Kaorin had fought queasiness in her stomach all morning, to the extent that Rei had been mildly nagging at her, like an aching wisdom tooth, to go to the nurse. Impossible to admit that she felt like she was being very delicately clawed to death by nerves. She had covered a little by telling them about the "class representative's meeting" the evening before, and Rei had nodded sympathetically. Kimura, for his part, had tenderly inquired whether Kaorin had run home the night before because she felt ill. She'd managed to stammer something marginally coherent as a response.

Swimming had been more difficult to get through. Sharing P.E. with Sakaki was one of the things she relied on to get her through the year. Now, with the griping consciousness that she had to attempt something more serious than simply exchanging a few words with her idol and maybe the chance to feign weakness and cling a little, she caught herself dreading it. The deliciously fraught ritual of changing for class, the twin knowledges that she was in the same room, changing, glimpses of her beauty showing despite her becoming modesty, and that it was impossible to be caught looking, was more of an ordeal thanthe usualtense pleasure this time. Kaorin brought the words into her mouth time after time, only to swallow, choking on them.

It was almost a cowardly relief that, once she reached the pool, both Sakaki and Kagura were out of conversational reach. Sakaki was devoting her attention to Chiyo. Kaorin, swimming dutiful laps, envied the younger girl bitterly. Sakaki was an unobtrusive teacher, not speaking much even in encouragement but always close beside the younger girl, steadfast and protective as her long black hair floated like a dark cloud in the water. She reminded Kaorin of a wild cat again, dangerous to prey and adversaries but incredibly gentle and tender with her young. There were other memories filed away in the space Kaorin kept just for this particular girl, all of them concerned with protecting the smallest and most vulnerable member of their year. Despite her violent reputation, Sakaki had always, Kaorin knew, been kindly towardsthe small and weak; with her strength came that enobling streak of – Kaorin groped for a word, and found the right one out of fairytales: chivalry.

Walking water for the moment, Kaorin allowed her mind drift back to what had been a nightmare at the time but polished over and over in memory and held close had become one of her dearest treasures: Sakaki, cool and earnest, volunteering to take Kaorin's place in Yukari's car, allowing her to cling desperately when frightened, supporting her in her arms when she was shaking and nauseated afterwards. No thought for her own safety, only protecting and comforting, in her almost-silent way, Sakaki herself. Constantly rerunning the memories in her mind had rubbed away her own sickness and terror, leaving only Sakaki's grave courage, those moments of being allowed to cling around her neck, the sublime beauty of Sakaki's strength supporting her own… Chivalry. Perhaps, after all, Kaorin need not compete for Sakaki's attention as Kagura did.

"Come on." Kaorin felt her shoulder pinched, and turned to see Chihiro half-laughing with amused frustration. "You're blocking the lane. You can drool over Miss Sakaki later."

"Oh, all right." Kaorin glared at her friend, promising herself to kick her hard while they were on dry land, and went back to her laps.

She couldn't help noticing that Sakaki was not the only one helping a learning swimmer. Miss Kurosawa had decided that it was impossible that any girl should graduate from her class without being able to swim, and that this was the year Osaka would learn to make it down a full length. Kagura, perhaps with thoughts towards her own future career, had volunteered to do her bit to see the plan through, and Kaorin could hear her much noisier encouragement and remonstrances from right down the pool. In Osaka's place Kaorin would have been mortified, but the other girl simply smiled serenely at Kagura at intervals and went back to absently kicking at her board, seemingly occupied with her own thoughts.

It was cute, Kaorin found herself thinking, the combination of Osaka's sweet-natured absent-mindedness and Kagura's equally sweet, kitten-like enthusiasm. She was a little surprised at herself. She usually resented Kagura's personal interest in the swimming classes, dominating and showing off as if she was the only one but Miss Kurosawa with any interest or ability, when she wasn't even the only girl in the swim team. Sakaki, Kaorin was sure, could show Kagura up any time she chose. She was simply too graceful and self-assured for Kagura's crass competiveness.

