Tokyo Ghosts Short: X-Mas (Nick/Ayase)
Ayase and Nick try to help each other through the holiday.
(Illustration by Angeline Mauri.)
The Tokyo Ghosts side story, X-Mas, takes place after the side story Grow Up but before Tokyo Ghosts: Book 1. It contains adult content and is sold as a download in our Cherry Bomb line. It is not necessary for an understanding of the novel, but provides further insight.
This short story is recommended for ages 17+.
It was hard to be with Nick in peacetime.
Ayase noticed, with extreme guilt, that Nick being injured actually made it easier to visit him. It was a good excuse–if he needed something from the pharmacy, if Hatsumi was gone for the weekend and he couldn’t get into bed without help, Ayase could volunteer. After waking up from his coma, Nick was in recovery for a year. An entire year of medications, surgery around those gunshot wounds, and physical therapy before he was out of a wheelchair. While he was in recovery–and had immediate, physical needs–Ayase could grab whichever friend was nearest and go to help Nick.
Once he was better and the urgency drifted away, things…changed. The adults stopped sending her to Nick’s with pre-made dinners for his freezer. Whenever there was a group get-together where Nick RSVPed, some of her friends made excuses to skip. Ayase asked Jo about it once–a little sharper than she meant to–and Jo squinted at her in distaste.
“If Nick doesn’t need us,” he muttered, “why would I hang out with him? The guy’s a dick.”
Ayase couldn’t exactly argue with that.
Still…it left an unease in her gut. She didn’t feel indebted to Nick after the gang war, since she and her friends had risked just as much as he had–so it wasn’t guilt. It just felt wrong, somehow. Cruel? When she realized she felt too weird to text him when she walked past his apartment, a sudden grief washed over her like a dark, dragging tide.
It was Daniel’s idea for Nick to teach her English.
Daniel brought it up casually, on one of his last nights in Japan–a potluck dinner in the renovated church before the Vatican transferred him to Europe. He barely got the sentence out before Ayase jerked her head up from her plate.
“Okay,” she snapped, the same second Nick did.
Daniel blinked in surprise, his blue eyes dragging from Nick’s face to hers. “Oh?” he asked. “You like that idea?”
Ayase swallowed. “I still have a lot of trouble understanding Adam-san,” she admitted. “I should practice more.”
“I don’t know what shit passes for ‘English class’ in their high school,” Nick muttered. “But if these kids are ever gonna travel outside Japan, they need to know more than Japanese. And I’ve got time these days–I’ll tutor them.”
Daniel beamed, which made Ayase shrivel slightly. “Lovely!” he exclaimed. “I wish I could stay to join in, since my English is terrible. But improved foreign language skills will make it easier for you kids to come to Europe and visit me, if you like.”
Ayase threw a glance at Sachi, who flashed a polite smile and shrugged. Kadoyuki nodded, Jo grimaced slightly, and Kiyoshi was so busy eating that he’d apparently missed the conversation.
“Tutor us,” Ayase told Nick, locking eyes with him across the table. His brow furrowed, so she cleared her throat.
They met weekly, then monthly, then whenever they could find a time that worked. Jo was the usual holdout, so Ayase stopped scheduling around him. Once they graduated high school and Kiyoshi joined the workforce, it got harder for him to come, but at least he put in the effort.
Ayase’s English improved, although she discovered what Nick warned her about–that Adam’s English pronunciation was different from how Nick spoke. And that, in turn, sounded different from Shouri’s English.
“Adam grew up speaking a dialect in the Caribbean,” Nick explained one day. “I’ve heard him talk on the phone with his grandma, and I can barely understand half the words coming out of his mouth. And Shouri and I have accents on Standard American English–she’s from Georgia, I’m from Boston. I try not to teach you that, but I slip sometimes.” He made a face. “Park the car,” he said in slower, strained English.
“Should we be learning Standard American English?” she asked.
“Well, that’s closer to the stuff you’re learning in school. And that’s what you hear on TV.” Nick paused. “Actually, maybe I should start taking you kids to American movies. Stuff with Japanese subtitles, so you’ll be able to connect the words to the audio.”
Sachi perked up a little at that. “I’m always up for going to the movies more,” he admitted.
Hearing that Sachi, at least, would be on those get-togethers cinched it for Ayase. When Nick texted her movie times after that, she built them into their tutoring schedule.
They got to exactly one movie before their new university classes got in the way. After she moved into Jo’s house and increased her hours at the bakery, Ayase found herself too busy to think about anything that wasn’t directly on her plate.
When Nick texted her out of the blue one cold day in December, she realized she hadn’t spoken to him in at least six weeks.
English Movie this Saturday?
The simple kanji in Nick’s text message triggered a familiar feeling–a heaviness that wrapped around her shoulders like a scarf soaked from the rain.
It’s happening again, she thought. She could feel the opportunities slipping away. His presence slowly fading, eroded from her life by the grinding pressure of time.
