Chapter 1: Prologue
…please let us reunite.
Opening his eyes, Ichimatsu stared at the white ceiling, feeling tears freely rolling down the sides of his head. There was faint voice calling his name but the buzzing sound in his ears made it impossible to make out anything more than his own name. He blinked twice to push out the remaining tears before turning to a side and met with two worried faces.
"Mom, dad?" he whispered, frowning at how hoarse he sounded that he almost did not recognize his own voice.
"Thank God, you're awake, Ichimatsu." holding his hand tightly, his mother brought it to her cheek like making sure that was she was not dreaming. Behind her, his father folded his hands and kept them at his chest, silently praying. Ichimatsu could see some water glittering at the corner of his eyes.
Taking a quick look at his surrounding, Ichimatsu could easily tell he was in a hospital room; he could never miss the distinct smell of disinfectant. However, how he had ended up here was beyond his guess.
"Doctor said you collapsed due to overworking and malnutrition." as if she was reading his mind, his mother said, her lips quivering. "How could you be so careless, son?" still holding on to his hand, she reached up to touch his cheek, caressing ever so gently.
Ichimatsu closed his eyes, trying to recall the most recent event but immediately gasped. A shudder ran through his body, startling both his mom and dad… Or were they?
Staring at the middle-aged couple intently, Ichimatsu shook his head. Yes, of course they were his parents, but something was not right. His mother should have smaller figure with her hair always tied in a low bun. His father should be fatter and have a bigger tummy… Right? No, it was not like that. Ever since he was a little boy, his mom always had her hair cut short, and his father was slim. Out of a few things Ichimatsu had confidence in was his memory so it could not be wrong.
But then why he suddenly thought that his parents should be different?
"Ichimatsu?" his mom questioned hesitantly, seemed puzzled by his strange reaction.
"I-I'm sorry…" Ichimatsu quickly said, deciding that he would deal with his jumbled memory later. Maybe he had hit his head somewhere when he collapsed.
"Don't worry, dear." smiling tenderly, his mother patted his cheek "Your favorite dishes will be waiting for you at home when you get discharged."
Ichimatsu was discharged two days later, scolded by the doctor for neglecting his health. Then his parents drove him home, entirely denying his plead to go back to his apartment to fetch his incomplete work.
"You're not touching a pen until you recover completely." his dad said, voice stern, mild expression but Ichimatsu knew that decision was final, no more discussion. "I already contacted your editor." father quickly added, giving him a knowing look when Ichimatsu were searching his belongings for a phone.
"Your dad is right, just focus on resting now, dear." mom took hold of his hand, squeezing lightly.
Having no choice but giving in, Ichimatsu shrugged before whispering his apology again for making them worry.
His parents both worked in education with his mom being a high school teacher while his dad was a professor at a renowned university. With that kind of background, one would think Ichimatsu at least would become a teacher, yet here he was: a manga artist with a series running in Akatsuka monthly magazine.
His contract was signed two years ago, when his submission for a contest caught eyes of an experienced editor: Shouei. Since then, Shouei had been helping him on almost every aspect so he could become a professional manga artist of today. Ichimatsu was thankful, so he always did his best on every chapter to live up to his devoted editor and his readers' expectation, which, unfortunately, led to his collapse.
If his parents were not against the idea of Ichimatsu working in entertainment industry before, they could be now. He wished he had not been skipping meals just because he was frustrated with the idea block. But damages had been done anyway, he should try to come up with an acceptable explanation so his parents would not be too mad.
When they arrived, Ichimatsu followed mom's lead to the dining room while his dad was parking their car in the garage. As promise, all dishes on the table were his favorite, and mom even overdid it by decorating them with cat pattern.
"Thanks mom." he whispered embarrassingly, unable to hide his touched expression. He only moved out one year ago, but it really felt like an eternity since the last time he had someone cooking for him. Most his meals were either instant noodles or readymade food from the supermarket. Ichimatsu was not a picky eater so he was fine as long as he was not starving, but he could not deny how he miss a warm meal prepared by mom.
They were enjoying the food and chatting cheerfully until Ichimatsu near choked on the dessert with his father's question: "So why have you been skipping meals? Are you stressed about something?"
"I-I wasn't intended to-" he struggled lamely under his parents' gazes, "I mean…" felling like he was shrinking smaller with every second passed "… I just forgot to eat, somehow.". Ichimatsu was never proud of his quick wit, but this line of reasoning was seriously stupid, he could have done better than that.
"Did you get an idea block?" his mom suggested casually, surprising Ichimatsu. Was he that easy to read? "I can't be your mom all these years without understanding you at least this much, can I?" she laughed light-heartedly, resting her chin on her hand and gave him an almost impish look.
"… Yeah." he admitted in defeat, overcame by embarrassment for getting his health in danger over a silly reason.
"What is it about?" his mom asked helpfully "Maybe we can give you some suggestion."
Now this was what he wanted to avoid, because he would become a laughing stock the second he disclosed the topic.
"Nothing serious, mom." he grumbled, trying to finish his dessert, which was becoming tasteless, "I can manage."
"If you could, you wouldn't end up in a hospital." his dad pointed out mercilessly.
With dad's expression, Ichimatsu knew he would go to the end of this matter and he better gave up now or they would have this discussion for days until Ichimatsu finally spilled the beans.
But Ichimatsu did not want to discuss this at all. He still remembered how Shouei tried his best holding in his laugh when he confessed that he could not come up with any excellent idea because he was inexperienced. Of course he had tried but Shouei rejected them all because they were worse than average and he would not want Ichimatsu to ruin his series that way.
"Ichimatsu?" his mom tilted her head curiously, looked a bit guilty for cornering him.
"Romance…" Ichimatsu muttered, sudden becoming interested in the table more than ever.
Both his parents made a quizzical sound. Arg, could they just let him retire to his room and rest? He was just discharged this morning, he deserved all the rest he could have, did he not?
"My ideas lacked romance!"
The silence after that was nerve-wracking. Ichimatsu could feel his parents' eyes on him but he could not bring himself to return their look. They must have found it funny just like Shouei. A man in his twenties without a slightest idea about romance except to find them in novels and such was pitiful. He wish he could dig a hole and bury himself alive already.
However, no matter how long he waited, no laughter came. Unable to withstand the quiet atmosphere any longer, he lifted his head, bracing for any pity look.
"Why aren't you laughing?" he blurted unknowingly seeing his parents' blank stares. They both have their hands on their chins, seeming to be deep in thought.
"I'm surprised." his mother started first, raising an eyebrow in confusion. And Ichimatsu gave her a dumb stare. Why was she surprised? She must have known her son and his twenty-something years of being a virgin already.
"I'm surprised too." his dad added not so helpfully.
"Why are you even surprised?" he raised his voice, irritated by his parents' questioning looks, "I've never been romantic since I was born."
Ichimatsu was awkward when it came to human interaction. He could not even hold a normal conversation, let alone being romantic. That was why most his work focused on friendship and family love rather than romantic relationship. However, with the development of his series, the situation finally called for a chapter with romance elements although he went a long way avoiding it. He had been naive enough to think he could end the series before it got to that point. Served him right.
"Aren't you having a girlfriend?"
"Pardon?" Ichimatsu raised his eyebrows confusingly, staring at his mom who just said an outrageous thing. He and 'having a girlfriend' could not stand in the same sentence, except when 'not' was added between them.
"Your neighbor said that you always came home with a flower or even a bouquet on every Sunday." finally his mom explained, smiling understandingly "Who else could they be for except your girlfriend?"
Pausing a moment to think, Ichimatsu tried to recall what flowers his mother was referring to and then it hit him.
"They're just fan gifts." he sighed loudly, not even stopping to consider that he could have pretended like he had a girlfriend and got this matter over without being laughed at. Yeah, he was an idiot.
"You meet your readers that often?" his dad asked, trying to hide his apparent disappointment. Sorry dad, for being both an idiot and a virgin at this age.
"No, I barely meet them." Ichimatsu waved his hand dismissively "I only visit a bookstore every Sunday, and a bookstore clerk delivers the flowers to me."
After moving in the apartment, Ichimatsu got more time in his hand doing nothing at home when he finished that month manuscript. Therefore, he decided to go out on a Sunday to observe the town so he could come up with more interesting ideas for his next chapter. He spent some time in a zoo, chatting with a friendly zookeeper, which Ichimatsu still could not believe he did that because he was not very interested in idle chats. For the first time ever, Ichimatsu was not socially exhausted after a talk, so he wandered some more and ended up in Akatsuka bookstore. All he knew about this store was that it belonged to Akatsuka publisher, so his manga would definitely be here somewhere. He would just take a glimpse at them to satisfy his curiosity, nothing more. And he found it, right on the front shelves.
If having a chance to work with an experienced editor was one of Ichimatsu's rare proud moment, it still lost to then, when he saw his work displayed beautifully at the front with many praises from experts placed around. His breath was taken away until a clerk patted his shoulder and brought him back down to Earth from a short trip to the Heavens. For some reason, even when Ichimatsu wore a mask, and his face was never publicly revealed, the clerk recognized him. He could not recall their conversation after that, but Ichimatsu had promised he would come by again. And that was how his habit of visiting the bookstore emerged.
The first flower Ichimatsu had received was on his fourth visit. He was having a cold at that time, coughing continuously while waiting for the clerk to come back from somewhere just to say hello and dismiss himself. Actually he could just send a message to inform the clerk that he was not coming, but only that moment he realized they had not exchanged their contacts. So here he was, sitting in the cold weather of January while coughing his lungs out, just so he would not make the clerk wait in vain.
It must seem strange for an anti-social person like Ichimatsu to worry so much about someone he just acquainted with for a month. The clerk was nothing special like the zookeeper, but for some reason, spending time with him while secretly checking his readers' reactions was relaxing. Maybe Ichimatsu had been unconsciously feeling lonely after moving out.
"Then he suddenly came back with a daisy, saying it was a fan gift to me." Ichimatsu yawned, feeling tired after a lengthy explanation "After that, there were always some flowers waiting for me every time I visited."
"I see." his parents nodded understandingly, although not trying to hide their dissatisfaction. They must have been so proud and happy thinking their virgin son finally got a girlfriend. Ichimatsu wished he could turn back time and changed his answer.
"So that's why you're stuck on romance." his mom sighed, unknowingly piercing him right through the heart "Did you try asking that clerk friend of yours?"
"No, why?" he raised an eyebrow. Professional manga artists did not go around asking people for ideas for their manga, did they?
"He might have a girlfriend-"
"No way." Ichimatsu nearly broke out laughing at the thought "If he had one, he wouldn't spend every Sunday with me, would he…". His voice lowered at the end, realizing how pitiful that sounded for two grown men of the same age spending their Sunday together almost every week for nearly a year without feeling something wrong.
"Sorry, Ichimatsu." his mom hastily said, her smile a bit strain "It's my fault for asking-"
"I'm tired." he stood up, gathering his plates "I need some rest. Thanks mom and dad."
Then he brought the dishes to the sink, about to wash it out of habit but his mom stopped him and said she would handle them, he could retire to his room. Her tone was apologetic which stung him even more. That was why he did not want to bring this matter up, but he only had himself to blame.
On the way back to his old room, Ichimatsu could not help but reminiscing about the past. Living in this house for more than twenty years, he remembered every nook and corner of it. Thank to his parents, he never felt lonely even when he was an only child…
… was he?
Ichimatsu did not realized he had stopped walking until a vision flashed before his eyes for a second and he had to catch the handrail to support himself. He was not sure what he just saw but it seemed like a small living room with a round table placed in the middle, and he was sitting there, silently having his meal. And there were… five other pairs of chopsticks on the table…
Snapped out of his illusion, Ichimatsu turned around to see his father frowning worriedly.
"D-Dad." he stammered, uncertain why he acted like he was caught red-handed for something wrong.
"Are you okay?" his dad put a hand on Ichimatsu's forehead "You look as white as a sheet."
"Maybe I just need some rest." he answered quickly, rushing upstairs, not forgetting to smile back at dad "Good day, dad."
A faint voice from somewhere far away reached Ichimatsu ears but he could not turn his head back to see who was calling him. He was standing in a Japanese style living room he had seen in the previous illusion but there was nothing around him, not even the round table he saw himself eating at. Then something in his peripheral vision caught his attention, he turned his head and saw-
"Ichimatsu! Wake up!"
His eyes shot open, and there was only a white ceiling in front of his eyes. His heart was beating wildly in his chest while his breathing was erratic, sweat running down from his forehead and he could feel the dampness of his own clothes. Trying blinking, he then realized that he had been crying, just like how it was in the hospital.
"Ichimatsu, are you okay, dear?"
Only until then, Ichimatsu recognized there was a presence by his side. He turned his head slowly and caught sight of his mom on the verge of tears.
"Mom?" he mumbled, pushing on the bed to sit up. The surroundings immediately told him where he was. "What are you doing in my room?"
"I came to check up on you…" his mom bit her lower lip, trying not to sound too frightened "But I saw you turning and crying in your sleep like you're in the worst nightmare ever."; she stopped, taking in a deep breath to calm herself "So I tried shaking you but you were not waking up, you even shook me off and sobbed harder…". She put a hand over her mouth "You said…", her whole body started shaking "You said you want to die…" and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Staring at his mom with his eyes widened and his mouth hanging open, Ichimatsu tried to remember what he was dreaming about that led him to say that but nothing came to mind. He could only recall the living room that he had never spent a second of his life in.
"Are you having depression, dear?" his mom touched his cheek, scared was still in her complexion "Don't hide it from me, please."
"No!" Ichimatsu shook his head immediately "I'm never better."
"Please, Ichimatsu." she pled "You can trust me."
"I'm fine, mom." he wrinkled his eyebrows, not knowing what to explain because he was indeed healthy. "I'm really fine." he assured again when his mom only gave him a concerned look "It's because of a dream, I think."
"A dream?" his mom raised a eyebrow doubtfully
"Yes, it's a very sad dream." he lied. He did not remember anything, but for his body to react like that, it must be true. "You and dad were both gone…" he carefully chose his words, forcing his creative mind to make up a believable story "I was left alone, so I was scared… and sad…". Trying to sound sorrowful, Ichimatsu felt a bit guilty when his mom stroked his hair gently as a comfort "So… I was wanting to follow you two." he concluded, averting his eyes "I think."
Before he could glance at his mom to check her reaction, a pair of arms was thrown around him and pulled him in a tight hug. Blushing a bit at mom's affectionate gesture, he awkwardly returned her hug. They sat in silence for a while with his mom patting his back tenderly like when he was crying after a nightmare at younger age.
"We here, dear." mom assured, voice soft as if she was careful not to hurt Ichimatsu in any way "We will not go anywhere.". There was melancholy in her voice, indicating that she knew they could not be together forever but tried to avoid the fact. God, he felt so bad for lying. But that was certainly better than saying he did not remember anything in his dream and still had those extreme actions.
"I'm sorry for worrying you again, mom." he whispered, holding her more tightly. It had been a long time since their last hug because Ichimatsu was too shy to show his affection to his parents, but hugging felt nice… He should do this more often.
After the incident in his bedroom, Ichimatsu was taken to a psychiatrist but the results stated he was normal. Of course he was, except for the matter of being girlfriend-less at this age, but that was not a problem… Well, except it was taking a toll on his career. Sometimes he felt like he should just skip the whole thing with a simple 'They had the most happy time of their life on their first date' then went back to the main storyline. No, obviously he could not do that. Shouei would kill him. His readers would kill him. Flowers would become threat letters if he dared.
Ichimatsu was allowed to returned to his apartment after spending one week lazing around at home, only eating and reading romantic manga for reference. He felt like if he had stayed any longer, he would gain at least ten kilograms of fat. Chuckling lightly, he started tidying up his working table because his mom had already cleaned the whole apartment while he was in the hospital. He appreciated her concern that he might have a hard time finding his stuff so she had left the table untouched.
Finishing after half an hour or so, he left house, not forgetting to bring a small bag containing blank papers and some pens. It was Sunday.
Nearly tumbling backwards when a red shadow plunged at him just upon his arrival at Akatsuka bookstore, Ichimatsu dropped his bag in an attempt to find balance.
"I heard you collapsed." the person wearing a red apron held Ichimatsu's face in both hands "Why were you so careless?", patting his cheek a bit too forcefully.
"I'm fine, Osomatsu!" pushing the clerk away, Ichimatsu bent down to pick up his bag, but not missing the pouting face so he cleared his throat embarrassingly "I appreciate your concern though…"
Osomatsu's face lightened up again at that sentence, he did not waste any second to throw an arm around Ichimatsu's shoulders and dragged him in the bookstore, knowing the manga artist would be uncomfortable showing his emotions in public.
When they settled on some stools behind the counter, Ichimatsu finally could relaxed a bit and took off his mask. After a year frequenting here every Sunday, he slowly got used to Osomatsu's friendly gestures but only when there were two of them, not in the middle of the street, no matter if it was crowded or not.
His eyes automatically followed Osomatsu running to the store owner to ask for a small break. Since Ichimatsu technically played a role in increasing their profit, the store owner was not against giving Osomatsu some time to spend with him. Or maybe Osomatsu was less damaging when he was on break.
"So why did you collapse?" Osomatsu asked the moment he came back. Arg, this again.
"I forgot to eat." answering curtly, Ichimatsu looked sideway when Osomatsu's face churned up.
"Come on." he whined "Do I look like a child to you?"
"No." replying almost immediately, Ichimatsu tried to hold back a laughing sound forming in the back of his throat "But you sure act like one."
Osomatsu took offence at that and puffed his cheek like a kid while looking away, crossing his arms. This was why hanging out with Osomatsu was entertaining, even for an anti-social person like Ichimatsu.
"I was really worried." Osomatsu started again when Ichimatsu showed no sign of giving in to his pout, suddenly sounding thoughtful "I tried messaging you when you didn't show up on Sunday two weeks ago, but there was no reply.". He frowned, hands folding together "So was calling you, no one picked up.", then turning to face Ichimatsu with a worried expression "I thought of going to your place but I don't even know where you live…"
"Sorry…" mumbling apologetically, Ichimatsu unconsciously averted his eyes "I should have called you earlier." It completely slipped his mind that he should call Osomatsu after regaining consciousness due to some weird dreams and visions that he could not recall ever happened in his life.
"Don't forget to eat again!" as abruptly as when he started sounding serious, Osomatsu slapped Ichimatsu's back a bit too strong that the artist almost fell off his stool. After regaining his balance, Ichimatsu shot an irritated glare at the grinning clerk.
"Can you avoid doing that?" he complained "I just got discharged one week ago."
Frowning at Osomatsu's unapologetic grin, Ichimatsu resisted the urge to smash him back on the head.
Then they had some random talk until Ichimatsu caught the bookstore owner's scowl on Osomatsu. "I think it's time to excuse myself." he stood up, putting on his mask again. "Thanks for worrying about me." avoiding Osomatsu's wide smile, he cleared his throat and added "I guess…"
"You're going already?" Osomatsu said, whiny in his voice, before following Ichimatsu's gaze and smiling innocently under the owner's annoyed stare "Yeah, it's quite late. Take care." However, he still followed the artist out of the store.
"Here is okay." Ichimatsu chuckled, gesturing for Osomatsu to look at his back but the clerk totally ignored. Why he had not lost his job, Ichimatsu wondered.
"I'll always be here if you need help." Osomatsu waved his hand, shouting after Ichimatsu so loudly that the artist had to pretend he did not know him.
As a professional manga artist and a manga fan for more than twenty years, Ichimatsu should be able to draw a simple romantic chapter without having to have actual experience or consult anyone else, like how he drew action scenes without hitting anyone… Actually, he did have to watch, or even participate in, some martial art classes to make those scenes realistic and interesting… But he had watched so many romantic movies that he even fell asleep at the beginning of some because they were so cliché. So why was he not able to create something Shouei could approved of?
"I see." Osomatsu hummed understandingly. "You find the right person." grinning confidently, he pointed at himself using his thumb "Charisma legend here will give you some genius ideas."
Ichimatsu had to try his best not to grimace in distrust. Despite previously denying his parents' suggestion to seek advice from the bookstore clerk, he had no choice but to invite Osomatsu to a family restaurant for help on his manga.
He had a month break because he would not make it for the January issue, but if he did not start somewhere, he would get nowhere when deadline for February issue came.
Why Osomatsu and not someone more reliable?…
Like a friendless person like him would have anyone else close enough to ask for help!
"Since it's their first date, an amusement park would be sufficient." Osomatsu started writing 'amusement park' in the middle of a blank paper, which surprised Ichimatsu because it actually sounded decent. He should not have doubted the clerk too much, Osomatsu must have some dating experience in the past that he did not tell.
"I thought of that too." Ichimatsu sighed "But my editor said it's too simple-"
"Wait." the clerk interrupted "You just haven't shown him all the potentials of an amusement park date.". Smiling suggestively, Osomatsu wrote down 'haunted house'.
"If you're thinking about a hug, it is." Osomatsu gestured for Ichimatsu to get closer "But in the dark and eerie atmosphere, they can…"
Turning bright red, Ichimatsu pulled back before Osomatsu could finish his sentence. "What the hell are you saying?!" he sprang up, yelling "It's their first date!" then quickly sat back down and covered his face with both hands after realizing he was attracting attention. Through the gaps between his fingers, he could see Osomatsu's troubled expression as if he did not understand why the manga artist reacted like that.
"I thought it's perfect." Osomatsu scratched the back of his head, eyebrows furrowed "I only saw it once and it's interesting."
"I'm not drawing porn." Ichimatsu massaged his temples after calming down. He should not have expected anything from this pervert.
"Then how about-"
"Stop." interrupting before even hearing, the manga artist deadpanned "Not another word."
"But I prepared so many ideas…" the clerk sulked "I even brought some videos-"
"I said stop!"
Shooting a burning stare at the person wearing red hoodie as if daring him to pull anything out of his suspiciously heavy handbag, Ichimatsu regretted every second he spent thinking that Osomatsu could help him find an idea. Now he could not get rid of the images the clerk just put in his head! A rich imagination had been a gift for his career, but now, he did not know when those dirty thoughts would wore off his mind.
"You're looking for something pure and romantic?" Osomatsu spoke up, sounding half bored half apologetic when the artist stayed silent for a long time.
"I believe I said that at the very beginning." crossing his arms, Ichimatsu gave the clerk an irritated look.
"Pure and romantic." Osomatsu repeated, seemed thoughtful.
"You don't have to try." the artist shrugged, not holding back his sarcasm "I know there was none of those in you."
It took Osomatsu some seconds for that to sink in. "Hey!" he complained "I'm trying to help."
"Yeah, I appreciated your effort." Ichimatsu mumbled monotonously.
"How rude-" Osomatsu suddenly came to a halt, his face lightened up like a genius idea just sparked "I know an expert in that for you!"
Startled by Osomatsu's excitement, Ichimatsu needed some seconds to regain his composure and shot a doubtful look at the clerk "Are you sure?".
"Yes!" Osomatsu answered confidently, then swiped out his phone and started typing something before Ichimatsu could voice his opinion "Here, just let me write this and he will come flying."
"He?" unable to hide his worry, Ichimatsu was hoping that romance expert was at least a girl. But at this rate, that guy would be more or less like Osomatsu and he would have a long nightmare of his manga characters doing some indecent acts…
"Don't worry, despite his look, he's really an expert in romance." Osomatsu assured, flashing a thumbs-up together with a wink, which, unfortunately, made him even less trustworthy in the artist's eyes.
"I… ehem." Ichimatsu cleared his throat, clumsily standing up, trying not to appear like he was escaping "I just remember I have an appointment with my editor-"
And his attempt was cut short when the main door of the restaurant swung open. At the doorstep stood a man in a blue apron with big white words "Flower Akatsuka". One hand still holding the door open, that man slowly brought his other hand to his chin, two fingers making a V shape. His eyes was hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, which was questionable because it had long passed sunset.
"Heh, Osomatsu." that person started, voice low, when he spotted Osomatsu, who was averting his eyes and trying to hold in his laugh "I've come running seeing you're in dire need of my assistance!". He walked steadily with his head held high, sticking out his chest confidently until he reached their table. "Your savior has come." he snapped his fingers and pointed at the clerk "Tell me what you need, I will get it done in seconds."
That was the limit of Osomatsu's endurance, he broke out laughing hilariously while holding his side dramatically as if he had really broken some ribs. On the other hand, Ichimatsu could only stare blankly at the newly appeared florist, undecided if he should cringe at his supposed be cool entrance or laugh because it was ridiculous.
"What's wrong, Osomatsu?" the person in blue apron frowned his thick eyebrows, looked genuinely worried "Are you hurt somewhere?", putting a hand on Osomatsu's shoulder "Was I too late?"
"I can't breathe…" waving his hand rapidly while trying to stop his laugh, Osomatsu took in a deep breath but failed and started laughing again "Just stop talking for a second, Ka-"
… "Karamatsu… couldn't make it."
Slamming the table unconsciously, Ichimatsu was suddenly out of breath. His body started trembling without a reason while he was overcame by something similar to a shock and overwhelming sadness.
Why was he feeling like this? What happened? He was finding the situation funny, then an unfamiliar memory flashed through his head and all of a sudden, all those feelings squeezed his heart so tightly he could not breathe. There were voices saying something but he was unable to hear through the ringing in his ears. The urge to cry was too strong to withstand.
"Karamatsu…" Ichimatsu whimpered, and before he realized, tears were already rolling down his cheeks.
"I'm sorry." Ichimatsu cleared his throat embarrassingly "I don't know what's got into me." and looked down on the table, hands fidgeting.
For some unknown reasons, he had cried his eyes out after just hearing the very first syllable in the florist's name. Ichimatsu could swear to any deity that he had never met this guy before. Karamatsu was very unique with his way of speaking and his sunglasses although there were no sunlight to shield against, so it was unlikely for Ichimatsu to forget him if they had ever met.
However, he had zero impression about Karamatsu till now. Yet, he somehow knew the florist's name, not to mention it had a very strong impact.
"You two knew each other before?" Osomatsu asked the third time, head tilted in confusion.
"No." Ichimatsu shook his head, still avoiding meeting anyone's eyes.
"No." an unfamiliar voice answered, probably Karamatsu's, sounded a bit uncertain "I think."
"Then how did you know his name?"
Startled by a hand on his shoulder, Ichimatsu turned to the hand owner, giving Osomatsu a scowl. However, the clerk refused to pull back so he just sighed exasperatedly and focused on the table again. He still had not gotten over the embarrassment of sobbing in public without a comprehensible reason.
"I'm…" Ichimatsu struggled "… not sure."
"What do you mean by you are not sure?" Osomatsu pressed "You were crying like your pet just died-"
"Osomatsu." Karamatsu interrupted, sounded more gentle than his previous cool-guy voice "Don't pressure Ichimatsu, he's still confused."
Both Osomatsu and Ichimatsu gasped at the sentence, which made Karamatsu a bit taken aback.
"How do you know his name?"
"How do you know my name?"
Speaking in union, the clerk and the artist shared a surprised look before turning back to Karamatsu, who slapped a hand over his mouth like he just slipped out a state secret.
"I…" the florist hesitated, scratching the back of his neck, but then some idea sparked in his mind. "I am your fan." Karamatsu snapped his fingers, confident smile back on his face, pointing at the artist "Ichimatsu-sensei."
Silence quickly followed. Osomatsu was holding back some snickers while Ichimatsu once again did not know how to react while his mind was processing the information. Although his work was only published for two years, Shouei was certain that Ichimatsu had got many readers enjoying his work, who he could refer to as his fans. So it was not that surprising that this Karamatsu guy was one of his fan too, was it not? However, something still did not feel right.
Something was still not convincing…
"My pen name is Hajime!" finally figuring out what was bothering him, Ichimatsu shot a doubtful look at Karamatsu "My identity was not disclosed to public yet, there is no way you could know my real name."
Although the florist's eyes were behind the sunglasses, it was undoubtedly darting around; not to mention sweats were forming and running down all over his face. However, just when Ichimatsu thought Karamatsu would give in, the florist cleared his throat and made an unnatural laughing sound.
"Osomatsu was calling your name while you were crying earlier." he smiled triumphantly.
"Was I?" Osomatsu frowned, scratching his nose while trying to recall the previous commotion.
"That explained how you knew my name then." Ichimatsu nodded in agreement despite the lack of confirmation from the clerk. However, it was still too soon to let Karamatsu off the hook. "But what told you I'm a manga artist," he smirked under his mask "my fan."
Today Ichimatsu was not wearing his red beret and bringing the cat patterned handbag containing papers and drawing equipment, just a simple brown sweater over white long sleeved shirt and a pair of checkered pants. There was nothing to give away his identity.
"Osomatsu told me about you before."
Shooting a burning glare at Osomatsu, who averted his eyes and whistled like he was unrelated to the matter, Ichimatsu resisted the urge to practice all the moves he had learnt in martial art classes on the clerk. So much for his promise of keeping Ichimatsu's artist identity.
"I'm sorry if the flowers inconvenienced you in anyway…" Karamatsu scratched the top of his head shyly, looked the exact opposite of the first impression he created.
"Flowers?" sparing Osomatsu's life for once, Ichimatsu turned his attention back to the florist. What flowers were he referring to- "You meant the fan gift every Sunday?".
All kinds of flower and bouquet emerged in Ichimatsu's memory. The flowers were very fresh and carefully tended, although the wrapping papers sometimes were too gaudy. For an artist who had just started his serialization for a year, those flowers were a tremendous encouragement. He still remembered tearing up when he received the first daisy from Osomatsu and heard it was a fan gift. Maybe he had been emotional at that time because of the cold, but still, they meant a lot, especially whenever he had been discouraged.
"Yeah, this crazy fan here begged me to deliver those flowers to you when I accidentally slipped my tongue about you coming to the bookstore every Sunday." pointing at Karamatsu with his thumb, Osomatsu sent the artist a lopsided smile, conveniently pulling Ichimatsu out of his reminiscence.
"I really appreciated your flowers." Ichimatsu quickly said before turning away from Karamatsu's hopeful look.
"Really?" Karamatsu reached over the table to hold the artist's hands. What was this over-familiar gesture?!
But it would ruin the mood if Ichimatsu just shook him off. "Y-yes, they were great encouragement to me." he pulled back slightly, hoping the guy would take the hint and release his hands.
"I'm glad I could help." Karamatsu closed his eyes, releasing Ichimatsu's left hand to put his own hand on his chest "Even if it's just a water drop into the sea, my heart is filled just by the thought of you liking my flowers."
Feeling goosebumps running all over his body, Ichimatsu forcefully withdrew his remaining hand. This Karamatsu guy only sounded decent when he was confused or shy, otherwise, he barely made any sense.
"Are you guys done?" luckily, before Ichimatsu could feel bad at Karamatsu's dejected expression, Osomatsu interrupted "I'm getting bored."
"Sorry, I got sidetracked." Karamatsu bowed his head with his right hand still on his chest like some knight in old movies "What do you need my assistance for, Osomatsu?"
Osomatsu rolled his eyes "Not me, this idol of you needed help.", jerking his chin towards the manga artist. "But before you start, shouldn't you introduce yourself properly?" crossing his arms, he stopped Karamatsu before he even opened his mouth. "Isn't it unfair that you knew a lot about him but he still doesn't know who you are?"
It was rare for Osomatsu to be this rational, and Ichimatsu appreciated it. He was still overwhelmed by the whole situation, especially after his inexplicable crying session. Karamatsu seemed to agree with Osomatsu also, or he was just good at not showing his dissatisfaction.
"Since you knew me, I guess I will make it brief." Ichimatsu started first, his professionalism kicking in. "My name is Ichimatsu Matsuno.", stopping a second, he scanned Karamatsu's reaction but there was none. Osomatsu must have done a 'great' job revealing all his information. "I'm a manga artist, currently in contract with Akatsuka publisher.". This much should be enough, "I'm done." he added when Karamatsu was still staring at him with anticipation as if he was waiting for Ichimatsu to start on his hobbies. This was not a marriage interview, for God's sake.
"Your turn, Karamatsu." Osomatsu had to nudge at the florist's side to snap him out or whatever weird expectation he had in his head.
"Oh sorry, I thought there were more to it." Karamatsu scratched the back of his head "So, it's my turn then.". He opened his mouth, about to say something then frowned his thick eyebrows and decided to remove his sunglasses first so Ichimatsu could meet his brown eyes…
"Are you… wearing contacts?" unable to hold in his question, Ichimatsu blurted out and earned a series of laughter from Osomatsu. "Why are you laughing?" he glanced at the clerk although a part of him was urging him to laugh at Karamatsu's ridiculous getup "You should have seen it millions times before, if you're his friend."
"I did." Osomatsu tried to keep his focus on Ichimatsu to subdue his laugh but ultimately failed "But just try looking at his brown contact-" and broke out laughing again without finishing his point.
