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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?”

Chapter Text

II: Sawamura Daichi

 

The sharp tweet of a whistle cut through the early morning air and made a few of the neighbourhood parents jump with fright. Sawamura Daichi flung out his arm, gesturing in wide circles for his little team to come towards him. Children, tripping over their undone shoelaces, raced over towards him with cheeks red with exertion and the chilly wind. One of them held a volleyball in his hands, the material of its surface soaked with melted slush and snow from the frosted-over outdoor court. The cold didn’t bother the kids, though - they skipped and ran and slipped all over the place, balancing like cats on the ice in that strange way children do. Scarves that were far too big were wrapped tightly around little necks, beanies jammed on their heads leaving just enough room for peeping eyes and red, running noses.

“All right!” Sawamura said loudly, his voice commanding attention. His baritone, rumbling like thunder, had no problem attracting attention and instilling order. It was why he became a coach in the first place - he was a leader. Always had been. “I want you two to take down the net, and you three to collect the balls and take them to the shed. The rest of you go and wipe your noses. And don’t run, or you’ll slip!”

Hands on his hips, he watched as the children ran like skittish little animals to clear up or go to their parents. Sawamura glanced at his watch, pushing back the sleeve of his jacket. It was a little past seven, the white of dawn still lingering in the harsh, cold light of daybreak. In a few minutes the sun would disappear behind the tall warehouse where the neighbourhood’s sports equipment was kept, and it would be too cold to continue for much longer without little children complaining.

“Thanks, coach!” came a chorus of voices high with the onset of childhood, not deepened by puberty at all, like angels. Sawamura waved cheerily, breath clouding at his lips, and the chill knocked against his teeth as he grinned.

“See you on Wednesday! Don’t forget to eat properly - especially you, Naru!” He tucked his whistle into his pocket, twisting the string around his fingers as he stomped the ice from his boots. It really was too cold to be doing this outdoors; but ever since the indoor court’s roof had collapsed after a particularly nasty storm had hit, they’d had little choice. The parents’ association was still waiting for the all-clear to use the high school’s gym, so in the meantime they had to make do with what they had. It wasn’t bad, though, not at all. Children don’t tend to think of things like cost effectiveness and pneumonia, and as long as they’re having fun there’s really nothing else they worry about. As long as they didn’t mind, he didn’t mind.

“You work with them so well,” one of the mothers told him as she lifted her child into her arms. “It’s a real talent, I’d say! My, my, so charismatic!” she blushed and grinned and bowed slightly before digging her car keys from her pocket and heading towards the parking lot.

Yeah, Sawamura thought glumly to himself. I wouldn’t say it’s charisma. Just… I don’t know what it is. He shrugged the thought away, jamming his beanie down over his ears and rubbing them gingerly. After the equipment was packed away there was a chorus of ‘thank you’s and ‘see you later’s as he walked towards his own car.

Sawamura had been working part-time as the children’s volleyball coach for just over a year and a half. Ever since the old coach had broken a leg, Sawamura found himself dipping back into an old sport he loved. Teaching volleyball was different from playing it, but it was no less enjoyable, and he found that watching the kids skip and jump and handle volleyballs that were really too big for them would lift his spirits from the very pits of hell. When one of them occasionally threw themselves against his knees, hugging his legs, or jumped up onto his back and scare him from his skin. It was nice, especially in the winter months… refreshing. He liked it enormously.

He’d played volleyball in high school, of course, captaining his team and bringing them to the brink of success. He didn’t know how they were going now; he’d been idle ever since he left high school, not really picking up a volleyball again until he was approached with the proposition of a part-time coach. He needed the money - there was always use for some extra cash, anyway, and he loved volleyball and kids (and the kids loved him, luckily).

As he slid into the driver’s seat of his car, Sawamura felt his phone vibrate in his back pocket, sandwiched between his backside and the seat. The notification was titled ‘Yui’ followed by a number and the beginning of a text. Swipe, unlock, and Sawamura found himself looking down at a text from his girlfriend. It wasn’t long enough to make him feel nervous: in fact, it was only a few lines. ‘Hey, haven’t heard from you in a while! Been busy? We should get together soon - it’s almost winter break so we should see each other! Miss you.’

Sawamura’s phone sat in his hand until the screen turned dark of its own volition. His stomach twisted in an uncomfortable kind of way, but he swallowed down the niggling feeling of guilt. Michimiya Yui (his long-term friend and now girlfriend, as fate would have it) wasn’t someone who gave up easily, not matter how Sawamura’s attention wandered from her to other things like study of volleyball. They’d been dating for about six months, though they’d known each other ever since elementary school and had even lived together during the first few months of university before Michimiya had to move back in with her parents due to familial issues. Michimiya was someone who was unable to enforce rules by authority, and instead chose the path of gentle encouragement. Sawamura liked it about her; it wasn’t pestering, it was reminding him that he had to do certain things, which was something he needed. If he was to be truthful with himself, really, he would’ve acknowledged the fact that he wasn’t blindly in love with her. He did love her, but it wasn’t the kind of love that builds strong - romantic - relationships. It was a mutual regard, mutual respect. Michimiya knew Sawamura needed his own space sometimes, and she gave it to him, even though she didn’t entirely understand his motives sometimes. Sawamura, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to her needs and wants when it came to their relationship; he didn’t do it on purpose, though. It was just how he prioritised things.

He flicked his screen awake and replied: ‘sure thing. I’ll get back to you about the where/when.’ Flicking the lock he slid the phone back into his pocket.

As he drove down the ice-slicked streets, between high residential buildings with closed-up windows and empty washing lines and bundled tight with people staying warm indoors, his mind wandered back to the argument they’d had two months ago. Sawamura had come to recognise this particular type of argument as his ‘mandatory relationship’ argument, which he suspected was somewhat unhealthy but he never dwelt on it for long enough to question it. It was always the same: ‘I’m your girlfriend, Sawamura (or Daichi, depending)! You can’t just ignore me like this!”

They were always right, of course. Sawamura had a bad habit of neglecting his girlfriends, and it was only made worse once they realised that it was all completely unintentional; they liked him, and they knew he liked them back. It would’ve been easier on them had he been actively avoiding them: at least he would make an effort, in that case. But accidentally? That was worse. They knew he wanted to be with them, and they wanted to be with him, but there was no future for it. He was completely and utterly oblivious. Sawamura Daichi was a blockhead when it came to love, there was no doubt about it. He didn’t mean to, but that didn’t change anything.

He let himself into his house to find a dimly-lit kitchen with a folded note weighed down by the jar of pencils on the counter. It was a note from his mother: gone out for groceries - will drop of the kids as well. I’ll be back around six tonight so if you could make dinner that would be great! Love you.

His thoughts turned briefly to Michimiya as he opened the fridge and perused its contents, fingers rubbing at his chin. It didn’t once occur to him that he was being negligible. He peeled back the plastic wrap covering a bowl of pasta.

Sawamura’s childhood was rife with half-cooked meals hastily thrown together by his single, full-time working mother who - like him - hadn’t realised that the left side of the dish was always a little less cooked than the right. On the whole, it had never bothered Sawamura or his siblings very much: their minds lay elsewhere, doing other things, and having average meals never sat high on their priority lists. It was a gift, he’d been told, singular to the Sawamura family: single-mindedness to the point of ignorance. The adults on his street always used to say so and chortle over it, and as a child Sawamura would laugh along nervously, not entirely sure what the saying meant or whether it was a good thing or not. Even now, as a university student, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seemed like a negative trait, but the old ladies would say it with such large, crinkled, happy smiles that he would try his hardest to see it in a different light. That ‘trait’, however, never occurred to him to be of any importance to his personal (or love) life. It was something separate from the way he operated, from the way he navigated his own life as it trundled along.

Restoring the plastic wrap over the lip of the bowl, Sawamura pushed aside a jar of pickled ginger to see what else was in the fridge. He vaguely remembered someone bringing back mackerel the day before, and there was more than enough rice and vegetables to do something with. Oh - but the steamer was broken. Sawamura glanced at the clock hanging above the window looking out onto the street. He had loads of time.

As he lay out his ingredients in various bowls along the counter next to the stove, his mind turned to volleyball. He thought of the kids and how their feet moved and how they sang their arms. He picked up a long, thin knife and picked two eggs out of the carton, holding them between his fingers and deftly cracking them on the countertop before letting the contents spill into a bowl. Always crack the shell on a hard surface, never and edge - it prevents the egg shell from falling in with the yolks. The yellow centres of the eggs made him think of volleyballs; he remembered how the children leaned too far back when trying to set the ball to other players, how they jumped to far away from the net or too close to it. He thought of where their footing should of been, the position their freezing fingers should have adopted -

The sizzling of the pan at his elbow caught his attention, and his mind broke away from strategy and refocussed on the task at hand. His fingers worked almost mindlessly, dipping back between his lips every now and again to make sure nothing was burning.

If there was one thing Sawamura hated, it was burning his tongue. Of course, whenever he left food out to cool he’d forget about it and it would end up cold (so he’d put it in the microwave and have to leave it out again, and so on and so forth), but this time he stood next to it and  waited with his arms folded across his chest. He’d only just realised how hungry he actually was, a gnawing in his gut that wouldn’t go away and that was making him genuinely uncomfortable. As he poked his freshly-cooked food with his pinky finger, he heard his phone vibrate against the countertop. It rattled towards him, screen bright, and he reached out to pick it up, guiltily glancing at the caller ID. ‘Asahi’.

“Daichi?” came the tentative greeting that made Sawamura both glad and inexplicably frustrated. Asahi always sounded as if he’d just stepped on a cat, or was about to, and it really pissed Sawamura off.

“Isn’t it a bit early for you to be up?” he asked, tapping his finger against the back of his phone. “I thought you slept in until midday on the weekends.”

“I do,” Asahi mumbled, and Sawamura pinned his tone to be tired more than nervous. His voice was still croaky with sleep - he hadn’t been up long. He heard Asahi stifle a yawn. “But Yuu woke up at sparrow’s and I haven’t been able to get back to sleep.”

“So why did you call me?” Sawamura picked absently at his food, steam belching from each new fissure like geysers. “Surely you have better people to call. Like your mom.”

“No, no, Daichi,” Asahi replied and - ah - there was that anxious tick to his voice Sawamura knew so well. “No. I called to see if you wanted to go for coffee today since I don’t have much on, and I know you don’t either.”

Sawamura was faintly impressed by Asahi’s forwardness. “Sure, if you want. I’ll be home alone all day anyway so God knows I don’t have anything better to do. Nid’s again?”

Asahi hummed in assent, the muffled sound of clinking mugs and spoons filling the silence he left behind. “Yeah. See you then.”

Sawamura hung up first, slipping his phone back into the pocket in the seat of his pants. His stomach gave another ravenous growl (herding scores of small zealous children around for an hour and a half most mornings was enough to give anyone an appetite) and he turned towards his breakfast, only to find that it had gone cold.

 

He met Asahi at Café Nid at quarter past eleven. Sawamura was used to getting up early - Asahi, on the other hand, wasn’t. Even if he got out of bed early, he didn’t really gain a grasp on reality until about ten every morning. He wasn’t like other people - he wasn’t hell to deal with when he was groggy, and he usually just opted for crawling into the nearest corner and dozing quietly until he was ready to get up.

Azumane Asahi was tall and had a decidedly delinquent-looking appearance, but Sawamura knew well enough that he was about as dangerous as cotton wool. They’d gone to high school together, and had lived in the same neighbourhood ever since they were kids until Asahi moved out and into the centre of town. Asahi was always the one who got frightened of alley cats leaping down from walls, or the first one to fall and scrape his knee in games of street soccer. He’d kept his hair long, the tuft of facial hair still clinging to the end of his chin, and Sawamura could easily pick him out. People avoided him on the street (which really did break his heart), but his eyes were as warm as summer and he would never hurt a fly.

Sawamura had showered quickly after reheating his breakfast about six times (he was an idiot to think things were going to be any different, really) and eventually putting it in the fridge. He didn’t need his heavy-duty winter gear after the sun came up, since the light warmed the previously freezing ice-scape and melted it into slush and crusty flakes. Water mixed with the gravel drives and rained down like a storm as children threw their bodies against the trunks of trees, screeching with delight as the cold water ran down their necks. He was still glad to reach Nid, though, and to push open the door and enter into a room that was cozy and warm and filled with books and the low murmur of morning conversation particular to coffee shops on weekends. The heating hit him as if he’d walked into a wall, but it was gentler than walking back out into the cold.

“Good morning, Sawamura,” came a voice from the direction of the cashier. Sawamura took his hands out of his pockets and loosened his scarf around his neck, turning to see a young man wrapped in a black apron, chin in his hands. He yawned widely, scratching at his hair.

“Morning, Kinoshita,” Sawamura replied.

“Usual?”

“Yeah.”

Kinoshita pushed himself off the counter and went to the coffee maker, the hiss of the machine filling the corner of the café as Sawamura fished out his wallet. “It’s pretty dead for a Saturday morning,” Sawamura mentioned casually as he slid his money forwards over the countertop.

“Well, yeah,” Kinoshita replied sluggishly, words punctuated by another yawn. “Since university break starts soon lots of folk have started travelling. Holidays, visiting relatives, you know the deal.”

Sawamura nodded his head. “I’ll have some of the slice, too.” He added his change to the money he’d already put down.

He sank into a booth that was shielded behind a big bookcase but still had perfect view of the shopfront. Sawamura loved that particular booth purely for its people-watching abilities. He could sit watching people pass to and fro outside the window for hours.

The little bell tingled above the door as it swung open, admitting a tall man of an age with Sawamura, brown hair rumpled but neatly pulled back and the collar of his coat pulled up to his ears. Stomping his ice-crusted boots on the mat inside the door, he caught Sawamura’s eye and ambled over to where he was sitting. Sawamura smiled, honestly amused at the sight of him, as Asahi eased himself down opposite him.

“You look in more pain than usual,” he remarked dryly, and Asahi shot him a pleading look.

“It’s cold today, Daichi,” Asahi replied nervously. Daichi cocked his eyebrow, just to see Asahi flinch - he wasn’t disappointed. “Besides, Yuu’s not due back for a few hours anyway - and he left really early, too - so I had to make my own breakfast and I burned it.” Asahi looked so dejected that Sawamura couldn’t help but laugh. He thought back to his breakfast, still sitting in his kitchen fridge.

“I haven’t eaten yet either,” he said as Kinoshita approached them with Sawamura’s order. Asahi looked up at the young man who’d already flipped open his notebook and unhooked his pen from the neck of his apron.

“Eggs, please, but without the spring onion, this time?” Asahi said it like a question, and Sawamura smiled gently. “And tea, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“You’re too nice, Asahi,” Kinoshita commented, eyeing Sawamura as he spoke. He’d been timid in high school, had Kinoshita Hisashi, but after he’d finished he’d developed a dry kind of maturity that made Sawamura feel awkwardly like a proud father. “See, Sawamura, why can’t you be nice like him?”

“Because I am an old man, Hisashi,” Sawamura said in his best patronising voice. “Let me be crusty before I die.” He took a sip from his coffee, his tongue darting back as scalding liquid spilled past his teeth. Kinoshita smiled, nodding to Asahi before tucking his notepad into the pocket of his apron and disappearing around the bookcase.

Asahi sighed heavily, folding his hands on top of the table. Sawamura was polite enough to leave his coffee (which was way to hot for him to drink anyway) and his slice (what kind of breakfast is that?) untouched until Kinoshita returned with Asahi’s order. There was a pause between them, Asahi eyeing off the slice.

“Want some?”

“You’re not seriously going to eat that for breakfast, are you?”

“I’m an adult now, Asahi, I play by my own rules.”

Kinoshita, having returned to their table balancing Asahi’s breakfast on one wrist and his tea in the other hand, placed the plates down and accepted the money Asahi offered him. Their exchange wasn’t very orthodox for a coffee shop, but they’d both been going there for long enough and knew each other well enough for it to be of no worry. Asahi picked at his food, but left it to cool as Sawamura cut into his slice with the edge of his fork.

“Yui called me.”

Sawamura looked up, attention piqued. “Why’d she call you?” he demanded sharply - perhaps more aggressively than he’d intended - and Asahi shrank back for a moment before Sawamura apologised. “Sorry, Asahi, I was just a bit surprised.”

“She was a bit… upset.” Asahi scratched his chin with a long, squarish finger as he looked down at his plate. “I mean, she called me because she said I knew you best a-and that maybe I could tell her what -,”

“Slow down,” Sawamura interrupted as Asahi’s tongue began to twist in his mouth. “Start from the beginning. When did she call you?” His voice was soft, encouraging. Dealing with Asahi was like dealing with a skittish cat, really. He just had to take it slow.

“Well… she called me a few days ago, actually. I feel kind of bad for not telling you, but she asked me not to unless I thought it was really necessary. You guys have been friends for years and years, so I think what upset her the most was the fact that she had to ask me something about you.”

Sawamura’s mouth had gone dry. “What did she tell you?”

“She was a bit upset, I guess,” Asahi laughed nervously. “She really misses you. She hasn’t seen you in over a month - at least that’s what she told me - a-and as your girlfriend she feels a bit - um - guilty? No - more like - ah -,”

“I get the idea,” Sawamura interjected softly. “How upset was she?”

“She wasn’t crying or anything,” Asahi said hurriedly. “She just sounded tired, you know? She loves you, Daichi, she does.”

Sawamura was silent as he stared down the forkful of slice he really didn’t feel like eating. His hunger had been replaced with a feeling that was much, much worse.

“You do this a lot, Daichi,” Asahi continued. “I get a surprising amount of calls from your girlfriends… I’ve picked up a - um - disturbing pattern, too. They want to know where your mind is. What it focusses on - what’s so important to you that makes you disregard a mutual relationship like… that. Like a girlfriend and boyfriend one. They want to know why you’d enter into a relationship like that only to… um… neglect it.”

There was an uncomfortable, itchy silence broken only by the sound of Asahi’s fork scraping against his plate. “Sorry,” Asahi said in a tiny, tiny voice. “I’m not very good at talking about this. I just care about you, and all your girlfriends have been really nice. I care about Yui, too, and I don’t like seeing her frustrated like this. The last three of your girlfriends broke up with you because of your unwavering love for volleyball. Daichi, you do this all the time. You don’t even seem to notice it.”

“I don’t,” Sawamura replied quietly. “I never realised. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Yui - and that you had to get tangled up in this whole thing -,”

“It’s fine!” Asahi said, his voice cracking. “It’s fine. You’re my best friend. I want to see you happy.”

That remark shot through his chest like a lead bullet. Sawamura turned his eyes down, still holding his fork but not doing anything with it. Asahi watched him carefully, concerned and nervous like a new mother, twisting his napkin in his fingers.

“I’m here to help you.”

“Asahi!”

Alongside the heaviness in his chest, a high yell shot across the room and clubbed Sawamura upside the head. He hadn’t even heard the bell go - he quickly realised that it was because the person who had yelled had entered the shop so fast that the bell only rang after the shout had died out. Sawamura looked up and across the café to see Asahi’s small but rambunctious boyfriend rocketing towards them.

“Yuu!” Asahi exclaimed, shocked out of his grief for a moment. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be gone until four!”

“No,” Nishinoya Yuu - quite honestly the smallest and most energetic lightning bolt of a person Sawamura had ever met - scooted in beside Asahi, jostling him closer to the wall. “Turns out mom got one of the neighbours to help out with the administration and she did find my birth certificate, so I didn’t need to take copies after all. Also, the train was early. Way early.” Nishinoya didn’t miss a beat, leaning over the table to grin and clap Sawamura on the shoulder. “Daichi! You look like shit. What are you guys here for, anyway?”

“Adult business,” Sawamura replied, forcing a mouthful of bitter coffee down his throat. Nishinoya frowned at him.

“I’m an adult too,” he replied defensively, earning Asahi’s heavy hand on the back of his neck.

“I know,” Sawamura grinned at him, getting to his feet. “All right. I’ve gotta go - business to attend to. You guys have a nice date. Noya - you can have that.” He jerked his thumb at his slice.

“Really? Awesome!” Nishinoya jumped into his seat as soon as e vacated the table. Asahi gave him a glance that Sawamura pointedly ignored.

“See you round, guys.” He ignored Kinoshita’s curious gaze, too.

The cold air outside had never felt so good. He strolled a block or two before slapping an hand against his forehead and yelling: “I’m such an asshole!”

He fumbled with his phone, fingers cold and numb and clumsy, as he punched in a hastily-worded text to Michimiya. Want to go on a date tonight? I know a nice place I’ve been wanting to try.

Waiting for a reply from Michimiya was nerve-wrenching. Sawamura got so agitated he decided to go for a run; he was in no way dressed for running anywhere, not in jeans and boots bought at a department store for a thousand yen. He didn’t care, though. The icy air rushing in and out of his lungs felt good, fresh, and with each exhale it felt as if he was - literally - breathing out his worries.

He felt his phone go off and almost tripped over a tiny old woman walking her dog. He fumbled, dropping the phone to the pavement and swearing loudly enough to make the old woman turn and look at him. The screen had cracked right down the middle, but it still worked, and there was the notification he’d been waiting for - !

Sure, I’d love to! How does eight sound? You gonna come pick me up or do I have to take the bus again? ;)

Sawamura laughed out loud, scratching his head. Eight sounds great. I’ll come pick you up!

He smiled widely to the empty park. He made dinner before his mother came home from her shift at the hospital, his younger siblings in tow, and they crowded around him and jumped onto his shoulders, swinging from his arms. They sat around the table at five o’clock in the evening, and since Sawamura had gone without food for the most part of the day, he shovelled down his rice (though he tried not to eat too much in wake of his date with Michimiya) to the point where his brothers and sisters began to yell at him to ‘stop hogging all the rice!’. He grinned at them, picking rice from their hair. Everything was going to be fine.


Things were not, of course, fine.

Sawamura was on the phone with Yachi for over an hour picking out which tie would look best with which shirt. She said she had somewhere to be at six, so Sawamura was dressed and ready and cologne-d for over two hours. He picked Michimiya up at eight, and grinned at her as she slid into the passenger seat of his car, her dark hair combed back and gems glittering in her ears. Everything was right. They’d had to wait less than ten minutes for their table, and got a perfect spot by the window looking out over the glimmering town with white and golden lights. Michimiya was beautiful, the light was warm and the jazz was quiet.

Sawamura watched as his girlfriend spoke less and less, averted her eyes more and more, picked at her food instead of eating it. He may have been oblivious, but he wasn’t stupid enough to skip over the fact that something was wrong. It was when he was about to ask that Michimiya spoke up in a voice that was uncharacteristically small.

“I want to break up, Daichi.”

“You what?”

“I want to break up.” Michimiya’s eyes were shiny with both determination and an unspoken apology - they were also tired, yielding eyes that made Sawamura’s heart lurch in his chest. He watched as her lips pressed together and quivered; there was something hurting her, and he was reluctant to unearth what it was. He couldn’t be angry at her, not while she was wearing that expression. He could never be angry at Michimiya - especially not now, when the weight of his actions came crashing down over his head as if someone had hit him smack in the face with a cast iron pan. “Daichi, I’m sorry. I thought I was resolute. I thought that if we gave this a try it might-“ she swallowed thickly, “-work out. But it’s so exhausting, and I can’t. This was a casual relationship to start with, and I’m just - I’m not ready to emotionally invest in something like this. I love you, Daichi, I do, but I can’t love you like this. You deserve someone so much better than me.”

“Yui, no, listen to me,” Daichi reached out and grasped her trembling fingers. “You’re right. Everything you’re saying is right. I’ve been a bastard; my priorities are a mess, and I should have valued you more than I have. You aren’t undeserving of me - you’re the one who deserves better. You deserve better than an ignorant ass like me.”

Michimiya looked at him with watery eyes. “You know Washio? Washio Tatsuki?”

She didn’t need to say anything else. Sawamura nodded, but it had nothing to do with the name she’d asked him about. He understood what she meant, and she understood why. He wasn’t angry at anybody but himself - she’d turned to another guy, someone more understanding and open to her than he was, and he didn’t blame her for that.

“You’re my best friend, Daichi, and I don’t want to lose you.”

“We’ll be best friends forever, Yui,” Sawamura said, smiling slightly. He handed her a napkin and she blew her nose, then extracted her hands from Sawamura’s and slapped the sides of her face aggressively enough to leave bright, red marks, as well as attracting the attention of a few close tables.

“Right! Well, let’s finish this, right? Don’t want this food to go to waste!”

Michimiya’s resilience shocked even Sawamura, who was both relieved and immensely proud of her. They split the bill, and Sawamura drove her home and saw her safely to her door before driving back home in the dead silence. His house was dark, his family sleeping soundly in their beds as he let himself in, tiptoeing across the floor and up the stairs, trying his best not to trip over anything. He felt the heaviness of disappointment in his chest, and was suddenly grasped by the overwhelming urge to call Asahi or Yachi - but that could wait until morning.

 

**

 

Sawamura didn’t call anybody the next morning. He figured that he wouldn’t bother anyone when he got up - six in the morning - seeing as Nishinoya and Asahi were probably still out like lights and Yachi more than likely had had a big night as well. There was nobody else he’d tell the disastrous details of his date, either. After pacing up and down his room for a solid twenty minutes, he picked up his jacket and decided to brave the pre-dawn darkness with a volleyball under his arm.

There was something therapeutic about volleyball, even when he played it on his own. Maybe it was the way he could smash the living shit out of an inflated piece of rubber until his palms stung and burned, or maybe it was the satisfying sound the ball made when it hit the ground on the other side of the net. Maybe it was hitting it into someone’s yard and having to go and knock on their door, seeing tired smiles and sleepy children and husbands and wives. It was good for him, he thought.

There must have been another snap freeze - multiple times Sawamura almost fell flat on his ass as he navigated his way down the sidewalk, block after block, sidestepping puddles of solid, treacherous ice and - inevitably - sometimes not. He’d never skidded around so much in his entire life, not since he’d taken skating classes as a kid. It was embarrassing, but there was nobody there to see him. He laughed at himself and ended up feeling the better for it.

That particular morning - a Sunday - was one of the days he didn’t teach kids how to play volleyball. It was a day when people lay wrapped up in their blankets and sheets until noon, guarded by the indoor heating and the innovative contraptions that were rubber window seals. He had nothing to worry about - winter meant closed windows, so nobody could hear him hitting a ball or yelling out loud when he missed.

The volleyball court - the outdoors one - was within walking-distance of his house. It took forty-five minutes to walk there, granted, so most days Sawamura took his car. Sunday wasn’t one of those days; he could afford to take a stroll through the darkness, tossing the ball from palm to palm and back again. He looked up at the sky as he jogged across the road to the empty court, feeling strangely like there ought to be sunlight: it was like somebody holding their finger over the flashlight in his phone.

The net was still strung up from whoever had been using it yesterday. Usually, Sawamura would’ve been pissed that they hadn’t cleaned up, but today he was glad for it; it meant he didn’t have to prise open the warehouse to go and get it from inside. He tested the weight of the ball in his fingers, balanced it gently against their pads, and threw it up into the air a couple of times, catching it when it fell back down. Then he bent his knees a little, testing the spring, and flicked his wrist out and upwards, launching the ball into the crisp morning air. It had been a while since he’d done a jump serve like this.

Icy air whistled up the legs of his trousers as he took a few bounds, following the ball like a shadow, propelling his body into the air with the sheer force of his thighs. His hand came down hard against the ball, the dim asphalt on the other side of the net opening up like an unrolled carpet. As Sawamura dropped lightly back onto his feet, the sting in his hand made him feel glorious. Serve after serve, hit after hit, Sawamura never got tired of stopping and walking all the way around the net to retrieve the ball, then hitting it again. It was the exhilaration. It made his skin crawl in the best possible way.

“Daichi?”

Sawamura looked up, his breath burning in his lungs, to see Michimiya standing at the entrance to the court. She had on a jacket and running pants, her face flushed pink. He waved to her, walking around the net to get the volleyball again as she walked towards him.

“It’s pretty early to be up, even for you. Especially on a Sunday.”

Sawamura laughed, his breath clouding at his lips. “Needed to get the blood flowing. Don’t interrupt your run for my sake.”

Michimiya waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She eyed the volleyball hooked under his arm, and he smiled guiltily. “Sawamura, you’re a lost cause.” She said it jokingly, grinning. “You’re married to your sport, even though you haven’t played competitively since high school. You didn’t even want to join the neighbourhood team.”

“I have enough on my plate with studying and coaching,” Sawamura replied. “I wanted to - I love volleyball. I just don’t have time to play aside from smashing out a few serves every now and again.”

Michimiya sighed sympathetically. “You still upset?”

“Not upset -,” he stopped as he saw her face light up. “What?”

“I have the best idea!” she punched his arm and laughed. “The reason you can’t hold down a girl is because you love volleyball too much to think about anything else - you need to find someone with the same interests. Someone who likes volleyball as much as you do!”

“But you like volleyball, Yui,” Sawamura replied cautiously. She pulled a face at him in answer.

“I din’t like it to the same degree. You need to find someone who likes volleyball - someone who you are willing to put first, too.”

Sawamura chewed on the inside of his cheek, thinking, and begun to turn the ball in his hands. “The only people I know who like volleyball are the neighbourhood association, and that’s full of old men and mothers. And I couldn’t just go up to a girl in a bar and ask ‘hey, do you like volleyball?’ either.”

Michimiya’s frown turned to a stony expression of determination as she thought. Then her face lightened again. “What about online dating? I’m sure you could find a lot of people near-bouts who like volleyball.”

“What if I meet a serial killer? What if my organs get harvested and my cold corpse ends up floating down the river?”

Michimiya whacked his arm and he barked with laughter, clumsily blocking her blows. “Silly man! Try it, try it! You might just be surprised with what you find - not in the sense of serial killers, either!”

Chapter Text

III: Sugawara Koushi

 

“I hope I didn’t make you nervous, Suga,” Kiyoko said on Monday morning, blowing the steam from her cup of coffee. She was the one who sounded nervous, like a sheepish child being reprimanded for something. Sugawara, currently elbows-deep in finishing his coursework for the semester, looked up and blew a strand of hair away from his eyes.

“Nervous about what?” he asked curiously, his pen continuing to scratch over the paper in front of him even though he wasn’t looking at it.

“With the whole online dating thing.”

“Oh, that? No, you didn’t.” Sugawara laughed suddenly, scratching behind his ear. “If you think online dating was a crazy suggestion, you  obviously never met my mother.”

Kiyoko shot him a disgruntled little glance over the rims of her glasses. Of course I’ve met your mother, dimwit, I’ve known you since I was smaller than this chair. Kiyoko almost felt bad for him, and guilty at herself for pushing him along like she was. She gained comfort from the fact that Sugawara didn’t seem to mind.

“I guess I’ll take a look at it later on today, once I’ve taken this to campus and tied up some loose ends. It’s hard to concentrate on things like dating when I’ve got stacks and stacks of papers that need to be submitted.” His statement was punctuated by his long, slender fingers tapping on the substantial amount of (messily) organised papers, both in stapled stacks and loose sheets. “But, um, I’ve never done it before. I’m not very good with computers outside of things to do with my classes.”

Kiyoko nodded her head, black hair spilling forward over her shoulders. Sugawara had never been that drawn to computers and technology like the other children his age had been, and that had filtered through into his adult life. He preferred newspapers and the radio to online articles, and he was subscribed to numerous scientific magazines that he’d stacked in his funny, messy way underneath the coffee table in the living room and next to the microwave in the kitchen (no matter how many times Kiyoko moved them to a safer location, somehow they always managed to wind their way back there again). “Don’t worry about it, Suga. I’ll be here to help you out, and I can bring in the tech genius if you’d like me to.”

Sugawara laughed, drawing a long line down the bottom of the sheet he was editing (or whatever he was doing to it) and putting down his pen. “Whatever you think is best, Kiyoko! Sometimes I think you know me better than I know yourself.” He grinned widely at her, eyes glinting and teeth glimmering in the cold light from outside. It was a rare, sunny day outdoors, but with the lack of cloud cover came a new biting chill that even layers and layers of clothes couldn’t keep out. “I’d better get a head start before the admin office opens,” he said, half to himself, gathering together his mess of documents and organising them into clear plastic folders.

“I keep telling you not to leave these things until the last minute,” Kiyoko remarked dryly, and Sugawara pulled a face at her, well versed with his own disorganisation. He really does need someone, Kiyoko thought as she leaned back in her chair and sighed, taking a sip of her adequately cooled coffee and watching Sugawara fumble around for his bag. Someone who can keep him in check and stop him from spiralling out of control. I’m not going to be around forever. Perhaps, she thought, she should have told him so sooner. I’m not going to be around forever. But saying something like that would make Sugawara uncharacteristically nervous, throw him off his balance, and for some reason or another he’d lapse into a curious silence and be overcome with a guilt Kiyoko could not explain.

 

Sugawara was hiding in the fire stairs again, chin tucked into his chest and hands gripping the strap of his bag. It was cold inside the stairwell, but it was even colder outside, and he didn’t want to go out there at all. His papers weighed heavy from his shoulder, assignments and tutorials and things vying for extra credit that had to be submitted today before the semester was over. He gripped the frosted door handle with a gloved hand, and opened it to be rattled from head to toe with a sharp, icy wind.

Even the presence of strong sunlight wasn’t enough to melt the ice that covered the sidewalk and the bushes alongside it; everything was glazed and refracted the sun so violently that Sugawara had to squint down at his feet to avoid being struck blind. The clouds that had previously kept in the heat of the city had blown away to the south, leaving the area unprotected against the bitingly cold air that filled the streets and whistled down alleys like a dog let off a leash. It was nice, in a way, to see the blue sky. But it was bloody cold, and Sugawara didn’t like it.

It was a half-hour bus journey to his university - a local one with a comparatively small campus but a wonderful academic record - and he had to take a connection from the centre of town. Since it was the holiday season, the bus times were reduced and the commuting crowd had lessened enormously. The buses had gone from being packed tins of sardines or jarred pickles to being somewhat acceptable forms of travel without sweaty, stinky men or some poor schoolgirl having to call out a pervert.

Much like the rest of town, the university campus was glazed over with dripping ice finally thawing in the sun. Sugawara usually cut across the lawns to get to his faculty faster, but this time he stuck exclusively to the pavement for fear of sinking into the waterlogged grass and being sucked in to his death.

“Sugawara,” came the rumbling voice of his course administrator as he let himself into the biological sciences office. “You can’t keep leaving everything until the last minute!”

“I know, sorry,” Sugawara apologised as he heaved his bag up onto the desk and produced folder after folder. “Um, this is the paper I got an extension on - I have the permission papers for it, too - and here’s the thing for extra credit…”

As the man behind the desk counted the folders with a thick finger, Sugawara slung his empty bag over his shoulder again.

“All right. This is fine. I’ll get them sorted out.” He looked up at Sugawara, noting the dark circles under his eyes. “Get some rest, kid. I didn’t come here to see people like you run themselves into the ground.”

Sugawara nodded wearily.

The walk back from campus was nicer. It was less rushed, and the sun had grown warmer in the time Sugawara had run to and from the office and the industrial printers. His bag was weightless now, a physical reminder that he was done for the semester, and could go home and sleep for hours and hours and watch movies and eat lettuce instead of cheap take-out, for once. And he could do the thing Kiyoko had been egging him on to do. You know. The dating thing.

Merely the thought was enough to send shivers dancing up Sugawara’s spine; in a way they were nice, but he was still frightened.

When he finally got back to his apartment, the toes of his boots were soaked through with melted snow and ice and he’d walked underneath a tree that had been housing at least a dozen birds, all of which decided to take flight and send the tree swaying just as he was walking beneath it, resulting in a torrential downpour of ice-cold water right above his head.

“Hey hey, lover boy!”

Sugawara looked up from unlacing his boots to see Kiyoko sitting demurely at the kitchen table, glasses pushed up into her hair and fingers scrolling down the trackpad of her laptop. Beside her - standing with legs apart and arms folded across his chest - was the tech whiz of Sugawara’s life, also known as Tanaka Ryuunosuke. His grin was wicked, eyes glittering in a way that made Sugawara’s heart falter. Tanaka was the type of person you’d expect to be a delinquent in high school, always getting into fist fights and street brawls, but he was usually all bark and no bite. Sugawara had seen him roughed up a few times, especially in his last years of high school, but he’d only ever been kind to Sugawara, ever since he could remember. Tanaka’s appearance accounted a lot for the misconceptions tacked onto him: he was tall (tall enough to be hounded by the basketball and volleyball clubs at school), and in high school he’d sported a shaved head and frightening, scrunched expression that had the underclassmen quaking in their boots. He’d also been head-over-heels in love with Kiyoko ever since they met in middle school, but he’d never taken the initiative to tell her (though Sugawara had a hankering she’d already caught on). He was a good guy, if not a little overbearing at times, and had a knack for mechanics and fiddly bits and bobs that inevitably led to him earning an undergraduate degree in engineering from Tokyo University, which he’d finished the year before. Tanaka slammed his hands down on the table, making even Kiyoko start.

“I heard you’ve been having a bit of trouble on the lover front, my man!” he said in his loud, crass voice. Sugawara couldn’t help but smile at him and the enthusiasm in his voice. “Don’t worry about it, Suga, Shimizu’s filled me in on everything. I know the deal.” He pointed a long finger across the room as Sugawara straightened up and flung his coat over the back of a chair. “I’m here to help you out. Fear not, dear Suga, you’ve got nothing to worry about when I’m here!”

“Thanks,” Sugawara replied uncertainly, not entirely sure what to say. Kiyoko gestured to him to come and sit between them, and she angled her screen towards him. “Look, this is the best website I found. Suga - you do still want to do this, right? I don’t want to force you to do anything you’re not ready for.”

“I’m fine!” Sugawara insisted as he shifted the laptop a little closer. “I want to do it. I think it’s a good idea.”

Kiyoko smiled softly at him. “Okay, then. I’ve never been on one of these before either, so Tanaka said he’d help us out.”

Tanaka leaned against Sugawara’s shoulder as the three peered at the screen. Sugawara glanced furtively at both of his companions. “Do I just… put in this? It says ‘give it a go’.”

Kiyoko nodded and watched as Sugawara tentatively entered in his name. “A ‘man’ seeking a - can I only pick one? What if I want to see both? Do I have to pick a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’?”

Kiyoko and Tanaka exchanged glances, then Tanaka leaned in and frowned. “No, look, there’s an ‘either’ option as well.”

Sugawara made a relieve humming noise as he chose the ‘either’ option (though he couldn’t help but notice just how narrow the options still were) and entered in his postal code. The screen was wiped, the window turning white as it buffered and slowly loaded the next page of the setup process. Sugawara was surprised at the lack of gaudy accents like red and pink hearts or bows or pictures of smiling, text-book perfect couples filling the sidebars. The website was clean and professional with a soothing colour scheme and an attractive, glassy render. It made him feel safer.

“Okay, so, just follow the prompts and fill in the blanks here,” Tanaka pressed a finger to the screen (causing Kiyoko to clear her throat), “to here. Then pick options for the rest of the questions. And capitalise, Suga, don’t use that ‘I don’t know what a shift button is’ approach like you do at university.” Kiyoko giggled, and Tanaka blushed fiercely as he coughed (abashedly) into the back of his hand.

 

Name: Sugawara Koushi (Sugawara had to backspace and capitalise his ‘K’, and Tanaka laughed at him)

Age: 23

Occupation: student

Nationality: Japanese

Drinks: no

Smokes: no

Looking for LTR: (Sugawara looked at Tanaka, who said ‘long-term relationship. So not a fling.’) yes

 

There were a surprising number of fields for Sugawara to fill in, delving into areas of his life he thought were supposed to remain private. All in the name of security, he supposed, as if he had to fill in things like this then surely other people did too. But they could lie, or put in fake information, or -

“You okay?” Kiyoko touched his arm.

“Yeah, absolutely.” Sugawara hurriedly filled in the rest of the spaces, but Kiyoko and Tanaka noticed the way he glanced around the room every now and again. They exchanged glances behind his back, Tanaka reaching up to scratch his head where his hair was shaved. “There,” Sugawara said, hitting the ‘go’ button with vigour. “Done!”

Tanaka and Kiyoko leaned in over his shoulder and looked at his profile preview. Kiyoko pointed to the square, standard-issue icon in the top left corner of the page. “You gonna insert a picture?”

Only Kiyoko noticed Sugawara’s repressed shudder. She looked at him, alarmed, but he didn’t look back. “No, not yet.”

Tanaka and Kiyoko perused what Sugawara had written, and after picking out a few failed capital letters (Tanaka couldn’t stop laughing, ‘damn it, Suga, you just can’t do it!’) they gave Sugawara the thumbs-up, and he hovered his cursor over the ‘next’ button for a moment or two before clicking. The page flickered white as it buffered, then refreshed onto the same page again. Sugawara blinked, his brow corrugating, and leaned closer to the screen. Underneath the icon box was a line of red text: ‘please upload a picture of yourself’. Sugawara glanced at Kiyoko.

“We can stop,” she said gently, as if talking to a child, and Tanaka was silent on his other side.

Pull yourself together, Suga, Sugawara thought as his eyes glanced furtively around the room again. Stop it. Stop. You’re in charge of your own life now, and this is your business. Get a grip. He bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, the iron on his tongue snapping his focus back into place. “No, I want to do it. I don’t… have any pictures, though. Not since high school, and that was years and years ago.”

Tanaka snorted. He was notorious for taking pictures of his own face, though he was decidedly not vain, nor was he conceited. He was just confident in himself, and it made Sugawara comfortable. Whenever anyone was foolish enough to go through the pictures on his phone, however, they would be confronted by a barrage of images containing Tanaka’s face contorted into perturbing expressions.

“We can take one right now!” he said, digging said phone out of his pocket. “Look, I may be an engineer, but I know some pretty great filters on instagram that’d really bring out your beauty, Suga!”

“Please don’t,” Sugawara half-moaned, burying his face in his hands. “I don’t want any filters! And no instagram! You know I hate having my picture taken, so let’s just get it over with, okay?”

Kiyoko laughed, reaching out to pinch his cheeks. “Let’s get some colour into you, my little snowflake,” she said as Tanaka burst out laughing at Sugawara’s sulking expression. “Bite your lips and make them red!”

“No way,” Sugawara frowned pointedly at Tanaka, currently too immersed in giggling over Kiyoko’s inflated voice to pay attention to his camera settings. “C’mon, let’s just do it!”

“Right, right,” Tanaka wiped at his eyes and stood so his knees touched Sugawara’s. “Smile for me, fair snow prince!”

The image he produced was one of Sugawara chastising the camera with an open mouth and deep frown, hand outstretched. He’d been in the process of saying “God damn it, Tanaka, if you can’t take the picture properly I’ll have Kiyoko club you to death” (because he could never do it himself, after all). “Nah. Save that one for later.” Tanaka did save it, and sent it to Sugawara’s number for good measure. “All right! Take two.” He held up the phone, his screen focussing in on Sugawara’s face.

His next photo was one of Sugawara from mid-torso up, turned slightly to the left. He’d only been partly paying attention to Tanaka, but his eyes were turned towards the lens. Kiyoko’s pinching hadn’t done much, but the skin under Sugawara’s eyes was pink, and made his beauty mark stand out on his cheek. His lips were parted, as if he was about to say something but was distracted by the camera, his hair soft and pale on his head, the neck of his sweater dipping to reveal the ridges of his collarbones and the pale length of his neck. It was almost a candid shot: there was something about it that was overwhelmingly natural. “Hey,” Tanaka said, the word drawn-out on his tongue. “Perfect.” He showed Kiyoko (blushing when their fingers touched), and she nodded enthusiastically.

After hooking up Tanaka’s phone and adequately cropping the photo, Sugawara determinedly uploaded it to the icon space and hazarded the ‘next’ button again, clicking it before he could back out.

Thank you for registering with us. We wish you all the best in your search for that special someone!

“How embarrassing,” Tanaka murmured.

“Is that it?” Sugawara asked, hands hovering over the keyboard.

“Looks like it,” Tanaka said, then pressed his finger to the screen again. “What’s that?” Kiyoko swatted his hand away from the screen again.

“It says ‘find recommended matches’.”

“Wanna do it?”

Sugawara paused, then shrugged, and clicked on the link that opened in a new browser tab. The page consisted of a list: the separate bars of information contained a scaled-down image of the user’s photograph, their name, age, gender, relationship status and sexual orientation (or who they were looking for - ‘man’, ‘woman’, or ‘either’. Sugawara felt that annoyed tick again at the narrowness of it all).

“That person looks nice,” Kiyoko said softly, indicating the picture of a woman who looked about Sugawara’s age, and whose age showed her to be, indeed, only a few years older. He clicked, and her profile was blown up to fill the screen.

“Single, looking for a man -,”

“Three kids.” Tanaka looked at Sugawara. “Not sure you want a bunch of snotty-nosed brats running around the place when you’re trying to get some -,” he was cut off by Kiyoko digging her elbow into his ribs.

Sugawara hummed. Tanaka was right. “Hey, there’s a shuffle option. Hit it.”

Sugawara did, and a random profile popped up on his screen. Tanaka, though winded from Kiyoko’s assault, let out a horrified scream accompanied by Kiyoko bursting into laughter at Sugawara’s sudden shift in expression. “Oh my God,” Sugawara exclaimed, Kiyoko practically in tears with laughter as he shielded his eyes from the image.

That looks like a wet vegetable!” Tanaka thundered, still filled with horror. “I thought it was for you fucking face!”

“Awful, awful,” Sugawara muttered as he fumbled around for the button labeled ‘show me someone else’. They all breathed a little easier when the website refreshed to reveal a profile of a young man just as pretty as Sugawara was, if not a little younger. Kiyoko nodded.

“He looks nice, too,” she said as her eyes wandered down the screen, accompanied by Tanaka’s and Sugawara’s gazes.

“‘bottom twink looking for an experience dadd-‘ okay, no.” Tanaka made a perturbed noise, leaning back a little. “Do not get into that scene, Suga, you’ll be frightened to death.” Sugawara eyed him wearily.

“You think I couldn’t handle that kind of stuff?” he challenged, voice saucy enough to make Tanaka flinch.

“Please, Suga, don’t give me details. I am staying in the vanilla lane, for the love of all things holy.”

Sugawara chuckled, browsing to the next, and the next, and the next.

Fifteen minutes later, after much tears and yelling and cooing, the three of them sat around the closed laptop with hands in their laps and sighs on their tongues. “Everybody seems to have someone in mind,” Sugawara said, forlorn.

“Don’t you have anyone in mind?” Kiyoko asked as she rose to get drinks from the kitchen.

“Not really,” Sugawara replied, twisting in his seat to look at her. “It’s kind of like applying to university was for me: I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want. You know?”

“Somewhat,” Kiyoko smiled over her shoulder at him. “But, hey, we made a good start.”

“Good start my ass,” Tanaka groaned, sinking his head into his hands. “I’ve never seen so many dicks outside of porn in my entire life. I never knew what a ‘bear’ was apart from an animal! I know not to frequent bathhouses at certain hours now, either!” He sounded so genuinely upset that Sugawara had to laugh. Tanaka was honestly the straightest person he knew. His constant anguish was amusing.

“Hey,” Sugawara remarked, eyeing the clock. “It’s almost six. Want to head out for a drink? Celebrate our very unsuccessful afternoon?”

“Pump me full of alcohol and dump me in the river,” Tanaka barked, jumping to his feet. “I’m up for it, after what you put me through.”

“You suggested it,” Kiyoko said to him, and he flushed again. “I’ll come with you, though.”

Grabbing coats and boots and scarves, the three of them braved the evening chill to head down the street to the bus station and catch one into the centre of town. The nightlife was coming alive, all neon signs and metal grates rolling up. As the bus trundled over the bridge, Sugawara caught sight of the river, purple and iridescent in the twilight.

Tanaka, as per habit, got progressively louder and more upset the more he drank. Eventually Kiyoko had to pull him down from the table he’d climbed up on, and escorted him out with an insanely giggling Sugawara in tow. Kiyoko and Sugawara, at nine that evening, saw Tanaka safely back to his apartment. Once they’d put the snoring man to bed (careful to angle his head so that if he threw up he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit), they caught the late bus back to their own apartment complex. The cold felt superfluous with the alcohol running through their veins, molten fire and still burning pleasantly in their throats. Kiyoko and Sugawara had one last toast in the kitchen, downing a glass of water each. “To a highly unsuccessful afternoon that somehow, in the end, managed to be successful after all.”

 

When Sugawara came to, one morning after a few days of Christmas shopping and post-card writing (as well as going to greet and escort relatives from the train station to his family home in the suburbs - it was like transferring an entire neighbourhood from one town to the next, it was due to the incessant vibrating of his phone that lay on the laminate surface of his desk. Such a noise was virtually impossible to ignore, and once he picked up his phone Sugawara realised that having muffled his ears with pillows  until the call dropped wouldn’t have done much good. There were seven missed calls, all from one of his lecturers.

“Sugawara!” came the distressed voice down the line. It made the hairs on the back of Sugawara’s neck stand on end, and his stomach dropped. “I’ve been looking through my files and I can’t find the paper you submitted. I called administration and they have record of you submitting it, but I can’t find the actual document. Don’t worry - you won’t fail. Do you have a copy?”

“I can print one out and deliver it - or email it -,” Sugawara could barely stop his teeth from chattering.

“The email servers are down. Could you run it over to campus within the next hour?”

“Yes, yes, I can,” Sugawara scrambled to his feet, fumbling with his phone and almost dropping it. “I can! I’ll do it now. See you soon.”

Kiyoko, in turn, was woken by the sound of her roommate running into a wall somewhere in the vicinity of the living room as he raced around in a half-sleeping stupor. He was searching for a stapler - Kiyoko reached into a kitchen drawer and produced one, handing it to him silently and listening to him clumsily trying to staple together his work as she squinted at the clock on the over, trying to make it out from across the room without her glasses. It was a little past one in the morning, and was pitch-black outside. She doubted Sugawara had even noticed. He didn’t even seem to notice her as he pulled on his coat, wrapping his scarf around his neck backwards and shoving his feet into his boots.

“Where are you going?” she asked him as he wrenched open the door. He yelled an inaudible answer over the howling wind that blew inside the apartment before slamming the door and plunging a tired, confused Kiyoko into silence again.

Having to brave a Japanese winter in pyjama pants is never a good idea. The thought - the whole scenario - had not occurred to Sugawara since he was about seven (when he had learned that wandering outside in December in his pyjamas and slippers wasn’t the cleverest thing to do), and his seven-year-old self would never have dreamed that his senior of fifteen years would ever try the same thing again. It was one in the morning, and Sugawara was descending the complex’s fire stairs in his pyjama pants with an essay tucked under his arm, held together by at least three badly-placed staples. The pages fluttered in the wind that whistled through the parking lot, and Sugawara’s teeth were clacking by the time he reached his car. Damn - the clouds that hung overhead were heavy, bruised and tinged with green. They were snow clouds, and the wind wasn’t a good sign either. He fumbled with his keys, his fingers numb with cold. He should’ve put on some gloves, but then again, he probably should have put on some pants as well.

It started to snow when he pulled into the empty parking lot behind the science building. The flakes were small and icy, melting as soon as they hit the ground, but Sugawara had lived long enough to realise that i was only a matter of time before six-inch drifts began to accumulate on the sidewalk, something he didn’t necessarily want to get caught up in at one o’clock in the morning. His lecturer, at least, stood inside the building  looking a damn sight warmer than Sugawara felt. He handed the paper to her, and only when she begun speaking in a slurred voice did he realise her lips were just as numb as his was. The exchange happened as quickly as they could make it, Sugawara’s lecturer turning off into the labyrinth of corridors as he exited back out into the impending gale.

He could see the snowstorm, swirling a few kilometres to the south, and on the drive back home he felt the road grow icy beneath his tyres. He turned on the car radio and tuned into the weather forecast, hearing warning after warning broadcasted across the FM wave. His neighbourhood wasn’t listed as one of those severely threatened, but he heard the names of those that were close which told him that they’d get hit pretty hard.

Only when he was in the fire stairs again, leaning against the wall with a heaving chest and lungs as ice-laden as a glacier, did he feel his nerves relax a little. He stomped up each step, leaving a melting footprint of snow as he went, and sprinted down the breezeway. He’d never taken so long to get into his apartment, but his fingers had surpassed the point of numbness and were now painful to use, which impeded Sugawara more than he thought it would. But then he was in, and he was safe, and the door was closed against a sudden howl of wind that was so violent it made Sugawara shudder.

The apartment was dark. Kiyoko had gone back to sleep, and Sugawara was quiet as he peeled off his winter gear and rubbed his stinging fingers together to try and warm them. He listened to the wind outside, and saw the white smudges of snow swirling past the window and turning the half-lit cityscape into a pool of dancing colours. He hitched up the thermostat a little, holding his hands over the vents and trying to warm himself.

In essence, the sleep had been knocked out of him. There was cold in his bones, one that wouldn’t go away no matter how long he put his hands against the heating. It was quarter to two in the morning, but he wasn’t tired. There was no conceivable way he could have gotten back to sleep again, not without the aid of sleeping pills that would knock him flat. He hadn’t used those for a while, anyway. They were stored up in the top cupboard of the bathroom alongside other pills he’d been prescribed but hadn’t taken. But he didn’t like to think of that unless he was very, very drunk.

He crept back to his room, closing the door softly and burrowing back down into bed. He dug out his laptop, opening the screen under the safety of his duvet. The cold light hit his eyes hard, making him flinch and squint as if he was looking into direct sunlight. His eyes only relaxed once his dimming/warming software kicked in, and he busied himself saving and clearing files from his classes, as well as trying to organise the mess of data on his desktop. Then he checked his emails, tied up loose ends with his lecturers and tutors, and made a promise to visit the family he’d spent the last few days greeting. He felt himself starting to tire, the adrenaline finally having run its course, but then he glanced towards his bookmark bar and spotted a little, glassy heart-shaped icon that he hadn’t thought about at all for a number of days. He hesitated, unsure of whether to click on it or not, but as his cursor inched closer and closer to it, his two-o’clock-in-the-morning logic took its toll and he hit the button, watching the screen flash and buffer before him.

He was still logged in from the last time (Kiyoko had set it up on his computer as well as hers), his settings, notifications and message alerts contained in a bar at the top of the window. Sugawara stared in shock at the little number attached to the message icon: 6. He felt a tremor run through his chest. Was it excitement? Anticipation? Anxiousness? It was so momentary he couldn’t tell. He’d done it now, and he knew that if he didn’t investigate further it would be on his mind for the rest of the night, if not for the next few days. Even weeks. So he hit the drop-down icon, and selected ‘view all messages’. He held his breath as the page loaded.

Six was a lot as it was, but the breath was knocked out of his lungs as he saw that his inbox had automatically marked messages older than four days as ‘read’, the same way most trash folders emptied themselves after a month. In reality he had almost a dozen messages, mostly of the one-line type. He headed to the bottom, starting with the least recent. He was met with a salacious proposition, the kind that made his stomach turn in disgust. He exited and deleted it immediately. The next one was spam - and advertisement. He deleted that one, too. The next was from a pretty girl that immediately caught Sugawara’s attention, until he noticed that her profile was so obviously fabricated that he guiltily exited her message. The next few were along the lines of ‘hey cutie, wanna meet up?’ from people Sugawara believed to be incompatible, as well as shady for wanting to meet up immediately. He may not have been versed in the art of online dating, but he wasn’t an idiot. One or two was from Tanaka’s favourite type of applicant - the ‘bear’ type, which made Sugawara giggle instead of feeling any degree of terror, like Tanaka had - so he replied politely to them, but rejected them all the same.

The next one he opened was explicitly sexual, with the phrase ‘pound your ass’ repeated a worryingly number of times. Its sender’s username was also ‘anal_thrasher19’, which Sugawara found slightly unnerving. Sugawara, feeling more uncomfortable the further he read, exited and deleted. He felt weird - invaded, almost. He almost called it quits after opening another one of the same nature, but he only had two left to go. The next message had been sent a few days ago, from somebody called ‘crow_captain’. Sugawara opened it, expectations low, and gingerly read the first line.

 

Hi, the message read,

I hope I’m nor seeming too forward, and I hope you don’t think I’m being creepy or anything but your profile came up on my ‘recommended’ list and I thought you looked really nice. Kind - you’re also very pretty. I’m sorry, I’m new to this! My friends talked me into it.

So, message me back if you like? Only if you want. If I creeped you out I’m sorry and feel free to never speak to me again.

 

Sugawara paused, cursor hovering over the last word of the message. He was strangely endeared, reading such a sensitively-worded letter. It was nice to see the phrase ‘pound your ass’ replaced by the overuse of the word ‘sorry’ and the constant reassurances were also welcomed. If this person had come up to Sugawara and said the same thing face to face, Sugawara knew the first thing he would have replied with would have been ‘no, don’t worry! I’m not creeped out!’. And, strangely enough for someone who was using a dating website, he wasn’t.

Sugawara rolled over onto his back, pulling his duvet from over his face and staring at the ceiling. Dating platforms like this wasn’t the same as meeting someone at a café or in a bar. There was no opportunity for subversive glances or flirty looks of ‘come-hither’. There was no opportunity for subtlety, either: the people on that website had one thing in mind. There was no playing it coy. The only way to start a relationship via online dating was to message someone. Perhaps there were people out there who had perfected the art of inboxing potential lovers (or the non-sexual kind of lovers, for those people who didn’t quite swing that way), but Sugawara was not one of them, and to read a smoothly-worded message would have probably thrown him as far as ‘anal_thrasher19’s message had. The message from ‘crow_captain’ had really struck a chord with Sugawara; it was like some kind of connection, an electric cable sparking to life between him and this person who was, currently, completely anonymous.

Sugawara rolled back over, clicking on the username of the sender and tapping his finger against the trackpad as the profile loaded. Sugawara hadn’t felt such anticipation for years, and as the static from the storm made the power lines jump, the internet connection began to slow. Sugawara waited with agonising patience, and soon the page was in full view and he was inspecting it with surprising enthusiasm.

“‘Sawamura Daichi,’” Sugawara whispered to himself, eyes flicking to the picture. It was of a man, but was badly cropped and had awkward lighting. Sugawara immediately noted a strong jaw and close-cropped, dark hair, but that was about it. “What an awful photo.” Despite the poor quality of the picture, there was a feeling in his gut that told him this man was an attractive one. “Age 23, sexual orientation -“ Sugawara squinted, sure he’d read wrong. He opened up his own profile in a new tab to make sure he hadn’t accidentally set his gender to ‘female’. “Heterosexual?”

He was flat-out confused. Maybe he’d made a mistake? Sugawara hit the ‘reply to this person’ button and was met with a blank text box.

 

Hello, he began to type in reply, the clacking of keys interrupted only by the grinding of his teeth.

Your message was really nice. I’m new to this too, so I’m not sure what to expect from people, but I felt a connection to - no, no, that was stupid. Sugawara backspaced. - but your message was really genuine. We’re pretty similar in age, too - it says on your profile that you’re a student. What do you study? Was that too creepy? Too personal? Maybe he should just ask about his favourite type of ice lolly instead.

 

Sugawara shook his head, highlighting the block of text and hitting delete. It was futile, and writing a message at two o’clock in the morning was probably a bad idea anyway. He closed the window and turned off his laptop, sliding it underneath his bed so he wouldn’t step on it in the morning. He rolled over onto his side, nose to the wall, and pulled his duvet up to his chin. He curled his legs up into his body, mind still buzzing with the message and the blurred photo of the man who sent it. ‘Sawamura Daichi’. Sugawara hid his face in his pillow, determined not to acknowledge the blush that spread across his cheeks or the tingling that had kindled in his chest.

Chapter Text

IV: Sawamura Daichi

 

 “‘Not serial killers,’” Sawamura repeated to himself as he stood in front of the sink in the bathroom, toothbrush crammed between his cheek and his molars, towel over his head. Toothpaste frothed at his mouth as he spoke.

“What about cereal, big brother?” asked a small child as she ran around his legs with bobbly hair ties clacking on her fingers. “You know I ate all the cereal, right?” she was chased by another shrieking child, prompting the teenager next to Sawamura to yell in annoyance at them, also brushing her teeth. Trying to contain two small children and an adolescent in a bathroom was never a good idea, especially when they were supposed to be getting ready for bed.

“Hayato’s pulling my hair!” Sawamura’s little sister shrieked, bursting into tears as he little brother locked his fists in her dark, thin hair. “Big brother, make him stop it!”

Sawamura, clenching his toothbrush between his teeth, flung his towel to the other side of the room and reached down to lift the little boy out of reach of his sister. She sat on the floor with a running nose and tears streaming down her cheeks, Hayato kicking and screaming in Sawamura’s iron grip. The room filled with noise, escalating until Sawamura threw his toothbrush into the sink and bellowed: “enough! Stop fighting right now, or you can all sleep in the back yard!” The children were silent, stony-faced in fright. They were more scared of the idea of sleeping outside in the freezing cold on wet, slushy ground than they were of their brother, though.

“That’s Daichi’s coach voice,” Hayato whispered to his sister, Amaya, after Sawamura placed him down. The two previously bickering children had become thick as thieves in a matter of seconds; Sawamura had been around children enough to know that they didn’t tend to bear grudges like adults did. “I heard from Naru. It’s how he sounds when he’s serious.”

“His coach voice?” Amaya asked in a whisper before Sawamura turned to look at them.

“Are you going to brush your teeth or do I have to do it for you?”

Soon all three children stood on their little stools, watching themselves as they brushed their teeth and occasionally pulling faces at one another in the mirror. The eldest of the three, Sawamura’s fifteen-year-old sister Haruka, quietly washed her toothbrush under the tap and replaced it in the holder by the sink. “‘Night,” she said to Sawamura, and he ruffled her hair as she passed. On his other side, Amaya yawned with her mouth full of toothpaste, prompting Sawamura to reach down and wipe her chin clean before it dribbled onto her pyjama top. He took the children’s hands and led them to their bedroom, the kids suddenly too tired to argue.

“Goodnight, Daichi,” Amaya murmured as he tucked her into bed. Hayato muttered something similar, but his voice was too slurred by tiredness for Sawamura to be able to make it out. He flicked off the light switch, making sure their nightlight was working properly before softly closing the door.

It was almost eight, but his mother had only just finished her shift at the hospital. She was only getting home then, when Sawamura heard the front door open followed by the sound of a bag being placed gently down and the short burst of wind before the door clicked shut again. He heard his mother taking off her shoes in the vestibule by the front door, and he walked out into sight. “Hey, mom, need help with anything?”

Mrs Sawamura looked up with kind, calm eyes and smiled tiredly, gesturing to the two bags sitting by her shoes.

“Could you take those into the kitchen for me?” she asked, and Sawamura nodded and went to pick them up.

“How was work?” he asked her, and he heard her sigh heavily as he placed the plastic shopping bags up onto the counter.

“Hectic. There was a bed shortage - the roads are so dangerous this time of year that there’s a staffing crisis in the ER, so I got reassigned to the emergency unit for a few hours. How were the kids?”

“Fine. Hayato cut his knee, but he’ll be all right. He’s probably forgotten it ever even happened.”

Sawamura’s mother laughed as she helped her son put away the items from the bags. “I’m going to go and shower, then go to bed. Do you need anything, Daichi?”

“No, mom,” Sawamura replied, bending down to kiss her cheek. “You go get some rest.”

Sawamura was the last person asleep that night, giving the house a final check to see if all the windows were shut against the cold, if all the doors were locked, if the heating was reaching the kids’ room and the master bedroom, as well as his. He made sure all the lights were switched off and the TV was turned off at the wall, and as soon as he fell into his bed, sleep shrouded him like a blanket.

There was something he liked about listening to the deep, even breathing of his family. There was something he liked about peering through a cracked-open door and seeing his siblings sleeping soundly, fingers jammed in their mouths and various limbs poking out from their bedding. It made his nerves settle comfortably; not that he was an uptight kind of person. Sawamura was, in fact, a (notoriously) relaxed person who knew when to uphold order, but he was never skittish. Knowing his family was safe was one of the most important things in the world to him, and being reassured that they were all there and happy made him feel safe as well.

He flopped down onto his bed, kicking off his slippers and letting the cool darkness sink into his eyelids as he let his body sink into the bed. He folded his hands behind his head, breathing deeply and feeling himself unwind, almost physically. His eyelids were heavy and wouldn’t open, and he dropped off to sleep without even turning down his bed.

 

The shriek of his siblings roused him unceremoniously from his sleep. Waking up feeling refreshed? Filled with energy for a new day? Nope. Sawamura felt like he’d been hit by a truck, and as Hayato shrieked downstairs Sawamura jerked awake and lost his balance before he could right himself, falling out of his bed and onto the ground, landing with a dull thud. It made him feel no better, that was for sure. Groaning, he picked himself up and popped a few joints before rubbing his eyes to clarity. The room was still dark, and the face of the little analogue next to his bed was dimly lit, and if Sawamura screwed up his eyes he could just make out the time to be eight o’clock in the morning. Throwing his girth over his bed and fumbling around for the cord to his blinds, he revealed a sliver of window and let the white early-morning light filter into the room and light it with an icy glow. The heating was gentle, but Sawamura could tell it was cold outside, and shivered at the thought of the wind forecast he’d heard on the radio the night before.

“Brother!” Haruka opened the door gentle, her voice a whisper, and seeing the light she opened the door fully. “Mom’s taking us to school now, says she’d be back late again and that we’ll ride home from school on our bicycles.”

“Yeah,” Sawamura slurred, his vision still reeling from his date with the floor. “Okay. You don’t want me to come pick you guys up?”

“No,” Haruka replied, twisting her dark hair into a bun on top of her head, her neck ribbon pinched between her teeth so her voice was a little muffled. “By the time Amaya and Hayato finish running home they’ll be so tired they’ll go to sleep as soon as they get home.” She paused, a glimmer in her eye. “Hopefully.”

Sawamura grinned as she shut the door. He listened to her soft footsteps as she retreated down the hallway, calling a brief ‘I’m coming!’ when their mother called up the stairs, no doubt accompanied by the two shrieking children. Sawamura hurriedly put on his slippers (the floor was unbearably cold this time of year) and shuffled down to the front door where his mother, exasperated, was wrestling with her bag and her two youngest children all while trying to step into her shoes. Hayato and Amaya paused when they saw him, then shrieked with delight and transferred the bulk of their weight from their mother to him. After a few moments of struggle, Sawamura stood with one child tucked under each arm, the buckles of their backpacks digging into his biceps. His mother shot him an appreciative glance as she finished putting on her shoes, standing and smoothing the creases in her skirt.

“Hey, Daichi, weren't you wearing those clothes yesterday?”

“You smell funny!”

“Hey, now!” Sawamura barked at them good-naturedly, jostling them so their teeth rattled and buying his mother a little more time to dig her car keys out of her purse. “That’s a rude thing to say, especially to an adult like me!”

“You’re not an adult, big brother!” Hayato laughed, little fingers tugging at the front of Sawamura’s shirt. “You’re my brother, so you’ve gotta be a kid too!”

Sawamura clicked his tongue, setting the two of them down on their feet as Haruka slung her own school bag over her shoulder, holding out her hands for her little siblings. “Let’s go!”

Sawamura’s mother blew him a kiss over the heads of her other children, and when the door shut Sawamura was so struck by the sudden silence that his ears rang. He picked at the front of his shirt, bringing it to his nose and sniffing. He did smell a bit funky after all.

He shirked his shirt over his head as he padded up the stairs to the bathroom, undressing as he went and bundling his clothes up into a ball by the time he entered the bathroom. He lobbed his laundry into the hamper, then set about running a hot shower to try and ease his tight muscles and rid him of the layer of grime covering his body. He rubbed shampoo through his hair, feeling it froth between his fingers and grunting in pain when it leaked into his eyes.

As he towelled his hair dry after he’d finished, he felt the vents blowing warm hair onto the back of his neck, the damp skin still feeling cool. The house, still blissfully silent, hummed as the plumbing and pipes worked and electricity filtered through the walls. It was alive, and even though he was the only person in the house, he was not alone.

He thought back to what Yui said when she’d come across him at the volleyball court, after he’d smashed out serve after serve and spike after spike. He remembered how her face had lit up, just like when he entered a room and flicked on the light switch, when the idea of online dating had occurred to her. He scoffed to himself; online dating was a ridiculous idea. Back in middle school when he’d asked his mother if he could get a social networking account like the rest of his classmates, her head almost blew clean off her shoulders. She had panicked in the way adults do, the kind that scares children even though it wasn’t intentional. Sawamura had stood wringing his fingers behind his back as his distraught mother had told him tale after tale of how social networking was a bad idea, how dangerous it was, all her stories intertwined and mixing to form one long nightmare that Sawamura would never really forget.

People die, she said. People get killed in their droves! You know that story about that little girl who made friends with a stranger, and talked to him for months and months before she agreed to meet him and was dragged off God knows where! She told him how prevalent the culture of pedophiles and rapists were behind the veil of the internet, groomers and slimy predators who enjoyed nothing more than preying on little boys and girls just like Sawamura, building trust out of lies and fake information until suddenly those little boys and girls were gone. It had scared Sawamura, when she told him about how there were people who would cut out his organs if they got the chance. It scared him when she told him about people who would ‘steal his identity’, filling his mind with the thought of his own featureless face. As an adult, the organ harvesting made him feel uneasiest. As a child, however, it was identity theft that scared him into silence. The idea of someone stealing who he was, taking his name and his life and everything he stood for, translating his existence to some other place and fabricating a person that was him, but that was completely unfamiliar. That he would be robbed of himself, of who he was, and left with nothing but a faceless body that was invisible. His mother wouldn’t see him, she wouldn’t kiss him goodnight, because he had been stolen, and he was invisible. Featureless faces haunted him, but as he grew up he realised that identity theft was something different, and the fear faded like an old memory. Now he was scared of getting his organs cut out and sold on the black market. Understandably.

Sawamura knew well enough that if he was to conduct himself wisely, he would be in no (or at least minimal) danger of the things he’d been taught to fear. He’d ended up getting a social networking account in his first year of high school, operating it behind his mother’s back until he turned eighteen when she finally gave him leave to (officially) create an online identity. He knew how it worked, really; he knew all the knicks and knacks of the online world and its intrinsic operations. It was good for all kinds of things, but he was always on his toes nevertheless. But online dating? Even he thought it was crazy. The majority of horror stories of murders from online meetings originated in dating websites. 

Sawamura’s stomach lurched as he suddenly thought of a trend in the news stories he read. He threw his towel down over the back of his desk chair and made his way downstairs to the kitchen, opening the fridge and taking out the milk, followed by a bowl (from the drawer, not the fridge) and a box of cereal. He opened the box and grimaced as he saw that someone had almost finished it, but left enough for a small serving on purpose so they didn’t have to throw away the box. Cheaters.

It was a trend that made Sawamura feel uneasy, but also somewhat safer. It was a disgusting feeling of safety, and he felt the worse for it, but it was still there. All the horror stories had women victims, prey of male abusers and murderers and rapists. As he’d read: the thing men most fear when meeting a woman online is that they’ll be overweight. A woman’s  greatest fear is that she’ll be killed. And that, Sawamura concluded, was grossly unfair. So was the size of his cereal, but Sawamura found it a rather crude comparison.

He wasn’t a woman, so he didn’t fit into the desirable category for most of those criminals. He was also remarkably physically fit and had the strength of an ox, though it wasn’t entirely evident. He wasn’t a small person, but he wasn’t a big one either. He wasn’t one of those men with shoulders like mountains and compact, intimidating faces fringed with a bushy beard. But he was muscular and had a face strong enough to deter most people from picking an argument with him. Would he be safe? Of course not. Nobody was ever safe online, and it all boiled down to personal conduct. It was nobody’s fault but his own if he decided to publish his address and his phone number, or where he worked and went to school. He knew the consequences of revealing information like that, and he’d known ever since he was in elementary school. So he never had. His name and his age, that was it. There were no faceless men in his name and his age, nobody who would take them away and leave him nameless and ageless. They were uninteresting and they were his, and if he played his cards right he would be just fine.

He wouldn’t meet with anyone who put up red flags. He’d follow his gut.

Looking over his shoulder, he eyed his computer that sat on the dining room table. He didn’t want to turn it on; it was a decade-old model that had been dropped down stairs and had had coffee spilled over its keyboard, and took at least ten minutes to turn on fully. Sawamura didn’t have the patience.

His phone, however, sat on charge near the notepad on the kitchen counter. He hit the button and brought it to light, met with an ’81% charged’ notification and the keypad for his passcode. He hit it in, then went to sift through the application store. He searched ‘dating’, resulting in thousands and thousands of results. He patiently scrolled down the list, inspecting one after the other. They were all so gaudy, with bright pinks and purples and reds, hearts and bows, outrageously fake promotion images with ‘profiles’ depicted by professionally-taken photographs and nicknames like ‘country_girl96’. Then there were the apps for mail-order brides from places like Russia and China, which he avoided completely. Then, when he was growing tired of looking and was beginning to second-guess himself, he saw a neat little application with a clean icon and a 4.5 star rating. He opened it, and it was obviously professional: he could see it in the well-written description. The whole summary was as crisp and clean as the app itself, and he shrugged. It’s not or never. He hit the ‘add’ button, and waited for the app to load.

This is mad, he thought to himself as a little laugh slipped past his lips. Absolutely mad.

His attention was drawn away by the sound of the landline as it trilled from next to the microwave, nestled between the appliance and the pot that held pens and pencils. He reached out, picking it up. “Hello, Sawamura residence.”

“Daichi, Asahi’s got cabin fever and we need to meet at Nid’s. He’s physically shrivelling before my eyes! I can’t have a boyfriend who is smaller than me, Daichi, you have no idea how serious this is.”

Sawamura sighed, half laughing, and stirred his spoon around his bowl.  Nishinoya’s voice was not what he perhaps would have chosen to hear first thing in the morning, but then again, compared to his siblings’ shrieking it was hardly the worst thing. “What happened?”

“Asahi got sick, and he didn’t leave his bed for three days. He’s been in there like a great mochi ball and he’s taking up all the covers. He’s not even sick anymore, he’s just lying there. He won’t go anywhere except Nid’s because he’s been craving their pastries.”

“So why are you calling me?”

“Because I’m not strong enough to drag the big lug outside, and I was hoping you could pop over and scare him into moving.”

Sawamura couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I don’t know why he’s so scared of me! I’m not that mean to him.”

“You are,” Nishinoya sighed on the other end of the line. “Can you come over soon-ish?”

“I’ll be there in half an hour.” Sawamura smiled into the receiver, shovelling the rest of his food into his mouth as he hung up. He’d have plenty of time to eat at Nid’s, and he’d need to if he failed at psyching Asahi out, leaving him to resort to dragging him down the street. He jerked the cable from his phone and shoved it into the pocket of his trousers, licking the milk from his upper lip as he hurried to pull on his coat and put on his shoes in the vestibule by the front door. He felt around for his keys and his gloves, doing a quick mental checklist before slipping out the door and locking it behind him.

It was a thirty minute drive to Nishinoya and Asahi’s apartment. It was in a quiet neighbourhood occupied mostly by retirees and young families, and was a pleasant environment to visit, let alone to live in. It sported some of the highest property rates in town, but Nishinoya’s sister already owned the flat and willingly passed it over to her brother to use. Sawamura parked on the street outside, looking up at the thin cloud-cover. It had gotten colder as the heavy clouds had begun to break apart a few days prior, but they weren’t close to clearing yet, not for another few days. He stamped his boots on the mat outside the lobby door, then entered as the elevator doors opened. A housewife and and old woman exited the elevator and bowed briefly yet politely to him as he passed. He was alone in the elevator, and broke the silence with a heavy sigh.

“Nishinoya, it’s me!” he called as he knocked on the door labelled ‘Nishinoya, Yuu’. There was a muffled scuffle, then the sound of pounding footsteps before the door swung inwards to reveal a dishevelled looking Nishinoya.

“Good, you’re here.” Nishinoya snatched his sleeve and half-dragged him inside, shutting the door and leading a bemused Sawamura towards the bedroom he and Asahi shared. Surely enough, when Sawamura peered in, there was a swell in the bedding that was undoubtedly Asahi. “Asahi, Daichi’s here.”

Asahi’s head rose out of the white sea of crumpled sheets, a tuft of brown hair rising up and revealing a pair of eyes caught somewhere between betrayal, fear, and sulkiness. Sawamura pulled his lips tightly over his teeth and saw Asahi’s eyebrows scrunch together, but the head disappeared in a matter of seconds, succeeded by only a stifled grunt.

In the end, Sawamura had rolled up his sleeves and plunged his hands into the bedding up to his elbows, searching around until he found his friend’s feet. Asahi yelled at the feeling of Sawamura’s cold fingers, and Sawamura himself grabbed Asahi by his ankles and dragged him from his bed onto the floor. Asahi was not, as Nishinoya feasibly pointed out, actually sick.

When Asahi got sick - ever since he was young - he turned into a colossal baby. His mother used to complain about it, saying he would refuse to get out of bed for days after he got better. Old habits die hard, and now it was Nishinoya complaining instead of Asahi’s mother.

“This is what you get for being old married homosexuals!” Sawamura had told Nishinoya through gritted teeth as he pulled a groaning Asahi from his bed. It was like pulling a particularly nasty splinter: difficult and equally as unenjoyable. “God, I couldn’t imagine two men in the same house. It’s bad enough with one!” Nishinoya began to pull the sheets from Asahi, winding them around his waist after he ran out of arm room. “Asahi, get up! We’ve been doing this since middle school! I can’t believe I still have to come to your house and extricate you from your bed like this.”

Asahi lay like a wet fish on the ground, face pressed into the floor and his long hair pooling alongside his ears. Both Nishinoya and Sawamura were short of breath, though the situation was hardly new to them.

“Asahi,” Sawamura began with the darkest of thunder in his voice, tone colder than the icy street outside. “I swear to Jupiter and back again if you don’t get up and come to Nid’s with us willingly, I will tie you to the roof racks of my car and put you through their coffee grinder.” He heard Nishinoya chuckle appreciatively into the back of his hand. Asahi looked over his shoulder, his brow creased again, and slowly he pulled himself to his feet.

 

Surprisingly, Asahi was sat in their usual booth, back against the wall and Nishinoya half sitting in his lap, within the next fifteen minutes. Sawamura hadn’t needed to rope him to the top of his car, nor did he need to feed Asahi’s hand through the coffee grinder (not that he would have done it anyway). With a cup of coffee in his hands and a half-eaten pastry in front of him, Asahi looked much more content. Nishinoya was listlessly rubbing circles into his arm, talking to Kinoshita who hadn’t appreciated the early-morning intrusion. “Sawamura, you can’t keep coming here for breakfast. You have to learn to make your own food.”

“He does,” Asahi had said. “He just doesn’t tend to eat it.”

“I would never have pinned Sawamura Daichi to have attention issues,” Kinoshita observed as he put down Sawamura’s breakfast-laden plate.

“I don’t have attention issues,” Sawamura said with a scoff. “Food just isn’t that high on my priority list.”

“Well it’s break now, so you have one less thing on your mind.” Nishinoya jabbed a fork in his direction as Kinoshita rolled his eyes and went back to the counter to serve another customer. Sawamura smiled at him. In truth, he was always so busy coordinating his jobs and his classes and his siblings that he rarely had time for himself. But they didn’t need to know that.

