Chapter 1:

The Cold Lover

Mayuka To Ryu (繭価 と 龍)

"Ryu," Takaya nudged his witless friend softly with his elbow, "your girlfriend isn't coming, right?"

Ryu took a quick glimpse at Takaya and smiled sheepishly. The humongous wooden clock on the wall made it effortless for Ryu to keep himself alert. They had been in this eatery, sipping glasses of beer and rice wine for two hours. With a heavy heart, he shook his head and quickly received sighs of disappointment from the boys.

Hattori hung his right arm around Ryu's neck, bringing the slender young man nearer to his muscular torso. Ryu has never changed. Since they all were in high school, Ryu was the skinny, weak, pale guy. Once, they mischievously ranked each other and Ryu was at the bottom of the list. Although the boys acknowledged that Ryu has the brain, his thick spectacles explained everything; to them, Ryu was like bean sprouts. He was simply an unembellished young man. However, Ryu would pout and defend that he preferred a clean, simple look. The boys would laugh, gave him pats and apologised.

"We've only seen her on your SNS. She's pretty cute, just my type!" Hattori bluntly confessed. "But don't worry, Ryu. I won't snatch her from you!" And their laughter burst out. Some customers turned their heads towards the group but quickly minded their own business afterwards. As long as it was only noise pollution of joyful laughter, nothing to get offended for.

Ryu snatched his glass and served himself the second shot of beer. He was a little hesitant on how he should respond to Hattori's remark. It was undoubtedly another banter from the boys but Mayuka's cold gaze crossed his mind, out of the blue.

Summer has started. Meanwhile, Mayuka has made it clear that she refused to meet Ryu during the summer. If Ryu had planned summer activities beforehand, she requested him to cancel them or proceed without her. Ryu assumed that Mayuka completed sorting her semester break schedule and unfortunately, he was not on the list. Did Ryu get disheartened? Of course, not. Ryu smiled.

Mayuka, a young lady who was currently dating him for... no reason. Mayuka, a lady who preferred dates indoors, especially in his tiny apartment. Mayuka, who never loved spending money on unnecessary things but always ended up flushing money on peculiar items online. Mayuka, the eldest sister who worked various part-time jobs every summer.

Tsukushi Mayuka, the lady that made him fell head over heels for... no reason.

"Oi, Ryu's drunk!" Kenji's eyes were as round as a saucepan. The boys immediately ceased away their lingering giggles. "Towels!" They all shouted at the top of their lungs and went bedlam, searching for handkerchiefs, tissues and anything to cup Ryu's mouth because...

When Tanaka Ryu got drunk, he would vomit endlessly.

. . . . .

"Two shots. Seriously, Ryu?" Hattori twisted the mineral water bottle cap and offered Ryu to drink. "Here."

Takaya glanced at the rear-view mirror for a second before tightening his grip on the steering wheel and sped up the car. He could not afford to let his new car smell like puke for a week or more. "Hold it, baka! Don't pollute my car!"

"Oi, Takaya!" Kenji gulped, clutching a hand at the roof handle and the other at his seatbelt.

In the beginning, Takaya neglected Kenji's warning but when Hattori started to voice out, he quickly slowed down and stopped at the nearest gas station. As soon as he pulled the handbrake, Ryu stormed out and threw up. Hattori stepped out of the car and ran towards Ryu. Takaya came next with a box of tissues that he kept in the dashboard, while Kenji remained seated as he has a weak stomach. Imagining Ryu throwing up was enough to bring the undigested food in his stomach to rise to his throat.

"God, Ryu!" Takaya patted the back of Ryu's slender body. Ryu coughed. He shoved his hand to Takaya, requesting the tissues. "What?"

Hattori grabbed the box from his hand and placed a few pieces on Ryu's palm. The weak guy muttered 'thanks' quietly and wiped his lips. He was not confident about how many times he had thrown up but he knew his legs would give up soon. He had lunch pretty late and consumed two huge rice balls before meeting the boys. He bet the little white things on the floor he was looking at right now, unquestionably, were the rice balls.

"Why?" Ryu giggled. Yet it sounded sad. Sad enough to make Hattori and Takaya exchanged looks with each other. "Why does she have to be so cold?"

"Oi, are you okay?" Hattori finally asked.

Ryu did not reply but soon, his legs gave up. The friends quickly held him and brought the feeble Ryu into the car. Kenji, who noticed the tense atmosphere, scanned Takaya from the top to his new sneakers. There wasn't a sign of vomit on Takaya's clothes at all. He was about to inquire when Hattori invited them to spend a night at his apartment. It offered the quickest route and his place was the biggest among them.

Unlike Kenji and Ryu who lived in a single-person unit, his family unit was capable to house four adult males. Imagining good old times, Takaya and Kenji agreed. Their semester break has started too and they had not made plans yet.

"Sorry," Ryu whispered. "Please send me home."

