By October, business was starting to quieten down for the year. Where the florist once had just enough people to keep the place on its toes, it now became a den of dormant employees with fewer duties and fewer hours. For the first time since the start of his employment term, Shiraishi was now working legal hours. In between work, class, and visits to Grandpa at the nursing home, he still had hours to spare and often couldn't figure out what to do with himself. Even if he did find himself so bored that he simply had to come in to the store to help, nothing needed doing.
During our very first staff meeting of the month, Hotori suggested that we expand the shop to include a café. She reasoned that we had the right people to make it work: Takagi and I were both qualified baristas from our previous jobs, Hotori was a proficient baker, and Shiraishi had a pretty face. (Though in actuality, the phrasing that Hotori used was, "Shiraishi-kun has excellent customer service skills.") After the shop underwent a small renovation, business increased at the florist: more flowers sold, and although Takagi and I weren't the best baristas on the block, we got by on Shiraishi's ability to sell cakes and coffee.
Incidentally, most of our clientele were female. It was amusing to watch Shiraishi in his struggle to remain pleasant as girls chatted him up day after day, week after week, each time leaving either their number or an offer to go out on a date some time. He wore his amicability and pleasantness like a suit of armour until we closed the shop at the end of every day. The very moment the lock clicked shut, he let his smile drop and released a long, draw out sigh. I would give him a reassuring pat on the back.
"Any compelling suitors today, Prince Charming?" I asked him after one shift.
He gave me a panicked look. "They're relentless, -san! I've had the same girl come in six times this week—and I've only worked three shifts!"
"Sounds like she's really made an impression on you."
He tried to spring his distress on me. "I don't know what to do!"
"Just tell her that you're not available." I reasoned. "If she's a good person, she'll respect that you're seeing someone and stop bothering you. If she's not a good person, you can pretend to be offended and have a legitimate excuse to start addressing her with more reservation."
After giving my words a moment of thought, he positively brightened. "That's a wonderful idea! Will you vouch for me?"
I wasn't entirely sure what he meant by vouching, but it was hard to say no in the face of such an expectant look, so I agreed to help him out. Satisfied with my response, we closed up the shop and caught the train back to my apartment. We cooked dinner together and spent hours talking about this and that. It wasn't until the night started wearing on that he decided to leave, concerned that I might not be able to get enough sleep for my shift tomorrow. I sent him off with a hug, and he lingered for a few seconds before walking back to the train station.
Not much had changed between Shiraishi and myself over the passing months: we went to class and signed at one another when we wanted to make comments about the lecture material without disturbing the rest of the class; we went to the Autumn Festival on campus together, where I volunteered to help out in the open laboratories and Shiraishi participated in (and won) the university-wide tennis tournament; we spent our spare hours at the nursing home and often went to Cheers with the rest of the Chemistry Support Group (RIP) after tests and group study sessions. From an outsider's perspective, some might have called Shiraishi and me inseparable—but privately, I felt that the two of just remained so close because we were both waiting for something. The both of us knew what it was, but neither of us wanted to be the first to say it.
While on shift with Takagi and Hotori one morning, the girl that Shiraishi often complained about came up to me and personally thanked me for the experimental bear I'd tried to draw on the top of her coffee that morning. "It was very good," she said, although I could tell that she was just trying to flatter me.
"One of my co-workers is teaching me, so I'm still a little green at this." I said, laughing politely.
"No, not at all." She said, smiling. Then she made a point of looking at the employees on shift. "Shiraishi-kun isn't in today, I assume?"
"Not today." I said. "He should be in later this week, though."
For a moment, she hesitated. "Would you mind at all if I ask you question?"
"Forgive me for asking you this, but... I'm beginning to get the impression that Shiraishi-kun is already seeing someone, and I just... well, thought you might happen to know if that's true or not."
"... It's true." I said.
The girl laughed nervously. "Oh. I wished he'd said that to me earlier, but I suppose it's within his nature to be discrete about things like this."
I smiled lopsidedly. "That sounds like Kuranosuke."
