CHAPTER XI

Mei rummaged in her bag, looking for the keys. 'Thanks for seeing me home,' she said to her classmate Daisuke, who Mei had bumped into as she was leaving the department store. They were standing outside the Fujioka apartment, sheltered from the rain which had begun to pour down. In the absence of any wind, it fell with little direction from a bank of low-hanging clouds, seizing every crevice on the concrete below. Despite only spending minutes in the deluge, their clothes were thoroughly wet, skin appearing through pockets in the dampest parts of their outfits.

As Mei pushed aside textbooks and miscellaneous tubes of make-up, she peered at the curious sight of Daisuke waiting opposite. He was leaning against the railings, squeezing the tails of his white linen shirt and watching the excess water dribble from the fabric. He had given his blazer to Mei, holding the garment over her head as they raced across the street to the dryness of the gangway. It was the kindest thing he had done since they first started high school. Normally, she would be edging past his fan club and blocking out their rants on what a great person he was, but Mei could see quite clearly why they seemed to like him.

'Have you been working out?' she asked, nodding at the muscles showing visibly through Daisuke's shirt.

Startled, her classmate glanced up from the task of drying his clothes before glancing back down to see what she meant. 'Maybe,' Daisuke answered with a tone of mystery as he smoothed back the hair obscuring his eyes. 'Damn it,' he cursed, yanking on the wavy strands that were formerly straight. 'Nobody can see me like this! I've spent hours on this image!'

'You've ruined your mouth, too,' Mei pointed, indicating the smudge on Daisuke's lower lip and suppressing a laugh as he fussed around with it. For a guy ranked so high for his natural looks, he's really not that careful…Before speaking with him at the restaurant, Mei had always assumed that Daisuke was proud and unfriendly due to the way that he generally looked. As he rarely smiled or changed his indolent stare, it was easy to think that he disdained other people or perceived them as fools who would do his every bidding. But today had been different.'We never speak at school or even hang out,' said Mei, finding her keys at the bottom of her bag, 'so why were you nice, buying me lunch?'

Daisuke shrugged. 'You're cool, I guess.' He was still perturbed by the smudge she had mentioned. He kept rubbing it with a finger, eyes on the ground.

Mei smiled. She was saddened by the fact that Daisuke had said this. After leaving the café, she had run to the nearest public toilets, wishing that Kaoru had said something similar. She had only confessed because she was certain – so certain – that Kaoru would like her. If there had been any chance of rejection, then she would have never confessed in the first place. So where had Mei gone so wrong? Why had Kaoru just stared at her as if he really had no clue? There were so many signs which had led Mei to this moment, like when she had offered her hand in the bookstore and the way he had blushed at receiving the gift. And what had become of that gift? She recalled her cell-phone ringing once, twice, three times, but she had been too afraid to pick up.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! How the hell do we move on from this? How the hell do we move on?

If only Mei had known that things would go so badly, then perhaps she would have done all she could to halt the confession. As much as she would have loved him to like her back, there was no way she could survive the loss of him as a friend. Kaoru was a good friend, a good person, whether he agreed with the description or not. He had done so much for Mei since she had met him, running after her to apologise for his brother's misdemeanours and making her laugh over bowls of ramen whilst plotting all the while to give her that fabric…

Yet what have I done for Kaoru in return? Was the handkerchief really enough?

Daisuke snapped his fingers, breaking Mei from her private reverie. 'Look,' he said, sliding a finger down his cheek and displaying a foundation-free digit with a smirk of triumph. 'Waterproof with endurance: the best a goth can buy. If you want, I can tell you where to find it.'

'No thanks. I'm a ganguro, not a goth,' said Mei, inserting her key in the lock. 'Do your fans know you're a member of the dark side? From what I've seen at school, we can hardly tell you're a goth…'

'Please,' sighed Daisuke, 'I wear black all the time. If it wasn't for me, our uniforms would be navy.'

Mei rolled her eyes.

