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Consolation Prize

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Of all the people she could have called, he wasn't sure why she chose to call him.

Retsuko was so likeable: she had lots of friends. Haida was proud to consider himself among them. However, amongst her circle, he was a lone male in a sea of women. Retsuko was a girl’s girl, never falling victim to the competitive nature that women were sometimes susceptible to. Her natural, genuine aura attracted people like moths to a flame.

It was one of the things he loved about her.

Keeping this in mind, Retsuko had many people she could turn to when she needed advice or a shoulder to cry on. Sure, Haida was ready and willing to be there for her whenever he was needed. If anything, he wished she needed him more. But he could understand, in certain situations, picking another woman's brain may be more beneficial to her.

But regardless, he would always be there for her if she needed it. Hell, sometimes, he even sought out the opportunity. If he saw an opening at work to lend her a helping hand or to be a sounding board for her, he would jump on it in a heartbeat. To help her in any way filled him with a disconcerting amount of joy.

Still, in this instance, he didn't know why she had called him.

He had actually been out, for once. He was trying to make himself leave the house more often, recreationally, if only for his own mental health. He just couldn't continue the monotony of work, home, sleep (wash, rinse, repeat) without his depression worsening.

He and his buddy were at a bar; it was a dive, but the beer was cheap and the music was suited to their tastes. His friend was talking to a kitten with green hair and gauges so large Haida was certain his beer could fit through them. Her friend (a bunny with an impressive mohawk) tried to approach Haida. "Let me buy your next one.” When she spoke Haida could see that her tongue was pierced.

"You're nice. But I'm good." Haida waved his hand at her, dismissing her offer. He noticed, just then, that she was rather cute, under the piercings and black lipstick. But he just couldn't. Not yet. Not tonight. Maybe someday, but not tonight.

He was pathetic.

The girl looked him up and down, cocking her brow. "Got a girlfriend or something?" She cocked her head to the side, her hair unmoving as if it were one solid piece. "Even if you do… I don't mind."

Haida managed a smile, though he felt an emptiness inside himself. He was, in fact, single. He should be mingling. He should be flirting with girls, dating, and getting laid for once. Shit, he could have been married by now if he hadn’t been dicking around in his early twenties.

But he was too busy being loyal to someone who wasn't in love with him. "Yeah. I have a girlfriend. Sorry," he lied and wished it were true. He wanted somebody to go home too. Wanted to be loyal to someone who felt the same as he did.

The girl leaned over the bar, pressing her cleavage on the hard surface. It was a vapid attempt to increase her sex appeal; though Haida could see through the effort, he couldn’t say it wasn’t working. "Are you sure I can't change your mind? You're cute… and I don't want to be alone tonight."

It would have been so easy. This was the slowest, straightest pitch… all he had to do was swing. He could take this girl home, enjoy a night of vigorous sex, and leave before the sun came up. He used to do that sort of thing in college, before he knew her.

Before he developed this frustrating, chronic case of unrequited love.

'You need to get your dick wet,' Fenneko had told him, and then laughed at his blushing and sputtering. Maybe she was right. Maybe he did just need an easy lay. Break the ice. Get back out there. It had been far too long…

He was teetering on the edge of accepting the bunny’s offer. After all, he didn't really have a girlfriend. He didn’t have anyone to answer to. His hesitations weren’t based in reality; they were only valid in his own mind.

Or his heart.

One of the two.

He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.

The hyena reached in and produced his cell, seeing her name light up the screen. He had never found a picture that felt right; she always asked him to delete the ones from their drinking sessions, clutching his wrist and pleading and that was that. "That your girl?" the bunny asked, standing up a little straighter. She had already begun the process of accepting her defeat.

Haida looked at her name, curious as to why she would be calling him. It was after eleven. He shifted his eyes to the attractive stranger beside him. He could ignore the call. He could ignore the call and go home with the girl and get laid and it would be glorious. It would be so easy.

Wouldn't it?

"Yeah, sorry," Haida said, smiling apologetically; though he had nothing to apologize for. The bunny shrugged her shoulders, fixing her crop top to accentuate her bosom.

