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[...lays your sins in the shadows]

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“The usual, Hanayagi-san?” The bartender asks even as she is already pulling a glass from underneath the counter and walking to the shelf for Kaoruko’s preferred bottle of whiskey. 

 

“You know what I like, Nana-han.” 

 

Kaoruko straightens her back, and leans forward, resting her elbows on the bar, her eyes scanning the passing crowd just outside of the theater bar and lounge. Every now and again, she fiddles with the golden band on her ring finger, turning it in place. She’s restless in her seat, her eyes scanning her surroundings for some kind of distraction; her head turning from rows of liquor behind the bar, to Nana and the other servers milling about, to the patrons across the lounge.  

 

Eventually, Kaoruko’s gaze lands on a woman across the way, blonde hair swept over one shoulder, arms crossed. The woman looks around, though she doesn’t look lost. Kaoruko continues to watch her, even as Nana slides her glass on a napkin. 

 

“Nana-han,” she starts after some time, watching the blonde woman walk around the display in the middle of the lobby. “Bring a bottle of cabernet to my regular table in about ten minutes.” 

 

“Will do.” 

 

Without another word, Kaoruko brings her glass with her and walks over to the woman admiring the centerpiece. 

 

“You like it that much?” Kaoruko asks, standing in front of the new sculpture display and about a meter to the side of the blonde woman, just as she sips from her drink. “Saw you studying it from the bar.” 

 

She points at the bar behind them, and the woman’s eyes follow until the two of them are staring back where Nana is fiddling with the register. The woman doesn’t say anything, and instead turns back to look at the display. 

 

“It’s new.”

 

“I had it installed just a few days ago.” Kaoruko turns to face the woman that’s managed to captivate her, even from a distance. Sharp magenta irises gaze back at her, arresting Kaoruko in place, a breath hitched in her chest. Kaoruko briefly wonders if the warmth that spreads through the rest of her body is from the whiskey, but she’s drunk so little of it that she knows it’s not the case. “Hanayagi Kaoruko.” 

 

Kaoruko faces the other woman. She offers her free hand, and it hangs between the two of them. She doesn’t drop her gaze from matching the woman’s even after she sees from her periphery the woman extending her hand. 

 

“Saijou Claudine.” 

 

 

Kaoruko sees her again the following week. She stays in the shadows, but she watches Claudine enter the theater and look around before heading towards the lounge. Something shifts in her chest when she thinks about the simple anticipation reserved for Claudine. How foreign it feels.  

 

From their last meeting, Kaoruko has learned a little about Claudine. She just returned from France a couple of months ago, just a little after New Year’s, and now lives with her father’s brother. She enjoys stage plays, hates whiskey. She likes coming to Kishi Theater after a fruitless week of job hunting. 

 

That something in Kaoruko’s chest blossoms into an unfamiliar tightness when Claudine turns and finds her, and she makes a beeline for Kaoruko at her regular table.  

 

“You’ve found me,” she greets. Claudine sits adjacent to her, bathed in the warm glow of the lounge’s lighting, and Kaoruko thinks she’s pretty, ethereal.  

 

Claudine lets out an uninhibited laugh of amusement, a rare sound ringing in Kaoruko’s ears away from the veneer of small talk that frequents her line of work. “Not much of an accomplishment considering you said you’d be here.” 

 

Kaoruko glances up at Nana and waves a hand, the bartender nodding back as she prepares their drinks. Then she flags a waiter down until there’s a menu placed in front of Claudine. “Order whatever you want.”  

 

Appreciation flashes across Claudine’s features, but Kaoruko catches it. Once they get their orders, a martini for Claudine and a whiskey for Kaoruko, they quickly fall into a rhythm. 

 

“So Isurugi Futaba is your wife?” Claudine asks just after Kaoruko signals for another drink from the waiter. “I’ve only seen her perform once, but she’s amazing.” 

 

Out of habit, Kaoruko’s thumb fiddles with her wedding band. “She is.” 

 

Claudine’s gaze, even in the dim lighting, pierces through her and Kaoruko has to take a moment to take a sip of her drink, her eyes straining to focus on the singular ice cube in her glass. The woman beside her doubles down, leans forward, resting her cheek on the heel of her palm, waiting, watching. 

 

“How do you like being married to a superstar?” 

 

Kaoruko has her answers rehearsed, has countlessly let them slip out with ease from her lips. It’s great. Futaba-han is great. She is a dream. We’ve loved each other since we were thirteen. 

 

She thinks it’s the whiskey that makes her do it, wants it so badly to be the whiskey, when she opens her mouth and instead the truth tumbles out. “I don’t.” 

 

Claudine places a warm hand on top of Kaoruko’s left hand, covering her wedding band. It’s the first time Kaoruko’s been touched in weeks. It sets her on fire. 

 

“Fucked, isn’t it? To think like that.” 

 

Claudine squeezes her hand, the move stokes the fire deep in Kaoruko’s belly. “Maybe. But I’m not exactly the best person to ask.” 

 

The fire deep within her coils into a spring and with it, pulls Kaoruko forward until their faces slowly gravitate toward each other. Her heart is hammering in her chest, and she wonders if her heart’s ever reacted like this when she thinks about her wife. The one she’s loved for years. The one who won’t be back until tomorrow. The one who—

 

“Hanayagi-san.” Kaoruko tenses in her spot when she hears Nana call for her. Claudine dips her head down before placing a hand on her mouth. 

 

“What is it?” she asks, looking over her shoulder. 

 

“You have a call.” 

 

She closes her eyes, knows whose voice is waiting for her on the other end of the line. When she opens her eyes, she pulls back, brushes her bangs even as her hair falls back in place. She pulls her hand out from under Claudine’s grasp and straightens herself out of this moment of weakness. “Can you give me a minute? I have to take this.” 

 

Claudine tilts her head and watches her before nodding. 

 

Kaoruko takes a folded bill from her pocket and exchanges it for the wireless phone in the bartender’s hand. It’s not until she’s in the bar’s back office that she takes a sobering breath before she unmutes the call. 

 

“Hello? Kaoruko?”

 

She closes her eyes, leans back on the office chair, tries to clear her mind. 

 

“Futaba-han, it’s me.” 

 

 

When Kaoruko gets home that evening, Futaba’s small suitcase is parked at the foot of the stairs. She tries to listen for any sound, but their house is filled only with silence. She climbs up the stairs and opens the door to their bedroom to find her wife sleeping on top of their covers, a forearm draped across her eyes.

