Disclaimer: Me no own.
My writing skills are really rusty, but Snarky Sonnet told me to get over myself and just post the damn chapter, haha. Bear with me?
Dedicated to: chocolateh for making me laugh and PearlSnorlax for drawing a picture of Tezuka and Chiharu, and coffeelatte because she's a butthead but I love her.
To Catch A Falling Star, Chapter 30: From the Heart
one heart, two hearts,
three hearts, four,
you want my heart,
i'll give you more.
Akane spied Oishi entering the hallway in the morning. She went up to his locker, leaning against the side. "Hey."
"U-um. Hey. Hi," Oishi stammered.
"You know, Oishi," She stepped closer, her lips curving upwards. "Now that we're dating, you don't have to blush every time I talk to you."
He blushed even harder.
"Or," she added, allowing her hand to trail down the side of his cheek. "If I'm lucky, I'll keep you blushing all the time."
"Th-that is…" he stuttered, his face practically giving off steam. "I…"
The bell rang, momentarily releasing him from this sweet torment. "I'll see you at practice," she said, retracting her hand. She walked away, purposefully glancing over her shoulder to give him a wave and a wink.
Oishi let out a giant breath he didn't realize he was holding.
Half the people in the hallway stood still, watching their conversation in awe.
Though Oishi wasn't aware of it, this was actually Akane's idea of punishment. Just a few days ago, he'd randomly blurted out to Coach Ryuzaki that they were dating, much to her chagrin.
It was completely random. They were in the middle of discussing a potential lineup, Oishi suddenly interrupted and said, "Ryuzaki-sensei! Akane-san and I are dating. I hope that's okay!"
Akane groaned and buried her head into her hands.
Sumire, to her credit, merely smirked. "Took you guys long enough."
"Ryuzaki-sensei, I assure you that this will not affect how I lead the team," Akane declared, her shoulders straight. "I have no desire to upset the team dynamic."
"Oh, that's fine with me," she said with a dreamy smile. "Young love is great. You two have fun."
"Seriously, Oishi?" Akane said after she left, although her tone was teasing rather than scornful.
He ducked his head in embarrassment. "Ah… I'm really sorry," he mumbled.
She sighed. "It's fine."
"I just thought that sensei should know! In case she wasn't happy about it…"
"What if she wasn't?" Akane countered, eyebrows raised. "Would we break up?"
"N-no! Of course not…" Oishi fumbled, turning beet red. "I just…"
Akane gave him a look. "Oishi," she said, sighing again. She reached forward and tapped his cheek lightly. "Relax, okay?" she said. "We're just dating."
It wasn't like Oishi had anything to worry about to begin with. Akane handled the relationship with the same sort of brisk and confidence as she did with everything else in her life. They both had leadership roles in the tennis team, and she was very firm on not letting the relationship affect their professionalism with the team. School as well; Oishi was vice-president of the student council, so he had a certain reputation to uphold. It's not like she could push him up against the lockers and seduce him then and there.
Though… the idea had a certain appeal to it.
Still, Akane had her way around her own strict guidelines. Stolen glances, flirtatious smiles, a teasing wink here and there… But PDA in the classroom and on the courts was kept to an absolute minimum.
Now, if only she could convince him to loosen up when they were alone…
"Game, Hyotei! Six games to five!"
"You've got to be kidding me. You've got to be kidding me," Momoshiro spat, swiping his sleeve across his face. He was utterly spent. His arm was twitching with exertion, his hand pulsing around the racket with every heartbeat.
Hyotei's Shigohara-Oshitari pair had proven themselves a formidable force, and he knew that they couldn't afford to lose this mixed doubles match. Not after the Kawamura-Morioka pair went down in a flaming pit of ruin against the two runners of Hyotei, Shishido and Rie.
"Momo's tired," Inui pointed out, jotting down a few notes. "If we want to win this, Reina's going to have to take the lead."
Reina changed her grip on her racket, frowning.
"And she's not very good at that, let's be honest," Akane murmured. Reina, being a leftie, had a natural advantage on the doubles court, however her independent style kept her cornered. 'If only chess was a multiplayer game,' she thought wryly. Momoshiro, on the other hand, had a natural instinct for doubles, but zero instinct for strategy.
This pairing itself was a wild card. Momoshiro would've much preferred to play with his sister again, but Coach Ryuzaki was adamant. Although Sayaka's wrists were no longer bandaged, they were in a vulnerable state of healing.
Shigohara flipped her racket upwards and caught it. "Time to seal the deal."
"Oh, Minako-chan," Oshitari tsk-ed. "If only you'd said that kind of thing while we were still engaged."
At the Seigaku bench, Coach Ryuzaki tossed them both towels and water. "Both of you are playing well," she affirmed. "You just aren't relying on each other enough. The fault is in the combination."
Momoshiro and Reina nodded. Reina swiped the towel across her neck, and turned to Akane, her eyes searching her face for guidance. For validation.
Akane leveled a gaze at her, then tilted her head pointedly at Momoshiro. It was clear what she was trying to say.
You have to work together.
You know what he's doing wrong.
Take the lead. Help him out.
"Momoshiro-kun," Reina said, tapping him on the shoulder. "Your adumbration of—"
"Please use third grade vocabulary, Watanabe-senpai!" he beseeched. "Please."
She stopped. There was a long pause while she considered her wording. "You're playing to much to the girl," Reina finally told him flatly. "It's not working. Stop playing to her."
He stared at her incredulously. "What?" Of all answers, he did not expect this one.
Reina's brows were scrunched. "Um…" she pondered, touching her chin. "How do I put this in another way? Stop hitting the ball to her."
"I knew what you meant! I just…" He hesitated. "Just…"
"What?" She looked at him blankly.
He threw up his hands in frustration. "That's what you're supposed to do in mixed doubles! The girl is always the weaker player!"
His voice was louder than he intended, and his words carried across the courts. Girls in the crowd gasped indignantly. Half of the Seigaku and Hyotei teams shot him dirty looks. Even Shigohara raised a perfectly-sculpted eyebrow.
"Somebody shut him up," Suzume muttered angrily. "Before he gets trampled by a mob of feminists."
"Yeah, seriously," Sayaka agreed vehemently, her gaze murderous. "See if I ever play with him again."
"Momo…" Oishi said, shaking his head hopelessly.
"Oh shitake mushrooms!" Kimiko squealed abruptly, jumping behind Chiharu. "Reina-senpai is mad…"
"Mad?" Chiharu repeated, her eyes flying onto the girl on the court. "Are you sure? Reina doesn't get mad very easily… Oh, you're right. She is mad."
"Good data…" Inui noted.
Reina breathed evenly, though her nostrils were flared and white. "Excuse me?" Her dark eyes were as hard as glittering diamonds.
"No offense, senpai!" Momoshiro insisted. "But that's just the way things are! Girls aren't as athletic as boys! It's just how it is!"
The doubles partners, Ayumi and Rie, cringed from the Hyotei sidelines. "Bad answer, bad answer."
"I see…" Reina responded coldly. She looked to him, hand outstretched. "Hand me the ball, will you? It's my turn to serve."
Ball in hand, she turned, bouncing it a few times. Her eyes were fixed on a point at the other side of the net. With a perfect form, she tossed the ball up and brought her racket down on it. BANG!
The ball disappeared.
Momoshiro's jaw dropped to the ground.
Shigohara and Oshitari both whipped their heads around. "Fast…" Oshitari commented lightly, impressed.
The Hyotei girl looked unconcerned (though mildly amused) and merely readjusted her stance.
"Reina's pulling out the big guns, huh," Aiko remarked. She'd seen that serve before, in practice, but never in a game. If she recalled correctly, the weird pretty girl was saving it for a special occasion. 'I guess there's nothing more special than teaching your bratty kohai a lesson…'
Ryoma hid a smirk. "Not bad."
Reina lifted her arm and served another high-speed ball.
Shigohara caught it effortlessly, so effortlessly that it seemed to Oshitari that she was trying to show him up. "Sorry," the brunette said as she batted it to the corner. "But I've had plenty of practice with Choutarou's Scud Serves!"
Momoshiro was waiting in that corner, grinning. He'd seen the return's trajectory and had reached the area with plenty of time to spare. However, just as he lifted his arm to swing, Reina materialized in front of him.
"Hey!" he cried, but she stole the shot, cross-court back to the left corner. Oshitari was a half-step too late.
"S-senpai?" Momoshiro asked.
Reina ignored him and served again, and this time a two-on-one rally started, the ball purposefully bypassing Momoshiro.
Oshitari frowned. "What are you doing?" he asked, intrigued, as he volleyed it sharply down the center. "This is doubles, you know."
