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

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It’s 4:24 p.m. and the love of your life is cheating on you.

You know this instinctively when you arrive home to find a stranger’s bicycle docked outside the front door, but that’s just a prefacing betrayal among other discarded goods that are waiting to greet you inside the house.

A pair of pretty pink kitten heels in the foyer, two sizes too small. A lavender handbag left on the coffee table. A raincoat in pastel blue hanging on the coatrack.

These are things that double as a cheerful little trail of clues, except the cheerfulness only goes one way, and that’s up the stairs. No obscene noises from the bedroom yet, but you know she’s there.

You know he’s there too. All the signs are pointing in that direction. The car’s parked in the driveway, his boots, covered in mud, are sitting peachy next to her kitten heels, and his workman jacket is hanging next to that cute little raincoat. It would’ve been too much to ask them to at least put their shoes on the shoe rack, but then again, it’s not like you were home to say hello to the treachery firsthand.

Instead, you’re left with a stark recreation of the unfolding events that led to this moment. Your husband had arrived home first, having likely sat deep in anticipation on the leather couch where the butt prints are still in the process of disappearing. She, whoever she is (though you have a pretty good inkling it's the cute girl from his construction office that he told you not to worry about), arrived soon thereafter, parking her bike on the porch before letting herself in the front door. He had risen, offering to take her coat while she slipped out of her kitten heels, laughing as she stood in your living space, studying the place like it would one day be her own.

He probably had no idea how to encourage her up the stairs. There’s no checklist for cheating on your spouse, and he probably wished there was. If you close your eyes, you could see him putting his hands on his hips, rocking back and forth between his toes and the balls of his feet in that terribly endearing way that charmed you once upon a time.

(She took the leap of faith. She had to have.)

You can practically see her leaning up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the mouth before descending down to flat land, no doubt still feeling like she was floating on cloud nine. (The kitten heels in your foyer could only aspire.)

They wouldn’t have met each other’s gazes just yet, instead stewing over the excitement of venturing into new territory that had otherwise been teased in longing looks and touches that were too deliberate to be coincidental.

Footsteps creak against the floor above, snapping you out of your listless daydream. There’s one set you recognize, and one set you don’t. Your gaze falls to the clock hanging in your kitchen as the reality begins to dawn.

It’s 4:25 p.m. and you decide you don’t need to see this to know it’s real.

--

For a while, you just drive through Sendai with no notion of where to go, if there’s even a destination worth meeting on the other side.

You start filtering through the memories from the moment you met, trying to pinpoint the exact moment things started taking a turn for the worse.

You know you learned each other’s names in the sandbox, which is coincidentally where you also made your proposals. All your firsts came thereafter, including your first kiss, your first I love you, and your first time. You became high school sweethearts, having grown up in a township with less than two-thousand people, and you remembered thinking how lucky you were when he offered you his jacket for the very first time, in front of all his friends. They called him shameless, and he said something to the tune of what’s so shameless about being in love with my future wife?

He was the kind of boy who wanted sex to be good for you, like it was for him. You remember he’d gone through the embarrassing process of googling woman, orgasm, how-to on the family computer completely unprompted, only for his mother and father to make the shocking discovery at a later date.

That’s the kind of boy I want to marry someday, is what you thought, until you decided to go to Tokyo for college. The distance took a toll, and four years of it took an even bigger toll. Time moved slower in Sendai, and it was rougher for him than it was for you. It was like living in a hyperbolic time chamber of testing your limits, and the inevitable breakup that ensued had you letting loose: you went on an innumerable number of first dates, almost slept with a stranger, and led on some boy who probably deserved better.

But there was no comparing them to your first love, someone who had treated you so sweetly, someone who once held you in his arms and told you how he would love you until he was buried six feet under, until he was nothing but maggots in the soil. You had gone through the supercut of happy memories, knowing you would never find someone who would be as good to you, someone you were so comfortable with that you could unapologetically be yourself.

Your breakup lasted about two months before you went crawling back to him, but his resentment never waned. After graduating, you returned home, but found that he had developed a sense of abandonment that was unrecoverable. You started believing you wasted four years of your life on a major that meant nothing, that you wasted all that time when you could’ve been with him, stoking that little flame of your relationship and protecting it from the oncoming storm.

You settled, thinking you knew what the worst could be, only to find out it could get much worse. Because there’s bad, and then there’s cheating-on-you-in-the-bed-you-made bad.

Now all you remember is waking up at 5 a.m. to get a head start on making pork bone broth for your sister in chemo, only for him to never show up. Now all you remember is him staying out late, drinking with his friends, urging you to be cooler about it because there’s nothing worse than a nagging, uptight wife who doesn’t understand even boys need a day off from domestic duties. Now all you remember is the day he proposed to you, at the sandbox where you met, and realizing he was drunk the whole walk there.

You come to a full stop at your family home on the outskirts of town, a two-story minka house, sitting empty now with all those blackened windows.

Without thinking, you untuck your phone, dial up an old flame from college, and buy yourself a one-way bullet train ticket to Tokyo.

--

There’s a sequence of events that led to this moment: you, sitting here, on an old, springy mattress with no bedsheets, stains everywhere. You’re half-drunk-mid-sobering, somewhere stuck between the state of caring and completely uncaring. In hindsight, you should’ve thought this through a little more, but things are only ever 20/20 in retrospect and you’re not about to harp on your own bad decisions when your husband is arguably making worse ones.

As you study what’s about your first-ever one-night stand, you feel your stomach churn. That unseemly black happy trail on his pale, veiny stomach is pretty gross, especially underneath the glow of that shitty lava lamp on the floor. You don’t know how you got here, but now you’re wondering if it’s too late to bow out of these mating processions.

This isn’t you, but it is now. Somewhere deep inside, you realize it’s impossible to stop something you’ve purposefully set into motion. To walk back on a promise between two consenting parties, an invitation that you sent out in the first place. Are you free tonight? One little innocuous text with repercussions that you simply didn’t consider. Backing out now would be like throwing your body before a boulder rolling down the mountain going one-hundred miles an hour and counting, picking up more and more momentum the more items of clothing are discarded on the floor.

It wouldn’t make sense, stopping the inevitable. You’d just be whimsy caught in the crossfire. Because bowing your head and saying no would require summoning an immense amount of courage, something that you simply did not possess. He’s already in the process of unbuckling his belt and tugging down his pants to his ankles, nothing but his boxers hugging the strain of his erection.

“You look so pretty,” he says, kneeling on the mattress next to you, and suddenly the finish line of hot sex and absolution is sitting on the horizon, already in sight.

But then something magical happens.

Some invisible ghost of valor takes possession of your body and you muster the courage to rise from the stained mattress. “I need to go,” you state, which elicits nothing but a confused look on his part as the greasy smile vanishes from his face, followed by an annoyed little huh?

You’re already pacing towards the door, slipping on your boots in the foyer. In his spirited attempt to follow you, he actually trips over his own pants, holes catching taut around his ankles. It’s a pretty pathetic sight to witness, one you don’t actually have the privilege of seeing the tail-end of as you make your grand exit from his apartment.

Once you’re in the hallway, you break into a sprint, down the stairwell, and through the lobby doors—

The evening symphony of Tokyo meets you in full bloom, a chorus of car horns and neon lights.

You take a deep breath and close your eyes, coming to full terms with the fact that you’re just not that kind of woman. Revenge sex isn’t your style, and neither is wallowing in the comforts of someone else’s arms. This isn’t me, you think, and when you open your eyes, you find tears spilling down your cheeks. (You wish it were.)

There’s a buzz from your phone, a series of new messages that you press ignore on as soon as you see them.

Hiro: Are you coming back?

A series of dot-dot-dots, followed by two new texts.

Hiro: I know you saw my message.
Hiro: ?

You start down the street, only to feel another buzz in your hands.

Hiro: You fucking tease, fuck you

You’re about to press block on his number, only to get one final message to cap off the night.

Hiro: Don’t ever call me again

Blocked.

Car horns blare in synchrony with the modulated voices of automatons in department storefronts. You catch your reflection in the glass right over the pretty yukatas prepared for this year’s summer festivals, the sight a pretty hilarious one to witness. Even in the nicest robes, you look like every other sad girl in the street who can’t hang. One step forward and all you see is that try-hard outfit that’s nothing but false advertising: the thigh-high boots, cute skirt, the top that makes your breasts all perky and cute.

Your phone buzzes again and you have to mentally prepare yourself for another hate-text from Hiro, only to realize it’s your husband, asking where you are.

Ryusei: Where are you?
Ryusei: It’s 10 p.m.
Ryusei: Call me.

Instinct compels you to whip up a response, but you’re suddenly reminded of what you witnessed at home in the early afternoon and you’re pausing over the screen, chewing on your lower lip until all the lipstick’s been smeared off on your teeth.

You tuck your phone away, stumbling towards the crosswalk. Senses still dull from the liquor high, you’re both hyperaware and unaware, every little detail around you playing on buffer like a cassette tape caught in the hardwire. There’s a mother crossing the street, struggling to hold onto the pudgy little hand of her stubborn toddler. The roar of a BMW i8 comes flying down the left lane, the man in the driver’s seat too eager to impress his girlfriend in the hot pink dress to pay full attention to the road. Her dress reminds you of the raincoat and purse in your home, all pastel and pretty.

As the toddler breaks free from his mother’s grasp, you find yourself bolting across the crosswalk, legs moving on automatic instinct like a robot programmed for a suicide march. It’s only when you feel the asphalt crunching underneath your boots as you shove the kid back onto the sidewalk that you realize you’re six feet high in the air.

I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, you think, not quite comprehending the fact that you’re miraculously alive, still flying through the air underneath the weight of some stranger’s bulging bicep. At some point, you’re being placed down flat on the soft padding of a backseat you recognize as a motorcycle, being told “hold on unless you want to die,” which you absolutely do because you would very much like to stay alive for the duration of this ride, however long it may be.

The roar of the engine rips through the air and you wrap your arms around the stranger’s waist, taking one last look over your shoulder to see the toddler wailing on the sidewalk, having endured nothing more than a scratch on his knee from his epic fall. His mother has her arms around him, weeping. Don’t you dare run off like that again! No one seems to realize a guardian angel has gone out of her way to save him tonight, no one except you, and this stranger on the bike that you’re clinging onto.

“Who are you?” You ask.

Under the visor of the helmet, he ignores you.

And then the realization hits you.

I’m being kidnapped.

Your eyes dart to the street, everything a blur as the bike hits ninety in the left lane. Throwing yourself off the side doesn’t seem like such a promising endeavor, not when you just mildly escaped death’s clutches moments ago.

There’s a buzz on your phone and you’re realizing your husband is calling you. Whatever fears you have about being kidnapped are being put on hold as you press ignore, only to realize if you were to get kidnapped right now, he’d have no clue. No one would. In all likeliness, they’d find your body in a dump, three days later, having already reached the first stages of mildew and decomposition. (And that’s if they ever find you at all.)

They’d call it a tragedy, but Ryusei would probably be celebrating.

You want a reason to feel vindicated about it, but you don’t. Because he probably wouldn’t be celebrating; he’d be mourning. Despairing. But you want more than that. You want to see him completely gone without you. You want to see him on his hands and knees, swearing off alcohol. Swearing off sex. Swearing off everything that ever made him happy because you were the only thing he ever needed to be happy. But he wouldn't. He'd mourn, and then he'd move on. Because he already has someone else in the picture.

Another buzz comes from your phone, and you’re staring into two gray bubbles with a film of tears in your eyes. If apathy were a text, it would be your husband.

Ryusei: I’m going to sleep.
Ryusei: See you tomorrow.

The motorcycle comes to a screeching halt as your cheek meets the stranger’s back. You blink up and see that you’ve been dropped off at the train station, smack dab in the middle of Ginza, every conceivable line at your disposal as the clock hits 10:03 p.m.

Wordlessly, you climb off the back, staring into the dark visor of the motorcycle helmet.

“Thank you,” you tell him, bowing your head, still feeling woozy.

You try to glean some kind of reaction, but to no avail. The engine’s still rumbling and the stranger gets back into position, ready to ride off, but you put a hand on his shoulder. He’s sturdy under your touch, but the gesture has you taking a sudden step back onto the sidewalk.

“Let me buy you a drink,” you say, and when he doesn’t turn off the engine immediately, you decide to press on. “For saving my life.”

Without saying anything in response, he takes off at a snail’s pace. For a fleeting moment, you’re convinced you’ve been rejected, but he just comes to a stop at the end of the street, where he parks his bike before flipping off the engine. It’s silent, as he pulls off his helmet, running his hand through his hair before meeting you on the sidewalk again.

Oh.

He’s … tall. And handsome-handsome. Narrowed, half-lidded eyes like he’s staring down a shit stain on the floor. Nice jaw, sloped nose, full lips. Broad shoulders, cut waist, and the biggest, bulging muscles you’ve ever seen in your life. You don’t know his name yet, but you will. Because if glory could be a person, it would be Toji.

But then something unsettling comes over you as you meet his piercing gaze with your head cocked to the side. It’s odd, you think, that you should look at him and feel absolutely nothing at all.

Because sometimes when a man is so, so good-looking, over-idealized to an extremity, you reach a level of nirvana and inner-peace that tells you there’s no way in hell you’d ever have a chance with them.

You smile and offer him a hand, “What’s your name?”

He blinks, looking mildly amused at the gesture as he takes your hand and shakes it. “Call me Toji.”

“And … your last name?”

“None of your damn business.”

It’s your turn to blink at him, wondering why he’s being so fussy about it. “Okay then.” You’re about to wrangle away from his grip, but he doesn’t stop shaking your hand. “Toji … with no last name.”

As soon as he lets go, you massage your wrists.

“I don’t drink, by the way,” he says, starting down the street.

You break into a sprint just to catch up to him. "Really?"

He doesn't answer.

You pause to consider it, “Then I’ll buy you ice cream.”

--

You keep good on your promise, buying him mango-dango at a dessert bar filled with primary school students and teenage couples. The two of you look woefully out of place, but for the most part, no one seems to mind.

He’s not one for pleasantries, so it undercuts any of the awkward introductions and what-do-you-dos for a living. And at this point in the night, you’re not in the proper state of mind to impress so needlessly either, especially with someone so blatantly out of your league. So the air between you goes taut, like it’s been stretched too thin to breathe, as he continues slurping down his mango-dango, much to the disgust of the disgruntled children sitting beside you.

He pulls out a cigarette, but you snatch it from his lips. “There are babies here,” you tell him, and at your insistence, he follows you to the storefront outside, where you pull out a matchbox from your purse and light the stick for him.

“So what’s your story,” he says.

You look at him, eyes filled with pity, “You don’t have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Pretend to give a crap.”

“What makes you think I’m pretending?”

You give him a look. Expelling a puff of smoke, he acquiesces with a shrug.

“What about you?” A bitter little smile finds its way to your face as you recall the last texts sent from your husband. I’m going to sleep, he’d said, as if it didn’t even matter whether you returned home or not. The revelation is admittedly pretty painful, but also freeing in a way that you don’t expect.

“What about me?” says Toji, blowing smoke in your face.

You let it roll off you as you turn to the streets, still buzzing with cars. “You just ride around the city on your motorcycle hoping to rescue women from imminent death?”

“Among other things, sure.” Everything he says comes with a punch of sarcasm and disinterest; it nearly makes your roll your eyes. “I’m just killing time until my next job.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not really, no.”

You snatch the cigarette from his lips and inhale deeply, letting the smoke sit fat in your lungs before exhaling with a breath of relief. It’s silent for a while as you hand the cigarette back to him.

You meet his gaze, “I feel like I should say this now, but I’m not going to sleep with you.”

The smile on his face disappears, “That’s a shame." A pause. "I’m a good lay.”

"I’m glad you can advocate for yourself like that.”

He pauses again, taking one last puff before stomping out the cigarette under his foot. “Sure you don’t wanna change your mind?” The grin on his face is greasy, insincere. “Last chance.”

You snort. His lack of shame somehow makes you even more convinced you’ve made the right decision. As soon as the smile vanishes from his face, you offer him your hand.

“Friends,” you say.

He rolls his eyes, ready to turn heel and leave, but stops before he can even muster out a step in the opposite direction. “Friends,” he mutters, taking your hand and shaking it. But then something dawns on his face, a look of realization as he looks at the jumbotron screens plastered on skyscrapers. The time reads 11:23 p.m. “Hm. It's past eleven."

Ah shit, the trains have stopped.

“I’m just going to get a hotel," you say, sighing.

But you realize that’s not what he means, as he proceeds to drag you down the street towards some intended destination outside your purview. “You wanna do something?” He says, not even bothering to glance at you over his shoulder. “As friends?"

“Everything is closed,” you state.

“Not everything.”

--

His motorcycle zips through the streets of Ginza until you arrive at your intended destination.

A pachinko parlor.

For the most part, you just follow behind him like he’s your tour guide as he makes his way through the seedy den, which isn’t actually so seedy at all. The floors are immaculately clean, the machines are buzzing with those familiar, modulated video game OSTs, and the air is rife with excitement and focus. You get a whiff of cigarette smoke from the aisle he makes his way down, and suddenly you’re thinking back to the last time you went to a pachinko parlor, which was in college.

This is not what I had in mind, but I guess ‘fun’ is just a vocational term that anyone can throw around these days, you think, somewhat sullenly as you fill your pachinko card with money before taking the empty leather seat next to him. You tell yourself to fuck it, and just go with the flow, as you watch him swipe his card through the slot.

“These things are all rigged,” you say, as you follow suit, swiping your card too.

You turn the lever, watching three scantily-clad bikini girls dance on your screen, cheering you on as the words BONUS ROUND! appears in bold text. You turn the lever again, three colors aligning in place, and suddenly the machine explodes in a clusterfuck of happy songs, flashing lights, and encouraging voices, which turn out to be rendered screeches through the cheap speakers of the machine’s sound system.

They’re telling you to high-five the screen, but you’re so overwhelmed by all the blaring lights that you don’t even realize you’ve won the jackpot.

What are you doing,” Toji hisses, grabbing your wrist and forcing you to high-five the screen.

Silver balls come spewing out the mouth of the machine by the dozens, and the employees in the pachinko parlor come to celebrate your win in a conga-line that has you burying your face in your hands out of sheer embarrassment.

Once everything dies down, you find Toji staring at you in disbelief. You’re about to stand up and cash out, but he grabs you by the wrist again, forcing you back into the leather seat with a thump.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he hisses. “You stole my luck.”

He swipes his card down his machine. No cigar.

It’s your turn to stare at him in disbelief, “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” he says, swiping again.

--

You win two more jackpots before cashing out for the night, with Toji dragging you by the sleeve towards a P.C. café, where he has you sit down next to him while he logs onto a VPN to some American website you’ve never heard of. It isn’t until you see the words “sports betting” that you realize he’s attempting to gamble online.

“This is illegal,” you tell him.

He doesn’t even spare a glance your way, “Shut up.”

"You can get arrested for this."

"I said shut up."

A list of horses appears on screen and he has you choose one among fourteen. No pictures, no descriptions. You shrug, picking the horse named Muffuletta while he decides on a horse called One-punch.

The livestream of the race appears on screen all warbled. You squint, trying to figure out which pixel is Muffuletta, only to realize Muffuletta has already won the race, having crossed the finish line first.

Toji just stares at you before cashing out and wiring the winnings to your bank account. Even at your insistence that he keep the earnings, afraid that the government might track you down and actually arrest you, he still has the tired pride of his. You don’t get a chance to tell him this is all a fluke before he grabs you by the wrist and drags you to the nearest hotel.

--

For a while, he just stares at you on the queen bed across from yours, sizing you up like you’re a hack in the matrix. You’ve never been in a hotel room with another man outside your husband, but there’s frankly no indication that anything’s going to happen tonight besides sleeping, so you relax, allowing yourself the luxury of being unguarded.

Until he leaps across the empty space to kiss you.

You jerk away, face contorting with disgust as he hits the mattress of your bed with a thunk. It’s amazing, you think, how unattractive he’s become in the span of one needless decision. “I already said we’re not doing anything,” you state, which elicits nothing but a frown on his end.

“Then what the hell do you want from me,” he hisses.

Rising up, you take the seat across from him. “Tell me about your family.”

--

He does.

Sure, it’s like trying to pry a splinter from foot, and he doesn’t offer any details, names, or identities, but he does tell you the important stuff. The root of his resentments, his absolute shit stain of a father, everyone else who managed to earn his ire, along with the lack of mercies that prevented him from ever having a true childhood.

The weird thing is, the more you learn about him, the more you start seeing him as just any regular guy with a chip on their shoulder. The luster’s all gone, just like your wedding ring, which hasn’t been sent in for shining in almost four years. He’s not even halfway done bitching about his life before he passes out in the bed of your hotel room, and by that time, you’ve already pulled the covers over his shoulders to let him sleep.

Which he’s in dire need of. Because, yes, while he is objectively a very handsome man, he also looks like he hasn’t slept in a proper bed in years.

You glance at your phone, see that it’s 5:03 a.m., and decide to get an early head start towards the bullet train station.

But as you rise from the mattress, you feel him grab your wrist.

“Don’t go,” he hisses, only to drift off again.

You check the timetable on your phone, see that you can still catch the first bullet train to Sendai, and try to leave again, only to realize his grip on your wrist won’t relent. It’s so tight you can barely budge. Even as you tug against him in his deep sleep, he won’t give up. He’s so freakishly strong, you start panicking. It doesn’t even occur to you that he could’ve easily forced himself on you last night and that your struggle would’ve been futile.

“Stop. Fighting,” he mutters. “I’ll drive you home.”

And just like that, you’re stuck waiting for another two hours for him to rise.

--

Ryusei: Where are you?
Ryusei: Did you lose your phone or something?
Ryusei: Call me.
Ryusei: I’m going to work.

--

But eventually he does wake up, only to find you frowning at him.

“I need to pee,” you state.

He frowns right back, “Then go.”

You tug at his vice-grip, but he won’t let go until you’re pulling your entire weight against him. As soon as he loosens his hand, you go tumbling into the carpet, ass-first. You glare at him, massaging the sore part of your wrist where he held you before heading to the bathroom.

He sits up in bed, rubbing the sand out of his eye.

The sun’s barely rising, and he has the adverse feel of having stayed up all night yet again. The sleeplessness is starting to become habit, but it’s not so bad.

He hears you on the phone in the bathroom. There’s an angry voice on the other line, as you try and subdue it. The word “irresponsible” and “insane” get tossed around. He hears you sigh, as you open the door and return.

“I’m going to the train station,” you tell him.

“I already said I’d drive you back home.” He looks annoyed, as if you haven’t been listening to him.

“I live in Sendai. That's a five-hour drive."

Silence fills the air as you tuck away your essentials. Toji glances at the clock on the nightstand. “Four hours by bike,” he says, shrugging.

You’re about to tell him there's absolutely no need when the bullet train exists, but he’s already getting up, sauntering towards the door of the hotel room with his hands dug deep in his pockets.

“Wait.” You brush past him, moving towards the hallway first and pressing the button for the elevator. “I’ll buy us breakfast.”

“You already bought the hotel room.”

You just roll your eyes at him as the door to the elevator opens. He follows you in, unceremoniously, and as the doors move to close automatically, he sees you close your eyes and sigh. He’s about to ask you about the phone call in the bathroom, but as soon as the elevator doors open again, you take off towards the FamilyMart at the corner of the street and he finds himself breaking into a jog to catch up with you.

--

The drive up to Sendai is a long one, and he notices you being uncharacteristically quiet as you try and feed him bread through the open visor of his motorcycle helmet.

His mouth catches your fingers, tongue licking at the pad of your fingertips, but you don’t even bat a lash as you shove the rest of the loaf down his throat, making him choke so hard he has to pull over the side of the road. After asking what the fuck your problem is, he finds himself a nice rest stop to pump gas while you continue parsing through the texts on your phone, searching for something you apparently can’t find.

“So. You live in Sendai,” he starts, leaning against the seat of his motorcycle. “Why the hell were you in Tokyo?”

You stare out blankly at the mountains in the distance, “Because I caught my husband cheating on me.”

He blinks at you.

You head to the convenience store and buy yourself a pack of cigarettes, untucking a stick and lighting it with the matches in your purse. Without any hope he’ll answer in kind, you start offering an annotated history leading up to the event like a beat cop reciting the clinical details of a gruesome murder. Shockingly, it takes all about ten minutes to condense your history into one pithy paragraph, and by that time, the break’s already over and you’re moving to get back onto the bike.

“Why didn’t you go up the stairs and see for yourself?” asks Toji.

You shrug.

“Pussy,” he says, lips twitching up into a smirk.

“Whatever," you mutter. "You barely even know me."

He climbs onto his bike and pulls on his helmet, “I know enough to know you’re a pussy.”

For whatever reason, the insult is the catalyst that punches you back down to reality.

You understand only then that this really did happen, that what you witnessed wasn’t something you conjured from the depths of your imagination, that it wasn’t a knot in the timeline of you, Ryusei, and forever. That was real. And you were there, scraping up breadcrumbs in hopes of believing otherwise. Even in the bathroom, when he told you not to worry, when he told you it was all a misunderstanding, you clung onto the small bit of faith that maybe he was telling the truth.

In the end, you just wanted a reason to forgive him; you just wanted a chance to deny the disappointing reality of being cheated on.

--

It’s 2 p.m. in the afternoon when you arrive in Sendai.

You point to nondescript side streets leading to a small county hospital in a quiet part of the city, far away from the main grid.

“You don’t have to stay, by the way,” you tell Toji, stepping off the back of the bike and feeling your joints crack in all the right, delicious ways as you stretch your arms out. “Thanks for the lift, though. It was appreciated.”

Staring at that motorcycle helmet, you don’t get a good read. So you shrug it off and knock on the visor with your knuckles, flashing him a pretty smile before heading towards the entrance where the automatic doors greet you by splitting apart with a cool wave of air conditioning.

He just watches you say hello to the nurses at the counter, who know you by name. You sign in and walk off down the hall, knowing exactly where to go, and who to see.

He flips off the engine of his bike, parks it in place, and follows you right in.

--

The hospital room you find yourself in is … gray, filled with two other strangers.

You walk to the singular cot at the far-end of the room, where a woman is sleeping. Without disturbing her, you start fussing with the compartments that designate her living space. You take the canister of stew sitting on her nightstand and wash out the remaining contents, you toss away the dead flowers in the vase, and you clean up the jello containers sitting underneath her pillow. From your bag, you procure the magazines you picked up from FamilyMart and place them on her writing table.

“Hey stranger,” she says, opening one eye to study what you’re doing.

You tuck her in like a burrito, shoving the blankets underneath her back. “Sleep. Don’t waste your strength.”

She smiles tiredly at you before closing her eyes again, the last of her energy escaping her.

Toji stands in the doorway, watching you from a measured distance. Instinctively, he knows. She probably won’t make it until New Years. He knows the smell of death, knows just how much suffering one body can take before it starts failing the soul. For now, he decides to keep quiet about it, just watching as you continue fussing around, as if you’ve done this many, many times before.

It’s like watching a rehearsal for a stageplay you’ve already mastered, and when you’re done, you take the stool next to her bedside, taking her hand in yours and staring at her with wistful eyes.

He decides to give you space, loitering by the entrance where the young residents ogle him by the nurse’s station. None of them are particularly offensive to look at and he’d be remiss not to get their contact information, so he chats them up, asks for their numbers, and takes a seat by the vending machines outside the hospital, waiting for you to finish your visit.

--

Night falls when you leave.

You bid farewell to the nurses and offer them your thanks before heading out the entryway and finding Toji waiting for you on the bench outside. You don’t look surprised for some reason, even as you blink at him, still registering the fact that he’s sitting there, waiting.

“Do you need a place to stay?” You ask him, suddenly. Before he even gets a chance to muster an excuse, you sigh. “I knew it. You’re homeless, aren’t you?”

He doesn’t say much, as you start towards the motorcycle first.

--

You give him directions to a minka house in a township far away from the main city. Your closest neighbor is about a two-hour walk, and everything around you is farmland, forest, and mountain.

“This is my parents’ house,” you say, hopping off the bike and squatting by the flowers nesting outside your front yard. They’re beautiful, orange, green-stemmed creatures, nestled away in the shadow and dampness of the house. “They passed away, so it’s technically my house now.”

You rise, suddenly, gesturing towards the house down in the valley. “That’s where me and my husband live.”

“You’re still calling him your husband,” says Toji.

You pause.

“It takes two to tango. And two to break up,” you tell him, opening the front door and stepping in through the foyer. He follows behind closely, studying the state of the interior as you slip out of your shoes and head straight to the kitchen. “Can you go grab a few things from the garden? I’m making chankonabe.”

--

It’s an oddly domestic sight, to be sharing kitchen duties with you.

But Toji doesn’t mind, at least for now. The prepping keeps his hands busy, even as he realizes something else: this is a meal you’re preparing for your husband too, among several other side dishes that get tucked away in a picnic basket. From the kitchen window, he catches sight of a car parked in the driveway.

So you're planning to go home tonight.

You start cutting watermelon too, stowing them into a plastic container and setting them on the first rack of the fridge to be eaten at a later date. It takes him a beat to realize the watermelon is for him because as soon as you’re done, you take off your apron and start loading the other dishes into the trunk of your car.

“You can stay here,” you tell him. “Until your next job.”

He follows you to the car, where you settle yourself in before rolling down the window. “What’s the catch?”

The engine starts and you smile at him from the other side, beckoning him closer.

He leans in and you pat him gently on the head.

“It’s a thank-you for saving my life.”

And just like that, you’re gone.

--

The state of your family home is … nice. Unlived in, with no sense of urgency or care. Given their passing, he’s not really surprised.

He studies your old family photographs on the counter, including one of you as a young girl in pigtails. One of your older sister playing the piano. The two of you sharing ice cream with another nameless young boy, one he finally recognizes as Ryusei, your husband. For the most part, Toji is indifferent about it until he arrives at the last photo in the line, of you holding Ryusei’s hand in the sandbox.

It’s unmarked and unframed, so he takes it, flipping it over to the other side to see the word forever written.

He pockets the photo and heads to the nearest bar in town.

--

People are so easy to track down, Toji thinks as he studies your husband across the bar.

Ryusei, he learns, is a chummy fellow. A swell fellow. The kind of fellow who gets along with everyone and everything, the kind of fellow who buys his friends a round of drinks with no expectation of them buying him back, the kind of fellow who acts like money is no objection, even when it’s not his money to be slinging around.

He’s rubbing elbows with a cute girl who works at his office. The kind of cute girl who wears her hair in pigtails and smiles with her eyes. The kind of cute girl who charms everyone she meets, who pretends like she doesn’t know what innuendo you mean, even though she’s almost thirty and of course she knows what you mean. But it doesn’t matter because when a swell fellow meets a cute girl, the fireworks are instantaneous.

They’re acting like two teenagers, like they’re the only ones in on the secret, but Toji can tell everyone from their construction office is in on the secret. They even nudge each other, nodding at them, rolling their eyes. ‘Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?’ someone says. ‘I think he has a wife,’ says another someone else. ‘Could've fooled me. The man doesn't even wear a wedding ring.'

Truthfully, Toji doesn’t really get what you see in him. He’s nothing spectacular to look at. He has beady eyes, a flat nose, and a beer gut with his happy trail poking out underneath his t-shirt. His smile’s all greasy, his goatee is scrappy, and his teeth have permanent whiskey stains.

But as soon as he brushes away the eyelash on cute girl’s face, he gets it.

He’s sincerely, utterly in love with her.

Toji decides to finish his water and take his leave, knowing this is just another sad ending to another sad love story.

Weirdly enough, whatever resolve he had in beating the shit out of him has already dissolved as he storms out the front door and hops onto his bike to make the drive back to your place.

--

Where he finds you fast asleep on the tatami mat, the spread of food on the dining table already cold.

"He's not coming back tonight," he says, but you don't offer any sign of hearing. "What a waste of fucking food."

He has the odd urge to kick you in the side of the head, but his pity for you outweighs his bad faith, so he picks you up off the ground, cradles you gently against the crook of his shoulder, and takes you home.

He doesn’t know, of course, that you’re already awake, that this is just like when your dad used to carry you to your bedroom after you fell asleep watching TV.

--

This is torture, he thinks, staring at your sleeping form on the veranda. It takes an inordinate amount of effort, possibly all the resolve he can muster, not to tear off your shirt, along with your pants, and fuck you in your sleep until you’re crying his name. He imagines what you’d feel like underneath all his weight, how supple your breasts would feel in his hands, and how your cunt would feel wrapped around his cock.

