Title: Turn Your Heart Around Towards Me
Pairing: Ohno Satoshi/Kanjiya Shihori; in the background, Matsumoto Jun/Inoue Mao
Rating: NC-17 (Real Talk: it’s 97% PG-13 but you know how it is…)
Summary: Some people had “the one who got away.” Shihori’s experience had differed. She’d been the one to get away, and he hadn’t lifted a finger to stop her.
A/N: Hello there, helenmaldon, it was a pleasure to write for you! I saw that you’re a Jane Austen fan, and once I knew Ohno was going to be my protagonist, my initial goal was to rewrite Persuasion for you. Didn’t quite happen, but I had a blast putting everyone’s beloved, curmudgeonly “old man” into a romance nonetheless. There’s no navy captain stuff, no meddling relatives. Instead I decided to just follow the heart of what makes Persuasion so compelling to me: the idea of getting a second chance at love. The title is from Ohno’s solo, Two.
The poor cat was already confined to his carrier, letting out pathetic little mewls in protest. The carrier would be the last thing added to the car for the road trip, and Shihori already knew she had five hours of whining cat to look forward to. While Keiko made her final anal retentive checks of the apartment (Are the plants watered? Are unnecessary things unplugged? Did I pack my allergy medication?) Shihori sat on the floor beside the carrier, sticking her finger through one of the air holes in the hard plastic top, letting Bill give it a sniff.
If it was up to Shihori, Keiko would just let the neighbor stop by to feed Bill and clean his litter box while they were gone. But instead the cat was coming with them because heaven forbid her roommate’s furry friend be left alone for an entire week. Cats were self-sufficient creatures, Shihori had long understood. Bill usually spent most days alone already while they were both at work.
But Bill was Keiko’s cat, not Shihori’s, and thus his welfare was not hers to manage.
She leaned forward, feeling the rough scratch of Bill’s tongue against her finger. “You’re just going to visit your grandparents,” Shihori reminded the animal. “Calm down.”
Talk about a pot and kettle situation. If anyone in the apartment at present ought to calm down it was Shihori herself. She’d tried to put up a tough, nearly indifferent front in Keiko’s presence. A visit to Minamichita, their hometown? No problem!
What a liar she was.
They’d been living together in Tokyo together for nearly seven years now. Keiko went back home often enough since her parents still lived there, but Shihori had mostly been able to avoid the place. Her own parents had moved a few years back when her father got a new job closer to Nagoya. Minamichita was nowhere that Kanjiya Shihori really ever needed to be again.
But she’d be there for the coming week and the coming week only. Mao-chan was finally getting married, and unlike Keiko and Shihori, she’d never left. Shihori had initially planned to just take the train down for the wedding and leave, but Keiko wanted a longer visit. It had been ages since they’d seen Mao in person, although the three of them had been so close in high school. Theirs was mostly a Facebook kind of friendship these days, and it was usually Mao coming up to Tokyo for visits here and there when she could.
“She’s getting married,” Shihori had protested at first. “She’s not going to spend the week talking to us.”
“It’s been seven years,” Keiko had replied, seeing straight through her. “You should have just let me kill him when I had the chance.”
Bill had given up on her finger by now, and Keiko hoisted the cat carrier in one hand, holding her car keys in the other.
Having no real protest beyond a lame “I just don’t wanna,” Shihori dutifully picked up her purse and followed her friend to the parking garage under their building.
This ought to be a happy day. She had time off work since the new school year hadn’t started yet. Time to relax and get out of the classroom, away from the annoying teenagers secretly texting each other with their phones under the desk while she tried to lecture them. And they were driving down for a wedding. Mao and the guy she’d been with since they’d finished high school were finally getting married. Shihori was happy for her, she really was. But even though it had been seven years, it was hard to shake Minamichita from her mind.
It was hard to shake Ohno Satoshi from her mind.
Ohno was rather surprised that Mao-chan was still at work that morning. In just a few days, she’d be getting married. But she was still there with her friendly smile and coffee pot. She poured him a cup while he sat at his usual table, the one furthest back from the door with the best view of the pastry case.
“Getting nervous?” he asked.
“We got a call last night that our DJ is canceling because he just got admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. And I think there’s rain in the forecast,” she said, sounding rather calm.
“Not just rain,” came an annoyed voice from behind her. Her fiancé, Jun, tapped on the diner counter emphatically. “Typhoon.”
Mao just shrugged. “Typhoon huh? Impossible. It’s not even the right time of year.”
“You don’t know, they could upgrade it,” Jun whined.
Ohno took a sip from his cup. “That’s still kind of scary.”
“It is scary,” Jun answered, crossing his arms. “Almost as scary as the thought of losing the deposit for the photographer. Most of the photo shoots we have planned are outdoors.”
She smiled. “A little rain’s not going to stop us.”
Jun, however, seemed to not be taking these developments in stride. He’d been grumpy since Ohno had come in the door of the Hug Diner that morning, and now Ohno knew why. The co-owners of the diner had been together for ages, and they’d finally saved up enough money for a nice wedding. They’d postponed it for years, having spent most of their income buying and remodeling the diner a few years back. Ohno knew that Mao didn’t really care about a fancy wedding, but for as long as Ohno had known Matsumoto Jun, he’d wanted to give his girlfriend the best of everything. A canceling DJ and a “typhoon” were bad news for someone like Jun, who had planned for the perfect wedding day.
While Jun continued with his complaints, grumbling about having to call one of his cousins last minute to beg them to DJ, Mao just leaned over, patting Ohno on the shoulder. “Did you find a tux rental yet, Oh-chan?”
He looked anywhere but at her. His cup and saucer were a good plan, for now. “Not really…”
The fact of the matter was that Ohno Satoshi hated conflict and confrontation. He’d decided almost as soon as he’d sent his confirmation that it had been a mistake. Jun and Mao had invited him because they were nice people and had asked a handful of their most loyal customers to join them. Their guest list was otherwise limited to family and close friends. And Ohno had learned that those “close friends” of course included her. Seven years was a long time, sure, but the last thing he wanted was for things to be awkward. It was best if he just wasn’t there. It was Jun and Mao’s day, and they already had rain to contend with.
