Disclaimer: Yotsuba&! and its characters belong to Kiyohiko Azuma. No profit is made from this work.
(a Yotsuba&! fic)
by elle rita
The first time they talk—really talk—is in his car, on the first official road trip the newly purchased Prius has taken. They had spent the day strawberry picking in Shizuoka, the four of them again—him and her up front, Yotsuba and Ena dozing in the backseat, having eaten presumably close to their weight in strawberries that morning plus lunch at a sushi-go-round on top of that. Yotsuba had won the restaurant-wide game of jankenpon and received a free plate of tuna nigiri, which she couldn't finish. She'd fallen asleep on the patio outside while they were sitting watching the fishing boats in the bay, and Ena had started to nod off not long after.
Fuuka doesn't look so much tired as she does worried. He waits until they are well into Kanagawa prefecture before he says anything. "Something on your mind?"
She looks up, surprised, turning from the window where she's been watching Ebina give way to Yamato with glazed-over eyes. One gray-tiled apartment building after the other, nothing to differentiate them but the squares of multicolored bedding draped over every balcony. "Oh," she says, in a tone desperately trying to be blithe, "I'm just thinking…about…well." She pauses, clears her throat, turns pink. "What to do with myself after high school."
His right eyebrow lifts. This is the first indication that she's not quite as "together" as he once told her she was. "You haven't figured that out yet?"
"Not really," she admits. "I don't know if I want to go to college."
He muses about this for a few moments, long enough for her to return her attention to the window. It was more common than not these days for girls to attend university, but it still wasn't a given. The only reason for them not to go was holding other jobs—salesgirl, hairdresser, office lady—or getting married. He fights the quirk at the corner of his mouth. From what his daughter has told him (the veracity of a five-year-old's point of view notwithstanding), Fuuka has a definite romantic streak, and it wouldn't surprise him if it were that last matter giving her pause. "Have you thought about what you'd study if you did go?" he asks instead.
"That's what I can't figure out," she sighs. "I don't…I don't know what I'm good at."
He doesn't fight the mouth-quirk this time. Of course Ayase Fuuka can't win. She's not good at drawing, she's hopeless at astronomy, and she has no musical aptitude whatsoever. As far as she's concerned, that's reason enough to pack it in at the age of sixteen.
"You're very good with children," he says. "Ever thought about teaching?"
She perks up a little at this. "Really?"
"Really. You were in charge of all those kids at the festival, weren't you? And you can handle Yotsuba better than most adults can," especially Yanda, he thinks to himself. "That kind of patience is a rare gift."
She looks embarrassed. "I'm not patient all the time."
"Nobody is. I'm definitely not. But you listen to her, you look out for her, you make time for her, even when it inconveniences you. So many people can't even be bothered to make time for their own children. You go out of your way for the weird kid next door."
The pink tinge becomes a furious blush. "Koiwai-san, you shouldn't—"
"Shouldn't call her weird, I know. But we both know she is. And I'm just as bad myself—I can't even put on pants half the time." He grins, and she tries to hide her own by turning back to the window.
"It's nothing, really, Koiwai-san. I don't think of her as the weird kid next door. She's more like…"
She doesn't finish the sentence. She doesn't have to.
The word could just as easily apply to her.
The second time they talk—really talk—is eight months later. The leaves are turning and Yotsuba has fallen asleep on the living room floor, amongst the spread-out materials for her Halloween costume, bits of colored felt clinging to her hair. He washes her school uniform blouse in the sink, scrubbing at the purple jam stains until they fade to lavender, then starts a pot of coffee as he goes outside to hang it up to dry. He hears the shuddering sobs from the enclosure of the Ayases' front yard. He doesn't need to see to know it's her.
He clips the blouse to the clothesline, then moves silently to the wall. He's seen the boy a few times, ringing the Ayases' bell but never coming inside, only waiting long enough for Fuuka to come outside before the two of them disappear. His hair longish and disheveled, shirtsleeves always pushed up to the elbows and his tie askew, a tacky silver chain glinting from inside his unbuttoned collar. He looks like a typical deliquent. He reminds Koiwai of himself at that age.
