L-chan's notes: This is my first fic for this fandom and first co-writing effort with D-sensei. All feedback is appreciated, and we thank you very much for reading.
Title: Something Else
The colorful striped awning over Gou's head flapped in the early afternoon breeze. She was the first to arrive, punctual to a fault, and checked her watch.
Had he been coming, Makoto would have been here already. He had manners like that. But on her way to the restaurant, she'd received an apologetic text saying that he needed to stay home with his little brother and sister. He hoped everyone would have a good time, he added. A proper gentleman even in his texts.
She tugged at the cuffs of her white cardigan and wondered if she'd overdressed. This was supposed to be a casual club get-together, a semi-celebration for making it through exams and a treat for all the hard work they'd put into training for the competition. She'd gotten the idea from some of the girls in her class. Apparently club outings were common for some of the friendlier groups, and she wanted to foster that same camaraderie among her group. Part of her job as manager was keeping morale high.
But maybe she was trying a little too hard. She was wearing a mint green sundress under her sweater and a cute little pair of white sandals she'd bought last week and needed to break in. If she'd known how much standing around she would be doing, she might have broken them in another time.
"Oh, Gou-chan's here!"
She turned around, her long ponytail flipping behind her. Never would she have guessed that Nagisa would be the first to arrive. If not Makoto, then Rei. He seemed to have that same sort of… need for structure that she did, and being on time was one of those things that the hyper-organized obsessed over. They were kindred spirits in a way.
A white stick hung lazily from Nagisa's mouth, and the bulge in his cheek was probably the business end of a sucker. His lips were stained a bright candy red. He did know they were meeting for lunch, right? Why else would they have all agreed on the new Mexican café?
"Where's everybody?" he asked. She pulled out her phone and showed him Makoto's text. "Oh, that's too—" His own phone buzzed, and he retrieved it from one of the many pockets of his khaki cargo shorts. His eyes flicked over the screen, then held the phone out to her for her inspection. She leaned closer to read; he smelled like sugar and fabric softener. "Looks like Rei-chan's got the same problem," he said, the candy's stick bobbing with every word.
According to his text, Rei was visiting with his grandmother and had thought to be back by now, but she insisted on making lunch for him. He promised to try to catch up later.
"So, that's four of us accounted for, anyway," Gou said, trying not to sound too disappointed. It was hard to have a club outing without the club. "Have you heard from Haruka-senpai?"
Nagisa shook his head and took the sucker from his mouth. The round end had mostly dissolved, and he crunched the last bit of it between his teeth before tossing the stick in a nearby waste bin. "Let me try him." He dialed and held the phone to his ear, leaning first on one foot, then the other as he waited for an answer. He was always in motion, restless, ready for things to happen. "Ah, Haru-chan?" he said. "We're meeting for tacos, did you forget?" His cherry lips pulled down into a frown, and his tone changed from questioning to scolding, like he was chastising a naughty puppy. "Are you in the bathtub, Haru-chan? You are, aren't you. You're going to miss out on yummy, yummy tacos! Fish tacos! And Gou-chan's dressed all cute for you!"
"I'm not," she mumbled, staring down at her new sandals. Okay, she overdid it on dressing. What did anyone expect, she was a girl, she liked looking cute. It wasn't for anyone.
Besides, look at Nagisa. He was casual in his shorts and sneakers and his white and blue striped shirt, unbuttoned at the top so his white t-shirt was visible underneath. Typical guy style, but some girls probably would have found it cute—he had his fans; all the boys did. But it wasn't an intentional ploy for attention. He was just dressed normally. No big deal.
Just like her. No big deal.
After finishing his voicemail message, he shoved the phone back in his pocket and looked at her with big, expectant eyes. "Now what?"
"I guess we try this another time," she answered with a sigh. She didn't realize how much she'd been looking forward to hanging out together until it didn't happen.
"What?" he said, surprised. "I'm hungry. I was promised tacos." He put a hand on the door and pulled it open. The air-conditioning from inside whooshed out at them. "So? Come on."
She was hungry, too, and followed him in.
"Bienvenidos!" the female server said in an enthusiastic approximation of Spanish, punctuated with a very Japanese bow. She wore a flouncy white top with a full, ruffled skirt, stiff layers of red and white fabric. Menus were already in her hands, and she led them to a booth next to the large picture window. They took seats on opposite sides and ordered drinks, which the server went merrily to retrieve.
