The girl, the wreckage of desks and chairs piled up to her ankles, stands in the half-darkness of the classroom, fingers trembling as she grips the pink envelope. Right there, right in front of her, his backpack sits on the desk, its front zipper opened and a pencil poking out.
She swears it's mocking her.
Why can't she do it? Why is sh e such a coward?
"Goddammit," she swears under her breath."Goddammit!"
Squeezing her eyes shut, she lets out a growl, stuffing the envelope back into her pocket and angrily slinging her own bag over her shoulder. She storms towards the door, but just as she's about to fling it open, she finds herself face to face with none other than Ryuuji Takasu.
He blinks owlishly at the sight of the red-faced girl and his trashed classroom. Something about the surprise on his stupid, stupid face pisses her off to no end.
Why can't they just leave her alone?
"This never happened," she hisses, lifting up a clenched fist. "You hear me?"
That had marked one of her only encounters with Ryuuji Takasu, the boy who lived next door and liked to stand on his deck and hang his freshly washed shirts on a worn clothes line, right where she could see him if she just sat up a little in bed, smiling that idiotic little smile and humming softly under his breath and-
Taiga Aisaka wants to smack herself.
It's not like he was important to her or anything. Just some boy who happened to be in her class in her second year, the best friend of her crush-turned-fiance. Now that she thinks about it, she barely knows anything about him.
But...goddammit, why does it frustrate her so much?
Okay, screw knowing useless shit about the guy. How many times has she actually spoken to him again?
One: punching him in the face on the first day of second year. She recalls the satisfying thwack of her fist connecting with his face; one of her better punches, she muses.
Two: eating lunch together during sometime in the middle of the first semester, albeit with Minorin and Kitamura chattering excitedly besides them and without exchanging a single word. So…no go.
Was that it? No wait, they had been partners in gym class for a week! But... that only culminated with him getting smacked by a well-punted soccer ball, dragged to the nurse's office, and an ice pack to his crotch.
Ouch. Older Taiga is much more empathetic than dumb seventeen-year-old Taiga, she reasons.
It's here; she knows it, alright. Right within her reach, if she'd just leave this stupid town. A chance to be different, to prove everyone (namely her parents) wrong, to stop relying on anyone else and promise to make it all work. It's all she's ever wanted, really.
But what happened when all you ever wanted is, well...not?
She's to marry Yusaku Kitamura in a month, the day she had fantasized about embarrassingly often as a seventeen-year-old girl. But somehow, it requires so much effort to be excited with him, to possibly care about the cake or flower arrangements or that achingly beautiful dress hanging her closet. Her apartment, the last link to her parents, is going to be sold, tossed away and never returned to, that final gift that she had resented her entire life.
Yes, somewhere over the timeline of five years, it's become her home, like something so silly could possibly exist.
It's absolutely absurd, how disgustingly sentimental she's gotten.
Taiga glances down. From her spot, perched on the stool of her empty kitchen, her feet still barely brush against the scratched plywood.
Her stomach growls in hunger. Letting out a groan, she ambles to the pantry, standing on tiptoe to creak it open. She's met with a dusty, cobweb-filled shelf. Only a can of expired beets teetered precariously on the edge.
She clenches and unclenches her fists, sinking back to her stool. Why couldn't the stupid world just let her be happy?
Had Takasu ever been happy?
Taiga suddenly stands up. The stool screeches in protest as it scrapes against the floor, but she barely pays it any mind, running to the living room and throwing on her winter coat. Her frigid fingers fumble with the tiny buttons for a moment, before abandoning the effort entirely. She wraps a crimson muffler around her neck and slips on her boots, and before long, she is out the door.
The chandeliers swing uncertainly as she races through the halls, nearly toppling over an elderly woman in the process. Taiga ignores the polite greeting of her doorman in her urge to leave, just to run far, far away and never come back-
The winter air is like the first gulp of oxygen.
