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first love, late spring

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ASK M: WHERE DOES HUMAN CONNECTION BEGIN AND END?

I am not a love advice column. Do not send me more of these.

giantintheclouds.substack.com

There is, I believe, a special kind of masochism in asking for life advice from someone who has a track record of having very little faith in humanity. I do say that with admiration, however, so to the subscriber who sent over an anonymous email asking me very detailed questions regarding my genuine thoughts on love and relationships — fine. I’ll indulge you. It is Christmas, after all. But before you proceed, remind yourself what this newsletter is. If you come to your senses and realize you should have asked someone more willing to provide kinder sentiments, I am certain our delusional idol fan friends over at the Boogie Woogie blog would be happier than I am to entertain your need for romanticisms. 

Still here? Suit yourself. I know why you sent me your questions. I know what you want me to say. You’re waiting for me to wax philosophical about the nature of human connections the way I do the shape of the soul. You want me to admit, in my own disparaging way, that love is the answer, that love is inherently good. You want me to provide you with logical paths towards proving this. Unfortunately, human connection is far less complicated than discussions of the body and the soul, and you are fooling yourself if you think it is not. 

Of course you can try to ask the same broad questions about both. Where does it begin? Where does it end? What makes it what it is? What makes it good? What taints it? What decides the shape it takes? But while it is useful to ask the world around you these questions when conceptualizing the soul, it does not ultimately do anything in terms of understanding human connection. 

You might disagree. But I believe it is human hubris to think that emotions must stand the test of countless interrogations in order to prove its existence, much less its strength. I am going to take a wild guess and say that you asked me all those questions because you are going through a rough patch in your love life. You might be looking for a sign to keep going. You might be looking for a sign to step away. In that case, you are better off consulting a tarot reader or downloading an astrology app. 

Because let me tell you this: this will not be the first or last time that you will look, and if you look right, you will find without fail that those signs do not exist. All you will have every time is the feeling that is already in you — and if you do not like what you see, then I do not think that is a problem you should ask the broader universe to fix for you. Do not ask for substantiation when it is your confirmation bias that you want to stoke, and certainly do not expect me to offer you platitudes about the nature of what you are feeling. 

If you have been long subscribed to my newsletter, and it seems that you are, then we can agree on one thing: human connection is the easiest way to find out how flawed you are, and how flawed other people can be. If you think this simple truth renders your grasp on your emotions hazy, then it is not your love that is weak, it is you. It is you, cowardly and afraid of your own feelings. People are flawed. We both know that. Everyone knows that. Love or any other kind of connection does not and will not ever eclipse that fact. 

I also gleaned from your email that you are conflicted about whether love must be selfless. Must it be kind? Must it be patient? And — how does that awful passage go again — must love never envy, never be proud, never be self-seeking nor easily angered? When you are hollow-hungry, then, when you reach out for a person in hopes of satiating that hunger — is that no longer love? Does possession equate to connection? Can loving another person mean wanting to consume them so nothing in the world can touch them anymore and they will be safe right where your heart is? I do not know. I do not care. 

In fact, to sanitize love, for me, is to erase the truth of how the people doing the loving and the people being loved can never be sanitized. If we suppose that the lover and the loved are both flawed, then what is there to ensure the love between them will not be the same? And what decides that this flawed love must contain none of the flaws of its originators in order to stand in front of a jury? 

Do not get me wrong, either. There is a decisive line between harm and love. The whole point of this newsletter series is to prove and share my belief that people will always be more inclined to harm than to love. And I acknowledge that this is the part you are worried about, anonymous reader. I know you are concerned because there are people who disguise their harm and selfishness under the label of love, and people who misunderstand their own capacity for either. I cannot say whether you are or are not one of those people, though I am willing to wager that if you are worried about it, it is more likely that you are not.

All I am able to say, from my own outsider perspective on it, is that if love exists in any pure form, it will be founded on understanding. Not a perfect one at that, but an attempt at empathy. For the other person, for yourself, for who you are to each other. But I also know that the moment you make contact with another person, nothing will unfold according to plan. Nothing. Human connection is, ultimately and in whatever form, a recipe for disaster, and it is this quality that makes clarifying it such hard work. 

So let us revisit those broad questions from earlier. I said it and I will say it again: human connection is far less complicated than discussions of the body and the soul. Do you know why that is? Because tricky things like love, in all its shapes, take all the questions you want to ask the world about the nature of human beings and simplifies these, untangles these, until the only world you need to confront is the one that exists between you and another person. It is not a matter of what defines the universal picture of love and what makes it worth sustaining. It comes down to the space between you and the person you love, care for, hunger for, and whether you are willing to ask yourself and them, not me or another newsletter and certainly not the universe: Where does our love begin? Where does it end? What makes it what it is? What makes it good? Is that enough? Will I be enough? Will you be enough? Will we be enough together? 

