Machi had hardly made it two steps into the back-alley before being stilled by Manabe’s hand on her shoulder and another brusque command for her to hold up.
The boom of his voice in the stairwell was deadened by the open air and gentle commotion of the mid-afternoon. Still, she glanced hard at either end of the alley, watching the streets for any catches in the attention of wanderers or knowing eavesdroppers.
“‘That’s all I need to know?’” Manabe’s echo was sharp with distrust. “You’re really just going to leave me with that?”
She shrugged his hand off. Though he relented his hold on her, she remained where she stood. Behind her, he let the door crash shut, and he stepped around her until he stood in her way. She averted her eyes as he did. Casting them off to his side, she instead settled on the neighboring bakery’s trash bins, unassuming and neatly lined across the thin stretch of asphalt. Delivery pallets were leaned against the wall, soft with the dewy days that the late spring offered, and Machi realized that they had been saved for reuse, only to go forgotten once they became bloated and warped with the weather.
She forced her eyes to follow the sagging slope of a deformed beam as she tread on a response.
"If you had been listening," she started, "you would have—"
"If I wasn't trying to figure out what the hell your problem is, I would have gone back to make sure we didn't end up with a body in the shop."
Her breath caught at his volume. Though she was rooted by her fists formed tight at her sides, the bite of her nails pressing harsh and present into her palms, she glowered with an intensity that could only otherwise be channeled into her legs pulling her long and fast away from him. She chewed on a plea for him to keep his voice down. But, knowing that in this state he would only respond with spite, letting his voice carry clear to their neighbors still churning the streets with confusion and morbid curiosity, she let the words idle on her teeth.
In her peripherals, she saw the contortion of his face as he finally gave in to the voice of his irritation. The harsh lines drawn between his brows softened reluctantly, though, as he huffed an aggrieved sigh. He lowered his voice some as he spoke.
“Seriously, Machi, I— the only reason I left was because you looked like you were really trying not to hurl. You left so fast I thought Kouta had called your bluff, and you were just gonna be sick in the middle of the street or something. But it wasn’t that. You’re just…” He waved an empty hand at her before dropping it heavy to his side. “Doing this again.”
Something zipped hot against her chest. That ugly whorl of anger, panic, and dread. It made her flash her eyes up to him, a retort burning hot in the back of her mouth, but he was quick to raise a flat hand to stop her.
“No, look, I get it. I get it. You get stalked once and you can never trust anyone ever again, right? But, shit. It’s one thing to get paranoid about the guy moving in across the street, but to bail on a guy who’s bleeding out? All because, what, you just don’t like him, or whatever your deal is with him? That’s fucked up, Machi. That’s really—”
Her shoulder knocked against his arm as she brushed past him, the ferocity in her chest spiking and stoking her urgency. At her sides, her knuckles burned, and the thick of her palms grew raw.
He did this on purpose. Always the little tick clinging to her sweater, trying to pry inside wounds otherwise hidden. And like a terrible infection, he clung to this one in particular, gripping it like a victory flag. He was proud, it seemed, that he could at last pin something to her nature, affixing every neurotic tic and strange response to this singular event. Even the way he said the word — stalker — left him like a breeze. As though he were answering a question in class and correcting the teacher in the same confident breath.
And how cruel she found this pride. How he hung this thing over her, tauntingly coveted, when he was never supposed to know of it. When he in truth knew very little about it.
As she strode away from him, a familiar dredge of embarrassment churned sick at the center of her piquing fury. Sensing his anger still hitting at her back in waves, she was overcome with the wish to double over and disappear.
After all, this was how she contended it would be between them. Him, misunderstanding and frustrated for it, and her, deciding it was better than the alternative. The alternative would raise too many questions, and to unearth all that she had kept in the dark from him would be too troublesome to be at all rewarding. To bare her soul to him felt distinctly like giving up.
No, being misunderstood by him was easier. That conclusion had been made some time ago.
Now, though, stormy in her aggression, haunting in the passing hope that he would hurt enough from it to finally leave her alone, she only ached. Something small but loud in her wondered if this would, in the end, have him hate her.
The fact that that barbed her made her feel especially ill.
Perhaps knowing that she would react this way, he was quick to bridge their distance by turning and grabbing her wrist. At feeling his hand circle her, she was flooded with the instinct to punch him.
But, she didn’t. Her arms felt strung tight as she found herself frozen in her spot once again, desperate to fight, or run, but all she could manage was a pained glare down at her shoes.
“Wait,” he said. Then, with another labored sigh, he said again, “Just, wait.”
He let her go. She didn’t move. While he fell into a bated quiet, huffing as he tried to amend his temper, her teeth hurt from clamping her mouth shut.
“Look, I’m sorry, okay?" He sounded about as apologetic as he could muster with her. "But, I just don’t get it. All he did was visit every now and then for, what, a couple of months? You barely even talked to each other — and, geez, not for lack of trying on his part, but c’mon. He wasn’t exactly pushy about it. I don’t know how the hell you got creepy stalker out of that guy. I just can’t see it.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came. I don’t want you to get it calcified in her stomach. You don’t need to know, and I never wanted you to sat closer to the tip of her tongue, and she hushed it.
It didn’t pass her by, either, that he didn’t ask her to explain.
Behind her, he scuffed his sneaker against the road.
“All he is,” he said, voice hard but quiet, “is a normal guy, bored out of his skull at his dumb office job, who wandered in one day and decided we were worth visiting again. It’s not a crazy conspiracy.”
“It’s not that simple,” she mumbled. She hadn’t wanted to say it out loud, but she did. Manabe clicked his tongue, and the small noise was laden with scorn.
“How would you know? You decided not to trust him the second he walked in.”
A flush of frustration burned across her cheeks. She pressed the cool back of a hand against her under-eyes and found no relief. There was nothing she could say to get him to believe her. She knew this, and had known this as she observed the speed at which he peeled away from his customer service persona to something more aggravatingly himself every time Ito— Yuki came around. That camaraderie of acquaintanceship that he delved into, sinking into it as though it were heat pressed to a sore shoulder, too distracted by the ease and relief to notice how close he was to getting burnt. A practiced carelessness.
Manabe wasn’t a stupid man. This was an aggravating truth. But what he favored more than intelligence was satisfaction, and what he favored even more than that was stimulation. Neither of which were served very much by his position as an assistant in a small and unassuming flower shop on the outskirts of the city.
It was a ploy on Yuki’s part, she was sure, to ensure that Manabe wouldn’t believe her. She had seen and known Yuki’s type before — polite enough to be almost forgettable, and charming enough to ensure he wasn’t. Pleasant to talk to, pleasant to look at. He gained trust through nothing more than a constructed mask of gentle mannerisms and sheer genetic luck, but Machi knew that what coursed beneath the skin of his paper-thin persona was something poisonous.