Sawamura shifted uncomfortably, only just coming to terms with the lump in his back pocket. The corner of his phone, which he had stuffed into his jeans so haphazardly before he went to answer Nishinoya’s emergency call, had stuck his ass when he shifted his weight in the seat, as if it was trying to remind him of its presence. He pulled it out and put it on the table, and as his fingers fumbled around the buttons the screen lit up and opened onto a screen that showed the introductory slide to the dating app Sawamura had installed that morning. He’d completely forgotten about it - the event with Asahi had consumed most of his attention. The app must have finished downloading and opened itself up the way apps tended to do. Nishinoya’s sharp eyes caught sight of it, and he asked, “What’s that?” and leaned in closer to have a look. He practically hooted in delight. “O-oh, Daichi! A dating app? Really?” Even Asahi’s interest was piqued.

“Yui suggested it!” Sawamura replied defensively, feeling strangely embarrassed. “I thought it was worth a shot, you know? With the whole… uh… volleyball thing.”

“What did Yui say?” Asahi asked him as Nishinoya picked up his phone and begun to fiddle with it, eyes glittering like those of a child with a new toy.

“She said I’d be luckier if I found someone with the same interests as me.”

“Volleyball?”

“Mm.”

Asahi looked doubtful. “Are you sure it’ll work? I mean, what about all the crazies -,”

“I know,” Sawamura interrupted curtly, “about the crazies. I had a near existential crisis this morning thinking about the crazies and my traumatic childhood.”

“Your childhood was anything but traumatic, Daichi, stop it.” Nishinoya spoke without looking up, and Sawamura shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ll try it, all right? Are you guys gonna give me a hand or what?”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Nishinoya said with an encouraging smile. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Organ harvesting,” Asahi murmured, eyes flicking to Sawamura’s. Nishinoya wasn’t quite in on the nuance that made Sawamura snort with laughter.

“This is cool,” Nishinoya exclaimed, scrambling over the table to sit between Sawamura and the wall. Asahi timidly sidled in on Sawamura’s other side, and the three of them looked down at the screen in front of them. “That button, there, it says ‘get started’. Hit it.”

Sawamura did.

The screen popped up with a new image, with text fields asking his name and his age, and drop-down menus asking his gender and preference. He filled them in, one at a time, one after the other. Sawamura Daichi, 23, male seeking female. Simple. Nishinoya’s sharp little finger shot out, hitting the ‘next’ button, and again they were presented with information they needed to fill in.

“‘Nationality’,” Nishinoya read aloud. “Well, you’re Japanese. ‘Drinks’? ‘Smokes’? You’re not a smoker, thank God, but you do drink.”

“Yuu, he can do it himself.”

“I’ll put in ‘sometimes’.”

Nishinoya squinted at the screen, Asahi’s gaze following his as their eyes scoured the screen. “Are you looking for a long-term relationship?”

“It’d be nice,” Sawamura said uncertainly. “Yeah, I am. There. ‘Yes’.”

 

Name: Sawamura Daichi

Age: 22

Occupation: student, volleyball coach (‘you’re such a dweeb, Daichi,’ Nishinoya laughed)

Drinks: Sometimes

Smokes: no

Looking for LTR: yes (‘the old man needs a wife to change his diapers,’ Kinoshita remarked dryly as he walked past their booth, plates balanced  up his arms to his elbows)

 

Sawamura, Asahi and Nishinoya made their way down the form, taking each field in their stride and deliberating answers that ‘weren’t too revealing’ and ‘didn’t sound fake’. Sawamura let them do it, mainly due to the presence of the faceless boy that had popped up in the back of his head. Asahi noticed he was strangely quiet. “You okay, Daichi?”

“Yeah,” Sawamura replied, feeling as if a cold wind had blown through him and brought him back to the present. He was vaguely reminded of falling out of bed again. “Is that it?”

“Looks like it,” Nishinoya said, but he let Sawamura click the prompt this time. “Oh, hold on - you need a picture. Do you have any on your phone?”

“No - I had to get a new one after Amaya dropped my old one in the river, remember? I haven’t had time to take pictures of my face.” He added the last comment dryly, looking pointedly at Nishinoya, who stuck his tongue between his teeth.

“Whatever, doesn’t matter! I’ll take one.” He snatched the phone from Sawamura’s hand, switching to the camera and holding up the device so the lens faced Sawamura and Asahi. “Ready yourself!”

“You get one shot, Noya,” Sawamura said sternly (what the kids referred to as his ‘coach voice’ was what his friends called his ‘dad voice’), and Nishinoya grinned.

“What the hell are you doing?” Kinoshita asked as he passed back past them, holding two empty plates and an espresso cup. He stood behind Nishinoya as Sawamura grinned and the photo was taken. He shook his head when he saw the shot. “Nishinoya, you’re a truly terrible photographer. Please don’t quit your day job.”

The phone was handed back to Sawamura, and Kinoshita wandered away shaking his head and wondering how he came to serve such utter children.

“He wasn’t kidding, this is really bad.” Sawamura couldn’t stop laughing at the quality of the photo and Asahi’s expression in the edge of the frame. “Atrocious.”

“We have to crop Asahi out of it, though,” Nishinoy took ownership of the phone once more, sliding his thumbs over the screen to crop it. Sawamura looked and began to laugh even harder.

“Noya, stop, you’re too bad! You just make it worse and worse!” Sawamura wheezed, holding his phone to his chest. Asahi, patient and level-headed (for once), slid the phone from Sawamura’s fingers and did his best to rectify the situation. He couldn’t salvage much, but it was enough, and in the end the image looked a right sight better than it had to begin with. Sawamura was happy with it, despite its crappy quality and bad cropping, and despite its almost illegibility. It was the faceless boy, and if his face was indeterminable, nobody would be able to steal it. “It’s good, it’s good! Come on, let’s get this over with.”

After uploading the image and hitting the ‘next’ button, a blank white screen popped up with a single line of text saying: thank you for registering with us. We wish you all the best in your search for that special someone!

“Can we look at people now?”

“Yuu, this is for Daichi, not for you.”

“We can look at people - look, there’s a recommended list!”

They scrolled down in silence. Pretty girls, pretty women, big girls and skinny girls and girls in between, all beautiful and looking as if they smelled nice. Sawamura felt inspired there and then, but after inspecting profile after profile he failed to find anybody that he really wanted to talk to, or even have a ‘long-term’ relationship with. Their ‘interests’ columns also did not include volleyball, which Asahi did not fail to point out.

Sawamura, growing tired and uninterested, finished his food and went up to pay for it. Kinoshita looked at him, asking, “What are you up to?”

“Online dating thing. Long story.” Sawamura smiled crookedly, handing over the cash he owed and watching Kinoshita put it in the cashier tray and print the receipt. When he returned to the booth, however, he noticed that Asahi and Nishinoya were very quiet and very still, looking down at the screen of his phone with big eyes.

“What?” Sawamura asked, and the two looked at one another before looking up at him.

“Dude,” Nishinoya said in a half-whisper. “It fucked up. But it’s good. Volleyball. Hot. Hot.

“We found a person who likes volleyball,” Asahi explained as Sawamura approached them further. “But, um, it seems the app has hiccuped a little bit.” When Sawamura looked at him with a question in his eyes, Asahi averted his gaze. “It seems the recommended list has been… um…”

“He’s a dude, but wow, Sawamura, wow.”

“Just look.” Asahi pinched the phone from Nishinoya, handing it to Sawamura as he sat down opposite them. He looked down at the screen, and at first he couldn’t tell what was special about the profile. It looked just like all the others he’d looked at, with a variation in the image -

Sawamura’s heart might have just stopped in his chest. The image. The person in the picture took his breath right from his lungs, winded him; it was a man, undoubtedly, but Sawamura doubted he’d seen anyone so beautiful in his entire life. It was a particular beauty, not the kind he saw in magazines or in advertisements, and not the kind on porn websites or sexy magazines. It was strange, and he couldn’t place it, but… he wasn’t sure. Maybe it was the ashen colour of the man’s hair, or his lily-white skin with the pale blue veins running down the translucent, narrow column of his neck. The open neckline, the eyelashes, the beauty mark. The lips, slightly open. The eyes. The eyes.

“Lovestruck?” Nishinoya asked coyly, watching intently as Sawamura’s expression shifted like the weather. “He likes volleyball, too. If anyone could turn Sawamura Daichi gay, it’s this guy.”

“I’m not going to announce myself as gay just for one guy,” Sawamura replied instantly, not missing a beat. “It’s not binary. Just because I… ah. Just because I think a man is attractive doesn’t mean I don’t like women or… whatever.” His eyes wanted to stay on the image forever; he wanted to look at that face forever, print it out and glue it to his ceiling. The only thing dragging his eyes away was the thought of being able to see it in real life. Breaking away from the picture, he perused the profile a little. 

 

Username: setter56

Name: Sugawara Koushi

Age: 22

Occupation: student (ah, Sawamura thought with an inward grin. That was what I saw in the eyes. The unadulterated exhaustion of being a student.)

Nationality: Japanese

Drinks: no

Smokes: no

Looking for LTR: yes

 

Sawamura’s eyes slid down to the interests column, where a number of things were listed, and his eyes zeroed in on the word ‘volleyball’ nestled quite comfortably between ‘Japanese literature’ and ‘ western cuisine’

“I don’t think that man has a bad bone in his body,” Nishinoya said, still gobsmacked. “Look at his face. You can tell he’s a fucking angel just by looking at his profile.”

“That’s assuming he’s real,” Asahi convened, eyes trained on Daichi. “It could be a ploy. Not all criminals are ugly, either.”

Sawamura grinned at him. “Well, if I was going to get my organs cut out of me I’d want him to be the one to do it. Hell, I might not even mind it so much.”

In essence, Sawamura didn’t really understand what he was feeling. He’d never been abhorrent of the idea of being… attracted to another guy before, it had never crossed his mind. Maybe since he’d had it drilled into his head since he was a kid that ‘boobs are sexy’ but, as a boy, ‘abs are not sexy’, males had never really appealed to him like that. But this was different. This was so different. He’d read about people’s hearts stopping or their stomach flipping when they saw someone they found blindingly attractive; ‘love at first sight’. Sawamura didn’t think it was ‘love’, really, but more the initial attraction that brought people together. Plus, this guy liked volleyball. Sawamura didn’t have a problem with liking this man, ethically, but he couldn’t help but question it.

“Look at our son, growing up and getting a partner of his own!” Sawamura looked up sharply to see Nishinoya clinging to Asahi’s arm.

“I’m older than you, Noya.”

Nishinoya’s tongue flicked between his teeth again, prompting Asahi to chide him. They might as well be married already, Sawamura thought.

“Should I message him?”

Yes.”

“If you want to, I guess.”

Sawamura looked down at the image, gnawing nervously on the inside of his cheek. A message couldn’t hurt, right? “What do I even say?”

“Do not say you’re a nice guy,” Nishinoya advised, face grave. “Those ‘Nice Guy’ types? Yeah. Not actually nice, usually entitled douchebags. Maybe tell him he looks nice? Or is that the same thing?”

“Just write what you feel,” Asahi added.

“Are you for real? ‘Write what you feel?’” Sawamura looked as if he’d sucked lemons. “The guy’s gonna think I’m a total creep. Nope - forget it, I can’t. I’ll freak him out.”

“Daichi, no, no, don’t you dare back out now!” Nishinoya held his fingers closed around the phone. “Do. It. Message him or I’ll do it for you, and you don’t want that.” No. That would be a bad idea.

Asahi and Nishinoya watched as Sawamura tapped in a message, noticing how his face scrunched up with concentration as he backspaced at least five times, erasing the whole thing and starting over once or twice. In the end, after about five minutes of silence and internal deliberation on Sawamura’s part, he sat back and exhaled.

“How’s this,” he began. “‘Hi, I hope I’m nor seeming too forward, and I hope you don’t think I’m being creepy or anything but your profile came up on my ‘recommended’ list and I thought you looked really nice. Kind - you’re also very pretty. I’m sorry, I’m new to this! My friends talked me into it. So, message me back if you like? Only if you want. If I creeped you out I’m sorry and feel free to never speak to me again.’”

“You know, for someone who captained a volleyball team to nationals and can manage to keep three small children under control most of the time, you’re really bad at this. And ‘pretty’, honestly? And the creepy stuff. Having to say you’re not creepy usually means you are. It’s a law, like in physics.”

“That’s not very encouraging, Noya,” Sawamura replied as rubbed his eyes tiredly. He was really just feeling worse. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t reply I won’t mind - he could probably get anybody he wanted! I’m gonna send it.”

“Daichi -,”

“Gone.”

Nishinoya let out an exasperated groan, and Asahi put his face into his hands.

 

“You know, I think we were lucky,” Asahi remarked as they walked from the café to the parking lot. “We only saw one picture of a dick. We didn’t even see any boobs.”

“You sound glad, Asahi.”

“You may not be gay for a pretty man, Daichi, but I am -” Nishinoya practically purred at that “- and… ah… breasts, as it is, are not of any great allure to me.”

“Nope, I’m glad too,” Sawamura admitted, stretching his arms above his head. “God knows, somebody could have seen and I don’t need my reputation shot down to surfing porn in coffee shops. I work with kids, you know.”

Sawamura dropped Nishinoya and Asahi back at their flat, and after Nishinoya thanked him for snapping Asahi back to normal he was faced with the long, lonely drive home. It was a little past eleven, so he set about opening up the house and airing it, letting it cool and rid itself of the stagnant air brought about by closed windows and dirty air vents. He cleaned the vents, making sure to turn on the heating and close up the house with enough time to warm it before the rest of his family came home. He also cleared the fridge of old, uneaten breakfasts and a mouldy bag of Lebanese cucumbers he hadn’t gotten round to throwing out.

Sawamura didn’t like - and never did - admitting to himself how many times he checked the message box in the dating app. The poor quality of his photograph deterred most people, but the cluster of messages he did receive didn’t spark his interest. Haruka, being perceptive as she was, noticed that her brother constantly whipped his phone out of his pocket or checked it during dinner. For someone who habitually left his phone lying on the kitchen counter or the sofa, or kicked it underneath his bed, Sawamura was sure carrying it around a lot.

“Are you waiting for someone to call you?” she asked him on Wednesday evening as he sat watching a children's film with the two other kids.

“No, why?”

“Oh, no reason. Just wondering.” She’d wandered away to do her homework after that, but she’d made her answer as transparent as glass, and Sawamura saw right through it. He knew she knew, and she knew that. It didn’t matter to her what he did, as long as it wasn’t something dangerous, but Sawamura was so safe and solid that she knew she had nothing to worry about.

When Friday rolled around, Sawamura threw in the towel. His phone went from being constantly in his pocket or in his hand to being kicked under his bed again, or lying on the kitchen counter or between the sofa cushions. Haruka noticed this, as did Asahi and Nishinoya when he dropped in with some muffins his mother made, his phone not on him. They chose not to question him about it, not sure what happened to have dampened his spirits, and Sawamura succeeded in giving up without being harassed.

Life, as a whole, swung back to normal. He coached the kids team, archived his notes from the semester (not as big an undertaking as he’d thought it would be), went to Nid’s when he forgot to eat breakfast. He slipped back into habits he was used to, the strain on his heart slackened and dissipated, and he found himself swaying like a metronome to the steady, busy swing of his life.

Eventually, though, Asahi grew curious to see how the message palaver turned out. It had been days since Sawamura had sent that message to the beautiful man on that dating app - Sugawara Koushi - and Sawamura had done nothing to indicate success or failure. It was frustrating for Asahi, but when he noticed Sawamura’s disinterest in his phone (and thus, app) he suspected either something bad had happened, or nothing had happened at all. Or that they’d managed to hook up and sort out their differences in a few days, but that was highly unlikely.

Nishinoya and Asahi were in the process of painting their ceilings. The apartment above theirs had a leaking fridge that had clearly indicated the permeability of the ceilings in their apartment complex, and gallons of water had leaked through the floor to stain their roof in ugly grey splotches. Nishinoya had scrubbed, but the ghosts of the stains were still prevalent, especially in the late afternoon when the sun really hit at the wrong angle. Sawamura, after listening to Nishinoya lament about it, offered to lend a hand, and he swore Nishinoya almost bust an artery with gratitude.

Seeing Nishinoya in overalls was an experience in itself, but somehow Sawamura was entirely unsurprised. By the time he arrived Asahi was already up a ladder, long muscular arms swiping a thick paintbrush back and forth over a stain that was only partly concealed by a fresh coat of beige paint. Asahi had a wider range thanks to the length of his limbs, but Nishinoya worked like a navvy and never seemed to run out of energy. How high school hadn’t drained him was a mystery to not only Sawamura, but a good portion of Nishinoya’s close circle of friends.

Sawamura was squatting before a can of paint when Asahi approached him, arms flecked with paint and wiping the sweat on his face away with his shirt. “So did you hear back from that guy?” Asahi asked lightly.

“Hm?” Sawamura hummed, briefly confused as to whom Asahi was referring. “Oh, him? No. It’s been days, but I’ve gotten nothing. I can’t believe the app fucked over like that - I clearly said ‘man’ seeking ‘woman’ but still there was a man on my ‘recommended' list and I had my hopes up and now there’s nothing and I know I shouldn’t be disappointed but I am. It’s not his fault that he didn’t reply, he didn’t shoot me down, but I can’t help -,”

“Hey,” Nishinoya’s voice came from across the room, and Sawamura bit his tongue when he realised how swept away he’d gotten. Asahi and Sawamura both looked over to where Nishinoya stood on the edge of the drop sheet, by the breakfast bar where Sawamura had dropped his bag. In Nishinoya’s paint-splattered hands was Sawamura’s phone, and the room was plunged into a deep, pregnant silence. “Hey, Daichi, it says you have a message.” His finger swiped across the screen. “It’s from that Sugawara guy.”

Chapter Text

V: Sugawara Koushi

 

“I should message him back.”

Sugawara said this to nobody in particular; the room was empty except for him and his reflection, wet hair stuck around his face and peeling in damp curls away from his temples. His eyes were wider and clearer than he’d ever seen them, but they always were after he got out of the shower. His skin was pink with the heat of the water and the pressure of it against his skin, glistening with the water he hadn’t yet wiped off. “I… shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. This was a… it was a bad idea.”

It had been a tough few days for Sugawara. He thanked high heavens that the semester was over, because if he’d been worrying about things like this while trying to concentrate on studying, he wouldn't have gotten anything done. He was filled to the brim with indecision, and there was a constant internal feud going on inside him that raged from dawn till dusk, all around the clock, every single hour he was conscious and even - often, and embarrassingly - when he wasn’t. He’d wake up feeling dizzy with the urge to shoot a message back to Sawamura Daichi, but he’d go the whole day putting it off, and then go to bed thinking ‘I shouldn’t do it. I won’t. This was a dumb idea.’ What was different about this particular day, however, was the fact that he’d woken up with rejection on his tongue.

He groaned, splashing cold water from the tap over his face and scrubbing vigorously at his body with a towel, reaching for his clothes. Trying to pull dry clothes on over damp skin is one of life’s tribulations, but Sugawara found that trying to manoeuvre his body through various orifices in his clothing was more effective in waking him up than anything else was.

“I should not message him back.” Sugawara’s voice was muffled by the sweater he pulled over his head. “This was a horrible idea in the first place. Horrible.” But it hadn’t been that horrible. Sugawara was determined not to blush in the mirror, but when he thought of the awkward and badly-worded message - as well as the terrible photo - he couldn’t help it. He wondered what the story behind that man was, where he was from, where he grew up, what kinds of books he liked to read… his profile was brief, as if he was holding back… but somehow Sugawara found it a more ‘I’m nervous and a bit scared’ type of holding back than ‘I’m trying to remain mysterious so I can flee the country after I murder you’ kind of holding back. “Shouldn’t. No. Not messaging him back.”

It wasn’t Sugawara’s gut feeling. The pull was towards messaging this man back, not to ignore him. He knew that sometimes his gut feeling was dead wrong (he shuddered all the way to the core of his body, swallowing a bubble of trepidation that rose in his throat), but times like those were rare and catastrophic. Sugawara’s misconceptions were disasters disguised as miracles. But this man, with his photo and giddy words, was too average to be a miracle. He’d be gale force, at most, but not a disaster, surely. A bitter taste flooded Sugawara’s mouth. Thinking anybody was safe was a dangerous thing to do. Especially someone he’d never met before. “No.”

Kiyoko had already made breakfast, and she was vaguely impressed that Sugawara had gotten up before noon. Omelettes, with diced tomatoes and ham and mushrooms, grated cheese and spring onion. Afterwards Sugawara truly believed that if his stomach could smile, it would be grinning. He helped Kiyoko clean up, and then she left for her shift, and Sugawara had the apartment to himself for a few hours.

“Maybe we should get a cat,” he wondered out loud as he set about straightening up the magazines on the coffee table. He liked cats. They were cleaner than dogs, and not as smelly or overbearingly enthusiastic. Smaller, too - usually.

It was a strangely warm day for late November; it wasn’t warm enough to turn the snow to rain, though, and big doughy flakes had begun to fall and turn to mush against the windowsills. Sugawara hated that kind of snow: it was the kind that flooded the streets and turned the dirt and gravel to mud and icy slush, that melted the snow that had already fallen. It was the kind that was heavy enough to drop from eaves onto unsuspecting passers-by, but still light enough to disguise treacherously deep puddles as little blips in the asphalt. The weak light was like water, and Sugawara had to leave the kitchen light on so he didn’t accidentally walk into any hidden furniture corners or stub his toe on the coffee table again.

Stacking the journals in the kitchen, he spied his laptop sitting on the seat of the sofa and stared at it for longer than was really necessary.

“Don’t message him back.” He shook his head, pushing the pale hair from his eyes and rubbing them with his thumbs. “I won’t message him back. Dumb idea.”

To Sugawara’s credit, he managed to occupy himself for a few hours before the fuzzy photograph crossed his mind again. “Nope.”

There was a remarkable documentary about the history of the Middle East on television at around midday, and Sugawara happily wrapped himself in blankets and settled down to watch it, savouring the silence of the apartment that made the sound coming from the television so pristine. Swaddled snugly like an infant, Sugawara dropped off for a few minutes only to be woken by the blast of firearms from the screen. Canons. The documentary, Sugawara realised after a moment of groggy confusion, was at the point of exploring the introduction of gunpowder and the effectiveness of middle-eastern medicine in the middle ages. He sunk back into the sofa, exhaling heavily through his nose. “I’m gonna end up messaging him back.”

It was inevitable, of course, since Sugawara woke up thinking he wouldn’t. He didn’t like to admit it, but he was titillated by the thought of conversing with this man, even though the feeling was uncalled for and frightening. Sugawara had always been drawn to things like that, though. He pulled his laptop onto his thighs and nervously tapped the flat surface of the keys as the machine whirred to life. It only took a moment for Sugawara to bring up the page, despite the habit he had of constantly clearing his browser history (Kiyoko insisted she didn’t mind what kind of porn he watched, but he still did it anyway. He didn’t even watch porn. He found it socially depreciating). He gave the message a read-through once, twice, before hitting ‘reply’ and staring at the same blank text field he had a few days before.

What do I say? Sugawara thought, realising that while he’d been so focussed on whether or not he would reply, he hadn’t thought about what he’d say if he actually did. His mind was blank, a slate wiped completely clean.

Well, he messaged me first so he obviously thinks I’m not… ah… bad, I guess. Sugawara lifted his thumb to his mouth and began to chew on the nail. Hello, I appreciate your… no… I found your message really… shit, that’s not right either… your photo is terrible, who even took that? Hah. No. He backspaced again and again, highlighting and deleting chunks of text as if he was scrapbooking, not writing a reply to someone on a dating website. Eventually, after half an hour filled with nervous keening noises and procrastination, Sugawara sat back and reread what he’d written. He hadn’t felt this stressed about writing something since he’d submitted that last paper.

 

Hello, he’d written,

Thank you for your message! It was a nice change from some of the others I’d gotten beforehand. I’m not sure what to say, actually, since I’m just as new to this as you are, by the sounds of things! Sorry. I’m really bad at this as well.

 

Sugawara covered his face with his hands, feeling his cheeks grow hot against his fingers as he flushed. He was hopeless. Conversation usually came so easily to him! He was normally so charismatic! But here - here, Sugawara didn’t know what to say or what to do. He felt as if he was stuttering, even over the internet, falling over himself again and again and jamming his own foot so far down his throat that he could barely breathe. It was awful, his message was awful, and it was an awful idea. His finger fumbled over the trackpad. Just send it. You’ve got nothing to lose, Sugawara - at worst, you’ll have to adopt 50 cats and live in solitude for the rest of your life. He hit the ‘send’ button before he could stop himself or cut and paste anything else.

The feeling he got after seeing that the message had been sent was something between cold horror and blistering embarrassment. Even then, it was the happy, blushy kind of embarrassment that was more like the fluttering of butterflies in his stomach than knives in his back. Like an elementary school crush.

Then the reality of what he’d done came crashing down about his ears and he groaned, burying himself in his blankets and sliding the laptop across the length of the sofa. The documentary rolled on, but Sugawara wasn’t listening. He didn’t move until Kiyoko returned from her shift, slamming the door uncharacteristically hard as she entered the apartment. “Suga?”

Sugawara groaned from his pile of blankets on the sofa, his mussed head appearing over the back of the sofa. Kiyoko looked dishevelled, one side of her hair mussed and her glasses hanging from the breast pocket of her work shirt. She looked the same as she did after pulling an all-nighter.

Sugawara watched her as she put her bag down on the dining room table and rubbed her eyes tiredly before going to sit down next to Sugawara. If he was ever to see a person melt, it would have been Kiyoko. He sidled up to her, asking “are you'll right?” in a soft, gentle voice. Sighing heavily, Kiyoko grinned at him.

“A few assholes came in during my shift,” she said. “Drunk as anything, though God knows why they’d be plastered so early in the afternoon. Didn’t help that I was up all night last night writing postcards, but that’s my fault.” She yawned widely, blinking rapidly and noticing the deep blush on her roommate’s cheeks. “Suga?”

“Kiyoko, I fucked up.” Suga began to wring his hands, nervous laughter tumbling past his lips in fractures little waves. “I - you know - did I tell you… did I tell you about the, um, the… the message?”

Kiyoko looked vaguely alarmed, her back snapping straight as a board. “Message? No, you didn’t. Suga, is it from -,”

“From the dating website, on the dating website, from… from someone on… there.” He watched the fire fade from his friend’s eyes as she relaxed a little, sinking slowly back onto the sofa. “And I, um… I messaged him back.”

Kiyoko punched his arm, grinning encouragingly at him. “Good for you! Is he nice?”

“I guess so,” Suga replied timidly. “It’s hard to tell, you know? Since I can’t see him, or hear him or anything.”

“You sure it’s not fake?”

Sugawara remembered the photograph and chuckled to himself. “I’m pretty sure it’s genuine.” Kiyoko leaned into him, smiling and nudging his shoulder.

“I’m happy for you, Suga,” she said. “I hope it works out for you.” Then she stood up, stretching and exhaling heavily. “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go to bed. I’m dead beat and I’ve got a full day ahead of me tomorrow.” She began off towards her room, but stopped in the hall. “I’ve got to go shopping tomorrow - buy stuff to mail to the relatives, you know - do you want to come?”

“No, I’ve already sorted that kind of thing out, but thanks for offering.” Sugawara smiled at her, and she nodded and made her way to the shower, stretching thin arms over her head. Sugawara, for the most part, felt warm and snuggly and as if he was about ten years younger than he really was. As stupid as it sounded (and as dangerous as the reality perhaps was), it was like his first middle-school crush all over again. It was just like when he’d sat in the row behind that boy with the pale hair and freckles, definitely half-foreign, at least, on his first day at his new school, when he’d felt his heart swell into his throat at the sight of a gap-toothed smile and dark eyes that glittered like the deepest throes of night. But this time it wasn’t a half-foreign boy with freckles and a gap between his teeth, but a man with dark hair and a strong jaw who Sugawara didn’t really know, but felt as if this man’s shadow was a perfect match for his. It wasn’t a feeling he got often, not deep and personal like this - it was a feeling that made a deep blush creep up his neck and over his face, like a candle slowly burning down its wick, penetrating right into his bones to the point where he felt he could walk outside without any clothes on and never be cold again. Horrified, he kicked his way out of the tangle of blankets, yelping, “am I in love with him?”

He sat down, chewing on his thumb again. It was impossible, stupid - there was no way he could be in love with someone he’d never seen, never even spoken to before. It was ridiculous, it was dangerous. But the tingles in his stomach and the pressure in his chest was such an undeniably personal feeling, and it made him feel like he was being crushed from all directions, which Sugawara found exceedingly pleasant. Perhaps Kiyoko would have shaken her head had she known; perhaps she would have chastised him, reminded him of the dangers of what he was doing and this anonymous man we was choosing to get so flustered over. He could be a killer, Suga, he could slit your throat and throw you in a ditch for all your little crush is worth. But she was concerned about him, as she’d always been - as she’d always had to be - because he was never concerned enough for himself.

Kiyoko came out of the bathroom after showering, a towel wrapped in her dark hair and a loose sweater and track pants thrown on. “What are you doing?” she asked, pausing to stand in front of where Sugawara sat with his face in his hands.

“I messaged him back,” he repeated, voice muffled and cheeks growing steadily redder. A laugh bubbled in Kiyoko’s throat, but she bit it back. “I’m such an idiot.”

With a smile, she leaned in to ruffle Sugawara’s pale hair. A single, bright eye peaked at her from between slender fingers, and she bent double so their eyes were on the same level. “Listen, Suga. You’ll do fine. Be safe, stay smart, but I believe in you. This is a good thing. I haven’t seen you this way since - gosh - middle school, at least. When you had a crush on that foreign boy!” She did laugh, then.

“Thanks, mom,” Sugawara called as she ruffled his hair once more, yawned again and retreated back down the hall to her bedroom.

 

Sugawara’s night was relatively sleepless, and he stayed bundled up in the living room watching mindless action movies until two o’clock in the morning, headphones hooked up to the television set so Kiyoko wouldn’t be woken by the noise. At about midnight Sugawara’s eyes closed, but he didn’t fall asleep. He focussed on the lights as they flashed and quivered behind his eyelids, turing blue and red and green as helicopters exploded and machines powered up. His head filled with crazy things, crazy thoughts, flashes of the gifts he’d bought for his family and his childhood cat. He seemed to go over his entire life that night, from the day he first realised memory was real right up to the very second he’d just lived, filling in gaps and holes and stitching together his own timeline until he felt as if he could wear his life like a coat, and never be parted from it. It was a nice feeling. All of his thoughts made him feel nice, thinking of his life and thinking of this Sawamura guy he’d met online. But there was a hole, a patch missing from the torn knee of a pair of jeans. He didn’t want to sew that patch, so he left it. He couldn’t think of that now, he couldn’t -

When he woke up - after falling into a dead sleep and leaving the television running - the screen was black and it was nine o’clock in the morning. Kiyoko was awake, and had obviously switched off the television and put the headphone set back in the cabinet with the DVDs and video games. She was sitting at the table in the kitchen, not having made any food yet, and sipping on a cup of coffee.

“Good morning,” she said sleepily as he wandered in to get a glass of water from the sink. “I’ve been called into work again, so I’ll have to go in for a bit this afternoon. You’ll be right to make dinner?”

“Sure,” Sugawara replied after taking a long drink and listening to her speak. “That’s fine. Don’t push yourself, Kiyoko. I know you like to work hard, but… don’t work too hard. Please.”

Kiyoko smiled at his back, touched by the tone of her friend’s voice. He needed to take better care of himself, yet he always made sure others were comfortable and happy. That, Kiyoko thought with an inward sigh, was exactly why he was the way he was. Disorganised, worried; he was a mindless, selfless person. He’d always been kind, but he hadn’t always been so thoughtless. He was clever, tactical, be he didn’t think he was. Not… anymore. She shook the thought from her head. “I bought some meat from the convenience store yesterday,” she reminded him, “and there’s that salmon left over as well. Vegetables, too - they’re in the refrigerator drawer.”

“Steam the carrots till they’re soft, then add broccoli. I know.” Sugar shot a wink over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Kiyoko.”

“Suga, you’re so lovely,” she went over to him, kissing him on his cheek. “Thank you.”

 

In the end, Kiyoko did take Sugawara shopping. For all her precision and decisiveness, when it came to buying gifts she was hopeless, and always dragged someone along with her, regardless of whether it was Sugawara or not. Sugawara saw it two ways: 1, Kiyoko went on her own and was gone for hours, or 2, he sucked it up and went with her and cut the time her shopping took considerably shorter than what it could have been. It was always more painless to take the second option, so Sugawara usually did.

The shopping mall was packed with little old ladies carting around shopping bags on wheels, with mothers carrying children or snivelling twelve-year-olds with patched knees, with men on phones glancing at wristwatches, with families bright-eyed at the sight of Christmas displays.

“What’s the big hype?” Sugawara would (always, every year) ask irritably as he took in the tall, brightly-lit Christmas tree in the middle of the shopping mall. “Most of us don’t even celebrate this anyway.”

“It’s literally just a commercial holiday,” Kiyoko would reply (always, every year), as she leafed through her wallet and pulled out her list of relatives and corresponding gifts. “Nobody ever turns down the excuse for a holiday. The kids love it.”

“But don’t you think it’s kind of… cheap? Fake?” Sugawara shoved his hands into his pockets and tuned his eyes away from the gaudy decorations. “It takes away the meaning of the actual reason Christmas exists.”

Kiyoko managed to look at him sparingly in between walking and reading and shuffling bank notes. “Suga, please. You think the West hasn’t already milked Christmas for all it’s commercial worth? You ask a single kid what Christmas is about, and let me tell you, a good chunk of them wouldn’t say ‘Jesus’.” She didn’t need to say any more, because Sugawara knew she was right.

Kiyoko had a bad habit when it came to shopping. Actually, she had a few. When she was shopping for herself she stuck to a strict budget and style guide (colours, cuts, and lots of other factors Sugawara didn’t quite understand) and was able to slip in and out of a shop in a matter of minutes, exiting with enough clothes to last her the next two years. She’d perfected the art of shopping, not only for clothes but for appliances, bed and bathroom stuff, you name it. She always kept a low-key eye on product reviews and the exchange rate throughout the year, pinpointing the best time for sales and when the prices would be highest, and she did with with so much subtlety that it continuously caught Sugawara off guard. But when it came to shopping for other people, she turned into a completely different person.

The Kiyoko that took Sugawara Christmas shopping every year was a Kiyoko Sugawara knew about, but didn’t often see. Her determined, calculating attitude when it came to purchases was cracked open like a walnut and rendered her completely hopeless, time and time again. She never seemed to improve and was stuck in the same rut with everybody she had to buy things for, including Sugawara, which is why he didn’t have a very diverse wardrobe. She would stand there, a box of hand cream or a shirt in each hand, looking between them and scrutinising differences so minute that Sugawara really thought it was ridiculous, but still being unable to chose between them. Sugawara’s role was to wait until Kiyoko narrowed her purchase down to two items, then choose for her. He was amused by the thought that he’d essentially decided all her family’s gifts for the last seven years. He didn’t mind, though, because he’d wander into the menswear department and pick out clothes for himself, since he didn’t go shopping very much.

Sugawara’s fashion sense was much like Kiyoko’s normal shopping attitude, but gentler, in a way. He was precise, tactical when it came to colour swatches and what looked good on him, picking subtle clothes that would mix and match with everything else he owned. Sugawara, as Tanaka had once laughed, was deviously stylish. He was the kind of guy who wore button-up shirts with tiny birds on them, or jeans rolled up over his ankles and deck shoes, or tennis shoes, or boots with thick wool socks. He wore scarves, too, and dark coats with big buttons in winter. Beige trousers and shorts, simple patterns on his t-shirts, nautical stripes and that nice shade of mustard and other aesthetically pleasing patterns that, honestly, looked really good. Sugawara Koushi was many things, but a poor dresser was not one of them. And, Kiyoko was delighted to discover when they moved in together, Sugawara was perfectly able to go shopping on his own. He would slip away at times like these, unnoticed, and then return with a shopping bag tucked under his arm and a receipt tucked in his wallet.

“Suga, help, which one?” Kiyoko asked as Sugawara - who had, indeed, quietly detoured to the menswear department as soon as Kiyoko had stepped into the homeware section - walked up behind her. In her hands were two pineapple candle-holders, one white and one yellow. Sugawara knew immediately who they were for - Kiyoko’s aunt, who had a passion for pineapple decorations and scented candles. She was a single woman who considered herself to be ‘in touch’ with nature. Sugawara never really found out how that linked to pineapples and candles, but it didn’t bother him much. It certainly didn’t keep him up at night.

“Think about it for a bit,” he replied as he inspected them over her shoulder. “Think about the colour scheme of her living room.”

Kiyoko stared down at the objects in her palms, brow furrowed, as she pictured her aunt’s living room. They both knew it well enough, and also knew it probably hadn’t changed much since they stopped by there for afternoon tea when they were kids. She nodded, sucking her teeth. “Yellow. Definitely yellow.” She slid the white pineapple back onto the shelf, tucking the yellow one into the crook of her elbow and crossing off a name from her list. “You’re a godsend.”

Sugawara followed her around as she crossed things off her list, picking out things for himself here and there, as well as things he could keep as gifts for other occasions. A new belt, to replace his old one - the one that was too lose since the buckle had torn through the last hole. A new pair of socks, because when could you ever have enough socks? A bottle of Kiyoko’s favourite perfume, because she’d almost run out and hadn’t bought backups, and Sugawara needed a gift for her anyway. He almost bought a handful of fake carnations to replace the faded fake flowers in the corner of their apartment, but he didn’t. Carnations were his favourite. Pink, especially.

“I’m exhausted!” Kiyoko said, pushing her glasses up her nose. She wasn’t really, of course, but she felt obligated to say it anyway. She was invigorated by the speedy success of her shopping, with only her parents left to buy gifts for. “Almost done, though. How are you holding up?”

Sugawara was sipping on a latte he’d bought from one of the coffee shops in the food court.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “My faculty buildings are half a mile away from each other. I’m used to being on my feet.”

By the time they finished it was almost three, and they both stopped by a ramen bar on their way home. Kiyoko was due at work in an hour’s time, so Sugawara offered to take her shopping bags into her room while she washed her face and fixed her hair. She had time for a cup of coffee and a bit of a rest before she was up and out the door again. “Don’t forget! Vegetables!” she called before slamming the door.

Sugawara cut the tags off the clothes he’d bought, tossing them in his laundry hamper and realising that it was about time someone did the laundry. Scooping his own dirty clothes into a basket, he picked up each used garment in the apartment and carted them all down to the laundry room. A few of the washing machines were already mid-cycle, and someone had put tennis balls in with their clothes again (must be that guy from 304, Sugawara thought), which made the dryer rattle and thump. He took the washing liquid and fabric softener from on top of the dirty clothes, measured out amounts, and separated the load into darks and whites. Sugawara was particular about separating clothes - ever since that time most of his lighter clothes had been stained green because he’d neglected to take out one of his sweaters. That was a day he didn’t want to revisit. His mother had laughed at him for weeks.

Nobody seemed to mind that Sugawara used two washing machines at once, even when they watched him load clothes into them and turn them on. They didn’t say anything, and Sugawara couldn’t help but wonder why.

Carrying the empty basket and his washing liquids back to his own flat, he noted the sudden drop in temperature. He flicked up the thermostat a little, shooting a text to Kiyoko warning her of a snap freeze after he turned the television onto the weather forecast. The sky was clear again, so it was freezing, and Sugawara was glad for indoor heating, plumbing and refrigerators… all the things that made going outside unnecessary. By the time the loads had finished and he’d transferred the wet clothes into the dryers, and then waited for those to finish, it was almost six. Half past five, actually, and Sugawara noted with some alarm that he’d better get a head start on dinner if he wanted to get it done by the time Kiyoko got back. He sorted through the clothes as fast as he could, folding and separating what was Kiyoko’s and what was his, leaving the clothes that needed ironing in the basket for later and putting Kiyoko’s clothes on her bed, and his on his own.

He went into the kitchen, then, watching as thin clouds gathered over the town and slowly built in volume. Snow, he thought. It’ll snow tonight. It was dark outside already, streetlight tiredly flickering to life and the flash of headlights as a stream of traffic passed by the complex as commuters returned from work. He got the rice and vegetables on, as well as the meat, sauces and side dishes laid out and covered in cling film next to the stove. Sugawara, having to leave the vegetables and rice to steam and the meat to cook properly, washed his hands and opened his laptop to hop onto his emails. He was greeted by an influx of Christmas messages, tacky e-cards that made him chortle with laughter, and letters from his family wishing him well. Then something pinged, but it wasn’t a new email. Then he noticed that other tabs were open, too - a recipe he’d been wanting to show Kiyoko, the week’s weather forecast, and - oh.

He opened the last tab, coming face-to-face with the glassy render of the dating website that had caused him so much fuss. That was what had made the noise. It was a little notification in his messages. He’d gotten a few more, by the looks of it, but when he entered his inbox he didn’t open them. He was only looking for one, and when he saw it at the top of the list his stomach did a backflip. It was from Sawamura Daichi.

Sugawara bit his lips as he opened it.

 

You’re not bad at this! it read, I mean, it’s nice to know that there are other people out there who are just as clueless as I am. It makes me feel less like a complete idiot, you know? So - do you know what we’re supposed to talk about on this thing?

 

Sugawara laughed breathlessly. He hit the ‘reply’ button, keying in an answer and sending it before he could back out or close the laptop.

 

I have no idea. The weather? I don’t know where you live… Japan, evidently, and in the same prefecture as me; your profile says so, anyway. I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but I think it’s going to snow here.

 

He felt awful, worse than he had when he’d tripped up the stairs in front of that foreign boy in middle school. What the hell was he saying? What kind of reply was that!? As he mulled over how pathetic he probably sounded, his computer pinged again. That was fast.

After inspecting the first message he’d gotten that evening, he saw that it had been sent only a minute or two after he’d logged on. So… that meant that this Sawamura guy must be online? Sugawara only then noticed the little green circle next to his name.

 

I think I must live close to you… do you live in town? Because there’s some serious cloud cover coming and the satellite says that it’s going to be really cold tonight.

 

Sugawara sucked in a breath. So Sawamura lived in town as well? His fingers tingled at the thought - for all Sugawara knew, he could be living in the same apartment building as him. The same street. They could have walked past each other hundreds of times and never even noticed it. It wasn’t a big city like Tokyo, so the chances were very real.

 

I live in the western suburbs, Sugawara typed and, anxious that he was giving away too much information, backspaced. I live in town! On the west side, near the high school. No - don’t say that. On the west side. I think my windows are already frozen shut.

 

He hit send, and only half a minute later another message popped into his inbox.

 

I just tried to open mine, actually (thanks for the reminder!), and I thought I’d shattered the glass until I realised it was a solid crust of ice. On another note, there’s an IM option I just saw near the reply button… do you wanna chat for a bit?

 

It was as if the air had been punched out of Sugawara’s lungs.

 

Sure.

 

He sounded so cool, so apathetic, when in reality he had a hand over his mouth and was flushed so deeply from excitement that he had to shuck off his sweater. A little window popped up, titled ‘new chat’ followed by the names of the participants: Sugawara Koushi and Sawamura Daichi. Seeing their names written side-by-side like that sent a crackle of energy up Sugawara’s spine.

 

Sawamura Daichi: this is a neat little function.

Sugawara Koushi: it is! These websites are well-equipped for this kind of thing, I guess.

Sawamura Daichi: they’d have to be :) so, the weather? Is it snowing where you are yet?

 

Sugawara leaned to the side, peering out the window. The clouds had grown plump and green, but broiled like a cluster of unhappy old ladies without spitting out a single flake.

 

Sugawara Koushi: not yet, but I reckon it’ll start snowing soon. How about you?

Sawamura Daichi: it’s already snowing a bit here. I live up north, near the hills. It’s always good to leave a tap dripping, too, just so your pipes don’t freeze up.

 

That was surprising. Sugawara leaned over and tweaked the tap a little, letting a slow and steady drip from the mouth into the sink. It went straight down the drain, so apart from the sizzling and sound of water bubbling, there was only the hollow echo of water hitting water like a coin down a well.

 

Sugawara Koushi: I didn’t know about that. We’ve had a real problem with the pipes freezing here the last few years.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I know what you mean. My grandma’s had to call me out year after year to have a look at her pipes.

 

Here they were, talking about plumbing and Sugawara still felt like he had insects fluttering in his stomach. What the hell?

 

Sugawara Koushi: fantastic photograph, by the way. Really brings out your eyes.

Sawamura Daichi: hey, hey! That was witty of you. Gave one of my friends one chance to take a good picture and he fucked up.

Sugawara Koushi: why didn’t you just take another one??

Sawamura Daichi: don’t like having my picture taken, yknow.

Sugawara Koushi: aha, I know, I’m the same.

 

There was a pause; it was one of those pauses that, when utilised in face-to-face conversation, was used so the people chatting could look into each other’s eyes. It was something Sugawara called ‘silent talk’, which he’d seen adults do when he was a child when they would look at each other and not say anything, but somehow knew what they were thinking. As a kid it had entranced him, like some special spell, but as he grew into an adult himself he realised that it was more common than he’d realised, but nonetheless magical. It was a special connection, always, that allowed ideas to drift back and forth down the line. With Sawamura Daichi, however, it was different. It was like they were looking at each other, eyes on each other, but there were not thoughts. Not even a common thought, but there was a common feeling. Something he felt and something he knew Sawamura felt, too. It was difficult for Sugawara to explain, even to himself, but he could feel it deep in his gut. It made him feel uncomfortable, but after a second it was overcome with a strange warmth that bloomed up into his chest.

 

Sawamura Daichi: snowing yet?

 

Sugawara was snapped from a dream, making him bend and look out the window again to see hard, icy little flecks flitting like flies outside his window.

 

Sugawara Koushi: yeah.

 

Again, there was that pause, but not because they’d run out of things to say. They were both looking out their windows, Sugawara in his kitchen and Sawamura - where? Was he lying on his bed, looking out his window? Was he in the kitchen too? The bathroom? Living room? They were looking at the same clouds, the same snow.

 

Sawamura Daichi: hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about toasters, would you?

Sugawara Koushi: unfortunately I don’t… what’s happened? Maybe I could advise you somehow!

Sawamura Daichi: my little sister managed to get one of her bath toys jammed down the bit where you put the bread, and she’s clinging to my leg crying 

Sawamura Daichi: until I get it out. I really don’t want burnt rubber in my toaster poisoning my family.

Sugawara Koushi: have you tried tongs? The rubber kind, not metal - unless the toaster is unplugged, I guess, but I’m not sure so please don’t try it! I only just started talking to you and I really don’t want you to electrocute yourself now.

 

There was a pause again, and this time it was one-sided. The silence of the kitchen was strange, Sugawara missing the sound of someone yelling in frustration and the rattling of an empty toaster. They were the sounds he  knew he should be hearing, but he didn’t, and it was strange.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I’d been trying to use a fork. I didn’t even know those rubber tongs existed. You literally just saved my ass from being beaten by a five-year-old. Or, alternatively, smoked.

Sugawara Koushi: I’m glad I could help out. You still live with your family?

Sawamura Daichi: yeah. Please, if you’re a murderer, take me. You can have all my organs. Just leave them.

Sugawara Koushi: good, good, I was looking for a new set of kidneys! (there was a mutual sigh of relief from both of them at that, Sugawara’s joking tone easing up their concerns a little bit)

Sawamura Daichi: you don’t live with your family?

Sugawara Koushi: no, I live with my childhood friend. If you’re a murderer, please just take me, you can cut out my kidneys, just leave my roommate intact!

Sawamura Daichi: touché, Sugawara. Now that we’ve established that we’re both not killers, could you give me any tips on effectively bathing small children?

 

Their chat had taken off from there. Sawamura was, as far as Sugawara could tell, a family man. He wasn’t sure how many siblings this man had, but he guessed at least two, since he was tuned into Sawamura’s live commentary as he tried to wrestle them into a bath. He occasionally let them type something in, like ‘hello old man!’ or ‘dumb brother’, which made Sugawara laugh. Their fingers were little, slippery things that slid over the keys and made errors that only made Sugawara more amused. Sawamura could have been making the whole thing up, but Sugawara was invested enough to believe he wasn’t. He hadn’t laughed as much as this in a while, and in the end he’d sat down with his back to the cupboards and his laptop on his knees and the next time he looked up there was grease frothing over the cooktop and onto the floor.

“Shit!” Sugawara exclaimed, leaping to his feet to swipe the pan off the stove and into the sink, jumping out of the way as hot grease came dangerously close to the leg of his trousers. The rice, at least, had managed to cook itself and popped the lid on its own. The vegetables, Sugawara noted as he opened the lid of the steaming colander, were basically mush that had sweated through so much they were more water than vegetable. His computer made another noise, and he gingerly turned back to it.

 

Sawamura Daichi: forecast says it’s gonna start snowing pretty hard - stay safe, okay?

Sugawara Koushi: you too. I just burned dinner, so I might starve if I get snowed in… 

Sawamura Daichi: shit, that was my fault. I distracted you. I’m sorry.

Sugawara Koushi: hey, no, it’s fine. Happens all the time. If you managed to bathe two kids while still being able to talk to me then I have no excuse for forgetting to stir a few carrots.

Sawamura Daichi: I have lots of experience with tackling kids into chores, yknow. I’ve perfected the art of multitasking.

Sawamura Daichi: shit

Sawamura Daichi: ah, my mom just got home, so I’ve gotta go. It was nice speaking to you, though. It really was.

 

Sugawara’s cheeks turned very hot very fast, the tips of his ears burning.

 

Sugawara Koushi: you too :) I’d like to talk to you again soon!

 

Oh, he was an idiot for saying that! Sugawara groaned into his palm.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I’d like that too.

 

Then the little green circle next to Sawamura’s name disappeared, and Sugawara felt a vague sense of loneliness. He hadn’t even said ‘bye’, but in a way he hadn’t needed to. In fact, it was better than he hadn’t. Sugawara gazed at the last line of the IM, and felt a smile pull at his lips. He gently closed the laptop, restoring it to the counter, before taking a wet cloth and wiping up the mess of grease and marinade. He was buzzing like a fully-charged phone.

Kiyoko came through the front door half an hour later just as SUgawara was standing over the sink contemplating what to do about the burned meat. He could shave off the sides that were charred, maybe, but the meat would be really tough and chewy…

“Smells like something’s burning,” Kiyoko said as she walked into the kitchen. “Oh, Suga. What happened?”

“I was - um - I was talking. To someone.”

Kiyoko raised an eyebrow, wandering over to peer into the sink. Sugawara chewed on his lip, unable to hold back a smile. Kiyoko saw it, but didn’t say anything. If he didn’t want to tell her, fine. It was his business. “That guy you were talking about? On the dating website?”

“Yeah,” Sugawara’s fingers tightened around the rim of the sink, heart jumping just at the memory. “It was really nice.”

“He didn’t ask for nudes?” Kiyoko laughed jokingly as she caught sight of the vegetables that were sagging like candle wax.

“No! We… actually, we didn’t talk at all about dating. Or love. Or any of that, really. Just… toasters and how to bathe kids.”

Kiyoko turned around, looking genuinely surprised. “Really?”

Sugawara nodded.

“You’ve struck lucky, Sugawara Koushi,” she told him, flicking his nose as she passed him. “And don’t worry about dinner. I went to the store on the way home and bought some stuff for tomorrow, but we can eat it tonight.” She put plastic bags up onto the counter near the fridge. “I’ll be back in a bit. You have to tell me what happened!”

Sugawara did, and some. They sat in the living room in front of the television, eating pre-made bentos as Sugawara told Kiyoko about his conversation with Sawamura Daichi. When he ran out of things to tell her, he went the extra mile and began to gush to her about all kinds of things, like all the interests they hadn’t talked about, what he thought Sawamura’s family was like, what he thought Sawamura was like - in person - and Kiyoko listened with an odd coolness that somehow translated into the kind of happy comfort seen on the faces of mothers who watched their children interact with a solid group of friends. It’s so good to see you smile again, Suga.

 

 

Sugawara’s happiness was short-lived.

He didn’t like to think of himself as impulsive, but it was one of his flaws that he hid as best he could. But he couldn’t stop it, not when the thoughts of how successful his chat had been with Sawamura, not when the ability to speak with him again was right there across the room in the form of his laptop. It was like the machine was always nearby, begging to be opened, begging for Sugawara to get online and talk to Sawamura Daichi. But Sugawara didn’t want to, because not only was he scared of fucking up the progress he’d made, but the memory of how good their last chat had been made him want to preserve that perfection forever. He was more scared, though, of saying something dumb. He was scared that there’d be a pause, one that was cold and sent the deadpan ‘wow’ roaring through his ears. Sawamura would be put off by some stupid comment Sugawara would inevitably make, and never want to speak with him again. The idea made Sugawara’s fingers go numb with dread, which he knew was bad. It was unhealthy, to leech off relationships like this. Especially when the link between Sugawara and Sawamura could hardly even be called a relationship.

Sugawara woke up the next morning and immediately went for a walk around the block to clear his head, which was so packed full of condensed worry and unwelcome thoughts that he felt it might as well explode. The snow had been heavy the night before, resulting in solid drifts that were heaped along the sides of the roads after they’d been cleared, a blanket of white covering each lump and bump in the ground, a perfect crystal quilt. The cold air cleared his head well enough, making feel as if he was made out of crisp, transparent ice.

As the days dragged on Sugawara’s inbox remained empty of messages from Sawamura, and each day Sugawara lost a little more hope and felt a little more ridiculous. He would chew on his thumb nail, turning each action and sentence he’d typed over and over in his head, trying to figure out where he went wrong and how he’d put Sawamura off. He couldn’t see it - he couldn’t find it - but he knew he’d done something. He had to’ve done something. But he couldn’t find it.

Kiyoko found him the day after still lying in his bed at two o’clock in the afternoon after she returned from a lunch date. “Sugawara, get up. Stop wallowing. That guy doesn’t hate you,” she hauled off his duvet and listened to him groan in protest while trying to snatch it back. “He’s probably just busy. Suga -,” the tone of her voice made Sugawara’s skin prickle. “Stop it. Stop making your life depend on the lives of other people. I don’t want to have this conversation with you again. We were doing so well, Suga.”

Sugawara wrapped his arms around himself. “Sorry,” he said into his arm. “I’m sorry. I’ll… forget about it.”

“No, don’t do that, silly,” Kiyoko sat down on the edge of his bed, then lay down next to him and pulled the duvet up over them both. “Suga, you’re a silly one. Where’s your individualism?”

“It’s so hard, Kiyoko,” Sugawara replied, and Kiyoko’s ears tuned into what sounded like a choked sob. “I don’t think I can do it.”

“Yes you can, Suga, you can, I know you can. You were on a roll. Look at you, near the top of your class, never a second late for anything. Look at you. You’re doing so well.” She sighed and pushed the hair back from his forehead. He was looking at her chin, eyelids drooping. “You can stand on your own.” She stroked his hair. “What you need is someone who can show you what love is, what it really is. You’ve had lots of partners, Suga, but - correct me if I’m wrong - I don’t think you’ve ever really… loved them. Not really.”

Sugawara was silent for a few moments, feeling Kiyoko’s thin fingers against his scalp. “No.”

“So what’s up with this Sawamura guy? Why’s he so special? I’m getting the feeling this isn’t like your other partners.”

“I have no idea. I don’t - there isn’t even anything remarkable about him. He’s completely average. Ordinary. But I don’t… I don’t know.”

Kiyoko laughed, then. “Maybe that’s just it, don’t you think? Maybe that’s why you like him so much. Because he’s ordinary.”

“He is,” Sugawara agreed sullenly. “But… he’s quite… extraordinarily ordinary.”

Chapter Text

VI: Sawamura Daichi

 

He’d started it.

It had been him who’d initiated it, and god damn it, it had been the best decision he’d made all week.

It had all started when he’d had a rare spare moment to sit down and do what he pleased. Hayato and Amaya had raced out into their yard to catch beetles in the net one of Hayato’s classmates had lent him, and Haruka had sat herself down in one of the armchairs to try and finish a book she’d been reading. She was a quiet one, as if all her noisiness had been channelled into the other two, and it was nice. Sawamura liked her company. She could sit still and quiet for long periods of time, and she was calming to be around, her face smooth and apathetic, but her eyes always bright.

She and Sawamura had been sitting in the living room, Haruka curled up in her chair and Sawamura lying on the sofa. He’d spent the last two hours scraping ice off the windshield of his car, as well as the windows and the back. He’d also had to drive out with the kids to his grandmother’s house after her pipes froze up. He had no idea why she kept calling him over as if he was an expert - every year this happened, and every year he would end up calling a professional plumber. Secretly, he believed his grandmother called them over as an excuse to see the kids, because she always produced a jar of green tea sweets and mochi suspiciously fast. It sent the little ones shrieking with delight (‘we never get these at home!’).

So when Sawamura finally had a moment to himself, he listed off all the things that needed doing. The bathroom needed cleaning. The hairdryer was jammed again, so he needed to fix that - Haruka could help, she was good with finicky things like that. The heating vent in the office was broken, but that was a job for an electrician. He needed to get up on the roof at some point to shovel the ice off the skylight before the glass caved in like it did last year, but it was too slippery to do it then. He’d have to wait until tomorrow. God, his head. Oh, right - he needed to go and buy painkillers and body wash.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, unlocking the screen and replying to a few overdue texts and emails. Then, pretending he wasn’t doing it and trying to look as unsuspicious as he could, he opened the dating app he’d downloaded.

His mind flickered back to when he’d first received a message from Sugawara Koushi. When Nishinoya had held his phone in paint-smeared fingers, frowning down at it, and said ‘it’s from that Sugawara guy’ as if it was the least important thing in the world. Of course, when someone’s fridge leaks through your roof of course their friend’s lame crush isn’t at the forefront of their mind.

Nishinoya had looked up at Sawamura, then laughed at the expression on his face. He’d laughed as Sawamura scrambled to his feet and across the room to snatch the phone out of Nishinoya’s hands, and he’d laughed as Sawamura’s face creased into absolute concentration. Asahi, shushing him accordingly, called him back to help paint the roof and to leave Sawamura some privacy to read a message that was - incidentally - private.

Sawamura’s heart was bumping along in his chest at a gallop, thumping between his ribs so heavily he felt like it was made of cement. There was no doubting it - right in his inbox, right at the top, was a message he’d somehow overlooked. From Sugawara Koushi. Sawamura’s heart soared right to the top of his skull.

He opened it, growing curious to read it as the shock of the whole thing wore off. Sawamura had convinced himself he’d frightened Sugawara off, an yet here he was, opening a reply from him.

 

Hello, Sugawara Koushi had written,

Thank you for your message! It was a nice change from some of the others I’d gotten beforehand. I’m not sure what to say, actually, since I’m just as new to this as you are, by the sounds of things! Sorry. I’m really bad at this as well.

 

And that was it.

Sawamura clutched his chest, purely to entertain Nishinoya, who he knew was watching like a hawk from his vantage point atop the ladder. Nishinoya, accordingly, burst out laughing, yelling ‘Sawamura has ascended to heaven! He is with the angels!’ and causing Asahi to say ‘Yuu’ in a concerned and slightly offended voice.

In reality, though, Sawamura felt as if he’d been touched by warm hands. He felt a little blush in his cheeks - from some of the others he’d gotten beforehand? What kind of messages was he getting, then? Sawamura wondered, a little alarmed after he realised that somebody like Sugawara Koushi was ripe bait for harassment. He felt his brow darken. But the message itself made the pit of his stomach feel strange. It was kind of like when a pretty girl batted her eyes at him, except this wasn’t a girl, it was a man who had sent him a message that had made him blush despite the fact that there was absolutely nothing in its content that should have made him turn red like he did. So why? Sawamura wasn’t sure how to process it all, honestly, but he didn’t hate it. It wasn’t repulsive. Maybe - instead of trying to figure it out by comparing how he was feeling in regards to Sugawara Koushi with how he felt in regards to women, he should just focus on these particular emotions without comparing them to anything.

“Look, he’s blushing!” Nishinoya chortled from atop the ladder. “Come on, Daichi, what does it say?”

“Nothing,” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck and turning away from Nishinoya’s splitting grin. He smiled to himself. “Just, you know, hi.”

“‘Just hi’,” Nishinoya relayed to Asahi, imitating Sawamura’s voice (not very well, either), and Asahi snorted through his nose. “Look at him. He’s completely smitten.”

“Shut up, you guys,” Sawamura snapped defensively, but his voice managed to come out as a nasal whine, which made Nishinoya laugh even harder. Sawamura, really beginning to feel the heat in his face, excused himself and slipped out into the hall, his back to the wall. Nishinoya’s laughter died out to be replaced by conversation between him and Asahi, and the gentle scrape of paintbrushes against the ceiling. Sawamura bent down so he was squatting against the wall, one hand pressed to his face, chilled fingers against fiery cheeks. Damn - what the hell was going on? He’d never felt this way about a guy before, and it was made even more incredulous to think that this man was someone he had never met, whose voice he had never heard, and whose face was foreign to him save that one, tiny photograph. His stomach was churning over itself, as if it was trying to make butter out of his insides. Sawamura’s phone was still clenched tightly in his fingers, beige paint peeling from his nails. The screen had gone dark, allowing him to catch a glimpse of his own horrific reflection. He groaned into his knees.

He could see Sugawara Koushi sitting in his house - apartment? Shipping container? - behind a computer screen - was it a laptop or a desktop? Or was it a phone app, like he was using? - typing in that message with thin fingers. Sugawara Koushi seemed, to him, to be the kind of person who would have those perfect half-moon nails that had never been bitten down, and never had the quick ripped clean out of them. A sigh slipped past Sawamura’s lips before he could stop it.

Swiping his phone to life and clearing his throat (if nobody heard him sigh wistfully at the thought of Sugawara Koushi’s fingers, then it never happened), Sawamura frowned down at the chunk of text as though he was trying to critically analyse it. He plucked out letters, reread it again and again, trying to think of what he could write in reply. No matter which way he tried to approach it, or the different things he thought of saying, he knew it would sound stupid, regardless. He let the phone clatter to the ground between his feet, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Daichi, are you okay?” Asahi asked tentatively as he peered around the archway to see his friend slumped against the wall with his head in his hands.

“I’m a time bomb, Asahi,” Sawamura moaned, voice muffled by his clammy palms. “I could fuck up. Literally. I could fuck up at literally any second.”

Asahi chuckled. “What happened to the devilishly charismatic Sawamura Daichi I knew? It’s a bit strange to see you… uh… caught up like this.” When Sawamura didn’t reply, he continued. “But you know, Daichi, I think you might be underestimating this Sugawara person a little bit. I don’t think he’s going to be put off if you make a mistake - you’re only human, Daichi. Nobody’s expecting you to be perfect.”

There was silence, but Sawamura uncovered his eyes to look at Asahi. Maybe he was right. Maybe Sawamura was just overreacting - maybe Sugawara Koushi deserved more credit than Sawamura was giving him. “I don’t…” Sawamura frowned deeply, his throat having grown somewhat clogged. “I don’t want to fuck up, though. I don’t want to mess up and throw it all down the drain. I don’t… I don’t know why. I just know that I - I want it to work.”

Asahi blinked, a little impressed by the effort Sawamura seemed to be investing in the whole ordeal. Tapping the butt of the paintbrush he held against his chin, Asahi licked his lips and said: “I know you think it’s cliché, but just write whatever comes naturally. Don’t force it.”

Nishinoya took the moment to holler Asahi’s name, causing the lanky young man to duck back into the living room to see what his boyfriend wanted. Sawamura picked up his phone, tapping nervously at the screen. Or, you know, Sawamura thought glumly, you could wait a bit. Think it through. It’s not like this guy’s got nothing better to do than to wait around for you all day. With a groan and an inward nod, Sawamura hauled himself to his feet. No sweat. He’d wait it out, think about it, make sure he didn’t accidentally fling up any red flags. It would be just fine.

 

And for once, it had been. Sawamura honestly hadn’t thought it would be, but it had. It had been fine - it had been wonderful. It had left him grinning and blushing so violently his siblings asked him if he was sick.

He’d gone back to help his friends repair that ceiling, and by the time the sun was setting they’d managed to get the most part done. Asahi was sitting on the drop sheets in the golden, syrupy light of the late afternoon, long legs stretched out and Nishinoya sprawled in between them with his overalls rolled down to his waist. Sawamura had gotten them all a bottle of beer from the fridge, and they’d sat in silence as they drank it, listening to the street outside. The passage of cars and buses, the trilling of bicycle bells and the calls of mothers to children, from friend to friend. Nishinoya and Asahi had vehemently told him that they’d be just fine cleaning up on their own, and that he should try and get back home before the roads froze over and the peak hour traffic set in. They were, of course, completely right, as trying to get from their apartment to Sawamura’s house in a gridlock of cars was nigh impossible, and often made Sawamura want to tear his hair out at the roots. They stood in the door to watch him go, Nishinoya grinning and Asahi giving him a pointed look that Sawamura, guiltily, avoided.

Being on his own was always curiously quiet. It wasn’t the same quiet as being in a library - it was more like being underwater, where the silence itself echoed and rang in his ears. Between his rambunctious family and the dynamic duo that was Asahi and Nishinoya, he wasn’t used to silence, and tended to find it a little unnerving. But that was okay. He usually always had someone chatting in his ear.

He got home just as the sun sank behind the horizon, plunging the world into semi-darkness flavoured with lilac flecks and pale clouds that made the sky look lighter than it was, blotting out the stars and leaving the arc from horizon to horizon clear as a slate. It was pretty, in a way, and Sawamura paused for a minute to stare up into the sky before the front gate of his house - until Hayato opened the door and padded out onto the front porch wearing only jeans, a long sleeve shirt and socks. Not even a sweater - !

“Hayato!” Sawamura laughed, jogging over and scooping him up into his arms, hands under his armpits. “What are you doing outside in this weather? You’ll freeze, and your nose will fall off!” He pinched Hayato’s nose, and the boy shrieked happily.

“Welcome home, brother!” Amaya shouted as she skipped past to the kitchen where their mother stood wrapped in an apron with a ladle in her hand. She smiled at him, offering a ‘welcome back, Daichi’ before turning her attention to her daughter.

“What are you doing, then?” Sawamura asked his brother, swinging him upside down. “Lying in wait for me, hm?” He tickled up Hayato’s sides, making the boy laugh until tears beaded at the corners of his eyes.

“Daichi!” Sawamura’s mother approached him with a smile, folding up her apron and kissing his cheek when she reached him. “Dinner is on the stove, but I ran out of salt, so I have to go and grab some! Can you keep an eye on it for me?”

“Sure can, mom,” Sawamura replied. “I can go and get it, if you’d like - I just got home anyway.”

“Would you mind?”

Sawamura didn’t mind - he hadn’t even taken off his coat. He ended up taking Hayato with him, since the boy was practically hanging from the back pockets of his jeans. Hayato loved convenience stores - Sawamura suspected it was because of the labyrinthine layout of the shelving. If Sawamura was as tall as his brother was, he thought, he would probably be just as excited. Hayato also loved to take off his shoes and slide over the floor. Sawamura had to keep a firm hold on his collar at the checkout so he didn’t run off and shut himself in with the frozen food again.

Sawamura’s mouth was dry, and Hayato’s incessant chatter fell on deaf ears. His thoughts lay with his mother - she looked exhausted. Working as a nurse at the local hospital was no simple task, especially at this time of year. She’d been on call almost constantly for the last two weeks, managing to snatch a few hours of sleep here and there. She was burdened by the knowledge that Sawamura had to take care of not only the house, but her other children as well - but there was little option. She was the only parent they had, and she was doing her best to put them all through school and to buy them little things that made them smile, or to save enough to take them all to the zoo. The little ones didn’t know how hard she worked - Sawamura did, though, and so did Haruka. She offered to do as much as she could, but between Sawamura and his mother they managed to keep everything in relative order. It was tough, with their mother being absent a lot of the time, but Sawamura somehow managed to keep the kids occupied enough.

He realised the importance of the kids having someone who they felt safe around. He felt it a bit presumptuous to say that it was important that they needed a ‘father figure’, since he didn’t really think gender had anything to do with it, but with the constant absence of their mother he knew that they needed someone who could offer parental authority - someone who could protect them when they needed it. He wanted them to feel safe. Feeling afraid and vulnerable wasn’t something he’d ever wish a child to feel, so he decided long ago to do his damn well best to make sure his own siblings never felt that way. The littler ones, too, liked they way he manhandled them and tossed them about when they played together, how they could still crawl into his lap or curl up into his arms when they were watching a movie, or wriggle into his bed when they’d had a nightmare and their mother was working a shift at the hospital. Haruka, though more reserved and less rowdy than her younger siblings, appreciated his help. She was old enough to recognise their predicament, though she never really mentioned it outright. Sawamura Daichi, to her, was a pillar. He was solid, a broad wall she could always feel at her back, reassuring her. He helped her with her homework and hugged her in his thick, strong arms that made her feel a little less afraid, a little less sad.

She never outwardly thanked him - she thought it would be awkward, in the least - but she tried to make herself as useful as she could around the house in way of gratitude. She soon became queen of the laundry, after Sawamura accidentally overloaded on the washing powder and half-filled the laundry room with mountains of frothy suds, and perfected the art of making beds and drying dishes. It wasn’t much, but when Sawamura found a neat stack of clean laundry on the end of his bed, or when he walked into Hayato and Amaya’s room to find two neatly-made beds, he felt lighter on his feet than he had before. It was an exchange, really. She’d do little jobs here and there as a way of saying thanks, and he’d slip her treats or a few hundred yen when the others weren’t looking. It was when he found her crying because her friend was moving abroad, it was when she told him why she was sad or why she was angry, it was when he helped her with a particularly difficult maths question. An exchange, and it made Sawamura truly grasp the importance of what he was doing. If he wasn’t there, Haruka would have had to’ve swallowed her tears, kept her fears and her anger to herself, to stay up late because she couldn’t figure out those questions.

“I’m hungry,” Hayato whined from the back seat.

“We’re almost home, buddy,” Sawamura replied as he backed into the driveway and turned off the engine, hauling Hayato onto his shoulders and making sure he ducked down as he walked in the front door so his brother didn’t clock his head on the doorframe. He gave the salt to his mother, who pretended to chastise Hayato for having scampered up Sawamura like a mountain goat.

They all sat together that night, at the dining table, and Sawamura took comfort int he soft flow of conversation that never really died out, even when everybody had their mouths full of food. And then Sawamura’s phone vibrated against his leg, and his heart fluttered in his chest. It was probably just a text message… probably… but there was always a chance it wasn’t. There was always a chance that it was a message from… him.

Sawamura smiled to himself.

He helped his mother clear up the plates after their early dinner, with Haruka hovering nervously in the doorway in case she was needed to scrape plates or execute her acute dish-drying skills, but the dishwasher had been emptied earlier that day and so all the dishes and cooking utensils and cutlery managed to fit in without the need to fill up the sink. She left like a shadow after realising this, leaving Sawamura and his mother to pack away what they’d left out from cooking.

“You look exhausted,” he observed gently, noting the dark shadows under her eyes. She turned to him, smiling, and put her hand against his cheek. 

“You’re so good to me, Daichi. I’m sorry I’m not around more - I want to be, I do, but…”

“I know,” Sawamura assured her, hugging her tightly in his arms. “You’re going a great job. The kids adore you, too. They never shut up about you.”

“I feel bad leaving you to practically raise them like this,” his mother replied in a quivering half-sob that made Sawamura’s heart seize up and his blood run cold. “I’m a terrible mother, I’m sorry.”

“Hey now, you know that isn’t true.” He grinned down at her. “You need to go to bed. I’ll get the kids in the bath and into bed, no worries. You just go and get some sleep, okay?”

“Daichi, thank you,” Sawamura’s mother said, her voice stifled against his shoulder. “You’re the best son a poor woman like me could ask for!”

He watched as she shuffled off in the direction of her bedroom, whole body stooped as though she was sleepwalking.

When he went upstairs he was almost immediately bowled over by a small child scuttling between his legs; he was used to it, by now - having to step over little humans like this - and as Amaya tugged at the leg of his trousers he turned and patted her on the head. “You go get your pyjamas, all right? It’s time for a bath.”

Amaya nodded dutifully, skipping and yelling ‘Hayato! Hayato!’ until Sawamura shushed them, bending down and speaking in a whisper.

“Mom’s sleeping! You have to be very quiet, as silent as mice.” He put his finger to his lips, and his siblings mirrored his actions with big eyes. “Now go and get your stuff.”

Sawamura usually bathed them; it was a treat, though, when their mom was home to do it, because she’d fill the bath up with bubbles and sit on the cold tile floor playing sea monsters and mermaids with them for an hour, at least. Sawamura always had a half-mind to stop her, her get her a pillow for her knees, but she looked so happy when she was with her children that he hadn’t the heart to interrupt. She never complained about a sore back or how hard the floor was. She just drained the bath and bundled her two little darlings up in towels and put them to bed with a kiss and a story.

 

The next day was a busy one, with Hayato visiting a friend and Amaya due for a dentist’s appointment. Sawamura oversaw these - except for the dentist’s, which his mother was home in time to handle - and he helped Haruka pack boxes of canned food into the trunk of his car for the local food drive that she always partook in during the winter months. She was so serious about it; Sawamura admired her, really, and was glad to help out.

And now he sat on his sofa in the afternoon, Hayato and Amaya screeching and running about outside, wrapped up to the ears with layer upon layer of thermal clothing. Haruka was looking at him as he scrolled through his phone, opening his message box and reading the message he’d received from Sugawara Koushi over again, and again, and again, until the words seemed to be impressed into the very marrow of his bones. He couldn’t bring himself to reply, not without planning - he didn’t want to fuck up. He didn’t want to repeat what happened with Michimiya, or any of his other girlfriends. He didn’t want to lose this time.

It never occurred to him that his charisma wasn’t the issue. He didn’t quite realise that it was a deeper problem than that, one that couldn’t be righted by way of careful planning or eloquent messages. It was the issue at the forefront of his mind, however, that should he say something that broke some kind of boundary, Sugawara Koushi would flee like a frightened deer. But maybe it’s different, this time, Sawamura thought to himself, trying to be hopeful but failing. Maybe because he’s a guy? Do guys act differently to girls? I have no idea. And I don’t… I don’t really have anyone I can ask apart from Noya and Asahi. He lowered his phone down to his chest and sighed heavily. Shit.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Daichi?” Haruka asked tentatively from the other side of the room.

“Yeah,” Daichi replied instinctively. For a split second he considered asking her - but he decided against it. No use frightening her or disgusting her. He’d never brought up anything like this before, so he didn’t know how she’d react; he wasn’t going to test new waters now. “Yeah.”

He breathed out slowly. Think, Daichi. It’s not that hard. What was he getting so worked up over? Just type and send. There are other guys like this Sugawara out there - and besides, since when were you into guys anyway? This could be a one-time thing. An isolated incident. Just type and send. That approach had worked so far… or maybe he was just lucky. He reread the message three times for good measure.

 

You’re not bad at this! it read, I mean, it’s nice to know that there are other people out there who are just as clueless as I am. It makes me feel less like a complete idiot, you know? So - do you know what we’re supposed to talk about on this thing?

 

He held his breath, eyes poised on the first word for a reread. He knew if he read over it he’d just delete it and start again, an approach that could end up taking him hours. Just type and send. Just type and send.

And then it was gone.

He felt a tug on the hem of his shirt and looked up to see Amaya standing with a nervous expression on her face, fidgeting and sniffling with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sawamura, pocketing his phone and hauling himself to his feet, picking her up and swinging her onto his hip.

“Mami got stuck,” Amaya told him, her little voice quavering.

“Stuck where?”

“In the toaster.” 

“The toaster?”

“Mhm.” Amaya nodded glumly, wiping at her eyes with her little fingers and burying her face in the shoulder of his shirt. Sawamura sighed, carrying her into the kitchen and setting her down on a chair at the table. She watched as he tipped the toaster towards his body to peer down inside it; sure enough, there was a little purple rubber toy wedged down in the grate. He poked around a little with his finger, but his hands were broader rather than long, so he couldn’t quite reach it.

“Hey, kiddo, grab me a fork from the drawer.”

Amaya scuttled over to the cutlery drawer and stood on the very tips of her toes to slide it open, plucking a long silver fork from inside it and handing it to her brother as if it was the most important task in the world. Sawamura could feel her watching him intently as he rattled around a bit trying to dislodge the toy - but it wouldn’t budge, not an inch. There was some kind of fin stuck in the grate, and try as he might there was no way Sawamura could unstick it. He sighed, putting the fork down on the countertop and turning to Amaya. “Give me a couple of minutes, okay? You go upstairs and get ready for a bath.”

“Okay,” she said, hopping out of the kitchen as Sawamura swore lowly at the toaster. His phone buzzed again, only then reminding him of its presence, and he dug it out of his pocket. There was still paint on the back of it, but it had already begun to peel off. He twisted the device nervously in his hand. Just check. It’s not the end of the world.

The notification from the dating app was indicated by a little glassy heart, followed by the words ‘you have received a new message!’ Those stupid words made Sawamura’s stomach turn.

He opened his phone, scrolling down to the app and opening his inbox. His heart turned over his his throat when he saw the little message titled ‘Sugawara Koushi’, and he couldn’t hold back a grin. He was grateful Amaya had vacated the kitchen so she didn’t see it.

 

I have no idea. The weather? I don’t know where you live… Japan, evidently, and in the same prefecture as me; your profile says so, anyway. I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but I think it’s going to snow here.

 

Sawamura thumped his phone against his forehead, grinning like an absolute fool. He peeked up past his phone, glancing furtively at the wide bay window overlooking the box of his back garden and his mother’s dormant vegetable patch. The sky was milling with pale clouds, and by the looks of it they were growing thicker and thicker. He remembered back to the forecast he’d heard while driving Hayato home from his friend’s house. He flipped his phone over in his hands, keying in a response with fingers that trembled with excitement.

 

I think I must live close to you… do you live in town? Because there’s some serious cloud cover coming and the satellite says that it’s going to be really cold tonight.

 

God, he was such an idiot! Listen to him! Going on about the weather like that. How pathetic. But he smiled, despite the embarrassed knot in his stomach, at the thought of Sugawara Koushi curled up on the couch in his living room - or looking out a window - maybe he was in his kitchen, too? In the end it didn’t really matter; it calmed Sawamura down, though, thinking of Sugawara standing lean and pale as a feather. He wasn’t sure why. He was alerted to the sound of his phone, and glanced down to read the message he’d received.

 

I live in on the west side. I think my windows are already frozen shut.

 

Ah, shit, I forgot about that. Sawamura sent his phone skidding over the kitchen counter before he strode over to the smaller window hidden behind the washing line. He tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge; there was the tiniest snapping noise, like someone breaking a handful of toothpicks, but the hinges might as well have been welded shut for all it was worth. He threw his shoulder against the metal frame, a crack so loud reverberating through the house that it sent incessant shivers sprinting up his spine. His whole vision shivered as well, before it fell away and swam about, turbulent. Shit - that was ice. He peered down at the pavement under the window, and sure enough there were great shards of ice shattered on the stone. It was a cast of the window frame - when he’d prised the window open an entire crust of ice had dislodged itself and fallen away. Somewhat amused, he made a mental note to unstick the windows before going to bed, and returned to his message bank, twisting the fork he’d been using in one hand and eyeing the rubber toy still stuck in the toaster.

