She was getting better at it. She really was.
Ever since the night Mayama had given her a piggyback ride home and she had confessed to him, she had been feeling better than she had in months. Mayama seemed to sense that as well because they were truly back to being friends now. They talked more—he teased her relentlessly while she rolled her eyes and pretended to be unaffected—and were surprised to discover how easy it was to laugh in each other's company.
She was still in love with him. Her heart still beat faster whenever she got a text from him and she still felt faint when he stood close enough for her to smell his aftershave, but instead of focusing on that, she had finally learnt to accept it for what it was and move on.
She had later apologised for hurting him that awful night and he had gently forgiven her, making her feel guiltier in the process. He was still uncomfortable with her ongoing meetings with Nomiya-san, but they had sat down and had had a good talk about it.
"I shouldn't have told you what to do, and for that I am sorry." He had said earnestly. "But I don't trust Nomiya-san, Yamada. And it bothers me when you do."
"You think he's a player, don't you?"
"Yes." There had been no hesitation. "I haven't known him for long but I don't think he's ever been in a serious relationship."
"The problem here is that you seem to think I want to date him."
"You may not, right now." He had said, haltingly. "But you could change your mind. And that really worries me."
"Mayama, you can't foresee the future. You can't know if I'll ever fall for Nomiya-san." She had kept her tone gentle. He was worried about her—as a friend. "Right now, I don't want to date him. I don't even entertain the notion of being in a relationship. Isn't that enough?"
"It should be." He had sighed, obviously still troubled that she had not promised to never see that man again. She had been partly annoyed—he still didn't have the right to dictate who she met up with—but she had also found it rather adorable. "I guess I'm afraid he'll somehow change your mind."
"I don't know what to say." She really hadn't. "I'll be honest with you. I like Nomiya-san—not in that way," she had added hastily, when he had looked at her like the world had ended. "But I do like him as a person. He's very well-mannered and I respect his work ethics. But that's all." She had been tempted to hold his hand, but she had reminded herself that while she might still be in love with him, she wasn't planning on staying that way forever. "I hope you can find a way to be fine with it."
"I will." He had nodded slowly. "I shouldn't think the worst of Nomiya-san, either."
And that was how that had been settled.
They still skirted around the subject of Harada-san. She refrained from asking him anything about her. It was ironic that they could talk about anything other than the one person who mattered to him the most. Yamada might be in the process of reclaiming her identity but that didn't stop her from feeling awful whenever she thought of Harada-san. The older woman, for all she knew, was probably a wonderful person but the fact remained that she didn't know, and as long as that truth was still valid, she could not discuss the subject of Mayama's love life with the man himself.
She remembered only too well how the one time she had confronted him about it, he had all but slapped her with the horrid reality of what she was doing to herself. Recalling that image of him, lying there with a cigarette in hand, still brought about an overwhelming urge to cry.
But she was learning. She was slow—there was no point in hurrying anything—and she was, just as slowly, getting there.
It had taken her a little longer to make that phone call to Nomiya-san, asking if he could meet her for lunch. Dealing with Mayama had been nerve-racking enough and she couldn't even begin to imagine how the conversation would go with the older man. She had forced herself to call him eventually—two weeks was a lot of time to mentally prepare herself and yet, it had felt so inadequate. He had been nice enough on the phone, agreeing to meet her the very next day for lunch.
While the apology had been difficult to word, Nomiya-san, being the gentleman that he was, had given her an appropriate reply and ended the conversation very neatly. Whenever she was around him, she always felt so young and immature. The night at Subaru's was enough of a reminder. She had humiliated herself beyond explanation and he had still been courteous. Sometimes, she wondered if she only saw one side of him—the side of him that he let her see. If that was the case, then he was extremely self-possessed—yet another virtue to make her feel completely worthless.
She disliked the fact that she always dealt with the courteous Nomiya-san. She never got to see what he was like when he was annoyed, or excited or a million other things. It made her question their relationship. An outsider would call it entirely professional. Well, on his end, anyway. If not, why would he be so hesitant to show her more of him? He obviously thought there was no need to. This conclusion only made her want to create a need. She wanted to know the man as he was, not just a tiny part of him that the rest of the world got to see.