She looked momentarily taken aback, and the look of embarrassment on her face changed to a look of very blatant distress once she realised what my casual usage of his first name implied. "Oh—I'm so sorry! I had no intention of—really, I had no idea..."
I laughed politely. "It's okay, I understand: he's a catch."
My response seemed to put her a little more at ease. With a sheepish smile, she asked, "Does it not bother you that almost every girl who comes along bats an eyelid his way?"
"Not really." I said. "I understand the sentiment, so it's hard to be mad."
She laughed at my response.
While Shiraishi and I were on shift together later that week, the girl came in again. A faint look of panic crossed on Shiraishi's face the moment he saw her, but he was able to relax as the girl (presumably) apologised if she'd offended him in any way for her advances. She left the store after enjoying a latte—she complimented my bears, which were apparently getting much cuter)— and after we closed up shop for the rest of the day, Shiraishi thanked me profusely. He asked what he could do to repay me, and I told him to let it slide. He smiled back in reply: it was the nicest possible means of expressing his refusal to acknowledge my request.
- x -
On a trip to the nursing home at the turn of October, I heard from Grandpa that Kiyo passed in her sleep. He didn't tell me much else, other than the fact that her mind was now at peace, and she could spend the rest of her days in a tranquil and painless bliss. It was hard to shed tears for someone I'd barely known, but Shiraishi must have been able to tell that the roots of Kiyo's death had made their home deep within my mind. He walked me all the way home that night with a tight grip on my hands, and when I prepared to say good night to him, he shook his head and insisted on staying with me until I felt better. He stayed with me until I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, he was gone.
He urged me to stay close to nature following Kiyo's passing. We resumed our habit of taking tours to parks and gardens, all in the hopes that I would regain the two fundamental subsets of my being (according to Shiraishi): smiles and laughter. He was determined to give me some peace of mind in the days leading up to our mid-semester exams, and the only way he knew how to give it to me was through long walks in the gardens. Sometimes we walked in silence, enjoying the warmth of one another's company, but sometimes we talked. More often than not, we talked about Kiyo and her lost love—what was her name? How did they meet? Where was she now? Did Kiyo really never tell her? It was hard to accept that I might never get the answers that I wanted to hear.
On our first day of winter vacation, Shiraishi took me out to the Nishinomaru Gardens to see the bare grounds that afternoon. Even though it was cold out and there was barely any nature to see anymore, the temperature was bearable, and it was still relaxing to be out of the rush of the concrete jungle. It was a nice chance to take long walks before it got too cold to be outside. Besides, being there reminded me of the very first time Shiraishi and I had gone on a date. When I reminded Shiraishi of this, he reddened.
He coughed pointedly and said. "Do you, ah, remember how we first met?"
I looked thoughtful. "On my first day at work, you looked at me very disapprovingly for showing up at work right on time." I said, laughing when he assumed a look of sheer embarrassment. "It made a lot more sense when Junko told me that you don't like people who are late. After I started being a bit more punctual, you were much more pleasant to work with."
"When Satou-san first told me that we were going to get a new employee, I was expecting you to be early." He said honestly. "It took some time, but I've come to realise that—first impressions aside—you're the type of person who honours their commitments."
"I'll take that as a compliment." I said, settling for a smile.
We drew up beneath some evergreens by the water, admiring the fact that they still had their leaves. After a small debate, we decided to take a seat beneath the trees.
"Was I... dislikeable to begin with?" Shiraishi asked. Though the worry was apparent on his face, he seemed a great deal curious as to how I would respond.
"Not unbearably so. Junko always said that you were a bit of a stick in the mud, but we're all flawed." I said, laughing as his face twisted embarrassedly. "Your good points outweigh everything else. First impressions aside, I've come to learn that you're one of those rare finds. You're noble and kind, and you're the sort of person who places others before yourself—should they earn that right."
