Chapter 25: Where Home Is (1)
Translator Note: Kei is standing on a stool that has his last name printed on it. He is holding two microphones and wearing a candidate sash like he is campaigning in an election. It is a common image for politicians in Japan running for office.
It was snowing when he had lost two members of his family, and that was why he thought that maybe it would also snow on the day that he died. It was a thought that occurred to him at least once a year.
Such as a day like today.
He went to brush off the snow that had accumulated on the gravestone, but there was nowhere to put the snow, and it didn’t seem to matter if the snow piled on top of the grave or around it, and so he pulled his hand back. It wasn’t like the cold, hard stone couldn’t bear the weight of it either.
The weather was harsh enough to make flowers shrivel, and so he made an offering of sacred bamboo. The green of the leaves and the red of the little berries were so brilliant that it almost hurt his eyes after staring at the white and gray that surrounded him in this place.
He lit some incense with one hand protecting the lighter from the wind. The moment that snow hit the back of his hand, it melted, and he thought about the warmth contained in his body. About his body heat, his heartbeat, and the optic nerve that allowed him to read the words engraved on the gravestone. About his head and his mind that let him think about this. About everything that brought about his existence because he was alive.
“This sacred bamboo is beautiful,” his grandmother praised as she placed the branches into a vase.
“Sorry that it’s leftovers from visiting the grave.”
“You should have invited me along.”
“I wouldn’t want you to catch a cold outside. By the way, is it okay to offer these to the grave?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You know how there are customs and taboos for this kind of thing.”
“Sacred bamboo is a symbol of good luck, believed to reverse misfortune. People like to use it to decorate their homes during the New Year.”
“You look as if something’s not quite making sense.”
“Well, if it reverses misfortune, then it reverses again, wouldn’t you be back to having misfortune?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure.”
“If bad things become good, wouldn’t it also be true in the reverse? I wouldn’t want to reverse my fortune if it affects the good things too. I’d rather keep everything the same. Plus, I wouldn’t feel like trying very hard if I know that things will change without me doing anything.”
“You say some complicated things. …Oh, look at the time.” His grandmother reached for the remote to turn on the TV. “It’s time for the news.”
On the TV screen was a banner that read, Snow Accumulation in the Metro Area.
“The temperature outside is so cold right now that just standing in this weather will make your ears sting. The snow has stopped for now, but it has accumulated up to ankle-deep in some places. From now until well into the night, road surfaces may freeze, so please use caution when going outside. It will also likely affect the transit systems—”
“Oh, dear, could you please get me my glasses from over there? The ones for watching TV.”
“Why? You’re not riding the trains tonight.”
“I like the wonderful young man who’s speaking on TV. He’s so handsome and has such a nice voice. He’s on the nightly news too. You know, the one that you made the animation for.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter how difficult the topic is, but somehow I always feel a little smarter after hearing him talk. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but whenever I turn on the TV and see him pop up on the screen like this, I feel wonderfully lucky to catch him.”
“That makes you a pretty big fan, you know.”
“Well, I can understand how you feel. We share a lot in common, Grandma.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying that we like the same things,” Ushio said laughing.
The lights went out in the studio, and it felt like a restaurant closed up for the night. The chairs and tables were neatly ordered; the set was cleaned—and business hours were over.
“Oh, sorry, the studio’s closed down for the night.”
“That’s all right.”
They had stayed in the studio discussing their plans for an on-location assignment, and almost an hour had gone by. They walked out and continued their discussions.
“It should air in about two months. I want some footage after the road construction is underway. That’s why it’ll be some time yet.”
“What really scares me are the appointments that we’ve made with the Representatives. If the House gets dissolved…”1
“It would definitely complicate matters for us.”
If the House were to be dissolved, from the day of the announcement until the votes were cast and counted, the show would have to avoid all stories that focused special attention on any particular politician. And if the politician happened to lose their race, then their interviews would essentially become meaningless.
“People have been crying for the dissolution since the end of last year, but do you it will really happen?”
How the hell should I know? Go ask the Prime Minister yourself.
…But Kei didn’t actually say that. He politely brushed it off with a “I wonder that myself.”
“All of our commentators have a different opinion. Some say he has to do it now, and some say it’ll only hurt him.”
“Both sides have valid points. Everyone is quite impressive.”
