Dry Ground
by Alex Jones

"You should plant something here," Tsuzuki said, gazing longingly at the hard, rocky little patch of dirt that comprises my yard. "It could be beautiful."

I stared at him in disbelief. Gardening isn't my thing, and besides, it's crazy how Tsuzuki is just so... optimistic about everything. And everyone, too, except himself. It scares me sometimes.

"You plant something," I said finally, hoping that would end the subject. I stepped through the gate and locked it behind me, joining him on the sidewalk. He immediately handed me one of the two mugs of tea he was carrying.

"I didn't put any sugar in it," he said, watching with a slightly pained expression as I took my first sip. Tsuzuki puts sugar in everything, which is one of the reasons why he's such a terrible cook.

"It's good," I assured him. Which it was, considering he made it.

He grinned in relief, and, before we'd taken three steps together, slung his free arm around my shoulders. I scowled at him, pretending not to like it. But actually I do like it -- a lot. He probably knows that, which is why he keeps doing it. I shifted closer to him as we walked, trying not to be too noticeable about it. As long as I don't put my arm around him, we can go on pretending.

It's easier that way. Better.

I think.

"So where do you want to go today?"

His voice was a low vibration against my side. His warmth, his smell, his Tsuzukiness surrounded me like a patch of morning sunlight. It was a stupid question, and I told him so. He just smiled.

We'd just finished a major case the week before, so today we were going to the same place we always go. To the office, to another day of endless paperwork and meetings and bad coffee and photocopier breakdowns, throughout which Tsuzuki would whine and smile and slack off and beg for sugar. And through it all, we'd stick to our agreement to pretend that he was happy and that nothing at all was, or could be even slightly wrong.

That was our Monday morning -- same as usual, same as always. And Monday afternoon was no different. We walked home along the same route we always take and parted ways at the usual crossroads, Tsuzuki going to his house and I to mine.

I don't know what he does at night. Sometimes I think I'd like to know, but really it's probably for the best that I don't. It would make it harder for him to keep pretending. So I read a book, watch a movie with the sound off, whatever. Anything it takes to get tired enough so that I can just fall asleep when my head hits the pillow, so I don't have to lie awake watching the shadows of the cherry trees crawl across my bedroom ceiling like grasping fingers.

That was Monday night. Same as usual, same as always.

Tuesday night was a little different; he followed me home. He does do that sometimes. We ordered take-out. And when we were done eating, he shoved the dirty containers to one side of the table and started talking. Which is also pretty much the usual for him, except that he was talking about something he normally doesn't talk about -- his dreams.

"I dreamed about your garden last night."

"I don't have a garden," I reminded him.

"But you did," he insisted. "In my dream, you did. And it was beautiful."

"Oh," I said. Because I really didn't know what else to say to that. He went on.

"There were great big purple hollyhocks right there," he said, pointing through the front window to the far end of my barren patch of dirt. "And sunflowers, and foxgloves over there. And phlox, and buddleia, and -- oh -- a willow tree. Right there. It had a little bench underneath it. And we were sitting on the bench and--" he trailed off. "It was a nice dream."

"Well... that's good," I said. Meaning it, because I know he probably doesn't have many of those.

"Hisoka?" He'd turned his face away, and for some reason was flushing slightly.


"Would it be okay if I planted a few things? Maybe flowers or something...?"

"I already said that you could."

"Oh. Oh good! Sankyuu, Hisoka!" He beamed at me.

I rolled my eyes. "Whatever."

So on Wednesday afternoon, he showed up with a rake and a shovel and six bags of fertilizer and--

"What are those?"

"Hollyhocks," he claimed happily. "I want to make the garden just as beautiful as it was in my dream."

I watched him dig up a patch of the hard, dry soil near my back fence and plant the stubby little green plants. They didn't look like much, but then again, maybe they weren't supposed to. I don't know much about flowers.

"They'll grow to be really tall," he said, holding his hand up higher than my head to indicate. "And the flowers on these ones will be purple, just like they were in my dream. Purple and green look nice together, don't you think?"

Thursday afternoon, he put in a second installment, claiming that these were sunflowers. And on Friday, it was foxgloves. Whatever those were. On Saturday, I slept in. When I woke up and looked outside I noticed that the soil was dry in the flowerbeds, so I watered them.