Something on the app caught his eye. It was a tiny little button, right next to the ‘reply’ one. It read ‘start new chat’, and Sawamura was drawn to it. Chatting with Sugawara Koushi? Even if it was only an IM, it was one step closer to actual conversation, plus it eradicated the need for an ever-growing pile of messages in his inbox… not that he necessarily minded them, and it gave him a sizeable archive to read through later. He chewed on his bottom lip. What if Sugawara wasn’t ready, though? He didn’t want to push him into anything he didn’t want to do. If he doesn’t want to, he’ll just say so, Sawamura tried to reassure himself. He won’t ignore you if you suggest it. Just type and send and deal with the consequences later. Just type and send. Type and send.

 

I just tried to open mine, actually (thanks for the reminder!), and I thought I’d shattered the glass until I realised it was a solid crust of ice. On another note, there’s an IM option I just saw near the reply button… do you wanna chat for a bit?

 

Shit. There. Done, sent. Shit. He’d done it now. There was absolutely no way - 

 

Sure.

 

Sawamura gawked down at the screen, honestly feeling five years old again. He would have leaped into the air and clicked his heels had it not been for Amaya standing shyly in the doorway, her hair taken out of its bobbles and hanging in dark whips around her shoulders.

“Is Mami out yet?” she asked, padding over to where her brother stood bushing so hard he was almost purple. He was afraid to speak to her lest his voice broke, squeaking like he was going through puberty all over again.

“Almost, kiddo,” he told her eventually. “Come over here. I’ve gotta send some important messages, but you can keep me company if you like.”

“Yes!” She hurried over and he picked her up, sitting her on the bench where she swung her legs back and forth.

He opened up a chat on his phone, nervous with excitement, and struggled to find something that would serve as an appropriate ice-breaker. In the end he settled for something so inexplicably dumb he would have punched himself had he been able to spare any attention away from Sugawara Koushi.

 

Sawamura Daichi: this is a neat little function.

Sugawara Koushi: it is! These websites are well-equipped for this kind of thing, I guess.

 

At his first reply Sawamura grinned again. Cupid might as well have shot him with a rocket launcher.

“Daichi!” Amaya exclaimed suddenly, grasping the sleeve of his shirt with one hand and gesturing wildly at the window with the other. “Look! It’s snowing!”

“It is!” Sawamura laughed. “Must be the fairies come down to visit good little girls.”

“Like me?”

“Just like you.”

Amaya flushed with pleasure at that.

 

Sawamura Daichi: they’d have to be :) so, the weather? Is it snowing where you are yet?

Sugawara Koushi: not yet, but I reckon it’ll start snowing soon. How about you?

Sawamura Daichi: it’s already snowing a bit here. I live up north, near the hills. It’s always good to leave a tap dripping, too, just so your pipes don’t freeze up.

Sugawara Koushi: I didn’t know about that. We’ve had a real problem with the pipes freezing here the last few years.

Sawamura Daichi: I know what you mean. My grandma’s had to call me out year after year to have a look at her pipes.

 

He snorted at the thought. It was just like his grandma, who had been the one to teach his mother the trick with the tap to stop the pipes from freezing in the first place, to call him up on a Saturday saying ‘Daichi, Daichi! My pipes have frozen up again! Can’t you come and take a look?’ and asking him to bring along the little ones. Her pipes were frozen, usually requiring professional intervention, but it always ended up turning into somewhat of a party.

 

Sugawara Koushi: fantastic photograph, by the way. Really brings out your eyes.

 

“What are you laughing at?” Amaya demanded when he failed to stifle a snort of laughter. “Can I see?”

“No,” Sawamura replied. “This is big boy stuff. You need to have a bath, too! Go and tell your brother to get ready for a bath; I’ll be up in a couple of minutes, once I free Mami, okay? Go on, skedaddle!”

Amaya hopped down off the counter and scuttled away, laughing as Sawamura reached out with his foot to giver her a goading nudge on the backside.

He laughed again, down at his phone - what cheek. But Sugawara was right… it really was terrible. For a moment he considered changing it to a better one, but the faceless boy flickered across his vision, making the hairs on his arms bristle and an icy shudder wash over his skin. No, it was fine. His photo was fine. If it was bad then nobody could steal it, right?

 

Sawamura Daichi: hey, hey! That was witty of you. Gave one of my friends one chance to take a good picture and he fucked up.

Sugawara Koushi: why didn’t you just take another one??

Sawamura Daichi: don’t like having my picture taken, y’know.

Sugawara Koushi: aha, I know, I’m the same.

 

He stared down at his phone, enveloped by some strange type of affectionate pause. It was like a breather, like when we went for a job and stopped at the top of the cement stairs leading to the highest point in the neighbourhood, when he looked out over the sunrise. It was the type of pause shared between lovers between kisses, shared between friends after an inside joke. The breath blew gently from his lungs, making him toy with the neck of his shirt.

 

Sawamura Daichi: snowing yet?

Sugawara Koushi: yeah.

 

Sawamura bit his lip; again with the pause. He didn’t like how it made him feel; his chest ached, though whether it was his heart of his brain playing ticks on him he wasn’t sure. He picked up the fork and began to poke around the toaster again, simultaneously trying not to think of what Sugawara might be doing.

“Daichi!” The sudden wail caught his attention - had someone fallen down the stairs again? Amaya came running into the kitchen, nose running and eyes red and wet, and she continued crying, “Daichi, I can’t have a bath without Mami! Mami is my favourite! She’s so much my favourite that I love her even when I’m not in the bath! And Hayato says I’m stupid because I don’t leave Mami in the bath! Big brother, he’s so mean!” she clasped the leg of his trousers, wiping her snotty nose on the material and howling. Sawamura spied Hayato loitering on the stairs in his peripheral vision, sticking to the shadows in case he was chastised. Sawamura would see to him later.

“I’m working on it!” he assured her, turning quickly and keying in a message.

 

Sawamura Daichi: hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about toasters, would you?

Sugawara Koushi: unfortunately I don’t… what’s happened? Maybe I could advise you somehow!

Sawamura Daichi: my little sister managed to get one of her bath toys jammed down the bit where you put the bread, and she’s clinging to my leg crying 

Sawamura Daichi: until I get it out. I really don’t want burnt rubber in my toaster poisoning my family.

Sugawara Koushi: have you tried tongs? The rubber kind, not metal - unless the toaster is unplugged, I guess, but I’m not sure so please don’t try it! I only just started talking to you and I really don’t want you to electrocute yourself now.

 

Sawamura paused, looking down the length of his arm to where he was jamming a fork in the toaster. He suddenly broke out in a cold sweat, memory turning back to those lessons in elementary school when he’d been told to never stick forks into things, especially not toasters or power sockets. Typical, that he’d remember that now instead of before he’d first inserted something that was a prime electrical conductor that served as a link between him and a possibly deadly flow of electricity. He looked to the power outlet and saw the plug for the toaster lying on the counter top. He almost began to pant in relief. Shit, what an idiot. Thank God Sugawara wasn’t actually in the same room as him - Sawamura cringed at the thought.

“Amaya!” he barked, and the crying girl snapped immediately to attention. “Do we have any rubber tongs?”

“I’ll check,” she replied, her tears drying instantly. When she was preoccupied rifling through he utensil drawer, Sawamura directed a glance at Hayato, who scratched the back of his neck and crept back upstairs. Amaya poked him in the side with a pair of rubber-capped tongs, and Daichi took them from her and eased them down to pinch the offending purple rubber and give it a tug. The toaster rattled, Sawamura tugged harder, the grate gave a scrape and then the toy was free, Amaya squealing with delight. He gave it a quick once-over: no burns, no deformities. Brushing the crumbs off it he handed it to his sister, who teared up and held the toy to her chest.

“Bath. Get ready. Go.” He shooed her out of the kitchen, sweeping up the mess of crumbs into the sink before leaning back and opening his phone.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I’d been trying to use a fork. I didn’t even know those rubber tongs existed. You literally just saved my ass from being beaten by a five-year-old. Or, alternatively, smoked.

Sugawara Koushi: I’m glad I could help out. You still live with your family?

Sawamura Daichi: yeah. Please, if you’re a murderer, take me. You can have all my organs. Just leave them.

Sugawara Koushi: good, good, I was looking for a new set of kidneys! (Sawamura snorted with laughter. So he did have a sense of humour.)

Sawamura Daichi: you don’t live with your family?

Sugawara Koushi: no, I live with my childhood friend. If you’re a murderer, please just take me, you can cut out my kidneys, just leave my roommate intact!

Sawamura Daichi: touché, Sugawara. Now that we’ve established that we’re both not killers, could you give me any tips on effectively bathing small children?

 

By the time Sawamura got upstairs his siblings were sitting in the doorway of the bathroom with their pyjamas folded in their laps and towels over their heads, whining about how long he was taking.

“He says he’s doing big boy stuff,” Amaya informed Hayato when he demanded why Sawamura was dawdling as much as he was. Sawamura slid his phone into his back pocket, helping the two children get undressed and into the wide tub. They were cold from their afternoon outside, and tired as well. They blew bubbles in the water and splashed each other and squealed, Sawamura rubbing shampoo into Hayato’s hair and Hayato rubbing shampoo into his sister’s. He had to remind them to be quiet when they got too loud, holding a soapy finger to his lips. They copied him, leaning in close and they all whispered ‘quiet as a mouse’ together, erupting in giggles. They spoke in whispers, the sound of their mother’s faint snoring wafting up through the floor like wood fire smoke.

“Are you talking to somebody?” Hayato asked when he saw the telltale bubbles of Sawamura and Sugawara’s chat.

“Yes.”

“Who are you talking to?”

Sawamura smiled. “A friend.”

“Can I say something?”

Sawamura thought about it. There was nothing dangerous Hayato could say, not really. “Okay, sure, but dry your hands first!”

Hayato had refused to let Sawamura see what he was typing. He handed the phone back practically cackling, and Sawamura frowned as he read it. ‘Hello old man!’, it said. Amaya shrieked, wanting a go as well, and they took turns keying in silly little messages to Sugawara Koushi, who replied with things just as silly, and had Sawamura’s siblings almost drowning from laughter.

When the water turned cold Sawamura wrapped the children in big, fluffy towels and dried them off from head to toe, supervising them as they wriggled into their patterned pyjamas and shivered as the air hit their damp skin. By the time he put them to bed they were yawning, dizzy with sleepiness, and Sawamura left them sleeping snuggled in their beds. The house was quiet, filled with gentle breaths and the slight shifting of sheets and heavy blankets, with the faint whirring of the heating, and of Haruki’s gentle feet as she came up the stairs.

“Good night,” she told Sawamura as she passed him, leaning in to hug him briefly before ambling down the hall to slip into her own bedroom. Haruki’s bedroom was little more than a broom closet, small and compact, but she claimed she didn’t mind. There was only one of her, she said, and she wasn’t a very big person - not like Sawamura, or the two of her other siblings put together -  so she fit in snugly. It was the separation from Hayato and Amaya she craved, now that she had to stay up studying some nights, often hours after the two of them went to bed.

“See you in the morning,” he replied to her, catching a smile before she shut the door and left him standing along in the half-light. With a heavy breath on his lips he retreated to his own bedroom, wiping his still-wet hands on the front of his shirt. He switched on the radio, turning it down low so it was only a dim murmur, and changing out of his day clothes into a clean shirt and a pair of long flannel pants. He flicked on the lamp on his desk, settling down on his made bed, relishing the way his heavy body sank into the yielding mattress. He’d been on his feet a lot lately, so it was nice to relax a little instead of falling face-first onto his bed in a dead sleep. His ears tuned to the radio, fast voices reading out the weather forecast.

 

Sawamura Daichi: forecast says it’s gonna start snowing pretty hard - stay safe, okay?

Sugawara Koushi: you too. I just burned dinner, so I might starve if I get snowed in… 

 

Guilt swelled in Sawamura’s throat.

 

Sawamura Daichi: shit, that was my fault. I distracted you. I’m sorry.

Sugawara Koushi: hey, no, it’s fine. Happens all the time. If you managed to bathe two kids while still being able to talk to me then I have no excuse for forgetting to stir a few carrots.

Sawamura Daichi: I have lots of experience with tackling kids into chores, y’know. I’ve perfected the art of multitasking.

 

Sawamura’s throat closed up as he smiled. He wondered how Sugawara Koushi would feel against his side - was he tall? How heavy was he? He looked relatively thin in his photograph - his face was sharp, but soft-featured. He looked soft. But suddenly an ice-cold dread rose in his chest - one Sawamura didn’t understand. He looked at the clock on the wall by his window: it was almost half-past nine. He had an early morning the next day, and Sugawara probably had to fix his meal or clean up what he’d burnt, and Sawamura didn’t want to distract him any more than he already had. How should he back out of the conversation? Shit. He really didn’t want to. He wanted to talk to Sugawara forever and a day, even though he knew he couldn’t. Shit. When he’d started the conversation he hadn’t even thought about how he’d end it; the thought was so far from his mind, and it didn’t come any closer while he was talking to Sugawara, either. Between trying not to fuck up and trying not to blush too hard and trying to effectively bathe the two small children, he’d had so much on his plate that he… really hadn’t thought about it. It had been hectic, but a good kind of hectic; the type of hectic a kid experiences at a busy fair, or the type of hectic encompassing a movie premier. It was electrifying, and Sawamura felt power crackling through his veins. But he had to end it now, and his elementary school brain kicked fully into gear. 

 

Sawamura Daichi: shit

Sawamura Daichi: ah, my mom just got home, so I’ve gotta go. It was nice speaking to you, though. It really was.

 

What a fucking loser.

 

Sugawara Koushi: you too :) I’d like to talk to you again soon!

Sawamura Daichi: I’d like that too.

 

End it! Now. Sawamura closed the chat, ears burning, that little smiley emoticon burned into the forefront of his brain. I’d like to talk to you again soon. He dropped his phone under his bed after switching it off, going to brush his teeth and avoid looking at his own goofy smile before falling into bed and dreaming of periwinkle skies and what Sugawara Koushi’s eyes might look like when he grinned.

 

Sawamura was up as soon as he’d lain down - or so it felt. There was something hellish about waking up at five in the morning to make it to the volleyball court by five-thirty to help set up and coordinate a lesson that began at six. Sawamura Daichi was not the type of person who could get up at the crack of dawn and do yoga on the beach followed by coconut and lime smoothies. He was a person more adapted to getting up at noon and mixing a piña colada before he even ate lunch. Or maybe that was the university boy in him speaking.

Even so, for some godforsaken reason each morning he dragged himself to his feet, showered and pulled on clean clothes. He would always leave a note on the kitchen table to let his family know he hadn’t mysteriously disappeared, though by now they were used to him leaving early in the mornings. This particular morning had Sawamura scrawling the note in blue ballpoint pen when Hayato and Amaya appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

“What are you doing up?” he asked them. “It’s only just gone five.”

“We want to come with you!” they said in perfect unison, faces crunched up in identical expressions of pleading. “Can we? Please?”

Sawamura straightened up and put his hands on his hips. “Well…” he looked down at their pouts, their hands clasped in front of their chins and their bottom lips stuck out as far as they possibly could. “All right, fine. But you’ve gotta get ready quick, okay? And be quiet about it!”

They hooted in joy anyway, scrambling over each other as they ran up the stairs to change out of their pyjamas. He kept a close eye on the time, but the two children were skidding over the icy threshold in less than five minutes. “If only you were this excited for school!”

“No,” Hayato replied in a shout as Sawamura slung him over his shoulder. “School is gross! Volleyball is fun! I wanna play volleyball, too!”

“When you’re a bit bigger, kiddo,” Sawamura laughed as he packed them into the back seat of the car. “You get hit with a volleyball and you’d be sent flying to the moon! I could spike you right over this car.”

“You were really good at volleyball in school, right, Daichi?” Amaya asked brightly as they trundled through the streets. Sawamura kept his eyes trained on the road, wet and slick where his headlights shone. The sun wasn’t even close to rising yet - half-past six, most likely, would be when the world became lit. The morning was still very much the night, shrouded in the cold blue hue of winter, clouds still looming overhead orange and heavy.

“‘Were’?” Sawamura demanded good-heartedly, frowning at her in the rear-view mirror. “I still am!”

“I wanna play volleyball too!” Hayato whined, then yawned so widely tears sprung to his eyes.

“Daichi, you’re here!” Michimiya greeted him when they arrived, one little hand in each of Sawamura’s. “Oh, and you brought Hayato and Amaya with you!” They grinned toothily at her over the tops of their scarves. “Daichi, we’ve got good news! The draws have been pulled and we’re up against the next neighbourhood. The match is on Wednesday the week after next - we had to move it forward because the weather’s looking really nasty next week onwards.”

“This isn’t inter-high, Michimiya! This is just for fun.” Sawamura looked up as parents begun to arrive with her children, wrapped up in warm clothes. “Any news on that indoor court?”

“The repairs on the roof are almost finished,” Michimiya replied as they began towards the ice-crusted benches that skirted the court. “We should be able to start using it next week.”

“Good.” Sawamura rubbed his chilly nose with a grin. “If it gets any colder it’ll be like playing volleyball with cotton swabs.”

Michimiya barked with laughter, clapping him on the back. “I’ll take the gremlins from you for a bit.” She took hold of the two skipping children, who were begging for her to let them play. “Later, later!” she told them. “Just have some patience. Make sure you watch closely and pick up tips and moves, okay?”

Sawamura slung his whistle around his neck, sweeping his eyes over the little huddle children clustering together like penguins. It really was getting too cold to be doing this outside. He clapped his hands. “All right! You ready to get started?”

Bright faces turned towards him, tired eyes and ruffled hair, and he was met with a chorus of ‘yes!’s from the children and soft laughter from the parents that had stayed to watch.

 


 

The impending match with the next neighbourhood’s team was a big event, especially for the children. He told them as they all stood on tingling feet, hopping from foot to foot with stinging hands, with the sun warming their backs and melting the ice on the asphalt to leave glittering puddles. The mothers had unfolded their trestle tables and were handing out cups of coffee all the way through practice, giggling and chatting whenever Sawamura decided to treat himself to some (which was often). He’d stripped off his heavy jacket, standing and directing in his sweater and thick wool shirt, scarf slung open around his neck. There were coats slung over the rail and piles of hats and scarves and gloves stacked on the dry benches, away from the wet cold ground, as the children warmed with exercise and the dawning sun. The sunlight was still a chilly kind of light, but as it turned from a watery yellow to a warm, heating gold, sweat began to form and it became a little easier to breathe.

“You’re so good with them, Sawamura!” one of the mothers remarked casually, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled and handed him a cup of coffee. “It’s so lovely to see. Your girlfriend must be happy you’re so good with kids!”

“Oh, no, I don’t have a girlfriend,” Sawamura replied hurriedly, much like he always did when people talked about his ‘girlfriend’ (often in an attempt to gauge whether or not he had one). “Family life takes up a lot of time, y’know? I’ve got my hands pretty much full most of the time.” He waggled his eyebrows as he took a sip from the styrofoam cup anyway, sending the women into twittering peals of laughter. It was such a happy, attractive noise that Sawamura couldn’t help but grin too.

“But weren’t you dating Yui?” one of the older women asked. Sawamura’s tongue turned bitter, and he knew it had nothing whatsoever to do with the coffee.

“Yeah, but…” he sighed. “I was always so busy I couldn’t pay enough attention to her, you know? And she deserves more than that. We decided it was best to just be friends, since that’s worked out pretty well so far.”

“You’re such a darling, Sawamura!”

“So considerate.”

“I wish my husband was more like you!” this made the ladies laugh again.

His mind had stayed on that conversation for a few minutes, though, before his mind was taken up by his coaching. Since it was cold the likelihood of accidents was much more than it was in the summer months. It was something that demanded his entire attention, because if he got distracted someone could end up slipping and injuring themselves, and small hurt children were not a pleasant thing to try and deal with at seven o’clock in the morning.

The day was hectic, even after morning practice was over and Sawamura had  successfully wrapped up the activities with minimal injury. From there he had to take a hungry Amaya and Hayato home, stopping on the way to have breakfast at Café Nid. Kinoshita had his shift when they turned up, but he loved when Sawamura brought the kids.

“Finally,” he’d say, “someone who can offset your immaturity.” But he’d still cut Amaya’s pancakes into flowers and Hayato’s into the shape of suns.

He arrived home to find Haruka flipping pancakes of her own, and Sawamura entertained the littler children by putting on a film while he, Haruka, and their mother sat around the dining table eating pancakes and talking in low voices. They hadn’t seen much of their mother as of late, so it was nice to see her looking well-rested and wrapped in a bath robe after having taken a leisurely shower. She looked leagues happier than she had when she’d gone to bed, and Haruka practically glowed in her presence.

“I have a day off today,” their mother was saying as she spread butter. “I’ve organised to have my schedule relaxed a little bit - they’ve taken on some new staff from Tokyo these last few days so we’ve got enough people now to be able to cut hours a bit!” She looked up with ruefully eyes, reaching out with her smooth hands to take those of her children. “I’m so sorry. I feel like I’ve been a bad mother to you - to all of you. I’m never here to help you two big kids out, and sometimes I feel like the little ones don’t even recognise me.”

Sawamura looked to Haruka and saw that her eyes were dry. She would have teared up, perhaps begun crying, if she hadn’t been so transfixed on her mother’s raw emotion. It cauterised her wound, in a sense.

“Mom,” Haruka said softly. “It’s ok. We know you try hard, we know you love us. We know you’re doing the best for us.”

“She’s right” Sawamura agreed. “Hey - I have an idea. Mom, take today for yourself. You’ve been working yourself to the bone these last few weeks. You should stay home today - I’ll do the shopping, I’ll sort out Amaya’s paediatrician appointment, and I’ll take Haruka to her friend’s -,”

“I can get myself there!” Haruka interrupted.

“And you can spend time with the kids. Watch movies, read, whatever.”

Sawamura’s mother smiled slyly. “So that’s what that new bottle of bubble bath was for, hm?”

“You caught me. I knew they had to let you go eventually.” Sawamura winked at her, and she grinned.

“I’ll help too! Mom, I can give you a massage. Chisato has been teaching me, since her mom is a masseur! I can… make you stuff, I guess… I’ve been practicing baking!”

Their mother’s face softened with affection as she reached out to stroke Haruki’s hair. “That would be wonderful. Oh,” her voice cracked as she moved a hand up to cover her mouth. “I have the best children in the world.”

She’d hugged them both, then, close so they could smell the faint traces of her perfume and sterilised hospital wards, and Hayato and Amaya came shrieking over to join in on the fun as well.

What Sawamura hadn’t expected was that most of his days followed in a similar fashion. His little team had increased the frequency of their practices in order to prepare for the ‘big game’, and Sawamura was reminded of his own experiences in high school volleyball. It was a funny feeling, the one he got when he reminisced about his old volleyball team, like an old man looking back on the ‘good old days’. It made him feel a little crusty, but it didn’t often last long. After a few days of a plateau in performance, he decided to call in the big guns.

“Asahi!”

“Daichi, you never call this late… ever. Is something wrong?”

Sawamura could hear Nishinoya yelling something in the background, presumably ‘is that Daichi?’, and there was the tinny noise of the television. “No, nothing’s wrong. You know my neighbourhood team, right? Kids’ volleyball?”

“Yeah,” Asahi replied, hesitant as to where this conversation was going.

“We’ve got a game later this month, but they’ve hit a wall. It’s cold and flu season, and the motivation is lacking. How do you feel about dragging yourself out of bed early one morning and coming to inject some inspiration into them?”

“I don’t know,” Asahi said nervously. “Will I have to make a speech? Because I don’t think I can -,”

“No, no. Don’t worry about that - I’ve known you for years anyway, do you think I’d make you give a damn speech? - I just need you to come in and teach kids how to hit balls.”

“Well, I guess I could -,” he was cut off by Nishinoya hollering ‘can I do it too? Let me talk to him!’ and the crackle of static before Nishinoya’s voice was immediately beside his ear.

“Daichi! My man. Hey. So. I heard you were having a little volleyball party.”

“It’s not a party, Noya -,”

“Doesn’t matter, I want in. Can I come too?”

“You’re not teaching my kids ‘rolling thunder’.”

“Are you for real, Daichi? Give a guy a break. That’s like my signature move!”

Sawamura snorted as he remembered Nishinoya pulling that move back in high school. “Right. Yeah, what the hell. Receiving balls is just as important as spiking them.”

“You should know, Mr Solid Receive.”

Sawamura sighed. “All right, all right. Done deal. As long as you don't get anyone hurt, it's fine.”

He saw a lot of Asahi and Nishinoya the next few days. Asahi’s appearance struck fear and awe into the hearts of the kids, and made the parents a little edgy at first, but once everybody realised how much of a soft-hearted goofball Asahi really was, he was a hit with both the kids and the moms. Nishinoya, as dynamic as ever, wasn’t far behind.

But Asahi was watching him with a frown; it was one Sawamura didn’t see.

When Sawamura fell into bed of a night, his mind flickered to Sugawara Koushi… sometimes. He was busy, occupied with things that were palpable and real, pressing to his life, leaving him very little time to fantasise about about some surreal entity, no matter how beautiful that entity might have been. He didn’t mean to, it just kind of… happened. Real life events were just more important to him. When he told Asahi as much, Asahi almost flipped his lid.

“So how’s your dating thing going?” asked Asahi as Nishinoya picked at his food when they sat at Nid’s, having stopped in after another volleyball practice for breakfast.

“Huh?” Sawamura looked up, honestly caught off guard.

“You know, angel boy?” Nishinoya helped through a mouthful of bread. “The really hot guy. That you’re not gay for, apparently.”

“Oh, right." Sawamura pushed his food about his plate pensively. "I haven’t thought about it much, really. Not lately.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

“I IM’d him a little while ago.”

“How long ago?”

“I don’t know… a few days, maybe? A week? Um… maybe a week and a bit? Fine. Two. Two weeks, I think.”

“Daichi,” Asahi’s every word was cautious. “Weren’t you the one who said you were concerned about frightening him off?”

“Yeah? Of course I was. But not saying anything can’t frighten him, can it?”

Nishinoya swallowed loudly. “He’s hopeless,” he said decisively, taking a long drink from his latte.

“Not helpful, Yuu,” Asahi replied, broad brow creased in a frown. “Daichi, I know you didn’t want to scare him by saying something weird. But if you neglect talking to him for two weeks, then… I’d just message him, okay? If you’re sure this is something you want to make work. You’ve got to put effort into relationships, Daichi, they don’t just happen. Life isn’t like the movies.”

“Thanks,” Sawamura said, a little sharply. “I’ll keep that in mind. It’ll be fine, Asahi. Besides - the things I’m doing now are a little higher on my priority list than dating.”

It was more how he said it rather than what he said that upset Asahi, who sank back into the seat of the booth with a dejected look on his face. His plate sat untouched, his fingers fidgeting nervously with the edge of a napkin. It was difficult - he had Sawamura’s best interests in mind, as he always did, but Sawamura was a tough one to tackle in situations like these. He knew that if he let the prospect of a relationship with Sugawara Koushi slip between his fingers he’d only beat himself up about it later, and Asahi really hated seeing him do that. Seeing anyone beat themselves up was awful, but with Sawamura it was doubly so. Asahi couldn’t just sit by and watch Sugawara Koushi fade out of Sawamura’s interest like a book that had sat unread for too long - he’d seen the effects of that before, and he didn’t want to see it again. He had to do something - to say something, even if it made his heart race in his chest. He didn’t want to, but he had to. “I thought you said this was important.”

“Well - it is, but there are things that are more important!” Sawamura, on the other hand, was getting mad. Who was Asahi to pry into his private life like that? Sure, Asahi may have been a major catalyst in his interacting with Sugawara Koushi, but still. Sawamura felt invaded and offended, and he wasn’t the type of person to let it slide.

“I’m getting mixed messages here, Daichi! I was under the impression that you really liked this guy - that you wanted to be with him, to date him, but you haven’t… you haven’t talked to him for two weeks?”

“You have no idea what I’ve been doing.”

“I don’t want to make you upset -,”

“I’m not upset!”

“Guys,” Nishinoya interjected cautiously as their voices began to rise, “don’t cause a scene or Kinoshita’ll kick us out again.”

But Sawamura’s anger had flared, and he fixed Asahi with fiery eyes. “It’s none of your fucking business, Azumane. You’ve got your perfect damn relationship, you live in your happy little flat with plants in your kitchen, you have time enough for yourselves. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: some of us have it a little harder. Some of us don’t have time for ourselves.”

“If something’s important to you, you make time for it.” Asahi’s voice was gentle, which for some reason pissed Sawamura off even more. Maybe it was because he knew Asahi was right, and that revelation was followed by an irrevocable flood of guilt. He didn’t like that.

“I don’t give a shit about it, all right?” Sawamura snapped, loudly. “It doesn’t matter to me at all! Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted to hear me say? Is that what I have to say to get you off my case?”

“You do, Daichi! I know you better than that!”

Sawamura glared at him, but Asahi’s face was like stone. When he was backed into a corner, Asahi wasn’t the same person. Nishinoya looked nervously between them, taut and ready to force them apart. The two were bent menacingly over the table, having risen to their feet in an effort to remain on eye-level. It was typical; Sawamura wanted to be as tall as Asahi when they argued, so he sized up, which Asahi then reciprocated, and it was like a game of tennis until both of them were on their feet. Tendons twitched in Sawamura’s neck, the back of Asahi’s neck glistening with an anxious sweat. People were staring, riveted on their argument, wondering what it was they were fighting about.

Sawamura racked his brain for something to say, but nothing came. He didn’t reply at all, in the end. He snatched his jacket up from on the seat beside him, stalking out of the café with a storm on his shoulders. He was in an absolutely thunderous mood, one that no amount of glittering sunshine and sparkling snow could improve. Everything was black and red to him now, no colours, no light. I don’t give a shit about it. The words rang in his ears like a funeral bell, long and slow and awful. He hadn’t felt like this in months and months and months. It doesn’t matter to me at all! No, no, no - it felt like betrayal; cold, hard betrayal, unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Shit. Shit! Why hadn’t this ever happened before? Why was this only happening now? Sawamura looked frantically around him, feeling the sudden press of bodies of the busy boulevard suffocating him, crushing him from every direction, the circle of the sky seeming impossibly far away. It was a well he couldn’t get out of, and his breath got stuck in his throat - he had to go somewhere, anywhere, as long it was away from there.

He broke away from the throng of shoppers, bypassing the parking lot where his car stood shining int he sun, hitting the pavement by foot and walking blindly down the streets, passing trash cans and potted plants and tripping over raised pavers and concrete steps. He couldn’t breathe - suddenly the air was filthy and too thick, and tears choked his throat. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Okay, he told himself. Breathe. He sank down into a squat in the middle of the walkway, face in his hands. Asahi’s face filled his mind; that distinct expression of worry and concern - concern for Sawamura. But Sawamura was still really fucking mad that Asahi had the audacity to tell him the things he had, for whatever reason he might have had to say them. Sawamura was acting angry, but he really didn’t have any clue what he was feeling.

You can’t think about this now! Sawamura thought viciously. There are too many things going on. Volleyball. Volleyball, and Hayato needs to get his shots this afternoon - gotta take mom to grandma’s for the afternoon too.

It was a bad thing he was doing as he squatted on the curb like that. He surrounded himself with things he needed to do, making endless lists of tasks he needed to complete, until Azumane Asahi and Sugawara Koushi were completely drowned out of his head.

 


 

“All right!” Sawamura’s voice thundered over the heads of the giggling kids that sat on plastic stools beneath the marquis he currently stood under. It was a Friday afternoon, a little after three, and it had been a week or so since Sawamura had last spoken to Asahi. He had seven missed calls on his phone from him; he’d let them ring out, every evening at six o’clock, nearly every day since their argument. He was still sour about it, but he knew that if he picked up the phone he wouldn’t know what to say. So he didn’t.

Perhaps he was avoiding his problems, but it wasn’t immediately important that he patch things up with Asahi anyway. He had more pressing matters, especially on that particular day.

His littler siblings had woken him up that morning by leaping up onto his bed and rolling around on top of his body and yelling at him. “Come on, Daichi! Wake up! We’ve gotta go to the park!”

“The game’s at three-thirty,” Sawamura grumbled. “It’s only ten!” But that hadn’t mattered to them, and they ended up dragging him out of bed anyway. In the end the whole family drove out to the court.

If there was one thing Sawamura Daichi was good at, it was giving pep talks. He had the uncanny ability to strike inspiration and bottomless passion into even the most taciturn of people. It was one of the things that made him a leader of the very best kind; people listened to him, and he got to watch as their eyes grew brighter and they were filled with undeniable determination. This applied to professional sportsmen and elementary school students alike.

“Ready?”

“Yeah!”

The game got off to a cracking start, Daichi’s team winning the first set and the opposing team winning the second set. The scores were close, 22-25 and 25-23, and Sawamura watched both his own team and the other team intently the whole time to try and pick out errors and patterns and tricks in their playing. It was colder than usual, but the blistering breeze had died down and the sun was brilliant in the cloudless sky. Parents and families stood around huddled in thick coats and scarves, stamping their boots in the thin snow, younger kids (Amaya and Hayato included) playing in the deeper drifts. Some mothers bringing along tables and coffee and tea, along with cakes and other nibble treats and had set them up under the marquises, handing them out to freezing hands and blue, smiling lips. There were oranges and watermelon for the kids between sets, when they sat around short of breath and red-faced, but with ear-splitting grins all the same. Some of the kids from opposite teams knew each other, and waved across the net, which made a few parents twitter with laughter.

“Shit, it’s cold,” someone mumbled in a muffled voice as Sawamura went to snatch a cup of coffee between the first and second set. They bumped into his shoulder, spilling a bit of his drink on his sleeve. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Sawamura replied with a habitual smile. His nose felt numb, so he rubbed it and hurriedly brought the cup to his lips to try and warm it up a little bit. Michimiya gestured to him, and he hurried back to the sidelines just as the third set began.

Sawamura preferred to stand up; somehow it made him feel a little warmer, but he still pulled his scarf high up around his ears, and donned a pair of sunglasses as the sun broke past the trees and right into his eyes. He wasn’t alone, either; Michimiya sat on the bench a little away from him with her hat jammed down on her head and a pair of Ray Bans perched on her nose.

“Oh,” came a little gasp as someone walked into him again - he recognised the coat and the scarf, as well as the muffled voice. It was the same person who’d bumped into him before. “God! I just can’t walk today.”

“It’s fine, really,” Sawamura laughed, peering down at a face that was frowning down at an untied bootlace.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” asked the man who’d bumped into him, beanie fit snugly over his head and covering it right down to the delicate line of his eyebrows. Sawamura almost laughed at him for having his hat down so far and his scarf so high up around his nose, but it was cold as hell outside, and he probably looked just as ridiculous with a scarf pulled just as high around his ears.

“I reckon so,” Sawamura replied as he sipped gratefully at his coffee. “The skill’s en par between teams, actually. It’s going to be close.”

The man, a little shorter than Sawamura, had fallen into standing beside him and watching the game at Sawamura’s shoulder. Sawamura caught a few whips of hair poking out of the hem of the man’s hat, a dim blonde colour that shone in the sun. And what pretty eyelashes. Huh.

“I have to agree,” the man said with a sigh. He started as something buzzed in his pocket, and he fished out a phone and scrolled through a message he’d just received. “Oh. Hey, sorry for tripping over you all the time! Is your sleeve okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine! Don’t worry about it.” Sawamura watched as bright eyes crinkled in a smile that struck a strange note in Sawamura’s chest, like the faint knock on a door. Huh. The man then ducked behind his shoulder and sidled past him, calling out to a young woman with dark hair and glasses. Shrugging to himself, Sawamura looked back to the game while lifting his sleeve to his nose and sniffing. It smelled like coffee, but it would wash out soon enough. Sawamura didn’t like washing jackets; they took so long to dry. He made a mental note to get it dry-cleaned instead and save himself the hassle.

Even after he got his jacket cleaned it would still smell faintly of coffee, but it wasn’t that big of an issue, really, seeing as Sawamura kind of liked the smell of coffee.

Chapter Text

[warning for themes of depression]

VII: Sugawara Koushi

Kiyoko sat at the kitchen table, flipping through the newspaper and scanning the headlines so as to keep herself up to date with the current affairs. She flicked the corner of the page she was reading, her brow furrowed slightly. She couldn’t find her glasses anywhere - they were probably somewhere obvious, if she hadn’t already kicked them under her bed like last time.

Sugawara was worrying her. He was the kind of person who made everyone worry whenever they weren’t smiling, which was a pain not only to Kiyoko, but undoubtedly to Sugawara as well. Kiyoko knew that just because Sugawara wasn’t smiling, that didn’t necessarily mean he was sad; there were times in everybody’s lives where emotion was vague and unimportant… when it just wasn’t there. It didn’t mean there was anything wrong, not by a long stretch. But Kiyoko still worried. She worried because there had been a time when Sugawara never smiled. There had been a time where his world had collapsed into single words and short sentences and sleepless nights where he lay on his bed staring at the ceiling for hours and hours and hours. Kiyoko had seen colour, as she always had, but she knew the only thing Sugawara could see was grey. It had scared her, and it had worried her. Sugawara hadn’t been able to see the colour on his arms or his legs or up over his ribs or in his face. He hadn’t told her, but she knew. She knew because she’d known him for too long. She had to watch him stare at the wall; she couldn’t interject. It would have been like sweeping the head of a broom through a spider’s web, and Sugawara scared her more than anything else ever had before. So she worried. Of course she did.

It was like having a sick pet, she reasoned. She couldn’t allow her entire life to become consumed with Sugawara’s well-being, for two primary reasons. She had her own life to live, and as much as Sugawara mattered to her, she couldn’t become his personal carer. It was also dangerous if he became too dependant on her. He had to learn to stand on his own two feet; she’d seen dependancy before, and it was something she wanted to shut out of her mind completely. But Sugawara… ever since he’d started this online dating thing, he’d been getting better. Little by little. And then they two of them had messaged each other back and forth, engaging Sugawara so completely that he managed to completely burn a meal. As much of a sitcom trope as it was, Kiyoko knew that burning such a simple meal was pretty difficult to do. They must have been at it for hours, and the thought of Sugawara sitting and chewing excitedly on his fingers made her smile.

She managed to go and come back from her morning shift at work before Sugawara woke up. Kiyoko worked at a florist’s on the boulevard that worked as a buttress between their neighbourhood and the next. There were almond trees lining the street, relatively leafless in the winter but hung with small icicles like tiny, glass needles. She liked looking out onto the street and seeing the people pass by the open shopfront, old ladies stopping to smell the displays set up at the front of the shop, men pausing and thinking of their significant others and briefly considering buying some of the flowers they saw before remembering that they had to be somewhere else more important. Kiyoko was strongly attached to her job; initially she’d only accepted it because it was the only offer she’d had, but in time she found that she loved it for more than the steady income it offered her. There was something truly enchanting about seeing the light in her customer’s eyes as they bought bouquets for loved ones. It was a special thing that pumped energy through Kiyoko’s bones. Often she’d look around the shop herself, eyeing the potted plants hanging from the ceiling, the bunches and arrangements of bright, sweet-smelling flowers and those that didn’t smell at all. She often thought of buying some - she could send some to her mother, maybe. Or she could take some home to Sugawara as a surprise to brighten up their apartment. Pink carnations. She knew he liked those.

Kiyoko was staring listlessly out onto the street, elbows braced on the countertop and her chin resting in her hands. She hadn’t managed to locate her glasses before she left, so she had to work without them. It wasn’t that much of an issue; she just had to bend closer to the tags and squint a little here and there, and it made her people watching a little more difficult.

“Shimizu!”

Kiyoko blinked once, twice, and squinted towards the door. Oh - she hadn’t noticed someone practically skid to a halt in front of the shop when they spotted her, her attention only caught by the call and the dingle of the shop’s bell as the door swung open. “Gosh, it’s so nice and warm in here.” Pale hair and bright eyes - the girl came right up to the counter and grinned.

“Yachi! You can just call me Kiyoko, you know.”

“Oh,” Yachi blushed a little, giggling nervously. “Sorry. Kiyoko.”

Kiyoko smiled at her. “Can I help you with anything?”

She watched as Yachi scratched her chin with a painted fingernail, her curious, star-like eyes wandering over the displays above Kiyoko’s head. Ah - there was that look again. Wonder.

“There are so many flowers!” Yachi exclaimed. “And the shop set out is so clean and orderly! Did you do this yourself, Shimi - Kiyoko?” Yachi corrected herself with a little cough.

“Mostly. The owner got sick recently so it’s just me most days.”

“You did a… really great job. Oh! These!” Yachi scooted across the shop to a white tin pail that held bunches of flowers wrapped in clear cellophane. “What are these?”

“Amaryllis, primarily,” Kiyoko told her, recognising the large, sturdy flowers instantly. Each type of flower was catalogued neatly in her brain.

“Also known as November Lilies, right? Because they bloom in November?”

Kiyoko smiled. “That’s right.”

Yachi leaned in to smell them, closing her eyes to draw in the scent further. Her hair gleamed blonde in the cold light from outside, her fringe pulled back from her face in little black clips clustered at the back of her head. Her cheeks were red, as was her nose - had she been running? Her cheeks looked so cute, all flushed like that. Kiyoko looked down at her own fingers and shook her head slightly. “They smell nice.” Yachi wiped a bit of pollen from her nose after she leaned in a little too far. Kiyoko didn’t need her glasses to see how adorable it was. “I’ll buy them!”

Yachi laid the flowers on the counter gently, as you would an infant, making sure not to bruise the white and red petals. They were large flowers with thick petals, spongy, and with thick sticky pollen. They were robust flowers, and they were strong, but very beautiful.

“Would you like me to wrap them for you? I can do ribbon or paper.”

“A ribbon would be lovely! Do you have a red one?” Yachi was standing on her toes, bobbing up and down.

“Of course. I’m sorry about Sugawara - he’s a little absent-minded sometimes. I hope he didn’t disappoint you too much,” Kiyoko said as she cut a length of red ribbon with the dressmaking scissors she kept under the counter. Yachi looked appalled.

“God, no! Sugawara was so sweet! I don’t think I could have dated him anyway, so it all worked out in the end.” Her eyes followed Kiyoko’s thin, nimble fingers as she tied the ribbon in a bow around the plastic-wrapped stems. “I really liked him.”

“I feel like I wasted your time, Yachi.”

“Oh, no, no! You really didn’t.”

“Would you like a card as well?”

“Huh? Oh! Yes, please.”

Kiyoko slid a card and a pen towards her, watching as Yachi scribbled down a note on the card. She was turning such a cute shade of red! What on earth could she writing to make her blush like that? Kiyoko chuckled under her breath; around Valentine’s day her shop was filled with flushed and giggling high schoolers who did exactly the same thing.

“D-done,” Yachi said finally, if not a little nervously, and tucked the card into the ribbon. She handed over the money she owed, but didn’t back away from the counter. She had a strange look on her face - it was one of absolute determination… and cold fear.

“So who are these for, hm?” Kiyoko asked jokingly, laughing. Yachi flinched a little, her face going so dark a red it was almost purple. Suddenly the girl shoved the flowers across the counter, right into Kiyoko’s hands.

“T-they’re - um - f-f-for - I mean, they’re - uh - y-you. You. Goodbye.” And before Kiyoko could process the words she’d just heard (let alone stop the fleeing girl), Yachi had raced out into the street and left the bunch of lilies on the counter, card tucked neatly into the bow. She reached out hesitantly to the card. Even though Yachi had clearly indicated that the flowers were meant for her, Kiyoko was still reluctant to read a customer’s message. She knew she had to, though, for her own peace of mind.

Dear Kiyoko, Yachi had written in handwriting that reminded Kiyoko of butterflies (she’d also crossed out ‘Shimizu’ after remembering that she didn’t have to call her that anymore). I think you’re really beautiful, and super cool. I’d really love if you could go out with me! Give me a call!

Kiyoko reached up to press her hand to her mouth, feeling her cheeks grow warm and her stomach swim. She pressed the fingers of her other hand to the petals of the lilies and smiled gently to herself. Amaryllis was her favourite type of flower.

 


 

Sugawara woke up at noon and he felt like absolute shit.

He hadn’t slept that night; in fact, he’d fallen asleep at five o’clock that morning. He was woken by the sudden screech of a car alarm in the next street over. He started violently, finding himself covered in a sticky cold sweat. Lying back against the pillow, he felt as if he still hadn’t really woken up, and was still sleeping. Like he was completely dissociated from everything. It wasn’t a very nice feeling at all.

Dragging himself out of bed, the first thing Sugawara saw was a fresh bouquet of flowers propped up in a vaseful of water. It was funny what flowers did to a room. They were tall lilies - the ones Kiyoko liked, right? “Where did you get those?” he asked Kiyoko, who hadn’t noticed him and was sat on the sofa with her back turned away from where he stood. She shifted around to look at him.

“The flowers? Someone at the shop gave them to me.” He didn’t need to know that it had been Yachi, not yet. “They’re nice, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.” Sugawara wandered into the kitchen, filling a glass with water as he always did after he woke up. But his drink didn’t instil him with anything, and he just wanted to crawl back into bed again.

Kiyoko saw the dark circles under his eyes and began to worry again. He’d been going so well - what had caused this sudden turn-around of events? “Suga, are you all right?”

“Yeah.”

Suga.”

Sugawara looked over his shoulder to where Kiyoko had moved to stand in the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. “Nothing, Kiyoko, honestly. I just had a rough night.”

What can I talk about? What can I do to make him excited? “How’s your online dating thing going?” As soon as the words left her mouth she knew they’d been the wrong ones. The circles under Sugawara’s eyes deepened, and he turned back to the sink and filled up his glass again. “You haven’t mentioned it for… a week. Or so.”

“I haven’t - um,” Sugawara broke off as he poured his full glass of water down the drain without drinking any of it. “We haven’t talked.”

Kiyoko rubbed her eyes, trying to ignore the urgent press in her guts. “Suga -,” she began, but was broken off by a strangled noise coming from between Sugawara’s ground teeth. “Suga?”

“It’s my fault, isn’t it? That he doesn’t want to talk to me?” He sank down into a squat, gripping the lip of the counter and resting his forehead against the cupboard doors. “I’ve bored him, and he isn’t interested anymore.”

Kiyoko shivered. “No, that’s not it. Come on, stand up!” she stalked across the floor and grabbed Sugawara under his arms, hauling him to his feet. “I’m not going to be your mother, Sugawara. Buck up. You life doesn’t depend on what some guy thinks of you, all right?”

Sugawara put his hands to his face and took a deep breath in, exhaling sharply as he’d been taught to do many years ago to try and ease the crushing pressure in his chest. “Right. No. You’re right. That was stupid of me.”

Kiyoko smiled and patted his cheek fondly. “Now,” she remarked, “breakfast! For you, at least, since I’ve already had some. Let me treat you! What would you like?” She didn’t expect him to look as startled as he did.

“Don’t worry about that!” Sugawara assured her with a little laugh. “I’ve got to go out and run some errands today anyway, so I’ll grab a bite to eat while I’m at it.”

Kiyoko was dubious. “Are you sure? Let me make you something!”

“No,” Sugawara insisted, laughing again to hide the accidental sharpness of his voice. “No, seriously, don’t worry about it!” In his mind he thought - what did he have to do? It was almost Christmas, but he’d taken care of gifts at least a month prior. His mother hated the commerciality of Christmas, but she always held parties anyway. He usually had to attend, more by way of familial obligations rather than actually wanting to go, but it was okay.

Sugawara Koushi was not one of those people who were close to their family. He never really knew anyone who had been tightly bonded wit their parents or their siblings, or any extended relatives. He soon came to doubt that these people who had a big, close family really existed. He’d never met anyone like that; not anywhere. The neighbourhood he’d grown up in was full of mown lawns and perfect white houses arranged in perfect rows like dolls, or those tins of soldiers. They were filled with people with pleasant faces, salary men who were seen off by their wives every morning with a neatly-wrapped lunch. Everyone had two cars, shiny and spotless and kept in garages, one for the husband to commute to work and one for the wife to do grocery shopping and cart their children to and from school. The wives wore blouses with sleeves that came to their elbows, their dark hair in the latest trend, with knee-length skirts and aprons tied over the top. They all looked the same to Sugawara, and his own mother was no different. For the most part of his childhood he thought he was hallucinating, but by mid-elementary school he’d gotten over that. The children were different at school - they weren’t carbon-copies of a magazine article or an infomercial. They were different, vibrant and buzzing, striking Sugawara with a strange sense of awe. He loved looking at people just to see how unusual they were. But his family had been like a dream. They had been there, during dinners and school functions and events, but at the same time they hadn’t been. It felt like Sugawara was dining with shadows. He’d come home to find food in the fridge, cooked by their maid and labelled with a note telling him how to prepare it on his own. An eight-year-old child coming home to a parentless house was a daunting thought, but it was also a terribly normal one.

Kiyoko didn’t talk about her family much, even to Sugawara. Kiyoko was Sugawara’s family; she had been the only real person that came into his house apart from himself. It wasn’t as if she hated her family - quite on the contrary, she had a very good relationship with them. But they were far from her mind and not worth mentioning, not really. And they were both far away from their families now, so they didn’t have to worry about any of it.

Sugawara’s sheltered childhood had been more of a blessing than a curse, in his mind. It made everything more vibrant. When he went to Tokyo for the first time, to the big cities and skyscrapers and packed trains, it made his entire body tingle with anticipation. The filthy things excited him, because his whole life had been clean. The cluttered, closely-packed streets were marvellous, because they weren’t like his own street, and they were still somehow disordered regardless of the repeated concrete blocks. Everything was new and fresh and colourful. He was used to the city life now, of course, but there were times he experienced little things he hadn’t before, like an alley cat rubbing up against his legs or a potted plant smashing on the pavement behind him after falling through the wide rails of an apartment balcony. It reminded him why he’d accepted the university scholarship in the first place.

Sugawara heaved a sigh, oblivious to Kiyoko’s worried glance as he shuffled away from her. “I’ve gotta get some things done. I’ll be gone for a few hours. Oh -,” he paused and turned to nod fondly at the lilies. “They’re lovely flowers.”

Sugawara showered under a cold jet of water. He scrubbed his skin until it was pink, though he forgot to use soap (or maybe he purposefully neglected to use it because he found the grate of the loofah against his skin to erase some of the pointless guilt that had welled like lead in the pit of his stomach), and he scrubbed his hair until he swore it would fall out. It was perfect - it woke him up and cleaned him off well enough that he could possibly get away with forgetting to shower. While he worked between his shoulder blades his mind turned to the tasks he had to fulfil - the ones that had been absorbed by his impromptu thoughts of his childhood. Gifts were sorted, ready to be sent or carted to his mother’s house in the trunk of his car. Cards were done and ready to be mailed, sitting in a box by his bedroom door. Oh - he had a few books he had to buy. His gift shopping wasn’t all done; his aunt had not-so-subtly hinted that there was a particular cookbook she wanted, and he needed to buy a new textbook or two for the next university semester. It would be a quick trip to the book store, grab a bite to eat at one café or another, then dip into the bank to withdraw some cash, and buy some more shampoo and toothpaste on the way home. Easy.

He dressed and avoided meeting Kiyoko’s eye as he left, keys in hand and his wallet in the pocket of his coat. His hair was wet, dark enough to pass off as brown, and he jammed a beanie down over it so he didn’t contract pneumonia.

It was cold outside, though there was a thin cover of clouds that managed to retain a little bit of warmth. The hardest part was making sure not to slip on the icy breezeway, and to work open the door of the fire stairs since the handle had frozen shut overnight. Sugawara’s car didn’t stall for once, either. It’s the small victories that count.

He didn’t have to drive far, but the roads were in such a bad condition and the holiday traffic was in such a gridlock that it took him forty-five minutes to get where he needed to go. Sitting in his car in the middle of a traffic jam he thought that he really ought to’ve gone by foot. It was a colder and less appealing route, but it was better than being stuck in a car for the most part of an hour. Anything was better than being stuck in a car for the most part of an hour. He arrived eventually, taking up one of the last parking spaces in the basement of the supermarket. He knew the street well - it was the boulevard Kiyoko’s flower shop was on, the one with the almond trees stripped bare by frost. It was popular with lovers, and on holidays like Valentine’s Day and White Day it was a hit with teenagers and students who would bring their dates for coffee and pastries at one of the many cafés that clustered around the south end of the street. Sugawara liked it, but didn’t visit it often.

His pace was brisk as he walked towards the book store. It was a little place, almost invisible, but it was always stocked and had prices poor students like Sugawara could afford. The shop was cramped with shelves arranged more like playing cards than anything, but he found the atmosphere cozy.

“Can I help you with anything?” came a voice over his shoulder as he began to rifle through the cookbook section in search of the book his aunt had told him about. The voice startled him, and he glanced up briefly before burrowing back into the books again.

“Yes,” he replied as he pushed aside a few volumes. He told the man what he was looking for, and within moments the shop assistant had located the exact book. Strong arms rose past Sugawara’s face, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. God - the muscle in them looked like a coiled spring. “Thanks,” he mumbled when the book was handed to him, scratching his face and pulling his hat further down around his ears. He bought his textbooks  quickly, exiting out of the heated store and back into the chilly air.

His stomach growled at him, intestines gurgling, sending a shot of hunger tearing up through his body. Food. Right. He looked around him, trying to spot the nearest decent-looking café. The closest one looked all right - there were chairs and tables set up outside that looked comfortable enough. The menu was chalked onto a blackboard sign that stood outside the door, offering breakfast till two o’clock in the afternoon.

The bell above the door chimed as Sugawara pushed it open, letting himself into the café and perusing it quickly before ambling over to the counter, behind which stood an exasperated-looking young man with a name tag that read ‘Kinoshita’.

“Could I order the eggs, please?” Sugawara asked as he fished out the last of his cash from his wallet. “And a bottle of water.”

“Sure,” the man named Kinoshita replied. “Do you want to hold the spring onions? Nobody seems to like the spring onions.”

“No, that’s fine. Spring onions are fine.”

Kinoshita gave him a little plastic number in a metal stand, and Sugawara ducked out of the café to seat himself at one of the outdoor tables. It was too warm inside, too muggy with the heat of happy people. Sugawara found the outside area to be more pleasant; there was no roof, just the sky arching pale and grey overhead, split through with the black branches of the almond tree that (supposedly) shaded where he sat. He leafed through a small novel he’d bought at the book store - a stupid, light read, but he found himself snorting with sarcastic laughter before he’d even gotten through the first page. His food came soon after, steaming and appetising but still making his stomach shrivel in repulsion. Just eat it, for heaven’s sake. It’s not going to kill you.

Sugawara couldn’t remember the last time something tasted good. Kiyoko’s cooking was good, he knew that, but he couldn’t taste it. He couldn’t really taste anything. He was so used to shovelling food right down his throat that he’d forgotten how to taste. But he was working on it.

“Thank you, it was lovely,” Sugawara said as the waiter came back to collect his plates, the conditioned lie rolling perfectly off his tongue. Kinoshita nodded politely to him, and the two parted ways, Sugawara briefly catching a glimpse of the book shop assistant pushing open the door of the café.

Books, food, bank transaction. Picking up shampoo and toothpaste from the convenience store on the end of the street, lingering on the bridge for a little bit to watch the grey water gurgle beneath him. He couldn’t stay there forever, certainly not until dusk, either, so he took in the cold, icy day while he could. The clouds had cleared a little, showing veins of blue sky and the moon peeping through. The sun glimmered weakly on the water, incompatible to those dazzling summer days, of course, but still welcomed. As Sugawara ran his hand along the railing he smiled to himself and felt his shoulders shift as if weight had been removed from them. He’d come back later. Yeah.

“Welcome back,” Kiyoko greeted him absently, voice squeezing out from under the television cabinet under which she was currently bent, dust cloth in hand.

“What are you doing?” Sugawara asked as he went to unload his shopping bag in the bathroom and stack his books on his desk.

“Cleaning.”

Sugawara was about to reply when the landline trilled from the kitchen. He turned towards it immediately, telling Kiyoko ‘I’ll get it’ before ambling into the next room and plucking the phone from its cradle.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Sugawara Koushi?” Sugawara’s head swum with dread like water being let out of a drain. His entire body grew turgid with terror. It wasn’t the voice that frightened him - on the contrary, the soft feminine tone of the woman on the other end of the line was quite pleasant. It was the clinical buzzing he could hear in the background, the stinging whine of fluorescent lights and the locked wheels of hospital cots. He could hear the sterile snap of latex gloves and the sound of syringes being uncapped. The glum beeping of heartbeat monitors, the scrape of metal rungs as curtains were pulled. It was a cacophony of sounds that made Sugawara’s hand slide up to the base of his throat and try to massage the voice that wouldn’t come out.

“Yes,” he choked eventually, coughing harshly thereafter to try and right himself again. “Yes, it is.”

“I just called to inform you that your mother has been admitted to the hospital after suffering serious heart palpitations.” Sugawara listened and just felt worse and worse because he’d been expecting it, and wasn’t the least bit surprised. “She’s been asking for you.”

“I’ll… I’ll come in. I’ll come and see her.” He stroked the butt of the phone with his thumb, feeling less and less ill and more and more tired. “I’ll come in now.”

Kiyoko called to him and asked what was wrong. Sugawara didn’t say anything and couldn’t tear his eyes away from the floor. She drove him to the hospital because she was more than aware Sugawara was in no state to drive; she could see the lack of light in his eyes and it frightened her, because she’d seen it before. The way his hands lay limp and grey in his lap frightened her, too, but she couldn’t say anything to him. She came into the hospital with him and he held tightly to the back of her jacket as they were led down the meticulously clean corridors as though he was five years old again. The pink, puckered skin around his eyes was awful because he hadn’t shed a tear and his eyes were dry as bone, and Kiyoko swore she could hear his skeleton rattling around the empty cavity of his body. At times like these Sugawara didn’t have organs, he didn’t have muscles. He was just bones and air, a dark overcast night and a chilly winter wind. Kiyoko had the sinking suspicion that it wasn’t all to do with his mother, either.

“Mom,” Sugawara said softly as they reached her bed. Sugawara appraised her once, twice; she looked fine enough, hooked up to an IV and with her heart being heavily monitored. She still kept her hair in a sleek, dark bob even though her regrowth was silver and she wasn’t the pretty, youthful young woman she used to be. She never did like to let go of the past.

“Koushi,” his mother said with a crinkly smile as she lay down the magazine she was reading in her lap. “You did come. My, I’m so happy - I’m terribly sorry if I worried you. I wanted to see you.”

Did you? The thought comes before Sugawara can stop it. He doesn’t feel guilty, and that in itself makes him feel guilty. He was the worst son, the worst son in the world, but he couldn’t see the truth in it. His mother was still as vague and as ghostly as she’d always been, though her body was solid and her skin was tanned brown from her childhood in the countryside. Sometimes Sugawara doubted she was really there, and the hollow rattle of her voice did nothing but reinforce it. Kiyoko’s fingers were on his wrist.

“Of course I did,” Sugawara mumbled, reaching out to pat his mother’s hands awkwardly. “It would’ve been heartless of me to stay at home, right?”

“But the roads are so icy, I was worried you’d get into an accident.”

“Kiyoko drove - you know she’s a careful driver.”

“Ah, yes, Kiyoko! How are you, my dear?”

The day had grown dark outside, and as Sugawara gazed listlessly out the high hospital window he felt his heart sink lower and lower in his chest. He couldn’t visit the bridge, not now. He hadn’t been in so long - his life had been busy, which he’d always been told was a good thing, but to him it didn’t seem so. It was good that he busied himself, he’d been told, because that way he was less likely to dwell on his thoughts. His mouth grew insatiably bitter whenever he thought about it; why did they want to keep him from his thoughts? What were they so afraid of? It wasn’t as though his mind was a dangerous thing, nor was it so fragile as to break when grazed… he’d always been treated delicately, ever since he was a child. Maybe it was because he looked the way he did: long and slender with a pale neck and soft skin. People thought he would snap, but he wouldn’t, because he was like rock covered with thousands and thousands of feathers. But, of course, nobody really knew that.

God knows he’d done enough. His mother lay in a hospital bed questioning Kiyoko about things she should have been questioning him about instead, and he was sitting there smiling so gently his face began to ache and all he wanted to do was to shake her until her teeth rattled and cry ‘why aren’t I good enough for you?’ because he didn’t know - he’d never known - and it was tearing new holes in him that he didn’t have the time or the energy to repair. And there was Kiyoko, her fingers screwed tight like screws in her hands, devoid of blood and deathly pale, because she knew, but she couldn’t do anything about it.

Sugawara’s didn’t keep them long, even though it felt like an absolute eternity, and the whole while she talked mostly to Kiyoko, asking about her social life and how her education was getting on. She didn’t ask a single one of those questions to her own son, who sat smiling at her side the whole time. That smile was a worn one, but it did the job well enough. Sugawara’s mother couldn’t tell the difference; Kiyoko found it unnerving, that a forced smile could seem so natural. She didn’t dare question it.

“I’m sorry,” Kiyoko apologised as soon as they were well out of earshot in the hospital parking lot. Of course she’d seen how pale Sugawara’s lips had gotten. How grey his skin had turned. “Suga, God, talk to me.”

I… can’t.” Sugawara’s voice was choked in his throat, thin and wavering but still as sure as ever. It was a plea. “It isn’t you… or mom.”

“What is it?” Kiyoko asked, clenching and unclenching her fingers behind her back. “Stop biting your lips like that, Suga, you’re making me scared.”

“Don’t,” Sugawara pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Can we go home, Kiyoko? Please? Without any questions?”

Kiyoko’s only anchor was the cold air on her cheeks, but she nodded in assent and they packed themselves into the car without exchanging a word. She could barely concentrate, not when Sugawara was sitting with his head against the glass of the window, lit so gently in the half-light of the evening. Kiyoko flipped the headlights on when the road’s white paint began to grow dim, the horizon gripping onto the last slivers of colours, all pale lilac and washed out orange. The road was bracketed by flat floodplain, meadows and fields with a few houses here and there. It would have been something beautiful, especially at that time of day, but to Sugawara it had grown dim already, and not just because the sun had set. It was different kind of dim; the kind when the saturation level of a photograph is reduced, or when something vivid sits outside for too long. Weathered. Old. The ink sapped from an old book, like faded veins under thick skin. It made him feel old, reduced. Small. He drew his hand along the leather interior of the car, noting how it felt like his own skin, and how he couldn’t fully tell where his hand ended and the door began. It was like that with many things; he was unsure when things stopped and started. Everything just seemed to melt into everything else, a dripping mess of greys and grainy water. He was so tired. He didn’t know why.

They drove together in silence, Sugawara blissfully unaware of Kiyoko’s white knuckles. He’d closed his eyes. The radio was turned onto a station neither of them listened to, one that played old music and broke for the news bulletin every five minutes. The clouds were coming over quickly, driven by a fierce easterly wind that - according to the weather forecast - was pulling along a storm or two.

“Stop worrying,” Sugawara said from the passenger seat, taking Kiyoko off guard. “I’m fine.” His words were slurred, sounding more like a sight than anything. “I’m fine.” She was more than a little suspicious at that - he sounded like he was saying it more to reassure himself than to reassure her. She let him be for the rest of the ride home, always aware of that thin hand resting against the car door.

Did she need to worry? Sugawara had been able to take care of himself up till now, and it wasn’t as if this kind of thing was unfamiliar. It wasn’t as if it hadn’t happened before - it had. But it had been worse, then, much worse. She looked across at Sugawara, still sitting slumped in the passenger seat, eyes closed and breathing shallowly. He wasn’t sleeping. Knowing Sugawara, he probably couldn’t sleep even if he wanted to. Do I need to carry you? she thought while chewing her lip and pushing her glasses a little up her nose. You’d probably kill me if I did. She tried her best not to look at him even though her eyes kept wandering in his direction.

She distinctly remembered sitting in the back seat of his father’s car when they were seven or eight years old; Sugawara’s father had been driving Kiyoko back to her house, and Sugawara had opted to come along. It had been raining for days and days, the ground waterlogged and water cascading down the streets and off the eaves of the houses. The sky was grey and tired, and Kiyoko had glanced across to see Sugawara sitting much like he was now, with one hand against the door and his pale hair mussed against the glass. His knees had been drawn into his chest back then, clasped tight under his chin. Sugawara thought there was something intrinsically weak in that pose, though, so he rarely adopted it anymore.

By the time they arrived back at their apartment complex the sky had gotten dark and the first stars were beginning to yawn across the sky. Kiyoko pulled into the parking lot and turned off the car, leaning her forehead against the ridge of the steering wheel and letting out a shuddering sigh. Sugawara didn’t move at all; she reached over and pushed the hair from his face.

“Suga? We’re home. Come on, let’s get inside before we freeze to death.”

“Ki-chan, I’m sorry,” Sugawara mumbled into her shoulder as she helped him out of the car and onto his feet. She put her hands on his shoulders; he hadn’t used that nickname in a while. He used to call her that when they were little, but hardly used it now. The parking lot was dark and dank and cold as ever, dirty snow heaped against the retaining walls and water tracked across the asphalt from the ceaseless pass of cars coming and going over the course of the day. There was the lingering scent of rubber and breaks and gasoline like the basement parking lot of a supermarket. They all smelled the same. “I’m so glad you’re my friend.”

“I’m glad you’re mine, too,” Kiyoko smiled at him and pressed her cold fingers to his cheeks. “We help each other out, right? Come on, it’s freezing!”

She helped him up the stairs, though he was mostly able to stand on his own. One of her arms was around his waist and she didn’t let go until they were safely inside their heated apartment with the door closed and the lights switched on. “Do you want me to help you?”

“I’ll be fine,” Sugawara said gently, flicking his hair out of his face. His eyes were dark and glimmered dimly, but they were sunken terribly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

She let him go, watching as he drifted down the hall to the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on, and only then did she go to her own room to change out of her clothes, which had become sticky with sweat.

Sugawara, once he shut the bathroom door, put his back to the wall and slid to the ground, stretching out his long legs across the floor and staring at the toes of his socks. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to scrub some feeling back into his nerves and some warmth back into his cheeks. Not now, not now. Now’s a bad time.

But… was it? Nothing was going on. Sugawara had to help the old ladies shovel their driveways clear of snow, but… there was nothing. Nothing to take his mind off things, nothing to keep him away from things he couldn’t afford to think about; it was just as they said, it was just as they said, there were things too dangerous for Sugawara to go near but they were still caught in his own head and no matter what he did he couldn’t escape them unless -

“Stop it,” he told himself as he fisted his hands in his hair. His voice was more of a rasp, a breathless wheeze that sapped the energy from his body and the strength from his bones. “Stop. Don’t.” He was fine, Kiyoko was there and everyone was safe. Happy. He didn’t matter as long as everyone else was safe and happy. He could die and he wouldn’t care as long as everyone else was safe and… happy. His head sunk into his hands. He put his head between his knees, then, just as he’d been taught to, and took a deep breath to the very depths of his lungs. Shower. Bed. Sleep. Don’t think.

It took most of his energy to raise himself onto his shaking legs. They felt like twigs; like they’d snap, even though he knew they wouldn’t. He couldn’t call Kiyoko to help him - he wouldn’t inconvenience her like that, never. So he tried his best not to slip and fall on the wet tiles as he scrubbed his skin raw and let the water run into his eyes so he didn’t have to see his own reflection distorted in the silver taps.

Sugawara wasn’t entirely sure how he managed to keep himself on his feet. He towelled himself dry in front of the steamed-over mirror, wrapping the towel around his waist and ambling to his bedroom to pull on the first clean clothes he could find. His room was still dark and delightfully cool; it was easy on his body and on his eyes, even though he had to feel around to make sure he didn’t walk into any precariously placed pieces of furniture.

Holidays are dangerous things, he thought as he lay down on his bed. Not just because of the traffic and icy roads, but because they were so… artificially cluttered. People were wont to think of holidays - especially around Christmastime - as busy and packed full of activities. Exhausting. But Sugawara had never thought so. Of course, there had been a time when he’d been caught up in the bright lights and festivities, but those days were gone now. He felt like a bird overlooking the rapids; watching the torrid flow but being separate from it, though still somehow feeling the way it disrupted the air and hearing the deafening roar that it send arching into the sky. He wasn’t completely separate from it, but it didn’t affect him as much as it perhaps should have. And that was why it was dangerous.

“‘Try to keep yourself busy. Keep your mind on other things.’” Sugawara’s voice vibrated tightly in his throat as he repeated the mantra he’d been taught. School was a blessing in that respect: it kept his mind working and busy and active, leaving it little to no time to dwell on things he shouldn’t - couldn’t - think about. But during the breaks he was exposed to that awful tear in his conscious, and the effort to not follow the rabbit was a stress so monumental it physically drew the strength from him. As long as he succeeded, though, he’d be safe. He’d be all right.

 


 

When Sugawara next woke up it was late morning and Kiyoko was pulling the dirty clothes out of his hamper into a basket to take down to the laundry. “Did I wake you?” she asked, even though she knew she had. It was her own sneaky way of getting Sugawara out of bed, and it worked every single time.

“Do you need help?” Sugawara slurred, sitting up too soon and feeling the blood rush from his head. The room spun about him and he laughed at the sensation.

“No, I’m pretty much done! I’m taking you out to lunch. Be ready in an hour?”

“Okay,” Sugawara agreed, because that was what he was used to doing. “Yeah. Okay.”

He dressed in a dream and washed his face, brushing his hair for the first time in forever. “Good, good.” He didn’t even go to the sink to get a glass of water. He immediately picked up the newspaper lying on the kitchen table and perused the contents of it, flipping page after page and scraping his eyes over the paper without really reading it. He was ready within the hour, certainly, though he couldn’t remember it at all. It was as if his memory had been wrapped in cotton wool, or as if an opaque white fog had rolled down over him. There was no cripplingly cold black void, no blast of oblivion. Just… cloud. And cloud was fine. Fine.

He couldn’t feel Kiyoko’s hand at his back when they walked. He knew it was there, but he refused to acknowledge it. He didn’t know why. Why was it there? Did she think he would slip and fall? The ground wasn’t that icy. Why did she keep looking at him like that? Her eyes were too curious. She must have found her glasses eventually because she’s wearing them now. Were they under her bed like last time? Or maybe she left them on top of the crockery cupboard. She’d done it before - numerous times - after all, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. Sugawara shifted away from her a little bit, pulling his coat a little tighter around him, even though it wasn’t as cold as he thought it was. There was so much Kiyoko wanted to ask him, and he knew that, but he was glad she didn’t. He was glad she decided to walk with that casual swing to her step with her eyes straight ahead. She noticed him. And he felt guilty.

But as much as he hated it, he couldn’t bring himself to apologise. The simple words, ‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t come to him at all, despite the way he usually said it so often. He didn’t want to speak at all, not really, because he felt he shouldn’t. It would be wrong to say anything. He ought to be quiet.

It was alarming, the way the fog was following him. He thought he could keep one step ahead of it, keep himself in the sunlight for a little while longer, but it was proving to be incredibly difficult to keep up his pace. He shook those thoughts from his head, just as he’d been taught, and shot a lopsided and pleasantly bright grin in his friend’s direction.

He ordered food even thought he wasn’t hungry. He wasn’t really ever hungry. He still forced food down his throat, though, because he needed to; his body needed the nutrients, he needed the energy. He knew that. He’d read enough of those science journals in the kitchen to know that. Old habits died hard - especially for Sugawara. The food tasted bland, even so; it was hot and seasoned to perfection (Kiyoko oughtn’t to have taken him out somewhere so nice. What was she thinking wasting good money on someone like him?) but it still tasted like boiled tree bark as he ate it. His eyes were restless, flicking from object to object, from person to person. He noticed tiny things, like what colour that girl’s skirt was, or what toy that baby had in its hand. How many crows were sitting preening themselves in one of the almond trees. How many times the shop bell tingled in a minute. The way Kiyoko tucked her hair behind her ear. Kiyoko’s Amaryllis broach pinned to the breast of her cardigan.

It was a funny thing, really. Sugawara wasn’t angry and he wasn’t upset. He was indifferent to most things at times like these. He was untouchable. He didn’t touch the ground when he walked, so when he stomped his boots on the mat outside their apartment door it was a shock to see ice peel off the soles. He couldn’t feel his clothes on his body, so if Kiyoko hadn’t been there to remind him to change them, he probably wouldn’t have. He didn’t feel dirty, so if the shower wasn’t on the way to his bedroom, he would have certainly forgotten to shower. He’d learned his lesson in that respect, anyway. Nothing was touching him. He didn’t feel it. It was as though he was suspended in water. Senseless. It was… unnerving. But he was used to it. What he wasn’t used to was not having someone to push him in a set direction; Kiyoko left him well enough alone, and Sugawara floundered sometimes. But he was getting better. That’s what she told him, anyway.

“Do you feel like a bath? I bought some salts the other day,” Kiyoko asked after they’d peeled off their jackets and scarves and gloves.

“No. I’ll drown.”

Kiyoko wasn’t startled. I’ll forget where I am and slip under, and I’ll be dead before I realise. It wasn’t a threat. It was an observation; an accurate prediction.

“I’ll make you some tea then. Chamomile, to calm you down.”

“Only if you’re having some, otherwise I won’t bother you.”

“I am, I am. We can drink it together - let’s watch a movie. You pick the movie and I’ll make the tea. Deal?”

“Sure.”

Sugawara picked out the sappiest, corniest film he could find. It was a ploy to make him cry (hopefully), to strike some feeling back into his body before he dissolved into nothing. His breath rose quick and rapid in his throat as he picked the movie out, frantically looking to see which film was most likely to make him feel something, anything.

The tea was scalding and it burned his tongue. He liked how it burned his tongue, despite him knowing that it would hurt like a bitch the next morning. He heard every word of the film, noted every action in excruciating detail, and relief flooded every fibre of his body when he felt tears prick at his eyes and overwhelming sadness tug at his heart at the climax. Kiyoko was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue already, but Sugawara was smiling, more to himself than the film. He was going to be okay. He was going to be just fine.

He and Kiyoko parted in the corridor after locking up and turning out the lights. The tea had calmed him down, and contentment sat in his stomach. It was good. The more he blinked and the more often he rubbed his eyes, the better he felt. Sleep - he needed rest. He knew he did. And falling into bed wasn’t a difficult task, either, not with the soft glow from the moon and the ruddy lights in the street outside.

When Sugawara woke up the apartment was empty. Kiyoko must have a shift - made sense. Sugawara was lying on his stomach, face pressed to the pillow and arms thrust underneath it. He rolled onto his back, the cool air rushing over his face. He was piecing himself back together little by little; he’d do it eventually.

He dragged himself from his bed wrapped in a blanket, shuffling down the hall to the kitchen and fumbling the the cabinet for a clean glass. His fingers were still numb from where he had been lying on them, so he handled the glass clumsily as he tried to get it down. He did not drop it, it did not shatter, and he managed to get a hold of it before it had a chance to do either of those things. He filled it to the top with water and took a long drink, each cell of his body seeming to suck up the water like a sponge. He placed the almost-empty glass down on the counter and splashed his face with the cold water from the tap, scrubbing at his skin and drying his face with the hem of his shirt. He felt vivid - alive. He was more relieved than anything, a distant echo of what he’d felt when he had cried during the movie the night before.

He showered again, more out of habit than need, but he felt better for it afterwards; he force himself to look in the mirror and found out that he didn’t look half as bad as he’d felt. He tried to make a check list in his head of things he needed to do… there wasn’t much to be done except tidy up the apartment and post the letters and cards. It was too far from Christmas to post the letters anyway.

Sugawara rolled up his sleeves and set about tidying the apartment. He didn’t clean that often, but since Kiyoko had been busy during her holiday shifts she hadn’t found the time to do much cleaning herself. Sugawara stacked and tidied, wiped and polished, disposed of and rinsed, dusted and straightened. He marvelled at how much of a difference a little bit of order made to a room. He also found an alarming amount of his belongings strewn about here and there, in completely unassuming places, and it all formed quite a nice stack at the foot of his bed as he carted things from the living room to his bedroom. He picked up a cushion off the couch, revealing his laptop. Thank God I found it, Sugawara thought as he chewed on his lip. Somebody might have sat on it and crushed it. And that would have sent him hundreds of thousands of yen out of pocket. It really wasn’t something he needed at that point.

He took his laptop back to his room, setting it safely on his desk and plugging it into the charger. He whisked around his own bedroom to straighten it up and put things back where they were meant to go - he even pulled up the covers on his bed and opened the blinds so the watery sunlight could tumble through. It looked so much better when it wasn’t cluttered. With a contented huff, Sugawara put his hands on his hips and admired his work.

Opening the lid of his laptop to check if the battery level was high or not, Sugawara’s thoughts turned briefly to the lilies. They were beginning to wilt a little, but Sugawara didn’t want to throw them out because they weren’t his to dispose of. Kiyoko - she’d be back in a little bit. He’d ask her then.

The screen lit up automatically (shit, he’d forgotten to turn it off); the battery level was critically low, so Sugawara hastily flicked on the power point with his toe. The screen was still filled with the homepage of the dating website he’d been frequenting… a place he hadn’t thought of in a while. He bit back a little smile as he thought of Sawamura Daichi and the awkward but endearing conversation they’d had before; little flutters travelled up through Sugawara’s throat at the memory. How could he have forgotten?

Sugawara logged into his profile and felt giddy as he went into his inbox. But… there was nothing. He hadn’t been on for a few days and there was nothing? He shut the window and closed his laptop. It was a mistake. Something had gone wrong - Sawamura was on holidays or something. He’d probably gone to see his family, or… his friends. Somewhere. Somewhere where he couldn’t access the site - or maybe he was too busy. It was a busy time of year, after all, so it wouldn’t be surprising… would it? Sugawara bit back a nervous giggle. Probably busy. He was probably away.

“He has a life of his own to live,” Sugawara told himself harshly as he began to put the already-ordered books above his desk into order.  “It doesn’t all revolve around you, remember. He has his own life.” He paused, staring at his long, pale hands as they rested on the spines of the books before him. His knuckles were knobbly, fingers long and the host to many bandaids over the years. He smiled gently. He had his own life to live, too.

But, for once, Sugawara’s wavering optimism failed him.

As the days wore on Sugawara began to impulsively monitor everything. He shouldn’t have opened his computer. He should have shut down that site when he’d last finished using it. What kind of curse did he have for that to have happened? He couldn’t take his mind off the little 0 that was constantly staring him into the face. 0 new messages. Nothing.

For some reason or another it made Sugawara feel marginally invisible. It taunted him and it made him nervous. It wasn’t the number, it wasn’t the site - it was the silence. Sugawara had never, not once in his life, been perturbed by silence. It was still something he hated, but he’d never been in a situation where it had been absolutely silent. At least… not for a while. It rattled him more than it should have. Sawamura Daichi was utterly, completely silent.

