From the very beginning, I knew something about Inui Sadaharu was special. Very special indeed. I couldn't put my finger on what exactly, but there was most definitely something there. I'm not even sure how I came to learn this in the first place.
Maybe it was the delight on Kaoru's face when I first invited Inui-san in for dinner one rainy evening.
Maybe it was the sheer speed at which he transitioned from being 'some guy from tennis' to another member of the family.
Whatever it was, my whole family noticed it too. Whenever Inui-san enters the room, my husband looks up from his paper and smiles, no matter how engrossing the article. Hazue gets incredibly excited, and is even wiling to give up his seat for 'big brother's special friend'.
And then there's Kaoru.
Say Inui's name and he perks up immediately, if he's quiet, mention Inui and he'll start chattering away, nineteen to the dozen. If the family decides to go out somewhere or do something, anything, the first thing out of Kaoru's mouth is
"I'd better tell Inui-senpai, in case he wonders why I'm not home."
The first time he said that, I smiled.
The second time, my husband nodded.
The third time, Hazue counted the number of times on his fingers before grinning and mouthing 'special' at me.
Now, we all just give each other knowing glances, as even though family is definitely Kaoru's number one, Inui is one and a millionth.
"It's raining" Hazue sighed, looking out of the window "Kaoru's out running, he'll get wet"
"He will indeed" Shibuki put down his paper and joined our youngest son at the window. "Is he out alone, Hozumi?"
"He's with an upperclassman from his tennis club, you know, the very very tall one, with the glasses? I'm sure he's alright" I called over the bubbling and hissing from the kitchen appliances. Speak of the devil, the moment those words passed my lips Hazue leapt up in excitement.
"Kaoru's home, Kaoru's home! And the tall guy's with him! Oh…they're very wet"
I went over to the window with the rest of my family and sure enough, there was Kaoru, walking along with his upperclassman. He must have been freezing, as it was sunny when he went out so he was in a vest and shorts, soaked through. I opened the window a little.
"You didn't need to walk all this way with me, Inui-senpai, you should have gone home" Kaoru mumbled. Just like my boy, thinking about other people first.
"Aah, but I needed to buy some things for dinner tonight and 73 percent of the good stores are nearer your home than my own. My mother is out, so I get to choose"
"But walking all the way back in this rain…" he masked it well, but Kaoru was clearly concerned. I decided the time was right to open the front door.
"Kaoru!" I called over the noise of the rain. "You're soaked! Why not invite your friend in for dinner with us? It's horrible out here!" My eldest son opened his mouth to respond, but the wind suddenly howled ferociously and knocked over a flowerpot. It was silently agreed that Kaoru's companion should come inside and, after kindly picking up the flowerpot; the older boy came inside with us.
"Big brother has never brought a friend home before; I was worried Kaoru didn't have any friends!" Hazue beamed as I served dinner. Inui-san had been very taken aback when I offered to put his soaked clothes in the dryer, and was currently wearing some spares of Shibuki's. He was so tall even they looked a little small, but he was very grateful regardless.
"Hush, Hazue" Kaoru muttered, blushing slightly. Our guest just laughed.
"Mrs Kaidoh, I've reason to believe you're a very good cook"
"See for yourself." I smiled.
"Mom loves having guests over, she loves cooking and always cooks too much, so she likes having an extra mouth to feed as an excuse to make more food!"
"So, Inui-san" My husband said "you're in the year above Kaoru at school? That means you'll be in high school next year, got any ideas as to where you want to go?"
"I've already decided, actually" Inui suddenly seemed a little nervous, Kaoru just blinked; like it hadn't occurred to him that his current upperclassmen would be leaving Seishun at all.
"I like a man who can make up his mind! So, where's it going to be, if you don't mind me asking? The district high school?"
"Kaoru's planning on going there" I added, passing Hazue the dried seaweed across the table.
"I haven't got much choice…"
"Actually, I'm applying for a school on the other side of Tokyo, the Jean-Eric Academy" I froze "You may have heard of it? It's an international school"
"It's also an incredibly prestigious school" I gasped, the boys all looked at me oddly, my family having never heard of the place at all. "My friend's son applied to go there once and didn't make it, the entry procedure is tough, he said. Are you cramming much? The written exam is apparently absolutely horrendous!"
"Inui-senpai is very, very intelligent" Kaoru mumbled so quietly his voice was barely a whisper, but we all heard. He swiftly turned bright red; my son is very awkward when it comes to giving and receiving compliments.