I was about half done when Tsuzuki appeared at my gate with something tucked under his arm.

"If you're going to plant things in my yard, the least you can do is take care of them," I snapped.

"Sorry," he said, grinning as he nudged his way through the gate. (I didn't open it for him.) He set down his burden and dusted it with the sleeve of his sweater, seeming not to notice the big smear of dirt it left on the black material.

"There," he said, stepping back to admire it. It was a little stone bench.

"Let me guess. It's just like the one in your dream?"

"I bought it in an antique shop," he agreed. "It took me all morning to find just the right one."

I'd reserved Saturday as a day to do chores, but somehow ended up inviting Tsuzuki in for tea instead. He showed his delight by making sandwiches for us while I made the tea. I hadn't had a chance to shop, so the only ingredients in my fridge that would fit between two slices of bread were peanut butter, canned tuna, and slices of pickled ginger. By the third or fourth bite, even Tsuzuki had to admit that he'd tasted better.

We ended up going out for lunch to one of the little restaurants near my house, and took the long way home, following the path that led around the edge of the lake. Tsuzuki kicked up clouds of cherry petals as he went, grinning like a kid as he watched them swirl around him.

"Hisoka, look!" he cried, scooping up a big double handful of petals and flinging them skyward, so they fell down around us like rain. "It's snowing!"


He smiled. "C'mon, I'll race you."

"What...? Where?"

But Tsuzuki was already off, bounding up the hillside like an overgrown puppy. I followed more slowly. He paused when he reached a clearing. "Here's a good spot," he said, and flopped down on his back, swinging his arms and legs in the drifts of pink.

I gaped at him. "Wh-what are you doing?"

"Making a snow angel," he answered happily, still flailing. "Look!" He sprang back to his feet and pointed to the spot where he'd been. "There's the wings, see?"

"I guess."

"Now it's your turn; you try one."

"What? No way!"

"But it's so easy," Tsuzuki insisted. "And besides, my poor angel will be lonely without anyone keeping him company."

"Then you make another!"

"Aw, Hisoka! It's not the same if I do it. Please?"

I sighed. "Oh, all right; if it means that much to you."

Glancing around first to make sure that no one else could see me, I lay down on the carpet of cherry petals and waved my arms and legs back and forth as Tsuzuki had done. When I was finished, he offered his hand to help me up. I ignored it and got up on my own. "There," I said, dusting cherry petals off my jeans. "I hope you're satisfied."

Tsuzuki made no reply. He was gazing down at the two "angels," his eyes filling with a soft emotion that I couldn't interpret.

"Their wings are touching," he said quietly.


"It looks as if they're holding hands. Don't you think?"

And there was no reason whatsoever for my face to go all hot like that. "Idiot," I muttered. I stalked past him to rejoin the path, and we continued on our way.

Back at my place, I ended up inviting him in. I hadn't intended to, but the sight of Tsuzuki standing hopefully on my doorstep and not asking to be let in was just too much. His eyes -- in fact his entire being -- came alight at the invitation, and he came bouncing inside, kicking his shoes off in the genkan before I had time to change my mind.

"That was a great lunch," he enthused, tumbling onto my couch. "What's for dinner?"

"You're hungry?"

He patted his stomach. "Not quite yet, but it's always important to think ahead. Don't you agree?"

I never did get my chores done that Saturday afternoon. Instead, I sat on the stone bench and watched Tsuzuki digging in the garden. Every now and then his shovel would clank against a rock, and whenever that happened, he'd dig it out and place it carefully to the side. At first I wondered why he didn't just throw them away, but then, once he had a pile going, he used the stones to mark a path from the garden gate to my front door. It looked rather pretty.

At dinner we ordered more take-out and rented a couple of movies. We watched Tsuzuki's first, and predictably, it had him sniffling before it was halfway through. Tsuzuki has a weakness for romances, and they always make him cry no matter how bad the acting is. I like historical films and documentaries. Tsuzuki fell asleep during mine.

