Thank you all so much for the lovely reviews and comments, and I hope to keep this momentum going. I was just so touched last chapter.

Paradigm Shift
Chapter 26: Baggage

It finally felt like he was making some progress, even if he had taken a few sneaky shortcuts.

He was not one to undermine his own achievements, but while he had no problem speaking at great lengths about his career accomplishments aloud, he found the act of formulating them on paper for the sake of job hunting tedious. Sora had told him not to make it obvious to anyone in his company that he was applying for other jobs, but he eventually caved and had his assistant update his CV for him. She had done it without questioning him, but he figured even if she were to tell anyone, he could use the guise that it was in preparation for an internal promotion instead.

With that out of the way, he had finally decided on the places where he'd actually apply: the United Nations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the OECD. He checked their open positions daily, reviewing the job requirements and starting salary to see if they roughly aligned with where he stood.

At first, he had thought Sora would scold him for being so picky and limiting himself to just three organisations, but instead she praised him for knowing exactly what it was that he wanted. Her positive feedback gave him a greater drive to succeed.

"Your CV is more impressive than I would have imagined," Sora said to him, holding a hard copy of it in her hands.

She was seated on the floor, various papers she had requested scattered across his coffee table. He was half lying on his couch, resting his laptop between his stomach and knees. Sora thought he looked uncomfortable, but actually he had chosen this position because he was too lazy to sit.

He looked up from his laptop. "Are you saying you think I'm stupid?"

She hit his knee with the paper. "No. It's just that you told me you went to uni on a football scholarship and got promoted at work by sleeping with your boss, but your CV indicates you're actually a top performer."

"Are you saying I have no integrity?"

She ignored him, not wanting to humour him for twisting her words. "I also didn't realise your salary was so high."

"Do you like me better now?"

"Maybe a little," she joked.

"I told you I'd have to take a salary cut," he bemoaned to her. Sora had kept telling him to negotiate, which of course he would, but looking at some of these offers, he knew what was within the realm of possibility.

"A public job would give you security though," she reminded him.

"Not financial security," he grumbled back.

"You don't have to live in such a nice flat, you know. And most people get through life fine without having a personal assistant and a tailor and all this other nonsense you have."

"I like having all of those things," he protested, then immediately judged himself.

He felt his phone buzz, and he checked to see that his colleague had messaged him to check his email urgently.

"You'd also get to work nine-to-five without having to work overtime," she reminded him, seeing that his expression had changed and knowing that meant he had gotten called to work.

He changed his computer window from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website to his work Outlook. He didn't actually find the work email all that urgent, but after he replied, he looked over to see Sora had moved onto his bank and credit card statements. He saw a yellow highlighter in her hand and markings on the papers.

"What are you doing?" he asked her.

"Tai." Sora's tone had changed to be more serious as she picked up his statements and stretched them out towards him. "Why do you pay someone to clean your flat?"

He grimaced. "Because Matt and I are bad at cleaning. My quality of life went up ever since she came into my life. You can't make me get rid of her."

She frowned at him. "And you pay for season tickets for FC Tokyo, but I've never once seen you go to a match. Why are you paying for them if you always just watch the games on TV?"

"I want to see them in person, but I'm busy. I've had season tickets for years, and it's hard to get back on the list once you're off. Besides, I need them in case they ever make it to the finals, because then I'll take time off to go. I have really good seats."

"And why do you have a wine subscription? You don't even like wine."

"Huh? I don't have a wine subscription. Why would I have something like that?" Confused, he leaned over to see the highlight Sora was pointing to. "Oh, right. I remember now. That was for Kari. I bought her an annual subscription a few years back. I must have forgotten to cancel it. I'll have to do that."

"She doesn't even drink anymore!"

"I said I'll cancel it!"

"You also pay for two gyms. Why? I thought you went to the gym downstairs. Isn't that why you're so insistent about living here?"

He snatched the papers from her hands. "I just lost track of some things, that's all. Stop yelling at me."

