Wishful Thinking

Yamada

"Ayu-chan, are you sure? Because you really don't have to. . ."

Hagu's blonde hair was up in Princess Leia buns. There was even a paintbrush pushed through one. All she would need now was a strategically torn up shirt and equally scruffy pants to look the part of a deranged artist. But the picture was ruined by the angelic white dress she had on. "I don't mind staying alone, really."

"Are you kidding? I'd love to move in with you!" Yamada dramatically collapsed against the kitchen door. "We could stay up watching romcoms all night! Ooh and think about all the dinners we could cook together—hey, maybe we can invite the boys over for a little party later this week. . ."

"I-if you say so." Hagu was looking at her rather nervously. Maybe she should dial down the enthusiasm. Then again, that was how Hagu generally viewed people – like they were going to eat her alive. "Is your father okay with it?"

"Oh, he doesn't mind one bit." There was no need to tell Hagu that her father had blown his top when she had informed him she was moving out. She had had to repeatedly tell him that it was temporary until he had calmed down. It wasn't even like she was leaving town. Hanamoto-sensei's apartment was a ten-minute walk from her place. It was like a long, long sleepover, really.

When the professor had been invited by his mentor to accompany him on a year-long trip, everyone had expected Hagu to go along with him. Morita had even started to sculpt a life-size statue of her so 'no one would even realise she was gone'. He had comically struggled to hold back tears when he had stationed a scared-looking Hagu right next to a huge piece of canvas and ordered her not to move for three hours. Yamada remembered it well because she had been struggling to hold back a fit of giggles at the sight.

But to everyone's surprise, the young girl had opted to stay back and concentrate on the various art projects she had lined up. Hanamoto-sensei was probably the most astonished of them all. He had told Hagu over and over that this was a research trip to help collect material for the book his mentor was working on. That meant he might be gone for more than a year. No matter how many times he said it, perhaps to make her really understand the situation, she wouldn't change her mind. Yamada personally thought he was upset that Hagu seemed to be perfectly fine with the idea of not seeing him for such a long time.

She smiled fondly at the younger girl while she retreated into the kitchen to heat the leftovers from yesterday. Hagu really had changed since the day she had moved in with her uncle. Yamada remembered the meek, inconspicuous little girl who had jumped at the slightest of sounds and couldn't talk to people even if she tried. But almost a year later, there was a slightly more mature girl in her place—an anxious girl who could hold her own in a room full of people she didn't know for ten minutes before the pressing need to hyperventilate would overcome her. It was definitely an improvement.

That was when her train of thought decided to make a wrong turn and force her to take stock of her life in the past year. Had anything changed for her?

Well, I'm still in love with Mayama.

She was forever wading through the misery that was her unrequited love for him. Perhaps it was never-ending. Perhaps it was—

She immediately forced herself to stop thinking about it. She had done this a million times before. There was no other angle from which she could look at the situation, try as she might. He was deeply in love with Harada-san and nothing was going to change his feelings for her. Yamada could choose to continue to cry into her pillow every other night or take control of her life and do whatever was necessary to get over him.

She needed to move out—she needed the change, especially after what had happened with Nomiya-san. It had been over a week since that fateful dinner, when she had thoroughly embarrassed herself and acted so out of character that she was seriously considering giving up alcohol for the rest of her life. She had also been avoiding Mayama as much as possible, not that he was going out of his way to reach her. Ever since she had pulled that little stunt with his boss, Mayama seemed to have washed his hands off of her.

Which was what she wanted, really. She had told him to butt out and that was exactly what he was doing. He was actually listening to her, for once.

But there was this niggling doubt at the back of her mind—like an incurable itch. What if every single thing she had done in the days leading up to that night had been to get his attention? It made her feel sick, when she gave room for that thought to consume every inch of her brain. Yamada did not believe she could be cunning. But, her refusal to listen to Mayama when he had told her to stay away from Nomiya-san—what if that was because she had secretly relished the thought of him chasing after her?

Maybe she had guessed he would try to stop her and that thrilled her. Going against him so he would have no choice but to follow her. Wasn't that what she had always been hoping for? On some level, she must have known how it would play out and she had manipulated it; she had literally used Nomiya-san in this stupid, psycho test of hers.

She had wanted to see Mayama care. She had wanted him to be upset over her affection for Nomiya-san. She had wanted it to bother him so he would realise that the person he was really in love with was. . .her.