No matter what happened, people could make up any number of excuses to spin their opinions however they wanted. Kei thought that commentators and pundits were half guessing and making things up as they went along anyway. Kei parted with the director in front of the green room, and his junior colleague was still inside doing nothing much but playing on his smartphone.
“Were you talking about the possibility of the House dissolving just now?”
“We touched on it.”
“Do you think it’ll happen?”
Like I said, don’t ask me.
“Why don’t you interview the Prime Minister and ask him yourself, Minagawa-kun?” Kei plastered a fake smile on his face at this suggestion.
“Oh~ Should I just ask him? No beating around the bush? Like will you dissolve it? Or won’t you~?”
“Yes, just like that. Good luck. There’s no time like the present. Why don’t you go over and ask now?”
“All right~! Minagawa Tatsuki! Reporting from the front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence… I’ll totally get arrested. Like 50,000 percent arrested.”
“Don’t let it get to you.”
“No way, you gotta be crazy.”
Dammit, he’s only joking? I was hoping he’d get worked up enough to really do it.
“What are you clicking your tongue for? If I get arrested, then the show’s done for too.”
“I’ll write your resignation letter for you. And your will too while I’m at it.”
“What? I’m getting the death penalty?”
It was late at night at the network with very few people around, so Kei went back to using his normal voice but only very softly.
“Seriously speaking, if they’re going to dissolve the House, I wish they’d hurry up about it. I’m gonna be completely dead Sunday due to the election coverage.”2
There was a lot of truth to Tatsuki’s complaint. If there really were new elections for the House of Representatives, the media outlets would mobilize all of their resources on election day to cover the most notable districts and report the victory and concession speeches live with minute-to-minute coverage from all over the country. If a winner could easily be projected, then they would cover what they needed and be done with it, but if it was a close contest, they would have to wait hours on end in a tense elections office, and it was an exhausting and uncomfortable time for all parties involved. When new election results broke on the air, each of the major networks were pretty much on the same page with little to no difference between them. There didn’t seem to be a point to competing against each other like this…but Kei had to stop this line of thinking. It was their job to cover the news after all.
“Oh, but Senpai, you’ll probably be in the studio for the election coverage, since Asou’s the main and you’re the sub. Man, you’ll be on until morning the next day. Don’t let it get to you~”
“Shut up! Hurry up and go home.”
The thought had already crossed Kei’s mind, but hearing it said out loud made him feel miserable about it. He kicked Tatsuki out of the room, changed out of his wardrobe, and went back to the announcer department to check his private cell phone. There was a LINE message from Ushio.
“What time will you be over?”
It was unusual for Ushio to ask a question like this. Was he busy with work? If so, they didn’t have to bother each other. As long as Kei could help himself to Ushio’s fridge and his bed (not in any fishy sense!), then he had no complaints. Maybe Ushio had plans to meet someone? It was almost midnight, but his work didn’t run on normal business hours, so it could be possible.
Well, whatever. Kei was tired from covering a live report earlier in the evening, plus with the meeting just now, it was already late. He could go over to see him at any time, so why not head straight home today? He wasn’t bothered by it.
“I’m not coming over.”
There was an immediate reply to his simple message. “Why not?”
“Aren’t you busy?”
“Then why’d you ask when I’d be back?”
“Oh, just looking forward to seeing you.”
Just looking forward to seeing you. The line replayed itself in Ushio’s voice. With an echo that repeated itself about 5 times. Like…you, you, you, you, you.
Kei shook his head a couple of times to get the internal sound effects out of his head and sent a reply. “Now I’m definitely not coming over.”
“I know you’re plotting something.”
There were times when Ushio would calmly spout out romantic lines at him, but most of the time he was doing it to tease him as part of a joke or setup to embarrass him. He warned himself not to get too flustered by Ushio’s words. Just as he was trying to guess Ushio’s next move, his cell phone rang instead.
“…What is it?”
“Awww, you poor thing, you don’t have to be so suspicious~”
It was accompanied by a fake and forced sigh.
“That’s because you keep throwing curveballs at me!”
“But I feel like you’re expecting them.”
“But if I don’t change things up a little, you might die of embarrassment from the barrage of straight pitches.”
What cause of death is that supposed to be?
“Anyway, sorry to fall short of your lofty expectations, but I seriously just wondered when you’d be over. One of my projects was cancelled, so I have nothing else to do. Let me play with you, errr, let’s play together~
“Dammit, you corrected yourself on purpose!”
