There seriously needs to be more Asaoka/Mami in this fandom.
Spoilers. They're there. However, they are not pertinent to the HSD storyline, so even if you haven't read the entire series, you won't be terribly spoiled. You will probably want to have read volume 5, and chapters 37 and 47.
P.S. Characters belong to Kazune.
Haruna had recommended it a thousand times, but it was the first time that Mami had decided to try it. The restaurant where Asaoka worked was a cozy, friendly place, and Mami's trepidation about going alone was eased when she set foot in the door. Even though it was a bit awkward to be the only single girl in the room, Mami could handle it. She had always been single. The worry was spawned from being completely alone.
He appeared seemingly the moment Mami slid into the booth with his wide grin and red hair.
"Takahashi without Haruna? How bizarre."
She smiled back and accepted the menu that he offered.
"I assume she's with Yoh."
"Yes," Mami said, her eyes scanning over the drinks. "They're spending their holiday shopping, I think."
"That sounds like them." His grin remained. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Coffee milk, please," she replied. "And that's all. I'm not very hungry."
"You enter a restaurant without the customary hunger?" His grin was unchanged, but now there was light behind his eyes.
"Well," she replied, "Haruna said that I should come, and I was passing through, so I thought I would see what the fuss was about."
He laughed. "Haruna is too kind. The one time she was under this roof, she ran out crying."
Mami's eyes widened.
"Well, I won't leave you thirsty any longer. I'll be right out with your drink."
She watched him go, and supposed that under the circumstances, perhaps it was the diligent, smiling worker that Haruna had urged her to see, and not the establishment.
"I've been told that I can make any girl happy." Asaoka's chin rested in his palm as he stared at Mami across the table. Her lips around the straw in her drink parted and she regarded him curiously.
"I can see how that would be true," she answered slowly. Fumiya was buying Asami juice, Yoh had followed Haruna to the classroom to retrieve her forgotten lunch, and Asami had left seconds ago to throw out her garbage and join Fumiya. Mami suspected that she would convince him to follow Yoh and Haruna to assure that there were no shenanigans involved in finding the bentou. That left her with this mischievous part-timer.
"Do you think I could make you happy, Takahashi?"
His tone was light as always, and his lips stretched across his cheeks, and judging by the slight curious tilt of his head, Mami surmised that he was only a fraction of seriousness in his question. She wondered if he predicted her answer. She wondered if he even wanted the truth. Perhaps he just wanted her to play along. A pinprick of awkwardness poked her in the gut. She really wasn't sure how to play along. All Haruna ever needed was hands to hold, ears and mouth for reassurance, and arms to dive into, so she wasn't practiced in the art of verbal humoring. How to humor Asaoka... Mami didn't suppose it took much effort.
"Probably, since you've been told that you can make any girl happy." She set down her drink. "Was it a professional opinion, Asaoka-san?"
If possible, his grin widened. He opened his mouth, another question on his tongue.
"And Haruna? Do you think I could make her happy?"
Mami's hand froze in mid-reach, and her mission to retrieve the juice on the table was all but forgotten. She gazed solemnly at him and realized, without a doubt that he was, for all intents and purposes... serious. The smile and tone meant nothing. She knew.
"I'm sure you could," she said. "But I don't think... she could ever be happier in any position other than the one she's in now."
Asaoka was not playing. She knew it. He nodded, still smiling, having expected that answer.
She could see it when he watched Haruna play. She saw the fondness in his eyes, the very real affection that lay beyond the unreadable eyes. Though it was just a hunch, she had the feeling she knew exactly why Yoh was pushing himself so hard for this competition against Asaoka, and why Asaoka was being so serious about the competition as well.
Mami couldn't say she agreed with the taller boy's motives, but even she could understand.
So she waited. She waited for the sports competition to end. She waited for the friends to reconcile behind the school (in their own strange way), and she waited for Yoh to leave Asaoka before she stepped out. He noticed her presence and turned, almost forgetting to paste the smile on his lips.
"Ah... sorry. I wanted to come out earlier..."
His eyes darkened an unreadable emotion before he caught himself, lips turning upward to find their usual position. She supposed she should have expected this. And she did.
"Why are you apologizing?" he asked good-naturedly. "We're not talking about something that I don't want anyone else to hear."
That's true, she mused. As long as he can joke his way out of it, it doesn't matter what he says. If his words have no meaning, what is there to selfishly keep to one's self? What is precious when everything is a hoax? Mami glanced down, feeling uncomfortable. She didn't want to look at that smile. She didn't want him to hide himself away. Feelings shouldn't be hidden in jest.
"You're always deceiving yourself by passing things off as a joke, so... now you don't even know yourself what your true feelings are." She saw his arms hanging loosely at his sides grow stiff. It was slight, but the change was there. She found herself looking up, her confidence renewed by the open surprise on his face. It was easy to say things when the one spoken to took you seriously. "Haruna's a good girl." His eyes were wide. It was strange to see them so open. Perhaps this way, it would be easier to glimpse the truth. Mami hoped it was. "I don't think it's strange that you like her."