And then he stops himself from thinking anymore because thinking means acting in Toji’s world, and acting means, well.

He knows it’s not possible to die from blue balls, but then again, there are worse things in life than dying, and this is definitely one of them.

Something warm wraps around his hand, and he realizes it’s you.

You’re pulling his palm against your cheek, eyes opening blearily towards the moon in the faraway distance. I guess this is what it’s like to be lovers, he thinks, but the thought evidently dies when he sees the wedding band on your finger and the promise you made to someone else once upon a time.

“Thanks,” you murmur quietly, closing your eyes again.

A single tear comes running down your cheek as you curl up into yourself.

Toji brushes it away with his finger before setting his palm back down against your cheek, where he feels the heat shared between your mutual touch. Whatever desire he had to fuck you mindlessly into the tatami mat is gone, and suddenly all that’s left is wanting to protect the small part of you that hasn’t been heard in a long, long time. The small part of you that’s just desperate to be seen, to be known.

“You can kiss me,” you tell him, suddenly.

He pauses, leaning over study your lips, swollen and glistening from being over-chewed. His shadow encompasses your form as he bends down—

--only to press a kiss to your forehead before pulling away.

“Good night,” he whispers in your ear, voice tickling your cheek, and just like that some part of you feels whole again.

Chapter Text

“Where were you last night?”

Ryusei stares at you over his bowl of leftover rice, collect with all the other side dishes, untouched, sitting spread out on the kitchen counter, “The bar.”

You pause, “With?”

“Guys from work.”

You give him a beat to change his answer, but he doesn’t and the extraordinary disappointment of being lied to twice punches down with the dread of a three-ton boulder.

“We need to talk,” you tell him, but the declaration just compels him shove down the remainder of his breakfast before heading to the foyer to put on his boots.

“We can talk later when I’m home,” he says, already halfway out the door.

You struggle to catch up, instead, grabbing him by the arm. “Ryusei.”

He rips away from your touch, as if he’s been burned, as if to say what the fuck is your problem. The reaction is unexpected, one that makes you peter back with reluctance as his face softens at the sight of your trepidation and fear.

“Sorry,” he says, checking his watch. “I’m late for work.”

You stare at him a moment longer as he makes his way towards the car, wondering when it is you started living with a stranger.

When you return to the minka house, you see it’s only 5:34 a.m. Work doesn’t start for another hour, which would make this the third lie in a row. You’re starting to collect them like stones to throw at a later date, but marriage isn’t transactional, and tending to a fully developed grudge means you’ve already lost the battle in salvaging what’s left of your relationship.

You sigh, grabbing the leftovers from the dining table and wrapping them up in a picnic basket.

--

You make your way up the hill but find Toji missing from the bedroom. The living space looks relatively untouched, but the heat from your last interaction is still burning bright on the tatami mat from where you two last laid.

You can kiss me.

What the hell were you thinking?

No, you weren’t thinking at all.

You parse through the kitchen at a leisurely pace, finding no note left behind, no explanation. You check your phone, hopeful for a text, only to realize you never even got his number. Truthfully, you don’t even know if he has a cell phone.

You wonder if he’s working on his next "job" but decide not to pay it much heed as you check your watch and start on your morning duties: make lunch for sister dearest, pick the weeds in the garden, and take a nap before your waitressing job in Sendai.

But the thoughts swirl in your head like a live wire living inside your skin, stopping any conceivable thought that might comfort you in your time of need.

--

On your way to the hospital, you find Toji’s motorcycle parked outside the front, and Toji himself milling around the nurse’s station, flirting with the residents-in-training. They’re marveling at the size of his arms, hanging from them like happy little monkeys.

He doesn’t even break a sweat.

You decide to walk right past the freakish debacle and towards the hall where your sister’s room is. He doesn’t spare you a second glance, doesn’t even say hi, too enamored in making himself known and remembered.

As soon as you arrive, you find your sister fast asleep. Wordlessly, you set the picnic basket on the nightstand and crawl into her bed. She smells bitter, like sweat, but she also smells like your sister, like summer days swimming in the pond and catching crickets in the yard. Once upon a time, she was always big spoon; now she’s too small to play the part, too frail to lift her arms without putting in an exorbitant amount of effort.

“I’m a loser,” you murmur, curling against her neck.

Her frame is so small in your arms; it’s like holding a life-sized doll.

“Yeah you are,” she states, and you get a whiff of her breath, all dragony and sour. “Why are you here? You’re going to smell like a sick person the rest of the day.”

“I don’t care.”

You don’t necessarily want to tell her about your husband, not while she has bigger battles to concern herself with but holding it on your tongue is beginning to feel like a futile endeavor with nothing but a lonely end.

“Go home,” she yawns, readjusting position so that her head is leaning against your arm. “Come back when you’ve made me a few nieces and nephews.”

“We’ve been trying for a year,” you admit, the words spilling carelessly into the air as you reach to brush back her hair, only to catch a clump of it in your hands. “There’s something wrong with me, I think.”

She hums a cheerful little tune while you stare at this hairball in your palm, every strand thinned out like string. Your sister used to wear her hair in four thick pigtails because she had too much hair to go around; for some reason, this gave you the notion that it would overcome whatever side effect of her treatment in the hospital. You didn’t know she’d end up just like every other patient here who was struggling to cling onto some vestige of their former self.

Sighing, she sits up, giving you a look, "There's nothing wrong with you."

"You don't know that," you state. "I just have a feeling it's me, that's all."

"Whatever."

She starts washing up, brushing her teeth and scrubbing her face clean before putting on a face mask. You break out the canister of stew from the picnic basket and start feeding her with a spoon while making small talk about the most recent celebrity stories in the magazines you left yesterday.

“Who’s the guy, by the way?” She asks, suddenly, just as you start packing away her lunch. Maybe she’d been awake long enough to see him the other day; or maybe she just saw him milling around the lobby of the hospital like a pesky housefly.

“His name is Toji.”

She waits a beat, “No last name?”

“Nope.”

"Oh. How do you know him?"

You pause. “He’s the new tenant in mom and dad’s house.”

She blinks at you, “New tenant, huh.” But that look of disbelief melts into something knowing; a smile forms on her face. “That’s funny.”

“What’s so funny about it?”

“You wouldn’t let anyone near that house. We vetted hundreds of applicants over years and years and you said no to all of them without even batting a lash.”

You continue storing away all the empty lunch containers until her nightstand is clean again. She looks a little more lively now that she has some food in her stomach. “I just feel sorry for him ‘cause he’s homeless,” you tell her, having unwittingly told the truth.

The smile vanishes from her face, “Homeless?”

You grip the handle of the picnic basket, wondering if you should tell her the whole story, only to find that she’s already ushered you back into bed, waiting for you to explain.

And you do, of course. This is your sister you’re talking to, the arbiter of all that's right and true.

"I caught Ryusei cheating on me," you start, voice cracking.

--

As soon as you finish, she pauses, silently, mulling it over.

“That’s it,” she says, voice still as a winter storm. “I’m going to murder your husband. I’m going to chop him into little pieces and feed him to his mistress, and then I’m going to murder his mistress and chop her up too.”

--

On the way out, you pass by Toji again, but you just ignore him as you make your way through the automatic doors.

You untuck a cigarette from its box, light it up, and take the first inhale once you’re fully outside, feeling the smoke smother your lungs in one thick burn that has your eyes watering. When you exhale, your head feels a little lighter and suddenly every apprehension is melting away in the smoke.

“You need to stop showing up unannounced,” you state, once the automatic doors pull open to reveal Toji standing before you with that vacant stare in his eyes.

“Why? I can’t make friends?”

You flick off a pinch of ash from the edge of your cigarette and inhale again, “I don’t care if you flirt with nurses or make friends with the hospital staff. Just stay away from my sister, okay?”

He frowns at the insinuation before scoffing, “Bold of you to assume I’d want anything to do with fucking a sick girl.”

The insinuation just rolls off your shoulder as you continue staring at the passing cars.

“And not that it matters,” he goes on, studying the look of complacency on your face. “But at least I showed up.”

Your shoulders tense up.

He’s pretty certain he’s already set off your trigger, but instead, the gentlest little smile forms on your face.

“Yeah. You did,” you say, tossing away the stub of your cigarette and reaching into the box and to pick another one out.

Before you get the chance to light it, he snatches it from your lips and tosses it on the ground, stomping it out as you stare at him in shock.

“Stop smoking in front of a hospital,” he states, kicking the remnants aside before heading off to his bike. When you don’t follow immediately, he gives you a scathing look over his shoulder. “Well? What the fuck are you waiting for?”

--

The two of you ride back up the hill towards your parents’ house.

While Toji docks his bike, you start cleaning out the picnic basket, washing all the used containers and counting stock of what you have left in the fridge so you can present a new tasting menu for tomorrow.

“So this is your life,” he states, removing his shoes at the foyer before heading to the veranda, where he takes a seat by the kotatsu to study your movements in the kitchen.

“Yes, this is my beautiful, ordinary life,” you tell him, with all the intent of being sarcastic and scathing, only for it to come out sincere instead. The admission makes your face flush, as you turn back to the sink to wash the last of your Tupperware.

He studies the pictures of you and your sister on the TV stand, the two of you posing in front of the minka house with your pigtails tied together in a braid.

“Everything revolves around your sister,” he states, plainly.

“Our parents passed away when we were young. She basically raised me,” you tell him. “Of course my life revolves around her. I would take a bullet for her. I would die for her, even if she hated me for doing it. That’s what it means to be family."

A pause, "Not that you would understand anything about it.”

He leans against one clenched fist and frowns. Just as he’s about to respond with something snippy, you return from the kitchen with a plate of leftover katsu.

“Eat,” you snap at him, and before he can even consider thanking you, you’re already putting on your shoes in the foyer, ready to head out.

“Where’re you going?”

You brush a lock of hair behind your ear as you slip on your second shoe, “Work.”

“Work?”

“Yes, work, genius.” You glance at yourself in the mirror, checking to make sure everything is in place. “Have fun on your date tonight.”

--

It’s a gyoza place, one-room.

You’re the only server on staff, alongside the chef, and you have your hands tied from the moment the restaurant opens to the moment the restaurant closes. It’s tourist season, which means you have to double up on your English and Chinese, but you don’t mind the revolving door of new faces to meet. Having worked here for three years, you’ve already memorized the regulars, their orders, and their stories too.

The bell rings, indicating a new customer, and you find Toji standing in the frame of the doorway with the nurse he was flirting with this morning.

Saeko. She’s dressed up for the occasion: high pumps, pretty summer dress in yellow, and some designer purse you don’t recognize.

She recognizes you before you can recognize them, and immediately calls your name. “I didn’t know you work here!” She calls out, as you guide them to their table at the far corner of the gyoza shop, away from the cigarette smoke and half-drunk regulars. “You look so cute in an apron!”

Toji, meanwhile, looks unamused as ever, fingering the one-page menu like he’s being presented with a dirty towel. “What’s good here,” he states, mopey.

Saeko doesn’t seem to mind, as she does almost all the ordering for their table. “And we’ll have a pitcher of Asahi,” she tacks on, once she’s finished ordering.

“He doesn’t drink.” “I don’t drink.” Both of you answer simultaneously.

You meet Toji’s gaze, roll your eyes, and turn away.

“Oh. Then just an Asahi for me.” Saeko blinks, her gaze shifting from you to Toji. “Do you two know each other?”

“No.” “He's a tenant." You two exchange another glance, and you turn away.

Before she gets in another question, you take off towards the kitchen and ring up their order with the chef, who’s smoking a cigarette in the back.

It is a lot of food, he points out. But you just shrug, pouring out Saeko’s beer from tap while grabbing a can of pear juice from the fridge, something you’d intended to have yourself during your break. When you bring the drinks to their table, Toji does a double-take at the offering, only to sneer at it.

The night goes by unceremoniously, as you take orders from other customers. Due to the quantity of food ordered by Saeko, they end up being your last customers for the night, and you do them the courtesy or bringing out manju to snack on after they put in their final orders for last call.

As you wait for them to finish, you smoke a cigarette out front, squatting over your phone and parsing through the last text messages from your husband.

Ryusei: Going to drink with some of the guys tonight
Ryusei: Go to sleep without me

Angrily, you whip up a response.

This is the third night in a row you’ve gone drinking with your guy friends.

That’s the text you want to send him, but you stop just short of pressing send.

The tired, broken part of you is grasping at straws, compelling you not to become that woman. The unfun woman, the I’m-tired woman. It’s a learned habit of the fun wife, the wife who’s always down for anything, any time. The wife who lets you get away with everything and anything because it’s the only way to keep you happy; but then again, his happiness never stopped him from cheating.

You stomp out the rest of the cigarette stub before heading back and retrieving their check.

Saeko insists on paying for dinner, and you realize only then that Toji never actually pays for anything. A loitering vagabond, through and through.

For some reason, it just makes you pity him.

--

He walks Saeko home while you help close up shop, and it isn’t until your apron is off and you’re in your casual clothes that you find him loitering outside the storefront.

“See you tomorrow,” says the chef, zipping up his hoodie, hands dug deep into his pockets as he makes his way down the road.

You bid farewell, doing a little jog to catch up with Toji, who’s milling around near his bike. “How was your date?”

“Fine.”

A pause, as you size up his state of being. Something’s on his mind, but it probably doesn’t pertain to you.

“Okay, weirdo.” You turn towards the bus stop, ready to head home, but he just grabs you by the wrist and nods towards the back of his bike, where there’s a giant swell of a melon sitting in a plastic bag. The urgency in his eyes could not be more apparent. “What?” You blink at him. “I don’t get it.”

He just sighs at you, irritably, forcing you onto the back of his bike and forcing the melon in your lap. “I’m still hungry,” he states, and just like that you’re zipping up the hill together, melon squished on your lap as you wrap your arms around his impossibly toned waist.

You decide it’s not worth making a fuss over as you lean your cheek against his back, closing your eyes and letting yourself get swept up in peace of the night.

--

Back to your parents’ house you go, as you head straight to the kitchen and split the honeydew in half.

Silently, Toji watches as you cube the fruit and have it settled prettily in a wide bowl before coming to his side. At the edge of the veranda, the two of you start eating, watching the critters of the night in the faraway distance as they make themselves known.

“It’s not you,” he says, staring up at the moon. “Saeko says ninety percent of the time it’s always the dude, so.” He jabs a finger in your face, frowning. “It’s not you. Your guy is probably just impotent."

You blink at him, taking a beat to understand what he's saying. 

He was listening?

You're about to snap at him for the invasion of privacy, but the question comes spilling out your mouth before you can even digest the revelation he's given.

“That’s why you went on a date with her?”

“It wasn’t a date," he states.

“Pretty sure she didn’t see it that way.”

“Whatever,” he mumbles. “I’m just telling you this shit now so you’re not spending the rest of your life thinking there’s something wrong with you and your—” He pauses, eyes falling to your belly. “Whatever. Forget it. I’m going out on a job tomorrow. So I’ll see you around. Idiot.”

It's silent again, as you set down your toothpick against the wall of the bowl.

You rise slowly from the tatami mat. He doesn't turn to meet your gaze, still staring out at the moon in the sky.

Without warning, you bend down to press a kiss to his forehead.

--

At home, you sit at your dining table, waiting.

The hours wind down—1am, 2am, 3am.

It’s 4:04 a.m. when the front door opens and you find Ryusei standing in the frame. “You’re still up.” He takes a beat to recognize you before taking off his shoes in the foyer and heading to the fridge, where he grabs himself a bottle of beer. “You should be sleeping.”

His concern sounds sincere, and it almost fools you into thinking he might mean it. But you keep thinking about your last conversation with Toji, your sister in the hospital, and take a breath, knowing that if you don’t summon the courage now, you might never again.

“I know you’re cheating on me,” you tell him.

He pauses, the lips of the bottle pressing up against his mouth.

“I think we should take a break,” you go on, staring at the hardwood underneath your hands.

“But …” He looks taken aback, eyes filling with hurt as he sets down the beer. “We’re married.”

And then something hits you, as you look up to meet his gaze.

“Okay,” you say. “Then I think we should get a divorce.”

--

You start moving your things out the next week, making the laborious trip up the hill four times before all your stuff is gone.

The beats of your everyday living doesn’t change, as Ryusei puts on his boots to head to work, as you get a head start on making lunch for your sister. There’s a few texts from him that go unread on your phone, but you figure you don’t owe him anymore obligated responses.

Ryusei: You left your engagement ring in the bedroom

You already mentioned giving it to him, so you’re not exactly sure why he’s going to such great lengths to contact you about it. Either way, you don’t feel compelled to send a text back, so you just tuck away your phone and make yourself at home again.

--

It’s quieter now without Toji around, and your memories of him are beginning to feel like a fever dream. You wonder if you’ve literally conjured up this person from the depths of your imagination, but when Saeko asks you about him one morning with tears in her eyes, you realize he’s very much real.

“I wonder if he’s alright,” she says.

"I'm sure he's fine," you tell her.

At the sound of this, she bursts into tears, sobbing into your shoulder.

One, of course, has to wonder about his effect on women who barely even know him. You do your best to comfort her, but you stifle the exasperation of being the one to do so, when it should really be him comforting her.

--

The divorce papers come in the ensuing weeks as Ryusei asks you to coffee as one last gesture of good faith. You don’t think much of it, showing up only to find him sitting there with your engagement ring.

Before you get a chance to flag down the waitress to order yourself something to drink, he pushes it towards you.

“I already said you can keep it,” you state.

“I know,” he says. “But it's not mine to keep. It belonged to your mom."

Without thinking, you take it into your hands, feeling the weight of it.

“It carries nothing but bad memories now,” you tell him, and the sentiment is enough to make him wilt in his seat.

"I know," he says. "I'm sorry."

But you realize now. He just wants to give back the last happy memory you made together before everything went spiraling to despair and indifference.

“Was it because I went away for college?” You ask, suddenly.

He shakes his head.

“Then,” truthfully, you come up empty. “Is it—was I—”

Was I just not good enough?

“We just haven’t been ourselves in a long time,” he says, taking your hands in his. The warmth of him is familiar, but all the love is gone in one touch. He pauses, before pressing a kiss to your knuckles.

You outgrew each other, you think. It just happened at different times; both of you were sailing on different wavelengths for the longest of time, but neither of you wanted to acknowledge it.

A split of lightning comes flashing through the sky, followed by the thunderous crack that sounds like a thousand drums on fire. Rain comes pelting down in sheets. You pull your hands away, rising from your seat.

"I hope you're happy now," you tell him, meaning it.

"I am," he says.

You heart cracks in a thousand pieces.

And then you leave.

As soon as you take a step out, you're drenched. You don’t know where you’re going, who you want to see—all you know, as the rain comes pouring down from above, is that you’re free.

--

By the time you reach the hospital, all your clothes are soaked, dragging down on your shoulders like weights. You’re so eager to tell your sister the news you completely miss the tarped motorcycle docked outside.

You sign in with the nurses, Saeko looking cheerful as ever, and when you make it to the room in question, you hear her laughter outside. It doesn’t register to you that someone else is there until you step in and find Toji sitting at her bedside, feeding her melon.

He frowns at the sight of you, “You’re dripping.”

You are. A pool of rainwater has formed at your feet as you stare at the sight of them, your sister completely oblivious.

“Toji said you sent him to feed me,” she says, and only then do you see the array of empty containers sitting on her nightstand.

“I—” You stop yourself. Wordlessly, you make your way over, taking a seat next to her on an extra stool. You put on the brightest smile you can manage as you start dripping a whole new puddle on the floor by her bed. “You look better today,” you say, poking through a cut sliver of melon with a toothpick and offering it to your sister.

You look at Toji and smile, “Thank you for your help.”

His cheeks tinge pink as he turns away, frowning.

“Hey, that’s mom’s ring!” Your sister grabs your hand and studying the jewel on your ring finger. “Wow. I haven’t seen that in a while.” But just as suddenly, some kind of recognition dawns on her face. “You aren’t wearing your wedding band either.”

You pull your hand away, hiding it underneath the bedding of her cot. “Later,” you tell her.

“I truly could not give less of a shit.” Every word drips with poison as Toji just rolls his eyes at you. “Please don't stop on my account.”

--

After she falls asleep, you and Toji head out together, only to find it still raining.

You’re itching for a cigarette, but the memory of having your last cigarette snatched away is still fresh in your mind, so you make do staring at the sky, searching for some sign the weather will let up soon.

“Why are you being nice to me?” You ask, suddenly.

Toji snorts. “I’m always nice.”

You study him, listening to the patter of the rain while the sky darkens into evening. “How did your job go? You were gone a long while."

“Like you give a shit,” is his automatic response, which elicits nothing but a scornful look on your part. Suddenly he feels compelled to lower his voice, kicking at nothing in the ground while the two of you are embroiled in silence yet again.

You cross your arms over your chest, suddenly feeling very cold. Your mind is foggy, but you know if you don't ask him now you might never.

“Why didn’t you kiss me that night?”

He shrugs, stuffing his hands into his pockets, “Who knows.”

You seemed like you really needed a friend.

You study him again, ready to say more, only to stifle whatever thought is racing inside your head. Without saying a single word, you take off down the road, stepping back into the rainfall and drenching yourself again.

Toji’s about to follow you when Saeko comes strolling out the automatic doors of the hospital with a beaming smile on her face, “I’m off the clock in thirty minutes. Wanna grab a bite to eat?”

But he doesn’t hear her. Doesn’t want to hear her. Just races off after you when he sees that you've broken into a sprint. Watches as you make your way towards the Hirose River, Sendai Castle sitting just on the cloudy horizon.

You come to a stop at the edge where the banister is to stare at it. Then, slowly, your gaze comes to the ring sitting on your finger.

You pry it off and toss it into the water.

"What the hell are you doing?" Toji snaps, grabbing you by the wrist, only to dart his gaze back to the river, where the ring disappears in the haze of storm and rainwater.

Without thinking, he leaps over the banister, and dives into the deep green with a splash.

Chapter Text

Toji doesn’t flinch as needle punctures skin, thread pulling taut in crisscrosses until the mouth-sized wound on his forehead starts sealing shut, one-half centimeter at a time.

“Please stop staring,” you tell him, sitting back on your heels. “You’re making me nervous.”

“Where the hell am I supposed to look?” Lying on flat ground, he has the choice between staring at your face or counting the cracks in the ceiling.

“I don’t care. Just stop before I prick you in the eyeball.”

He sneers in a not-so committed way, shivering as his wet t-shirt continues clinging to skin. There’s river water everywhere. Puddles leading from the foyer to the living space, where the kotatsu’s been turned on to little effect. The heat of the blanketed radiator is so minuscule it’s like trying to warm up a glacier with a candle.

You grab a thick, wool blanket and toss it over his quivering body, tucking him in like a burrito. “Just bear with it a little longer.” You roll your neck in a circle to iron out the knots of muscle before continuing. “We’re almost done.”

He risks one more glance at your face, so deeply sincere and filled with resolve, before looking away, “Whatever.”

Sweat beads over your brow as you take a deep, concerted breath, threading needle through wound again. From the corner of his eye, Toji continues scrutinizing your facial expression like he’s playing a game of spot the difference. Knitted brows, focused eyes, tongue pressed against the corner of your lip.

Cute.

“You’re still staring,” you state, tying the end with a knot.

Slowly, the threads pull together and the last of the wound is drawn in an airtight seal as you bite off the end of the string with your teeth.

He looks away, “Barely.”

Since arriving home, you've been in a state of panic, flipping over every conceivable cabinet in the kitchen in search of a first-aid kid, only to enter a state of calm once the items were procured. “We should’ve gone to the hospital,” you state, studying your linework and frowning at the sight. “That’s going to scar. Badly."

“Who cares?” Toji glances at his own reflection in the standing mirror you have sitting on the kotatsu. “My hair will cover it.”

Men. You roll your eyes, gathering your materials and reacquainting them to their designated compartments in the first-aid kit. “I started a bath for you upstairs. Go wash up before you catch a cold.”

He doesn’t need to be asked twice, starting towards the stairwell while peeling off his t-shirt, pinching the cloth from the back shoulder and tugging it over his head before shaking his head like a wet dog, river water staining the steps. You get only a glimpse of his abs, followed by the curve of his impossibly toned waist before he disappears into the shadows up the stairs. For a while, you continue staring into the ether where he left until you hear another crackle of thunder outside as the rain continues pouring down from the sky.

You flick off the kotatsu heater before stowing away the first-aid, along with all the miscellaneous cabinets you managed to flip over in the kitchen in your mad scramble to help him.

You remember Toji had followed you in, hands dug deep in his pockets, staring at you, eyebrow arched, as if there weren’t a gaping hole in his face the size of your pinky finger. Truthfully, he looked a little miffed over the display of panic, as you grabbed a fistful of paper towels from the sink to apply pressure to the cut.

Chill out, dude. His words, not yours.

You had insisted on taking him to the hospital, only for him to threaten to jump back into the river if you did.

Once you finish stowing things away, you head upstairs, where you hear Toji sulking around in the bath. He’s taken up residence in your old room, nothing but a knapsack to his name on the floor next to the bed. Two t-shirts, one pair of pants. There’s a mess of discarded books on your nightstand, mostly chick-lit, cheesy epics, and historical romance.  Some of them have been pilfered through and doggy-eared, much to your chagrin.

The door to the bath slides open, suddenly, and Toji is standing there in the frame, readjusting the long towel tied around his waist. Steam rolls off his shoulders as he catches your gaze in the hall. He's even bigger up close: broad shoulders, bulging biceps, slim waist. There are scars ... everywhere, but you don't ask where they're from, knowing they're probably gifts bestowed from that job he's so reticent to talk about.

“Where’re your wet clothes?” You interject before he can make any snide remark about your staring. “I’ll put them in the wash tomorrow.”

“Already done,” he says, jabbing a thumb into the bathroom where his shirt and pants are hanging on hangers by the window. “All yours now.”

He walks right past you, making his way towards his (your) room as you take a breath.

“Thanks,” you say suddenly, just as he’s about to shut the door. “For tonight.”

He shrugs. “Don’t thank me yet. I didn’t even find your damned ring.”

“That’s okay.” You start towards your parents’ room, which you’ve since begun occupying, and pause in the doorframe as you take one last look over your shoulder to meet his gaze across the hall. “Just the gesture.” Truthfully, you’re struggling to find the right words to explain yourself in a way that doesn’t come across insincere or contrived. “Um, it meant something to me, that’s all.”

But the appreciation doesn’t register just yet, greasy little smile forming on his face as some other realization begins to dawn.

“If it really meant that much,” he nods towards his (see: your) bed. “You could always show your gratitude in a different way.”

You stare at him, disgust written in every line of your smile that's quickly transforming into a scowl.

Without another word, you turn heel, slamming your door shut while Toji's left staring at the empty space in the hall.

Huh. Guess I pushed too hard, he thinks, following suit and pulling the door of your room closed with a faint little click. The towel gets disposed, hitting the floor with a thwack as he hops onto your bed, feeling the springs dig into his naked stomach. He grabs the next book from the pile on the nightstand, and flips to the doggy-eared page he last left off.

"Stupid fucking book," he mutters.

The lovers in the story are doomed to an inevitable end, what with the gunfire, the war, and the quiet letters, but he can’t stop reading. He has to know when the correspondences cease, and just how debilitating the heartbreak is. How long will she pine for him, how many letters will she write, how many letters will she hold out on, until the hope wanes and she starts realizing she’ll never receive a letter again.

“Your good little soldier is already dead,” he hisses, finger brushing against the hardened stitches in his forehead as he flips to the next page. "Dumb bitch."

--

“I saw a young man accompanying you by the river last night,” says Himiko, the elderly regular who often pays visit to the gyoza shop upon reopening in the afternoon. “My, he certainly was tall. I've never seen such a broad young man in my life!"

“Family?” says Hiroto, the chef in the back readying the oils and lining up the gyoza frozen from last night.

“Tenant,” you tell him, wrapping all the proper utensils in their napkins.

“Seriously?” He looks nonplussed. “Where’s he working? Construction with Ryusei?”

“Actually … he’s in between jobs right now.” It feels weird having to cover for a stranger you barely even know, but you tell yourself you’re still technically telling the truth. Besides, Toji is the easy part. You’ve been holding out on the hope that the topic of Ryusei will eventually get put to rest, and that everyone will pick up on the fact that you’re single without you ever having to spell it out.

Even without your parents around, it’s a humiliating thing to concede. Barely even thirty, and the only thing you have to your name is a divorce. You might have your surname back, the only thing that ever mattered, but you’re still wondering if it was worth trading your marriage for.

“Well, he’ll find something. I’m sure of it,” says granny Himiko, winking.

Thankfully it’s the impetus to close conversation as Hiroto does one last check to make sure all his tools are properly stationed. Good old granny, on the other hand, doesn’t stop sizing you up with that wrinkled little smile, still sipping on her barley tea as you move out with your napkinned utensils to set up tables for opening.

Your first group of guests end up filling the whole gyoza shop, with fourteen-so firemen filtering through the front door in their office-wear. No doubt they’ve just signed off a three-day shift, looking all mussed up and happy-exhausted.

“That friend of yours,” says Himiko. “He’s in between jobs, isn’t he?”

“Mmhmm.” You don’t think much of it, putting in the orders for twenty-eight plates of pork and chive gyoza before coming behind the bar to grab the pitcher of hot barley tea.

“The fire department’s hiring.” Her gaze turns to the burliest man at the head of the table. “Or so I hear through the grapevine,” she tacks on with a saucy little smile. “Your father was good friends with Ichiro. Apparently he’s the fire chief now. Head of the department! Can you believe it? That scrawny little thing. They used to call him green bean stalk back in the day. The gentlest winds would topple him over.”

You snort. “Alright, granny. I can take a hint.”

She’s still working on her last plate of gyoza, but you’re moving across the floor to greet the fire station who’ve taken up residence in every booth and every aisle. Ichiro, the only man at the table with a four-star pin designating his rank, catches your gaze and orders the usual.

“How’s the farm?” He asks, crossing his arms over his chest as the man next to him puts in an order for seven pitchers of beer.

“Farm’s fine,” you reply. “Almost truffle season. Should be fun. Scaling the mountains again.”

“Trade you some watermelon for what you find.”

You laugh, “Nice try. That scam might work on the kids, though.”

“Speaking of kids,” the smile vanishes from his face as he takes on a fascinatingly stern disposition in an all-too fatherly manner. “You and Ryusei … how are you two these days?”

You decide not to beat around the bush, lowering your voice to a whisper.

“We broke up,” you say, quietly. “Separated, I mean. Um. We’re divorced.”

“Seriously?”

You nod. There’s really no nice way of saying it, but you didn’t think you’d sound so much like a teenager trying to explain yourself either.

“Can I set you up with my son?” He asks.

“I don’t think I’ll be dating for a while.” A nice, diplomatic response. “But I was hoping I could ask you for a favor, Ichiro-san.” You stow away your writing pad and take a deep breath. “I heard you’re hiring at the fire department.”

“It’s true,” he nods in the direction of one of the more senior officers. “Minato is moving back to Osaka to take care of his in-laws.” He smiles, wryly. “Why? You’re looking to try your hand?”

“No, I’ll stick with the gyoza, thank you.” You return his smile. “But actually, there’s a friend of mine … a tenant, actually. He’s looking for a job.”

--

You don’t arrive home until 2 a.m., where you find Toji lounging in your living space, staring at the moon by the open veranda.

Wordlessly, you remove your shoes in the foyer, walking over to the fridge, where you grab the last remaining Asahi.

You open the tab as the can hisses and flop onto the tatami mat next to him, following his gaze up to the sky, where the first glow of stars are blooming against blue. There’s no horizon to meet, only infinite black starlight under a ghost of the moon.

“I found you a job,” you say, taking a deep sip of beer and letting the fizz swell in your mouth before swallowing.

He lays down flat, leaning against one clenched fist so that the top of his head is only inches away from your thighs, “I already have a job.”

“Not really, you don’t. All you do is wander off once a month, come back bloodied and bruised, and wait for the next.”

“And?”

“If you want to stay, you have to pay rent.”

“That hasn’t been a problem so far.”

“Do you always live off the goodwill of others? How long does that usually last you? One month? Two?” When you get no answer, you roll your eyes. “Besides, people are going to start asking questions.”

A snort. “Like I give a shit.”

You sigh. “I think it would be good for you. Having some structure in your life.” A pause. “And health insurance, company-grade."

