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Today She Holds His Gaze

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Mayaka loves the land she grows up in. She feels like a part of it, unconditionally loved by the kind people and generous fields surrounding them. Then, there are some days she loves the small, modest town of Kamiyama a little less. It makes running into people much easier – 'people' referring to a specific Houtarou Oreki. They haven't been schoolmates for seven years, but every time she sees him, she feels like nothing has really changed. His slouch, mastered as a teenager, never really goes away, even now when he's working under the Chitanda family. Chi-chan is far too nice to him.

"Hi."

"Houtarou," Mayaka replies vaguely. She returns her attention to the apples and oranges, undecided on which to buy today. "What do you want?"

"A couple of apples," the man says. Mayaka rolls her eyes and passes him the two she'd been considering. She cups her chin with one hand, a sudden desire for pears driving her down the aisle to where the other fruits are on display. She hears Houtarou dragging his feet behind her and looks over her shoulder, wondering why he has the time to follow her.

"Do you have something else to say, or?"

"Satoshi's coming back."

That isn't the reply she expects. Give her a comment about how she's still the smallest thing in the supermarket aside from the baby peas, give her a sarcastic compliment about the new hairclip she's wearing, tell her about the damn weather – not this.

He hasn't been back in over a year. Since graduating high school, Satoshi had broken free of their tiny town. The moment he had the chance to leave and travel, he'd jumped on it without hesitation. That was the kind of person he was. He'd moved off to a university in the city and following that, had clinched a job in another city, further than the first. He never came back to see them except for holidays, but… there weren't any holidays coming up at all.

She exchanges the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, postcard with him and texts him every now and again. He never mentioned this before.

"I just thought you should know," Houtarou says, and even in his annoying nonchalance, Mayaka can't bring herself to raise her voice. He's being genuine for once.

"Thanks, I guess." She hands him the pear absently. Forgoing the decision to buy fruits tonight, Mayaka trudges out of the supermarket. The only thing on her mind right now is that she isn't ready to see Satoshi just yet.

Six years ago, Houtarou had asked him why he had been so adamant about leaving. Satoshi had replied, "I want to get out of this town." All Mayaka had heard was, "I want to get out of your shadow," and that was what Satoshi had done. He wasn't the sort of person to promise something without seeing it through. Mayaka fell in love with that part of him.

Houtarou went on to major in business. The supposed reason had been because he was good with numbers so it required the least work, and thus was compatible to his infamous life motto, yadda yadda. Mayaka had always known the real truth behind his choice. Sometimes she laughs when he tells people what he studied in university.

Chi-chan had majored in agricultural science. She'd completed another major in economics at the same time. All of this had been in preparation for her inheritance of the Chitanda farmlands. Her performance as the new head of the company hasn't been as spotless as her academic records but she always gives her best effort. She's an unconventional but capable leader.

Mayaka had found herself in the Literature department. She'd tried submitting one of her original manuscripts to Betsuma for a contest in her second year of university. She got fifth place in a lineup of 10 other young aspiring artists, but was never able to create anything else that could catch the publisher's eye. Thus, her dream of becoming a best-selling shoujo author faded over time as she grew older and university piled projects one on top of the other.

It hadn't been that hard to get over it. Mayaka used to sit alone in her desk at night and tell herself 'this isn't good', 'no one will want to read this', 'I'm not cut out for this' – she had no one else to blame but herself.

Now she works as an editor in a small publishing company in Kamiyama. Nothing glamorous or pink or flowery, but it's a reliable and sympathetic job.

Mayaka wraps her scarf tighter around her neck and checks her planner as she walks up the street. Highlighted in green is a note to fax a document to one of her writers. She focuses on walking home and getting that done before the night falls completely.

The train passes a woman with short hair and blue mittens as it slows into the station. Satoshi does a double take, but he doesn't manage to catch her face as the train comes to a halt. His hand tightens on the strap of his bag.

As he steps off the train and into the cool spring air, he looks around for the familiar figure. He spots her waiting on the other end of the platform, wandering to and fro between the last few carriages. Before he can turn to walk towards her, someone else approaches her. It's a tall man in a business suit. They embrace passionately and Satoshi sees the woman smile –

And it's not Mayaka.

Of course. It shouldn't be.

She has a job now. She has other things to do. He hasn't even told her he's coming back because he wants to surprise her. This is the reason he uses, in any case.

Someone taps his shoulder and Satoshi whirrs around eagerly. He feels taken aback to see that it is only Chitanda. She's not at the top of the list of people he was expecting to meet at the station. Of course, the feeling is short-lived. "Ah, hello, Chi-san! Good to see you!" He bows out of instinct.

