She noticed how tightly he was gripping the steering wheel. That was a sure sign of anger.
She chose not to comment on it, especially since she was feeling a very different kind of unease around him than what was normal. Mayama rarely ever got angry and she was sure this was the first time she was going to have to deal with it alone.
Not that she was thinking of saying anything. She was prepared to be silent throughout the ride even if the tension in the air started to choke her at some point. She looked out her window as they zoomed past skyscrapers that lit up the entire road with their majestic sign boards, wondering, not for the first time, what exactly had displeased Mayama.
She knew that he wasn't very fond of his boss although she had found Nomiya-san to be charming, polite, funny, and quite entertaining. He had taken a genuine interest in her designs, the appreciative look he had given them making her flush with pride. He had expressed his desire to introduce pottery items (marked with the Fujiwara Design logo) to the public. Nothing too fancy, just a few vases and bowls on display, to see how people like them. She was quite taken with the idea, especially since he had asked for her help with it. She had been more than willing to participate in this 'project'.
Mayama, however, had been quite moody throughout the entire discussion, barely contributing to it as he had often stared off into space. An occasional giggle from Yamada would pull him back to the present but the scowl had only grown more pronounced as he had watched the two of them interact. While she had looked at him in bewilderment, Nomiya-san had seemed to know what was happening, because he had chosen to ignore it, calmly claiming her attention when the awkwardness had become too difficult to ignore.
The shrill ring of his cell phone – the first few seconds of the original soundtrack of the movie 'Moon River' – distracted her from her thoughts. She turned to watch him as he patted his pockets for his phone with one hand while the other gripped the steering wheel even harder, finally pulling it out from his jacket. He didn't even look at the number when he flipped it open and Yamada felt the mood change acutely. He was worried.
"Hello?" He balanced the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he avoided colliding with a truck in front of them by changing lanes swiftly. He then slowed to a stop by the side of the road as he concentrated on listening to the person on the other end. "What happened? Are you all right?"
All it took was one look at his face. Her heart sank. She knew who he was talking to.
She looked away so he wouldn't see her face fall. The pain was old, and familiar, but that did not make it any easier to deal with. His voice turned into an indistinct murmur as she surveyed her surroundings absent-mindedly. The occasional flash of the headlights of vehicles passing by blinded her momentarily but she didn't mind. She would do anything to stop the tears from spilling.
She found herself listening in on his conversation even though a major part of her didn't want to.
"Do you want me to come over?" A pause. "I should come over." She assumed Harada-san was refusing his help, as always. Her hands fisted. She had never met the woman but she had seen her a couple of times with Hanamoto-sensei.
Yamada's impression of the older woman had been formed even before she had seen her. Deep down, she knew Harada-san to be a good person, and (from snippets of conversation between Hanamoto-sensei and Mayama) a very dedicated artist, but—
Mayama sighed. "Please take care of yourself. Rika-san."
—she hated the woman.
She hated her for what she did to Mayama. She hated to see him following her like a lost puppy, complying with her requests without question, rushing to see her whenever he could, offering to accompany her on her trips, struggling to hide his dejection when she refused his help—when she refused him.
But most of all, she hated Harada-san for making Mayama fall in love with her so easily.
How could it have been so easy?
The question plagued her day in and day out. She mulled over it, whenever she happened to find him lying on the floor, thinking of Harada-san. A part of her understood that it was not something that could be helped—she, of all people, knew that. But it was much easier to pretend to be clueless, to search for an answer to this very puzzling question instead of spending nights crying in the darkness every time she pictured the wistful expression on his face.
It was easier to be distracted by a purpose.
She saw him flip his phone shut and stare at it, his head bowed. For a moment, there was complete silence. She knew he was thinking of her, knew that he wanted to drive over to her place that very instant to check on her. He had always done things his way where Harada-san's health had been concerned. Even though he was always trying to be the "good guy" around Harada-san, Yamada knew that the façade would break in a second if there was any danger of him losing her forever.
What wouldn't I give to see you stare after me wistfully, Mayama?
She blinked repeatedly until she was certain there were no tears in her eyes. She knew what he wanted to do and right now, Yamada could not handle being the one he was stuck with.
The sound of the car door opening pulled him out of his reverie. He looked at her in confusion as she slammed the door shut behind her. She knelt until her face was level with the car window and smiled at him. "You know what, Mayama? I feel like taking the bus after all."
"What are you doing?" The stupid question only made his confusion much more obvious.
"I told you, I'm taking the bus." She straightened and turned away from the car.
"Yamada, it's close to midnight! Where on earth are you going to find a bus at this hour?" She could hear him fumble with the seatbelt.
"I'll be fine." She kept her back to him, pretending to wait to cross the road to get to the other side. "I'm sure I'll be able to catch a bus even though it's late. You go on ahead, Mayama. I'll see you in the morning."
"What's got into you?" His own car door slammed shut as he got out. "You're acting strange. Why won't you let me take you home?"
"I want to take the bus." She suddenly wished she was on the other side of the road already. If only the cars would stop for one minute, she would be able to cross the road and Mayama would be gone. She would be able to cry freely on her way back home, torturing herself with thoughts about Mayama and Harada-san alone in her house, until she got to her own room and then, she could throw herself on her bed and sob some more.
It was quite depressing actually.
"This is getting ridiculous. Yamada, get inside the car."
"No." She knew she was being obstinate, like a child, and that this was, in no way, going to impress Mayama. But she didn't think she could take another minute of that wretched silence. Not after that call from Harada-san. "For the last time, I'm taking the bus." She took a step towards the road, but he stopped her with a hand on her wrist and spun her around.
She couldn't tear her eyes away from his fingers, wrapped around her wrist. How many times had she run away from him in the hopes that he would chase after her? How many times had she cried bitterly when she had realized he was never going to come for her? And yet, here he was, pulling her back, just when she wanted to get away from him the most. How ironic.
