Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. I do not own the inspired song, Holocene by Bon Iver.
Author's Note: This is an outtake from Natsume's POV before the epilogue… but on the epilogue.
Chapter 25.999: The Break Up
"… there are a couple of important aspects you have to pay attention to while the meeting progresses. You want to make certain you are listening carefully to your clients, whether it be the standard way or even visually. Any shift in their tones, any nuances in their words and any discrepancies in their body language can tip you off. Good businessmen can read the emotions in the atmosphere and use them to their advantage. If the client has a lot of influence and could be detrimental to Hyuuga Corp., then it is imperative to try to cut a deal that will please the clients, but also not hurt us in the long run. We want to be making as much profit as possible without jeopardizing any of our stockholders and employees. Hyuuga Corp. prides itself on being one of the best employers in Asia and it's in our best interests to keep it as such."
"What Saeki left out is the importance to set the tone of the meeting at the get-go. No client wants to invest or be part of a company that doesn't seem promising and the key to a promising company is a promising CEO. You need to be firm, confident and knowledgeable. Though many like to flatter and cater to their clients, Hyuuga Corp. has always embodied the business side of being business partners. Your father was always able to get into the heart of the matter and never tried to deviate away from the topic at hand. He always made it apparent at the very beginning that it wasn't he who needed them, but they who needed him. You should briefly go over the topics central to the meeting before pitching your ideas first. Once you've pitched your deal, they will voice some concerns or compromises they would like to see. At this point in time, you take a second to draw your conclusions from all of the concerns and requests your potential clients have voiced and seek a beneficial outcome for all parties—"
I pressed my hand against the phone in my pocket without tearing my eyes away from the four executive members of Hyuuga Corp. Three of them were old friends and partners of father and the other was a senior executive hired by Grandma when she was alive. The more they spoke, the more they tended to speak of him. The more they spoke of him, the more connected I felt with him, despite the fact that he was gone.
Every word and every piece of advice they gave me made images of my father surface at the forefront of my mind.
I wanted to be just like him.
"—are always alternatives to the materials we are using. Hyuuga Corp. has not seen success, however, by looking and buying inferior materials. Though it is perfectly possible to find durable materials at a low price, more often than not, less expensive materials have a causal relationship with how flimsy and weak the end product will be. We need to have the best to be the best if we hope to embody the best there is in Asia—"
I smoothly plucked the phone from my pocket before clicking it off entirely.
It wasn't smooth enough, though, because when I stuffed the small device back into my pocket, four sets of eyes were on me with fond smiles on their faces.
Mr. Youhei looked at his watch before looking back at me with a smile in his eyes. "You know what?" he started kindly, "Let's adjourn for the afternoon. Sometimes we forget you're just a boy fresh out of high school. I'm sure you have a pretty girl to entertain, don't you? And here you are, catering to the whims of four old men."
A boy fresh out of high school?
I shook my head. "No, I wasn't being inattentive—"
Mr. Li chuckled warmly before sharing a look with his fellow executives. "Natsume, you needn't worry about proving yourself. We know you to be the attentive, driven and passionate man your father was. Despite the colour, you both have the same eyes. You know where you want to be and you'll push yourself to get there. It's an admirable trait in a child of your age. If my grandson was half as motivated as you—"
"Besides," Mr. Youhei was nudged by Mr. Saeki. "We all know about your special friend. Surely all this time you've spent with us has limited the time you've spent with her. All work and no play makes Natsume a dull boy, no? Women have patience, young man, but if there is one thing I know about women, it's that they don't have very much of it."
"Why, Hiro, I think that's the best advice we've given him all day."
They all shared a laugh, but I couldn't help the frisson of pain at the back of my head. I couldn't remember the last time we made time to be together. With her in university and Hyuuga Corp. just within my reach, there just wasn't any time for us. When was the last time we talked? When—
"It was good seeing you, men," Mr. Li stood up and took the jacket perched carefully over his chair. He threw it over his shoulders and buttoned up the two buttons before turning to the room in general. "I suppose we'll take this back up bright and early in the morning. Perhaps we'll even start you sitting in on a business meeting, Natsume," he winked.
I stood up with the rest of them, feeling both unprepared. "Thank you for your time," I said lowly, bowing slightly as they gathered their things.