He waits until the sobs give way to muted hiccups before he says anything. "Fuuka-chan?" he ventures, half expecting her to spit back at him to just leave her alone. But Ayase Fuuka, as always, is the epitome of good manners.
"Yes—" hic "—Koiwai-san?" Uttered in little more than a whisper.
He isn't sure how to offer a shoulder without sounding corny, so he tries a different tactic. "Want a cup of coffee?" he asks.
Pause. Hic. "All right."
He pours it into mismatched mugs while she shuffles through the gate and settles herself on the stoop. She accepts the ceramic vessel without moving her head, her bleary red eyes in a thousand-yard stare, her cheeks blotched and puffy. He suddenly feels inadequate, ill-equipped for the task of consoling a heartbroken seventeen-year-old, wondering why he thought it was a good idea to invite her over here in the first place. Her older sister should be the one helping her through this, or one of her friends. But Asagi is not home from school yet, and perhaps one of her friends is the reason she's in this state to begin with.
He's searching for the right words to break the silence when she turns to him. The porch light is refracted in the watery orbs that wobble in the corners of her eyes.
"It hurts," she says. "I hate that it hurts."
She keeps talking, keeps staring into the distance, her voice gaining strength as she goes, the blotches fading from sight. A familiar story, about kisses on the Yamanote line, staring into each others' eyes over a yakiniku grill, that gives way to dates not kept and a phone that doesn't ring and words that should never be said aloud. He's surprised at how candid she's being, but maybe it doesn't matter who she says it to as long as she can say it to someone. He listens until she finally falls silent, turning her eyes to the bottom of her now empty mug.
"I wish I could tell you we all grow out of that," he says, "but not all of us do."
She looks at him now with an expression he doesn't readily recognize.
"Even you, Koiwai-san?"
He has not dated anyone in over two years. Since before he went abroad and happened across a peculiar orphan who became the center of his whole world. There simply hasn't been time for things like kissing on the train to Shibuya, not when he has Yotsuba to look after. To say nothing of how Yotsuba would adapt to a strange woman in the house, taking her place on the futon, taking up his time. Fear of that unknown variable is part of what holds him back.
But Fuuka is young, unencumbered. She has years of that ahead of her. She hasn't known love, not yet. Not with some unkempt, scowling high school boy. Love is an adventure she hasn't yet embarked on, a thrill ride she's still waiting in line for. He wants to tell her this, but there's no way he can do that without sounding corny.
"No," he says confidently. "Not me."
They talk several more times after this, always on the porch, always with coffee mugs in hand. The next time they really talk, though, is the night after she graduates. Her parents throw a celebration for her at an upscale restaurant in town. She doesn't invite her classmates; she invites the Koiwais. He buys Yotsuba a new dress for the occasion; she can't stop twirling like a ballerina, making the sailor collar flap up and down. He wears a gray sweater with his usual jeans and tries not to look as if he put any effort into his appearance. In reality, it's the first time he's put styling product in his hair since college.
He accepts the first round of sake that Mr. Ayase offers him but turns down the second, as he still has to drive home. Mrs. Ayase abstains for the same reason, looking more and more embarrassed as her husband's and Asagi's voices get louder with each mug, arguing back and forth about the plotline of a suspense drama he's never heard of. Fuuka is turning red. To alleviate the awkwardness, he slips the car keys to Ena and asks her to retrieve something from the trunk.
"You didn't have to, Koiwai-san," Fuuka says bashfully as she lifts the lid on the box to reveal a black leather messenger bag. Yotsuba apologizes for the color, saying she wanted to get Fuuka the red one, but Daddy picked ugly black because it was "practical". Black is very nice, Fuuka insists, her eyes meeting his as she smiles. Asagi makes a comment that he doesn't quite hear, due to a sudden clattering of dishes from the table behind them, but it causes Fuuka to turn red again and her mother to elbow Asagi sharply in the side.
It is later, after Yotsuba has fallen asleep fully dressed on the couch and the rest of the Ayases have retired to their rooms, that she crosses silently through the gate and joins him on the stoop. The coffee maker is broken; the mugs are filled with milk tea instead.
