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He sees it out of the corner of his eye, pure chance. The cardboard sign hanging up in the window of the coffee shop. It's the first day it's been there--he passes this place all the time. Normally, he wouldn't spare a glance at such a trivial thing but something about those big block letters draws him in. He was going someplace before this but he can't quite remember where it was... it doesn't matter. What does the sign say?


Cooking Class--New Bakers Needed!, it reads, along with clipart of a cartoon man in a tall white hat and a photograph of a stack of cookies. There's a date underneath the title. It's today.


Maybe he could learn to make something for his sister. He tries to check his watch but something about it is hazy, it's not showing numbers at all. Well, it's fine. The sign says it's happening now. And look--through the window, so many happy people are inside already, preparing for the lesson. They're all wearing the same big white hat. In the center of them all is a girl.


She's staring straight at him with gentle brown eyes. A smile slowly crosses her face as she sees him outside, hand hovering over the doorknob. She beckons him to come in. Slowly, almost unconsciously his hand closes around the doorknob.


But before he can turn it another hand, large and strong, attached to a long arm comes in from behind and clenches his wrist so hard it hurts, and he--

 

 

 


Her eyes open.


Sayo raises a hand to her aching head and suppresses a groan, rubbing her eyes roughly and trying to take in her surroundings. The dream is fading fast, replaced by reality. Of course, she's still the same place she was before. The old faux leather seats and the hum of the taxi's engine haven't changed one bit.


She leans back and lets out a long breath. It's an interesting discovery to make that the backseat of a car can slowly become its own world with its own ecosystem and atmosphere if enough time is spent there. The world flashes by outside, lights along the side of the road blurring into streaks like comets as her little Earth drives on along its axis towards an inevitable destination, a heat death soon to come.


Sayo Hikawa is going home.


Well, not 'home' in a literal sense, she hasn't lived in this town for a long time now--and the version of her that did is hard to reconcile with the Sayo of today--but it was home once. She remembers it through the haze of nostalgia that turns the sidewalk she skinned her knee on a holy place, the tree she tried and failed to stop her sister from climbing a monument, the local library a hall of precious memories... She should stop mythologizing the place or it'll only hurt more to see the ways it's changed. For all she knows they bulldozed all three of those places and put parking garages in their places. Shifting in her seat, she feels her expression change into a frown.


What reason does she have for doing this? No good one, that's for certain. Nothing but the nagging feeling that if she doesn't go back to see that town one last time it'll eat away at her forever. What a waste of a weekend, of hard-earned money that she should be transferring straight into her savings just like her parents advised her to. The lengths she's going to just to visit the grave of her former self...


Eyes in the rear view mirror, they're pointed at her. Sayo tries her best not to meet them but the slight exhale she hears from the driver tells her she didn't do a good enough job. His voice doesn't sound particularly worried, it carries the lighthearted curiosity that comes with the intense boredom of working a job that you're good at. "You doing alright, miss? Heh, if you've got somethin' on your mind you're welcome to gab all you like, I certainly won't be tellin' anybody."


"Thank you," Sayo says with a nod to the mirror though the driver's gaze has already moved back to the road, "but I am fine. How long until we get to town?"


"...Twenty minutes tops. That's if the expressway isn't clogged all to hell, so close to all the city folks getting off work. So many of 'em with their licenses and not a one who knows how to drive worth a damn..." He looks back apologetically. "Er, sorry for the language. Won't be too long now, miss."


Sayo nods again--


you should have smiled instead, that nod was too masculine.


--and turns her eyes back to the fluorescent constellations that form and fly away each moment outside the window, buildings behind them dark as the depths of space as the night continues unending. On a whim she reaches out and takes hold of the wobbly crank that will open the window. If she breaks the seal on the airlock, what will happen to her little world?


She does it anyway. The wind messes up her hair, but she can fix it at the hotel later.

 


 

When Sayo sleeps for the second time that day she does not dream.


Not in a concrete-hard bed like this, cold and impersonal and impossibly lonely in the budget hotel room she booked at the edge of town. Dreaming would feel strange in a place where so many others have slept before her, it would make her feel vulnerable in some way. Even unconscious the gates remain locked.


She shifts when the searing morning light comes through the gaps in the uneven blinds and smites her straight out of her restless slumber. Sayo lets out a hissing sort of sigh as she slowly turns over, reaching a hand up but stopping halfway when she realizes its weight--she must have been lying on it, it feels numb. She shakes it to get the blood flow back to normal and waits through the pinpricks until it's responsive enough to roughly rub the sleep from her eyes. Coffee will be a necessity when she can manage it later.


Eventually, Sayo stands. She leans against the wall to stretch as she squints into the light to adjust herself to it. The first thing she does is head to the hotel room's sink to fill up a cup with room temperature water and use it to wash down a little off-white pill, following that up by carefully slipping a tiny blue one under her tongue and letting it dissolve slowly. It doesn't taste like anything.


She yanks the blinds open and peers out the window. By the time she checked in last night it was pitch-dark outside and she didn't bother trying to look around, just sleepwalked her way through a shower and collapsed onto the bed. So the view is all new to her. It's strange.


It's not the side of town she knows by heart, rather the seedier side that she only sort of knew through remarks from adults or older teens she happened to meet. So it's not like she can tell exactly how much it's changed. But she can tell some of the landmarks are different--the skyline has shifted ever so slightly, they took down the big sign on top of the record shop. Does that mean it's gone? She only went there once or twice. Does she have the right to feel sad if it did disappear?


the person who went there, was he even you?


Sayo looks away with a grimace and moves to her suitcase, pulling out a small plastic case with a hastily-purchased travel toothbrush and other items. She'll clean herself up before she goes out. The least she can do is make a good impression when she introduces the woman known as Sayo Hikawa to this town.


It all goes perfectly fine until she has to decide what to wear.


She has two options--a long blue dress, casual but not casual enough to be comfortable, that was purchased for her by her parents as a sort of moving-out gift as well as a reminder that she's expected to be presentable at all times. And she has her work uniform as well. Must have tossed it in the bag by mistake. It's a women's tailored suit, black and angular and boxy with matching trousers and a gray tie. It's the sort of thing that should make her shudder in theory but in practice the structure of it made her feel... quite at home. She likes it, against all odds. Her hand reaches out to take it from the bag--


yes, make it a little harder for them, won't you? asshole.


