Chapter 10: New Year

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"Hey, Tomoya, pass me the 12mm wrench will you?" called Yoshino from on top of the electrical pole as he ran through the usual maintenance protocol.

"Looks like we're finishing up early today. Any plans with Kouko tonight for the new year?"
I stepped onto the ladder to hand him the wrench he requested.

"Thanks," he grabbed the tool and glanced at his watch before resuming work. "Yeah, looks like we'll be done within the hour. Kouko actually wanted me to invite you over to celebrate with us."

"Hey now, I'm not sure if I should take offense to that."

"What do you mean?"
Yoshino stopped to look away from the electrical box to see if I was serious.

"You act like I was going to spend my New Year's all alone. I'm not that bad, you know."

"Not that bad anymore, you mean. It's great to see you so lively these days Tomoya."
Yoshino paused for a few moments before continuing.
"When Nagisa passed away, Kouko and I were worried about you. I don't know what happened this past month or so but I'm glad it did. Well, I do sort of have an idea."

"What sort of idea would that be..?"

"The sort of idea that has to do with a woman with violet hair and eyes."

"Ah… so you've seen her already."

"Well, more than once at least. She picks you up every so often from the corner down the block from the office, right?" Yoshino closed the cover of the box and descended down the ladder. "I don't see it as a bad thing though. I'm just relieved you are doing fine now."

"There isn't anything going on between us."

"I never said anything was."
Yoshino laughed as he placed his tools in their appropriate compartments in the utility van.
"You don't have to be so defensive about it."

"I'm not ––"
I ended that sentence before I embarrassed myself any further.
"Do you think it's wrong?"

Yoshino wordlessly continued to organize his toolbox for a few moments before he said anything else.

"Are you looking for an honest opinion?"

He closed the trunk and walked around the van towards the driver's side. I unbuckled my helmet and sat down in the passenger seat while I waited for him to respond. An uneasy feeling settled in me now that I knew he was aware of Kyou's existence. As we drove off, Yoshino finally spoke.

"What is she to you, first of all?"

"A friend."

"That's it?"
Yoshino shot me a look of disbelief.
"I highly doubt that Tomoya."

"Okay, she's more than a friend."

"You won't get a proper answer if you don't answer honestly."

"Alright, alright. Truthfully, I don't know how I feel about her. Well, more like all my feelings for her are convoluted and confusing. Especially with Nagisa gone… I don't know anymore."

"So you're, what, in love with her?"

"I don't know."

"Or maybe it's that you're in love with her and you can't accept that because of Nagisa passing away."

The car coasted to a stop before the railroad tracks as the bars lowered. The air was filled with the deafening sounds of the clicking and humming of the train as it accelerated past us, followed by the gentle fading of the bell. The entire time I felt stunned; I shivered at hearing the truth finally spoken. It was as if he had read my inner thoughts that even I was incapable of understanding.

"But I don't love Kyou the same way..."

"So you're just using her."

"No!"
My eyes widened at the sound of me shouting at Yoshino. I felt my blood circulate through me at an alarming pace and every drop was filled with a passionate rage.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to yell."

"It's good that you did."
Yoshino patted me on the back.
"I know you loved Nagisa dearly, but she's gone... and hating yourself won't bring her back. Anyways, I don't believe it's possible for someone to love two people the same way."

Those same words uttered by Kyou on Christmas Eve rang through my mind louder than the train. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that I put her through this entire mess.

"However," Yoshino continued, "I don't think that just because you love two people differently means you care about any one of them less than the other. You loved Nagisa one way and you love this girl another way. So ask yourself, do you care less about Kyou just because you love her differently?"

Those words hit me like a drug. I instantaneously felt their relief as the effects surged through my body. My mind for the first time in so long felt completely at ease. The heaviness in my chest had disappeared and it felt like each breath I took was fresh and full of oxygen. The tears that flowed from my eyes didn't carry the weight that they normally did. For the first time in my life I was crying tears of joy. Tears of joy because I finally was able to accept Nagisa being gone completely. She no longer had to worry and watch me suffer from heaven as I lived my life in agony and depression.

