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love you if you let me

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Shinobu Kawajiri doesn’t look at herself in the mirror anymore.

She realizes this in a moment of lucidity as she towels off her face before bed. It stops her dead in her tracks as she holds her face within the confines of terrycloth, allows her breathing to warm it well past the point of comfort. Avoiding herself hasn’t been a conscious decision but it suddenly feels like one now. Something is coming into focus, like the sudden awareness of your breathing, or the realization that your tongue is resting uncomfortably in your mouth. Now that she’s noticed, it feels impossible to blur her vision again.

The air within the towel grows stale and humid; Shinobu comes up for air.

She worries her lip as she sets the towel to rest on the edge of the sink. She looks at the corner of her reflection rather than her face, fixates on a loose thread on her pajamas. They’re old, old enough to have been from a time when she still bought things for herself.

Things haven’t felt right in a long time. The unrest of a loveless marriage bleeds into the rest of her life; like flood water slowly rising, it overtakes her self-esteem and her patience as the years crawl on. A long time ago, Shinobu decided something in her life had to give. Without any other answers coming, she knew it would have to be her.

It isn’t that she’s insecure with herself but she’s tired. Her discontentment is growing into some large and unnamable thing that she can hardly contain; it bubbles and it threatens to pop in little actions. Something has to give, she reminds herself.

Shinobu goes to bed and night gives way to morning.

It’s been the same routine for a decade now: wake up, get the paper, make breakfast for a family who pays you no mind, clean the house, go to bed with a man you feel nothing for. Rinse and repeat.

Kosaku reads the paper and Hayato eats his eggs and is out the door before Shinobu can properly say goodbye. It’s just her and Kosaku now, and they sit at the table in silence.

There’s a mutual agreement in the way they don’t look at each other when Kosaku leaves in the morning. It’s something that says: “We’ve never loved each other. It’s not okay, but I understand”. If there’s one thing they understand about each other it’s this. Kosaku leaves and Shinobu stays.

She clears the table of plates, lays the cutlery on top and holds all three cups in a triangular pattern with the tips of her fingers. It’s all muscle memory when she tucks the paper under her arm and walks to place the dishes in the sink.

No matter how clean the house gets, the air is still stale. It’s killing her slowly, suffocating her.

There’s nothing special about this morning. The light filters through the curtains the same way and she made the same thing for breakfast and there are no sensational headlines in the paper. There’s nothing different about this morning but Shinobu stops as she goes to toss the newspaper into the recycling, her eyes catch on an advertisement. It grabs hold of her and she lingers on it. Shinobu eases herself slowly onto the corner of one of the dining chairs and reads the ad over and over again.

Change your luck: Using makeup for finding love.

--

Every time she thought to call it felt like admitting defeat, so Shinobu steps through the doors of Cinderella without an appointment. A part of her hoped that she would stop by another shop on the way, that her interest might carry her elsewhere in the time it took to walk to the salon. The fact that she persisted means that this must be necessary.

Maybe she was right not to call ahead. As she steps through the doors of the salon she finds it completely empty. Shinobu cranes her neck to get a better look at the place, puts her hands in the pockets of her coat as she walks further into the shop.

“Hello?” There’s no answer.

She feels like she should cut her losses and leave but there’s a need to satiate her curiosity, make this all feel worth her time. She doesn’t touch anything, stays quiet. There’s a bit of a museum-like quality that she’s preserving. The salon floor is empty but there’s character to it; it feels lived-in. Shinobu’s eyes draw over the working table, the station--

“Can I help you?” A voice cuts into her thoughts, a voice that’s just beside her.

Shinobu starts like she’s been caught. “God, you--” She lets herself breathe a moment, evens herself out. “I didn’t think anyone was here.”

“Are you surprised?” the woman asks. She sounds like she’s trying to leisurely catch her breath.

That feels like a loaded question and it shouldn’t. She was surprised by the fact that she made it to Cinderella in the first place, but that feeling had dissipated quickly. Is it the woman speaking to her that she’s surprised by? Now that she can get a better look at her, that feels like part of the equation. There’s an effortless beauty about her, in the gentle slope of her nose and the way her clothes drape over here in this classic, demure way, and it shouldn’t surprise her exactly but Shinobu finds herself struck by it. Mostly Shinobu is surprised by the way her heart pounds in her chest but there’s surely no way for the woman to have realized any of this.

Instead, she says, “You do makeovers, isn’t that right?"

“It’s my life's work."

"I… need one," The words fumble lamely from her mouth and Shinobu bites her lip as if it will trap what’s already been said.

She doesn’t generally feel self-conscious but the way the woman’s eyes drag over her, assessing, has her wondering which flaws she could possibly be taking notice of.

And then the woman says, finally, “Is that what you really want?”

Shinobu’s mouth opens and closes. A sharp, disbelieving laugh sutters out from her. “Excuse me?”