--and stops. It hovers half an inch away from the dark fabric and curls into a fist before falling to her side.


She wears the dress.


When she makes her way downstairs to the lobby the clock on the wall reads 3:42pm just as it read 3:42pm at midnight last night, and just as it will read that time until the end of time, she assumes. The carpet is soft enough to feel unstable as it crushes down under her shoes and springs back up as soon as she steps off of it and onto the wood floor of the lobby proper. The woman at the front desk looks like she has bigger things to worry about. So does Sayo, so their interaction is minimal, just eye contact and muttered pleasantries. She's already paid for her room through tomorrow morning. This reckless excursion of hers has a strict time limit.


She gives her reflection a final look on the glass of the front door, adjusting her hair. Probably should have taken the time to put it in a braid but instead she'll just tie it all back into a tight teal bun, it's feminine enough to work. She reaches out to the handle--


--but it pulls away before she can wrap her hand around it. There's a stocky man on the other side who must be at least ten years her senior. Sayo steps aside and waits for him to come through but instead of stepping inside he gives her an awkward smile and a little gesture telling her to walk through herself. Oh. He's just holding the door for her. As soon as she processes it she wants to nod but instead she manages a smile this time. His gaze follows her as she walks through the door and rounds the corner onto the street.


The breeze hits her like a thin film she has to break through to move. Chill air makes her wish she wasn't wearing something so thin, but thankfully at least it's long enough to cover her ankles. The fabric billows and flaps around her legs as she walks. She has to remind herself not to hold her arms stock-still at her sides.


It feels something like a dream the closer she gets to her childhood home. Sayo Hikawa has, in a way, never been here. It's a faded photograph in her mind with her just out of frame


Sayo isn't sure where to go first. Should she try to navigate herself straight to the places she remembers best, the downtown area and the library near her old school? Or rather, should she ease herself in slowly? The former ups the risk of her running into someone who might somehow recognize her. She chooses the latter. Her shoes click against the pavement as she walks, keeping her head down out and pulling her shoulders back on instinct; her hair is thankfully still tied back so it has no opportunity to flutter in the wind.


The cloud cover overhead muffles the world and turns it gray. It's just the sort of weather Sayo likes best, no heat bearing down on her; just the cold and she can deal with that. Her sister would have said it was boring.


are you certain you have the right to call her that, when you gave up being her br--


Sayo twitches her head in a way that makes the woman passing her on the street look at her funny. She walks a little faster and digs her fingernails into her palm, hoping the sharp sensation will help drive those thoughts from her head long enough for her to breathe.


In her aimless haze she ends up wandering to a public park, one she doesn't know very well but judging by the size of the trees and the rust on the benches it must have been here for a long time. There's a playground across a field to her left. By the lack of noise she can tell it's not a very popular one with the neighborhood kids--or perhaps they're all just stuck at home, parents fearing sudden rain with the sky in the state that it's in. Sayo takes a long breath and feels the humidity in the air. It's thick.


A smart person would go back to their hotel room and wait out the oncoming rain, perhaps a smarter person that that would simply cut their losses and call a taxi to take them away from this place. But Sayo Hikawa is not as smart as everyone seems to think she is so she keeps walking.


She comes out on the other side of the park and blinks as she looks around, takes in the buildings and tries to match them to the map in her head. She's definitely getting closer to the downtown that she remembers. Her reflection in the butcher shop's window stares back at her--a strange woman, too weathered for someone still new to adulthood--before she shakes her head and walks on. The shopping district is waiting for her.


The clothes shop she never got the courage to step foot in, the bookstore, the ancient post office, they're all still here. They never left. Maybe some things are different, altered signs and different faces inside. She catches a glimpse of the Yamabuki girl at the front desk of her family's bakery. They never spoke but it's still nice to see her looking so confident.


A chill runs through her body and it's not from the breeze. Being here is so strange. All her old haunts... an apt name indeed when Sayo feels so much like a ghost.


But a ghost wouldn't feel the tickling sensation on her nose when the first raindrop hits it.


Sayo winces, rubbing it off and looking to the sky to see that the clouds gathered their forces in earnest when she dared to have her attention taken away. The sky is completely dark. Everyone else with any sense seems to have left the downtown area already, or ducked into a shop to wait out the worst of it or call for a ride home. Sayo's alone. She can't help but feel like a complete fool, here without so much as an umbrella or a way to get back to the hotel.


The rain starts up slowly but steadily, heralded by the way the concrete path in front of her is slowly covered in dark spots that grow until they cover its whole surface. By this point she can feel the drops starting to soak her hair and her exposed arms. She wraps them around herself and looks around, trying to find a store or something that she can try to wait out the worst of it in...


When she sees it, she feels herself stop as if frozen in place.


It looks almost the same as it did back in the day. Just more modern. The sign out front is different and there's a chalkboard reading out a list of specials that's slowly starting to streak as the rain pelts it. The tall windows are too dark to see through with the cloud cover but they're unmistakably still open for business.


Sayo can smell it as the door opens a crack to let an unfortunate customer out to scurry past her to their car. That familiar, heady scent of coffee. She bites her lip.


She probably won't recognize Sayo. It's fine.


she won't even recognize you.


In the back of her mind this was always on the list of places she'd have to end up visiting. But she hoped it would be under better circumstances. Perhaps circumstances so perfect that they're unlikely to ever happen, absolving her of the guilt of not returning. But what other choice does Sayo have right now? She steels herself and strides towards the coffee shop, forcing one foot in front of the other as the rain streaks down her shoulders. Reaching out and taking the handle feels so hard. But she does it anyway.


she probably won't remember you at all. just another awkward boy at a few long-forgotten baking classes, it meant nothing to her.


Sayo opens the door.


