sometimes we keep secrets
Mayaka doesn't expect Oreki to do his part for the group project. The only reason she's even in the same group as him is because Satoshi asks her to join them. When he looks at her with those eyes and puts on that smile, she finds it hard to reject him. She suspects that Satoshi is aware of the effect he has on her. It makes her upset yet makes her hopeful. Then, Mayaka stops and reminds herself that she's only in her second year of middle school and that she should be focusing on other things, like the grade she'll be getting for this project.
In the end, she says 'alright, alright' at Satoshi's third attempt at asking her to join their group. Maybe it's because he offers to treat her to a donut. It strikes her as disconcerting that she likes Satoshi more than she dislikes Oreki. Both are very scary things to come to terms with.
Satoshi writes three of their names down on the checklist in that handwriting she's grown to recognise, slanting to the right but still neat, and passes up the paper to the teacher. Mayaka sits at the front of the classroom, wondering how much extra work she'll have to do to make up for Oreki's absence.
Suddenly, their science report is done and printed and bound a week in advance – Mayaka likes to complete things ahead of time and she pulls the two boys up to match her pace. It surprises her that Satoshi is the one she needs to pester whereas Oreki keeps up. He submits his part on time and does what she instructs him to do.
He's only lazy when it concerns himself, she realises. And because Oreki is such a recluse and such an unfriendly person, it is almost always just about himself. This might be one of the few times he's had to take other people into account. Mayaka feels sorry for him, and feels like she's underestimated him. She erases that thought from her mind the next instant.
"Any problems?" he asks after she's done flipping through his work.
Her hands tighten around the write-up, five-pages thick. "Nothing," Mayaka snaps, feeling like she's lost to him.
Learning the politics of balancing between Satoshi and Oreki has its merits. Mayaka gets used to dividing her emotions between satisfaction and revulsion at different times of the day. She enjoys the mornings Satoshi and her happen to meet during the uphill climb to school. She takes the days she comes across Oreki and his tired eyes plodding to school in stride. She eats lunch with both of them every Wednesday. It's a routine of sorts.
Oreki will have bread (sometimes plain like him, sometimes with a filling that Mayaka will say has more flavour than his soul), she will have a boxed lunch she's prepared for herself, Satoshi will have half of what each of them is having. Eventually, Mayaka prepares a simple lunch for him as well. She doesn't make a boxed lunch for Oreki, though. Oreki doesn't even ask for one.
"One day, I'll repay you, Mayaka," Satoshi says between mouthfuls of rice. "I've just been too busy with all my clubs to prepare my own food."
"It's okay," she tells him. It really is.
She feels Oreki's gaze on her, and swerves to face him.
"What are you looking at?" Mayaka glares.
Oreki doesn't say anything, and it only makes her dubious. "Spit it out or I'll force you to," she says. The boy's half-lidded eyes widen just a little at the threat.
"Rice." He points unhelpfully at the general area of her face before biting into his red bean bread.
Mayaka smudges her thumb against her chin, but there's no rice. She doesn't say anything else after that. Instead, she waits until Satoshi excuses himself to wash his hands to ask Oreki once more: "Why were you looking at me?"
Oreki hesitates. He eats the last of his bread before clearing his throat. "I just thought you were looking at Satoshi in a weird way."
Mayaka panics. "I– I wasn't!" She hasn't been obvious – at least, she hasn't been trying to be obvious about her feelings. Oreki must have only noticed because he has nothing better to do other than to watch her and Satoshi.
"Alright," Oreki says, prepared to let the matter rest as he crumples the plastic bread wrapper and tosses it towards the bin placed at the back of class. It successfully lands in the rubbish, but Mayaka doesn't allow him the relief just yet.
"– Don't tell him."
"I won't," Oreki promises before moving her lunch box out of the way so that he has space to rest his head on his desk. The one adequate thing about Oreki is that, at moments, he is reliably lazy. He wouldn't go out of his way to tell something unnecessary to Satoshi.