“I’ll be waiting for you, okay?”
See, here he aims a perfectly straight pitch at me.
Kei could see it coming, but it was a direct hit to his strike zone.
“…I’m still at work. I want to take a bath at home before coming over, so it’ll be late.”
“You can take one here. I’ll buy you ice cream. What do you want?”
“A Home Run Bar.”
“You’re a really cheap date… Got it.”
Before they hung up, Ushio added, “There’s still snow out. Be careful on your way here.”
The snow was like a gritty, grimy sherbet stuck to the roads, and the taxi slowly made its way to Ushio’s house. Kei didn’t hate waiting for the traffic signals along the long stretch of straight roadway. He could see the lights turning green one by one from far away getting closer until it was their turn to go. It felt like they were approved to be here, like they were being called. The traffic lights were so bright at night that it was hard to stare at them for too long.
In front of Ushio’s house was a set of fresh footprints, coming and going, probably from when he went out to buy ice cream, and Kei stepped into a set of them to compare them to his own shoes. The contours of the footprints were slightly larger, and gray-colored snow bled into puddles of water.
“Hey, welcome back.”
When Kei unlocked the door with his spare key, Ushio came down from the second floor.
“They didn’t have any Home Run Bars, so I got Haagen-Dazs in Vanilla instead. I hope that’s okay.”
“You’re supposed to get GariGari-kun’s Strawberry Mochi if it’s out. But Vanilla’s fine.”
“There’s no way I could have guessed that.”
Kei removed his coat, carrying it over to sit down on the sofa. “Ahh, I’m so tired. I’m too lazy to wash my hair tonight.”
Kei was only complaining, but he received an unexpected offer.
“Then let me wash it for you.”
“The water’s warming up, so wait for me in the bathtub, okay?”
Ushio repeat his last word for good effect, took the coat from Kei’s hands, and went to hang it up on a hook next to the front door. What was with this special treatment today? Well, Ushio did do a lot of things for him, but normally it was just simple things that he was going to do anyway or little things that he was quick to offer to do because of his personality. Kei felt like Ushio would do those things for people even if it wasn’t for him in particular, but today, things felt a little different.
Kei remembered Ushio mentioning one of his projects being cancelled. He only said that he had nothing to do, but maybe he was bothered or depressed about it? If so, then did he need Kei to indulge him a little? Sort of like a special employment welfare benefit duty?
If Ushio wanted Kei to cheer him up, he should have just said so, but when it came to things that really mattered, Ushio would never admit his feelings honestly, like maybe he had too much pride to do so… But Kei was fully aware that this tendency also applied to himself, and so he said in his most arrogant voice, “Fine, I shall grant you the honor!”
“Uh, who are you?”
“Take the utmost care washing it for me.”
“Why are you all of a sudden a feudal lord?”
Still trying to act tough, huh? You can whine or cry to me, you know, I’ll listen.
Kei suddenly felt reinvigorated, and so he jumped to his feet to head up the stairs. But then he felt Ushio’s gaze on his back, and he quickly turned around.
“Nothing,” Ushio laughed, enjoying himself. “Just impressed at how well you can walk on your hind legs today.”3
“I’ve been walking upright for nearly 30 years!”
Huh? Was it just me reading too much into things?
After washing up and climbing into the tub for a nice soak, Ushio really did come to wash his hair. He rolled the sleeves of his hooded pullover sweatshirt up to his elbows and demanded without any hint of consideration in his voice, “Move your head over.”
Oi, this is different than I imagined.
Unsatisfied, Kei shifted his position so that he looked up and rested against the edge of the bathtub and felt a spray of slightly lukewarm water from the handheld shower over his head.
“People keep talking about the House dissolving. Will it really happen?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that question?”
“Or is it that the media wants it, so they’re making a fuss about it trying to make it happen?”
“I don’t want it to happen. I don’t want to be confined all day doing election coverage.”
“You say that, but you’d be pretty unhappy if they picked someone else to do the job.”
“Not really. I’d just want them to mess up.”
“Because you would be unhappy about it.”
Ushio smoothed shampoo with his fingers through the carefully wetted hair, slowly creating a lather. There was always a hand supporting Kei’s head so that his neck didn’t tire, and it felt really nice to have fingers running softly against his head. It was too much of a hassle to go to a salon for a shampoo, and it made him overly nervous when he was outside that he normally wanted it over and done with as soon as possible. It was a little ticklish when Ushio touched the hairline at the nape of his neck or behind his ears, but Ushio didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives in his movements, and so the mood didn’t grow beyond what they already had between them.
