Chapter 9: Meeting Place
My hand hovered above the wooden door.
Hadn't I been in this exact same position before? My hand hovered slightly above a door that I didn't really want to enter, but knew I had to anyways? Yeah, a few times actually.
The only difference now was that this door wasn't the entrance to a room in the special building; instead it was the electronically locked passageway into a middle-class apartment in the greater Chiba area.
I chuckled dryly at the irony. At this point, I felt like I'd rather deal with a hundred awkward club meetings than do what I was about to do.
How the grass always seemed to be greener…
Being a realist meant that you saw situations for how they were going to be and not how you'd like them to be. I wanted to believe that this whole situation could be discussed calmly and rationally by two adults and that we could figure out our feelings and everything after coming clean and baring our souls to one another, but…
But I knew that wasn't going to happen. It might have been possible were the two individuals in question two completely different people, but that wasn't the case. I could only see this devolving into an argument, and subsequently a fight. The only thing I could do at that point would be to hope that the damage from the blowback would be minimal.
I let out a breath and wrapped my knuckles on the door.
After a moment, it opened with a hydraulic hiss and exposed a tired looking Hiratsuka-sensei on the other side.
I complied, and walked into the familiar apartment living room. It looked pretty much the same as I'd remembered it, save for a few more empty cans of beer than normal spread out around the counters and table surfaces.
After motioning for me to sit down on her small couch, she walked over to the fridge and returned with two cans of yebisu beer.
"Want one?" she muttered.
I contemplated her offer for a second before shrugging. I supposed it wouldn't hurt to bolster up my own courage with that of the liquid variety.
She tossed it to me and we both took a sip after pulling on the tabs.
Instead of sitting down, Hiratsuka-sensei leaned against the corner of the counter, one hand stuffed into her pants pocket.
"So," she started. "Now that we're all comfy, would you mind explaining why the hell you've been avoiding me all week?"
Judging from her tone, it seemed like her patience was running thin today. However, that was to be expected given the circumstances.
I didn't want to flat out tell her the real reason for my absences lately, but I felt that telling her a boldfaced lie wouldn't be an effective strategy either. She wasn't lying when she said that she was good at reading me… Her Hikigaya-vision really was second-to-none, it was scary actually.
Either way, I settled on responding in as noncommittal a way as possible.
"Ah… I don't know. I've just been busy with some things I guess."
She gave a half-lidded glare in response to my answer, one that clearly communicated that she wasn't in the mood for any sort of antics.
"Don't mess around Hikigaya," she said lowly. "I'm being serious here."
Her expression said it all. Unfaltering seriousness with a slight hint of turmoil behind her eyes.
I felt a wave of guilt surge through me, but even so, almost as quickly as it came, that guilt was dulled as an image of a snarling Hiratsuka-sensei suddenly flashed into my mind. I had to physically fight back a chill at the imagined sight.
I deliberated on what to say for a second before settling on a quiet apology. "…Right. Sorry."
She glanced sideways at me, almost as if to check my expression for sincerity. Out of the corner of my vision, I could see her eyes waver slightly before finally relaxing. She let out a heavy sigh.
"Look Hikigaya, I'm not stupid," she eventually said. "I know that what we have isn't what most people might call a normal relationship… and I know that I haven't been the best or even most receptive girlfriend lately..." I was tempted to say something out of agreement, but I stopped myself before the words could come out.
"But what you did… Just blowing me off for a week without giving me any kind of heads up or explanation… That's just… That's really towing the line. I don't know what else to call it," she breathed out emotionally. Her fingers that were holding the can of beer wrapped around hard enough to make a sound.
The guilt that hit me as I heard those words was palpable, and unlike before, it didn't dissipate immediately or even at all. Instead, it lingered in my stomach as I stared at the floor.
I recall saying similar words to Hiratsuka-sensei when she refused to talk to me after our kiss on the night of the Autumn Festival. It had felt horrible to be ignored so completely, to not even have a chance to communicate or say what was on my mind. She must've felt the exact same way now that I did back then…
I opened my mouth and a pathetic sound ended up coming out.
I really didn't know what to say. There were so many things on my mind, but I felt like none of them were the right thing to say at that moment. Yes, it was my fault that I had blown her off for so long, and I really did feel guilty about it… but there were other things to consider here.
