Tea for Two
Submitted to Anime North 2012's fanfiction contest (won Best Characterization)

{1}

I was making a cup of tea that morning, humming an old American song—hot tea, regardless of weather. The cicadas' nightly droning was starting to get old. Summer was dwindling and it would soon be cold.

It was Saturday and I didn't have much to do so I thought I'd get some work done. I was good with deadlines; always have been. Harada needed me to keep him on his toes. He always needed a voice of reason.

Needed. I saw my reflection in the mug, immobile for a few seconds. There was one cup of tea in my hand and one computer in the apartment. One bedroom, too.

Quietly, I leafed through the papers and got to work.

...

I went for a stroll around campus on Monday during lunch. I figured Shuu would be in his office. Either way, the weather was nice.

I was about to enter the building when the scent of tobacco struck me, ugly but nostalgic. It could have been anyone but I wasn't surprised when I saw his scraggly hair. He never looked his age.

"Rika. You've been dropping by a lot lately."

"You sound disappointed."

"Not at all." He put out his cigarette. "Sorry."

There was a bench nearby. I limped towards it—I would never properly adjust to walking with a crutch. He helped me and took a seat beside me.

"Nice day, huh?" He feigned naiveté.

"It's not bad." Birds chirped somewhere in the distance. It was quiet around campus. Summer break was almost over but graduate students and professors were abound. It was peaceful, or at least as close to peaceful as it could get. I took a deep breath and absorbed the warmth and didn't even notice that we were silent.

"Have you been doing okay? A little bird tells me you've been working weekends again." He twirled his cigarette.

"Our deadline for this project is coming up and we need to stay focused."

"You're focused, all right." He smirked. "I don't think that's your problem."

I looked at him. It was sad. I knew his bitter smile inside out but it wasn't quite like we were family. Not quite. We used to be, though.

His eyes drifted to a pebble in the distance. "You need to loosen up. I can't help you on my own."

"Maybe you're right." I didn't like being lectured to but I couldn't get up. It was comfortable.

"I know you're not taking me seriously, but if you get the chance, do this one favour for me. The next time you make yourself a cup of tea or a midnight snack and sit at your computer, watch a movie. Don't you dare click on anything to do with buildings or clients."

I examined the hill in front of us and saw it as it was a decade ago. He continued.

"Hey, did I tell you about the student who's in his sixth year here? There's a chance he'll have to stay for a seventh."

I turned to him in surprise. He was grinning like he did when he was around anyone but me. "No kidding?"

"I wish! He's going to give Professor Tange a heart attack one of these days."

I found myself smiling. I was slightly surprised. We talked and the warmth made me forget that I had to get back to work.

...

Takumi Mayama showed up at the office later that evening. He was my assistant: an earnest fourth-year who tiptoed around me. He was proud, awkward, and transparent. He was a child.

"Hey, Harada. Hope you've been doing well."

"I have. Thanks."

He helped me settle into my chair and brought me something to drink. His eyes darted around. I looked up at him and he looked away.

"Nice weather, hm?" He blurted.

"For sure."

I smiled and motioned to the couch. There were files he could be sorting. He paused, though, and opened his mouth, a thought clearly at the tip of his tongue. I wondered for a moment if I should ask. His eyes were so straightforward, so youthful and painfully readable. I shouldn't amuse myself at his expense.

Eventually, he sat down and started working. I usually forgot about the outside world when I delved into my work but I couldn't deny that there was something comforting about the sound of shuffling paper behind me.

I called Shuu that night after Mayama had gone home. I wanted to ask about him. He was an odd kid and there was something that was bugging me.

"Mayama? Yeah, I see him all the time. He's close friends with a few of my students. What's the matter?"

"Nothing much," I lied. "I was just wondering how close you were to him. He wouldn't… tell you anything, would he?"

There were a few key moments of silence followed by Shuu's voice. "He told me he saw us talking today. He wanted to ask you if we were close but he couldn't do it."

"You shouldn't have told me that, Shuu."

"Don't be humble. You can read him like a book." He was right.

"What did you tell him?"

"I said that you were a complicated woman and that getting involved would only lead to trouble."

"I see. So you added fuel to the fire."

"Not intentionally."

The clock struck twelve and I yawned unconsciously. "It's okay. Thanks for telling me."

"Any time."

I hung up and got ready for bed. I found a strand of Mayama's messy hair on the bathroom counter as I brushed my teeth. I knew that Shuu was lying, or at least avoiding the truth. Of course he only told Mayama that to lead him straight to me. He wanted something to happen. He's kind like that—he enjoys worrying for other people. Not that it mattered. My intentions were a mystery to no one.

Unwittingly, a smile crept to my lips as I fell asleep. I dreamt that the cicadas had all but disappeared.

