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Portrait of a Coward

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Sometimes, Eiji caught himself watching Mizuho during class.

He absently realized that he was now more aware of her. It was hard not to be, all things considered.

It was not a conscious thing. Usually, he’d be spacing out in the middle of lecture and his eyes would wander away from the blackboard. They’d land on the person who sat in front of him, oftentimes on Naohiko next, and then sometimes on her.

She was objectively pretty, he would admit. Long, glossy dark hair and sharp eyes, distinct. A mature face, yet her features were still soft.

And she wasn’t lacking in… assets, either. Looks-wise, he could understand why Taichi was infatuated with her.

She wasn’t his type, though. His type was more like—

Did he have a type?

He had liked Izumi. That was all he had really known, to be truthful. But he did flirt with upperclassmen occasionally, usually the cute and bubbly ones. They were generally the most receptive to his empty platitudes.

It didn’t mean much.

Regardless, Mizuho seemed overtly serious and a bit too studious for him. Even if Eiji didn’t have a type, surely he at least knew what didn’t tick his boxes, and “too conscientious” was probably one of those traits.

Even now, during class break, she had her nose in a book. All of their other classmates were socializing, playing some mobile games on their phones, or out of the classroom for a change of pace. But there she was instead, flipping through pages of a textbook, brow furrowed in concentration as she skimmed through the words in front of her.

He couldn’t help but think the look suited her.

Studious girl looks good with a book? What a bright observation, Eiji, he mused to himself.

She glanced up from the textbook then, and for a moment, her eyes met his.

He quickly whipped his head away as though he got caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to.

He wasn’t supposed to be looking at her, because even though she had said that she liked him, she was still the girl whom Taichi had feelings for.

Yet his gaze lingered.

 


 

Eiji stretched his arms out and let out a yawn. It was only halfway through the school day but he felt inexplicably exhausted. With lunchtime ending in a few minutes, Eiji had made his way to the classroom ahead of Naohiko, who claimed he needed a bathroom break.

He found himself restless as he waited for his friend to return. His fingers tapped on his desk to a nonexistent beat.

Maybe he just needed some sugar in his system to wake him up. He looked at the sweet buns left on his desk, courtesy of Taichi. Truthfully, they were a bit too saccharine for him, but a sugar kick could potentially get him through the rest of the day.

“It’s just disappointing. I didn’t think they would sell out,” he overheard someone say then, the dismay in the voice catching his attention. It was Mizuho, he realized.

He looked over and saw her entering the classroom with one of her friends. Her hair was cropped short and glasses framed her face—he couldn’t remember her name.

“Next time we should go earlier,” her friend suggested as they made their way through the room.

“Still, I wanted something sweet. The sweet buns they sell in the cafeteria are really good,” Mizuho lamented. It was almost cute the way she deflated at the fact. Almost.

He saw her eyes briefly flit towards him as the duo walked past his seat.

“Ikezawa,” her name spilled out of his mouth automatically.

Oh.

The two girls stopped.

Mizuho turned towards him, a puzzled look on her face. “Is there something you needed, Aihara?”

“Ah, no. I just, uh.” He brought his hand up to awkwardly rub at the back of his neck as a forced chuckle escaped his lips. “Sorry, I overheard you guys talking. You were talking about the sweets in the caf, yeah?”

“Yes, we were.” Mizuho watched him intently, evidently not following his line of thought. Well, he couldn’t blame her.

“I’ve got some I wasn’t planning on eating, if you want.” He gestured towards the snacks in front of him. “It’d be a waste if I just ended up throwing them out. Take one.”

She blinked once, twice. “Oh. That’s… that’s very nice of you, Aihara.”

He instinctively grinned. “I’m a nice person, y’know?”

“I wasn’t saying you weren’t,” she mumbled as she took him up on his offer, reaching out and grabbing one of the treats from his desk. He ignored the way her friend whispered something into her ear afterwards, instead choosing to look at anything but the two girls. Other students were starting to filter into the room for the start of their next class. Naohiko, still having not returned, was apparently squatting in the washroom.

