Chapter 11: Maybe

A few days had passed since my conversations with Hiratsuka-sensei and Yukinoshita.

I spent the weekend doing absolutely nothing. Well, as close to nothing as humanly possible without literally doing nothing. Yes, my weekend mostly consisted of lazing around the apartment hunting monsters on my Vita and gorging on chips and other equally non-nutritious junk.

...I had sent a few messages to Hiratsuka-sensei, but each time she had answered with somewhat short responses. Judging from the tone of her messages, it didn't necessarily sound like she was upset, but of course, trying to read someone's intentions over text alone was a fool's errand. Eventually, I gave up and decided that I would just talk to her when I saw her at school.

The conversation we had had in her apartment a few days prior still lingered in my mind. It had felt like something of a resolution, but I couldn't lie and say that everything suddenly felt like normal again—not that they were all that normal to begin with. Still, I didn't exactly know where we stood at the moment and it filled me with a sense of unease.

I was snapped out of my thoughts by the quiet click of the sliding door a few feet in front of me. I immediately lifted my head that had been resting on my desk and my eyes landed on a tall woman donned in a lab coat and slacks.

Seeming to pay me no mind, she made her way straight to the podium. I tried reading her expression but it was surprisingly inscrutable.

As soon as she made it to the front of the room, she immediately began to address the class.

"Good afternoon, everyone," she started. "As you all know, you have an exam next week, and unfortunately, we still haven't completely made it through the most recent chapter. I'll take responsibility for that," she added. "In order to make up for lost time, we're going to be moving a lot faster this week, so take good notes and make sure you review them every night, understood?"

Upon hearing that, the class responded in a chorus of moans and weak affirmatives.

Oh. Right. The big exam.

I really should've been studying for it over the weekend instead of doing nothing, but at the time I just couldn't bring myself to crack open those heavy books. Even if I had, I somehow doubted my mind would've been clear and focused enough to absorb any of the information regardless.

Normally, I didn't bother to study for Japanese exams but Hiratsuka-sensei mentioned that this particular one was worth thirty-five-percent of our grade. Normally I could bullshit my way through writing an in-class paper but this test not only covered general writing principles but it also required that we read an outside book and write an essay about its themes or something. Basically, unless I really dedicated time to studying this week, I was going to bomb that exam.

"Everyone, please open your books to page 246. We'll start there," Hiratsuka-sensei said.

Obligingly, I thumbed to the page and listened as Hiratsuka-sensei began her lecture.

The lecture wasn't anything special; like she had said, she was moving at a pace that was significantly faster than normal, but even so, I didn't have much of an issue keeping up with her. She spent a part of the lecture discussing a recent short story that we'd read in class and then moved on to a lesson about sentence structure.

Although the lecture itself was pretty ordinary, one thing that stuck out as abnormal was that occasionally, Hiratsuka-sensei would look in my direction and when our eyes inevitably locked, she would quickly turn away. At first I thought it was merely a coincidence, but after it happened two more times after that, I realized that she was purposely avoiding my gaze.

So her evasiveness over the weekend wasn't just my imagination then. ...She felt it too.

It hurt a little.

I would be naive if I believed that a simple chat would've instantly and miraculously fixed all of our issues. That conversation had left me feeling uneasy; it was no surprise that Hiratsuka-sensei also felt something similar.

Perhaps I had gone too far in ignoring her for so long and had messed up our relationship irreparably. Maybe I had pushed her too hard somewhere along the line. Maybe I took more than I gave. Maybe it was a little bit of everything going wrong that led us to where we were now.

I didn't know for sure, but if she was angry with me, I guess I couldn't really blame her for it.

I closed my notebook and set my pen down. I slumped my head back into my arms and decided to tune the rest of the lesson out.

"...please? I've been super busy lately and it would help me out so much. Please sensei, I swear I'll have it ready by this weekend!"

I continued to pack my belongings into my bag as those words drifted into my ears. My eyes couldn't help but drift towards the source of that noise.

Those words had belonged to Misaki... or something. I couldn't quite remember his name but judging from the sound of it, it appeared he was begging Hiratsuka-sensei for an extension on his paper.

In fact, looking over at Hiratsuka-sensei's desk, it appeared that quite a crowd had amassed in front of her.