{2}

Autumn was as unforgiving as always. It was the most nostalgic season for me, and nostalgia was something I actively avoided. I passed by campus whenever I could to see Shuu and hear him ramble about his students, but it was always accompanied by a pang of fear. The liveliness of the halls when the school festival preparations were underway reminded me of everything that was gone.

I was improving, though. It was slow but I was sure of it. I strolled through the walkways and quads—the crutch was gone by that point—feeling chilly underneath my cardigan. It was always cold. I couldn't help it. Eventually I learned to accept it and told myself that it was refreshing. The funny thing is that as soon as I said it, the lie became the truth.

I was heading back to the street to call a cab when I noticed an orange-headed girl staring at me intently. I wondered for a moment if she knew me but I decided that it wasn't important. I headed for the street.

She stopped me.

"H-Harada Rika… right?" She called out unsurely.

I turned. She had the prettiest face but her eyes were red. I guessed that she was acquainted with heartbreak. She couldn't be over twenty-five, though, so it was par for the course.

"That's right. My name is Rika. Do you know me?"

She paused and then shook her head. "No. But I've heard of you, and…" Her eyes were somewhere between teary and downcast. By that point I was regretting acknowledging her but I couldn't turn around and leave.

"Could you come grab a cup of coffee with me? I'd like to talk to you about your work."

An eager student, I foolishly guessed. "All right. As long as we don't take too long. May I ask your name?"

"I'm Ayumi. Ayumi Yamada." She gulped. "I'm Mayama's friend."

The truth clicked and I suddenly felt bad for the girl, the same way you feel bad for soap opera characters on TV. I agreed to join her.

...

"So, you're Mayama's classmate?" I asked as we walked to the closest coffee shop. The sun was setting and stray leaves scratched the pavement.

"More or less. He, uh, told me about you."

"I suppose he would." I paused. "We've been working together for a year now so I'd be surprised if his friends didn't become curious."

She looked at me through a child's eyes. They were so similar. She was weak on the outside, though, while he pretended to be strong. I wondered how many things she wanted to say before she chose a formulaic reply.

"He seems to enjoy working with you."

"Maybe," I said. "He's a diligent worker. I think he'll find a good job once he graduates."

The girl nodded, uninterested. She wasn't here for career talk, of course, but what could I say? We bought something to drink and sat down. The streets looked windy through the window. The trees wailed.

"Um… what kind of work does Mayama do?"

I sighed in my head and I told her in thorough, unnecessary, utterly dull detail. I didn't have to study her face to understand her. She listened intently but her thoughts were elsewhere. She was fidgeting with the cup sleeve only moments ago but she sat still every time I mentioned his name. She wanted to know everything. His jobs, his responsibilities, what he made when he cooked dinner, what suggestions he gave for new projects… she wanted everything, every last piece of him that she could only gather from me. And it was sad because I knew how she felt. I had been there, too, fascinated by someone, satisfied after discovering even the tiniest new fact about them. Yet I couldn't help her. I could talk for hours but I couldn't help her.

When I said that I had to go, she asked me one last question. She wanted to know if she could see me again. She looked me in the eye when she said it and I could tell she was evaluating me, trying desperately to understand what was different about us. But I couldn't explain. There were so many things I could have told her then—"give up on him," or "he's irresponsible because he's a child," or "he can't control his feelings any more than you can." I could have helped her, but who was I to lecture? I was old. I could hardly be called a participant in the world of the living. I was still living with Harada and Shuu, two bedrooms instead of one, a voice that would echo mine whenever I needed it to. Her world was not mine.

"Of course," I said, trying to force a smile but failing. "I'm sorry if I seem distant. I'm tired and I have a lot of work to do."

"Oh, o-of course! Sorry to keep you. You… you really helped me today. Thanks."

"My pleasure."

I visited Harada that night. It was cold, so cold. His tomb was frigid. I knew then that he was gone, that he wasn't six feet under but a thousand feet above, floating in some frozen, forgotten corner of outer space, but I still had to believe. I knelt and draped my scarf on him. It was a bad night to be sleeping outside. I didn't want him to catch a cold.

...

"You're an enigma," Shuu said as he leaned out of his office window, cigarette permanently fixed between his fingers. "You know they still call you the Ice Queen? I mentioned the nickname to Mayama and now they're all saying it."

"So it's your fault that the name is still alive."

"That's an irrelevant detail." An inhale and then a puff. "I'm just impressed that you haven't thawed out in your old age."

"You know we're the same age, right?"

"Right, but you're as old as you feel, so I'm only just about ready to graduate."

I smiled vaguely. He saw my expression and a wave of relief washed over his face.

"I take it you were gossiping with Mayama again?"

"Yeah. Nothing new, though. He said he was looking for a job for after he graduates."