The woman leans forward to rest her chin in her palm. Her eyes are wistful as they meet Shinobu’s. “You’re treating the symptom rather than the problem. There’s something more that’s bothering you.”

Of course there’s more to it than that, there’s always more to it. But there’s no way she can explain something to a stranger that she can hardly articulate to herself. Perhaps this is a bandaid over a bullet hole but the gun’s already gone off. This is all she can do.

Before she can summon a proper reply the esthetician takes Shinobu’s face in her hands and for a moment, just a moment, she knows what it’s like to be held with care. The woman’s hands run delicately over her cheekbones and Shinobu notes the sensation of perfectly manicured nails dragging gently across the surface of her skin. It’s a ghost of a feeling, not meant to be felt at all but Shinobu fixates on it. Unconsciously, she leans into the touch. The two of them are so close now that she can feel the woman’s breath against her skin when she says--

“You’re beautiful.” There’s nothing reverent in the way the woman says it but Shinobu’s face heats at the praise. She realizes how close they are, how intimate this is. “You have a lucky face. I’m sure it will attract love.”

The bitter laugh that escapes her sounds ugly to her own ears. “Some good it’s done me so far.”

The woman smiles and there’s something knowing in her eyes. “Love finds you in strange places.” She sighs.

Maybe it’s because she’s never felt it, but love at first sight isn’t something Shinobu believes in. But the way her heart flutters wildly in her chest upon realizing how long the woman’s eyelashes are make Shinobu feel like she might understand what that sort of infatuation feels like. For the first time in a long time, love feels like something tangible, like something she can reach out and touch. It makes her hope that someday it could still happen for her.

But she’s getting ahead of herself.

"I just... need a change," Shinobu asserts. “I want this.” And those words suddenly feel like they have more weight to them.

The woman seems to recognize her resolve, maybe she even respects it by the way her lips twitch as she says, "Follow me."

The esthetician sits her down in front of her station. Once she's comfortable, the woman's fingers trace along Shinobu's jawline, gently coaxing her head forward, upward. She follows along, but her eyes remain fixed on the collar of her jacket.

“Look,” the woman urges quietly against the shell of her ear, her breath ghosting just along it.

It takes a moment, maybe a few, but the woman is patient and Shinobu is trying. Taking a deep breath, her eyes move up with the rise of her chest. In the mirror she sees herself, what she knows must be herself. As she looks, the woman’s hands draw down the back of her neck and come to rest with a comforting weight on Shinobu's shoulders. If she’s honest with herself, she doesn’t look good; unpleasantly, Shinobu finds that worry lines have creased her forehead and all she can see when she looks at her hair are split ends. All things considered, she thought it would be a bit more catastrophic, taking a good long look at herself, but it feels easy like this. Beside her the woman is leaning over, smiling at her through their reflection.

“What did I tell you?” The woman exhales against the base of Shinobu’s neck. Her breath prickles at her skin and every hair stands on end. “Lovely.

“You’re just saying that.” It’s not humble at all. Shinobu is back to looking at the esthetician instead, but it’s progress.

“You would know if I thought you were ugly, trust me.”

In a strange way that reassures her.

“What should I call you?” The woman asks then, trailing a hand across Shinobu’s back to thread through her hair. It feels like a lot at once, all of this, but she welcomes it.

“Ka--” She stops herself. “Shinobu. Shinobu, please.”

“Aya,” the woman introduces herself and the name echoes sweetly in Shinobu’s ear. “Should we get started, then, Shinobu?”

She doesn’t hesitate.

Chapter Text

Routine resumes as usual when she returns home that night. Dinner comes and goes and nobody notices anything different about her right away, probably won’t ever. But Shinobu feels it in herself, how she walks a little taller to bed that night, how she catches the eyes of her own reflection in the hallway mirror.

When she raises a hand to run through her hair, her reflection moves along with her. It's her but it's not; it's better and it's different, only just so.

Change is thrumming through her like new blood. The name Aya reverberates in her mind, growing louder and louder. Shinobu revels in the newness.

--

She used to read to Hayato every night when he was young, young enough to still ask for something like that. The story didn’t matter, really, as long as he was pulled snugly against her side and could get a good look at the pictures. He wouldn’t dream of that now, but Shinobu liked to remember a time when he did.

“Mom,” Hayato murmured into her chest.

“Hm?” Shinobu hummed, brushing the stray hairs away from his face. Hayato always fought against sleep, tried to act like he wasn’t losing the battle. It was best to make him comfortable before he inevitably slipped away.

“Why doesn’t the Fairy Godmother go to the ball?”

He always asked good questions and Shinobu tried her best to give half-as-good answers. She pursed her lips and continued to thread her fingers through her son’s hair.

“Maybe just helping is fine with her,” she said, but it didn’t feel like the truth at all.

