One step at a time, just you and I (Tom Walker – Just You and I)
“You’re coming tomorrow?”
Elizabeth had fallen asleep texting Gilbert the previous night; the night they decided to change things. The whole event was still fresh and warm in her stomach, still making her heart drum as fast as how it went yesterday every time she thought about it. All the possibilities and excitement started to bubble up in her mind, now that they’re together now, about what they could do as a… couple.
Still, the word tasted weird in her. Perhaps it’s the fact that they spent most of their lives as friends. It’s like unlocking something in a relationship she was unable to do before, but also meant she had to let go something she’s able to do freely before.
She’s not sure what she meant about the latter part, though.
Buttoning up her blazer, she one-handedly typed Gilbert back, suppressing the urge to return to her bed and talked with him all day.
“I’ll be doomed if I don’t.”
She grabbed her agenda book and skimmed through the schedules. The first mission was supposedly easy. No need for scamming, or lying, or trespassing into private property, she just had to act a little.
Elizabeth took the bus to a public university in her city, 15 minutes away from her flat. Blending with some of the staff who were wearing formal clothes, she strode her steps into the college’s yard and began searching for one particular guy. A young man, sophomore, majoring in economics, his face in the bio said everything about ’young, wild, and flirty’ so it shouldn’t be so hard to distinguish him among other students.
There were girls with their Starbucks on their hands, walking into the so-called classrooms; boys tossing volleyball at the yard; professors fixing their glasses as they reminded themselves how to do the fingerprint attendance thingy. And her gut feeling was right when someone tapped her from behind as she was still searching like a lost puppy in front of the main door. A curious man showed up and smiled so wide at her. Elizabeth knew she’s about to be hit on.
“Alexander,” he said, offering a handshake. “You can call me Alex. How can I help you, Miss?”
God surely was kind today. Then again, He was always kinder to her these days.
Elizabeth took the handshake, maintaining her warmest gaze at him while he returned the same. Thank you, she murmured under her breath, for making it easier. “Hello, Alex. Nice to meet you. I was searching for the toilet.”
“Left from the main door. Who are you, Miss?”
“I’m seeking a job here,” Elizabeth said, releasing his hand and putting hers in the pocket of her blazer. “Now I’m just observing. You guys have the best college.”
“Thank you!” His eyes gleamed, hands waving awkwardly in the air after Elizabeth pulled back. “So what job? Professor assistant? To be honest, you look too young for anything here.”
Elizabeth hummed, a bit surprised by his boldness. “Something similar. Well, I’ll leave it to them for my position. Are you a second-year?”
“Yes—Woah, that’s some lucky first time guess.”
“Your personality gives it away.” Elizabeth chuckled. She’s spending too much time here. “Anyway, I got to go. Enjoy your class!”
“Wait!” Elizabeth felt something holding back her wrist. “Miss, can we exchange numbers?”
Oh, yeah. Elizabeth almost rolled her eyes. She forgot about this part. “And why should I?”
“T-There’s…” He let go of her wrist, eyes flying over to a girl who went past them. There’s no Starbucks on her hand, just piles of books and a laptop case, round-rimmed glasses sat comfortably by the bridge of her nose. The girl was startled when she noticed Alex was staring at her, but quickly waved at him and pushed the door in. When Elizabeth returned her eyes on the younger boy, he was red all over his face.
Elizabeth totally got the wrong idea this time. She was relieved, yet mournful at the same time. Such a bright young man, he would no longer see the girl anymore after 30 days.
“There’s something I want to ask you!” Alex continued, now planting his stares down to their feet.
Elizabeth drew her eyebrows together, hiding her amusement. “I’m not a cupid. I can’t offer any better solution to you about your love issues.”
“I don’t know, Miss! I feel like… you have it figured out so I may as well ask for your suggestion.”
Elizabeth, who had just started her first day of real dating, didn’t have the right to say that she got it all figured out. She shook her head as she brought Alex’s head up until their gazes met, the teeth-showing smiles had vanished into concern pouts. “Just ask your parents how to do it or just your friends! I’m sure they’re more experienced.”
“Well, that’s… I can’t.”
“It’s embarrassing at first but you can do—”
“It’s nothing about that! That’s why, spare me a time to explain!”
Elizabeth didn’t plan this to happen. All she thought that it was too easy for something she usually fought herself to do. But when she saw Alex’s demeanor completely changed, the bright aura had shifted into something worrying; his heart on the throat and the way his fists clenched—Elizabeth felt a tug to listen.
