She looked different from the last time he had seen her.
With barely any make-up on and her hair tied back in a loose ponytail, she didn't look like the woman who had, in a single night, got severely drunk, before sobering up to confide in him while occasionally dissolving into tears and, as a final act, used him to get a rise out of the man she loved.
Thinking back, he couldn't blame her for taking two weeks to finally call him. But he had been waiting for her call. She had sounded extremely uncomfortable on the phone (something he had thoroughly enjoyed) even though neither of them had brought up the dinner. She had struggled with the usual pleasantries before getting around to asking him if he was free for lunch the next day.
And despite being two minutes early (she had chosen a café five blocks from his office), she was already seated outside and waiting patiently for him.
He was in no hurry to make his presence known, even though he hated making people wait. There was something different about her right then and he wanted to figure it out before she laid eyes on him. But one of the patrons chose that precise moment to stare at him curiously and he was forced to take his place across from her.
She seemed startled by his sudden appearance but broke into a tentative smile. "Nomiya-san."
He smiled back easily, still unable to place his finger on what had changed. She asked him about work and, in turn, told him about her new ideas for his project. He listened attentively, half-impressed and half-puzzled, questioning the point of this meeting. He had expected her to dither around before bringing up the other night but she seemed to have acquired a no-nonsense way of speaking that seemed foreign, coming from her.
It struck him then that her behaviour had changed drastically in the last couple of weeks. It was evident from the way she carried herself; the way she spoke. He couldn't bring himself to believe that someone could be capable of change in such a short period of time.
"Nomiya-san, I think you know why I asked you out for lunch." She began, when the waiters cleared away their plates. She fiddled with the tablecloth before looking up. "There's no other way to say this, but I am exceedingly sorry for the way I acted the other night. You certainly didn't deserve it and Mayama didn't either."
He realised that waving off her apology wouldn't ameliorate the situation. She was being completely honest with him and while he had no idea why, he had enough decorum instilled in him to acknowledge that. "I can imagine how hard that must have been to say, Yamada-san and I won't be foolish enough to disregard it."
She smiled weakly in return. "There's more. I know you well enough to suspect that you have already guessed the motive behind by inappropriate behaviour." That certainly surprised him. "But I wanted to put it out there myself. I was irritatingly hung up on Mayama and in a moment of poor judgement and despair, I thought I could make him. . . jealous by letting him believe there was. . .something between us."
He nodded slowly, concealing his approbation. Honesty definitely was her selling point and it was what he admired most in people. "Did it work, then?"
He expected her to say that it was none of his business – although he could think of a couple of winning points to argue with that – but she was still too polite to speak to him that way. The thought was comforting. He watched her as she considered his question, refusing to meet his eyes. "It did. But not in the way I hoped it would."
Another honest answer. He wouldn't push her further than that. "Well, in that case, I am sorry."
Confused clouded her eyes. "If I may, Nomiya-san, how come you're not even the slightest bit angry that I—"
"—used me?" He asked, in amusement. She might have learnt to deal with her emotions but she was still afraid to say the words. He would save her the pain of speaking of her embarrassment. "To be honest, I was curious about the relationship between you and Mayama."
"And the way I acted would have certainly enlightened you." She said tightly, dropping all pretence of being courteous.
He immediately saw where the conversation was headed. "You misunderstood. I didn't mean to say that I enjoyed watching what took place. I—" If she could be direct with him, then he could certainly return the favour. "I like studying people. So I didn't mind being the spectator that night."
She breathed in deeply. "Nomiya-san, you must forgive me once more. I wasn't blaming you for anything that happened. I was just. . .angry at myself for treating you that way."
"I understand. May I suggest closing this discussion once and for all?"
She gave him a real smile for that one.
He found himself spending more and more time in her company.
Yamada seemed determined to erase all traces of her unprofessional behaviour and hence, had started to become more involved in their project. They met up three times a week to discuss her work, even though there was absolutely no need to.
He noticed that the few times that she visited him at work, she planned it carefully according to Mayama's schedule. On Tuesday evenings, Mayama would visit an old client and she would drop in for an impromptu discussion about her progress with the new designs he had requested—although, after the first two weeks, the meeting could hardly be called unplanned. She never made plans with him on Saturday (Mayama worked late on Saturdays) and if he did, she would insist on meeting him anywhere but at his office.
