Kobe is a nice city, Hitomi thinks to herself as she moves around the factory in the calm stillness of the morning. The mid-March air is still chilly in the early hours of the day, but the temperature is already beginning to rise after a long winter, and despite the fact that soon, seasonal allergies will wreak havoc to her sinuses, she feels especially positive. Not that that's unusual; she's always considered herself a positive, forward-facing person, but there's something about the first signs of spring that bring out the goodness in everything, she thinks, and so she goes about cooking breakfast at the little hot plate she'd finally gotten set up on Tohru's old desk a few years back with a smile on her lips, humming quietly to herself all the while.
It feels so natural to be right here right now, cooking three little cuts of salmon on the small electric stovetop as steam starts to puff out from under the lid of the rice cooker, all arranged atop the metal work desk as if it were a normal kitchen counter. It's hard to believe that she'd only come here five years ago, just a fraction of her life ago. It feels as if she's lived here all her life, except for the fact that it's still sometimes a little difficult to decipher Kobe dialect when spoken too fast, it doesn't seem like five short years ago that everything had fallen apart all over again in Tokyo and she'd somehow found herself taking Tohru up on his offer from two years prior. She honestly hadn't expected much when she'd showed up on his doorstep with a few bags and a two-year-old in tow, but to her surprise, he'd welcomed them with open arms (well, as open as Tohru gets, anyway) and no questions asked. There were difficulties and struggles along the way, to be sure, but since that day Hitomi has never looked back.
And so now here she is, five years down the line, Tohru's almost-stepmother (or something) living in Tohru's stepfather's (real father's) factory along with Tohru's not-quite-stepbrother feeling as if she's never had another home. It's a mess to try to explain the logistics of it, but that's not really what matters at the end of the day, and she's never been happier. She doesn't really think there's any way she can make it up to Tohru for accepting her when no one else was there, though she tries through cooking and doing household chores here and there, but she has a feeling that it doesn't matter in the end. It's not about debt and repayment-- it never has been with Tohru-- it's about love, something that Hitomi is more than capable of giving.
She finishes the fish just as the rice cooker clicks from cooking mode into warming mode, and then all that's left to do is microwave the carton miso soup and breakfast will be ready. It's Sunday morning and so far as she can tell, she's the one awake, but the solitude is nice, really, a break in the noise and activity that comes along with having a small child, and she's still smiling to herself as she puts the dirty cooking utensils in the sink and then moves on to take out the laundry.
She's halfway through emptying the contents of the machine, an odd jumble of worn men's T-shirts, women's underwear, and kids' clothes, when the familiar scuffing of plastic sandals on the stairs brings another smile to her face. "Good morning," she calls without looking up from what she's doing, and knows better than to wait for an immediate answer. She hears the sound of glasses clinking, and then the tap running, and then a moment of silence before a grumbled, "'Morning," comes in reply, and it gives her a warm feeling in the chill of the morning, despite the gruffness. Despite how much so many things have changed in the past five years, some things about Tohru haven't changed at all, and there's comfort in the consistency.
She finishes emptying the damp clean clothes into the laundry hamper and shuts the machine before turning to face Tohru, who seems to be in a semi-conscious state of booting up his brain. Computer metaphors don't mean much to Hitomi, but since Tohru's job is centered around them, she supposes it's a relevant comparison, all the same. After a moment, he sets his glass in the sink and watches Hitomi move across the room towards the stairs, seemingly trying to allow the real world to penetrate his brain for a good few moments before finally commenting, "Oi, I said I'd do that."
She grins because she'd been waiting for that reaction, but shrugs in Tohru's direction as she climbs the stairs, balancing the hamper on one hip and holding the handrail in her free hand. It's a little difficult, but nowhere near as challenging as it had been to climb up and down when she'd been pregnant, and she manages fine (she's not that old!), but still, she can feel Tohru's eyes on her, watching tensely. He gets so overprotective at times, but it's sweet, she thinks, and so she calls, "Are you gonna come keep me company, or what?"
She keeps her eyes on the steps, but she can practically hear Tohru rolling his eyes and making faces before the sound of scuffing starts up again, following her up the stairs. She begins to hum to herself again as she opens the door to the little roof terrace where she and Tohru had had their first real conversation… well, ever. Since then, it's become cluttered with brightly-coloured plastic laundry racks to reflect the tripled number of people whose laundry needs to be hung out to dry, as well as a few potted plants, red and white and purple flowers, and a few scattered kids toys, but it's still the same place, and it still feels a little nostalgic, even now.
