第一章 | 冬
ONE | WINTER
... for diamonds do appear to be just like broken glass to me
It's winter when the year turns. It's winter every time the year turns, but this year, the chill is brisker and bleaker than she remembers it. The air is particularly unpleasant; it has the teeth of a barbeled dragonfish, and each frosty nip pierces to the bone. Discomforted though she is by the winter breeze, she is reluctant to make it known to Keigo. For him, tonight is meant to be his liberation—a night where he can exercise his restless feet with a stroll along the Meguro River, and a night where he can put to rest his weary ears with a sombre silence. For his sake, she keeps her mouth shut about her misgivings.
Still, the silence makes her unusually restless. She would have at least hoped that Keigo brought her out here to do more than exchange small gestures of affection, like the occasional brush of their fingertips as they strolled along the banks, or the warm gazes with which he bestows her once or twice. She would have hoped that they would reminisce about their friendship in the early days, in seeing that today was their third anniversary—of, well, being friends.
Some part of her delighted in conversations about how they met. It is both a perplexing and endearing conversation to have with Keigo: although he is never willing to admit the true reason that he keeps her around, he springs upon her such lines as "Live in the moment, " or "What reason have you to over-think it, ahn?" In their own strange way, his words are endearing. They're almost a good enough reason to regard Keigo's presence in her life with suspicion. Keigo has the money and status to lure in much finer specimens of women (and men), yet he chooses to keep her by his side instead.
Whereas she is a plain Jane—predictable and lacking promise—he is an entity: unique but perplexing from every angle. She has but a modest dwelling and a dead-end job to his name, whereas he has every fathomable method at his fingertips to get anything he could ever want. She has naught but impulses and feeble dreams, trapped beneath a layer of imperfect skin, whereas he has the entire world on a string. It's almost laughable how two individuals as different as they are were able to befriend one another, and stay friends. To add to the killing irony, it's almost laughable how close they are, despite knowing so little about one another. She is not naturally the type who enjoys opening up to other people, and Keigo—well, in his many years of personal solitude, he has managed to fortify a rather impressive façade for himself. She likes to think of it as his suit of armour, which might be impenetrable by even Excalibur itself. His Grace tends to don it before engaging in combat with his mortal enemy, Lady Change. Privately, she thinks, the look of a knight is not befitting of one such as Keigo.
"Something amiss, ?"
Ah. He catches her eye when he sneaks a lopsided look at him. She sometimes forgets how sharp he can be. "Nothing's amiss. I'm just thinking about what the coming year has in store for us."
The mention of a brand new year does not appear to bring him great joy. "So it would seem we've been graced with another three hundred and sixty-six days, ." More to himself than anyone else, he murmurs "What could one hope to accomplish in three hundred and sixty-six days?"
She chooses to respond anyway. "Apparently, the end of the world will happen this year."
He quirks a disbelieving eyebrow at her. Her comment seems to have amused him somewhat. "Wouldn't that be nice? For things to be wrapped up so easily, that is." His expression slackens. "What will you do this year?"
She pauses. "I don't know, but... it's not as if I need to decide now. I have plenty of time to think, and I have plenty of places to go. The perks of being in the hospitality industry, I suppose."
His sharpness doesn't fail him. He picks up on her subtle digs, but whether or not he is affected by her words, she cannot tell. Regardless of whatever emotions he conceals behind his façade, however, he always knows the correct jibes to send back in her direction. "You seem to be intent on pursuing hospitality. I was under the impression that you dreamed of being a writer."
The aftermath of his words string. Perhaps she underestimated him. Perhaps he truly does know her more than she likes to give him credit for. "Maybe I did, a long time ago—but the world no longer favours the curious writer. Not the way it once did."
If he notices the sad twitch in her smile he doesn't comment on it. "On the contrary, some of the most respected people in the world are writers."
"But they're good writers, Keigo. There's a difference." For a moment, she hesitates. "It might be fun to get a few pieces published every now and then, but there are few who can make decent coin playing roulette for too long—to even consider making a living from it would be suicide. Perhaps the exceptionally brave or the exceptionally foolish are eager to pursue their death, but the exceptionally ordinary? No, there's no way up for us—only forward."
He hangs on her words. When he speaks, his voice is sudden low and cold. "Up. That's exceptionally simple-minded of you."
In a moment of weakness, she cannot help but let his words get to her.
His tone is still brittle when he continues, "Enlighten me with your simplicity then, muser. What should I aim to accomplish this year? How I can move—not up, but forward?"
