There were a lot of advantages to being on the Student Council. Kinshiro, as the council president, would not have wanted to admit that fact up front. If anyone had been so forward as to ask him, he would have spoken of the responsibility, of the hard work he put in, of the effort he had to make to live up to the dignity of the school and present himself as a role model. All of those would have been true things, but if pressed he might have also admitted that there were a few things that made up for it.
Take, for example, the Student Council office. Other school clubs had to make do with classrooms or claim a space in the gym. He and his companions had this pleasant place with its tasteful furniture and attractive view all to themselves. It was never untidy, never smelled of cheap body spray and inadequately washed bodies. It didn't even smell like food most of the time, unless his next door neighbors were indulging culinary ambitions. At least he'd been able to reach a compromise wherein they had agreed to go eat outside if they absolutely had to eat curry during their meetings. So far, the truce seemed to be holding. They'd even shared, the last time someone had brought in donuts.
It was also quiet. Kinshiro had chaired the usual after-school meeting, and it had gone by quickly, possibly because he was no longer trying to fit in conquering the world on top of school business. They had actually managed to finish it all before the tea ran out, and spent the last few minutes simply sitting and chatting. Now Arima and Akoya had gone home, but Kinshiro lingered. He had taken out his bag and started in on one of the worksheets the teachers had assigned. His room was a perfectly adequate place to study, but he felt so at home here that it was hard not to want to hang around for a while. His parents were away on business again anyway. No one would mind if he wanted to stay just a little longer.
He was halfway through the worksheet when he became aware of a sound. He glanced up from his worksheet, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. He realized that he'd been hearing something a little out of place for a while now, and his conscious mind hadn't really picked up on it until it had reached a new level of irritation. Inevitably, he turned towards the door to his right.
Of course. I might have known.
Kinshiro sighed as he stood, bracing himself for whatever weird interaction he was about to have, and went to open the door.
As he had expected, the entire Earth Defence Club was gathered around their table, doing the things they usually did for fun - Zaou toying with his phone, Naruko checking his stocks, Hakone... well, Kinshiro was never quite sure what sort of agenda that boy followed, but at least he was pursuing his aims quietly. No, the source of the noise was a laptop set up at one corner of the table. Atsushi and Yufuin were sitting side by side, leaning in close to observe whatever was happening on the screen. Now that the door was open, Kinshiro could discern that the noise had words in it, being chirped out in an obnoxiously cheerful high pitched voice.
"Doki-doki, doki-doki, listen to my heart!" it chirped. "I'm in love with you, you, you. Do you love me too?"
"What in the world are you two looking at?" Kinshiro exclaimed. He was almost proud of the fact that his tone came out more astonished than accusing.
Atsushi glanced up from the screen, and his expression melted into a smile that made Kinshiro willing to forgive any amount of noise.
"Oh, hi, Kin-chan!" he said. "We were bothering you? Sorry. I thought you'd all gone home for the day."
"I stayed on to finish some homework," said Kinshiro. In peace and quiet, he thought but didn't say.
"Twinkle-twinkle, twinkle-twinkle, you light up my heart!" the laptop continued. "I'm in love with you, you, you..."
Atsushi tapped a button and the noise abruptly, mercifully stopped. Yufuin made a small noise of disapproval.
"I was watching that," he said.
"I'll start it again when I'm done talking to Kin-chan," said Atsushi reasonably.
Kinshiro walked around the table to get a better look at the screen. A pink-haired girl in a frilly dress that probably would have given Akoya fits of envy was frozen amid a swirl of glitter and cherry blossoms. She was brandishing a wand that looked a little too familiar for Kinshiro's comfort, and some sort of furry creature that might have been a cat or a fox or possibly a skunk was frolicking among the flowers near the bottom of the screen. It, too, was pink.
"So what is this?" he asked again.
"An anime. Mahou Shoujo Twinkle Heart," said Atsushi. "En-chan wanted to see it, so I convinced Wombat that it was research."
"It does bear a certain resemblance to some things I could mention," said Kinshiro dryly.
Atsushi colored slightly and adjusted his glasses. "It's better than the theme song makes it look, I promise."