As they spoke on their way out, I grabbed my suit jacket from the back of the chair and rubbed my forehead. They were already starting me in on meetings; I didn't know exactly what to expect. Hypothetical and textbook examples would certainly differ from reality and the margin for error was limitless.
I blinked up to see that Mr. Youhei was standing at the entrance of the conference room with a wrinkly, kind smile on his face that reminded me of old Mr. Miya, Mikan's father's friend from Nagoya. He waited patiently as I strode over and clapped a hand on my back as we walked into the hallway leading to the lobby of the 24th floor. "You look like you've got a lot on your mind, son. Care to enlighten an old man?"
I looked at him from the corner of my eyes. "You're not that old."
And he wasn't. He looked to be in his very late forties or early fifties.
"Flattery will only win you points with the ladies," he chuckled a hiccupping laugh. "Now tell me your sins. There's no use being burdened by useless thoughts when you're young."
I shrugged, not knowing what to say. "I'm fine, Mr. Youhei."
"You're worried about tomorrow, aren't you? I knew Li shouldn't have told you about the meeting." I didn't respond, so he continued unhurriedly as we bypassed a group of employees to get to the elevators. "Listen, son, you don't need to worry about anything tomorrow. All you'll be doing is seeing how a typical Hyuuga Corp. employee deals with our clients just to see how to go about it. It's very basic and you won't be doing any talking yourself. It is routine for executive members to pick employees at random to supervise once in a while and tomorrow will be one of those days. Once you've seen and heard how a typical meeting goes, you can ask any questions you may have to either the employee or us and we'll be happy to answer your questions."
I took a moment to soak in his words before I repeated myself. "I wasn't nervous about the meeting."
He smiled indulgently and I could feel a ball of heat spread across my spine. "Then what are you thinking about, Natsume? If it's about Hyuuga Corp., I can ease your worries. You're a natural learner. You soak up information with the ease of a sponge. You'll do well here when you stop doubting yourself." After a moment's pause when the elevator doors opened, he laughed. "Tell me if I'm wrong. I'd hate to be telling you things you care nothing about. I'm going out on a limb trying to guess the thoughts floating around that young mind of yours."
I smirked and told him I appreciated his words before we reached the front doors of the company.
"Listen, if you've got any questions or worries, feel free to ring me, won't you?" he asked kindly. "It's either I talk to you or my wife. If I'm being honest, I would much rather be talking to you—"
I smirked at that before the man waved a hand in the air and left through the swinging doors.
It wasn't until I was at my apartment across town waiting for takeout to arrive that I remembered the phone I turned off at the meeting. It had been going off all day and it wasn't until then that I actually had time to check, or remembered to. The phone took a second to boot up before the screen turned on in time to show I had more than a dozen text messages, four missed calls and a voicemail.
I checked the voicemail first.
"Natsume, it's me. Wait, you probably don't even recognize my voice… Look, it's Mikan. I know you're busy. You're always busy, but… I need an hour of your time within the next few days. We need to talk and I think this should happen in person. I hope you're doing well. Get back to me soon. Bye."
The text messages that followed were a blur.
I could only see the words, we need to talk, imprinted on my eyelids.
I never believed I was a masochist until I started playing the voicemail over and over whenever I had free time. Between meetings and conferences, waiting for dinner or for an appointment, the phone was by my ear with her voice, almost detached, asking me to meet her to talk. I heard enough about the meaning of those four words to know I was screwed.
She wanted to break up.
Logically, it wasn't the only conclusion but it certainly was the one at the forefront of my mind. We hadn't spoken in weeks, really spoken, and I couldn't conjure up an acceptable picture of her in my mind. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen her in the flesh. I could remember her eyes, the colour of her skin and the faint sound of her laughter, but the parts were hazy and the whole was indistinguishable. I wasn't nearly old enough to be losing my memory. What did that mean?
In comparison to the first year we were together, my thoughts were dominated by work more than they had ever been dominated by her. Considering I used to think about her a lot, that must mean something.
Half of me thought breaking up was for the best.