"Suit yourself!" she chimed before turning off to walk into the crowd.

Haida sighed. He really was a tragic case. He swiped the green button on his phone, bringing it to his ear. "Hey!" He tried to sound as chipper as possible. It was only then that he realized just how loud the bar was. He held his hand over the opposite ear, so he could better hear his friend.

He could just make out shaky, muffled breathing on the other line. His eyebrow cocked, and he felt a sinking in his stomach. "Retsuko? What's wrong?" Dread. Fear. He was, to put it simply, terrified. Something bad had happened. He knew it instantly.

"Haida…" She sounded weak and raspy, and in an instant he knew it was from crying. The hyena clutched his knee cap, his leather shoe tapping against the metal foot rest under the bar. Something was terribly wrong. He listened to her cry into the receiver for a moment, his heart sinking in response.

God, he hated to hear her cry.

"Retsuko. Tell me what's wrong." He was stern. He was worried. She swallowed on the other end, and he could hear her take a calming breath.

"Can you come over?" Her voice was soft, but he understood her question as clear as a bell. He pinched his own thigh through his jeans, trying to wake himself up from this dream.

Or was it a nightmare?

She had him wrapped around her finger. He would have crossed oceans for her, in that moment. "I'm on my way."

Haida tabbed out and hurriedly sent a text to his friend to let him know he was leaving. Though, considering that the dingo currently had his tongue jammed some jill’s throat, he was sure he wouldn't care about the hyena’s departure.

Twenty minutes and thirty-five dollars later, the taxi pulled up in front of Retsuko's apartment complex. He'd only been here once before, when they had all three gone to the beach together. And even then, he hadn’t been inside.

Haida wasn’t sure what he was doing here or what state he would find his friend in. He just knew that Retsuko wanted him there. That was all he needed to know.

He walked the stairs to her apartment, double checking the number several times. He held his fist against the metal door, hesitating for a moment before knocking.

By the second tap she was opening the barrier, as if she had been waiting near the door for him to arrive. Retsuko was in her sweats, eyes and nose puffy and red from crying. Likely hours of crying, by the looks of it.

Haida didn't say anything; he just stepped inside, shedding his shoes and his jacket. Retsuko took the leather garment from him and hung it by her door before she turned and wandered further into her home, venturing into the living area. Haida followed her instinctively, noting the half empty bottle of sake she was carrying. "I'm… sorry to call you so late." Her voice was noticeably fragile.

"Its fine...I was in the area, anyway," he lied, for her sake. Or maybe it was for his. Her apartment was a stark contrast to the bar he had just come from. It was filled with feminine decor and gleamed with a wash of pink. Haida couldn’t help but smile. 'Cute.'

The girl sat down on her bed unceremoniously, the mattress bouncing under her; Haida anxiously shifted before he emulated her actions. Just sitting on her bed was enough to make him blush, and he hated himself for that.

They remained hush for a stretch of time, the stillness accented only by Retsuko's snivels and sobs. Eventually, Haida reached his breaking point. He couldn’t take anymore; he had to know what was amiss. "Retsuko, please. Talk to me." He dared to reach over and touch her between her shoulder blades, his fingers feeling her spine through her sweats.

The panda huffed, her shoulders trembling. It seemed like she didn't know where to begin, but of course neither did Haida. It was the blind leading the blind.

As per usual.

"He's getting married."

Her words were weighty and laden with sentiment. Haida's mouth was already open to ask the obligatory 'who?' before he comprehended how thoughtless that question actually was.

Instead, a vicious anger seared him for a moment before he pressed his lips and cooled. It wasn’t his fight, no matter how much the ancient part of his brain wanted it to be.

The hyena stared at the carpet, trying to conjure up the right words to say. As previously indicated, he wasn’t sure why she had called him. To be honest, he wasn't well versed in the ins and outs of her relationship with Tadano. Perhaps that was how he liked it. All he knew for sure was that she wanted to get married and he didn't. So she ended it.

Or, so she thought.