"Excited?" he asks.
"Scared," she admits.
"There's nothing to be scared of," he says. "You're done with high school—the worst is over. The rest of it is nothing."
She looks into her tea. "You know, I don't think I would have made it…if you hadn't told me I could."
Now it's his turn to go red. Thankfully, it's dark and the porch bulb is flickering. He'd made a mental note last week to get that changed out, but now he's glad he'd forgotten about it.
He clears his throat. "It's nothing," he repeats, and changes the subject. "Have you made plans for the summer yet?"
Her friend Hiwatari has invited her to Yokohama in July with her family, but there are boats involved and she's afraid of getting seasick. They have medicine for that, he reminds her, and she concedes. "Life's too short to be afraid of a little nausea," he says.
She's established these steps, and him, as a safe zone. But she is too young to spend her life on a porch with a man ten years her senior, a man with a daughter nearly in first grade. A man whose own love life has stalled so completely that he now looks at her and wonders how many different shades of red she would turn if he kissed her. And then feels like a first class pervert for even thinking it, and then nervously scans the windows next door to ensure her father is not peering through the blinds.
She doesn't need safety. She doesn't need him. And, he reminds himself, he does not need her.
"Go, have fun," he says. She promises she will, she thanks him again for the bookbag, and then, before he quite realizes it, she kisses him on the cheek and clambers off the steps and through the gate, out of sight.
He walks back inside in a daze. The television is still on, tuned to some ridiculous game show. There is a Tsutaya commercial with Gackt, a CalorieMate commercial with that American actor whose name he can't recall. The Docomo ad with the college girl and her grandfather. He watches the whole commercial break before it occurs to him to turn the set off. He picks Yotsuba up off the couch, who doesn't stir at all as he carries her to the futon.
His cheek still burns where her lips had been.
After this, they don't really talk anymore. Their conversations are reduced mostly to pleasantries and status updates. How her classes are going. How Yotsuba is doing in school. By the time she gets home in the evening, she's too exhausted from a day's worth of classes and an hour home on the train to stop by and chat. He usually only sees her on the weekends, when one of them is on their way somewhere else—the supermarket, the bookstore, Jumbo's house. In the mornings, when he stands out on the porch with coffee in hand to see Yotsuba off to school, pedaling her bike furiously to keep up with Ena, she is already gone.
Yotsuba misses her, he can tell. She doesn't articulate it at first, but when she does catch sight of Fuuka out the window, it's as if she's just won the lottery. "Fuuka's home!" she yells, then clomps upstairs to his office and yells it again, as if he didn't hear the first time.
He knows. His office faces her bedroom, after all. But these days her shade stays drawn and her window shut. One half of a paper-cup telephone set sits on his desk, collecting dust on its lip. Yotsuba looks at it with longing.
"Why doesn't Fuuka come over anymore?" she pouts.
"She's busy." He ruffles her hair reasssuringly. "She's a grownup now, remember?"
"Grownups are boring," Yotsuba sulks before retreating from the room.
Later that night, as the curry sauce is simmering on the stove, he suggests that she invite Fuuka over to dinner with them. She perks up at this and runs next door, only to return dejectedly five minutes later. "She's not there," she says. "Ena said she went on a date."
It is the first time he can recall since becoming her father, that Yotsuba doesn't finish her curry.
Days pass, becoming weeks. Seasons come and go. Before he knows it, first grade is over. They spend part of the summer at his mother's house in the country and Yotsuba, distracted by the fields of wildflowers and interesting insects, her grandmother's dog Kuromaru, and all the grapes she can eat, doesn't mention Fuuka once. When they come back, Jumbo invites them to a baseball game—some shady Yakuza-looking guy had given him a whole envelope of tickets, as a thank you for the floral work he did on his daughter's wedding. There are enough tickets that he allows Yotsuba to invite Ena and Miura along, although the two of them are rapidly approaching that age where they are starting to pay attention to things like clothes and boys, and are not as interested as they used to be in spending time with a seven-year-old. He hopes Yotsuba makes more friends her own age. He thinks he probably ought to work on that, himself.
