Small Things

chapter four

第四章 |
FOUR | AUTUMN

長月
long

... she's the smoke, she's dancing fancy pirouettes
swan-diving off of the deep end off my tragic cigarette
she's steam, laughing on the windowpanes
the never-ending swaying haze
that ever-smiling maze ballet
everything's gone missing
I've lost more songs to floods
I can't prove this makes any sense
but I sure hope it does

The insufferable Tokyo humidity starts to show some signs of relenting after months of the blistering summer weather. As one of the few people in her apartment building that commuted to work by bicycle, she finds immense reprieve in the mild September weather; and she appreciates being more presentable than a sticky and uncomfortable mess upon arriving at work for the day. Keigo, too, seems to show signs of appreciation for the change in weather: he no longer shows up at the Quiescent with his sleeves rolled up, his top button undone, his tie loose and his jacket absent from their lunch date; rather, he starts showing up looking rather comfortable in full business attire. Even money can't buy him material that can breathe without suffocating in the Tokyo air.

The change in weather isn't the only thing she appreciates about the arrival of September. As the month reaches mid-way, she gets a call on her day off from . It's been a little while since she last spoke with him over the phone, but she's pleased to note that he sounds much more full of life than she's heard in a long time. He sounds suspiciously cheerful when he says, "So, kumquat, I conclude that we simply must get together to celebrate this weekend. I'll leave the kids with Kagura." He huffs on the other end of the line. "It's about time she tended to them."

Even over the phone, she's certain that he can gauge just how amused she's looking right now. "Are you—of all people—complaining about all the extra time that you've had with your darling offspring?"

"Oh, a father needs some time to his self!" laments dramatically. He drops the act almost as soon as it's began. "So—what are we doing for our birthday? I was thinking Tokyo."

"How considerate." She says with a gentle laugh. "It's been a while since you've come up here to celebrate our birthday. Usually you make me go to Kobe to celebrate it with your kids."

"Yes, well... I have some reprieve this year." He said, sighing with relief. "Kagura's taking a short sabbatical, so she'll have time to look after the kids. The firm's been really working her as of late, so it's probably well-deserved."

She's bothered by how brings up the name of his ex-wife so casually, but she chooses not to acknowledge it. She doesn't want to turn a pleasant phone call into an awkward and sour experience. "That doesn't sound like a very relaxing sabbatical."

"Well, maybe not, but as an adult with a responsibility to bring up their children, relaxing isn't part of the deal." He said, catching her off guard with his rationality. For a moment she starts to wondering if the person she's talking with on the other end of the line is really her brother, but he bounces back in record time. "I was thinking about coming down on Saturday morning. What's say we do dinner?"

"Sure." She says.

"Great. We'll hash out the details when I arrive." He says. In a fashion that is much more like the she remembers growing up alongside, he coos, "Okay, ta-ta then, kumquat."

True to his word, he comes up on Saturday morning after finishing his shift. Despite his exhaustion from working so late, she's relieved to see that he still looks like his former self: he hasn't lost any weight and the only lines of exhaustion on his face are from driving straight to Tokyo after finishing work. She gives him a hug and sends him to bed, and with little protest, he proceeds to take a nap on Keigo's couch. She would have insisted that he take one of the beds, but for some reason, he seems to enjoy sleeping on the spacious couch. He's claimed in the past that Keigo's couch is even more comfortable than his bed back in Kobe—and much more spacious, too. He doesn't seem too bothered by all the room he has, now that his children aren't around to crowd in around him as he sleeps.

She doubted that anyone who glanced upon him as he slumbered in Keigo's living room would guess that he could be a father. No one would have guessed that he was trapped in a (supposedly) rocky relationship with his ex-wife by three ties that he called his darling children. From afar, anyone would have thought he was just a young and enthusiastic man—a child, still, even—with his life ahead of him. She doubted that anyone could have gauged the burdens that he had to carry just by glimpsing at his peaceful, slumbering expression.

As evening falls, begins to stir. He opens his eyes slowly, and confusion starts to set in. He looks as though he's beginning to panicking, but when he hears her turn the pages of her book, he looks over at her and registers where he is immediately. She watches him calm down, and he assumes a cheerful grin so quickly that it's a little dizzying to think about how little time it takes for him to throw up a front. "Hi."

"Hi, sleeping beauty." She says with a hint of amusement. She closes her book and sets it down on the table in front of her. "Are you still up for dinner? We can eat at home, if you prefer."

He sniffs. "My dear sister, have you no esteem for our birthday?"

"I wasn't under the impression that it was an esteemed event." She said with a laugh. "Let's see... last year we celebrated at your house. Takato and Yuuki made a cake for you, and Hiyori performed a rap that she wrote for you. The year before that wasn't so different."

"Must you sweat the fine details?" He lamented. "Let's go out for dinner—just you, me, and Keigo."

's inclusion of Keigo brings a smile to her face. "Why don't you take a shower while we wait for him to come back?"

"Sure. I have a Givenchy suit in the back of my Ferrari—could you go get it for me?"

"What happened to the Armani and the Bugatti?"

He dismisses her with a few waves of his hand. "Please—they were so outdated."

She can't help but laugh a little as he resumes his smiley countenance and leaves to take a shower.

The two of them clean up in preparation for Keigo's return home. She doesn't expect him for another hour or so yet, so she makes them both coffee on the machine that she had brought up from her apartment. Given that she is in Keigo's apartment in the morning more often than not, keeping the coffee machine in her own suite is rather counterproductive. They sit down on the couch and make aimless conversation all the way up until she hears the door click open. She and cease their conversation, and the two of them turn to see Keigo entering the penthouse, every limb in his body weighed down by apparent exhaustion.

As strange as it is, she gets the sense that he's cheered by the presence of another human being in the penthouse. Although she's always had the distinct impression that and Keigo had gotten off on a rather awkward foot, she's gladdened to see spread his arms and say grandly, "Good company has arrived."

"You say that as if it needs to be said." Keigo said, wilfully smirking. As he removes his jacket and hangs it by the door, he proceeds to make small talk. "How goes it?"

"Same as usual." says, his smile wide and his eyes crinkling. "And you?"

"Tired, as usual."

"Too tired to go out to dinner?"

"You underestimate me." Keigo says, pulling his jacket off the hook and putting it back on again. "As you well know, I don't pass up opportunities to celebrate."

"Don't you now." She says, giving him an amused look.

"I don't." His eyebrow twitches as he resists the temptation to say, I am a fun person.' She knows that he won't—he's not the type to give others the chance to mock him so easily. "As my treat to the two of you, we shall go wherever you please this evening."

"You're not paying, Keigo." She says.

"I suppose you think you can stop me." He quirks his eyebrow, and she knows that it's a sign of a challenge. She doesn't rise to the bait, because she knows that he's right: she's not sure she could ever stop him from doing anything he wanted—not even if she put her mind to it.

, having completely ignored her exchange with Keigo, sits in a thoughtful silence, rubbing his chin. The serious look he's wearing tricks her into thinking that he's about to make a legitimate suggestion as to where they should eat. "I've always wondered if Kitchou actually holds up to its reputation..."

She gives her brother a once-over. "I don't think they'll let you in."

"She's right." Keigo adds, raising an eyebrow at 's casual attire.

sighs dramatically. "Well, what about that Italian place we always go to?"

"The one near my old apartment?" She asks, a bit surprised. With all the nights that she and Keigo have spent cooking dinner at home, she can't remember the last time they went to that little Italian place. It's nostalgic to think about, and judging from the look in Keigo's eyes, she gauges that he feels the same way—no matter how hard he tries to hide it. "It's been a while since we've been back there. Not since I moved out, anyway."

