AN: I've always found it strange how few Yui related fics there are in the Oregairu fandom- overwhelmingly, writers (including myself) seem to prefer to explore Yukino- and this idea sort've came from that. Considering how big a part of the series she is, I thought it would be interesting to write a story where her and Hachiman are not only together but married.
As usual with me, what was supposed to be a short 2000 word piece ended up inflating. Yukinoshita wasn't going to have a speaking role originally, or even really be that huge a part of the narrative- one thing this fic has shown me is that I really am an unbelievably Yuki-centric writer. Even when she's not central to the fic she ends up being important, lol.
There are a couple of things you need to know for this set-up to work; first, Hachiman and Yui did not meet Yukino at Sobu High here (she went to a different school), a change which I thought necessary for the story's premise to occur. So essentially Yukino's involvements in their lives prior to the events of this fic (including her role in the car crash) are pretty much removed, making this decidedly an AU.
Second, I've kept the rating at T because although this story has adult content I decided it wasn't enough to merit an M like Love At First Word. Finally, because of the unexpected length this story has taken on, I decided to split it into two parts, the second of which will be published in a couple of days.
Pink and Blue
"Hikki… Can I ask you a question?"
I look up from my meal. My wife's words are soft; it takes me a moment to process them, especially with the noise of the restaurant drowning things out. The lighting is warm, yellow and comfortable, and the chatter of work colleagues or young couples on dates fills the air, along with the smell of our food.
I double-check that I heard correctly. She repeats the question a little louder, and suddenly I realise her voice is not only soft but extremely hesitant. I wonder with some trepidation what could cause a woman like Hikigaya Yui, who has been my wife for some years now and is rarely anything other than cheerful, to speak like this. The prospect makes me put down my glass of beer, golden in the light, and sit up a little straighter.
"… Okay. Okay, Hikki. Just… can you just make sure that you answer my question honestly? Because I'd really like it if you did. I want you to answer it honestly, Hikki."
"Sure. Anything you want."
She nods, but then goes silent for awhile. Her big, chocolate eyes stare down at her plate, which has only been picked at, not fully enjoyed. We are knelt at one of the floor tables, our feet close underneath it. I booked the table several weeks in advance; Yui had hinted to me without much subtlety that we hadn't been on a date in awhile, and I had no issue in obliging her. It's a nice place; underground and off a main street. Small, charming and intimate.
She remains silent for quite some time. I find myself staring at her, which I'm often found doing. I'm still getting used to her hair without the pink dye. That was a leftover from our days at Sobu High, when we first met. Its now her natural brown colour, the same shade as those entrancing eyes which are so conducive to my attentions. But the hair is still the same length, at her shoulders, not like the period where she grew it out thinking I preferred it long because I mentioned once that was my ideal type, before my ideal type just became her.
My wife has also dressed up, which is never unwelcome. It's an old pink number which I've seen before and like a lot, which of course she knows. She used to show more of her cleavage in public before I admitted that the prospect of other people staring at her made me feel slightly uncomfortable, because ultimately I'm as jealous as every other man in the world. Indeed, Hikigaya Yui looks as beautiful as she has always looke-
"Is there anything you regret?"
The question resonates between us. The tone of her voice, which has now shifted from soft to hesitant and now from hesitant to almost mournful, catches me by surprise.
But not by too much.
In many ways, this is a conversation I've been expecting. A conversation which, knowing her, was inevitable. If anything, I'm surprised the question hasn't been raised sooner. It's not as if I've rehearsed what I would say in response to this question, but I haven't ignored the possibilities. And so I shift my feet a little more, so that they brush hers more closely, and though my voice can never quite shake its timbre of low monotony, I try to inject as much humour and goodwill as seems appropriate.
"Lots of things."
"Yeah. I regret not telling the guy who cut in front of me on the metro yesterday he was a bastard. I regret choosing to write my latest article on the wrong author, which meant that idiot Takuma-kun got picked over me for the headline. Lots of things."
Yui hasn't turned so serious that she can't smile at my shitty joke. It ignites her face, as only one of her smiles can, and I am momentarily convinced that the unwanted topic has been disposed of, but then the expression returns.
"Y'know what I mean, Hikki. Something… what's the word I'm looking for… something-"
"… Yeah, I… I suppose so. Is there something actually life-changing that you regret…?"
I pick up my glass again and take a sip of beer. "We've definitely had this conversation before, Yui. Regret isn't something you can avoid; I just feel that if you spend your whole time regretting choices, you'll end up not making them. So I do have regrets, like every other person, but not many."
"But you do have some?"
I shrug. "Small things. I was joking just now, but mistakes at work are pretty much the extent of it. When I look at my life right now, my job… the people I've met… to me, things look exactly how I want them to."