She could finally rest in peace.

"Thanks Yoshino."
I didn't even bother wiping the tears from my eyes. The cool feeling as they dried on my skin acted like a calming agent more powerful than any nicotine.
"You say completely insane things all the time, but for once I finally understood you."

Yoshino stopped in front of the office instead of going around the back into the parking lot as he usually did at the end of shift. He extended his arm completely in front of me and pointed at the main door to the office.

"Go tell the boss that we finished an hour early for the day. I'll finish running the final checks on the vehicle and paperwork before I go home, you need to shower and get ready."

"Yoshino ––"

"Don't worry about it. Go on."

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I ascended the staircase leading up to my apartment room as I listened to the New Year's celebration and festivities going on in the neighboring rooms. It put a smile on my face to hear how everyone was enjoying themselves so much and how I was going to join them soon enough.

As I unlocked the door to my room, I noticed that there was an envelope sticking out of my mailbox. I opened the lid and, to my surprise, found that there was more mail than that one envelope led me to believe. They were a variety of letters and postcards from old high school friends. I set them on the table inside before I entered the shower so I could open them later.

I turned on the hot water and let it run down my body as I stood there in the midst of the rising steam. The thing I wanted to do most right now was apologize to Nagisa for putting her through all of this. She had to watch me powerlessly as I spent this last year in turmoil. I raised the shower nozzle above me so that the water rinsed away all the sweat and grime built up from the workday. This year's winter wasn't as cold as the last but the warmth of the water was soothing.

As I soaped my body I finally built up the courage to see Nagisa's grave on her anniversary. This was the first time I would be observing the anniversary of her death. Sanae would visit monthly to place flowers and Nagisa's favorite breads on her gravestone, but I never once even bothered to visit. I need to apologize for being such a horrible husband this past year. I felt relieved that I finally was getting this off my chest.

I left the shower and dried off completely. For once when looked at myself in the mirror I didn't see a repulsive person who wasn't deserving of anything; I finally saw just me, Tomoya Okazaki.

I shuffled through the clothes in my closet to find something decent to wear. I opened up a plastic bag of clothes that I had stored away a long time ago that Nagisa and I had purchased when we were able to spare some money to go shopping. I carefully placed aside the clothes that had belonged to her and looked for the gray button-up shirt that she loved so much.

As I raised the shirt in front of me I felt something fall on my lap. It was the portrait of Nagisa and I just newly married, smiling at Akio and Sanae taking the picture. The shot was horribly framed and even partially out of focus, but I loved it. I saw a tear drop hit the photograph. There I was crying again from tears of happiness. I started laughing at myself from how silly I must have looked crying here completely naked sitting on the floor. I tucked away the photo into my dresser and put on the clothes I picked out which included a t-shirt that Kyou had given me for Christmas.

Thud! Thud!

I hung up my towel and made my way to the front door to let Kyou in. She was standing there in an awkward fashion trying to balance the food she cooked under one arm while her other hand was extended forward ready to knock again. Her hair was styled into a pony tail just like that one day with the hair clip I had given her for Christmas.

"Happy New Year."

We both greeted each other at the same time and ended up laughing. I grabbed the food she prepared from under her arm and walked her in. The scent of the food wafted through the air as I placed it on the table in the center of the room. My stomach grumbled in anticipation of eating the delicious food.

"Was that you?"
Kyou stared at me with an eyebrow raised and a crooked smile.

"Yeah… I haven't eaten since this morning. Yoshino and I skipped lunch so we could finish early."

"Dummy," she shook her head, "come on, let's go eat before you pass out from starvation."