"You won't?" she double-checks.
Oreki doesn't even bother to give a verbal confirmation this time. He simply goes 'mm'.
Mayaka shuts her lunch box firm and tight, believing him.
She can't find the footstool.
Mayaka finishes her second round searching the school's library for it, wondering where it could have gone. A first year must have borrowed it and forgotten to return it. How irresponsible.
She comes to a stop in front of the books shelved in the Biology section, staring up at the title she wants to take down. Mayaka could attempt to reach up and grope around for it, but there are still students wandering around and reading in the library. She no longer finds the person who took the footstool irresponsible, but self-centred. They aren't the only ones who need it, after all. She places a hand on the third shelf, set at her height, frustrated. Then, frustrated that she's frustrated over such a small matter. While Mayaka tries to recall if they have any spare footstools, she feels someone walk up behind her. She looks over her shoulder to see that it's Oreki. How does he always manage to show up so precisely?
"I have to get a book for class," he mumbles.
She steps aside, hands balled. As Oreki easily reaches up to pull a book out of the top shelf, Mayaka feels her pride verging on tears of resignation.
"Um." She chews her lip before swallowing her reluctance.
"I need that book. It's next to the one you just took down," she whispers as she lowers her gaze to the floor.
Preparing herself for a remark, she's surprised when he hands the book to her and walks back to his table without another word. Mayaka trails after him, gritting out a strained 'thanks' she hopes he doesn't hear.
At the end of their second year, the school organises a trip to Kyoto in a bid to get them to learn more about their heritage and develop some personal independence. Mayaka looks forward to the trip along with the rest of her friends. All the girls count down the days till they will be given time to roam the streets and shop. Satoshi remains the most enthusiastic of them all, brightening up the trip with his energy and resolved exclamations that they will visit everywhere, brandishing a digital camera. Oreki, on the other hand, spends most of the journey to Kyoto reading or napping.
"Normally, you're supposed to be excited about things like these," Mayaka informs him over the train seat. The seat next to Oreki's is empty because Satoshi is wandering around the cabins. Oreki is the splitting image of an elderly man: a blanket wrapped around him and a pillow positioned behind his neck, Volume 2 of an anthology on his lap, and a hot drink in his cup holder.
"I'm here," Oreki says, and it is sufficient. Dull, like she has come to expect from him, but sufficient.
Kyoto's summer is obnoxious. Every day they are there, the sun does not relent and even cold drinks from the vending machines do little to help their situation.
'It's really hot,' Mayaka thinks to herself as she wipes the sweat off her forehead. Their class is visiting the Daibutsu at Hōkō-ji today. They wait outside the temple for their turn to enter and pay their respects, some of them fanning themselves with brochures while the others who've gotten used to the heat chat between themselves. Mayaka scans the area for a place out of the sun. She spots Oreki standing off at the side, cap on his head and an exhausted look on his face. They haven't even finished half of the day's activities.
She steps behind Oreki until she's in the shade of his shadow. "Stay put," Mayaka orders. The tall boy doesn't reply, inherently-flimsy focus completely lost under the heat of the Kyoto afternoon. Satoshi chooses this moment to walk up to them. In his hands, he's holding seven different types of brochures. Mayaka thinks she sees Chinese and English on some of them.
"You two sure are standing close," Satoshi says with his usual smile. "Like a couple!"
"What? No! No!" Mayaka raises her arms in horror.
Satoshi chuckles, determined to make her suffer. Their back and forth draws the attention of the rest of the class gathered around the temple and the chattering increases. Satoshi looks at her and Oreki like he's just a friend who's having fun teasing, not knowing how much those words actually mean to her. Or perhaps, he does.
Mayaka stares daggers at Oreki, wanting to direct her irritation onto something. His eyes are still closed, as if meditating under the heat, undisturbed by the catcalls. Looking at him, she realises that she can't pile the blame on him all the time. It wouldn't do any good any way, with his unrelenting nonchalance. She sighs and remains rooted under his shadow.
