Reisi ends the final stroke and puts the pen down. It falls through the boards of the back porch, and he has to duck out into the drizzle to retrieve it from the ground. When he returns to the notebook, the wind has blown a few raindrops onto the top margin of the open page, smudging part of the ink, like tear stains.
Great. My life is a tragic romance novel full of cliché, Reisi thinks. He deposits the pen in the box with the ink bottle and scoots backwards, further underneath the overhang. He holds the dampened page upright with two fingers and waits for the wind to dry it out enough to close the book. His gaze falls upon the previous letter, written several months ago, when he was home for winter break.
He reads it with a smile that's half bitter amusement at his own naïveté, half dark satisfaction at having already taken the first step to crushing the person who wrote this drivel. His fingers slide from the edge of the damp page to the bottom, holding it apart from the rest as he uses his free hand to flip pages back, reading, bearing witness to the slow and ugly death of hope, in reverse.
He stops when he reaches the end of their high school days. He wants to laugh. All of the answers he so desperately wanted have been here in these letters. His subconscious has been reaching out to him through them, and he never even gave it a chance. Every single letter contains details about Suoh's behaviour, the mundane things he said, that proclaim Suoh's complete indifference.
Reisi glances at the page he's been holding free. A simple goodbye won't do after all.
I don't remember if I've ever told you about Shibata. He sat next to me during the entrance ceremony at university and we ended up in a bunch of the same mandatory classes in first year. He confessed to me just before we broke for the summer holidays. I told him I already had somebody I was in love with, but unlike those before him, he was not deterred. Seems he could tell that my feelings were one-sided and thought it was a waste. He was persistent but somehow not annoying; I would turn him down, and he would laugh it off and say he'd try again later. I was quite envious of his extremely casual approach and often wished I could be a little more like him.
After I left your place today, I sent Shibata a mail. He called me back right away and picked me up in his car less than twenty minutes after that. He asked where I wanted to go; I said the name of a hotel.
I did not think of you at all.
Now I understand that you had become my excuse not to let anyone in. Like a loyal guard dog, I jealously protected your place in my heart, growling and snapping at everyone who tried to encroach upon it. I expect it shall take some time before I stop reacting that way on instinct. But even though you were never in my thoughts when I was with Shibata, you were back as soon as he dropped me off at the station. I felt stupid and broken and deceitful. I felt as though I had let you down.
That was when I realised that even if I do not guard it, your place will not change unless I do. The person I have kept in my heart all these years is just a pretty portrait that I have painted for myself. If you hadn't taken it upon yourself to make your feelings clear to me, perhaps I would have remained in the past forever, waiting for the wind to blow my way, waiting for you to remember, to return to me.
So before I finish this last letter to you, I must thank you for taking that initiative, Suoh.
Reisi caps the pen, screws the top back onto the ink bottle, and shuts them in the writing box. He folds the notebook closed with both hands and contemplates tossing it out into the garden. He could then find where it will have fallen and dig it a grave, a deep one amidst the trees, where no one would ever discover it. He will never open it again; he's certainly not going to carry such a thing to his new residence, wherever it might be. It is a piece of his past now, too heavy to carry into the future.
Reisi closes his eyes, holds the notebook to his chest, and imagines living in a place and time where these letters and Suoh are only memories.
"I would have called," Suoh added as Reisi stood there staring at him. "But I don't know your number."
"It's the same number it always was," Reisi said, punching in the code. "I guess you don't remember it. Come in."
"I had it saved in my old phone," Suoh said as they walked through the lobby towards the elevator. "I never memorised it."
Reisi didn't know why he wanted to press this issue. Most people didn't memorise telephone numbers these days; why bother when everyone and their pet lizard had a PDA or smartphone? Suoh had caught him off-guard, though, showing up out of the blue when Reisi was having enough trouble keeping his shit together at work. And Suoh needed to understand that there was little left in Reisi of the lovestruck teenager with whom Suoh had been spending his time, through those old letters.