“Don’t patronize me. It’s annoying.”

“That was barely patronizing,” you say, but no sooner do the words escape you do you understand.

He’s never been nagged in his life, at least not in that idle, doting way that all loving mothers, fathers, and siblings do. For him, there’s no difference between someone mocking him, and someone meaning well, of wanting the best for him.

When the silence stretches too long, and the air between you gets too thin to breathe, he glances up at your face and frowns.

“Ugh, stop looking at me like that,” he says.

You blink. “Like what?”

“Like you pity me.”

“I don’t pity you,” you state, but the look of skepticism on his face could not be more apparent. “Fine. Just a little.”

You drain your beer, wiping the foam from your upper lip as you shimmy back to lean against the kotatsu. It’s quiet as you stare at his face, feeling the liquor buzz hit you like a freight train of whimsy as you come to realize he’s an objectively very, very good-looking man, even when he’s scowling in that incorrigible way. It’s almost … cute.

“I told Ichiro-san you would meet him for an interview. He’s an old family friend, and this is a favor he’s doing me, so just show up okay?”

“He’s not my friend. I don’t owe him anything.”

“Well, then do it for me.”

He pauses.

You take his silence as affirmation and beam, “Great. It’s settled then. You can borrow my dad’s suit.”

“There’s no way in hell I’m wearing a suit.”

“Why not? You’d look good in one.” You can't resist a smile as you sway side to side, hugging your knees to your chest. “I think it’d … suit you.”

Ugh."

You finish off the rest of your beer, pushing yourself up from the tatami mat and making your way to the kitchen, footsteps staggered and uneven. Every sensation has dulled now that you’re a little buzzed. The stickiness of your skin is gone, along with the ache in your lower back, and so is the feeling of exhaustion as you toss the beer can into the recycling bin underneath the sink.

“I’ll lay it out for you,” you wave your hand good night as you stumble up the first step of the staircase, nearly tripping onto your face. “Oof. Gotta fix. That. Foot. Step. Oh no. Not good.”

“Hey, lightweight. Slow down,” Toji snaps, but you’ve already made your way up the stairs, humming a cheerful little tune as you turn on the water in the bath.

He can hear the door close on the other side, but the song you’re humming is a familiar one, something he’s heard before once upon a time.

Without thinking, he starts humming it too, still staring up at the sky and watching the stars blink.

--

Days fly by as you make your way back to the hospital to take care of your sister.

Toji, without invitation, tags along like your sidekick, complaining that he has nothing better to do at home. There’s no TV, no signal, and no nearby arcades or pachinko shops to waste time at. It makes you wonder why he even bothers staying around, but then again, homeless vagabonds can’t exactly be choosey about where they want to settle. So you let him come, and the visits give him something to look forward to as his interview with Ichiro continues pending.

Without realizing, he starts learning about your sister, drumming up questions to ask each time around, much to your chagrin. He learns she used to work in the same gyoza shop you did, that she was also bussing tables and taking orders before the position was handed to you. For some reason, he’s more interested in this bit of information than you are.

He’ll tell you at a later date that he knows she dated the chef, Hiroto. For a guy who’s pretty bad with social cues, he’s become pretty adept at reading a situation, asking the right questions and finding the right assessments. It’s like a game he plays for fun in his spare time, though it’s the kind of game that only goes one way.

“Why doesn’t he visit?” He asks, one day, as the two of you lounge around by the vending machines outside.

“Hospitals make him anxious.”

“Pussy shit."

When he gets bored playing babysitter, he’ll go off to flirt with the nurses, including Saeko, who finds herself latched onto his orbit like he's the sun.

“Those stitches look terrible!” She says, marveling at your handiwork on his face. “I should get a doctor to redo them for you.” But before she can take off, he grabs her by the wrist and stops her in place.

Leave it.”

She blushes, so overcome by the fact that he’s touched her she completely forgets to ask how he got those stitches and exactly who administered them. You remark on it one day, rolling your eyes as you crawl into your sister’s hospital bed, flipping through magazine pages with her.

“It’s not like I’d be offended if he redid them. I'm obviously not a doctor."

“Maybe he just wants a keepsake,” she says.

"A scar?"

“At least it's something to remember you by."

On this afternoon, the two of you are gossiping about the spread of Hollywood celebrities in the latest spread of Men’s Non-No. The new Avengers film is being pushed to the international market, billboards of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America lining the buildings of Sendai.

Your fingers brush against the portrait of Chris Hemsworth. “Thor … beautiful.” A happy sigh.

“No way. Not with that wig.” She motions to Captain America and his beautifully coiffed golden-brown hair. “Old-school. Timeless. Much better.”

“Oh whatever. Thor is hot despite the wig. That's what real good-looking people can do. You're so impossibly sexy you can pull off that."

“What do you think, Toji?”

You don’t even realize Toji is standing in the frame of the doorway until you hear his name, and when you look up, you see him with his hands dug deep into his pockets, sneering at the magazine spread.

“They’re all hideous.” He pauses, resuming his seat at her bedside. “Except the green one.”

--

As the weeks go by, you start upping the ante and giving him newer responsibilities to shoulder. Letting him feed her, letting him help her walk her around the hospital grounds.

You even let him bring her dinner one night when you’re asked to pull an emergency shift at the gyoza restaurant.

“You could at least pay me,” he snaps.

“Fine. How much—”

“Forget it. I don’t want your damn pity money.”

You don’t miss the extra half-smile as he begins sauntering down the road with his little picnic basket of goods.

--

It’s a busy night at the shop, as you rush from table to table, taking new orders, picking up discarded chopsticks, and refilling empty pitchers of beers. The air fills with laughter and good cheer, as someone calls your name and asks for another two plates of gyoza.

You're running on autopilot and it isn’t until you catch sight of a familiar pastel jacket that you find yourself catching the gaze of that cute girl from the construction office.

Her cheeks turn pink as soon as she sees you, and she returns to her group of friends, whispering something to them as they all turn to take stock of you. Some part of you wonders how much of your story they actually know, if they think you’re just the boring, uptight wife who doesn’t know how to have any fun; the other part of you wonders if they just pity you, now that you’ve been cheated on and divorced.

Pastel-girl must be the heroine in their eyes, and who’s to say they’re wrong? She’s won everything that should’ve been yours; and now she’s here, eating at the gyoza shop you’re working in while you’re taking her orders.

But then something occurs to you, as you study her from a faraway distance. All that bright, bumbling fervor and an eagerness to please. I was like her once, you think, and though your automatic instinct is to hate her, you’ve already reached a state of apathy because hating takes effort, and hating someone you barely know takes even more effort.

After taking the last round of orders, you head outside for a quick cigarette and stare up at the sky. The jingle of bells follow behind you as the door opens again, and you find pastel-coat girl and her friends heading out for the night.

She catches your gaze, looking almost apologetic as her cheeks flush red again. There’s something she wants to say, but you’re not interested in hearing her out as you turn towards the moon again.

--

After your shift, you meet at the hospital late in the night, washing out the containers in the bathroom sink as Toji and your sister continue discussing something menial and silly.

You’re still thinking about your last encounter at the gyoza shop, amazed how one little interaction can ruin your whole fucking day, but you decide to put on a brave front and move past it, glancing back into the room to see your sister laughing.

“That’s so stupid,” she says.

But then something settles on her face as Toji continues mocking the doctor in the room who has his back turned towards another patient.

You can recognize that look in her face, as her skin goes pale and her eyes begin zoning out into the netherspace at the foot of her bed. It’s the same look you can see in a dog that’s about to retch up the lego it’s just swallowed.

“She’s gonna barf.” You rush forward, voice booming through the room. “Toji, there’s a buck—"

But it’s too late.

On instinct, he reaches out his hands, catching the vomit like he’s cupping water.

Not a single drop hits the bed as he glares at you. “A little late for that,” he states, face utterly devoid of any feeling whatsoever as he makes his way into the bathroom to dump the contents and scrub his hands clean with soap.

You’re a little shocked he’s not causing more of a fuss, but then again you’ve come to realize you truly don’t know what to expect from him. "Are you alright?" You ask, rushing to your sister's bedside. "How're you feeling?"

"Better now."

She grabs herself a napkin from the nightstand and wipes the corner of her lips, giving you a thumbs-up and a wink. “He’s a keeper," she whispers.

--

On the way home, Toji carries the picnic basket as the two of you make your way up the street. It’s more discreet to walk than share a motorcycle, and though it takes you about two actual hours to get home, you don’t mind. It gives you time to untuck a cigarette from your coat pocket and light it, sauntering up the pathway and expelling smoke from your lips.

“Do you really think it’s possible to steal someone’s good luck?” You ask.

“Yeah."

"How do you know that?"

"Because you stole mine. No fucking doubt about that.”

You smile, thinking about that night in the pachinko parlor. You could’ve easily dismissed it as a fluke, but three jackpots later at the same machine was a little excessive. That, and the horse race, and the fact that you were rescued from your imminent death.

"This fortune-teller in Tokyo said I sucked up all my family's life blessings, and that I’ll live until I’m two-hundred years old because no one else has made it past thirty-five. My mom died at thirty-three, my dad at thirty-four. And my sister--” A pause, as you glance at Toji’s profile. “You’re next, by the way. I’ll be three-hundred and immortal, like Edward Cullen.”

“Bold of you to assume I won’t be stealing back my luck," he says, pausing. “Whoever the fuck is Edward Cullen is."

It’s quiet for a while, as you two continue up the road.

Suddenly, you stop, offering him your hand.

“Do it. Take it back,” you say. “All your luck."

He does, hand encompassing yours whole, looking like he’s about to shake the luck out of you, only to link his fingers between yours, not quite letting go until the two of you are all the way home.

“Oh, the flowers!” You peel away from Toji’s grasp, bending down by the tiny orange petals in full bloom under your veranda. “Look! They’re so beautiful, aren’t they?”

He squats down next to you, following your gaze. “They don’t look anything special."

But that look of wonder on your face would say otherwise. Toji frowns, the faintest blush kissing his cheeks pink as he takes stock of your expression before looking back at the flowers at your feet.

--

There’s bustling in the early morning, rousing you from your deep sleep as you blink at the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand. 7:34 a.m. You have another four hours to sleep in but decide to pull yourself out of bed and get ready when you hear someone cursing on the other side of the door.

You wash up quickly in the half bathroom inside your parents’ room before putting on a tank-top and knotting your hair into braids. As soon as you come outside, you find Toji in a tan suit, buttons in a convenient state of disarray while his hair is mussed up with what seems like … wax?

“You look nice,” you state, stupidly.

Oh. Right. The interview.

He frowns at you. “Whatever.”

You remember the suit being a little boxy on your dad’s shoulders, but Toji’s arms are so thick and defined, it’s hugging him in all the right ways.

“Come here,” he commands, waving you over, and for once you decide to humor him, knowing that it’s probably taken a considerable amount of effort to get him into said suit, that you’re almost at the finish line.

Once you follow him into your room, you find a tie in his grasp, wrinkled to oblivion.

“Do it,” he says, shoving the piece of cloth in your hands as he takes a seat on the edge of his bed, arching his neck out.

You take a step between his open thighs and sling the body around his neck, seam-side down and face-side up. “Watch carefully, okay?”

You walk him through the motions, one step at a time, exaggerating every cross and every gesture, finding the hole and making sure the tie is secure as you slide up to tighten the knot. You smooth down the collar of his white button-up and take a step back to assess your work.

“Remember all that?”

You don’t actually expect him to demonstrate, but he does, undoing the knot and following each step at a much faster pace until the knot is done at his neck with pinpoint precision.

“Wow, you’re a really fast learner,” and for some reason, the sincerity of your praise makes his cheeks turn bright red like a tomato.

“You have an eyelash on your face,” he says, reaching up towards your face with his pinched fingers.

On instinct, your eyes squeeze shut as you turn away, feeling the pads of his fingertips brush light as a feather against your skin. When you open your eyes, he’s holding the eyelash in his palm like a tiny little treasure.

“Make a wish, dummy.”

You pause, studying that eternal scowl on his face, and blow.

I wish that you would kiss me.

The eyelash disappears in less than an instant.

He looks like he couldn't care less, "What'd you wish for."

“That your interview would go well. That you’d get a job. Fight a bunch of fires. Retire peacefully with a nice wife who has a family monopoly on all the pachinko shops in Sendai."

He snorts. “Idiot. Once you tell someone your wish, it won’t come true.”

It’s quiet, and for a while, he just studies the expression on your face as you take a step back, suddenly looking all shy.

Without warning, he grabs you by the hand and pulls you forward so that you’re forced to straddle him on the bed. His legs are stiff as a board, and the blush on your face begins to match his.

“You really are lucky,” he says, leaning in so close you can almost taste his breath on your mouth. He presses a kiss to your cheek before pulling back with a smirk. “Not today, though.”

Chapter Text

“A word of advice? Ichiro-san can sniff out bullshit a mile away," you state. "When I was a kid, my sister and I thought it would be funny to sneak a case of beer into school during Parents’ Day. Guess who found us out before we could even make it to our lockers?"

Toji snorts. “You? Miss goody-two shoes?”

“Yes, me, miss goody-two-shoes. Please don’t miss the point.” You lean against the window of the bus, feeling the seat rumble as the vehicle continues trudging up the long hill. “If you’re in a position where you feel compelled to lie, just don’t.”

“Whatever.” He yawns, folding his arms while his dress shirt wrinkles over the bulge of his pecs. “Don’t you have work tonight?”

You stretch your arms out, staring out the window. “Yep.”

“So why are you here.”

“In case you get cold feet and try to run away,” you reply, somewhat flippantly as the fire department crops up in the distance, almost an acre long, taking the expanse of two whole sidewalks.

“I don’t get cold feet.”

But you’re not listening, instead, gesturing towards the short, one-story buildings where the off-duty firefighters are lounging outside with their morning cigarettes. “Look, the dorms!” Your eyes scan the area, dazed at the scale. “There’s so many of them…”

He follows your gaze but makes no sound of acknowledgment as the bus pulls to a full stop. Both of you rise to dismount, but Toji lets you pass through first, your shoulder brushing against the cloth of his suit jacket as you descend from the steps of the backdoor towards the chain link fence.

“They have a basketball court too,” you point out.

“No shit.” Toji has never actually attended college, but he imagines this would be something similar as he studies the guys who’re knee-deep into their game of pickup.

“You should learn how to play.”

“I haven’t even interviewed yet.”

“But they look so cool,” you say, watching one of them run to the hoop to do a lay-up.

Big fucking deal.

He grabs you by the wrist, pulling you away from the fence, “Stop being so easily impressed.”

Your cheeks turn pink as you take one last look at the basketball court before following him along the pathway. He has one hand dug deep in his suit pocket while the other hand is pulling at you like a petulant child at Disney. Neither of you make mention of the fact that his hand is still wrapped around your wrist by the time you enter through the building’s automatic doors, letting go only when he finds the desk to sign in with the receptionist.

She looks familiar, but it isn’t until you start studying her face that you realize she’s one of pastel-girl’s friends who visited the gyoza shop that night. It doesn’t take her long to recognize you too, though neither of you acknowledge each other as Toji furiously scribbles down his name before tossing the pen lazily across the table.

“Sir, your family name?” She says, gesturing at the sign-in sheet.

"Why."

She stares at him, having never been asked that question before, “We need it for record-keeping, as well as security purposes.

Toji sneers, “Well, tell your security it’s none of their damn—”

You snatch the pen and scribble down your family name instead. “Forgive my cousin. He woke up on the wrong side of the bed."

Toji frowns. “Guess that means I’m a cousin you’d like to ki—"

You slap a hand over his mouth, feeling the heat of his breath against your palm as you flash the receptionist a bright smile. “Don’t mind him. He’s just really excited to be here today.” It’s amazing, how the lies can glue to themselves to one another like a snowball as you remove your hand from Toji’s mouth. “Are we good now?”

The receptionist takes a beat to digest the question before returning your smile. “Yes, that’s fine.” She picks up a clipboard from the table and gestures to the end of the hall. “Right this way, sir.”

“Good luck,” you say. “I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Toji’s still staring at you, sneering. “You don’t need to wait for me.”

“There’s something I need to do anyway,” you tell him. "Not everything is about you."

He waits a moment, giving you a chance to change your mind.

When you don’t, he shrugs, taking off after the receptionist while you make your way through the automatic doors of the front entrance to smoke a cigarette. Truthfully, you’d rather avoid any awkward conversations that might ensue once the receptionist returns. All the meaningless small-talk, how-do-you-dos. Pretending not to know any better; acting like you don’t already know the intimate details of your individual lives. It’s all so terribly tedious.

--

By the time you start working on your second cigarette, the doors open with a swish.

You’re convinced it’s going to be the receptionist, but it’s just a nameless young man with a bad dye job. “Hey.” He gestures pointedly at the cigarette in your mouth. “You got a spare?”

You pluck out the box from your purse and offer him the last one. He lights it up while you study his face, recognizing him only after a beat. “You’re Ichiro-san’s kid, aren’t you?”

Denki.

“Kid,” he snorts, dusting off his first pinch of cigarette ash. “We’re the same age.” He takes a drag, exhaling smoke. “That was your friend who just went in to interview, right?”

“Yeah. Ichiro-san said you were in need of manpower."

He shrugs. “Not really.”

A pause. "What do you mean, not really?"

“Becoming a firefighter in Japan is competitive. There are exams involved; and if you don’t pass the first time, you have to wait until the next year to retake them,” he says. “The interviewing process can prolong that.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that.”

“Most people don’t.” He grins. “Anyway, how’s your sister? She’s still knitting those handbags? My mom used to buy a bunch of them every year."

You look away, “Yeah. She’s fine.”

“That’s good,” he laughs. “Hey, don’t say anything, but I used to have a huge crush on her. Massive, actually.”

You snort. “You and everyone else in Sendai.” A pause, as you flick off the ashes from your cigarette. “Did your dad put you up to this?”

“Yeah. He said it was time I settled down, so you'd be doing me a favor if you acted like I just said something funny,” he replies. “Sorry to hear about Ryusei, by the way. I’m sure that was … hard.”

You take a long drag of your cigarette, massaging away the headache that’s yet to actually form in your head. "Let's talk about something else."

You do. You chat for some time, catching up on life to pass the time until Toji reappears from the hall. Ichiro manifests behind him, patting him on the shoulder on the way out the office and stopping at the receptionist desk to make note of something as they exchange goodbyes.

“Guess that’s my cue,” says Denki, grinning at you before walking down the steps of the main building. “See you around.”

“See you.”

Toji meets you outside, his suit jacket off, and his sleeves rolled halfway up his elbows, every fat vein bulging against skin. “I have to take an exam next week. I pass, I get the job.” It's clinical, the way he says it, almost like he's reciting notes.

“That’s great.” You smile at him. “Congratulations.”

His eyes fall to your lips, where the cigarette is still burning bright. “Give me one.”

“I’m out,” you say, showing him your empty box.

“Then give me the one you’re smoking right now.”

“Seriously?"

You catch Ichiro’s gaze on the other side of the glass, where he waves at you with a smile. “Actually, you can have it.” Without thinking, you pluck the stick from your mouth and hand it off between his lips, where his tongue accidentally brushes against your forefinger. “I’ll be right back. Wait here, Toji.”

Smoke puffs out from between his lips as he scoffs, watching you make a beeline through the automatic doors, where you greet Ichiro at the receptionist’s desk and exchange pleasantries.

He’s wondering just how long this is whole ordeal is going to take when he sees you bow, back bent at a 90-degree angle. Deeply reverent, as Ichiro urges you to stand back up.

Even the receptionist looks a little miffed as you stand up straight, the words “thank you so much,” escaping your lips as Ichiro laughs. Don’t thank me. It was just luck that we needed more personnel. But the disagreeing look on your face would say otherwise as you thank him one last time before turning around to leave.

--

Young men get bored in the dorms. Troublemakers. But they all outgrow that naughty phase. Always. An inevitability,” says Toji, doing his best Ichiro impression as he slurps down the jello from your sister’s uneaten hospital tray. “Fucking weirdo.”

“That weirdo might be your boss someday so watch the lip,” you sigh, pulling open the blinds of the room, sunlight filtering down in streams.

At the sound of this, Toji holds his tongue on the second story, in which Ichiro asked: So, what’s up with the stitches? You get into any fights?

He had decided for once to tell the truth, however vapid it was. You weren’t all wrong when you said Ichiro was good at sizing people up. Cheerful, with a laugh that thundered overzealously like a drum, but eyes as perceptive as a hawk. Oh? He’d looked amused at the revelation. Guess you’re the kind of guy who’d run headfirst into gunfire for the woman he loves.

Your sister snaps her fingers, “You know what you should do after you pass?” She meets your gaze, some unspoken telepathy that’s being filtered in cross-communication outside his purview. “You should show him the mountains.”

You consider it quietly, staring out at the view of passing cars and people on their afternoon strolls.

“That’s assuming I’ll pass at all,” Toji interjects, shoving the empty container of jello back onto the uneaten lunch tray. “You need to eat, by the way. You lost weight, and contrary to popular belief, women look worse as skeletons than they do fat, so.” He points to the unappetizing tuna-fish sandwich still in its plastic wrap.

“You really make the most well-meaning thing sound offensive,” she replies, frowning as he peels back the plastic wrap. Reluctantly, she takes a bite of the sandwich.

--

The next weeks are dedicated to studying, as Toji takes exam after exam. The local civil worker exams, along with the firefighter exam. You bring him tea in between meals, stopping by his room to take in the state of his belongings, everything in disarray. Without him asking, you start folding his clothes; putting everything back into their designated corners, including the tanto blade he has lying out.

“Do I want to know?” You ask, gesturing to the weapon.

He snatches it from your hands, “No. You don’t.” Don't cut yourself, idiot.

You linger a while longer, taking a seat on the edge of his bed and peering over at his desk, where all his papers are sprawled out with no sense of organization or care. “Oh, these are pretty basic questions,” you say, somehow filtering through to the one page of practice sets he’s been working on all afternoon. “High school-level stuff.”

“I wouldn’t know. I never went to school.”

“Really?”

He falls silent, scribbling something illegible in the margins. The excessive number of notes he has written down actually has you a little scared, but you don’t remark on it, setting the practice set gently back where you found it. “Hey, I thought of something. If you pass, I’ll give you a reward.”

A snort. “Yeah? And what if I don’t want a reward?”

You consider it, “That’s okay too.”

His smile contorts into a frown, “Wait, you’re not gonna fight me about it?”

“Why would I fight you about something you don’t want? It saves me the trouble anyway.” You glance up at the Hello Kitty clock mounted on the wall, her paws pointed to three and twenty. “Anyway, I’m off to work. Good luck with your studying.”

He grabs your wrist, stopping you before you can rise.

Without warning, he topples you back into the mattress, caging you between his hands while his hair dangles around his face. Eyes so cold, but skin so warm that you can feel the heat radiate off him without him even touching you. “I lied,” he says, leaning close to your face. “I want my reward now.”

“That defeats the purpose of having a reward,” you state, so clearly flustered and trying to play it cool anyway. “Besides, it’ll take a day or two to make. I can’t just whip it up on the fly.”

But he's not listening. He’s so far gone elsewhere, and you can see it in his eyes, completely zoned in on the strap of your silk chamise that’s slipping off your bare shoulder. Your heart starts thumping in your head, your palms sweating as you clench at the neck of your nightgown. You’re trying to maintain some vestige of modesty even as he stares at you like you’re already naked in his clutches.

His hand brushes against your shoulder, sending goosebumps down your spine. Slowly, his fingers tug to pull the strap further and further down until—

“You need to cut your hair,” you say softly, reaching out, hands framing his face as you push back his long, black locks.

He’s startled at the sensation, eyes blinking as his cheeks turn pink. It occurs to you suddenly that he’s never actually been touched like this before, that he only knows how to rev the engine to one hundred plus without actually enjoying the slow ascent there. It's odd. For someone who's so seemingly experienced, it's like he's never actually bathed himself in the romance firsthand.

Quietly, he pulls the strap of your chamise back onto your shoulder, his touch delicate and slow, as if to enjoy the meeting of skin one last time as the frown of his face sours.

He pushes himself up from the mattress and resumes his seat at his studying desk.

“I’m gonna die of blue balls at this rate,” he mutters.

--

On the day of his final exam, you insist on taking the early bus to drop him off at the testing site.

“You didn’t have to come,” he mutters, leaning against one clenched fist to study your sleepy face. For the past ten minutes, your head has been rolling side-to-side, in a state between sleep and non-sleep. You’ll slip up every once in a while, only to catch yourself just as you’re about to collapse on his shoulder. “Just go to sleep.” But you insist on hanging on for dear life, as the bus continues rumbling down the road.

At some point, you give up the charade, head hitting his shoulder in a dull thump as you doze off into dreamland. The weight of you is nice, and so is the smell. Light and fruity, like the shampoo you use. The same shampoo he’s come to using now that he’s living at your house. Both of you must smell the same, and though he’s not opposed to it, some little part of him is beginning to wrench itself in the guilt of mooching off all your goods.

It’s just shampoo. Get the fuck over it, he tells himself, watching you completely give out, leaning the entirety of your weight against him, so quiet and assuming it’s like a corpse.

“Oi. Wake up,” he says, nudging you awake as the bus pulls into its final stop.

Blearily, you rub your eyes, rising from your seat and walking past him towards the backdoor, where the two of you descend, one right after the other. You're lucky he's walking behind you because you practically topple over the first step, and it’s by the mercy of him catching you by your collar that you don’t go face-first into the concrete. “Watch it, clumsy," he snaps, letting go of you only when you find your footing on even ground.

"Tired," you mumble, as if conjure an excuse.

"No shit. You worked until 3 a.m. and woke up at the crack of dawn for this."

"My sister always showed up for all my testing days. It made everything more fun and less lonely."

"Tell me where the fun's supposed to be 'cause I'm not seeing it."

You roll your eyes, walking ahead of him as he traces your footsteps in the pavement with no purpose or reason. Once you arrive at the entrance of the testing site, you turn around and beam.

“I’ll be right here waiting,” you say, gesturing towards the bench outside. “Take your time, make sure to double-check your answers, and good luck.”

“Why bother. Just go home and sleep,” he says, waving his hand at you like you’re a pesky housefly. “I’m gonna fail anyway.”

You just sigh at him before taking a seat at the bench.

--

Three hours later, he's done.

On the way out, he looks a little surprised to find you still there, crouched by the tulips planted at the front entrance. A familiar sight, and a familiar feeling, the way you look up and catch his gaze, rising to your feet with a smile on your face.

“How did it go?”

He shrugs, “Like I said, I probably failed.”

You pause, studying the grimace on his face before nodding towards the bus stop. “As long as you tried your best,” you say, and suddenly the topic is moving to what he wants for dinner, of the movie you want to watch in town, and the dish you want to try cooking next.

(He’ll learn later that week that he passed with flying colors.)

--

The morning chill has Toji curling up deep in his mountain of blankets, but there’s something warm against his ear. “Hey, wake up,” comes your voice, all soft and beckoning, like tendrils pulling at his eyelids. “I need to show you your gift today.”

“Is it a kiss?” He asks.

“Well … no.”

“Then I don’t want it,” he says, rolling back into the sheets.

A sigh. He hears shuffling, something warm and heavy as another body climbs over the sheets. When he opens his eyes, he finds you lying in front of him, wedged against the wall in a t-shirt and pair of jean shorts. “You can sleep all you want tomorrow,” you tell him, taking a tuft of his hair between your fingers. “Also, I really need to cut your hair. Training is starting next week and unless you want Ichiro-san to shave you bald, I--"

Shhhhh.”

His arms slink around your shoulders, pulling you in tight against his chest like you're two parts of an accordion being smushed together. Even your best attempts to struggle go unnoticed, as the weight of his biceps have you stuck in place.

Now you understand what it’s like to be a package stuffed with Styrofoam. You don’t even have the luxury of budging.

“Chill out,” he says. “Let’s just stay like this a while.”

“But I really want to show you—”

Shhhhhhhhhhhh.”

You acquiesce, untensing in his arms as you feel his fingers crawl up the hem of your t-shirt, slow and steady in their eagerness to please.

You’re about to protest, but he stops right underneath your bra strap and starts tracing circles against your skin with the pad of his forefinger. A soft sigh, as you bury your face against the skin of his chest, feeling just how firm he is until there's a slow, resounding thump that's met against your cheek.

His heartbeat.

--

It takes about an hour to get Toji out the house, and by that time, the sun is already beating overhead as you make your way towards the mountain path.

With nothing but a knitted bag attached to your hip, you head up the pathway, knowing the unmarked trails, the trees, the parts of the forest that come equipped with damp floors and cool winds, along with the parts of the forest that are magnets for sunlight and heat.

You crouch near a hole by the base of an old oak tree, frowning. “Damn. The squirrels beat me to it.” You have a small patch of dirt pinched between your thumb and forefinger, something Toji only recognizes as a truffle when you start scratching away the mud, completely caked on. “Oh, look!” You take off running towards another hole, pawing through it with your hands like a tiny forest critter.

He follows slowly in your steps, amazingly unperturbed. It’s peaceful here, and some of the languidness of the forest has actually rubbed off on him as he comes upon a babbling brook, sparrows and starlings bathing in the streams. Their chirping comes in synchrony with the other sounds of the forest: the whistling wind, the singing cicadas, and the crunch of brush underneath his feet.

“Toji, look what I found,” you say, unearthing a truffle the size of a potato.

His eyes widen. What the fuck? Did she save a country in her past life or something?

“You could make a fortune off that thing," he says.

You feel the weight of it in your hand and cock your head, “I think we should eat this one.”

“I don’t think you understand. You could make a fortune,” he says, somewhat incredulously as you shove the truffle into your bag.

“I know.”

“You know? You know?” He looks annoyed, following you as you make off deeper into the forest, where the shade is thicker. “You know and you won't? Or you know and you can't?"

“Listen, I just need enough money in life to live comfortably,” you say simply, not quite turning back to meet his gaze. “And everything extra is just whipped cream on the cake.” You hum a happy tune. “Wanna have pasta for dinner?”

“You’re insane,” he says. “What the actual fuck is wrong with you.”

You halt, crouching by a family of orange flowers.

Something in the air has shifted as you cast your gaze away, fingers brushing against the petals like they’re too precious to be held in full.

“Money does something to people. The more you have, the sicker you get in the head,” you state, voice completely devoid of any humor or fancy. “Or maybe to become that rich, you just have to be sick in the head in the first place.” You lean against one clenched fist, eyes half-lidded as you continue assessing the flowers. “I want a simple life. Work an easy job, eat the foods I like, and die when I’m too old to remember what my children look like.”

For whatever reason, the admission actually has Toji losing his resolve.

There’s no fucking convincing her so what’s the point, he thinks, letting out an exasperated sigh as he crouches next to you before the orange flowers.

It’s quiet between you two for a while until he decides to speak up first.

“Those are the same flowers in front of your house,” he mumbles.

You look happy at the change in subject, “My family is named after them. Funny, isn't it?"

--

This is insane, Toji thinks. Who in their right mind makes boxed pasta with fresh black truffles? An easy 44,000-yen right out the window, but you don’t even care, humming that same stupid song as you continue fussing over the stove. Fresh garlic, olive oil, cream, parmesan. Black truffle shavings come last, as you plate the final product with parsley from the garden.

“Congratulations on passing your exams,” you say, bringing out the dishes, setting them down on the surface of the kotatsu before grabbing a beer from the fridge, along with a grape soda for Toji. “Enjoy your gift.”

He hangs head, scowling.

I really thought I was gonna get a kiss. Fucking prude.

“Open wide,” you say, all singsong and full of cheer as the two of you take your seats at the kotatsu.

He frowns at you, “This is—”

You shove the fork between his lips as he gags down the first piece of pasta. Oh, that taste. He can see why people sell their kidneys for this shit.

As he swallows, he watches you lick off the excess cream from your fingertips and holds himself back from telling you he’d really like to lick it off for you. “I can feed myself,” he mutters, snatching the fork from your hand.

For a while, you just watch him devour his food, feeling happy to see him clean his plate. “You know what?”

“What.”

“I’m might actually miss having you around when you start training,” you tell him, snorting at the sight of his face, the corner of his lips drenched in white sauce.

You reach your thumb out to wipe it away, and he lets you have your way as your nail digs into the corner of his lips; but before you can retract your hand, he grabs you by the wrist and licks your thumb clean.

Your face goes hot.