Hazawa Coffee has aged gracefully. The small differences outside give way to large shifts inside the shop itself. The counter is still in the same place but all the tables have been replaced with sturdier ones made from darker wood, the walls are covered with framed nature photography and laminated flowers arranged into swirling art pieces. The lights are less bright than she remembers. It gives the place a calming atmosphere boosted by the slow guitar music playing in the background. The scent of coffee wafts around it all like a siren song for the long line of tired businessmen; and the single lost lonely trans woman mixed in with them.


She doesn't get the time to agonize over whether she should take another step forward, because soon there are more rain-soaked fools jostling through the doorway behind her and grunting for her to move. Sayo shuffles out of their path and ends up making her way to the back of the line.


Looking around as she fidgets and adjusts her wet dress, she doesn't see anyone she recognizes. The servers are relatively young--most of them freshmen and high school kids most likely here to get some part-time experience--and the old owners, the Hazawas, are nowhere to be seen. The line ahead of her blocks the front counter, though. Maybe she'll see them there.


Maybe their daughter will be there.


Sayo winces as she looks down at herself. She looks like she fell down a well and clawed her way back out before heading straight here. So much for a perfect, orchestrated reintroduction. Might as well rename herself Sadako Hikawa. Maybe she should just leave.


The line moves up and she steps forward with it. Two teenage girls wander away from the counter. Her gaze follows them for a second, until their hands find each other and then it suddenly feels like she's observing something she shouldn't be, and she quickly looks away. The flower arrangements on the walls are suddenly very interesting.


"You see that? God."


At first she thinks the voice is speaking to her and she feels her blood run cold. It's a man's voice, raspy and low from age or smoking or both. He's right behind her. "Kids shouldn't be doing shit like that, the hell are they teaching them in those schools? Damn shame is what it is."


She controls her breathing as best she can. There's nothing she can do or say without causing a scene in the Hazawa's store. The line's moving fast anyway, she won't have to deal with him for that much longer. It's fine.


"My nephew, little asshole thinks he's a girl now. Told everybody. It's just fuckin' embarrassing, isn't it? Gonna look back on this when and regret it when he's a man."


Her fingernails are going to break the skin of her palm. Sayo feels her heartbeat quick and loud in her ears. The world around her is out of focus, she stares at the ground and steps forward when it's time. She should just leave. She should leave town and give up and go back to work and not come back, she should go out and stand in the rain. If she's already soaked to the bone it shouldn't matter how it feels.


The line moves up again and she moves with it unconsciously. And then--


Wide brown eyes.


Tsugumi Hazawa is an adult now, and it's almost too much for Sayo to take in. She's taller and sturdier in her stance, with her hair cut shorter than it was when they saw each other last; her apron reads out the name Sayo already knows on a nameplate surrounded by enamel pins and embroidered touches. Tsugumi's mouth opens to say a name--but quickly stops as she stares at Sayo's hair, then her clothes, seeming to quickly realize the name she knows may not be the one Sayo wants to hear.


"It's me," Sayo manages to say. It's her. Just not the one Tsugumi knew. She suddenly remembers that she's a customer, that she should have come up with something to order; some excuse for coming here at all. "May I have... just a black coffee, Hazawa-san?"


Tsugumi blinks. And then her practiced barista's spirit comes back, her eyes soften as her shoulders relax. "Of course, um... it'll be ready in just a moment. You can go take a seat. I'll bring it out."


"Thank you, Hazawa-san." Sayo nods and fumbles her way through taking her card out to swipe it. She can feel the gaze of the others behind her in line boring through her skull as she drops it on the counter and has to pick it back up. As soon as she finally does it right and the machine makes a pleased sound, Tsugumi smiles at her. She does her best to push out a smile in return before breaking their eye contact and shuffling out of the way.


She realizes she was not breathing as soon as she's able to do so again. Sayo fills her lungs through gritted teeth, sliding down into a seat and leaning forward on her elbows to stare into the surface of the table as she catches her breath.


you fucked it all up.


On what grounds? She can do better than continue to tear herself down. Sayo lets out a sigh and hopes her thoughts will be expelled as easily.


For now, she'll occupy herself by tapping her finger on the table and looking around the place again; the better to avoid playing back their interaction in her head until it's warped beyond a semblance of accuracy. It really does look wonderful. She vaguely remembers Tsugumi mentioning a friend who was studying flower arrangements during one of their classes. Perhaps she's responsible for some of the decorations.


Her gaze drifts over to the front counter to see someone else has taken over for Tsugumi. Still not either of the elder Hazawas. Sayo wonders if she'll get the chance to ask about them. She hopes they're doing well, they seemed like good people and loving parents. Always cheerful and enthusiastic. Quite alien compared to...


don't be ungrateful.


She isn't. Her feelings are simply complex. Sayo is an adult and as thus she is entitled to a complex emotion from time to time. Shut up.


Her fingers tap a slow rhythm into the dark wood as Sayo's gaze drifts without focus. She spares a glance out the window to see that nothing has changed--raindrops are still slowly streaking their way down the window and a tree across the street is swaying back and forth in the strong wind. Thankfully, the warmth of the café has mostly dried out her clothes, even if her hair is still slightly damp.


A dull clunking sound draws her attention. Her eyes widen as she sees the steaming cup on the table in front of her--so fast!--and then the slender arm drawing back from it for its owner to hug her tray to her chest, just the same as she always did back then. Tsugumi looks down with soft, questioning eyes as Sayo blinks up at her. "Do you mind if I sit here?"


"Of course," Sayo replies with a nod, folding her hands on her lap. "You don't have other obligations? I don't want to impose during business hours..." She sounds far too serious. Try a joke. "After all, it's not as if I'll be leaving anytime soon." She nods towards the storm outside.


Tsugumi bites her lip. "You did come here through that, didn't you? Are you feeling okay? I can get you something to warm up if you want, the last thing I want is for you to catch a cold."


Damn it. Sayo winces. "No, no, it's perfectly alright. And... well, you already have, haven't you?" She reaches out and picks up the cup, lifting it to her lips for a sip--God, it's hot! The scalding coffee burns her upper lip and she quickly pulls it away with a muffled hiss.


The concern in Tsugumi's eyes doubles. "Ah, you'll want to let it cool off a little more first!"