"… And what about how they feel? Beyond how they look, I mean…"
"It feels good, Yui. Like I said, I have very few regrets."
My wife has heard what I've said, but she has not listened. I can see that at a glance. The words have entered her ears, but she refuses to believe them. Just as I suspected this conversation would go.
She takes a bite of her food, not looking at me. The light above us seems to have turned garish.
"… You've always been better with words, Hikki. Words at what you do for a living. It's… it's not like social work asks you to be very a good speaker." She laughs awkwardly, in that peculiar, half-compromising way she always does. "It's an amazing skill. I wish I could talk and… and make bad things sound good the way you do."
"I don't think I've said anything 'bad', Yui."
Her silence speaks volumes. It seems as if I'm not especially good with words after all.
I try a different approach. "… Looks like I'm gonna have to resort to our promise again."
I shake my head, but remain patient. "You know which promise, Yui. The most important one."
"It's probably a promise every married couple has made at some point. It's probably one you need to make if you want to stay together- saying what's in your heart regardless of… well, regardless of the consequence… we wouldn't have got anywhere without being honest with each other. I'm glad you're asking me this, Yui, because it shows that promise still means as much to you as it does to me. I'm not hiding anything from you. I have no reason to."
"… You could have a reason. Maybe you're hiding something because it hurts. Because it makes you feel guilty." She laughs that awkward laugh again. "… Maybe even because the promise still means something to you. If that makes sense? Does that make sense, Hikki?"
" …Y'know, at work last week, I spoke to this old woman… Nakagawa-san, her name is… She's the sweetest old lady you'll ever meet. Happily married for over twenty years. Her husband is ill now, which is why she needs our help… but in spite of all that, in spite of how difficult things are for them nowadays… they still treat each so kindly. You can see how much they mean to each other. It's plain as day, in every look. You'd think there'd never been an argument between them in twenty years.
"I really admired her, Hikki, o- or just liked her, maybe. But then last week, when we were sitting in her kitchen, just talking about the flowers in her garden, the birds they get on the feeder, that sort of thing… She looks me right in the eye and tells me this: 'Sometimes, I can't believe what a mess I've made of my life'."
She looks at me with… with what? Expectation? Anticipation? I just sit there, unsure of what to say. But that seems to disappoint her as well.
Yui continues, "… I was so shocked. I wasn't expecting it at all, not from someone like her. But really, it was wrong of me to think that nothing could be wrong. To think her life must have been perfect. I asked her if there was one thing above all the rest with messed things up, and she tells me no. She says that it's lots of small things… small things that go unsaid, and… and snowball and snowball until they become big things. Little resentments and regrets…
"A- and the saddest part of all this is that then… then she tells me that her husband has no idea. He has no idea how sad she is. Of course, he probably knows somewhere deep inside, because they've spent their lives together, but… but maybe the idea that your whole life is wrong is just too painful to say. And so it goes unsaid, and then… then it's almost over, and it feels like you never really had a chance to change it. But maybe you did. And you just didn't let yourself…"
She's rambling. These are thoughts and feelings that she doesn't really know how to articulate, and they're coming out in a jumbled mess, all at once, because until this moment she's allowed them to build up inside her without relief.
And this… this I didn't expect. I expected the question, yes. I thought I knew what Hikigaya Yui was feeling, yes. But now that I'm confronted with the full depth of it, the emotion bordering on desperation, the love and longing and doubt written in the big brown eyes of my wife…
I realise all at once. I realise that she genuinely, truly believes I am in love with another woman.
A year and a half ago
The door to our apartment opens at 1 AM in the morning and I hear the sound of shuffling, of high heels being taken off and landing on the floor with a soft click. I listen for the familiar sound of my wife's greeting- a high pitch "Yahallo!"- and am marginally impressed when it doesn't ring out. The greeting was fashionable back when we were in high school, but Yui has kept doing it whenever she comes back to our apartment out of habit, possibly because she knows I still find it cute, no matter how many times I tell her otherwise.
Nonetheless, I've asked her not to shout out whenever she comes back late. Often I'll be asleep by then and won't want to be woken up. Yui is a very sociable person- I am not. She has an increasingly complex circle of friends from Sobu High, Chiba University and now from work that require constant maintenance in the form of coffee dates and nights out. On the occasion of a night out, she will usually have had a fair amount to drunk, thus increasing the decibels of her "Yahallo" to dangerous levels. It's out of pity for the rest of the tenants on our floor that I ask her to keep it down, as much as myself.
Tonight, I've been kept up on account of a deadline. Our bedroom is dark, illuminated only by the pale blue light of my laptop screen, and the vacuum of silence is broken only by the tip tapping of my keyboard, and the occasional shriek of traffic in the distance. When Yui stumbles into the bedroom and sees me bare-chested under the covers, she is surprised, but the surprise turns into an ebullient smile.