She greedily breathes it in, exhaling shakily and leaning against the walls of the building. The block is twinkling with tiny white lights, windowsills caked with fresh snow, holly wreaths hanging from every door. A cracked ceramic statue of Santa waves cheerily at her from across the street.
Tomorrow is Christmas.
Tomorrow, she will go visit Yusaku.
Tomorrow, they will exchange presents and kiss under the mistletoe.
For some unfathomable reason, the very thought of it makes her sick.
Somehow, her gaze is drawn to that tiny little hovel next door. It's dark and eerily quiet; laundry's still hanging from the balcony, limp from today's snow shower.
She snaps back to reality, hardly believing what she's seeing.
Ryuuji Takasu is standing in front of her. He's grown a little taller, even sprouted some stubble on his chin, but it's unmistakably him; even time can't deter the glint in his eyes. "Whoa, it really is you! Gee, how many years has it been?" he exclaims, positively beaming. "How are you?"
"Oh, fine," she fibs, quickly changing the subject. "What are you doing here, anyways? I thought you were in Tokyo now."
"Oh, I'm just here visiting my mom. I thought I'd surprise her, make her a decent meal for a change," Takasu explains, glancing at his watch. "Say...I'm a little early, and since my mom doesn't get off work until later...do you want to grab a drink with me?"
Taiga blinks at him for a moment, before flushing a deep tomato red. "N-No, you really don't have to!"
Takasu frowns at her. "What do you mean? Of course I do! It's not every day you run into your old classmate. We have to catch up!"
"Well...if you insist," she concedes wearily. "There's a good place around the corner."
The bar is comfortable and toasty, crowded with tipsy partygoers in Santa hats and elf costumes; the carols coming from the speakers are barely audible over the babble of idle chatter and loud cheers. The air carries the faintest traces of peppermint.
Taiga and Takasu barely manage to secure a spot at the counter, squeezing in beside a group of rowdy college students.
"Drinks are on me," Takasu announces, shushing her when she opens her mouth to protest. "Order whatever you want! I'm not broke, you know." She eventually, albeit grudgingly, places her order with the bartender, slouching further in her seat. "So, I hear you're marrying Kitamura. Congrats! I'm really happy for you guys."
Taiga takes a measured sip of her whiskey, savoring the smoky taste.
"He told me about the engagement the other day, and I'd known you two had been dating, but it really did come as a surprise! You guys are great, though. You must be so excited! How have the plans been coming along?"
She's getting married. Her one claim to fame.
But how can she wipe that stupidly happy grin off his face?
"They're good. Kitamura and Minorin are doing most of the work, though. I'm not really into that sort of thing." Taiga shrugs. Eager to change the subject, she hurriedly asks, "So, how are things with you? Writing in Tokyo, right?"
Takasu brightens considerably. "Oh, yeah! It's great. The workload's a little heavy, but all of my co-workers are really nice, so it's manageable. I just got promoted the other day, too!" He rattles on and on about his apartment, the new friends he'd made through work, the sights, the sounds, the colors.
Taiga merely nods accordingly, sipping at her drink and allowing the steady rhythm of his words to wash over her. Sitting with him at the bar, the whiskey heating up her stomach, the pleasant fog of drunkenness, shrouding her mind, she feels safe for the first time in months. Safe and warm and happy.
It all takes a turn, however, once they reach the third drink or so.
"Yeah, Minorin's been fine. Overworking herself as usual, but good," she replies, when asked. "You used to like her, didn't you? Have you been seeing anyone else lately?"
The words fly out before she could stop them, greedily curious and probing.
"Ami's been trying to set me up with some girls, but honestly, I'm not all that interested. I've got a career to worry about, right? Dating is just too troublesome." Takasu lets out a hiccupy laugh. "Well, even so, I can always you for advice, right? You'll be married and happy, and I can babysit the kids while you give me your sage words of-"
Taiga slams her fist to the counter, sending the amber liquid sloshing around her glass.
Her stomach goes queasy from the thought.
Takasu looks uneasy. "Um, Aisaka? Is something wrong?"