"She knows!" Momoshiro retorted hotly. But when Reina leaped in front of him to return another shot, he turned to her warily. "You… do know, right?"
Reina's response was to hit another winner down the line, passing Shigohara completely. The brunette tossed her wavy hair over her shoulder, letting it cascade in a mahogany shower. "Interesting," Shigohara said. "Where was all your energy earlier in the game?"
"I didn't have Reina-san pegged as a feminist," Kawamura said.
"Not quite a feminist, no," Chiharu said, a little tightly. "Just another girl who gets rightfully upset when her gender is looked down upon."
Tezuka glanced over upon hearing her words. 'Well, this is unexpected…'
The referee's call boomed across the court, "Game, Seigaku! Six games all! Tiebreak!"
"Hey, Reina!" Akane called, unable to hide her smile. "I think you've proved your point enough. Unless you want to keep running this circus till the end."
"You could put Momoshiro in an assistant's costume," Suzume added tauntingly. "He'd look good in a tutu."
"Shut up!" Momoshiro hollered back at them. After a brief hesitation, he turned and stepped towards Reina, rubbing his neck awkwardly. 'I must have really offended her…' "I apologize, senpai." He bowed humbly. "I shouldn't have assumed… I guess I'm just used to… you know?" he stammered.
"So how good does a female athlete have to be before we start calling her an 'athlete'?" Reina quoted with a small smile. She tossed him the ball. "You tell me, Momoshiro."
He squared his shoulders and snapped to attention like a military soldier. "She just needs to play, senpai!" he declared. "That is all."
They close out the set and match soon after, 7-6.
Three weeks later...
"This… is really beautiful, Yukimura-san," Izumi said, staring at the canvas. Surely 'beautiful' was too crude a word to describe the painting that was before her? No words were suitable for how soft and velvety the petals were, how the sunlight streamed through the window in exquisite golden lines of Gaussian blur.
"Thank you." He smiled. "It didn't take that long to finish. Either way, I guess I have a lot of time on my hands anyways."
His words almost made Izumi wince. Even though he looked perfectly poised now, as he sat in one of the hospital chairs next to her, she could sense his restlessness. Sitting still didn't suit him. Although she'd never seen him play on the court, the countless newspaper and magazine articles had painted a decent picture of his presence on the court. Intimidating. Graceful. Almighty.
Child of God.
"I'd like to see you play… someday," Izumi told him honestly.
He smiled again, but it didn't feel like a smile. "I'd like to play again someday, too."
"You will," she promised, even though it wasn't quite her place to make such an assumption. What else could she say? '"Um, not likely, better take up knitting instead?"' Tennis wasn't just a sport to Yukimura; it was a lifestyle.
He chuckled. "Well, they're bringing in a neurological specialist in a few weeks to assess my condition, so we'll see what he says, I suppose."
"A few weeks?" Izumi frowned. "That seems like a long time."
"He's transferring to this hospital from Germany," Yukimura explained.
"Ah," Izumi murmured. Come to think of it, that was the second or third time she heard of Germany being particularly good at treating athletic or neurological difficulties. Maybe it was a cultural thing? Perhaps Germany just had better facilities.
"Anyways," Yukimura said, in a not-so-subtle effort to change the subject. "I meant to ask earlier. Do you have plans this Saturday, Izumi-san?"
She thought about it briefly. "No, not really. We don't have weekend practice." She had been planning to catch up on schoolwork.
He smiled slightly, before reaching onto his beside table to pick up something. "Here," he said, handing her a ticket. "I would like it if you would accompany me to this."
She glanced at the colorful slip of paper in her hands. "The Modern Art Exhibit at the museum?" she read aloud.
"If you don't mind," Yukimura said politely. "It's my return gift. For White Day?"
Return gift. White Day. For a moment, Izumi couldn't quite find the words to answer.
"Please don't feel like you need to accept," he assured her. "I realize now that I don't know if you are an art connoisseur at all."
Art. With Yukimura Seiichi.
What would people think? What would he think?
"Izumi-san?" he prompted gently.
"That is…" she said, finally finding her voice. "I… I'd be honored to. Thank you."
"Oshiro, your condition is great right now!" Oishi commented, hitting another ball towards her. "Keep this up and you'll be in great shape for the Kantou tournament!"
Chiharu tightened her hand around her racket and whipped the shot cross-court in a fast volley.
"Yahoo!" Kikumaru flipped upwards and caught the ball before it landed.
"Eiji!" Oishi scolded. "What are you doing? You know better than to interrupt!"
"Practice just ended, dummy," the redhead said, throwing the ball at him. Sure enough, Coach Ryuzaki was calling for everyone to assemble.
"Oh, so it has. Sorry about that. Let's go."
Coach Ryuzaki stood at the front, her hands on her hips. "Everyone seems to be doing well! The Kantou tournament starts shortly, and we'll be facing a lot of tough competition."
"Bet we could take 'em," Sayaka whispered to Sakuno, who had to hide her grin.
Sumire shot them a look before continuing. "There are a lot of big schools in the draw, so everyone must stay in tip-top shape! Because of this, we will be having ranking tournaments next month."
There were some excited murmurs. Ranking tournaments meant the chance to upset a regular from their spot.
"All right, that is all! Dismissed!"
"Chiharu," Tezuka said, coming up to her side. "Could you stay a little after practice?"
"Eh? Of course." As everyone was filing out of the courts, she pretended to busy herself by testing the tension on her racket. Akane and Suzume shot her questioning glances, but scampered off the minute they noticed their captain waiting for them to leave. Though, from the way they were smiling, Chiharu suspected that they would tease her to no end about it later.
Tezuka waited for every last person to leave before pulling out a small box from a pouch in his tennis bag. He seemed to weigh it in his hand for a moment, before handing it to her.
Chiharu cautiously lifted the small lid. "Ear buds?" she asked, picking the left one up delicately. They were white and cushioned at the tip. They came with a small, sleek case.
He nodded once. "For thunderstorms. I thought they might be useful."
The memory brought heat to her cheeks. "Thank you, Tezuka-san," she said, unbelievably feeling touched that he still remembered. "Actually, thanks to you, I'm not as scared anymore… but I'll make good use out of these!" she added hastily. As she slipped them into her bag, she couldn't help but smile. It was just like Tezuka to give her a practical return gift.
"This too," he suddenly said, and he handed her a new book, The Lake by Yoshimoto. "I'm reading this right now, and I've been enjoying it. I thought you might like a copy."
"T-thank you." She brought it to her chest and inhaled deeply. Then, upon realizing how bizarre her actions were, she turned bright red. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I… I really like the smell of fresh paper. It puts me at peace."
Something softened in his eyes. "Aa."
She breathed in again. "It's kind of like a violin," she said. "The smell is like a violin sounds."
'The smell is like a violin sounds?' His mind couldn't even comprehend the feeling.
"Thank you, Tezuka-san," she said again with a shy smile. "I'm sure I'll enjoy it, if it's a recommendation from you." She started to pack it in her school bag, behind her textbook.
"The main character reminds me of you."
She stopped. "E-eh?"
He said nothing more, merely looked at her with those dark brown eyes.
"A-ah, I see…" Chiharu concluded. "I guess I definitely have to read it, then." She hoped that the main character was a likeable person.
"I do have a question," he mentioned curiously. "If the smell of paper is like a violin sounds, what's listening to music like, then?"
Chiharu blinked, surprised at his inquiry. "Um… It's like…" She closed her eyes. "Sometimes if there's a note… it'll be like this!" She drew her arm in a straight line across her eyes. "And then if there's another one, it'll go up!" Her arm shot towards the sky. "And then there are weird circle shapes, depending on how fast the music is…" Her hands made swimming motions in front of her face. "I like the yellow songs the best."
She opened her eyes, her arms dropping immediately. "It must seem so silly to you."
On the contrary, Tezuka found it extremely fascinating and… rather adorable. Not that he would ever admit this anyone.
"You," Akane repeated, just to make sure. "Have a date. With Rikkaidai's captain."
"It's not a date," Izumi corrected instantly. Then she faltered. "Or… I don't know. What's a date like?"
"You haven't been on a date before?"
Izumi started to feel nervous. "No?" she said. "No, I haven't."
"Did he call it a date?" Aiko asked.
"I don't think so…" Izumi said, thinking back to her conversation with Yukimura.
"It's White Day, though," Sayaka said to her. "It's kind of self-explanatory."
Reina pushed up her glasses. "Wear something cute. If he offers a compliment, his interest level is eighty-two percent."
"The boy always pays on a date!" Kimiko chimed in.
