“Kiku, how do you say, ‘How are you?’”
Kiku looked at his friend and replied calmly, “‘Ogenkidesuka?’”
_____ nodded in comprehension and glanced around her for a moment, adjusting her grip on her suitcase.
Kiku mentally raised an eyebrow at her. “_____-kun, why did you ask me what ‘How are you?’ meant if you were not going to ask anyone?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Just curious.”
A small smile, barely visible, crawled across Kiku’s face as he turned his attention forward. “I am glad that you were able to come with me to visit my relatives. . .but I did not expect to be your translator.”
_____ chuckled sheepishly. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize, _____-kun.”
She smiled. “Well, I’m glad that I could come, even if I can’t speak your language.”
Kiku’s smile grew slightly. He led his friend through the crowded streets and toward the edge of town. Several large houses neatly covered the grounds at the edge, one of which the two approached. The house, though very voluptuous, was decorated as a traditional Japanese building. A wooden porch wrapped around the entire structure, and a sliding door with a paper screen was left open to reveal an almost empty room with a low table in the middle. Bonsai trees and bamboo shoots were scattered across the yard, and a small pond settled at one of the corners of the house near the two friends. The lowering sun shone warm rays on the two’s skin, and covered everything in sight with a rich orange tint.
_____ leaned over to look in the pond, noticing several––possibly dozens––of koi fish swimming around. One of the koi in particular was quite unique, _____ noted; it was completely black, except for a single white spot on its back. Then she saw another koi that was exactly the opposite––all white with one black spot. The two fish seemed to be like each other, and they swam together, side by side, past the other koi.
“Those two were a gift from Yao-san,” said Kiku, causing _____ to jump. She looked to her side and saw him leaning over watching the fish as well. “We call them Yin and Yang.”
She smirked. “Because they’re completely opposite of each other?”
He nodded. “Hai. And because despite being polar opposites, they are very fond of each other.”
_____ giggled and squatted down on the ground, dipping her index finger into the water. “Guess opposites do attract.”
Kiku smiled. “Hai.”
Kiku and _____ turned back toward the house to see a man standing on the porch. He was middle-aged, but quite attractive for his age, his long black hair tied loosely back into a ponytail. His dark eyes shined gracefully when he smiled, and he stepped off the porch to walk toward Kiku. Still smiling, he began to speak in Japanese. Kiku replied calmly, also speaking in Japanese. The man laughed, then looked at _____ expectantly. _____ blinked and stuttered over something to say before Kiku explained to the man (in Japanese). The man nodded understandingly, then asked Kiku something.
Kiku nodded at the man and looked at _____. “_____-kun, this is my father, Honda Aoto. Unfortunately, he does not speak English.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine,” she said, waving her hand side to side in dismissal. She smiled at Aoto. “Kon’nichiwa, Aoto,”she said, a bit unsure of herself. “Ogenkidesuka?”
Aoto chuckled and said something to Kiku, who translated for _____.
“He says hello, and he is well.” He smiled. “He is happy to meet you.”
Kiku visibly flinched at the shrill yet cheery voice emanating from the house. A woman appeared through the door and hopped off the porch. She skipped toward the group and hugged Kiku tightly, making him obviously uncomfortable. He gently pulled her off and spoke to her in Japanese. She laughed and replied to him. Kiku then gestured toward _____ and spoke again.
“_____-kun,” he said when he finished speaking to the woman, “this is my mother, Honda Kayo.”
Aoto said something to her, and she laughed and spoke to Kiku.
“She is glad to meet you,” he said to _____.
_____ smiled and nodded at her.
Kayo brought her hands together and invited the others to come inside. She said one more thing to Kiku before he led _____ upstairs. He opened a door, revealing a room with only a chest of drawers, a table with a lamp, and a sleeping mat.
“This is your room,” he said. “I apologize if it is not what you expected.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Hai. The restroom is two doors to the left. My room is directly to the right of this one. It’s getting late, so you should get ready for bed soon.” He took up his suitcase and headed for the door. “Let me know if need anything.”
“Okay. Thanks, Kiku.”
He nodded and closed the door behind him.
When _____ was left alone, she released her grip on her suitcase, letting it gracelessly fall onto the floor. Her shoulders drooped as she sat down on the floor and sighed. “What was I thinking?” she said to herself, rubbing her temple. “How am I supposed to communicate with these people if they can’t understand me? Even with Kiku there, it’s still. . .so awkward.” She groaned and brought a balled fist to her forehead in thought. After a moment, she sat back up and sighed. “Oh, well. I guess it can’t be helped. I should just make the best of it all.”