Haida was thankful that Retsuko broke the silence. "He called me to catch up." Retsuko toyed with the label on the bottle of alcohol. "Honestly, I still felt excited when I saw his name come up on my phone. Is that sad?"

Haida couldn't help the pang in his chest that resulted from her admission. But he simply clenched his fists against his thighs and smiled sympathetically at her. She didn't need to know. This wasn’t about him. "Of course it's not.”

Retsuko took another gulp from her bottle before she continued. "As we were talking, he kept going on about himself. About his AI project and about the future of his company. And the whole time I was thinking, I can’t believe I was ever remotely interested in any of this." Haida reached over and took the bottle once she was done, bringing it to his own mouth. This conversation was going to necessitate more alcohol than he had previously believed.

"And then…" Retsuko's voice broke and Haida could tell she was about to cry again. "And then… he said he had some news."

Haida let the sake bottle settle in his lap. Retsuko’s gaze was directed downward, though it appeared as if she was focused on nothing; a fresh crop of tears gathering in her eyes. "She works in his marketing department. Her name is Shizu."

Haida watched her tears fall. In that moment, he felt sure he could kill Tadano. Not metaphorically kill. Hide the body, kill. He was sure he could count on Fenneko to help him.

“She graduated in May and started with his company a few weeks ago.” She stared at the floor, her chest heaving but her breath silent. “He just met her."

Haida felt his own chest squeeze in response to her emotion. He hated this. He hated seeing her hurt. It hurt to see her hurt.

He stood up and crossed the room, grabbing her box of tissues. What should he say? What could he say?

He was glad she called him but, why hadn't she called Gori, Washimi, or even Fenneko? Why him? He found that, through his unease, something inside him bloomed at the thought that, out of all her friends, she wanted him there to comfort her. He wished that wasn’t the case. He wished that it wasn't so easy for her to pull her back in.

But… wishing didn't make things reality.

Of that he was certain.

The hyena sat back down beside her, offering her the tissues (which she accepted gratefully). He faltered before asking his next question, knowing that he may now want to hear the answer.

You're her friend, remember?

"If you could take him back right now… would you?”

Retsuko stilled, her sobs slowing. She wiped her eyes and Haida held out the sake bottle. She drank from it gratefully.

"No," she answered his question, her lips still on the bottle. She sounded resolute. Certain. Haida tried to extinguish the excitement he felt. "I wouldn't, but…" There was always a 'but' "… why didn't he want to marry me?" Retsuko whimpered, her tears flowing freely now.

Haida wrapped an arm around her. He felt a bit awkward about it and he hoped she didn't think he was strange for doing so. But when she pressed her face into his shoulder, nuzzling—wiping, his brain corrected—her nose into his striped sweater, he decided that perhaps she wasn't concerned about him overstepping boundaries.

That's right. He was just her friend. Safe. One of the girls.

For a long time he just held her, and time stood still. He wanted it to end, for Retsuko's sake. He wanted this excruciating moment to end, because he knew she was hurting. However, with her body against his and her hands clinging onto him, he simultaneously hoped this moment would be endless. Selfish, but true.

Soon she appeared to compose herself, but she didn't move away from the hyena. She continued to clutch the sake bottle and his sweater.

"He didn't love me."

Her voice dull, a shell of the true Retsuko. Haida hated it. He wanted to take it all away from her. All her agony and sorrow. He'd gladly feel it for her, if he could.

"I'm sure that's not true," Haida found himself saying, turning to press his face into her hair. Sure, he wasn't familiar with the complexities of her relationship with the tech wiz, but he knew the donkey had loved Retsuko. He could see it on his face after she had ended things.

He looked just like Haida had after his own rejection. It was like looking into a mirror.

As much as he hated to admit it.

"What's wrong with me?" Retsuko wiped her face with her fingers, tissue long used up. Haida took the sake bottle and set it on her nightstand. She had had enough for now, judging by the way she was leaning on his torso.

"There's nothing wrong with you," Haida reassured her with clear conviction in his voice. "Absolutely nothing."

He had wanted to tell her she was perfect. That anybody who didn't see that was an idiot. But he decided against it. He knew that those were the words she needed to hear… but he feared that he wasn’t the one she needed to hear them from.