"I'm not yelling at you." She sighed, took the papers back, and opened her own laptop that she had brought from home. "You keep filling out your applications. I'll get to work on getting you taken off some of these subscription lists. Honestly, Tai…"

"Don't cancel my housecleaning service," he told her.

She ignored him. He had given her a sticky note with his usual log-in credentials, and as he watched her transcribe that information to her own laptop, he belatedly wondered if he had anything incriminating online. He tended to use the same password for everything and grew slightly nervous that she'd find something that he could no longer remember.

"You have over 10,000 unread emails!" she cried, having logged onto his personal email account. "You're so disorganised!"

"I read all the subject lines and open the important ones," he explained.

"Is that how you didn't miss the notification that you've been renewing Kari's wine subscription for who knows how long?" she asked sarcastically.

"You're so much better than me, Sor."

She glared. "You know that wasn't what I was saying."

He smirked and watched as she turned her full attention to her laptop. Seeing her so concentrated made him want to focus too, but he found himself getting distracted. He took breaks every time he felt like he had made any progress, no matter how minuscule, so he found himself constantly changing between applying, working, reading the news, and peeking at Sora's screen to check what she was doing. Every time he looked at her, she was absorbed in helping him.

He had thought updating his CV would be the most lacklustre part of finding a new job, but he found that writing objectives during the application process was even less enticing. The roles he was applying for had virtually nothing to do with what he did now, so it felt like he was just inventing parallels that didn't exist.

Essentially, he was bullshitting his way through them. It reminded him of studying during school, and he had never been the most enthusiastic student.

"Say, Sora…"

She looked over at him. He saw from her screen that she was looking up the phone numbers to the gyms he was signed up for. He knew exactly which gyms they were too. The first was by his old flat, which he had genuinely just forgotten about. The second one he had joined because it was close to the office, but he had stopped going shortly after signing up because he couldn't be bothered to deal with the post-workout effort of making himself look presentable again. He kept paying for it in case he ever felt like stopping by during a lunch break or something, but that had yet to happen in the years that he'd been at his company.

"Come here," he beckoned. He placed his laptop on the coffee table beside hers, then pulled her arm to get her on the couch with him.

"What are you doing?" she asked him, confused.

"Let's take a break."

"Already? We've barely just started!" she exclaimed.

He kissed her quiet, and she only fussed a little bit before kissing him back. Happy, he pulled himself up slightly, sliding his arms behind her to pull her closer to him. She didn't seem to mind, relaxing her body weight on him and even giggling when he bit her tongue as it entered his mouth.

Sora never let him anywhere near down south, but sometimes if was lucky, she would let him touch her elsewhere. He had to catch her in the right mood though, and no sooner had he pulled up her shirt that she grabbed his wrists to pull it back down.

"Come on," he begged, trailing kisses down her neck and shoulder. "Please?"

"Tai, you need to focus," she reminded him gently.

"I want to, but I'm stressed thinking about all of this job application stuff. How about we have a little bit of fun, and then I'll loosen up and be able to focus more? Then we can both be happy." He grinned at her and tried again, slipping a hand under her shirt before she slapped it away. Sora play hit him often, but this one actually hurt. Surprised by the force, he held his wrist, trying to shake the pain away.

"Ow! Sora, what the hell?"

Sora crawled off him, and he looked up to see that she was glaring at him, this one fiercer and more serious than usual.

"I'm not your stupid plaything, Tai. I'm not going to hook up with you just because you're stressed. How dare you?"

He couldn't react right away, unsure what had just happened. By the time it registered that she was angry, she had already sat back on the floor and was fixated on her laptop, leaving him a view of the back of her head.

He winced. "Sora, I'm sorry. I wasn't—that wasn't—" He fumbled over what to say, perplexed by the situation. "That wasn't what I meant."

"That's what it sounded like you meant," she said, not turning from her computer screen.

"Well, it wasn't."

She didn't say anything, scrolling through the website she was on.

"Sora, I'm sorry."

She took out her phone, inputting numbers she had found on the website.