The young lady returns the greeting graciously. "Likewise," she says. Her smile widens as she picks up on the confusion on his face. "Houtarou-san sent me here in his stead. It was too early for him to leave his house," she explains. Satoshi shakes his head and laughs. Chitanda allows herself to join him, chuckling in a delicate way. Has she been practicing this? Satoshi hadn't believed that she could get any more sophisticated than she already was. Chitanda proves him wrong every time he comes back.

Satoshi glances once more around the platform. No one else is around now. It's just him and Chitanda.

"Well, shall we get going?" Chitanda asks, tugging her coat close to her body. Satoshi nods, slinging his bag on his shoulder and walking with her out of the station. He's supposed to meet up with Houtarou for dinner tonight, which means that he has to follow Chitanda to her next destination.

"Are we walking back to your house?" he asks as they cross a road.

"Yes. Somewhere near there. I hope you don't mind? It's been awhile since you were in Kamiyama and I thought you wouldn't mind walking a bit."

"It's good. I miss walking around town." It will take them over half an hour to reach the suburbs but Satoshi isn't concerned. He's surprised to learn that Chitanda had walked from her home to the train station and would now go back the same way. Chitanda possesses the means to be chauffeured around. It's the fact that she doesn't, that Satoshi admires.

"Would you like to put your things back home first?"

"Nah, don't worry about it."

A question mark seems to appear over her head, but Chitanda doesn't pursue it. They walk in companionable silence after that, down the streets he used to skip on when he was a kid. He notices her greet the owners of the stores they pass by. Some of them must receive their supply from her.

"So, how's work?"

"It's coming along really well. Though it's only because I have a lot of people to support me when I need help and forgive me when I do something wrong," the lady replies, sheepish and humble. "I'd like to think that I'm going to become a good Head, though!"

Satoshi nods encouragingly, hoping that his approval is worth something. "And Houtarou?"

"Ah – Houtarou-san is doing fine. He's been a great help as well. I don't know what I'd do without him," Chitanda says, her cheeks a little pinker now. Satoshi feels eased by that expression. It's good to know that Houtarou has found someone worth investing himself in.

"What about you, Satoshi-san? How are things holding up on your end?"

"About work," he starts. "I'll need to talk to Houtarou about it first."

"Satoshi-san, is everything all right?" Chitanda asks. "Are you in a rush to leave?"

He exhales.

Mayaka breathes in.

She'd forgotten about this love letter. She finds it amongst a shoebox full of post-it notes and pretty papers she's been keeping well since high school. Most of them are written notes from her friends, but Satoshi's postcards are in here somewhere too, and so are a couple of love letters she received in university. She wasn't popular, but she had a fair share of boys who asked her out. Mayaka had gone out with them casually, wondering if maybe it would be better for her to actually explore her options.

Of course, she never ended up with anyone. None of them could match up to Satoshi's easy humour, long reading list, ability with a sewing needle, smile. It had been a mistake to compare them to Satoshi – but she could never help it. She opens an envelope and reads its contents.

"Ibara,

I admire your maturity and gracefulness. Please consider going out with me."

This one had been delusional. She laughs and tosses it back into the box before rolling off her bed to grab her laptop. Might as well get some work done.

"So you – "

"- are back here permanently, yes," Satoshi finishes Houtarou's sentence for him. He raises a cup of sake over their table. "I quit. I got bored of it. But that backfired when I realized that there was nowhere else to get a job in Kyoto, especially now with the recession. I thought Kamiyama would be kinder to me."

"You're too hopeful," Houtarou says, blunt and sharp and not the least bit sorry. That's what Satoshi likes about him sometimes. "And was it really because you were bored?"

This is not one of those times.

Satoshi doesn't reply for a moment. Houtarou is paying attention to his every move, and if he does something suspicious, every part of this painfully constructed act will go to waste. "The rent was high, and there were some people I didn't get along with in the office, and having to take the train to work every day is tiring. I miss riding my bicycle."

"And?"

"Nothing else," Satoshi says. He includes a smile at the end to assure his friend. "You don't need to worry about me, Houtarou! I'm sure I'll be able to find a job here somewhere. You'll put a good word in for me at Chitanda's, right?"

Houtarou doesn't nod or shake his head. "We'll see," the man finally says. "Do you have enough savings to support yourself for awhile?"

"Of course!" Satoshi immediately replies, appalled that Houtarou would think anything else.

"What about your family? The last time I remember, they weren't too keen about you moving to the city."

"Simple!" Satoshi chimes, "I haven't told them yet."