He settled on continuing to hold her, daring his fingers to stroke what they could reach, hoping that he could make her see how flawless he thought she was through his actions, since he couldn't through his words. Retsuko seemed pleased with this chain of events, either way.

Her tears still fell, but she had gone quiet. She had almost melded against him, becoming an extension of his body. Haida had to admit, he was relishing in it. That knowledge made him feel sick to his stomach, knowing that he was getting pleasure from her difficult situation.

Soon, the arm that she leaned on began to tingle uncomfortably from restricted blood flow; Haida shifted, feeling the weight of her against him. It felt nice. It felt so nice he thought he could just die here, on her bed, in her arms. But no… that's not how it was supposed to be. That wasn't meant for him.

"Hey…" he broke the silence. Retsuko tilted her head up to give him her attention. Haida noted that her face was flushed, likely a result of her combined crying and drinking. He reached out and stroked her behind her ear, hoping the action didn't read as too intimate. "What if I go down to the twenty-four-hour conbini and get junk food and beers? We can just get hammered and talk shit. How does that sound?"

Retsuko blinked, her lips pursing info a strange shape. She deftly nodded and appeared to accept his idea. Haida forced a smile and shifted away from her, his arm igniting into a symphony of prickles when he did so. "Great, I'll go…"

Haida began to stand, but Retsuko's small hands wouldn't relinquish him. He was forced to stop and sit back down on her bed. The action was so odd and it took him off guard. "Okay, but just…" Retsuko sniffled. "… Just hold me a little longer, Haida."

God, what that did to him.

He was weak.

Haida pulled her against him, her head resting on his chest. He pressed his face between her ears, inhaling her shampoo. "Of course," the hyena mumbled, his eyes shutting. His hands rubbed her back tenderly as he comforted her; it was instinctive for him. He could still feel his mother’s gentle hand caressing between his shoulder blade when he was upset or hurt.

Retsuko leaned into his body, her arms sneaking under his. Her breathing was still an unstable quiver, but it evened out as she inhaled his cologne. "I ruined your night… didn't I?" Her voice was small, muffled by his sweater.

Haida shut his eyes. Had she?

No.

He'd rather be here with her now than anywhere else in the world. Just a moment of being with someone who mattered meant way more to Haida than a whole night of being with someone who didn't matter. Maybe he was pathetic?

So be it.

Haida shook his head against her hair, laying a chaste kiss on her scalp. He pulled away and moved his hands to rub her upper arms gently. Retsuko sighed, almost relaxed, her gaze shifting between his face and her lap. "You gonna be okay?" He ducked his head to catch her eyes, searching for answers within their depths.

Retsuko nodded, a bit too quickly. "Yeah… yeah, I'm good."

Haida’s hands slowed down against her arms. "Okay… good."

Retsuko continued to nod shallowly as she leaned in. Her eyes finally settled on his own.

And just like that, she was kissing him.

His world stopped. It halted completely. His brain short circuited, taking him offline. He froze, unable to react or even process what was occurring.

She was kissing him.

Retsuko was kissing him.

Her lips were soft and tasted like chapstick and sake. She kissed his lower lip gently, patiently waiting for him to respond. Then, just as she was about to abort mission, panicked about how she would explain this away, Haida began timidly kissing her back.

It was ill-timed. It was messy. It was… probably not a good idea.

But none of that mattered.

His fingers twitched and he squeezed her biceps, pulling her closer. He kissed her hard; almost a little too hard. Desperate. Needy. Anxious. But Retsuko didn't seem to mind it, and she kissed him back with fervor, her efforts equally as frantic.

Haida tried to make himself stop. She was sad. She was tipsy. She was emotionally vulnerable. But, with her lips against his and her hands resting gently above his beating heart, he just couldn't make himself pull away.

You'll regret it.

She'll hate you in the morning. 

You'll hate you in the morning.

His mind was racing. He was her friend. As her friend, should he be pushing her away before she did something she would regret? Or should he let her take comfort in him? Did his feelings matter… at all?