"Yes, I gathered that..." Sayo says as she sinks a little deeper into her seat.


...


Their eyes meet again. Some cue comes up that Sayo doesn't even recognize but suddenly they're both chuckling, lips curling up into tired smiles. She reaches a hand up to cover her mouth as she tries to stop herself from causing a scene. Tsugumi's giggles are like music to her ears, and she misses them as soon as they slowly peter out. Tsugumi gives her a smile. This time, Sayo has less of a problem returning it.


"...I'm taking my lunch now. No pressing obligations, I promise." Tsugumi reaches out to place her hand on the back of the chair opposite where Sayo is sitting, not pulling it out yet. "So... do you mind?"


"Of course not, Hazawa-san."


Tsugumi pulls out the chair and carefully takes a seat, pulling it back in as she scoots forward and rests her arms on the table. Her apron drags as she leans forward on her shoulders. Sayo gets a better look at the personalization on it as Tsugumi adjusts herself--a faded dolphin button from the local aquarium, some sunflowers embroidered around the name badge, and... oh. A she/her pronoun pin. Sayo doesn't get time to process that before she notices the one next to it, a sunset-colored flag.


"So!" Tsugumi says, startling Sayo into sitting back up ramrod-straight, "Ah... wow, it's been forever since you were around here last... it's really good to see you." She trails off and looks at Sayo, who takes a moment to realize the implicit question--what do I call you now?


"Sayo," she says stupidly. "Hikawa Sayo. And, um... it's quite good to see you again, Hazawa-san. I hope you've been well. Your parents, too."


"Hikawa Sayo-san..." Tsugumi says slowly, like she's trying it out to see how it feels on her tongue. She smiles as soon as the final syllable rolls out into the air between them. "What a lovely name. It suits you much better."


Sayo feels her insolent heart flutter in her chest.


"What do you think of the place? It's pretty different from the last time you were here..." Tsugumi leans back in her seat and looks around as if seeing her own coffee shop for the first time again, clearly picking out all the things that have changed over the years before steadily becoming her new normal. "I've only been running it myself for a few months, and my parents still help with a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, but I've tried to modernize it as much as I can. How does it feel?"


Sayo's hand traces the edge of the table between them. "It feels as though you've made it your own. I can tell you've put a lot of thought into it. You should be proud, Hazawa-san."


Tsugumi's response is a sigh deeper than anything Sayo expected for her simple praise, it sounds as though Tsugumi had been waiting for that validation for her entire life. Sayo reaches up to absentmindedly play with her hair as a distraction before remembering it's tied back and awkwardly moving her hand back down. She tries to pull herself back on track. "Really, it all looks very good. You say you're running the café by yourself now?"


"More or less. I'm doing my best." Tsugumi sits up and gives Sayo what she believes is supposed to look like an energetic grin. It only serves to accent the bags under her eyes. Sayo feels her own unspoken question bubbling up--are you pushing yourself too hard?--but holds onto it. She's got no right to come in immediately accusing Tsugumi of anything. They're barely friends.


"So," Sayo says to fill the silence without a destination in mind, "what about... your friends? How have they been? I remember you mentioning you were in a band together."


why do you remember these things? may as well have been stalking her online or something. creep.


"Oh, Afterglow!" Tsugumi says, her face brightening up enough at the mention to blow Sayo's nagging thoughts back into the corner for the time being. "Er, well, the band didn't last all that long... we played some local festivals and stuff, but we all started to get busier and busier as we got older, so it kinda fizzled out. And people always got confused about us having two drummers." She sees the dour expression on Sayo's face and holds up her palms as she keeps going.


"But Afterglow--just the six of us as a group--is forever! We meet up here on the weekends, after closing. Moca-chan even brings her girlfriend to game night sometimes. Chisato-chan is really good at poker. Ako-chan keeps saying she'll have us meet her girlfriend soon, too, she's just kind of shy. And, um..."


Tsugumi clams up, lifting a hand to scratch her cheek. She looks embarrassed for going on for so long. Sayo won't let that stand. "I'm glad to hear it, Hazawa-san, that sounds wonderful."


The warm aroma of the coffee is starting to waft its way up to Sayo's nose, and she decides it's probably been long enough to give it another shot. Hopefully she won't humiliate herself again--and if she's already done it once in front of Tsugumi she supposes it won't be the end of the world if she does. She lifts the mug to her lips and takes a cautious sip, one that goes on longer as she realizes it's the perfect temperature.


Tsugumi's coffee is the best. Bar none. It wasn't quite the highlight of the cooking classes that she attended--the girl herself was--but it was certainly another reason to attend. She was always the first to take from the tray of offered cups and the last to finish it off, always ensuring that she savored every bit even if it was cold by the time she took her last sip.


The taste is so softly bitter and overwhelmingly warm, so familiar that it breaks down something in Sayo's chest; a wall she didn't know was up until the bricks were washed away. She feels something she hasn't felt in so long.


Contentment.


When she lowers the cup back down to the table and opens her eyes she sees Tsugumi looking back at her with a pleased expression, chin resting in her hands as she watches Sayo start to flush. It's from the heat of the coffee, of course. The mug is back on the table before it can start to shake in her hand. Tsugumi asks her, "Was it good?"


Sayo can do nothing but nod gratefully. Tsugumi seems more than happy with that response, sitting back in her seat. And for a while they stay in a comfortable silence disturbed only slightly when Sayo takes another sip.


It's an unstable sort of peace but peace nonetheless. Sayo finds she missed this more than anything else. The times when they both had to wait for something to rise, something to bake, the liminal space between setting the timer and hearing it go off where they would just stand side by side in each other's space and exist.


But as always, that time has an expiration date.


"Can I ask..." Tsugumi starts. She stops abruptly, eyes starting to cloud over to match the windows. "Sorry. Um... you don't have to go into detail or anything, but... how have you been doing, Sayo-san? Where have you been all these years?"


"..."


This is the question Sayo knew was coming. The one she doesn't know how to answer. "I've been working at a large firm. There's a man on the board with connections to my family. It pays well enough for me to be independent."


"Are you living on your own, then? Or with a gi--partner?"