When I said this to Ruka, he looked at me like I had two heads. "I really can't tell if you're being serious. Hell, Natsume, that's not even funny! You'll go crazy just at the thought of her being with anybody else but you. Don't even pretend you won't. You wouldn't be able to make it out alive without her."
Ruka was an asshole.
"Do I look like the type to joke?" I unbuttoned my suit jacket and draped it over the kitchen chair before I settled on the seat across from him. "I have work and she has university. We're too busy to have a phone call twice a week. It was a matter of time." I picked up my glass of water and drank slowly before setting it back down. Judging by Ruka's frown, he wasn't pleased. I felt like I needed to explain. "I forget about her while I'm working. It won't be so bad." I could feel something hard in my throat. "Maybe we grew apart."
"Talking about maybes doesn't mean you're talking about certainties," Ruka pointed out, leaning back against the couch. "I just don't want you to do something you'll regret."
The way he said it made me defensive. "You think I'm going to regret this."
He looked at me, scrutinizing for a moment, before he shrugged. "Honestly? Yeah."
Half of me thought he was saying this because Imai and Polka were close and he didn't know how to handle situations like this. The other half thought he was an asshole.
"She's the one that wants to break up with me," I pointed out bitterly, clenching my right hand so hard my knuckles cracked. "If she thinks we should break up, then this obviously isn't working for her. We both deserve better than uncertainties."
His stare was more curious than frustrated. "Who are you and what did you do with Natsume Hyuuga? Because that actually sounded smart. Natsume Hyuuga and relationship knowledge does not compute." I flipped him the bird and watched as he laughed. It didn't last. "But seriously," his chuckles were winding down, "—you think you're going to be okay not having her?"
I didn't know.
I could hardly remember a time before her. We'd been together for three and a half years and I'd known her for four. It was strange to think that a fifth of my life was spent with her.
Would I be okay without her?
There was no real answer to that question.
Since knowing Mikan, we were never truly apart in the figurative sense of the word. Despite that first summer abroad, classes and campus made seeing her everyday easy. Summers were spent watching movies, cloud-gazing and talking about whatever she could come up with. She went to family dinners with me at least once every three months and her mother appeared fond of me. When I thought about it now—about our heated arguments about stupid things like toothpaste and what that cloud looked like and my tendency to leave in the middle of anything too nice—it was a wonder Polka put up with me for so long.
I tipped my head back against the couch. "It won't be so hard."
"Are you trying to convince me?" Ruka's voice was part amused. "You sound like you're trying to convince yourself."
I didn't know.
Maybe I was.
I was being honest; I did forget about her while I was at work. It consumed me, took all of my energy and left me feeling accomplished, empowered and one step closer to having everything I've ever wanted. Considering the amount of time I thought of work, I forgot about Mikan a lot. Considering how much I planned to work in the future, perhaps it was better to do this now rather than wait.
I could do without Mikan Sakura, I decided.
I survived sixteen years without her and I could survive the next few decades without her. We were young. It would be foolish to think about serious commitments when we were only twenty years old. There was time for other things. There were places I wanted to go and experiences I wanted to have. There were six and half billion people in the world, approximately half of which who were girls. There were other girls.
I could do without Mikan Sakura.
"I'm not trying to convince anyone," I said decidedly, unclenching my hands. "I'll be fine without her."
Ruka didn't even try to keep the dubious edge out of his voice. "If you say so. Just… keep in mind you don't actually have to break up. Just talk to her about it. You both have a weird way of communicating to each other, always beating around the bush and not saying what you really want."
"Half the time, girls don't even know what the fuck they want," I pointed out dryly. "You'd better not hold your breath. I don't talk about my feelings."
Ruka rolled his eyes. "I figured you were going to say something like that." He sat up and folded his hands together across his bent knees as if he was ready for a serious conversation. "You're both stubborn as hell, but just… sometimes swallowing your pride is the best choice. You can't expect Mikan to keep holding on to you when she's never certain about where she stands."
"Is that what she told you?" I hated the thought that she could talk to everyone but me. The dark feeling in my chest expanded. "That I don't flaunt and spoil her enough?"