One by one Kyou unstacked the containers and arranged them on the table before she removed their lids. She had prepared so many dishes that I was worried how both of us were going to finish all of it. The memory of how I felt when I was forced to eat all the girls' food sent shivers down my spine.

"Oh Kyou, I got some postcards from some old friends. Did you want to read them together like we all did last year?" I pointed over at small pile of envelopes at the corner of the table.

Kyou stopped my hand partway as I reached over for them and gave me a concerned look. She immediately snatched them and put them beside her out of my reach. I just stared at her confusedly trying to figure out why she did that.

"Tomoya," Kyou said my name as if I did something wrong, "you never sent out the letters did you?"

"What letters?"

Kyou swallowed as if what she was about to say was painful.

"Your mochu hagaki, Tomoya."
Kyou stirred around uncomfortably as she said those words.

"Mochu hagaki?"

"The postcards you send to tell everyone that someone in your family has passed away…"
Kyou's voice trembled as she spoke; her last few words faded into a whisper.
"They sent you a postcard because they didn't know."

"Look," she picked up one of the letters, "this one is addressed to both you and Nagisa."

"I can't believe I forgot."
I sat down and rubbed my eyes with my palms.
"All these people have no idea what happened."

"It's best that we just don't open them anymore, Tomoya. We can write a formal apology later explaining what happened. I'm sure everyone will understand."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. I just feel horrible."

"She wouldn't blame you for it. "
Her voice lowered to a whisper again.
"I wouldn't have at least."

I forced myself to shake it off for at least right now.

"Hey, let's eat the food you made before it gets cold. It looks delicious."
I took two bowls and put rice into them from one of the containers.
"Don't let me spoil the holiday spirit."

"How come you're the one who gets to be so strong?"

"What do you mean..?"

"So many things have happened and all I've done is push my problems on to you."

"Oh," I shrugged at her. "I guess it's because you're here for me."

"I've told you that you suck at making jokes before right?"
Kyou's face had a touch of annoyance.

"I'm being honest."
I laughed at her colorful response.
"You know, I realized something today..."

I felt my heart begin to race as those next words formed in my mind.

"I think I'm in love you Kyou."

"I just said you weren't funny..."
Kyou's eyes widened and her face flushed into a deep scarlet.

"I wasn't making a joke. I'm in love with you."

"Tomoya, please stop saying that. You don't really mean it... you're just being nice."
Kyou turned her head away from me so that I couldn't see her face anymore.

"You were right about someone not being able to love two people the same way."

I gently turned Kyou's face towards mine so that we were looking each other in the eyes.

"Maybe this all started because I wanted to forget about the pain and agony I was in. And instead I ended up falling in love with you. I was just scared that I was in love for the wrong reasons because I still had feelings for Nagisa. But then today I realized that love can manifest itself in different ways. And just because it's different doesn't mean that I don't care so much about you."

The tips of our noses were already touching. We were almost exchanging breaths from how close our lips had become. As we gazed into each other's eyes, I watched her pupils dilate every moment we spent being that close. I felt my heart pounding against the inside of my chest like a bass drum.

"So what kind of love is it then?"

"This kind."

I felt the soft sensation of her lips against mine. Her eyes widened as if they needed to take in as much of the world as they could to make sure this was truly happening. She slowly closed her eyes and so did I. Our lips went from a gentle connection to a passionate romance. I felt her fingers run through my hair as she put her arms around me. I brushed the hair from her face behind her ears and pulled her closer to me. Emotion after emotion came fumbling forward like an ecstasy.

"Tomoya, wait ––"
Kyou pulled away from me.
"We should take this slow. We can't rush into things like this."

In the midst of all it I had found myself on top of Kyou laying down against her.

"I didn't mean for us to end up like that."
I pushed myself off of her and sat back.

"I was just scared that you might be making a mistake."
Kyou sat up and adjusted her ponytail.
"I didn't want you to look back and think of this night as something you regret."

"Sorry, you're right. We skipped a few steps didn't we?"

