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~ the beginning of February ~

"Professor Sakaki, are you afraid of death?"

My back was to the couch, but I could still feel his sharp glance. "What's that all of a sudden?"

"Well..." I stretched out one hand toward the bouquet on the desk, catching one of the wilted leaves of the fading irises between my fingers. It had been so crisp and vibrant just a few days ago, when it was unexpectedly delivered to my room at the staff dorm, but now, after sitting in my office for nearly a week, the splendor and beauty of the purple-blue flowers was almost gone. I'd resisted throwing them away, wanting to hold on to the sentiment of the gift, but the flowers were rimmed with brown, and even though I'd taken care to change the water every day, there was the hint of an unpleasant odor.

Well, it wouldn't be a complete loss. I'd still have the notecard, with its terse message in the familiar, precise handwriting:

Happy birthday, Director. -Sakaki.

Of course, cut flowers faded and died, but taking just days to fade and wither... that was a bit sad, wasn't it? I should smile; after all, I was doing much better than the flowers. I'd made it through twenty-one years of a slow fade before getting to this sorry state, with a heart that could no longer keep up with the mind within.

And like these flowers, I'd been raised behind glass, shut away from the world. I'd felt the real warmth of the sun and the softness of a true light rain, unlike the irises that knew only filtered light and irrigation. But those things that people yearn for in their hearts, the things that are necessary in order for a soul to blossom, those were impossible for me. I couldn't blame it all on my weak constitution, though maybe that was the reason why I had such a timid disposition when it came to reaching for the warmth of true affection.

Tomo would be here soon. Then, at least, I could feel the love of family again.

If you last that long.

I closed my eyes with a quiet sigh. That simple breath was enough to set off another bout of coughing, and I clutched at my chest with one hand, grateful that my back was turned. It was so hard to resist the urge to press my hand to my heart every time, reaching for some vain hope that the pressure would calm the frantic beating and soothe the pain.

I heard the rustle of paper behind me as Professor Sakaki went back to reading the proposal we'd discussed earlier that afternoon. He was used to my strange musings and coughing fits, so adding one more to the mix wasn't all that unusual.

I needed to stop thinking negatively. Of course I'd be fine for a while. Maybe I'd even be lucky enough to see Tomo graduate; Dr. Matsuoka thought it was possible, and who was I to doubt him and all his years of specialized training?

Still, I couldn't shake my cold, and somehow, I felt that it was more than the usual lingering illness taking advantage of my weakened state. It was almost like something was growing inside me, not something physical - that would have been discovered almost immediately, with how often Matsuoka checked up on my condition. It was only a vague sense of being not quite right. Probably just worry over everything, including anxiety over seeing Tomo again, and the frustration of constant arguments with the board.

I pulled the flowers from the vase and threw them into the garbage. The dead blooms shed a bit as they slid to the bottom, landing with a thud that released a small cloud of loose petals. I watched them drift down to settle on top of the faded greenery like blue snow.

They were almost the same color as his eyes.

I closed my own eyes, trying to shake the image from my mind.

How sad. The irises had hardly lived, and now they'd been thrown away. In just a few more days, they'd be completely forgotten. The time scale would be different, but my fate would be the same.

But... I still had the card. That memory would remain.

What would I leave behind to be remembered by?

I stole a glance at Professor Sakaki, who was still reading, his slight frown and drawn brows giving no indication that he'd even looked up at the sound of the irises being discarded. Of course, he couldn't know that I was brooding over his gift. He probably hadn't put more than a few minutes of thought into the selection of the flowers or into writing the message.

Don't forget me. You won't forget me, will you?

He didn't answer. Of course not; I hadn't spoken.

I wished, not for the first time, that I had the courage to speak my mind.


~ the following week ~

"Professor Sakaki, have you ever been in love?"

He just looked at me, eyes taking in my expression for a few moments as if checking that I was serious, then set down his pen with a sigh. "That's awfully sudden. I thought we were supposed to be reviewing the enrollment lists and picking substitutes for the students who declined. There's hardly any time left." He reached out to tap my papers with one finger. "You haven't even gotten past the first page here."

