Disclaimer: I do not own Honey and Clover. Honey and Clover owns me.
Warning: Slight spoilers for ending.
Notes: There is really no point to this fic other than the fact that I desperately needed some personal closure after reading the manga ending, which was heartbreakingly bittersweet. There were just so many things I had to get down on paper, just had to try to express -- rather unsuccessfully, though, as it turns out. Which explains, though does not excuse, the overly rambling style of this fic.
"Cold, Hagu?" August had arrived, with its sweltering afternoons and burning asphalt, but San Francisco's gray mornings were chilly no matter what time of year.
She looked up at him, snuggled a bit more deeply into her coat, and smiled. "No, Shuu-chan, I'm fine."
She had been surprised when she had received the letter, some two months ago, though Shuu-chan had not. She still remembered that morning at the breakfast table, poring over elegant, spidery black writing on creamy white paper, awkwardly sounding out words so unfamiliar on her tongue. After Shuu-chan arrived at the table, cup of coffee in hand, he had taken one look before ushering her over to the couch where they began to decipher it together.
"Why, it's from America," Shuu-chan had said, and she had replied, "I wonder who it could be?"
A certain Mr. Mercer had written it, explained Shuu-chan some time later, after several trips back and forth from the bookcase to the couch to retrieve his various dictionaries. He had seen one of Miss Hanamoto's paintings at an exhibit on a recent trip to Tokyo and had been quite impressed, and was wondering if he could put on an exhibit of her works at the gallery he owned in San Francisco.
"He says he'd like to meet you, Hagu," said Shuu-chan, as he put down the letter, laughing. But then he had paused, and Hagu had known he was waiting for her response.
"I've never been to America," she'd said then, thoughtfully, almost wistfully, and everything had followed from there.
They'd spent some weeks writing back and forth, enlisting help from a local English tutor to compose their replies. For Mr. Mercer, it seemed, was a rather old-fashioned gentleman, and did not own a computer, much less an email account. ("In this day and age!" Shuu-chan had complained, half-jokingly, though before he had left their rural hometown for Tokyo all those years ago, he had not owned a computer either, and Hagu still did not.)
Not until the final arrangements had been completed, their suitcases packed and ready to go, did they receive the phone call.
"Doumo arigatou gozaimasu. I cannot tell you how glad I am that you accepted my offer," elderly Mr. Mercer had said, in careful but broken Japanese. "Your painting -- it was -- it is incredible. That day... it reached out to some deep part of my heart, grabbed hold of it and wouldn't let go. It was then I knew I just had to meet you."
Hagu had barely managed to stammer out a "Thank you, Mercer-san, I am honored," before Mr. Mercer interrupted once again with a volley of thank yous, and then they had to hang up because the taxi had arrived and it was time to head to the airport --
And now they were here. Time had flown by quickly. In just two more days now, they would be flying back to Japan. And though Hagu was indeed looking forward to returning home, she could not help but feel a little sad at the thought of leaving.
The City by the Bay was at once so different from and yet so reminiscent of the Tokyo of her memories. The bustling streets, the swarms of passersby, the high-rises looming up into the sky, the glittering lights at night. In the past week, she had sated herself with the sights and sounds and smells of the city, where everything from the child squalling in the backseat of the car driving in front of them on the golden bridge to the sea lions lazing in the sun down by the pier seemed to her irrevocably tinged by sky and sea. They had sent postcards, she and Shuu-chan, to Ayu and Takemoto-kun and Mayama-san and Rika-san. They did not see each other often, these days, though they tried, with moderate success, to at least keep in touch. She saw Ayu with her Nomiya-san every now and then, and Takemoto-kun never failed to visit between jobs, and Mayama-san and Rika-san too dropped by when they could.
Yet... how many years had it been, now? Hagu thought she would like to see them, all of them together again, when she returned to Japan, and had written so.
But still something had been lost in those postcards, something those glossy photos could not even hope to capture, that Hagu almost wished now that she had not sent them after all. She clenched her hand, then unclenched it, wiggling her fingers one by one out of habit, and found Mr. Mercer's words running through her mind once more.
That phone call had terrified her. Something, perhaps, about the unrestrained sincerity in the old man's voice, the way he'd unabashedly bared his heart to her in those few moments.
It had not been so long, that she could so easily forget. How she had nearly lost her world and then regained it, only to find it utterly, irrevocably changed. His praise had made her uncomfortable, his near worshipful admiration even more so. For she knew she hardly deserved it. She remembered still greater works, greater visions, but those were lost to her now. Perhaps they were lost to her forever.
Even so, all her nervousness had gradually fled as she sat sipping tea with the elderly gentleman at the airport, that first day in America, while Shuu-chan made a call back home to let them know they had arrived safely. Mr. Mercer had been humming some song, strangely familiar, sweet and melancholy.
"Some years ago, I lost someone very close to me," he had said, as the nice Japanese American lady who had accompanied him there translated for them. "For all my age, it was the first time... I had been so utterly devastated. It was a long time before I could go back to living my life normally. And even then, it seemed as if I was a newborn babe seeing the world anew, seeing everything with different eyes, eyes reborn."
He'd paused slightly before continuing, and his next words were so soft that the translator lady had to ask him to repeat himself.
"That first night, as I lay in bed, I thought... 'Ah, how fragile this world is.'"