The first few days were fine. Sugawara went about his business as he always did. He found little things to keep him busy and to keep his mind occupied; he re-organised the mugs in the cabinets in the kitchen. He went to buy new flowers to replace the lilies - Kiyoko had come home and gasped in both shock and pleasure to find the apartment so clean. She’d agreed to throw out the lilies, which were by then drooping and turning a sad shade of brown. He bought sunflowers, big yellow blooms with deep, rich brown centres that gave the whole room a new light. There was always something to keep him busy, or an errand to run. He didn’t have a job, and he seriously considered getting one just to pass the time. But the memory of university deterred him - he wouldn’t be able to handle both a job and a degree at the same time, not with the amount of work Sugawara was wont to put into his schooling. Sometimes the neighbourhood grannies would call on him to help shovel their drives free of snow. He got a few babysitting jobs, too - Sugawara had always been good with kids. He was that kind of person; children trusted him immediately, and he was always gentle with them, always kind. He never had to raise his voice - he only had to look at them a certain way and they’d shudder in fear and do exactly what he asked. With all the social calls being made by mothers and fathers, there were loads of opportunities for Sugawara to watch over the kids.

When almost a week had past Sugawara began to get jittery. Not at Sawamura, but more at himself - after a week had passed Sawamura himself was put almost completely out of his mind by Sugawara’s sudden absorption with his own incompetence (or so he thought). He would check his messages tens of times a day. The window was always open, the computer always on. He’d refresh the page and watch it, as if there were little messages hiding somewhere he couldn’t see. He knew he was being ridiculous, but there was a violent need for him to do what he was doing, and he glumly thought to himself that he probably couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. It’s compulsive. He can’t help it. It’s something he has to do at 2 a.m. or he won’t be able to sleep. It’s something he has to do at noon or else he’ll wander around fidgeting until Kiyoko yells at him. At night he’d wake up with shaking fingers and awful thoughts in his head. It’s you, Koushi. It’s you.

“He’s just busy,” Sugawara murmured to himself, tapping his fingers against his thigh. “It’s almost Christmas. It’s the holidays, he’d probably visiting relatives. Probably really busy… with his family. They’re really important.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Kiyoko asked pointedly when she walked into the living room to see Sugawara’s legs hanging over the back of the couch. She’d vaguely noticed something a little odd about him, but he was a difficult person to get information out of.

“Hey, um, do you think that Sawamura Daichi guy still likes me?”

“Probably.” Kiyoko’s answer was honest. “I mean, there’s nothing not to like about you.”

No matter how much he tried to reassure himself, and no matter how much Kiyoko told him so, there was always a little sneer at the back of his mind, instilled and hammered there. He’d thought it had gone away a long time ago. It hadn’t.

“Stop fretting,” Kiyoko told him after twelve days. He’d been counting the days though he hand’t meant to. He would never admit to himself that he’d been counting days; it was merely a guess - an estimate - that happened to be correct. That’s what he had to keep telling himself. Stop fretting? Sugawara laughed in reply, the sound coming far too easy.

“I’m not fretting! I’m just nervous about going back to mom’s for Christmas. You think she’s going to be okay?”

It was easier to talk about her than it was to talk about Sawamura Daichi or the sudden damp coldness that had gripped Sugawara by the shoulders. Of course his mother would be fine - she’d been discharged from hospital days ago with nothing but warm wishes.

Two weeks to the day and Sugawara couldn’t get out of bed. He’d slept like the dead for the past eleven hours but he still felt like he could sleep for another sixteen years. It was the constant heaviness in his bones. His unwillingness to go anywhere or see anyone. But it wasn’t Sawamura Daichi who brought that on. Something else was there. Sugawara just didn’t know what it was.

There never was a reason. Sometimes it just happened, like flipping a switch. He didn’t ask for it. He couldn’t prepare for it. Some days his defence was thinned, and some days the fog just seemed thicker. It isn’t Sawamura’s fault. It’s yours.

Pulling himself out of bed was akin to physical agony. His bones ached and his eyes refused to open, but he knew he had to go. He had to get out, even though it was still relatively early. He had to move, he had to breathe. Air. He needed air.

Sugawara dressed blindly, grumbling and rubbing his eyes as he pulled on his pants and fumbled around for a shirt. He almost strangled himself accidentally while tying his scarf around his neck, but he still managed to get out the door without incident. He paused for a moment in the cool quiet of the fire stairs before descending to where his car was parked.

The boulevard was already full of people, the shop doors flung wide and families wrapped up in winter clothes, their breath visible in the crisp morning air. Sugawara felt alone, even more so he was around so many people. The ground disappeared under his feet with each step he took. He felt like a leper, like everybody was staring at him even though he could see their backs were turned. Walking, keep walking. The names braces of the almond trees rattled in the sharp breeze, and there was a yell from somewhere behind him. He huddled further into the collar of his jacket, shielding his running nose agains the chill and sticking close to the sidewalk. Angry footsteps approached him loud as the ticking of a clock in a silent room; Sugawara wasn’t able to swerve away before he was knocked into by someone with punched shoulders and an arm thrown across their face. He briefly caught the sight of grit teeth and a scrunched brow. All he saw was anger. Remorse. And it was like a slap to the face.

He stopped in his tracks, eyes trained on the broad body striding down the walkway in front of him. With that knock to his shoulder it was as though some of that avid passion had been struck into him - how long would it take for the fog to snuff it out? He grit his teeth against the thought.

He turned on his heel and returned the way he came.

“Suga!”

Kiyoko’s voice startled him and he looked up from the science journal he had been staring (blindly) at for the last forty-five minutes.

“One of your cousins called - her son has a volleyball match on today. This afternoon, actually, and she wanted you to come along.”

“Do I have to? It’s really cold.”

Kiyoko flopped down onto the sofa beside him. “Yes, you do. It’ll be good for you - get you out of the house. Besides, you like volleyball! And I like volleyball.”

Sugawara sighed and tossed the journal onto the coffee table. “All right, fine. But just this once. And you have to pay for drinks.”

Kiyoko laughed. “Deal.”

The game was at four, and Sugawara slept for a good three hours before that. Kiyoko found him snoozing on the sofa and groaned at him until he woke up and agreed to dress himself. She dragged him to the car and half tossed him into it. “Suga!” she barked, trying not to laugh. “Cooperate!”

The day was dazzling, and when they got there they found Sugawara’s cousin waiting for them by the gate to the park. It was a big, open-air space with four volleyball courts, all empty except for one, which was milling with children and parents and various other bystanders.

“Welcome, welcome!” Sugawara’s cousin, Hiromi, greeted them with a wave. She had the same ashen blonde hair as Sugawara did, though she’d dyed it darker. She was hand-in-hand with a little boy who appeared to be about six or seven years old with a head of bright orange hair and eyes as bright as the sun. He was practically bouncing, face split in an excited grin. “I’m glad you made it.” She showed them over to their team’s marquis, where the team’s coach was addressing the children and handing out numbered vests. The coach was a woman with pale hair and long, toned limbs and a sharp smile. She grinned like a cat and the children squealed and cheered along.

“Shouyou!” Hiromi called to the boy who was struggling to pull a vest over his head. Before she could get to him, though, a dark-haired little boy came over and helped him out, pulling down the vest with an exasperated expression. “Go get ‘em!”

Sugawara stood by Kiyoko when the game began. She kept disappearing to the snack stalls set up by some of the mothers, coming back with much-needed steaming cups of coffee.

Hiromi, vocal as Sugawara remembered her to be, cheered tirelessly.

“They’re good,” Kiyoko observed through a mouthful of biscuit. “Especially Shouyou and that tall boy - what’s his name? Kage-something?”

“Kageyama,” Hiromi replied with a proud grin. “Kageyama Tobio. He lives near us - those two fight like anything, but they work great as a team, especially in volleyball.”

Sugawara couldn’t help but grin whenever his team scored a point. The children were hilarious, treating the match like fun and games, just as they should. He loved volleyball - he loved watching it, he loved playing it… he hadn’t hit a ball in a while. But there was something about it that made his chest tighten in all the right ways.

He lifted the styrofoam cup to his lips to take a sip of his coffee and realised it was empty. He looked up - it was the end of the second set, so he’d have enough time to go and get a refill before the third set started.

Picking his way to the end of the court, he made his way towards the trestle tables lined with jugs of steaming drinks. He had to pass through the other team’s side of the court to get there. An old lady wearing a flowery scarf around her head smiled brightly at him and filled up his cup. They exchanged a few polite words before Sugawara turned to go back, pulling his scarf up around his freezing nose. “Shit,” he grumbled. “It’s cold.” Something bumped him, causing coffee to slosh out of his cup and over someone’s sleeve - his face flushed cold with embarrassment. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s fine,” was the muffled reply, followed by a deft nod before Sugawara was able to sidle away from the throng of people flocking to the tables. He felt his phone begin to ring in his pocket; he walked away from the court a little to answer it.

“Koushi!” It was his mother.

“Hi, mom,” Sugawara cleared his throat and tried to smile into the phone. “Are you feeling better?”

“I am, very much so. You haven’t been returning my calls! I was worried.”

No she wasn’t. “I was… busy.”

“Koushi, I need a favour.”

Ah. Of course. “Would you mind picking up a delivery for me? From the chocolatiers. It’s not too far from where you live, so it isn’t a bother.”

“That’s… no. That’s fine. I can do that. No problem.”

“Thanks, Koushi.” And she hung up before Sugawara could slip in a word. Of course.

Sighing, he tucked the phone away into his pocket. The shrill sound of a whistle blasted through his head like a gunshot; the third set had already started. Trying to keep his cup steady, he meandered through the throng of people in the direction of his own team’s marquis which stood proudly above the heads of the onlookers. Despite how carefully he was treading, though, he still managed to lose his footing and knock into somebody. “Oh!” he squeaked as he tried to save his coffee from spilling. “God! I just can’t walk today.”

The man he’d walked into peered down at him from behind the lenses of his sunglasses. Sugawara, who had been squinting against the sun, cursed himself for not having brought any along with him. “It’s fine, really,” the man assured him. Sugawara glared down at his boot, the laces of which had come undone and had been responsible for tripping him. When he looked up he saw another one of Shouyou and Tobio’s marvellous attacks, and he smiled slightly.

“They’re pretty good, huh?”

“I reckon so,” the man replied in a strangely alluring voice as he sipped at his own cup. “The skill’s en par between teams, actually. It’s going to be close.”

Sugawara glanced shyly up at the man beside him; he was riveted on the game with his scarf pulled high and hit hat pulled low just like Sugawara in a bid to fend off the cold. The sun was bright on the icy ground, onlookers stamping their feet and wiping their running noses. He looked towards the match as well, becoming fixated as soon as his eyes began to trace the movements of the kids as they played. He was too far to the left - that toss was too high - his spike is far too strong, the ball keeps getting hit out. She needs to bend her arms more, to get more spring… they ought to start their run-up from further back on the court. He didn’t notice curious eyes flicking over his face.

“I have to agree,” he said slowly. His voice grated against his throat - like it was wrong of him to say anything - but the way his breath fogged felt good. It felt better. He sighed heavily, putting one cold hand into his pocket and feeling his phone vibrate suddenly around his fingers. He pulled it out, though somewhat reluctantly, and found himself presented with a text message from his mother. It contained the address of the chocolatier’s shop, as well as the order number. His cup was light in his hands, now, and as he looked across the court he saw Hiromi waving her arms at him to come back over. Kiyoko had strolled around the end of the court to get her own refill, and if Sugawara shuffled back a little he could see her grinning at him. He touched the man’s arm gently. “Hey, sorry for tripping over you all the time. Is your sleeve okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine! Don’t worry about it.”

Sugawara couldn’t help but smile; there was something about that voice, the way it felt like sand and earth against his skin. Warm. He just hoped he hadn’t ruined the jacket. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but Sugawara couldn’t quite place what it was. He shook the thought from his head when he aw Kiyoko wave at him, shuffling past the man apologetically and half-jogging towards her.

“Who was that?” she asked, intrigued. “Breaking hearts again?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sugawara said, mockingly offended. He couldn’t stop blushing.

“The game is almost over - it looks close,” Kiyoko observed. She was right: their team lost deep into a deuce, mostly attributed to the children’s exhaustion and wavering attention rather than any lack of skill. It wasn’t the kind of loss one sees on a professional court, either - everyone was glad it was over and there was little to no remorse on either side.

“You were wonderful, Shouyou!” Sugawara congratulated the boy after he’d taken off his vest. Shouyou beamed at him. Sugawara smiled back.

 

Chapter Text

 

VIII: Sawamura Daichi

 

“Daichi, there’s a stain on your jacket.”

“I know there is,” Sawamura said as he fastened Amaya into her car seat. Hayato was already sitting wiggling his feet beside her; he grinned at Sawamura and Sawamura grinned in return.

“Are you going to wash it when we get home?”

“Of course I am,” Sawamura replied with a half-smile, ruffling her hair fondly before buckling himself in and driving them all home. Michimiya stood waving at the gate of the park, Ray Bans reflecting the sun.

Hayato and Amaya began to complain about being tired and hungry, despite the fact that they’d almost devoured most of the packets of biscuits at the game. The adrenaline had run its course.

“I wanna play volleyball!” Hayato yelled from the back seat. “It’s super cool! They way they go bam and wham and hit the ball over the net! And they can jump so high! Awesome!” Sawamura smiled at his reflection in the rear-view mirror, Hayato’s excited jibberish sifting to a soft, comfortable rush like the ocean through Sawamura’s ears.

They got home to find their mother sitting with Haruka on the sofa in the middle of a film. The deep shadows under her eyes had lifted, and she looked brighter, more alive. It sent a warm, affectionate rush up Sawamura’s spine, and the smile Haruka gave him was truly uplifting.

“Mom! Mom!” Hayato and Amaya scrambled up onto the sofa on either side of her.

“How was the match?”

“It was so cool! I want to play volleyball too!”

She patted their heads. “All in good time, sweetie. All in good time.”

Sawamura helped his siblings out of their jackets and gloves and hats and helped them hand them on the hooks by the heater so the melted snow would dry from them, patiently helping them unpack their toys and set up the board game they wanted to play. After doing that he made his way along the hall to his bedroom where he sank down onto his bed and fell back, feeling the weight lift off his feet and the strain lift from his shoulders. He sighed deeply, contentedly, and stretched himself out with a low groan that reverberated down each fibre of muscle.

 

He was woken by his mother. The room was dark and lit only by the soft glow of the hallway light outside his door, which stood ajar. His mother had taken off his shoes and was in the process of laying his comforter up around his chin. She’d closed the blinds and switched off his alarm. When she saw him stir she placed a cool hand over his forehead and stopped him from getting up.

“Whas’ wrong?” Sawamura asked, words slurred together.

“Nothing, darling, go back to sleep. You were shivering.”

Everything was swirling, and Sawamura sank back down against his pillows gratefully.

His sleep was plagued by strange dreams. He dreamed he was lying on the side of a hill, gazing up at the stars. Long grass rushed over his skin - he was naked. But for some reason this didn’t shock him, and he remained on his back with his eyes on the stars as they glimmered and winked and smiled down at him. There was something so eternal about the stars; they made him feel so small, so insignificant and unimportant. He didn’t mind it. There were so many, so many different galaxies he couldn’t see, all wound up tight as spools and hosting life that Sawamura couldn’t even imagine. Smiling drearily, he let his eyes slide shut.

The next thing he remembered was being rocked out of his stupor by turbulent waters - he was still naked, but was being dragged down a wide brown river. The water was icy cold, and the stars of the night sky above him were hostile, white, and mocking. He glanced up at them as the water dragged him down, down, right under the surface and held him in its indefatigable current until his lungs burned for air and his mouth filled with ice. He couldn’t yell, he could barely move, and the numb pleasure he’d felt on the hillside evaporated and was replaced by something much more sinister. He was consumed by terror.

Help me! he thought frantically, and like an answer to his prayers an arm shot out of nowhere and grasped at his hands, at the front of his shirt. Sawamura grappled with it desperately, feeling his feet drag and stagger along a muddy bank until his head broke the surface and his body screamed for his lungs to dredge up the water he’d inhaled. Everything was so real and so vivid that it was easy for Sawamura to forget that he was dreaming. The harsh gravel of the riverbank cut the skin of his hands but it was land, dry land, and he clung to it. Coughing up a mix of what appeared to be water and blood and bile and mud and grass, Sawamura looked up to see the thin, tanned arm that had pulled him from the water. It belonged to a faceless boy, tall for his age and already developing muscles in his thighs and his arms. It was the faceless boy, the one that hovered in the back of Sawamura’s mind. His visage was static, flickering like an old television display.

There wasn’t a building in sight, nor was there the constant rush of traffic Sawamura was used to. All around him was silence, broken only now and again by the trilling of cicadas. The faint rush of the grass was like the ocean, swelling and rolling and gushing, though he couldn’t see the grass at all. The faceless boy looked down at him, tilting his head to the side, and if he’d had a face Sawamura knew he’d be smiling.

The harder Sawamura stared at the boy the more familiar he became. Of course, Sawamura thought dryly after some deliberation. It was him. His face had been stolen.

It was disconcerting, especially for Sawamura, to see his previous self with his soul gouged out. With his identity robbed. Selfless. It was unnerving because if the boy was nobody, officially nonexistent, then what did that make Sawamura? A ghost? A spirit? Did he really exist at all? These were questions he didn’t ask himself, but he sat back on his haunches and passed his hands over his body anyway just to make sure he was solid. His eyes didn’t leave the boy’s face, not once, even though in any other circumstance Sawamura would have fled. He was buck naked, after all. It was a dream, of course, so everything was strange and out of place. Sawamura was warm even though only a second ago he had been freezing. Wind was blowing and his skin was damp but he was warm, still warm.

“What do you want?” he tried to ask. The words came out as viscous as the mud that had poured from his lungs, sounding like they’d been shouted from a significant distance away rather than spoken from his own mouth.

The faceless boy moved towards him and crouched down, strong and veined hands dangling between his knees. His visage flickered once, twice. Slowly an image formed, a channel struggling to get hold of an old TV antenna. Pale skin, pale hair, brown eyes like Sawamura’s but paler still, a latte of crushed ice and coffee. It was a face he recognised, and he reached out to touch it, but the faceless boy flinched back in the most human-like way Sawamura had seen yet. “Who are you?” You certainly aren’t me. He clambered to his feet, finally feeling the chill of the breeze as he turned and scoped out his surroundings.

As soon as he attempted to gauge where he was, the entire earth shifted beneath his feet and he stumbled first forwards, then backwards. His arms flailed as he tried to stop himself from falling over, his feet suddenly somewhat unsupported. A deafening roar filled his ears; what scared Sawamura was what he saw when he looked down.

A hoarse cry tore from his lips and dread filled his stomach with blocks of ice as his eyes locked beneath his feet. Scaffolding - the railing of a bridge over a busy torrent of traffic as violent and as rapid as the river he’d just been drowning in. He wasn’t naked anymore: he was completely clothed, though the clothes he wore were too small, too tight, made for someone smaller and lither than he was. The shoes on his feet pinched at his toes. They weren’t the type of clothes he would wear, either, all beiges and blacks and browns. They smelled different, too. They were not his clothes, that was for sure. But why was he wearing someone else’s clothes? Whose were they? Sawamura had so many questions he wanted to ask, but it was hard to concentrate while trying to balance precariously on the thin metal railing without falling into the traffic rattling below him.

He looked up and saw the faceless boy standing on the walkway on the other side of the bridge, hands behind his back and feet set a little apart. It was a pedestrian bridge, men and women and children walking with sloped shoulders and faces so grey they were unrecognisable. They didn’t seem to notice what he was doing - they didn’t seem to notice him at all.

“What do you want, Daichi?” asked the faceless boy; the only reason Sawamura knew it was the boy who said it was because he recognised his own prepubescent voice even though it was rattled with static. “What are you looking for?”

Sawamura wanted to get down. He wanted out. This dream wasn’t fun - it hadn’t been fun at all, not since he’d closed his eyes against the stars. Ever since he’d started drowning. He wanted to jump down onto the sidewalk and melt into the masses, but his feet wouldn’t move and his body wouldn’t cooperate at all. He didn’t want to be a part of this anymore. The too-small clothes were tightening, strangling him.

The faceless boy waded through the pedestrians, flickering like bad reception, and came to stand and look up at Sawamura. The breeze was cutting and sharp, turning into a wailing wind that ruffled through Sawamura’s hair and through his clothes, freezing him to the bone. The traffic, the wind, the static bellowing in his ears - it was so loud, too loud, and no matter how much Sawamura yelled at the boy on the pavement he knew he could not hear him.

“It’s okay, Daichi.” The faceless boy reached up and put his hand against Sawamura’s stomach. He staggered a little at the contact, as if he’d been shocked, swaying dangerously. “Eventually, you’ll learn.” And then the faceless boy shoved, and Sawamura toppled backward, the river of lights rising up to meet him and the scream of traffic pounding in his ears until he was swallowed up by darkness.

 

Sawamura jerked awake with a yell on his tongue that by some miracle of fate he managed to swallow down. He bit down on his cheek, hard, feeling blood between his teeth. He was sweating; his shirt was stuck to his skin and he was stifled to the point of being unable to breathe. He kicked off his blankets and his sheets and peeled his socks off his feet. Staggering to his window he opened the blinds and pressed his face to the freezing glass, frosted over with a myriad of magical patterns he wasn’t paying attention to. He scrubbed at his face, his eyes, to try and rid himself of the memories of what he’d just experienced. It was awful. It made him feel sick to his stomach.

Nightmares hadn’t been an issue for him for many, many years. Perhaps he’d been too busy for them, his slumber too deep and total for the terrors to take hold. More often than not one of his siblings would come to his room after a nightmare, or wake up and cry loud enough to rouse Sawamura from his bed, especially when their mother was working a late shift. Haruka, too, while choosing to deal with nightmares on her own, sometimes came and sat by his door until she’d calmed down, but never actually went in. The only reason he knew she did this was because he’d happened upon her by coincidence, and had hugged her tightly until she said she was all right. But Sawamura seemed to be exempt from nightmares - at least, he used to be. Now he wasn’t so sure.

He sank into a squat with his head against the wall and pressed his fingers to his eyelids. “This is fucked up. Shit.” He couldn’t rid his mind of the faceless boy, of that flickering television screen or fucked-up binary, the little numbers and the fuzz of reality that seemed to encase him. It was frightening, but it wouldn’t leave. He tried to focus in on the ghost of a face he’d seen in that black mess. “Think,” he growled to himself, clocking himself gently on the side of his head with a closed fist. Pale, pretty, like moonlight. Gentle eyes, but alert, watching. He honed in on each feature he could remember as the memories of the dream grew fainter and fainter, the experience slipping from him as dreams so often do. He tried to organise what he saw, puzzle pieces arranged on the forefront of his mind, and when they all came together Sawamura’s heart dropped through his stomach. “That’s fucked up.”

He traced Sugawara Koushi’s face into the floor between his toes and tried to swallow the sourness in his mouth. As he traced the same lines with the broad pad of his finger over and over again he watched as the dream drifted into the distance, consumed by fog and nothingness until it was just a trace of horror. It was just a nightmare. A half-hour later Sawamura lay face-down on his bed, his body rising and falling with deep, even snores.

 

“Daichi! Wake up! Mom’s taking us out to the park! Come on!”

Hayato and Amaya were taking turns belly-flopping onto Sawamura’s legs. The sun was up already and the kids were already dressed and full of energy.

“I’m up, I’m up.” He glanced at the clock: ten in the morning already.

“Hurry, hurry! Let’s go!” Sawamura had to pick up the two screaming children by their collars and deposit them on the landing so he could shower and change without interruption. He didn’t dwell on the dream he’d had very much; it still sat in the back of his mind, but it didn’t bother him as much as it had beforehand. Once he descended the stairs and found a child latched onto each of his legs and his mother trying to disengage them, his mind was occupied and drawn far, far away from the thoughts he didn’t want to think.

They decided to walk, seeing as there wasn’t much ice. The pavement had been salted, Hayato and Amaya jumping in puddles and stomping and making their mother eternally grateful for the decision to buy them those bright, spotted wellies. The sun was bright and warm against their backs, glistening and glittering against the snow and the slush and the disrupted puddles. Their walk took longer than it usually would, seeing as Sawamura’s mother was constantly chatting to her friends who lived along their road, and the kids would spot their own friends and run shrieking around the street shoving handfuls of dirty slush down each other’s necks. In the end it turned out to be more of a group outing than a family one, the Sawamura party picking up various members along the way.

It was lovely to see his mother sitting with all her friends holding a travel mug of coffee they’d bought from the dinky little café on the corner of the street, between the post office and the convenience store. She was chatting and laughing in the sun, smiling widely and catching up on everything she’d missed in relation to the neighbourhood gossip. The kids were off, too, delighted and yelling as they swung from the play set. Sawamura sat down on a bench in the shade of an old, rickety oak. He sat on his own, hands still snug in the pockets of his jacket. He brought his hand out to look at his wristwatch, but the stain on his sleeve caught his eye; he brought it up to his nose and sniffed. It smelled like coffee.

He felt the ridge of his phone with the fingers of his other hand, and drew the device out very slowly. He cleaned the screen on his thigh, flicking the phone open and browsing through his apps as though he was just… looking…

He opened the online dating app. It was inevitable. Fuck destiny, fuck everything. That dream wasn’t fate, that was bullshit. It was a coincidence. The coffee on his sleeve had just reminded him of what Asahi had said to him at Nid’s - it was something that still didn’t sit quite right with Sawamura. He knew Asahi was right and acknowledged it - but he could never admit it.

His inbox was empty. Shit, he thought with a tight throat. His gut rippled uneasily. Maybe he was right. Shit. It was then the realisation crashed over him, like the end of most of his relationships. It was the age-old principle of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, and Sawamura was a hair’s breadth from bashing his skull in against the trunk of the tree. It was partly out of shame and partly out of fury due to his own sheer stupidity and ignorance. This was how it always ended - he’d cruise on, taking like as he always had, the comfortable feeling of having someone thinking of him (maybe), someone to call on and hug and kiss, sitting warm in his chest like a secure weight. But he wouldn’t maintain it and the link would grow cold and snap, and the weight would fall away, leaving Sawamura to drift and drift until he realised that he was alone again, and it made him feel immensely guilty. He ought to fix it, he knew he did. He had to. Just as Asahi had told him.

Sugawara Koushi. Student. 22 years old. Sawamura scrolled through his profile, looked at the picture for a while and reread the messages they’d sent to each other. Bit by bit he felt himself become entranced again, sitting in the shade of that old oak tree with the sound of chattering mothers and excited children. He smiled slightly, returning to his inbox and hitting ‘new message’.

It was easier than he’d thought, now, since he’d spoken to Sugawara before (and successfully). Nervous energy tingled in his fingers and bubbled in his stomach as he wrote, reading through and deleting to start over. It was difficult - more difficult he could have ever imagined - to send a message to someone like Sugawara Koushi. Or, at least, Sawamura thought it was.

 

Sugawara, Sawamura had written, grinning like a fool as he keyed in the name.

I know I’ve been absent for a long while - it isn’t because I don’t like you or because I think you’re boring… I’ve been busy. (he’s thought long and hard about an excuse, and felt that this was the best one, seeing as it was mostly true.) I’ve also been forgetful and negligent, a curse of mine. I’m sorry - I hope you’ll forgive me. I’d like to talk to you soon - give me a time and a date and I’ll be yours. -Sawamura Daichi

 

He was happy with it. He didn’t have anyone to check it, but in a way that was better; it made it more private. Intimate. He hit send before he could think twice. He felt proud and complacent. See, Asahi? I’m not so bad.

But… they were awful things to feel. They weren’t the emotions Sawamura ought to have been experiencing after having messaged Sugawara suddenly, out of the blue, after an almost three-week long silence. They were really fucking terrible things to feel. Pride. Complacent. Complacent. He caught himself feeling emotions shallower than the puddles his siblings had been jumping in, feelings that revolved around himself instead of the person he really ought to be apologising to. Sawamura was the one at fault, yet here he was, being proud of himself. Fracturing his skull against the tree was looking very attractive.

“Daichi, are you okay? You look a little ill.” Sawamura hadn’t noticed his mother standing over him with an empty coffee cup and a warm smile. She felt his forehead.

“I’m fine - I just thought of something. How about you? How are you feeling?”

She sat down beside him with a happy sigh. “So much better.” She looked out across the park to where the children were climbing over the jungle gym or pushing each other on the swing set or the carousel. “It’s been tough, Daichi, not just for me but for you as well. I hear what happened with Yui -,” Sawamura made to cut her off but she held up a hand, demanding silence. “I heard what happened with Yui, and I want you to know that you don’t have to be in a relationship. It isn’t something that’s critical. You’ll still grow up, you’ll still develop as a human being both physically and mentally regardless of whether or not you have a partner. I know… I know the media places a lot of weight on romance and sex, Daichi, but it isn’t everything. Don’t feel as if it’s your duty to go out and get a girlfriend, or a wife, or whatever.” She nudged him with her shoulder.

“I know,” he replied, twisting his phone in his hands. “I know. It’s tough, because I forget. Maybe I think I should be more involved, but I really just… don’t hold relationships in high value. Not those kinds of relationships, anyway… romantic ones. Sexual ones. The relationship I have with my family and my friends do me just fine. I don’t…” he paused to lick his teeth nervously. “I don’t know why I keep going back.”

His mother patted his hand reassuringly. “We all have our ups and downs, Daichi, and remember that you’re only in your twenties. Your life is still only just beginning. By the time you’re my age you might have figured out where your heart lies, if it lies anywhere at all!” She laughed. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured. Also…” her voice dropped low. “I don’t want you to feel the opposite, either. I don’t want you to feel as if you have to stick around because I’m not at home. If you have a girl, or friends, or anything like that that could improve your life, or something you want to pursue… please, for the love of God, Daichi, don’t put your dreams aside for us. Don’t make the same mistake I did and live your life working shit hours in a job you don’t enjoy. Do something you love, but don’t let us hold you back.”

They’d had this same discussion when Sawamura was about thirteen years old. He remembered it vividly. His mother had called him into the dining room and sat him down. She’d told him, her voice incredibly sombre, to pursue something he loved. She told him that as long as she was alive there’d always be a home to receive him if he lost his way, and that she would support him in whatever he wanted to do. She told him that she didn’t care whether or not he became a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. She didn’t care about how much money he’d make or how many children he’d have, what neighbourhood he’d live in as an adult. All she cared about was his happiness, because she’d been robbed of hers for reasons she hadn’t disclosed to him back then. Daichi knew it had something to do with his father - it was intuition. He’d never had enough courage to ask about it. Whenever he asked where his father was his mother would just sigh and shrug her shoulders and say ‘he’s dead’ as though she was relaying the morning news. There was a certain bitterness to her voice and to her eyes whenever Sawamura asked, so eventually he stopped.

“It was dad, wasn’t it?”

Sawamura’s mother looked at him, startled. “What?”

“My dad.” He saw her swallow, her face set like chalk.

“Daichi, we don’t need to talk about him.”

“We do,” Sawamura said, keeping his voice low. “We do. You do. What did he do? Why is it that you’re always telling me to travel, to go places, to pursue what I dream of doing?”

“Because I never did,” she hissed in return, eyes brighter and more excited than he’d seen in a long while. “I never could. It was something that was impossible for me, because I -,” she bit her tongue and drew away, pale. “I can’t talk about this now. Later.” She got to her feet before Sawamura could say another word, calling to her other children. “Come on! We’re going now! It looks like rain’s coming.”

She was right; the day had warmed enough to turn the snowfall to rain, and Sawamura was glad they’d packed the umbrellas, just in case. Hayato and Amaya shared one, their mother donning the second one after Sawamura demonstrated the waterproof capabilities of his jacket. “Multipurpose,” he’d said with a toothy grin as he flapped his pockets at her.

They avoided picking up where they’d left off, and instead elected to play smalltalk like a ping-pong match, batting frivolities back and forth about the weather or about how ugly the christmas decorations were. There was a heaviness in the air between them, though, one that Sawamura was entirely too aware of. He almost picked the topic back up, but was distracted as an ambulance tore down the street with the sirens blaring and lights whirring.

“Someone’s day just got a whole lot worse,” his mother sighed and shook her head. “Poor dears.”

By the time they got home the rain had stopped and the two children were utterly exhausted. Their mother took them upstairs to run them a warm bath, Amaya holding fast to Mami to make sure she didn’t fall down the toaster slot again and Hayato trying to wrestle it from her.

“You look down,” came a voice from behind Sawamura, making him jump violently in shock. Haruka stood in the doorway to the kitchen, her hair pulled up on top of her head wrapped in dyeing foils. “And you’ve been staring at your phone for the last three minutes.”

“Not having an existential crisis are you, sis?” Sawamura asked slyly, nodding towards his sister’s hair.

“Don’t try to avoid the subject, bro,” Haruka replied. She folded her arms across her chest and jutted her chin in the direction of Sawamura’s hands. “What’s the deal? What has you so hooked on that thing? Though… I haven’t seen you on it these past couple of weeks, granted.”

Sawamura groaned. “I know. That’s the issue, right?” and he turned on his heel and traipsed up the stairs with footfalls that sounded more like thunder.

When he got to his room Sawamura flung his phone across the floor so it hit the wall and rebounded to clatter down between the side of his bed and the wall. He swore under his breath, angry more at himself than anything, whipping his shirt over his head and pulling on a loose, comfortable sweater that was so threadbare it had holes in it. He kicked off his boots, falling face-first onto his bed and jamming his arm down between the bed and the wall to feel around for his phone. Finding it, he gave it a quick once-over to make sure it wasn’t broken or in need of immediate care. Once he was sure it was safe he melted into the mattress and was on the very verge of sleep when his phone buzzed in his fingers.

Probably forgot something, he thought numbly and lifted his phone to his face. The lock screen was, however, very clear, and the notification had not been from Michimiya. Sugawara Koushi has replied to your message.

He opens his phone quickly and precisely, the notification sending him right to the reply.

 

It’s fine! I’ve been busy, too - it’s a hectic time of year, right? You don’t need to apologise for anything. And if you’re online… would you like to talk right now?

 

Sawamura’s heart leapt into his throat. For some reason or another he could hear the words leave Sugawara’s lips, hear his voice as he said them. It made his breath catch in his throat, and he rolled onto his back to hold his phone over his face. He saw the little green circle next to Sugawara’s name. With a quivering finger he hit IM.

 

Sawamura Daichi: hi! long time no see

Sugawara Koushi: I know, I know! we’ve both been busy by the sounds of things. How have you been?

Sawamura Daichi: good! busy. things have been pretty busy, you know?

Sugawara Koushi: i do know - must be the time of year!

Sawamura Daichi: have you been up to anything interesting, lately?

Sugawara Koushi: not really; gifts and cards and relatives, nothing riveting…

 

Sawamura smiled to himself, tapping the end of his finger against his chin.

 

If anyone walked past Sawamura’s door in the next hour and a half they would have been able to hear snorts of laughter and long, drawn sighs. It was as though he was having a strange dream, perhaps, or watching a show on his laptop. But he was lying on his bed laughing at the things Sugawara said, and sighing at other things, poetic things, artistry created where artistry was not implied. The more and more they talked the closer and closer Sugawara seemed to him, until he again seemed to be sitting just across the room, just out of reach. But he wasn’t there, not really. He wanted to be able to reach out and touch him, to feel the skin of this strange, unfamiliar (yet so, so familiar) person, to feel his hair, to feel his lips smile at him, or grin at him. To see those eyes - those eyes - that had taken him so completely.

At some point their conversation turned; it was unexpected, like missing the bottom step when descending a flight of stairs in the dark.

 

Sugawara Koushi: i feel like you’re right here with me, sometimes - then i look up and you aren’t.

 

This caught Sawamura somewhat off guard - they’d been talking about their lives, getting deeper than the previous week. Were they any good at studies in High School? Hobbies? Siblings? Sometimes he’d catch himself gazing at the screen, at the indeterminable icon next to Sugawara’s name. Just gazing, not noticing the messages coming through until they stopped. Until Sugawara sent a message reading ‘Sawamura?’ and Sawamura had replied ‘just call me Daichi.’ Sugawara had, and Sawamura grinned into his forearm like a fool. But this… this was something that made Sawamura’s heart seize up in the nicest, most shocking way possible. It was almost like fear, but it was something sweeter, something filled with electricity. It was something that made him chew on his bottom lip.

Looking down at Sugawara’s message, he tried to imagine him saying it. He tried to picture Sugawara’s lips forming the words, his tongue flicking them out, how his face would move and shift with emotion. But it was a difficult thing to do.

 

Sawamura Daichi: i think that sometimes too. it’s like i can hear your voice. ah - was that too creepy? i’m sorry

Sugawara Koushi: it isn’t. i have no idea what you sound like but for some reason i think i can hear you too. at times. it’s strange, but… nice?

 

There was a pause between them again, the unanimous exhaling of air. A silence that reminded Sawamura of the movies he’d watched throughout his life, where the protagonist and their love interest sat under the stars, or in the warm light of a restaurant or a bedroom, just looking at each other in mutual adoration.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I wish you were here.

Sugawara Koushi: I wish you were here, too.

 

Sawamura began to bite at his lips again. It was as though someone had their fist closed around his heart and was squeezing. It was… pleasant. It stole the breath clear from Sawamura’s throat. He lay in the dark with only the light of his phone casting a mechanical blue glow about the room; it was cold, but he felt warm. Just like his dream, but better.

Of course he couldn’t say ‘let’s meet up!’ - he didn’t have the courage, and he didn’t feel as though he really knew Sugawara enough. More time - just a little. For some strange reason Sawamura wasn’t impatient; he reasoned that it was because there was something so gentle about Sugawara’s online presence - something he didn’t want to ruin. The thought was sour. Sugawara wasn’t a character Sawamura could keep in his head like that! He was a real, living, breathing human.

 

Sawamura’s tongue swelled a little bit; it was a risk that raced through his mind and closed round his neck like strangling fingers. He bit down on his lip, hard, trying to convince himself otherwise and to talk himself out of asking the question he wanted so strongly to ask.

Too late.

 

Sawamura Daichi: do you wanna swap photos?

 

Creep-Meistre, he thought bitterly.

 

Sugawara Koushi: sure, why not? if you’re prepared for my horrific face, haha.

Sawamura Daichi: i don’t think you could ever look horrific, Suga.

 

After he realised what he sent his heart jolted in his chest. Shit! And he’d just called him Suga, of all things!

 

Sugawara Koushi: you go first, though.

Sawamura Daichi: sure - just give me a second!

 

He launched himself off his bed with a sudden, vigorous energy that certainly hadn’t been there a couple of minutes earlier. He hit the lights, flooding the room with bright, gold light. He leaned over his dresser to peer at himself in the mirror hung on his wall. Trying to flatten the hair that stuck up at the back of his head with the palm of his hand, Sawamura ran his tongue over his teeth and grinned at himself. You’re primping yourself up like you’re in high school all over again.

It was incredibly difficult finding the right angle to take the photo at. Sawamura rarely took pictures of himself, and with each new photograph he picked out a flaw that made him delete and begin again. Eventually, consumed with frustration, he held the phone straight in font of him and grinned, taking the photo and saving it before he could change his mind.

 

Sawamura Daichi: ready? prepare yourself for a glimpse of the underworld.

Sugawara Koushi: oh hush. you’re overreacting!

<new file from Sawamura Daichi>

 

The silence was stifling. Sawamura’s fingers drummed against his thigh as Sugawara accepted the file. What would he think? Was it okay? Would he think Sawamura was too ugly? Sawamura didn’t think he could show his face again if -

Sugawara Koushi: you’re… really cute.

 

Sawamura clutched his chest.

 

Sawamura Daichi: you think so? that’s a surprise. i always assumed i looked like a bit of a dork.

Sugawara Koushi: you do. but a cute dork.

 

He couldn’t hold back the grin that split across his face. The sun might as well have been rising in his chest. Sugawara thought he was cute - no ugly, no rigid politeness saying ‘you look nice.’ Just natural honesty.

 

Sugawara Koushi: so… do I send you one now?

Sawamura Daichi: only if you’re comfortable. i don’t want to rush you into anything you aren’t ready for.

Sugawara Koushi: no, i am ready! I’m going to send you something.

Sawamura Daichi: if you’re sure.

Sugawara Koushi: i am.

<new file from Sugawara Koushi>

 

Sawamura’s finger hovered over the ‘download’ button. He wasn’t sure why he hesitated like he did - perhaps it was wrong, like he was prying too deeply into Sugawara’s personal life. No, he thought. That’s ridiculous. You started this, at least finish it.

“Fuck.”

It was obvious Sugawara had taken the photo himself. His shoulder was out of frame, the angle low and displaying the soft curve of his jaw. Pale hair framed a slender face, gentle in all the places Sawamura’s was not. Eyes, seeming to glint visibly even through the image, fixed on his. Sugawara’s lips were twisted into a slight smile, showing a little bit of teeth, is eyes narrowing at the corners. His eyelashes were so long, almost feminine, and there was that delightful little mark on his cheek. Everything about Sugawara was really… nice to look at. Sawamura’s mouth went dry.

 

Sawamura Daichi: you’re really beautiful, you know that?

 

There was no reply, not for at least half a minute, and Sawamura began to fret.

 

Sugawara Koushi: not for a long time, no.

 

The silence after he placed his phone face-down on his desk - after Sugawara had said goodnight and had gone his own way, leaving Sawamura alone - the silence pressed in around him unlike it ever had before. There was no sound, absolutely none - there was no movement outside the door of his bedroom our outside his window, either. Even the air seemed to be completely still. All he could hear was his heartbeat, his own blood rushing through his veins, his bones grinding against each other each time he moved. The pass of breath between his lips, silent, ghostly. All he could see was Sugawara, his face, the gentle light glancing off his skin. He could see every pore of his skin, every eyelash, every strand of hair. And it was all so perfect, so beautiful, Sawamura couldn’t stop thinking about him. He blushed, covering his cheeks with his hands. It was perfect, Sugawara was perfect.

There was, however, something else. Sawamura became acutely aware of something cold and damp sitting at the back of his throat; a damp, cold feeling that he couldn’t place, nor could he attribute anything to. There was something off about Sugawara’s gaze. The way he smiled. Slanted, stagnant. It was strange, like those devastated angel sculptures in European churches. Something familiar, too, as if Sawamura had seen him somewhere before. He shook his head, rolling over onto his side and sighing.

He’d never met Sugawara before. How ridiculous.

 

Chapter Text

IX: Sugawara Koushi

 

“Oh my God.” Sugawara clapped a hand over his mouth. “Oh my God, what an absolute dork.”

He looked at the photograph Sawamura Daichi had just sent him; he looked at it from this angle, from that angle, and he giggled, because it was so ridiculously charming. He could almost see Sawamura fuming with frustration and giving up to take the dopiest shot of his face, and it made him laugh, because Sawamura really was just a hulking, clumsy thundercloud. Or, at least, that’s what Sugawara thought.

Sawamura’s picture was heartwarming. His face was bright in a sunny grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes in a surprisingly youthful way, and put creases in his face that Sugawara never saw in magazines. His hair looked almost gold in the light of the room he had taken the photo in, but it was dark and cropped close to his head, much the same as his official profile picture. His teeth were so neat, arranged in a straight line like dominoes, though Sugawara noticed that the those in his bottom jaw were a little clustered together, overlapping in places, and that there was a little chip in his left canine. He blushed at himself, embarrassed to have been looking that closely. But, God, Sawamura was cute. He was beyond cute; he was handsome, devilishly so, all chiselled jaw and coal-like eyes and wide grins. His neck was corded with muscle and the line of his nose was familiar and strong. Sugawara tapped his fingernails against his teeth and couldn’t help but smile into his hand, blushing again like a schoolboy confronted by a crush.

Sawamura Daichi’s face demanded attention, even through a photograph. Sugawara could tell that much; he tried to imagine what Sawamura would look like with his eyes full of fire and his smile smaller, fiercer, and his stomach swam appreciatively at the thought. Or maybe Sawamura’s arms, undoubtedly packed with coiled muscle, and how they’d look in a t-shirt, or when he puts his chin in his hands. What would Sawamura Daichi look like when he’s sleeping? Would he be an ugly sleeper, or a pretty one? No, Sugawara thought nervously. That’s really creepy.

“Kiyoko!” Sugawara called as Kiyoko wandered into the living room from the kitchen. “Kiyoko, come here for a minute.”

She wandered over to stand behind him, and as he gestured at his laptop she bent down and pushed her glasses into her hair. “What is it?”

“Is he… you know, cute? To you?”

She looked at him, blinked, then tipped her head thoughtfully to the side. “Yeah. A bit dorky, but… yeah. You can see it in his skin and his neck and stuff, I guess. Why?”

“It’s Sawamura Daichi.”

Kiyoko let out a low whistle and was suddenly much more interested than she had been before. “That’s him?”

“Mm,” Sugawara shifted the laptop back a little bit. “He’s really nice.”

“He sent this to you?”

“Yeah.”

Kiyoko smiled warmly at him. “Sugawara, you’re blushing.”

Slapping his hands against his cheeks Sugawara cried, “I’m not!” and Kiyoko smiled wider, tousling his hair.

“Look at you, both a pair of big dorks. Just don’t sit around fawning over him all day, okay? You’ve still got to do that thing for your mom.”

Sugawara grunted in assent, unable to hold back a grin that was trapped in a golden bubble of happiness that rose in his throat as unbidden as a summer shower. “I’ll do it! I’ll leave soon.”

Checking the clock that hung by the front door of their apartment, Sugawara saw Kiyoko cast a sparing glance at the empty vase sitting on the sideboard; that was where the flowers had been, those glorious lilies that Kiyoko had been given. They really were beautiful flowers, Sugawara thought as he followed the line of her gaze, but they were want to die eventually. If he’d been forced to sit and watch a bouquet of flowers wilt and die he’d have gone insane, he was sure of it.

“Are you going somewhere?” he asked her, hesitating a little before he spoke. Kiyoko’s clear eyes were on him, but she smiled, and her cheeks coloured prettily. “You are, you vixen.”

“It’s just a lunch date,” Kiyoko replied in a good-humoured defence. “Nothing heavy, not like that. We’re just getting a bite to eat. That’s all.”

Sugawara grinned at her from between his fingers and she flicked her fingers in his direction, flouncing back to the bathroom with mascara clasped in her hand. He didn’t follow her, but he could hear her humming as she stroked at her lashes and twisted her hair around her fingers; it was impossible, of course, for Kiyoko to look any more appealing than she already did. She was one of those people who not only possessed the natural gift of outer beauty, but of inner beauty as well. There was something about her that transcended her skin and shone in each strand of her hair, that shone in her eyes, that made her skin glow like the moon. It wasn’t something visible, but something felt within the deepest reaches of one’s bones; it was a force that drew people to her, yet at the same time kept them at bay, the glow of a goddess straight from a Botticelli painting, but somehow even more beautiful. Kiyoko shone with life, as full and as vivid as a November Lily.

He heard Kiyoko swear as the doorbell rang. She must be stressed out, Sugawara reasoned, if she felt the need to say that word. Notedly, she had been flitting around the apartment all morning like some kind of restless bird, but Sugawara hadn’t really attributed it to anything. It all made sense now.

“I’ll get it,” Sugawara called to her. It was unfair to leave a date waiting at the door, right? He chuckled to himself, finding a strange amusement in it all as he got up from the table and made his way to the front door to open it.

He had to look down before he realised a person was standing there.

“Sugawara!” Yachi Hitoka, as he remembered her, stood on the doormat in front of him. She was a pair of bright eyes hovering over the most enormous bunch of flowers Sugawara had ever seen, with a pair of soft tan boots poking out fro underneath. A flower fitted with legs.

“Let me help you with those,” Sugawara caught the jumbled mass of blooms as they began to tip out of her arms. “Come in.”

He held the door open for her; as she passed him he felt something cold in his chest he couldn’t quite place, and he pressed the heel of his hand just above his breastbone, and Yachi asked him, “Are you all right?” to which he nodded and smiled, closing the door.

Yachi looked around perceptively, quickly, before blushing, snatching back her gift from Sugawara and thrusting the flowers into Kiyoko’s arms with the flustered enthusiasm of a child. “Y-you said you liked lilies, so I thought - I mean I hope it’s not too much, I just wanted -,”

“They’re lovely, Hitoka,” Kiyoko said gently and Yachi flushed an even deeper red, right to the roots of her hair, and laughed nervously into her fingers. She followed Kiyoko into the kitchen, leaving Sugawara standing with his hand fisted in his shirt.

The blind affection in Yachi’s eyes - that’s what it had been. It was obvious she was head over heels in love with Kiyoko. Anyone could have seen that much. Sugawara was gripped by insane envy: he wanted someone to look at him that way. He wanted to be able to look at someone else that way. His mind switched to Sawamura Daichi - he was a completely different, anonymous entity. There was something eternal about being able to watch someone as they moved, the flow of their body, to be able to pick up on their little ticks and quirks, just to watch them lazily as they changed clothes or washed the dishes. Little things like that. It was something Sugawara had only read about, but never experienced. It was something confined to the pages of books and television screens; he’d never known anyone that well, except Kiyoko, but he didn’t look at her the way Yachi did. He’d never look at her that way.

He made his way over to the sofa and sat down; instead of letting his head drop into his hands he sank back into the cushions, drawing his eyes to the ceiling and blinking once, twice. He twiddled his thumbs idly in his lap, feeling the fog roll in, thick and white and silent. He did nothing to stop it, feeling suddenly drained of all energy to do anything in order to compromise it.

It was Yachi who roused him, setting down a vase of full, vibrant blooms on the sideboard where the amaryllis had stood. It was a nice addition, filling the room with that strange light again, and she grinned, proud of herself for not dropping it.

“Should we go?” Kiyoko asked, and Yachi nodded firmly. She hadn’t taken off her coat, and she sat down to put on her boots again, Kiyoko slipping into her own shoes beside her. Sugawara smiled to himself at the sight of them, so oddly in-sync, mirroring each other completely and obliviously. “Bye, Suga!”

“Have fun,” he replied as Kiyoko reached around Yachi to close the front door of their apartment.

He looked over at the flowers; they were lilies, though this time they were a pure white tinged with pink, leaves a pale, glossy green. They were pretty, and the smell was strong already, filling the room with the smell of nectar. He could’ve drowned in it quite happily.

Kiyoko and Yachi were gone for a few hours when Sugawara heard a notification sound from his laptop. It was sitting open on the coffee table, so he only needed to reach out and grab it to have a look. It was a new email, from an address he didn’t recognise but still somehow seemed familiar. He opened it out of curiosity.

 

Hey Koushi, it read.

We haven’t talked in ages! Just wanted to shoot you an email asking how you’re doing, and if you’d be interested in meeting up sometime soon? I’m back in town now so I’m free whenever! Let me know when you’re available.

 

Sugawara’s fingers were shaking as he finishes reading the email, and by the end his hands were trembling so violently he almost dropped his computer. He shoved it off his lap, the computer flipping upside-down and falling on its lid on the sofa seat. Sugawara’s vision was blurry and he’s panicking, panicking to the point where he couldn’t breathe and his hands couldn’t find purchase anywhere, and he was slipping, slipping, right out of reality and into a pit of black spines that dug into each inch of his body. He fisted his hands in his hair, tucking his chin into his chest and sinking from the sofa to the floor. He didn’t know how long he stayed there.

At some point he made his way blindly to his room, sinking down onto his bed and putting his head between his knees. He’d brought his computer, set it open by his feet and he couldn’t stop looking at it, even though it made him want to chew off his own tongue.

He heard Kiyoko return perhaps an hour or two later. He heard her take off her shoes and let down her bag, the sharp sound of heels giving way to the soft padding of bare feet.

“Suga?”

He didn’t reply. He couldn’t. He couldn’t move. It was as though he’d been petrified, turned to stone right where he sat. His door stood ajar, and he watched, unseeing, as Kiyoko’s body blocked the light.

She went to him, touching him tentatively, vying for a reaction and getting none. Sugawara was sucking on his fingers, his face haggard and as beautiful as it had ever been. She crouched down in front of him. “Suga, what’s the matter?”

His eyes were glued on the computer screen.

Following his gaze, Kiyoko brought the screen to life and read the same email Sugawara had been looking at for the last few hours. She read, and the more she read the paler she became until her face was like chalk, dark eyes quivering over the words. She looked up at him, licking dry lips, and clenched his hand in her own. “Don’t worry about it, okay?” she said. “It’s nice! Why are you worrying so much?” She laughed, but it sounded strained even to her own ears. “It’s fine.”

Sugawara’s eyes flicked to her and his shoulders shifted gingerly as he levered himself up a little bit. He laughed weakly. “You’re right. I’m just being dumb.”

Kiyoko stroked his hair a couple of times. There’s something you aren’t telling me, she thought as Sugawara wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. She wanted to ask him, but for some reason her tongue wouldn’t move. It sat like lead in her mouth; unsure of what to do, she leaned down and shut the lid of the laptop, placing the computer gently on Sugawara’s desk. “It’s late. You should get some rest!”

Sugawara knew it wasn’t late, but he shook his head to clear his thoughts and got into bed anyway, feeling the mattress yield beneath his body as he sank into it, sighing heavily. “Kiyoko, you’re too good to me.”

“Hush.”

 

The next morning Sugawara woke up an hour before noon. It was uncharacteristic of him to sleep in this late; he’d never been one of those people to sleep late into the morning, so he was disoriented by the strong light battling at the blinds and streaking bright and white across the floor of his bedroom.

The room seemed different. Everything was where it should have been, everything was familiar, nothing at all out of place. But something was different. The air was black and thick, or so it felt, and Sugawara restlessly levered himself out of bed to throw open the windows and let the cold air stream in, the burst gates of a dam. He sat with his elbows on the windowsill, chin in hands, gazing out over the cityscape he could see from his apartment. The sun shone square in his face and he closed his eyes against it, feeling it warm him and make his eyelids grow a steady, translucent red.

Cold air worked wonders; he felt like his bones were made out of ice, constantly snapping and mending and sending a resounding chill through his skin that made him vigilant, but as soon as he turned to face his room and his computer the ice melted in his veins and he sagged, knuckles white against the sill.

“Good morning!” Kiyoko chirruped as he went to get a glass of water. He swirled it around before tipping it out, his mouth dry as a bone. He couldn’t swallow anything, not if he tried. He blinked, shaking the hair out of his eyes. “Hungry?”

“No,” he replied, voice cracking awkwardly as he tried to rectify the tentative slant of his tone. “No, I’m good. Fine. Thanks anyway, though.”

Kiyoko shrugged and turned back to her newspaper, lifting her coffee and taking a sip. “You slept in.”

“Yeah.”

She looked over her shoulder at him, fingering the edge of the page, but didn’t say anything. She knew Sugawara needed time to himself – she didn’t know what for, she just knew he did.

He wandered like a ghost to the bathroom where he showered and brushed his teeth, combing his hair out of his eyes and pressing his fingers to the purple circles beneath them. Even though he’d slept for so long he still looked as though he’d gone days without doing so.

“Suga!” he heard Kiyoko call, “I’m popping out for a few hours to see my mom! Do you want to come?”

“No,” he called back. He could imagine Kiyoko’s mother seeing him and asking ‘Koushi, dear, are you all right? You look terribly ill!’ and Sugawara would smile and insist that no, he wasn’t sick, that he was fine, right as rain. He didn’t think he could do it, not this time. “No, I’ll stay here.”

 

Kiyoko was gone for longer than she’d expected. Her mother had been glad to see her, since they hadn’t caught up for months due to both of their strict schedules. They’d enjoyed themselves greatly, talking and laughing and eating at a new restaurant across town and then had gone on a last-minute shopping trip to make the most of Christmas-season sales.

When she got back early in the evening, Kiyoko let herself into the apartment to find it dark and the lights switched off. Or - maybe they’d never been switched on in the first place. She looked around for Sugawara, called out his name once, twice, but after getting no reply she shrugged it off. He must’ve gone out, he probably remembered something he’d forgotten to do, an errand he’d forgotten to run. But the room smelled stale and there was a faint whistling sound like wind rushing down an old chimney. She flicked on the lights, shuddering, and closed the door, taking off her shoes and her coat.

It was then she found Sugawara.

He was curled up on the floor with a blanket pulled over his head. Kiyoko dropped her bag and fell to her knees beside him, trying to disentangle him from the twist and tangles of the materials he’d knotted about himself. She caught sight of his eyes, big and wide and shadowed and incredibly bright, like headlights. “Suga, Suga!” she called, raising her voice. “What’s wrong? Suga!” But he wasn’t replying. He was breathing erratically, fingers shaking and soon his silence broke out into a series of worried, malcontented noises that made Kiyoko’s bones rattle. “Suga!”

She gripped his face in her hand and turned it towards her; he was trying to crawl away in the direction of his bedroom, but Kiyoko would be damned before she let him go. “Sugawara, answer me! Do you know where you are?”

Sugawara keened and tried to push her hand away, bright eyes darting about restlessly, resting on any other point in the room but her. Do you know where you are?

“When you see something like this happen, if you’re ever around him,” the doctor had told her as she sat beside Sugawara in the middle school infirmary, “ask him simple questions. What’s your name? What time is it? Do you know where you are?”

Kiyoko grit her teeth. “Suga, c’mon,” but he wasn’t cooperating. It was as though he wanted to dig into the ground and hide, but his fingers had no chance against the floor; they were bitten and chewed, the quicks of his nails bleeding enough as it was, and Kiyoko, drawing in a deep breath, hooked her arms under Sugawara’s armpits and half dragged him up onto the sofa where he’d be – at least a little – more comfortable.

She reached for her bag where she’d dropped it, fumbling blindly for her phone – once she had it in her hand she punched in the number of Sugawara’s mother. The dial tone was a screech, the phone ringing for an eternity before Kiyoko was met with a message from the answering machine. Clicking her tongue in irritation, she tried his father, but got the same response. Sister – the call didn’t even go through.

“If things get bad, or if you get scared, call someone. Someone you trust, someone he trusts – someone who can help,” the doctor had told her. Someone, but –

Sugawara was mumbling something, drawing in fast, shallow breaths. The only sound in the room was the perturbed sounds he was making and the constant shuffle of his body, overridden only by the galloping of Kiyoko’s heart in her ears. She looked in the direction of Sugawara’s bedroom and felt as though someone had clubbed her over the back of her head with a brick. What choice do I have?

She scrambled to her feet, ducking into Sugawara’s room and snatching up the laptop to bring it out into the living room. She couldn’t leave Sugawara alone, not when he wouldn’t listen, not like this – she couldn’t manage on her own, either. She flipped open the lid and found the page still open and  logged in. She didn’t have time to try and figure out the mechanics of this godforsaken website – somehow Sugawara had left his inbox open, so it was easy enough for Kiyoko to hit reply on one of his messages.

 

Sugawara Koushi: hello, this is Sugawara’s friend Shimizu. Sugawara’s in trouble and since he seems to trust you I’m asking for your help.

 

The reply was almost instantaneous.

 

Sawamura Daichi: trouble? What’s the matter? Is he okay?

Sugawara Koushi: are you nearby?

Sawamura Daichi: I’m out of town at the moment – but I’ll come back

 

Kiyoko looked over to Sugawara, who had gone still, his breathing still shallow but more even than it had been before. She waited for a few moments, breath baited on her tongue, to make sure Sugawara was really all right.

“Suga?”

Sugawara grunted, and muttered a response that was muffled to the point of being inaudible.

Sugawara Koushi: it’s fine. He seems to be fine now – thank you for your concern, but I should be able to manage on my own.

Sawamura Daichi: are you sure? i can come back if you need me to – if he’s okay. to see if he’s ok, i mean. is he ok?

 

Kiyoko smiled slightly down at the string of concerned messages, thinking back to the photograph Sugawara had shown him. It was odd, really, for her to see those messages come through, one after the other. It was odd because it was almost as though he was there, his presence real and heavy, and immediately she saw why Sugawara smiled whenever he spoke of him; even so, she knew it was something she couldn’t understand. Sawamura Daichi was, to her, a little more real. A little less imaginary, a little less dangerous. She almost laughed at herself – here she was, sitting on the floor of her living room with not a single light on, talking to a stranger over the internet, asking him to come over and help her. It was dangerous, but then again, stress never did facilitate the best of decisions. This was something she knew, and something she did not regret. Her fingers were shaking.

 

Sugawara Koushi: it’s fine, I promise. Thank you.

Sawamura Daichi: ok… let me know if anything happens, Shimizu.

Sugawara Koushi: will do.

 

For all Sawamura knew it could have been a ploy – obviously he wasn’t thinking of elaborate murder plots, not with the amount of messages he had been sending and the level of blind concern in them. Maybe he was just like that – maybe he was an open guy. A helpful one. Maybe it was what he was used to. Either way, Kiyoko didn’t care about what Sawamura thought about internet predators. She closed the window and the laptop lid, going over to gently extricate Sugawara from the tangle of blankets.

She checked his temperature, and his head lolled against her arm. He wasn’t passed out – dead tired, though.

“Tell me your name, honey.”

“Sugawara Koushi.”

Kiyoko breathed out as her eyes met Sugawara’s – even the tone of his voice sounded like he was reading off a list. He was all right, now. She reached out for her water bottle, handing it to him.

“Sorry,” Sugawara said before spilling water down his front. “Oh. Damn.” He held his hand to his head. “I’m – I’m going to go to sleep.”

Kiyoko nodded. “If you need anything, tell me.”

“Yeah.”

She left Sugawara sleeping on the sofa that night, unwilling to move him.

 

Kiyoko woke the next morning feeling more tired than when she’d gone to bed – Sugawara was on the couch, hair sticking out and half his face creased from lying on his arm; he was looking down at his fingers, at the dried blood under his fingernails, with dark, tired eyes. Padding around the sofa, she peered at him. “Suga?”

No response.

She doesn’t question him, she doesn’t press him, but every now and again she goes out to check on him and ask him something, and each time she receives no response. It worries her; she knows he isn’t her responsibility, but as his friend since they were tiny, she felt the familial duty to take care of him.

“Make sure he’s okay,” Sugawara’s mother had told her. “Make sure he doesn’t try to kill himself or something stupid like that.” The thought was bitter.

Chapter Text

X: Sawamura Daichi

 

Sawamura didn’t know what to do.

He suddenly regretted having agreed to come here in the first place when he received the message from Shimizu. He was in the next prefecture over visiting his grandmother. His own mother had come to him while he was reading and had said, “I want to take the kids to visit their grandmother.”

“But we saw her only a little while ago,” Sawamura replied, closing his book and leaving his finger between the pages to keep his place. “When we went to fix her pipes.”

“No, no, their other grandmother.”

Sawamura nodded; their father’s mother – his father’s mother – who lived in a nursing home in the town Sawamura was born in. He didn’t remember her that well, since they didn’t visit often, but he could see the sense in it. “Sure, that sounds like a good idea. It’s almost Christmas, so it would be nice to visit her.”

In a way, he suspected his mother of feeling guilty about their transgression in the park. He hadn’t expected it to turn so hostile – she obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and he wasn’t going to push her no matter how much he wanted to know. Maybe the trip would be good for her, too, and Sawamura knew his siblings were always up for travelling.

“We’re going to visit gran! We’re going on a visit!” Hayato and Amaya sang as they skipped to the car early on a Sunday morning, bobbles on their hats bouncing with each step. Sawamura had offered to drive after noticing how frequently his mother was yawning and how dark the shadows under her eyes were.

It was a good decision on his part. Half an hour in and she’d already fallen asleep with her head against the window.

“Gran, gran – hey, stop! Give me that!” Hayato screeched when Amaya yanked the plastic bag of presents from him.

“Shut up! I want to look.”

“Language!” Sawamura barked, and his mother jerked awake, pinching her nose between her thumb and forefinger. He glanced at the three of them in the back seat, Haruka squashed between her younger siblings, and put a finger to his lips.

They’d arrived when the sun was bright in the sky and the clouds had cleared, Sawamura gratefully pulling into the parking lot of the nursing home.

“How old is she now?” Sawamura asked his mother as he locked the car and stepped over the unsoiled snowdrift piled against the curb; the place was relatively empty, and the snow hadn’t had a chance to be disturbed.

“Oh, nearing one hundred, I’d say.”

Sawamura grinned. “That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?” His mother laughed and elbowed him, but her laughter was strained, even to him. She walked a little ahead of him, the heels of her boots tapping against the pavement, the sounds of Hayato and Amaya skipping and shrieking growing softer and softer as they disappeared into the lobby of the building.

The retirement home where Sawamura’s grandmother resided was a big, old building with traditional eaves and faded black roof tiles; the boards of the veranda were faded from the sun, little bells tinkling from the windowsills. If Sawamura peered through the foliage lining the path he could see the obscured, wrinkled faces of the elderly as they sat in their rooms or in the little gardens outside, knobbly fingers knitting or folding or flipping coins. It was strange; there was a dead silence to the place, the hum of something distant, and Sawamura tried not to compare it to the sound of white static.

The automatic doors slid open to reveal the lobby, low-ceilinged and heated, fronted by a long desk behind which stood a lady with bleached hair twisted into a chignon and a bright smile. She was, currently, leaning over the counter talking to the children, who were stretched as far onto their tiptoes as they could reach, asking “Where’s our gran? Can we see her?”

“If you get your mama for me, I might be able to find out!” The woman was saying as Sawamura wandered into earshot.

“That’s me,” his mother said. She stepped up to the desk, shifting the box she was carrying onto her hip in order to fill out a form. The receptionist’s eyes met Sawamura’s over her shoulder, and he looked away immediately.

“Come on!” Amaya tugged on his trouser leg, pulling him along after Haruka, who walked with her shoulders bent and her hands in her pockets. “This way!” He took her hand in his own and glanced down to see her pull Mami from her pocket, juggling the toy in her free hand. She really loves it, huh? Sawamura thought vaguely, then imagined how Amaya would chastise him for calling the toy an ‘it’ and not a ‘she’. He smiled.

The walk from the lobby to his grandmother’s small apartment was longer than Sawamura remembered. His legs had grown longer since last he visited, but it still seemed such a journey, passing window after window; they were shut, bare branches scraping against the glass, potted plants arranged haphazardly along some of the sills. The place was oddly skewed; it wasn’t ordered like a hospital and had no symmetry whatsoever; it gave Sawamura the same feeling as a finger being dragged up his spine. “Brother, are you okay?”

“Perfectly. Are you excited to see grandma?”

“Yeah!”

Amaya’s hand slipped from his when they got to the right door. A nurse had escorted them to the room, opening the door with a key card hung around her neck. She let them all in, eyes vigilant as they swept over the room.

The apartment itself was nice. It had a single, heavy beam running transversally across the ceiling, the walls insulated and inset with two tall windows that sent the afternoon sun streaming across the faded floral rug. It was vaguely reminiscent of her old home, with the same carpets and books and teapots wrapped in knitted cosies; the quilt on the bed was the same, the framed pictures on the wall, woodprints from when she’d been a young artist working in Kyoto. Even the smell was the same; sandalwood and pine, like the forests of the high mountains, but tinged with the stale lavender of old women.

His grandmother was propped up by a number of stiff pillows in the bed. She had a book in her hands and bifocals perched on her delicate nose; her eyes, translucent and watering, looked up at them from between the folds of skin. Slivers; her face sagged, but she still smiled. “Ume,” she said, reaching out a withered hand marked by old varicose veins. “Ume, dear.”

Umeko, Sawamura thought to himself. Right. Umeko. Sometimes I forget my mother has a name like that.

“Ryoko,” Sawamura’s mother – Umeko, he had to keep reminding himself – said in response, ducking her head respectfully in a gesture that was more fearful than it was courteous. “How are you?”

Amaya and Hayato had crawled up onto the foot of the bed and were nagging the adults to let them unwrap the presents; Haruka sat down by the window, pulling out a pocket-sized book and removing a blank paper bookmark. Sawamura sank into a chair as well, between her and the bed, holding the bag of gifts on his lap.

There was always something that irked him when his mother and grandmother spoke to each other. The conversation wasn’t rigid or notably formal, but the tone of it – it was something the children weren’t old enough to notice, something that had been previously reserved for housewives standing outside their kitchen doors hailing the pedlars as they rattled down side streets; Sawamura was well-versed in the art of subtle etiquette, since he had always been the one who interacted with the women in the neighbourhood and caught on to their mannerisms. He glanced between his mother and his grandmother, noticed the lines in their faces that hadn’t been there before; but it was muted, their innate conversation shielded by a wall Sawamura couldn’t see through.

The presents were opened and Ryoko kissed each child – including Sawamura – on the forehead, thanking them, and having them arrange the gifts neatly on the sideboard. Soon after that the children began to grow bored and hungry. “Umeko,” Ryoko said, “Take them to the cafeteria, dear, and give them something to eat. There’s a good girl.”

The silence left in their wake was an awkward one. Haruka eventually excused herself to use the bathroom, and opted to use the communal one in the lobby rather than the one in the apartment.

Sawamura’s heart hammered in his throat. He was rarely left alone with his grandmother; while he’d been sitting and staring at the assortment of teacosies on the other side of the room he’d come to the sudden realization that this old woman was full of information. She was full of stories about things he didn’t know about, things people had always refused to tell him.

“Hey, grandma, you don’t look a day over twenty-five, has anyone told you that lately?”

“Daichi, Daichi, you flatter me.” Ryoko laughed, a dry rustling sound like old paper, and offered her hand to Sawamura. He took it, feeling her soft palm and swollen joints, nails tiny and perfect on each finger.

“I was wondering,” he began slowly, “if you could tell me about my dad.”

Ryoko looked at him. “Your father?”

Sawamura nodded and hoped she couldn’t feel the nervous tremors in his fingers. She didn’t; he remembered her being one of the sharpest-minded women he’d ever met in his life, once, when she was younger. The years had worn her out, of course, and she’d always been older than the rest of the women in the family anyway.

From what Sawamura had been able to gather over his life, he’d been able to construct a very basic and somewhat crude understanding of his grandmother. His mother had always neglected to talk about her, but then again she always neglected to talk about most things, so that was hardly something he attributed to a bad relationship. He wasn’t entirely sure why his mother insisted on visiting her continuously, since his father wasn’t there to act as a link between the families anymore. The information he’d hoarded at the back of his mind was gathered from hazy memories he had from when he’d sat upon his father’s knee at family gatherings, the faint sound of his voice as intangible and fleeting as fog. It was gathered from the neighbourhood mothers who used to give him yams and green tea sweets when he rode past on his bicycle. Snippets of interrupted conversations spoken in low whispers, because Ryoko had eyes and ears all over the place, apparently. She was a woman that knew everything without snooping into the business of other people; a strange talent, but a talent nonetheless, and one which Umeko always said Sawamura had inherited.

Sawamura had once heard somebody say that his father was the spitting image of this woman. As for his father, he knew what he’d looked like, more or less; and even though his memory was sometimes skewed by what he wanted his father to be, he would always dig his photograph out of his mother’s sock drawer when she wasn’t looking. That was something he’d done ever since early childhood – back when she’d talked about him more, about who he was and what he did, how he loved them, he really did. There had been more photographs, back then. On the walls, on the sideboard, on the mantelpiece. He couldn’t quite remember when his mother had disposed of those.

The only photograph he could access was the faded polaroid in Umeko’s drawer. It was dated ’79 and had been stored in the wrong conditions, obviously, which had sapped the colour from it. Sometimes he wondered why it was that particular photograph his mother chose to keep, rather than the one that had hung on the dining room wall where he’d been dressed smartly in a suit, dark hair smoothed to one side, eyes quick and sharp. He remembered the eyes.

He’d first found the polaroid when he was in middle school. It had been around that time his mother’s shifts had gotten more intense, and he’d found himself taking on more and more household tasks. She’d apologized, again and again, but really, what could she do? Sawamura came home from school and twice a week he would do the laundry right after, stripping himself and his siblings from their dusty uniforms and carrying a big wicker basket that made his arms shake. He’d found the photograph when he’d put his mothers socks – all a uniform, clinical white – back into the narrow drawer in her dresser. The corner, stuck up against the dark wood, was splotchy and discoloured and faded with sun. By the time he’d first found it, Sawamura had already half-forgotten what his father looked like. His father had been nineteen and at the beach, his shoulders broad and tanned and his smile cutting through the picture like the edge of broken glass. There was a woman in that photograph, too, but he wasn’t sure if it was his mother. Maybe that’s why she kept it.

Either way, Sawamura never really doubted that his mother had loved his father. Still did, too, though she’d grown bitter about it. She’d never had anyone to talk to; Ryoko was too proud, and her own parents had moved abroad to ‘find themselves’ years hence, and they hadn’t spoken at all since. She wouldn’t talk to Sawamura, either. Perhaps he reminded her of his father. He didn’t know.

“He was a blessed boy, to be sure,” Ryoko began with a proud little sigh, touching a translucent finger to the side of her nose. “Very handsome, even as a child. Very tall, very broad, a perfect brain. He went to law school, you know.” She laughed. “He was wonderfully dark; his hair and his eyes, oh, the girls used to come milling around him in scores! He was such a sensible young man, though, always polite, always doing as he was told. Never let my back go out; he’d help me with my groceries, every Thursday afternoon – we didn’t own a car back then so I had to carry all the shopping home from the store in hessian bags that were terrible for my shoulders; but he helped me, took them all and carried them in his arms. He was such a strong boy, yes, and I remember how he used to sing along to old American records, right after we married, and he bought me a pair of wonderful pearl earrings for our honeymoon, and even when he was an old man – right before he died, you know – he would always take me dancing to those old records –,”

Sawamura closed his eyes and listened to her talk now about her husband; somewhere along the line she’d gotten mixed up between her husband and her son. She always did. This wasn’t the first time he’d asked her about his father. But it always turned out the same way: she’d begin talking on the right tangent, but after a while she’d float off along the memory of her husband. It was something she couldn’t quite let go of, and left her with a resounding hate for American music, because it reminded her of someone she had lost. Sawamura liked to listen to her talk about her husband. They were always the same stories, because she always forgot she’d told them; stories of how they’d travelled to Europe after the War with old cameras on straps around their necks. She’d make Sawamura pull down the old suitcase from the cupboard in her apartment, a leather case covered with stickers as faded as Umeko’s photograph, from Paris, Barcelona, London. Ryoko told him how they’d been harassed in the streets of New York, and somehow she relayed the story with a smile and laughter. His favourite story of hers was the one where she and her husband had gotten lost in the countryside and had slept under the stars. He wasn’t sure why it was his favourite, but it was.

It did nothing to quell his frustration. He was nervous, glancing at the door to see if his mother was returning; he didn’t want her to catch him asking such a question, though it was inevitable, for each time she returned to the apartment Ryoko would look up and say, “My, Umeko, dear! Your darling son just asked about my husband, you know, what a thoughtful boy!” and nobody knew the wiser. Of course, she’d then forget he ever asked her anything.

His family returned from the cafeteria half an hour later, the children sated and quiet for the moment, and Umeko with a satisfied smile on her face. A steward brought them coffee to have in the apartment and Amaya and Hayato chose that moment to produce handfuls of sticky pastries from the pockets of their coats.

It had begun to snow sometime in the afternoon, though by the time the sun had set and the streetlamps had flickered on the snowfall had stopped; the ornate French clock hanging by the window told him that it was already early evening. His siblings sat in chairs with hooded eyes, yawning and swinging their legs. Haruka was already dozing off, eyes pale in the light of her phone.

Sawamura’s phone buzzed in his pocket.

It was such an expected feeling that he pitched forward a little bit in shock; the soft natter of the two women ceased for a moment before tentatively beginning again, like a stalling engine, when Sawamura mumbled an apology. He expected to see a text from somebody – he wasn’t sure who – so he was a little surprised to see a notification that took him a moment to recognize.

 

Sugawara Koushi: hello, this is Sugawara’s friend Shimizu. Sugawara’s in trouble and since he seems to trust you I’m asking for your help.

 

Sawamura’s stomach dropped like a stone. The air closed in around him; the adults’ chatter was silent and Amaya’s loud yawn was cut off like the switching off of a television set. All he could see was black, though only for a moment. He lifted himself out of his chair, putting his phone back into his pocket. “Excuse me for a minute,” he said quietly, and he escaped the room before anybody had a chance to call him back.

He stepped outside, sneaking out a little side-exit into one of the little gardens that lead into the parking lot. Once there in the open space, feet crunching on the salted asphalt, he picked out his phone and allowed his heart to race in his chest.

 

Sawamura Daichi: trouble? What’s the matter? Is he okay?

Sugawara Koushi: are you nearby?

 

Sawamura swore loudly, pushing his palms against his forehead; he hadn’t realized his hands were shaking.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I’m out of town at the moment – but I’ll come back

 

I’ll come back right now, he thought in a panic. I’ll get in the car and drive home. He didn’t think of how he’d explain the emergency to his family; he didn’t think about how irrational his thinking was, then, because it didn’t seem to matter. He remembered that gentle, benevolent face and wondered how the hell it would look contorted in terror. He decided he didn’t like that thought, and pushed it from his mind. But… Sugawara was in trouble. ‘In trouble’ – what did that mean? What kind of trouble? Who was Shimizu, anyway? A friend of his – it could be a lie. A ploy. He could be walking right into a trap; he could have his organs cut from his body and sold on the black market. But he wasn’t thinking of harvested organs or corpses thrown in highway ditches – he was thinking of Sugawara. And right then Sugawara was the only thing that mattered.

He was already on the way inside to herd his family together and return to town – they’d been due to leave over an hour ago anyway; he didn’t think of how he’d explain the sudden rush. He wasn’t really thinking at all. Then his phone went off again.

 

Sugawara Koushi: it’s fine. He seems to be fine now – thank you for your concern, but I should be able to manage on my own.

 

Sawamura chewed on the inside of his cheek; anxiety stabbed at his gut, though the panic had subsided a little. This Shimizu person – she was very formal, and incredibly believable. Somehow the screen was permeable to her tone, and it was as if Sawamura could hear her voice perfectly.

 

Sawamura Daichi: are you sure? i can come back if you need me to – if he’s okay. to see if he’s ok, i mean. is he ok?

 

He continued to type out messages that, in retrospect, seemed half-delirious; he sank down onto the curb, not thinking about the snow melting into the seat of his jeans and how Hayato would tease him and scream ‘Daichi wet his pants!’ as he always did at times like those. He sat a little way away from a streetlamp and watched as his fingertips turned blue with cold.

 

Sugawara Koushi: it’s fine, I promise. Thank you.

Sawamura Daichi: ok… let me know if anything happens, Shimizu.

Sugawara Koushi: will do.

 

There was an odd silence in the air, the same silence that had boxed his ears in Ryoko’s room. Sawamura pressed cold fingers to his lips and breathed in, and then out, very slowly, very deeply. He bit down on his tongue to try and still his heart a little; he wasn’t used to it beating that fast.

“Daichi, what are you doing?”

Sawamura leapt to his feet like a coiled spring, whirling around to see Haruka standing a little outside the ring of light. “You scared me. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“You’re shaking,” she said as she approached him with measured paces, face smooth and oddly expressionless. Her eyes were dark, almost black, her hair flung back messily over her shoulders. “Look, your hands are trembling.” Upon noticing this, she also noticed how tightly he was grasping his phone. She looked from the phone up into his face, then back down again, then folded her arms across her chest in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of their mother. “What’s going on, Daichi?”

“What do you mean?”

She nodded to his hands. “That is what I mean. Shit – do you think I haven’t noticed? Because I have. You’ve been joined at the hip to that phone for weeks now; what’s going on?”

Sawamura didn’t chide her for swearing, perhaps for the first time in his life; his tongue sat cold in his mouth. He didn’t want to reply to her, but the more those dark eyes bore into his, the more he felt the need to.

