A\N: orz;; Muroi seems quite depressed here. I didn't originally mean for this chapter to be so downbeat, with no hopes of resolution. But, somehow, it ended up this way.

Also: On Duluth—This Duluth isn't quite the "real" one. It's kind of like what Shibuya in TWEWY is to the real Shibuya—the landmarks, such as the Graffiti Wall in the previous chapter are maintained, though, smaller things, such as restaurants and movie theaters/concert halls etc. have been changed.


Rain dropped into the teacup. He had left it out on the porch the day before, to watch the fireflies flit around the rim, lapping up the remnants of the tea that he had made that afternoon. He'd made a mental note to retrieve it later, he currently lacked the drive.

He was aware of a vague stirring in his heart. The fireflies that slept there were now gone. They were dearly missed. The definite forms of uncaring insects, flitting about in the snow. They had a warm feeling to them. Sunako had stored them in jars, before realizing that her love for them was slowly killing them off. In turn, Seishin had bought her a habitat to keep them in. Their ephemeral lives contrasted with her eternal one. And, whatever fleeting happiness they had brought was enough for her. Although, by the time winter rolled around, her own fireflies were gone, and his would be there to comfort her.

But, they were missing now. Replaced by something that wasn't quite humanoid. It stood upright, and peered at the outside world through red-rimmed eyes. It made him a hollow man. Toshio had told him about it once. Though, he knew the other man wouldn't remember, now. "Seishin, it's not quite like that. I think… it's just something that you hold, because you can't stand to let it go."

And then, it had all shattered. Toshio himself was unaware of what he had done. The previous Tuesday had passed without any cause for celebration. As usual, Toshio hadn't assigned a particular time for the meeting—Seishin had to guess. He was two hours early, as Toshio had seen it.

Their conversation had been more fruitful this time. Toshio had the sense to steer clear from dead-end questions, though they somehow kept reoccurring not of his own volition, and Seishin had the courage to face him. Toshio had still had a nagging sense of disappointment.

"A coffee-cup friendship."

"Hm?"

"You know… Those guys that get together to get coffee, or something… But , nothing past that."

"…Oh…"

"Where did all that trust go?"

"…"

As usual, Seishin withdrew himself from the conversation without quite meaning to do so. The words welled up in his mouth, but festered as quickly as they had appeared. He didn't need the coffee. Or the interaction. But, somehow he had ended up having both. And the discontentment encroached.

He didn't particularly like sneaking behind Sunako's back—he saw it that way. He hadn't told her about meeting Toshio, just being reacquainted with a friend. She hadn't pried. And he didn't intend to keep deceiving her.

It should have died out four years ago… He thought. Some bitter nostalgia was left, underneath the watch-hand. Just above the surface of the skin. Words that had been meant for a different man. He's still… the same… Talking about the same things… "And, he's still chasing that future."

The sand in the hourglass was suffocating. In the distance, he could hear the pendulum swinging, the clocks clacking, the birds crowing. Ten feet too deep in his own thoughts. Even now… The village still buried its dead.

Crossing thirty-two might have meant something to him before. Thirty-three. Then thirty-four. Maybe, one day, he would have woken up with the startling realization that he had loved the temple; he had simply gone a little astray. But, he was far too old to believe in faerie-tale taglines. And far too young to kick off the blanket. It still kept monsters away, hid him from the dark, took the sound of that doleful bell away.

The snow would be coming soon. And Tuesday was approaching once again. He knew all too well what it had meant. A third lie added onto the first two. Shadows fluttered from beyond the pages. No Sotoba-born child should have been this free.

"Hey Seishin… What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"… I don't know…"

"Oh. Haven't decided yet?"

"What about you, Toshio?"

"… I… Just want to be happy…"

In the end, he had gotten that fleeting bluebird. He set his spectacles down on the table. He didn't need to see the faces beyond the door. Sunako would be up soon. He'd have to compose himself before then.

His fingers itched for the steering wheel. The soft asphalt grinding beneath the tires of his Toyota. It was a small car. He didn't need any direction. And, that pleased him. The cold wind blowing through his hair. The hours between the night and the dawn, chasing that endless horizon. And then the augmented dreams on the sandy shoals.

It was his city after all. At night, that was. No Shiki. No other Shiki. Though, Toshio's arrival had threatened to shatter that existence. He hadn't done anything wrong per se. It was just… A displaced feeling. Something irreparable. It wouldn't be that way again. But yet, the lingering feelings persisted.

His determination hit a peak. He fumbled with the cellphone. It had his number. The doctor had given it to him. That alone was a sign of trust. He held his breath. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. He was apprehensive. The phone slipped from his hands and hit the floor.

"Hello?" Seishin froze. He hadn't counted on Toshio answering. He'd wanted a passive withdrawal. An answering-machine call, a dead-end friendship, and then it'd be done. In two years he'd move. "… Seishin? Is that…?"

He tenderly held the phone before disconnecting the line. Toshio would call back. And the jinrou would 'forget' his phone between the couch cushions.

He'd half-expected Toshio to walk in. And there was a part of him that had wanted to crawl back to Toshio. Be held and comforted. Even if it was a lie.

But, head monks weren't supposed to dream about married doctors. They were supposed to make heirs with able priestesses. And jinrou weren't supposed to be unnerved by nearly-middle-aged humans.

He could have just sent Toshio home. Dug in to the crook of his neck. Convinced him that he had really wanted to go back to Japan. Live in Sotoba, like everybody else. Be content with chasing after the bird of paradise, rather than reaching it.

Toshio was… Just east of Eden. A step short of heaven. Two hops away from utopia. Utopia means no place, Seishin thought wistfully. So, he'd never reach. Every year, he'd grow. And fall a little too short. He'd been nurturing a burden of his own volition. Perhaps he hadn't noticed it. They had both been shackled for so long.

The years that passed… They had been the same for him. Halfway between desire and apprehension. He was stuck. Crushed underneath the sands of the hourglass. Toshio was still there, despite the fact that he'd had the intension to let Sotoba go.

"I won't let you in. Even if you are Nao."

But, the time had already passed. And, the days were growing shorter. So, when he sauntered out the door, he hadn't thought about Toshio.