ENTITLED: I'd Rather Pretend
FANDOM: Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun
DISCLAIMER: re: Chapter 2, Chapter 1
NOTE: Apologies on the wait this time. I went back and reworked a lot of stuff from chapter two because it was AWFUL, and I blame finals. Anyway, there's about seven hundred words of new content around the middle section, if you're interested. Actually, just go read it. Right now. Go.
GOOD NEWS: I made an outline! Look forward to chapter seven.
CHAPTER THREE; The Act of Leaving
"It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man."
— Richard P. Feynman
When she wakes up, all she can think about is rolling over and going back to bed. The world feels unreal, a strange thing that happened outside of her curtains, an occasional white ribbon of light.
Her mother bangs on the door. Natsume sticks her head under her pillow.
"Asako, at least take a bath or something!"
"You don't understand!" Natsume yells back, indignant as ever that her mother refused to unconditionally take her side.
"When he gets back from his trip, I'm telling your father about this!"
"Fine! At least he loves me!" Natsume retaliates. She can hear her mother's exasperated huff of a sigh, and then the eventual retreat. Just as well, because she has absolutely zero intention of leaving her room, ever. Not until school started, anyway. And why would she? It was pretty obvious that any social attempts made outside of the Internet were destined for failure and awfulness and—
She smashes her pillow more tightly over her face, and growls. Enough of that.
But before her resolve can really lock into place, a little voice reminds her that it's been three days, and Sasayan hasn't come knocking. He hadn't even texted. Natsume rolls over and relays all these grievances into the patient live chat, her stomach churning.
That sounds tough, Nat-san, says one of the girls on the chat, replying to the torrent of information Natsume had just dumped on her Internet friends, But don't take it too hard. Boys are stupid anyway.
Natsume begins to agree, then draws up short. She frowns at the screen, irritated. Wasn't that just too easy, to dismiss them like that? She hadn't ever felt that being a girl granted her special powers of perception, a deeper sense for the nuances of human relationships. Frankly, she hadn't ever felt like she had any level of perception. With this in mind, Natsume types, punching the keys down with sharp, jabbing fingers, It wasn't his fault. I'm the one who ruined everything. He isn't stupid.
The response is quick; I don't mean stupid, exactly. I'm sure he's very smart. I mean he didn't understand your feelings. Boys are like that, they always just do whatever they want and ignore whatever the other person feels.
For a second, Natsume tries to imagine Sasayan acting the way her friend had described, and the thought is enough to make her flush with anger. Hastily, she types; You're wrong. He isn't anything like that. He isn't just "a boy", and if anything, the person who did all of that was me.
She shuts her laptop, and sits up in bed, aware for the first time of how grimy her pajamas feel, how thick and itchy her hair seem to be. For a moment, she can only sit and stare dazedly across the room, towards the empty calendar on her wall. She realizes the date.
Shizuku should be getting back in town today. Or—no, wait! She'd been home since yesterday! Natsume leaps to her feet, and then forgets what she was about to do. She looks around the room anxiously, hoping for some inspiration to jar her back into activity—looking for something to finally bounce the lethargy she'd been dragging around —and then her eyes graze one of the many pairs of discarded heels strewn across her room, and she remembers. Of course. She's getting up.
Goal in mind, Natsume snatches up a haphazard armful of clothes with much less care than she would have normally exercised, and almost sprints to the shower. Mitty would know what to do. She was smart like that. She would know how to make everything better. There is not an inch of doubt in Natsume's heart.
Natsume arrives at Shizuku's house with the full expectation of finding her friend meditating atop a tower of textbooks. She had, of course, forgotten to calculate Haru into the equation. When Haru opens the front door, he takes one look at her and almost immediately hunches over to whisper, "Go away, we're being romantic."
Unusually unsympathetic to his pleas, Natsume only narrows her eyes at him and asks, "Is that really true?"
