Kusao isn't the most observant person on the planet (or, actually, he's probably close to the least observant person, at least, according to Koyama, though Kusao doesn't think he has room to talk considering that his wife sometimes forgets to look both ways before crossing the street), so he isn't exactly sure when it started, but recently, it's been seeming like Shigeko is even more quiet and withdrawn than usual. He knows that her job is stressful, and he tries to give her room to breathe, but within the past few weeks (give or take…) it seems like she barely says anything after she comes home. Kusao always tries to ask her about her day, but when she doesn't readily offer much, he doesn't want to push; it's one of the life lessons he has managed to take away from having a relationship after being incredibly pigheaded in high school, and on top of that, he knows she deals with a lot of secret and confidential information, anyway. Still, it makes him worried when she eats dinner in silence and then immediately takes a bath and heads to bed, as if there's nothing left in her after work. He knows she loves her job and worked hard to get where she is, and he would never dream of questioning her ability to choose her own career path, but still, he thinks bitterly, it's not fair that she should have to have so much taken out of her every day. He bets there's senior partners or something (he doesn't really know much of anything about law firms) who don't do any work and put it all off on poor Shigeko… but as much as that makes him want to go punch her bosses out, he knows that, besides being very likely to land him in prison, it's also not his place, and so he tries not to stew on it too much and instead focus on Shigeko herself.
But that's hard when she's so withdrawn all the time, when she doesn't give him any indication of what he can do, what she needs. "Read the air," Koyama used to say to him over and over again, and so he tries, but it doesn't feel right to just leave her alone when she's so clearly unhappy. Still, "when people don't say anything it usually means you need to leave them alone," he'd been told, and so he tries to follow Koyama's rules, because the last thing he want to do is drain Shigeko more by forcing his attentions and conversation on her when all she really wants is to be alone and recharge.
Still, as more and more days go by and Shigeko shows no sign of getting any happier or healthier, Kusao begins to worry more and more, and he can't help but try to do things to make her feel better. He knows Koyama might scold him later, but who can blame him for wanting to cheer up his wife?? He loves her more than anything else in the whole world; he would do anything for her, and he wants her to know, even if, in the end, he can't really help. And so he tries to bring home new and interesting limited-time foods from the Seven Eleven, and play music that she likes when she comes home, and offer casual praise whenever possible (though, he thinks somewhat despairingly, there's really never a natural time to inject, "I bet, thanks to you, lots of bad guys go to prison!" into conversation, especially when, as it turns out, being a private lawyer and not working for the district attourney's office, Shigeko doesn't even have anything to do with that sort of thing). But nothing seem to change besides, occasionally, Shigeko giving him an unreadable expression and thanking him for his efforts… but he knows he can't get discouraged, he can't give up. If Shigeko has the energy and determination to go to work every day to provide for the two of them, Kusao can damn well have the energy and determination to do whatever it takes to make her as happy as possible. And heck, even if she didn't have to work so much for them, he'd still want to, because he loves her.
But then one day after he's done work but likely long before Shigeko will be done with overtime, amidst his continuously failing attempts to help Shigeko in any way, he gets a strange text message from a number that he doesn't recognize. It's already surprising since he almost never gets text messages at all; he gives his LINE ID out to perhaps more people than he ought to, despite the fact that Koyama has told him not to. But the fact that it's a text isn't the strangest thing about this message; the contents are bizarre, too. "If you want to know what's wrong with your wife, come to this address at eight pm on Friday," he reads aloud to himself, furrowing his brow as he glances over the following address before reading the message over again. But no matter how many times he reads it, it doesn't make any sense; who in the world could possibly know what's wrong with Shigeko? He scoffs at the idea that any of her coworkers might know her better than he does, and while she does have some friends from university and law school, she's mentioned several times over the past few years that it's a shame all of them are too busy to spend any time together. Besides, Kusao ponders, none of them ought to know his phone number, so who the hell could this be?
When he can come up with no answer, he gets annoyed, tossing his phone on the sofa and scuffing over to Koyama's apartment to bum dinner off of Yabuko-- sure, she's not the best cook in the world, and having to fight with a six-year old, a four-year old, and a baby over seconds is sort of pathetic, but despite how much he pokes fun at her, ever since Koyama had started dating her in high school, Kusao and Yabuko have had a special kind of understanding. Actually, he likes to think he understands Yabuko better than Koyama does, because Koyama is all smart and stuff, while, even if he's sure that he's at least a little bit smarter than her, if only by merit of being older, he and Yabuko operate on the same wavelength. It's why he trusts Koyama's advice about Shigeko, for the same converse reason, but sometimes, it's more relaxing to just talk to Yabuko about nothing, and while he'd never admit it, he sort of enjoys roughhousing with their kids, too.
