyoko was a beautiful young woman, with perfectly carved Japanese features, like a doll, and she’d cut her bangs into a box fringe that hung over the rims of her glasses and had kept it that way ever since she graduated from high school.

“Thank God,” she said as he let himself into the apartment, shaking the dirty ice from the soles of his boots and slipping them off the place them by the radiator at the door. She took the back from his outstretched hand, plastic wrinkling and crinkling as he dextrously unwound the scarf from his neck. The apartment was pleasantly warm (Kiyoko hated the cold, and would never let anybody forget it, not ever), the draped half-drawn to shield them from the world yet still leave them the view of the twinkling lights of the low-rise town. Padding towards his bedroom in socked feet, Sugawara unbuttoned his coat and slid it from his shoulders, listening to the sizzle and hiss as Kiyoko made their dinner. She cracked open the salmon, not commenting on how much Sugawara had bought, and added it to whatever she was brewing.

“What’re you making?” Sugawara asked, peering curiously around her until she swatted him away wordlessly.

“Suga,” Kiyoko began after some time. Sugawara had seated himself on the sofa with his legs crossed and feet still socked, leafing through a scientific journal in search of a particular article suggested by one of his professors. “Are you all right?”

Sugawara looked up, half-turning to look over his shoulder at her. “Yes, why?”

Kiyoko’s eyes were scrutinising. “You’ve been going out a lot.” She lifted the pan off the stove and flicked off the gas, unstacking plates and gesturing for Sugawara to go and help her. Closing the magazine and tossing it onto the coffee table, Sugawara hopped to his feet and went to rescue the teetering stack of crockery before it fell and smashed on the ground. “I know you go that bridge. Tanaka told me.”

“I like looking at the water,” Sugawara replied, and it was true. He did like looking at the water, especially when it reflected the purple sky. An unending seam of lilac, stretching right until he couldn’t see it anymore. “Besides, the fresh air is good for my head. You said so, remember?” He picked up the laden plates and carried them to the table.

Kiyoko, for the most part, was quiet after that. Her silences tended to be long and deep, like she was constantly neck-deep in her own thoughts. Her silences were full of thinking, and Sugawara didn’t mind in the slightest, because Kiyoko wasn’t Kiyoko without her silences.

They ate in silence, and while Sugawara didn’t think as much as Kiyoko did, he still found it comfortable. They didn’t really have secrets anymore; the notion of ‘secrets’ didn’t even really exist between them. It was natural for them to know what was going on with the other, like siblings.

“I’ll save the rest of the fish for leftovers,” Kiyoko told him as she was clearing away the cutlery and glasses. “I’ll be late home tomorrow so you can help yourself.”

She watched Sugawara’s back as he loaded the dishes into the dishwasher. He wasn’t aware of it, but she could see the set of his shoulders well enough, and itwas enough. “You’ve been really down lately.”

“No I haven’t,” Sugawara replied, too loudly, too quickly. He was caught like a fish in a trap. “Well, maybe just a little bit.”

“It’s not that girl, is it?” Kiyoko pressed, following him down the hall to the bathroom. Their eyes met int he mirror and Kiyoko sighed heavily. “Suga, I’m sorry for you. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”

“Not really,” Sugawara said honestly. “I don’t know much about it. It’ll go away eventually, I suppose.”

“That’s what you said last time,” Kiyoko reminded him quietly, reaching out to right the glass holding their toothbrushes. “You’re really unlucky, huh?”

Sugawara didn’t reply. He laughed instead, which was a good alternative, and eliminated the need for him to say anything. Suddenly Kiyoko clapped her hand to his arm, making him start, and her eyes were clear as the sky as she looked at him with an expression he didn’t often see. It was the expression he saw when Kiyoko had an idea nobody was going to change.

She didn’t even need to say anything.

She walked from the bathroom, patting Sugawara on the shoulder, leaving him to peel his cold clothes from his warm body and step into the even warmer shower. His fingers and toes stung when doused by the hot water, sending shivers right to his scalp. Kiyoko’s resolve could mean anything - in a way Sugawara felt as if he already knew what she was going to do, but that it was like a figure hovering on the edges of his peripheral vision. It was there, but he couldn’t make it out.

She was going to do something to try and fix his loneliness, that was for certain. But would she provide a friend or a lover? That was something Sugawara couldn’t be sure of. She’d set him up before, and things had gone both ways, some ending well and some ending badly; it was something only time could tell, and no amount of careful planning on Kiyoko’s part could  guarantee a successful outcome.

