Spring, far-off spring, as I close my eyes, right there
You, who has given me love, I hear your nostalgic voice
Spring, as-yet-unseen spring, whenever I feel lost and stop
You, who has given me dreams, your gaze embraces me
—Haruyo Koi, Matsutouya Yumi
summer 2016. haori.
sunflower: loyalty. adoration. hope.
“Good afternoon, Susato-san.”
“Oh, good afternoon, Naruhodou-san.”
Beside you, Susato in her neat white uniform stands up and cheerfully greets the young man that has stopped by the nurse’s station on the way to his intended room. You eye him carefully—he looks nothing out of the ordinary, but his modest gestures border on shy and his dark clothes, while slightly disheveled, are neat and well-chosen for his figure, giving off an impression of an awkward but good-natured young man on the way to see a sick parent or a girlfriend. He was cradling a single, carefully-wrapped sunflower in his arms, a sight which instantly make you add some more points to the likable picture he painted.
“Asougi-san is very lucky to have someone like you visit him every day,” Susato was chirping, her hands clasping together irresistibly like she always does when she was overcome with something. In this case, it was logical to think that she was happy, but knowing Susato, you knew that it couldn’t merely be that. Susato’s smile seemed a bit too bright, almost forced.
“Hello,” the young man called Naruhodou turns his attention to you, and you murmur a polite greeting back. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”
“Ah, Haori-chan was one of the nurses who got rotated back up to day shift again.” Susato grins at you and you shrug with a sheepish smile.
“Good thing,” you say, “I was getting tired of all the ghost stories when I was in graveyard shift.”
Naruhodou laughs, his round eyes almost disappearing, and you think, Oh, he’s actually kind of cute.
Well, not my type, but if I had a little brother…
“I was thinking that you might not be visiting today, given the obscene amount of rainfall,” Susato was saying while you were busy gawking at the young man. He must have noticed your intense scrutiny of him because he turns slightly pink, but otherwise his attention was on Susato.
What an honest face.
“I was of the same opinion, but then I went anyway,” he answers. “I was watching the rain all the time I was in the bus, but I still managed to stop by the flower shop.” He holds up his flower bashfully and rather unnecessarily, making the huge golden blossom bob a little, and glances down the hallway. “Is it okay to come right in?”
“The doctor finished his check-up a while ago,” Susato says pleasantly. “You may go ahead, Naruhodou-san.”
Naruhodou nods and gives you two ladies a little bow, and he walks away. His manner of walking reminded you slightly of the way military officers in period movies walk—perhaps it was in the grave dignity of his back, or the sense that there was no wasted movement when he strides down the corridor.
“You seem really familiar with him, Susato-chan,” you say in a whisper when you hear a door down the hall open and close.
“Yes, well.” Susato shuffles her papers, arranges medical charts, types in her computer a bit. It was her way of stalling for time to collect her thoughts. “Naruhodou Ryuunosuke-san. He’s probably the only visitor that comes in here every day. It’s probably harder not to be familiar with him.” She gestures behind the two of you, where another pair of nurses were tittering and glancing in the direction Naruhodou had went. “Actually, everyone in here kind of knows him already. He’s famous in these parts.”
“Ooh…” You frown. “You said that he was visiting an ‘Asougi-san’, right?”
“Yep.” Susato takes a medical chart from the pile and hands it to you. You scan it quickly. “Asougi Kazuma-san, room 410. Remember that news about the car accident from a while back, more than half a year ago?”
“Wait a minute…” You screw up your eyes while thinking, and then gasped. “Oh! You know how I pass that area whenever I go to work? That news was such a shock to me. The first time I ever thanked the stars for my crap shift.” You frown. “So. Asougi-san was the victim, yeah?”
“I’m afraid so.” Susato points at her head. “He survived, but he hasn’t woken up once since the incident. Comatose. That was over six months ago.” She smiled sadly. “And that Naruhodou-san hasn’t missed a day yet.”
“That’s… that’s amazing.” You dab at your eyes. “And… and…”
“Er, Haori-chan? Why are you crying?”
“But it’s so beautiful,” you say, blubbering. “What a lovely bond those two must have. It’s comparable to the Chrysanthemum Pledge or someth—”
Susato whacks you on the head with a clipboard. “Asougi-san’s not dead, dummy.”
You rub the sore spot. “Ow! What was that for?”
“Don’t worry about the two of them,” she says, brightly. “Asougi-san has to wake up, sooner or later.” She clenches her fist. “And it’s our job to be there to help when he does.”
You stare at her firm smile, her brilliant eyes, and nod decisively. “You’re right. Let’s do our best to support them when that time comes, Susato-chan. Though…” You trail off uncertainly.
Susato glances at you askance. “What is it?”
“You know how people often say that they’ve met this person who has old eyes?” You tap your chin thoughtfully. “Well, it’s strange, but Naruhodou-san strikes me as that kind of person.”
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy this pilot, and the next chapters! Comments (even incoherent ones, I understand you) are specially appreciated.
I recommend listening to the song "Haruyo Koi" by Matsutouya Yumi. It's a very beautiful and melancholic song.
Chapter 2: summer 2016. haori.
summer 2016. haori.
hydrangea: gratitude. apology.
You get your first glimpse of Asougi Kazuma when you finally get to assist Susato in changing his linens one chilly winter afternoon, some days after first meeting Naruhodou-san with the tender eyes.
You can hear someone speaking inside before you knock, and you shoot Susato a puzzled glance. “That’s normal,” she says, smiling, “It’s probably Naruhodou-san reading out loud or talking about something. He always talks to Asougi-san.”
You nod once, “I see,” and rap the door with your knuckles before sliding it open.
“Good afternoon, Asougi-san, Naruhodou-san,” Susato merrily greets the white room as the two of you enter, and you murmur, “Excuse us for the intrusion. We’re here to change the linens.”
“Oh, that time already? Please, come in.” Naruhodou was holding a pocketbook when you had entered, confirming Susato’s hypothesis, but he quickly rises and acknowledges you with a nod and a smile. He was dressed much more lightly this time, in a cream long-sleeved shirt and white slacks that gave off an academic feel. To your surprise, a pair of thin black reading glasses was sitting upon his nose. It had the effect of making him look much more grown-up than before.
“I didn’t know that you were nearsighted, Naruhodou-san,” you remark with a giggle, making him blush.
“My work is kind of reading-intensive,” he replies. “My eyes got bad after a while.”
“Your work?” You raise your eyebrows. That’s a surprise. He struck me as someone who's still in university.
“I’m a teacher,” he confesses with a laugh. “I’ve taught high-school English for, I don’t know. Five years?” He shrugs. “I’m turning twenty-eight this year, so—yeah. Four or five.”
—Twenty-eight! And here I’d been wanting to adopt him as little brother. He’s five years older than me!
“Haori-chan, please stop getting sidetracked and assist me,” Susato admonishes you, and you blush and quickly get to work.
The room is completely silent except for the soft beeping of the machines.
Your routine kicks in, and your arms move almost automatically.
Replace the depleted IV drip.
Carefully help turn the patient as Susato replaced the linens.
This close up, you can even count the number of times the bandages were wrapped around Asougi Kazuma’s head. You wonder if it was there to continue facilitating the wound, or just to hide it entirely away from uneasy eyes.
Asougi Kazuma’s chest rises up and down in calm, regular movements. He has a very classically handsome appearance, you privately think, your gaze going over his straight mouth, his angular eyebrows, his shapely nose. His long eyelashes rested upon his cheeks, fluttering from the slightest breath of air.
However, despite the bandages, you can see the only thing marring his beauty—the faintest shadow of what must have been the bruising around his wound was peeking out from the bandaging over his temple.
Very slight, but a reminder of what happened all the same.
A flutter of color catches your eye, and you glance at the vase on the nightstand. It was decorated with fresh sprigs of beautiful little blue flowers.
Eventually, you have to finish your work, and the two of you bid Naruhodou goodbye. He thanks you for your efforts, and sees you to the door. He has forgotten to take off his glasses, and they glinted in the faint sunlight that has managed to filter through the partially-open curtains.
He smiles at you, but it was a faint ghost of a smile. You bow quickly, and wish him a good day.
You think that the click of the door closing behind you seemed like such a sorrowful sound.
Chapter 3: summer 2014. ryuunosuke. [intermission]
summer 2014. ryuunosuke.
Spending summer in that silent hospital room brings to mind another summer that was very different from this one.
When I close my eyes, I can still vividly remember Asougi Kazuma kissing me for the first time in my apartment as we lounged side-by-side on the floor below an open window, idly munching on cucumber slices dipped in soy sauce and drinking cold canned beer.
It wasn’t anything like my first kiss back in middle school with a girl who was a grade above me; it certainly didn’t happen as if it was a special occasion, or as if it was supposed to be a memorable experience. Perhaps it was because Asougi approached kissing like he did everything else, which was impatiently, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world for him to do at that particular time.
It had been an extremely warm afternoon; nothing disturbed the silence but the annoying crying of the cicadas and the soft whirring of my old electric fan, filched from my father’s study back in my old home. Sweat was trickling down from my temple to my chin, and I was wishing I had picked an apartment with actual air conditioning units when Asougi turned to look at me from his case notes with such a serious look in his eyes that I had to pause from fanning myself to glare back at him.
“What is it?” I said, nervously.
“I’m tired of studying these,” he said, simply.
“That’s unusual for you.” I can’t look away from his intense gaze.
“May I kiss you?”
I wasn’t sure I heard properly, but I had only had the opportunity to bob my head one time when he smoothly put his arm around my shoulders, and kissed me.
It might be weird to put it this way, but kissing Asougi was like tasting summer—I can smell the perfume that the dry cleaners had used on his shirt, the slight scent of his sweat, the alcohol on his breath, and pretty much nothing else. His lips were dry and rough against mine, and his eyes had slid closed. I can count his eyelashes if I had the mind to, but my brain was drawing a complete blank. Moisture glittered on his temple.
When we broke apart, everything was starting to get tinged pink from the sunset, and the mosquitoes were finally drifting into my room. I can distinctly hear my neighbor’s radio blasting away some American rock song.
Don't wanna hear about it, every single one's got a story to tell… Everyone knows about it, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell…
“Sometimes I wish I was an exchange student sent to London on a steamship during the Meiji Era,” he was saying.
“The Meiji Era ended a hundred years ago, Asougi.”
“I know. But wouldn’t that be quite the adventure? Say, perhaps, that I am a student alone in a foreign country. That I go about to study a people that are as strange to me as green men from Mars. That I fall in love with a British lady. That I get spurned, because I’m just the penniless Oriental student, and that I finally go home heartbroken.”
“…the Meiji Era ended a hundred years ago. Yeah, you said that already.” Asougi laughed. “We found out that, unfortunately, Westerners don’t appreciate us eating whale, Natsume Soseki returns home and starts writing about how depressed he had been in England, and World War I happened and kind of blew everything to hell.”
“It’d be pretty sad to be young during the Meiji Era. You’d have to live through two world wars if you’re unluckily long-lived.”
“I guess so. But then if you’re fortunate, you might die before anything happened.”
“You’re telling me that dying young is lucky?”
“If you had to pick between two world wars and dying young, Naruhodou, I think the answer is a no-brainer, wouldn’t you agree?”
I smiled. “How can you be both so cynical and optimistic at the same time, Asougi?”
“How can you be both so romantic and realistic at the same time, Naruhodou?” he parroted me, and smiled back. “There’s no single answer to both questions. We just are. People aren’t so clear-cut like in the novels you teach, you know.”
“I don’t want you to live in the Meiji Era,” I said.
“I guess not. I’m stuck here in your apartment in the middle of modern Tokyo, year 2014,” Asougi said, “and I’m in love with you, not with some faceless British lady.”
The aftertaste of the beer was still on my tongue.
“Are you?” I asked, lazily.
“In love with me, I mean?”
“Yes,” he said, without any hesitation at all. How typical of him. “Very much.”
Chapter 4: autumn 2016. ryuunosuke.
autumn 2016. ryuunosuke.
chrysanthemum: nobility. trust.
“—It’s time to wake up, Naruhodou, you sleepyhead.”
At the familiar voice, you open your eyes, and see nothing but the stretch of blank white ceiling over your head. The clock on your nightstand reads 5:30 am. You do the math and figure that you only had three hours of sleep, and groan.
“Ten more minutes, Asougi,” you mumble out loud, and when you realize what you had just said, it finally woke you up completely.
You slowly dig your phone from under your pillow and stare at it blearily. The screen indicated that the alarm had just rung.
During the early days of your relationship, it had been Asougi’s idea of a joke to secretly record his voice in your phone and set it as your alarm, to startle you into waking up, and it had done the job marvelously well. The first time it rang to wake you up, you had shot out of bed and landed on the floor. You had immediately called Asougi to yell at him not to do things like that ever again, but then you kept forgetting to remove the recording as your alarm notification, and it had slowly grown on you over the past few months.
Now, you’re somewhat afraid that you won’t be able to wake up to anything else but the sound of his voice anymore.