“I’ll ask my dad,” Mao said, completely ignoring Jun’s continued blathering about rain and deposits and DJs behind her. It was like they were married already, Ohno thought. The wedding ceremony was just the icing on the cake for them at this point, although Jun had insisted on the guests wearing formalwear. Ohno had never worn a tuxedo in his life, but apparently a regular old suit wouldn’t cut it for Jun. “He probably knows a local place in town that could get you a good deal.”
“I appreciate that, thanks,” he said, having another sip of his coffee. He’d come into the diner with six different excuses, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell Mao any of them. Maybe he’d have more courage tomorrow. But for now, he had to get to work.
He paid his bill and headed for the bus stop, eager to lose himself in work. At least that was something he was good at. But the bus ride to Everything Outdoor was a very long 43 minutes, and much as he wanted to think about rods and reels, his mind instead wandered back in time. To hot summer nights, soft skin, and the girl he should have treated so much better.
It was hard to shake Kanjiya Shihori from his mind.
Growing up, Shihori had never thought of Minamichita as small, but going to college in Nagoya and then moving to Tokyo had certainly shaken her of that notion. Their town was at the very southern tip of the Chita Peninsula, and she’d grown up with the smell of fish in the air. It was a town of maybe 20,000, surrounded on all sides by the sea. Her parents had both worked for a commercial fishery, her father in the business side of things and her mother in the processing plant in town. Their house had been only a five minute walk from the water. Keiko’s parents lived on the other side of town in a newer house not far from the hospital where Keiko’s father worked as a pediatrician.
Despite being obviously wealthier than most people in their town, Kitagawa-sensei and his wife were not snobby, and they had always welcomed Keiko’s friends warmly. When Keiko pulled her car into the drive, it wasn’t long before her mother came charging out of the house with her arms spread wide, ready to greet them.
Shihori was happy to be out of the car and away from Bill’s whining. Keiko greeted her mother with nothing more than a nod, eager to pick up the cat carrier and hurry into the house so the cat could do his business with the privacy the car ride had not afforded him. Kitagawa-san offered a hug to Shihori instead, rubbing her back. Shihori knew the woman was used to her daughter’s devotion to her cat.
“Shii-chan, it’s been ages!”
“It really has,” she admitted, and she could hardly comprehend how quiet it was here. The Kitagawa house was a bit back from the road with nothing but flower fields beyond, and it was so much quieter than the neighborhood in Tokyo where she and Keiko lived.
“Are you excited for the wedding?”
“Of course,” she said, hoping she sounded convincing. “Mao-chan and Jun-kun have been together forever. I’m very happy for her.”
“I’m sure it will be lovely,” Keiko’s mother said. “I’m certain you’re both tired from the trip. Let’s get you inside.”
It didn’t take long to settle in, and Shihori would be spending the next week in the bedroom Keiko’s younger brother had grown up in. Though he’d moved out a few years ago, there was still a “teenage boy” vibe to the place with bookshelves full of manga and sports memorabilia tacked up on the walls. If she had her way, she’d snuggle up with some of the manga and never leave the room. “Oh, guess I lost track of time. Too bad I missed the wedding!” she’d say. Fat chance.
They were meeting up with Mao tomorrow night for a catch-up session. There wasn’t really much to do in Minamichita, so when Keiko’s parents announced at dinner that they were in the middle of some spring cleaning, she volunteered to help. This in turn prompted a sigh from her friend, and now the two of them would spend most of the following day before their ladies night washing bedsheets and driving some things off to the recycling plant up the road.
Keiko was sprawled out on the floor of her childhood bedroom later that night, Bill curled up on the bed like he owned it. “I can’t believe you volunteered us to take my mom’s old fashion emergencies out of here.” In addition to the stacks of old medical journals Kitagawa-sensei was hoping to get rid of, Keiko’s mother had a few bags of clothes she wanted to donate to charity. They’d be cramming all of it in Keiko’s car come morning.
“You had better plans tomorrow?” Shihori asked her, lying on her side and hugging a pink fuzzy pillow.
“I was thinking of saying hello to Nino.”
Shihori’s grip on the pillow tightened a bit. “Oh.”
Keiko tilted her head, sighing at her. “I wasn’t going to make you come with me. Guess I’ll go another day.”
“You can still go,” Shihori mumbled. “What do I care?”
Ninomiya Kazunari had been their co-worker at Everything Outdoor, the camping and outdoor superstore that Keiko and Shihori had worked at after high school to help pay their way through Chukyo University. And of course, Nino wasn’t the only person who’d worked there with them.
“To answer your question, yeah, he’s still there,” Keiko said, a little too bluntly for Shihori’s liking. But then again, she expected nothing less from her best friend.
She rolled onto her back, shoving the pillow under her head. Ohno Satoshi, the world’s least ambitious man. “Thirty-four and still works the retail job he’s had since high school…”
“Nino’s actually the manager there now,” Keiko said. “As for Oh-chan, I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Keiko, who had spent the last seven years telling Shihori she’d made the right choice, could still call him “Oh-chan” with a straight face. “Well, when you go, tell Nino I said hi. And that I still haven’t forgotten that time he stole my yogurt from the break room fridge.”
“So petty,” Keiko replied, chuckling softly.
“I work with teenagers all day. They rub off on me in the worst way.”
While Shihori had finished university and gone straight into high school teaching, Keiko instead chose to be marginally happier in her career choices. She’d majored in communications and worked for a PR firm that represented some big name celebrity clients and agencies. The things her company had smoothed over were a source of endless entertainment. They’d both come a long way from the retail hell of Everything Outdoor, so why did Keiko need to go back there anyhow?
“Maybe he’s changed,” Keiko mused. Shihori wished they’d change the subject, but there was just something about being back home that turned Keiko into a nostalgic jerk. “Maybe he got uglier.”