Her next client was prior to being stamped at lunch hour, an hour away from the university. And she usually consoled the older clients, so why not make a difference today to this lost boy?
“You have my fifteen minutes.”
Elizabeth had to fake going to the bathroom for real because Alex decided to take her to the cafeteria for their mysterious talk. She was fixing her tangled hair when another message popped up.
“Should we come together?”
She took her time thinking about the question, scenarios and risks of consequences all were jumbling in her brain. It’s not like it would surprise anyone if they were to come together, Yuriko would probably wave it off as something she saw everyday. And she’s not even sure why would they hide their newborn relationship in the first place.
“No good, huh?” came another text from Gilbert. “I think us introducing this thing to Yuriko needs its own episode, do you agree?”
Then again, she was reminded by how overboard Yuriko’s always teasing her about her weird friendship with Gilbert. The woman had to be joyful to the third sky over the news.
“She’ll completely prank us the whole party if she found out. I’ll tell her the day after.”
Shoving the phone back to the pocket, Elizabeth stormed her way out of the toilet, almost falling to a heart attack when she saw Alex had already waited for her in front of the door. He led her down the corridor, casually explaining things about his college as they took a lift up. Elizabeth was so confused at first until she remembered that she was supposed to act like a job seeker doing observation.
“Are the professors sitting with you guys too during break?” Elizabeth slid into the cafeteria bench, making herself comfortable. The place was a little crowded when they arrived, probably from people who were trying to chase their brunch schedule.
“Well, they kinda put a distance between us. But it will be dope if they actually join us, though.” Alex gestured something to the lady behind the counter who was already waving at him. “Miss, do you want anything?”
“It’s fine, I’m full,” she replied, which was just a polite substitute for ‘I’m not going to let a college student pay for my food’. She watched Alex ordering something from the lady and made his way back to Elizabeth by hopping through the tiles like a child he was. “So what is it?”
Alex looked around cautiously before leaning closer to Elizabeth, eyes were sharp on top of the growing blush on his cheeks. He said, half-whispering, “the truth is… I like Natalie.”
Elizabeth nodded softly. “That’s a news.”
“The girl from earlier. She once grew up in the same neighborhood with me. You saw her.” He chuckled, his eyes were swallowed by the overgrowing wide grin.
“Yes, I saw you two. Have you told her how you feel?”
“Well, I haven’t.” The smile faded, the same way he did earlier after Elizabeth almost turned him down. “I really wish to do so, if only I don’t have a condition.”
Alex brought his hands together on top of the table, wringing them as he waited for the waitress to put his strawberry milkshake and returned to the counter. He took a sip and shivered at the sweetness before looking dead at Elizabeth. Now that she got a complete view of his neutral face, Elizabeth noticed how pale his skin was under a certain dim lighting.
“I’m at the last stage of something.” He rubbed the back of his neck, forcing to cross the same happy smiles though it would never come this time. “I don’t know when it ends, but everyone from the hospital thinks that I won’t make it for long. Right now my parents are just telling me to do all the things I want to do—they’re arranging a mountain hike next week with me. I’m happy! But I know that’s not what I really want to do these days.”
Elizabeth felt her jaw tightened. She felt oddly uneasy deep inside knowing both of them happened to sink in the same boat. “Well, what do you want then?”
“I want to fall in love!” Alex said, a little louder than he probably planned to. “I want to tell people that I like them, want to go on dates with them, and want to be happy together! But it’s not possible now to do all those things without feeling miserable in between.”
“Because if I tell Natalie that I like her, it means I have given in to my selfishness. Even after I die, it won’t be me who continues to suffer, but her. She’s the one left with the after-taste.”
If both of them did happen to be sinking in the same boat, did it mean Elizabeth was selfish too? For wanting to feel things before she drowned, for calling her lover and asking him to stay with her as he listened to the sound of crashing ships? Were all of them… selfish?
“Even if we don’t date and I only end up telling her that I like her, won’t Natalie blame herself after I’ve gone? For not doing anything to me when I’m still alive, for not being the best person she could to a dying person.” Alex sighed, pushing his milkshake to the edge of the table. “There’s no way I can bring myself to tell her what happened, no matter how closed we are to each other. Maybe I should just back out and keep this bomb to myself, don’t you think so?”