"Ayu-chan? Ayu-chan, you look pale." Hagu's quiet voice was barely audible above the thudding of her heart. What had she done? Yes, she wanted to get over Mayama, but that didn't involve hurting him! And Nomiya-san—oh God, the way she had treated him. She let out a whimper that frightened Hagu enough to turn her into a statue.

All pretence. She had pretended with Nomiya-san, she had flirted with him to make Mayama jealous. And she didn't even know if it had worked out the way she had (apparently) wanted it to. Had Mayama been jealous? She remembered the shocked expression on his face but she had been too nervous to stay there a minute longer. Frightened by her own bravery.

Why hadn't she figured this out sooner? This was too obvious to escape her so easily! Had her drunken stupor made her repress the memory or something? That could be an answer. She had pushed back the memories of that night every time they had surfaced, afraid that she would find out too much and never get out of bed. That must be it.

This should teach her lesson. The truth always, always caught up to her so there was absolutely no point in trying to run away from it.

"Ayu-chan, p-please say something." Hagu was staring deep into her eyes in quiet concern. It took her a moment to register what she had said.

Yamada snapped out of it so suddenly that the poor girl stumbled in her haste to step back. She put a hand on her forehead and smiled apologetically. "I'm so sorry, Hagu-chan. I just spaced out there for a bit."

Hagu was readily convinced and soon diverted her attention back to the frying pan. The leftovers had been deemed inedible and omelettes were Hagu's forte. Yamada leaned against the counter, lost in thought as she opened cupboards to look for plates and forks. Unlike before, she had just one thought that kept her preoccupied: she had to fix this.

She had to talk to both Mayama and Nomiya-san and set things right. Maybe they could all just meet up somewhere. But the idea of putting both of them in the same room and dealing with the unavoidable awkwardness was too much to even picture.

One person at a time, then. She would deal with Mayama first and worry about Nomiya-san later. All she had to do now was to give Mayama a call and ask him if he could meet her for dinner. He wouldn't just hang up on her, would he? What if he was so angry at the way she had acted that he simply refused to see her?

Deep breath in. She needed to calm down. She was getting paranoid over a simple phone call.

Just do it before you have time to think it through.

But she couldn't help imagining the hundred different ways in which the conversation could end badly. She would simply have to come up with a different plan to approach him. She bit her lip as she helped Hagu with breakfast. The omelettes looked delicious; she had had nothing to eat all morning except for a protein bar. When they invited the boys over for that party, they would definitely cook up a storm.

Wait a minute.

Party.

That was it! A party would be the easiest way to get Mayama in the same room as her. She turned to Hagu with a huge grin on her face. "You know, Hagu-chan, I've been thinking. . .how about a farewell party for Hanamoto-sensei?"


Takemoto had insisted on coming over as soon as they had called him about the party. Much to their bewilderment, he had also insisted on being in charge of dinner.

"But, we were thinking of cooking a great dinner!" Yamada had tried to reason with him. "I found this wonderful cheesecake recipe online and I was going to add some of my—"

"No no, I don't need to know the secret ingredients." Takemoto had replied, looking slightly nauseated. "Just let me take care of the food, for a change. You girls go tidy up the place."

Even Hagu's quiet entreaties to let her into the kitchen were only met with small smiles and pats on the head. That guy was unmovable. Yamada soon had to take up the task of informing the rest of them about the party—she had expected Takemoto to tell the others but he had rushed over immediately (for unknown reasons) and in his haste, had forgotten to drop the others a quick text.

But there was absolutely no reason to panic. She ended up using Takemoto's phone to send them the messages. Mayama would never know she had been the one to text him. There will be no awkward encounters between the two of them until the party started.

She still had to make up a speech in her head for when she would finally be face-to-face with him. She had to make it as apologetic as possible, without going overboard. She puffed her cheeks in frustration. This wasn't going to be easy.

"What are you making for dinner, Takemoto-kun?" Hagu was peering inside the kitchen, with an unusually curious expression on her face.

"I haven't decided yet. . ."

"What?!" Yamada sat up from where she had almost dozed off in the couch. "You've been in there for almost an hour!"

"Have you seen the state of this kitchen?" He shot back, pointing an accusing finger at her. "What on earth did you cook—" but he stopped abruptly when he noticed Hagu staring tearfully back at him. Yamada was at her side at once. Throwing an arm over her small shoulders and making soothing noises, she frowned at Takemoto.

