breathing you in when I want you out
Tachibana An watched New York City fly by from the window of her taxi cab.
New York was overwhelming and loud and bright, bright in a way that Tokyo wasn't. New York was a hash of eclectic colors that shouldn't belong together, colors and lights that clashed into and ran away from each other in energy and chaos, and An loved it. New York felt like electricity, instantaneous and blinding and all-encompassing, and An had always liked that—in cities, in people.
She didn't really have a singular reason for choosing the University of Tokyo. Very few people, she suspected, made major life decisions from one factor alone. Part of the reason she chose the university was for its reputation—she had the qualifications for it, she was accepted, and she saw no reason to turn it down. Part of the reason was because a number of her close friends also attended the university—friends from middle school and high school, and friends from tennis (Fuji-senpai and Momoshiro and Kamio and—). But if she were to be honest with herself, the fact that Tokyo University had recently announced its new exchange program for freshmen (spend a semester of freshman year in any one of these great cities, they promised, an experience like no other)—well. She had plenty of reasons for choosing the University of Tokyo, but that was probably her main one. And An chose New York City.
She had only done one study abroad program before this, a small month-long thing in Hong Kong back in her senior year of high school, where her host family spoke English but understood Japanese. It had been casual and fun, but this would be different—for an entire semester, she would actually be taking classes at Columbia University, alongside American students, living in their dorms and eating their food (which had better be as good as the rumors claimed, or she'd have a bone to pick with somebody).
It hadn't really kicked in yet, the realization that she was in college. That she wasn't in Tokyo anymore. That Kamio wouldn't show up at her door, asking if she wanted to get lunch, that she wouldn't run into Momoshiro on the street courts, that her brother wouldn't be there to banter with her. Her hair was longer and she'd lost the hair clips but sometimes she still felt fifteen, reckless-brave and dare-you-dare-me confident. She dressed like she was eighteen but looking out the window at the city, she felt like the Fudomine freshman in the sailor uniform, wide-eyed and a little lost, a little excited, surrounded by strange new buildings and strange new people who expected her to act more maturely than she felt.
The cab slowed to a halt, and An saw a vast expanse of buildings decorated with pale blue flags, regal and imposing. Students roamed the campus, walking from one building to another, largely ignoring each other, holding laptops and talking on their phones like they were too important and busy to say hello to the other students on campus. An swallowed, then fumbled for her wallet.
"Here you go; have a good day," she said in English, handing the cab fare to the driver. There was a pause. An panicked.
Oh God please tell me I said "here you go" and not "your head is remarkably bald" or something like that—
The cab driver smiled and thanked her as she got out, and she breathed a quick sigh of relief. The one apprehension she'd had about studying in New York for a year was her grasp of the English language. She got good grades and whatnot, but speaking English in class and speaking English to an American were completely different experiences. She could get away with ducking her head and a "just kidding" in class if she screwed up—she doubted her American professor (or even her American waiter) would grant her the same luxury.
She stood outside the building and checked to see that it matched the address on the paper she'd been mailed some weeks ago. "Me, living here," she breathed, and tried to imagine herself in the city for the next semester. She began marching determinedly toward the automatic doors.
Okay. Okay, Tachibana An. All these Columbia kids are going to think you are the very embodiment of grace. You are going to walk in through those doors and be elegant like a… like a porpoise. Or like a porcupine. Or a –
"Oof!" Something cold and hard collided with her face.
She had just walked into the door. It would seem that the doors weren't automatic after all.
A couple of students stared at her as she clutched her nose with her hands, swearing colorfully under her breath. "Nothing to see here," she grumbled. "Just your average college freshman walking into a door. Move along." If anyone else stares, An decided, I will tell them walking into doors is a cultural Japanese thing. And they will believe me. Maybe.
The lady at the front desk was far less judgmental, even though An's nose was probably swollen red and perhaps even crooked after that door-encounter. She hoped not. "Tachibana An," she said brightly. "Freshman class, room 618. I'm an international student." And I walk into doors, and think about porcupines, and…
The lady returned her smile. "Welcome to Columbia University, An," she said, in a fluid English that An wished she could emulate. "Here are your room keys, and a name tag. Please put it on for the club fair later today, and enjoy your stay at the university."