Elizabeth stayed still, digesting his words slowly because it’d be too painful to just have them all stabbed her at once.
“Please tell me this is the right thing to do,” Alex begged, before surrendering himself with the last sniff Elizabeth wasn’t able to steal because she’s too overwhelmed right now.
In the end, Elizabeth cleared her throat and pushed everything to the back of her mind. She could work on these troubles later, or so she thought. “I don’t see why you need to specifically consult these to me, but I’m glad if I’m able to get it off your chest.”
“I told you, you have the wise aura.”
“If anything, not all adults have it all figured it out. I’m one of them.” She said the truth, there. “If you consider you two close, why not tell her what’s going on? Aside from your feelings, I think she deserves to know it, too. As your friend, I mean.”
Alex let out a laugh, followed by shaking his head. “Then what? Making her feel uncomfortable every time our eyes meet and manipulating her into thinking that she should be with me in my last days so she won’t feel regret later?”
“It’s not manipulating—!”
“Yes, it’s a tool! The last resort kind of tool!”
Elizabeth thought back when she rushed her way to Gilbert’s apartment that night to show him her numbers. There was fear crossed in his eyes even for just a second before he swallowed it down and acted like he’s not affected at all. Elizabeth had yet to realize what she had done, not before she went home and locked the door—the lights were off and no one’s there, the ringing in her ears went violent as soon as she fell to her feet and trembled from head to toe, admitting to herself that she’s scared.
And she thought letting Gilbert know was sort of a way to resolve half of the problems, but it only made the stake raise higher.
Elizabeth rolled up her sleeve to check on her watch, deciding it’d be good if she got going now. There’s nothing left to talk about, anyway. “Didn’t your parents tell you to do what you want to do? Fine, do it. Do what you want.” She grabbed her bag and eyed her way out, paying Alex one last glance. He looked at her in disbelief, not forcing her to stay nonetheless even when she still owed him 5 minutes of the promised time.
“You want to fall in love? Do fall in love. You don’t want to tell her, however? Fine, don’t tell her. Just make sure you leave with no regret. It’ll ease our job when the time comes.”
She left him stoned.
“Oh, crap. I didn’t mean to leave the work to you.”
Elizabeth stared at her phone screen, night life passing by the window she’s leaning onto now. She almost fell asleep on her ride home if Gilbert forgot to leave a message on their chat box just now, or the bus didn’t just stop abruptly to let some businessman in. Apparently they almost missed the bus at the last stop and had to chase the bus with their wobbling legs as if their lives depended on it. When Elizabeth looked up to spare them a glance, she couldn’t help but to smile. They were a group of night-shift reapers and stampers, perfectly blended with the surroundings wearing those outfits, making everyone think they’re about to go home when they actually just started their work for today.
Sometimes, she’s thankful enough to get the 9-5 shift just so she could put her head on the pillow at night, or go out with her friends at the bar to celebrate their rough afternoon together—like how normal people were supposed to do.
“You’ll ruin it if you play that part,” Elizabeth typed back. “How’s your day?”
“There’s a series of murder near my neighborhood whose news isn’t supposed to be known by the police, at least for the next couple days. Should I just report that someone dumped a dead body near the garbage dump at the back of my apartment?”
“You have no evidence. They’ll end up suspecting you.”
“When I’m only doing someone’s job? Hell no.”
“Deal with it! xoxo.”
“I hate this job.”
Elizabeth laughed at the last reply. “I know people who faked their aptitude test to avoid being assigned as a reaper. Not me, though.”
“This sucks. I wished I was smarter back then.” Another bubble popped up. “Wanna grab a drink? Where are you now?”
Another thing Elizabeth felt thankful was the fact her and Gilbert’s shift matched so they could just meet at night and did whatever shit they could think about. There would be no drama of them being star-crossed lovers who had to sneak at the back garden to see each other. Tonight though, Elizabeth wasn’t in her best shape to be Gilbert’s drink buddies so she had to decline.
She called him straight after the text. “Can you go one day without seeing me?”
“I went days without seeing you back then. Not like I could die from that or anything.” He grunted, voices deep and rough like he’s about to fall asleep. “Well, we can just meet tomorrow at Yuriko’s.”
“Sorry about that,” she said, hiding her amusement. Why ask her out if he’s already glued to the bed anyway. “Can I ask you something?”
He mumbled in response.
“Do you think I’m selfish for wanting to do this?”