It occurred to her that this line of thinking would not go down well with Mayama. He would go ballistic and claim that he had predicted this would happen all along. But Yamada was always honest with herself and she knew this had nothing to do with her supposed feelings for Nomiya-san.
No, this had to do with the fact that he had seen her at her worst and she was yet to see him at his less-than-best.
And a minuscule, almost-not-worth-mentioning part of her resented him for it.
Her plan was simple and required no forethought. Spending more time with the older man was the best way to find out more about him. She knew Mayama would flip out if she were to tell him her plan but she wasn't keen on hiding it from him, either. She told him, in a straightforward manner that seemed to take him by surprise, that she was going to have to spend a lot of time with Nomiya-san, because her work demanded it. He began to argue weakly, but she cut him off, saying he simply had to trust her and Nomiya-san, this time.
Yamada wasn't heartless, however. She made it a point never to meet the man at work when Mayama was there. If Nomiya-san understood what she was doing, he didn't question her about it and for that, she was grateful.
She began to invite him out for lunch under the pretext of having to 'discuss' her work. They both knew her work didn't require a meeting at all, but for reasons unknown to her, Nomiya-san played along. She usually started the conversation with the number of pots that were yet to be completed or something equally inconsequential, to keep up the façade for a little longer before delving into an entirely unrelated topic altogether.
He gave her the impression of being an open book, readily giving the answers to her endless string of questions—where was he born? Where did he study? What did he like to do as a child?—but she couldn't shake off the feeling that he withheld just as much. Her first peek at his character was when he told her his parents had divorced when he had been a teenager. He must have certainly been affected by the separation and she wondered if that was what made him a player (if Mayama were to be believed). She never said those things out loud, of course. She lacked the brazenness that it involved and she considered it an insult to him, if she were to do something so impolite.
It took a couple of months for her to notice the slight shifts in his demeanour. Her observational skills were nothing to boast of, but she had learnt to be diligent and it certainly got her somewhere. She could never guess at the reasons behind his sudden displeasure, which was equally sudden in disappearing and that often frustrated her. Couldn't he wait a moment before putting on that mask of affability? Her task would be so much easier then.
One such instance was when they had been in his office and she had just told him about her life as a student coming to an end. She had barely caught the now-familiar flicker of discontentment before his usual smile had taken over. She had dealt with so much frustration by that point that she had simply asked him if anything had been bothering him. And that was the first time she had caught him looking startled—long enough for her to catch it, this time—so she had pressed him. Obviously, she had been asking for too much because he had quickly deflected it with polite reassurance laced with the barest minimum of the truth.
She was powerless against such sorcery.
But a determined Yamada didn't give up very easily and being in love with Mayama was certainly an example. It took months before Nomiya-san finally relaxed—there was no other way to phrase it. The man was an automaton that operated on good manners—around her; months before the courteous smile morphed into full blown laughter; before the gentle tilt of an eyebrow turned into slight nudges and eager banter.
She was still working on reading him whenever she happened to catch him at a low moment. But he was being more human around her now. She was happy.
So immersed was she in discerning his character that she didn't realise that she was slowly becoming dependent on him to get her through her bad days as well. It didn't strike her until he suddenly got too busy at work, suggesting that they conduct their meetings over the phone. She was obviously disappointed that she couldn't meet him in person any more but the phone conversations seemed to work well and for a while, she didn't mind. But then, he got a whole lot busier and once even had to have Miwako answer the phone for him. She didn't bother leaving him a message, certain that he would eventually call her back. When he did, however, he sounded so exhausted that for the first time in months, she was the timid and polite Yamada around him.
It annoyed her that a slight blip in their relationship was all it took for the both of them to revert to their earlier state of being.
She had worked for this. She had worked hard for where they were right then—perhaps not the best of friends, but still better than two people who worked together. She was not ready to give up when things went a little downhill. But the truth was, she was too proud to admit that she missed him. They were not close enough for her to demand that he take a break and talk to her. If it had been Mayama, she wouldn't have had to think twice before yelling at him for working so hard. But Nomiya-san was different. They weren't that familiar with each other and she wondered if they would ever be. Sometimes, it felt like they were both throwing on more masks in order to appear to be more open with each other.
That particular train of thought was exhausting.
That being said, Yamada wasn't ready to let go of what little pride she had left. It was bad enough that she managed to get a chuckle out of him only when she was unintentionally naïve. She would have preferred to be wittier. But no, it was her thoughtless actions and comments that amused him.
