What You Are
crossing through the gray area requires a better hand
than one is born with,
if one wasn't born with the silver spoon-
it requires those things found necessary to survive
The half hour train ride to the company housing district was a familiar mental detour for Shinogu. After all, he'd been taking this train home for years before he and Shuji decided to move and rent out an apartment to split the cost. On most days, he'd sleep through the everyday, concrete boulevard scenery because back then, and even now, school and keeping a steady job meant bedtime anytime Shinogu wasn't attending either. Shinogu found the train to be a sort of lullaby to heal the long and draining day's damage—the rhythmic continuity of going and stopping, along bumpy tracks, and underneath dark tunnels that let out into the suburbs.
Asahi too looked dead tired as she unconsciously shut her eyes for a brief moment, only to be disturbed by another short stop into the next platform. Her body was unable to maintain balance so she crashed into Shinogu's chest, then quickly came away, awkwardly apologizing. The clumsiness reminded Shinogu so much of Hatsumi. How he'd clamp a protective arm on his younger sister's shoulder to steady her, trying not to think much of it. Even back then, Shinogu had been uncertain, catapulted out of a normal teenage life. He couldn't distinguish between whether or not his protective hand on Hatsumi was an act of possessiveness, or if he was just being an older brother, and he struggled with that unwanted confusion nearly all of his life.
It had always been Hatsumi, Akane, little Subaru, and Shinogu, together on the train ride back home from Takazono highschool. Asahi was there too whenever she wasn't interning after school, and they'd all laugh and joke, oblivious to the swarm of people around them, engulfed in a complete bubble of youthful hindsight. No one knew, or wanted to know what awaited them in the future, it was always easier to wait and just live through it, but for Shinogu, it had been difficult, extremely difficult.
Being in love with Hatsumi, struggling to convince himself that what he felt could be justified because she wasn't his actual sister, left Shinogu in conflicting pieces, pieces he could use to create a complicated mock happiness for everyone else. Those years hadn't been fun at all, which was why he escaped through those harsh, unending hours at work and school, why he moved out, and why he sometimes found himself back at Hatsumi's apartment complex all over again—without thinking, without seeing ahead.
But Asahi made Shinogu's predicament much easier. She listened. Asahi listened to him go on about Seiko, the mystery girl he'd fathomed up as a little secret to himself to somehow stay connected to Hatsumi. It was an old, pathetic schoolboy-crush trick that Asahi hadn't figured out yet, or at least Shinogu didn't think she did. The mystery girl gave him more of an excuse to mull over his emotions with the added advice from someone else. From Asahi. He couldn't forget that she'd overheard his mortifying confessional about his feelings toward Hatsumi, and the fact that she still stuck around him, still kept his secret, meant that Asahi wasn't one to judge. He figured she'd just accepted it just like that, like always.
"Our stop's almost here, thank goodness," Asahi breathed out.
"Our?" Shinogu pointed out and she smiled.
"Still living in the past I guess," she laughed.
Asahi took in another whiff of her uniform sleeve and the slight aroma of Pepsi traveled into Shinogu's nostrils. He'd almost forgotten that the two of them were living, breathing trashcans from the mess they'd made at Siggy's. It was probably why people were staring.
"Shinogu, you really don't have to help me study. You could be back at your own apartment, showering by now," Asahi whined. Together they moved to the opening doors, waiting for the mechanical voice of the train operator to finish his unloading orders. "It's really late anyway. . . ."
"What? You have something to hide?" he asked, realizing the unintentional irony. The feeling of guilt crept up on him, but he did nothing to betray his sudden change of mood.
"No," Asahi let out, as if she was a child giving away no clue. "I just feel bad."
Something occurred to Shinogu right then. A few people brushed past the two to get off of the train, knocking him and Asahi around, and in that instant moment, Shinogu's left hand automatically found its way to Asahi's arm, pressing it into her side, steadying her. He stammered a little, and when all was right, they unmounted the train and began the walk into the complex.
Something wasn't right. Shinogu wasn't supposed to react like that around Asahi, so overprotective, so thoughtless. Nor so brotherly. The confusion threw him off track again. He'd been robotic just like when he used to ride the train with Hatsumi, only now, Asahi's replacement felt one in the same. Again, the pictures blurred, the snapshot faded.