Houtarou becomes visibly greyer than usual. "Satoshi," he says, managing to sound reprimanding even though he speaks with his perpetual monotone.

"Okay, I admit that that wasn't smart. I just don't know how to face them just yet. What do I say to them when I see them?"

"What you need to," Houtarou advises.

"I'm back," he says to the other male. I failed, this he keeps to himself. No doubt Houtarou already knows. His perception has been unrivalled since their high school days. He feels his act cracking.

Houtarou nods, sipping his drink.

"I'm back," Satoshi says, more to himself than to anyone else in the entire bar. Houtarou nods again.

"I… came back, Houtarou," Satoshi sobs. Everything falls to pieces. "I'm back." He lowers his face into his hands.

"Welcome back." Houtarou ignores his outburst. Satoshi has never been more thankful that Houtarou is his friend. He feels someone ruffle his hair and smiles through the building tears.

Houtarou appears at her doorstep a quarter before midnight. The only reason she opens her door is because Satoshi is with him. The moment she does, Houtarou drags Satoshi in and dumps him onto the sofa. The smaller man is either out cold or half-asleep because he makes no effort to adjust his uncomfortable position, face planted firmly in the seat of the couch, an arm over its back, the other snug underneath his body. Houtarou steps back, wipes his hands against his coat, and begins to walk out.

"Hold it! What's the meaning of this?!"

Houtarou turns to her, his blank expression managing to frustrate her even more than usual. "I'm depositing him under your care tonight."

"Why me?" she chokes, crossing her arms.

"I don't want to take care of him," the man says. Mayaka storms up to him in her Hello Kitty slippers and pink pajamas. Undeterred by their different in height, she grabs his shoulders and hauls him down so that they are level. She glares into his half-lidded eyes, daring him to use that as a legitimate reason. "Your house was much nearer than mine," which is true because Houtarou lives in the peripheries of town, excruciatingly near the Chitanda estate. Mayaka still isn't satisfied with a lazy answer, and summons up another glare.

"And he still hasn't told his family that he's back," Houtarou adds uneasily. Mayaka releases him but keeps her frown tacked on. What does that mean? Why would he keep it from even his own family?

"Don't worry. He only drank a little. This is fatigue more than anything else." Houtarou's use of the word 'fatigue' twists her anger into concern.

The sound of cushions rustling diverts her attention to the sofa. "Please, I'll explain everything in the morning," Satoshi croaks.

Before Mayaka can say anything else, Satoshi's eyes close again, and he nods off. Mayaka looks at him, her brow creasing with worry and confusion. When she turns back to face Houtarou, he's gone. He escaped when she wasn't looking! Oh, she'll be giving him a huge piece of her mind the next time they meet!

She dashes to the entryway of her apartment, finding the door properly locked and closed for the night. She heaves a tired sigh, almost grateful that Houtarou bothered to close the gate behind him. Almost.

She walks back into her tiny living room to address the situation at hand.

Satoshi Fukube is asleep on her sofa. He fell asleep on her sofa. Is he doing this on purpose? He was always a cruel person. He made her wait – he's still making her wait. But, as Mayaka tugs a spare blanket out of the storeroom and tucks it over him, she knows that Satoshi is cruelest to himself most of all.

She crouches near the sofa, having a proper look at him. She'd expected their reunion to be at a sane time in the day, with a smile on Satoshi's face, in a far less intimate situation than this. He's skinnier now and smells faintly of sake. The one thing that gives her comfort is that his clothes are full of colour and the bright green duffel bag that Houtarou left at near the doorway has at least three different types of keychains hanging from it.

He doesn't wake up when she touches his cheek. The sofa is not large, but Mayaka wants to lie down next to him just then, if only for one night. He's only a slightly larger version of his scrawny self from their Kamiyama High days, shoulders broad but still birdlike and gentle. She's sure she could fit beside him. Mayaka considers this thought before laughing at herself. She is still foolish and immature. Maybe it's because she never stopped reading shoujo manga. The woman exhales, slapping her face lightly before turning off all the lights and trudging into her room. She crawls under her bed sheets, curls into herself, and buries her head under a pillow.


The next morning, Satoshi is half on the floor and half on the sofa when she wakes up and goes out of the hallway. She'd forgotten he was staying in her apartment and yelps when she sees him snoring on the floorboards.

He doesn't wake up.

Satoshi awakens to find a post-it note stuck on his forehead.

It takes him another half an hour to get up from the floor. He peels the note off and reads the hastily scribbled message:

"Have to get to work. You can heat up the food on the table if you feel like eating breakfast. You can use anything in the house but you're explaining everything to me over dinner tonight! No running away!