Occasionally, he would be struck by the desire to force her to meet him at work while Mayama was around. But he knew that meant causing both of them pain, despite the fact that Yamada was slowly becoming more professional and Mayama had even got into the habit of nodding at him when he stepped inside the office. He wasn't ready to be that sadistic.
He couldn't deny the fact that he found her increasingly attractive as the days went by. She was completely oblivious to how he felt since her skills were lacking in the scrutiny department. And it certainly helped that he wasn't quite so obvious where his emotions were concerned.
"I've got a couple of candlesticks and teapots left." She announced, as she flipped through her portfolio. It was a Tuesday, which explained her 'sudden' appearance. "They shouldn't take too long but I. . .well, I've got assignments and exams this week. So would it be all right if I have them done by Sunday?"
"Perfectly all right." He replied, reading through a letter of complaint from one of the clients. He looked up and smiled. "Sometimes, I forget you're still a student."
She threw down the portfolio and made herself comfortable on his couch. They were sitting in his office, which was where he usually met with clients and other VIPs. His cubicle was too small for them to have a long discussion. "Yes, but all my life, I've been a student. It's difficult to imagine what life would be like when that changes." She crossed her legs and sighed. "Guess we'll find out in a few, short months."
If he ever did forget that he almost a decade older than her, moments like this very forcefully reminded him of that little fact. He hid it behind a polite smile. "I wouldn't worry if I were you, Yamada-san. You have work experience. This—" He pointed between the two of them. "—right now, is you not being a student."
"No, this is far from what one would call a business meeting."
"Well for one, you've never bossed me around. You ask if I could help—you don't tell me what to do. And most employers aren't like that." She turned to face him better. "You're nice and polite because I don't work for you and I could choose not to help you."
"In that case, I should definitely be more demanding."
She snorted and raised her eyebrows at him. "See? If you were my actual boss, I wouldn't snort in front of you."
He chuckled. "Fair enough. Although, you talk as if a real boss would intimidate you." He leaned forward in his seat, resting his hands on the table. "Get rid of that thought. If someone demands respect by intimidating people, then he or she isn't fit to be an employer."
She nodded thoughtfully and once again, he could clearly see how young she was. She was yet to see the world; to step into it. The thought burned his chest. She had, unintentionally, deceived him with her glamorous outfit that night. Despite her crying and her inebriation, he had thought of her as a woman. But the creature in front of him, in a flowery skirt and a matching blouse, was a girl. She had seemed more worldly with her honest apology weeks ago, but at twenty-one, she still had so much more to learn. Something had changed between her and Mayama—it was evident that she would no longer resort to little tricks to provoke him—but that didn't mean she had changed entirely.
The realization disappointed him a lot more than he liked to admit and he was understandably startled when he heard her next words, "What's troubling you, Nomiya-san?"
"I beg your pardon?"
She smiled gently. "Did you think I would not notice? You had that look on your face again—that look you get when you're displeased with something."
He was completely thrown by that particular statement. Had she really studied him? How could he have not noticed? "I'm sorry, Yamada-san. I didn't mean to be rude."
She looked exasperated and suddenly, he felt like the younger one in the room. "Please don't be so formal, Nomiya-san. I know we haven't known each other for long, but we do know each other better than we did a month ago. So if there's something bothering you, I'd like to help."
If he were to tell her each and every thought he had of her, he was certain she would walk out the door and never come back. So he chose to speak the necessary truth. "There is, but I don't think you can help, Yamada-san. Thank you for—"
She pouted. She actually pouted and came to stand across from him, with her hands on her hips. "What did I just say? Stop being so formal!"
He raised his hand in mock-(partly. He was still processing the pouting.)-surprise. "Won't happen again."
She grinned cheekily. "Better." She glanced at the clock. "Time's up. I'll give you a call when the pots are done, Nomiya-san."
He nodded and held the door open for her. She gave him a severe look. "I thought we just agreed—"
"You said I had to stop being formal. You didn't say anything about being courteous."
She laughed. "I can't win more than once on the same day, can I?" She paused, head tilted upwards, her features content. And if he had been eight years younger or better equipped with handling terrifying emotions and if she hadn't been in love with someone else, he would have kissed her right then.