It had been surprisingly easy to converse with him, after that. He was a kind, honest man, if just the slightest bit eccentric. Far more difficult and intimidating had been the crowds she found milling about her paintings, later, on the first day of the exhibit. All the strangers who came up to her, shaking her hand, smiling, gushing -- it had been quite a shock. She had not realized how prominent a figure Mr. Mercer actually was, nor how much her reputation had grown here thanks to his support.
That night she had burst into tears -- from exhaustion or from something else, she did not know -- and for the first time in many years Shuu-chan had stayed up with her, cradling her in his arms until she fell asleep.
And now today was the last day of the exhibit. Tomorrow night they would leave. She had promised Mr. Mercer she would show up at the gallery in person today once more. After a week of sightseeing and avoiding the place except after hours, she felt it only fair.
They arrived soon enough; the hotel they had been staying at was only three blocks away, and Hagu had walked longer distances through Tokyo, even after the accident. The crowd she found waiting seemed even larger than the one on the first day, and yet she felt none of the anxiety she had felt then, as Shuu-chan gave her hand a comforting squeeze.
At noon they closed for lunch, and she found Mr. Mercer standing quietly before the painting he said had captured his heart.
"Angel. Even now I can't understand it," he said when she stepped up beside him, and though he spoke as ever in English, Hagu grasped the gist of his words. "Swans and flowers and light -- it's an awkward piece, unpolished, though most people probably don't notice, and stylistically, it's a bit of a departure from your earlier pieces. Yet..."
"It was my first," replied Hagu, her voice soft and halting, as she struggled to remember the words she had learned long ago at the rudimentary English classes at school, words she had picked up over the past few days, words she had read and written over their weeks of correspondence. "My first art... in a long time. After a hard time. My first."
Mr. Mercer looked at her, eyes glistening strangely, and said, "I see. I see."
And then he placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'm glad."
After that they went to lunch, she and Shuu-chan and Mr. Mercer and the translator lady Hagu knew now as Mrs. Konishi. And when lunch ended and they returned to the exhibit, Hagu watched the blur of faces passing by outside in the streets and the blue of the sky now that the clouds had parted, and tried to commit to memory the cool, mellow mustiness of Mr. Mercer's gallery that made her suddenly so strangely homesick.
Shuu-chan noticed, and lingered at her side as the afternoon whiled away, and the crowds began to dwindle.
"So, Hagu," he said. "Did you enjoy yourself? Your first time in America. Heck, your first time out of the country, even."
"I guess so, Shuu-chan," she said. "It's -- it's so big here. Bigger than I expected."
"Yeah," Shuu-chan agreed amiably, his hands noticeably itching for a cigarette. "You don't really notice how small Japan is, until you step outside her borders. It was the same for me, my first time. Kind of overwhelming, isn't it?"
She opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. She closed her mouth, then tried again. "Shuu-chan. It's scary. I feel so lost. There's so much out here. What if I never find... what if I never find my way back? How can I possibly face myself then?"
Shuu-chan was quiet for a while, his eyes glazed and distant, as if he were watching some far-away scene only he could see, slowly replaying before him.
"No one," he said at last, "can ever go back to what once was. All we can do is plunge on forward, forging new paths of our own."
He caught her hands in his own and grinned. "I'll always be here. Just like no matter where you go, Japan or America or wherever, the same bright moon is there, shining in the sky, watching over us all. No matter how lost you get, just look for me, and I'll be here. But..."
Hagu looked up at him.
"But Hagu, your path is yours to make and walk. And look, you've already begun --"
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a whirl of colors and sounds. There were movie posters plastered on the window of the restaurant across the street that she had not noticed before, and Hagu found herself staring at them, mulling over Shuu-chan's words as the day wound down. There was a twinge of something in her heart -- regret, disappointment, anticipation, hope... she could not be sure. Perhaps it was none of them, perhaps it was all of them.
So lost in thought was she that she did not hear the sudden screech of a car pulling up alongside the curb, and very nearly did not hear Shuu-chan and Mr. Mercer calling her name from the door.
"What is it, Shuu-chan?" she called back, puzzled. "Is it time to go?"
And then she heard him.
"Mousey! Where are you hiding, little mouse?"
Time stilled, and all else seemed to fade away save for his voice, and his face, that look of intensity she had never forgotten, would never forget.
"There's still five more minutes until closing, I know you're still here!"
She smelled him, his familiar clean leathery scent, long before she felt his arms wrapping around her, his chest pressing against her nose.
"The last day... I wouldn't miss it for anything... Almost didn't hear about it in time... Rushed onto the next flight to San Francisco immediately..."
She clutched at his jacket, reveling in the feel of the rough fabric against her fingers, every little crinkle and crease.
"You're not a ghost," she whispered against him.
"Of course not!" he replied, almost indignantly, and she could not help but laugh. "I don't intend on leaving this world for a long time yet."
She blinked away tears. "Sorry. I'm getting your shirt wet... Aren't you busy? Your new movie's coming out tomorrow, isn't it? I'm sure it'll be wonderful --"
"Silly little mouse." He rested his cheek against her head, and looked at the painting that hung behind them, feathers and flowers bursting into a joyful explosion of light. "Angel. Couldn't you think of a better title, you silly thing?"
"Look," she said then. "Look at all I've done. All I've managed to do."
"I know," he murmured into her hair, and she was surprised at the sudden choked gruffness in his voice. "I know."
And then he pulled away from her, smiling fondly, gazing at her as if she were the only person left in the world.
"I've been watching," he said simply, and she reached up and threaded her fingers through his hair and brought his face down to hers.
"I'll always be watching."