NOTEBOOK: PURCHASED FROM STAPLES

It has been a long time since I wrote in this diary.

The last entry in my possession was written all the way back in 2018. The exact date is recorded as August 16. That makes it five years ago, to be absolutely precise. Five years since my last entry.

Although that's not true. I know full well there's another entry I wrote that was ripped out. I can still see the tear along the seam from where the thief removed it.

Why did they steal it? This is one of the many peculiar details concerning this diary, concerning what happened in New York, concerning the last five years of my life, that I have speculated on at length since it all happened.

If I had continued to write daily entries, then I'm certain the overwhelming majority of them would have included my thoughts on the matter. That is to say, my speculations on why the thief removed the entry. There would have been an appalling amount of mundane repetition. But this is a diary, after all. People's lives are only so exciting, and mine is no exception.

The person who inhabited my body until 2018, until the Hudson, could never have admitted that this was a diary. In fact, they spent hours upon hours denying it. I can see that just by flicking through the text now and re-reading the entries I know by heart, like a tired actor who has performed Macbeth one too many times.

That person could never admit they were keeping a diary because it was proof, however arbitrary, that they were weak. That despite their cold and aloof persona, they were in fact as fallible as everybody else. In fact, they were more so. They were like a tent blown about in a storm, tethered to the ground by a solitary, shaking peg.

They were so different to the person I am now. That is why I am denying them my name. I refuse to call that person 'Yukinoshita Yukino' because it feels like a blatant affront to how much I have changed since then, and improved myself.

But that, of course, is nonsense. That person and the person currently writing a new entry to their diary, while waiting for their train to arrive in Chiba Station, are both Yukinoshita Yukino. I have just underlined the word 'both' to ensure I don't forget this crucial detail.

That pathetic, miserable excuse for a human being remains somewhere within me, locked away, suppressed. I should be just as aware of that as I am thankful for it. There is a famous quote concerning the study of history: "those who don't know the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them". If I forget my own mistakes, then likewise, that person could one day re-emerge. I must do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.

That is what I am doing on this train, after all. I believe it is a testament to how much I've changed that I'm now capable of writing these words. Of recording a new entry in my diary. Of doing

Of doing what I am about to do.

It

It is about to happen. I am about to

I don't want to write the final words of that sentence. I don't want to do it. What if finishing that sentence somehow breaks my suspension of disbelief, and I realise that this is all some tantalising fever dream, and I awake to find myself back in New York, as I have done so many thousands of times, wishing that the dream would return, that it would discover once again the tangible feeling of reality.

That was a dreadfully written sentence. I should at least try to keep my writing legible. I pride myself on my perfect Japanese characters. Unfortunately, my hands are shaking a little, and I can't hold the pen properly.


Yukinoshita Yukino stopped writing.

At the same time, there was an unexpected lurch on the train, which took her by surprise. She dropped her pen, and it rolled away from her seat and over to the feet of the man sitting opposite. She flushed at this show of clumsiness. It was unlike her. She hated it.

The man noticed, saving her the embarrassment of asking for its return. Once he'd handed it over, with Yukino offering a mumbled 'gomenasai', their eyes met briefly. He seemed well-intentioned enough. He had been reading a novel before she disturbed him- something about the end of an affair.

"Are you alright? You're shaking a little."

"… Thank you for asking, but there's no need. I'm absolutely fine."

Yukino averted her gaze, not wanting to see the man's skepticism. She clutched the pen tightly, resting her arms on top of the diary, itself on her lap.

For awhile, she distracted herself by looking out the window, at the urban sprawl all around her. She'd left from her hotel in Tokyo at 9:AM on the dot, despite the fact her train to Chiba would be departing at 12:AM. Knowing she'd left too early, but needing the sense of reassurance it gave her, Yukino had spent an hour or two in a cafe before catching the train.

The cafe had come with a set of unwanted associations that only deepened her unease- still, she'd put herself through them intentionally. That was also why she'd brought the diary with her, not only in her luggage from New York to Japan, but today, when she had arranged to meet with…

With…

Yukino closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. It was the same feeling of doubt that had forced her to stop writing. She didn't even want to finish that sentence in her head. It had too many implications, and bore with it too many swirling, frightening, tempestuous memories and doubts and regrets.

She had made an internal promise to herself: namely, that she would write a new entry in her diary before… before what was supposed to happen today. She wanted it to be an acknowledgement. The proof of that 'change' she had been writing about. That in coming to Japan, and seeking out the person who had inspired her… whose words had helped her, comforted her, whenever she needed them most…

It was supposed to be the literal turning of the page. The continuation of her diary, and her life. Yukinoshita Yukino, letting go of all that had once troubled her.

Instead, her hands were shaking. Her heart was pounding. She couldn't write. And she most certainly didn't feel like she had changed.

While her resolve to write faltered, Yukino busied herself looking out the window. She had by now spent several weeks in Tokyo, and of course had visited her parent's old home-country many times before, but Japan had always maintained an element of the fairytale to her. She may have been born here, but having left at the age of three, America was all she knew.

As such, Japan- its language, its culture, its customs- had all become an obsession for her. She insisted on maintaining her literacy and fluency in Japanese to the point where anyone would think her a native. She often preferred Japanese literature to western. The country became a tantalising place she undoubtedly looked at through rose-tinted glasses. As her life in New York bored or filled her with disillusionment, the prospect of life in Japan was contrived to be an idealised opposite. To her, it was a place where the grass was greener, where contentment lay just ahead.

Where someone might be waiting.

Was that part of the reason why this person, this thief of her diary, had become such a pivotal character in her life? That encounter; that consequent coincidence. She had never considered it before, but looking out at the Chiba cityscape, and realising how the urbanity seemed to her magisterial despite being scarcely different to the urbanity of New York… Was her view of this person similarly idealised? Similarly fake?

The thought frightened her; it wasn't even true. She may have been going to meet them in person for the first time, but she had already spoken to them on the phone… Three times in total.

The first phone-call… She had been sitting in her hotel room in Tokyo. She had barely moved from her spot on the couch the whole day. All the preparation it had taken to get her to that point, waiting to make the phone-call, had started to spiral through her mind… Realising that this light novelist might truly be them. Contacting the publishing company Shogakukan and anyone associated with them, over and over again, in vain. Trying every possible avenue in order to organise a meeting with them, and then a few more she'd hadn't thought of previously…

When her efforts paid off, and she managed to get in touch with their sister, Hikigaya Komachi… Then, and only then, had she truly started to believe it could happen. She'd explained the situation to Komachi over the phone, feeling ridiculous and absurd and inadequate with every word that passed her lips, and yet she'd understood. His sister had believed her story about New York, about the Hudson, about the diary, because it was a story that she herself knew all too well. Through Love and Coffee. Through her…

Through her brother.

Her resolution to avoid thinking about him crumbled. Hiki… Hikigaya Hachiman.

… Hikigaya Hachiman. The name reverberated in her mind, as it had done for many months now. Only now, thanks to their recent phone calls… The name now had a voice to accompany its grand significance within her thoughts. A deep, resonant voice. One full of cynicism, of gruff disillusionment, and yet also full of hesitation. The way he'd spoken to her, said her name, reassured her that for him it was the same: that he thought of her in the same regard. Whatever regard that was.

The first phone-call had been so impassioned she hardly remembered what they said. It felt like they said a lot, and spoke for a long time, but by the time they hung up her heart was pounding so much it all felt utterly unreal.

The second phone-call had been… quieter. It had been him who called her that time, the very next day. It was strained and uncomfortable. They'd said so many strange and confusing things the previous night, and neither of them knew how to follow it up. They discussed trivialities and common interests. There was no flow or chronology to their conversation. They would pause, then speak, then pause, then speak.

But speak they had. For hours on end.

The third phone-call had been no more than a minute long. Again, it had been Hachiman who called her. About three days later. It was short enough for her to recall every word.

"… I want to meet you."

"…"

"That was why you came to Japan, right? You want to meet me. Not just talk over the phone."

"… Of… of course. Why else would I have come?"

"I'm really, really busy over the next few months. This fucking Love and Coffee anime… It's a pain. I'd managed to avoid a lot of the publicity crap, but now that the premiere's getting so close, I'm gonna be booked up for weeks. But you're… you're here now. So I want to meet you."

"…"

"Yukinoshita-san-"

"-Sorry, I just… I'm trying to collect my thoughts. My apologies. This is just all very… Yes. Well, I'm free for the foreseeable future. Tell me when you're free. This is why I came to Japan, after all. To… to see you."

"… Next week is when my schedule starts getting frantic. I can't imagine you're going to be here much longer, so how about then? On the Thursday, I've been signed up to do a talk at this Ponkan 8 thing… The guy who does the Love and Coffee art has an exhibition here in Chiba for all his work on the series. Thursday is the grand opening. They want me to give a talk there, at 2PM, but after that I'm free for the rest of the day. We could meet at the exhibition and then maybe… Um… I dunno… Go for a walk, or… or something."

"…"

"A- also I'm sorry for not calling you yesterday. I mean, you didn't call me either, but I guess I just started overthinking things. Had to calm myself down. Plus I had to rant at Komachi for not telling me you guys were in contact. I know she's right, and I would have panicked and avoided you if I knew in advance, but still, that needed to be done."

"… Alright."

"Alright to what? To meeting me?"

"Yes, ah… Logistically that seems adequate. Text me all the details of the event and I'll make sure to be there."

"I'll get them to sort out a Visitor Pass for you. I've heard it's gonna be packed."

"I see."

"…" He'd coughed. "Well, um… I'll see you there then… Yukinoshita-san."

"Yes, Hikigaya-kun. I'll see you there."

"…"

"…"

"… I'm… I'm gonna hang up now."

"A- alright, Hikigaya-kun."

Yukino breathed in. The train continued to rumble slowly, solemnly, towards its destination. It had taken so long to get to this point; only when the work was complete, that everything she'd hoped for was within reach, did she truly realise the extent of this person's cold hard grip on her heart.

