It was barely halfway through April and it was already so atypically hot for a country like Japan. This global warming thing was looking really bad for sporty people who wished to work hard in what they did.
One such person was Ootani Atsushi, a senior student at Maido Academy and, currently, the best captain the school's basketball team had had in ages. What he didn't have in height he more than made up in speed, agility, great tactics and—most importantly—hard work. It was exactly this ever-burning fire that he had in him that had him so popular among the female part of the student body.
However, what he hadn't known was just how popular he actually was.
As he entered the gym, weary after another blazing row with his girlfriend of two years, Koizumi Risa, once his comedy partner, he looked up with tired eyes at the flyer pasted on the fairly large double doors. He was in a quite sour mood after having exploded for a no good reason in Koizumi's face for something that wasn't even her fault but the memories that the average-looking piece of paper brought about in his mind brightened his day considerably.
A lazy smile started to stretch his lips as he read the title: "Maido Academy Male Popularity List" with happily sketched pink little hearts at both sides of the text. And it was exactly a list the ten most popular male students of the academy that followed below.
He couldn't care enough to suppress his chuckle while skimming over its surface to find his name and was quite unsurprised to see that he was at the very last place—#10, when just one week prior he used to lead with a staggering difference in votes compared to all his other schoolmates.
He still remembered the event that brought him such a demotion in the rank list as if it happened just yesterday.
Just like any other school day, Risa was planning on going to the gym after classes were over to watch her boyfriend play basketball along with his team members. Seeing as she was in no club herself, she didn't think there was any harm in that. She always loved to see Ootani play and didn't seem to grow tired of it whatsoever.
When she arrived, she realized that it was probably a bit too early as she had been freed of the last period earlier for student council business that she had taken care of in a flash. With nothing to do for a few minutes, she could as well go in and kill some time counting flies and daydreaming about what she could drag Ootani into doing together with her after school.
Lately, she had been feeling a bit insecure with all that upcoming "choosing the University that best suits your capabilities" fiasco. Of course, all she needed to calm herself—if even just temporarily—was that idiot's wide grin directed at her but without him around she felt as down as ever. The realization that his absence could become a constant in her life soon enough didn't help promote her mood any.
With a heavy heart and great sigh she outstretched her arm to slide open the double doors leading to the gym but before she could make her appearance, she stopped dead in her tracks, staring at a fancy flyer on the gym doors. She squinted distastefully at it, straining her mind to snap back to reality and present time so she could read what the paper said and when she finally did, she wished she hadn't. It only made her day worse.
She had always known—from before the time she even started liking him that way—that Ootani was a popular boy among the gentler half of the students. But she would have never imagined back when she was a freshman that he would be first in a male popularity list with the mind-boggling lead of several hundred votes before the subsequent #2. Her jaw dropped in a rather unlady-like way as she scanned the flyer again and again, making sure she wasn't reading it wrongly.
Yet no matter how many times she blinked, how many times she read it over and over, the name was still there, under the same number—#1– Ootani Atsushi, class 3-3.
Unbeknownst to her, her body started quivering in barely controlled anger as she glared at the paper, trying to make it burst in flames just with her willpower. She was so pissed off at the girly idiotic creatures that even had the time to waste on such a pointless rank list that if she tried to put her feelings towards them in words, all she'd manage to do was sputter incoherently in her indignation.
It was true that while they were at school, she and Ootani probably didn't look any different to their class- or schoolmates. They still fought a lot and for stupid reasons, they still reminded most of a comedy duo but that didn't change the fact that they were a couple. And as a couple they did the things that all couples did—holding hands, kissing and such. The fact that they actually had the decency not to do those in school did not change the fact that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, right?
So why, for Heaven's sake, was his name—a boy who had a stable relationship with someone who loved him dearly and had loved him for quite some time—so high up in the accursed popularity thing?
She slid the door open with unbridled fury which was only fuelled further when she noticed a bunch of girls blocking the entrance and talking amongst themselves, huddled together like hens in a pen, in excited volumes. Even if she hadn't wanted to, she couldn't have prevented overhearing their conversation.
"He'll come out any second now!" One chirruped.
"Ootani-senpai is so cool!" Another squealed.
"I'm going to confess today, so you guys cheer for me, okay?" The seriousness and high-pitched tone of the voice were really annoying to a boiling point.
And, as we all know, it doesn't take too much time in such company for Risa to explode.
"Just a minute there!" She shrieked outraged by what she had just heard. The attention of all the girls turned to her instantaneously. Despite her impressive height, towering over all of them, she probably didn't make for a very menacing picture as her whole being was shaking in her hellish wrath. "Stop going on and on about guys that aren't eligible right under their girlfriends' noses—it's really rude!"