A glance in Tohru's direction tells Hitomi that he's thinking the same thing, that weird expression he gets when he's trying to hide that he has feelings settling on his features. "Thinking dirty thoughts?" she asks teasingly, recalling his look of shock and horror when she'd first described her stripping routines to him back then, and she's not disappointed when his eyes grow wide, his mouth hanging open for a moment in shock before he shouts, "Mom!! What the heck?!"
She isn't quite sure when he started calling her 'mom,' but she knows that even now, an ambiguous number of years later, she still can't help but smile like a sentimental idiot when she hears it. It's not in the same Kobe dialect that he used for his own biological mother, but somehow it almost means more that way, and she can't help but beam for a second before coming back to herself, laughing at his expression. Maybe he overreacts to her jokes because it's just how they are, or maybe some part of his response is still genuine, but either way, she loves it, she loves every moment she can spend together this way with her technically-not-quite-stepson who somehow has just become her son.
But now isn't exactly the time to be sitting around waxing eloquent about her feelings of motherly affection for Tohru, because the laundry isn't going to hang itself, and so she gets to work, hanging out large men's clothes, medium-sized women's clothes, and small children's clothes all together. It looks so picturesque and family-like that she almost gets emotional again, but she's brought out of her thoughts when suddenly, Tohru moves in beside her, beginning to hang up the clothes as well. Despite his gruff demeanor, he's always been a good kid, a good guy, ever since they'd first met, and Hitomi bumps into him affectionately as she hangs out his things. His wardrobe has grown slightly in the past seven years, in accordance with his willingness to be an active participant in the world at large, and it only makes her smile grow to think about it.
They hang clothes in silence for a while, but as much as she knows Tohru appreciates the quiet time, Hitomi has always been one for conversation, and so, "Is your brother up yet?" she asks as she clips a small One Piece T-shirt to the line.
"Nope," Tohru responds without complaint, and it's amazing, Hitomi can't help but think, how much he's changed, how much he's gotten healthier since they first met. Certainly the doctor he'd seen for the first few years after they'd first met, at her gentle encouragement, had helped, and the pills he continues to take help, but she likes to believe-- does believe-- that having a family again, strange and different as theirs may be-- plays a part in it. Either way, she can't help but still for a moment, looking at Tohru's smile at the thought of Hitomi's baby, the thought of his brother, even if they're not related by blood. Scary and stressful as it had all been at first, it had been a blessing for both of them, she thinks.
"He's gonna miss his anime if he sleeps too much longer," Tohru adds, as if this is personally offensive to him, and Hitomi can't help but laugh as she goes back to the laundry. "What a good big brother you are~" she croons in response, and "Shut up," Tohru grumbles, but he's grinning all the same.
They return to silence for a few moments as they finish up the laundry, but once the hamper is empty, Hitomi hesitates to pick it up again, looking out onto the city from the edge of the terrace. "It's so peaceful," she comments, and Tohru moves to stand beside her, following her gaze.
"The weather's nice," he replies, something he never would have said seven years ago when they'd first had a conversation akin to this one. "Maybe we can take Ayumu to the park later. He likes sunny Sundays."
Hitomi nods, glancing from the city to Tohru, but before she can say anything, he smiles a little, gazing out over the rooftops, the people walking dogs, the children playing, so much more now than seven years ago, and adds, "I like them, too."
Hitomi is awoken Sunday night by the sound of crying from the next room. The living space attached to the factory is fairly nice for how small and old it is, but the walls are thin, and over the years, she's trained herself to wake up at any sound of distress. She sits up in her futon, trying to discern what has happened and who is as she forces herself into wakefulness, pulling on a sweatshirt against the chill of the night and getting to her feet.
It had been hard, the first few years after she'd come to live here, to deal with all the crying-- not just Ayumu's, but Tohru's, as well. Mostly Tohru's honestly; while Ayumu cried just as much as any other small child when he was little, it was all normal, it was all things Hitomi had known how to fix. It was easy to chase away the bad dreams of a little boy afraid of the imaginary monsters hiding in his closet, but when it was Tohru's sobs that drew Hitomi out of her sleep, muffled from inside the car out in the factory but audible to Hitomi all the same (she can't imagine how anyone could not hear their own son suffering as much as Tohru suffered), she hadn't known what to do. Tohru's nightmares were much harder to cure, Tohru's demons were real, and she'd felt so scared, so helpless the first few times she'd crept out into the darkness to find him huddled up in his blanket screaming wordlessly into the night.
But if there was one thing she had known, it was that she couldn't turn her back on him, couldn't let him suffer alone, and so she'd quietly let herself into the passenger's side of the car, scooting up beside Tohru and putting an arm around him, trying to draw him into wakefulness without startling him too much. He'd been startled all the same at first, and then angry and ashamed to be seen in that state, but when she'd done the only thing she knew how to do and told him it was going to be okay and that she was here for him no matter what, eventually, he had broken down and cried into her shoulder and let her hold him, and maybe it wasn't much, but Hitomi was more than happy to give. She'd cried too, a little, to know that he trusted her this way, and maybe it was stupid, but it made her feel just as much like maybe she was doing this mother thing right as when she was with Ayumu.