Then... silence. Gou opened her mouth to say something—what, she hadn't figured out yet—but Nagisa was already buried in his colorful menu, humming to himself as he considered the curiously named choices. His leg bounced under the table in time to his humming.
She forgot her own menu for a second and watched his brow furrow. The menu was something serious to him, and his head titled this way and the other, then he flipped it to the other side and made the same motions in reverse. He'd nod, or shake his head, or make a little noise. All this was done with the intensity of a doctor reading a patient's chart, like the choice between Happy Pickle Poppers and Grande Cheese Explosion was a matter of life or death.
His eyes raised from the plastic-coated pictograph to look at her, resolute. "Mucho Gordo Fish Tacos," he said, then he nodded again at this pronouncement. "Yep."
"Okay." The server was back with their sodas and a big basket of tortilla chips, and Gou hadn't decided anything yet. Rather than make them wait for her, she glanced down and made a quick pick based on an illustration of a happy Chihuahua next to a chicken and avocado salad served in a crunchy shell. There was even a little balloon above his head that said "Yum!" If the Chihuahua liked it, it must be good.
Nagisa ordered his Mucho Gordo Fish Tacos, the combo platter plus extra rice, and the server smiled, bowed, and left for the kitchen.
"Haru-chan's going to be jealous that he missed the fish tacos!" he said, diving into the salsa with a triangular chip. He munched, swallowed, and added, "They're supposed to be really good."
There was no reason to feel awkward, but things turning out differently than she'd planned had thrown her for a bit of a loop. This was supposed to be a fun get-together, sure, but she thought they'd talk about training and the competition, too. She even had some notes in her purse that she wanted to go over. With all five of them here, that would have felt like an ordinary club meeting and not so… conspicuous.
Instead, it was just the two of them, and she wouldn't put him on the spot with her ideas for the training schedule without everyone else, or make him feel like she was someone who couldn't relax.
And with all five of them here, there would have been enough conversation and attention to pass around. Just the two of them felt like, well, like a date. It wasn't, and she was sure he wasn't thinking that any more than she was. They should be having fun, like friends, schoolmates, clubmates. Not a date.
Yes, she could relax and have fun. Otherwise, it would be a silence-filled lunch as they avoided looking at each other, studying the murals of cacti and bullfighters on the walls, watching people go by through the windows and hoping they didn't see anyone they knew who would leap to the wrong conclusions.
When she looked at him, he was grinning at her. "This is almost like a date!" he said. His elbows were on the table, and he'd lowered his head to his soda glass to drink from the straw like a little kid.
"No, it's not," she protested, puffing up with exasperation. Why did he say it? They weren't supposed to say it. Now it was out there.
"I said almost."
Before she could respond to that—she knew how to deal with him on an exasperated level—a strolling guitar player began making his way around the dining room. He looked to be about their age, probably working here part-time, and was wearing an obscenely large sombrero with gaudy gold fringe. Gou closed her eyes and prayed that he would pass them by.
"So, this is a club meeting, then, right?" Nagisa continued, forcing her to open her eyes again. "Do you want to talk about club stuff?"
Her fingers itched to pull the notes from her handbag. "No, we can do that at practice tomorrow."
"But this is my chance for one-on-one time with Gou-chan," he said. "Let me have it. Is my entrance timing off? My strokes sloppy and slow? I know—I'm breathing wrong." With bent elbows, he pumped his arms like a bellows, and he huffed until his cheeks were round like a greedy chipmunk. "There, is that better?"
She couldn't help it, she had to giggle, and he looked pleased to have made her laugh. She knew she wasn't uptight; she just took her responsibilities seriously. "I don't know if it's better, but it's certainly different."
He gave another arm pump, then scooped some more chips from the basket. Before they were all gone, she took some, too, dipping them in the salsa that had a smooth sweet tomatoiness and the spicy sting of hot peppers. "You know a lot about swimming, Gou-chan."
"In my family, you have to," she replied. "Water's in our blood."
"Oh, I like that. 'Water's in our blood.'" He nodded thoughtfully, picking up his soda glass like a respectable person this time and taking a long swig before saying, "Speaking of, how's Ri—"
"Young señor and beautiful señorita!" The guitar-playing boy in the ridiculous hat had finally discovered them, appearing like magic at their tableside. "I shall play romantic song for you, yes?"