"How do you know that's what I want?" she mumbles, words slurred by the pint of whiskey already churning around her stomach. The world turns into a haze of anger, the words heavy and stupid in her mouth.
He laughs nervously. "What are you talking about? You're marrying him, aren't you? Isn't this what you want?"
Her fingers grip the glass so tightly that her knuckles turn white.
She's been so stupid, to think that out of everyone in the world, he'd be the one who could understand Ryuuji Takasu, the boy she'd barely spoken to? Ha! Like he could make sense of that jumble of thoughts in her mind, sort through that blur of emotion, pat her back and say it's okay when it so clearly isn't.
I'm in love with Kitamura, I'm in love with Kitamura, she tries desperately to tell herself.
Not for the first time, it feels like a lie.
Fuming, Taiga wobbles to her feet and drunkenly stumbles out the door, tears blurring her vision. Her boot catches on a crushed beer can, and soon, she's falling, falling, falling-
A strong pair of hands catches her around the waist, yanking her back up.
Ryuuji Takasu smells like sweat and cologne and cheap beer. But he's warm, so very warm.
"Get off me!" she shrieks, flailing her arms to shake him off, but nothing seems to deter him. He remains impassive as he holds onto her, his fingertips pressing into her waist with the gentlest of pressures, fingertips that cause an electricity to ricochet up and down her spine.
"You shouldn't go off by yourself," he says, achingly gentle. "Anything could happen to you if I let you do that. At least let me walk you home."
Always polite, always kind. That dreamy look whenever Minorin walked past.
It all makes her sick, how he could be made of nothing but good, good, good and she's made of nothing but temper tantrums and sharp hipbones and early morning hangovers and that sour taste of bile tickling at her throat-
She goes limp in his arms.
Takasu sets her down, but keeps a firm hand on the small of her back.
They lapse into uncomfortable silence.
"Look, Aisaka, I understand if you don't want to talk about it, but-"
"Do you ever wish things could be different?" she blurts out.
"I...don't know what you mean," he says carefully, biting at his lip.
"Like something was supposed to happen but didn't? Like your life is just this huge mistake that no matter what you do, you can't fix?" Taiga rambles. "I've tried my entire goddamn life to be worth something, and here I am with this great guy and about to have a great life, so why can't I just be happy?"
"Do you love him?"
"I…" She falters. "I don't know. I don't know how I feel. It's just so...wrong."
"Marriage is a huge step." Takasu hesitates. "If you aren't sure about this, I think you should talk to Kitamura. This isn't something you have to rush into, Aisaka."
"But you don't understand." Her fists clench, nails scoring red marks into her palms. "I can't do this to him! How am I supposed to tell him that, after all this time, I'm still running away?" Her voice lowers to a whisper. "It would hurt him so, so much."
"Ever thought of putting your feelings first for once?" He lets out a bitter chuckle. "Well, yeah, that's you, isn't it? Always caring too much about others, and not enough about yourself. This is your life, Aisaka, not mine, not his."
How can he say something like that, like he knows her? Like he understands?
She glances up at him, looking at that crease in his forehead, the smile wrinkles in his eyes, and before she can stop herself, lunges forward, grasps his cheeks between her mittens, and kisses him breathless.
Takasu lets out a grunt of surprise, but kisses her back, and soon, they're making out like a pair of teenagers, all tongues and clacking teeth and the alcohol burning on his lips and that sweet asphyxiation when he nips at her lower lip and laughs into her mouth.
It's better than it has any right to be.
They're already backed up to the bar walls by the time they finally break apart, lips swollen, hair mussed, eyes gleaming.
Oh God, she's fucking cheating on her boyfriend.
"We shouldn't," Takasu murmurs, looking awestruck.
"But we did," Taiga says. Oh, fuck it. It's too late to turn back now.
"Your place or mine?"
"It had better be mine," she says, before adding, "Lots of stairs, though."
Takasu lets out a breathy laugh. "I think I can cope."