An scribbled "An Tachibana" on the 'hello, my name is' sticker, and pressed it to her blouse. You may as well have just given me a name-tag that says "Hello, my name is Freshman," An thought, but kept it to herself, and looked for an elevator that would take her to the sixth floor.
Being eighteen was a strange thing. She had power, she was independent. People took her word as it was. Her parents didn't have to sign things. She could fail a math test and get away with it without her parents noticing. She could ask for the key to her new dorm room by herself, where she would be living with an unknown roommate, at an unknown university, in an unknown city. It was a sort of freedom she wasn't used to, a lack of familiarity that half-scared her and half-thrilled her, because new beginnings were fun and a little terrifying. For once she was Tachibana An, not daughter-of or sister-of or teammate-of or friend-of.
She was just... An.
She pulled out the key to her new room and opened the door to her dorm room.
Over the next couple of hours, An learned several things:
First, there were eight other students from the University of Tokyo who had chosen to attend Columbia for the first semester of their freshman year, and An's roommate, Haibara Haruki, a tall, willowy girl with sandy brown hair and glassy lavender eyes, was one of them.
Second, Columbia buildings had ridiculously fancy and stuck-up names (Lerner, Hamilton, Philosophy Hall…) to go with their ridiculously fancy and stuck-up architecture.
Third, the university dining hall food was mediocre at best.
And fourth, An needed to find a club to join fast if she wanted to make friends, because Columbia was a giant university in a giant city that apparently felt no need to foster any feeling of community.
She half-listened as Haruki told her stories about her puppy back home in Kyoto, and eyed the different buildings on campus. Haruki was a good conversationalist, a little quiet and meek, but sweet and friendly, and An liked her.
Classes hadn't officially started yet, but students were already beginning to move in for orientation week, where students were introduced to the university (and, perhaps more importantly, the clubs). A few people caught her eye here and there, but for the large part An paid them no mind, just drank in the campus, how much larger than life everything was, and thought, This was a good choice. Good like mochi ice cream.
"…seems like a good idea," Haruki was saying thoughtfully. "What do you think?"
An snapped to attention. "Sorry, what?" she blurted, then smiled sheepishly when Haruki gave her a look.
"I said," Haruki said, with exaggerated exasperation, "that we should go to the club fair today, if that would so please you, my dearest An-chan."
"An-chan works," An replied airily. "I also respond to Her Majesty, Her Royal Highness, and President of Catalonia."
Haruki laughed. "President of Catalonia might be a stretch. Maybe just start with Mayor of Barcelona?"
An liked that about Haruki—that she was willing to play along with An's silliness. Not that An was being silly, of course. President of Catalonia was serious business. "You have to aim high," she said, straight-faced. "I'm already eighteen. If I start at Mayor of Barcelona, how will I ever get to be President of Spain by the time I'm twenty?" She nodded decisively. "I'm going for President of Catalonia, running for President of Spain once I'm nineteen, and then conquering the Soviet Union before I turn thirty."
"Never mind that it doesn't exist anymore," Haruki said dryly.
"I will make it exist," An said seriously, "and then conquer it."
"You do that," Haruki told her, "and I will look for the debate team's stand at the club fair."
"I can help you with that," An offered.
"You sure? Not too busy conquering the Soviet Union?"
An scoffed. "I have at least a decade to do that. The club fair awaits." She paused, and gestured to the name-tag sticker on her shirt. "If I write 'Putin' instead of 'An Tachibana' on my name-tag, do you think people would give me more deference here, or kick me out of college?"
Haruki rolled her eyes fondly to the sky.
The next thing An did was look for a tennis court. Because never mind that it was August and a thousand and one degrees—if Columbia University wanted to call itself a top-tier university, it had better have tennis courts.
She had some difficulty navigating the trains by herself (because goddamnit why exactly Haruki needed to go get dinner at 5PM before the club fair instead of going to hunt for tennis courts with An was just incomprehensible and absurd), but after some wrong stops and a bit of wandering, she found it—a giant dome building, with indoor tennis courts bright blue like the sea. Six cushioned hard courts, fantastic lighting ("Some of the best in the world," the coat-check boy had told her proudly), ball machines…
Her grip on her bag tightened. She wanted so badly to drop everything and just play, but it was getting close to seven and she didn't trust herself to find her way back to campus in a timely manner. She hadn't brought a racquet or tennis clothes either.
