A/N: Right. I've definitely come to realize that completely deviating from the format of the old version is the best way to go. The good news, however, is that it means more chapters. :) Anyway, this piece - which was only a tiny little section in the original - is relatively new. Hope you enjoy.
Kuki never knew that an aching heart could be a natural state of being, but as it turns out, it could. It's especially true when one realizes that they had been lying to themselves and to everyone else, and even truer when 'everyone' included a particularly sweet, very innocent, and extremely well-deserving boyfriend - the very one who stood next to her now.
"What do you think of this one?" Walter said as he pointed to one of the posters in front of them. They were standing outside a movie theatre, in the process of deciding what to watch. "It looks interesting. What else is showing?"
Kuki watched him achingly as he scanned the other movie posters, her hand burning with guilt at the mere sensation of his fingers laced with hers. It had been a few days since he got back from his camping trip, and though she had been agonizing every day to tell him the truth, she still hadn't mustered up the courage to talk to him.
"What do you think?" He said as he turned to her, and when she responded with a painful grimace, he took it as an oddly fervent unwillingness to watch a movie. "Okay, no movies then. What do you wanna do instead?"
She tried to respond with something normal but any attempt she made got stuck in her throat, so she stood there, gazing back at him wordlessly, partly choking on her inability to speak, and partly wincing from the self-imposed punishment blazing within her.
"Are you okay?" Walter asked, his thoughtful eyebrows knotting in concern as he gently pressed his hand against her forehead. "Are you sick?"
The moment she felt his gentle touch, her stomach sank, and the last of her reluctance dissolved beneath the weight of her shame. The pure, unadulterated sweetness with which he checked her temperature was the last push needed to drive her guilt over the edge, and suddenly she couldn't bear it any longer. She readied herself to speak, and even though her own words made her want to vomit, she forced them out.
"Walter…" She said chokingly. "Can we go somewhere to talk?"
They ended up at the coffee shop where they had their very first date, and though the place was bustling, the air between them had grown heavy and silent. Kuki twirled her fingers anxiously as she waited for Walter's reaction, her breath halting every time he raised his coffee cup to his lips, pause, only to bring it back down without actually taking a sip.
"I'm sorry," She said for what must have been the tenth time since they sat down. "I'm so, so, so sorry…"
He responded with silence. He hadn't said a word since she finished talking, and for what felt like an eternity, he had been gazing down, his eyebrows furrowed as if he were searching his mind for answers that she couldn't provide.
"Walter, will you please say something?" She begged. "You haven't said anything in the last ten minutes and it's really starting to freak me out."
He brought his gaze up to meet hers, his eyes gentle yet disoriented. It was as if he had just woken up from a dream. "So…" He said slowly. "Was it something I did wrong?"
She drew back slightly, horrified that he would even think such a thing. "No!" She said desperately, almost aggressively. "Absolutely not, you've been an amazing boyfriend! In fact, you were beyond amazing, you were… You were perfect!"
He drew his eyebrows even closer together, his gentle eyes narrow and blinking in confusion. "If I'm so amazing then...why are you breaking up with me?"
His words sank into Kuki slowly - painfully - making both her head and shoulders sink. She knew that question was coming. She just didn't realize that it would be agonizing to hear regardless of how many times she rehearsed a proper answer.
She turned her eyes away, finding herself unable to look him in the eye, and after a painful sigh, she finally spoke.
"It's not fair to you…" She said quietly. "You're a really great guy... In fact, you were so great that I was afraid of ending things because I didn't want to ruin something that seemed so perfect."
She paused for a moment, wincing in pain as she realized that it was still hard to admit the truth even to herself.
"But… In the end, I just ended up stringing you along because I was too blind and too scared to see the truth. And so I lied to myself… And I ended up lying to you too…"
The silence took over once again, engulfing both of them, during which she closed her eyes and gave out a long sigh. Then, even though she was terrified to do it, she forced herself to look him in the eye.
"You deserve better than that, Walter..."
Walter's expression flinched slightly in pain, and though the sight of it felt like shards of ice piercing into Kuki's chest, she could see it clearly: he understood. It didn't surprise her when he brought his gaze back down to his coffee, not wanting to look at her, choosing to stare at the dark, swirling mass in his cup instead. She waited until he was ready to speak, and in the meantime, she braced herself for whatever excruciating reaction she was going to get. Whatever it was, she knew she deserved it.