Have I finally reached a place where Suoh's just a man, not some godlike apparition in need of enthronement?
"You look pissed off," Suoh commented as they stepped outside the elevator. "Am I in the way of something?"
"No," Reisi said, stopping next to his apartment. "It's nothing, really." I'm a coward. "Please wait here a moment."
He went inside and disabled the security camera that observed the door. Just in case anyone -- like Fushimi, for example -- was keeping an eye on his visitors. He technically wasn't supposed to do this to the camera, but it would only be for a few moments. "Come on in," he called.
Suoh walked in, gave Reisi and the camera a curious once-over, took off his shoes, and brushed past. Reisi plugged the power back in and waited for the standby light to turn green. "Hazards of the trade," he explained to Suoh, nodding towards the living room.
"Where's your fridge?" Suoh asked, holding up his bag.
"I'll take them back there; please make yourself at home in the meantime."
"Are there cameras all over the apartment?" Suoh asked, following Reisi to the kitchen.
"No, just the entrances."
"Fight me to the death, you worthless cur," the kitchen robot screeched as Reisi opened the refrigerator door.
"Good evening to you too," Reisi said.
Suoh eyed the robot. "What's its problem?"
"I ran its firmware update a day late last week," Reisi explained. "I think it's still mad." He reached into the bag and found the cans in it warm to the touch. "How long were you waiting?"
"Couple of hours," Suoh said. "I didn't know what time you finished work. Didn't think it was a good idea to pick you up from there."
"I suppose not," Reisi said with a wry grin. "We are still recovering from the visit you paid us in your former capacity."
He opened the freezer compartment and stuck two cans of beer in it. "Couple of minutes in here and they'll be good to go." He unloaded the other sixteen cans into the fridge and eyed Suoh. "Just how drunk do you want to get, anyway?"
"Oh, are you still as much as a lightweight as you were when we were ten? Sorry about that."
Reisi smirked, tossing the empty plastic bag to the robot. It snatched it out of the air and shredded it into the plastic recycling container.
"What kind of snacks do you want?" Reisi asked, turning to the cupboards. "I've got--"
Suoh grabbed Reisi's forearm, spun him around and kissed him, the same way Reisi had done on Saturday, lips barely parted. His other hand cradled Reisi's face, and as his thumb slid across Reisi's cheek, Reisi reached up with is own hand to cover Suoh's, to keep it there. His heart raced, and he wanted to close his eyes and let this happen, let it go to whatever conclusion Suoh meant for it, even if it was just a few minutes of these hesitant kisses that stirred his chest but not his blood.
Then he remembered that it was still only Wednesday.
"If we do this, Fushimi-kun will be scolding me again tomorrow," he murmured, folding his fingers down over Suoh's and tugging his hand away as he freed his other arm. He turned back to the cupboard and told Suoh about Fushimi's little jokes while rummaging for the package of dried squid he knew was there somewhere. It felt really important to find that particular package, at least until his heartbeat returned to normal.
"Sounds like he thinks he's the boss," Suoh said.
"Quite," Reisi agreed. "I prefer not to disabuse him of the notion; he does much better work when he thinks he's in charge."
"Sounds like he's happier on your side."
"I think Fushimi-kun just wants to feel in control. Maybe I'll give him a division to lead so he'll stop trying to micromanage me."
"I remember when we picked them up on the street, him and Yata. They reminded me of you and me when we were brats. Smart guy in glasses, redhead with a stupid face."
Reisi bit his lip. So he used to think back to the good old days even when he was King. He found the squid, plus a couple of boxes of pretzel sticks and a packet of tiny rice crackers. Reisi handed the lot to the robot. "Arrange them however you want and bring them out to the living room. You can have any of the wrappers."
"I am grateful," the robot said. It liked brightly coloured packaging and spent all of its idle time playing with a collection that it kept in a disused cupboard.