"Is your sister busy?" Jumbo asks Ena as he hands over her ticket. "Because I've got a few extra…"
"Asagi went with Torako to DisneySea this weekend," Ena answers as if rehearsed. Koiwai tries to hide his smile; Miura doesn't. "And Fuuka went out with her boyfriend again."
He wonders if this boyfriend is the same guy he saw out the window two weeks ago, parking his sleek black Honda in front of the Ayases' house. Black pinstripe suit jacket, artfully ripped jeans, hair highlighted blonde and tousled just so. Not so much a delinquent as a wannabe boybander.
The girls start chatting and tucking into their Jojoen beef bentoes as Jumbo orders a round of beers for the grownups. "Don't you think it's time you gave up on Asagi?" Yanda asks, making a face as he takes a sip of his Sapporo.
"Who asked you? Who invited you, by the way?"
"I'm just saying, yeah, she's a good-looking girl, but I think she's batting for the home team, if you get my meaning," Yanda says, shrugging. Jumbo turns red. Koiwai can't help it—he laughs.
"What are you laughing at?" Jumbo says defensively. "When was the last time you had a date?"
"Hey, I have an excuse. I have a kid." He addresses his beer before he drains half of it dry.
"That's no excuse. She's seven. Have you considered finding her a mother? I mean, unless you want to be the one talking to her about training bras and tampons."
He has considered it, actually. He's become aware of the fact that Yotsuba feels left out when the kids in her class talk about their moms. He doesn't feel she needs a mother, but he wishes she had one, just the same. But he isn't willing to settle for just anybody in that role. "That's what she has them for," he says, nodding toward Ena and Miura.
Jumbo rolls his eyes. "That's some top-notch parenting, Koiwai, entrusting your only daughter to a couple of twelve-year-olds."
"Are you talking about us?" Miura demands, craning her head around to look at them.
"No," Jumbo says. "Eat."
"Never mind that, when was the last time you got—" Yanda is cut off before he can utter the word.
"I'm not having this discussion in front of the kids, thanks."
"Are you talking about us?" Yotsuba asks, turning around in her seat.
Yanda doesn't let the matter drop until he agrees to a date with a girl from Yanda's office, a close friend of Yanda's ex Miki. Sayuri is twenty-four and wears her hair piled high atop her head. She talks about her office lady job while they wait for the check to arrive—lots of paper-clipping and pouring tea for middle-aged executives. But the money is good, and she can afford nice things—here she stops to rifle through her Louis Vuitton handbag. He thinks of Fuuka. This is the future she could have had, an empty life of pointless busywork and disposable income, had he not told her at sixteen that she was meant for something more. It tears at him. He should not have had so much influence over a teenage girl's life—and at the same time, he's beyond flattered that he did.
Sayuri excuses herself to the bathroom. He looks up from his beer to see the glass doors swing open, and Fuuka and her boyband boyfriend step through. She's wearing a ruffled sundress with his black suit jacket over it, and sandals that lace halfway up her legs. He wonders what happened to her collection of bizarre T-shirts.
Fuuka sees him and smiles, waves. He waves back. Her boyfriend arches an eyebrow. "Who's that?" he can see him asking as the hostess whisks them off to a table.
"Are you all right?" Sayuri asks when she returns. "You look upset."
"No, I'm great," he insists. "What are you doing next weekend?"
Two months later, he books a room at a love hotel in Ueno. Ayase Ena is throwing a slumber party that weekend, and Yotsuba is too excited about attending to inquire exactly where her father will be. The timing is deliberate—he was not about to ask the Ayase parents if they could watch his daughter for the express purpose of him breaking three years of celibacy.
His mind remains elsewhere. He hears the headboard thumping against the wall in the next room and wonders if it's her. At one point, he moans Fuuka's name. Thankfully, Sayuri is loud enough to drown him out.
Weeks, months. Christmas Eve arrives and Sayuri comes over for dinner, bringing a brightly wrapped gift for Yotsuba. She'd been pressing him about what sort of toys Yotsuba had and what she didn't and seemed confused when he tried to explain that she really didn't want much for toys—she was perfectly happy with Duralumin and her art supplies and the Lego sets she'd accumulated over the last couple of birthdays.