He spoke much sooner than she expected.
"Well… I suppose I should thank you," He said slowly, his choice of words catching her by surprise. "It's a good thing you told me before things got any further."
Her eyes widened with astonishment, almost aghast at the very graciousness of his words. "Oh god…" She moaned as she buried her face into her hands. "You really are the nicest guy ever. I'm breaking up with literally the nicest guy ever… What is wrong with me?"
She pressed her face even harder into her palms, wishing that it would somehow take away the shame she felt, but suddenly, to her surprise, something else happened. She heard the sound of a light, airy chuckle, and when she looked up, she was stunned to see him smiling. It wasn't his usual smile - not the wide, amiable grin that came with a natural friendliness to it - but rather a mild, close-lipped one. It was a half-smile, but a pleasant one nonetheless.
"Were you expecting me to throw a chair or something?" He said, laughing a little.
She blinked in awe as she studied the look on his face. He was joking. He was actually joking. She couldn't help but perk up slightly at the small sliver of positivity that unexpectedly emerged from the tension, and her lips twitched slightly as if testing to see if it was okay to smile.
"Maybe you should throw a chair," She joked hesitantly. "It might make both of us feel better."
She waited to see how he would react, and to her immense relief, he gave out another airy chuckle, sending a flutter of comfort sweeping through her. He brought his coffee cup to his lips once again, and this time, he actually managed to take a sip.
"Not a chance," He smiled again, and just like that, Kuki felt the air between them getting lighter.
The silence that followed was dense, but to Kuki's surprise, it was also painless. For a long time, neither of them spoke, both of them comfortably quiet as they sat in each other's presence, the air between them consisting of a certain peace. The moment drew on for a while, and the more it lasted, the more Kuki felt as if things were slowly falling into place in the world.
"Can I ask you something, though?" Walter said out of the blue, and she nodded immediately, eager to cater to whatever he needed.
He gazed at his coffee cup once again, his thumb tracing its edges musingly as his face twitched somewhere between hesitance and amusement. "When did you finally realize that you wanted to be with Wally?"
His words struck her like the sound of glass breaking, and all the comfort that she had grown accustomed to in just the last few minutes instantly dissipated. Outside she remained still, but inside, she felt as if she had fallen off a cliff.
Walter chuckled slightly as he saw the color leave her face, his smile partly amused, partly cautious, and maybe even partly pained. He watched patiently as she opened her mouth to speak, only for nothing to come out, and for a while she fumbled through pieces of words, never really saying anything cohesive or sensible. It took a few minutes before her panic stilled, and even as she slowly surrendered to the truth that danced between them, it didn't stop her from wanting to run away in shame.
She was just tired of lying, that's all. Tired of lying to everyone and to herself.
"How did you know…?" She asked weakly.
Walter chuckled again. "You're not very good at hiding your feelings, Kuki…" He said as he took another sip of his coffee, and after a momentary pause, he added, "I'll tell you something else… He's not very good at it either."
His words hung in the air for a moment, during which Kuki sat quietly, observing the strange amusement on his face. Part of her was still stunned by his revelation, but another part couldn't help but be guiltily intrigued by what he said about Wally.
"Oh!" She gasped as another thought struck her. "Walter, I… I hope you don't think… Nothing happened, I just… I didn't even realize how I felt about him until…"
Walter's eyes widened as he realized what she was implying, and to her amazement, his face twisted into the closest thing to a glare that she had ever seen him display.
"Hey, hey, hey!" He said in a tone that was both comforting and reprimanding. "Don't you dare say what I think you're saying, I would never think that about you!"
He paused to make sure that his words sank in, and when he saw that her expression remained unsettled, he sighed.
"Look…" He said. "To be completely honest, I've known how you felt about Wally for a while now. I don't know how I knew, I just did. I wasn't even sure why you chose me over him because I knew I didn't stand a chance… I guess I just thought I should at least try my luck..."
He paused again to ruminate, and as he did, Kuki could see his expression changing as if more truth came to light as he spoke. A mild shadow fell upon his face as he came to his next conclusion.