“She should get to go,” Hayato said. “It’s not fair.”

Hayato always asked good questions and he tended to give good answers.

Nothing is fair, a part of her wanted to say. There are many things that you may deserve and just as many things you will never have. Shooting stars are falling from the moment you wish on them. Reality is cruel.

"You’re right, it’s not,” she said, but Hayato was already asleep.

He laid, breathing restful and even, against her and she looked at the stars that shone through the pane glass window. She thought about the Fairy Godmother, about wishes, about being left behind.

--

Even though they had set up a follow-up appointment the next week, Shinobu shows up the next day unannounced. Perhaps as a peace offering for the intrusion she brings two to-go cups of coffee along with her. That’s the only reason, she tells herself.

The front door chimes as Shinobu enters and Aya is there, a permanent fixture, penciling in her schedule. She looks up and Shinobu can’t help but feel a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, if only for a second. Aya pivots, setting down her pencil with a breath.

“Is everything alright?”

Yes, her mind screams, more right than it’s ever been.

“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by,” Shinobu’s lips curl into a playful smirk. “Unless something looks out of place.”

Aya smiles, “Not a hair.”

As it happens, Aya's afternoon is free enough to sit and chat with someone and thankfully that person is her. Shinobu isn’t used to having friends but neither is Aya so the two find themselves in good company. There are long pauses here and there and sometimes it feels like Shinobu is talking herself in circles but Aya still laughs and smiles so it can't be all bad. It feels like nothing about this can be.

"You know, it's funny. I’ve never seen you around town," Shinobu looks to the side and shrugs. "Not that I'm around much either, but..."

"You're looking in the wrong places." That shouldn't feel flirtatious but it does.

Shinobu picks idly at the sticker on her cup. "You're married to your work, aren't you?"

"That's a strong word."

"Is it the wrong one?"

"Hmm," Aya looks into the corner of the salon as if it holds her answer. She sighs. "You could say that."

“You don’t date much then, do you?” It’s mostly a joke. Mostly.

Aya shakes her head, “Never.”

It feels wrong but something in Shinobu feels like it deflates. "Never, huh?” There’s that quiet again. “Well, I guess dating would be hard to manage, with you being so busy.”

“It's not that, exactly,” Aya holds her coffee graciously in her hands, but she doesn’t drink from it, just allows the warmth to seep into her. "I just never thought of that for myself."

That throws her a bit. "...Of being with someone?"

Aya hums in agreement, nods like she’s affirming it to herself. "It's selfish, I think. I can't give everyone their fairytale ending if I'm the one dancing at the ball."

"That doesn't sound true at all."

“Doesn’t it?”

“No,” Shinobu scratches the last of the sticker on her cup off with a firm drag of her nail. “You’re a person, you deserve to be happy just as much the people who come to your salon.”

“People like you?”

“More than me.”

There’s that wistful smile again when Aya looks at her. It feels pitying, almost, but Shinobu isn’t sure who is the subject of that pity. “We all have dreams, Shinobu. Mine is to be like the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella.”

Shinobu remembers the feeling of Aya’s hands along her jawline, of how she’s looked at herself for the first time in years all on her own. “Looks like some dreams really do come true.”

“Do you have a dream like that?”

She did, once, but the star she wished on is too far off, too buried. However, change is in the air. “...Coffee next week?”

It’s quiet for a moment, long enough for Shinobu to worry that she’s been too forward. But Aya pivots back to the schedule at her podium and says, “I’ll pencil you in.”

--

One coffee date turns into two, two turn into four, and Shinobu comes to learn a lot about Aya. The first thing is that she doesn’t like coffee so she starts bringing her tea with no sugar, no cream. She learns that Aya will stop in the middle of sentences to breathe but she always picks them back up again and something in Shinobu’s chest stirs at those small acts of determination. Aya is selfless and kind and she’s the most beautiful person Shinobu has ever known. Shinobu doesn’t want to stop staring at her, at the way she presses her lips together to stop herself before she laughs. She doesn’t want to stop so she doesn’t, doesn’t turn away when Aya catches her staring.

When Aya doesn’t look away either, lingers as their fingers brush when Shinobu hands her tea in the afternoon, that’s when Shinobu knows there’s no looking back.

--

Cinderella is closed one day a week and, blessedly, Aya devotes that day to Shinobu. Some days they’ll go to a corner cafe, others they’ll run errands together. Today, Shinobu puts the radio on.

"Come on, dance with me." It's offered as a suggestion, as if Shinobu isn't already helping Aya to her feet.

“Oh I,” Aya sounds almost sheepish. “I can’t, really--”

“No one ever take you for a spin before?”

“The Fairy Godmother isn’t supposed to go to the ball, remember?”

