Disclaimer: SD does not belong to me, though I would give anything to own it, even the grand amount of three pesos I have in my wallet.

Chapter 10

"Oh, you just missed her. She went out ten minutes ago."

"Uhm.. I'll just wait for her, if that's alright with you."

"Of course it is. But she went out with Hisashi and -"

The name. "I'm sorry. Did you say Hisashi?"

"Yes. Why? Do you know him?"

He shuffled his feet and nodded.

"What did you say your name was again?"

"Ryota."

"You go to school with Ayako?"

"Uhm, we're in the same class."

"That's wonderful! Are you also a member of the basketball club?"

"Yes, I am."

"Then you must be that point guard? Ryoga?"

"Uhm, Ryota."

An embarrassed laugh. "Sorry. Ryota. You just sit in the garden, ne? I'm cleaning the house right now."

"Can I do anything to help?"

"Oh, no, don't mind! I'm sure Ayako wouldn't like it if she comes back to discover I had tortured her classmate."

Miyagi ran his fingers fondly over the strings of his guitar, recalling in his mind the conversation he had with Ayako's mother. She was around the same age as his mom, with a few crinkles around her eyes. The instant she had opened the door, he knew where Ayako got her deep, thoughtful eyes. And maybe the rich, brown, curly hair came from her father, since her mother had blue-black hair.

He strummed a few notes, then looked curiously around the small garden. He was seated on a low bench, right beside the long row of orchids that were obviously well cared for. Some were purple, some were blue, some were pink, and all of them looked very much delicate, with their roots snaking out thinly to embrace the tree trunks, their fragrance filling the air.

Miyagi tried to imagine Ayako busily watering them, or swiping away at insects, or even pressing her face against the soft petals, her soft hair mingling with the leaves and the flowers. The thought made him smile to himself. Where could she be? The longer he waited, the more his heart played tricks on him.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he brought the guitar closer to his body. He would simply be no good to her if he kept on in this nervous, jumpy state. He had to relax. He had to practice one more time what he wanted her to listen to..

* * *

"I talked to him last night."

"Oh, I'm willing to bet it was more than just talk," Ayako said, biting her lip, not daring to glance at Mitsui.

"Darn it. I hate it when you're right," Mitsui grinned, squeezing the hand that he had been dying to hold again, and was glad when she let him to.

"I'm always right," she returned.

"Is that how you feel about your decision?" Mitsui could have kicked himself. He merely wanted to continue their good-natured sparring, but when she withdrew her hand from his, he knew he should have just shut his mouth. "Sorry. I didn't mean to sound as if - "

She shook her head, cutting him off. "Just tell me you're okay, that you're not -"

"Not what? Hurt?" he finished for her, looking straight into her eyes. But he was the first to break the contact, choosing instead to focus on the spot of setting sun over the wide expanse of sea. "Actually I am. But more than that, I'm happy because you're happy."

She surprised him by inching closer to him, resting her head on his shoulders. Somehow, warm and sweet as the gesture was, it seemed more brotherly than anything else.

He closed his eyes and slid his right arm to hug her. "Remember the last time we were here on the docks?"

"Yeah. Do you still have it? I mean. the necklace?"

She couldn't see him, but she felt him nod as his head rubbed up and down against hers. "Wow, you still remember. I thought you've forgotten."

"How could I? I look good in that picture."

Mitsui laughed. She was the only girl he knew who could match wits with him. "Where did we have that picture taken again?"

"In the studio beside the town cinema. I'm not sure but I think we had a fight trying to decide what pose we wanted."

They both snickered. "Yeah, I think I remember that," he told her.

He sighed, and she felt it vibrate from his body to hers. "We were such a great team back then, weren't we?"

Lifting her head from its place on his shoulder, she leaned towards him until the tips of their noses touched. "We still are, Hisashi."

"I was a lousy boyfriend and an even lousier ex. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't able to take care of you, that I made you cry so many times, that I broke more promises than I kept."

Ayako drew away from Mitsui, and for some moments, watched her reflection in his sad eyes.

"I was a real. asshole. to you and to Miyagi. I did a lot of things I know I shouldn't have, but I guess I just did them because. because I loved you too much. I still do. Isn't that scary? I mean, shit, I'm almost nineteen. I should be dating around, having fun, instead of.."

She smiled softly, the breeze from the water lifting her hair and tossing it all around the two of them. "You'll get over it," she whispered, as he reached out to gently hold a lock of her hair.

"Maybe. I hope so." He tucked the strands behind her ear.

"Who knows? You might meet a new girl in the Inter High."

"Nah," he drawled out, laughing at the idea. "Not yet. I need a break." When this was met by only an amused stare, Mitsui saw an issue to pursue. "But for argument's sake, won't you feel a bit jealous if you start seeing me with another girl?"

"Well.." Ayako faltered. "That's none of my business now, isn't it?"

"I said for argument's sake. And don't give me that safe answer."

She slapped his upper arm playfully. "You are so conceited."

"You're still stalling."

"Fine," she conceded, crossing her arms in front of her chest in a look of feigned annoyance.

"Fine what?"

"Maybe. maybe a smallest hint of jealousy. But that's it."

Mitsui grinned, curious where this was going. "Really? How about that nice- looking senior. the one who's in the same class with Akagi? The redhead, the one who's on the swimming team. the one with those mile-long legs -"

"What about her?" Ayako said, not feigning annoyance this time.

"Supposing I ask her out on a date this Friday, would you get jealous?"

"I already answered your stupid hypothetical question."

Mitsui tweaked Ayako's nose, laughing harder when she slapped his hand away. "You, Aya-chan, are so fun to tease."

