He was in disbelief.
The head of the department laughed at his reaction. "Snap out of it, Aihara. You look like I've just fired you."
"I'm sorry, sir!" Kaoru regained his composure. "I didn't expect this. Thank you very much."
The older man sitting opposite him in the meeting room just smiled kindly. "It's a great achievement for someone at your level. Hakusen should have hired you when they could."
Kaoru stared at the mock-up of the cover of the book with his design. It was for an up and coming novelist, who wanted a cover expressing separation.
A senior designer had overseen the project and Kaoru was staffed on the team. They spent weeks trying to meet the novelist's demands, on top of other assignments.
It came to a breaking point when his senior threw in the towel.
"I give up! He's just being fucking unreasonable. What's wrong with our ideas? Screw this."
Kaoru had been helping to polish his senior's work up until then. When the team went home dejectedly that day, he stayed back and thought about what the novelist wanted.
They had been fixated on a darker, wintry look. It made sense since the novel was equally dark and tragic.
To Kaoru, separation was on a warm autumn day, when leaves fell together with the hearts that followed. The memories which kept resurfacing during the entire project.
He sketched out an idea and showed it to his senior the next day.
His senior was going to throw it into the bin when one of the team leads of the production department passed by and noticed it.
"Hey, let me look at that."
Kaoru had seen him before during meetings. Confident, effective and with a personality which engaged with others easily, Fujiwara Ren was one of the rising stars in the company.
His senior handed over the sketch grudgingly. Fujiwara's hazel eyes scanned it and then asked Kaoru, "Is this your work?"
"Yes," Kaoru admitted.
A warm smile crossed Fujiwara's face. "I'll ask his editor to show it to him."
Both his senior and Kaoru had been shocked.
That was three days ago. Now, he was sitting in the office looking down at his first book cover. Kaoru couldn't believe it.
He was on cloud nine for the rest of the day. His co-workers who have heard congratulated him heartily, except for the senior designer who muttered something to the effect of him lucking out.
Kaoru didn't mind if it was luck. It gave him a tiny confidence boost.
Even if his inspiration was…
Don't think about it at work, he told himself. When he went home, then he could try to piece his heart together, as he often did ever since that day.
He tried to look for Fujiwara to thank him but the man was out for meetings. He did manage to speak to Miss Tachibana over the phone to convey the good news to her.
When he left the office, he finally saw Fujiwara at the lobby.
Kaoru waved to get his attention.
Fujiwara looked up from his phone and grinned. "Aihara!"
Kaoru went over quickly and bowed. "Thank you so much. For the cover."
"It's your design," Fujiwara reminded him in a friendly manner. "Thank YOU. If not, the project would have been delayed and I'm probably still in the office."
Kaoru was embarrassed. "No, I..it was just an idea which came to me."
"Don't be so modest," Fujiwara chuckled. "You're such a cute junior!"
"Who's cute?" a deeper voice asked, amused.
A taller and very good-looking man appeared beside Fujiwara. In a suit and still carrying a briefcase.
"Shin! You're on time," Fujiwara exclaimed happily. "Meet Aihara Kaoru. From the design department."
Then to Kaoru, he introduced the man easily, "This is Kurosawa Shinobu. My partner."
Kaoru was surprised.
"Nice to meet you," he said.
"And you," the man returned and added wryly. "Ren isn't giving you trouble, is he?"
"Of course not!" Fujiwara protested with a pout. "I'm the perfect senior."
"He's very kind to me," Kaoru agreed. "I got my first book cover because of him."
"He's just being unnecessarily humble," Fujiwara countered and told his partner, "My project is back on track. He's the reason you can take me out to dinner today."
"In that case, you have my thanks too," Kurosawa told Kaoru.
They made a dangerously attractive couple. It was clear that they were in love. Kaoru could see the adoring laughter in Fujiwara's eyes and although his partner seemed to be the more reserved type, the glances he gave Fujiwara contained a certain softness.
"Not at all! Anyway, I shouldn't take up more of your time." Kaoru smiled. "Have a good evening."
"Bye! See you around in the office!" Fujiwara waved cheerfully.
He could still make out bits and pieces of their conversation as he walked away.
"Just dinner? I haven't seen you for a week."
"Shin, don't tease me. Unless you don't want to..."
"Fine. A quick dinner."
"Now we're talking."
It didn't take much imagination to know what they could be referring to. Kaoru found himself smiling at how comfortable they seemed with each other.
When he got into the packed train, he finally let his mind wander.
What was Keigo doing right now? Was he still in the office or traveling for work? Did he find someone who could make him happy?
Somehow, seeing Fujiwara and his partner together made him missed Keigo so intensely. What wouldn't he give to have just one dinner, free of any consequences and repercussions?
Kaoru knew back then that it would crush his heart.
He hadn't expected that it could possibly be irreparable. Unlike the defect from his childhood, this could not be healed by any surgery or medication.
The human heart, once scarred, was never quite the same.
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