Ruka frowned immediately, sitting back with surprise. "What? No! Do you even hear what you're saying? That doesn't sound anything like Mikan. What is wrong with you?" I was glaring hard at the spot over his shoulder, but Ruka wasn't daunted. "I don't know what's really going on in your head, Natsume, but don't talk about Mikan like that. You're only going to feel bad about it later and the last thing anybody wants is for you to start feeling it. You tend to get… destructive."
I could feel the irritation itching through my veins and fought the urge to flip Ruka the bird once again. "If Polka Dots didn't say it, then obviously you've thought about it. You don't think I treat her right?"
"I think you have your own special way of treating her," Ruka said carefully. "It's not exactly conventional. You argue with her every chance you get and you're not exactly forthcoming in the way you use your words. Obviously I don't know what you're like when you're together alone, but you're not exactly the romantic type. You said it yourself; you don't talk about your feelings. Mikan's a girl. Secretly, I think she's weak for stuff like that." He paused before shaking his head and standing up. "Forget what I said. I don't know what I'm talking about. You've been together for three years. Obviously something's working for you."
I grunted with new thoughts hammering inside my mind.
Ruka pulled his coat off the coat rack but didn't put it on. "I have no right to give advice since I think everybody's different, but Natsume, as your best friend, I'm telling you this: don't do something unless it's really what you want. There's no use regretting anything, right?"
I sat tapping my fingers against the armrest in thought long after he was gone.
I was ready to take whatever Polka could give me.
It was a decision I was certain about the night before and, as I walked toward the park where we used to walk on late school nights, I was certain I could stand by it. I'd thought about it long enough to know that there was no point thinking about circumstances that might not come to pass. If she wanted to break up, I could be fine with it. If she wanted to talk, I could listen. If she just wanted to reminisce or go grab coffee, I could have time for that too. I'd taken the whole afternoon off, after all.
The confidence, the certainty, in those thoughts didn't prepare me for the sharp blow to my chest when I finally saw her.
In that moment, I wondered how I could have possibly forgotten her, how it was possible she wasn't a dominant fixture in my thoughts every minute of every day. Was I really that much of an idiot to have neglected to make time for her until now?
Suddenly… suddenly, I could feel the ironclad grip on my windpipe.
It wasn't cold.
On the contrary, it was smoldering hot. Summer had always been ridiculous but it seemed to get hotter as every year passed. I blamed the humidity for making it that much harder to breathe. Seeing her now, like this, I wondered again how I could have ever forgotten.
Every step was a resonating march to the gallows.
When I was close, she stood up slowly with a small, hesitant smile on her lips.
It didn't look right. Not on her.
Her skin was still pale except for the orange glow to the apples of her cheeks due to the sun and heat. She was beautiful, in her own way. I felt a sharp pain of guilt for ever forgetting it. How could I have forgotten? Long eyelashes and the gentle slope of her nose. Pale pink lips, slightly dry, and the usual plait of brown hair hanging down the curve of her shoulder. I didn't know why she liked ponytails and plaiting so much, but whenever her hair was like this, I wanted to pull the elastic from it and let the strands free, to feel the softness by running my fingers through her hair.
I released a ragged breath before clenching my fists from inside my pockets.
"Thanks for meeting me, Natsume."
There was no hello or toothy smile. No dorky laugh or teasing remark. When had it come to this point where she thanked me for seeing her? Were we really strangers now? It had never been like this, not even in the beginning. Why was it so suffocating?
I closed my eyes in a slow blink. "It's fine." But it's not. Why would you thank me?
She moved to sit down on the park bench once more and after a moment, I followed suit. Why she wanted to do this here while it was blazing hot was a wonder. Why she wanted to do this in our park was another fact I couldn't understand. More and more, I wished she would start ranting about random facts from those books she was so fond of.
The silence was oppressive.
"You look well," she said finally, forcing the words out like they were stuck in her throat. "That's good. I thought you'd have dark circles under your eyes from working all of the time at least." Her chuckle was bittersweet. Her next words were barely a whisper. "It figures that you're still perfect."
I didn't know what to say. This small talk was making me anxious.
"You're done for the semester."
It wasn't a question but she nodded anyway. "I'm on summer break now for the next few months. I'm going to work with mom's editor this summer. As an assistant, you know? I don't think I got to tell you about it."
I closed my eyes and grunted. No, you didn't tell me anything about it.