Bickering playfully with Yabuko over their various shortcomings helps him forget his confusion and frustration from earlier, and after he grudgingly admits that her curry wasn't that bad today and chats with her a bit about TV shows and the weather and life in general, he feels much better than earlier, the strange text message pushed completely from his mind. But when, a couple hours later, Koyama arrives home and asks about Shigeko, Kusao suddenly remembers that he's left his phone at home and Shigeko has probably been messaging him with no response for hours and has to dash. Sure enough, when he checks LINE, he has several messages asking if he's okay, and he hurriedly replies with apologies and the explanation that he was spending time with Yabuko. Strangely, he gets no response besides, "I see," but he tries not to let it bother him when he knows how tired and worn down Shigeko has been lately.
Still, maybe it's because he's generally shitty at life, or maybe it's because no matter how much Koyama has tried to help, he can't "read the air," but no matter the reason, by the time he and Shigeko are in bed a couple hours and barely twenty words exchanged between the two of them later, he can't help but be bothered. Normally, he doesn't have trouble sleeping, but tonight, he lays awake long after Shigeko quietly bids him goodnight and falls asleep curled in on herself facing away from him. He rolls onto his side to watch her breathe, but even seeing her finally have a chance to rest isn't much comfort when she's so closed off from him, when he can't even see her face. It makes him want to punch things to know that she's clearly suffering and he can't do anything about it… but then, suddenly, he remembers the strange message, and this time, rather than confusion and anger, it sparks something else in his chest, something that feels maybe hopeful, but also somehow frightening. But Kusao has never been good at feelings, but even as he tries to quell whatever it is, he can't help but roll over to grab his phone from the nightstand, glancing over the message again. He still doesn't know who the fuck would send something like this, but… well, he thinks despairingly as he glances over at Shigeko's back one more time, if there's anything he can do to find out what's hurting Shigeko and maybe help… then he'll do it.
Shigeko feels like she's on the brink of oblivion by the time she makes it to the train home on Friday evening. Ever since she'd first been messaged by, and then made plans with the forum user "Hikaru" to meet up at a coffee shop a short distance from Kita-Akabane station two weeks ago, it felt as if her world has suddenly spiraled out of control, faster and faster, like a whirlpool sucking her into the depths of the ocean. It's hard to even look Kusao in the eye anymore when she gets home from work-- she knows she ought not to believe everything she reads on the internet, even if it is in a personalized message written for her out of the kindness of some other woman's heart, but she can't fight down the choking feeling that tightens around her throat every time she tries to speak to him, can't swallow back the sickness in her stomach every time he touches her. Because isn't the message just confirming the fears she's had for a long time now? And sure enough, once she's looking at it through the right lens, Kusao's behavior seems erratic and strange, unreadable even to Shigeko, who likes to think she understands him better than most people, and she feels as if it's all part of a giant glaring sign that something is wrong. Where she used to try to take comfort in his interest in her day, now, his questions seem hollow and infrequent; where she used to be calmed by his hand on her shoulder or his shoulder pressed up against hers, she now only feels tense, and she isn't sure whether to be more disgusted with herself or the state of her life when she feels the unfamiliar painful burn of suspicion and jealousy when, a few days before her planned coffee date, Kusao ignores her texts for several hours only to announce by way of an excuse that he spent the evening alone with Yabuko.
It's dizzying and sickening and she knows that she can't live this way, but she doesn't know what else to do besides stick it out at least until she can meet with her caring friend from the forum. She can do it-- she's endured worse, she tells herself, because this can't possibly compare to all the bullying in high school or the sleepless nights during law school, right? But yet, throughout all those bad times, she'd always had Kusao by her side, a single constant light at the end of the tunnel that was each day, and while she tries to tell herself otherwise, in her heart, she knows that without him, finding the motivation to go on will be impossible.
But she has no choice right now, and so by the time Friday comes around, it feels as if she's already been struggling for years. As if to add salt to the wounds, she gets chewed out by her boss in the morning for careless mistakes in the paperwork she'd typed up the day previous about an important case (no doubt the result of her distracted state, but how could she possibly explain such a keenly humiliating situation to her boss, especially when she doesn't even understand it herself?) and then is so busy trying to fix her errors on top of all her other work that she has to work straight through lunch. And then, when she's finally done for the day and checks her watch to discover that it's already six forty-five, she almost has a heart attack, knowing that if she doesn't run, she won't be able to make it to Kita-Akabane in time to meet with her friend.