"What's the matter?" Asahi asked.
She spun around, taking note to his sudden pause. Shinogu wondered if Asahi felt normal about everything, if she had no questions that maybe his big-brother persona was really all there was to him. She constantly told him that he acted brotherly towards her too much. But was that all she thought? An abrupt pang attacked Shinogu at the thought of experimenting, of being selfish for a bit. What would Asahi do if she became Hatsumi in his eyes, if she was the center of Shinogu's incessant, intruding feelings. His confusion would certainly go away because then, he could differentiate the feeling of love from being a big brother if it was directed toward another woman, one he hadn't grown up with. Shinogu could move on if things became clear for him again, if he changed his line of focus.
But he didn't want to think of Asahi as just a subject, a prospect for his little science experiment. It was wrong.
The elevator ride was silent because both of them could barely keep their eyes open. When Shinogu did look over to Asahi, he caught her staring at him for a brief second, but then her lashes fluttered downward to the marble floor. Maybe she was wondering why he'd been spacey today, or was she still uneasy about him coming over? Shinogu couldn't tell, and it made him want to tread in her mysterious mind.
The two exited the elevator and by the time they reached her apartment, fifth to the left, the clock on Shinogu's cellphone read 1:04 a.m.
"Subaru's probably sleeping already, that little nerd," Asahi laughed quietly. She pulled from her purse the door key and slowly opened the entrance as to not wake anyone.
Inside, the apartment was quaint and filled with the things that made up the Yagi's. Asahi's mother was into interior design, which explained the jungle-themed television stand and mirror that Shinogu always wondered about. All around were pictures of the three: Asahi, Subaru, and their mother at all stages of life, plastered onto the wall in frames. The fridge in the kitchen had little Gundam magnets that Subaru always collected.
"You can wash up in the bathroom, I'll get you a towel." Asahi was already on the move to the bathroom, so Shinogu simply took off his jacket and stuffed his smelly hat into one of the pockets. When Asahi came back with the towel, she relieved him of his coat to hang it up.
The bathroom was definitely dominated by girls. The walls were a floral pink and purple, the shower curtain was a golden sheet of glittering plastic, and the small, square floor was covered with a single strip of white fur. Shinogu could smell Asahi's perfume wafting through. He went to work cleaning his face and hair, and when he was done, he came from the bathroom, removing his socks and the red vest he was required to wear. Asahi was in the kitchen brewing coffee.
"You want some?" she asked.
And she knew just how he liked it.
Something fresh and warm traveled to Shinogu and before he realized he'd been sleeping, he popped from Asahi's couch. She was bent over the small glass coffee table, flipping through the pages of her textbook and notes, scratching her ankle with her toes. She smiled at him and nodded toward the coffee on the other end of the table.
"Relax, you weren't asleep long," she said. Asahi seemed to have perked up immediately after drinking her own share of coffee.
"Really?" Shinogu asked.
His long body came around from over the seats of the couch and he slinked down to the floor to sit on the pillow across from Asahi.
"Sorry about that," Asahi, as usual, brushed his apology aside. "What are you studying?"
"Advanced statistics," she answered.
Asahi was all about fashion and beauty, and she wanted to run her very own spa and beauty parlor, which was why she was working so hard to get into Grad school. Advanced statistics, from what Shinogu remembered, was never an easy subject for her, but it was required for her bachelor's degree in Business Marketing and Management.
"Let's see the problem," Shinogu offered. Asahi handed over the mock questions that would be used on the test, blowing into her own coffee cup.
As he looked on, immediately making sense of the numbers and symbols and where Asahi had messed up and why she had, Shinogu couldn't understand why logical, black and white problems couldn't escape his analyzing eyes—ever. Why were emotions and life so complicated? Because it wasn't tangible, because it was so abstract with no set rule, nor any set answers? Was the way Shinogu's world operated really that indeterminate . . . that gray?
Shinogu remembered Asahi asking that very same question, but she hadn't been expecting an answer from him.
"You are who or what you are," he'd said. "Both black and white . . . or gray. It's life, and we're just helpless, I guess." That answer was so much more easier to understand if he pretended that he couldn't relate.