Yuki blinded people. He was able to weave a pretty hand through easy conversation until he landed on what he sought, and it simply had to fall into his palm. There was no asking, or twisting, or plucking, or struggling. He would seek a hint and be given the whole orchard.
She wondered, then, what Manabe had told him when she wasn’t around.
She wanted to throw up thinking about it.
“...I’m going home,” she managed. Harsh, she unfurled her hand enough to shove her hair behind her ear. “Stay here.”
“You’re bailing on me now, too?” he bit, and the challenge of it caused her to turn again to face him. Her expression fell severe as she was met with his old, familiar, caustic cold.
Part of her screamed at herself for staying and entertaining him. The rest of her screamed at him, for being blinded, for being careless, for being.
(And beneath that noise, something smaller in her yelped that she did, in fact, help Yuki. As much as she distrusted him, she did not leave him to bleed, not really. But this was long negated by Manabe, and despite her truth, his doubt infected her.)
“He told you to leave, too,” she hissed. “And you did.”
His dark eyes hardened on her. It had struck a nerve, she could tell, and in the moment it sent a wash of vindication through her.
“Yeah, well, at least I feel fucking bad about it. And I did it for you, you know. Kouta was the one worried over you first.”
“His name is not—”
“But, I guess I shouldn’t have trusted him after all, huh?” He crossed his arms, posture laxing as he settled into a tone more definitively arrogant. “Help me out here, Mach: did he send me off after you because he’s a creep, or do you think it’s possible he really did think you needed help, and he was just too nice to notice that you’re actually a huge bitch?”
She reached for him the moment she could sense the word forming. Automatic again in her movements, her instinct not giving her mind a chance to restrain herself, her head grew louder. The aim of her internal vitriol refocused itself on her alone as she felt her knuckles dig severe against his breastbone.
You’re uncontrollable. The voice was her own, frantic and terrible in its ambiguous age. You haven’t known control a day in your life.
She tugged harsh, feeling the exact points of where her knuckles pressed into him, bone to bone. Though he jerked forward some, it wasn’t nearly enough to stoop him, or to make him seem any less looming than he did in that moment. He glared down at her, provoking, and she felt a numbness seize her as her heart raced.
Machi wasn’t afraid of him. In all her life, she had never been afraid of him. But there was a likeness he carried, so easily cut from the figure threatening the forefront of her mind, that made her blood run cold.
It was her own silence that caused frustration to brew watery and thin along her lashes. As she kept him there, she felt swarmed with what to say. Lungs bloated with nonsense things, empty words, hollowed cries to shut up and listen and please listen despite the exact words refusing her once they crept to the crest of her tongue. And even if they were to leave her, she would have nothing more to say. No words to explain herself. Not to him.
She could only continue to frown at him, brows and knuckles growing sore with the intensity of their hold. He stared back, tundric in his silent dare for her to do anything, until another beat passed and, with a slow exhale, he dropped his gaze. With some gentleness, he brought his hand up to her’s, encouraging her to let go. She drew away before he could take hold of her again and keep her there any longer.
Taking a step back, Machi stared at him. He shoved his hands in his pockets, eyes averted.
“...I’m going home,” she repeated. She half-turned, bringing her gaze to where he wasn’t, and said again, “Stay here.”
“Fine,” he said, voice flat and tired. Then, once she turned fully, walking fast down the remainder of the alley, his voice rose and followed her into the street as he said, “I’ll call.”
Don’t, she thought, but she turned the corner and left him behind before she could say as much. Not that it would have mattered. Negatives processed in him as personal dares rather than as they were.
She felt as though she were walking on pins and needles as she skirted through the streets, taking a different route to a different train station further along her line as she escaped the area that had become so familiar to her. The radius of the rumor, she figured, had only crept further and further past her shop’s street. It was likely that it had spread through the immediate area in the form of a warning: Gang violence enacted on a citizen. Motivation unknown. Beware of suspicious persons.
She walked until her calves were sore, not for distance but for the severity in her stride. She walked until she landed in an area unfamiliar to her, where, as people milled casual and unaware, she finally felt as though she could stop without the possibility of being questioned. If her neighbors had stopped her, or if anyone else remotely aware of her position as the shop’s owner had spotted her, she knew she wouldn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t a good liar. But her default of saying nothing at all in these situations wouldn’t have been an option.
Though she tried to slow her pace some, her pulse thudded thick and nauseating through her skull. The anger she felt toward Manabe had returned to simmering, and her ferocity was instead replaced with something more powerful. Something that made her whole body feel simultaneously numb and hyperaware. How she had felt kneeling beneath the stairwell, ear and cheek pressed to the cool wall, hearing his true name spoken some times over. Feeling her dread manifest into something almost physical as she realized that she had been right in her suspicions all along.
She had to call her father.
As she stood at the platform among a decent crowd, she stared hard at the yellow line running parallel to the tracks. She tried to take an easy breath in, but it entered her stuttering and constricted. She tried again. And again. And again, until at last she could return her expression to something more smoothed and unassuming, if not still somewhat red.
Down the track, the train approached. She took in another breath, strained but normal enough, and it was on her exhale that she felt her phone buzz within her back pocket.
The train arrived. She felt the paced jostle of people move around her as the doors opened. As she stumbled forward, reaching for her phone and wondering last-second if she was, in fact, getting on the right train, she glanced at the notification on her shattered screen.
MISSED CALL: MANABE (7)
NEW VOICE MESSAGE (1)
NEW MESSAGE (12)
First, she huffed a sigh through her nose. Then, she felt a prickle of unease overtake her, and as she secured her spot in the train’s cabin, she looked at the string of texts he had left her.
The last handful were laden with just her name, and pleas for her to answer. That, she reasoned, could be anything. She scrolled up.
The messages were from half an hour ago.
Dread unfolded in her belly, quick and cold as a windstorm.
Manabe - 14:42
Manabe - 14:42
i think he took my key.
Machi stood in the eye of her apartment’s storm, surrounded by discarded things: her laundry crinkled and no longer clean, books she couldn’t remember reading, the stuffing of the couch cushions and the tatters of their covers. She stood in a spot that was cleared only by the sweep of her foot against the rubble.
Something crunched again under her heel as she shifted her weight. Her leg muscles ached, burning from her frantic walk to and from the train, but at the same time they thrummed with the same urgency that had failed to wear off in her since leaving the shop some hours earlier.