He deflated almost immediately. "Hagu-chan, please don't cry. I thought Yamada was the one—"

"No, you're right." Her breathing hitched. "The kitchen is a mess. How-how am I going to take care of everything if I can't even c-clean the kitchen?" The quiet sobbing turned into a high-pitched wail. "What am I going to do without uncle? I can't stay here for a whole year without him!"

Both Yamada and Takemoto stared at her in astonishment. She was the first one to react. "But Hagu-chan, you decided to stay back."

The younger girl was slowly wiping away the tears. "B-Because I-I didn't want Shū-chan to worry. . ." When she was only met with confused silence, she continued to explain. "If I-I go on the trip, he—he might spend more time worrying about me than-than working on the b-book."

Yamada understood what she was getting at but it was Takemoto who spoke. He smiled warmly at Hagu, who was still so amazingly short that he had to kneel in front of her. "Hagu." He waited until she looked up at him. "Hagu, that's terribly selfless of you. But there's no reason to suffer like this."

She stared at him with her large, outlandish eyes. "But I can't tell him I want to go with him."

"Hagu-chan, the question here is: what do you want?"

"I. . .I want. . ." Hagu stared at her shoes uncertainly. Takemoto waited patiently as he watched her ponder over his question. "I want Shū-chan to go on the trip and not worry about me."

He smiled gently. "No." Yamada stared at him in surprise, as did Hagu. "That's what you want for sensei. Forget about him for a moment. Can you do that? Forget about him and tell me this. If you were asked to go on a year-long trip, would you go? You would be able to visit beautiful places and do a lot of research on your own. Would you want to go?"

Silence ruled the kitchen once more. Yamada could only watch as Hagu took her time answering the question. Takemoto had a quiet wisdom about him that startled her. She had, along the way, guessed that he had feelings for Hagu-chan and she knew he preferred to take up the role of a supportive friend. But she had never really witnessed this side of him. Takemoto was usually being babied by the guys that she had always thought of him as the little kid.

Excepting Hagu, of course.

"It sounds lovely." Hagu finally replied, looking wistful. "I would probably get to see so much more of the world a-and to be able to paint it all. . .it sounds wonderful." Takemoto smiled, nodding slowly. "But, I want to stay."

Yamada was taken aback by the answer. Takemoto, however, seemed to have expected it. "And why is that?"

"Because," Hagu paused, like she was struggling to find the right words. "Because there's so much left of this town to see, I'm no-not ready to leave it yet." She blushed, embarrassed by her own admission. "So much could change in a year. . .and I don't want to-to miss it."

Yamada felt a sudden pain in her chest at her words. Takemoto beamed at Hagu. "Good for you, Hagu-chan! Now all you have to do is find a way to not worry about sensei."

Hagu's glow of pride dimmed at the last statement. "I can't do that."

"Yes, you can. Just remember, sensei is going to worry about you, no matter what." Yamada wondered at this new tactic. Hagu was starting to look less happy. "But you could make sure that he feels less guilty about leaving you here. If he knew how much fun you'll be having here, he'll worry less."

The glow was back. "Thank you, Takemoto-kun."

Yamada expected him to blush in embarrassment but for the hundredth time that day, she was surprised. He simply smiled back and watched as Hagu disappeared into the art room. "Maybe she's going to paint him a picture for the trip." He commented, as he turned back to the kitchen.

"Sensei is probably more upset that she's happy to be left behind than anything else."

Takemoto chuckled at that. "Well, in that case, I shouldn't have encouraged her to show him how happy she is to stay here." He donned a white apron, finally preparing to make dinner. "Then again, I think sensei will be pleased to know that Hagu's putting herself first, for once."

"But she wasn't." Yamada pointed out. "You helped her make the decision."

"No, I didn't." The quiet smile was back. "Hagu just didn't know what pushed her to stay. I just made her see the reason behind her decision."

Yamada jerked her head in agreement. Something was bothering her—something about the way Takemoto had beamed at Hagu when she had finally realised why she wanted to stay so badly. It struck her that things were entirely different between her and Mayama, even though her situation was somewhat similar to Takemoto's.

She couldn't remember the last time she had been happy for Mayama.