Meanwhile, his copy was spread out on the table, each page marked liberally with his signature red pen, information circled or underlined, and with tidy notes in the margins and other spaces that had been left for commentary.

"So you're avoiding the question, then?"

I would have sworn that his cheeks had become just a bit darker, but it was hard to be sure when he was backlit by the light of the setting sun. "It seems to me that you're avoiding work by asking me ridiculous questions."

I let myself smile without making any attempt to hide it. "Well, you may be right."

"Anyway, why are you asking something like that all of a sudden? I don't recall you having an interest in my love life up until now." He took up the pen again and added a note to one of the papers, writing rather aggressively.

I wasn't sure how to respond to that. He was right; the question was too sudden, and completely unlike our normal conversations, which were mostly arguments about the changes and improvements I wanted to make to school policies, or debates about the merits of different teaching styles.

I couldn't tell him the truth. Hell, I hadn't been able to ask the right question.

How do you tell the difference between friendship and love if you've never been in love before?

Everyone else my age already knew the answer. Everyone else had already experienced it and had no use for questions and answers; they could just close their eyes and feel it, drawing on their experiences and memories. I was sure he was the same. He wasn't a fool like me, confused by strong feelings of affection, unable to assign them the proper name and file them neatly away. Instead, I was boxed in by emotion, always wondering what it meant, always worried that I'd slip and say the wrong thing, not out of malice, but in my naive lack of understanding.

"Three times."

"Huh?"

He dropped his pen a second time; it clattered on the table. "You asked if I've ever been in love. I have." He held up three fingers. "Three times."

"Oh."

Brilliant response.

"So... what kinds of people were they?"

What a stupid question. Somehow I resisted the urge to hide my face in my hands.

"Heh, that's very careful, gender-neutral wording. Are you making assumptions about me?"

Oh. Had I done that? I could feel my face getting warm. "N- no, I was choosing my words so I would not be making assumptions. Don't take it the wrong way."

A crooked smile, almost a smirk, was on his lips. That smile always made my heart beat just a little faster, and this time was no exception. Why? Was I just happy that I'd amused my friend in some small way, or was it something more? I didn't know. "First, in middle school."

"Wow, so young?"

"Well, obviously it didn't go anywhere, or I might not be a miserable old bachelor right now." He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "Sato Ren. I joined the music club just so I could spend time with him. And since he played the flute, I did too, though I was a complete beginner when I joined, so I was terrible. He didn't practice much - his mother forced him to play the flute, even though he wanted to play trumpet - so he was also bad at it, and we ended up sitting together at the back of the flute section."

His expression darkened, brows drawing together at some unpleasant memory. "Anyway, I hope he's doing well now."

"I'm sure he is," I agreed. It was hard to breathe with my chest so tight, head swimming with nervous excitement.

"Who knows... " Sakaki sat up with a shrug. "It was a long time ago. He could be anywhere now."

"Hmm," I offered, unsure of what else to say.

He made a few more notes on the student data before speaking again. "The second was an upperclassman at university. He had the opportunity to study abroad in America, though, so that didn't last either. Probably a good thing, too, I nearly failed one of my classes that semester because it was first thing in the morning." That memory seemed to be a good one, drawing a genuine smile to his lips. "Explaining that to my parents would have been a mess. That summer break was hard enough, with me half-dead of a broken heart for weeks."

"That's terrible..."

"I got over it eventually. It wouldn't have worked out in the long run, anyway. Last I heard, he was married with two kids. I guess he was just going through an experimental phase or whatever." Instead of the expected resentful tone, his voice was still bright, and he smiled fondly. What on earth had he experienced with that other man that tempered the memory of a lost love, making it pleasant rather than bittersweet?

"I see."

I didn't, not really, but what else was there to say?

He looked at me, eyes glinting as he tilted his head, his expression impudent. "Do you really, Director, or are you just trying to hide your own lack of experience?"

How did you know?!

Seemingly in response, he just laughed. "That's what I like about you."

What on earth was that supposed to mean?

I didn't realize until later, after the new student selections had been made and the new platinum papers had been printed, after he'd gone back to the staff dorm by himself, leaving me to personally address the envelopes, that he hadn't mentioned anything about his third love.