"Yahallo," she whispers in a slur from across the room, and I hide my laugh.
She says something else, but the sound of my computer tapping continues. I avert my eyes as she clumsily undresses for bed, but here and there I still find myself stealing a couple of glances. Four years of marriage and longer of being in a relationship mean that I know every curve and hint of skin- the small birth-mark on her left arm, the scar on her thigh from when she fell off a swing in elementary- but it's somewhat reassuring that her hold over me has in no way diminished. Perhaps I still feel some obligation to the second year high schooler I used to be, who hadn't the faintest idea how to process a girl like Yui's interest, and only found himself in a relationship with her after many mistakes and internal monologues.
She usually wears clothes to bed, a shirt at least, but the alcohol sees her jump under the duvet beside me in nothing but her underwear. The smell of red wine grows thick and strong as she rests her head on my chest, mumbling further greetings, further apologies for being late and drunk. I dismiss them by running one set of fingers through her hair, leaving the other to my imminently due article. Her body is warm, the leg stretched over mine, skin on skin.
"You have a good night?" I ask absently.
"Yeah… It was so nice to see Yumi again… We chatted for so long! A- and, uh… um, Hayato was there! I hadn't seen him in years…"
"Well, I'd expect so. You did tell me it was his birthday… And didn't you see Miura-san a week ago-"
"He'd invited some new friends of his, too… One of them tried to, y'know, talk to me, b- but I made sure to show him the ring… I love this ring, Hikki…"
She briefly stops talking, her eyes rested on the simple but elegant silver band I bought her. I never thought too long about the proposal- I didn't want it to be extravagant or showy, and not just for the sake of being economical. It was tasteful: I took her to the road where we first met and proposed there, where a busker had "conveniently" been playing her favourite love song- the version of Ito by Nakajima Miyuki. It's strange how wildly your life can change on account of a coincidence.
Our first day of Sobu High. I'd been cycling in, nice and early, full of an enthusiasm that was only partly dampened by what followed. She'd been walking her dog Sable, which got away from her and run out in front of a car. Instinctively, I'd dashed out into the road, pushing Sable out of harm's way and me decidedly into it. The driver, some white collar worker called Futoshi-san, had been mortified, as was Yui. She was too nervous to visit me in the hospital- in fact, we only really started talking in our second year of high school. By then, I was a clueless loner, or rather still was. She was popular, outgoing and sociable. We stumbled into each other's arms, as always.
The memory of the proposal returns to me with a typical sharp, vivid quality. A part of me senses that Yui is thinking of exactly the same thing, as her eyes move over the ring, identical to my own. The busker's melody, accompanied by a soft nylon string guitar, emerges in my mind followed by her words immediately afterwards.
"… I never thought we would get this far Hikki…"
"Try me. I didn't think we would get past the first month."
"I'm serious, Hikki… I always thought that I was the wrong person for you. No, don't look at me as if it's the other way round. I'm not talking about being 'good' enough either, or anything like that… I just mean… I just mean that I always thought I might be wrong… That what I felt might be all jumbled up in my heart, or not real, somehow… But I love you, Hikki, and you love me. Right now, I've never been so sure of it…"
Then we kissed. And here we are.
In the quiet of our bedroom, Yui begins to mumble an aimless description of the party and all who came. I pay attention, but not closely; I am nearing the last paragraph of my article.
"… And there were more from his family this time… Hayato, he… He always used to keep his family life to himself at Sobu High. You remember, Hikki? Sometimes, it still feels like I've never really known him, but… but there were even some family friends of his too. Um… or maybe they knew each other from work… Well, they seemed really posh, her and her sister, and I thought I recognised their family name or something, and their father, Hikki, I think he might have been involved in politics, or at least I think that was what they said…
"But the youngest sister I spoke to the most… Hikki, she was so lovely! I mean, very blunt and a little cold, but so intelligent and lovely once you started talking to her, and we did get to talk, and I actually got her to drink some wine, which she said she wasn't going to do when Hayato introduced us… I think we could be really good friends, Hikki! I got her to give me her phone number… I'll call her about meeting up tomorrow… I hope she liked me too, Hikki… You'll remind me to call her tomorrow, won't you Hikki?"
I promise that I will, but have no idea what I'm promising. There are only a couple of sentences left for me to write.
She mumbles something else- I decide it was probably 'I love you', so I say it back, but all of a sudden she's half asleep. Hikigaya Yui falls asleep at an astonishing speed. At university I used to stay up until the small hours, and that habit has proved difficult to break. Once I've put away my laptop, submitting the room to darkness, I lie there with my eyes fixed on the ceiling. Yui's body heat flows through me; I see her there, listen to her light snoring. I suppose you'd call the feeling in my chest 'contentment'.