Still… Sakaki and Kagura were both sweet, teaching the others to swim in their own way. Kagura was kind; it was an odd thought, one Kaorin had never had until the night before. Kind, helping Osaka, helping herself with her hopeless desperate love, almost, well, chivalrous herself, though with none of Sakaki's knightly grace. It would be nice being looked after like that, by either of them. It almost made Kaorin wish she was a less competent swimmer herself.

But then, Kaorin was competent, no more and no less, at pretty much anything. It was depressing.

Climbing dripping from the water, Kaorin was acutely aware of Sakaki's presence at her side, water beading on her pale skin and creating little rainbows in her hair. Beautiful, in a way that made one's hands tremble and feel hot despite the water.

"Oh… Miss Sakaki," she said, and Sakaki turned her head a little and made a polite sound somewhere between greeting and mere acknowledgement. Kaorin didn't mind, really. In her fantasies, Sakaki's eyes lit up at the sight of her, but the truth was that Sakaki's laconic manners were so very, very cool. Kaorin's blood pounded hotly at even this tiny attention; actual enthusiasm, she suspected, would quite literally kill her with emotion.

"Miss Sakaki, I was wondering…" Kaori took a deep breath and rushed in. "I have something to ask you will you wait in class for me after the last bell please only if it's not too much trouble please?" The words stumbled over each other in an incoherent rush.

Sakaki gave her a mildly curious look. "Okay." She nodded, and disappeared without ceremony into the changing room.

Kaorin was aware of a smoothly muscled arm slung over her shoulders and an approving squeeze.

"All right, you did it!" Kagura's free hand came up in an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "Good going, Kaorin!" The cold wet grip slipped away, and Kagura bounded after Sakaki.

"Did what?" Rei and Chihiro joined Kaorin, staring after the swimming star with frank curiosity. Rei giggled and twirled a wet braid with her fingers. "Aw, you're blushing. Don't tell me you've decided Miss Kagura is as cool as Miss Sakaki."

"Don't be ridiculous." Kaorin tossed her head, taking some satisfaction in the way droplets of water shattered over her friends' faces. "No one is as cool as Miss Sakaki."

o0o0o

By the time final class ended, Kaorin's euphoria had faded, and she had to resist the urge to slip out of the school and go home as usual. In the end, it was sheer terror of Kagura bounding after her and demanding at the considerable top of her voice why Kaorin hadn't asked Sakaki out yet that eventually sent her towards Yukari's classroom.

Besides… Whatever happened, she would get to see Sakaki, and she hadn't managed more than a glimpse or two all day. Sometimes that group of friends -- Kaorin's friends -- disappeared at lunch time. She had no real idea where they went, just a small, acidic pool under her heart that never quite stopped eating away at her, caused by the knowledge.

She checked the corridors for teachers, then ran as fast as she could, not quite trusting Kagura to have kept her word and Sakaki. She hesitated at the door, trying to catch her breath and cool her cheeks, to appear cool and normal, then carefully pushed the door open.

Last night, Kagura had promised to stop Sakaki leaving until she arrived, and somehow Kaorin's mind had filled in the scene with no one else present, just Sakaki sitting by the window with her deep, remote gaze focussed on some distance point, Kagura waiting to lend moral support and doing… Something. Probably not stretches when Kaorin actually thought about it, but something athletic and unintellectual and Kagura-like. Hopefully not sitting on Sakaki's desk and engaging her attention with frantically energetic chatter. Better if she was chattering away and being ignored; Sakaki could be distracted and cold with the best of them.That was incredibly alluring… Kaorin always wondered what it would be like to break through that reserve and have that full, intense focus fixed on her. She shivered at the thought.