Likely, they were all there for similar reasons. There was a major test coming up and now that the semester was starting to come to an end, students would inevitably begin to beg for extensions or try to turn in papers that were due months ago. And if those meager requests failed to elicit the desired response, the question of " there any extra credit I can do to raise my grade?" would inevitably arise.

Before long, they all began to speak over one another.

I didn't envy her position at all. Being a teacher didn't seem like the worst job in the world, but it was still work of course.

Hiratsuka-sensei was surprisingly patient when it came to situations like these. She liked to play the role of the hardass teacher, but more often than not, she would give in to the requests of her students… or at least do her best to meet them halfway. She was tough but fair… That's who she was to me. That's how I had seen her for so long.

However, at the moment, she looked more than a little overwhelmed.

As those students continued to ramble and beg, Hiratsuka-sensei's eyes suddenly locked with mine and her mouth opened slightly.

I froze up, but after a moment, I was the one to look away.

I felt a bit bad for her, but honestly, it's not like there was much I could do.

...And even if there was, I wasn't sure she would want me to do anything at all.

I grabbed my bag and slung it over my shoulder. I sighed.

I'll try to text her later tonight...

I stood from my seat and made my way towards the door. However, as I slid the wooden panels open and was about to step outside, I was stopped by a slightly frantic statement.

"...Hikigaya! Don't leave yet please. I want to talk to you about something."

That voice belonged to Hiratsuka-sensei. I turned and regarded her for a moment. Her grey eyes seemed uncharacteristically subdued.

The other students in line turned to look at me curiously and I couldn't help but feel my cheeks heat slightly at their gazes.

"Oh… Sure," I responded. I took my seat again.

As I settled back into my polished wooden chair, I couldn't help but feel surprised at Hiratsuka-sensei's request.

Judging from how she'd been acting earlier, the last thing I was expecting was her asking me to stay.

Of course, I still didn't know why she had asked me to stay. Maybe this was where she told me that she hated me, never wanted to see me again, and was going to give me an F on the upcoming exam just for shits and giggles.

I somehow found the notion simultaneously amusing and nauseating.

I sat at my desk for a while, doing my best to read the light novel I had packed while tuning out the conversation drifting into my ears. Needless to say, between the background noise and the unease I felt, I was barely able to finish more than five pages before giving up entirely.

After a while, what had seemed like an endless sea of students slowed to a trickle, and eventually, dissipated altogether.

As the final student exited through the doors, Hiratsuka-sensei and I were left alone in the quiet classroom.

I sat at my seat a little more expectantly than I would have liked.

Normally, Hiratsuka-sensei would've called me over in some sort of loud and brash fashion, but this time, she didn't. As that last student left, she decided to look down at her papers as if there were some urgent issue capturing her attention there.

I sat there and kept my gaze fixed on her.

I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of annoyance.

Come on. I've already spent twenty minutes longer here than I should have, so whatever you have to say sensei, just say it and get it over with already.

I started to tap my foot impatiently.

Eventually I heard a soft sigh and an almost silent "Can you come over here?"

My foot stopped its rhythmic assault on the linoleum.

I shut my book and scooted my seat from the desk. It screeched and I thought I saw Hiratsuka-sensei flinch.

I slowly walked over, and eventually, I came face to face with her.

Her face that was pointed towards her papers shifted ever so slightly and she coughed before beginning.

"Hikigaya," she began weakly.

I grunted quietly in acknowledgement.

She opened her mouth to say something but no sound came out. Her eyes shifted back towards her desk and she took her silence once again.

Despite myself, annoyance washed over me. "Whatever you're going to say, just say it," I said under my breath.

She must have heard me because I saw her shoulders stiffen.

Her grey eyes finally lifted to meet mine dead on. For some reason, they were shinier than normal and I might have been imagining it, but they looked… sad, somehow.

Her expression caught me completely off guard.

There's a saying that an expression is worth a million words or something to that effect–that a look can say more than words ever could.

I wasn't sure I had ever seen Hiratsuka-sensei look so… vulnerable before.

At that moment, seeing that expression melted away my sense of irritation.

Her eyes were locked onto mine and I couldn't bring myself to look away. We sat there for a moment–I wasn't quite sure how long had passed–until finally, her mouth once again opened to say something.

"...Sorry you had to wait so long," she eventually said. Her voice was quiet–just above a whisper.