Gou held up her hands to wave him off, but it was no use. He was already strumming notes that human ears had never heard before.
And then he sang, and his singing was just as discordant as his playing, a garbled Japanish with words that didn't quite rhyme. If he forgot a line, he just filled in the blanks with sounds like "woo" or other things that a lonely … Cowboy? Matador?... might howl at an unforgiving moon.
This was supposed to be a love song?
Gou covered her face with her ineffectual hands. Were people staring at them? They had to be. She peeked through her fingers to see Nagisa watching their misguided troubadour with big eyes, his chin propped in one hand as if enthralled, and her shoulders started to shake. The movement caught his attention, and he turned to her, still with big eyes, then his eyebrows jumped up into his hairline.
That did it. Giggles took her over completely, and he grinned at her before joining in. She hoped this poor guitarist was being comical on purpose, because she wouldn't want to hurt his feelings. But the song just kept going, the singer's eyes closed as if overcome by the emotion of the song, and people were definitely looking now. He swayed and rapped a beat on his guitar in a spontaneous percussion solo, and then, surprisingly, he ended on a lovely chord.
The young not-a-couple applauded his showmanship, and he made a grand bow before moving on to serenade another group of guests.
"You were going to ask me something," Gou said when Nagisa continued staring at her, but just as he looked about to answer, their server returned with their plates. The salad looked larger than it did in the picture, but it was nothing compared to Nagisa's combo platter. Teenage boys could put away a refrigerator's worth of food as it was, but athletes needed even more fuel. She'd seen him eat pizza with a slice in each hand before, and while she'd give him the eye for being so greedy, she knew the way he pushed himself at practice made up for it. Everything became muscle. Pure, hard, powerful, beautiful muscle.
She almost didn't hear his question.
"I was wondering how Rin-chan's doing," he said, shaking electric-orange hot sauce on his tacos, his rice, whatever was on his plate. He held the bottle out to her, but she shook her head. "Have you talked to him since the meet?"
"Not really," she replied. She'd left her brother a message congratulating him on his performance, plus a couple of texts asking if he'd be coming home for a break any time soon. His texts were short and rarely said more than, "It's late. Go to bed." No information, no emotion.
Even with just words, she could feel the personality on the other end of her friends' texts. Makoto's kindness, Nagisa's energy, Rei's perfectionism. Her brother's texts, meanwhile, were very controlled.
She worried about him, but she couldn't say so, because she knew it would just piss him off. She loved her big brother, was proud of him, even worshipped him a little. When they were younger, people sometimes thought they were twins, back before he left for Australia, before he shot up to his full height and left her down here to look up at him, before he forgot how to laugh.
"My brother is… well, you know how he is," she continued. Maybe she was a little pissed off, too, to feel so disconnected from him. Family had to stick together. What did they have if they didn't have each other? "Well, I say that, but even I don't know how he is anymore. He seems so... angry." And not just angry. Cold. Bitter. Sullen. Distant. A bucketful of adjectives she never would have applied to him before.
"He's always been a little intense," Nagisa said, and that was true.
"But not like this. Just because he's focused doesn't mean he has to push everyone away." Absently illustrating her words, she pushed the avocado and chicken around in her tortilla bowl. "He won't talk to me, and I don't know how to help him if he insists on shutting me out. We're in the same country and he feels just as far away as he did when he was in Australia."
Nagisa had stopped eating, and she looked up to find him giving her a sympathetic look. "One thing he didn't used to be is quiet," he replied.
Her brother could be proud and boastful and pumped and determined, but no, never quiet. "And I don't know if it's something I did or didn't do, or if I've been relegated to the stupid little sister role, like I'm still five years old in his eyes and good for nothing but being in the way." The words tumbled out, this frustration she'd been feeling, not wanting to trouble their mother with it, not thinking her girlfriends would understand, all of it bottled up until now.
"It sucks being the youngest, doesn't it?" Nagisa said, still with a kindness in his tone and his eyes. "It's like no one takes us seriously or thinks we have anything of value to contribute. My sisters are the same way."
Gou felt a twinge of guilt and had to glance away. Did she do that to him, too? Nagisa was always so cheery and easygoing, and while she worked hard to prove herself, he seemed to embrace his frivolity, his role as the goofy one of the group who could always be counted on to keep things light.