What about Yukinoshita? …What about what I saw? What about the fact that Hiratsuka-sensei had hid what had happened from me?
Although, I suppose that last one wasn't technically her fault given that I was the one who had been avoiding her. It's not like she'd had much of a chance to tell me.
Even so, I was clueless about how to proceed and how best to eventually address the issue that needed addressing. How was one supposed to broach a time bomb without expecting to get flattened in the process?
I inwardly sighed. Regardless, where it applied to the topic at hand, I was in the wrong. At the very least, I owed her an apology.
Swallowing my uneasiness with a gulp, I eventually spoke. "Yeah. I know I should've returned your calls," I said weakly. "…Sorry."
Upon hearing those apologetic words, Hiratsuka-sensei grew quiet for a moment and her head turned towards me. Although my own gaze was still turned at my shoes, I could feel the unmistakable prickle of eyes fixed upon me.
Eventually the shuffling of clothing and a soft sigh was heard. "You do sound like you mean it…"
"I do," I said honestly.
I took the opportunity to glance at her out of the corner of my eye. She had straightened up somewhat and her face looked a little bit more relaxed, but there was still weariness there.
"…Well, I'm glad that you're sorry. That's a start," she began. "But I don't think it would be right if we were to leave things as they are. There's still too much that hasn't been said."
After saying this, she straightened up her posture, and then let out a long breath through her nostrils.
"It's not that I particularly enjoy starting painful conversations, but if we don't talk about everything now, the issue is going to fester like a bad wound," she said. This time, she looked straight at me and I couldn't bring myself to peel my eyes from her intense gaze. "Relationships are built on trust and communication, Hikigaya. You can be upset or even plain snarling angry, but if there's no chance to talk about the issue then nothing's ever going to get solved. You know that right?"
Human communication… It never was one of my strong suits, and based on Hiratsuka-sensei's past track record with relationships, I doubted it was one of her specialties either.
Still, what she said was true. If the past few weeks of me avoiding Hiratsuka-sensei proved anything, it was that a lack of communication didn't do anything even remotely positive for a relationship. All that tip-toeing around and purposely dodging her calls made the situation worse, if anything.
For Hiratsuka-sensei, it probably made her paranoid and frustrated that her attempts at contacting me were completely denied without explanation. As for me, all that time spent away from her, all that time spent without knowing Hiratsuka-sensei's side of the story… I'm sure it only exacerbated the uneasy feelings I had towards her now.
Realizing that I couldn't keep her waiting forever, I eventually swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat and gave a stiff nod.
Hiratsuka-sensei let out another breath and closed her eyes.
"Okay. At least we can both agree on that," she breathed. "Let's start at the top then. What's the real reason you've been avoiding me all week, Hikigaya?" she asked with a serious expression crossing her features.
This time, it was my turn to close my eyes. This was the so called moment of truth... the reason for both of our anxieties in the past week and a half.
The inevitable discussion of this topic had the potential to destroy the tenuous something that we had created… and then some. Whatever fragile relationship we'd started might be snuffed out in an instant if this was all handled incorrectly. Put simply, this certainly wasn't something to be taken lightly.
…Ah, screw it.
"The conversation you had with Yukinoshita in the teacher's lounge last week? I heard everything," I said rather quickly and practically all at once.
In those moments following my rather candid confession, time seemed to slow down... at least for me. I couldn't say I knew what Hiratsuka-sensei was thinking as she heard and registered my words.
The breath that I had sucked in seemed to stay lodged in my lungs as I watched Hiratsuka-sensei's face for a response.
At first, confusion. Then, slowly but surely, like roots spreading and entangling a forest floor, shock etched itself in her face.
The words that came out of her mouth next were flustered and betrayed her surprise.
"…My conversation with Yukinoshita? What are you talking about? I talked with her a number of times last week… You'll need to be more specific…"
There were few things in life that I could say that I was truly good at.
Sure, I was decent in humanities and I could type 120 words per minute on the computer. I was a decent shot in online fps games and I was good at taking orders at the part time job I held two summers ago. I was an above average cook and I could make a decent batch of coffee if I really had to. I was okay at all these things, but never extraordinary.