"No," Shizuku answers tonelessly, from somewhere behind Haru. Natsume screams in welcome and shoves Haru out of the way so she can smash herself against Shizuku's largely unresponsive form.
"I missed you!" Natsume wails, and butts her face against Shizuku's neck. After a moment, Shizuku sort of wriggles in what Natsume takes for greeting.
"No fair," Haru whines from somewhere in the distance. Natsume ignores him. She only digs herself deeper into Mitty and hopes that Haru will go away for a little bit.
"You had your turn," Shizuku admonishes Haru, and the boy squawks, maybe in embarrassment, maybe in reproach. Shizuku's hand tugs at Natsume's shirt—exercising the maximum extent of movement Natsume's hug will allow. Natsume's fingers curl in. After a second, Shizuku says, "Haru. I need you to buy something at the convenience store for me."
"Eh?" Haru whines again, clearly reluctant to be separated from her for even a second, "Why me?"
"Because if you're back fast enough, I'll give you a present. And I want to give you that present. So." Shizuku lets herself stop talking. This vague promise is clearly all that Haru needs, because in the next second he's out the door and halfway down the street, and Natsume thinks he'll probably get there before he remembers that Mitty hadn't even said what she wanted him to buy.
Shizuku drags Natsume to the door to close it, and then asks, "What's wrong?"
Natsume's face comes out of her friend's shoulder, and she yelps, "How'd you know?!"
"You're getting my shirt wet, dummy," Shizuku grumbles. It's true. Natsume lets go so that she can rub at her face.
"Sorry. This just kind of happens, lately."
"So?" Shizuku crosses her arms, and waits. The sight of Shizuku's familiar, no-nonsense expression makes Natsume nearly tremble with relief. Her mouth opens, and a sudden outpouring of words and cries and confusion escapes her before she can even think about editing it. The result is something jumbled, and rambling, and disjointed, and Natsume can tell that Shizuku understands immediately, but she lets Natsume go on talking anyways. And it feels good to say it.
"So, you messed up," Shizuku says matter-of-factly once Natsume had finished. "You led him and yourself on, hurt everyone involved, and still don't understand how you feel. Or how he feels."
Natsume twists her fingers into her skirt. She shakes with swallowed protests.
"You have to talk to him," Shizuku says firmly, "If you ever want him in your life, on any level, you have to make things right. But don't say anything until you're sure. There's a limit to how many times someone can forgive something like this, you know."
A thought flares up in Natsume's mind, and she looks towards Shizuku wildly, "You don't sound surprised about this at all. You knew. How did you know?"
"This isn't especially difficult to work out," Shizuku says, a touch of exasperation leaking into her voice.
At this, Natsume focuses her every particle on becoming as pitiful as possible, and turns trembling, watery eyes upon her best, most brilliant friend. Her voice quivers when she whispers, "It's hard for me."
"Oh, for God's sake," Shizuku mutters, and begins pushing Natsume towards the door. "Go. Go on. Haru's going to be back soon. Just think about it, Natsume. It's really not hard at all."
And before Natsume can wrangle a single hint out of her, Shizuku closes the door, and Natsume's shut out. For several minutes, she stands very still, and stares imploringly at the house number.
Haru rushes past her. The door opens, shuts, and then opens once more as he races back out. He yells over his shoulder at her as he passes, "Natsume, you dummy, just follow your heart!"
"I don't know how!" Natsume wails, and finally sets off down the street in the opposite direction Haru had taken.
Her heart leads Natsume to the baseball field halfway through the fourth inning. The home team is losing. She sits all the way in the back, but is still close enough to see Sasayan squint, which he only ever did when he was really focused on something. She watches him adjust his hat, blow out a slow breath, and crouch. He leans so far forward on the balls of his feet; she's surprised he doesn't stumble. The batter swings, and Sasayan launches himself into the air, and everyone starts clapping. Natsume blinks, and then joins in five seconds too late.
Watching him now, she tries to imagine her life without him. She goes through her memories and plucks him out of them, one by one, and the year grows empty.