“Good thing it’s just the two of us,” Shinobu draws her closer, laces her fingers with Aya’s, and pretends that she isn't frustrated at that rhetoric.

Aya hums fondly. “Good thing.”

Shinobu wraps her arm loosely around Aya's waist, holds their intertwined hands level with their shoulders. Both of them sway to the music that floats gently through the salon.

“I’ve been thinking…”

Aya’s eyes flit across Shinobu’s face, searching. “Have you?”

There’s a different line of questioning on her tongue but it dies when she opens her mouth. She closes it and tries again. “Why doesn’t the fairy godmother get to go to the ball?”

“It’s not how the story goes.” There’s something knowing in her smile, like a secret held beneath her tongue. Shinobu wants to find those answers, wants to press her lips against Aya's in the hope that it might bring her closer to discovering them.

Instead she says, "I think it should go a little differently." Shinobu takes delicate hold of Aya's hand and spins her, pulls her flush against her chest after a single rotation.

Aya breathes and the corner of her lip twitches, begging Shinobu to humor her. "Oh?" It sounds like a challenge.

"Cinderella gets her new dress, the Godmother sends her off," Shinobu's hand slinks to Aya's hip. “Then she goes and has her own fun. A job well done deserves a nice night, I think."

She feels Aya's thumb run lightly against her palm, like she's considering it. "You make it sound so easy."

Shinobu squeezes Aya's hand in hers, just a little, just enough. "It can be." And those words feel suddenly feel like they have more weight to them.

Aya tips her head forward, holds it there in the space between them.

"I want it to be," She says.

--

For the past few weeks, after her meetings with Aya, Shinobu returns to an empty house. Hayato isn’t home from school for hours and Kosaku returns later still. There’s ample time to finish what needs finishing, get dinner started, maintain the routine that’s been in place for years. This schedule isn’t routine so much as a series of expectations.

She's cooking when the phone rings, and she's quick to towel off her hands and toss the washcloth onto the counter before answering.

Shinobu picks up the phone, "Kawajiri residence."

"It's me," Kosaku's voice says through the receiver. "They need me late at the office. I won't be home tonight."

"Again?" Shinobu doesn't try to alleviate the severity of her tone.

"I'm sorry," his voice is that austere remorse that makes her blood boil.

"Did you even try to say you couldn't?"

"You know I can't do that."

A resigned, sardonic laugh tumbles out of her. It's not particularly funny, not really, but this scene has happened so many times that her life feels like parody at this point and, really, she has to laugh at that. She has to.

"Yeah," she says. "Alright."

"...Goodnight." He says, and pauses uncertainly before he hangs up. Shinobu holds the phone in her hand for a moment after.

She expects to be disappointed, to feel something in the absence. It feels normal and, she realizes then, it is. This is how it always is. Kosaku leaves and Shinobu stays and that's the rhythm they've always danced to. This shouldn’t feel unusual but it does.

Using the word 'husband’ to describe Kosaku is strange, ill-fitting. Not in the way one outgrows a shirt that fit them once, a long time ago. More in the way one buys a dress in the hope that they’ll fit into it one day, but that day never comes and the dress remains at the back of the closet, unworn. She knows that he feels the same way about her. Mr. and Mrs. Kawajiri. It’s as true as it is wrong.

The numbness in her heart, the complete lack of feeling, is only evident now because someone has helped her understand what it feels like to care and be cared for. She doesn't believe what she feels is love, not exactly, but she believes in the way her heart stirs when Aya moves forward like she wants to be closer but stops herself just short, in the way she feels driven to brush Aya's hair back when her bangs slip into her face, and Aya's laugh.

Her heart echoes, Aya, Aya, Aya, and it only grows louder. Shinobu doesn't believe this is love but she believes now, with certainty, that a feeling like that is possible for her.

Day gives way to night and it feels like a light has turned on in a dimly lit room. Everything is so visible now; she didn’t realize how bright it could be. While she’s looking at the world around her in all its brightness Shinobu catches her reflection in the kitchen window. She holds her gaze.

Something has to give, she reminds herself.

Chapter Text

Shinobu’s wedding ring rests between herself and Kosaku on the dining room table like a barrier, but it’s the silence that divides them more than anything physical could. The kitchen clock is the only sound, and it ticks slow and incessant.

For once, it’s Kosaku that breaks the silence.

“Is this really what you want?” His tone is careful, measured.

A question like that has a lot of weight to it, the sort with an expectance attached that grows heavier and heavier as the clock ticks on. It’s a weight that presses down within her chest, like a rock keeping her body weighted as water rushes over her. It rises and swirls upward and there’s an adrenaline rush that comes with the flood, tingling dreadfully at her neck, telling her that she has to move, she needs to, but she’s rooted and heavy.

It isn’t the first time she’s felt this way and it isn’t the first time that such a question has been asked of her, but she treats both of these feelings as if it were.