When Sugawara stepped out of the shower his hair was washed and dripping, dark grey and glistening on his cheeks and his forehead. He wrapped a towel around his waist, holding it closed with one hand and gathering his clothes with the other. He looked back every now and again to make sure he didn’t track wet footprints all over the apartment - last time he had he’d only slipped and cracked his head on the floor, which was both a nuisance and an embarrassment, and Sugawara would rather not repeat the experience.

The feeling of sinking into a soft bed after a day of switched classes was incomparable, and Sugawara only had time to drag his mind over tomorrow once before he (rather unceremoniously) crashed into the black abyss of slumber.

His alarm woke him up at eight o’clock the next morning. Eight was the usual time he got up for his classes (he’d arranged his timetable so all his mornings began at the same time; it was better for his internal clock) except for weekends and Wednesdays, when he could afford to sleep in. It was Saturday, but he’d forgotten to turn off his alarm so he was woken up anyway. Rolling over, he slammed his hand down on the snooze button and pulled his pillow up around his ears, muffling his groan. The room was dark and cool, the thermostat keeping the atmosphere at a constant, cozy temperature. If he put his face near the window he could feel the freezing air like a glow coming off the pane. Frost had covered it completely, like tiny little cobwebs spun over the course of the night. They’d melt later on in the day, though, as the sun warmed the ice and melted it, and it saddened Sugawara, because he liked the frost, he liked how it looked.

“Suga!” Kiyoko knocked on his bedroom door three times, and waited, to see if Sugawara was awake. He inhaled heavily; rolling over onto his back he rubbed his hands over his face to try and wake himself up. On one hand, he could just bury himself back into his bed. His duvet was warm, having adopted his body heat and radiating around him like a big, cozy cocoon. There was no way the cold could get to him in there, not if he buried himself down deep enough and pulled the duvet about him like the top of a pie, nothing could get to him ever again - 

“Suga?” On the other hand, of course, he could get up. He could pull himself from his warm bed, moulded to his body and hugging him like a lover, or he could call out to Kiyoko to let her know he was conscious. She’d seen him in bed before - she’d seen him when he looked a lot worse than he did at that point in time. Maybe it would be better if he got up.  Kiyoko’s news could be urgent. Something could have happened. But things like that didn’t come to Sugawara’s mind, as nothing did when one is in that ether between being awake and being asleep. His own mind rocked him to and fro, and he really didn’t want to get out of bed.

“I’m awake,” he called. His voice was groggy even to his own ears, croaky with disuse and mucous from the ice in the air outside. “I’m coming.”

“Don’t get up,” Kiyoko replied, sounding as if she was about to go somewhere. She sounded as if she was dressed. She probably was. “Can I come in?”

Sugawara pulled himself up. Scraping his hair back from his face he reached out and pulled the cord to one of the blinds by his bed, letting in a flood of sunlight that hurt his eyes and made him flinch violently away from it. “Sure, yeah, come in.”

Kiyoko peered into the dimly-lit room with bright eyes that looked more awake than Sugawara felt most days. “Your mom called before asking if you -,” she paused when she saw him, her face suddenly turning tight with caution. “Suga, are you all right?”

“‘Course I am,” Sugawara told her with a thin smile. It was like weak sunlight, and Kiyoko felt nervous. She took a few steps into the room, closing the door gently behind her. There was nobody else in the apartment - there never was - but somehow the gesture achieved closure, a sense of privacy that made secret conversations so much easier. “I just woke up, what would you expect?”

Kiyoko sat down on the end of his bed, holding her purse in her lap with long manicured fingers glinting with stylish rings. She had the expression of a tightrope walker. Every single one of her movements was gentle, and to her Sugawara was an injured animal, or so it appeared. “Hey, Suga, I really don’t mean to pry, and I know I asked you about it last night, but… you seem really down. Do you need to talk about it?”

“Kiyoko, you’re overthinking things again.” Sugawara smiled encouragingly at her but her face remained doubtful, her eyes flicking over each inch of his face, scrutinising and appraising and looking for any cracks she might be able to see through. Sugawara sat shoulder-to-shoulder with her, still smiling in that funny way he had, and said: “I’m right as rain, I promise. You need to worry about yourself, Kiyoko - you’ve been up late these last few weeks, and you won’t do well on your exams if you don’t get enough sleep -,”

“This isn’t about me,” Kiyoko interrupted. “What’s wrong? Why are you so sad? You smile and smile, but I can see it. Is this about -?”

“I’m just lonely, I suppose,” Sugawara replied so quickly he almost bit his tongue clean in half. “I’m not used to being on my own like this. I mean, I can manage, but…” He folded the edge of his duvet over his hands so Kiyoko couldn’t see them.