He sighed loudly, now annoyed too that she was giving him the silent treatment. "Okay, fine. I'm sorry for being so offensive, but I really hadn't meant it that way."

She held the phone to her ear, and after a few seconds spoke into the receiver. "Hello, is this Asagaya Gym?… Great, how are you this afternoon?… I'm very well, thank you… I'm calling to enquire about cancelling a gym membership…"

He frowned, her voice having suddenly turned so friendly when speaking to the stranger. He took his laptop back from the coffee table, but he found himself just staring at the screen without actually getting anything done.

"They've both been cancelled," she announced to him later after she hung up the second call. She looked over at him, and she didn't seem angry anymore. He noticed that sometimes when she felt bad about something, she would just suddenly act nicer without actually talking about it. He was usually okay with this, as he too got over unpleasant feelings quite quickly, but this one he wanted to talk about.

"Thank you," he said in response, reaching over to rub her shoulder gratefully. He then added, "Can I ask you something without you getting angry?"

She turned to her laptop again. "Later. I have to call to cancel your wine service too. They won't let me do it online."

He lowered himself to the floor to sit next to her and closed her laptop.

"Tai!"

He kept his hand on her closed laptop as she tried to pry it open again.

"What are you waiting for?"

"Waiting for what?" she asked him impatiently.

"Why won't you sleep with me?"

She let go of the laptop and frowned. "I shouldn't need to give you a reason for that."

He tried to speak as gently as possible, consciously reminding himself not to get defensive to avoid a fight. "Can you give me one anyway?"

"Why is it so important to you?"

"Because," he started, sounding rough, so he softened his voice. "In my mind, a relationship is both emotional and physical. I get that in the beginning, you didn't trust me, but now you do, right?"

"…Right…"

"And I know I was a bad boyfriend at first, but you know I've been trying really hard to be better, right?"

"…Right…"

"And you told me that you didn't like that I never communicated with you, so I've tried to be more open with you too, right?"

"Tai, I get it."

"So what I'm saying is…" He wanted to summarise it eloquently, but he ended up just saying it the same way he was thinking. "I know you just think I'm just being horny, but that's not it."

"Tai, for goodness sake…"

"What I mean," he tried again, "is that I feel comfortable with you. That's why I don't mind letting you see my financial statements or giving you my password even though I lowkey think you're going to snoop around or telling you about how changing my career is stressful to me."

He paused to give her a chance to speak.

"I'm not going to snoop around," was all she said.

He winced. "Sora, I get that you don't want to talk about it, but I do, so can you please try?"

She didn't say anything, so he took that as a yes.

"If you want me to wait, I can wait, but can you at least tell me why? It isn't like I'm trying to get you to do something crazy, right? This is a natural part of being in a relationship, isn't it? I tried to understand it in the beginning—I really did. But I don't get why I have to still feel that way, and the same way I can feel comfortable telling you all of those other things, I want to not be scared that you'll get mad at me every time I try to cop a feel. I want to touch you because you're my girlfriend. Is that so wrong? We've been together for eight months, so you must know that I'm not just going to ghost you after you sleep with me."

"Tai… I know…"

He felt himself get worked up. "And I wasn't trying to say that you need to put out because I'm stressed either. I know it came across to you like that, but that wasn't what I meant at all."

"I know you didn't," she said slowly. "I know I overreacted. I'm sorry."

"You don't have to apologise. Just tell me why. If all of this has some deeper meaning, then can you just tell me about it so that I know?"

He imagined he either sounded really genuine or looked really pitiful, because she softened.

"Tai, of course I want it too—"

"Do you?" he interrupted sarcastically.

She continued as if she hadn't heard him. "—but I just want you to be patient. You can do that for me a bit longer, right?"

She reached out to hold his hands and squeezed.

He sighed, the answer not being good enough for him. "Right."

She reached over to kiss him, but he didn't kiss her back.

"Can you give me some sort of timeline?" he asked her.

She kissed him quiet again.

"Are you a virgin?"

"Tai," she said with a laugh. "I thought you said you got it."