In her mind, the answer is very simple. "Make a break for freedom."
To him, it is not so. "Your imagination is unfathomable as it is unhelpful."
"Is it so unrealistic?" She retaliates. "I'm not trying to condemn you for being a realist—all I'm trying to say is that if you live like this for the rest of your life, you won't enjoy living it. A change in pace is as good as a hearty rest."
"Do you speak from experience, ?"
"Maybe." Though, it isn't as if she's ever been through anything from which needed a change in pace.
Their pace slackens, as does their conversation. Keigo drifts from the conversation, choosing instead to cast his gaze out over the river. She dares to hope that her words are sinking in. He could do with a rest. All he ever seems to do this days is work, work, work, never quite getting a spare moment to even pick up the phone and let her know that he is alive. Routine has come to constitute his very being, and he has come to deeply resent change—well, resent it, or perhaps fear it. A suit of armour is rather difficult to see through.
When Keigo stops walking altogether, she suggests that they take a break. They sit down at a bench overlooking the riverbank, and for endless minutes, they watch the city lights dance on the surface of the water, glittering like little diamonds. She makes this known to Keigo, so that perhaps they might find something to agree upon and dispel the unpleasantness of their prior conversation. To her misfortune, the night seems to be against her.
"Diamonds, are they?" Keigo murmurs. "One might mistake them for broken glass."
"My, my, Keigo—is there an idealist hiding inside you after all?"
He doesn't answer her.
She decides not to humour his unspoken wish of keeping the conversation light and superficial. "It's curious, isn't it? The way they look so similar." She gestures to the opalescent lights on the dark, open water. "Why, then, do you think we place more value on diamonds?"
He looks at her like she is stupid. Rather sardonically, he says "Diamonds, you might be interested to know, are rather difficult to procure. Glass is mass-produced—easily replaceable."
"So their worth is based on their origin." She summarises.
He scowls, and she senses that he is growing tired of her presence. She doesn't blame him entirely—after all, it is New Year, and she expects that he (rather stupidly) asked for her company in order to take his mind off work for a while. She expects that he only sought out her company to have a satisfying meal with some pleasant company, and spite the end of another gruelling year with someone whose humour palette was equally as bitter as his. And yet, here she is, giving him a hard time. She almost feels sorry or him.
"." He warns her. "You're giving me a headache."
"Forgive me." She says. As the words leave her mouth, she watches as some of the tenseness escapes his shoulders. "I'd almost forgotten why we came here in the first place. If it's any consolation at all, diamonds do appear to be like broken glass to me."
"Happy New Year, Keigo."
He doesn't respond to her directly. With eyes still fixated on the imposter stars in the river, he says under his breath, "I wonder."
She doesn't know what he's talking about.
... would it be alright if we just sat and talked for a little while
if in exchange for your time, I give you this smile?
She's never been one for counting down the days, but she makes an exception in this situation. There is something terribly tempting about crossing off each passing day on her calendar, and since she started doing it, she hasn't quite been able to break the habit. Some part of her thinks that crossing off the day to the end of the year is a method of reassuring her that the end will come, despite how disappointingly high the number of remaining days there are left in the year. Each day, she gets to see that beast of a number grow smaller and small, and—on some small level—it's reassuring to her.
On the subject of days, she finds herself in quite the predicament on a certain February day. In the first place, she's never been a big believer in celebrations—what's a celebration when there's no one to celebrate it with? Celebrations only succeed at making her that little bit more bitter. The view of the street from the Quiescent is particularly nauseating: she watches as sidewalk explodes with budding young couples, their arms linked and stars in their eyes. The worst part is hearing the conversations of customers as they talk about their blossoming romances and their true love and whatnot.
As bitter as she claims to be towards Valentine's Day shenanigans, though, she has to respect that there are some people on this earth that are legitimately trying to fulfill their hopes in love and life instead of mooning about, musing their dreams.
She's glad that, on a day as pleasantly discomforting as Valentine's Day, he has an equally bitter counterpart (if not a more bitter counterpart) with whom she can communicate her misgivings towards the existence of such a day. The sheer amount of love in the air that year puts Keigo in one of his rare good moods—the more lovey-dovey couples on the street, the more people Keigo has to make fun of. It's somewhat relieving to see him this way; she hasn't seem him like this for a while—let alone seen him at all for a while. It's almost a miracle that he hasn't forgotten to honour their annual Valentine's Day tradition of congregating at the Quiescent, and spiting hopeless lovers like kings from their café thrones.