For some reason, I find myself thinking about the lyrics of Yui's favourite love song. Ito makes use of a tired and trusted metaphor, and were it not for the obvious emotional baggage the song carries, I would probably find it saccharine. Love is the conjoining of two separate threads of string, as the song goes. I am the horizontal thread- you are the vertical thread. A string of fate.
I am not a hopeless romantic by any means. If ever I had an ideal about love, it would probably be the notion of one that conformed to me, rather than myself to love. Something very probably screwed up, and a little frayed around the edges, but true and reliable nonetheless.
I have a nauseatingly sentimental image in my head, one reserved for those moments just before sleep. If Yui and I are separate threads, meeting somewhere in the middle, then it matters not our differences. It matters not if she is red and I am blue, who is frayed and who is not. Like I say, a nauseatingly sentimental image. But one that's not uncommon to me in moments like this.
A little over a year ago
On the way back from an interview at a bookshop, I see two lovers reunited outside a metro station. They are slightly older than me. The man is a westerner, dressed in a suit and armed with a suitcase that screams 'long-range work trip'. The woman is Japanese, dressed in a pretty dress, her eyes brimming with excitement. As soon as he emerges from the underground, she squeals loudly and leaps into his arms. He spins her around. It is a sight emotional enough to draw the eyes of everyone nearby, including myself.
My gaze lingers on the couple for a moment. The cars of Chiba rush on past them, and everyone around. Briefly any hint of the city, its blaring noise, ceases to exist. The mundanity and boredom of my work assignment is momentarily erased. My day has been long, too long, but even a cynic such as myself who usually snorts at public displays of affection finds it difficult to begrudge them. Far from it- without warning, my mind is full of thoughts bordering on airy. In other words, thoughts of Hikigaya Yui.
As I continue walking down the street and back in the direction of our apartment, the thoughts persist. From nowhere, I have the idea to surprise my wife with something sweet. It's been awhile since I played the perfect husband with a romantic gesture, and longer still since I extended one entirely of my own accord. When was that, in fact? A year ago? Discounting things like Valentines and birthdays, where the obligations of a calendar can hardly be described as 'of my own accord', then it's even longer.
A couple of streets later and I have decided to buy her flowers. I take out my phone and check the directions to the nearest florist. Then I text Yui, knowing the likelihood is she'll be out after work with her colleagues.
Hachiman: You doing anything tonight? X
Yui: Hikki! Xxxxxx
Yui: yes, im just on a coffee date with yumi!
Yui: why do u ask?
Hachiman: Just checking if I needed to cook.
The directions take me to a side alley that I have never seen before. I add it to a mental map of Chiba, never one to turn down local knowledge. The florist has a single window, and its display is full of rose bunches, vases of sakura blossoms, assortments of violets. Its sign is apparently blocked by the flowers. Upon entering the shop, all the sounds of the city are filtered out as if on automatic, leaving a pleasant quiet and a plethora of intermingling aromas. There are only two rooms- one of them is being used for an ikebana club. People of all ages arrange their flowers with dedicated care in the opposite room.
The elderly woman at the till offers me a nod; I keep the silence of the shop as I browse. All of the standard offerings leave me feeling a little cold. It occurs to me that I must have gravitated towards pink and red flowers for Yui in the past, and I find myself specifically looking for other colours. Orange, purples, and yellows are sifted through. Time and time again, however, my eyes fall on the soft blues present in the shop, in particular a row of azalea pots in the corner, some of them as blue as the ocean, some of them a shade paler. Like ice.
I pay the woman for one of the azalea plants. Outside, I fiddle with the arrangement, trying to shift some of the fresher ones to the front and others to the back or the middle. Hopefully it looks like I've put some effort in. Ikebana is not a talent of mine; romantic gestures aren't either.
The fragrance of the azalea pots is slight but noticeable. I'm almost back on route to our apartment when it occurs to me that if Yui is talking to Miura-san, she'll probably be out for an hour or two. The walk to the florist has taken me afield, and instead of getting straight back to the apartment I will now pass Yui's favourite coffee shop, the one inbetween our apartment and her workplace.
I know this is invariably where she goes for most of her after-work outings. She likes to take one of the booths in the window, where the sun will shine on the table if it's out; I can surprise her there rather than at the apartment. Miura Yumiko will roll her eyes a little, but Yui will definitely enjoy it, so why not? It's not like myself and the blonde girl have ever got along very well. Mutual toleration is probably an accurate phrase.
Twenty minutes later and I'm on the right street, nearing the large glass windows of the coffee shop. Moving past the outside tables, I look at the booths through the window and see a familiar head of brown hair. Yui is laughing at something the person opposite her is saying- I can't see Miura's blonde curls from the back of the chair- and before I have time to enter Yui stands up and excuses herself, probably to go the bathroom. I hold the azaleas closer under my arm, knowing it will surprise her all the more to see me there when she gets back.