"You seem to be in a hurry, Mayama. Got a date?" Miwako teased. It was Friday evening and since he worked overtime on both Thursday and Saturday, he got half the day off on Friday. But Nomiya noticed that he was getting ready to leave earlier than usual.
"No, not a date." He replied, absent-mindedly as he threw random files into his backpack. "I'm just meeting up with a bunch of friends. . ." He stopped short and turned to Nomiya. "Unless Nomiya-san has some work left for me to do?"
Nomiya shook his head. "You're free to go. Have fun." Things really had changed between the two of them, as well. Mayama seemed to think better of him, somehow. Nomiya knew that only one of the two things could have happened: either Mayama genuinely thought Nomiya wasn't pursuing Yamada or she must have told him he had absolutely nothing to worry about where Nomiya was concerned.
Since Mayama would rather die than let the former happen, Nomiya suspected that Yamada must have assuaged his fears. That would certainly explain why she never dared to step foot in his office when Mayama was present. But if she really was hiding their meetings from him, he couldn't see how she had managed to pull it off. Both Miwako and Yamazaki saw her around and they were bound to mention it to Mayama.
Something about the situation didn't add up and like most anomalies, it bothered him. However, it was nice not to play the antagonist at work every day and so, he had decided to let it go.
"What do you have planned?" Yamazaki called out from the back, where he was sorting through some paperwork.
"We're all going to see the school festival." In spite of himself, Mayama smiled. He shouldered his backpack, waved goodbye, petted Leader and was gone in a minute.
"I've never been to 'the festival'." Miwako said, with the complementary air quotes. Nomiya knew the moment her eyes lit up that he was going to be coerced into ditching work that day. "Let's all go!"
"I'm in!" Yamazaki's equally enthusiastic reply didn't help matters. Nomiya was already shaking his head vehemently when they pounced on him. "I don't care what you say but I'm definitely not going. I will, however, be nice enough to let the two of you take the rest of the day off."
Miwako gave him a calculating look. Then, "All right. I just thought you might want to meet Yamada-san in person. Her last exam was today." She turned to Yamazaki. "Do you know the way?"
Nomiya grit his teeth. Do not give in. You cannot let her manipulate you like that. He smiled tightly, "Known me eight years and you think that would get me to ditch work."
She shook her head in exasperation. "If you could just let your stupid ego go and come have some fun—"
"Keep talking. Nothing's going to change my mind."
"I'm not trying to change your mind." She snapped. "I'm trying to get you to see that you want to go, but you just won't because that would mean I've won."
He laughed in amazement. "What I want is to stay here and finish the alarming amount of work that we have left."
"Fine." She sighed, all traces of irritation gone. She dropped her purse and slipped out of her coat. "It's not fair of us to ditch you like that. We'll stay."
Yamazaki, although clearly disappointed, went back to work without a word. Nomiya focused on his computer. The silence lasted all of three minutes before he stood up abruptly. "All right, all right. Pick up your coat, let's go." Miwako grinned and Yamazaki whooped. "And don't you dare say a word, Miwako Teshigawara."
The festival was fairly easy to find. The gang, of course, was not.
"He left only a few minutes before we did. How could we have possibly missed him on our way here?" Yamazaki wailed.
"Because he probably went home first." Nomiya murmured, blatantly staring at each and every woman blessed with light brown hair.
After almost a half hour of incessant searching, interspersed with the occasional "Oh let's play that game!", Miwako finally spotted them. "There! I see Mayama."
They hurried over to where he was standing, talking to a younger man with curious, ashen hair. "Ma-ya-ma!" Miwako called out, literally skipping over to where he stood. He looked up in astonishment. "Boy were you hard to find."
"Wh-what are you guys doing here?"
"You talked about the festival. We wanted to see it." Miwako grinned good-naturedly at the younger man. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your friend?"
When Mayama just stared at her, turning dangerously purple as the seconds ticked by, the boy held out a hand. "Yuta Takemoto. Pleased to meet you."
Miwako shook it with scary enthusiasm and Nomiya politely introduced himself when a cry to his left demanded his attention. A tall, skinny young man with unruly black hair was attempting to punch one of the stall owners, except he was held back by another man—who, Nomiya deduced, must be Hanamoto-sensei.
"Here we go again." Takemoto said, sighing. Nomiya noticed he made no move to help either of them.