Mayaka ヽ(`⌒´ )ノ"

He chuckles at the angry face she drew in a hurry, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. So, he has to hang around here for the whole day until she's back. It's been a long time since Satoshi had nothing to do. There's an emptiness that scares him even more than boredom, and the feeling he'd felt at the bar last night with Houtarou starts sprouting in the pit of his stomach.

He gets off the floor and rummages through his bag – noticing that all his money is still in his wallet, which means that Houtarou had covered the bill yesterday – for a shirt to change into. Today seems like a good day for yellow. As he rises onto his feet, he realizes that this is Mayaka's apartment. It's decidedly less pink than her room when she was a teenager. The place is small, with a tiny kitchen and only one bedroom. There are a few hints of her around: a couple of shoujo manga strewn across the coffee table, the smell of strawberries, and an empty bag resting on a chair at the dining table. It's a bag she's used since middle school. The place looks almost too neat, and when he checks the laundry basket in the bathroom, he's delighted to find that she shoved a handful of clothes inside in a quick attempt to tidy the place.

After breakfast he wanders over to the two bookshelves on the far end of the room. Her collection of manga takes up one and a half of the allotted space. In the remaining half, she's got an impressive collection of literature. Agatha Christie dominates, but he finds 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' and other similar novels hiding behind the first row of books. Satoshi thumbs his favourite ones off the shelf, sidesteps so that he's facing her manga collection, and chooses a handful based off the colour of their spine. He stacks them on his arm until the books reach his chin. This should be enough for the rest of the day.

He proceeds to reread 'A Corpse By Evening' three times.

Mayaka replays what she's planning to say to Satoshi in her head. Preparation is much better than improvising on the spot. She'll 1. greet him, 2. scold him for crashing at her place, and 3. welcome him back, for however long he's going to stay this time. 4. ???

Okay, so she hasn't got everything sorted out yet.

She stops by the supermarket to buy his favourite type of fish on her way home after work. After wading through the crowd of housewives gathered around the discount aisles, she returns to her doorstep with a feeling of triumph. She rings her doorbell, and when no one opens the door, she fishes in a coat pocket for her house key. She enters her apartment to find no one else in. Scattered on the coffee table and sofa are at least ten books. Satoshi's duffle bag is still here but he's nowhere to be seen. She checks her bedroom and her bathroom.

Satoshi ran away.

The plastic bag carrying the fish slips out of her fingers and drops onto the floor. She follows it, squatting in the middle of her living room, her mind fading to a blank.

"Oh! What good timing! I thought I'd have to wait outside!"

She looks up from the floor to see Satoshi entering, a plastic bag in his hand. It contains a box of strawberries and a bunch of grapes.

"Mayaka, are you okay? What are you doing there?" he asks with concern.

It's been a long time since she heard him call her name. She tries not to show it on her face, but Satoshi smiles as she gets onto her feet. It's that smile again, the one where he's apologetic instead of happy.


She fries the fish while he prepares the table and the seasoning. If someone had told her that she would be cooking dinner with Satoshi three days ago, Mayaka would have laughed, or alternatively, kicked them in the shins if they were Houtarou.

Satoshi skillfully avoids the topic of his unexpected return over the course of dinner. He keeps on bombarding her with questions on her job and her hobbies, leaving her little room to ask about him. Mayaka already feels that something is out of place, but she lets him talk over the fish and the vegetables. She misses seeing his animated smile and the way his eyes light up with interest.

They clean up together. Satoshi washes the dishes and she dries them.

"Have you told your parents you're back yet?"

"Nope," Satoshi replies breezily.

"So, um, when are you leaving?" Mayaka asks. Better to mentally prepare herself. The worst case scenario is that he's leaving tonight. It'll be okay. It'll be just like always. She just has to be alert, just has to prevent herself from getting used to his presence again even though it isn't difficult. "It's not that I want you to leave or anything, but you've got to let me know so I can plan an off-day or something if you want to go out. Or say goodbye again."

"I'm not."

The bowl nearly slips through her hands. Mayaka turns to face him, her voice catching in her throat.

Satoshi tried so hard to just keep on running headlong down a road to Somewhere and never look behind him. It took him awhile to accept that he had been running to escape the fact that he was running away. It hadn't made a difference anyway. Here he is again at the start, hating himself and loving Mayaka.

"I'm back," he says with a smile to hold the weight of these words. They sting less than last night with Houtarou. He'll have to get used to saying this.

"I'm back," he repeats, softer this time. "For good."