"All the more reason to go there." said reasonably. "Besides, they might give us free dessert there."

"Because we're—supposedly—regulars?"

"No, because it's our birthday!"

"Our birthday isn't until this Friday, though." She points out, laughing a bit.

smiles. "Maybe. But they won't know that."

While they're chattering, Keigo calls the restaurant to book a table for them. When all is said and done, they gather their things and head down to Keigo's car. offers to drive if Keigo is too exhausted to do so, but the latter politely refuses and simply ushers them all into the car. She takes the front seat, and takes the back seat. He buckles up, but sits as far forward as he can. He rests his hands on the shoulders of hers and Keigo's seats, his babbling buzzing in their ears like a particularly persistent mosquito. His demeanour reminds her faintly of a five-year-old, ready to embark on a highly-anticipated road trip with his exasperated (albeit amused) parents.

They arrive at the restaurant a little while later, and the waiter recognises them the moment they walk in. Without even asking for their reservation, he shows them to a booth for three by the window. They begin by ordering drinks, and they spend a bit of time chattering before they order their meals. It's a quaint night—or, as quaint as a night can be in the presence of . She enjoys the sight of her little brother sitting across from her, alternating between forking down his carbonara and telling stories about how Takato had picked up the violin (at Kagura's expense, of course). She enjoys hearing the clink of cutlery, and the white noise of the restaurant around them. She enjoys the warmth of sitting so close to Keigo, and the hints of a genuine smile that tugs at the corner of his lips every time she forks some penne into her mouth and their arms brush. The three of them laugh and talk in this reality that she never thought was possible. Seeing and Keigo engage in pleasant conversation, hearing them make jokes in reference to past happenings—it's like music to her ears.

"Look, you can only throw me in a pool so many times before I start to lose it."

"Ahn? I can't claim to do such things for fun."

"Shut up, you totally do it for fun."

"Hmph. It seems you know me better than I thought."

"You sleep on a guy's couch—it tells you a lot about them."

She's not sure why she was never able to imagine a reality where and Keigo could comfortably converse was possible. Perhaps it was because she thought that the two of them were too stubborn for their own good, but perhaps she's underestimated them. Perhaps they are a little more forgiving than they give the impression of being—at least, one of them is. She knows that has the tendency to be a little abrasive at times, and the way that he speaks to Keigo isn't exactly different to the way he speaks to her, or the way he speaks to friends—but looking at Keigo in this light is truly something else. She can't imagine that he would have spoken to with such patience some six months ago—yet here they are now, sharing a calm and strangely familial conversation. It's nice, she thinks to herself with a smile.

As she and begin recounting highlights of their trip to Ireland for Keigo, they hear his phone go off. He pulls his phone out at the table and makes a motion to decline the call—but something makes him pause. He stares at the screen for a moment before excusing himself and taking the call outside.

"Wonder what that's about?" asks, nodding after the retreating Keigo. "Does he usually take calls during dinner?"

"Sometimes." She says.

Her brother gives her a sympathetic blink. "So... can we order dessert, or should we wait for him?"

decides to go ahead and order dessert, but she settles for another glass of wine. While waiting for the last member of their little group to return, she and her brother find themselves reminiscing about Ireland. She waxes poetry about the magic of Ben Bulben, to her brother's delight, and he sighs blissfully as he imagines (out loud) the possibility of spending Christmas in Ireland.

"There's something so charming about Christmas in Ireland." He says dreamily.

"The lack of commercialism, perhaps?"

He doesn't even seem to hear her over the sound of his own humming reverie. "Just think of all the people that could fit into Aunt Aoife's house during Christmas. Her, Uncle Diarmuid, our cousins from England—their partners, their families..."

She closes her eyes and opens her mind to the possibilities. With a keen interest, she listens as exercises his liberty to wax amateur poetry.

"... We mill about the living room. There's cheer from the fire in the hearth, the children as they dig beneath a Christmas tree lit up like Koto on a Friday night..."

"Have you been to Koto before?"

"... There's a glass of wine in your hand, and a glass of apple juice in mine..."

She laughs at that. He has her there.

"... There's merriment the air as the kiddies open their presents from us..."

"Merriment is a big word for you. Are you sure you know what it means?"

"... As they traipse around the Christmas tree in joy and glee, one of them trips on the light cable, toppling the tree and sending it up in flames..."

"Just what exactly is your idea of a delightful Christmas?"

She opens her eyes to see him smiling at no one in particular. His eyes are soft, but distant—it's as though he's staring into another plane of reality that she can't quite see. He's lost in his own little world, and she can't bring herself to rouse him from his stupor. She imagines he's enjoying the sight of adults panicking around a flaming Christmas tree.

They stay in that little pocket of comfortable silence until Keigo's sudden reappearance shunts them back into reality. She watches as Keigo gathers his coat and slips it on. In response to her imploring look, he leans forward and presses a swift kiss to the side of her face. "If you'll forgive me, an urgent matter requires my attention elsewhere." He says, directing an apologetic nod at each of them in turn. "Rest assured, dinner is taken care of. By the same logic, dessert is—of course—free. Consider it my gift to you."

"We were actually after your company, but I suppose this will have to do." says, sighing dramatically. His forthrightness brings a sort of strange, wry smile to Keigo's lips.

"Is everything alright?" She asks, unintentionally breaking the good vibes between the two of them. She doesn't mean to disrupt the mood, but Keigo looks like he's in a rush, and she's not about to risk letting him leave without at least trying to offer an ear to his apparent emergency. "Shall I come with you?"

"No, stay." He says, chiding her with gentle affection in his voice—the way a husband would a wife. With one last kiss to her forehead, he says, "Happy birthday."

She smiles, and it gives way to laughter when she hears ask, "My turn?"

Keigo sighs. He gives a brusque nod before departing the restaurant, ignoring the latter's over-the-top lamentations about unrequired love.

In the wake of Keigo's departure, she's left curious—and, admittedly, a little worried—but the longer her wondering goes unanswered, the faster it fades from her immediate attention. Pushing it from her mind, she deigns to keep her attention trained on her brother, listening as he rolls off conversation topic after conversation topic. They talk late into the night about nothing in particular, and as the evening winds down, she expects that he'll soon end their pleasant outing with more details of his dream for their future in Ireland.

She's caught off guard when, out of nowhere, he blindsides her with his dredged-up recollections.

"A couple of weeks ago, I went to drop off my little darling's at Kagura's." He says, sounding strangely detached. For a long time, he pauses, as though unsure about whether or not he wants to go on. In the end, he resolves to go through with what he's started. "I found her asleep in the living room, surrounded by paperwork and empty mugs of coffee. When I tried shaking her, she wouldn't wake up. I guess she must have passed out from exhaustion."

She folds her arms and leans forward on the table, listening carefully to his story.

"If you could have seen the apartment." He breathes. The look on his face clues her into thinking just how much of a train wreck his ex-wife's place must have looked. "The kids were brimming with questions, but Takato—bless him—took the other two to bed. I spent an hour or two cleaning up the place."

Again, he pauses for a long time. She gets the sense that he wants her to interject, but she's reluctant to say anything that will make him change his mind about wanting to open up to her.

"I couldn't leave her there like that, so I thought to stay the night. I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember is her shaking me awake. She could have said anything to me after that—thanks for cleaning the apartment, ; how dare you organise my paperwork, ; why are you in my apartment, —but, weirdly enough, she asked a favour of me. She asked if I could look after the kids until she got back from court. So I said yes."