"Thank you, and I'm prepared. Since your friend's son applied, you must know the entry procedure well? If you take the written examination on its own, you have to score eighty-five percent to get a place. If you also submit some work from junior high and it is deemed of a suitable standard, or you appeal to the governing body in an interview, you can get away with eighty percent. If you do both, as well as the exam, you can scrape by with seventy-five. I'm going in for all three, just to be sure."
"They have a mark scheme on the work and interview, too, yes?" I leaned forward, interested "The exam is out of one hundred, the interview and submitted work are both out of ten, right?"
Hazue looked at us, completely baffled. "I didn't have any exams when I applied for junior high"
"Aah, where are you going, Hazue?" Inui-san seemed much more relaxed, taking an opportunity to deviate away from the topic of the Jean-Eric. I can't blame him; the exam is so hard even most university graduates wouldn't be able to pass in a million years. Shizuka's son told us some of the questions he had and they gave me a headache. "Seigaku?"
"Fudomine" Hazue grinned. Inui looked quite startled.
"Hazue is an artist, Inui-senpai, if he came to Seishun, he would be obligated to join the tennis team because I'm in it"
"Yes, and I'm absolutely terrible at tennis!" my younger son laughed "I can barely hit a ball, but I can draw. Besides, if I go to Fudomine, there are no fees! It's a public school!"
"Be quiet now, Hazue, your food's going to get cold if you don't eat it soon. Oh dear, just look at that dreadful rain, it doesn't look like it's going to stop any time soon. Inui-san, why don't you stay here until it stops raining? You'll never make it home in this weather…"
Kaoru and Inui-san had arrived at about seven, the rain had let up at roughly eight but it was nearly half past nine before Inui-san went home. I was more than happy for him to stay the night if he wanted, but he didn't want to get in the way. After he left, Hazue told Kaoru he liked Inui-san a lot, and when would he be coming over for dinner again? Kaoru just blushed and went to his room.
Shibuki and I talked about Inui-san a lot, too. It was very rare for our older son to bring a friend home, especially one who went down so well with everyone. I mentioned this to him, and he did exactly what he did with Hazue. It was quite sweet.
Inui-san started coming over more often. Kaoru went to his apartment sometimes; too, he said it was very different. When I said this to Inui-san, he said it wasn't different, per se, but incredibly cluttered and messy.
It was nice for Kaoru to have a friend who was older, so able to keep him in check, but at the same time able to make a joke at his own expense.
As well as that, Inui seemed to bring out a new side in Kaoru as Kaoru did in him. They changed somewhat, grew up just a little. Nothing proved that to me more than the evening Inui-san came over barely an hour after sitting his exam and having his interview for Jean-Eric. For once, the roles were reversed: Inui was suddenly vulnerable, and Kaoru-bless him- was calming him down, being there for him. It was that evening I felt Kaoru slip away from me ever so slightly.
As the nationals approached, Inui-san came over almost every day. It made Kaoru feel much more at ease for the upcoming tournaments and it seemed to help Inui, too. I feel quite sorry for him sometimes; he just lives in a quiet apartment with his mother, being in a family atmosphere sometimes must have really helped him.
Aah, the nationals, I was so proud of my son that day. The entire family, except Kaoru of course, stayed completely glued to the television all day, watching and waiting, our fingers crossed. All of us cheered and yelled when Seigaku won, and although the boys onscreen acted very calm and mature, you could just tell they wanted to jump and cheer too. There was a victory party in the club pavilion, a very loud victory party, and it was utter chaos. When we peeped through a window when we were passing by, my husband and I could just see Kaoru and Inui-san talking in a corner when Kaoru pulled Inui into an embrace.
"What's happening?" Hazue whined, being too small to see through the window.
"Nothing" Shibuki and I said together, winking knowingly "Absolutely nothing at all"
Even over the holiday, Kaoru continued to spend time with Inui. Even when Inui-san scored one-hundred and fifty on his application to Jean-Eric, he refused to board and instead opted to take the train every day so he wasn't far from Kaoru. Even while Kaoru was busy leading the Seigaku tennis team as the newly appointed captain, he always left time in his schedule for Inui. They would go out running and play tennis together, and sometimes just sit about inside, talking and messing about. Occasionally they would play games with Hazue, which was sweet of them, considering how most of the time they seemed so grown up.