The heat was getting to me. I could feel a drop slide between my shoulder blades and the rise in my annoyance. If she had something to say, she could just say it. There was no use extending the torture. When had I even associated torture with talking to Polka Dots anyway?
Fuck, we really were going downhill.
She was talking about something else, her voice low and airy, talking about nothing at all. I couldn't take it anymore and turned sharply to look at her on the bench. Her shirt was loose and her shorts were tiny, appropriate for the weather but anything but for this conversation.
I couldn't help the annoyance that attached to my every word. "What are we really doing here, Polka Dots?"
Once the words were out of my mouth, the pounding in my chest started, increasing in its pace.
She looked over in annoyance and I was immediately struck with a bit of relief. "You're as rude as ever," she remarked with an edge to her voice. "Fine. I should have known I was another appointment in your busy schedule," her voice was bitter. "How much time do I have? I'll keep my words short and concise for you then."
I blinked when it dawned on me. "You're not an appointment." My voice was firm. "I took the entire afternoon off." For you.
A frown twisted her lips. "Then why are you always in such a hurry? We never see each other anymore, Natsume. It's nice that you took the entire afternoon off for this, but you shouldn't sound so defensive or proud about it. You're saying it like you did me a huge favour." She exhaled sharply before her eyes glared over my shoulder. "Don't you think it's a little sad that your girlfriend had to call to ask you to make time after not seeing you for three weeks? You might think I'm overreacting, but when we live in the same city, barely a ten minute drive from each other, it's completely ridiculous."
When she said it like that…
I exhaled slowly. "I've been busy with work."
"I know," she said softly. "Trust me, I know. It's not like I'm not busy with school either. I like that you're happy working, but how is this really going to work, Natsume? I don't want to give you ultimatums. I'm not going to ask you to choose me over everything else because I don't want to be like those girls… you know those girls… but Natsume, can't you see?" She sounded so helpless. "It's just not fair."
"What do you want me to do?" The words came out irritated and strained. Ruka's voice resonated in my mind and I immediately put them to use. "What do you want?"
Her eyes clashed with mine, and for a moment, time stood still as I held my breath. Before long, she looked away. "I want…" She breathed out slowly and clenched her fists in her lap. "I want to be able to hang out again… talk again." She lowered her eyes and her lips looked soft. "Haven't you noticed at all, Natsume? We haven't talked in forever."
"I've noticed," I said honestly.
Brown eyes flashed to mine once more. "If you noticed, why haven't you done anything about it? It's always me. I'm always the one calling you to find that you won't pick up. I'm always the one sending you fifteen texts a day to which you don't bother responding. It's just… it's really cold, Natsume. What am I supposed to think? And when you do call me back at the end of the day, we barely say two words to each other. Things are just… different now. I don't like it."
I don't like it either.
I wanted to say something, but I couldn't string two coherent sentences together.
It was frustrating, this anxious anticipation building up in my chest. I was hyper aware of the impact of her words, of the way she was sitting, dejected in her little summer shorts, and yet, the only thought repeating itself in my head was that I didn't want to let her go. It was selfish and honest and unfair. I had no words for her.
"What do you want?" she said quietly, staring out into the distance. "Be honest."
But I couldn't breathe, could hardly even think.
A moment, a long moment, passed before she shifted her eyes back to me. The eye contact made me freeze. "What do you want, Natsume?" she repeated, but her voice was soft and resigned and I could see the defeat in her shoulders.
I hated disappointing her.
I swallowed past the dry spell in my throat. "Time." It wasn't the word I wanted, but it was reasonable and apt. It was true. I did want time.
I thought it was a suitable response.
"Time," she repeated and despite the quiet in her voice, it sounded undesirable. She fiddled with the edges of her shorts for a moment before her eyes were back on mine. They were full of resolve. "We should break up, Natsume." The comment was as casual as a remark on the weather. "It will give you plenty of time to do whatever you want."
"That's not what I meant."