From then on, they are known as Kaburaya Middle School's Best Couple.
Satoshi gives her a hairclip on her fifteenth birthday.
It's small and pink and matches her eyes.
She doesn't wear it to class, doesn't want the girls to question its origins or tell her that it looks nice on her because then she will want to wear it more and more and then it'll gain some meaning she needs to avoid. Mayaka doesn't want to do that to herself, not yet, even though the hairclip and the modest gift box it comes in makes her think: maybe.
Satoshi doesn't ask her why she doesn't wear it to school. Oreki is the one who does.
"Since when have you been the type to care?" Mayaka fights back.
"… Since when have you been the type to run away?" is Oreki's reply, flat and thoughtless. It almost makes her angry, but it's dwarfed by the feeling that she's lost once again.
Something is off about Oreki today. He doesn't leave his desk for the entire morning and lies almost comatose in his seat. Even someone like him has limits to how much energy he wants to preserve. When the bell signalling the second break period of the day rings and he still refuses to move out of his chair, Mayaka doesn't take out her lunch. She slowly slides out of her seat and strolls to the back of the class.
"You're going to turn into a slug twice as fast at this rate." Mayaka knocks a hand against the surface of his desk. Oreki stirs from the apparent nap he'd been taking, but his eyes don't open. "You look horrible," she comments. More horrible than usual, at least.
When he doesn't reply even then, she knows something is wrong. "Hey? You okay?" she asks, trying not to sound too concerned. Oreki begins murmuring and she has to lean down uncomfortably close to hear what he's saying. She deciphers something along the lines of looking after a careless, bedridden sister and a possibly high fever.
"So you're sick?" Mayaka rises back to her full height, hands on her waist. Oreki might be nodding. She can't really tell because he's hardly putting in any effort. "Get yourself to the nurse's office, then," she tells him, throwing a light kick against one leg of his chair. Oreki's pale expression pinches, as if he's disgusted by the idea of walking all the way down to the nurse's office on the first floor.
Mayaka sighs in exasperation. "You're troublesome," she says before stepping out of classroom. She finds Satoshi chatting with his friends along the corridor, clamps onto his arm and drags him back with her to class 3-B.
"Houtarou!" Satoshi leaps towards his friend the moment he sees him drooping over his desk. Mayaka wonders how Satoshi can tell this Oreki apart from his usual self. They're practically the same.
Oreki cringes at Satoshi's loud exclamation, which gives her great joy. "Let's get you to the nurse's office!" Satoshi yanks the sick, feverish Oreki out of his seat without any prior warning. He has no choice but to stand to prevent them from falling all over the floor. Mayaka follows the two of them down to the first storey just in case they need help. She doesn't want the boy she likes to get hurt because Oreki can't tell left from right.
Satoshi has trouble supporting Oreki down the stairs so Mayaka grudgingly holds onto his other arm. She does so with as much dignity as she can. When they eventually reach the nurse's office, Satoshi deposits Oreki on a vacant bed with more effort than necessary, tucking all his limbs neatly on the mattress and slapping a hand on Oreki's forehead to check his temperature.
"You're really hot, Houtarou! Rest while I tell them about you," Satoshi says before walking further into the room to look for the nurse.
Mayaka stands at the foot of the bed, her arms folded. She isn't needed anymore so she decides she should just leave. She throws the blanket messily over Oreki's frame before turning around. "Just get some sleep. You're good at that, so I don't think you'll have any trouble."
"Thanks, Ibara." Oreki's voice is a little clearer this time.
"… You must be really sick."
On Valentine's Day, Oreki finds her wiping her eyes under the shelter of an empty bus stop. She'd purposely taken this route home after Satoshi's refusal, not wanting to risk any chance of bumping into him. When she hears the sound of shoes lugging against pavement in that unhurried pace she's grown accustomed to, she recalls that this is the way Oreki walks home.