“Thank you, Aihara.”

Her voice pulled him back. A smile graced her lips and he suddenly felt his stomach lurch.

“They’re not from me, really,” he corrected quietly. “They’re from Taichi.”

For some reason, the words tasted bitter in his mouth.

“Thank you, still,” she said again, unwavering, and he was struck by how sincere she sounded. The bell rang then, indicating the end of lunchtime, and she murmured a quiet farewell before departing with her friend.

His words got stuck in his throat as he watched her return to her seat.



Oh. He paused, then, Oh.

 


 

LINE Chat: Nao

Eiji: i kind of have an issue

Eiji: u free after school today? can u come over to my place?

Naohiko: yeah, no track practice today

Naohiko: is everything OK?

Eiji: yeah

Eiji: fine

Eiji: nothing to worry about

Eiji: just want some advice i guess

Naohiko: well, sure then

Once class had ended, Eiji and Naohiko packed up their things and exited the school building together. Despite everything—no, because of everything—Eiji couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease. Their friendship was still a bit off-kilter, but they were slowly circling back to the way things used to be after finally talking things out. Slowly but surely.

Slowly but surely, he was becoming someone less reprehensible.

They walked for a bit without exchanging any further words. Whatever Eiji’s issue was, Naohiko decided not to press his friend for any details until he was comfortable. The two boys made their way to Eiji's home together in an uncharacteristic silence.

“A while back, Ikezawa said she liked me,” Eiji finally blurted out as they entered the subway station, “and I don’t know what to do.”

Naohiko, to his credit, took the sudden revelation in stride. “Do you like her back?”

He looked affronted at the very thought. “I can’t! Taichi likes her, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember, but I thought I’d still ask,” he said, leaning against the station wall as they waited for the next tram to arrive. “Okay, so, what do you think about her then?”

He raised a brow at his friend before electing to respond.

“I don’t really think it matters. Dunno what Taichi sees in her. She’s pretty uptight, y’know, always nagging me about one thing or another. Sometimes it’s hard to talk to her, and other times it’s… I don’t know, unexpectedly easy. Anyway, we don’t even read the same kinds of books. She’s into the classics, y’know? Pretty dull if you ask me,” he prattled on while Naohiko nodded his head to his words. “But I guess that suits her. Well, she does surprisingly have a bit of a… cute side? Apparently sweets are her weakness—”

“—Do you like her, Eiji?” Naohiko promptly interjected.

“What?!” he exclaimed. “Have you not been listening to a single thing I’ve been saying, Nao?”

“I’m asking because I’ve been listening.” Naohiko rolled his eyes in mock exasperation.

“I can’t do something like that to Taichi,” he replied without missing a beat.

“You’re not answering my question, Eiji.”

That silenced him. Naohiko simply waited, patient.

In the silence, the next subway train rolled into the station.

“... I don’t know,” he eventually muttered as they boarded together. “I don’t know how to feel about her. She’s not my type, y’know? A bit too serious for me, I think. But, well, she’s a lot nicer than I thought.”

Naohiko clapped him on his back. “Honestly, I don’t know her that well either, but I think she’s got a good eye if she’s interested in you.”

Eiji let out a snort.

“You’re a good person, Eiji,” he stated simply. “And I think she can see that.”

“How can you even say that when I—you know, with Izumi…” He trailed off, eyes darting away from his friend as the lingering guilt clawed at his heart despite their recent reconciliation. It wasn’t going to go away so easily. He wouldn’t let it.

It was admittedly too soon for Naohiko to simply shrug off any mentions of Eiji’s kiss with Izumi. Still, he pushed those thoughts away and persisted, “Good people can sometimes do bad things. Doesn’t mean they’re not a good person at the end of the day. Everyone makes mistakes.”