_____ lay on her sleeping mat in her room, staring at the ceiling. Her eyes lazily moved to the side until they saw the sliding door leading to outside. She rolled over and opened it slightly, a small sliver of moonlight pouring into the empty room. _____ scooted closer to the door, peeking through the crack to get a better look outside. She smiled at how clear the sky was, how many stars she could see, how big the moon was. She could never see the night sky like this back home, living in such a sickeningly urban environment. Smog and city lights always got in the way and obscured her vision of anything above the buildings surrounding her. It was like she was trapped in the city she had called home.
Now she was free. She was outside of her comfort zone, but also outside of the isolation she had felt back home. She was free to go where she wanted now, and she could was free to go with Kiku.
_____ blushed slightly at the thought that had somehow managed to crawl into her mind. She shook her head in an attempt to erase it, then sighed and closed her eyes. She was honestly glad to be here with her best friend, but recently, she had been feeling strange whenever she was with him. She had spent several weeks trying to figure out what those feelings were, and she realized that they were something outside of the feelings in a normal friendship.
Of course, she would never admit it to herself––or Kiku, for that matter.
Kiku walked down the hallway to _____’s room, his bare feet softly touching the floor. He had been awake for almost two hours now, but it was now ten, and _____ was not up yet. Kiku stepped toward the door and slid it open, blinking slightly at the sight. _____ lay at the very edge of her room with her hand placed on the sliding back door. The blanket that had covered her was wadded up and wrapped around her lower legs, and the sleeping mat was turned sideways so that the upper half of her body lay on it.
“_____-kun?” said Kiku. He stepped into the room and knelt down by _____. He gently placed a hand on her arm, and repeated, “_____-kun?”
_____’s eyes suddenly shot open, and she jolted upward into a sitting position. “I’m up!” she shouted, quickly and clumsily pushing herself to her feet. Her feet and ankles became tangled in the blanket wrapped around them, and she let out a loud squeal as her body hit the floor. “Ow!”
“_____-kun!” Kiku bent down toward his friend. “Are you alright?”
_____ let out a pained moan and pushed herself into a sitting position. “Yeah, I’m okay.” She glared down at the cloth that bound her feet. “Stupid blanket,” she muttered as she angrily pulled it off and tossed it onto the sleeping mat. She then blinked and laughed nervously at Kiku. “Morning!”
Kiku blinked as well, then returned the smile.
“Mondai wa nanidesu ka?” [“What is the matter?”] called a voice from the hallway. The owner of said voice appeared in the doorway, her eyes wide in worry. “Nani ga okotta no ka?” [“What happened?”]
_____ blinked, and Kiku nodded and said, “Kanojo wa bakkin ni narimasu.” [“She will be fine.”]
Kayo nodded warily, then smiled and gestured to the hallway. “Sore wa choushoku no tame no jikandesu.” [“It is time for breakfast.”]
Kiku nodded and stood up. “Arigato, Hahaoya.” [“Thank you, Mother.”]
Kayo beamed at her son and skipped out.
Kiku turned to _____ and held out his hand, which she gratefully took.
“She sure is energetic for a woman her age,” she commented.
“Hai,” he replied quietly, looking at the doorway.
_____ could hear the smile in his voice, and she smiled as well. She patted his back and said, “C’mon,” and walked out of the room.
Kiku willingly softened his expression as his friend left the room. He rubbed his arm and stepped toward the opened back door. He looked at the sunlight shining brightly on the surface of the nearby koi pond. The shade from the neighboring bamboo shoots gracefully covered small parts of the gently splashing water. Kiku stood there admiring the familiar scenery for a good few minutes. His expression softened even more, and he relaxed his shoulders and closed the door. He sighed and began fixing the disheveled sleeping mat and blanket.
He left the room for the kitchen five minutes later, and blinked when he heard _____ shout, “Finally! Kiku, help me talk to your mom!”
Kiku felt his arm being pulled as he and _____ walked toward a counter. Kayo turned to them, a small spatula in her hands. She smiled and spoke to Kiku, who translated, “She said ‘Good morning’. Apparently, she wanted to say it earlier but couldn’t.”
“Oh,” said _____. “How do you say that?”
_____ nodded and smiled at Kayo. “Ohayou, Kayo.”
Kayo beamed at her and said something else to Kiku, and he spoke back. She laughed and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, causing him to stiffen and his face to go red. “Hahaoya,” he said, his voice cracking hilariously from embarrassment. “Kanojo ga koko ni iru toki watashi ni seppun shite wa ikenai.” [“Please don’t kiss me when she is here.”]