"I do. It's a separate, unrelated question."

"No."

"No what?"

"No, I'm not a virgin."

He couldn't understand her. "Then what is it?"

She repositioned herself so that she was straddling him and kissed him. He kissed her back but couldn't get that into it when he knew it wouldn't lead anywhere past this current state. He put his hands on her waist and kept them there, and in fact he sometimes pulled her up off his lap so that his body wouldn't get its hopes up when his brain already knew that she wouldn't do anything more.

After a few minutes, she pulled back to tell him to get back to work, and they went back to their starting positions, he on the couch, using his stomach as his desk, and she remaining on the floor, using his coffee table.

By the time they were done, he had submitted one application, and she had cancelled all of the subscriptions that he no longer needed, including the most pestering email mailing lists in his inbox. He was in fact thankful for her help because he knew he'd otherwise put it off forever, but he was a little too sad from his failed conversation to show his appreciation.

She noticed it too.

She hopped on the couch, moving his legs to make space for her.

"Tai," she said to him excitedly. She took him by the arms and pulled him up from his horizontal position. "I forgot to tell you this earlier, but Mimi and I are going to start watching a trashy new reality TV show coming out soon."

"Oh…"

"I haven't seen the first season, but she has, so I thought you and I can binge watch it together."

"Sure…"

She took his arm and placed it over her shoulders and pulled him close to her as she turned on her phone. "Let's order delivery food too. It'll be my treat for all your hard work today." She showed him a delivery app and began scrolling through the choices. She looked up to make sure he was looking at her screen, which he was. "Tai, what do you want to eat?"

"Whatever you want…"

He knew he was being overly pouty, and that it was making her feel bad, but she concealed it as she ordered too many things for them to eat, picking his favourite items from each restaurant.

He wanted to remain pouty, but he knew he tended to stay upset only for a very short time. He supposed she knew it too. As she started a third order, he finally laughed.

"You're always telling me not to waste food," he teased her. "Look at you now."

She returned his grin with one of her own, reaching up to kiss him. "Well, it's not a waste if you eat it all, and I know you can. We're preparing for an entire day of watching trashy TV, so we need to eat a lot."

"What is it about anyway? If Mimi likes it, I bet I'll hate it."

She explained the premise to him. It was about various singletons living in a villa for the summer in an attempt to find love, coupling up and competing to be the winning couple. He thought it sounded dumb, but he let her turn it on. They took turns answering the door as their delivery orders arrived, and they moved their laptops and papers to the armchair to make space for the various containers of delivery food.

Hours in, full from eating and eyes dry from the constant staring, they were back to lying on the couch, a blanket covering the two of them as they continued their marathon. He was surprised by how invested he had become after a few hours.

"I should try out for this show."

"It's for single people, Tai!"

"I know, but maybe I could go on it if we ever break up," he joked while she elbowed him hard on the ribs. "No, don't. I'm so full. I'll throw up all over you."

"You're disgusting."

"I'd be fun on reality TV though, don't you think? I really think I could win this."

"I certainly wouldn't vote for you," she mumbled. "I'd reach out to all of the tabloids and tell them all of your deep, dark secrets, and I'd make the entire nation hate you."

"Aw, that's so sweet."

She laughed when he buried his face against hers and kissed her chaotically on the cheek. She screamed and called him gross.

They heard the sound of the front door unlocking, and Sora immediately rolled off the couch as if they'd been caught naked, when in reality they were just watching TV.

"Hi Tai, hi Sora," came Matt's voice.

"Hello," followed Megumi immediately afterwards.

"Welcome home," Sora greeted as they entered the room. "Have you two eaten? We ordered too much food, if you'd like to have some."

"We just had dinner," Megumi answered, and they smiled to each other friendlily and awkwardly.

"What are you watching?" Matt asked, looking at the screen and then Tai judgmentally.

"Love Island," he answered. He watched as Matt stumbled a bit for no reason. "Are you drunk?"

"No," said Matt.