He was always placing his happiness second to hers. Did it matter what he wanted if she was throwing herself at him? For once, he didn't want to be the bigger person, as self-interested as that sounded. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to do… everything with her.

His heart surged as she slipped her tongue into his mouth. He let her explore, his own wet muscle dancing with hers. If she wanted this, if she wanted him, even if it was only in this moment… she could have him. She could have him… however she wanted him.

She could have everything.

"Retsuko…" His voice was thick with arousal and excitement. Retsuko shuddered, staring at him through her lashes.

"S… sorry… " she breathed against his mouth. Haida swallowed, shaking his head minutely. He didn't open his eyes. If he just kept them closed, maybe he could live in this moment for a bit longer.

"It’s okay…" She could barely hear him, even though he was a centimeter from her face. Their heavy breathing was like music filling the room. He didn't release her; he was motionless. Retsuko examined his face, attempting to memorize every freckle.

Her hand slipped up to touch his cheek. She closed the gap between them again, wetly kissing his bottom lip, dragging her teeth over it. Just enough for him to feel. "Sorry…" she whispered as she leaned in again to capture his top lip in the same fashion. “Sorry…"

When he felt her hands on the hem of his top, he finally let his eyes flutter open. She was looking at him with a flushed face, eyes still inflamed from crying, but a raw energy called to him from within her inky pupils. He was close enough to see her eyelashes, holding together in groups due to the moisture she let flow freely from her eyes. "Please don't leave me tonight…"

That was all it took.

Something inside him broke.

Her hands explored beneath his sweater, ghosting over his stomach and up to his chest. Haida let her touch him; he let her take the reins. He held his breath as she pulled the garment off of him. It was crystal clear the direction in which Retsuko intended for this proceed.

Then… was it safe to react now? Was it safe to grab her and never let go?

In a way, he had already done so.

He took her into his arms, just like he'd always imagined. She was so small compared to him; her body was naturally so tiny. She wasn't frail, not by any means, but she was petite, swimming even in her own sweatshirt.

Suddenly she was in his lap, her legs propped over his hips. Their kisses were wild and sloppy, as neither seemed to care about technique or finesse, but only the desperate need to feel each other.

To feel something.

His hands were under her shirt and in her pants, pushing her bra up and stretching her panties to touch her. He wanted to savor it; he wanted to take his time… but he couldn't slow down. He couldn't get to her skin fast enough.

When his finger dipped into her, she was absolutely drenched. Her needy sex accepted his digits and then some, so he pushed four fingers inside of her until she was clenching and sobbing into his neck. "Haida…!"

He'd never heard her sound like that. He'd never heard his own name sound like that. Even from past lovers, it had never sounded so erotic. So needy. So wanting. She adhered herself to him, tears still flowing as she came from his hand alone, rolling against him, trying to make her climax last as long as possible.

His ragged breathing was only bested by the pounding of his beating heart. He wanted to make her forget Tadano. He wanted to kiss her until she forgot his name. He wanted to fuck her until she forgot what he felt like. He wanted to hold her until she only wanted him.

He laid her down on the mattress, pulling at her pants; he took the underwear too. He faltered only slightly when her fingers fumbled with his belt, digits working just as hurriedly as he was. He felt a fire in his lower abdomen when he saw the want in her eyes. She pulled his cock from its prison, her fingers a tight noose around the girth of him.

Just the thought that she wanted him… that she wanted to be taken by him… was enough to make him cum right there.

"Is this what you want?" Haida asked as his dick dragged across her slit. Retsuko was a mess, her face reddened from anticipation. She nodded keenly, her arms reaching to grab the pillow behind her as she braced herself for the intrusion.

He pushed inside of her, her walls nearly too tight around him. Their size difference was more than just height, it seemed. The fact that Haida was particularly well-endowed didn’t help matters, either. But still, her body accepted him, slowly stretching around him as he plunged inside her.

He hissed when he was fully sheathed and she was weeping again, soaking the skin in the crook of his neck. "Haidaaa...!"

There it was again. His name. The way it rolled off her tongue, something guttural between a cry and a moan, sent pleasure straight to his cock. His name.