When she had returned home, to her shadowed apartment within the whole of a jagged and demented building that lied along a lesser-walked street in Abeno, she could at first do nothing but pace. Shoes discarded in the entrance against the wall marked with scuffs, bag shrugged off and tossed with a muted thud as it hit some thick arrangement on her living room floor, she powered through with agitated purpose.
She went to her bedroom and circled it. Tossing things aside from the nicked wardrobe and mussed bed sheets, and using her toes to sift through and rearrange her floor’s second skin, she eventually heard the thick clatter she had been waiting for. The item had hit the door frame as she kicked things from beneath her bed, and recognizing it, she snatched it on her way back to the living room. The whole of her apartment had turned grey with the waning afternoon struggling to filter through the blinds.
In her grip was a small, prepaid flip-phone. Dusty, and cracked, and, as she found pressing hard on its stiff power button, not dead.
She paced the perimeter of her living room for some time. Her feet carved a path within her belongings until they became re-scattered and unearthed, but if there had been anything long-forgotten, she didn’t notice. All that she saw was the phone in her hand, and all she could think was that she had not fully prepared herself for this.
Now that she was home, she struggled to will herself to call the number she had memorized as a girl. She feared now that she would gag on her words the moment the other line was picked up, and, knowing her father, it would be picked up rather quickly. Very few people came up as unknown caller on his personal phone. He had always been selective of his time, and even more rigorous in deciding who was allowed to interrupt it.
She tried to remember if she had changed the number after the last time she used it. She stared at it’s entry in the phone's contacts list, the only one listed, but couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be familiar to her. Her gut wrung with the possibility that she had forgotten.
It had been two years since she last used it. She had bought it from a small phone supplier two blocks away from Okamoto Floral, during a frigid day in late November. Her legs, she remembered, felt locked and imbalanced as she stood at the counter, and her palms were clammy and over-warm as she held herself up against its edge. She remembered feeling the urge to let herself fall as the cashier swept a nervous glance to her and over her shoulder, where her manager, Kotone, hovered nearby. But instead of giving in, she chewed at the raw spot on her lip, passed the cash across the counter, and left.
Kotone had left her alone once she started to make the call. At first she sat at the desk chair in the shop’s backroom as Machi stood in the middle of the floor, trembling as she rubbed her thumb over the phone’s dial pad. Machi knew Kotone was staying with her more out of a working obligation rather than any real concern, and in that respect, Machi could almost appreciate the gesture. If it had been the owner who accompanied her instead, so frail in health then that he only worked part-time on the weekends, but still overtly warm and unwarranted in his kindness towards all of his employees — even the ones who he hardly saw, and the ones who deserved it the least — if it had been him instead, Machi wasn’t sure what she would have done.
It had been a Wednesday. She had taken an exam for her course in investment analysis only two hours prior, in a classroom building that overlooked the river and the financial district beyond it. She had finished early, and left early, because there was nothing else she had planned to do between her exam and her shift.
And that was when she had seen him.
It hadn’t been the first time. She had known him only as someone who came around to the shop every now and then, and who she would at times spot on the platform waiting for the train, near enough to her that she knew they would board the same car, but mixed well enough within the crowd that she thought nothing of him.
She thought he was a friend of one of her coworkers.
He had never even tried to say hello to her.
“If it’s not the police,” Kotone had said, stern but careful, “then it had better be that friend of yours to come get you, or someone else you can stay with—”
“Don’t call the police.” Machi remembered hating herself terribly for the startled jump in Kotone’s expression and her own desperate want to cry. “And don’t you dare call Manabe.”
With little else to say that could help or persuade her, Kotone left, back to the front of the store where Machi could hear the words “don’t go back there” and “leave her be,” followed by some hissing whispers and the distinct clatter of the front counter phone hitting its cradle.
She had called her father, then, for the first time since graduating from high school, which then had been some short and curt conversation to settle a wayward expense. It wasn’t often she spoke to her father with anything more than a quiet nervousness driving her, just enough to get her through a call that she knew wouldn’t be more than a minute long.
In the backroom of Okamoto Floral, though, she felt completely overcome. He had answered with a swift displeasure, not knowing at first that it was her, and part of her had wished he stayed that way, to even barely match her, to make her own pain more manageable.
But, he had smoothed at hearing her. It made him impossible to talk to.
She didn’t like to remember what had been said. But she remembered her voice being small. Despite the distraught boiling in her, overflowing and becoming something much larger than her physical being, her voice still shook not with her upset, but instead a forged timidity.
At the time, she blamed it on the lingering ears in the store. Then, she blamed it on herself for not going home first to call with a more assured privacy.
Now, standing in her dark and musty living room, feeling much the same as she had back then, she couldn’t blame it on either of those things. Nothing could match the volume of what she felt, but it wasn’t that, not really; even now, at 23, now removed from her family through everything but her name, she felt the child in her hide at the mere suggestion of confronting her father.
She toed a thick piece of foam at her foot. She had ripped the couch apart a couple weeks ago with a kitchen knife, when she had come home struck with an immediate panic that her apartment had been bugged. That panic started to rile in her again as she thought of how she never found anything, but she forced herself to lay her focus on the phone in her hand.
Outside, the sky had dimmed to the thin blue of evening. She knew this only by the grace of the small gaps remaining in her curtains, which she had resorted to stapling shut many months ago.
With a shallow breath in, she dialed. Her thumb glided over the numbers with a years-old muscle memory, and quieting her hesitation for the barest of moments, she pressed the call button. She pressed the receiver to her ear, and within the pause of the call dialing and sending, she heard the shaking rattle of her exhale.
The line rang three times before it was answered.
The voice on the other end of the line was not her father’s.
Despite her nerves, she had prepared herself for that voice. Glossy as mercury, calm in its tendency to cut. Gentle in its distance when it spoke her name, the word curling from him as though he had never learned it right. It was not a voice she liked. But it was not a voice that haunted her.
This voice on the other end of the line, however, was a poltergeist reanimated.
Machi held her breath. Heat sapped from her arms in a swift, rolling scatter. As she pressed the phone closer to her ear, her body wound inward, slow, a spider's legs atrophying in death. She shivered. Her fingers were cold against her cheek.
There was a moment of silence before her mother scoffed a noise. If it hadn’t been directed at her, it could have been mistaken for a soured laugh.
“Machi. Is that you?” When Machi’s silence continued, she tried again. “Hello? Machi?”
The way her mother spoke her name didn’t carry the distance of her father’s tone. Though her father’s way of speaking it was biting in its chill, it at least offered the simultaneous comfort of lacking contempt. When he spoke it, it was just a noise, formed by the right press of the lips and tongue positioned just so behind the front teeth. It was a sequence of mouth movements and nothing more.