“Does it feel uncomfortable anywhere, sir?”
“Hmmm… the back of my teeth?”
“You getting new ones coming in?”
“That phase was over a long time ago.”
“Oh, right, I don’t have conditioner here. Do you want to rinse with apple cider vinegar instead?”
“Don’t need it.”
“What about ice cream?”
“I’ll eat it.”
“All right, time to rinse off.”
Drops of water splashed onto his forehead. The sound of the spray from the showerhead was muffled through Ushio’s hand. Bubbles whiter than snow slid down over the surface of his hair. Kei closed his eyes and felt like nodding off to dreamland.
When Ushio left to bring over the ice cream, Kei stared a little dazed at the ceiling that was slightly fogged in steam. It felt wonderful, and Kei was mentally recharged after such a short respite. He thought that it was probably an indispensable part of life to seek the physical touch of someone trusted and loved. It was as essential to the body as vitamins and calcium. It didn’t have to be as intense as sex, but it could be something as simple as holding hands, sleeping next to someone, or having someone wash your hair. Kei had such a limited scope of reference when it came to other people that it was exceptionally special for him.
The folding door opened back up, and Kei watched Ushio handed over the ice cream from his upside-down view. He ate his vanilla ice cream with a spoon as his head hung off the side of the bathtub while Ushio dried his hair with a towel. It was nothing short of bliss as the sweet, cold dessert slipped down his throat like droplets spreading through his thoroughly warmed up body, and Kei believed fiercely that ice cream was best eaten during winter in a nice, warm, cozy place.
Just as Kei had completely relaxed, Ushio’s fingers dug themselves into his scalp.
“Hey, what are you doing? Ow, come on, that hurts!”
“It’s a massage.”
“Go easier with your hands!”
“Your head must be stiff if you think this hurts,” Ushio said, applying pressure with his fingers. “There are muscles over the head too, and it’s good to loosen them up as well. That’s what an old fellow from one of my part-time jobs told me a long time ago.”
“That sounds fishy. What part-time job was this?”
“A waiter at a hostess club.”
“The owner was really nice. He said that if I picked up and dropped people off, he’d pay for half of my driver’s training classes. That was how I was able to get my license.”
“…Uh, when was this?” Kei asked hesitatingly.
“When I was young.”
Kei frowned petulantly.
“What? Why are you sulking?”
“Because you brought up this stupid story and dodged my question…”
“I was over 18 when I got my license, and I met you just before I turned 27. What do you want to comb over the details for?”
I don’t. But what’s this irritation I’m feeling? Am I just annoyed at the hostess club?”
“Heh, so you took such vulgar jobs…”
“What, you’re just jealous?”
“I’m not jealous!”
It must have been a long time ago. Probably long before Ushio ever met Kei—before Kei ever thought about dating someone without any pretenses.
What things did Ushio think about as he had moved through his life?
“Most clubs have strict rules about forbidding workplace romances, and this one was no different, you know? You should be applauding me for my integrity. I was trusted enough to be their driver.”
“Sounds like you just weren’t very popular.”
“True, true, how lucky am I that Kunieda-kun was the one to lure me in~”
Heh, don’t flatter me.
Ushio easily dodged Kei’s half-hearted insult. If Ushio’s employer was really so honest that Kei had nothing to worry about, then it was probably Ushio himself who didn’t allow the women to come near him. It was a completely different approach that he had taken with Kei.
“Gimme a bite.”
The ice cream had melted by now, but Kei scooped up a spoonful and held it up for Ushio, and Ushio leaned in to bring it into his mouth. If only it was this easy to lure the inner side that Ushio kept hidden away from Kei.
“Speaking of which, I’m incredibly curious about the part-time jobs that Announcer Kunieda had before landing his job~”
“I didn’t really have any.”
“But you went to college, right? Don’t college students normally get part-time jobs?”
“I was busy.” Kei placed the empty ice cream cup on the edge of the tub.
“With my commute. I commuted to Tokyo from home.”
“From Shizuoka? Seriously? I’m surprised that your parents allowed it.”
“It’s cheaper to get a commuter pass for the Shinkansen than to get an apartment.”