“He wasn’t ugly,” Shihori replied, a little too quickly. Though Ohno Satoshi had never been Keiko’s type, he wasn’t ugly. He’d been a little short, small, too quiet for someone like Keiko, who had always been on the lookout for a bad boy to mess with back then. Shihori hadn’t been too interested at first either, but there had just been something about him. His laid-back attitude, his soft little smiles, his gentleness, the way only she could get him to laugh…
What the hell was she doing?
“I should get to bed,” she mumbled, slowly getting to her feet. She could feel Keiko’s eyes watching, teasing as she made her way out of the room.
She was almost 30 years old, and here she was reminiscing so fondly about the person who’d broken her heart so completely. She’d had boyfriends since - others who’d broken her heart and some where she’d been the one to call it off. But it had been the worst with Oh-chan, a hurt compounded all the more now that she was back in Minamichita. She was a walking cliche, hung up on her first love, her first heartbreak. Some people had “the one who got away.” Shihori’s experience had differed. She’d been the one to get away, and he hadn’t lifted a finger to stop her.
The guy had been staring at reels for the last forty-five minutes, but every time Ohno had walked past him, asking him if he needed help, he’d said no. He was in a suit, had probably ditched the office early for the day. People who fished as a hobby, they never needed this long. This guy was probably a newbie and too embarrassed to ask for help.
People in Chita, they were surrounded by water. Most kids went out with their dads at least once or twice a year, if not more. Ohno’s father had worked at a soy sauce factory until retirement, but he’d instilled him with a passion for fishing from a young age. It was just one of those local things. So maybe this guy wasn’t local. But what was the shame in asking?
Then again, who was Ohno to judge him for it? Ohno, who couldn’t even make up a decent excuse to skip a wedding. That morning he’d visited the Hug Diner once again, and this time Mao had happily handed over a business card for a tux rental place, and Ohno had already called in his order. He was going now, putting himself in the line of fire.
“I’m meeting up with Kei and Shii-chan tonight. You’ll be able to catch up at the wedding,” Mao had said while bringing him a plate of toast that morning. But then she’d realized what she’d said, waving her hand in front of her face as though it could dispel the awkwardness in the air. “They’re still living together, in Tokyo. The two of them.”
“Well, please say hello from me,” he’d said, just to be polite. Seven years, and people still walked on eggshells about it.
So now while the awkward salaryman picked up a Daiwa model, set it back, and then picked up another Daiwa reel, Ohno walked the aisles of his section lost in thought. There’d been women since Shihori, but none he’d ever call a serious relationship. Between the store and his own hobbies, he’d spent the last seven years maintaining his status quo, living as he pleased. Getting married, dating someone with the intent of getting married someday - that was something other people did.
He just couldn’t imagine a woman being patient enough to be interested in him for the long term. He liked his space. He could use his days off from work to be out on the water from dawn to dusk or longer, and he didn’t have to worry about someone waiting for him to come home. He could sleep late, let his sheets go an extra week or two without a wash. “Your son is a confirmed bachelor,” his mother often complained to his father. “I’ll never see a grandchild from him.” And then Ohno’s dad would take him aside, awkwardly, and ask if he had a “five-year plan” for his future.
In five years, Ohno would be pushing forty. And if he played his cards right, he’d still be living simply, working to keep himself fed, indulging in his hobbies, avoiding anything that might be stressful. He just wanted to be happy. His definition of happiness seemed to differ from most other people’s.
He was just about to turn down the aisle with the indecisive customer once again when he heard Nino’s familiar voice coming close. He poked his head around the corner and saw him approaching the fishing zone of the store with a customer in tow. Although there was something about her that was super familiar, and once they were close, Ohno knew who it was.
She and Nino were laughing, and Ohno was impressed by how she was looking these days. For a while, all the guys at Everything Outdoor had wanted to ask Kitagawa Keiko out. She’d started working there fresh out of high school, had this mysterious aura around her. Shihori had always said it was a front, that her best friend wasn’t so mysterious. Unless a guy had a rock and roll look to him, a leather jacket kind of style, she wasn’t going to bite and would just remain aloof by default.
But the Keiko Ohno remembered with the long hair and trucker hats on her way out of the employee entrance at the end of the night was a real professional now. Her hair was shorter, her face thinner. Ohno didn’t know the first thing about women’s clothes, but she was definitely on a different level now from him and Nino. Ohno in his Everything Outdoor orange employee vest, Nino in the blue polo shirt and khaki pants of store manager.
Ohno couldn’t help looking just past Nino and Keiko, wondering if he ought to run and duck behind his counter in case she was here too. But as far as he could see, she wasn’t.
“Oh-chan!” Keiko cried, waving and offering one of the cheerful smiles that had sent many a male Everything Outdoor employee into a daze nearly a decade earlier. Ohno, of course, had been otherwise occupied.
“Kitagawa-san,” he said, walking up, seeing the grin crossing Nino’s face.
“Look who decided to grace us with her presence after so long,” Nino said. Though Nino wasn’t much taller than Ohno was, Ohno could see the way he had stopped his usual slouching to stand up straight, play the attentive host. Keiko had visited the store a few times the past couple years, dropping by whenever she was down to see her parents. Ohno just hadn’t been working those other times.
“I’m not a celebrity,” Keiko protested, adjusting the strap of her purse on her shoulder.
“I’d wager that of all the people who used to work here, you’ve got the most interesting life by far now,” Nino replied.
“I write press releases, it’s not so glamorous.”
“More glamorous than peddling sneakers and kayaks,” Nino shot back, patting Ohno on the shoulder. “I know your secret now, Ohno-san.”
Keiko gave him a mocking sort of frown. “You didn’t even tell Nino you’re going to the wedding this weekend?”
Nino gave Ohno a punch in the shoulder. They’d worked together for years now, and even now that Nino was his superior, he could still behave like a kid. “Yeah, you didn’t tell me shit! I could have been your plus one.”