“I –,”

“Daichi,” she said, her voice clipped, “I’ve seen you look more affectionately at that phone than any girl I’ve ever seen you with.”

Her comment was like a punch to the stomach. He wheezed out a breath. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

She approached him, unfolding her arms and slipping her hands into her pockets. She bent down, brushing the snow from the concrete edge of the curb, and sat down. He sat down beside her, and they both looked out over the empty parking lot without a word.

It was strangely peaceful, sitting with her like that. Sawamura had never really been alone with Haruka before; she’d always been a background presence, like a shadow in his peripheral vision. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye; the light glanced pale off her cheek. He’d never noticed how long her eyelashes were.

“It’s a person, isn’t it?” she asked, meeting his gaze as though she’d been aware of it the entire time. He jerked a little, embarrassed. “I mean, I highly doubt you’re in love with your phone.” She smiled at him, thinly, putting her chin in her hands. “It’s someone you don’t want to tell us about.”

“Oh, you’re good at this,” he replied with a low laugh. “How could you tell?”

“It’s not difficult. You smile at your phone, laugh a little, but as soon as you remember someone is with you, you try and cover it up. Boys are so obvious! You’re just like a kid, Daichi. So – who is this person you want to keep a secret?” At the flicker of doubt in Sawamura’s eyes she leaned back a little. “You don’t have to tell me. I’ll keep it a secret, if you want.”

“Sugawara Koushi.” Sawamura reaslised it was the first time he’d ever said that name aloud to anybody before – truly – and it left his mouth tingling and his chest in knots. Just knock me out, he thought.

“That… is a man’s name.”

Sawamura swallowed, turning to look at her. It was difficult. “Yeah.”

Her eyes were wide and she laughed shortly. “Incredible. So you’re gay now?”

“I don’t know what I am,” he replied, rubbing a hand over his mouth. He turned to look out over the parking lot again, trying not to dwell on how hostile his sister’s voice had been. “It was… it was an accident. It was all an accident. I didn’t ever, ever think things would turn out this way.”

“Right,” Haruka said, sounding less disgusted than Sawamura had expected her to. If anything, she seemed indifferent. With a stab to the gut he realized that he didn’t know as much about her as a big brother perhaps should. “Why are you out here in the cold shaking like you’ve seen a ghost?”

It’s fine, I promise.

“Uh… just a scare. Work.”

Haruka looked at him incredulously, but didn’t say anything. She got to her feet, holding out a hand to him and helping him up. He made to pull his hand from hers but she held onto it, her eyes intense on his, face graver than he’d ever seen it. “You know I’m here for you, right? You don’t have to do this on your own.”

He gritted his teeth against the tears in his throat. He’d sat by Haruka when she was no older than ten, wicker washing basket on his lap, and he’d promised himself that he’d never let the burden slip to her shoulders. “Nah, I’m fine, y’know?”

She put her arms around his neck and reached up onto her toes to hug him; she smelled like oranges and the beach. Sawamura put his nose to her hair and hugged her back. He’d never really hugged her before – not properly, not enough to notice how she smelled.

“Hayato is going to tease you about that,” she said slyly, plucking at the back pocket of his jeans.

He laughed. “Yeah, but not if I die from cold first.”

They left the home soon after, Hayato and Amaya dragging their feet. Ryoko had given Sawamura a look that had sent a shiver marching down his spine just before he closed the door on her and turned to thank the nurse.

The car was quiet, the kids having dropped off to sleep and Haruka lying with her head tipped back and her eyes closed. Everybody in the car was sleeping, actually, aside from Sawamura. He was tired, but he knew he couldn’t sleep if he tried – he was on edge, each nerve taut and anxious even though he’d been assured that Sugawara was fine. He didn’t fully believe it; at least, he didn’t believe it enough to be comfortable. He also didn’t fully understand it. He gripped the steering wheel tightly between his hands and tried not to think about it too hard. It was fine – they’d get home, he’d get some sleep, rest his head a little. Then, the next day, he’d go and visit Sugawara – wait, was that too creepy? He remembered he didn’t actually know where Sugawara lived. Maybe he could ask that Shimizu person – no, that was definitely creepy. If Sugawara really wasn’t okay, she’d tell him, right? If he’d been her first go-to person, then what was to say she wouldn’t do it again? He tried to placate himself, but the more he thought about it the more nervous he became, so he tried to focus solely on the empty stretch of asphalt in front of him.

It didn’t work.

He was consumed with worry. No matter how many times he tried to convince himself that Sugawara was all right – he gnawed on his lip till it bled, though he hardly noticed it. He itched all over; it was as if his clothes were full of lice crawling over his skin, an irritation he couldn’t get rid of. It was the constant knocking on a door, unceasing, relentless. It wore away at him, eating through him like some kind of vicious disease, and he was glad nobody was awake to see his hands shaking on the steering wheel, knuckles gripped white.

It took all his effort not to speed. The road was wide and flat and empty and it would have been easy as anything to go as fast as he liked – to go fast enough to calm him. But the car he was driving was full of his family, and he loved them too much to put them in that degree of danger. The vehicle was filled with the sound of soft breathing and faint music from Haruka’s earphones; Sawamura briefly considered turning on the radio, but decided against it. It wasn’t quiet enough for that.

Soon the country road branched into the narrow veins of the city, hills and rice paddies turning to buildings and apartment blocks, houses of the inner-city suburbs. He’d driven this road enough times before to be able to navigate it with his eyes closed. At one point a young driver pulled out recklessly in front of him and in a sudden flare of rage Sawamura rolled down the window and roared at him. His mother, sat in the passenger seat beside him, remained asleep, as did the two younger children. Haruka was the only one who jerked awake; she’d always been a light sleeper.

“Daichi? Are you okay?” You never do this – you never get mad, I’ve never seen you like this before. She didn’t need to say it; he saw it all in the rearview mirror. He avoided her gaze after that.

“Who’s that?” she asked, leaning forward over the centre console as they pulled into the driveway of their house. Sawamura peered through the darkness. There was somebody standing at the front door - a great, hulking figure with bowed shoulders and a long coat.

“I don’t know.” Sawamura pulled up and slammed the door, leaving his sister to gently wake the rest of the family. He pulled his keys out of his pocket, flicking the longest one between the middle and ring finger of his right hand, just in case.

“Daichi!” The figure turned and stepped into the dim light from the street; Sawamura might have laughed if he hadn’t been so furious. It was Asahi, his nose red and raw from the wind, hair tucked up under a faded grey beanie.

“What do you want?” Sawamura replied, but his confrontation was cut short as his mother came up the stairs and placed a hand on his back. He’d almost completely forgotten about the fight they’d had in the café, and only when he saw Asahi’s face did the anger come rushing back to him. In reality, he didn’t even remember what he was angry about.

“Asahi! What… what a surprise to see you here so late. Is something wrong, dear?”

Asahi shook his head, smiling mildly. “No, I just needed to talk to Daichi about something –,”

“Later,” Sawamura cut in, thumping his fist against Asahi’s chest in a warning gesture his mother was too sleepy to gauge. “Later.”

“Maybe come back tomorrow and he’ll be in a better mood,” Haruka interjected quietly as she elbowed her way between them, breaking their gazes and juggling two small children in her arms. She shot a glare at her brother, shaking her head a little before disappearing inside. Her mother followed her, flicking on a few lights and yawning loudly.

“I’ll come back tomorrow.” Asahi made to leave, but turned and frowned deeply at Sawamura. “Daichi, you look sick. Are you all right?”

Sawamura closed the door without replying.

As he’d promised, Asahi was back the next morning.

“Invite the poor boy in, Daichi, out of the cold!” Umeko barked at him from the kitchen. He’d only just gotten up, and was still processing the events of the day before, very slowly. He had one hand jammed down his pajama pants, the other scratching at his eyes. Groggily, he went to the door and opened it to a clear, blisteringly cold day, with Asahi standing right in the middle of it.

“Didn’t think you’d actually come.”

“I have to talk to you. Get changed.”

“Mom told me to invite you in.”

Asahi looked at him and he groaned. “Fine, I’ll come with you. Give me a second – and come in, for God’s sake, before my mother tears out my liver.”

Asahi stepped over the threshold, stamping the snow from his boots and refusing to come any further than the vestibule. Upon hearing of his arrival, Hayato and Amaya barreled screeching into the room and threw themselves at him.

“Where’s Nishinoya?” Sawamura asked – his voice still clipped – when he reemerged dressed for the weather.

“In bed,” Asahi replied in a tired, thin voice. “He’s got a cold. Should be over in a few days.” He placed Hayato, who had been hanging from his arm, on the lip of the raised floor. “Ready?”

“Yeah.” Sawamura ducked his siblings’ heads as he passed. They walked down the road in silence, until Sawamura said, “So where are we going?”

“Nowhere, really, I just didn’t want your family to hear us…”

“Hear us what? Fucking?”

Asahi stopped and looked at him, appalled. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re vulgar. I’ve never seen you act like this, not since –,” here he paused, expression blooming with enlightenment. “Oh. Daichi, you’re freaking out.”

Sawamura turned up his collar. “I’m not.” Don’t think of Sugawara, don’t think of Sugawara – he still hadn’t figured out a plan. He was pissed that Asahi had been able to pin it so quickly; but, then again, he’d been there for the legendary meltdown of Sawamura Daichi that had taken place in his final year of high school. He knew the signs better than anybody. Asahi walked up to him and looked down, his face so irritatingly compassionate that it made Sawamura want to punch him. Sawamura turned his face down to look at his boots, scuffed and soaked with snow. “I, uh…”

“You can tell me, you know.”

Sawamura narrowed his eyes, walking ahead a few paces before stopping and turning again. The street was empty, so nobody would be around to see him if he decided to hit Asahi right then. He could hit him, or… he could tell him. In a way, it might be better to get it off his chest. But not there, not in the street; the mere thought of talking about it made Sawamura’s stomach lurch into his throat.

“This is about that Sugawara, isn’t it?” Shit – the longer he thought the longer Asahi could pick his countenance to pieces.

“Fuck, fuck, it is,” Sawamura spat, kicking at the gutter and clipping his toe against the concrete; he fell back with a sharp yell of pain. “God! Everything is going so wrong!” His voice echoed down the street and a dog started barking. Recovering his composure, Sawamura rubbed at his mouth. “Can we go back to your place? I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I have a reputation to uphold, and I really might just punch that goofball smile off your goofball face.”

Asahi grinned at him.

By the time they arrived at Asahi’s flat the sun was well above the line of the hills and shone unhindered onto their backs; it was a cold sun, leaving the snow sparkling over the neatly trimmed hedges of their apartment block. Sawamura kicked off his boots and threw his coat over the back of a chair before going to sink down onto the sofa and put his head into his hands.

“Hey, Daichi, don’t walk in like you own the place.”

“Nishinoya – I almost didn’t understand you.” Sawamura smiled thinly at Nishinoya, whose hair stuck up in a magnificent bedhead. His slight frame was draped with a heavy blanket and his nose was rubbed red; his voice made it hard for Sawamura not to laugh, and perhaps he might have if he hadn’t been so strung out. He clenched his hands to stop them from trembling – they hadn’t stopped shaking at all, ever since he’d gotten those godforsaken messages. Nishinoya, of course, saw right through him.

“What’s wrong with him?” Nishinoya asked Asahi, who was removing his jacket and his hat.

“Oh, something about Sugawara Koushi. I haven’t managed to get it out of him yet.”

“Angel boy?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve nicknamed him already.”

“It was that or Creampuff, but I was pretty sure which one you’d prefer.”

There was a clatter from the bathroom; Sawamura looked up, alarmed, the only two residents he knew of standing in front of him.

“Sawamura?” called a high voice, and Yachi appeared in the doorway of the living room, sliding on the laminate in pale blue socks. “What’re you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?”

Yachi came over to stand between Asahi and Nishinoya, tapping the latter smartly on the shoulder with a box of aloe tissue. “Taking care of the sickly. Yuu, please use these so you don’t get your nose all chapped.”

Nishinoya took the box from her. “Thanks.”

“I made the mistake of telling her Yuu was ill,” Asahi admitted. “She offered to come over and give us some tea recipes to help him get better and somehow she hasn’t left. N-not that I’m ungrateful, we appreciate it, really,” he assured her quickly. Yachi patted his arm.

“So, Sawamura, why are you here?”

Sawamura sighed heavily into his hands.

Asahi and Nishinoya sat across from him, Nishinoya wrapped up to the ears in his blanket with a box of tissues; Asahi had told him to go back to bed, but he wouldn’t miss this, not for the world. Yachi sat down in the armchair by the window, drawing her knees up to her chin.

“So what’s going on?”

Sawamura drew in a breath that rattled; it sounded pathetic, even to him. “I, uh…” Come on, just spit it out. Just tell them. “It’s Sugawara.”

There was a pause before Nishinoya mumbled ‘we figured’ and Asahi shushed him.

“What about him?”

Sawamura licked his lips this time, rubbing his hand over his mouth again. “I, uh, got a message from somebody called Shimizu, saying he was in trouble –,” a squeak from Yachi diverted his attention. She blushed, then, a bright pink that reached her hairline.

“I think I know her,” Yachi said, still blushing, and flushing redder and redder the more she talked. “I m-met Sugawara a few weeks ago, for a date –,” Sawamura almost choked at that “– a-and I met his friend – Shimizu – who works at the flower shop near Nid’s. W-we’re going out, now, I guess…” she smiled a little, hiding her face in her hands.

“You… know Shimizu?” Sawamura was still dumbfounded. This tiny little girl, with her long blonde hair clipped back from her face with her silken black bow, knew Shimizu. She’d met Sugawara, she’d been on a date with him – and he hadn’t known. There had been a bridge between them this whole time, and he’d failed to see it.

“Yeah. Why? Is something wrong?”

“She told me that Sugawara was in trouble – this was last night, I mean – but then… then she said he was okay, but I just…” he held up his shaking hands so they could see them. “I can’t calm down. I can’t calm down until I know he’s safe; I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I’ve never been like this before.”

“Since middle school,” Nishinoya murmured, and Asahi shushed him again.

“I’ve never felt this way about anybody before!” Sawamura’s voice raised almost to a shriek, then, and he fisted his hands in his hair. “He’s all I can think about – he’s been all I’ve been thinking about since last night! I need to know he’s okay – I’ve never met him, God, but he –,” he broke off, realizing that he’d gotten to his feet with his hands still clenched in his hair, that he was shouting, that there were tears standing full and heavy in his eyes. “I love him.” He whispered it, but then, voice shaking with tentative confidence, he repeated himself. “I love him.” He couldn’t… he couldn’t believe it.

Three pairs of eyes were turned to him, awestruck. Yachi and Nishinoya exchanged dumbfounded glances, and Asahi’s eyes remained trained on Sawamura’s face, creased and crumpled like an old newspaper. Asahi’s mouth had gone dry and he wanted to smile; this was the kind of passion Sawamura’s relationships had been lacking. Yachi – it was Yachi that had cemented this man in Sawamura’s mind, who had seen him, who could ascertain that Sugawara was a real person, that he was who he claimed to be; for Sawamura, it was overwhelming. This person existed. He didn’t want his organs and he didn’t want to slice his throat and throw him in a ditch – he was real. Sugawara Koushi was real.

There was nothing to be afraid of now. Sugawara wasn’t the dream Sawamura was chasing; he wasn’t intangible, he wasn’t some phantom desire. He was flesh and blood and he breathed, he lived as much of a life as Sawamura did, in the same town; he was so close Sawamura felt as if he could reach out in any direction and touch him. He wanted to cry with happiness, but he was so conflicted; he was giddy with ecstasy but he was worried and angry with himself, he was guilty and relieved, all at once. His whole body shook as a sob tore its way from his throat. “Oh my God. He’s not okay. He’s not – I’ve got to go and see him. Yachi – do you know where he lives?”

“Yes,” Yachi squeaked, a little overwhelmed by Sawamura’s outburst.

“I’ll drive,” Asahi said and levered himself to his feet, reaching for his jacket. There was no way he was letting Sawamura drive, not in that state.

“Don’t get into trouble!” Nishinoya yelled hoarsely after the three of them.

Yachi sat in the back of Asahi’s car, directing him to Sugawara and Shimizu’s apartment block. It was a drive that seemed far too long to Sawamura, but he knew there was little he could do, and as much as he goaded Asahi to go faster, he knew he wouldn’t. The roads were icy and Asahi was grinding his teeth in frustration, Yachi still nervous and a little confused. “This is it!” she exclaimed, pointing out an unimpressive building a little up the street from the convenience store they just passed, sign flickering blue.

They filed into the building and found that the lift was out of order; they took to the stairwell, then, Sawamura in the lead, taking the steps two at a time. Yachi, short of breath from having to chase along after two fully-grown men with legs much longer than hers, shouted out the floor and apartment number.

Before he knew it, Sawamura was standing in front of Sugawara Koushi’s apartment.

The brass numbers on the door distorted his face and the air wouldn’t come into his lungs. He stood a moment to catch his breath, just staring at it. He’s on the other side of that door. With a hand that was still shaking – now more than ever – he knocked.

On one hand he was worried – if nobody was home, did that mean something happened? He was also disappointed; the silence made everything slip back into the imaginary. Then he heard the quick stepping of feet, louder and louder, and the door swung open.

He looked down to see a dark-haired woman with glasses perched on her nose. She was incredibly beautiful, with slanted eyes and a beauty mark near her lips. “Are you Shimizu?”

He watched her eyes widen in shock as she realized who he must be, and her hand rose to her mouth as though to cover it; she dropped it down to her side before she could. “You’re… who are you?”

“I’m Sawamura Daichi.”

She didn’t seem to notice the others; she was focused solely on him, scrutinizing him, picking him to pieces, analyzing him. Perhaps seeing if he was safe. She saw the redness of his eyes and noted his labored breathing, and only then did she relax a little. But there was something strange about her, an underlying tightness that didn’t go away. Sawamura’s lips trembled, and it wasn’t from the cold. “C-could I see Sugawara? I need to make sure he’s okay.”

Shimizu’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “He’s fine.” Her brow quivered; she was thinking hard about something. Sawamura could almost hear the speed of her thoughts. “He’s fine – trust me.”

“Can’t I see him?”

“No.”

“Kiyoko,” Yachi interceded, swinging into view around the door. “Kiyoko, I’m sorry. He’s my friend; you can trust him.”

Sawamura knew she didn’t. “Hitoka,” she said as though she couldn’t believe her eyes. She appeared to be going through the same revelation as Sawamura had just undergone. “I… I didn’t realize you knew him.”

“He’s so worried – he just wants to see him, can he?”

Shimizu looked between them, dark eyes bright in that panicked way Sawamura sometimes saw Haruka’s. “No, no he can’t. I’m sorry. Not now.” She made to shut the door, but Sawamura caught it with his hand.

“Daichi, we should go,” Asahi advised quietly, pressing a hand to Sawamura’s chest.

“But –,”

Daichi.” Their eyes locked for a moment before Sawamura grit his teeth and let go of the door, allowing Asahi to bow. “Sorry for bothering you, Miss Shimizu. We’ll be leaving now.” He led Sawamura firmly by the arm, and Sawamura turned once to look over his shoulder before the door of the stairwell shut behind him. He couldn’t feel his feet as he walked down the stairs, and both Yachi and Asahi were silent. There was no rushing this time.

Yachi had decided to walk herself home, since she didn’t live too far away and it was still early in the day; they’d let her go with little complaint. They got into Asahi’s car and sat in silence.

“I fucked up,” Sawamura said, voice worn away to a whisper. “I fucked up.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Asahi replied. “I’m sure she had her reasons. But she said he was okay – can’t you believe her?”

You know I can’t. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“Not really.”

Sawamura’s head sank into his hands and he laughed tiredly. “My God, Asahi. What a mess I’m in.”

“You can cry, you know. It’s just me.”

Sawamura scrubbed at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket; it still smelled faintly of coffee. “I’m so pathetic. I’m so – I’ve never even met him and he won’t leave my mind. He’s all I can think about. I just… I’m so worried about him I feel like I’m going to be sick. It was different before, even though I still felt the same – he was invisible. Hey, Asahi, did I ever tell you about the faceless boy?”

“I think you might have, once. The identity thing?”

“Mhm. See, Sugawara was kind of like that. He was kind of there, but he wasn’t. Now I know for sure that he is, and it’s different. It’s hard – I’ve never felt this way about anybody before, not even girls. It’s always been… so casual. Love used to be casual. But now it’s not, now it’s something I hate as much as I crave; I’ve never fallen in love with a man before. I don’t know what to do. You’re the homo here, give me some tips.”

Asahi smiled gently at him. He rarely saw Sawamura blubbering like this. “It’s the same. Just follow your heart, Daichi. It’ll lead you to the right place.” He leaned against the steering wheel. “You’re all right, Daichi. You’ve done well. Look at you – crying over Sugawara Koushi like this. It’s good. This is exactly what your relationships have been lacking, and what you need to make them work. Passion.”

“Passion,” Sawamura repeated, and Asahi nodded. “I love him, Asahi. I love him and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Asahi smiled again and turned on the engine. “Loving him is all you need to do.”

 

 

Chapter Text

[themes of suicide towards the end of the chapter [like the very end]]

 

XI: Sugawara Koushi

 

“Suga, you should drink something.”

“It’s fine.”

“It isn’t fine – you haven’t had anything, not even water, all day. Please. Drink something.”

Sugawara lay in his bed, knotted in his sheets and his blankets, with his face turned into the pillow and his shoulders angled away from where Kiyoko stood. He turned his head a little to peer over his shoulder at her with tired eyes, translucent as the dusk. They weren’t bright and wild anymore; they weren’t panicked or distant. No – they were grounded again, heavy and hooded, and the pouches beneath them were as dark and deep as bruises.

“I’ll drink something.”

Kiyoko got him a glass of water; by the time she returned to his room he’d sat up with his blankets bunched in his lap. She handed the glass to him and he drank the water in one continuous sip. She knelt beside the bed and said tentatively, “Do you want to eat something?”

“I’m not feeling very well,” he replied quietly, licking his cracked lips as he handed back the empty glass. Admittedly, he hadn’t realized how much he’d needed the water until it touched his lips, and he craved more but hadn’t the heart to ask for it. “Maybe later.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“Kiyoko, please, I –,” Tears sprung to his eyes and he battled them back. “No, I’m fine. I’ll get up in a little bit.”

Kiyoko looked at him for a moment, concerned, before nodding and ducking out of his room, taking the glass with her. Once she was gone Sugawara slumped back against the wall, all the strength drained from him. His head felt so heavy; his whole body felt heavy. It transcended his body, in fact. Each fibre of his being felt as though it was made of solid lead, but his mind felt heavier – it was like the whole weight of his life had been laid across his shoulders, and even then, it still seemed like more. Endless; just a chasm that stretched on and on and no matter how fast he tried to run he’d never escape it. He’d trip and fall, eventually, and tumble into the pit he’d only just managed to crawl out of.

Besides – he couldn’t do that to Kiyoko. She already worried enough about him, which was incentive enough for him to snap back into shape. It was easier said than done, of course, but it was a process he was used to. Something he could step through like the instructions in a manual. He tried, he did, but it was just so… hard.

He slid down the wall and back into his bed. His sheets had begun to smell a little musky, but he didn’t make a note to change them. He’d lie in smelly sheets, sure, and it was okay because he’d been in beds that smelled worse, that smelled like drugs and alcohol and vomit – so the smell of stale fabric really didn’t bother him. He sighed, pulling his blanket up around his chin.

It smelled like him. It smelled like solace, the solitude he both craved and despised. It smelled like his own clothes, his own body, and it was the only thing he really trusted. Sometimes he’d open his eyes unable to trust the very ground on which he walked. Those were not good days.

Those were days Kiyoko would get stressed. When he’d sit with his face to the wall and not respond. He’d try to hide himself away from her, but she always found him sooner or later. He didn’t mean any harm – he just wanted to sleep. He wanted to sleep for years, and years, and years, and perhaps never wake up ever again.

But what about Sawamura Daichi?

His eyes peeled open. Sawamura Daichi. What was so special about that person, anyway? Sugawara had never met him. He might not even exist. But, oh, he did, he had to. Sugawara couldn’t explain it, but he knew he did. There was a certain solidness to his photograph, to his presence, even online. It was something that hung around Sugawara for a while after they talked. It made him feel funny – realer, almost, as though he’d been made of mist before and had solidified into a human. He liked it, but those were tough moments to come by. Sawamura had been fickle thus far, and he didn’t see why he would change.

Sugawara was aware of Kiyoko watching him. She’d always done that, ever since that doctor’s meeting in middle school. He’d woken in the cot to find her sitting in a chair beside him with face as pale as the moon. She’d never told him why and he’d never had the courage to ask. That was her business, he reasoned, not his.

Maybe she was right – maybe he should eat something. He hadn’t eaten for days, it felt like. His stomach was tight and restless in his abdomen but he didn’t have the energy to get up and do anything about it; moving was too much of a task, and sapped him of his energy. His eyes fell closed again and he drifted into an uneasy slumber.

You haven’t been sleeping, Koushi. His mother’s voice had been indifferent – she’d only asked because she’d been told to. He’d asked her how she’d known, and she just shrugged her shoulders and replied that she’d heard him walking about the house in the night.

He didn’t like thinking about that, about his past, but he couldn’t help it. Those icy days spent in his family home: they had breakfast at seven on weekdays and at eight thirty on weekends and holidays. As soon as Sugawara got home from school he was to start on his homework, then do his chores, then go to cram school. When he’d signed up for the volleyball club in high school his mother had almost hit him. We told you to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something like that! she'd yelled at him, convinced that her son was tilting off the rails to pursue the dreams of an elite athlete.

Yeah, right, he thought bitterly. Like I’d ever have a chance as an elite athlete. He turned restlessly onto his side.

It was a safe thing to think about. The little unhappinesses of his past were unimportant but they inflated to consume his mind with harmless detail that, once he’d thought about it enough to blunt the edges, lulled him off to sleep easily enough. He liked sleep. He wasn’t plagued by anything then. He’d stopped dreaming long ago.

But… no. That was a lie. He’d been dreaming again. Recently. They’d been strange dreams, not quite nightmares. They were more like an abstraction of reality, the kind of obscure dreams that young children had. In his dreams there was always a child with him, or a lanky teenager, or someone in the vicinity in between. A person without a face, their visage composed of static, like a tear in reality. Often he found himself in the middle of nowhere: a field, empty train tracks, a deserted bridge. Always, though, the boy was with him, sometimes young, sometimes the same age as Sugawara, sometimes shorter, sometimes taller, sometimes wearing different clothes and sometimes not wearing any clothes at all. Always, the boy would reach out and take his hand in fiery fingers. Sugawara, oddly enough, woke from these dreams strangely comfortable. Until that one night where he’d dreamt he was standing on a bridge, anchored safely against the ground, as the boy – the apparition of a man in that particular dream, but still without a face – stood perched on the railing across the stream of traffic that separated them. The man was wearing his clothes, which Sugawara found odd enough, but then again, nothing about these dreams was ever normal. Sugawara, panicked, had tried to cross the road to pull him down. He’d woken up as soon as his hand had touched him.

When he woke up, Kiyoko was at the door again and the clock read four o’clock in the afternoon.

“…shower,” he heard Kiyoko saying, but he wasn’t paying attention. She’d grown frustrated, he could tell – and, oh, she had. He was like a baby, unable to take care of himself – she couldn’t understand the rictus that had opened up inside him, that when she helped him he only sank further into his guilt. She didn’t understand.

She watered him like a plant, bringing him a slice of bread now and again, or a small bowl of unseasoned rice. He ate what she gave him, handed it back to her, then turned over and went to sleep in a bed full of crumbs and old clothes. He was an old man in a hospital bed, unable, exhausted to the point of near-vegetation.

“You’ve been wearing those clothes for the last three days!” she’d tell him, or something like that. There was only so much she could do for him, and the rest was up to him. They were things he’d roped himself into doing before, but circumstances were different this time. His surroundings were quiet and he could sink into the solitude. Days seemed like minutes and minutes seemed like days and he grew hungrier and hungrier but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t

There was nobody she could call. The last time she’d called his mother about something like this she’d put down the phone with cheeks flushed with anger – that woman didn’t care, not a bit. “He’s just doing it for the attention,” she’d laughed as Kiyoko looked in on Sugawara picking at his gnawed, bloody fingernails in the bathtub. “Don’t you cave in, Kiyoko! He’s not a baby, you can’t always give him what he wants.” She’d laughed again, and Kiyoko bit right through her lip. She hadn’t called her after that.

There was nobody she could call that would understand her saying ‘Suga is staring at the wall again’ because she didn’t know anybody who would take her seriously. She didn’t have the money – neither of them did – to send him in to see someone. Nobody would give them money for it, either. It was a dead end. Unfixable. The futility of Sugawara’s condition made her stomach turn.

Of course, there had been a time where she’d though he’d get over it. When he grinned and got up each morning to drink a glass of water at the sink; those were the times the knot in the back of her neck relaxed a little.

“You should move out,” a friend had said to her once after she’d made the mistake of explaining Sugawara to them. “He’s such a burden on you.” She couldn’t do that. They’d set up a fine little life in the city, and she’d make it work even if it killed her.

“Come on,” she snapped, flinging back the covers that shrouded Sugawara’s thinning body. He didn’t even groan. He just shivered and hid his face in the crook of his arm. She pestered him and pestered him until he agreed to get up and wash himself just to get her to leave him alone again.

When Sawamura Daichi had turned up at their door, Kiyoko didn’t know what to do.

Sawamura Daichi, the man Sugawara hadn’t been able to shut up about, was standing right there, in the snow, outside her apartment. Wanting to come in. Wanting to see Sugawara. He was even stranger to behold in person; his mien was powerful, demanding, and he practically vibrated with desperation. It made her uncomfortable – if she let him in, if she let Sugawara see him, then God knows what could happen. Sugawara was in such a delicate space at that point that he could either snap right out of it or burst into tears. She didn’t want to risk it, so she’d turned him away, as much as it had pained her. But… it had been a relief. Such an utter, utter relief that when she’d closed the door after him she’d sunk to the floor and cried into her hands. Yachi, Yachi - ! She’d never uttered a single word. She had no idea, Kiyoko supposed, that Sawamura and Sugawara knew each other. She had no idea that she was the bridge they’d all been searching for.

She cried because she was relieved and happy all at the same time. Yachi had appeared from behind the open door and told her that she trusted this man, and in her face she displayed clearly that she trusted him with her own heart. Her eyes had been bright as gems in the sun when she’d spoken, and Kiyoko believed her. Sawamura Daichi… there was just something about him that was trustworthy. The way he held himself, the set of his mouth. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she was sure it was there. She was relieved because finally – finally – there was somebody she could go to. She didn’t know two things about Sawamura Daichi, but she knew he was somebody she could lean on for support. Hell – she’d messaged him one night and he’d driven miles and miles and miles to turn up at their door the next morning. His face was open and unguarded as a puppy’s, his emotion so genuine it had almost punched a hole through her heart. Oh, Suga, he’s a good one, she’d thought breathlessly. But she couldn’t let him in, no, because she had no way of knowing how Sugawara would react. She still thought it was the best decision, both for Sugawara and Sawamura.

For all she knew, Sugawara had slept right through that transgression. After she’d wiped her nose and her eyes she’d peeked in on him and saw him sleeping with his cheek pressed to the cool wall. Not a stir.

“So you’re real,” Kiyoko sighed into her cup of coffee as she sat alone at the kitchen table with her newspaper. “Sawamura Daichi is the real deal.” She flipped open the paper, but she couldn’t read a word of it. The letters meshed together like blotched ink; she couldn’t focus at all. There were so many things to think about.

On one hand, she wanted to call Sawamura back. On the other hand she wanted to make sure he never came near Sugawara. It was all so confusing; in the end she decided she’d just let things go their own way from then on. It would be easier that way… wouldn’t it?

Not knowing the cause of Sugawara’s consternation only added to her frustration. She knew well enough that it was something highly personal, and certainly not something she could just ask him. She’d already accepted it was next to impossible to find out what it was, but there was still the off chance that it was some particular thing or event that had set him off like this. For Sugawara it usually was.

Tapping her long fingers against her chin, she tried to think back to when she’d first seen him like this. That email he’d gotten – from an old friend, nicely worded, amiable enough. It didn’t make sense. Nothing added up at all. But then again, it never really did.

To his credit, Sugawara did get out of bed eventually. His hair was greasy and his eyes were red and raw from where he’d been rubbing them; the tips of his fingers were skinned and marked with bruises from where he’d been biting them continuously. He’d peeled off his shirt and wandered into the kitchen, to the sink, where he reached for a glass. Kiyoko could see the bones in his back, his spine like a row of spools up his back. It was ghostly to see him like that; he was thinner than she remembered him. He filled the glass and drank it in silence, Kiyoko watching with baited breath to make sure he didn’t drop it or smash the glass by accident.

“Hungry?” she asked hesitantly, and he nodded. “You should go and wash your hair while I make you something.”

Sugawara stood in the shower with his head against the tiles, shampoo foaming at his temple and on the crown of his scalp; his fingers were numb at his sides. He kept apologizing to the wall, the words sitting heavy on his tongue. Kiyoko was out there making something for him, because of him. It was his fault.

No – he really was none the wiser about Sawamura’s visit, and Kiyoko would take it to the grave. Nothing good would come of Sugawara discovering it. Absolutely not.

She made him food and lay it out on the table. She could hear the vague sound of the water running in the bathroom. The room was silent save the steady tick of the clock hanging above the oven, steadily counting out the minutes. She watched it, yawning away her bad night’s sleep. Five minutes. After ten minutes the food was getting cold, so she put it in the oven to keep it warm. After fifteen minutes she had to reheat it altogether, and after twenty minutes she looked down the hall to the bathroom door. Had Sugawara slipped and hit his head? After forty-five minutes of running water Kiyoko felt the need to go and make sure he hadn’t slipped.

She knocked gently on the door. “Suga?” There was no reply.

She inched the door open, steam billowing out in steams; he’d forgotten to turn the exhaust fan on, so even when Kiyoko opened the door fully she could barely see a foot in front of her. “Suga!”

As the steam began to clear she saw Sugawara sitting on the bottom of the tub with his head between his knees, water hammering down on the bony line of his shoulders. It was such an ugly thing to behold – he was too thin, too pale, as sickly as a fish’s belly. His hair was dark with water and he didn’t move even though Kiyoko had made her presence entirely known. “Suga, what are you doing? You have to get out of the shower, buddy.”

He shook his head.

Kiyoko, grinding her teeth in frustration, rolled up her sleeves and hooked her hands underneath Sugawara’s arms to try and haul him to his feet, or to sit on the edge of the bath. He was as cooperative as a sack of spanners, all bony limbs and a heavy, lolling head. He didn’t open his eyes, but Kiyoko knew that he was fully awake. “Come on, Suga, help me out a little bit.” For someone who looked so light, Sugawara was surprisingly heavy; the steam had condensed on the tiled floor and, with bare feet, Kiyoko slipped and fell, catching the side of her head on the edge of the tub. Sugawara, roused by her sharp cry of pain, snapped to and looked down at where she lay on the floor, head already beginning to bleed. At the sight of blood his stomach lurched and he pressed his fist to his mouth in a bid not to cry out; he’d done that. He’d hurt her – he was the reason she’d slipped. He was the reason she was bleeding like that. He pressed back against the far side of the tub, against the wall, and pressed his hands to his face, covering it, gathering himself and trying – trying – not to let himself fall to pieces. His hands came away from his eyes and he opened them to see Kiyoko still holding the side of her head and trying to gather herself as well. He scrambled for a towel, leaning over the bath and wrapping it around his waist. Stepping out he crouched down, helping Kiyoko to her feet and trying to steady her dizzy feet. The steam filled her head and turned her cheeks pink and Sugawara overcame himself with worry. She was only bleeding a little bit, and he knew head wounds always bled a lot, but he sat her down in the kitchen and pushed back her hair anyway, just to be sure.

“I’m sorry,” Sugawara apologized in a cracked voice. “I’ll try harder.”

“Stop it,” Kiyoko replied.

He hadn’t said anything else after that.

 

The morning after the accident in the bathroom, Kiyoko got up before Sugawara did and went to make herself a cup of coffee. Her scalp stung, though she reminded herself that it was a superficial wound and nothing to be worried about. The bleeding had stopped, at least, though it still felt crusty and not overly pleasant.

Her waking up before Sugawara was nothing spectacular. It was normal. She opened the newspaper but didn’t read it. Her eyes were trained on the clock even though she tried to convince herself that they weren’t.

“Good morning,” Sugawara’s voice drifted like a dream across the kitchen as he padded out of his room, shirt hanging creased from his shoulders, face puckered and pink from where it had been evidently pressed to his pillow. He went to the sink and ran himself a glass of water, humming with a voice that didn’t so much as waver. Kiyoko, for whatever reason, felt the tension ease from her shoulders a little bit; it wasn’t as though she took care of him… she knew he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself for the most part, and even when she thought he couldn’t he would surprise her. Sugawara was tired, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew his own limits and wasn’t the type of person to push them unless he had to. There had never really been a time when she’d taken care of him; in fact, it had always been him taking care of her. When her parents had argued she’d called him and he’d stay up with her late into the night. Sometimes people asked her ‘why do you take care of him so much?’ but, really, she didn’t.

It had been Sugawara who had helped her when they were younger, before they’d moved into the city. She knew him like a child knows a ghost, back when they were kids, and only once they’d escaped the dollhouse streets and tinned soldier housewives did she see a young man with paper-thin skin and solid steel bones. Silence had strengthened him, and she’d been struck dumb with shock and awe when she truly realized the magnitude of this.  Sugawara Koushi was one of the most unassuming people she’d ever met, but there was a very solid strength to him, like snow over frozen ground. Even if he was falling apart, he’d put others first. That was how he’d always been, and it was probably how he’d always be.

He had taken care of her so many times, and yet she found herself unable to care for him to the same extent. Something stayed her. His shoulders were thin and bony but they jiggled as he hummed. His lips were colourless but they smiled a small smile, and she felt wary relief wash her from head to toe, making her forget all about the sting in her head.

“Have you eaten anything yet?” he asked her, wandering over to stand behind the chair opposite her, but not sitting down. He looked wretched, though markedly better, and at his question she shook her head and found that the blurred lines of the newspaper in her hands was suddenly legible. “Oh, I’ll make you something too, then!”

Too? Kiyoko stopped herself from turning to look at him as she heard drawers open and pans clang, the clink of crockery and utensils. The whirr of the fridge, the dull thud of vegetables against the countertop. Sugawara pushed the stack of magazines towards the wall to give himself more space. “I read a recipe that looked really nice in a magazine the other day,” he told her. “One of those magazines we get in the junk mail sometimes. I hope I can do it justice.”

Kiyoko smiled into her newspaper.

It smelled lovely. Sugawara made food, he made it well, and he made lots of it. What they didn’t eat he put in sealed plastic containers and stored some in the fridge and some in the freezer; the sight of him eating was more comforting than it should have been. It soon became obvious enough that Kiyoko’s fall had hit him hard enough to dissipate the cloud he was trapped in. After they’d finished eating and had cleared away the plates into the dishwasher, Sugawara began to fill a small watering can with water at the sink.

Kiyoko, for the most part, was glad. She was relieved, actually, and felt a stony assurance weigh heavy in her chest. She’d been right not to let Sawamura in back then; if he had appeared now she still wouldn’t have admitted him. Sugawara was okay, but he was still brittle, and he’d remain that way for a while until whatever had eroded away within him was built back up. Any shock could have him toppling down like a tower of dominos.

She had been planning – the night before, as she lay in bed and worried – to call in sick at work and stay home to make sure Sugawara didn’t get himself into any kind of compromising situation. But now… now she wasn’t so sure. Sugawara was standing with one hand on his hip, the other holding the watering can, sun gleaming off the line of his shoulders as he stood at the window watering the plants that lived on the sill. He was humming again, eyes hooded but vaguely content. Her mind told her he was okay, and her heart warily agreed. He’ll be fine.

“Are you all right?” she asked hesitantly. She noticed a tick that had come back into him, one that she recognized from the time he used to stay on the phone with her until the early hours of the morning; it showed in his eyes when he nodded and replied that yes, he was quite all right, and certainly better than he had been before.

“I’m going out!” she called as she stepped into her shoes, wrapping her scarf around her neck and flicking it over her shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few hours!”

“Bye!” Sugawara waited until the sound of her footsteps faded away and then felt his throat close up for a moment in some kind of chronic emotion – what emotion it was he couldn’t quite tell, but as he yanked open the door of the cupboard and pulled out the vacuum cleaner he knew he had to do something to stop it.

He ran the vacuum over the apartment once, starting from the front door and working clockwise, traversing each and every room (including the bathroom) with a knitted brow and sharp eyes that were want to detect each mite of dust; the room mapped out before his eyes and he didn’t stop until each floor was clean. He circled, returning to where he’d started, and repeated the round trip just as severely as before. Then a third time, repeating the same t-and-fro push and pull, sucking the same lines into the carpet, as clean and straight as a mowed lawn. Afterwards he took up a dustcloth and wiped down each surface in each room, once, twice, until everything gleamed and the air was thick with dust. He hadn’t wanted to open the windows because the cold was truly cutting – he’d figured as much when Kiyoko had opened the door to leave – but he had little other choice.

The apartment was soon flooded with chilly air, Sugawara turning of the heating for the time being and donning an extra sweater instead; the place was clearer, certainly, even if that meant Sugawara had to put on another pair of socks as well. After dusting he took up a bottle of glass detergent and set about scrubbing down the windows with slow, methodical strokes so as not to leave streaks – make sure the glass isn’t in the sun or else it’ll smear – and followed the sun as it crept across the sky. He wiped down each counter, each mirror, even the peephole of the door and the brass numbers screwed onto it. Each doorknob, each tap; he spread out the scientific journals to air and cleaned the keyboard of his computer. He filled a bucket with bleach and scrubbed the bathroom from top to bottom; he cleaned the sinks and unclogged the drains; he moved the sofa to clean beneath it and removed the cushions to clear out the crumbs and dust and various bits and pieces that had been lost between them. He cleaned until his mind went blank and until his knees ached and his hands stung. Until he couldn’t think of anything, until everything was clean – until it was clean enough to let him think he’d done a good job. Good enough.

But the nervous irritation in his throat wouldn’t go away. It spread all over his body like some kind of disease. I have to make it up to her somehow. I’ll just clean a little bit. She’s always so busy. Whenever he had a job that required only one hand he would bring the fingers of the other up to his mouth and bite at his nails until they bled; he didn’t notice. He made the beds, stripped the sheets, and made no less than four round trips to the laundry room.

“Sugawara! What – are all of the washers taken this early?” a voice asked when he was mid-way through stuffing yet another washing machine with a load of darks. He glanced over his shoulder and recognized the girl from the apartment one down from his; she was a strange, quiet girl, no older than he was, with a sweet round face and curved features, eyes steely and grey; she was half-foreign, most likely, and not strikingly beautiful, but there was a certain tick to her smile that always caught Sugawara unawares. She worked in the bookstore – he knew because he often saw her there – and she lived on her own with birds that flew freely around her flat and that Sugawara never really tired of hearing.

She ambled over to the washing machines, a plastic basket full of clothing in her arms, going to the last vacant one and attempting to haul her load up onto the rim of it. The basket tilted, Sugawara’s arms shooting out to catch it before it fell. Her eyes locked onto his wrists and his fingers and his palms, then, and she frowned.

“Sugawara,” she said politely. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Your fingers are bleeding.”

Sugawara looked down at his fingers to see the smudge of brown blood around his fingernails; the skin of his fingers was chapped, the tips gnawed to shiny, raw ends like chewed pencils. His skin was rough and dry and cracked. He expected her to say ‘you should take better care of yourself!’ but she didn’t. She only frowned.

“You know, there’s antibacterial ointment that’s good for healing that kind of thing. It doesn’t take much time, and it’s worth it.” She set about loading the washer, Sugawara standing with his hands gripping the handles of her basket as she did so. She didn’t so much as bat an eye at him, and he wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or concerned at her apathy. “I’d also invest in a pair of gloves.”

She waved at him, leaving with her basket tucked under her arm and an absent hum on her lips.

Sugawara finished his laundry in silence, his brow feeling much heavier than it had before.

He went upstairs and found a pair of elbow-length, bright yellow rubber gloves sitting folded and packeted beneath the kitchen sink. He stuffed his bleeding hands into them, picking up from where he left off and scrubbing the rest of the apartment from top to bottom until the whole place smelled like detergent and oil of cloves.

He took, at one point, a moment to pause and collect himself. This was good – he was doing something good. He was doing something useful, something that would help Kiyoko. He was both infuriated and shockingly calm at the same time, resulting in a clash of emotion that was like some kind of cancelled equation – he felt nothing. He needed to feel something; he put his fingers to his lips to chew, but was rewarded with nothing more than a mouthful of rubber.

“Suga, I’m – oh, what are you doing?” Kiyoko returned to find her roommate with his backside three feet in the air and his head and shoulders crammed under the TV cabinet. At the sound of her voice he wriggled out from underneath it and sat back on his haunches, cheeks pink from the blood that had rushed to his head.

“I’m cleaning!” he replied brightly, smiling that smile of his as he went to wipe down the screen of the television – the screen that Kiyoko noticed was already practically sparkling.

She also noticed a slip in his voice; it was a crack, like a child when they’re trying not to cry. Sugawara didn’t look like he was about to cry, but then again, adults are better able to hide that kind of thing, and as far as people went, Sugawara had always been hard to read. But it wasn’t something mournful or in any way sad; Sugawara didn’t seem to be sad at all. His smile reached his eyes and his skin was flushed with colour. It eased her.

“I’m gonna go have a shower. I’m beat,” Kiyoko groaned, dropping her bag and stretching with a groan before moving off to the bathroom. “It’s so clean in here!” she laughed, and Sugawara bristled nervously at the praise.

As the shower ran he stood there fighting the urge to peel the gloves off and begin biting his nails again.

“No,” he murmured to himself, shaking his head. “No. Come on.” He occupied himself by putting everything back in place. The apartment was shining.

“That was just what I needed,” Kiyoko sighed as she walked back into the living room, toweling her hair dry as she went. She could hear Sugawara in the kitchen; he was humming to himself again, she could hear. Should I tell him? About Sawamura? She chewed on her tongue a little; was it the right time? Sugawara was better – she could sense that he was – or, at least, better than he was before. She didn’t like keeping things from him, and especially not something like this. Sawamura was, for all intents and purposes, his secret, not hers. It felt wrong to keep it from him, and she very much wanted (if not needed) to tell him about what had happened. But… she had to make sure. She still didn’t feel certain predicting his reaction, and she wanted to be certain before doing anything that might make him… well, she wasn’t entirely sure what the implications would be, but she wasn’t going to risk it. Sugawara was more important.

She knew what he was like. Compulsively caring and irrational when it came to his own wellbeing; it was destructive, she knew, but it had stemmed out of a pure heart. Darkness manifests the fullest in good people who are compromised; utopia is a breeding ground for sin. Sugawara was one of those cases. He had – and still was – a selfless, compassionate young man full of life and love that had been bottled up and was so ready to be released somewhere. But he’d chosen the wrong direction, the wrong facet. But that was something Kiyoko couldn’t bring herself to think about. He was still compassionate and selfless, but in his pursuit of the happiness of others he disregarded his own, and in moments where he was left to reflect on his own life he was faced with a gutless misery that was rooted in his inability to fulfill himself. Kiyoko did all she could, and so did everyone else, but there were some things Sugawara could do only for himself, and he just… wasn’t doing them.

She could tell him. Perhaps it would lift his spirits, knowing that Sawamura came barreling to their front door like some kind of wild dog, all crazed worry and bright eyes. Or it could frighten him, because she could explain it wrong and make Sawamura sound like a predator – the last thing she wanted was to make him feel afraid. He’d already drawn a bad enough lot in that respect.

It wasn’t as though she didn’t trust him. She did. She didn’t trust herself to relay the message properly; Kiyoko had never really had a way with words. She found written language much easier than spoken language. I could write him a letter – oh, no, that’s stupid.

“Kiyoko!” Sugawara’s head appeared around the doorway. “I didn’t notice you there! Come in and I’ll make you some tea.”

Kiyoko, drawn hastily from her reverie, followed him into the kitchen and eased herself down into a seat. No – give it time. It’s not important. He’ll figure things out in his own time.

“How was work?” he asked after he set down a cup of tea before her and sat down in the chair opposite her.

“Tiring,” she admitted. “Holiday season is always tough, but we’re getting through! It’s nice to see all the people who come into the shop, and to see what kind of flowers they buy!” She laughed, scratching at the beauty mark near her mouth. “Yachi came to see me at the shop today,” she continued, nodding to a vase of tiger lilies standing by the kitchen sink. “We’re… going out again, soon.”

“Oh! That’s wonderful!” Sugawara smiled, twisting his mug in his hands but not drinking from it. “I was wondering where those flowers came from; a strange arrangement, isn’t it? She buys flowers from you only to return them!”

Kiyoko blushed, thinking of Yachi’s face as she’d handed them to her, with her purple fingernails and black hair clips. She’d gotten her hair cut short, right up near her ears, and it was incredibly cute. Kiyoko thought back to when Yachi had appeared beside Sawamura, her form tiny and svelte compared to the concrete form of Sawamura Daichi; she remembered how torn with emotion she’d been. They hadn’t talked about that. Kiyoko was glad they hadn’t.

“All right – you made tea, so now it’s my turn to make you something!” Kiyoko said, noticing the heavy silence quite suddenly. “I’ll make dinner.”

“Y-you don’t have to,” Sugawara insisted, twisting anxiously round as she passed him. “I can do it!”

“You stay right there!” she laughed. “I’ll – oh, shoot. We ran out of butter, I can’t believe I forgot! I’ll go get some now.” She made for the door but Sugawara cut in front of her.

“I’ll go,” he said with a grin. “Fresh air will do me good, probably!”

She eyed him carefully. “You sure? You don’t mind?”

“Not in the slightest.” He was already pulling on his jacket. “I’ll be ten minutes.”

The corner store was less than five minutes’ walk from their apartment block. Evening had given way to the black of night, the sky clear and uncharacteristically freezing – Sugawara felt underdressed for the weather, and hopped along the pavement trying to rub his toes and warm them. The blue neon sign flickered, a broken beacon for Sugawara to follow. The trip was silent, Sugawara fumbling with his wallet as he gathered his change.

He bought butter, as well as milk and soap after he remembered that he’d thrown out the last mangled bar when he’d cleaned the bathroom. The plastic bag rustled as he waved over his shoulder to the old lady at the register before exiting into the night that was even colder than before.

He made to turn left, back the way he’d come, but for some reason he looked right – a few metres away was the beginning of the bridge he used to stand on at dusk, looking out over the water as it flowed lavender beneath him. On impulse he veered in the bridge’s direction, stepping in puddles of stars that quivered with an onslaught of ripples; he turned his face to the sky and basked in the sight of the millions of stars that looked back at him, clearer than he’d ever remembered them being.

The railing was cold beneath his fingers, much as he’d always remembered it; he’d never been out this late before, and the water was pitch black, like a tear in reality.

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he jumped a little, startled.

He opened the email without thinking about it, leaning against the railing and squinting against the sudden cold light of the screen.

 

Suga! I don’t know if you got my last email, but don’t think I’ll give up just because you’re ignoring me –

 

Sugawara’s heart almost stopped in his chest. His fingers grew numb and he struggled not to let the phone slip from his fingers. I’ll come find you!

The strength fled from his legs and he sank down into a crouch, leaning his body against the railings of the bridge, tipping his head down to his knees to try and stem the nausea that broiled in his stomach. It was turbulent; his heart went from almost stopping to galloping along in his chest, blood beating in his ears, breath coming short. He couldn’t breathe – his phone clattered to the sidewalk and his shopping bag soon joined it as he pushed his fingers into his hair, eyes wide and frozen, each cell of his body shaking. His skin throbbed, as though it was covered in a single, giant bruise.

He swore into his hand, vision rapidly deteriorating. He wasn’t sure if he made any noise at all; he tried to speak, but he couldn’t hear his voice. He couldn’t hear anything but the roar in his ears. “Please,” he managed to squeeze out. “Don’t –,”

His hands grappled at the railing of the bridge as he struggled to his feet, breathing slowing as he pressed his face to the icy metal. It’s fine. It’s fine. Just ignore it. You’re fine. Just… breathe.

When he looked over the railing, over the water, he could see the quivering silhouette of his body reflected on the surface. It was little more than a distorted black blob, but somehow he could see each detail in his own face. It was disconcerting and sickening.

“I’m…” he brought his fingers to his mouth and began to chew. “It’s all my fault. This – everything is. It’s all me. My fault. I – none of this would ever have happened if it wasn’t for me. Kiyoko… everyone, everyone is in danger because of me - !” He felt sick and his skull closed in around his brain, crushing with an incredible pressure. Sugawara felt trapped, caged. Everything he’d been swallowing down and forcing into submission for months and months – years, even – came bubbling to the surface in a force twice as great as anything he’d felt in a long time. His knuckles were white and the black water looked freezing, like a single touch could –

Water had never looked so inviting. When he was a child he’d fallen asleep in the bath and had almost drowned – he’d been terrified of it since then. Of drowning. Even the rain made him feel uneasy, though recently he’d come to find comfort in weather like that. And, after numbly climbing up and balancing on the rail of the bridge with his heart in his throat, looking down at his own warped reflection and considering how far he’d have to fall and how fast he’d have to hit that pitch-black water, it really didn’t seem so frightening.

Chapter Text

XII: Sawamura Daichi

 

“You look terrible.”

Sawamura turned away from Nishinoya, rubbing at the bridge of his nose – he didn’t need Nishinoya to tell him that. He’d looked like shit ever since he’d woken up that morning, and he knew it.

“I tried,” he replied eventually. “If I look too gross I can leave.”

Nishinoya watched him from around the tall glass set on the coaster in front of him, eyes curious. Sawamura still hadn’t taken off his coat and he looked hungover, almost, even though both Nishinoya and Asahi knew he wasn’t.

Nishinoya glanced up at Asahi, who was fiddling with a strand of hair at the back of his neck. They exchanged a glance – it was a worried one. The three of them had barely exchanged a word since their trip to Sugawara’s apartment, and Sawamura hadn’t been the same since. He’d been brooding, as Yachi had put it, like some heavy storm cloud. His brow, usually dark, was unnaturally pale. His entire face was chalky; he looked sick, and his fingers itched so badly that he had to hide them under the table away from curious eyes. Asahi had pegged it as chronic worry – ever since Sawamura was a kid he’d been one of those people who, once finding something deserving of their concern, worried over it excessively and often to the point of exhaustion.

Asahi glanced down at his watched and started. “We – we’ve gotta go. Daichi, you’ll be all right, yeah? We’ll foot the bill. I hadn’t realized it had gotten this late!”

Sawamura nodded and waved his hand before his face, smiling tiredly with those dark eyes of his. Nishinoya felt Asahi’s hand braced between his shoulder blades, removing it only to pay for the food they’d ordered – and Sawamura’s, which he hadn’t touched. When they got outside Nishinoya peered around his boyfriend to see Sawamura sitting where they’d left him, looking down at the hands he’d taken out from under the table before pulling out his phone.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?”

Asahi hummed in assent, slipping his hands into the pockets of his coat, breath clouding from his lips. “Probably. You know what he’s like – he gets worried and then it just vanishes. You see it at the beginning of most of his relationships. Obsession that fades away to… well, nothing.”

They walked in silence, Nishinoya pulling his hat further down to cover his ears against the frosty wind. There’d been heavy snowfall during the night, heralding the true arrival of winter, drifts piling high out of reach of dirty shoes and car tyres. It was sunny but windy, the air freezing. Nishinoya huddled closer to Asahi, who opened his arm for his boyfriend to slip beneath. “This… this isn’t just the start, is it? They’ve been going on for weeks.”

Asahi was silent for a moment, chewing over his reply. “Well, I… I think… I don’t know what to think. Seeing Daichi like this is almost surreal, actually – he isn’t himself. He isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve known him for a while.”

Nishinoya rubbed at his chin – a habit he’d picked up from being around Asahi for so long. “But there’s still parts of him you don’t know about, right? This could be new for him, too. Like you and me – I’ve seen sides of you nobody had ever seen before, not even yourself, and it was the same with me. So it could be the same with Daichi. He could just… I mean, Suga could be drawing out parts of him that he’s buried.”

“Don’t go calling him ‘Suga’ like that – Daichi might get mad.”

Grinning, Nishinoya plucked the keys from his pocket and tossed them to Asahi. “He won’t. I’m sure of it.”


“Fancy seeing you here!”

Shit. Now of all times.

“Yui. I didn’t think you woke up this early.”

Michimiya, still smiling sleepily, sank down into Nishinoya’s vacated seat rubbing her hands together and blowing on them.

“Ye of little faith,” she replied with a feline smile. “You look like shit, Daichi.”

“I feel like shit,” Sawamura replied with an honest laugh, taking a long drink from the espresso that had gone stone cold. “Is something up?”

“Nothing, nothing; I was just passing by and saw you sitting here on your lonesome, and thought you could use some company.” When Sawamura didn’t reply, Michimiya frowned and leaned forward. “Is it true? I’m hearing things, Daichi.”

Neither of them said anything. Michimiya smiled slyly. “Did you really break into his apartment?”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Oh, you really do like him. Oh – you’re blushing! That’s so cute. I wish you’d looked at me like that when we were dating! But I’m happy for you, really.” She peered into his cup and felt the side of it, grimacing as she did. “This is cold already. Come and walk with me for a bit – God knows you look like you could do with a bit of fresh air.”

Michimiya took him by the arm and led him out of the café and into the street. The boulevard was thrumming with people preparing for last-minute Christmas shopping. She slipped her arm through his and they settled into a leisurely stroll, sun shining strong on their backs.

“Now, Daichi,” she said. “Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me why you look like you’ve just had your guts ripped out and shoved back in, hm?”

“That was a terrible analogy.”

“Shh, you! Just tell me.”

It was then Sawamura realised he didn’t really want to. He’d had incredibly trouble getting out of bed that morning; the night stretched on forever, and even when the sun shone square into his room he still felt as though it was two o’clock in the morning. He’d been trying, but something had been dragging him down; a weight, of sorts, attached to the base of his neck. He couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly.

He’d been checking his phone compulsively. He checked it one minute and then put it down, and the next time he picked it up he swore it had been longer than four minutes. The little clock at the top of the screen said otherwise.

He was agitated. If he didn’t have his phone in his hand it felt like he was missing something, like an appendage of his body. It didn’t feel right, but when he was holding his phone he wasn’t much better. He’d check for messages time and time again; at one point he was sitting at dinner and had slipped his phone out of his pocket to check it, only to look up and meet Haruka’s steady gaze. Afterwards she’d been drying the dishes he’d washed and had asked, “Is everything okay? You’ve been acting strange, lately.”

“I’m... just nervous for Christmas, I guess.”

He could feel her incredulity. But she hadn’t questioned him about it, and he was gad of it.

“Daichi?”

Sawamura started, being brought back out of his mind by Michimiya’s voice. He’d stopped walking at some point, frowning at the ground and gnashing his teeth in frustration.

“Daichi, you… something’s up, isn’t it? With this Sugawara of yours.”

He isn’t mine, Sawamura thought, but couldn’t force the words out. He just stared at her dumbly, blood hammering behind his eyes, and watched as she smiled understandingly and reached out her hand to draw him to her. She hugged him, in the middle of the street, and he hugged her back.

“It’s okay, Daichi,” she said, her voice muffled in his shoulder. She laughed. “I’ve never seen you like this before. It… makes me happy that you’ve found someone to care about.”

“I hate it,” Sawamura choked. “I want to go to him and see if he’s all right. I mean, I know he is, but something’s wrong – I can feel it. I can feel it and I don’t know why and it’s killing me, Yui.”

“Why don’t you go to him?”

“Because… I can’t.”

The branches of the almond trees rattled in the breeze and Michimiya petted his head with a defeated little laugh. “Daichi, Daichi… maybe give it some time. ‘Kay? You’ll be fine, in the end. You always are!”

He smiled at her, eyes crinkling, and he thought, I’m so glad I’m still friends with her. There are, he realised, different relationships for different people. He was born to be friends with Michimiya, and nothing else. And he was glad for it.

“Is it always this painful?” he asked her as they walked, Michimiya sucking a smoothie she’d just bought up through a straw (how can she drink that? It’s freezing!).

“What is?”

“Y’know…” he cleared his throat, embarrassed. “Love.” Michimiya laughed again, patting his arm.

“Not always, but you know that if your heart aches in concern for someone then you know it’s something. Daichi… are you in love with him?”

Sawamura smiled gently. “I thought it was obvious by now.”

Michimiya slowed to a halt, sucking at her drink pensively, brown eyes wide as they looked at him. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that you’re in love with someone before.”

“R-really?” Sawamura was a little taken aback, but realised that she was… completely right.

“Mhm. Not in the twenty-something years I’ve known you. And you’ve never even met this guy.”

“I almost did,” he argued, and they both burst out laughing. It felt good to laugh for a little bit. “But it’s okay,” he continues with a somewhat liberating sigh. “It’s okay. It hurts, but… it’s okay. It’s good hurt.”

“Are you sure?”

Sawamura smiled again, though thinly. “I’ll manage.” I just… I want to be with him. “I’ve… I’ve never wanted to be with somebody this much in my life. Ever. Maybe it’s because I can’t have him, but I’m pretty sure that once I do meet him –,” (his heart began to race at the thought) “–I won’t let him go. For… for some reason I want to hold onto him and never… let him go.” And I know something’s wrong, but I can’t do jack shit about it. “It’s weird.”

“It is weird, huh? Aw, look at you! This is so cute I’m gonna cry,” Michimiya slapped him on the back. “Little Daichi’s growing up, falling in love…”

“Stop it,” he whined, jostling her with his shoulder. “Leave me alone, mother.”

 

Sawamura arrived back at his house late in the afternoon, letting himself in. He was met with a chorus of “Daichi, Daichi!” as he took off his coat; his mother was taking Hayato and Amaya to the park to see some of their friends before the sun set. Sawamura saw them off, then took a moment to savour the sudden silence of the house.

His conversation with Michimiya had taken a grand amount of stress off his shoulders. He was glad for it; he wasn’t used to his heart feeling heavy like this in the absence of a presence he’d never known. How could he miss Sugawara when he’d never even met him? The whole thing really was a mystery – to Sawamura, especially, who had never felt such emotional momentum in his life. And he’d never even met the guy.

He ascended the stairs to his room and flopped down on his bed with a heavy sigh. He’d never been in love before – not for this long, anyway, and certainly not with this intensity. He’d fallen in love with women in magazines and cute girls that sat across the cafeteria in high school. He’d fallen in love with people he’d forgotten about five minutes later. But this… this was different.

It was still incredibly frustrating. Sugawara… he was so worried about him. He had messaged him a couple of times, tentatively, asking if he was all right, or if he wanted to talk. Sugawara had never replied to him and it was eating away at his resolve like wildfire. His bones were dry kindling and he was faltering fast, falling nowhere. His chest was constantly filled with ice and lead and his spine ached in concern. But there was nothing he could do – the least he could do was respect Sugawara’s space.

He rolled over, pressing his face into his pillow and groaning loudly. He swore, rocking back up into a sitting position. He spied a volleyball sitting on top of his clothes hamper. Might do me some good…

Picking up the volleyball, he ducked into Haruka’s room to find her lying on her bed with her laptop open on her lap. “I’m going out for a bit,” he told her. “Call me if you need anything.”

When she nodded he left, locking the door behind him and making sure the porch light was turned on so he could see when he got back. It was dark already; the night was going to be a chilly one, he could tell. It might even snow – ah. No. The night was clear as a bell, stars glimmering perfect as anything, and the moon was a sliver in the sky, bright and white like a perfectly polished grin.

He resisted the urge to bounce the ball as he went; the sound was loud and this suburb was full of families with children who had probably already gone to bed. Now he thought of it, the rest of his family hadn’t returned, even though the sun was long past setting. He pulled out his phone to call his mother, and saw a message from her.

 

We’re going over to Amaya’s friend’s house for a while! Be back around nine-ish! x

 

He smiled briefly to himself before tucking his hand into his pocket and out of the cold. He bounced the ball, just once, as he strode down the road. He was still grinding his teeth in frustration and trying not to think of Sugawara. I’ve been thinking of him too often, too often – I’m gonna be obsessed if I don’t stop. But I’m worried, and I can’t help that. It was a paradox he despised: thinking about him and feeling bad, or not thinking about him and feeling equally as sad. He was stuck in a rut he didn’t know how to get out of.

Bouncing the ball aggressively against the road, it hit the gutter and skittered down a side street, the sound of it reverberating up the high walls of the buildings. Sawamura swore under his breath and began to chase after it as it rolled into the darkness of the alley, lined with empty cans and forgotten Frisbees. The place sparked a memory – he used to take this street as a shortcut to the court he was heading to now. In fact, the only reason he’d been going the way he’d been going was because that was the way he was used to driving; but without a car he could go this way, as if he was a child again. He caught the ball under his foot, flicking it back up into his hands and attempting to wrangle his wide shoulders through the gap that seemed much smaller now than it did when he was a kid.

He almost kicked over a potted plant, stumbling a little bit out onto the street. The lights cast light onto the road, spotted along the pavement, and the road led onto a squat, wide bridge that carried it over a river Sawamura had forgotten the name of. He could hear the rush of the water, the river probably swollen from the recent snowfall.

And then he saw something that made his stomach knot up tight. A person, balanced on the rail of the bridge, looking at the water beneath them, so perfectly still that at first Sawamura hadn’t noticed them at all. His hands went numb, dropping the ball. It rolled into the gutter, coming to a halt under one of the streetlamps. He could see it in the person’s body, the way they held themselves. They were going to jump.

He had to do something.

“Fuck,” Sawamura choked out, his body going cold as ice. “Fuck, no – hey!” He started at a sprint, powerful legs vaulting him forwards faster than he’d ever run in his life. Everything was numb, his vision narrowed to a pinpoint focused solely on the slight shadow he could see tilting dangerously forwards. “Stop!”

His shoes skidded on the ice-slick pavement; he stumbled, slipping a little bit, reaching out to grab at the railing, his hand burning as it scraped along the icy metal. With his other hand he reached out with shaking fingers, fisting them in the back of the person’s jacket and yanking them back with all the might he could muster. His arms were shaking and he lost his balance, pulling the body tight against his own as he fell back onto the empty road.

They sat there a moment, Sawamura breathing heavily and stunned still with disbelief; he’d thrown his arm around the person’s chest, fingers clenched in the front of their sweater, and he could feel the soft hair of a bent head bristle against the knuckles of his thumb. They were both breathless, the person nestled between his thighs with hands that were trembling violently and grappling at his wrist. A soft sobbing reached his ears, violent whimpers, the grinding of teeth. He didn’t let go.

He levered himself onto his knees, his jeans soaked through by that point. The asphalt was painful but he could barely feel it; he tipped back the man’s – he figured it was a man – face to look at him. Gaunt, but alive, with eyes puckered pink and lips devoid of colour, blue veins uncomfortably vibrant beneath the papery skin. Pale, bright eyes and a beauty mark just to the left of –

Sawamura choked on his tongue.

He almost didn’t recognize him. If it hadn’t been for that beauty mark he probably wouldn’t have recognized him at all. Now he had a hunch of who it was, pieces began to fall into place. Pale hair – he thought back to the photograph of Sugawara Koushi he’d kept in his mind all these weeks, and realized that reality had really punched him in the gut. Everything he’d dreamed about came crashing down around his ears, but he wasn’t angry or disappointed. Sugawara was here. It was him. Sitting in the middle of the road looking as alive as a cadaver and sobbing like a child, refusing to let go of Sawamura’s arm, shaking his head and bumbling inaudibly about something Sawamura didn’t understand. Sugawara was warbling, trembling fingers pulling and clenching in Sawamura’s jacket, eyes wide and frightened like those of a lamb about to be slaughtered. Sawamura couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t. He pulled Sugawara to him, holding him so they were chest-to-chest, Sawamura’s face pressed into the other man’s shoulder, smelling him, thinking, you’re alive, you’re alive.

It rattled him, but at the same time he was overcome with an overwhelming calmness. It was stoicism, really; the kind of thing that happened when one of his siblings was panicking or disastrously upset. After feeling Sugawara’s grip slacken a little, Sawamura drew back and staggered to his feet, lifting Sugawara’s suddenly prone body into his arms. For how slender he was, he was surprisingly heavy; his head lolled heavy against Sawamura’s shoulder, and Sawamura jostled him gently so his body sat comfortably and securely.

He looked around and spotted the plastic bag and phone sitting on the pavement; he reached down for them, careful not to drop Sugawara. The sign – the blue, neon sign – was something he remembered. He remembered it when he’d stormed Sugawara’s apartment building which was on the opposite end of the street. He wasn’t quite sure why he remembered it. He just knew he did.

“I’ll take you home,” he said, lips trembling because he was frightened and he was talking to Sugawara Koushi, someone who he was completely in love with. And who had also passed out in his arms.

He was careful not to slip and fall and just prayed that the woman he lived with – Shimizu, wasn’t it? – was home. Home.

He remembered the way up to his apartment. He remembered vaguely, but he still remembered it; ascending the stairwell seemed to take forever compared to the last time he’d flown up it, each step now feeling like his shoes were full of stones. His body was leaden, the adrenaline having almost worn off; he was still shaking a little, imagining the could’ve-beens and would’ve-beens had he not been there to tear Sugawara down from the railing.

The brass numbers stared him in the face and he knocked loudly once, twice, three times. There was no reply. After waiting for a minute and growing far too cold for comfort, he shifted Sugawara’s body a little, feeling the sharp ridge of a set of keys in the pocket of his jacket. He picked them out clumsily, fumbling in the dim light of the lamp on the wall, and eventually the door clicked open.

The apartment was dark.

“Hello?” he called nervously, his voice cracking a little. No reply. Was Shimizu out? Sugawara was still out like a light; Sawamura located the light switch and jabbed it with his shoulder, kicking the door closed behind him and stepping on the heels of his shoes.

He’d never been inside before. He’d caught glimpses of the place, but he’d never fully experienced it, and now… it was weird. Silent, dark. He walked slowly, peering into rooms to try and find one that might be Sugawara’s – he located it eventually, and gently lay Sugawara down on his bed, peeling off his jacket and laying it over the back of his desk chair. He slipped the boots from Sugawara’s feet, making sure his head was positioned properly. He was trying his best not to panic – he had no idea what to do in situations like these. Just… stay with him. Stay with him for now.

Sawamura watched him. Sugawara looked awful; his face looked like it was carved out of stone, colourless, and the base of his throat glistened with sweat. Sawamura had expected him to be thin, but not this thin – he was skin and bone, almost, collarbones jutting out and his wrists so thin Sawamura could have touched his thumb and his pinky finger around them. He gently moved the hair from Sugawara’s face, sitting down on the bed beside him. Soon he shucked off his own coat, laying it over Sugawara’s.

So this was it, huh? he thought glumly as he watched Sugawara’s chest rise and fall with faint, even breaths. This was why Shimizu wouldn’t let me in. I… don’t blame her, honestly. He looks wretched. He touched Sugawara’s wrist, noticing the cracked fingers and flaking skin. This is how I meet you.

“Can’t…” Sugawara mumbled, having risen out of unconsciousness and into an exhausted sleep. His fingers began to shake and Sawamura gently placed his hand over them.

“It’s okay,” he soothed. “I’m here now. You’re safe. You’re home.”

Every now and again, Sugawara’s breaths broke in the wake of a whine. Sometimes they were just noises, and other times they were words – Sawamura tried to string them together, but they made no sense.

“…escape…” Sugawara’s eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t wake up at all.

Escape? Sawamura repeated the word to himself until his attention was diverted by Sugawara’s phone buzzing continuously in an onslaught of text messages. Sawamura picked the phone up, squinting down through the darkness at the notifications. He watched as they came through, one after the other, angrier and angrier.

 

Suga, I know you’re there! I won’t…

Come on, pick up your phone. At least give…

For fuck’s sake. You’re really starting to piss me...

 

More and more. Sawamura’s brow crumpled in a frown.

 

I’ll come out there and find you and I’ll…

Don’t think you can abandon me like this. I’m…

I will find you.

 

Sawamura’s tongue was bone dry. He dropped the phone back where he’d found it after switching it off completely, pressing the hand that wasn’t over Sugawara’s to his lips. He almost felt nauseous – what the fuck? Who was it? Who was sending messages of that calibre to Sugawara?

I will find you.

He looked at Sugawara, panicked. He wished he was awake so he could ask him about it: who was it? Where did they live? When could he go and kick their ass? He was overwhelmed by the need to protect Sugawara Koushi and he didn’t know why. He didn’t know how he’d do it, but he knew he had to – it was only by some trick of fate that he was sat here in the first place. If he’d been but five seconds later, Sugawara might never have laid in this bed again.

They were alone for hours afterwards. Sawamura, once the adrenaline had finally worn off completely, was exhausted. Whenever he tried to move his hand Sugawara would cling to it, refusing to let go. He didn’t mind so much, but damn, he was tired.

Doesn’t matter. I don’t matter right now. He put his hand to Sugawara’s face, ever so gently, and his stomach jumped when Sugawara leaned into his touch, sighing, his muttering stopping. The lease he could do was keep him safe, if only for a little bit. Sugawara’s face was ghostly, but it was still beautiful – the kind of beautiful he saw in atlases of the night sky, or on the rooves of cathedrals. It was different to what he’d remembered, or of what he’d dreamed of when he’d imagined seeing Sugawara’s face for the first time. He’d never expected things to turn out like this. He wished they hadn’t – he wished they’d met under different circumstances – but at the same time he was glad. Sugawara was safe. He was safe.

“Sometimes you’re going to meet people in your life, Daichi, that make you feel certain things,” Sawamura’s mother had told him once when they were washing the dishes together. The house had been silent and her voice had been quiet. “You have to protect those people. Because once they’re gone…”

“They don’t come back.” His voice echoed around the dark, silent room as he rubbed circles with his thumb into the back of Sugawara’s hand.

His head began to droop with exhaustion, vision blurring and his consciousness slipping. Maybe if he had a nap for a bit – that’d be okay, right? If he just…

His body took up the rest of the space on Sugawara’s bed, his head cushioned on his own arm and his other hand still in Sugawara’s. The pale-haired man turned into him, then, in a gesture that was completely unexpected. Sawamura froze as he nuzzled gently into his neck; as soon as he moved, though, Sugawara flinched, as though by habit. Sawamura shrank back for a moment before relaxing a little, the returning heat of Sugawara’s body slowly warming his. His nose was tickled by sweet-smelling hair and there was the washing of breath against his throat and he had to keep reminding himself that Sugawara is here. Right here. With you. Suga.

He bent his head a little so his lips were pressed to the top of Sugawara’s head, and he was gently pulled into a much needed, exhausted sleep.

 

Sawamura’s slumber was dreamless and black. Empty. He was tired, both mentally and physically, so when he was woken by someone yanking him off the bed he’d been lying on, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” a female voice hissed, cracked with panic. He was awake immediately, then, staggering to his feet. “Sawamura!”

It was Shimizu, her face white as a sheet and as freaked out as Sawamura had ever seen her. Her fingers were rigid in the material of his sweater and her teeth were barred; she was on the defence. “No, no,” Sawamura began hurriedly, head still swamped from sleep. “I wasn’t – I – listen, listen! I need to talk to you.”

Shimizu dragged him out into the kitchen. She was holding herself, eyes darting restlessly behind her glasses. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, and he held up his hands in surrender.

“I found Suga –,” (the name felt so lovely on his lips) “–at the bridge on the end of your street. He was going to jump, Shimizu. I didn’t – I happened to be there because I had no choice but to cross the bridge to get to the court I was heading to. I…” he swallowed thickly. “I pulled him down. He’s okay, but he’s been asleep since then. I’m not – I don’t even think he realises I’m here.”

Shimizu looked like she was struggling not to throw up. Her face had gone from an angry red to white to green and she looked positively ill, even more so as she let Sawamura speak. She whispered ‘oh my God’ over and over into her hand. After a short pause she looked up at him and said, “He can’t know.”

“W-why not?”

“Because he would freak the fuck out. He… he wouldn’t want you to know. Suga hides things from me, he always has, but at least trust me on this. If he knew you’d seen him like that he would never forgive himself. He’d see it as a burden and no matter how many times you tell him it’s okay, that you don’t mind, he’s always going to think about it and he’s always going to blame himself for it. He can’t know. Not now. Maybe… maybe later, but not now.”

Sawamura was silent. She was right, and he knew it. Silence hung dead and black between them – it was still night, the kitchen was dark – the only light coming from the clock on the stove that read 1:42am – and Sawamura reached up to rub the back of his neck before nodding heavily, heart sinking like a stone in his chest. “You’re… yeah. Okay. I’m – yeah. Bye.”

“Sawamura,” Shimizu called as he opened the door, shoving his feet into his shoes. “Thank you.”

“Just… take care of him,” he replied in a voice he tried his best to keep under control before slamming the door, numbly fleeing the apartment block. He made it back to the bridge, seeing the marks in the snow where he and Sugawara had fallen, before tearing his eyes away and walking, walking, trying to hold himself properly. He got as far as three blocks before he sank down onto the curb, put his head in his hands, and broke down into tears.

Chapter Text

 

XIII: Sugawara Koushi

 

Part 1

 

He woke in a daze.

He wasn’t sure what time it was, or what day it was; he suspected it to be somewhere in the mid morning, but he couldn’t be certain. The blinds were drawn and the room was still dark but he could hear the kitchen sink running and the television set humming lowly outside his bedroom, so it couldn’t have been too late (or early, for that matter, since one of the rules Kiyoko had laid down when they moved in together was that the television never went on before six in the morning).

How long had it been? How – when did he get here? He… am I dead? Is this what death is like? Dying, and then waking up at home, in your bed? He remembered – albeit foggily – standing perched on the railing of the bridge at the end of the street. He remembered looking down into the black water wanting nothing more than to be sucked into it and never found. He remembered wanting to jump. But he didn’t remember jumping.

Maybe I fell and don’t remember hitting the water, he thought, and the hopefulness with which the thought came frightened him a little. If this was what death was like, then he didn’t mind so much. He’d swerved close to death’s curb more times he could count; comfortably, he closed his eyes and decided to fall back into the heady daze of sleep.

He woke for the second and final time in far less of a daze, and far more of a horrific stupor. He was almost completely certain he was dead, but there was a small part of him that was slowly coming to terms that – scientifically speaking – being in a situation like this after death was almost absolutely impossible. Soon he realised, not without a dismayed swoop of his stomach, that he was not, in fact, dead. He was alive, and he couldn’t remember anything between standing on the bridge and waking up at home.

Sitting up would have made him dizzy, so he remained on his back with his fingers knotted in his sheets. They’d stopped bleeding sometime during the night, and somehow they felt better, if only a little. He wasn’t sure if he trusted himself to think, but his lucidity had returned to him enough to make him feel utterly miserable. I’m not dead. I was so close, too. What he wanted to know was how.