I was mildly surprised. Did he not find out about the chat I had with Ayumi? Then again, she wouldn't have told him directly. It was her secret.

"Oh, but he's got himself into a bit of a pickle," Shuu continued, "as far as romance is concerned."

"He's young. He'll figure it out."

"Of course, of course… we didn't think like that at his age, though."

"That's part of the fun, isn't it?" I forced a shrug, knowing full well that I was intruding in lives that I should never have been a part of. But I was too tired to worry about the young.

"I suppose it is. It's easier for them, isn't it? We've got bigger things to worry about."

He motioned toward the pile of ungraded papers on his desk and forced a smile. He was thinking of someone else and I knew who it was.

"You've always been bad at expressing yourself, Shuu."

"What's that?"

"Nothing."

I leaned back. "Hey, I don't want to hear that from you of all people!" He shouted playfully like he always did so many years ago.

"It's nothing! I said nothing already!"

"People only say that when it's the exact opposite of nothing!"

"Fine, fine. Let's just agree that we're both socially inept, all right?"

"I'm not sure if I'm happy with this compromise…"

He grumbled and I smiled. I smiled. I actually smiled. It was a strange feeling. The breeze from the window was warm for once. I closed my eyes and almost drifted to sleep.

...

I was in a good mood when Mayama came over that night. "Professor Hanamoto told me that your health has been getting better," he said as he typed on his laptop. He finally mentioned Shuu, I thought. He's growing up.

"He's right," I said. "I'm not as strong as I used to be but I can walk without worries now."

"He also told me that you used to be frail and that you should still try not to overexert yourself." He waited for a reply. "Er, I apologize if I'm being too direct, but he's probably right and it would be irresponsible of me to ignore his advice."

"I guess Hanamoto is my doctor now?" I said wryly. He hesitated.

"That's not-"

"It's okay. It was a joke."

It took a moment for Mayama's expression to return to normal. Is it really that hard to understand what a joke is? But then I heard Shuu calling me an ice queen in my mind. Maybe it was a little odd coming from me…

"Harada, I'm sorry if this is inappropriate, but were you and Shuu close? He always worries about you."

I sat still, focused on the screen. I couldn't—wouldn't—see his face. It had to remain a mystery. My eyes were pulled to Harada's old pen from when he was still here and Shuu lived with us. He used to bite the back whenever it was thinking. It was still here and I would never stop using it, ever.

"We were close," I said plainly. "Shuu was a close friend of mine back when we were in college. That doesn't have much to do with the task at hand, though, does it?"

I turned to look at him and I was surprised. He was staring at me. Awkward and proud and confident in all the wrong ways, yes, but he was staring, and he was determined, and there was a fire lit inside him. Did I light it? Was I still capable of doing that? But it didn't matter. There was a future in his world. My future was floating in space.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"It's okay."

He was obedient, but even as I settled into the evening's workload, his steadfast expression remained. It shook me. He had guts; I'd give him that.

The next day, when I woke up and made my morning tea, I found his mug from last night in the sink. It was sitting there openly, unwashed out of forgetfulness, paired nicely with the one in my hand. I looked at it and smiled and tried hard not to cry.

{3}

It was a few months later, I remember now, when I had that dream. Mayama had been acting strangely that day. "I have a question about next week's schedule," he said innocently, thinking his glasses could hide his intentions. It was nighttime and the snow poured past the window. I came over to the couch and sat down beside him. He flinched for a moment and nervously brushed his hair—twenty-two years old. I glanced sideways at his face and he was trying to be strong.

He asked me something then but I don't remember what. It was what he said when I tried to get up that mattered.

"I heard about it."

Ambiguous. I looked at him in shock and for once he was opaque.

"Pardon?"

"About you and Hanamoto… and Harada."

He was earnest. The snowfall muted the city. I looked at nothing in particular and paused, trying to make the emerging face disappear.

"I see."

"Professor Hanamoto told me. He told me everything." An analog clock ticked. It had broken last month but Mayama got it fixed. It bothered him. I thought it was fitting. "He told me that you still visit him."

"It takes people a while to move on," I said plainly. My voice shook. He looked scared when he realized it.

"It's okay. I just want to remind you that you're not alone."

He looked me in the eye when he said that and I'll never forget it. I expected a smirk or at least a teenaged blush, but instead I got him, pure and clear and honest. He believed it. He believed every word in that sentence, no irony, no fear. Fantasies were real for him. Sincerity would still win over cowardice and love would triumph over despair. The broken would be healed. He was alive, yet he hadn't truly lived.

But I had the presence of mind not to laugh. "I know," I said, gazing at my socks. "I'm not alone, Mayama. I'm not weak, either. Shuu worries too much. You know him; you've seen him with Hagu."