“Still upset over that girl, huh?” Kiyoko sighed heavily, leaning against his shoulder. “You’ve been stressed out, Suga. It doesn’t take an idiot to see that much. You’ve been studying hard and working longer hours than you’re used to down at the shop; maybe you should take a break. I could go down and chat to the manager, get you a few hours less next week, and you could have a sick day or two, even -,” But she couldn’t continue on for much longer, because Sugawara began to laugh and swat her with a pillow.

“Kiyoko, you’re always like this!” Sugawara flung himself out of his bed, padding with his (still) socked feet over to pick up a sweater off the back of his desk chair. Pulling it on over his head, being still quite conscious of his bare shoulders, he passed Kiyoko and made his way out into the hall. The light was brighter out there than it had been in his room, and though his eyes had adjusted to the intrusion before, he still squinted. Sunlight just after waking up was like someone throwing salt in his eyes.

He knew Kiyoko was watching him as he bent over the basin of the bathroom to wash his face. He knew she was watching him as he brushed his teeth and ran his fingers through his ashen hair, unkinking it but not brushing it, because since his hair was short he didn’t need to. He knew she was watching him, and even though it was for no longer than a minute, he didn’t acknowledge it at all, ignoring her until she skulked back and he heard the front door slam.

A heavy breath left his lungs. His tongue, swollen inexplicably large in his mouth, had kept back his breath. He hadn’t realised it at all until his lungs had begun to burn.

Sugawara didn’t eat breakfast. He wasn’t hungry. Opening the fridge and seeing the leftovers from last night didn’t make him feel any hungrier. Seeing the eggs Kiyoko had bought on the way home from her morning run didn’t make him feel any hungrier either. He ended up closing the fridge and leaving the kitchen without eating. He didn’t feel like it, and besides - he had better things to do.

From ten o’clock onwards he took refuge in his bedroom, wrapping himself in his blanket and turning down the thermostat to keep his attention sharper. A pleasantly warm room did nothing but send him to sleep, which wasn’t a useful thing when he had a couple thousand-word-essay to edit. Writing academic papers was hard for him at the best of times, but to try and do it in November was especially tricky, and especially when the sky was dark and overcast like it was that particular day. It was the perfect weather to curl up and read a book or watch a movie, or to just sit in a corner and think until his brain hurt.

If Sugawara and Kiyoko differed on one thing, it was the thermostat. Kiyoko was a summery person, who by far preferred warm weather, and set the atmospheric settings of the apartment accordingly. For her, it wasn’t warm enough until she was able to comfortably wear t-shirts and shorts around the place, even in the depths of winter. Sugawara - normally - didn’t mind much. It was fine when he wasn’t doing anything productive, but all the warmth did was lull him to sleep, and when he had things that needed doing, sleeping was not something he could afford. But if he turned the temperature down, Kiyoko would turn it back up. She wasn’t even being malicious; it was a habit of hers, and even though Sugawara hardly ever saw her do it, she did. She was like a ghost.

Another bad thing about the apartment’s heat was that Sugawara’s lips began to crack. He’d invested in some balm that his mother had recommended to him, and so far it was going well, but whenever he ran his tongue over his bottom lip he felt the crooked ridges and flaking skin, and it disgusted him, throwing his concentration off balance. Again.

He shook his head to himself, deleting the paragraph’s edits and consulting the hard copy that lay folded and highlighted beside his keyboard. He ran his index finger over the line of text once, twice, three times, until the solution came to him and he was able to fix the flaws or fill in the blanks. Soon he formed a pattern, and he was able to slip into autopilot, moving like a dancer who has memorised a sequence of steps. Writing was just like anything, really: one big pattern. Once he cracked it he was able to let his mind wander (but not too far, otherwise his work would suffer). It allowed him enough wriggle room to think of other things, like how his family were going, how his old friends were, what he was going to have for dinner that night, what ever happened to that magazine subscription…

As the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, breaking free from the bank of fog that lay low over the city like a blanket, sunlight arched across the floor of Sugawara’s bedroom and crept ever so slowly towards the foot of his chair. The fluorescent numbers on the digital clock on the top tier of his desk flashed with a slow methodic rhythm that wasn’t rapid enough to be annoying but wasn’t slow enough to be a distraction.

A few hours later his shoulders begun to cramp. Sugawara was usually able to sit down for hours and hours without moving, though he’d been told by almost everyone he knew that it had to be bad for his back. It probably was, too; lately his stamina had been waning, and he’d been getting sorer sooner.

He pulled himself up, putting his hands on the small of his back and leaning backwards to stretch out his sternum and allow his lungs to fill. He then bent over double to put his hands on his knees and rock onto his heels, feeling the pull across his hips and lower back, and groaning as his face crumpled in appreciation. He looked at the flashing numbers of his digital clock: it was almost one in the afternoon.