His name.

He set a pace that was less-than gentle; not rough, but steady. Eager. With every thrust she grew wetter and more receptive to his size and length. It wasn’t long before each push became an easy slide inside her. He realized then and there that it was too good. He could easily become addicted to this.

And her sounds. He always knew he'd love the noises she made. She cried out lewdly with every plunge he delivered. When he had stroked himself in the privacy of his bedroom, envisioning them tangled in passion, he had imagined her pleasured cries. But they never sounded like this in his head. He had never imagined them to be so wanton. So… filthy.

When he reached between them to circle her clit, it took less than twenty seconds of friction from his fingers to make her cum again. She shouted, the volume of which had surely disturbed her neighbors. Retsuko’s back arched and her body convulsed in ecstasy, her fingers digging into his shoulders and her nails drawing his blood.

Only moments later his orgasm hit him, stealing his wind from his lungs. He wasn't surprised, because he had been expecting it. The coil of pleasure inside him had been tightening from the minute he pushed inside of her. He was surprised, however, by the strength of his climax. He came inside of her in remarkably ample quantities, filling her to the brim until it gushed from within her. His orgasm was potent, blinding him, leaving him shivering and breathless.

When they both settled, drunken with afterglow, they found each other’s lips once again. Their kisses were slow but still passion-fueled. Still wanting. Still hungry for more of that indescribable exultation.

He had her again, bent over her mattress. In that position he could set up a ruthless pace, his thrusts unrelenting as he made her his once again. Retsuko wasn’t fazed when he was rough with her. In fact, the harder he took her, the more she arched to let more of him in, and the harder she clenched around him...She loved it. Her pleasured, hoarse cries were muffled by her comforter as she climaxed forcefully on him once again.

They joined once more, with her sitting in his lap and his bare ass on her carpet. He finally took the time to get her fully undressed, then, hours into their affair. Her nipples dragged against his chest each time she bounced on his cock, her mouth craning ever skyward as her breaths shortened again. Her broken gasps of his name burned in his ear when he came inside of her for a third time. “R-Retsuko…” he quaked in the aftershocks of his climax as she placed lazy kisses down his neck.

In the shower, squatting on the tile, he licked her to her final climax of the night. He thought that he could vaguely taste himself on her, but he couldn't have been asked to care. She had one leg propped on the edge of the tub and the other shaking to hold herself erect. Both of her hands were tangled in his wet hair as she came with his name on her lips yet again.

He would do whatever he had to do to hear her say his name like that.

They were both sore and spent, their limbs and groins sore from overuse. Damp and liquid, Retsuko collapsed on her bed, naked safe for a pair of cotton underwear.

"You alright?" Haida asked, completely naked himself. His hair was ruffled from the shower and smelled of feminine shampoo; her shampoo. He picked up some of his scattered clothes from around the room, smelling them and wincing at the stale smoke stench that clung to the fibers.

"Yes…" Her voice was deep with fatigue and satisfaction. "Better than alright."

He couldn’t help but smile, though his heart still ached inside his chest. "I'm glad you're feeling better." He grimaced as he began to put on his day old underwear. Retsuko turned her head to watch him, but otherwise she remained still. Haida rifled around a bit more until he found his jeans under bed.

"What are you doing?" Retsuko asked, her voice still weary but colored with concern. Haida stepped into his pants.

"I was gonna head out." He pulled the denim up his lanky legs. "You're probably tired. I figured you'd want some rest."

"W… why?" Retsuko blinked, her eyebrows gathering. She looked confused and indignant. "I can rest with you here."

Haida zipped his pants up, doing up his buckle as he looked at her, his expression more serious than before. "Well I didn't… think you'd want me to stay."

"Why… wouldn't I want you to?" The panda sat up on the bed now, her legs dangling, not quite touching the floor.

Haida looked at her; really looked at her. Her eyes were still puffy from weeping so hard for so long, and her neck was peppered with bruises. She looked drained and sexed. But there was something else in her face Haida couldn't quite read.