"I'm sure it is," said Kinshiro, with more politeness than conviction.
"Do you want to watch too?" asked Yufuin, with what sounded like genuine friendliness.
"Perhaps another time," said Kinshiro. "I really ought to be getting home."
He managed to bid a more or less cordial goodbye to everyone before leaving the room.
"Well, that was relatively painless," he told himself.
As he closed the door, he could hear the video start up again.
"...I'm in love with you, you, you. Do you love me too...?"
"Now," said the teacher, drawing diagrams on the board, "let's say that a ball is resting on a slope with a twenty-degree angle. The ball would accelerate at a rate of..."
Kinshiro propped his chin in his hand and tried as hard as he could to pay attention. This was not his favorite class. He liked history, excelled in gym, did well enough in literature, and even managed to cope with home-ec, but anything math-based felt like a burden to him. It wasn't that he was bad at it, exactly. It was just that he'd heard too many conversations about economics over the dinner table when he'd been a child, and he had begun to permanently associate numbers with "boring grown-up work". He did it anyway, because his position in school required him to have at least passing grades, and his personal pride wouldn't let him be anything less than the best, but that didn't mean that he didn't sometimes find himself fantasizing that some minor emergency would crop up and give him an excuse to leave class.
"Mr. Kusatsu," said the teacher dryly, "are you considering taking up an instrument?"
Kinshiro jolted upright. "No, sir?"
"Then perhaps you'd like to cut back on the percussion a little," said the teacher dryly.
The class snickered, and Kinshiro felt his face heating as he realized that he'd been drumming on the desk with his pencil for the last several minutes.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. "Please continue."
Very deliberately, he placed his pencil on the desk and rested his hands in front of him, staring at the board as if studying physics was his one true desire.
After a few minutes, he realized he was drumming on the table with his fingers. Tap-a-tap-tap, tap-a-tap-tap... The teacher shot him a glare, and he quickly shoved his hands between his knees.
What is wrong with me today? he thought irritably.
He didn't have an answer for himself.
He was still fuming when class finally broke for gym. He liked gym well enough. For all that he looked fragile and ethereal, he was actually a good athlete, the sort of person everyone wanted as captain of their team. He was fast, he was agile, and any ball he hit or threw went exactly where he wanted to go. Now he waited patiently as the teacher divided them all up for volleyball teams. Watching everyone being sorted and lined up neatly soothed his nerves a little. He took his place with the others on one side of the volleyball net and the game began.
For a while, all of his thoughts revolved primarily around whacking a white ball onto the other side of the court. His team took an early lead, and he almost began to feel he was having fun. The fun was spoiled when two of the players on the opposite team got into an argument about a play that one of them made, and the whole game ground to a halt as various other players took sides. Kinshiro tried to talk some sense into them, but soon gave up when he realized that no one was listening to him. He sighed and leaned against one of the net posts to wait for them to simmer down on their own. While he waited, he let his gaze roam around the room to see what everyone else was doing. On the far side of the room, a different class was taking turns doing pull-ups. The boy on the bars now was wearing some sort of bracelet, and the sun slanting through the windows reflected off of it. Kinshiro watched the twinkling lights in a vague sort of haze.
Twinkle-twinkle, twinkle-twinkle, something something something...
He shook himself. It was that stupid song. That was what had been grating on him. All day long, he'd had that stupid theme song running through his head, and he couldn't even properly remember the words. How had it gone? I'm in love with you, you, you. Something something...
"Kusatsu, heads up!"
Kinshiro looked up suddenly - and then ducked as a stray volleyball went whizzing over his head.
"Sorry about that!" someone shouted. "Morita's got the worst serve in the world."
"Hey, remember what he did last year in tennis practice?" someone else remarked.
"Everybody knock it off," said the teacher. "That's enough volleyball for now. Let's all do a few laps around the room and call it a day."
Kinshiro was happy enough to run laps. At least if his footfalls rapped out a rhythm, it was lost in the general hubbub.
"Are you happy about something today?"