Time for something to eat, thought Sugawara, remembering that he had neglected to eat any breakfast. He still didn’t feel hungry or particularly bothered, but in some kind of lucid moment he knew he had to fuel his engine or he’d drop down dead sooner or later. He made his way out of his room into the corridor outside, then into the kitchen of the conjoined living space. As expected, everything was spotless after Kiyoko  left for work. Sugawara almost felt bad for upsetting that, but as soon as he moved the first glass his guilt had vanished and he was pulling out bread and butter and the toaster and boiling water for tea, rifling through the boxes of teabags stored in the cupboard above the sink.

Sitting alone at the kitchen island, swinging his legs from a high stool,  Sugawara finished his breakfast/lunch combo meal and felt more like a nap than finishing looking at that paper. He mentally leafed through the document; he only had a few pages left. He’d be done by the time Kiyoko ended her shift, easily. He stacked his dishes in the sink, filling his mug with water and letting it sit in the soggy crumbs that lay on the top of his plate.

As expected, Sugawara did finish his work before Kiyoko finished her shift, but only just - he only had time to save and close and backup the edited document, and to clean up his desk (which had looked as if someone had dropped a grenade onto it at some point during the day) before he heard Kiyoko let herself in.

“Suga!” she appeared at the doorway of his bedroom impossibly quickly, phone in hand, screen lit. “I might be able to set you up on a date tonight. Would you be up for it?”

Not even a hello? Sugawara smiled to himself. “I don’t know -,”

“Just give it a shot,” Kiyoko implored. She must have been serious; her voice was louder than usual. “If you don’t like her then I won’t push it.”

Sugawara was quiet, mind turning over Kiyoko’s proposition again again until it meant nothing to him. The look on his roommate’s face was brutal, like a punch to the gut. It was a pleading expression that made Sugawara feel physically uneasy.

“Okay. Yeah. Fine. No problem. What time?”

Kiyoko beamed. “I’ll find out now.” Then she was gone like the wind, leaving a bittersweet taste in Sugawara’s mouth. He could hear her talking softly to someone out in the living room, her phone up to her ear, mouth moving in whispers. Sugawara glanced at his clock, the numbers still flashing. It was almost three.

“Is six okay?” Kiyoko called, and Sugawara yelled ‘yes’ before he even had time to think about it. he’d thought out his day the evening before, so he already knew he didn’t have anything to do that evening, but he still felt as if he should have. Something was sitting wrong with him, like food caught in the throat, but lower down, deep in his abdomen. He pushed it back; this wasn’t a new feeling, after all. it wasn’t anything special.

Kiyoko was off the phone, twirling it in her hand and smiling as Sugawara leaned around the doorframe. Kiyoko looked sated, but she still looked a little concerned. “Are you sure? You’re not just saying this to appease me?”

“No, no, of course I’m not!” Sugawara denied with a breathy laugh. “Honestly, it’s fine. It’s good. I really appreciate you doing this for me, Kiyoko. You treat me so well!”

Kiyoko pursed her lips at him before turning to the kitchen to make a snack, wordlessly moving Sugawara’s abandoned dishes from the sink to the dishwasher.

Six o’clock arrived sooner than Sugawara really expected. The sun dipped, but he couldn’t wander down to the bridge to watch the water turn purple, because he had to get ready. Kiyoko gave the dresscode with a buttoned lip, leading Sugawara to pick out a crisply pressed dress shirt and beige trousers, shoes shiny because he rarely wore them. He even brushed his hair, but his cowlick was as untameable as ever.

He stood before the bathroom sink, hands braced on either side, staring intently at his reflection for longer than he’d admit. He was waiting for the nervousness, the flicker of butterflies in his stomach, but nothing came. He felt completely ordinary, as if he was stepping out for a family visit rather than preparing for a date.

Kiyoko noticed his forlorn sigh as he passed her to the door of the apartment, and she looked at him curiously, saying, “Are you all right? You don’t have to go if you don’t want to - I just thought it might lift your spirits a little bit.”

“Honestly, Kiyoko, it’s fine. Thank you.” Sugawara held out his hands, palms facing her, and smiled apologetically. “It must be the weather.”

He scooted out the door before she had a chance to reply, closing it and walking briskly down the half-frozen breezeway to the fire stairs, shouldering open the door and descending in circles until - a little dizzy from the cold and the constant spiral he’d been travelling in - he reached the parking lot, frozen over just like mostly everything else. He hadn’t realised that the snap freeze that had gasped the prefecture in its long, icy fingers had been so effective and so speedy, let alone so solid; he would’ve thought the crust had thawed by the evening, but he was wrong. He’d been inside all day, consumed with activities that had nothing to do with the weather, and he’d only heard about the snap freeze on the television after Kiyoko got home. Iced puddles had gone from being like delicate panes of glass to being as translucent and as rock-hard as cement, slush frozen over in the gutters and against walls, sharp and jagged as tiny little mountain ranges stacked up the sides of buildings. It wasn’t very pretty to look at, Sugawara thought, and he turned his attention to the ground underfoot so he didn’t slip and fall on his ass and make a fool of himself.