I push open the door and stride over to the booth. A song is playing over the caffe speakers- an inoffensive iteration on jazz elevator music- and as a saxophone plays a soft solo, I prepare myself for the usual barbed comments of Sobu High's old Fire Queen.
Only there's no need. Miura Yumiko isn't the one sat opposite in the booth. I pause momentarily and glance around the caffe, wondering if she is buying a coffee or whether I'd missed her going with Yui to the bathroom. There's no sign of her. Surprised, I get to the booth with the realisation that the woman sat there, looking up at me with an air of indifference, is one I have never met before.
Our gazes meet. We both stay quiet, me taken back by the absence of Miura, her no doubt wondering why a strange man has approached her holding flowers.
A pair of eyes the same shade as the paler, icier blue azaleas I have bought confront me. A cascade of black hair, glossy and well-kept, surges down to her hips in the booth. She is undeniably beautiful. Her delicate face and features could be made of china. Her lips are small and pinkish, and I decide on a whim it must be rare from them to smile, perhaps because of the practised frown on them currently. A cup of green tea sits in front of her on the table. It suits the image that precedes the woman's voice.
I open my mouth, but words fail to come out. I'm not sure why.
Her frown deepens. "Can I help you?" She asks, and the voice matches the image too, breathy and formal. "And be careful what you say here. I sincerely hope those flowers aren't for me."
I blink and then scowl, taken back by her immediate, arrogant assumption of why I'm talking her. Although maybe what I'm really taken back by is how, looking as she does, her arrogant assumption is likely justified.
"… Sorry. I'm here for Yui. You are here with her, yes?" A quick check at the rest of the booths makes me wonder if I'd misjudged where she was sitting, a thought which I echo to her.
"No, you haven't misjudged, Yui-san and I are here together… Incidentally, I take it you are aware that a person is obligated to introduce themselves…?"
"… Hikigaya Hachiman," I grunt. "You?"
"Hikigaya-kun…" Realisation floods into the woman's eyes. "… I see. You would be Yui-san's husband, then."
"Indeed. Came to surprise her with these." I lift up the azaleas. The woman's piercing eyes settle on the flowers- their similar colour is highlighted all the more- and then on me.
My reactions have gone more monosyllabic than usual. A part of me thinks I haven't sounded like this since high school. A little confused, I take a sit next to where Yui was sitting before she left the booth. The pot of azaleas find a place beside me.
"Is Miura-san with you too, then?"
"Ah… you mean Miura Yumiko?" She chuckles. "No. I think after our first meeting at Hayama-san's birthday party, Yui-san has made an effort to keep us apart. Our personalities are somewhat conflicting."
"Doesn't surprise me." I take out my phone and double check my wife's text message to check if I'd misread; I hadn't. She definitely said she was here today with Miura. I puzzle over several reasons why such a mistake could have been made, disregarding some of the more unsettling eventualities.
"Once again, I find myself reminding you of basic social etiquette, Hikigaya-kun. You still have not asked me my name."
My eyes narrow. It seems to me this woman's personality wouldn't just conflict with Miura, but with everyone. "Go on, then."
"Yukinoshita Yukino. It's a pleasure to meet you." She rests her head on her hand, looking at me with an almost cat-like curiosity. "I look forward to seeing if the praises Yui-san has sung ring true."
"Strange. I haven't heard any praises about you at all."
"… You mean to say she's never mentioned me?"
I can see that this Yukinoshita Yukino woman is taken back. In truth, I am just the same. The bright blue colour of the azaleas I've bought seem to have been dulled a little.
An awkward silence falls between us, both of us surprised at the other's sudden appearance in our lives and both of us unsure what to say. I almost consider bringing out my phone for an absent tapping session, but after forcibly reminding myself that I'm not in high school, and of my supposed progress in social situations since then, I try again.
"… So you and Yui-san met at Hayama's birthday party?"
"Yes. We… we've met up on several occasions since then, as well. More than enough, I would assume, to merit a passing mention at the very least... Are you sure you don't just have a selective memory?"
The woman before me seems a little put out by Yui's apparent reluctance to speak of their 'acquaintance'. In fairness, reluctance to speak is not a quality I associate with my wife.
"Well… there's a chance she told me when I wasn't listening. But I doubt it was because of a lack of opportunity. Yui tells me everything-"
Just as my sentence is coming to a close, my wife re-emerges in our peripheral vision. Both of us sit up in the booth, happy for the re-introduction, and both of us notice with continued awkwardness that the other has also noticed.
But then my wife's big chocolate eyes take in the sight of us before us, sat together in the booth, a pot of azalea flowers between us, and even from across the cafe I see the shift. I see the way she stops still, motionless, processing the image, doing a double-take. I can't quite tell what her expression is.