She had a friend's happiness to protect. And she had this man's happiness to find. If Haruna was it, she wouldn't stand in his way. But Mami would not simply hand her over. It was obvious that the girl was desperately in love with Yoh. "I'm... not saying anything, though." But if Asaoka, this man lost in his own web of flippancy, was serious about her... if he was willing to fight for her... Mami saw that as nothing but valiant. Haruna was a treasure to be won. Yoh was simply in possession.
She hurried off, hoping with all her heart that Asaoka would find his truth. If Asaoka was unhappy, it would effect Yoh. If Yoh was troubled, Haruna would be thrown into a pit of despair, and Mami would be her open ear. So by extension, it would be difficult for her to sleep at night if Asaoka was ever hurt. And he was certain to be if he did not resolve his own feelings.
Mami was no expert of the heart, but this... she just knew.
Love was something Mami had never considered an issue. Haruna was concerned with anything and everything romantic, and Mami just watched fro the sidelines, rooting for her friend. She supposed that it must have been a subconscious thing; Haruna would need her through her high school years, so there would be no time for boys. So she just left those issues in the back of her mind.
Even though Haruna had tried to convince her to date boys, attempted to set her up with Asaoka (of all people!), assured her that she was there to be Mami's encouragement in her endeavors of love if she would just start, Mami was simply accustomed to keeping boy-thoughts out of mind.
But trip to Kyoto came and went, and Mami resolved with a smile that perhaps... perhaps Haruna had someone to go to. A shoulder to cry on. Perhaps she just didn't need Mami so much anymore. She would always love Mami, but she was a big girl, and had found a new hand to hold as she took her steps into the world. If a bit melancholy, Mami knew that it was time for her to move on, too. So she spoke the words that she knew Haruna had wanted to hear for a long time. "Haruna, you've been worried about me. I'll give love a try."
Haruna threw her a teary smile and happy, garbled words while the three boys turned to her.
"Ah," Yoh deadpanned, "it's good that Haruna doesn't have to trouble you anymore."
Fumi gave her a bright, warm smile. "Takahashi-san, I'm sure you'll find a boyfriend soon!"
And Asaoka, being Asaoka, finished with, "I'll always welcome you~."
The others made their way down the hall, chattering to themselves. Asaoka continued to face Mami and his smile didn't change. "Thanks for the souvenir."
She smiled back, glancing up at Asaoka with the same determination she heralded from his shock weeks earlier. "What you said... you were sixty percent serious, weren't you?"
This time, she didn't see it, but the open surprise had made its way to his face once again.
The first big step was taken before Mami had even realized it.
"Asaoka-san, are there any positions available at your restaurant?"
Asaoka straightened after slipping on his shoes, regarding Mami curiously.
"I've graduated, Takahashi. This is my last day."
She hoisted the school bag further up her shoulder and blinked wordlessly. He leaned closer, mock-worry on his features. "Shouldn't you be asking for my button instead of a job?"
Mami eyed him momentarily. "All of your buttons are gone."
He looked down. "Ah, true enough. Yes, actually, one of our cashiers just gave his two-weeks notice four days ago. I suggest you apply before the job is filled."
"Thank you," she said with a small smile. "I appreciate it, Asaoka-san."
She turned to go and made her way to the door.
Startled, the girl turned. Asaoka stood, unmoved, and simply looked at her. He began to smile. "Can I call you that?"
99 percent serious. Improvement.
Mami slowly nodded. She watched him smile. It was hard not to; he never stopped.
"Okay. I hope you get the job, Mami."
"Are you seeing anyone?"
Mami slipped the apron over her head and waited for the punch line. Asaoka leaned over the counter, smiling as he always did. Mami reached beneath the counter for the wage notebook and began her report. The manager liked to keep track of the earnings, and Mami was the only one dilligent enough to care. "No, not at the moment."
"Didn't you tell Haruna that you would give love a try?"
She scribbled her signature at the bottom of the small entry and put it back under the counter.
"I was going to. But I just haven't... thought about boys. There isn't much to think about when I try."
"Then..." He pointed to himself, his smile thin. "What do you think about me?"
He didn't seem to be the persuasive type, so she had no idea how he had convinced her to accompany him on this date. Excursion, really, because though he was trying to make it a date, she was just too confused to view it as such.
He escorted her to the movies first. He suggested one, and she wondered why he would choose something romantic when boys clearly preferred horror, action, scantily clad women, and gore. Then, he paid for her lunch at a very chic cafe. Or tried. She thwarted his attempts by taking half the bill. And then he directed her to the bullet train, and they rode to the beach, where he proceeded to guide her along the shore, just talking. The entire time, Mami was confused. What was he trying to gain from this? Did he have an ulterior motive? Was he just bored? Surely he would tire of her disinterest soon. He would nonchalantly lead her home and they would never speak of this embarrassment ("date") again. And that would be that. The end. Finito.