Mayaka feels like she's done her best to control her feelings. There are only some tears and a slightly red nose. All of these appeared in the heat of the moment, not because of her sadness or her heartbreak. Mayaka tells this to herself to make shoulders even. The taste of rejected chocolate is still bitter on her tongue and she wishes she could wash it out with water.
"Don't you dare mention this to anyone," she sniffs, blinking eyes glued to her shoelaces. It's hard to sound threatening when her voice is wet with tears, but Mayaka gives her best.
Oreki doesn't say anything after that. He stands there and waits for her to cry herself empty, indulging in the book he's reading, casual indifference on his face even as she lets a few more tears roll down her cheeks. He must have nothing better to do.
Mayaka finally, finally, finally gets placed in a different class from Oreki.
High school starts off on the right foot for her. Free from Oreki's depressing aura, she makes friends and joins all her usual clubs (the manga society and the library committee) with nothing to spoil her mood. No blank expression when she enters the classroom in the morning, no half-polite request for the list of homework due the next day, no consistent reminder that laziness does indeed have a personification.
Away from her, Oreki begins to change. Chi-chan's entrance into their lives brings an onslaught of colour. Satoshi and Chi-chan are alike in the most subtle ways, and maybe that is why it doesn't take long for Mayaka to grow close to Chi-chan. Maybe it's why Oreki actually stays back after school and attends Classics Club regularly. Chi-chan, though, is always honest and Mayaka likes that part of her. She also sees a lot of the good in people, and never gets offended by Mayaka's straightforwardness and instead says things like 'you're amazing', things which Mayaka doesn't agree with but is happy to hear.
Chi-chan even finds something likeable about Oreki somewhere underneath that thick skin of lethargy, and willingly starts one-sided conversations with him in spite of everything – which says a lot. Over time, the conversations become two-sided. Chi-chan is a very impressive person.
Chi-chan is also one of the few changes Mayaka welcomes into her high school life. Apart from having made a good friend, Mayaka doesn't really look forward to all the changes she needs to adjust to: the different filing and check out system the library committee wants her to memorise within a week, the intimidating seniors in the manga club, and the new, complicated material in a class she used to excel in in middle school. Most of all: pretending to be fine around Satoshi, who doesn't seem to be experiencing any difficulties keeping the act up on his end.
She still signs her name on an application form to join the Classics Club. Even though Oreki is in it. Because Satoshi is in it. Mayaka surrenders.
After school one day, she finds Oreki lying on the table in the Geog Prep room. His half-read book is tented on the top of his head and he has his right cheek pillowed in his arms. The curve of his slouched back makes her nostalgic, of all things.
"What are you doing?" Mayaka asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Conserving energy," Oreki says.
It's one of the most familiar things she's heard in months.
Mayaka wants to exploit Oreki's feelings for Chi-chan. She feels like she's betraying Chi-chan when she thinks this way, but the vexed look Oreki gets when Chi-chan breaches his personal space is far too enjoyable for her not to capitalize on. It feels good to finally stand on a different plane, as an onlooker to his awkward, youthful romance. It's fair because he's been a bystander to her semblance-of-something with Satoshi for far too long now.
"You could just ignore her," she suggests when Oreki talks about the reason behind his interest in the Juumonji incident.
"The problem is that she's not someone I can ignore," he says, distressed by the fact.
And this is new for Oreki. Mayaka is sure of it. She's been enduring school life with him for over three years at this point, so she's entitled to an opinion. She's never seen this face of his before, perplexed by something he isn't exactly sure of yet. It's the first time something other than Oreki's suffering amuses her. It's also the first time Oreki's in love. For a guy who has a knack for cracking cases, he can't come to a conclusion about his own feelings. She keeps this secret to herself. It'll be fun letting the bum figure it out on his own.