But the meeting is, if not something positive to look forward to, at least the promise of an outlet, of someone to consult about her problems and empathize with her situation, and so despite the fact that she's out of breath by the time she's on the train, her chest feels tight with anticipation that finally, she can get all of her problems off her chest, and it's enough to make her forget her horrible day and try to think positive. When she makes it to Kita-Akabane, she even takes a moment to stop in the bathroom to reapply her lipstick and fix any stray hairs that have come out of her otherwise neat ponytail in the stress of the day before walking the few blocks to the address her friend had given her.
When she arrives, however, she's surprised to find the coffee shop completely empty except for a solitary man sitting at a table off to the side. After glancing around to make sure she's not missing anyone, she decides to go to the counter and place an order before waiting for her friend, but when she turns around after receiving her coffee, she's startled to see the man beckoning to her across the shop. She tries to ignore him; she's been to her fair share of after-hours work events and dealt with her fair share of drunken salarymen, but this guy is by far the most unkempt and creepiest looking man that she'd ever received unsolicited attention from. His hair is longish and unkempt, as if it hasn't been cut or tended in a long time, and he sports unseemly facial hair that seems to be directly in between an intentional mustache and a long-term lack of personal hygiene. His clothes are odd and mismatched, and his glasses seem to catch the light in such a way that they glint eerily in the dimly lit coffee shop. She hopes he'll get the message when she turns her back to him, but instead, she hears the scraping of a chair being pushed along the floor, and braces herself.
But nothing could have prepared her for what happens when the man comes over to stand beside her, meeting her eyes for an uncomfortably long time before finally opening his mouth to address her and asking, "You're Shigeko-san, right?"
She's so startled that despite her generally well-mannered nature, her mouth drops open. "W-what?" she gasps after a moment, beginning to panic as to how this unpleasant character might possibly know her name.
The man's pronounced lips curl up into the most unnerving smile Shigeko has ever seen, but before she can even contemplate the implications of that, the man does an awkward little half-bow before greeting, "Nice to finally meet you. I'm Hikaru."
He looks at her like he's expecting some sort of response, but when she can only gape wordlessly, shocked and appalled by this revelation, he seems unfazed and continues. "Why don't we take a seat?" he invites with another unsettling smile, gesturing to his table, and she doesn't know what to do but consent.
Her mind is reeling as she perches on the chair opposite from this man, this "Hikaru," who seems to have intentionally deceived her into this meeting. She doesn't understand anything that's going on, from what his motives are to why he chose her for whatever strange game he's playing to who he even is. After so much worry and stress, her mind seems to be bogged down with exhaustion and anxiety, and she's still trying to process what's going on and find the best way to respond when the man speaks again, seemingly reading her discomfort.
"Please, be at ease," he bids, gesturing to her coffee, sitting untouched on the tabletop, "I'm sorry for startling you, but I just want to help." He gazes at her again for another moment, as if this were a casual conversation and not the weirdest and most uncomfortable meeting of her adult life, and frowns a little when, again, she doesn't respond immediately.
"…Maybe you don't remember, but we graduated from the same high school," he clarifies, pointing at his own face as if it might help her remember. "I was friends with your husband… which is why I know what he's like, and how much trouble you're in."
There's no way you were friends with my husband, Shigeko thinks, because she's pretty sure that Kusao has never had any other friends besides herself and Koyama and Yabuko, at least as long as she had known him, but still, after weeks of fear and anxiety, part of her can't help but be drawn in. Who is this man who has gone through so much effort just to try to warn her about something he thinks he knows about Kusao? Why does he care so much? Thinking back to high school, at the time, it didn't seem like there were many people who didn't mock them as a couple once they'd started dating… but perhaps this man was one of the small minority who hadn't? Or could he be lying about knowing them in high school altogether?
A thousand questions are swimming through her head, but it's hard to address any of them through the haze of worry, and while logically, she knows it's not smart, she can't help but nod-- at the very least, she tells herself, listening to what this man has to say can't hurt her, and after coming this far, she desperately wants to know. Even though he's basically lied to her, deceived her to get her to this point, she's too far lost to her own fears to turn her back now when something he has to say may in fact be valid and relevant to her troubles. After all, while he was the one to first tell her her marriage was in trouble, it was really only voicing what she had been suspecting for a long time now, anyway, right?
And so she hesitantly takes a sip of her coffee, looking down at the cup, her heart too full of fear and confusion to meet the man's eyes but yet knowing she needs to hear what he has to say. "Okay," she finally responds quietly, trying to brace herself for the worst.