"Yes," corrected Megumi, holding Matt around the waist. "I told him to stop drinking, but he wouldn't!"

"You have an actual problem," Tai said to him.

"I'm not drunk," Matt mumbled, but he obviously was, because he suddenly threw his entire body on Megumi as he tried to snog her, his hand squeezing her butt.

Tai grew jealous, knowing he would never be allowed to do the same to Sora.

"Go to your room," Tai ordered.

"Yeah, Meg, let's go to my room," Matt agreed with a laugh, and Megumi looked apologetically at Tai and Sora both before she led him away. Tai could hear them giggling as they went down the hallway before the closed door muffled them entirely.

Tai turned to Sora, who looked glad that they had gone.

"You hate them so much," he teased her.

"That's not true," Sora refuted, never having admitted that she disliked them. "They just both keep to themselves a lot, so I haven't really had a real chance to get to know them. I'm sure Megumi is a lovely girl, and I know Matt is your best friend."

"Maybe if you try really hard, you can become best friends with Megumi, and the four of us can hang out together all the time," he suggested, still teasing.

"Mimi's already my best friend," Sora stated pointedly.

"You can have two best friends."

Sora frowned at him. He was still grinning.

"Just say you hate her. I just want that satisfaction, and I'm never going to stop making fun of you until you admit it."

"You're so immature, Tai."

"And you're so dishonest. You know, when I didn't like Megumi, I told her that to her face."

She pushed him away when he tried to provoke her by poking her repeatedly.

"Okay, fine. If you want me to be honest, I'm only trying to be cordial because I know they're both your friends, but my attempt can't go any further than that when they're the reason my actual best friend is so sad."

Rather than gloat in his achievement, he was surprised.

"Mimi's still sad?"

"She says no, but honestly who wouldn't be? I think she's angrier than anything. She's threatened to pull out all of Megumi's hair."

"There's a fight I'd love to see," Tai said in amusement.

"My bet's on Mimi."

Tai tried to imagine it. Mimi was smaller than Megumi in size, but he could imagine her being vicious when upset. Megumi was the type to knock people down with her words, but in terms of physical strength, she continued to shock him with her lack thereof.

"My money's on Mimi too," he agreed. "I bet Megumi would win in a verbal fight though. I've seen her have a go at Matt before, and she gets really mean and condescending."

"She sounds like a bitch," Sora muttered under her breath.

"Sora Takenouchi, was that swearing I just heard?" he asked, laughing loudly. "Can you say it again so I can record it?"

"I didn't say anything."

"You definitely called her a bitch."

"I didn't. Stop swearing, Tai."

She got back on the couch, resituated her body against his, and turned their show back on. He didn't say anything when Jon and Hannah had sex, and she didn't either.


He was lying on his bed, feeling a buzz from the wine they had shared with dinner. They had only split a bottle, but it had been a while since he had alcohol, so he could easily feel the aftereffects. He stared out of the window, wanting a cigarette even though he wouldn't dare attempt to smoke one. Megumi had been so furious when she found out that he started again, and she had made him quit cold turkey.

It had been easier this time around because she was the only reason why he had started in the first place. Still, sometimes, he craved it, and in his buzzed state of mind, that desire was amplified.

"Yamato."

He looked over at her, who was seated at his desk on his laptop. "Yeah?"

She got into his bed with him, bringing the laptop with her. He put his arm under her so that she was resting against his shoulder, and she placed the laptop between them. He tried to focus on the screen, but his vision was blurred.

"I found a deal to go to Hakone," she told him excitedly, scrolling through the page to show him. "One night, two days at a ryokan with a private onsen. They're doing 15% off if we go during the week. Do you think you can take off work? If you take off Thursday and Friday or Monday and Tuesday, we can go for four days. Wouldn't that be fun?"

His eyes focused on the photos, and they registered a familiar hotel.

"Hakone again? We've already gone there," he reminded her. "I don't want to take time off work for a place we've already been to."

She looked puzzled. "We haven't been here."

"Yes, we have. Remember?"