She nods at the streets. "It's a sight, don't you think?"
He raises an eyebrow at her. "Would you like to join them?"
"That's okay, fraternising isn't really my thing."
He folds his arms over the table and leans forward. That infamous smirk is plain as day on his face. "So I see. Will there ever be a moment in your life when you let yourself do something fun?"
"I don't know. Are you giving me the chance to do something fun?"
She can see his eyebrow twitching as he resists the temptation to say, 'I am a fun person.' He is fully aware that, in the event such words escape his mouth, she will laugh at him until her sides are in pain. He decides to pass up the rare opportunity to be openly ridiculed in favour of attending to his Earl Grey tea. "I've never liked Valentine's Day."
"Yes, I'm aware that chocolate is a little too sweet for your bitter palette." She comments.
"Hah!" His sudden, haughty laughter is refreshing to her ears. It's been too long since she last heard Keigo sound so free and unguarded. "Perhaps you know me better than you give yourself credit for, ."
"Perhaps, or perhaps not." She says. "After all, I'm still not sure why you're here today. Surely after three years, you've found yourself a woman to attend thyself to?"
His teacup pauses somewhere between the saucer and his lips. The look he gives her suggests that she has suddenly become a rancid caricature of her former self.
She feigns surprise. "What's this? Are you denying your own appeal?"
He sets down his teacup without even giving it the opportunity to grace his lips. He relinquishes his disgusted experience in favour of a raised eyebrow. "You ask me why I'm not attending to a woman today—but you, in fact, are a woman."
"A keen observation." She says.
"I am attending you."
"Once again, a deduction worthy of Holmes himself."
"Thus, peasant, I am here today to attend to you—a woman."
"Remarkable detective work, Your Highness—truly remarkable."
He graces her with his infamous smirk. "I feel partial to accompany your lonesome soul on a day as sickeningly joyful as today. As you appear to lack a significant other yourself, you should have no one greater than I in your life to waste the hours away with."
"How considerate of you. To save you the pain of having to repeat this process every year, I will consider purchasing a significant other some time within the next three hundred and twenty-two days." It's a risky joke, she knows, but some morbid part of her is tempted to see if her tactlessness will make Keigo change the tune he's playing. He doesn't seem fazed by it—on the contrary, he seems amused.
But try though she may to revel in Keigo's rare placidness, it's impossible to quell her concern for him when she sees his eyes, which are rimmed with sleepless nights, and his exhaustion, which has traced careful and detailed lines across his forehead. She wonders how many hours he's pulled in this past week alone.
While having a private conversation with herself about Keigo's workaholic tendencies, he prompts her concerned expression with a blatant, "What?"
She shouldn't be surprised by his sharp intuition, but she is. "Nothing."
He isn't so keen to let the matter drop. "."
"Something is on your mind."
She's hesitant to bring up such a sour topic when he's in such a cordial mood. "I'm just thinking."
He, however, does a remarkable job of pressing the matter. "About?"
"... So the weather's great today—"
"You are as transparent as glass, ." Keigo says. He's almost won her over, but rather than pushing her to breaking point, he—for some reason—drops the matter. Perhaps he feels sorry for her, seeing her so unsettled by his persistence—perhaps, as he hinted earlier, he'd already seen right through her.
For whatever reason—whether it's for her benefit or his own—he changes the subject.
"It seems we're in a strange situation, ." He makes a grand gesture to the street around him, which are alive with people and bright colours and delusional love. "The both of us are here, on Valentine's Day, with no one's companionship but each other's. Surely your companionship isn't the only thing I should be expecting today."
She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, and the smirk on his face widens. She cannot deny his claim completely; she did, in fact, have something prepared for her rendezvous with Keigo beyond a cup of his favourite tea and a few bitter February clinchers. What Keigo hadn't been able to recognise was that her extra surprise was only a contingency plan—a bittersweet offering of reconciliation in the event that she managed to severely offend him, and she required a semi-heartfelt gesture to (predominantly) remedy the situation.
"The, um, tea's on me."
"You were never a good liar, ."
His expectant look is what makes her give in. She is hesitant, but in the end, she resigns from the battle with an exasperated sigh. "It's your loss."
She reaches for her bag on the ground and rustles through it, eventually pulling out a box. As she sets it on the table in front of Keigo, she can feel his stare burning into her—not necessarily in a bad way. She senses that he is exceedingly curious about this development, which hadn't taken place at their Valentine's Day rendezvous last year. His eyes follow her hands as she pushes it towards him. He takes it, fingers brushing against hers in the process; for a fleeting moment, she wonders if he did it on purpose.