She failed to write a single word more in the time before the train arrived in Chiba. She stepped off the train and onto the platform, navigated the crowd and left the station like a spirit only perilously attached to its body. Emerging onto the street outside made her pause, for some reason. Staring at the cars and crowds and buildings occupied her for longer than she'd care to admit.

She finally had the direction she'd wanted- a journey which ended at this art exhibition. So why did she feel like this?

Yukino swallowed and held her shoulder bag closer, knowing that the diary and the pen remained within it, their weight subtle inside but strangely burdensome. She opened her phone and brought up the directions to the event. It was a twenty minute walk away.

I… I suppose there's not much left to do.


October 5th 2023, 1:18 PM

I'd thought this recount was finished.

I mean, it is finished. The events I was recounting, of Pirellis, of New York, of five years ago, are all in the past. There is nothing more in the past for me to recount. These words I'm typing right now are the first ones I've written, of any kind, recount or Love and Coffee or otherwise, since last week. When the phone calls happened.

The phone calls with Yukinoshita Yukino.

Yukinoshita Yukino, who I am about to meet.

Fuck

I just

Fuck.

Why is that the only word I feel like I can write? Fuck. It seems that for this recount, just like for Love and Coffee, I've quite literally run out of words.

I don't even know why I brought my laptop with me, to this stupid Ponkan 8 exhibition. It's about to open properly to the public in, like, an hour? I'd say about an hour. I'll double check with Katsomoto-kun in a minute. He's here as well. Not in the this side room the venue assigned me, not with me right now, cause he's gone to grab us some coffee, but he'll be back in a minute or two. He's Shogakukan's designated Hachiman-sitter, after all.

Damn. Just looking at my reflection in the mirror in front of me is weird. I haven't looked this neat and tidied up in months. Years, maybe? You don't have much of a reason to dress up as a home recluse. A dressing gown or less is usually adequate. But look at me now, in a not too shabby suit, showered, shaved. Okay, I forgot to brush my hair, but beggars can't be choosy. This is the best Hikigaya Hachiman is gonna look, and don't you forget it.

I actually fretted over what I should wear this morning. I fucking fretted over my clothes. How embarrassingly vain is that? I stood in my bedroom, looked down at myself, and un-ironically considered what to wear. That's what meeting someone important will do to you.

I

I'm way too much of a nervous wreck to write about that. Like I just wrote, I've quite literally run out of words. I've run out of feelings. Yes. I am about to meet Yukinoshita Yukino, unless something goes awry, which I wouldn't count out, knowing how this world works. But that's far too much for my puny mind to process, so instead I'm going to fill the time by writing about this event, about the speech I have to give, imminently, in about an hour.

It's not that long of a speech. I have to fill between five or ten minutes, and considering my complete lack of a speech to deliver, it will be more towards the five minute mark.

Yes. I did not come close to writing the speech I was supposed to prepare. To be brutally honest, I didn't even consider writing one. My mind has been on other things, or rather one particular thing, for the past week. Luckily, Katsomoto-kun came in clutch, anticipated my incompetence, and wrote me an outline with which I will get on stage and then promptly ignore. Improvisation is key in all things.

I suppose I'll pay some sorta credit to Ponkan 8. It is his exhibition, I guess. I've already had a glance at some of the illustrations and series artwork they chose to put on main display. They're all framed up on walls, like he's a proper, legitimate artist or something, rather than a mostly talentless hack. There's a reason why he's my series artist, after all.

I suppose I could mention what my favourite of his illustrations is.

It's actually on display, right here in the exhibition.

I

I remember when I saw that illustration for the first time. When I sent over the finalised manuscript of Love and Coffee Volume 4, I'd already specified what scenes I wanted to be emphasised with drawings. One of them was the cafe scene between Etsuji and Akane.

The scene where our intrepidly shit protagonist tells her that 'she isn't alone'. And they embrace.

When I first saw that illustration, I stared at it for ages. No comment or anything. I just stared at it. The illustration's sweet without being too much, or too little. Akane's eyes are closed as she holds him, sitting on the couch in cafe. She's crying, but now bawling, just lightly crying, like she hasn't realised its happening, into his shoulder. And Etsuji holds her with his eyes wide wide open, looking at her with this shocked, tender surprise, as if her presence in his arms is something beyond his comprehension.

That's one of the few Ponkan 8 illustrations I like. I'm glad one of the good ones, from his impressive collection of crap, has made it into the exhibition.

I'll say something about that in my speech. Or maybe I'll forget. We'll see what fucking happens.

Oh. Katsomoto-kun's back


"Whoa… Hikigaya Hachiman writing? Do my eyes deceive me?"

The light novelist in question looked up from his computer screen, dead fish eyes narrowed. "… Alas, they do not."

His editor, Katsomoto Koto, looked at him from the doorway of the side room they'd been given. In his hands were a plastic cup of hot coffee, a Mocha, his drink of choice, and a MAXX Coffee, which he'd bought without bothering to ask. Hachiman was sat in front of the mirror dresser, cradling his laptop, peering at the MAXX Coffee can with longing in his eyes.

They had got to the venue for the exhibition nice and early. Katsomoto had showed up outside Hachiman's house at around 10 AM, fully expecting to spend five minutes ringing the doorbell, an hour pestering the occupant of said house to get dressed, and another two hours getting him out the door. With these delays taken into account, they would still arrive in time, just about, for the speeches.

His surprise when Hachiman opened his front door immediately, not just dressed but dressed appropriately, borderline smart, was monumental. It only grew at the little effort required to get him out the door.

"Have you by any chance been body-swapped, Hachiman? Is the real you inhabiting a teenage girl from rural Gifu Prefecture?"

"If you'd referenced something less obvious, that might have been funny. Your Name isn't the only body swap anime, Casual-kun."

Of course, Katsomoto knew that something must be preying on the light novelist's mind. Hikigaya Hachiman was a creature of pedantic habits, and he didn't appreciate those habits being interrupted. Regrettably, one of those habits included not leaving his house. So for him to break that rule of his own accord meant that something big must have happened, or be happening. And it most certainly wasn't the Ponkan 8 exhibition.

Since they'd arrived, Hachiman had mostly sat on his own, looked bored when the organisers spoke or praised his work on Love and Coffee, nodded and agreed without thought to the timings on the speeches, and insulted approximately four people. Par for the course.

But Katsomoto Koto knew him too well to think everything was normal. Behind his boredom, his snaps, was a tremble. A hesitation. Something was genuinely, truly bothering him.

It was almost like pre-date nerves. But that was laughable. Hikigaya Hachiman never went on dates.

"Are you ever going to get off this stuff?" Katsomoto asked, gesturing towards the MAXX Coffee. "It's not good for you."

"So are all the best things in life."

Katsomoto rolled his eyes, as was customary for him in the presence of this man, and walked over, handing him the can. Hachiman took, opened it, gulped it down almost in one.

The editor tried to catch a glimpse of what was being written on the laptop screen, only to watch it be slammed shut, and find himself on the receiving end of a scowl.

"Oh, don't give me that. Like I've said five trillion times, checking for progress on Love and Coffee is my job. Y'know, the thing I get paid for?"

"Really? I thought it was babysitting and licking my arse."

Katsomoto snorted. "You wish."

Only once the editor had backed away, out of view of the screen, was the laptop opened again. Hachiman didn't write anything though. His fingertips merely hovered over the buttons.

"… Is this the so-called 'sad story' you were telling me about?"

No response is all the response he needed.

"It's a recount, right? An autobiography of sorts. Of everything you told me happened in-"

"Fuck off."

He rolled his eyes. "… As I was saying. Of everything that happened in New York. I thought you'd finished that, though. The recount…?"

"I have."

"Then what are you writing?"

"Just stuff. Does it really matter? Maybe I'm writing my speech."

"Hachiman. We both know you're not writing your speech."

"Only because you've already written that 'outline' of yours. I didn't get a chance to. And the outline sucks, by the way. It's painfully fake. Maybe that's why I'm bothering to write a speech. My reputation would be on the line if I said that superficial crap-"

"What reputation?"

"Who's this audience coming to see, me or you-"

"Neither of us. They're here for Ponkan 8's exhibition-"

"Like hell they ar-"

"Stop diverting. Are you writing the recount or not?"

"…"

Hachiman's fingers continued to hover over the keyboard. His dead fish eyes were fixated on a spot of the screen. And his editor could feel it again. The hesitation.

Katsomoto decided it was his responsibility, as part of his job, to ask the light novelist what was wrong. No obligation beyond the job, of course.

"… Is something happening, Hachiman?"

"… The Ponkan 8 exhibition is happening. My speech is happening. Please try to keep up. I know you're dim, but surely not that dim."

"You insult people more when you're stressed, Hachiman."

"Yeah? Well how about you shut…" He paused when he realised he would just be proving his editor right. "… Just leave me be. I'm… I'm trying to write."

And his dead fish eyes were back on the computer screen. His fingers were back hovering over the keyboard, threatening to write, but leaving that threat empty, unfulfilled.

Katsomoto sighed. He had learnt the hard way that trying to get Hachiman to talk, trying to pry things away from his closely guarded chest, was unsuccessful. He had to want to talk, to diverge, for any progress to be made.

"Well… If you wanna vent about anything, I'm here." He pulled out his phone, checking his texts. "Remember, the grand opening is at 2, and you're due on stage five minutes afterwards. Try not to improvise too much."

Katsomoto made to leave the side room, stealing sips of his Mocha. The organisers would probably have more to-

"She's coming, Katsomoto-kun."

He stopped still. "… Huh?"

"She's coming." Hachiman's voice was quiet. Timid. Helpless. "… The woman I told you about. Yukinoshita Yukino. She's coming here, for the exhibition."

Katsomoto's eyes widened. He stared at the light novelist, instinctively assuming it was a joke, but knowing from the abject expression, the abject seriousness, that he must be telling the truth.

