Chris navigates the lunch crowd until he spots the face he's looking for, already seated at a corner table. He heads over, dropping his bag on the floor as he takes a seat. A quick dig through his things finds his lunch in his hands, and Chris sets it on the table.
When he looks up, Zaizen is watching him with an unreadable expression, brows furrowed.
Chris pauses. "What is it?"
Zaizen blinks at him, and then shrugs. "Number seven was shit."
"Chapter five," Chris agrees. "I was hoping they wouldn't test us on that."
"You and me both," he growls, and stabs his tomato with vengeance.
All his classes are interesting--he'd made a point of making sure of it--but if Chris had to pick a favourite, it would be his literature class. In the beginning, it was having Zaizen at his side, with his snarky remarks and running commentary during class discussions. But now, whenever he allows his attention to wander, he finds his gaze being pulled across the room, over to the cluster of bodies sitting three rows from the front.
His name, Chris finds out, is Tanba.
By the end of the first week since the Incident, Chris has made a mental list. It goes something along the lines of this:
1. Friends with Small and Vicious; Protein Shake Expert; Actual Terrible Taste in Literature, formerly known as Class Idiot until Chris had protested; and Shogi Enthusiast
Even Though He Really Sucks At It
2. Childhood friends with Manaka from Physics
3. Does not like horror movies. At all. (Chris isn't that big a fan of them either, but he may have a soft spot for Ju-On, and the memory of Tanba's hunched form, legs pulled up to his chest in his seat, and hands covering his eyes, even as he watched the movie from between his fingers.)
4. Likes mango juice. Maybe.
An odd assortment of facts, Chris realises, cheek propped up in one hand as the next group finishes setting up for their presentation. He listens as Tanba stammers through the first few sentences of his introduction to the topic, their third project this term, his gaze flitting all over the room. When Tanba glances his way, Chris nods encouragingly; Tanba's gaze darts away and fixes on the wall opposite, some distance above everyone's heads.
5. Doesn't like public speaking.
Privately, Chris thinks it must take a lot of courage to be so obviously uncomfortable being put on the spot, but still going out there and pushing through anyway. He says as much in his portion of the feedback, and passes the paper to Zaizen, who stacks their cumulative effort into a pile on the front desk.
The last ten minutes of the class is spent going through the pile, and Chris watches as Tanba pauses during his reading, eyes wide.
There's no way for him to be certain, of course, but Chris would like to think that Tanba's reading the one he had written.
"So we'll do some reading over the next few days, and discuss them this Friday," Manaka says, "Sounds good?"
"Yes," Chris agrees, putting away the last of his books. "That should give us plenty of time to find some good references."
Manaka hums. "And you should still have enough time to work on that essay for lit, right?"
"Right," Chris echoes, blinking a few times before he puts two and two together. "Your friend mentioned it?"
"Yeah," Manaka says. "Sounds like a pretty heavy paper."
Chris thinks of the all points he'll have to cover in a smattering of days and a measly 1500 words, and grimaces--it's just not possible. He shakes his head a little, trying to clear it. "It's not going to be easy."
"So I've heard." Manaka shoulders his bag and gives Chris a sympathetic smile. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Chris says, gives Manaka a little wave of farewell, before they part ways. Chris traces his way back to the dorms. Even though it's still fairly early in the afternoon, the main walk is plenty crowded, and Chris lets himself drift with the flow of people, his mind occupied with running his latest conversation over and over in his mind.
He wonders what else Tanba and Manaka talk about.
He's seen the two of them together, all casual laughter and friendly jostling, easy and relaxed in a way he hasn't seen either of them behave with anyone else. It's an endearing sight, but it also strikes a chord in him, deep in his chest.
It's a thought that stays with him, niggling at the edge of his mind when he greets Zaizen, and haunts him throughout their study session, until he's left reading the same paragraph three times, and still not understanding a word of it.
"Okay," Zaizen announces, loud and abrupt in the silence.
Chris looks up from his notebook.
"Listen. I'm only bringing this up because I think you already know what's going on."
Chris waits. When no elaboration comes, he prompts, "What?"
Zaizen raises an eyebrow.
And just like that, he knows Zaizen knows, and Chris feels himself flush hot. "Oh."
"You know you can tell me these things, right?"
"I wasnt sure how to bring it up," Chris admits.
"Hey, Zaizen! Guess what? I think that guy in our literature class is cute."
"Zaizen," Chris goes.
"I mean, not that I'm being discreet when I check him out in class. And I definitely don't get a huge dopey smile whenever it's his turn to present to the class. Not to mention how I absolutely do not look for him in the cafeteria, even though we never sit next to him."
Now his cheeks feel like they might melt right off his face. He says, in a smaller voice. "Nao."