Seeing her confused made him confused too. Why couldn't she remember? It hadn't been that long ago, and it had been an amazing night for the both of them. He recounted the events of the night to her, soaking in the onsen, never really leaving the room, her naked body over his, the countless times they had ravished each other. Suddenly wanting to relive it, he turned over to grab her, but she pushed him away.

"I've never been to Hakone," she told him stonily.

He laughed and leaned down to kiss her, laughed more when she wouldn't let him. "Meg, we have. We took that detour to that love shrine too." He stretched his arm to his bedside table and showed her the blue charm dangling from his keys. "Remember this? We got these charms together."

"Yamato." She pushed against his chest, distancing herself from him. She looked at him square in the eye. "I've never been to Hakone."

"You have," he argued. "We went together. It was in April, right before your birthday. Yeah, it was the day before your birthday."

"I was in London for my birthday," she reminded him.

He froze, realising where his memory had failed him.

She picked up the laptop again and placed it in front of her. "Let's go somewhere other than Hakone then. I want to take a trip with you. It's been so long."

His feel-good buzz left him, and he sat up.

"Meg…" He felt his face turning hot, and he knew he was red. "I'm sorry. I'm so drunk."

She laughed as she reached to hold his head in her hands. "Yes, you are. Why did you drink so much, Yamato?"

"I'm so sorry."

"Don't be sorry."

"I am. I'm so, so sorry." He felt his hands tremble as he yanked the charm off his keys, furious at himself for not noticing them there earlier. He threw it at the direction of his wastebin but missed, and it tumbled onto the floor.

"It's a pretty charm, Yamato," she told him. "You should have just kept it on."

"I don't like shrines."

"I know you don't."

"I didn't even really want to go."

She smirked at him. "Good thing you did. It sounds like you had a great time."

His ears were ringing. She looked so calm, and he knew he was being overly frantic in comparison.

"Don't be so embarrassed," she told him, kissing his lips. "I'm glad you had good memories while I was gone too."

She pulled away and turned back to the laptop. He stared at the side of her face as she searched for another location, her typing the only sound in his room.

"What did you do for your birthday this year?" he asked her finally.

"I just stayed at home by myself," she answered, her attention still on the screen. The harsh blue light of the screen discoloured her complexion.

He couldn't find it in himself to say anything else. The guilt that he had spent her birthday with another woman while she had been alone killed him. He wondered if she had spent it thinking of him, wondering whether he had been thinking of her too, only for him to confirm months later that he hadn't.

"How about Oita?" she asked him after a while, turning the laptop around to show him a different website. "They have a similar package. It's a bit far, but their onsen are supposed to be even better."

He nodded to her. "Let's go. Whenever you want. I'll ask for time off tomorrow."

She looked excited and got up, clutching his laptop to her chest. He grabbed her arm and yanked her back on the bed with him.

"Yamato, you almost made me drop your computer!"

He removed the laptop from her grasp and tossed it on the floor. It landed with a loud bang, but he didn't really care in his current state. He crushed his lips against hers, kissing her wildly and pretending not to hear her when she said she wasn't in the mood. He told her how much he loved her.

She told him she loved him too, but it only made him feel worse.

He was going to forget it. He had already started. When he thought about that Hakone trip, he couldn't remember what they had done that morning, whether their fortunes predicted good or bad luck for the year, or what they had eaten for dinner that night. He could remember she was bad with directions, that she had made up constellations that weren't real, and that he had told her a secret because she accused him of still being in love with Megumi.

He could also remember her telling him that he said Megumi's names in his dreams at times. He relayed this to Megumi, but she didn't have any particular reaction to it. If anything, she was shoving his mouth against her body to get him to stop talking.

They were so loud that it was almost guaranteed that Tai could hear them, but he didn't care. He wanted her to know just how much he wanted her and only her. He performed sloppily due to his inebriation, but she was nice about it and pretended to enjoy it more than she actually did. He tried to coerce her into another round, but she was too tired, and he couldn't get it back up anyway when she offered him an alternative.

