There's a giant, open, gaping mouth inside of Machi’s chest, and it's constantly screaming. She feels like she's being torn apart from the inside, raw, like something is trying to claw its way out through her ribcage, stealing every breath from her lungs as it goes.
Steady on the surface, thrashing underwater. I didn't want him to get cold.
At night she gets no rest, so she sleeps during the day. Drifting off during math class is never dictated in her planner. Besides, she wants to throw the planner out. It just reminds her of a time when everything was laid out for her.
She uses it anyway. Maybe it'll help, she thinks, cataloging her weekly dinner with her parents in a meticulous assortment of gel pens. Maybe they'll see she's making an effort.
See, she thinks, drawing a heart for a bullet point. I'm not so dull after all. See, Mother?
When the ink bleeds through the pages, she tries not to be pleased about it.
There's a park not far from Machi's apartment where she'll sometimes claim a park bench and watch the passersby. She's starting to recognize the neighbors. Nice people. She wishes she saw herself in their children, with their scraped knees and lopsided haircuts and shrill laughter as they chase each other around the slides and swingsets.
Machi imagines a version of herself, somewhere out in the vast expanse of the universe, a child who got to have those things. A chance to play, a mother who cared about her joy, a relationship with her brothers.
She conjures up a world like that and holds it steady in her mind until it hurts, burning at the edges and fizzling out into dust. She walks home with a headache. She doesn't bother making dinner.
"Hello, my name is Machi Kuragi," she says out loud one night, taken aback by how foreign her voice sounds in the quiet of her bedroom. How out of practice. When she opens her mouth to say something else, as though there's someone - anyone - around to listen, her words stick in her throat like a dry cough. I'm Machi Kuragi. Hello? Hello. Hi, you can call me Machi. Nice to meet you.
Her tears stain her pillow, but Machi has never been a loud crier.
She's never been loud at anything. Maybe that's her problem.
At her weekly dinners with her father, she studies her half-brother. He doesn't bother with a tie. His ear piercings irritate her mother. The elbow of his sweater is stained with his soup broth, but Kakeru doesn't notice. Or he doesn't care. He laughs without reservation. He makes faces at the baby.
He's loud. Unabashedly so.
Machi isn’t sure if she’s more annoyed or jealous.
By the time she meets the high school prince, Machi is a skilled observer. The park. The mall. The classroom. The dinner table.
She can spot a fake smile from a country mile away and tell the difference between a genuine laugh and a fabrication with just the slightest differentiation in pitch.
People think they're such skilled liars. She's always had good instincts.
If Machi entertained fancies, she would fancy herself an anthropologist or a behavioralist or even an explorer, mapping out the uncharted territory of those around her. But she doesn't entertain fancies, so she just thinks of her habit as an unfortunate quirk, one more thing to set her apart from everyone else.
It all feels irrelevant anyway; no one ever notices her enough to catch her staring.
At first she keeps Prince Yuki Sohma at arm's length, only observing through the safe distance of her metaphorical binoculars. She just wants to watch. She just wants to see. She just wants to know.
Later, she’s embarrassed of her initial impression, the idea that he’s not princely, just pretentious. It’s clear he doesn’t revel in the attention of his fan club admirers, but something about him feels not just disinterested, but cold. He moves through crowds like a politician, carrying himself in such a way that the other students offer him a wide berth.
Machi learns, later, that she’s misjudged him; he’s only cold in the same way that she feels the chill of her school desk on her cheek when she rests her head there. Cold like a glass of water on a hot day. Cold like respite, cold like relief.
Yuki asks her favorite color, because he wants to know. A favorite color, a trivial factoid. But he asks anyway, and in doing so opens his arms to her - not literally, not yet - and expands the circle so she can fit inside. He carves out a place in the student council that’s just for her, a place no one else can fit in.
He carves out a place in his heart, too. A place that’s just for her. A place he builds with the things he’s learning.
Maybe no one else has ever been able to see the forest for the trees, but Yuki looks at her and Machi feels, instead, like a garden overflowing with blooms.
"It's pretty dangerous to have things like glass on the floor," he says gently. She knows that in his own native tongue, this is how he says be careful.
In another life, Machi would laugh when she realizes she couldn't have been sure of the color of her bedroom carpet in the state her room was in before. She feels strangely naked and so, so sad.
"Do you hate things that are in order, Machi?" Yuki asks, his voice barely audible over the thumping of her heart and the ringing in her ears. He’s so careful, tender, cradling her with his words like she’s made of crystal.
It feels like he's thrown open the curtains and let the sun in, like he's flung the window open to kick up the breeze. She's been sitting in a corner and gathering dust and he's brushing her off, polishing a veneer, taking a good hard look at what sits beneath the dirt and grime. Appraising. Appreciating, maybe.
It hurts. It stings. It burns.
She wants more.
Maybe she was never afraid of being unknown. Maybe she was only ever afraid of being known and unloved.
… everything you had…
… the Machi I know…
… that makes me happy…
"If the snow keeps piling up…" he says, and she clings to the promise. Her deepest desire is laid bare, she’s stripped down, but she's never been safer.
Machi cries into her hands, comforted by his presence as he kneels next to her. Inches away. She could reach out and touch, if she wanted. She could know the feeling of his sweater bunched up between her fingers. Machi cries, and she lets herself be louder than before.
Yuki tells her he loves her first with the sound of snapping chalk, and only after does he say it in so many words.