Do not, however, mistake answers to these for clarity. Do not think of these as your be-all and end-all, because here is a little spoiler when it comes to being in love with someone: You are always at the beginning. 

And, if you are very, very lucky, you will forever continue to always be at the beginning. 

 

 

Megumi is aware that there are a minimum of six things he could be helping with right now, both as an upright civilian and the brother of the bride, but as he makes his rounds across the wedding venue, watching various hired crews set up chairs and camera tripods and violins, he finds that he doesn’t really want to do anything except stand in a corner and wait for his restlessness to drop from its crest. 

In any other situation, he might have already had someone descend upon him and pump tea and subjective wisdom into him until he stopped biting his nails. It’s the burden and the luxury of being raised by a world of people instead of the mainstream-average unit. Today, though, he’s alone. Tsumiki is getting ready in her hotel room, circled by Nanako and Mimiko and all the other bridesmaids; Getou must be in his own hotel room, going over his script for the day after banishing Gojo; and Gojo, in exile, could be doing anything from sneaking cake pops out of the catering team to trying his hand at a pre-wedding conversation with Tsumiki’s fiancé, less out of any paternal leanings and more because he knows that Toji would have tried no such thing. This leaves Shoko and Utahime, who have morning lectures to teach, and Maki and Mai, who have morning lectures to attend, and who will not be arriving with a single other Zenin in tow. 

It’s less a roll call in Megumi’s head as it is as an automatic mindmap, a list of individual names that are never just that when it comes to the people around him; one name inevitably leads to another, and every person is connected to someone else somehow. A map of relationships domino-stumbling into each other, where a list of family members that might have been a hierarchy of emergency contacts for another kid becomes a web of interpersonal connections that Megumi, all his life, has been at the center of.

Dwelling on this leaves him, all of a sudden, hyper conscious of his current alone-ness—and how rare it is, how unused he is to it. For someone so comfortable in solitude, he never quite mastered it when it isn’t self-inflicted. He stands in the empty hall, at a loss, before he realizes there’s at least one person he’ll discover to be unoccupied with anything today. The same person who won’t give him tea, whose wisdom is at best designed to infuriate him, and who exists simultaneously as the founder and the sole exception to the network of people that he calls family. 

He finds Toji smoking in the parking lot, leaning against someone else’s car like he’s seconds away from either hotwiring or hotboxing it to escape the wedding one way or another. But he won’t actually leave, because while Toji and Tsumiki’s relationship is far from deep, it is much, much farther from cold, and Megumi knows that although Toji won’t say a single fatherly word to her tonight, he would, at some point, move Tsumiki to tears with whatever unexpected wedding gift he’d gotten her. 

Still, Megumi can recognize his own tension on his father. Toji isn’t obvious about it, a kind of idle lethargy to even the way he’s tapping his foot, but Megumi has seen him at his most ridiculously unfazed—and this is the reverse of that, something determined in how much he isn’t fidgeting. Megumi doesn’t say anything as he goes to stand parallel to him, settling against the car beside. 

It’s freezing, colder than usual even for a December afternoon. Megumi rubs his hands together in an effort to channel his jitters to another part of his body. It’s a dead giveaway of how on edge he is, but it’s not like Toji wouldn’t have been able to tell otherwise; he has a keen eye for Megumi’s discomfort, for better or for worse, from the mundane to the inarticulable.

But all Toji says, after a long pull of his cigarette and a longer exhale, is, "Promise me that when it’s your turn, you’ll do it in the summer. Somewhere sunny. Outdoors." 

Megumi’s first thought in response to this makes him wince. Too reflexive, he thinks, too certain of something that might not even have deserved a present, much less a future. He pushes it aside. As much as he can, at least, for something so intrinsic that there’s nowhere for it to hide in his brain.

"It’s not good to frame marriage as a when instead of an if," he says out loud. "It reinforces the harmful cultural expectations of needing to marry someone, anyone, at some point, and contributes to the—"

"Megumi." Toji flicks his cigarette. A smattering of ashes falls from the tip. "Shut the hell up." 

Megumi looks at the ash on the ground and shuts the hell up. 

This, too, is rare enough that Toji goes still. From his periphery, Megumi sees his father’s hand stop mid-air, cigarette around half an inch from his mouth, and just stay there, hovering for a moment. He’s quick to slide back into motion, but again, Megumi knows when he’s been transparent. 

"Where’s your boyfriend?" says Toji. "Why isn’t he here charming the shit out of the string quartet?" 

"We had a fight." Megumi’s breath mists in the cold, curling upwards until it’s indistinguishable from his father’s cigarette smoke. "On Christmas Eve."