It had taken a long time for the nightmares to subside-- in fact, even Hitomi, with her ever-positive outlook, had thought that they weren't going to, ever, but slowly, over time, they had faded away. Tohru had continued to sleep in the car for years, and Hitomi hadn't ever said anything about it, only brought out more blankets and futons for him to use in winter and gifted him with a battery-operated fan to leave on the dashboard to combat the heat in summer, because who was she to tell him what was best when she couldn't even imagine everything he must have gone through? But slowly, over the years, she had woken up in the night less and less, and in the mornings that she rose before Tohru, she'd found him peacefully sleeping with his pillow braced against the window of the truck, and even if he never wanted to sleep inside, even if things were never perfect again, Hitomi couldn't help but think, as she'd watched his even breathing and the peaceful look on his face that she'd thought she'd never see, that he was going to be okay.
She'd been hesitant to let Ayumu have the second bedroom when he'd started getting too big to share her futon, but Tohru had insisted, and then even gone out and bought a brand new set of sheets in Ayumu's favourite colour (red) to prove to her that he meant it. And so Ayumu had moved into the second bedroom, and Hitomi had stayed in her own bedroom, and Tohru had continued to sleep in the car… until one night, Hitomi was awoken not only by the sound of Tohru's muffled sobs, but by the sound of footsteps outside her door.
It had taken a while for her brain to register what that meant, but once she realized, she was out of bed in a second, hurrying out of her bedroom to find the the hanging cloth in the doorway to the factory swaying as if someone had just passed through. She hadn't been sure what was going to happen, but the last thing she wanted was for either one of her children to accidentally hurt the other, and so she had followed, but what she had seen immediately stopped her in her tracks on the steps.
Ayumu had been standing before the car for a moment, just watching Tohru thrash and cry out in his sleep, before walking over to the passenger's side door and opening it without hesitation. Hitomi had been amazed; it was hard enough for her to watch Tohru suffer, to know what to do when he was in that sort of state state, but Ayumu was fearless, climbing into the car and moving in beside Tohru and hugging him with all his four-year-old strength. Tohru had woken in shock, but Ayumu had been unruffled, only replied, "It's okay, Niichan. I'll sleep with you so you can stop having bad dreams."
Hitomi had been moved to tears, and once Tohru had settled down and accepted Ayumu's presence, curled up against his side, she had gone back to bed without another word, feeling all over again that no matter what their problems were, their little family could overcome anything.
And so it went on that way for another few weeks, but as the weather had started to get colder, and with it the chill of the poorly-insulated factory, Hitomi could see Tohru begin to get more and more agitated about Ayumu's presence in the car at night. But no matter how many times he asked if he wouldn't rather sleep inside, Ayumu had insisted that he wanted to be with his big brother to help chase away the bad dreams, and Hitomi had been beginning to worry, herself, about how this would get resolved when, one day, she noticed Tohru leading Ayumu into the second bedroom. He glared at her when she had raised an eyebrow, but when she hadn't relented-- that was what moms did, right?-- he'd finally give up and snapped, "I decided I wanted to sleep inside, okay? It's fucking cold out there." Which they both knew meant that Tohru had been worried about Ayumu, but Hitomi had come to accept and understand Tohru's inability to speak his emotions at times like this, even if it sometimes still frustrated her, and so she ruffled his hair as if he hadn't been almost 30 and told him to call when Ayumu was ready to be tucked in.
And so now, when she hears crying coming from the next room, she isn't sure whose crying it is in her semisomnia, and so she hurries into the hall, about to turn the corner into Tohru and Ayumu's bedroom when another voice catches her off guard. "Shhh," someone is saying, quietly and gently, "Don't cry," and it takes Hitomi a good minute to realize that the voice belongs to Tohru.
Of course, as she stops and listens outside the door, she realizes, of course it's Tohru. He hasn't had nightmares or any serious flashbacks for years, whereas Ayumu, as an average seven-year-old, has bad dreams now and again… but even to Hitomi, who likes to think she knows Tohru better than pretty much anyone in the world (anyone living, anyway), the sound of Tohru's voice, not gruff and withdrawn like normal, but quiet and tender and as big brotherly as humanly possible, sounds almost foreign. But yet, at the same time, it's so amazing, so perfect to hear him allow himself to be human, allow himself to interact with Ayumu on such a close personal level, and suddenly, Hitomi feels as if her heart is swelling out of her chest and tears are welling in her eyes all over again.