"I called in to work to get the day off and spent the entire day cleaning up the place. I swear, if it weren't for the kids, her apartment would have looked three times worse than it was. She came back at around seven o'clock looking like a half-dead corpse, and—well, I've always known her to be a workaholic, but I never thought it would get this bad..." He stops to steel himself. "I made dinner for the five of us, and we all sat down at the dinner table to eat together, and it... it was nice, you know? We haven't spent time together like that in a long time—not while we're all in such a subdued mood, anyway. You could tell that no one really knew how to feel about it—not even Hiyori." He smiles, as if the thought brings him some amusement. "The kids went to bed a little later, but Kagura had some paperwork to do, so she stayed up. I stayed up with her, and..."

His breathing labours.

"I may have done something I'll live to regret."

Disillusioned and with bated breath, she waits to her the words from his mouth. When he says nothing, she musters the courage to say, "At least tell me it's going to be a niece, not a nephew?"

Her brother blusters. Despite himself, he manages to cough out a laugh. "You wound me, ! Just how low is your opinion of me?"

"Quite, but I don't expect that's anything new." She says, not bothering to hide her relief.

Almost as quickly as laughter found him, it escapes him. "No, no—I didn't do anything quite that extreme." He takes in a breath, and breathes out slowly. "Just being there with her, talking with her like we were in her dorm room after my shift at work... I remember why I fell in love with her in the first place."

She closes her eyes. "..."

"I fucked up, okay?" His brazen words catch her off guard. "I told her that I still love her, and now she won't let it go. I'm scared she'll never move on because I said something so brash and stupid, and I..."

The sigh that leaves him is gusty and exhausted. She's not sure what she can say to reassure him. He's not the type of person to be comforted by human touch, so she's certain he would only recoil if she reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder in a moment so solemn and severe. She hopes that her presence is enough comfort for him.

As the night wears on, he begins to wind down. One of the waiters stops by their table to inform them that the shop will be closing before long; she hadn't realised how late it's gotten until she checks her watch and reads twelve. It's not the ideal place to leave their conversation—still, the two of them have little choice but to leave the restaurant. They step out into the mild autumn weather, standing by her side in uncharacteristic silence as she makes a call to be picked up.

She expects his wordlessness to last, but to her dismay, she's wrong.

"Have you ever felt like disappearing, ?"

Her blood turns to ice upon hearing his words.

"I don't mean quite as literally." He says hastily, as though the amendment that he follows with is any better than his first thoughtless statement. "I meant disappearing as in—well, just—upping and leaving."

She searches his face for some sign of an ulterior motive, but she can't seem to find it—nor can she seem to find the courage to tell her brother that, lately, she's felt more at home than she's ever been. It doesn't seem right to make him feel worse about his desire to run away than she expects he already does. In the end, she resigns to saying, "Sometimes."

Her brother says nothing to her after that.

Even after the car arrives for them, he wordlessly climbs into the back seat next to her and listens with detachment as she tells Yanai to take them back to the apartment complex. The stillness in the air is discomforting, to say the least, but she can't manage to find the right words to say to him. She doesn't know if her words are enough to calm the storm of fear and confusion beneath his detached exterior.

She is clued into thinking that maybe, just maybe, he's starting to wind down when he reaches out for her hand and grips it with a disconcerting amount of force. It leaves her disenchanted—unwilling to entertain the notion that maybe she doesn't know the extent of her brother's mind as well as she thought she did. It hurts a little to think about just how long has felt this way.

It makes her feel a little powerless, knowing that there are few things in this world that can bring her brother the peace of mind that they both desperately wish he had. She wonders if she could bring herself to bend a knee to his suffering when the time comes, or whether she'll have to be the one to turn away out of loyalty to something else entirely.

神無付
gods

... living there with a halo in her hair, she cried
there are feathers everywhere, but it's fine
spin circles for me, wound relentlessly around the words we used to sling
such torturous things always chewing up the only ones I ever mean
if you're going then go
watch love get strangled by a kite's cold strings
fall comes early and summer leaves as a storm with the car keys
spark your heels up against the picket fence I built
all your wishes, they will sink
likes stones slowly down a lonely well

returns to Kobe at turn of the week, and she sees him off with the tightest and most crushing hug she can give him without breaking him. She makes him promise to call her if he ever needs to talk, and with a transparent smile, he agrees to do so. It's disillusioning. It kills her to watch him shut her out and self-destruct.

As she watches him get in his car and drive out of the parking lot, her mind is fraught with worry for him—so much so that it begins to consume her daily thoughts. Mundane things like smiling at customers of a day and showering of an evening before bed seems so insignificant in the wake of her brother's departure. She borrows one of Keigo's spare laptops to video call her brother at least once a week. Seeing him okay and mildly functioning is enough to take the edge off her worry, and she doesn't mind that these days, they rarely talk in their calls. She rather enjoys the silence while she's in the kitchen, trying out a new dish, and glancing over every now and then to see her little brother journaling or reading manga. It reminds her a little of when they were kids.

puts up a noticeable front whenever Keigo is around. He makes the effort to laugh and joke, and she's not quite sure how to feel about it. On one hand, she's relieved to see that he still has remnants of his humorous spirit buried deep within his mind—but on the other hand, she doesn't like seeing him put up a front.

She doesn't have to see it for long, though. As the weeks go by, she starts seeing Keigo less and less. He often texts her to say that he can't make lunch because he has paperwork to complete, and often calls her to say that he'll be home late because he has mountains and mountains of work to do. Eventually, she stops getting the messages from Keigo himself and starts getting from straight from his secretary. When she picks up the phone, she very much expects to hear the rehearsed and polite voice of a woman say, "Atobe-sama wishes for me to inform you that he'll be home quite late tonight, -sama. He offers his most heartfelt apologies."

takes it unquestioningly for the first few of times. She understands that things are always busy at work for Keigo, and she knows that the company always has its ups and downs, so she lets it go. She tells herself that she'll just ask Keigo the next time she sees him.

But it's so hard to catch a spare moment with him. Every night that he doesn't spend sleeping on his desk, he spends it getting a few precious hours of sleep on the couch. She wakes up to the sound of the microwave as Keigo heats up last night's dinner, and by the time she rolls out of the bed and opens the door to check on him, he's gone.

She's starting to forget the depth of his five o'clock shadow when, one night, she gets another call from the secretary, delivering the same, robotic message that 's accepted without question for the past couple of weeks.

"Atobe-sama wishes for me to inform you that he'll be home very late tonight, -sama. He offers his most heartfelt apologies."

"I see." She says. "Can you tell me what has him so preoccupied?"

There's a pause, as though the secretary never imagined wouldn't know. The moment of surprise fades, and a sort of pensive silence takes hold of them. imagines the secretary biting her lip—a nervous habit that supposes the woman developed after years of working for the Atobe family. For a moment, she thinks that the secretary might refuse to answer her question and simply state that this matter would best be discussed behind closed doors with Keigo himself.

To 's surprise, the secretary says, "He hasn't told you himself?"

pauses momentarily. "I haven't seen him properly in weeks. He breezes in and he breezes out before we have the time to chat. He rarely even makes it home in time for dinner." Surely this woman—who called nearly every night to make aware of this fact—would know that.

"I... I'm not sure Atobe-sama would have me tell you this, but I feel that you of all people should have the right to know." The secretary says. "It would do him good to alleviate the burden on his shoulders."

"The burden?" echoes.

Hesitation. "Atobe-sama's father is gravely ill." The secretary says. "He is taking on all of these extra hours purely to fill his father's shoes."

"I... had no idea." Privately, the fact that Keigo chose to say nothing about his father doesn't surprise her. She likes to think that he's become a lot more open about his personal life to her in these past few months, but perhaps she's overestimated his ability to be open about private matters. "Thank you for telling me."