“You’re the last person anyone would want as a plus one,” Keiko teased.
Nino gasped in faux outrage. “What? I’m extremely charming!”
This made Keiko and Nino go into another silly argument, leaving Ohno to mostly stand there and watch as the two old friends teased one another. Ohno had the day off for the wedding, sure, but he hadn’t said anything about it. Mostly because he’d been planning to find a way out of attending. But now Nino knew and here was Keiko, who would obviously expect him to be there. And of course now he had his tux rental. He just had to hope that Mao-chan and Jun had been smart with the seating arrangements at the banquet hall. The last thing he needed was to be seated at the same table as Keiko and Shihori.
Eventually Nino and Keiko’s conversation turned back to the situation at hand. Nino had to get back to managing the store at some point, Ohno thought. “So since our celebrity has so graciously descended upon the area for the week,” Nino said, “I think we ought to all go out for a drink.”
“All?” Keiko sighed. “You’re the only two people who still work here that were here back then.”
“Not true!” Nino insisted. “Sometimes Morinaga-san comes in for shifts around the holidays to make some extra cash. We should give her a call and have her drop by for a beer. Bet she could put away more than you think!” Morinaga-san being the woman in her sixties who’d been a cashier ever since the store had opened.
Keiko looked at Ohno rather shrewdly this time, none of the teasing cheerfulness she saved for Nino. “It would be fun to catch up,” she said, her voice a little colder. “Haven’t gotten to see you in a while, Oh-chan. You still live over by the car dealership?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then how about Thursday night? Is that awful izakaya still there, the one with that chatty old man owner?” Keiko asked.
“Under new management,” Nino said, grinning. “Though the new owner still won’t shut up. Must be a tradition. Food’s better though.”
“Thursday night then,” Keiko said, and Ohno knew that as long as Nino was standing there, he wouldn’t be able to wriggle his way out of these plans.
“Bring Kanjiya,” Nino said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I haven’t seen her in forever, and she borrowed my Ghost in the Shell box set and didn’t give it back.”
“She has a similar claim on you and some yogurt,” Keiko shot back.
“Then tell her we can resolve it in person. Like adults. We’re all adults, aren’t we?” Nino raised an eyebrow, and much as Ohno wanted to give him a shove for meddling, he couldn’t exactly get physical with his boss. Nino didn’t know that Shihori was still a sore spot for him, mostly because Ohno had never said so. She’d never really come back like this, so Ohno hadn’t had to worry about it.
“I’ll ask her,” Keiko said, looking a little uncomfortable. Ohno knew exactly why. If seeing them at the wedding reception was bad, the four of them meeting up for drinks was even worse. Sure, they’d been apart longer than they’d ever been together, but the last thing Ohno wanted was to give Shihori any trouble. She deserved to be happy. He’d wanted that for her since day one.
Nino looked past Ohno’s shoulder. “Think your friend’s ready to buy. I’ll fill you in on the details later.”
Ohno turned, seeing that the customer had finally picked up one of the reels and was examining it closely. It was time for Ohno to swoop in and make the sale. Before he could say anything, Nino and Keiko were already walking away, heading for the escalator down to the ground floor of the store.
“Nino’s going to be there,” Keiko explained. “He really wants to see you.”
“He wants to see me because most girls won’t talk manga with him,” Shihori retorted.
The taxi was taking them home from the restaurant where they’d met up with Mao-chan. Chatting had been far easier then, listening to Mao complain about all the little wedding details Jun was fussing over before talking about the strange customers they sometimes got at the Hug Diner. Every bit of happiness that Shihori had gotten out of seeing her friend again, listening to how excited she was to finally get married to the person she loved, had slipped away once they’d parted ways and Keiko had told Shihori about Thursday.
“This is your chance to show him what a gorgeous, perfect woman you are, and he can stew about how dumb he was for letting you go,” Keiko said. “This is your opportunity to shine!”
“I’ll accept gorgeous, but not perfect,” she mumbled as the taxi stopped for a red light.
“I’m not going to force you,” Keiko said, “but maybe it would be good for you. To see him, I mean. Everything ended so abruptly, and you never really got any closure. Maybe seeing him would let you close the door on that chapter. You can move on.”
She leaned her head back against the seat. “I don’t recall you getting a degree in psychology. Did I miss that?”
“You were together for almost four years,” Keiko reminded her, as if she needed to be. “I don’t like seeing you so upset about a person who was never worthy of you. I can’t even say ‘Minamichita’ without you making that face.”
Shihori looked at her friend. “What face?”
Keiko patted her leg. “The distant face. Your eyes get that faraway look, like you’re reliving the end of it over and over and wondering what might have been.”
“I don’t make any such face,” she protested, even though Keiko was probably right. You don’t live with someone for seven years (and know them for more than twenty) without them being able to see right through you. And much as Shihori didn’t like it, she really did let her memories take over sometimes.
It was usually after a break-up, after a rejection. She’d compare it to how it had felt when she’d lost Oh-chan, and she’d feel better about the break-up because nothing could feel as bad as that had. But then again, Shihori knew she’d never let anyone else get so close ever since. She knew she would, someday. She just needed to be absolutely certain. Absolutely positive they wouldn’t hurt her as badly as he had.
The taxi let them off at the house, and Keiko’s mother had stayed up waiting for them, making some tea as a means of getting the girls to cough up all the details about Mao’s wedding. Since Keiko hadn’t found “the one” yet (and wasn’t really in much of a hurry to do so), Kitagawa-san seemed to enjoy getting her wedding and baby fix wherever she could. Shihori was kind of glad her own mother wasn’t so insistent.
Then again, Shihori’s mother had adored Oh-chan.
Eventually the wedding talk devolved into more Kitagawa family spring cleaning talk, and this time Keiko told her mother no. “I spent all day going through Papa’s dusty journals. Have Kenji do it when he comes home.”