Sayo's ears don't miss the slip but she doesn't comment on it either way. "By myself. Up north, I've got an apartment."


Tsugumi nods slowly. "I see... do you like your job?"


Not particularly. "It's perfectly fine. Not too demanding, but not boring either." Sayo folds her arms a little closer and grips a loose fold of her dress tightly. "I've been doing alright, don't worry, Hazawa-san. It's perhaps not as fulfilling as something like taking up the reins here, but I don't mind it."


The look that flits across Tsugumi's face makes Sayo immediately regret her words. "Er, not to imply... you're working so hard, Hazawa-san, I--"


"No, no, you're fine!" Tsugumi interrupts, looking up with wide eyes. "I'm really happy for you, Sayo-san."


"..."


Their peaceful silence is gone, replaced by the same awkward one from before. Sayo can feel heavy gears grinding her up with every tick from the clock on the wall behind her as the seconds go by. She knows she's the only one who can properly break it this time. But thinking about the things she needs to describe... it's hard. "I..."


Tsugumi watches her patiently as Sayo struggles to find the words. "Not long after we met. It would have been perhaps two weeks past what would be the final class I attended, I... came to terms with myself." She looks down, initially just avoiding Tsugumi's gaze but then simply staring at herself, clad in that tacky dress that she didn't choose for herself. "When I informed my parents of the situation they were forgiving. They allowed me to do what I wished, but... in that case, I had to be the ideal daughter."


Sayo takes a long breath.


"And for that to happen I had to spend my initial transition period elsewhere. I was sent to live with family--my mother's sister and her husband--and not allowed to speak of these things to anyone. Hazawa-san, I'm... sorry. That's the reason I never said goodb--"


A pressure under the table, a shoe pressing down on top of hers gently. Sayo looks up to see the expression on Tsugumi's face. A sort of understanding sadness, there's an emotion behind her eyes that Sayo knows. Her smile is still there. "You don't have to apologize," she says quietly, and it's all Sayo needs to hear right now.


"Hazawa-san..." she says, and wonders if she should dare to speak her mind plainly for once.


you'll regret it.


Sayo steadies herself and says it anyway. "I wasn't sure if you would remember me at all, to be completely honest."


Tsugumi's somber smile devolves into a grin with a giggle that follows quickly, and Sayo is struck dumb by the sound of it. "Oh, Sayo-san... how could I forgot that kind girl who came in here so determined to make cookies for her sister? We were friends by the end of all that! Weren't we?"


Were we? Sayo wasn't certain until this very moment but now it feels so obvious that she almost wants to apologize for her own thick-headedness. The lack of even a momentary pause on Tsugumi's part when it came to labeling her younger self as a girl is the last strike to send her leaning forward and grinning down into her lap as she does her best to reply. "Of course."


The minutes start to blend together slowly into a warm slurry that Sayo savors every second of, as they talk on into the late afternoon about things that don't matter except for in this moment; small changes and everyday developments in both of their lives. Her image of Tsugumi was always glowing, but she's grown into such a calmly confident woman in Sayo's absence. Sayo finds herself smiling more often than not as she listens to every word her old friend has to say.


It's almost like living through those years here with her, like Sayo never left. Like she could have made a life for herself in this town. It's difficult to imagine it clearly. What would the Sayo Hikawa who stayed be like?


She doesn't even notice as the café grows quieter and the light through the window grows fainter, only realizing how long it's been when the bottom of her cup is finally visible after the final sip of now room-temperature coffee. Sayo makes a mental note that she should try to return to the hotel soon. And then she realizes something else. "Hazawa-san, didn't you have to go back to work? I thought you were on lunch."


"Ah!" Tsugumi says as she lifts a hand to her mouth, her cheeks heating up. "I completely forgot..."


Her gaze shifts to the counter and Sayo follows, only to see one of the young servers holding it down in Tsugumi's absence. The girl gives Tsugumi a conspicuous thumbs-up with a cocky grin that says 'I've got this, don't worry!' and Tsugumi sighs. "They're all like that... I have to make them take days off for school work sometimes."


"I suppose it just means you're good at creating a motivating environment for them," Sayo says as a smile flits around at the edges of her lips. "It's just another thing for you to take pride in."


"You can turn anything into a compliment, can't you?" Tsugumi says with faux-exhaustion undercut by the spark in her eyes. Under the table, her foot playfully taps the top of Sayo's shoe again, and it's all Sayo can do to pretend she didn't notice it. She clears her throat.


"Only if the compliment is deserved."


Tsugumi giggles and it's the most satisfying sound in the world. Sayo leans back and takes a breath as she pulls at her dress, adjusting it though it's almost certainly not needed.


don't go too far with this. you saw the pin, she's not interested in people like you.


Her hand involuntarily clenches in the loose fabric as the smile falls from her face. She looks away, searching the café for something to stare at so Tsugumi won't see her expression. She finds a preserved lily and examines its petals as she searches for a rebuttal to send back at herself. Why should she assume a thing like that? She knows plenty of... people just like Tsugumi who are with people like her. People like her...


liars.


Sayo bites down on her lip hard and tastes metal in the back of her throat, a taste that doesn't mix well with the fading aftertaste of coffee. She spent far too long thinking of herself that way. Perhaps it's to be expected that these feelings will be stronger here, stepping back into these shoes, but she can't tear herself down; not in front of Tsugumi.


It's not a lie if she makes it real. A sentiment she's burnt into her brain through repetition. Sayo works every day of her life to be this, and she won't ever stop. So she should be allowed to think of herself as a woman with no strings attached.


Shouldn't she?


"Sayo?"


Sayo starts, blinking as she looks back to Tsugumi and lets her tense muscles relax. Her hand unclenches under the table as their eyes meet again, and the sight of Tsugumi's calm face helps her steady herself. "Ah. I apologize, Hazawa-san, I was lost in thought. What were you saying?"


Tsugumi reaches up to play with the sunflower hair clip holding part of her bangs back--it's not the same as the ones she had before but quite similar, and very charming. "I was curious where you're staying while you're in town? A hotel, or with friends...?"