Hattori frowned. He insisted Ryu stay at his place but that frail body kept shaking his head, refusing to spend a night at other people's house. Ryu mentioned about the laundry at the balcony and trashes that he has separated but forgot to bring them out just now. Tomorrow would be his residential recycle day and Ryu kept listing all reasons that his brain could think of to go back home.

Takaya gave a 'what-now' look at Hattori and Hattori appointed him to drive Ryu home.

When they arrived at Ryu's residence, Kenji and Hattori assisted the drunken man into the building. It was their second visit and neither of them remembered Ryu's unit precisely.

"Ryu?" A young lady greeted them. Hattori and Kenji quickly spun around to reply her greeting politely. For a moment, both of them froze.

Ryu did not talk about her much. In fact, he never mentioned her name and anything about her when the boys gathered or had fun. Therefore, they only knew her through Ryu's social media. Hattori was the first one to recognise her.

"Mayuka-chan," Hattori uttered, "Are you Mayuka-chan, Ryu's girlfriend?"

Kenji's brows went a few millimetres upward than their neutral position. He was surprised to meet Ryu's mysterious lover unexpectedly. They knew that Ryu and Mayuka have been together for a year yet their secretive friend has never introduced Mayuka to them properly. When they teased Ryu about Mayuka, Ryu would just say 'chigai' to refute everything. He too, just like Hattori and Takaya, had only witnessed Ryu's girlfriend on the very few SNS posts that Ryu seldomly made.

On the other hand, Mayuka was frowning, clearly displeased with the informality she received from strangers who were holding Ryu. "I'm sorry. I should've introduced myself," Mayuka started, "My name is Tsukushi Mayuka. It'd be great if we could retrieve the formality." She ended her cold introduction with a respectful bow.

Hattori and Kenji were dumbstruck. Mayuka looked truly adorable. Moreover, at this moment, when she was in her blue pyjama, standing straight below their nose. She was quite petite and her pinkish cheeks did not show any sign of coldness. However, as soon as she spoke, there was an invisible snowstorm that struck them mercilessly. Her voice was as deep as a hundred-year well.

"Ah!" Kenji made an attempt to break the cumbrous silence. "T-Tsukushi-san, I'm S-Sasahara Kenji, and this is Yamaguchi Hattori. We are Ryu's elementary school friends," he said in one breath. "We went for some drink and unfortunately, Ryu got drunk. We have forgotten his unit since we hardly come here. Can you show us his unit?"

Mayuka blinked, a little aghast. I see, Ryu's friends. I shouldn't have been unnecessarily uptight. She nodded and started leading the boys to Ryu's unit. They went into the elevator and the journey was as quiet as an abandoned library. When they reached the fourth level, Mayuka pressed the elevator button and gestured the boys to walk out first while she held the door opened. Hattori and Kenji stepped out and was followed by Mayuka.

Once again, Mayuka took the lead. She unlocked Ryu's house with the spare key he gave to her and welcomed the friends inside.

"Please," Mayuka broke the silence. Hattori and Kenji turned their head around with a puzzled look at the young lady. Their bended torsos were on hold as they were waiting for the next command. "Please be careful when you put him on the bed. Ryu easily gets neck strain," she explained.

Ah, so, she cares about Ryu. Hattori smiled. "Sure, Tsukushi-san," Kenji replied.

When Ryu has finally settled down in his room, Kenji and Hattori made their way out. At the entrance, Mayuka was waiting with a light-yellow plastic bag.

"Sasahara-san, Yamaguchi-san, I apologise for my impoliteness." Mayuka bowed.

Kenji's eyes widened. "I-It's okay, Tsukushi-san! Ryu always addresses you 'Mayuka'. So, we kind of thought that we could also call you that. It's truly our fault!" Kenji explained earnestly. Hattori has lost his words since they ran into her at the elevator. His tongue froze a long time ago and it was a blessing to have the talkative Kenji as his spokesperson.

I see. Mayuka nodded. "Here. These are some puddings that Ryu made himself the other day."

Kenji thanked her and excused themselves to leave. And out of the blue, the quiet Hattori finally voiced out. "Tsukushi-san, do you live together with Ryu?" Hattori questioned.

The question stirred Kenji when his eyes, once again, became as round as a saucepan more than Mayuka herself. Meanwhile, Mayuka did not fluster or react weirdly at all.

"No," Mayuka answered shortly. She wanted to leave them with that response, however, they did not seem to comprehend her well. They were waiting for a sound elaboration. Mayuka looked down. "I live next door. Ryu and I own each other's house keys for emergency purposes. If you don't mind, I'd like to return home." Mayuka bade them farewell with a small bow and walked out of Ryu's unit.

. . . . .

"What took you guys so long?!" Takaya groaned. Kenji apologised and closed the car door behind him carefully. However, Hattori, whose mind was still restless had accidentally slammed the door shut. "Oi, Hattori!" Takaya almost lost his mind.

Hattori was startled. "My bad," he absentmindedly uttered. Takaya grumbled and drove to Hattori's apartment.