The question was so completely off the mark that Kinshiro looked up from his notes to stare. Arima looked calmly back at him, apparently unaware of just how ridiculous his question was. That was puzzling. Arima usually could read him better than this.
"No," said Kinshiro. "Why would you think that?"
"You keep humming to yourself," Arima answered. "You were singing in the shower after gym, too."
Kinshiro glared at him. "Why do you pay attention to what I do in the shower?"
"You don't usually sing," said Arima. "Don't worry, I don't think anyone else noticed."
"I'm not happy about anything," said Kinshiro. "On the contrary. I have a song stuck in my head and it's driving me out of my mind."
Akoya looked amused. "You usually have more self-control than that."
"Some things are beyond all humans to change," said Arima philosophically. Kinshiro was grateful for that. He was in no mood to have his ego pricked by Akoya.
"I just wish I could forget about it," said Kinshiro. "Or at least remember the rest of the words."
"You might just have to find it and listen to it until your brain gets tired of it on its own," said Arima sympathetically. "What song is it? Something from the radio?"
"Some theme song or other," said Kinshiro. "I don't even watch the show - just caught a bit in passing."
"It sounds as if it will just have to run its course, then," said Akoya. "That is why I am very careful to what music I choose to listen to. I refuse to let anything unbeautiful get lodged in my mind."
"How convenient for you," Arima deadpanned.
You wouldn't have had a choice if you'd been here last night, Kinshiro thought irritably.
But that thought did give him the solution to his problem. Atsushi was the one who had brought in that stupid show in the first place. He would know the name of the song. He probably already had it downloaded somewhere. He could at least help Kinshiro figure out the rest of the lyrics. Besides, it was a valid excuse to talk to him. With the way both of them had been struggling lately to get their relationship back up and running, they would probably both be grateful for that.
"Can we hurry and wrap this up?" he asked. "There's something I want to do."
"That," said Akoya, "is possibly the most sensible suggestion you've made all day."
Kinshiro glared at him, but he didn't argue.
Within a few minutes, everything had been wrapped up, the tea things had been put away, and Kinshiro had ushered his two friends to the door of the club room. As soon as he'd said goodnight, though, he turned around and started back to the door to the Earth Defense Club.
As he'd hoped, they were all there. It looked, in fact, rather as if a few of the members had decided to start a poker game, using a pile of hard candies as chips. A casual glance suggested that Yufuin had been winning for some time now, with Naruko close behind him. Atsushi had only two peppermints and a lemon drop to his name, but that may have been because Hakone kept sneaking them out of people's piles and eating them when nobody was looking.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Kinshiro asked.
"No," said Naruko, folding his cards, "I think En has fleeced us enough already tonight."
"Who knew he was so good at poker?" said Zaou philosophically. "Oh, well, you know what they say - unlucky in gambling, lucky in love, am I right?"
"I think it's something to do with his eyes," Atsushi remarked, pocketing his meager winnings with reasonable good grace. "You can never really believe he's paying attention to his hand."
"You're just jealous of my skills," said Yufuin loftily.
Hakone was looking at him hopefully. "I won't be jealous if I can have some of your candy."
Yufuin shrugged and pushed about a third of his winnings towards Hakone. He pushed another third to Atsushi without being asked. Kinshiro thought he could almost like him for that.
"So what did you want to talk about?" asked Atsushi. He rummaged through his pile of sweets before extracting one and offering it to Kinshiro. "Here - you like the orange ones, right?"
Kinshiro thawed a little more. It had been years since he and Atsushi had shared birthday parties and trips to the candy shop, but Atsushi still remembered.
"I do, thank you," he said, gravely accepting the treat. "But I really just came to ask you something. That show you were watching here yesterday. I've had the theme song running through my head all day, and I was wondering... well, if you wouldn't mind..."
Atsushi's face lit up. "Sure, you can watch it with me! Do you want to come over? Are you free tonight?"
That hadn't been what Kinshiro had been planning to ask at all. He felt a bit like someone who had just been trying to thumb a lift who had instead been given the whole car complete with chauffeur.
"I... yes. Yes, I'm free tonight. I'd like very much to come over."