"If he brings flowers, it's a date."
"If he tries anything…" Suzume put in. "Punch him."
Izumi tried to take in all their suggestions. "O-okay."
Akane held up at a hand, silencing the rest of them. "Just have fun," she concluded. "Don't overthink it."
"Hello," a voice said. "May I speak to Izumi-san?"
"This is Izumi."
"Hi, this is Fuji."
She froze, phone pressed up against her face.
"Yes. Hi, Fuji-san. What can I do for you?"
"I was wondering if you were free this Saturday."
Saturday. "No," she said, feeling an odd tinge of regret. "Unfortunately, I already have plans."
There was a pause. "Oh." It sounded more like "Oh?"
"Don't worry about it," he assured her, after a moment. "I should've realized that you might have plans."
His words stung. "I'm… sorry, Fuji-san," she said again, a little hurt. "I'll see you in class." She heard him about to respond, but hung up before he had the chance to.
Oishi was beyond nervous. He'd never taken a girl out on a date before, and now he had to plan the perfect one for his girlfriend on the most important day of the year. In terms of tennis, it felt like he'd been competing in miniscule high-school tournaments and now was thrust into Wimbledon.
"How about the aquarium?" Kikumaru suggested through the phone. "You always liked going there."
"I like the aquarium!" Oishi said frantically. "What if she hates it?"
"Oishi, calm down," his best friend said. "It's just Ito-chan. She probably doesn't even care what you do."
"How can you say that, Eiji?!"
"I'm serious, Oishi!" he responded. "Ito's the type of girl that wouldn't care what you did, so long as you were spending the day with her. She's really chill, nya. You're so lucky."
"I thought you asked Tamanaha-san out." Tamanaha was a classmate of Oishi's, a girl with round cheeks and a big smile. She'd always had a small crush on Kikumaru.
"I did…" he sighed. "But then I canceled on her."
"I'm sorry!" he whined, and Oishi could practically see him flopping backwards on his bed casually. "I just don't see her that way, so there's no point…"
Oishi picked up a shirt and held it to him, looking critically at the mirror. "I guess that makes sense."
"What about a movie?"
"This is White Day! I can't just take her to a movie!"
"Deep breaths, Oishi," Kikumaru ordered. "One-two… one-two… Why are you so worried, anyway?"
Why was he worried?
For crying out loud, Akane's last boyfriend was the captain of the basketball team, who was tall and buff and undeniably good-looking. Akane was also attractive and confident. Oishi never really understood why she decided to date him, of all people. This was his chance to give her a reason.
"Oishi? Oishi!" Kikumaru was saying. "Just take her to something you think she'd like. She'll be happy, I promise."
"Kimura?" Momoshiro held the phone up to his ear while he flipped through a magazine with another hand. "Yo. What's up?"
"You're free tomorrow, right?"
"Huh? Yeah… I guess so…" Club activities had been canceled for the day. "Why?"
"I'm asking you out on a date."
He bolted up, spilling his water all over the table. "WHAT?! ARE YOU SERIOUS?!"
"No, you idiot," was her scathing response. "I need a favor."
Momoshiro breathed out, his heart rate slowing down gradually. "Jesus," he said. "You scared me for a moment."
"Meet me at the street tennis courts at nine. Bring the brat, if you can."
"Hey! Why don't you just call Echizen yourse—" His retort was met with a dial tone. She'd hung up. "Geez…"
"Oishi, that was fun!" Akane climbed out of her go-cart, her cheeks flushed and hair tousled from the wind. "I passed you twice on that last race!"
"Haha, you did," he said, lending her a hand. "I guess I'm not too good at racing… But where did you learn to drive like that?"
"I played a lot of driving games at the arcade when I was younger." She raked her hand through her ginger hair, her fingers getting caught in the tangles. "Wow, my hair is really messed up."
He reached a hand over to help smooth it down. "It's not bad at all."
"Ruining my chances at looking pretty, are you?" Akane teased. "And I put in so much effort today…" She had put in a little extra effort, putting on mascara and brushing her hair out (not that it mattered now).
"I-I think you're always pretty…" Oishi managed to say, turning red.
"Thanks. Although," Akane mentioned, looking at the racetrack. The cars were zooming by, and the roar of the engines were deafening. Her hair was becoming more and more windswept by the second. "It doesn't really seem like your type of event."
"I thought it would be your type of event…" Oishi said honestly.
She looped her arm in his. "Hanging out with you is my type of event. I hear you're a beast at bowling. Take me bowling next time. Now come on, I could do with a coffee."
"Good morning, Suzume-senpai!" Sakuno called as she ran over, her tennis bag bouncing on her back. The first time they had practiced together, Sakuno had approached anxiously and quietly, too scared to really say a word.
Suzume looked up from her phone and gave her a cool wave. "Morning." She went back to her phone, leaving Sakuno standing there awkwardly.
"Ano…" Sakuno piped up, "Should we head to the courts?"
"In a minute. We're waiting for some reinforcements."
"Reinforcements?" Sakuno asked, looking perplexed.
"Oiii!" Momoshiro suddenly yelled from afar, dragging the poor freshman behind him. "Sorry we're late! This guy was slow."
"I didn't want to come…" Ryoma muttered under his breath, glaring at Momoshiro.
"Good morning, Ryoma-kun," Sakuno said cheerfully.
"Morning," he muttered back, fighting a yawn. Really, he could be in bed sleeping right now.
"So, what's the plan, Kimura?" Momoshiro asked, folding his arms behind his head.
Suzume's eye went from the tall second year back to the short freshmen. "Hey, Echizen," she said slowly. "You two have played doubles together before, right?"
For a moment, Momoshiro and Ryoma looked at each other.
"NO," Momoshiro said fervently, recoiling in horror. "NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT."
Ryoma began backing away nonchalantly. "Well, I'll just be heading—"
Suzume calmly grabbed him by the strap of his tennis bag, halting his movement. "We need partners to do doubles drills, and you two are going to help us."
"Yadda! Why do I have to—"
"Fine," Suzume said, letting go of Ryoma's bag. The two boys looked relieved, and started to walk away. They only got to two steps before Suzume added casually, "I'll just let Ryuzaki-sensei know that you refused to help her granddaughter in tennis."
They both stopped. Paused. Considered.
Coach Ryuzaki's enraged face surfaced in their minds. They balked simultaneously.
"Fine, fine…" Momoshiro said, annoyed, walking back to where they were. "We get it."
"Kimura-senpai," Ryoma grumbled. "You've been spending way too much time with Ito-senpai."
Izumi stood at their meeting place anxiously, her fingers curling around the edge of her dress. She tried not to overdo it – simple, floral print dress, a bracelet, and light makeup. Her hair was knotted in a typical chignon.
Yukimura waved at her as he approached. He looked even more attractive in his simple button-down shirt and jeans. Clearly hospital gowns did not do him justice. "Good morning, Izumi-san. Sorry to keep you waiting. You look nice."
"Thank you," she responded, blushing slightly.
"It's just this way. Follow me."
Izumi was careful to match her pace with his. His gait was more than a little slow, given the progression of Guillain-Barre syndrome. She bit her lip, trying to suppress the urge to lend him a hand.
A week or so ago, a nurse offered him a cane. He refused with such razor-sharp coldness that Izumi had flinched. Said nurse now worked at a different hospital.
If there was one thing to be said, it was that Yukimura was very, very proud.
Sometimes she felt like she was walking on eggshells around him. They talked about music. They talked about dance. They talked about their lives. They talked about tennis, delicately. They talked about Gullain-Barre too, but only, and only when he brought it up.
She didn't want to upset him. She'd seen him irritated, and that was frightening enough. An angry Yukimura… well, that would be deadly.
So she swallowed her concerns, and let him lead.
Meanwhile, someone spotted her from across the street. This person squinted at her, and stealthily pulled out a cellphone.
"It's a date," Inui said as soon as someone picked up.
"Eh?!" Kikumaru said with interest. "Who is it this time, Inui?"
"Morioka and Rikkaidai's captain."
"Izumi-chan? No way!"
"Want to follow? It's at the Tokyo Museum of Art."
Kikumaru was already at a full sprint out the door before Inui had even finished talking.
Oishi terminated the call. "Sorry about that," he said to Akane. "Morioka-san and Rikkaidai's captain are apparently on a date."
Akane shrugged, waving it off. "Old news, old news. I hope it's going well for them." She gave her drink a brisk stir, a thought occurring to her. "Hey, how come no one got this worked up about us?"
"I guess that's because we're already dating," Oishi suggested. "And it's not as exciting as an inter-school relationship."