Of course she wants this, but does she want what comes after as well? Although a large part of her craves a future of uncertainty, is that something she’s ready for? Shinobu places that uncertainty on one end of the scale and this dreadful weight in her chest on the other and it’s heavy, heavy, heavy.

Finally, Shinobu takes a breath.

“I need this.” It feels like she’s forcing the words out of her throat, but it’s best to have them out.

The room is quiet again after that, and Shinobu levels her gaze at the man across from her. He’s staring evenly at the ring at the center of the table. Even though his brow is furrowed, he doesn’t seem upset, doesn’t seem terribly shocked or angry. Processing, she decides, is what that look is. Shinobu can understand. This always seemed like an eventuality that they would never reach; for one of them to have given in, of course it would take time to process.

Kosaku just nods. He accepts it like he accepts everything else. For once, Shinobu is grateful for this trait.

--

The process isn’t easy, but she didn’t expect it to be. All of her time in between her usual day-to-day tasks goes to paperwork and phone calls and meeting with lawyers; routine goes out the window. There’s nothing pretty or romantic about any of it, but there’s a light at the end of a tunnel she never thought to travel down. It comes closer and closer every month, every day, until her name seal is pressed into the final document. For the first time that name feels entirely her own, and Shinobu watches the ink grow matte while it dries against the air.

It feels like there should be more to say when Shinobu and Kosaku leave the office together, but there isn’t. Kosaku lingers at her periphery. A sense of obligation moves her tongue.

“Goodbye,” Shinobu says.

After a moment, what feels like a long time, Kosaku replies, “Take care."

Maybe it’s not the last time they’ll say goodbye, though it feels like it should be. There’s a finality as he takes off, but there’s no remorse to be found in it. She doesn’t watch as Kosaku leaves because she already knows what it looks like. Shinobu turns away and walks down the unfamiliar path.

Even while it feels like she’s struggling to keep her head above water, she feels like she can breathe.

--

When they were a family of three each member stood at the point of a triangle, distant and making no move to grow closer; equilateral, until one point is taken out of play. The divorce is forceful in closing the gap between Hayato and Shinobu, and everything about their lives requires recalculation.

Shinobu hardly knows her son, this boy who has always holed himself up in his room, paranoid and secretive. She wants to understand Hayato, wants to comprehend the way he pushes himself away from her, claustrophobic at the distance that’s been closed, but pulls himself back just as quickly. It’s clear that he wants to understand her, in the way he asks questions of her but is never satisfied with the answers she gives him; it’s the lack of understanding that must frustrate him further.

The days have already grown short as the end of the year draws closer, but even so the night classes Shinobu has taken on send her home well past sunset. She unlocks the door as quietly as possible, shuts it behind herself with a soft click while toeing off her shoes. The house doesn’t look different, but it feels different-- like everything has been moved slightly to the left. It’s a good change, a welcome one.

When she rounds the corner into the living room, Hayato is sprawled on the couch, nose deep in an issue of Shounen Jump. Definitely not sleeping, definitely not in bed.

Unfortunately, this has become part of their routine of push-and-pull as well. When she comes home, he’ll be waiting and when she goes out he’ll be right there to say goodbye. Hayato has never paid her much mind until now, and she isn’t sure what to do with all the attention. It’s a mess of contradiction, the boy she’s raised and the boy that looks up at her from the couch now.

“Hayato,” she’s supposed to be scolding him, but exhaustion has claimed the bite from her voice. Instead she just sounds defeated. “What are you doing?”

He shrugs, tipping the magazine forward as an answer. “Reading.”

Shinobu’s hand had been resting on the doorframe, but it falls weakly to her side. “You have school tomorrow.”

“Studying, then.”

She purses her lips. “I’m sure you’re learning a lot from Naruto.” Hayato just stays quiet.

It takes her a moment, but she starts walking over to the couch, setting her purse down beside it. Shinobu takes a seat, balancing herself in the space between Hayato and the edge of the cushion.

“What’s going on?” Shinobu asks. She looks her son over as he makes no move to answer. Considering, she presses her lips together. Then, she brushes her fingers through his bangs, rubs her thumb gently over the skin that’s creased between his eyebrows. “You have this line stuck here... You’ll get wrinkles before you’re in high school.”

To her surprise, he doesn’t protest her touch; the lateness of the hour has softened them both.

When he doesn’t respond, Shinobu fills the air. “Did you remember to eat? If you forgot I can make--”

“You’ve never cooked for me this late.”

“No. But I’m feeling nice.”

She can feel the line between Hayato’s furrowed brows deepen. “...You’re weird.”

Shinobu hums. “A weird boy is bound to have a weird mother.”

“No,” Hayato corrects, turning his head. “You’ve been weird.”

She can’t help the disbelieving laugh that stumbles out of her. “Me?”