Kayo laughed again and said something to him, and _____ tilted her head in bemusement. Kiku noticed and waved his hand slightly in dismissal. “It’s nothing, _____-kun. Come.” He lay his hand on her arm. “You should eat now.”
_____ nodded and followed him into another room. Aoto, who was sitting down at the low-set table, smiled and waved at her. “Ohayou, _____-kun!” he said happily.
_____ blinked. He looked a bit too sickly to look so happy. She pushed the thought aside and smiled at him. “Ohayou, Aoto.”
Aoto spoke, and Kiku translated, “He wants to know where you are from.”
_____ sighed tiredly and told him where she was from (which he already knew), and he told his father. Aoto said something, which Kiku recited in English, and _____ answered, and Kiku said the answer in Japanese. The cycle continued for nearly an hour as _____ ate her brunch. After a while, _____ noticed Kiku’s growing boredom, so she attempted to quickly end the conversation.
“Sorry about forcing you to be our translator earlier,” said _____ as she and Kiku walked down the sidewalk in the city.
“It’s alright,” said Kiku.
She rubbed her arm. “It’s just––well, I. . .” She sighed. “This whole situation is just so awkward, and I seriously wish I knew Japanese.”
Kiku chuckled. “Or my parents knew English.”
_____ laughed. “Yeah, that’d be better!” She raised an eyebrow at him, the smile morphing into a smirk. “That was pretty funny.”
Kiku’s face went blank.
She giggled and patted his shoulder. “You should relax more, y’know.”
Kiku stiffened slightly at the touch, then cleared his throat and pointed to a nearby department store. “Would you like to go in there?”
“Sure!” She took his arm and pulled him into the store. A woman near the door smiled and said something in Japanese, and Kiku spoked to her for a moment. _____ searched the racks close to her, filing through the various articles of clothing a bit apathetically.
She looked up a Kiku. “Yeah?”
“There is a festival tomorrow night. Would you like to go?”
She smiled. “Okay.”
“Yoi. The follow me.” He took her hand and led her to the back of the store, where beautiful traditional Japanese robes adorned the walls and clothing racks.
“Woooooow~!” said _____, staring in awe. She went through a rack until she found one she liked. “Kiku, c’mere!”
Kiku stepped toward her as she held out the robe. It was a brilliant shade of blue silk with a cherry blossom design on the ends of the sleeves and the hem. The waistband was a broad strip of red silk that tied into a magnificent bow in the back. “Isn’t it gorgeous?!” she said giddily, holding it up to her body.
Kiku nodded. “Hai. Do you like that one?”
“I love it!”
“Alright, then.” He gently took the robe from her and walked to the nearest check-out counter.
“U-Uh, Kiku.” _____ went beside him and watched in shock as he took out his wallet. “What’re you doing?”
“I’m buying this robe for you,” he replied as calmly as ever.
“Kiku, why’re you buying this for me?”
“Because you can’t go to a traditional Japanese festival without wearing a traditional Japanese robe.” He glanced down at her feet, then spoke to the clerk, who nodded and looked under the counter. She pulled out a small shoebox and handed it to Kiku.
Kiku finished checking out and handed the bagged robe and box to _____. He blinked when he saw a small tear fall down her face.
“What is wrong, _____-kun?”
She sniffled and stubbornly wiped her eye. “I-I. . .It’s just. . .I’m just happy. . .” She smiled at him. “Thank you, Kiku.”
The Asian man returned the smile. “Douitashimashite, _____-kun.” [“You’re welcome, _____-kun.”]
“Hey, hey, Kiku!” said _____ excitedly, holding out her fan to point. She wore her robe, which covered her body well but gracefully showed off her curves as well, and wooden platform sandals over one-toed socks. Her hair was tied back and held in chopsticks. She smiled at her friend. “Let’s go over there!”
Kiku, who was clothed in his own traditional robe, looked at a nearby stand. It was a children’s stand where the player threw a dart at a target. He was about to speak until _____ yanked his arm, leading him toward the stand. She was handed three darts, and held one up to aim when she noticed a group of boys about her age snickering and gesturing toward her. She rolled her eyes at the boys and continued aiming. After a moment, she threw the dart at the target, sending it straight in the center. The boys stood shocked as _____ was given a prize for her feat. She put the other two darts back on the stand counter and smirked mischievously at the boys before turning back to Kiku.
“That was very impressive, _____-kun,” he said.