 

Kaoruko affords herself the time to watch the sleeping figure. It’s a comforting sight, despite everything, to see Futaba there. She second guesses just climbing back down and heading into her office until Futaba wakes up, but her thoughts are interrupted when she hears Futaba’s dulcet voice. 

 

“I can feel you staring at me.” 

 

She smirks, and moves from the door towards the foot of the bed. “And here I thought I would be kind and let you sleep.” 

 

Futaba moves her arm off of her face and languidly adjusts herself until she’s resting on her side and gets a good look at Kaoruko. “Don’t. I missed you.” 

 

Kaoruko watches as violet eyes bore into her and Futaba is patting the spot on the bed in front of her. She allows her body to move, her actions guided by the routine of their reunion. “Of course you did.” 

 

She lays on her side, mirrors her wife, their knees bumping. She watches when Futaba pushes forward and places a chaste kiss on her lips before nestling herself in the crook of Kaoruko’s neck. Kaoruko feels the comfortable warmth that being in Futaba’s arms gives her, her heart beating steadily. 

 

“You taste like whiskey.” She can see the frown that so easily sets on Futaba’s lips, a sign that she’s more exhausted than she looks. She sidesteps Futaba’s comment, knowing that neither of them have the energy to fight about that tonight. 

 

“How long are you back for?” she asks instead, as if she doesn’t know the answer, as if the small suitcase isn’t answer enough. 

 

“Just for a few days.” Futaba’s voice rumbles against her skin, against the scar on her chest. Futaba kisses the middle of the line, where the scar is the widest, another signal of Futaba’s deep exhaustion quickly settling in. 

 

Kaoruko knows that it’s good to have her wife back home, if only for a few days. 

 

But Kaoruko can’t fully shake the tremor that runs under her skin, her heart hammering underneath the scar line on her chest when she closes her eyes and she sees blonde hair filling her vision, deep magenta eyes looking right back at her. 

 

 

Kaoruko: Sorry about having to leave so soon the other night.  

 

She taps her phone on her chin, tries not to think too deeply about why she’s apologizing only for that.  

 

Claudine: No need to be sorry 

 

Kaoruko: Let me make it up to you anyway. 

Kaoruko: Come by the theater tomorrow

Kaoruko: My treat 

 

Claudine: How can I decline such a sweet offer

 

The next day, she’s leaning on the side of her car, her blazer draped over her shoulder, as she berates the incompetence of some businessman over the phone. But when she finds Claudine sauntering over in a dress and long jacket cozy enough for the cooler spring breeze, she decides it’s time to drop the call. 

 

She places her phone in her purse, but doesn’t make a move, not until Claudine is standing right in front of her, the only distance between them set by propriety. There’s a hunger in Claudine’s eyes directed at her, and it’s been so long since Kaoruko has seen it that it barely registers. 

 

“So where are we going?” 

 

“You’ll see.” 

 

Kaoruko takes Claudine to a restaurant towards the outskirts of the city. The implications hang in the air, but she swats them away in favor of a simple, but malleable truth: she’s sharing a meal with a new friend. 

 

It’s intoxicating the way Claudine wraps herself around Kaoruko so easily, as if she’s always been molded against Kaoruko’s side. Conversation spills out easily, seamlessly, and Kaoruko can’t remember a time she’s had a conversation with someone who isn’t employed by her, who isn’t trying to sell something to her, who doesn’t want anything more than what Kaoruko has to give. 

 

“I can see you being an actress. I bet you were good.” Kaoruko was good, was even the best in the program, and she wants to say as much, but that path was a lifetime ago. Would she even believe herself if she said it aloud? Kaoruko settles for waving a dismissive hand. “So what happened?” 

 

“Motorcycle accident.” She takes a quiet breath, readies the timeline of events she’s recited and the litany of injuries she’d had to heal from, but the prodding follow-up questions don’t come. She can’t help but frown, wholly unprepared for the lack of questioning. “Don’t you want to know?” 

 

Claudine shrugs before she takes a sip of her wine. “You don’t look like you wanna share. Either that or you’re actually a terrible actress and I gave you too much credit.” 

 

She scoffs before she exaggerates the scowl on her face and it elicits a bright smile on Claudine’s face. 

 

They eventually make it to the front of Claudine’s building in a quiet neighborhood when they finish dinner. 

 

“Thanks for inviting me,” Claudine says, hands on her lap. Kaoruko remembers those hands holding her at the bar and she thinks about reaching out. Instead, she fiddles with her ring to occupy her free hand. “You didn’t have to drive me home.” 

 

“I have the car, why wouldn’t I?” 

 

Claudine clears her throat. “I’d invite you in, but the apartment isn't really set up for guests.” 

 

Kaoruko tilts her head curiously, but doesn’t bother to ask. If Claudine isn’t offering, then she’s not about to pry. 

 

“It’s fine. I should head back home.” 

 

The silence engulfs them, neither of them wanting to leave.

 

“Then I’ll say goodnight here,” Claudine says before she slowly begins to lean over the console, aiming for Kaoruko's cheek. But it’s Kaoruko who turns her head until Claudine’s lips touch the corner of hers. Claudine pulls back a little, their faces centimeters away. “What about—” 

 

“Not now. Don’t say anything right now,” Kaoruko whispers, afraid to hear her words above the sound of her pulse rushing in her ears. Claudine doesn’t protest, and their mouths find each other, lips meeting properly this time. The kiss is hungry and open, desire directing her hand up to the back of Claudine’s neck to pull her even closer. She’s encouraged when Claudine’s tongue juts forward, eager to explore past her lips. 

 

After a short while they break apart, chests heaving, and Kaoruko opens her eyes. The image she’s had of Claudine in her mind matching the woman in front of her. There’s a twisted kind of rightness to it, even if she knows it’s all wrong. Right now, she just wants to be driven by how good it feels. 

 

Tomorrow, she’ll deal with the consequences. But tonight, she just wants to uncork the pressure building inside of her, so she pulls Claudine towards her again.  

 

 

A week passes and she doesn’t contact Claudine. Thankfully, Claudine doesn’t contact her, either. Like a silent understanding between them.

 

What Kaoruko had done was reprehensible, and stood against everything she’d vowed to Futaba who is undeserving of Kaoruko’s sins. 