Words escaped him. It was Hachiman's job to be good with them, not his. He just gave his opinions.

"… This isn't part of your schedule, Hachiman."

"No shit."

"…" The editor rubbed the back of his head. "… Wait, so… Really? She's coming here? As in, for 2PM? In half an hour? She's gonna be here for your speech?"

"Yes."

"… Damn."

Katsomoto put his Mocha down, took the nearest chair and sat down next to Hachiman, who again slammed his laptop shut. The light novelist refused to meet his eyes.

"I don't understand. I thought she was… I thought you said she lived in New York?"

"…" Hachiman took a deep breath, and then began to explain all that had happened. How she had reached out, contacting Shogakukan, then contacting Komachi. The phone calls. All that they'd spoken about. And then organising to meet. Just as they'd wanted.

"… Damn," Katsomoto repeated. "Sorry, just… just lemme get my head around all this…"

"Yeah. I forget about your brain's inability to grasp simple concepts. Let me spell it out: Yukinoshita Yukino coming, Hikigaya Hachiman panicking. Got it?"

The insult might have been all bluster, all bravado, but it made him scowl anyway.

"… No. There's one big, big factor I don't understand here."

"What?"

"Isn't this a good thing?"

"…"

"I mean… This definitely sounds good to me. It sounds like progress. Like a second chance. A chance to give that 'sad story' you told me, even though it wasn't even that sad, a different ending. An ending you'd both prefer. Right?"

"…" Hachiman was sat very still, biting his lip.

"Well? Isn't it?"

"… I don't trust myself to get that far."

"Why not?"

"Because… because…" Hachiman put his head in his hands. "… Look, Katsomoto-kun, it's just… It's just been so fucking long. Do you realise how long it's been since New York? Years. Fucking years. And all that time, I've just been doing… nothing. Nothing worthwhile. I've done nothing but waste my time. I've wasted time writing a trashy light novel series. I've wasted time procrastinating over writing a trashy light novel series. But most of all, I've just been… waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting. And… and what if I… what if do what I always do, and waste it? What if I waste this moment? This chance? What if the waiting never ends?"

Katsomoto thought about to say, editing his response, considering the man before him.

"… Hachiman… Do you really think she's not thinking the same things?"

"… I haven't got a clue what she's thinking. I don't know her, Katsomoto-kun."

"… Just remember. You have this speech to give, not just for this exhibition, but for her. Just try to be honest-"

And his anger lashed out in place of insecurity.

"Honest? For real? You literally couldn't give me more cliched advice if you tried. Oh yeah, I'll just be honest! That's a great idea, when I'm an honestly shit person! I'm sure she'll love that!" He shook his head. "You're my editor, not my psychiatrist."

"Yeah, well I'd edit your whole personality if I could, but we can't have everything."

"So you admit it! You admit that I'm a shit person." He removed his head from his hands, dead fish eyes full of emotion. "… You admit that she could never…"

"I said nothing of the sort. And you can balk at my advice all you like, complain that it's cliche, but at the end of the day, that's what you're going to have to do. Be honest. It's just that simple." Katsomoto checked his watch. "… Shit. It's nearly 2PM. We should get going…"

The editor made to leave, picking up his things from the side room, but Hachiman didn't budge. His laptop remained on his thighs, as if it were melting into his skin.

"Hachiman? You've gotta get ready. Make sure to bring the speech outline."

Reluctantly, the light novelist stood up. He was shaking his head from side to side, almost compulsively.

"… I should never have agreed to this."

"The speech, or meeting her?"

"Both."

"Just remember what I said. Be honest."

Hachiman looked at his editor, a sudden burst of spite flooding forth, almost as strong as the doubt and worry and longing in his heart.

… Be honest? Is that what you said, Katsomoto-kun?

Fine. I'll give you honest.


The queue for the Ponkan 8 exhibition had been growing since early morning.

The demand for anything concerning Love and Coffee, from official releases to events such as this, was feverishly high. The hype surrounding the upcoming anime adaptation had been in effect for months. As such, the tickets released online for the grand opening of the exhibition had all been snapped up within minutes.

However, more were being sold on the day, at the ticket office outside the venue building. As such, the queue of fans stretched half-way down the street, the majority of them with tickets, the others hoping to snap up the remaining ones at the entrance.

Yukinoshita Yukino knew all of this from the research she'd conducted on the exhibition. She'd looked it up online as soon as… as soon as he'd invited her. She already knew it would be sold out. That there would be this throng, this winding queue of people.

But seeing the fans of Love and Coffee firsthand… the fans of his work… was another thing entirely.

All of them had bright smiles on their face. Excited chatter about the exhibition, about Ponkan 8's artwork, and lively discussions of the light novels, of the upcoming KyoAni adaptation, fluttered up and down the queue. Some were even dressed up, in cosplays of the main characters. There, close to the front, was a Nagatomo Etsuji. There, in the middle, was a Machiko Mei. There, at the back, was an Arakaki Akane.

Yukinoshita Yukino ran her hand along her bag, remembering the notebook inside, looking at all these fans of Love and Coffee in disbelief.

… I'm not the only one who's come here today.

I'm not the only who's come to see him.

Because the prospect of a speech from the author himself, from Hikigaya Hachiman, was just as exciting as the exhibition. Very likely, it was more so. She could feel that excitement throbbing in the air, like the hum of a thousand cicadas.

She wished she could share in it. Share in their excitement, rather than the opposite. The anxiety. The feeling that she might be about to throw up.

Here she was, outside the venue, at 1:39 PM, twenty minutes away from the grand opening of the exhibition. Her promise to herself hadn't been followed through. Her entry wasn't finished.

Swallowing nervously, Yukino took the notebook and read over what she'd written on the train. That literal turning of the page she had been hoping to symbolise here, to mark, felt pitifully misguided. Which page of her life, exactly, was she turning? Which version of herself was she turning her back on?

Instead of putting the notebook back, she decided to hold it in her hands, almost out of comfort, as she walked along the queue, seeing the faces of people she'd never know, but who shared a common obsession.

… What if… What if he doesn't recognise me? Such a prospect would be logical. It has been so long. In New York, we only saw enough of each other for it to be a glimpse. If anything, it would be illogical if he recognised me.

No. I need… I need to stop being ridiculous. He was the one who invited me here. He said it all himself. And we spoke on the phone, did we not? We spoke for hours. We called multiple times. The fact that he shared my desire to meet was apparent. If he didn't recognise me, what would that matter? I would just approach him, make sure he knew who I was. Re-introduce myself.

'Good afternoon, Hikigaya-kun. My name is Yukinoshita Yukino. Nice to meet you. How, exactly, have we avoided each other for so long? Where, exactly, have you been all my life?'

… 'Why does it sometimes feel like I've waiting for you so much longer than five years? Like somehow, someway, in another place… We knew each other. And I've been waiting for so long… Is the waiting really about to end?'

She wished she could steady the drumbeat in her chest, or at least attune it to a more regular, calmer rhythm. She swore she could hear it. Thump thump. Thump thump.

Soon, she came by a man dressed in security uniform, stood at the front of the queue, a headset in his ear. She approached him, feeling out of place beside the fans of Love and Coffee, and their seemingly interminable enthusiasm.

"… Good afternoon. My name is Yukinoshita Yukino," she said, echoing her own thoughts. "I… There should be a Visitors Pass for me? Is there somewhere I can pick that up-"

"Second queue, behind me," he replied, sounding bored. "If you're on the list, it'll be there."

She gave him a polite bow and followed his directions. A much shorter queue was to be found there, behind the first; here, there was no one in Love and Coffee cosplay. They gave off a more serious impression. Perhaps they were connected to the organisers.

Yukino slipped in at the back, behind another girl with long black hair. She was wearing a pale pink beret and a cutesy outfit which didn't seem to suit her rather doll-like exterior. Yukino checked her watch.

Fifteen minutes, before the grand opening. Before they were supposed to meet.

She tried to compose herself, returned the notebook to her bag, straightened her posture. Nothing was working.

Stop fretting. What will be will be, as always. As is logically proven.

"… So, are you a fan of L and C?"

The feminine voice disturbed Yukino from her thoughts. She was glad for the distraction; it had come from the woman in front of her. They had turned sideways on, looking at her curiously.

"Why do you ask?"

"I dunno. Guess you just don't look the type. To be into light novels and stuff, I mean."

"Well, there's a resemblance between us, so by that logic, you shouldn't be a fan of Love and Coffee either. Appearances are deceiving."

The woman seemed taken back, sheepish, at the abruptness of her response. "… Oh. Sorry. I… I didn't mean to sound rude."

"…" A calmer Yukino might have apologised herself, but the woman was right in thinking she had touched a nerve, simply by talking to Yukino in this moment of all moments, when she felt so helplessly vulnerable.

An awkward silence fell, and the woman turned to face the front of the queue again, which was slowly being chipped away.

"… I take it you are a fan of Love and Coffee, then?" Yukino murmured, feeling guilty.

"What was that?"

She repeated her question, and the woman nodded. "Yeah. It's probably my favourite book series. Why do you ask-"

"Would you mind explaining why?"

The woman blinked at the continued abruptness in Yukino's voice. "Are you… are you feeling alright? If something's wrong, I can leave you alone. It's chill."

"… I'm fine. My apologies. I'm just trying to make conversation."

Perhaps the woman sensed that her words would be a ministration, of some kind. Perhaps she sensed the emotion Yukino was desperately trying to suppress, without knowing its nuances. Either way, she blinked again, and then answered.

"… Why am I a fan of L and C? Well… I guess I read it at the perfect time in my life. I think a lot of people love L and C for that reason. It… It helped me to understand something. Something in my life that I hadn't understood before. If that makes sense?"

Yukino nodded. "It does. Thank you for telling me."

"…" The woman scratched her head. "I, uh… The reason I have a Visitor Pass today is that my partner works here, at the venue. When he told me there was going to be an exhibition for all of Ponkan 8's artwork, and that Hikigaya Hachiman would be giving a speech, I couldn't believe my luck. I've been looking forward to this for weeks."