Gilbert stayed quiet for the next 10 seconds, anxiety and panic started to bubble up as Elizabeth searched for a way to undo her question. Why was she asking that, though? For validation? Forcing him to give the answers she wanted? Making herself feel better after all the storm Alex gave her today?
“Uh, sorry. I was just—”
“You’re the one saying relationships go both ways,” cut Gilbert, finally. “As long as it somehow gives something to both parties, I don’t think it’s selfish, though?”
She bit her lower lips, doubts clouded her head. “And what exactly do I give to you?”
“You’re trying to make me feel embarrassed, aren’t you? It’s not a proper pillow talk if you talk it out by phone”
“Come on!” Elizabeth raised her head, not realizing how crowded the bus became. She’s about to arrive at her neighborhood and Gilbert’s not even making it easier for her. “I have to get off the bus. Talk to you later, dipshit.”
Elizabeth slipped her way to the backdoor of the bus, passing through the standing crowd as she tried not to disturb their balance. The bus sighed as it stopped and Elizabeth quickly climbed down once the door opened. Vaguely she heard someone saying something to her, so she turned around and saw someone in the bus, standing in her formal clothes, waved her hand shyly at her as the door shut again, the wheels started rolling.
“Good work for today,” she probably said.
Elizabeth smiled and bowed, watching the bus took her to start the day.
Gilbert hated social gatherings. More than anything. Having to mingle with these strangers, acting like he’s interested in becoming friends with them. Yuriko knew this, that’s why that witch asked him to come over, even went as far as bribing him with plum pudding so that she could watch him suffer in her own birthday party.
“8 PM. Nice clothes, put product on your hair,” she said when he asked her the other day.
So he did. He put on a comfortable sweatshirt to layer his shirt, a pair of jeans and sneakers, leaving his ‘grim reaper leather jacket’ behind and changed into a more fashionable winter coat. He even put product on his hair, combing his fringe back to show how large and pretty his forehead was. He looked more handsome like this, as proven by several curious eyes watching him making his way into the crowd and all the whispers accompanying his steps. That’s not what he looked for though. He just wanted the damn plum pudding.
“Sorry, but the pudding is sold out!” said Yuriko when he approached her, mouth’s hanging to reflect how disappointed he was to be betrayed.
He restrained himself from bitching the birthday girl, instead he wished her a happy birthday (between his gritting teeth) and handed her a box of warped gifts. Yuriko straightened her plaid blazer, she looked so different without her signature glasses, though as glowing as ever however. “Thank you. Enjoy the party.”
Gilbert left as soon as the Adam guy approached her and paid her a kiss on the cheek. He hated the fact that he’s literally breathing in the same room as him. Jesus, just fuck off.
He scanned the entire room lazily, letting drowsiness take over his own body. Yuriko’s living room was conjured to be a big home party. The boring minimalist apartment suite was now filled with balloons and tassel backdrop, gigantic speakers pumping beats throughout the entire room as people danced and jumped around in the middle, surrounded by tables of buffet. At first glance, Yuriko might not look like a very sociable person. The truth was, she was a wild party girl off hours and had many friends outside the headquarter. The only thing surprised him was that he didn’t see Azrael being invited and for some reasons, Gilbert felt let down.
His eyes landed on a person leaning on the kitchen counter, wearing a soft pink turtleneck and a long black skirt that covered all the way to her knees, her loose brown hair fluttered as she laughed with the person she was talking to. The drowsiness vanished all of a sudden, as if she was a medicine to his sore eyes.
Their gaze met across the room. Gilbert approached her once she waved at him—letting him into her safe space.
“Oh, it’s Gilbert!” said the other person that was talking with Elizabeth earlier. “You look good tonight!”
Now that he saw her up closer, he recognized her as one of their classmates during their church days. Melanie, was it? The short-haired jock girl who brought dumbbells to their class; the sisters had to take her into the office a couple times to tell her that it ain’t it.
Glad she’s still as jock as ever.
“It’s the effect of Yuriko’s bribe. He’s only here for the pudding, trust me,” Elizabeth said, elbowing Melanie.
“Hi. Long time no see,” was his dry reply to all the insults. Well, Elizabeth’s right for the most part though. “How are you doing these days, Melanie?”
Melanie, or whatever she was, shut her eyes in defeat and groaned. Gilbert was confused for a second when Elizabeth started giggling uncontrollably.
