A/N: This is a what-if scenario involving the café scene in S2E3, though it can be read stand-alone. I have made no attempt to mimic the LN style.


The café lies in the shadow of an overpass. Even on sunny days its sign is difficult to make out, and on cloudy days you can't see it at all unless you're standing right in front of it. Its poor choice of location is likely what has relegated it to obscurity, bordered on either side by restaurants poised proudly in the sunlight. Every time I come, I expect an out-of-business sign strung across the door. But that's why I like it so much.

The place is empty when I arrive, as always. The silence, the lonely chairs, the waitress browsing her phone and hurriedly stashing it away when she sees a customer coming – who in their right minds prefer trendier cafes with their noise and crowds and twenty-minute lines? I order a coffee and take a seat at the counter, warming my hands around the cup, breathing in the smell. Winters in Chiba can be brutal, but the wind howling outside only heightens how warm it is inside. I take out my book – the newest novel by Haruki Murakami, who is a good writer but has problems with pacing – and flip through the pages, trying to remember where I stopped. There is still thirty minutes until the next bus. I think I can stay here forever.

"Yo, Hikigaya. Didn't expect to see you here."

A hand claps me on the back. Hiratsuka sits down next to me with a glass of something that is definitely not coffee. She says, "What are you up to? Shouldn't you be helping out Iroha?"

"Should a teacher really be drinking right after school?" I snap the book shut. Books, like headphones, are social cues not to be disturbed, but even if I'm stiff inside a coffin Hiratsuka will find ways to force me to socialize. She wears her usual black jacket and pants with a red tie, and for once she has ditched her lab coat – why does she wear that thing, anyway? She's a Modern Japanese teacher, not a science teacher. She downs half her glass and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She grins.

"You'll understand when you're older."

I hope not. Becoming an alcoholic before I'm thirty is something that's pretty pathetic, even for me. That's at least one advantage loners have – drinking in high school is reserved for the popular kids who sneak six-packs behind their parents' backs. I've taken sips of wine during New Year's and the memory still burns my tongue. It must be an acquired taste. Hiratsuka has acquired plenty indeed.

Stretching out on the chair, she crosses her arms behind her head. "So? What are you doing here? Never thought I'd see you in a place like this. But then again, it suits you, I suppose. This place also has that dead fish-eyed look."

"Hey!" She can insult me, but she has no right to insult my favorite café. She laughs.

"Just a joke. Well, half of it, anyway. So, have you made any progress with Iroha?"

I grunt.

"I thought you'd have a plan all worked out by now."

I mumble something and even I'm not sure what I said.

"At this rate, Yukinoshita's going to win."

I grunt again.

She seems to get the message. She props her head up against a fist, looking at me with eyes between commiserative and cavalier. I think she thinks she knows what I'm thinking. In the past she must have been like me – she has insinuated as much, but even without her saying anything I would've known. Like attracts like. Perhaps that's the source of the confidence in her gaze, staring into both mirror and crystal ball. Certainly that is the only explanation for the difference between her and Haruno, two women of similar physical attractiveness but such divergent popularity. She wears her smirk like a Harajuku handbag, and there is still a droplet of beer coiling around those lips, carving a path through the lipstick down to her chin before settling on the rise of her breasts, a small damp spot on the cloth. I avert my eyes, staring at my reflection in the coffee.

"What were you reading?" she says.

"I wasn't reading. I was about to read, but then you showed up."

"As a language teacher, it warms my heart to see a student reading serious literature."

"This coming from someone who reads shounen manga all day."

"Nothing wrong with some low-brow stuff once in a while." She takes another drink and reaches into her pocket, pulling out a cigarette, before grimacing and putting it back. "I forgot. No smoking allowed."

"That's gonna kill you early, you know."

"Worried? I'm touched."

"Is that the kind of example a teacher should set for her students?"

She snorts. "I never smoke or drink during class. In my off-hours I do whatever I want. What are the chances a student sees me?"

Quite high, I want to say, seeing as how all the members of the Service Club likely have in situ lung cancer by now. But she has already finished her drink and flags the waitress for another. Judging by the flush of her cheeks, this is not her second. She might have a reputation as a dependable teacher in school, but outside of it she's the most irresponsible adult I've ever met. It's not even six o'clock and already her sense of personal space is compromised, her arm brushing against mine, her hair spilling out on my shoulder. "Drinking is more fun with a buddy," she declares, taking another gulp. Suddenly I am an accomplice to her vice. We are terrible influences on each other. I feel a stab of pity, imagining her reading manga and drinking beer all alone in her room – wait, that's actually what I do all the time (without the beer, of course). She looks at me forlornly. "Pity you're too young to drink."

"Have you considered that maybe your drinking and smoking habits are probably the reason why you're still unmarried – "

She leans in close, slinging an arm around my shoulder. "Care to finish that sentence?"