“Your brother will be here next week to help Papa do some work in the kitchen,” Keiko’s mother replied.
“I’m going to the school tomorrow,” Keiko protested, sounding more like a teenager than a woman grown. “I’m supposed to meet up with Hara-sensei. I haven’t been able to talk with her the last few times I’ve been here.”
“I could do it,” Shihori said. Unlike Keiko, the suck-up student who enjoyed meeting up with her old high school teachers, the last place Shihori wanted to be this week was inside a school. “I’ll take Kei-chan’s car, I’ll get the rest of them recycled.”
“Well thank you, that would be wonderful. We’ll finally get that room cleared out.”
Come morning, Keiko slept in while Shihori helped get the rest of Kitagawa-sensei’s journals into Keiko’s car. How one man had this many back issues at the house, she’d never understand. Neither could his wife. “It’s all on the computer now, these journals. Don’t marry a doctor, Shii-chan, no matter how glamorous they tell you it’ll be. I can’t even imagine what his office looks like at the hospital, this pack rat man I married.”
She smiled, closing the hatchback of Keiko’s car. She’d made up a lame excuse, that she’d be heading to the outlet mall by Nagashima Spa Land, but she had other plans. As soon as she dropped off Kitagawa-sensei’s journals, she only drove a few miles away.
It was something people in her high school had done for years, and she’d never actually imagined finding a guy willing to indulge her in something so silly. But Oh-chan had said sure. Sometimes, whether Shihori was in Tokyo or anywhere else, she was here. Here on that day when she was silly and hopeful and twenty-two, and they’d taken the bus over here on a whim.
Noma Lighthouse in Mihama was the oldest lighthouse in Aichi, a brightly painted white beacon along the shore. The lighthouse had always been surrounded by a steel fence, burdened with the weight of hundreds of padlocks. If you and your significant other attached a lock of your own to the fence at Noma Lighthouse, your love would prosper forever. By the time Shihori had finished high school, the fence had managed to collapse several times. They’d put it back up, if only because people were superstitious. A local shrine built another section for padlocks, just to distribute them more evenly, but some feared that if you didn’t attach yours to the original fence, it was good for nothing.
On the bus ride, Oh-chan had used a pocket knife to carve the kanji of their surnames into the back of the lock. It had been one of the cheaper locks, a neon pink one that they’d picked out at work. The both of them being thrifty types, it had been easy to just use their employee discounts and get the thing for next to nothing. It wasn’t the lock itself so much as the feelings it carried.
As she parked Keiko’s car, walking up the gravel path to the lighthouse, she could so easily remember sitting by his side as the bus bumped along the road that day. His hands had always been steady, so sure, and over the course of the ride he’d managed the two characters for “Ohno” and the three for “Kanjiya” with remarkable precision. But he’d always been humble, holding it up for her inspection. “Will this work, Shii-chan?”
She had a cutting tool, something she’d found in the gardening shed on the Kitagawa family’s property. It was in the back of Keiko’s car, if she needed it. It was a weekday afternoon, and nobody was visiting today. She spent the next hour walking past the locks, looking for something pink. She’d known the place where they’d attached it years back, but with the fence falling and getting put back up so often, she figured it might have moved.
It wasn’t very pink any longer when Shihori did manage to find it, maybe a foot and a half off the ground, the small lock that they’d stuck in between a few larger ones. The weather had worn off most of the color after all these years. Oh-chan had been the one to choose the spot, to attach it. “Don’t need it to be in a prominent spot,” he’d argued. “It’s best to stay out of the limelight, nobody will be tempted to steal it.”
“Do you believe it’s true?” she remembered asking him that day. It had been windy, and there was no romantic sense to it at all. They were both bundled up in hooded sweatshirts, faces red and tingling from the cold air, the scent of the sea so close by. Their tiny pink lock attached with little fanfare. “Do you think it really strengthens love?”
“I’m not so sure,” he’d said, shrugging in his usual casual manner. “But it can’t hurt.”
She’d crouched down, taken a picture of it with her old green phone. When she got up, he’d pushed back the hood of her sweatshirt the slightest bit, had given her a sweet little kiss.
“It would be nice,” he’d said, “very nice if it’s true.”
Today, in the present, Shihori let her fingers drift across it, the wind blowing her hair around. She should have worn a heavier coat. She lifted it up even though she was shivering, finding “Ohno” and “Kanjiya,” unchanged over the years. Steadfast in a way the lighthouse fence was not.
She’d thought about this for years, coming down here and cutting the lock off. Clearing a space for a hopeful couple, getting rid of something that had been a failure. The lock had only added to the fence’s weight. It wasn’t a miracle worker. All those years she’d dreamed of cutting it off, flinging it into the sea in a dramatic gesture. “Good riddance!” she’d imagined herself saying. It would be super empowering, destroying the last tie to that part of her life when she was naive and lovesick.
But as she ran her thumb across the back of the lock, her nail scraping along the little grooves Oh-chan had cut with his knife, she knew she couldn’t do it. She was far stronger in thought than she’d ever be in action. Maybe it was better to just see him, to remind herself of all the things that didn’t work and why her decision stuck so easily. She’d see him and remember how he’d allowed her to walk away. Seeing that, his indifference, would give her the courage to move on that cutting a stupid lock couldn’t.
Shihori got to her feet, walking away. She made it ten feet before turning back, and already the abundance of locks on the Noma Lighthouse fence had hidden it away again, the hope of the Shihori she used to be and refused to be ever again.
Stubborn was a word that people had used to describe Ohno Satoshi for as long as he could remember. His kindergarten teacher had used it when describing his progress to his mother. “Satoshi-chan doesn’t like sharing the crayons with his classmates. And he is very stubborn about stopping art time for the day. He needs to become more flexible.”
It was a word that followed him to junior high, a word that made him drop out of high school early. “Ohno-kun doesn’t seem to care about his poor grades. When we’ve offered him additional tutoring opportunities, he has stubbornly refused. Doesn’t Ohno-kun care about his future?”