And so, she decided to wait. The man wouldn't forget his manners, no matter what. He would eventually call her, she was sure of it.
More than a month passed before she heard from him. It got more and more difficult not to pick up the phone and dial his number. She focused her attention on her final year projects and assignments, both fearing and anticipating the day she would graduate. She helped her father out at his liquor store in the evenings, much to his surprise—she was usually busy with Fujiwara Designs during that part of the day—and hung out with Hagu and the others a lot more to distract herself.
And then it happened.
She was busy rearranging the wine bottles when the door opened. She turned to greet her latest customer and stilled. He fixed her with an intense stare, his lips uplifted in the beginning of a lopsided grin. Her relief at finally seeing him again was so profound that it scared her. The feeling was foreign, especially when it was associated with Nomiya-san. But she couldn't care less—he was here! She smiled brightly. "How may I be of assistance?"
His smile was blinding as well. "Well, I'm on my way to meet someone I haven't seen in a long time and I thought I'd take some wine with me. Any suggestions?"
"I suggest you take her out for lunch instead of buying some wine."
"That's debatable." He looked thoughtful. "There is a new ramen shop down the road. But I bet she's already—"
He stilled. "No?"
"No, she didn't want to go alone." Silence. Her smile faltered. She really needed to think before she spoke. That particular reply made her look pathetic. Now he was going to think she had just been waiting around for his call to try the ramen shop two minutes away.
She wanted to die. She couldn't look at him. He was being unusually quiet himself and she knew he was staring at her. Her cheeks reddened and she turned around before he could notice. Why wasn't he saying anything? Was he embarrassed for her? She couldn't bear that thought. She stared at the rows and rows of wine bottles neatly arranged, trying to read the labels.
A chair squeaked and she heard him sit down. She knew that meant that he was waiting for her to turn around. How could a light conversation become so awkward so quickly? The silence stretched. He really was stubborn, wasn't he? Well, she wasn't going to turn around and let him win this round, either.
"Shouldn't you have an assistant run your errands?" She still wouldn't face him. He had only partly won. He had got her to speak again but she definitely wasn't going to let him see her until she composed herself. "Surely, someone as important as yourself has better things to do."
"Well, I would have had Mayama pick up a bottle." He kept his tone light, but she could detect an undercurrent of hesitation. "But he quit."
She whirled around in an instant. "What?"
He was watching her carefully, hands resting on the counter, folded neatly. "He went back to work for Harada-san."
She didn't realise she was holding her breath. "When?"
"Three weeks ago."
Three weeks. She had seen him the day before and he hadn't said a word. She tried to recall if he had acted strangely. Nomiya-san was still watching her, his face darkening. "As I'd suspected. He didn't tell you."
She straightened, understanding the reason behind his sudden visit. "Is that why you're here?" He sighed, adjusting his glasses. She took it as a sign of unease. "Did it take you three weeks to tell me that?"
Something flashed in his eyes and as always, it was gone too soon. But this time, she didn't care. She was angrier than she had been in months. "I think you should be asking Mayama that question."
She heard the unheard words. I don't owe you an explanation. She knew her anger was misdirected but she couldn't help it. "Nomiya-san, I'd really like to be alone right now."
He stood up wordlessly and she expected him to leave just as quietly. But then his fisted hands came into view and she made the mistake of looking up. An idiot could have figured out that he was furious from the expression on his face. She understood in an instant that he was letting her see it—that he wanted her to see it. "How long will you go on like this?"
The words didn't make sense. "What?"
He sighed, impatient. He was dropping the masks, one by one. It was happening too quickly for her to respond appropriately, especially with the news he had brought with him. "How long will you continue to long for him?"
His tone surprised her more than the words. If he had been the kind Nomiya-san, he would have kept his tone gentle and she would have thought of him as sympathetic. But the man before her was far from pitying her. "I-I don't know." A pathetic response. She tried to pull herself together. "I'm trying. It can't happen overnight."
"No. It can't." She detected an edge to his tone. Again, how did the conversation go from awkward to hostile? "But if things really had been changing at all, this wouldn't affect you so much."
