A Zanki Zero fic, written for Toe for Yuletide 2019.
First published December 2019.
Zen x Rinko, 1225 words.
Zen and Rinko were working on improvements to the kitchen when Minamo got back to the island that day. She gave them a big wave, and bounded up to Zen.
‘I found these bulbs!’ she said, holding them up by the shoots. ‘Do you think we can eat them?’
‘Hm.’ Zen took the bulbs off her. ‘I guess ... if you don’t want to get any older this time round.’
‘They’re daffodils,’ he said. And when she opened her mouth again, cut her off. ‘They’re poisonous.’
Minamo blinked at him. ‘They’re not just some kinda onion?’
‘You can try them if you like,’ Zen said, gesturing to their cooking facilities. Minamo waved her hands in a no.
‘I’ll take them,’ Rinko said, interrupting the conversation.
‘Ah. You’re sick of this life already.’
‘Not at all,’ Rinko said. ‘But just because we can’t eat them doesn’t mean they don’t have other uses.’
Zen shrugged, and handed her the bulbs. ‘You gonna start talking about beauty and all that other meaningless junk?’
‘It’s not meaningless,’ Rinko said. She cradled the bulbs in both hands. ‘How long do you think we’ve been here?’ She didn’t wait for him to answer. ‘It’s not six months yet, right? And how do we even know that? It’s not like we have a calendar.’
‘You mean like how the daffodils come up every spring,’ Minamo said. ‘That’s how we know we’re another year older. It’s not like we can tell any other way ...’
‘You don’t need daffodils for that,’ Zen said. ‘Even talking about plants, you can say the same thing about an apple tree, and at least that’s useful.’
‘Well,’ Rinko said, ‘if we all died of daffodil poisoning this time round, next time we could eat them. If that would be useful enough for you.’ Rinko’s smile was sharp.
Zen chewed on his lip, then shrugged. ‘Seems desperate,’ he said. ‘They probably don’t even taste good.’
‘We could find out.’ Rinko held his gaze, still smiling.
Zen looked away first. ‘It’s not like I’m stopping you,’ he said. ‘Plant the damn flowers if you like.’
And so Rinko did.
The daffodils looked a little sad at first – just a few skinny leaves sticking up from where Rinko had planted them outside the dorms. But Rinko watched over them diligently – more to protect them from Sachika’s enthusiastic watering than because they needed it – and they soon grew straight and proud, and when the winter came to its end, they blossomed.
They did make things a little cheerier. Not that Zen would ever have admitted it.
It was Sachika, of course, who discovered the sunflowers. They were growing near Mashiro Garden Tower, and Sachika insisted on bringing whole armfuls back – although with Haruto in his child’s body, that wasn’t as much as it could have been; the sunflowers were as tall as he was.
‘Look what we found!’ Sachika said, when they rejoined the others by the garage.
‘Wow!’ Minamo clapped her hands togethers. ‘Sunflowers! Hey, sunflower seeds would taste good in that salad you’re making, right, Zen?’ Zen was preparing dinner, while Minamo and Rinko kept company.
‘No.’ Sachika clutched the flowers closer to herself. ‘They’re not for eating.’
‘Why not?’ Zen said. He stopped chopping tomatoes to turn to her. ‘I’m with Minamo.’
But Rinko spoilt it. ‘Don’t you have to wait till the flowers are dead before you can harvest the seeds?’ she said, a cautious note in her voice.
‘Oh.’ Minamo deflated. ‘I guess that makes sense.’
Zen picked up his knife again.
‘Aw,’ Sachika said. ‘I don’t want the sunflowers to die.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Rinko said. ‘If we can gather the seeds, we can keep some back to plant, and this time next year we’ll see them again. Okay, Sachika?’
‘Assuming they didn’t pick them all,’ Zen said.
‘No, there’s still more left,’ Haruto said.
‘Alright then.’ Rinko smiled at Sachika. ‘Shall we put these ones in water for now?’
Sachika nodded. Rinko gathered Haruto’s flowers off him, and she and Sachika headed to find them some water.
‘Next year, she says.’ Zen watched the two of them leave, Rinko giving him a stern look over her shoulder. ‘Hey, Haruto, you think we’ll make it another year?’
‘Why wouldn’t we?’ Haruto said. Optimistic because Sachika was still in earshot, probably. Maybe Zen could get his real thoughts out of him later.
‘The daffodils were nice,’ Minamo said. ‘We can’t keep acting like this is all temporary, right? It’s our home.’
Home. Zen still wasn’t sure about that. But maybe he wanted to share in some of that optimism after all.
When Zen and Haruto passed by the camellia, it was at the end of its season. Zen stopped to look at it, with the flowers that were already decaying on the branches.
‘How long do you think we’ll keep going?’ he asked. Haruto stopped walking. The flowers made a carpet where they stood, in red and brown. ‘Sooner or later, we won’t be able to retrieve someone’s x-key. Or ...’ He didn’t want to think about it. ‘We don’t know what might happen.’
Haruto put his hands in his pockets. ‘I think we’ll keep going,’ he said. ‘I know I can hardly talk, and it’s not like there’s any real reason for it –’ he laughed awkwardly – ‘but I want to keep living. Don’t you?’
‘You don’t feel the same?’ Haruto’s voice turned worried.
Zen shook his head, but he was dismissing the question rather than disagreeing. ‘I’m just thinking she’s going to be a pain if I do this.’
Zen gestured at the tree. ‘Flower girl,’ he said. And he took out his knife.
Rinko looked down at the cuttings Zen had laid out on the table for her. She rubbed one of the glossy leaves between her fingers.
‘A camellia?’ she said. ‘Or should I assume it’s a tea plant?’
‘It’s not tea,’ Zen said. He wouldn’t look her in the face, but he caught her smile from the corner of his eye.
‘Are you saying it’s a useless type of plant?’
‘Yeah, well, even if any of them take, we probably won’t be around to see them flower, so ...’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘It’s useless either way.’ He wasn’t exactly flustered, but the way she was looking at him made him uncomfortable.
‘But you’re giving it to me even though it’s useless.’
‘Sure,’ Zen muttered. ‘I mean, if you want it.’
‘That’s very sweet of you,’ Rinko said, ‘I think.’ Zen was blushing now. ‘I’ll try to keep at least some of them alive.’ She brushed her fingers against the leaves again. ‘But you know, you won’t usually see camellias in a flower shop. They’re too fragile.’ The flowers, she meant.
‘How would I know that?’ Zen said. ‘You think I ever gave anyone flowers before?’
‘I guess not,’ Rinko said. ‘I should be flattered, then.’
‘Please don’t be.’
Rinko laughed. ‘Thank you for the cuttings,’ she said. ‘I’ll take good care of them until the day they do flower.’ Rinko didn’t always sound certain about things, but she sounded certain about this. Like she really believed they’d see the camellias bloom, one day – the eight of them together.
And maybe it didn’t even matter. Until then, they still had each other.
That was the thing worth living for.