As he lay there, staring at the ceiling, memories crept back into his head. The fog began to clear and he began to remember; he couldn’t really stop it from happening, but he really wished it wouldn’t. He remembered – he remembered standing there, tipping forward (it was more falling than jumping, really), and then… then the collar of his sweater had cut into his throat as he’d been yanked back, tipping the opposite way he’d meant to’ve been falling, back back back and down down down until he fell against a solid weight that was certainly not water, snow seeping through his jeans and strong arms locked around him. He remembered his mind becoming consumed with panic. He remembered not being able to breathe; he remembered his eyes burning and his body feeling disjointed from his brain. After that… nothing. All he remembered was a faint smell that he couldn’t put his finger on. He sat up, then, his vision clouding red for a moment as his head rushed.

He looked down at his hands. They were dry, cracked, ruined from too many cleaning chemicals and neglect and sharp teeth. His doctors used to tell him to take better care of his skin (it was delicate, they said), but he never did. As he became a teenager he’d scrubbed up to the elbows with soap each time he washed his hands, and as he became an adult he began to scrub with cleaning chemicals in an attempt to scrub off the filth he couldn’t see. It wasn’t a matter of germs – just general filth that crawled through his veins and sat caked like mud in his bones. He shook his head, ridding himself of the thought. Can’t think of that now. Sugawara brought a hand up to his face, squinting at it; it was his left hand, and he turned it back to front. It felt better than his other hand did – perhaps because his dominant hand was his right one, so he used it more? He wasn’t sure. Maybe his mind was just tricking him… but somehow his hand tingled warmly, pleasantly. Comfortably. As though the cracks were healing right before his eyes.

His whole body felt a little strange, but not a bad strange. Again, it was something he couldn’t pinpoint. Do I need to? He decided, then, to just embrace it while it lasted. He knew it was only a matter of time before he went cold again anyway.

“You’re awake,” Kiyoko smiled at him as he wandered to where she sat watching a documentary on television. “How are you feeling?”

Sugawara’s arms hung numbly by his sides and he was looking around the room as though he didn’t quite recognise it. “I’m not dead, am I?”

“No.” Kiyoko’s voice was a single breath, sucked right back into her lungs. A backward note.

Damn. He sat down carefully next to her, eyes averted, not close to her but not too far away. She looked like she hadn’t slept at all. He began to pick at his fingers, but stopped and clenched his fists in his lap. “So… how was your night?” he asked, trying his best to mask the nervousness in his voice. He still clung to a sliver of hope that Kiyoko had no idea that he’d tried to do what he did. Had she been the one to pull him down? The more he thought about it the more he realised that it was impossible. Those arms had definitely not belonged to Kiyoko.

“Relieving,” she replied honestly. She reached up to touch the spot near her mouth – it was something she did when she was anxious. “Are you okay?”

“You know?”

“Of course I do. Suga –,”

Please,” he interrupted her, and she swallowed her words back with an expression torn somewhere between fear and sorrow and desperation. “Please don’t. Not… not yet.”

Kiyoko sighed, smiling ruefully, holding up the blanket she was lying under. Sugawara glanced at her before giving up and wriggling in beside her. And they sat there, snuggled with Sugawara under Kiyoko’s arm, for a good few hours, until Sugawara’s stomach begun to grumble. Usually he would have objected to Kiyoko making him a meal, but this time he didn’t. He wasn’t hungry even though he knew he had to eat something. He ate what Kiyoko gave him because he was really too tired to refuse. He didn’t taste anything. It was as easy as breathing – so easy, in fact, that when his fork scraped the bottom of his empty plate he was shocked. His fullness hit him in a wave of nausea afterwards, and he’d thrown up in the bathroom, but made sure Kiyoko didn’t hear him.

Perhaps Kiyoko was wondering when he’d talk to her. He wasn’t sure himself, at that point. Talking about what he’d done seemed completely out of the question; even to Kiyoko, he really didn’t want to and wasn’t sure if he ever would.

The first time he’d ever attempted to take his own life had been in silence. Absolute, utter, terrifying silence. The second time, he’d called Kiyoko because he’d been frightened, and she’d been so distraught that the third time he’d tried, he’d taken up silence again. After that he’d lost count of days and weeks and years and hadn’t called anyone or spoken to anybody. Kiyoko knew, and she tried to get him to talk about it because she knew it would help him. He refused to. He was the problem, he thought. He’d perfected the art of smiling brilliantly and laughing perfectly, even if it rattled around inside him with a dry echo, reminding him of how empty he was. He’d been silent for so long he’d lost the ability to speak.

He showered in cold water, trying his best not to scrub at himself too hard (but failing, again). He kept his back to the mirror; he couldn’t bear to see the bones and the sinew and the pouches under his eyes, dark clouds against papery skin. He didn’t need to look. He already knew.

As he passed Kiyoko’s room, he caught sight of her calendar. She crossed the days off with black crosses in each box, and the numbers were big, the boxes wide and crammed full of dates written in purple and red pen. It’s… already December? Sugawara thought, confusion gripping him. December? Since… since when? Where had the days gone? The weeks? Had he really slept them all away? Had he really been consumed by such black dreams, such violent slumber that he’d slept away the most of November? And now it was December, almost Christmas. It meant nothing, but it still hit him hard. Numbly, he turned into his own room. It didn’t even feel like his own room. Nothing felt like him anymore.

Sugawara felt like a leper. An emotional leper, and a physical one. He felt ravaged by disease. He looked ravaged by disease. He was a disease. He pressed his fingers to his eyes. I wish things weren’t like this.

He reached out for balance, finding purchase on the back of his desk chair; it was spongy, and the texture beneath his hand was foreign. It shot feeling up his arm and he glanced down at an unfamiliar garment sitting under his hand, over what he recognised to be his own jacket. Frowning, he drew back his hand and picked up the coat – he’d never seen it before in his life, he was sure of it. But somehow it was familiar, though he didn’t know how. And… what was it doing slung over the back of his desk chair? Over his jacket? That had been the jacket he’d been wearing last night, on the bridge – things fell into place one after the other. He’d been wearing his jacket when he was on the bridge, and so if this unfamiliar one was on top of it, that meant that somebody he didn’t know had been in the apartment – in his bedroom – between the time he’d collapsed and the time he’d woken up. And that the person hadn’t removed their jacket at the door. They’d taken it off in Sugawara’s room. Kiyoko didn’t pull me down. The thought was sudden, and it stung. Somebody else did. Whoever owns this jacket did.

Raising the jacket to his nose, he smelled it. It smelled like faint, stale coffee.

“K-Kiyoko,” he called in a voice that was surprisingly steady, considering how much his hands were shaking. “Kiyoko!”

She sprinted across the apartment, catching herself in the doorway, face taut with confusion and concern. She looked from Sugawara’s face to the jacket, then back again, and he watched as her expression bloomed from concern to realisation to dread. Sugawara’s fingers tightened in the jacket he held. “What is this? Whose is this?”

Kiyoko didn’t reply.

“It’s not mine, and it’s not yours – whose is it?”

Kiyoko’s lips pursed, opening and closing as she struggled to reply. Her knuckles were white against the doorframe.

Whose is it?” he asked again, voice finally breaking, eyes searing as tears bubbled up and over. He gritted his teeth. “Whose?”

“Sawamura Daichi’s.”

It was a punch to the stomach. All the air was knocked out of Sugawara’s lungs – whatever he’d been expecting, it hadn’t been that. All of a sudden he went from feeling nothing to feeling too many things at once; it was an avalanche he was in now way prepared for. It floored him. Sawamura Daichi’s? He was here? “He was here are and you d-didn’t tell me?”

Kiyoko screwed her face up, pressing her fists to her eyes. “For this exact reason, Suga!” she exploded. “Because I knew this would happen!” She curled in on herself, then, knuckles still mashed against her face. “It wasn’t worth it!”

“He was the one who pulled me down, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“He came back here?”

“He… did.”

Sugawara was trembling, jacket fisted in his hands. Sawamura… Daichi? Breath bloated his throat like a balloon. “Kiyoko, I have to go to him.”

“What? Suga, are you crazy?”

Sugawara began towards her, tears wetting his cheeks and his body racking with sobs he didn’t feel. “I have to, please! I need to see him. This is why – he was here, wasn’t he? He touched me. He was here. He pulled me down. I have to – Kiyoko –,” he tried to pass through the door but she caught him by the arms and wrangled him back into his bedroom.

“Suga, stop this! You’re not in your right mind! Calm down – Suga – stop!” He took advantage of her panic to peel himself away from her grip, staggering out with Sawamura’s jacket in his arms. It was too much – everything was falling into place, rising like hysteria within him, and he couldn’t handle it. But he had to. He snatched up her car keys and his phone, switching it on as he slammed the front door shut and strode unsteadily along the breezeway, half-slipping down the fire stairs and into the car park. He knew he shouldn’t drive in the state he was in, but all rational thinking had fled him. He wrenched open the car door, tossing the jacket and his phone onto the passenger seat before sliding in and turning on the engine.

He pulled out just as Kiyoko sprinted into the parking lot.

His hands were shaking as he drove and it didn’t take him long to realise that he had no clue where Sawamura Daichi lived. He wracked his brain – who would? Who did he know that knew Sawamura as well? The answer came to him as he passed an old florist’s shop that had closed down years ago.

He fumbled with his phone, pulling up Yachi’s contact, which he’d kept after their date, and called her. He didn’t care how wrecked his voice sounded; he didn’t care how concerned she was when she heard him speak.

“Where does he live?”

“Who?”

“Sawamura Daichi.”

“Suga, what are you –,”

Tell me!”

She did. She told him in a panic because she’d never heard Sugawara like this before, and it seemed wildly unlike him. But she told him anyway, because she was scared. She told him and his throat closed up because he knew exactly where he was supposed to go.

A car drive had never seemed so long before. The road stretched on forever, a knot of twist and turns that seemed to lead nowhere. As the minutes ticked on, Sugawara’s hysteria subsided and he began to wonder if he was doing the right thing at all. As his heart slowed so did the tyres of his car, and as his lucidity returned to him he began to doubt his antics.

“He wouldn’t want to see someone like me,” he whispered to his reflection, eyes shocking and bright in the rearview mirror. “I’m a wreck.”

But he saw you last night, a tiny voice reminded him. You were more of a wreck last night than you are now but he saw you, and he took you home. You’ve exposed the very core of your being to him, now, and you haven’t even met him yet. Not properly.

Sugawara gulped in a lungful of air, taking a purposefully wrong turn down an empty road as he tried to stem his panic. It was true. There was no denying it. I could just turn around and go home, he thought. He wasn’t sure where he was, now – he’d taken so many turns while he was thinking that he’d gotten himself lost. He shook his head, the final tears squeezed from his eyes. He scrubbed at his face with his sleeve and concentrated on the road. Go home. It isn’t worth it.

His hands were still unsteady. “I’m so scared,” he said. “I don’t want him to get hurt. This was a stupid idea – all I’m going to do is get him hurt. I’ve already put Kiyoko in danger, and I don’t want to do the same thing to Daichi.” (Daichi? the voice questioned, amused. Since when did you call him that?) “I can’t. He has a family, one that loves him. I couldn’t take that from him. Something would happen and he would get hurt, just like everybody else. I can’t protect him from that. I can’t even protect myself.” He would have cried more if all his tears hadn’t dried up. “I’m going home.” And he turned the car around.

Hold on a minute.

He stopped by the curb, looking across the street at a letterbox. He brought the address Yachi had given him to mind, and looked at the letterbox again. Isn’t that…?

That was Sawamura’s house.

Sugawara sat, his body cold as ice, staring. Part of him – most of him – wanted to just turn around and go home, to fall into bed and forget about everything. But there was another part of him that wanted to get out of the car and go up to that door and return the jacket, just like he’d said he was going to.

“I… can’t.”

Yes, you can.

Kiyoko had folded her hands over his when they were twelve and had said, “You can do anything, Suga.”

I can.

He let himself out of the car with shaking hands, holding the jacket to the front of his body as though it was the only solid thing in the world. He was glad he couldn’t cry anymore – if he could have, he would have been. He was trying to press down his panic, and with each step closer he got to Sawamura’s home, the number he became.

It was a nice house – one of the old ones – with a gate and brass numbers and a porch light. It was a house, not a flat, and he could hear the faint sound of children from inside, and the thump of feet from the upper level. Unassuming, solid, just like he’d imagined Sawamura to be. Sugawara had gotten lost and had discovered this place by accident. Serendipity, he thought, hiding his shaking hands in the fabric of Sawamura’s jacket. Just like Sawamura.

Pushing open the gate was surreal. He couldn’t feel the path beneath his feet, and putting his foot on the porch step was like walking on the moon. He didn’t feel gravity. He didn’t feel anything. Steeling himself and gritting his teeth, he raised a hand.

You can, and you know it.

He knocked three times.

There was a voice, then footsteps, and all the dread that had been hovering over him collapsed over his head. But it was too late to run away now.

The door was opened by a tall, lean girl who would still have been in high school – her hair was dark and so were her eyes, her face strong and nose straight. Her brows furrowed with worry when she saw him. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, is S-Sawamura Daichi here?” Sugawara’s lips were trembling as he said the name; he willed them steady as best he could.

“Who’re you?”

“I-I’m Sugawara Koushi. I’ve come to return something.”

The girl pressed her fingers to her lips, hand growing tight as a vice on the door. “Dai–,” she began, but she was cut off as she turned around to see Sawamura standing right there, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, washing basket in hand.

“S… Sugawara?”

The girl slipped away as Sawamura approached, dark face chalky and eyes erratic. Sugawara’s breath turned to tar in his mouth as he looked up at Sawamura – Sawamura Daichi – and felt all the panic bubbling tight in his chest drop to the ground like the release of a leaden weight. Slowly, he extended the jacket.

“This is yours.”

Sawamura reached out and took it from him, and somewhere in the fabric their fingers touched, and Sugawara drew in a rattling breath as a sudden conscious memory shot back through his mind from the night before – the kind of breath one draws in before a sob. “You stopped me,” he whispered. “It was you.”

Something clicked in Sawamura’s face and his hand moved from the jacket to his wrist and he pulled Sugawara towards him, right until he was close enough to put his arms around him. Sugawara was breathless, stunned speechless. You did it.

“It was me,” Sawamura said, and at the sound of his voice Sugawara sobbed dryly, dropping the jacket to grasp at Sawamura’s shirt, pressing his face to his shoulder. “It was me. Thank God you’re okay.”

Sugawara couldn’t think. All he knew in the world was the weight and warmth of Sawamura’s body, the tightness of his hands as they pressed against him, one on the back of his neck and the other against his waist. The smell of him, like the jacket, but stronger. Realer. The feel of him. The sight of the face Sugawara had grown so used to, yet he’d never seen – it was here, he was here, in person. Real. With a face that smiled and spoke and warped as he burst into relieved tears.

“Hey, now, don’t cry,” Sugawara breathed as Sawamura pulled him closer; he was caught between laughing and crying at the sight of a fully-grown man in tears like this. But he was in love with it. He was in love with Sawamura Daichi, and it was in that moment, hugged tightly in Sawamura’s arms, that he truly realised that.

“You’re okay,” Sawamura’s breath was a sob against his skin. “You’re safe.

“I’m okay,” Sugawara agreed, voice quivering. “I’m okay. I’m –,” his voice cracked, then, and he was unable to continue. His face turned into Sawamura’s neck, fresh tears smearing along the skin Sugawara had never thought he’d feel.

Sawamura drew back a little and pushed Sugawara’s hair out of his face; Sawamura’s eyes were red with tears and his mouth was upturned in the most ridiculous, relieved, lovestruck smile Sugawara had ever seen. As strong thumbs wiped the tears away from his eyes he couldn’t help but laugh breathlessly; Sawamura’s hands were big and warm and rough on his skin. He never wanted to let go.

“Thank you,” Sugawara whispered to him. “I can’t…”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Sawamura told him. Sugawara’s eyes shut briefly, just so he could savour the sound of the living, breathing Sawamura Daichi. “I’d do it again. I’d do it five hundred times over. I –,” he paused nervously, as if he was afraid of screwing up. He overcame it in a moment. “I’d do it as many times as I have to. I…” he pressed a hand to his mouth, other hand stroking circles into Sugawara’s cheek. “I thought I wouldn’t see you again.”

Sugawara smiled wearily. “Well, looks like you were wrong, doesn’t it? Third time lucky?”

Third time lucky. Sawamura had visited him once, and had failed. He’d found him a second time, on the bridge, and had left before they could meet properly. Third time lucky. Third time lucky and Sugawara was standing at his door with an endearingly snotty nose and eyes red from crying, but his face and his lips and the lids of his eyes were flushed with life Sawamura had honestly feared had fled him. Sawamura shook his head in amazed agreement, hands flitting over Sugawara’s face, pushing away the hair that hung into it again. “I can’t believe it,” he murmured. “I can’t believe you’re here. I’m –,”

Sugawara hushed him, placing a hand against Sawamura’s mouth and laughing giddily. His hands were on Sugawara’s waist, then, holding him up when he would have otherwise buckled. They stood a moment in silence, eyes locked, Sugawara reeling with happiness and confusion, Sawamura giddy with relief and ecstasy. Sugawara’s long fingers and conscious, awake eyes on him made Sawamura’s stomach ripple. The sound of his voice, the smell of him. He cleared his throat, then, licking his lips nervously.

“Sugawara Koushi,” he said slowly, delighting in the way Sugawara’s eyes crinkled in a smile in response. “Would you like to go out with me?”

Sugawara bit back another sob and nodded, burying his face in Sawamura’s chest and replying, “Yes, Sawamura Daichi. I would.”

They laughed at each other, then, and began to cry all over again, like children who had fallen in love over scraped knees and peeling band-aids.

 


 

You’re safe.

It was the thing that stuck in Sugawara’s memory the most vividly. Seeing Sawamura’s face, stony and determined, as he said it; it made him feel as though he could really believe it. Standing in those arms for the first time had made hi forget the world in its entirety, and that was certainly something Sugawara believed he could get used to.

There was a part of him that still didn’t believe it. He’d been a sobbing wreck in Sawamura’s arms, making a scene in front of the girl he soon discovered to be Sawamura’s sister; Sawamura’s other siblings had been drawn by the commotion and had been frightened at the sight of their brother crying so openly and so violently, scrubbing at a snotty nose with the back of his hand and then sobbing anew whenever he turned his eyes back to Sugawara’s face. In the end, though, none of those things mattered. All that mattered was that Sawamura had walked him to his car, and that he’d had his hand on the roof beside Sugawara’s head, and that his face had been an animate version of the photograph Sugawara had all but imprinted into his memory. All that mattered was that Sawamura had touched his face, knocking his knuckles against the underside of Sugawara’s chin. All that mattered was that Sawamura had smiled at him, a giant goofy grin that Sugawara had seen before in that single, dumb photo. All that had mattered was that when Sugawara nervously asked if he wanted to come over and tie up loose ends, he agreed. All that had mattered was that Sawamura had been the one to drive, and he drove with one hand, because the other one was holding Sugawara’s, fingers entangled on his thigh. The sting of Sugawara’s fingers had softened, and Sawamura had stroked gentle circles into Sugawara’s chapped skin with his thumb.

It was a difficult thing to do. Everything had gotten difficult; it was difficult not to touch each other the way normal couples did, because by that time in the day there were people out, families, who would cast a bad eye on them both. So Sawamura did what he could: touching the back of Sugawara’s neck, his back, and when they were in the stairwell Sugawara tugged at the back of his jacket and Sawamura had hugged him again, feeling the rush of a sigh leave Sugawara’s body.

Kiyoko almost collapsed when she opened the door for them. Instead, however, she put a hand to her mouth and noticed Sawamura’s hand hovering at Sugawara’s back in a precautionary gesture, and the way Sugawara’s body was less rigid than she was used to him being around people of such close proximity; putting her face into her hand she admitted them inside, grabbing a box of tissues and boiling water for tea. She also cracked open a box of biscuits because both Sugawara and Sawamura looked exhausted. Their blood sugar was probably being dragged along the floor.

Sawamura, for one, couldn’t meet Kiyoko’s eyes. He was afraid of what he’d see in them – would she be mad? He’d shoulder the blame, gladly, for everything that had happened. But she wasn’t.

“Sawamura,” she began, looking across the low coffee table to where Sugawara and Sawamura sat abreast, knees touching, stances identical and purely coincidental. “I need to apologised to you.”

“You don’t,” he insisted immediately. “You don’t. Please, don’t. You did what you thought was right.”

“You knew she didn’t want to tell me?” Sugawara asked tersely.

Sawamura nodded. “Yeah, I did. I didn’t agree to it at first, but I’m glad she did. You could have woken up, seen me, flipped your lid and done something stupid.” He plucked ruefully at the sleeve of his jacket that hung over the back of the sofa. “It would’ve gone better if I hadn’t gotten upset and left without this.”

There was a pause, Sugawara fiddling idly with his hands, his eyes on those of Sawamura. “I… I think it’s okay. Now, I mean.” He didn’t trust himself to say any more than that lest he burst into tears again.

He felt Sawamura’s strong knuckles against his leg and – for some reason – he felt better for it. He rubbed his neck nervously, still not really believing it was all real.

“I could have dealt with it better,” he explained hesitantly. “I’d never thought about how I’d react to something like this, but I’m not surprised by how it went. My mind felt separated from my body. I didn’t believe anything was happening for real – I still kind of don’t.”

“Can I hug you?”

He’s asking? Sugawara blushed. “I’d… I’d be embarrassed…”

He glanced at Kiyoko, who was smiling into her hand.

“But… yeah.”

There was nothing realer than being in Sawamura’s arms. They cleared the fog, somehow, like some sort of life buoy in a turbulent sea. Sugawara had never felt anything like this before.

“I’m happy,” Kiyoko told them when they came apart, Sugawara blushing furiously and Sawamura unable to bite back a grin. “I am. I’m so happy things have worked out. I’m… relieved. Thank you, Sawamura.”

“It’s fine. It is, honestly. I’m – I’m really happy, too?”

Me too, Sugawara thought quietly, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Sawamura didn’t stay for long. He made sure Sugawara was all right, that he wasn’t feeling too upset or overwhelmed. They stood at the door like teenagers with Sugawara’s face in Sawamura’s hands and Sugawara’s hands at Sawamura’s waist and Kiyoko noticed that Sawamura had quickly developed respect for Sugawara’s personal space. Sawamura left with a goofy grin on his face and Sugawara stood with his face to the back of the closed door, staring at the wood and blushing up to his ears.

“Suga, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t apologise to me,” he told her in a voice strung with pain, turning around. “God, Kiyoko, if anyone should be apologising, it’s me. I went fucking crazy back there. I – what I did was wrong. It was wrong. I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have done it.”

Kiyoko put her hands on his shoulders. “I’ve seen you like that before. I didn’t want to shock you like I did last time. I don’t want a repeat of that time, ever again. Ever. I was so scared, Suga. So scared. I’m still scared. Are you… okay?”

Sugawara smiled a smile so full and dazzling that Kiyoko was struck dumb by it. It had been years since she’d seen him smile like that. “Kiyoko… I’m…” he shook his head, at a loss for words. “I feel… inhuman. I feel like I could fly.”

Kiyoko’s entire body deflated with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad – I – Suga –,”

Sugawara pulled her into his arms and she hugged him tightly. “We’re going to be fine, Kiyoko,” he promised her. “I think… I think I’m going to be okay.”

And that – that was what made Kiyoko cry the most, and in the absolute happiest way.

Chapter Text

Part 2

 

“A… date?”

“Mhm,” Sugawara replied dreamily as he stood in front of the window, watering can in hand. “On Saturday.”

Kiyoko bit back a smile. Sugawara had been lovestruck like a teenager for the last two days, ever since he’d rocketed out of their apartment in a half-mad rage in pursuit of Sawamura Daichi. He’d found him in the end, if not by accident – and she was glad he did. Perhaps she’d been in the wrong from the beginning; perhaps it had been wrong of her to keep Sawamura’s visit a secret from him. But deep down she believed she’d done the right thing – everything had turned out all right. There were still bumps and hitches, but… it was okay. She hadn’t seen Sugawara like this for a long, long time. It was as though he was stuck inside a dream, dancing around inside his own head. His thin smiles had become fuller ones, brighter ones – each time he smiled Kiyoko would be unable to do anything but smile back. And he’d laugh – oh, his laugh was like bells when it was true.

He was talking more. He was moving more. He was rising earlier. It all felt like a dream – Kiyoko was afraid she’d wake up and that things would be as they were before.

“Is he taking you somewhere nice?”

Sugawara nodded absently, a small smile playing at his lips.

“Hey, Suga?”

“Hm?”

“Do you want to go shopping?”

He looked back over his shoulder at her and grinned.

 

The shopping mall was packed to bursting with people doing last-minute Christmas shopping.

“I still can’t believe it,” Sugawara told her as they squeezed into the menswear section of the store they were in. “Like… he was real. There. Solid. It was so… surreal.” He frowned, pressing his fingertips to the sides of his face. “He’s a lot more attractive in person.”

“You’ve told me,” Kiyoko remarked slyly; Sawamura had been all Sugawara could talk about ever since he’s come home tucked under the heavy weight of Sawamura’s arm, as giddy and disbelieving as a high schooler. There was always excitement on his tongue when Sugawara talked about him, accompanied by some degree of disbelief to create a tinny sort of timbre to his voice that was quite pleasant to listen to. He told her about him, often repeating the same stories twice but never realiseing. She let him speak – if talking about Sawamura Daichi made him happy, then who was she to stop him?

Sugawara’s mind moved from Sawamura to the neatly-arranged clothes arranged in the display before him; he began to analyse them in terms of colour and cut, picking out something ‘nice, but not too formal’. He carded through the displays of trousers and shirts, contemplating and mumbling to himself every now and again. Kiyoko stood back, absentmindedly perusing the sock display.

He dragged her to the changing rooms after he’d selected some things he’d liked. She waited – and waited, and waited.

“Suga,” she called. “Are you done?”

“I’m embarrassed,” Sugawara replied with a blush in his voice.

Kiyoko slipped over to push her head past the curtain of the changing room and her tongue went dead slack in her mouth.

Sugawara was dressed in a dusky, navy blue shirt with a white collar and white cuffs and buttons; the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and paired with the trousers he was already wearing, it was perfect. It matched his hair and his skin and the colour of his eyes; the cut, too, was perfect, nipping in at the small of his back and following the curve of his spine seamlessly. There was something about the outfit’s entirety that made Kiyoko sigh in satisfaction. Or maybe it was just the flush on Sugawara’s face. She wasn’t sure, but she knew it didn’t necessarily matter.

“You look wonderful.”

Their eyes met in the mirror and Kiyoko swore she’d never seen so much hope in those eyes of his before. “You’re really going to put your all into this, aren’t you?” she asked with a comforting smile.

“Yeah,” Sugawara replied, fingering at the buttons up his front. He looked down, smiling a little. “I want to. I think I’m ready now, you know? I trust him. A lot.”

“Do you? Really?”

Yes, I do!”

“Say it again.”

“I do. I trust him.” He bit down on his bottom lip in pleasure, just from the words. Kiyoko nodded, closed the curtain, and tried to hold back a delighted laugh from leaving her lips.

Sugawara ended up purchasing the shirt, and he was strangely quiet afterwards. Kiyoko pegged it to be because of the strange way Sugawara had of expressing absolute contentment. He sat like a satisfied cat as they drove home, gazing listlessly out the window as the world flashed by.

She was excited for him. He was excited, too, though he’d gone so long without being genuinely excited for anything that it came out as jittery nervousness. The night of their date drew nearer and nearer and Sugawara got more and more nervous.

She noticed the little smiles he wore – how they bloomed on his lips, how he tried to force them back because that was what he was so used to doing, how he realised that he didn’t have to swallow his happiness anymore, and that only augmented his joy. But he smiled, tiny smiles as they were, even if he hid them behind his fingers.

Kiyoko, on one hand, wanted to remind him that it was okay to pull out at any time – if there were any red flags, she thought as she watched Sugawara’s shoulders jostle as he carded his long, chapped fingers through his hair. She considered saying to him that if Sawamura did anything he didn’t feel comfortable with, he could drop everything and run, because that was the right thing to do. From what she knew of Sawamura, though, she honestly didn’t believe that to be the case, and she knew that planting any seed of doubt in Sugawara’s mind at this point could do more damage than good.

On the other hand, she knew that Sawamura wouldn’t do anything to upset Sugawara – she didn’t know him, perhaps, well enough to make that assumption, but Sawamura Daichi was the kind of man who, in front of the right people, wore his heart on his sleeve. He was the kind of person who was inherently kind, if not a little intimidating. For some reason or another she felt that Sugawara was in safe hands.

She watched him out of the corner of her eye all the same, vigilant to fractures in a façade she’s surely fallen for tens of times before. She didn’t want him getting into a sticky relationship – one where he’d end up getting hurt.

He apologised to her when they were sat at the kitchen table the next morning. Sugawara was picking at his food (but he’d always been a picky eater), but he was eating it.

“What are you sorry for?” Kiyoko asked, genuinely surprised.

“For… bothering you, you know?” He laughed, scratching at his cheek a little. “I’ve put you through a lot.”

Kiyoko shook her head, dark eyes wide. “Suga… you couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, I’m tired, but I’m happy. Seeing you like this makes it all worth it. Besides –,” She paused to smile ruefully a little “– I probably made a mistake by hiding Sawamura’s visits from you. I just… wasn’t sure how you’d react, and I didn’t want to risk it. Both times he came over you were a little fragile.”

Sugawara averted his eyes, grimacing. “You were right. In retrospect I think I would have done some stupid things if I’d have seen him then – even after I found his jacket I flew into a fit. I’m just glad I had time enough to calm down by the time I got to his house, or else I’d probably have hit him before I even spoke to him.”

Kiyoko chuckled, pushing her hair from her eyes and taking a moment to look at him. “You’ll be all right from now on, right?”

“I think so.”

Kiyoko nodded and cleared away her own things; she had an early shift that day, and she was working extended hours over Christmas, so she had to leave. He called out his farewell as she left, and as soon as he was alone in the apartment, he let out a heavy sigh and put his head down on the table.

“Oh, boy,” he sighed to himself. I can’t believe it. I still can’t it seems like a dream… a hallucination, almost. But he remembered it so vividly: how Sawamura’s forearms felt beneath his hands, soft shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He’d been so warm, so solid and comfortable and reassuring. Sugawara had never thought someone’s presence could be reassuring, yet as soon as he’d stepped into Sawamura’s personal space he’d felt grounded, and all the fog crammed in his head dispersed.

He propped his chin up in his hands, frowning. Something was cutting at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it – a number of things, actually, were nagging him, none of which he could recognise. He mulled them over, scraping absently at the edge of his plate with his fork, but his train of thought was interrupted by a loud alert tone from his laptop, which stood open on the counter, plugged in to charge.

Scooting back his chair, Sugawara cleared up his own dishes and piled them into the sink before going over to check the notification. His heart leapt out against his ribs when he saw a familiar little icon on his computer screen.

 

Sawamura Daichi: I just realised I don’t have your phone number.

 

Sugawara chewed on a smile.

 

Sugawara Koushi: oh? that's true… it’s about time, don’t you think?

 

Sawamura sent him his phone number first. Usually when someone decided to slip a number into his pocket, Sugawara got a little squeamish. Now, though… discovering that he didn’t have Sawamura’s number was strange. Unnatural, as though it was something he should have naturally possessed. The realisation sat uncomfortably in his stomach, and as his eyes perused the digits the strange foreign feeling melted. But… he had to admit, after all they’d been through, a phone number seemed like the most childish thing in the world.

That didn’t stop his heart beating in his mouth, of course, when Sawamura first called him. He said he would – and so of course he did – and as the phone buzzed in his hands Sugawara’s eyes remained fixed on the number flashing on the screen. The numbers were as familiar as a name.

“Suga,” Sawamura said, and Sugawara found it endearing that the first thing he said happened to be Sugawara’s name. Sawamura’s voice sounded a little different over the phone than it did in real life, but not much. It still made Sugawara’s fingers tingle nervously as he held the phone to his ear, like he was in middle school again, calling up his crush.

“Hey,” Sugawara said softly in reply, and there was a silence before they both laughed, flustered. They didn’t know what to talk about. They didn’t know when to start.

The conversation started slow, a heavy, rolling stone, but quickly gained momentum as their confidence mounted and they found what was easiest to talk about and what wasn’t. It was a test, really, an appraisal of limits and topics and clusters of words arranged like galaxies in the ether of the phone line. Sugawara sank down against the kitchen cabinet, twisting a finger in his hair like a teenage girl from a movie screen and he pulled his knees up to his chest so he can better hide his face in them when he blushed. And, as it turned out, he did that a lot. Not even at the things Sawamura said (though mostly he said unconsciously romantic things that made Sugawara’s brain want to leak out of his ears), but just the sound of his voice and the sound of his breath. That was enough for Sugawara.

He wasn’t sure how long that talked for. It felt like minutes, Sugawara never convinced he’d heard enough of Sawamura’s voice, it’s delicious low baritone rumbling like the comfort of distant thunder. Sugawara could have listened to it forever. I want to listen to it forever. He felt a little hopeless, really, growing so attached to somebody’s voice. He’d never felt the need to listen to someone so badly before.

Suddenly Sawamura yawned widely, making Sugawara giggle a little. “You sound tired,” Sugawara mused.

“Exhausted,” Sawamura admitted and Sugawara could tell he was scratching the back of his neck as he said it. “Big day, y’know?” There was a pause between them, like the one Sugawara had noticed back when they’d first began chatting online. Comfortable. Mutual.

“You should get some rest.”

“I…” Sawamura’s voice trailed off. “I’d rather talk to you, but I guess it would be bad if we ran out of things to talk about before…”

“Our date?” Sugawara almost laughed again because Sawamura really did sound like a middle schooler.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think that’ll be an issue.”

Another pause.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Six?”

“Six.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me too. See you then.”

“Bye.”

There might as well have been little hearts scrawled all over their voices; Sugawara felt light-headed as he hung up and tapped his phone against his lips. His skin tingled and his fingers felt numb in the best way he could imagine. His lungs, his heart, they were all leaping and knotting in a strange, foreign pleasure. His face flushed quite suddenly and he pressed it to his knees, muffling a long, high squeal in the palms of his hands.

 

Sugawara went to sleep that night with Sawamura on his mind. He’d showered without scrubbing his skin away because he was thinking about how he’d wear the new shirt he’d bought. Sawamura… his chest went tight when he thought about their date. It had been years since he’d gone on a date he’d been even remotely excited for. He didn’t know what to do with all the nervous energy rising inside him; it escaped him in little giggles or fidgets that Kiyoko noticed but didn’t point out. She stuck to the sidelines, edging around the situation with as much delicacy as she could. She felt as though some of the ropes binding her and Sugawara’s lives had been severed; it wasn’t a bad thing at all. It merely shifted their relationship to an easier, more fluid state than it had been before. Sugawara was finally coming to terms with his own life as it stood rather than one connected at the hip to Kiyoko’s.

“Do you think it’s the right colour?” he asked her at noon the next day. His fingers fiddled with the hem of his shirt, now soft and fragrant from the wash and no longer smelling like warm plastic of department stores, or shifting his collar about his neck.

“It looks wonderful on you,” Kiyoko assured him as she rearranged a bouquet of flowers in a tall, thin vase. “Somehow I don’t think Sawamura would mind if you dressed in a garbage bag.” I’ve seen how he looks at you, Suga.

Sugawara groaned and pressed his face into his hands. “I’m so nervous.”

This made Kiyoko laugh. “Embrace it! You must be excited to be nervous like this.” It was the flushed-cheeked, bright eyes kind of nervous that set Sugawara’s fingers on fire. The best kind of nervousness, the trembling of excitement in his throat like the quiver of a plucked string; it wasn’t the dead, cold kind of nervousness he was used to.

At four o’clock Sugawara showered, washing his hair. At four thirty he dried himself off and got dressed into clothes that weren’t for his date – he knew if he sweated through them in nervousness, there was no Plan B. So he donned a soft shirt and jeans and walked around in socks, pacing from room to room. He spent the next hour fretting.

“Enough,” Kiyoko eventually groaned after he passed her room for the umpteenth time. “It’s okay, Suga! It’s fine. You’ll be fine. He really likes you. Even I can see that much.”

Sugawara stood outside her doorway wringing his hands behind his back. “What if I say something stupid?”

Kiyoko rolled her eyes. “Suga. Please.” He was unravelling like a schoolboy and it was incredibly amusing to her; she knew it was harmless and she delighted in it. Sugawara was excited – dreadfully so, to the point where he couldn’t sit still. Sometimes he’d stand by her door and say little things, like ‘I hope he likes me’ and ‘I wonder what he’ll be wearing’, and then he seemed to forget about them and do a circle of the apartment, coming back to repeat them all over again.

When six o’clock came, Sugawara having painstakingly buttoned himself into his clothes, Sugawara had managed to somewhat cap his restlessness. He sat in the living room, waiting for Sawamura to come and pick him up like he’d promised. As soon as six o’clock had passed Sugawara began to fret again. One minute, two minutes – they dragged on and on until Sugawara asked the inevitable question: “Do you think he’s forgotten?”

“He’s probably just running late,’ Kiyoko replied. The answer felt scripted, almost, it was so predictable. And at five past six the doorbell rang and Sugawara looked like he was about to be sick.

Answer it! she mouthed at him from her vantage point, invisible to anyone who was at the door. Sugawara gave her a pleadaing look, but she persisted, and he went to open the door. Sawamura stood there wrapped up in a coat and scarf, breath clouding between smiling lips. He held a little bouquet of violets bound with a yellow ribbon, and when Sugawara answered the door and invited him inside, he handed them to him. “These are for you… I saw them on the way here and they reminded me of you.” Sugawara didn’t realise that all the flower shops had been closed for an hour. This was no spontaneous gift.

“They’re lovely…” Sugawara smiled up at him, laying the flowers down so he could pull on his coat before picking them up and handing them to Kiyoko, who had slipped out from her hiding place in order to take them off his hands.

“Have fun,” she told them, grudgingly trying to will away any motherly sentiment; Sawamura bowed his head to her like a respectful high school boy, his hand hovering at Sugawara’s back as he stepped outside the door.

The air is cold against Sugawara’s cheeks as he stands outside the door beside Sawamura, tucking his fingers into his gloves. Sawamura, at least, appeared to be just as nervous as he was, if not more. He peeked a glance at him.

“I’m, ah… not very used to this, sorry,” Sawamura laughs, the noise a little crooked.

“Really?” Sugawara asks coyly as they begin down the breezeway, entering into the haven of the fire stairs. “You seem like a bit of a heartbreaker. You’ve never taken anyone out on a date before?”

“Uh…” Sawamura held open the door of the lobby for Sugawara, who immediately recognised his car parked in the visitor’s lot. They walked towards it together, the harsh street lights glancing off snap-frozen puddles. He held the car door open for Sugawara; he blushed a little as he slid into the passenger seat. Sawamura swallowed a little. “I’ve never taken a guy out on a date before.”

Sugawara found himself with all but seven seconds to think about that answer.

“It’s not much different, I can promise you.”

They sat in silence for a little bit, just savouring being in each other’s presence; the sound of their breathing with no other noise, the way Sugawara’s hands looked folded in his lap and how Sawamura’s hands looked poised on the wheel. It was only a second, really, that they sat like that. But it felt like so much longer. Sawamura turned on the engine, then, the sound abrupt enough to make Sugawara start a little in his seat.

The tinny resonance of the radio was their only company as they drove. They were consumed, otherwise, by silence. It was a long, drawn-out kind of silence, but a comfortable one; it was almost somewhat of an extension of the pauses in their phone calls when they took a moment to merely appreciate each other in absolute, perfect silence. It was a bond of mutual agreement, so the forgotten rock songs on the radio were a welcome, static lullaby.

The restaurant Sawamura had picked was, surprisingly, in very good taste. Haut cuisine but still modestly in both of their budget ranges, the place was small and out-of-the-way and had tall potted plants by the door. The restaurant area was high-ceilinged and more spacious than Sugawara had expected from the squat, heavily-beamed doorway; the room, rectangular in shape, long and wide across, had walls panelled with Norwegian wood; the floors were boarded with the same material, and there were calligraphic scrolls – short, as they were – hanging from the picture board running around the room near the ceiling. There were dark mahogany tables polished to a shine and laid with bright crockery and cutlery though without tablecloths; the west wall was lined with high-backed booths and had a wall of old vinyl record cases. Ultimately, Sugawara, upon stepping inside, was filled with a paradoxical set of sensations. It looked elite, despite the somewhat retro appearance of the vinyls and the booths; but the air was a casual one, and he ended up settling for something in between. Sawamura removed his coat and made to remove Sugawara’s, but Sugawara flinched out of reach instinctively before apologising. Sawamura let him take off his own coat, not out of cold feet… for a reason he didn’t entirely understand.

“This is such a nice place,” Sugawara admitted after they’d been seated. He glanced down at his reflection in the back of his spoon and grimaced. “It… it’s got a nice feel.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Sawamura flashed him a warm, reassuring smile, and all the sharp nervousness in Sugawara’s stomach began to fragment and disperse. It comforted Sugawara to see Sawamura sitting opposite him, fingers laced on the tabletop and trying not to be caught staring too long. It comforted him to know that Sawamura was just as nervous as he was.

The first word was tentative, picked like a papery flower, but once it was said a conversation picked up about something Sugawara couldn’t really get a grip on. His mouth did the talking and his hands gestured gently, but he wasn’t concentrating on the conversation, not for a moment. He was concentrating on Sawamura, noting the way his eyes turned down every now and again when he smiled, almost bashfully, or how he reached up periodically to touch the nape of his neck and rub it a little. Or how his skin glowed golden in the lighting, how his eyes swam with the slightest hint of red. His hands, their shape, the calluses on his knuckles and his palms. The asymmetry of his face, how one side of his smile was always a little higher than the other. He’s really handsome. It was obvious to Sugawara that Sawamura hadn’t realised this.

His eyes were fixed on the blunt curve of Sawamura’s nail when he pointed something out on the menu; Sugawara ended up ordering something light because he knew he wouldn’t be able to stomach anything heavy. The spicier the better, too, and Sawamura looked vaguely concerned at his order before Sugawara reassured him with a dismissive little laugh. “I really like spicy food.” Sawamura had smiled at him, then, and to Sugawara it was the embodiment of those little silences he liked so much.

Sugawara figeted a little with his cutlery before he spoke. “I’m… sorry about the other day. When you brought me home. I didn’t mean to inconvenience you or anything.”

Sawamura almost choked on his food. “Inconvenience me? You… you didn’t inconvenience me. It makes me happy to know I could help you.”

It hadn’t been difficult for Sugawara to catch onto to the fact that Sawamura was stepping around the topic very carefully. He’d noticed a certain degree of caution in how Sawamura acted and the way he spoke, but it hadn’t bothered him. Sawamura’s obvious unwillingness didn’t offend him in the slightest, mostly because Sugawara could understand why. Sawamura – as far as Sugawara knew – hadn’t experienced the same things Sugawara had. It was an itchy subject because while Sawamura wanted to talk about it he didn’t want to draw from popular culture; thinking about something like this in that kind of context made him nervous, like ice was cracking beneath his feet. Sawamura’s appetite is suddenly gone and he pushes his food around his plate, all too aware of Sugawara’s eyes on him.

“How did you find me, anyway?”

“I… wanted to clear my head a little bit,” Sawamura admitted, reaching up to scratch his chin. “I was going to go to the volleyball court about a quarter of a mile from the bridge to think about stuff, and on the way I just… found you. And I had to stop you.” It was a pathetic explanation, he knew, but it was the best he could give. “I had to.”

Sugawara’s chest felt heavy; it was a pleasant sensation, brought about mostly by the concerned expression on Sawamura’s face, brows pulled taut over his eyes.

“Suga… what about those texts?”

Sugawara’s face freezed in a smile so thin it was like cut glass. “Texts?” His chest filled with cold, gripping dread but Sawamura’s expression didn’t so much as flinch.

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” Sugawara laughed nervously; he didn’t sound nervous. The laugh came easily and lightly, as natural as anything. “Those? They were nothing. Don’t worry about that – it has nothing to do with what happened, I promise.”

Sawamura didn’t look convinced.

“Honestly. It’s no big deal. I’m just having a bit of a spat with somebody, but it’s nothing to worry about! I can take care of myself. I’m a martial artist, you know.”

Sawamura snorted through his nose. “Go easy on me, then.”

That time Sugawara’s smile came a lot easier.

 

Sugawara didn’t quite consider that conversation a success, but it had gone a great deal better than anything he’d hoped for. Sawamura was interested and willing to listen and didn’t leap to conclusions the way most people did. He didn’t offer a sympathetic pat on the shoulder or a forced smile, which was a relief. He always had something to say and was awkward in the most truly endearing way. He made Sugawara laugh and ignited a strange sort of warmth in his solar plexus that Sugawara didn’t find at all unpleasant. He wasn’t the smoothest at conversation and tripped over his words a lot, but Sugawara thought it was cute.

But what bothered Sugawara was Sawamura’s perceptiveness. The way he observed him and picked up on things here and there that helped him to assemble a puzzle of Sugawara’s personality, complete with all the little things he’d taken great care to hide. How did he know? How did he catch up so fast? It made Sugawara nervous; he’d seen those texts, he had; Sugawara had woken to find his phone switched off. That had undoubtedly been Sawamura, most likely in response to the sheer number of them. Sugawara hadn’t turned his phone back on in fear of receiving them.

They split the bill after an adamant argument, leaving the restaurant and exiting out into the street a few hours after they’d arrived. The sky had grown cloudy but it wasn’t snowing, not yet; the temperature had dropped below freezing and Sawamura’s breath clouded from his lips. The car drive home wasn’t tense at all; it was a little unexpected, at least to Sugawara, and they were surrounded again by those warm, comfortable silences.

“You don’t have to,” Sugawara said as Sawamura got out of his car to walk him back to his door.

“I want to. It’s polite, y’know? The right thing to do.”

Sugawara could feel Sawamura’s hand at his back, not quite touching him. He wished Sawamura would touch him.

By the time they got to the door it was just past ten and there were moths flitting around the outside light. Someone had come along and salted the ground, the snow that had blown into the breezeway melting against the walls. Sawamura was close, his dark eyes warm and appraising Sugawara’s face. Sugawara, on his part, couldn’t tear his eyes from Sawamura’s face either. There was something captivating about him, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He was so close, close enough to touch, close enough to kiss –

“I don’t want to do anything until you’re ready.”

A smile flickered over Sugawara’s face. “I’m not a child.”

“I know you aren’t.” Sawamura’s hand was braced on the doorway and Sugawara felt like he’d stepped right into a romance film. “Which is why I’m saying this.”

Something lodged in Sugawara’s throat. He touched his palms to Sawamura’s jacket and averted his gaze to his fingers. “What’s the catch?” His laugh was nervous this time.

“No catch.” Sawamura’s voice was gentle and made Sugawara look up again, pale eyes searching his face for the lie he’d expected to be there. He found none.

Sugawara smiled a little, fingering his key and slipping it into the lock, the door giving with a little click. “Thank you,” he said. “I really enjoyed myself.”

“We’ll have to do it again sometime!” Sawamura grinned, showing off his strong, even teeth. “I… I really enjoyed myself too.”

Sawamura departed with a little swing in his step, and not until he was out of sight did Sugawara shut the door behind him and sink down onto his haunches. The thought of kissing repulsed him, and it was obvious Sawamura had seen that and was willing to put aside social protocol to respect him. Nobody had ever done that before. Looking up, Sugawara saw Sawamura’s flowers sitting in a vase with their faces turned towards the ceiling.

Chapter Text

[contains allusions to past abuse]

 

XIV: Sawamura Daichi

 

Sawamura had never done this before.

There was something strange – numbing, almost – about sitting in his car after his date with Sugawara. His date. They’d gone on a date. He still couldn’t quite believe it, or come to terms with it, in the very least; it seemed like only yesterday Sugawara had been at his door with his jacket, pounding feebly on his chest with chapped fists and a snotty nose, tears streaming from his eyes. It was numbing, and Sawamura had to remind himself that his hands were already on the steering wheel, because he could not feel them.

From where his car was parked he could see the cold tongue of light from the bulb over Sugawara’s apartment spill over the stone parapet. He waited until it had gone off, plunging the breezeway into half-darkness, until Sawamura could be sure he had gotten inside safely.

Usually, in Sawamura’s experience, his dates had always required him to kiss them at their door. Perhaps, he reasoned, this was not the normal procedure with others; with Sugawara, who knew? Sawamura couldn’t deny the fact that there was a plethora of things left to be discovered about him. He felt like a child in a sandbox, but instead of a sandbox it was more of a desert, and all he was armed with was a small plastic spade and an overwhelming feeling of being completely and utterly lost.

It played over in his mind like a broken video tape: Sugawara turning his head, exposing his cheek though not in a way that expressed a desire for Sawamura to kiss it but, instead, in order to shy away from him in the most demure way he could. If he was to be honest with himself, Sawamura was a little flustered. It made him want to take Sugawara’s face into his hands and kiss it again and again, but he knew that would be wrong of him. So he let him be, standing in the unflattering fluorescent light but still somehow looking unbelievably pretty, cheeks remaining unkissed, which Sawamura thought was a bit of a waste. But Sawamura didn’t mind. Sugawara’s comfort lingered like a strange kind of happiness on the back of his tongue, an aftertaste that remained as he turned his back and returned to his car, and still as he sat inside it and waited for the light to go off. So he didn’t mind. Not a bit.

Driving back from Sugawara’s apartment block was difficult. Aside from the numbness in his hands, Sawamura became distracted by each strange slant of light across the road or flickering of a neon sign. Each shadow that shifted outside the window drew his attention, but he didn’t dare look because he knew that was a sure-fire way to end up crashing into a telegraph pole, which would mean he would never get to kiss Sugawara’s cheeks, and that, he concluded, would be even more of a waste.

He drove beneath a bridge just as a train was passing overhead; its thunderous passage rattled the windows in their panes, but as he drove back into the night the train merely hissed along the tracks like a whisper of wind. Sawamura’s eyes were trained on the road and he chewed his lip between his teeth as he struggled to concentrate. He was disappointed, of course, that he hadn’t gotten the chance to kiss Sugawara. Anyone would be disappointed at that, and he was no exception. Maybe in another situation he would have regretted not taking the chance when it came a long, but that wasn’t quite the case, not by a long stretch. And why, he wondered, did it bother him so much? It was the escaped opportunity of a kiss (even though it had never really been an opportunity at all); surely it was nothing to get so hung up on. But still, something bothered him like the scratch of fingernails against the back of his neck. It made discomfort settle in his stomach.

Text messages. His eyes narrowed at the asphalt as he turned a corner, coming into his own neighbourhood. Those messages… They have nothing to do with what happened. Sawamura didn’t believe a word of it; Sugawara didn’t look like the kind of person who would lie so freely, but then again, Sawamura didn’t know his reasons for lying, either. Or maybe… maybe Sugawara wasn’t lying. Perhaps he was telling the truth, and that this really was a petty fight, as he’d claimed it to be. Sawamura found himself inextricably drawn towards wanting to believe it as the truth, to hold it like some kind of remedy and to think he’s fine. But a chunk of him – and a sizeable one, at that – really couldn’t accept it. It was all in his body language; the way he’d picked at his fingers and averted his gaze when he’d spoken, the way his breath became a little airy, a little dreamy, the easiness to his shoulders that Sawamura knew to be the symptoms of a well-rehearsed lie. He’d had practice, stiff smiles coming as easily as blinking. It might have worked on other people, but it certainly didn’t work on Sawamura.

So who was it? There was no way of finding out. Maybe he ought to have investigated when he’d had the chance – read the messages, find out who they were coming from. But even that made him uncomfortable, more so than leaving it be. It would be a direct invasion of Sugawara’s privacy, and until he appeared to be in serious danger, something like that would be unacceptable.

An estranged family member? An old friend? Someone Sugawara had wronged in the past? A lover? Sawamura wanted to think that Sugawara wasn’t the kind of person to attract bad people. But he couldn’t believe that, either.

When he pulled up into the drive and turned the car off, he was left with a roaring in his ears. Silence pounded in his head – absolute silence. Each thought became sharper and his hands were still numb and sitting idle on the steering wheel, leaving a streak of sweat over the leather as he moved them away. He sat there for a little longer, rubbing at his eyes and battling the fatigue that had suddenly set heavy over his shoulders. Handling his keys he let himself out of the car into the icy night air – he hadn’t realised how stifling and warm the interior of the vehicle had gotten.

He checked his watch before he let himself inside; it was late, but there was a light on in the living room. His mother had a shift at the hospital and his siblings had gone to spend the night with their grandmother, and Sawamura was sure he had turned off all the lights before leaving. Panic rose in his throat and he threw his shoulder against the door, fumbling with the key and stumbling over the threshold after the door gave. He stood there, swallowing fear that had, indeed, turned out to be baseless. He groaned loudly, rubbing a hand over his face. “I told you not to just let yourselves in whenever you wanted…”

Kuroo Tetsuro folded his long, lean arms over the back of the sofa and grinned at him, teeth glinting in a way Sawamura didn’t necessarily like the look of. “Sawamura,” he drawled. “We come all the way from Tokyo and this is what we get? You’ve been avoiding us.”

“Hey, no, he’s probably been busy! You’ve been busy, right?” Sawamura looked from Kuroo to Bokuto Koutaro, who had helped himself to the remote control and was in the middle of surfing through the television channels.

“You can’t just walk into my house like that.”

“You should have thought of that before you gave us a key.” Kuroo smiled at him again, and sighing in resignation, Sawamura dropped his coat to the ground and stepped out of his boots.

“What do you want at eleven o’clock at night?”

“Don’t be so hostile!” Kuroo beckoned him to sit down with them; he does, albeit a little cautiously. No matter how long he might have known them, he realised very quickly that it always paid to be wary of Kuroo Tetsuro. After he seated himself and grudgingly accepted the can of beer Bokuto offered him, Kuroo crossed one leg over the other in a strangely businesslike fashion. “So. A boyfriend?”

Sawamura rolled his eyes, scoffing. Of course he’d know. “You came all the way over here to question me about my love life? I never picked you for a romantic.”

“Actually, no. I just happened to be told by a little bird that you managed to get yourself a boyfriend, and naturally, I was curious!”

Bokuto had switched off the television, his feet still up on the coffee table with the ease of someone who… really had no manners at all. Sawamura honestly didn’t care enough to tell him to take his feet down. His attention was riveted on Kuroo, whose eyes sparkled and betrayed him; he knew more than he was letting on. He was teasing Sawamura out.

“It’s fine. I’m tired. Can’t you come back in the morning? I’m sure you can sleep in the yard, if my mom doesn’t mind.”

Bokuto laughed loudly and Kuroo made a wounded little noise, touching a hand to his chest in mock hurt. “Look how cruel you’ve gotten. Bokuto, did you hear that?” Bokuto was still laughing, his head nodding.

“I just got back from a date,” Sawamura confessed with a sigh. Kuroo made an interested little noise, lips twisting into a feline smile, and Sawamura quickly came to regret the decision to have ever spoken at all.

“Oho? And how did that go? You didn’t scare the poor boy off, did you?”

“Of course I didn’t.”

Kuroo, Sawamura had learned quite some time ago, had always had a strange way with words. The things he said never seemed to be unusual, but he had the very singular talent of being able to draw confessions out of people. Kuroo, for the most part, had a presence of mock security; he made people feel like he would understand, when in reality he didn’t, and the only thing he cared about was the gossip. Kuroo was renown for being one of the worst gossips in a fifty-mile radius, though nobody had ever accused him of that directly, or even behind his back. It was just an unwritten rule: if you respect your privacy, don’t make friends with Kuroo.

Bokuto Koutaro was the opposite of Kuroo, for all intents and purposes. Where Kuroo was reserved in talking, Bokuto talked ceaselessly about himself and about others and about things that didn’t really matter at all but still made good conversation. Where Kuroo listened and sucked in information Bokuto did not, and any attempt at deep conversation with Bokuto was wasted, unless he happened to like you enough. One of the only people he listened to was Akaashi Keiji, a pretty, refined, and incredibly quiet young man who never really seemed to be there, but also seemed to be everywhere. The only time Bokuto ever seemed to shut up was when he was in the middle of a strenuous volleyball set… or when Akaashi did something unexpected, like laughing. Or when Akaashi played his violin, something Sawamura had witnessed only once, and Bokuto went as still and as silent as a shrine gate.

“So? Anything interesting happen? Or did you just go on a boring dinner date?”

For a moment fear rose in Sawamura’s throat, and he considered telling Kuroo about the messages. To get his opinion, at least, if not his advice. But he decided against it, eventually, shaking his head and forcing out a grumbly laugh. “Just a boring dinner date, I’m afraid.”

Kuroo shrugged his shoulders. “Seems like a boring guy. Fits you perfectly, don’t you think?” Bokuto snorted again, but Sawamura didn’t laugh. He had gotten caught up in his thought again, twisting the beer can in his hand and staring at the curve of his knee. Something… something about Sugawara was familiar. Something in the way he acted. His nervousness. But he couldn’t place it, and that was what frustrated him. Seeing that Sawamura’s attention had drifted, Kuroo cleared his throat.

“Ushijima and Oikawa are coming up from Tokyo,” Kuroo said, diverting Sawamura’s attention back to the conversation.

“From Tokyo? Why? I thought they were spending Christmas down there.” He remembered a purposeful phone call he’d had with Oikawa, barely able to get a word in edgeways between Oikawa’s stories about their college volleyball feats and how noisy the city was.

“He can’t bear to be away from his precious Iwaizumi for too long, apparently.”

“He’ll get used to it eventually,” Bokuto added, his eyes bright as he grinned at Sawamura. “We old high school captains want to get together and celebrate.”

Sawamura eyed him warily. Bokuto and the word ‘celebrate’ was certainly something to be wary of. That had been another conclusion reached after a disastrous period of trial-and-error in their first year of university.

“They arrive the day after tomorrow. Are you up for it?” Kuroo’s smile was wicked and utterly irresistible. Sawamura sighed heavily, placing the can down on the coffee table.

“Fine. But just once, and if either one of you get arrested or thrown out I’m not vouching for you.”

Kuroo rolled his eyes, Bokuto barked out a coarse laugh again. “It’s not like that’s ever happened before. We are perfectly well behaved!”

Kuroo, with his silver tongue and strange, slippery way with words, had only gotten himself thrown out of a party a handful of times, mostly in high school before he’d learned how to use his powers of persuasion to find loopholes for himself and whoever he was with. He’d seen it first-hand, when Kuroo and Bokuto had come from Tokyo to visit, and Kuroo had wound his words around the right people whenever Bokuto made too much noise, or whenever Kuroo himself was caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. Sawamura considered this to be a talent.

“So you’re in?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m in. Fine. Whatever. I’m so tired, I just want to go to bed.” He was whining, but he was smiling. He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t not smile. How could he not? His date with Sugawara had been awkward – almost painfully so – but it had still been a date, he had still sat across a restaurant table from where Sugawara had sat, sad and beautiful; he still hadn’t been able to breathe when he looked at him by mistake. Sugawara Koushi, Sawamura had come to realise, was the kind of person you had to prepare yourself to look at.

“He’s lovestruck. Look at him.” Bokuto’s voice was a murmur in Kuroo’s ear, lilted with a smile.

“I’m not!”

“He is. You’re right.”

Sawamura shook his head heavily before taking them both by their wrists, Bokuto’s corded with muscle and Kuroo’s deceptively bony, pushing them towards the door. “Get out! Go on.” They stood on the top step outside the door with identical glints in their eyes, both of their faces reading the same look, the same thing. Sawamura wasn’t hiding anything very well.

“The day after tomorrow,” Kuroo reminded him with a sharp finger pressed to his chest. “Don’t forget.”

“I won’t.” He made his promise, sending them off on their way. It was almost midnight, but he had no inhibitions about turning those two out. He’d seen Bokuto’s car parked across the street.

After he closed the door on their retreating figures, he stood with his back to it and breathed deeply. Air rushed in through his nostrils, right into his lungs, completely uninhibited and filling his entire body with fresh, cold air. His skin tingled, each pore opening up to opportunity, of what his life might be like if he went on another date, and then another, and another. Would he be there to watch those dark circles under Sugawara’s eyes disappear? He hoped so. Oh, he hoped he would be. He pressed his fingers to his lips to try and hide the grin that was blooming across his face. Oh, man, he’s beautiful. That was the first thing that had crossed his mind when he’d seen Sugawara, and he was still thinking it. He suspected he would always think it, no matter if Sugawara’s entire being was ravaged or mauled beyond recognition. There was something in him that Sawamura found undeniably beautiful. His hand moved from his mouth to his chest where he pressed the ball of his palm to his ribs. His heart was leaping around between his ribs and he didn’t know why. He could picture Michimiya’s face in his mind, and she was laughing. It’s love, isn’t it? It really is.

Sawamura staggered up the stairs, stripping off his clothes as soon as he got to his room, falling face-first down onto his bed, his face sinking into the cool surface of his pillow. He could feel his hopeless smile; the smile of someone accepting their doom. Well, then, he thought. If Sugawara is my doom, then that’s okay. I wouldn’t mind that.

 


 

Sawamura felt remarkably worse the next morning.

The day passed in a haze of laundry and cleaning, the fairy-tale-ness of the night before slowly peeling away like cheap paint. Instead of enchantment, Sawamura felt only tight concern. Instead of finding Sugawara’s gauntness endearing he found it concerning, but he didn’t know what to do about it. What could he do about it? There was nothing he could do or say to make Sugawara better, not by any stretch, not yet, and he knew it. It pained him, but he knew there was no easy way out.

There has to be something I can do, right? he asked himself as he unloaded the washing machine into a plastic hamper to move to the dryer. His hands moved mindlessly, his mind wandering elsewhere as he worked, loading the damp clothes into the dryer and adjusting the settings. It was like winding a clock, a motion he was used to and knew off by heart. He’d been doing it since middle school, after all. Anything at all? I could ask him, but… would that be insensitive?

His hands felt dry after handling the washing. He washed them, applying a thin coat of moisturiser. Skin maintenance was important, especially in the winter months when the air was dry and indoor heating sapped whatever little moisture was left in the air. Maybe I should guess, and not ask… anticipate what he needs. He set about making the beds and tidying up Hayato and Amaya’s room where toys were strewn over the carpets. The last thing he wanted was to be woken up at some ungodly hour of the morning by a screaming child who had hit their head on the corner of a bed after tripping over a stray toy. But I don’t know him well enough for that yet, do I…? He stopped, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and put his hands on his hips. He’d just opened the curtains and let the sunlight in, and the room really didn’t look half as bad as it did before. His family returned a little after that, filling the house with noise and the sound of softly padding footsteps. The silence was dispelled, and Sawamura felt a little better.

Sighing, he rubbed his eyes, feeling marginally tireder than he had ten seconds ago. He soon found himself letting his mind drift towards the future, of the date Kuroo had set for the ‘celebration’. He hadn’t seen Oikawa (or Ushijima, for that matter) in at least a year. It almost felt like longer. They’d been busy at college in Tokyo, studying who knows what. Sawamura wasn’t really interested in what they were studying there. What he did know was that they were a hotshot volleyball pair and that Ushijima’s dreams had finally been realised when he’d walked into Tokyo University’s gym to find Oikawa with a volleyball under his arm. Or so Oikawa had told him. But he suspected it wasn’t entirely an unexpected meeting.

By the time he’d finished cleaning the house, it was late afternoon. He checked his watch and found that it really wasn’t as late as he thought it was – he blamed it on the sun, at first, and how it set earlier in winter and tricked people into thinking it was later. But then he realised that his entire day had been full of misconceptions.

His sleep that night was full and deep and black, and he didn’t dream, not once, not even of the faceless boy.

 

The next morning, the day of the party, Sawamura forgot completely about the day before. As though it had never had happened. Skipped over reality, or like a really long dream. The only thing that rooted him back to reality was the calendar and the sight of his siblings’ clean room. It was odd. Unnerving. It set him a little off balance and he didn’t know why. He shook the feeling off with a nervous laugh that echoed around the house. Nobody else was awake. Or perhaps they were, and they had all gone somewhere, or perhaps they had never existed in the first place. Strangely, Sawamura found that he didn’t really care.

He was more concerned with himself and this strange feeling. Somehow it reminded him of the boy with the static in his face. The boy that was sometimes naked and sometimes clothed, sometimes younger, or sometimes the same age. Except… it was different. It wasn’t as though he was facing the boy like he usually did. It was almost as if he was becoming him. And that, quite frankly, frightened him.

He splashed water on his face at three in the afternoon to get ready for seven o’clock, the time Kuroo had told him he’d pick him up. Why was he getting ready so early? He was used to throwing on something he thought looked presentable ten minutes after he was supposed to show up at a function. Nobody ever seemed to mind, either, but this time… why?

I don’t know. He sighed at his reflection in the mirror, checking his teeth and his hair and making sure his ears were clean and his eyebrows straight. High school captains. His lips quirked at the thought.

When Sawamura thought of the old gang of high school volleyball captains, he immediately thought of chaos. They were characters, all of them, each one individual and completely different from the rest. Sometimes they complemented each other, like Kuroo and Bokuto did (thought Sawamura could pick off a great number of people who wouldn’t have necessarily used the word ‘complement’), and sometimes they clashed, like Oikawa and himself (he never really could stand the guy, despite Oikawa’s insistent and long one-sided conversations over the phone). But it was all good fun, really. Or it had been, anyway, before they had graduated and split off to pursue their own futures. It was Kuroo who kept things stitched together behind the scenes, helped out by old acquaintances and new connections and Oikawa’s indefatigable charisma. They were the reason things hadn’t drifted apart.

Somehow, Sawamura still wasn’t ready by seven o’clock. He left ten minutes late, much like he usually did, wearing something he thought was presentable, as he usually did, but this time it turns out his outfit was, indeed, presentable. Bokuto whistled long and low at the cut of his collar. “Suits you.”

Kuroo’s idea of a fun night out was clubbing. Bar-hopping, to be more precise, but in order to switch up the party atmosphere he had made room for nightclubs instead of bars, places full of dark corners and concealed nooks that Sawamura suspected was hardly an accidental choice. If there was one thing Kuroo Tetsuro was, it was an enabler.

“No vice captains tonight!” Kuroo had announced when he, Bokuto, and Sawamura all stood on the sidewalk beneath a streetlight, hopping from foot to foot to ward off the cold, huddled together like penguins. “Just us big boys. If the other two even bother to show up.” Kuroo checked his watch again. “Half an hour! What the hell are they doing, anyway? Fucking? What’s taking them so long, shit, it’s cold.” Sawamura rolled his eyes and shook his head, looking down the long black backstreet lined with closed shops, just as a lean, pretty young man sauntered into view and Bokuto perked up in recognition.

“Sorry, sorry,” Oikawa Tooru apologised, running a hand back through his hair and smiling ruefully. “Traffic.” Beside him was Ushijima Wakatoshi, spiker extraordinaire and social invalid, his presence as intimidating as always.

“Sorry isn’t going to cut it; I’m freezing my dick off. First round is on you.” Kuroo's tone was unforgiving and Oikawa raised his hands – long, setting hands – in defeat.

“All right, all right, keep it together,” he said with the most infuriatingly sweet smiles he could muster. “That’s no way to greet a long lost friend, is it?”

“I literally saw you two days ago.” Kuroo shook his head, then, changing the subject. “I hope you’re not going to spend the whole night bitching about how much Tokyo sucks without Iwaizumi.”

“Tetsu-chan, of course it sucked!” A long arm draped over Kuroo’s shoulder, Oikawa putting his face close enough to Kuroo’s that he flinched away. “Iwa-chan is my boyfriend and I miss him, of course Tokyo sucks. There’s only so much you can do via webcam, you know…”

Kuroo and Oikawa began down the street, Oikawa reaching out to Bokuto soon after.

“How is Pretty Boy-chan?” he asked, clearly referring to Akaashi Keiji, the only person whose looks made Oikawa truly jealous. The three of them kept a few paces ahead, not quite out of earshot, but far enough away for their voices to be lost in each other’s.

It was Ushijima who fell into step beside Sawamura. Ushijima Wakatoshi had a demanding presence, but he had always been that way – even back in middle school Sawamura remembered him as the tall, sombre teenager with hands a little too big for his body, feet a little too wide. He’d never been gangly or unattractive, but something in his proportions had seemed off until his second year of high school. And then he entered college, and everything had shifted.

He’d heard Oikawa offhandedly refer to him as a ‘heartthrob’, but of course Sawamura hadn’t really been listening, since he never really listened during those one-sided calls. He wasn’t even sure why Oikawa insisted on calling him instead of Kuroo, or Iwaizumi. He’d never asked. He’d never really cared enough to ask.

“So… how’s Tokyo?”

“Good.” Ushijima was not the easiest person to talk to. Sawamura didn’t especially like him that much, which made the task even more difficult. Sawamura expected Ushijima wasn’t too sweet on him, either. And yet, he was the reason they were out here in the first place. Not that he expected Ushijima to tell him much about Tokyo - besides, there was nothing Ushijima could tell him that Oikawa couldn't.

Sawamura soon gave up on trying to start a conversation with Ushijima, settling instead on keeping pace with him and the others until they arrived at their first destination. It was a big place with neon signs and a modest queue outside the door, standard red velvet VIP bands fencing off the entrance. They didn’t have to line up, in the end. Once inside there was a short flight of steps leading up a few feet and a low, dark passage that led out into the club. Music thrummed through the floor like the active pulse of magma and strobe lighting flashed in greens and blues and purples like some kind of underwater explosion of cool, low colours. If it hadn’t been for the sheer size of Ushijima beside him, the moment he stepped into that room Sawamura would have gotten lost. He knew it. But Ushijima’s presence was undeniable, and so he followed him to where Kuroo and Oikawa were drawing out a floor plan on their palms.

He stuck close with Kuroo and Bokuto for a little while, but soon enough Kuroo drifted away and Bokuto had migrated towards the bar, roaring with laughter and making new friends as Bokuto Koutaro was wont to do. Sawamura soon spotted Kuroo right in the heart of the dance floor, head tipped towards the floor and scrappy black hair still hanging into his face. He seemed to be talking to at least ten people at once, voice rising in a hum above the music, like white noise. A talent. Oikawa, on the other hand, he could not find. Sawamura suspected he might have gone towards the bar, and his suspicions were confirmed when he peered through the throng of bodies to see Oikawa’s curved spine as he leant against the counter bartering for free drinks.

Bokuto, after a few drinks, found him and called over the music with a roar of laughter. Kuroo was at his back and Sawamura slowly let himself slip back into the mind of a teenager; it was something he reserved for a blackened club where nobody would remember him. This whole situation was glaringly familiar; Kuroo at his back and Bokuto at his front, a throwback to his high school days when he’d hazarded upon them in some club in Tokyo.

From that club they went onto the next one, and then the next, and at some point Sawamura lost feeling in his feet and his hands and felt like he was caught up in some kind of cloud. Bokuto’s owlish eyes glowed eerily in the darkness and it unnerved him a little bit, but those eyes coupled with Oikawa Tooru’s sharp smile was a dazzling sight to see, so he didn’t mind much. The more he dwelled on that feeling, though, the more he was sure it was the same strange sensation of impermanence he had experienced the day before, but this time it felt a little closer, like someone had switched the light on in a dark room and he could suddenly see. He could, he believed, put his finger on the cause of it, if he pushed a little harder.

It got worse as the night wore on, developing into a stifling ache in his gut that stirred up nausea in his throat. The atmosphere in the club was suffocating and suddenly he felt like he couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t draw air into his lungs and whatever oxygen was already there had vanished. He needed to get outside.

He used his elbows to make a path for himself through the writhing pack of bodies, crammed like sardines in a tin, finding himself in a low dimply-lit corridor that was so dark it was almost impossible to navigate. There were people sitting on the steps and he could have sworn he saw the distinct glow of Oikawa’s hair beneath the lighting, a broad hand pressed flush to his back and the waistband of his trousers suspiciously askew, but he couldn’t be sure. No… he was pretty sure that was Oikawa wrapped around somebody (‘somebody’ was a lie. Sawamura knew exactly who it was, and couldn’t even bring himself to find it ironic) in the back of some skeezy nightclub. But that was hardly his business, so he let them be.

The hit of fresh air almost knocked him off his feet; the combination of humid nightclub air and warm spirits in his throat was not a good one and did him no favours. Sawamura’s head was filled with a black cloud that pounded in his ears; he didn’t want to put his finger on these sensations. He had an inkling he didn’t want to confirm, because if he did it would mean something awful had happened, and everything would be wrong. He staggered a little, reaching out to brace his hand against the wall of the back street, pressing his other hand to his eyes.

“Sawamura!” Kuroo’s voice was unmistakeable, and for an instant Sawamura wanted to turn around and curse at him. But he didn’t. He felt too strange. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Sawamura replied with a grunt, straightening up but leaning a heavy shoulder against the wall. Kuroo didn’t seem the least bit drunk, but then again, he’d always been good at hiding it. The only person who could drink him under the table was Bokuto. “I’m good.”

Kuroo looked him over once before stepping a little closer and lowering his voice. “This wouldn’t happen to be about Boyfriend-kun, would it?”

“Why would it be about him?”

“You keep saying his name. You’re mumbling a lot, what’s up with that?”

Sawamura let out a deep, icy breath. Just tell him. Sawamura was too drunk to argue. “I’m worried. Something’s up with him and I don’t know what caused it. He’s… been getting these texts. He says it’s just a fight, but I don’t know.”

Kuroo was silent for a moment, taking his time to chew over Sawamura’s words. The street was quiet, the only sound the faint, tinny thudding of the night club. When Kuroo next spoke his tone was a little hesitant. “How does he act around you, Sawamura?”

“H-huh? What do you mean?”

Kuroo spread his hands. “Body language. Surely you picked up on that, right? How does he act. Nervous?”

“Y-yeah…”

“Does he flinch away when you go to touch him without warning? Or if you move to fast, does he recoil?”

Sawamura nodded his head glumly. He knew what Kuroo was going to say before he said it, but somehow he didn’t believe it.

“His past relationships, Sawamura. What do you know of them?”

“Nothing.”

Kuroo tilted his head a little, much too like a cat for Sawamura’s liking. “You might have an abuser on your hands. The texts were threats, right? I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before. I studied it.” He plucked a cigarette from his pocket, lighting it. Sawamura knew Kuroo didn’t smoke often, but it was a horrid habit he’d picked up the year before and was already trying to quit. The flicker of the lighter lit Kuroo’s features in a sudden bright light, making his face look sharper. “Kenma… I saw him act that way.” He blew out a long drag of blue smoke, frowning. “Be careful, Sawamura. These people are dangerous. If this person – whoever they are – is caught up enough on Boyfriend-kun, then they might have a go at you.” His eyes, bright in the half-light, met Sawamura’s. A shiver tore down his spine and nausea settled in his stomach.

“They don’t even know who I am.”

“You think that will stop ‘em?” Kuroo’s smile was wicked. “Not a chance.”

“A lover, then?”

Kuroo shrugged. “Maybe. Could be anything else, too. A relative. It’s not uncommon, y’know.”

Sawamura tipped his head back against the cool stone, staring up at the swirling December sky. Who is it, who is it? Kuroo wasn’t helping him answer any questions. If anything, he was only opening up more loose ends; Sawamura was worried. That was why he’d been feeling so strange. Chronic concern for Sugawara. At least, he reasoned, he had good grounds for being worried.

During the time he’d been thinking his head had tipped down so his chin touched his chest and he’d began to chew on his fingernail. He hadn’t seen Kuroo sidle closer to him, holding his cigarette between his lips, the end of it glowing dully. He plucked it from his mouth, then, turning his head to blow the smoke from his nostrils. “You’ve got to be there for him, man. You can’t drop him because of this.”

Sawamura smiled thinly and told him about what happened on the bridge. “I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to, either. I know I don’t want to.”

Kuroo’s hand was heavy on his chest, fisting in the material of his shirt to bring their faces close, Sawamura unable to look away from Kuroo’s gaze. “Take care of him. You’ve got to. He probably has some really fucked up ideas about what love is, if. He won’t trust you easily. Or… maybe he’ll trust you too easily. Either way, his compass is way off. I’ve seen it, Sawamura.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sawamura pushed Kuroo’s hand from his chest, heading back towards the door, strobe lighting flashing against the damp asphalt like the dim flicker of headlights. The music sounded tinny and cheap at that distance and Kuroo didn’t need to raise his voice that loud to be heard over it.

“But I do, y’know? I do know. I’ve seen it. You think Kenma was all cream and roses, Sawamura?” Sawamura stopped in his tracks, turning to look back at the man lounging against the wall like what he had just said was nothing. Kuroo’s smile, however, was no longer amused; it was cold, now, thin and icy. His head was tilted to the side and he tapped ash from his cigarette into the puddle of dirty water by his shoe. “Kenma wouldn’t let me touch him. He would barely leave his room because he was so used to feeling uncomfortable or in danger if he did, even when he moved in with me. I tried to create a safe environment for him, and it is safe, but it took him months to realise that. Kenma was the most difficult and most rewarding thing that ever happened to me.”

“You talk about him like he’s a dog.”

Kuroo’s lips quirked in irritation. “I ought to hit you for that, but I won’t because I’m an understanding man. Now, listen, because I’m only going to say this once.” He reached out a searching hand through the darkness, long crooked fingers finding Sawamura’s collar and twisting in it. “Boyfriend-kun is something you don’t know about, something you aren’t familiar with. He isn’t like your girlfriends. You can’t tell yourself that just because you see the love in his eyes or some inkling of affection that you know him. You don’t. These people don’t give themselves away that easily, or… they give themselves away too easily. It’s up to you to find out which one Sugawara is. But don’t think you can be some quick fix.” His tone turned soft, then, his hand loosening. His eyes glowed with a strange kind of hostility: not towards Sawamura, but towards the collective presence of people like Sugawara’s pursuer. He took a step back, and at first Sawamura thinks he’s going to raise the cigarette to his lips again, but Kuroo dropped it to the ground, grinding it out with his heel and looking thoroughly irritated. Even so, he managed a lopsided smile. “Take care of him. You’ve gotta.”

Sawamura nodded, though he wasn’t sure why he was – it wasn’t as though they were orchestrating some kind of plan, but Sawamura still felt the burden of a chore weigh upon his shoulders.

I can’t think of it that way, he told himself grimly as Kuroo suffered him one last look before patting his shoulder and disappearing back inside the club. Sawamura’s eyes were glued to the soggy end of Kuroo’s discarded cigarette. It’s not a chore. I never thought of it that way. It’s not a burden. How ridiculous. All of a sudden Sawamura regretted not taking the cigarette when Kuroo had offered.

 

When Sawamura finally stepped back into the dark hall of the club, he found that Oikawa had disappeared and was no longer straddled upon the stairs. He snorted the stagnant air through his nostrils in some kind of half-laugh, shaking his head. As he exited out into the main room of the club, he skirted around the edges until he found Bokuto and Oikawa tucked into a corner, heads bent low and sharing a conniving smile. Ushijima was nowhere to be seen, and Sawamura could only just see Kuroo’s rumpled hair over by the bar.