However, there always was one thing that I could confidently say that I was gifted at—a skill that I believed I had truly mastered over years of study and refinement.
And all of those instincts and skills I had built up throughout my life from studying people and the minutiae of their behaviors, they were all screaming at me: this is what a cornered animal looks like. This is someone, undeniably, on the defense.
I looked at Hiratsuka-sensei's grim expression before continuing.
"I heard what you guys were talking about. I know that Yukinoshita wants me out of the club, and I heard what happened after."
Truth be told, I was more than tired of all the dancing around I'd been doing with Hiratsuka-sensei lately. Probably because I felt so fed up with all this secrecy and inward contemplation, I wanted to put everything on the table at once and do so in as straightforward a way as possible. That's why I felt I should come out straight with the truth.
"Oh… I see…" she said, nearly under her breath. Her expression became unreadable to me. Her mouth was pulled tight in a hard line, and while I could tell that her eyes were deep in thought, it was a shot in the dark as to what those thoughts actually were.
"Yeah…" I eventually said, while leaning further back into the cushions of her couch. I sat there awkwardly while fiddling with the can of beer in my hands.
Although she had offered that cryptic statement of understanding, it seemed as if either she didn't have anything to say beyond that, or she was waiting for me to say something.
After a few moments had passed and silence still hung in the air, I decided that I should offer something to break that quiet. However, before I could, I heard a question being uttered.
"…So," her low voice started. "…you agree with me then right?"
Upon hearing those words, my eyes shot up towards Hiratsuka-sensei's face and I registered her markedly different expression. While before, her face looked grim and drawn, now she looked stern and even… I couldn't quite place it, but she looked a bit… irritated.
"Agree with you? What do you mean?" I asked in my state of surprise.
"That you're better off without that manipulative little bitch bossing you around," Hiratsuka-sensei answered.
My eyes widened at her venom-tinged words.
Whoa, I wasn't looking for a repeat performance here…
"Erm… maybe you should take it easy with the name calling," I said uneasily.
Hiratsuka-sensei glared at me out of the corner of her eye. She gave a low scoff.
"After hearing everything she said, you're seriously going to defend her?"
"No, it's not that I'm defending her…" I said as I struggled to pick the correct words. "…It's just that name calling isn't going to accomplish anything here." I swallowed the dryness in my throat.
I didn't know how it had so suddenly come to this. I felt disoriented, like the world had shifted on its head.
Hiratsuka-sensei had seemed taken aback when I'd revealed that I'd been witness to her conversation with Yukinoshita… I thought for sure that she would try to make an excuse or deny it or something… But instead, now she was going on the offensive. Clearly, she was admitting to her actions, but instead of trying to apologize for them, she was obstinately standing behind them.
I didn't know how to react.
"You're wrong about that one, Hikigaya. What it accomplishes is that it makes me feel better," she said as she pulled out and lit a cigarette.
'Real mature sensei…' I couldn't help but think inwardly.
Normally, me calling Hiratsuka-sensei out for her immaturity was something that we both might be able to laugh over, but in this case, it felt far more contemptible than humorous.
"Whatever, that's beside the point anyways. My original question still stands: do you agree with me?" she said with a puff of her cigarette.
My nose twitched at the smell of smoke. I sighed. "I don't know if I'd call her manipulative..." I began. "…But it was a pretty crappy thing for her to do, coming to you before talking about it with me first," I eventually said.
I wasn't going to lie. I didn't know what Yukinoshita's true intentions were when she'd come to Hiratsuka-sensei to ask to remove me from the Service Club, but even if she really did have my interests at heart, what she did sure as hell felt like a backstab. I couldn't say that I had purely positive feelings towards her at this point either.
"See! I knew you'd agree with me," Hiratsuka-sensei exclaimed, perhaps a little too eagerly. "You've been in the club for a while now, but I've been Yukinoshita's counselor for two years. You don't know her like I do." She took another drag of her cigarette before continuing. "She may put up a confident front, but deep down she's insecure, and that insecurity leads to volatility… She's always been like that. She's unsure of herself so she lashes out at other people to try to put them on her level. Don't take it personally, Hikigaya."
