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they were just friends. (they were not just friends.)

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You trek up the mountain path, mud squelching underneath your hiking boots.

Higher and high you go, past the trails you’ve always known, stopping at the edge of a stream that’s just thawed from frost and ice. You wash your hands in the flow of water, skin going numb as all the dirt gets pulled away. Behind you, the leaves whistle, singing the song of spring.

You glance over your shoulder, staring at Toji’s back as he looks up at the gnarled branches of an old oak tree. There are initials carved in the bark, belonging to your sister and a high school boyfriend who’s long been forgotten. He sneers at it, makes some snide comment about it not aging well, before turning to meet you.

Together, you trek up the pathway, and he comes to see a small, noticeable change. He used to be the one staring at the back of your head, watching you run off ahead, pointing out the fox dens and squirrel nests along the way. These days, he walks with you side-by-side, and neither of you speak. There’s something sacred about the silence, as the two of you stop at the cliff you’ve always stopped at with the view you’ve always liked.

A sea of trees—long, green pastures in the faraway distance, and the city center, where the clouds look close to kissing skyscrapers.

“Should we go somewhere?” You ask.

Mindlessly, he grabs a pebble from the ground and tosses it off the side of the cliff, “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. People usually go somewhere after getting married.”

“It’s been four months.”

“Yeah, well, everything just happened so fast, so I haven’t thought about it much until now,” you watch as he grabs himself another pebble, tossing it off the side of the cliff again, hearing it clack as it hits every conceivable boulder on the way down. “What good are our vacation days if we don’t use them?”

He shrugs. “You have somewhere in mind?”

You consider it for a moment. “No. Not really.” Silent again, you start running through the list of options in your head before suggesting, “Okinawa, maybe?”

He lets out a hum of acknowledgment, nodding only slightly. “Yeah. Maybe.”

“We could also go back to Tokyo.”

“Yeah. We could.”

You wait a moment, studying his face, apathetic as can be. “Or,” you say softly with a sigh. “We could just stay here.”

“Now we’re talking.”

Typical, you think, rolling your eyes.

But it comes with a punch of relief too. Truthfully, you don’t really want to go anywhere either. “Then how about we take a few days off and stay here? We don’t have to do anything. We can just … I don’t know, relax or something.”

He drops the pebble he's been playing with and puts an arm around your shoulder, pulling you in against his chest. His lips press against your crown of hair, his breath warm against your scalp. “Yeah,” he says, lips quirking into a small smile. “Let’s do that.”

-

You like the way Toji calls you during your break just to ask what you’re doing, if you’ve eaten lunch, if you’re having a busy day. He asks follow-up questions about yesterday’s drama, like if you gave that mean high school girl who lectured you a piece of your mind. You had been so shocked by the fact that you were being lectured by someone younger than you that it didn’t even occur to you to defend yourself. On the phone, he helps you figure out a defense tactic when she returns. A carefully curated list of insults and curses to, as he put so lovingly, “mentally annihilate her.”

You know you’ll likely never see a resolution, but you let him get carried away with the thought of a final boss showdown. The image of him crouched at the receptionist’s desk, making all these grandiose plans, is funny enough to make you forget all the stress anyway.

“Did you put in your vacation request?” You ask.

“Yeah. About to.”

“Me too,” you say with a smile. “See you on the other side.”

You like the way your life has now become your lives, plural.

-

Toji hangs up the phone, gazing up at the receptionist, who’s parsing through papers on her desk. “Hey,” he says. “How do I put in a vacation request?”

-

You like the way he meets you after work, when his shift coincides with yours, the way he greets you with bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, even with people around you staring. You like the way he holds your hand and guides you to his motorcycle, the way he helps you put on your helmet before putting on his own. You like the way he wraps your tiny, ineffectual little hands around his waist and says hold on tight. Every time.

You like how sturdy he feels, like a big, warm rock. And you like the way you can close your eyes with full trust, feeling the wind whirl all around you as you speed through the city grid, until you meet smaller side street after smaller side street, until you’re home again.

You like the way he says finally as he pulls to a stop in the driveway, engine rumbling off as he pulls down the visor of his helmet.

Whether it’s winter or summer, the two of you will pause to take in the sight. The way the house sits in the foreground, eclipsed in the shadows of the mountain, so large and looming it looks like it'll fall at any moment. He’ll be the first to step off the bike, helping you with your helmet as the two of you walk inside together.

-

You like the way he helps you with dinner, the way he sets the table, and the way you two eat together, drinking beer and walking through the motions of your days. When the weather’s warm enough, you open the door of the engawa and watch the forest critters poke their heads through bushes, roaming across the wide expanse of green.

He likes watching you marvel at them, treating them like old friends as you call out their various nicknames. It’s a novelty every time, even though you’re familiar enough to recognize their absence come winter.

At night, you listen to the sound of ceramic clinking in the sink as he washes the dishes. You continue leafing through the book you’re reading, some corny, run-of-the-mill love story, and think, at least now, this is how it’s supposed to be. That you used to have it easy, but now you have it right.

