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The Story of Us

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It’s been 6 months since he brought the little velvet box with the pink ribbon home. Today it bulges in his pant pocket, eager to finally be given away.

She doesn’t realize that Mamura is a bundle of nerves, that he’s shaking on the inside, while she’s happily going through the meal that she had originally brought for him.

It doesn’t matter anyway, he would’ve hardly managed a spoonful.

She gushes about how pretty her uncle’s bride looked, and how beautiful her kimono was, but Mamura is pretty sure she wouldn’t hold a candle to Suzume.

She tells him that she bumped into Sensei, and the memory of someone else almost taking her away almost shreds his resolve, but she looks happy so he doesn’t interrupt her.

“... Thank you for falling in love with me,” she says, but that’s unfair because how could he not when she never even gave him a choice?

“I’m confident that I made the right choice back then,” she tells him with a smile, and it’s crazy how something as small as a smile could quell his fears singlehandedly. He wants to kiss her, probably to the point of suffocation, but he stops himself because he wants the promise of being able to kiss her today, tomorrow and maybe a thousand years after.

“I’m really happy…” - Her eyes widen in a mixture of alarm and surprise - “Hey, Mamura... what... are you doing…?”

He is on his knees in front of her now, the edges of his ears going beet red, because the ring in his pocket is starting to get as heavy as his heart.

“... I,” he starts, but his throat is dry, and all he can think of is that her tongue is darting out to wet her lips and maybe he could capture it, and whisper into her mouth that he loves her.

“... Mamura?” She’s a little worried when he hasn’t really said anything, he’s just kneeling in front of her, looking at her curiously, like he’s slightly lost and so she puts her hands on the side of his face, and shakes him gently.  

He wishes he could spin poetry along the lines of ‘roses are red, violets are blue, so marry me, will you?” or give a sugar-filled speech about how she entered his life and turned it upside down, but he can’t, he doesn’t know how, he just wants her, and that’s pretty much all there is to it so he pulls out the ring without fumbling too much, and blurts out the first thing he can think of.

“... If you really want to thank me, then marry me.”

Normally Suzume hates doing the groceries. It’s boring, stressful, decisions to be taken, food compromises to be made.

Today, shopping is almost a breeze. The conflict of plain salted batter vs garlic herbed butter is a no-brainer - Mamura prefers the plain salted - she tosses the former in without question. Maybe she'd make something he likes today.

With a hum on her lips, and a slight giddiness to her gait, ever since the wedding preparations were underway, she makes her way to the billing counter.

A man’s voice interrupts her from almost overpaying the cashier. “... Is that Bryan Adams?”

She turns around to look at him and the only thing she can offer in reply to his amused smile is true surprise.

“... Everything I do..?” He attempts to sing; it isn't a very successful attempt though.

“Um, that's Mamura… He - he has pretty old taste in music… I didn't see you at all, Sensei! Were you behind me in line the whole time?”

“... You did look lost in your own little world.” He laughs, and Suzume is stricken again by how constant a person can be, how little they change over the years. She’d seen him at her uncle’s wedding just a couple of months ago and he had his hair parted, shiny in his suit and tie.

But looking at him now, sweatshirt and tracks, large glasses over his slightly more lined face, he literally the picture of a fond high school memory, and the smile only grows wider.

They make polite chit chat - Sensei seems to share her dislike for radish - he tells her about an old manga that's caught his attention, and she tells him she's already read all the volumes. It's almost like being transported back in time, only its better now, she doesn't stutter when she has to talk to him, there's no nervousness holding her back.

“... Are you… Seeing anyone?” She asks, purely out of curiosity, a question she never got to ask last time at the wedding. He adjusts his glasses. “Maybe…” His eyes twinkle, a little shy, a little excited and Suzume is unravelled by looking at things from the other side; Sensei harbouring a crush. “We're not exactly dating… But let's see how it goes.”

“... And you?” He asks, after a pause.  

“... I… Um, Actually…” She doesn't know why she's struggling with it, but for some reasons her cheeks are heating up.

Thankfully, Sensei is quick to catch on, albeit a little surprised. “... After all this time?” She nods, shyly. “I’m really happy for you, Chun-chun,” he says earnestly.

“... Actually,” she blurts out, all in a rush, “We're getting married. June. I'll send you the invitation.”