Zaizen sighs, their knees bumping under the table. "He's got shit taste in friends though."
That makes Chris laugh.
"I'm serious," he says. "Isashiki is bad influence."
"Kettle, pot?" he prompts.
Zaizen makes a dismissive sound. "Anyway. You need to help him expand his social circle."
"Yep." Zaizen grins, wide and bright. "You gonna do anything about it?"
Chris hums, thoughtful. "Maybe I will."
And now that the thought's been put in his head, Chris can't seem to stop thinking about it. It hangs in the back of his mind, a constant, restless urge as he glances at Tanba from across the room; it's there when Chris overhears Tanba's conversation with his friends, their playful banter standing out from the background of class chatter.
Chris thinks about it, and hopes.
After an entire week goes by with no progress, Zaizen turns to him with an exasperated sigh. "Have you tried talking to him yet?"
"No," Chris starts, feeling defensive for no reason. "I haven't had the chance."
"We're in the same class, Chris."
"I can't just march over there and introduce myself," he protests. "It would be weird."
"Then get one of his friends to introduce you," Zaizen growls, reaching over to ruffle Chris' hair. When Chris tries to jerk away, Zaizen follows with both hands, determined. "Aren't you friends with that guy from Physics?"
Chris pauses, hair thoroughly messed up. "Huh."
When the class finally comes to an end, they're still trying to finish up their discussion, rushing to pack up their things at the same time.
"--and I still don't really understand the second part," Manaka admits, stuffing his notebook into his bag.
The moment seems to still before him as Chris sees his chance. He takes a deep breath. "If you're not busy, maybe we could talk about it over lunch? Oh but," Chris hesitates, hyper-aware, "you have plans, right?"
Manaka blinks at him. "Yeah, I'm eating with a friend. But you're free to join us, if you want."
Guilt twinges at his soul, and Chris resolutely ignores it. "I don't want to intrude."
But Manaka's already pulling out his phone, saying, "No, no, don't worry about it. Let me just check and see if Kouichirou's made other plans."
Chris' heart does a little jump in his chest. Kouichirou, he thinks, and nods. He lets his gaze drift away, trying not to get his hopes up, his fingers tapping against his arm.
When Manaka comes back, he's frowning, brows drawn in unhappily.
"Is something wrong?" Chris asks.
"Turns out my friend's got a last minute change of plans," Manaka replies, tone several shades too light for how irritated he looks. "So we'll have to grab lunch without him."
"Oh." His heart sinks; Chris fights to prevent it from showing on his face. "Alright then."
His second attempt follows the same pattern, and by the third, Chris is starting to wonder if he's going about this all wrong--if maybe he's misread things, and that innocent comment Tanba had made that day had been nothing more than that, an innocent comment. Tanba wants nothing to do with him. Nothing at all. And Tanba and Manaka are too kind to say so outright.
Briefly, he wonders if the two of them are together--and if that's the case, he wonders if Tanba's open to more than one relationship. Even if they ever did get to have a real conversation, would they ever end up as friends? Will all his efforts be for nothing after all?
These thoughts weigh down on him, and by the time Chris finishes with his day, Zaizen is already back at their shared flat, his music drifting into the common area. Chris takes his shoes off and trudges in, bypassing his room for Zaizen's open door, and pauses at the sight of his best friend sprawled on his bed, face buried in his pillow. Chris drops his bag outside, and treads into the room, hesitating,
Before throwing himself onto the bed.
The mattress springs squeak under his sudden weight, and Zaizen jerks awake, scrambling to sit up. "What the f--"
Chris presses closer, until he's curled up against Zaizen's side, the hem of Zaizen's t-shirt caught in his fingers.
Zaizen exhales, and lies back down. "Is this about Tall and Handsome?"
Chris feels the brush of fingers in his hair, nails scraping gently at his scalp, and he closes his eyes.
After a long silence, Zaizen asks, "Do you want my help?"
He sighs. "Please."
"Okay," Zaizen replies, and reaches for his phone.
The party is loud, and noisy, and over-crowded, and they've only been here for half an hour, but Chris is already itching to leave. Irritation builds in his bones, twitching in his fingers, and every word he says in a conversation is one word closer to him snapping at someone, and he knows he'll regret it if he doesn't leave soon.
"Zaizen," he says, snagging his friend by the sleeve of his shirt in a bid to get his attention. "I need some air."
He glances up from his phone, which he hasn't put down since they arrived. "I hear you," he says, "just. Five more minutes. Please?"
Chris huffs, and folds his arms across his chest. Neither of them are paying attention to the conversations happening around them, and Zaizen hasn't put his phone down at all since they arrived, so it's not like he's socialising with anyone here. He can't understand why they can't just leave. At this point, even a quick walk outside would be welcome, because it's so loud in here he can barely hear himself think.