However, Ichimatsu totally get it. He was in his best control not to spit out his own snickers.
"Did I do something wrong?" Karamatsu looked seriously troubled, keeping turning back and forth between the other two in the table.
"No offense but can you put on your sunglasses again?" taking a deep breath, the manga artist calmly suggested, trying hard not to be affected by the laughing Osomatsu, who probably broke some of his ribs. Ichimatsu faltered a little when the florist raised his eyebrows. Did he accidentally touch something he should not-
"So you also fell for my cool appearance?"
It took Ichimatsu some seconds to comprehend what Karamatsu just said, "Pardon?", hoping he misheard something.
"I should have known, sorry Ichi- Hajime-sensei." the florist put on his pair of sunglasses again "Me and sunglasses." then started making some weird poses "Such a guilty combination. Sorry world!"
"Can you do something about him?" giving Osomatsu a tired look, Ichimatsu put a hand on his forehead. He was close to his limit, and he would not want to explode in the face of his fan.
The clerk's series of laughing finally ceased. He coughed a few time and cleared his throat to recover his voice and draw attention from Karamatsu. "Your idol is still waiting for your introduction, Karamatsu."
"Oh sorry…" Karamatsu scratched his head embarrassingly under Ichimatsu's almost irritated gaze "My name is Karamatsu Matsuno. I'm working at Akatsuka flower-"
"You're a Matsuno too?!" Ichimatsu failed to keep his voice down. He quickly covered his mouth when people started turning to their direction.
Waiting until curious eyes were all gone, Ichimatsu focused his look on Karamatsu again. The florist looked a bit anxious but tried to flash his smile at the artist to assure that he was alright and ready for any kind of question.
"Sorry, I was surprised." clearing his throat, Ichimatsu shifted uncomfortably in his seat "Are you from the Matsuno house?"
"Yes, I am." Karamatsu nodded
"I mean 'that' Matsuno…" the artist struggled "You know-"
"The Matsuno orphanage, I know." Karamatsu nodded firmly with a mellow smile. "Osomatsu didn't tell me but basing on your reaction, are you also from there?" he tilted his head curiously.
"Yes." Ichimatsu nodded with a bit of uncertainty "But I don't have any memory about that place. I only knew when my parents explained how my last name is different from theirs."
"I see." the florist put a hand on his chin, seemed to be considering something "I don't remember seeing you around."
"What do you mean?" Ichimatsu inquired, finding something strange in that sentence. It was not like Karamatsu could keep track of all the children in Matsuno orphanage, was it?
"Please clarify it." realizing he sounded like the judge in a court, Ichimatsu tried to put on a small smile, forgetting that the florist could not see it through his mask.
"I just stayed there for a long time, so I know all the children around my age in Matsuno house." Karamatsu wrinkled his thick eyebrows, trying to make his explanation short and concise. "I recognized Osomatsu right away when I first met him in the bookstore." he turned to the clerk and got a nod of confirmation "He was adopted when he was around three years old."
"Hey, ask me first before disclosing my personal information." Osomatsu complained.
"Did you even ask me?" shooting a glance at the clerk, Ichimatsu fought against the urge to grab Osomatsu's hoodie when he once again looked away and whistled innocently.
"You look around my age so I thought I could have seen you." Karamatsu continued as if there was nothing happened "But I can't remember seeing you."
Nodding and making some acknowledging sounds, Ichimatsu smiled unconsciously "My parents adopted me when I was still a baby, so maybe you were also a baby when I was gone."
"So that's why." Karamatsu hummed knowingly, a relieved look appeared on his face but he swiftly wiped it away. "Is your house far from here?"
"It's-" pausing, the artist put a hand on his mouth in consideration, eyebrows furrowed "It's none of your business.", feeling bad when the Karamatsu was taken aback by the distance in his voice.
"Oh sorry." the florist bowed his head a bit too dramatically "I got carried away."
Waving his hand dismissively, Ichimatsu suddenly hated his over-cautiousness. After high school, he got tired of socializing and reverted to his introvert self. He rarely gave away his house address unless it was necessary for his work, which was why Osomatsu still did not know where he lived after one year being acquaintances. It was not like his house held any dark secret, he just wanted to avoid people coming and he had to welcome them even when he was not interested.
"Anyway, nice to meet you, Hajime-sensei." Karamatsu offered his hand, changing the topic to brush away the awkwardness in the air.
"You can call me Ichimatsu." taking the florist's hand with some hesitation, Ichimatsu tried his best to keep eye contact "Nice to meet you too, Karamatsu?". That came out as a question because he was not sure if Karamatsu was fine being called by his first name by a person he just met. But calling him Matsuno would be confusing.
"Karamatsu is fine." the florist smiled lightheartedly.
Ichimatsu was not very certain because the sunglasses still hid some of Karamatsu's expression, but the florist looked really happy? Meeting his idol must be a big moment in his life, maybe. Blushing a bit at that thought, Ichimatsu was glad his mask was on, calling himself an idol of someone was a strange feeling that he doubted he would ever get used to.
"So what do you need me for?" Karamatsu asked, not hiding his excitement.
"Took you long enough to get there." Osomatsu commented, rolling his eyes but the florist ignored him.
And Ichimatsu suddenly realized he could not voice his question. Karamatsu was a fan of his manga, he would not want to be spoiled about the contents of next chapters.
"Ichimatsu?" the florist questioned again when the artist stayed silent.
"On the second thought-"
"He wants your advice for a perfect date." Osomatsu interrupted, earning surprised looks from the other two. "Come on," he smiled amusingly, throwing an arm around Ichimatsu's shoulders "You can't chicken out now, can you?", then gave the artist a knowing glance.
"Y-Yeah." Ichimatsu stammered, feeling anxious when Karamatsu was staring at them blankly.
Was his acting that bad? Osomatsu already opened a route for him and he ruined it at the very beginning?!
"You have a date coming?!" if Karamatsu could get any louder, he would wake up the whole neighborhood. But luckily, his volume only attracted the whole restaurant attention.
Osomatsu gestured for the florist to keep silence while Ichimatsu only wanted to crawl under the table to escape unwanted attention. After a while, people went back to mind their own business because it was not the first time they were being noisy.
"Is this your first date?" Karamatsu leaned over the table, whispering.
"Yes…" Ichimatsu averted his eyes "You could say so.". There was no harm deceiving Karamatsu on this matter, the florist would not be able to check if he was in a relationship or not after they got this romantic chapter done.
Karamatsu looked genuinely shocked that it offended Ichimatsu. Did he give off a girlfriend-less vibe or something? Why was the florist acting like this was a miracle of some kind? Despite those questions running in mind, the artist managed to keep his calm expression. Karamatsu was his fan. An idol should be nice to his fan.
"Finally Ichimatsu has someone…" Karamatsu murmured, looked like a proud parent seeing his child growing up into a fine adult.
That was it.
"Can you stop that!" slamming his hand on the table, Ichimatsu exploded.
The following silence was suffocating. And the manga artist regretted his action right away. However, before he could open his mouth for an apology, Karamatsu's smile stopped him. Why was the florist smiling when he literally just scolded him?! He even looked happier than when they shook hand…
"Sorry…" deciding to just apology and not questioning Karamatsu's strange preference, Ichimatsu took a deep breath to calm his nerves. It was not right to get angry when the florist was just expressing his concern, although they just met like… an hour ago?
"Let's get back to the main topic." Karamatsu said cheerfully, casually overlooking his idol's outburst "You need advice on planning a perfect date, don't you?"
Ichimatsu nodded, not expecting anything.
"You find the right person."
Uh oh, déjà vu.
"It's quite late today to get into details though." Karamatsu frowned after checking his phone "When is your date?"
"Next-" Ichimatsu halted in time before he could slipped out 'next month', the deadline of his manuscript "Next Sunday."
"Then we still have six days to prepare." the florist checked the calendar in his phone "Are you free tomorrow?"
Nodding before he even checked his own schedule, Ichimatsu earned an envy look from Osomatsu. Not many people had the luxury of having free time on Monday anyway.
"Can you come to my store at nine in the morning?" Karamatsu searched in his apron pocket and took out a name card "It's only some blocks away from Akatsuka bookstore, you will find it easily.", giving it to the artist formally with a slight bow.
"I forgot my name card." putting Karamatsu's name card in his notebook, Ichimatsu bowed his head apologetically but then remembered something and tore off a blank page. "This is my phone number, call me if there is any change of plan." he quickly wrote his name and a series of number on the paper then folded it neatly before giving to the florist in the same manner.
However, before the paper could touch Karamatsu's hand, someone yanked it from Ichimatsu's weak grip.
"Isn't it unfair, Ichimatsu?" Osomatsu narrowed his eyes, glancing at the contents in the paper "You never bothered to give me your phone number until I convinced you that it's necessary." he pouted "Yet you give Karamatsu on your first meeting."
Opening his mouth to protest but Ichimatsu stopped midway. Osomatsu was not wrong, although the situation was different. He needed Karamatsu's expertise in romance, albeit he was not so sure of that now, so their number exchange was purely for work. While Osomatsu's was one of rare friend contacts in his list, if not saying that he was the only one, since Ichimatsu deleted most of his high school friends' numbers.
Still, Ichimatsu would rather die than admitting that to Osomatsu or he would never hear the end of it.
"Are you jealous, Osomatsu?" Karamatsu chuckled, earning an annoyed look from the clerk "Don't worry, even if you're not his number one, you're still well loved by me.", then adjusted his sunglasses "Your best brother."
"I have enough of your love all these years." Osomatsu looked sideway, uninterested "You're not even my brother so stop that also."
Covering his mouth by reflex, Ichimatsu chuckled, he never got tired of seeing this…
… no, he just met Karamatsu today, when did he even see their interaction? But it was really familiar…
"Are you okay?"
Snapped out of his daze, Ichimatsu did not realize he had looked down. He quickly lifted his head and met with two pairs of concerned eyes, one was hidden behind the sunglasses but his worry was apparent.
"I-I…" he hesitated, not wanting them to think he lost his mind saying something nonsense. "I'm sleepy. Let's call it a day." he stood up, gathering his notebook and a pen then called for the bill.
"You look pale-"
"I'm fine, just lack of sleep." interrupting Karamatsu, the manga artist assured, but more to himself than the florist.
With that, their meeting ended. Osomatsu and Karamatsu was chatting randomly when they left the restaurant while Ichimatsu stayed completely silent and focused on watching the pair. However, this time, there was no familiar feeling whatsoever.
From Ichimatsu's apartment to Akatsuka bookstore was around twenty minutes walking. It was close enough for Osomatsu to discover his address if the clerk was really curious, but he never did that. Although Osomatsu had revealed his information to Karamatsu without permission, the clerk still respected some of Ichimatsu's boundaries, which was surprising because of how tactless he appeared to be.
Gazing through the windows of the bookstore, Ichimatsu chuckled slightly when he saw the clerk lazily dusting off the bookshelves, mouth mumbling discontentedly. Not wanting to disturb Osomatsu's work, he walked pass the bookstore before someone spotted him. Checking the name card in his hand and addresses of some closest blocks, he continued walking till he reached a corner. Turning left, then heading straight for around fifty meters, he finally arrived at a flower shop named Akatsuka.
It was a humble shop, decorated in blue and cerulean theme. Looking from far, those displayed flowers on the front could easily be mistaken as wild flowers blooming in the middle of an ocean. The design was creative although a bit out of place, like their owner, or seller.
Smiling at the thought, Ichimatsu took the final step to reach the closed door, searching for a bell to press but there were none, so he knocked instead. The door swung open after the first knock, revealing Karamatsu in black sweater and jeans at doorstep as if he was waiting for a while.
"Come in, Ichimatsu." the florist beamed, sidestepping to open a way for the artist.
"Thanks for inviting me." whispering shyly, Ichimatsu walked in the store, startled a second because of the fragrant from all kinds of flower.
Ichimatsu was half expecting the interior would more be unique after his first impression but it was just as normal as any flower shop could be. Flowers were arranged neatly in vases of different colors, placed on tables and shelves according to their families. If anything caught his attention, it was the colors of the vases: red, blue, green, purple, yellow and pink. They were completely random, not totally complimenting or opposite to the other.
"It looks familiar." the artist was thinking out loud but did not recognize until he turned away from the flower display and met with a stunned Karamatsu. Raising an eyebrow, Ichimatsu waited for some seconds before deciding to ask "What's wrong, Karamatsu?"
The florist jumped where he stood but quickly regained his composure and gave Ichimatsu a strain smile, gesturing that he was fine and there was nothing wrong. Obviously, the artist did not believe, but he was not the type to pry so he only nodded, letting the matter slide, not missing Karamatsu's sigh of relief.
"Let me get you something to drink, it must be tiring walking all the way here." Karamatsu said before disappearing behind the door at the back of the shop. He came back some moment later with two glasses of water in his hands, looked considerably calmer. He offered a glass to the artist.
"Thanks." Ichimatsu answered by reflex, receiving the glass of water and pulled down his mask to take a sip although he was not necessarily thirsty.
They started drinking in silence and Ichimatsu resisted the urge to slap himself on the head. How could he forget how awkward he was around strangers? He could communicate with Karamatsu casually yesterday because Osomatsu was around, and the clerk knew how to stir up a conversation. Now, it was plain awkward.
Taking a quick glance at Karamatsu, Ichimatsu became even more anxious finding out the florist was observing him from top to toe. He started sweating heavily. Was he wearing something strange? His clothes was the same as yesterday, only added the red beret and his usual cat-patterned handbag…
"This is new!" gesturing at his whole body, Ichimatsu quickly said "They look the same b-but I wash my clothes daily."
Karamatsu blinked once, then twice before scratching the back of his neck like he did not understand what the artist was trying to say. However, before Ichimatsu started explaining more, he chuckled "I can see that."
"What are you looking at then?" giving the florist an exasperated look, Ichimatsu felt like banging his head on the closest wall for assuming the reason.
"I just want to take a good look of you." Karamatsu smiled freely, looked somewhat too happy for no special reason.
Shooting a narrow look at the florist, who was still keeping on his silly smile, Ichimatsu suddenly felt the urge to punch him right in the face. He did not usually have a violent tendency but Karamatsu somehow managed to tick him off. All that kept his action in check was the fact that the florist was his fan.
"Can we start talking about the dating plan?" Ichimatsu shot an almost irritated look at the florist "I don't have all day."
That was a lie of course, he had all the time in the world until the deadline.
"I'm glad you asked." Karamatsu snapped his fingers, giving the artist a smug smile, which once again annoyed him "I stayed up all night to prepare a perfect date for you, brother."
Since when he became the florist's brother? Ichimatsu swallowed back a comment to avoid wasting time on arguing.
"But talking is boring." before Ichimatsu could react, the florist grabbed his wrist and pulled him towards the door "I'll take you to all the dating locations so you could grasp their aura of love."
Too bewildered to fight back, the artist got dragged out of the store by his wrist and only came to when Karamatsu released him to lock the door. The florist then reached to catch his hand again but Ichimatsu slapped him away, saying he could walk perfectly fine by himself.
"Stay close to me-"
"I'm not a kid!"
"Are you kidding me?!!"
It had been a long time since the last time Ichimatsu shouted that loudly. He stared at the nearly empty fishing spot with some old or middle aged people sitting here and there waiting for fish to catch their baits, then turned to Karamatsu standing beside him with a smug smile on his face as if waiting for a praise. They had wasted half an hour on bus and fifteen minutes walking just to arrive here of all places? And Karamatsu even dared to promise that he would be surprised by how awesome this dating place would be.
"How is it, brother?" Karamatsu made some movement with his thick eyebrows, looked as proud as an owner of a mansion showing it off to his friends.
Ichimatsu was at a total loss for words, not because he was astonished by the scenery but he was unsure of how to express his frustration without sounding like he wanted to kick Karamatsu into the water.
"I see, you're also captivated by the serene atmosphere of this place." the florist nodded understandingly, or not understanding anything at all "Wait here, I'll get us fishing rods and baits." and left before Ichimatsu could protest.
Left alone, Ichimatsu stared at his silhouette in the still water, regretting any seconds he believed Karamatsu and Osomatsu. Those two were close friends since forever. He should have known from the very moment Karamatsu made his weird appearance at that family restaurant. Karamatsu was no romance expert; he was just a weirdo with empty flowery talks…
A purple fishing rod was pushed into Ichimatsu's hands along with a small bag of baits. Holding them half-heartedly, he let out a long sigh, thinking of an excuse to escape this tiring fishing thingy without hurting the florist.
"I reserved that rod specifically for you" Karamatsu said, drawing attention from the artist "because you always like purple, don't you?"
"No, I-" Ichimatsu stopped. He did like purple, although his clothes never showed that. But how could Karamatsu know? Even Osomatsu would not be aware of it. "How do you know?" he asked, giving the grinning florist a doubtful look.
Startled by the sudden question, Karamatsu hesitated a second before flashing his usual confident smile together with a thumbs-up "My intuition."
"That's convincing." Ichimatsu commented, not bothered to hide his sarcasm, but the florist did not seem to notice.
"Let me show you the charm of this place." Karamatsu spread his arms wide, proudly announcing.
And their fishing session began.
With Karamatsu's dramatic introduction, he must be a loyal face at this fishing spot; yet after one hour, his bucket was still empty. On the other hand, Ichimatsu filled half of his bucket with small and normal sized fish although he was a total amateur before this 'dating' plan.
"Are we done?" Ichimatsu could not stop a yawn, tiredly turning to Karamatsu, who was sitting with his leg crossed and his eyes closed.
"Tell me your thought of this place." the florist returned his look, eyes half opened dreamily.
Was this an exam now? Would he need to turn in an essay at the end of the day?
"It's quiet." despite his thought, Ichimatsu humored his romance expert.
"Exactly!" Karamatsu snapped his fingers, pointing at Ichimatsu's bored face "Only in this serene silence, you can hear your partner's heartbeat."
"Huh?" was all Ichimatsu could respond, his jaw went slack.
"Close your eyes." Karamatsu raised an eyebrow, waiting for Ichimatsu to comply. Doubtful as he was, the artist still closed his eyes because if not, the conversation would stop moving. "Imagine your love sitting next to you." It took Ichimatsu everything not to laugh bitterly. "You steal a look at her, and catch her doing the same." Now it started to sound interesting. "She gazes into your eyes, and you start moving closer." Blushing a little at Karamatsu's description, Ichimatsu was impressed by his rich imagination. Even without a specific girl in mind, his heart was still pounding rapidly. "And… Your rod is moving!!"
"What are you saying?!" Ichimatsu's eyes shot opened, face burning bright red.
But Karamatsu was not looking at him. Following the florist's eyes, he then realized the fishing rod in his hand was shaking and it did not take long for a sudden force to pulled him towards the water. Caught off guard, Ichimatsu lost his balance and fell forward, his eyes closed, bracing himself for a dive into the cold water of January.
However, his momentum stopped without colliding with any cold surface.
"Are you okay?"
Opening his eyes when he heard a familiar voice right beside his ear, Ichimatsu was surprised finding himself half standing half crouching forward but not falling any further because of a pair of strong arms coming from behind holding his body tightly. Quickly turning to the side the voice coming from, the artist was startled seeing Karamatsu face so close their cheeks could touch. However, before he could voice any question, the florist shouted:
"Hold tight, I'll help you!"
Not waiting for another command, Ichimatsu gripped his fishing rod like his life depended on it, trying to pull back with the help of Karamatsu from behind. Following the florist's count, they started to win against the fish, or something that Ichimatsu did not know because they would not have big fish in relaxing fishing spots like this, would they not?
"On the count of three, pull with all you have." Karamatsu guided, voice low and serious.
"Got it." the artist replied, gritting his teeth to hold on to the rod despite his fingers protesting.
The hold on his stomach tightened, Ichimatsu could feel Karamatsu's heartbeat on his back and his ragged breathings by his ear.
The florist's right hand moved from his shoulder to grab his hand, supporting his grip.
For the first time since he was born, Ichimatsu used that much force. All muscles in his stiff body were screaming when he pulled the fishing rod with all his might, his ribs felt like breaking under Karamatsu's strong pull. If not for the florist's hand on his, the rod would slip out at the final moment because all his fingers were numb and trembling.
However, they won, the line was not broken, and he could hear water splashing before they fell on their bottoms. Ichimatsu secretly hoped he did not accidentally damage Karamatsu's vital part while falling on him.
"We did it." Ichimatsu said breathlessly, turning to Karamatsu with a celebrating grin, completely forgetting his mask was covering it.
"Yeah, we did it." the florist smiled back, having no trouble reading the artist's expression. His left hand moved up, patting Ichimatsu's head gently "You did well, Ichimatsu."
Ichimatsu's eyes widened at the over-familiar gesture from Karamatsu. Only then he realized how close they were, way passed the usual personal space which he never let anyone except his parents cross. Not wasting a single second, Ichimatsu sprang up, staggering backwards to keep a comfortable distance from Karamatsu, cursing himself internally for how rude he was behaving.
"Sorry…" he mumbled, averting his eyes so he would not see a dejected Karamatsu.
"Don't be." Karamatsu chuckled joyfully "Your reaction was more gentle than I expected already."
Raising an eyebrow questioningly, Ichimatsu turned back to the florist almost instantly just to see he slapped a hand over his mouth, looked as if he just slipped his tongue on some serious matter.
"What do you mean?"
"Please explain yourself." realizing his tone was pressuring, the artist cleared his throat "I mean-"
But he never got to finish.
"Hey! You two!"
An unfamiliar voice half calling half shouting interrupted their conversation. Karamatsu turned to the voice direction immediately, eager to escape the question. Having no choice but to follow Karamatsu's gaze, Ichimatsu widened his eyes when met with a middle aged man soaked from top to toe, water still dripping from his clothes.
"Is there anything-" Karamatsu stopped midsentence, and it did not take long for the artist to realize something wrong too.
The fish flipping on the ground several meters away from them with its mouth stuck on the hook linking to Ichimatsu's purple rod was small. Too small for them both to use that much force to win against. However, the answer was not so far away as the fish's tail was tangled with a line leading to another fishing rod lying near the water.
"So we caught the same fish…" Karamatsu hesitated "didn't we?", giving the man an apologetic look.
"I'm sorry…" Ichimatsu pressed his lips together, bowing his head and waited for an outburst. They did pull the man into water afterall.
However, no matter how long he waited, all he heard was a series of hearty laughs so he lifted his head and saw Karamatsu and that man patting each other's shoulder in a friendly manner. What just happened? He was here the whole time but why did he feel like he just had a trip to the moon and came back?
"It's rare to see young people so passionate in fishing like you two." the man praised, gesturing for Ichimatsu to come closer so he could pat his back like he did to the florist but the artist waved his hand in refusal. "You reminded me of my young days. Keep it up!" the man added and gave Karamatsu's shoulder a final slap before walking away, laughing loudly.
Waiting for the man to get out of sight, Ichimatsu hesitantly took some steps closer to the florist but still kept a proper distance.
"Thank you." he whispered, jumped a little when Karamatsu swirled around with a questioning look. "For saving me." he added, hands fidgeting his sweater.
The florist's eyes widened, his sunglasses was not there to cover his surprised expression. Ichimatsu caught a glimpse of water glittering at the corner of Karamatsu's eyes before he spun away to hide. Was it that touching to receive a thank from his idol?
"No problem, brother." Karamatsu quickly said, voice higher than usual, head moving from left to right like trying to find something.
Crouching down to pick up the pair of sunglasses lying near his feet, Ichimatsu examined with his eyes to make sure there was no damage before reaching out to touch Karamatsu's shoulder. The florist turned back instantly, seemed startled, but his complexion softened recognizing it was only the manga artist.
"I'm not your brother." Ichimatsu did not know why he did that but his hand automatically pulled back when Karamatsu was about to touch his sunglasses.
For a second, Karamatsu grimaced like he was hurt but swiftly covered it with a nervous smile "You're also from Matsuno house so you're my brother."
Ichimatsu never thought about that but it was not technically wrong. "Don't tell me you go around calling all the Matsunos you met brothers and sisters."
"Only some people so far." the florist scratched his chin, considering something then an idea hit him "Are you jealous?"
Not this again.
"Why would I be?" Ichimatsu frowned, forcefully pushing the pair of sunglasses into Karamatsu's hand, more than willing to drop the discussion before it turned to a third rated drama.
"Don't worry, even if there are many people I call by brothers and sisters, you still hold a special-"
"I'm leaving." the artist announced with uninterested tone and turned on his heel, not forgetting to pick up his fishing rod, remaining baits and fish bucket to return to the house.
Ichimatsu found himself in the familiar traditional style living room again. He tried looking from left to right, it was completely empty with all doors closed, even the TV in a corner was missing… Wait, how could he know about a TV when he had never been here?
"Karamatsu?" he tried calling the first person coming to mind. Was he not fishing with the florist some moment ago? Why was he here?
Ichimatsu spun around but no one came into his vision, only a white curtain fluttering although he barely felt any wind.
"Where are you?" he asked nervously, squinting his eyes, trying to see through the white fabric.
The voice was still beside him but Ichimatsu could not feel any presence in the room except himself. He tried looking back but there were only closed doors lying still. Gritting his teeth in annoyance, he gave up on trying to call for Karamatsu. Maybe he was only imagining the florist's voice to ease his fright.
His attention was drawn back to the white curtain. Taking in a deep breath, he approached it. His hand shook slightly when he reached out to touch the fabric, the feeling of this texture… his body remembered it.
His eyes fluttered open and he met with a pair of sunglasses.
"Karamatsu?" Ichimatsu mumbled tiredly, bringing his hand up to push on the florist's face because he was too close.
"You woke up…" Karamatsu let out a long breath of relief before releasing the artist's shoulders and returned to his seat. "What were you dreaming about?" he asked, giving Ichimatsu a concerned look.
Oh, he was dreaming again. Ichimatsu pressed on his temples, trying to recall when he fell asleep after getting on the bus to go back to Akatsuka flower shop. His whole body was aching because of the intense fishing session and he was socially exhausted after too many awkward interactions with Karamatsu. No wonder he fell asleep.
Startled when the florist gently reminded him, Ichimatsu furrowed his eyebrows "Why do you want to know?" then realized this was not a right way to treat a person who was worrying about him, he coughed shyly "I mean, you won't understand."
"You were calling me in your dream." Karamatsu refused to back down "I tried to tell you that I'm here, but you didn't hear me or something."
So the voice he heard was not a hallucination. "I heard you." Ichimatsu said, trying to put together an understandable explanation "But I didn't see you in my dream, so I thought it's not real.". Urg, this even sounded nonsense to Ichimatsu himself, Karamatsu must be thinking that he lost his mind.
"What did you see in your dream then?" the florist tilted his head slightly, still having the same concerned look, not a sign of doubt.
"A traditional room." the artist took out a paper from his handbag and started sketching "like this."
"What-" Karamatsu slapped a hand over his mouth, face turning pale. Even with the sunglasses on, Ichimatsu could still see the fright in his eyes.
"You know this room?" not letting the florist get away with his suspicious behavior again, Ichimatsu pressed.
"You're not getting away this time." he leaned in closer, eyebrows knitted into a line "Tell me what you know."
Karamatsu backed away as far as he could without falling off his seat, lips pressing together nervously, eyes focusing on the artist but sometimes glancing to the exit hoping for it to open right way. On the other hand, Ichimatsu only stared deep into the florist's eyes, unwavering, hands holding tightly onto his pen and the drawing, demanding an answer.
"It's the living room of Matsuno house." finally, Karamatsu gave in.
But that was not the kind answer Ichimatsu was expecting. Actually, he was not sure he what he was expecting, but the answer was kind of… anti-climatic?
"Are you sure?" he stared at Karamatsu doubtfully, eyes narrowed.
"I can show you." the florist took out his phone and started swiping on the screen so fast that Ichimatsu almost failed to follow. "Here, exactly the same right?" Karamatsu put his phone showing a picture near Ichimatsu's sketch, and they looked exactly the same except for some details like the table in the middle and the TV in the corner…
"The room in my dream was empty." Ichimatsu sat straight back again, putting a hand on his chin in thought. "Like it was tidied up for something else." he deduced "And I saw white curtains-"
"It's just a dream." Karamatsu interrupted, giving the artist's shoulder a light pat "Don't think too much about it."
Normally, Ichimatsu would agree and let the matter slide, but somehow Karamatsu made it sound like he wanted to distract him. It was clear as day that the florist was still hiding something, but he had no evidence to force the guy to say. Using his dream would not work because he himself was not even sure what he was seeing.
"You're right." Ichimatsu huffed, leaning on the back of his seat "Call me when we arrive." then closed his eyes again. He was still tired, a bit of rest would help because he still had to walk back to his apartment.
"You can use my shoulder like you did earlier."
Ichimatsu nearly fell off his seat. Regaining his balance, he glanced at Karamatsu, hoping to find a teasing grin but the florist looked totally earnest. "No way." he said promptly "Push me off if I do that again."
"I won't." Karamatsu grinned widely.
It took the artist everything to hold back his punch
Karamatsu was a man of his words, so Ichimatsu woke up finding himself leaning on the florist's shoulder. No wonder it was so warm and comfortable.
Knocking himself on the head for that thought, Ichimatsu wobbled down the bus with Karamatsu's help by holding his upper arm. He really should exercise more often, only walking from his apartment to the bookstore every Sunday was nowhere enough.
"It's still early." Karamatsu checked his phone "We have time to make it to our next destination."
"No." Ichimatsu refused almost instantly. He felt like puking imagining another surprise like the fishing spot. His body was screaming for a rest and he was dying to dive into his comfy bed in the apartment. He could sleep two days straight with this exhaustion. "I'll head home." he said, bowing his head "Thank you very much."
"Oh." Karamatsu sighed dejectedly "You must have been tired.", then scratched his head "Sorry for being pushy…"
The florist looked like a rejected puppy with his face hung down and lips slightly pursed. Ichimatsu almost reached out to pat his head and said he would stay around longer, but his brain stopped him in time so he only gripped his handbag tightly.
"Don't be sorry." he spoke, eyes glued to the ground, hoping his voice was not too low for Karamatsu to hear "You helped me a lot.". Tensed up a bit when he feel the florist's stare, he inhaled deeply "I will come back tomorrow-", stopping a moment to think then he added "or whenever you have free time."
"Really?" Karamatsu's face lit up. If he was a puppy, his tail must be wiggling.
"I guess." Ichimatsu hesitated but still nodded when the florist was staring at him with anticipation.
"I'll be free on Saturday, please come by!"
Waving dismissively at Karamatsu's shouting, he stepped off the sidewalk.
Everything happened so fast. When Ichimatsu came to, he was already leaning on someone. His left wrist was gripped so tightly it hurt, and there was an arm wrapping around his head, keeping him from moving forward. In front of him, a car leisurely passed by.
"Uhm…" he spoke up hesitantly "Karamatsu?"
The hand holding his wrist shook slightly but still insisted on staying there.
"Don't do that…" Karamatsu whispered, his voice trembling "… again."
And suddenly everything blacked out. Ichimatsu was left alone in pure darkness.
… "I'm sorry…"
"You're sorry?!" startled by his own voice, Ichimatsu wanted to bring his hand up to cover his mouth but found himself unable to move. Only his mouth continued its speech "He died saving you!"
… "I didn't want it to turn out like this…"
That voice was so familiar but the artist failed to recognize whose it was. But his mouth automatically reacted to the sentence:
"You should have been the one who died!"
Screaming at the top of his lung, he then fell down on his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks. Ichimatsu tried to drag a hand over his chest, squeezing his shirt tightly, trying cope with the pain slowly spreading as if his heart was literally cracking. His breathing constricted, his heartbeat was thumping loudly by his ears.
Why was it hurting so much? Who was he talking to? Where was he?
Many questions circled around his throbbing head but he was unable to focus on anything. He desperately reached out with his free hand, trying to grab onto something.
And he caught it. A hand, or an arm, or whatever. He held onto it, gripping it firmly to make sure he would not completely be drown in darkness alone.
There was a voice, but his consciousness quickly faded.
This is longer than I expected.
Please tell me if you see something wrong XD.
Chapter 3: Fragment of Memory
Having experienced all kinds of dream in his life, but this was the first time, Ichimatsu woke up to find himself inside a dream. Surrounded by gentle darkness and some floating subjects seeming like broken glass pieces, he hesitantly took a step forward, hoping he would not start falling freely. Luckily there was something to support his feet, no matter where he went. With more confidence, he increased his speed. Passing through many shattered pieces of glass, he sometimes took a peek in them but finding nothing interesting except his own memory. Here was the fishing session with Karamatsu. Here was a small talk with Osomatsu in the bookstore. Here was the hospital room he woke up in after his collapse. This piece contained the moment Shouei contacted him for the serialization. That piece was his high school graduation…
Stopping for a second, Ichimatsu glanced at the closest piece of glass and found his middle school self. He was travelling backward on the memory lane. If he kept going, would he see the memory when he was a baby? Like the interior of Matsuno house for example? Since he could dream of it so vividly, he must have those memories inside his head.