I guess I fell asleep too, because at some point I became aware that Tsuzuki's head was resting in my lap and I had no idea how, or when, it got there. The clock on the bookcase said 12:30. I got up, found Tsuzuki a pillow and a blanket, and went to bed. He was still on the couch when I left the house the next morning, walking on tiptoe so as not to wake him. This was something I'd been planning all week, and company was the last thing I needed.

Traveling to Earth took less than the blink of an eye. Buying flowers took considerably longer. Eventually I settled on some pink ones, because the florist was adamant that "Pink's the nicest color for little girls." I took her word on it. Technically, my sister is older than I am, but she died very young and the pink posy looked very fitting, somehow, when I placed it on her child-sized grave.

The marker my parents bought for her is cheap and very plain, engraved only with the kanji for her name, which is Hisoka, the same as mine. "Secret." I cleared away the weeds that had grown up since last year's visit, and sat with her for a while, imagining what she might say to me if we ever met. Would she hate me, I wondered, for having caused her death? I'll probably never know.

I'd meant to avoid my own grave. I always had in the past, just as I'd always managed to avoid seeing my parents, but this year there was something that drew me in that direction. A spot of colour that shouldn't have been there. I rose and walked towards it, past the outer edge of the family cemetery to the spot where my own little marker stood, half hidden by the drooping branches of a great tree.

Someone had planted flowers on my grave. Thousands of them. They were tiny, and a soft azure blue that seemed almost violet. A pretty colour, I thought, because it reminded me of clear skies and the colour that Tsuzuki's eyes had turned when I'd invited him in, and...

I knelt beside my grave, lightly touching the flowers with my fingertips to make sure they were real. Thinking how they made this forsaken spot seem restful and perfect, a place apart, shielded from my family's gaze by the tree's overhanging branches. I stayed for a long time, listening to the sound of the leaves in the wind. Finally, as the afternoon began to wear on, I rose and went home.

My house was empty.

The garden was too, though I noticed that the plants had all been watered. I walked out through the gate, hands in my pockets, not thinking too much about where I was going until I was already past the crossroads and walking up the path that leads to Tsuzuki's house.

When I got there, there was music blaring through the open window; some scratchy old jazz record from the 1920's. I stood listening for a minute or two, thinking that I didn't really have a reason to be there. I'd never come to Tsuzuki's house before without some kind of a reason; misplaced reports, case files stuck together with globs of cinnamon and frosted goo, that sort of thing. Things I could yell at him for.

Of course, Tsuzuki comes over to my place all the time and never bothers to have an excuse. But that's different. That's Tsuzuki.

When I finally raised my hand to knock, the door opened instantly; he must have been standing right there in the hall waiting. "Hisoka!" he cried. I could tell he was trying hard to sound surprised.

"I... um."

It struck me that I had no idea why I was there, or what I wanted to say. So I stood there fiddling with my hands, not quite able to meet his eyes, and was ludicrously, pathetically grateful when he told me that he'd just baked a cake and wouldn't I like to try some?

"Um," I said again, stupidly. Of course I didn't want to try any -- no one in their right mind would want to try a cake baked by Tsuzuki. But I didn't exactly protest, either, when he grabbed my arm and pulled me inside, hustling me down the hallway with scarcely enough time to kick my shoes off.

The kitchen was filled with an ominous haze of blue smoke, and there was an object sitting on the countertop that resembled cake only in the sense that it was frosted. Humming happily in tune to the music, Tsuzuki grabbed two forks and two plates, onto which he scooped two overly generous helpings of the... 'cake.' Very soon, I found myself sitting on a cushion on the back porch of his house with a plateful of god-knows-what balanced on my knee. And Tsuzuki beside me, still humming.

"Well, go on, try it!" he said eagerly.

Seeing no alternative, I got a little bit of the stuff on the end of my fork. I had it almost to my lips when something caught my eye. A glimpse of soft azure amongst the flowers in Tsuzuki's garden.

"What's that?"

"Hunh? What's wh--ooh, thisth isth gooood!" Tsuzuki cried, momentarily distracted by the cake.

I put my plate down and got up. Tsuzuki followed me down into the garden with plate in hand, exclaiming between mouthfuls about how wonderful his cake was. Stopping beside the flowerbed, I pointed.