"What is it this time?"
"Knowing Morita, we can never be sure."
"Shouldn't we go help them?" Yamazaki said, uncertainly.
"Oh no, of course not." Mayama replied instantly. "Sensei knows the best way to deal with the situation. Intervening will only make it worse."
"He certainly looks like he could use some help. . ." Yamazaki trailed off, as they all watched Morita break free and finally get a hold of the stall owner, who punched him smartly and sent him flying.
Hanamoto-sensei simply heaved a great sigh and walked over to them, surprise evident in his features when he spotted the additions to the party. "Why, hello there! Mayama didn't tell us you'd be joining us."
"No, we came of our own accord." Nomiya replied, shaking hands with the professor. Yamazaki was still staring dolefully at the injured Morita. Sensei followed his gaze and chuckled. "I wouldn't worry about him, if I were you. Morita will be up and about in no time."
"It's just very odd to leave him lying there." Miwako said as they all started to walk away, throwing him a curious glance.
"I'll take care of that." Takemoto cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Morita, we're headed towards the merry-go-around! Care to join us?"
A second later, Morita was walking beside Hanamoto-sensei, looking curiously at each of them. Mayama hastily did the introductions but before anyone could even begin to engage in conversation, Morita called out excitedly to someone in the crowd and promptly disappeared. Takemoto laughed before offering an explanation. "Morita isn't one to do things the normal way."
Nomiya spotted Yamada at a game stall, with a short little girl who had bright, blonde hair. He broke away from the group, observing the game more closely. It involved hitting the row of stuffed animals sitting a few feet away with a ball. If you managed to hit one, the toy was yours.
He sneaked up behind Yamada just in time to hear her say, "Damn it. This game is really hard." She gripped the ball tightly, pushing her elbow out to throw better, when he plucked the ball from her hand and hit the stuffed bunny, sitting right in the middle, square in the chest.
She turned to him in delight. "Nomiya-san!"
He smiled in return and hit another rabbit to the left. He presented this one to the little girl, "There you go."
She looked at him fearfully, eyes wide and cheeks blazing. "Th-thank you."
"This is Hagu-chan, Hanamoto-sensei's niece." Yamada said, gently ruffling the girl's hair. "She's a first year art student. Hagu-chan, this is Nomiya-san—my employer of sorts."
He felt oddly embarrassed for mistaking the eighteen-year-old for a child. "Hello, Hagu-san." He recalled the painted vase at Yamada's. "I've seen your work. You are a very talented painter."
She turned even more crimson. "You. . .you are very kind." She turned to Yamada. "I-I'm going to go show Shū-chan the toy. It-it was nice to meet you." She bowed awkwardly and hurried to join the rest of the group.
Yamada smiled fondly at her retreating back. "Hagu-chan gets very nervous around new people. But she's got better since the first time I met her."
"Hagu-san is the last one of the group, then? I think I've met them all."
"And what do you think of them?"
"I can't say anything until I know them better."
She nodded in agreement and stared up at him for a moment. He felt odd, letting her scrutinise him that way. Perhaps this was how she managed to gather little pieces of him—and then sprung them on him, when he expected her to be naïve and oblivious. She exhaled deeply. "Nomiya-san should get out more. It's nice to see you outside of work for a change."
"We don't always meet up in my office, you know." He nudged her gently. "You insist on trying out the new ramen shops that keep popping up all over the city."
"That's only because I keep hoping to find one that's as good as the one we went to after Subaru's. Remember that one?"
It surprised him that she spoke easily of that night. "Of course I remember. My point is, we meet outside of work often enough."
"Still. This is nice." She said grumpily and he chuckled. "You know what, next time we'll have udon or something instead."
"That's all right, I don't mind the hunt for the perfect ramen shop."
She gave him a look. "You can't be so contrary, Nomiya-san."
"Well, where's the fun if I stop?" He laughed and it dawned on him then that he laughed more with her than he did with anybody else.
Over the course of two months, they had gone from feeling awkward and polite around each other to something so much better. He realised that she was no longer a blubbering mess of a person, whining about the man who would never love her back. She truly was different now, and he admired her for it.
Something whizzed past them and struck the third bunny in the stall. Mayama shrugged. "Just doing my bit." He handed the toy to Yamada, looking at her in a manner so gentle and affectionate that Nomiya felt a queer poke in his stomach. Yamada's flaming cheeks only made the pain worse.