The way her mother spoke her name was as though she were reciting an embittered epigraph. It was a precursor to a story she had memorized not for the sake of personal enjoyment, or out of a worthy challenge, but simply because the words had been inscribed on the back of her eyelids the moment she had given her daughter her name. Forced to read it, acknowledge it, in both wakefulness and sleep, until it exhausted her.
Maybe she had once found the name pretty. Now, Machi only sounded like a tired forewarning.
Finally, Machi gave an indication that she was on the line. She cleared her throat. She inhaled, about to form a word, but her mother was quick to speak over her.
“Oh, there you are. Goodness, it’s been so long, I was beginning to wonder if I was speaking to a ghost. But, you do know it’s rude to just breathe over the phone like that. We’ve talked about this.”
Hina Kuragi, for all of the pleasantries and casual conversation she managed to string together, could never quite shake this curtness from her. It was present with everyone she spoke to, but Machi had always observed that it was practiced the most severely on her.
Machi was shaken by the overwhelming need to apologize. Her chest felt heavy and spacious.
“And, I have to say,” her mother continued, and at this Machi could hear a sudden shift in background noise, a low mumbling that became more apparent as her mother repositioned her hold of the phone, “you have always had this incredible touch for bad timing. Your father and I are in the middle of a business dinner.”
Machi was cold. How quickly all of the words she had planned to say to her father drowned in her, pushed underwater by her impulse to apologize, to hang up, to do anything to stop this conversation from happening.
She could feel her lips come apart and come back together in tiny touches. Gaping minutely as she struggled to speak.
Her mother granted a small moment of silence to let her respond. When there was nothing, she sighed.
“I take it that you wanted to speak to your father. I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that you called, but he’ll be disappointed that you didn’t actually say anything. Is there a reason why you called? Even to say hello?”
It was an honest enough question. And yet it still made Machi feel as though she didn’t have the correct answer.
There was a shift on the line as her mother fussed in waiting. Machi’s chest felt close to bursting when she heard her exhale, quiet and tinged with disappointment.
“Machi… I’m going to go now. Please don’t avoid us for so long again.”
She lurched at the sound of her mother lowering her voice to that defeated tone. It was the one that panged her the worst. The child in her was frantic to appease it, and in a gasp, she said,
Her mother paused. Machi almost expected to hear the line go dead, having gone unheard, but the noise of the dinner continued on far in the background. Having this moment of attention, uninterrupted by her mother speaking, Machi forced herself forward.
“I need to speak to father,” she said. Though it was something of a command coming from her, her voice came out meek.
“...He’s busy, Machi. Whatever you need to say to him, you can say to me.”
Machi shook her head. She clamped her eyes shut in an attempt to distance herself from her overwhelm, but it only seemed more palpable then without the distraction of the mess lying at her feet. She opened them again, staring hard at the tatters of her couch, and tried to speak.
“I don’t…” She chewed her tongue, and tried again. “I can’t— I don’t think…”
It was dawning on her, fast, that she would not be speaking to her father, not tonight, and thus not soon at all. No matter the urgency, she knew her mother wouldn’t pull him away from his work, or let him become distracted by this rare and wayward call. Something pinched at Machi as she thought that perhaps her mother knew exactly what she was calling about, and was being deliberate in keeping Machi on the phone with her alone.
Machi could never be sure how much her father cared about her whereabouts and her day-to-day matters. Even when she was in high school, living separately from her family but still under their watch, it hadn’t been her father calling her to give him updates on her school life, her grades, the friends she never made. It hadn’t been him scrutinizing her so directly, making sure that even without his presence she wasn’t somehow muddying their family name.
It hadn’t been him leaving upset voicemails when she decided to ignore a call and never return it.
“Machi,” her mother said, “I appreciate you calling, but this really isn’t a good time. Why don’t you call again tomorrow? I want to hear what you’ve been up to.”
Absolutely not, Machi thought, and her fist curled tight at the thought of trying to do this again, not just so soon, but ever, ever again. By the time she could try calling her father again, surely her mother would have told him about this conversation. The little power, little control she could hold in a conversation with him, taken away before she could even start.
No, knowing that her mother would be expecting a call from her, there was no way—
“You sent another one of them,” she blurted. It came from her as a jumble of nerves, and a quaking sharpness molded her words. When her mother quieted, she tried to calm her tone, but only felt the ache in her throat as she said, “You sent someone to watch me.”
Her mother’s quiet continued. Machi’s heart raced. She could hear the low mumble of the room fall away, the shifting of the phone within her mother’s grasp, until all was completely silent.
This wasn’t something she had prepared for, either. Not by a long shot.
When her mother spoke next, her words were frigid.
“I— We have done nothing of the sort. Whatever possessed you to make such an accusation is beyond me, but I will not tolerate it.”
Don’t do this, Machi pleaded to herself, and she felt her jaw begin to quake. Don’t lie. Don’t make me doubt myself.
“His name is Yuki,” she said, shoveling the words out of her. “He was going by the name of—”
“Listen to me, Machi, because heaven knows I won’t get the chance to say this for another while so long as you keep acting this way: your father and I have been keeping our distance. We thought that you would be able to handle doing things on your own, as you insisted, but— clearly, it’s not working.”
Something seized inside of Machi. Her stomach folded.
“You’re completely erratic these days,” she continued. “You refuse to call, you keep changing your number, we don’t even know where you live anymore. We came by your apartment, only to find it completely abandoned! I just… I don’t understand, Machi. I don’t understand it at all.”
That flighting panic overtook Machi again. The thing that told her she had to run, further than she had before, until even she didn’t know where she was. To never be found again, to never be her again. To leave, to leave, to leave.
And at the same time, something died in her, too. An old something, crumpling and giving in. The dead spider. Legs tucked beneath it, a malformed husk of the terrible thing it once was.
She swallowed an apology. Her mother huffed, now sounding distressed, and tried to placate herself with an evened breath.
“I’m glad that I was the one who picked up, instead of your father. To think that you would have accused him of such a thing… Listen, I really must be going now. I expect you to call me tomorrow. We need to talk about this behavior of yours—”
The panic acted on her again. Before her mother could get near a goodbye, Machi drew the phone from her ear and hung up, cutting her mother’s voice from continuing with a stilling beep. She dropped the phone at her feet, and there, in the middle of her living room, darkened with the muted twilight, she was static.
And she was exhausted. And she was on edge. She was entirely numb, and hyper aware. She felt how each shallow in-breath rattled and constricted her insides, and yet, she felt nothing. She felt nothing. She was nothing.