She fell asleep before him, and he told himself he was never going to drink again.


"Fuck you," Tai said to him the next morning when he walked into the kitchen. Megumi had spent the night, but as it was a weekday, he had work and had just walked her to the subway station. He had woken up regretting everything, but luckily they had both been so sleepy that they hadn't really spoken much.

Matt ignored his flatmate, opening the cupboard to take out his coffee beans. Judging by Tai's clean bowl, he had just finished his breakfast.

"I said fuck you," Tai repeated louder when he didn't answer. "Other people live here, asshole. Can't you be more considerate?"

Matt bit his tongue and did not point out just how "considerate" Tai had been himself prior to dating Sora.

"Do you want coffee?"

"How many times do I have to tell you that I don't like coffee?"

He put his coffee maker on the stove, then opened the plastic bag from the convenience store. He had stopped by on the way back from the subway station.

"The girl at the convenience store asked me about you," Matt told him.

"Who? Rie?" Tai asked.

"I don't know her name." He had no idea how Tai and TK were always able to retain the names of random strangers in their lives. "I told her you're fine."

"She's in love with me," Tai bragged, as if it were something to brag about.

Matt knew there was a chance that Tai would yell at him, but he took the new packet of cigarettes and lighter he had bought out of the bag. Tai frowned but only passed the ashtray that hadn't been used in weeks over to him. Matt guessed that he was not in the mood to yell at him.

"Did you and Meg have a fight?" Tai teased. "Was it angry sex?"

He stuck one of the cigarettes in his mouth and lit it.

"Open the fucking window," Tai growled, so he did. "What did you guys fight about?"

"We didn't fight."

"Then why are you smoking?"

He found Tai too nosy.

He took a long drag of the cigarette and instantly felt better. He had said he'd just take one hit, but he couldn't help himself to another drag before putting it out. He wouldn't smoke the entire thing. He just needed a small dose.

"Why are you smoking?" Tai repeated, annoying him.

"Because I'm addicted, Tai," Matt answered irritably. He stuck what remained back in the packet, then hid both it and the lighter in the pantry behind Tai's protein shake powders because Megumi was less likely to go in there than anywhere in his room. He ignored Tai's jeers.

His coffee done, he poured himself a cup and drank it. The combination of a post-hungover cigarette and espresso, which he knew couldn't be good for him, eased him.

"How are things with Sora?" Matt asked him.

"She hates you," Tai answered immediately. "She thinks you're a rat bastard."

Matt knew Tai was trying to get a reaction out of him. He hadn't actually been curious anyway. This was only his further attempt to be inclusive as Tai had requested.

"Things seem to be going well," he said instead, trying again.

"I guess."

"Are you two still fighting all the time?"

"Not really."

Matt raised an eyebrow. Tai sounded too deflated.

"Are you getting bored of her?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah."

"Then what is it?" Matt asked grouchily.

Tai frowned into his empty bowl of oatmeal. "She won't sleep with me."

Matt didn't react immediately.

"That's amazing," he finally said, chuckling.

Tai glared at him. "It's not funny."

"I mean, I kind of knew because Mimi had mentioned it—"

"I hate her," Tai muttered under his breath.

"—but I figured that was over. What'd you do to fuck up?"

"I didn't do anything. She just won't."

He wasn't jeering as much as he wanted to, but actually this was hilarious to him. It was hilarious because it was Tai of all people. He had become friends with Tai in university, but he had known about him since high school. His reputation preceded him, so much so that Matt had originally no intention of becoming his friend because he had seemed like such a douche based on what he had heard. Having become his friend, he still thought Tai was a douche, albeit now one he didn't mind having around.

He did have to admit that it was fascinating to him that Tai had been able to wait so long. This was the same person who had used his friend's sister as a backup hook-up whenever he used to strike out elsewhere, even though he had never even been attracted to her.

"Have you cheated on her?" he asked him, half-serious.

Tai looked offended.

"No, what's wrong with you? Stop thinking so little of me. I can wait."

"I bet you can't."