Oikawa looked up at him and his smiled changed from conniving to delicious, his hair rumpled and pushed in the opposite direction it usually sat. His shirt was caught in his trousers near his hip and Sawamura raised an eyebrow at him, to which Oikawa replied with an unapologetic shrug and a wink.

No matter how hard he tried, Sawamura couldn’t shake the cold. He thought he was just chilly from having stood outside for so long, but even when he began to sweat and felt like he was fermenting in the humid air of the club, he was still cold. The bitter December chill had penetrated his bones, it seemed, right to the marrow, and it wasn’t going away. He knocked back a few beers when Bokuto handed them to him, but he felt no warmer. Even when Oikawa pulled him to the dance floor and let his hands roam across his shoulders, he felt utterly repulsed by everything around him. The floor, the lights, the smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol and tacky cologne. It was all disgusting.

They eventually located Ushijima outside. Ushijima, Sawamura had discovered, was a very quiet drunk, and licked his lips a lot. A serious drunk, not too removed from his usual manner, but somehow more attractive than usual. His eyes were darker, the heights of his cheeks flushed, his frame a little more relaxed. Like Sawamura, he was glistening with a light sheen of perspiration, and like Oikawa, his hair was pushed back at an odd angle. They found him leaning against a streetlamp, shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets. Nobody was really sure why he was loitering around like that.

“He doesn’t like crowds,” Oikawa supplied with a sweeping gesture as Ushijima turned around to fix him with a frown. Oikawa almost smiled, but didn’t quite; instead he turned around and aim his gesture down the street. “There’s a new place down there I’ve been willing to try.”

Sawamura didn’t move along with them. Bokuto noticed this first and turned around to call out to him. “You coming or what?”

Sawamura waved dismissively, trying to conjure up the most rueful smile he could manage. “Sorry!” he called back. “I’m not feeling too good. I’m gonna head off early.”

“Mean!” Oikawa whined, though Sawamura knew he was only putting it on. “I come back and this is all I get?”

Kuroo met his gaze and gave him a small, understanding nod. “You’ll be all right getting home by yourself?”

“Yeah, it’s no problem!” Sawamura waved them off before turning on his heel and heading back the way he’d come, hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket. His nerves were grating with each step, tingling beneath his skin in a way that was uncomfortable almost to the point of making him nauseous. Who on earth – who could want to hurt someone like Sugawara? Sawamura was convinced there wasn’t a single malevolent bone in Sugawara Koushi’s body, he was sure of it –

Kuroo’s words rang in his head. You don’t know him. Sawamura slowed to a stop after turning a corner, slumping against the water-streaked wall of a closed store. Light from the street lamp grazed over the toes of his shoes and he found himself sheltered somewhat from the flashing neon lights and squealing tires of the main street. His sigh sounded louder, his heartbeat slower. I don’t know him. To think Sugawara was a beacon of goodness… he found it amusing, seeing as the thing that had concerned him most was whether or not Sugawara was going to harvest his organs and throw his corpse in a ditch afterwards. Well… perhaps he isn’t an organ harvester. He thought of Oikawa – Oikawa, as a person, wasn’t distinctly good or bad. He could be an asshole, but around the right people he was phenomenal. He remembered him in the company of his high school team, back before they’d graduated, how his frivolity and senselessness had all been a façade. Sawamura admired him, in a strange sort of way. From Oikawa he thought of Ushijima; Ushijima was somebody Sawamura was almost certain had no malevolent intent, but he still had the ability to destroy. Unlike Oikawa, however, Ushijima’s potency was indirect, and the destruction he caused was completely unintentional. Making Oikawa overexert himself and injure his knee – that had been Ushijima’s doing, but not because he’d tripped him or pushed him down a flight of stairs. It had been because Oikawa was determined to beat him, so he trained too hard for too long and hurt himself. Iwaizumi had cursed Oikawa for being careless; Ushijima had apologised when he had discovered the reason behind the injury.

So which type of person is Sugawara? The more Sawamura thought about it the more he was drawn to the concept of Sugawara doing bad things unintentionally. Misled. But he couldn’t be certain, so trying to guess made him uncomfortable. He decided to drop it when his stomach twisted in on itself and his vision swam. I shouldn’t have drunk so much.

He took the late train back home, the sway of the carriage and the reassuring ka-chak of the lines rocking him to sleep like a baby. He only woke up when the train stopped too sharply, plastic straps swinging like a hundred little nooses. Sawamura was the only one on the train. He was surprised, understandably, when the doors slid open and admitted Oikawa and Ushijima. Sawamura frowned at them. Did they always go places together? But then again, he thought, they were probably staying together while away from Tokyo, so it wasn’t really that surprising that they happened to catch the same train.

Ushijima nodded to him when he noticed him, but it was obvious that Oikawa was beyond tipsy, and didn’t recognise him at all. In fact, Oikawa’s attention seemed riveted solely on Ushijima, and he was channelling his irritation right towards him. He was complaining about something ridiculous, as drunk Oikawa was wont to do, sitting down heavily in the seats opposite Sawamura and fixing his gloves over his long fingers, frowning deeply as his voice trailed off. One of the most interesting (and amusing) things about watching Oikawa Tooru get drunk was when he eventually dropped off to sleep. He hiccupped once, giggling at himself as Ushijima sat down beside him. He then made to fix Ushijima’s crooked collar, mumbling some more with his head tipping to his shoulder and his feet tapping on the floor of the train, and no matter how much Ushijima tried to brush him away he always came back until he was satisfied. Oikawa then slumped down in his seat and slept, each jolt of the train sending his head lolling until it ended up resting against Ushijima’s shoulder. Ushijima didn’t brush him away that time.

Sawamura found himself oddly fascinated by their interaction. It was weird. He was used to Oikawa shit-talking Ushijima into the ground, and yet there he was fixing his collar like some flustered mother and sleeping against his shoulder like a toddler, lips parted and arms folded. Sawamura noticed how long Ushijima’s eyelashes were, how sharp and attractive his face was, sort of like Oikawa’s, but in a flatter, broader way. He shook his head, waking himself up a little and rising from the deceptive warmth of his jacket. He still hadn’t shaken the cold.

He must’ve dropped off again when the two of them had gotten off the train, because when he woke up he found himself alone again. Alcohol made him think to much, and he knew it, but any way to keep his mind from Sugawara was sorely needed. So he thought about them – how had they left the train? Did Oikawa wake up, or did Ushijima have to carry him? Sawamura snorted at the thought; he suddenly regretted being asleep and unable to take a picture to taunt him with later.

Sighing, he sank back down into his seat and let himself swing in the ether between consciousness and sleep for the next few stops until the train came to a slow, grinding halt outside his station. Everything appeared a little strange – familiar, but foreign, like somebody had moved everything two inches to the left. It was disconcerting, and Sawamura had to continuously check himself to make sure he was in the right place, or had gotten off at the right stop.

When he got home the windows were dark and he fished a key from his pocket to quietly let himself in. He was used to this kind of thing, so he could slip off his shoes and creep into the kitchen silent as a mouse. The rush of the tap echoed around the empty room, but after he turned it off there wasn’t a single noise.

“Daichi?”

Sawamura almost leapt out of his skin when he heard a voice call his name from the doorway of the kitchen, his glass knocking into the sink. He righted it, albeit clumsily, before whipping around to face his mother. She stood in her dressing gown, her lilac pyjama shirt peeking past the neckline, her feet bare and silent. Her hair was rumpled and she looked exhausted. At the sight of her, Sawamura relaxed a little. “Mom, you scared me.” He let out a relieved little laugh, pressing his hand to his chest.

She frowned, leaning in to peer at him. “You reek of alcohol. And cigarettes. Are you drunk?”

Sawamura shook his head. “Sorry. Kuroo’s picked up a bad habit.” He tried to avoid talking about Kuroo around his mother; he knew she didn’t approve of him, and he grudgingly thought that if he was in her place, he wouldn’t approve either. He expected his mother to nod and shuffle off, back to her bedroom, so as the clock ticked the seconds away and she didn’t budge, he began to grow a little curious.

He made to move, but she beat him to it. The way she approached him was ghostly, her hands reaching out to touch his face. Watery moonlight sifted through the kitchen window, casting a milky glow over her skin an accentuating the shadows beneath her eyes. The skin of her hands was tough and calloused, worn by chemicals and latex gloves. It was a comforting feeling, really. But then a name passed her lips Sawamura only recognised from the back of the polaroid photograph he’d found in his mother’s sock drawer in middle school.

“It’s me, mom,” he told her gently. “Daichi.”

Umeko paused, blinking at him, and then squinting before recoiling from him and sitting down at the kitchen table. “Daichi, right, of course. Of course it is.”

Sawamura switched on the light above the stove, boiling water for tea. He glanced at his mother who sat staring across the kitchen, her chin in her hand. “You’ll forgive me,” she laughed quietly. “I’m exhausted. I’m not thinking straight.”

“You’re working too hard, mom, you’ve gotta give yourself a break.” Sawamura left the cups to steep, tapping his fingers against the counter. He was practically dead on his feet, but sleep could wait. He glanced up at the clock. It was just past midnight.

She took the cup from him, holding it between her hands and sighing in that heavy, gently exasperated way mothers do. Sawamura sat down opposite her, rubbing at his eyes and struggling not to yawn. Alcohol buzzed in the back of his brain, but he didn’t feel drunk like he usually did.

“Sorry,” she apologised again. “You… in that light you looked so much like him I thought I must have been dreaming!”

Maybe it was the alcohol making him brave. “You thought I was dad?”

Umeko nodded glumly. “You’re the spitting image of him.”

Sawamura paused. “You, ah… you remember, mom, when we were in the park? And we – we were talking about dad. You were telling me to pursue something I love, and I just… I want to know why you never talk about him. Ever. Whenever I ask you about him you try to change the subject –,”

“Daichi,” she interrupted tersely, holding up a hand. “We don’t need to talk about him. He’d dead. There’s nothing more to it.”

“You’re awfully indifferent for a widow.”

Perhaps he’d expected her to be shocked. Hurt, even. But she just smiled at him and said nothing, sipping her tea. “This is good,” she said, and Sawamura’s throat closed up with irritation. He ground his teeth, his appetite gone. Seeing this, Umeko sighed again, closing her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re making me tea at midnight. What a mother I am!” Despite her light tone, there was a twinge in her forehead that betrayed her. “Daichi… listen. I’ve been watching you lately. I know I’m not home a lot, and you juggle a job and studying and looking after the kids… I don’t want to hold you back.”

Sawamura was overwhelmed by déjà vu.

“Why are you so intent upon me succeeding, mom? Why can’t I be happy here, taking care of you guys? I like doing laundry. I don’t mind cleaning and cooking or whatever else I need to do. I don’t have to go anywhere to be happy, I –,” his voice broke off. Umeko had looked down at her hands, her shoulders curved and slumped in her seat. “Mom?”

“I wanted to give you the chances I never had, Daichi,” she said quietly. “I didn’t… I had hopes and dreams and aspirations; when I was a young woman, just after I married your father, his mother showed me photographs and that suitcase of hers. I wanted to do things, Daichi! But I couldn’t, I couldn’t –,” she broke off, her eyes bright and a little distressed. As her eyes scoured his face she licked her lips, the muscles around her mouth taut.

“You couldn’t? Why not?” Sawamura feels like he should have been whispering. He knows the answer. He knows it already.

“Because of you.”

Silence filled the kitchen. Because of me. His mother had places she wanted to go, things she wanted to do – she had somebody she had wanted to be, but she had to put it on hold. For him. Because all of a sudden, in the nest of her hopes and dreams, he had appeared – Daichi – and had acted as a dam. Perhaps, once he had been born, Umeko had become the dangerously lacklustre housewife with greying hair and frayed slippers. Maybe that was it – maybe it was him. Maybe he was the reason everything had fallen apart. His father, part of the navy with a heart forged of adventure, had found his enthusiastic, bright wife sagging and greying under the weight of her child. She had become dynamic in a different way, one her husband did not find attractive: he was blind to the glow of a heavily pregnant woman, or the tired satisfaction of a new mother. She was no longer the lean, dark-skinned, dark-haired woman of his youth. She was a mother, and there was no way they could wind their fingers through Europe or South America with a baby.

As a child, Sawamura remembered, she had asked him what he wanted to be. A policeman, he’d said at one point, and at another point, an astronaut. Standard choices for a little boy. But he had never asked her the same question – it had never occurred to him. He had believed that once a person reached the state of parenthood, they had reached where they wanted to be. He had never grasped the ideas of accidents.

What had she aspired to? When did she decide to become a nurse, and why? Did she really enjoy it? With a shot of ice to his heart, Sawamura realised that his mother was impossible to read, even for him, even for her son.

Because of you. The kitchen remained silent, Umeko gazing unabashedly at her son, Sawamura unable to meet her gaze.

“Don’t think I blame you, Daichi.” Her voice was even, conditioned. Tired. “Perhaps there was no hope for it anyway.”

Another beat of silence passed and Sawamura shook his head. So that’s why. He couldn’t reply to her – he had nothing to say. He wasn’t angry, or sickened. He didn’t feel anything at all, which was, in a way, even more frightening.

She made one last attempt at retribution. “I am not unhappy with how things have turned out. This life… it’s not worse. It’s just different.” But it fell on deaf ears.

“Sorry.” He got to his feet, almost tripping over his own feet at a sudden numbness in his legs. He exited the kitchen, ascending the stairs to his bedroom, and he almost didn’t see Haruka satnding in the shadow of the landing, her hair falling dark and straight over her shoulders, eyes glinting in the dim light from the window.

“You can’t be mad at her, Daichi.”

He looked at her for a moment before shutting himself in his room.

He was filled with bitterness from his toes right to the back of his throat. He hated it – hated how his mother did not push him, yet seemed to live vicariously through him – he hated how Haruka ghosted around the house without a sound, hearing everything, knowing everything. He hated how his father had left him with nothing but a knowledge of naval knots and three younger siblings. He hated the responsibility he had been tasked with. He hated all of it. Sinking down against the door he let his head hang between his knees. He felt exhausted, now more than ever, the beginnings of a headache thudding behind his eyes.

There was the sound of scrunching paper by his hip, and he looked down to see a post-it note had been slipped under the door, adorned with almost illegible handwriting. Holding it up to the light Sawamura saw it was written in purple and brown crayon. Some of the characters were discernable, others not, but he got the message. It was midnight, and yet somebody had slipped a note beneath his door with the handwriting of his two youngest siblings upon it. I love you. Big bro is the best! In the corner there was a stick-figure man with a cap and a ball. That’s me, he thought. But instead of feeling better he only felt ill.

 

He wasn’t sure when he fell asleep. He suspected it to have been not long after the note had been delivered. He felt revolting in the morning, his hangover hanging like a low-pressure system around his head. His shoulders ached and Oikawa’s laugh still rattled around in his head. That, and the sound of Kuroo’s voice and Bokuto’s boots on the pavement. Ushijima’s memory made no noise.

He found the house empty; his mother had a shift at the hospital and Haruka had taken Hayato and Amaya out to the park for a few hours – according to the note left on the oven door. His hangover blocked out the hum of distant traffic and pedestrians walking down the street outside. The silence was heavy.

He only decided to go back to the court when he saw a volleyball sitting on the lawn outside. The grass was covered with snow but the layer on top of the ball was thinner; it would be good, he thought, to clear his head. Volleyball had always had that strange, calming effect on him. He locked up, pulling on his boots and his coat before picking up the ball and heading off.

He took an alternate route, this time; it was a longer one, but still inevitably crossed the bridge on which he had found Sugawara. The memory leapt to the forefront of his mind and he tried to shake it out, but it stuck. It hung like a ghost over the railing, sending chills down Sawamura’s spine.

And then he was over the bridge, passing by Sugawara’s apartment complex with a little half-smile and the gentle tug that made him want to visit. He didn’t.

The court, when he arrived, was empty. The street was lined with trash cans, lids gleaming in the sun. The asphalt had been salted, thankfully, and while there was no net Sawamura found a discarded can that he could use as a marker. In high school he had been an all-rounder: his offense was good, but his real talent lay in his solid, indefatigable receive. He filled the holes in his team’s defence like concrete. That being said, of course, Sawamura certainly wasn’t weak. Not as strong in his spiking as Asahi, perhaps, but he had his own strength. He wasn’t remarkably tall for a volleyball player, but his shoulders were broad and his limbs were thick and solid.

Daichi -大地; ground, earth. Had his mother known when she was naming him that he would turn out like this? Solid, compact, as strong as the earth. Skin brown and hair as dark as black soil. Earth.

His first spike was off by a foot. Exercising with a hangover was a difficult thing to do, even by Sawamura’s standards; his head reeled a little, blood swimming behind his eyes. His second spike was closer, but still didn’t hit. He cursed, the words clouding in the bitter December air.

His third spike was perfect, and the can glanced off the ball to clatter a few yards away, rolling to a stop against a building.

“Good job.”

Sawamura whirled around, unaware that someone was watching him. He saw someone bound up to the ears in a scarf he recognised, and a hat, too. The person at the match, he thought suddenly, and his heart fluttered into his throat. Who had spilled coffee on his sleeve. That was him. Sugawara. Sugawara was smiling, a flash of teeth between his lips as he approached.

“I, uh… didn’t realise you were there.”

Sugawara peered at him. “You look like shit.”

Hearing Sugawara curse made Sawamura’s stomach swoop in a not-entirely-unpleasant way. Sawamura’s palm still stung from the hit, and he clenched it at his side. “I was… out. Last night. Some of my old friends came from Tokyo so we went out to celebrate.”

Sugawara nodded his head, strolling over to pick up the ball with one hand. He tossed it into the air before catching it again, and Sawamura immediately picked up on the practiced flick of his wrist.

“Do you… play volleyball?” he asked when Sugawara was by his side again.

“I used to.” Sugawara was still smiling. “In high school. I was a setter.”

Sawamura’s throat was dry. His failing grace was his love of volleyball, and Sugawara… played it?

“Wing spiker. I was the captain of my high school team, actually. We made it to nationals one year.” He couldn’t resist gloating a little bit.

Sugawara hummed, tossing the ball to him. “Karasuno, right? They were hot stuff, from what I heard.” He sounded unimpressed; Sawamura realised that Sugawara didn’t appreciate gloating.

He retreated a few paces, throwing the ball back to Sugawara. “Toss to me.”

“What?”

“Toss to me. I haven’t been tossed a ball for years, and certainly not by a setter.”

Sugawara was hesitant, but he mutely raised the ball above his head, elbows bent and arms forming a diamond – it was a sight Sawamura was used to seeing. A setter’s pose. The ball was balanced on the tips of his fingers, and then those bright eyes met Sawamura’s for a moment, and the ball flew.

You have to take care of him.

Sawamura’s powerful legs vaulted him into the air, his arm swinging forward and palm connecting with the weave of the ball, sending it smashing into the asphalt over the invisible net.

You think you understand him, but you don’t.

“Remarkable.” Sugawara’s voice was breathless and his fingers tapped against his thighs. “You’re strong.”

“It feels good. To be set to, I mean. Your… your tosses are perfect.”

Sugawara shrugged modestly. “Not really. I was replaced, you know. In my team. There was somebody – a genius – who was better than me, but then again, there’s always someone better than me.” His little laugh stopped Sawamura’s pity; Sugawara was telling the truth, not fishing for condolence. “But I’m glad you like them.”

Sawamura went to retrieve the ball, throwing it back to Sugawara. “Toss to me again.”

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed there, tossing and spiking, serving and receiving. The sun, which had been low in the sky, arched overhead into the arms of the bleak clouds covering the sky. Sawamura tasted sweat on his upper lip, and tossed his coat over one of the empty benches. He wasn’t aware of Sugawara’s eyes on him, watching the way his muscles moved beneath his shirt.

“Your stamina is unbelievable!” Sugawara exclaimed breathlessly. He had discarded his scarf and his hat and had undone his jacket. Sawamura’s whole body was thrumming with energy.

“Ah… sorry.” Sawamura glanced at his watched and balked at what time it was – he’d been gone for almost three hours. There were five missed calls from Haruka on his phone. Shit.

“I have to go,” Sugawara told him before he could say anything. He gathered his things as Sawamura shrugged on his jacket again, and they stood vis-à-vis at the entrance to the court. They stood in silence, Sugawara’s eyelashes lowered over his cheeks. Sawamura was gripped by the intense desire to touch his face, but he didn’t. Sugawara, he was sure, would let him know when the time is right.

As it turned out, he did.

Sawamura was only just aware of the weight of Sugawara’s hands against his chest before he felt the press of soft lips against the corner of his mouth, the wash of breath tinged with fruit and toothpaste and a sigh of exertion. It felt like a peony had burst inside his skull, dewy petals where his brain should have been. And then as soon as Sugawara’s gentle kiss had been administered, it was gone, and Sawamura’s face was bared to the cold air again. He looked down to see Sugawara blushing, hand half-raised to his lips.

“G-goodbye,” Sugawara stammered without looking at him, and before Sawamura could reach out and stop him, he was gone.

Sawamura raised his own hand to his lips. He could still taste it.

Chapter Text

[this chapter contains allusions to past abuse and drug use]

 

XVI: Sawamura Daichi

 

When Sawamure had heard his phone begin to buzz, he had thought nothing of it. He got calls a lot, whether it was from his boss or his mother or his sister, or whether his littler siblings had gotten a hold of someone’s phone and had rung him by accident – he received phone calls a lot.

But when he saw Sugawara’s caller ID, his stomach flipped over itself. He didn’t know if it was a pleasant sensation or not. Not this time. As it had turned out (to Sawamura’s disappointment), the person who had called him had in fact been Kiyoko Shimizu, Sugawara’s friend and roommate. She had spoken, he had listen.

Did he know Nid’s? Of course he did.

There was something off about the way she spoke.

Her voice was tight. He could hear it in the way her words were pleasant but constricted, like there was a hand squeezing her throat. I need to talk to you about something. But what? It can’t have been urgent, if she’d arranged to meet at a café the next day; it wasn’t an emergency, obviously, but it still sat badly with Sawamura. He stared down at the screen of his phone after she’d hung up, a smear over the surface where the device had sat against his ear.

Sawamura half expected not to sleep that night. He might not have, if he’d had time to fret over what could have possibly happened – as it were, however, he did not find himself with time to be idle. His mother had gone last-mine (very last minute) Christmas shopping with Amaya and Hayato, who both burst in the front door in a flurry of snow and store-wrapped gift boxes. Their mother followed closely behind, rubbing her hands together and stamping the snow from her shoes. Hayato, as Sawamura finished descending the stairs, held up a box adorned with shining ribbon.

“This is for you, but you can’t see it until Christmas!” he crowed delightedly, and Sawamura feigned an expression of deep hurt.

“How am I going to last? You’re a cruel man, you know.”

Hayato clutched the parcel to his chest and ran off to the living room, laughter tumbling along behind him.

Sawamura found himself busier than he’d expected to be – the car’s engine had frozen over, so he spent the most part of the morning trying to fix it with little more than the help of WikiHow articles and luck. By the time he had finished his fingers were numb and greasy and sweat was freezing on his temples, but the car was fixed. He glanced at his watch. Shit.

Sawamura had never had very long legs – not like Asahi, or that freaky Russian kid from Kuroo’s old high school team – but he could take the stairs three at a time (four, if he put in an effort) no problem. His mother barked at him to slow down, you’re setting a bad example! and he very nearly bowled Haruka completely over – and he would have, if she hadn’t pressed her thin body to the wall as he passed. He showered quickly, scrubbing the oil off his hands with soap and flicking his dark hair impatiently, flinging droplets across the fogged surface of the mirror. He dressed as soon as he got back to his room; he put in a little more thought into it than he would have liked to admit.

And then, finally, he was ready. And half an hour late.

He reasoned with himself that he would have been later if he hadn’t taken the time to fix his car. He would have had to walk – or catch the train – which would have taken even longer, and he would have been even later than he already was. Besides, if what Shimizu had to tell him was really that important, she’d wait, right? He was curious to know, though. It wasn’t and emergency, he reminded himself, but it was obviously something important.

He pulled into the café’s parking lot behind the boulevard a little before eleven o’clock. His tires skidded on the ice, almost sending him careening into the car parked next to him, but with practiced manoeuvring he managed to get out of his car unscathed. He could hear the sounds of the boulevard – faint from where he stood shaded by the building – which was busy enough for a Saturday morning, despite how bitterly cold it was.

It was nearing Christmas eve by that point, and so things were progressively becoming busier and busier while also becoming simultaneously quieter – people were out shopping and meeting lovers and families between the starkly naked almond trees, huddling together in groups like penguins to keep warm. It was all rather amusing, and if Hayato had been there Sawamura would have told him about the penguins. But he wasn’t.

There was a small lane – more of a narrow asphalt footpath bracketed by high walls of cement – that led from the parking lot to the boulevard. He squeezed through a cluster of what appeared to be peach trees rather than almond trees, entering out onto the boulevard and finding it just as crowded as he had expected it to be. To his left were a group of very young children sitting in the gutter constructing a row of miniature snowmen out of the grey, icy slush that had frozen over during the night, using little flakes of asphalt and shrivelled almond pods as adornment. Nid’s was a little further up, he recalled – two stores down. One of the stores was the bookshop where he worked sometimes, the next being a small boutique florist’s that he would stop by often at the ends of his shifts, either to bring home flowers or merely to appreciate the displays. He knew Yachi worked there sometimes – he tried to coincide his visits with her shifts. Next to the florist’s was the café.

“Sawamura, nice to see you again.” Kinoshita appeared from where he was crouching behind the cashier counter, obviously in the middle of restocking the display of blueberry muffins. “You haven’t been coming ‘round lately.”

“Been busy,” Sawamura shrugged. “Christmas and all, y’know. It’s pretty crazy.”

Kinoshita nodded in understanding, finishing up the back row of muffins and standing up, tucking the small metal tongs into the belt of his apron. He stood with one hand propped on his hip, eyes narrowed in a squint as he looked at him for a few long, accusing seconds.

“Good for business, though,” Kinoshita said eventually, mirroring Sawamura’s shrug. Then he nodded over to one of the tables, leaning across the counter a little bit as Sawamura approached him at a beckon. “There’s a woman who asked for you. You’re late – she’s been waiting forever. If I was here I would’ve left by now.”

Following Kinoshita’s gaze, Sawamura saw the back of a woman, her head crowning in thick black hair that curled down between her shoulderblades, black as night against the pale yellow of her sweater. Shimizu, undoubtedly.

Sawamura thanked Kinoshita and ordered coffee for the hell of it. He approached Shimizu’s table, expecting her to be reading one of the newspapers or magazines to occupy herself. Instead, he found her staring down into the black surface of a cup, looking up only when he pulled back the chair and sat down.

“Sorry,” he apologised. “I’m late. Lost track of time.”

“No, it’s fine.” She shook her head, a little dazed, almost as if Sawamura had woken her from a nap. She looked awful: her face was bleak and her skin awkwardly colourless save for the deep shadows beneath her eyes and the strange vividness of her irises. Her glasses were smeared, but didn’t appear to be bothering her, and he noticed one of her long, beautiful hands was twisting the necklace at her throat. Shimizu reminded him of those old European paintings of ghostly, beautiful young women – he almost wanted to reach out and touch her to see if she was really there and not some kind of engine-oil-induced hallucination.

She didn’t speak for a while.

“Sawamura…”

“Just Daichi is fine.”

She glanced up at him, looking him in the eye for the first time since they’d last met. She fidgeted at her collar a little more. “Daichi.” A little pink tongue darted out to touch her lower lip. She looked like she hadn’t slept all night. “I… have to tell you something.”

Sawamura let out an uneasy little laugh. “Yeah. I figured.”

“I don’t know whether I should, or if it’s the right thing for me to do,” she continued, ignoring him. “I just…” She grimaced, then, finally seeming to remember that Sawamura was sitting there. “You’ve already figured it out, haven’t you?”

Sawamura nodded grimly, his ears filled with Kuroo’s lilting tone. Shimizu let out a long, deep sigh, her hand moving from her neckline to push the hair back from her face. “I should have guessed you would. You aren’t an idiot. You have a way with people, don’t you, Sawa –,” she caught herself “– Daichi? You have the weirdest kind of charisma I’ve ever seen. But it’s also the most reassuring thing I’ve ever felt.”

Sawamura nodded, unsure of what to say to that. “Thanks…?”

Shimizu sat up straight. “But that’s not what I need to tell you. No. Please – take this with a grain of salt, okay? I’ve never been the best with words.” She drew in a little breath. “Suga… he only had a handful of boyfriends before you. High school sweethearts, et cetera. It’s… Suga’s last boyfriend I think you need to know about. If I tell you, Sawamura, I think I might be able to throw some light on this whole situation. It might be a mistake, but at this point I don’t really care.”

Dread settled cold and hard in Sawamura’s stomach. Kuroo was right. Of course he was right. I was right.

“I won’t tell him anything,” Sawamura said gently, aware that Shimizu wasn’t the type of person who talked often, and that this was proving to be quite difficult for her. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”

“No…” Kiyoko’s voice trailed off before she shrugged her shoulders, sighing. “Just listen, all right? And don’t jump to conclusions.”

“I won’t.”

Kiyoko leaned back in her seat as though she was jogging her memory. She squinted at the wall above his head as she thought. "This man was… incredible. He was an incredible man. Clever, intuitive. But he was intelligent in the most toxic way, you know, the way people sometimes are. The way that passed him off as a hero. He had the most charming smile, lovely hands. He was incredibly handsome, too, but… he was rotted through like and old tooth.” She paused, nose wrinkling as she stared down into the black surface of her coffee, surely stone cold by now. “Suga didn’t know. I didn’t know, either. Nobody did. He’d materialised out of nowhere - nobody knew him, nobody had ever seen him before. He was an upperclassman at the University, as I remember. That’s how Suga introduced him, at least.”

“You got bad vibes from this guy, didn’t you?” Sawamura’s voice was low.

“See, that’s the thing.” Shimizu’s own voice was strained and saturated with regret. “I didn’t. He seemed like a perfectly harmless, reasonable guy. Handsome, clever, knew how to argue – perhaps ‘debate’ would be the better word – and he seemed to have congruous political views to the rest of us. I was happy for Suga – Suga liked him, and for all intents and purposes he appeared to like Suga back. I didn’t have any complaints, either. Suga moved out with him a little sooner than I would have expected, but…”

“He moved out with him?” The dread in his gut grew tighter.

Kiyoko hummed in assent. “A couple of months after they started dating. For some reason I never got the address; Suga said he’d tell me, but he never did. Things started to go downhill from there.”

Sawamura’s throat tightened to the point where he almost couldn’t breathe. Shimizu wasn’t looking at him; her eyes were still glued to her coffee. He didn’t say a word, and for a few eternal seconds there was nothing but silence between them.

“He disappeared for a little while,” Shimizu continued eventually, an obvious tremor pinned to her words. “I didn’t see either of them for a few weeks. I later found out that nobody did. Suga gave me a couple of alibis but I disproved them quickly enough. I didn’t tell him though, because I trusted him. Suga’s always been responsible, so I thought there was no reason to worry. I’m still not entirely sure what happened in those few weeks but I’m certain it wasn’t anything good. Something fucked with his head. I don’t know what it was, I just know something did. He came to visit me and he didn’t look much different but I could tell something was up. He was jittery and nervous; I thought he was sick, at first. I told him to go to the doctor but he insisted he was fine, and I got worried. At that time I didn’t draw a single link between Suga’s state and his boyfriend. I’d come to know the guy well enough, but he was still a stranger. It was weird, like… I knew him, but it was as though he was purposefully holding himself back. He didn’t want me to know him. Anyway - Suga was acting strange, but only a little, so it took me a while to notice. I didn’t see him often, and a couple of weeks after that he came to school with a bruise. He told me he’d fallen over, but I knew something wasn’t right. I was too scared to say anything, though. Bruises… the hickeys were worse. They were such violent marks, all up his neck and behind his ear.” She brushed a finger behind her own ear to indicate just where she’d seen them. “Usually I would’ve giggled, but they weren’t funny. There was nothing solid for me to use as evidence, y’know? Whenever I saw them they were lovebirds.”

Sawamura’s stomach felt like it has shrivelled up and died. His tongue had gone dry in his mouth and the sounds from the boulevard had disappeared into dead silence. “How did you find out?”

Kiyoko sucked her cheek. “There… I didn’t ‘find out’. Not like that. I slowly watched as Suga became this husk of who he used to be. He was morphing into something terrible, something passionate but… dead. Like someone without their morning coffee, but worse. There was something he craved, I could see it in his eyes. I soon realised that the vacancy he was showing was because he was channelling all his passion and enthusiasm into this man he was with. He was… I don’t know what happened between them. I can’t say whether or not it was him giving Suga those bruises, or if he’d just taken a fall like he told me. There was a moment that solidified my suspicions, though.” She glanced up hesitantly, and when Sawamura nodded tentatively she continued. “I finally found out where they stayed. It wasn’t their actual dwelling, but another apartment this guy owned. It was squalid, a studio with a dingy little bathroom in the shadiest part of town, as cliché as that might sound. It was a prime location, close to drug distribution points and stuff like that. I found it through a connection of mine when Suga wouldn’t return my calls. The door was unlocked, Sawamura. I -,” her face paled at the memory of it; she pressed a hand to her lips, averting her gaze.

“You don’t… have to tell me if you don’t want to.” But he wanted to know. He needed to know.

“I have to,” Shimizu gritted out from between clenched teeth. “I have to tell you.” Taking a deep, composing breath, she straightened her posture and looked him dead in the eye. “Inside the apartment was a mattress. The whole place reeked of… God, everything. It was stale and draughty and horrid. I found Suga sitting on the mattress between this man’s legs with a belt wrapped around his upper arm.”

Sawamura closed his eyes and would have exhaled if he had been able to breathe.

“I… I don’t know what the fuck was in those syringes, but there were so m-many of them –,” her voice broke off like the sound of snapping ice, and Sawamura reached across the table to take hold of her cold fingers. The pad of her thumb pressed against the back of his hand, and finally she managed to rest her darting eyes one Sawamura’s, slowly finding her voice again. “The look on his face was frightening. He was laughing, kissing him, displaying all the enthusiasm he’d been lacking in everything else. From what I remember neither of them were wearing anything and Suga had hickeys all over his body, and bruises, too. Neither of them noticed me at first and I… I couldn’t do anything. I ran away, Sawamura. That wasn’t Suga.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I was so scared. I was scared because that decrepit man looked at me over Suga’s shoulder and he smiled. Seeing that lovely smile in that situation was the most frightening thing in the world.” She was silent, then, tapping the fingers of her other hand against her cheek.

She shook her head suddenly, pulling her hand out of Sawamura’s and tucking them both neatly into her lap. “That… was unnecessary. Sorry. What I meant to say to you was that Suga’s old boyfriend is bad news. He had Suga wrapped round his little finger. He injected shit into Suga’s veins that made him as malleable as warm putty. I watched Suga slowly destroy himself from the inside out all under the guise of love. Suga saw reason, in the end, after his boyfriend hit him a little too hard. That was a couple of years ago, before we upped stumps and moved here. Suga came down from this ethereal high and crashed and, oh boy, he burned. It was like he came out of a trance and realised how he’d been manipulated; like he’d come to terms with everything that had been done to him. All at once. But the kicker was that he still loved the guy, still craved him. When you found him on the bridge wasn’t the first time he’s been in a situation like that, Sawamura. It’s one of the reasons he moved back in with me. He’d forgotten who he was and had no way of getting it back. Withdrawal, hospital time. He became frightened of every dark corner, just like a little six year old after a nightmare. He’d have night terrors. He hated himself, hated his skin. He tried to pick it from his bones and there was a time I thought he’d never stop bleeding.” She smiled ruefully. “Sorry. I keep going overboard.”

Sawamura shook his head, blinking a few times as he tried to process the information Shimizu had just given him. I was right. I knew it. A fucking ex-boyfriend. “But… why now? Why would you tell me this now?”

Shimizu’s forehead contracted in pain. “He showed up yesterday. Before Suga got back from… wherever he was. Forced the lock, but once he realised Suga wasn’t there he left.”

“Suga was with me. We were, um… playing volleyball.” He felt stupid saying it. “I don’t… did he… find out where you lived?” The text messages he had seen flashed over and over in his mind like a set of traffic lights. I’ll find you, I’ll find you, I’ll find you –

“Yes. I don’t… I don’t know whether or not we should move again. I don’t want to move, not this time, but… I don’t know if we have a choice.”

“‘We’?”

Shimizu smiled. “I’m not going to leave Suga to deal with this kind of thing on his own.”

Sawamura was horrified to feel the back of his eyes stinging. He’d expected something like this, but hearing it in full was infinitely worse than anything he could have imagined. He was furious, with Suga’s ex for doing those things, with himself for not doing anything about it –

He had to look down when Kinoshita came with his coffee. He glanced between the two of them with a brow arched high in concern, but said nothing before tapping his tray against his thigh and returning back to the front of the café. Sawamura ground his teeth, trying to keep those sudden, awful tears at bay, but he wasn’t winning. “I’m…” he swallowed once, twice, to try and straighten out his voice. “I’m going to help you guys. I will. I’ll help Suga. I’ll –,” Tears grappled at the back of his throat and his voice cracked up an octave, his face flushing with embarrassment. When he gathered the strength to raise his eyes to Shimizu’s face, he was horrifically embarrassed to see that she looked deeply, deeply touched. He cleared his throat, rubbed the back of his neck, and tried to grasp the last thread of his macho-ness.

“Don’t, um…” he swallowed down the gurgle in his throat. “Don’t look at me like that…”

“Sorry – I just… haven’t seen this before. I’ve never seen anybody cry over him before.” She smiled her own watery smile, then, looking at him for a moment before pushing away her cold – and still full – cup of coffee, getting to her feet. She took her coat from where it hung over the back of her chair, slinging over the pale weave of her cardigan. “Try not to dwell on it too much. I just thought you should know, and now you do.” She stopped, pushing in her chair and leaning against it with a smile on her lips that gave a new light to her entire face. “Thank you. I feel a little foolish having been so wary of you before… I’m glad it’s you. Out of anyone it could have been, I’m glad it’s you.”

Sawamura watched her as she left the store, Kinoshita telling her that her drink was on the house and to not bother paying. She paid for it anyway.

“Did I see you blubbing?” Kinoshita asked, his tone sharp with amusement, like he couldn’t quite believe it. Sawamura didn’t smile at him, though – he didn’t punch him in the arm or roll his eyes. He just stared vacantly at the still black surface of the cold coffee Kinoshita had come to collect. Slowly, the humour died from the atmosphere and Kinoshita continued his work silently.

“Shit.” Sawamura pressed his fists to his eyes. I can’t cry in a coffee shop. That’s outrageous. What if someone saw me? I’d never live it down. And then he remembered what his grandmother – who had spent her university days during and after the war to research the greatest feminist writers of modern and ancient Japan – had told him just after he had entered middle school. She had been sitting with her small, slipper-clad feet propped up on a faded floral weave footstool in the shade of her back porch, her knobbly fingers twisting a pair of knitting needles. Sawamura had been sitting on the edge of the porch, knees scraped, sniffling as he tried not to cry. He can’t remember why he had been so upset; that particular memory had been overshadowed by just how much he had wanted to burst into tears. But he couldn’t, he had reasoned, because he was a boy. Boys don’t cry.

His grandmother had rocked back in her chair, an old, creaking thing, and she had smiled at his scrunched-up face and running nose. “Daichi,” she had said in a very strong, youthful voice. “Why don’t you cry?”

He had told her. Boys don’t cry.

She clicked her tongue. “How ridiculous. Who told you that?”

Sawamura thought for a moment. “The other boys did.”

“Now, now, you see, this is why you should always take what men say with a grain of salt.” She smiled fondly at him. “You can cry, Daichi. There’s nothing weak about it, you know. Nothing weak at all.”

There’s nothing weak about it.

Now, sitting in that coffee shop with new, overwhelming knowledge quickly saturating each cell of his body, Sawamura felt those words. More than ever. There’s nothing weak about it. The whole idea that boys don’t cry is ridiculous. If you are hurt, or if you’re feeling sad or angry, crying is a healthy outlet. It is better than harsh words or fists. Cry, Daichi. It’s all right to cry.

The bell over the door tinkled and hid the first of Sawamura’s angry, bitter sobs. He heard Kinoshita’s voice speaking haltingly, overridden by a short, loud yelp. “Daichi! Dai – oh, man, what’s he doing? Is he crying?

“Y-Yuu –,”

The light tap of feet approached him and Sawamura looked up to glare with red, puffy eyes at Nishinoya who was leaning over the back of the chair Shimizu had only just vacated. His eyes were curious – far too curious for Sawamura’s liking, so he leaned onto his elbows and covered his face with his hands. Nishinoya pulled out the chair and sat down, shucking off his jacket as he did so. Asahi, who was standing awkwardly beside the table, snagged a spare chair and sat down between them. He was the first one to speak.

“Are you all right, Daichi?”

There’s nothing weak about it.

Sawamura – tentatively, at first – pulled his hands away from his face and wiped his nose on a napkin. His voice was choked with tears, but a smile still rose to his lips. “Yeah. I’m… I’m fine. Just worried. For. Um. Suga…wara.”

“Did something happen?”

Sawamura grimaced. “It’s all right.”

Nishinoya let out a long, low whistle. His avid curiosity had morphed into a strange sort of awe; Sawamura was sat here, crying over somebody. Nishinoya had never seen Sawamura so much as shed a tear before, so to see him doing something like this – “See, Asahi? I knew he had it in him.”

Asahi slapped his arm. “Daichi – if there’s anything we should know about…”

Sawamura knew he couldn’t tell them. He didn’t know whether or not they would, in turn, tell others about it, and the last thing Sawamura wanted was for Sugawara’s tribulations to become common gossip. So he shook his head, and Asahi nodded solemnly – if there was one thing he understood about Sawamura Daichi, it was the tell tale signs of ‘yes, but I can’t tell’.

“You really care about him, huh?” Nishinoya’s voice was a little dreamy and a little surprised. “This is super weird. I’ve never seen you like this before. Has he ever cried over a girl before?”

Asahi shook his head, concealing a little half-smile. “No. He hasn’t.”

“Wow! Wow. I mean, this is a good development! Daichi! Good for you. He’s growing up, Asahi, look at him. I’m so proud.”

“I’m older than you,” Sawamura argued. “I’m older than both of you!” The conversation quickly dissolves into harmless banter, and slowly things begin to feel like they did before.

 

Sawamura emerged from the café a little less than an hour later, his body warm with coffee and pastries. He rubbed his hands together in the noon chill, the sun beating down with no heat at all. He slipped back down the lane to his car, wondering if he’d need to pick up dinner on the way home or if he’d be able to whip something up with what they had in the fridge. He began to mentally check off ingredients.

But once he had shut himself inside his car – once he was swallowed by muffled silence – the thoughts of what Shimizu had told him kept coming back.

So… Sawamura thought as he got into his car, sitting idly in the driver’s seat and staring at the brick finish of the café wall. Drugs. Shimizu said she didn’t know what was in them… that doesn’t matter. It’s so obvious. This guy… he led Suga on. Led him on with the promise of a hit that he only administered after he got what he wanted. Maybe… maybe it was voluntary, at first. Maybe Suga had been curious, maybe he’d been tricked from trying something harmless into trying something hard. It’s fucked up. His mother, in her plan to turn Sawamura off drugs in middle school, had told him horror stories of delirious patients who had been admitted to the ER. Of their faces, their violent episodes, mood swings, death. He pressed his forehead to the ridge of the steering wheel and tried to swallow down the rage that swelled in his throat. If I ever see this guy, I’ll kill him. I’ll wring his neck with my own two hands, I swear.

He pulls out his phone and punches in Kuroo’s number.

“Is this a booty call, Sawamura?”

“Piss off. Kuroo, you were right. Shit – I can’t even think about it without feeling sick. Kuroo. We were right.”

“No, you were right. I was just helping you along a little. Listen, lover boy – you’re in the game now. You’ve got to do what you think is right, but if you won’t be able to deal with it, drop it. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Sawamura ground his teeth. “I’m out for blood, Kuroo. I’m not dropping this.”

Kuroo made a vaguely impressed noise on the other end of the line. “Good. So what’s the deal?”

“You promise to keep your mouth shut?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.” For some reason, Sawamura knew he wasn’t lying. Kuroo was a gossip, but this was the kind of thing he would never, ever talk about.

“Some ex-boyfriend. Um – drugs, I think? He was just… being led around in circles in a vicious cycle and I just – fuck.” He felt tears prick his eyes again. “I’m so… angry. I want to grind this guy’s face into the pavement.”

“All right, easy there.” Kuroo’s voice was strangely calming, cool and collected in Sawamura’s ear. “Ex-boyfriend got Boyfriend-kun hooked on something in return for, uh… companionship. Sound about right?”

“Yeah. But I think… I think Suga was in love with him. Truly and honestly in love with him. He just… took advantage of that to try and morph Suga into the person he wanted him to be.”

Kuroo hummed contemplatively. “That’s a rough ride, huh? Are you sure you’re up for this, Sawamura?”

“Doesn’t matter if I am or not,” Sawamura replied as he turned on the engine. “I’m gonna stick around. I’m not going to run from this.” And with that he hung up, tossing his phone onto the passenger seat and beginning back towards his home.

 

“Daichi! Daichi!” Hayato answered the door when he got back and held out his arms to be picked up. Sawamura hauled the child into his arms, heading towards the kitchen. “You look sick. Do you have a cold?” He pressed a small, sticky hand to Sawamura’s forehead.

“Nah,” Sawamura laughed in reply, setting Hayato back down again. “I’m right as rain. Now – what do you want for dinner?”

Sawamura was glad for Hayato’s high, babbling voice. He wasn’t really listening, admittedly, but liked having the clamour of a child in the background all the same. He let Hayato help him if something needed to be flipped in the pan, let him peek into the oven to see the fans whirring at the back.

“Hey, Daichi, it’s your birthday soon!” Hayato said suddenly, and Sawamura paused. Less than a month away.

“Birthday!” Amaya’s voice squealed as she skipped into the kitchen, making airplane noises as she directed Mami through the air (though purple bath toys are hardly substitutions for airplanes, as Hayato pointed out), followed closely by Haruka, who began to rifle around in the drawers reserved for things like duct tape and spare batteries. “Haru-chan is going to fix my lamp!” Amaya held out a small lamp full of water and silver glitter – there was a light at the bottom that lit the glitter up when switched on, and it was one of Amaya’s favourite toys. Obviously the batteries had gone dead.

“You’d better get me loads of presents,” Sawamura told his little brother and sister, a humorous lilt to his voice. “I want at least… fifty.” But he hadn’t thought about it, not at all. His birthday had completely slipped his mind in wake of other things. Hayato, about to reply, was interrupted by the shrill ring of the landline. Quick as anything he picked the phone out of the cradle.

“Hello?”

There was a murmur of a voice on the other end of the line, and even from where Sawamura was stood over the stove he could pick out that the caller was speaking quietly. He slowed down, keeping his hearing sharp. Hayato’s face creased into a little frown and he took the phone away from his ear, approaching his brother and holding out the phone. Haruka looked up from the ziplock bag of button batteries, and the kitchen fell silent save for the hiss of cooking food and Amaya’s gentle airplane noises.

“Hello?” Something about Haruka’s eyes drew his attention; her lower eyelids drew up in a tight look of concern.

“Sawamura Daichi?”

“Yes, this is Sawamura Daichi.”

“Hello, Daichi. This is your father speaking.”

Chapter Text

XVII: Sugawara Koushi

 

Sugawara was still in bed at noon without having had any sleep at all. He wished he could be able to sleep; he had half a mind to knock his head against the bedroom wall hard enough to knock himself out. He would have, too, if he’d had the courage to get out of bed. As it was, he didn’t, so he lay in bed painfully awake and aware of everything around him.

He remembered a time where he was numb to everything. Now it appeared to be the opposite: he was hyperaware of absolutely everything around him. The ticking of his wristwatch, which lay across the room on his desk, agitated him. The sound of distant traffic – the hum he had grown so used to – was like friction on his skin. The whirring of the heating vents, the bedframe creaking each time he moved. The rustle of the pillow beneath his ear when he turned over. He tried to assure himself that these were all safe sounds. He still couldn’t get to sleep.

The blinds were drawn, but there was still a faint glow of outside light. He stared at the opposite wall, brow pulled into a frown. That was when his phone began to ring.

He reached out for it and checked the caller ID, dread rising in his throat. Sawamura Daichi.

“’llo,” he mumbled. “Sorry. Hi.”

Sawamura’s voice was soft when he spoke. It was nice – Sugawara felt tears fill his eyes as his heart dropped and he knew that unless Sawamura had some kind of sixth sense, Kiyoko had told him what happened. Sugawara wasn’t an idiot. But he couldn’t bring himself to be angry at her, or at Sawamura, and all he felt was a flood of relief.

The solidness Sugawara had been looking for was present in Sawamura’s voice, just like he knew it would be. He put the phone on speaker and set it next to his head on the pillow, closing his eyes and listening to Sawamura’s voice.

“….Suga? Are you there?”

Sugawara hummed in assent, his body feeling heavier and heavier. “Just keep talking, Dai.”

There was a pause before Sawamura slowly began to start talking again, talking about menial things – things that didn’t matter. He knew it was of no consequence, though; whatever he said, Sugawara wasn’t listening. And, soon, Sugawara dropped into a dead, exhausted sleep. When he finally woke up, four hours later, he found the call still going.

“…Daichi?”

There was no reply from the other end of the line for a few moments before there was a clattering sound and a child’s voice rang out. “Daichi! Daichi, your phone is talking! It called your name.”

“Did it, now?” Sugawara heard Sawamura – undoubtedly – say, presumably to the child. There was another short silence, Sugawara sitting up amusedly in bed. “Suga? Are you still there?”

“You didn’t hang up.” Sugawara’s voice was warmer than he expected it to be.

“No. Free domestic calls, it’s no skin off my nose, y’know?”

Sugawara bowed his head, smiling into the back of his hand. “You can hang up now.”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes,” Sugawara laughed, “hang up, you big lug, before your phone goes dead!”

So Sawamura laughed, said farewell, and hung up.

Sugawara didn’t like the silence he left behind. He almost called him back, just to fill it, but he didn’t.

He couldn’t do that.

Instead, he dragged himself from his bed and out into the apartment. The place was quiet, and cold despite the heating, empty and silent. Open. Vulnerable. Sugawara glanced towards the door, to the lock, and he shivered. He retreated back to his room.

 

Nothing remarkable happened in the next few days after that. He didn’t return. Nobody paid any visits, the phone didn’t ring. Kiyoko sat silently with her newspaper and her glasses in her hair every morning, just like she always did, but there was something different. She knew Sugawara had caught on to what she did, but she didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t confront him, and he didn’t ask her about it either. He felt like he should be angry, or offended, or something – humiliated, even. But he didn’t. He felt warm and grateful, which was strange enough in itself considering what had happened, but Kiyoko knew. She knew him. She knew what he was like. She knew he would never tell, not ever, and even though he craved the attention he would never ask for it. Ever. But this… this, he knew Kiyoko had realised, was the kind of attention he needed regardless whether or not he wanted it.

The locks were changed and reinforced. Sugawara didn’t sleep, hardly at all. He began to call Sawamura instead, each evening, and eventually Sawamura coined onto the fact that Sugawara happened to fall asleep during each call. And so Sawamura would talk – about anything, about his day or about his past or about the weather or something stupid, it didn’t matter what – until Sugawara stopped replying. Soon he began to grow accustomed to the patterns of Sugawara’s breath, and he was able to tell when he fell asleep. Only then was Sugawara able to get to sleep and stay asleep.

“Daichi,” Sugawara said one evening, chin propped on his elbow as he angled the base of his phone towards his mouth.

“Yeah?” Sawamura asked, a little taken aback by Sugawara’s assertive tone. It was merely unexpected.

“Do you… um. Do you want to go on… another date… maybe? If you want to. Ah –,” he shook his head. “Sorry. Stupid idea.”

“No, no,” Sawamura said quickly. “No, I’d love to. I would. I’d… love to go on a date with you.”

Sugawara exhaled heavily. “Y-yeah… I’d, um, like that. A lot.” He let out a nervous little laugh, delighted at the prospect of seeing Sawamura in the flesh again. He had the feeling that if he had a phone cord in his hand, he’d be twisting it around his finger like a lovestruck teenager.

“Great!” Was that a blush in Sugawara’s voice?

Details are finalised. Sugawara would choose the location and time, this time round, which Sawamura was entirely happy with. You could tell a lot about a person by the way they organised dates, but Sugawara insisted on keeping it a secret. “I’ll pick you up,” he said, with that same pink tinge to his voice. If voices had a colour, Sawamura found himself thinking, Sugawara’s would be pink.

 

Sugawara spent considerably less time preparing himself for this date than he had for the last. He felt a little more confident in himself this time – abashed, still, and rightfully so after he had just kissed Sawamura like that. That’s what he thought, anyway. He adjusted the collar of his shirt, avoiding his own gaze in the mirror. He had washed his hair and moisturised his skin, just as Kiyoko had advised him to do that morning.

Reluctantly, he looked up. He met his own eyes and suddenly a million little things hit him with the force of a brick wall; things he noticed about himself, about his appearance. How his cheeks looked fuller, pinker. His eyes were brighter. His hair was softer, smoother, and his entire face possessed a new kind of light. Kiyoko had begun to smile more, he’d noticed, when she’d look at him. Now he realised why. He smiled weakly at his own reflection, then practiced a wider, fleshier smile. He was almost dazzled by it, and he pulled away from the sink with a small flicker of his lips. This is how it’s meant to be. The weight of the break-in still weighed against the back of his neck, but it was little more than a flicker of shadow in the light that was Sawamura Daichi.

 

He arrived at the restaurant at quarter past six, just as they’d agreed. Sawamura was there already, standing in a casual dress shirt – that Sugawara could see through the opening of his jacket – and slacks, hands in his pockets and rocking to and fro on the balls of his feet. Sugawara watched him from out of sight for a moment, just watching the movement of his body and admiring how perfect he fit into the brick finish of the wall. Like he was meant to be there. That, Sugawara thought glumly, was something he would never achieve. He stepped into the light of the street, approaching Sawamura and shoving his own restless hands in the pockets of his coat. He’d worn the wrong shoes – he could feel the damp through the seams.

Sugawara was shocked by the way Sawamura’s face lit up when he recognised him. His face broke out in a smile and he produced something Sugawara had not seen before: pink carnations wrapped in white tissue paper and bound with a blue ribbon.

“Uh… I bought these for you. They reminded me of you,” Sawamura said, rubbing the back of his neck abashedly. “It’s kind of… lame… I know.”

Sugawara’s heart was pounding in his chest. He could barely hide the blush on his cheeks – the flowers still smelled sweet, and not overbearingly so, crowned with sprigs of baby’s breath. “T-thank you, Daichi… they’re wonderful.” He presses a shy smile, averting his eyes. “They’re my favourite, actually…”

When there was no reply from Sawamura, Sugawara peeked back up at him and had to stifle a laugh. Sawamura looked absolutely floored – like he’d seen something miraculous (and to Sawamura, Sugawara’s smile was miraculous). When Sawamura realised they they were standing in the middle of the pavement staring at each other, he cleared his throat and rubbed his neck again, stepping back and gesturing to the restaurant entrance.

Pleasantly flushed, Sawamura approached the waiting staff stationed at the podium at the entrance. “A reservation for Sawamura?”

The woman behind the podium looked up at him, and Sugawara peered around Sawamura to see large plywood boards hammered up a little way inside the restaurant. In fact – the place didn’t look very open at all. But the two of them had been a little too distracted in each other to notice.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve had to coordinate emergency renovations to the establishment. We will reschedule your reservation free of charge, if you’d like.”

Sawamura looked at Sugawara.

“It’s fine,” Sugawara smiled sunnily, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s no problem.” The woman smiled at him, then caught sight of the flowers, then looked to Sawamura, and then back at Sugawara. Her smile thinned, and suddenly Sugawara was glad for the shop closure.

“I’m sorry… I should’ve checked,” Sawamura apologised as they headed in the general direction of the nearest shopping plaza. He looked incredibly handsome, even in harsh lighting – Sugawara blushed furiously, hiding his face in his scarf.

“It’s okay, honestly,” Sugawara assured him. Then he paused, considering, before tentatively taking Sawamura’s arm. “It’s cold,” he mumbled in his defense. Sawamura only chuckled.

Walking with Sawamura like that – shrouded, indeed, by darkness and the impending sleet clouds – was strange. It was almost surreal, for Sugawara to be touching somebody like this. It was intimate: something Sugawara was not used to. Something inside him was telling him to get as far away from Sawamura as he could, but it wasn’t his intuition. It was his instinct telling him to flee, because things like this had always been a discomfort before. But not now. Now, walking with Sawamura like this, the only thing Sugawara really felt was warm. He felt safe. And that, in itself, was strange.

If Sawamura was shocked at Sugawara’s sudden intimacy, he didn’t show it. He loosened his arm a little, and then curled it around Sugawara’s shoulders when the sleet began to fall, tucking him securely into his side. Sugawara didn’t pull away.

By the time they reached the plaza they were running from the sleet – neither of them had brought an umbrella, and Sawamura’s jacket hardly functioned as well as one, no matter how far he held it over Sugawara’s head.

“You’ll freeze to death, put your jacket on!” Sugawara told him once they got inside the building. He helped Sawamura back into his jacket, patting down his lapels before sighing, satisfied. “You’re all damp…”

Sawamura smiled at him, cheeks and nose flushed with cold. “It’s all right. You’re not too wet, are you?”

Sugawara shook his head, and turned to look around. Sawamura nudged his shoulder, nodding towards the cinema complex across the food court on the floor they’d entered on. “We could go there,” he suggested. “I don’t know what we’d see, though.”

Sugawara tugged on his sleeve. “Let’s go have a look.”

The two of them stood inside the cinema lobby looking at the screens above the ticket booths, watching the ‘Now Showing’ screen and debating what films to watch for a good fifteen minutes. Sawamura suggested an action film, to which Sugawara grimaced and admitted he didn’t like mindless violence. Sugawara then suggested a horror film, but as soon as he saw the blood drain from Sawamura’s face he laughed and said ‘nevermind’. There wasn’t a wide selection of things to see – eventually they settled on an arthouse film, some remake of a 1950’s movie that neither of them had ever seen. Sawamura paid for the tickets and Sugawara paid for the snacks and they found themselves admitted to a relatively empty theatre.

Sugawara began inside the theatre, navigating his way to a row near the back. “It’s best to be somewhere in this area,” he advised Sawamura as they sat down. “Always keep the middle of the screen at eye-level.”

Aside from Sugawara and Sawamura, there was a young couple, a group of old women, and a small cluster of quiet teenagers in the theatre. The closes people to Sawamura and Sugawara’s seats were the old women, and even then they were a good four rows down.

Sawamura reached for the popcorn when the light began to dim, but Sugawara slapped his hand away. “Don’t you dare eat all of it before the movie even starts.”

Sugawara couldn’t help but let his eyes wander. Sawamura was something he never tired of looking at; he was built like a mountain, with his broad shoulders and thick limbs and undefined waist. His skin was such a lovely colour, too, the hairs on his arms coarse and dark. Sugawara could see the shadow of stubble on his chin, even in the dim lighting, and he felt his abdomen clench and realised that Sawamura and stubble were two things he definitely liked together. He watched Sawamura from the corner of his eye, snapping his eyes to the screen each time Sawamura caught him looking like he was in middle school all over again. Sawamura laughed under his breath, blushing under the dim lights.

Soon the theatre went dark and the screen lit up – the advertisements played, Sugawara having to slap Sawamura’s hand away from the popcorn two more times before the movie even started.

“Stop that,” he hissed, and Sawamura snorted with laughter.

“You’re such a killjoy. But… I suppose I can manage.”

Sugawara was grateful for the darkness for many reasons. First of all, because Sawamura couldn’t see when he blushed at the bump of their hands in the popcorn bucket. That was the main reason. But also because there was no reason to make conversation, and they could sit together in comfortable, mutual silence. Half an hour into the movie and Sawamura took off his jacket to dry it out properly. Ten minutes later and Sugawara did the same, unravelling his scarf as well and he slipped his arm through Sawamura’s again.

“Are you getting sleepy?” Sawamura asked in a whisper, looking down as Sugawara leaned against his arm. “We can leave, if you like.”

“No, no,” Sugawara mumbled, his fingers stroking over the cuff of Sawamura’s shirt. “It’s all right.” He paused for a few moments, his heart beating in his throat. He could smell him; he could feel the warmth resonating from Sawamura’s skin, even through his shirt. He could feel the muscles under the skin, he could feel and smell all that was Daichi. “Hey… Daichi?”

Sawamura looked down expectantly, though he was somewhat surprised by the smooth palm that slotted against the line of his jaw. He felt the gentle touch of chapped fingers against his cheek and his ear, and for a moment he could smell pink carnations and gentle cologne. Just for a moment, when Sugawara’s body gravitated close to his; a moment before Sugawara’s lips found his own through the half-darkness. He’d only just caught the glimmer of Sugawara’s eyes in the light of the screen.

Sugawara’s lips were softer this time. He’d gotten balm for his lips from the girl who owned the birds in his apartment complex, made from some kind of papaya extract. It had done wonders in days. His lips were softer, now, and the feel of Sawamura’s lips under his own sent a shiver down his spine. He drew away for a moment, his eyes drooping instinctively, and saw Sawamura blink slowly in return. They sat like that for a moment before Sawamura extricated himself from Sugawara’s hold and twisted a little in his seat, tilting his face and kissing Sugawara back just as gently, just as sweetly. Then he drew away, just like Sugawara had done.

“I like you,” Sugawara murmured, his hands moving to tug on the front of Sawamura’s shirt as he kissed him again. This was a different kind of kiss: it wasn’t the fluttering, gentle kiss they’d had at the volleyball court, nor the patient kiss they’d had only a moment before. Sugawara – though perhaps unnoticeably – had found a pinprick of confidence. There was something about Sawamura that made him want to do things. Something that made him sure.

It had been a long time since Sugawara had kissed anyone like this. It wasn’t the same as kissing strangers in club bathrooms; it was slow, intimate, with gentle hands and gentle lips that searched and pressed like lovers in the throes of passion. It was a quiet passion, one that the old ladies four rows down did not notice, one that didn’t alert the group of quiet teenagers. It was silent, clusters of unsaid words crowding on the backs of their tongues. I like you. Sawamura’s large, rough hands moved up to cup Sugawara’s face, stroking over the soft strands of his hair, the shells of his ears. Fingers moved down his neck and he pressed in deeper, willingly sacrificing his need to breathe just to be closer, closer

It was Sawamura who drew back first, parting with a deep inhale. Sugawara’s lips tingled as he took the chance to breathe as well; his entire body was warm, as though he’d just woken from a deep, comfortable sleep.

“Daichi –,”

Sawamura flipped up the armrest that divided their seats, and they shuffled closer, Sawamura winding one arm around Sugawara’s waist as they did so. Their lips were together again, two magnets drawn pole-to-pole. Sugawara’s skin rose when he felt the swipe of Sawamura’s tongue against his bottom lip, and his mouth fell open in a half-sigh that had him melting back into the upholstery.

He was acutely aware of Sawamura’s arm around him, the hand on his back, the hand in his hair. The popcorn bucket was discarded, replaced instead by the line of Sugawara’s hip. It had been a very, very long time since he’d felt this inflamed, since his face had grown this hot just from a kiss. Sawamura’s neck was warm beneath his hand and he could feel the heat radiating from his cheeks. “Do it more,” he breathed when Sawamura pulled back, obviously hesitant to go any further. “Nobody is watching. It’s fine.” Gripped by the strange sense of confidence he’d experienced earlier, Sugawara put his hands in Sawamura’s hair and dragged his face back to his own again.

This time Sawamura had no qualms with slipping his tongue past Sugawara’s lips. It traced the backs of his teeth, over the ridges of his palate; Sugawara had never felt so conquered by a kiss before.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. The fire that had exploded at the back of Sugawara’s throat had dimmed to a simmer, and the gentle passion had faded into something of a lull. They sat leaning against each other, Sugawara’s soft lips on Sawamura’s cheeks and his jaw, Sawamura’s lips staying from Sugawara’s to press against his neck. He tastes like pink carnations. Tastes like vanilla. Kissing Sawamura was like the touch of lips to rain; it was like kissing nature, or being surrounded by the heart of a forest. Sugawara’s taut form relaxed into Sawamura’s side, their fingers finding each other’s through the darkness.

When the lights came back on they tore apart, Sawamura bending to retrieve the popcorn bucket. Sugawara was blushing and nervously licking his lips, his confidence fleeing with the darkness. He couldn’t look at Sawamura; he couldn’t even bring himself to look at any of the other viewers. He stared down at his hands, which had until five minutes ago been in Sawamura’s hair. His mouth was burning in an entirely pleasant way. Hesitantly, he reached up and touched his lips.

“You… you ready to go?” Sawamura asked him as he shrugged on his jacket. Sugawara looked up at him and burst out laughing. Sawamura, shocked, blinked down at him. “What? Do I have something in my teeth?”

“Daichi…” Sugawara pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. “Oh, Daichi – you have jaw burn.”

Sawamura slapped a horrified hand over his mouth, dark brows creasing. “Your mouth is like a suction cup.”

Sugawara got to his feet and smiled at him – it was that dazzling kind of smile he’d been so shocked by earlier that day. He took hold of Sawamura’s sleeve and tugged him out of the cinema.

“Oh, man,” Sawamura sighed once they’d left the complex. The plaza was emptying out as the night wore on, so Sawamura was able to draw Sugawara under his arm again. “Sorry, I… got a bit ahead of myself in there.”

“No,” Sugawara interjected. “No, I… I liked it.”

Sawamura rubbed at the red around his mouth, grinning. “I liked it too.”

They looked at each other, bursting into a fit of giggles and stifled laughter. It’s like middle school, Sugawara thought to himself. Sawamura’s hold on him was firm and secure. Safe.

“Let me drive you home,” Sawamura told him when they got back to the parking lot near the restaurant. “Taking the train at this time of night is dangerous.”

Sugawara, walking beside him as they approached his car, blinked and gathered the carnations to his chest. “Is… that okay? I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.”

They stopped at Sawamura’s car, and Sawamura turned to lean in and touch his forehead to Sugawara’s. “I’d drive to the end of the earth and back for you. Of course it’s not an inconvenience.” He opened the passenger door for Sugawara, who laughed and slipped inside.

The car was surprisingly warm and quiet. Sugawara was alone in the silence between his door shutting and the driver’s door opening, and in those few long moments he could hear only the sound of his heartbeat and the rustle of the flowers in his lap. The baby’s breath danced like snow against the tips of his fingers, and he found himself suddenly quite short of breath. I like you. I lo –

The driver’s door opened and Sugawara could hear the distant drone of traffic from the inner city. Sawamura was quick to start the engine and pull out of the parking lot; the stereo was on a low volume and on a station Sugawara didn’t recognise. They didn’t speak during the drive home; they sat in silence, basking in the comfort of each other’s presence, Sawamura watching the road and Sugawara watching the jostling blooms sat on his knees.

When Sawamura pulled into the parking lot of Sugawara’s apartment block, he turned and looked at him. “Thank you for tonight… I had a really nice time.”

“Me too,” Sugawara squeezed out, still feeling short of breath. Looking at Sawamura smiling like that made it even harder to breathe. “I had fun.”

Sawamura’s dark eyes were steady on his for a moment before he leaned in, just as he’d done in the cinema, and kissed Sugawara gentle on the cheek. Sugawara’s eyes flickered shut for a moment, and he reached up to take Sawamura’s face into his hands and kiss him again, this time on the lips. Soft, like bare feet sinking into the earth. I like you.

Sugawara held the flowers close to his chest as he got out of the car, waving back at Sawamura as he reached the fire stairs. Sawamura – waiting to see Sugawara getting inside safely – waved in return. When Sugawara had gone, Sawamura felt his chest constrict and jump, his heart fluttering like a little bird trapped in his ribcage. He ground his teeth together, but couldn’t help but smack his steering wheel in victory. He’d made out with Sugawara in the cinema, and it had been amazing – Sugawara was as soft and sweet and fragrant as he’d imagined he would be. Sawamura pressed his fingers to his lips for a moment before starting the car and driving home.

When Sugawara let himself in he found the lights off. There was a not stuck to the fridge from Kiyoko – sorry, I’m exhausted so I went to bed early. I hope you had a good time! He smiled, taking it down and folding it, anchoring it under the stack of journals on the kitchen counter. He found a vase – the one that Kiyoko had used for her lilies – and put the carnations in some water, placing them on the sideboard. He admired them, for a moment; pink carnations had always been his favourite.

He hadn’t realised how tired he was until he fell into bed, only barely managing to undress. His breath had come back to him, though the tightness in his chest hadn’t gone away. He was thrilled – the taste of Sawamura still hadn’t left his lips and he could still feel the press of his fingers against his arm. Sawamura lingered on him, and he loved it.

 


 

Sugawara woke the next morning as groggy and disoriented as normal. Sunlight streamed through his window, almost blinding him when he opened his eyes. He’d forgotten to close the blind last night.

He dragged himself out of bed, throwing himself in the shower and standing under the hot water until Kiyoko came and banged on the door to tell him to stop soaking. When he got out and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror he was mortified: just like Sawamura, the area around his mouth looked as though it had fallen victim to a rash. Glumly, Sugawara recalled Sawamura’s slight stubble.

He tried to hide it from Kiyoko. He did. But she was too perceptive not to notice, especially something like that. She peered at him over the top of her newspaper, squinting a little before flicking her glasses down. Her eyes widened, beauty mark lifting as she smiled at him.

“Is that what I think it is, Sugawara Koushi?”

Sugawara slapped a hand over his mouth. “No.” His voice was muffled.

Kiyoko tried her best to suppress a laugh. “Oh my goodness. Suga. Is that a pash-rash?”

No.

Kiyoko raised an eyebrow at him.

“Okay… maybe.” Sugawara dropped his hand and Kiyoko laughed; he rolled his eyes at her, going to draw a glass of water from the tap. “Don’t tease me!”

“I’m not teasing you, Suga!” Kiyoko turned in her chair to look at him, a smile still playing on her lips. “Amazing. You must really like him, huh?”

Sugawara sipped at his water and just smiled.

Sugawara couldn’t believe that it had happened. His lips still tingled and he could still feel the roughness of Sawamura’s hair against the palms of his hands. After Kiyoko left the apartment Sugawara leaned against the kitchen counter and pressed his face into his hands. Daichi… I like you. I like him. I love him. He stared at his feet. I love him. He hid his face in his hands again.

To Sugawara, it felt as though there was sunshine constantly shining on the back of his neck. He felt warm; something inside him was warming him and the sensation was a strange one. He was warm where he’d last been cold, and instead of feeling lonely he felt like he was in the company of another, even though he was alone in the apartment. He glanced at the phone sitting in its cradle and realised that he wasn’t really alone at all. He smiled to himself.

His mood had sky rocketed. He felt open and vulnerable in the best way, like his entire countenance was being torn apart by the feelings he had for Sawamura Daichi. The clock on the oven read 11:37am and Sugawara checked the fridge for lunch, finding only old boxes of take away food covered with cling film.

Gathering what ingredients he could find, he arranged himself to make something. It had been a long time since he’d taken the initiative to make food – it had always been something Kiyoko had done, mostly because if she hadn’t done it Sugawara would never have bothered to eat. But now – now was different. Sugawara felt alive. He felt able. Things that had seemed impossible to him before were now things he felt like he could do. It made his heart jump into his throat.

Sugawara couldn’t help but wonder how Sawamura was. Was he thinking the same? Did he still have the rash around his mouth? Was he thinking about the cinema, about the carnations? Was he thinking about Sugawara? Sugawara felt his cheeks colour in pleasure at the thought of Sawamura.

The kitchen was soon filled with the fragrances of lunchtime cooking. Sugawara had a pan sizzling away and rice boiling; he’d turned off the heating and found the chill invigorating. The sun blasted into the kitchen and the pot plants on the windowsill turned the faces of their leaves in its direction. The clouds and the sleet of the night before had cleared, thankfully, and the weather was beautiful. Sugawara didn’t dare even think the work happy, but he felt very close to it, for the first time in a long while.

I like him.

Over the sound of the food on the stove and the clink of cooking utensils, Sugawara heard somebody knocking at the door. His eyes flicked to the pink carnations and he smiled shyly to himself, turning the stove to low and covering the pans, heading out to the door while wiping his hands on a tea towl, throwing it over his shoulder before opening the door.

He squinted against the sun angling into his eyes, bringing a hand up to shield the glare. When his eyes adjusted to the light the smile dropped dead from his lips and every drop of blood in his body froze into ice.

“Koushi.” The word crashed through him like a rock through a pane of glass. “It’s nice to see you again.”

Chapter Text

XVIII: Sawamura Daichi

 

It felt like he’d been struck by lighting.

Sawamura couldn’t really remember the last time he’d felt this full of electricity. It ran through him in currents, up and down his spine and through his limbs and it raced through each blood vessel in his body. It made him shiver and unable to hold back a wide, aching grin the entire drive home.

Sugawara – oh, God, he was something else. He was beautiful and soft and fragrant and lovely in every possible way Sawamura could ever have imagined. He was even lovelier than the powdered actresses on his mother’s favourite dramas, even lovelier than the handsome princes in the kids’ storybooks. He was so lovely and yet so distinctly masculine that a thrill ran down Sawamura’s spine at the mere thought of the curve of Sugawara’s fingers. In the cinema when the darkness had blinded them both and the only vices they had was their hands; they had put their fingers against each other’s skin and felt the pass of tongues against teeth; their lips had moved together like the tug of the tide and Sawamura had never felt so encompassed before.

Being with Sugawara – kissing him like that – had been sort of the same as sitting on the bottom of the ocean. Where once there had been the pressing silence of water surrounding him there was, in the cinema, only Sugawara. Sugawara was the only thing that existed to him for that single hour where they sat in the darkness, just touching.

The streetlights flashed past as he drove, shattering the late-evening darkness. The streets were empty this time of night, with only a few pedestrians here and there. Looking out his window over the city he could see the patchwork lights from behind the drawn curtains of the apartments, puzzle pieces a fitting together. The light moved like clockwork in time to the beat of his heart; the muscle felt swollen to bursting between his ribs. It was strange, but pleasant. He didn’t mind it at all.

He arrived home twenty minutes later, pulling into the drive and turning off the engine. He sat in the driver’s seat, surrounded by half-darkness shattered only by the thin light of the porch lamp. His fingers tapped on the ridge of the steering wheel and as he remembered the press of Sugawara’s lips against his own he felt excitement rise in his throat. He could barely suppress another yelp of victory, but he did, and he slid out of his car and let himself into the house. He’d told his mother he was going out so she didn’t worry – Haruka he knew could take care of the kids well enough on her own. They listened to her.

When Sawamura had told his siblings he was going on a date, Amaya and Hayato had nearly exploded. The thought of their big brother going on a date seemed utterly unbelievable to them. Amaya had gone and taken a plastic flower from her dress-up box (part of ther princess costume) and had given it to him. “Please give this to her!” Sawamura had smiled and taken it, aware of Haruka’s eyes on him the entire time. When he had looked up at her, her expression had been utterly unreadable. She tapped her phone against her lips once, twice, and then she left without a word.

Sawamura tossed his keys into the bowl by the door. Something about Haruka’s countenance had always bothered him. Nothing big, just like the tickle of a feather at the back of his neck. She always looked like she knew something he didn’t, ever since she’d been too young to know anything. He wasn’t willing to admit that something about his sister bothered him like that, but it was true. She was strange in the storybook fashion, subtly, like a crooked tooth. Haruka wasn’t bad, no – she was just a fan of omission.

He took off his jacket on the way to his room, sighing as he stripped off and changed into his pyjamas, scrubbing his teeth quickly before falling facedown into bed. The cool surface of the pillow gave beneath the ridge of his nose and his eyelids pressed back; his heart continued to thump steadily in his chest. I made the right choice. This is the right thing to do.

But he still felt uneasy.

 


 

 

Sawamura had few living memories of his father.

The call had come out of the blue. Haruka’s expression had opened up like a flower and for a moment he could see into the depths of her soul. He saw fear in her eyes as she watched him. She watched his brow crease and he didn’t doubt she’d heard the words. She called for the children, and they went with her out into the living room. Sawamura could soon hear the low din of the television and Haruka’s gentle voice.

“My… father?”

“Yes. Daichi – this is your father.”

Sawamura’s breath lodged in his throat like a stone. My father? How? I thought –

“Can I help you? Mom’s not here right now, sorry, but I can take a message if you like.” He was surprised at how even and emotionless he sounded. There was no discernable sounds on the other end of the line; just the dusty, creased voice of a man who sounded entirely unremarkable.

“I don’t want to talk to your mother. I want to talk to you. I want to meet you, Daichi.”

He felt sick. After years and years of being told that Sawamura Kiyoshi was dead, Sawamura found himself standing in his kitchen with a phone to his ear being told that everything he had ever believed was a lie. A lie or a mistake. Perhaps that was what drew him into agreeing in the first place. To see his father reborn from the photograph as a person, as somebody who existed as more than just a memory or a few bitter words from his mother. Perhaps that was the reason he agreed to meet him on the boulevard the following morning. It was not a lunch date – his father (if that’s what he was) made that expressly clear. The man’s curtness was like the prick of a pin; Sawamura found it uncomfortable, robotic. Not something a father should say to his son.

When Sawamura put the phone down, he found himself stranded in absolute silence. The television had been switched off and there were no voices; there was only the drone of the outside world. Sawamura stood leaning against the counter until Haruka came back into the kitchen, this time without her siblings. She approached him, going to stand beside him silently, looking at the frosted pane of glass above the sink. He knew she had heard, and looking across at the pale height of her cheek, his suspicions were confirmed.

“Can I come with you?”

“No.”

He turned her around, kissed her forehead, and held her tight. She was unresponsive, placing her thin hands on his back and rubbing in controlled circles. Sawamura saw nothing but iron gates across her eyes, her face pleasantly relaxed. Like ice.

When their mother finished her shift and came home, the younger children ran to the door to greet her. Amaya offered to carry her lunchbox, and Hayato took her handbag to her bedroom. Haruka greeted her as she usually did, and so did Sawamura. As far as Umeko knew, nothing was amiss, and everything was as it should be. Her children were happy and fed, she was home and out of her shoes, and her husband was dead. As things should be.

Sawamura was gripped by a strange apprehension. His mind, instead of being consumed by familial duty or his impending date with Sugawara, was focussed only on tomorrow. Only on his ‘father’. The possibility of it being a ploy to harvest his organs sprang briefly to mind, but for some reason or another he didn’t believe that. There had bee a lilt to the voice down the phone line that he had recognised, though just barely. He smiled briefly to himself, mind flickering to Sugawara. My lovesick organs are of no use to anybody, now.

They ate together that evening, all sat around the dining table with the food Umeko and her son had prepared. Hayato and Amaya swung their legs, feet clad in socks, and Haruka’s face was half-obscured by shadow from the shade over the light. Sawamura noticed unimportant things that he never would have paid attention to before: the way his rice sat in his bowl, a drop of sauce that had strayed from Hayato’s plate. He was on edge, and he knew it. Haruka pressed her toes to his instep and he relaxed his shoulders instinctively, as though she’d hit a switch. He looked at her across the table, and he smiled.