But why, Mayama, does it feel like I'm still the one running after you?
"Yamada?" She realized she was shaking. "What's wrong?"
She kept her eyes trained on the ground as they filled with tears yet again. She hated herself for being so weak. Why couldn't she just deal with this? Why did she have to break down every single time Harada-san was involved?
God, just thinking about that woman made her want to scream.
"Yamada, look at me." But she couldn't, especially since she was so close to losing it. Her lips were trembling from the effort of restraining a sob and her nose was starting to get runny. She didn't know how she was going to evade the confrontation that was soon to follow but for now, she concentrated on calming down. She felt him move closer, his hand still tight on her wrist. She caught a whiff of his cologne and felt the familiar light-headedness that came with his close proximity to her. She had been fighting the effect for weeks now, but she was still as powerless as always. It was rather discouraging, and patience was not really one of her virtues.
She heard him sigh. "Yamada…come on. You know I can't let you go alone."
Something inside her snapped.
She threw her head back and glared at him through her tears. The effect was immediate. His eyes widened as he took in her contorted face and his grip on her wrist slackened. She used the opportunity to pull free. But instead of walking away without a word, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. "And why not, Mayama?" He flinched at the bitterness in her tone. "You know you want to go see Harada-san. I'm only trying to make things easier for you. Why can't you understand that?" He opened his mouth, the astonishment plain in his features, but she didn't give him a chance to answer. He had pushed her too much. He should have let her go without question. "You want to drive over to her place, don't you? You want to see for yourself that she's all right. Well, I'm giving you that chance, Mayama."
He didn't even attempt to defend himself. It was his turn to stare at the ground. She decided that she had had enough drama for the day. She walked determinedly towards the road and was halfway across it before he had even realized what had happened. She could hear him calling out to her but she forced herself to keep moving forward.
It took her a few minutes to realize that she was sobbing. Her exit had been rather dramatic but as she came to stand near the lonely bus stop, she questioned her reasoning for taking the bus. True, she didn't want to go home with him, not when he was worried sick about Harada-san. But he had had a point when he had asked her how she was going to find a bus at this ungodly hour.
However, even as she stood there, berating herself for her thoughtless actions, she could feel the deep sense of relief emanating from inside of her at finding herself alone. She could think and cry without being mindful of her surroundings now. Who cared if a passer by noticed a lone girl crying to herself? Really, she had lost all sense of pride when she had let Mayama see her tears. She had struggled so hard to appear normal, to pretend that everything was all right and that she had just 'felt like' taking the bus. But she had noticed something today that she had never paid attention to before.
He always called her by her last name.
It hadn't mattered before. After all, she called everyone by their last name except for Hagu-chan and he was no different. She hadn't minded in the least – not until now, when she had heard him address Harada-san by her first name.
She pressed a hand to her forehead as she sank into the bench by the bus stand. Hadn't they known each other longer? Wasn't she worthy of the privilege of being on a first name basis with him?
She was being silly. She was scrutinising each and every aspect of his relationship with Harada-san and comparing it with their friendship. It was wrong and so far, she had only succeeded in hurting herself knowingly. She wondered what it would take for her to let go of him completely. What would it take for her to think, 'I want him out of my life'?
When she looked up, she was both surprised and relieved to find a bus pulling to a stop right in front of her.
It was half past one by the time she finally got off the bus. Her house was still a five-minute walk away. She didn't mind though. She welcomed the peace and quiet that the neighbourhood offered at night and since her father had left for his home town earlier that day, she didn't have to worry about being told off for coming home late.
She had managed to stop sniffling when she had got into the bus and had spent most of the journey staring desolately out the window. Thoughts of Mayama and Harada-san had overwhelmed her just as she had predicted. But she had repeatedly told herself that she had to get strong enough to push those thoughts away. She needed to focus on something that would prove as a distraction for most part of the day. Nomiya-san's project had immediately come to mind and she had decided to step into it with the utmost dedication.
Planning out her life for the next few weeks seemed like a good idea and she let a reluctant smile twist her lips as she turned into her street. She was taking a step towards getting over Mayama. However small the step may be, it was still comforting to know that she was trying.
Her good mood evaporated instantly on catching sight of the familiar, battered old car parked outside her house and the silhouette of a tall, thin man leaning against the door on the driver's side. Her heels clicked on the pavement as she made her way closer, ignoring the sense of dread that was slowly consuming her with each step.
He turned around when she was close enough and she noticed that he had been smoking. She eyed the numerous cigarette butts on the ground warily. How long had he been waiting for her?
She stared at him without saying anything, silently congratulating herself for not breaking down at the sight of him. Despite the pep talk she had given herself earlier that had left her feeling significantly better, she was still in a vulnerable state right now.
He shrugged at her unasked question, a cigarette caught between his teeth. "I had to make sure you got home safe."
"I did." She moved past him to her door. "Thank you."
"Yamada."Against her will, she waited. There was something tender in the way he had said her name. And she was still weak. "I'm sorry about tonight. About asking you to come over and then forgetting about it and...everything else."
The unspoken name hung heavily in the air. She turned around. "Is Harada-san all right?"
Her question seemed to throw him off-guard. He recovered quickly though and stared at his feet as he nodded, the cigarette now between his fingers. "Yes."
She smiled as naturally as she could. "That's good then." She unlocked the door and stepped inside. "Drive safe, Mayama."
He stared at her with an unreadable expression on his face for a moment. Then he nodded once more, and got inside the car. She waited until he was out of sight before crumbling to the floor, the tears taking over once more.
Who had she been kidding with all the planning? This was just like every other night.
She would be just as hopelessly in love with him as ever in the morning.