"Maybe just a bit," Kyou gestured with a small space between her thumb and index finger. "I'm happy though... that you feel this way."

"So.." I looked around for something appropriate to change the subject. "Should we backtrack a few steps and have dinner?"

"Yeah, the foods probably cold already," Kyou pointed at the bowls of rice that I had prepared which were no longer steaming.

We both looked over at the food sitting on the table and grinned at each other for going so far off track from our original plans.

"I'll go heat it up."

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Kyou almost choked on her amazake when she heard my question. She placed her cup down on the table almost knocking over some of the dishes as she violently coughed.

"What do you mean visit?" she managed to ask between her fits of coughing.

"You know, light incense for her?"

Kyou caught her breath before she said any more.

"Tomoya, I'm referring to the fact that you're asking me to go with you."
Kyou looked at me like some sort of craziness had come over me.
"Maybe two days ago I would have said yes. No, even two hours ago I would have said yes. You can't ask me something like that after what you just told me!"

"But you're the reason I've been able to come to terms with it all," I rubbed the back of my neck not realizing that I would have opened up Pandora's box with my request.

"I know... but how can I go with you without feeling so ashamed. I feel like I stole you from her. It's like I'm spitting on her grave."

"I don't think Nagisa would have held it against you."

"Tomoya, you're so dense you can barely even tell when a girl has feelings for you. Now you're going to tell me that you know how Nagisa would feel about me visiting with you."

Kyou looked at me like I was on a whole other level of idiocy.

"I only meant that with everything that has happened to me, I don't think Nagisa would hold it against you for helping me so much."

"I had my own ulterior motives Tomoya, even a turtle could have seen that!"

"Please go with me?"
I placed my hands to my sides and bowed deeply.
"I can't do this without you. I've never been to her grave and I'm scared that I'll back out last minute. I need to tell her how sorry I am for what I put her through this entire year."

I closed my eyes shut until she made her final response.

"Nngh," Kyou grumbled at me, "you don't play fair at all. How am I supposed to say no when you do something like this?"

"Thank you."

"I'll only do this on two conditions," she raised two fingers in the air. "I get to move in with you and you accompany me for hatsumode."

"Deal."

Kyou sat back down by the table and poured herself another cup of amazake.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into doing this."
She sighed and took a sip.
"At least the shrine amazake is worth it."

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We walked side by side as we ascended the stone staircase that led to the shrine. Families, friends, and lovers all passed by us in the opposite direction laughing and enjoying the holiday. Some even wore extravagant kimonos since the weather this year was beautiful. Children were chasing after each other with their omikuji in hand trying to trade their fortunes with friends.

The final red gate stood at the top of the staircase right before the shrine grounds. As we approached it we were able to see the crowd gathered around the main temple in a line as they each awaited their turn to offer their prayers. The main road was lined with glowing stone lanterns leading up to the temple'souter fence. People were walking around with their cups of amazake rising with steam against the cold night air.

"I wish I wore mine," complained Kyou as she gazed around at all the women wearing their beautifully-colored kimonos. "It's not even that cold this year."

"There's always next year."
I led Kyou towards the line that was waiting in anticipation for a cup of hot amazake.
"Besides, you look great."

Kyou looked down at her plain black winter coat adorned by a red scarf and grimaced.
"Tomoya, you need to get your eyes checked."

I shook my head at her and laughed. "Come on, we're almost next."

We were greeted by a smiling shrine maiden who was probably around our age. She poured the drink from a steaming pot with a ladle into two cups for us to enjoy.

After taking a sip of their amazake, I understood why Kyou was so adamant about getting some here; there was something so much better about it. With our drinks warming our hands and body, we walked towards the booths where other shrine maidens were collecting donations for omikuji.

"So, about my other condition," asked Kyou as we were standing in line. "Are you okay with it?"

"With you moving in? I don't mind at all as long as you're comfortable with it. My place is a lot smaller than yours."