The subway car lurched at that moment and Eiji stumbled forward. He felt Naohiko grab onto his arm, steadying him.

“Still, a good person wouldn’t do something to hurt Taichi,” Eiji retorted. He cringed, the words having come out more biting than he intended. “So, I can’t… I can’t—about her, I just can’t.”

“I suppose not.” Naohiko grimaced. “But maybe you should consider her as well. Consider Ikezawa’s feelings.”

“But—”

“—You wanted my advice, yeah? I think you should just do what feels right to you,” he stated with finality.

It was Eiji’s turn to roll his eyes now. “Like that’s so easy.”

“It’s not,” Naohiko concurred. “But Taichi would understand, even if it takes some time. Ikezawa would too.”

Quietly, he added, “You did too, after all.”

Eiji blinked.

“Yeah. I guess I did.”

 


 

She was reading A Tale of Two Cities this time, he noticed. He only noticed because it was that novel in particular, really. The book had surprised him; he hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as he did. Classic literature generally wasn’t his preference, but the story had been more engaging than he had originally anticipated.

He wondered briefly what she thought of the novel, if it was up to her standards. Wondered if she would want to discuss it with him, if they would debate and deliberate and analyze.

Quietly, his gaze continued to follow her as she flipped through pages, unaware.



Somehow, he felt his heart thump.

 


 

When he stepped out of the school building following the final bell, he saw her standing outside the entrance. She was rummaging through her bag, presumably checking for something. It wasn’t long until she was finished with her task, whatever it had been. Satisfied, she slung her bag over her shoulder and lifted her head.

Their eyes met.

“Aihara.” She nodded towards him in acknowledgment. He returned her greeting with a small smile of his own. She hesitated for a moment, a contemplative look on her face. She eventually tilted her head, questioning, “Would you like to walk to the station together?”

He almost froze. “Ah, well. Sure, why not?”

Well, he could think of a number of reasons. None of them felt like they were valid enough to turn down her simple request, not when they were headed in the same direction anyway. Not when it didn’t mean much, truly. Not when a tiny part in the back of his mind thought that maybe, maybe just this wouldn’t be so wrong.

“... You don’t have to force yourself, Aihara.”

“I’m not—I’m not forcing myself,” he immediately protested.

“Then?” she pressed on, her tone skeptical.

He frowned. “You asked and I just—there’s not really any good… reason for me not to walk with you.”

“You don’t have to explain your reasoning to me, whatever it is,” she replied. “Good or not. You can do as you want.”

“No, no. I’m just… confused.” His brow furrowed.

“What about?”

“I just don’t get it. I—I haven’t done anything to make you like me, Ikezawa,” he found himself saying to her again, the words flowing out of his mouth with no restraint.

She blinked. For a moment she looked slightly taken aback by his remark, but she quickly composed herself. “And I don’t recall doing anything for Senami either, but he still…”

He stiffened at the sound of his friend’s name.

He saw her bite her lower lip in response before continuing, “I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but I don’t think any of us have done anything with specific intentions like that. Unless you think otherwise?”

He could hear her unspoken question.

“No, you’re right,” he admitted.

Because Izumi never did anything in particular herself. It had been everything about her, every laugh, every smile, every time she grabbed his hand to pull him along to their next adventure. There was nothing scheming behind her actions. It just happened.

He looked at Mizuho, her cheeks dusted pink now, and he felt silly for not realizing it himself—it just happened.

“It’s hypocritical of me to want you to look in my direction, when Senami probably wants the same of me. Even though I’m not requesting anything in return from you, I can’t help feeling this way,” she muttered, moreso to herself than to him.

He couldn’t refute her. If anyone was an expert in hypocrisy, it was him.

“I just—I know it sounds bad, but I like you, Aihara. I’ve said it before, but I didn’t want to lead Senami on with false niceties.” She shifted, turning her back towards him. “All I ask now is that you do the same for me.”

The words felt like a direct attack.

He couldn’t help but wonder how she was able to see through him so easily.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” was all he was able to muster, and she turned around to face him once more.