Although it was brief, I noticed the shadow of a grimace cross Hiratsuka-sensei's face for a fraction of a second. She let out a cough and pounded her chest once.
"Anyways, that's done and over with. As you heard, I took you out of the club. You won't have to deal with that mess anymore."
"I guess…" I muttered.
I wouldn't have to deal with that mess anymore huh…
I took a second to appreciate what all of this meant. As things stood, my membership as a Service Club volunteer was now officially revoked and ended. I don't know if it was Yukinoshita or Hiratsuka-sensei that was ultimately responsible for that revocation, but I was no longer part of that group… It was a tie that had been severed.
I felt a sting of sadness wash over me, but I did my best to brush it off. Maybe Hiratsuka-sensei was right… Maybe I was better off without the club and without the presence of those other two in my life…
I mean, I suppose it wasn't like Yukinoshita or Yuigahama really needed me or anything right..? They'd gotten along fine without me the past month or two, and I felt confident that they'd be able to handle any new issues that might end up coming their way. Perhaps… In the end, I had simply grown superfluous.
Fine then. Hiratsuka-sensei was right. That was that.
I let out a conclusive breath and opened my eyes.
Still. Even with that said, there were still other things that I felt needed to be addressed.
"…Even if she was being rude though, I don't think you should've talked to Yukinoshita that way. You were way too harsh," I said.
Hiratsuka-sensei turned to me suddenly, as if she weren't at all expecting me to say something like that.
"Me? Are you kidding? I…" she started. Although it clearly seemed like Hiratsuka-sensei was once again entering a defensive stance, as she looked at me, the fire that sparked in her eyes eventually faded and she let out a deep sigh. "Alright…" she breathed. "I may have gotten a bit carried away when I was speaking to her that day. I guess that wasn't an acceptable way for a teacher to speak to a student… regardless of the circumstances," she added under her breath.
Although her statement was qualifying, hearing it did make me feel a little bit better. I couldn't ever hope to understand why Hiratsuka-sensei had initially exploded at Yukinoshita the way she did, but at the very least she could admit that she'd made a mistake.
I took the opportunity to really look at Hiratsuka-sensei.
Outwardly, she was familiar to me… Her long, silky black hair, her hard but feminine features, and her slightly dirty lab coat. All of these things were familiar to me as Hiratsuka-sensei—as my immature teacher who had problems with men, and more recently, as my girlfriend who was wild in bed and who laughed a little bit too hard at lame old shounen animes.
But in the end, it wasn't her physical features that gave me pause… Instead, it was what laid behind those features that caught me off guard.
I thought I'd had somewhat of a grasp on her personality after spending so much time in her presence, but it turned out that I might not have comprehended much at all. There was a lot under the surface that I simply hadn't seen.
I'd always known that Hiratsuka-sensei had an edge to her. To put it into simple terms, any teacher who's capable of threatening her student with physical punishments, half-jokingly or not, can already be identified as an outlier among educational professionals. To top that off, she has quite the mouth for a lady of her age and profession, and she also sports some particularly nasty habits. Ones that any sane parent would wag their finger at her for.
Essentially, Hiratsuka-sensei was a teacher who talked rough, smoked like a chimney, and drank like a fish. She didn't take shit from anyone and she was tough… Again, I admired these aspects of her. I admired that edge.
However, I never knew that that side of her went beyond the realms of simple capability and reserved strength. Instead, it apparently could extend towards the realm of… I didn't know the word for it. Pettiness? Malice?
The side of her I'd seen when she was arguing with Yukinoshita was something that made me—if not afraid—then at the very least more weary of her than I felt comfortable being.
And that didn't make me feel good at all.
I sighed, and thought back to the conversation at hand.
In conclusion, it all boiled down to this.
Hiratsuka-sensei had let me know how she felt. Although I couldn't say that I agreed at all with her methods or how she had handled the situation, I had no choice but to accept her reasons and go from there.
Although I hadn't known that this side of her had existed, the fact of the matter was that it did. It did, and I was still committed to that person that that side belonged to, after all.
I'd been the one to say those infamous words back then.
"I want to try."
I had started this… I had selfishly told her that I had wanted to see where this led, even when she had begged me to reconsider.