She stood there, hands pressed to her face, unable to move yet desperately wanting to escape, until the room went entirely dark through her fingers.
It was her phone ringing — her normal phone, hushed away in her bag abandoned somewhere on the floor — that encouraged her to move. She lowered her arms. Slowly, she crouched, and in the dark had to pad her hand along her belongings before finding the prepaid phone where it had bounced away from her. She flipped the phone back open and, holding her breath, formed a short text to her father. She wasn’t sure if he would even receive it, or if her mother wouldn’t intercept it and delete it before it reached him.
But, it was an effort. And in some moments, she sent him only the words “Yuki” and “Kouta Ito” before turning the phone off again.
She stood again and tossed the phone into the rubble. She scrubbed at her eyes, hard, and willed herself to move.
She had to eat. She had to bathe. She had to change her number again.
The ringing in her bag stopped. And on her quiet street, some blocks removed from the traffic and life of the city she warily called home, her apartment felt, at last, achingly still.
June began with a dense rain that brought the leaves down from their trees, and ever since, Machi felt some ease.
Her world was quick to return to its semblance of busied quiet, and soon she was ensnared again by the distraction of her work. In some ways, this happened too quickly: within some hours after the incident, the lock to the shop’s door had been replaced, and with it came a replacement for Manabe’s stolen key. In that time, Manabe had tidied the backroom, a restless habit that battled Machi’s propensity for a room to look anything but, and all that had happened was swept away. There was no period to reflect on the scene, not for her, and she supposed she could be thankful for it.
In the week following, the neighbors gave her wayward, curious glances, looking ready to ask questions but never doing so, and in some days after, the glancing ceased. She returned to her station in the back of the shop and caught up on orders. People came in to browse and buy. Manabe tended to the shop floor. There, he practiced his usual charm when there were customers to attend to, but once they left, Machi observed as he fell into a rare introversion, seeming altogether pensive and unaware as he let muscle memory guide him. Sweeping the floor, checking the plants for dry soil, opening the ledger to update it, only to spend some minutes staring through it.
On the phone’s voicemail was a short message from Yuki. He was weary, but calm, as he let them know that he was fine, and that he was sorry for the trouble he caused. Machi had only listened to it once. Manabe, after listening to it three times, had asked her not to delete it.
The Monday following the incident, Manabe had handed over his apology in the form of a small castella cake. It was retrieved not from the bakery next door, but from the one they had frequented only a few times together in high school, visited only at his insistence and her lack of good reason to say no. He had left it for her on the desk in the backroom, beside a stack of old and mussed order forms and the rearranged row of office supply paraphernalia, with nothing else but a note affixed to it. The note only held her name.
It wasn’t the plain treat inside that was the real apology, but rather the shop’s red logo sitting stark against the white bag. It spoke to how far he had traveled, that hour’s ride to Kobe and hour’s ride back, for something that was monetarily worth pocket change but, to him, she supposed, heavy in its significance. It spoke to his deliberate, excessive effort, how far out of his way he would go to apologize to her without handing the gift to her directly, or ever once saying the word sorry.
It was ridiculous, and unnecessary. And, as she hadn’t expected an apology from him to begin with, she accepted it with a similar silence.
(It didn’t hurt either, she thought, that castella cake was the only thing Manabe seemed to know for certain she liked.)
Despite everything, nothing seemed to change. Time crept on. Manabe fell back to listening to music during his down time, rather than waiting for a conversation that wouldn’t come. Machi could feel the barest release of tension in her shoulders. The rain continued, at times heavy enough to consume, and other days offering just the barest patter against the window and the street.
It was mid-June, and Yuki hadn’t returned to Okamoto Floral.
Machi couldn’t draw down her guard just yet, not entirely; there was the chance that her parents wanted her to believe they had pulled back in their watch over her. She had no doubts that her mother was more than unhappy with her, far unhappier than she had been when Machi had started to draw away from her some years ago, and had pushed the matter with her father. It gave her a creeping panic, a thin string along her core twisting and growing numb, but she forced herself to hold steady.
Because, as it were, with each day she didn’t see Yuki, she felt like she could breathe again. Just a little easier. Just a little more full.
Manabe, she could tell, did not feel the same.
She knew this when he would stare listless at the door, chin in hand as he slouched over the counter, turned as though waiting but, at the same time, looking unalert. Yuki had fallen into somewhat of a routine with visiting on Wednesdays or Thursdays, with the odd surprise on Monday or Friday, and so on those days during the lunch block Manabe seemed to lie in wait out of what had become a ritual forged into his subconscious.
He didn’t fully believe her still. The theft of his key to the shop was the only thing that swayed him, and even then, Machi could sense him trying to explain it away as an accident. But, he had already apologized to her, and he would at the very least stay loyal to his reluctance in making another two-hour trip for the same offense, so the matter was never spoken by him again.
Still. He seemed to be waiting for Yuki, despite his ambivalence.
Machi knew this for certain as she placed another order in the queue along the shop’s front window, fogged from the cooling rain outside. Behind her, he clicked his tongue.
“Man,” he mumbled, “I wish Kouta were here.”
She turned to address him with a small glare, only to find he wasn’t looking at her, but at the front door. When he caught her look, though, he rolled his eyes and huffed.
“Geez, I mean Kouta Kouta, not… Yuki, or whatever.”
He flipped his hand, aggravated, but left it at that. His eyes went back to the door, then, as he turned again to the counter, back down to his phone.
It was in the way he said Yuki’s name — a reluctant noise, something closer to uncertainty rather than distaste — that Machi knew he couldn’t believe her entirely. Kouta rolled away from him as easily as he referred to any other one of his friends, people Machi knew only in passing or by word of mouth but knew, well enough, that he kept around out of want for company. Kouta was a brighter noise, a means to keep the name alive even now when the person didn’t truly exist.
Machi didn’t respond. She returned to her station, and from there, she tried not to feel too sorry for him, and tried to instead become somewhat agitated at what he perceived as a loss. He had other friends. That she was sure of.
For Manabe, Yuki would be only a stinging memory of a lost potential friendship, and Machi reminded herself that it was a position to be jealous of.
When the shop floor had become washed over with the darkened grey of sundown, Manabe collected his belongings, shrugging his bag over a shoulder and making the usual noises he did to alert Machi that it was time to go. The final check and lock of the register, the open and close of the large metal drawer fixed under the counter, a lively and short beat slapped against the countertop.
She heard this, and saw him move out of the corner of her eye, but she remained at her spot at the back of the store, standing at her arrangement station with a spread of blue order forms lying in front of her.