The man leans forward on the table, cocking his head to an odd angle to try to catch her eyes before smiling what, on the surface, seems to be a comforting smile, but there's something about the glint in the man's eyes that puts Shigeko on edge. Still, it's nothing compared to the feeling of her stomach dropping out of her body entirely at what he says next.
"Kusano Kusao is nothing more than a pervert who has been getting off on invading your privacy and using you for the past fifteen years," he says, his smile eerily juxtaposed to the graveness of his tone, his words, as if somehow, he's enjoying telling her something so awful. "He'll never understand your problems. Get out while you can."
And as all the breath is knocked out of Shigeko in that one metaphorical blow, she suddenly can't help but wonder if the bullies from high school hadn't been right about the two of them, after all.
Hikaru knows he really ought not to be grinning at a time like this, when he's been playing the part of the caring and empathetic friend so well for so long now, but in the rush that comes along with finally being able to out Kusao for the horrible wreck of a person that he is, he can't force if back, can't keep his lips from curling up a little at the sides, riding high on the knowledge that soon, his revenge will be complete and Kusao's life will be in ruins, just like his own. Sure, things had gone a little rocky at first, when he'd outed himself as a man and not the woman he'd been pretending to be online this whole time, but he'd known from the beginning that that was bound to go over poorly, and he's sure that his carefully planned explanations will more than make up for it. Already, he can tell from Shigeko's expression that his words are getting through to her, and he knows that it will only be a little bit longer before he's finally accomplished his lifelong goal.
And so he tries to fight the smile back from his features, gleeful as he is at his assured success, and instead paste a solemn expression on his face, shaking his head a little as his companion seems to struggle with her own thoughts and feelings for a moment before asking, "What do you mean…?"
Hikaru tries to look contemplative for a moment, but really, he knows what he wants to say in an instant. He's planned this for so long now that he thinks he could recite Kusao's list of shortcomings in his sleep, but he knows it would be suspicious to seem too overeager, and so he takes a deep breath and counts to 3 for good measure before beginning.
"I was friends with Kusao in our first year of high school, so I know first hand how strange and perverse he can be," he explains, looking Shigeko in the eye to prove how serious and trustworthy he was-- not that he knows much about communication, but he'd researched it online in preparation for this meeting, and he feels confident that he's got it right. "Before he'd ever even spoken to you… when he barely even knew your name… he was already coming up with bizarre sexual fantasies about you," he tells her seriously, which isn't quite true, but well, Kusao had been weirdly obsessed with her basically since the first day of high school, so Hikaru doesn't feel bad about stretching the truth a little. Besides, if the look on Shigeko's face means anything, that little bit more is going a long way, and so, thus emboldened, he continues.
"But that's not the worst of it," he says quietly, leaning in a little as if he's drawing her into his confidence and telling her a big secret. "Back in high school, he used to plan bizarre ploys to invade your privacy and sexually harass you… He even used to go through your desk after you went home for the day and…" He pauses here for dramatic effect, feeling euphoric and caught up in the power rush, because this is it, this is his revenge, and he basks in the knowledge that with his next few words, he'll finally be able to ruin Kusao's life forever.
But he knows he can't seem as if he's reveling in this, he knows that if he pauses for too long he'll seem suspicious, and so, after another moment, he draws in another breath before finishing: "He put your recorder into his mouth every day for weeks just to fulfill his own disgusting fantasies."
And then he waits, triumphant, looking at Shigeko expectantly, looking forward to the way her features will certainly distort in disgust, or else crumble in despair… but after a few moments, he blinks, perplexed. Because her face shows nothing, no shock, no horror, no distress in the slightest, and he can feel his own brows furrowing in confusion. He opens his mouth to try to ask if she didn't understand, or something, but flounders at this total deviation from his plan, and before he can get words out, Shigeko looks up at him with a completely unreadable expression and says, "I know."
"Y-you what?!" Hikaru bursts, his control slipping through his fingers faster than he'd care to acknowledge. "You knew he did those things and you still married him!? What is wrong with you? No wonder your marriage is in trouble!!"
But Shigeko only shakes her head, his expression still mysteriously calm, and replies, evenly and unflustered, as if she'd rehearsed this response just as much as Hikaru had rehearsed his revenge, "I don't know who you are, but clearly, you know nothing about Kusao. This is none of your business, but for your information, this is the true story."
And as she begins to speak, Hikaru thinks, he was prepared for anything but this.