There was no invitation printed for him, it had slipped her mind honestly, but seeing him now, it gave her a warm sense of familiarity that she would consider a blessing to have at her wedding. “... I'd really appreciate it if you could make it.”

She dropped the grocery bags with a thud on the kitchen counter. “Mamura,” she hollered, “I'm ba,” -

“... There's no need to yell, I'm right here.”

“Oh,” she exclaims turning to find him near the kitchen sink, “I didn't notice…”

“... Yeah, you looked preoccupied.”

She looks up at him, slightly startled, because his tone is clipped, measured, the tick in his jaw evidence of a tempest contained. She tries to brush it aside.

Laughing nervously, she says, “That's the second time today I've been told the same thing! You won't believe who I met down at,” -

“... I know who you met at the grocery store.”

She gulps, instantly knowing the reason behind his mood. “Y-you came to the store? Why? I t-thought it was my turn,” -

“... I thought I'd give you company, but looks like you didn't really need it, did you?”

“I…” She doesn't know why she's stuttering, she doesn't need to be defensive, “I was just… Inviting him to our wedding, that's all!”

“You… what?”

“Yes…” She should've discussed it with him first, she knows that, but what's the big deal? It's just their high school teacher right? “Is it… A problem?”

“... Really?” He asks, his tone incredulous, “you’re seriously asking me if there's a problem in inviting a man you once loved to our wedding?”

Her cheeks heat up at his pointed reference to her first love. “... Sensei is a family friend,” she tries to keep her voice low, “and that’s all there is to it. My uncle will obviously let it slip that we are getting married so won’t he feel hurt that we didn’t invite him?”

“If you care so much about how he feels then maybe you should just marry him instead.”

The words are out of his mouth before he can help it, and her face crumples right in front of his eyes. It doesn't take long for the jealousy to dissipate, and horror at his own words to seep in.

“Suzume,” he whispers, reaching for her, but she takes a step back, and then two into her bedroom. When he hears the sound of the lock clicking into place, he is pretty much certain that he has, well and truly, fucked things up.

.

.

.

It’s late by the time he works up the courage to ring her bell again, and the small portion of alcohol he’s consumed didn’t help either. He’s made up his mind to sit outside till morning if she doesn’t -

“... Where were you?!” Her hair is a mess, and her eyes are rimmed red and he feels like a first rate beast for making her cry. “I tried calling you, but you left your phone here…”

“... I, I forgot…”

“... You’re stupid,” she says angrily, shoving him                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 back against the door, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” He catches her fists before they have a chance to come down on him, and pulls her to him. “... How could you say something like that?” She whispers, tears soaking his shirtfront.

He squeezes her tight, a lone tear falling onto the top of her head. “... I’m sorry.”

“... I didn’t mean it,” he whispers, as he kisses her blotchy cheeks, down to the side of her neck. His hands reach down to her bottom, cupping her up and hoisting her onto his hips, tugging gently at her hair, opened her lips to every apology he traced inside her mouth. “... Mamura,” she gasps, in between kisses, “I understand how you feel,” -

-  “You shouldn't,” he mutters hoarsely, nipping harshly at her lower lip, she shouldn't have to understand his bullshit anyway, because it was stupid to fight over someone who didn’t have a place in their lives anymore… It was stupid to fight with her at all, “It doesn’t matter… You’re the only one I need at the wedding.”

The ring shone brightly on her finger. The scent of incense clung to them like their shadow. Her hair was pinned up neatly on top of her head, and she just wouldn’t stop smiling.

Her yukata was rich, dark fabric that she almost floated in… And all he wanted was to rip it off of her body.

The ceremony had gone on till afternoon, followed by lunch with guests whose faces he could barely register. He thought he would get to spend some time with her while everyone napped, but her mother had whisked her away, and Nekota teased him about his “impatience”.

Oh, she had no idea…

He paced restlessly across his room. He hadn’t seen her in a week, busy as she was with wedding preparations, and they had taken her back to her mother’s place since it was “unlucky to see the bride before the wedding”. And today when he finally laid his eyes on her, she looked something of a fairy princess, so beautiful but remote in her traditional garb.

A knock on the door interrupted his woeful musings. It was probably Sarumaru, eager to tease him about his well-visible torment. “... Go away…” he yells, bad-temperedly, but the knocking only repeats itself.