But that didn't mean he didn't deserve to be taken seriously. He worked hard and was as dedicated to the club as she was. He was a good friend to the other boys and cared about her brother. She respected those things about him and needed to do a better job of showing it.
"It's not their fault they're so much older than me," he continued, "but they treated me like a doll to play with. Still do, sometimes, instead of recognizing that I'm a person with ideas and dreams and stuff." Not one to feel sorry for himself, he smiled and scooped up the last bit of rice from his plate. "But they aren't all bad. There was this one time, when my sisters were supposed to be watching me, they took me to the park, and—" He stopped suddenly like he was about to trip over his own tongue in mid-sentence. "Let me back up and say that part again: they were supposed to be watching me. Oh, and the park had a pond. Well, that's the day I learned that I could swim. My mom didn't seem too happy, though."
She blinked at him. "I think I fell asleep and missed the story."
"No, that's it. But as Ama-chan would say..." He closed his eyes and held up a finger. "'As Gandhi said, The most important part of a story is that you survive to tell it.'"
If he was trying to cheer her up, it worked, because this made her laugh. "I don't think that's right."
He opened his eyes again, shrugged, and grinned. "Well, someone probably said it." While she finished her salad, he took a long, last swig of his soda, the straw making a sucking sound as the glass emptied. "You should swim with us tomorrow," he said, chewing on the end of his straw and stirring it around the remaining ice cubes. "You never swim with us."
"I have to run the practice." Who would look at all her lovingly drawn charts? Who would appreciate her painstakingly compiled statistics?
"But we can play sometimes, too. And seeing you in a swimsuit would sure motivate the guys." Before she could react to yet another offhand remark about her supposed sex appeal, he added, "Although I still haven't given up on getting Ama-chan in a bikini for us. I know the club would be more popular if she'd lay by the pool in some tiny, stringy, clingy—"
"Did you ever discover why she won't?" she asked, cutting him off before he could get too carried away.
"Not yet, but I will." A determined look crossed his face, soon replaced by a half-smirk as he chuckled under his breath.
Right, so this was why she couldn't take him seriously.
Once finished with lunch, they traded the café's cool interior for the sunny afternoon sidewalk. Maybe it hadn't been a proper club meeting, but she was glad she'd stayed. "Thanks for having lunch with me," she said, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulder. "It was fun."
He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Come on, I'll walk you to the train station."
"You don't have to."
"I want to. It'll be good practice for when I'm on a date with a real girl."
She was surprised by how much that stung, though not surprised he'd feel that way. This was her lot in life. With her boyish name and her all-male clubmates, she was destined to forever be just one of the guys.
Maybe tomorrow she would wear her cutest one-piece instead of bundling up in her track suit like some kind of nun. No wonder no one thought of her as a girl.
And she knew it would be fun to swim. She spent so much time focusing on drills and timing that she never got to enjoy the water herself. To splash and float and let it lap against her skin, surrounding her, embracing her. Water was in her blood. She needed it as much as her father had, as much as her brother did, as much as Nagisa and the boys did. It had brought them together, and she missed it.
They were halfway to the train station when they came across an arcade with a collection of popular game machines out front. Some of these were big, flashy boxes filled with cuddly toys to tempt passersby. "Look, how cute!" Nagisa said as he stopped in front of the biggest, flashiest machine and dug in his pocket for a coin. "I want one." He slid the coin into the machine's slot, setting off the colorful strobing lights and a series of urgent beeping noises.
A pile of black-and-white plush cows waited beneath the game's crane, and he maneuvered the stick with the same intensity he'd focused on the café's menu. With a zealous punch of the button, the crane lowered and caught one cow by the ear. The mass of toys refused to surrender one of its own, however, and the crane returned to the starting point empty-clawed.
"Aw, man!" Nagisa fumbled for another coin. "Well—" Here he held up a finger, signaling another impression of their advisor was coming. "As Lao Tzu once said, 'If you would take from a thing, you must first give to it.'" After a reverent little bow, he fed the machine his second coin.
Gou's eyebrows arched, impressed. "That one sounded like a real quote."
He winked at her. "Sometimes I pay attention. Don't tell anyone."
But the second coin saw the same result as the first, and a third coin proved likewise unlucky. Nagisa shoved a hand through his hair and made a huff of frustration.
"All right, step aside," Gou said, and she produced a coin of her own. She tweaked it between two fingers and let the light glint off it, posed like a warrior brandishing her mighty sword before heading into battle.