"Really?"

"And then there's the anime coming up… Eguchi Takuya is honestly the perfect choice for Etsuji. There's never been a better time to be an L and C fan." The woman smiled. "Why have you got a Visitor's Pass, then?"

Yukinoshita Yukino smiled too, but the sentiment was all different. "… I'm… I'm supposed to be meeting someone."

"Ah. That sounds a little… ominous?" The woman tilted her head. "Is it a date? You seem nervous enough for it to be a date."

"… No. It's not a date. It's too strange for that."

Her confusion as plain. "… Well… If it is a date, or you're just meeting someone you care about… Make sure you tell them how you feel. Be honest, and all that. That's what L and C helped me with, y'know."

"What?"

All of a sudden, a blush appeared on the woman's face. "Uh… I don't really know why I'm telling you this, but um… That's what L and C helped me to understand. Connection. The whole story of L and C is about Etsuji and the girls failing to connect with each other… Every volume, they always get so close to connecting, to saying how they feel, but they never quite manage it. And when I read L and C for the first time, at university, I had already met my partner… We were room-mates, actually. And, uh, y'know what universities students are like. We were… I guess you could say we were-"

"Cohabiting?"

The blush deepened. "Yeah. That… A- anyway, we were a thing, but for some reason, we kept on coming up with excuses why we couldn't be together. We went through every label under the sun. 'Friends with benefits' and all that crap. But really, looking back, we were just afraid… Afraid of connection. Both of us had been kinda lonely, growing up, getting through school… Being that close with another person frightened us. And reading L and C, a story where the characters were making the same mistakes as us… It helped me to realise. It helped me realise this wasn't someone I wanted to let slip away. So, I finally decided to be a girl of action, told him how I really felt, and… Well…" She gestured at the entrance to the exhibition. "We're still going today. Everything comes full circle, doesn't it?"

Someone you don't want to let slip away… Yukino breathed out. "Yes. Sometimes, once in a blue moon… things come full-circle. Thank you for telling me that."

"No problem. Hope it helped."

The queue had been chipped down; they were almost at the front. Just as the woman was about to reach the desk, she looked over her shoulder again.

"Oh… I forgot to ask. What's your name?"

"… Yukinoshita Yukino. And you?"

"It's Rumi. Tsurumi Rumi. Nice to meet you." She had reached the front of the queue. "I'll see you inside, maybe…?"

"Maybe."

The woman in the pink beret, Tsurumi Rumi, offered her a small wave as she picked up her Visitor Pass from the man at the desk. Yukino returned it and took her place at the front.

She checked her watch.

… Five minutes until the grand opening. Five minutes. Five years. Was there a difference?

"Name?" The man at the desk grunted.

"Yukinoshita Yukino."

He checked the list in front of him, through the glass separating them. His glasses were large rimmed. "… Where are you… Ah yes, here you are. Yukinoshita Yukino." Through the glasses, Yukino saw an eyebrow rise. "Not just a Visitor Pass. VIP. You know the artist, or something?"

"…" She hesitated. "Not exactly."

"Complicated, is it?" He pushed a red lanyard under the glass. "Well, it's none of my business. Enjoy."

And that was it. She picked up the lanyard, which read, 'Yukinoshita Yukino, VIP', fingers quaking, and moved away from the desk. Towards the front door of the venue. Towards… Towards…

Yukino exhaled sharply. She brought both arms into her chest, right over the lanyard, hanging over her heart. The panic she'd been suppressing was knocking on the door. She closed her eyes. It was overwhelming.

… Five minutes…

… I'm sorry, Hikigaya-kun, I…

I really don't know if I can do this. I really don't.


The doors to the exhibition opened, on the dot, at 2PM, just as they were supposed to. The excitement in the queue reached fever pitch as security began to funnel them through the doors of the venue.

The venue itself was modern, all large glass windows and doors, with minimalist furniture lacking any ornamentation. The floors of each room, where the exhibits found themselves placed, were smoothly panelled with wood. The walls were a chalk white. And on all of these white walls, in every room, pictures from the hit series Love and Coffee were hung with pride.

Etsuji and Mei, working together reluctantly on their science project, from Volume 1. The first ever illustration of Kagami, serving coffee with a nervous smile on her face, also from Volume 1. Akane in conversation with her controlling sister, Arakaki Midori, from Volume 3. These pieces, fully colourised, popped out against the white walls, vibrant and expressive.

In the first room, the main hall of the venue, a small stage had been set up. This room had a reception to the side, but the stage now occupied a good portion of the space, and strung across each wall, from right to left, was a large banner.

"Ponkan 8: The Art of Love and Coffee."

The seemingly endless line of fans continued to buzz with chatter; this sea of cosplayers and enthusiasts, clutching their copies of Love and Coffee volumes and merchandise in the hope of getting it signed, filed into the main hall as politely as they could. They pointed up at the banner, up at the illustrations behind the stage, which was the official cover for Love and Coffee Volume 5.

And of course, they pointed at the stage itself, where a podium stood in the middle, and beside it, the organisers of the exhibition, suited and smiling. And beside them, the artist himself, Ponkan 8, looking smug as anything.

And beside them, Katsomoto Koto. Him, and the man they called Hikigaya-sensei.

The thrill of the fans, as they poured in from every corner of Chiba, of the Tokyo metropolitan area, and beyond that, from all around Japan, would have been infectious to anyone with the smallest dose of optimism in their veins.

But Hikigaya Hachiman was no optimist. Especially not today.

"-ah, just look at that cover! I love the cover of Volume 5! Mei looks so cute ther-"

"-is that really what Ponkan 8 looks like? I expected them to be a little-"

"-they better have the picture of Kagami and Etsuji after school, when he walks her home-"

"-look! It's him! It's Hikigaya Hachiman!"

The light novelist wasn't listening to the chatter reverberating through the hall. It didn't so much as occur to him to listen. The only thing on his mind was a name. A face. A face that he had remembered, preserved, in his memory, his writing.

His dead fish eyes were scanning the crowd, shuffling through each face, searching for the features he knew. The features he wanted to see. For a moment, he thought he saw her, and nearly jumped, but the woman in question was wearing an overly cutesy pink beret. It wasn't her. He'd know her anywhere, anytime, any place. And they weren't the same.

He leaned over to his editor. "Hey. Katsomoto."

"What is it? You didn't forget the speech outline, did you-"

"I don't care about the fucking speech outline."

"But you do have it-"

"Yes. It's right here," he said, waving the paper in Katsomoto's face. "But that's not important. What's important is that I can't see them."

"… Yukinoshita-san?"

"No, Emperor Naruhito. Of course Yukinoshita-san! Who else?"

Katsomoto peered at the ever-growing crowd. "Hachiman, people are still coming in. She's probably just at the back of the queu-"

"But what if she isn't? What if she decided not to come? It- it's not like I'd blame her. I must have sounded like a fucking madman on those phone calls. She could easily have decided not to come-"

"Just be patient. She'll be here. Hell, she flew all the way across the Pacific Ocean to be here. You really think she's gonna give up now?"

Hachiman shook his head, pulling his hands in and out of his pockets. He wanted to pace, to bang his head against the wall behind him, but his feet felt shackled to the floor. His eyes persisted, scanning the room, scanning the faces, young people, middle aged people, men, women, all of them pointless, irrelevant to him.

… It's boiling in here. What are these organisers playing at? I'm boiling hot.

"Hey, Katsomoto, can't you tell these idiots to turn the air-con on? I'm sweating here."

"What are you talking about? If anything, it's cold-"

"Good afternoon, and welcome to the grand opening of our humble gallery's latest exhibition. Ponkan 8: The Art of Love and Coffee!"

The editor's words were cut off when one of the organisers, a middle-aged woman clad in suit and pencil skirt, stepped up to the podium. Her airy voice stretched out like a web through the hall, silencing the chatter of the fans.

Hachiman didn't care a jot, continuing to grumble. "I'm serious. Tell them to turn the air-con up. I'm gonna lose my mind if it carries on like thi-"

"Hachiman, shut up," Katsomoto hissed, under his breath. "She's talkin-"

"Now, we all know why you're here. To celebrate! Not only the wonderful artwork Ponkan 8 has been producing for the series since its publication, but the enormous impact Love and Coffee has had on our lives. It's fair to say this is the most popular light novel series in many, many years, and certainly the most influential. Here in Japan and overseas, the endeavours of Etsuji, Kagami, Mei and Akane have been a runaway success. And as I'm sure none of you need reminding, the fantastic Kyoto Animation have been hard at work adapting the series into anime form, and I've heard it will be a loyal adaptation too…"

Hachiman might as well have been in a completely different room. The fawning, ingratiating speech was one that he had heard dozens upon dozens of times previously. Meeting Yukinoshita Yukino? That was not.

His hand, shaking a little, moved to the phone in his pocket. He had her number from when they'd called, and he still couldn't see her face in the crowd. He could try and contact her. Would that be appropriate? That would be fine, wouldn't it? I invited her here, and she accepted. It's only natural I would check to see if she's still coming-

"-and so, before we hand over to the man of hour himself, Ponkan 8, allow me to welcome to the stage someone very special… Someone you all know very well… The author of Love and Coffee himself, the fantastic, the inimitable, Hikigaya Hachiman!"

-yeah, that shouldn't be too bad. If anything, it's fair. I mean, here I am, stressing out like some second year high school student, and I don't even know if she's going to come-

"Hachiman."

-I… I don't think I could handle it if she didn't come-

"Hachiman."

Katsomoto's hissed voice awoke him to his surroundings. He blinked, and looked around. Everyone in the crowd, all of the cosplayers, the fans, Ponkan 8, and the organisers too, were staring at him. They were waiting. He'd been prompted to take the podium. To begin his speech.