'Can I ask you a question?'

'What's that?'

'Earlier… why were you crying?'

Mei paused. 'What, have you been stalking me?'

'I saw you with a guy and he made you upset.'

'Yeah? So what.'

Daisuke grabbed Mei by the arm and fixed her with a look of concern. 'Who was he, Yasumura?'

'He's just a friend!'

'A friend who made you cry?'

'Just what do you want from me? How the hell is this any of your business?'

The hand on her arm loosened, returning to Daisuke's side. His eyes were drifting towards the rain, where it plunged in jagged lines beyond the dripping gangway. A fine, warm mist was clouding the city and the smell of smoke and earth lingered heavily in the air. Before she knew it, Daisuke had drawn her into his arms, lightly embracing her shivering frame. 'If there's one thing I hate the most in the world,' Daisuke murmured into the dampness of her hair, 'it's the sight of a crying woman.'

Mei sobbed, turning her face inwards and pressing it against Daisuke's shirt. She detected the scents of detergent and aftershave, clean and comforting scents on her worst afternoon. 'He rejected me, alright,' Mei whispered, her voice shaking slightly. 'I realised that I liked him, but he doesn't like me back… Besides, I don't even know why I'm telling you this.'

From the corner of her eye, Mei saw the apartment door swinging open. Thinking it must be Haruhi, she remained motionless, still in Daisuke's arms, not caring in the least if Haruhi saw her. They were friends, after all, and Mei would spill the details once her gothic classmate had gone, yet it should have occurred to Mei that Haruhi might not be alone. As Haruhi opened the door, revealing a cluster of shoes crowding the limited hallway, one pair in particular struck a chill in Mei's soul. Just past her friend's shoulder was a cinnamon-haired figure standing not far from the entrance. He was staring at Mei and Daisuke, his expression unreadable. Around his right arm were the bandages from Haruhi's First Aid kit, and his outfit was the same as the one he had worn this morning.

For the first time in their friendship, Mei wished that she could not tell the difference.

'You have to go,' she told Daisuke, ending their embrace and giving him back his blazer.

Daisuke glanced over at Kaoru, his black-painted smile enigmatic. 'See you in class,' Daisuke said to Mei, and covered his hair with the blazer.

As Daisuke disappeared, footsteps rattling faintly on the gangway, so did the courage of Mei Yasumura in the light of her current problem. Without speaking, she started to untie her sandals, tugging at the leather straps with clumsy, trembling fingers and hoping that Kaoru would be calm enough to listen. What am I going to say? That I replaced him with a classmate just in case he said "no"? I know this makes me look bad… I'd be demanding explanations if Kaoru had done this! So why can't I explain? Why can't I talk to him?

'Mei,' spoke Haruhi, her tone strangely tender. 'I'm going to make tea.' She moved from the hallway into the kitchen and squeezed Kaoru's hand as she passed him in the corridor. Mei noticed that he failed to squeeze back.

I've never made him angry before. I've never even seen him angry. So is this how Kaoru looks when he's really upset? Eyes lifting, Mei dared to study Kaoru's face for any hints that would help her, but his amber stare was dry and worryingly empty. 'Kaoru…' she said, trying not to plead. The knuckles of his left hand twitched, glowing pale as he resisted her appeal. 'Kaoru, speak to me, please…'

Kaoru turned, the tendons of his throat thin and stretched, a muscle in his jaw throbbing. 'Did you mean it?' he asked eventually, catching Mei off-guard with the coldness in his voice.

'Of course I did,' Mei replied hoarsely.

'Then why were you with him?'

Mei tensed as Kaoru approached her. 'I wasn't with him, you moron!' She shut her eyes, expecting some kind of reaction, but he gently took her by the wrists and quietly held them.

'This is my answer,' Kaoru whispered, and softly, he kissed Mei on the lips, ending with a sad, neat kiss in the corner of her mouth.

Then she opened her eyes, in time to see him leave.

She realised he was crying.