You like that a lot.

-

You teach him how to take care of a home.

How to tend to the garden. How to pull weeds in the summer. How to water the flowers.

How to balance a checkbook, how to keep your tax returns organized, and how to budget expenses. You teach him all the un-fun stuff of managing a household, but he seems somewhat distracted one day, staring at you with unblinking resolve.

“What?” You frown, reaching for the compact mirror inside your handbag. “I have something on my face?”

“Yeah.” He grabs your wrist and stops you from prying. “Pretty.”

And then he stands up and returns to the kitchen, where he starts making toast for breakfast. For a while, you just stare at him, miffed until you aren’t. “I really hope you didn’t use that line on the other people you dated,” you say, returning to your book.

“What does it matter?” He says, pulling open the fridge. “I only ever meant it with you.”

You have the same conversations in different timelines, but they all come with the warm familiarity of loving someone enough to laugh twice.

-

Your home starts transforming. Closets fill out with his clothes, extra shampoo bottles are put in bins by the bath, and the medicine cabinet starts stacking with razors and aftershave. He stores away some of the clutter that he deems irrelevant, like the tanto knife you came across once. The blade is already dull; the luster’s gone, but it still makes you wonder about the life he had before this.

You help him stow it away in the attic, where you tell him a story of your past. “When I was nine, I read this book about a yurei who lived in an attic,” you say. “And then I saw one in real life.” You gesture to the window, where the light comes down in streams. “Right there. Just floating around like a nosey neighbor, staring outside.”

“Yeah right.”

“I’m serious.”

“Your eyes were playing tricks on you.”

“That’s what my sister said too,” you tell him with a sigh. “Well. You’re probably right. She’s not here anymore, so it wouldn’t make much sense anyway. I hear most yureis are supposed to linger around forever, even when they don't want to. Pretty sad, isn't it?” And then you look at him with a wry little smile. “Have you seen a ghost before?”

He turns his gaze. “Ha. Funny.”

-

He touches you in the early morning, before either of you are truly awake. Or aware. You teeter in that odd, precarious ether between dream and reality, but as soon as you feel his warm palm flutter gently against your stomach, you know this is real. He’s really pressed behind you, swallowing you in the arch of his hulking body.

The sun’s not up yet and nothing smells or tastes pleasant, but he kisses your neck and shoves aside your underwear while you surrender to his touch. Sweet nothings are whispered into your ear, things you have no capacity of remembering as he pushes himself inside you, chasing the high of his own pleasure.

The aftermath is messy when he pulls out, sheets soaked wet underneath your pelvis as he wraps his arms around you, just to hold you a little while longer. You told him once you feel a little sad after sex, so he likes squeezing you so tight you can’t breathe—just as means of distraction. It works for the most part. Your head goes so woozy you actually forget about being sad. Sometimes to the point of having to fight him so you can get up and pee.

-

This time, you lie in the crook of his neck and trace his scars with the pad of your fingertips, so gentle and slow it makes goosebumps rise on his skin. “Spiders. Definitely spiders. Just thinking about them makes me sick. Oh—and onryos. I watched a scary movie once as a kid and to this day, I’m still scared of them,” you say. “What about you?”

He considers it quietly, shrugging. You give him a beat to offer an answer, but you realize he means to say nothing.

“Bullshit.”

He snorts.

“Everyone is scared of something," you tack on.

“Everyone. Not me.”

"Like I said, bullshit."

He shrugs again.

“That’s not fair,” you say, rolling onto your back, crossing your arms over your chest as you stare up at the ceiling. “I bared my soul to you. I told you everything.”

"Yeah, well, that was your fault."

You give him a look. He sighs. “Fine. Then it’s … dying, probably.”

You blink, looking somewhat startled as the words “oh. Right” escape you.

Without thinking, you turn over until you’re flat on your stomach, skin pressed against blanket as you stare out the window of your bedroom. “I forgot that one." It's almost too sad when you tell him to add that to your list of fears too.

For a while, he just watches you for a reaction, following your gaze and also turning on his stomach, his shoulder pressed against yours.

“So. I had a nightmare the other day while I was on shift,” he says.

He rarely ever talks about his dreams and only ever listens to you prattle on about yours. The foods you’ve eaten, the celebrities you’ve met, the ridiculous fights you’ve had. You’ve seen him tossing and turning in bed before, but when you asked him about it, he always blamed it on overthinking.

“I was coming off work, riding my motorcycle up the hill, and found the house was gone,” he says. “You were gone too. And so was the mountain. It was just—empty.”

“Wow. Even the mountain.”

But he just goes on, looking very solemn about it. “I walked to your neighbor’s place and asked where you’d gone and he told me he didn’t know who I was talking about. And then I realized this was a world where you didn’t exist. None of this ever happened; it was all in my head. And I knew, even then, if by some miracle we were to meet again, you wouldn’t recognize or know who I was. It was like the gods were playing some sick, twisted joke and everyone was laughing except me.”