Mayaka looks at him and in a second she sees past his grin and the expression on her face crumples in an instant. She's trying not to cry all of a sudden. He doesn't even know if she's crying for herself or for him.

"Why'd you come back?"

"Why, indeed." He politely looks away so that she can wipe her eyes.

"Is it… is it because of me? Can I say that?" Mayaka asks him. The plate she's drying squeaks against the dishcloth. Satoshi doesn't remember her being this brave – she was a straightforward person from the start, but this is new. He doesn't hate it, but he doesn't know how to reply. Well – he knows his reply, but he doesn't want to say it. He can't say it. He hasn't said anything in the last decade. It's been an awfully long time, but Mayaka's still here beside him. Satoshi feels himself skirt dangerously close to loving her more than hating himself.

"Mayaka, I'm not a good person."

"Then what does that make me?" she responds immediately. "I like you, Fuku-chan. I still like you."

He's doing it again, hurting her without meaning to.

And even while angry, Mayaka looks nice. She never wears eye-catching colours. Her wardrobe is understated and mild, with light pinks and crème browns and soft blues. Her eyes are clear and emotional. She doesn't know how to put on a façade and every corner of her face is genuine and Satoshi doesn't like that because it makes him feel uneasy and happy at the same time.

"But never mind about me first. What about your family? You can't do this. You have to – "

He kisses her, half because he's horrible, half because he's lost – mostly because it's her.

This isn't their first kiss.

Mayaka remembers high school graduation – Satoshi's warm hands, the colour of his eyes and how his lips had been softer than hers. He had made her promise to never bring it up again.

This isn't their first kiss because they are already twenty-five. His eyes are closed and his hands are wet from washing the dishes and her lips are finally softer than his. It's light and fleeting, a frail, half-hearted attempt to stop her from talking. She doesn't even have a chance to widen her eyes before Satoshi pulls away. Her pulse still flutters. The moment they part, Mayaka composes herself without faltering for a second.

" – tell your parents about what happened. They'll understand, Fuku-chan. I'm sure they will."

When Satoshi leans in again, his gaze staying, she presses a hand between them, urging him back. She's startled when he feels his heart thrumming under her fingertips, but she doesn't budge.

"No," she tells him even though all she wants to say is 'yesyesyes' because she's been waiting half her lifetime for this. She pulls through and raises her chin and looks him in the eyes.

"Not until you've sorted your thoughts out, Fuku-chan."

He smiles at her sadly. "You're right," he sighs. He knocks a fist against his forehead. "I'm sorry. Forget about that."

"No." Mayaka decides. She blinks. He can't tell her to simply forget what just happened. Satoshi may think that that will solve all their problems, but it won't. She remembers all the times when they were in high school and she'd notice Satoshi's gaze flitting to her from the corner of his eyes. She'd looked away self-consciously and never allowed herself to return that gaze. She realizes that ignoring something won't make it go away. They've been trying to do that with their feelings for ten years. Nothing's really changed.

"I'm tired of that. Aren't you tired, too?"

Satoshi doesn't reply her, but the expression on his face is telling enough. It seems like he's grown tired of many things. Mayaka wraps her arms around his neck without really meaning to, an instinctive response to the emotions swimming in his eyes and that hard, forced smile. Though she must be heavy, another burden on his shoulders, Satoshi wraps his arms around her and she tries very hard to keep her heart in place.

Mayaka is right.

Of course she's right.

Satoshi sighs as he walks down the dark street, hands in the pockets of his jacket. This is the route he used to take on his way home back after school. They've changed the design of the litter bins, but the streetlamps are same, tall and a little creepy under the moonlight. He used to be scared of them when he was a kid. His dad had always scolded him for not being man enough. Instead of listening to his dad, Satoshi had chosen to do worse things: sew, collect bags, paint, draw, read. He had been a spiteful child. Over time that rebellion changed into genuine interest and now, here he was, in his favourite yellow shirt and dark purple jacket.

His mother used to entertain his hobbies. When he said he was leaving for the city, though, her tune changed. She hadn't wanted him to leave on such short notice. Satoshi had also been a selfish son. Visits are strained every time he goes back because his mother tries to look happy even though when he leaves, she'll probably feel lonely all over again.

He has more to say to them then what he first thought. As he strolls up to his house, located near an intersection of roads, he readies himself, opening his wallet. He got rid of the key of his Kyoto apartment the moment he sold it away, so now there is just his lone house key there, waiting. He knocks on the door and slots the key into the keyhole, opening it. In the hallway light, he sees his mother wearing her favourite apron.

"Satoshi! What are you doing here?"