Hayato is more serious when he clarifies: “Different.”

“How?”

“Just… different,” Hayato shifts his shoulder, indecisively caught between a shrug and a push. He turns his head, casts his eyes back down. It seems like he’s searching for the words but can’t put a pin in any precise reason.

“Well I don’t think I’m the only one that’s different,” Shinobu smiles fondly, brings the hand resting on Hayato’s forehead back to run through his hair. “Maybe we’re just paying more attention. At least I’m trying to.”

He lets his head fall back to look up at her, expression twisted. Shinobu smiles down at him, draws all of the honesty from within her, and says, “Especially to you.”

Understanding flashes for a fleeting moment in his eyes, bright and brilliant. And it’s gone as quickly as it came. Just like that.

Hayato’s face screws up indignantly and he pries himself free from her grasp, wiggles loose like he’s trapped. “God! You’re so weird.” In one swift movement Hayato has hopped off the couch and is making a beeline for the stairs.

“Takes a weirdo to know one!” Shinobu calls after him as she moves to standing. “Now get to bed!”

He scoffs as he walks to the stairs, rubbing a hand quickly through his hair as if he’s shaking out the motherly affection left behind. And maybe it’s just for the sake of putting it right back, but Shinobu goads him with a final, “I love you!”.

“...Love you,” Hayato says, under his breath. She can hardly hear it, but she sees the way he ducks his head, shamefully hiding his sincerity. Just like that Hayato is up the stairs, and Shinobu lets the quiet of the house settle for a moment.

It’s nice. Different.

Shinobu sets her keys on the coffee table. Beside them she notices the light blinking faintly on the answering machine, and she presses play while she shucks her coat off. The tape whirs to life with a high-pitched beep.

Kawajiri,” Shinobu closes her eyes. It’s her neighbor, the older woman who never has anything good to say, the one who calls her ‘Kawajiri’ with unrelenting impertinence. “I noticed that you forgot to sort your combustible trash again. Now I know you--

She fast-forwards through the message; it’s nothing she hasn’t heard before and she’s starting to feel a headache coming on. Shinobu pinches the bridge of her nose, to massage the stress that’s built there. When she presses play again the voice of her neighbor is still droning on, so Shinobu lets it play through as she sets to taking her hair down; once it’s unpinned, she runs her hands through it to shake the strands loose.

It becomes background noise easily until the next message begins. A sigh echoes through the speaker, and it stops Shinobu in her tracks.

Hello Shinobu,” Aya’s voice begins from the machine. Oh. Shinobu slowly sets her hair clip on the coffee table. “This is Aya calling to remind you of your 1 o’clock appointment today... If you need to reschedule to a later date, please give me a call at your earliest convenience…” There’s a pause for breath, but it lingers longer than it should, like she’s stopping and starting herself.

Thank you,” she says finally.

The line goes silent and the tape skips ahead, then plays a message from a telemarketer.

Shinobu leans against the arm of the couch, running her thumb idly over the fabric while she stares at the answering machine. She doesn’t remember the last time she’d seen Aya, but it’s been months That’s certain. Even so, Aya still calls, still reminds Shinobu of appointments that she’d missed over and over again; her voice persists, carries soft and lovely through cheap speakers. The way it reverberates and echoes in her chest serves to remind her how empty that piece of her heart is, shows her that there was, in fact, someone who once occupied it.

Shinobu isn’t used to missing anyone. Not like this. Not at all.

--

Not for the first time, Shinobu is across the street from Cinderella, gazing through its windows. It’s too late; Aya would have closed up shop hours ago by the time she reaches the salon, but she doesn’t come by with the intention of staying. Even making herself known isn’t on her agenda. That would warrant an explanation, and that’s a bridge Shinobu hasn’t felt ready to cross. Yet this hopeless sense of wanting keeps leading her to stand at the edge of it, uncertainty rooting her feet. It feels a little pathetic, but by the time she’s headed home from work, a new part-time arrangement, she’s too tired to let that get to her.

She just wants to see. Isn’t sure what it is that she wants to see, exactly. Perhaps Shinobu expects the light to turn on, that Aya will have forgotten her coat and, when she stops back in to get it, she'll notice her through the window. Maybe she hopes Aya will slip out the back as she walks up to meet her and they'll talk, like always. They'll be able to pick up where they left off, start fresh.

These things don't happen, of course. But Shinobu misses Aya. She misses their long afternoons, her warmth, and a part of her wants to believe that, maybe, this helps her miss Aya a little less.

The air is cold, with the sun long set and the seasons long changed since last she’d paid Aya a visit. There’s a guilt that comes with the realization and it makes the bridge in front of her seem even longer, the trenches over which it rests even deeper. Shinobu folds her arms to stave off the chill seeping in through her coat.

All of a sudden she’s aware of her body, standing at the center of the sidewalk staring at an empty building. A wave of self-consciousness grips at her.

