"I met Mayama when I was a freshman at university."
He looked up from his glass of wine, which he had been staring into for the last few minutes. Nomiya was never the one to let awkwardness rule a situation for long but he had chosen to be the listener for the night.
After taking her to an ice cream parlour down the street, he had offered to drive her home. She had immediately declined the offer, deeming herself sober enough to take a taxi back home. He wasn't going to let that happen, even though she had looked decidedly less intoxicated after the phone call from Mayama. He had assumed she would be too embarrassed to stay in his company after all the crying she did but she had simply chattered on about her favourite type of ice cream until they stumbled upon a cheerful-looking hotel. It housed a rooftop restaurant and that's how he had been tricked into buying yet another bottle of wine.
Not that he particularly minded, especially since she was starting to talk. "He was a year older—a sophomore. He was studying art too, of course." She said all of this in a matter-of-fact tone.
Nomiya knew enough about her relationship with Mayama to guess that she had feelings for him. But the rest, he had nothing to guess from. Mayama was secretive that way and to be perfectly honest, Nomiya hadn't taken the pains to know more about his friends and family. As his employer, Nomiya cared most about his work ethic; he didn't concern himself with his personal life.
Until Yamada came along.
She slid her empty wineglass across the table to him, as though he were a bartender. The attempt would have worked perfectly if a) it had not been a wineglass and b) the table had not been covered by tablecloth. He watched as it tipped over and fell onto the table without a sound. He looked back up at her. She sighed, before continuing. "I used to see him in the hallways often and I thought he was cute." Here, she looked embarrassed and her already-flushed cheeks became redder.
If he didn't have a favourite colour before, he definitely did now. The thought only succeeded in annoying him but he kept his face politely curious as he waited for her to continue. "I would have probably never spoken to him if it hadn't been for Hanamoto-sensei. . .do you know him?"
He nodded. "Not very well. I take it he is a close friend of Harada-san's."
At the mention of her name, Yamada's face visibly darkened. He understood why, but it was such a peculiar expression to be seen on her face that he couldn't help the obligatory question that fell from his lips. "Are you all right, Yamada-san?"
When she looked back at him, her expression shocked him. Every inch of her face was filled with a bitterness – furrowed brow, red eyes, and pursed lips – that could not be described. It touched him somewhere, deep down. There was a slight pain somewhere in his chest and for the first time in his life, he felt his sympathy for someone else take over him.
Nomiya was not one to pity someone. A part of him could see that what she was doing to herself – the situation she had placed herself in – was an act of despair. If it had been anyone else, he would have found the courage to call it what it was: pathetic.
But not with her.
He didn't quite understand why he felt different with her and this indescribable feeling was frustrating. Perhaps it was in the way she was looking at him or the fact that she was simply breathtaking despite looking completely undone, but Nomiya could not be sharp with her; not like he usually was. He bowed his head and muttered an apology.
"There's nothing to be sorry about." The bitterness was still there but her voice was soft. Exhausted. "Nomiya-san, I think it's safe to say that you know about Mayama and Harada-san."
He nodded mutely. She suddenly looked too mature to be the drunken girl who was struggling to get to her feet, just an hour ago. There was a surprising edge to her voice that he hadn't thought possible on someone like her. He was a little ashamed to admit it but he had taken her for someone who was—
"Then you must know how I feel about her."
She righted her glass and glanced at the wine bottle. He took the hint and poured her another glass. She picked it up slowly and gazed at it momentarily before downing it in a flash. "Nomiya-san." She was starting to slur slightly. Again. He realised he should have taken her home by now—she might drink herself to oblivion, at this rate.
Mayama was going to kill him.
Instead, he focused on what she was saying. "I-I have nothing against her but, no—no one can expect me to think fondly of her. I've tried. . .believe me, I've tried but I simply cannot—when I think of her, I just can't. . ." Her eyes were filling with tears once more. She caught him staring at her and laughed weakly. "I'm pathetic, aren't I? I'm sorry, Nomiya-san." She sighed deeply. "I'm so. . .sorry. I know this was not how you expected the—the evening to go."
But he was already shaking his head, waving away her apologies. No, this was not how he had expected it go. He had not expected her to look like an ange—
Do not go there.
But what good did it do to be in denial? Nomiya was never blind. He could accept that she was attractive—she was probably one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. However, while he could accept that, he could not accept that inexplicable feeling in his chest that was threatening to choke him. It was not grief—no, he most certainly did not feel like bawling his eyes out. Then what on earth was it?
I think you know.
That was for later. He would speculate later. He was more interested in what she had to say and he was more interested in learning about Mayama. So he subtly drew away her glass and smiled. "I'm actually having a very good time, Yamada-san."
She smiled at that and sat up straighter. He could sense the inevitable question that had forced her to lean forward. "What about you, Nomiya-san?"
He considered using the clichéd, "What about me?" to buy himself more time but he knew his answer was going to be the same, one way or the other. "Between the two of us, I'm afraid you're the only one in love, Yamada-san."