Hikigaya Hachiman coughed. "Excuse me," he muttered, reluctantly, and then walked forward, taking the spot of the middle-aged woman centerstage. She gave him a long look as he did, asking 'what was that all about?', but he ignored her.

The hall had been silent, patient, but once he stepped forward, they all burst into applause. It was spontaneous and genuine; he could see the admiration, the adoration, in all of their gazes. Some looked like they could scarcely believe he was there, in front of them. Hikigaya-sensei! The author of Love and Coffee! There in the flesh!

Hachiman was used to this. He had given speeches before. He had been to conventions, fan events, live streams, and the thrill of being adored, admired, had worn off. He had long since passed the honeymoon phase; this was a long-term relationship now, tired, breaking down, passionless.

He tapped the microphone, and the sound of feedback screeched through the speakers. The applause quietened. He pulled the speech outline Katsomoto had written for him out of his pocket, dropping it onto the podium. It read as follows:


SPEECH OUTLINE: DO NOT IGNORE

1. Welcome everyone to the exhibition. Give credit where credit's due to the organisers/Ponkan 8/fans.

2. Talk about how much you love Ponkan 8's artwork. Anecdote? Mention your favourite of his illustrations?

3. Talk about Love and Coffee and the anime adaptation. Another anecdote?

4. KEEP IT SNAPPY. Thank everyone again and hand over to Ponkan 8.


Hachiman read it over once or twice, rolled his dead-fish eyes, and torn the outline in two. He shoved the remnants into his pocket. Yeah, no. Sorry Katsomoto-kun. It was you who told me to be honest.

Off to the right, the editor in question put his head in his hands. Oh no…

The light novelist cleared his throat, surveying the room one last time for a glimpse of what he'd been waiting for. What he'd been hoping for.

"… Yo. I guess I should thank all of you for coming-"

"I love you, Hikigaya-sensei!"

The high-pitched squeal of a teenage girl, close to the front of the stage, cut him off. Immediately, chuckles spread through the room. An older man who was with the girl who'd shouted, her father most likely, covered his eyes in embarrassment. She was dressed up as Arakaki Akane, in a long, ungainly scarlet wig.

Hachiman paused, waiting for the chuckles to subside. It wasn't the first time something like this had happened. He prepared himself to carry on with the speech.

But instead… instead, he started to laugh.

At first, it was just a chuckle, just like those who'd reacted to the fan's declaration of love. Then, it became a laugh. Then, suddenly, he was nearly crying. A huge, burdensome knot of tension had unravelled in his stomach, and he couldn't stop. Many in the audience glanced at each other, puzzled. Katsomoto could hardly watch.

"… Sorry…" He wheezed, trying to get a hold of himself. "… Sorry… God, it's just… It's just hilarious. It's beyond hilarious to me. All of this. The fact that I'm stood up here, giving this speech. It's beyond hilarious. It's like some weird, surreal comedy routine. Can't you all see? How stupid this is? How absurd? I mean… This is me we're talking about! Me, Hikigaya Hachiman, the biggest waste of space I've ever known. Here I am, giving a speech to a room full of fans, at an exhibition for the artwork of my very own bestselling light novel series. A light novel series which is getting an anime adaptation. Which has sold millions of copies. The premiere for the anime is getting really, really close. I've been given a front room seat. And it's beyond hilarious… Because Love and Coffee is shit!"

Deathly silence.

The fans in the crowd glanced at each other, unsure of what to think.

Katsomoto could hardly watch, yes, but he could also hardly look away. He stifled the urge to run up to the podium, drag Hachiman away, before he could dig an even deeper hole. For fuck's sake, Hachiman! This isn't what I meant by being honest!

"That's right, I said it," Hachiman continued, still laughing. "Love and Coffee is shit. Totally, massively, irredeemably shit. Right to its core. And I'm tired of pretending it isn't. The plot, even for a romantic comedy, is nonexistent. The characters, which are supposed to be its 'great success', are nowhere near as nuanced as people claim. They really aren't, and I know because I wrote them. It's poorly structured, poorly conceived and poorly written. And the artwork? Don't even get me started on the artwork. It's shit, like everything else about Love and Coffee. It just is, and no one can tell me otherwise."

The deathly silence persisted for a few moments longer.

Then, by chance, a fan near the back of the crowd started to laugh too. "Nice Etsuji impression!" he called out.

And so, a hundred, "Oohhhhhs", of understanding spread through the audience. They all realised, collectively, that this must be a joke. A satire. A parody. This was an intelligent sign of irreverence from their favourite light novelist, the one and only Hikigaya-sensei. What else could it be? There's no way he's being serious.

Hachiman sensed this too, and suddenly, the moment lost its sense of humour. Suddenly, he felt serious again, and the feelings of before returned to him.

And Yukinoshita Yukino…

She still wasn't there.

She wasn't in the crowd. He had checked once, twice, a dozen times. She just wasn't there.

He laid his hands on the podium, both of them clenched into tightening fists.

"You really think I need to do an impression of Nagatomo Etsuji? Really?" He called back, answering the fan. "He's me, for god's sake! He's so obviously me! Enough people have speculated on that, over the years. You must all know that he's me. The worst, most pitiful kind of self-insert. That's all Nagatomo Etsuji is. And Machiko Mei… Kanawa Kagami… Arakaki Akane… They're all just… They're all just…"

The emotion boiled forth. Those in the crowd who bothered to be observant, instead of continuing to laugh at this most subtle of parodies, would have noticed. Katsomoto Koto was on the verge of stepping forward. Hachiman, just stop talking. You've already said too much.

"… There's only one question I hate being asked more than 'Is Nagatomo Etsuji based on you?'. Just one. It's the question I got asked at that stupid home interview a couple of weeks ago. 'What is Love and Coffee about?'. God… That's the worst question of them all. What was it I said, in that interview… My one word summary of the meaning of Love and Coffee… Hope. Yeah, that was it. Hope of what, do you reckon? Hope that this day would come? That I'd end up stood here, on this podium, wishing that someone would be standing there, in the audience? Yeah, that's hilarious too. All those millions of copies, all those thousands of fans… They don't matter at all. Because there's only one person I wanted to read Love and Coffee. One person in the whole word. And that's what Love and Coffee is really about. It's about… it's… it's about…"

He cut off, the words tripping over themselves in his mouth. Again, his fans were looking at each other. The organisers watched in a stunned hush. Ponkan 8 had looked scandalised from the moment he said the artwork of Love and Coffee was shit. And Katsomoto Koto had never felt so horrified, and yet strangely proud, since the day he'd met Hikigaya Hachiman.

"… Look… What I'm trying to say is… Love is Coffee is about…" He strained, swallowed. "… Apparently, even Hikigaya Hachiman can write a… a…"

She's not here. She's not hearing this. What's the point?

The thought slapped him across the face, and his resolve to speak failed. He gave up on the speech. He gave up on the audience. He threw his arms in the air, and shook his head.

"Oh, screw this. Enjoy the exhibition."

Hikigaya Hachiman stepped away from the podium and back towards Katsomoto Koto, his eyes glued to his feet. When he reached him, the editor just gaped at him for a moment, unsure of what to say.

"… Hachiman…" he whispered. "Hachiman, what the hell were you thinkin-"

"… Um… Thank you, Hikigaya-san, for that most unusual of speeches." The middle-aged woman had briefly retaken the podium. Her voice was strained. "… Ah… I think it's about time we hand over to the man of the hour, Ponkan 8. A round of applause, please."

The crowd, still confused, followed her instructions, bringing their hands together in greeting as the artist claimed his place in the limelight, glaring daggers at Hachiman as he did so. Both he and Katsomoto paid no heed.

"God… I know I said to be honest, but that really, really wasn't what I had in mind-"

"I'm going outside, Katsomoto-kun."

"What?"

Hachiman looked up at him, and Katsomoto saw clearly the tower of feeling in his expression. He saw clearly that the walls Hachiman had built up over the years had, at long last, come crumbling down.

"… She's not here. Yukinoshita-san… She didn't come. She never will. So I'm going outside. I need a breath of fresh air."

"… Do you want me to come with you-"

"No."

"… Alright, Hachiman. Just… just don't do something as stupid as that ever again."

"No promises."

The light novelist walked passed him, stepping down off the stage and then behind it, where a push-out fire escape door was signposted. Ponkan 8 began to speak, distracting the crowd from Hachiman's exit, although a fair few pairs of eyes remained fixed on the back of his head, as he approached the security guard stood by the fire escape.

"I'm going outside," he grunted to the guard.

They hesitated. "… Ah… I'm not sure that's-"

"Do you know who I am?"

"… Of course, Hikigaya-san-"

"Then consider this an abuse of my fame."

The light novelist pushed at the door, opening it without a care in the world, loud enough to steal just a few seconds more of Ponkan 8's limelight. Katsomoto's head was back in his hands.

Hachiman closed the door behind him.

He stepped out in the cold air; the air of an alleyway, just to the side of the exhibition venue.

… He twisted his body round, resting his head against the wall, the last embers of adrenaline from his speech burning off, leaving only the chill of the air on his skin.

… She didn't come.

She never will.


NOTEBOOK: PURCHASED FROM STAPLES

I

The park is quiet.

It's a mere block away from the venue of the exhibition. I walked here. I walked away from the exhibition, making sure I was careful with my breathing, in and out, in and out, until I found this spot. This bench, in one of those beautiful, wonderfully maintained old Japanese gardens, just in front of the pond with the guardian stone. It's exquisitely crafted, this guardian stone. Old and steady.

I once had a picture book of old Japanese gardens like these, although the one I'm in now might not be entirely authentic. Kaa-san gave it to me as a birthday present.

I always liked the idea the idea of retreating to a place like this. A place where no one could find me. A place that was my possession, and mine alone. Just for me.

That was what my spot by the Hudson River was for.

But of course

Of course

Someone found that.

Found me, in my solitude.

I

I have not changed in the slightest bit. I see that now. I see how everything I wrote earlier on the train, that whole entry, on the other side of the page I'm writing now, was all false. It was the equivalent of a frightened child, grasping desperately at the habits of an adult. I always fall back into the same, pathetic, childish habits. The same old hiding places.