~ one week later ~

"Professor Sakaki, have you ever regretted keeping a secret?"

There, I'd said it. It would be nearly impossible to evade the curiosity that question was sure to spark, but I wanted to know. I needed to know. With the news Matsuoka had delivered to me that morning, his expression serious, eyes lowered and lips pressed together as he explained my fate in his usual calm, quiet voice, it couldn't wait any longer.

That time, he was sitting at the small round table in the director's private room, reading the paper. It was rare for him to be in my office, or rather, it had been rare until recently, when our rooftop chats had shifted to my office. Even I hadn't really noticed the change until a few days before, when we'd been discussing the upcoming graduation. He'd excused himself to go outside and smoke; when was the last time he'd needed to do that?

The newspaper rustled as he folded it neatly, and it made a quiet thump when he set it down, rather forcefully, on the table. He eyed me with suspicion, eyes slightly narrowed. "Okay, what is with all the prying questions recently? Are you trying to tell me something?"

My pulse quickened at the mild accusation. "I... I was just wondering."

"No, you aren't." He folded his arms over his chest. "You're dancing around a point."

He was right, as usual. Somehow, he was always able to guess at my true meaning whenever I attempted to be evasive. Maybe I was bad at hiding my emotions, but he'd assured me that wasn't the case; after all, I spoke well in front of the board without betraying my true feelings or losing my cool. He just knew me too well. Better than anyone.

But he hadn't uncovered my secrets.

I wasn't sure if that was a relief, or if I was, deep down, vaguely disappointed.

"Why don't you just sit down and tell me what's bothering you?" He patted the arm of the free chair. "You're going to wear out the carpet if you keep pacing like that."

This is it. Do or die, I suppose.

I nodded my agreement and sat, letting out a weary sigh. My heart pounded, and the unpleasant sensation, not quite sharp enough to be called pain, stole the breath from my aching lungs. It took all of my self-control to hold back my coughs and force myself to breathe normally. I folded my hands on the table, clasping them together. That pose was enough to hide the fine trembling of my fingers.

"What's bothering you?" he asked again. "Something about your brother? Could it be that you did end up using your connections to get him into the school? I won't judge you for that.

" I shook my head, though I was grateful for the easy question. "Absolutely not, I told you, he set a national track record. You saw it in his file."

"That's true. Still, you can be rather sly when necessary, I thought that maybe you'd gone so far as to falsify the data to justify bringing him here."

"I'd never do that! Do you think so little of me?"

"I don't. But I know that you miss him." He lowered his eyes, considering. "To bring someone I care for close to me, I might do anything. And especially after all you've been through, you deserve something to brighten your mood."

"My mood?" That was a surprise. "Have I been in some sort of mood lately?"

"You haven't noticed it yourself? There's a cloud of melancholy following you everywhere lately, ever since you've started asking all those odd questions."

He looked at me again, and when we made eye contact, I remembered the color of irises he'd gifted me for my birthday. But they were already dead and gone, their faded splendor burned to ash along with the papers and other trash I'd thrown away that week. How much longer until I myself became ash?

I shivered and turned my face away.

"What is it, Nao?" Something warm touched the back of my hand; the tip of his finger, pressing lightly in what I'd soon realized was his usual way of offering comfort. It was such a simple act of contact, but offered so rarely that even that small gift sent a powerful message.

I'm here.

I shivered again, with a different emotion, one less easily defined than fear.

He'd spoken my name; just my given name, no titles, no honorifics, and not the full name that was always said with at least a hint of irony, or maybe contempt. Since coming to the school, it had become so rare to hear my own name, without anything else attached, that it sounded strange to my ears.

Nao.

It was all that remained of the name I'd received from my parents.

With just that, and the warmth of his touch on the back of my hand, I felt that I might lose my nerve. I swallowed, and forced myself to meet his eyes, though I couldn't maintain eye contact for long. His expression was serious, more so than usual, the corners of his mouth turned down in a frown of concern. I looked at his lips, and somehow that was easier. Not by much, but still easier.