They were supposed to be good friends but they hadn't really talked to each other properly in months; ever since her feelings had been too overwhelming to hide. And after Nomiya-san came into the picture, things had become more and more strained between them. Were they even friends anymore?

The question scared her. She had to talk about this to someone.

"Hagu isn't the only person who's changed over the past year." She remarked, glancing at him. "You have too, you know. Ever since you came back from that trip you took. . .you've just been different."

His response was to shrug. But she couldn't let the conversation end there. She had to know. "How do you do it?" She burst out. "How do you set aside your feelings for her when you talk to her?"

Takemoto absent-mindedly chopped vegetables as he took in that question. Finally, "I've been in love with Hagu since the moment I met her." Another shrug, small and slow. "I don't know how it happened but there was a feeling I couldn't shake off when I first saw her. I guess that's what they call love at first sight."

Yamada listened intently. Had she intuitively known she loved Mayama when she had first laid eyes on him? The answer to that was a big, resounding no. She had found him attractive but it wasn't until a few months into their friendship that she had come to that monumental realisation. Did that make her love for him any less profound?

No. Don't be silly.

"You can't control who you fall in love with but I think—" Here, he paused and stared straight at her. "—I think you can control the person you want to be around them. And I chose to be the friend; the shoulder to lean on." He went back to chopping vegetables. "I'm happy to be the person she relies on to make her feel better."

So drastically different from her. "But. . ." Her pained whisper forced him to look at her again. "Don't you want more?"

"At one point, I did." His easy reply shocked her. How was he able to talk about it so effortlessly? "I knew she didn't see me the way I saw her. I also knew I couldn't force her to think of me as anything other than her good friend. It was pretty depressing." He admitted, still smiling. "Especially since I was already having a hard time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life; what I was good at."

She studied him; she studied the small smile on his face as he talked about Hagu. He would be much happier if she had reciprocated his feelings but he seemed happy to be where he was, too.

She wanted that. She wanted to be able to talk about Mayama like that.

"So," she prodded. "how did you come out of it?"

"Hagu helped, actually." He threw the vegetables into the frying pan. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that she's. . .well, a genius. My problem was that I expected to get there someday; to be as amazing as she was, and still is. Once I realised that not all of us can be that talented, it was easier to deal with it. It was easier to figure out what I wanted to do." She was envious of his contented smile. "But I still needed that trip to clear my head. And the people I met along the way and the places I visited. . .they gave me a new purpose."

So is that what it was? Did she need to take a trip to get over Mayama? He noticed her sceptical look and grinned. "I'm not saying everyone needs a trip." So now he could read minds, too. "I'm just saying you need that little push to really accept your place in someone's life. I settled for being her friend, initially, but I was still fighting for her to see me differently. Now, I've finally accepted it."

His words still hurt, somehow. Yamada wasn't sure if this conversation had really helped her. What was going to be her push? What exactly was a push? "Does that mean you're still in love with her?"

He beamed. "Just as much as ever."

But how could he be so happy saying it? "What's the point, then? You know she's never going to love you back." She knew she was being rather brazen but he didn't seem to mind and so, she couldn't, either. "Don't you feel. . .lonely?"

"No." The certainty in his voice left no room for questions. "I have great friends. I have people who care about me."

"Yes, but, friends are different." She began, rather uncertainly. It was getting more and more difficult to understand him. "It's not the same as loving someone and having them reciprocate."

"No, it's not." He agreed. The frying pan was starting to sizzle. "But I've learnt to let go, Yamada. I haven't stopped being in love with her. That would probably take more time." He was really starting to confuse her now. What on earth did he mean by letting go, then? "I've learnt not to fixate on my feelings for her. I was an idiot back then, when I held on to what I felt for her. I was so focused on her, on how much I loved her, that I missed out on being myself, you know? I didn't have time for myself because all I ever did was to think about my feelings for her."

Oh.

"She's a huge part of my life." He continued, expertly flipping the vegetables in the pan. "But I've decided not to let that be my defining trait. Who knows, maybe one day, I'll find someone else to make me happy."

She stared at him in amazement. His approach was so very, very different. So long, it had always been Mayama and Mayama alone, for her. She couldn't even begin to think about meeting someone else. But Takemoto, he was. . .open to that option.

It finally made sense.

By letting her love for Mayama consume her, she had only been shutting out the rest of the world. If she had let go, her life could have been so different. She might have met new people, made more friends. And like Takemoto said, she might have even found someone else.

