Shooting Stars

Chapter Twenty-Two: Beginnings

Author's notes: TADAIMA! I know you're dying of shock. So many people never expected to see this story update again, but I always planned to go back to it someday, when I was ready. Looks like someday is now. Surprised? I've missed everyone, and I'm genuinely sorry—I assure you that my reasons for putting this fic on hold were very genuine ones. However I hope to finish it this summer. There are only a few chapters and an epilogue to go.

Notes on this chapter are mostly notes on Japanese wedding customs. A shiro-maku is the traditional white wedding kimono, and a tsuno kakushi is that large white veil a Japanese bride wears. It is meant to hide her horns of jealousy and show that she will be obedient to her new husband. Also, it is common for the bride and groom's families to split the costs of the wedding, and it is also fairly common to get married twice in the same day, once by a Shinto priest and once in Western style. There is such a thing as a Japanese Buddhist wedding, but traditionally Japanese Buddhist temples are more frequently used for funerals than weddings, so it's plausible that Uesugi-san wants his daughter married with Shinto rites instead. Finally, completely unrelated to wedding customs, shichi-narabe is a card game, and if you don't know what Mah-Jongg is, I'm afraid I wash my hands of you.

Finally, the first part of this chapter is, appropriately enough, an ending. The next chapter, titled "Endings" will start with a beginning.

Stick with me! We're in the home stretch! I love Mika, in case you couldn't tell. In this chapter, Tohma and Mika's wedding and the imminent collapse of Nittle Grasper...

Disclaimer: I still don't own Gravitation, but I own a goodly portion of Tohma's wardrobe, of which my friends are very jealous.

The next winter was a busy one. With a hopeless sort of blind optimism, I threw myself into our latest promotional tour. I thought it a fortunate turn of events at first, because touring was a miserable, hectic lifestyle which took all of my time and energy. There was not much time for heavy thoughts when we were constantly flying somewhere, running somewhere else, rushing to make-up, wardrobe, practicing, performing, signing autographs, running from overzealous fans, and doing the hundreds of other little things that made up the tour.

On our first tour years ago, I remember we would fall asleep in cars, dressing rooms, airplanes, and just about anywhere else we could find, Noriko-san's head in my lap, Ryuichi-san leaning against my side. By now, we were more accustomed to the pace of it, or maybe we were simply too distant from each other to fall asleep in such a trusting way. Car and plane trips were filled with a less companionable sort of silence: sipping coffee, studying scores, Ryuichi-san's coloring because it kept his mind off his occasional motion sickness, headphones in everyone's ears to drown out the engine, which was trying to drown out the silence.

On our first tour, we had played games when we were not too tired to stand. Card games, word games, board games sometimes, initiated by Noriko-san or Ryuichi-san. I got caught up in them somehow, just like I got caught up in everything those two did, with their boundless enthusiasm and energy. I remember Noriko-san was the undisputed champion at Mah-jongg, a game at which I was passable and Ryuichi-san was absolutely hopeless. For the fourth player, she would pull in any random member of our team who looked to have nothing better to do—Ryuichi-san's bodyguards, sound technicians, wardrobe consultants, K-san. One of the make-up girls we had our first year had been very good, and she and Noriko-san had spent a long time crowing over the superiority of females in general before I beat them all soundly in a round of shichi-narabe, of all useless childish things.

I don't think the Mah-jongg board even came along on this latest tour; certainly neither Noriko-san nor Ryuichi-san tried to engage me in any gameplay. Once we arrived at our hotel, we retreated to our own rooms for rest, and I at least took more than half of my room service meals alone. It seemed too much work to go out into the public area and be cheerful when we were all so tense. I found I couldn't take Noriko-san's tragic eyes or Ryuichi-san's forced cheerfulness. I told myself they didn't want to see me, either, and kept to myself.

The cracks in the once-seamless team that had been Nittle Grasper spread.