The soft, rhythmic thwack of the ball resounded in her ears. An scanned the courts, gave each player a brief once-over. Who was playing? Who was relevant?
From the looks of it, most of the players were members of the varsity tennis team. They sported university athletic wear, had excellent form. If An did decide to join the team, she would have competition. Good competition. She considered it. She hadn't committed herself to playing competitive tennis in college, especially during her study-abroad. Even if she did make the team, she reasoned (which was entirely possible, because she was pretty good, damn it), she would only be able to play with the team for a couple of months before she had to return to Japan.
On the other hand, it seemed kind of obnoxious to demand a court to herself when she wasn't a member of the varsity team, with no competitive matches to worry about. And she wasn't sure that the varsity players would be willing to play a pick-up match with her, either. An doubted "captain of my high school tennis team in Japan" meant much here.
If I were the president of Catalonia, however, they would have to defer to me, wouldn't they? Maybe that's what I should be doing with my life. President of Catalonia. Also president of sea turtles.
There was a doubles match going on in Court 1, between two pairs of women presumably on the women's varsity team. They were okay, An decided. Good players, but nothing special.
An knew special.
Her brother was special—was competing in Australia, working with professional trainers and looking to break into the pro leagues. Her friends were special—Fuji who, despite choosing not to pursue tennis professionally, was remarkably talented. Tezuka who, although she wasn't really friends with him, was causing a ruckus in Germany with his tennis. And Echizen—she wasn't even sure what he was doing these days, competing in a tournament here, a tournament there, this country that country, this month that time, all the while sleeping through English class (said Momoshiro, who was also something else, even if he was just a street-courts tennis partner and friend to her).
She felt a pang of nostalgia and longing. New York suddenly seemed like such a faraway place.
You didn't come here to miss home. Get a grip. How are you going to be president of Catalonia with that attitude?
She took a deep breath and looked at the rest of the courts.
Court 2 was a singles match between a boy and a girl. Court 3 was being used for some sort of tennis lesson. Court 4 was another doubles match. Court 5 was empty. Her eyes stopped on Court 6.
Two boys were playing a singles match. One boy, with light, wavy hair was playing, playing well, but very obviously losing. He was out of breath and exhausted, and the look on his face suggested he wanted the match to be over. He bent forward, his head hung, panting as he held his racquet, his knuckles white.
An couldn't see the other boy clearly—tall, she noticed, and dark, curly hair. He stood impatiently on the other side of the court, waiting for the first boy to catch his breath. When he did, the second boy served, and it was a good serve—a great serve, really something else. Maybe it was the way he carried himself: a little differently from the other players in the fitness center, with the confidence of someone who won all the time and knew he would win again. An recognized that cockiness.
He played with energy—energy like New York, like electricity, like brightness, like a hash of eclectic colors that shouldn't belong together, colors and lights that clashed into and ran away from each other in energy and chaos, instantaneous and blinding and all-encompassing.
She liked energy.
Again, the overwhelming urge to play. To grab a racquet and tap the boy on the shoulder and say, "Play a match with me."
The match ended quickly—a bit too quickly. "Good game, kid," the first boy said, still catching his breath. "You're really amazing."
"Thanks," said the second boy, and An did a double-take at his accent. Was he Japanese?
The second boy walked off the courts and toward a pile of miscellaneous supplies in the corner—towels and water and a tennis bag that presumably were his, and when he glanced up, he met her eyes. She did a double-take, and forgot to look away.
An got a good, clear look at his face and swore under her breath.
You must be kidding me.
Green eyes, green like electricity, electric like New York City, electric like—
Like Kirihara Akaya.
(But Kirihara wasn't electric. He wasn't green. He wasn't a current but a thunderstorm, was violence, wild and manic and dangerous and cruel and red—)
He held her gaze for a second, and she stared back, dumbfounded by her luck (or lack thereof—why the fuck was he in New York City?), suddenly at a loss.
