A/N: Felt like writing some angst. I will get around to updating TCAFS sometime, promise. This can be seen as a future fic spin-off of TCAFS, with some recurring characters.
It's night again.
He doesn't know what day it is anymore. It must be some day in July, because the air around him is hot and stagnant, as if trying to suffocate him. The days are all becoming a blur to him.
A car passes the outside of his apartment, the headlights causing shadows to dance in the room. A year ago this would have been mesmerizing to him. Now, he watches the waltz of light and shadow with a cold indifference.
The phone suddenly rings. He doesn't move from his spot on the couch, and instead lights a cigarette. The machine picks up. It's his sister-in-law. She's the only person who calls every day.
He ignores it, as he does every day.
On his desk lay the prints from two weeks ago. He hasn't even bothered to look at them. They don't interest him at all. Nothing interests him anymore.
He sighs and goes into the kitchen to find a bottle of whiskey, his only companion for the evening…
Morning came as morning always does.
He rises to a sharp knocking at the door. Not that he sleeps anymore. The nights haunt him.
The knocking continues. Then it stops.
For a moment he pauses. Maybe they'll go away.
But the knocking just returns with more tenacity than before.
He forces himself to walk to the door and opens it.
"Hey," she says. "Glad to see you're alive. Now are you going to invite me in, or what?"
He stares as his sister-in-law pushes past him and through the door.
"What are you d—"
She responds scathingly. "What am I doing here? Fuji, I'm fucking worried about you."
Suzume is as blunt and forward as ever, attempting to mask her concern with a veil of anger. She never seemed to want people to know how much she actually cared about them, Fuji remembers. Even in high school, she put on an indifferent and aloof front. She hid her warmth behind a mask of cigarette smoke, bored stares, and snide comments.
A bitter smile crosses his face. Funny how similar they were now.
She looks at him. "What the hell happened to you?"
He stays silent, as he always does.
She shakes her head irritably and walks to his coffee table, looking at the prints he'd made. She scrutinizes them for a brief moment. "Boring," she declares.
Something within him twists. "I know." I know.
"What happened, Fuji?" she repeats. "What happened to you?"
What happened? He was supposed to be an aspiring photographer with a great career in front of him. When he came back from art tour in Europe, maybe he expected everything to remain the same as it always was. Fuji could still remember his excitement when he stepped off the plane and back into Tokyo. He could visit his friends now.
He was wrong.
Everything changed. His friends had scattered themselves across Japan. Some had even left the country. Even Kawamura's restaurant, which he always assumed would be there, had gone bankrupt in the bad economy. Kikumaru was a part-time teacher and full-time father, Oishi moved up to Nagasaki with his wife, Echizen was in America…
And no one knew where Tezuka was.
Fuji had tried to tell himself that high school friendships don't tend to last. Yet he never managed to connect with anyone in Europe, and when everyone else had finished drifting away…
He was left alone.
"I don't… I don't know…" he finally says.
I don't know, he lies to himself.
"…and Akane is still in Tokyo. On a lawyer's schedule of course," Suzume takes a sip of her tea.
"Has Tezuka called? I haven't heard from him yet. That withdrawal from the U.S open was a shame."
"Kimiko's up in Hokkaido, Oishi's still in Nagasaki… I think Reina's at Wall Street now…"
She is the only one who has kept in touch with everyone. Fuji suspects that her undying tenacity has something to do with it. She would probably fly to Germany and bang down Tezuka's door if she didn't get an email reply from him.
Thinking about it makes Fuji wonder if he should've tried harder.
It wasn't as if he didn't try to stay in touch with the others. He honestly did. But with the time difference in Europe, the faulty video-chat, the emails that seemed too casual and too impersonal… he just figured he would see them when he got back to Japan. He never knew how things could change so quickly.
He called the others, he sent letters, and occasionally some of them met up for a bite to eat. But soon the attempts became halfhearted and reluctant, and that's when Fuji realizes.
Everyone has moved on with their lives.
It was time to get on with his.
"This can't make you happy, Fuji." Suzume picks up some of the prints from the table. "These are just so boring."
They are school yearbook pictures. Fuji doesn't like them either, but he has the equipment and he needs the money. With his expertise, it was too easy to get booked for the job.
Every single one of the pictures, boy or girl, looks exactly the same to him. Their smiles are fake. Monotonous. Stiff. Fuji hates it.
"Do you remember the gallery you created last year?" Suzume says. "All those pictures were so beautiful."
It was his first great achievement as a fine arts photographer. He made a gallery with the best pictures in his portfolio, and it was a huge success. Japanese newspapers called him the "most promising talent they've seen for a decade."