She gave him such a heartbreaking smile, as though she expected nothing more from him than that. He wished it didn’t hurt, that she’d smile for a different reason—and that thought stuck in his mind. But he didn’t know how to take care of someone else’s feelings; he could barely look after his own.

“I understand,” she murmured, a long overdue acceptance.

“No, I’m sorry because I—I don’t know what to say. I need… I need more time,” he elaborated, and felt like a downright blathering fool.

Her smile faltered, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“I understand,” she repeated, and he couldn’t help but think again that she was heart-wrenchingly sincere.

 


 

Needed more time?

How much more time did he need? How much longer was she going to wait?

What did he even need it for?

Maybe he didn’t know what he was supposed to do, but he knew what he couldn’t do.

At least, he thought he did.

Naohiko’s words echoed in his mind, I think you should just do what feels right to you.

He didn’t know what felt right.

It had felt right to help Taichi. It had felt right to try and push Mizuho towards him. It had felt right to encourage him to do his best.

Now in the tangled web of their interlaced relationships, he wasn’t sure what was right anymore.

He wondered if it would be okay to think about her, to look at Mizuho. Really look at her for once, without feeling like he was doing something wrong.

Maybe it would be okay to consider her and her feelings.

Ah.

It was only right to be considerate of someone whose heart he held in his hands, wasn’t it?

If Izumi had known, he realized, then maybe his own heart wouldn’t have hardened so bitterly over the years.

And if there was one thing Eiji was certain of now, it was that he didn’t want Mizuho to become like him.

 


 

The next morning, he walked into the classroom feeling uneasy. She would be there, he knew, probably earlier than him. He would have to acknowledge her, acknowledge it.

Yet as he entered the room, she barely looked at him. Not that she normally did, actually; only if she had something specific to say to him.

He still felt uneasy, somehow.

He knew that he should approach her first, but his feet felt heavy like lead and the weight of their feelings—his own, Taichi’s, Mizuho’s—anchored him to the spot.

So he let the day carry on as usual, as though it were any other day.

He knew he was a coward.

As the days passed, the typical atmosphere continued. She would occasionally scold him whenever she had a valid reason to reprimand him, and he would throw around nonchalant retorts. She would sit at her desk during breaks and read. He would joke around with Naohiko. She would arrive to library duty, punctual as always. He would watch her in class sometimes, and he absently noted her habit of tucking her hair behind her ear.

She let the days continue and he wondered how she made it look so easy.

He remembered how it had felt to drown in feelings, to be left with a heart overflowing. He remembered how it had felt to cling to each passing moment that held a sliver of hope. He thought about every smile Izumi had given him, how his heart had throbbed with each what if.

How it had hurt like hell.

Now, he thought about Mizuho. If she, too, had felt every little thing as strongly.



He thought about Taichi.

 


 

“Aihara.” She approached him one morning before class began. For a moment, he wondered what he had forgotten this time, if she was here to reprimand him again, or if it was finally time. Instead, she said, “The book you requested a while back finally came in. I thought you would want to know.”

He blinked, eyes still bleary from sleep. “Oh yeah? A Tale of Two Cities?”

She nodded.

“That’s cool,” he beamed, suddenly feeling a burst of energy. “How’d you know?

“It’s one of my favourites, so I was keeping track of it,” she answered simply.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you liked it that much.”

“Well, it is a classic.”

He let out a snort. But of course. He should’ve guessed.

“I was more surprised when you said you liked it, though. I thought classics bored you, after all.” She gave him a small smile, easy.

“I can appreciate the fine arts sometimes too, y’know,” he huffed.

“Yes, you can,” she readily agreed. “If you were interested, there are some other classics I think you’d like, since you enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities. Ah, I wrote down a list somewhere...”

He found himself speechless as he watched her rummage through her blazer’s pockets for the list. It wasn’t long until she held out a single piece of paper in front of him, folded neatly.