With that in mind, Ichimatsu walked faster, skipping through his childhood until he saw his three years old self in one of the memory pieces. Slowing his pace, he scanned those fragments quickly, frowning when seeing more and more blurry fragments. A baby's memory could only record so much, he guess. And surprisingly, there was none containing the image of Matsuno house living room.
Eventually, he came to an end, no more shattered pieces floating and only darkness waiting for him ahead.
It should be the end, right? He tilted his head, thinking. Would there be anything else on the other side of the darkness? Or he would just crash into an invisible wall? It was a dream afterall, there was no harm trying. Nodding at his own argument, he boldly took a step into the perpetual darkness. And started falling.
Knowing full well that this was a dream and this fall would not harm him in anyway, yet Ichimatsu could not help panicking. The falling sensation was too real to dismiss as a dream. Or was he falling for real?!
"Calm down." a familiar voice soothed "Your body is safe."
And Ichimatsu came to a halt immediately. He struggled in floating state, trying to bring his body back to standing position to no avail until a hand appearing out of nowhere offered to help.
"Thanks…" he hesitated "I guess.", feeling weird to have a conversation with someone in a dream. "Who are you?" he tried asking, not knowing what to expect.
A chuckle answered his question before darkness withdrew from the floating hand, revealing an arm and then a human figure emerged.
Ichimatsu gasped, almost falling backwards if not for the person holding his hand. But that person was… himself!
He was not the kind to admire himself in the mirror a lot, but he certainly knew how he looked like. The person standing right in front of him now was definitely Ichimatsu Matsuno from top to toe, even the bored expression he always had on his face. The only difference he could spot was the purple hoodie and a pair of loose sweat pants that Ichimatsu was wearing. The manga artist had those at home but barely had any chance to wear.
"Who are you?" Ichimatsu repeated, failing to hide his fright.
"Isn't it obvious?" that person shrugged, expression unchanged, seemingly disappointed in the artist's intellectual ability "I'm you, Ichimatsu Matsuno."
Ichimatsu's jaw went slack. He tried to come up with a reply but none was formed. What was going on? His mind kept repeating that question over and over until he remembered this was a dream. Everything, even the craziest could happen in a dream.
"Actually," the person in purple hoodie said "I am your past life."
"Wait." the artist raised a hand, unable to keep up with the information.
"You know the theory of human soul right?" the self-proclaimed past Ichimatsu raised an eyebrow but not waited for an answer "Basically, I died and reincarnated into you."
"But if that's the case, you and I should be the same entity." Ichimatsu struggled "Like… same soul, but just different in bodies… something like that."
The Ichimatsu in purple hoodie chuckled "You're right.", seemingly wanting to add a compliment but deciding against it "You're talking to yourself right now. Your brain created me so you can handle the past memory more easily."
"What do you mean?" the artist felt like he was hit with a bunch of nonsense.
"It's easier if you come with me."
The past Ichimatsu grabbed the manga artist's wrist and dragged him forward before he could protest. Maybe that guy was right, Ichimatsu's brain constructed him, so he could not fight back at all.
Just like how it started, Ichimatsu was travelling through a black corridor with shattered glass pieces again. However, it was very different this time. Most the pieces were darkened, their contents impossible to observe.
"Why are they all black?" pulling his hand back from his past self's grip, he voiced his question while scanning through all the pieces.
"Because they're sealed." the past Ichimatsu shrugged like it was an obvious fact.
"Why are they sealed?" he tilted his head, raising an eyebrow confusingly.
"I don't know." his past self shook his head "I only know what you know. We're one, remember?"
Wanting to argue but Ichimatsu thought better and shut up. There was no reason for his brain to deceive him.
Something got in the artist's peripheral vision while he was thinking. He turned to that direction, not knowing what had caught his attention until he found a white fragment glittering among all the black and reached for it.
Was all Ichimatsu could hear from his past self before the memory unfolded.
The room was dark, with more than half covered in total darkness even with the light of sunset shining through the closed windows. There was a person sitting on the old greenish couch. His eyes half opened, boring into the black part of the room with an empty expression. His complexion was pale and getting worse with every second ticking. His hands falling loosely by his sides, resting on the cushion… soaked in unmistakably crimson color.
Ichimatsu took a staggering step backward, his whole body trembling. He could not even brought his hand up to cover his mouth. Whatever he had in his stomach was rushing up his throat and before he could control, his body already crouched forward and threw everything out. Was vomiting inside a dream even possible? Yet he was doing so.
After a while throwing up nothing but a mixture of spit and saliva, he fell back on his bottom and stared at the floating white fragment still glittering as if mocking him. "I died slitting my wrists?" he mumbled, almost soundless, lips quivering.
"I died, actually." a voice nearby trying to draw Ichimatsu's attention which he quickly recognized it was from his past self "You're still alive."
Shakily reaching out to touch the past Ichimatsu's cheek, he started tracing all the features of the face. It was the same as him… and the same as the man sitting on the green couch…
"Why did you… commit suicide…?" he asked, voice trembling so much that he himself had trouble understanding his own question.
"I don't know." the man in purple hoodie shook his head, reminding the artist again about how they were only one entity "You must figure it out by yourself."
"Then why did I even remember this?!" a sudden burst of anger pulled Ichimatsu out of the shock and he found himself grabbing his past self's shoulder so tightly, almost crushing it. "I never asked for my previous life memory!" he shouted, shaking the guy back and forth "I never wanted to know how I died! And this is even a suicide!"
"Calm down!" his past tried to yell back "You will wake up at this rate!"
Wake up? Yeah right! He was in a freaking dream. Everything he just saw could have been all rubbish for all he know. They could not be true! There would be no way he had died committing suicide!
"I don't care!" He said angrily "Just get me out of here!"
The Ichimatsu in purple hoodie frowned in disapproval, seemingly wanting to keep the conversation going, but nodded understandingly, followed by a loud cracking sound from above. The gentle darkness surrounding them started crumbling, raining pieces of onyx glass.
"Think about me if you want to come back here."
That was the final message Ichimatsu heard before his eyes shot open.
Welcomed by a cerulean ceiling, he blinked some more times to make sure he was not in another dream. Considering he could even puke in the last dream, this was possibly another one, because he recognized almost nothing here except the fact that he was lying on a bed.
There was no light source in the room except sunlight slipping through a small gap on an indigo curtain on his right side, so it took Ichimatsu awhile to get a better look at his surroundings. Hesitating for some moment, he then proceeded to open the curtain, squinting when coming to sudden contact with too much brightness at once.
Finally getting a clear view of the room, Ichimatsu furrowed his eyebrows, trying to remember where he was. However, after five minutes brain storming, nothing came to mind. Sighing in defeat, he left the bed, darting his eyes around, hoping to catch something to at least tell him this was reality. He then found a desk placed beside the bed he was sleeping on. Aside from many books and journals about plants and flowers arranged neatly on a small shelf in front of the desk, there was nothing worth attention… except a blue cover notebook lying in the middle.
Basing on the blue theme of the room and flower related books, Ichimatsu could vaguely guess whose room this was, but he still picked up the notebook out of morbid curiosity. Checking others' belongings was not civilized but… there was nothing certain this room was Karamatsu's, was it not?
He would just take a very quick look. Yes, just like that, nothing more, nothing less.
Whispering an apology anyway, Ichimatsu opened the first page.
"What-" he gasped, dropping the notebook on the floor. He almost jumped out of his skin at the loud thump caused by the fall, but the series of footsteps coming from outside was even more worrying. Picking up the notebook and placing it back to its original place at lightning speed, he stared at the door, trying to calm himself before it swung open.
Contrary to Ichimatsu's belief, the door cracked open quietly and a pair of eyes peered inside. Only until their eyes met, the poor door was pushed open forcefully, revealing Karamatsu in his working clothes.
"You're awake!" before Ichimatsu could react, Karamatsu already threw himself at him. The plunge was too much for his aching body to withstand, the artist fell onto the nearby bed.
Rubbing his head after the fall, Ichimatsu was about to scold the florist for acting rashly but a droplet of water falling on his face stupefied him instantly. Above him, Karamatsu was sobbing, tears dropping on the artist face rapidly like he was under the rain, to the point Ichimatsu was sure he would not need to wash his face for today morning routine.
For Karamatsu to react like this, just how long had he spent wandering in the memory corridor?
"I'm fine, Karamatsu." Ichimatsu whispered, feeling bad for making him worry. "I'm really alright." assuring when Karamatsu was still crying, he reached up to touch the florist's hair but stopped immediately when his eyes spotted something… "Get off me!"
Was all Karamatsu managed before the artist's punch threw him off the bed.
"Why did you hit me?" the florist asked confusingly, hand cupping his cheek, tears still streaming.
Sitting straight up, Ichimatsu tried to even his breathings. It was so close… Just one second late and Karamatsu's snot would drop down on his face!
"Because-" he halted, knowing how dumb that reason sounded to such a touching moment, but he could not stand having that thing stuck on his face as a welcome back to reality. "Because you're too close." having no choice but spewing the first acceptable reason coming to mind, Ichimatsu took a quick glance at the florist to check his reaction but quickly averted his eyes when Karamatsu was about to catch his look.
With his eyes glued to a point on the floor, Ichimatsu had no way to know what was happening after that answer. All he could hear was some rustling of fabric, and sniffing sound signaling that Karamatsu had stopped crying. Did he say something wrong again? Dying to check on the florist to get a grip of the situation but he was too afraid to see Karamatsu's hurtful expression in case he did say anything wrong.
Great, this suffocating silence was definitely needed for a person just waking up from a terrifying nightmare. Ichimatsu shifted uncomfortably on the mattress, trying his best to distract his mind from the current circumstance. Then his eyes caught the blue cover notebook again.
That thing was shocking, he admitted. Karamatsu did not appear to be that kind of person at all. But appearance could be deceiving. He had not read the whole contents but the on the first page was Osomatsu's picture, and by the shot angle, he could tell the clerk was caught by surprise. Beside the picture were Osomatsu's full name, age, career, house and working address, contact numbers and even hobbies. Only those was shocking enough for Ichimatsu to drop it, he wondered what Karamatsu was having in store for the remaining pages.
Shaking his head violently before any creepy thought forming, he almost jumped to the ceiling when a hand touched his shoulder without warning.
"Oh sorry." Karamatsu quickly said; Ichimatsu huffed finding out it was only the florist. "I thought you had a headache…" he fidgeted, looked apologetic but happiness and relief was still apparent on his expression.
"I'm good now." the artist assured again "How long have I been sleeping?", his eyes moving around, trying to find a clock to no avail.
"Nearly a day." the florist answered immediately without having to check anything for time "You lost consciousness around two in the afternoon yesterday. Now is nearly nine thirty in the morning."
"That long?!" he gasped, trying to recall the last memory before the dreamland but all he could get was the promise to come back on Saturday.
Karamatsu nodded, no sign of joking "I called the hospital, but after checking, they said you just passed out due to exhaustion.". Sighing heavily while remembering, the florist grimaced "I was really worried. You didn't react to anything.", shaking his head slightly as if trying to get the frightening experience out of his mind.
Unable to find anything to cheer up the distressed florist, Ichimatsu wished he had tried harder on human interaction. If it was Osomatsu, he would have comforted Karamatsu easily, not sitting here idly like a duck.
"I'm sorry…" he said lamely, trying to meet Karamatsu's eyes. Oh, the florist even forgot his signature sunglasses; he must have rushed here after hearing the noise.
Karamatsu stared back at him, seemingly wanting to say something but still finding proper wording. After a moment felt like an eternity to the artist, the florist cleared his throat, frowning before opened his mouth "Do you remember who I am?"
What kind of question was this? Ichimatsu was about to ask but the serious look from Karamatsu cut him off before he could even start. Swallowing dryly, he bit his lip, trying hard not to avert his eyes "You're Karamatsu Matsuno, a florist, working at Akatsuka flower shop…". This should be enough for a memory check, should it not?
The florist did not think so. "And?" Karamatsu inquired, his gaze demanding.
And what? What was Ichimatsu supposed to add into the answer? He would rather die than start on Karamatsu's obsession with Osomatsu.
"And you are my fan." he tried, still embarrassed mentioning it directly.
A thoughtful look flashed through Karamatsu's face before he nodded contentedly. "I guess your head is okay."
"What are you? A doctor?" Ichimatsu huffed, bothered by the florist's strange attitude.
"No, I'm a florist." Karamatsu corrected, completely missing the sarcasm "You just said so."
"Yeah, my mistake." the artist said monotonously, not wanting to waste his breath explaining his supposed to be sarcastic comment. "Sorry for making you worried." Ichimatsu stood up, bowing his head "I think intense fishing was a bit too much-"
"What did you see before you fainted?" the florist suddenly interrupted, making him lift his head. There was more than pure curiosity in Karamatsu's eyes but it was impossible for Ichimatsu to describe under the pressing stare.
His memory about that moment was blurry. He remembered hearing a familiar voice, but the contents was unclear. His body somehow had reacted to that but he totally lost the recollection of what he was shouting.
"What did I say?" Ichimatsu questioned back.
Startled by the sudden inquiry, Karamatsu put a hand on his chin, thick eyebrows furrowed, seemingly in deep thought. "I don't remember."
"Pardon?" the artist raised an eyebrow, giving the man in blue apron another chance.
"I was panic so I can't remember what you were saying." Karamatsu scratched the back of his head, smiling apologetically.
"Why would you ask me then?" Ichimatsu crossed his arms, his tone more annoyed than he wanted. The nightmare was still affecting him in some way and the florist just had to tick him off. "I appreciated your concern, but I believe whatever I saw was none of your business."
That came out harsher than Ichimatsu intended to. He pressed his lips together when Karamatsu's eyes widened in surprise.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to…" he quickly spoke up but his voice got lowered and lowered until it was completely inaudible.
"You really scolded me!" all of a sudden, the florist exclaimed, eyes shining in bliss, which stunned the artist instantly.
Why was Karamatsu being happy for being treated poorly again? Wanting to voice that question so badly but Ichimatsu was taught better so he bit his lips to keep silent. Respect others' preference. His parents always reminded him because he had been talking a bit too bluntly when he was a kid.
Moreover, Karamatsu was weird since the very beginning, adding one or two strange hobbies would not change anything.
"Ehem, where is my bag?" trying to change the topic before the florist sank deeper into his own fantasy, Ichimatsu looked around and then realized that his beret and sweater were also gone "And my other stuff too.", he added.
"Oh sorry I forgot." Karamatsu beamed, still in high spirits, then gestured for the artist to follow him out of the room "I left them downstairs."
While walking through a short corridor to reach the staircase, Ichimatsu noted another room opposite to Karamatsu's but did not think too much about it. Only until reaching the ground floor, he was aware that the florist was not running this shop alone.
"Your friend woke up?" a voice chimed, followed by a middle aged woman waving her hand behind the counter. She seemed to be in her fifties, having a small and skinny but gentle face. Her long black hair was tied up into a high bun, and when she stood up to approach them, her height was a little shorter than Karamatsu's.
"Sorry for the trouble, mom." Karamatsu bowed his head slightly then proceeded to introduce Ichimatsu and his mom to each other. "I can take things from here, thanks for your help, mommy."
They had a small conversation with Ichimatsu mostly expressing his gratitude to Karamatsu's family for taking care of him before the sweet lady bid her goodbye and left the shop in her son's hand.
The florist lady somehow reminded Ichimatsu of his mom at home, so gentle and caring that he could not deny a tingling envy of Karamatsu for always having his mom by his side. "When were you adopted?" blurting out without thinking, he slapped a hand on his mouth when the florist sent him a surprise look.
"When I was around fifteen years old." despite the puzzlement, Karamatsu still answered with a reminiscing expression "I didn't want to leave Matsuno house at first, but mom insisted…"
The florist lady was a single mother, having a happy humble life until her son passed away in a traffic accident at the age of fourteen. Unable to withstand the loss, she sought death trying to jump off a bridge but was saved by Karamatsu who passed by on his way back from a grocery store. He spent half a day listening to her grief and comforting her, convincing the lady to keep on living to honor the memory of her son. They kept in contact and met sometimes a week, and when she learnt that Karamatsu was an orphan, she proposed to adopt him.
"I thought she wanted a replacement of her son at first." a mellow smile emerged on the florist's lips "But she never mistook me as him. She saw through me." melancholy presented in his eyes "She knew I long for a family."
Reaching out to touch Karamatsu's face, the artist caressed his cheek ever so slightly then froze when realization dawned on him. What the hell was he doing? He did that without thinking and now it was too awkward to pull his hand back. The florist was not helping with his blank stare at Ichimatsu, seemingly holding his breath.
Starting to sweat all over his body, Ichimatsu tried his best to keep a neutral expression while wishing for anything to interrupt this moment. However, no miracle happened no matter how long he was waiting.
"Ichimatsu." luckily, the florist broke the silence "Thank you.", smiling clumsily.
"I didn't do anything." retracting his hand as fast as he could, Ichimatsu replied swiftly while taking some steps back to keep distance.
"Be careful!" Karamatsu suddenly shouted, hand reaching towards the artist.
But it was too late, Ichimatsu already knocked over a vase behind his feet. Spinning around, he crouched down trying to save the vase from falling and succeeded but his head hit the upper shelf when he straightened up again. Cold water cascaded down his head, soaking his clothes in mere seconds and there was worrying rolling sound signaling something worse than water was coming.
A strong hand grabbed Ichimatsu's arm and pulled him out of the way, closely missed a vase falling and shattered upon contact with the ground.
"Why are you standing there?!"
Brushing wet hair off his forehead, the artist tried to open his itchy eyes, grimacing at the stinky smell from vase water. Karamatsu had saved him, obviously, but what was the florist doing fumbling with Ichimatsu's shirt?
"W-Wait!" realizing what was happening when some buttons got undone, Ichimatsu hurriedly gripped his shirt while trying to push the florist off "Wh-What are you doing?!"
"You will catch a cold in wet clothes." Karamatsu explained, hands reaching to the next button.
"I can do this myself!"
"You're shaking already."
Karamatsu was not entirely wrong, his whole body was shivering, but Ichimatsu would rather die than let a person whom he just met two days ago undressing him!
It soon became a struggle and the artist was already trying to kick the florist right in the stomach to break free. To his surprise, Karamatsu did not budge an inch. It did not take long for his mind to figure out the reason: his muscles were still tired from the fishing session and he had not eaten anything since he woke up.
No, no, no. Even if Karamatsu was also a guy, this was unacceptable!
A voice rang at the main door and in a blink of an eye, Karamatsu was sent rolling on the floor by a literal flying kick. In front of Ichimatsu stood his savior in simple white shirt, black pants and red apron with white word "Akatsuka Books" on the front.
"What do you think you are doing to your idol?" Osomatsu crossed his arms, staring down at the florist who was crawling back up in confusion.
"Osomatsu?" hugging his side where the kick landed, Karamatsu grimaced "What are you doing her-"
"I'm asking question here." the clerk narrowed his eyes, voice stern, eyebrows furrowed.
Both Karamatsu and Ichimatsu were startled by the gravity in Osomatsu's voice. Karamatsu took a quick glance at the artist as if telling him to explain the situation because he would not sound persuasive enough for the clerk.
"Osomatsu…" Ichimatsu tried, not knowing what he should say "I think-"
"It's ok, Ichimatsu." Osomatsu sent the artist an understanding smile "I'm here, you're safe." then turned back to Karamatsu with his strict expression again "Loving your idol is perfectly fine." his brows knitted into a line "But raping him is unforgivable!"
Speaking in union with the florist, Ichimatsu completely forgot his freezing body and stared at Osomatsu, eyes widened, mouth hanging open. On the floor, Karamatsu also wore the same expression, pain overlooked.
They stood in pressing silence until Ichimatsu's knees gave out and he fell on his legs, attracting attention from the remaining two.
"Why didn't you say so earlier?" Osomatsu laughed amusingly "I totally got the situation wrongly."
"You didn't give me chance to explain" Karamatsu shoot an dirty look at the unapologetic clerk "and jumped right to conclusion."
Ignoring the two adults who were bickering like some children, Ichimatsu quietly blew on the surface of his cup of hot tea. After a shower, his body was warmed up and the bad smell was gone, but clothes borrowed from Karamatsu was not helping in keeping heat: a white t-shirt, a pair of jeans and a black leather jacket. However, these were the best choices Ichimatsu could dig out from the florist's wardrobe.
Sipping on his tea, Ichimatsu felt like he just had a trip to the Hell and back. At first, Karamatsu recommended a tank top with his face printed on it and a pair of sparkling blue pants. If the artist had had something in his stomach at that time, he would have puked his guts out. Then the florist proceeded on suggesting his fashion, which always included something sparkling, until the artist had to scream at his face and pled for permission to search through the wardrobe to choose for himself.
It seriously took Ichimatsu half an hour, searching while wearing only a towel, to finally found something presentable to normal human.
While the artist was lost in thought, the argument between Osomatsu and Karamatsu already changed into a random friendly chat. From Ichimatsu's point of view, those two were really close and seem to enjoy the company of each other. Then that hit him. Their relationship and the secret blue cover notebook. How could Ichimatsu not recognize? No wonder he was really clueless on romance aspect.
"Thanks for the tea." the artist spoke up, feeling bad for interrupting their fun chat, then put the empty cup on the table "I think it's time to excuse myself."
"You're leaving already?" Osomatsu asked, dragging out the final sound "I just arrived."
"I already bothered Karamatsu too mu-"
"You are not a bother, brother." Karamatsu interrupted, snapping his fingers "Having you here is like the sun radiating light upon my withering soul."
Ichimatsu cringed almost instantly while Osomatsu already had his hand over his mouth to muffle his laugh.
"Where is my bag?" changing the topic to keep his composure intact, Ichimatsu raised a hand to stop Karamatsu when he promptly stood up "Just tell me where it is, I can get it myself."
"Behind the counter."
Arriving at his apartment, Ichimatsu dropped himself on the bed, not bothered to take off the jacket. He had a meat bun Osomatsu brought over earlier for breakfast so it should be fine for him to sleep now. Chuckling slightly when remembering Shouei's complains about his irregular sleeping time, he rolled to reach the pillow. Karamatsu and he seemed to have the same physique, but somehow the florist's clothes were a bit loose for him so it could be used as a pajama.
His consciousness slowly drifted away while he was shifting for the most comfortable position on his bed.
"Welcome back, Ichimatsu."
Opening his eyes, the artist put a hand on his forehead seeing the person in purple hoodie. His past self sent him an impish smile as a polite reply for his annoyed frown.
"I didn't think about you." he grumbled "Liar."
"Why would your brain lie to you?" the past Ichimatsu smiled lopsidedly "You unconsciously wanted to know."
At this point, Ichimatsu was unsure if the theory of only one entity was still true, but his past self did know what was going on in his mind so maybe.
Any more arguing would be pointless, the artist knew, so he followed the past him to the previous life memory corridor without question. He had calmed down greatly after the commotion in Karamatsu's house so accepting foreign memories would be easier, he hoped. What could be worse than his own suicide death anyway?
Yet the sight of that glittering fragment still sent chill down his spine. Actively avoiding it, he sped up to catch up to his past self, who never stopped for a second since they reached this black corridor. They walked in silence for a while until there were barely any shattered glass pieces around, presumably the beginning of the memory lane.
"You picked up the final piece too early." the past Ichimatsu suddenly spoke up, gesturing for the artist to come closer "I planned to reveal your previous life to you from the beginning, but since you knew the worst part, we can get through this more easily."
Without further delay, the Ichimatsu in purple hoodie pulled the manga artist to the very first glittering memory piece.
Ichimatsu Matsuno was his full name. He was one of the sextuplets of Matsuno family. His father was Matsuzou Matsuno, an office worker, shouldering the family of eight people. Matsuyo Matsuno, a housewife, was his mother, single-handedly taking care of him and his five brothers. Just one look at their appearances, Ichimatsu immediately understood why he was having some strange thoughts about his parents after waking up in the hospital.
"You said that I was a sextuplet, didn't you?" Ichimatsu asked and received a nod from his past self "But why I don't see any of my brothers in all the white pieces?"
"Because they are in the black pieces?" the man in purple hoodie chuckled playfully, earning a look from the artist "It's up to you to find the answer."
"So the memories of my brothers were sealed." he concluded, stroking his chin.
His past self only shrugged, neither confirming nor denying, then proceeded to guide him.
There was nothing special from his childhood up to his high school graduation, but he noticed the change in his attitude over time: from an energetic child to a pretended-to-be out-going boy. Ichimatsu almost choked on his own breath. It was almost no different from his current life. But then after high school…
"You're a NEET, spending days feeding cats and doing nothing?" he commented, earning a scowl from his past self.
"I'm you." the man retorted "So yes, you were that kind of unburnable trash on your previous life, spending days lazing around, smooching off your parents and feeding cats."
Opening his mouth to argue but Ichimatsu thought better and clicked his tongue, letting the matter slide.
Since most the pieces were darkened, their trip finished without any explanation for how he had ended up taking his own life. There was a piece showing he was sitting in the living room of Matsuno house alone, near some white curtains, mumbling something inaudible with tears rolling down his cheeks. Ichimatsu was not that stupid not to recognize it was a funeral. But whose?
Was that funeral the reason leading to his suicide?
Without further information, it was impossible to tell. Therefore, he bid goodbye to his past self and woke up.
Outside the windows was still bright, seemed to be around four or five in the afternoon, long passed his lunch. No wonder his stomach was protesting. He stretched his stiff body then lazily left his bed to head to the bathroom. Washing his face roughly to chase away drowsiness although he had been doing nothing but sleeping since yesterday afternoon, he turned around to get a change of clothes but stopped midway.
Glancing back at the mirror above the sink, Ichimatsu tried moving closer. This leather jacket looked kinda good on him. Trying out some cool poses he once saw in mangas, he put two fingers making V shape on his chin on his final pose and suddenly realized what he was doing. His cheeks burned in shame although there was no one else around witnessing his embarrassing acts. Splashing water on his face to cool down, the artist hastily took off Karamatsu's clothes and put them in the washing machine. Quickly fetching a change of clothes, he disappeared into the shower, not daring to look back at the mirror.
After the shower and a makeshift dinner of instant noodles, he got in his desk and started sketching whatever idea coming to mind. The fishing spot seemed to be a terrible dating location at first, but now that he considered again, it was quite creative.
While skimming through all the events on Monday for ideas, Ichimatsu came to a halt.
The voice he had heard… the familiar voice saying something that riled him up… was it not Osomatsu's voice?
"No way." shaking his head with a chuckle, he dismissed, focusing on his drawing.
"The fishing spot is a genius idea!" on the other end of the phone call, Shouei said excitedly "You did it, I like it!"
That was the signal for Ichimatsu to start on his manuscript. After some more discussion on what to improve in his sketch, Shouei hung up and the artist finally could celebrate his success. This romantic chapter was draining. Thank to any deity that it was done now. He swore he would never let his story approach romance ever again even if it was the last thing he did as a manga artist.
The electric clock on the head of his bed signaled that it was eleven. He was so absorbed into the sketch he forgot the time. But he did not feel sleepy at all. How could anyone feel sleepy after that much sleep?
Usually, he would browse through mangas on his bookshelves, but today he did not feel like doing so. Now with work off his mind, his thoughts started to wander around the memory of his previous life again.
There were people with their past life memories because they had not drink the memory-wiping water in the Hell or something. Ichimatsu was not a fan of mythology so he was not sure. However, why would he suddenly remember his past life? Not to mention his previous life resembled the present so much it was creepy.
… your punishment.
Startled by an foreign voice whispering by his ears, Ichimatsu sprang up, accidentally knocking the chair over. However, there was no one else inside the apartment beside himself.
It could not be a ghost, could it? Chill ran down his spine, and the fact that he was living alone did not help.
Diving onto the bed where his cat-patterned handbag lying, the artist searched for his phone. Looking at some cat pictures will calm his nerves. He always did that on the first month he moved in here.
"A message?" he thought out loud as soon as the phone screen lit up. Unlocking with a pattern, he checked the message half-heartedly, thinking it would be one of the ads again. It was neither an ad nor one of his contacts. Tapping on the message curiously, he cringed almost instantly.
"My dear brother,
I hope that you go home safely. Please send me a message when you do.
Now that he thought about it, Karamatsu had given him a name card on their first meeting but he had not touched it because there was no change in their plan. Clumsily saving the florist's number into his contact list, he then reread the message and gasped upon recognition. This message was sent after he left the flower shop and now, it was nearly half past eleven at night.
Cursing himself for being too ignorant, Ichimatsu quickly typed on his phone, apologizing for his late reply and thanking for Karamatsu's concern. This should be enough, the florist would see it tomorrow morning after waking up.
Or he had thought so before his phone started ringing.
"Ichimatsu's speaking." the manga artist picked up, using his first name because he had already seen the caller.
"Brother, did something happen to you out of my protective arms?" Karamatsu's voice sounded on the other end, both painful and serious at the same time that Ichimatsu was not sure if he should click his tongue or feel bad for making him worried.
"I fell asleep after coming home so I didn't see your message." he said politely. Not seeing Karamatsu directly made it easier to keep his composure "I'm sorry."
"Don't be, as long as your wellbeing is ensured-"
"I'm hanging up." interrupting, the artist suddenly felt so satisfied being able to cut the florist off without a tingle of guilt. "Thanks for taking care and worrying about me." he shyly added before hastily pressing the End Call button.
Looking at the phone screen again, Ichimatsu did not realize a smile sneaking on his face until he saw his reflection. It had been a long time since the last time he had a random, non-work related phone call, not counting the ones from his parents of course.
Karamatsu's message and call successfully wiped the eerie feeling away. Now the artist was able to calmly analyze his situation. Since the reason he had the past memory was unclear, he should try other approaches, like unsealing the black pieces for example…
This line of thinking was futile, like he knew what was the key to unseal.
Letting his thought wander around, Ichimatsu finally decided to search Matsuno orphanage on the internet. Karamatsu did show him the living room of the orphanage and it resembled the one in his past so much. They must have connection.
Sadly, the internet only gave him Matsuno house address and contact number. It seemed that he would need to pay it a visit himself.
"Welcome to Matsuno house, please come in."
Following a graceful lady in her forties into the house, Ichimatsu was still baffled by the similarities it had with the memory fragments he had seen. Just how long did it take for him to reincarnate? Would his parents, Matsuzou and Matsuyo, still be around?
The door leading to the living room slid open, revealing several kids playing around and some babies sleeping in their cradles while their caretaker was leisurely checking his phone. The caretaker sprang up hearing the door opening, hurriedly dusting his pink apron and put his phone in the pant pocket before presenting himself to the lady and Ichimatsu.
"May I help you?" the caretaker bowed his head as a greeting and sent them an elegant smile.
"Mister Ichimatsu Matsuno is interested in the history of our house, can you show him to the archive?" the lady asked "I will look after the kids for the time being."
"Yes, of course." the caretaker nodded then sidestepped to make way for the lady to walked in the living room before leaving and closed the door behind his back.
Ichimatsu had already made a phone call before his two-hour bus ride here, asking if he could come for a small study about Matsuno orphanage. The previous lady must be the head mistress who had answered his call. She was hesitated at first but opened up right away knowing he was also from this house.
So here he was, on the way to the archive upstairs, or the room used to belong to the past him and his brothers.
"Make yourself at home." smiling politely with a hint of mischievousness, the caretaker slid open the door.
"Thank you." he bowed his head and stepped inside.
Different from his memory, the room was now filled with shelves full of books and random dusty objects, not as empty as when the past him was lazily feeding stray cats while his brothers were outside. Then something caught his attention.
The worn out greenish couch on the right side of the room…
Startled by the caretaker's voice, Ichimatsu then realized his body was visibly trembling. He had wrapped his thought about the fact that the past Ichimatsu had committed suicide here and it was not related to the present him, but seeing the scene with his own eyes was a whole new experience. Foreign feelings invaded his mind, taking hold of his heart, slowly squeezing air out of his lung.
His logic screamed for him to back away from the archive but he found himself staggering towards the couch, the caretaker's voice long ignored. Tumbling when he was only one step away from reaching it, Ichimatsu fell face first onto the couch, eating a mouth full on dust, which cleared his mind almost instantly.
"Are you okay?" the caretaker rushed to his side and patted his back to help him cough the dust out.
"Sorry." the artist stopped to cough again then gave the man in pink apron an apologetic smile "I don't know what's got into me."