It was warmer inside his car, though still cold enough to make him want to take off his gloves and blow on his fingers - the longer he was outside the colder he got and the more he wanted to bail and go back to bed. The engine groaned to life with a shudder and steam billowed from the hood as it warmed up.

Wiping at the windshield with his sleeve to clear off some of the fog, Sugawara cautiously made his way out onto the street. He hated driving when it was this icy. It was almost as if something was trying to stop him from going on this date, but he didn’t believe in superstitious things like that. How ridiculous.

She was a beautiful girl, Sugawara had concluded after Kiyoko had shown him a photograph she’d taken of her friend. It was so he knew how to recognise her, she’d said, but he knew she’d only showed him so he wouldn’t back out. But the girl really was lovely, and the thought of her brought a hesitant, shy smile to Sugawara’s lips.

Sugawara pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot and turned off his car, sitting stoic and quiet in the driver’s seat with hands still gripping the wheel. He didn’t feel nervous - it was a strange feeling, like the one usually experienced before a date: apprehension and excitement, but it felt so normal. It felt like some standardised emotion that Sugawara automatically felt whenever he was placed into situations like this. It didn’t feel real, it didn’t feel genuine, and as he felt nervousness bubble in his throat he realised it didn’t stem from the date, but from the feeling itself.

In person, too, she did not disappoint. She was standing near the front door of the restaurant in a well-lit and covered little alcove. She was relatively easy to pick out, even more so since Sugawara knew what she looked like already, and he approached her with a happy smile on his lips and calm, molten eyes.

“Hello,” he said as he neared her, smiling warmly. “I’m Sugawara Koushi - Shimizu Kiyoko’s roommate.”

“Oh!” The girl jumped a little, not quite realising he’d been speaking to her. “Oh, right! Of course - sorry, my mind wandered so I didn’t see you coming! It’s good to meet you. I’m Yachi Hitoka.” She bobbed her head in a little bow, cheeks flushed pink and hair a little windswept, blond strands tangled around the black hair clips. She was pretty, like a little pixie with curved and delicate features that where somehow smaller and more childish than Kiyoko’s but had the same distinct gentleness about them, and the look of her settled comfortably in Sugawara’s stomach.

He tried to focus on her voice and her eyes as they went inside. The place was warmly lit and had functioning heaters that upped the temperature enough for them to be able to remove their coats. The atmosphere was good - Kiyoko had picked the location well, too. People talked in low murmurs, creating a slow-moving ambience of white noise that was like the distant hammering of rain, but softer, more muffled.

“S-so, Sugawara-san,” Yachi began in a halting voice, and Sugawara realised that she was probably even more anxious than he was. He sighed to himself, smiling receptively.

“You can just call me Suga, if it’s easier,” he told her gently, watching as the tightness drained out of her expression and her face bloomed into a smile.

“Thanks, Suga-san,” she said to test the name on her tongue, “I’m a bit nervous, since I’ve not really done one of these things before.”

“You and me both, then!” Sugawara laughed, waving his hand before his face flippantly. “Let’s have a good time, all right?”

The moment Yachi had smiled at him Sugawara’s stomach had dropped to the floor, cushioned only by the soft realisation that Yachi was, indeed, only a girl, and appeared more suited to be his daughter than his girlfriend. She was only a couple of years younger than he was, but the brightness of her face and her attitude coupled with her blindingly cute fashion sense made her seem - to Sugawara, at least - like a child. It made him vaguely uncomfortable; she was lovely and charismatic (though skittish and prone to stumbling over words), and Sugawara liked her, just not in that way. He didn’t feel disgusted, he didn’t feel disappointed, he just felt… tired.

“I’m sorry,” Yachi apologised as they stood on the sidewalk after they’d finished their meal. “You seem a little disappointed.”

“I’m not,” Sugawara assured her quickly, face flushing with embarassment. “I just - I’d like to be your friend, Yachi, but not your… boyfriend.” The words got stuck in his throat for some reason. Whatever obstruction had caused it, however, was cleared when Yachi exhaled loudly and clapped her hands to her hips, bag swinging from the crook of her elbow.

“Thank God! I was thinking the same thing - you’re more of a brother-type, y’know?”