The woman at Natsume's side suddenly shouts, and Natsume snaps out of her musings in time to watch Sasayan scoop up a low ball and lob it back at the umpire. Once, he'd told her that he could never go pro. She hadn't understood—he'd been the best fieldsman on the team since they were freshmen. He'd said, "That doesn't really matter. I can't ever hit a homerun. I'm too small. My arms aren't long enough."
He is too small, Natsume thinks, as she watches him turn and cry out something to one of his teammates. It's more obvious when he's standing next to the other boys, and she wonders why she kept on forgetting.
The next batter hits so hard, his bat shatters. Everyone in the crowd winces. Natsume remembers the time halfway through their second year when Sasayan had come into class wincing, and later he'd pulled up his shirt to show her the bruising that came with cracked ribs. He'd gotten it during practice. She'd been furious. She'd been so angry with him for getting hurt, but had known even then that her rage was ridiculous. She'd forced it down until she forgot about it, and he had healed a month later.
Her throat feels hot, suddenly.
How could she have forgotten that? Hadn't it been so important to her, once?
On the field, Sasayan laughs.
Natsume's fingers curl up, and she tucks her chin down into her collar. Her knees blur, the longer she stares at them. His laughter stabs her. His laughter means, I forgot about you. You're the only one who's hurt. You lost.
Natsume squeezes her eyes closed, and tries to make herself shut up, because nothing she ever thought made a bit of sense or did anybody a lick of good. One minute she wanted him happy, and in the next instant she was angry with him for not missing her enough. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she didn't even make sense to herself.
He would be better off without her.
Maybe he'd already realized that.
Her head begins to pound. It's awfully hard to breath, all of a sudden. The crowd around her screams and jumps to their feet. They've won the match. Sasayan won his game. Natsume puts her hands over her ears and tells herself to shut up, shut up, shut up.
She jerks up. The sun has dropped and the crowd is gone and Sasayan is staring at her with a little bit of field dust on one of his cheeks. Her eyes feel scratchy, and he is looking at her with the flattest, wariest expression she has ever seen him wear.
For a moment she can't think of a single thing to say. She wants to ask him what's wrong, why's he got that face on, and then she remembers, Oh, right, I did that.
And she means to say, "I'm sorry," because it is the right thing to say, and she is awful, and it would be better to let him go. She knows, she has always known, that she will never be as good as he is.
But she can't say it. She can't, because she was born to ruin people's lives, and maybe especially his. Maybe he is her favorite victim, because what she does say is the truth. She says, "I miss you," and hates herself so much that for a minute, she actually can't see anything but spots.
She looks up at him, lip caught between her teeth, and she watches his eyes grow tired. It takes her a very long time to recognize sadness, and when she does, her stomach lurches. It looks wrong on him. It's an ugly expression for his face, all mismatched and horrible. She feels sick just seeing it.
Sasayan walks away. She stares at the back of his neck, which is heavily tanned, and clenches the muscles in her legs. She locks her knees, so she can't run after him. She puts her hands over her mouth and doesn't make a sound.
Halfway across the field, Sasayan stops, and looks back at her. He doesn't move.
She gives him as many chances as she can stand to, and then she picks herself up, and trots after him.
He hands her an orange once she's caught up, and she follows him to the river. Neither of them say a word until they're sitting in the shadow of the bridge, and she remembers that it was only days ago that she'd pushed him in the river. She can't remember why she did that.
A deep sense of unease begins to slip away from her, the longer she sits with him. It had been a feeling akin to nakedness, a sort of unbalanced vulnerability. She hadn't even noticed she'd been carrying it.
She looks at her hands. They're stained a grimy, flaxy yellow, from the fruit rinds. She rubs her fingers together, and it doesn't help. A tension builds in her with a question, and she asks even though she doesn't want to. "Were you mad at me?"
Her voice is small.