He looked flattered. "I used to find you hard to be around." He admitted, scratching the back of his head. "I tried to be polite about it, but I also thought that you were... overwhelming, I guess. You were self-assured—in a good way, but nonetheless, I couldn't figure out how to act around you."
"And look at you now." I said, gently nudging his arm with my elbow. He smiled at that. "I'm glad I got to know you beyond the surface layer, though—if I'd never met Junko, I don't think we'd be here now."
For a long time, Shiraishi paused. Then he coughed, as if to dislodge the smoke he had in his chest. "Do you remember the night we farewelled Matsuta-san and Nagisa-san?"
"Do you remember how I walked you home?"
I laughed, getting the feeling that I knew where he was going with this. "How could I forget?"
"Do you remember what I said to you?"
With little hesitation, I signed, "I like you."
He looked away, reddening—but when I looked more closely at his expression, I registered that there was the smallest of smiles on his face.
"Do you remember what I said back?" I asked.
He took his time trying to recall the right signs. "I wish I were cross-eyed so I could see two of you."
I smiled in response.
After a brief and bashful silence, Shiraishi asked, "So... if I were to say it again—what would you say?"
"I like you." He signed. "Do you believe me?"
"I wish I were cross-eyed so that I could see two of you." I signed back, laughing. "Do you believe me?"
He laughed as he exhaled, and all the smoke left his lungs. "I do."
- x -
Though Shiraishi and I more or less acted as though we were dating, neither of us had the nerve to make it official until he decided to take me to his house after a date and introduce me to his family. Since his house wasn't too far from where we'd ended the night, he decided that we may as well take me over to say hello. When his mother and little sister came to great us at the door, he introduced me as his "um, girlfriend". I hadn't quite realised just how long I'd been waiting for him to call me that until I let the smoke out of my lungs with a breathy laugh.
When I introduced myself as "Kuranosuke's girlfriend, ", his mother and sister exchanged a concerned look. Having to bear witness to such a display was nerve-wracking, to say the least, but I managed to relax when they gestured at Shiraishi and ventured, "Are you sure you're okay with someone like this?"
Shiraishi went red in the face as I laughed and said, "I think so."
His family was far more stable than I'd expected them to be, given the kind of personality that he had. I found that I genuinely enjoyed their company, although Shiraishi didn't seem to believe me when I told him this on our way to work the following morning. For some reason, I had a hard time convincing him that I truly found his family to be a pleasant bunch.
"Are you sure that they didn't say or do anything that made you uncomfortable at any point?" He pressed. "I understand if you have reservations about speaking critically of them in front of me, but I can assure you that I won't repeat a word of it to them."
"I know, worrywart." I said, an amused look on my face. "But I genuinely liked your family, okay?"
He was able to bring himself to relax. A bit. "For what it's worth, I think they really liked you." Then, abruptly, he stopped talking. When I cast a look over in his direction, I saw a faint look of panic rising in his eyes. Tugging at his collar, he went on, "They, um, actually asked if you wanted to celebrate New Year's with us."
The look on his face suggested that he was unnerved by how potentially damaging an entire evening in the presence of his family might be to me. I wasn't sure what made him so reluctant to have me around them; I felt that perhaps he feared they would treat me as a bit of a joke, the same way they often treated him like one. His concern, though unnecessary, didn't fail to touch me.
"I was actually planning on going back to Mihama for the New Year." I said. "I haven't been back home at all this year."
"Oh." He said with a bit of an awkward smile. "I'm sure your family would be very happy to see you again."
He tried to look as though he were happy for me, but I got the underlying sense that he didn't want me to go back to Mie. In some ways, I empathised with him—I couldn't remember the last time that I'd gone a day or two without seeing his face, or hearing his voice, or smiling at his signs—but I felt that I owed my parents this visit. My mother—more than anyone—deserved to be repaid the kindness that she'd shown me in this past year. It wouldn't have been fair of me to pass up the chance to see her in favour of spending a bit of extra time with Shiraishi.