"You look as pale as a ghost." the caretaker pointed out, worry in his eyes but Ichimatsu could see some hint of annoyance and curiosity "Do you have some kind of claustrophobia?"
He saw where the caretaker was coming from. The room was small and stored too many things. Even without claustrophobia, he still found it was hard to breath in this archive.
"I'm fine now." the artist assured but mostly to calm himself. This rush of emotion was different from the time he saw through the memory fragment. It was not pure fright and did not give the nauseous feeling of witnessing a death. Instead, there were anguish, sorrow, grief… and guilt. Obviously he would feel guilty for betraying his parents' bringing up with a suicide, but this was different. The guilt was so strong it overshadowed other feelings. It was as if he had done something very wrong… something that could deny his rights of being a human…
"Mister?" the caretaker asked again, more strength in his voice like he was calling the artist numerous times but not receiving a response.
"Sorry, I was lost in thought again…" Ichimatsu ran a hand over his face "I apologize for the inconvenience."
"I-It's okay." the caretaker nodded understandingly, although his smile was strain "You can take your time. What do you need for your study? I can get those information for you in the mean time."
Ichimatsu was about to say he could do that himself but realized that he really could not with his unfocused mind, plus he would waste time searching through everything to get what he wanted. It was certainly better to ask for help from the caretaker. He then told the caretaker, who was eager to do anything except being here and witnessing the artist's strange behavior, he needed anything about Matsuno family, the original owner of this house before it turned into an orphanage.
"I'll be right back." the caretaker sent him one last smile before disappearing into the maze of shelves.
Left alone on the green couch, Ichimatsu tried to even his breath in the air full of dust caused by his fall. He coughed occasionally but was able to ease his fast heartbeat. Leaning on the backrest of the couch, he let his hands fall loosely by his sides, resting on the cushion in similar position as the Ichimatsu in the memory fragment, but no feelings arose this time. His eyes wander to the shelves and then the floor. There was barely anything worth attention beside dust, and some kind of brown stains on the turquoise colored floor… Wait. Was it not the direction the dying Ichimatsu was staring at? What was that brown stain? His view was blocked by the shelves so it was not possible to tell how big that stain was or how far it spread.
Luckily, before curiosity got the better of him, the caretaker came back with a pile of file cases.
"Most of this are newspapers around the time the Matsuno couple founded this orphanage." the caretaker set those file cases down on the couch beside the artist "All their personal identification and family pictures were burnt along with them on their funeral so I can't find any."
Wasting no time, Ichimatsu started browsing through the file cases, most the newspapers, as the caretaker mentioned, only had a small corner to introduce the new Matsuno orphanage, with a picture of the Matsuno couple smiling in front of their house.
"It's more than seventy years ago?!" the artist blurted out in surprise seeing the date in the worn out newspapers.
"Is there something wrong?" the caretaker tilted his head, giving him a questioning look.
"N-Nothing." he covered up clumsily "I'm just surprised."
The caretaker did not take a word but decided to stay silent.
The house was preserved so well, he thought it was recent. Skimming through all the newspapers with similar contents, he finally reached the last two file cases.
"The contents of those are a bit shocking, please prepare yourself." the caretaker warned before he opened the cover.
"Shocking?" he raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, you must've been aware of that." the person in pink apron brought a hand to his chin, giving the manga artist a knowing look "Since you're studying about Matsuno family."
Ichimatsu nodded, trying to hide his uncertainty so he would not appear suspicious. He was fully aware of Ichimatsu Matsuno's suicide, but that could not be the only death in this house, considering the funeral his past self was in.
Without further delay, he opened the file case and got hit with a big bold headline:
A CURSE OF SIXTUPLETS?!
"What the…" leaving the sentence unfinished, he started reading carefully.
All the name was changed, but it was clear that the paper wrote about Matsuno family. It was not nice to make a title like that with the tragedy unfolding later though.
The manga artist was correct. His previous life's suicide was not the only death.
His was the final death.
Prior to his, there was five more.
Due to a request from the parents, details of their children' deaths was excluded. However, through some more papers, Ichimatsu figured out that two were involved in a traffic accident, two were due to work accident, and the final two committed suicide. Since all the names were changed, it was impossible to tell who was in what, but at least, he was certain his previous life ended in suicide because of his brothers passing away.
Strangely, Ichimatsu found himself calm reading through this truth. Was his heart prepared enough or something?
Scanning through the rest with similar information, he closed the last file case and accidentally let out a sigh of disappointment, drawing attention from the caretaker who was playing with his phone in the mean time.
"Can I help you, mister-"
"You can call me Matsuno." Ichimatsu offered.
"But that's my family name too." the caretaker chuckled.
"Oh sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"I never told you anyway." his giggle grew louder "I'm Todomatsu Matsuno, and before you ask, yes, I'm from this house too."
"Wow." was all Ichimatsu could say, realizing how many Matsunos he had been seeing recently.
Matsuno orphanage was not a big organization since it was founded on the insurance money the couple received after their sons passing away. Therefore, the number of orphans here was also low. Yet he had met a total of three Matsunos already. The world was really small.
"How long have you been working here, Todomatsu?" the manga artist broke the short silence, but then remembered his manner "Can I call you by your first name? Since we have the same last name."
"It's fine, mist- Can I call you by your first name too?" Todomatsu asked, already knowing the answer before receiving an obvious nod. "I started working here after college, so it's two years." he smiled gracefully "How about you?"
"Me?" Ichimatsu pointed at himself confusingly, but quickly understood "Oh, I'm working as a manga artist, it's my second year too."
"Wow, you draw manga." the caretaker said, eyes filled with admiration "That's awesome."
"Thanks… I guess." scratching his head embarrassingly, the artist averted his eyes.
"What series are you working on- wait, can you draw something? I might be able to guess." Todomatsu searched his apron pocket, swiping out a small notebook and a pen.
"S-Sure." receiving those, Ichimatsu clicked the pen several times, lips pressing together while deciding what to draw. Would it be okay for him to draw the main character of his series? Would it look like he was trying to advertise his manga? After some more consideration, he ended up drawing the main character's friend, whom he just added on recent chapters.
"Oh!" Todomatsu exclaimed instantly "You're the artist of this series?! I've been following it since a kid asked me to read for her."
And then they chatted for a while. Todomatsu expressed his excitement for the story and his anticipation for the next chapter, also his frustration seeing the announcement about the series absence in January issue. It was fun talking about his work, but Ichimatsu must try hard to answer vaguely when the questions were close to the chapter contents. Spoiling his loyal reader was the last thing he would do as a manga artist.
Todomatsu's phone rang in the middle of the discussion about their favorite characters. He quickly picked up but found out that was the alarm for lunch. Only then, they realized how much time they had spent in the dusty archive.
"Let me put these back in the shelves, you can go downstairs to wash your face first." Todomatsu hurriedly gather all the file cases lying scattered around.
"No, let me help you." Ichimatsu insisted. "It's faster with two people." he explained, getting half of the file cases from the caretaker's hands "Just tell me where to put them."
Ichimatsu left Matsuno house around one o'clock, after a simple meal together with the kids in the orphanage. He planned to leave early, but Todomatsu insisted on introducing him to the five years old girl who had recommended his manga to the caretaker. Therefore, he had to stay until this hour. He was not much of a sociable person, but having a warm meals with kids once in a while was somewhat enjoyable. Kids did not have much expectation on how proper he should behave, so it was relaxing, like playing with cats.
On the way back home, he tried stringing all the knowledge he had gained in the archive. The sextuplets of Matsuno family, including the past him, all met their demises with the traffic accident as the beginning, then the work accident happened four months after that, followed by the suicides which was only one month later. It was too much for the past him and another brother to withstand the shock, he guessed.
"Stupid decision." he mumbled. The Matsuno couple, his previous life's parents, must have experienced the same grief, but instead of giving up life, they had spent the insurance money wisely and shone light onto unfortunate babies and kids. If not for them, Ichimatsu wondered if he could have this present.
The parents who tolerated him as a trashy NEET in the previous life were also his indirect saviors in this life. How many good deeds had he done in all of his lives to deserve them?
Without much progress on unsealing his past memory and getting an approval from Shouei yesterday, Ichimatsu focused on his manuscript for the rest of the week. He almost forgot the promise on Saturday if not for Karamatsu's call on Friday night asking what time he would come. But he was already half way finishing the manuscript, there was no reason to keep meeting the romance expert.
"I'm sorry… I don't think I will make it." the artist said hesitantly, feeling bad for breaking his promise. After all the shocking revelations, he just wanted to be buried in work till his body exhausted and went to sleep. The corridor of memory would not appear if he was too tired to process information.
"Are you giving up?" after a long pause, Karamatsu asked, voice low and serious.
"What? No, I-" Ichimatsu halted immediately. He definitely did not abandon the investigation on his past memory. He just put it on hold because he had more important matter to attend to… right? Whatever it was, he could reason with himself later. More importantly, how could Karamatsu know?
Luckily, before the artist started panicking, the florist started again "Don't you want to make the most memorable first date for your love?"
"What are you talking about?" Ichimatsu frowned. What was the guy trying to say- Oh no! He totally forgot!
"Your date, brother!" Karamatsu sounded worried "Or… did she cancel it…?", his volume lowered approaching the end.
Just say yes and he could have the whole Saturday free to concentrate on his manuscript. Yet Ichimatsu could not bring himself to agree because that would prove how correct Karamatsu was to think it was a miracle for him to have a girlfriend. His pride was at stake here.
Taking a deep breath, Ichimatsu steeled his will. "Sorry" he said, trying to make it sound uncertain "I'm just… really nervous, so…", he paused, forcing his mind to create a plausible explanation for his forgetful mind "… so I was trying to distract myself from it."
"Fear not." Karamatsu consoled, voice proud and confident "I'm here to ensure you nothing but a perfect date."
'Like the fishing spot'. Ichimatsu swallowed back a sarcastic comment. Although Shouei liked the idea of the fishing spot, he said because it was unique and funny, not because it was otherworldly romantic.
"I think I can come at nine." he calculated the travelling time, not wanting to wake up too early "Or maybe you can tell me the destination, I can-"
"Non non non." the florist interrupted, even without seeing, Ichimatsu could feel he was waving his index finger while speaking "Surprise is a must in a perfect date."
'Excuse me but we're not dating here.' clearing his throat to swallow yet another comment, the artist then gave in and agreed to meet at Akatsuka flower shop at eight thirty so that they can make it to wherever at nine.
After hanging up the call with Karamatsu, Ichimatsu came up with an idea and dialed another number.
"Hey, aren't you sulking too much?" Osomatsu put an arm around the shoulders of the person in blue walking beside him.
"I'm not." Karamatsu grumbled, definitely sulking.
Ichimatsu smiled amusingly under his mask, walking behind the two man: one in simple clothes with brown sweater, stripped t-shirt and red trousers while the other in flashy blue vest with sleeves rolled up, revealing an expensive golden watch, checkered shirt, grey pants and a pair of polished black shoes.
"We're here!" Karamatsu suddenly came to a stop, opening his arm dramatically in front of the grand entrance.
"A zoo?" Osomatsu raised an eyebrow, unimpressed "You said it would be a perfect dating location so I took my time dressing up, what a waste of effort."
"Heh, I never expect you to see the charm of this place, Osomatsu." the florist scoffed laughingly "But Ichimatsu will tell you how fascinating-"
"I'll buy tickets, you two can wait here." Ichimatsu spoke up and quickly left before being dragged into their childish argument.
Coming back after fifteen minutes, the artist was amazed that those two was still at it, bickering about the appeal of the zoo as a promising dating spot. Mediating the verbal fight, Ichimatsu then ended up having to walk in the middle of the two or he would never hear the end of this squabble.
"Before we start on whatever plan in your mind, can we visit panda section first?" Ichimatsu asked, earning a surprised look from Karamatsu while Osomatsu nodded nonchalantly.
The artist walked in silence while the other two not so much with Karamatsu complaining about the bookstore clerk's presence, although he sounded more on the joking side than annoyed one.
It was Ichimatsu who invited Osomatsu without informing the florist. He thought it would be a nice surprise for Karamatsu, and with the clerk here, he could escape some activities like the fishing session last time. Okay, it was more because of the latter reason, but Karamatsu should be happy instead of sulking, should he not? Ichimatsu was doing him a favor here.
A voice came booming from the direction of the panda section, quickly followed by a human-like figure running at an inhuman speed. Both Osomatsu and Ichimatsu turned to the man in blue with questioning eyes but he did not return their look but smiled at the approaching person instead.
"Jyushimatsu!" Karamatsu called, opening his arms wide and tumbled backwards some steps when that running person plunged at him for a tight hug. Regaining his balance, the florist patted on the blue and yellow cap, his smile growing bigger "How are you?"
"As good as ever, niisan." Jyushimatsu released his bone crushing hug, lifting his arms up "Muscle muscle, hustle hustle.", then realizing Karamatsu was not coming alone, he spun towards the remaining two. "Hello, Ichimatsu." he waved his gloved hand, the manga artist gave a slight bow. "Hello… uhm, who are you?" scratching his cap, Jyushimatsu tilted his head, eyes stuck on the bookstore clerk, who was still having an impressed look on his face.
"Osomatsu." Ichimatsu nudged slightly at the clerk's side, snapping him out of a daze.
"O-Oh sorry." Osomatsu stammered then ran a finger under his nose, putting on his usual grin "I'm Osomatsu Matsuno, nice to meet you."
"He's a Matsuno too, niisan!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed, giving Karamatsu an excited look before turning back to Osomatsu again, his already wide smile growing even more that the others started to afraid if his jaw would be damaged.
"He's also from Matsuno house." the florist nodded "You can call him niisan too, if you want."
"Wait, what?" both the clerk and the artist blurted out.
"Ichimatsu is also from there, he's a niisan to you too" Karamatsu continued without a care.
"Hey!" Ichimatsu yelled.
"Roger!" completely ignoring the newly earned brothers' opinion, Jyushimatsu grabbed Osomatsu's hand, shaking vigorously "Nice to meet you, Osomatsu-niisan.", then turned to the manga artist "It's been a long time, Ichimatsu-niisan."
Before Jyushimatsu's bright smile, the two were at a loss for words and finally had to accept their niisan titles, not forgetting to shoot annoyed looks at Karamatsu, who was nodding his head contently the whole time.
Greetings aside, Karamatsu and Jyushimatsu then had a short chat before the zoo manager called Jyushimatsu through a walkie-talkie for abandoning his section.
"See you later, niisan." Jyushimatsu said, his smile faded a little, bowing his head to the three.
Startled by a soft voice chiming from behind, Ichimatsu swirled back but that person ran pass him and jumped into the zookeeper's arms.
"I thought it's Totty." Karamatsu mumbled but instantly slapped a hand on his mouth when the artist raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Who is she?" Osomatsu asked, drawing attention from the two men beside him "Another Matsuno?"
"I don't think so." the florist shook his head "But she looks familiar."
While the three Matsunos was talking among themselves, that person turned back. "Where is my manner?" she smiled apologetically "I'm Homura Shimizu, Jyushimatsu-niisan's sister. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The girl named Homura folded her hands and bowed down respectfully, long brown hair tied into a braid dangling by her side. Dressed in a long sleeved white silk shirt and a simple knee-length brown skirt, she still radiated an aura of a high status lady…
"Shimizu…" Osomatsu hummed "I think I have heard of this last name somewhere."
"Me too." Karamatsu agreed, but still frowning his thick brows trying to remember.
"Are you two serious?" Ichimatsu lifted an eyebrow, gesturing with his face to the left where a billboard stood outside of the zoo fences and across the street. "Shimizu corporation."
"Eh?" was all the clerk and the florist could manage, but then they waved their hands dismissively "It can't be, right?"
However, their smiles were strain, because of course, they must have seen Homura at least once on TV or newspaper beside her father, the president of Shimizu corporation, and her mother, a famous actress.
It took five minutes for the truth to sink in before the three confused Matsunos remembered what the lady just said.
"You're her brother?" Osomatsu was the first to speak up, staring at Jyushimatsu, eyes widened.
The zookeeper nodded energetically.
Chapter 4: Do you always look like this?
I'm sorry this chapter took a long time QAQ. I blame my friend-
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"What do you want me to do again?" Osomatsu raised an eyebrow, totally not amused. By his expression, it was as clear as day that he heard and understood the whole thing but asked again to give Karamatsu one more chance to change his request.
However, as usual, the florist missed that hint and repeated his dating plan while the clerk's frown was growing second by second. "Because Ichimatsu wants to observe the entire date, I will act as him," Karamatsu pointed at himself using the thumb "and you will pretend to be his girlfriend." and stretched his index finger towards Osomatsu.
"Excuse me." the clerk raised his voice "What makes you think that you're more suitable with the guy role than I am?", placing a hand on his hip, eyes narrowed.
"Because I'm manly." Karamatsu tilted his head in confusion as if it was an established fact and he did not understand why Osomatsu even felt the need to ask.
Osomatsu froze for a second then shrugged "Ichimacchan isn't manly though."
"Hey, that's rude!" Ichimatsu protested.
"Manly isn't the only quality of a fine gentleman." Karamatsu offered his comfort but somehow the artist felt even more offended. "Anyway, you're not suitable for the boyfriend role because you're a pervert, Osomatsu." he proceeded to explain, earning a confused look from the other two.
"What does it have to do with anything?" Osomatsu lifted his eyebrows, not bothered to deny the pervert title.
"It has everything to do with this." the florist crossed his arms, voice serious "What if Ichimatsu learns after you and ruins his very first date?", then shook his head sympathetically "This could be his only chance in a lifetime."
"I take offense to that." Ichimatsu grumbled, trying his best not to grab Karamatsu's shirt collar. The florist was not necessarily wrong. He did not even have a real date coming. But the way the blue guy put it annoyed him to no end. How could someone be both considerate and tactless at the same time like that?
"I got your point." to pour fuel on the fire, Osomatsu nodded in agreement "But I wouldn't do anything to you", then pointing out the obvious "because you're not a girl."
That was probably the most convincing argument Osomatsu had ever made. Yet Karamatsu shot him a doubtful look "What if you can't resist my guilty sexy body and jump me?"
"Like hell I would!"
Annoyed by two adults acting like some children, Ichimatsu decided to ignore them and let his mind wander back to half an hour ago.
The friendly zookeeper with the widest and happiest smile, who always spent his time piggybacking some lazy panda around, was actually the young master of Shimizu family. It was so shocking that even when Homura had left after delivering her niisan's lunch box and Jyushimatsu bid his goodbye to go back to his station, the three remaining Matsunos were still staring into thin air with their mouths hanging open.
To Ichimatsu, it came as pure surprise than shock, because every time he came by for reference to draw animal, his chat with Jyushimatsu was all random and vague. Therefore, he obviously knew nothing about the zookeeper and vice versa. However, to think the young master of Shimizu family was doing manual labor instead of working for the corporation was a bit outrageous. Although Jyushimatsu was adopted, it was still weird for his parents to allow him to pursue this career, considering they were all about appearance.
Osomatsu was bewildered by Jyushimatsu's identity but that was all he reacted. He had only gotten to know the zookeeper for like five minutes before the revelation so obviously, he was the first to regain his composure and started commenting on how lucky Jyushimatsu was to have a pretty little sister delivering his food.
On the other hand, Karamatsu was petrified the whole time and only snapped out of it when Osomatsu tried stuffing both his nose and mouth. The florist must have been close to Jyushimatsu since he was called by niisan and the zookeeper listened to his every word. Yet he never knew Jyushimatsu's real identity.
It took Ichimatsu and Osomatsu nearly thirty minutes to get Karamatsu's spirit back. He kept mumbling something nonsense like 'Jyushimatsu doesn't trust me so he didn't tell me anything'. Only until the manga artist mentioned that maybe the zookeeper did not have good relationship with his famous parents, Karamatsu's eyes shined again.
With Jyushimatsu out of the picture and confidence back in his withered soul, Karamatsu remembered the main purpose of this trip and started directing their dating plan. However, before he could start, Ichimatsu voiced his opinion of wanting to be an observer so that he could learn better without tiring himself out too much for tomorrow 'real date'.
The florist opposed to the idea at first because he wanted Ichimatsu to experience the date by himself, but the artist's reason was sounding so he eventually gave up. However, a date would be incomplete without a couple, so Osomatsu ultimately became a sacrifice.
"Alright, I'll do it." Osomatsu sighed in defeat, not forgetting to shoot his 'kindest' smile at the manga artist.
Ichimatsu honestly had not expected Karamatsu to have a whole dating plan for a couple. He thought it would just be hanging out at some random places like the fishing spot last time, so he called the bookstore clerk, saying he would treat him and the florist on Saturday for helping out with his manga. Free food was never a no for Osomatsu, so… sorry for the deceit, his sacrifice would not be forgotten.
Snapped out of his thought, the artist nodded at Karamatsu, gesturing that he was listening.
"Can you describe your girlfriend to Osomatsu so he can act more like her?"
"What?" Osomatsu frowned but his expression quickly relaxed, lips curved into a playful smile. "Oh right, Karamatsu, you're a genius." giving the florist an applause, he then skipped to Ichimatsu's side and threw an arm around the artist's shoulder "Tell me more about her, Ichimacchan."
Glaring dagger at the clerk, Ichimatsu clenched his hand around his handbag straps so tightly his fist turned white. Trying to force a smile but he was sure it looked like a grimace, he whispered "It's all your idea."
"I didn't save you to have you betray me, Ichimacchan." Osomatsu grinned cheerfully despite evilness dripping from his words. "I'm not going down alone." he murmured.
"What are you two whispering about?" Karamatsu walked to them, head tilting curiously.
"No, I…" Ichimatsu stalled, screaming inside for his creative mind to come up with a girl who was not too out of his reach. Karamatsu's questioning gaze and Osomatsu's teasing grin definitely did not help one bit.
What kind of a boyfriend who could not properly describe his girlfriend? But if he just took a character in his manga for reference, Karamatsu would recognize because he was a fan.
Think, Ichimatsu, think.
"It's okay if you don't want to." Karamatsu soothed, giving the distressed artist an understanding smile.
Suddenly, an idea sparked. The artist chuckled. "She is…", he sent the grinning clerk a meaningful look "… just like him."
"Huh?" Osomatsu blurted out unknowingly while Karamatsu's eyes widened to the point they could pop out.
"You heard me right." Ichimatsu gave the clerk a small smile "Osomatsu, you can be yourself in this date with Karamatsu. Isn't it great?"
However, Osomatsu never had chance to finish as Karamatsu took hold of his wrist and pulled him to his side. "Let's make haste, we're already behind the schedule." the florist gave a charming smile, then adjusted so that instead of the clerk's wrist, he held his hand gently "My lady, let's run."
Before Osomatsu could complete his sentence, Karamatsu already broke into a run and dragged the confused clerk with him, not forgetting to gesture for Ichimatsu to follow.
Hurrying after the two, Ichimatsu could not hide a grin hearing Osomatsu throwing curses back at him because it was downright embarrassing for two grown men to hold hands and run happily in a zoo.
"Dear, he looks just like you." Osomatsu waved his hand, gesturing for Karamatsu to come to his side, grinning from ear to ear "Soooo adorable."
"Huh, where?" the florist darted his eyes around "This is not the wolf section, Osomatsu."
"What do wolves have anything to do here?" Ichimatsu gave Karamatsu a puzzled look while Osomatsu just shrugged, seemingly knowing the answer for a long time.
"Silence and solitude hone a man's spirits." the florist put a hand on his forehead, casting shadow onto his eyes. "And what animal can symbolize isolation other than a lone wolf?", he shook his head slowly "None.", eyes closed dreamily "Always fighting a never-ending battle against itself, just like me."
Ichimatsu stared at the florist blankly "What are you saying?", while Osomatsu had already hugged his side and laughed since Karamatsu started his speech.
"Let's get back to the point." the artist shrugged, pointing with his face towards Osomatsu "Your 'girlfriend' is still waiting for you over there.", completely ignoring the clerk's annoyed expression with his word choice.
"I never went sidetracked though." Karamatsu tilted his head in contemplation, but still complied and walked to the laughing Osomatsu. "Tell me which lovely animal that you saw me in, honey." he smiled affectionately, making the clerk clam a hand over his mouth, seemingly wanting to puke.
However, Osomatsu regained his composure fast and stretched his arm, pointing somewhere inside a cage. "There. Just put a pair of sunglasses on him and you will have your twin."
Karamatsu's eyes followed the direction the clerk was pointing. "I don't see anything else except a gorilla." he put a hand on his chin, squinting his eyes "Or my eyesight has gone bad-"
"He's saying you look like that gorilla." Ichimatsu interrupted impatiently "Get it already."
Not wasting a single second, Karamatsu shot an annoyed glare at Osomatsu, who burst out laughing. At the same time, the artist took another look at the gorilla busy scratching his cheek inside the cage and silently agreed with the clerk.
"You're not going to hit your 'girlfriend', are you?" Osomatsu grinned mischievously, running a finger under his nose.
"No, I won't, honey." the florist forced a smile then reached out to grab the clerk's hand, squeezing so tightly that Osomatsu grimaced almost instantly. "Let's keep going, there are many places we haven't visited yet."
"We've finally arrived at your homeland." Karamatsu exclaimed, lifting Osomatsu's hand and placed a kiss on his knuckle "Do you feel reminiscent yet?", lips curving into an impish smile.
Realizing people staring at their direction, Osomatsu tried to pull his hand back from the florist's tight grip to no avail. "What the hell do you mean by my homeland?!" he yelled after failing to retrieve his hand without making a scene "It's a freaking insect house!"
"Don't be shy, darling." Karamatsu smiled even more sweetly "Let's visit your relatives." and dragged the protesting Osomatsu inside the house of insect.
Let out a laugh, Ichimatsu followed the noisy pair.
The house of insect was divided into many small glass cages with each cage containing a kind. Their interiors were designed to mimic the insects' habitats. Not only they were arranged neatly but also classified by their family.
Swiping out his phone, the manga artist took pictures of whatever appealing to him for future reference. Whoever designing this section deserved an award for turning a cage of insects into a fascinating visiting location.
"Aren't your relatives waving to you?" Karamatsu's voice came from the next room together with some carefree laughter, making the artist's feet move on its own.
"Shut up, gorilla." Osomatsu grumbled but loudly enough for Ichimatsu to hear when he arrived.
"Who is Osomatsu's rela- Oh." realization dawned on him before the sentence was finished. The artist tried a bit too late to muffle his laugh, earning a murderous glare from the clerk.
"Another word and I'll hit both of you." the clerk warned, eyes narrowed, but his stomach betrayed his serious expression and gave a loud grumbling sound. Osomatsu cleared his throat embarrassingly, averting his eyes when Karamatsu snickered.
"Let's grab something to eat first." Ichimatsu suggested "You two can continue with this act later."
"Non non non." Karamatsu interrupted the clerk, waving his index finger, giving Ichimatsu a look of pity "The real battle starts now."
After around ten minutes walking, they arrived at the food stall area. There were many people gathering, filling almost all the tables except ones at the rear which were the furthest from all the stalls. It was no time to be picky, and Ichimatsu was actually thankful for staying as far away as possible from the noisy crowd.
"What do you want to eat?" still holding Osomatsu's hand, Karamatsu gave him a caring smile "I'll get them for you."
"Anything, I'm hungry." the clerk replied, a bit too eager to get rid of the 'boyfriend'. However, five minutes passed and the florist was still sitting there, staring at him disapprovingly. "Why are you still here?" Osomatsu complained "Your 'girlfriend' is literally starving, dear."
"I still don't know how you could fall in love with a girl like this, Ichimatsu." Karamatsu finally stood up "I'm worried." then left before Osomatsu could protest.
"That's rude!" the clerk still yelled after the florist, who had already disappeared into the crowd, then turned to Ichimatsu, shrugging "But not wrong." before putting his chin on his hand, chuckling "Let's see when that idiot will advise you to breakup."
"You say that but you're enjoying this date, aren't you?" Ichimatsu asked, a bit taken aback when the clerk choked on his own breath.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Osomatsu grimaced "If not for you, I would have stomped home."
"For me?" the artist raised an eyebrow in confusion. "I mean, yes, I did trick you to come with me." he struggled, avoiding the clerk's eyes "But you could have refused if you don't like the idea of this fake date."
"Did you have fun?" Osomatsu suddenly asked, cutting short the artist's argument.
Despite being confused by the abrupt change of topic, Ichimatsu answered "Yes, I guess.", then yelped in surprise when the clerk reached out to rub his head.
"That's all that matters." grinning cheerfully, Osomatsu retracted his hand after messing up the artist's already disheveled hair.
"What do you mean-"
"Here is your drink, honey!"
Out of nowhere, a cold bottle was pressed on Osomatsu's cheek, resulting in a high pitched yelp. The clerk sprang up instantly, face ready to pick a fight but then relaxed to a mere annoyed look when he found out it was only the caring 'boyfriend', who was wearing his most cheery smile.
"Ice lemon tea for you, Ichimatsu." Karamatsu passed a yellow can to the artist with a polite smile "Sorry for the wait. Did my honey inconvenience you in any way?"
"Hey! What are you? My mom?" Osomatsu yanked the bottle out of the florist hand, opening the cap angrily as if it had personally offended him. "And for your information, I was very nice to this idol of yours until you decided to ruin our lovely moment."
"All I saw was you messing with his head." Karamatsu crossed his arms.
"So what? I can't touch your idol now?" the clerk pursed his lips. "Or are you…" he paused, giving the florist a teasing look "jealous, dear?"
Karamatsu was stunned for a second before remembering the lover act. He then smiled gracefully "Of course, honey." and took hold of the clerk's free hand. "This is our first date and you're having fun with another man, my heart was shattered with the sight." forcefully pulling Osomatsu's hand closer, he placed on his chest "Please have your eyes on me only."
Ichimatsu swore he could see goosebumps appearing even on Osomatsu's face. His teasing expression was long gone and replaced by the worse grimace as if he would puke anytime. Karamatsu's sudden romantic act were definitely overkill. Ichimatsu wondered if he did that on revenge or simply teaching him how to behave on his 'real date'.
Would girls really be moved by those words? Somehow he really doubted that.
"Shouldn't we start eating?" lamely interrupting Karamatsu's romantic nonsense, the manga artist hoped Osomatsu had not passed out already after the attack.
"Oh sorry, I forgot." the florist instantly released the clerk's hand and started rummaging through a big paper bag. "Here is yours." he handed Ichimatsu a sandwich.
However, a hand caught Karamatsu's wrist before the sandwich reached the rightful receiver. "Dear." Osomatsu smiled but his eyebrows were clearly frowning "If you want my attention, you should earn it, shouldn't you?". Then he swiftly grabbed the sandwich and took a huge bite.
"That's for Ichimatsu!" the florist protested a second too late but still yanked the bitten sandwich back. "It's his favorite flavor…" he grumbled, throwing an ugly look at his 'girlfriend'.
"Thanks for the meal." Osomatsu shrugged, grinning unapologetically, then glanced at the manga artist "Ichimatsu doesn't mind, right?"
A bit surprised by the abrupt question but Ichimatsu quickly waved his hand dismissively "It's fine.", his mind still stuck on how Karamatsu got to know his taste "I'm not picky."
"See?" the clerk stuck out his tongue at Karamatsu, who unwillingly returned the eaten sandwich to him. "What kind of boyfriend would be stingy to his girlfriend?" he huffed, quickly finishing the remaining.
Karamatsu muttered something under his breath before taking more food out of the paper bag and quickly passed to Ichimatsu as if afraid that Osomatsu would steal once again. The clerk gave an offended scowl but did not complain.
They ate in silence. Or mostly Ichimatsu stayed silent while the florist continued with his act and started feeding his 'girlfriend', which resulted in the clerk stuffing his own meal into Karamatsu's mouth instead.
Well, it still counted as feeding, although a bit more on the violent side. However, Ichimatsu swallowed back that comment, not wanting to attract any more attention from the crowd.
"I'm sorry that lunch turned out to be disastrous." Karamatsu sighed, bowing his head sincerely to the manga artist "I planned to show you how much affection you can show your girlfriend during a meal but…" he shot an exasperated glance at Osomatsu, who shrugged nonchalantly like saying he did not do anything wrong.
"It's fine." Ichimatsu muffled a laugh, trying to be polite while remembering all the ruckus "I learnt a lot."
"Really?" the florist's eyes widened. "Oh, I forgot that your girlfriend is just like him." he frowned slightly then hastily added "I meant no offence-"
"None taken, I assure you."
He wondered how Karamatsu was still able to hold up the act with Osomatsu going all out being mean. If he really had a girlfriend with that personality, he would rather stay a virgin forever. Not that Osomatsu was bad as a lover, but he was definitely bad as a girlfriend.