He straightens his back, raises his eyes, and returns home.

The next day, Mayaka arranges to have afternoon tea with Chi-chan. They go to their favourite café, the one just down the road from Kamiyama High. They talk about their respective lives (Chi-chan thoughtfully only mentions Houtarou in passing) and chat about the latest drama showing on the NHK.

Mayaka waits for the right moment, when her friend pauses to drink her tea, to say, "By the way, catching up wasn't the only reason why I wanted to meet you today."

"This must be about Satoshi-san, yes?" Chi-chan doesn't waste any time, cutting to the chase.

"I'm just worried about him," Mayaka says.

Chi-chan nods with understanding. "Don't worry, I've been asking around about openings, it won't be long before we have some job options for him."

"It's not about that, Chi-chan," Mayaka says, "that is important too, but there's something else that's bothering Fuku-chan."

The two of them sit in the booth in silence after that. Mayaka doesn't know how to explain and Chi-chan looks like she's thinking very, very hard. "Have you tried talking to him about it?" the lady asks.

"I don't know. Satoshi's acting a little different. He doesn't seem that scared to.. t—t-touch me now," she stutters.

Her friend's face lights up, the shadow of uncertainty lifting from her face. She looks like she understands everything now. "I believe you should take initiative, Maya-chan! After all, sometimes guys prefer the girls to lead them the first time," Chi-chan says this while finishing up the last of her tea. "I think that that will definitely clear up any doubts you're having now."

"Trust me," she adds in a whisper, hand over her mouth.

That sure escalated. Technically, Chi-chan has just recommended her to… with Satoshi...

This is really, really odd.

Houtarou chooses this moment to enter the café. "Are you done yet? We can leave together if you want," he's talking to Chi-chan.

The woman looks at Mayaka, awaiting an answer. "S-sure!" Mayaka says with a start. "Thanks, Chi-chan. It was nice talking to you, I'll.. think about what you said."

"I'm glad I could help. Anyway, I was hoping that I could visit you tomorrow? I want to know how things go and we still have a lot to catch up on – it's just that I have some business to take care of today, so!" Chi-chan looks troubled as she explains the situation.

Mayaka grabs her hands dearly. "Come down any time you want!"

A relieved smile breaks across her face. Chi-chan scoots out of her chair and waves good bye. Houtarou hangs back as she starts to leave. Before Mayaka can ask what he's doing, Houtarou opens his mouth.

"Thanks for taking care of Satoshi."

Hey. Hey. Hey. He can't just be civil to her all of a sudden. They don't work that way. Mayaka chews on her lower lip and mutters 'no big deal' in an attempt to respond to him being unusually affectionate (by his standards). Houtarou and his boring green eyes regard her for a moment, and just when she expects him to smirk, he doesn't.

Instead, he pats her shoulder and follows Chi-chan out of the café.


At night, Mayaka doesn't have work to finish over the weekend, but she doesn't go to sleep early. She reorganizes her manga collection, flips through a few of them whilst eating the strawberries Satoshi bought yesterday. She flops on her sofa and turns the TV on to watch the news followed by yet another bizarre game show. When her doorbell rings, she springs out of her seat. Adjusting her shirt and shorts, and then feeling silly about it. She should be more worried for Satoshi than herself now. He had looked so distraught yesterday and she doesn't know how to help him feel better.

"Hello!" Satoshi says, beaming. "Mind if I come in?"

Oh. Mayaka thinks. Okay. She steps aside to allow him berth. The material of his jacket brushes her arm as he unties his blue sneakers and walks past her. They sit down in front of her unimpressive TV and continue watching the game show that was on. Things are getting more and more bizarre. Mayaka looks at her toes, wondering what to say.

"Did things go well with your parents?" she asks after tossing and turning over the matter.

"Well I haven't been disowned! They said I was stupid but that I was their kid, so you know, family," Satoshi says, positive as always. "My dad gave me a good punch though." He raises his chin to show her. She sees a slight swell near his jawline. Mayaka immediately gets up to look for an ice pack but Satoshi stands and grabs her wrist to tell her to stay. His hand, the uninteresting show and what had happened last night around this time, all culminate.

"Fuku-chan, about yesterday– ,"she begins, biting her lip.

" – it will be hard on me if you bring it up," he interrupts.

"But you're here now." Mayaka weathers on. "And if that doesn't mean something, I…"

Satoshi looks like he's been caught in the act, his eyes flashing and his shoulders sagging. He slowly lets go of her wrist.