…This, whatever this was, we were in it together. It wasn't my call to end things.
So, I would stick by Hiratsuka-sensei's side and accept her for who she was… even if that person did make me feel uneasy.
"…So, I guess we've both gotten the answers we've been searching for these past few weeks then, haven't we?" Hiratsuka-sensei asked after a period of silence.
I snapped out of my daze and nodded.
"Yeah. I guess we have."
"So… are there any other things we should talk about?" Hiratsuka-sensei played with the cigarette in her hand, almost nervously. "…Or are we good?" she asked carefully.
Sure, I felt like there were a lot more things to discuss, and there were a lot more issues that should be hammered out here while we had the chance, but… But, Hiratsuka-sensei had said her piece. She had stated her position clearly and in plain Japanese. Hitting her with the third degree now would serve absolutely no purpose. If anything, it would make this terrible situation evenworse and would strain things between us even further.
"…We're good," I eventually answered.
She let out a loud sigh of relief. "Okay. Thank God. That heavy atmosphere was starting to choke the life out of me," she said as she very abruptly and quickly closed the distance between us and plopped down on the couch next to me. I flinched.
She wrapped one of her arms slightly around me and I couldn't help but shiver a bit under her touch.
"What's wrong? Are you cold?" she asked.
"No. No, I'm just not feeling so well," I answered vaguely. "…Must be all the exam studying getting to me I guess."
She retracted her arm a bit and looked at me curiously. "So even after all this, you've still been keeping up with your studies huh?" she let out a small laugh. "Not bad Hikigaya, not bad. I'm a little impressed actually." She sat upright on the couch, perching one arm up against the back. "Your future is pretty important, after all."
"You don't need to remind me. My parents already do that every day," I answered.
She chuckled before sighing, "I guess that means you're not down for some hot make up sex then?"
I found myself coughing at that sudden, unexpected statement before regaining my bearings. "…Not tonight. Some other time, maybe."
She let out a small pout, but nodded. "Fine. I don't want to push you if you're not feeling up to it," she said. "But trust me when I say it… Make up sex makes everything better. There's nothing better than going a round after hating someone's guts for a week."
I blinked once. For some reason, her statement made my palms itch.
I stood up from the couch and grabbed my school bag off the floor.
I wasn't lying when I'd told her that I was feeling a little bit queasy. Granted, it wasn't necessarily from the studying I'd been doing lately, but still. It wasn't a total lie.
As I walked to the front door to show myself out, I found myself stopped by a question.
"Hikigaya…" Hiratsuka-sensei's voice started. "Tell me… Are we really good?"
The expression that she wore on her face displayed vulnerability so evident and visible that I found myself struck speechless for a second. This was a genuine question on her part, and I could tell that the only thing she was looking for in that moment was the truth and that alone.
I nodded. "Yeah, we're good."
And it was true. At least, as true as it could be.
After I heard that word, I shut the door to her apartment.
I was breathing heavily as I glided down the dusk-bathed street on my bicycle. The air was cold and as my fingertips and neck began to burn from exposure, I realized that I wasn't at all dressed properly for the weather.
I'd left Hiratsuka-sensei's apartment roughly fifteen minutes ago and now I was biking through one of the busier shopping districts of downtown Chiba on my way back home. As I passed by the soft, inviting glow of one of my favorite downtown coffee shops, I found my eye instinctively drawn to something familiar.
In the dim yellow lighting of that store, a curtain of fine black hair and piercing blue eyes stared out at me over the brim of a leather wrapped book.
I screeched my bicycle to a halt and stared back.
In that moment, I realized how truly cold it was outside.
...I decided I could spare a few moments to stop for a drink at my favorite café.
AN: Hey readers, it's been a long time since the last update... again. To be honest, I had a really hard time deciding on where the story should head after the events of chapter seven. That was a sort of a turning point, and from there I couldn't decide what I wanted to happen next. One day, one path would make perfect sense to me and the next, I wanted the complete opposite to happen. As a result, I had to struggle and rewrite this chapter many times before I felt reasonably satisfied with it. Apologies to all the readers who have been waiting so long for this new chapter, but I hope you guys enjoyed reading it. I don't want to raise any false hope with optimistic promises but I hope to get the next chapter out soon.