“Oh, shit. Hi, Melinda.”
Gilbert swore this would be the last time he forgot someone’s name. If only he had bigger memory space in the empty head of his.
“Great, I guess I’m half-reaper and half-gymnast now.” She sipped her martini, watching Gilbert frown. “What? Are you trying to be sexist now?”
“No, I mean. How the hell do you do that? Does the headquarter know and just give you less schedule?”
“Oh.” She swirled her drink before taking the rest of the shot. “Don’t let them know. I’m still a full-time reaper at day. It’s hard to keep both of them in track, sometimes I feel like I’m overworking myself.”
“Geez, Melinda. Take care of yourself more!” Elizabeth shot her a glance of concern. “I’m not doing any side jobs or anything and still beaten up at the end of the day.”
“I will, don’t worry about it.” She smiled, eyes started going dizzy from all the drinks. “If I ever make it to the television, the headquarter will know and… I don’t know. How bad can it be? Charge me with a fine? Fire me? Send me to jail? Whatever, I don’t give a fuck.”
“You’ll probably get transferred at the very most,” Gilbert sneered, mind flying back to the mysterious Azrael he never really met. “All while it’s worth it.”
“Damn, right!” Melinda laughed, pointing sharp at him, words started pouring slurred from her tongue. “I want to pursue things too. How dare they lock me up into doing these kinds of things?!”
“Melinda, you’re too drunk,” Elizabeth cut both of them from talking any longer as she gently slapped Melinda’s cheeks. “They’re going to hear you guys at this point. Go get yourself a water.”
“Catch you later, you two!”
Melinda left to grab herself a cake, somehow managed to get caught in a conversation between two men at the corner of the room. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, eh.
“Hey.” Elizabeth drew his attention back to her, now that they were alone in the kitchen. “You got the thing you’re here for?”
“No!” he snapped. “Can you believe that witch? What the hell was that?!”
“She’s glad you come, you know.” She took him by surprise when she grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the fridge. She crouched down and brought out a plate of plum pudding, still intact and whole, complete with a spoon. “Here, I saved one for you.”
Gilbert felt tears welling up his eyes and never felt so grateful in his life. Was it the pudding? Or was it Elizabeth? He didn’t know, maybe it’s God for once helping him throughout his daily misery.
“I should treat you something one of these days,” he said, trying to sound as calm and composed as possible as he took the plate, the pudding glistened under the kitchen lamp.
“Oh, don’t bother.”
The sweetly rich flavor settled well in his tongue as he shoved more cuts to his mouth. Elizabeth probably was so pissed right now that she got ignored over a freaking pudding.
Gilbert hummed, finishing his last bite. “Thanks, uh, you can be kind sometimes.”
“Really?” She folded her arms, head tilted full in judgement. “What am I to you all this time?”
“Yuriko’s friend who is always setting up traps for me.” He put the plate and spoon in the sink, now his mind was wondering what kind of drink he should take. “I don’t even know if this whole thing is trap too.”
“I’m sure it can benefit me later.” Elizabeth smiled on that, a genuine one, like she hadn’t seen him for months. They’re just into day 2 of dating, had yet to discuss what were the rules or where were the lines, which direction they were going or what pace they should be taking. Right now Gilbert wasn’t sure whether he’s allowed to stand less than a meter close to her or she’s going to push him away if he did so. Either way, he didn’t want to hurt her, of course.
“What happened to you yesterday?” Gilbert leaned to the counter, mirroring Elizabeth’s folded arm. “Asking strange things like that?”
Elizabeth surprisingly closed their distance and leaned next to him, shoulders touching as if it’s no different and happened every time. “Strange ask, asked by a strange kid I met in a strange college I went to yesterday. Long short story, I’m in doubt right now.”
“You feel like… we shouldn’t do this?”
She didn’t answer, letting Gilbert conclude all by himself.
He inhaled and breathed out forcefully, feeling his head throbbing loudly like he had been struck down by the burden of the universe. The question from last night fell upon him like some kind of verse from the old testament.
What exactly do I give to you?
“You make me happy, that’s all.”
Elizabeth turned at him, eyes analyzing every wrinkle on his face. “How can I make you happy in this situation? Don’t I bring more hard times than easy times for you?”
Gilbert mirrored her again. “You’re the one bringing me hard times by throwing these questions! I’m stupid, remember? I can’t think of more flowery answers for you. Don’t make it more difficult for us, Liz.”