When he opens the door his jaw literally drops in surprise. “... What… are you doing… Aren’t you supposed to” -

- “... Just let me in, before my mother finds me!” Mamura has learnt the art of listening to his wife pretty early in the journey of marriage so he obliges.

Suzume leans against the door, panting. “Managed to give my mother the slip,” she grins, winking.

“... Well don't just look at me like that,” she says, because that's literally just what Mamura is doing, a little bit dazed and amazed at his wife's guts, “give me a kiss…”

The sunlight is streaming in, something clinks and clanks irritably - he guesses it's from the bathroom - and there's the sound of doors being shut, but he clutches his sheets, buries his face deeper into the sheets and wills, prays, for the blanket of nothingness to overcome him.

But it doesn't.  

Slowly, he cracks an eye open. Suzume is pacing in and out of the bathroom, fully dressed, surprisingly, at 7.30 am on a Saturday - a time which is usually reserved for glorious weekend morning sex, or more sleep - looking visibly upset.

“... Hey,” he croaks, groggily, “... It's 7.30… What are you…?”

She turns to look at him, and her eyes are glistening. His sleep dissipates immediately. “What's going on?”

“... I…” Her lips tremble, she tries to say something, but nothing really comes out, nothing but the beads of sweat accumulating on her forehead, frantic, scared ones, her breath in short, strained gasps. “I don't… I can't…” Mamura’s never really seen her in such a mess before.

“... Calm down, Suzume…”

He hands her a glass of water, seats her on the edge of the bed and waits for the shaking to stop.

“... What’d you do to get so worked up on a Saturday morning?” He asks, rubbing small soothing circles along her back, watching the lip chewing slowly work its way to a halt.

She could tell him. It would be easy, to get out the whole thing in one single shot, to serve him the shock like a cough syrup you have to swallow before it kills your taste buds. But how? And could she be sure? This was technically just an assumption… An interpretation of a few, frankly conclusive factors, but still, not concrete fact.

So she tells him the one thing she does know, the exact answer to his question, the thing she did to get herself so worked up, this morning.

“... I peed on a stick.”

“Mamura…” She begins, nervously. He knows the question that's going to follow. She's asked it only a million times in the last hour. “... Are you sure?”

“... Suzume.” He grits out, in warning. He's told her, held her, been as reassuring as possible, but with all due affection for his wife, the constant doubt, the obsessive feet tapping, the goddamn unnerving smell of the hospital… Even Mamura’s resolve was wearing thin.

“Okay, okay,” she says, hastily. There's a pause. “... Are you sure, you're sure?”

He looks at her, trying his level best not to glare. But the sentiment seeps through and she starts talking rapid fire. “... Because if you're not, then there are always other options, you know… We don't have to, unless we're ready,” -

“Are you talking about an abortion?” He looks at her aghast. “How can you even think about killing our child?” Suzuma looks stricken, like this wasn't the obvious consequence of an abortion. “... I-I didn't mean…” He lowers his voice this time because Suzume is bordering hysterical and people are beginning to stare. “Look… It's okay. Do you think we're not ready for this?”

“... I can barely take care of myself, Mamura… A child…?”

“... Mamura-san?” A pleasant faced nurse interrupts them. “The doctor will see you now.”

.

.

.

Thirty minutes later, the two of them step out of the room, armed with booklets on baby care and mother care, and being a supportive husband - although Suzume is pretty sure Mamura doesn't need it.

There is a slight pinkish glow rising on Suzume’s cheeks and Mamura is a little dazed himself.

“Mamura,” she says, still a little breathless and, quite frankly, in awe, “It's so small… Just a little blip…”

“... Seven-thirty. That’s final.”

“... Daaaad… Come on…”

“You’re fifteen, Mai, it's not right to roam the streets so late at night, and it's freezing outside, why can't you call your friends home instead?”

“... It's karaoke! You can't karaoke at home! That's just lame.”

“... Who are these friends of yours again? Do I even” -

“... Mai… Could you come here for a second?” Suzume hollered from the kitchen, having gotten used to this scene ever since their daughter entered her teenage. Mai trudges in, pouting. “Yes, Mom?”

“So,” Suzume winks, “who are you going out with tonight..?”