"Ah… I-It's not like I had anything to do anyway," I responded awkwardly.

She sighed a brief sigh before pulling her coat more tightly around herself. She coughed again. Eventually, she said, "Either way, you're right. I should just say what I kept you here to say already."

My voice caught in my throat. "O-Oh… What I said, I didn't necessarily mean–"

She raised her hand and waved it back and forth slowly. "No. It's fine, Hikigaya. Really."

I didn't really know how to respond to that so I just kept quiet and nodded sheepishly.

It was weird. We were acting so… strangely around each other now. Hiratsuka-sensei wasn't at all her loud and vivacious self today and it completely changed the way I approached my interactions with her.

It set an odd tone… and I couldn't say I liked it much.

Still, despite her unusual behavior, it wasn't like the end result would change. I was sure I knew why she had asked me to stay behind. I was sure I knew what she wanted to talk about; prolonging the inevitable wouldn't help anyone.

So I braced myself.

"Hikigaya…" Her quiet voice trailed off like smoke. She shifted her head to face her lap. It took another moment before she was able to finish that sentence. "I'm... sorry."

I looked at her in surprise.

I had been expecting her to yell at me or make some grandiose display of anger or condescension, but an apology was the last thing I had been expecting.

The only words I could manage to pathetically squeak out were, "for what?"

She angled her gaze from her lap ever so slightly and the reflection of the pink sunset streaming in through the windows shone in her grey eyes.

She sighed. "For a lot of things. For everything."

Her response didn't do much to alleviate my confusion.

She scoffed quietly. "I think... just now was the first time I've ever said sorry to you in our whole time of knowing each other," she said with a sad smile. "Or at least the first time I've said it and seriously meant it."

"M-Maybe," I managed to stutter out.

She chuckled quietly but I felt like there was little warmth in her laugh.

"...Am I a fucked up person, Hikigaya?"

My eyes widened upon hearing that sudden question.

"No…" I answered. I didn't know if that was the right thing to say in that moment, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

She didn't respond for a bit after that. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and began to stare out the window at the sunset.

"I'm not so sure about that," she eventually said.

I watched her delicate face that was bathed in swaths of orange and deep pink. Her brow was furled and her mouth curved into a deep frown. "I think there's something wrong with me. Something wrong that I don't know if I can even fix."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I don't know…" she began honestly. "Sometimes I just feel like… I don't know what I'm doing anymore."

Her features were scrunched up and her mouth was tight as she continued to stare out that window.

"I wake up with this sense of dread sometimes and I don't even know why. I think I've been... scared," she started. "For so long now. And I'm so tired of it."

I didn't completely understand what she was getting at. She spoke vaguely and her eyes looked distant as if she were recalling some long forgotten memory.

"...Scared of what?" I eventually asked.

She turned to look at me and our gazes locked. Her face quickly transformed into a deep scowl and her teeth grit together.

Her voice suddenly crashed like thunder.

"I don't know!" she boomed. "I'm scared of losing things I guess! I'm sick of not knowing the right thing to say or do to you or anyone else! I'm tired of pushing people away and not knowing how to control myself! I'm sick of always fucking things up for myself and everyone around me!"

Her voice carried clearly across the classroom and echoed off the walls. I couldn't help but take a step back at her sudden and powerful outburst.

It was the loudest I had ever heard her speak.

However, her next few words were soft and subdued.

"I'm tired…" she sighed. "Tired of ruining everything just by being me."

Her face looked pained now and her eyes somehow looked simultaneously exhausted and ablaze.

Was she talking about our relationship? Or was it something from her past?

...Maybe it was both.

On their surface, her words didn't make complete logical sense and I didn't know exactly what she meant, but for some odd reason... I felt like I could understand where she was coming from.

I think that those pained words were some of the most honest I had ever heard her speak.

They were candid, vulnerable, and above all… distinctly human.

She buried her hands in her face. "See? I'm sorry, Hikigaya. For everything. For not treating you like I should have, for being temperamental all the time, for the situation with Yukinoshita and the damn service club, for getting you mixed up in this fucked up situation with me in the first place. I'm sorry."

Her voice sounded wet.

I don't know why but I felt a surge of confidence well up in me. Maybe it was hearing Hiratsuka's broken tone that triggered the not often seen caring side of my personality to surface in full force.