He stared at it.

“Only… Only if you wanted it, though.” She coughed awkwardly then, and he raised his head to look at her again. Her cheeks were flushed prettily and her teeth worried at her lower lip.

Before she could take back her hand, he reached out and grabbed the slip of paper.

“No, no. That’s just… This is really thoughtful of you.” He stumbled over his words as he unfolded the note. “I appreciate it, Ikezawa. Thank you, really.”

Her hand went to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear as she mumbled a soft, “You’re welcome.”

His eyes skimmed over the text in front of him; there were at least ten recommendations on the list.

He didn’t know if he deserved this kindness from her—she was still waiting, after all—but he wanted it.

He wanted it, he realized.

 


 

LINE Chat: Taichi Senami

Eiji: I need to talk to you

Eiji: in person

Eiji’s hands shook as he put his phone down, waiting for Taichi’s reply. Their conversations on LINE had always been light-hearted before, filled with silly stickers and emoticons. He was afraid it was painfully obvious what he wanted to talk about now with such a serious-sounding message.

The thought had struck him that it would be so much easier to just tell Taichi everything through text, but that wasn’t fair.

None of this was fair.

He could only try to do things in the best way possible. He could only try to do what felt right to him.

His phone vibrated and he swallowed, hard.

LINE Chat: Taichi Senami

Eiji: I need to talk to you

Eiji: in person

Taichi: meet me at the light music club.

Taichi knew.

 


 

When Eiji entered the light music club, he saw Taichi sitting alone, his guitar in his lap. He peered around, half expecting to see Taichi’s clubmates playing around with their own respective instruments. Instead, the room was empty.

“No practice today?” he asked, moving to sit on the chair across from Taichi. He propped his elbows up on his knees and rested his chin in his palms, watching silently as Taichi set his guitar down.

“Nah, it’s why I suggested here,” Taichi stated simply, his fingers fiddling in his lap, “so we’ll have some privacy.”

His mouth felt dry, but Eiji knew he had to speak. “Right. Right, I need to talk to you… about Ikezawa.”

“Yeah, of course. I figured.” He chuckled, a humourless thing, and his gaze drifted to his shoes.

Eiji straightened his back. “I… wanted to talk to you first, Taichi. Before doing anything.”

“Then talk,” his voice sounded clipped.

He let out a breath. His chest felt heavy. Why was this so difficult?

“I don’t want to hurt you, Taichi. Or her, for that matter. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I was trying to do the right thing by… by staying away, I guess.” He let out a sigh. “But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe that isn’t possible.”

Taichi wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t blame him. He selfishly hoped he would, though.

“Honestly, Taichi. I was cheering for you—I really, really did wish she had fallen for you instead,” Eiji pressed on. “I—I don’t know how things turned out this way. They just did. I’m sorry.”

“... Why are you sorry?” He glanced up at Eiji then, his expression shockingly neutral.

Eiji blinked.

“B-Because I totally just messed things up for you!” he sputtered, inexplicably feeling like a fool yet again.

“But you weren’t trying to. You couldn’t have known it’d be like this. You didn’t do anything wrong, Eiji.” He paused. “Did you?”

He numbly shook his head.

It just happened.

“Then how can I be angry at you?”

There were still a number of reasons he could think of, but he bit them back.

Instead, Eiji found himself laughing.

Taichi stared, raising a single eyebrow. “Did I say something weird?”

He shook his head in response and flashed his friend a wry smile. “No, I just wish I was more like you a few years ago.”

“... What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

It was an innocuous question. Taichi deserved to know; he owed him at least that.

Eiji let out a sigh. “I’m sure you already have a bit of an idea. Y’know how Nao and Izumi are together, right? We were all friends a few years ago too, and… I liked her back then. I wanted them to be happy, of course, but it was still so hard watching them together like that when they didn’t know a thing about my feelings. It was hard pretending like it didn’t hurt for years, like they hadn’t left me behind without saying a word to me first about how they felt.”