Touring was good for me, I convinced myself, because it kept me out of my apartment for awhile, away from the constant reminder of the life that I had chosen for myself. It was not precisely that I was averse to marrying Mika-san—my relief was more along the lines of getting out of the way of the planning stages for the thing. Marriage was one thing, but sitting around and discussing it was vaguely terrifying. I hoped somehow that by the time I got home it would all be arranged, and I could just put on my costume, speak the appropriate words, sign the necessary papers, and it could be done. It would be a sort of performance in itself, though for once I had absolutely no desire to be up in front of a crowd. I also had a deep-seated kind of dread that I would come home to find my dishes replaced, my closet rearranged, and my entire apartment refurnished. I tried to tell myself firmly that I had to trust Mika-san to do what was best, but the thought of it made me queasy. And although touring kept me far away from all of that, I wished after the first week to get away from this too: Noriko-san's eyes, Ryuichi-san's smiles, K-san's growing displeasure.

At least we performed the way we always had. Whatever was wrong with us was put away when we came out on stage together. There, we shone with the same sort of brilliant light we had always carried around us, and it only grew in brightness as the time went on. We could hardly do less, with Ryuichi-san's fevered, intense energy wrapping around our music and giving it flight. He had always sung as though nothing else mattered, but now I knew he sung because nothing really did. He was heartbreakingly fantastic every single time he stepped into the lights; sometimes it felt that whether divine or demonic in nature, the power he commanded with his voice was anything but human. Too often, I wished I could reach out and touch him, just to reassure myself that he was still real. But even after the lights had faded, when we were together in the comforting backstage darkness which had always been ours, I did not dare touch him, not even casually, because I understood implicitly what he had not said—whatever we had had between us had to be put away.

But there was still satisfaction in the music, so I threw myself into it with all that was left of my heart. I remembered with sudden clarity the person I had been nearly ten years ago, before Noriko-san and everything else that had come to change me. Back then, music had been my only emotional outlet, the only way I had ever found to feel alive as I had not known I could be. I was so different now, yet despite all the changes, I found solace in my music once again. I composed effortlessly, anger and dying hope and futility and the tragedy of all that I was losing woven into the music. Ryuichi-san still gave me his words without reservation, and they were probably the only true words spoken between us at that time.

Noriko-san watched us with growing sadness. I knew she was upset and depressed and angry with both of us, but she didn't say anything to that effect throughout the course of the tour. I remember very vividly the one time we actually spoke to each other during that tour. It was another of my frequent sleepless nights, and when I went out to the balcony that ran along out floor of the hotel for a breath of much-needed cold air, I found her studying the lightscape of Hiroshima and smoking a cigarette with shaking fingers.

I remember standing there dumbly for a few moments before I finally managed to say, "I didn't know you smoked."

Her hand shook a little and she let out something like a laugh, though the sound was far too bitter for the Noriko-san I had once known. "I thought it was time I picked up a bad habit. My singing voice is hardly top-notch, anyway. I guess I can ruin it further."

I took a few steps to stand next to her. The warm, bitter smoke from her cigarette blew past my face on the light, chilly breeze. "Does it make you feel better?" I asked, wondering if I, too, would succumb to the habit eventually. Everyone else seemed to find it comforting.

She rewarded me with another strange half-laugh. "Not enough. But I need it, for my nerves." She took another long drag, released another puff of smoke. She offered me the cigarette. "Want to share?"

I took it, though I doubted my opinion would be any different this time than the last time I had stupidly tried smoking. I tasted her lipstick on the cigarette, a taste once familiar from the days when we had shared coffee cups and lollipops. I coughed out the acrid smoke and shook my head to clear it before giving the cigarette back. "That continues to be disgusting," I told her.

"Yes," she said, "I know, it really is, isn't it?" Her eyes were dark as she looked up at me, and a little too shiny to be dry. "But you know, you two have driven me to the end of my rope. I have to do something, or I'll explode." She tried to smile at me, to pass it off as a joke, but a tear slid down her cheek and belied her efforts. "I'm going to bed now, Tohma-kun. It's too cold for me." She did not reach to me for comfort and warmth, as she might have done once. She only slipped away, leaving me alone with cold, smoke-tinged air.