"Hey," I said firmly. "You're making it sound like everything was your fault."

I focused my gaze on her.

"You're not the only one to feel that way," I continued shakily. "You know, about being… scared. I don't know what I'm doing half the time either. Hell, probably way more than half the time," I said. I tried to still my shaking voice. "I don't think I've been a great... partner or even a good one. I haven't done my best to communicate with you... and I'm sorry for that," I admitted. "So don't blame it all on yourself. We've had our issues… but there's no way in hell that all the blame falls on you. It takes two to tango… or whatever they say."

What Hiratsuka-sensei had said wasn't necessarily false. I don't think the way that she's been acting recently was ideal or perfect in any sense… but that doesn't mean that I was blameless in any of it. I certainly wasn't.

I ignored her for my own sake. I chose not to discuss things. I more often than not chose to push our problems to the side rather than deal with them simply because it was less painful for me that way. I let things boil over because I too was scared.

...In my mind, I think I blamed her for the emptiness and disappointment I felt, but I think I was being self-centered and obtuse. The thing that I had initially wanted with her was likely something I had constructed for myself. I think I let my expectations and desires overshadow the reality in front of me. And it made me a worse person and partner for it.

She turned her gaze towards me and I saw the reflection of her slightly damp cheek. "...Even if that's true, your share of the blame is microscopic compared to mine," she said. "I know I've been a royal bitch and having to deal with me has probably been terrible for you. After all, how could it not be when you're stuck with me for a partner?" The tone of that question was quiet and serious.

"That's not true," I sighed. "And besides, it's not a contest," I said seriously. "I know I don't have much experience with… relationships, but I know that trying to assign blame to one party for everything that goes wrong is a quick way to breed resentment."

It was human nature to want to escape your portion of the blame.

Nobody wants to be wrong and even moreso, nobody wants to be blamed. To that end, if a person is, for whatever reason, willing to accept the blame, then they're never doing so without a reason. If they're willing to sacrifice their own pride for it, whatever it is that they're sacrificing it for might just be something that they care about deeply.

I found that oddly stirring.

"I think that… we're both at fault," I eventually said. My voice came out quietly. "...How about we leave it at that?"

As I asked that question, I turned my eyes to regard Hiratsuka-sensei's face. Her cheek was still slightly shiny but her expression had changed. It seemed slightly less wrought with emotion.

Her grey eyes were wide and her lip that had been trembling finally stilled.

We sat there in silence for a while until Hiratsuka-sensei finally spoke again after a sigh.

Her lip curved up in the faintest shadow of a smirk. "Could you please stop being such a gentleman and just let me wallow in my own self-pity for a while?"

"Sorry. Can't do that," I answered reflexively.

Hiratsuka-sensei let out a chuckle–one that lacked the sarcasm of the previous.

Despite the tension that had been permeating the room just a few moments earlier, I felt my chest begin to give way and I chuckled too.

We laughed for a while, our chests heaving and our bodies draining of tension.

As my laughs finally slowed, my mind began to refocus on the current situation at hand.

"So we both messed up a bit, huh?" Hiratsuka-sensei asked almost wryly.

"Pretty much," I answered.

Hiratsuka-sensei sighed and the slightly carefree expression she'd been wearing started to dissolve ever so slightly. "Even so, I… I don't think I can leave things there. As much as I might want to."

I felt my body stiffen at those words.

There was more that she wanted to say? I thought we'd both said plenty already…

"I think I said a little more than I meant to earlier…" Hiratsuka-sensei began. Her face tinged pink upon saying these words and that surprised me. It honestly felt like it had been ages since I'd last seen her visibly blush. "But still, I meant what I said."

She closed her eyes for a brief moment before returning her gaze to mine. "I've… always been scared. I've always been afraid to lose the things that I value most in my life. I think I've always pushed the people most important to me away out of some stupid sense of self-preservation."

She laughed a quiet, bitter laugh. "And look what good that's done me. I'm a thirty year old woman. Unmarried. Practically friendless with the only thing coming close a cousin in Kagawa, but she's basically a frenemy anyway, so it's a moot point."

Hiratsuka-sensei shook her head as if to regather her thoughts. "What I'm trying to say is that I've always… kept myself at a distance. I haven't been fair to you–"

At this, I opened my mouth to say something, but I was hushed by a raised finger and a shush from Hiratsuka-sensei.