You turn off the alarm, throw the phone on the bed, and cover your face with your hands before groaning loudly. “Why does the morning have to come so early in the day?” you complain, but only the silence of your apartment prevailed in the wake of your voice. Begrudgingly, you get up and dawdle on the edge of your bed for a few minutes, before remembering that to catch your seven AM class, you had to take a shower, eat breakfast, and reach the train station before the clock strikes six-thirty.
Breakfast, like the other breakfasts before it during the past six months, is crap, to put it simply. For someone who lived alone ever since you graduated from college and started working, you had never really learned how to cook decent meals for yourself. Even microwavable food is preferable to the mush you tried cooking one time. Asougi, who was your guest at the time, only had to take one look at the stuff before bluntly asking you, “Naruhodou, can’t we just go and eat out?”
Your shower was only lukewarm at best, so you wash your body as quickly as possible before the chill starts to creep in. When you look into the mirror to finish the rest of your toilet, you are struck by your thinner cheeks and the shadows under your eyes. You had tried many ways to battle your insomnia over the years, but somehow you still cannot sleep peacefully in the evenings. The sleeplessness was somehow alleviated whenever Asougi slept over at your place during Friday and Saturday evenings, but now that he—
“…Ah.” Lost in your thoughts, you had missed the toothbrush when trying to put the paste on it, and the toothpaste has now dripped on the sink. You run water over it to wash it off and try again. This time, you brush your teeth without problems.
Dressing yourself was another trial you didn’t want to deal with every morning, but you somehow pick out a decent combination of clothes and put it on. A white long-sleeved shirt. Gray trousers. A soft blue woolen sweater. Dark-colored socks. Black leather shoes. You’ve always wondered if the clothes you put on make you look more like the teacher you supposedly are.
You hesitate, then reach in the closet to touch a dark brown coat that was a little too broad in the shoulder for you. Asougi had forgotten this coat in your apartment last year and had never been able to retrieve it. When you pull it to you to bury your face in its soft fabric, you can still smell a hint of his cologne, but it had mostly faded away by now. You wouldn’t even have detected the scent if you hadn’t been looking for it.
You put the coat back in the closet and affectionately whisper, “I’m going. I’ll see you later, Asougi.”
You pat your breast pocket to make sure you hadn’t forgotten your reading glasses, and take your shoulder bag from the hook behind the door. Now, you’re ready to go to work.
Or at least, you hope you are.
Thankfully, the school day passes uneventfully. You had a lineup of five classes to teach today: one junior class, four senior classes. The seniors are typically much more subdued than the rowdy juniors, with college so close. The final class of the day is the junior class, and you were about to head out of the room along with the last of the noisy students when someone tugs on your sleeve.
“Look here, I don’t really mind the nickname myself, but the other teachers are bugging me to get you guys to call me properly by my sur—”
“Is it true that you’re resigning at the end of next term?”
You fall silent, the rest of your statement forgotten. The high school girl who had pulled at your sleeve seemed somehow awkward and lanky as she fidgeted and let go.
“Where have you heard that?” you ask casually, and scratch at your temple sheepishly. “Seriously…”
“Some of the guys overheard the teachers talking about it when they were in the faculty office.”
“Oh.” You sigh. “I would like to have broken the news myself, but… yes, I might have to quit before the start of the next academic year. Don’t tell anyone yet, okay? I’ll… I’ll do it myself before the weekend.”
“But why? Is it because of what happened in class last year?” she asks, her voice wavering. “Ryuun-sensei, they might tell you otherwise, but it’s not your fault. Really. You were a great homeroom advisor.”
“It’s not because of what you were thinking,” you hasten to say, seeing the cloud of suspicion over her face. “I… just, I have some very personal circumstances to take care of. I figured that I won’t be able to do so if I stay working fulltime. —It’s got nothing to do with what happened last year, I promise.”
“Oh.” Her face lights up. “Really, truly, Ryuun-sensei?”
“Really, truly,” you say, even managing to smile a bit.
You think, privately, of Asougi Kazuma. Of what he would have said if he had seen the look on your face.
“I’ll miss you,” she was saying. “You’ve always been one of my favorite teachers. I had always been glad that I got to be in your homeroom class last year.”
For a moment, you don’t know what to say to those heartfelt words.
“Thank you,” you finally say. “I won’t be around for your final year, but… please study hard and get into your first-choice university, okay? Make your parents proud.”
“I will, Ryuun-sensei!” she says, and waving goodbye, she races out of the classroom ahead of you.
You smile and sigh. “For the millionth time, it’s Naruhodou-sensei to y… oh, never mind.”
The sky was tinged red when you finally get off at your bus stop. It was still a short walk to the hospital which you take leisurely, admiring the colors of the late-afternoon clouds. You had already bought yourself two taiyaki on the way and was munching on one when you stop by the usual flower shop.
“So what would it be today, Naruhodou-san?” the middle-aged lady who ran the establishment asks you pleasantly. You look over at the delicate white apple blossoms, the pleasantly dainty anemone flowers, the brilliantly golden dahlias, the deep purple verbenas, and then spot the crowning flowers of autumn at the very back.
“I’ll have six of the yellow chrysanthemums, please,” you decide, and like always you watch as the lady wraps the flowers up in paper, with not a single motion wasted. The pleasant rustling of the paper has always been strangely soothing to your ears.
Once the flowers are paid for, you take them in one arm and bid a silent goodbye with a wave of your hand.
“Good afternoon, Susato-san,” you greet the nurse when you pass by the nurse’s station on the fourth floor. Murasame Haori wasn’t around this time—probably making one of her rounds.
Susato takes a look at the snack in your hand and laughs lightly. “Naruhodou-san, I swear, two out of three times, you’re eating something when you pass by here.”
“Er, I barely eat anything at home, so I make up for it when I’m outside.” Slightly self-conscious at the knowledge that she had noticed that detail, you glance down the corridor. “I’ll be going ahead, Susato-san.”
“Alright. Please call right away if Asougi-san needs something.”
“Yes. …Thank you.”
Room 410 is as silent as ever when you enter.
Wordlessly, you unwrap the flowers and replace the old ones in the vase. The linens on Asougi’s bed and his hospital gown are fresh, and they had given his hair a trim as well. The curtains on the window flutter slightly when you pass and put back the vase where it belongs.
“Good afternoon, Asougi,” you tell the slumbering figure gently, and give his cold fingers a quick squeeze before settling on your usual seat by the window and clasp your hands together.
“…Asougi, I told you about this already, but I’ve decided to quit my job.”
Of course, Asougi doesn’t answer or move at all, except for his slow, even breathing.
“Someone approached me earlier to talk about it. …She was wondering about the reason why I had to quit.”
You can faintly hear the dry rustling breeze beyond the closed windows, taking with it more leaves off the trees.
“I think it’s time. It’s getting harder and harder to take care of myself without you to boss me around, you know that? It’s… very difficult to wake up in the mornings. How can I take care of my students if I can’t even take care of my damn self? It’s like that time before I…”
You pause, unable to say the words, and take a shivering gulp of air.
“…Say, for someone who used to rag on me when I oversleep, you sure take a lot of time to wake up.”
As always, Asougi doesn’t answer you.
“I don’t mind if you smack me in the face every day to wake me up, or tell me that my cooking is terrible without any consideration at all, or get really defensive when I floor you in an argument… though, again, you can be so childish when we fight, you know that? Are lawyers supposed to be petty like that when on the losing side of an argument, I wonder? Or is it just you?”
You sigh in the silence.
“Anyway… It’s time to wake up, Asougi, you sleepyhead,” you say teasingly, and somehow your voice managed to not tremble at all.
autumn 2016. ryuunosuke.
bellflower: unchanging love. honesty.
“I wonder if Asougi is dreaming right now, Murasame-san.”
Your first words make Murasame Haori look up from her coffee cup, her eyebrows drawn together in confusion. The two of you had run into each other in the hospital cafeteria, both looking for a late lunch, and while she had initially tried turning down your offer of free food, you had been bullheaded on that point and would not take no for an answer. In the end, she succumbed to your stubborn streak and won a free Set A meal.
Right now, the two of you are seated at a table near the doorway, picking away at the uninspiring food.
“They say that some coma patients do,” she furtively says in response to your statement. A non-answer. Both of you know it. You smile slightly and poke holes in your fish with chopsticks, tearing it apart in methodical pieces. You don’t feel the least bit hungry, and the food is unappetizing.
Haori suddenly points at your shoulder, and you look down and pick out the bellflower petal that had been caught on your shirt. You set it down on the table where the two of you can just stare at it in silence. Perhaps finding the silence unbearable, Haori opens her mouth irresistibly.
“But I’m sure Asougi-san dreams of you, Naruhodou-san.”
You click your chopsticks together, and another piece separates from the fish. “You think so?”
“I know so. I’ve studied his case, and any serious damage by the accident missed the part of his brain that supports hearing. As long as he can hear you talk to him,” she says, almost manically, “I’m sure he will always dream of you.”
“I see,” you say quietly. “I… Thank you, Murasame-san.”
With a bolder expression on her face, she says, “…May I ask you something, Naruhodou-san?”
You glance up at her, a bemused expression on yours.
“It’s kind of personal, so, if you don’t want to answer, then it’s fine.” She takes a deep breath. “I was wondering how you and Asougi-san knew each other.”
“Ah.” You chuckle and rub the bridge of your nose. You surreptitiously feel the dents that the frequent wearing of glasses had made on your skin, and wonder if the light shadows under your eyes had faded. Probably not. “I guess you would want to know that. We get told all the time that we had the unlikeliest friendship that people have ever seen.”
“Oh!” Haori puffs her cheeks in indignation. “I’m sure that isn’t true at all, Naruhodou-san!”
“No, they’re right. If we were in a comic strip, Asougi’s the protagonist. I’m the mob character.” You put on an appreciative face for the way she took offense for your sake. “We wouldn’t even have been acquainted with each other at all if not for one single incident.”
The lone petal on the table between the two of you flutters with an invisible breeze, then drops to the floor. Wordlessly, you pick it up and set it back on the table, then change your mind and just sort of cradle it in your hand.
“Do you remember that deadly heat wave three years ago? They say that it was the second deadliest summer in this country—a little more than a thousand people actually died during it.”
“Oh, yeah! I do. I was still a university student back then. They keep reminding us to make sure to stay dehydrated, blah blah. Actually, even if they hadn’t reminded us every day before and after classes, I’d have made sure to carry water with me at all times. …That summer felt more like hell than anything else.”
“A student, huh?” You probably had a nostalgic glint in his eyes. “Unfortunately for me, Murasame-san, I wasn’t as careful as you back then. I would have joined the death toll if a certain someone hadn’t passed by when I collapsed on the street and given me the necessary first aid.”
“Yeah.” The memory of the first time you met Asougi is strangely cheering. “Though, I didn’t know that he saved me till after I woke up at the hospital and found a guy in a suit and a badge on his lapel looking down at me. I almost thought that I got into an accident and was being sued by somebody, but Asougi quickly explained that he’s not there to take me to court.”
“That’s your first reaction when you saw him?” She almost let out a little scream of laughter, but she managed to remember her surroundings and check herself. “Oh, Naruhodou-san.”
“I was still muddled from the heat stroke and the first thing I see when I wake up was an attorney. What was I supposed to think?”
“Well, that aside,” she says, “I, I wouldn’t have expected that Asougi-san is a lawyer.”
“He told me that his dad actually used to be a detective, like his grandfather and his great-grandfather, so everyone kind of expected him to pursue something similar. But of course, Asougi had his own ideas, so instead of joining the police academy, he got into law school instead. This kind of rubbed his folks the wrong way, so he’s been out of touch with the rest of his family ever since he turned twenty-one. He worked a lot of part-time jobs just to afford the tuition. You’ll never guess how many jobs he used to do before he became an attorney.”
Unperturbed by the detail you had just divulged, you pick up your orange juice and sip at it. “Asougi Kazuma is one of the best lawyers in the country, I’m prepared to bet. I’ve been to some of his trials before; he’s absolutely merciless to every prosecuting attorney he meets in court.”
“Somehow, er, I think it should be the other way around, right?”
You chuckle. “I once watched him nearly make someone cry in court. He’s got a sharp tongue, and he’s not afraid in the least to use it. I’ve been on the receiving end of his verbal barbs at times, so I can say with assurance that the experience isn’t pleasant.”
You’re surprised at how forthcoming you were with the details. Somehow, you find it easier to speak to a casual acquaintance like Haori. “It’s not exactly the most carefree job in the world, but he doesn’t really care. —It’s always been about principles with that guy.” You stare at your food for another second, then decide to give up entirely. You put your chopsticks down on the tray with an air of finality. “I really don’t have much of an appetite today, I’m afraid.”
“You didn’t have to be so polite about it, Naruhodou-san. Everyone knows that the food here is total…” Seeing that there were some kids near your table, Haori lowered her voice and mouthed “shit”. “I wouldn’t have come down here myself, if I hadn’t forgotten to pack lunch.”