However, Ichimatsu was not lying saying he had learnt a lot from their lunch together. He mostly had meals alone after moving out so sometimes, Shouei commented that the conversations in his manga sounded forced. Of course he remedied it by reading more and more mangas for reference, but today had shown him how a natural meal with friends was like. It was funny and relaxing, sometimes even too hilarious to hold back laughs, unlike those gatherings in high school where he had only been left exhausted after.
Bumping into someone snapped the manga artist out of his thought. "Sorry. I wasn't-" he apologized but halted when found out it was only Karamatsu. "Sorry, I was spacing out." he repeated, looking around to check where they were.
"This won't do, Ichimatsu." Karamatsu shook his head slightly "I know you're nervous about tomorrow date, but if you don't pay attention, you will mess up your real date."
It took Ichimatsu everything not to roll his eyes. If he really had a real date coming, it would be best that he forgot everything happened in this mock date or he would fail miserably and scare that girl away forever. Who would go around comparing his girlfriend with some insect? Of course he was aware that Karamatsu only did that as payback for Osomatsu comparing him with a gorilla, and it was funny to be completely honest, but still…
"I won't be distracted again." he promised, biting back the sarcastic tone "So where will we visit-"
"They are so cute!" Osomatsu's excited voice coming from far away interrupted his question "Come here, Karamatsu, Ichimatsu!"
Karamatsu reached out to grab the artist's hand on reflex but he was quicker to dash towards Osomatsu's direction, closely missed the florist's catch. Was it his imagination that Karamatsu just gave a disappointed sigh?
However, that evaporated from his mind the moment he arrived.
"So cute-" Ichimatsu slapped a hand over his mouth realizing he was unconsciously speaking in high pitch. "They're adorable." he cleared his throat embarrassingly and adjusted his tone, trying not to stare at the playground full of tiny pompons, in different colors from pure white, black, brown… to mixed between them, jumping around people, mostly children.
"Let's go in." Osomatsu started climbing over the fences but Karamatsu instantly caught his shoulder.
"We need to buy tickets." the florist reminded "Can't believe I actually had to tell you this."
"I've never been here so excuse me if I don't know the basic." Osomatsu wrinkled his nose before swiping out his wallet.
"I-I will cover your ticket." Karamatsu said, tumbling over his words with a guilty expression as if he had accidentally touched some sensitive topic.
"Really?" the clerk tilted his head, eyes narrowed "I'm not going to buy you anything in return though."
"It's a boyfriend's duty to cover his girlfriend's expense." snapping his fingers nervously, the florist pointed at the puzzled Osomatsu with a forced smile "It's a pleasure to serve my lady."
Osomatsu cringed almost instantly but the free offer was enough for him to keep his polite act on and gave Karamatsu a strained grin. "As you wish, dear." he said, gesturing towards the ticket counter then turned to Ichimatsu with a knowing smile "Will you join us?"
"Of-" the manga artist halted, trying not to sound too eager "I guess…" then swiped out some money from his handbag and gave Karamatsu before he could deny. "Thanks." he added.
The florist seemed troubled but still spun around and ran towards the ticket counter with a simple "I'll be right back."
Left alone with Osomatsu again, Ichimatsu snuck a glance at the clerk, startled a bit catching him doing the same.
"Out with it." the clerk raised an eyebrow "Whatever on your mind."
Caught off guard by Osomatsu's unfriendly tone, the manga artist swallowed dryly, unsure if he should take the offer or play dumb. "This is the first time you visit a zoo?" he asked lamely, having a strong urge to bang his head on the fences for his poor word choice.
The clerk gave him a sideway look then put a hand over his mouth to muffle a snicker. "Don't tell me you fell for that too?" making an amusing sound at the back of his throat, Osomatsu grinned from ear to ear "My acting is quite topnotch, isn't it?"
"There is no way this is my first visit." Osomatsu rubbed his nose, shrugging as if it was the most obvious fact. "Was you worried about me? Thinking I have a tragic childhood or something?" he smirked, leaning closer to the manga artist, who backed away a step and threw him an irritated look. "I guess I got Karamatsu too." the clerk's back straightened again, he put a hand on his hip "I should have said that I was joking, but… well, only idiots refuse free offers."
Ichimatsu knew for a while that Osomatsu's character was shitty but he was still bewildered by this level of shittiness. "I shouldn't have worried about you." he mumbled, shooting the bookstore clerk an agitated glare. Osomatsu grinned back innocently.
Fortunately, before the manga artist slipped out an insult, Karamatsu came back. Receiving his ticket, he glance at Osomatsu one last time before walking towards the entry. The clerk put a finger on his lips with a wink but promptly got ignored while the florist was tilting his head confusedly.
Whatever irritation Osomatsu had caused immediately vanished from Ichimatsu's mind the second he was swamped by the moving pompons - or rabbits. Those tiny angelic animals were only a small level lower than cats in his list of favorites.
Gently lifting up a white one while settling down on the grass, he used every bit of his will to keep his actions under control instead of throwing himself in a group of rabbits and squeezing them all. Taking a deep breath, he stroked the rabbit's fur, feeling the softness and fluffiness. They were so cute! How could anyone resist this cuteness?
Some rabbits jumped on his lap, seemingly used to interacting with humans, then started curling or snuggling at him as if asking for warmth in the cool weather. And that was the limit.
"So cute!" he exclaimed, completely forgetting the high pitched tone, and rubbed his cheek on the white rabbit in his hand. His other hand brushed other rabbits that he could reach. "Come'ere" he whispered, tapping slightly on his leg to call for more little angels to jump on. He even put some on his shoulders so they could snuggle at his neck. They was so fluffy that he could easily overlook some small ticklish sensation.
Ichimatsu was frozen for a second before his brain started working again, processing the information his ears just registered. Slowly putting down some rabbits, he turned to the direction he was certain a camera shutter sound just went off.
"I told you to turn off the sound!" Osomatsu complained through his gritted teeth, frowning at Karamatsu, who was still holding up his phone, clearly the culprit.
It took the manga artist nearly a minute to actually comprehend the situation.
"Karamatsu?" he said quietly, staring at the florist.
Karamatsu shuddered but returned his look with the most innocent smile "Y-Yes?"
The rabbits must have sensed silent fury radiating from the manga artist so they had all jumped off and scurried away. However, even Ichimatsu himself was not sure what face he was making because Karamatsu turned completely pale while Osomatsu already fled to the other side of the playground. His parents once told him that he had once scared away a guy twice his side just by his look alone. Maybe he was giving the florist that dead glare?
Slowly getting back up on his feet, he walked towards the petrified Karamatsu. "What were you taking a picture of?" he asked, voice void of any emotion, right hand reaching halfway towards the florist "Do you mind showing me?"
Karamatsu shook his head rapidly, hands holding his phone close to his chest.
"Karamatsu." Ichimatsu repeated, taking one step closer.
"I'm sorry!!" the florist shrieked, totally out of his usual cool-guy tone. He backed away several steps, visibly trembling from head to toe as if Ichimatsu had just threatened to take his life. "You looked truly adorable among the rabbits so I didn't think…" he trailed off when the manga artist's frown deepened.
Ichimatsu almost snapped at the word 'adorable' but his mind suddenly decided to become aware of his surroundings and all the other people's stares. He gave a exasperated sigh before pulling up his mask and scurried to the exit, ignoring Osomatsu's call from the other side of the playground. He had had enough of cuteness dosage for today.
For the remaining time of the date, Karamatsu was too busy apologizing to Ichimatsu to remember his romantic display or whatever dating plan he had come up with. Osomatsu found the situation amusing at first so he did not interfere but eventually, he butted in and lightened up the mood with random jokes until the manga artist failed to fight back his laugh and forgave Karamatsu.
Karamatsu had no choice but concluding the date around four in the afternoon because Ichimatsu was tired and Osomatsu had something coming up at home. The bookstore clerk took a bus while the other two simply walked back to the flower shop since the distance was not that far, although the manga artist's feet was protesting already. He really needed to exercise more.
They walked in comfortable silence, each following his own thought while enjoying the late breeze of winter. Spring was coming and the temperature was getting warmer with everyday passing by.
"Good luck with tomorrow date, brother." Karamatsu said spontaneously, drawing attention from the manga artist. He gave a small smile "It's a shame that we didn't get to do even half of my plan though."
Ichimatsu shrugged. "You helped me plenty already." he returned the smile although a bit strained upon remembering the unauthorized photo taken.
"That's nowhere enough…" the florist mumbled dejectedly "I want to make sure you succeed at any costs."
"Huh?" the manga artist blurted out, not knowing when they both stopped walking. He stared at Karamatsu confusedly. He appreciated Karamatsu's devotion but was it not a bit too much enthusiasm, considering they had just met six days ago?
The florist titled his head, seemingly wondering why Ichimatsu was making that face.
"I will be fine." he said, deciding to ignore Karamatsu's strange determination. Maybe he was the kind doing everything with his best. "She's… just like Osomatsu, you know." he fought back a laugh.
Karamatsu snickered "I kept forgetting that.", then gave the artist a thumbs-up "If she really is like Osomatsu, then she definitely loves you for who you are."
Ichimatsu gave the florist a bewildered look. "You really think so?" he frowned "You weren't happy to play his 'boyfriend' though.". He mimicked Karamatsu's expression at lunch "I still don't know how you could fall in love with a girl like this, Ichimatsu.", trying to sound both annoyed and concerned at the same time "I'm worried."
The florist chortled with the impersonation. "Osomatsu knows how to get on people's nerves." he admitted then offered the artist a sympathetic smile "You must have it hard, having a girlfriend like him, I mean.". Ichimatsu almost rolled his eyes. "But I knew he riled me up on purpose, like a payback for making him play a girl role." Karamatsu continued, his smile changed into an understanding one "He's fully capable of loving someone wholeheartedly, if you ask me."
Karamatsu's expression when he talked about the bookstore clerk was very gentle, as if he was describing his real brother, not only a friend from the same orphanage. Ichimatsu was unable to decide the feeling he was currently having to be admiration, because he had never witnessed such affection, or envious, as he knew he could never have a friend speaking about him like that.
Startled by the call, Ichimatsu almost fell backwards when he came back to reality and met with Karamatsu's face only some centimeters apart. "W-Wh-What?" he stuttered, taking some steps back to lengthen their distance.
"You're spacing out again." Karamatsu seemed thoughtful "Do you have something on your mind? Aside from your tomorrow date."
He could blame everything on the non-existed date but for some unknown reason, his mouth already moved on its own "How long have you known Osomatsu?"
The florist was a bit taken aback by the question but regained his composure fast. "Since we was taken in by Matsuno house." he snapped his fingers "Come to think of it, I've known you exactly that long too, haven't I?", lips curving into a smug smile. However, Ichimatsu was only staring at him, not amused. His smile faltered. "Four years." he said, giving up on the lame joke, counting with his fingers "I met him by chance when I delivered flowers to Akatsuka bookstore four years ago. I saw his name badge then remembered there was a child with that name in Matsuno house, so I asked and we've been friends since then."
Four years were not too short, but not too long either. Maybe that was enough to build a stable friendship like those two's. Ichimatsu was not quite certain because he never had anything like that. All the friendships he had built in high school had only tired him out and he had wished for them to be over as soon as he graduated.
"How about you?" Karamatsu prompted
"Me?" he pointed at himself confusedly before realization dawned on him "I met him one year ago…" he stopped, considering something "Didn't you also know that? You were sending me flowers through him."
"Ah yeah, right. That slipped my mind" the florist scratched the back of his head.
They fell into awkward silence then proceeded to walk.
Ichimatsu could feel the florist sneaking some glance at him but pretended not to notice. He did not even know why he had brought the matter up. His business with Karamatsu would be done today and it was unlikely that they would meet again unless he decided to get some flowers for special occasions. So whatever relationship Karamatsu had with Osomatsu did not matter to him in any way. Why would he be curious?
Shaking his head to dissolve the thoughts, he then figured that if this was going to be their final talk, he should gave Karamatsu a proper thank. The guy was far from a romance expert like Osomatsu's advertisement, but he indeed had given him the fishing spot idea to complete the latest chapter. He turned to look at Karamatsu, coincidentally catching the florist glancing at him.
"Thank you very much." he said, sending Karamatsu his most honest smile "For your help on my manu-" he halted "on my date" then swiftly covered up.
Karamatsu was frozen for some seconds before flashing his brightest smile. "No problem, brother. I'm always here for you." he walked over and threw an arm around the manga artist's shoulders "Just call or text me whenever you need and I'll come flying."
"Walking is fine." Ichimatsu shrugged slightly, somehow comfortable with the friendly gesture "And yeah, thanks again. For all the flowers also." he added shyly "Although I never really understand their meanings."
"I-It's fine!" Karamatsu hastily said "I just picked randomly."
"Really?" he sent the florist a doubtful look.
"They all meant my appreciation for your manga." Karamatsu insisted "Nothing more, nothing less."
"I see." Ichimatsu did not buy it, but he doubted the florist would disclose anything. He could always look up the meanings on the internet later. If only Karamatsu realized how suspicious he was, going from 'randomly picked' to 'meant the same'.
They proceeded strolling but included more chatting this time. The topic circled around the fake date and Osomatsu until blue theme of Akatsuka flower shop emerged in their sight.
"It's so fast." Karamatsu sighed, regret in his voice "We still haven't finished discussing what you should do at the end of your date."
"I can manage." Ichimatsu assured "Like how you managed to deal with Osomatsu as your 'girlfriend' without any preparation." he snickered, not expecting Karamatsu to take his sarcasm. He had thought the florist would give up after learning his girlfriend behaving like Osomatsu. But he made it. That was quite amazing, if he was completely honest.
The florist stuck out his chest proudly "My improvisation is top tier. I wasn't in a drama club for nothing."
"You were playing a tree." the manga artist chuckled "What are you so proud of?"
Ichimatsu expected a protest, but only silence answered him. Swirling back with a bit of hesitation, he frowned questioningly seeing Karamatsu's jaw nearly dropped to the ground. "Why are you-" he gasped upon realization.
They stared at each other in silence.
After a long while, Karamatsu finally managed to close his mouth. Clearing his throat, he asked breathlessly "How do you know that?"
The manga artist shook his head, too confused to tore his eyes away from the baffled florist. "I don't know…" he said uncertainly, chewing on his lips while forcing his brain to come up with an explanation but none was found.
"Did you… perhaps go to Akatsuka high school?" Karamatsu tried "Maybe we got to know each other somehow-"
"No, I didn't." Ichimatsu shook his head firmly "I went to a high school near my parents' house."
The florist frowned but his expression let out more than just confusion. It was a mixture of countless emotions but the most apparent were pain and worry. Of course, Ichimatsu would be worried too if a stranger knew about his high school time, but Karamatsu's worry was different. It was not for himself.
And why did he look like he was hurt? The fact that he was playing a tree should not be upsetting, should it not?
"M-Maybe I was famous." Karamatsu quickly said, looking away "I was a brilliant tree that ever school desired." then put a hand on his forehead, convenient hiding his evading eyes "Such a guilty tree I was."
Ichimatsu was not in the mind to care about the florist's strained painful speech. There was a conclusion he stumbled upon but it was not something he could discuss with anyone. "Thank you for today." he said hastily "I'll have to excuse myself now." then turned on his heel and dashed away, ignoring Karamatsu's calls behind his back.
With countless thoughts swirling around, Ichimatsu was afraid that he would not be able to fall asleep. Yet by the time he threw himself on the bed, his mind immediately relaxed and he fell straight to the past memory corridor where the man in purple hoodie was waiting.
"Show me your high school time."
The past him complied instantly. They rushed along the dark path, through the area full of onyx glass pieces. Even in haste, Ichimatsu could not help but taking a quick glance at the ominous glittering memory fragment at the beginning of the corridor. It was still floating in the same position and oozing eerie feelings-
"Let's go." the past Ichimatsu reminded, pulling on his sleeve.
Mumbling an apology for getting distracted, the manga artist started running again, not knowing when he had stopped.
They soon arrived at the high school period. Ichimatsu had hoped he was wrong. But there were more white pieces than the last time he had been here.
"It can't be…" he mumbled, already knowing what was waiting for him to discover. Giving his past self an uncertain look, he let out a long sigh when the guy only shrugged nonchalantly. "Come on." he whined, not liking how weak his voice sounded "It wouldn't hurt to give me some comfort."
The past Ichimatsu gave him a sideway look.
"Okay." the manga artist sighed then walked over and looked into some new white pieces. How he could distinguish old and new ones was beyond him.
Finally one of his brothers in the sextuplets made his appearance.
An awkward boy with freckles on his face, always spoke in a soft voice and barely expressed his own opinion.
"Wow." Ichimatsu put a hand over his mouth from a reflex to muffle an amazed sound "He's completely different from the Karamatsu I know."
"Are we the one to talk?" his past self wrinkled his nose with a sarcastic smile.
He scanned over more memory fragments but barely found any interaction between that Karamatsu and his previous life. They seemed to stay away from each other during high school time. Obviously, he found the piece where Karamatsu was proudly playing the role of a tree, which explained how he had suddenly blurted that out during the conversation on the way back to the flower shop.
Travelling to the younger time, he also saw the little Karamatsu, but just like high school period, they had not spent much time together also. Therefore, he walked back to the beginning of the corridor, hoping to find at least something related to his suicide.
"How strange…" he mumbled, searching more carefully "I can't find any new pieces in the adulthood.", then turned to his past self with a questioning eye "Karamatsu didn't exist when you grew up?"
"Don't ask me." the guy hunched over with a bored face as if he was tired of repeating the same thing over and over again.
"No, that's not right." ignoring the grumbling, the manga artist put a hand on his chin, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "You and your brothers grew up safely until the tragedy." he recalled the information from Matsuno orphanage "So Karamatsu must be around when you were a NEET."
"Stop looking at me like that, it's annoying." the Ichimatsu in purple hoodie complained, shooting him an irritated glare.
The manga artist failed to stop a triumphant grin. "But I can't find any memory fragment with the adult Karamatsu so…" he raised a finger "First, he and you never had any moment alone. However, this is not quite possible, considering you all lived under the same roof and you didn't have a job so at some point, you should be with him without the other brothers." He swallowed back a laugh seeing how his past self moving uncomfortably where he stood "So my second conclusion is that I still haven't fully unsealed the memory about Karamatsu."
"Congrats, genius." the man in hoodie mocked but promptly got ignored so he commented instead "You seem quite okay about this discovery."
Ichimatsu crossed his arms, eyebrows wrinkled "I had a feeling that Karamatsu would be in my previous life, so I'm not really that surprised.", he tilted his head "I mean, it's still shocking, but I think I kind of expected it… maybe." He hummed, recalling all the strange events happening since the moment he was introduced to the florist Karamatsu Matsuno. "I was even crying the first time I met him…" he trailed off. This meant Karamatsu must have played an important part in his past life. Well, not really. They were sextuplets, they should be close. He was willing to bet that the other brothers were equally meaningful.
Letting out a long sigh, the manga artist temporarily abandoned that line of thought because it would take him forever circling around one place. He got his attention back to his past self, who seemed to be bored of waiting. "I think I'm done here." he said.
"There is nothing more to discover-" Ichimatsu halted, finally identifying the sinking feeling in his stomach the whole time he spent scanning over the newly unsealed memory. "Karamatsu looks like me!"
The man in purple hoodie sent Ichimatsu a bewildered look "You just realized that?"
"That's not what I meant. I know you and the past Karamatsu were sextuplets so of course you're alike." he explained "But… the Karamatsu I know - the Karamatsu of this life - also looks like me." Putting a hand on his head, he tried to remember the florist's face but ultimately failed. He literally had zero recollection of how Karamatsu looked like despite just parting with him several hours ago. "No… that's not right. I think I'm confused. There is no way he looks like me. That doesn't make sense, we're not related."
"Calm down, or you will wake-"
Ichimatsu jolted awake and he was back to his apartment.
Clicking his tongue, he glanced at the electric clock on the head of the bed. Fifteen to ten in the evening. He had not even had dinner. Shouei was completely correct about his chaotic daily routine. If he had been a mess before this previous life memory revelation, he would have been even worse now.
However, dinner or late night noodles could wait. There was one thing must be confirmed right now.
Reaching to the handbag lying at the end of his bed, Ichimatsu pulled out his phone and dialed a number in his contact.
"This is Ichimatsu." he said, faster than intended.
"Is there anything-"
"Can I come over to your shop now?" interrupting the florist, he got out of the bed and started pacing while the other side of the line was staying silent.
"Y-Yes, of course." Karamatsu sounded worried "Do you want me to come to get you? Just give me your address. You don't sound very well-"
"I'm fine." Ichimatsu cut him off again, feeling bad for behaving poorly. "I'm sorry for bothering you this late." he added before hanging up and started preparing to go out.
Usually it would take him thirty minutes to reach Akatsuka flower shop from his apartment. However, today he was rushing through the empty street so when he arrived, it was only five past ten. The door swung open before Ichimatsu even knocked. Karamatsu showed up in his blue pajama and an indigo sweater wrapping around his shoulders.
"Come in." the florist invited but sounded more like a command. "It's cold outside, you should have at least worn a jacket."
Ichimatsu was too busy panting to listen. It had been forever since the last time he ran that fast. He did not even register the low temperature when every muscle in his body was burning, but now Karamatsu had mentioned it, it was quite chilly.
"Come in." Karamatsu repeated, grabbing the artist's wrist and pulled him inside before closing the door. Warmth air enveloped them shortly after. "Let me get you some warm water, you must be freezing." he said as he released his grip, turning around.
However, Ichimatsu instantly caught the florist's arm. "Wait." he said breathlessly, still panting.
"I will be right back."
"I said wait!"
Realizing he was shouting, Ichimatsu gritted his teeth, cursing internally. Karamatsu must utterly be confused by now.
They stood in silence while the manga artist trying to balance his breathing. His hand was still gripping the florist's arm tightly as if worrying that he would disappear. Ichimatsu slowly lifted his gaze from the ground to Karamatsu's legs, then his stomach, his chest, his neck and hesitated a moment before moving up to his face.
Karamatsu really… looked like him…
"What the hell…" he mumbled, almost not recognizing his own shaky voice.
"Ichimatsu?" Karamatsu spoke up hesitantly, biting his lips, worry in his complexion "Are you okay?"
He was not okay. It was unsettling seeing another person with the same appearance when they were not even related. Except the thick eyebrows, looking at Karamatsu now was like him staring at a mirror. And it was… frightening!
"Do you always look like this?" releasing Karamatsu's arm, Ichimatsu cupped the florist's face with both hands, desperately wishing his eyes had failed him.
"I-Ichimatsu?" Karamatsu stammered, moving backwards in surprise but the artist stubbornly holding onto his face "What are you saying?"
"I don't fucking know." his voice broke and he knew he was not making sense but he could not stay silent. "Do you always look like this? Answer me please!"
In the florist's eyes, he had to be a mad man. However, from whatever extreme kindness in his heart, Karamatsu had not pushed him away yet and only stared at him in puzzlement.
"Please, Karamatsu." he pled.
Karamatsu frowned, completely at a loss. "Yes?" he answered but it came out more as a question. "I haven't gone through any surgery, if that's what you meant." he struggled, seemingly trying to comprehend the manga artist's craziness.
"Then why I never realized…" releasing the florist's head, Ichimatsu let his hands fall back to his sides, his eyes still lingering on the confused face.
Nothing made sense anymore. If Karamatsu looked like him from the very beginning. He should have noticed. Yet he never had any special impression aside from Karamatsu's painfulness. Or maybe his mind was playing trick on him right now because of the newly revealed past memory? Like it was convincing him that this Karamatsu had the same appearance as the past Karamatsu although they were different?
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Ichimatsu shook his head weakly, focusing on water vapor coming from the surface of his cup of hot tea. He had calmed down after a while standing dumbfounded at the entrance of Akatsuka flower shop.
Karamatsu's mother had been woken up by the commotion and came downstairs. She was kind enough not to ask why Ichimatsu coming or acting nonsense, only instructing his son to get a blanket to keep his friend warm while she went to the kitchen to make some tea. After the manga artist finally settled on a chair beside the counter with a warm blanket wrapping around his shoulder and Karamatsu waiting nearby, the florist lady bid her goodnight and retired to her room.
It was clear the lady had many questions but Ichimatsu was thankful that she permitted him the silence to calm his nerves.
Inhaling deeply, he relished the slight chamomile fragrant from the cup of tea. His anxiety was eased and warmth from the blanket urged him to fall asleep where he sat. However, Karamatsu would be dead worried if he let himself pass out, so he tried to keep his eyes open as much as possible. Yet a yawn still escaped.
"Do you want to sleep?" Karamatsu offered, trying not to sound too worried "You can use my bedroom."
"I'm okay." he whispered, hoping it was audible for the florist "Sorry for all the troubles. I'll leave after finishing this tea-"
"No way." Karamatsu interrupted, shaking his head determinedly "I'm not going to let you walk back home in this condition.", then he gestured with his head towards the clock on the wall "And it's midnight already."
Ichimatsu could not help but chuckling "I'm not a kid, or a girl. I can take care of myself."
The florist stubbornly shook his head.
"I can sleep behind the counter then." he suggested, not wanting to intrude any more than he had already done.
However, Karamatsu did not appreciate the idea. "Just take my bed, you need it." he insisted.
Sighing loudly, the manga artist quietly sipped on his tea, knowing the florist would not back down. "This is stupid." he mumbled "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come here."
Making a surprised sound, he stared at the florist.
"You should have come to me earlier." Karamatsu said, his eyebrows furrowed "Actually, I shouldn't have let you go home after that conversation."
"Don't be ridiculous." Ichimatsu scoffed "It's not your fault."
"It is." the florist folded his hands together, let out an exasperated sigh. "We were both confused, you even had it worse than I did."
The artist raised an eyebrow as to ask 'How did you know?' but Karamatsu beat him to it.
"I just felt it." he explained. "I have my mom at home so it's easier to calm down. I knew you're living by yourself - Sorry, Osomatsu kind of told me - yet I let you go and deal with that alone."
Karamatsu had a point, but none of it was his fault. To be honest, it was Ichimatsu bringing all this upon himself, trying to play detective in this mess while both his mind and heart were far from ready.
Giving a heavy sigh, he turned away from the florist, still uncomfortable looking at a person with the same face. The possibility of this sight being the trick of his mind was nigh on zero as he was perfectly calm now. Karamatsu truly had his face - minus the thick eyebrow. How come he never realized?
Then that hit him.
How come Karamatsu never mentioned it either?
"Karamatsu." he called. The florist nodded eagerly. "How do I look like to you?" he chose the roundabout way. It would not make sense to ask 'Do you think I look like you?', in case his brain really went haywire and mixed up the past with the present.
Karamatsu gave him a blank look. That question was kind of out of nowhere anyway. Still, the florist scratched his chin and gave it serious consideration. "You look… tired?" he suggested awkwardly.
"No, not my complexion right now." Ichimatsu waved his hand dismissively "I meant in general. What do you think about my appearance?"
Karamatsu was even more puzzled now. Then something clicked in his head. "Don't worry, brother." he grinned confidently "You look amazing!"
The florist looked like he just had the most relieved moment in his life. He shortened their distance and threw an arm around the artist's shoulders, making him jumped. "I see, Ichimatsu. You're really in love with that lady, aren't you?"
What? Ichimatsu whipped his head to face the florist. Where was this coming from? Why did Karamatsu suddenly mention his non-existed lover?
"To think you're this worried about your date tomorrow - or today, because it's passed midnight." Karamatsu gave his shoulder some slight pats "You're serious about her, aren't you?"
"What are you talking about?" Ichimatsu blurted out confusedly.
The florist send him an understanding look. "You're perfect as you are." he assured.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not perfect in any aspect." the manga artist grumbled.
"Non non non." Karamatsu waved his index finger "Your soul shines brightly despite what appearance you have."
Ichimatsu scowled instantly "Are you saying I look ugly?"
Karamatsu made a surprised sound "No, of course not!" he exclaimed "Your appearance is flawless."
"Flawlessly ugly?" he chuckled.
"No!" Karamatsu threw out his hands "You're perfect!"
Either Karamatsu did that on purpose or simply misunderstood Ichimatsu's question, but he successfully drove the artist away from the chaos in his brain about their similar faces. He only remembered the original question when they retired to bed, but well, it was too late to bring it up again.
"Good night, brother." Karamatsu mumbled sleepily from the futon laid out on the floor.
"Night…" Ichimatsu whispered, pulling the blanket over his mouth.
The florist refused to let him go home alone so he had to accept the offer to spend the night. He was given another choice of letting Karamatsu escort him to his apartment, but obviously he denied because that would mean Karamatsu was the one walking back alone. The guy did not deserve the inconvenience after all kindness he had given.
Karamatsu insisted to give the manga artist the bed, and he was really tired from all the shocks so he accepted without any more argument. However, it was unacceptable if the florist had to sleep in the living room or something, so after giving it some thoughts, they arrived at the current solution: Ichimatsu took the bed while Karamatsu arranged a futon on the floor of his room for himself.
Effects of chamomile tea kicked in, making Ichimatsu slowly drift away from reality. Before his consciousness completely faded, his ears caught on a gentle voice.
"Be happy, brother."
"Thanks…" he murmured "You too."
I had fun writing about the three in the zoo date XD.
Your comments are great encouragement for me.
Please tell me if you spot anything wrong ^^.
Chapter 5: Lemon Tears
Ahh, lucky I got this chapter done on my schedule, hope you enjoy it ^^.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The fishing spot date chapter was a huge success. Shouei was over-excited bringing two huge bags of fan letters to Ichimatsu's apartment and informing him about the result. The readers were all caught by surprise by Hajime-sensei's humorous sense of romance and enjoyed it a lot. Most fan letters expressed similar opinions and some wished to have another chapter like that once in a while.
"So let's give them the second part of the date!" Shouei decided with utmost confidence.
Ichimatsu was certain his world just crumbled. "N… No?" he started gracefully "It's just extra content for the coming Valentine, isn't it?", trying to keep his composure "There is no second part." It was unnecessary to put more love into his story. No thanks, he could live without another tormenting romantic session.
"They love it, Matsuno." Shouei patiently explained, ignoring the manga artist's anxiety "And in case you forgot, next chapter will be released near White Day."
"I didn't add any romance last year, it's still fine-"
"But you already did it this year." the editor laughed "They will be expecting romance from you from now on."
This was a trap. Ichimatsu's eyes widened. He had been thinking it was weird when Shouei asked if he could try a chapter with romance elements because the publishing date of February issue was coincidentally near Valentine. However, instead of refusing the idea entirely, he had thought he could pull it off without much problems because he had a fair share of manga collection about romance. Yet he had literally gone through Hell and back just to complete a chapter. Now, Shouei and his readers wanted a second. And definitely not the last.
"Your fishing spot date exceeded my expectation." Shouei complimented, nodding with his eyes closed "I've never been wrong about your talents, Matsuno."
"Thanks…" he responded shyly. "But I don't think I can make another romantic chapter." he struggled "You knew how inexperienced I am about love and stuff." feeling humiliated for having to use that argument. He was not proud one bit for being a virgin at this age. Please do not make him repeat himself.
"But you still did it." Shouei wrinkled his eyebrows "Maybe your inexperience actually made it more interesting."
"No way!" Ichimatsu protested "I had to-" then stopped midsentence. What was he going to say? I had to go on a date with a man to achieve that? No! He definitely could not say that, or his love life would be doomed. His single status obviously did not need help from a rumor of him dating a man.
"You had to what?" the editor tilted his head questioningly.
He swallowed thickly "I had to… read my whole manga collection to come up with that."
Shouei made a surprised sound then nodded contently "Your devotion is inspiring. Young artists should learn after you."
Getting praises from an experienced editor, Ichimatsu should be glad, but all he wanted to do right now was crying. Shouei was expecting great things from him and he did not have it in his heart to disappoint the man.
"I have a meeting coming, I will take my leave now." Shouei stood up while the manga artist was still fighting a battle inside his head. He flashed a trusting smile "Call me if you have any problems on your next chapter. Good day, Matsuno." then left.
Sending the closed door a conflicted look, Ichimatsu sighed loudly. Should he start dialing Shouei's number right now? Because he had a very big problem now, that was the chapter itself.
"I see." Osomatsu hummed thoughtfully "So basically you need Karamatsu's help again? Why don't you call him directly?"
Ichimatsu gave a long sigh. "I can't think of a reason to ask him." frowning, he put a hand on his chin in contemplation "And he should have known that I used his idea in my manga by now."
"Karamatsu won't mind that." the bookstore clerk shrugged "Or he might not even recognize, he's an idiot after all."
Sending Osomatsu a sideway look as if saying 'You're the one to talk', the manga artist hesitated "Still… I don't think I can face him." because he kind of took advantage of Karamatsu's kindness. And he still had not got over the fact that they shared appearance.