Sugawara did know, and nodded earnestly in reply, marvelling at just how more relaxed she’d become. She grinned at him, teeth glinting in the cold blue light and making her look even younger. Sugawara couldn’t help but laugh, reaching out to ruffle her hair fondly. “Go get yourself a nice boyfriend, all right? Now - do you need a ride home?”

Yachi chirped happily in the passenger seat of Sugawara’s car, breathing on the windows and drawing little cartoons, giggling and complaining about boys and her mother’s unwittingly cold attitude. Sugawara smiled despite himself, urging his shivering vehicle to Yachi’s house. She paused every now and again to direct him, and soon he pulled up outside her home and she turned to him with a glittering smile.

“Thank you for everything, Suga-san!” she told him as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “I hope I’ll see you soon. I really like you.”

“Me too,” Sugawara replied, and watched her until she’d gotten inside before slowly navigating his way back home.

The sudden silence he was surrounded by was unwarranted and unwelcome, pressing in around Sugawara as if the airbags had deployed. It wasn’t suffocating, but more like standing in a crowded train, or - or in a room full of people he didn’t like. It put him on edge.

He wasn’t sad, though - Yachi was pretty and kind and obviously knew what she was about, and they’d parted on good terms, just as Sugawara always did. He wished her the best, he really did. She deserved to find someone nice and just as spritely as she was.

Kiyoko was lying on the sofa under a pile of blankets when Sugawara let himself in, letting out a heavy sigh unintentionally and sparking Kiyoko’s attention. The lights were off except for the one by the door, the dark contours of the apartment lit by the flickering lights from the television screen.

“How’d it go?” Kiyoko asked, shifting only slightly. Sugawara hung up his coat and stepped out of his boots, unwrapping his scarf from around his neck and slowly peeling his gloves from his fingers. Kiyoko listened to the silence as if it was an audible reply, and said nothing as Sugawara made his way over to the sofa and sank down into the cushions. Kiyoko shifted the blanket over his knees as he sighed and closed his eyes, waiting patiently for him to say something.

“It wasn’t bad,” he told her, “she was lovely and all, but… I couldn’t date someone like that. She clicked with me, but not in that way.” He sighed for the third time, remembering the bartender who had been cleaning glasses behind the long, marble bar at the end of the room. As Yachi had been talking Sugawara’s eyes constantly wandered to the thick, toned forearms of the man behind the bar as he twisted the cloth in his hand and flicked it over his shoulder. He’d been entranced by the strength and the masculinity, as if it was a sense pervading his nostrils. It wasn’t better than Yachi, it was just different, and it was something he was more willing to facilitate. “She was really lovely.”

Kiyoko shot him a sidelong glance, but his eyes were shut and she could practically see him falling asleep. He’d been sat behind his desk all day - what could have possibly made him so exhausted? It couldn’t have been because of the date alone - there was no way. Kiyoko leaned over and felt his forehead, but the was no fever as far as she could tell. Sugawara had dropped off to sleep, dead and heavy to the world.

***

When Sugawara woke up daylight was already bursting past the drawn curtains of the living room. His shoulders were stiff from where he’d been lying on the sofa, hair mussed on one side. Pushing off the blankets he got to his feet and went into the kitchen for a glass of water to hydrate his crackling mouth, and he found a note tacked to the fridge.

Suga - I’ll be back early today. Make sure you eat and shower! -K

Sugawara folded the note up neatly and went to put it in the bin, but stopped, looking down at its crease and frowning before unfolding it and putting it back where he’d found it; he’d probably need the reminder later.

As he filled a glass with water and drank he thought about Kiyoko’s note. What was she planning? He’d known her long enough to be able to tell when she was planning something. But she was right, no matter how he looked at it, and his stomach growled appreciatively as he reread the note. Patting his abdomen, he ambled off to the bathroom, peeling off his clothes and looking forward to melting under the blast of hot water.

At some point during the morning he’d taken refuge on the couch and channel-surfed until he flicked onto a particularly boring history programme, which served as a highly effective lullaby and lulled him to sleep in less than ten minutes. Wrapped like a caterpillar in a cocoon of blankets, he was still dozing when Kiyoko returned to the apartment. She noticed the creases in her note and the plates in the sink, and Sugawara’s wet towel hung over the back of the sofa (she always told him not to do that - it just encouraged mould) so she let him sleep for a little while longer. It still confused her, these period of lethargy that were so common but still so strange in Sugawara. He hadn’t always been like this, and he certainly wasn’t like this in high school, but something had shifted with him a few years ago that made him lapse into periods of prolonged apathy and exhaustion. She didn’t know what it was, he didn’t tell her, and she wasn’t going to push something he obviously didn’t want to disclose. So she left him, curled up like a fluffy little cat in his blankets, for a few more hours.