Shinogu rearranged the numbers and added in some notes for Asahi to follow. When she got a hold of her questions, she sighed, computing her errors. Her hand moved up to her freshly showered hair, twirling a short strand around her painted fingernails. She was in concentration mode, brows furrowed, body compact and kneeling over her work. Her coffee was cooling because it no longer steamed. And Shinogu watched her. All of her familiar mannerisms, her out-loud thinking, nibbling on the top of her pen, wiggling about when she was stuck on a problem, how much alike she was to him. He'd always been aware of Asahi, but he'd gotten to really know her in college freshman year.
She was the girl constantly on the move, working and going to class, working and studying, working and sleeping, just like Shinogu. She was meek at first and dedicated, like him. Her mother was barely home, like his father. She was there for Subaru, and Shinogu was there for his family. It was probably why they clicked so well, and why she understood without asking any further questions Shinogu's determination to move out of the complex completely. He didn't want to be a burden.
Asahi's hand slowly came away from her hair, leaving her bangs to dangle freely. She didn't seem to notice as she crossed out another mistake, so Shinogu reached over to remove those dark strands of hair from her forehead. It was a simple enough gesture, one that even he could tell wasn't just brotherly. It sat right on the border between experimental flirting and an easy cover-up. Depending on Asahi's reaction, he'd go with the former, just for understanding.
She didn't really do anything about it at first, which wasn't what Shinogu expected. But then, Asahi frantically raised her head, feeling around her hair and wearing a very concerned expression.
"Is there something in it? Oh no, more spaghetti?" Asahi fretted. She was ready to bolt to the bathroom, but Shinogu laughed, staying her.
"I just felt like doing it," he answered. "Keep studying."
Slowly, she returned to focusing back on her work, but not before looking at Shinogu quizzically, as if she was so close to discovering his experiment and that she was its subject. Shinogu sat back then, inwardly sighing. He looked beyond Asahi, past the hall, past the apartment, back to a place he'd almost been selfish in before. He'd been so close to telling Hatsumi how he felt once, and things would have been so much more easier. But he hadn't, and he didn't know why. He couldn't come up with a reason for holding back, only that at the end, right before any of those three words could be blurted out, he thought of Hatsumi's feelings and what she'd have to deal with already. It'd been wrong and right on all sides, directly in the gray.
The slight grin that curved Asahi's lips was something Shinogu was sure was accidental on her part, but he was intrigued by it nevertheless. Had he made her smile just now? Why was her pen dotting the paper underneath, stuck in a weird, repetitive motion, and why were her cheeks rosy, painting the faded freckles on her nose?
". . . You, uh, haven't said anything about Seiko yet, how come?" Asahi asked, her eyes glued to her textbook. Shinogu grinned. Asahi was deliberately reminding him of the mystery girl he was supposed to be in love with.
"I think she might be a thing of the past now," he answered, cowering at such an unlikely possibility. Could he forget Hatsumi?
"Oh? Why so sudden?" Asahi asked. She dropped her pen for another sip of her coffee.
Shinogu pulled back his hair, unsure of what to say next, or if he even wanted to say anything.
"I don't know. I guess she's moved on."
"From whatever prevented her from moving on in the first place."
Shinogu drank his own coffee, trying hard to look as normal as possible as the scorching liquid burned his esophagus.
"I mean, she's found someone else. . . ."
Asahi's eyes saddened.
"That's always tough," she said.
"Always," Shinogu agreed. "But new doors open up too."
"I'm liking the positivity here. It's not really you though," Asahi commented. He smiled. Content, she returned back to her work.
When Shinogu propped himself back on the couch, guiding Asahi through the last problem, the clock above the television read 3:18 a.m. The last thing Shinogu remembered before letting himself drift off to sleep was Asahi pulling a blanket over him, and how funny it'd be if she actually turned out to be Seiko instead, and not that little gray area that always defined their lives.
A/N: Shinogu's a guy. Guys think about their feelings, and they even employ rebounds to get over them sometimes. I think I added a slightly dis-likable, but realistic side to an otherwise expected nice-guy Shinogu in this chapter, what do you think? Anyway, back to Asahi's thoughts next chapter!