Much as his parents had been disappointed in some of his choices, he’d refused to feel bad about them. The choices he made were his own. If that made him stubborn, that was fine. If that made him selfish, that was fine too. He didn’t set out every morning to please everyone else. He just wanted to live the way he liked.
The only time he’d really compromised on that vision was when it came to her. She’d been younger than him, about five years, and at first when she’d been working at Everything Outdoor, she’d called him “senpai” because she thought it was something he was owed. Nobody had ever treated him that way before, as a senior in life with wisdom to impart.
Not that there was a lot of wisdom involved in selling people lures, but she’d been amused by him in a way that most women had never been. Most women Ohno had been with wanted flowers and well-planned dates and for the tiniest moments to be remembered. They’d been working side by side in the fishing zone for six months when things blossomed, and she told him it was enough to just be around each other.
Because she didn’t ask for anything, he found himself wanting to surprise her. He’d never had a lot of money, but sometimes he’d buy her some manga, just to see her smile. If he was out drinking with friends, he’d call and tell her to drop by after he got home from the bar. Not just for sex or anything, but because when he got drunk he liked to cook. And cooking for someone besides himself kind of felt good.
He’d allowed himself to grow complacent with this. The Shihori who hadn’t expected too much from him at first had every right to be a bit concerned about where things were going after four years of it. He’d been naive, assuming that she was like him, fine with things the way they were. But she’d finished university, had her teaching certificate.
Unlike Ohno, who was fine with how things were, Shihori was ready for the next step of her life to begin. Keiko had gotten a job in Tokyo, had asked Shihori to come with her. “No,” Shihori had told Keiko, “I won’t go without Oh-chan.”
There were a lot of things that got fuzzy in Ohno’s memory. People’s faces if he didn’t see them for a long time, trickier kanji he’d learned. But the day they broke up was one he’d been unable to forget. At the time, he thought he’d been making the right call, allowing her to define what her happiness was, to make her own choices. Wasn’t that what women wanted? He thought back on the words he said and kicked himself.
“It’s been four years, and I can’t make a big decision like this about our future without you,” she’d said so calmly. “If you don’t want me to go, I won’t.”
“Would Tokyo make you happy? You should do what makes you happy, Shii-chan. I’ll support you.”
“You make me happy,” she’d said back almost instantly. “If I stay here or if you come there with me, maybe we could…” He could still remember how she’d blushed, looking away from him. “…maybe we could get serious for once.”
She’d turned even redder, something he’d always adored about her. “Serious like…married.”
In that moment, he’d realized that he’d never even thought about it, getting married. He’d loved her, with his whole heart, but Ohno had always been a status quo type of person. Marriage meant a mortgage and a retirement plan and kids and all the money that kids cost and all of that. There was no going back. And because he’d let her words frighten him, he’d said the worst thing he possibly could have. Sticking out his chin and letting the stubbornness in him rise to the surface.
“But I don’t want to marry you.”
She’d cried, and he hated seeing it so he’d tried to take it back, saying he just didn’t know what he wanted, making it worse by saying stupid shit like “if you want to move, you should move, don’t worry what I think” when it was his opinion that mattered the absolute most to her. He’d been too cold, way too cold for someone who’d said the words “I love you” and not really understood how deeply she loved him in return. And what she expected after four years together.
He only saw her one time after that. She’d brought a box of his stuff to work, leaving it in the break room, neutral territory. She’d never set foot in his apartment again. And when their co-workers, their mutual friends, told him he ought to call her, ought to apologize, he was stubborn. He was just holding her back. She should do what she wants, he explained, go teach in Tokyo, have fun with Keiko. The break was sudden and abrupt and maybe even cruel, but he stood by his decision. And as far as he knew, she’d been successful in Tokyo. It had been seven years, and she’d always been easy to like. She was probably just fine, had found someone who would treat her right.
He just hadn’t forgotten it, going on dates here and there, never committing one way or another. Never letting someone think he was going to miraculously change overnight. The last thing he wanted was to lead someone on, make false promises.
But now here he was, leaving his apartment building in his coat and walking past the auto lot that separated the block of buildings he lived in from the cluster of bars, izakayas, and restaurants down the street. It was the only part of Minamichita that really lit up at night. Because so many people worked in the fishing industry, they trailed out early in the evening so they could wake for the morning’s catch. By now the places were starting to empty out.
The place had been called Jumbo Snack for the longest time, but a few years back, the old man running the place had retired. A guy from Chiba, a nephew or grand-nephew or something, had come down to take over. Jumbo Snack had become Peking Duck. Not that Aiba-san served Peking duck. His parents ran a Chinese restaurant back home, and he named the place in their honor.
He moved the cloth banner at the entrance to duck inside, sliding the door open. “Welcome! Ah, Oh-chan!” came Aiba-san’s raspy voice. He was tall, kind of a beanpole type, and he waved like a little kid. He always wore a t-shirt and jeans, lending the place a casual, relaxed air. The lights were a little dim, but there was track lighting running along the walls, illuminating the dozens of yellow rubber ducks Aiba had placed on little shelving units all over the izakaya.
Ohno found Nino at the table he preferred, the one furthest from the chatty owner and his tendency to turn on his karaoke machine and sing in between drinks until closing time. Ohno slid out of his sneakers as he approached their table, stepping up onto the tatami mats that surrounded the low table. Nino was sitting cross-legged, munching on a massive bowl of edamame.
“Looks good,” Ohno said, looking over as Aiba started pouring Ohno a few shot glasses of tequila without being prompted. “What did he do this time?”
Nino smiled. “No experiments this time, I told him I wouldn’t pay if he tried anything. Just salt.”
Aiba-san liked to add “spice” and change up his menu from time to time, adding unnecessary ingredients or toppings. Ohno was a very tolerant and patient eater and was usually willing to give most things a try. Nino, however, was picky and spent a lot of time at Peking Duck complaining about the “shitty” service and “shittier” food. Although Ohno knew that Aiba was one of Nino’s favorite people for the same reasons.