On our days off leading up to the end of the year, Shiraishi tried to spend as much time with me as possible before I left for Mihama. On Christmas Day, we went to the nursing home to celebrate the occasion with Grandpa and the other residents there. I couldn't claim to really be comfortable celebrating anything in light of Kiyo's recent passing, but the smiles that greeted us as we walked into the room that day did something to ease the stone-heavy weight of her absence.
Grandpa greeted us when we sat down before him by squeezing our hands gently and smiling. When he let go, we asked how he was doing. He complained about the feeling of the cold in his bones, but with crinkled eyes and upturned lips, he added, "It's nothing new, though."
His cheery countenance aside, it was clear that the days were starting to take their toll on him. In the passing months, his age had become much clearer in the lines on his face. He looked as though he'd aged exponentially ever since the winter months had set in. He insisted that he felt fine, but his words alone were not enough to ease the look of passive concern on Shiraishi's face.
After about an hour or so of chatting with him, I decided to make my rounds while Shiraishi continued to talk with him in private. I had a conversation with Fuuko, who mentioned that the chill in the Osakan air was much more pleasant than it had been up north. At one point, she nodded in Grandpa's direction and said, "Ishitarou used to complain about the cold like his life depended on it." She signed with a warm smile. "He says that his dear Suzuko adored the cold, but I suppose he lost his love for it when he lost her too."
"Does he still complain about the cold?" I asked.
"No, but he does still complain all the time." She signed, causing me to laugh. I was about to ask her what the reason was for his change in behaviour, but the question died with me when I traced her line of sight to Shiraishi and Grandpa. The two of them had their heads bent together, deep in conversation, each doing their best to uphold a pleasant expression.
After Fuuko started getting tired, I floated around to some of the other residents to talk with them about how they were faring in the winter weather. Their complaints were framed with joking tones and gentle smiles, and talking with them allowed me to leave the nursing home after the festivities with a much lighter heart.
As we walked to the ramen shop for dinner, I could tell that Shiraishi's conversation with Grandpa had dampened his spirits. I clasped his hand in mind, and the strength with which he squeezed back left me genuinely concerned for his state of mind. When we arrived at the shop, we ordered dinner and ate the first half of it in silence. Part of me wanted to respect Shiraishi's wishes to wallow in his thoughts alone, but eventually, the troubled look in his eyes came to be too much for me. My instincts drove me to pry.
"Penny for your thoughts?" I asked him.
He blinked rapidly, as though I'd just broken him out of a daze. "Sorry—did you say something?"
"You look troubled." I said.
He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The steam from his bowl of ramen billowed around him. "He looks so old."
He nodded slowly. "I get the feeling that he's in a lot of pain, but every time I ask him if he is or not, he brushes it aside and tells me to stop worrying so much." He met my steady eyes with his troubled ones. "What do you think I can do for him, ?"
I couldn't quite think of what to say to him immediately. "You know him better than anyone else."
The look in his eyes grew distant. "You know, today he told me about the first time he went travelling after his wife passed. He couldn't bring himself to tell to me how he felt when he laid her to rest—all he could say was that things were never the same after she was gone. He did everything he could to bring back the feeling of traipsing across the globe when it was just the two of them, so he tried going north when winter came—Suzuko-san loved the cold, you see." He recalled this fact with a faint smile, as though I were witnessing Grandpa himself recalling a fond memory of his wife. "He told me that it became a sort of tradition for them to pay a visit to the Arctic; they went there every single winter to see the Northern Lights.
"It was the last trip he ever made—he swore to himself that he'd never go travelling again. It's sad, though, don't you think?" His expression grew forlorn once more. "He dedicated his entire life to adventure—it was his dream to visit every corner of the world—but he never made it further than halfway around. I can't stop thinking about how he's gone from a life outside the walls to a life inside a matchbox. He'll be in a place like that until his very last day, thinking about all the places that he's never been to and all the people that he's never meet, and that's what gets me more than anything."