“I didn’t—” She stopped herself, words caught in her throat “—I’m saying if you’re only doing this so you don’t feel any regret after I leave, you better stop pretending and we can always end it here.”
Gilbert couldn’t believe he already got the break up threat on their second day of dating. This was beyond borderline.
“Part of me wants to do this so I don’t feel regretful of you leaving with memories of sadness or loneliness when I could just make you happy during your days! So, yes! Call me selfish or whatever, but I’ve been asking you to be selfish together with me. So let’s drop this bullshit and live selfishly for all the times we spent sacrificing ourselves for other people that don’t even care about us!”
Perhaps Gilbert shouldn’t be shouting wise words in the middle of a birthday party, even the loud music couldn’t really muffle his voice. Sooner or later, people would come to the kitchen and ask whether everything’s alright and one of them would need to joke with them until they were left alone again.
But for all the troubles he made, seeing Elizabeth staring at him in disbelief before tearing her gaze away into the space worth all the seconds.
“I’m not forcing you, anyway,” he said at last, voice softened. “Anything that makes you comfortable, I’ll just adjust to it. Or maybe we can set up the lines now.”
“Just do whatever.” Elizabeth rubbed her eyes, thankfully she didn’t wear mascara at the moment. “If you say so, I shouldn’t worry about anything, am I right?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” she said, almost out of breath. “Sorry for causing you hard times.”
“It’s fine. I feel like you need to understand this properly.” He took her hand and squeezed it, a little bit cold for some reasons. Her hand was so small yet delicate compared to his calloused skin. Elizabeth sighed in response to the contact. “What else do you have on your mind?”
She looked up, locking eyes once again with him—the edges were tender this time. “I wish I was dumb enough like you not to overthink stuffs.”
“I let that blatant insult slip this time.”
“Maybe my perfect match, indeed, has to be a stupid. That’s why I never got a perfect date before because I’m always surrounded with clever men.”
“Are you seriously using this chance to throw insults at me?!”
She laughed, like she had forgotten all the worries she had five minutes ago, and Gilbert couldn’t feel more grateful to anything as he continued pretending to be offended. Maybe Elizabeth was just right. He’s stupid and dumb and idiot, falling head over heels to her, hopelessly romantic and doomed for all the unfortunate event thrown at him. But maybe…
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“Yeah, I’m stupid for all the things you’re clever for. But I’m smart enough to know how to throw you off.”
Elizabeth stopped laughing when Gilbert lifted her to sit on the counter, trapping her with both of his arms and leaned far close to her space; nose almost touched and he could literally feel her breath hitching to his move. Her eyes shyly followed to where his eyes settled on her—that was her lips.
When Gilbert asked her about the lines, he meant this, by the way.
Elizabeth didn’t move or pull away, however. She carefully nibbled on her lower lips, the peach color soon glistened in tease; something that Gilbert wasn’t sure if she did that on purpose or just because they were dry before. But when she closed her eyes for good, long eyelashes fluttered and swept the soft skin underneath her eyes, he knew it was a green light.
Their lips met for a brief second, barely touched or tasted as they trembled against each other. Gilbert pulled away, the thrumming inside his chest took over his mind that he couldn’t think of anything else except to get it done. Elizabeth’s face was already pink when he put a reasonable distance between them to get a perfect view and something in between their suffocating silence told him to do it right.
So he kissed her again, this time trying to invade more space into her by nibbling her lower lips, he’s not sure what taste Elizabeth could make out of him now but he’s sure hers were either cream or strawberry, probably from the shortcake she ate earlier. They were soft and fragile, to the point Gilbert was too scared to go his way and be rough—but hell damn addicting at the same time that he couldn’t help but to slide his tongue into her mouth, tasting stronger strawberries and cream as Elizabeth slowly made her way into his too.
They pulled away when the air started to run out on them, not letting themselves be ruined this early by gasping into each other’s face. For a few seconds, they forgot they’re still in public, at their best friend’s party, in a room someone could easily enter to grab a drink when they’re busy tasting each other. Thankfully no hands were involved, or else they’d be looking like a total mess in and out.
Elizabeth, in the midst of Gilbert’s racing minds, chuckled and pushed Gilbert back, hopping out of the kitchen counter. “You’re all flushed!”
“I—” even though you’re as red, he bit back a retort “—shut it.”