The gift turns out to be a Blythe doll, the sort that changes eye color when the string in the back of the head is pulled. He raises an eyebrow, knowing he hasn't seen one of those for less than six thousand yen. Yotsuba examines the doll critically. "Why is her head so big?" she asks. "And the rest of her is so small?"
She appears mildly interested when Sayuri demonstrates the pull-string, but not so much when she discusses the variety of different outfits the doll can wear. Koiwai laughs to himself at the concept of a fashion doll being lost on his daughter.
He's cutting the Christmas cake when there is a knock on the door. "It's Fuuka!" Yotsuba yells jubilantly, not bothering to wait for her father before throwing open the door and allowing snow to blow into the foyer.
Icy flakes cling to her hair and striped woolen scarf. She's carrying two boxes wrapped in pale blue snowman paper, which she sets on the floor. "Merry Christmas, Yotsuba-chan!" she chirrups, kneeling in order to sweep her into a huge hug. He pauses, knife in hand, to watch them. "Koiwai-san," she says, after finally disentangling herself from the wriggling second-grader. "Merry Christmas."
He's aware that he's smiling like an idiot, he's aware that Sayuri is staring at them, and he can't bring himself to care. "Merry Christmas, Fuuka-chan," he says, setting the knife down and stepping out of the kitchen. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
Fuuka smiles ruefully. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I can't stay longer—dinner's almost ready, and then Kazuo and I are going…uh, out." She blushes, and Koiwai figures they must have hotel reservations somewhere. "I just wanted to stop by and see you guys." She turns to Sayuri, who looks more and more about to explode with each passing second, and bows. "I'm Ayase Fuuka, by the way. My parents live next door."
Saiyuri exhales and smiles, and introduces herself as his girlfriend. It sounds odd to his ears, although he supposes it's accurate. Fuuka smiles and nods back, and sneaks a curious glance over at him that he pretends not to see. Yotsuba pays no heed to any of it, busily shaking the packages in order to determine their contents.
"Here's yours, Yotsuba," Fuuka says, indicating the larger of the two. "Go ahead, open it."
Yotsuba looks over to her father for permission before tearing the paper and lifting the lid to reveal a collapsed wooden easel, along with a white artist's smock and a small black beret. "See, now when you paint, you can do it just like the masters," Fuuka grins, setting the beret atop Yotsuba's head.
"Ooooh, the masters!" Yotsuba echoes enthusiastically, despite the fact that she clearly has no idea what Fuuka means. She hugs the older girl fiercely around the middle.
Fuuka promises to stop by again on New Year's before retreating out the door in another swirl of snowflakes. Koiwai stoops to pick up the remaining box. Yotsuba, her beret tilted over one ear, is setting up her easel in a corner of the living room.
"How old is she?" Sayuri asks.
The box contains two bags of imported Kona blend and a mug featuring a parody of the Suntory Coffee Boss logo. For the coffee boss, the note inside reads, and there he is again, grinning like an idiot. "Nine—no, eighteen," he says before heading back into the kitchen, before she can ask why he's smiling.
On New Year's Day, he looks out the window to see a Kuroneko moving van parked on the curb in front of the Ayases', and realizes why she promised to visit.
Spring comes again, bringing with it sakura blossoms and strawberries. He and Yotsuba make another pilgrimage to Shizuoka, this time with Sayuri in tow. He has to admit he had more fun when they brought the Ayases along. They go back to the S-Pulse Plaza in Shimizu for lunch, although Sayuri insists on going shopping. He sits on the patio outside watching the fishing boats, the wind whipping his hair. Yotsuba snores in the chair beside him.
Summer comes again, bringing vacation and tsuku-tsuku-boushi. Yotsuba goes to the playground or rides bikes with her new best friend, a girl with short hair and round black eyes. He sends them on errands to the corner store, giving them enough extra yen to buy candy. Sayuri makes several pointed comments about the prospect of moving in, which he ignores. He's not ready for that. Or maybe he's just not ready for her.