He starts taking stock of just how flustered you look, what with your knitted brows and bright red cheeks, but the doorbell rings and suddenly you’re rushing up to see who it is.

Stupid fucking doorbell.

“Oh, Toji, look! Your uniform arrived,” you call out from the foyer, kicking the door shut with your heel as you make your way back to the living space. “Quick, put it on. I wanna see how it looks.”

“But I’m not done eating.”

“Eat later! I wanna see.”

He obeys, not without grumbling about it as he heads up the stairs. Peeling away his sweaty t-shirt and pants and leaving them in an unhurried pile at his feet, only to find that it looks a little small…

--

“Oh my god. It’s way too small,” you laugh, staring at the gaping hole in the side of the long blue suit. “You ripped it to shreds.”

“I can see that,” says Toji, arms crossed over his chest as he lets you digest the look. “I’m not sitting, by the way. The whole fuckin’ thing will fall apart.”

“Here. I’ll stitch it up for you.” You stand up, heading to the kitchen to break out your sewing kit, along with another beer from the fridge. “Go ahead, take a—” When you look back, you see he’s already unzipping, peeling down the suit until it’s a pool around his ankles; he steps out, unceremoniously, sitting back down on the tatami mat in nothing but his boxer briefs.

He grins a coy grin, “Like what you see?”

"Please refrain from saying such lame things aloud," you say, wedging the sewing kit underneath your armpit while cracking open your second beer.

That grin on his face vanishes into a scowl.

Once you’re sat down, you break out the needle and thread, sewing the holes together, one stitch at a time. Toji just watches you as the sun begins to set outside the open door of the veranda. In between holes, you take gulps of your beer, wiping the foam from your mouth as you stick out your tongue in concentration. It's the same as when you tried stitching up the hole in his head.

It’s weird, he thinks, just how at ease he is.

Here. Now. Sitting in silence, just watching you work while he continues eating up the last of his dish. He can’t put a name to this, perhaps because he’s never experienced it before; but it’s warm, like nursing a little fire inside a hearth and watching it bloom and bring life to all your favorite dishes.

“You know what?” He says, suddenly.

You bite the thread, knotting the end with your fingers as you assess the closed hole, “What?”

“It’s not that bad here,” he says, weighing his words carefully as he stares out at the family of fireflies glowing in the grass. The breeze comes wafting in, smelling like fresh cut grass and forest. “Feels like home,” he tacks on quietly, hoping the words won’t outstay their welcome as he casts his gaze elsewhere.

You smile a little.

“Hey, Toji.”

“What?”

You sit up against your heels, leaning forward to press a chaste little kiss on his lips, so quick and unassuming all he gets is a taste of the beer on your lips before you’re pulling away.

It’s possibly the most inconvenient kiss ever, what with the pasta oil all over his lips and the cold food sitting on the table, but that smile on your face is incorrigibly persistent, like you’ve just won a game of chance. “Congratulations again,” you tell him, placing the work suit on his lap, neatly folded. “Guess that would make it your second gift.”

You’re about ready to get up to stow away the sewing kit, but he grabs you by the hand, pulling hard, and the force has you stumbling backwards into his chest, where the two of you go crashing into the tatami mat. He pauses, staring down at you with heavy-lidded eyes as you go bright red like a tomato underneath his caged arms.

Slowly, your hands reach up to cup his face; and he waits for you to make mention of his hair, how he’s in dire need of a cut, or whatever else you want to nag him for. Something to ruin the mood, because you're good at that; and sure, he might find himself fond of the annoying habit in his own little way, but he thinks he might like it more if you actually let him kiss you.

So when you don’t make a peep, he leans down, lips meeting yours in a kiss that tastes like finally.

Chapter Text

Remember the protocol, follow the rules, and check before acting.

In a single file, with at least fifty pounds of equipment sitting on shoulders, the men squat and stagger forward, one step at a time, until they arrive at the room where the dummy is lying flat. Secure the subject and get out.

They throw it over their shoulders and leave the same way they came.

Jagaimo has been saved, they laugh, lifting the dummy into the air as they breach the outdoors, the simulation reaching its final conclusion.

“Why do they call it jagaimo?” You ask, once Toji finishes his recollection of the event.

He lays down sprawled on the tatami mat, yawning. “Because it weighs about as much as a sack of potatoes.”

“Sounds heavy.”

“It’s nothing.” He peers at you from the corner of his eye before turning back to the open veranda. “What’d you do while I was gone?” A question he’s been meaning to ask since arriving home but failed to find the right words to conjure into existence.

“Nothing much. I worked, I slept, I visited my sister.”

You set down a bowl of cubed watermelon at his feet before returning to the kitchen, where you pull open a drawer to pluck out two forks.

He watches you nudge the drawer shut with your hip, “Did you miss me?”

You snort, returning to the open veranda, where you take a seat next to him, knees brushing against his, “You were only gone three days and contrary to popular belief, I actually have a life."

“Three days is a lifetime in Sendai.”

“Don’t I know it.”

But he didn't. He really didn't. In fact, he hadn’t realized just how homesick he was until he was eating the same brand of ramen three days in a row.

Home now, he’s become almost hyperaware of all the things he never thought he’d miss. The smell of congee in the morning, the sound of your fussing in the kitchen, knowing exactly what your footsteps sound like going up the stairs. And down, too. The voice of your groggy little “good morning” as you beam at him from the stove, urging him to sit at the kotatsu for breakfast.

Idly, you chew on your watermelon, swallowing it while a dribble of pink juice comes trickling down your chin. He wipes it away with his thumb, tasting it on his tongue before grinning at you. This could very well turn into a mindless bit of flirtation, but he decides to hold back. Time moves a little different in your house: every moment feels languid and slow, but the days pass by faster than he can catch them. He wants to stretch them, if he can, to infinity.

So it surprises even him when you lean in, ready to press your lips chastely against his cheek, only for him to turn halfway to meet you with his lips first. He grabs you by the shoulders, pushing you back, and you go tumbling into the tatami mat, the fork clattering off, while his lips meet yours again, tongue probing around eagerly inside the warm, pink caverns of your mouth as you go slack underneath his weight.

“Toji,” you murmur, trying to pull back, only to dig yourself deeper into the tatami mat.

“Mmm?”

You nudge him in the shoulder, “Sit down a sec.”

He obeys, letting you crawl into his lap, feeling just how small you are as you straddle him against the floor. You pause, brushing the hair away from his face, a teasing smile as you lean in to kiss him again.

It’s soft and restrained, the way your lips part against his. His tongue goes lolling slowly into your mouth, tasting watermelon on your tongue as you start returning the kiss with a slow, kneading motion, like you have all the time in the world. Like he has all the time in the world now as his mind starts swirling with thoughts of what other parts of you might taste like.

It's a comforting cadence, as your arms wrap around his back, fingers linking at the meeting point of his shoulder blades. He can feel the way your breasts press against his chest, so unbelievably soft and pliant. The way your breath sounds, even and measured. At this pace, every sensation reaches a new height. All you’re doing is making out on the floor, but it's almost overstimulating.

Until you pull back.

Without any indication things are going wrong, you stop, eyes heavy-lidded as you meet his gaze with a puckered little smile. Annoyed, his hands wrap around the nape of your neck, about ready to pull you into another kiss, but you place a firm hand on his chest, halting him.

“You had a visitor the other night,” you tell him. “I should’ve mentioned it earlier, but it slipped my mind.”

“A visitor?”

Wordlessly, you crawl off his lap and back onto the tatami mat, pinching a cube of watermelon between your thumb and forefinger and lifting it between your lips, “Yeah. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but he was sure you’d figure it on your own.”

“What did he look like?”

A pause, as you start chewing.

“He was really tall, sort of like you. And he was wearing this yukata, half-rolled at the hips, like a cheap drunk from the Heian era. Oh—oh! And he was carrying a real drinking gourd. Honestly, he looked like a character straight from a movie. I kept looking around, waiting for the punchline like it was a hidden camera prank ‘cause no one ever visits this far up.”

“Did he threaten you?” Toji puts his hands on your shoulders. “Did he touch you?”

You blink.

“Uh, no. Actually,” your cheeks turn pink as you look away. “He asked if I wanted to meet him at a love hotel in Sendai, so I called the cops. And then he ran before they could get here.”

He stares at you a beat longer before bursting out in cold laughter.

--

The simulations become more practiced as the days go on, until it has the adverse feel of waking up, brushing teeth, and washing face.

At the dorms, Toji begins establishing his own sense of routine. Get up at 6, eat breakfast at the cafeteria, and begin training. Catch up on the notes left from the last shift, eat lunch, and check on equipment. Practice suiting up, simulations, and eat dinner.

Rinse and repeat.

The weeks go by and the other men start becoming aware of his presence, peppering him with questions of where are you from? How old are you? What did you do before this? What’s your gym regimen like? What protein powders do you use?

They start getting comfortable enough to congregate around him at dinner, inviting him to their game of pickup ball, the movie that’s being projected on the wall of the common space, the game of poker they’re having in the recreation center. He had been reluctant to join in until he remembered just how easily impressed you’d been by a lay-up; and decided, at that point, fine, I’ll do it.

There had been no finesse to his first game whatsoever. The others might’ve been older and slower; but they had skill, something Toji was sadly lacking. Gotta learn the fundamentals, young man, Ichiro had said, showing him how to dribble correctly. Everyone has to start somewhere. But being 100 percent pure muscle could get you far, and by the time everyone else was winded, Toji found himself summoning the strength to leap high and slam the ball through the hoop.

“Holy shit, you know how to dunk?” says one of the men sitting at the free point line, staring up in disbelief.

Another shields his eyes from the sun, watching the hoop tremble from the aftershock, “That was pretty amazing.”

“I’ve never seen anyone jump that high.”

“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Ichiro looks pleased.

It doesn’t matter, thinks Toji, bending down to grab the ball. It’s small in his hand, so insignificant and worthless. This is nothing to him. A walk in the park. Easy-peasy.

But for some reason, the praise feels good. The praise feels like a reward in its own right.

The praise actually makes his lips twist up into a grin, giving him something to look forward to as he bounces the ball back to Ichiro and says: “Another.”

--

Once his three-day shift is over, Toji comes to visit your sister at the hospital and finds you sleeping in her bed, arms draped around her body. A big spoon.

The extra cot at your side is woefully untouched, no imprint to indicate you’ve bothered giving it a chance. With him away, you’ve been staying at the hospital more often; and the myriad belongings scattered on her nightstand would tell him so. Your toothbrush is there, and so is your makeup, along with a spare change of clothes.

Tired, he makes his way to the bench outside the room and hangs his head to catch up on two minutes of sleep. He dozes off while the residents at the nurse’s station continue ogling him, including Saeko, who looks annoyed at the sight of him. He hasn’t returned my calls in weeks, she says, to which someone else points out. Does he even have a phone?

Inside the room, your eyes pull open blearily to find your sister reading one of the chick-lit books you had tucked away in your bag.

“I need advice,” you say, quietly.

She flips to the next page, “Ask away. Your lord and savior is here to answer any question you may have, young padawan.”

You bury your face into her neck, “How do you know your feelings won’t change?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ryusei woke up one day and decided he didn’t love me anymore,” you start, still feeling a deep pang of guilt as the admission comes alive. “I thought that would be the worst of it, but I unlearned how to love him just as fast when I discovered he was already with someone else. It’s scary. I used to think a lot, how do I trust that someone else’s feelings won’t change? Nowadays, I’m just wondering how I can trust my own feelings won’t change.”

“You don’t,” she says simply.

The answer is met with resounding disappointment as you bury your face deeper into her neck.

“Everything in life is temporary. Friendships come and go, and so does love. Not knowing when the expiration date is, but also not knowing when something will begin. It’s exciting.”

“It’s scary.”

“The scariest things are often the most worthwhile. The scariest things,” she says. “Usually turn out to be the most beautiful things too.”

Hiroto, the chef from the gyoza shop, appears in the doorway and suddenly your sister is jerking up to meet his gaze, asking him what he’s doing here. You rub the sand out of your eyes and through your nearly telepathic communication, you can read exactly what she’s thinking. I need to brush my teeth, I need to wash my face, I need to put on makeup; and before he even gets a step into the room, you manage to interject—

“Hiroto! I need to talk to you.”

A pause as his eye twitches. “I’m gonna see you at the restaurant tonight anyway,” he states.

"This can't wait."

"...really?"

"Really. I insist,” you climb out of bed and make your way over, urging him back into the hall while you flash your sister a loving little smile. “There’s a garden in the courtyard. We can—” You stop, suddenly, catching sight of a familiar man sitting on the bench outside the door. “Toji?”

But he’s fast asleep, snoozing away with his head hanging over his chest.

“Oh well. Let’s go, Hiroto,” you say, pushing him down the hall.

As soon as you're gone, Toji opens one eye and rises to his feet, sauntering into the room where he finds your sister brushing her hair and reaching for her mascara.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey. You caught me at a weird time,” she laughs, but her hand twitches and suddenly the brush is clattering to the floor. “Damn it.”

He bends down to pick it up, reaching out to brush her hair for her as she continues pilfering through her makeup bag. A makeup sponge that gets doused with bottled water, and a layer of tinted moisturizer, followed by a brush of blush and setting spray.

“He’s a loser, you know,” says Toji, continuing to brush through her hair with the gentlest touch.

“He’s not that bad," she says. “Anyway, how’s work?” A painful attempt at small talk, as she unveils an old bracelet, along with a pair of earrings from the dark depths of her makeup bag. “I heard the guys at the fire station have taken a liking to you. Even Ichiro-san.”

“Your sister talks too much,” he mumbles, pulling her hair into a ponytail. “People in Sendai are so easily impressed by everything.”

She pauses, taking one last look at herself in the mirror before turning to meet his gaze, “You heard what we talked about?”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

“Just about everything.” He decides not to bullshit her, since she just doesn’t seem like that kind of girl. “And for the record, I honestly couldn’t give less of a shit, so take the piss. Women and their fucking feelings or whatever. Always overthinking everything.”

She takes a beat to digest the diatribe before considering a response, “Wow.”

Wow what.”

“Nothing.” A giggle, as two familiar voices return from the hall.

“We’re back,” you say cheerfully, ushering Hiroto into the room as you beam at Toji. “We’re just gonna leave you guys to it, okay? Errands to run, people to see, y’know. The whole shebang. Let’s go Toji.”

Wordlessly, he gets up, following you into the hall while Hiroto takes a hesitant seat on the stool at your sister’s bedside, “So how long have they been doing that?”

“I have honestly no clue,” she says with a smile on her face. “Since the moment I saw them together, I guess."

--

Back to the house you two go, as Toji hands you a stopwatch and has you time him as he changes from his blue work suit to his bunker gear. The classic firefighter uniform, fifty pounds of glory. A gas tank, long rope, and helmet. Once he has everything secured, he looks at you, only to find you staring at him back like you’ve been hypnotized by a magician.

“Are you even timing me?” He says.

“No,” an honest declaration as you continue ogling him.

He frowns, pressing the button for you to stop the count. “Sometimes I have no idea what’s going on through that head of yours."

The tone in his voice rings a little sour as he starts undoing the zipper of his uniform. The gas tank gets removed, along with the ropes, and the helmet too. The jacket comes off, and suddenly he’s in nothing but his t-shirt and fire-proof pants, taking a seat next to you on the veranda as a warm breeze comes filtering through between the door.

“Something wrong?” You ask.

He pauses, lowering his gaze, “It’s nothing.”

“Toji."

"I said it's nothing."

"Just talk to me, okay? If I did something—if I said something that hurt you—”

“Bold of you to assume you could hurt me.”

You stop, studying the cruel little smile on his face before moving on.

“You didn’t do anything," he tacks on. "Or say anything. Actually, it’s about me, not you, so get your head out of the gutter.”

Toji.”

“Just let me get this off my chest before I change my damned mind, alright,” he states, turning to meet your gaze. “Once I’m set on something, I stick with it. My feelings don’t budge. I might not have a lot of things to my name, but if there’s one thing, it’s consistency. I don’t move on once I set my sights on something and that’s final. Got it?”

You look away, eyes glistening with tears.

“Are you crying?” He asks. “What." Softer, now. "What did I say?”

“It’s nothing,” you murmur, brushing away the tears. “I just. I like you, that's all."

A pause. "Well, great. I like you too."

Both of you are blushing mad, but neither of you acknowledge the admission.

Another moment of dead silence passes, as you bury your chin into your knees. "The thing is, even though I like you a lot, I don’t think I want to get married again.”

“And where exactly did I propose," he doesn't miss a beat.

“You didn’t, but—”

“Exactly, I didn’t. So you can rest easy.”

You open your mouth to say something, but clamp it shut at the last minute. He waits a beat before moving on, “And for the record, I don't wanna get married either. Getting married is for suckers.”

You laugh, softly. “I agree. Everyone in history who’s ever gotten married is a loser.”

Huge loser. Why be a loser when you can be a winner?”

“So true.”

He leans back against his hands, staring out where the forest meets the horizon, “Who needs it? Lucky for me, I’m already living with the winnering-est winner of them all.”

You smile a little.

“Me too.”

--

At 4 a.m., Toji finds himself wide awake with an unsettling feeling in his stomach.

He checks on you in your room to find you fast asleep, dozing off underneath mountains of blankets. A pause, as he listens for the sound of your breathing before he closes the door behind him to head downstairs, where he finds a familiar man sitting on the edge of the open veranda drinking from his gourd.

Naobito.

“You’ve put everyone at home in a frenzy,” he says, not even bothering to look over his shoulder to greet him. “Ogi bet me his favorite katana you were dead.”

“Is that what this is?” Toji sneers, not quite moving from the edge of the stairwell. “You’re just here to collect on an unpaid debt?”

“Even the most pathetic little cockroaches have an annoying knack for living. And what are you, if not a pathetic little cockroach? Nothing to your name but a know-how for mooching off the goodwill of others. Just like you’ve mooched off the goodwill of our family name since the day you were born.”

Toji’s lips just crease into a grin, watching Naobito rise from his perch.

“When are you going to stop wasting time and come home?”

Toji just zips his lips and tosses away the key.

“The silent treatment isn’t going to work forever, you fool.”

The threat is met with a shrug.

Naobito pauses, tying his gourd to his hip before taking a step outside, where Toji, despite his best intent, follows.

“The moon is beautiful tonight. Shame that it should be wasted on a worthless lowlife like you,” he says, staring out at the crescent in the sky, unblemished by the clouds. “Since you were born, you’ve been nothing more than a blot on our family name, but I suppose you yourself already knew that. However many chances you had to redeem yourself, only to gamble away all that goodwill. To whore yourself out like the degenerate piece of shit that you are.”

The insults bounce off with ease, even as the cruel little smile on Toji’s face begins to wane. Hit a mountain hard enough and eventually it begins to chip.

Naobito turns back to study the minka house, “I see you’ve also found yourself a whore to freeload off too. Another disposable, mindless little doll with no thought to the monster you really are.”

“Fuck you,” hisses Toji.

But this is where he makes his first mistake. One reaction, and suddenly the rat’s sniffed out the quickest pathway to implosion.

“She’ll get bored of you, one day. Just like all the others. You see, this is the problem. People get to know you, and once they do, they get sick of you,” says Naobito with a knowing little smile. “And you’ll come back with your tail tucked between your legs, just like the neutered little puppy you’ve always been.”

Footsteps come down the minka house as you manifest from the stairwell in your silk chamise. Wordlessly, you make your way past Toji, hopping down the veranda and putting on your outdoor slippers before making your way to Naobito.

Eyes devoid of any feeling, you stare at his face.

Naobito’s lips crease into a smile, “Nice to see you again. Are you going to call the cops on me ag—”

You slap him.

The impact echoes through empty fields of grain.

“Get off my property,” you snap.

Naobito doesn’t flinch, just snorts at the sight of you. A fucking woman, is what he’s thinking; and in moments to come, he’ll return the hit with equal fervor, ready to strike you back with twofold the pain and half the mercy.

But as soon as he lifts his hand into the air, Toji catches his wrist and shoves him back.

Naobito just sneers again, studying your face with disgust before turning back to Toji.

“You'll be back.” One step towards the pathway, as he unties the gourd at his waist to take a long, deep sip of sake. “You're good at that, right? Being consistent."

And just like that, he’s gone.

You wait a moment before turning to face Toji, “Are you okay?”

“I should be asking you that question,” is his reply, flippant as ever.

“I’m fine.”

“I am too,” he states. “Better than ever, actually. Hope you had fun meeting my uncle. He’s like that sometimes.”

It’s silent for a while as you assess the damage.

All those broken parts of him glued behind an apathetic little slack-jawed grin, like nothing can ever make a dent.

You take a deep breath and sigh.

“All that stuff he said, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me,” you say suddenly, breaking the silence.

He gazes as you with half-lidded eyes, as you weigh your words carefully in mind before continuing.

“I don’t care about the man you were before," you go on. "I only care about the person you’re trying to be when you wake up in the morning."

He lowers his gaze.

You reach up and cup his cheeks, letting his hair frame over his face as you meet his gaze with a soft smile, "I only care about the person you are now. So don't--"

Without warning, he wraps his arms around you in a hug, the words of gratitude stuck on his tongue with no means of escape. Thank you, he wants to say, but truthfully, he’s never thanked anyone before. It’s a foreign language, so far from his grasp all he can muster up is a hug in its place.

But it doesn’t matter because you do what you do best, which is to reach out and hold him back, arms wrapping around his waist and telling him everything will be okay; and no, Toji might not know everything in the world, but he knows the only thing that's true is he believes you.

Chapter Text

Water runs over the headstone, washing dust from granite one thick slab at a time until the whole body is drenched.

Toji towers over you, watching the entire procession with a look of disinterest as fresh flowers are slotted into the proper containers at each side. Flowers from your porch, he notes, watching as you bow your head, clasp your hands, and close your eyes. Conveying your best wishes to the names carved in rock, your mother and father.

Realizing he’ll be here for the foreseeable future, he crouches down, knee brushing against yours, “What’re you praying for?"

"I'm not praying. I'm giving them the latest gossip."

He sneers, "Like what?"

"Hiroto seeing my sister at the hospital. Granny Himiko accidentally locking herself in the bathroom at the gyoza shop," a pause. "My new roommate."

"Okay. What're they saying about me?"

"They're saying you talk a lot."

A snort. "Yeah right. The dead don't talk." He turns back to the headstones, wondering if there’s something inherently romantic about being buried next to a lover, but eventually that gets boring, so he turns to study your face instead.

“You look pretty today.”

“Toji, we’re at a cemetery.”

“Okay. … Then you look pretty at this cemetery.”

You sigh again, unclasping your hands and rising up from your perch. He follows suit, taking the wooden pail from the ground and leaving a water trail as you two make your way towards the exit. Once you reach the end of the aisle, you take one last look over your shoulder, their headstones just out of sight.

"What were they like?" He asks.

"They were ... nice, I guess." It's hard to find the right words to describe your parents, so you try and make do with a story instead. "My dad was the kind of person who would wear the same polo everyday, stitching up the holes instead of buying a new one. But he'd never hesitate to get me the jacket I wanted, or the sneakers everyone else was wearing. My mom was hell-bent on making sure me and my sister went to college, even if it meant using up all her life savings to get us there."

He has the sudden urge to poke you in the cheek, but you hurry your pace past him and skip on ahead. An annoying habit as he's come to realize he's gotten quite good at reading the back of your hair.

"Lucky you," he calls out.

"Yeah. Lucky me," you break into a run until you come to a stop at the railing, where the mountains are nestled underneath clouds.

He follows your path in slow, languid steps and stops to stare at the view beside you. Other families come filtering down the pathway, carrying with them various floral arrangements and fruit offerings. The cacophony of their chatter fills the air until they disappear into the back row of headstones.

"What would you do if I died?" He asks, suddenly.

Your face contorts in a funny way, "God, Toji. That is not the right question to ask at a cemetery."

"Scared?"

"Um, of course? You're gonna jinx yourself like that."

"I don't believe in superstition," he glances at the names carved in rock before looking back to you. "Don't ignore my question."

You prop your elbow against the railing, leaning against one clenched fist. There's a cardinal bathing in the mountain stream below that has your attention, even as you tell him, "I don't know. I guess I'd be pretty sad."

"Pretty sad or really sad?"

"For your sake, I really hope I never find out." The bad omen leaves a weird taste in your mouth, but you find yourself smiling anyway. "Thanks for coming with me today." It's an offer of gratitude made as you face the other way, where the fog of clouds are too thick to see through. "These things normally put me in a shitty mood, but you were so distracting I didn't have time to be sad."

He tries to glean some reaction on your part, only to find that you're already out of reach.

"Yeah," he mumbles. "Whatever. You owe me."

--

The two of you have a quiet dinner at home, going through the motions of an average Sunday night with the sad understanding that the weekend is coming to a close.

Toji starts on the dishes once you two finish eating, the sound of plates meeting plates in the sink as he suds up a pink sponge.

You take a seat on the kitchen counter, kicking your feet while watching him work. "It occurred to me the other day ... I don't actually know much about you."

"What do you wanna know?"

"Your last name."

"Does it matter?"

"Well, sort of. You're not Madonna." You chew on the skin of your thumb. "Come to think of it, what did you put down when HR asked for identification on your first day?"

"I put down your last name."

You blink at him. "Toji. You can't just do that."

"I can do whatever I damn please."

You sigh, deciding it's a battle to pick another day as you continue watching him from the counter. It’s a pretty funny sight to witness, that someone so large, bulked-up, and imposing would be doing a chore so menial. Even the sponge looks flimsy in his hand, like a school kid holding an eraser. Or a giant holding a tree.

“I don’t wanna go to work tomorrow,” he says.

You kick your legs, the heel of your feet hitting the cabinet doors with a gentle rhythm of thump-thump-thump. “Me neither.”

“Work is stupid.”

“I agree.”

“Capitalism is a sickness. You wake up, you work, and then you die. What kind of life is that? You’re so busy you don’t even have time to think—to enjoy life. It’s a crock of shit."

You lean again one clenched fist, “Toji.”

What.”

You pat him gently on the cheek, thumb brushing against the scar on his lip, jagged and marred to the touch. He just sneers while the water continues running in the sink.

“When you defeat capitalism, you get my green light to skip work, okay? For now, you still have to participate. Besides,” you smile as he turns back to scrubbing dishes. “Ichiro-san told me you rescued granny Himiko’s cat from a power line the other day! Aren’t those things, like, a hundred-feet tall? Even their ladders don’t go that high. And he said you climbed the whole way up!” A smile. “You must be really fearless.”

When he sees that you’re being totally sincere, his cheeks flush pink, “Whatever.” He slots the last plate it into the drying rack and wrings out the suds in the sponge. “You’re just saying that because you’re trying to get me to go to work tomorrow.”

“Why can’t it be both?” You shimmy off the edge of the counter, grabbing a rag to wipe down beads of water on the sink. “I want you to go to work and I think you’re amazing too.”

“Ah-hah. So the truth comes out.”

Done, you throw the rag over the sink head to let dry. “I'm begging you to just take the compliment before I change my mind.”

Before you can turn heel, he grabs you by the wrist, hoisting you onto the kitchen counter.

Smile coy, he presses a kiss to your cheek before pressing a kiss to your mouth. "What you said before," his hands crawl up the hem of your shirt, pressing against the damp patch of skin underneath your bra. "It's not true. You already know everything about me."

Your hands instinctively curl around his shoulders as he wedges his knee between your legs. "Everything except your family name."

"That's not important," he says, leaning in to press his lips against your neck. "What's important is you know how I kiss." And your cheek. "How I taste." And your mouth, lips parting as his tongue starts exploring the caverns of your mouth in a hungry kiss. "And how much I want you."

"That is not the same thing," you mumble, a thought lost in the warmth of his hold as his fingers grip you harder by hips.

--

The weekend ends, as it does.

You wake up early in the morning, cook him a few lunch boxes, and tell him to stick them in the fridge to eat at a later date. He tells you he’ll only be gone for three days, and you tell him three days is a lifetime in Sendai.

It’s the beats to the same conversation you had the other week, but the revisiting feels almost as fresh as the first. He’ll tell you not to miss him, and you’ll roll your eyes. And then he'll start off towards his motorcycle, securing the lunch boxes to the backseat with rope.

Before he can even fathom starting the engine, he’ll run back up the pathway and pull you into a hug.

It’ll startle you as you blink up over his shoulder, but eventually you’ll settle into his embrace, fingers running down the ridges of his spine as you count the seconds before he leaves again.

--

The three-day shift goes by unceremoniously as Toji comes to realize there’s actually few, if any fire incidents to answer. Most emergencies are usually medical-related: grannies cracking their hips, older men and heart attacks.

“Health is fragile at my age,” says Ichiro one early morning, smoking a cigarette outside the dorms. “The older you get, the more you realize everything is just a feather’s breath from falling apart.”

Toji squats on the steps, staring out at the rising sun. “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?”

A snort. “I should feel sorry for you. I have a pension waiting and you have another thirty years to go.”

--

Outside answering EMS calls, Toji fills his time working out and playing basketball, counting down the days until he returns home again. There’s talk of a cross-department tournament, but he squashes any notion that he might participate before the others at his station can even make mention of inviting him. Most of the action dies down until the last day of his shift, where he answers a call of a man whose coworker has had a stroke.

With no emergency contact to his name, Toji accompanies him all the way to the hospital, where he checks him in with the nurses. When they take him in for scans, he decides to pay your sister a visit, only to find Hiroto already there, the two of them laughing.

He watches them for a moment before settling on the bench outside her room.

“Oh. It’s you.” He glances up and sees Saeko staring with a grimace, a clipboard in her arms as she sizes him up. “So you’re a fireman now. Your new flavor of the month?”

He leans back, one leg crossed over the other as he turns the other way, “What was your name again?”

She scoffs, and he watches as she takes off into the room where your sister is.

Hiroto comes out soon after as he catches sight of Toji, not quite sure where they stand. He decides on a quiet “hey” before plucking out a box of cigarettes from his pocket.

Toji grabs him by the arm before he can take even one step towards the entrance.

“Good on you,” he says. “For showing up.”

But the compliment is just met with a blank stare as Hiroto wriggles out of his grasp. It registers as a threat for whatever reason and he takes off towards the front entrance in a jog, leaving Toji confused as he watches Saeko exit the room. She glares at him, huffing a curse under her breath before taking off down the hall.

As soon as she’s gone, he enters and finds your sister swallowing horse pills from a paper cup. She beams at him, “The uniform suits you.”

He grabs himself a stool and takes a seat at her bedside, “Yeah, whatever.”

“What brings you here?”

“Some old guy had a stroke. No family or emergency contact to his name, so I’m playing baby-sitter.”

“That’s nice of you.”

He waits a moment, eyes falling to the crease in her sheets from where Hiroto had put his hands earlier.

“We cleaned your parents’ grave the other day.”

“I heard. I guess I should be thanking you for that.”

“If you wanna thank me, the best thing you can do is just get better, okay?” He jabs his forefinger against her shoulder, feeling nothing but bone and cartilage. “And you’re not gonna get better unless you believe you’re gonna get better. So take up prayer. Go to church. Recite the monastic chants, whatever, I don’t care. Just do whatever you have to do to start believing.”

She considers it quietly, turning to look out the window. “You know none of that will work.” The smile vanishes from her face. “I can say this because my sister isn’t around."

He’s quiet, retracting his hand and hanging his head low.

“There’s a summer festival in Sendai we used to go to as kids," she goes on, turning the topic. "It was the only thing we ever looked forward to after our parents died. Ryusei took her every few years after they got married, but by the time I ended up here, she stopped going.”

She takes his hand, patting it gently. “Will you take her? Just in case? I’ll give you money to buy her a new yukata, or—"

“Don’t talk like that. That bad omen in your mouth is gonna funk up the room.”

She pauses. “That’s weird. I wouldn’t have pegged you as superstitious.”

He snorts, “I’m not.”

It’s quiet again as Toji rises from his seat. “I need to get back to work. Ichiro is gonna start asking where I am.”

But she grabs him by the wrist before he can take off. “When I go, take care of her for me.”

“Do you have crow’s mouth or something? Like I said earlier, that bad omen is gonna—”

“Promise me, Toji.”

He stops, offering only the faintest nod before bowing out.

--

He comes home after his three-day shift to find you fussing around the garden, dirt smeared all over your cheeks.

As soon as you hear the engine of his motorcycle, you rise, greeting with him a smile as he makes his way over with his empty lunchboxes in hand.

“Did you miss me?” You ask.