Nagisa moved over just enough to give her space at the console. "That's the one," he said, pointing at a particular cow, though they all looked alike to her. "Gou-chan, fight!"
The same frown of concentration came over her face as she maneuvered the crane into position. She felt Nagisa tense with anticipation beside her, but she never took her eyes off the prize. A little to the right, a little more...
When she pushed the button, the crane lowered and closed fully around the desired toy, and as it raised again, they saw a second cow dangling from the claw by its tail. She and Nagisa both sucked in their breaths, willing the bonus cow not to fall too soon. It swayed with the machine's motion, and they clenched their fists in hope.
Two toys dropped into the prize chute with a plush thud of victory.
"You did it! That was awesome!" Nagisa's arm went around her shoulders and gave her a quick squeeze. Then it was gone, and he crouched down to retrieve the prizes.
The warmth of his arm lingered, a phantom touch, pleasant yet somehow unnerving. She shook her head slightly as if to make it go away. It was silly to think it felt like... anything. He'd have given a victory hug to any of their friends. That's how he was. Everyone was his buddy; everyone was part of the celebration.
Right, she was just one of the guys.
Unaware of the odd effect his squeeze had on her, he held up the two cows in front of her. "Thank you for rescuing us, Gou-sama," he said in a squeaky voice.
She let out a shaky laugh and twirled the end of her ponytail around her fingers, awkward and girly. "You're quite welcome," she answered.
"And there's one for each of us!"
That was fair, she supposed. It had been his idea, and he'd spent three times what she had. She was generous and could share her spoils.
He handed her one of the cows and held his up again. With its big googly eyes and goofy grin, it kind of looked like him, actually. "I'm going to name mine Musha," he said.
"Yep. What about you?"
She considered her little plush cow, the twin of his. "Clara," she decided, even if it wasn't terribly original.
"That's a good cow name. I'll name mine Clara, too. Clara-Two!" He stuffed Clara-Two into one of the pockets of his shorts, letting its head peek out like a child riding in a stroller, then folded his arms behind his head and continued down the sidewalk.
She walked beside him, and they chatted about school and tomorrow's practice, keeping the appropriate friendzone distance between them. Her earlier concerns had been silly, she realized. It didn't matter what anyone thought, and likely no one was thinking anything. They were friends, hanging out, and to make it into something weird or be offended that he treated her the same way he treated the boys... yes, it was silly.
When they reached the train platform, Nagisa was distracted by another shiny box. "Ooh, it's ice cream!"
"How on earth can you have room for ice cream?"
"There's always room for ice cream," he answered like a kindergartener. She watched with a mix of fascination and horror as he bought a double-chocolate bar. "Mmm, it's good and cold, too," he said, biting half the bar in one go. "Here, have some."
Well, she did like chocolate, and even if she was full from lunch, the coldness of ice cream sounded appealing on such a sunny afternoon. For once, without caring about who might be looking, she took a bite from his bar. The crunchy chocolate coating and silky chocolate center were just the right amount of sweet on her tongue, and she closed her eyes to savor the decadent taste.
Then he started giggling at her, and she opened her eyes again. "You've got some chocolate..." He pointed at his own face.
Ugh, how embarrassing. Her tongue darted out of her mouth, sweeping to the left and right. "Did I get it?"
"No, it's right..." His finger touched her, just below the corner of her mouth, and made a quick swipe. "There. All better."
It was the ice cream that had frozen her in place. It was the ice cream that was making her tingle. That's all it was. It wasn't because he had touched her—twice now—that her insides were scrambled.
He held the empty ice cream stick between his teeth and leaned on one foot, tilted his head to the side, considering her. Some passing insanity was making her act like a moony-eyed girl, and she hoped he was too oblivious to see it.
There wasn't even anything to see.
Suddenly a blast of wind blew her ponytail over her shoulder as the train pulled in to the station. Once it had stopped, the doors opened with a pneumatic pssssshhh, and she found she could move again. "So, this is me," she said with a ridiculous tremor in her voice.
"Okay," he said slowly, like he was confused that their fun had come to such an abrupt end. Then his usual grin was back, but she wondered if she'd imagined something… else. "See you tomorrow."
"Right. See you tomorrow."
From the window, she watched him wave goodbye with his cow's plush little leg.
Her cow waved back as the train pulled away.