"I... I need to tell you a couple of things."

"I thought that might be it."

Warmth spread over the back of my hand; he'd uncurled his fingers, covering my clasped hands with one of his own. If he found the chill of my hands unusual, he didn't betray his thoughts with any sort of reaction.

Professor Sakaki wasn't a patient man; I knew that well. Yet, he watched me quietly, waiting while I gathered my courage. His warmth was a comfort, but also a distraction. I had a fleeting thought that I could take his hand in mine so easily. All I'd have to do is turn one hand over to grasp it and feel his skin, palm to palm, like when we'd first met. I could still remember that meeting clearly, the heat of his firm handshake a sharp contrast to my cold, clammy skin.

I'd never told him why my hands were always cold. It was one thing to say I have a weak constitution and quite another to say I have an untreatable heart condition.

"You can't tell anyone else," I stalled. "It's... it's confidential."

"I promise," he agreed.

There was no way to say it, except to say it plainly and without hesitation.

"I'm dying."

His hand tightened on mine, lips parting slightly in surprise. Several tense seconds passed, my heart pounding expectantly, before he was able to ask, "What's wrong?"

There was something in his voice that I didn't recognize, a sharp note that was different from his usual sarcasm. I forced myself to meet his eyes, but I couldn't stand it for long, that unfamiliar and unexpected expression somehow too intense, like I wasn't really meant to see it.

I looked down at our joined hands, but that was also too much, so I stared at the table and squeezed my clasped hands tighter together. "It's my heart. It's always been my heart. I was born with a defect, but it went undetected for a long time. It wasn't discovered until after my parents were lost in that accident..."

"And it wasn't corrected when the Suzubishi family adopted you?"

He was angry, gripping my hands so hard it was almost painful.

"I was afraid. The surgery is complex and dangerous, and I kept putting it off. Then I was appointed director, and I got so busy... it's not like I ever forgot. It's impossible to forget when just walking down the hall can be an ordeal. But..."

"But what? Now it's too late?"

I couldn't look at him. My body felt numb, my mind was blank, all I could feel was the heat of his hand against mine. "I waited too long. It would be too risky now. If I could shake this cold and recover a bit of strength, then maybe..."

"How long do you have?"

"Without surgery, maybe a year."

His hand was suddenly gripping mine so hard, my bones ached. The unexpected pain stole my breath, and it took a moment before I could squeak a protest: "Ah, that hurts!"

"S- sorry," his grip relaxed, then his hand pulled away, leaving only a ghost of warmth on my skin. "You're going to focus all your efforts on recovering, aren't you? You said you just need to recover enough strength to undergo surgery, and that will take care of everything. Right?"

I nodded, but I didn't say anything.

Maybe it was too late. I'd been trying to get better for weeks, leaving much of my work in Sakaki's capable hands, asking him to cover for me at board meetings and to review and approve paperwork that I'd barely read through, never mind edited. He didn't know that I spent every spare moment holed up in my room, resting or sleeping, or how many different medications and remedies I'd been taking, or that I'd been seeing Matsuoka at least once a week to discuss my progress - of which there was none, not in a positive direction.

We were silent. It wasn't the usual comfortable silence between us while concentrating on a shared task, or when we were just wasting time, each doing our own thing until it got too late to stay holed up in an office. This silence was heavy and dark, laden with all the words we each wanted to say, but were too afraid to voice. I stole a glance at the professor and found him sitting rigidly in his chair, eyes unfocused as he processed my confession and all its implications.

He noticed me looking at him and leaned forward. "What else are you hiding from me?"

The words, taken alone, would have been ones of anger, but instead, he sounded hurt.

I hadn't meant to lie to him, even by omission. But he was my enemy - in name, at least, or rather, especially because of our names, Suzubishi versus Sakaki, a business rivalry that was well-known throughout the country. His task was to steal my place at the school; everyone knew that. And if he'd known about my illness, surely he would have taken advantage of that knowledge. There was nothing stopping him from doing it now, either.

Do you think so little of me?

I'd asked him that just minutes before.

Why was I assuming the worst of him? He wasn't like that. Maybe he had been at first, but now...

