Title: Too Late

Rating: T

Chapter 1: Secrets

I met Natsuki in my third year of college. I was tutoring other students for a little extra cash on the side, and she approached me near the end of the fall term. She'd had to miss a couple weeks of classes due to a bout with pneumonia, and she needed my help to catch up. I was something of a polyglot myself, so fortunately I was able to help her with all of her classes. I did have to forgo tutoring anyone else, but she paid me more than enough to make up for it.

However, after the first couple sessions with her, I would have willingly continued to help her for free. Natsuki was absolutely the most adorable creature I'd ever come across. It wasn't just in her physical appearance – though she certainly was quite pretty – her whole attitude just screamed, "Cute!" to me. Watching her break out in giddiness as she figured out some concept was just priceless. It was like she was my own little puppy, craving my approval and wagging her tail frantically when she got it. I don't know what exactly she liked in me, but we became fast friends and got together regularly even after she no longer needed my help.

I was absolutely enchanted with her, which made it all the more of a shock when I learned that she had a boyfriend. Of course, the fact that she was involved put her off-limits to me, but the fact that it was with a boy also decreased the chance that she'd also be into girls – just in case it ever fell through, I justified to myself. But their relationship showed no such signs of any problems. I learned through talking with her that they'd been exclusive for over a year, and they were obviously quite comfortable together.

Inside, I was torn up by this news. Try as I might, I just couldn't stop myself from feeling for her, though. Fortunately, I was somehow able to hide this side of my feelings from her. Even when I slipped a little and went a bit further than was appropriate between friends, she never seemed to notice that anything was wrong. I learned eventually that I was actually the first female friend she'd ever had, so I guess she probably just had nothing to compare our friendship to.

In the end, I resolved myself to accept whatever of Natsuki I could get. I might never be able to have all of her, but the small glimpses of heaven I got were enough to keep me going. I never was able to get rid of my feelings for her, though. I wish I had; it would have made things a lot easier now and prevented a lot of pain.

At times, I hated myself for feeling the way I did. I met her boyfriend a couple of times, and he was really a great guy. He certainly loved Natsuki very much, and she returned it. I mused at times that he actually seemed like a male version of myself, and this made it impossible to really hate him. I resented him, certainly, for having gotten to Natsuki first, but that was just my problem, not his. I liked to imagine, though, that Natsuki would truly be better off with me, but I couldn't know for sure.

Things continued more or less stably for a while, until one day Natsuki told me something which caused my whole world to shatter. Her boyfriend had proposed to her, and she accepted. All the threads of hope I'd clung onto for so long were cut away from me. Natsuki was claimed as his, and they were soon to cement the union in law – a way I'd never be able to with her, even if we did somehow get together.

I held up a mask of happiness for her as she told me the news. I acted as if I were glad for her, while inside my heart was being torn in two. I excused myself from her presence as soon as I could, though, so I could go home to cry my heart out.

It was pathetic, but it was all I could do. I hated myself for feeling this way. I was supposed to be her friend, and as her friend, I should have simply been happy for her. Maybe how I felt for her made me a bad friend then, but I couldn't help it. I'd tried to stop, I wish I could have stopped, but I failed, and it ended up killing me.

I cried for hours, desperately clutching at my bedsheets, pretending that it was Natsuki there for me. I wasn't one to normally be so emotional, so I really had no good way to handle it. I pictured desperately a world where Natsuki and I could be together, hoping I could descend into that fantasy. As I got more desperate, I would have settled for simply going a bit insane then just so I could believe that fantasy was real and be free of my pain.

It was no good. Nothing I could do would help in the slightest. Life was quite simply being unfair to me. I'd met the girl of my dreams just to learn that she was already taken. I'd never even had a chance to win her heart. It was as if some spiteful god just wished to rub in my face what I'd never be getting. Then, just as I was able to settle into something of a routine with things, she got engaged, proving to me just how cursed I truly was.

I wanted to tell her. My heart screamed at me to open up to her and let her know how I was feeling. But there was just no way I could. The part of me which still cared about being a good friend overruled my heart. I just couldn't go and let her know how much I was hurting on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. For the sake of Natsuki, I had to keep all of this to myself and suffer in silence.

It became harder as the day went on, though. The pain in my heart just kept growing until the chivalrous part of me couldn't hold back against it. It just wasn't fair that I had to hurt this much. I needed to talk to Natsuki. What if this was actually right? I wondered. Could I ever truly forgive myself if I let this pass in silence? I needed to know. I knew I would almost certainly be rejected and ruin our friendship as a result of it, but the slim chance of winning Natsuki was worth it. Our friendship was likely forfeit anyways.

The only thing that held me back was the fear of hurting her. I still cared for her that much, at least. I didn't want to put her through the pain of having to decide and reject either me or her boyfriend. But I still couldn't just stay here, crying alone. Eventually, I came to a compromise with myself. I'd talk to her, ask for her support, but I wouldn't tell her specifically what was bothering me. It would still hurt her a little to know I was in pain, I was sure, but that was the standard toil of friendship.

Having come to this decision, I lay on my back on my bed and tried to steady myself, to stop my tears so I could be somewhat intelligible to her. I reached over my hand and fumbled for my phone on the nightstand. With a final deep breath, I flipped it open and hit the speed-dial for Natsuki.

I held my breath as the phone started ringing. After two rings, I started picturing in my mind what Natsuki might have been up to. Perhaps she was celebrating with her new fiancé. Maybe they were even… I shook my head rapidly to prevent that thought from fully forming. I couldn't take that prospect right now.

"Hello?" Natsuki answered her phone. I struggled to get a grip on myself and figure out what I was going to say.

"Natsuki?" Of course it was her; it was her cell phone after all. But I just couldn't think of anything better to say.

"Shizuru!" She said. Her voice seemed to have filled with cheer as she said this. "What's up?" I pictured Natsuki once more as my little puppy, wagging her tail as she was happy to see me.

My little puppy… My puppy… My Natsuki. Mine.

"I love you."