Suddenly, you find yourself laughing with Haori, and you feel slightly better. “What a coincidence. I forgot to bring my own lunch too, so we’re in the exact same boat.”
“I think I’m done as well. Shall we go upstairs together, Naruhodou-san?” she suggests, but you smile regretfully.
“Thank you, Murasame-san, but,” you look down at your hands on both sides of the tray, “I think I’ll stay a bit longer here.”
Ryuu's "mob character" comment
If you read manga, you know how there are sometimes one-off characters that exist for no purpose but to praise another character and go kyaa-kyaa on them? Those are mob characters. lmao
Chapter 6: autumn 2015. kazuma. [intermission]
autumn 2015. kazuma.
I dream of a lot of things.
Sometimes, I dream of memories made during a particularly chilly morning.
“Do you believe in reincarnation, Asougi?”
In my dream, I could hear Naruhodou Ryuunosuke’s voice somewhere above my head. I sleepily glanced at the bedside clock, which cheerfully announced that it was already 10:10 in the morning, in dim red against black.
“You ask the strangest questions in the mornings, sometimes.” My voice was rusty from the extended sleep.
“You don’t sound well,” he teased me. I felt his hand reach down and gently ruffle my hair, and I involuntarity bristled at the touch. “Enjoyed yourself a little too much last night?”
“Last night? Don’t make me laugh. —It was more like two in the morning.” I was faintly annoyed, but it was slowly ebbing away. The memory of what had transpired cheered me up more than I cared to admit. “We really should do something about your insomnia, Naruhodou.”
“But we did do something about it last night,” he said simply.
I turned and raised myself up on my arms to get a better look at Naruhodou’s face. His hair was marvelously messier than usual, and his eyes and cheeks are glowing. This was Naruhodou Ryuunosuke who had a good night’s sleep, who was well-rested. The Naruhodou I would have liked to always see, in other words.
“I guess we did,” I finally conceded, slowly. “But making it a habit of getting laid at two in the morning isn’t exactly healthy, Naruhodou. Get a prescription or something instead.”
“Once in a while is nice, though,” he murmured, his voice sinking deliciously. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, once in a while,” I said absently, noting how dark Naruhodou’s eyes were.
It is so unfair, I think to myself, how Naruhodou can just drop his voice an octave and instantly bring back to mind such delightful memories of last night.
I had gotten my shirt on before dropping off last evening, but Naruhodou on the other hand was still mostly bare, having probably forgotten to retrieve his shirt somewhere from the floor. Perhaps feeling cold with his shoulders exposed to the chilly air like this, he quickly pulled the blanket over the both of us. I had lazily draped myself over his right side to provide him with extra warmth. It was so comfortable that I could have almost fallen back asleep like this, but years of strict discipline wouldn’t let me do just that. Beside me, Naruhodou was yawning dangerously.
“Reincarnation, huh,” I decide to return to his original question, my mouth almost touching his shoulder, and Naruhodou nodded with a serious look.
“Isn’t it interesting to consider that we may have been leading many lives, entirely different from one another, in the past?” he mused. “You could’ve been a toad in your past life, Asougi.”
“Oh, that’s real nice. What does that make you, Naruhodou?” I asked crossly.
“I don’t know.” The way he threw his head back and laughed made me smile as well. Naruhodou’s infectious laugh is perhaps one of my favorite things about him. “Maybe I was the lily pad that you were stepping on.”
“Then fine, I won’t mind being a toad at all.” My voice had finally sloughed off the rust of sleep, and I feel almost normal by now.
“I knew you loved stepping on me,” he was saying cheerfully.
I poked him on the forehead. “Don’t be so crass in the morning, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke.”
“Hey, you started it. All this talk of getting laid.”
“I’d be crass if I said I fucked you. I didn’t.”
He laughed again. “I hate to be that guy, but let me say this: You just did.”
“Argh. You really are impossible in the mornings. I’m getting up.” Annoyed, I made good on my promise and left the warmth of the bed. Naruhodou just watched me go, with this stupid smile on his face.
“You’ve always been such a sore loser, Asougi.”
“To be honest, it helps to be a sore loser in my line of work.” I paused before going into the bathroom, and when I looked over, he was wearing a slightly suspicious look. “Naruhodou?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re just going to say something to upset my victory, but fine. What is it, Asougi?”
“That dark red necktie you bought me,” I said, unable to control my wide grin, “looked really nice around your wrists earlier.”
He lobbed the alarm clock at me, but I had already ducked into the bathroom. I thought I could hear him groaning exasperatedly into a pillow.
“Tell me a story, Asougi,” Naruhodou sighed later that night, as I returned to the apartment with a bag of groceries in arm. “I have five hundred yen here as payment.”
“Are you finished checking the brats’ papers, Naruhodou?” I said sympathetically, and when he nodded tiredly, I picked up a jar from the bookshelf and handed it to him. The jar was already half-full with more five-hundred yen coins; the paper label inside it is adorned with Naruhodou’s neat penmanship, teasingly saying “pennies for your thoughts.” He put a five-hundred-yen coin through the slot on the tin lid, and looked expectantly at me.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke and I used to spend our Sundays very simply. This was the one day of the week where we can take time off our busy jobs and actually spend time together, after all. Usually, though, we end up hanging out in his apartment, because he usually has leftover papers that he still had to mark, or he still had to sort out his lesson plans for the week, or he had to hang around because he was expecting a call from one of his students.
Because our Sundays were spent like boring adults, we developed several habits whenever we got together, one of them being that whenever Naruhodou was tired and needed something to cheer himself up, he had to place five hundred yen in the jar to get me to say something interesting. It could be funny things about work, for instance, or strange stuff I had come across during the week, or quaint childhood memories. I meet so many strange people in my job as an attorney that the stories couldn’t run out even if he asked me to tell five stories a day. My clients range from all ages and backgrounds, and some of them make me think that maybe reality is stranger than fiction.
(The contents of the jar are occasionally used to contribute to our communal stash of comfort food. It’s a worthy cause, or so Naruhodou insisted.)
“I don’t really mind telling you a story right now,” I was saying, “but I’ll have to do it while I’m preparing dinner. Do you mind?”
“As long as you’re sure you won’t cut yourself while you’re doing two things at the same time,” he told me cheekily, and I put on a mock-exasperated face before starting to sort and wash the vegetables. He settled back, closed his eyes, and prepared to listen to me talk.
Our dinner that night, perfect for the cold weather, was a steaming pot of gyuunabe. Naruhodou sometimes grumbles that I tended to put so many onions and bean sprouts that the namesake ingredient was always buried in the bottom of the pot, but he always eats it all up anyway. It was very good in cold weather, though. The both of us being unashamedly big eaters, we ended up having third and fourth helpings apiece. I even saw Naruhodou about to go for a fifth, if not for the fact that the serving spoon had already hit the bottom of the pot.
“I’m stuffed,” I sighed when I had finally put my chopsticks down.
“Mm,” he mumbled sleepily, content. “Thanks for the food.”
“Make sure to take a walk later,” I teased him. “The gyuunabe is going to add a few more centimeters around your waist otherwise.”
“Oh, shut up.” Naruhodou had always been a bit touchy about his slow metabolism, and seemed to take it as a personal insult that I had never had the same problem. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell him that my job just involved a lot more legwork than his, and that it kept me much trimmer. “But please accompany me later.”
I laughed in my cup. “Don’t be silly, that goes without saying,” I told him, and the way his eyes lit up all of a sudden, he couldn’t have been happier if I had just promised I’d pluck out all of the stars from the sky for him.
—That might be true on a lot of levels, now that I think about it.
We retrieve our coats after washing the dishes, and start walking side by side on the street. To keep from losing the feeling in my fingers, I had shoved both of my hands in my pockets. Naruhodou, who hated the cold, was clothed much more warmly than me, even though the autumn breeze was undoubtedly much more preferable to the coming winter. He looked slightly stifled in his layers of clothes, but as long as he could walk comfortably in them, I decided not to comment.
“It’s cold,” he was still complaining.
“Then put your hand in my pocket,” I suggested. “I’ll keep at least one warm for you.”
He sniffled, pink in the face—either from cold, from embarrassment, or both. “Thank you.”
He slipped one hand in my roomy coat pocket, and I softly slide my fingers in the spaces between his own. They fit perfectly.
“Your hands are always so warm, Asougi,” he commented happily. How precious.
“And yours are always so cold,” I murmured. In response, his chilly fingers squeezed me.
The street was brightly lit, and people are still walking around, most of them on their phones. The trees on the sidewalks were decorated with gentle golden lighting. Naruhodou and I walked at an easy pace, neither fast nor slow, our hands secretly joined in my pocket. It’s not so well hidden, but the illusion of privacy it gives me lets me relax and just enjoy the feeling of his skin against mine. Like this, I can clearly feel the calluses on his hand, a result of too much time spent holding a pen. Four years’ worth of teaching.
“The leaf-wilting wind is about to arrive,” he was saying, “and then it’ll be winter.”
“Do you have plans to spend Christmas eve with your parents?” I asked him, and he shook his head.
“I think Christmas with them would just be depressing, anyway,” he sighed. “I’d rather spend it with you.”
“That is a touching sentiment, Naruhodou,” I said dryly, “but after what happened, you really should spend the holidays with them. They’ll want to know if you’re doing fine. Don’t worry, I’ll live.”
“Are you sure?” he asked in a mock-surprised tone, and I must have been wearing an exasperated look, because he quickly said, “Please don’t let go of me because of that,” and squeezed my hand even more tightly.
“Don’t worry,” I sighed, letting my hand relax in his vice grip. “I am petty, but not that petty.”
He threw his head back, and laughed. Against the golden illumination from the trees, his mirth, so rarely seen these days, looked stunning.
“I think I’m going to take your advice this time, Asougi,” he said, not as resolutely as I’d have hoped, but firm all the same. “I’ll go home for Christmas, then.”
“Good.” Strangely, I couldn’t say anything else. Even though I had been the one to make the suggestion, I had difficulty trying not to think about a few weeks spent without this person beside me. “Naruhodou, can you try to take one more advice from me? To tide you over during your visit.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t force yourself to smile,” I say, simply. “Even if you’re worried about what they might think, don’t force it. Or else, it’ll just become a habit, and when you come back, it’d become harder for the two of us to tell whether you’re really improving or not. Do you understand me?”
“I think so,” he murmured. “But, Asougi, sometimes these days even if I feel happy it’s such a hard thing to smile. Conversely, is that okay with you as well?”
He looked slightly lost.
“Don’t be silly. I can always tell when you’re happy even if you don’t smile.”
I grip his hand tightly.
“And as long as you’re beside me, never wavering… remember that even this, too, can be happiness.”
Chapter 7: winter 2016. haori.
winter 2016. haori.
plum blossom: elegance. faithfulness. purity.
“Have a coffee on me, Susato-chan.”
“Oh, thank you, Haori-chan. That’s sweet of you.” Susato had been hunched over her keyboard when you arrived, but she immediately straightened up and smiled when you showed up and placed the warm can by her hand. Her hair was slowly coming out of its neat bun, and you privately think that this was the most exhausted you’ve ever seen her in ages. “It’s been busy. I’ve been running around the building till just a few minutes ago.”
“It’s because you’re such a capable worker, Susato-chan.” You pat her shoulder sympathetically and she giggles, albeit her heart didn’t seem into it. “Everyone relies on you so much.”
“I wish they’d rely on me a little less at times if that’s the case,” she quips.
“It’s quiet now,” you remark, glancing up and down the empty corridor by the nurse’s station. “It’s weird for a Saturday afternoon, huh?”
“Maybe because it’s so cold outside,” Susato says, sighing. “The news says that the leaf-wilting wind is about to arrive any day now, and then… it’s officially winter.” She shivers slightly. “Ugh. I’ll miss the fall weather.”
“Winter… and then it’s just a short time before Christmas, huh.” You cross your arms. “Do you have plans with someone, Susato-chan?”
“Wha— Of course not!” Susato was adorably pink. “It’d be the usual setup with Father and I in the house.”
You sigh. “Sometimes I wonder if working so hard here is starting to cut into your social life, Susato-chan.”
“Not at all. I still think that this is what I wanted to do.” Susato follows a passerby with her eyes. “Even if it could test my patience at times.” She smiles slightly. “And also, work has been more bearable with you in the same team with me again, of course.”
You were about to give her a huge hug for saying something so saccharine, but then a familiar timid voice suddenly cuts through, “Good afternoon, Susato-san. Murasame-san.”
“Hello, Naruhodou-san,” you and Susato say in unison.
“You seem to be getting along today as well,” he says, chuckling. As per tradition, he was clutching a beautiful bouquet of pale plum blossoms to his chest. His glasses were askew, and his blue tie was loosened slightly.
“Um, that’s a huge bag you have there, Naruhodou-san,” you ask, curiously.
“I came here from work,” he says sheepishly. He pats the bulging shoulder bag slung over his chest. “These are all papers I asked my classes to write.”
“Finals period, huh?” Susato says sympathetically. “Seems like even Naruhodou-sensei is very busy.”