If she hadn't liked them at all before, now she could safely say that she hated each and every one of them in her guts as they eyed her condescendingly from head to toe.
"You must have a very wrong idea if you are referring to yourself when you say Ootani-senpai's 'girlfriend'." Risa could feel it coming. It was really, really close now.
"Indeed—Ootani-senpai is too cool and handsome to go for a weird tall girl like you!"
And, there it was. The dreaded, wretched thought that would chase her to the ends of earth as long as she was going out with a boy that much shorter than her. She hated to hear it because she had thought the same thing at the start of their relationship as something more than the class' comedic duo. She hated to hear it phrased because she hated being judged for something that wasn't in her control. She hadn't asked to be as tall, wasn't at fault for Ootani being so short and definitely hadn't asked to fall for the idiot, especially considering the endless ordeals that had come with trying to make him like her back. She'd given in her fight for his heart so much of herself, had thrown so much effort and was currently so happy with her life that it drove her nuts when she heard people who knew nothing about them judge them and their antics.
The nerve of those gossiping cows! How dare they?!
"I think you're forgetting that you are talking to a senior and if you don't revise your behavior, I might see it fit to report on you and your outrageous disrespect to your teachers."
That definitely ruffled them up a bit and made them change tact in a staggering succession.
"We've heard that all you do is fight with Ootani-senpai. How can you be his girlfriend if you don't even behave like a couple?" One started.
"No one has ever seen you do couple-like things together." Another added.
They really pissed her off, these girls. Such simple-minded creatures. Deep inside though, she couldn't exactly blame them. She and Ootani had never really been the type for public displays of affection and hadn't as much as held hands while in school. Maybe it was because both of them had a sense of propriety that prohibited them from doing so. Or maybe it was because they were both too self-conscious about their feelings, the real deep and serious ones, in general to indulge in such activities openly in public places like the school grounds.
And in the same time it was exactly such displays that made vultures like these in front of her right then and there back off from swooping in on boys because it assured them that they were really no longer available.
"There he is!" A girl from the small gathered crowd suddenly squeaked and they all turned as one to instead crowd him only to get told off by the other team members, since they were truly trying to practice.
How highly annoying! They were brushing her off as soon as Ootani showed his face! Risa was beyond furious at that point while she grumbled angrily under her breath as she sat on a free bench by the wall, glaring daggers at the basketball team from her seat as if it was their fault her boyfriend was freakishly popular.
Then again, it wasn't Ootani's fault either. He was just too oblivious to be doing anything on purpose. He was too natural at all times to be doing purposefully anything to woo any girl. That was exactly one of the things that she both most liked and most hated about him. It was the ease with which she could communicate with him that first attracted her to him but it was exactly his kindness and considerate character that made other girls pay special attention to him as well. Attention that she did not appreciate one bit.
The evil aura that she was probably exuding during her self-destructive mental tirade must have repelled all the foul creatures from her vicinity because the next time she looked up they were on the other side of the gym, talking as enthusiastically as ever. Her mind was about to go in overdrive about the many ways she could cause them pain but she didn't get the chance as a body slumped down on the bench next to her and had all the chirruping females turn their attention to her and her newly arrived companion at once.
"Man, the coach is really grumpy today. I think I might pass out from overheating before I do things as he wants me to." It was the unmistakable melodic baritone of her idiotically popular boyfriend who had sat down next to her, a towel around his neck while he drank in greedy gulps from a sweaty bottle of water. When she turned to him with her features fixed in a sour glare, he cocked an auburn eyebrow at her. "And just what is wrong with you? You've been acting strange ever since training started. Did something happen while I was changing?"
It really bugged her that she could feel their probing gazes on her, observing her every move as she stared him down and his obliviousness bothered her even further. Was he just pulling her leg or did he really not know what was going on around him? She knew that he never minded what others thought—they were simply nameless nobodies that knew nothing about him and therefore couldn't say anything that could impress him—but the fact still remained that she was greatly displeased with her man being at the very top of the ten most wanted boys in Maido. Was that a crime?
"Didn't you see the flyer on the way in?" Suddenly she wondered why she hadn't given in to the primordial urge of ripping that accursed thing off the door and reducing it to tiny shreds as if it had never even existed. Her mood only took a plunge for the worst when the fool had the gal to look smug about that damned rank list.
"Yeah! Did you as well? How do you feel knowing that you're enjoying the company of Maido's most popular guy, huh? The age of compact things has truly finally arrived! Hurray for small men!"