Yes, it had been more than a month since the night he rushed to Akatsuka flower shop and he still had not seen Karamatsu face to face again. Main reason was his work. Since he got extra time, he drew the chapter in more details. The remaining was because he still had not gathered enough courage to see the reincarnation of his past brother.
Karamatsu seemed not to recognized the similarities in their appearances. So did his mother, or anyone else. Ichimatsu even tried asking Osomatsu if he saw the resemblance but the bookstore clerk only gave him a pitiful look and…
"You want to be like him?"
Ichimatsu had never been that mortified. To be pitied by Osomatsu of all people…
However, it confirmed one thing that except Ichimatsu, no one else seemed to notice their similar faces, even Karamatsu himself. So he should try to avoid mentioning that at all costs or they might start taking him to a psychiatric hospital. However, it was difficult not to mind that while facing Karamatsu so he ended up avoiding the florist altogether.
They still kept in touch through messages or phone calls but since Ichimatsu was not a person of idle chatting, their conversations died fast. He felt bad for Karamatsu trying to keep it going. The florist must have gotten tired after some weeks so eventually messages and calls stopped coming. Their business had ended anyway. What would be the reason to continue to keep in contact? They were not even friends.
"Did something happen between you two?" Osomatsu questioned, seemed troubled by the manga artist's long silence.
The bookstore clerk did not seem convinced. "Then why can't you face him?" he raised an eyebrow "I told you he wouldn't mind you using his idea."
Ichimatsu hesitated, hands folded together. It should not hurt telling Osomatsu, he was not the kind to judge. "I think he must be freaked out." he said lamely "I… was spewing something nonsensical to him after the zoo trip and later…" he trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
Osomatsu was quiet for a second before chuckling. "You think he would be freaked out with just that?" he asked amusingly "He's the very embodiment of nonsense-"
They both jumped to the ceiling.
"K-Karamatsu?" Osomatsu was the one calming down first. He swirled around, grinning nervously "What are you doing here? I thought you're busy because of Valentine preparation?"
"I'm here for a delivery." Karamatsu sounded exasperated "And caught you badmouthing me."
Ichimatsu did not need to spin back to know the florist was giving Osomatsu an ugly stare. He took in a deep breath before turning back and bowed his head as an apology for participating in talking behind his back.
"Oh, hi Ichimatsu. Long time no see." Karamatsu waved a hand, face brightened almost instantly.
"Long time no see." the manga artist nodded simply.
Then they stared at each other for few seconds before Ichimatsu averted his eyes. Fortunately, Karamatsu had his sunglasses on today so he could ignore the slight discomfort of looking at a mirror image.
"Today is Saturday…" the florist scratched his chin thoughtfully "You're done with your manuscript?"
Ichimatsu shot a look at Osomatsu, who whistled innocently. "I was done two weeks ago." he answered honestly.
Karamatsu made an acknowledging sound. Somehow, even through the sunglasses, Ichimatsu still felt his blank stare. What was this guilty feeling?
"You didn't answer my calls so I thought you were very busy." Karamatsu scratched his head sheepishly.
The manga artist blinked, then remembered some missed calls when he took late showers. He had sat in front of his phone nearly an hour wondering if he should call back but then afraid that there would be no topic to discuss so he just left them. Oh, so that was why Karamatsu had stopped calling him. Unknowingly, he let out a sigh of relief.
"Wh-What?" Ichimatsu stammered, catching Osomatsu and Karamatsu staring at him.
"Is there anything wrong?" Karamatsu started first while the bookstore clerk sent him a knowing smile.
"No?" that came out as a question because he did not know what he had unconsciously done that attracted attention.
"You just sighed." the florist pointed out helpfully.
Blinking again, Ichimatsu shuddered slightly upon recognition. Why was he relieved finding out the reason for Karamatsu stopping contacting him? "Nothing." he said, trying to sound irritated rather than embarrassed.
"That's good then." Karamatsu beamed. Then as remembering something, he handed Osomatsu the flower basket in his hand then turned on his heel and dashed away, not forgetting to shout back "I'll be right back, don't go anywhere!"
The remaining two shared a questioning look.
"So you're calling each other every day?" Osomatsu grinned mischievously, sending the manga artist a suggestive eye.
"Not every day." Ichimatsu said dismissively, not liking his friend's tone "Mostly at weekends."
"I can be jealous, Ichimacchan." the bookstore clerk smirked, leaning closer, making him back away uncomfortably. "Maybe I should start calling you daily." he teased "So that you won't forget that you still have this friend and not only Karamatsu."
Ichimatsu gave an exasperated huff "I told you it's not like that. He just called to check if I'm alive- I mean, if I'm okay."
Osomatsu rolled his eyes "All his Sunday flowers arrived safely, why did he even feel the need to call you? To check if I did my job?"
Taken aback, the manga artist repeated Osomatsu's statement in his mind, his eyebrows wrinkled. "Don't tell me you're really jealous?" he asked, slightly puzzled.
"What do you think?" the clerk raised an eyebrow amusingly.
That would be weird. Ichimatsu bit back the retort. "I'm surprised." he said instead "I guess Karamatsu is special to you-"
"Oh my god, you really fell for that?!" Osomatsu doubled over in laughter.
It took Ichimatsu five seconds to comprehend what just happened. The bookstore clerk still hollered with laughs by the time he came to and shot him an agitated glare. "Seriously." he hissed, about to throw an insult but once again, Karamatsu showed up right in time.
"I'm back!" he called, waving his hand energetically while shortening their distance. He arrived shortly with a confused expression. "What were you talking about?" the florist asked, looking back and forth between the laughing Osomatsu and the annoyed Ichimatsu.
"He's being stupid as usual." the manga artist scoffed.
"That's mean." the clerk brought a hand to his chest, faking a hurt expression "I'm just cheering you up."
Karamatsu gave some nods like he completely understood the situation despite his clueless face. He then swiped out a tiny bouquet from behind his back. "It's one day early but here is your Sunday flower, Hajime-sensei."
Surprised by the sudden gift, Ichimatsu took a step back instinctively, staring at the bouquet with only a branch of some pinkish flower, wrapped carefully in cerulean and white papers seemingly like it was growing from the sky. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves as this was the first time he received flower directly from his fan. The way Karamatsu called him by his pen name even amplified the nervousness by a million times. "Thanks…" he said weakly while receiving the bouquet.
"Peach blossoms." the florist smiled gently "Wish you the best in love."
Ichimatsu almost slipped his tongue saying he was still single but bit his lip in time. "Thank you." he repeated more sincerely, feeling guilty for deceiving the gullible guy.
"What happened to 'I can't face him' earlier?" Osomatsu cleared his throat, drawing attention from the other two. Ichimatsu immediately threw him a murderous glare, daring him to repeat or continue. As famous for his fearlessness as he was, the clerk shrugged "Congrats on getting over that. Now you can ask him for advice again." then sent Karamatsu a cheerful grin "Ichimacchan needs your help for his date one more time, will you give him a hand?"
Karamatsu gasped audibly, his expression a mixture between bewilderment and amazement. "You succeeded, Ichimatsu!" he placed a hand over his mouth, tearing up.
Oh God, this was even worse than the first time.
"If she agreed for a second date, it meant she definitely likes you, brother!" the florist reached out to give the artist's shoulders some strong pats "Ichimatsu finally graduated from being a vir-"
"Another word and I will kill you." he warned, shooting Karamatsu a dead stare.
Karamatsu backed away instantly, but instead of being frightened, he seemed to be more on the content side. Crap, he forgot the florist's weird preference.
"When is your next date?" Karamatsu cleared his throat, trying to change the topic when the manga artist clearly wanted to be anywhere but here. However, realization dawned on him before any answer was spoken. "It's tomorrow, isn't it?" he sent the artist an alarmed look.
"Why tomorrow?" Ichimatsu raised an eyebrow and Osomatsu's face instantly scrunched up as if telling him to stop talking.
He wanted to feel offended but it seemed that he really said something stupid because Karamatsu was giving him an almost pitiful look. "It's Valentine." the florist said, shaking his head slightly in disbelief "You don't invite her out on Valentine?" then turned considerably pale "Or… is she seeing someone else?"
Osomatsu sent the manga artist a look with his eyebrows furrowed. Ichimatsu shrugged. "How should I know?" he mumbled soundlessly. The clerk sighed.
"She's busy, I think." Osomatsu wrinkled his nose "Like me, or you, Karamatsu. We both have work on Valentine."
"You have a point." Karamatsu agreed, letting out a breath of relief before turning to Ichimatsu for confirmation.
Pressing his lips together, Ichimatsu wished he could shook his head and be honest, but the peach blossoms bouquet in his hand and Karamatsu's hopeful gaze locked all the words in his throat. He swallowed dryly, averting his eyes to the ground and blindly nodded.
Karamatsu gave him a relaxed smile. "What does she do?" he asked naturally but hastily added "You don't have to say if you don't want to."
It would be suspicious to hide that information, considering how he already disclosed her character. Ichimatsu glanced at Osomatsu for help but the clerk shrugged apologetically. What career was suitable for a girl with Osomatsu's character?
"I'm sorry, forget it." Karamatsu laughed with a hint of poorly hidden disappointment "I shouldn't have pried-"
"She's working at a bookstore." Ichimatsu blurted out without thinking.
Now he had done it.
Karamatsu's eyes widened to the point they could pop out. He seemed to hold his breath unconsciously, as if afraid that would break the crucial moment.
On the other hand, Osomatsu stared at the manga artist incredulously, mouthing ever so slowly "What the hell, Ichimatsu?"
"I don't know." he mouthed back desperately.
"You made it sound like you're dating me, you idiot." the clerk looked like he wanted to cry with Ichimatsu's stupidity.
"I didn't have time to prepare."
A slight cough interrupted their soundless conversation. Both turned to Karamatsu, the source of the previous sound, who was wearing a strained smile. It did not take a genius to know that smile was bad news.
"Uhm, Karamatsu." Osomatsu spoke up hesitantly, clearing his throat "Whatever you are thinking about… it's not true, okay?", not forgetting to shoot the manga artist a frown.
"Don't worry, I understand." the florist raised a hand, nodding slightly "I should have guessed from the zoo-"
"You got it wrong!" Ichimatsu shouted at the florist's face but realizing they were in the bookstore so he ducked under the counter. After making sure passersby were either gone or stopped paying attention to them, he rose to meet Karamatsu's gaze again "It's not like what you're thinking-"
"I got it, Ichimatsu." Karamatsu gave him an assuring smile then glance at the clock nearby. "I should get going." he said awkwardly then took out a piece of paper from his pocket, handing to Osomatsu "Can you sign here? The flower basket is for your counter. Thanks for using Akatsuka flower delivery service."
The bookstore clerk quietly signed the receipt but clearly wanted to give another explanation. Before returning it to Karamatsu, he opened his mouth but shut up immediately hearing a throat clearing sound coming from behind. "Take care, Karamatsu." he said quickly then spun around and forced a professional smile to assure the store owner that he was still working properly.
"Take care." Karamatsu mimicked the clerk, then glancing at the manga artist with a knowing look "Have fun."
But the florist was already on his way.
Ichimatsu sighed loudly while getting up from his seat. "I'm leaving." he informed.
"It's your fault he misunderstood." Osomatsu grumbled, still keeping his smile on "I don't care how you manage, clear that ridiculous thought from his head as soon as possible."
According to Osomatsu's information, Karamatsu would be busy running his flower shop the whole Valentine. It would make sense if Ichimatsu waited for some days before straightening things up with the florist, but after giving it some thought, he showed up in front of Akatsuka flower shop at seven in the morning.
Karamatsu had helped him finish his first ever romantic chapter, and the results even exceeded Shouei's expectation. Therefore, he should at least give the florist a hand in his business. His knowledge about flowers were nowhere enough but maybe he could clean the floor, tables, and shelves while Karamatsu was running back and forth marketing and selling.
His train of thought was cut short when the shop door swung open.
"Welcome to Akatsuka- huh, Ichimatsu?" Karamatsu showed up in his working attire, slightly confused by the manga artist's presence. "Do you need something- Ah, yes, of course." he turned around, leaving the door open and hurrying to the rose section "Red roses will suit him- I mean her."
"I will get red wrapping paper for you also, just give me a minute." the florist interrupted, picking the most beautiful and vibrant roses from the vase and rushed to the empty table in front of a shelf filled with countless paper rolls and ribbons.
"I'm not here for that." Ichimatsu tried again.
"Trust me, he will like- Sorry, I mean your girlfriend will love it, I assure you." Karamatsu laughed while pulling out a sparkling red paper roll.
"Listen for a second!!" the manga artist snapped.
And the silence following was deafening. The florist was frozen in the middle of unrolling the wrapping paper. Ichimatsu scoffed before approaching the wrapping station. "I'm not here to buy flowers for anyone." he said with a scowl, hands quickly gathering the roses and brought them back to the vase. "And definitely not for Osomatsu." he raised a hand to stop the florist when he opened his mouth to say something "I know what you're thinking about, don't waste your breath denying."
Karamatsu looked troubled but obediently put wrapping paper and scissors back in their places. After few minutes of awkward silence, he got closer to the manga artist, who was still fumbling with the rose vase, not knowing how to get them back to the original arrangement. "Let me handle it." he offered.
Wanting to say that he could manage but Ichimatsu knew he would only waste time, and might damage the flowers so he retreated to the side and left the work to the professional.
Karamatsu got it done in no time, perfectly as if no one had touched them. "So what do you need, brother?" he asked, turning to meet his eyes.
Caught by surprise, or not - because he had been fully prepared to talk with Karamatsu face to face, Ichimatsu took a step back, averting his eyes to the windows. "I'm here to thank you." he mumbled, reminded that his left hand was still holding a small box. He presented it to Karamatsu, who raised his thick eyebrows in puzzlement "I don't know what you like so I bought a meat bun." He faltered when Karamatsu's expression changed from surprised to completely blank "I-If you hate it, I will throw it away-"
However, before the manga artist retracted his arm, a strong hand already grabbed him by the wrist.
"I love it." Karamatsu said, voice choked a little, tears forming at the corner of his eyes. "I love it." he repeated with clearer pronunciation, taking the box off Ichimatsu's hand "Thank you, brother."
Not knowing what to do in such situation, Ichimatsu remained still and followed the florist's every movement from opening the box to devouring the poor meat bun like the most expensive delicacy in the world. The way Karamatsu over-reacted to every of his normal behavior got him thinking sometimes but he still had not figured out a reason except blaming it all on Karamatsu's strangeness.
"Thank you for the breakfast." Karamatsu beamed with leftovers stuck around his mouth. Then his eyes caught the clock, "Oh, it's time to open." he rushed to the entrance to flip around the Open and Closed sign hanging on the door then turned back to the manga artist with clear anticipation in his eyes "Will you stay for awhile or will you leave now? I might be a bit busy so I don't know if I can keep you company."
"I will stay." Ichimatsu said before his nerves urged him to chicken out "Is there anything I can help with?"
The florist hurriedly shook his head "No, you're my guest, I can't-"
"Please let me do something." the manga artist insisted, hoping he was not sounding too forceful.
Taken aback but Karamatsu was fast to regain his composure and put a hand on his chin, looked thoughtful. "Have you ever made a bouquet?" he asked, glancing at the wrapping station.
"I can show you, it's not difficult." the florist grabbed some roses then walked over to the station.
Ichimatsu instinctively reached out, tugging at his sleeve. "Wait." he swiped out a handkerchief from his sweater pocket. "Clean your face first." chuckling slightly, he wiped Karamatsu's messy mouth, failing to notice the bewildered look on his face. Finishing in less than some seconds, he pocketed the handkerchief again "There, it's clean now." Not looking at the florist, he went to the wrapping station.
However, no matter how long he waited, Karamatsu never came.
"Are you going to show me or not?" the manga artist asked confusedly, sending a look at Karamatsu but he was still having his back towards him. "Karamatsu?" he raised his voice a bit, worried that he was speaking too softly for Karamatsu to listen. Yet the florist did not react, seemingly petrified where he stood.
Having no other choices, Ichimatsu walked to Karamatsu, planning to give his shoulder a slight pat. However, a sniffing sound stopped him midway. "Karamatsu, are you okay?" seeing the florist's shoulders trembling slightly, he asked instead.
Only until then, Karamatsu seemed to hear the question as he stiffened, letting out a few coughs. "I'm okay." his voice was a tone higher than usual and more sniffing sounds betrayed his efforts to hide his crying. "Just give me some seconds." he added.
Ichimatsu wondered if he did something wrong then was instantly reminded of Karamatsu's over-reaction. Shoot, that mouth wiping was over-kill, was it not?
"Was you mistreated in the past or something?"
"Huh?" Karamatsu swirled around almost immediately. His eyes were red, evidently trying to hold back tears, but now the touched expression was replaced with a questioning look. "What do you mean?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I don't know." Ichimatsu said, a bit faster than intended. "You always get emotional whenever I'm being nice-" he halted "No, whenever I'm being normal. So I think maybe you were treated badly in the past." He averted his eyes to the floor, fidgeting with his hands "Sorry if I'm wrong."
There was a moment of silence before Karamatsu chuckled slightly, drawing the artist's attention. "No, my life have been perfectly peaceful." he grinned cheerfully.
"Then why are you reacting like that?" Ichimatsu frowned.
The florist opened his mouth but bit his lips before any sound escaped. A forlorn look flashed over his smile very fast like an illusion. "Did you forget that I'm your fan, Hajime-sensei?"
"That's-" Ichimatsu wanted to object but was unable to find any sounding argument "That's right." he gave in. Still, Karamatsu was not honest in that answer, he was hiding something and Ichimatsu swore he would clear that mystery some day.
"Shall we try making a bouquet now?" the florist walked over to the station, experienced hands pulling out several wrapping paper rolls.
Flower shop was certainly a booming business during Valentine. Ichimatsu lost count of the number of customers after the first two hours. The only thing in his mind was choosing wrapping paper and assisting Karamatsu and his mother in making flower bouquets and baskets. Sometimes he would do the wrapping himself but his speed was insufficient and his style was very different from Karamatsu's, which was not necessarily a bad thing but the customers mostly came here for Karamatsu's style, so he figured he should not ruin their expectation.
They got a short break for lunch. Ichimatsu felt bad for bothering the florist lady to make another portion for him but she insisted that they were happy having more people joining for a meal, which Karamatsu did not waste a second agreeing. Most the dishes contained meat. That had to be from her precious son's eating habits.
"Heh, I can't help being such a carnivorous carnivore." Karamatsu smirked, putting a hand over his forehead.
"Don't mind him." the florist lady giggled, casually ignoring her son's speech. How Ichimatsu wished he had that ability.
They resumed work as soon as meal was done. Customers flooded in with the amount equal to twice or thrice in the morning and never seemed to cease for the whole afternoon. It was totally understandable, considering they had to rush buying flowers for their dates in the evening or at night.
At some points, the whole wrapping job was passed to Ichimatsu completely and he was surprised by the great improvement in his speed after hundreds, no, maybe thousands bouquets. The cat-shape ribbon tie he had unconsciously made on one of the bouquet suddenly became a hit after the customer posted it on the internet, which resulted in a larger wave of customers coming.
Their stock ran out at around seven in the evening, which Karamatsu claimed to be the first time ever since he had started working here. Usually they would have some flowers remained to be used as decoration for next day, but today, every kind symbolizing love or adoration ran out till the very last bud.
While Ichimatsu was sure he would pass out any moment, the two florists was tidying up the shop without much fatigue shown. To think his stamina even lost to a lady's in her fifties…
"Thank you for looking after my son."
Startled out of his skin, Ichimatsu took some seconds to straighten his back to met the lady's eyes, ashamed for almost lying on the counter. Remembering what the lady just said, he put on a smile "No, it's him who is always looking after me.", scratching his head sheepishly.
"He's more energetic and seems to have more fun after getting to know you." the lady said with a gentle smile, glancing at Karamatsu, who was sweeping the floor lazily several steps away.
"Isn't he always like that?" Ichimatsu commented, remembering Karamatsu's first eccentric appearance.
"That child is indeed unique." she chuckled "He isn't shy displaying his self-love, but ever since the first time I met him, I've always had a feeling that something is bothering him." She sighed lightly "He never told me though. Despite being bad at lying, he's surprisingly good at masking his true feelings."
Following the lady's gaze, Ichimatsu wrinkled his eyebrows. Karamatsu was certainly not the best liar, but somehow he was good at keeping secrets. It would be rather frightening to think that his painful speeches were a way to divert the attention… but this was Karamatsu they were talking about. It could not be, could it?
"He has many friends, but I've only heard him calling some by 'brother'." the florist lady hummed thoughtfully "They must be important to him-"
"Ah, he calls whoever coming from Matsuno orphanage by that nickname." he interrupted, knowing that was poor manner but it was not right to let her misunderstand the matter any further.
The lady lifted her eyebrows in puzzlement, tilting her head to a side "Are you sure?"
Ichimatsu nodded but remembered Karamatsu had successfully dodged that topic. "He said so." he said uncertainly "So I thought it could be."
"I don't remember hearing him calling anyone in Matsuno house by 'brother' or 'sister' before, when I haven't adopted him yet, I mean." she frowned in contemplation. "So far, there are only Osomatsu and you."
Basing on the way Karamatsu's mother called Osomatsu by his first name, Ichimatsu could guess how close the clerk was to Karamatsu's family. Or maybe because of the last name problem. But that was beside the point. What bothered him was that Karamatsu had lied to him, yet he totally bought it.
"Oh, and Choromatsu also." she added while the manga artist was glaring at her son.
"Choromatsu?" he repeated, returning his attention to the lady.
"You haven't met Choromatsu yet?" she seemed surprised "He's also from Matsuno house, and he seems to be attached to my idiotic son-"
"Mommy!" Karamatsu exclaimed from the shelf some steps away from the counter, sounded more exasperated than annoyed "I can hear you, you know."
The florist lady giggled apologetically "Sorry, I thought you're used to that by now."
"Okay, sorry." she yielded, then turned back to Ichimatsu, who was fighting back a smile "I think it's not my place to tell you about Choromatsu, but you might meet him soon." As remembering something, she whipped her head to Karamatsu "Isn't Choromatsu coming today?"
Karamatsu took a quick glance at the clock "It's one hour later than usual already, I think he won't come." then checked his phone and wrinkled his eyebrows "He didn't say he wouldn't come."
"He would text you if he won't come and not the other way around?" Ichimatsu asked confusedly. So that Choromatsu person always visited Karamatsu on Valentine?
"Yeah, that boy always paid us a visit on special occasions." the florist lady nodded amusedly "That's why I said he's attached-"
"Mom!" Karamatsu reminded exasperatedly.
"Okay okay." she waved her hand dismissively then walked towards the door at the back. "I will start preparing dinner now. It will be ready in an hour." she bowed her head slightly at the manga artist "I'm sorry it's a bit late, you must be hungry."
Getting off the chair, Ichimatsu gave her a deep bow "P-Please don't be." he stammered "It's very kind of you to invite me for dinner."
"That's too formal." the florist lady chuckled, opening the door then turned to her son "You can go out in the mean time, it's not every Valentine you have this chance. Good luck finding your Karamatsu girls." she gave him a wink then disappeared behind the door.
Karamatsu frowned but there was a joyful smile on his lips.
"What is Karamatsu girls?" Ichimatsu could not help but asking curiously.
The florist jumped but quickly collected himself and put a hand on his chin, making the usual V-shape "They're the lovely ladies who fall for my guilty handsomeness." then started posing weirdly "Oh, I can't wait to reciprocate their feelings."
The manga artist regretted asking. "Good luck then." he mumbled, sitting back on the chair, planning to have a short nap until the meal was ready. His mind knew that he should go to the kitchen and help Karamatsu's mother, but his body was screaming for rest. This could easily be the first time ever since he was born that he had been working this hard. Some all-nighters he had pulled to finish his manga before were nothing compared to this.
"Won't you go out with me?"
Lifting his head off the counter, Ichimatsu raised an eyebrow at the question.
Karamatsu seemed to notice his wording. "I didn't mean it that way, just normal hanging out-"
"I know." the manga artist interrupted impatiently, eager to get back to his nap "Why do you invite me to go flirting with girls? Or Karamatsu girls, if that's how you want to put it."
The florist scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. "It's safer to have more people." he averted his eyes.
Ichimatsu almost fell off his chair. Did flirting involve fighting nowadays? Was he that obsolete to the norms of society? "Then stay home." he grumbled, resting his head on the counter again.
"Mom will think that I'm not capable of getting a girlfriend." Karamatsu argued, sounding desperate.
"Then go out."
"But it's not safe to go alone."
"Alright! I'll go with you, for God's sake." Ichimatsu snapped, springing up from his seat.
Now that Ichimatsu thought about it, Karamatsu must have wandered alone as long as he was alive, and basing on how his mother was even familiar with the term Karamatsu girls, he must have flirted around a lot. There would be no way he would be afraid to go out by himself.
And then realization dawned on the manga artist soon enough.
"Seriously." he scoffed, shooting at the florist a dead scowl.
Karamatsu whistled innocently, avoiding the look.
He should have realized it five minutes earlier, but now was too late to go back as they were already standing in front of Akatsuka bookstore. Or was it? He could dash back to the flower shop in less than five minutes.
"I told you we're not like that." he threw out his hands exasperatedly.
"I got it, don't worry." the florist raised a hand assuredly "I just want to pay Osomatsu a visit, that's all."
Ichimatsu gave him a narrow look. "Okay, then you go visiting him, I'll be waiting outside." he shrugged.
"It's cold outside." Karamatsu opposed.
"Yeah, it is."
"So you should come in-"
"Just make it fast."
The florist pouted but obediently pushed the door open. "Eh." he backed a step, looked curious "What is Osomatsu doing?"
Ichimatsu thought it was a trap to get him in so he did not say anything and decided to watch the little show. However, Karamatsu looked truly perplexed when he poked his head into the store again. He tried not to be lured but in the end, curiosity won over. He walked to the florist's side and mimicked him.
It was not a lie. Osomatsu was hiding behind a bookshelf and occasionally sneaking a peek at something or someone.
"Maybe a pretty girl?" the manga artist suggested quietly.
Karamatsu's shoulders went up to his ears, but he calmed down right away when recognized the voice. "Maybe." he agreed "But he doesn't have that perverted look on his face."
That was correct. Osomatsu seemed serious and… annoyed? Ichimatsu was not sure since they were staying a fair distance away.
"A shoplifter then?" he deduced "He is trying to catch him red-handed."
"Possible." Karamatsu acknowledged. "That would be dangerous." he said worriedly "Osomatsu doesn't know any self-defense technique. We should help him."
Ichimatsu sent him a look as if asking 'Do you know one?'. As the florist shook his head slightly, he sighed "I don't know either. If you're looking for an assistant in a fight, don't call me. I'm a deadweight."
"Don't be hard on yourself, brother." Karamatsu comforted "Everyone has their own strong points."
The manga artist rolled his eyes. "So what now?" he asked "I can help by calling police, if you want."
"Let's see the criminal first." Karamatsu decided "If he's too much for us to handle, you can call police."
It could be a normal person also and Osomatsu was just playing a tailing game. That was the first possibility coming to Ichimatsu's mind but it was not interesting so he started with something more outrageous, because he was bored. Now hearing Karamatsu calling that person a criminal made him feel a bit guilty.
Despite being deep in thought, he still followed Karamatsu, who was tiptoeing to shorten their distance with Osomatsu. At this point, the florist looked even more suspicious than the unknown person that Osomatsu was keeping his eyes on.
They reached the bookstore clerk in no time. It was surprising that Osomatsu did not show any sign of recognizing their presences. He completely focused on whoever, or whatever, on the other side of the bookshelf.
"What are you doing?" Karamatsu whispered.
"AAHH!" Osomatsu shrieked, nearly jumping to the ceiling. He had a hand over his chest, panting while spinning around to see who had just snuck up on him. "Karamatsu?!" he gritted his teeth "My heart almost stopped!" then his eyes caught another person "Ichimatsu, what are you doing here?"
The two shared a look before turning back to Osomatsu.
"I should be asking you that." Karamatsu started "Shouldn't you be at the counter? I don't see anyone there."
"M-Me?" Osomatsu was a bit shaken up "I'm dusting some books here." he raised a brush in his hand for evidence.
"Aren't you spying on someone?" Ichimatsu cut to the chase "We saw you sneaking around."
Seemed even more startled, the bookstore clerk shook his head rapidly "No way! I'm really doing my job! Here, look, this book is so dusty, I must clean it." then picked up a random book from the shelf and started cleaning some imaginary dust.
Karamatsu crossed his arms, shaking his head slightly "You can't be more suspicious even if you try, Osomatsu."
"What are you talking about?" Osomatsu said almost desperately "Come on, don't disturb my work."
"Let me see who you're looking at." without warning, Ichimatsu poked his head to the other side of the shelf. He was tired and not going to try prying anything out of the denying Osomatsu. This would be much faster.
"Eh?" he blurted out.
Now this was surprising.
Karamatsu was correct about Osomatsu's lack of perverted look, it was not a pretty girl. However, it was not any suspicious person also.
It was only a guy in his twenties, dressed in a green checkered shirt buttoned up to his neck and light brown khaki trousers. He was completely absorbed into whatever he was reading, eyebrows furrows slightly, lips pressing together and curving upwards like he was worried or upset about something.
"Choromatsu?" Karamatsu's voice coming from behind startled Ichimatsu, but before he could scold him, the florist already walked over to the man in checkered shirt. "Choromatsu!" he called, voice excited.
The man finally lifted his eyes off the book he was holding. Ichimatsu was certainly wondering how he could concentrate on reading with all the commotion going on at the other side of the bookshelf.
"Karamatsu!" the man exclaimed, his eyes widened, quickly closing the book and hid it behind his back. "What are you doing here?" he asked, half surprised half anxious.
So this was the Choromatsu that the florist lady had mentioned: also from the Matsuno house, so he would be Choromatsu Matsuno, and had strong attachment to Karamatsu. He was not sure about the latter information because the guy was not that delighted to see the florist, or was he wrong? But the way Choromatsu smiled while greeting Karamatsu was clearly forced.
"Why were you spying on him?" Ichimatsu looked back at Osomatsu, who was trying to tiptoe away.
Caught red-handed, the bookstore clerk scurried back to his side. "I wasn't spying on him." Osomatsu grumbled "I was just keeping an eye on him."
"They're pretty much the same thing." the manga artist rolled his eyes "Whatever. I asked why."
"That's different." Osomatsu scowled but not argued any further. He stared at Choromatsu with a slight hint of annoyance. "He's been there too long, that's all." he said dismissively, eyes never left the man in green.
Ichimatsu could see confusion, and little bit of scare, in his friend's expression but he did not comment on it. By the time his attention was back on Karamatsu and Choromatsu, they were on similar topic.
"How long have you been here?" Karamatsu asked
"Just a little bit." Choromatsu tilted his head, eyebrows furrowed in thought.
Before Ichimatsu could react, Osomatsu jumped out of their hiding place, startling both the florist and his friend. He gave a professional smile but anyone could see the corner of his eye twitching. "It's four hours, sir." he grinned slightly more broadly, voice soft and polite, walking towards Choromatsu until they were only one step away.
"F-Four hours?!" Choromatsu stuttered, dropping the book behind his back.
"Yes sir." Osomatsu leaned in, making him instinctively take a step back "You've been in this light novel section for four fucking hours straight, without moving even a step away from where you are standing. Do you perhaps want a chair? Or maybe a futon to sleep here too?"
Choromatsu's face burnt bright red at the newly established fact and Osomatsu's sarcastic tone. "L-Lies!" he stumbled over his words, staring hopefully at Karamatsu "I swear I'm not here that long! That clerk is just exaggerating!"
Karamatsu seemed troubled. He kept looking back and forth between those two. His eyes stopped at Choromatsu first. "You're a bit later than usual to come to my house… so maybe you did spend some extra time here." he chose his words so carefully that it felt like he was standing on a court. Then he gave the annoyed Osomatsu a pleading eye "He couldn't be here for that long, could he?"
Osomatsu narrowed his eyes but his smile already lost the tension. "Maybe." he said playfully, crouching down to pick up the book on the floor. "Lemon Tears, interesting eh?" he read the title out loud, smiling sweetly at Choromatsu's beat red face "The illustrations are cute too, I can see why you're sooooo absorbed into it."
"Osomatsu." Karamatsu reminded with begging tone when the clerk clearly wanted to humiliate Choromatsu even further, "Please." he added with an awkward wink.
Choromatsu looked like he wanted to dig a hole and bury himself alive.