She does her best to assist Keigo in the few ways she can: she keeps the couch made ready as a bed; she makes meals to-go; she keeps the place tidy, and refrains for asking too much more from him. She spends a lot of her spare time in his penthouse, willing to catch him the moment he comes home at some odd hour for a shower and some food. It's not until the last week of October that she witnesses Keigo walking through the door at one o'clock in the morning on a Monday night. She's watching a movie by herself when she hears the click of the door, and when she turns around to look over the back of the chair, she makes astonished eye contact with Keigo. Both of them look a bit like startled birds. She's surprised to catch him in the act of returning home, and he's surprised to see her awake so early in the morning.

He drags himself over to the couch and sinks down next to her. His sorely missed presence is comforting, and it surprises her when she realises how long it's been since she's actually heard his voice.

"Why are you still awake?" He murmurs against her temple.

"I have a day off tomorrow." She says. "I thought I'd stay up on the odd chance of watching you come on."

"How I wish to talk to you more." He says, abruptly turning his head to yawn. "And how I wish to rest."

"Go to bed." She says. "It's been made for weeks now."

"Here will do." He says, making himself comfortable in the crook of her neck. "Pass me that blanket."

The rational part of her mind is eager to protest, but the rest of her body aches for sleep as much as Keigo's most certainly does. She reaches over and retrieves a large blanket from the armchair, covering the both of them with a blanket. In barely two blinks, everything is dark and still.

Her sleep is dreamless—or, so she thinks. She can't remember anything between falling asleep and waking up to Keigo stirring beside her, and so desperately trying not to wake her. She's already awake as he's slowly removing his head from her shoulder and attempting to rise from the couch as noiselessly as humanly possible. She decides to save him the trouble of having to do the second part of his intention.

"Going already?" She asks.

"Go back to sleep." He says quietly.

"Hang on, I'll make you something for breakfast."

He pauses for a long time. "Alright."

In the time that it takes him to clean up and put on a suit for work, she throws breakfast together. He's eating slowly enough that she assumes it's safe to make conversation with him and expect it to continue for at least a few minutes.

"Is everything alright at work?" She asks. "You're hardly home these days."

"It's all very busy." He says, downing half of his coffee in just a few gulps.

She waits for him to elaborate, but he doesn't. For a moment or two, she's inclined to let it slide, but it's not as if this is the first time she's seen the opportunity to be blunt with Keigo and taken it. It may have gotten her in hot water the first couple of the time, but these days, she feels more confident that what she says will have an effect on him.

"I heard about him from your secretary." She says.

The fork pauses between the plate and his mouth. "About whom?"

His tone suggests that he already knows what she's talking about. "Your father."

Keigo says nothing.

"Why didn't you tell me about it?" She asks.

"What would it have accomplished?"

"I don't know. Sometimes it helps to share your pain with people around you to lessen its hold on yourself." She says. "I understand that your father is none of my business, but you are my business. I've known how you get when you bottle things up, and I notice how you've changed ever since you've started letting me into your life. I don't want things to go backwards. Do take advantage of the fact that I'm here for you."

He finishes off his breakfast with a sigh. "I'm afraid there's little more you can do for me. Perhaps I would share this burden with you if there was any way in which you could help me, but that's not quite how this works." He says. His voice his calm, but the way he reprimands her sends her mind tumbling back to the midwinter, when she was outspoken and he was either too proud to admit that she was right or too scared to let her any deeper into his life than he already had. "If you could share my workload, perhaps I would reconsider."

"Isn't there anyone else at the company that can fill your father's shoes?" She asks. "At least until he gets better?"

Keigo, for some reason, looks faintly surprised. "What do you mean? This is the way it's always been."

"What do you mean, the way it's always been?"

He takes a moment to breathe. "The reason I've had a rather fortunate upbringing is thanks to my father entirely. In other words, him sitting in a chair and making executive decisions for the future of the company was what allowed me to attend prestigious schools and live a life of creature comforts." He says. "Likewise, the exact reason that my father is able to continue withering away in his hospital bed is because I sit in his chair for him and make those executive decisions on his behalf. He doesn't have to worry about the company—but someone else has to."

She wasn't sure what she found sadder: the negative amount of joy that Keigo had in running his father's company, or the disdain with which he spoke of his family. To Keigo, his father's condition was not only an inconvenience to himself, but a single moment in his life that would set off an unfavourable chain of effects—a chain in which Keigo would replace his father in the executive's chair and be shackled there for the rest of his days.

She wants to go on, she wants to talk with him more about it, but he has to go. He's out of the door by six o'clock, and she's left pondering the conversation she's had with Keigo as she washes up two sets of dishes for the first time in many weeks.

- x -

It's not until Saturday that Keigo comes back before midnight. She's made a habit of waiting up for him, and she's fairly certain that it's pressuring him to come home as early as he can make it. Even if he has to make the commute back to the office the next day on only three or four hours of sleep, he comes home every day at an unbelievable hour of the morning, and leaves again only hours later.

Even though it's late, she makes the both of them dinner. She's already eaten, but Keigo's starving, and she can't remember the last time that the two of them actually had dinner followed by a sobremesa. After dinner, she takes the plates to the sink, and Keigo fetches from the cabinet a bottle of wine for the two of them to share. By the time the dishes are done, her wine is sitting there, waiting for her. Keigo has already downed one glass.

She's set on bringing up Keigo's father again. He's given her snippets of information on his father's condition when she asks him at breakfast time, but she is bothered by the way he keeps his reports superficial. There is no emotion in him when he speaks of his father. She knows that he's uncomfortable speaking about his father, but the thought of his father wasting away in the hospital while Keigo spends the better part of his Saturday evening getting drunk brings her great sadness.

"Have I ever talked about my family?" She asks him as he finishes his second glass. "Aside from , I mean."

"Bits and pieces." He says after some thought.

"My mother died when I was young, and my father went soon after. He passed when and I were still in high school, actually." She says. "Did I ever tell you the story?"

He inclines his head. She takes that as a no.

" had been sick all week." She says with a wry smile at the memory of her brother coughing and spluttering all over the breakfast table on a Friday morning. "It was our dad's day off, so it would have made much more sense for to stay at home, but of course he insisted on going to school for graduation day—not because we were graduating, no; it was for a much sillier reason. There was this boy he liked, you know. was determined to spend as much time around him as possible before they inevitably part ways—so, he went to school. He complained the entire walk to school—in between coughs—that his eyes were splitting and his throat might soon follow.

"He went to the infirmary about just before the graduation ceremony started. He ended up calling home from the nurse's office, hoping that dad would come and pick him up—so he dialled the number, and waited, and waited... and then the receiver picked up. He opens his mouth and says, 'Dad, I feel awful. Will you come and pick me up?' and then he hears coughing, more coughing, and a strangled voice that says, '... I love you and so very much. Don't you ever forget that.' Then there's a clatter. Then nothing."

"They call the ambulance, but they're too late. He's already dead by the time the medics arrive. A stroke, they said." She says finally. Keigo's expression remains the same as it was when she first began telling the table. She's not sure if hers has changed in any way, but she herself feels strangely absent. "At the same time as they declared him dead, I was at my graduation ceremony, dreaming of what university would be like. Did I ever tell you that they accepted me at Sonoda? I got a scholarship. Not a big one, mind you, but enough to help my dad out a bit with tuition fees. I was waiting to tell him—I wanted to surprise him—but he was gone before I got home."