"Mayaka, you know how I feel about you, you know, and– "

Satoshi presses his hand against the small of her back, then, as if realizing the brevity of the action, he retreats. He opens his mouth to say 'sorry', but those words don't form. They're standing too close and this means too much.

"Fuku-chan," she says. "If– "

She doesn't know what to say to convince him that this is okay. Chi-chan's advice struggles to be heard, but Mayaka doesn't have enough daring in her to initiate. Maybe she should give him an ultimatum – kiss me or never talk to me again – but If she wanted to do that, she could have done it years ago. She doesn't want to do that – it would be childish. How old is she?

… How old is she? Can she afford to wait forever for him? The sad, truthful answer is 'yes', but Mayaka doesn't want to resign to that without a fight at least. She lets her fingers brush against Satoshi's cheek. Even though he isn't blushing, he feels too warm. She raises herself onto the tips of her toes and waits, face close to his, the space between their lips excruciating.

Her other hand is under the edge of his shirt and he's holding her waist and –

And.

He's careful and cautious even though she's down to her bra and underwear. Hand on her neck, then on her shoulder, grazing her bustline but not daring to linger, resting on her lower thigh. She feels frustrated (what's new?). Trust him to be the only one who can make her feel this way even in bed, and as she touches his back, the muscles there tense up. When he tries to distract her with a kiss, their noses bump. Even that is something that makes her skin heat.

"You know, you don't need to hold back – " she says softly, pausing. His breath, warm and heavy, skims over her lips as he freezes. It's a slight movement, but Mayaka notices. She hasn't lost her touch.

"– Satoshi," she says his name, reckless. He inhales quietly and buries into the space between her neck and shoulder. She flushes at the contact, straining to decipher the words he's mouthing into her skin. She catches him mumbling, "I lov– "

She yells! Mayaka leans back and throws her hands over his mouth, face going even redder. His hair is messy and his eyes are looking straight at her.

"Don't say it," she tells him, dropping her head onto one of his shoulders. "Don't say it."

He can't say it. If he does, she'll cry. She'll cry so much and so unattractively that he'll run out the door (that's a lie, but Mayaka still tells herself this). And this isn't exactly the best moment for tears, but she feels her eyes watering already. Satoshi listens to her quietly, his lips curving into a smile against the skin of her palm. He says something against it, the words muffled. Mayaka releases a flustered sigh because she can guess what he just said. Satoshi kisses the center of her hand, warm and soft, surprising her. He seizes the chance, trailing his lips to her wrist and then peppering kisses down to the skin on the inside of her elbow. Mayaka burns and burns but Satoshi hasn't been scalded.

She ate the strawberries. Satoshi hadn't been sure if she liked strawberries or grapes more, but with this it's decided. He marks this new knowledge as another miscellaneous bit of trivia to store at the back of his head. Then again, anything to do with Mayaka is everything but trivial.

Her breast is small in his hand. Satoshi doesn't mind, in fact he likes it. He likes her eyes, her nose, the gentle dips of her collarbones, the small birthmark he discovers near her elbow, the fact that she lets him lie so close. Then, there's Mayaka, who doesn't like it when he breaks a kiss to breath, doesn't like it when he stops abruptly to just look at her face and register that this is happening, and doesn't like to lose. She is aggressive, running her hands through his hair and pulling him closer. Then she catches herself doing all these things and she hold herself back again, still shy, still soft.

Satoshi doesn't want his demons to emerge completely but then Mayaka squares her pale shoulders and kisses his jaw, light and unafraid and he remembers why she's the only person who can make him feel this way. They're sitting awkwardly on the bed but Satoshi still can't bring himself to push her down.

Mayaka hooks an arm around his neck and does it for him. Satoshi falls in love with her again and again and again.

The blanket rises and falls with Mayaka's breaths. The room is dark and he's tired, but Satoshi can't fall asleep yet. He traces the outline of her with his eyes as he waits for something inside him to shift. Like a switch being turned off, like a monster lurching out to consume him completely, like a grave feeling of hollowness. He adjusts the pillow at his head. It smells like Mayaka.

And he waits. And he waits.

The doorbell's ring wakes her up in the morning. Mayaka refuses to greet the new day just yet, but the person at the door is relentlessly pressing the bell. Her parents never visit her without giving her a call first so it must be a door-to-door salesman or something. At the tenth press of the bell, she can hear Satoshi stirring beside her. It's strange, but not unwelcome, to hear someone else make the mattress creak.

"Get that," she whispers.

Satoshi groans. When he makes no indication of moving, she nudges him with the sole of her foot. Half-asleep and warm under an arm and the blanket, it takes her a few seconds to realize how this gesture means the world to her. Satoshi eventually accedes to the persuasions of her feet and staggers out of the room, rubbing his eyes.