She had to admit, that hurt. She had been trying so hard and he wouldn't give her any credit! Her eyes prickled with unshed tears and she was angry with herself for letting him get to her. "Why are you here, saying these things?"
"Would you have rather not known?" He smiled grimly and she resisted the urge to cringe. He looked nothing like Nomiya-san. "Well? Would you have preferred to believe that things were fine and you were really, truly in the process of getting over Mayama?"
She flinched, refusing to meet his eyes. Was this the real Nomiya-san? She said nothing in return, still processing the unexpected change in the dynamics of their relationship. Perhaps if she pretended he didn't exist, he would leave soon. But no, life is never that fair. He sat back down and leaned forward, eyes fixed on her. It took all of her strength not to meet his demanding gaze. "Do you want to know the truth?" He continued, his voice dangerously quiet. She ignored the question, certain that he would talk again. "The truth is, Mayama is in love with Harada-san. He always has been." She could handle that. No matter what he thought, she wasn't pathetic enough to go to pieces when she heard the name. "And despite knowing that for over a year now, you're still just as much in love with him as ever. You have tried all sorts of things to get his attention—you even used me in the process." The grim smile was back. "But nothing has worked so far. Maybe you think he'll come running to you if things don't work between him and Harada-san. Maybe you expect them to fall apart soon and if it happens, you hope to take her place. But it hasn't happened, not yet anyway."
"Please, stop!" She finally cried out, hands pressed against her ears in a futile attempt to block out his words. He stared at her mutely, his face blank. She hated this man; she hated his cruel words and dangerous smiles; she hated that she had missed him. "Leave. Now."
"Life doesn't work like that." He replied, calmly, still seated. She stared at him disbelievingly. Had he not heard the hatred in her voice? "You can dismiss me, but you can't throw me out. You can choose not to hear the truth but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, Yamada."
The parting words, spoken gently, hurt her more than his wicked smiles. She sobbed then but he didn't turn around as he slammed the door shut.
Mayama knew the instant he saw her.
After Nomiya had left, she had marched over to the door and slapped the 'Closed' sign on it before she had curled into a ball and cried for—she didn't know how long. There was a part of her that had been detached from it all and had registered what Nomiya had been trying to say. Despite her efforts at trying to accept her love for Mayama and resigning herself to the fact that he would never reciprocate, she had not changed as much as she had needed to.
She wanted to tear her hair out and scream. Was it never going to be enough? Was she stuck trying to move on, but moving on slower than she should?
Once she had been able to stand, she had immediately gone over to Mayama's apartment. And that was where she stood now, her heart beating wildly, her eyes bloodshot and her hair a tangled mess. He surveyed her, jaw tight, before he let her in wordlessly. It was almost eleven in the night and she would have to get back home soon before Hagu started to panic.
She wasn't worried. This shouldn't take too long. "When were you going to tell me?" She demanded, the instant he closed the door.
Instead of feigning confusion like she had expected him to—and which would have definitely sent her over the edge—he stared at his feet. "I. . .I don't know."
"You don't know?" She repeated, incredulously. "Did you expect me to never find out?"
"I don't know what I was expecting." He met her gaze. "I just. . .couldn't tell you."
"Why? Because it'd be too annoying to hold my hand while I cry?"
"No!" Hurt marred his features. She focused on her anger. "Things had been going well between us lately and I didn't want to ruin it."
"Things were fine between us because you were lying to me!" She yelled. He flinched. "We will never be okay, you and I."
"Yamada, don't say that." He took a step towards her. She took a step back. What was she afraid of? "I love having you back. I'm so glad we're friends again. Please—please don't let this get in the way."
"How can I not?" She said, bitterly. "You hid the truth from me."
"What do you want from me, Yamada?" He spread his hands wide. "How was I supposed to tell you? Can you honestly tell me nothing would have changed if I'd told you?" He buried his face in his hands as he sank to his knees. "How could I handle the thought of hurting you again?"
She looked away from his defeated form, the last of her anger dissipating. When he put it like that, she could understand—just a little. She sighed deeply and sat down next to him, still maintaining some distance between them. "Where are we supposed to go from here?" He looked up at her, waiting for her to continue. "You can't talk to me about her and that just means we're going to drift apart."
"No." He shook his head furiously. "That won't happen."