"I have a room over at the hotel..." She doesn't remember the name. "...the older one, it's out that way. Through the public park." Sayo gestures in a direction she believes is right and Tsugumi seems to understand her immediately.


She doesn't look pleased. "That one? There's a lot of weirdos out around that side of town. Are you okay over there?"


It's only for one more day, Sayo thinks, but Tsugumi doesn't know that. Her mind does return to the man who watched her as she was leaving. But she can handle things like that... it's strange to be worried about. She tugs on her hair. "It's fine. I can look after myself, I promise."


Tsugumi frowns. She's never been good about keeping her feelings under wraps and neither has Sayo, for that matter, so very quickly they're matching expressions and the atmosphere starts to feel a little dour. Sayo's frown only deepens as she searches for something to say to fix the mood and comes up empty.


But as always, Tsugumi finds the solution first. "Um... you know, if you'd like, you're welcome to stay at my place tonight?"


...


"...Really?" Sayo says, and immediately realizes what a godforsaken idiot she is. "Er--I mean--I don't want to impose, the hotel is perfectly fine and I--!"


Tsugumi's hand flies to her mouth to muffle herself as she leans forward in her seat and laughs quietly. Sayo's words fail her and she ends up slack-jawed and thoroughly embarrassed as Tsugumi wipes away moisture from the corners of her eyes and looks at Sayo warmly. "You wouldn't be imposing, Sayo-san, there's plenty of room. And I'm the one who invited you anyway."


"Still, it's just..." Are you really comfortable having me there? The thought bounces around Sayo's head but she knows she shouldn't voice it. It's not as if she's tricking Tsugumi into this.


"I insist. That is, unless you really don't want to." Tsugumi glances to the window and Sayo does as well. It looks as though the rain's finally let up. It's close to sunset now. When Sayo looks back across the table her throat closes up as she sees the look on Tsugumi's face. Framed by the soft light of the café, Tsugumi leans in closer and asks her one more time; "What do you say, Sayo-san?"


There's only one answer.

 


 

Tap. Clack. Tap. Clack.


The rhythm of their shoes against the pavement is soothing in a way. It stays steady as Sayo makes sure to limit her strides by just the smallest amount so she doesn't outpace the shorter woman at her side. Her heels and Tsugumi's practical boots contrast well against each other.


It's sunset--or by this point, nearly twilight. The red and orange-tinted light is already fading over the rooftops across the street from them as they make their way through the town, past restaurants and businesses in the process of closing and other establishments just opening up for the night crowd. Sayo recognizes some, others are unfamiliar simply because she never stayed out so late as a child. The last vestiges of the downpour earlier are flowing down the edges of the street and making their way into the gutters. The light reflects off of those streams and brings color even to the smallest corners of the city.


All of these sights are, of course, secondary when compared to the person she's accompanying tonight. Before they left Tsugumi folded up her apron and donned a thin black jacket for the walk home--first offering it to Sayo, who insisted that Tsugumi wear it, as Sayo rarely gets cold.


It feels so odd to walk alongside this woman. Every moment with her reveals some subtle change from the smart yet insecure girl she knew all those years ago. It's a revelation, like meeting Tsugumi Hazawa all over again. She hopes the feeling is mutual.


HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK


The blaring sound makes Sayo jump to the side, instinctively stepping between Tsugumi and its source like a loyal guard dog. It only takes a second to realize how ridiculous the action is. It's just a bus turning the corner ahead of them. She quickly shuffles back over into lockstep and hopes that Tsugumi didn't see what she did, glancing over at her to check. But Tsugumi is too busy staring at something else.


"Ah!" she says, and Sayo follows her gaze to see...


Herself.


Not herself. The side of the bus is emblazoned with a face she knows too well, one too similar to her own to not. The logo underneath the name confirms it. It's an announcement of a new album from goth rock superstars Roselia, this particular ad highlighting their teal-haired hotshot guitarist--before she can read the name she already knows, the bus is gone around the corner and behind a building. But that face remains, an afterimage floating in her mind's eye as Tsugumi asks the question Sayo knew had to come sooner or later.


"Sayo-san, do you two still talk? You were so close back then. We text sometimes, but she's always so busy touring with Yukina-san and Maya-san these days..." Tsugumi's voice trails out as she patiently waits for Sayo's response.


"...We don't. Not right now." Implying they eventually will again, how bold of her. Sayo's brow furrows. "When I moved away we tried to remain in contact, but... well, I won't make excuses for myself, but I was stretched thin at the time and so was she. The distance didn't make it easy on us."


you damn liar.


The truth is too much for tonight. She's dumped enough of her baggage on Tsugumi as it is. She doesn't need to know the way it felt when she pushed herself to be something she wasn't, comparing herself to her counterpart more and more with time and trying to make herself into an imitation of Hina. How she cut the bond between them with her own two hands out of fear of losing herself... She can keep some things inside.


"You don't have to talk about things like that right now if you don't want to, Sayo-san, it's alright." As always, Tsugumi sees right through her. The concern on Tsugumi's face hurts before she reminds herself that simply means that she cares about Sayo's well-being.


And normally a moment like that would stick with her. It would cling and stab in and weigh her down like a monster digging into her back, a relentless parasite, but something about tonight makes it so much easier for Sayo to force it to retract its claws and slip away. It's soon gone for now like rain down the gutter.


Sayo pulls herself back into reality and nods her head forward, eyes clear. With that--and another much-needed smile from Tsugumi--they're off again.


She looks up into the sky and searches for the moon. It doesn't seem to be out yet--that, or light pollution here is just as bad as it is in the city. Still, there's a sort of beauty in the wide open blackness of the night sky.


Before she can lose herself in thought there's a tug on her sleeve. "Sayo-san! You remember that place, don't you?"


Sayo squints to see where Tsugumi's finger is pointing and reads the LED sign over the shop's awning--Limp Lamp. There's a smaller sign underneath on the door in a much less friendly font that reads 'Closed.' She thinks about it for a moment, hoping she'll recall what Tsugumi means, before taking in a small gasp when she lands on it. "You wanted to take me there, didn't you? We were going to go after class one day, but we always forgot..."