Something got into Ichimatsu's peripheral vision, tearing his attention from the trio. "Osomatsu." he cleared his throat, feeling three pairs of eyes on himself. "Shouldn't you be at the counter? I think a customer is waiting for you." he gestured with his face towards the old woman standing uncomfortably at the counter, evidently needing some help.
"Oh thanks, Ichimatsu." Osomatsu said quickly and rushed to his station. Lucky for him, the store owner was nowhere in sight.
With Osomatsu out of the picture, Choromatsu seemed to calm down a little bit. His face was still deep red but his breathing stabilized and he could meet Ichimatsu's eyes before giving him a thankful bow.
After a short silence, Karamatsu cleared his throat, looking at Choromatsu then opened a hand towards Ichimatsu "Choromatsu, this is Ichimatsu Matsuno." then reversed the gesture "Ichimatsu, this is Choromatsu Matsuno."
"Nice to meet you." Choromatsu raised a hand.
Ichimatsu hesitated a moment then met his hand halfway "Nice to meet you too." he said, averting his eyes unconsciously.
They fell into an awkward silence after their hands parted. However, the moment did not last long as Osomatsu skipped back with a bored look on his face. That look was washed away at the sight of Choromatsu though.
"I'm back." he informed then with just a glimpse of the situation, he seemed to catch up on the conversation, or the silence. "I'm Osomatsu Matsuno." he grinned, offering a hand towards Choromatsu, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
The man in green frowned, giving the bookstore clerk a narrow look, but still caught his hand in a loose grip "Choromatsu Matsuno." he said curtly.
A terrified look flashed over Osomatsu's face as he forcefully pulled his hand back right after Choromatsu finished his name, like he was electrocuted.
"What's wrong?" Choromatsu blinked, looked as clueless as the remaining two.
Both Karamatsu and Ichimatsu gave him a confused look while Osomatsu was still in a daze.
"I didn't prank him or anything." Choromatsu said defensively, showing his palms to prove his statement.
Karamatsu nodded to ease Choromatsu's mind but his eyes were on Osomatsu. "Osomatsu, are you okay?" he asked worriedly, getting closer to the bookstore clerk but before he could touch his shoulder, the clerk flinched away.
"I-I'm okay?" Osomatsu stammered, looked like he himself did not know what he was blabbing about. "Y-Yes, of course I'm okay." he said quickly before the others could speak up then started dusting off his hands "Sorry, I'm allergic." He grinned playfully, sending Choromatsu a knowing look.
"You have an allergy?" Karamatsu asked, half surprised half curious.
"Yes." the clerk nodded firmly, the impish grin grew slightly larger.
Ichimatsu took a fast glance at Choromatsu, feeling sorry for the guy. Whenever Osomatsu smiled like that, it was either bad news, or worse one.
"My hand is not dirty." Choromatsu said hesitantly, secretly checking his palm.
"Is it?" Osomatsu took a step forward, voice lowered to a whisper but still enough for the others to hear. He leaned closer to Choromatsu's ear. "Apparently, I'm allergic with…"
That was all Ichimatsu and Karamatsu was allowed to listen to, the rest was only for the victim's ears. In this case, it happened to be the poor Choromatsu, who went completely frozen even when the clerk already drew away. At first, colors all drained from his face, then slowly, a violent red spread all over his head, even to the back of his neck and the tip of his ears.
"D…die!" Choromatsu was visibly trembling, both from embarrassment and anger, when he was putting together all the curse words he knew. "Go die! You shitty clerk!" he screamed, hands clenching into fists and charged at Osomatsu.
The clerk easily dodged with an amused grin on his lips. The man in green did not waste a second to throw several more punches but all were in vain as his rage made it simple for Osomatsu to predict and evade.
While Karamatsu was struggling to stop Choromatsu's rampage, Ichimatsu took cover behind a bookshelf. He was not in any shape to pacify that brawl and somewhere in his heart wanted to see Osomatsu getting punched in his face at least once for his dirty jokes. Although he was not able to hear the remaining of the sentence, it was clear that Osomatsu hit that guy's shameful secrets.
The fight dragged on until Karamatsu finally locked both Choromatsu's arms and literally lifted him off the floor, making him flail all his limbs in the air futilely.
Ichimatsu felt his jaw dropped on the ground witnessing such impressive display of raw strength while Osomatsu simply stared at the florist with his eyes wide opened. Karamatsu was not lying when he said he wanted to help Osomatsu restrain a shoplifter.
"I won't try pissing off Karamatsu." Osomatsu whispered to the manga artist, who nodded rapidly.
All the commotion settled when the bookstore owner was back from a dinner with his wife. Osomatsu went back to his station with lighting speed as soon as the main door opened and revealed the owner. The remaining three scurried out of the store after Choromatsu purchasing all available volumes of the light novel series he had been reading since the afternoon. He claimed that to be compensation for the time and space he had occupied, but everyone knew he was just craving for the continuation of his reading before being interrupted by Karamatsu's greetings.
The three showed up at Akatsuka flower shop at around quarter past eight. Choromatsu was warmly welcomed by the florist lady as if he was her own son like Karamatsu, which made Ichimatsu wonder how long he had been in touch with the florist family.
During the meal, Ichimatsu was silently listening to their conversation and learnt Choromatsu's job as an exclusive makeup artist for a famous idol named Nyan the third or something.
Without being riled up by Osomatsu, Choromatsu was a decent man with proper attitude. Sometimes he could be a bit too uptight and meticulous, tending to correct people when they slipped or joked.
"He's a bad match with Osomatsu, so I never introduced them to each other." Karamatsu whispered while Ichimatsu joined him in washing the dishes.
"They knew each other now, thank to us." Ichimatsu shrugged, biting back his honest comment that those two would make a hilarious combination. "But I think Osomatsu already knew him somehow." he wrinkled his nose "Normally, he would not let anyone read for free that long."
Karamatsu frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe because the owner wasn't around." he suggested.
"As far as I know, he only makes exception for cute girls."
"Choromatsu can pass as a cute boy."
Ichimatsu almost dropped a dish. "Are you serious?" he rolled his eyes.
"No." the florist chuckled, sending him a joyful smile. "But you're right, maybe Osomatsu recognized him."
"Have they met before?"
"They were close before Osomatsu got adopted." Karamatsu had a reminiscent look on his face "The naughtiest combination in the house." he chuckled.
"That's surprising." the manga artist snuck a glance at Choromatsu, who was engrossed in a chat with Karamatsu's mother. "I mean, look at how he is now."
"I know what you mean." the florist smiled gently but somehow he looked like on the verge of tears "But Choromatsu is best in that place." his voice lowered, almost inaudible "Beside Osomatsu's side."
Ichimatsu wanted to say something but ended up looking down at the sink and the remaining dirty tableware.
Valentine ended without much to mention. Ichimatsu went back to his hellish mission of making a romantic manga chapter. He tried coming to Karamatsu for advice but the florist kept trying to set him up for a date with Osomatsu. No matter how much he explained, or even bringing out the truth that he was only using the dating concept for his manga, Karamatsu seemed to hang on to the idea of he and the bookstore clerk being in a not-so-secret relationship.
Therefore, he eventually gave up and randomly made a sketch basing on the date in the zoo. It was supposed to be an S.O.S message to Shouei that he was at his wit's end and would probably die if he continued to pursue that direction. However, despite being a cliché dating location, the antics between Osomatsu and Karamatsu easily got Shouei's approval. Although the editor told him to tone down the humor because it was too much for a romantic date.
Once again, Ichimatsu was in debt with Karamatsu, and Osomatsu also. At this point, he should just share them a part of his income because without them, those two cursed chapters would never exist.
Around the end of February, Shouei called and asked if he needed an assistant to lessen his workload. Because the sale of his manga kept increasing, he now was capable of paying an assistant without much trouble. Ichimatsu did not give much thought when he agreed. He was not that passionate to do all the work alone anyway.
Some days later, his phone rang early in the morning and it was not a number in his contacts.
"Matsuno's speaking." he answered half-heartedly, expecting another advertisement.
"I'm your assistant, Hajime-sensei!"
Surprised by the booming voice coming from the other side of the line, Ichimatsu took some seconds to regain his composure. Why did he feel like he had heard this voice somewhere before?
"Hajime-sensei?" the assistant sounded a bit worried.
"Y-Yes, I'm listening." he answered lamely.
"When can I start working?" the person asked excitedly.
Considering the process of his manuscript, Ichimatsu then glanced at the clock on the head of his bed. "Right now." he said "Or tomorrow, if it's too sudden."
The other side remained silent.
"Next month, if you need to arrange your schedule." he assured "I'm not in a rush."
"I'm standing in front of the building, can you come down to guide me to your apartment? I'm not very good with direction."
Ichimatsu blinked. He stared at the phone screen with slight confusion then brought it to his ear again but the assistant already hung up. How the hell did that guy arrive at his building when he was bad with direction? Despite the thought, he put on a sweater over his pajama and left his apartment. From the balcony, he spotted a person on the building yard with some luggage but it was impossible to tell who it was because of the distance.
However, right when the main door opened, he immediately realized why the voice was familiar.
"Jyushimatsu?" he called out, almost not believing in his eyes at the sight of a man in a long sleeved yellow hoodie.
"Ichimatsu-niisan!" the man exclaimed, waving both his hands, covered by the yellow sleeves, excitedly.
"What are you doing here?" the manga artist asked as he ran towards Jyushimatsu. It could not be what he was thinking, could it?
"I'm your assistant, Ichimatsu-niisan!" Jyushimatsu smiled broadly "Or should I call you Hajime-sensei?" then he made some laughing sounds "You recognized my voice too, didn't you?"
Hesitating a bit then Ichimatsu nodded. How a zookeeper passed Shouei's requirements for an assistant was beyond him. But it was actually a good news because it meant he would not have to waste time getting to know a total stranger. Socializing was still an ordeal he could live without.
"What's with the luggage?" he looked over Jyushimatsu's shoulder, raising an eyebrow at two big bags lying on the ground.
"I'll be staying at your apartment four days a week. Don't you know?" the zookeeper, or assistant, tilted his head to a side in an exaggerated movement "Sir Shouei told me you're living alone so it's better to have someone looking after you."
Ichimatsu's eye twitched, but he did not comment on it. Shouei must want to monitor his chaotic routine. Maybe that was the main reason of this whole assistant business: not to help with the manga, but to keep the artist alive until the series ended. Chuckling at the thought, he silently thanked his editor for worrying about him.
"Sir Shouei really cares about you, doesn't he?" Jyushimatsu said warmly then started picking up his bags.
"Let me help you." the manga artist hastily offered.
"They're very light, niisan." the assistant shook his head vigorously.
Ichimatsu bit back an opposition as he remembered how Jyushimatsu easily piggybacked a panda around the zoo. "Follow me then." he said simply.
"Roger." Jyushimatsu held both bags in one hand while saluting with the other, his broad smile never ceased even for a second.
The energy coming from Jyushimatsu was infectious. Somehow, Ichimatsu was excited to begin working with his newly hired assistant, which had never happened prior to ten o'clock before.
A strong force pushed Ichimatsu fell face first to the ground, making him yelp in surprise. Scrambling up on all four, he cursed loudly, feeling some liquid running from his nose. However, when he turned his head back to see who just played a tasteless prank, there was no one in sight.
"Jyushimatsu?" he called, slightly puzzled.
Only the echo answered his question.
"J-Jyushimatsu?" he tried again, fright creeping up his spine. "I don't have time to joke around." he said exasperatedly, trying to ignore the eerie echoes of his own voice. "Come on, Jyushimatsu!"
No matter how many times he tried, the result was the same.
Taking in a deep breath, Ichimatsu flinched on reflex but his supposed to be injured nose was not hurt at all. He brought his hand up to examine his face. No injury was found. Then he stood up and found himself in an unfamiliar place.
It was not the front yard of the building he was living in, but on… a sidewalk?
Something urged him to turn to the right. He hesitated but did as told.
"Jyushimatsu…?" the question slipped out of his reluctant lips as he saw a person standing in the middle of a construction site. He did not know why he blurted out that name when the person was wearing a grey uniform of a forwarding company and having his back towards him.
Upon hearing his voice, the person turned halfway around, revealing a face similar to his own.
"What the…" Ichimatsu wanted to bring a hand over his mouth but just like being paralyzed, he could only look straight ahead.
"Ichimatsu-niisan." that person smiled but nowhere close to the broad smile Jyushimatsu always wore. His hand was holding a large carton box, seemingly in the middle of his delivery.
There were noises coming from above. Ichimatsu instinctively looked up…
Before he knew it, his body already jumped over the fences and his throat was ripped apart.
In his blurry vision, where Jyushimatsu had been standing, there were only wreckage and dust.
Finally all the brothers are in the picture, took long enough XD.
Eyes shot open, Ichimatsu jolted awake. His heart hammered fiercely in his chest, breaths coming out as short rapid huffs. He tried lifting his trembling hands, flinching at the feeling of something pulled along, so he looked down instead and found IV tubes stuck on the inner side of his elbow and the back of his hand. His eyes darted further away from his body and immediately registered the whiteness of his surrounding; his nose quickly caught on the distinct smell of disinfectant.
A hospital? He shook his head. That was not important!
"Jyushimatsu!" he shouted, feeling tears brimming the corner of his eyes. "Jyushimatsu! Do you hear me?!" he cried out more loudly despite his dry throat protesting. The horrifying memory flooded back, sending shock up his spine and spreading all over his body. No… Screaming like this was futile. Jyushimatsu must not be in any condition to hear his voice after… He shuddered, unable to finish the thought.
Getting off the bed, Ichimatsu was reminded of the IV tubes again when his arm slightly hurt by the sudden movement. Tsk. He clicked his tongue. It was not the time to drag those nuisance bags around. However, before he started plucking the needles off, the curtain separating beds was pulled open.
"Ichimatsu, you're awake!" Karamatsu exclaimed, his worried expression blooming into delight in mere seconds, but then he tilted his head questioningly seeing the manga artist was already off his bed and gripping the IV tubes "What are you doing?"
Ichimatsu also wanted to ask the same thing but fear had taken over his mind seeing Karamatsu's face, similar to himself and Jyushimatsu. "Jyushimatsu." he blurted out unintelligibly, earning a confused look from the florist.
"No, I'm Kara-"
"Where is Jyushimatsu?!" he demanded.
"Why do you-"
"Where is he?!" he pressed angrily, overlooking all the worry and puzzlement in Karamatsu's expression.
The florist frowned, sending him a hesitant look.
So that was true? His knees buckled beneath him, making Ichimatsu fell back to sit on his bed emptily. Jyushimatsu was really under those debris? That was why Karamatsu was reluctant to break it to him? But how? Were they not just talking in an empty yard in front of the building he was living in? When did they move to a construction site? When did Jyushimatsu change into the grey uniform? Why did he know that was the uniform of a forwarding company?
Questions were swirling inside his throbbing head; he barely listened to Karamatsu's words although he was right beside him and even giving his shoulder some light shakes. Tears freely rolled down his cheeks while the terrifying scene kept replaying in his mind. He was only some steps away to push his little brother out of danger. He was only a second late shouting the warning… If he had reacted faster… Jyushimatsu would still have been around…
Ichimatsu had failed… to protect the sunshine of his dark life…
The realization tore apart his final barrier. His whole body started trembling uncontrollably, and he heard himself crying and screaming Jyushimatsu's name in a foreign broken voice. His knees was brought close to his chest while he buried his face into his palms, nails digging into his scalp in an effort to distract himself away from the pain in his chest.
There was an arm wrapping around his shoulders but his chaotic mind failed to determine the owner. He could feel comforting warmth radiating from the person beside him but that was insignificant compared to the agony chewing inside his heart.
"I'm sorry…" he mumbled "I'm sorry, Jyushimatsu." then kept repeating mindlessly as if it was some kind of incantation to bring back the brother with the brightest smile which could rival the sun.
It hurt too much. To the point that crying and screaming were insufficient to release the anguish.
Suddenly, the darkness surrounding him was shattered as his eyes fluttered open. That voice… No way!
"Ichimatsu-niisan?" the excitement in the familiar voice dropped a bit, replaced by some worry. "Are you okay, Ichimatsu-niisan?"
There were quick footsteps then when Ichimatsu lifted his head off his hands, he was looking at a mirror, but his reflection had a big smile stretching from ear to ear.
"J-Jyu-Jyushimatsu!" he stuttered, completely bewildered.
"I'm here, niisan." Jyushimatsu said firmly, his smile grew wider.
"You are… alive?"
Jyushimatsu stared at him with his usual happy expression but confusion was clear in his eyes. He backed away a bit then tilted his head to a side, putting a sleeved hand over his head "Yes?" His answer came out as a question. "You're the one who passed out, Ichimatsu-niisan." his eyebrows frowned in conflict.
The manga artist blinked, then shook his head to chase the remaining tears away from his eyes. "I passed out?" he asked uncertainly, pointing at himself.
The man in yellow hoodie nodded vigorously. Behind him, Karamatsu gave a slight nod of confirmation. He had no idea when the florist retreated to that position.
"When?" he frowned. "After the trip to the construction-" he halted, feeling nauseous at the memory.
"What are you talking about, niisan?" Jyushimatsu's smile shrunk, he looked more puzzled. "We were talking in front of your building, then I saw a plastic bag dropping on your head so I pushed you out of the way." he mimicked a pushing movement "Then you fainted." then put a finger on his forehead thoughtfully "And your nose was bleeding also." He added.
Now that Jyushimatsu mentioned it, his nose did hurt.
"I was afraid that you would die of blood lost so I called Karamatsu-niisan."
Ichimatsu almost choked but tried to keep his indifferent expression. Behind Jyushimatsu's back, Karamatsu already muffled his laugh.
"My heart nearly stopped because of the phone call." Karamatsu sighed. "Ichimatsu-niisan is not waking up! So much blood!" he molded his voice into Jyushimatsu's "He is dying! Help him, niisan!"
Jyushimatsu nodded energetically for confirmation, totally missing Karamatsu's effort on sarcasm.
Sending his assistant an incredulous look, Ichimatsu could not find it in his heart to tell him that nosebleed could not really kill people. But who could blame Jyushimatsu? He indeed had lost consciousness and would not wake up no matter what. But then, what was the whole matter about the construction site and Jyushimatsu's d- He shuddered again. Even the fright was still present and threatened to overtake his mind if he dared to recall.
A slight pat on the shoulder snapped Ichimatsu out of his train of thought. He looked up and met with Karamatsu's worried gaze. "Yes?" he answered, not liking how hoarse his voice sounded.
"You're not listening." the florist crossed his arms.
"I'm not." he admitted "Are you talking to me?"
Karamatsu nodded then shrugged nonchalantly "I was just asking if you're okay, but you seem fine now."
Was haunted by a hallucination, or whatever it was, counted as fine? If yes then Ichimatsu was fine. However, that was not something he could easily tell without being brought to a psychiatrist. Or should he just go to one? Because recently, he had been visiting a hospital more often than going to a restaurant.
"I'm okay." he said after some consideration, ignoring Karamatsu's doubtful stare. "What did the doctor say about my condition?" he asked, hoping he was not diagnosed with malnutrition again like the last time. His parents had a friend working as a doctor here; if there was something wrong with his health, especially coming from poor self-care, the news would get to his parents in less than one hour.
"Your body is fine." Karamatsu pressed his lips together, trying to remember exact words "But you wouldn't wake up maybe due to mental stress."
He glanced at Jyushimatsu and got numerous nods of confirmation.
"Did something happen?" the florist inquired.
Ichimatsu wanted to say yes, but what he had seen had not happened after all… Gosh, why did he not think of the final possibility? Now Jyushimatsu also shared his appearance, what else could it be except one thing? His brain also repeated the fact that he failed to save his little brother. How much of an idiot could he be not to realize the obvious?
"No." he shook his head. It would be better to keep this to himself for now. Who would believe reincarnation stuff without any proof?
Karamatsu sent him a stern look but did not say anything.
"You were crying, niisan." Jyushimatsu whispered with both hands covering his mouth.
"I-I was…" he struggled "I was confused… I think."
"You were calling my name also."
Ichimatsu opened his mouth but nothing came out. However, before he tried again, Jyushimatsu reached out to hold his hands in his sleeved ones.
"Let's go home, niisan. Anything can wait after you get enough rest."
Thank to the incident, Ichimatsu's address was finally disclosed. It was not like he tried to keep it hidden, but he would rather be the one telling the florist when he felt comfortable about that. But damages had been done, and now Karamatsu refused to leave until the manga artist finished a bowl of porridge and climbed on his bed.
"Call me if he shows any strange symptoms." was Karamatsu's guidance for Jyushimatsu before taking his leave.
Ichimatsu rolled his eyes behind the florist's back. Osomatsu was correct. Karamatsu indeed was acting like a mom. However, that all came from his genuine concern so he could not voice his complain or making a sarcastic comment.
Silence returned to his apartment after Karamatsu was gone. The energetic Jyushimatsu tried his best to stay quiet while unpacking his luggage.
"Jyushimatsu." the manga artist called when his assistant was laying down a futon beside his bed.
"Yes, niisan!" Jyushimatsu eagerly turned to face him.
He chew on his lips for a minute while Jyushimatsu was tilting his head from left to right and back, waiting patiently. Then he cleared his throat and rolled to the other side, avoiding eye contact "You can sleep on my bed." he swallowed thickly "It's big… My bed, I mean." he finished lamely, resisting a strong urge to smash his head on the bed post.
Jyushimatsu made some quizzical sounds then suddenly, a strong force pressed on the mattress before it sprang back, sending Ichimatsu slightly up in the air. He let out a startled yelp when his body fell back onto the fluffy surface. However, before he could roll around to see what had happened, an arm already wrapped around his stomach and pulled him into a squeeze. "Ichimatsu-niisan is so cold!" Jyushimatsu's voice boomed by his ears "Let me warm you up!" then his hug was tightened.
Ichimatsu squeaked at the abrupt contact and over-familiarity. He struggled to break free to no avail. Jyushimatsu's strength was formidable to say in the least. "Jyushimatsu." he said exasperatedly.
The assistant made an acknowledging sound but would not budge a millimeter.
"I'm warm enough."
"Let go of me." he sighed "It's getting hot."
The hug was loosened a tiny bit but Jyushimatsu clearly had no intention of releasing the manga artist. "It's late, let's sleep, niisan." and he started snoring.
Ichimatsu thought his assistant was pretending but when he managed to turn around, his mirror image was fast asleep, snoring loudly with his mouth wide opened and drool running down his cheek.
"Seriously." he mumbled, bringing a hand up to touch Jyushimatsu's cheek, caressing ever so lightly. A small smile found its way onto Ichimatsu's lips "So… you're my little brother…"
Blinking several times, Ichimatsu thought he was visiting a different memory corridor, maybe the life before his sextuplet life, because everything was basked in yellow color. Not golden. Bright yellow. Instead of the usual darkness.
However, before he tried some drastic method to wake himself up, the Ichimatsu wearing purple hoodie materialized from black smoke. Was his first entrance like that too? The manga artist wondered but that was the last question in his list.
"What is this yellow theme?" Ichimatsu squinted his eyes uncomfortably "I seriously need a pair of sunglasses if you're going to keep this up."
The past Ichimatsu threw him a dirty look. "It's not my fault." he said curtly.
"Yeah, my brain's fault, isn't it?" the manga artist scoffed, earning a scowl.
"You're saying that but you already knew what is going on."
Alright, that guy was made by his brain so of course he knew what he was thinking, but it was still unnerving to hear his own thoughts from someone else. Inhaling deeply, he ignored his past self and started approaching the memory fragments.
A large amount of black pieces were cleared up, yet it was hard to see all of them due to the brightness of the surroundings. Ichimatsu clicked his tongue then skipped over to the end of the corridor. He had learnt enough not to start with the beginning.
Exactly like his deduction, another brother in the sextuplets had shown up: Jyushimatsu Matsuno - the fifth son.
Through the whole childhood, Ichimatsu slowly understood why Jyushimatsu's death had such strong impact on him. They were close and usually paired up for mischief. During high school, they grew apart because of adolescence problems, then somehow became close again when they grew up.
The adult Jyushimatsu in the previous life was astoundingly identical to his current assistant, down to every tiny detail. Then something caught his interest.
"Isn't she… the Shimizu young lady?" the manga artist thought out loud seeing the brown haired girl by Jyushimatsu's side.
"Probably." the man in hoodie shrugged.
"Did she also reincarnate with us?" he tilted his head to a side with a thoughtful frown. "I'm just talking to myself, stop reminding me. I know you don't know." he said nonchalantly when his past self was about to say something.
Then they proceeded to browse through all the newly unsealed memory fragments.
His mind did not play a trick on him in the hospital. Jyushimatsu was truly the sun in his dark depressing life of a trashy NEET. No matter how many times Ichimatsu tried to push him off, the fifth brother always bounced back and stayed by his side without a word of complaint.
Ichimatsu did not know when he stopped walking but in his hand now was a fragment depicting a rare moment his past self comforting Jyushimatsu. The fifth brother was sitting on the roof, hugging an old guitar like his most valuable treasure. Ichimatsu was kneeing beside him, holding the younger brother's head close to his chest. The brother in yellow hoodie was trembling slightly but there was no tear, only an empty forlorn expression on his face, where the perpetual smile was supposed to present.
The melancholic atmosphere broke Ichimatsu's heart despite him knowing full well about the sextuplets' demises.
"Let's continue." the Ichimatsu in purple hoodie reminded, pulling the manga artist by the wrist.
He complied, trying to ignore the sinking feelings in his stomach. They soon came to Jyushimatsu's last moment, which was not very far from his own suicide.
"Jyushimatsu didn't make it." his past self explained simply, glancing at the wreckage in the construction site in the fragment "You probably knew anyway."
Ichimatsu nodded, not daring to recall the moment. It was still fresh on his mind as if he had really experienced. "It must've been… too much for you." he reluctantly looked at the past Ichimatsu but the guy sent back an irritated glare.
"It's all in the past." the man in purple hoodie scoffed.
"Do you think it's the reason for your…" he bit his lower lip, struggling "You know…" but unable to finish.
His past self raised an eyebrow, seemed not amused. "Who knows." he said after a long pause "Could be. It's not my problem anyway."
Ichimatsu was honestly surprised by his evasive attitude. He was expecting the guy to repeat the 'I am you' chants but he seemed to be hiding something? He shook his head. No way that his brain would lie to him, would it?
Startled, the manga artist swirled around but found no one. He scowled confusedly then turned back and stared at the past Ichimatsu. The guy sent him a lopsided smile.
"Ichimatsu-niisan! Wake up!"
The voice was booming from somewhere faraway yet he felt like it was right beside his ears.
"It's time for you to go back." the man in purple hoodie waved his hand.
And another wave of loud sound shattered the whole yellow dimension.
Ichimatsu's eyes fluttered open.
"Aha, you finally wake up!" Jyushimatsu said excitedly, having already changed out of his pajama and dressed in his long sleeved yellow hoodie together with a pair of shorts, which was questionable. But it was Jyushimatsu so that counted as one of his unique traits. "Rise and shine, niisan!" he yelled, doing somersaults around the bed.
Lazily sitting up, Ichimatsu gave a long yawn before glancing at the electric clock.
"Huh?" he frowned, grabbing the clock and brought it closer to his eyes to make sure he did not mistake it with five o'clock in the afternoon. No. His eyesight was perfect, it was five in the morning.
"Get out of the bed now!" Jyushimatsu yelled again with even more energy, grabbing Ichimatsu's ankles and started pulling him off the bed.
"No no no no!!!" he repeated frantically, clinging to the mattress and comforter for dear life. "Let me go! It's only five, let me sleep more!!"
Jyushimatsu stopped, making a discontented sound.
"It's too early!" the manga artist crawled back to his original position, trying to yank his feet off Jyushimatsu's loose restraint to no avail. "Let go of me, Jyushimatsu." he lowered his tone, almost begging.
"But it's morning." the assistant argued, tugging on his feet again.
Jyushimatsu let out a disappointed yell but still conceded "I understand." However, before Ichimatsu could relax even for a second, he continued "I will call Karamatsu-niisan then."
Ichimatsu sprang up as if he was just electrocuted. "Why would you call him?" he asked confusedly.
The assistant tilted his head to a side "Because Ichimatsu-niisan can't get out of the bed although it's morning. Isn't it a strange symptom?"
Giving the man in yellow hoodie an incredulous look, the manga artist seriously wondered if he did that on purpose. It was the most simple matter, there was no way Jyushimatsu did not understand that he just wanted to get more sleep. Yes, he was fully aware that he had slept almost all day yesterday, but that did not matter. Ichimatsu had never ever left his bed at five, ever since he was born. There was no reason he would today.
"I'm up already!" he shouted when Jyushimatsu started tapping on his phone screen. It was not like he was scared of Karamatsu or something, but the florist could get extra annoying when he was worried. Ichimatsu could live without that, thanks.
"Brush your teeth, I will prepare breakfast!"
Making an acknowledging sound, Ichimatsu tidied his bed lazily then left for the bathroom. While brushing his teeth with his eyes barely opened, he was suddenly reminded that his fridge was empty except for some water bottles. Jyushimatsu could not have cooked anything from water, could he? Then why were there some sounds like someone turning on the stove?
Before the manga artist knew it, he already rushed out of the bathroom, toothbrush between his teeth, towel wrapped around his neck, non-stop wishing that his kitchen was still intact although he nearly never touched anything there.
"Ichimatsu-niisan? You're so fast!" Jyushimatsu said amazedly, his sleeved hand holding a pan containing some sunny-side-up eggs.
"Where did you get those?" ignoring the toothbrush falling to the floor, Ichimatsu approached the table where two sets of plate was arranged on either sides with a small basket of bread in the middle.
"The tableware is mine, the food is from Karamatsu-niisan." Jyushimatsu explained, setting an egg on each plate then went back to the stove.
He picked up a loaf of bread, sniffing "It's freshly baked."
"Yup!" the assistant nodded energetically while frying some sausages.
"When did he come over?"
Jyushimatsu hummed thoughtfully "Around four, I think."
Taken aback, the manga artist took a deep breath to calm his nerves. It was nothing to be anxious about.
He was just sleeping so deeply that there had been someone knocking on the door, and Jyushimatsu had run out, greeting, receiving breads, bidding goodbye, going back to whatever he had been doing for an hour without him waking up.
Yeah, totally normal. An everyday business.
Hell no it was.
"Couldn't you at least wake me up or something?" Ichimatsu gave an irritated sigh "It's still my house, in case you don't remember."
The assistant did not answer. Suddenly, there were only frying sounds filling the kitchen.
Swallowing dryly, Ichimatsu then cleared his throat awkwardly. "I mean…" he started lamely "You're welcome here but…" he struggled, hoping he did not accidentally hurt his past little brother.
"You didn't wake up, niisan." Jyushimatsu spoke up after a long pause, sounding slightly less energetic than his usual tone. "You looked like you're having a nightmare so I tried calling but you never woke up. That's why I called Karamatsu-niisan… I'm sorry…" his voice lowered at the end, sounding apologetic.
Cursing himself internally for forgetting his own condition whenever he visited the memory corridor, the manga artist mumbled an apology then rushed back to the bathroom. Some minutes later, there were some hesitant knocking sounds on the door.
"I'm perfectly okay, don't be hard on yourself, Ichimatsu-niisan." Jyushimatsu's voice resounded from the other side of the door, completely happy and lively.
"… am not." he mumbled, feeling his face heated up a bit due to being seen through easily.
Jyushimatsu's cooking was not something special but certainly hundreds times better than readymade food or instant noodles that Ichimatsu had been having every day. They ate in silent, or at least borderline silent because the assistant's table manner was seriously shabby. With his mouth wide opened, his chewing sounds echoed all over the apartment and leftovers was spewed in every direction.
Ichimatsu quietly enjoyed his food because he was not the type to complain about insignificant matter like manners, if not saying that he somewhat felt more at home with Jyushimatsu's behaviors. He seriously resembled his previous life.
After yesterday incident, Ichimatsu was having some questions regarding his previous life. It was clear that there was a whole hallway for memory fragments. But how about feelings? He was certain that his past emotions were carried on to his current life, which explained his breakdown in the hospital. However, he had not experienced any strong emotions while travelling down the memory lane. There was melancholy but that was because he sympathized with his past rather than the feelings of the past itself.
"Let's exercise after this, niisan."
"Sure." the manga artist answered on reflex but immediately lifted his eyes from the dish to look at Jyushimatsu's over-excited expression. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"Baseball!" the assistant yelled.
"No no, your previous sentence."
"Let's play baseball!"
Ichimatsu was certain it was not like that but Jyushimatsu looked very determined so the contents must be close. Whatever it was. "I don't know how to play baseball, so maybe you should ask Kara-"
"You just agreed!!" Jyushimatsu protested, his big smile shrunk.