“Susato-san, do you know that you’re the only person who calls me Naruhodou-sensei properly to my face? My students never do.” He smiles—though, somehow, he managed to make it look like a half-grimace as well. “Well, I should be going, Susato-san, Murasame-san.”
“Oh, yes, of course. You mustn’t keep Asougi-san waiting,” Susato says, and with another nod at the two of you, he vanishes like usual into the interior of room 410.
You ask, hesitantly, “Is it just me, or is Naruhodou-san starting to look more and more like a wreck every time he visits?” but Susato just looks down, darkly.
“Dad used to tell me that the most difficult fact of this job is that the only people we can help are those willing to come to us and take it,” she says.
“I… don’t quite understand all of it, I think,” you say, cautiously, “but… maybe I sort of do? Ugh, it’s frustrating how I can’t express myself very well.”
“It’s alright.” Susato pats you on the arm. “All you have to understand is that even if we get invested in our patients’ private lives so much that it’s not healthy anymore, we’re ultimately the background characters in their lives. Contrary to popular belief, those of us in this profession aren’t in any way miracle workers. We can ultimately only help the healing process go more smoothly using the tools we have at our disposal—and it’s up to the patient’s body if it is willing to take that help, or not.”
“And that also extends to their families and friends, Susato-chan?” You sigh. “I think I’m starting to understand Professor Mikotoba’s words a little more.”
“That’s good,” Susato says, much more cheerfully.
“Professor Mikotoba really is amazing, huh? I attended a lecture he gave when he was visiting my school. He’s… I don’t know—very eloquent, I guess you could say?”
“Oh. You might not know this, but he used to write adventure stories and submit them to a magazine on the side.” Susato laughed. “In another world, Father could be a novelist or something, but I guess he really found his true passion in opening up dead bodies.”
“Sometimes, I’m not sure if you’re proud of him or if you’re teasing him because you’re secretly embarrassed of him,” you remark, bemusedly, and she laughs, dispelling the heavy atmosphere just present minutes ago.
“Why can’t I be proud and embarrassed of my father at the same time?” Susato said, brightly. “To educate their children, to spoil them, and to embarrass them— That’s what fathers are for.”
winter 2016. kazuma.
peony: bashfulness. happiness.
In your dream, the gentle scent of flowers permeates the air.
In your dream, everything is black, but you can hear that someone was speaking—someone that sounds quite familiar.
You know him. He always visits you everyday, reading books and talking about silly things, and bringing you flowers, but you always, always find it near impossible to remember a name to call him by.
As usual, you try to remember his name so that you can call out and make him notice you, but for some reason it always eludes you at the last second, always standing upon the tip of your tongue, but not quite spilling over.
“Mr. Neil Gibson had not returned from town,” he was reading, “but we saw in the house the neurotic Mr. Bates who had called upon us in the morning. He showed us with a sinister relish the formidable array of firearms of various shapes and sizes which his employer had accumulated in the course of an adventurous life…”
In your dream, his voice is pleasant and well-modulated. You give up on remembering his name for the moment and just lie back, enjoying the story he was probably reading out loud from a book. Your head is throbbing unpleasantly, but it does not seem to be painful. You cannot seem to move anything, but you find that you don’t mind just listening to him at all.
The word comes to you as if from a deep well in the back of your mind. You wonder what exactly was so beautiful when you can’t even open your eyes. The cold is seeping into your fingers. You wonder if he wasn’t secretly cold, as well.
“We were compelled to spend the night at Winchester, as the formalities had not yet been—”
—He makes a sharp choking sound, and abruptly stops speaking in the middle of the sentence.
This is new. The pause is so unexpected that you could immediately tell that something was terribly wrong.
He is now breathing quite heavily, and judging by the soft sounds of paper hitting something, he had just put the book down somewhere. “Oh,” he is mumbling with a watery voice, sounding as if he has been tightly pressing a hand against his mouth, “ooh,” and you are beginning to wrongly conclude that maybe he was feeling ill—when there was a click of glasses folding closed and you hear him start to cry, very quietly.
Again, the word flashes in your mind, and you realize that it was his sorrow which evoked that adjective so clearly. Not because you were taking delight in this man’s sadness, no; nor because you find his tear-filled voice particularly attractive—
Perhaps—it was because the emotion that evoked those tears was so, so pure.
He was making softly painful noises as he tried to stifle his crying, both of his hands now clamped tightly over his mouth in a fruitless attempt to silence himself.
“Oh,” he was saying once more, “I promised myself I won’t, but… but it hurts so much, Asougi… ooh…” And from the way he said it—his voice so tight, and weary, and agonized—you can tell that he meant every bit of the pain he expressed.
[“Sometimes I wish I was an exchange student sent to London on a steamship during the Meiji Era.”]
[“The Meiji Era ended a hundred years ago, Asougi.”]
You realize that you have finally remembered what his name was, and just who he was exactly.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
That high school English teacher I met three years ago, half-dead on a side street from the terrible heat wave.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
That high school English teacher I met three years ago, half-dead on a side street from the terrible heat wave, who loves his students terribly even when they call him unflattering nicknames.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
That high school English teacher I met three years ago, half-dead on a side street from the terrible heat wave, who loves his students terribly even when they call him unflattering nicknames, and whose biggest dream is to somehow taste every ice cream flavor available in the whole wide world.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
That high school English teacher I met three years ago, half-dead on a side street from the terrible heat wave, who loves his students terribly even when they call him unflattering nicknames, whose biggest dream is to somehow taste every ice cream flavor available in the whole wide world, and who has always been so terribly afflicted with sleeplessness every night.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
That high school English teacher I met three years ago, half-dead on a side street from the terrible heat wave, who loves his students terribly even when they call him unflattering nicknames, whose biggest dream is to somehow taste every ice cream flavor available in the whole wide world, who has always been so terribly afflicted with sleeplessness every night, who fits so perfectly in my arms that I don’t want to ever let him go ever again.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you try to say, but nothing comes out.
The person I have left behind for all this time.
Naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke [I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.] naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke naruhodou ryuunosuke—
[“…this, too, can be happiness.”]
A frustrated burning lingered in your soundless throat, and you realized that your face was damp.
A tear has trickled down your cheek, dripped from your chin, and fallen away.
The clattering of a chair falling to the floor—
“Susato-san? Susato-san! Asougi is—!”
Special shoutout to kitsunakatsuma for their super adorable art of Asougi and Naruhodou and that coin jar from chapter 6!
uwu my heart is ablaze
Chapter 9: winter 2014. kazuma. [prelude to happiness. (part one)]
Again, SQUICK WARNINGS for referenced suicide, and mentions of blood.
winter 2014. kazuma.
prelude to happiness. (part one)
On that particular Saturday, two years ago, after a successful win at court, I had asked my superior if I could ask for the rest of the day off, because it was a rather significant day.
It was an extremely cold January, and it was the afternoon of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke’s twenty-sixth birthday.
Luckily, since my trial was already done and over with, he readily agreed.
I was so busy with studying for the case during the past week that Naruhodou and I hadn’t even contacted each other except for a few snatches of phone calls here and there during the evenings. I was determined to at least make up for the lack of contact today by putting in a little more effort.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke liked sweet things, so I bought two slices of the chocolate cake that he had eyed from the window of a cafe the previous week when we had gone out together for a walk.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke told me over the phone in passing that the strawberry jam was about to run out, so I bought a large jar of it.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke seemed to like the gyuunabe I once made for him, too, so I bought the needed ingredients.
Armed with all those food items, I finally took the bus to Naruhodou’s apartment.
“Asougi, I might not be back at home before evening since I still have to visit one of my students. He’s been absent a lot, so I’m really worried,” he had told me this morning, over the phone. “But we’ll have dinner out somewhere nice this evening, does that sound okay? Someone recommended me this new place near the station, we should try that out…”
Naruhodou told me that, but I knew he could do with a little surprise pick-me-up after another grueling day at work. And the opportunity to make Naruhodou’s tired face light up with happiness is something I just can’t pass up, for the life of me.
However, when I reached the door and turned the knob experimentally just to make sure, I was surprised when the door gave without much resistance and swung inwards.
Naruhodou must have come home early, after all. That was the thought I had when I shut the door carefully after me and saw his shoes discarded rather messily on the side. The surprise would be spoiled, but no matter. Naruhodou will still find it quite funny that I had gone through all this effort just for a birthday—especially since when he tried to celebrate mine some months ago, I had declared that anyone over ten who was still celebrating their birthdays so excitedly (like himself) is faintly ridiculous.
“Naruhodou, I’m home.”
There was no answer whatsoever. Wondering if he was somehow napping somewhere (he had the unfortunate habit of falling asleep anywhere when it was daylight), I kicked my shoes off and was about to carry the groceries over to the kitchen when I passed the bathroom and heard the sound of water splashing down the floor, as if spilling from an overflowing container.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he had fallen asleep in the bath, but it was strange that he had left the water running. Sighing, I knocked on the white bathroom door.
“Naruhodou, I’m coming in.”
I left the groceries down by the door, and without hesitation, opened the door.
“Stop wasting water, will you? Your bill is going to add up at the end of the month again—”
The first thing I immediately noticed when I entered the bathroom was the wetness that seeped through my sock. I glanced at the flooded floor, frowning, and—
“…Asougi? …You’re early.”
The brittle-sounding voice came from the direction of the bath tub. I turned my head, my face perhaps much calmer than I felt—
At that moment, my heart froze, and I couldn’t breathe.
A dull-looking Naruhodou Ryuunosuke was sitting in the overflowing bath tub, still in his shirt and trousers and socks and everything, and the cream-white sweater he wore over his clothes was stained with… red.
A whole lot of red.
A whole lot of—
Blood, my brain was screaming at me. He’shurt.somewhere.findwherethewoundis.
In a flash, I had already grabbed him by the shoulders, and was looking all over him for injuries. Naruhodou just let me handle him roughly as I turned him this way and that to try and see where the bleeding was strongest. “Where is it? Where were you hurt?” I was repeating over and over, but Naruhodou only stared at me blankly before saying, very calmly—almost too calmly—
“It’s… not mine—”
“Then whose blood is this? TELL ME!” I yelled in sheer frustration, and Naruhodou flinched for a bit in the face of my anger—before his veneer of forced calm finally crumpled and he made a strangled, sobbing noise. Instantly regretful for my outburst, I softly cradled him against me and nuzzled his forehead. His limbs were like jelly, for all the resistance he offered me.
“Sorry,” I faltered. “…I was just so scared.”
The feeling of his body uncontrollably shivering against mine was strangely tearing me apart.
When I had finally supported Naruhodou out of the bathroom and helped him change into dry clothing, he just stumbled into bed and wrapped himself up in the covers, silent all the while. I hadn’t noticed how much time had passed. The apartment was already bathed in shadows, and the scent of the evening was starting to engulf the room.
The food I had brought was still scattered on the floor across the bathroom door, and it suddenly struck me as a pretty lonely sight.
—Today was supposed to be his twenty-sixth birthday.
I didn’t quite know how to proceed.
Suddenly, I wished I was less emotionally-stunted. If I was only a much more sensitive sort of person, maybe I’d know what I should do next. Naruhodou always knew how to calm me down. He can read the atmosphere as if it was nothing—in a job that involved interacting with fragile teenaged kids, he needed to be sensitive. When we get into an argument, he was the one who ultimately sorts out the mess.
So when he was the one debilitated like this, I felt extremely useless.
Silence. The lump of blanket that was him was so still that I wondered if he had somehow fallen asleep.
“Do you want me to…” I swallowed when my throat closed at the next word. “Do you want me to leave for now?”
More silence, then the lump wriggled.
“…I’m hungry,” was the raspy answer. “Asougi.”
I could have laughed in nervous relief if my throat wasn’t so damn dry.
“I brought some cake,” I said. “I was going to cook you something, but…”
“Cake,” he said, absently, and silently, I grabbed the box with the two slices inside and took two forks from the kitchen drawer. In the deepening purple twilight, the only illumination in the apartment was the cold orange light from the streetlight outside the building.
Naruhodou had sat up in bed, and his glasses were askew on his face. I sat beside him on the bed, and when I leaned over and straightened his glasses, he looked back at me with a hauntingly blank expression that broke my heart.
“This…” he murmured when he opened the box and saw the two beautifully-iced pieces of cake inside. The white sugar lilies that decorated the cakes were so expertly crafted, they almost looked like real ones. “This is from that… that place.”
“You were pointing them out to me last week,” I explained, keeping my voice low. It seemed sacrilegious to speak any louder in this delicate atmosphere.
The corners of his mouth lifted slightly in an imitation of a smile.
We took our first bites of cake in a gentle, but heavy, silence. He wasn’t making any sounds while he was eating, but I wondered what expression he was making whenever he bowed his head occasionally to shovel more of the cake in his mouth.
“How much did these cost?” he asked, suddenly, and his voice was really brittle.
“A slice costs about five hundred yen,” I said, softly.
“Five hundred yen? I see,” he replied, and ate his chocolate cake, and fell silent once more.