 

After she and Claudine kissed within the dark veil of her car, she spends the following days with guilt riding on her shoulders. She watches her back. Double checks the door. She presses her hand to her mouth, as if to cover what she’d done. 

 

But the darker parts of Kaoruko, the parts she’s tried to bury underneath everything, can’t deny the light that comes from the touch and attention of a woman who visibly hungers for her, wants to devour her. Three meetings and she’s so quickly fallen into the comfort of a woman who so easily relieves her of the pervasive loneliness that’s settled on her like a weighted blanket. 

 

Unlike now, when it’s her and her loneliness sitting together on a video call with Futaba who’s preparing in her dressing room. 

 

“What's wrong, Kaoruko? I haven’t seen you bite your thumb like that in a while. Everything ok at the theater?” 

 

She drops her hand from her face, the sound of Futaba’s voice clearing out some of the fog of her thoughts. She finishes the last of her whiskey before pushing the glass off to the side of her desk. “I’m fine, just been a little stressed and busy with work, especially this time of year.” 

 

Futaba chews at her lip even as she finishes dressing into her practice clothes. “Maybe you could lay off the drinking.” 

 

Kaoruko narrows her eyes. “This again?” 

 

She hears her wife’s sigh more than she sees it, a sound that has haunted her since the accident. “You’re right. I’m just trying to look out for you.” 

 

“I know, Futaba-han,” she starts. “We’ve been doing this for years, this time is no different.” 

 

The softness in Futaba’s eyes swallows her whole, and Kaoruko squirms in her seat. Then Futaba turns around when Tomoe Tamao pops in behind the door to let her know that she’s being called to the stage. 

 

“Oh! Is that Hanayagi-san?” Tamao says, getting closer until she’s standing behind Futaba and bringing her head down to be in the frame. “How are you?” 

 

Despite the time and distance between her and her old rival — the one who is living the life Kaoruko should be living — she barely suppresses the frown on her face. 

 

“Just fine.”  

 

An awkward air hangs between all of them, and Futaba clears her throat. “Kaoruko…” 

 

“Well, it’s good to see you too, Hanayagi-san,” Tamao says with a soft smile, filling the space. Kaoruko narrows her eyes slightly when Tamao places a hand on Futaba’s shoulder. Futaba looks up at her co-star, but doesn’t say anything. 

 

“Five minutes, then we’re needed on stage.” 

 

“Got it. Thanks.” 

 

Tamao leaves without another glance back at them, and Futaba’s gaze softens even as Kaoruko keeps her frown in place. 

 

“Please take care of yourself,” Futaba finally says, words of compromise, of appeasement. Then, “I’ll call you later.” 

 

“That’s fine.” 

 

Futaba hangs up the call first, and Kaoruko is left with her faint reflection on the darkened screen. 

 

She hates the sight of her reflection, hates the frown she’s still sporting from the end of the call, the last of what Futaba sees before she gets to follow her dreams. 

 

She thinks bitterly of the idea of dreams, of her own idealistic self all those years ago. 

 

The stage had been Kaoruko’s dream, at first. She remembers performing in front of her family and friends, bathing in the applause and the attention. She remembers meeting Futaba with her handsome grin during middle school; Futaba who was only taking acting classes because she had a free period. 

 

She remembers how they’d worked hard together until her dreams became their dreams, together. 

 

But things are different now. Because Futaba, her wife, her childhood sweetheart, is pursuing Kaoruko’s dreams — the ones that shattered on the asphalt the night she’d been thrown off the motorcycle. 

 

She hates the sight of her reflection like this and moves to put her phone face down on her desk until a text relights the screen. 

 

Claudine: Can we talk about what happened? 

 

Kaoruko takes a deep breath and opens the text, thumbs hovering over the screen. Then, before she changes her mind, quickly types out a response. 

 

“I’m going out, Hoshimi-han. Don’t redirect any calls, just take down their message,” she dictates to her assistant. She pulls the blazer off the wall hook and drapes it over herself without another look back as she exits her office, leaving her assistant to stare at her retreating back. 

 

 

Kaoruko sits in her car and stares at the green call button, unmoving. It’s not until the second time her screen darkens that she decides to finally press it, her car suddenly filled with the ringing sound. 

 

“I’m glad you called me.” 

 

Kaoruko frowns. “Why would you be glad?” 

 

“I don’t know, I just am,” Claudine offers with a small laugh. The sound that comes across is dizzying, the words even more. 

 

“We can’t do it again,” she says, pleads. “It’s not—it’s not fair.” 

 

She’s uncertain who she targets those last words to, but they linger in the air. 

 

“Yeah. I understand.” 

 

 

Kaoruko tries to focus her attention away from Claudine and back onto her wife. So she decides to travel for a couple of days to see Futaba practice before attending a performance. 

 

She takes a seat somewhere in the back of the auditorium, and watches how Futaba commands the stage. 

 

Her chest tightens when she sees the actors rehearse, and the stagehands take care of the stage. She doesn’t know why she thought this was a good idea, since she hasn’t watched a rehearsal in years. 

 

Futaba is just as surprised, bringing it up after the end of rehearsal, and she’s jogging towards Kaoruko. 

 

“I didn’t think you’d come to rehearsal,” Futaba comments just before leaning in and giving her a peck on the lips. 

 

She waves a hand to dismiss the comment, not wanting to get into it now. “I didn’t want to wait at the hotel.” 

 

Futaba studies her for a second, but is interrupted when a few of the cast members walk up to them, introducing themselves. Before she knows it, she’s treating some of them to dinner. And before she fully knows what’s happening, stories of their training days start spilling out.  

 

“You were also in school with Isurugi-san and Tomoe-san?” one of them asks. 

 

“They were sworn rivals,” Futaba comments after taking another swig of her beer. Kaoruko tries to glare at her wife. “Always fighting about each other’s techniques.” 

 

“Where is Tomoe-san, anyway?” another cast member poses to the group. 

 

“She’s with her fiancée, Akikaze,” Futaba comments.

 

Kaoruko turns to her wife and asks, “Why do you know that?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I know that? Tamao and I are friends. It’s only you two who were rivals. And that was a long, long time ago.”

 

The comment about their past life grates against her, more than she thought it would. It only worsens when the conversation turns to something about the upcoming play and Kaoruko ends up hanging back, watching as the cast members and her wife talk animatedly with one another about a world she’s no longer part of. 