"May I?" He asks, fingers poised on the lid, ready to open it.
She's a little taken aback by his consideration. "You're asking?"
He considers this. "You are correct."
She coughs. "It was—um, a jest, Your Highness. Open it when you get home."
"... But I implore you—"
She bites her lip as he removes the lid from the box, and his eyes acquaint themselves with the chocolatey contents, topping off with a small, folded bit of paper. As he begins to inspect the contents, a few mumbled words escape her lips.
"What is it?" He asks, taking apparent pleasure in seeing her squirm.
"It's nothing." She insists.
"It's something, or I'm Catholic."
She coughs pointedly. "Well, firstly... I mean, I assumed that your tongue had long since tired of common chocolate, and—well, you can't beat the taste of hand-crafted bitterness."
The look he gives her is disbelieving, as thought he didn't see this coming. It's not a look she gets to see on his face often. "It's homemade." He says finally. Then he pauses, and inspects the chocolate closely. He certainly knows that she can cook, but making chocolate isn't quite the same as cooking up a traditional feast. "Will this kill me?"
She laughs nervously. It actually might. "Hardly. But I won't blame you if you choose not to eat it. It's the thought that counts, so... I've done my part."
He sets the chocolates aside and tells her that he will get back to her with a full report on the taste. If he doesn't, then he's probably dead.
Just when she begins to think he isn't interested in reading her little note now, he fishes the folded paper out of the box and asks, "And what might this be?"
"You probably don't want to open that."
He raises an eyebrow at her. "And why not?"
She can't bring herself to look him directly in the eyes. "The chocolate was the hand-crafted part. This is the bitterness."
He pauses. Then his eyes fall to read the note. As she watches his eyes move, and his forehead crease, and his irritation steadily increasing, she can't help but reel off the contents of the note in her mind. After all, she'd read it over and over again following its penning, wondering if it was alright—wondering if she was saying too much for Keigo's liking, or wondering if she wasn't saying enough. In retrospect, she feels that it's most likely the former thought.
"Flowers don't grow for you, and you wonder why
Your calls are empty to all but the sky
Let time unbind the coils of your mind
And ease the tension of your emotions confined
Fly blind, unguided, and let yourself go
Feed your desire—that wanting to know
But be warned, for desire will bleed in your hand
If perfection is your one and lonely demand."
From the corner of her eye, she registers that Keigo is looking directly at her—and still, she cannot bring herself to meet his gaze. Internally, she's beating herself up. She hadn't meant for the poem to become so critical of him, but before she could convince herself to start the poem over, her hand was folding the note and throwing it in the box with the chocolate.
Keigo puts the note back in the box and closes it. He's remarkably calm. "It's not that simple, you know."
She remains silent.
"Sometimes I wonder just how aware you are of your idealism."
Still, she says nothing.
He sits back in his chair. His voice is steady, but cold as ice. "You're no dream catcher yourself."
She manages to find the courage to show him with a sour smile. "Neither of us are, it seems, mo captaen."
There's a painful silence.
She knows just how much Keigo hates it when she brings up his dead career as a tennis player, but the words are falling out of her mouth before she can reason with herself to stop. "You're such a good player, too—I've seen all the titles that you hide in that cupboard in your penthouse. It's a shame. You're so good at something you love, but you're doing something you hate."
His voice drops down into subzero regions. "Neither of us indeed, my dear muse."
She knew that he would spring this back on her, but that doesn't stop it from stinging as much as it did the last time he brought up her dream career as a writer. "I said I liked writing. I never said that I was good at it."
Their train of conversation puts on its emergency breaks, and it squeals to a deafening halt.
Keigo is quick to remember that the only obstacle barring his escape from the Quiescent is his unfinished cup of tea— rich though he is, he has never been one to shirk an opportunity. He picks up his cup and drains it, and she performs a similar manoeuvre on the last of her coffee. It's all done in due time, too, for an accidental glance at her watch reminds her that she has a mere ten minutes left on her break. "I should get back to work soon."
"A fine idea." He agrees, sparing his own wristwatch a withering look. He rises from his chair, leaves a five thousand yen bill on the table, and make a deliberate motion to leave. "I'll be returning to work."
There isn't much point coaxing him to stay any longer—certainly not following their flaming trainwreck of conversation not five minutes ago. Still, she tries to say, "Wait here a moment—I'll get your—"
But he cuts her off with a shake of his head. "Keep the change."
"I'll call you."