I let him take his time, and when he had finished his slice, I automatically pushed my half-eaten share toward him, not really caring for the sweetness. Wordlessly, he dug his fork into the cake, and was about to lift it up to his mouth when he paused, and let go of the fork. It fell into the box, the movement almost like an afterthought.
“Asougi,” he said. “I visited Murata-kun today after classes were dismissed at noon.”
“You did tell me that this morning.” I kept my voice cautiously flat.
Vaguely, I remembered him talking about this kid Murata at times.
He was a runt, Naruhodou once told me, who kept submitting the really interesting essays in class. He was one of his best students, Naruhodou said. He was good at writing, and Naruhodou encouraged him at it. He might become an excellent essayist one day. He’s going to get published in a newspaper or magazine after high school or college, Naruhodou speculated. He was being published in the school newspaper already. It wasn’t much of a stretch.
“I was worried. His teachers were saying that he wasn’t attending most of his classes, so I decided to go see him today as his homeroom teacher. I called him at home. I know that his parents work in another city and that he’s alone in his apartment, so I was really relieved when he actually took the call.
“He wasn’t really enthusiastic about the idea of me visiting him, but I had already decided that I was going to see him, so I still went.”
I focused my attention on his fingers, intently studying them even in the darkness, as if they were suddenly the most interesting things in the world. His right hand clenched itself in the covers.
He paused, breathing sharply through his mouth.
The ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece was starting to unsettle me.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to continue,” I broke the silence. “…I’ll understand.”
“His apartment was really small, just about right for one young person to live in. A small kitchen in the corner, a small shower room, the bedroom also acting as the sitting room.”
He was pushing on stubbornly, as if my suggestion had personally offended him.
“I found him in bed, Asougi,” he said, and his voice had this halting quality that made me fear that he was going to shatter again.
—However, he took a great gulp of air, and continued.
“At first I thought he was sleeping when he didn’t answer the door, so I tried the door just in case and—and it was open, and I peeked inside and I can instantly see him through that sliver.
“He was so peaceful—he looked like he could be sleeping if not for the fact that—that—”
In my mind, I couldn’t help but picture the horrifying scene that greeted the eyes of this earnest, young English teacher—
That of his favorite student lying in a pool of his own—
“I tried giving him first aid— I called the ambulance—” His lip trembled. “But even before the call ended, I knew they weren’t going to make it. My student was dying in my arms, Asougi.
“Murata-kun was… he was starting to grow cold when the paramedics came bursting through the—”
Wordlessly, without letting him finish the sentence, I had closed the distance between us and embraced him tightly, and he choked on his words for a few minutes before giving up and burying his face in my shoulder, the excruciating sound of his sorrow muffled by my shirt.
It was an extremely cold January, and the afternoon when the high school freshman Murata Shouta ended his own life was perhaps the same day when Naruhodou Ryuunosuke decided that he would quit teaching forever.
prelude to happiness. part one end.
Chapter 10: winter 2015. ryuunosuke. [prelude to happiness. (part two)]
winter 2015. ryuunosuke.
prelude to happiness. (part two)
“I think I’m going to take your advice this time, Asougi. I’ll go home for Christmas, then.”
“Good. …Naruhodou, can you try to take one more advice from me? To tide you over during your visit.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t force yourself to smile. …Even if you’re worried about what they might think, don’t force it. Or else, it’ll just become a habit, and when you come back, it’d become harder for the two of us to tell whether you’re really improving or not. Do you understand me?”
“I think so. …But, Asougi, sometimes these days even if I feel happy it’s such a hard thing to smile. Conversely, is that okay with you as well?”
“Don’t be silly. I can always tell when you’re happy even if you don’t smile. —And as long as you’re beside me, never wavering… remember that even this, too, can be happiness.”
“Before marrying into the Asougi family, my mother used to help sell flowers in her family’s shop,” Asougi had told me, once, when we were lying in bed together and staring up at the ceiling idly.
“She used to joke that she only married my father because she thought till the day of the wedding that the Asougi family crest was a flower, and by then it was too late to back out. …Of course, my father didn’t find that one particularly funny.”
Among the few belongings she left behind upon her untimely death was a large picture book that talked about the symbolic meanings of flowers. Asougi brought it with him when he broke ties with his family and ran away to Tokyo to become a law student—it was perhaps the only real possession he had, aside from his clothes and other books, that came from the old house in Shikoku.
“The remaining Asougis are all a bunch of old geezers,” he used to tell me, with a small smile. “I’m glad I got away. I’m never going back there.”
Unlike me, Asougi was frightfully independent from the get-go. I would never have imagined doing the same thing at the same age, and I told him so to his face. “I think you’re pretty good at taking care of yourself, even if you claim again and again that you don’t know how to function in the adult world,” Asougi said, raising his eyebrows. “For someone so easygoing on his students, you’re always so hard on yourself, aren’t you?”
Asougi, you must be joking, I told him, shaking my head.
I’m not particularly good at joking, Naruhodou, he said, and laughed anyway. It’s something I inherited from my mother. My crap sense of humor.
He was considerably amused when that ended up making me laugh.
And when it happened and he decided to stay over and look after me, the picture book of flowers came with him. It kind of became a habit for me to read it during the evenings when I got a little better at picking up after myself and my insomnia started getting worse. Like his winter coat in my wardrobe and the second pillow on my bed, Asougi kept forgetting to get it back from me, and so it has stayed on my bookshelf ever since.
In its aftermath, the days passed, unchangingly, and I didn’t go back to school after all.
Asougi started staying over at my place to look after me. Half of my closet was soon filled with neat-looking suits in varying dark shades, and a brown winter coat that smelled of him. Whenever I sniffed at its collar, I feel much safer. Much more calmer.
If Asougi found my habit of sniffing at his clothes weird, he didn’t say anything about it.
The only way to tell when a day has already passed was, oddly, the flowers in the blue mug on the windowsill, which Asougi changed on a daily basis before he went out to work.
I wonder if that was his purpose for going through all the bother of changing them in the first place—or if maybe I was reading a little too much into his actions. Asougi was certainly a little too practical to get me flowers everyday. If he had something in mind when he decided to do this little gesture, I wouldn’t know what it is. It wasn’t certainly just to amuse himself.
So, I started using the changing flowers to count the days, because my phone was dead and I had lost track of the dates anyway.
Perhaps, as time went on, it progressively got easier to talk a little more about it and its aftermath.
But the first few weeks immediately after that Saturday had been nothing short of a nightmare—for me and for Asougi both.
I found it so taxing to wake up in the mornings that I had to take a week’s leave from school—which turned into a month, well into the third term. My body clock had also started acting up oddly during that time; I started going to sleep at seven in the morning and waking up at five in the afternoon. My most active hours were during the early hours of the morning. Asougi ended up sleeping over to take care of me, because when I was awake, I did nothing else but lie in bed and waste away. I didn’t want anything to do with anything sharp, so cooking for myself was out of the question. I actively left my phone uncharged, so Asougi was the one who ended up calling the school multiple times during the month to let them know that I was still not reporting for duty.
Somehow, it was also the period when we started the tradition of the five-hundred-yen jar.
When he came up with the idea, he immediately washed out a large empty jar of strawberry jam, took off the label, and put a hole in the lid before putting it up on the bookshelf. When I woke up during the afternoons and was immensely bored, I had to pay him a small “consultation fee” (as he used to jokingly call it) of five hundred yen to get him to tell me something to amuse me. I came up with the round sum of five hundred yen after a while, because it ended up becoming a convenient way to pay for the chocolate cake that I had come to like. I wasn’t really partial to the stuff before it, but somehow I had grown to love the confection ever since.
I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, including Asougi, but the jar probably helped me a lot more than he’d expected it would, and for that, I was thankful.
Monday, vivid blue flowers with dewdrops still glistening on its petals.
Tuesday, a huge yellow flower that was halfway from falling out of the mug.
Wednesday, a spray of light pink flowers with a delicate scent that got carried by the morning breeze.
Thursday, a couple of white flowers that seemed blinding to look at when the sunlight struck their thousands of lengthy petals.
Friday, a purple blossom that was so shockingly vivid, I can’t believe that the color hadn’t been painted on even after touching a velvety petal.
Saturday, a cluster of fine green flowers that seemed to wave at me at every little invisible breeze.
Sunday, a white rose that looked lonely in its solitude—
The morning of my departure for my family’s ancestral home, I woke up to the feeling of Asougi’s warm back pressed up against my side, his shoulder rising and falling gently. His breathing was unhurried, and soothing to the ears.
I checked my phone, and saw that it was four in the morning. Just enough time to get prepared and catch my train. I got up, but even with the heater working, the floor seemed freezing to my bare toes, and I spent some seconds just trying to decide if it was worth it to freeze myself to death or to sate my hunger.
Eventually, my empty stomach won out, and I finally grabbed my blanket and wrapped myself in it before venturing out of bed once more. I still have a stock of cup noodles in the kitchen drawer—I picked the miso-flavored ramen and set the electric kettle to boil water while I wash my face in the bathroom. When I heard the kettle click, I gave my face one last splash of water and staggered to the kitchen.
Asougi hadn’t stirred at all, which I was a little thankful for (and a little envious of), and as I waited for my noodles to cook, I settled down to enjoy the extremely intimate sight of him wrapped in my favorite baby blue blanket and drooling on the pillow that he brought from home. When we were first doing these sleepovers, I didn’t have an extra pillow, so I always gave mine to Asougi and settled for folding up a spare blanket to rest my head on. Asougi finally took pity on me during his third visit and brought his own, and conveniently kept on forgetting about bringing it back so many times, until somehow that pillow has become my property as well.
My three minutes up, I grabbed my chopsticks, unpeeled the lid from the cup, and started eating, slowly.
When I lived alone, I’ve always felt how the silence was somehow sepulchral, but now, with someone warming my bed, it felt a little more… comfortable. This room finally felt like home.
Once my food was finished, I looked up to gaze once more at Asougi.
This bastard has such a cute face when he sleeps. As long as he was peaceful like this, you’d never guess how annoying he can be about certain things—
As if sensing my eyes on his face, he suddenly stirred, and his beautiful dark eyes opened and blinked for a few times before focusing blearily on me.
“Good morning, Asougi.”
“G’morning.” He stretched sleepily, his grace again reminding me of a cat, and when he turned to look at me again, he was much more alert. “So, today, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said simply. “Today.”
“You should probably take a bath already if you want to get out of here on time,” he reminded me, and remembering the time, I stood up with a sheepish smile and headed immediately for the bathroom once more.
Once my bath and the rest of my toilet was finished, I exited the bathroom to find Asougi consuming his own breakfast. As he stared sleepily into his phone while eating, I started picking out my clothes from the closet, and noticed that Asougi’s brown winter coat was hung up next to my navy blue one. Unable to help myself, I surreptitiously pull it to my nose and sniff at the collar.
His scent worked like a charm. I felt my rising apprehensions about this trip start to fade, and I decided I wanted him with me, after all.
“Asougi?” I said, and he looked up from his food with a scowl. “Can I borrow your coat for the trip?”
“What for? You already have one. Besides, it’s a little too large for you.”
“Not that huge.” To prove my point, I slyly slip off the bathrobe I was wearing and instead drape the brown coat over my nakedness. From the corner of my eye, Asougi had stopped eating and was staring at me as if I was dessert. I leisurely zip it up to cover myself, but the wordless invitation I sent was well-received—his eyes were slightly unfocused and his teeth were worrying at his bottom lip.
“It’s too early in the morning, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke,” he was saying in a strangled voice, “Too early to mess with me like this.”
“I have a little time before I need to go, Asougi,” I said lightly, and finished him with a smile. “Give me one last good memory to take with me before I leave.”
“I really regret the day when you found out about this,” he sighed, but he was already getting up from his chair.
“What, that you get turned on when I wear your clothes?” I laughed, and with a playful roll of the eyes, he had crossed the entire length of the room in a few strides and was kissing me hard against the door of the closet. His hands were already mischievously reaching under the hem of the coat.
“Goddamn it, Naruhodou,” he murmured against my mouth. “You’re making it really hard for me to let you go right now.”
“Except I really have a train to catch.” I chuckled. “Think you can finish doing me in ten minutes?”
His eyes flashed, and I swallowed instinctively. His lips were already at my throat when he whispered, “Is that a challenge?”
—Thank god Asougi Kazuma was one of the easiest persons to provoke, in the whole wide world.
Monday, shy little violets that trembled when I put my face a little too close to them.
Tuesday, a pale chrysanthemum that was not yet in full bloom.
Wednesday, three blossoms stained in a delicate peach color.
Thursday, orchids whose white petals gradually deepened into a beautiful purple.
Friday, a red tulip, cut mercilessly short in order not to fall outside the mug.
Saturday, light pink peonies that I plucked off their stems, petal by painful petal.
Sunday, a red rose that I threw away the moment I laid eyes on it—
The trip was shorter than I had expected it to be.
I haven’t realized how much I missed my childhood home—and my mother’s cooking—until I was safely back at the familiar dining table and was stuffing myself with the dinner that she had cooked.