Even sleep did not come easy. He lay awake in his bed until well past midnight. Thoughts crept in and settled like a frost, as the mind is wont to do in the early hours of the morning. He envisioned himself sliced open, his body an empty cavity and his organs contained in iceboxes, ready for transport. Would they encase his body in cement poured into a wheelie bin, like those prostitutes that had been on the news a little while ago? Or would they cut him up, toss him in the trash and leave him there to rot? He was strangely unaffected by it all. It’s your father.

 

When he did finally fall asleep, it was deep and dark and utterly impenetrable. He woke to a sliver of sun peeking beneath his blind, lying directly over his eyes. He woke just in time to see Hayato and Amaya off to their playgroup, heading out with their mother on the way to the hospital. He slipped them both a green tea sweet before they left. He knew Haruka was home, but she mustn’t have been awake yet. Peeking into her room on the way back to his, he saw her long arms hanging from her bed, dark hair a nest on the top of her head. Sound asleep.

Sawamura felt like he’d rusted over during the night. He was the car whose engine had frozen over, a hinge incapacitated with frost. The back of his neck ached terribly, and only after taking painkillers did the pressure ease. He dressed and groomed himself, splashing his face and folding back his cuffs. He was strangely nervous; he acted as though he was preparing for a miai, not to meet his long-lost father. In fact, the more he thought about it the more ridiculous it seemed. He tried not to think about it.

Haruka made her appearance when he was sat on the lip of the vestibule, putting on his shoes. She stood in the doorway barefoot, the hem of her pyjama pants torn from where they dragged against the ground. She didn’t ask where he was going. She stood watching him for only a moment before passing into the kitchen, and Sawamura heard her turn the tap on.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he called in her direction. “Take care.”

There was no reply.

He decided to walk to the boulevard instead of taking his car; there was enough time for him to take the distance in his stride, and he’d be able to catch a train if he did happen to be running a little late. It was nice walking, especially this time of year when everything was black and white, like something out of an old film. He kept his cold fingers jammed inside his pockets.

He got there ahead of schedule and went to wait by the small water feature that crowned the top of the boulevard. He didn’t usually wander this far up; the top stretch of the street was reserved for boutiques and bakeries that sold goods that were far too expensive for him and for anyone he knew. Even so, his eyes were drawn to the windows. He eased himself down onto the lip of the fountain and he let his head tip back, his sigh clouding in the brisk air.

“Daichi.”

Sawamura didn’t look up immediately. For half a moment he was frozen completely in time; the raw sound of the voice he’d heard down the line felt like the opening of a wound.

He looked up, squinting against the sun, and reiterated the name he had seen on the back of his mother’s photograph. He got to his feet, held out a broad hand. His father – because now, in the cold sunlight, Sawamura knew that this was undoubtedly his father – took it and shook it with the firm grip of a sailor.

They walked the length of the boulevard in slow, measured steps. Sawamura found it entirely too easy to slip into step with this man; they moved in the same way, heavy but controlled. It almost spooked him.

“Why me?” Sawamura asked eventually. “Why not mom?”

His father shook his head. “It had to be you.”

Sawamura was struck instantly by how… ordinary he looked. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – an apparition of some kind, perhaps, some kind of ghostly presence. But then he realised that the man he’d believed to be six feet in the ground wasn’t really dead at all, and that he was a human just like any other person in the street.

Sawamura’s father stood at a round six feet with broad shoulders and a developing gut. His cheeks were littered with the pockmarks of youth, scattered like craters on the face of the moon. He had crows’ feet that crinkled when he smiled, and his temperament was hardly as serious – as fatherly – as Sawamura had expected. If anything, it was entirely like his own: stoic yet humorous. Earthy. His father’s eyes were steely – the same colour as Haruka’s, and he had her angular features, not the broad features of the other children. His hair was black, though greying quickly and thinning at his crown. He didn’t look like the sailor Sawamura had thought he’d be. He didn’t look like a trepid explorer. Every single image Sawamura had ever formulated of his father came crashing down about his ears; but it was him, undoubtedly. When he spoke his face moved in a way that was overbearingly familiar, and each time his father looked at him Sawamura saw the photograph reflected in his face.

“I… I was always told you were – y’know – dead, and all.”

Kiyoshi let out a bark of laughter. It grated against years of cigarettes. “Dead? So that’s what she told you.”

Sawamura stopped beneath one of the almond trees strung with little silver stars that glinted in the sun. “So… ah. Sorry, but I’m a little confused. Why did you want to see me?”

His father turned to look at him. Sawamura suddenly found his pose far too casual – to the point of irritation. The old man looked at him pensively for a long moment. “I just wanted to see you. I thought that if you’re not old enough by now, then you never will be. Besides, Haru-chan has told me a lot about you.”

Sawamura froze. Haruka? As in his sister? She’d…? “Haruka? How… how long have you…?” Words wouldn’t come to him. He was choking on them.

Kiyoshi shrugged his shoulders, squinting up at the sky in thought. “Oh, since she was in elementary school. One of her close friends happened to be my son, you see – her half-brother, I suppose it is safe to say. It was inevitable that she’d realise eventually. She’s a smart girl.”

He almost felt the need to reach out and take hold of something just to keep his balance. Every time she’d heard Sawamura and Umeko have the same conversation – every time she’d heard her mother claim that her father was dead – she had lowered her eyes and said nothing. Every time she had seen him frustrated over things like this – when she’d seen the polaroid in his fingers – she’d said nothing. He almost felt angry with her. He was angry. This man wasn’t his father – he was a stranger, someone with a family of his own.

“Does mom know?” he asked, his voice little more than a cracked whisper. Kiyoshi laughed and shook his head again.

“No, dear God, no. The woman would skin me alive if she knew I was fraternising with her daughter. Even though she’s my daughter, too.”

“She knows you’re alive?”

“No, she has no idea about that either.” Sawamura flinched at the unapologetic tone in his father’s voice. He laughed gruffly, as though sharing some kind of inside joke. “I suppose I’m somewhat of a Schrödinger’s Cat to her – she doesn’t know if I’m dead or alive, despite my living in driving distance. You see, when we parted there was nothing of me left behind. Poof – like a puff of smoke, gone. You understand, Daichi, that I hardly look like I used to. City living does that to a man. If she passed me on the street –,” he gestured widely to the boulevard littered with pedestrians. “She wouldn’t look twice. It’s a thing people do, you see, Daichi. They only remember. If I saw your mother I doubt I’d recognise her, either. I don’t recognise you from when you were a child, though that’s hardly unexpected.” Grudgingly, Sawamura found himself agreeing. What his father was saying was true. A short silence passed between them before Sawamura mentioned the inevitable.

“You have a son. Do you have a family?”

A pause. Kiyoshi’s voice became a little quieter. “Yes. I have a wife and two boys.”

A wife and two boys. Sawamura’s eyes remained glued on the pavement, unbelieving, and he licked at his dry lips. “So you… you two got divorced, then. Did you just leave?”

“Yes. I told you that.”

Sawamura’s back leaned against the tree. This man was a stranger to him – even though he looked familiar, he was still a stranger. It was more like seeing a stranger in a dream: a person made up of many familiar features, and yet still not forming into someone Sawamura could say he knew. “Why? Was it because of me putting a stopper on your travels?”

For the first time since they had met, Kiyoshi looked guilty. He shook his head, and Sawamura realised that he was actually quite handsome. He was a dusty version of his old self. “No, it wasn’t you. If anything, it was me. But mostly it was your mother. She…” He sighed, shifting. “After Amaya was born your mother suffered from postnatal depression, as the doctor called it. It was… difficult. For both of us. I couldn’t handle it, in the end, so I left. There was nothing else for me to do – I thought I could help, but I couldn’t.” He laughed. “It was the best, in the end. People like that are decisively difficult, you see.”

“Didn’t you at least try?” Sawamura asked coldly over the ringing in his ears. A strange sickness welled in the back of his throat and something familiar was scraping against the back of his mind. “You can’t just give up because things seem a bit difficult.”

“Of course I tried. I was passionate about it at first – in the early days it didn’t seem so bad. I was full of energy – but these kinds of people drain you, y’know? They drain you fast. Everything was determination and passion at the beginning, but sometimes it’s best to leave while you can.”

Sawamura was speechless. They fixed each other with stony gazes – identical – and said nothing. He grit his teeth, jaw flexing as his bones were frozen brittle in anger.

“It’s harder than it looks, Daichi. Remember that.”

And then he realised.

Everything – it all matched up.

Suddenly Sawamura was riled, filled with a fiery rage that opened like a fissure at the back of his throat. “I’m not! I’m not going to give up, not ever.”

Kiyoshi blinked, surprised at the sudden snap of his son’s voice. “What are you talking about?”

Sawamura’s mouth was dry. “N… nothing. Nothing.”

Slowly, they resumed walking. “You have someone the same, don’t you, Daichi?”

Sawamura was silent.

“Get out early. That’s my advice to you.”

A wall had gone up between them, then. Sawamura had deflected the topic and dissolved the conversation back into small talk. Nothing made sense to him – he was astounded.

When they reached the other end of the boulevard they parted. Seeing his father standing in the sun with his aged face and greying hair made Sawamura question a thousand things he didn’t know the answers to. He wanted to ask so many things, and yet he wanted to say nothing. Get out early.

Kiyoshi offered his son his hand.

Sawamura did not take it.

 

He arrived home a little past noon. The sky had clouded over in a bruised maelstrom of heavy clouds and he got home just as the first flakes began to fall. His mind felt strangely empty – he could barely think, and yet at the same time his head was crammed to bursting. His father, his mother, Haruka… it almost overwhelmed him completely. When he got home he saw Haruka’s bike on the rack, so she had to be home; his mother and the kids were still out.

He let himself into an empty house. Haruka was nowhere and did not appear when he called her. But she was home; he knew she was.

One of the things Sawamura first discovered about his sister was that she needed time. She did things on her own terms, in her own way. And she did, eventually.

Sawamura had taken off his coat and his scarf and his gloves and had already consumed one cup of coffee when Haruka turned up in the doorway of his room. She knew – it was obvious she was awaiting some kind of berating. Sawamura looked at her, at her hair and her limbs and her feet and her face, and something inside him chipped and softened. There was a particular openness to her that he had never seen before.

He had stood up and gone to her, and just like that morning he had kissed her forehead and taken her into her arms. This time, however, she had abandoned her petting and wrapped her arms tightly around Sawamura’s neck; he felt a dry sob tear up her spine. He murmured her name to her, over and over, smoothing her hair. He could feel the weight of the secret she had been keeping for years, balancing it precariously on her sensitive shoulders. He had never heard her apologise so many times in her life, and yet he held her still, and with each tear of hers that smeared over his cheek, the less angry he became.

“You understand why I couldn’t,” she said to him, voice quaking, her hands against his cheeks. “You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Sawamura replied, his own hands upon her face swiping at her warm, damp cheeks. It was all he needed to say. Haruka, as a child, had been pressed to silence. Now, as an autonomous teenager, she was inclined to bear the brunt of her father’s existence on her own. When he looked down into her eyes – the same colour as Kiyoshi’s – he saw no trace of the iron gates that had been there before, and for the first time in a very long time, he was finally able to see her.

 


 

 

Get out early.

For the first time, Sawamura had seriously reconsidered his relationship with Sugawara. Something about what his father had said had rubbed him the wrong way – he felt distinct defense rise for his mother, and he felt bitter at his father’s inability to be apologetic for it. But aside from that – from what he’d obviously intended to say – Sawamura felt as though there was something else there. Some kind of personal slight, as though his father was slandering his own choices. His choice to be with Sugawara.

As far as Sawamura could tell, there had been no definite purpose for the reunion between him and his father. In fact, it all felt rather like a dream. It made no sense to him. It was something fragmented, like it had been cut and paste from another period of his life, or from some kind of alternate universe. He found himself looking at the sky and wondering if it had been a guardian angel. Or if it was some kind of sign, or a signal. Considering the message he’d derived from their meeting, he really hoped it wasn’t.

For the first time, Sawamura realised that this was unchartered territory. It was something he had never had to deal with before – something delicate and unpredictable. Maybe… maybe he’d turn out like his father and leave Sugawara in the end. The very thought made him sick. And Haruka – as a child, being pressed into secrecy by her father. Sawamura never even found out where his father lived now… he didn’t want to know. He didn’t ever care to see him again. Every scrap of admiration he’d had for the man in his mother’s photograph was gone. Sawamura had no time for people like that, blood ties or not.

“There are two kinds of people in this world, Daichi,” his grandmother used to say as she sat knitting on her porch. “There are hard people, and there are easy people. Now, that good-for-nothing son-in-law of mine – he’s an easy person. Can’t stand a single flake of difficulty.” She’d clicked her tongue, then looked to him. The clicking of her needles stopped for a moment. “But you – you’re not like him. You’re like your mother. You’re a hard person.”

At that recollection, Sawamura closed his eyes. You’re a hard person, Daichi. He’d had second thoughts, but if anything, what his father had said had only made his resolve stronger. He was going to be there for Sugawara no matter what – through thick and thin, through whatever happened. Whatever Sugawara had to throw at him, Sawamura was ready for it.

And he’d be there for his mother, too. Her soft, worn face, her rough hands, her thinning hair and her tired, swollen knees. He felt he understood her a little better, now. Every flake of bitterness he’d had for her before was gone.

I’m going to do the best I can.

 

There had always been something comforting in revelations. For Sawamura, anyway – it was similar to reaching any kind of comfortable decision. This time his mind was set like concrete, and nothing would change it. As unsettling as his meeting with his father had been and as much as it had made him doubt himself, it had cemented things. He felt more open and he could see things about himself that he hadn’t been able to see before; the faceless boy that stood in his dreams became thinner and less absorbed with static. Of course he was plagued with those dreams – the ones of the faceless boy standing naked in the middle of a busy road – this time he was standing hand-in-hand with Kiyoshi, the child’s head dipped strangely to one side. A car collision, and they evaporated like mist. Then he woke up.

After that day Sawamura took up the habit of standing in the driveway beside his car despite the freezing temperature, his hands shoved into his pockets. The cold invigorated him, hardened him. You’re a hard person, Daichi.

He wasn’t going to be like his father. That, he was very sure of. He was so sure of that fact that he wanted to stand before his mother and announce it, but he didn’t, of course he didn’t. He’d turned around one morning and saw Haruka at the window, peering out at him with her chin in her hand and a smile on her face. Her hair was drawn back and he could see the slant of her eyes, and instead of flickering back behind the curtain like a ghost she waved at him from behind the glass. He smiled at her.

Haruka’s change was almost immediate, too – like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis he watched as she unfurled gradually into something really quite lovely in countenance; she was still shy, and indeed there was very little change in her attitude. Sawamura couldn’t quite explain it. Now that she had someone to share her secret with, the bend of her neck had straightened out with relief.

He was scared, of course he was. There was always doubt in the back of his mind that he’d stray down the wrong path, but that was something he had decided to take in his stride. There was always going to be doubt and there was always going to be failure, but he would bear it, even if he had to become an Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. He would do it for Sugawara.

Thinking of Sugawara, Sawamura came to the conclusion that he was very much in love. Not that this was surprising, by any stretch, but the thought of being ‘in love’ was something strange in itself. He felt like something out of a drama – ridiculous, almost, but it was nice. Really nice. And while he’d been attracted to Sugawara’s profile picture on the dating website, at this point he suspected that Sugawara could be limbless and mutilated beyond recognition and he would still love him till the end. Sugawara confused him – the beauty, the pain, everything – but Sugawara was an unchartered plane that Sawamura wanted to map out, even if it took the entirety of his lifetime. He was ready for it.

He found comfort in that revelation. In the decision.

 

The morning was clear and crisp and absolutely freezing. Sawamura had gone to scrape the ice off his windshield, peeling off his beanie to wipe the damp sweat on his forehead. The frost had settled in, flash-freezing the thawing sleet on his car, so it took a significant amount of effort to remove it. Eventually he managed, of course, just as the sun was glancing over the eaves from the east. The sky was ringed with cloud, the crown icy and blue. Perfect weather, Sawamura thought absently as he shielded his eyes from the sun. He checked his watch and decided to go and pick up the rice and hamster feed that the supermarket had run out of when his mother had gone on the grocery run – it wasn’t worth the drive, not really, and besides – Sawamura supposed he could use the exercise. With winter settled in it was very hard to get any proper exercise done.

The stroll was lovely. The river had lowered and was moving more slowly, a placid current instead of the rapids that had hailed the coming of winter. A few ducks stood huddled on the bank, preening their feathers. With the sun against his back and a slight, crisp breeze licking against his neck, Sawamura felt warm and almost sleepy. His feet carried him on instinct alone, and he bowed to the old ladies wrapped in their marshmallow coats and Hello Kitty earmuffs, accepting a box of biscuits from one of the war widows whom his mother had taken care of at the hospital a week before.

The walk to the boulevard wasn’t long, but with Sawamura’s leisurely pace and sudden appreciation for the scenery, he arrived forty-five minutes later. He ducked into the supermarket, making the purchases he needed and slinging the plastic bag over his wrist and winding in and out of the almond trees.

He glanced across the road, a bright array of seasonal flowers having caught his eye. Yachi worked there, didn’t she? He ducked across the boulevard, approaching the florist’s shop. He smelled the flowers immediately, a gentle intoxication of lovely fragrances that somehow mixed together in the most perfect of ways. Sunflowers, forget-me-nots, calla lilies… his fingers brushed over the dusty pink petals of a carnation arrangement; the petals were laced with white ripples, wreathes of baby’s breath interwoven between them. It was more spring than winter, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Suga would like these. Didn’t he say pink carnations were his favourite? Sawamura smiled to himself, lifting the bouquet out of the tub.

He took it inside the shop and his face immediately fell into a half-frown. The attendant, leaning on his elbows on the counter wrapping purple ribbon around his fingers, looked up and grinned.

“You look so pleased to see me, Sawamura-kun,” Oikawa said teasingly, letting the ribbon unravel from around his fingers and slither down over his long hand. Somehow he looked perfectly fitted to work in a flower shop. Oikawa, as a whole, reminded Sawamura of a flower: the tall, slender ones with ornate yet delicate blooms. The pretty, poisonous ones. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.

He placed the bouquet down on the counter, wiping the water from his hands onto his jeans. Oikawa arched his eyebrows.

“I never pegged you as the flower type,” Oikawa continued fluidly, changing out the clear cellophane for white tissue paper. “Do you want them gift-wrapped?” The words were sighed out, drearily rehearsed for the sake of customer service.

“Just… do the normal thing. Whatever that is.”

Oikawa burst out laughing. “Oh, Sawamura-kun really isn’t the flower type, is he?”

Sawamura frowned at him and Oikawa returned a neutral smile.

“I’m about as much of a flower person as you are an alcohol person,” Sawamura replied archly, and Oikawa chuckled.

“Mean,” he said as he wrapped a red ribbon around the tissue paper, securing it with a bow. “These are for Mr Refreshing, right?”

Sawamura’s head jerked up. “What?”

“Oh, I know all about him. Who doesn’t know about him? From what I’ve heard he’s absolutely ravishing.” The thin smile was teasing, but Sawamura’s face heated up anyway, and he took the bouquet from Oikawa, handing over the cash in exchange.

“When are you going back to Tokyo again?”

Oikawa frowned mockingly at him. “Since when did you get so cruel? Go on, Prince Charming.”

Rolling his eyes, Sawamura made to leave, but Oikawa reached over the counter and caught the back of his jacket. When he turned he saw that Oikawa’s joking façade had vanished, and instead he was met with earnest, sparkling eyes. Oikawa’s voice is a whisper, but strained. “Make sure you pick the right person, Sawamura-kun.”

“Y-yeah…”

Sawamura left the store in silence. What was with all these people trying to advise him on relationships? He was a grown adult man, he could decide these things for himself. Though, considering the outcome of the majority of his previous relationships… advice probably wouldn’t go astray.

Still, he couldn’t shake the pained look Oikawa had given him. Make sure you pick the right person. He paused outside a bakery, staring down at his shoes. The right person… Suga is the right person. Nothing was going to change his mind on that.

Making a detour to Sugawara’s apartment was easy enough; he lived close and the streets were open and bright. Humming under his breath, Sawamura shouldered open the door of the fire stairs and ascended, walking along the breezeway of Sugawara’s floor.

He stopped dead in his tracks, then.

The door of Sugawara’s apartment stood open, and his attention was immediately piqued by a yell and a metallic crash from inside. For a moment Sawamura was numb. His mind worked into overdrive, spinning with possibilities, before all went silent and his feeling returned to him like a punch to the gut. The flowers dropped from his hand along with the shopping bag and the concrete scraped along the soles of his shoes as he sprinted to the door. It hadn’t been forced – the door had been opened voluntarily.

“Suga!” His voice came out as a shout cracked with the cold air, and he turned inside the apartment to see Sugawara’s pale, bare feet sliding over the tiled floor of the kitchen. On top of him, seated between his legs, was somebody Sawamura did not recognise, and yet his presence was undeniably familiar. Once inside the apartment his ears were filled with hoarse, wavering sobs and furious yelling. His ears worked before his eyes did and only when standing in the doorway of the kitchen could he see the bend of Sugawara’s body as it arched off the floor in search of oxygen, a pair of hands closed tight around his pale throat. Pans had been knocked from the cooktop and had spilled their contents over the floor and one of Sugawara’s arms was bent painfully behind his back, caught between his spine and the floor, the skin red and blistered. But what frightened Sawamura the most was the cold, stark terror in Sugawara’s face.

There was no time.

There was no time for Sawamura to grow angry. His fury hit him upside the head like a brick, crackling up his spine, down each vein and each nerve until his body was as electric as an open socket. There was no time for the man seated over Sugawara to react before Sawamura had locked an arm around his neck, sending them both crashing into the kitchen cabinets, rolling him off Sugawara’s body and making his hands release Sugawara’s throat in that crucial moment of shock. He heard Sugawara choke and sob and scream, saw the white, chapped, spidery fingers that he loved, oh, he loved them – he could see the frightened tears in Sugawara’s eyes and the unforgivable marks he wore around his throat like a necklace, raw and red now. He didn’t think about the bruises that would appear later. Saliva dripped from between Sugawara’s teeth as he struggled for breath, clutching one arm to his chest.

Sugawara shrieked, panicked, as the kitchen shook with the force of Sawamura’s weight hitting the cabinets, sending crockery falling from overhead. Sawamura slammed the man’s head against the cabinet door once, twice, then landed a punch upside his jaw. There was blood in his eyes from where a broken plate had sliced him and he could see those eyes glaring up at him, bright and furious. They were almost dismembered, hovering and taunting before him. He’d never seen this man before and yet he felt like he knew him inside out; this was the man who had torn Sugawara to pieces, the man he’d been longing to get his hands on, to tear out his entrails for what he’d done to Sugawara, to someone that Sawamura loved, to someone he loved with each fibre of his heart – he barely felt the fingernails clawing at his face or the jab of an elbow to his gut that sent the air from his lungs.

“I’ll kill you!” the man snarled, his voice rising to a shriek that was shrill and almost insane with anger. “I’ll fucking kill you!” With a sudden surge of adrenaline he had Sawamura on his back, hands fisted in his jacket. Sawamura balked at the collision of his assailant’s knuckles with his teeth, splitting his lip open and letting blood flow over his tongue. He could smell stagnant breath as a trembling whisper was pressed against his lips. “Koushi is mine. He’ll always be mine. Nobody will take him from me. I’ll kill him if I have to.”

And that had been enough.

It had been enough for Sawamura to become gripped by a rage so great that he had thrown the man off him, tackling him to the ground and beating his face to a bloody pulp with his fist. Once, twice, three times his knuckles slammed upside the man’s nose and his teeth or the curve of his cheek; Sawamura didn’t care where he hit, as long as he broke the skin and inflicted the pain the piece of scum deserved. He put his entire weight – each ounce of strength – behind the swing of his fist. Sugawara was in his peripheral vision, caught between the precipices of pain and hysteria; Sawamura’s vision was blurred with tears and blood as he abandoned each rational thought.

“He is nobody’s!” Sawamura roared, rattling the man’s twitching body until his teeth – what was left of them, at least – shook.

Sawamura’s anger threatened to liquidise his brain. He was so inconceivably furious that he was shaking, his fingers numb, his tongue swollen. All he could taste was blood and venom and the only thing that stopped him from beating Sugawara’s attacker to death was the weak, grappling hands that gripped the back of his jacket, around his neck, pulling him back.

Suddenly there were more people in the apartment; the police, in their crisp uniforms and with their crackling walkie-talkies, badges shiny.

“Daichi, Daichi,” a tremulous whisper repeated in his ear, over and over again, until his heart raced in his chest and until he could feel again. “Daichi, this is all my fault, you got hurt because of me – this is what I was trying to avoid, I’m so – I’m so sorry –,” He sat back between Sugawara’s legs, staring unseeing for a few moments as the police infiltrated the flat.

His conscience came back to him slowly. The deathly silence – previously broken only by the thud of blood in his ears – phased back into noise and pain bloomed all over his body as his adrenaline levels began to drop. Gingerly, he turned around to face Sugawara, taking his deathly pale face into his hands. Touching him like this, amongst the sudden daze of yelling and commotion, grounded Sawamura. A bruise bloomed over the ridge of Sugawara’s cheekbone, the skin broken and oozing, and Sugawara’s lip was also split. He was cradling his arm to his chest again, and Sawamura peeled it away from his body to find that it had been badly burned up the length of his forearm.

Sugawara was heaving with dry sobs, clutching at Sawamura and holding him close, fingers in his hair and on his jacket and his face. Sawamura held him tightly, murmuring assurances in his ear and rocking him to and fro until his breathing began to slow. They couldn’t unlock themselves even if they tried – right then, they were what each other needed. It was all they needed. Sugawara buried his face in Sawamura’s neck, breaths heaving. Only when the paramedics came to assess their injuries did they separate.

Sawamura could only watch as Sugawara sat trembling as his wounds were dressed. Sawamura was still seething, his fists clenching and unclenching with anger. One of the police officers approached him with the battered carnations in her hands, and she gave them to him. “Are these yours?”

Sawamura shook his head and nodded over at where Sugawara was sitting. “They’re for him.”

With a half-smile, she went and gave the carnations to Sugawara. He stared down, shocked, at the flowers before looking over at Sawamura. He let out a startled laugh, and then he smiled. Despite everything, Sugawara was smiling and laughing as though he couldn’t believe it.

“Suga!” A woman ran breathless into the flat, her dark hair windswept. She looked at Sugawara, then at Sawamura, then at the bloodstains on the floor. She pressed a hand to her mouth, eyes widening and pupils constricting.

“Kiyoko,” Sugawara managed when he saw her, pressing a hand over his smile. She crouched down before where he sat, taking his hands in her own. “Kiyoko, he came for me, but… I’m okay now. I’m okay.”

The woman smoothed his hair back from his face and said nothing, her beautiful eyes wide and stunned. She was shocked at how calm Sugawara was; she glanced down at the carnations in his lap and licked her lips. Sugawara looked past her to Sawamura, who lowered his eyes in silence. Shimizu looked over her shoulder at him, straightening up and approaching him.

“Sawamura-kun,” she said softly. “…Thank you.”

He shook his head, the cut above his eyebrow stinging as he frowned. “I don’t…” he swallowed harshly. “I didn’t think.”

Shimizu smiled at him – it was a strange, crooked, humorous smile. “I’m glad you didn’t think.”

 

Sawamura never got a name. Sugawara’s piece-of-shit ex never gained an identity, at least not to Sawamura – he remained an antagonist, and the only clear memory Sawamura had of him was a face warped in rage and possessiveness. He’d been taken from the flat in handcuffs after the police had identified him. Shimizu took hold of his arm, leaning down to his ear. “Take Suga away. Get him out of the environment.”

“I can take him to my house,” Sawamura mumbled in response. Shimizu smiled at him.

“Thank you.”

 

Sugawara was quiet in the car. He held the battered bouquet of flowers in his arms and didn’t say a word. His arm was bandaged and his lip cleaned up, a patch over his cheek to stem the bleeding. Then, suddenly, he laughed.

“These have been through a lot,” he chuckled, turning over the crumpled blooms.

“Sorry…” Sawamura replied, his neck flushing with embarrassment. “It was a stupid idea.” He chewed on his tongue for a few moments.

“No,” Sugawara exclaimed immediately, then bit his tongue, blushing as well. “No…” His voice was softer, then, almost affectionate. “Thank you.”

Sugawara chewed nervously on his tongue, looking across at Sawamura, tracking his eyes along the line of his jaw. “I got a restraining order against him a year ago,” Sugawara continued quietly, his fingers prodding at a few of the crushed petals. “From what I heard this isn’t the first time he’s been in a predicament like this.” Sugawara laughed nervously, tucking his hair back behind his ear. “But that doesn’t matter.”

Sawamura drove in silence for a few moments, his heart hammering in his ears. His fingers pulsed against the steering wheel and he felt himself grow heated with anger again. “Of course it matters,” he forced through grit teeth. “Of course it does.”

Hesitantly, Sugawara gathered the flowers into one arm and reached across with the other, his fingers brushing against Sawamura’s thigh. He stiffened instinctively; it was a struggle to keep his eyes at the road, and he glanced down only for a second just to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. But no – those were Sugawara’s fingers, undoubtedly. He let one hand fall from the wheel, gathering the other man’s fingers into his own and holding them there warm and safe in his palm.

They stayed like that for the remainder of the drive, in silence that had slowly eased from tense to comfortable. Sugawara had closed his eyes and out of the corner of his eye Sawamura could see him relax, little by little. He smiled to himself.

He pulled into the drive, turning off the engine. The two of them sat still for a few moments, both reluctant to move from their seats, to move from each other’s company, to part hands, to stop touching. Sugawara was the first to move, pulling his fingers from Sawamura’s and letting himself out of the car. He stood shuffling his feet like a child until Sawamura came around to his side of the car and placed a firm, encouraging hand on the small of his back.

Sawamura had never thought he’d bring a man home to his family, especially not in a circumstance like this; Sugawara’s face was still bruised and Sawamura himself was quite obviously injured. But he didn’t really care about any of that. The worst thing that could happen would be if Sawamura and his mother got into a fight about Sugawara, but somehow he didn’t really count on that happening.

“I’m home,” he called as he let himself and Sugawara into the house, hearing Sugawara murmur a timid ‘sorry for the intrusion’ behind him. Sugawara, he realised, wasn’t scared – he was nervous.

He expected Amaya or Hayato to come running first, much like they always did, and a few moments later he heard a shriek and the sound of bare feet skittering over the floor. “Brother!” Hayato called, closely followed by his sister. The two of them launched themselves at Sawamura’s legs, hugging him. “You were gone for ages!”

Amaya, with her arms wrapped around her brother’s leg, was staring in wonder up at Sugawara.

“Hey,” she said softly, and Sugawra looked down in response. “You’re beautiful.”

Before either Sawamura or Sugawara had time to react, Sawamura’s mother appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Her lips were parted in a greeting and yet she was silent, her eyes switching back and forth between her son and his guest. “Daichi, welcome home,” she said eventually. “Who is this?”

Sugawara bowed politely to her, trying to ignore the children staring at him. “Sugawara Koushi,” he introduced himself. “I’m –,”

“Sugawara Koushi. My boyfriend.”

Sugawara’s eyes – bright and wide as the moon – swivelled slowly to fix on Sawamura. The set of the man’s jaw and the thundering confidence he exuded sent a thrill up Sugawara’s spine, tingling all the way over his scalp. Boyfriend, huh? A nervous giggle rose in his throat. He swallowed it down, turning to look back at the woman in the doorway again. She looked shocked; of course she would.

Sawamura’s skin was burning. He hadn’t told his mother – she hadn’t even suspected that he’d be in this kind of relationship. That word – that treacherous, delicious word – had slipped off his tongue like a victory cry, and Sawamura had felt nothing but grim satisfaction with himself after he said it. But there was something else; he could suddenly feel Sugawara’s presence beside him very acutely. Boyfriend. He wanted to take a few calming breaths, but he couldn’t.

“Boyfriend?” Umeko repeated, her voice stunned into quietude. “So you’re…?”

He was seized by a sudden annoyance. “Am I gay?” His tone turned softer, then, apologetic. “Ah… sorry. No, I’m not.”

It was only then his mother seemed to notice their wounds; her face paled and she approached them, her slippered feet shuffling over the floor. She touched her hands to her youngest children’s heads, quietly telling them to go and watch some television. They scuttled away silently, and soon the tinny sound of the television could be heard from the living room.

“Daichi, Sugawara-kun,” she mumbled, standing on her toes to inspect their faces. “What happened to you?”

Sawamura caught Sugawara’s eye, and a sigh passed between them both. Sawamura touched his mother’s elbow gently. “I’ll talk to you in a bit, okay, mom? I… have some things I need to tell you.”

She nodded at him, standing by the door as Sawamura directed Sugawara up the stairs and towards his bedroom.

“Are you sure it’s all right for me to stay here?” Sugawara asked quietly as they stood outside Sawamura’s door. Sawamura took his face into his hands, running the pads of his thumbs over Sugawara’s cheek, avoiding the patch over his wound.

“I’m positive.”

He let Sugawara into his room, closing the door gently. When he turned he saw Sugawara looking around in wonder, his beautiful eyes wide and intrigued.

“Ah,” Sugawara started when he realised Sawamura was watching him. A pretty blush coloured his cheeks and he hesitantly set down the flowers on Sawamura’s desk. “Sorry. I just… it’s weird, being here. In your room, I mean. It’s like I’m seeing a little part of you I’ve never seen before.” He let out a laugh. “That sounded really dumb.”

“Not at all,” Sawamura replied, a little too loudly, a little too fast. Sugawara looked at him, expression endeared, the flowers still cradled in his arms. Sawamura returned his gaze for a few moments before he looked away (reluctantly). “Ah… water.” He took the flowers from Sugawara, grabbing the empty vase from his window sill (his mother had pitched half a fit when she found a five-month-old bouquet of shrivelled flowers that Sawamura had never gotten around to throwing away) and ducking out of his room to quickly fill it with water. Sugawara hastily unwrapped the flowers from their tissue paper, folding the wrappings and placing them down on Sawamura’s desk alongside the vase. Gently, he lowered the blooms into the water, noticing Sawamura’s broad hands hovering beside his as the stems fell into place.

Sugawara glanced up, looking at the gentle curve of Sawamura’s eyelids, the dark flutter of his eyelashes. A second later Sawamura glanced up to meet his gaze and they held for a few moments before straightening up. Sugawara let out a small laugh, touching his finger to a bruised carnation. “They’re beautiful.”

Sawamura shrugged. “They’re pretty banged up.”

“So am I,” Sugawara commented dryly, arching an eyebrow. Sawamura blinked.

“Touché. They’re beautiful.” He smiled in response, then watched as Sugawara fought to stifle an enormous yawn.

Sawamura sat down on his bed with a sigh, flopping down against the pillows and groaning appreciatively. He patted the bed beside him, but Sugawara stood stock-still.

“Are you sure it’s okay?”

“You’re my boyfriend, remember?”

Sugawara smiled that coy smile again and sat down, swinging his legs up onto the bed and letting out a sound much like the one Sawamura had made. It felt strange, being so close to Sawamura – it was more intimate, somewhat, than they’d ever been. Even when they’d been in the cinema practically sucking face, it had been different. This – this was true, tender intimacy, and it frightened them a little bit.

But even so, Sugawara – who was so used to feeling jittery about intimacy – found himself unable to feel afraid. Sawamura did not frighten him, not in the slightest. After the events that had just transpired, especially, the only thing Sugawara was feeling was secure and safe. Protected. Sawamura wasn’t there to hurt him. He was there to love him. And Sugawara knew that. He knew it with each fibre of his heart, each drop of blood in his veins.

Sawamura shifted as he felt Sugawara turn himself into his arms, jostling a little against his side. The room was filled with a sleepy silence, Sugawara’s good cheek resting against Sawamura’s chest, listening to the steady beating of the heart within. Sawamura’s arm curled around him, smoothing reassuring paths up and down Sugawara’s spine.

“Hey, Daichi?”

“Hm?”

“Put your other arm around me too.”

Sawamura complied, turning onto his side to gather Sugawara fully into his arms. The man felt so surprisingly solid – contrary to his frail appearance, Sawamura kept forgetting how solid Sugawara actually was. It was nice, though. Sugawara snuggling into his arms and pressing his face into the crook of his neck was nice. The knowledge that after everything that they’d been through, Sugawara trusted him like this – it was nice. It made Sawamura’s breath catch in his throat and his heart beat a little faster.

“Daichi?”

Sawamura tilted his face down so he could look at Sugawara properly, and Sugawara shifted so he could stroke his fingers over the line of Sawamura’s jaw.

“Thank you for today.”

“Don’t thank me,” Sawamura mumbled as he rubbed Sugawara’s back. “I’d gladly to it again.”

“Do you… do you think we could just stay like this? Just… for a little while.” Sugawawa’s voice wavered sleepily, his eyelids heavy.

“Yeah. Of course. For as long as you like.”

Sugawara smiled at him, drowsy as it was, and kissed the curve of his chin.

So Sawamura held him. He cradled Sugawara in his arms, stroking his back and the nape of his neck and his hair, mapping out each muscle and each spool of Sugawara’s spine; he held Sugawara until he fell asleep in Sawamura’s arms, and long after that. He held him as his breathing evened out and he curled closer into the warm, firm line of Sawamura’s body. He held him even after they’d both fallen asleep, and instead of drawing apart from each other in slumber, the two of them only drew closer.

If I can give him this comfort, Sawamura thought sleepily just as he began to drift, then I can give him anything.

 


 

 

Sawamura had only one dream.

He felt more solid – more complete – than in any other dream he remembered having. So much so, in fact, that he had initially questioned whether or not he was dreaming at all. But since he didn’t quite remember how he came to be standing in a prairie in the middle of summer, he concluded that he must have been.

As he shielded his eyes from the sun, he noticed an old gnarled tree that stood in front of him. The sun – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a dream that took place in the day. Previously they’d contained only the night sky and stars and traffic. Noise. But now the only sound was the distant rush of grass and the rustling of leaves.

In the tree sat a boy. Not the boy – or, indeed, perhaps it was – but a boy all the same, with scraped knees and elbows and a hole torn in his shirt. The soles of his feet were devoid of shoes and coal-black; dirt and hardened callouses, the kiss of the summertime. Black hair, dark eyes, broad features. Dark skin. Dirk smeared over the nose, stick in hand, eyes squinted against the sun. It’s me.

The boy hopped down from the tree, nimble as a spider monkey, his sinew and muscle not quite developed and yet still startlingly defined. The grass crackled like tissue paper beneath his feet as he approached Sawamura, the high arches of his cheeks glistening in the sun. Perhaps, had this been another dream set on a busy road with the boy whose face was made of static, Sawamura would have wanted to back away, to run in the other direction, to escape. But not now. He found that he was able to look at this child without the desire to avert his gaze. When the boy reached him he rocked onto the balls of his feet, lips splitting into a wide grin of even, white teeth that were too big for his mouth.

The child held up a hand, palm facing out, in that same curious way children do when they want a high-five.

Sawamura, chest swelling and eyes stinging with a sudden feeling of utter completion, complied.

Chapter Text

 

XIX: Sugawara Koushi

 

Sugawara slept deeply and immovably. He hadn’t slept like that for what felt like years; sleeping like this, wrapped up in one with Sawamura Daichi, he felt the constant edge of fear that hung at the back of his mind begin to disappear. It was a strange thing to wake up without aching bones or muscles for once, and even though his head was resting at a crooked angle, it wasn’t hurting him.

There was a rush of hot breath at the back of his neck, steady and even and slow like the push and pull of the waves. Against his back fell the broad surface of Sawamura’s torso. It was an uncomfortable position; Sawamura’s arms were heavy and bulky and cut into Sugawara’s side where he lay on one of them, and Sugawara’s head was tilted strangely to the side, but he wouldn’t have moved for the world. Slowly, Sawamura shifted the arm that lay beneath Sugawara from his waist to his neck, setting right the angle of his body and letting their forms slot into place like two pieces of a puzzle.

Sugawara hadn’t lain with anyone like this in a very long time. He lay there with his eyes closed, his body still very much asleep. It seemed to be only his mind that was awake. He felt comfortable like that.

Slowly, however, his eyes opened and he stirred fully from sleep, his fingers running over Sawamura’s. Their bodies lay on the bed uncovered, but what with the combination of the indoor heating and Sawamura’s own body heat, Sugawara found that he really didn’t need a blanket. After feeling about for a little bit he rolled over, first onto his back and then onto his other side, feeling the pressure from his lungs release. Sawamura’s face lay squashed against the pillow, cheek flattened and lips slightly distorted. His hair was sticking up on one side, and it all made Sugawara giggle through his nose; somehow, though, Sawamura still looked undeniably handsome, in an obscure, fortified kind of way.

Hesitantly, Sugawara raised his finger and traced it lightly over the contour of Sawamura’s face. It followed the path of his cheekbone, over the ridge of his nose, his lips. Sawamura didn’t so much as stir beneath the touch, light as it was, even when Sugawara set about stroking his hair. Just lying like this – it was nice. Sawamura’s heavy arm was still thrown over him.

When Sawamura felt Sugawara move against him his palm flattened against Sugawara’s back, pulling him in a little more. Sugawara shuddered as he felt their legs inevitably slide together, lost in a tangle. Not that he minded, of course.

He smells nice, Sugawara thought pleasantly before biting his tongue, stopping himself from sniffing him. Sawamura smelled clean, he noticed, in the same way mothers often do. Even just lying here wrapped in Sawamura’s arms made him feel like a child. Sugawara didn’t mind that, either.

Daichi. He rolled the name around on his tongue without saying it, still watching Sawamura’s relaxed, sleeping face. It was strange to think that this was the same face that had been so distorted with rage and panic the day before – Sugawara didn’t remember much of what had happened in the kitchen, but he remembered that. Sugawara, the mediator – that’s what he’d always been, what his teachers and other adults had always told him. A mediator. He avoided confrontation and yet had no trouble settling it, but anything that escalated to intense physical violence always somewhat disconcerted him. Lately it had thrown him into a complete panic.

And yet – seeing Sawamura in the throes of anger and of violence didn’t make him nervous at all. If anything, it set a solid weight in the pit of Sugawara’s stomach, anchoring him in a way he hadn’t really experienced before. It made him feel safe.

The tip of his finger came to rest on the end of Sawamura’s nose, and after a moment of consideration Sugawara cupped his cheek, leaning in to press a feathery, barely-there kiss to Sawamura’s lips.

Over the broad line of Sawamura’s shoulder Sugawara caught sight of the vase of (still slightly battered) flowers. The vase, he realised, was really more of a tall glass, and the stems had already sucked up what water had been in there, leaving a murky ring around the bottom. Sugawara, bracing himself, lifted his body up into a sitting position. Sawamura’s arm fell across his lap and he moved it, kissing the back of it impulsively and then feeling himself flush in embarrassment in response. Thank God he’s still sleeping. He wriggled his way off the bed, standing still for a few moments to settle the rush of blood down from his skull.

He took the vase (glass, he thought solemnly, shaking his head. How like Daichi…), making sure none of the stems snapped before leaving Sawamura’s room. He wasn’t familiar with this house, but it was still rather dark outside, which meant it must have still been early. He stood in the doorway, listening for a few moments; when he heard no sound he eased the door shut, retracing his steps down to the first floor. He found himself between the living room and the dining room, immediately spotting the open archway leading into the kitchen.

He passed into the kitchen without so much as a scuffle of feet, having long ago mastered the art of silent walking. He lay the flowers out beside the sink, taking a pair of scissors from by the telephone cradle and assorted planners and bits of paper, snipping off the soggy ends. He removed some of the flowers that had already shrivelled, quickly locating the garbage and clearing all the mess into it. Then, placing the vase (glass!) into the sink, he rinsed it out and filled it with water, concluding that it would be the best he could do until he could find something bigger (and he wasn’t going to go rifling through anyone’s drawers).

“You ought to cut them diagonally, you know.”

Sugawara almost jumped out of his skin.

Turning to glance over his shoulder, he saw Sawamura’s mother – he recognised her from last night – standing just inside the kitchen with a white ceramic mug in her hand and an old, flannel dressing gown thrown over her pyjamas. She was looking at him with cool, trained eyes that he found himself unable to read. He glanced down at the flowers, whose stems he had cut transversally. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out of it.

“Look here,” she said, approaching him and picking up the scissors. She cut off the ends of the stems in long, smooth motions. Sugawara watched, mesmerised by how practiced she seemed, as she made her way through the rest of them. “It lets them suck up more water this way. Makes them last longer.” She glanced down at the vase (glass) in Sugawara’s hand and grimaced before reaching up into the cupboard over the sink and taking down a blown glass vase – a proper one, made of sky-blue glass, handing it to him in exchange for the one he was holding. He gave it to her, taking the blue vase, and she placed the glass in the dishwasher. She stood idly as he filled the vase with water and slid the flowers into place, finally setting it down on the bench and leaving the bouquet looking many times better than it had before.

They stood in silence beside each other for a few moments. “My son bought you these?”

After a pause Sugawara replied “yes” in a rather quiet voice; he had the feeling that if he tried to lie to this woman, he was doomed to fail. She sighed heavily in reply.

“That burn looks bad,” she said, nodding to his arm. He held it up a little bit, having forgotten he was even injured. “They didn’t take you to the hospital?”

“No… they fixed it there. In the apartment. Then they said I’d be fine so long as I didn’t aggravate it.” He turned his arm a little bit.

“Of course they did.” Sawamura’s mother led him, mumbling, to the kitchen table. “Sit down. Let me change the dressing for you.”

“It’s okay, really, you don’t need to –,”

She held up a hand, silencing him.

He sat down in the seat she motioned to, putting his arm up on the table as she sat down in front of him. He watched on in silence as she began to peel back the bandage, wrinkling her nose.

“It isn’t painful,” he told her, but she merely shook her head. Once she’d had a look at the extent of the damage, she got up and disappeared. Sugawara waited a while until she came back laden with plastic containers. She pulled off the bandage with the precision and no-nonsense attitude of someone who worked closely in situations like these; Sugawara noticed this immediately. “Are you a paramedic?” he asked before he could stop himself.

“I work in the emergency department at the hospital,” she replied after a short pause, uncapping a tube of cream and applying it to Sugawara’s wound. He flinched slightly and she smiled a little at the reaction. “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks. I’ve dealt with plenty of things like this, both in the hospital and out of it. Daichi was always burning himself when he was a child, you know. Not a day went by where he didn’t somehow manage to scrape himself up.” She sighed again, but this time more nostalgically. “So… you’re his boyfriend. He said he wasn’t gay, though, so forgive my confusion.”

“You don’t have to be gay to have a boyfriend.”

She glanced up at him for a moment, appraising his features, as though she was thinking. He returned her gaze, and they held it for only a moment before she chuckled to herself and went back to unravelling a roll of gauze she’d taken from one of the containers. “I’m an old woman, Sugawara-kun. How did you end up with a burn like this, anyway? And all Daichi’s facial wounds. What happened?”

Again, those eyes. Don’t lie to me. And so he told her. Everything. As she listened he saw her face pale a little under the eyes, and he noticed that she ground her teeth like Sawamura did – at one point she stopped wrapping his arm and merely sat holding his hand. He didn’t take it away. It felt comfortable between her own.

Once he’d finished, she laughed. It wasn’t a particularly mirthful, but there was a degree of relief to it. “I’m glad you’re safe now, Sugawara-kun. And if you’re hurt – ever, no matter what the reason – please call me. I understand that sometimes circumstance prevents you from getting to a hospital.” She paused again, watching him like a child watches a candle flame. “I’m surprised Daichi managed to keep you a secret for so long. He’s never been the secretive type. He must care for you a great deal, Sugawara-kun.”

Sugawara felt himself flush, and he looked away. “I think he does.”

She finished wrapping his wound in silence. Once she’d finished she sat there with his hand in both of her, inspecting his fingers and smoothing the rough pads of her own over his knuckles. It was a motherly gesture, Sugawara noticed, and his heart beat in his throat. He knew that homosexual relationships weren’t often considered good things, not even amongst their own generation – not in a strict country like Japan. Sawamura’s mother’s presence had been grating on his nerves ever since the night before, soothed only by Sawamura himself; Sugawara felt like he was not only in danger, but as though he’d lured Sawamura into disgrace. And yet, sitting here with his hand in this woman’s fingers, somehow he knew that it’d be all right.

“You’re nervous, Sugawara-kun.”

“Would you not be?”

A slight smile played at the corners of her lips. “You’re not stupid, are you?”

“I’d like to think not.”

They both looked up when someone cleared their throat from the archway. Sawamura stood – with an endearing bedhead, Sugawara noticed, too – with his hands in his pockets and his face lined with sleep creases. “What’s going on?”

“Sugawara-kun took the initiative to save those flowers of yours before they kicked the bucket completely. Glasses do not constitute any kind of vase, Daichi,” his mother replied before Sugawara could so much as open his mouth. “I’m re-bandaging his burn, too.”

“You didn’t say anything to scare him, right?” Sawamura asked with a lopsided little smile, entering further into the kitchen and getting himself a glass of water.

She sighed, then, dropping Sugawara’s hand. “Of course not, silly boy.” She stood up, gathering her supplies neatly together. Before she left the kitchen, however, she looked back at Sugawara. “You’re a very agreeable person, Sugawara-kun. You don’t need to be nervous around me. You are quite welcome here whenever you choose.” He saw her bite back a grin. “I wouldn’t want you to consider me any kind of gatekeeper, either. That role is not mine.”

He watched her go, sitting in confusion. A gatekeeper? But she was Sawamura’s mother – if she wasn’t the gatekeeper of his love life, then who was?

“What did you do to your arm?”

Sugawara jumped, startled. A flicker in the corner of his eye alerted him to two small children standing where their brother had been only a minute or two ago. They were still in their pyjamas, the little girl’s featuring dinosaurs and the little boy’s playing host to a large space ship over the breast pocket. They were staring at him, and Sugawara almost laughed. Tiny gatekeepers.

“I burned it,” he told them as they came to him, the little girl scrambling up onto one of the chairs and producing a small rubber toy, which she held close to her.

“How did you burn it? Were you cooking? Daichi can cook some things, but he can’t cook yakisoba, which is sad because that’s my favourite.”

“Amaya…”

“It’s true! You can’t.”

“I don’t think he cooks yakisoba,” the boy said, hauling himself up onto another chair and leaning forwards on his knees so he could rest his elbows on the table top. “He looks more like a sushi person.”

“My favourite food is mapo tofu, actually,” Sugawara told them. Amaya’s eyes grew big in delight, whereas Hayato’s nose wrinkled.

“I like that too! Hayato doesn’t, though. He says it’s too spicy. Daichi!”

Sawamura looked at her expectantly.

“I like him. I like him better than your other girlfriends! Can we keep him?”

“He isn’t a cat, Amaya,” Sawamura laughed, going over to ruffle her hair. “But I think we can keep him.”

Hayato pouted from across the table, mumbling, “only if you play volleyball.”

Sugawara took the opportunity to tell him all about his experience as a setter in high school, watching as the boy’s face lifted little by little into an expression of utter delight.

“A setter! Good, that means you can set balls to me, because I’m going to be a wing spiker just like my brother! I’m going to be so cool.”

Sugawara and Sawamura caught each other’s eye, and when Sawamura smiled warmly at him, Sugawara felt his heart settle.

 

Sugawara, after seeing the kids back to their rooms to get changed (by their insistence), found Sawamura still in the kitchen standing in front of the blue vase of flowers.

“They look a lot better now, don’t you think?” Sugawara asked quietly as he came to stand beside him. Sawamura grimaced.

“They’re not much good now… they’re all bruised and broken. Are you sure you don’t want to just throw them away? I can buy new ones.”

Sugawara leaned against his arm, shaking his head. “I’m sure. They mean the world to me.”

Sawamura looked down at him, raising a finger to trace the underside of Sugawara’s jaw. “You’re very beautiful.”

Sugawara felt like he should have blushed at that. But he didn’t. He merely trained his eyes on Sawamura’s as the man’s fingers slipped up over his cheek, leaning into the touch. When he felt Sawamura’s palm against the height of his cheekbone he turned his face slightly to kiss his skin.

Soon they found themselves back in Sawamura’s room, lying side-by-side on their backs, staring at the ceiling. They exchanged small talk even though there wasn’t really any need to; they could have lain in complete silence and been just as comfortable. At once point Sugawara rolled onto his side and began tracing Sawamura’s face with his fingers again. Sawamura leaned into his touch, letting his eyes flutter closed against Sugawara’s ministrations.

“You’re like a puppy,” Sugawara mused quietly, resting his head on his other hand. “You like being petted.”

Sawamura cracked an eye open to look at him. “So do you.”

He smiled. “Touché.”

Sugawara leaned down and kissed him, hand tilting his face so he could press their lips gently together. Sawamura sighed against his lips, his arm moving to Sugawara’s waist, whereupon he slid it up his spine, drawing him in closer. “You taste sweet…”

“Your sister gave me a boiled sweet earlier. Did you know she keeps a bag of them under her bed?”

Sawamura grimaced, but then laughed quietly. “I didn’t know.” But he was glad she did, Sugawara thought slyly as Sawamura pulled him in closer so their hips lay together, Sugawara’s soft hair falling down over his eyes. “Hey… can I ask you something?”

Sugawara broke away, the man under him licking his lips nervously. “Of course you can.”

“Could I… could I call you Koushi? If that’s okay. If you don’t want me too that’s fine as well –,”

As Sawamura’s voice began to grow high in embarrassment – undoubtedly he was having second thought about asking – Sugawara took his face into his hands and kissed him again. It was an ordinary kiss – unremarkable. But Sawamura was quiet afterwards.

“Of course you can, you big oaf.” He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little. “I’d like that.”

Despite Sugawara’s humorous reply, Sawamura did not laugh. His warm, dark eyes gazed up at him with wonder, so full of adoration that Sugawara’s heart fluttered in his chest. Nobody had ever looked at him that way before. He traced the pad of his thumb over Sawamura’s lips, sighing.

“Can you kiss me again?”

That didn’t need a reply.

Sugawara leaned down, gently pressing their lips together again; it was phenomenal, being together like this after everything that had happened since they’d first haphazardly met online. I’d gladly let him harvest my organs if he wanted to, Sawamura thought fleetingly, wrapping his other arm around Sugawara and pulling him over on top of him. Sugawara’s solid weight on top of him was grounding. Comfortable. He decided that he liked it very much, and certainly wouldn’t be averse to having it there more often.

Lifting his chin a little, Sugawara sighed against Sawamura’s lips, a sweet soft sigh like ice-cream melting in the summer. It sank deep into Sawamura’s lips, glancing over his tongue and prompting him to open his lips a little; hesitantly, Sugawara’s tongue dipped out to touch Sawamura’s, his teeth plucking at his partner’s lower lip. He opened his eyes and saw a delighted flush spreading across Sawamura’s cheeks, and he broke away, chuckling.

“I’ve… never done this with a guy before.”

Sugawara bit back another laugh. What an incredibly cliché line, he thought, but he found it endearing if nothing else. Sawamura looked as nervous as a child, his eyes shining and pupils blown, gaze darting all over Sugawara’s face, not wanting to look but unable to look away.

“You don’t have to, you know. We don’t have to.”

“U-um, no,” Sawamura stammered, his grip on Sugawara growing tighter for a moment. “I want to.” He said the last bit very quietly, his breath brushing against Sugawara’s lips, and as Sugawara kissed him again he found himself sighing just as the other man had before.

Sugawara’s thoughts turned dark when he felt Sawamura’s tongue run over his teeth. It was strong, solid, just like the rest of him – he overpowered Sugawara in a way that wasn’t even notable, and yet Sugawara felt it deep in his bones. A shudder walked up his spine and his hands slid down Sawamura’s neck and over his torso, feeling the strong, defined muscles of his chest and his solar plexus. He wanted to see all of it.

Sawamura’s mouth began to wander, and while Sugawara resenting the breaking of their kiss he certainly didn’t mind the way Sawamura’s lips felt on his neck, or the grazing of his teeth or press of his tongue. He shivered, swallowing the beginnings of a moan, and reached one hand up to thread his fingers through the other’s dark, cropped hair. Sugawara’s other hand dipped to slide up under Sawamura’s shirt, his thin fingers wandering over a very defined abdomen. He could feel the distinct beginnings of a track of hair leading down to Sawamura’s waistband from his navel, and merely by instinct did his fingers begin to follow it.

“Hold on,” Sawamura gasped, breaking away from working a dark hickey behind Sugawara’s ear as a hand reached his waistband. He leaned back a little so he could look Sugawara in the eye, and what he found was Sugawara’s face delightfully flushed, his lips pink and shiny and swollen, and the first thing that leapt to his mind was how that pretty mouth would look doing something a little dirtier. “You… you’re still hurt. I don’t want to make anything worse.”

“Daichi, I’m fine, I promise. If I didn’t want it I wouldn’t be… cooperating.” Sugawara smiled at him; he was so utterly comfortable and felt so safe here, like this. This wasn’t something he was doing as a coping method like he had been ever since he’d began trying to get his life back together. He wanted to see Sawamura in his rawest form – he wanted to see all of him.

Sawamura eyed him warily, hands wandering up and down Sugawara’s back. “Your arm’s hurting you, isn’t it?”

“No,” Sugawara lied, ignoring the dull ache of his burn. It’s just the medicine, he told himself. It barely hurts at all. He could see immediately that Sawamura didn’t believe a word of it.

Chuckling, Sawamura sat up and kissed Sugawara’s cheek, brushing the hair back from his face. “You’re so beautiful. But I can’t do this while you’re hurting, both here –,” he gestured to the bandage “– or… here.” He pressed the tip of his forefinger to Sugawara’s chest, over his heart. Sugawara leaned in close, their foreheads resting together, and he took Sawamura’s hand between his own.

“My heart’s not hurting anymore, Daichi. I’m not better, not yet, but I feel like I’m getting there. Somehow, things have come to completion. I can finally see and end to things that seemed so vague and terrifying before.” He smiled forlornly. “It’s a nice feeling. But my heart isn’t hurting anymore, Daichi, not like it used to. I have you now, and you’re better than any medicine.” Now look who’s being cliché, Sugawara thought.

Sawamura turned his palm over, his broad thumb tracing over the back of Sugawara’s hand. “I want you to get better. I know I can’t do that on my own, and I don’t want to, because it’s something you need to do for yourself – but I want to help you. I’m going to help you as best I can. You know, I’ve gotta admit –,” he laughed grimly “– when I first met you I was in no state to be thinking or saying these things. I wouldn’t have done it, not then. But I know you, now. I know who you are, what you’re afraid of, the things you’ve been through. And I think you deserve completion more than anyone. I want to help bring it to you.”

Sugawara blinked once, and his vision became suddenly blurry; he tried to furiously blink away the tears in his eyes but there was no stopping them. He bowed his head, pressing it to Sawamura’s shoulder as tears coursed down his cheeks. The floodgates had opened – each awful feeling, each terror and everything Sugawara had tried to trap inside his body was clawing its way up his throat. And he let them.

“There are some people you can reveal yourself to,” Kiyoko had once told him. “Not many, but a few, maybe even just one – and I don’t mean casually revealing your interests or your fears. I mean showing them your soul. I hope you can find someone like that one day.”

In that moment, as he cried into Sawamura’s shoulder with strong, sure arms around him, Sugawara knew he had.

“I’m sorry,” he apologised in a wobbly voice, letting Sawamura pull him into his lap and rock him to and fro. “I’m ruining your shirt.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

Rawness. Sugawara had always had a single concept of rawness that pertained to nakedness and passion. He’d always thought that seeing someone’s rawness meant taking them to bed and hearing the voice they made when they moaned, but now he realised that something like that was truly juvenile a thought. Rawness was this. Rawness was sitting in the arms of someone you loved and revealing a side of yourself you’d hidden from the world.

“You’re stuck with me forever, now,” Sugawara whined through his tears, beating a fist gently against Sawamura’s broad chest. “You know too much.”

Sawamura chuckled, kissing his hair. “That’s fine with me.”

  ***

Sugawara ended up staying at the Sawamura residence for a number of days afterwards. He slept in Sawamura’s bed, curled up against him, and during the day he’d help with the dishes and the laundry and the cooking, as well as small errands. It was strange for him to see Sawamura in such a domestic setting – he learned that he had his own apron, and that he always rolled up his sleeves (or scrunched them, to be more accurate – Sawamura wasn’t really the folding kind of person) when doing the laundry. He learned that Sawamura’s hands were powerful but also had a certain degree of delicacy to them, that his little siblings loved him to pieces, and that despite everything, their family was a neat, functional, loving unit.

Sugawara was a little envious of it all. He still somewhat stood on the outside, looking in on an environment he craved. There was always a mess somewhere, and everything was always loud, but he still found it infinitely more desirable than a clean, quiet, empty house.

He met Sawamura’s other sister, a reserved young girl with beautiful eyes and lovely straight hair, who moved about like a ghost. He didn’t see her that much, but whenever he passed her she smiled at him, and that smile stayed with him for the rest of the day.

Sawamura’s mother changed the dressing on his wound every day, and eventually showed him how to do it himself in case she was called to a rush-hour shift at the hospital (“You know what Christmas is like,” she’d told him as she wrapped his arm. “People doing stupid things at every left turn.”). He made Amaya yakisoba and laughed as he’d listened to her chewing Sawamura’s ear off about how he should take a lesson or two.

Slowly, he began to feel a little integrated. He slipped into a niche in the household and became less of Sawamura’s ‘boyfriend’ and more of a ‘member of the family’, to the point where Amaya had accidentally called him ‘onii-chan’.

“Suga,” Kiyoko had called him early on the Thursday, her tone apologetic. “I’m going to spend Christmas with my family this year. Will you be okay here on your own? I can cancel if it’s easier –,”

“No,” Sugawara interrupted her, watching as Hayato and his sister sat in front of the television in their pyjamas and their woollen socks watching Christmas specials. “No, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll be out of here by Christmas, I promise. I don’t want to intrude,” he told Sawamura’s mother that night while they were washing the dishes, and she looked at him as though he’d just insulted her entire ancestry.

“Don’t even think about it,” she dismissed him. “Unless you have plans, we’re more than happy for you to stay.”

“Is Kou-chan going to stay for Christmas!” Amaya asked as she galloped into the kitchen, having caught the tail end of the conversation. “I want him to stay for Christmas! Kou-chan, please stay for Christmas. I’m going to wait up all night for Santa.”

Sugawara bit his tongue, feeling tears rise unbidden to his eyes. “If that’s okay,” he replied, blushing in embarrassment when his voice cracked. “I’d love to.” Umeko smiled at him and Amaya jumped up and down on the spot in excitement.

It was the 23rd of December. Sugawara found himself grappling with dates again, and he found it strange being able to keep track of the days – it was something he hadn’t been able to do for a long time since.

“Daichi, I’d be incredibly disappointed in you if you’d brought back anybody less competent than Sugawara-kun,” Umeko announced to her son after Sugawara had come back from the post office, and Daichi had rolled his eyes but smiled all the same. “If you lose him, I’ll kill you.” She brandished the bread knife she was holding for effect.

Sawamura. Strangely enough – though perhaps not surprisingly – Sugawara didn’t feel the electricity he had when they’d first met, at least not to the same extent. Of course, he felt himself tense at times when he saw Sawamura undressing, or tucking his siblings into bed. But he didn’t mind it, because in place of that had come comfort and assurance. The sight of his back or the sound of his heavy footfalls made Sugawara’s heart settle in his chest, and he found that they’d fallen into a comfortable rhythm that he could definitely get used to. It was acceptance. Love. Sawamura would do stupid little things like kiss the back of his neck when nobody was looking, or nudge him with his foot beneath he table when they ate. The nights where they lay together were the calmest, though. Sugawara liked those the most.

 

Christmas Eve came rather suddenly and the house was filled with the shrieking of the children as they promised they’d stay up for Santa, and that they’d really do it this time. They turned on their favourite cartoons, acquired enormous mugs of hot chocolate, and settled in to wait. They were asleep by ten o’clock, and Sawamura carried them to bed in those strong, gentle arms that Sugawara had come to unconditionally love. Umeko, exhausted, bid them goodnight a little while later.

“I like Christmas,” Sugawara mentioned idly as they sat on the couch by the tree, his feet in Sawamura’s lap and mugs of tea in both their hands. It had begun to snow outside, the flakes illuminated by the streetlights. “We shouldn’t technically celebrate it, since we’re not Christian, but I still like it.”

Sawamura watched him with dark eyes that reflected the warm lighting, making them glow. Sugawara yawned. “I should go and shower.”

“You could have a bath, if you’d like,” Sawamura suggested, then flushed, averting his gaze.

“A bath? I haven’t had one of those for… a long time.” Sugawara rubbed his chin. “Is… is it okay?” For the first time since he’d arrived, the house was quiet, the only noise coming from the hot water pipes beneath the floor. Sawamura stood, then, holding a hand out to him. Sugawara sat up in response, putting down his own cup and taking the hand Sawamura offered. He took the other hand, too, and looked up to meet Sawamura’s eyes. They stood there for a moment, close but not quite touching, just appreciating the quietude.

Sawamura led him up the stairs to the bathroom in silence. Sugawara, following along behind him, looked down at where Sawamura’s warm brown hand was curled around his, and he smiled.

As the bath ran they sat upon the edge of it, making small talk like they usually did, shoulders resting against each other. Sugawara yawned again, letting his head rest on Sawamura’s shoulder, and once the bath was ready he let Sawamura peel him out of his clothes. He giggled at the touch of Sawamura’s cold touch, blowing on the tips of his fingers to warm them up. He felt a little bashful, standing in full nakedness before Sawamura, but there was no staring or gawking or any awkwardness at all. Sugawara was thankful for that.

Sugawara, upon sinking into the water, realised how much he’d missed baths. Unlike showering, baths were leisurely and complete in their submersion. They were quiet affairs, gentle ones.

“Aren’t you going to get in too?” he asked Sawamura who, much to his disappointment, stood fully clothed beside the tub.

“I already showered before,” Sawamura replied, and Sugawara lifted his foot out of the bath to nudge him in the thigh.

“Get in.”

He sank down so his nose skimmed the water as Sawamura pulled off first his shirt, and then his pants, cheeks slightly pink as he did so.

“You don’t need to be embarrassed, Daichi,” Sugawara told him gently. “You’re… very attractive.” Very was an understatement. Sugawara rarely saw men who were as marvellously formed as Sawamura was; he had the most beautiful broad shoulders and a waist that didn’t taper much, his entire form wrapped in muscle, heavy and solid and sure. He’s an athlete, all right. Sugawara had to glance away.

They sat head-to-toe in the tub, Sawamura’s added mass causing the waterline to waver dangerously close to the lip of the tub.

“We’re not babies,” Sugawara had told him as he stood, dropping himself square between Sawamura’s legs, much to Sawamura’s surprise. He could feel his confidence slowly returning to him, letting him do things he would have been far too embarrassed to do before. With Sawamura it was okay – plus, he found he rather enjoyed making him blush, too. That was an added bonus.

He let Sawamura wash his hair, closing his eyes against the gentle pull of his fingers over his scalp. He was so gentle. Sawamura insisted his hair didn’t need washing, but Sugawara did it anyway – while Sawamura had insisted that he wanted to take care of Sugawara, they both found that it was more give-and-take than anything. Nothing like this was ever one sided. “You take care of me and I’ll take care of you. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Because that was how things worked.

“Wash me,” Sugawara mumbled, and Sawamura had taken the soap and had lathed up his hands, massaging Sugawara’s shoulders and his neck, watching as his own fingers worked over the skin. Sugawara sighed at his touch, eyes fluttering shut, lips parting only to emit a breathy “feels good…” every now and again; they way those words rode along a sigh made Sawamura’s gut clench. His hands worked their way down Sugawara’s back, over his chest, down below the waterline and over his stomach and his hips. When he felt Sawamura’s strong hands on his thighs Sugawara sighed, turning his face slightly to glance at Sawamura sat behind him. “Kiss me again, Daichi.”

Sawamura turned him around, taking Sugawara into his lap, and he kissed him, long and slow and sweet. Sugawara sighed that melting little sigh again, his arms wrapping around Sawamura’s neck. He couldn’t help but notice how soft yet firm Sugawara’s thighs felt around his hips, or how the weight of the man sitting astride him sent a shiver up his spine. There was nothing about Sugawara that didn’t light his every nerve on fire – he could see the way Sugawara’s pupils dilated and the way he bit his lips until they were flushed and utterly irresistible. Suddenly sweet virginal kisses weren’t enough, and at the touch of teeth and tongue they both realised how much they thirsted for more.

It was the same path as last time, Sawamura figured, with lips parting and breath sighing and hands roaming. This time Sugawara wasn’t held back by shirts and could let his hands wander freely over Sugawara’s abdomen and his chest, fingers tracing each curve of muscle, nails scraping hungrily at the skin. For Sawamura, the entire thing was foreign. Sugawara’s body wasn’t like a girls’ – while it was much slighter and somewhat gentler than his own, it was still distinctly masculine, with more sharp angles than girlish curves. Sawamura still enjoyed the discoveries he made, and he loved every inch of Sugawara’s body; he explored the body in his lap with his hands and with his lips, kissing down over Sugawara’s collarbone and his sternum and delighting in the hitches in Sugawara’s breath in response. His hands kneaded the wide curve of Sugawara’s hips and he could taste a sharp moan blossom along his tongue, fresh from Sugawara’s throat.

“Koushi,” he breathed when Sugawara’s hips rolled against his own, those beautiful fingers tugging at his hair, electricity crackling through him at the sensation; Sugawara was titillated at the sound of his name riding on one of Sawamura’s moans. Sugawara knew he was skilled with his fingers, and within minutes he had Sawamura leaning back against the tub with his eyes closed and lips parted, the wet muscles of his chest and stomach tightening and loosening and dancing in the soft light of the bathroom. Sugawara leaned in, then, his lips a mere inch from Sawamura’s.

“Take me to bed, Daichi,” he breathed, watching as Sawamura’s dark eyes fixed upon his.

Sawamura lifted him from the bath, water cascading from both their bodies. His jaw clenched as Sugawara placed little butterfly kisses against his neck; thankfully Sawamura’s bedroom was just next door and he made quick work of dropping Sugawara onto his bed, standing there for a moment appreciating the melting flower that was Sugawara Koushi laying back against his own sheets. He watched, mesmerised, as Sugawara spread open his thighs and pushed the damp hair back from his face, breathing Sawamura’s name on an intake of breath.

Sugawara Koushi… he’d never wanted anyone as much as he wanted Sawamura Daichi. It was as though they’d been matched before birth, destined as soulmates with that rare, electric compatibility. Sugawara thought it was a ridiculous theory, and yet he couldn’t help but to believe it. He wanted him – Sawamura standing there staring down at him and doing nothing was agonising. Sugawara needed to be touched, needed to be smothered.

“Daichi, please.

The room was dark, but neither of them needed to see. Sawamura fit perfectly between Sugawara’s legs, and he took him like that, their bodies pressed flush against each other, lips meeting clumsily in the dark over and over. They were, quite suddenly, no longer two people, but one entity, melting into each other until neither one of them could be sure exactly where one started and the other began. Sugawara’s thighs were smooth and utterly delectable beneath Sawamura’s hands, and Sawamura’s back quickly became host to burning trails left in the wake of his lover’s fingernails.

Lover. A word prescribed to someone you sleep with. But why love? Is it always love? Sawamura’s mind was hazy as he breathed in and out, taking each breath at a time to make sure he didn’t suffocate in overbearing pleasure – lover, indeed. To see someone like this, to make them writhe and moan, to make their brains unable to think – that is the very extent of love. Entrusting your body, entrusting your mind, to another person. Not a conventional love, Sawamura thought as his teeth sunk into Sugawara’s shoulder, making his back arch off the sheets. But love all the same.

“Quiet,” Sawamura groaned into Sugawara’s mouth, pushing his legs further back towards his chest. Their lips did not part, then – it was easier to swallow their moans that way.

“Daichi,” Sugawara whispered in his ear, desperately, clinging onto him and pressing his face into his neck. Sawamura grit his teeth, his body as vulnerable as an open nerve, Sugawara bringing out feelings he’d never felt before.

“Koushi, my Koushi,” Sawamura mumbled, breath hitching with a moan. “I love you.”

Chapter Text

XX: Epilogue

 

“Hey… Koushi?”

Sugawara shivered as the name pressed through the darkness. He hummed in response, fingers finding the short, prickly hairs at the junction between Sawamura’s ear and his temple.

“I like this.”

Sugawara, after a pause, snorted with laughter. “I’m glad.”

“No, like… like like. Like I could stay this way forever, you know?” With a groan, Sawamura faltered and pressed his face into the pillow in defeat. Sugawara giggled and stroked the back of the man’s neck, the muscles tightening and relaxing at the touch, and kissed his cheek.

“I understand. I like this, too.” Sugawara could still feel the marks tingling on his neck like stardust, but he felt clean, as though he’d been submerged in icy water and scrubbed until he gleamed. He didn’t feel dirty, not like he was used to. It was a nice feeling. He gently slapped his hand against Sawamura’s cheek. “You’re so embarrassed, it’s cute.”

Sawamura rolled onto his side, levering himself over Sugawara and smothering him into the bed. Sugawara had to muffle his giggles into the crook of Sawamura’s neck, pressing little butterfly kisses to his shoulders and wrapping his bare legs around his waist so he couldn’t pull away. There was something nice about lying in bed like this after fucking – the thought was a little crude, perhaps, but when Sugawara thought of ‘making love’ it made his face heat up and he decided that he wasn’t quite ready for emotions like these – feeling warm and sleepy and sated. This was the kind of feeling he’d always read about and heard about but had never really experienced; sex in high school was always too nervous and exciting for this kind of thing, and when he’d gotten to college… well. He decided he much preferred this to anything he’d ever had before.

For Sawamura it was the same. He’d had a perfectly ordinary love life with a lot of lovely girls in the past, but whenever he’d had sex it had been mediocre, at best. He could never really be sure if he was actually able to pleasure his partner or if they were just taking pity on him. Maybe it was because women were still very much a mystery to him – Sugawara, perhaps because he was also a man, was far easier for Sawamura to read. Or maybe it had nothing to do with him being a man. Perhaps it was just because he was Suga.

They lay side-by-side on the bed, not worrying about being disturbed or caught. The thought of it didn’t even occur to them. For the moment they were content in each other’s company, drawing lazy patterns over each other’s skin and playing with hair and whispering sweet nothings. Sawamura just wanted to hold his lover – his boyfriend, God forbid – close to him. That was all he wanted.

“Daichi, I need to tell you something.”

Sawamura’s gut clenched. “Yeah?”

Sugawara’s smile was only half-visible through the darkness. “I’m glad I’m your boyfriend.” The word still tasted funny. Thrilling, almost.

 

At about five o’clock in the morning, Sugawara got out of bed. Sawamura did, too, and they dressed in silence, Sawamura giving one of his scarves to his boyfriend, wrapping it around his neck and his chin to make sure he was warm. The house was dark and they walked on their toes so they didn’t make any loud noises or wake anybody (“the little ones are like guard dogs, Suga, they wake up at the slightest noise”), Sugawara having to bite down on his tongue to stop himself from giggling as they stumbled through the darkness, feeling for the walls and for each other.

The air was blisteringly cold outside, the sky clear and pristine and freezing. “Let me in,” Sugawara mumbled as he plucked Sawamura’s arm away from his side, lifting it around his own shoulders. Chuckling, Sawamura drew him in close as they walked.

“This is what I love about you – or, one of the things –,” Sugawara began, quick to correct himself. “You don’t mind not speaking. You’re not… awkward about it. It’s nice.” He laughed, then, touching a gloved finger to his lower lip. “I was worried about meeting you because of it, actually. I was worried we’d have no common interests.”

They passed the potted geraniums, dormant now in the winter months with leaves stiff with frost, past the icy volleyball courts. Walking at this hour was timeless, everything frozen in the eternal bliss of winter.

“I wasn’t worried, not in the end, though. Not really.” Sugawara pulled away from Sawamura, stepping out onto the bridge’s pavement, hand tapping against the railing. “You’re good for me.”

Sawamura followed him, going to stand beside Sugawara and lean his elbows against the railings. The water, which had been so turbulent only a few weeks ago, had settled into a slow, dragging flow. The reflection of the stars glimmered like little eyes, warped and distorted as they were. “You’re good for me, too, you know.”

Sugawara smiled at him. A pure, genuine smile that had his eyes crinkling a little at the corners. He touched Sawamura’s arms gently. “You’re a good man, Daichi.”

Sawamura didn’t know how to reply to that. Instead of speaking he leaned closer, pressing a kiss to Sugawara’s hair. They stood idle for a bit, gazing down at the water.

“Daichi?”

“Yeah.”

“No, no, look at me.” Sawamura felt the other man tugging at his sleeve, prompting him to turn around so they stood face-to-face. Sugawara’s nervous fingers fiddled with the lapels of Sawamura’s jacket, and he reached up to take them in his own, holding them close to his chest.

“What’s the matter?”

“I love you, Daichi.” Sugawara’s voice came out on a waver, like the fading of a note at the end of a song. Sawamura was half taken aback by the sight of swimming tears in Sugawara’s eyes. He could only watch as Sugawara broke apart in front of him, as the cracks and fissures opened and crumbled until finally – finally – Sawamura could see his lover’s heart in all its emotional rawness. “I love you. I still feel scared, but it’s going to be okay, and I know it will.”

Sawamura kissed Sugawara’s fingers, holding the cold digits to his face and closing his eyes at the touch. “Sugawara Koushi, Suga, my Koushi. I love you too. With every fibre of my body, even – I’m always going to be here for you. Always. And yeah, you’re right –,” he opened his eyes, then. “– things will be okay, because you’re not alone anymore, not in body and not in mind. And I’m not going to leave you alone.”

Sugawara fell against him like a sigh, his hands slipping from Sawamura’s to wrap around his waist, holding their bodies together. Sawamura stroked the back of Sugawara’s neck. “You’ll always have me, Koushi. I’ll protect you from anything.”

They stayed like that, for a while, just holding each other. Even though they were stood in the middle of the street. They found themselves sat on the cold pavement, then lying on their backs, looking up at the stars. Neither of them were quite sure how long they stayed there for, but before they knew it the sky had begun to lighten, the stars fading like candles burning out.

“There’s something I love about this time of day,” Sugawara mumbled to Sawamura. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the gentleness of it, the quietness.”

Sawamura hummed low in his throat. “Yeah. I have to wake up early a lot for training, so I know what you mean. I think it’s the sky, though. The colour of it, y’know? It’s so… soft. I can’t name the colour. It’s like some mix of purple and blue, but either way, whatever it is –,” he cleared his throat a little. “– I think it’s beautiful. Kind.”

Sugawara turned his gaze from the lightening sky to the profile of Sawamura’s face. Yes, perhaps it was the fact that the carousel of the daytime had been still and dark for hours as people slept, dormant as the potted geraniums, and being awake at such an hour let them slowly watch it come to life. Businessmen, cars, students stirring as the day begun. But this time Sugawara wasn’t alone as he had so often been in the past, because he had Sawamura, and that was all he needed. Sawamura and the fading dusk and the misty water flowing beneath them.