"That's different." I didn't know what to say so he continued. "Hanamoto is bad at expressing himself."

"He'll never realize it, but he is." I thought back to those nights the three of us spent watching movies, Harada and I together, Shuu with us. Did he know where the line was between love and family? That line must have vanished in his heart by now, I guessed. "Shuu wants the best for me but he doesn't know why. He can't help me, though. We can't return to the past."

"There's a happy future waiting for you right here."

"I know." I patted his hand, smiling bitterly. Cold flooded into it and I absorbed a bit of his warmth. I stood up. "Life is complicated. I don't know how to explain this to you. You're young, Mayama—you have a life ahead of you. Keep your eyes on it, and I promise I won't give up on mine."

He was silent as I returned to the computer. I knew what he wanted to say: Stop talking like your life is over. Let me help you. Let me save you. But what could I do? I treasured him as I treasured Shuu: indispensable pain relievers that could only cure symptoms. In the end, I'd end up destroying him. He'd never be able to talk to a woman as straightforwardly as he just did again. He'll walk away eventually and take his zeal with him.

Or so I thought. He was distant for the rest of the night. We had to work until sunrise so he was taking a nap on the couch, no doubt pondering some futile scheme to make me open up. I sat in front of the computer, street lights casting moving shadows through the snowflakes, humming a song I used to love. Harada and I used to love it. I thought again of my work, and only of my work, and before I knew it my head hit the keyboard.

The dream was ordinary when it started. I was on a boat on a river and we were sailing forward. The moon was out and it shone a walkway of light onto the water. It was quiet, but not silent. Crickets chirped in the distance. It was summer.

It was not a fictional setting. There was a day like that long ago, a memory of Shuu and Harada and I that my mind couldn't forget. We were sitting by the riverside gazing out on a night just like this, together, silent. Harada said the moon reminded him of a song. It was bright, so bright. The water was glass.

The dream was just like that, except we were on a boat and we were moving forward. We. There was a man sitting beside me. He held my hand and I knew it was Harada. He was warm.

"Look," he said, "the moon is far."

I couldn't understand. "What?" The conversation made sense at the time; in retrospect, it was gibberish, like all dreams. "It isn't that far. Look how bright the moon is. It's right in front of us."

"It's so far," he said. "We'll be here for a long, long time."

I believed him. "I'm glad you're with me, then."

"Me too."

I remember the moment my heart broke. We were sitting there, hand in hand, and I suddenly remembered that Shuu was supposed to be with us, and that Mayama was supposed to be with us—I couldn't think straight—and in an instant I realized that it was all a lie.

The water remained but the boat vanished. We were floating, not sinking or swimming, still moving forward. I forgot where we were going or why we were going there.

"It's wrong, Harada. You're not here." The whiteness of the moon bled into the black of the water. It was surreal and impossible.

"No, no, no. That's not it. That's not it at all."

"You're not here."

"No. No, no. You don't get it. There's a reason."

"Stop talking like that!" I tried to shout but I choked. "I can't understand you! Stop talking in circles!"

"It makes sense, Rika. It makes sense. It'll all make sense. Give it time. It'll make sense when you're older."

I looked at him and he had no eyes. He wore Harada's favourite sweater but he looked at me paradoxically through his omnipresent eyes. He was no one.

"You're dead," I tried to say, but the words wouldn't come out.

"Your husband is dead. I, however, am not."

"Then who are you?"

"I don't know."

One thing led to another and before I knew it I had forced my eyes open.

I heard Mayama breathing. He was asleep on the couch, expression fearless, dreaming a childish dream. I was still shaken. I got up to pour a glass of water but something hit me when I walked past him. His eyes were closed but I saw them as they were mere hours ago when he spoke to me with his infinite youthful optimism, thinking he could change me. And there was more where that came from—I could never know how many unspoken longings he held within, how he restrained himself when I dodged his questions and misdirected conversations. I had built a wall, an icy wall, and I knew he couldn't break it. He didn't know that though. He would try and try and try.

I understand now that it was then, that moment, the second coffee mug on the table in front of his sleeping face, that I realized that he would never stop trying. And maybe that wasn't something to be afraid of, because maybe, against all odds, he was right. Maybe he and Shuu and all of the others who told me I could live if I tried—maybe they were right, and I was wrong.

I wasn't sure. It would take months for me to understand it, and even when Mayama looked me in the eye and slid that bracelet onto my wrist, promising to return when he was older, I wasn't sure if my guess was right. But that was the seed, the seed that he unknowingly planted years before. And that's why I'm alive to tell this story, here in Spain with him by my side as a lover and equal, living a life that I thought I would only be lucky enough to live once. Every morning when I wake up, I smile when I realize that I'm making tea for two.