What is she doing?

It’s enough of a force to move her forward, away from the scene, but exhaustion settles into her bones quickly. Shinobu makes it a few doors down before it catches up to her, drags her to a slow walk, then a stop. Serendipitously, there’s a bench outside of the coffee shop she used to frequent bathed in the shop's orange glow. Shinobu takes it as a sign that this must be necessary. Slowly she takes a seat, and she can feel herself unravel, little by little.

Out of nowhere she feels a warm cup nudge against her shoulder. Shinobu turns, then sees a hand holding the lid of a coffee cup with the tips of her fingers. Her eyes follow the line of the arm before her and she sees her fairy godmother, wings put up for the night and dressed down.

“You look like you could use a friend,” Aya says. Her breath fogs the air when she sighs.

Seeing the woman before her so suddenly, so casually, after months apart should surprise Shinobu. It should, and yet the time between them feels like blinking, only to find you’ve slept the night through. All of Shinobu’s countless hypotheticals, all of the scenarios she’d imagined where she explains everything-- where she doesn’t have to explain anything-- all of them feel useless-- distant and far away. Because they were nothing like this moment, snow beginning to fall quietly around them and building at their feet.

“A friend in a place like this,” Shinobu smiles and takes the coffee gratefully. It’s warm before it even makes contact with her fingertips. She means it sincerely when she says, “Lucky me, huh?”

“You have a fortunate face,” Aya looks at her with familiar fondness.

Shinobu rubs at the lid of her cup. “That’s thanks to you.”

Aya weighs her words for a moment. “I did very little.”

“...Aya--”

“Mind if I join you?”

Shinobu is quiet for a moment, staring dumbly at Aya before she pulls herself together. She scoots herself over, just enough so that Aya can slip into the seat beside her.

“You know... I had never been to this cafe until you shared a drink with me." Aya smiles, nostalgic, but it's crooked. It’s an odd look on someone so composed. She shifts, makes herself more comfortable. "That's funny, isn't it? It’s right across the street. I looked at it every day and never thought to go..."

Shinobu eyes Aya quietly, watching the way the woman’s fingertips rub gently against the underside of her to-go cup-- almost worrying.

"I go every day now. I missed it."

Something like guilt rises in Shinobu's chest but before the feeling can give way to words, Aya looks up at her.

"I missed you."

Oh, that feeling swells now, presses tightly against her throat and threatens to overflow. It’s so vulnerable looking at Aya like this, straight in the eye, but she couldn’t look away, couldn’t if she tried. Shinobu bites her lip to keep it down, level.

I missed you too, she thinks. You have no idea how much.

“I’m sorry,” Shinobu says instead. She clutches at her coffee as if it will steady her. “I should have--”

“It’s the past,” Aya says, taking a sip of her drink. “The rest can change.”

“You really think so?” Shinobu’s voice is hesitant, testing.

Aya levels her gaze with certainty. “I know so.”

Shinobu looks down at the cup in her hands. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t so long ago that she felt like change wasn’t worth considering, that seeking it out was a futile attempt at gaining some ground in her own life, the illusion of control. It was Aya that helped her realize that those words aren’t just lip service; the rest can change. And change is hard, often ugly, but looking at the bare skin on her ring finger, Shinobu knows that it’s real, possible, knows that she sought that out for herself.

There’s a peace that’s settled onto Aya’s features, but something is conflicting in it now. After a moment of quiet she sighs, with purpose. “I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

Shinobu leans back against the bench, then. “Guess that makes both of us.”

“How do I put this,” Aya is looking away when Shinobu turns to look at her. “It might sound strange to you, but I can see a person’s luck. Call it… intuition. It’s in their faces-- like a map. People come to me with their dreams, and I adjust the course to lead them to it… That’s all I’ve ever wanted, for my customers’ dreams to come true.” Aya pauses for breath, clutches at the cup in her hand. “That’s all.”

Aya looks at Shinobu’s hands nestled in her lap. “Yours was different.”

“...Different?”

Aya nods, smiling to herself. “Your fate lead you right to me.”

Shinobu’s heart leaps into her throat.

“I shouldn’t have paid any mind,” Aya continues. “I see so many people, but there was this… determination in you. I could have lead you anywhere else and you would be happy…” Her voice doesn’t waver exactly, but there’s a guilt in the back of her throat when she speaks. “I was selfish. I changed as little as I could. I wanted to know you... I wanted…”

Her voice trails off uncertainty. “You wanted…” Shinobu prompts gently when the quiet has had too long to settle between them.

Aya looks up, but not at Shinobu, not exactly. Softly, she places her hand on top of Shinobu’s.

“I wanted to be with you.”

Oh. Oh.

“Oh,” Shinobu whispers.

“You taught me that I should be more honest with myself,” she pauses for breath. “With what I want.”