"What else would you suggest?" She bolted to her feet. Her voice was hard and unrelenting. "You're always working and I have school and now work. No matter how hard I try, we barely talk anymore. We must've changed a lot over the last few months because I can hardly recognize us anymore. We're like strangers," she spat the word, saying the words I couldn't say. "It used to be so easy with us but it's all changed. Are we even the same people anymore? I don't know because I don't know who I am when I'm not with you and I haven't seen you for weeks. I don't see how it's going to work unless—"
She broke off and clenched her fists by her sides. She closed her eyes tight. "Tell me how it's going to be any different if we're together after this. Give me one reason. I just need one."
I was speechless, bitter.
She had already given up. It was apparent in every line of her body, in the way she refused to open her eyes and look at me. How could she give up so easily? Hadn't we always fought to make it work? Through that first summer, through her hospitalization, through it all. She was giving up.
"You can't tell me you're going to be working any less," she said, calmer. "You can't tell me it'll be like it used to be. We're growing up, Natsume. Maybe our stories are meant to be different from this point on."
"You believe that," I asked tonelessly, watching as her eyes slowly pried open to show complete resignation.
She shrugged before her arms crossed over her chest. "I believe… I don't know what I believe. I just know that I'm unhappy with the way things are now. Can you say you're happy?" Her eyes bore into mine. "You've been so distant. It's like your name is here, familiar and right beside me, but you're nowhere to be found. Even now, here, you're right here in front of me and I can barely recognize what we once were."
I listened to every word, but I could only focus on the way my hands were trembling in my pockets. She wasn't saying anything I hadn't already thought of, but hearing the words coming out from her lips, from that soft, disappointed voice, made the severity of the situation strike me hard in the gut. Had I really disappointed her to this point? Had I neglected her so much that she believed it impossible for us to stay together?
I couldn't look at her.
The soft crunch of her footsteps was dull in the back of my mind.
Warm hands and soft fingers brushed my cheek and neck and I opened my eyes long enough to see sorrowful brown eyes close. Her lips were soft, softer than they looked. Fingers brushed against my jaw like feathers.
I could feel her eyelashes on my cheeks.
In a flash, I could feel the panic rise inside me.
I must have been rough, but I needed her close. My lips were urgent; my hands held her to me. Couldn't she feel this? Why? Why do you want to end us? And I didn't know why, didn't know anything in this one moment except that I needed her beyond comprehension. Why? There were no words. To anybody else, she was nothing special. She wasn't smart and she wasn't beautiful. She wasn't ambitious in the way society applauded and she wasn't… she wasn't perfect by any means. Then why? What was so special about her that made it obvious I didn't want to look twice at another woman?
Whereas my touches were hard, she remained soft.
Fingers held my jaw as a hand held the back of my neck, lips were patient and it made my panic rise even more.
Why did it feel like she was indulging me?
Hands were on my chest, one directly over my heart. She was trying to break away and I tried to kiss her into submission. Did she know? That the hand she had over my heart was making it incredibly hard to breathe?
She moved away and looked at me, brown eyes dark.
She loved me. I could still feel it… could see it in her eyes. Then why?
Her lips were red.
She was kneeling down in front of me, hands still on my jaw, before she leaned up once more and kissed me softly—soft, soft, soft—on the lips. A kiss goodbye. The bittersweet taste in my mouth was all Mikan.
And then she was gone, disappearing past the trees.
I could still feel her in my hands, feel the crescendo in my chest thrumming manically, and couldn't help but think Ruka was right.
I regretted every moment I let myself forget.
I could do without Mikan Sakura.
I survived sixteen years without her and I could survive the next few decades without her.
But I didn't want to survive… to just get by.
I wanted to live.
How could I let myself forget?
Without Mikan, I was lifeless.
…and the rest is still unwritten…
I hope you like this as much as I enjoyed writing it because finally, finally I am officially, one hundred per cent finished with The Bookworm and the Beast. Thank you so much for supporting me and this story for the past few years but I can assure you now with absolute certainty that there will be no more outtakes or chapters to this story so you won't have to wonder when the next update is. (:
I've had a great time on GAFFN and I thank you all very much for welcoming, encouraging, and helping me through my journey here. I will never forget my experience here and I have you guys to thank for it. Thank you for the reviews, author and story alerts and favourites and everything else you've given me. I really do appreciate it more than you know. For one last time, how about a review for old time's sake? Haha. :D
My Hopeless Romantic
Completed: December 31, 2011