For a moment, there is silence. Then, of all the things that Keigo can say, he chooses, "Why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know what kind of blood you and your father have, but I don't think that you should pass up the chance to bury whatever has come between the two of you." She says. "You might regret it one day."

She wants him to give her words some thought, but to her surprise, he lowers his fourth glass. He sounds calm and detached when he says, "With all due respect, you might not continue to feel this way if you ever got the chance to meet him." He says. "He is a bitter old man with an empty heart."

"But he's your father, Keigo."

"And?"

"And," she says, "a father is father. Death can't take that away from you."

"But it will, and when it does, I will shed no tears. You see, , there is a difference between your father and mine." He finishes the last of his wine. "Yours loved you and your brother until the very day that he died."

- x -

They start to keep to themselves over the weeks, neither truly understanding the needs of the other. She tries to see things from Keigo's point of view, but to her, the strings that tie a family together are immutable, and she can't fathom the idea that a person wouldn't seek to make peace with their wrongs in the wake of a family member's death. Keigo, on the other hand, tells her that someone who was raised by people who could love would never understand the way he feels. It stings a bit, but she can't change his mind, and he doesn't seem to show any signs of changing his.

At the end of October, she counts down the days to her annual trip to Nagoya. She leaves a note in her room, just in case Keigo notices her absence and comes looking for her, before packing her bag and leaving for the station. She puts her luggage in the overhead compartment, and sits down to enjoy the two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Nagoya. is there to pick her up in his car, and they drive wordlessly to the old district in which they used to live.

The drive is perhaps the most unsettling time of all. , who always does his best to perk up sullen moods with jokes or wordy conversations about his wanderlust, is quiet. It's the one time of the year that he opens the door for mournfulness and lets it sit there with them, silent, unmoving, for once a welcome guest instead of an intruder that he constantly tries to fight off. They pick up flowers and incense on the way to their parents' grave—the same carnations that they do every year. It's the only flower that they know would be appropriate to leave at their parents' grave. parks the car, and they make their way to a forgotten little space towards the back of the space, where their family grave sits. She lights the incense, and lays the flowers on their grave.

When they first made these visits, they always came armed with words. It was a habit from the days when , and Keiichi were still a family of three, and they communed regularly with the alter in their house. After their father passed away, after she and sold the house, after they moved to different sides of Honshu to start their lives anew, they came back once a year to update their parents on all that had changed since the year prior.

After a while, though, they grew older, and things changed. For her, getting out of Nagoya was more than enough to want to seek the peace of mind that she'd been craving since the death of her parents. A clean slate was what she'd unconsciously known she'd always needed to remind herself that life goes on, and that dwelling on the past and why it happened and how unfair it all was were things that she couldn't let keep her down for the rest of her life.

For , it—undoubtedly—took a bit longer. She remembers how he'd thrown himself at the mercy of his new life, searching for anything to write over all the associations he'd made with, in particular, their father's untimely end. She remembers how, for the longest time, calls—be they incoming or outgoing—would cause him to jump, or tense, or look sick to his stomach, or all three. She remembers how he developed a loathing for scheduled plans or important dates, and started doing everything entirely on impulse to supposedly minimise the anxiety they gave him. She remembers how, even after she stopped talking to their parents at the grave, still would, desperately hoping and praying that their parents—wherever they were—could hear about him and how well he wanted them to think he was doing.

These days, he still talks, but not much as much. A standard hello. Some words on how he's doing. Some thoughts on how he can be doing better. Some gushing about what his beloved sister is doing. This year, they have more to tell their parents. Though it's faint, she sees that there is a genuine ghost of a smile on 's face when he talks about their visit to Ireland, and what it was like meeting their Aunt Aoife for the first time. He doesn't such much more after that; the two of them just stand there in silence until, with a glance at one another, they say their goodbyes and turn back to the car.

They have friends that they could theoretically stay with in Nagoya, but never do they make the effort to reach out. It's rather a downer of a time that she doesn't wish to impose on the happy families that all their former friends have no doubt formed since high school. She and check into their hotel, a couple of wards over from their parents' gravesite, and find somewhere to eat for the night. They find themselves in one of many noodle bars that run along the street, and they're early enough to the place that there's a single booth available at which they can eat.

They order and make small chat, which is pleasant and superficial at first. It's distracting, though—the way looks so absent-minded as they talk about how is doing, and how work is going, and how life is in Minato. She's trying her best to ease him into a conversation about Keigo and his father, but takes the reigns of the conversation before she can find the kindest way to do so.

"I've been thinking." He says, and for a long time, he doesn't say anything more than that. She's about to open her mouth to ask him to go on when he does just that to his own accord. "I told you before, didn't I, how I fucked up? How I told Kagura that I..."

His look shifts from discomfort to something more pained.

"It's hard, living just a few wards away. It sounds self-absorbed to say that I know they want me back—the kids are growing up, and Kagura's workload is as unpredictable as it is unkind to her." He says. "And I know how it was to live without a parent, so I shouldn't feel this way, but I do. I do. I'm such a selfish prick."

She watches him torture himself on the other side of the table, and she's not quite sure what to say in this situation. She's inclined to let him keep talking, so that he can let it all out, but for a moment it seems like he's frozen in time. His mouth is poised open, his fidgeting fingers have slowed to a halt, his eyes are now fixed on a single point on the table. So she prompts him with a, "What do you mean?"

"I mean," he said, "I want to live out the rest of those adolescent years that I never felt I was able to. I wish I'd taken the time to mourn and move on with my life, but I didn't. I didn't. I just... I threw myself into life and hoped that it'd wash me ashore to someplace better—that when I woke up, half-drowned and still wishing for death, I'd stop and think to myself, 'Well, perhaps I should take the opportunity to start over.' And I would, and everything would be fine again. But now I have three kids now. I have someone who wants to rely on me so badly, but I'm too scared to help her because I'm afraid that if I do, I'll remember why I resented her in the first place and I'll be trapped again. I asked Kagura to marry me when I was young and stupid. I grew up too fast and I feel like my life's just gone by so quickly that I want to be sick. There's some part of me, amongst everything that I've found myself in, that just wants to be selfish and go somewhere for a while. Maybe not for every, but for long enough that I can stop feeling the way that I do and put it all to rest."

And then he looks at her with that look she knows all too well: it's the look that he would give her when they had put coins into the gachapon outside the grocery store, and she got the figure that he wanted; it's the look that he would give her when he finished his dessert all too fast, but she had more than enough left; it's the look that he would give her when he 'needed' to get out of class to hang out on the rooftop with whichever boy or girl took his fancy at the time, and she was the better of the two at forging signatures. An inkling forms in her mind, and for a sudden and terrible moment, she thinks she knows where he's going with this.

"I've been thinking of going back to university." He says.

She waits, heart thrumming in her throat, but he doesn't go on, so she has to prompt him. "So why don't you? There are any number of universities here that you can apply to."

"I want to believe that I can do better than just here." He says. "Did you know that it's free in Ireland?"

Her blood turns to ice. "There are pre-requisites, but—surely."

"Surely." He agrees. "But I've—I—well, I can apply for citizenship through descent. I've talked to Aoife—says that I should live with them while I put down roots. There's a university in Sligo where I can study teaching."

"You'd leave Japan?" She asks. The words are eerily familiar. It's like déjà vu—like she's heard the words before, but they're not words that have actually left her mouth.

She's midway through wondering why indeed those words felt so familiar that the slow and sad smile on her brother's lips cuts her thought process short. "You said it yourself, didn't you? There's nothing much left for us here." He says. "You asked me, didn't you? To convince you that you still had something left in Japan. I couldn't have dreamed something so hopeful."