“Mach.” The bell jangled as he pushed into the door, and she peered up at him through her bangs. He gestured out the door with a tilt of his head, covered by the hood of his rain jacket. It pushed his hair into his eyes. “You done yet?”
“No,” she said, and she brought her gaze back down to the forms. They each involved arrangements that called for flowers and fillers that she would have to call around for. Some of the papers she had marked with a thick red X in the corner — two small autumn weddings to consider, a small bouquet requested for a hurried courtroom elopement, and a request for a vague occasion that left all of the floral decisions up to her. Monetary things to consider, preparations for delicate deliveries, a list of calls to make the next day to vendors and people with incomplete or strange requests…
“I still have some things to do,” she told him.
She could feel him frown at her from across the floor. The bell jangled again as he let the door close.
“Want me to stick around?”
Passing a hand over the forms, moving some aside until they all but fell to the floor, she pursed her lips at the question. For all his disbelief about Yuki, since the day after their argument and some days before the apology castella landed on the backroom desk, he had started walking with her once they both left at closing, and walked until they reached her train station. It wasn’t quite in the opposite direction from his own, but it was far enough to be out of his way.
He hadn’t asked her if she wanted him to walk her there. And though she had asked why he was following her when he did it the first time (to which he had only given her a look, still sharp from their argument, and asked if it was so terrible to see one another outside of work hours), she didn’t protest it.
The first day, they spoke very little. In the days after, following his apology, he did the talking. He spoke of nothing things: shows he caught on TV the other night, a band he liked that was going on tour soon, his mom asking him about how she was doing, leading only into another complaint about his mom and leaving no room for an answer, if she so desired.
His company aggravated her. And it aggravated her more that she did find some small comfort in it. She carried that comfort until he left her where the tall stairs led up to her train’s platform, with a see you and text me when you get home, will you? A question that couldn’t be answered, and wasn’t meant to be, as he turned and left before she could respond.
It made her feel distinctly like a child. He was only one year her senior, and yet he treated her as if she were…
“There’s nothing left for you to do here,” she said after some pause. She scribbled a note along the margin of one of the forms: replace with chrysanthemums? “You don’t have to wait for me.”
Manabe drummed his fingers against the glass pane of the door. With a cursory glance at him, she met his eye, and huffed a silent sigh at the look he gave her. That little pout that said “I’m bored” or “I’m lonely,” even though her company amounted to little.
“Are you sure—” he started, but she cut through it with,
“I’m fine. I still have a lot of work to get through. You should go home.”
She drew her attention back to the forms. After a short pause from him, he relented, uttering a small noise that let her know he wanted to fight her on it, but deciding against it. He relented, saying,
“If you’re sure. Later, then.”
She didn’t return the sentiment. He didn’t wait for a response, though, and in a moment the bell clattered loud with the door falling shut, leaving behind only an empty silence and a brief chill from outside tangling in from the door down the aisle to where she sat.
Machi was left with only herself, the distraction of her work, and the rain for some small stretch of time. This was until she was jolted from her relative calm by the buzz of her phone harping against the worktop with a new message. A brushed-aside form lit up as her phone sat buried beneath it, and for a moment, she could only glare at the soft blue glow, willing it to go away.
When it did dim, she lifted the paper, intending to move her phone away to where she wouldn’t notice it. But it only buzzed again as another text rolled in. And again, with another. And another. She stared at the notifications flashing to her screen, feeling her brows draw tighter with each one as she read them.
Manabe - 17:17
text me when you get home this time!!
Manabe - 17:18
if you don’t i’ll just have to assume you got eaten by bears or something :(
Manabe - 17:18
do we even make arrangements for funerals for people who get eaten by bears? is there an arrangement you can make that says “sorry your loved one got eaten by a bear”??
Manabe - 17:18
let me know asap it’s very important
She huffed. She silenced the phone and shoved it into her skirt pocket. Even then, in her peripherals, she could see the screen light through the fabric. Dimming again, and lighting again only a moment later.
Maybe it was time she changed her number on this phone, too.
Machi’s neighborhood was, in its essence, a ghost town. A small block abandoned by the city it was born from, her streets were lined with harrowing buildings where tenants once lived, or, if anyone did still live in them, were marked only by the shadows that shifted behind screen doors and curtains, unrelaxed, uncomfortable. Some places were more obviously abandoned, marred by thick cracks in the windows and stained by eviction notices and No Trespassing cautions that had since molded and pilled on the front doors. Other places, while standing intact, erred on being haunted. Windows that were never lit. Any noise within, muted.
It wasn’t a neighborhood fit for a Kuragi. That was plain enough.
She had moved there, knowing neither of her parents would want to believe that someone carrying their name could fathom a place so dismal, and there she was known only by her landlord, a spirit of a man who encapsulated something like a laissez faire attitude out of sheer need of tenants, who called her Ono. Ono, because that was the family name she had given through her lease, and Ono, because that was the family name she had decided on in her panic-snap decision to request side documentation from the apprentice of a family acquaintance in Kyoto.
It was a small benefit to being born into the family she had been, knowing who to go to for such things, and having funds tucked away to pay it off and buy absolute silence on the transaction. But, being as it was because of her family that she had to go through such an underhanded trouble in the first place, the matter sat in her as something soured and cancelled out.
She had left the shop late. By the time she got off at her stop, some blocks away from her apartment, in a place where the city still looked lively and lived-in, the sky was dark with the onset of night filtering through storm clouds already grey and overbearing.
The streets held no lamplight once she reached a certain point in her walk home, where the laundromat and convenience store faced each other off on opposite sides of the street, one shuttered for the night, the other bright with a constant and aching fluorescence. It was past this point that the street grew steadily darker, and by the time Machi made it down to the next corner, she could look back over her shoulder and consider these establishments more like navigational stars in the night.
Not that she looked behind her. Not tonight, at least, not while she was feeling certain that Yuki had never followed her there and had seemed to stop watching her altogether. Even in the dark, she didn’t hold any fear towards her neighborhood; there was instead a mixed calm in her at sensing that no one there knew she existed. Safe, if not melancholy.
That calm sapped from her when she turned the final corner in her journey home.
There her apartment stood, that grey and streaky place looming inconsequential on a street that was always empty save only for the downed branches of the evergreens opposite, or her and some unknown neighbor’s footsteps tracking in the mud collected along the curb. Tonight, it was accompanied by the circle of light created by the dim yellow porch light, flickering incessant and forming strobing shadows that created odd haunts in the corner of one’s eye.
That wasn’t what scared her.
Deliberately parked within that circle of light was a dark car, waiting at the front steps of her building. Headlights off. Windows tinted. Silent.