"Yes, it will." She replied tiredly. "This will happen again, Mayama. You will have to hide something from me again and I will eventually find out and it's just. . ." she trailed off, staring at her feet.
He understood what she wouldn't say. She will hurt again and again, no matter what. "Yamada, I don't want to lose you."
She slowly reached for his hand as his eyes dimmed. "I know."
They sat in silence for a long moment. She contemplated her next question as she drew away from him. She wasn't sure he would answer it and even if he did, who was to say she would be able to handle the truth? Then again, she had to try, didn't she? "So Harada-san wanted you back, then?"
His head snapped up. "You don't have to—"
"I know." She kept her tone mild. "But I don't know what else to do. We're going to have to talk about her, if we want to remain. . .close. So you can either answer the question or tell me you can't talk about it. Don't pity me—" she raised a hand to silence his protests. "—or wonder if I'll be able to handle it. That's my concern."
He studied her. Belatedly, she realised Hagu must have started to panic by now. "No. She didn't."
"Oh?" Suddenly, she was curious. "Then why did you go back?"
"Asai-san—the man who has been taking care of her—is in the hospital. He's not healthy enough to work for her any more. So I volunteered for the job."
Perhaps it was because she had reached her limit, what with the myriad of emotions she had been subjected to all day, but Yamada found it easy to listen to him. It was like they were talking about a stranger. "What's stopping her from firing you again?"
Her bluntness didn't seem to affect him. "The fact that I keep showing up for work." He shifted to a more comfortable position. She took it to mean that he had more to say. "She did fire me, the first couple of days. Eventually, she gave in—I guess she realised that she needed someone after all."
Yamada nodded absent-mindedly. There was yet another question brewing in the back of her mind. He caught her looking at him and smiled gently. "Whatever it is, just say it. It might be harsh and it might hurt me but I deserve it, Yamada."
He didn't deserve it. But she understood that if her question did hurt him, it would lessen his guilt. And her sudden brazenness certainly helped her phrase it. "Harada-san is to you what you are to me." He looked at her, his face already wary. "She's been pushing you away, encouraging you to find someone else and you do the same to me. You tell me to stop hoping, because you know you'll never feel the same way. Maybe Harada-san can never fall in love with you, either." His face was rapidly changing. His eyes were guarded and his lips, thin. "Why then, do you continue to chase her? Why can't you let it go, Mayama?"
He refused to look at her. It didn't surprise her. "That's rather hypocritical of you, don't you think? You keep hoping she'll change her mind." She gazed at the full moon, not even bothering to check his reaction. "I keep hoping you will."
"It's different between Rika-san and me."
"True," she agreed. "in a way. But it's the same situation, with the roles reversed. You're the one doing the chasing there. She's the one who's constantly rejecting you." She didn't understand why she felt so detached. Had she exhausted the stipulated amount of emotions one was allowed to feel in a day? "Yet you keep hoping and you refuse to do what she asks of you. I don't understand why you're so certain that one day, she will finally reciprocate, unless—" here, she stopped abruptly, the sudden realisation overpowering her. Mayama watched her sadly, knees folded and fingers intertwined. Everything suddenly made sense—why he wouldn't back down; why he always sounded so frustrated whenever he talked of her; why he called her by her first name. "—unless, she did feel the same way, in the past."
She searched his face and knew the answer in an instant. Her chest felt hollow. This was the biggest blow of all. "Wow." She breathed. "Wow. All this time. . .and I never knew. Never even guessed."
"Please." His voice was a mere whisper. "It happened a long time ago and—"
"What happened?" Her voice was sharp. "Did you—did you sleep with her?"
Silence. She smiled bitterly. "Well, I think that's enough for one night, don't you?"
Hagu gave her an earful (which, in Hagu world, was a soft reproach and some tears) when she finally made it home but she barely registered what the younger girl was saying. There was an ache in her chest and her head was heavy. Her eyes, however, were still dry.
It wasn't going to be easy finding out where he lived, at this time of the night. Her only source was Mayama and it was incredibly unwise to go to him for help. But she wanted to—and part of her needed to—speak to Nomiya as soon as possible. She simply couldn't wait. So she stomped over to Mayama's place (cursing herself for not having bought a cell phone already) and asked him, plainly, where Nomiya lived. The result was interesting. First, he looked at her with a melancholic expression on his face until he processed her question. Then, he gawked at her and spluttered something about being her being insane. She quietly watched him struggle to string words together until he finally came back to his senses and asked her if she knew what she was doing.