"What sentence?" Saving her life is not worth the risk of losing mine. Her grip relaxes but she doesn't move her arm. Her body gives off more heat than the radiator, and something round and soft pushes against my shoulder. More than ever I'm glad the place is deserted. The waitress eyes us for several seconds before going back to her phone – it's not what you think, really. Gently, I try to extricate myself, but Hiratsuka clings to me like a child to a parent in some bizarre sort of role-reversal, and she is rambling on about her day at school and how that Home Ec teacher dumped a load of paperwork onto her and how her mother called her yet again nagging her about marriage and how her friend from college invited her to her wedding anniversary, that woman's just rubbing it in at this point, how can someone twenty-seven years old have three children already? When she is done so is her drink. She slams the glass against the table and at last frees my neck from her chokehold. I rub my hand along the spot where her fingers have left red indentations. Some warmth still lingers.

"Don't ever marry some superficial bitch only interested in your money," she says, stabbing a finger at me. "I'll never forgive you if you do."

I can smell the alcohol on her breath, mixed with the scent of her perfume, something sharp, something sweet, a mixture of flowers with names like passionfruit and honeysuckle and hyacinth that she has read about in a magazine which promises to make her desirable to men, and I know this because I, too, once scoured magazines back in middle school for fashion tips that will enhance my image to the girl I had a crush on, only to realize – as I'm sure she realizes – that there is something fundamentally different about us loners, us underground men and women, a part of ourselves we cannot detect but which others can see emblazoned across our chest in fiery strips of gold. And when they see it they pass us by.

But all this cannot be said. In any case it is already understood. I say, "Is that the sort of advice a teacher should give a student?"

"A life lesson. It'll be more useful than trigonometry or whatever it is that you're learning." She sighs, rubbing her eyes. "Thanks, Hikigaya. For listening."

"Not like I had a choice."

She scowls. "This is the part where you're supposed to say, 'No problem.' No tact at all. That's why you're not popular with women."

It's my turn to scowl. Like she has any right to talk about popularity, but I get the feeling if I speak it out loud I will soon be unable to breath. "Shouldn't you be going somewhere? If someone sees us, they're going to think you're playing favorites."

"No, no, they'll think I'm a model teacher helping out a troubled student." She yawns, leaning back so her breasts arch forward. She has loosened her tie and unbuttoned the top button of her shirt. "Problem with you, Hikigaya, is that you're too mature."

"What you're mistaking for maturity is just cynicism."

She laughs, a high note like glass chimes, and if men married woman solely based on the sound of their laughter, she would be divorced six times already. Laughter might even offset her unhealthy habits and help her live longer – it's true, I read it online. "Maybe," she says. "It's difficult to tell sometimes. Kids should be optimistic about the world. Enjoy it while you can. Once you graduate, you'll find out that life is damn harder than you expected. Worst part is, everyone else seems to have it easier than you."

"That's really not helping my cynicism."

"Life lessons." She stands up, placing a hand on my shoulder. "I gotta go. Take care – "

"Huh? Hikigaya? Is that you?"

The voice is familiar in the way screeching violins is familiar. It can't possibly be her – former classmates are like corpses in that you never expect them to rise again – but yes, it is Orimoto Kaori, walking over to us carrying a bag of donuts. Her hair is longer than I remember, and wavier, but the smile on her face is the same smile I remember from middle school, a smile that is the default expression of the face and which has once led me to believe that perhaps here finally is a girl who's interested in me the way I'm interested in her. A sappier guy would call it heartbreak. Next to her is a black-haired girl I don't recognize. They wear uniforms of a school I'm unfamiliar with.

Hiratsuka, who is still standing with her hand on my shoulder, raises an eyebrow. "Friends of yours, Hikigaya?"

She doesn't need to sound quite so disbelieving.

"No," I say. "We're not friends."

"That's harsh, Hikigaya," Orimoto says. "We were middle school classmates! Don't tell me you've forgotten. I'm Orimoto Kaori. You asked me out before!"

Her friend stifles her laughter. "Seriously?"

"You asked a girl out?" Hiratsuka says, giving me a sidelong glance that promises I will never hear the end of it. "Well, well, you're not as spineless as I thought."

"We hadn't talked at all before, so it was a real surprise!" Orimoto says, which is completely untrue. We had spoken and even texted each other, which for her must've been commonplace enough to forget completely. But those conversations had once been the highlights of my day. That's the problem with nice girls. "Well, he didn't talk to anyone, really. He was practically mute! Our class had a laugh at his confession."

"It's all in the past now," I say.

"Right? It was a long time ago, so who cares?" Orimoto says. She and her friend laugh.

I laugh along, and of all the terrible things I've done, including the times I cosplayed back in middle school and the time I pushed Komachi into the river and the time I kicked a stray dog and he started to bleed from the mouth and I ran away and to this day I wonder if the dog died, that laughter inside the café with Orimoto and her friend is the worst. Courage is easy to talk about but impossible to practice. Hiratsuka looks at me with an unreadable expression on her face, except her eyes are wet and shining and I fear for her job if it ever becomes known she punched two students in a café when her blood alcohol content is in the double digits.