Even when I've put in so much effort.

When I've flown half way across the world to escape myself.

I am still there, waiting. I am still the Yukinoshita Yukino of five years ago.

But

But that

That doesn't mean I have to be alone.

What was it that woman said? Tsurumi Rumi?

She said, "This isn't someone I wanted to let slip away".

This isn't someone I want to let slip away.

Not again.


Ponkan 8's speech was rambling and indulgent. It carried on for over half an hour. The whole time, Katsomoto Koto was checking his watch, and glancing behind, at the fire escape where Hachiman had walked out, and then out into the crowd, looking for a face he didn't actually know. 2:35. 2:36.

Even the most avid of Love and Coffee fans were following suit, and checking their watches, by the time Ponkan 8's speech ground down to a halt.

Katsomoto pinched the bridge of his nose. Come on, hurry up now… I know I said I wouldn't follow you out, Hachiman, but I'm gonna have to. You can't get rid of me that easily.

"… and that's why I firmly believe that the picture of Etsuji and Kagami walking home together, from Love and Coffee Volume 3, is the finest of my work on the series. It's composition is truly spectacular… But don't just take my word for it. I invite you all to assess the exhibits equally, not just my personal favourites, and take your time doing so. Sincerely, I would like to thank you all for coming… Enjoy my exhibition!"

Finally. Katsomoto joined in with the applause as Ponkan 8 raised his arms, smirking, and then retreated to the back of the stage, ego sufficiently restored after Hachiman's earlier speech. The middle-aged woman handed out one last set of 'thank yous', and then stepped down.

The crowd's chatter rose to the same volume as when they entered; they began to break off into groups, splitting off into other rooms, or remaining in the hall. Katsomoto re-adjusted his collar and then jumped down from the stage. He walked behind to the fire escape, where Hachiman had left.

"Hey," he said, to the same security guard. "Would you mind letting me through? I need to check up on-"

"What, are you famous too?"

"… I'll take that as a no."

Katsomoto spun around in frustration. And who said being a minor celebrity didn't have perks? His eyes settled on the main entrance to the venue, and seeing that as the nearest way out, he began to stride across the hall.

Just as he reached the glass doors, a woman with long black hair was making her way through. Katsomoto paid her no attention, focusing on Hachiman. He failed to notice the quiver of her lip. The way she gripped her handbag like it was the dearest thing in her life.

"Sorry," he said absently, squeezing past her and out into the street. He didn't hear her response.

Without the queue, the street felt abandoned, devoid of life, save for the muted hum of electric cars on the road. The editor glanced up and down, wondering if Hachiman had come round to the entrance, but there was no sight of him. He followed the sidewalk to the right, to the same side of the building as the fire escape.

Sure enough, there was a back alley, occupied by plastic bins, and a narrow skyline permitting the most slender view of the sky above.

And there, leant against the wall, staring up at that sky, was Hachiman.

Katsomoto inhaled, preparing himself for another difficult conversation, and approached him. If the light novelist heard his footsteps, he gave no indication. He may as well have been one of the exhibits, standing there as if composed that way; a drawing, all colour and lines, rather than flesh and blood.

"Hachiman? You there?"

"…"

The editor reminded himself that patience was key, especially where Hikigaya Hachiman was concerned. So he shoved his hands into his pockets, mirroring him, and leant against the wall next to him. He even craned his neck upwards. The clouds were grey and somehow listless.

"… That was some stunt you pulled inside. 'Be honest'… Yeah, I should've seen that would be a problem."

"…"

"To be honest, I blame myself for it. You always do the opposite of what people want you to do. I should have advised you to be dishonest, Hachiman-"

"You always call me that."

"Huh?"

"Hachiman… I've told you so many times not to call me that. But you insist on it. On calling me Hachiman."

"Yeah, I do. Stop me."

"… Why?"

"You've asked me this question before. Because I consider you a friend-"

"Why?"

"…" Katsomoto stopped looking at the clouds, giving the light novelist his full attention.

"… I've… Ever since we met, I've been a pain in your arse. Don't try and deny it."

He snorted. "I had no intention of denying it."

"Exactly. So why do you still consider me a friend?"

"… Because… because…" The editor paused, waiting for the right sentiment to come to him. "… Because somehow, I know that if it came down to it, if I really needed you… You'd be there. We're pretty honest with each other, Hachiman. And yeah, sometimes lying is kinder in the short term, but in the long term? Honesty's always the way. Especially in a friendship. And you, Hikigaya Hachiman, are the most honest person I've ever met."

He visibly winces. "God. You really don't know me at all, do you? I lie all the time."

"To yourself. Not to me."

"…"

Katsomoto stepped away from the wall, facing him head on. He offered him a small smile. "… I… I know you probably don't wanna hear this, but… Even if this… Even if this person doesn't come, you shouldn't-"

"She hasn't come, Katsomoto-kun. She wasn't there."

"And you've called her to make sure, right?"

"…"

"This is exactly what I mean about lying to yourself. If you haven't called her, how do you know she wasn't just delayed, or held up? For all you know, she could be inside right now, waiting for you."

"… I don't want to call her."

"Why not?"

"Because… because…"

"… Because you're afraid of the answer? You're afraid that you're right, and she's not coming. Is that it?"

"… Again. You're my editor, not my psychiatrist."

"Yeah, I deserve more pay, that's for sure."

"I could find a new editor. A better one."

"Like fuck you could."

"…"

Katsomoto nudged him. "Just… Just call her, okay? Call her. You might as well. You might as well make sure. What have you got to lose?"

"Oh, only my sanity… What if… What if it doesn't go accordingly? The way I want it to go?"

"So what? Nothing ever goes accordingly. And most of the time, we don't get what we want. I'm an optimist, and even I think that."

Hachiman did nothing. But his hands were in his pockets, and so was his phone.

Ever so slowly, he took the phone out. Opened it. The screen turned on, and flashed. Katsomoto watched quietly, still patient, as Hachiman pulled up his contacts.

He scrolled down. Right to the bottom.

Even upside down, Katsomoto could read the name on the screen. Yukinoshita Yukino.

"… This is a terrible idea. There's no way I can do this-"

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring…

Both of them stared at the phone. At the name of the caller which had just appeared. The same name which had been displayed in his contacts, just moments before.

Yukinoshita Yukino.

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring…

The phone lay suspended, limply, in Hachiman's fingers. His dead fish eyes had dilated.

Katsomoto couldn't help but smile. "… Looks like she was thinking the same thing."

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring…

Hachiman shook his head. "Katsomoto-kun, I… I…"

"Just answer her."

"…"

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring…

Hachiman took the deepest breath of his life. Then, he lifted the phone to his ear, and pressed 'answer'.

"… Yo…?"

"… Hello, Hikigaya-kun."

It was really her. The same voice he had heard on their phone calls. Yukinoshita Yukino. His fingers curled around his phone like it was a precious stone.

"… You weren't there. At the exhibition. For my speech."

"… No… No, I… I'm deeply, deeply sorry, Hikigaya-kun. That was… that was entirely my fault. I… I panicked. I'd picked up the Visitor Pass. I was just outside the door of the venue. And I… I panicked. I needed to go for a walk. Collect myself. I… Well, it doesn't matter what I did. Just know that I'm sorry. I… I hope you can forgive me."

"… Forgive you? Yukinoshita-san… Of course I can forgive you."

"… Really?"

"Yes." Hachiman could hear the emotion in his voice, like it was coming from someone else.

"… That… that is very… I'm very glad you said that, Hikigaya-kun."

"… Where are you?"

"… I'm in the exhibition."

Hachiman's heart jumped. Katsomoto, who could hear the phone-call in the quiet of the alley, watched, entranced.

"You're inside?"

"Yes. I'm… I'm looking at one of the illustrations. It's… It's the one from the scene we spoke about. During our first phone-call. Do you remember?"

"Etsuji and Akane. Volume 4."

"… Yes. There's an inscription, underneath this painting… It… It says-"

"You aren't alone."

From nowhere, Hachiman's body was moving. It all happened as if he were a spectator to his own actions. He felt his legs, his feet, moving, walking, striding, almost running, back up the alley, towards the main street.

"One moment, Yukinoshita-san. I'm coming inside."

"… You're here? I couldn't find you anywhere inside. I th- thought you might have left-"

"Never. Just one moment."

Katsomoto watched, a broad smile spreading over his features, as Hachiman disappeared out of the alley. He intended to follow them in, afterwards. He'd let them have this moment. He'd check up on them later-

… Wait.

A thought occurred to him. He's… he's going in through the main entrance, right? And this woman, Yukinoshita-san, is in the exhibition. All the other fans will be there. The fans of Love and Coffee…

Oh crap. Katsomoto cursed out loud. He's gonna get swamped.

"Hachiman! Wait! Tell her to come out instead-"

The light-novelist didn't hear. He was already at the entrance to the venue, and pushing through the glass doors, and striding into the main hall, where just under an hour ago, he had delivered a speech to hundreds of people.

"Yukinoshita-san? You still there?"

"Y- yes. I'm still here, Hikigaya-kun-"

"Which room are you in?"

"Ah… I'm not sure… Exhibit Room 6. It's right at the back."

Hachiman, holding the phone tightly against his ear, dashed over to the wall, where a plan of the building was located. He looked over the diagram, trying to find Exhibit Room 6. As she'd said, it was right at the back, near the side-room where he and Katsomoto had waited beforehand.

All throughout the room, heads were beginning to turn. The first who noticed that Hikigaya Hachiman had walked into the main hall, holding a phone, and was now looking at a plan of the building, was a man in his early twenties. He was wearing a cosplay of Nagatomo Etsuji, and had read Love and Coffee at university, during a bout of depression. The series had helped him through some difficult times.