Akane took a sip of her coffee. "Still. I'm actually mildly offended that no one wanted to follow us."
Oishi swirled his spoon in his coffee nervously. "Do you think they'll be okay? Won't there be emotional turmoil when we end up playing Rikkai? I mean, if we're on different teams…"
"Oishi," Akane said patiently. "They're both adults. They'll be fine."
Seeing how Oishi was drumming his fingers on the table, Akane sighed and gave in. "Fine," she said, half-laughing. "We can go follow them if you want."
"It's a date."
Kaidoh almost dropped his phone. "P-please don't say weird things like that, s-senpai…"
"I-NU-I!" Kikumaru complained. "Let's go already!"
"Hang on," he said. "There's another call I need to make." He quickly punched numbers into his phone. "…That's the situation. What do you think we should do, Te-" Inui stared at his phone in disbelief. "He hung up."
"It's Tezuka! He always does that. Come on, they're getting away from us!"
"It's a date," Inui said into the phone.
There was chuckling on the other line. "Oh Inui, again?" Fuji said lightly. "It was such a mix-up last time…"
"It's Morioka and Rikkaidai's captain."
The other end was silent.
"Want to follow? We're at the Tokyo Museum of Art."
A pause. "No, that's fine. You guys go on ahead."
"It's a date."
"Morioka and Rikkai's captain?" Reina said. "I'm aware."
"Oh, you're already there?"
"They are currently looking at an 1874 Renoir…" Reina muttered into the microphone. "Probability that it's a date… ninety-eight percent."
"As expected of you. Though, Reina-san, the headset probably isn't the most inconspicuous thing you could wear..."
"What do you think of Monet's work? The colors in this one are extraordinary, don't you think?" The exhibit only had two of his paintings, but Yukimura supposed that he had no right to complain.
"They're very nice. You like Impressionists, don't you, Yukimura-san?"
He turned to her, brushing his hair back from his eyes. "You've noticed."
"Monet must be your favorite," Izumi mused, gazing at a painting of rose arches.
"He is. How did you know?"
"You paint like him." The soft, pastel palette, and the beautiful floral motifs were the same. It was easy to make the connection.
He chuckled. "I'm honored to even be compared to him. Oh look," he suddenly said, gesturing towards a middle-aged man near the door. "The curator of the gallery is here. Excuse me for a moment."
Izumi watched him run over briefly, before turning her eyes back to the painting. She wondered how many hours a famous painting like this took to paint. Was the completion of a painting much like the finish of a dance routine? Did the artist feel breathless and satisfied, yet unbelievably sad, because something spectacular had just ended?
She moved to the next one, which was one of a Japanese bridge and a quaint river underneath, done in teal greens and blues. She tried to imagine the feeling of the artists when they finished a painting. There must be something incredibly intimate about watching paint dry. The artist's signature on the painting must be an awful lot like a farewell.
A set of paintings on a display board in the center caught her attention. The watercolors were swirled and blended with incredible movement. It reminded her of the painting she'd seen in the hospital.
"Yukimura-san," Izumi started to call. "This looks kind of like your—" Her eyes caught on the artist's name on a label near the bottom of the canvas.
Confused, she looked at the painting next to it. Yukimura Seiichi. Yukimura Seiichi.
"Sorry about that," Yukimura was saying as he approached her. "I didn't mean to get caught up—"
"You never told me your paintings were going to be displayed here," Izumi interrupted, still examining the artwork intently. She looked up. "That's amazing."
"Oh, that…" He smiled. "There's a sponsored contest for young artists right now. I submitted the pieces a while ago."
Izumi was quiet, her eyes carefully scanning the paintings before her. They were all done in a floral motif, which made sense, as he had a love for gardening as well. "This one is my favorite," she decided after a moment, pointing to a beautiful one of purple orchids. The light in the picture was dusty and diffused, the colors blurred and hazy in a synesthetic quality. If music could be painted, she imagined it would look something like this. "Brahms would sound like this," she said, citing Yukimura's favorite composer.
"You do have an interesting way with words," Yukimura observed.
She couldn't help but smile a little. "So I've heard." Suddenly her eye caught on the adjacent display, which was mostly photography. She walked towards it, almost in a dreamlike state, as if she already knew what she was going to see.
A photograph of a brilliant sunset. A young child, clutching a stuffed animal. And finally, a dancer, leaping into the air.
Fuji Syuusuke. Fuji Syuusuke.
"Oh?" Yukimura had followed. "I didn't know that Fuji-kun had such a talent." His eyes landed on the motion shot of the dancer. "Is this… you, Izumi-san?"
"Yes," she said, hearing her voice tremor slightly. "It is me."
It was actually a test photo, she remembered. She had been warming up in just a tank top and shorts, practicing grand jetés and pirouettes across the room. Fuji had lifted his camera, aimed, and snap; he'd caught her in a leap across the backlit window. Her arms were raised to the sky and her back was arched in a sinewy silhouette.
On a day-to-day basis, Izumi didn't consider herself extremely pretty; her structure was too bony, her skin too pale, her lips too thin.
But in that moment, with her head tossed back in rapture and her hair spilling out behind her, she'd felt as radiant as the sun.
"It's lovely. The lighting is very nicely done. I guess that's what you get with a tensai, after all." His eyes were crinkled in a laugh.
Izumi looked like she didn't hear him. She was gazing at the picture, lost in thought.
Yukimura's eyes narrowed. "Izumi-san?"
She jerked away from the display. "Sorry. Let's go."
"On your left, Ryuzaki!" Suzume shouted, and Sakuno dove out of her path. The red-headed second year jumped for the ball and smashed it to the ground.
"Not bad, not bad," Momoshiro commented with a grin. He and Ryoma had been feeding balls to the other side steadily, allowing Suzume and Sakuno to gain practice on how much court they could feasibly cover. "I think you've got that drill down."
"Ryuzaki needs to work on attacking," Suzume decided. "Her forehand isn't the worst, but she has problems going in for the kill, especially at the net."
'She makes it sound so scary…' Sakuno thought with a shiver. It was true; while her forehand was increasing gradually in strength, she wasn't very good (or confident) at the net. When she played doubles with Sayaka, she usually took the defensive role and let the other girl do the attacking.
"Then, how about a game?" Ryoma suggested offhandedly.
Suzume smirked. "I like the way you think."
"So, when did you start modeling, Izumi-san?" Yukimura asked her cheerfully.
"Me? I don't… I don't. It's just to help out Fuji-san," she clarified.
"I see. I was never really into portrait painting," he confessed after they paused to look at a Van Gogh. The faces in the painting were distorted and bizarre, yet oddly alluring. "But if I do paint one, I hope I can count on you to model for me, since you already have the experience."
"Oh. Um…" Izumi secretly wondered how she could refuse politely. She was sure that modeling for a painting would take far longer than photography, and she didn't have the ability nor desire to sit still for hours on end. Plus, it seemed like such an intimate exchange. "That is…"
Thankfully, something else captured Yukimura's attention at that moment, so she was rescued from answering. "Fukuda-san!" Yukimura suddenly called, lifting a hand in greeting at a girl near the other wall. Izumi followed him as they went to meet her. "It's good to see you here, Fukuda-san."
Was it her imagination, or did the girl grimace as they approached?
The girl simply nodded her head in acknowledgement, without smiling. She had black hair in a jagged, layered cut and stunning purple eyes that glowed like black lights. Her high cheekbones and sharp features made her seem like she was carved from rock.
"This is Morioka Izumi-san," Yukimura introduced. Izumi extended a hand, and the girl took it impassively.
"She's the captain of the girl's tennis team at Rikkaidai, so we work together somewhat often." Side by side, they did share some things in common; their presence was rather imposing, if not utterly domineering. Yukimura smiled, tilting his head towards the girl. "It's difficult for her, because she doesn't like me."
Izumi half-expected the girl to deny it completely: "No, of course that's not true, what gave you such an idea?" or something along those lines. But Fukuda Hanae just shrugged, as if to say, 'Well… yeah.'
"Yanagi-kun is here." Fukuda's voice was surprisingly strong; Izumi almost expected the silent (and creepy) girl to sound like a robot.
"Renji is?" Yukimura said, his eyes lighting up as he looked around. "I didn't know he—"
The brown-haired boy suddenly appeared by Yukimura's side. "Seiichi."
"Renji," Yukimura said in surprise. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
"Is everything all right?" he asked, concerned. "You mustn't push yourself too hard."
"I'm fine, you shouldn't worry. Izumi-san has been very patient with me." Yukimura quickly made the introductions, and then turned to his friend. "So, what brings here?"
Hanae spoke again, before Yanagi could. "He's here with Yuki-chan."
