Issei’s used to the idea of death. Well, not exactly. It’s not really possible to get “used to” death. But not a lot surprises him anymore. He’s worked at this funeral home for years now, overseen hundreds of wakes, and as morbid as it is, he’s established a routine for this kind of work.
He’s always the first to arrive every morning. He sets the room up the exact same way, save for any special requests from the family. He offers the same rehearsed condolences to every mourner that comes to talk to him. He practices the deceased’s name over and over, so he doesn’t mess it up when the family arrives. And after the ceremony is over and the body taken down for cremation, he’s the last to leave.
The weird thing is, he can’t seem to remember who this wake is for.
The room is nearly empty, save for the faceless individual next to him.
“Are you going to say your goodbyes?” they ask, their voice lacking any sort of recognizable attributes. Issei furrows his brow in confusion.
No. Why would he? He’s just an employee. That’s not part of his job.
Yet, part of him is inexplicably drawn to the open casket before him. He shuffles forward, dread seeping through his whole being as he approaches it. His hands don’t feel like his own as he lays one on the open lid, peering over the top, and his mind can’t prepare him for the visceral horror he feels as he lays his eyes on your body, lying motionless and cold in the casket.
Issei wakes up in a cold sweat. He clings to the duvet first, then his pillow – anything to ground himself.
He’s in his bedroom. In his apartment. The one he shares with you.
Where are you?
Your tired voice temporarily pulls him out of his panic and he quickly rolls over towards you. He cradles your face in his hands, thumbs gently grazing your warm cheeks. You blink your eyes open slowly, yawning and looking up at him.
“Issei?” you ask faintly. “What time is it?”
“Oh. Sorry for waking you,” he says, pulling his hands away quickly so you can’t see the way he’s shaking like a frightened child.
“Where are you going?” you ask groggily. “Are you okay?”
“Just can’t sleep,” he says, lips brushing softly against your temple. “Gonna get some water. I’ll be right back.”
Issei walks out of your shared bedroom, bypassing the kitchen entirely and heading straight for the bathroom. Leaning on the sink, he takes a long look at himself in the mirror. His eyes are bloodshot, the bags underneath them more pronounced than usual, and… are those tears in his eyes?
Suddenly, Issei feels just how quickly his heart is pounding in his chest, how short and strained his breaths are, and how much he feels like he’s going to throw up. He grips the porcelain of the sink in one hand and uses the other to turn the tap, sticking his head underneath, uncaring of the freezing cold temperature of the water. He doesn’t know how long he stands there with his head under the faucet, savoring the feeling of the cold water trickling down his neck and through his hair. It feels like hours. Just as he’s about to shut the faucet off, you do it for him.
“Hey,” you whisper.
“Oh!” Issei startles, standing up quickly and splashing water on the bathroom mirror.
You stand at his side, looking concerned and dressed in nothing but one of his old volleyball t-shirts and a pair of cotton underwear. Issei forces himself to smile at you, and judging by the look on your face, it’s not pretty.
“Just didn’t want to disturb you so I got a drink in here,” he says through gritted teeth. “Don’t worry about me, you can go back to bed.”
He knows he’s not fooling you. You know each other better than that. His whole head is dripping in water, for god’s sake. You’d be stupid not to notice.
“You have an interesting way of drinking water,” you say, raising an eyebrow at him. “Got a hole the back of your head that I don’t know about?”
Issei laughs hollowly at your joke and your frown only deepens.
“Here, take this,” you say, holding up a full cup of water you must have poured for him yourself. You press it into his hands and he takes a long sip. You take his towel from its hook and gently dry his hair and neck as he drinks.
“What’s wrong?” you ask. “Did something happen at work today?”
Issei swallows the last of the water, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He squeezes his eyes shut and a quiet sob passes his lips.
“Come on,” you whisper, taking his hand and leading him back to your bedroom. You sit him down on the bed and take your place next to him, still holding his hand and running your free hand up and down his back. You sit there together for a few minutes while Issei collects his thoughts.
He hates it when you worry about him. It’s why he’s spent all this time since you two got together shutting that part of himself away, so he wouldn’t burden you with the strain his work puts on his heart. But he knows you can see the cracks in the façade he puts on for you at home. And it’s clear that the walls he’s built around himself, the ones he works so hard to maintain for your sake as well as his own, are crumbling. And on nights like these, they fall apart all together.