They don't let go of one another the entire way back at home, stumbling drunkenly through the streets, fingers laced together; in their haste, what's normally a ten-minute walk is condensed to five.
The moment they lock the door, they go at it again, trading kisses and sneaking tastes of each other's throats as they peel off layer after layer, fumbling with buttons, kicking off shoes. A scarf there, a jacket here.
It's slow and quiet and achingly sweet, all open palms and gentle fingers and limbs akimbo. His touch sends a shiver running up and down her spine, turns her bones into splinters, her knees into jelly, and it's the best she's felt in ages, so good that she hardly feels that twinge of guilt building in the pit of her belly-
Sobriety hits her like a bullet train.
What fuck is wrong with me?
The streetlights glow through the sheer fabric of her curtains, sending shadows dancing across his face. She stares at him through the fragmented darkness, watching the rise and fall of his bare chest, listening to his deep, even breaths.
Taiga flips over, cocooning herself into the sheets. You miss me? her conscience seems to be cooing.
The mattress dips when Takasu sits back up, easing off the bed.
Before she knows what she's doing, she rolls back over and snatches his wrist. "What are you doing?"
He tilts his head to the side. "I thought I'd let you sleep?"
"Stay," she croaks, losing her eyes once more. A moment's pause, and the warm presence of him is back, solid and inviting and just there. He doesn't try to touch on her, just lays on his back and stares at the ceiling.
But for now, it's enough.
Enough to know that maybe this is what she wants.
When Taiga wakes up, she's alone, with a parched feeling on her tongue and that relentless pounding in her head. Oh. It was just a dream.
Only then does she smell the coffee, hear the sizzle of something on the frying pan.
Throwing on her nightgown, she shuffles out of her room, scrubbing the exhaustion out of her eyes. Ryuuji's standing in her now-spotless kitchen, humming off-key under his breath as he stirs the fried rice.
Her stomach growls embarrassingly loudly at the aroma.
He glances up and smiles wearily when he notices her. "Merry Christmas, Sleeping Beauty. The rice'll be ready in a sec."
Taiga slumps into her chair, sipping at the fresh coffee. It's an instant brand, and a little on the stale side, but the kick of caffeine clears her head almost immediately, warming her up from the inside out.
Within moments, the rice is plated, and before he can even set it down on the table, she's wolfing it down, devouring it in huge spoonfuls. The flavors dance a jig on her tongue; light and sweet, the right mix of savory and the barest hint of spice.
Takasu watches her in thinly veiled amusement. "Something tells me you haven't had a home-cooked meal in a while."
Her cheeks still stuffed, she nods vigorously in assent.
"I was thinking...it's probably better if we just forget this ever happened."
Taiga lowers her chopsticks, lips pulled taut like she's trying not to grimace.
"We were drunk, we were stupid, and it was really unfair of us to do that to Kitamura." Takasu fidgets in his seat, lets out a low laugh that's nothing like him. "God, I'm such an idiot! It's all my fault, I'm really, really-"
"That's just like you, isn't it? Always taking the blame when it isn't even your own goddamn fault?" Taiga growls. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe you were hurting people more that way?"
Takasu looks glumly at his empty plate. "Seems like we both noticed a lot more about each other than we thought, huh?"
They lapse into uncomfortable silence.
"You have your life, and I have mine," he says quietly. "It's better this way." Takasu hesitates for a moment, before pulling out a card. "If you ever need someone to talk to, though...I'm always here."
He stands up, giving her a grim smile. "Just...don't rush into things, okay? Think it over, give yourself time. Can you do that for me?" She gives a curt nod. "Take care, Aisaka." He lifts his hand in farewell, before turning to the door.
"I thought about you a lot, you know?" Taiga blurts out, flushing a deep tomato red.
Takasu manages a feeble smile. "Yeah. Me too."
As soon as he closes the door behind him, Taiga reaches for her cellphone, dialing out the familiar number with trembling fingers. It rings four times before he picks up.
"Kitamura? We need to talk."