She leaned back and sighed again. He had not expected her to delve deeper, anyway. "Love. . .what good does it do, Nomiya-san?" She pointed to herself and then at him. "Here I am, drinking away my troubles and half of them are in my head and the rest—" she placed a hand over her heart. "—in here."
He remained silent. "I've loved him ever since I've known him. How. . .how am I supposed to let him go?" Her starry eyes were begging him for an answer. And it just so happened that Nomiya—the quick-witted, observant and handsome Nomiya—had none to give her.
His throat felt a little funny.
He drew in a deep breath when she looked away. Her next words were a mere whisper. "I don't know who I am if I'm not the girl who's in love with Mayama."
As she sat there, slumped in her chair and with her hair almost completely free from its bun, he couldn't stay silent. He inhaled deeply and said, "You've let it define you."
Great, now you can't even contribute to the conversation properly.
But she was nodding slowly. "Yes." She turned her eyes up at him. "To throw away a part of my identity. . .that's asking for too much—he's asking for too much."
This particularly piqued his curiosity. "Mayama?"
She stared glumly at the tablecloth. "A couple of days ago, I—I confronted him about Harada-san." Her eyes met his and she suddenly looked defensive. "I couldn't help it! He was lying around, smoking excessively and I knew it was because of her. . .and I just couldn't take it anymore. I told him to just confess to her because it was horrible to see him like that. . .and—"
Nomiya waited but she couldn't seem to go on. "And?" He prompted, gently.
She wouldn't meet his eyes when she answered. She was looking down, at her lap, with her hair clouding her face. "And he threw it back at my face. He—he asked me why I do it. . .and—oh God—and he told me to find someone else. . ."
Her shaky voice and her trembling form was enough to tell him she was crying. He opened his mouth to say something comforting but the phrases that came to mind were too banal to offer consolation. Instead, he slowly reached across the table for her hand and squeezed it tentatively.
She looked up at him at his touch. Her hair was a mess, her eyes were bloodshot, her nose was pink and her lips were trembling.
And she still looked fantastic.
He inwardly sighed. That was not what he should be concentrating on.
What Mayama had said was true—she did need to move on and he couldn't fault the younger guy for that. Luckily for him, she saved him the trouble of answering by talking once more. "I'm not saying it isn't true. . .I'm a mess and I know it." He released her hand and handed her one of the dry napkins lying on the table. "But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt to hear it."
Again, all he could do was nod. Everything she had said so far made sense—made perfect sense and for some reason, he felt disappointed. Perhaps it was because he had expected something different or something more but this. . .this was—
A clichéd love story.
A small part of him immediately berated him for thinking it. He had absolutely no right to judge her or her story, especially since he clammed up at the thought of love. He had never committed to a woman before in his life and to love someone so much that you lose a huge part of yourself—that, he definitely could not relate to.
A much bigger part of him was filled with apathy. But, Nomiya could not dismiss her easily. He hardly ever experienced a mix of emotions, no matter how small the range may be and for that, he had her to. . . well, he wasn't sure if he was grateful for it.
Yamada sniffled and looked at him. "I think you should take me home now."
But what scared him the most was the sinking realisation that maybe, just maybe, he was every bit as shallow as Mayama had always predicted.
Especially if the reason he had sat through the evening listening to her was because she was gobsmackingly beautiful.
The drive to her place was uneventful. He was tongue-tied, as seemed to be the norm lately and she was too wrapped up in her thoughts to offer polite conversation. Nomiya wondered if anything had changed between them; he was certain she would be embarrassed the next time they had to meet, be it business or anything else.
The silence was punctuated by the occasional honking of cars, although this late at night, there was hardly any traffic. She had rolled down her window to let the gust of air stir up her hair until the brown tendrils masked her face entirely. Part of him thought that was on purpose.
When he turned into her street, she instantly stiffened. When Nomiya noticed what was parked right outside her house, he wondered why he hadn't noticed it before she had.
Well she's the one in love with him.
He slowed suddenly and turned to face her. "Yamada-san." She looked quizzically at him. "I know you were looking forward to a nice time today and I'm sorry it didn't go quite as planned. That's not to say, however, that I don't look forward to seeing you again some time." He smiled. At least his facial muscles were still working properly. He decided to say all that he possibly could before facing the impending doom that had manifested in the form of an angry, young man. "I really hoped to treat you to a spectacular dinner and have you collapsing in laughter at all my jokes—" he grinned at her until he realised that it felt too much like flirting. "—but since neither of that was accomplished, you can expect my apologies in the form of a gravely injured Yamazaki."
But they had reached her house. Mayama immediately stood up from his position at her doorstep. Nomiya avoided eye contact as he got out of the car, noticing the blank look on Yamada's face. There was absolutely no evidence of the fact that she'd been crying. Except for her windswept hair, she looked extremely well put together.