 

Even with Futaba’s comforting hand on her thigh, she spends the rest of dinner wanting nothing more than to leave. 

 

 

Days later and she’s by herself again, back to the emptiness and the familiar loneliness of her apartment. 

 

She resists the urge to reach out to Claudine. Kaoruko is the one who put a stop to it, so she has no right to want to seek Claudine again. 

 

She goes to the theater and gets a drink from the bar. 

 

“It’s been a while, Hanayagi-san,” Nana greets. “Still the same?” 

 

“Make it a double.” 

 

She looks around the bar until her eyes settle on the centerpiece display. She imagines Claudine looking around. She downs the rest of her drink and heads back to her office upstairs, and sets to work. But her phone burns a hole in her pocket, the last contact she’s had was the phone call she’d made in her car a couple of weeks ago. 

 

 

“What do you say I take the upcoming season off?” 

 

Kaoruko swivels her office chair and looks up at Futaba who’s sitting across the desk. “Really? What brought this on?” 

 

Futaba shrugs. “I’ve just been thinking about how I’ve been working basically non-stop since last fall and even through the holidays. Maybe it’s time to slow down a bit.” 

 

“What are you going to do? Lounge around here? Take up knitting?” 

 

“I can’t believe you think I’d be knitting,” Futaba comments. “No, I was thinking we’d spend some time together.” 

 

“You really want that?” 

 

“It would be nice, don’t you think?” 

 

Getting up from her seat and walking towards her wife, Kaoruko places a chaste kiss on her cheek. “It does sound appealing, having you around. You can massage my shoulders again.” 

 

Futaba lets out a small laugh, and Kaoruko dismisses how she’s startled by the sound, not having heard it in a while. The smile on Futaba’s face is tentative, but it at least reaches her eyes. “Ok, I’ll talk it over with my manager.” 

 

Days later, Futaba sits on a video call with her manager at the dining table as Kaoruko pretends to sleep on the couch. “Do you really think that’s wise? Are you burned out and tired already? At your age?” 

 

“No, it’s not that…” 

 

“Listen, Futaba-san. You still have two months left of this season. Strike while the iron is hot, as they say. Plus, it’s nothing official yet, but they’re doing a reprisal of  The Distant El Dorado for the fall. And rumor has it that they want you and Tomoe-san to do the lead roles. Do you really wanna sit that one out?”  

 

“No, but—” 

 

“I’m going to send you the email of the script right now, so you can take a look at it. Then if you’re really not interested, then we can talk about it.”   

 

The call soon ends, but Kaoruko continues to pretend to be asleep on the couch. She hears shuffling and padded steps until it stops right behind her. She feels Futaba staring at her, but she settles her breathing and does her best not to move. Then, she feels a soft squeeze on her shoulder, one that burns even after Futaba leaves and heads upstairs.  

 

It’s not until a few minutes later that she releases a tired sigh, a contemplative frown etched on her face when she realizes that Futaba will not, in fact, do anything. Because she knows Futaba would regret it if she doesn’t at least try, doesn’t at least audition. 

 

As soon as she realizes this, the walls of their home starts to close in on her, until she’s shoved to a corner that’s too small to breathe in. 

 

She itches to escape. Knows exactly how to get it. 

 

Against Kaoruko’s better judgment, she picks her phone from the table and texts Claudine.

 

Kaoruko: Meet me at the theater tomorrow at 11am  

 

Claudine: Hello to you too

Claudine: I’m not just gonna drop whatever I’m doing for you 

 

Kaoruko: I wanna see you 

 

She doesn’t know what it means, what it says about either of them, when Claudine is already at her regular table at the theater’s bar and already waiting for her. 

 

“I thought you said we had to stop,” Claudine says by way of greeting when Kaoruko sits in her usual spot.

 

Kaoruko tilts her head. “Nobody said we had to stop being friends.” 

 

“Is that what you wanna call it?” Claudine punctuates her question with an arch of her brow. 

 

“Just two friends having lunch,” Kaoruko offers, jutting her chin forward. She’s loath to admit it, but this feels right, the kind of attention she wants, the kind of person who will give it to her. 

 

Claudine stares at her, studies her, doesn’t say a word. Kaoruko tries not to squirm under the other woman’s gaze as it bores into her, almost reading her inside and out. She briefly wonders if maybe, in the end, she’s in over her head, but eventually the corner of Claudine’s mouth tugs into a small smile. 

 

“And what makes you so sure I’ll go with you?” Claudine asks, her tone noticeably lighter now, as if accepting of this new arrangement. And Kaoruko finds that it’s easy again, like she can breathe.  

 

Kaoruko plasters on a smirk, shakes out the heaviness from a few moments ago. “You’re here now, aren’t you?” 

 

So they walk out of the theater and into the daylight, take a stroll down a few blocks to a local ramen spot she likes to go to, and they grab lunch. Kaoruko is more than happy to pay, more than happy to lavish a girl who is giving her attention. 

 

 

A couple of days later, she wakes up groggy, but her eyes open and it’s Futaba looking down at her. It takes her a second to realize that Futaba’s already dressed and on her way out. Right, she gets to leave again — back to rehearsals, back to the stage, back to her dreams. 

 

“What time is it?” she croaks. 

 

“Early. Sorry I have to wake you up, but I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.” 

 

Kaoruko’s eyes are more open now, but still, her eyelids are weighed down with sleep. Futaba is looking at her with warm yet apologetic eyes. It makes Kaoruko sit up a little, resting her weight on her elbow. “What is it?” 

 

“Kaoruko, listen. About next season. I’m sorr—” 

 

They both turn to the door when they hear the doorbell buzz, alerting them of the ride that’s meant to pick Futaba up. Her wife glances back at her, tries to open her mouth, but Kaoruko’s not ready to hear it. “Tell me later, you have to go.” 

 

“Yeah. I’ll call tonight. Go back to sleep.” 

 

Futaba kisses her on the forehead before kissing her on the lips, then leaves their bedroom with a final wave before shutting their door. Kaoruko falls back on the bed and she covers her eyes, sleep gone, already knowing what Futaba’s going to say.

 

 

As the cool spring air starts to warm up, they text and call each other like friends do. Kaoruko even turns Claudine up to some business partners in the area for some job opportunities. Claudine comes to the theater and they share a drink or two, watching and discussing the productions happening at Kishi Theater. It’s all above board, and Kaoruko really does appreciate the company. 