“I bet you don’t eat anything much aside from instant food,” she was accusing me teasingly. “I should keep you in here for a while and pound my recipes into your head until you can cook properly.”
However, despite her scolding, she seemed rather pleased with my appetite, and if I hadn’t been anticipating it, I would have missed the pointed look she threw across the table at my father. If they were bursting with questions, they thankfully held their tongues about it and let me eat in peace. Instead, they regaled me with stories of what has happened to them and to other relatives since the last time I saw them.
“We’re very glad you decided to drop by after so long, you know,” Mom said, and I smiled sheepishly.
“I’m sorry. …I was unsure whether to go, really,” I admitted, “but Asougi was insistent, like always. …I keep wondering what would have happened if he wasn’t there to push me to return to work.”
“I would very much like to meet Asougi-san,” Mom said a little too eagerly, making me choke a little on the fish. “You’ve known him for ages but you haven’t introduced him to us yet. You should have brought him along!”
“He can’t leave his job at such a short notice, Mom,” I sputtered, and she grinned. “Besides, w-why do you have to?”
“Aw, what’s wrong with personally thanking the person that was looking after my son?” she pouted, and I took a miffed mouthful of rice and refrained from replying back, in case a careless word accidentally stoked the fire of curiosity in her eyes.
“Well, enough about the mysterious Asougi-san,” she chirped, but I could see that the topic was starting to breach darker waters. “Actually, Ryuunosuke, on another matter… About that extended leave of absence you took from work earlier this year, we…”
“I… I promise I’ll tell you sometime during my stay.” I smiled slightly. “It’s just, it’s hard to find the words for me right now. But I’ll try my best, Mom. I won’t leave here without telling you. I promise.”
“Thank you.” Mom smiled, and looked over at Dad, who had been silent all throughout the meal. “If there is anything I love the most about this son of ours, it’s his habit of keeping promises.”
“Well, this son of yours wants a second helping of rice, please,” I quip, and she laughed before opening the rice cooker and piling more rice into my outstretched bowl.
That night, while I was swathed in blankets in the comfort of my old bed, Asougi called me. I only had to take one look at the name on the display before pressing receive and immediately telling him, “Asougi, save me.”
“What is it, Naruhodou,” he said dryly, without a question mark in his voice. He’s gotten used to me, I thought, grinning.
“Mom is threatening to force me into a marriage meeting later this week. I’m getting married,” I joked.
“But that doesn’t make sense. You’re already married to me,” he said, not missing a beat.
“Uhh. Really?” I frowned.
“Yeah, you drunk-proposed to me one evening using the pull-tab from the can of beer you were drinking,” he said flatly. “I said yes, then we wrote out an entire marriage certificate in your apartment and signed it, and then we had really phenomenal sex afterward. You don’t remember? Pity.”
“…Seriously?” I was at a loss for words. “I… did that? I can’t…”
He paused, then I could hear him snicker, then burst into hearty laughter.
“You’re as gullible as always, Naruhodou,” he guffawed.
Bastard, I fumed, even though I was the one who started it. “Ugh. I’m hanging up.”
“Can’t take a dose of your own medicine?” He laughed at me again, but as he must have expected, I didn’t hang up anyway. “Well, anyway,” he said when he had sobered up. “I’m glad you got there safely.”
“You worry too much,” I said, softly.
“That makes the both of us,” he replied, amused. “Also… are you about to sleep? Because I could leave you in peace now, if you want.”
“Silly, you do remember that I can’t fall asleep that easily.”
“I guess so…”
“Can you sing me something? I don’t think I’ll be able to fall asleep like this. I’m too alone.”
I could almost see him pale in my mind’s eye. Singing was one of Asougi Kazuma’s greatest weaknesses; not because he had a terrible voice—on the contrary, he sounded as if he could be a good singer judging from pure vocal quality—but because, very unfortunately, he had a really hard time getting his tongue around the lyrics, sometimes.
Asougi’s hatred for tongue twisters sometimes spills over to songs because of this, and I imagine that with this tendency, his co-workers had probably learned not to take him out to karaoke after work.
“How about no,” he finally said, crossly. “I’m not averse to telling you a story instead, though.”
“Alright.” I smiled. “A story, then, Asougi. Put it on my tab for when I get back.”
“You sure you want this to go in the jar too?” He chuckled. “Fine. …Though, you did say that you wanted me to put you to sleep, but I’m not sure if the story I’m about to tell you is going to be conducive to sleep.”
“It’s no matter. Please, just talk.”
“You’re totally missing me, aren’t you,” he teased me.
“Shut up, don’t make me say it. —But yes.”
He laughed again.
“Very well.” I heard him cough, as if to clear his throat. “Actually, during the past few weeks, I’ve been dreaming some very weird dreams.”
Curiously, I asked, “…What are you dreaming of, Asougi?”
“In my dream, I’m in some sort of room,” he said, and he may not have noticed it himself, but I heard his voice waver a bit. “And by the way the floor rocks beneath my feet sometimes… it’s probably a cabin in some sort of ship.”
“A… a cabin?” Instinctively, my hand grips around my phone.
[…Is it really alright for you to do something like this?]
[Heh. You’re being smuggled into an international exchange student’s cabin. Quite the thrill, don’t you think?]
Huh? What… was that?
“…Gh.” A surge of nausea was overtaking me. I massaged my temple with my free hand. On the other end of the line, I can hear Asougi still speaking.
“—And there was a knock at the door. I stand up from the desk and open the door a crack, and then… and then…”
His voice trailed off in confused silence.
“…That’s strange. I can’t really remember what happened next. I opened the door… then what?”
“It’s a dream,” I said, very slowly and calmly. It’s a dream, it’s adream, it’sadream, itsadream, itsadream itsadream itsadream itsadream. “Dreams… usually fade from memory pretty quickly after you wake up.”
“But I’ve been dreaming the same dream for days on end. I should’ve memorized how it goes pretty well by now.” He seemed really disturbed at finding out that he can’t remember. “Damn, now it’s going to bug me a lot unless I remember what happened next.”
“It’s okay, Asougi.” I still felt slightly sick. “I… I don’t feel so good. I think I can go to sleep tonight, after all.”
“You feel sick?” His tone sharply took a worried turn. “Yeah. You should get some rest. Have some medicine before you drop off.”
Half an hour after Asougi hung up, I was still seated on my bed, chewing my lip and wondering what the hell just happened. However, like the first snowflakes of the winter, the strange out-of-place memory that flashed through my mind’s eye had already faded, and by the time my head hit the pillow, I had already forgotten all about it.
In retrospect, I wonder if the strange dream that Asougi kept having was actually some sort of… warning.
Because three days later was when I received that fateful phone call… and was my first time to speak with the nurse Mikotoba Susato-san.
prelude to happiness. part two end.
Chapter 11: winter 2015-2016. susato. [prelude to happiness. (part the final)]
winter 2015-2016. susato.
prelude to happiness. (part the final)
“Good morning, Naruhodou-san, Asougi-san.”
I entered the starkly white room with the trolley, laden with boxes upon boxes of medicines and supplements and syringes. Smiling as brightly as I could at Naruhodou-san, I proceeded to administer the daily dose of medicine that Asougi-san needed. “The bruising is going to look worse before it gets better,” I remarked when I noticed Naruhodou-san staring holes into the bandage on Asougi-san’s forehead.
The dried blood on the white bandage around his forehead made it look almost like a rusty-red headband.
A red headband. Like the ones students might wear during their sports festivals. Like the ones some pregnant women tie around their heads to see them through their labor pains. Like the ones soldiers used to don during war before they willingly march to their deaths.
“Asougi-san, I’ll be changing your bandages now. Please excuse me.”
Saying this, I gently undid the bandage, and at the same time, out of the corner of my eye, I ssaw Naruhodou-san quickly turn his face away, clearly the type who was uncomfortable at the sight of blood.
Fortunately for him, I was able to do the job quickly. “…And that’s the last of it. I’ll see you later when the doctor arrives, okay? Please continue to rest well, Asougi-san.” I turned to Naruhodou-san, who seemed wary as he returned my gaze. “Naruhodou-san, call me if anything happens, alright?” With a smile, I bowed and exited the room, the trolley following me closely behind.
It had been perhaps a week after the accident that brought Asougi-san into room 410 of this huge university-affiliated hospital.
I clearly remembered that afternoon, because there had been a light snow falling, and when they wheeled Asougi-san into the emergency room, there were still some snowflakes melting slowly on his cold eyelashes. Even if common sense dictated that the blood streaming down his face and the unhealthy pallor of his skin should have been infinitely more horrifying, it was the sight of those snowflakes that made my heart tremble, ever so slightly.
It was a hit-and-run, I had been grimly informed. Some drunk driver, tipsy from a Christmas party he had attended, had slipped his tires on the wet road and accidentally ran over that person. The police have managed to chase down and take the suspect into custody. He’ll be tried in court sometime later. For now, it was a miracle that the victim had even survived.
A “miracle.” There was no other word to describe the whole thing. It was a “miracle” that the whole thing happened just some blocks away, or else Asougi Kazuma would never had made it in here still breathing. It was a “miracle” that he did not fall incorrectly when he was struck by the car, because a broken neck meant that it would have been over for him in a flash. It was a “miracle” that there was a passerby in that quiet section of the city who immediately phoned for an ambulance. It was all a series of little freak incidents, and somehow it just made everything more surreal—as if some kind of higher power was pulling strings behind the scenes, ensuring that we received Asougi-san in a state where something can still be done.
I vividly remembered having been instructed to do the unfortunate task of calling Asougi-san’s relatives about the accident. Searching through his effects, I wasn’t able to get any other information about any friends or family except for a photograph wedged in his wallet, that of a smiling young man with dark hair sticking up, wearing a soft-looking cream-colored sweater and holding a calico cat in his lap. His expression was tender as he looked at the photographer (whom I assumed to be Asougi-san) through the lens of the camera, and was obviously extremely fond of him. The back of the photo was signed Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, 2014 in neat characters. With the photo, there was also a piece of paper with the same odd name written on it, “Naruhodou,” an email address, and a string of numbers. Asougi-san seemed to be the type who relied more on writing important things instead of typing them up in his phone, which was thankful, because his phone didn’t quite survive the whole thing.
So, relying on Asougi-san’s thoroughness, I dialed the number on the piece of paper.
“Hello? Would you be Naruhodou Ryuunosuke-san?”
“Hello. Yes, this is Naruhodou. Who is this, please?”
The male voice at the end of the line was beautifully well-modulated, and surprisingly boyish. I quite felt as if I was speaking to a young teenager than an actual adult.
With not a little trepidation, I answered, “Naruhodou-san, I’m Mikotoba of the Yuumei University Hospital. I’m quite sorry to have to inform you of this, but Asougi-san only had your number on him and—”
“What… happened?” —There was a tremor in his voice.
“He… he was involved in a hit-and-run incident. We are currently treating him as we speak. Would, would you know of the contact numbers of any of Asougi-san’s relatives? His phone had been broken during the accident, and…” I trailed off, suddenly unsure how to proceed, but he had started to speak anyway.
“I don’t know how to contact his family either. I’m sorry. I understand that Asougi has never really wanted to talk about them much. …They’re all in Shikoku, anyhow.” A pause, as if he was thinking, and then, quite seriously, “…Can’t I suffice as Asougi’s emergency contact for now? We’re… best friends. We’ve also shared an apartment for the past year, so I could answer any questions you may have about him.”
“It would be a great help, Naruhodou-san,” I said, quite sincerely.
“I’ll take the next train to Tokyo,” he said decisively. “I’ll arrive in three hours.”
“…Understood. We’ll do our best for Asougi-san as well.”
In moments like these, what else can someone promise but that they’ll “do their best”?
By the time Naruhodou Ryuunosuke-san arrived in the emergency room where I was waiting, the doctors had already patched Asougi-san up quite well, and he was out of any immediate danger. He still looked quite terrible, but at the very least, he will survive. That was what counted.
“Can I speak to Mikotoba-san?” I heard a voice asking one of the nurses, and I immediately rushed forward, certain that this man was the one I had been expecting.
The young man asking after me was instantly recognizable from the photo in Asougi-san’s wallet—he had the same unruly dark hair, the same youthful face, and the same melancholic eyes. He was even wearing the very same sweater in the photograph, now layered under a large brown winter coat. He was wheezing slightly, perhaps having run all the way from the bus stop, and when he caught sight of me, he immediately understood that I was the person he had been looking for.
“Mikotoba-san?” he asked me, tentatively.
“I would be Mikotoba, yes,” I answered gravely.
I inclined my head. “Please follow me, Naruhodou-san.”
We walked up the stairs all the way to the fourth floor. “For the meantime, we had put Asougi-san in room 410, but you may wish to have him moved to a different one anytime. His condition has stabilized for now, which the doctor may explain to you in further detail—”
I talked all the way to the room, with Naruhodou-san nodding in appropriate intervals, but I could tell that his mind was wholly on Asougi-san alone. When we had reached the door to room 410, he hung back behind me, as if slightly afraid of what was within, and taking a deep breath, I grabbed the handle of the door and slid it open.