He was the outsider. Not Mayama, never Mayama. He was the one who was almost thirty and who had never been in a proper relationship. Mayama, on the other hand, was kind, gentle, caring and was the man for her—would be the man for her, if he wasn't in love with an older woman, crippled and still longing for her husband.
He was the unsuitable prospect.
"Nomiya-san, are you all right?" Yamada looked at him curiously, cheeks still red and eyes bright.
She couldn't be pretty and adorable with him and look at another man like that. He wouldn't let her make him the fool he wanted to be.
"I'm afraid I've lost Miwako and Yamazaki. Besides, it's getting late. I'll see you soon, Yamada-san." He nodded at Mayama, who, to his credit, looked mildly concerned.
He walked fast, willing himself not to look back, but when he did, he saw her press the last bunny to her cheek, while his lay loosely in her hand.
He felt the need to let out a bitter chuckle but he swallowed it. Was he really going to be such a cliché? He had judged her—granted, he had done so mildly, but he had still judged her and he had scoffed at the idea of love, when he saw what it did to people. But here he was, dangerously close to being a victim himself. He could not let himself be a hypocrite, not when it came to love.
"I'm leaving." He said, the minute he found Miwako.
"Yes. Where's Yamazaki?"
"With Morita, I think. They seemed to hit it off."
"All right. You can get back on your own, can't you?"
"Of course." She searched his face. "Is something wrong?"
"No, the festival is starting to bore me." He was glad to hear the indifference in his voice.
She didn't believe him and he hadn't expected her to. She looked at him for a long moment and finally said, "At least tell me where you're going."
"To a pub."
He wasn't sure if he was getting too old to pretend to enjoy drinking in a pub. It certainly didn't help that he was also feeling rather ashamed of himself.
He regretted leaving the festival in such a hurry. He didn't even stay long enough to bid the others goodbye and he was never a discourteous man, not if he could help it. And as the universe would have it, he couldn't seem to help himself at all.
What a piece of work he was. The day was just one cliché after another. He had believed she had changed—and she had, just not as drastically as he had hoped. Honestly, did he really think, for one second, that she was over Mayama? At some point along the way, he had let that important piece of information move to the background. And he was definitely paying the price for it now.
"Drinking away my troubles in a pub." He snorted. "Alone."
"I'm willing to change that." Her scent reached him before she did. She looked to be his age, and was attractive, in the obvious kind of way. Tall, great dresser and of course, a wonderful figure. She flagged down the bartender and bought him a drink.
"Unfortunately," he began, his lips automatically curving into a smirk. "I'm an old-fashioned man and simply can't allow that."
"Make it up to me, then."
He signalled to the bartender and bought a couple of more drinks. She returned his smirk. "I was looking for something more than that."
"I'm only just starting. Let me get to know you better."
"Oh." She rolled her eyes and hopped onto the barstool. "I'm not going to waste time telling stories."
Confident women who knew what they wanted were always admirable. "I'm impressed."
"That's all it takes to impress you?" She raised an eyebrow scornfully, but he could still see the hint of a smile.
"Perhaps. But it certainly takes a lot more than that to please me."
They carried on the banter for a little longer and she was, hands down, better at it than he was. He blamed it on his bad mood. But she was distracting and that was all he needed for the night.
When she leaned forward and brushed her lips against his, however, he immediately felt the wrongness of the situation creep up on him. Would he really allow yet another cliché to mark the end of the day?
He stumbled back and left her blinking.
He continued to meet Yamada in person but always kept their conversations polite and formal. She continued to use her pout against him. She usually won and the search for the best ramen shop continued. It was all too easy to forget the day of the festival when it was just the two of them and Mayama wasn't around to ruin it.
"We still haven't decided who will be overseeing business in the Tottori branch." Yamazaki said one day, looking through a file. "You can't keep making trips there now and then. The long drive tires you out."
"I know. We have to decide quickly." He rubbed his eyes behind his glasses. He had just got back from Tottori and he was beyond exhausted. "Let's do it now."
He walked over to the whiteboard, where they had written down the list of people in Tokyo and in Tottori. The solution was staring him in the face but Nomiya wasn't sure he didn't have other motives for wanting to do what he did.