As with pretty much everything in his life, Kusao is totally disorganized and running late as he rushes to Kita-Akabane station on Friday evening. He swears under his breath as he pushes himself as fast as his legs will carry him, despite the fact that his lungs are burning even just from trying to draw air into his lungs. Despite how weird and suspicious and creepy he thought the anonymous text message he'd gotten a few days earlier was, especially after mulling over it for the rest of the week, he knew that if there was any chance that this stranger could help him figure out and maybe fix whatever was wrong with Shigeko, he had to follow through with it.
But then when he'd been about to leave work, his boss had caught him in the back room and told him one of the high school part-timers had caught the flu and wouldn't be able to make it that evening, and asked him if he wouldn't just be able to stay an hour or two to help stock the new products that were about to be delivered, and then before Kusao had known it, it was already seven thirty, and he wasn't going to make it to the meeting in time. He hadn't bothered to look up if there was a good way to get from home to Kita-Akabane by train, but at that point, it was useless anyway, and he had known that the only choice was for him to run.
And so he'd run as fast as possible, without regard to the odd looks he was getting from people around him and, whenever he was able, to without regard to traffic signals, either. He'd been the star of the school track team as a kid-- that was the only way he'd been able to go to the sort of fancy private school someone like Shigeko would attend, through an athletic grant-- and he prays that the past ten years of not particularly responsible living haven't taken too much of a toll. Because he just has to make it; no matter how odd this strange clandestine meeting is, if it will help him help Shigeko, he just has to make it, no matter what.
A glance at his watch as he waits anxiously at a red light just across the street from the station tells him it's only eight ten, which means that he's going to be less than fifteen minutes late, which means that the anonymous tipster is still going to be there… right?? What kind of person would leave after less than fifteen minutes while waiting for a meet-up, right?? But he can't think about the alternative, and as soon as the light turns green, he practically throws himself into the road with renewed vigor now that the goal is in sight.
He stumbles up to the coffee shop at eight-twelve, gasping for breath and red in the face, but he doesn't even give it a second thought as he throws open the door. His heart is beating in his ears, but he knows that, more than from running, it's in anticipation to meet this person who might be able to safe his marriage, his life. But what he sees inside the coffee shop is pretty much the only thing he hadn't imagined.
The first thing his eyes fall upon is the back of a woman who, he knows in an instant, is Shigeko, and it practically knocks the breath out of him in confusion and worry. He thinks he must be wrong, but really, as much as he's wrong about pretty much everything else in life, he knows that he couldn't make a mistake when it comes to Shigeko. He recognizes everything about her, from the neat way in which her hair is held back in a hair band with a small gold ornament on it which often sits on her bedside table, to the stance of her shoulders, somehow both feminine and graceful as well as strong and assertive at the same time, to the familiar fluidity of her gestures as she speaks, and while her voice is quiet enough that from the doorway, he can't make out her words, he knows that it's hers, full and clear and pleasing to the ears despite how tone-deaf she is when she tries to carry a tune. Just looking at her, just existing in her presences makes Kusao relax slightly despite the situation, despite everything, but once he looks past Shigeko, he tenses even more than before in shock and alarm.
Because Shigeko's companion can't be anyone but Yaotome Hikaru, Kusao's friend from the first year of high school who'd suddenly refused to speak to him sometime during second term for reasons Kusao didn't really understand. He's older now, of course, with a weird mustache and a bad haircut, but it's definitely him, and Kusao's brow furrows in concern. Shigeko definitely hadn't been friends with him in high school, either, so why should they be meeting up now? Was he the one who had sent the message? Had he sent one to Shigeko, too?
For his part, Hikaru seems so wrapped up in what Shigeko is saying that he hasn't even noticed Kusao's presence, and so Kusao takes a step towards the pair, trying to ascertain what is going on. Hikaru's expression looks almost angry, and Kusao's protective instinct flares up at the very thought that he might be saying something rude or out of line to Shigeko, but before the thought can get much further, he gets close enough that Shigeko's words begin to penetrate his brain, and he freezes, because Shigeko is talking about him.
He doesn't know how this came about, or why she'd tell this person who, he's pretty sure, she's never really met before besides during school events more than a decade ago, but it doesn't really matter. Just the sound of Shigeko's voice is really enough to sooth him in most situations, but her words now completely wash away the tenseness from his body, and he can't help but smile a little bit as she speaks, continuing a story that Kusao knows better than anyone and yet can't help but want to hear again.