 

Just like they’d agreed on during lunch that one day, they become friends, for whatever that’s worth. And Kaoruko thinks maybe this is fine, settling with something like this. She says nothing about the way Claudine’s hand lingers on hers a little too long when they’re sitting beside each other in the theater, in the darkness. She says nothing about the way she can’t help but stare at Claudine’s figure as she takes a drag out of her cigarette and puckers her lips just so until she’s blowing out smoke from the side of her mouth. She says nothing and pretends that they’re not walking backwards to the edge of a cliff. 

 

But — and this is where it’s most fucked up to Kaoruko — it feels a lot like an inevitability when they kiss again. 

 

She barely registers that they’re in her office after spending time at the bar. She only needed to pick some paperwork up, something mundane that could’ve waited until the next day. But she wanted to extend their evening together. 

 

Like a reversal of their first kiss, it’s she who leans forward, but it’s Claudine who closes the gap between them. Despite the burning sensation she feels all over her body that screams the wrongness of everything, the taste of Claudine — wine and cigarettes and something faintly sweet — is intoxicating beyond measure.

 

She pushes Claudine towards her desk, shaking all the things on it, but she can’t care about that. Not when Claudine is pushing back and kissing her in return with the same hunger and intensity as last time. 

 

“You said we can’t,” Claudine says a little out of breath, after finally putting her hand on Kaoruko’s chest.  

 

“I know what I said.” Then she leans forward and captures Claudine’s mouth again. 

 

They break apart not too long after when they hear sounds of the custodial staff’s arrival. They greet the custodian as if nothing had happened before leaving. She allows it when Claudine holds her hand as they quietly walk to her car. 

 

— 

 

The next time they see each other, Kaoruko places a piece of paper in front of Claudine.  

 

“What’s this?” 

 

She takes a deep breath. “It’s the rest of Futaba’s schedule.” 

 

She looks at Claudine expectantly, silently. 

 

The other woman glances back down at the paper, nods her head, then folds the piece of paper and tucks it in the back pocket of her jeans. 

 

Kaoruko downs the rest of her drink, quickly orders another, her thumb roughly pushing the metal of her wedding band. 

 

 

By all accounts, they do the same things they’d been doing before as friends. They continue to hang out. Claudine continues to join her at the theater. Kaoruko even joins Claudine at the club with Claudine’s new friends. 

 

Yachiyo, a woman with curly pink hair a shade not too far off from Futaba’s, arches a brow at the way Claudine places a hand on top of Kaoruko’s on the table. But Kaoruko revels in it, the thrill of being watched this way, and she wants more. So she leans into Claudine and whispers in her ear, causing Claudine’s other hand to rest on Kaoruko’s shoulder, playing with the tips of her hair. 

 

“We’re going to dance,” Claudine announces to the table, rising up and tugging Kaoruko with her. 

 

When Claudine’s friends aren’t looking, or even if they are, they do things beyond what friends do. Like press up against each other until Claudine’s hands are under her top and resting on her torso. Like Claudine’s lips pressing against a spot on Kaoruko’s neck and leaving a mark. 

 

As springtime blooms and slowly gives way to the early days of summer, the time they spend together starts to grow. They make out and touch each other in bathrooms, in backrooms, in her car. They don’t go all the way, but they get close, as if the act of sex is somehow their point of no return. 

 

For the first time in a long time, she’s back to having fun — chasing the adrenaline of whatever Claudine has to offer. 

 

One weekend, they’re at a secluded rooftop bar after midnight to get some fresh air after dancing while Claudine stands in front of her, smoking. Kaoruko’s glad for the breeze that cools the heat of her skin, the flush of her cheeks. She’s wearing a low cut shirt, revealing a portion of the scar on her chest. 

 

Claudine didn’t say anything about it earlier when they’d first met up, but now that Claudine’s done with her cigarette, those magenta eyes are laser-focused back on her. Kaoruko shivers in her spot, but chalks it up to the cool air. 

 

She watches as Claudine brings a hand up to her chest, taking her middle finger and tracing across Kaoruko’s visible scar. “Tell me what happened.” 

 

With any other person, she would bristle at such a demand, but the way that Claudine is studying her, watching her every move, Kaoruko knows it’s a request, patient and open. 

 

“Not much to tell. It was after practice one day, just the two of us trying to spend some time together. She was driving the bike and we didn’t notice an incoming car. Or the incoming car didn’t notice us. We swerved out of the way and—” she gestures dismissively, as if to say, you can guess the rest.

 

What she leaves out is how she got the scar on her chest, when she fell off the motorcycle and skidded past a piece of metal that sliced across her. What she leaves out is the broken bones, the marred skin. What she leaves out is the months of physical therapy and the frustrations of being broken. What she leaves out is the year she leaves school, never to come back. 

 

What she leaves out is Futaba being tired that day but acquiescing when Kaoruko insisted that they spend the time together as it had been the week of their anniversary.

 

“You know, she blames herself,” Kaoruko says, glancing out onto the high buildings around them, to refocus her vision blurred by the threat of tears.  

 

“But it wasn’t her fault?” 

 

She turns to look at Claudine. She thinks no, thinks yes. Instead she answers, “It was an accident.” 

 

 

The weeks pass and despite how much she enjoys the time they’re spending together, somehow slotting perfectly in between her schedule with Futaba, Kaoruko realizes the moment that Claudine wants more and she hates it. 

 

Claudine invites herself to Kaoruko’s apartment after making out in the back of her car, deftly phrasing the request to give Kaoruko an out, if need be.  

 

“Come on, Kaoruko. You own the Kishi Theater branch, I just know that your place has to be really nice. So let me see where the rich live.” 

 

But she reads between the lines, watches Claudine’s eyes darken, her cocked brow challenging Kaoruko as if to say, it’s not enough anymore to make out in the shadows. 

 

She should’ve known. Everyone always ends up wanting more. But Kaoruko’s caught between a good thing and a familiar thing and she can’t bear to let either go right now. Not when she’s getting everything she wants. 

 

So greedily, selfishly, she tries to hold onto both of them. And that means she allows Claudine’s request, admitting the other woman into her home, even though she’s torn about the decision — the parts of Kaoruko’s life getting too close to each other for her liking. 