Mami was strangely opposed to the idea.
Yet she was clueless. Mami had no idea what to do to show her interest. Asaoka was trying, but she was too unaccustomed to the methods of courtship. What would Haruna do? Actually... what had Haruna already done?
And then, she had it.
Mami found a break in the conversation and touched his sleeve.
"Have you ever played baseball?"
Asaoka admitted that he was no good... but he enjoyed a good game of catch every so often. Mami was relieved. Finally, something she could cope with: a ball and her hands.
They played, and for the first time, Mami was able to enjoy the "date." She relaxed when the baseball left her hand and sailed to Asaoka's, and when he missed, she smiled at his retreating form, finally able to reflect on the day. She decided that remembering it was a lot less puzzling than actually being in the situation.
His home was closer, and the sun was barely setting, so she gently insisted on walking him home. As they walked, he told her that he had lived in the house all his life, and it would just be too weird to move out. Change, he told her, was a surprisingly difficult thing to endure. The reality, he joked, was what made it so hard. Children could afford to live in fantasy. It was hard to step into reality. She listened quietly, taking it all in.
But he didn't talk anymore after that, except to point out his house, which was sandwiched between two others of the same shape, but different colors.
Climbing up the stone steps, he bid her farewell, informing her that he would watch until she was out of sight, just in case the neighborhood kids decided to try their hand at juvenile delinquency on her. Absentmindedly she reached up and smoothed a crease in his jacket.
"I think that you will find yourself to be very real if you take things a little more seriously, Asaoka-san."
She had listened. And she hadn't stopped thinking about it. He took her wrist in his hand. Gently, but the pressure was there.
"This, too? Am I taking this seriously, Mami?"
He was smiling. Of course he would be. She was not caught off guard.
"I want you to take me seriously." Mami saw his grin begin to slip. "I will always be frank with you. But even if I want it, please do as you like." She gently pulled her wrist out of his hand and turned, descending the steps. She paused at the bottom of the stoop, and looked back with a smile. "I'm not going to force you to be something you're not. Be who you are, and then we'll both be at ease."
Asaoka slowly slid his hands into his pockets and watched her as she walked away. He leaned against the door frame and followed her with his eyes.
"Once again, Takahashi-san, you leave me utterly speechless."
"I like you. I have for a long time. Will you go out with me?"
Mami looked up, surprised. During Christmas, the restaurant was filled with nothing but couples. The words sent shock into her system because she never expected that a single girl like herself would be asked by a fellow single coworker. The man, barely older than Asaoka, rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Sorry to ask you during Christmas, but... you said you don't have a boyfriend, and I just couldn't wait any longer, Takahashi."
Mami couldn't speak. She had been asked out many times, but never with a coworker. Worry began to gnaw at her vocal cords. Things would be awkward: She simply wasn't interested. The guy was nice, and it really wasn't him, it was her, but it was just so hard for guys to understand that, and kind words only seemed to hurt them worse, and for heaven's sake, there would be such a bad work relationship between them if she turned him down...
"Sorry, but she's taken." Asaoka patted the guy sympathetically on the shoulder. "She doesn't like to be vocal about it, and she's too nice to turn you down. Sorry."
"O-oh," he said, cheeks red. He was terribly embarrassed. Mami felt awful for the lie that she was allowing.
"I'm very sorry," she said. "But I just can't right now."
He mumbled his apologies and scuttled off to a table to escape further shame. Mami sighed and glanced at Asaoka.
"I'm not sure whether I should thank you or berate you." She turned to look at him fully. "What gave you the idea to tell him I was... was taken? It was very helpful, but why did you say that?"
"I like you."
She found it to be an odd time for his smile to not pop up. Perhaps he wanted her to know for sure that he was, without a doubt, serious. "I have for a long time. Will you go out with me?"
"Why the change in heart?"
The curve from his chin to his neck fit snugly against her head. His arms looped around her shoulders, and she touched his forearms with her fingertips.
He was quite the charmer, taking her to the ocean to watch the sunrise. Their visible breath mingled in the chilly February morning air.
"I didn't think I was your type."
"I don't have a type," he said, smiling.
She paused in thought for a moment. "Even so, you liked Haruna. She and I are completely different."
"Yeah, Haruna's a league of her own."
The conversation went to rest for the moment, both beings quietly facing the dawn.
Mami did not retract her fingers, chilled as they were, from his jacket sleeve.
"Are you thinking about it?"
He chuckled and tightened his embrace.
"I think you know why."
Of course she knew. She could see inside of him better than he could. She had known him far better than he knew himself even before he cared to know her. She could bring out the real him without causing him anxiety. There were no eggshells to step around with Mami. Because she had been frank. She was serious. She was kind.
"Because I'm tolerant?" she said, her tone lightly suggestive of jest. It made his grin broaden as the sun broke over the oceanic horizon.
"Because you are special."