He snorts. “Anyway, it was just a shitty dream.”

-

The end of your stay-vacation comes, inevitably.

Part of you feels somber about it, but the other part of you doesn’t mind. You like this life. You like the way things will be once you return to work. One day turns into a month into half a year, and suddenly this is your routine.

You come home from work and see your husband waiting up for you in the living room, lounging by the kotatsu like a bored cat. At the sight of you, he pats the empty space next to him.

An invitation.

You smile, taking off your shoes and coming over to lay down next to him on the floor, thinking you wouldn’t have it any other way.

-

Until you find out you’re late.

-

Four days, to be exact. You count the dates on the calendar this way and that, but the math adds up all the same. It could be something. Or it could be nothing. And you definitely don’t want to freak out over nothing—and you tell yourself it is nothing until you see the pharmacy on the way home and find yourself coming to a full stop at the doors.

Something unsettling comes over you as you walk through the automatic doors, making a direct line to the last aisle, where you stare at the display boxes in soothing shades of pinks, blues, and purples. It’s hard to rationalize just how much power one little stick can have. To determine whether you get to live in continual ignorance, blissful and content—or offer you a painful revelation that you may never be ready for. Something that may change your life forever.

It’s nothing, you tell yourself, as you grab yourself a test from the shelf. It's just in case.

-

The test recommends morning urine for the most accurate reading, but it’s already 2 a.m. and you’re sitting alone in a dark restaurant, shop already closed.

You keep the test face down on a paper towel, tapping your fingers against the counter of bar, counting down the seconds in your head. You tell yourself not to think worst-case scenario, but you end up doing just that, running through the sweeping life changes you’d have to make if the test ends up being positive. Stop drinking, budget for pre-natals, set up a myriad of doctors’ appointments.

You wish you had someone to call. That your mom, or your sister were here to talk you through this. You just want someone to point you in the right direction; you just want someone to tell you what to do. A roadmap of guidance that tells you where to go, and where to stop.

Shit, shit, shit. Did you have a beer last week after work? Did you—

Your hand slips off the table, knocking the test to the floor, where it clatters to a stop at the door.

Without thinking, you scramble off your seat and make your way over in a dash, where you pick it up and find two thick black lines staring you back.

-

You don’t sleep that night.

You try to cook, but the urgency of Toji’s arrival puts your head in a fog. You mope around, counting down the hours before his return, and then you try to fill the time with things to do. Organizing the shelves in your living space, needlessly. Rearranging the spices on the kitchen counter rack. Taking out all the produce from the fridge and washing out the panels, one at a time, until everything is clean.

The sun doesn’t rise when you start making breakfast, and you end up forgetting all the important things, like descaling the fish and salting the broth. Things boil over, the rice gets burnt, and you decide, at some point, to screw breakfast, and call in for takeout.

Keys jingle in the lock and as soon as the door opens and you see Toji standing in the doorframe, you burst into tears.

He looks confused, stepping out of his shoes and padding across the floor before squatting in front of you, squinting at your face. “What happened?" He asks. "Who did this to you?"

You try to wipe away the tears from your eyes, but he grabs your wrists, gently, and looks you in the eye, harsher this time. “Who did this to you,” he says again, but you just sigh at the stupid, cold look on his face like he’s about to commit homicide.

“You did,” you say. “I’m pregnant.”

He blinks at you and without intending to, lets go of your wrists. You know you haven’t talked about kids. Maybe you should have, but you decided to be stupid and live in the moment, taking things one day at a time. The more you think about how this one thing is going to change your life forever, the more you want to throw up.

Your head starts spinning and you crawl right past him, pushing open the door of the engawa and laying down flat. “My sister was right,” you sniff, staring up and seeing half-sky, half-ceiling. “I really am a country bumpkin.”

It’s silent for a long time as you hear rustling, the sound of Toji taking a seat beside your head. You would really like to know what he’s thinking right now, but you feel like you owe it to yourself to figure out what you’re thinking first. You know you’ve always wanted kids. Even at a young age, you wanted to be a mom. You just hoped that that would be on your own terms, on your own time.

But that’s life. You roll with the punches and figure it out as you go. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is. You look up at the sky and the vast expanse of stars, shining bright with a creamy haze, and suddenly you feel small and insignificant and free. Instinctively, the palm of your hand draws down to your lower abdomen, where you hold it.

“Megumi,” Toji says, suddenly.

“Megumi?”

You sit up, looking at him, but he’s just staring out at the mountain, where the trees look like dancing shadows.

It takes you a beat to understand what he means, as you ask, “And if it’s a boy?”

He doesn’t seem like he wants to budge on it, as he pats the empty space beside him. You consider it quietly, scooting over on the edge of the engawa, hugging your knees to your chest and leaning against his shoulder.

“Yeah. Megumi,” you say again, liking the way the name sticks on your tongue. “A lifetime of luck makes one blessing." You take a deep breath and gaze up at the stars, hoping to tell him in your own quiet way: You can have it all, Megumi.