"Oh, is he?" Yukimura said teasingly.
The bridge of Yanagi's nose turned ever-so-slightly pink, and the tall boy coughed. "Yuki-chan asked me to come in support of her watercolors."
Though Fukuda Hanae did not talk often, Izumi noticed that every word was chosen with utmost carefulness, and each word served its purpose. She wasn't directly (or obviously) manipulative. That being said, while she wasn't quite a puppet-master, the Rikkai captain struck her as someone who held the reins on any situation. She was always in control.
"Well, since you're here, maybe we could all get lunch together," Yanagi suggested.
Fukuda Hanae looked like she'd rather eat him for lunch.
"That sounds fun, but…" Yukimura turned, his hand settling in the small of Izumi's back. "I'm actually here to spend the day with Izumi-san. So if you don't mind, we'll be taking our leave."
"I… see…" Yanagi said slowly, turning his thoughtful gaze to her. If it could be called a 'gaze'. His eyes appeared to be perpetually closed, but not in the way Fuji's were, Izumi noticed. They were colder, more calculating, more observant, and they made her just as uncomfortable.
"Good seeing both of you, and give my best to Yuki-chan." Yukimura waved and gently led Izumi away.
"Eh? I have to stay at the net?" Sakuno asked, her eyes wide. She stepped behind the white line. "But… that's…" 'That's not how I would play in a game…' She could hit a decent drop shot, but staying at the net meant she would have to attempt swinging volleys and drive volleys, which were never her forte.
Suzume tossed her hair over one shoulder. "That's the point, right? You need to work on your net play."
The red-headed second year painfully nudged her into place with her racket. "It's not hard. Just stand there and volley the shit out of anything that comes your way."
Ryoma served, and a rally started off. Soon after, Momoshiro hit a powerful groundstroke, the ball launching towards her with a faster speed.
Sakuno automatically began retreating.
"Ryuzaki, don't you dare back off!" Suzume shouted, causing her to freeze up. The ball landed right by her feet, and she missed it completely.
"Fifteen-love," Ryoma called out.
The brown haired girl shuffled back to her spot apologetically. "S-sorry…" she mumbled. She could feel her senpai's disapproving glare on her skin, like sunburn.
Ryoma hit a strong forehand to the service line, and she braced herself.
"Volley it, Ryuzaki!" Suzume commanded.
Sakuno winced as her racket connected with the ball, and the shot few out of bounds.
"The hell was that?" Suzume said scornfully. "That was awful. Just volley it. It's not that hard."
Ryoma frowned at her words.
"Oi, oi Kimura," Momoshiro said protectively, resting his racket against his shoulder. "You don't have to be so mean…" 'Seriously, she'll scare Ryuzaki to death…'
"That's okay, Momo-senpai," Sakuno spoke up bravely. She lowered her stance. Her eyes were alight with determination. "Once more, please!"
Inwardly, Suzume smiled.
The next shot came right down a path for Sakuno. The first year girl locked her eyes on it and forced her legs to sprint for it.
"It's not that hard!"
She clenched her teeth. "Hyaa!" With a big swing, she slammed her racket into the ball. It hit the ground, only a few inches out of bounds.
Ryoma's eyes widened marginally. 'It only took her three tries?' "Not bad, Ryuzaki," he said. This girl was learning at an alarming rate.
"No. She can do better," Suzume stopped in front of Sakuno, looking down at her. Her hands were on her hips, and her gaze stern and harsh. "Isn't that right, Ryuzaki?"
Sakuno, however, began to smile. "Yes ma'am!"
"Your school is interesting," Izumi said after they had settled on a bench in the park outside, with a coffee each. The bench was situated beneath a willow tree, shielding them from the sunlight.
"I'm sorry you had to meet some of them like that. They are eccentric people."
That was the understatement of the year.
She took a sip of her drink. "So Fukuda-san is the girl's team captain?"
"Yes. Contrary to popular belief, I do get along with Fukuda-san," Yukimura told her. "She leads her team well, and I respect that. And she's an excellent player." His tone had a note of fondness, and one of envy.
He yearned to play again. It was so obvious.
"Yukimura-san," Izumi said after a measured second, "Can I ask you a question?"
He nodded with a smile. "Of course."
"Um… why…" She clutched her coffee cup, gathering courage. "Why don't you ever paint tennis?"
His face closed up almost instantly, and his eyes took on a hard light.
"I'm sorry, I didn't—" Izumi started to say, for this suffocating feeling was exactly what she was afraid of.
"It's too much."
She blinked at him. "Too much?" she echoed, baffled.
"I do a lot of image training nowadays." He stared straight ahead, holding up his hand to his sun, like he was trying to grasp it in his palm as he would a tennis ball. "I play opponents in my mind. I run laps. I weightlift."
He couldn't explain it, how vivid the images were. How he could work up a sweat, panting and breathing, when all he was doing was lying in the hospital bed. How he could feel the wind rushing past his hair as he dove for a volley, or the vibrations up his arms as he executed a forehand.
How much it hurt to open his eyes and find his body still in that bed.
"Tennis… It would never come off as it should on a canvas. It would be too garish, or too trite."
How could you paint something that was so spiritual and meaningful? How could you truly convince your audience that this was what you lived for? How could you paint a life?
What would it painting it accomplish, if he couldn't step on the court and play?
"I know what you mean," Izumi said.
"They're just talking? Are they at least holding hands?" Kikumaru whispered.
Akane squinted her eyes, trying to make out the figures. "No. Just talking."
"That's what they've been doing all day!" Kimiko whined. "It's nothing special."
"This is boring. Let's go home."
"I'll say," a new voice said, causing all of them to jump.
"Who the heck are you guys?"
"Wait…" Kimiko said slowly, pointing. "I know you! Robot! Data-thingy!" Aiko smacked her on the back of her head. "Hey!" Kimiko glared and rubbed the back of her head reprovingly.
"Tsukino Anna, actually," the girl corrected. She offered them all a smile. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Anna, we should go." The girl with short hair next to her was yanking her away, shooting the rest of the Seigaku team wary glances.
"Sorry." She wiggled her fingers in an apologetic wave as the girl dragged her off. "I'm sure we'll meet again."
Soon, the four tennis players finished that game and played two others. As a result, all of them lay on the ground of the court, breathing hard.
"That was… tough…" Sakuno panted, her arm falling uselessly next to her. "I'm… so... tired…" And with good reason, as she'd been continuously hitting drive and swing volleys for more than two hours.
"Mada mada…" Ryoma struggled to say with his heaving chest. "…dane."
"I'm thirsty…" Momoshiro proclaimed, getting to his feet shakily and dusting himself off. His legs quivered with effort. "Be right back, I'm going to the vending machine."
"I'll come with. Hey, you two," Suzume said, causing the two freshmen to look up. "Want anything to drink?"
"If it's senpai's treat, I'll take a case of Ponta," Ryoma said.
Suzume rolled her eye. "Nice try."
"I-I'll take a Ponta too, if that's okay," Sakuno added timidly.
The two second-years headed over together. Suzume fished some coins from her wallet, flicking them up into the air before dropping them into the machine.
"Hey, why did you call me out today, anyways?" Momoshiro asked as he picked up one of the drinks that had tumbled out. "I thought you'd rather play doubles with Sayaka."
Suzume was searching her pockets for one more coin. "To be honest, Namazu-chan probably would've been my first choice." With a clanging noise, another can fell out of the machine.
"Oh yeah?" Momoshiro tried not to feel offended at her blunt honesty.
Another drink rolled out from under the vending machine, and Suzume leaned down to pick it up. She shook her head disdainfully. "Her wrists, though."
"It's been a month!" Momoshiro said incredulously, laughing it off. "Her wrists are fine."
"If that's the case, she needs to stop shielding her wrists when she's playing."
"What?" Momoshiro stared at her in disbelief.
Suzume went on, "She's playing it safe. She needs to get it together and stop covering for an injury that's not there."
A memory resurfaced in Momoshiro's mind, one of a sprained ankle and an urge to hide it and protect it from any sort of strain. "I think I understand…" He made a mental note to talk to Sayaka later. "So, how's coaching Ryuzaki going?"
"It's annoying, but…" Something in Suzume's eye softened, and her smirk melted into more of a serene smile. "She's a good kid."
Ryoma started to put his rackets away. "Ne, Ryuzaki," he said. "Do you practice with Kimura-senpai a lot?" Her swing power had increased rather dramatically, if he did say so himself.
(To be honest, he was a little miffed that Sakuno wasn't practicing with him. He did offer to coach her after St. Rudolph, and she only took him up on that offer once.)