Guilt prickles insistently at the back of Shinobu’s neck. “Me?” she asks, and Aya nods. Usually the air around Aya is in constant movement, cycling, but it feels absolutely still now.

“I know it’s selfish of me. You don’t have to feel--”

“No, I--” Shinobu interrupts softly, but bites her tongue for doing so. It grabs Aya’s attention fully and she’s looking at Shinobu now, searching, waiting for some sort of response. So Shinobu rubs her pinky against the hand atop her own. “I’ve never felt this way. So I don’t know what to call it...” She takes Aya’s hand into hers then, and it doesn’t escape her notice the way Aya stills and hesitates, just for a moment, before allowing her fingers to curl around Shinobu’s. “But I wanted to be with you too.”

Aya’s looking at her, speechless and dumbstruck, but there’s adoration and relief in her eyes. It’s so hopeful and before Shinobu can truly feel happy herself, there’s that guilt again, rising up the back of her throat. Aya has to know everything. She has to.

“I…” She lets go of Aya’s hand. “I haven’t been honest with you either, Aya... ”

Aya’s fingers curl uncertainly inward. Before she can think about it too much, Shinobu admits straight out: “I’ve been getting a divorce.”

“Oh,” Aya says. The air is still again but the snow at their feet still builds. Aya turns to her then. “Was I--”

“No,” Shinobu cuts in immediately. “No, it wasn’t because of you. I’ve wanted this for a long time. We both had, really, just. Wouldn’t.”

Aya nods, understanding.

“But it’s done now,” she clarifies.

“...How do you feel?”

“Different… better.” Shinobu runs a hand through her hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was… you know.” She’s brought herself this far and said this much, but still can’t say the word outright.

Aya tips her head back against the bench, looks up at the stars. “I knew.”

Shinobu’s stomach drops when she whips her head to face Aya. “You knew?”

Aya shrugs easily. “Intuition,” She turns her head, just enough to look at Shinobu. “That’s terrible, isn’t it?”

The snow continues to fall.

And in spite of herself Shinobu laughs. “Maybe.” And Aya presses her lips together in that charming way Shinobu loves before she joins her, doubled over, laughter racking her body, the air fogging up around them.

“Oh god,” Shinobu says finally, the tail end of manic laughter fizzling on her tongue. She rubs at the tiredness beneath of her eyes with the tips of her fingers. “Definitely terrible.”

There’s humor in Aya’s voice when she murmurs, “The past.”

“The past,” Shinobu echoes. Lets that sink in.

Between them, their hands are inches apart. Shinobu glances down at that and thinks there’s no need for that, so she dances her fingertips to rest lightly atop Aya’s. Without a thought, Aya takes it.

“...Let’s start over from the beginning,” Shinobu’s voice drifts off, but her the weight of Aya’s hand in hers steadies her, and she holds onto it all the more tightly. Taking a breath, her eyes turn upward in time with the rising of her chest. “Together.”

Aya smiles and for the first time Shinobu feels like she just might understand what it is that’s felt so knowing about it all along. “Let’s,” she whispers, sweetly, inviting.

There’s an unmistakable look in Aya’s eyes that’s always been there, behind lashes that are so, so long, that Shinobu feels like she can finally but a name to. And it’s all that it takes to give Shinobu the courage to close the gap between them and press her lips against Aya’s.

The world grows small around the two until it’s nothing-- drawn in close around them like an embrace all its own. There’s a gentle intimacy that comes with a space only they inhabit, and Shinobu places a steadying hand against Aya’s cheek, drawing the feeling closer, as close as she can. She kisses Aya like she’s the only person in the world, and for just a moment, a series of small moments, she is.

When they part she feels the ghost of Aya’s contented sigh against her lips, a sensation of warm and cool against the night air. Shinobu looks at Aya and Aya looks at her. And just then, the glow of the coffee shop is abruptly gone, and the pair of them turn to face it.

Without light the shop window has become a mirror of inky black, and in its reflection Aya and Shinobu gaze at themselves-- flushed and fingers resting just short of each other, hovering in the space between them. It’s so different the way Shinobu looks, the way they look, side-by-side in the snow instead of Aya standing just behind her in a vanity mirror. Shinobu doesn’t look away from herself, doesn’t look away from the woman in her arms. She smiles and thinks: this is what it should be.

Shinobu blinks the snow from her eyelashes as she turns her attention back to the woman rather than the reflection.

“Call me Shinobu,” she offers, running her thumb tenderly along Aya’s jawline.

The woman before her smiles warmly. “Aya,” she returns, and the name reverberates in her chest-- Aya, Aya, Aya-- in time with the steady thrum of her heartbeat.

Shinobu doesn’t know what love is like, not exactly, but she’s sure it’s a little like this, finding yourself at the starting line, beginning again.