The white room smelled of antiseptic, and blood.
Asougi Kazuma-san lay on the white bed in his blue hospital gown, his eyes closed. His right eye was heavily bruised from the impact, and more purple ran all the way from that eye down the side of his face and neck, until it disappeared under his clothes. His right arm and leg were probably much more horrible, since they took the brunt of the impact, and it was fractured in several places. The bruises continued to his right hand, evidenced by the sight of the fingers sticking out of the cast.
Naruhodou-san’s face was expressionless when he approached Asougi-san’s bedside and stared at his face. He didn’t look sad, only extremely exhausted, as if tears were not enough to express what he felt and he felt frustrated because of the fact.
“Asougi, I’m here,” he said, and it sounded more like a lament than anything else.
—Even though I had been instructed to walk Naruhodou-san through the paperwork as soon as possible, somehow, I mustered the presence of mind to mutter, “Naruhodou-san, I’ll be waiting outside,” and leave the both of them in peace.
The day after, and the day after that, Naruhodou-san started visiting room 410 regularly and without fail, rain or shine. The days became weeks, and then months. The young nurses I shared my shift with had started talking about him extensively. “There he goes again,” I once heard one of them whisper excitedly to a friend, as Naruhodou passed the station with a bouquet of lilies in hand. “The patient in room 410 is so lucky. If only I had someone who was as patient as that with me!” she said, and her friend giggled and sighed, “How romantic,” resulting in chastisement from the head nurse.
Meanwhile, knowing the truth, I could only stare after Naruhodou-san’s back, wondering what was going on in his head the entire time.
I wondered if the flowers he brought everyday was something he used to fight the scent of blood, even if the attempt was futile. I wondered if the books he brought to read out loud was to distract from the otherwise frightening silence of the room. I wondered if…
I wondered if he knew that I knew they were more than his lie about them merely being “best friends.”
—Because he didn’t know it, but I accidentally saw them in one such cloistered moment, one afternoon.
I was going to change the linens in room 410 then, and grabbed the appropriate cloths from the pile I had been lugging around all afternoon. Then, with my arms full, I thoughtlessly pulled the door open without knocking, and froze instantly when I processed the sight beyond the small sliver of room that I had exposed.
…They were kissing.
Or at least, Naruhodou-san was kissing Asougi-san. He was standing over the bed, his hand braced on the mattress as he leaned over and placed his mouth over Asougi-san’s. On the vase beside the bed, there were white camellias in full bloom. I knew that camellias were supposed to be scentless, but somehow I could trace a flowery scent in the air. The sheer white curtains were drawn back and were fluttering in the gentle spring breeze. The brilliant, sunlight-drenched window framed their entwined figures and cast their faces in shadow.
—Even though I knew it was wrong to continue sneaking a peek into them like this, I couldn’t help but stay rooted in my spot at this breathtaking spectacle.
When they broke apart, Asougi-san’s cheek was glistening with moisture. I wondered what it was until Naruhodou-san started wiping at his eye, and then I realized that they were tears.
“I guess it wouldn’t work like in the fairy tale,” he was chuckling, and then he sighed.
The tears on Asougi-san’s cheek glistened, like dewdrops on a pale leaf.
“What are you dreaming of, Asougi?” he murmured.
And then, oddly—
“Are you back in that cabin once more? Are you now trapped living the life of another Asougi Kazuma? Is that why you can’t come back to me?”
What a curious question, I thought. What did he mean by that?
“Am I happy,” he said, blankly. It was not a question.
The silence lay thickly upon the room, like a blanket of snow, and at that moment I had to close the door again and fight my own tears back, I was so overcome with sudden emotion. I decided to give them their space for now and do the other rooms first, my mind filled with what I had just seen.
Again, the days sped on by, and the weather became warmer and warmer, until during the midsummer, Masamune Haori got rotated back up to day shift. Like the other nurses, she seemed taken with the story of the patient in room 410 and the young man who kept visiting him daily with flowers in hand, but unlike the others, she was assigned with me to take care of Asougi-san, and thus she can also understand them more deeply. It was only when Haori-chan started to help me during my rounds did I realize how much of a relief it was to share the burden of that room with someone else.
“Susato-chan, do you believe in reincarnation?” she asked me one time.
“I… well. Not really.” My father was a man of science—he’d never actively teach me on things like that. What I do know about it I picked up from novels. “Even if I had been a spiritual kind of person—which I don’t think I necessarily am, compared to normal people—reincarnation is still kind of a weird concept for me.”
“Like, being reincarnated into a rat or something in the next life? I do understand.” Haori-chan giggled when she saw me shudder. “I guess I wouldn’t want to be a rat, either.”
“S-Stop talking about rats.” I crossed my arms. “Why are you bringing that up so suddenly, anyway?”
“It’s not sudden! You just weren’t paying attention,” she said, defensively. “We were talking about Naruhodou-san and Asougi-san, right? I was saying that maybe they were also really close in a past life or something, and then I asked you if you believed in reincarnation…”
I recalled the sight of Naruhodou-san kissing Asougi-san on the lips, and said, “You know, if they were together in a past life, I wouldn’t really be surprised.”
“Right!” Haori-chan nodded vigorously. “Do you remember when I told you how Naruhodou-san looked like he had old eyes?”
I laughed. “Don’t tell me that you now think he has old eyes because he’s actually some thousand-year-old mythical creature or something. Some people…” I idly toyed with my pen, hesitating, “some people just have the misfortune of experiencing something that changed their life forever, and sometimes… they can never quite hide it, even if they wish they could.”
Haori-chan stared at me for a long time. “Even if you don’t say it, Susato-chan, you are attached to them now, aren’t you?”
“I’ve looked after Asougi-san for quite a while now. It’s hard not to.” I sighed. “You can wave it off as another of your karmic nonsense or anything, but somehow, to look after these two… felt really, really important to me.”
“I hope they become happy someday,” Haori-chan said, seriously.
“Yes, they will,” I replied.
A moment of silence passed over us, as if in prayer.
“Susato-san?” the intercom suddenly buzzed, and I jolted out of my seat as soon as I recognized that voice. “Susato-san!”
“N-Naruhodou-san?” Haori-chan was whispering at me anxiously.
I didn’t need to be told twice. Immediately telling Haori-chan to call a doctor, I rushed to the room by myself, hoping that it was the happier possibility, and not the other.
Please don’t let me arrive with Asougi-san choking on his last breath or something, please, please, please, I kept whispering to myself even as I pulled the door open.
Naruhodou-san was already at the doorway when I arrived, as if he was also about to rush out himself and find me, so the wave of relief that washed over his face was palpable when I pushed him aside with a silent apology for my rudeness and sped over to Asougi-san’s bedside.
“…Asougi-san? Are you awake?” I whispered, gently, and Naruhodou-san went over to the other side of the bed and started whispering urgently to him, as well. I noticed a tear-track that glimmered from Asougi-san’s good eye down his cheek, and emboldened by this, I did my best to call him back to consciousness once more.
“Asougi,” Naruhodou-san murmured, gently. “Don’t worry. I’m here. Asougi.”
My heart almost stopped when I saw Asougi-san’s eyelid flutter, and heard a small groan from his throat.
“Nn…” he groaned again.
Oh. Oh. He was… He really was—
Across myself, Naruhodou-san was clutching Asougi-san’s good hand with unnecessary strength, his face tight. His lip was trembling.
“Nn… Naru… hodou…”
His voice was so weak, and frail…
…but he did speak.
Wordlessly, Naruhodou-san had already raised Asougi-san’s hand to his lips, and kissed it fervently.
When Haori-chan finally burst through the door with the doctor in tow, Asougi Kazuma-san had already opened his eyes, and he was staring right into Naruhodou-san’s face, almost as if he wanted to capture Naruhodou-san as he was at that moment; that is, the young man who was at the same time smiling so hugely, and crying intensely, and kissing Asougi-san’s fingers—over and over, as if he couldn’t stop.
prelude to happiness. part the final end.
spring 2017-2018. epilogue.
cherry blossom: beginnings. impermanence. rebirth.
“Can I taste yours?”
“Hey, are you listening to me? I said, can I taste your ice cream?”
“…Ignoring me, huh…”
Finally distracted from his reverie, Asougi Kazuma glanced down to see Naruhodou Ryuunosuke already leaning over and taking a giant bite of ice cream from his cone. “Why are you asking me if you’re going to do it regardless?” he asked, deeply amused, and Ryuunosuke blushed and drew away.
“You weren’t paying attention to me,” he replied, puffing his cheeks, as if trying to escape his crime by being adorable. “This is your just desserts.”
“That… is one of the most terrible jokes I’ve ever heard,” Kazuma said, though he was laughing anyway.
Casually, he reached out and wiped the smudge of bright purple ice cream that had gotten on Ryuunosuke’s round face with a paper napkin. Ryuunosuke, meanwhile, was still eyeing the ice cream in Kazuma’s hand and mumbling, “Asougi, I—”
“Stop answering my questions before I finish asking them,” Ryuunosuke huffed.
“You’re just extremely easy to read.”
“It’s creeping me out,” Ryuunosuke said, even as he still stared longingly at the ice cream.
Naruhodou Ryuunosuke’s puppy-dog eyes, Asougi Kazuma privately thought as he felt himself melt at the sight, should be banned as a weapon of mass destruction.
Unable to resist that face any longer, he finally surrendered his cone over, and proceeded to enjoy the sight of Ryuunosuke devouring his second ice cream of the day.
Behind their bench, the splashing sounds of the fountain as the cascading water hit the marble basin was strangely soothing. With nothing else to occupy his hands, Kazuma idly ripped the wrapper off from the bread that they had bought earlier and tried to attract the pigeons cooing around them by tearing off pieces and tossing them on the ground. Overhead, the sky was cloudy and gray, but Ryuunosuke seemed quite cheerful as he stared up at the clouds.
Kazuma glanced at Ryuunosuke, noticing that the ice cream he had relinquished just minutes ago had already disappeared into Ryuunosuke’s mouth. “Sometimes, I think they created ‘inhale’ as a synonym for eating just for you, Naruhodou,” he remarked, just mildly surprised.
“Beetroot-flavored ice cream, finally crossed off the list.” Ryuunosuke grinned. “My chicken-flavored ice cream from earlier was pretty okay too. You should’ve tried some. You might’ve liked it better than real chicken.”
“I think I’d sooner eat a real chicken than be anywhere near that stuff. Chicken-flavored ice cream just sounds gross.”
“Yeah, right.” Ryuunosuke laughed. “Best be thankful that I know you too much to actually take you up on that dare.”
Kazuma chortled, but then felt the first raindrop hit his cheek. He looked up with a disappointed expression. “…I think we should start packing up. From the smell of it, it’s going to be a downpour.”
“Good thinking.” Even though he looked as if he was fine with just sitting in the rain, Ryuunosuke sighed and started gathering up the stuff scattered on the bench. Kazuma was already opening up their umbrella, and amiably, Ryuunosuke let himself get pulled to his feet. They walked in intimate silence, his cold hand clasped in a warmer one.
At this time of year, the flowers were just starting to open in London, and the weak sunlight, coupled with the rainclouds overhead, meant that it was still quite chilly. Kazuma was wearing his well-worn brown coat and a red scarf that they had purchased yesterday—the ends of the scarf fluttered lightly behind him, as if carried by an invisible warm breeze, and Ryuunosuke thought that the sight was quite charming. The accident had left Kazuma with a slight limp that marred his previous soldierly gait, though it wouldn’t have been very apparent to the casual onlooker. Ryuunosuke figured that he himself can only detect it because they were walking side-by-side like this.
Other than that, the fresh-sprung grass crunched pleasantly underfoot, the tender green leaves were unfurling from their branches overhead, Kazuma’s hand was warm around his, and he felt at peace with the world.
“How many years have we known each other, Asougi?” he found himself asking.
Kazuma frowned. “I’d say… around five years this summer. A nice solid number.”
“Really? Just five?” Ryuunosuke laughed. “It felt like a lifetime to me.”
“I’d say we did quite well for ourselves to reach this long.”
“We tolerate each other a little too well.”
“That’s part of the reason.” Kazuma smiled. “But mostly it was because…”
“You’re still in love with me?”
“Of course, silly.”
Kazuma’s answer was unashamedly straightforward, like he had been during the beautiful summer of four years ago.
Perhaps overwhelmed by this barefaced reply, Ryuunosuke was silent for a long, long while.
The rain fell on their umbrella in a gentle rhythmic pitter-patter.
“If, in the future…” Ryuunosuke finally said, slowly.
“Hm?” Kazuma’s dark eyes were just focused on the path before them.
“If in the future, there came a time when I could marry you…” he found himself remarking. “I bet my parents would be more than happy to take you in. …They’d let you in the family register, easy as anything.”
“Your mother is a charming woman,” Kazuma said warmly, smiling at the memory. “And… the idea of marrying into the Naruhodou family doesn’t sound so bad.”