"Kusao has always been there for me when no one else was," Shigeko is saying now, her voice strong and unyielding but somehow still tender underneath, and though Kusao has always been shit at interpersonal relations, his heart flips a little at the thought that perhaps it's a reflection of her feelings towards him. "He's stood up for me when everyone was against me, and he's put himself on the line for my sake. He's been there for me even when everyone around him was trying to keep him from being there for me, and I know that he would never, ever intentionally try to hurt me."
As she goes on to detail more happenings from high school, when they'd first met and eventually fallen in love (for reasons Kusao doesn't understand, but hey, who is he to complain if Shigeko really wants to tell random people she meets how great their relationship is?), Kusao can't help but remember back to those days himself, a small but warm smile growing on his features as he follows along with Shigeko's story. He can remember it all as if it were yesterday, how Shigeko had been the quiet but popular top of their class, a member of student council who consistently got the best test scores in their grade, while Kusao had been a social reject with almost no friends and no future. But despite everything separating them, Shigeko had said good morning back to him when he greeted her, Shigeko interacted with him when they were in the same homeroom and the same cleaning group, Shigeko hadn't cared when she found out that he had grown up in an orphanage, abandoned by his parents, hadn't mocked him or abused him like most other kids he'd met, and Shigeko had forgiven his social gaffes and total lack of people skills, Shigeko had actually tried to help when she learned that he had been bullied since before he could remember by the other kids at the orphanage and even the orphanage staff.
And Shigeko had believed in him when no one else did, and believed in his feelings even when he totally failed at expressing them. Shigeko had accepted and even appreciated that he didn't have anything to give her but his presence and his love when things had gone bad in her life, and when he'd finally confessed his feelings for her in the middle of their second year of high school, she'd insisted that he wasn't beneath her and she didn't care what people would say when they dated.
And most of all, Shigeko had accepted his apologies when he really and truly had fucked up-- long before they'd dated, long before Kusao understood how wrong it was after a lifetime of having his things vandalized and broken by the other kids at the orphanage who enjoyed his suffering, he'd invaded her privacy at a pretty horrifying level by "indirectly kissing" her through licking her recorder after she'd left for the day. He had been ready to never speak to her again-- because how could she ever want to speak to someone who'd done that??-- he'd been ready to distance himself from her forever, because after almost half a year of dating, he'd learned how boys had used her in the past, how people had abused her, and he'd wanted to protect her from people like that even if it meant protecting her from himself, but she'd forgiven him, she'd praised the fact that he'd come clean and open apologized to her when she never would have known otherwise, and ever since that day, Kusao had known that, weird and abnormal as they might be, their feelings for one another were special.
And so, as Shigeko seems to draw her story to a close, or else get so emotional that she doesn't know quite how else to express herself, Kusao can't contain himself anymore, and when she trails off, saying, "Kusao… about me… he…" he steps forward to stand beside her, catching her eye with a warm grin before finishing, "I love her, and there's nothing that will ever change that."
When he looks back to Shigeko, he belatedly notices a tear rolling down her cheek and panics, because how could he have just stood there for so long without acting if Shigeko was hurting?! But before he has a chance to do anything, she smiles at him and slips her hand into his, and though he's still completely clueless as to what's going on, whatever it is, whatever has happened to Shigeko, he knows that it'll be okay.
As someone who usually tries her absolute hardest to be rational, calm, and collected, Shigeko almost feels as if she's waking from a dream when she realizes, nearing the end of her story, or explanation, or rant, or whatever she's trying to say about Kusao, that she's crying. Logically speaking, it's hard not to cry, really, when she thinks about everything that they've been through together, everything that Kusao has done for her, but outside of people she's really close with, she tries her hardest not to (has learned not to, through years of being shoved down and then called weak), forced herself to swallow back her emotions and blink back her tears. After all, lawyers certainly don't cry, and working women who want to be taken seriously don't cry either, and so standing there in the middle of an unfamiliar coffee shop with tears streaming down her cheek feels so foreign that she has trouble pulling herself together. She doesn't even know what's going on inside her head, her heart, but somehow, despite coming here full of doubts and fear, facing down this man who has tried to tell her that Kusao is horrible has done more for her than any advice and consoling ever could. Because as flawed as he may be, as difficult as managing their relationship may be, Shigeko knows, more assuredly than about anything else in the world, that Kusao is a truly wonderful human being, capable of more love and honesty than anyone else Shigeko has ever met, and she is not going to allow anyone to walk around saying otherwise.
But now she's so worked up that she's having trouble getting to her thesis statement, and as she struggles with words, she's started to suddenly hear a familiar voice from behind her. Her head snaps around in shock, but sure enough, here is Kusao, taking a few steps forward to stand beside her, and she doesn't know how in the world he found her here or when he arrived, but somehow, by his very presence, he reaffirms her belief that everything she has just said is true, and that no matter what Kusao will always come through for her.