"Yeah! You remembered!" Tsugumi smiles and kicks one boot up as if in celebration, sending a bit of stray rainwater up along with it in an arc. "Heh... I'd say we should go now, but it looks like we can't, huh?"


"Seems like it." Sayo realizes something curious. "...Am I misremembering, or was it in the mall back then? If it was always so close I can't imagine we would have put it off for as long as we did."


"Oh, it moved! They actually closed at first, but then managed to set up over here instead..." Tsugumi holds her hands behind her back as they walk past the storefront. Sayo tries to peer inside but can't get much of an impression in the poor lighting. "I was super happy they found a place so close. I still go over to browse the stationary and stuff when I start getting too bogged down by work." She smiles in a way that Sayo knows means she's embarrassed. "...It's kinda childish, right? Like I'm tired of doing my homework."


"Hazawa-san..." Sayo starts, raising an eyebrow, "how old are you? If you don't mind me asking."


"Twenty-six."


"And you're running a wildly successful--" Sayo clears her throat as Tsugumi looks at her with a frown, unamused. "--reasonably successful café all on your own. You're quite entitled to feel overwhelmed by the weight of that responsibility, I certainly would in your place."


Tsugumi stares at her with her head cocked a little to the side in something of a pout. "You always know what to say, don't you, Sayo-san?"


"Hardly," Sayo says as her lips twitch up into a smile, "you're simply easy to talk to, Hazawa-san."


Rolling her eyes, Tsugumi looks away and Sayo has to stifle a chuckle. She hasn't had this much fun simply speaking with someone in... she doesn't even remember how long it's been since she had a conversation she didn't rehearse ahead of time. It feels as though there's an electric current in the air, and not one brought on by the rain. It puts an unfamiliar energy into her step.


Tap. Clack. Tap. Cla--ZZzzZZT.


Artificial light coats them like their own personal sunbeam. Sayo can see that all the streetlights are turning on down the road, revealing all the corners of town that were nearly smothered in shadow as the last of the sunset vanished. She blinks to adjust to the sudden change. Tsugumi waits for her with her hands behind her back before they set off again together.


The world looks so different tonight. At night, her old town is still alive. Sayo can almost feel her heartbeat calming and slowing itself to keep in time with their footsteps as they head towards their destination together.


"Maybe we can drop by Limp Lamp together tomorrow," Tsugumi says out of the blue as she taps a finger to her chin, "if you want to, that is? I can see if anybody else is free if you'd like to meet up with them!"


Tomorrow...


Sayo stops. Tsugumi continues on for a few steps before realizing but soon turns to look back at her, mild confusion furrowing her brow. She looks like she wants to ask what's wrong, but she doesn't, instead waiting for Sayo to speak. She needs to speak. To tell Tsugumi she won't be here tomorrow. But the words stick in her throat.


coming back into her life only to leave so soon, you're cruel.


Before Sayo can make herself say it, Tsugumi wordlessly interrupts her with a weary smile and an understanding look. "Sorry. It's late. Let's just focus on getting back to the apartment, okay?"


Sayo nods and hopes that her gratitude comes through in the gesture. For the rest of the trip, she walks slightly behind Tsugumi.


It doesn't take long to reach her apartment from that point. They make the climb up a set of rickety stairs to the fourth floor of the tall off-white structure together, Sayo tailing behind as Tsugumi turns the corner onto the railing and passes the first few doors; stopping at the last one on the row. It looks the same as all the rest--Sayo could so easily pass it by without realizing its importance, that someone as extraordinary as Tsugumi lives here. The thought makes her eyes narrow as the other woman fiddles with her ring of keys.


"You know, I probably could have just stayed at the place over the café..." Tsugumi says wistfully, finally finding the right key and slotting it in with a click. "But my parents are still living there, and I wanted some independence, you know? Privacy. So I found this place as soon as I had the money for rent, even if it was a little irresponsible."


She opens the door and heads through, eagerly waving Sayo inside when she hesitates. Sayo slips her shoes off at the door and sets them beside Tsugumi's boots before heading into the living room.


"I don't believe that's an irresponsible decisi--" Sayo starts to say before her words trail off.


Tsugumi's apartment looks nothing like the outside suggested. It looks like a home. The walls are covered with framed photographs and art and posters, arranged so haphazardly it comes around to being artistic. Every photograph is a candid shot. If she looks close she can see people she half-recognizes, some from brief meetings as teenagers and some she can tentatively put a name to though they never met in person. All of the people Tsugumi cherishes, they're here.


The rest of the apartment is cluttered in the most charming way, old lamps atop cheap tables beside short bookcases full of knick-knacks and books full of notes sticking out to mark something of interest--there's half a shelf worth of books on business and rows of cookbooks alongside them, lined up next to large scrapbooks.


Sayo takes in every detail of the room with curious eyes. It's such a fascinating peek inside Tsugumi's everyday life, she can hardly believe how lucky she is to get to see it with her own eyes.


"What was that?" Tsugumi asks from across the room, and Sayo snaps out of it. She coughs.


"I was saying I don't believe you made a bad decision, Hazawa-san." Sayo hangs around the entrance--reluctant to find a seat or make herself too at home quite yet--and plays with her hair. "I moved into my own apartment... too early in hindsight, but it seems as though you've adjusted very well."


"You think so?" Tsugumi comes back around from the other room, her coat put away and shirt sleeves rolled up to bare her arms as she walks across the living room. She glances up at Sayo with a teasing look. "Do you get lonely out there living by yourself, Sayo-san?"


Yes, absolutely, she does. Sayo tugs her hair a little harder under Tsugumi's gaze. "I suppose... from time to time, I do."


Tsugumi holds her playful eye contact for so long that Sayo starts to wonder if she's said something wrong. Then Tsugumi leans in close to whisper, in a voice just for her, "I get lonely here sometimes too, you know."


Sayo blinks. Then all at once, her face bursts into a shade of pink so deep that Tsugumi has to quickly look away to muffle a giggle. Sayo holds her hand up to cover her cheeks as best she can, staring a hole in the wall over Tsugumi's shoulder. "I... I see."


don't go too far with this.