Ryuunosuke chuckled. “Yeah. She loves you to bits. Makes me wonder if my mother and I had a type.” He paused, as if he had just been struck by a realization. “Oh, but if we both become Naruhodou, we’d have to start calling each other by first names, huh? Kazuma-san.” He tested the sound of it on his tongue, reminiscent of a cat cautiously sticking its nose into a dish of warm milk. “Hey, Kazuma-san.”
At this, Kazuma was only silent, and raised his scarf so that half of his face was obscured by the scarf. However, Ryuunosuke could still see, from what little of his face was left uncovered, that Kazuma was slightly blushing.
“Why are you so red, Kazuma-san?”
“I…” Kazuma huffed and reddened even more, if that was possible. “…Stop saying my name. It’s embarrassing.”
“Old-fashioned. Would you prefer me to call you Kazuma-sama?” Ryuunosuke teased him—“The honorific is not the issue here, Naruhodou,” Kazuma muttered—but then he suddenly dropped the smile, making Kazuma glance at him in slight worry.
“Naruhodou? What’s the matter?”
“…Actually, speaking of parents, I… I’ve also been thinking a little if you wanted to go on a trip to Shikoku for a bit. With me. For when we get back.”
Kazuma’s eyes predictably darkened. “What for?”
“You haven’t gone home since you’re, what, nineteen or twenty?” Ryuunosuke frowned. “It’s almost ten years. Don’t you miss your dad or something?”
Kazuma sighed. “Why are we talking about this?”
Ryuunosuke smiled crookedly. “Haven’t you once wondered how I paid for all those hospital bills, considering my pitiful salary?”
Kazuma looked away, frowning. “So you did manage to get in touch with him.”
“He’s your father, Asougi,” Ryuunosuke murmured. “You can’t keep him from worrying after you.”
“I knew that.” Kazuma fixed him with a glare, but Ryuunosuke didn’t back down, and after a good round of the both of them just staring stonily at each other, he conceded with a deep sigh. “Fine. One trip. One short trip. Then stop badgering me about it.”
Ryuunosuke grinned. “Fine. I promise.” He smiled gently. “Besides, your mom probably really misses you too.”
Kazuma finally smiled. “Yeah. I should visit her.”
Overhead, the rain was starting to pick up. The ground was becoming harder to walk on, and their shoes were already quite splattered with mud. However, the bus stop was very close, and the pair quickened their pace to catch the bus that had just pulled up. Once they had already settled in their seats, Kazuma finally let his head fall back on his seat, exhausted.
“Tired?” Ryuunosuke asked, worriedly.
“A little.” Kazuma grimaced. “We’ve been around all day.”
“We’re gonna take a while in this traffic,” Ryuunosuke commented. “Maybe you should take a short nap. I’ll wake you up when we’re almost there.”
“No, I think I’ll be fine for a while longer,” Kazuma said stubbornly, and leaned slightly against Ryuunosuke’s shoulder. They were engulfed in companionable warmth, and while Kazuma had refused his suggestion of a nap, Ryuunosuke could see his eyelids starting to droop despite themselves. Smiling, he started to speak, if only to keep Kazuma alert for a few more minutes.
“It’s still surreal to me that I’m already in my thirties.”
“I’ve been thirty years old for months ahead of you, Naruhodou. It’s not that bad.” Kazuma glanced at him. “Besides, you don’t seem a day over twenty, it’s almost amazing. You’re doomed to sound like a young boy forever.”
“Uu. Why are you so grown-up compared to me when we’re supposed to be the same age?”
Apparently still weary, Kazuma just smiled. His eyelids seemed heavier than ever.
“It’s funny how, when I was in high school, people in their thirties seemed so old to me. Now that I’m thirty myself, it just seems kind of… the same, really.”
“Mm,” Kazuma mumbled. Ryuunosuke looked over, and chuckled when he found that Kazuma was already asleep.
“Asougi,” he whispered to the slumbering figure, “I’m really glad you’re here.”
“I am, too,” Kazuma suddenly replied in a muffled voice, eyes still shut, and Ryuunosuke laughed and kissed him on the brow before looking out of the window. The rain was already in full force; it streamed down the pane in sheets, making London look like a blur.
Losing himself in the sights of the gloomy city, Ryuunosuke found himself remembering the astringent scent of isopropyl alcohol, and the wintry whiteness of a hospital room that he had been glad to leave behind.
The astringent scent of isopropyl alcohol, and the wintry whiteness of a painfully familiar hospital room.
Your younger self, from a year ago. Your younger self, which was a prelude to the happiness you are feeling now.
Asougi Kazuma’s hand, neatly enclosed within both of yours. The feel of his skin against your lips. His handsome dark eyes, gazing at you wonderingly as you kissed his hand. You have tuned everything else out. The sounds of the doctor and Murasame Haori entering the room. The hurried things Mikotoba Susato was telling them. Among all this chaos, you only hear one thing.
“Naruhodou,” he repeats your name, and his voice was horribly grating and rusty like nails against a chalkboard.
But at the same time, it was the most beautiful thing you’ve heard after an eternity of sadness.
And then there was—
the months after his awakening.
Unlike the eternity that you have spent before he opened his eyes, it seemed as if with Asougi, time now couldn’t move quickly enough. Einstein probably didn’t realize how romantic his theory of relativity could be.
The day Asougi was used to eating solid food once more, you immediately snuck in some of his favorite things and you had a grand old time eating yourselves sick without Susato’s knowledge.
It felt good to hear Asougi laugh.
It felt good to hear yourself laugh.
Is this happiness? you wonder.
—And there was also the last day of you as a teacher, in the school where you have spent quite a bit of your life in.
the flowers, the tears,
the smiles, the promises, the jokes,
the singing, the photographs, the postcards, the nostalgia, the apologies, the thank-yous, the see-you-arounds, the rousing chorus of the classes you have taught wishing you good luck in your future endeavors—
Perhaps, perhaps you hadn’t been as bad of a teacher as you had imagined yourself to be.
“Of course not, Ryuun-sensei,” one of them cried out, indignantly.
You did your best, Ryuun-sensei, they told you, firmly.
You did your best, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke, you finally find the courage to tell yourself, after all those years.
You did your very best.
“Where are you going next, Ryuun-sensei?” someone asks you. “What are you going to do next?”
“I want to search for something,” you want to answer, but instead you smile and stay silent, and wave goodbye.
Is this happiness? you wonder yet again.
You leave a cherry blossom branch on the Murata family grave that afternoon.
“I’m going to look for it, Murata-kun,” you tell him. “The happiness that you haven’t been able to find.”
Are you happy? Asougi asks you later. In the cool spring sunlight, he is warm, and awake, and breathtakingly beautiful.
I don’t know yet, you tell him. But I’m trying to be.
Good, he tells you. I’m proud of you, partner.
Thank you, you tell him.
You never once exchange blatant words of love. But Asougi already knows, anyway.
Hey, you never tell him. Please love me forever.
Idiot, he never tells you. I’ll never not love you!
“Asougi? Wake up, we’re almost at the hotel.”
With a soft grunt, Kazuma stirred under Ryuunosuke’s touch, and he raised his head. The rain had already stopped some time ago, and the red sunset was dazzling through the small gaps between the old-fashioned buildings. Ryuunosuke’s glasses gently glinted every time the bus went through those crimson slivers of sunlight. Beneath the spectacles, his eyes were melancholic, and affectionate.
The bus was mostly empty and silent at this time of the day, except for the father and daughter in the seats across the aisle. From what little he can hear, Kazuma pieced together that the pale-haired young lady was wheedling her father to take her someplace—“Papa, we must go and see it at once!” “Iris, haven’t you heard the saying that tomorrow is another day?” “That’s hardly relevant, isn’t it?” Smiling at the silly exchange, Kazuma was about to open his mouth and surreptitiously point out the couple for Ryuunosuke, but then noticed that Ryuunosuke was once more staring out of the window quite vacantly.
“The cherry trees should be blooming back home right now,” Ryuunosuke was saying, wistfully.
“I guess so.” Kazuma smiled. “I think we still have time to catch them after this trip, though.”
“Mm. Let’s invite Susato-san and Murasame-san if we’re going to view them.”
“Sounds fine to me.”
Once they arrived at their stop, they finally got off the bus and walked the few meters back to the hotel.
The pavement was damp, and pedestrians were once again starting to populate the streets. The streetlights were flickering to life as the last light of the sun finally gave way to the night. The sweetness of the ice cream still lingered on Kazuma’s tongue. Once more, Ryuunosuke’s cold fingers had irresistibly entwined themselves with his. He was humming an English nursery rhyme to himself, and the sound of his off-key singing was oddly endearing in the deep twilight.
“Oh, you got it right, Asougi.”
“Way to go, me. It barely sounded like it.”
“Uu, so mean…”
Kazuma laughed at Ryuunosuke’s dejected sighing.
Some time later, Ryuunosuke was finally soaking in the extra-large bathtub in their room, the hot water soothing his aching muscles. Kazuma, who had come into the bathroom late, was just finishing scrubbing himself. He finally joined Ryuunosuke in the tub after washing off the suds, and they just spent the next few minutes together in companionable silence. Kazuma was about to nod back to sleep when Ryuunosuke suddenly spoke.
“You look so much like your dad when you have your hair swept back like that,” Ryuunosuke grinned, as he drew his bare knees to his chest to allow Kazuma more room in the tub.
Kazuma sighed with an annoyed look, before taking off the towel that was keeping his hair out of his face and letting it fall back into place. “Thanks for reminding me I look so much like him.”
“Sorry.” However, Ryuunosuke was laughing. “Hey, this tub is pretty large, huh?”
“Yeah. The one you have at home can barely fit one person in it, let alone both of us.”
“Only too right…”
Kazuma fell silent once more, and irresistibly, combed his hair back again and put the folded towel on his head. His eyes had slid closed. Ryuunosuke eyed the beads of water sliding alluringly down the curve of Kazuma’s bare throat, and smiled sadly when he caught sight of the scars on his shoulder.
“Hey, don’t fall asleep in here or you’ll overheat,” he said somberly, and Kazuma opened his eyes once more and flashed him a smile.
“You’re the blushing one,” he pointed out, wickedly. “What are you thinking of, Naruhodou?”
“Shut up.” Ryuunosuke splashed some water at Kazuma’s face, which he bore with gentlemanly grace. “Just shut up.”
“Hey, you spoke first.”
“Well, don’t sleep in here.”
“Fine,” Kazuma replied lazily, and rolled his shoulders back. “Ugh. I got dragged around by you for the better part of the day.”
“And you let yourself get dragged around by me.” Ryuunosuke laughed. “Are we going to see Baker Street tomorrow? I think Susato-san would like a souvenir from the museum.”
“Well, sure. Why not.”
“The ice cream was delicious,” Ryuunosuke said. “Let’s go again tomorrow. I have to try everything on their menu.”
“You really have to watch your weight,” Kazuma teased him. “Let’s walk all the way to the restaurant to burn off your calories.”
“Which I’ll regain during dinner, anyway.”
“Then after dinner we’ll just have to walk back here. No problem.”
The both of them took a bit of time picking out what to wear for dinner after the bath, but Ryuunosuke finally settled on one of his go-to ensembles when he was still a teacher: a dark blue long-sleeved shirt paired with a gray blazer, and navy-blue trousers. Kazuma was just wearing one of his work suits, a particularly simple yet well-cut black one, with a white shirt underneath and without the tie. He carried the suit jacket over his arm, with the air of a particularly fashionable professional.
Ryuunosuke thought how ridiculously good-looking this person was, and privately wondered if he looked like trash standing next to him.
“You should straighten your shoulders,” Kazuma told him rather severely, and Ryuunosuke sighed before following his advice. “There. Now, raise your chin, and take my hand, and we’re ready to go.”
Ryuunosuke looked down at the hand Kazuma was offering him.
“Are you ready, partner?”
Kazuma’s dark eyes were inquiring, and hastily, Ryuunosuke took his hand.
“Yeah. I am.”
The resulting smile on Kazuma’s face was brilliant.
“Excellent. Then let’s go, shall we, Naruhodou?”
“Right. Lead the way, Asougi.”
With their hands linked between them, they finally headed outdoors, into the chillier London evening.
The sound of the door shutting behind them seemed like such a contented sound.
Spring, far-off spring, as I close my eyes, right there
You, who has given me love, I hear your nostalgic voice
Spring, as-yet-unseen spring, whenever I feel lost and stop
You, who has given me dreams, your gaze embraces me…
1. About Asougi commenting that Naruhodou had an eternally young voice, it's just a reference from an episode of Tokyo Encounter where Nakamura Yuuichi (Asougi’s VA) and Shimono Hiro (Naruhodou’s VA) had this exchange:2. Also, the theory of relativity thing was a reference to Steins;Gate.
Nakamura: “You’re still voicing young boys, aren’t you?”
Shimono: “Someone told me recently, ‘You’ve got a never-changing young boy voice.’”
3. Song excerpt of Haruyo Koi at the end is just a repeat from the excerpt at the beginning. Listen to it here!