Kinshiro wouldn't have believed Atsushi could glow any more brightly, but he did.
"Just let me get my stuff," he said.
Far sooner than Kinshiro would have expected, he found himself walking into Atsushi's house. It had changed since the last time he'd been there. That was no surprise - it had been years, after all. Atsushi's family might not be in the same league as his financially, but they were well off enough to afford to keep up with the times. The carpet was new, and the entertainment center was even newer, but the sense of comfort and hospitality was the same as ever.
"Do you want to watch down here or in my room?" Atsushi asked. He had gone ever so slightly stiff, as if he felt the need to be more formal now that he was acting in the role of host. "My room is a little messy right now."
Kinshiro smiled in spite of himself. Atsushi had made that disclaimer for him more than once. His idea of messy was usually "left a book on the night stand instead of putting it back on the shelf".
"We can watch down here, if you'd like," said Kinshiro. No need to embarrass Atsushi any more than necessary. Besides, Kinshiro still remembered what the room had looked like the last time he'd been there. It was surely different now - different clothes in the closet, different posters on the walls, different books on the shelves, old toys put away for more grown-up possessions. Things were changing so fast. Kinshiro still wanted more time to adjust before he let go of some of his old memories and replaced them with the more up-to-date realities.
Apparently that was the right answer. Atsushi smiled.
"Great," he said. "I'll get the videos."
He darted upstairs. Kinshiro smiled at his eagerness. Some things changed, he mused, but the important ones stayed the same.
When Atsushi came back down the stairs again, his hands full of glossy DVD cases, Kinshiro was contemplatively fingering the fringe of a decorative blanket that had been thrown under one of the chairs.
"I remember this," he murmured.
"We used to build blanket forts," Atsushi replied. "I hadn't thought about that in years. Hey," he added suddenly. "Why don't we do that now?"
"What?" Kinshiro exclaimed. It was almost a yelp.
"Why not?" Atsushi replied. "It will be fine as long as we put everything back before my parents get home. We have plenty of time."
"Well..." said Kinshiro doubtfully.
"I'll make popcorn," Atsushi offered.
Kinshiro smiled. "You're on."
So while Atsushi rattled around in the kitchen making popcorn, Kinshiro set about dragging around sofa cushions, pillows, blankets, and anything else fluffy he could find, just on general principle. It was amazing how the old skills came back to him. By the time Atsushi returned with a bowl of warm, aromatic popcorn, Kinshiro had erected a respectable fort for the two of them. It was a tighter fit than it had been when they were children, but it was not uncomfortable. It was, Kinshiro thought, really very nice to be sitting here at Atushi's side again, leaning against his shoulder with the blanket tucked around them and the popcorn bowl balanced between them. He sighed contentedly.
"I missed this," he said.
"Me too," Atsushi agreed.
He picked up the remote and started the show. Kinshiro only half paid attention as the first few minutes played out. He would have watched an hour of infomercials, he thought, as long as Atsushi were willing to sit and watch with him. Kinshiro reached automatically for a handful of popcorn. Instead, his hand closed around Atushi's. The two of them glanced at each other in surprise. Then Atsushi smiled and gave Kinshiro's hand a squeeze. They both relaxed.
A tiny part of Kinshiro's mind told him that reaching for the popcorn was going to be very awkward if he kept holding Atsushi's hand like this. He told that part of his mind to shut up.
At last, the theme song began to play. Kinshiro sat up a little and began paying attention. He wanted to commit the words to his memory, so that maybe they wouldn't haunt him any longer.
"It's catchy, isn't it?" Atsushi asked.
"It is," Kinshiro agreed. "I could get to like it."
"You can come back tomorrow and watch some more, if you want."
"I think I'd like that too," said Kinshiro.
"Good," said Atsushi. "It's a date, then."
Kinshiro gave a little jolt of surprise. Then he looked back at Atsushi, who was watching the screen with a contented expression, the flickering lights of the television playing over his face and glimmering on his glasses. Kinshiro smiled and settled himself against Atsushi's shoulder.
And the music continued playing, "I love you, love you love you. Do you love me too...?"