She had been ridiculously optimistic, of course. Sakaki was, indeed, still seated and to all appearances in a world of her own, but her crowd were doing their best to make the room seem full. Kagura, far from waiting quietly to help Kaorin out, had Tomo in a fierce lock and was evidently trying to rip her head off. To her credit, Tomo seemed more riotously amused than anything. They reminded Kaorin of the way her kittens played, knocking each other over and biting each other's necks with apparent viciousness, only to snuggle up into one sleepy ball a few moments later. Chiyo fluttered around them like an anxious butterfly, while Osaka watched dreamily.

Kaorin sighed, wishing she'd remembered that particular group seemed to act as a unit and one waiting meant they all would. Tomo was the last person she wanted in the room when she tried to speak to Sakaki. She glanced around, hoping Chihiro was still there. She settled on pulling up a chair to the desk at which Yomi was trying to look like she was reading. Kaorin recognised the twitch at the side of her mouth as signalling that it was only a matter of time before her temper spattered acidic drops all over the immediate vicinity, especially a certain dark-haired girl who was still managing to shriek cheerful taunts as her face turned bright red with constriction.

"Hi, Yomi." She cheered up a little, despite herself. Yomi had been among the first friends she'd made at the school, and she'd always found her presence soothing, despite Yomi's sharp tongue and her dubious taste in best friends. Kaorin suspected it was partly Yomi's long, thick sweep of hair, soft and feminine, that had attracted her, even though she didn't really think of more than one girl in that sense. She'd always admired long hair in others and regretted that her own hair was too thin to do much more with than bob neatly.

Kaorin sent a surreptitious glance towards the girl at the window, whose hair was jet-black and silky enough to make Yomi's mane seem ordinary, fine and thick as panther fur. Kaorin felt the powerful urge to cross and wind her fingers in Sakai's hair, and knew just as simply she wouldn't be able to do such a daring thing if her life depended it. She wrested her attention back to Yomi, wondering guiltily ifshe had somehow managed to overhear her thoughts. Kaorin was convinced that if herimpression that her thoughts were audible was more than paranoia with anyone, it would be Yomi who would overhear her secrets.

"Hello to you, Kaorin." Yomi leaned the side of her face on one hand, but didn't seem scornful or particularly knowing, simply happy to see an old friend. Her tightly drawn mouth relaxed into a calm smile as the danger of an acidicoverflow ebbed. "What brings you here? I thought you had Astronomy Club on Tuesdays."

Kaorin fell readily back on her prepared story. "Miss Kagura wanted some help on her English, and I thought it might be good practice to help her out." It sounded convincing to her; she was a good student, and Kagura… well, everyone suspected Kagura's presence at an exclusive school was purely a strategy to improve their results at swimming meets. Kaorin didn't even want to think about what Osaka and Tomo were doing there.

"Hmm." Yomi's smile had faded, and her eyes were thoughtful behind her glasses. "Didn't you spend most of the holiday saying you didn't understand this year's work and begging Sakaki for help?"

"I -- oh, well, she was a great help." Kaorin could feel the blood pound in her temples and scald her face into redness. Why did she have to blush so readily? "And Miss Kagura -- well, you know."

"Ah." Yomi flipped another page, expression non-committal. "How did you do on the last test, by the way?"

"Eighty-seven," Kaori said, allowing a touch of pride into her voice. Of course, Yomi had probably done better, but it was definitely a good enough score to justify coaching someone like Kagura.

"Is that so?" There was what Kaorin suspected was a carefully calculated silence as she squirmed in her seat. Yomi could be quite sweet and thoughtful at times, but then there were the times Kaorin was reminded of a small boy with a magnifying glass, the same almost scientific sadism. "Sakaki scored eighty-eight. Needed much help, did you?"

"Oh." Kaorin looked over to the fighting couple, in order to avoid Yomi's shrewd glance.

Tomo looked up as if she felt the glance. "Hey!" she yelled. "We have an intruder! She's probably here to take pictures of us for her home room teacher!"