At the end of the last day of the school festival, Satoshi walks out of the clubroom, his eyes cast on the ground instead of set in front of him. Mayaka follows him out of worry, and when Satoshi slows down so that she can catch up, her heart trips over itself. They walk out to the school grounds, and the boy she still likes starts talking to her – opening up to her. She realises that Satoshi is being honest with her for once, and she wishes she could do something to help him. This might be the first time Satoshi's letting her see a genuine frown. It looks strange and foreign on him, and yet Mayaka has been aware of this side of him for a very long time. It only makes her sure that she will never give up on him.
Ah, he's talking about Oreki. No wonder he's talking to her. It's because he can't talk to Oreki about this.
But she's done playing second fiddle. If even someone hopeless like Oreki can be upfront about his feelings, so can she. Mayaka grabs onto Satoshi and doesn't let go even after the frown on his face fades.
"How have things been since then?"
Oreki asks her this question as they sit on the steps near the main shrine. He's never asked her about her relationship with Satoshi before, let alone in such a direct way. They've been solving mysteries for nearly a year now. Mayaka's always been caught up in solving someone else's mysteries that she overlooks her own. When did she start talking so intimately with Oreki? Why are they friends again?
He's selfish and rude and unmotivated. He's everything she doesn't want to be. But – Mayaka has to admit that he's changed too. Just like the rest of them. Satoshi had called her the other night, not to ask about holiday assignments or to borrow notes or even to talk about the drama they're following together on TV. If it had been the old Satoshi, that would never have happened. And if Oreki had been his old self, that wouldn't have happened either. She's already thanked him for his help, but now she thinks she should say it once more.
"Normal," is what she says instead.
"… I got really angry," Oreki recalls, sounding awed in retrospect.
Mayaka should feel honoured about that. Instead, she laughs.
Chi-chan, who had been the original person looking forward to watching the movie, cancels at the last minute. She apologises profusely over the phone. Mayaka has to persuade her into believing that it is fine and that she should attend to her more important, economical, family business immediately. She shrugs at Satoshi as she snaps her hand phone shut.
"We just need to wait for Houtarou, then."
But Oreki never shows up. What a surprise. He must have overslept, he must have been too lazy to leave the house, he must have calculated and concluded that watching the movie would result in an energy deficiency. Houtarou Oreki is one of the few constant things in her life. Irritating, boring, grey, constant.
Satoshi and her find things to talk about to fill up the time they spend waiting for Oreki. They talk about the universities they're aiming to attend in less than two years, about their Februarys (but not about that part of February), about alternative movies they could watch just to make Oreki uncomfortable. "I don't think Houtarou's coming," Satoshi finally says. They've been sitting at the fountain for half an hour. "Do you want to go? We still need to buy our tickets."
"Let's. I'm not going to wait for that slug any longer." Mayaka adjusts the skirt of her new dress.
The boy she loves stands on his feet and holds a hand out to help her onto hers. She takes it absently and feels her face grow red when Satoshi doesn't let go. His grip is light and cautious around her hand, asking a question he knows the answer to. Mayaka takes it upon herself to tighten her fingers around his.
"You're an idiot."
I had a lot of alternative ideas for the title: 'sometimes you're an idiot', 'sometimes you're not incompetent', 'sometimes we can be civil', 'sometimes you are not a complete waste of space and you might be a friend but I will never acknowledge that ever ever ever' and 'sometimes I forget to say thank you'.
I also had a hard but enjoyable time writing this. Mainly because Mayaka and Houtarou's relationship has always been peripheral for me, and because Satoshi inevitably finds his way back to them somehow. Still, I hope there were at least some scenes where it was more Mayaka-Houtarou rather than Mayaka-Satoshi-Houtarou. Placing them in the spotlight was challenging, but really fun. Thanks for reading!
p.s. the ending was a lead in to volume 5 (or 6?) of Hyouka, where apparently Satoshi and Mayaka do start dating. My ship. It sails!