"I want that." No more beating around the bush. "What else did you do?"

He chuckled at her question. "The trip was more of a journey to find out who I really was. It was more to. . .rediscover myself, than anything else." His hazel eyes rested on hers briefly. "Do you think you need something like that?"

Did she? She really had let it define her—even Nomiya-san had said so. But did she need a trip? Would travelling help?

"I-I don't know." She sighed. "I have lost sight of who I really am. . .but I don't know if a trip will help."

"Again, it doesn't have to be a trip. It could be anything. You need change; a breath of fresh air."

She nodded. Well, she was changing some part of her life—she was moving in with Hagu. She said as much and his response was to nod thoughtfully. "I can't be a judge of what will, or won't, be helpful. I guess you won't really know until you start living here."

"I'll take that."

"Another thing that helped," he continued. "was confessing to Hagu."

She wasn't really sure of that one. Mayama already knew how she felt about him. "I don't—"

"I know what you're thinking." His self-assured manner of speaking was something he must have picked up on that trip. "It doesn't matter if he knows. It's not just about letting the other person know." The smell of fried potatoes made her stomach grumble. "It's for your sake. Doesn't this feel like a huge burden you're carrying around?" She nodded vigorously. "Well, I felt a whole lot lighter once I told Hagu. Maybe it'll work the same way for you. For me, it was. . . closure."

Closure.

She had never thought about that. Could telling Mayama really help her? She could understand what Takemoto was trying to say. If her feelings were out in the open, it was possible she would feel much better.

Well, you won't know for sure until you try.

She grinned at him, finally. "Wow, Takemoto, when did you become so wise?"

Before he could respond, the door to the art room burst open. Hagu hurriedly put on her coat. For a moment, Yamada could only stare at her in confusion. "Hagu-chan? What's wrong? Where are you going?"

"I need to find a clover." Her frantic voice scared Yamada. "For Shū-chan. I have to find a four-leafed clover."

Oh. "All right, Hagu, but slow down. I'll come with you, okay? We could look together." She turned to Takemoto. "What about you?"

"Well, I've only just started with dinner." He wiped his hands on his apron and smiled. "But how long can this take?"


However, as it turned out, it was extremely difficult to find a four-leafed clover.

Hagu had been determined to search near the little lake, right down the end of their street. There was a beautiful slope of grass leading to the lake and she had immediately thrown herself on it, frantically looking everywhere for a clover.

Half an hour later, Yamada started to grow a little weary of all the searching. Especially since she had been fooled twice into letting out a whoop of joy before she had realised she had been holding a three-leafed clover.

Beside her, Takemoto didn't seem to share her opinion on the hunt. In fact, the more they searched, the more energetic he seemed to get. Hagu's face was slowing losing colour as she made her way across the slope. Yamada hoped, for her sake, that they would find one, no matter how long it took.

"I've found it!" All of them jumped at the voice. Hagu was so startled she slipped and rolled down a few feet before she managed to pin herself to the ground.

Morita's familiar form came into view as he jogged towards them. "I've got the clover!" He screamed happily, waving with a tuft of grass in his hand. Yamada squinted. Was that a clover?

Hagu and Takemoto were more astonished to see him there, than anything else. "H-How did he know?" Hagu mumbled, staring with wide eyes as he advanced towards them.

"Well, he is Morita," was Takemoto's uncertain reply.

"You know what I always say, Hagu-chan," Morita said breathlessly as he fell on the grass, next to Yamada. "if you can't find clovers, make 'em!"

And with that philosophy, he promptly dropped four blades of grass into Hagu's hand. She stared at him with her mouth open, while he rolled around merrily, whistling to himself. Takemoto put a hand on his forehead and sighed. Yamada was suddenly attacked by an overwhelming urge to laugh. She pressed her lips together and stared up at the darkening sky.

"Th-that's not a cl-clover." Hagu finally managed to splutter.

"I know." Morita grinned at her. She shrunk back. "But see, if you place them so. . ." He made a complicated twist with the four blades of grass. ". . .you get a clover!"

Yamada stared at the masterpiece. It kind of did look like a clover. Hagu looked like she was ready to burst into tears. "B-but it's not a real clover!" She cried. "Shū-chan needs a good luck charm!"

It was Morita's turn to stare at her blankly while Takemoto consoled her with promises to find a clover. They soon resumed the search, with the exception of Morita who was distinctly pouting because Hagu had rejected his brilliant idea.