"Not really," he says after a second. She still can't look up from her fingers, and their strange, tacky glimmer.
"You didn't call me."
"You wouldn't have answered." After a second he adds, "I didn't really have anything to say."
"Are you tired of me?" she asks, and her voice pitches strangely, too high and too nervous. Her shoulders hunch up and pucker. She reflects on the ease of the silence they had shared. Maybe she should have kept it. Maybe words only confused things.
She can't stand the thought of ducking her head and cowering while he turns her away. Natsume looks up and over, and he looks right back.
"No," Sasayan says, and adds, "But you're kind of getting on my nerves."
Just like that, Natsume forgets to feel bad. "You always say that!" she protests.
"Well, you're annoying!" Sasayan growls, and he glares at her. It doesn't frighten her, though. She can tell he's kidding a little, even if it's true, that he's making fun of himself as much as her. She glares right back.
"I'm not annoying, you're just too impatient!"
Sasayan looks deeply affronted. "I'm very patient!" he protests, and she thinks that, yes, most of the time, but—
"Not with me!"
"Obviously not with you. I care more, so of course I would get more upset when something bad happens," he looks away, but not in embarrassment. She's always kind of wondered about that, how he could say things like that to her without really worrying about appearances, just operating on fact. For a second, she tries to picture him blushing. She's sure he's done so before, but it's hard to remember. He always hides his face.
"I care too," she says very quietly. It's hard to get it out. It's hard, because her voice shakes, not because she's scared, but because she wants him to know this so badly, and at the same time, she doesn't.
"I know," he replies, and takes her hand. It's just a bit chalky, from the oranges or the baseball glove, she can't decide, but it's still familiar. For a minute her heart speeds up and then it settles back down as she gets used to it, again. His skin is warmer than hers.
"Do you think," she starts, stops, and makes herself try again. "Do you think, that—I don't really know if I'm being fair but I, I just, I don't want to lose you, and—"
Sasayan shoots her a look, all slanty-eyed and guarded, "I know that, Natsume. I just can't figure out if you want me to be your friend, or…" he trails off. She gets it. The river rushes in her ears, louder, and louder, and with her free hand she begins pulling up grass, trying to think of someway to explain to him what she felt, and certain that she would inevitably fail. Certain, as always, that admitting what she wanted could only result in never getting it.
"I don't know," she admits. For a second his fingers tighten infinitesimally. She thinks it's because he's annoyed with her, again, but it's not, it's because he's shifted his weight and leaned towards her and then he kisses her cheek. He lingers, and then jerks away. For a second, she can read him. But then he blinks.
"Good or bad?" he asks, almost fiercely. Natsume is flabbergasted. She gapes at him, truly gapes, her mouth open and everything.
"When I kiss you, is that a good or a bad thing?" Sasayan elaborates, and she realizes that he has more freckles than he'd had three days ago, and there's still a smudge of dust on his right cheek. She stares at the dirt. It anchors her. So does the feeling of his calluses against the back of her hand. Natsume counts three. And then she realizes, he's still talking. "And I don't want you to say it's good just because you're worried about hurting my feelings or—or like, you feel like if you don't say it, I'll stop being your friend. It pisses me off when you say stuff like that. Do you really think I'm so selfish that I would cut you off for that? I'm your friend, Natsume. Unless you don't want me to be."
"Of course I want you to be," she stammers, horrified. Had she really made him feel so low?
"Then…" he trails off and stares at her, expectant. Waiting.
Natsume notices, suddenly, that the river is beautiful, the grass is gorgeous, and the hot white slice of sun nipping around the edge of the corner house is especially lovely. The world is a warm, soft orange. She looks straight at him and can see nothing at all. And then at last, she understands why she had never quite trusted him. Whenever she got angry, she shouted and stamped her feet and threw her fists into the air. When she was sad, she cried until her cheeks were chaffed and raw from being rubbed. When she was scared, she screamed.