"I know you think we share the blame, and maybe we do, but that doesn't change how I feel about the way I've acted towards you," she said.

I closed my mouth. It was clear that she didn't want me to interrupt her, so I decided to respect her wishes and keep quiet. "I haven't been fair to you. I know you've been pushing for us to be… closer. To get to know one another more… fully and intimately," she continued quietly. "And I know I haven't shown it, but… I want that too. I really do. Again, I think I've just been… scared."

The sad smile from earlier returned to her face and she looked down at her lap.

"Getting close to people hurts, Hikigaya. The more expectations and desires and hopes you put on a relationship… the more it devastates you when you realize that the thing you were chasing and the thing you expected to find at the end of that tunnel… maybe wasn't as real as you had once thought."

Those words rang in my head. They sounded awfully familiar to the ones that I had constructed in my own mind just a short while ago.

Relationships were fragile. Not just romantic relationships, but relationships of any kind. They were delicate and they required a give and take that was as exhausting as it was maddening. One tiny slip up and the thing that you had been tirelessly working to build up could come crashing down around you like a castle made of dry sand.

Hiratsuka-sensei was right. Making yourself vulnerable and baring your soul for someone to see was an incredibly risky proposition. Once you made yourself vulnerable, you had to trust that the person in front of you wouldn't destroy that piece of you that you'd tentatively offered.

She was afraid, and I understood that. Perhaps she had been hurt in the past one too many times. I didn't know for sure, and honestly… I didn't need to know.

Her past was her business and the only thing I could do was to try my best to understand the person in front of me and hope that she wanted to be understood.

I opened my mouth to speak but once again, Hiratsuka-sensei took the initiative and filled that silence with her own quiet words. "If I'm being honest, Hikigaya, I've never felt this strongly about someone before in my entire life," she said softly. "I said the same thing before in this very classroom in this very spot some time ago, that it scared me. The truth is that it still scares me."

She was right. A few months ago, we had been in this same spot yelling and arguing with each other. What she had said back then… about being scared… I didn't fully understand it then, but with her words today, I felt like I understood her more now.

"But… I'm sick of it. I'm sick to death of being scared. I think… that the things in life that are truly valuable are worth risking everything for. And I'm sorry I haven't done that in the past," she said. "But I… I want to try. I want to give it everything I have and if that means sacrificing everything, then fuck it, I'll do that too because I really care about you, Hikigaya Hachiman."

Upon hearing those words dripping with honest emotion, my heart started to beat out of my chest.

Those words… they struck a profound chord with me.

People hurt each other every day. Even those with the best intentions would inevitably hurt someone around them. Doing something could hurt someone just as easily as not doing something could then hurt someone else.

It was human nature to hurt and to be hurt.

...But even so, that doesn't mean a person can or should live their life scared to ever reach for more.

If you ever wanted to achieve something for yourself–something truly genuine and real–you would have to put yourself on the line… no matter how terrifying of a prospect that might be.

With those words, Hiratsuka-sensei put herself out there…. She put herself on the line… and she did it for me.

My cheeks were bright red.

I was stunned and I couldn't get a word out as my mind continued to process that heartfelt declaration.

Slowly and subtly, Hiratsuka-sensei's features began to fall and her grey eyes pointed towards the floor. "...Oh. After all that happened, I know that things between us aren't the same as they used to be…" she sighed. "So I–"

I closed the gap between us as quickly as I could and wrapped my arms around her.

I brought my lips to hers and kissed her as deeply as I possibly could.

At first, she reeled in slight surprise, but before long, she returned it and our mouths and tongues intertwined.

Her lips tasted like a mix of vanilla, salt, and tobacco.

I found it more intoxicating than usual.

This kiss was different than the lust-filled ones we had shared in her apartment. If anything, it actually reminded me of our first kiss in her car after the Autumn Festival.

But even so, this one still felt different. Somehow, it felt more satisfying and more... real.

I was also scared, of course. I had been from the very start.

But… she meant a lot to me too, and I'd be damned if I was going to let her put in her all and not do the same for her.

AN: Hello readers, as always sorry for the long wait time between chapters. I think I've finally been able to nail down the direction I want to head in with this story so hopefully updates should be more timely from here on out. Thank you to all those who review, favorite, and follow. It really motivates me!