Yamada wasn't sure how long they continued to look but eventually even the street lights were too weak for them to go any further. It was obvious from Hagu's dejected face that she was struggling not to cry. Yamada truly felt awful and even Morita was unusually quiet as they made their way up the slope.

"Well," A familiar voice called out. "looks like half the party is here."

Hanamoto-sensei beamed down at them with Mayama at his side. Yamada noticed the huge cardboard box he was carrying. "Let's get this party started, shall we?"


After Hagu's pleas for forgiveness ("Shū-chan, I'm s-sorry! I wanted to-to give you a four-leafed cl-clover so b-badly. . .") were patiently listened to and readily accepted, they began to unpack the huge container. Hanamoto-sensei preferred to have the party right next to the lake, which suited the others just fine.

Takemoto and Morita spread the blanket while Yamada set down the dishes. Mayama informed them that when they had arrived at the apartment, the only food in the kitchen had been some fried potatoes (here, Takemoto flushed and mumbled an apology) so Hanamoto-sensei had decided to cook dinner himself. Mayama had had to run to the convenience store for a few ingredients but they had been able to make enough for the whole party.

The food did look very inviting. There was tonkatsu, which earned a gleeful look from Morita and the fried potatoes from before had been used in the braised meat and potatoes. Takemoto helped himself to some rice and curry while Mayama settled down next to Morita. Dessert was dango, much to Hagu's delight.

For a few minutes, there was contentment in the air while they hungrily attacked the food. Yamada was situated as far away from Mayama as possible and she wasn't sure if that worked in her favour or not. She knew what she had to do – first apologize and then confess. But she had no idea how to go about it.

And then Hanamoto-sensei filled six glasses with saké.

No Yamada, bad idea. You remember what happened the last time you drank too much.


An hour later, she couldn't, for the life of her, understand why she had shunned alcohol.

Everyone seemed to have loosened up, considerably. Morita and Takemoto were involved in some complicated hand-to-hand combat, except both of them kept missing and punching the air instead, giggling inanely. Hanamoto-sensei was flat on his back with his eyes closed and grinning rather stupidly. Yamada then focused on Mayama, who was. . . comforting Hagu.

The young girl was staring woefully at her legs. Mayama was patting her shoulder and saying, "Don't worry. . .you-you'll have nice legs too, once-once you grow up. . ." And then Hagu started to cry, Mayama panicked and hurriedly woke up sensei, who simply put his arms around her and continued to sleep.

Yamada giggled. How silly.

She helped herself to more saké and rested her head on the ground. Her eyelids felt heavy and on cue, she yawned. Hmm. It wouldn't hurt to sleep for a while, would it?

She must have drifted off because the next time she opened her eyes, everything around her was eerily silent. She couldn't bring herself to get up—it felt like way too much effort so she considered going back to sleep. But what if she had been left behind? Was she the only one there?

A low murmur distracted her from her thoughts. "Rika-san needs a new assistant. Asai-san is still in the hospital. " It was Mayama.

"Ah yes. I talked to her today." When did Hanamoto-sensei wake up?

"What did she say? Is she all right? I saw her yesterday but she—"

"Mayama." Sensei's voice was gentle. "She doesn't want you to come back."

A long pause. Yamada longed to look at his face. He must be hurt, surely. Why couldn't she have seen this sooner? Why had she been so selfish as to disregard his feelings completely? He was hurting, too; he was being rejected too. She sniffed quietly, angry at herself. What was the use of crying? She had to apologize—she had completely abandoned him. He had cared about her and she had paid no attention to his feelings.

When he finally spoke, his voice was controlled. "This isn't about what I feel for her. I'm more concerned about her health. Sensei, you know she's not well enough to be on her own, right now."

The professor sighed. "I know. But Rika's stubborn. You'll just have to wait, Mayama."

"But you said it yourself—she's stubborn! She's never going to admit she needs help because. . .because she knows I'll come back." He was beginning to get frustrated. "She needs to see—"

A mild snore interrupted their conversation. Yamada heard some rustling. "Uh oh. When Hagu snores like that, I know it's going to be impossible to wake her up."

"I suppose we should head home." Mayama sounded grumpy.

"What are you going to do. . .about Rika?"