He won’t lie to himself – the job can be hard, and today was terrible.
It’s one thing when it’s a closed casket wake – he knows there’s a person in there, yes, but the coffin provides both a physical and emotional barrier, allowing him to distance himself from the tragedy of the situation. But that imaginary barrier is quickly shattered when that coffin comes in a much smaller size than it normally does. When parents who don’t look to be that much older than him cling to their young children, who look around in confusion, wondering why their sibling isn’t around anymore.
It’s one thing when an elderly grandparent passes away in their sleep after a long and consistent decline. Death isn’t ever truly expected, but these situations aren’t necessarily shocking when they finally happen. And then there are those deaths that are sobering beyond belief – the sudden deaths that remind a person how fragile and unfair life can truly be. Like the young woman whose wake was yesterday morning, her life ended by someone else’s decision to drive drunk. Issei supposes that’s probably what triggered his nightmare tonight.
“Today was just really hard,” he tells you, his voice thick with tears. “Harder than normal.”
“Do you want to talk about it? You know you can tell me anything,” you say reassuringly.
You trace your fingers up his spine towards his head, lightly scratching little circles into his scalp – one of your go-to tricks to soothe him when he’s in a sour mood.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cry in front of you,” he mumbles.
“Why not?” you ask. “I cry in front of you all the time. You don’t need to be ashamed of it.”
Issei lets out a shaky exhale and relaxes into your touch.
“We hosted a wake today,” he says quietly between sniffles. “The woman who died – I heard her family talking and… she was right around our age. Killed by a drunk driver.”
He can’t bring himself to look at you – he already knows what you’re thinking. He can see the worry in your eyes without even looking at you. He knows you’ll tell him what you tell him every time something like this happens.
I’m worried about your mental health.
You can always find another job.
No job is worth getting this upset over.
But that’s the strange part. Despite everything, Issei loves his job. His coworkers are kind (albeit, a bit odd), his schedule is flexible, and it pays him well enough to have a comfortable existence. Most importantly, the work, while it can be thankless, is meaningful. When a person loses somebody close to them, the last thing they should have to worry about are the logistics. Being able to lift that burden and provide some extra peace in a difficult time is something that Issei finds a lot of meaning in.
He knows how much it baffles you, why somebody like him, who’s always cracking jokes and teasing his friends, would willingly work in such a morbid profession. But for Issei, there’s a certain pride to be taken in doing a job that seemingly nobody else is willing to do. But now… now he’s considering your words more than he ever has before.
“You’d think I’d be used to this by now, but I’m just not,” he admits. “I hardly knew anything about this woman. I never knew her while she was alive. I don’t even know what she looked like. But her death… it just really got to me. It was so bad that I had to step out of the room during the eulogy. Her family and loved ones were suffering alone in there, but I couldn’t even bear to be in the same room as them. Because the whole time I heard them talking, all I could think about was you being in that coffin instead.”
The thought makes him sick to his stomach. He lets go of your hand and curls his fingers into your – well, his – shirt. In one quick movement, he pulls you closer, burying his head into your shoulder and weeping.
“I can’t lose you,” he whimpers.
“I’m not going anywhere, babe,” you whisper, combing your fingers through his curls. “I promise.”
“You can’t promise me that,” he says. “So please don’t.”
Issei hears your gentle sigh and your breath tickles the back of his neck.
“Okay,” you murmur. “I won’t. But I will promise you something else.”
You gently pull Issei away from yourself, cradling his face in your soft hands.
“I promise you, no matter how much time we have left together, I will cherish it. In that time, I will love you as hard as I can. I will spend the rest of my life loving you.”
You press a gentle kiss to his lips, lightly caressing the smooth skin of his cheeks.
“Is that okay?” you ask.
“Of course,” Issei says, nodding and offering you a watery smile. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” you say, pulling him back under the covers. “Now quit talking to me like I’m a ticking time bomb. I am still alive, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Issei says, laughing for the first time since he woke up from his nightmare.
He wraps you up in a gentle embrace, insisting on holding you until you’re both asleep. He dots several light kisses across the top of your head and holds you until he hears the pace of your breath slow to a smooth and sleepy rhythm.
Issei can’t help but smile as you doze off in his arms. You’re right. You are so, very much alive. And he plans to cherish you forever.