She had seen it for only a moment before she twisted herself around to backtrack around the corner. The movement itself was calm, an easy swivel on her hell, as though she had realized she had turned onto the wrong street, but everything inside of her jerked as though ready to escape her skin. That reverberating pang and panic, that immediate scream of they know where you live, that quick and heavy douse of bleach erasing all of the ease she had let carve her bones over the past three weeks.
She was on fire again as she strode long, back along the path she had just walked, back in the direction of the train station where there was no destination other than away. Her mind raced, heavy with the thought that her father had never gotten her message, or he did but decided, too, that she was falling apart. Parroting her mother’s words with this direct and silent siege: you’ve been acting erratic lately. This isn’t working. We can’t trust you to do this on your own. You’re falling apart. We need to talk. You need to come home.
All at once, the dark of the street was replaced with a painful white light. It beamed onto her, forcing her to still her pace and bar her eyes. With her momentum, she felt possessed to double-back, but her mind scrambled to remind her of strange car and it’s them and they found you, so she forced herself to become grounded to the pavement. Her muscles ached for it.
She had raised her arm over her eyes on instinct. However, as she heard the easy thud of car doors opening and closing, the noise otherwise silent in a show of expense, she had the crashing realization that there had been others waiting for her. They had expected this of her.
She had been trapped.
Returning to her guard, she lowered her arm. There, encompassed by the stark light, she could see the clear silhouette of a person. Feminine, slight, and timid. Their shadow gave her the barest relief from the lights hitting her square.
They spoke the moment Machi unshielded her face.
“Machi Kuragi… right?”
Machi held her breath. Though she was unable to see the person’s features, she attempted to bring her eye to theirs. Despite her position, with no clear point of escape, no immediate means to fight back, the stranger seemed wholly unwilling to pursue her. Their voice was small and shy, their posture undemanding. As though they were lost and afraid of the dark rather than there to give commands or ultimatums.
It didn’t give Machi any relief. She was well aware of the use of children and innocent-looking women in these situations, used as props to create a false sense of trust, but she was wary that her father would attempt such a tactic on her. He knew well enough what she knew. For him to use this on her, perhaps to confuse her—
The stranger — a young woman, Machi assumed, if not just a girl — cleared her throat in a falter.
“Machi Kuragi,” she said, attempting something more stern and failing on account of her gentleness. “I must request that you come with us.”
Machi’s arms locked up with defiance. To turn around again and go back was to encounter whoever was waiting for her at her apartment. As this seemed to be planned, it was unlikely there would be any speaking involved in her detainment there. There was no exit opposite them, as the other side of the street was barricaded by tall fences that seemed eternally rooted. Maybe they had once indicated new development plans, but now they only stood as a weary gesture not to trespass.
Her mind reeled for a solution. And too quickly, it descended into a gut-churning sensation at the realization that what she was doing — standing completely still, mute, as close to a shadow on this street as she had ever been — was all she could do.
To try and run was to invite more trouble. Even if she did escape, she had nowhere else to turn, and that lack of planning only begged to be caught again. As she slid her eyes over the tall fences, unable to see through the darkness that lay beyond, she wondered how many more of them were lurking in the shadows, in the few places where she could plausibly escape if she were brave or stupid enough.
She had nothing on her as means of protection, and even then, to be hostile in this situation would only harm her. She imagined her mother and father being fed the situation from an operative unknown to Machi’s senses, having their worries confirmed as she fought against what was supposed to neutralize her. Confirmation that she wasn’t to be trusted on her own.
Proof of insanity.
Ahead of her, the stranger fumbled with the lack of response, and turned at the waist to face the car. She murmured something brief. As she did, her silhouetted hand rose to fidget with a strand of hair, twisting the long piece around her finger, and Machi felt the sting of her nails digging into her palms at the sight.
The useless gentleness. The nervous mannerisms. She wondered if her father had assigned her a type.
A noise resounded as a hand hit the roof of the car, but it wasn’t the woman, who instead startled at the noise. Machi realized, then, that her partner had been present, too, watching from behind the spread of the headlights.
“Hey. Are you dumb? She told you to get in the car.”
The voice was cool and agitated, and would have been intimidating if it didn’t cling to some youth. Still, the change of tone made Machi’s pulse rabbit just a bit faster.
The young woman, however, went rigid.
“Hiro,” she hissed. “We’re not supposed to be rude to her.”
There was a huffed noise, and within it, a mumble of something like an apology, not directed at Machi whatsoever but in something like deference. The woman turned again to Machi and again smoothed her disposition.
“Kuragi-san,” she started, and Machi bristled at the familiarity, “I… I understand that this is sudden. We aren’t here to harm you. But you will have to come with us.”
The escalation of her politeness sat like a stone in Machi’s stomach. It didn’t make any sense. A part of her wanted to retch with a correction, to tell her she had this completely wrong, but the thought didn’t sit within her in her own voice.
This wasn’t a tactic, she thought. This was someone who had never done this before.
She felt herself pale as the scene twined a new unease through her core. Though she hadn’t been on the receiving end of one of her father’s detainments before, she knew how they functioned. Swift, cold, and unkind, with not a centimeter of room to question the authority of those who were sent to do the job. No room for doing anything else other than what they said.
He was hardly one to fuss with tactics.
At her prolonged silence, Hiro lowered his voice to speak to his partner. Unaware, it seemed, that in the absolute stillness of the street, it was hard to miss even a passing whisper.
“Look— Do we even have the right one?” he asked. “Seems kind of dull to be a Kuragi.”
Machi steeled herself. Her voice was sharp as it hit the air, ice biting at skin despite the roiling humidity.
“Who sent you?”
“Do you really think you’re in a position to ask that?” The counter came fast, dismissive and biting, and without pause Hiro continued, “Man, some of you people have nerve. What does it matter who sent us? Where are you gonna go?”
“What? I’m not the one asking stupid questions here—”
“Did my father send you?”
They stopped. With some falter, the young woman turned to consider this question with her partner in a brief silence. The air waned with their quiet confusion, and without receiving an answer, Machi could already feel something in her constrict.
The young woman turned again to face her. Her words stumbled from her as she tried to find a suitable answer.
“Um— Well— We work with him, if that’s what you mean—”
Hiro groaned, irritated. She clasped a hand over her mouth at her all-too forgiving answer and looked back at him, apologetic.
“Geez, Kisa, you’re not—” He hit his hand against the roof of the car again, stilling his tirade to instead address Machi again. “Look, Kuragi-san, we’ve got orders to come get you, so you either get in the car, or we’ll drag you in.”
“No, we won’t—”
“And don’t even bother thinking about trying to run. We aren’t the only ones here.”