Then he arched an eyebrow, and walked right over to her.
He had grown taller since she had last seen him. They hadn't interacted much since that one incident when they were thirteen, and she watched him as he watched her, as he loped over to her. His cheeks had lost their childlike roundness, and his body was leaner, surer, like he had grown into it. His eyes were still green, so green, green like absinthe and electricity and it sparked the air, set it crackling.
The other people in the fitness center were staring and she didn't know why. She cleared her throat. The president of Catalonia and sea turtles wouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable by one stupid green-eyed boy, even if he was good at tennis.
"Hey." In the moment that she wasn't paying attention, he had positioned himself a foot away from her. She didn't respond.
"Hey," he said again, sounding irritated. "What are you staring at?" His tennis was (begrudgingly) incredible, but his English was mediocre at best. She wondered why he was speaking to her in English instead of Japanese. Did he not recognize her?
She debated between punching him in the face and turning 180 degrees and walking away, then settled for, "Just admiring how horrible your English is."
She said it in Japanese, and Kirihara arched an eyebrow. "You're Japanese?"
An rolled her eyes. "No, I'm a fairy bestowed with psychic powers that allow me to speak in any language I choose. Today, I chose Japanese. You can consider yourself a lucky kid, 'cause your English was awful."
"Kid?" he repeated, amused. "Really?" He stepped closer to her until he towered over her. "How old are you, twelve?"
"I'm eighteen," An snapped, "but at least I don't act like a toddler."
Kirihara snorted. "Okay. Well, at least I don't stare at people while they're playing matches. Like a stalker. Was my tennis that awe-inspiring? Or was it my dashing good looks? Maybe both?"
His tennis was pretty impressive, but like hell she was going to admit that. "You need to get a grip on reality," she blustered. "Do you go around asking people if they find you attractive? You must be a pretty desperate kid. Don't get much action, do you?"
He looked like he was about to reply, but the words seemed to catch in his throat, because he paused. The ensuing silence (which felt like hours, even though it was probably a couple of seconds) was incredibly awkward. An shifted uncomfortably. "How'd you know I'm Japanese?" he suddenly asked.
So he really didn't recognize her. Maybe that was for the best—she had no intention of seeing him again, and she had no intention of making a scene here, either. She leaned in, sneered, and hoped that it was intimidating as hell. "Consider it a lucky guess."
For a second, his face was blank. He looked at her intently, as if debating what to do with her, this petite, feisty little girl—then his eyes stopped. On her name-tag. "An Tachibana," he read, slowly, deliberately, rolling the sounds on his tongue as if he were tasting her name. What was that in his eyes? Recognition? Annoyance? Amusement?
"Yes," she said stiffly. "So you can read. How nice." Then, "Do you remember me?"
He shrugged, a loose rolling of the shoulders. "Yeah."
She waited. Waited for some reference to her team, her brother, something.
But all he said was, "You're from Tokyo, yeah? What, couldn't get enough of me in Japan so you followed me to America?"
An sputtered indignantly. This kid...! Then she inhaled, and gave him the brightest, most sarcastic smile she could muster. "It must be fate. I was just thinking to myself how great it would be if I were to run into the world's biggest jerk to amuse me for the next few minutes, and suddenly there you were."
Kirihara grinned. "I also hold the title for world's best tennis player and world's prettiest eyes."
She had dozens of questions and wonderings—why was he in New York? Why was he playing tennis at Columbia University's fitness center? Was he a student here? Was he alone? Didn't he remember what he did to her brother? But she bit them all back, kept her eyes hard, and glared at him the best she could.
He stared back, waiting for her to finish her question. His eyes were like lighters.
The thought invaded and penetrated her mind, refused to leave. Eyes like lighters eyes like lighters lighters lighters. Green like electricity like New York like him.
And faintly, in the back of her head:
Damn it, Haruki had the right idea getting dinner. I'm starving.
She turned on her heel and stormed out of the fitness center.
"Rude," he called after her.
"Fascist," she called back, without turning around—because, hey, that was the first thing she thought of.
His laugh danced in her head like an echo in an empty room, bouncing off wall after wall after wall, and followed her on the train ride back to campus.