Reisi opened the freezer, retrieved the now-chilled cans, and gestured for Suoh to follow him into the living room.
"Your place is a lot fancier than I thought," Suoh remarked as he sat down. "Kitchen robot, nice cabinets, huge TV. I thought it would be more, I dunno. Spartan."
Reisi clicked the TV on and lowered the volume to almost zero. "His Excellency wanted me to live in special quarters at the barracks, with the rest of the Blue Clan. I do sleep there sometimes, but I like my creature comforts and my privacy."
"Privacy, huh," Suoh said, looking straight at the camera that observed the balcony entrance.
"If you want to smoke, you don't need to go out there. I smoke here sometimes, and it airs out well, so it's fine."
"Not what I meant, but okay," Suoh said, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket. "Have one?"
Reisi declined. "I'm just going to get changed."
"Can I come watch?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Reisi said, flushing as he escaped to his bedroom and locked the door just in case Suoh decided to follow him the way he'd followed to the kitchen earlier. He'd been free enough with his hands in the kitchen. Heaven only knew what he might get up to if Reisi took his clothes off in front of him.
Granted, Reisi had run off like his ass was on fire right after kissing Suoh on Saturday, barely pausing to mutter a farewell. He had kind of owed Suoh one for the element of surprise. But Suoh seemed to be taking the extremely ill-advised kissing as confirmation that Reisi wanted to pursue a physical relationship, and Reisi wasn't sure that was a good idea. Daydreams were one thing, but the very thought of Suoh's arms around him filled him with unnamable dread. The last time Suoh had done that, he'd died.
Reisi changed into track pants and a plain T-shirt, placed his uniform into a dry-cleaning bag and pulled a fresh set out for tomorrow, then returned to the living room. Suoh had changed the channel to some variety show -- one Reisi vaguely recognised as a favourite of his mother's.
"What's the topic?" he asked, taking a seat and popping his beer open. The robot had been by in the meantime; the snacks were on the table.
"They're getting people to say words in other languages that sound like they could be Japanese words," Suoh said. "They did the same thing last Wednesday; Auntie loved it."
Reisi reached for a handful of crackers and noticed the kitchen robot loitering by Suoh's side. "Was the robot bothering you?"
"Huh? Oh, no, I gave it a candy wrapper I found in my pocket just now."
"Don't do that," Reisi said, pushing the robot's Home button to make it return to the kitchen. "Now it'll think you're its friend."
"That doesn't sound bad."
"It's not if you enjoy a loudmouthed bucket of bolts following you around the house."
"Forget about the robot, Munakata, are you still with that guy?"
That guy? Oh. The letter. Shibata. "No, I told you, I'm not with anyone."
"So what, you fucked him once and he dropped you?"
Reisi pursed his lips, drank. "Not quite." Just how pathetic does he think I am?
Suoh frowned. "You dropped him?"
"No," Reisi said. "He had already been offered a job with the Interpol and was moving to France in a couple of months. Permanently." My life really was a terrible romance novel back then.
"So why was I supposed to change my mind about marrying you after reading that you did it once with some guy?"
"More than once," Reisi clarified. "And after he left, lots of guys." None of them had meant anything to Reisi, and Reisi hadn't meant anything to any of them -- Shibata had been the only one Reisi had had any regard for. But he wasn't going to explain any of that to Suoh. It was what it was.
"That why you like privacy so much?" Suoh asked after draining his beer.
Reisi looked at him. "I don't bring anyone home with me for... such purposes."
Reisi nodded and took another drink. "And that's why I said you might change your mind."
"What?" Reisi looked up to find Suoh staring at him, flat-eyed, and waited for him to say the obvious: You were right. I changed my mind.
"I wouldn't change my mind even if you made your living on your back."