He was pretty impressed, actually. He had assumed she would break down at the sight of him. Or show signs of it.
"I thought you were going to be working late tonight." The innocent statement seemed to anger Mayama more. Nomiya didn't think that was possible.
"I was." He bit out. "Maybe the fact that I'm out here should tell you that it's way past—"
"—my bedtime?" The cool tone she used on him only surprised Nomiya even more. Where was the sniffling, intoxicated mess of a girl from just a few minutes ago? Had he really been wrong about her? "I have to say, Mayama, that it really is none of your business."
"The hell it isn't." Well, at least he got the bit about Mayama right. "You are my friend, Yamada and I have every right to care." And for the first time since they got out of the car, he shot Nomiya a look of unmistakable disapproval.
It wasn't anything new. By then, he was used to Mayama's sulking whenever he flirted with a woman. It was just that this time, the disapproval seemed to have intensified by a factor of about a million.
Unfortunately for him, Yamada seemed to have caught the shift in his gaze. Gone was the cool demeanour. The livid expression on her face rivalled the one on Mayama's. "How dare you!" Her shrill voice startled him, as betrayed by the sudden rise of his shoulders. Mayama seemed to be bracing himself. "How dare you look at Nomiya-san like he is anything other than a nice—"
But Mayama couldn't bear to hear the false impression she seemed to have of his boss. Nomiya had to admit she thought too highly of him, since she had no clue that he was something of a player. "I don't care what you think of him. That has nothing to do with this."
"It has everything to do with this!" Her hands were balled into fists. "You have never before dropped by to check if I've got home safe. And we both know I've been out later than this many times before."
She'd hit the nail on the head and they both knew it. Mayama looked between the two of them somewhat nervously but he managed to keep his scowl in place. He wasn't going to admit what was really bothering him about this situation, even though she was dangerously close to figuring it out herself.
Maybe this was where her dense nature came in handy.
"What exactly is your problem, Mayama?" She didn't seem to be ready to let it go. "What makes you think you can act like this and get away with it?"
"Act like what?" He snapped back, immediately on the defensive.
"Like you can monitor what I do and interfere whenever you feel like it!" She looked like she wanted to tear her hair out in frustration, judging from the way her nails were digging into her palms. Nomiya briefly wondered if he should pry her fingers apart but then she started to talk again and he was readily distracted. "Two days ago, you clearly wanted me to punch out of your life and yet—" she took a small step towards him. "—here you are, doing pretty much the same thing with mine. Talk about hypocrisy."
It was a huge blow, if the way Mayama's face slackened was anything to go by. Nomiya knew the reason she was acting out like that was because she was hurting, but once again, there was a bitterness to it that seemed so unlike her. The way she had cried when she was with him had pushed him to believe that she was too weak to snap back at Mayama. But the more she talked now, the more she proved him wrong.
And he wasn't sure if he was insulted or delighted that he had been wrong.
The silence stretched and in the light of a stray lamppost that flickered weakly, he saw her shoulders slump. She turned to him when Mayama finally spoke, "You don't know what you're doing, Yamada."
That was enough to spur her on. "Nomiya-san." And just like that, she was right in front of him. Her voice was gentle, betraying none of the anger evident from her rigid body. As she looked up at him, though, some of the anger seemed to dissipate. "Thank you for the wonderful evening." And her face split into a smile so huge—so absurdly pretty, that he stiffened. Very noticeably.
She didn't seem to mind, however, as she leaned in close and pressed her soft lips to his cheek.
He breathed in her scent, albeit subtly and vaguely registered the unrestrained gasp, undoubtedly Mayama's.
She stepped back and beamed. "Goodnight, Nomiya-san." And without so much as a glance at Mayama, she disappeared into the house.
The younger man seemed too shocked to stop him when he got into his car. Nomiya knew he didn't owe him an explanation but, for once in his life, he pitied him. So he cleared his throat. Mayama instinctively looked up. "It's getting late. You'd better get back home."
Nomiya couldn't quite bring himself to be smug about the whole thing.
"Well, that was a rather eventful night." He muttered to himself, as he drove away.
As attractive as she may be, Nomiya wasn't a fool in love. He had seen right through her little act.
Beyond everything, Yamada was desperate. In her anger, she had been defiant. But in her defiance, she was also sly.
She had known that something about him irked Mayama and had used it to her advantage.
He hadn't been entirely wrong about her; he had just made the mistake of assuming that he could explain her from the single dimension that he had seen. She had different layers to her personality, just like anyone else. He had seen the mourning side of her and immediately jumped to conclusions. What a foolish mistake that was.
Despite himself, he smiled. He wasn't insulted that she had, in a way, used him to get back at Mayama. Nomiya knew that she was still hurting too much to look back on this little incident with any other than embarrassment. She might even come to regret it.
He would be stupid, very stupid, to fall for her. She was truly a mess.
And yet, he relished the imprint her lips had left behind. The pinkish smear was a souvenir.