She stands in the hallway and listens for a few more moments as Tohru comforts Ayumu until his tears slow and he falls back asleep before going back into her own bedroom. After all, she's not needed here; Tohru has everything under control.
Hitomi works late on Monday evenings, always has ever since she'd gotten a job as a dance teacher at a local recreation center, and so it's already dark by the time she's arriving home after her last class. When she'd successfully passed the interview for the position, she'd been worried about the late hours a few days of the week, considering that Ayumu had only been three at the time, but the day after she'd come home and told Tohru the news, she'd found a printout left suspiciously on the desk beside the rice cooker labeled as Tohru's new schedule as of next week, with his hours on the days that Hitomi worked late moved forward several hours. She couldn't help but smile; it was such a Tohru thing to do, both to change his schedule to help her without even being asked and to refuse to talk about it face to face, and somehow, that makes it even more endearing.
At first, she'd been a little worried about leaving Tohru and Ayumu alone together, not out of concern for Tohru's responsibility or fear that Ayumu would go out of his way to make trouble, but as a mother she couldn't exactly help it, could she? Ayumu was still so young, and Tohru was still so vulnerable, but to her surprise, the first week, she'd come home to find Tohru and Ayumu curled up on the sofa together watching a kids' DVD on Tohru's laptop, as if nothing could be better in the world. When she'd asked later if everything had gone all right, Tohru's only complaint had been that the main character of Pokemon was an idiot and that they needed to diversify their kids' DVD collection, something with which Hitomi definitely couldn't argue.
Things had changed little by little over time; with Hitomi bringing in a steady income, as well, they'd saved up enough to buy a little TV so that Ayumu could watch the same shows that his friends at preschool were talking about, and somewhere from the depths of the clutter, Tohru had unearthed the old Nintendo Super Famicon that his father had bought him when he had been in elementary school, which was, in fact, so old that it seemed new and unique to Ayumu. And then few years later, Ayumu had started school, and Hitomi had been moved all over again to come home one day to find Tohru patiently helping Ayumu with his homework at the little coffee table for the sofa that they'd bought in lieu of a dinner table a while back. She couldn't-- still can't-- really believe how wonderful her life has become, despite the mundane normalcy of it, can't really believe that somehow, she'd started her life over completely differently and yet somehow still found happiness all over again.
For some reason, Monday nights are particularly prone to this sort of self-reflection, perhaps because it's the beginning of the week and therefore everything feels fresh, or perhaps because she's particularly tired and loopy coming off of the first day of work after the weekend, but whatever the reason, she tries to let herself in as quietly as possible on Mondays, so that she can just stand and watch Tohru and Ayumu for a few moments, so that she can bask in the perfection of their little family. Maybe it's odd, maybe it's abnormal, maybe some people wouldn't call it a family at all, but to Hitomi, it's just right, and so she quietly slides the door into place behind her, peering across the room to see Tohru and Ayumu seated side-by-side on the sofa, Ayumu leaning over his workbook as Tohru supervised.
"Okay… Okay… Okay… wait, what're you doing?" Tohru is saying, and while Hitomi can't see what Ayumu is working on, she can't help but smile at how much encouragement Tohru gives when he gets the answer right, along with help when he struggles. She can remember first seeing that side of Tohru seven years ago, she can remember wanting to draw it out, but somehow, despite her best efforts, Ayumu had been the one to really do it without even trying.
"What?" he asks now, looking up at his older brother with a perplexed frown, and it's so cute that Hitomi has to bite her lip from letting out an embarrassing cooing noise. But it's worth it to hold it in, she thinks; she wants to see Tohru's response.
"Zero plus one is definitely not eleven," Tohru replies, his voice playful, pointing at the page in the workbook, "Look, see?"
"Ehh, that's not a ten??" Ayumu replies, his overblown reaction an adorable mirror of Tohru's at times. He really does remind her of Tohru more and more often the older he gets despite the fact that they're not biologically related, all except his odd mix of Kobe dialect from school and from Tohru and the standard Tokyo phrases and words he's learned from her, and it makes her feel as if her heart is going to explode sometimes, in the best of ways.
"Ehhh, you can do math but you can't read??" Tohru replies teasingly, ruffling Ayumu's hair as he hands him the eraser. "That's amazing!"
"Niichaaaaaan," Ayumu whines in response, but he's grinning too as he erases his mistake and tries again. He works for a few more moments in silence before asking, "Can you show me more cool things on your computer when I'm done?"