And then I see the way she picks herself up, smiles, no not just smiles, beams, and then walks over with a spring in her step.
"Hikki! I didn't think you were going to come! And you've finally met Yukinon!"
Yukinon…? Are they really that familiar?
As I roll out the explanation for me coming, how I'd hoped to surprise her, I wonder why on earth my tone of voice is defensive. I wonder why it feels like I've done something wrong when all I wanted to do was make my wife as happy as the woman at the train station.
Most of all, I wonder why I now hate the azaleas flowers I'm handing over. I should have chosen pink like usually do, not blue. Pink, like sakura blossoms in the spring. Not blue, like ice.
Six months ago
There's a tendency with people to categorise relationships as either emotional or physical, which is of course ridiculous, because most successful relationships will be both. And myself and Yui's relationship is clearly a successful one. In other words, I would categorise us as having both sides of that scale.
Yet the side I value the most, without a doubt, is the emotional. If it came to an ultimatum- if our marriage was only permitted one side- then I would choose that in a heartbeat. The memories we've made that take on the deepest significance for me, the most poignancy, are devoid of anything physical at all. A quiet moment shared on our honeymoon, a walk back to our apartment after a date, Ito playing while I proposed.
It's from that mentality that my surprise comes. When I open the door of our apartment, returning from a two day trip to Osaka interviewing a musician for the magazine… my surprise comes in waves. Yui is an emotional person. I'm more than used to that. I'm more than prepared to comfort her when's upset, or stressed, or worried that she's ruined a friendship.
But she throws herself into my arms. I barely have time to drop my bags before she's grabbed hold of me, as if hoping to get a firm grip on my very soul, and attached herself to my lips, my hands, my frame, with a need that is full body, full blooded, and yes, still emotional, but physical. Oh so shockingly physical.
My instinct is to ask her what's wrong. I must have worried her somehow- I've been away before and she doesn't usually react like this when I get back. But the woman I love's lips are on mine, and her hands are everywhere else, so I respond with a different instinct, sensing that's what she wants, something instinctive and bluntly tangible.
I lift her up and carry her to the couch, drop her there, all but collapse on top of her. It's as if she has no time to be excited. Already her clothes are falling away, and I have to keep up the pace, removing my shirt and everything else and staring down at Hikigaya Yui beneath me, looking down into those chocolate eyes, and what, what on earth has brought this on?
I allow my thoughts and assumptions to fade into stupid, banal pleasure. That's clearly what she wants. We kiss and we make love and then she's hurrying me to do it again, kissing me over and over and over with that same intimidating need. Afterwards, she lies on my chest, still clinging so tightly, not with much contentment, just need.
I'm breathing heavily and now, once the instinct starts to fade, I'm too shocked by it all to speak. It's the feeling of cold air on your skin after emerging from a hot-spring. I open my mouth half a dozen times to ask her what's wrong, my mind going into overdrive to try and figure it out, but all that emerges from my mouth are shallow exhales instead of words.
Surely she'll tell me herself? Something that intense can't just be from missing me. It's only been two days, hasn't it? Did I forget to call? Or was there something else I forgot? But Yui says nothing. She's not breathing as hard as me, just holding and holding.
We lie for what must be half an hour. At one point, I manage to say, "Well, that was unexpected…", hoping for an explanation, but none is forthcoming.
The lack of one leaves my mind to wander. I comb through the possible explanations, disregarding the more outlandish ones, applying as much rationality to the situation as I can.
In truth, none of them are all that logical. Except for a few. There are a few that could explain her reacting like this.
But why…? Why am I only really thinking of one? It's arguably the least logical of all. I can see no reason why she would come to that conclusion. I rather loath the fact I'm even thinking about it.
… But… But even if that was the reason, which it isn't, why has it come back up? I thought I'd already assuaged her fears- her hypothetical fears, since there's no guarantee they exist. I thought I'd done that a week ago, when she asked me what I thought about her.
In fact, when I did so we were laid out just like this, on the couch. We'd only been watching TV, relaxing after work, enjoying the city's evening hum in the background and the feeling of each other, close and comfortable. She'd taken me by surprise with her question at the time, but I thought I'd responded as well as I could.
"Hikki… What do you think of Yukinon?" That's what she asked, and I'd answered her honestly.
"She's a bitch."
"Hey… that's not very nice."
I'd shrugged. "Sorry, but that's my opinion. Every conversation we've had just leaves me thinking that she's a bitch-"
"H- hey, don't use that word Hikki, she's… she's still my friend, y'know…"
"… Yeah. Sorry again… She's clearly been a good friend to you so far, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. But something about her just gets on my nerves. We don't get along, but that's perfectly fine."
"… I don't think you two get along that badly…"
I'd laughed. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, you… you were having a nice conversation the other night, weren't you? When you came to pick me up from her apartment…?"