Eiji breathed, “You make it look so easy.”

“It’s hard for me too, Eiji. Of course it’s hard! Of course I wish things turned out differently for us, for me, but this is just how it is,” his voice shook as he spoke. “But I can’t be mad at you when you did your best for me, I can’t be mad at you when you’re talking to me like this now, and I can’t be mad at Ikezawa for feeling the way she does.”

“And that’s why I wish I had been more like you,” Eiji reiterated. So open about his feelings, so honest, so goddamn understanding.

“I’m sorry, Eiji. That it happened that way for you too,” said Taichi.

“Don’t worry about it.” He waved it off. “It’s all in the past. Besides, I’ve talked it out with Nao already. Izumi too.”

“That’s… I’m glad to hear it.”

The conversation lulled. Taichi’s gaze drifted to his shoes once more. Eiji found himself following suit, his eyes falling to the ground as well. The floor was scuffed, he absently noted. The clubroom was well-used.

He heard a breath and watched as his friend’s posture changed.

Tone firm, Taichi spoke, “Please make her happy, Eiji. I don’t want to see her cry again, not over you.”

He looked up then and saw Taichi observing him with careful eyes.

He swallowed, hard.

“... To be completely honest, I can’t promise you that. I can’t promise I won’t screw things up, because I… I’ve kinda screwed up a lot of things.” He hesitated, the edges of his lips quirking up slightly. “I can, at least, promise you that I’ll do my best.”

“Then do that, Eiji,” Taichi replied, his voice now a whisper. “Do your best.”

“I will,” he echoed, soft. “I will.”

 


 

“I talked with Taichi yesterday,” Eiji spoke up offhandedly.

Naohiko took a pause from his lunch. The cafeteria liveliness continued on as usual, their conversation unbeknownst to any other student.

“How’d it go?”

Eiji poked at his own lunchbox. “Better than expected. The guy’s real mature, y’know.”

“Wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him, huh?” Naohiko mused.

“Guess that’s why you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover.” He found himself smiling.

“So, what are you going to do?” Naohiko finally asked.

“Well, I’ll have to talk with Ikezawa next, and… yeah. Honestly, I think I understand you a lot better, Nao.” He leaned back in his seat, bringing his hands up to rest behind his head.

“How do you mean?”

“You and Izumi. When you guys started dating, and then I was just… there,” he stated.

“I… didn’t know you liked her,” Naohiko admitted, “but I thought there was a possibility. No, I suspected it.”

“I hadn’t said anything about it, so I don’t blame you for not knowing.” He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m still sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize anymore.”

“Still, I should’ve done things differently,” he insisted.

“We can’t change what’s already happened,” Eiji returned, lowering his hands. He pointed a finger at his friend nonchalantly. “Besides, that’s why I’m saying I understand you better now. I liked her, you liked her… you guys liked each other. But it wasn’t that simple, right?”

Leaving him behind.

He continued, “But I… I get it. If you just ran away from your feelings, pretending that things weren’t changing between us, then none of us would’ve really been happy. At least you two were happy because you ran towards something, instead of away.”

He thought about Mizuho, waiting; Taichi, encouraging; and himself, with a final decision to make. It wasn’t going to be the same as the past, no; because this time, he was in Naohiko’s shoes. This time, he could do things differently.

“Honestly, I should’ve been more like Taichi. I should’ve talked to you both a long time ago.” His lips quirked upwards, sardonic.

“I should’ve talked to you too, Eiji,” Naohiko reiterated. “I should’ve done that in the first place.”

Eiji let out a laugh. “God, we’re idiots, having this conversation again.”

He chuckled in return. “We’re just making up for the past, you know?”

“Seriously, Nao, no hard feelings. Not anymore,” he reassured simply.

Naohiko’s eyes softened. “I want you to be happy, Eiji.”

“Thanks.” He smiled. “Me too.”