Tohru laughs; he's not exactly a computer programmer or anything, but ever since his job at the gilding factory had become more focused on the Internet and web design, he'd worked hard to teach himself everything he could about computers without actually attending classes, and while Hitomi knows he'd deny it, she's seen the stacks of books he's built up in the past seven years, she's caught glimpses of the look of concentration in his eyes when he tries to figure out new programs for the first time, and she knows.
"Okay… but it's not that cool, you know," he responds, but Hitomi knows that he's pleased, despite himself, that Ayumu is interested in what he does, and a moment later, she can tell, no matter how much he tries to hide it, that his face lights up in the warmest of smiles when Ayumu cheers in reply.
"I wanna be a cool computer programmer like Niichan when I grow up," he adds after another moment, and while somehow, Tohru manages to keep from exploding into glitter or flower petals or something along those lines, manages to fight back too much of a response besides his cheeks turning a little red, Hitomi thinks that she's pretty sure she can't contain herself much longer.
Still, she manages to stay quiet for another moment, long enough to hear Tohru's reply of, "Well-- computer programmers have to be able to do math, so you better focus!" and to think that there's no question about it; her life is perfect.
Tuesday evenings are always slow, probably the slowest night of the week. While even between Hitomi and Tohru's salaries, they can't afford the fancy sort of lessons that some of Ayumu's classmates take, Hitomi wants to do everything she can to encourage his growing interest in a variety of activities, and so he takes swim lessons at the community center in the summer, where Hitomi can get a discount due to her job, and he's recently joined her kids' hip-hop class, as well. He's always been an active kid, but recently, after starting elementary school and taking music class for the first time, he expressed an interest in taking piano lessons, and so regardless of the expense, they'd found him a place to get piano lessons. Hitomi had worried that a place within their price range wasn't going to be good enough, but, "Shut up," Tohru had said, "That worried face doesn't suit you," and Hitomi had figured that, in the end, he was probably right.
And so on Tuesday evenings, Ayumu has piano lessons at a local music shop, and Tohru and Hitomi wait the hour outside in the lobby together. He has the last time slot of the night, clearly unpopular for whatever reason-- unpopular enough that they were able to get a discount, even, for piano lessons from eight to nine pm-- and even the receptionist tends to disappear into the back room, leaving Tohru and Hitomi alone in the lobby for the hour. It's not exactly an exciting time, and to be honest, Hitomi isn't even sure why Tohru had started coming along, but when she'd said as much to him, asking him if he wouldn't rather spend the evening in the peace and quiet at home without them, Tohru had only shrugged and said, "not like I have anything better to do," which in the language of Tohru undoubtedly meant, for whatever reason, he wanted to come along. But Hitomi isn't going to argue with that, and so, despite the fact that sitting in the lobby of the music shop isn't particularly interesting, she almost looks forward to it, to her weekly hour with Tohru.
Usually, Tohru brings his laptop along and fiddles with either work or his studies; he's been deeply immersed in some sort of web design book for the past few weeks and spends a lot of time muttering angrily at his computer screen in frustration, and Hitomi brings a book, or else plays a game on her phone (she's recently finally switched to a smartphone when the prince of flip-phones themselves became too outrageous to outweigh the price of the smartphone service; "It's expensive," she'd said when she and Tohru had gone to the Softbank store together half a year ago, but he'd raised an eyebrow at her and asked her who she was and what she'd done with his mother, to which she laughed and relented that she wanted it and he rolled his eyes and snapped that they could definitely afford it so "hurry up and pick which one you want, you old lady," and things had felt right between them, right in the normalcy of it). She doesn't mind sitting together in relative silence; for all she usually wanted to talk, just the knowledge that Tohru had wanted to be there with her at all was enough, really.
But today, after they wave goodbye to Ayumu and he goes off with his piano teacher, Tohru flops down onto the waiting room sofa with a sigh, a suspicious grin on his face as he slouches into the cushions, and Hitomi notices that he doesn't even seem to have his computer with him, only a few file folders peeking out from inside his bag.
"What's with that face?" she asks as she perches herself beside him, unable to contain her own grin just at the thought that something is making Tohru so happy.
"Nothing," Tohru responds with a shrug, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows for a moment in an attempt to hide his expression, but his eyes are still gleeful, even despite everything, and Hitomi can't help but laugh at how obvious his emotions always are on his face.
And so, "Come on, come on, come on," she needles, poking him in the shoulder as he swats at her with a frown. "Tell your mom what's making you smile so much~"
Tohru heaves a sigh, as if she's asking him to do something incredibly unpleasant, clicking his tongue and making a face, but after a moment, he pulls one of the files from his bag, opening it up to reveal what appears to be an elementary schooler's composition. She can see a messily scribbled picture of a man with some sort of description written in pencil beneath, and the big red hanamaru from the teacher, but not much else from the way Tohru is holding the paper close to his chest, protectively, almost. "What's that?" she asks, because even if she knows that Tohru is probably going to explain, she likes to give him encouragement now and again.