"I guess you could say I knew this was coming sooner or later, I just didn't want to admit to it. And if you think about it that way… I guess I haven't been honest with you either."
The silence fell around them once again as both their gazes fell towards the ground, and after a while, he took her hand and squeezed it.
"I mean it, Kuki," He said sincerely. "I really am glad you told me before things could get any further. I know you think you're just being fair to me, but… You deserve better too."
His eyes were gentle, earnest, and the mere depth of them softened the ache in Kuki's chest. As the air hung between them, soft and bittersweet, she found herself squeezing his hand as well.
"Thank you, Walter…" She said quietly to him. "Not just for understanding, but for everything. I really do mean it when I say that you were the most amazing boyfriend in the world."
They smiled at each other one last time, then as if merely flipping a switch, Walter took his hand back and changed his expression into a humorous one.
"You're totally right, I am the most amazing boyfriend in the world," He joked. "You're crazy for breaking up with me."
There was an odd pause between them, but it was over in an instant when both of them broke into laughter. And just like that, Kuki found herself laughing with the most perfect ex-boyfriend in the world.
The heaviness had all but dissipated by the time they exited the coffee shop, the air between them painless and amicable even as they lingered outside the building for a few minutes.
"So what are you gonna do now?" Walter asked as he casually crossed his arms and leaned against the side of the building.
"Oh, I don't know…" Kuki replied with a hint of exhaustion in her voice. "I'm probably just gonna head home and think some things over."
Walter chuckled, to which Kuki could only tilt her head questioningly. "I meant about Wally," he clarified.
Widening her eyes slightly, Kuki shot him a look as if he were crazy. "Walter, I don't know if I'm comfortable talking to you about that..." And when he rolled his eyes playfully in response, she added, "Walter, you were my boyfriend literally just an hour ago!"
"Ex-boyfriend, thank you very much," He chided. "Now get over yourself and tell me what's on your mind."
She shifted uncomfortably on the spot, laughing slightly despite her discomfort because of the way Walter smiled expectantly at her. His wholesomeness was starting to get exhausting.
"I'm not planning on doing anything about it," She said decisively. "Wally has a girlfriend."
It was a reasonable answer, she thought, but to her surprise, he raised an eyebrow at her as if she had given an insufficient reason. Strangely enough, it made her feel obligated to explain herself.
"I don't want to get in the way of anyone's happiness. I could never do that to anyone, especially not someone as wonderful as Katie…"
Walter brought a hand up towards his chin and stroked it for a few seconds, his eyes pointed towards the ground as he pondered some distant thought. It was a minute before he spoke again.
"Kuki, I think it's great that you're thinking that way but… Katie doesn't strike me as someone who would want to get in the way of someone's happiness either."
His words hung between them for a moment, during which he studied her to see if his words would sink in.
"It's just a thought," he concluded when she said nothing in response. "Anyway, I have to head home so…"
He lifted himself off the wall and raised his arms towards her, to which she responded with an incredulous raise of an eyebrow.
"What, I go from boyfriend to friend and suddenly I can't get a hug now?"
He smiled at her jokingly, but when she still said nothing, he shook his head.
"For goodness sake, Kuki. A hug isn't going to kill you," He teased, holding his arms out even further towards her. "You won't regret it. I promise."
Kuki smiled hesitantly and remained still for a few more seconds, but soon she gave in and walked into his arms.
As soon as her head fell against his shoulder and she felt his arms wrap around her, she knew: he was right. She didn't regret it. Just like how she didn't regret breaking up with him, because as she grew comfortable enough to hug him back, she realized what she truly felt about him all along. It was the same feeling she had whenever she hugged Nigel's arm or leaned her head on Hoagie's shoulder. It was friendship. Nothing more, nothing less. It was just friendship all along.
Kuki grabbed the inner folds of her cardigan and pulled them across her torso, shivering slightly as dusk descended upon the town with a gentle breeze. There was a slight chill in the air, as if the wind itself was trying to remind her that summer was slowly coming to an end.
She traveled down the sidewalk with her eyes mostly towards the ground, hardly paying attention to the soft amber glows that slowly took over the town as the street lamps came on, along with the lights from the restaurant and shop windows. There was a Saturday-evening crowd forming, and as she walked past clusters of people talking or laughing, sometimes past a pair of lovers giggling, she couldn't help but notice the loneliness that slowly began to creep from within.