And for a very real moment, she's torn. Every word that leaves his mouth is a blow, because she knows that she said those words, but at the minute she can't bring herself to admit it. She thinks of the position she was in when she said those things to and Aoife, and she thinks of where she is now. She thinks of her new start in Minato. She thinks of the two apartments that she frequents. She thinks of the way the sky looks so much better from the rooftop of the building. She thinks of how she actually gets sunlight in her room now that she doesn't have that dreadful apartment she had in Sumida. She thinks of the small alleys of Tokyo, the busy traffic—a concrete jungle and a mess of people and things and lights.

She thinks of Keigo. Dear God, she thinks of the first time that they met at her dear friend's engagement party, where he had scorned her on the assumption that she was an alcoholic. She thinks of how she tried to defend herself, and he rolled his eyes and drove her home when the festivities started to wind down for the evening. She remembers their sporadic correspondence over the months—how she fit herself into the pockets of free time that Keigo had, and he never seemed to mind, so long as she never ran her mouth for not getting to see him enough.

"I'm rather tired of being told that I don't make time for people," she remembers him saying, the first day they met up after the party, "so if that poses a problem for you, I'd rather you make it known sooner rather than later."

She still remembers the look on his face when she said in return, "Why, of course it would pose a problem!" The alarm in his eyes when he didn't realize that she was only pretending to be outraged. "Whatever would I do if you were not around, my good sir, to entertain me? What would you have me do—commute daily to my full-time job? Treat myself to some relaxation time by re-watching sitcoms with corner store takeout? Have my own life? You insult me. Truly, sir, you do."

"Oh, don't be so dramatic." She remembers panicking at the thought of him taking her seriously, until she caught sight of that smirk with which she began to associate him. "How could anyone think that three months is too long to go without seeing someone? Honestly, I should find myself a more understanding companion."

She remembers how long it took to get to know him past that suit of armour that he wore almost religiously, and how fulfilling it felt to gradually understand that, beneath everything that he tried to hide behind initially, he genuinely cared about her. She thinks back to January, and the thoughts that they had about the New Year by the river; February, and its hideous Valentine's Day; March, and the pearl bracelet that she still wore to this very day; April, when he welcomed her into his apartment and asked her to stay awhile; she thinks of the summer in its entirety and all the new sides that she'd seen of him. Keigo with her brother, Keigo with the children, Keigo—at least his simple self—with her. And as she sits there, across from her brother with his eyes alight and his heart full of hope, she asks herself if she really doesn't have anything left in Japan. She asks herself what the hell that apartment building in Minato means to her: is it a home that she's grown to love in a country that she has no love for, or does she genuinely believe that it is—and always was—a stepping stone to a better life?

Staring her brother in the face, she realizes that she doesn't have the answers. is the only family left, and ever since the day that they lost their parents, she's always known that they could never be very far apart for too long at a time. But in the back of her mind, she sees herself at the table in Keigo's apartment, holding a glass of wine, and he's sitting across from her, doing the very same thing. She imagines the look on his face if ever she were to tell him that she'd chosen her brother's wellbeing over Keigo's love for her.

The look is so heartbreaking in her mind that she's not sure if she could ever bear to see it in real life.

霜月
frost

... allow me to exaggerate a memory or two
when summers lasted longer than we do
where nothing really mattered except for me to be with you
but in time we all forgot and we all grew
your melody sounds as sweet as the first time it was sung
with a little bit more character for show
as the final words before I'm dead and gone
you've never been so divine in accepting your defeat
and I've never been more scared to sleep alone
if love is not enough to put my enemies to sleep
then I'm putting out the lantern—find your own way back home

Keigo's father passes away at the beginning of November.

That's what he tells her when he comes home at seven o'clock on a weeknight, and she asks him why he's home so early. She's not sure what to do other than offer her condolences, but he doesn't seem interested in anything to do with his father. In the first place, he doesn't seem sad that the old man is gone.

The only thing that seems to be on his mind is how much his workload increases when the company falls on his shoulders. Although he takes the time out of his day to make an appearance at his father's funeral, he appears more saddled with stress than anything than he might feel for late father. If she thought that his stress affected their life together before, she hadn't been prepared for the aftermath of his father's passing. They eat together once a week, sleep together twice a month, and that's about it.

Once or twice, Keigo asks if she would consider living full-time in his apartment. He's never there to use it, and she's always there using it anyway. Privately, she wonders if it's Keigo's way of asking if she wants to make this thing that they have more permanent, but she doesn't ask it aloud. He's going through far too much to take the time to consider where they stand—and besides, it's not as if she's paying for her own place out of her own pocket entirely. So she agrees.

She's just managed to convince herself that this is a positive step forward towards her future in Japan when calls her not two days later.

"Hi." She says. Normally she's glad to hear her brother's voice—eager to know how he's getting on—but these days she always feels a bit worried when she picks up the phone, as if she's going to pick and he's going to answer with—

"I'm going to Ireland. Permanently."

It takes her a moment to realise that what has always been a discomforting reservation in the back of her mind has now becoming a waking nightmare. "Are you joking?"

"I got my citizenship papers today." He said. "I've been on the phone with Aunt Aoife all morning trying to get arrangements in place. Uncle Diarmuid thinks he can get me work, and the two of them want me to stay with them while I'm studying."

She's only half-listening to what he has to say. He's explaining things to her, but none of them answer the questions that she's actually plagued with. Why didn't he tell her that he was applying for Irish citizenship? When did he lodge the application? How long has he genuinely been dead-set on emigrating to Ireland forever?

She tunes back in to hear him calling her name. "? ..., are you still there?"

"How long?"

"Hmm? How long what?"

She's not sure which question she should ask first. "When did you apply for your citizenship?"

"September." He said. "I lodged it while I was up for our birthday and just got my papers today."

"And you never said a thing?"

"Well, that's hardly fair." He says, and she's thinking the exact same thing. This isn't fair. None of this is fair—not to her, not to Kagura, and certainly not to his children. "I was hinting at it when we were in Nagoya not two weeks ago, but you didn't seem eager. I thought that maybe you wanted to stay, and I couldn't force you if you wanted to."

"So you would have just left without me?"

"What else would you have me do? Stay?" He sounds hurt by the thought that she doesn't understand his motivations—and she does understand, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't hate them. "I can't, . You know I can't."

She thinks of Takato, who is a few years shy of middle school, and thinks about how much it'll take out of him to look about his mother and his siblings in the absence of his selfish father. She thinks about Hiyori, who has so much energy, so much love, so much faith and trust in the people around her, and how it would break her heart to see one of the most important people in her life to get up and walk out. She thinks about Yuuki, who barely functions without the constant support and attention from the people around him, and how—in the wake of 's absence—everyone will be too busy making sense of their own lives without to give any attention to the baby of the family. Part of her can't believe that could ever think of leaving Japan when there are so many people that still need him to be here.

At the same time, though, she knows that is at his breaking point. She knows that there are things that he's never dealt with—things that he's pushed deep down inside of him, things that he hoped would go away if he simply lost himself in the moment and let life go on—that are beginning to resurface. She knows that he's at his breaking point, that he wants to just escape all the consequences of the thoughtless actions he's made in his life. She knows that he's not fit to look after other people if he's not even fit to look after himself. For so long he's convinced himself that removing himself from his life will solve all of his problems, and that anything less than that simply won't be enough for him to relax. For once in her life, she is well and truly torn between pitying the people that is leaving behind and pitying himself.

She just barely hears him when he says quietly on the other end of the line, "I'll be gone by the end of December. Will you come with me?"

Just when she thought she couldn't be more stumped than she already was.