Still laughing, Elizabeth slid out her phone from her skirt pocket, her other hands combing absently at her tangled hair. Meanwhile, Gilbert was too stoned to move from his spot; he was rather surprised to see her taking it so well. Between him and her, maybe Gilbert was the one less experienced…?
“We should get a champagne,” she said, pocketing the phone back. “For our celebration! Also Melinda is calling me to meet her in the front.”
“Fine. Let’s get a champagne,” Gilbert blurted out, mind’s too empty to process anything else, so he followed Elizabeth out like a confused puppy he was.
“Ah.” She halted abruptly, Gilbert almost bumped into her. “I’ll tell Yuriko tomorrow, okay? You just keep silent.”
Gilbert cocked his eyebrows, still dizzy. “Am I really that not trusted?”
“You looked drunk.” She poked his cheek and went off to where Melinda had waited.
He didn’t really see Elizabeth for the rest of the party, except for a few stolen glances they exchanged followed by sly smirks. She’s too caught up with whatever storytelling Melinda had for her, and Gilbert was too caught up with these whoever group of men talking about the weather and somehow still managed to make the topic interesting for about half an hour. The next glance he threw across the room, Elizabeth and Melinda were gone.
And his phone vibrated against the material of his pants, it said, “Melinda’s super drunk, had to bring her home. Sorry for leaving you.”
“Is Melinda your girlfriend now??”
Gilbert pocketed his phone and walked to the center of the room. People were dancing and laughing and pouring glasses, they were born for this kind of lifestyle. Meanwhile Gilbert kept switching his thought between Elizabeth and his bed—in no particular meaning—he just either wanted to be with Elizabeth or to sleep and end the day.
He caught a glimpse of the short-haired woman who was being sociable as always with her fellow higher-ups, one hand holding an hourglass and the other waving to her speech. At most cases, Gilbert would leave silently from the backdoor, but the host this time wasn’t just anyone Gilbert could care less. He should probably make more effort for a friend—or whatever Yuriko considered him.
In between the loud music, Gilbert approached the group and all of a sudden he was the center of the crowd—as if he just entered the lion’s burrow. He bowed to them, turned around and smiled at Yuriko, who looked as surprised as them.
“You’re leaving?” she said, excusing herself from the group as she drank the remains of her glass.
“I’ve been much longer here than I anticipated,” Gilbert said, gesturing to the men’s group he chatted earlier, probably still talking about the weather. “Congratulations for another year.”
She shrugged, putting the glass on some random table. “Let me see you off, then.”
“Huh? Am I a special guest?”
“Aren’t you all?” She led Gilbert throughout the sea of people, casually greeting them as Gilbert followed her uncomfortably behind like a lost chicken in the middle of a swan lake. She turned around at times, eyes scanning him from bottom to top, and smiled. Gilbert wasn’t sure what the hell it meant. “I thought you’re going off with Liz.”
“She’s off with Melinda.”
“Poor you, I guess. That’s why you’re leaving in a hurry because she’s not here anymore.”
“I’m not leaving in a hurry—” he stopped himself before his voice beat the music “—you know I’m not into this kind of thing.”
“Well, yeah. Still, thanks for coming.” The doorman opened the main door for them, which earned him a graceful smile from Yuriko. She stopped at the terrace, finally away from the deafening hush and music. The chandelier above lit her tired face, marble floor stung cold against their feet even when they wore shoes. Passed the gate, the street was dead with a couple street lights blinking in the distance. “You still got the pudding, though.”
“That’s because Liz saved one for me—”
“And swollen lips, apparently.”
Gilbert had a lot of remarks for her, but none of them fit the situation he’s currently at—especially after he realized what she meant.
“You saw us,” he said slowly, unsure what to confirm.
“Someone’s screaming from the kitchen so I have to check out if it turned out to be some drunkard hammering my glass collection.” Yuriko pressed her mouth flat, folding her arm as she pushed her back against the terrace pillar. “Thankfully, it’s not. Unthankfully, I hate that it has to be you two of all people.”
Anxiety started to make its way up through his veins, Gilbert had to take a deep breath to process it. It’s not the matter of fact that Yuriko caught them red-handed kissing on her kitchen counter—but the malice her words beheld was what nauseated him.
“What do you mean?” he asked, carefully, finding more of her emotion in the way she flew her gaze to every place but Gilbert. He tried to laugh it off, but Yuriko still didn’t show any amusement. “Don’t tell me you’re mad because we don’t let you know sooner?”