The manga artist rolled his eyes mentally. "I wasn't paying attention." he explained, hoping his assistant would understand he was in no condition to play sports, not to mention baseball "And I really don't know anything about baseball."
"It's fine, niisan!" the man in yellow hoodie sprang up from his seat "You don't need to do anything!"
Ichimatsu blinked "Pardon?"
"You just need to stay still!"
He blinked again then gave the assistant a confused look because despite his lack of knowledge about baseball, he was sure it did not work like that.
"Trust me, niisan!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed then quickly gathered all the used tableware, bringing them to the sink.
"I will do the dishes." Ichimatsu immediately stood up, giving Jyushimatsu a persistent gaze when he seemed wanting to oppose "You cooked, so it's my turn."
The assistant scratched the back of his head then nodded obediently "Then I'll prepare the equipment, come down to the back yard when you're done!"
Ichimatsu made an acknowledging sound at the back of his throat but Jyushimatsu seemed to hear it clearly so the man ran to where he had placed his belongings.
Although he had never played baseball before, it would not be a problem, would it? Jyushimatsu had also assured that he did not need to do or know anything and just had to stay still, so the exercise should be simple enough. If his memory served, his past self had also had some bat swinging sessions with Jyushimatsu and he even seemed to enjoy it, so… it would be okay, would it not?
"I'M DYING! I'M DYIIIING!!!"
Terrifying screams ripped his throat apart. Tears and snots literally flew out of his eyes and nose whenever Jyushimatsu swung the bat. His head had been spinning ever since his assistant lifted the bat off the ground. What was this? He felt like he was getting seasick on dry land - or baseball-bat-sick - because his whole body was definitely swayed continuously on top of a baseball bat.
"It's only beginning, niisan!" Jyushimatsu yelled with little disappointment, ready for another swing.
"Let me go!" Ichimatsu shrieked, not caring about his image anymore as his life was on the line. "Please!!" he added when Jyushimatsu made a discontented sound.
"But it's only the tenth swing, I can do many many more!"
"I won't ever wake up again if you swing one more time!!"
"That's bad!" Jyushimatsu instantly lowered the bat, carefully laying the manga artist on the ground before untying him. "Are you okay, niisan?" he asked worriedly when Ichimatsu remained as dead as a corpse.
It took Ichimatsu nearly a minute to regain his senses. It was still a miracle that he had not passed out during those measly ten swings. How the hell had his past self withstood this atrocity?! For more than one thousand swings to boost!
"Ichimatsu-niisan! Are you okay?!" the assistant frantically repeated the question when the mentioned was still not responding to anything.
Reaching out a hand, he tugged lightly on Jyushimatsu's sleeve to let him know that he was still alive, although barely.
"Let me get you some water!"
Jyushimatsu announced then dashed away, seemed genuinely worried that Ichimatsu could not bring himself to get angry at the boy. Maybe it was not that bad. Maybe it was only because of his lack of stamina. He was even weaker than a lady in her fifties anyway…
The assistant came back five minutes later, carrying two water jugs on one shoulder that the manga artist was certain that he could take a shower with. "I'm back!" he waved his hand in a circular motion.
Ichimatsu somehow managed to sit up in the mean time. Too sick to express his surprise for the jugs so he simply accepted the cup Jyushimatsu gave him, not knowing where he had gotten it from.
While the manga artist slowly took some sips from the cup of water, his assistant tied the unused water jug to the bat and started on his swinging exercise again. Seeing the poor jug waving around in the air, Ichimatsu shuddered, trying to divert his attention away from the previous hellish moment. He was glad his breakfast had not rushed out of his stomach yet.
When Jyushimatsu reached around one thousand swings, Ichimatsu successfully fell asleep again but immediately woken up by the assistant.
"It's still morning, don't sleep, niisan!" he whined with an energetic voice.
"Fine, I'm wide awake." the manga artist grumbled "Are you done?"
Jyushimatsu tilted his head to a side "I can still keep going." he said but put the bat down "But let's stop now!"
Ichimatsu secretly thanked whatever deity available and got up to his feet, more than ready to get back to his apartment and start working on his manga. He had never been this eager to work than now. Maybe this was one of the qualities making Jyushimatsu qualify to be his assistant.
"Karamatsu-niisan is a liar!" Jyushimatsu abruptly let out a disappointed yell while collecting his baseball equipment, drawing attention from the manga artist.
He spun back, sending the assistant a puzzled look.
"He said you would be okay with the swinging practice." Jyushimatsu said angrily but his wide smile was still present.
"Does he even know how you practice?" Ichimatsu raised an eyebrow, because he obviously had not expect this kind of torture.
"Yes!" Jyushimatsu affirmed "I practiced with him once before, he was screaming and crying like you just did."
Oh, why was he not surprised? Ichimatsu held back a snicker. So even Karamatsu could not withstand that brutality… and the florist dared to claim that Ichimatsu could? Was he out of his mind?
"He said you're a…" the assistant stopped a second to think, then decided to just speak whatever on his brain "…a macho so you'll be okay!"
"A what?" the manga artist wrinkled his eyebrows.
Jyushimatsu struggled, putting both hands on his forehead. "A macho!" he tried again but obviously the other failed to get it. "A machos…" he repeated, eyebrows knitted together in deep thought.
Ichimatsu tilted his head to a side confusedly, unable to comprehend what Jyushimatsu was trying to say. "You mean macho, as in muscular?" he made a wild guess.
The assistant did not respond, still in deep thought.
"Look, Jyushimatsu, I'm far from macho if that's what you mean." he said exasperatedly, making a mental note to text a complaint to Karamatsu for his false claim.
"A machosist!" the assistant cried out triumphantly
"What does that even mean?" he shrugged, throwing out his hands.
Then it clicked.
Ichimatsu immediately rushed back to his apartment, picking up his phone and dialed a number.
"Akatsuka flower delivery-"
Ichimatsu pulled the door open before the florist outside could finish the sentence.
"Your bouquet has arrived!" Karamatsu spun around, making a full circle then ever so slowly got down on his knee. "Crimson red rose." he hummed poetically, lifting the vibrant bouquet slightly over his head towards the receiver "Full of thorns like thee yet blooming beautifully- OUCH!!"
Karamatsu yelped in pain the instant the manga artist mercilessly pushed the bouquet into his face. He struggled to get out of sharp thorns, tears brimming the corner of his eyes while blood oozing droplets from many pricks on his face. "It hurts!" he yelped again when Ichimatsu increased the pushing force.
"It hurts?" Ichimatsu snickered almost demonically "I thought you enjoy pain?"
"What are you saying, bro- OUCH!!" Karamatsu let out another painful yell when the manga artist pressed on the bouquet again. "I give! I give!" he shouted, waving both hands in surrender.
"I can't hear you." the manga artist smirked, lifting his hand a bit so the florist could breath and form an answer.
"We're not fighting here." he pressed the bouquet again, earning another scream.
"Forgive me!" Karamatsu cried "It hurts!"
Ichimatsu chuckled darkly "Don't you mean, 'Please spare my sorry life'?"
Karamatsu was frozen for a second but the thorns quickly pulled him back to reality. He wailed "Please spare my sorry life!"
"Don't you mean, 'Please have mercy for this pathetic pig, Ichimatsu-sama'?"
A pair of arms wrapped around Ichimatsu's torso, pulling him backwards several steps and successfully snapped him out of the weird mode he had been in. Taking in a deep breath, he glanced over his shoulder despite knowing full well who that was. Jyushimatsu was wearing a conflicted expression as if he could not decide if he should laugh or worry about the situation.
"Calm down, niisan." Jyushimatsu said as quietly as his tone allowed "Karamatsu-niisan is hurt."
Releasing the breath he was holding, Ichimatsu nodded "I'm calm now." then started peeling the assistant's hands off. Jyushimatsu hesitated a bit before letting go.
Returning his attention to Karamatsu, the manga artist could not help feeling guilty seeing all the tiny wounds on the guy's face. The florist was petrified where he kneed, the bouquet rolling on the floor, long forgotten. His expression was mostly blank and the pair of sunglasses conveniently covered his eyes, preventing Ichimatsu from guessing what he was feeling or thinking.
"Karamatsu?" he spoke up hesitantly but before he could ask anything more, Jyushimatsu already leaped forward and easily picked the florist up, making him yelped in surprise.
"Let me get you patched up." Jyushimatsu announced, putting Karamatsu on his shoulder then ran off to the kitchen, where the first aid kit was. How he managed to know that information was beyond Ichimatsu.
Tidying up the rose petals scattered around the doorstep, Ichimatsu grimaced every time Karamatsu shrieked while getting disinfected. Just what has gotten to him? Yes, he had been furious, but to call Karamatsu, ordering a rose bouquet with full thorns on, then pressing that on the guy's face were… a bit too much. It was hardly from anger anymore but borderline sadistic. And what frightened him more was that he actually enjoyed the moment… He shook his head, trying to focus on the job at hand.
After finishing cleaning, the manga artist went straight back to his room to start working on the next chapter. All his previous anger dissipated so it would be awkward to face Karamatsu now. He could call and apologize later.
Or he had thought so before the door swung open.
"Ichimatsu-niisan!" Jyushimatsu's voice boomed from outside but the one appearing at doorstep was the florist with a face full of bandages. "Karamatsu-niisan wants to talk to you!"
"No, brother, I-"
"I'll be right outside, call me if you need something, niisan." Jyushimatsu interrupted and pushed the florist inside, then closed the door.
Left alone, Karamatsu looked highly uncomfortable, keeping looking back and forth between the manga artist and the door as if asking for permission to leave.
Ichimatsu decided to concentrate on his work but when Karamatsu started pacing, he sighed loudly. "What do you need?" he asked, fidgeting with his pencil and staring intently at the tornadoes he had been drawing in the past few minutes.
Karamatsu cleared his throat nervously but did not say anything.
The pacing noises resumed after a minute of silence. Ichimatsu slapped a hand on his forehead. "Out with it." he said exasperatedly.
"Don't you have something you want to say?" Karamatsu blurted out, slightly faster than his usual speed.
Whipping his head towards Karamatsu, he raised an eyebrow confusedly. The florist stared back with solid determination although the amount of bandages on his face made him look more funny than serious.
"No, I don't." Ichimatsu said simply, averting his eyes from the injured. However, Karamatsu's silence became more and more unnerving with each second passing. "I'm not sorry, if that's what you're waiting for." he hissed, having a strong urge to bang his head on the desk. Why would he say that? He did think Karamatsu deserved a punishment but it was not right to say he was not sorry for his awful action. He was taught better. His parents would be disappointed in this kind of behavior.
Yet Karamatsu made a laughing sound at the back of his throat before snickering amusedly. "I never expected you to." he said while muffling more laughs, earning a glance from the manga artist. "I-I mean, you must have your reason to do that." he quickly added, sounding awfully understanding.
Giving the florist a sideway look, Ichimatsu suddenly felt like he had already lost. "No, I just felt like shoving some thorns onto your face." he grumbled.
"That's fine, brother." Karamatsu snapped his fingers, smiling confidently "As long as you're happy, it's no problem.", sending the manga artist a wink.
"How can you say that?" Ichimatsu blurted out before realizing what he had said.
The florist's eyes widened. He blinked a few times before tilting his head to a side questioningly.
"Look at your face in a mirror, will you?" the manga artist sprang up, rummaging through the drawers of his desk but failed to find any mirror. "Or take a selfie with your phone." he sighed, throwing out his hands "Whatever, take a look at your injuries then tell me that again."
Karamatsu was wearing a dumbfounded look at first but then he swiped out his phone, taking a picture of his face with the front camera without a second of hesitation. "My little Jyushimatsu needs to improve his bandaging skills a bit, I guess." he commented after striking some poses.
"That's all?" Ichimatsu raised an eyebrow "I literally injured you-"
"Scars are trophies for a real man." the florist interrupted with a grin although it was clear the wounds still hurt. "But sadly, these tiny wounds won't even leave scar on my perfect face." he sighed dejectedly but then got his smile back in no time "So don't worry, brother. My guilty handsomeness will be back by tomorrow."
The manga artist opened his mouth to protest but could not find any sounding argument so he bit his lips instead. Why could he not be relieved when Karamatsu forgave his terrible behavior? He just felt more… annoyed the more he listened to the florist's selfless speeches.
"Why aren't you angry?!" Ichimatsu slapped a hand over his mouth realizing he had just thought out loud. He hesitantly glanced at Karamatsu but looked away almost instantly before checking what expression he was having.
"Because…" the florist paused for some seconds "… because you have your reason-"
"I just told you I did it for fun, didn't I?!" he snapped, not knowing why he got angry. This was really uncalled for.
Karamatsu was silent but then laughed weakly. "Maybe you were stressed so you needed to let your steam off…" he suggested "Whatever it is, you didn't do it out of spite, I'm sure."
"How can you be sure?" Ichimatsu argued, staring intently at his desk "How long have you known me?"
The florist did not answer.
"It's not even two months yet!" he scoffed laughingly "And you're willing to forgive me for hurting you for fun. Are you an idiot or what?"
Silence reigned in the room. The only sound thumping in Ichimatsu's ears was his own erratic heartbeats. He tried to stabilize his breathing but it got worse when Karamatsu's footsteps were getting closer. Trying to fight back the urge to back away or even run out of the room, he squeezed his eyes shut, preparing himself to face Karamatsu's wrath. Anyone would get angry being called an idiot after being forgiving.
"Y-Yes?" he stuttered.
There were a slight laughing sound before Karamatsu put a hand on the manga artist's shoulder. "I'll always forgive whatever you do." he said firmly "Call me an idiot if you want, but I meant what I said."
Ichimatsu's eyes shot open. He stared at the florist incredulously, unconsciously searching for any trace of lying but obviously failed. "Why?" was all he managed.
Why was Karamatsu was that forgiving to a person who he had just met not very long ago and was not even his friend? Why did he have so much trust in him despite their minimum contact? … And many more questions but he could only muster that much under Karamatsu's compassionate gaze.
The florist chuckled as if the answer was too obvious to speak out loud but he said anyway "Because you're my brother." with a smile so cheerful that could rival even Jyushimatsu's.
Noting the way Karamatsu did not use his broken English, Ichimatsu found himself unable to breathe for a second when a foreign feeling surged over his heart. However, before he could grasp what it was, the feeling vanished like it never existed. "We're… not" he said quietly, biting his inner cheek seeing Karamatsu's alarmed look. "We're not brothers." He repeated. Not anymore.
"We're both from Matsuno house-"
"Stop that." the manga artist interrupted almost instantly, knowing what Karamatsu was going to say "It's a lie. You only call some selected people by 'brother'.", his eyebrows furrowed. "So far there are only Osomatsu, Choromatsu, Jyushimatsu and me. I can understand that Osomatsu, Choromatsu and Jyushimatsu are your close friends, but why me?" He took a step forward, making the florist retreat. Without the sunglasses on, it was easy to read the anxiety flickering inside his eyes.
Karamatsu pressed his lips together, continuing to pull back several more steps although Ichimatsu had already stopped walking. "Because…" he struggled, averting his eyes to the door like wishing it would magically open and save him from the interrogation. "Because… you're my idol!" unknowingly raising his voice, Karamatsu must be unaware of how obvious he was "I-I want to get close to you. Yes, that's why."
Ichimatsu paused for a second before chuckling joylessly "That's a lie too.". As much it stung to realize the truth, he did not want to indulge his ego any longer with Karamatsu's pleasant lies. "You never read my manga, not even once." he wrinkled his nose "I didn't find anything related to manga in your house, and whenever we met, you never mentioned it."
The discussion with Todomatsu in Matsuno house had been more than enough for him to recognize the differences of a fan and Karamatsu. Yet he just never let himself think about it, blindly accepting the florist's reason to boost his meager confidence. What could be more encouraging for a newly contracted artist to have a loyal fan who kept gifting him flowers despite his ups and downs? But this had to stop today. He would not let Karamatsu get away with this talk again.
"Why are you trying to get close to me?" Ichimatsu pressed on "What do you know? How do you make your list of 'brother'?"
Karamatsu's chest was rising and falling so slowly that sometimes it looked like he did not dare to breathe. His eyebrows was knitted together while his lips was pressed so tightly into a line. He tried to look away at first but pressure from the manga artist's stare kept him from averting his eyes.
They stared at each other in suffocating silence before the florist swallowed thickly. "You wouldn't believe me." he said almost inaudibly, zero confidence in his tone.
"It's my decision to make." Ichimatsu sent him a narrow look, crossing his arms.
Karamatsu took a deep breath, seemingly gathering all his courage. "Fine." he closed his eyes and gave a defeated nod "You are my-"
We were born sextuplets~
Not six times but one out of six~
A poorly composed song rang loudly from Karamatsu's pants pocket, making both men jump out of their skins.
The florist quickly swiped out his phone, barely glancing at the screen before picking up. "I'm listening, mommy." he answered instantly then chuckled apologetically "I'm sorry I'm taking a long time. My friend needed some help. We're done now." he nodded "I'll be right back. Bye, mom." then hung up the call.
Ichimatsu was about to say something but Karamatsu beat him to it.
"I'll be on my way now." he waved two fingers in a swift motion, smug smile back on his lips "See you later, brother." then opened the door and dashed out.
"Wait!" Ichimatsu shouted a moment too late. The florist already disappeared from his sight. He ran out of the room but was just in time to see Karamatsu bidding his goodbye to Jyushimatsu at the main door before literally running away. Tsk. He let him escape again. The call timing was too perfect, almost like a setup.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, Ichimatsu went back inside. "Jyushimatsu." he called, sitting back on his working chair.
The assistant piped in "Yes, Ichimatsu-niisan!"
"Let's start working."
Jyushimatsu could neither ink nor draw backgrounds or special effects. Luckily, before Ichimatsu called Shouei to ask what assistant work Jyushimatsu had shown in the interview, the assistant presented a perfectly cut screen tone. It was too delicate to believe that was Jyushimatsu's handwork.
"I used to make some handicrafts with my sister so this is easy." Jyushimatsu explained while finishing some more pages under the manga artist's instruction. His speed was surprisingly faster than even the artist himself.
With that, Ichimatsu's workload was considerably lessened as promised, and they called it a day at around five in the afternoon. Although the artist wanted to draw some more, his assistant insisted to have dinner so he had no choice but complying. They had also had lunch at the right time. Jyushimatsu was really here to manage his chaotic routine.
Ichimatsu wanted to order delivery food so he could laze around until dinner arrived but was obviously stopped by his precious assistant. However, he also prevented Jyushimatsu from cooking because he would rather die than do the dishes. Therefore, they ended up meeting each other halfway and settled for a family restaurant within ten minute walking distance.
"Why did you apply to be an assistant?" Ichimatsu brought up the matter while they were waiting for food. This somehow slipped his mind after the incident "Weren't you working at the zoo?"
Jyushimatsu tilted his head to a side in contemplation then grinned broadly "Because you pay more."
"Really?" the manga artist lifted an eyebrow "I thought you work for fun only."
"Ehhhh?" Jyushimatsu looked confused, which made Ichimatsu felt slightly guilty for saying it like something obvious.
"I mean." he said lamely "You're adopted by Shimizu family…"
"I see." the assistant nodded understandingly "Yes, my parents still support my expense although I'm over eighteen long ago."
"Then why do you need to search for a higher salary job?" Ichimatsu frowned slightly "You can choose whatever job you like, can't you?" He had been nearly one hundred percent certain that the zookeeper job was solely chosen because Jyushimatsu liked animals. But it did not seem to be the case.
"I don't want to use their money!" Jyushimatsu smiled more broadly "I always send it back to Homura."
"Homura… ah, your sister?"
"Yes!" his big smile shrunk a tiny bit, almost unrecognizable.
Ichimatsu wanted to ask why Jyushimatsu refused to use his parents' money but stopped himself in time. They were in no relationship for personal matters. Even Karamatsu, whose words Jyushimatsu always believed, was not told about his family. Who was he to question?
"What were you and Karamatsu-niisan talking about?" it was Jyushimatsu who started this time "I tried to follow your conversation but I didn't get it."
The manga artist spent a moment considering how much he should tell. They sure had been friends, or at least Jyushimatsu had acknowledged so, for a year, almost as long as he knew Osomatsu. However, they barely talked about anything more than today weather and how adorable some animals were, especially pandas… Maybe he could let Jyushimatsu in on whatever he allowed Osomatsu to hear.
"Oh sorry, I spaced out." Ichimatsu bowed his head lightly "We just talked about his injuries…"
"You went sidetracked halfway though." the assistant pointed out.
Crap, Jyushimatsu was sharp.
"Then I got annoyed because he's too selfless, I think." the manga artist wrinkled his eyebrows. Even he had a hard time understanding his own thought at that moment. "I don't know why though. I'm just easily annoyed by people, maybe."
"Isn't it because you're worried about Karamatsu-niisan?"
Ichimatsu choked on his drink.
"You're afraid that he didn't truly forgive you." Jyushimatsu continued, still smiling cheerfully "that he would come to hate you-"
"Wait wait wait wait!" the manga artist hastily cut in, suddenly overcame by embarrassment "Where did you get those ridiculous ideas from?! I never care about him, we're just acquaintances!"
Jyushimatsu made a quizzical sound. "But you are really close!" he protested.
Ichimatsu shook his head firmly "No, we're not, I assure you."
Fortunately, before an argument broke out, their food arrived. Jyushimatsu immediately dove into his meal while Ichimatsu ate slowly. Occasionally, he sent the assistant a scowl, remembering his baseless deduction.
Why would he be scared that Karamatsu came to hate him? It was true that the florist had been his sextuplet brother in the past, but now, he was just a romance expert who helped Ichimatsu finish his manga chapters. Nothing more, nothing less.
After dinner, Ichimatsu was supposed to go home and dive onto his fluffy bed. Yet he was walking somewhere with Jyushimatsu leading him by the hand.
"It will be fun, trust me, niisan!"
That was Jyushimatsu's promise when Ichimatsu was reluctant to join. The last time the assistant had said that, it had not ended well. However, for some unknown reason - or he just refused to acknowledge it, the manga artist gave in.
Taking a stroll, hand in hand with a man his age, in the evening might not be the most appealing idea, but Ichimatsu felt completely at ease. Whenever Jyushimatsu seemed to loosen his grip, he automatically tightened his hold. The assistant gave him a questioning look but not slightest bit of discomfort.
"J-Just for safe." he explained lamely. His hand shook when the memory about the construction site flashed back again.
Jyushimatsu seemed thoughtful before grinning widely again. "It's warmer like this." he clenched more tightly around the manga artist's hand and continued to pull him forward. "I don't know what you're thinking about, but I'm not going anywhere, Ichimatsu-niisan." he assured warmly, turning around halfway to give Ichimatsu his brightest smile before proceeding towards their destination.
They walked in comfortable silence for around half an hour and stopped in front of a dark colored building.
"Isn't this a bar?" Ichimatsu swallowed dryly, giving his assistant a hesitant look.
Jyushimatsu nodded vigorously.
"I'm not interested." he backed off.
"It will be fun!" Jyushimatsu said excitedly "You need to relax sometimes, niisan."
"They haven't opened yet though." Ichimatsu argued, secretly glad that it was only half past seven.
"Don't worry, we can wait inside. My friend works here." the assistant guaranteed, completely missing the manga artist's desire to go home.
Before Ichimatsu had chance to make an excuse, Jyushimatsu pulled him to the alley beside the building. They walked in darkness for few seconds before stopping in front of a small door illuminated by a flickering light bulb.
"Beg your pardon!" Jyushimatsu yelled, startling the manga artist.
"What are you doing?" Ichimatsu quickly asked in low voice, eyes automatically darting around to check for witnesses.
However, Jyushimatsu ignored him and continued with his childish shouting until the door swung open.
"Jyushimatsu!" a voice chirped before Ichimatsu could bolt away "You come by again.", sounding more happy than annoyed, drawing attention from the manga artist.
At doorstep stood a light brown haired girl in bartender uniform. She was waving her hand cheerfully and giving Jyushimatsu a small smile with a slight hint of mischievousness. Ichimatsu had never met her before but his brain told him otherwise. Somehow, she looked awfully familiar…
"Totty!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed then released the manga artist's hand and threw himself at the girl for a bear hug. The girl gave a surprised yelp.
"What are you-" Ichimatsu was about to grab his assistant and pull him back before the girl started calling police on them but stopped midway. She did not scream or anything, only laughing heartily and returning his hug.
While Ichimatsu was processing the situation, the two already finished their basic greetings and began on some random topic. It took Jyushimatsu and that Totty girl awhile to remember they had another companion.
"Totty, this is Ichimatsu-niisan, the manga artist I told you about." Jyushimatsu leaped to the artist's side, latching around his forearm and dragged him towards the bartender girl.
The girl's smile grew more impish. "Nice to meet you." she sang song "I'm Todoko, you can call me Totty."
Startled by the sudden introduction, Ichimatsu unconsciously hid behind Jyushimatsu. "I'm Ichimatsu…" he mumbled then remembered Jyushimatsu had just told her his name "I mean, me too." he finished lamely, trying to keep eye contact although his guts was screaming to look away.
The girl evidently muffled her laugh. "Come in, it's still cold outside." she said, sidestepping so the two men could enter.
And realization dawned on Ichimatsu.
"You're Todomatsu!" he exclaimed, stopping right before the girl.
A silent moment passed before the girl made some amazed sounds, her expression deeply impressed. "How could you tell?!" she asked, still gasping in astonishment.
"The way you stepped aside." the manga artist avoided Totty's stare "I just… remembered that somehow…"
Todomatsu laughed loudly, dropping his tone to the usual one instead of the higher pitch he had just used to mimic a girl's. "That gave me away?" he chuckled amusedly "Are you kidding me?"
"Niisan is awesome!" Jyushimatsu piped up from their side. "Totty said he wanted to surprise you but you found out!"
Ichimatsu shoot a narrow look at his assistant "So you planned this meeting, not a spontaneous idea."
Jyushimatsu looked away, faking innocence.
"Your reaction was funny, what a shame you found out this early." Todomatsu sighed, gesturing for the two to follow him through a narrow path before reaching the main room. "You can take the usual table, Jyushimatsu." he instructed, then smiled at the artist "Have a good time, Ichimatsu.", not forgetting a cute wink.
Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. If he had not found out it was Todomatsu, his heart would have done a somersault under that deadly wink. It was unholy for a guy in his twenties to be that charming in girl getup.
Because the bar was still in preparation time, main room was empty and silent although all light was on for employees to arrange tables and prepare drinks. The bar was designed in classic style despite the nightclub appearance from outside. Although Ichimatsu was against the idea at first, he was glad he had not backed out at the last minute.
"Can I take pictures here?" he asked when Todomatsu was about to leave after leading them to the table in a corner. The bartender gave him a questioning look. "Reference for my manga." he hastily explained.
"Let me ask my manager." Todomatsu ran to the middle aged man behind the counter, then came back after a brief exchange. "You're free to take photos." he gestured at the whole interior "But we're still in preparation so maybe you should wait until it's near open time."
"Thank you very much." the manga artist bowed.
Todomatsu chuckled "Too formal, niisan~"
Ichimatsu choked. "Not you too?" he frowned but the bartender was already on his way to his station.
It seemed that not only Todomatsu was Jyushimatsu's friend but everyone in this bar also knew him, because they had waltzed in like there were nobody around, yet not a single employee spared a second to question their presence.
"That reminds me, why Todomatsu dresses like a girl here?" Ichimatsu turned to his assistant after deciding that he had observed enough "What was his work name again? Todoko?"
Jyushimatsu put a hand on his chin thoughtfully. "Yes, his working name is Todoko." he answered the latter question first then continued to think "I'm not sure but he said it's easier to attract customers or something."
"Isn't he working at Matsuno orphanage?" Ichimatsu wrinkled his eyebrow, trying to recall the day he had come for investigation.
"Totty has two jobs. He's a caretaker in the morning and a bartender at night." the assistant explained.
The manga artist made an acknowledging sound. It was admirable to work two jobs and still full of energy. "You're close to him, aren't you?" he asked, waiting for Jyushimatsu to nod then continued with a smirk "Then why don't you call him niisan too?"
Jyushimatsu tilted his head to a side, looked slightly surprised "Because Totty is younger than me."
"How do you know?" it was Ichimatsu's turn to be confused "Aren't you both orphans?"
"I don't know!" the assistant laughed loudly "But I feel that Totty is younger."
The manga artist narrowed his eyes. "Karamatsu told you." he concluded.
"Ehhhh?!!" Jyushimatsu yelled in bafflement, his forehead sweating heavily "No no, it's my own feeling!"
"Sure it is." Ichimatsu shrugged. He had thought he was bad at lying. "I can be younger than you too, for all you know. But you trust everything Karamatsu says."
"No, you're definitely older!" Jyushimatsu shook his head rapidly.
The manga artist scowled "I might look tired but I'm not that old."
"You have the vibe of an older brother, like Karamatsu-niisan and Osomatsu-niisan!"
Taken aback by Jyushimatsu's claim, Ichimatsu took some seconds to regain his composure. "You're bluffing." he countered "You’ve only met Osomatsu once."
"I'm not bluffing." the assistant protested, managing to look angry when his big smile was still on "Osomatsu-niisan radiates very clear big brother aura!"
"Even more than Karamatsu?" he raised an eyebrow in challenge.
"More than Karamatsu-niisan!" Jyushimatsu nodded firmly.
Now this was interesting. If Ichimatsu had to compare those two, he would not hesitate to deem Karamatsu to be the older. It was clear that Osomatsu was more childish while Karamatsu - minus his nonsensical speech - always acted more responsible and forgiving. It was hard to imagine Osomatsu as an older brother.
Except that one time.
Ichimatsu shook his head to chase away the head rub Osomatsu had given him during the awkward date in the zoo.
"You're younger than them, Ichimatsu-niisan." Jyushimatsu suddenly said, interrupting the manga artist's train of thought "You can call them by niisan-"
"No way in hell!" Ichimatsu gave a disgusted frown.
He would rather die than call any of them by that title, even if they were biologically older than him, especially Osomatsu. That bookstore clerk could be anything but a big brother.
"How does Karamatsu determine our ages anyway?" he asked, giving Jyushimatsu a stern look when he was going to deny Karamatsu's involvement.
"I don't know." the assistant averted his eyes, then hastily repeated before the artist could speak up "I really don't know! Karamatsu-niisan just told me to trust him."
"And you just trust him like that?" Ichimatsu threw out a hand "You don't even think of questioning him the reason?"
Jyushimatsu hummed thoughtfully "There is no reason for him to lie about that, is there?"
"No, there isn't, but-" Ichimatsu stopped. Jyushimatsu had a point. Karamatsu had nothing to gain playing this family game. But then why did he keep doing that? It would be understandable if the florist still had not gotten a family, but he had one now, with a caring mother by his side. Why did he still go around calling random people his brothers?
No, it was not random. Ichimatsu gasped upon realization. Could Karamatsu be aware of his previous life also?! The florist called Jyushimatsu and him by 'brother', and they were indeed brothers in the past. So… Osomatsu and Choromatsu-
A loud ringtone went off in Jyushimatsu's hoodie pocket, sending them both tumble out of their seats.
Jyushimatsu hurriedly took out his phone. His face hardened for a second seeing the name on the screen but he picked up anyway. "Jyushimatsu's speaking." he said quietly. "Calm down, I can't hear you." he reassured, sounding more gentle than he had ever been. "Ah, yes…" his Adam's apple popped when he swallowed. "I know." he laughed dryly "I'll be there, I promise." Then there were a long pause before he looked down solemnly "Don't say that." he scolded, shaking his head slightly, followed by another pause. "I'm sorry…" he mumbled almost inaudibly then hung up.
The assistant stared at his phone with an empty expression, his smile long gone. He gave a long sigh before pocketing his phone and swirled back to face Ichimatsu. "I'm sorry, where are we at?" he asked, putting on his wide grin again.
Ichimatsu bit his lower lip. He wanted to ask but it seemed that Jyushimatsu was not ready to talk so he huffed and turned to the counter direction, waving his hand to call Todomatsu, The bartender wasted no time running to their table.
"May I help you?" Todomatsu bowed professionally with a charming smile on his lips.
"Can we have some drinks?" Ichimatsu scratched his head clumsily "I know it's not open time yet but-"
"Everything is ready." the bartender assured "Let me get you the menu."
"N-No need." he stammered, slightly embarrassed by his poor communication skills "Just get us Jyushimatsu's usual drink."
Todomatsu looked surprised "Are you sure?"
Ichimatsu gave a firm nod.
This chapter took me longer than I expected QwQ. There are some parts I'm not very happy with but my beta likes it. So I hope to hear from you XD. Please leave a comment ^^)/
P/S: I might not reply to some comments because it might spoil something XD. But I really appreciate it. Love you ^^.