“Yeah,” he says, so forthright you think you must've misheard.

For a while, the two of you just stare at each other like idiots before you break the lull, bending down to stow away your gardening tools.

He bends down to help you, only to find you’re already done, standing up and making your way into the foyer, where you slip out of your shoes and head to the sink to wash your hands. You’re babbling about something from work, but neither of you are really listening.

"I, uh. I need to shower," you say, and his gaze lingers on your behind until you vanish up the corridor.

He waits a beat before following suit, listening to the sound of your humming as he comes up to the top step. Part of your bare shoulder is in view, but the closet door ends up impinging his view of your body.

He watches as you hug a t-shirt to your breasts, taking a seat on the edge of your bed in nothing but your jeans. All alone, you look so vulnerable. He wonders what exactly is running through your head until you sink to the floor, burying your face into your knees.

Without thinking, he enters your room, taking a seat next to you on the floor. You don’t acknowledge his presence, just mumble something like “I’m naked,” as if that would ever dissuade him from being there.

“If you have something on your mind, just spit it out," he says.

You consider it for a while, face still buried in your knees.

"My sister isn’t doing well.”

You don’t tell him that it was easier dealing with your parents’ passing because you had her at your side, telling you what to do and making sure you were too busy to grieve; but the thought of having to bury her alone is so unthinkable, so unbearable, you’d rather close your eyes and stay ignorant to the possibility.

“What if she dies?”

He puts a hesitant hand over your shoulder, thumb brushing against skin in a gentle, circular motion. With no sign of protest, he pulls you in against his chest, watching as you grasp your t-shirt closer against your chest to salvage some sense of modesty.

Once upon a time, he would’ve told you, somewhat coldly, that death is an inevitability. People live, people die, and people move on. To survive, one must make themselves useful. What good is living if you offer no utility to this world?

Nowadays, he just wants to ease away your worries. To smooth out all the rough edges so that it’s a worry-free living: watching sunsets on the veranda of the minka house, truffle hunting in the mountains, working a boring, nine-to-five, waiting for the weekends.

Slowly, you begin unwinding in his embrace.

Your shoulders un-tense, your grip on the t-shirt loosens, and your head hangs gently in the crook of his neck as he continues stroking circles into your skin.

“Don’t die, Toji,” you tell him softly. “You have to live, okay?"

Chapter Text

Toji follows you up the pathway, leaves crunching under the heel of his boots as he watches the back of your head.

People are disposable, he thinks. They come and go with the changing seasons. They'll say forever, but even promises made of steel show cracks in the foundation against the sands of time. A child with zero cursed energy born into a family whose very legacy is contingent on jujutsu—why, that’s the greatest abomination of all. Over the years, he’s learned that the trick is to make yourself useful, to make yourself needed. (The trick is to get rid of everyone else before they can get rid of you.)

You come to a stop at your favorite cliff overlooking the valley, foliage and trees sprawled out below like a carpet of green.

“I was thinking the other day.”

He comes to a stop beside you, hands dug deep into the pockets of his pants, “Again?”

You roll your eyes, “That day you saved me in Tokyo. Picking me up, throwing me on the back of your bike … all while midair. I was thinking you must be really strong.”

“Understatement of the century.”

You crouch down to tie your shoelaces, face just outside his purview. “It also makes me think about what you had to do to get there.”

He pauses.

“I don’t know why but it makes me sad,” you go on.

“Then don’t think about it. I’m not losing any sleep. Neither should you.”

You consider it for a while before standing up and turning towards the pathway again. He waits a moment, looking at the view a beat longer before following your footsteps.

The truth is, he doesn’t want tell you about jujutsu. Because that would require him telling you about his past. And his family. And his family name. It’s a slog of an explanation that isn’t worthy of a day as nice as this.

Besides, he’d much rather be talking about something else.

Cut and dry, he’d really like to spend the night with you. In the same room. In the same bed.

But not like that. (Maybe a little like that.) (Maybe a lot like that, but for the sanctity of what would be your first night together, maybe not like that.) There’s just no eloquent way of asking can I sleep with you? And if there were, he hasn’t figured out the requisite formalities to get there.

(For the record, he’d been content at first base, inching towards second. The other day, you even encouraged him, by the wrist, to pry past the underwire of your bra. But as soon as his first knuckle felt the warm clamp of stiffened silk, he stopped. And pulled away. That confused look on your face almost killed him.)

What’s wrong? You’d asked, intertwining your fingers behind his neck.

Nothing.

A moment’s hesitation later, and he’d watched your flush red. Oh. So you don’t want

Of course I do.

Then … is it me?

Don’t be an idiot.

The confusion only deepened as you squinted at him. Okay, weirdo. I’m gonna go nap now.

And you did, crawling up from his lap, left cold from where you sat. He’d checked on you later that afternoon and found you fast asleep under a mountain of blankets, mound rising and falling with every breath you took. A glance at the clock told him your shift wouldn’t begin for another hour; but by the time you returned home, he’d have already left for the fire station.

He'd found himself compelled him to take a seat on the edge of your bed, weight digging deep into the springs as you shifted this way and that. Eyebrows pinched together, agitated by the intrusion.

Hey dummy.

You’d mumbled something unintelligible under your breath, turning to the other side and facing the window, where the breeze was flowing in, piercing and cool in equal measure. Seeing that you’d be asleep for the foreseeable future, he rose. Don’t sleep through your shift, he’d said before taking off.

Hey.”

From a higher ledge, you poke your head into his eyeline.

“Let’s cut your hair when you’re back,” you say, pinching a lock of his black hair between your thumb and forefinger.

Without meaning to, he promises you okay, and whatever thought he had about asking you to sleep with him immediately vanishes into the ether.

--

He’ll mull over what to do for days to come.

On duty, off duty. In between games of basketball, and during his downtime at the gym. It’ll haunt him at 3 a.m. in the morning while he’s waiting to be called in for an emergency. It’s a rare night of peace and quiet, so he decides to saunter around the station and kill time, eventually finding himself in the recreation room, where the buzz of the television is playing at half-volume.

Ichiro’s lounging on the couch, a mug of hot coffee in hand as he watches the drone of the newscast, “Can’t sleep?”

Toji shrugs, collapsing on the empty loveseat like a sack of potatoes. He turns to the screen and watches the pretty, young anchor recite the beats of a local, feel-good story, the kind of stuff they always play at 3 a.m.

“You beat up any fires this week?” asks Ichiro.

“Nah. It’s been raining almost every day.”

“Huh. Lucky you.”

Ichiro has that kind of dry breath all old people do when they drink too much coffee on an empty stomach. It’s sour. And bitter. In another time, that would’ been enough to draw Toji's ire; it would’ve been enough incentive to drive him back to his room. To decide, whatever, he doesn’t need to go through the trouble of exchanging the proper pleasantries or act like he actually gives a shit. But for some unfathomable reason, he decides to stay. (He wonders, of course, if this job is slowly hammering him into apathy.)

“Your wife,” he starts, only to cut himself short.

Ichiro arches a brow, “Would you like to try again?”

Toji pauses. What little resolve he had in asking for advice immediately dissipates when he sees Ichiro sizing him up. He starts backpedaling, realizing just how fucking stupid it is.

“Was it love at first sight?” He grouses, deciding on a different line of questioning.

Ichiro rubs his chin, apparently deep in thought. (As if such a stupid question would warrant that much consideration.) “Yeah. I’d say so.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” a grin. “And I know it’s legit because we met in high school, back when I was still a delinquent.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“I mean it. Dyed my hair yellow, got an illegal tattoo and everything. Oh, and I carried around a baseball bat too. Didn’t have any friends my age, just a bunch of dropouts who were kicked out of school for being delinquents just like me. We vandalized cars, got into fights, and drank ourselves silly before noon. Dunno what kind of point I was trying to prove, but I probably would’ve ended up just like them in another life. Eventually all that tomfoolery caught up with me and I was failing every single class I was taking, except gym. I was good at gym.”

Toji snorts.

“My wife was assigned to tutor me in math, which, I of course was failing spectacularly. With great gusto, I might add! My teacher threw chalk at me every single day in the hopes that he’d eventually hammer the equations into my head. Too bad he didn’t know how thick my skull was.” He knocks on his forehead with a dull, resounding clunk. “Anyway, I met my wife, and suddenly I was doing practice sets every night, studying all the chapters she was supposed to be tutoring me in so I could sound like I knew what I was doing. When you’re that age, you’d do anything to impress a girl. To be a man deserving of her affections.”

Toji pauses, picking at the worn leather on the armrest of his loveseat. “And how do you know if you’re deserving or not?”

“She agreed to marry me, didn’t she?”

“Women marry for much less.”

A biting sentiment, but it’s all bravado and projection. Something he buries at the back of his mind as he turns his gaze back to the TV, hoping to forget. In another time, the comment would’ve earned him a slap over the head.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you know,” says Ichiro. “You just gotta keep working until you get there.”

“All right, old man. You love her. I get it.”

“Is it love? I often wonder that myself.”

Great. Ignited a whole philosophical debate, thinks Toji, flopping back-first on the seat of the couch, legs splayed over the armrest. He kicks his feet, eyes darting between the glow of the TV and Ichiro’s thinking face.

“Love is passion. And passion is fleeting. One day you’ll wake up and tell yourself, I was lucky to have met her. And you’ll realize you’d do anything to preserve that little bit of peace.”

“Whatever.”

They both fall silent, watching the newscast drone on. Abandoned stray rescued by salaryman! A heartwarming story, the stuff dreams are made of. He’s the one who rescued me, says the man who’s already quit his job and moved back in with his parents. Before the hungry cameras, they dote needlessly on their new dog. One has to wonder just how long the luster will last until they get sick of it.

A convenient distraction, thinks Toji. And a waste of time.

--

Alone in his bunk, he starts imagining what it’d be like to fuck you.

Mostly, what it’d be like to fuck you so hard you start crying because that’s how he’s always fucked. Fast, hard, and rough.

And then he thinks about choking you, fingers wrapped around your thin, little neck until your eyes roll to the back of your head.

Because sex is a tangible thing. Real, raw, and honest in a way that love can only aspire. If he closes his eyes, he can vaguely recall losing his virginity to a girl who claimed she bled three days straight afterwards. Young and stupid, he’d taken that as a token of honor, a badge he wore with pride.

Everything after that is a muddled mess. One-night stands. (Barely)-friends with benefits, women who saw him for what he really was. A good lay, but unworthy of dissection. The jokes write themselves. Once people start seeing you for what you really are, they get sick of you. (He tells himself, again, that the trick is just to figure out when to leave before they can hate you.)

As he watches the rising sun, all he’s left with is a churn in his stomach, like he's swallowed a needle whole. It’s … unsettling. And weird. That something so innocuous like imagining your first night can leave him with such a sour taste in his mouth. That the image of you weeping into your pillow sears itself infinitely harder than the image of you cumming around his cock.

--

When the clock strikes six, he gets up from his bunk, ready to leave.

On the way out, he passes through the cafeteria, where he finds a group of his coworkers busying themselves over breakfast and catching up on the latest gossip. He pauses, watching them from a safe distance, before taking a deep breath.

And making a bee-line for their table.

“Oi,” he says, coming to a stop. “Where do I buy a yukata around here?”

--

For all the things he is, Toji is no stranger to yukatas.

They were all he ever wore once upon a time. In the same shades of neutral: black, muted. Grey, muted. Brown, muted. Going home was like stepping out of the 21st century and back into the Heian era. Serving girls in serving robes, men in haoris, women in yukatas. As a kid, he discovered the most vibrant cobalt blue he’d ever seen in a picture book about frogs. Though he couldn’t tell you the contents of what he read, he could tell you the order of colors of every page he leafed through. Marmalade-orange, mulberry-violet, canary-yellow, cobalt-blue.

One night, he was caught carding through pages over candlelight, and the ensuing beating he received was so bad he couldn’t get out of bed for three days. By the time he was awake and lucid, the book was gone, and the lesson stuck.

He passes through three different tourist shops (on recommendation) until he discovers a traditional little storefront outside the city grid. It’s run by an old lady with a hunch named Hanako, who doesn’t ask any questions as he peruses the various aisles, parsing through sample-sized fabrics.

It doesn't take long before he settles on a lighter cotton that you can wear comfortably in the summer heat.

“Color?” says Hanako, as he brings up the sample to the storefront.

He motions to the burnt orange on the wall. “That." A pause. "But in a less ugly shade.”

At his insistence, she picks out a lighter orange and he gives his curt nod of approval.

“Design?” She asks.

“You choose. I don’t know what women are into these days.”

She parses through letterings, stars, dragons, and phoenixes, eventually settling on a simple blossom-design. Toji approves, thinking it’s funny that they both somehow had the same telepathic notion of choosing flowers without exchanging a word.

“It’s a gift. So make it nice or whatever,” he tacks on.

She does, wrapping the folded layers of the yukata into wrapping paper before tying it up with string. Behind the counter, she plucks out a fancy-looking bag, punching out the proper corners before setting the yukata gently inside.

“Corners are sharp,” she tells him. “Be careful.”

“Yeah, yeah. I'll be fine,” he says, ripping open the door, only to turn back around and bow his head in thanks before leaving.

--

“It’s nice, right?”

Your sister cocks her head, fingers running down the seams of the fabric. “Why orange?”

“Why not.” Toji kicks his feet up on the edge of her bed. “What’s wrong with orange?”

“Her favorite color is pink.”

“Uh, okay. Didn’t know that, didn’t care. Besides, orange is the color of your family flowers or whatever.”

At the sight of his disgruntled face, she smiles, “Okay. You’re right. This is really nice. I like the fabric a lot! Did you pick that out yourself?”

He snatches the yukata away, shoving it (gently) into its proper receptacle (the bag with the sharp corners), “No.”

“I mean it! How much was it? I’ll pay you.”

“Don’t need your pity cash, sickard.”

“Did you get something for yourself while you were there?”

“No.” He doesn’t tell her he still has his haori with the family crest that’s currently collecting dust in his knapsack at home. It’s probably wrinkled to oblivion, crushed underneath the weight of all his travel essentials. “Anyway, I have to go. Festival’s tonight and your sister’s doing god-knows-what at home. See ya.”

“Have fun,” she says with a smile. “Bring an umbrella.”

--

As soon as he leaves the hospital, he hauls ass to the closest MUFG, where he finds himself a personal banker and flops down on the empty chair inside his cube.

“I need to open a bank account,” he says.

--

Up the winding path he goes, motorcycle rumbling between his clenched thighs as he catches sight of you lounging on the open veranda, reading a book.

At the sight of him, you light up, dog-earing the page you’re on and waving his way. He pulls to a stop outside the gate, docks his bike, and undoes the string tying up his lunch containers. You step into your outdoor slippers, but before you can get the jump on welcoming him home, he stiffs his arm out and holds a check before your eyes.

“For rent.”

You blink at it, eyes darting to the cash value. 20,000-yen. There’s something scribbled in the memo, but you don’t get to see what it says because he immediately takes you by the wrist and slaps the piece of paper into your palm.

“I didn’t know how much you wanted, so I just put down whatever.”

Wow. He really hasn’t paid rent in his life, you think, smoothing out the creases of the check as you gaze up his sullen face. “You can pay whatever you can, even if it’s 200-yen.”

“That’s not even enough to get you a gumball at the corner store these days.”

But you’ve already moved on from the check, eyes locking with the fancy black shopping bag anchored on the back of his bike. As soon as he catches you staring, he steps in front of your eyeline, blocking your view and giving you a full look into the cut of his white t-shirt.

“What’s that?” You ask, gesturing to the gift.

“A shopping bag.”

His attempt to be sarcastic completely misses as you ask, “You went shopping?”

“Not for me,” he mumbles. “It’s a gift.”

“For?”

“Who do you think?”

You blink again, somewhat miffed at his response. “I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

Something gets lost in translation as the two of you continue staring at each other.

Just when you think his guard is down, you make the first move, trying to juke past him like a linebacker, only for him to catch you by the waist.

“It was a worthy attempt,” he says, hoisting you over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

All the blood rushes to your face and your body hangs limply as he carries you through the open door of the veranda. “Fight me,” you tell him with absolutely no conviction at all.

He snorts, somehow finagling you into his arms, where he carries the weight of you bridal-style without breaking a sweat. You glare at him with a frown on your face, and he takes a beat to study your agitated face. Cute, he thinks, placing you down gently on the tatami mat before patting you on the head.

“You’ll see what is later,” he says.

As soon as he makes his way to the kitchen, you turn on your side and crawl towards the door on your knees, “It’s gonna rain. I’ll just bring it inside so it doesn’t get wet.”

Like the physical freak of nature he is, he manages to manifest before your very eyes and block your path, giving you a fantastic view of his ankles, “No. I know you’re going to peek at it.”

"You don't know shit."

"Yeah? I wish that were the case." He bends down, grabs you by the wrists, and drags (literally drags) you back to the kotatsu.

Your eyes stay glued to the ceiling until he stops, “Can I at least have a hint?”

“No.”

“What if I guessed? Give me three chances.”

“No. Stop asking.”

“But—”

“You’re not gonna like it, so stop getting your hopes up.”

You sigh, rolling onto your stomach and propping your elbows on the tatami mat so that you can cup your chin, “Fine. Can I cut your hair now?”

--

With a chair cloth wrapped around his neck, Toji finds himself sitting on a stool, comically small for a man of his stature.

Spread out before him: a sea of old newspapers and a plastic tarp for cleanup.

You pull out an old set of clippers and slide on a three-guard. As soon as you flip the switch, the buzz is all he hears. He wants to ask if you actually know what you’re doing, but you seem so sure of yourself, so he decides, wordlessly, that he’s sure of you too.

Starting with the back, you start carving up and out in slow, granular motions, letting the sprigs of wet hair cling to your hand as you continue working through, section by section. You have him pull down his ear so you can get to the side of his head, but for the most part, neither of you speak as you change guards and fine-tune the edges. He wishes he could better see your expression, but the tugging you’re doing to his hair is soothing in a way that clears his mind of any actual thinking.

At some point, you break out your scissors and start trimming, where you discover a soft pink patch on the back of his head, “You have a scar here.”

“It’s nothing,” he says. “It was a long time ago.”

"What happened?"

A shrug. "To be honest, I don't remember." Hopeful for a change in subject, he asks, “What’d you do while I was gone?”

You brush the soft pad of your thumb against the scar one more time before moving on, “I went for a hike in the mountains the other day.”

“It’s dangerous to hike when it’s raining, dummy.”

“I know these mountains really well.”

“I don’t care. Things get muddy, and one wrong look and you can slip and fall. Look at how bad it’s raining—” He stops, suddenly, and you take a step back as he rises from the stool. “Fuck.”

Without warning, he rushes past the kotatsu, the cloth around his neck billowing like a cape as he throws open the door of the veranda. His eyes lock with the shopping bag on the back of his bike and he rushes out barefoot to grab it.

You sigh, setting your scissor back into its kit as you stare at the state of Toji’s hair, only half done as he comes ducking back inside. A puddle forms on the tatami mat as he shakes his head like a wet dog, rain splattering everywhere.

“So,” you take a seat at the kotatsu, leaning against one clenched fist. “Can I see my gift now?”

He takes a beat to assess its contents, still safe and dry in its wrapping paper. For some reason, the shade of orange awaiting him inside makes his stomach churn in a not-so-pleasant way. She was right. I should’ve chosen a different color, he thinks, deflated.

You clear your throat, and for whatever reason, Toji actually decides to toss the bag at you—

--where the sharp edge hits you eyeball-first.

It happens so fast you don’t have time to process it. One moment the bag is suspended in midair, the next you’re clutching your eye, bowing your head down over the table.

“Ouch,” you say, somewhat deadpan as you struggle to figure out what the hell just happened.

Toji’s lip twitches, “You were … supposed …” To catch it.

The thought never finishes because Toji catches a glimpse of blood and suddenly he’s rushing to your side, prying away your tiny, ineffectual fists so he can better assess the damage. “Can you still see?”

“Yeah.”

“How much does it hurt?”

“Um, a little.”

Nothing’s bruising yet, and there’s no swelling, but it’s still pretty bad. The shock has the muscle under your eye twitching.

Fuck,” he mutters.

In his mad scramble to get up, he actually slips on his cape and hits the tatami mat with a hard thump as the whole minka house trembles on impact. But he’s completely undeterred, scrambling to his feet and stumbling towards the kitchen, where he tugs out drawer after drawer in search of the first-aid kid.

Fuck,” he says, jamming one of them. He pulls so hard, all the contents go flying. Chopsticks, butter knives, and forks, clattering to the floor in a symphony of dinks.

It brings back an old memory from the compound, where he was only four and climbing counters, pretending to be a monkey, only to slip off the edge and hit the ground. He’d been discovered by a kitchen girl, who promptly reported the news to Naobito while Toji continued bleeding out on the floor alone.

“It’s okay,” you tell him. “It was an accident.”

But your voice doesn’t even register. He just continues flipping your kitchen upside down while you decide to turn your attention elsewhere. Plates get rearranged in messy piles on your counter, right next to an old, antique vase you’ve never used. He manages to unearth an old french press with a copper top that looks like it's from the 60s. There's fine china here too, still in its original packaging.

By the time he actually discovers the first-aid kit, he turns around and finds you holding the yukata, the gift-wrap crumpled in a heap on the floor.

“Oh. Toji.” You remove your hand from your injured eye to take a better look. “It’s beautiful.”

You push yourself up from the ground, hopping over the mess newspapers, hair, and chopsticks to wrap your arms around his waist in a hug.

“Thank you,” you tell him. “I really, really love it.”

"It's for the festival," he points out, hoping to move past the discomforting, yucky-gratitude part of this exchange.

Slowly, you pull away and gesture to the stool with a smile, “Okay. Then Let’s get your hair finished for it."

“Eye, first," he says stiffly, holding out the firstaid.

You pause, glancing at the mess in your kitchen before meeting his gaze with a smile.

--

He stares at the giant white eyepatch on your face as you continue working through his hair.

How is it possible, he thinks, that she’s not mad?

Even with the band-aid on, all he sees right now is your twitching eye and the bruise that’s probably already formed. All it took was one moment of carelessness and suddenly you're wounded. The shame of the revelation is so nauseating he finds himself lowering his gaze to your waist, hesitant to meet your gaze again.

This is how it goes. People know him, people get hurt, and people get sick of him.

Since you were born, you’ve been nothing more than a blot on our family name.

However many chances you had to redeem yourself, only to gamble away all that goodwill.

To whore yourself out like the degenerate piece of shit that you are.

“I’m a bum,” he mumbles.

“A lil’ bit, yeah.”

He feels like the space underneath the cape is getting smaller and smaller.

“And I don’t know how to cook.”

“True,” you splay out his bangs over his forehead and tousle his hair a bit, enjoying the final result.

“And I’m shit at cleaning.”

“You try your best.”

“And I curse too much.”

“I do too.”

He glances to the mess on your kitchen floor, the mess of his hair stuck to your hands, and the mess of an adhesive wrap covering your injured eye.

“And I ruin everything I touch.”

The smile vanishes from your face.

“It was an accident. You don’t have to—”

"And my real name is Toji Zen'in."

You fall silent.

“And I love you.”

Chapter Text

Rain drums down on concrete in a symphony of wet slaps.

Ducked underneath the awning of a nearby café, you and Toji stare out at the storm, the both of you soaked from the neck down. Cloth clings to skin in a mix of cold sweat and rainwater, and with the sun setting down past the horizon, the wind is starting to sting.

“Are you cold?” He asks.

You shake your head.

From the corner of his eye, he catches you shivering, “Liar.”

And then it’s quiet again, as neither of you have an umbrella, nor a working solution to the problem at hand. For some unfathomable reason, you and Toji had the notion you’d be better off walking to the festival, only to find out there was no way back without a car.

"We could swim," he points out.

You smile a wry smile. "And drown?"

"We'd be the first."

"True. It'd be the only interesting story to come out of Sendai in years."

A crack of lightning later, and the two of you settle back into silence, willowing around, watching the vendors pack up their stands while the remaining guests congregate in the air-conditioned halls of the bus station across the street. A single car peters down the adjacent avenue, rolling at a leisurely pace, tidal pools of rainwater flooding underneath its tires.

The fabric of your yukata has turned a dark, morose shade of orange, but Toji finds himself more concerned with your eyepatch.

“Does it … still hurt?”

Your hand instinctively travels up your face, just shy of touching the edge of the band-aid. “No, not really.”

He ascertains your answer before looking back out at the rain, where he finds an American couple waltzing barefoot in the middle of an empty road.

They’re wearing tourist-rental yukatas, just happy to be there, being watched and ogled and stared at. You think it’s charming, but when you take a peek at Toji's expression, so smarmy and filled with disgust, you can tell he thinks it’s obnoxious.

“What are you looking at,” he says, catching your prying gaze.

You look back at the couple, one of them slipping and hitting the ground with a thump while the other is dragged down by the neck of his yukata. They break into hysterical laughter, so shrieking and loud you can hear it through the rain.

“Nothing. I’ve just never seen you wear a haori before,” you tell him. “It looks nice on you.”

“Lia—” He stops himself when he sees that look on your face is sincere. “Whatever.”

Truthfully, you weren’t even aware he owned a haori. Not that there’s much of a haori left hanging on his shoulders. The fabric’s pruned and wrinkled, the hemline’s split with frays, and the sleeves are covered in holes, skin peeking through cracks. Your gaze lingers on the Ze’nin family crest embroidered in the neck before turning to the sky, congested with a fog of storm clouds.

“It’s still raining,” you state, somewhat obviously.

The frown on his face sours. “Yeah, I can see that.”

Silence. The two of you continue loitering by the curbside, watching the American couple duck into the love hotel at the end of the street. You can still hear the echoes of their laughter even as the rain continues slapping concrete.

“Toji.”

“What?”

You glance at the remaining vendor across the street who’s in the process of packing up shop, “Cats or dogs?”

"Cats and dogs. You missed the part where it’s raining.”

You look at him and sigh. “Just wait here.”

Without warning, you duck out from the awning.

“Where are you going?”

But his question is promptly squashed as you make the mad dash across the road, socks soaked as you puddle through, one step at a time. Once you come to a stop, you exchange a few words with the vendor, who’s rolling up his last carpet of merchandise. You motion to a set keychains on the tarp, and decide on two that Toji doesn’t have the pleasure of seeing.

He slides your purchase in a brown paper bag that you tuck into the sleeve of your yukata before making the perilous run back. The water is practically at your shins, dragging at your feet, and with the way you’re running, Toji’s worried you might actually be swallowed whole.

"Slow down," he calls out.

Your hair, which you’d done with such meticulous care, has completely fallen apart, and your yukata’s beginning to deflate with the extra weight of water in fabric.

Drenched to the core, you come to a stop before him.

“What is it?” He asks.

You smile. “A gift.”

“For?”

“Guess.”

Your mockery of your prior conversation does not go unnoticed as he reaches for the sleeve of your yukata, only for you to slap away his hand. He frowns. “I already know what it is,” he says, but the statement just elicits a shrug from you.

“If you know, you know.”

Just when he thinks your guard is down, he tries again, only for you to turn away towards the neon lights down the street by sheer coincidence. Your eyes settle on the block lettering atop the doors. Hotel Green Garden. And the subtext underneath: Adults Only.

“Maybe we should wait it out somewhere else,” you suggest.

He follows your gaze. “That’s a love hotel.”

You turn back his way and stare at him. He stares back. After a brief moment of silence, he shrugs.

“Fine, have it your way."

--

The lobby of the hotel greets you with three of the same vending machines.

You head to the nearest one and find a photo collage of varying hotel rooms with the placard of their themes stamped beneath. The images are rendered horrendously on screen, flash oozing through like it’s been whitewashed with a glare. Almost all of them are gray scaled, indicating the room’s already been taken.

Space Room. Taken.

Jungle Room. Taken.

Business Room. Taken.

Zen Room. Taken.

“Guess everyone else had the same idea,” you say, gesturing to the only available room left. “This one.” The image on screen has a bed and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. “Americana. What do you think?”

Toji stares at the pricing options. “2,500 for two hours and 6,900 for the night.”

You punch in the option for two hours.

“Let’s hope this storm passes fast.”

--

The elevator ride up is silent until you ask, “Have you been in a love hotel before?”

“Yeah.” A pause. “You?”

“Just once.”

Toji notices the smile on your face is wry and knowing, as if you’re recalling a fond memory from once upon a time.

“What’s with that look?"

“Nothing.” You cast your gaze down at the red shag carpeting. “Just thinking about the last time we stayed overnight at a hotel. The same day I met you, I guess.”

“And what about it.”

The numbers continue bumping up until you hit the fourth floor, where the elevator comes pulling to a slow stop. “You just seemed like a different person, that’s all,” you say, watching the doors open with a soft dink.

You’re the first to step off, Toji following in slow, languid steps as the two of you make your way down the hall. He studies the dip of your yukata, where your baby hair is sticking to the delicate patch of skin on the back of your neck.

At the end of the hall, you slot in the key and meet a green light.

The door opens unceremoniously, and the two of you find yourselves taking stock of the hotel room before stepping into the foyer. A bed in one corner, a jukebox in another. There’s a vending machine filled with condoms, disposable lingerie, and sex toys in every conceivable shape you can imagine.

You slip out of your sandals and peel away your wet socks while Toji follows you from behind, sneering at the place until his gaze settles on the television screen, where Singing in the Rain is playing on mute.

You make your way to the bathroom first, where you find a cart of costumes. “Toji, look at this.” You lift up a cheerleading uniform in a vacuum-sealed bag, alongside a set of deflated pom-poms attached on a plastic line. “I'll give you 2,000-yen to put this on."

“Fat chance."

You study the model on the packaging, her skirt so short you can see her thong riding up between her ass cheeks. “5,000?"

"You're gonna have to pay a lot more than that."

He grabs the remote and flips to the next channel, where he finds the Grapes of Wrath. And the next. Gone with the Wind. And the next. Footloose. And the next. West Side Story. And the next. Pulp Fiction. And the last. Splendor in the Grass. Then he’s back to square one again. Gene, Debbie, and Donald are tap dancing across the screen, singing good morning.

There has to be something else, he thinks, sullenly. I didn’t even know these kinds of channels still existed.

You start parsing through the room, one cabinet at a time, until you find a closet with a bathrobe inside, “Huh. They only left us one.”

Toji shoves his hands into the pockets of his pants, flopping down on the stool next to the jukebox. “Take it. You need it more than I do.”

You decide not to protest, taking the fluffy garment off the hanger before heading into the bathroom to change. He can hear you shuffling around the other side of the door, fiddling with soaps and shampoo bottles.

While waiting, he decides to turn his attention to the jukebox, barely recognizing any of the words written in the placards. But eventually that gets boring, so he moves on to the vending machine filled with disposable sex toys, feeling a strain in his pants as his gaze settles on the pink vibrator the size of a walnut.

--

The door slides open and there you are, standing in the frame with your yukata off, hair down, and robe on. You hang up your garments in the closet to dry, insisting that he takes off his haori before he catches a cold.

And he does, peeling off his coat, along with his pants, revealing nothing underneath but a pair of black boxer briefs. The exchange is spectacularly brusque, as if the two of you have known each other for years, having familiarized yourselves with your intimate, nightly rituals.

He comes to the closet, where he reaches over your shoulder to grab a hanger. You end up petering back, clipped between his naked torso and the shelf. Under the warm glow of the closet light, you find yourself staring into a roadmap of scars. Everywhere.

All over his body, from his neck to his pelvis, and way past that too. Some of them are hideous lesions: jagged, uneven, and raw. The others are white, just short of healing into skin. There’s a fresh one underneath his armpit, dragging all the way down to his hip. It’s still pink.

You can’t stop staring, speechless at the sight. Mortified, even. You’ve seen him half-naked before, but never this close, and never this stark.

Toji takes your concern as interest, and his lips twitch into a smirk. “Like what you see?”

But he has the completely wrong impression as your fingers ghost up the sides of his body, just short of pressing down on skin. “Toji … what the hell happened to you?”

The smile vanishes from his face as your tone of worry finally registers. “Nothing.” When he sees you still staring, he puts his hands on either side of the shelf, caging you between his arms. “Just ignore them.”

Suddenly he’s kissing you, hoisting you up by the waist and setting you down on the shelf as gingerly as possible. He tries to deepen the kiss, tongue prying past your lips and swirling inside your mouth as you try and kiss him back, with less and less fervor as your eyes flutter open.

“Toji.”