I returned to Tokyo in March to precisely the sort of warfare I had been hoping to avoid by escaping on tour. I walked into my apartment to find Mika-san yelling hysterically into her phone, something about old-fashioned, completely unstylish idiocy; I stood in the entrance hall wondering if I could just sneak out and find a drink elsewhere when she noticed me and hung up on whoever it was without so much as a good-bye. She stood there wild-eyed for a few moments while I gathered up the courage to say, "Good evening, Mika-san; you seem to be… energetic tonight."

She stared another moment, barked out a laugh, and launched herself at me for a quick hug, startling me into taking a step backwards into the door I had so unfortunately shut behind me. "I'm sorry," she said candidly, "my father is a decrepit idiot. I'm glad you're home; there's tea in the kitchen."

Over the next hour, I heard more deprecating comments in the direction of the father she usually revered. Eventually, I got her to calm down enough to explain to me why exactly she was insulting her beloved parent, and, as I had feared, was treated to far more in the way of wedding plans than I had ever wanted to know.

Her father, she informed me with utter disdain, wanted a traditional Shinto wedding, complete with white face paint, a shiro-maku kimono, and a tsuno kakushi for her head, which she was utterly convinced would make it look like a large, white box. She did not want to look like box; she wanted to be modern. She wanted a western wedding, with a western-style dress, lace gloves, a train, a veil, and so on. She wanted an organ and the Pachelbel canon in D; he wanted traditional flutes, and furthermore, he wanted a fall wedding, claiming the most auspicious date would come in mid-October. Mika-san, naturally enough, wanted cherry blossoms, which meant an April wedding, and she was sick of waiting, she told me, and wanted this whole thing done with already.

That was the one point on which we seemed to agree.

She didn't take the fact that I had no particular opinion particularly well. I tried to placate her by telling her I was sure she would look lovely in whatever she ended up wearing, but that didn't help, either. I finally pleaded exhaustion and escaped to bed, wondering if I was to expect this sort of behavior constantly from now on and if I really knew what I was doing. Just then, getting mixed up with her seemed like the worst idea I had ever had.

Fortunately for me, Mika-san turned out to be unreasonable about only this one thing. However, as I did not know this at the time, I became progressively more irritated in the days leading up to the wedding. To make things just a little worse, while Noriko-san was still avoiding anything resembling true conversation with me, she and Mika-san were suddenly fast friends, immersed in catalogs and magazines and God only knew what else—it seemed a little as though Noriko-san was living this wedding vicariously, infusing it with all the spectacle and pageantry that her own shotgun wedding had denied her. She and Mika-san took over my dining room with their planning, opening the windows so they could smoke while they flipped pages and swatches of fabric and argued, and I felt very much a stranger in my own home. Sometimes, Noriko-san brought Saki-chan along, and the toddler added a great deal of noise to the already-uncomfortable situation.

It was at these times that I headed out to the bars just to escape from it—I think I drank more in February and March of that year than I had ever drunk previously. I think there is a necessary bout of drunkenness in the downward spiral of depression; certainly it made me feel better at the time. Occasionally, when the mood struck, I let someone take me home; usually, though, I turned down all offers. If the women with their terrifying lists and catalogues hadn't been in my dining room, I would much rather have been home, seated at the piano, though I probably would have been drinking all the same. If she noticed, she didn't say anything. Fortunately for me, I never lost myself enough to bring anyone home myself, or she certainly would have drawn the line. Fighting with Mika-san was the last thing I wanted to do.

Luckily, she had gotten her way in most things as her personal war with her father drew to a close, so being around her wasn't altogether unbearable after a few months. I only balked a little when she told me that we would have to be married twice in the same day—once in the Shinto temple and then again in a Western ceremony—after all, we were hardly the only couple to do so, considering the constantly growing popularity of all things Western in Japan, and what Mika-san couldn't win from her father she seemed to want to make up by beggaring him. The amount which was quoted to me as sixty percent of the overall cost was absolutely astronomical. I knew that offering to pay more would probably be taken badly, so I kept quiet, signed the check, and wondered if Mika-san wasn't trying to drive her father into an early grave as revenge for the tsuno kakushi.

At that point, I had to agree with him that she needed something to cover her horns.