A big one. A bad one. Toji scoffs. 

"So?" 

"So," says Megumi. "I don’t think he’s coming." 

The thing with vulnerability is that it doesn’t really feel like that for him when it’s around Toji. Not out of any romanticized notion of a parent’s innate understanding of his child, but because their relationship has been built on frankness so direct that it’s almost dry. Toji has planted plenty of questionable habits and reflexes in Megumi, most of them unintended, but beating around the bush has never been something they did to each other. It was never necessary, to begin with, because nothing feels the same kind of fragile as other vulnerable things do when it’s just raw honesty in the end, stripped of everything that could have complicated it. Megumi won’t bat an eye at telling Toji what he had for breakfast; he doesn’t now, either, as his father studies him, probably honing in on the apprehension that Megumi knows is etched on both corners of his mouth right now.  

"Yuuji will come," says Toji. 

Megumi doesn’t look up. "What makes you say that?"

Toji drops his cigarette onto the asphalt, crushes it underneath his shoe. 

"I know I would," he says, "if I’m getting free food." 

 

 

It’s started to snow outside. Small, thin clumps that hardly resemble snowflakes, sticking to the window and melting into slush as they slide down the glass. Yuuji tries to track one damp streak with the tip of his index finger, but his skin ends up squeaking across the surface and he winces, looking over his shoulder to see if the sound had bothered Nanami. 

There’s no sign that it had. Nanami continues pushing his bread knife across the fresh loaf of bread that Yuuji had brought him as an apology for dropping by without warning—even though this is not the first time he has, nor likely the last, and Nanami has never told him off except for the one time, a few months ago, that Yuuji had ended up waiting for him to get home in the cold for hours. Bringing bread from Nanami’s favorite bakery three blocks away is at this point more tradition, as routine as Yuuji’s unpredictable coming over, than anything conciliatory. 

If Yuuji believed more in the strengths of his relationships, he would say that they both find comfort in it. But that feels too big an assumption to make, and too big an emotion to assign to someone else in the same depth that he himself is feeling it, so he settles for dwelling in the wave of happiness that he feels as Nanami brings the sliced bread and a homemade jar of jam over to the coffee table. 

Smaller, provable emotions—emotions he can find in the present, in the immediacy of a good moment—are harder to convince himself out of. Finding happiness as it’s happening to him is much easier than convincing himself that something in the past or the future is better or worse. When it comes to feeling emotions deeply, it helps, Yuuji has found, to cut them into smaller pieces, and to find spaces to breathe in between. 

"I was debating whether to ask why you are dressed for a funeral," says Nanami, walking back to the kitchen counter to retrieve two mugs. It’s much too late in the day to be having breakfast and much too early to be having post-dinner comfort beverages, but he leaves a mug of steaming hot chocolate in front of Yuuj. Then he nods at where Yuuji had left the black jacket of his two-piece suit draped over the arm of the couch. "But I remembered that the last time I saw Gojo-san, he insisted on telling me all about the wedding you’ll both be attending. Rather smug, he was." 

"Smug? Gojo-sensei?" Yuuji had taken over Nanami’s old, peeling couch enough times, ever sprawled across its entire length, that it remains stubbornly molded into its Yuuji-shaped dent even as he sits up. He crosses his legs under him as Nanami takes the one-seater to his right, eyes sharp on how Yuuji crinkles his pants. "Why smug?" 

"He seems to be under the impression that you coming to the wedding means you’ll be part of his family soon, and that I’ll soon be losing you to him by virtue of that." 

Yuuji’s eyes widen. "No," he says. "You’re still my number one, Nanamin, I swear." 

Nanami levels him a flat look. "Please don’t play into his teasing, Itadori-kun. Affections are neither exclusive nor hierarchical to begin with." 

"Yeah, but—" Yuuji picks up a spreader knife and has to fight the urge to gesture with it. The last time he did, Nanami had given him a lecture on knife safety, as if he was concerned Yuuji hadn’t already learned not to run around the house with one. "I just wanted to reassure you, I guess." 

"I don’t need reassurance."

"You sure? Because if you’re worried I’ll start seeing Gojo-sensei as—"

"Itadori-kun," says Nanami. "I don’t need reassurance." 

Having spread two thick layers of jam onto an open-faced slice of bread, Yuuji folds it in half and shoves it into his mouth. As he chews, grumpy about it, he says, "I can’t look Gojo-sensei in the eye ever again anyway." 

"Talk or chew. Please pick one and stick to it," says Nanami, but it’s more out of habit than serious admonishment. He’s slower in his rituals, more careful as he spreads jam to the very tips of his slice. "Why can you not look Gojo-san in the eye ever again?" 