"Who's this?" Orimoto turns to Hiratsuka, oblivious to the danger. "Your girlfriend?"

"No way!" her friend answers even though the question is clearly rhetorical. "She's way out of his league!"

"Ha ha. This is my teacher – "

"Yeah, I'm his girlfriend," Hiratsuka says sharply. "Got a problem with that?"

Their laughter freezes mid-syllable. Hiratsuka crosses her arms, leaning against the counter. We three stare at her. The challenge hangs in the air like a guillotine blade. She wears the same countenance as that of Oda Nobunaga in his temple at Kyoto, staring down a sky of burning arrows as the screams of his men erupt from below. Perhaps courage is not so impossible.

Orimoto is the first to recover. "Congrats, Hikigaya! I knew you could do it."

Her friend is still staring from me to Hiratsuka, Hiratsuka to me. For a moment she catches Hiratsuka's eye – she flinches and turns away, tugging at Orimoto's sleeve.

"Well, good luck to you," Orimoto says. "We'll be going. Catch you later, Hikigaya!"

Her friend practically bolts for the door. How easily people ignore what they don't accept. I'm a little insulted. Is it really so unbelievable that a person like Hiratsuka can be my girlfriend? Alright, maybe on the surface, yes, if you just go by physical appearance. But dig deeper beneath my skin and you'll find an intelligent young man with a heart of gold, wise in all the ways of the world, honest and virtuous to a fault, who is occasionally a victim of circumstance. Dig deeper beneath Hiratsuka's skin and you'll find a woman more bitter than grapefruit soaked in lemon juice. But a noble woman nonetheless, I think, staring at her face bronzed by the sunset. But mostly bitter.

Just before they are out of earshot, Hiratsuka mutters, "Dumb bitch."

She sits down, fishing out a cigarette. She takes a single drag, then extinguishes it with her thumb and throws it away.

"You didn't need to do that," I say quietly.

"Of course I did."

"It would've been fine."

She growls. "You asked someone like her out? Here I thought you had good judgement, if nothing else. If Yuigahama and Yukinoshita hear about this, they're going to kill you."

"Orimoto's not so terrible." The moment I say it I realize it's a mistake. Hiratsuka slams her fist against the counter, her voice cracking with disbelief.

"You're defending her!"

Orimoto really is not so terrible. Hurtful, yes, but not terrible; she is incapable of terror. Malice has no place in her heart, and though her words can kill she murders inadvertently. I could never bring myself to hate her; it would've been easy had she simply been cruel. That's the problem with nice girls. But Hiratsuka cannot see it. She has so much venom herself she cannot fathom it lacking in others, and for every act there must be a reason, a motive, a hidden meaning. The muscles of her jaw are clenched enough to pale. She is angrier with me than she was with the girls. She was not simply standing up for me. She was standing up for herself – in Orimoto she saw the life and personality she has tried to cultivate; where Orimoto's flowered, hers withered.

"It's in the past," I say. "More importantly, if anybody at school hears you're going out with a student, you're definitely going to be fired."

She waves her hand. "Oh, please."

The sky is dark. My coffee has coagulated, and it is the small pains in life, I think, staring down at the black liquid, that add up and outweigh the big ones. Hiratsuka splays against the counter, arms hanging over the edge, as if all her energy has dissipated along with the warmth. My bus will be here soon. The city has fallen quiet around us, broken only by the occasional rumble of a car with headlights illuminating the walls like beacons. Tomorrow is a school day. I will wake up early and so will she, and when we see each other at school no word of today's incident will pass between us, but we will understand each other a bit better, I think, tomorrow.

She stands up, absentmindedly fishing for another cigarette. "Take care, Hikigaya."

"See you later, sweetheart."

The cigarette slips from her fingers. She stares at me, blinking very slowly, then her face turns the same color as her tie and she splutters, "What the hell was that? Don't act like I'm actually your girlfriend!"

I was joking, maybe. She speaks rapidly to the floor tiles, citing the responsibility of teachers, the fleeting desires of puberty, legal consent laws. Her flustered face is too cute. A twenty-something-almost-thirty woman has no right to be this cute. I laugh, a real, genuine laugh that adds at least two years to my life expectancy. She glares at me.

"Don't get any bright ideas, idiot. Student-teacher relationships are strictly forbidden."

She stalks away, hands in her pockets, another cigarette in her lips. Forbidden, indeed. Even I can do better. Just as she reaches the door, she turns around, smoke curling around her face. The light from the red ash tip does what no amount of makeup can. So softly that I hear her less through her voice than through the motions of her lips, she says:

"Grow up soon, Hikigaya."

Then she is gone, and I wonder why graduation feels so far away.