"That's fine," Kyou smiled at me, "it'll just be cozier this way. I just wanted to make sure you weren't against me moving in so suddenly."

"We practically lived together this past week anyways, I'm always visiting you after work for dinner. This way I may actually get some sleep at night instead of staying over at your place so late."

"You might lose sleep for other reasons now," Kyou whispered into my ear.

I felt my cheeks drastically heat up and turn red while Kyou tried to hold her laughter in.

"I was kidding," she added, continuing to smirk at my current discomfort. "I didn't realize you were so imaginative."

"Hah, if I didn't know any better I would think that you do these things deliberately."

"Tomoya, it hurts that you even considered that possibility."
Kyou placed a hand over her heart with a painful expression which shortly turned into a grin.

"You're right," I bowed down apologetically. "There is no way someone as kindhearted as you would ever want to harm someone intentionally."

"Of course, now the only way you can earn my trust again is if you pay for my omikuji."
Kyou crossed her arms and turned away haughtily.

"Seriously, five-yen? I didn't realize your trust was so cheap, Kyou."

"It's only because you're being so nice today."
Kyou, with her head turned from embarrassment, fidgeted as she said what may have been one of her few compliments directed at me.

I took her by the hand and led her to the counter where the shrine maiden had our fate inside of her box. After my donation of two five-yen coins, the shrine maiden shook the box and retrieved two numbers, placing their corresponding fortunes on the table facing down. Kyou and I both placed a hand down on an omikuji and nodded at each other.

"On the count of three," Kyou lifted three fingers up with her free hand.

We looked into each other's eyes as we counted down together.
"Three... Two... One... Go!"

"Yes!" Kyou threw her hands in the air ecstatically as she jumped up. "Great blessing!"

"Bah, half-blessing."
I looked down at the kanji boldly staring me in the face.
"At least it's not a curse this year."

"You mean you've gotten one before?"
Kyou looked at me with a raised eyebrow as I interrupted her celebration.

"Yeah... What's with that look, as if you're looking at some poor, pathetic being?"

"Nothing." Kyou sighed and reached her hand out towards me. "Let's go tie these to the tree before your bad luck catches up to the both of us."

We waited by the cherry blossom tree until there was room for us to tie our omikuji. All of our fortunes attached to the tree from a distance made it seem like the tree was blooming. The white paper rustled and shifted with the wind like surrogate leaves. It felt like the beauty of the tree was preserved by our weird habit of trying to manipulate our future.

I stood on the tips of my toes to reach for a branch for us to attach our fortunes to. Kyou carefully tied hers to one of two delicate twigs that bifurcated near the end of the branch. While continuing to hold on, I passed her mine to attach to the one next to hers. We tried to keep our eyes on them as I released the branch but they faded seamlessly into the silhouette of white fortunes.

"It's kind of scary isn't it?"
Kyou continued to stare at the cherry blossom tree.
"How easily things fade away right before our eyes into almost nothing."

"Yeah, it is."

"Promise you won't leave me?"
Kyou embraced me and buried her face into the chest of my jacket.

We stood there for a while as the rest of the world continued forward. I wanted to preserve this moment for as long as I could. My trials and tribulations were soon coming to an end. As long as Kyou is there by my side, I will finally be able to do what I should have done long ago.

"Only if you promise me the same."

"I promise."

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Footnotes:

Mochu hagaki - a letter used to politely inform its recipient of a recent death in the sender's family. The tradition of not mailing the sender's family a New Year's postcard or letter was formed to not disrespect the recently deceased.

Amazake - a sweet rice wine that is traditionally made during the New Year holiday season.

Hatsumode - the first shrine visit of the year.

Omikuji - a fortune traditionally received during hatsumode. The fortunes range from Great Blessing (dai-kichi) to Great Curse (dai-kyou). This is the paper that is tied to walls or trees that is commonly seen in Japanese television shows.