He didn't want to leave. He didn’t want to be the type of guy to cut and run after sex… after a one night stand. But being here, being with her was as painful as it was pleasing.

He couldn't help but feel as if he had been a stand in for someone else.

Perhaps that had been her plan all along.

"Why did you call me here tonight, Retsuko?"

Haida couldn't stop the question; it spilled from his lips like word vomit, all raw and full of feeling. He shrugged his shoulders and feebly threw his hands to the side, as if to emphasize his question. With that, the flood gates opened and he couldn't shut them again even if he tried. "I know that… you don't feel that way about me. That you've never felt that way about me. I'm okay with what this was." Lie. Bitter, dirty lie. "It was nice. You don’t have to pretend it's more than it was. Just a friend comforting a friend."

He felt the self-loathing sink in when he saw her eyes brim with tears yet again. He was a terrible friend. A terrible, selfish friend. He had known they would regret this. He knew it, but he did it anyway. Stupid, pathetic, idiot. "Haida that's… that's not… that’s just not it at all." The tremble of her voice sent shock waves to his heart.

"What was it then? You were sad. You needed to feel good. It was a creature comfort." Haida pushed his hands in his pockets as his brain screamed obscenities at him.

Retsuko pursed her lips and wiped her fresh tears with the palm of her hand. She looked absolutely overwhelmed. "Is that all it was… for you…?" There was fear in her tone.

Haida looked away from the girl, his hands clenching into fists. What kind of question was that? Of course it hadn't been just physical for him. How could it be? How could she even think that? "You know how I feel about you." He shook his head. "You know."

"Please… refresh my memory." Haida wanted to run. Was this her way of being cruel? Was this her way of getting back at him?

Not that it mattered. At this point, there was nothing left of him that she hadn't taken. She had it all. He’d given her it all. "… I love you." He sounded tired; exasperated. "I have loved you… for years."

There was a lengthy moment of silence, during which Retsuko reached out and took hold of Haida's forearm. She pulled his hand from his pocket and unlocked his fist, placing her tiny palm against his.

"Haida, I… I'm falling in love with you, too."

Her words rang in his ears, an echo in his psyche like something from a fantasy. It was like she was speaking in a foreign language; he heard her words but he didn't understand them.

"What?" He blurted out the question, nonplussed and stiff. Retsuko brought their clasped hands to her bare chest, between her small breasts, and Haida could feel the rapid thumping of her heart.

"I said… I'm falling in love with you." There they were again. Those words. How could those words possibly be true? "Before tonight… I've been falling for you for months now." Is it possible that somebody slipped something into his beer and the whole night was a vivid fever dream?

He didn't know how to react. He didn't know what to say or how to reply. This had to have something to do with her vulnerability… her sadness after her big break up. There was no other explanation. "I'm… I can't be a consolation prize after Tadano."

"You're not—" Retsuko sighed, almost irritated. Her short fuse may have been rearing its ugly metal head. "Haida… this has nothing to do with Tadano." She spoke slower; more earnestly. Her hands squeezed his.

Haida looked at the floor, at the nearly empty bottle of sake by her bed, at the wet stains on the comforter. Anywhere but her eyes. "How can you say that? That's why I came here tonight. You're hurting… because of him."

"It was never about Tadano, it was about me. It hurts my feelings… that when I was with him, marriage wasn't an option. It makes me feel like he thought I… wasn't good enough for him." Her voice cracked in a way that made Haida flush with guilt. "He's not the one. He'll never be the one. But… that doesn't mean that pouring salt into old wounds doesn't sting…" Retsuko dipped her chin, pressing a kiss against his hand. "I called you tonight because you were the only one I wanted to see when I was hurting that badly. I wanted to be with someone who I know cares about me and who matters just as much to me. I… needed you.”

There it was. The bitter retort in his throat. He tried to stop himself from saying it. He really tried. "To make you feel better about yourself."

Her tears were falling progressively now, leaving tracks down both cheeks. "Why are you being so mean?" She released his hands and let hers fall into her lap, limp and useless. "I just told you that I'm falling for you… doesn't that count for anything?"