"I'm not going to stand here answering stupid questions." She didn't have the patience to listen to his impending lecture.
"It's not a stupid question," was his calm reply. "I just don't think you should be impulsive when it comes to that man."
"For the last time, I'm sick of listening to your judgement."
"I'll tell you where he lives—" and he paused, his expression calculative. "—if you let me drive you there."
"No, thank you." Like she would be that stupid. "You know what? I'll just go home and call the office. He might still be working."
"He doesn't work late on Wednesdays. You know that."
She exploded, then. "This was obviously a mistake. You can't ever trust me so I don't know why we call ourselves 'friends'. All I'm asking for is directions. Can't you, for one minute, shove your suspicions up your—"
"Why do you want to see him now?" He didn't care for her yelling. "You could just wait till tomorrow and see him at work."
"I have something to say to him and it can't wait." Her answer was swift and sharp.
"Why can't you tell me what it is?"
"Do I ask you what you're going to say to Harada-san every time you go to work?"
At the mention of her name, his face changed abruptly. She had never seen him look so horrified. "A—are you. . .does that mean you're in love with him?"
"Oh for crying out loud!" She couldn't resist rolling her eyes. "I'm saying it's none of your business what I have to say to Nomiya, you moron."
The horrified expression doubled in intensity. ". . .you call him Nomiya now?"
She felt like pulling him up by the collar and shaking him until he focused on helping her. She restrained herself with great difficulty. The whole thing was a waste of time and she regretted making a rash decision to go to him for help. "Are you going to tell me where he lives or not?"
"Is that a threat?" He countered.
"Okay, enough. I've had it with you answering in questions. Be straight with me." She really did feel like threatening him then. "Unless you want to end up like Morita when he tried to scare me on Halloween."
He chuckled. "That was rather funny."
"Will you please just focus?" She was not in the mood for conversation. "It's hard enough for me to come to you for this. I'm this close to losing it. I don't want to be here, talking to you, Mayama. I don't. I need more time to get used to the fact that. . ." She couldn't stop thinking about him and Harada-san together. "Whatever. Forget it. I won't make the mistake of asking you for help again." She walked away quickly.
Of course he chased her. "Yamada, please wait!" He caught up with her in a second. "I'm sorry about last night. You don't know how much I wish I could erase all of it." The obvious guilt splashed across his face lessened her anger. "You were right. I will continue to hurt you, even though it's the last thing I want to do."
"You try too hard to do the right thing." She said gently.
"Maybe." He rubbed his eyes. "I meant what I said. I don't want to lose you. We've just been fighting over and over again about Nomiya-san." He straightened and looked her in the eye. "I'm still working on trusting that man. It's just not easy for me. But. . .you're right. I have to trust you, too."
And with that, he scribbled down the address and told her how to get there. Just before he handed over the piece of paper, he looked at her piercingly. "Just. . .be careful."
"I will, I promise."
Why was it that anything that involved that man required so much of drama?
She stood at his front door, contemplating her decision to show up without warning, after the argument with Mayama. Was it really that impulsive? She still wanted to talk to him. Whenever she felt strongly about something, it wasn't in her nature to let it go easily. She was here and she needed to see him. A deep breath later, she rang the doorbell.
He was getting better and better at pretending to be human. The look of surprise on his face—gone in a moment, as always—seemed very real.
He opened the door wide and stood staring at her, his face half-wary, half-curious. She was proud that she could read him so easily. She held up the plastic bag. "I brought ramen."
He eyed the parcel with mild trepidation. She scowled in return. "I didn't cook it."
He looked up at her again, unable to hide a small smile. "Come in, then."
His house was spacious and hardly decorated. She stepped into the living room and laid eyes on three deep brown couches arranged in the shape of a U. They faced a brand new TV placed at the corner of the room closest to her. At the far end of the room was an open kitchen. Right before it, the living room swerved left and she guessed that the passage must lead to his bedroom and the bathroom. A coffee table sat in the middle of the seating arrangement and she admired his taste. The table looked rather classy.
There were no pictures or paintings. The walls were bare.
He took the plastic bag from her gently. "Make yourself comfortable. I'll heat this up."