She was losing him.
Yes, she texted back. And this time, she didn’t give a damn if she was busy.
“That’s Christmas Eve, Ayase.”
Ayase looked up from rummaging through her purse. “What?”
“This Saturday. It’s December 24th.” Sachi frowned and got up from his chair, abandoning the giant textbook on his desk. “You don’t have to stand in the doorway–come in.”
Ayase hesitated slightly, like she always did at the threshold to Sachi’s bedroom. It was his space. And those boundaries were…important.
He stepped closer and gripped her arm, which flooded a new wave of embarrassment through her. He pulled her two steps into the room and released her, waving his hand after he did so.
“It’s okay,” he assured her, softer than she’d expected. “If the door’s open, just walk in. I close the door when I want privacy.”
She nodded and looked away, angry that she could feel blood rush to her face. Don’t overthink it, she warned herself. It’s still Sachi. No matter how many… She tensed, her mind still trying to wrap itself around the new reality of university and a shared home. Her eyes lingered to his futon on its simple frame.
No matter how many people he’s slept with in that bed.
Sachi slid his glasses off his face and started polishing them on the edge of his shirt. “Maybe Nick-san didn’t look at his calendar,” he murmured. “We already know Jo blocked off this weekend, and Kiyoshi’s out of town–”
“I know we can’t get everybody,” Ayase interrupted, her frustration tangling up in her chest. “But I’m still going. Anyone’s welcome to join me.”
Sachi paused at that, the slight twitch to his mouth betraying his thoughts–although it wasn’t a smile. Ayase didn’t know what that look on his face meant.
“Okay,” he said slowly, sliding his glasses back on. “But just to warn you, Kado’s going to church on Christmas Eve. He’ll probably be gone late.”
“Wait, he’s still going to church? Even after Daniel-san left?”
“He found another church on the train line. He’s been going there a little.”
A small flicker of envy flared up in Ayase’s heart, despite her attempt to smother it. It was an embarrassing, automatic reaction whenever she heard that Sachi and Kadoyuki had been discussing things without her. Like they were sharing secrets between them.
She swallowed as Kadoyuki’s voice echoed in her head.
“Ayase-san. We need to talk.”
She had no right to be jealous.
Ayase snapped out of the thought, her stomach acids swirling. She shifted back a little from Sachi–as casually as she could–and hoped beyond hope that he wouldn’t touch her again.
“Th-that’s fine,” she said at last. “No Kadoyuki on Christmas Eve. That leaves you. Well?”
Sachi cleared his throat, his eyes wandering back to the textbook on his desk. “I have a date,” he said, his casual tone just slightly skewed. “I mean…it’s a couples’ holiday. It’s too late to cancel my reservation at, uh…” He trailed off, and Ayase finished the sentence in her head.
At a restaurant, she thought. Or hotel.
She spun on her heel. “Fine,” she said evenly. “I’ll go with Nick alone.”
“I’m not canceling again.” Ayase pulled the strap of her purse higher on her shoulder. “I’ll just go, it’s fine.”
“You don’t think it’s strange?” Sachi asked, his voice a little firmer. “For him to ask you for this Saturday?”
She paused. Slowly, she turned her head back.
“What do you mean?”
“Nick-san is Christian, isn’t he? Why would he want to tutor us on a holiday?”
“He’s not Christian,” Ayase corrected. “He said he gave that up a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but I thought he and Daniel-san still did stuff for Christmas…” Sachi let the sentence dangle again, although this time she could see him clearly work through a thought. “And…Daniel-san left Japan this year. Oh.” He frowned. “I think I get it now.”
Ayase gave a small nod. “If you change your mind,” she murmured, “just let me know.”
Sachi opened his mouth, then closed it again. He rubbed the back of his neck.
“It still seems weird for you two to go alone on a date night.”
“Thanks,” Ayase said thinly. “I agree. But I’m not going to abandon him, either.”
Sachi sighed. “Right. No, you’re right. Um…” He finally looked up at her, and his weak smile didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“Have a good time, Ayase.”
Ayase had to work at the bakery on Saturday, so Nick agreed to meet her there before the movie. By the time she’d finished her shift of mopping floors and scraping batter off of giant industrial vats, she was exhausted and filthy. She washed her hands up to her elbows in the sink, watching in distaste as water splashed on her apron and flecked her collar.
Do I have time to go home and bathe? she wondered, glancing at the clock. She was already late–the movie started in twenty minutes. She sighed and shook out her handkerchief to dry her hands.
“Watanabe-san?” someone asked from the front store. “Some man said he’s here to…pick you up.”
“Coming,” she called as she untied her apron. She hung it on its hook, grabbed her coat, and paused briefly at the mirror peeking out from behind the bathroom door. Her reflection frowned and smoothed some of the frizzy ends of her hair.