The truth is, he was still processing it. It wasn't computing. It wasn't mixing well with what he knew to be true. "You're hurting… I'm just worried you aren't thinking clearly." Haida smiled thinly, though it didn’t meet his eyes. "Let's just be honest here. I know I'm not your type. And guys like Tadano… well, I'll never be that person."

Retsuko silently slid off the bed and walked to her dresser, pulling out a large night shirt. He was sure he heard her grouse, “type”. She slid it on, covering her torso and the tops of her thighs. She faced away from him and he could feel the pointedness of it. "I am hurting. I'm in excruciating pain. More so now than before." Haida couldn't help but wince at the last comment. The panda turned on her heels and approached him, her body only inches away from his. She looked him dead in the face, her red eyes still watering but manifesting a look so severe it made Haida shiver. "But I know how I feel, Haida."

She walked over to her balcony, pulling the curtain back and opening the sliding door. A comfortable gust of wind entered the apartment. Retsuko sighed and looked over her shoulder. "I'm going to get some fresh air. If you want to leave, leave."

The door shut so hard it made Haida jump. There, alone in her apartment, he couldn’t help but feel out of place. He was a mismatched piece of the puzzle. He sighed, cracking the knuckles in his hand. He could still feel the warmth of hers, lingering on his skin.

"Why am I such a fuck up?"

He scanned the room once again, running his hands through his still damp hair. He found his sweater, a blemish of black and red against her otherwise pink and feminine room. He reached for it, clenching the thick material in his hands.

Drops fell from his face to the fabric, leaving dark stains in their wake; he reached up and wiped the water away, embarrassed even though nobody was there to see his open and sudden tears.

I'm falling in love with you.

Her words still reverberated in his head, bouncing off the walls of his brain. She had sounded… sincere. She had sounded genuine. If there was even a chance that he had meant what she said… that she could feel what she said she felt… why was he pushing back so much?

Why…?

If he was that worried about ‘saving’ her from her own worst instincts...if he was so cocky as to think he knew her better than she knew herself...then why had he even stayed with her in the first place? Who was he really worried about here?

If everything she had said was just for pity’s sake—her own or his—could he live with that?

Against the cacophony of bile and loathing swirling around his head, he could still feel her hands squeezing him. Taste the sake from her lips. Smell the warmth of her hair and her bed.

Hear his name.

Why couldn’t he just let himself be happy?

Doesn’t that count for anything?

His hand was on the handle to the sliding glass door. He slid it open, the warm breeze cooling his wet cheeks.

Retsuko turned from her place against the railing. She seemed surprised to see him, hastily wiping her face with her shirt. Haida hesitated, taking in her form against the backdrop of the Tokyo skyline. He slowly walked up to her, not bothering to hide his own tears. His brows wrinkled as he searched her eyes for some kind of certainty. Some kind of evidence that assured him he wouldn’t get hurt again.

He knew, even as he did so, that there were no certainties in this life. If he didn’t accept that, he would never feel anything at all.

Pleasure… pain… happiness… sadness… it was all so important.

It was all so much better than feeling nothing at all.

"I'm sorry," he said in a rush, pulling her against him. "I'm so sorry."

Retsuko returned his embrace, her hands clinging to him. "It’s okay… it’s okay, I understand. I know... it's a lot." She soothed him, her fingers stroking over the muscles of his back and petting his head, nails dragging softly over his scalp. She breathed in, hesitated, and finally spoke again.

"I don't want you to be Tadano." Retsuko's voice was clear, strong, and sure. "I want you to be Haida."

His breath hitched and he sobbed. He wept against the top of her head, clinging to her like she could be wrenched away from him at any moment. He never wanted to let go. He wanted to stay here, always.

Retsuko pulled back marginally and kissed away his salty tears, until his breathing evened out. "Please stay," she requested, holding him against her body. Though she was little, Haida felt somehow wholly protected in her loving arms. "Stay tonight… Stay every night."

Haida swallowed and nodded, his eyes falling shut. He had to let go. All his reservations were too heavy for him to carry any longer.

With a sigh, he let the gentle breeze take it all.

"Okay."