He offers her nothing other than too much change to compensate for his abrupt departure, but it's more than she deserves—especially after her taunting poem. He doesn't look back at her as he hails his oncoming driver and climbs inside of his limousine. Had he departed the Quiescent on good terms with her, he might have rolled down the window and snapped his fingers at her as he drove off—but given the circumstances, it wasn't surprising to watch him cruise away until he disappeared.
It's wrong of her to expect anything more from him—even his spare change. She reminds herself that she has no business, trying to change him back into the person she met three years ago. No matter how much she hates the front that he puts up—no matter how much she hates him for pretending to be someone he's not—it doesn't concern her. It's none of her business.
I must be kidding myself.
She tries not to be disappointed when he doesn't call her that night. He's busy—she knows that. She understands that. She's learning to stop blaming him for things that fall out of his control.
- x -
When she gets a call three days later, she doesn't stifle the hope that it's Keigo. She has rehearsed mentally for this moment: she'll pick up the phone, and he'll explain to her why he it took so long to call. She'll forgive him and apologise for interfering in matters that didn't concern her—and she'll tell him that he no longer needs to worry about her interfering with his life.
She checks her caller ID. It's not Keigo, but it's hard to stay disappointed when she picks up to the sound of her brother's cheerful voice. ", my dear kumquat!"
"Hi." She never was able to outgrow 's endearing nicknames for her, thinks recalls amusedly. "What's cooking?"
"Me? Cooking? That's possibly the worst idea you've conceived yet. And you've conceived some pretty bad ones before."
"So have you." She jokes. "You have three living reminders of them."
He can't help but laugh, no matter how hard he tries to have a serious conversation with her. "My ex-wife might be a devil, but you would go so far as to blame my children for my mistakes? You're horrible! We're through, and I'm hanging up now!"
Amused, she says, "Okay, whatever you say."
He hangs up, only to call again a few minutes later to continue the conversation, as if there hadn't been any interruption in the pleasantries to begin with. "So, dear sister, are we still set for May? I wanted to make sure everything is in order before I make arrangement for Kagura to take the kids for an extra week."
She has no idea what he's talking about. "What?"
He sighs. "I knew you would forget."
"Forget Ireland? You said you've been wanting this for years."
She thinks, and slowly begins to recollect fragments of memories—of conversations that she'd had with last year. Deep into the year, he'd decided that he needed some time to escape from his ex-wife, their messy divorce, and his responsibilities as a newly lone man. He'd called her in a rare moment of weakness to ask if she would go on holiday with him somewhere, and she said yes. He told her that, the next chance they got at a long holiday, they were making a break for home—for Ireland.
"I bought the tickets a year ago—Golden Week's never a cheap time to go travelling, after all." He says. "It was a belated birthday present to ourselves. Do you remember none of this?"
"Our birthday isn't until September, though."
"I know. But Golden Week's the longest break anyone in this country gets, and I want to feel the magic of Ireland for as long as I can." He says. "Besides, it's not as if I have the luxury to take time off work."
Neither of them can.
"Come on, where's your homeland spirit?" He pesters her. "Get me excited for this."
She can't help but smile. is possibly the only person in existence who encourages her to be a writer with spite, discouragement or mockery. "Okay, let's see... Ireland is a cathartic realm: a whereabouts for your soul to unwind—a space unburdened by the early morning cries of bad conceptions—"
"Very funny. But also very true."
"Now you've done it." She says abruptly. "I've lost my inspiration."
He doesn't seem surprised. Interrupted or uninterrupted, it's a while since she's recited a complete verse of anything for him. "Well, just as long as you're looking forward to Ireland as much as I am."
"I am." She says—and she means it. Perhaps in the distant future, there will come a time when she can stand up and leave Japan unburdened by even her last connection to this dreamless land. She hopes that such a time will become long before she is too old to count how many days she has left to live.
She closes her eyes. It's a shame that there is one thing keeping her tied down her.
It's too bad that he will probably delight in letting her go.
Princo & Ribbon
December 22, 2015.
Three days until Christmas!
Ribbon: Well... this is what you've been waiting an entire year for. I'm so sorry that it's taken us three years to finish it. While we're on the subject for apologies, I'm sorry about 's lack of creativity (still), and my terrible Irish. I'm sorry to any/all Irish people that I offended by my use of Google Translate LOL. On a much happier note, this year you guys will actually get to finish reading the story. How crazy is that?
Princo: Can't wait to find out which is more pretentious though—Small Things or Little People lmao.