“Yeah,” Ayase called again as she pushed back the drape separating the front of the store from the back. “I’m here, sorry for the–” The words died in her throat as she stared out the storefront window.
Nick stood outside the bakery, dressed in jeans and a puffy jacket with the hood pulled up over his head, towering over the bustling people on the busy nighttime sidewalk. A puff of cold breath wafted past his thick blond beard as he jammed his hands deeper into his coat pockets. Parked beside him–and reflecting the twinkling glow of city lights in its chrome siding–was an enormous motorcycle.
She knew that motorcycle. It unconsciously made her stomach clench in long-buried memories. She’d seen the bike once, long ago…parked outside her high school and locked by Detective Ochi. The night after fleeing from a giant foreigner in a club.
The day Nick had followed her to her school and sent her into a nervous breakdown.
The nostalgia was like cold water to the face–both painful and comical, considering how far she’d come from that day at Fukuhashi. For a few days, she’d considered Nick her greatest enemy on Earth.
Outside, in the glimmering Christmas lights, Nick blew into his cupped hands to warm them.
“Wow.” Ayase’s co-worker at the till whistled, dragging Ayase from the memories. “Where’d you meet the foreigner?” she asked. “He looks like a gangster.”
With a small grimace, Ayase shook her head. She buttoned her coat.
“He’s an old friend,” she replied. Nick had no reason to dress like a fugitive anymore, but that didn’t stop him.
“That guy’s a mountain. I bet he could lift my boyfriend with one hand.”
Ayase brushed her thick hair back over her shoulder. “I’ll be back for my shift on Monday,” she said as she made a beeline for the door. “Have a nice weekend.”
The co-worker didn’t reply as Ayase pushed through the glass door. A blast of wintery air rushed past her, whipping her hair and sending a chill that prickled goosebumps under her clothes. Her shoes clacked on the pavement as Nick turned.
“You’re late,” he grunted, puffing another breath past his straight teeth.
Ayase fruitlessly tried to smooth down her whipping hair. “I know,” she replied thinly. “I got out as fast as I could.”
Nick dropped his hooded head back to his bike and grabbed one of the twin helmets resting on the bike seat. “We’re not taking the train, so we might still make it. Here.”
He slapped the helmet against her chest and she nearly dropped her purse. She scrambled to tug her purse strap over her shoulder and accept the helmet, then pulled it down over her thick hair. Her hairclip dug painfully into her forehead until she dragged it out and shoved it in her bag.
Nick seemed to notice her struggle with the chin strap, so he reached over and grabbed both ends from her hand. His rough fingers slid the two pieces of plastic with strange gentleness to clack just under her chin.
Another chill rushed through Ayase, only this one tightened her stomach a bit.
“Wh-why the bike?” she asked as he snapped his own chin strap closed. “I’ve never seen you take this thing out.”
“Because I’m usually chauffeuring a small army. You said you’re the only one who can come tonight, right?”
“So I wanted to squeeze one more drive in before the weather gets sloppy.” He swung a leg over the motorcycle. “Get on.”
Ayase hesitated for one second too long. When he turned his head back to furrow his eyebrows at her, she clambered up, tugging down her skirt to straddle the stretch of seat behind him. She rested her bag in her lap as a weak barrier between her spread legs and his huge body.
Nick immediately grabbed one of her arms and pulled it around his waist, squashing her chest against his back. “Don’t get shy on me,” he warned. “I don’t want you sliding off.”
“I-I’m not,” Ayase argued, and she mostly meant it. She didn’t feel shy. She didn’t know what she felt.
“It still seems weird for you two to go alone on a date night.”
The tone of Sachi’s voice–and the look on his face–had been haunting Ayase for days. She didn’t know what it all meant. And Sachi had been almost too friendly since that conversation–pouring her tea at every breakfast, texting her to “just say hi” when things were slow at his job. She’d caught his grin slipping into that weak smile he got when he was conflicted, and the sight of it sent tiny barbs stabbing into her brain.
It was almost like…Sachi was panicking.
About what? she wondered for the millionth time, her frustration building. When Nick snapped down his motorcycle visor and grunted for her to hang on, she hesitantly hooked her hands around his torso.
The motorcycle started with a bang and a deep, low rumble; the vibration between her thighs trembled through her body and rattled her teeth. She automatically squeezed her legs together, her knee brushing the thick denim wrapped around Nick’s lower body.
A flush of blood warmed her face, and she angrily tried to suppress it. As the bike rolled to a start and tilted into the nearest lane, she tightened her arms around Nick.
I asked you to come, Sachi.
Wintery air whooshed past her as the motorcycle picked up speed, the holiday lights around the streets smearing into a blur. She shivered against the wind whipping her skirt around her knees, but Nick’s body blocked the worst of it. He was a warm, bundled wall between her body and the world.
She rested her head against his back and tried to stop thinking about Sachi.
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