 

She skirts around the lies, keeps them as truthful as possible when Futaba asks for an update about her day, her life. But they’re still lies. Lies that stack, lies that fold into themselves, lies that spread cancerously. In the end, Kaoruko is split down the middle: half of what Kaoruko holds in her heart is contempt for herself, and the other half of her complicated feelings for two very different women. 

 

Kaoruko knows it’s only a matter of time until things fall apart. She’ll hold onto the security of her shared past and life with Futaba. But she’ll also hold onto whatever she has with Claudine for as long as possible. She’ll keep each lie because each one leads her back to Claudine, the enticing promise of a fire that lights her away from the shadows. 

 

— 

 

Kaoruko passes the guest bedroom after she comes back from driving Claudine back home. They had spent the entire day lounging on that bed, limbs tangled with one another. And she lets her mind wander about what it would be like if she was with Claudine. 

 

She grimaces at the fleeting thought of a life, a possibility, of someone new. 

 

But she remembers that she can’t do that. Escapes are only as good as the execution. And Kaoruko doesn’t think she has it in her not to fuck it up. 

 

 

They’re in Kaoruko’s living room, languidly kissing each other on the couch, feeling each other up under clothes, moaning under the fiery touch of each other’s lips, fingers. 

 

She expects another easy day of spending time with each other when Claudine pushes for more, beyond the boundaries Kaoruko had originally drawn for them. Kaoruko knew this was coming, since she’d allowed Claudine to step foot into her home, but still, she wasn't ready to hear the words aloud. She barely hides the mask of irritation, already sensing the downward direction of their conversation.  

 

“What do you want from me, Kuro-han?” 

 

“I want you to leave your wife.” 

 

She scoffs. “Are you out of your mind? That’s not happening.” 

 

“You asked me what I wanted and this is it.” 

 

“Anything but that.” 

 

Claudine pulls away completely from her and Kaoruko lets her, tries not to be bothered by the loss of heat between them. 

 

“You really think you can just keep stringing me along like this?”

 

And it’s weird, how Claudine just hits the target with her words, gets straight to the point. It makes her pay attention, elated in the way that they’re both present, even if the words break her heart.  

 

“You can stop any time.” It’s a challenge, but the words are empty. They’ve spent the better part of the last couple of months doing anything but that. 

 

“Can you?” Claudine spits back, the two of them already knowing the answer. Kaoruko watches as Claudine shakes her head, a scowl deepening on her features. It’s something Kaoruko normally finds attractive, but suddenly irritates her because it’s now directed at her. “Fucking unbelievable.” 

 

She can only continue to watch when Claudine growls in frustration and, in her haste, spills the contents of her purse on the couch before shoving them back in. “Take me home.”

 

Kaoruko rolls her eyes, but wordlessly picks up her keys from the hook and ushers the pair of them outside before driving Claudine home. Neither say a word, like doing so is accepting defeat, the car filled with an oppressive silence. Claudine stares at her with anger and confusion, not unlike the way Futaba has looked at her, and it sets Kaoruko ablaze with fury. 

 

She absolutely hates how Claudine and Futaba manage to render her inadequate with a single look. It’s the closest the two have ever come, and Kaoruko reconsiders this entire arrangement. 

 

In the end, Claudine exits her car without a word and slams the door. Kaoruko floors the gas until the tires squeal and she’s speeding far away from what she thought was her chance at freedom. 

 

 

Later that night, Kaoruko’s heart hitches in her throat when she gets home and finds Futaba walking out of their kitchen. 

 

“Great, you’re back!” Futaba walks over with her arms open, waiting. “Where have you been?” 

 

Kaoruko clears her throat, but falls into Futaba’s arms, sidesteps the question. It’s the first time in a very long time, but she’s almost relieved to see her wife home. “I thought you weren’t due back for another week.” 

 

“Did you memorize my schedule?” Futaba asks with a small chuckle when they break apart. “I’m leaving again after tomorrow, but I thought I’d surprise you so we can spend tomorrow together.” 

 

“Ah, that’d be nice.” 

 

Futaba takes a deep breath and holds it. “Are you smoking again?” 

 

Kaoruko’s heart hammers in her chest. She knows she smells like smoke, but she also knows she smells like something else, too — probably like someone else. She shakes her head. “No, this is just from the people at the bar.” 

 

Futaba tilts her head, looks at Kaoruko, as if searching for something. But nothing comes of it, and Kaoruko’s not about to change that. “Let’s go upstairs then, you can take a shower.” 

 

Too overwhelmed to do anything, she doesn’t fight it and follows Futaba upstairs and cleanses herself of everything, of today, of Claudine. 

 

 

The following week crawls when she doesn’t have anything to distract her especially with Futaba and Claudine both gone. So she puts more effort back into her work, surprising her assistant, but just waves her off. 

 

“Don’t look so surprised,” she snaps. And Junna can only nod, turning back her attention to her computer. 

 

There’s a performance happening tonight and she goes to it alone, hiding in one of the perpetually empty box seats. While she watches the actors on the stage, she can’t help but think about wanting what they have. She thinks about her life, how far it’s veered so off course ever since the accident years ago.

 

She lets herself cry there in her seat amidst the applause as she mourns her lost dreams that she can’t quite let go. Even now. Even still. 

 

 

Kaoruko attempts to settle into her new reality where Futaba is home for a few weeks. 

 

She’s been receiving a series of texts from Claudine, asking for time to talk, to figure something out. She wants to reach back out, but she’s not sure if she has the energy to deal with Claudine and Futaba at the same time. So she sends a couple of curt responses back, reminding Claudine that Futaba’s home. She leaves the rest of the texts unanswered, even as they scratch at the back of her mind, pawing for her attention. 

 

She tells herself that this is for the best, that she should focus on her already limited time with her wife, and not whatever unnamed complicated situation she has with Claudine. 

 

Yet Kaoruko’s attention is reversed — even as Futaba sits across from her at dinner, walks hand-in-hand out in public, lays naked in bed with her after having sex, Kaoruko’s thoughts stray towards Claudine. 

 

One afternoon, just after driving Futaba to the station to audition for The Distant El Dorado, Kaoruko plops onto the couch. 

 

Her heart plummets into her stomach when she sees the bright orange lighter, Claudine’s favorite lighter, on the table in front of her. 

 

Futaba has caught her in a lie. Kaoruko’s just not sure which one.  