He was allowed to be selfish, wasn't he?
"It's settled, then." He didn't wait for Yamazaki's reply. "Mayama will move to Tottori."
"Are you going to wait for him to see it on the board?"
He sighed. "I'll tell him when he gets here. Clear the board, would you?"
And when Mayama walked over to his cubicle later that afternoon, he considered changing his mind. While Mayama was perfectly capable of overseeing things in Tottori, Nomiya didn't think it was fair to make a decision for him.
An image of Yamada caressing the stupid toy came to mind. His resolve hardened.
"Let's go into my office. I have something I'd like to discuss with you."
Mayama looked surprised but followed him wordlessly. When they were seated, Nomiya wasted no time getting straight down to the point. "I want you to head the Tottori branch."
He was silent for several moments. "And if I don't?"
"I didn't think you would object to it."
He wasn't proud of the reply, especially when the younger man pinned him with a hard stare. "You knew I wouldn't want to."
Nomiya shrugged. "It's good experience. And there will be an increase in your salary, of course."
"I don't care about all that."
"What do you care about, then?"
"I care about whether you're asking me to do this because you think it's necessary or because you want me out of the way." The flat reply revealed enough. "Did you really think I wouldn't guess?"
"Just think about it." He wasn't in the mood to argue. They had been getting along for a while now.
"You know what my answer would be, wherever Yamada's concerned." He stood up to leave.
"Why exactly is that?" Nomiya couldn't help it. He was tired and he was annoyed.
Mayama looked incredulous. "What do you mean, why? You know I don't like the thought of you and her together."
"And I don't think it's something that concerns you." He was treading on dangerous territory and he couldn't care less. "Are you dating her?"
"Then I don't see what the problem is."
"The problem, is that you are not suited for each other." Nomiya could see he was trying his best to remain civil.
"Again, you're not the one who gets to make that decision."
"Nomiya-san, I've said this before and I'll say it again. She is important to me. I will do anything I can to keep her from getting hurt."
"That's funny. I was under the impression that you were the one who was hurting her."
It was as if he had slapped him. He went very still and Nomiya felt a twinge of regret. But he couldn't take it back now and since he had begun, he might as well add fuel to the fire. "Why do you care so much about her, Mayama? I thought you were in love with someone else. Perhaps you want Yamada to keep pining for you, in case things don't work out with Harada-san."
His fists clenched. "It's. Not. Like. That."
They stared at each other for a long moment and Nomiya used that opportunity to throw on his coat and beat him to the door. He was behind him in a second. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"To meet Yamada-san."
"Are you insane? You think I would let you, after the way you spoke?"
"You said it yourself, Mayama." He smiled. "You aren't in love with her and you definitely don't want to date her. That's enough of a reason to meet her, in my book."
He might have been tired and he might have been annoyed but Nomiya wasn't one to let go of an opportunity.
They got to the university at the same time and actually raced to get to her door first.
"Nomiya-san and Mayama together?" She laughed. "This must be serious."
"We thought," Nomiya huffed, trying to catch his breath. "we could help you with the pots."
"You want to try your hand at pottery?" Yamada looked surprised. "What's all this about?"
"We've had sudden orders." Mayama said abruptly. "It all started with that one vase."
She blushed but seemed to believe him. "All right then. Let's get started right away."
Minutes later, they were sitting side by side, kneading the clay and occasionally elbowing each other.
"Ouch. I know you did that on purpose, Mayama."
"Oh, please. As if you don't."
"At least I have the decency to apologise."
"If by apologise, you mean look smug and act like—"
"Hey, hey, hey!" Yamada intervened. "What is going on here?"
"He started it."
"That's a big, fat lie."
They continued to bicker until Yamada threatened to smash their heads together if they made another sound.
"You know what, Mayama?" Nomiya began grumpily. "I haven't been given a scolding like that since grade school."
"Welcome to my life," came the grim reply.
They shared a grin in an odd moment of camaraderie. "I still don't trust you, Nomiya-san."
Safe to say, the pots were pots, in name only. "It's actually not bad, for a first attempt." Yamada said, inspecting their work. "You're both very skilled. But I don't think your clients would accept them."
"Oh don't worry about it." Nomiya replied as he made for the door. "I'll deal with them."
"We'll take care of it, Yamada." Mayama agreed. "Don't bother making new ones, all right?"