They would gossip like girls sometimes, talking about who was dating who and all kinds of other 'scandalous' news. Even Hazue would join in sometimes, with things along the lines of "You know my favourite senpai, Kamio Akira? Vice captain of the tennis team? Yeah, well I've heard he's dating Ibu Shinji! The captain! I don't know if they're dating, but they were definitely kissing behind the pavilion last week, I was there and got it in my sketchbook, look..."
They did silly things, watching cartoons or singing ridiculous children's songs I hadn't heard Kaoru sing for years. He seemed so carefree with Inui-san it made Shibuki and myself wonder if he really needed us anymore; the security we once gave him now coming from his best friend.
"He's growing up" Shibuki laughed, watching from the doorway as the two of them flicked through a number of documentaries, news channels and action movies before settling on watching Happy Funny Sing-Time with Ichi, Ni-No and Sannyboo. "He's really growing up, Hozumi, and you know who started it?"
I looked around the door in time to see Inui-san kiss Kaoru's forehead lightly. He went bright red and squeaked, but didn't make any real protest.
"Yes" I giggled, trying to keep my voice down "I most certainly do.
"Good morning, Inui-san! If you're looking for Kaoru, he's not here. He arranged something with the Bando twins today to strengthen them as a doubles pair or something like that" I smiled happily as my favourite guest knocked on the window just to my left.
"I know" Inui-san grinned from the other side of the open window "It was my idea. He's got them to play against the Golden Pair in the park to make them realise their flaws as a pair and develop their own playing styles. They're copycat players, but they won't be able to imitate Eiji!" I opened the door and let him in. "could I wait for him here? By my calculations the twins should be losing five-one by now, so he won't be too long." I nodded, so he sat with Hazue at the kitchen table and helped him with his homework. I continued to cook, throwing all kinds of vegetables and spices and things into a pot. When Hazue finished-which was very quickly with Inui-san's help- our guest opted to watch me cook.
"Hazue likes you a lot, you know, you're like a second brother to him" I said, dropping a ten-ton hint in my tone of voice.
"He's like a brother to me too, Mrs Kaidoh"
"And Kaoru seems to be very close to you, he's opened up to you an awful lot, he never does that"
"Yes…" Inui-san went a little pink "He's told me a lot, I've told him a lot, my mother says exactly the same as you do"
"He trusts you so much; in fact, he's trusted you with something he's never trusted anyone else with." I continued to hint "He's shown you a side of himself he's never shown anyone. You've seen his true heart, Inui-san"
Although he was a little pinker than before, Inui still seemed oblivious, that or he was masking what he was thinking. That wouldn't do, so I laid it on thick.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he gave it to you, Inui-san…"
"It all depends, Mrs Kaidoh, if he decides he doesn't need a spare heart. I know for a fact he's got two these days" I froze and looked at Inui-san. He was still pink, but keeping his cool. Oh yes, this was becoming hint-warfare.
"Kaoru, Kaoru, he's got a fierce reputation, I've heard. It's hilarious to think he's such a kitty cat really. So much so I think he needs someone to look after him, baby him a little. I'd say he needs someone a little older to nurture him a little, you know? Focus juuuust on him. I'd love it if Kaoru had someone like that. Inui-san, if only Kaoru could find a girl just as devoted to him as you are. Someone with perfect chemistry, a soul mate, even, a little like yourself"
That caught Inui off guard. "Aah, Mrs Kaidoh…"
"Someone to confide in day or night, someone willing to forego a little convenience in their life for the sake of love" I smirked, it was rather fun watching Inui-san squirm "and for preference's sake, I've heard rumour Kaoru has a thing for glasses" that really did it, Inui turned completely scarlet and seemed at a loss for anything to say. Though I swear I saw him mouth 'that obvious…'
"Oh, hello Inui-san!" I chimed in a completely different tone of voice to the one I was just using "Sorry, I spaced out, I was rehearsing some lines for my amateur dramatics group. Did you think I was calling you? I tend to use the names of people I know in my lines so I can remember them easier"
"Oh yes, indeed you were" I could se a glint behind Inui-san's glasses "What's the play called?"
"Why, A Mother's Blessing" I beamed, Inui-san bit his lip in attempt to hold back a laugh "And you know something, Inui-san?" I glanced out of the window and saw Kaoru bidding goodbye to two tall, identical blond boys as well as Kikumaru and Oishi, who I had seen in photographs before. I waited until Kaoru had opened the door before whispering loudly "I'd be willing to give you and Kaoru A Mother's Blessing any time you asked"
Kaoru went bright red, Inui bit his hand, scarlet cheeked.
I looked at the two of them, stood there awkwardly.
I laughed like a drain.