"Geez, can't you wait five seconds?" Tohru responds grumblingly, to which Hitomi makes a face at him, because she won't ever get tired of teasing, but as he looks down at the paper, her face softens into a smile, and she waits as Tohru seems to screw up the courage before reading. It takes a lot out of Tohru to be straightforward, she knows, but she can wait as long as he needs. After all, he is her son.
Tohru makes a variety of faces staring down at the paper in front of him before finally furrowing his brow and reading, "The person I look up to," and Hitomi realizes it must be one of Ayumu's compositions from school, the one she can vaguely recall him talking about writing a few weeks back. But she doesn't want to interrupt, doesn't want to break Tohru's concentration or intrude into the safe space he seems to have created for himself inside his head, and so she simply listens as he continues.
Tohru is back to making faces, glancing at Hitomi seemingly for reassurance, and so she smiles at him, nodding. He rolls his lips together, and she wonders what exactly Ayumu had written about that's making Tohru so worked up, but after a moment, her question is answered.
"My older brother Tohru is my hero," Tohru finally reads quietly, eyes fixed on the paper in front of him. "He's smart, talented, and really cool. When I'm sad, he's there and helps me. He's a computer programmer. When I grow up, I want to be like him, so I want to be a computer programmer too. And I want to be there for other people, just like he's always there for me."
Tohru's voice has grown quieter and more tight as he reads, his head angling lower and lower until Hitomi can no longer see his face, but even if she could, she thinks she'd have to look away, anyway. There aren't really words for all the emotions running through her right now, and she can only imagine what Tohru must be feeling. Maybe it's just a silly kid's composition, but she knows that Ayumu means the world to Tohru, whether he'll say it or not, and to hear that from him must be more than he knows how to handle.
But then again, Tohru has never really been that great at handling emotions at all, and so Hitomi thinks, it's on her to help him through it. Even if she can't always give him what he needs, she at least prides herself in being able to draw him out of his shell for the most part and make him laugh, and so she slaps him on the back, making him jump and look at her wide-eyed, struggling to wipe his eyes and nose with his sleeve.
"Good job," she announces, laughing loudly and slapping him on the back again. "I've taught you all that I can about parenting. Time to go out in the world and make your own babies now!"
And, as expected, he makes a face of horror, crying, "Ehhhhhhhh??" and curling up into a ball, but even as he does it, she can see him laughing, and she thinks, for everything he's done for Ayumu, and for all he's grown, himself, in the past five years, Tohru deserves a great big hanamaru, too.
Ayumu's elementary school graduation is the next morning, which means he, as a second grader, is done with school at a quarter to ten. Hitomi isn't sure why he had to go in at all to be there for a grand total of seventy-five minutes, but, "It's the way it's always been, okay," Tohru tells her, and so she sends him off with his backpack at eight am as always, telling him she'll see him after school, because luckily for the school's wacky scheduling, Wednesday is one of her days off.
It's only once she's sent Ayumu on his way that suddenly she realizes something is off, and she turns back to Tohru, who's nonchalantly leaning against the desk eating a banana. "Hey-- why aren't you at work?" she asks, to which he shrugs.
"I've worked at that place for like ten years and never took any vacation days until like 2 years ago," he replies after he swallows, tossing the banana peel into the trash. "My boss has started telling me if I don't take some of the ones I've saved up he's gonna fire me. Pretty sure he's joking, though."
"So… you took off today?" Hitomi asks, squinting at him. It seems like sort of a odd choice, seeing as it's random Wednesday in March, but with Tohru, she thinks, one never can know what, exactly goes through his head. Besides, she's not exactly going to complain if he's going to keep her company.
Tohru doesn't respond, scuffing across the room and grabbing the remote to the pulley basket. Even now, even after five years of cohabiting with others, he still mimics using magic to lower the basket every time he uses it, and Hitomi can't help but grin as she watches him. He's such a quirky kid (okay, man, really, but he'll always be a kid to Hitomi, a little bit), and she loves him for it, loves seeing the side of him that, seven years ago, was mostly too covered by trauma and hurt and fear to show through.
She watches him retrieve another banana from the basket before holding up another and gesturing towards her in offering, tossing it to her across the factory when she nods. It's probably not an advisable way to handle fruit, but it feels good to catch it, as if she's able to catch Tohru's feelings, his thoughts, the meanings under his words and actions, too. The banana tastes like victory (or perhaps that's all in her head) as she peels it and takes a bite, watching Tohru raise the basket again and walk back over towards her.