“And why should I give a shit about that?”
At second thought, Gilbert wasn’t ready for them to exchange eyes yet. He didn’t know why she seemed upset about it when she used to constantly tease them about getting together. Yuriko was a close friend to both of them, but somehow even a close friend had no privilege to decide someone’s choice of relationship. She’s intelligent and morally correct enough to know that.
Gilbert sighed, trying to think of thousands of ways to reason with her. “We’ve been dating since just two days ago and none of us really wanted to ruin your party with this news, so Liz suggested to tell you tomorrow. That is our original plan—oh, well, was.”
She shook her head, letting her perfectly-combed hair falling to places. “I’m not bothered by the fact none of you are giving me heads-up. It’s the fact that you guys are dating in this situation that throws me off!”
Gilbert frowned, stepping closer to her space as he studied her. The glow was gone and Yuriko was definitely upset by any means possible. She did a good job masking it throughout her entire party ever since the time she found them at the kitchen. “What about it? Why are you suddenly mad when you’re literally been pushing us together the whole time—I was starting to get upset as well that I’m thinking to spite you later with this news.”
“I—” when he met her eyes, they were flaring with anger, cutting sharp to Gilbert’s pupils “—did! Because I knew you two like each other for so long but too dumb to realize it—and I only wanted the best for you that’s why I was pushing!”
“So why are you against—”
“That’s when nothing was happening between you two. Back when you have all the good life and future ahead. I get that it’ll be a good opportunity to help both of your frustrated ass!” Yuriko let out a gasp of laugh that sounded so pathetic and unsettling. “This time, it is different. You know why. You better fucking be.”
“Because of Liz dying?” Gilbert retorted harshly, getting to understand Yuriko more, yet falling more and more out of grasp of what she had in her mind. “You don’t trust me to be able to let her go when her time comes.”
Yuriko stared at him, clockwork hustling as mirrored by her eyes. “I am her stamper. My job is to make sure she’s fine by the end of her time. And I know you’re going to steal her later and mess up everything.”
“So it all comes down to your work, eh?”
“Aside, don’t you think the relationship is futile? Since it will only bring you nothing but pain in the end? You may use all excuses you can think that consists of your effort trying to make her happy, but guess what? She won’t. You won’t. Your love showering only makes everyone miserable because it’s something that will end as soon as one gets off.
“In other words—you’re doing nothing but to hurt Liz and yourself now.”
“So you ask me to just stand back and watch as she suffers alone with no one she can lay her head on? Is that supposed to be happier than me trying to be a man for her?!”
“Yeah, since you suck anyway.” She grimaced upon seeing Gilbert’s clench of fist, at how his body trembled as an embarrassing reaction to her threat. “To be honest, I don’t really care about you. I do care about Liz, though, she’s a dear friend I don’t want to see getting hurt. In order to do that, I have to get rid of you first. Sorry.”
“You—!” Gilbert understood, at very last. He knew what she meant, what she was concerned, what she worried about. He understood why—because Yuriko didn’t trust him completely, unlike what he thought previously. Somehow it managed to bleed him on the inside, to know that the last person he expected to be against their relationship, was the first one to tell them to end it.
“I don’t care if you get rid of me, but I know you don’t care much about Liz either.”
Yuriko looked up, glares greeted him menacingly. “Say what?”
“This angel-turning shit is a big project. To carry a part of it, you must have been briefed with Azrael who most likely ordered you to do it as perfect as possible. So failure is not an option. In order to continue being appealed by him, you will have to do what he said and even make more effort.” He returned the glares that made Yuriko loosened up the tightness of her crossed arms, her eyes widened in both horror and anger. “Because after all, you don’t care about what Liz may feel about this whole thing. You do care about maintaining your position, though.”
She was cursing at him when Gilbert made his way out of the gate. Without looking back, he kept those sad gazes to himself, rethinking about their relationship that turned out to be sour, just because Gilbert was someone that happened to be close with Elizabeth, who happened to be close with Yuriko.
As he supposed to know, reapers and stampers were just humans, a creature that wanted wealth, position, and companionship on top of anything. They’ll cheat and hurt others for what they wanted—no decisions could please everyone.
Fine, then. If Yuriko was really that scared of him, he just had to continue ruining everything for her.
Time remaining: 10 days.