“Suga,” she chided him gently, rising him from his sleep. Sugawara blinked rapidly against the dim lights, sitting up partly from curiosity and partly from guilt. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just… tired.” He fingered at the blankets, shaking his head to wake himself up. “What’s up?”

“I thought we could go out with the others tonight,” Kiyoko said shyly, her voice subdued. “But if you’re not feeling up to it…”

“I want to go!” Sugawara said suddenly, the notion of going out sitting well with him. “Who’s coming?”

“Ennoshita, Tsukishima, and Yamaguchi… Narita couldn’t make it, though. Family business.”

“Where are we going?”

“Ennoshita found a nice place downtown,” Kiyoko replied, her voice rising as Sugawara went off to change (calling ‘I’m listening! Keep talking!’ as he went). He emerged wearing a warm wooden sweater and jeans, having changed his socks and combed the nest out of the side of his hair. He felt invigorated after having slept for so long - he wanted to do this. It’d be good for him, to get out and mingle with the plebs (as his mother used to put it), and such an open-ended location would leave him with a bundle of opportunity. Kiyoko smiled at him. “You didn’t have to get ready in such a rush.”

Sugawara shook his wrists as Kiyoko picked up her purse and dropped her phone and wallet into it. “I felt gross and needed to change anyway,” he told her as they bundled themselves into their coats and scarves and jackets inside the door. Outside, the day had grown dark and had slipped away into night without a whisper, leaving the world open to the dark howling winds that, thankfully, were still sleeping as soundly as Sugawara had been.

They met Ennoshita at the train station; he was looking immaculate, as usual, and Sugawara greeted him happily. He was glad to see him, after all - it’d been a long time since they’d met up like this. Once Sugawara managed to get Ennoshita into a streamlined conversation, they talked and talked and talked right up until they convened with Yamaguchi and Tsukishima outside the club.

It looked like a decent place, at least, with a clean entrance and a sizeable queue leading up to a door manned by a stocky bouncer and with that red velvet fencing stuff to keep the line in check. Tsukishima, for whatever reason, gestured to the bouncer and he let them in without a word.

The club had a good atmosphere; the place was dark and strobe lights flashed and quivered in the air, music thumping with a constant rumbling beat. The bass shook through the floor, right up Sugawara’s legs and into his chest. It confused him a little, making him think his heart was beating faster than it really was, because the music became a part of the building, a part of his body. 

“You want me to stick with you?” Kiyoko called over the noise, and Sugawara shook his head.

“You go,” he told her, “I’ll be fine!” Kiyoko patted his arm, and when he nodded to her she slipped away quick and silent as a cat. Yamaguchi and Tsukishima were moving their own way, too, and Yamaguchi looked over his shoulder to offer Sugawara an encouraging grin.

Sugawara looked around him, more observant than anything. He wasn’t hungry for action, he wasn’t really looking for anything, but the colours and sounds made his bones shiver with excitement.

The smell of nicotine and detergent filled the air, soapy from the bubble dispenser and decidedly acidic from the sweat rising like a mist above the close-packed dancers. He sidled around them, not willing to be sucked into people packed like sardines, and wound his way to the bar.

“Can I get you something?” someone asked, leaning against the bar beside him. Looking over, Sugawara’s breath caught in his throat; the man who was smiling at him was tall and handsome and didn’t look that much older than Sugawara was. His smile was lethal, all straight teeth and perfect lips. It made Sugawara’s stomach flip over.

“Sure,” Sugawara replied, letting the man order drinks for them both. He was acutely aware of the man standing next to him, looking at him with bright eyes that were a little… too bright, with that brilliant smile and  pale neck and hair that looked soft and as if it’d feel nice in his fingers.

At some point he must have sidled in closer, eyes downturned and eyelashes brushing over his beauty mark. He heard a rush of breath from the man who’d approached him, and felt himself drawn in closer by a hand at the small of his back. Perhaps those were lips at his cheek, but he couldn’t tell, seeing as he was so overwhelmed with sensations from the lights and the music and the sudden stab of arousal in his abdomen. Then the bar disappeared from under his fingers and was replaced with the cold metal of a lock; one of the stalls in the men’s bathroom, where Sugawara felt arms around him and lips on his face, kissing everywhere but his lips, tongue darting and teeth nipping and he groanedbecause this was something he needed. He swallowed thickly, feeling himself growing hard in his trousers as broad hands roamed over his thighs, those of a stranger - it didn’t matter, though, it didn’t matter.