It was a flat threat. Still, Machi chewed hard on the inside of her cheek. They worked with her father — in what capacity, she could only guess, but she thought of what her father could have possibly done to warrant this type of confrontation. Their orders not to harm her didn’t mean much in terms of the severity of his offense; leverage, she thought bitterly, could warrant her coming in untouched.
Kisa, now a bristling dark wisp, was only further perturbed by her partner’s attempts to threaten.
“We’re not supposed to be rude— Oh, you’re talking too loud.”
Machi knew he could yell as loud as he wanted. With the lack of interference so far, he seemed to know as much, too.
She wondered then about the agents waiting at her door, and if there were, in fact, any more that lurked in places she couldn’t see, and wondered why these two were in charge. A brief embarrassment overtook her by being captured by an operation so flimsy, but that quieted in her, knowing that her father would never trifle with an organization that seemed anything less than stable.
Which meant that either they were lying about their relationship with him, or that her father was trying to leave.
Her expression must have revealed something, as Kisa suddenly became quick to placate.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” she said, hands raised as she looked, herself, concerned. She lowered a hand to gesture at the car. “Please, we can explain on the way.”
I don’t work for him, Machi wanted to say. Though it was useless to try, her legs burned again with the want to run. I have absolutely nothing to do with him.
She remained frozen. At her hesitance, Hiro sighed, and there was the gentle shift of the car jostling, as though being leaned into.
“This is stupid,” he muttered. “No wonder Yuki had such a hard time with this woman, she doesn’t do any—”
The name left Machi as though the wind had been punched out of her. The severity of it leaving her tongue felt like a dagger being drawn down its center, a horrible coaxing of the sound that would otherwise force a spit-up of blood.
It flooded her too quickly. There was no room in her mind for pacification, no means to soothe with it could be a coincidence or Yuki is a very common name. There was only the tumultuous drop of her heart as she realized what exactly had occurred.
She had gotten it all wrong.
Yuki hadn’t been sent by her father.
Her parents hadn’t sent someone to watch her at all.
The ground wavered under her as her knees locked. She shifted her footing, but the movement didn’t make her feel any less unstable.
Across from her, there was a curse. Then, that gentler tone that made Machi want to double over.
“You know about Yuki-nii?” Kisa asked.
“She’s sure as hell not supposed to.”
Machi’s jaw was set tight. At her sides, her fists trembled.
“Where is he?” She gestured back behind her to the car around the corner, throwing her arm back hard as her nerves screamed at her to do something. What the fuck does he want with me, she thought, mind wild with the question. “Why was he—”
“He— He’s on a break right now,” Kisa interjected, looking back at Hiro for guidance, though he quieted at a loss himself. “He—”
“For an injury.” Machi answered her own question, feeling breathless. It didn’t give her any relief. His being there, his not being there — it didn’t matter. Both options made her chest full, ready to burst in a scream, or something ungodly. She swallowed it back, so far down in her it could have borne a child, and still she managed, “I was there.”
Kisa paused. Then, her head bobbed with a short nod, and her voice grew steadily quiet as she spoke.
“Yes, well… that, too.”
Machi felt winded. Over and over, her mind tumbled the thought that Yuki hadn’t been working for her father. He hadn’t been watching her for her father.
She had no fucking idea what, then, Yuki was there for. She had no idea who he really was. She had no idea what was going on.
“Who…” She tempered herself with a shuddered inhale, forcing her anxiety purely into the grip of her fists at her sides. She tried again. “Who are you?”
“As we’ve said. We’ll explain on the way,” Hiro chided, and as he opened the car door, Machi could see, for the first time, some of his features cast in the low interior light. An odd ache pitted her heart then, just slightly, that she had been correct: he seemed to be no more than just a teenager. “But, we need to go.”
Kisa only nodded in agreement, but quieted with nothing more to add. Machi looked between them, biting her tongue, feeling only the want to disappear, to go unconscious, to start over.
Yuki hadn’t been working for her father. At the very least, not directly. And for all that this seemed, he might have even been working against him.
Feeling altogether overwhelmed, and confused, and wired, Machi fixed her look on Kisa, shadowed as she still was. She didn’t trust her soft-spoken nature, her strange pleasantness, her overall disposition. And at the same time, in the face of her partner, brusque and rude as he was, she felt some ease with her. She didn’t trust her at all, but there was something about her that soothed the premises with just her tone, and her nature.
Very much like Yuki, she realized. She thought of that little honorific — Yuki-nii — and wondered angrily if it was something branded into them.
“Kuragi-san,” Kisa started, “as I said, we’re not going to hurt you— We can try to explain on the way—”
As she said it, Machi smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt, tilting her face down to her shoes to swallow. Her hands trembled against her thighs. It was hitting her that she was being apprehended by complete strangers, for a reason that was so far beyond her that she couldn’t believe, in full confidence, that they wouldn’t hurt her at all. But, for all their fumbling, and all their weakness, it was best to go with them.
Whatever her father had done, it had circled back to her. If they had not found her there, in what she considered already as her hiding place, they would have found her elsewhere, just as easily, just as fast. There was no use trying to fight it, and no use testing her luck.
Whatever they needed her for — as bait, as leverage, as a path to blackmail — she would have to prepare for. This wasn't the time to be foolish.
Before her, Kisa released a sound of relief. Her long shadow left Machi as she instead came closer, where, as Machi raised her eyes, she could at last see her features.
She, too, seemed terribly young.
Kisa turned in a way that allowed her hand to hover at Machi’s shoulders, a means to guide her to the car without actually wanting to touch her. Raising her head again, Machi walked forward with her, cautious in her step, but forcing herself to look blank, if not just the barest bit determined.
She dipped inside the car and felt the immediate chill of leather hitting her calves. There, she felt enclosed, for the first time in a long time, in untouchable expense.
“Finally,” Hiro mumbled, settled behind the steering wheel. Kisa, in the passenger seat, gave a glance back at Machi, but Machi could only find it in herself to stare down at her hands balled severe in her lap. “Incorrigible woman—”
“Stop it,” Kisa whispered.
They rolled out of the dark haunt of her neighborhood. With some delay, the other car followed. Kisa made a phone call, only to say the words “We have her,” and “We’re coming back.” Hiro, in response, gave an annoyed grumble, a bitter “like hell I’m ever getting talked into this again” out the window.
As they returned to more lived-in streets, a low, prolonged rumble disrupted their silent drive. As a dimmed stripe of a streetlamp crossed Machi’s hands, her knees, the floor and beyond, she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding.
The rain began to fall around them, thick and relentless.
In her lap, her hands continued to shake.