A while later, a chipper voice sings: "Good morning, Houtarou!"

That gets her attention. Mayaka rolls off the bed, yanks a shirt and pants on, sprints through her morning routine in front of the bathroom sink, before thundering out to the living room, face a livid shade of red. She doesn't want to do any explaining to Houtarou – she wouldn't be able to live it down – but that doesn't mean she wants Satoshi to do it in her stead.

Except, Houtarou doesn't ask for an explanation or give a suggestive thumbs-up or even say 'good morning' in a gloomy voice. He's talking to Satoshi about a possible opening as an accountant under the Chitandas. He's sitting on the sofa like he owns it. Mayaka wants to tug her hair – which reminds her that she forgot to comb it, which in turn makes her angrier. The nerve of these two!

"Oh – Mayaka! Houtarou has good news!" Satoshi says, sparkling when he addresses her. He excuses himself to go wash up, skipping out of the room without another word. Mayaka still has her hands in her hair, trying to process the situation. Houtarou and her stand quietly without Satoshi around, exchanging half-serious threats and unpleasant thoughts through brainwaves. This is a ritual they've practiced since middle school. Mayaka almost wishes that he would say something.

Houtarou stares at her, sparing her a short, silent reprieve.

Then, he smirks.

"Get out!" Mayaka shouts, kicking off her slipper and flinging it in his direction. Houtarou dodges it fairly easily, so she runs up to him and starts thumping him with her fists. She stares up at the man and when she sees him looking amused, she shoves and battles him down the short hallway and out of the house.

"Wa – "

She slams the door in his face.

Satoshi comes out of the bathroom to find Mayaka giggling to herself.

Over toast and coffee, they discuss about available apartments in the area for him, the movies, and the prospects of working under Houtarou if it comes down to that. Satoshi prefers mornings like these, with someone to talk to and a pot of coffee to share between them. Living alone in the city wasn't all that, looking back now.

"I've really missed this place," he says out of the blue. "It's weird for me to say that, but I do."

"You've changed," Mayaka tells him.

"I have?"

She nods, her eyes darting away self-consciously. "You used to be… scared of a lot of things, Fuku-chan. Not obvious things, like how Houtarou's terrified of sunlight and work. The small things. You avoided them and you tried to make reasons to justify why you did, and… now you aren't anymore."

Small things, huh.

"You flatter me too much," he says.

Mayaka puffs up her cheeks. "I'm telling the truth here. Accept it, please."

"Yes, yes, thank you." He reaches over to kiss her dimple. The action had been purely involuntary. Natural.

Mayaka blushes and excuses herself to 'take some things that I forgot to take out so they need to be taken out now okay I'm going to take them out now'. She scrambles onto her feet and walks out of the living room and Satoshi smiles. It's an easy thing.

Later in the day, Houtarou returns. Only, this time he brings Chi-chan with him. Mayaka has no choice but to let him into the apartment. That's the third time this week he's managed to break in. He's good, she'll give him that. She raises an eyebrow when she notices that Houtarou's carrying a basket of fruit.

"Please take it. These were freshly harvested just this morning," Chi-chan tells her. "It's not really a gift so don't look so troubled, Maya-chan."

"It's a peace offering," Houtarou mumbles as he removes his shoes.

Chi-chan walks eagerly into the living room, exchanging a wave with Satoshi. "There's a familiar smell here," the lady says, sniffing.

Houtarou nods at the bookshelves pushed against the walls. Is he referring to her collection of books and manga? Mayaka didn't think that they had a particular smell. She must have grown used to it after all this time.

"It reminds me of our old club room," Chi-chan says. Then, she hits her fist against the palm of her other hand. "Which reminds me – Houtarou-san!"

Houtarou, who was putting the fruit basket on the coffee table and sitting down on the carpet, effectively straightens his posture and looks up at her. "No," he responds.

Chi-chan drops onto her knees and stares intently at him. "I saw something curious happen on my way over here."

"No," Houtarou repeats. He grabs a volume of 'Kimi ni Todoke' off the table and uses it as a barrier between them. Chitanda closes in on him until the pages of the manga are plastered against his face. A complete and utter idiot, just like he was as a teenager.

"Houtarou-san!" Chi-chan chants his name, stubborn.

Finally, Houtarou lowers the book, peeking over the top of its page.

It feels like one of those afternoons in the Geog Prep room all over again. Satoshi steals a glance at her and smiles. It really is like the old days.

花志

Except, today, she holds his gaze.