Suzume reaches into her wallet and pulls out a picture. He looks and realizes it's a miniature of his most famous photograph.
"Look at that," she says softly. "Look at her."
The girl in the photograph is looking over her shoulder at him. Her shoulders and back are bare, her skin silky like moonstone. Her long black hair is swept to the side, the nape of her neck graceful and alluring. Her eyes are looking right at him, dark and mysterious, as if holding a secret within them.
He shakes his head, and for a moment the mask breaks. Suzume sees the pain flash through his eyes, and she suddenly knows why Fuji is like he is now.
"You need to stop wallowing," she tells him. "She left you."
She'd left him. Just like everyone else did.
She was his muse. He had other pictures in that gallery, other models, but it was his pictures of her that made the collection come alive. She breathed life into his photographs.
It was interesting, because she was a dancer. He had at least ten pictures of her in the gallery that were movement pictures. Graceful. Dynamic. But the one picture, the one picture that changed his career was his still shot of her looking over her shoulder.
That one picture alone was what got him his very own art tour in Europe.
Critics raved over that photograph. They debated constantly over it. Lips parted. A hint of a smile. Seductive, orgasmic. The twinkle in her eye. Happiness. Lips trembling. Heartbroken, forlorn. The shimmer in her eye. Unshed tears.
The only thing they could agree on was that there was something between the model and the photographer.
Stop it, he tells himself. He hasn't seen or talked to her in over a year. It's useless to think about her anymore.
Critics asked him, all the time. What was the girl feeling in the photograph? And he just smiled and answered as vaguely as he could, because it was all he could do.
He didn't know, either.
He never knew what she was thinking.
Now that Suzume has left. his apartment looks so empty and bare and lonely. He couldn't remember the last time someone visited him. She never came to visit him.
Stop it, he tells himself again. She's left, and he's moved on.
It's all he can do to keep lying to himself.
He traces a finger around his camera. A thin layer of dust has settled upon it. A year ago he would've polished it every day.
Next to his camera is a picture of the tennis team after Nationals. All of them, arms over one another, laughing and smiling at the camera. His eyes find her immediately. His arm is around her waist. She is smiling. This might've been the last time they were all together. The sun has bleached a lot of the color out of the picture, and for a moment he contemplates on printing another one to replace it.
And then he shakes his head again. There is no point.
He hears another knock at the door. Thinking that Suzume forgot something, he goes to open it.
He ends up looking into a pair of dark eyes that is so familiar and yet so, so unfamiliar to him.
She stands by the door as if unsure of why she is there. "I'm sorry," she says. "Suzume told me to come."
Suzume, he thinks, almost bitterly. She knew him better than she let on.
"Come in," he finally says.
She hesitates. He waits.
She comes in.
As they settle in and he makes some more tea, he is suddenly conscious of the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table, and the full ashtray on the counter.
"How have you been?" she asks. Uncertainly. Shakily.
It's been so long that they no longer know how to act with one another.
"Okay," he responds, as vaguely as possible. And since he can no longer ignore it, he nods his head in the direction of her hand. "Congratulations."
Her eyes follow his to her engagement ring. "Oh," she says, her voice strange, as if she just noticed the ring. "Thank you."
He nods in silence, carefully constructing a neutral smile on his face. It's always been one of his best talents.
She lifts her eyes to his, and he cannot stop the slip of emotion from behind his crystalline blue orbs. He blinks, and looks down, covering it with a cough.
But she knows, because it is her, and she could always see through his façade in an instant. And he hates it, he hates that she can read him so easily, but whenever he tries to decipher what she is thinking, what she is feeling, he is left with nothing but confusion.
"Fuji… I should've called. I'm sorry. I don't know what…"
His voice is forceful, perhaps more forceful than he intends. She stills.
And he knows what he has to do.
"Will you… model for me?"
He is taking pictures, but he is growing more and more frustrated. And she knows it. She is tense, confused, but too scared to speak. She doesn't know what he wants.
He doesn't know what he wants either.
He looks at the back of his camera. All he knows is that he doesn't want this. He almost wants to throw the camera at the ground, smash it into a million pieces, just like she did with his heart.
Her eyes are blank. They don't have the emotion they used to. Over time, he has lost that way to connect with her.
"Why did you leave me."
His voice is hollow and low.
She inhales. Finally. He sees some emotion flicker in her eyes. He takes a picture. Her eyes are that of a deer caught in the headlights of an incoming car.
The car is moving fast, too fast and she can only watch her own demise take place.
And then Fuji realizes. He is the deer.
She's the one driving.
Her voice breaks. He takes another picture.
"I didn't want to."
"But you weren't here, and..."