Kaorin clicked her teeth together hard. "Don't be stupid. I'm here to see Miss Kagura."

That seemed to recall Kagura to a sense of the situation. She unceremoniously dropped Tomo onto her posterior. "That's right! Hey, Sakaki!"

"Hnh?" The stately head turned.

"You doin' anything after school?"

Sakaki dropped her gaze to the empty desk in front of her, and she sighed. "Not really."

Chiyo, her usual happy appearance restored by the cessation of hostilities, perked up. "Do you want to come by and walk Mr Tadakichi la-"

"Great! 'Cause we're going to Kaorin's house!" Kagura's voice cut in.

Kaorin's head sank into her hands as she began to shake uncontrollably. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do most, murder the tomboy for her lack of subtlety or simply die herself rather than look up and see confused disdain on Sakaki's lovely face.

"Yay! Group trip to Kaorin's house! Do you have cake? You'd better have lots, 'cos I'm starving! Man, Yukari really worked us over this afternoon -"

"Not you, Tomo!" Kaorin's shriek and Kagura's bellow melded together into one unholy din, until even Osaka blinked and looked taken aback. Kaorin blinked and fought for some excuse as she brought her breathing back under control. "My mother won't allow more than two guests, and it's important it's Miss Kagura and Miss Sakaki, because –"

"Athletics," Yomi cut in smoothly. "Kaorin is a class representative, remember. She's trying to arrange an interclass athletics challenge, so naturally she needs to talk to Kagura and Sakaki. Isn't that right, Kaorin?"

"Y-yes. It is." Kaorin looked at Yomi with wondering gratitude, but the taller girl simply shrugged a single shoulder, leaving Kaorin unsure whether Yomi was really helping her or simply doing her best to thwart Tomo on principle.

"Oh." Chiyo looked surprised and a little hurt, her lower lip caught for just a second beneathher littlewhite teeth. "But then, shouldn't she arrange it with me, too?"

"Don't you worry about it, Chiyo-chan. Athletics are Miss Sakaki and my specialty!"

"We'll arrange the details with you later, Chiyo-chan," Kaorin said guiltily, resisting the urge to pat Chiyo on the head. She was so damn cute that it felt terribly lying to her, let alone hurting her feelings.

"I don't know," Sakaki said slowly. "I'm not really good at organisation."

"Oh." Kaorin could feel herself wilting, hot tears springing to her eyes. Serve her right for listening to someone like Kagura. She should have known that Sakaki would never want to waste time on someone like her. "It's okay. I understand. Forget I ever suggested anything."

"I'll help." Osaka seemed quite pleased at the thought. "It's important we have a three-legged race. And a jeelie piece."

"A what?" Tomo turned to stare at her.

"No, sorry, I meant a relay."

"I don't see how -"

Kagura cut in again. "Aw, c'mon, Sakaki. Kaorin has new kittens, but you don't need to worry 'bout a thing. I'm on guard to protect you!" Kagura set her legs squarely and bunched a fist high in the air.

"I told you, they are the dearest little things and no one needs to be protected from them!" It was a relief to have someone to snap at, after Sakaki's rejection.

"Kittens?" Sakaki didn't seem to move, but suddenly she was towering at her full height, stachel clenched in her hand. "Let's go." Her expression was so dark and fierce that Kaorin, half-frightened, wasn't quite aware that Sakaki had agreed until she felt a dig above her ribs, and saw that Yomi was poking her with a pencil and nodding benignly.

"Yes. Let's go," Kaorin agreed, dazedly climbing to her feet as she registered Kagura giving her a double thumbs-up. She was far too stunned to be embarassed.

It wasn't every day, after all, that a girl was escorted home by a panther.

tbc

AN: Thank you to all reviewers, especially Lucinda the Maid, who was very helpful and absolutely right. Thanks so much!

Trying to keep to a reasonable schedule to keep this one updated - inspired by Stormkpr's amazing ability to update regularly.