The break-up with Walter had turned out much more amicably than she could ever hope for. In some way, the worst was over. So why did she still feel this way?
She was just nearing the edge of town when a set of bright neon lights dancing against the twilight caught her attention, and she found herself stopping on the side of the road, looking across the street where the town arcade stood. That arcade had been there ever since she was a child, and she must've passed it about a million times without ever paying much attention to it, but sure enough, it held her attention now as it reminded her of a certain someone who used to frequent it as a child.
Everything seemed to remind her of him these days. A strand of hair sticking slightly out of place on top of someone's head. A pair of dirty sneakers scratching against the pavement. The sight of a football tumbling through the grass. The mere shape of someone's lanky posture or someone walking down the streets with their hands in their pockets.
He was everywhere. Everywhere but the place where she actually wanted him to be.
She sighed as she wondered what he might be doing now. She hadn't seen him since her birthday, and yet he consumed every corner of her mind, striking her with a strange melancholy every time the thought of him arrived. She hated knowing how easy it actually was to reach him if she really wanted to. He was, as always, just a step away - one phone call, one trip to the clubhouse, one turn around the corner towards his house - and yet here she was, helpless as always, doomed to be with him only in her mind.
She let her gaze fall to the ground for a moment to clear her head, and once she felt confident that she could manage a few minutes without the thought of him, she resumed walking down the street. She had only traveled a few steps when something amidst the crowds before her immediately caught her eye, and her body stopped with the jolt as she realized what - or rather, who - she was looking at.
There he was.
He was several yards ahead of her, the back of his head bright and visible as he towered over most people on the crowded street, zipping in and out of view as he walked idly towards the other direction.
The mere sight of him plunged Kuki's insides into the usual cycle of emotions, and she stood there, half of her petrified and wanting to run away while the other half found itself rooted firmly to the ground. Her heart stopped every time he turned his head, fearing that he might turn around and find her but also quietly wishing that he would.
She was just starting to recognize the familiar tug of fear when, suddenly, she felt something else bubble up to the surface, and to her very own surprise, she smiled.
And not only did she smile, she also gave out a sort of laugh - not the kind that was warranted by a funny joke, but the kind that came with realizing something new, something exciting, something exhilarating that was born out of fear.
Something changed inside her, and all of a sudden she was overcome with a strange sort of clarity.
Everything was clear, and though the street before her was riddled with people, the path that lay in her mind was open and full of possibilities.
As if her body suddenly grew a mind of its own, her feet started carrying her forward, beginning with one reluctant step, then another. Wally continued to weave in and out of sight, but whatever view of him was afforded by the diminishing distance gave her a renewed sense of purpose. Soon her arms were reaching out, pushing past strangers, her body swerving somewhat recklessly around every person or obstacle that came her way.
He was only a few yards away now, and the sheer possibility of her dreams becoming a reality invigorated Kuki, nudging her into a slow but determined jog, every step towards Wally making her grow breathless with anticipation, her heart hammering against her chest as her lungs expanded, ready to call out his name.
That was until Katie came into view.
Kuki's heart stopped as her body halted in the middle of the street, her smile fading as she realized that Wally had not been walking alone. The closer distance revealed Katie walking by his side, exhibiting a rare display of affection as her hand swung in and out of sight, holding his.
That was the moment when Kuki realized that she had been telling herself yet another lie; that in the spur of the moment, she, for some unfathomable reason, managed to forget that Katie - Wally's perfect girl - didn't exist. That somehow, she convinced herself, that she now had a chance.
She didn't. Not if she could help it.
She may have walked away from her perfect guy, but nothing will change the reality that Wally was still with his perfect girl, and nothing in the world - not even her own feelings - would ever convince her that it was okay to get in the way of that.
The reality sank into Kuki's chest, and she folded her arms in front of her as the air now seemed even colder than before, the loneliness inside more palpable even though the streets had grown louder and more vibrant. Her hope faded quietly as she watched the last visible streaks of Wally and Katie disappear into the crowd completely, then after quietly bidding Wally goodbye under her breath, she turned around and left.