"I thought we could all go out and get food together, or something," he says at length, and Hitomi blinks, having forgotten they were in the middle of a conversation. "What?" she asks, more out of an instinctive reaction to her own confusion than because she didn't hear his words, and he frowns at her before adding, "He's done in like an hour, right? And you don't have work."
She can feel her face lighting up, because of course Tohru had thought about her, and Ayumu, and their little family, and no matter how he likes to act like it's no big deal, it is to Hitomi. But before she finds the right words, the sound of the steam train at the zoo interrupts her, and somehow, all she can say is, "Maybe after lunch we can go to the zoo together."
"Are you kidding? It's freaking cold," Tohru replies, but he's grinning, and as he tells her to hurry up and get dressed and get ready to go, she's already looking forward to riding the train together and seeing the new spring scenery, the flowers and the trees and all the little things that Ayumu will undoubtedly point out that she and Tohru have never noticed before, as a family.
Ayumu falls asleep in the car on the way back from the zoo. It's understandable, Hitomi thinks, after a long and exciting day, but since he has school tomorrow, she slips out of the car to take him to bed right away while Tohru pulls it inside and parks. He's just closing the garage doors when she returns, and tosses her purse to her from where she left it in the car seat after he finishes. She sighs, feeling tired but content, at almost the exact same time that Tohru does, causing him to look suspiciously at her, as if she's reading his mind or something. She laughs; Tohru really is such a funny guy, and she loves everything about him, just the same way that she loves Ayumu. She likes to think she understands the way that Tohru's father must have felt about him, because it becomes clearer to her every day that blood really has nothing to do with family.
"Want a drink?" she asks as he kicks off his shoes and scuffs into his plastic slippers unceremoniously, and he nods before disappearing into the living space. Undoubtedly, he wants to say goodnight to Ayumu himself, something he'd never admit and Hitomi would never call him out on, but something she finds incredibly endearing nonetheless, and so she opens the refrigerator, withdrawing a bottle of white wine for herself and a soda for Tohru, as she has with relative frequency on evenings like this for the past few years. Tohru doesn't drink, he never has as long as she's known him, and while she doesn't know why, she doesn't think it's her place to ask questions. But he's always been perfectly happy to sit around drinking soda while Hitomi drinks, so she pours both of their beverages of choice into glasses and brings them over to the sofa, seating herself just as Tohru reappears on the stairs.
"Come on~" she beckons, patting the open seat on the sofa, and Tohru rolls his eyes, but he comes, dropping down onto the seat beside her. "Thanks for today~" she adds singsongily, handing him his drink, and he lets the act of annoyance drop, giving her a smile as he accepts the glass. "Mm," he replies after a moment, taking a sip of his drink before setting it on the end table and looking off into the distance.
Hitomi isn't really sure what Tohru thinks about when his eyes glaze over that way; perhaps, she's guessed, it comes from living alone for so long, but on the other hand, maybe it's just a quirk of his character. No one who'd raised him from youth is alive to tell her, so she supposes she'll never know, but it doesn't matter in the end. He never seems to be upset by whatever it is that's inside his head (or perhaps far off in the distance) at times like these, and so she just lets him think, watching over him in his reverie.
After a few moments, though, she get tired of the silence, and so she sets her glass on the table, wandering over to the little radio that still hangs from the factory wall. It's beyond obsolete now, but it still works, and so they've never replaced it. For whatever reason, she and Tohru have always had the same taste in extremely un-trendy music, so the radio is already tuned to the right station when she switches it on, listening for a moment before returning to the sofa. Tohru seems to have been brought back to the here and now by the sound, and he looks up at her as she returns, wordlessly watching in that way he has.
"Want me to do a song and dance~?" she teases, shaking her hips a little just to see Tohru's horrified expression.
"Groooooooss," he replies, making an overblown act of gagging and looking away. "Aren't you like an old lady who teaches kids now??"
"I teach adults, too," she responds, purposefully bumping up against him as she sits on the sofa. He laughs, she can see him even though he's leaning away from her, and she pokes him in the arm with a grin and a, "You're laughing!"
He forces his features into a scowl and sticks his tongue out at her, and she can't help but smile, punching him in the shoulder affectionately. Maybe he still acts like a kid despite being an adult, but Hitomi has always loved that about him, has always, she likes to think, understood him on some level. Ever since they'd first met seven years ago, she'd felt like she'd understood him, a little bit, anyway… perhaps because she wasn't a big fan of acting her age, either, or perhaps because just in those few days they'd known one another, some part of her had already begun to feel a little bit like his mother, but either way, no matter how hard things have been for either of them in the past, she feels lucky to have met him, lucky to have had things end up this way.