"We had a brief talk. Neither 'conversation' nor 'nice' are words I'd use to describe it."
Like I said, I thought I'd responded as well as I could. And I wasn't really embellishing the truth, either. I might not have called Yukinoshita Yukino a bitch under normal circumstances, because ultimately I can see that she's not an ill-intentioned person. And the conversation between myself and her the other night might not have been totally unpleasant, but still as awkward as ever.
I'd only driven to Yukinoshita-san's apartment to save time. It was a Saturday evening and Yui had wanted to get a drink with me somewhere new. She'd spent the day with Yukinoshita-san and wound up eating back at her apartment. Since we were getting a drink, and knew most of the places near our own like the back of our hands, it seemed logical to meet her there.
I didn't pay the suggestion much due thought; it was just the most practical thing to say at the time, in my view. And though my wife agreed almost straight away, there was nonetheless a moment of slight hesitation that I thought nothing of until I was half way there. For sure, I was overthinking things, but during that journey it became, by some contrived means, much more than hesitation. It became enmeshed with the memory of azalea flowers, and our other half meetings since then.
For after Yukinoshita Yukino and I had first introduced ourselves, it was rather like some floodgate had opened around us. All of a sudden we were meeting all over the place, most of them small, irritating coincidences. A glimpse of flowing black hair at the door when Yui got back from a weekly catch up with her. A spare moment where my wife briefly left our side at a more mutual event.
Once, things conspired to have us walk right past each other in the street, purely by chance. Of course, it would've been rude not to stop and say hello, so we did, hurriedly, hardly making eye contact, blue and black pupils not meeting. Then I glanced over my shoulder at her retreating figure, and she did the same, meaning our eyes did indeed meet without us intending them to, and so the encounter became one of the most irritating coincidences thus far.
All these things meant that I was already annoyed when I got to Yukinoshita Yukino's apartment. It was clearly expensive- Yui had filled me in on her family details- and I felt out of place right up to the moment I pressed the buzzer to come in.
It was the politician's daughter who opened the door for me. She was wearing clothes of a more casual suggestion than I was used to from our infrequent, coincidental meetings. A pale white shirt with the top button undone and a pair of loose-fitting fabric shorts she evidently wore only here, at her apartment. Again, our eyes didn't meet.
"Good evening Hikigaya-kun," she'd said, in an indiscernible tone.
"Evening," came my grunt, followed by a shuffle of my feet. I glanced over her shoulder, but there was no sign of Yui.
"… What, is Yui doing her makeup or something?"
"Yes. I… She must have wanted to freshen up."
I had to withhold a derisive snort. Freshen up? Is this woman from the Edo period or something?
Yukinoshita-san herself appeared embarrassed by the formality of her words. "… You're here a little earlier than we expected. Yui received a text saying you would be here at 6. She started awhile ago, but… well, she seems to spends more time on such things than I do."
You think I don't know that? "Well, I didn't think it would make a difference turning up now."
"… Perhaps you should come in?"
"Nah, it's fine. I'll just wait here until she comes out."
She looked at me with incredulity. "… She might be a fair few minutes. You're more than welcome to sit down."
Now, it was my turn to be embarrassed. I'd grunted out something unintelligible, adding this meeting to our growing pile of irritating coincidences, and then stepped past her into the apartment. She led me in stilted silence to the restrained but obviously expensive living room, and I took a seat. She hovered nearby. Her long and slender legs crossed and then uncrossed themselves.
"… You gonna tell Yui I'm here?"
"It likely won't make a difference. She must have heard the door… Yui-san, Hikigaya-kun is here!" She called out nonetheless.
"A- alright Yukinon, I heard, ah, um… I'll be out soon, Hikki!" Her response echoed loudly through the apartment, leaving another long silence behind it.
Yukinoshita-san started fiddling with her fingers. I was more than accustomed to silences, especially with people I didn't like, but the circumstance soon made this particular one unbearable. I searched for a topic to break the tension.
Soon enough, my shifting eyes fell on the shape of a large book, lying to an open page on the kitchen fitment. Without thinking, I latched onto it.
"You reading that?" I gestured towards the book.
"Oh… yes. Yes, I am." She finished her sentence with more security.
"What is it?"
"… It's Effi Briest by a German writer called Theodor Fontane. I've been trying to branch out and read more European literature lately."
The author was no one I had heard of, but I carried on with my questions. "And what's it about?"
"I suppose you could see it rather in the vein of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. A novel of adultery."
"… Ah…" Yukinoshita-san reached up and fiddled with her hair, struggling to find the words to continue. "I was under the impression you were interested in reading too. Yes?"
"… Yes. I've read Anna Karenina, of the ones you've mentioned. That was awhile ago though."