Not for the first time, she reminds herself of everything she's made for herself in the years that their parents have been gone. She thinks of what life might be like if leaves for Japan and she stays behind. The kids might still have a in their life to spoil them, love them, and give them attention—someone to go their graduations and spend birthdays and summers with them every year until they grew bigger and became more independent. Kagura might even appreciate 's input and recognize her once-sister-in-law as a permanent and positive presence in her children's lives.

More than anything, thinks once again of Keigo. Albeit the unsettlement that now fills their daily routine—or, well, perhaps weekly or monthly routine is a better timeframe to view it from—she keeps reminding herself of how far they've come, and how far they still have to go. Even though these couple of months have been exceedingly rough for Keigo, she wants to tell herself that things will change. She wants to tell herself that, with time, Keigo will ease into the swing of things, and all of a sudden, he won't mind when she calls and asks him if he's coming home for dinner, and then he'll fall back into the routine of coming home at seven to eat dinner with her and drink wine, clean up together, and then curl up in the same bed and fall asleep to the rhythm of one another's breathing. She tries to draw her attention to the milestones that they've made since Keigo took over the company—that they're now officially sharing the same apartment, and that they always share the same bed whenever Keigo makes it home to sleep—but the gaping reality of Ireland is hard to ignore.

"I don't know," is all she can manage to say.

He pauses. "You can still make it in time, if you decide to come. You can scrounge for the documents tonight and go down to the embassy first thing tomorrow. Your papers will come before we leave, and we can leave together on the twenty-third. We can have Christmas at Aunt Aoife's place. We can meet our cousins and their children. We can celebrate as a proper, honest-to-God family."

"And what of everything I have here?" She asks. It's a much simpler version of the convoluted thought-storm raging in her head.

"If you apply for your citizenship, then there are any number of cafes you can work at in Sligo." He says. "You could study, too—think of it, ! I think they do a BA in Writing and Literature. It would be perfect."

He's appealing to the side of that has so desperately longed to escape Japan for so long, and it's so hard to resist, but she's not like him. She's not the type to make her decisions impulsively—she needs to give it a least a bit of thought before she gives him an answer. So she tells him that she needs time to think about it, and she can't hear all the notes of disappointment in his voice when he decides to let her go for the evening.

Before he goes, though, he says, "Please consider it. You're all I have left."

- x -

She lies awake in hers and Keigo's bed until the early hours of morning. She feels herself beginning to fall asleep when she hears the door creak open and gently shut, and she hears someone shuffling in the main room. There's a click, and light spills under the doorway. It's been a couple of days since she's actually seen Keigo, and since she has a day off tomorrow, she doesn't see the harm in staying up a bit longer if it means she gets to exchange a word or two with him.

He looks up at her when she creaks open the door.

"Welcome back." She says, padding over to him and greeting him with a kiss.

He pulls away quicker than she would have liked. "You should be asleep."

"Couldn't." She says. He quirks an eyebrow at her, perhaps waiting for her to go on, but she isn't going to admit to him when he's this stressed and exhausted that called today and asked her to leave the country with him forever.

"Oh?" He reaches out to trace the lines beneath her eyes. "I didn't wake you?"

"No, I just have a lot on my mind." She says. He gives her a concerned look, but she doesn't want to trouble him—not when she knows that he has to be up again early tomorrow and do this all over again. "It's not important right now. Come to bed."

"I'll retire to the couch." He says, brushing at his shirt. "It rather feels like I have lead in my arms, so I doubt that it's physically possible for me to shower right about now."

She gives him a tired smile. "And?"

"And, what good would it do to taint perfectly clean sheets with the stench of sweat?"

"It's been a while since I last washed them anyway. I'll do them tomorrow."

"Well, your loss."

"This may come as a surprise to you, Keigo, but none of the excuses that you consistently make have been quite enough to put me off your company."

He's too tired to make any indication of his amusement other than an exhausted smirk. Without complaint, he follows her to the bedroom and collapses on the bed. She crawls in next to him, pulling the blankets over the two of them and curling up into his embrace. In minutes he's asleep, and despite the thoughts that had been swirling in her head not ten minutes ago, her mind is suddenly still, her heart content, and her body easing into a dreamless slumber.

She stirs when she feels him moving next to her early the next day, and she hears him curse before gently coaxing her into going back to sleep. She doesn't manage to, so she simply spends the next ten minutes staring up at the ceiling, still tired, but not tired enough to fall back asleep. When she hears the water shut off, she slips out of bed and goes into the kitchen to make him something to eat on-the-go.

She's just about done when he comes out into the main room, making irritated noises as he kisses her good morning. But she can tell that, beneath his dramatics, he seems at least a bit cheerful. "I thought I told you to go back to sleep."

"Yes, but I couldn't manage to." She says, offering a smile and his packaged breakfast. "Here—something for the road. Not sure if you were in a rush."

He kisses his thanks. "Do you have time for dinner this evening? It's been a while since we've gone out."

It's been a while since they've had dinner together, full stop, and they both know that. She doesn't want to be the one to bring it up when they've already as pleasant a morning as they could have had, though, so she simply tries to appear agreeable. "Where?"

"There's a nice place near the office." He says. "I'll send a car for you."

"No matter, no matter. The walk will do me some good."

He dismisses her with a wave of his hand. "Yanai will pick you up at eight. The Adolfo Dominguez number that you wore in Catalonia will suffice, as far as attire goes."

"Oh, no little Italian place?"

"Would you prefer to eat there?" He asks, oblivious to the fact that she's joking until she laughs.

"It doesn't matter to me where we eat—all I'm asking for is an evening of your time."

It takes him a moment, but he eases into a smirk at the in-joke. "Be ready at eight."

She can't remember the last time that she felt excited to kiss him goodbye. It's such a wholesome feeling—the thought that she and Keigo will finally get some time to catch up on all that's happening, that is. Ever since she moved into his apartment, more or less permanently, they haven't really had the time to talk about what this means for their future. Are they progressing in their relationship? Are they official? Months, and she's still not really sure if they are or aren't. Honestly, she can't think of a better possible time to have the vital conversation that they need to have about life hereon.

As she goes about her day, her conversation with looms over her. It's distracting, she thinks, as she washes the sheets, tidies the apartment, and sets upon a good book until it's time to start getting ready. She only really manages to get through a chapter or two—not because it's a dull book, but because she keeps wandering off in thought mid-paragraph, and three pages later, she realises she hasn't been able to take in anything at all over thoughts of wide open green spaces and the rushing water of the inlet near Aoife's house, and 's pleading of, "Come with me, you're all I have left."

Absentmindedly, she puts on the dress that Keigo seems to like so much and applies her make-up. She waits expectantly on the couch until she hears a knock at the door; when she opens it, Yanai bows and escorts her to the car downstairs. Within moments they're off, and the feeling of being in a car and the excitement of having dinner with Keigo is something that's all too nostalgic for her. A small part of her is simply waiting for something to go wrong. A frantic call from , telling her that he's not asking her to come to Ireland with him, he's begging. A weary call from Keigo, telling her that he's been kept late at the office and won't be able to make dinner after all. But nothing comes, and she steps out of the car when they arrive, physically and emotionally unscathed.

Keigo comes jogging around the corner but a moment later, looking well and truly exhausted—but there's something different about the way he presents himself to her that evening. It's almost as if he's retained the cheerfulness from their cordial exchange this morning, and she's not sure how he's managed to hold onto it all day, but she's pleasantly surprised. He greets her with a kiss—not one of his usual hello kisses, but something longer and more meaningful. By the time he pulls back and escorts her into the restaurant, she's already forgotten about the thoughts perched over her head.