Yuuji swallows. The bread is soft and fluffy, the jam the right balance of sweet and citrusy, just as Nanami likes it, but it still doesn’t go down easy. 

"I just can’t," he says, flopping onto his back with a whine. "God, it’s all such a mess, Nanamin. I don’t even wanna go to the wedding anymore. I’ll just feel like crap and if I feel like crap, there’s a chance I’ll make other people around me feel like crap. Who needs that at a wedding? I don’t even know if I can look Megumi in the eye and he’s the reason I was invited. I don’t know if he’ll want me there. It’s fair if he doesn’t. It’s his sister’s wedding. I also don’t know if she would want me there. I don’t know anything. I don’t wanna exist anymore. I don’t wanna have feelings. I wish I was dressed for my funeral but I don’t even know how to do the tie that comes along with this get-up and if I go into whatever afterlife there is and see my grandpa there, he’ll yell at me for spending money on a whole suit and not wearing every single piece—" 

"Breathe," says Nanami. His knife only hesitates for half a beat to make sure Yuuji does breathe, before it’s back to sliding smoothly across the bread. "Megumi?" 

"My boyfriend. Ex? Was he ever even my proper boyfriend—No, that's unfair. I don’t know. Thinking about our relationship is making my heart hurt," says Yuuji. His voice is painfully hoarse, and talking feels like a blunt razor is scraping the inside of his throat. He continues anyway, "No, I think it’s my head hurting. It might be both. This is all my fault. I got carried away when I said I wouldn’t and it’s so stupid because this could have been avoided and I know that for a fact because it has been avoided but I had to go and be a yearning, lovesick, brainless dumbass—"

"Itadori-kun." Nanami dusts crumbs off his slacks as he stands. "I am going to give you a moment alone to sit with what you are feeling. When I return, we will talk about it."  

Yuuji deflates with a sigh. "Sure. Fine. I know." 

As soon as Nanami has disappeared upstairs, he grabs a cushion and squeezes it with all the frustrated energy he would have otherwise channelled into a scream. He could yell, could shriek until his voice runs out, and Nanami would not hold it against him, but it’s one thing to do that in his own apartment under the watchful, unforgiving gaze of his cat and another to disrupt the quiet of Nanami’s loft. It’s one and a half floors that Yuuji has associated with calm and security from the moment he first stepped into it as a freshman, and while he had never been good at contributing to this, he’d rather implode from his own internal screaming than ever threaten the peace so shamelessly. 

He sinks his face into the cushion and breathes like that, counting and counting until he hears Nanami return. He doesn’t expect to look up and find him with two neckties in hand, already halfway down the front hall. 

Over his shoulder, he tells Yuuji, "Please stand with me over here, Itadori-kun."

It isn’t a question. Yuuji pushes himself off the couch to follow, frowning when Nanami hands him one of the ties and nods at the full-length mirror in front of them. "Follow my lead." 

It’s strange seeing his mirror self, looking small and unsure and much younger than his age as he stands next to Nanami. There’s a moment where he feels like a teenager all over again, giving up on following a YouTube tutorial on the day of his grandfather’s funeral and going to the crematorium in his hoodie instead. There’s none of that frustration as he watches Nanami, who’s methodical about even this, each movement measured and easy to follow. Raise the collar, slip the tie around it, wide end crossed over the narrow end, tug, pull through the loop.

The loft is quiet, nothing but Nanami’s level, unhurried breathing in the space around them. Yuuji finds himself following the same rhythm with his own inhales, focusing on the heavy fabric in his hand as he tugs one last time. 

"Don’t tighten the knot too tightly just yet. You can do that later," says Nanami. His arms drop back to his sides; Yuuji’s do the same. "Well done." 

Yuuji stares at the tie on his reflection, the knot loose but uniform. "Thank you, Nanamin," he murmurs. And because that’s too heartfelt, too close to what feels like remnant teenage grief, he adds, "Now I really am ready for my funeral." 

Nanami sighs. It used to sound a lot wearier, that sigh, but somewhere in the past two years, he’s learned to adapt to Yuuji’s worst jokes even if he never learned to find them funny. "Do you feel calmer?" 

Yuuji nods. "Little bit." 

"Good." Nanami’s gaze lingers once, unfaltering in that split second, before he turns away. "Go grab your jacket. We’re heading out."  

"Wait—what?" says Yuuji, but he goes to do as he’s told, frowning at the plates and mugs on the table. "But the food—"

"I will clean up later." Nanami slips on his jacket in one smooth motion, shoes somehow already on. He waits, unruffled, as Yuuji scrambles to keep up. "We’re going for a drive." 

Yuuji crouches to tie his shoelaces. "To where?" 

"That depends."

"On what?" 

Nanami props open the front door. "On everything you choose to tell me during the drive."