She beamed at him and held up her new plushie. “And I got a cute plushie, too!”
“A ‘Nyanmaru’ plushie,” he commented, holding out his arms for it. _____ handed him the plushie, which he happily took. He smiled at the thing, and petted its head for a good minute.
_____ giggled. “If you like ‘Nyanmaru’ so much, you can keep him.”
Kiku blinked, his attention redirected back at her. “Nani? Are you sure?”
“Why not?” She gently pushed the plushie back into his arms. “It’s the least I could do, after all the trouble of buying me a full-blown traditional Japanese outfit.”
Kiku smiled, then bent over and bowed at her. “Arigatougozaimasu.” [“Thank you (very much).”]
_____ cleared her throat and took her friend by the shoulders. “Hey, now. No need to bow over a plushie.” She smiled warmly at him. “I just like to see you happy.”
A very light shade of pink dusted Kiku’s cheeks, and he looked away from her and down at the ground. “O-Of course, _____-kun. . .”
“Now,” said _____, bringing her hands together, “where to next?”
“The fireworks should be starting in a few minutes,” answered Kiku. He gestured over to an empty bench near the area where several people set up fireworks. “Let’s sit down before all the good seats are taken.”
She smirked. “You’re starting to talk like me now.” She patted his back. “Guess I’m rubbing off on you, huh?” she said as she headed toward the bench.
“Not just that, _____-kun,” he mumbled, then followed behind her.
The two sat down and waited in a comfortable silence for the fireworks to be launched. _____ looked up at the darkened sky, admiring the gentle glow of each star. A thought came to her, and she pursed her lips. “Hey, Kiku?”
“. . .Is your dad okay?”
Kiku blinked, then looked down at the ground in front of them. “No. He has suffered from kidney problems for most of his life, and only recently have they completely affected his daily life.”
_____ paused. So that’s why he could never do anything, she thought. And why he slept so much.
“S-Sorry, Kiku. I didn’t mean to pry. . .”
“It’s alright,” he said quietly. He watched the men in the distance set up the fireworks. “The doctors do what they can with what they have. . .And Chichioya [Father] still smiles despite his circumstance. . .”
_____ watched her friend in bewilderment. This was the first time she had ever seen him so. . .open. To be honest, it scared her a bit. But she relaxed when he did as the first firework was sent noisily up into the sky, exploding in a brilliant flash of color. Two more fireworks were launched, one a bright red and the other a rich purple. The fireworks continued to fly, and _____ and Kiku watched in awe as each individual firework burst in a magnificent and unique design.
_____ smiled softly. “Y’know,” she said, her voice loud enough to barely be heard above the noise of the fireworks. “I’m glad I came here. I really am.”
Kiku smiled back, but looked away as thoughts flooded through his mind. He wanted to tell her, but he didn’t know how. They were friends. How could he tell her so that it wouldn’t ruin their relationship? What if she didn’t feel the same way? What if she did? He wasn’t sure which outcome scared him the most, but he knew he couldn’t just sit around forever.
“_____-kun, I need to tell you something. . .”
_____ looked at him quite innocently. “Yeah? What is it?”
“I. . .”
“‘You. . .’ ?”
“I. . .” He took a deep breath through his nose. “A-Aishiteru, _____-kun. . .”
She blinked, then raised an eyebrow. “Kiku, you know I don’t understand Japane––”
“I said ‘I love you.’”
_____ blinked again, her eyes widening. “What. . . ?”
“Aishiteru. It means ‘I love––’”
Kiku’s words were cut short by ____’s lips crashing gently into his. She pressed her soft lips to his for a moment, then pulled away to see his utterly shocked expression. She smiled. “I heard you the first time.”
Kiku stared at her. “_____-kun. . .Do you. . . ?”
_____ nodded, taking his hand. “I love you, Kiku. Ai. . .Ai-Aishiteru. . .”
Kiku smiled warmly, his face moving closer to hers. “Say it again.”
“A-Aishiteru. . .Am I saying it right?”
He nodded slowly, his smile turning into one of absolute bliss. “Hai. Aishiteru, _____-kun. I have for a long time now.”
_____ looked away. “I-I have, too. . .” She let out a squeak when she felt an arm snake around her waist, then blinked at Kiku in surprise. She then smiled and kissed him again. “Aishiteru, Kiku-kun.”
Kiku lay his cheek on the side of her head, still smiling his euphoric smile. “Aishiteru, _____-kun,” he whispered into her ear. “Watashi wa itsumo motte iru, to watashi wa itsumodarou.” [“I always have, and I always will.”]