 


 

LINE Chat: Nao

Eiji: nao

Eiji: have u seen ikezawa anywhere?

Naohiko: ? no

Naohiko: Why?

Naohiko: are you asking me, I mean

Eiji: u talk with her more than me

Naohiko: Eiji

Naohiko: you know her a lot better than I do

Naohiko: you don’t need to be asking me this

He stared at his phone screen, frowning.

The school day was over and there was no library duty today. He wasn’t able to catch Mizuho before he saw her leave the classroom, either. There was a good chance that she was already heading home.

Eiji thought it was possible Naohiko knew of her whereabouts. While he didn’t have Mizuho’s contact information himself, he was sure that Naohiko did. Besides, he knew the two occasionally chatted in class, probably more frequently than he did with her.

He should have pulled her aside earlier.

He should have done a lot of things earlier.

He just hoped it wasn’t too late now.

Instinctively, Eiji found himself heading to the library. It was an obvious choice, really. Almost laughable in its simplicity, but even then, he didn’t want to make a mistake now.

It wasn’t long until he stood in front of the library entrance.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself.

The door slid open with ease and he immediately saw that Mizuho was there, alone, sitting by herself at a table next to a window. She had a book open in her hands, her eyes focused as she read. If she had heard him enter, she didn’t react. He quietly took a few steps towards her until they were only a few feet apart.

The light filtered through the glass behind her, he observed, bathing her in a soft glow.

Somehow, it reminded him of his favourite book, comforting and familiar.

He couldn’t see what she was reading now, but it didn’t matter. He could always ask her about it later—he wanted to ask her about it.

“Ikezawa,” he breathed, and his voice echoed in the quiet of the library.

She startled, almost dropping the book she held. Closing the novel, she turned to face him, eyes wide.

“Aihara,” her voice came out just as soft—gentle, soothing.

“We need to talk, Ikezawa,” he started.

Her lips formed a thin line before she swiftly turned her head away and towards the window. Her silhouette was breathtaking, he couldn’t help but notice. She sounded distant as she said, “I guess it’s about time.”

Time to stop skirting the issue and acting like they were normal, whatever normal was.

“I should’ve said this to you a long time ago. I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” he apologized.

“No, it’s… I told you that I understood,” she muttered.

“Regardless, I’m still sorry.”

He took a step closer.

“And I know you said you weren’t asking for anything in return from me, but… I want to. I want to, Ikezawa.” He sounded desperate to his own ears but he needed her to look at him.

She shifted. “... What do you mean?”

“I want to give you something in return. I want to get to know you better. I want to talk about our favourite books together and I want to eat sweets together. I want to make you smile, Ikezawa. I want you to be happy—I want you to be happy that you fell for someone hopeless like me.” He could feel his face burning, his palms getting sweaty, but he couldn’t stop. Not when he finally found something to run towards. “I don’t know if I’ll be any good, but… I want to try, Ikezawa. Please… Please let me try.”

The seconds ticked by as he waited for her reply, and each passing second felt like an eternity in itself. He wondered how it had felt for her to wait so long for him.

It was unnerving to have her face turned away from him as the silence stretched.

“Please look at me,” his voice cracked.

He took another step towards her. He could almost touch her.

She turned then, her cheeks flushed a deep rose. Tears welled up in her eyes and he wanted nothing more than to wipe them away.

“I honestly thought there was no point to this, that you wouldn’t look my way,” she choked out. “I had accepted it a long time ago, but I still foolishly hoped.”

He let out a chuckle. “Maybe not so foolishly.”

She raised a hand to swipe at a stray tear as a small laugh escaped her lips.

He reached out towards her then and she grasped his hand with her own. It slipped so easily into his, warm.

“I’ll never regret falling for you, Aihara,” she murmured.

“I don’t want you to,” he hummed in response. “And I’ll make sure you never do.”

Quietly, he promised himself that he would take care of her feelings.

She smiled then, something soft and sweet and anything but heartbreaking, and it felt right.