The commute time also gave Kei an excuse not to join any clubs or participate in the drinking parties. Over the breaks, he would grade papers and exams for correspondence courses (the pay wasn’t great, but he could do it from home). There was also a time he sat as an exam proctor for practice exams.
“What did you do when you needed money?”
“My dad would sneak me some allowance money if I ironed his shirts or washed the car for him.”
“You’re amazing. But I knew that already.”
Kei didn’t know what he had said that impressed Ushio so much, but nevertheless, he looked thoroughly amazed.
“I’m really just average compared to you.”
“Well, yeah, obviously, but why do you say that now?”
“Just thinking that Kunieda Kei really sticks to the things that he believes in no matter what.”
From Kei’s point of view, Ushio looked far more stable and pulled-together than him.
But he couldn’t ask, Isn’t the same for you?, because Ushio had leaned over for an upside-down, vanilla-flavored kiss. It felt a little strange at how their lips didn’t match.
“…My shampoo fee.”
“Idiot, I let you wash it for me.”
Ushio kissed Kei’s bare forehead, and Kei felt his body, which should have cooled down from the ice cream, suddenly heat up again.
Ushio also blow-dried Kei’s hair for him. After finishing up, Kei climbed into bed and slightly shivered against the cold sheets. The chill was harsh at night when it was so close to dawn.
“Are you cold?” Ushio wrapped Kei in his arms and nuzzled into his freshly dried hair.
“…What you said earlier on the phone,” Kei ventured quietly.
“You said your project was cancelled? What happened?”
“Not sure.” Ushio sounded as if nothing had happened. “They only gave me the usual ‘due to circumstances’ spiel. Anyway, I hadn’t spent too much time brainstorming ideas yet. They probably had to deal with budgets, personnel changes, and things, being a big corporation and all. I’d be upset if they had rejected the final delivery, but at this stage, it’s nothing to grumble about. It was pretty amicable; kinda like let’s work together again there’s an opportunity in the future?”
Was that all it was?
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t get taken seriously because I don’t work with an agent or a firm, but I prefer to take things as they come.”
That was when Ushio ruffled Kei’s hair, messing it up after it had been dried so nicely.
“Sorry for worrying you~”
“I wasn’t worried! If you keep that easygoing attitude up, don’t come crying to me if you get left out on the streets with no work!”
“Huh?” Ushio suddenly stopped his hand and stared at Kei’s face as he started his ridiculous shtick. “You’re not going to take me in as your husband when that happens?”
“Hell no! You’d just be a damn gigolo!”
“I’ll provide exceptional service to your upper body and your lower body.”
“Sorry, my mistake, it would be to your inside and outside.”
“I can’t support a kept man!”
“Awww, you’re just saying that, Mr. Announcer from a flagship network.”
“Moron, everything’s going to fund the Kunieda Kei museum!”
“So you’re going to build it yourself…”
“You don’t have the slightest intention of being kept in the first place,” Kei mumbled as he lowered his head and buried his face. “And you wouldn’t be you if you don’t create things.”
“…You think so?”
Kei felt as if a real sense of apprehension lurked in the short silence between them. He instinctively tried to raise his head, but he was captured back into Ushio’s arms.
“Well, I suppose it must be true if you’re the one saying it.”
Idiot. So you really were depressed about it. What face are you making, spouting that weak, flimsy line?
But Kei didn’t force himself out Ushio’s arms to take a look. Because Ushio probably didn’t want him to see it.
Kei would spill everything and anything when he was here, and that was why he could maintain his outside image of Kunieda Kei. Similarly in his own way, Ushio used his work to express the sides of human emotion that he couldn’t normally show to people. Like the darkness and loneliness, worlds apart from his everyday self, that drifted in and seeped into his films. It didn’t just come out of thin air—it all came from Ushio himself. If Kei pried too much into it, maybe Kei would end up snuffing it out, and so he could never bring himself to step past those boundaries. But then again, Kei was also simply too afraid to try.
“You think it’s done snowing for now?” Ushio murmured.
“It’s supposed to clear up.”
“I see. Kei, do you like the snow?”
“I hate it, obviously.”
It’s cold and wet and makes my job hell with the outbreaks everywhere.
“Yeah, I hate it too. So we share that in common.”
It was unusual for Ushio to expressly say that he hated something. Kei was about to ask why, but Ushio intercepted him with a soft Good night, and Kei could only close his eyes after that.
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.