I married Uesugi Mika on a sunny, perfectly fragrant day in mid-April of that year. Ultimately it really did come down to wearing the presented costumes, speaking the proper words, and signing the necessary papers. Mika-san's eyes, carefully lined in black and standing out in stark relief against her white face, were shining as she caught my gaze over the ceremonial sake cups. Her face, after months of turmoil, was suddenly perfectly tranquil under the layer of traditional make-up, and she seemed to radiate a stabilizing sort of calm. This was so unexpected, and she looked suddenly so fragile and beautiful, that I couldn't help but smile faintly at her, and forgive her a goodly portion of her sins.

During the second ceremony several hours later, I caught Eiri-kun's eyes, and although he looked rather uncomfortable in his tuxedo and bowtie, he almost smiled at me. My head was still aching dully from the amount I had drunk last night, not at all helped by the ceremonial sake earlier, but for the first time in what felt like an eternity, the expression he wore when facing me wasn't one of open hostility. Mika-san came down the aisle, still beaming with benign grace, and his smile grew fractionally as his eyes left me to follow her progress. I understood only then that I had finally managed to do something right.

The reception that followed the two consecutive weddings was a long blur. Ostensibly I drank nothing alcoholic, yet very little of the afternoon remained in my memory, except the burning desire for alcohol or caffeine, preferably in a silent, dark room away from everything that surrounded me. I followed through with the proper traditions anyway, presiding over the gathering, Mika-san in yet another traditional kimono at my side. My parents, who I had not seen in over a year and a half, were watching me with cautious pride, my father's gaze marred a little by disbelief. It seemed they had not actually expected this to happen after it had been put off for so many years.

I still wasn't sure I wanted this to happen, but there she was, newly named Seguchi Mika, sitting next to me. Whether I liked it or not, after several hours of torture I was most certainly married, for better or for worse. I very badly wanted a drink, and stifled the urge.

I talked to a few hundred people as that afternoon and received hundreds of congratulations, surely, but the only conversation I remember very distinctly was the one I had with Ryuichi-san. He approached us with K-san and an uzi trailing behind him. There was nothing but cheerful benevolence on his face as he offered his congratulations first to Mika-san, then to me. Though I had grown used to the shadows in his eyes, none were there. It was as if he, too, was suddenly filled with peace. I wondered what had brought him this sudden tranquility, and whether it would work as well for me.

"Congratulations, Tohma," he told me in his quiet, adult voice; he was in one of those states when one could not be quite sure whether he would pounce like a small child or spout brilliance like an utter genius. I had learned over the years to approach this version of Ryuichi-san with utmost caution. My polite smile was a little hesitant.

"Thank you," I told him.

"I'm glad for you," he said. Again, no shadows. "I hope you will be happy in your new life. A hundred roads lead to happiness; surely, you will find one of them." Then, before I could say anything else, he suddenly reverted to child mode, bouncing off to latch himself to Tetsuya-san, and I knew better than to pursue him and ask him for an explanation for the random bit of wisdom. K-san once again shadowed him, as if he would need protection from anyone at my wedding reception. Mika-san's childhood and college friends had been given strict instructions not to jump on him, and although a few of them looked ready to break their promise of good behavior, Ryuichi-san somehow stayed cheerfully unmolested.

Suddenly, I felt a small hand in mine; I turned my head in surprise to see Mika-san looking up at me with understanding and concern in her eyes. "Thank you," she said very quietly.

"I don't know why you're thanking me, Mika-san," I told her, honestly at a bit of a loss. I had gone along with her plans, true enough, but I had hardly been an active or willing participant in this pageantry. And certainly we both knew that I had not married her for the right reasons. Yet she thanked me, with soft, shining eyes and a small smile on her lips.

"Thank you all the same, husband." It was strange to hear her calling me that. I hoped she wouldn't make a habit of it. "For giving me what I wanted." She raised a hand to my cheek to break the serious mood and out of nowhere added playfully, "Make a habit of it, and we will do very well."

Surprisingly enough, this phrase had the desired effect, and I smiled back. It sounded like something Noriko-san would have said, in the days when we were close. "I think that was meant as a threat," I told her, the kind of good-humored reply I would have given my closest friend.

"Very possibly," she replied. A little of her calm seemed to spread out to envelop me, and I didn't want that coveted drink quite as badly.