But Sasayan never did any of those things. He'd never let her see him embarrassed, or heartbroken, or furious. She'd seen only the fewest seething flares of emotion, those that slid through when she'd really pushed him too hard, and maybe it was true after all, maybe he was a little less patient with her than with everyone else. Or maybe he'd just permitted her to see more of him than anyone else.
Hesitantly, she says, "I—you remember, you said that you liked me? I think I didn't believe you. I thought—you were too different from how I was. When I liked Mi-chan. I didn't understand. I still don't understand you. But I do believe you. I know that now."
She bites her lip, and looks down, and rips at the grass more urgently. She pats the victim stalks into a small pile. She's blushing hard again, and it seems kind of funny. It's funny in a dizzy kind of way. She feels like the hapless sweet girl, calling a boy behind the school to confess her love. But that wasn't even what she was doing, right? And anyway, hadn't he been the one to start it all?
Just as she's about to say something she realizes how tightly she's gripping his hand. She almost snatches it away, but—but instead she holds on tighter.
"It's good," she answers at last, and her words are too loud and even more forceful. Honestly, she kind of screams it. Typical. Natsume fights the impulse to bury her head into the gap between her knees, and instead makes herself go on talking. "It's good and it's always been good but I just, I ruin everything and you know it's true and I didn't want to ruin this, I didn't want to ruin us because I can't be good like you are, and I didn't want to ruin you and most of all I didn't want you to ruin me."
Sasayan stares at her with his eyes wide open, looking shocked and very boyish, and when he finally smiles at her, she can't take it anymore. She lets go of his hand and almost throws herself in the opposite direction. "D-Don't get any ideas!"
"You're impossible," he says, but sort of indulgently. And he's so calm and so satisfied and is that really all he's going to say, come on! and she just can't stand it anymore, so she throws herself back at him and presses him flat into the grass, hands braced against his chest, and she leans down so that their lips are perhaps a millimeter apart.
She says in her sternest, clearest voice, "I think we should go out."
A passing car honks at them. Natsume refuses to be embarrassed. Her refusal is universally ignored. But she embarrassed or not, she doesn't have to get off of him.
"Natsume," Sasayan says, in a really weird, breathless kind of voice—and oh yes, the longer she stays there the redder he gets. She holds down his arms. He wriggles a little but otherwise doesn't fight back.
"Not like a boyfriend-girlfriend thing," she says, still in her most authoritative pretend-identity. "I don't think I—I'm still a little—let's just date. At first. Then we can, um, discuss."
The next comment from passing traffic is a long blare that lasts for, surely, three seconds. Natsume braces her shoulder blades against the noise. Sasayan is beginning to look a little wild-eyed. "Okay," he hisses through his teeth, "Okay, great, get off me."
"No!" Natsume snaps. She is perhaps a little drunk off of her new power. Or supposed power. In the next second Sasayan pushes himself up, and even manages to catch her from sliding off him and toppling down the riverbank.
"You're a crazy person!" he hisses at her. There are bits of grass stuck in his hair and he's all fluffed up and indignant, and Natsume wants to giggle. So she does, with her hands pushed up ineffectually against her mouth. He keeps hold of her upper arms. No cars are coming.
"You're so embarrassed!" she yells at him, triumphant and pleased and ha—so what if he was Mr. Mysterious Feelings, now she knew exactly how to break him down, so she could catch him off guard whenever she wanted, and—!
Sasayan kisses her. He dives in for it. She doesn't have any time to prepare and her eyes are still open and then she falls over backwards and now he's the one leaning over her, and without thinking she reaches up and gives his shirt a tug, and he follows her down, but not quite—he's still propped up on one elbow—but his hand creeps around her neck and into her hair. She likes that.
What she likes even more is that when they do break apart, she looks into his face after kissing him and realizes that for half a second, she can see everything.
CLOSING NOTE: I'm sure you're all wondering how I'm going to come up with enough conflict to keep this thing going for another six chapters. Don't worry. Tee hee.