“Well… There's this boy in class A… He’s not my boyfriend or anything” - she interjects, even though Suzume hasn’t said anything - “but he’s really nice…” The grin on Suzume’s face only widens with each word, and she does her very best to refrain herself from bursting with laughter because Mai is so conscious, red in the face, and quite possibly in love.

“Use the backdoor,” Suzume whispers conspiratorially, “I think your Father’s just forgotten what it's like to be in high school.”

She is dressed in black, there is no make up, no smile, only little teardrops glistening off her lashes. People are swarming in and out of the house; Suzume isn't surprised, Sensei had a lot of friends. She grips Mamura's hands as she enters the room, and when they see the widow, a smile barely stitched on to place, tear tracks having dried on her pale face, her heart squeezes even tighter.

Yukichi is with her, in the kitchen, one eye on her, watching, making sure she doesn't fall apart - there is no permission to grieve after your husband dies, you do it silently, in the depths of your heart where no one sees it bleeding - she must console the others, after all.

Suzume wants to scream, get everyone's attention, ask them to move the hell out - herself included - because what the hell were they even doing, bombarding themselves on her, less than five hours after his passing, expecting a kind word from his widow, when her loss is the one that's incomparable. They will cry today, maybe even tomorrow, over the death of a friend, a teacher to some, but only she will suffer the knife of loss every single day.

“... Samejima-san,” Suzume wants to reach out, put a hand on her shoulder maybe, hold her if possible, but she is afraid that if she gets any closer, the pieces Samejima has worked so hard to put together will fall apart. “... I'm so sorry for your loss.”

.

.

.

Later, at home, the tears drip steadily down her cheeks, some following the contours of her nose.

Mamura is ever prompt to supply her with a handkerchief.

The call had come in the morning, around 5 am. Yukichi was barely coherent, said it was a heart attack. They hadn't expected it in the least.

“I'm s-sorry,” she mumbles, “I don't know why…” She wipes another tear with the back of her hand.

It breaks his heart a little that she feels the need to apologise, probably because of his tendency to get jealous wherever their late teacher was concerned, but none of it matters anymore.

“Come here,” he murmurs, taking her in his arms and letting her sob, because it wasn't just about him and his petty insecurity anymore, but the finality that life suddenly seemed to pose. The undefeatable power that it had to snatch anything and anyone from you, right under your own nose.

He strokes her hair and she calms down somewhat, but the moisture in his eyes is yet to escape.

“Keiko,” Mai calls, busy with her least favourite job - folding laundry - at the fag end of the day, “Could you please help your grandma to the bedroom?”

The knee surgery had been more of a placebo than an actual solution, and hitting the big seventies didn't help either. “... Thank you,” Suzume says gratefully, one hand clasped in her granddaughter’s, the other clutching a wooden walking stick.

As she enters their bedroom - ‘her’s’ now - her eyes fall on a photo frame placed on the bedside table. Five smiling faces smile up at her, almost from a forgotten time. It wasn't as if the smiles were erased now, just that the lines had accumulated alongside their features, the hair on Mai’s husband’s head had fallen out a few years ago, and baby Keiko had grown into a young, beautiful girl of twenty-four.

There was only one that had been erased, and not just his smile, but his whole being, and sometimes the disparity between then and now was so large that if Suzume had the strength, she’d reach out and shatter that frame to pieces, but it wouldn't help… not really. On some days, it just didn't matter that three years had passed since his passing, and that she had learnt to drudge through life with some semblance of a routine, it was only his absence that he felt, and it shook her, almost violently.

On most other days, she would do her best to walk by the room whenever possible, if only to see the smile her memory still clung on to.

“Grandma,” Keiko whispers, once she's tucked Suzume into bed, “I'd like to ask you something if you're not too tired.”

She was hesitant, shy. Suzume chuckles, guessing where this was leading up to. Keiko’s boyfriend had just proposed, and she was yet to return from cloud nine.

“... How did Grandpa… You know, pop the question?”

The memory is fresher in Suzume’s mind than the dinner she ate before coming to bed. And even now, remembering that evening, that ring that she’s given for resizing because it just won't stay on her too-thin finger, the way he kissed her… It makes her breath catch dangerously.

“It wasn't much of a question really,” Suzume says, smiling. “... He didn't really give me a choice.”