She's not even the one--! Sayo's flustered face shifts into a frown, and Tsugumi notices. She takes a small step back and Sayo immediately misses her presence. "Sorry," Tsugumi mutters apologetically, "Is this, um... I don't want to assume anything or make you uncomfortable, Sayo-san--"


"You haven't." It's supposed to come out reassuring but instead leaves her mouth as an insistent bark. Sayo winces. "You've done nothing wrong, Hazawa-san, I..." She gulps and summons all her strength to the fore before she can say what she has to say. "The reason I was so concerned that you wouldn't forget me... I've thought of you often in the time we were apart. I wanted to see you again."


Tsugumi's eyes widen at the confession. She smiles slowly, and there's a bittersweet feeling behind it. "...We only have tonight, don't we?"


Sayo doesn't answer. Instead, she reaches out with a searching hand and finds Tsugumi's wrist. Her hand is warm and her pulse is quick--something in common with Sayo. Tsugumi slips her hand into Sayo's properly, fingers entwining naturally and holding tight.


Slowly, Tsugumi draws closer as Sayo's breath hitches in her throat. A hand finds its way around Sayo's neck and up to her hair, tugging on the tie that holds her hair up in place. It slides off easily and her long teal hair cascades down onto her shoulders. She doesn't move an inch as Tsugumi pulls back, looking at her like she's seeing Sayo Hikawa for the very first time, for the second time that day. She doesn't say anything. Just rubs her thumb over Sayo's trembling hand. Her palm is so soft...


Tsugumi's lips are softer, when she leans in on tiptoes and sends Sayo's whole world upside-down.


Sayo's hand instinctively clenches tight as she freezes up, and Tsugumi squeezes in return to pull her back. The sensation is overwhelming--she closes her eyes tight and with her other arm pulls Tsugumi closer to her, hopes that what she's doing with her mouth is right as they pull apart momentarily and stare into each other's eyes before crashing back together. Sayo melts under Tsugumi's careful touches, shallow breaths landing hot on each other's cheeks in between long, desperate kisses.


"I wanted to--" Tsugumi says before leaving another kiss on her cheek, as if she's too impatient to even wait until the end of her sentence to continue, "--to do this so badly. Even then. Did you?"


"Always." Sayo can't possibly get the true weight of her wanting across in words so instead she just squeezes Tsugumi's hand tightly again and hopes her feelings will come through clearly.


"I didn't know how to feel about it at the time, but it's all so much easier now." Tsugumi kisses her again, even longer this time and Sayo feels a smile against her lips; then a whisper that sends tremors through her chest. "Even then I was pretty sure I only liked girls."


Tsugumi closes the distance again and Sayo leans into her embrace, holding her tight and giving her everything with every kiss. They only have tonight, she reminds herself through the hazy fog enveloping her mind.


Tonight will have to be enough.

 


 

The dusk air is crisp and chilled, enough to make her shiver as the stiff breeze passes her by. Sayo wraps her arms around herself a little tighter to pull the blanket around her shoulders. As her loose hair blows back and forth in the wind she leans in to bury her face in it momentarily--it smells like its owner, something that shouldn't exactly be surprising but the faint impression of coffee beans makes her heart race.


Tsugumi should still be asleep, or at least she was when Sayo finally realized she had no sleep left in her after the amount of rest earlier in the day and slipped out of bed. Her sleeping face didn't look all that relaxed, more determined that anything; and the memory of it sticks with Sayo. It almost certainly will for a long time.


Her hand rubs the thick fabric of the blanket. It's not as if they did anything... too extreme. Even with their mutual passions revealed it had still been less than twelve hours since they first met as adults. Kissing was one thing but it took Tsugumi quite some time to even convince Sayo it wouldn't be inappropriate to lie down together in the same bed.


...How on earth did she go from wandering the streets alone to sharing Tsugumi Hazawa's bed?


it's what you wanted, isn't it? how distinctly male of you. all you can think of is se--


The railing creaks as she leans on it and she focuses on the sound of it. The rustling of the wind and the sounds of the night, car horns blaring and small snippets of voices escaping through open windows. She closes her eyes and takes it all in, breathing in and filling her lungs with cool air.


When Sayo opens her eyes again and tilts her head up to the heavens she finally sees it. For a moment she just stares.


After a long moment of silence she hears the sound of the door opening behind her, but before she can turn around there are hands on her sides, small and gentle, attached to arms that slowly wrap around her waist tight enough for her breath to hitch in her throat. 


"The moon's beautiful, isn't it?" Tsugumi mutters against her back, resting her cheek against where Sayo's hair lies.


Sayo rests her own hand on top of Tsugumi's and takes in her warmth. She nods, and feels Tsugumi's grip on her tighten just the slightest bit. The moon is full in the sky tonight, a perfect orb suspended in the darkness.


It's her last chance to see it before the sun burns it away into nothingness. Light is already beginning to trickle through at the edge of the horizon--her time here is almost up. Sayo knows these sights, these sounds, the feeling of this woman's arms around her will be gone soon. Back to her predetermined life and her job and the plain white walls of her perfectly acceptable apartment.


It'll be like waking up from a dream.


Her breaths are growing quicker. Tsugumi can tell, judging by the way her hold on her waist grows that much tighter. But it doesn't help. It's just another reminder of what she'll be giving up as soon as the night ends. It's almost gone already. Slipping through her fingers further by the moment, she can't grasp moonlight in these useless hands.


But Sayo wants to keep seeing that sky.


She wants it so badly...


Her eyes shut so tight it hurts and her jaw sets, clenching her teeth together with all the force she can muster, but it doesn't matter. Her lips part without her permission and the words begin to fall out before she can process what she's saying or what she's feeling. "Hazawa-san..."


you're not thinking this through. you'll regret it.


"Sayo-san?"


She takes in a long breath and lets the budding feeling in her chest decide her words, the beating of her heart just as quick as it was when Tsugumi kissed her; as if it had never had the chance to beat before today and it could only happen here. "Hazawa-san, I'm..."


don't you dare lie to her.


It's not a lie if she makes it real.


Sayo Hikawa's eyes open wide and she sees the world. "I'm thinking about staying."