"Those. What are they called?"

"Those...? They're, ah... mfhnts," he mumbled.


"Forget-me-nots. That's... uh, that's what they're called."


The look he gave me was like that of a trapped animal, and I knew right then I couldn't ask him about the flowers on my grave. In fact, I didn't really need to ask because it was obvious. He'd turned, fleeing towards the comparative safety of the porch, by the time I managed to find my voice.


He froze.

"I... could you make some tea? Your cake, it's, ahh... really dry."

I insisted on making dinner that night. And Tsuzuki insisted on helping, which slowed things down a bit and meant that we had to re-do the rice, but the results were edible. After the dishes were cleared away, we played board games for a while. Then Tsuzuki found an incredibly low budget martial-arts movie playing on TV, and insisted on watching it.

It was getting late, and I probably should have gone home. But I didn't. Tsuzuki's house was warm and messy and smelled comfortingly of him, and the only shadows that crawled on the ceiling here were those reflected from the light of the television. So I curled up on the sofa and pretended to watch the movie, though in fact I was mostly watching him.

He sat with his bare feet propped on the coffee table, eyes half-closed and his long chocolate-coloured bangs falling forward across his face. His presence radiated such peace, such drowsy contentment; it was hard to believe he was the same man who'd tried to kill himself during our case in Kyoto a few months earlier.

It wasn't entirely an accident when I let my head drop down against his shoulder. But I pretended that it was, that I was too sleepy to know what I was doing. Or to notice what he was doing when his arm slipped down from the back of the sofa and settled across my shoulders like a warm protective wing. And maybe then I wasn't even pretending anymore, because the the next thing I remember is him waking me up and insisting on walking me home.

That was Sunday night. And then Monday morning came and I was waking up to his familiar knock on the door and scrambling like crazy because I'd forgotten to set my alarm the night before -- something which I never forget to do -- pulling on jeans and a clean t-shirt and rushing down the stairs with my hair uncombed, only to find Tsuzuki sitting on the little garden bench, calmly patting down the earth around what was obviously the latest addition to "my" garden.

"It's a willow," he explained.

"Just like your dream."


There was something very familiar about the little yellow-green treelet with its drooping branches and its long narrow leaves. At first I couldn't quite place it, but then the wind picked up and rustled the leaves together, and...

"That sound," I said. "It's..."

I stopped myself.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"


I could really only agree, because it was. Though I wasn't really looking at the tree so much as at Tsuzuki's long, graceful hands smoothing the soil around its roots.

"Willows may not look it, but they're the strongest of trees," Tsuzuki said, rising and dusting his hands. "Even the most powerful storm can't break them. And if you cut a branch from a willow and plant it in the ground, a whole new tree will grow from it. I..." he glanced away, flushing bright pink. "I wanted it to shelter you here, too. In this world."

I answered with a hesitant nod. My face felt like it was on fire, but I made myself take a step closer, reaching out to touch his arm.

"Tsuzuki," I said. No one had ever given me a tree as a present before; I didn't know what to say. And a simple 'thank you' didn't seem like enough. I dug my fingers into his sleeve.

The wind ruffled through our hair, through the leaves of the little willow, and I felt Tsuzuki's arm tremble under my hand. For just a moment it seemed that the wind blew us closer, and he was leaning into my touch. Then he straightened, shaking himself with a small, embarrassed smile, and suggested that it was probably time for us to get going so we wouldn't be late for work -- a very atypical comment, coming from Tsuzuki. But true. We turned and headed for the gate.

"Oh wait!" he said suddenly. "I almost forgot your tea." He dashed back to retrieve the mugs from the bench, handing one of them to me at random.

I took a sip and nearly choked. "This tastes like cough syrup!"

"Oops, sorry! That's mine."

Switching mugs, we stepped through the garden gate and began our Monday morning. Which could, from that point onwards, have gone the same as usual, same as always. Except that when he slung his arm around my shoulders, I leaned into him. Then, after a few more steps, I reached back and slid my arm around his waist. And just like that, we stopped pretending.

"So," I asked softly. "Where do you want to go today?"

And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn't such a stupid question. We could go anywhere today. Anywhere at all.