"What did you think?"
I laughed. "I had mixed feelings. Whatever Tolstoy's skill in writing, it was difficult to spend eight hundred odd pages with a character so dislikeable."
"You disliked Anna?"
"Of course. Didn't you?"
"Not especially. I felt rather a lot of sympathy for her."
"Hmm. Well, the vanity and wealth really put me off, but I guess that wouldn't be the same for you."
Her ice blue eyes narrowed sharply. "Oh really?"
In truth, I had winced at the words as soon as they left my mouth. "… No, you're righ-"
"In all honesty, I find your reduction of her character to mere 'vanity' and 'wealth' ridiculous. Anna Karenina may have been bourgeois but she was still without a doubt a victim. The only thing that gave her happiness in life also took it away forever. I find your reading of the novel and the character crass and immatu-"
"I know. I really… I really didn't mean what I said, or what I implied… Sorry. That was rude and unnecessary."
Yukinoshita stops mid-sentence, still half-way through her razor sharp rant, the force and spontaneity of which had been impressive. Though from her reaction, and the slight reddening of her cheeks, the speed with which I admitted I was wrong was impressive to her too. There may have been a time I stuck by an opinion I didn't mean out of pure, idiotic stubbornness; I'd like to think I outgrew that.
"Oh," she repeated, and then coughed. "… I'm glad you have the maturity to admit your own narrow-mindedness. That… that is an admirable trait, at least."
"Yeah…? I suppose Anna Karenina might have had a few of those as well. Just a few."
She seemed all the more surprised by this. In fact, her cheeks reddened further still. For the second time in the conversation, I was embarrassed by what I'd said, unsure where the words and the contradictory implications, and they were oh-so contradictory, had come from.
As someone who likes to feel in control of themselves… in control of what they say… There was nothing I wanted more than to leave. I looked over my shoulder at the corridor, hoping ever more intensely that Yui would appear.
She did so, thankfully, only a couple of minutes later, but that was late enough for us to have been forced to start a new conversation. She came into the room a little out of breath, her make-up applied with a self-evident haste, clad in a nice top and pair of jeans. Her hair was tied-up and glossy.
"S- sorry! I really didn't think you were coming so soon, Hikki… I got ready as quickly as possible…" She laughed, but it wasn't the comfortable kind.
"Yeah, I should have texted," I replied, standing up and walking over to her. A quick peck on the check went almost ignored; Yui was looking at Yukinoshita-san, who was still stood by the couch.
"So, um… What were you two talking about?" The question was directed at her.
"Just the book I'm reading. It's called Effi Briest." Yukinoshita's response was quick. "And, ah… we discussed Anna Karenina a little… Our opinions differed."
"Oh, really? Wow… I mean, both of you do love reading. I guess that would make sense."
"Yes." Yukinoshita's blue eyes were reflecting the light of the apartment. "I suppose it would."
I looked between them, and then nudged Yui's hand. "Shall we be going then?"
We went to leave her apartment, and the air of discomfort surrounding it, with our hands held. It wasn't a gesture I made too often, and not in public at all, but Yukinoshita's apartment wasn't really 'public'. Our host walked behind us to see us out.
"Well… I had a really lovely day with you, Yukinon! The lunch was great. You have really good taste in things."
"Oh… yes." Her lips were pursed.
They said their goodbyes, and 'Yukinon' stepped forward to close the door once we were out in the corridor. She spared me a momentary glance having addressed only Yui in her goodbye, a small nod of some kind which I returned, but I confess to being glad, increasingly so, with the further distance we put between us and Yukinoshita's apartment as we left the complex and walked out into the Chiba evening.
The rest of the evening had been lovely, our conversations light-hearted and teasing, the air between us calm and affectionate. The bar we visited was a little busy, but if anything the sound of groups clinking their glasses made things more personal, somehow. Yui didn't stop smiling and laughing all night.
But when we got back, and into our bed, I couldn't help but notice the strength with which she kissed me. It was still tender and soft, but there was also a tug, a sense that in the time our lips connected, I should definitely not be the first one to pull away…
All of this comes back to me as Yui and I lie there on the couch, my weekend work trip to Osaka well and truly forgotten, the rhythm of my breathing still yet to return. All that had happened weeks ago. But was the tug I felt in her kisses the same tug with which she holds me now?
Back then… as our lips met… I had considered saying something. Mentioning it. Addressing the hypothetical.
But how, exactly, do you address a hypothetical? Especially one as illogical, and as hurtful, as that? And what if I was wrong? What if this hypothetical something hadn't been on her mind at all? Wouldn't that just make things worse?
And so now, I do the same thing. My solution is to say nothing, because I'm not sure if a solution is needed. I lie there, my wife resting her cheek on my chest, wondering what on earth she thinks I've been doing on a work trip to Osaka.