He looked really happy about this. She was also partially happy that this had probably rid him of his height complex once and for all, even if he was still viewed as All-Hanshin when with her. But that tiny patch of glee was shrouded in the cloud of doom and gloom that had enveloped her entire being at the utter disbelief with which those stupid girls had looked at her when she had claimed to be his girlfriend.
"You're the worst…" she mumbled disdainfully as she shook her head, long auburn bangs hiding her face from view.
"Hey! That was totally uncalled for!" He jumped from smug to defensive in the blink of an eye.
"No, it wasn't!" She argued, springing to her feet at once. Her face was flushed with barely checked anger as she shouted at him. "You're the worst because you never even try to understand and you need to be told a hundred thousand times in very, very simple terms so it can finally get through your thick empty skull!"
"Stop calling me stupid! It's annoying!" He was on his feet as well but it was definitely not helping him prove his point that he had to crane his neck to look at his girlfriend's face. "And I can understand perfectly well what's going on here! You're just angry because I'm popular and you're not!"
She could feel the familiar prickling in her nose and eyes that was supposed to be warning to get away before her emotions got out of hand but she couldn't leave then. She still had to meet the reproachful glares of Ootani's growing fan club. She refused to back down before she'd made her point with them although things were definitely not going as planned.
"Of course that's not what's bothering me with this farce of a vote, you microbe!" The volume of her voice had kicked it up a notch.
"Then what is wrong with you today, totem pole?"
"You're what's wrong, midget!"
"You didn't seem to have a problem with me ten minutes ago in class!"
"It's all your fault!" Risa accused childishly and it was all she could do to keep herself from stomping her foot petulantly as well.
"My fault? What did I do now?" He really couldn't think of anything that he could have possibly done wrong in the span of the aforementioned ten minutes that could have her so worked up. "It's definitely not my fault you got up on the wrong side of the bed!"
To her utter displeasure, Risa could almost hear the muffled voices: 'See? There's no way they're a couple!', 'No couple talks like that to one another', 'Impossible, impossible!' and others such in the same spirits coming from the official Ootani fan club across their bench. It was as much as she could take before she broke loose completely.
"It's your fault you're such a shorty!" She ignored his protests in her rampage. "It's your fault we're just like a comedy duo! It's your fault you're so nice to everyone that girls start flocking in on you! It's your fault we don't even look like a couple to anyone!"
She sat down angrily, placing her balled shaking fists on her knees and staring at them with all her might so she would stop herself from crying tears of rage. Why couldn't she stop bothering what everyone else thought and start not caring like he did? Why couldn't she ignore the rest of the world and just be happy with things instead of worrying over proving things to idiotic females? Why did she have to be this way?
Predictably, Ootani's smart retort was a baffled "Eh?" that only made the proverbial dam break and her tears started running unchecked down the sides of her face.
If before there had been any doubt that every person present in the gym was paying attention, at that point there was none. Boys and girls of all ages started at the scene that was unfolding before their very eyes as the team's captain strained to understand exactly why his girlfriend was so upset.
"Wait a second… Koizumi, what's wrong? Why are you crying?"
There he went again, with that wonderfully sweet and caring tone of his calming voice, trying to smooth things out the moment he finally understands that she's being serious. How can there possibly be such an irritating person walking this earth? And just how, for God's sake, did she end up falling for him? The deities were really cruel, cruel creatures.
"It's all your fault…" she kept muttering. "It's your fault we don't look like a couple to anyone!" Her voice came back full force, the ferociousness in her eyes too. "Because of you, that kind of thing happens!" She pointed a shaking finger at the flyer. He followed confusedly the direction of her pointing finger.
"Gym doors happen?"
"You being first in a popularity list happens!" She yelled in anguish again, tired of his stupidity once again. He sat down next to her with a perturbed expression on his face. They hadn't come a really long way from the level of understanding that he had for her feelings at first but he was definitely a bit more perceptive than before now that they were going out. That and he tried harder, seeing as he didn't like much being the cause of his beloved's tears.
"What does it matter if others see us as a couple or not?" His tone was coaxing, gentle, no longer defensive and snappy. "And what is so wrong with me being first enough to cry over?"
Her head whipped towards him, her blotchy face a mess and her puffy eyes fixed on him as she glared through the rivers that she was crying.
"Of course it's wrong for a taken man to be the constant daydream of about every second girl in the damned school! Of course I mind that other people try to worm their way into your life and win your affections! Of course I mind that my boyfriend isn't mine at all as far as anyone from this school is concerned! It's only natural that I'd mind that you're being crowded by girls that are far cuter, bolder and more confident about their qualities than I am! And you, being as nice and sweet as you are, you just urge them on, give them hopes that they might succeed if they're stubborn enough."