 

— 

 

Kaoruko decides not to say anything, not to Futaba nor Claudine. She’ll wait for Futaba to return, see what her wife’s thinking. 

 

It’s just a lighter. It means nothing, proves nothing.

 

Yet, Kaoruko is both annoyed and horrified when Futaba's posters seemingly start to appear out of nowhere in convenience store windows and billboards, as if watching her every move. 

 

 

The day after Futaba returns from her auditions, Kaoruko watches her sit by the foot of their bed, facing the window. 

 

“I know,” Futaba says softly, her hands clasped together on her lap. 

 

Even though Kaoruko had waited for her wife to say something, anything, now that it’s happening, it still surprises her when an uncomfortable knot clenches in her stomach. 

 

Kaoruko stills in her spot on top of the covers, watches her wife who slowly turns her body until they’re now facing each other. It fractures Kaoruko’s heart when she finds the hardened, determined face of her wife looking at her; darkened violet irises staring at her with conviction that Kaoruko wished had appeared years ago, when the wounds were still fresh. She arches a brow, cocks her head to the side. Even as she faces the end of the line, she won’t easily give in. “What do you know, Futaba-han?” 

 

“I know about that woman.” 

 

“About what woman?” she asks, voice deceivingly steady despite the adrenaline of getting pulled from the shadow of her sins coursing through her veins. 

 

“Kaoruko, don’t play dumb.” 

 

Ironic, she thinks. “Be more specific. What have I been playing dumb about?” 

 

Anger flashes in the eyes that have only looked at her with love and pity, and Kaoruko wants more. Wants more of that passion she fell in love with when they were thirteen, when they were still building each other up to reach their dreams. 

 

“That woman you brought into our home, Kaoruko! I want you to stop your affair with that woman.” 

 

Kaoruko gives her wife a long hard look, perhaps for the first time in a long time. How her short pink hair has largely remained the same length, a handsomeness she’s never gotten tired of. How her lips form into a familiar frown, one that’s been directed at her so often as of late. Silently, Kaoruko begins to crawl from her side of the bed towards Futaba, all the while stamping out the twitch on the corner of her lips for a more neutral one when she sees Futaba ball her fists, tensing in place. 

 

“If I don’t?” 

 

She wants to see more of the fight in her wife, the old Futaba who would hold Kaoruko accountable and force her to do what she has to do, despite her petulant and childish pouts. It’s the Futaba she’s been waiting for all these years to come back to her, the one Kaoruko wants to test her again, the one who would push Kaoruko to her limits because they were working towards a shared goal. But instead, the way Futaba is staring at her is what Kaoruko doesn’t want: one filled with tired resignation, of defeat. And Kaoruko realizes in her bones that the Futaba she wants is not coming back. 

 

“I’ll divorce you.” Futaba glances away as she says it, stares out the window of their shared bedroom again, out onto an unassuming city.  

 

The words catch Kaoruko off guard, not expecting such an ultimatum, her heart suddenly thundering inside of her as the words sink in. Futaba’s voice is small, low, and laced with a promise that Kaoruko almost believes her wife will keep. 

 

Twisted as it seems, she loves the threat of it because she knows deep down, Futaba won't ever leave her. Not when the scar on her chest remains, a reminder, a signal of how bound they truly are.

 

Kaoruko takes a deep breath, thinks about the intricate web of lies she’s woven, and decides to tug on and unravel a lie before folding it into words she knows can save them. 

 

“Then I’ll stop.” 

 

 

She calls Claudine to meet her at the theater’s bar, where it all began; the start of her ruin, the start of her life lit aflame after so long in the dark. 

 

“Kuro-han,” she greets, places a soft chaste kiss on Claudine’s lips who stands still and doesn’t make a move, but who nonetheless still accepts it. 

 

“What’s so urgent you had to see me? You think you can just call me up out of the blue like this after ignoring my texts? You’re not the only one with a life.”

 

She can’t help the amused chuckle that comes out as she leans back in her seat. It’s the most inappropriate time to think this, but Kaoruko loves it when Claudine gets snippy with her. The fire, the attention, she’s always loved that about the other woman. And when Kaoruko doesn’t bother hiding her amusement, she knows it only riles Claudine up even more. But she remembers why she’s here, and she flags Nana down for a drink before proceeding. 

 

“I need to talk to you about something,” she says, her voice low, serious. Claudine sports a scowl on her face, but otherwise waits. “Futaba knows.” 

 

Claudine’s silent for a moment. Then, “How?” 

 

Kaoruko pulls the orange lighter out of her pants pocket and places it in front of Claudine who simply stares at it. “We had a good time, but I can’t give you what you want.” 

 

Claudine’s scowl deepens, finally moving her attention from the lighter back to Kaoruko.  “That’s rich, considering you’ve been taking what you want.” Kaoruko wants to stop her tirade, but the words don’t come fast enough, so she tries to put a hand on Claudine’s arm. Except Claudine yanks her arm away. “You know what? You’re really nothing but a rotten and selfish woman and now you’re doing this because, what? You finally got caught? Isn’t that what you wanted? To be free?”

 

The words burn her, the accusations prick her skin. She can’t deny any of it. 

 

“Kuro-han.” 

 

“You know, my friends were right about you.” Claudine huffs in frustration. “God! The worst part is that you don’t even know what’s going on with me. Did you know my uncle gambled away what little savings we had and now we’re gonna get evicted at the end of the month? You wouldn’t, because that’s not what we do. The world only revolves around Hanayagi Kaoruko.” 

 

Kaoruko glares at her, her fists clenching. “That’s enough.” 

 

“Yachiyo thinks I’m an idiot for loving you. I hate that she’s right. And I hate even more that I know you feel the same way about me but you’re just too cowardly to admit it.” 

 

“I don’t love you like that.” It’s a lie. Every word. But she’s been too comfortable, she’s not about to unravel the tangled web of lies she’s considered second skin. 

 

Claudine gets up from her seat and looks down at Kaoruko. Her words come out with such venom and hurt that it cuts Kaoruko deeper than she ever thought it would. “You know, you were the one who said we shouldn’t do this because it wouldn’t be fair. But the only one who’s not being fair is you.” 

 

 

It’s done. At least that’s what she wants to believe. 

 

Except in the middle of the night when she endures another restless insomniac episode beside her sleeping wife, Koaruko finds herself typing and deleting comments to Claudine. Words of apology, of missing her, of checking in. 