Shiraishi had talked his way to tears, so I reached out to lay my hand on top of his. Despite the story that he'd told, I wasn't quite as affected as he perhaps expected me to be. Memories of my conversation with Fuuko earlier that day crept up on me, and they gave me some perspective on the matter at hand. I couldn't manage to see Grandpa as the same hopeless person that Shiraishi described him to be, for where he saw a man who was broken by the loss of his beloved wife, I saw a man heartened by the sight of his beloved grandson who came to visit almost every single day. Each time I saw the two of them with their heads bent together, eyes crinkled and lips upturned, I couldn't help but wonder where in the world they were imagining themselves to be this time—were they standing in the salt lake flats of Bolivia, watching the sky stretch out for miles and miles beneath their feet? Were they skirting the limestone relics at the Pamukkale, basking in the natural beauty of the mineral terraces? Were they bobbing along Halong Bay, contemplating their place in the expanding universe from a tiny wooden boat on the water?
I couldn't quite find the words to communicate to Shiraishi just how much he must have meant to Grandpa—that, even in spite of his darkening days, Shiraishi had given an old man a reason to smile again. Shiraishi had given an old man a reason to sit expectantly in the corner of his matchbox, waiting for his dearest grandchildren to come around with grins and beams and stories of the outside world.
"There might be something you could do for him, you know." I said.
My words seemed to catch him by surprise. Perhaps he'd been so far gone in a dark dream of his own that he'd thought a solution to his condemning situation hadn't existed. "What is it?"
"You said that his dream was to visit every corner of the world, right?" I reminded him. "And I assume you don't want to let him pass before his dreams are fulfilled, right?"
He inclined his head to acknowledge my words, but he didn't appear to be entirely sure of where I was going with this train of thought.
"So pick up where he left off." I said. "You can start off small and work up to bigger distances over time—start with a few overnight ones, then ones that last a couple of weeks, then ones that last for months at a time. It'll give you something to do with all that money you've accrued from your overtime at the florist." I said, allowing some amusement to show through my tone. "I'm going to Mihama in a few days. The mountains are frigid around this time of year, but I think we'd survive the pilgrimage, don't you?"
I watched as a slow, thoughtful look spread across his face.
"Why don't you come with me?" I suggested. "It'll be like old times, Ishitarou-san."
For the first time that night, I watched as Shiraishi gave me a smile—a real, genuine smile. "I think I'd like that very much, Suzuko."
Adding a café to the florist: You can thank The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for this. (It's a really nice read about dreams and personal legends.) There's a part where Santiago, the main character, works for a crystal merchant. In order to increase profits, the boy suggests that they start selling tea in the crystal goblets that they sell there. I figured the same might apply here, i.e. by turning the florist into a café. This note is purely just to plug that book because it's such a cute read LOL.
Autumn Festival: It's actually more well known as the Machikane Festival (まちかね祭), but I felt that you guys would get more out of "Autumn Festival" in context than you would about the Machikane Festival. At Osaka University they apparently take about three days off to set the festival up, hold it, and then clean up after it. If you want more information about what it actually is and what they do there you can look at this: (x)
I wish I were cross-eyed so I could see two of you: I think a couple of chapters back, I actually said "I wish I were cross-eyed so that I could see two of you" when it probably should have been more like "I wish I were cross-eyed so that I could see you twice." Still, I can't really be bothered to go back and change it so I'm leaving it as this HAHA.
Are you really okay with someone like this?: This is a reference to Lovely Complex. Honestly one of my favourite lines in the show HAHA.
Ribbon: IT'S OVER. Thank you all so much for stiking with us these past few weeks. I'm honestly surprised that this project took up so much of my winter, like I was not expecting it to take this long. The original story document for this story was like 48 pages, but I'm pretty sure I've doubled the size of it now (because there's a lot more content in this re-written version than there was in the original). Anyway, I'm gonna stop ranting now, but I hope y'all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! ♥
Princo: I'd just like to note that while editing this, Ribbon left me the note: "BEB PLS PUT THE FESTIVAL FOR "MACHIKANE MATSURI" HERE" and totally fricked up kanji with festival. LOL.
August 15, 2016.