She sat down rather clumsily on the largest couch, resisting the urge to curl up and go to sleep. It had been a pain to get to his place. She had had to take two buses and then walk for almost ten minutes. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving. Your timing couldn't have been better." He placed the ramen on the coffee table and set down bowls. "I was just about to rummage the fridge for something to eat."
She nodded tersely, unable to find a way to direct him to their previous conversation. He was being nice again and it threw her off. He disappeared from view and she relaxed, sinking into the couch. She really needed to get her thoughts in order. She knew walking into that ramen shop was a mistake the moment she did it but she had needed the familiarity. She needed the warm food and his small smile to convince her that the sliver of Nomiya that she had known the past few months was still the real Nomiya. She couldn't handle the thought of having dealt with so much of frustration for nothing.
When he reappeared, he was holding two wine glasses. She immediately declined. "I'm here to talk."
He wore a look of amusement. "I can see how a drink would get in the way of that."
She gave him a pointed stare. She wasn't going to play nice. "You know it doesn't stop with a glass, not with me."
"Fair enough." He set her glass on the table and sat on the same couch, but on the other end. She appreciated the distance. "Let's dig in, then."
He must have really been starving because he didn't spare her a second glance as he picked up his bowl. The ramen was delicious but she couldn't concentrate. It annoyed her more that he managed to ruin even food for her. "All right." She set down her bowl after a few bites. It was better to get this off her chest sooner than later. "I wanted to say something to you and it couldn't wait. It's why I bothered to find out where you lived."
"Mayama must not have been easy to convince."
"How do you—" She stopped and rolled her eyes. "Of course. You know everything."
"I won't be arrogant enough to agree."
"But you're cruel enough to accuse me of being in love with a man, when it's none of your business." There. That was a good start.
"Yes. I am exceedingly cruel." He shrugged. His nonchalant attitude took time to get used to. "However, you did get angry at me for something he did. I assumed we were allowed to be irrational and disregard boundaries."
"I. . ." This man was unbelievable. It was getting increasingly difficult to keep believing that the real Nomiya was a gentleman. "Why do you think I'm here?"
"For exactly this. To accuse me of being a bastard." He replied, unperturbed.
"True. I did want to yell at you." She leaned back. "I also wanted to say that you were right."
He was rattled—just a little bit. "I'm compelled to ask precisely what you're referring to."
"Stop talking like that." She rebuffed. "It's not pleasing anybody in this room."
He was still smiling. "Mission accomplished."
When did he become so irritating to deal with? She took a deep breath and started again. "You were right. I thought I was getting better at moving on—and while I have, it's just not enough. When you told me Mayama was working for Harada-san again, it affected me more than it should have." She made a move to pick up her glass but pulled back at the last moment. "Mayama and I have been getting along better ever since I apologised to him about that night. We were back to being proper friends—or so I thought." She realised she was scowling and quickly smoothed her expression. Obviously, he noticed. "But this news. . .pulled me apart. I thought things were going well and that I was really getting better at handling my feelings for him but finding out that he was hiding the truth from me was like—like a wake-up call. It showed me that we could never be truly okay, not where Harada-san is involved." She looked up to find him staring intently at her. "You were right about that, too. I did hope that he would eventually realise that she wasn't the right person for him. But he hasn't and he probably never will. . .because she did like him. And if she could like him in the past, why can't she like him again?" She pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply but she was losing the battle. "Right?"
It took one word, but he looked so utterly human—so compassionate, so kind that she wished so much that this was the man she had laughed with so many times before. "Right."
Was this man destined to see her bawl her eyes out every single time? "And you," she choked out. "you have never been in love so don't you dare judge me. You don't know what it's like to watch the person you love, fall in love with someone else and to know, that they are never, ever going to fall out of it."
His poignant smile squeezed her heart. "I'm starting to get a sense of it."
And then—then came the two days' worth of tears and he drew her close, pressing her to his chest. She clutched him and continue to sob, the pain getting deeper and deeper. "They—they slept together and I—oh god—I can't stop thinking about it." He shushed her and stroked her hair, his body warm and comforting. In her heart, she knew that this was the man she wanted him to be and that this was the man he would rarely ever be. But he was here for now—he was here when she needed him.
He was Nomiya and she knew this man.
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