 

She thinks about deleting Claudine’s number from her phone, to break free of everything. 

 

To take the forgiveness and second chance Futaba gave her and make it count. 

 

But Kaoruko doesn’t, can’t. She’s just weak enough to not go through with it. 

 

 

As summer winds down, Kaoruko does her best to return to her wife who accepts her with open arms. 

 

And at first, some of that spark has returned to them. Futaba dotes on her by surprising her with sweets and flowers, setting up short trips to onsens and spas, and spending time with each other while Futaba’s resting in the off season. 

 

They’re talking more, too. She’s sharing and communicating with Futaba the way she’d shared with Claudine, instead of falling into the worn threads of past conversations. She tries to be open, for both of their sakes, and it works, for a time.  

 

When Kaoruko closes her eyes, she can almost feel how they were before — before falling into the rut of their marriage, before the accident.  

 

But when she opens them back up again, she knows that it’s only a matter of time before this slides back to their old ways, when Futaba is back to pursuing her dreams, leaving Kaoruko behind, by herself. 

 

So it’s not a surprise to her when Futaba comes running down the stairs one day announcing that she’d been offered the lead role along with Tamao. Kaoruko is happy for her wife, enjoys the excitement dancing in those violet eyes, and can already see how this performance can really cement Futaba’s position in the theater world. 

 

But a pang hits her square in the chest, at what she can’t accomplish anymore, at what should’ve been. What had been her words of their shared promise, of Futaba following her until the end are now so distant as her wife gets further and further away from her.  

 

“You definitely need to come to opening night!”  

 

“I wouldn’t miss it, Futaba-han.” She places a kiss on Futaba’s temple. “I’ll have Hoshimi-han block my schedule out.” 

 

The excited grin that Futaba gives her transports her back, and it feels a lot like before when they would both be cast as the leads at school, and Kaoruko allows herself the moment. Then Futaba excuses herself to the bathroom before they head out on their way to dinner. 

 

Kaoruko’s standing by the entryway, having just put her shoes on, when she feels the buzz in her purse. She decides to pull her phone out and her heart lodges itself in her throat when she sees the text. 

 

Claudine: I’m sorry I know I shouldn’t say this, but I just really miss you 

 

She stares at the text, wonders how to even approach it. Or if she should. She glances back up to the empty hallway, her thumbs hovering over the text. Before she can even think of a reply, another one comes in.  

 

Claudine: It’s fucking pathetic but that’s how I feel 

 

She wants to do what’s right, this time. Even if every bone in her body wants to betray her best intentions. In the end, she swallows out the dryness in her mouth. She shuts her phone off and shoves it back in her purse just as Futaba comes into view. She plasters on a smile. “You took your time.” 

 

“Oh, did someone miss me?” Futaba teases, bending down to tie the laces of her boots, failing to notice the surprise on Kaoruko’s face, whose body goes rigid at the sound of those words. 

 

Kaoruko exhales, steadies her breathing, schools her face back into an easy smile when Futaba looks up at her. “Of course.” 

 

 

Kaoruko watches Futaba sleep peacefully beside her, both of them laying on their sides so they’re facing each other. She brings a hand up to Futaba’s face and caresses her cheek before bringing it up higher to brush her bangs back. 

 

It’s recent, the way they sleep facing each other again. So much of their nights together have been mismatched, whether on purpose or not, their backs turned on one another. So it’s nice to see her wife in this way, relaxed and peaceful. None of the burden she’s been carrying for years is apparent on her face, her shoulders. 

 

If Kaoruko believes hard enough, maybe they can stay like this, but she knows it’s nothing but a fleeting wish. Because in a few days, Futaba will leave again to prepare for her best role yet. And in a few days, Kaoruko will be alone again in their bed, in their home, with no one beside her. 

 

It’s the life they have built around each other: being together without being together. 

 

And empty things need to be filled, even if it’s only for a little while, even if it’s just temporary. She knows it all too well. Every award Futaba collects on a shelf, every night she spends away, every sad smile Futaba gives her — they all carve a little chunk out of Kaoruko until she doesn’t have much left inside.  

 

So that’s why, despite the voice reminding her of her renewed vow with Futaba, the ache of emptiness in her heart overpowers that voice with a call for something, someone. 

 

Kaoruko slowly and quietly moves Futaba’s arm that’s resting on her waist. She slides carefully out from under the covers and picks up her phone from her nightstand before going downstairs and into her office. 

 

Every step she takes away from Futaba is leaden with guilt and selfishness, until she gets to the door of her office struggling to carry her weight across the threshold. Every move gets heavier, still, when she closes her office door, when she locks it, when she sits in her chair and swivels it so that her back is facing the door. When she pulls herself into a ball in her chair, like it’s somehow going to protect her from her own mistakes. 

 

She doesn’t turn her lamp on, afraid for any light to cast her reflection back to her. 

 

She opens the texts again. The words sear themselves into her mind, just as they did eight hours ago. She closes her eyes, tries to temper her beating heart. It’s not that she wants to hurt Futaba. Or Claudine. It’s not that she wants to hurt anyone. 

 

It’s just that there’s someone out there who understands her in the selfish way she needs to be understood.

 

Claudine fits in the empty spaces of Kaoruko’s heart. She doesn't have awards to compare to and, inevitably, lose to. She's never away when Kaoruko wants her, needs her. She never fakes a smile she doesn't mean. She's tall, blonde, foreign, new. 

 

She's an escape from Kaoruko’s current existence, from Futaba, even if it’s just a few minutes at a time. And Kaoruko is reckless enough to chase after that lick of freedom even as the rest of her life hangs in the balance. 

 

She idly fiddles with her ring, feels the hard metal along with the small callus bump on her palm right below it. She balls her hand into a fist, as if to hide it from herself. Then, she positions a thumb over her phone, hovering over the green call button, the last of her resolve falling to its defeat. 

 

She brings the phone up to her ear, waits as it rings. She bargains with herself: if Claudine doesn’t pick up, then Kaoruko will let her go, for good. But if she does…

 

Kaoruko’s heart wildly beats inside her chest when she hears rustling, movement, then a small voice filled with sleep greets her. 

 

“Hello? Kaoruko?” 

 

She exhales a shaky breath, brings a hand to cover her face, her thumb and middle finger pressing into the outer corners of her eyes to stop the tears. 

 

“Kuro-han. It’s me.”