The sudden silence stunned him, the weight on his lap increasing, and he looked down to see the fly of his trousers undone and a man asleep over his thighs. He blinked. He had been tugged along in a lust-filled haze to the empty bathrooms… but his partner was sleeping. Not only sleeping, but the man was completely dead to the world, so much so that Sugawara felt the need to gently check his pulse. Zipping up his trousers, Sugawara hooked the man’s arm over his shoulder and helped him out into the street, sitting him down on a bench a little way away from the club’s entrance. Not long after, a young woman ran over, her face tight with concern. She looked foreign, and lightly smacked the unconscious man’s cheeks before turning to Sugawara and thanking him in surprisingly fluent Japanese.

He was convinced the man was in safe hands now, and even though there was a gnawing feeling wedged in his gut he knew it was for the best. He plunged his hands into his pockets and drifted back into the club, his shoulders cold. His whole body felt damp, like the fire had been extinguished, and all he wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep for the next five years.

As he sidled uneasily down the narrow corridor leading from the men’s bathrooms and the back exit, he came across Tsukishima and Yamaguchi, who stood pressed against the wall necking like horny teenagers. Yamaguchi’s hands had curved around Tsukishima’s hips and up under his shirt, and Tsukishima was obviously making quick work of a hickey on Yamaguchi’s neck, his glasses askew and tinged with fog. Sugawara paused only briefly, sighing and wishing he had a condom to slip into their pocket.

They’re responsible enough, Sugawara thought as he caught Tsukishima’s gaze and looked at him pointedly before moving on and leaving the boys to their (somewhat)privacy. They’ll wake up sore and hungover tomorrow, at worst.

He’d arranged with Kiyoko that she’d escort the boys back via train with Ennoshita, who’d agreed beforehand to be the ‘designated driver’ and to stay off the booze for the most part. Sugawara picked him out easily enough, only having to murmur in his ear before Ennoshita squeezed his elbow and gave him the all-clear.

“Call me if anything happens, ok?” he told Ennoshita before slipping away from the pulsing crowd and out onto the deserted street.

Sugawara savoured the short walk to the station, listening to the crunch of ice and slush under his feet, marvelling at the clear expanse of sky that arced above his head. Stars glittered and winked down at him like a pen of toddlers with sparkling eyes, and he smiled up at the tiny little pupils of light.

The train was lulling, and as he sat in the mostly empty carriage swaying to and fro on the tracks, he had to struggle not to fall asleep where he sat. It was so comforting, being rocked like a child, and his eyelids grew heavy and his limbs went numb and he knew he wasn’t drunk because he hadn’t even finished his first drink. He was just tired.

Returning to the apartment was strange; he was alone and it was dark, but as strange as it was he found it oddly nice, and he didn’t know why. He stripped his clothes as he walked, blowing on his freezing fingers before falling face-first into his bed, and sleeping well into the next morning.

Kiyoko looked up from her magazine to see Sugawara half-stagger into the kitchen to fill a glass of water. He looked worse than she felt, and she’d been considerably drunker than he had.

As he took a seat across the table from her, she merely fixed him with an open-ended stare that had him drawing his eyes right up to hers and understanding her question without her having to ask.

“This isn’t still about dating anymore, is it?” Kiyoko asked doubtfully, truly hoping it wasn’t. Sugawara’s inability to hold down any kind of partner had never effected him like this, not in the eighteen years she’d known him. Sugawara was the kind of person to shrug and move on - but he was also the kind of person to bottle up his emotions until they ruptured and he broke. She’d never seen him break, but she was always cautious as to just how stressed he was. He’d perfected the art of deception, though he didn’t intend to deceive. She knew what he thought: if he depended on anybody emotionally, he’d only be a burden.

“I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Not sure.” Sugawara took a long drink from his glass, his throat working audibly as he swallowed. “I don’t know, Kiyoko. I feel like -,” he bit his tongue, then sucked on the inside of his cheek for a moment as he diverted his gaze. “I don’t know what I feel.” Lie. “I’d like to be with someone. I don’t know if it’s the cause of… this, but… I appreciate all you’ve done for me, I do. I don’t mean to be a bother to you -,”

“Suga, shut up.” Kiyoko’s eyes were clear and awake as they practically drilled holes through his. “I do this because I care for you. If I didn’t prioritise this, I wouldn’t be doing it. You know this as well as I do.” She leaned back, fingering the edges of the magazine’s pages. Her glasses, pushed back into her hair (she never wore them while reading things like books and magazines), only allowed her a skewed view of Sugawara’s quickly falling expression. Then a thought occurred to her. Strange, almost foreign, the stuff of fairy tales and - well - magazine articles. She almost didn’t suggest it, thinking of all the awful stories she’d heard and all the dodgy people in the world who used it as a catalyst, but looking across the table at such a dejected-looking man made her swallow it whole. “Hey, what about online dating?”

Sugawara looked up, and Kiyoko couldn’t tell whether he was intrigued or genuinely frightened.

“Online dating?”