There was a moment of silence as Kenji and Hattori were unsure of what and how they should start the conversation. Their mind was wondering about a similar matter.

"Takaya," Hattori broke the silence. "We met Ryu's girlfriend just now."

Takaya was flabbergasted. "Really?! How does she look like? Is she cute? Do they live together? Come on, guys! Tell me." He turned enthusiastic and the car speed rose a bit. Kenji gave him a little pat as a reminder to slow down.

"Well," Kenji's forehead furrowed. "She's cute. Very cute, I have to admit it. But then..."

. . . . .

Mayuka placed her toothbrush in the glass on the sink. She gargled and cleaned up the remnant of toothpaste at the corner of her lips. As she straightened her body, she met her reflection through the hanging crystal-clear mirror in front of her. She went nearer and tilted her face to have a better view of her complexion. Mayuka realised that the dark circles have returned. It was always during summertime. She would be busy during this season.

She closed the toilet door behind her and switched off the light. Before entering her bedroom, she made sure that all electrical appliances were off. 

As she stepped into her room, pampering herself on the bed and ready to hit the sack, her smartphone rang deafeningly.

"God," she whispered under her breath and heaved a long sigh. "Don't tell me it's Suu-chan..."

Ryu. Mayuka blinked in confusion. She answered the call and it was voiceless. She waited patiently but Ryu was still quiet. She knew he was on the line; his breathing was audible.

"Ryu." Mayuka sat up and glanced at the alarm clock at the side table. "What's wrong?"

11.30 P.M. It has passed the time she would usually sleep. Mayuka started her first job as a part-time library staff at Kaimei today and it was exacting. She never knew that an elite boy school like Kaimei Academy would have so many students storming the library during the first week of summer vacation. Although the librarian has informed her that the students were going to look for material and sources for their homework, she never imagined it to have that much crowd. It managed to traumatise Mayuka for a moment until she reminded herself that the pay was worth it.

No answer. Mayuka rubbed the bridge of her nose to ease the light headache that bothered her since the evening. She was exhausted and not in a state that she could figure out matters through a long silence. Like this. "Ryu, are you-"

"Mayuka," Ryu interrupted. "Mayuka." At the other end, Mayuka's jaw dropped. Ryu's tender voice calling her name befuddled her. "Mayuka," he called her again. "Can I come in? To your house."

Mayuka did not respond. She was perplexed by Ryu. Ryu has always understood the boundaries she stated without much need to re-emphasize. Unlike the previous guy she dated, who needed reminders every single time, Ryu was different. Dating Ryu was as free as a bird, at least what she thought.

"Hmm," Mayuka approved. "Do you need me to open the-"

"No," Ryu hung up.

From the bed, in the middle of a quiet night, she could hear the sound of her entrance door unlocked. Then, a few seconds later, it was locked back. And another lock. Mayuka sighed. She admitted that she always forgot to double-lock the door. Ryu was the one who put up the second lock on her main door.

Mayuka was certain that her heart pounded hardly due to the sudden ring of her phone just now. Yet currently, it was still skipping insanely, as if she just completed a 100-meter sprint. 

Mayuka immediately lied down, covered herself under the blanket and faced the window. She shut her eyes and controlled her disorganised breathing pattern. As soon as she was calmer, her door creaked open. Mayuka could not bring herself to turn around and see the person who entered her room. She knew it was Ryu but she simply felt unsettled to look at him.

Meanwhile, Ryu gazed at the small torso under the blanket, whose back was facing him. He knew that Mayuka was still awake. He shifted his gaze at the alarm clock on the table and wondered about the time. He left his spectacles in his room and everything was blurry. Yet Mayuka's scent made it clear that she loved peach and he has started to love peach too.

Ryu walked towards the bed and lifted the blanket, settling himself on the mattress and reclined comfortably next to her. He was a few centimetres from Mayuka whose body had not moved an inch. It was the hushed night that allowed him to catch Mayuka's heartbeat. Or perhaps, he was imagining things?

Why is Ryu doing this? Mayuka was restless.

What are you going to do, Mayuka? Ryu rolled himself and faced Mayuka's cold back. "Mayuka. I had a nightmare." He lied to get her attention.

"Eh?" Mayuka was startled and turned around, facing the helpless Ryu. And he succeeded. Their eyes met. She noticed that Ryu has bathed and changed into his pyjama. "You had a nightmare again?" When she received a nod from Ryu, she pulled him into her embrace. "I thought the alcohol worked."

Ryu pulled Mayuka closer, embracing her more tightly. "It doesn't," he muttered. She did not say anything and only caressed his hair gently.

. . . . .

"She's cute. Very cute, I have to admit it. But then..." Kenji paused.

Hattori sighed. "She is so cold. Heartless. It's hard to believe that Ryu is with someone like her," he continued. Kenji agreed while Takaya had his jaw dropped in awe.

Joe Gold
Syed Al Wasee