"Chris," Zaizen says, and then again, until Chris turns to look at him. "I swear, this is important. You know I wouldn't have dragged you here if it wasn't."
He sighs, and turns his attention to the party--the massive crowd of bodies crammed into too small a space, the loud pounding bass flooding his ears. It's not that different from the kind of parties he enjoys, but it's been a long week, and he had really been looking forward to getting some rest. Instead, Zaizen had announced that he'd be going about two hours before they had to leave, and then practically begged Chris to go with him.
"Finally," Zaizen mutters.
Chris turns to him. "What?"
"Listen," he says, turning to look Chris straight in the eye. "Can you get us some drinks?"
Chris stares at him, feels it when his expression shifts into a glare.
"It won't take long."
"Zaizen," he starts.
He jumps up, wraps an arm around Chris' shoulder and leans in close. "Do this for me," he urges. "Please?"
Chris squeezes his eyes shut. "Fine."
"I think the drinks are in the kitchen," he says, and then pats his shoulder. "Good luck."
"That makes no sense," Chris tells him, but all Zaizen does is wave his hand, his attention back on his phone.
When he gets to the kitchen, there are bottles littered all over the countertop, stacks of plastic cups overturned, scattered in every available space. Chris is so busy trying to spot a clean cup that he almost misses the figure slumped over the table. "Um," he starts, heart stuttering in his chest.
The figure looks up, and then sits up lightning fast, the curve of his spine snapping back like a spring.
Chris clears his throat. "Sorry. I was just looking for some drinks."
"Oh," Tanba stammers. "They're uh. Over there. Help yourself."
"Thank you," Chris replies, and moves forward. He snags the cleanest cup--just the one--he can find, and goes through the motions of pouring himself a drink as he wracks his brain for something to say.
The music suddenly notches up in volume, and Tanba flinches, shoulders rounding briefly before he pulls them back once more.
Chris takes a step back. "They're really blasting the music tonight."
Tanba glances at him. "Yeah."
"It's getting a little too loud for me," Chris tries again, heart hammering now. "Do you mind if I hang around here for a while?"
This time when Tanba looks at him, eyes wide, his gaze stays. "No, go ahead." A pause. "I was taking a break from the noise too, so. You know."
"Yes," Chris agrees, and climbs onto the stool nearby. "It's a bigger crowd than I expected."
"I think they invited some of the first years too. I heard someone talking about it."
"That would explain it," Chris replies. Belatedly, he remembers the cup in his hands, and takes a few sips.
A silence descends upon them, almost lost in the pounding bass and the constant chatter wafting in from outside the kitchen. Chris fumbles desperately for another topic of conversation, anything to break the silence; he's in the middle of sending silent thanks in Zaizen's direction as well as composing an angry speech for sending him into this without giving him the chance to prepare, when Tanba blurts out, "I'm sorry for the other day."
Chris blinks at him. "For what?"
"For saying. For calling you," he hesitates, cheeks reddening. "You know."
"Oh." Chris feels his own face heating up, and ducks his head slightly. "That's..."
"I didn't mean anything by it," Tanba says, then winces. "I mean. Obviously, I meant something by it. But I wasn't trying to be creepy or anything. It's just. A nickname. That we came up with. We being Manaka and I. Well, he started it really. But it wasn't a joke or anything. We weren't making fun of you. I hope you weren't offended."
Chris stares. "Um."
"Oh god, you probably don't even remember it. You probably have no idea who I am," he groans, pushing away from the countertop as he stands, his face so red it must burn to touch. "I'll stop now. I'm really, really sorry."
Chris, who up until this point had been growing increasingly more confused--or rather, a mixture of confused, embarrassed, and flattered--finally snaps into motion at this, and grabs Tanba's arm. "Wait!"
Chris realises what he's done, and immediately lets go. "I'm sorry. I just." His heart feels like it's about to burst out of his ribcage, he can't breathe. "I didn't mind when you...called me that. I was just surprised. But it was...nice." His face feels like it's on fire. "You don't have to go."
Tanba looks at him; Chris can feel the weight of his gaze on him, but he can't bring himself to meet it, now the entirety of his courage is leaving him.
After what seems like an eternity, Tanba moves slowly back into his seat. "You really didn't mind?"
Here, Chris forces himself to meet Tanba's gaze. "No," he says, as earnest and sincere as he knows how to, "I really didn't."
Tanba exhales, and the line of his shoulder loosens a fraction.
"And I do know you," Chris adds, feeling emboldened. "Tanba, right?"
He gapes at him, his jaw slack. "Yeah," he finally says, the corners of his mouth turning up. "Hi."
Chris smiles, feels his cheeks hurt for the effort. "Hi."