Because hasn't he always? Somehow, in their first year and a half of high school, when Shigeko had been popular and therefore a target for douchebags who wanted the status of dating her and the gratification of pressuring her into sex, Kusao had been the one boy who somehow saw her for who she was, as a person, rather than for her social position or her body, and then once her father, a disgusting sexist jerk, though she hadn't been able to see it at the time, had been sent to prison for hitting an underage hostess at a cabaret club and everyone at school had, in the span of a few days, turned against her, Kusao had been the only person who stood by her. While her classmates stood by and jeered as Shigeko was called to the principal's office to discuss whether her father's arrest was grounds enough to expel her for the bad publicity her presence would bring to the school, Kusao had waited for her in the rain for hours. While her former friends and teachers openly mocked her for her situation, Kusao had earnestly tried to cheer her up in his own way, and when he'd finally confessed his feelings, he had even asked that she not go out with him, for fear that her bullying would increase for dating someone already so ostracized at school.
And it's true that he'd done some weird things, like dump a bunch of chalkboard erasers on her before she'd even known his name in an odd attempt to get her to notice him, and lick her recorder before they'd ever spoken, but more than that, what stands out in Shigeko's memory is that fact that, all on his own, he'd come forward to confess that he'd done it when he'd realized it was wrong, and he'd even offered to drop out of school to keep her from being made uncomfortable by his presence. From anyone else, it would seem contrived and passive aggressive, but Shigeko doesn't think that Kusao has a deceptive bone in his body, and she knew at the time, looking into his eyes, that he meant every word. And besides, she'd come to see, more and more with time, the way he'd grown up, the way all of his things, even his track and field awards and medals, were destroyed by the other children at the orphanage, and even more, the way his sense of self respect had been destroyed too, or perhaps had never existed to begin with. It made sense that he hadn't known that going through her things and invading her privacy had been wrong, and more than anger or recriminations, she had felt real joy when, over the course of their relationship, she was able to see him develop more respect and understanding of his own body and feelings, as well as the world around him.
And so now, in the most bizarre possible turn of events, a complete stranger's attempt to convince her to leave Kusao because he was horrible has somehow brought her heart around a full one hundred and eighty degrees and assured her that somehow, some way, she could make things work, because she loved Kusao with all of her heart and then some. Despite the way her hands have been trembling with adrenaline, despite the tears that are still rolling down her cheeks, she feels stronger in this moment than she has for months or maybe years, and so she slips her hand into Kusao's, meeting his eyes with a brief smile, before turning to look the man straight in the eye and say, "Thanks for your concern, but I think we'll be just fine."
"What?!" the man bursts, seeming inordinately upset by this turn of events. "But-- you can't!!! He violated you!!!! What's wrong with you?!"
"Why do you even care?" Kusao asks before Shigeko has a chance to think of a diplomatic reply-- but really, she thinks, perhaps this is a moment where Kusao's lack of regard for social conventions like tact and politeness is actually a plus. "You haven't spoken to me for like fifteen years!"
"Twelve years," the man says, his voice suddenly filled with an alarming tone of hatred and anger. "Twelve years since you ruined my life-- you don't deserve to be happy after what you did to me!!"
Shigeko is totally in shock-- so this man who felt that he had been betrayed by Kusao had tricked her and gotten her here to try to get revenge on Kusao…?? It felt like it was a scenario out of a drama, but while she's attempting to process that, Kusao, seemingly unperturbed, replies, "Because I beat you in the marathon?? Look, I'm sorry that I promised to run with you and then ran ahead, but you're still angry about it now??"
"How could I not be angry?!" the man shoots back, and Shigeko is beginning to think that maybe they should call the police as his rant gets more and more emotional. "How could I not hate you for taking away the love of my life?!"
"…You were in love with Shigeko??" Kusao responds, looking perplexed, and Shigeko herself blinks in confusion, seeing as she can't recall ever interacting with this man before today.
But, "No!" the man replies, "Inoo Keiko!! The most beautiful and talented girl in school!! She said she'd marry the boy who came in second-to-last place in the marathon, and--"
But before he can finish, Shigeko can't help but interject, because her social circles had overlapped with those of the girl he was talking about, and something is definitely awry. "Inoo was dating another boy in our class before we started high school," she explains slowly, her brows furrowing. "Matsumoto Kohei. They started dating in junior high school."
"What?!" the man explodes, looking even more crazed by the second. "But-- she said-- I heard her--!!"