The second who noticed was an older girl, in her late thirties, looking up at the cover for Love and Coffee Volume 5. She wasn't a huge fan of the series, but had gifted a boxset of the first five volumes to her teenage daughter. They had reconnected over the gift. After the divorce, it had been rocky between them for months.

The third was a nineteen year old girl, who was a brand new fan of the series. She had only just finished the second volume, but Love and Coffee was a light-hearted read, and the characters appealed to her. She had been visiting her aunt in Chiba, saw the exhibition was on at the same time, and thought, 'Why the hell not?'.

These people, and more, all began to notice that Hikigaya Hachiman was right there, in the same room as them.

"That's… that's him, isn't it?"

"Yeah, for sure! He must be here to look at the artwork!"

"See, I told you that speech was a joke-"

"Hey, Hikigaya-sensei! Can I get a picture?"

Hachiman was deaf to them. He was deaf to any sound, any voice, but the one speaking in his ear.

"Okay… Got it. I'm walking over now."

"Re- really? Ah… I'm… I'm sorry, ah… Please understand that I might not… I might not speak as confidently as usual. This is all very..."

"It's alright. I won't either. Just hang on."

The light-novelist left the main hall, pushing forward into a smaller room to the left, which would lead to Exhibit Room 6. But he had already attracted too much attention. A crowd of people was already forming, and following after him, one that only grew larger in the room he'd entered.

At last, Hachiman noticed. He glanced behind him, hearing the voices grow in volume.

"H- hey, Hikigaya-sensei! Slow down! Can we get that picture-"

"Oh, you've got no idea how excited I am for Volume 6-"

"Are you dating Hayami Saori-"

"How good do you think the anime will be?"

Hachiman grunted, ignoring them.

"Hikigaya-kun? What's all that noise?"

"It's nothing. Just some idiots following me."

"Just some…? I think I can hear them from here."

Hachiman pushed forward. Some were beginning to move in front of him, trying to block his way, demanding his attention. He swerved some, requested impolitely that others move, and the voices only grew louder.

"Love and Coffee means so much to me-"

"I relate to Machiko Mei so much it hurts-"

"How did you come up with so many great characters-"

"Hey! All I want is one picture!"

He gritted his teeth. He was in Exhibit Room 4. Just two away.

Some from the crowd had sensed he didn't want to be bothered. Others were more persistent. Less perceptive. They continued to follow him, through Exhibit Room 5, where a picture of the infamous dream sequence, one of the most explicit, discussed and controversial scenes of Love and Coffee was displayed.

Hachiman didn't care. He had given up caring a long time ago. Save for this last, final loose end.

… He was there. Exhibit Room 6. His breath was caught in his airways.

"Yukinoshita-san? I'm here. Where are-"

… There.

On the left, hung on the largest of the white walls in the room, was the picture. His favourite of Ponkan 8's illustrations. In a black frame, taking up half the wall, were Arakaki Akane and Nagatomo Etsuji. As was always the case in this picture, Akane was crying, but in vivid colour, her scarlet hair cascading over Etsuji's shoulder, where her head was buried. Yet the picture wasn't sad. It had never been sad. Rather, it was happy.

And beside it, holding her own phone to her ear, was Yukinoshita Yukino.

All they did, all they could do, was stare at each other. No longer were they characters in each other's stories. On this day, at last, they were real. Hikigaya Hachiman and Yukinoshita Yukino.

Her hand shot up, covering her mouth in shock. She had known he was coming, walking towards her through the exhibition, but seeing him was different entity. Seeing him was something she had never expected to happen outside of her mind, outside her most unrealistic, optimistic hopes. She nearly dropped the phone in her hand. The notebook in her handbag felt heavy.

Hachiman felt like he had been paralysed. How many times had he described this woman before him? Through Machiko Mei, Kanawa Kagami, Arakaki Akane, and then as herself, in his recount? Had those descriptions been vivid enough to conjure her into reality? No. Far from it. They had all been wrong. Twisted. False. Because he might have known she was beautiful, but that was meaningless. Being real was the most beautiful thing she could be.

"… Hikigaya-kun."

"… Yukinoshita-san."

They could hear each other on the phone. But they could also hear each other in the room. Their actual voices. The genuine article.

"Hikigaya-sensei! Please! One picture, and I'll leave you alone!"

Abruptly, jarringly, the crowd of fans shoved themselves in front of Hachiman, blocking his view of Yukino, waving phones and notepads in his face. And his frustration at their interruption, their following him, became white hot anger.

Spurred on, he pushed past the man asking for his picture, roughly, earning a yell in response. Hachiman strode forward, all his misgivings forgotten, phone shoved back in his pocket, and grabbed Yukinoshita Yukino by the arm.

"Come on. We're getting out of here."

She blushed bright red, but everything was happening too quickly for her to reply, to keep up. She allowed herself to be pulled, away from the illustration of Akane and Etsuji, away from the crowd, who nonetheless continued to trail them.

"W- who's that, Hikigaya-sensei? Is that your girlfriend-"

"Hey, why did you push me! That was uncalled for-"

"Where are you going now?!"

Yukino's arm was shaking, the place of contact between her and his hand burning, her blood pumping as if she were running a marathon. Hikigaya Hachiman was holding her. She was following him. She couldn't see his face as he led her, and she didn't know where they were going.

"Hi- Hikigaya-kun, where-"

"Don't worry. There's a side-room back here."

"A… a side-room?"

By the time the question had passed her lips, Hachiman had already reached the door in question. He pulled her, still by the arm, until she was stood directly beside him. She looked up at him, trembling in the marrow of her bones. She wanted to say something, ask him to let go, to let her catch her breath, but then they were inside the room. He was closing the door, right in the face of the fans who had followed him.

"Oh come now? Are you really so high and mighty you can't manage one picture?"

Hachiman's dead fish eyes were sharper than a knife. "Would you all, for just once in my life, politely, kindly, fuck off?"

He slammed the door shut, then locked it. They were alone.

The white hot anger in Hachiman's veins was doused out faster than he could blink. The thought pervaded, spread, the true extent of its meaning becoming clear. Registering.

We're… we're alone. Yukinoshita Yukino and I.

For the first time since the Hudson River. They were together.

… Hachiman didn't dare turn around. He was still staring at the door, which he'd just slammed and locked. He could still hear voices outside, but fading, losing interest. That left only the quiet in the side-room. The side-room that he had brought her, to escape from the crowd.

What if he turned around, and she was no longer there? It seemed to him realistic. He was a cynic, after all. For five years, Yukinoshita Yukino had never once been there. Why should that change now?

He blinked one, two, three times. He tried to stay calm.

… He turned around.

Yukinoshita Yukino was still there. Still real.

She had taken a seat. The same seat he'd been sitting in as he wrote, earlier that day. His laptop, his things, Katsomoto's things, were still in the room. A MAXX Coffee can lay discarded on the floor. Yukinoshita Yukino simply sat there, her hand covering her mouth again, shocked, beautiful.

Hachiman's knees felt weak. He didn't even try to speak. He knew full-well he wasn't eloquent enough. That words weren't enough.

Yukino didn't try to speak either. She knew the same thing.

They said nothing, absolutely nothing, just looking at each other, for over a minute.

Hachiman only broke the silence out of necessity. For Yukinoshita Yukino had started to cry.

The crying was quiet. It was scarcely noticeable. There was no bawling, no sound. She remained silent. But tears began to fall from her eyes, and down her cheeks, so covertly that Yukino didn't notice.

"… You're crying."

Yukino blinked. "No I'm not."

"Yes you are."

She brought her finger to her cheek, and was surprised to feel moisture, the wetness of her tears. "Oh… So I am."

Hachiman stepped forward. The distance between them closed. "… Have you got a tissue?"

"I don't believe so."

"Here."

He reached into his pocket and took one out, old and heavily crumpled. He was almost embarrassed to offer it, but offer he did, extending his hand for her to take it.

Yukino's eyes settled on his hand, on the tissue, almost curiously. She took it, and Hachiman could see just how fiercely she was shaking. It was like earthquakes, spreading through her body.

"… Sorry."

"What for, Hikigaya-kun?"

"For… for grabbing you, back there. I'm sorry. I was just… angry."

"It's alright. It's understandable. They were being extremely obnoxious."

"Yeah… they were, weren't they? The fucking nerve of them."

Yukino winced. "… You curse a lot, don't you Hikigaya-kun? I noticed that in our phone-calls."

"Sorry," he said again. "It's just a habit. I should try to fucking… Damn it. Sorry."

"It's alright. I don't mind that much. It's just quite excessive."

"Yeah. Sorry."

"P- please. There's no need to apologise so much. It's not that serious."

"… Yeah."

"…"

"… You're still crying."

"Yes. My apologies. I can't seem to stop."

"There's no need to apologise. It's not that serious."

Yukino didn't laugh. But she smiled. And Hachiman decided that it was the sweetest, most wonderful smile he'd ever seen.

"… I… I wanted to tell you something, Hikigaya-kun."

"Really?"

"Yes. I wanted to tell you… Thank you."

"For what?"

She looked up at him, from her seat. Hachiman noticed what a rich shade of blue her eyes were. Like the innermost point of a glacier.

"…" She shook her head, in disbelief. "… For Love and Coffee."

Hachiman's heart was tired of pounding. But pound it did.

"… It's only that… When I was walking through the exhibition, and looking at all those illustrations… Those pictures of your characters… And thinking about those scenes in the books, and when I read them, it… It really struck me. It struck me that… that despite it being so popular… despite all the other people who had come here to see you… I realised that Love and Coffee is so very, very personal. So very, very revealing. Even if people don't realise quite how much. And… and to think I had but the slightest involvement in it… In what you've created… In this series that so many people love… That alone is humbling, but then there's… There's more. If… If Love and Coffee was really for me… even a fraction of it… even a chapter… even a word… I have to thank you, Hikigaya-kun. From the bottom of my heart."

"…" Hachiman's head drooped, and for a moment, Yukino thought she had upset him.