"I can. I've already waited eight months."

"That's pretty impressive for you. Did she tell you why?"

"No."

"Do you think she will eventually?"

"I mean, she has to eventually, right?"

Matt tried to stifle his laugh, feeling a bit bad for him, but he couldn't conceal it fully.

"Then it sounds like your time is up."

Tai frowned. This gave Matt a bit of satisfaction, because it was usually Tai who looked so smug and he who was annoyed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean you're not going to last much longer."

"I'm not an animal."

Matt smirked. "You know, I bet the girl at the convenience store will probably sleep with you, or has she already seen the inside of our flat before?"

"You're such a shitty fucking friend. I can't tell you anything."

Properly annoyed, Tai stood up to clear his bowl and left for work. Matt didn't understand why he was being so testy, since he was only telling him the truth.

With Tai out of the way, Matt also got ready for work and left. He spent the commute listening to music and zoning out, but as he made his way into the building from the carpark, he thought to give Megumi a quick call to see if she was awake. She wasn't working at the moment though, so it was likely that she had fallen back asleep.

Thinking back to the night before, Matt felt ashamed and didn't know how to apologise. He almost wondered if it would be better to just never mention it again, as he and Megumi were both good at turning blind eyes, but the last thing he wanted was for her to think that he still thought of someone else.

He spent the first twenty minutes of work in the break room, scrolling past the pink lilies to choose a bouquet of peach roses and calla lilies, her favourites. He included a card to tell her he loved her, and a few hours later she texted him a picture of the bouquet. She loved them, and he also told her that his manager had approved his days off. By the time he got off work, she had booked them a four-day weekend at Oita.

Two and a half weeks later, they were there. They ended up staying at a temple instead of a ryokan, where they struggled to wake up early, drew great fortunes, and ate shojin ryori for dinner all three nights. She was better with directions than he has, they stared blankly into the sky without attempting to identify any constellations, and he told her the same secret that he wouldn't be against having children. Surprised, she asked whether that changed his views on marriage as well and was disappointed to find that it did not, but her astonishment over his stance on children outweighed that. She asked what was his sudden change of mind when having children, and he told her it was Kouki. She suggested they come with TK, Kari, and Kouki next time, and he agreed even though he thought his brother would be against the idea.

By the time they had gotten back to Tokyo, he felt like a new person.

He drove Megumi home, and on the way, she opened his glove compartment and found her astronomical clock that he hadn't actually thrown away. He had forgotten he had put it there, vaguely remembering that he had done it because he knew how much it meant to her. She was ecstatic, and he too couldn't stop smiling seeing her glow.

After dropping her off, he visited TK for the first time in a month and told him about the trip. He gave him souvenirs from the temple that Megumi had bought for them, not including that Megumi had requested Matt take them to TK's family without her presence to avoid any awkward encounters.

Carefully, Matt suggested that next time they could go together with Kari and Kouki too, and to his delight, TK said that sounded like fun. Not only that, but he messaged Megumi himself to thank her for the gifts they had brought from Oita. He knew about this message because Megumi would excitedly send him a screenshot of TK's message later.

Matt felt a return to normalcy. He no longer had to tiptoe around Megumi or Tai or TK. The drive he had lost at work returned. He finally regained all the weight he had lost, not realising until he did just how thin he had gotten. He forgot about the cigarettes in his pantry, never feeling the need for another one.

Finally, after so much time, everything he had loved about his life had returned, and he was happy.


01 September 2020

Notes:
- I'm sorry I made Tai and Sora watch Love Island. It's a British reality TV show, but they have American and Australian spin-offs.
- "Shojin ryori" is a type of Japanese Buddhist cuisine.
- I'm glad Megumi is growing on some people. I never intended for her to be an evil character and want her to be as multifaceted as anyone else. It's just that I thought of Paradigm Shift when I didn't mind OCs, even though I now don't like them and regret not choosing someone who already existed in the series. (Similarly, I wrote A Losing Game when I didn't mind Taiorato, but now I do…)