"It… just ended…"
She is no longer looking at him. He moves closer to take a close up of her face. The turmoil surfaces. He has never seen her look so vulnerable.
"Fuji, I couldn't wait anymore."
He lowers the camera. He doesn't want to capture this moment. It hurt too much.
"But I loved you," she finally says, and he knows those few words are supposed to make him feel better, make the pain a little more bearable. But instead, they killed him. Because right now, he had his heart on the line, and he was praying, praying that she could still feel the same way.
"You made me."
She looks up, confused.
He is frustrated. He is frustrated with himself, because he doesn't know what he wants. Or in truth, he knew exactly what he wanted, he just didn't want to admit it to himself,
"Don't you see?" He picks up the miniature that Suzume left him. "This picture. You made me famous with that."
She glances at it, almost dismissively. "No, it was all you."
His hand is on her wrist. She stops.
"Don't. Don't say anything."
And the next thing he knows, he is kissing her, kissing her roughly, a kiss borne from desperation and hope, it was too much, and it wasn't enough, his fingers tangle into her hair, his lips meeting hers again and again, almost clumsy in his passion, and he didn't care, it didn't matter that she was engaged or that they hadn't spoken in a year, right at this moment she was here, she was his, and this, this is what he's been missing and what he needs.
As they both pause for breath, she pulls away. "I… I can't."
And he refuses to lose her again. "You can."
He only tightens his grip around her wrist.
"I should go."
He could not let her walk out of his life again. Do you see what happens when you leave me, he wanted to scream. Without her, he'd go back to yearbook photography, the whiskey and the cigarettes to numb his pain.
"Can't you see?" he says, his voice laced with desperate hope. "I'm nothing without you." There is no way to explain it. He knows it, when she is with him, it's right. It feels right. How could she not see how important she is? They were bound by something so powerful and magnetic that he needed her. He couldn't lose her, she completed him, she was his muse, she was his passion, she was his soul…
What was a person without their soul?
The last time she left, she left a void, a tangible void in her outline that followed and haunted him everywhere.
He didn't want to be haunted anymore.
"Please." He entwines his fingers with hers.
She breathes. Those seconds feel like eternities. And then she opens her eyes, and he still can't read the raw, raw emotion inside. He is scared, more scared than he's ever been, because he's never felt so defenseless and vulnerable, and the ball is in her court now and there's nothing he can do.
"I should leave."
His heart breaks then, but it more than just breaks, it is crushed, smeared and splattered across the ground in a way that it could never be whole again.
There is nothing to be done or said anymore.
She reaches for her coat and bag and heads for the door. He watches her walk out of his life again, like watching his own destruction in repeat.
They both know that she will not come back.
As she reaches the door, she turns, looking over her shoulder. And Fuji sees the girl in the photograph.
Except now he sees the wistful longing in her parted lips, the regret in her bent shoulders, and the unmistakable anguish in her dark eyes. And he hates it, he hates that now, when she is on the verge of leaving, he finally, finally begins to know how to read her.
"Fuji…" she says, softly, like an angel's breath. "Don't ever beat yourself up about the way things might have been."
And she leaves.
For a moment, he doesn't feel anything because he doesn't know what to feel. And then the feeling of loss takes hold, and he is upset, and distraught and angry, and he doesn't want to go back to wallowing in despair. He sees the bottle of whiskey and in a sudden rage, throws it across the room and watches it shatter a shower of stardust and broken dreams.
He is angry that she came. He didn't need this.
At the same time he knows he did.
Knowing the truth, no matter how painful, is better than hoping forever in futility.
His eye catches onto the photograph. He picks it up, and his hand hovers over the trash can. And then, reconsidering, he places it next to the picture of the tennis team.
He wishes his memories would fade as easily as the pigments in the photograph did. He wishes that bathing in sunlight would wash away his thoughts like it did with the colors in pictures. But some things won't fade.
He crosses the room to the window, looking at the quiet street outside. No one is there. It's just him and his pain, and the unavoidable hollow emptiness that she left inside him.
He sees his reflection in the window. He remembers hers from the picture. They are so different. His face is neutral, expressionless, a vague smile that could be interpreted in any way. Hers is a palette of emotion. She wears her emotions so openly, that it was so raw and unfiltered he doesn't know how to read it.
He looks into his own eyes and lets the mask fall and break into a million pieces.
He sees pain, hurt, guilt, betrayal. But what angers him most is that he sees hope, and he hates himself for even daring to hope anymore.
He rams his fist against the window.
It stings of unshed tears and unsaid apologies.
She's gone. She came into his life with a wave of inspiration, a whirl of laughter and good times.
Now the tide has receded.
He breathes. And then he slowly unclenches his hand, as if finally letting something go.