"Um… maybe once a week?" Sakuno said. Her voice dropped a little, and she gripped her racket. "It started after Hyotei."
It was a tad out of the blue, now that she thought about it. Suzume had called her up one day and told her to meet her at the gym. There, she made Sakuno battle a ball machine for a solid two hours, occasionally critiquing her form unsympathetically and poking her roughly with the racket. The first time or two, it nearly brought her to tears. In the few sessions that followed after, however, she'd gradually gotten used to her senpai's callous demeanor. "I think she's really helped me out a lot! And we're getting closer!"
Ryoma bounced a ball on the ground. "Come to think of it, I wonder why she never shows us the left side of her face?"
Sakuno turned around to look at their senpais, who were talking by the vending machine. "Oh, you're right. I've never seen it before…" Even when Suzume was playing at her fiercest, her hair was always secured over the left side of her face.
"Hmm…" Ryoma pondered. "She's probably half alien. She's weird."
"Ryoma-kun!" Sakuno reprimanded. "You're talking about a senpai!"
"An alien senpai."
"Stop it," Sakuno giggled and shoved him.
"Heh." Ryoma observed her for a moment. She seemed genuinely happy. It wouldn't be long before she could overtake some of the girl regulars. He scanned her body surreptitiously. Her arms were getting more toned…. Her legs were getting more toned too… Come to think of it, she looked good…
A faint redness blossomed on his cheeks. Damn those hormones.
"Eto… Ryoma-kun?" Sakuno said worriedly. "You look kind of flushed… are you okay?"
He coughed and stood up. "I'm fine. Actually," Ryoma said, his hand searching in his pocket. "I have this for you." He pulled out a small box.
"Eh?" Sakuno carefully took it between her fingers. It was about the size of a chocolate. "What is it?" She lifted the tiny lid and picked up the trinket inside by pinching it between her fingers.
It was a circular charm with a paw print on it. "Oh! It's really cute! Thank you, Ryoma-kun! Ano… but…" She examined it confusedly. "Why a paw-print?"
Ryoma made a disgruntled noise. "But I couldn't find any beaver charms…" And the ones he did find looked like overgrown rodents.
"Oh!" Sakuno laughed in surprise. "It's perfect, Ryoma-kun! Let me just…" She lifted her wrist with the charm bracelet and fiddled with the clasp, struggling. "Mou… this is harder than I thought…"
Ryoma's hand suddenly closed over her wrist. "Hey," he said quietly. "Here, give it to me."
"A-ah…" Sakuno wordlessly handed over the charm, her face becoming red. He turned her wrist over and began latching it on, his face carrying an expression of utmost concentration. 'It's the same expression he has when he's trying to do a hard tennis move…' Sakuno bit back a laugh.
"There!" He wiped his brow and sat up, frowning when he saw her face. "What?"
"Oi, lovebirds!" A call suddenly interrupted them. "Catch!" Momoshiro and Suzume each tossed them a can of Ponta, momentarily distracting them.
"So I guess it might've not been a date after all…" Oishi said as they walked back. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time."
"Not at all…" Akane said. "It was fun."
They stopped at Akane's home. "Hey, come in for a bit," Akane said. "My parents are out."
"Oh… ah, sure."
Things progressed very quickly from there, to Akane's relief. One minute, they were talking innocently on the couch, (much like how they started out), and the next minute she was kissing him and he was kissing her back, albeit slightly clumsily.
Akane moved her lips to the edge of his jaw, kissing along his neck.
"Wh-whoa…" He jumped, jerking away. "Akane, can we hold on?"
Akane sat up and looked at him reproachfully.
"It's just… I'm not used to all of… this." He gestured vaguely at her and then at his body.
Akane raised her eyebrows. "This," she repeated.
The heat was rising in his cheeks. "This… stuff."
She always knew Oishi was rather pure and innocent, but this was a little more than she bargained for, if he couldn't even discuss it. "Doing… physical things?" she guessed.
"Yes!" he exclaimed like she had said something profound. "Yes. That."
Akane would've laughed if he weren't staring at her so earnestly. She held up her hands in defeat. "Gotcha. Okay, I get it. We'll take it slow." He gave her another look. "Fine," she conceded. "Really slow."
"I just…" He tried to hide his face, feeling ashamed. "Don't want you to be disappointed," he finished, mumbling.
She responded by turning his head up with her hand and kissing him again, gently opening his mouth with hers. "Don't worry," she whispered, bringing her lips to his ear. "I'll be your coach. I'm a good teacher."
With a few huffs and puffs of air, Sayaka pressed the Slow button on the treadmill and settled into a walking pace. 'Damn,' she thought, panting. 'I'm exhausted.' And she had only run two miles. 'How does Kaidoh do this for hours on end?'
In actuality, stamina wasn't really too big of an issue for her. Her biggest weakness was strength, but Sayaka had yet to motivate herself to enter the weightlifting room. 'I should, though,' she thought, massaging her wrists. She'd already gotten injured several times. Maybe Kaidoh could give her a few tips.
'Tomorrow,' she decided, as she checked out and left the building in search of a vending machine. 'I'll start that tomorrow.'
Suddenly, there was a loud commotion coming from inside the gym. Four boys in tennis gear tumbled out of the revolving doors in a desperate heap.
"PINK?!" A boy with black curly hair screeched. "You dyed fukubuchou's hair pink?! Niou-senpai, the HELL were you thinking?!"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," the silver hair boy said apathetically, shrugging his shoulders.
The next thing Sayaka heard sounded like a cross between a wolf's howl and a donkey's bray. "KEAAAUGHHHHHHH!" It appeared to be coming from the male shower room.
"We're dead," the red-haired boy declared morosely. "Dead. Absolutely dead. Jackal, do you think there's a pastry shop in hell?"
"If we just explain the situation… " the dark-skinned one tried to reason. "Niou is really the one to bla—Oi!" He suddenly whirled, head whipping around behind him. "Where did he go?"
"That bastard," the second year swore. "That fucking bastard. He left us in the lurch again!"
A tall man burst out of the lockers, looking around angrily. His hair was a delightful shade of bubblegum pink, and Sayaka had to stifle her giggles. "YOU!" he shouted when he saw the three boys.
The three boys that were left shrunk away and cowered under his tall shadow. "Fukubuchou- it wasn't us, it was Niou!"
"NIOUUU!" the tall man bellowed, whirling around and glaring everywhere. "NIOU, WHEN I CATCH YOU I AM GOING TO MAKE YOU RUN A THOUSAND LAPS AROUND JAPAN!"
"It's not that bad," the red-headed one said nervously, handing over his phone camera. "See?"
The poor man went utterly pale. One of his hands reached up to touch a tuft of his new pink locks like it was an alien object. His expression was one of pure horror and disgust, like he had swallowed a fish.
Sayaka couldn't help it; she doubled over laughing. "Oh – my – god," she breathed, clutching her sides. "Oh my god, I just can't… -I'm sorry," she tried to tell the boys that were now staring at her (the tall one looked absolutely affronted) "I'm not laughing at you…" she said between gasps of air.
"She's laughing…" The curly-haired one whispered in awe and horror. "At fukubuchou…"
"She probably has a death wish," the redhead hissed back.
The taller man looked positively livid.
"Hey, come on," the dark one chided them, clearly trying to smooth things over. "We're supposed to be at the hospital in half an hour. Let's go."
The tall guy shot Sayaka another furious look before following the other three away. As he walked away, she saw him desperately trying to tuck his luminous pink hair underneath a dark baseball cap, which only served to emphasize the bright color in contrast. She was forced to muffle another laugh.
"I'm glad someone appreciates my sense of humor," a voice behind her drawled, causing her to whirl around.
"Oh. It's you," she said, coming face-to-face with the silver haired boy, who had simply ducked behind the outdoor generator earlier. She grinned. "I can't believe he didn't like the color! I thought he could pull it off pretty well."
"And you are?" he inquired, his icy eyes searching her face.
"Momoshiro Sayaka," she said, straightening up and holding out her hand.
There was an unfamiliar glimmer in his eyes. "Momoshiro Sayaka," he repeated, clasping her hand.
"And your name?" she asked.
He looked amused at her question. "Shouldn't you know? They were yelling for my demise earlier."
"Oh," she said, wrong-footed. She grinned sheepishly. "Well, I guess I wasn't listening close enough." Crossing her arms, she surveyed him. "So, what are you going to do when they catch you?"
He lifted and lowered a shoulder indifferently. "Probably run laps or something. It was worth it."