They're shown to a small booth by the window, just how she likes it best. He asks her what she's been doing with her day, and she's so reluctant to dampen the mood straight away, so she focuses on the book she's reading and the other menial things she did throughout the day.

"I washed the sheets, you might be pleased to know."

"Good. I suppose I won't have to shower this evening, then."

"Don't get your hopes up—if you spill anything on yourself then you won't be allowed with a ten-foot radius of my linen."

"Oh, it's yours, now, is it?"

"Well, I sleep in it more. I should think that counts for something—don't you, Keigo?"

"Hmm." He says. "I suddenly feel the incentive to sleep in my bed more often."

"I think you should aim to simply sleep more often, period."

They start to run out of pleasant things to talk about by the time they order their food. When it finally comes, Keigo looks to make small talk out of the same things he usually does.

"Hear from your brother recently, then?" He asks casually. "I expect he's busy with his little tykes."

Normally when they talk about her brother, Keigo is open to hearing any number of things about 's latest scheme, whether it's about his latest trip with the kiddies or his latest mental breakdown. It's nice that he's so open and receptive to her brother's idiosyncrasies, but for once, she feels genuinely anxious. Where is she to begin telling him that her brother intends to leave everything behind and jump ship to Ireland? How, then, does she tell him that she's contemplating doing the same—not because she doesn't love Keigo, and not because she loves her brother more than Keigo, but because she genuinely thinks that her brother might need her more than Keigo does. And how can she let him go off by himself to a foreign country? He's always been the more irresponsible of the two. She can't let him go alone. He's her brother—her twin, no less. He's the only other person alive who's been through what she's been through—life with a single parent, then life without either parent, then the aftermath of it all. She can't imagine being apart from him.

Keigo's looking at her with concern, although it takes here a while to break out of her thoughts and recognize it. "Is everything alright?"

"I..." She stops again, not knowing where to start or what on earth to say. Her chest tightens as Keigo puts down his knife and fork and looks at her with rapt attention. "There's something I need to tell you."

"Of course." He says, folding his arms patiently. "Has something happened?"

She takes a breath and steels herself. "He's... he's not doing so well these days. After—well, what I mean to say is, after both of our parents were gone," she says, reluctant to bring up the death of her father specifically, "he was never really the same. He never thought— just did—and after a while, he started to realize that his life was no longer this great whirlwind. At some point, he had to stop doing and start picking up after himself. He found love prematurely, married prematurely, had kids prematurely—he gave up on himself prematurely."

"I think lately he's been thinking about it more than I've realized. I've known for a while that he's been unhappy with all the decisions that he's made, and that he's bitter for not allowing himself to take the time to find closure for our parents' passing and, instead, throwing himself headfirst into the deep end, thinking that it'd help him bypass all the stages of grief. But it didn't. He just quietly suffered with all of his pain until he realized he was stuck in a hole that he'd dug himself into. I think he's at his breaking point."

She stops to steel herself once more, and Keigo waits patiently.

"Just yesterday, he gave me a call. He told me he'd had enough and he wants to get away from it all." She says, evoking a look of immediate alarm on Keigo's face. She expects that he's misinterpreted what she's said, so she tries to pull it back around. "Ever since we've been to Ireland, he's just had this incurable infatuation with it. He's in the love with the idea of moving there, he's in love with the thought of having a family—actual, blood-related family—with whom he desperately wants to become close with. He wants a chance at the life that he never got to have—one where he gets to go to university and live with a bigger family and, eventually, teach a class of kids that don't rely on him twenty-four seven. He loves his own, of course, but he's been so taken by this idea of moving that doing anything else isn't enough to make him happy anymore."

By this point, she really should stop herself to allow Keigo the time to process it all, but now that she's started she can't manage to stop—or, rather, she doesn't want to. She's afraid that she won't have the nerve to continue if she falls silent now.

"He told me he applied for citizenship by descent, Keigo. He got his papers today and he'll be gone by the end of December, and I just—I don't have a clue what to do. He's all I have left, I know that, but I just keep thinking of how long it's taken me to finally find a little niche where I fit—this little niche where I feel comfortable and I am proud to call my home. I think about how used to Tokyo I am, and how I've fallen into the routine at the Quiescent since moving, and how I've fallen into the routine of us, and I just—we've come so far, and I—don't—"

She breaks off when she sees the look of Keigo's face. It's only there for a moment, but she sees that shattered look before it goes blank and unreadable. His eyes drop to the table. He's silent, and she doesn't know what in God's name she can possibly say to resurrect the pleasant atmosphere that had been there only moments ago, before her words had savagely beaten it and left it to die. She wrings her hands under the table, unable to think of anything else with which she had occupy her body and her mind while she waits for Keigo to speak.

When he does, he speaks only three words. "What of me?"

"I don't know, I—God, I wish I knew. But he's my brother, Keigo. I can't leave him."

It takes a few heartbeats, but slowly, Keigo's eyes rise up to meet hers. "What am I to you?"

It's the question that she's been wanting to ask him for months now, but has never managed to find the time or the place or even the right way to ask. "Why don't you tell me?"

He doesn't answer her. He simply finishes her meal, and she does the same.

Keigo calls for the bill, and they leave without ordering dessert. He calls for a car, and for tense moments on end, the two of them are standing on the front curb, side by side, neither of them saying a thing. She looks up at Keigo's face, and the look of concentration there suggests that he's still trying to process her words. He doesn't say a word to her—not when the car comes and he opens the door for her, not when he gets in on the other side, not when they make it home to the apartment, not when he shuts himself into the bathroom to take a shower. Not until they're both in bed, and he wordlessly turns to her, and he rests his forehead to hers.

"Don't go." He says.

And she knows that it's rare for Keigo to beg or show weakness of any kind, but she knows that those words aren't the words that she needs to hear from him to make her stay.

x -

They're quiet the next morning, when Keigo gets up to go to work and she gets up to make him breakfast. He stays to eat this time, perhaps having finally processed that these days leading up to the end of December may well be the last they ever spend together.

When it's time for him to go, he kisses her goodbye and lingers just a moment or two. Then he leaves.

The sun comes up, and she makes an appointment with the embassy. They tell her to come down with all of her documents in order. So she does.

=================
Princo & Ribbon

December 26, 2017.
=================

注釈
notes

Irish citizenship: In actuality, the process for getting your Irish citizenship through descent and your Irish passport seems to be taking most people a lot longer, with the current estimated time being around 4-6 months. There seem to be some cases of getting it in about 3 months, but, look, it's a story. I have story conventions to confirm to. We've been over this, you don't come here for the realism—you come here for the story.

Catalonia: Yeah, so... between now and when I wrote chapter two, I was completely ignorant of the fact that, while Barcelona is geographically located in Spain, it's actually located in Catalonia, which is an autonomous region with its own language (Catalan) and, um, yeah. That's not to say that they don't speak Spanish (from my superficial research, the official languages are apparently Catalan, Spanish, and the Aranese dialect of Occitan), but I have little to no knowledge of where Catalan and Spanish are employed in like... tourism and hospitality and that. Honestly, I'm so ignorant on the matter, I should have done way more research on the matter. Sorry, Catalonia.

Embassy appointment: Yeah I have no fucking idea how embassies work and how long you have to make appointments in advance to go and see them or if you can just walk in or not. Like I genuinely have no clue.

Ribbon: I like how it's been 3 years and still the quality of my writing doesn't improve beyond pretentious and broody HAHA.

Princo: Uh Ribbon finished the whole dream novel back in the summer I think, but I haven't gotten around to actually finishing even a chapter until now. Sorry guys, life is not good.

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