"Nao. What else are you hiding from me?"

He reached for my hands again, but I pulled them back into my lap and stood, turning my back. I went to the window and looked out over the school, chest tight. I couldn't tell him. What if I was wrong, and I burdened him with the mistaken feelings of a dying man?

What if I was right, and he had to live with knowing that after I was gone?

It would be better if those feelings disappeared with me, without hurting anyone else. He wouldn't be interested anyway. Twenty-one years old, no experience, unattractive, with a useless body and a timid heart... all I had was my intelligence, and a family name that wasn't really mine anyway.

I heard him get up from the table. Of course, he wouldn't give up so easily. My shoulders tensed as he came closer, footsteps quiet on the carpeted floor. He stood behind me for a moment without saying anything, then touched my shoulder, tentatively at first, then with a gentle grip.

"Please, don't ask, it's better this way."

"I won't accept that." He leaned in close, voice at my ear, and my chest ached. "Talk to me, Nao. You asked me if I regretted keeping any secrets. At that time, I could have honestly answered no. But now that I know, and now that I suspect what else you might be hiding, I can't help but regret all the time that's already been wasted."

He couldn't have meant what I thought. It was my own misguided fantasy, a desperate wish that blinded me to the truth.

"Don't tease me."

"I'm deadly serious."

I turned toward him, and the way he looked at me, or maybe, the way I chose to interpret that look, seeing pity and regret and affection in the unfamiliar expresssion... somehow I couldn't lie to him any longer. He'd already guessed, hadn't he? "It's you," my voice said, seemingly without my consent, "I shouldn't say anything, because I'm not sure, and I'll be dead soon anyway, but..."

"Don't say that." He was grasping both of my shoulders now, watching me intently. I shook my head, more to clear my mind and to avoid eye contact than to disagree with him, but the motion did nothing to calm my frantic thoughts.

Too late now. Just say it. Do you want to die without knowing?

No. That wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to reach for him, even if I was rejected, even if nothing ever came of it, because then at least, I'd have said it. If he had no use for my words or my conflicted emotions, he could just discard them, and maybe, if I was lucky, we could continue as we had. Friends. That would be enough.

Even if it wasn't, it's not like I'd be around to bother him for much longer.

But I couldn't give up without ever trying. He wouldn't do something like that. So I...

"I'm sorry, Professor Sakaki, but I think I'm in love with you."

I couldn't even look him in the eye as I said it.

Forgive me. I'm weak.

"I thought so."

His response wasn't smug or self-satisfied. It just was.

While I was trying to figure out what that odd lack of emotion could signify, he pulled me close with a sigh, rubbing his cheek against my hair. His arms wrapped around my back in a firm embrace, not painful, but tight enough that I was surprised by his strength. It was the strength of a healthy person, but to me, who'd never been healthy, it was strangely comfortable.

"I should have said something myself," he muttered. "You asked me about regrets, Nao. I'll regret this wasted time forever."

I was still stunned, trapped there between his warm chest and strong arms. "A- are you saying...?"

"I didn't tell you who my third love was. Do you know why?"

"B- because... is it really...?" It seemed wrong to even hope. What did someone like me have to offer to a confident person like him? "It can't be me."

"You're an idiot," he sighed, fond tone at odds with the harsh words. Warm fingers tickled through my hair, and I couldn't help shivering. Was it just a reaction to a light touch, or was it because it was him? I didn't know anything. I really was an idiot.

"Because I thought you'd be disgusted, but the other day, when I explained my other loves and you weren't put off by it, I thought, maybe... you might be trying to tell me something. That's how you always are, you dance around the point if it's something uncomfortable. I can't believe I didn't know. It was just me the entire time, watching you, and I still didn't realize."

"I'm sorry," I repeated, not sure of what else to say. I moved my arms, tentatively reaching up to return the embrace. My half wasn't nearly as strong; a gentle squeeze was all I could manage. My chest felt tight and free at the same time, and though my heart was racing, I felt no pain. A warm excitement prickled through me, leaving my skin tingling as if I'd just come in from the cold.

Maybe I had.

Maybe I could be warm from now on.

~ end ~