Tohru is quiet for a few minutes as well, sipping his drink as his expression returns to a pleasantly neutral one, before suddenly, he screws up his face again, looking down into his cup. "But… you teach kids on Saturday, right?" he asks, not making eye contact, which makes Hitomi raise an eyebrow, suspicious.
"Yeah, and Ayumu's class is Saturday morning, why~?" she replies, nudging him with her elbow a little. "Got a hot date or something?"
"What the hell, no way!" he shoots back, his face flushing red. "I just told some guy from work that he could come over, okay??"
"Some guy from work~?" Hitomi asks, her suspicions only growing. "Since when have you had any friends from work?" Since when has Tohru had any friends, really; the fact that he seemed to have no interest in others his own age in any sense had sort of worried Hitomi at first, but when he'd begun to open up more to her and to Ayumu, she'd come to accept that perhaps he wasn't ready for anyone yet besides his family.
"He's new, okay?!" Tohru grumbled with a pout, looking at her ruefully, in a way amusingly similar to Ayumu at times when he was denied sweets. "Some weird hipster musician guy from Miyagi. Moved down here after the earthquake up there. Works at the factory as his day job but he plays at bars at night or something. He says he needs to solder his guitar, so…"
"…So you offered~?" Hitomi finishes, elbowing him a little more. "Wasn't that nice of you~~~"
"Shut up!" Tohru pouts, slouching into the sofa, but something about his expression is a little different. "He said… Everyone at work wanted to hear one of his songs, so he played one. About what happened in Tohoku. And he said he wanted to hear about what happened down here. So I said he could come over here if he wanted, okay?!"
He looks at her as if he expects her to laugh, but for as much as she'd wanted to keep teasing him (for as much as she's sort-of expected something like this to happen eventually, for all that Tohru has always seemed horrified of girly-parts), something about his tone, about his words, about the look in his eyes stops the words in her throat, and instead, she finds herself softening, smiling, as warmth blossoms in her chest. It's not an unfamiliar feeling, some mixture of swelling motherly pride and tingling joy for Tohru's sake, but while in the past, the feeling had stemmed from seeing Tohru and Ayumu's varying accomplishments, good grades and promotions at work, right now, she can't quite put her finger on its source. Still, Hitomi has always trusted her gut, and so she slings an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close.
"What do you want, woman?!" Tohru grumps, but he's smiling, too, a warm, shy smile that blooms over his lips in a way that Hitomi has never seen on him before, and he doesn't struggle away.
She doesn't really want to break the mood, doesn't want to waste this moment, so tiny and seemingly unimportant, but yet somehow momentous in her heart. But she knows she can't stop time, and so, "I'll take Ayumu out for dinner after my classes are done, okay?" she says at length, quietly but definitively.
Tohru tries to frown, but he can't quite force his smile down, and this is amazing, Hitomi thinks, like watching a flower grow and blossom in real time. She's never seen Tohru like this before, and perhaps it shouldn't be a big deal, but somehow, to her, just like every other little change she's seen in him in the past, just like every other tiny bit of growth she's confident she'll continue to see in the future, it is.
She'd be content just to watch him forever, watch him look truly happy this way, but finally, he nods. "Thanks," he mumbles, letting his smile show through just a little as he looks at her out of the corner of his eyes, and is this really the same guy at whom, seven years ago, she'd wanted to shout if you have something to say then just say it directly! every five seconds? But the look in his eyes now as he meets hers feels like more than any words or any touch could, and she loves him, she loves him so much that now she's the one who doesn't know how to say it directly.
But she knows she has to try, and so, "That's my boy," she praises, squeezing his shoulder a little. He leans into her a little, in turn, and for all the men she's embraced in her lifetime, she could never have imagined that the one the would mean the most to her isn't romantic or sexual at all. She loves Tohru in a way that she never could have imagined, in a way that only a mother could, and more than the attentions of any admirer, it makes her heart swell to know that Tohru loves her too. She supposes that Tohru has always known how to love family who aren't blood related, Tohru has probably always known how to love better than she has overall, but they've grown together, both of them, here in this unlikely place. They've grown into themselves, but they've grown into their little family, too, and, Hitomi thinks idly, perhaps when she'd dreamed of going to a far-off place by train as a child, this had been the final stop that she was looking for.
She realizes belatedly that she's gotten lost in her own reverie now, that they've grown silent, but it isn't uncomfortable. She sighs contentedly to herself, moving her hand up to play with the ends of Tohru's hair affectionately as the radio plays softly in the background. The song is nostalgic, but despite all of the memories attached to it, for the past seven years, she's always associated it with Tohru for some reason, and as the song reaches the chorus, she can't help but begin singing along quietly…
I will follow you
even though I'm a little weak willed
because you're a wonderful person
blooming on the shore of my heart
red sweet pea…