He was blinking profusely, trying to comprehend exactly what she was getting at.
"You know those girls mean nothing to me, right?"
"I know!" she muttered, though not in the most convincing tone he'd heard from her.
"And the fact that we're still going out should tell you something about where my loyalties lie."
"Yeah, I know…" She sniffled loudly, rubbing at her cheek roughly as she brushed her tears away.
"Why were you crying then?" Putting the question that way, she really felt silly for it now. She was just feeling insecure lately and that stupid list had done it for her nerves.
"I just…" She stumbled over her words. "I don't want those girls all over you. It bugs me. I don't want them trying to get close to you because you're not available. You're mine, only mine, and no one else's. Why can't they understand something simple as that? Why won't they leave us be? What does it matter if I'm such a totem pole and you're such a midget?" Ootani grit his teeth not to ruin the sincerity of the moment at her comment about his height. "As long as we like each other and enjoy being together, what does it matter what we look like? Why won't they leave us alone?"
Ootani hadn't had many girlfriends before Koizumi—just one that he had been ready to give his life for—and he was a stranger to having someone being so possessive of him. It should have disconcerted him. Maybe it should have even annoyed him that she was trying to put some leash of him, probably. But, instead, it made something in his gut coil in a pleasantly teasing way that he had grown quite familiar with over the span of his relationship with the tall girl. So he did what he always did when he felt the ever-encompassing warmth spread from his gut to every millimeter of his being.
He caught her hand with a gentle yet firm grip, her undivided attention on him in an instant, pulled the offending wrist away from her face and leaned in to capture her swollen lips for a sweet kiss. He did not miss the group gasp of pure surprise coming from the underclassman girls' direction or the wolf-whistling of one of his teammates, but chose to ignore them altogether while he savoured the unnaturally salty taste of her in the back of his throat.
When he pulled away he left only a tiny amount of space between them, their noses still almost touching.
"That should have been convincing enough, right?" he breathed out huskily, resting his forehead against hers as he tried to ease the mad thumping of his racing heart but it was a futile attempt. His body always reacted to her closeness even if under normal circumstances he could be completely calm, collected and natural in her presence but once he got in one of his weird moods, things got out of hand. Like right now, when he had boldly kissed her in front of his entire team and a bunch of girls he couldn't care enough to know.
She could only nod slightly while the molesting females trickled away from the gym, taking down their offensive flyer with them, hopefully to make some corrections. Risa couldn't have been happier with the development of the day.
And, although the training session for Ootani continued under the insistent interrogation of his teammates about things that were hardly any of their concern, the boy was just as pleased with how his day turned out, especially considering it was just starting.
"Ootani?" A voice fluttered to him through the thick fog of his recollection.
"Hmmm?" The addressed male murmured through half-daze.
"You're grinning really stupidly and eerily wide right now."
Snapping out of his daydream, the senior captain of the basketball team shook his head to clear it of the memories that were messing with his concentration—and, frankly, with his sanity too. He looked disapprovingly at his long-time friend Nakao, who was grinning in that 'I-know-everything-that-you-were-thinking-just-now' kind of way that only he could pull off as a sweetly innocent façade.
And, naturally, for his insolence he got what he had coming in the form of a vigorous and muscle straining training.
Once they were done for the day, Ootani took some time to himself and sat down on the same bench that he sat with Koizumi a week ago. The team was long gone and the sun was beginning to descend to its brightly orange and reddish death for the day when the gym doors slid open quietly and then closed again, the footsteps of a newcomer echoing loudly in the nearly empty huge premise.
The auburn haired young man turned his head lazily to look at the intruder only to straighten up the moment he saw who it was. In a second, next to him on the bench sat Risa, stubbornly refusing to look him in the eye. He rolled his gaze unceremoniously away from her back that was turned to him and slid to the currently closed double doors.
"Looks like the numbers of my fan club are dwindling," he said, breaking the pregnant silence that had settled over them.
"Looks like it," Risa confirmed, turning to catch his gaze that he returned with a slight smirk.
They broke out in laughter simultaneously in the very next moment, calmed down in the same breath like they usually did before Ootani began inching his upper half closer and closer to her until their lips finally locked together, their childish fight from earlier that day completely forgotten as their mouths moved against one another, soft, gentle and pliant against the other.
It really looked like just a little public display of affection was all it took to convince the student body of Maido Academy that even comedians need some loving.
Ootani's popularity poll had truly taken a rather deep plunge from #1 to #10. But, in hindsight at the events that had led to it, #10 wasn't all that bad of a position.