"So you play tennis?" she surmised, glancing at his uniform. However, instead of responding, he pulled out his phone. She glared huffily. "Yeah, okay, cool. I'll just go talk to the wall, it seems like a better conversationalist than you."
That caused him to look up. "Hey, let me see your phone a sec," he said. "I want to check something."
She handed it over suspiciously. "What are you going to do?"
He pressed a couple buttons in a rapid succession. Without even looking at her, he tossed it in her direction and walked off.
"Hey!" Sayaka exclaimed, even though she caught it perfectly in her hands. "What was that?!"
He waved his hand in acknowledgement without turning around. "See you around, Momoshiro-chan. Text me."
"I don't even know your name!" she yelled at his retreating back. Irritated, she looked to see what he'd entered into her phone.
"What?!" she sputtered indignantly. "He wrote his name as… That… that bastard!"
"Midterm examinations are coming up!" the teacher reminded them. "If you have any questions on the material, let me know as soon as possible."
Izumi finished marking down the topics they would be tested on. There was a lot of material to cover, and balancing that with tennis practice wasn't going to be easy.
"Fujiko, Izumi-chan," Kikumaru called. "Let's hurry up and get to practice! Tezuka will make us run laps if we're late!"
"Eiji, you go ahead," Fuji said. "I actually have something I want to discuss with Izumi-san about."
Izumi's eyes widened. She tried to send telepathic messages to Kikumaru. 'Don't go. Don't leave me alone with him.' But Kikumaru merely blinked his giant blue eyes at her and grinned, completely clueless. "Got it! I'll see you guys at the court!" He bounced out the door.
Fuji just stood there, smiling.
After a few moments, and because she could ignore him no longer, she turned to him and said, "I saw your pictures at the gallery. They're wonderful."
"I'm sorry, I should've asked your permission to submit the photo of you…"
"No, it's fine!" she said. "It's fine… you took them, so it's your art."
"Did you have a good time at the museum?" he questioned deliberately.
"Yes," she responded neutrally. "Yes, it was fun."
After all of their classmates had finished clearing out, Fuji laid a package on her desk. "Here. This is my return gift for White Day."
She cautiously began unwrapping it. "Fuji-san," she breathed, as the tissue paper came apart in her hands. "I can't accept this." Yet her fingers were already skimming across it possessively.
He'd given her a kanzashi.
A kanzashi was a vintage Japanese hair ornament, customarily worn by geisha. Rare, traditional, and very valuable. This particular type was handcrafted, the flowers made from pinched fabric. Izumi had a collection of at least twenty different hair ornaments, but none like this.
"Please do. My sister helped me find it. You'd break both our hearts if you didn't accept it."
"But-but Fuji-san…" She fingered the delicate cascade of white and pink flowers, and the exquisitely crafted ivory comb. The centers of the flowers were dotted with pearls. "This is too valuable… I just—"
"Please," he said, softer this time. "I want you to have it."
"Well… well, okay then…" she said reluctantly.
"May I?" he offered, taking it in his hands. "It would look beautiful on you."
She hesitated. "Oh..." She twisted her long hair to one side, before wrapping it into a knot on her head and turning around, exposing the nape of her neck to him. Just the action of this felt incredibly erotic.
She felt bare, like she had stripped down a barrier of defense she didn't know she had.
She could feel his breath on her neck. She felt his hand, gently pressing her hair upwards as he attached the clip to her hair. But it was over in a moment, and she felt a odd mixture of relief and disappointment. She turned back around, tendrils of her hair gently spilling over one shoulder.
He reached forward and her breath hitched in her throat – she thought he was going to cup the side of her face, and pull her towards him – but he simply let the dangling flowers trail through his fingers. "It suits you," he murmured.
She fingered the hairclip. "It's… beautiful, Fuji-san. Thank you."
"No, really," she said earnestly. And she surprised both of them by touching his hand, lightly. "Thank you. It's one of the best gifts I've ever gotten." She met his eyes for a second, a brief interval in time, before drawing back.
There was nothing cold in the way he looked at her, she realized. In his gaze, there was intensity, there was heat.
"Izumi-san," he said, his eyes like twin pools of blue. "Would it be okay if I asked you to dinner sometime?"
Dinner. With Fuji Syuusuke.
She really shouldn't have been surprised. He'd invited her to eat at his house once, she remembered. But this was different. This kind of invitation had expectations. And... consequences.
"Yes," she finally said. "Yes, I'd like that."
Oshitari slid a wrapped present at her. "This is for you, Minako-chan."
Shigohara lifted her eyes at him doubtfully as she unwrapped the present. "Seriously, a romance novel?" she said disdainfully, holding it up like a piece of trash. "You know how much I hate these."
"Oh, I think you might like this one…"
The way he said in made her curious. With an impatient huff, she flipped it open, perusing it quickly. She immediately noticed that there were pencil markings and handwritten words and held it closer to her face. In realization, she almost dropped the book.
He'd painstakingly crossed out all the names of the male protagonist and replaced it with "Oshitari Yuushi", and the female protagonist to "Shigohara Minako". 'That sap…!'
Shigohara felt her lips twitching in spite of herself. "Thank you for the lovely gift, Oshitari," she managed to say with a straight face. "I will cherish it deeply."
He smirked, and pulled out a cloth from his bag. "I stitched this for you too," he said, holding out a fabric book cover. It was a lovely patterned shade of mint green, trimmed with white ribbon and a gray gemstone for a clasp. Even Shigohara felt her heart beating a little faster at the sight of it.
Oshitari Yuushi, she thought, shaking her head internally. If anything else, the man at least had good taste.
"That is pretty, Oshitari," Shigohara admitted reluctantly. Oshitari smiled again, and slipped the "romance novel" into the fabric sleeve, with long, expert fingers.
"Can I ask you a question, Minako-chan?"
Shigohara tore her eyes away from the book cover. "Yes?"
He looked at her, the intensity of his gaze unmarred by his circular lenses. "Why are you so opposed to the idea of getting back together?"
"Because, unfortunately, I don't return your affections." With that, she went back to the novel, though in hindsight, it probably wasn't the most convincing object to suddenly occupy her attention.
"Please, Minako darling, we both know that isn't true."
Shigohara closed the book and focused her cat-like eyes on Oshitari. He was certainly attractive, that went without saying. Smart too, though she feigned annoyance at his smarmy wit, she secretly appreciated their clever banter. And he had an very nice voice, low and rolling.
"It wouldn't work," she finally said. "Our families would never allow it." Since the business merger ended up falling through, The Oshitari family company and Shigohara Enterprises were now competitors. This would take 'fraternizing with the enemy' to a whole new (and extremely expensive) level.
"Exactly," he proclaimed triumphantly. "We could have our very own Romeo and Juliet."
She couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, Oshitari, if only it were that simple."
"But it is. Just allow me to show you."
Reina knocked on the door. "Excuse me, Inui-san?"
"Ah, Reina-san. Come in." He sat in the corner of his dimly lit room, working on the computer. The glow from the screen illuminated his face eerily.
She stepped in, thinking of conversation topics. "The mission we were on today was surprising…"
"Yes," he agreed. "Unfortunately, it was less productive than I had hoped." It was true. Little was discovered regarding either Izumi or Yukimura, other than their artistic preferences.
She pulled out some pages from her bag. "I have those sketches that you wanted to borrow."
He glanced up briefly, accepting them. "Thank you. I'll make sure to return them to you by Tuesday." He checked something on his computer, the glowing screen already recapturing his attention.
Reina opened her mouth to add something, then shut it again. She closed her hand into a fist. 'You can do it. You can't do it. You can tell him. You can't tell him.'
"It's White Day. What better time than now?" Akane had said earlier.
As a return gift, he'd given her an antique chess piece that was whittled from mahogany and tipped with bone. "Origin: England, pre-1900s. It's a knight. Your favorite piece… and my favorite as well."
It was the perfect gift. He knew her so well.
So maybe… maybe he did feel the same way.
Akane had always called her a lovesick fool. "You love too hard, Reina," she'd said. And yet the ginger-headed girl had egged her on to confess. "Do you think anyone could refuse a confession from you? Have you seen you?" she joked, and Reina had forced a smile.
She'd always known she was unusually pretty. She was all too aware of it.
Funnily enough, Reina always hated being pretty. Hated the way adults would coo over her classic nose and large, expressive eyes. Hated the way her parents expected her to be a model, an actress, or even a trophy wife.
Miyuki must've resented her for it. How could she have not? Let beautiful, beautiful Reina take center stage, and let her sister fade into the background.
However, to Reina, there was no one she idolized more than her sister. Miyuki was perfect, even if she wasn't pretty like Reina was.