"M- my apologies-"

"To be brutally honest with you, Yukinoshita-san, I think Love and Coffee is a pile of shit."

"… I think… I think that is a very harsh assessment, Hikigaya-kun-"

"It's true. I basically hate everything about it. I have for awhile now. But… but y'know what…" He lifted his head again, and the smallest of smiles was on his face. "… Hearing that… Almost makes me think it was worth it. Writing Love and Coffee. Writing that pile of shit. Because it…" He breathed in, swallowing his pride. "… Because I can't say it wasn't for you, Yukinoshita-san. Love and Coffee. Yeah… It was pretty much all for you. So that's probably the best validation I can get for the last five years of my life."

"… I'm… I'm glad I could give you that, Hikigaya-kun."

"So am I."

… Silence again. Yukino was still crying. Again, this became Hachiman's excuse to speak.

"I haven't got another tissue. You sure you haven't got one?"

"I'm sure, Hikigaya-kun."

"… I could go and get some-"

"No. Don't. Stay."

"… Alright."

Yukino seemed embarrassed at how quickly she had spoken. "… Ah… Would you like to sit down, Hikigaya-kun?"

"Sure."

He walked over, grabbed another of the chairs, placed it next to her, and sat down. They were sat next to each other. Him and Yukinoshita Yukino. The prospect remained surreal, unheard of, unprecedented.

"… Can… Can I…"

"What, Yukinoshita-san?"

"Could I… Could I…" She couldn't squeeze the question out.

"Whatever you're asking, I'd probably say yes."

Yukino stayed still in her chair, posture upright, but still crying, for a moment or so. Then, she shifted her body, her legs, and leaned over. She rested her head against Hachiman's shoulder. Her long black hair cascaded over him. He looked at her with tender surprise.

"… Are you tired?"

"Yes. I feel like I could fall asleep."

"You can, if you like."

"Thank you, Hikigaya-kun."

But she didn't fall asleep. She just rested her head on his shoulder; her tears wet the fabric of his jacket, but he didn't care. Eventually, he dared to wrap his arm around her. Yukino's body was warm. Her hair smelled fragrant and lovely. Once or twice, he leant down and kissed the top of her forehead, or her hair, and she shifted against him, her tears still falling like the very last snowfall of winter.

They stayed like this for awhile, close and comfortable, both not entirely sure they weren't dreaming.

"… Yukinoshita-san…?"

"Yes?"

"Can I… Ah… Can I…?"

She smiled. "Whatever you're asking, I'd probably say yes."

"… Uh.. I was gonna ask if I could kiss you. You might wanna reconsider."

"… Why would I want to reconsider?"

"…"

Hachiman leant down, and Yukino tilted her head upwards. Her lips, small and pinkish, were slightly open. Her breath rushed over his face. There were still flecks of moisture on her reddened cheeks. He swallowed, but the wave of heady, intoxicating emotion they were riding was overpowering, and it was reaching its crest.

He kissed her.

She kissed him back.

It was a soft kiss. It wasn't deep. He pulled away before too long. Somehow, the kiss already felt stolen. This reunion, this meeting, was like a rush of blood to the head. So he pulled away, biting his lip, recalling the taste, the warmth of her lips against his, the searing heat of it all, and her head returned to his shoulder.

"… Sorry. Was that too much?" he asked guiltily.

"… Later, I'll probably scold myself for letting that happen, Hikigaya-kun. Count yourself lucky."

"I am lucky, Yukinoshita-san. I am. God knows I don't deserve to be."

"Of course you deserve it. Everyone deserves to be lucky. Even if it's just once, in their whole lives."

"…"

Yukino closed her eyes. "Just once in their whole lives… I suppose it was only a matter of time."

Hachiman closed his eyes too. They leant into each other.

For the next twenty minutes, there wasn't a single sound in the room, save for their breathing. Both had waited long enough. Yukino nearly dozed off. Hachiman's thoughts were at ease. The time ebbed away without complaint, and more would have ebbed away, much more, had there not been a knock at the door.

Hachiman groaned, but quietly.

"Who do you think that is?" Yukino murmured.

"Don't know. Don't care."

"… I'm tempted to agree with you, Hikigaya-kun-"

"Hachiman? Are you in there?"

… Oh. It's Katsomoto-kun.

The light novelist was tempted to stand up and let Katsomoto in, but then realised that was quite possibly the worst idea he'd ever had, and stayed right where he was.

"Who's that, Hikigaya-kun?"

"My editor."

"Hachiman? That was your voice, wasn't it? I can hear you in there, y'know."

"…" He sighed, raising his voice. "Why is it, Katsomoto-kun, that I can't get through a single conversation with you without saying 'fuck off'?"

"Because you're a rude bastard, that's why." He knocked on the door again. "Let me in. What happened? Don't even think about keeping it to yourself."

Yukino glanced at him, blushing. "… Does he know about… um… Does he know about this?"

"Kinda…"

"Well, Hachiman?" His voice echoed under the door. "What happened? Did you meet her?"

Yukino stirred, sat up, removed her head from Hachiman's shoulder. "Yes, he did," she called out, audibly.

"…" Katsomoto went quiet. "… Oh."

"Indeed."

"Uh… Hey? Yukinoshita-san, isn't it?"

"It is. Yukinoshita Yukino."

"Nice to meet you, I guess… My name's Katsomoto Koto. I'm Hachiman's editor. Uh… Are you sure you can't open the door, Hachiman? This is the smoothest of introductions…"

Hachiman cursed his editor's very existence one final time, before extricating himself from the chair. He made to walk to the door, glancing back at Yukino as he did. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.

… I… I can't believe she's really here.

The thought softened the blow of Katsomoto's interruption. Just.

He opened the door, and found his editor staring at him, eyebrows raised.

"… So, uh… Are you gonna let me in?"

"Do I have to?"

"Oh, come on. You weren't even gonna call her until I told you too. Surely I deserve a little credit…?"

Hachiman gave him a dirty look, and then stepped aside, not enough to let him in, but enough for him and Yukino to see each other.

Katsomoto bowed. "Hey. Hachiman's told me a lot about you."

"Hmmm… Apparently, you're not the only one."

He smiled. "Yeah. Love and Coffee is pretty successful, right?"

"Indeed-"

"Okay, that's just about enough of that," Hachiman interrupted. "You can fuck off again now."

"Wow. Some credit you paid me there."

"It is, actually. More than usual."

"… Fair enough." Katsomoto was grinning from ear to ear. "Still, I was right about one thing."

"What's that?"

"Not such a sad story after all, is it?"

Hachiman's glare was withering. "… You know, three 'fuck offs' in one conversation would be a record, even for you-"

"Okay, okay… Just one more thing."

"What?" Hachiman said, impatiently.

"That new chapter I've been asking for… I'm glad."

"Why?"

"Well." Katsomoto stole one last glance into the room, at Yukinoshita Yukino. "… You've finally started writing it, haven't you?"

"… Whatever."

Hachiman closed the door, and locked it again. He wasn't about to give his editor credit for a clever line. That was his job, not Katsomoto's.

Although, when he and Yukino met eyes once more, both of them were smiling.

… A new chapter.

Hikigaya Hachiman and Yukinoshita Yukino liked the sound of that.


THE END

OR RATHER, THE BEGINNING


AN: K, this is gonna be a big one.

Where the hell do I even start with this story? Love and Coffee has gone through so many re-writes, re-draughts, re-imaginings and (almost) full blown restarts that I genuinely can't remember what my intention was when I started writing, over 4 years ago.

Yep. 4 years ago. That was one of the biggest things that struck me while writing this final chapter. It took me almost the same amount of time to finish Love and Coffee as it took Yukino and Hachiman to reunite in the story. Perhaps that was why I spent so much of that time banging my head against a proverbial wall. I probably needed to wait as long as Hachiman and Yukino to understand my own story.

But that's Love and Coffee for you. I've written on my profile that this is a fan-fiction about writing fan-fiction, but it's also a story about growth. Oregairu is, at its very heart, a story about that same theme of growth and rehabilitation. So in many ways, I think this is the fanfic of mine which captures the series, as I interpret it, the best. Is it the best thing I've written? Probably not. But I was confused about how to end L and C for a long, long time, and in the end the solution ended up being this: fuck it. Just write what feels best. Hopefully you can indulge me with this most indulgent of endings.

Right, just a couple of thank yous and I'll stop rambling. I have never once used a beta-reader for fanfic (all of my stories are written and devised independently, usually to their deficit) but Love and Coffee had the most outside help of all. This story was in the doldrums before RAfan2421 PMed me about it, back in 2020. We've discussed L and C (and a bunch of other things) in depth over PM, and those discussions definitely had a hand in keeping me interested in the story. He even wrote his own spin-off for L and C at one point, creating the mind-bending scenario of a fanfiction about a fanfiction which is itself about writing fanfiction. His idea of Rumi as a fan of L and C appeared here, as an easter egg. So yeah, thanks a lot man! You've been a big help.

The other thank you is, obviously, to everyone who's read Love and Coffee over the past four years. I'm not blind to the fact that this is the story of mine which resonates with people the most. I understand that in some ways, while being completely baffled by it in others. For a story where almost nothing happens, people really seem to care. I've received more PMs, comments and questions about L and C than any other. It means a lot to me that people have read and enjoyed this story. It really does. So thank you.

Just a couple of other details. If anyone remembers a previous deleted story of mine, While the Snow Fell, they may also recognise some images/scenes which I reused and repurposed here. Given my interpretation of this story, I thought it would be fun to sprinkle in some references to other Oregairu fics. Most of them are quite obvious, so I won't bother listing them. There's also an extended reference to Therefore I Am, a fic borne from my own uncertainty about L and C's ending. I wouldn't say it's canon, but the notion that Therefore I Am Yukino was reborn in the L and C continuity, and got her happy ending with Hachiman here, was a nice thought.

Alright… that's pretty much it. In regards to Love and Coffee, I have nothing left to say. Time for a new chapter.

-GOF