Reisi's breathing hitched. "I see." He called for the robot to bring Suoh another beer and stared at the television, not seeing it. How was he supposed to feel? Thinking of Suoh with others had always made him uncomfortable, anxious, so much so that he didn't want to know any details. "It really doesn't matter to you?"
"I don't like it, and I wanna beat up every one of those guys, especially the Interpol one, but you never owed me anything like staying away from other guys."
Reisi breathed out, drank, wiped his mouth. "I suppose next you'll want to know how much time I need."
Reisi turned to him, surprised. "No?"
"This isn't a video game," Suoh said. "I'm not waiting to clear one stage just to move on to the next one. I've got all the time in the world."
Reisi felt vaguely ashamed of himself, but he wasn't sure why. "But what about your friends?" Don't you care?
"I'll contact Izumo. But I'm not going back there unless you throw me out. That part of my life is over."
Reisi lifted his beer can and found it empty. The robot brought another.
They drank and watched TV, as though it were the sort of thing they did every night. Suoh looked like he'd had enough of talking, and Reisi felt the same. Sometimes you had to be quiet together. His father had taught him that.
Later, he walked Suoh to the station and put him on a train, then took his time getting back to the apartment. The night air wrapped him up in wind, as though trying to carry him home.
Trouble was, Reisi wasn't sure if that apartment was home any more. He'd never really felt at home there -- what sort of home was it when you were all alone, with nothing for company but a robot who couldn't decide if it was an old-timey samurai or a puppy?
The only people he loved were living under a roof he didn't share.
"You're early today," his mother said as Reisi walked into the living room on Saturday. "Before you ask, the man of the house is at the hardware store buying fluorescent lights."
Reisi sat down next to her. He had been spectacularly useless at work since Wednesday night, but especially so that morning. When Awashima offered to take over for him if he wanted to have a couple of extra hours off, she hadn't needed to ask twice. "The man of the house, huh? What are you watching?"
She smiled. "Hey, I'm just saying, if you don't want him, I'll take him." She turned the volume down a bit. "I don't even know what this is, something about mistaken identities. It's supposed to be funny but I haven't laughed even once."
"What makes you think I don't want him?"
She muted the TV. "You still haven't given him a proper answer, have you?"
Reisi sighed. "It's pretty complicated."
Chisato patted Reisi's back. "Love hurts a lot," she said. "But it doesn't always."
Reisi snorted. "Not a ringing endorsement."
She cleared her throat. "Rei-chan, you know I don't like to pry into your affairs."
"But I just don't understand what's happened to you and Mikoto-chan. And I'd like to."
Reisi took a deep breath to settle himself. "If I told you even half of it, you wouldn't believe me. This is something I'll have to do on my own."
"All right," she said. "I might just be an old lady with nothing to do but gossip these days, but if you change your mind, you can tell me anything."
"Thank you, Mother. I'll remember that. And you're not a gossip."
She punched his shoulder lightly. "You look just like me, so I always forget how much like your father you really are. I could tell you about me and him. Some things, we never saw eye to eye on as long as he lived."
"Like birthday cakes?" Reisi asked. His father would complain whenever a cake had even a touch of white frosting on it. Since white was the colour of mourning, it didn't belong on birthday cakes, in Munakata Seiji's opinion.
"Those, and other things too."
"I've never seen you two argue about anything except birthday cakes."
"That's because we made sure you didn't see or hear us. We agreed on most things to do with raising a kid. Having a big house like this didn't hurt in keeping you out of earshot, either."
Reisi wasn't sure how to feel. She rarely talked about Father since he'd died. Reisi himself preferred not to, especially since learning that death didn't have to be permanent if you knew the right King to ask.
Suoh walked in, carrying at least a dozen long cardboard tubes on his shoulder. Reisi's breath caught at the sight of him, the way it hadn't in years.
"Mikoto-chan, isn't that too many?"
Suoh shook his head. "I counted twice."
"I'm going to move back here," Reisi said. "Is that okay, Mother?"