Ohno settled in, taking a seat in the corner beside Nino so that neither Keiko or Shihori would have to sit next to him. He’d been on edge all day, wondering if she was going to come at all. Ohno almost wanted her to walk in the door, show off a huge diamond ring on her left hand, slap him, and leave. But Ohno had picked up a nasty habit of watching soap operas lately. It was giving him a wild imagination.
Aiba approached, settling a flight of shot glasses before him and offering him a hot towel for his hands. “For your starter, sir.”
“Thank you, my good man,” Ohno teased, plucking a piece of edamame from the bowl. “Kirin when I finish these.”
“Anything else I can get you?”
“As I said already,” Nino interrupted, “we have ladies coming. So if you have any ladies night specials, be sure to charge us that price.”
“Such a cheapskate,” Aiba said bluntly, scoffing. “Ladies night specials.”
Nino offered a rude gesture in reply, which made Aiba laugh before heading to another table to get their order. “Ah, this is the life, Ohno-san.”
Ohno usually spaced out his shots, but when he tossed the next empty edamame pod in the dish, he downed two in a row. Nino watched him the whole time.
“What am I missing here?” Nino asked.
Ohno let the blessed burn of the tequila keep him from answering, instead just shrugging and going for more of the edamame. He was just lifting the third shot to his lips when the door slid open again.
Jumbo Snack had undergone a makeover, if the assortment of rubber duckies decorating every nook and cranny of the place was any indication. Shihori was happy for something to change focus to instead of dwelling on what she looked like. She had spent half an hour figuring out what to wear since she hadn’t exactly planned on meeting up with any men on this trip. Especially when half of the party she was meeting was an ex-boyfriend.
Though Keiko had worn a nice top and a skirt under her peacoat, Shihori had gone with a long t-shirt and leggings, putting her hair in a simple ponytail. Why pretend to be something she wasn’t? A lanky guy with a huge smile came bounding over as soon as they came in the door.
“Welcome to Peking Duck, could I get your coats for you?”
“No, thank you,” Keiko said just in time for the familiar voice of Ninomiya Kazunari to pierce the air. He’d always been loud, at least whenever they’d gone out as a group.
“Oi! Back here, Kanjiya!”
Keiko rolled her eyes before addressing the bar master. “I’m driving home tonight, do you have any chuhai? More sugar than alcohol?”
“Lime? Peach? Yuzu?”
“Peach,” Keiko said.
“And for you, miss?” smily bar master asked while Shihori fiddled with the zipper of her jacket.
“Kanjiya!” Nino shouted obnoxiously, though nobody else in the place seemed all too bothered by it.
“The same,” she mumbled, following Keiko to the table, trying to focus on breathing. Even though she met Nino’s friendly gaze first, it was impossible not to look to his side. Seeing him was so much worse than she’d even anticipated, shredding tissue in the car with her fingers on the way over.
It was Ohno Satoshi, and seven years hadn’t altered much about a person who was so insistent on never changing. He was still tanned, his usual hours out on the water reflected in the slightly roughened look to his skin. His hair was the same, black and with a little bit of product in it to push his fringe off his forehead, spiking it up. His face was still round and youthful with his “I’ve just woken up” eyes. He stared at her almost blankly, probably calculating whether it was appropriate or not to offer a smile. Thirty-four years old and still sitting a bit hunched over and quiet like an old man.
Coming here was a mistake.
“Kanjiya,” Nino said again, shaking her from staring so rudely. He looked the same too, with his clever grin and knowing eyes. It didn’t surprise Shihori in the least that they’d let him take over the store.
“Ninomiya-san, the big boss,” she replied, trying to smile.
“Don’t suppose Ninomiya big boss is picking up the tab tonight with his big boss salary?” Keiko inquired, slipping out of her coat and unzipping her boots, leaving them beside the twin pairs of sneakers already there. Nino had always been particular about money, so this eased him and Keiko right into conversation. Shihori took her time shrugging out of her coat, struggling to take off her shoes even though they were flats and it ought to take half a second.
She sat beside Keiko, grateful the bar master was back with towels and their drinks. She was happy for the distraction. Keiko had at least been kind enough to sit across from Ohno, leaving Shihori to mainly contend with Nino before her. He was a smooth conversationalist, the complete opposite of Ohno beside him, and he dominated the table in such a way that Shihori’s tension eased over the next several minutes. Keiko took plenty of time chatting about her exciting job, not naming names but dropping a few hints about some of the incidents her firm had handled.
When Keiko was done, it was Nino’s turn. He didn’t talk about himself so much as his girlfriend, a nurse at the same hospital where Keiko’s dad worked. Even as the bar master, Aiba-san, came out with platters of yakitori and other food bites, Nino enthusiastically detailed some of the worst medical cases his girlfriend had dealt with. “You will not believe the things people get stuck up their ass.” Even quiet Ohno, who’d mostly been working on a pint of beer, had laughed at some of Nino’s disgusting stories, coming out of his shell a bit.
By the time Nino wanted Shihori’s life story from the last seven years, she’d switched from peach chuhai to rum and Cokes, Aiba-san being one of the most attentive bartenders she’d ever met. Though Keiko was on her second and most likely final drink for the night, Shihori had been slurping down the alcohol from the second she’d been able to. It made it easier when her gaze shifted for brief seconds, looking from Nino to Keiko and from Keiko to Nino, knowing that Ohno in the middle was unavoidable if she wanted to best follow along with the conversation.
She was feeling a cheerful little buzz when she started to detail the life and times of a social studies teacher. Nino, out of anecdotes about things stuck in people’s butts, pulled out his phone. “Quiz time, quiz time,” he said. “I’m going to see how smart this teacher is.”
“She’s smarter than you,” Keiko declared, waving to Aiba for some water.
“As she should be,” Nino replied, “if she’s responsible for the education of the next generation.”