Then, Miyuki suddenly started doing exceptionally well in academics. It started with straight As in school, and progressed into national math competitions, college level courses, et cetera. "Miyuki is our little Einstein," her parents said. "She will go on to do great things. She doesn't need to be pretty."
And perhaps, her sub-par appearance turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Too often, Reina relied on her beauty as a crutch. She made friends by hiding behind a pretty face. Miyuki relied on her wit and charming personality.
Reina didn't realize until later, that being a genius was probably Miyuki's last defense. Reina was allowed to be pretty. Miyuki was allowed to be smart.
But Reina didn't want to be pretty. She wanted to be smart, like Miyuki. Like her sister.
Like him, too.
"Inui-san," Reina said quietly, trying to get him to listen to her. "Inui-san," she repeated.
He finally looked up from his computer. "What is it?"
"I… um…" She bit her lip, and clenched her clammy hands. "This is difficult for me to say. But I believe I have feelings for you, and— and I hope that you can accept my affections."
Inui just stared at her like he was seeing her for the first time. Like the sun rising from the east, a bright red blush slowly began to paint over his entire face. "I-I, um, wow, Reina-san, I… that is, very flattered, um…"
"You didn't know?"
"I –I had no idea!"
How was that possible? She felt like she had been painfully obvious. "So you… don't feel the same way," Reina ventured slowly, fearfully.
"Surely you didn't think that I…" Inui broke off, seeing her expression. His face slipped. "Oh no. Reina, I…"
"I thought…" She fixed her eyes on her shoes. "I thought… maybe. You've been so kind to me. We were getting closer, so I thought…"
'I thought you felt the same way.' Her face burned from mortification.
"There must be some kind of mistake. There was only a six percent chance of me getting a confession in high school. I don't understand…" He flipped through the notebook frantically. "There must be an error."
"Dropped," she repeated in disbelief. "From the Regulars?"
He nodded silently.
"How?!" she asked, practically reeling backwards. "That's impossible! You were… you were going to be the third rank…"
"There was a new freshmen in the ranking match…"
"A freshmen?! How?"
He lifted his hand to his glasses. "I'm sorry to have disappointed you, Watanabe-san."
"I'm playing Tezuka in the ranking matches this month."
"The captain? He's strong, isn't he?"
"Yes. I'll get my regular's spot back, for sure."
"Inui-san, I made this for you!" She held out an orange bracelet that was made from braided thread. "It's for good luck!"
"Ah, thank you," He slipped it onto his wrist. "With this, I definitely won't lose."
He was still flipping through the notebook rapidly, as if he expected answers to magically appear on the pages. "This is absolutely illogical. Taking in our prior friendship, the percentage should be lower than—"
"Please, Inui-san. Please." Her voice was on the verge of cracking. "Stop it with the percentages. Stop it, and just say what you feel!"
He let the notebook fall flat in bewilderment. Shocked at her outburst and stumped for words, he could only stare. Finally, he straightened his glasses and said, "W-we are friends, Reina. I never had a reason to think otherwise."
"What about that bracelet I gave you?" she asked.
"That broke when I played Tezuka," was his automatic response.
"I know." She bit her lip. "But… it didn't mean anything to you?"
He fiddled with the empty space on his left wrist anxiously. "Your support and friendship have always meant a lot to me."
"And the chess piece?" she whispered. 'It was such a precious gift…'
"I simply thought you would like it," he replied. "I wasn't thinking too much into it when I purchased it. It was a fitting return gift, that's all."
He was trying to let her down gently, she realized.
"Then what are my chances?" she demanded, eyes flashing. "Tell me."
He exhaled, giving in. "Maybe… twelve percent."
She felt like she'd been doused in cold water. "T-that low?" she couldn't help saying, trying not to shudder from what she feared was a sob.
"I am sorry. I wish I knew about this earlier."
'Why?' she wanted to cry. 'So you could reject me earlier? So you could avoid me?'
"It is not your fault. I…" She breathed, and tried again. "I…"
'I read too much into every move and every action.'
"Reina… I-I have to ask," Inui closed his notebook uneasily and swiveled his chair to face her. "Why? Why me?"
Reina stepped forward bravely. Her hands went up to cup the sides of his face. He didn't say anything, didn't stop her, though the tips of his ears turned red. Gently, she lifted off his glasses, blurring her face into different shades of peach tones.
To her, he had the most beautiful eyes in the world. Strikingly slanted with dark, luscious lashes. They were forest green, with glistening green flecks like the crushed shells of beetles. Under the light, they shone like Lingulodinium polyedrum, a bioluminescent phytoplankton.
He hid them behind thick, tinted glasses because he didn't like them, is what he'd confessed to her later. The long lashes and blue-green color made him look too feminine. He was already far too peculiar, he believed. People would get the wrong idea.
At least with these tinted glasses, he retained an air of mystery. On top of that they allowed him to spy on people, unnoticed. There was a seventy-eight percent more likelihood that he would be more positively accepted by the crowd. Everybody won.
And that was precisely why she liked him. Because he refused to let physical features define who he was. Because he strived to be more than his appearance.
Did he remember when they first bumped into each other as first years? Did he remember how flustered he was, as he blushed and snatched his glasses from the ground? Did he remember how adorable he was when he whispered, "You saw nothing," furtively, and took off?
Her smile was fragmented and tinged with all the bitterness of the world. "Probability that it was love at first sight… One hundred percent."
He reclaimed his glasses, pushing him up the bridge of his nose. "I have sorely miscalculated… It's too easy to be engrossed in the data of others' relationships, I guess I never considered my own. I do apologize for my severe oversight."
That is what this was to him.
"I see. I won't bother you any more," Reina swallowed, her eyes glistening. "I'm sorry."
He clasped his fingers together, his voice strained, "Reina, what do you want me to say?"
'Say that you love me. Say that you want to be with me. Say that happily every after's probability is one hundred percent.'
"Say… say that this won't affect our friendship."
"It won't," he promised, even though they both knew it was a lie.
"So, I guess I'll see you at practice tomorrow." She forced an even tone into her trembling voice. She turned her back to him, and walked away, each step feeling as heavy as lead.
'You always said I had a bad habit of overanalyzing.'
Inui waited for her footsteps to recede, his sigh forlorn and weary.
Then he slowly lifted his wristband to reveal two broken fragments of an orange friendship bracelet, tied together with a thin red string.
"When Reina draws a flower, all you get is a flower. But when Miyuki draws a flower, you see happiness. You see joy. You see life."
"She's great at singing, but there's no emotion behind her voice."
"She doesn't have heart. Her heart isn't in it."
"Miyuki has heart. Miyuki puts her heart in everything she does."
She clutched the edge of her windowsill.
'Sing, Reina. Put your heart into it, for once. Even if it's breaking into a million pieces.'
What did heartbreak sound like?
She opened her mouth and sang a long, sweet note, a white chord an octave above middle C. It was beautiful sound, but it had no beginning, and it had no end – just circles and circles of sorrow.
What the hell was that?! You just left me! Who does that?!
AND YOU ARE NOT SEXY DESPITE WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK
I have also renamed you 'Moron' in my contacts, btw. You SUCK.
Three texts in a row? You must really want me.
THAT'S NOT IT AT ALL I HATE YOU
I'll see you around.
Sayaka threw her phone at the wall.
END CHAPTER THIRTY
I had to end it on a happy note, tee hee. :)
Hope you like my Rikkai girls, and I hope I did the Rikkai boys justice.
Let me know if you enjoy the Oshitari and Shigohara scenes (Shigohara was the Singles 1 seed that played Chiharu, if you remember) because I can stop writing them if you don't.
WHO ELSE WONDERED ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF INUI'S BRACELET IN EPISODE 51 – 52 ISH?
Also, a lot of characters aren't present, and I didn't really write about some gift exchanges, but I might in the next chapter. No promises.
In the next chapter: RANKING MATCHES. Sakuno and Tomoka get into a fight. Momoshiro and Sayaka have a few bonding moments. Reina is awkward. Kawamura has an in-depth talk with his father. Tezuka and Chiharu get handcuffed together, much to Fuji's delight. Matsuyama Sakiko (Christian/Catholic girl) resurfaces.
If you have time, please read and review Lucifer, my Kirihara x An fanfiction!
And R&R "and all is well", my sort of future-fic
Fun facts about Kimura Suzume
Her most noticeable scar is from a sewing accident.
She hates birds.
She loses at least 10 bobby pins a week.
In elementary school, she once jumped off of a balcony with an umbrella thinking she could float down like Mary Poppins. She has hated musicals ever since.
Tweet me! -at- fyerigurl!
REVIEW REVIEW WHOOO.