"I-I don't know. I have to talk to her." It took her a moment to realise that his voice was louder than before—he was approaching her! She shut her eyes and hoped the expression on her face wouldn't give her away. She didn't want to add eavesdropping to the list of things that she had to apologize for.

He put a hand on her arm and shook her gently. "Yamada. Wake up." She kept her eyes closed. It might be suspicious if she woke up too quickly. She was known to be a heavy sleeper.

He shook her harder. "Come on, Yamada. Wake up." She opened her eyes slowly and squinted at him. Did that look normal? He was staring at her with an unreadable expression on his face. "It's time to go home." He helped her up and for a second, everything seemed normal. Then the world started to spin and she fell over, promptly smacking her forehead against his chest. He immediately put his arms around her. She ignored the thudding of her heart.

"I don't think she's sober enough to go home on her own." He called out, studiously ignoring the fact that they were basically hugging each other. He dragged her to where Hanamoto-sensei was standing, with a sleeping Hagu in his arms. Takemoto was next to him, yawning widely. Morita was nowhere to be seen.

"Can you go with her?"

Mayama simply shook her again until she looked up at him. He turned his back to her and bent slightly. "Get on."

Was he really going to give her a piggyback ride home? A few seconds passed and she stared at him mutely. Then she snapped out of it before he could change his mind and clumsily put her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms under her knees tightly and stood up. The sudden movement made her dizzy—but that could have also been because of all the blood that had rushed to her cheeks.

"All right, then?" Hanamoto-sensei didn't seem to think anything was out of place. When Mayama nodded at him, he turned around and went the other way, with Takemoto trailing after him sleepily. Mayama slowly walked towards her house with his head bowed.

You have to talk to him.

But what was she supposed to say? She didn't know if she would ever get another chance to talk to him alone like this, especially since she couldn't even muster the courage to make eye contact with him throughout the whole dinner.

"I thought you would forget about me." She stiffened automatically. He knew she was awake? "If I told you to find someone else, I thought you would let me go."

She let his words sink in. "But you didn't, did you? You were angry but you were still. . ." He trailed off and that was when she realised that he didn't know; he thought she was asleep. He sighed. "What am I supposed to do with you, Yamada?"

The tired words brought tears to her eyes. She wanted to reach out and stroke his hair. He sounded so defeated and she hated, absolutely hated, to know she was the reason behind it. "You can't go out with Nomiya and not expect me to care. That man is. . .danger." She still didn't agree with him on that one. "How could you think I wouldn't worry?"

She tried—she really tried, but there was no stopping the tears now. They fell—one, two—on his neck and he started. His ears turned red. "Yamada, are-are you drooling?"

A sob escaped her and he stilled completely. She gripped him more tightly, not caring if it hurt him, not caring if he was choking—she needed this, she needed his warmth to know he was still. . .

. . .Mayama.

And that he still cared.

"I'm sorry." She choked out. The tears wouldn't stop and she was beyond embarrassment. He needed to know how sorry she was about everything. "I'm sorry about what happened with Nomiya-san—you d-didn't deserve to see-see that. I sh-shouldn't have acted th-that way. . .I'm so sorry, Mayama. I was-was just being stupid and silly and. . ." She had difficulty breathing.

He still didn't say a word, but he hadn't moved either.

Now or never, Yamada.

"And—" She inhaled, pushing back the sobs. She needed to be strong. Takemoto had never told her how frightening it was to confess. It really didn't matter that he knew already. Saying it out loud, saying the words to him was harder than anything she had ever done before. "—I'm in love with you, Mayama."

Short and simple. What else was there to say?

The silence stretched and the nerve-racking wait almost drove her crazy. What was he thinking? Why wasn't he saying anything? Did she ruin it? Maybe she wasn't supposed to say it. Why, oh why wouldn't he speak?

And then, finally, his arms tightened and he began to walk again. "I know."

It was time for another round of tears. She wasn't sure if it was from the relief of hearing him speak or because she was just upset. "I-I love you so-so much. . ."

His voice was gentle but he didn't miss a beat. "I know, Yamada."

"It hurts so b-badly. . ."

"I'm sorry."

"I don't know wh-what to do, but I c-can't stop."

"Mm."

"I can't stop loving you, M-Mayama."

"I know."

And somehow, miraculously, the crushing pain lifted slightly and her chest expanded—just a little. She breathed in deeply, the tears now a wet trail down her cheeks.

It felt good to be alive.

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