What,"  he sighs, exasperated.

You pull away, thumb brushing against the jagged scar along his lip. “I’m serious. What happened?”

He sighs again, seeing the look of apprehension on your face, “I’ll tell you some other time."

It’s a promise he doesn’t intend to keep. You know that. Though you can’t explain why, you do.

He knows too. There’s a guilty twinge in his stomach that tells him this is the line in the sand that’s already been drawn. An invisible wall that keeps him in his world, and you and yours. In another life, he’d make the plunge into the other side where you are, untethered and unbound.

Slowly, your hands settle onto his shoulders, finding ridges you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing. Of touching. You trace every scar, feeling the warmth of his skin underneath your fingertips, and then, without saying a word, you pull him into your arms and hug him as hard as you can.

--

The two of you discover the minibar, though you’re the only one who ends up drinking.

As you lay down next to each other in bed, the storm rages on, rain splattering across the window so hard you think the glass might crack. “My favorite thing, huh.” He leans up against one clenched fist and stares at your face. “Your tits, probably.”

You roll your eyes.

“Your turn,” he says.

You lay down flat and stare up at the disco ball, where a hundred micro-sized reflections stare you back. They blink in unison; they smile in unison; they do everything in unison, completely at your whim.

You don’t know if it’s the first-sip feel of being completely whiskey wasted, but you find yourself wanting to open up in ways you thought were inconceivable.

“Your voice,” you tell him, turning to your side to look out the window. “I could listen to you talk forever.”

He wishes he could see your expression.

“I try to remember everything you say,” you tell him softly, curling up into a ball. “I collect your stories the way a kid collects stamps. Or baseball cards. I’d collect them forever if I could.”

He doesn't even know if what you said should register as a compliment. "No one's told me that before," he mumbles, not quite realizing his cheeks are pink.

“Toji.”

“What?”

“There’s a maid costume in the bathroom,” you mumble softly before promptly falling asleep.

--

For a while, he just watches you sleep. Memorizes the slow, even breaths you take. The rise and fall of your chest. The way your lips part just a little bit, the pink bulge of your tongue barely in sight.

On TV, Funny Face.

Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire are waltzing outside the wedding chapel, Audrey in a white wedding gown, and Fred with a camera. He loves, and she loves, and they love, so won’t you love me as I love you?

They kiss, they dance, they love.

“Toji,” you mumble his name softly, rubbing the sleepiness out of your eyes as you blink up blearily at him. “How long was I out for?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Oh.” A glance at the clock tells you you still have about an hour left for the room. “That reminds me.”

You head to the closet, grabbing the package from the sleeve of your yukata. “There was this story my dad read me once about this half-wolf, half-dog mutt. And he just goes through the worst of it. Like, he really gets the shit kicked out of him. Dog fights, shitty owners, everything—until the end. And then it’s just … peaceful.”

You unveil two matching keychains. A black dog and a white dog. “Anyway, that’s my longwinded way of saying I’m a dog person,” you tell him. “Which one do you want?”

He gestures to the black keychain. “White suits you more.”

“Okay.” You return to the closet, fiddling with the keychains, and return with a key attached to the black dog. “Those are the keys to my place,” you tack on. “I probably should’ve gotten you a set made earlier, but I got lazy. So. Uh, here it is."

He doesn’t know what to make of it, holding the keys in his hand like a precious treasure he's never seen before. Suffice to say he's mooched off other women who've let him sit idly by inside the confines of their apartment complexes, but never have they given him the freedom of return.

“So.” You sit up, readjusting the neck of your robes as you meet his gaze again. “Maid costume?”

“No fucking chance.”

Come on. It’s too big for me!”

“Stop pleading.”

“Toji.”

He studies the pout on your face and rolls his eyes, “What do I get in return?”

You glance around the room, gaze settling on the vending machine of sex toys. “Anything you want.”

“Anything?”

“Yes, anything.”

“You’re gonna regret saying that,” he snorts, looking over at the cart of costumes inside the bathroom. “You go first, and we have a deal.”

“Done.”

--

The cheerleading uniform goes on first, though calling it a uniform would be giving it too much credit. The material’s so cheap it’s see-through, and the skirt’s not really a skirt, just a flimsy piece of cloth that barely wraps around your waistline in a circle.

“How do they—” You can barely breathe, the top so tight you feel your lungs constricting. “—breathe in these things?”

Toji leans back against the bathroom sink, taking stock of your new look. “Why don’t you try and see?”

“I wouldn’t be able to lift my arms past my head without ripping the top.”

“Even better,” he says. “Go ahead then. Do a flip for me, sweetheart.”

You ignore his quip, taking one more look at yourself in the mirror, feeling very much like a stranger in your own body.

“Maybe just one more,” you say, turning to the cart.

--

A school uniform, except it has all the makings of a school uniform in a bad porno.

You back up against the wall so you can study the pleated skirt in the mirror, bending sideways and finding the hem riding up way past your underwear. “Wow.” You stand straight again, stretching your arms out and feeling the fabric of the button up stretch against your breasts. “I haven’t worn this since high school.”

Toji sizes you up with a squint, feeling a discomforting churn in his stomach.

Amazing how one change in costume has him staring into the face of a juvenile little girl who doesn’t know any better.

“Take that ridiculous thing off.”

You look at the last costume sitting woefully alone on the cart, “Maid costume.”

"No."

“A deal’s a deal.”

He frowns.

--

The skirt rips apart with a horrifying hft.

You burst out laughing, letting go of the zipper as you collapse back into the mattress, clutching your sides. Toji discards the skirt, turning around to cage you against the bed. The only garment that’s managed to withstand the strain of his giant, bulging muscles is the apron.

His mouth closes against yours somewhat forcefully and you part your lips, easing into the kiss as his tongue eagerly explores the caverns of your mouth. But as soon as your eyes flutter open to glance at him, you can’t help but laugh again.

He pulls away, eyes falling to the see-through fabric of your white button-up and the wrinkled little schoolgirl tie. “I can’t take you seriously in that skirt.”

“Me neither. We look insane."

His dick is flaccid as ever and you seem vaguely aware of that as you take a moment before sitting up to unbutton your shirt. He follows suit, undoing the tassels of the apron before letting it fall into a crumpled heap on the floor. Your skirt is the next to go, as you pull down the zipper and peel it off, kicking it into a mound at the foot of the bed.

Your bra is black, and so is your underwear. Simple. Sleek. Elegant.

“So,” you prop up one elbow against the pillow and lean against your clenched fist. “What do you want?”

“You said anything.”

“I did.”

“Did you mean it?”

“Toji, I am a woman of my word.”

It’s a joke, but he doesn’t doubt the validity. When he glances up at the disco ball, he sees his reflection fragmented into a hundred million pieces.

“We could watch a movie,” you suggest when the silence stretches too long. “Or … we could—” You stop yourself mid-thought as you catch him staring at the TV screen, where Dirty Dancing is playing on mute. Johnny, Baby, and the time of their lives.

Toji looks offended by the debacle.

Without thinking, you jump up from bed and grab yourself a 100-yen coin from your purse before approaching the jukebox.

You pick out a random title, and In My Way by Elvis starts crooning from the speakers.

You grab Toji’s hand, tugging him to the floor, and for some reason, he doesn’t protest, letting you lead as you flip the switch on the wall. The room dims, the disco ball lowers down, lights bouncing off the reflective panels as you guide him forward.

“Like this.” You place his hand on your waist, letting his palm blanket over your skin in a warm ember glow. He flexes his fingers before readjusting his hold while you set your hand on his shoulder, feeling the scars you’ve already come to memorize.

And then the two of you start slow dancing.

I may not be here tomorrow, but I’m close beside you today.

“This is stupid,” he mumbles.

You press your cheek against his chest, listening to the beat of his heart. Like leaves on a branch, you sway in unison.

So lie to me a little. Say you love me a lot.

“You think a lot of things are stupid,” you tell him, feeling your cheek burn against his naked chest.

“I don’t think you’re stupid.”

You close your eyes, feeling his grip tighten around your waist as the song plays on. He’s so impossibly warm and you’re so impossibly enamored, you feel like you’re dancing on an undiscovered horizon somewhere far, far away.

Love never goes on forever. At least that’s what wise men all say.

He squeezes your hand gently and lifts it to his lips. Presses your fingers to the scarred patch of skin and letting it linger there.

So smile when you kiss me. Tomorrow, you may cry.

If you really think about it, the world could melt right now, and it’d just be you, him and the song neither of you understand. You could die in this seedy little love hotel and be content with everything you never had. All the dreams you never achieved.

But I’ll be true to you in my way.

Chapter Text

The mountain behind your minka house sings in a symphony. A chorus of cicadas, the shrill shrieks of the mockingbirds, and that little old babbling brook you know so well, gushing water past smoothed pebbles and bedrock. You listen to the rhythmic creaking of birchwood nestled in some far-off valley unbeknownst to you and find yourself feeling at home again.

“I’m sorry for what I said to you back then,” says your sister, suddenly.

You arch a brow. “Refresh my memory for me.”

She gives you a look and you decide let go of the pretense. “We were kids. We all said stupid things we didn’t mean.”

“You were a kid. I was supposed to be the adult.”

“You did your best.”

“I could’ve done better.”

“I honestly don’t think any sixteen-year-old would be prepared to raise a kid on their own, especially a kid like me.” You hug your knees to your chest and stare out at the sea of green below. “Besides, I’ve already moved past it.”

“You always move past everything,” she sighs, turning to the view.

"That's a good thing."

"To you."

The thought alone compels a smile to your face as you rock back and forth on the flat rock beneath your butt. “Is that a compliment or an insult?” After a moment’s hesitation on her part, you turn away. “I’ll take it as a compliment then.”

This is all in hopes of quelling what would inevitably be a fight. You figure the day’s too nice to squander on a quarrel, what with the sunrise and pink skies.

“When you’re young, you just say whatever you want. You think the consequences won’t hurt because you're invincible. The older you get, the more you realize just how much weight every word carries. I had a lot of time to think about that.” A pause. “There were a lot of things I said to you that I still regret to this day.”

“Seriously, you don’t have to do this. We were kids. We didn’t know any better.”

You wait a beat for her response, but when she doesn’t offer you one, you just shrug.

She starts shuffling around, crossing her legs this way and that until she finds herself a comfortable sitting position off the edge of the cliff. “When mom and dad died, I felt like I cried enough tears to drown all of Sendai.” Her eyebrows knit together as she tries to muster out the next words. “But you didn’t at all, not even once.”

“Yeah I did.”

“No. You didn’t.”

You frown, trying not to sound defensive about the insinuation. “Yes I did. I just cried when you weren’t looking.”

After seeing the look of contempt on your face, she decides not to press it. “Anyway. About that nephew of mine.”

“Why do you assume it’s gonna be a boy? Why do you even assume I’m able to have kids?”

She doesn’t miss the blush on your cheeks as her gaze turns to the horizon, where sunlight meets green in a bloom of magenta. “Just make sure he has our name, all right? Whether it’s his middle name, or whatever, I don’t care. We’re the only ones left to carry on the family legacy. That means something.”

“Jeez, you sound like dad."

“I know. Sometimes I think he secretly wished he had one son instead of two daughters. A lifetime of luck creates one blessing. He said he lost it all when he had us.”

You blink, “Did he really say that?”

A nod, followed by a smile.

“That doesn’t sound like him,” you grumble, staring out the sun.

“Maybe not to you,” she replies. “He always spoiled you rotten every chance he got. Made it so that only I got to see the not-so-nice parts of him.” She takes a long breath before expelling it in a sigh. “But I think I understand him better now."

You wonder if that’s true.

“Do you remember, though? That day?” She smiles a bitter smile. “He called the hospital in the morning and said he was going to die.”

It brings back something sour in your gut as you clench your fists. “Yeah. I was angry for years because I thought that meant he’d invited death into our house.”

“You were angry even after he was buried.” She laughs, the memory still fresh in mind. “You don’t hold it against him, do you?”

“You don’t hold grudges against the dead. It’s bad luck.”

The silence that falls stretches on for what feels like hours, but only minutes in reality. Rays of light pool through blue skies and all you can think about is what you’re going to eat for dinner—what you’re going to buy at the grocery store tomorrow. The nicest day in the world, and it already feels squandered.

“He was sick for a long time,” she says, quietly. “But he knew. He told me that on his deathbed. He woke up and felt like a voice had been planted inside him, telling him it was time. That it would be that day. I guess sometimes you just have a feeling.”

You don’t say a single word, feeling your nails dig harder into your palm as you turn your gaze the other way.

“You better cry for me,” she says, ruffling your hair. “If you don’t, I’ll haunt you.”

--

Three weeks have passed since your sister started palliative care.

But her version of palliative care will turn out to be a far cry from what palliative care is supposed to be. It’ll become a return to the reality she once knew: eating at nice restaurants, staying over at Hiroto’s place, and drinking at the nearby izakayas.

The nurse assigned to your home will insist she slow down, but your sister will skirt every well-meaning conversation in hopes that it’ll be forgotten come morning. You’ll end up becoming the recipient of her complaints, as she badgers you with warnings. Patients are always like this. They go too fast, and then they crash.

“This is what she wants,” you tell her one sunny afternoon before heading out for work.

“She’s in pain. She needs medication.”

“Then administer it.”

“She’s never home.”

“Then maybe she doesn’t need it,” you tell her, shrugging.

She considers it quietly before acquiescing with a sigh.

--

Ever since your sister returned home, she’s spent almost every waking hour catching up with friends in Sendai. Indulging in the new restaurants on Jozenji-dori. Scaling mountains on weekends and hunting truffles alone. You’d done your best resisting the urge to nag her about it, but the temptation was oftentimes so gnawing you’d ended up nagging anyway.

Oh, get over it, she’d told you. My last days—my rules.

With her back, she’d taken residence in your parents’ room, which meant you were relegated to sleeping in the living space. Blankets scattered by the kotatsu, pillows discarded all over the tatami mats. Your makeshift cot, but with none of the comfort or privacy as she and Toji come filtering down the staircase several times a day to pilfer through the cabinets.

“Hey.” Toji nudges your back with his toe. “You can’t keep doing this.”

You stretch out and exhale, flopping down on your back, arms and legs akimbo as you stare at his face upside-down. Sweaty, his black t-shirt clings to his skin in all the right, delicious ways.

“And what exactly am I doing?” You ask.

“Sleeping on the floor,” he says. “Just sleep in my bed.” At the sight of your disgruntled face, he frowns. “I won’t fucking do anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

When you don’t budge, he nudges the top of your head with the point of his toe. “I can’t stand the sight of you living like this.”

Oh how the tables turn. You roll onto your side, curling your face against the cloth of the kotatsu. “I don’t want my sister to feel weird about it.”

“And why would I feel weird about it?” comes her voice from the staircase, all singsong and cheer as she descends down with a spring in her step.

You sit up, studying her outfit. A pretty white summer dress, a sun hat, and mom’s old diamond earrings. “We’re all adults here,” she goes on, flashing you a smile. “As far as I’m concerned, the only one who’s making it weird is you.”

I seriously forgot how annoying she can be, you think sullenly to yourself.

You watch her with a piercing glare as she slips into her heels in the foyer.

Toji arches a brow, “You’re all dressed up.”

“This little thing?” She blinks down at her dress. “I guess I am.”

You wait for an explanation, but she decides not to offer one. Just as you open your mouth to ask who, where, and why, she says, “see ya!” before stepping out the front door and slamming it shut.

The two of you wait a beat before Toji bends down to grab you by the hands, willing you up like a ragdoll. You come to your feet with all the grace and coordination of a lazy caterpillar, and the last of his patience fizzles when he sees just how lackadaisical you’re being. “Up and attem,” he mutters, hoisting you up over his shoulder by the waist.

You hang limply, bent like a taco shell as he carries you up the stairs, one step at a time.

As soon as he enters his room, he drops you on the mattress with a bounce and resumes his seat by your desk. Your gaze falls to the pile of books on your nightstand, and you find new creases in their spines. He must’ve gone through them all, you think, somewhat embarrassed by the contents, only to discover his house keys beside them.

The keychain’s beginning to show signs of scratching from overuse, but it brings a small smile to your face.

“Here.”

There’s some shuffling on his part as he pilfers through the papers on his desk, pulling out a crumpled check with the word rent written in the memo box.

You take it, wordlessly, and slip it into the pocket of your shorts before flopping down on your back to stare at the ceiling. All those cracks you memorized growing up—you wonder if he’s memorized them too.

“This house is getting crowded,” you tell him.

“Yeah. You like it though.” He stands up, setting one knee on the bed as his weight sinks into the mattress. “Your sister’s going on a date with Hiroto, by the way.”

“I know. I just don’t understand why she won't tell me. Or at least talk to me about it.”

He flops down on his side and leans up against one clenched fist while his free hand roams down the hem of your white t-shirt. “Nosey.”

“Nosey because I care.”

“Then don’t. Give less of a shit.”

You roll your eyes, letting him trail his fingers up the skin of your stomach. A shiver comes down your spine when he pauses at the underwire of your bra.

“You said you wouldn’t try anything,” you say.

“Yeah, well. I lied.”

And then he’s kissing you. Slowly. Deeply. Tongue swirling inside your mouth like he has all the time in the world, even though you’re counting down the minutes before your shift at the gyoza shop.

His hand pushes past the cling of your bra, knuckles pinched underneath underwire as he starts kneading your breast. You try to say something, but his tongue is so consuming and eager all your efforts are muffled to a whimper.

His weight presses harder against you as he pulls away from your lips, “So long as we sleep in the same room, we could do this every night if you want.”

Suddenly his hand is slipping down past the waistband of your shorts and you’re trying not to buck your hips as the soft pad of his fingertips brush up against the wet patch of your underwear. “You always know the right things to say,” you tell him quietly, staring at the ceiling and feeling his lips press against your neck. “It scares me.”

He kisses you again, and you sigh, happily exasperated until he says, “I only mean them when I’m with you.”

And then you freeze, stiffening as he continues kissing your neck. Sensing your hesitation, his hand pulls back from the waistband of your shorts as you turn the other way to curl up in the fetal position.

He frowns, slinging one arm over your waist and trying to urge you closer, but you don’t budge.

“What is it?” He asks, frowning at the sight of your back and how well he’s gotten to know it. The curve of your neck, the dip in your waist, the baby hairs.

You push yourself up and he catches a glimpse of your face, just short of despairing. “Sorry, Toji. I just have a lot on my mind right now,” you tell him, shimmying towards the edge of the bed while the blankets puddle underneath your weight.

He grabs you by the wrist before you can take off. “Do you wanna,” a frown, as he tries to search for the right words, “talk about it?”

After a beat of silence, you shake your head.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” he says, letting you go.

You offer him a tired smile before turning towards the door. “Nothing's wrong."

--

You don’t return to his bed again. In days to come, you take on so many extra shifts he starts thinking you might be a ghost.

“What’s with her these days,” Toji mutters one morning, eating breakfast by the open veranda with your sister.

She thinks back to your last conversation in the mountains and shrugs. “Beats me.”

He studies the way she eats across the table, the sloppy sounds she makes as she swallows bite after bite of katsu. “Slow down. No one’s gonna steal your—”

And then she stops, face greening as she pushes her plate aside. Apparently she’s all done, but there’s still a whole meal left.

“That’s it?” He says, gesturing to the plate.

She shrugs. “I’m full.”

“You barely ate anything.”

“I ate as much as I could.”

“That’s nothing. You’re going to disappear at this rate.”

“I had a big dinner last night. And I usually skip breakfast.”

“No you don’t,” he says with a sneer, only to look up to find her hunched over on her side.

All at once, he’s at his feet, rushing beside her. “Are you okay?”

Her breathing gets haggard as she clutches at the neck of her robes, gesturing to the phone. “Call the nurse.”

--

It gets worse.

You rush home in a hurry, practically falling face-first into the foyer as you stumble up the stairs, where you find your sister in bed.

Toji and the nurse stand at her side, but they might as well be mannequins as you study her face, taking in the sight of her.

Her skin is gray, her eyes are hazy, and there’s a tube attached to her nose, but the sight is not unfamiliar to you. Mom, dad, and now your sister. It’s like coming home to your own personalized version of hell and wondering how it still has the audacity to greet you like you’re meeting for the very first time.

“Come here,” she says; and this is the part where she’d have her arms outstretched, except she can’t even muster the strength to do that.

You crawl to the other side of the bed, lying down next to her as she takes your hand. Toji and the nurse don't even register on your radar as you give her lifeless hand a squeeze.

“I want my last words to be cool, okay? Dad never gave us any useful advice, so this is my chance,” she says. “First of all, make sure you eat your vegetables.”

You roll your eyes and feel your stomach churn. “Okay." You brush back a lock of her hair. "What else?”

“Learn how to fix a shower head. It’s stupid, but necessary.”

You nod. "And?"

"Be nicer to our neighbors."

"I am--oh, never mind."

“And lastly,” she smiles a tired smile. A single tear comes down the side of her cheek that you wipe away. “I’m really sorry for what I said to you back then. You were never a burden to me, okay? You were my only joy, and I love you. I love you so much. Don’t forget that. I really wished I could've lived to see your kid, but tell him their aunt was really cool, okay? Tell him--tell him even though we never met, I really, really love him."

You shake your head, eyes welling up with tears, “Idiot." And then a little softer: "You already know I don't hold any of that stuff against you. I love you."

“Then cry for me, okay?” she says, closing her eyes. “You never cried for mom or dad, but I’d like to … I’d like to … t …”

Her last breath escapes her, haggard and coarse—and empty now.

And then she’s gone.

--

Two weeks later, you’re sitting in front of her grave.

Toji stands behind you, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his jacket. “It’s going to rain soon.”

You don't answer.

Seeing as he’ll be there for the foreseeable future, he squats down and takes a seat beside you. When he glances your way, he finds you looking the other direction, towards the line of headstones down the pathway.

Even after all this time, no matter how close he is, you’re always so far away. He’ll take one step closer, and you’ll take one step back, your gaze always downturned, expression cloudy. He’s pretty sure he’s seen the back of your head more often than your actual face, but he doesn’t tell you that just yet.

You take a slow breath. “You die young and everything you did was right. No one can ever hate you. You are loved, unconditionally. All your mistakes—all the things that would’ve made you imperfect.”

He can see you trembling, but your expression is near-unreadable.

“You talk less and everyone will love you,” you go on quietly. “You can do no wrong. You are absolved of every mistake you never made.” At this point, you’re not even completely aware of what you’re saying. You just know it’s the truth. "You talk less and no one will ever get sick of you."

“That is such a sad way of living,” mutters Toji.

And then the trembling comes to a stop.

A crack of thunder comes roaring down, and suddenly it’s pouring rain. Pellets of water, the weight of rocks, come smashing onto concrete as you rise from your perch, ready to leave.

“Let’s go home,” you say.

Toji follows right after you, ducking his head closer to your ear, apparently not quite past your prior conversation, and already feeling vindicated by your attempt to ignore him, “Did you hear what I said?”

You start down the pathway as he follows behind you, watching as you up your pace. “I SAID,” he hisses, also doubling forward to match your gait as it gains momentum, “THAT IS SUCH A SAD WAY OF LIVING!”

Without warning, you run. Puddling down the pathway in splash after splash, as Toji makes the great chase right after you.

“WHY ARE YOU RUNNING?” He screams.

“BECAUSE YOU’RE BEING MEAN TO ME,” you scream right back.

In less than a second, he’s grabbing you by the shoulders, stopping you in your tracks as you try to wrench away from his grasp.

He glares at you, “THE THINGS YOU SAY MAKE ME FUCKING SAD FOR YOU.”

In response, you get heated. “THEN DON’T LISTEN TO ME! COVER YOUR EARS!!”

NO.”

You feel like you’re shrinking in his grip as he digs his fingers harder and harder into your shoulders.  The anger disappears as he sizes you up with a half-lidded stare. “You can tell me anything. You can tell me everything. Tell me everything that would make me hate you—I don’t care."

You squirm, feeling his breath hot on your face even as the rain continues battering down against your skin. When you don’t give him the answer he wants; when you don’t give him an answer at all, he goes on.

“I WANT YOU TO TELL ME EVERYTHING,” he yells, eyes wild with fury and rage. “OKAY??”

“STOP SCREAMING AT ME, YOU’RE SCARING ME.”

And then you burst into tears.

Perplexed, he blinks at the sight of you like this, having never actually seen you cry. It’s like seeing a fish out of water.

“Stop crying,” he says, giving your shoulders a shake, but you can’t, burying your face into your hands as you continue heaving sob after sob. “I SAID STOP CRYING.”

But when he realizes you won’t, he starts floundering.

“Fine,” he mutters. “Sorry, okay?” He squirms around, a pang of guilt in his stomach for having maybe gone too far. “Seriously. I won’t say anymore. I swear.”

Seeing as you have no plans to stop any time soon, he falls silent. Takes your hand and guides you out the gates of the cemetery as you continue crying, not stopping for the entire duration of your walk. But by the time you arrive home, it looks like you’ve just about run out of tears.

Finally, he thinks sullenly as he walks you through the door, helping you remove your shoes in the foyer before planting you down with a squish on the tatami mat.

He takes a seat in front of you, all cross-legged and hunched as he studies your face. The lack of concern could not be more apparent as you glare at him, only for him to sneer right back in response.

The rage starts building slowly, not all at once. Your neck starts turning red, followed by your cheeks as you huff in indignance. You open your mouth to snap at him, only to clamp it shut before the first word can escape.

Frustrated to the brink of no return, you wrap your arms around your head and collapse to the tatami mat with a thump.

“I can’t believe,” you glare at him, “I have to love a man—” Through your gritted teeth. “—who’s mean to me.”

He blinks, perplexed at the sudden admission, then somewhat annoyed as he turns his nose.

You wait a beat before sitting up straight, ready to snap at him some more, only to stop yourself as you make the move to get up and leave.

He grabs you by the hand and pulls you down before you get the chance to fully rise, “Then don’t, pussy.”

You end up stumbling into his arms as he pulls you against his chest, arms wrapped around your shoulders in a hug. He holds you as tight as he can, feeling your cheek pressed up softly against his wet t-shirt.

He lowers his voice as he buries his face into the crown of your hair. “I’d still love you anyway. Idiot."

Chapter Text

Only two hours into your shift and every conceivable catastrophe known to mankind has hit you in a maelstrom of dropped cutlery, spilt beers, and overeager drunks.

Yes, you think, it’s just one of those days, as some off-duty cop at table two tries to make a pass at you while you’re in the midst of picking up his plate of half-eaten gyoza. What’re you doing after this, he says, though you’re quick to point out that’s the third time he’s asked you the same question, only to meet the same answer in resounding failure. I’m going home to sleep, please don't touch me again.

The American tourists at table three have been trying to communicate with you through some shitty translation device they ordered off eBay, the regulars are coming off their fourth-beer cheer—

And you have vomit threading through every hole of your favorite hand-knit sweater.

“I am so, so, so sorry,” says the doting young mother at table four, currently attempting to wrangle back her toddler who’s much more inclined to run circles through the halls of the restaurant instead of sitting down to eat. “He—he's normally not like this."

“It’s okay.”

You feel a little sorry for her, so you decide to let it go, only for the toddler in question to burst into tears, his piercing howl so shrill and pervasive, it prompts the cop at table two to call out: hey, can you tell that kid to shut up?  Someone does you the favor of telling him that’s not very nice, and you ignore the fact that there may or may not be an ensuing argument and decide to focus on the vomit first.

You make your way down the aisle towards the bathroom, only for a drunken patron to grab you by the wrist, peppering you with three more orders of gyoza, one pitcher of beer, and another two sets of chopsticks. The glint of scattered metal underneath their seats tells you this is probably the third set they’re working through, and the sight of the mess alone is enough to make you sigh in exasperation.

And then you put on your best smile before nodding at them in a loving, chagrined sort of way that belies the urge to stab them with the chopsticks they’ve just dropped. You tell yourself the rage will wane, but the consequences of murder evidently won’t.

“Go home,” says Hiroto, as he takes a quick glance at you from the kitchen window. “I can take care of the rest from here.”

You move towards the industrial sink, turning on the faucet and washing your hands clean underneath a fresh stream of water, “Are you sure? It’s Friday night."

“Not like you can finish your shift smelling like that.”

You’re not above taking a night off from work, but the break feels unearned especially when you haven’t done much so far.

“Go home already,” he says, turning back to the stove. “Before you stink up the restaurant.”

--

On the way back, you decided to make a quick pit stop at the supermarket.

I love grocery shopping, you think, with the vague hope that it’ll put you in a better mood after your short-lived shift from hell at the gyoza shop. Yes, you still reek of vomit, but as soon as the automatic doors pull open to the cornucopia of excess, frivolity, and sterilized counters, all your apprehensions melt away.

Never mind. I hate grocery shopping, you think, as you stare across aisles and aisles of fresh produce only to find Ryusei parsing through the stand of spring onions next to pastel-girl.

Her coat’s making yet another reappearance in your life, what with the autumn chill, and you find your gaze lingering a moment too long. Recognizing the color, the stain by the second button. You’re not sure why you’re so zoned in on what she’s wearing, but it’s decidedly better to focus on something trivial than the fact that Ryusei is in the process of being completely enamored, brushing away the curl of hair away from her face.

She blushes like the gesture is new, which it is—to you and her. It’s tender. You’ve never seen him be so delicate before, not even when it was just the two of you.

Some part of you is desperate to be happy for him, just like you said—to tell yourself you really did move on. But the ugly, decrepit part of you is bitter and conniving and manifesting a three-ton meteor through the roof, hoping the two of them will be crushed into bones, guts, concrete, and grocery store paraphernalia.

The ugly part of you is wishing them both dead. The ugly part of you is saying this is who you really are, that you’ve always been this hideous on the inside, that he saw that from the start and was just stalling out the days until he found someone better. The ugly part of you is telling you you’re deserving of this sort of day, this sort of fate. That your ugly thoughts have turned you into exactly what you are.

I am being stupid, you think, nabbing the nearest watermelon and making a bee-line for the register, where you bag your produce, pay up, and leave. We live in the same town, so it was only a matter of time before we bumped into each other.

As soon as you step outside, the bag rips and your watermelon goes crashing to the ground, splitting in half as pink splatters all over concrete. At this point, you can’t even bring yourself to act surprised.

So you give up, crouching down as you pluck out the box of cigarettes from your pocket, only to find it woefully empty. I guess God really has it out for me today, you think, somewhat sullenly as you continue staring at the container, as if the act alone will manifest a cigarette for you out of thin air.

“Oh!”

The automatic doors pull open again and Ryusei and pastel-girl catch sight of your somewhat homeless demeanor. “You scared me. I thought you were—” She blushes, taking a step back and catching herself before she can say anymore. Even her voice is cute, you think, annoyed in your contempt as you continue staring at the blood remains of your watermelon on the ground.

Wordlessly, Ryusei pulls her down the block, where she offers him a few unhurried words you don’t have the pleasure of hearing. He pats her on the head and gestures at the car before turning back your way with his grocery bags in hand.

“Here. Misako bought it for you,” he says, putting his plastic bag down before squatting next to you.

“I’m sure she did,” you say, regarding the bag suspiciously until you realize it’s another watermelon.

You’re not above saying yes to free food so you decide not to say anything about it.

“I’m sorry to hear about your sister,” he says.

“Thanks.”

You would think after a lifetime of accepting condolences, you’d be better at it. To learn the correct responding pleasantries, the right gestures of good faith. You don’t know why it all feels unearned, even after all this time—even after all these years.

He glances down at your sweater, “Not that it’s any of my business, but you’re covered in vomit.”

You turn your gaze, “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

He gives you a funny little look before sizing you up a little longer, and suddenly whatever semblance of ease has disappeared, immediately replaced by a look of concern.

“You lost weight.”

“Thanks. I’m on a diet,” you mutter, but your voice is drowned out by the sound of passing cars.

He waits a moment longer for you to say more, but you don’t. “You should take better care of yourself,” he says, standing up and making his return to pastel-girl, whose name you now begrudgingly know as Misako. It would’ve been easier to write her off as some nameless color, but now you actually have to know her. She is already known.

Whatever, you think, staring at the token offering of watermelon sitting beside you on the curb, plastic bag fluttering in a chorus of tch-tch-tchs as the wind sifts through the street.

Not like today can get any worse.

--

It does.

You find yourself willowing outside the doors of the hospital on the way home, hugging your watermelon to your chest as you watch the residents on night float take notes at the nurse’s station. Each one of them look more exhausted than the next, as Saeko watches them with a keen eye.