He never sees Fuuka. He isn't sure if it's because she hasn't come home at all, or because he's never looking out the window at the right moment. Her shade stays drawn, her window stays closed. Yotsuba still goes over to the Ayases', bringing back ice cream and reports on the family. Ena's going to Hawaii with Miura's family; Asagi and Torako are going to Kyoto for a weekend. Mr. Ayase bought a new DS game. There is still no sign of Fuuka.
Fall comes again, bringing the start of third grade for Yotsuba and renewed singlehood for him. Sayuri got tired of being ignored. He got tired of her. Yotsuba doesn't seem bothered in the slightest; if anything, she's happier now that she doesn't have to sacrifice her second helping of curry for a guest. He contemplates an early fall vacation to Hawaii, like the kind the Hayasakas take every year. He picks up travel brochures; Yotsuba picks out a hotel on the beach in Maui. He puts off buying the tickets, waiting to see if he can snag a last-minute deal.
It is nearly October when the Kuroneko van shows up again.
Fuuka looks different to him as she ambles up the steps, the now well-worn messenger bag slung over one shoulder. She looks tired. World-weary. Older—which, she is, since the last time he saw her. And yet, at a mere nineteen, still not old enough to drink or smoke.
He wonders when, exactly, she stopped being the girl next door and became the woman he couldn't get out of his head.
He restrains Yotsuba from running over there, explaining (and yet not, really) that Fuuka needs some time to herself, and that she can see her first thing tomorrow. He waits for the sun to slip out of sight, for Yotsuba to fall asleep with her third-grade reader propped open beside her, before he quietly opens the door and steps out onto the patio.
She is already there.
"Hi," she says hesitantly.
"Hi," he responds, sitting down beside her. "So, uh…" He decides to tiptoe around it at first. "How's school?"
"School? Oh, it's great. Pretty soon I'll get to start student teaching. I might even get to do it at Yotsuba's school, if they have an opening."
"That's great." It really is. He's never been happier for her.
She shifts uncomfortably then, looking down at her hands. He decides to take the plunge.
"You…want to talk about it?"
She shakes her head. "I just…I feel like such an idiot."
"That's an unfortunate side effect of breakups, yeah," he says. "It probably feels like a huge waste of time looking back on it, huh?"
"An incredible waste of time. Over a whole year of my life, just…poof. Like that."
He smiles. Oh, to be nineteen again. At twenty-nine, he might as well be walking with a cane. "I wouldn't worry about it. You're young. You've got years ahead of you."
She looks less than enthused at this statement. "I don't know. The idea of repeating this year, for years to come…one wrong guy after the other…that doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun to me." She sighs. "I'd rather just cut right to the good part."
He chortles, so low he can barely hear it. "Wouldn't we all."
She turns to him then, and he both longs for and fears what she will say next. Because when she says it, all of this stops. Time will never move the same way again.
"Right? I mean, if you know you'd be happy with someone…then what does it matter how old, or young, or experienced, or inexperienced you are? What else should matter other than the fact that they'd make you happy?"
His heart is beating so loudly he is certain she hears. Ayase Fuuka has reduced him to a giddy teenager.
"Are you—still with—" she hesitates, giving a sort of nod in the direction of the house. He shakes his head quickly.
"No, that's over. It's been over."
He looks at her, and she at him, for the longest moment. It's not more than a few seconds, but somehow in that miniscule window he sees every moment that transpired between them in perfect clarity. Her in school uniform, rattling off trash disposal guidelines. Stuck halfway through his bathroom window. Leaning out her window toward him, the paper-cup phone forgotten in her hand. Worrying about her post-secondary future in the passenger seat of his car. Kissing him on the cheek and fleeing into the night. Waiting here on the stoop for him, less than a day after she'd gotten her heart broken again.
He knows all the reasons he shouldn't, the reasons that will probably all be rattled off by her parents and her sister and his friends in short order. He doesn't care. He's waited long enough, and he's too eager to cut to the good part.
He reaches out, tilts up her chin, cups the side of her face, and kisses her. And with a little gasp, her lips melt into his.
They have all the time in the world.
A/N: Being the author of the KoiwaixFuuka ship manifesto I figured I was obligated to write a fic—a grownup fic at that. Hope you liked.