Nomiya got into his car in a relatively good mood. He considered his decision to send Mayama to Tottori. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to let him stay here, after all. He was almost certain he could find someone else to go in his place.
He was halfway back to the office when he realised he had left his lighter at the university. He refrained from smoking in front of her because he knew how she felt about it but he did keep a pack of cigarettes with him at all times. He sighed as he turned around.
He whistled a jolly tune as he climbed the stairs. Perhaps he could wheedle her into going out for dinner with him. Her exams were over after all. The door was slightly ajar and he was about to call out when the sight in front of him made him stop short.
She was standing in the middle of the room, eyes shut and with a smile on her face, looking just as pretty as ever. But that wasn't the problem.
She was wearing Mayama's coat and breathing in his scent.
His fists clenched.
He was avoiding her.
He told her that a new project had come up and he was extremely busy so he couldn't meet up with her. She readily accepted his story and they conducted their 'business meetings' over the phone. He made sure to sound like his usual self whenever he spoke to her. He laughed at all the right moments and teased her now and then. He had no intention of cutting her off without an explanation and causing her pain. He always made it a point to sound apologetic when he hung up, so she wouldn't realise what he was actually doing. But he did slowly start the process of avoiding her altogether. He stopped answering her calls regularly. He even got Miwako to answer for him a couple of times and make it look like he was too busy to come to the phone.
"You like her." Miwako began, late one night. Both Mayama and Yamazaki had left about an hour ago but as usual, he had stayed behind to finish off some work. He had been surprised to see her stay back but he knew then that it was simply to talk to him alone.
"You've said that before."
"No, I've teased you before." She leaned against the door, hands folded. "I'm saying it now."
He sighed. There really was no point in arguing with her. "What do you want, Miwako?"
"I want to know why you're avoiding her."
"Because I'm busy."
She snorted. "Right. Like that excuse is going to work on me."
"Can we do this another time?" He wasn't prepared to give her a believable answer and he definitely didn't want to go with the truth. "I really am busy."
"And I'm sure you'll find another excuse to sidestep my question whenever I ask it."
"All right." He put his pen down. "Let me ask you a question, then. What do you think of us together? Yamada and me?"
"I think you'd make a great couple."
"Really? Even though you know how I usually am with women?"
"Because I know how you usually are with women." She sighed and came to sit beside him. "You don't want to spend the night with her and call it off. You genuinely like her."
What was the point in pretending when she knew the truth, anyway? "She's in love with Mayama."
"That would only be a problem if he loved her, as well."
"I'm not going to try to woo her or any of that nonsense—"
"Even if that 'nonsense' will make you happy?"
He stared at her. She smiled back and squeezed his hand, gently. "Think about it."
"Sometimes, I wonder why I hired you." He grumbled.
She strutted back to her cubicle. "For moments like this."
Mayama walked into his office (he had got into the habit of using his office a lot more these days. The cubicle suddenly felt too crammed.) a few weeks later with a letter. "Nomiya-san, I'd like to have a word."
"What is it?"
He placed the letter on the table. "It's my two weeks' notice."
He had not seen that coming. "Why? I didn't ask you to go to Tottori."
"No, it's not that." He breathed in deeply. "I've decided to go back to Harada Design."
Oh. "I see. Harada-san has finally accepted she needs you, then?"
He seemed uncomfortable with the question. But he answered it truthfully. "Not exactly. I intend to make her see that she does."
Nomiya nodded. "Then I wish you luck, Mayama."
And two weeks later, when they threw him a huge farewell party—Miwako's idea, of course—he considered calling Yamada. He knew Mayama hadn't told her and knew she would be upset when she heard the news. But she had to hear it. He gripped the phone but couldn't bring himself to dial her number.
He didn't have to be the one to tell her.
Another week passed by. He wrestled with himself and Miwako often caught him staring at the phone intently. "If you are going to tell her, at least meet her in person."
"What, after avoiding her for so long?"
"All the more reason to."
He shook his head. He had tried so hard to avoid her and to ruin all of that with a single decision like that? He wasn't an idiot.
But the next time he went out to buy wine, he found himself standing outside her father's store.
He saw her through the window. She was behind the counter, talking and laughing with the customers.
His heart lurched. It was high time he accepted he was an idiot.