They exchange dubious pleasantries over hot coffee, looking very much like zombies, what with the dark circles and white tongues mid-yawn.

You’ve become hyperaware of everything past those automatic doors, but everything outside registers with a dull thrum. The birdsongs are muffled, the salarymen are muted on their night-march home from the train station, and you—you don’t know why you’re still lingering.

I should go home, you think, turning heel.

And that's exactly what you do, until something wet hits you on the hand, splattering all over your chin.

You glance down and realize it’s bird shit.

--

So here you are.

Lying in a pool of someone else’s vomit, staring at the ceiling of your minka house, and holding your breath trying to hold back the tears. A discarded spoon and half-eaten melon sits at your side as you feel both empty and full at the same time.

Keys jingle in the lock, a familiar sound as the door swings open.

Toji stands in-frame, pausing to stare at you as he moves to peel off his boots in the foyer. As soon as he’s barefoot, he makes his way over and assesses the situation: watermelon juice all over the tatami mat, vomit on your sweater, bird shit on your hand, your tear-stained face.

He nudges you in the shoulder with his big toe, “What are you doing?"

You sniffle. “Nothing. Just having a bad day.”

“On the floor?”

“We are one now.”

Without saying a word about how you smell or how much of a mess you’ve made, he squats down and wedges his hand underneath your knees and shoulders, picking you up in one swift motion. You don’t protest as he makes his way up the stairs and into the bathroom, where he sits you down on a stool and turns the faucet for the bath, cedarwood staining dark brown as water spits down from the nozzle.

He helps you peel off your sweater, wrinkling his nose at the garment before promptly discarding it in the trash bin. The t-shirt comes off next, followed by your pants, which require a little more wrangling and finagling. By the time you’re naked, all the intimacy’s been lost underneath fluorescent lights and over-steamed mirrors.

“Come here.”

You do, watching him roll up his sleeves before ushering into the bathtub, the water searing hot as you sink down to your neck. You linger at the edge, watching cedarwood stain black as you stare at the shampoo bottle in Toji’s hand, so comically small in his grasp it looks like a toy.

He lathers up a fat, pink dollop between his palms and begins scrubbing your head with all the gentleness he can muster, which is decidedly much more effort than plunging his fingers into your head. You stare at the bead of sweat forming over his eyebrow and let him have his way with you as you continue leaning your cheek against the edge of the bath.

“You take care of me so well, Toji.”

He gives you a scathing look, fingers pulling through the knots in your hair. “Someone has to.” It’s actually quite pleasant, the way he’s kneading through the various sections of your hair with the utmost care. “Now tell me what happened.”

--

After the bath, he takes you straight to his room, laying you down and rolling you up in his comforter before taking a seat at your desk, leaning against one clenched fist to study you.

“Some stupid kid vomited on my favorite sweater.”

He arches a brow. “That’s it?”

“And a stupid bird took a shit on my hand,” you go on, poking your arms out from underneath the covers. “Can I have a hug now?”

He rolls his eyes, but doesn’t deny the request, telling you to scoot before sliding in underneath the covers beside you. Still naked, you close your eyes and press your ear against his chest as his arms wrap around you. Here, against the warmth of his t-shirt, you can hear the rhythmic thrum of his deep breathing.

“I wish I could forget today ever happened,” you mumble.

He tenses a moment before unwinding, leaning up against one clenched fist while he starts playing with a strand of your wet hair with the other. “You should really dry your hair. You’re getting my pillow all wet.”

“Later.” You stay like that for a while, slinging one arm over his waist and feeling how stiff he is underneath your touch. “Your heartbeat is really slow.”

He drops the strand of hair he’s been playing with, letting his finger crawl down the curve of your spine. “Yeah?”

“Mmhmm.”

The smell of him is so familiar, all you can do is melt in his embrace, feeling the warm hands of comfort drag you off into that netherspace where nothing can ever hurt you.

“I’m scared it’s going to stop," you whisper.

He presses a kiss to your cheek before pressing a kiss to your neck. “I’m right here,” he says, his voice a slow rumble in your ear as he presses another kiss to your collarbone.

Suddenly your skin is flaring up in a hundred different ways and all you can do is arch into his touch as his fingers trail down between your legs. “Now let me help you forget.”

--

Hiroto mulls over his mug of coffee, staring out the window of the gyoza shop at the passing tourists. “How’re you holding up?”

“I’m okay.” You parse through the assortment of cutlery on the table and fold them neatly into their designated napkins. “You?”

He shrugs.

When he looks the other way, you take the opportunity to study his face, all gray, bony, and sunken-in. He looks to be a few pounds lighter too, but you decide not to remark on it, returning to your duties while he continues staring out the storefront at the happy family loitering by the menu stand.

The sound of their voices, intonation inspired and full of early-week optimism, muffled on the other side of the glass.

He rounds the corner of the bar, “You’re still sleeping on the floor?”

“Yeah.” As soon as you catch the funny look on his face, you tack on: “It’s not that bad. I get to see the sunrise every morning.”

You don’t tell him you just can’t bring yourself to sleep in the same bed your sister died in.

Thankfully, he doesn’t ask much about it, moving to the kitchen to prepare himself for the dinner rush. You can hear the sound of pots being moved around, followed by the sizzle of oil on a hot pan, but all of it stifles into silence as you rise from your seat and leave to take a smoke break.

Wind sifts through the main street, bringing with it the smell of autumn. The weather’s just starting to cool down, and as the days continue rolling idly by, you find yourself returning to form, readjusting the gauges of your puzzle to ease back into some sense of routine.

“Hey.”

Hiroto ducks his head out the door, gesturing to the table where the pyramid of folded cutlery sits. “I made you food,” he says.

You stomp out your cigarette on the brick wall. “You didn’t have to do that.”

He doesn’t say much in response, just regards you with a pensive look as you follow him through the door, only to find a plate of fried rice and pickled cucumbers waiting for you. “You lost too much weight,” he says, taking a seat across from you in the booth. “At this rate, you’re going to disappear.”

It smells good but doesn’t elicit much of an appetite on your part. Still, you decide not to deny his good graces, knowing this is his well-meaning attempt to chide you about it. Truthfully, you’d rather move past all the unnecessary worrying and tiptoeing over glass.

“You haven’t taken any days off since the funeral,” he says, quietly.

“I need the distraction.”

He considers it a moment before nodding towards the window at the returning family. “Just one distraction to another, and the world keeps spinning.”

“Yeah.”

This is fine. This is for the best. Finding some structure in your routine—that’s all you need to feel normal again.

--

After you clock out from your shift, you go home.

Toji’s still working through the second day of his three-day shift, and with him gone, you find yourself living in a quiet house. In an effort to ward off the somewhat unsettling effect it has, you start binging period dramas on TV and reading chick-lit books to get you through the night.

At some point, the shows start blurring together; same with the books, except the characters bleed from one page to another. You don’t recognize any names or any faces, only recognizing them by virtue of their most intimate moments. Longing stares, wistful sighs, and joyful embraces. Surface-level trivialities that never pry into the ugly and neglected.

Perfect worlds with perfect people—nothing can ever go wrong.

It’s not sustainable. Eventually you get bored, you move on, and by the time Toji finally arrives home, you crash.

--

He catches sight of you from the foyer, untying the laces of his boots before making his way across the living space.

He knows you’re buried somewhere underneath that mountain of blankets, but decides not to prod you, instead, flopping down on the tatami mat beside you and pulling down the covers so you have space to breathe.

“Hey dummy,” he whispers, but the words don’t register as you continue sleeping soundlessly against the floor.

He’ll end up waiting for you to wake up, and when you do, you shimmy closer against his chest and take in his smell, all musty and warm, like a cellar after a rainy day. He’ll play with your hair as you tell him, with no thought or reason, “In a perfect world, I’d have a terrace. And instead of a mountain, there’d be a valley. With lots of flowers, and fish, and sunlight.” A smile. “What about you?”

“I’d be rich.” No hesitation.

“Yeah. Well. I guess that’s fair.”

He glances down to see your expression cloudy again. "What's wrong?"

“Nothing … I just think my luck has finally run out,” you tell him, eyes welling up with tears.

He’s ready to laugh, but when he sees you’re being totally serious, all he can do is blink at you, miffed at your sudden change in mood. “Don’t be dumb.” He offers you a hand under the covers. “It’s ‘cause you lent it to me that day, remember? You can have it back if you want. I don’t need it.”

You sniff, taking his hand and shaking it as a single tear comes down the side of your cheek. “That’s not how it works.” Slowly, you rub away your tears with your clenched fists. “Toji, what if all I have left to offer you are bad days?”

“I’ll take them all,” he says.

You can’t help but laugh at the incredulousness. “Okay, crazy.”

His hands reach up to cup your face, forcing you to meet his gaze with a completely serious expression like he's swearing an oath on his deathbed, “I’d take a hundred bad days over being rich."

You stare at him. He stares back.

"Got it?"

Oh. He's actually been serious.

Your face flushes red as you offer him a slow nod of acknowledgment.

And then the two of you settle back into silence as the autumn wind filters through the gaps of the sliding door, prompting him to pull you in closer against his chest.

But you sit up, crawling towards the edge of the engawa, where you pull open the door to find the sun just starting to peek over the horizon.

"What's wrong?" He asks again.

"I just need to sit a while ... and miss her a bit." You offer him a smile over your shoulder as you kick your legs over the edge. "Wanna keep me company?"

He snorts, "Do you even need to ask?"

Chapter Text

Toji doesn’t remember her name.

He doesn’t know her family or her friends; he only knows one fraction of what she deigns to show him, but the surface-level trivialities will be enough to earn him a temporary stay at her two-bedroom apartment in the newly gentrified sect of Akabane. Senior vice-president at some boutique consulting company. Thirty-nine going on forty. Looking to retire early so she can eat, pray, love across the Mediterranean.

The other facts come in tandem over dinner that she pays for and foreign films she likes to watch in her spare time. She likes her coffee black, has a bookshelf full of Murakami, and calls herself a modest, modern woman. She’s had four boyfriends over the course of five years, none of them outlasting their stay more than eight months. Two of them proposed on their knees; one of them upended the relationship before she could kick him out of her apartment.

No one can keep my interest these days. I get bored, and I move on.

She doesn’t think there’s a cure for it. “Maybe I’ll get bored of you one day too,” she tells him.

“Maybe I’ll get bored of you first,” he quips back, never missing a beat.

She’ll laugh and ask if he wants to stay the night.

He’s willing to go along with the charade for the free room.

--

Women are so susceptible like this.

Willowing around at the backend of the club, watching the others dance like they have nothing to lose. They’re always a little too put-together, a little too afraid of looking stupid, and a little too cool to lose themselves in the deafening roar of shitty house music and watered-down vodka.

He’ll corner her at the bar and ask her where her date is. She’ll give him a funny look before telling him to meet her in the bathroom, where they start making out with the shared taste of tequila between their tongues. He’ll remember hating the taste but liking how forward she is as she shoves her hand down his pants and wrapping her fingers around the shaft of his cock, already half-hard.

--

The first two weeks will hit all the hallmarks of the honeymoon phase, as they fuck in every conceivable room possible. He’ll try not to cringe when she tells him how her breasts are too small for a cock like that, but as the days go on, she’ll become more and more sure of herself, loving the way he carves his cock inside her, the way he feels when he’s cumming, the way that sex can become a panacea for everything and nothing at all.

His routine will slowly align with hers, as he readjusts the proper gauges to integrate himself into her life. Wake up to have coffee at the dinner table, go to the pachinko shop while she heads to work, meet her in Ginza for dinner and drinks. Fuck, wake up, fuck, gamble, fuck. It’s the only mindless living he needs.

Between coffee, dinner dates, and lavish bars, she’ll get bolder about what she wants, asking if he wants to invite a third, which, sure.

Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

Especially someone like Toji, whose only commendations include being loose, bored, and looking to pass the time?

--

She thinks she knows exactly who he is, but the truth is, he’s just following the whims of her pleasure. It’s self-derived delusion. You take one look at the books on their shelves, study the women they’ve learned to emulate, and hit the beats of exactly what they want to hear.

The threesome will get messy, as all threesomes tend to do. You have another woman in the picture, another set of limbs to entangle with, and disentangle from. She’ll feel somewhat slighted when she sees him eating someone else out, but he doesn’t care. He’s been looking for a reason to leave anyway.

They won’t ever breach the stage of comfort and communication, but that’s fine. He never intended to outstay his welcome. Things will change after that moment, but he won’t realize it just yet. He’ll end up mooching off her for another two weeks before she makes some grand revelation while making spreadsheets at work.

I want kids, she’ll tell him on the phone, all forlorn and regretful in the receiver. She decides to spare him on the but not with you part.

“That’s too bad,” he’ll reply. “Kids are a lot of trouble.”

It’s silent as he waits for the final nail in the coffin.

“Just make sure your things are gone when I get home,” she says. “Goodbye Toji.”

“See ya.”

And then he’ll hang up, tell himself it’s better this way, and consider returning to the Zen'in household for all about two seconds before throwing the thought away.

--

Toji is three when he gets tossed into his first nest of Fly Heads.

He’ll remember clawing tooth and nail against those invisible entities as they battered him black and blue, both parties so desperate to live that neither of them will realize they’re just being used as pawns of entertainment. Toji will lose three of his baby teeth in the scuffle, only seeing the empty black gaps in the aftermath when he’s being escorted to the bathroom to wash off. The caretaker will scrub away the blood, and even though the front of his face will ache for days to come, he won’t say a word about it.

A child with no cursed energy? What an utter disgrace.

The training will continue until he’s learned to fend them off without pause. And it’ll get more rigorous, more brutal. Stronger spirits, harder fights, hemorrhaging blood and bruises like they’re going out of style; accruing a lifetime of learning pains that have no light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the Zen'in way and he’ll learn to absolutely detest it.

But he’ll stick to the regimen. Train until he’s the strongest. Bite down the bile and grit his teeth. Strength, he learns, is the only way to earn any respect around here. Soon enough, they’ll realize he’s exactly what they need. He’ll go on tougher missions, climb the ladder, and have them reexamine everything they thought they knew about strength and jujutsu.

What a marvel, that a child with no cursed energy should be the strongest among us all.

The compliment will never meet reality, but the sentiment is transparent enough as people start bowing their heads when passing him in the corridor. He’ll feel prideful of his accomplishments until he wakes up one morning and realize they’re not bowing out of respect, but fear.

He'll see only then that he has no future there.

So he'll pack his bags that same night, leave, and never turn back.

--

He’ll miss the view the most.

On the balcony on the thirteenth floor, overlooking the city skyline. Sunlight would seep in through the blinds in the early morning, making the sky bleed red; and it would set the same exact way, as the technicolor neon lights of Tokyo flickered on at 6pm, blotting the sky. An entire grid of flashy restaurants, pachinko shops, and grunge bars waiting for their favorite repeat-customers. Cute girls in cute dresses—what’s not to love?

Everything comes and goes with the changing seasons, but the day’s start and day’s end are eternal.

He’ll watch the sun rise every morning and wonder how many more he’ll have to see before he dies and rots away.

And then he’ll ring up the third from his threesome and asks if she’s free tonight.

--

He learns she’s old money. Already betrothed to someone else and ready to get married come autumn, but that won’t stop her from living out all her shunted postgrad dreams in the summer. “My parents want me to take over the family business one day,” she’ll tell him. “Now I’m living on a countdown timer until I get married.”

She likes luxury brands, treating him to nice restaurants, and taking photos of factory workers on their smoke breaks with her Minolta SRT-101. He’ll go along with the schtick, escorting her on his motorcycle to seedy neighborhoods so she can play tourist in a new town. Afterwards, she’ll treat him to dinner and let him fuck her on the green velvet Fendi Casa couch in her four-bedroom penthouse apartment.

She’s on the shier side, preferring the lights off when they fuck and always shielding her face whenever she’s about to cum. He’ll learn to coax out the side of her that’s more pliant and willing to try new things, and she’ll let loose one night and call him daddy on accident, only to blush in embarrassment when he responds accordingly: what a filthy, disgusting girl you’ve been.

--

She’ll tell him she loves him two weeks before the wedding while taking shots of his profile on the balcony.

“No you don’t,” he tells her.

“Yes I do.”

“No you don’t,” he’ll say again, this time with more resolve. “You’re just turning me into an escape for a life you’ll never commit to.”

She’ll just stare at him, miffed by his apathy. “Usually people just say I love you back.”

But he isn’t capable of it, at least not in the way she wants him to love her. Truthfully, he isn’t sure what it would look like even if it hit him in the face. To diminish its worth, he’ll tell himself it’s no different than an exchange of values: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you. He’ll play bodyguard to all her nearby photo-ops, and she’ll give him a roof over his head. Fifty-fifty, and he’ll go where the wind goes.

“Okay. I love you. Let’s go get food now,” he says.

--

After dinner, he’ll tell her he has somewhere to be, and she’ll insist on going with him until he arrives at the pachinko shop. The smile on her face will slowly wane as she realizes what this is and what he intends to do.

“My dad was a chronic gambler,” she’ll tell him.

In response, he’ll say it’s not the same. That he’s not an addict; he just wants some way to pass the time. She’ll just regard him with a look of pity before encouraging him to go home with her. We can watch that film I’ve been wanting to see. She’ll think she can change his mind, but he’s glued to his plans, and she’s glued to hers.

This is the problem.

People get to know him, and they come to understand exactly who he is. A man who’s looking to ease the boredom of living, the mundanity of being alive. She’ll realize in the days to come that he’ll never be the man she wants him to be and tell him so one morning over breakfast: Please move your stuff out by the end of the day. He’ll find out later on that she ended up marrying that guy she was betrothed to.

That night, he’ll decide to do what he’s always done best.

Pass the time until the next.

--

This is how it goes. This is the exact kind of mindless living he needs. Pass the days until you die, and stall out whatever fun you can in the meantime.

He’ll head out on his motorcycle, make his way through the city at dusk, a chorus of car horns and neon lights blotting out whatever concerns he has about finding somewhere to stay. Having a roof over his head is nice, but he figures he can make do in an alleyway if the situation calls for it. He’s tall, imposing, and can squash a cursed spirit in less than a blink. No one would want to fuck with him, even if he were to sleep out in the open street.

Besides, life in Tokyo is just one giant clusterfuck of oversaturated neon lights and variety-show sound bites. It’s better to be numb. It’s better not to think. It should mean something, that he’s both hyperaware and unaware of nothing and everything. There’s a laugh-track being played ceaselessly on the jumbotron screen, but he’s learned to tune it all out. Underneath the visor of his motorcycle helmet, everything is dull. Everything is mute; and nothing can dent him.

He’ll continue riding down the road, gauging the vehicles around him at the intersection. A BMWi8 parked in front of him as they pull to a stop at the red light. Two Camrys caging him in on either side. On the sidewalk: a mother, a toddler, and a group of students in the haze of their post-karaoke glow. They’re talking about the latest idol group, but their chatter just registers like the buzzing of a mosquito on a hot, summer night.

And then there’s you, tears streaming down your face as you come to a stop outside some shadowed storefront. He won’t know you yet, but he will.

Because in seconds to come, you’ll break into a sprint, bolting down the street and rushing towards that bumbling, idiot toddler who’s wrangled out of his mother’s hands. He’s about to get crushed underneath the wheels of that i8, going zero to sixty in 4.2—and then there’s you, rushing towards him to shove him out of the way.

He can see it now.

You’ll be nothing but a blood splatter on the pavement. A ragdoll bent and twisted in every conceivably wrong way. There probably won’t be much left of you as the onlookers circle your corpse and wait for help to come. She’s gonna die, he thinks, and the only pity is it would be on what was supposed to be a fun night out.

Well, fuck.

He’ll decide to rev up his engine, running on pure instinct and adrenaline as he races past the i8, shoving the toddler back onto the sidewalk while simultaneously lifting you up onto the back of his bike.

Yes—he’ll save you on a whim, thinking it’ll be his only good deed of the day before he can return to his night of mindless living.

He won’t know meeting you will change his life forever.

That one insignificant, little human being can provide so much warmth. A house he wants to come home to. Food he likes to eat. A room full of laughter, inside jokes, and old stories. He’d listen to them twice over and ask for more.

He’ll never tell you saving you that night saved him.

--

This is your favorite time of day.

Studying Toji’s face in the early morning, the ease at which he’s breathing, the slow rise and fall of his chest. His lips somewhat parted, his eyebrows knitted as if he’s sat deep in consideration, mulling over something perilous in his dreams.

You run your fingers through his hair and stop short at the scar on his lip, tracing the jagged line with the soft pad of your fingertip. The crevice is marred and uneven, and if you close your eyes, you can still see every valley and dip—every discoloration.

“Toji,” you whisper.

He doesn’t stir.

“Are you awake?” You ask softly.

Nothing.

Underneath the covers, you can press your skin against his and feel how much warmth he radiates.

“My friends from university want me to come down for the weekend,” you tell him, with no expectation that he should hear or listen. “Are you going to be all right without me?”

Silence.

“Guess so then.” You smile, running your thumb down the curve of his nose, where bone turns to cartilage, and drop down to his philtrum. “I was thinking about the last time I went to Tokyo, which was the same day I met you. Night, I mean. I don’t know why, but I always remember there being daylight, even though that can’t be right.”

You pause, touching his lip again before brushing the soft pad of your thumb against his cheek, skin all grainy and textured. “Anyway, I just wanted to thank you again. For saving my life. It probably didn’t mean much to you, but—"

You stop yourself and take a deep breath, studying the roadmap of lesions on his chest leading down to his waist.

“Maybe I just got lucky, running into the right person at the right time. My dad used to tell us a lifetime of luck makes one blessing. Sometimes I wonder if that was you.”

You bury your face against his naked chest, feeling his skin stick to your cheek as you take in the scent of him.

“You don’t have to tell me how you got your scars,” you tell him, eyes fluttering shut. “This is enough.”

Cold wind pierces through the gaps of the engawa doors and you curl in closer against his chest, feeling the comfort of weekend ease consume you as the drowsiness takes over.

“Marry me," he says.

Chapter Text

“I thought you said marriage was for suckers,” you tell him softly.

“Yeah, well.” His grip around your shoulders go slack as pushes himself up from the tatami mat. “Let’s just call it what it is then.”

-

“Jeez. Just like that?”

Toji frowns, cigarette dangling between his lips as he fishes for a lighter in his jean pocket. “You asked, I answered.” A pause, as he assesses the state of Denki’s face. “What.”

“Nothing,” he states. “A proposal is serious business, that’s all.”

“So you’re saying you don’t think I was being serious.”

“Well. Yeah. Pretty much,” his intonation is divorced somewhere between bored, indifferent, and rueful. “I thought you were dating that nurse. What’s her face. Saeko.”

Toji rolls his eyes.

“Huh. Huh.” Technically, Denki hasn’t gotten an answer yet. He wants to be nosey about it, but settles for being a little more gentle in his prodding. “So. Are you … good?”

A shrug. “I'm whatever.”

For some reason, it comes across as a challenge and Denki, however misguided, decides to take it. “Whatever? How can this be … whatever? This is the future mother of your children you’re talking about.”

“Shut up.” Still. Toji can’t help but consider it.

Denki pauses when he sees him still rummaging around for a lighter he can’t find. “Wow. You two haven’t talked about it.” He softens just the slightest when Toji gives up, flopping back in his seat with his hands buried in his pockets, cigarette wilting between his lips. “You don’t do much planning do you?”

“No.” Can’t deny what’s technically true.

“So why did you propose?”

“Because I wanted to.”

The answer is so forthcoming it leaves him with nothing to do but blink.

“You have a really simple way of thinking,” after a pause, he decides to go on. “That probably makes for an interesting life. Much more interesting than mine, anyway.”

Toji is aware that this can easily dovetail into an argument, but it’s late, he’s tired, and there’s a whole overnight shift to look forward to.

Denki fishes out his own lighter and slides it over the table. “Are you at least going to tell me what the answer was?”

The cigarette is lit and Toji lets the smoke roll off his tongue as he says, “It’s none of your damn business.”

-

You left the morning prior, packing your overnight bag in the living space while Toji continued lounging around underneath the kotatsu, toes nice and toasty.

He remembers you humming a pleasant tune, the same one you always hum, and without meaning to, it prompts him to ask, “Did you pack a hairbrush?”

“Mhmm.”

It’s silent, as he continues observing you. A quick glance out the window tells him it’s still snowing so he goes on with the pesky questions. “And a jacket? You’re gonna wear the long one, right? With the puffy sleeves?"

“Actually, I was thinking the peacoat.”

“It’s snowing.”

“Everyone in the city always dresses nice,” you tell him. “I’ll wear snow boots.”

And the long coat. With the puffy sleeves."

You sigh, giving up. “Fine.”

It’s somehow both the answer he wants to hear and the answer he doesn’t.

“So.” At this rate, he figures he’s not above prying anymore. “Who are these friends of yours?”

“Some girls I went to university with,” is your automatic response, but you manage to sense some vestige of displeasure in his tone, which prompts you to set down the t-shirt you’re in the middle of folding. “Why? Jealous?”

“Yeah.”

You blink at him. And then you promptly return to your overnight bag.

Truthfully, you don’t expect him to be so forthcoming about this. Or mopey, even. But here he is, sitting up to lean against his clenched fist, making his irritation known. You realize you are his captive audience, trying to look the other way as his face sours with a grimace.

“I’m only going to be gone for two days,” you say. A vague attempt to placate him that obviously does not work.

“Two days is a lifetime here.”

“You’ll be fine.”

It’s amazing, you think, how he’s able to make you feel like you suddenly owe him something. Even more amazing is how fast that feeling fades, as you realize you have more to pack. You move onto your Ziploc bags and start filling them with the travel-sized shampoo bottles you’ve accrued over the years.

Ahem," he says.

You look so focused, tongue poking out between your lips, as all your belongings are set in their proper compartments. It compels him to reach up and touch the scar on his forehead that you stitched once upon a time.

He gives up on getting your attention and crawls up, flopping down behind you and cupping his chin over your shoulder with a loud sigh. “Don’t go.”

“But I already promised my friends."

His eyes dart out the window, where snow is clumping in sharp corners. “So?”

“Generally, when you make a promise, you’re supposed to keep it.”

“What about the promise you made me?”

You consider it for his sake. “What about it?”

“If you leave ... I’ll turn into a monster.” Oh. A threat. Joy.

 “I am shaking in terror," you say.

“No you’re not. You’re not even looking at me.”

You resume humming that little song, feeling his breath hot on your neck as he lets out a loud, dramatic sigh. “When you get home, you won’t even recognize who I am. If I’m the same person you know,” he says. “I’ll be so damn ugly you won’t even care.”

You keep humming. He decides to up the ante.

“Maybe I’ll just die too,” he goes on. “You’ll come home to a mangled, ugly monster on your living room floor. Blood and guts everywhere. It’ll take you months to scrub off the grime. You’re gonna hate it.”

“That does sound like something I’d hate.”

“Yeah. You’re gonna hate it so much you’ll wish you never left.”

“Wow. It all circles back.” You don’t seem even remotely affected. “I definitely don’t want any of that.”

“Yeah. Probably not a great idea leaving then. Should probably stay."

“Probably.”

He takes a moment to process your smile before realizing you’ve already moved past the image. “You’re still going.”

“Yep.”

He gives up and collapses onto his back with a thump, curled around you like a cat.

“You suck.”

Humming again, “This is true.”

He pauses a moment before worming his way over and burying his head in your lap. It’s actually somewhat comforting, the way you’re fussing around, humming that mindless little melody while he continues sulking around in your general vicinity.

“You don’t suck,” he mutters, begrudgingly. “But I do. So stay.”

-

You don’t.

He knows there’s no logical reason of wanting to keep you around. There’s a three-day shift coming up this weekend, and he won’t be home to enjoy your company anyway. It’s just a nice comfort knowing you’ll be around waiting for him to come back, that he’ll get to see your face instead of an empty living room, and the vacant space by the kotatsu where you should be sitting. Reading a book, or watching the snowfall from the engawa.

Yes, some part of him is jealous that your friends get to hang out with you, but the other part is relieved that you haven’t given up all of yourself to be with him. It’s misguided—he knows. He can’t have his cake and eat it too. When he breaks it down to its most empirical form, it doesn’t make any actual sense. Then again, none of what he does these days makes much sense.

He’s the one who asked you to marry him on a whim, even though you’d told him you had no intention of getting married again.

It’s dumb. Being this needy. And morose. And devastated. The melodrama makes him want to sulk some more, but he knows you’d just roll your eyes.

-

On your way to the bullet train, you take a pit stop at the family grave, dusting off snow from the headstone. It’s all in vain. As soon as you brush off one layer, another comes and replaces it immediately.

The snow starts blanketing down in clumps, all over the grave—all over your shoulders. You don’t give up, bending down to your knees to clean it off again.

It’s going to get covered again, your sister would tell you, flopping down on the gravel and letting the snow soak through the butt of her jeans. Just let it melt when springtime comes.

“I can’t,” you’d tell her. “At least for now … while I’m here. I just have to.”

But eventually you stop, legs going weak as you watch the snow cover granite a film of white again. You take a seat, just like her, crossing your legs and bowing your head before looking at the headstone again.

“To commit without fear of failing,” you say, quietly. “That’s what you told me once, right?”

You rub away the tears in your eyes, the headstone getting blurrier and blurrier until it’s nothing but a giant gray splotch.

You make sacrifices for the people you love. That’s what your sister would say if she were here. You let go of your wasted pride and love fully without hesitation, without expectation. That’s the bravest thing you can do.

-

“You look pale,” says Ichiro, stepping outside to watch the twilight sun. Dump trucks are just starting their engines, ready to clear up the overnight snow on the roads. “You get any sleep last night?”

Toji stomps out his third cigarette of the day before fishing through his pockets for another. “Go back inside, old man. It’s cold.”

But Ichiro just unpacks a cigarette from his coat and starts smoking too. “You know, the most intimate truths are generally revealed in moments of spontaneity,” he says.

It takes a beat for Toji to understand what he’s referring to. “Denki told you.”

“Yeah.”

That nosey piece of shit.

“You holding up okay?”

“I would genuinely like to know why people keep asking me that question.”

“Well. Concern is one thing … curiosity is another.” When Toji doesn’t take the bait, Ichiro snorts. “All right. If you don’t wanna talk about it …”

“I don’t.”

They willow around in silence until the Ichiro finishes his cigarette. “I’m retiring soon, you know,” he says, stomping out the burning stub underneath his boot.

“Do I owe you congratulations or condolences?”

“Congratulations,” he says. “I think it’s about time for me, anyway.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Back’s been getting worse. Been harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning,” he says with a wistful, happy sigh. “Also, I’m about to be a grandfather.”

“Oh. Shit.” Toji’s eyes widen unexpectedly. “I guess I owe you another congratulations.”

“Thanks.” He pauses. “You know, the other guys at the station look up to you. They may not say it, but they do."

“All right. Spit it out. What do you want from me?”

The smile on his face is wry. “Nothing,” he gives a pat on Toji’s shoulder before turning towards the automatic doors. “Just thought you should know.”

“If you’re trying to comfort me, it's not gonna work. I don't need--” When he turns back around, Ichiro is already gone.

-

Winter brings in an influx of house fires. Alarms start sounding off; idle conversations are put on their respective backburners as everyone rushes down to the station, puts on their uniforms, and files into their trucks.

“You need to replace your smoke alarm,” he tells the old lady who forgot to mind her stove while cooking. The whole place had the luck of not burning down, thanks to the nosey neighbors next door who smelled smoke. “Did you hear me?” He asks again when she doesn’t respond. “You’re required by law to have a working smoke detector."

She just smiles at him and asks for his name. He sighs and ends up staying an extra hour, replacing it for her.

-

It’s 7 a.m. when he returns.

“You have four messages,” says the receptionist, as she takes a seat at her desk. She’s in the process of setting up her workstation, looking very pregnant as she gestures towards the phone on her desk. “You can take it here.”

He shrugs, punching in the code for his voicemail box before putting the phone on speaker. Denki filters in with the others, chatting up the receptionist, asking her when she’s due, if she’s chosen a name.

“HELLO??? HELLOOOOOOOOOOO?”

Your voice coming blaring through and Toji immediately takes you off speaker, pressing the receiver to his ear. It doesn’t do much. It still sounds like a boombox on steroids and everyone in the room, including Denki and the receptionist, are staring.

“TOJI—TOJI! Hi. HI.”