"She did used to joke about how slow her boyfriend was…?" Shigeko offers, feeling somehow less intimidated as the man seems to get more and more pathetic by the moment. "Are you sure she didn't just mean she was already dating the boy who would probably come in second-to-last place…? I mean… they'd been inseparable for a long time… and then they had that shotgun wedding while we were still in high school…"
"S-shotgun…?!" the man wheezes, his eyes looking like they're going to bulge right out of his face. "What?? But--!!"
Kusao, for his part, looks equally confused, though it's more likely because he had been totally oblivious to most of the social comings and goings of their classmates than anything, but Shigeko only shakes her head, confused and dismayed by whatever strange plans this man seems to have contrived based on mistaken information. "They only got married because he got her pregnant…Maybe you should actually have talked to her about her feelings rather than acting like she's an object who could be won through athletic performance and blaming Kusao for making you 'lose' her."
And with that, she turns on her heel to go, tugging lightly on Kusao's arm to urge him to join her, but before she can take more than a step, she's stopped yet again by another outburst.
"Wait--!!!" the man shrieks, causing her to turn her head in surprise at the shrillness of it. "Fuck you, Kusao, you think your life is so great, but it's not!!! Your wife has been keeping a horrible secret from you this whole time…!!!"
Kusao turns to blink at Shigeko, seemingly presuming that the man is still spewing nonsense, but Shigeko feels as if her stomach has dropped clear out of her body. She'd totally forgotten about the fact that she'd opened up about her medical issue to the forum users, but she knows, despite the rush of anxiety pulsing through her limbs once again, that the only option right now is to be honest. The only way to beat this man at his own game is to show that she loves and trusts Kusao as much as he loves and trusts her, and so, with only a moment's pause, she turns to face Kusao, taking his other hand in hers, as well, and saying, as firmly and unwaveringly as she can manage, "I'm sorry for not telling you… I was scared, but I shouldn't have kept it from you. The fact is that… I can't have children. But… I love you… if you'll still accept me…?"
There's a long moment of silence as Kusao stares at her like she's grown three heads, and she feels as if her heart is beating so loudly that he must be able to hear it… but then, in true Kusao fashion, he throws his arms around her and pulls her close and says, simply and assuredly as always, "Then we'll adopt. Who cares? I love you for you and I'll tell you every day until you believe me if I have to."
Somewhere behind them in the coffee shop, the man lets out a long wail of defeat, but Shigeko barely hears it over the sound of her own sobs as she collapses into his embrace, pressing her face into his chest and finally letting go. They'll have to talk later, she knows, but for right now, she's happy knowing that she doesn't have to try or pretend anymore, not around Kusao. If there's one thing he's shown her over the past ten years, it's that she truly is loved for who she is, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where, and for the first time in a very long time, she knows that somehow, some way they'll make a happy ending for themselves.
Kusano Kusao's life is pretty good. Well, okay, sure, he still has to get up every morning to work at Seven-Eleven, which isn't exactly exciting, and his wife is still really busy with work every day, and he's still a little sore from roughhousing with Koyama and Yabuko's kids in the park last weekend… but, he thinks, life is what you make it, and if those are his chief complaints, he really doesn't have anything to complain about at all. After all, after a brief rough patch, his relationship with Shigeko is better than ever, and after several long talks and mutual decisions over the past year, things between them are better than ever. A few adjustments here and there for both of them have made it possible for them to have dinner and relax for a little while together almost every evening of the week, and once they'd sorted through all the sticky mess of complicated feelings and misconceived assumptions, it had cleared the way for better communication and therefore less time worrying over whether things were okay or not and more time doing fun things together on days off.
And once things were back on track in their relationship, they'd talked some more, and recently, they've been looking into the process of adopting kids, in preparation for when the time feels right. Which, one year ago, felt like it might not be for a long time, but in the intervening months, Shigeko had gotten a promotion and the amount of busy work and paper-writing she'd had to do had decreased, which meant, on top of a little more time to do fun things together, there was also the prospect of being able to care for a baby in the nearer future than expected. Of course, while Kusao is already eagerly anticipating the thought of roughhousing with his and Shigeko's very own child, he's happy to wait as long as Shigeko needs, because really, more than anything else in the world, he wants to find a way for them to be happy together, always. And so, even though Shigeko's work schedule is still busy, and they still sometimes have misunderstandings, and neither of them are perfect, Kusao is happy… and more importantly, when he tells her he loves her every day, Shigeko's smile conveys to him more than words ever could that Shigeko is happy, and that, he thinks, is what matters.