Shihori took another sip of her all too freeing alcohol. So long as she looked at Nino, she was safe. So long as there was quiz time, she didn’t have to waste time thinking about Oh-chan. “Japanese history. World history. Geography. I know it all.”
“Okay then,” Nino announced, reading from his phone. “Some local flavor. Where was Tokugawa Ieyasu born?”
“Okazaki Castle,” Shihori replied in seconds, amazed how she wasn’t yet slurring her words. At the rate she was drinking, though, it wouldn’t be much longer. “You’re kidding with that one, right?”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Nino said, chuckling. “What year?”
From over at the bar, she heard a whistle of approval and some applause from Aiba-san. Shihori lifted her glass in thanks before taking another ample sip. Beside her, Keiko offered a gentle poke of admonishment. Slow down, her friend was saying, I’m not cleaning your puke out of my car.
But Nino had his phone and the entire Internet at his disposal, growing bored as Shihori answered or came pretty close to the right answer on at least a dozen questions. Nino, who’d always been more competitive than he’d openly admit, finally got fed up.
“Okay, name at least three players on the 2007 Chunichi Dragons team that went on to win the Japan Series,” Nino said, offering her a wink. He knew she didn’t follow sports.
“What?” she complained. “That’s not a history question.”
“Yes it is,” Nino said. “It’s a historical event.”
“It’s baseball,” Keiko complained. “You’re cheating, just so you can gloat.”
All three of them grew quiet, turning to see Ohno had offered an answer in an attempt to help her out. He hadn’t spoken for maybe twenty minutes, and even then he’d just been asking Aiba-san for another beer.
Shihori couldn’t help but look at him, blinking slowly. “Darvish?”
He nodded. “I think…I think Darvish might have been there.”
In all the years she’d known Ohno, he’d never expressed any interest in baseball. But she could see the complete seriousness in his expression. Maybe it was the rum and Cokes talking, but she saw an odd urgency in Ohno’s face, as though he was begging her to let him help. She hated how easily the sight of his determination made her heart race. Her younger self, the Shihori who’d been head over heels for him, cherished any time when he abandoned his usual indifference. When he’d get really into a random TV program, when he’d sit and sketch things on his notepad while she sat and read next to him on his living room floor. It was that same feeling. Darvish, he was telling her. At least say Darvish.
“Let’s make this interesting,” Nino said, holding his phone so Ohno couldn’t see the screen. “Kanjiya, I’ll let you name just one member of the 2007 Dragons championship roster. Ohno-san has offered you an answer already. Because this is in violation of the rules…”
“What rules?” Keiko complained.
“…if you accept Ohno-san’s answer and he is correct, then we split tonight’s tab four ways. But if you accept Ohno-san’s answer and he is wrong, then you pay.”
“Now you’re just being cheap,” Keiko interrupted.
“What if I don’t accept his answer at all?” she asked quietly.
Nino smiled. “Right or wrong, if you decline Ohno-san’s assistance, then he’ll be paying the tab.” He turned to Ohno, holding his phone out like a microphone. “Your confidence tonight, sir?”
Ohno looked embarrassed. “I just…I thought it was Darvish…”
Ohno finally looked up, meeting Shihori’s gaze. “Sixty-two percent.”
“Sixty-two?” Keiko laughed.
She was almost grateful for all the drinks she’d gone through, if only because it kept the panicky feelings in her stomach from getting too out of hand. Reject him, her brain was telling her. Right or wrong, he’d have to pay. It’s what Keiko would do. Thanks but no thanks for your answer. You treated me poorly, now pay for my drinks. But that was so silly. She was so angry with Nino for doing this, hinging the whole bet on whether or not Shihori was willing to trust Ohno. It was just a dumb trivia question, but there was a lot more at stake than Nino could have realized.
“Darvish Yu, he’s a pitcher,” Nino said, as though he was being generous and offering a hint.
“It’s okay, Shii-chan,” Ohno mumbled, fidgeting with his near empty beer glass. “If you don’t think I’m right.”
The gentle, too familiar way he’d addressed her, as though seven years had been seven minutes, shut even Nino up. Maybe he finally realized the can of worms he’d opened up, all over something as pointless as this. She couldn’t even bear to look at Ohno now. All of this, all of this made her so uncomfortable, couldn’t they see that?
She grabbed her purse, pulling it into her lap. “Let’s get this over with and settle the bill. I’m sorry, but sixty-two percent is not enough for me. I will not be accepting Darvish as an answer. I don’t have an answer at all.”
Nino spoke with a little less bravado this time. “Well, Darvish did indeed pitch during the 2007 Japan Series…”
Shihori thought she was going to stop breathing.
“…but fortunately for you, Kanjiya, he was pitching for the other team. Darvish Yu played for the Nippon Ham Fighters that year. Aiba-san, please hand tonight’s bill to Ohno-san.”
With that, Shihori got up, Keiko having to steady her as she wriggled her feet back into her shoes. “It was nice to catch up with you, but all that trivia has made me tired,” she lied, looking anywhere but at Ohno and Nino. Keiko had to help her into her coat, and the rum and Cokes weren’t feeling too good now.
“It was good to see you too,” Nino replied before calling Aiba over, probably in hopes of smoothing things over, dispersing the awkward air that had taken over Peking Duck.
Keiko had her car keys in her hand and they thanked Aiba-san quickly before heading for the exit. The cold rush of air felt amazing. She hadn’t even realized how warm it had been inside. They headed for the car, and Keiko stopped her with an arm to her elbow.
“Are you okay?”
She turned, shrugging her shoulders. “What, we got a free meal and drinks out of it…”
Keiko frowned. “Shii-chan, you’re crying.”
And so she was, wiping her eyes quickly. When had that started? “I haven’t had that much to drink in a while, it’s not a big deal.”
It had probably started as soon as he’d called her “Shii-chan” again after so long.
They drove back to the Kitagawa house, letting the radio fill the silence. She didn’t even bother changing out of her clothes, crawling right into bed and pulling the blanket up over her head.