There’s a high-pitched hiccup that sounds like a squeak, but it somehow only compels to talk louder. “I tried to call you at home, but our mailbox is full, so. Anyway. I just wanted to call you because—”

Deep breath.

“I MISSS YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU.”

Your declaration comes blustering out the receiver on full blast, so loud and shrieking he can feel the echo of your voice bounce around in his skull.

“I’m so glad you’re my best friend. I mean boyfriend. I mean. Future husband, I guess. Whatever! I love you a lot. And I miss you. I’m not drunk. Okay, love you. I already said that. ANYWAY! I’m coming back home a day early because I miss you. My friends say hi by the way. They think I made you up. Okay. Bye.”

Dial-tone.

Toji puts the phone back down, taking a moment to digest it all.

He looks up to meet Denki’s gaze.

“Future mother of my children, by the way.”

-

After work, he bolts out the station and into the streets of Sendai.

Snow crunches under his boots and he starts working up a sweat as he jettisons between the two sedans parked at the red light.

Behind them, Denki pulls to a stop in his pick-up truck. “This is weird,” he calls out from his window. “You know I can give you a lift right?”

“I’m faster on foot."

Denki never gets another word in. Without explaining, Toji runs off. For all his faults, he rarely lies. When he guns it at full-speed, it’s like watching a freight train bum-rush through the sidewalk of Sendai at lightning speed. Students scramble out of the way and salarymen are bowled over. The strollers are nudged aside, gingerly.

By the time the light turns green, Toji’s already out of sight.

Denki stares in disbelief. “Jeez. He’s like Forrest Gump.” It doesn’t sink in just yet that it’s likely an improbable human feat. Then again, Toji isn’t exactly human.

-

He barges through the sliding door of the engawa. Loudly.

Winter wind sweeps through the interior of the living space and he finds you sitting by the kotatsu, parsing through bills. You don’t even bat a lash at his arrival, pretty much used to the way he never announces himself.

“Will you shut the door?” You sigh. “It’s freezing.”

He does. On automatic instinct, and not when your request registers. Which it doesn’t. He can’t stop staring at you—the fact that you’re actually home.

You meet his gaze with a smile once the door is locked. “Hey, look at that. What a handsome beast," you say. "Looks like you were okay without me.”

He closes the distance in a span of a second, wrapping his arms around you as he takes in the smell of your hair, the texture of your skin. You’re a little startled by the suddenness, but eventually you give into his embrace and bring your arms up, rubbing gentle, warm circles on his back.

-

You marry on a quiet Tuesday morning at City Hall, with Ichiro and Hiroto to stand witness. You go in your sweaters and jeans, treating it like an average day, which it is. Nothing will change after this and you prefer it that way.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” asks Hiroto as the two of you sit around the waiting area. You glance over and find Ichiro and Toji loitering by the vending machine, making small talk.

“Yeah,” you tell him quietly.

You halfheartedly expect a last-minute lecture, but he just takes your hand and gives it a soft squeeze. “I bought you a bouquet,” he says, reaching for the pink roses lying on the coffee table. “Sorry if they’re a little wilted. They were for the photos.”

“Ah. And here I thought you were getting married today too,” you say, feeling the weight of it in your hands. The petals are bruised, but the contrast has an almost ombre effect, pretty in its own way. “Thank you, Hiroto. They’re beautiful.”

It’s a short-lived affair. You try not to laugh when you see Toji rolling his eyes at the officiant, who can’t stop smacking his lips. There are no vows, no gaudy speeches. It’s quick and clinical and you’re suddenly reminded of the severity of the situation, that this is it. There’s no turning back. There’s only tomorrow and forever.

After the procession, Ichiro takes photos on his camera and hands off the canister of film for you to develop at a later date. You and Toji treat them both to dinner and go your separate ways after the last congratulations is exchanged.

-

"Marry me."

“I thought you said marriage was for suckers."

“Yeah, well. Let’s just call it what it is then.”

" ... then ... you're a sucker. But I guess that would make me one too."

-

The two of you settle in for the night, putting on your winter coats and sharing a blanket on the open engawa.

Snow falls down from the sky, so gentle and slow it’s like watching a movie in stop-motion. You can’t help but stare in wonder as it starts piling up on the front lawn. Blanket after blanket, until the storm comes to a stop.

Beyond the clouds, the moon is full. Bowing past the mountain, shining bright and yellow. The air is so still you can hear a pin drop.

Underneath the blanket, you shift a little closer to Toji, who basically radiates warmth. It’s like having your own personal heater for free.

“Do you regret it?” You ask, suddenly.

“It’s a little late to ask,” he says.

“Well, you sprung it on me pretty randomly. In front of the person filing our registration papers, nonetheless. I didn’t have time to process it.” You pause, thinking over your next words carefully, trying to be cautious with how you phrase your next suggestion. “I know you don’t have a great relationship with your family but giving up your name … that’s not a decision you make on a whim.”

You turn to look at him, feeling the left side of your body go cold from where you’ve parted.

“We could always go back to the office in the early morning,” you tack on. “Name changes aren’t that hard.”

But he just continues staring up at the moon, shrugging. “I’m good.”

You wait a moment, giving him another chance to change his mind.

He doesn’t. So you return to your seat, ducking underneath his arm so that you’re pressed up against the crook of his neck. When the two of you sit like this in the quiet little house you both call home, the world seems to fade away.

“Besides,” he says. “Fushiguro has a pretty nice ring to it.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

You are not having a good time.

Pregnancy is not kind to you. Your hormones are all over the place. The stupidest teen dramas make you cry. You’re wracked with constant existential crises regarding whether or not you’ll be a good mom. You do not have “that glow” all to-be mothers are supposed to have.

Instead, you are perpetually green. Morning sickness plagues you. You throw up almost everyday, so the doctor prescribes you Zofran. It stops the throwing up, but doesn’t stop the nausea, which is the root cause of your throwing up, so you end up gagging into the toilet, the smell of cleaning solution so pungent it ends up giving you a migraine. (Admittedly, it’s better than the vomiting.)

Some people, usually men who have never been pregnant in their life, have suggested trying ginger ale. You would like to punch them in the face. This is what you tell Toji one morning as he heads off to work, to which he remarks, somewhat indifferently, he’d like to see that happen. (He promises to teach you how to throw a good punch. You don’t know what a good punch would even entail and at this point you’re too afraid to ask.)

On the way home, he brings you a bag of pastries. Pineapple bread, milk bread, and white bread. They’re the only things you’ve been able to stomach, effectively neutralizing a former diet that’s consisted of pickled vegetables, pork, and fish. (You miss having flavor in your life. You do not, however, miss the nausea.) One time, he brought home a French baguette, which you ended up devouring alone, one inch at a time, until it was all gone. No butter, no jam.

“At this rate, you are going to give birth to a loaf of bread,” he’d said.

You sit down with a new pastry in hand and stand right back up. “I need to pee.”

He stares at you. “You literally just went five minutes ago."

But you’ve already taken off, whistling a merry tune as you make your way up the stairs towards the bathroom.

-

You start getting mood swings, ranging from gleeful euphoria to existential-levels-of-dread. At this point, Toji has grown accustomed to the changing gauges in your meter and figuring out an appropriate response.

“I feel like I would be a bad mother,” you say.

“No you wouldn’t,” he replies.

“I feel like our baby will like you more than they like me.”

A snort. “That’s definitely not true.”

You offer him a vague look across the table as he continues chowing down on dinner. “Did you always want to be a father?”

“I…” He stops. Turns away. “Never thought about it.”

(You’re a little ticked off at the revelation for reasons unexplained, but you can’t exactly harp on his apathy when neither of you planned this pregnancy.)

“Why." A pause. "Did you always want to be a mother?"

"I did. I just didn't think it was going to happen."

“Well, that makes two of us.”

Once he’s done, he brings his dishes to the sink and starts washing them. You follow him and take a seat on the counter, studying the stretch of your stomach, which has yet to bulge or expand. Neither of you say much as he lathers the sponge, scrubbing the grease from his dishes.

His gaze shifts out the window, where the sun’s just beginning to set over a frosty horizon. “I don't think I realized I wanted to be one until I found out I was one,” he states quietly.

You quit the fiddling and pull down the hem of your sweatshirt. After a moment, you tell him: “I think you would be a good dad, Toji.”

A snort. “You’d be the first to say so.”

You could easily dismiss it as another wisecrack, but something about it makes you … sad. Without thinking, you hop off the counter and wrap your arms around his waist from behind, which elicits the reaction: “What are you doing.”

“Nothing,” you tell him. “I just wanna hold you a little bit.”

He pauses before returning to the dishes in the sink. "You're feeling sorry for me again."

"Am not." You just hold him tighter.

He roll his eyes. “Weirdo.”

-

You’re exhausted. All the time.

You wake up tired, you go through the motions of making breakfast tired, and you go to sleep tired. Sometimes you find yourself dozing off during a slow day at the restaurant; sometimes you go back to bed after eating lunch. You feel like a walking zombie, like every ounce of life is being sucked out of you by virtue of performing the smallest tasks. Reading, washing the dishes, folding laundry.

Toji picks up the slack during this time, tending to most of the chores without complaint. You’ll often wake up by the kotatsu to the sound of him fussing with the dishes in the sink, the empty cartons of milk in the fridge.

When he sees you with eyes open, he asks, “Did I wake you?”

“It’s fine,” you reply, rolling onto your back. “That was my third nap of the day.”

Once he’s done, he takes a seat beside you on the tatami mat and says, “I have a question.”

“I’m all ears.”

Eyes half-lidded, he studies you. And then he crawls over, knees digging into the mat—a funny image in its own right—and lays down behind you. His arms close in in a hug and suddenly you’re feeling warmer than the kotatsu that’s covering your feet.

“This isn’t a question,” you tell him.

“I know.”

He presses a kiss to the back of your neck, his hand creeping down past the waistband of your sweatpants.

-

The two of you fuck, constantly. Your sex drive spikes as you enter your second trimester and all you think about is Toji’s fingers inside you as he eats you out. As he fucks you and makes you cum. Sometimes you think about him waking you up with his fingers crawling underneath your sleeping shorts, the pads of his fingertips pressed against the cloth of your underwear.

You fuck before he leaves for his shift at the fire station. He’s usually gone by the time you’re nice and clean after a shower.

And then you spend most of the day mucking around, watching TV and making lunch. After a three-day shift, he usually returns home and joins you, watching the news with no resolve before getting bored and eating you out. On the tatami mat, with the TV droning on in the background. His mouth between your legs as you dig your nails into his scalp. It’s embarrassing how fast he makes you cum; how loud you moan his name as he helps you ride out the tremors of your orgasm, licking up the mess you make on his mouth.

You take a bath afterwards. Sometimes he joins you without asking, keeping the lights off, nothing except the stream of sunshine filtering in through the window, illuminating the interior in a soft glaze. You’ll lean back against his chest, feeling his arms enclose around you. You love how he can hold you and make you feel so vulnerable, but also like nothing can ever hurt you.

“Hey, Toji.”

“Hm?”

You can feel his breath on your neck, the slow rise and fall of his chest as he leans against the wall of the cedarwood bath. “If something were to ever happen to me…”

“Nothing’s gonna happen.”

You fall silent, sinking deeper into the water until you’re submerged neck-down. “I don’t have any family to help you with Megumi. And … you don’t either.”

“You’re dooming and glooming yourself over something that’s never gonna happen. Listen to me. You’re gonna live until you’re 300 like that—what’s his face—Godwin Tiller guy,” he says.

“Edward Cullen,” you sigh, feeling him press his lips against your bare shoulder.

-

You break the news to Hiroto one afternoon as you shuffle in for your shift at the restaurant. “I’m pregnant.”

He’s in the process of folding chopsticks into napkins. At the sound of this revelation, he looks up to study your face before ducking behind the counter. Some shuffling later, he stands back up with a frilly yellow bag in his hand.

“You knew?” You say, snatching the gift from the counter. “How? I haven’t even started showing yet.”

Inside: a pair of white knitted booties the size of an eraser. You know the baby is going to outgrow it within the span of a month, but you don’t care. It’s precious. Adorable. And must be protected at all costs.

“I saw Toji browsing through the prenatal section at the pharmacy two weeks ago,” he states, gazing at the booties. “My mom said white is bad luck. She suggested I get you something blue if it’s a boy or pink if it’s a girl, but I didn’t know the gender yet.” A pause. “Do you?”

“No. We decided to keep it a surprise.” You smile, holding the tiny little shoe in your hand. “It’s perfect.”

-

By 35 weeks, you start calling the baby by their name.

Megumi.

You do this because 1) they like to punch you so hard in the bladder you almost piss your pants. 2) You like to have a name in mind when you curse them to the high heavens. 3) You love them even when you hate them anyway.

You learn they like to do rhythmic gymnastics inside your womb. When you sleep on your left, they punch you on the right. And when you sleep on your right, they punch you in the left. One time, they punched you in the cervix so hard you jolted awake and started crying. Toji had asked you what was wrong and when you explained to him, he snapped at Megumi to “chill the fuck out.”

Either way, you’re convinced your organs have turned on you. They’ve mutated into little extraterrestrial entities and are enacting a mutiny against you. You have constant heartburn and indigestion. Your kidneys are taking a vacation, which means you’re peeing every five minutes, and you’re pretty sure your spleen has become your baby’s favorite punching bag.

“It’s like a little alien,” you remark one day, watching a little protrusion form on the stretch of your skin. “Megumi … they’re gonna split out from my stomach like that parasite from that horror movie … what’s it called—”

“Alien,” Toji finishes the thought for you before pressing his ear against the bulge of your stomach. “Huh.” A pause. “I don’t feel anything.” His face contorts, then relaxes. “Still warm though.”

And then he gets a whack in the face from Megumi’s fist, making him jerk away.

“That hurt you little shit,” he hisses at your belly before pressing a kiss to it.

-

Toji is working his three-day shift when your water breaks.

It’s 4am in the morning, too early for you to process anything in a meaningful way. The wetness in your bedsheets convinces you, for only a moment, that you just started your period. But then the reality starts dawning. Your stomach is the size of Mount Hiei, you’re nine months pregnant, and there’s water in your bed.

For a while, you just sit there, processing the news with all the zeal of a computer still running on Dial-Up. Then you crawl out of bed, call your OB, leave a voicemail for Toji, and climb into the shower to wash off all the discharge. Afterwards, you turn on the newscast and wait for labor to hit. They’ve just completed building a railway extension in Hachinohe on the Tohoku line. Your hand settles on your bulging belly as you try imagine Megumi taking the bullet train for the first time. (You realize you want to take him everywhere and show him all the places you know and love.)

Mild contractions start coming in at 6am, but you wait for the 5-1-1 rule to take place. A contraction that comes every five minutes, lasting around one minute each for at least one hour.

Toji’s call comes in at 7am, his voice nearly breathless on the other side: “I’m on my way.”

“Take your time. My—”

Dial-tone. Within five minutes, he’s at your doorstep, starting the car. It's physically impossible to drive from the fire station to your house in five minutes, but you decide not to ask any questions. Judging by the sheen of sweat on his skin and the fact that he looks like he’s just ran a marathon, some part of you has already figured it out. 

He shuffles you into the passenger seat, helps you put on your seatbelt, and closes the door gingerly before driving off.

-

Snow starts clumping down on the windows as the two of you make your way to the hospital, a place you know so well. As you pass by a stream of familiar faces who greet you hello and congratulations, you enter a state of complete zen. The nurses walk you through triage and shuffle you into a private family room after you get your hospital gown on, Toji's giving them suspicious looks, as if they're holding back on some secret they're not telling him, and you're just trying to settle into bed as a contraction rips through your stomach, setting your insides on fire.

“You know in those American movies, most of the mothers get epidurals,” you tell Toji once he settles into your room. “And then they just go to sleep. And wait for the baby to come.” A frown. "Wish that were me."

He stands by your bedside, looking very solemn about it. "It's pussy-shit. You can do this, no sweat."

A contraction comes in suddenly, hard enough to make you wince and want to die. It’s like your insides are eating you alive, convulsing and pulling with every stretch. He watches you for a moment before asking, “Are you okay?”

You manage to eke out a nod.

Again, he pauses. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Distract me? Tell me something nice?"

“Okay. Well.” He suddenly looks sheepish, digging his hands into his pockets. “I’m gonna miss you being this horny all the time.”

”I hate you.”

A grin. “And. It’s not set in stone but Ichiro said I’m due for promotion.”

Your face lights up immediately. “Seriously? That’s great! I’m so happy for y—" Another contraction comes in and suddenly you fall silent.

Frowning, Toji storms out of the room. You can hear him yelling at the nurses for an epidural, but most of them have never heard of one, let alone administered one. An older nurse tells him, as gently as she can: “The bond between a baby and mother will strengthen through the pain of labor.”

“I will punch you in the face,” he says.

-

You don’t get an epidural and end up feeling every inch of excruciating pain, stretching your insides apart. At about forty-eight hours, you start crying. Not from the pain, but from the exhaustion of being awake.

You start resenting everyone who ever made birth seem like a glamorous, womanly, must-do thing. All the daytime talk-show hosts, all the to-be mothers and their mommy blogs. You start resenting the doctors asking you for another push, all the nurses who are waiting with their scissors. You start resenting your sister for asking for nephews and nieces and you start resenting yourself for getting pregnant in the first place.

You resent everyone. And everything. You want to burn it all down. You think it’s for the better. You were never cut out to be a mother—you can’t even handle a bit of pain.

And then you hear a cry. A nurse hands Toji a pair of scissors. He’s hesitant as he comes forward to snip the umbilical cord. You hear the words “there we go. A healthy baby boy.” There’s no time to process it.

After nearly 60 hours of labor, you meet Megumi, this little loaf of limbs they put against your chest, and you realize it was all worth it.

-

Toji lets you sleep.

“Like mother like son,” he states, frowning. Megumi is dozing off in the plastic cart next to you, but he wakes up in increments of five-minutes, eyes wide and unblinking as he absorbs the world around him.

He lets out a little yawn, mouth stretching open. And then he coos, rolling around in his swaddle. Toji just stares before untucking the cloth wrapped around his little body. Slow and gentle, like peeling away the foil from a burrito. Megumi snorts, a snot bubble forming in his left nostril that Toji ends up wiping away.

“So weak,” he says.

Another snort, another snot bubble.

Toji reaches out to wipe away the dribble on his philtrum, but Megumi punches one tiny, ineffectual fist out, wrapping his hand around Toji’s finger. He’s so small his grip only makes it halfway around.

“So weak,” says Toji again, gazing at this little human creation he’s somehow managed to make with you. He feels his heart swell with something warm. A desperate need to protect this little loaf of bread from the world, to make sure he knows he’s loved. And wanted.

Megumi loses his grip and tries to latch on again, arm flailing in the air with all the control of a tall boy at a car dealership.

Toji lowers his finger, watching Megumi wrap his little pudgy hands around it. “You’ll get there one day, dummy.”

Chapter Text

You wake up to the sound of car doors being slammed as Toji unclips you from your seatbelt. “Hey,” he says, voice soft and slow. “We’re home.”

You rub away the sand in your eyes and stifle a yawn. “Everything is sore—even my ankles.” You crane your neck this way and that, pulling yourself upright to step out the car, somehow a much more daunting task than it should be. As you shut the door, you feel the dull ache of a creaky joint in your spinal column you didn’t know you had.

“I can carry you,” Toji suggests as he unbuckles Megumi’s carrier from the backseat.

You gaze up at the short, frosty pathway leading to your house, “I think I can manage.”

Once the car is locked and you’ve collected your bearings, the two of you make your way up. You notice Toji staring at Megumi. For what it’s worth, Megumi just stares back.

“Toji. What are you doing,” you state.

“Staring contest,” he doesn’t miss a beat.

“You’re not going to win. Newborns never blink."

“And neither do I.”

His stare gets colder. You sigh, unlocking the front door and letting yourself in.

It’s good to be home, you think, stepping out of your shoes and taking in the smell of pine and home-cooked goods. After three days in the hospital, the scent of sanitized fluids has permanently imprinted itself into your brain.

“Puny human,” says Toji, watching Megumi’s mouth pull wide open in the smallest, most precious little yawn you’ve ever seen. Within seconds, he dozes off. It’s enough to make Toji turn his gaze, even as his hand wraps tighter around the handle of the carrier. “Hey, look. He finally conceded defeat." Then, softer: "You lost, fatty."

“Toji. You’re competing with an infant.”

“And what about it?”

You roll your eyes, heading up the stairway. “I’m gonna go take a bath.”

Eager like a puppy dog, Toji pads along behind you and says, “Let me join you.”

“No. I'm gross. And one of us needs to watch Megumi. And I—”

You open the door to Toji’s room and stop, eyes settling on some vague nether-space beyond his view. There’s a cloudy haze in your stare, as your face turns green.

“What’s wrong?” He asks.

You turn right back around, slamming the door shut. Eyes closed, you take a deep breath, expelling it as slow as you can.

“Nothing,” you tell him. “I’m too tired for this today.”

-

Two weeks go by and you spend most of your days avoiding the second floor, unless it’s to give Megumi a bath or change his diapers. Toji notices the change immediately. When he asks you what’s wrong, you clam up and tell him it’s nothing, that you’re tired, you have chores to tend to.

He tells you it's weird.

You brush it off and insist Megumi is your sole and central focus, that whatever misgivings you have can be addressed at a later date, when you're not running on two hours of sleep and trying to figure out the wonderful mysteries of breastfeeding and being a good mom.

-

Megumi has become the center of your universe.

The two of you (mostly you) dote on him needlessly, from morning to night, and from all hours in between. During his midday nap, you like to press your ear against his tiny little chest, just to make sure he’s still breathing. If he vanishes from your eyesight for more than two seconds, you panic--because object permanence is suddenly no longer a thing for you. Toji thinks it's the gratuitous worry of a first-time parent. He tells you you'll be less neurotic about it the second time around.

"Second time around?" After giving birth, you made a promise to yourself that you would never do it again. You changed your mind within the span of two days. "Mm ... I guess it wouldn't be so bad, giving him a sibling."

Megumi gets swaddled like a little burrito. You sniff his hairline like a dog. “You know ... he smells like you.”

Toji peers up from the newspaper he’s pilfering through and immediately crosses the floor to examine. Wide-eyed, Megumi stares up at him, absorbing him in full with that tireless, unblinking gaze. He has round eyes, like you. He hasn't grown into his little button nose yet, but he will. For a while, Toji just stares back, eventually lowering himself to take a sniff of his hairline.

“Smells kinda sweet," he says. "Like bread.”

“Does he?” You sniff again.

The corners of Megumi’s lips quirk up.

You gasp.

“Look, Toji. He’s smiling at you!” You continue bouncing him gently in your arms, hypnotized by the expression he’s managed to learn on his very own. “Oh my god. I wish I had a camera right now.”

But it’s a flash in the pan, as Megumi’s little smile vanishes from sight. Still, he continues staring at Toji with unblinking eyes, totally captivated. “That’s papa,” you tell him. “Did you know he gave you your name?”

Toji frowns. “You don’t need to tell him that.”

You study the sour expression on his face. “He’s a baby. He won’t remember anything,” you say, still bouncing him gently in your arms. “But he should at least know.”

A pause. “How old until he starts remembering stuff?”

“Four or five. Maybe less, maybe more. I think it depends on the baby.” A dreamy look settles on your face as you bend down to place Megumi in his carrier. “What’s your earliest memory, Toji?”

A dark pit. Something sharp gnashing through the meat of his thighs, blood trickling down his skin. The shock and ensuing adrenaline rush dulled the pain into numbness, then cold. It felt like his leg was no longer his own. As he clutched his wound, he came to the startling realization that he would die there. In that vacuum of dark shadows and hungry stares. He couldn't see them, but he could feel them.

He had screamed as the doors slid shut. And then he continued screaming until something heavy reamed into his shoulder, knocking his head into the ground. Stay awake, he told himself. They'll eat you alive. He couldn’t hear the laughter, but he could sense its quiet reverberations, shrill and biting in the chords of his chest.

“Dunno. Couldn’t say.” He lowers his gaze. “What about you?”

Once Megumi is slotted in, you brush your thumb against his cheek, feeling just how pliant and bouncy his skin is. “Probably when my sister and I fought over beanbag.”

“A beanbag?”

“Yeah. I was sitting on it, and suddenly she wanted to sit too. It got messy pretty fast. Fists were thrown, the beanbag ripped—all of a sudden, I was watching a million beads scattering everywhere. Mom and dad were so mad. As punishment, we had to clean up the mess, one bead at a time. It took us weeks to get them all.”

He tries to imagine a smaller version of you, picking at the cracks in the floorboards on your hands and knees.

“Toji …” You stand up, slinging the carrier over your arm. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

He thinks about the pit again. That feral need to live defensively, as if any little corner could cut him red. After meeting you, that uneasy existence mostly waned. Thinking back to that time, it’s like gazing into an alternate universe cloaked in a misty veil.

“I know,” he says, making his way to the door. “Anyway. We’re late.”

You follow him outside, where the sun shines brightly on a frosty hill. “There’s ice here,” says Toji, gesturing to the pathway leading to the car. He takes the carrier from your hand and offers you his arm. “Walk slow.”

You wince, as the wind billows sharply from the west. When he sees you clutching his arm for dear life—and Megumi wrinkling his little stub of a nose, already turning cherry red, he feels a sudden, primal urge to protect you both. To shield you from the wind and from anything and everything that could ever hurt you.

He wants to protect you even when he can't.

-

You dust off the film of snow covering the headstone. Toji doesn’t say much as he holds onto the carrier, stopping at the tall, gray slab that designates your family grave.

You touch Megumi’s cheek and tuck him tighter in his little bundle of blankets. “Sorry mom had to bring you to such a morbid place today,” you say. “Your aunt really wanted to meet you.” A pause. “Your grandma and grandpa too.”

But then you hesitate, eyes zoning in on the white, birch trees on the distant horizon.

“What is it?” Toji squats before the headstone, inserting a bouquet of orange flowers into its proper receptacle.

You squat down beside him, turning away. “Nothing. I thought I saw a shadow, but it was just a tree.”

-

As soon as he returns to the fire station, he’s inundated with questions and outdated advice. How’s the baby, how your wife, do you have any photos, did you know apple cider vinegar is really good for acid reflux?

“That would’ve been good to know, like, seven months ago,” Toji states plainly, as the engine of the firetruck rumbles underneath his legs.

Denki beams. “What did you end up naming him?”

“Megumi.”

“Wait. It’s a girl?”

“No.”

Denki squints at him, waiting for the punchline. But that’s as far as Toji goes, as they continue rumbling along the road. Eventually, they arrive at an apartment complex, where the residents have been evacuated. Most of them are willowing around outside in their pajamas, staring at the building.

A carbon monoxide leak. The call came in at 1 a.m. to the song of alarms sounding off in the background. I feel dizzy, said the woman on the other line. I think I’m gonna throw up. After being corralled out of bed and being shuffled outside, she fainted on the pavement.

Toji puts on his mask and heads straight in.

-

Ambulances fill the street, siphoning off the worst of the damage. The remaining evacuees are loitering on the sidewalk, looking very tired and very stressed. Someone mentions they still have to go to work tomorrow, this sucks, what a drag. Someone else stands up and suggests splitting a hotel room. Toji puts a blanket over the shoulders of the grandmother whose lightbulb he changed the other month. She tells him she remembers him.

“Thank you so much for your hard work today!” A high school girl in Anpanman pajamas stands before Toji, bowing in deep reverence as her braids frame her face. “Things were so crazy before you arrived! My mom and dad—” She pauses, looking over her shoulder at an older gentleman, rubbing away the migraine in his head. “I mean, they were being totally overdramatic. Like, seriously, they really freaked out!"

He turns back to the grandma, asking her if she needs water before heading back towards the truck.

Pajama girl skips along merrily behind him. “Anyway! How's your night so far? What’re you doing after this?”

But she's immediately interrupted as Denki emerges from the back of an ambulance. “Guess we’re not getting any sleep tonight,” he says. “But with the baby and everything—this must align with your schedule perfectly. What’re you getting? Like, three, four hours a night?”

Toji shrugs. “Sometimes less.”

“Jeez.”

“You’ll get there soon one day."

Pajama girl perks up, having shadowed them down the sidewalk. “Do you need a babysitter?"

Denki snorts. Slowly, Toji turns around to meet her joyful, wide-eyed gaze.

“You are a fetus,” he snaps.

The look on her face goes from something optimistic to something completely perplexed—then mortified. “And I am an adult,” he goes on, turning back to the truck. “Pull yourself together. This is not how young ladies act."

It takes her a moment to digest the rejection. After a second or two, she turns around and stomps off, a string of profanities following in her wake. Denki watches for a while before offering him a look of pity.

“You even sound like a dad now,” he says.

-

He returns to the station and finds Ichiro parsing through paperwork on the communal couch, watching the drone of the newscast. “Hey kid. Good job today.”

“Thanks.” Toji flops down on the couch next to him, watching the anchor recite the beats of the current, ongoing story of interest: an apparent furnace malfunction has caused a gas leak in an apartment complex in the district of Izumi-ku. “I need your take on something.”

“All ears."

“My wife.” He pauses, suddenly, tasting the words on his tongue. “She hasn’t been acting like herself lately.”

Ichiro sets his paperwork aside. “How so?"

“She won’t sleep in our bedroom. Moved the crib downstairs, started sleeping next to that instead. Megumi’s fine, but—” He stops, leaning on his thighs. “She won’t tell me what’s going on, just says she’s been tired lately.” A pause. "She's tired a lot."

Ichiro considers it a moment. “Could be postpartum depression.”

“Is that common?"

“Not sure. But it happened when my wife had our first. Only noticed it when she started snapping at me for little things she let slip by before. It’s a real thing and horribly underreported."

“Did it get better?”

“Eventually.” He leans against the couch-back, flipping the TV to the cartoon channel. “Took almost a year for her to feel herself again. Doctors kept telling me she was just fatigued from being a first-time mother.” He snorts, looking almost annoyed at the insinuation. “Medication helped. Had to fly to Canada for that.”

Toji wonders how much a flight would cost. For some reason, he's too afraid to ask.

"You should talk to her again," Ichiro suggests gently. "And maybe bring her flowers this time."

-

He does. After a long, three-day shift, Toji returns home and finds that you’ve constructed a fort of pillows and blankets on the tatami mat. Megumi lays next to you, completely bug-eyed as you press your ear against his chest, still listening to the sound of his little heart. "Are those for me?"

He lays the bouquet on the dining table. "At the insistence of someone else."

"And who would that be?"

"Ichiro-san."

You wait for him to explain. He doesn't. You shrug, returning your attention back to Megumi. “I think my biggest fear is that he’ll stop breathing,” you say, pulling away from his tiny little striped shirt. You offer Toji a smile, patting the empty space on Megumi’s other side. “Come here."

Toji steps out of his shoes, peeling off his winter coat and hanging it over the back of the nearest dining chair. Without saying a word, he lays down, the two of you caging Megumi in like a wall.

Toji pokes his cheek. “Hi fatty, you look bigger today.”

You agree, silently. “I think he grew while you were gone.”

It’s true. His arms have gotten chunky, like the juicy white rolls of the Michelin mascot. His cheeks are so round they make his lips look perpetually pursed. In his striped sailor shirt, his stomach pudges out like a beer gut. But even now, the center of gravity still revolves around his giant dome of a head, just starting to sprout little wisps of black hair.

Megumi’s mouth pulls open in a little yawn, eking out the faintest squeak. Toji smiles at the sight. “Look at his little fists,” he says, motioning to his clenched hands, the size of a gumball. “Bet he’s punching someone in his dreams.”

For a while, the two of you just watch him until you say, “Toji. There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“Funny, because I wanted to ask you something too," he says.

“Okay,” you say, looking a little uncertain at the prospect. “Can I go first?”

“Yeah, sure.”

A pause. “You have to look me in the eye though.”

He tears his gaze from Megumi’s sleeping face. “Fine.”

Your eyes find their way to the scar on his lip, the cut of his jawline. Eventually, when you settle on his gaze, you tell him, “You have to promise me you won’t lie.”

Whatever inkling of a smile he has disappears. 'When have I ever lied?' He thinks, bitterly. Instead, he just tells you: “I won’t.”

You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and let go. He realizes it's the same expression you made that day you returned from the hospital. As you open your eyes, you look at Megumi, feeling a pit in your stomach as you open your mouth and ask: “Why is there a giant worm in your room?”