She frowned. "You are so full of shit."

He pretended to be scandalized. "Where did you learn that kind of language, young lady?"

"From you."

Mitsui opened his mouth in protest, but thought better than to dig a deeper hole for himself. As usual, he didn't quit when he was still winning.

"Besides," she went on merrily. "You won't be going anywhere on a date anytime soon. We're leaving for the Inter High tomorrow."

The reminder sort of put an end to their light bantering. Things had to be ironed out between the three of them before the team played its first game. They couldn't possibly carry on well with all the unresolved tension hanging in the air.

Mitsui shrugged, which Ayako knew was a sign that he was about to tell her something serious. "I had to show him our necklace yesterday."

Her eyebrows drew together in the middle. "What did he say?"

"You sure you want to hear the gory details?" he asked, his eyes half twinkling and half wary.

"No, I guess I don't," she conceded after a while, an expression of swallowed curiosity marring her features. "Uhhh, why do I always end up with darn troublemakers?"

"Because we're just as darn good-looking?"

She pouted. "Not quite the answer I'm looking for. Try again."

"Because of our magnetic personality? Hey, admit it. Who can resist a bad boy?"

She let that pass and he knew without her saying it that he scored a point there.

"OK, seriously," Mitsui said soberly after a while, studying their interlaced fingers. "I think it's because no matter how bull-headed and stubborn we are, when we fall for a girl, we mean it. It always hits us hard, and suddenly we don't know why, but we become. different. We want to become better persons. We end up doing things that would normally make us cringe, but since it's for that girl, we do it feeling. great."

This time it was Ayako's turn to squeeze his hand. "Keep talking. I'm listening."

"You just don't have any idea, do you, how big a hold you have over me. and Miyagi, for that matter?"

"I think I'm just beginning to see it," she admitted, blushing. "Hisashi. I need to know. uhm. he's alright with you, isn't he?"

"Who? Miyagi?" he asked needlessly and nodded a second later by way of an answer. "He's a good guy," he told her, running his fingers through his unruly hair. "Do you think I'd let you get away with choosing some nobody over me?"

She tilted closer, planting a slow kiss on his right cheek. "Thanks."

"Hey, you better get going now. He's probably waiting for you at your house."

Mitsui stood up, and held his hand out to Ayako, which she took with a laugh, and a mock curtsey. "If in any case it doesn't work out with Miyagi, you know, I'm here." Again, she laughed.

And as his eyes settled on her face, it just dawned on him that the next girl that would be coming along in his life. had a lot to live up to.

* * *

Something was tickling his nose. It smelled dainty and elegant, like the orchids in Ayako's garden. He grinned. The blue one was his favorite, because it had the same shade as her eyes. Deep, clear, and mesmerizing.

All of a sudden, the blue orchid slithered closer to him, and poked him on his arm. "You like me, don't you?" it rasped near his ear.

"Y-yeah," he found himself replying. "Hey, watch the thorns! Wait a sec, you're an orchid! You're not supposed to have thorns!"

"Well, I am special," the blue flower shot back huffily. "You wanna know why?"

It was strange to be talking to a plant, and Miyagi scratched the back of his head. "OK, why?"

The orchid extended its leaves and giggled. "Because I was a gift from Mitsui, baka. He gave me to Ayako-san years ago, long before she met you. And look, she watched over me carefully ever since." The now dark flower loomed over Miyagi. "Tell me, aren't I beautiful?"

He swallowed the mass in his throat and nodded meekly.

"Look at you," the plant went on with her tirade. "You didn't even bring Ayako-san anything! Not even a flower!" And the orchid let out such a loud noise - a cackle - that hurt Miyagi's ears and made him cover them with his hands.

"Shut up!" He tried yelling. "Leave me alone!"

The noise faded gradually until it was only a string of giggles. Miyagi twitched in horror as the flower he once admired sauntered over and touched its leaves to his hair.

"I've always wanted to run my fingers through your hair, just like this." The flower was still giggling, and oddly enough, the sensations it awakened in him were not at all unpleasant. "Ryota. hey, Ryota.." It called to him in a low, gentle voice.

He couldn't take it anymore. He forced himself to move, opening his eyes and grabbing the leaves that were ruffling his hair. He sat up abruptly, vaguely hearing a surprised gasp beside him.

He shook his head, clearing it of cobwebs and sleep. He blinked twice and he waited for his sight to return to normal.

When it did, he saw Ayako sitting right next to him. She was looking at him in this funny way, her mouth hanging open slightly.

He then realized that the leaves he had seized away in his dream - the leaves that had touched his hair and made him feel warm and feverish - was actually her hand.

"Ehehe, I'm really sorry, Aya-chan," he mumbled, loosening his grip on her hand, and bringing it up to a sliver of moonlight to check if he had caused any bruises. "I was having the weirdest dream," he added after a while. "I hope I didn't frighten you."

She slowly drew her hand away from him and onto her lap. "Actually I was enjoying myself. You look really cute when you're asleep, you know. Cuter when you're dreaming."

Her remark made the color rise to his neck and face.

"I'm sorry I kept you waiting. How long have you been here? My mom said over an hour. Is that right?" she asked, starting to feel nervous herself.

"It's okay," he said upon seeing the look of concern and guilt etched across her face. "You really have a nice garden here." Sincere as Miyagi was with that, he still couldn't help but feel unnerved by that awful dream. Well. awful, except for the last part. Except for that.

"You brought your guitar."

Miyagi glanced quickly at his feet. "Yeah, I did."

They both knew very well what they were there for. To talk about everything. To let the truth out, to explain, to confront, to apologize, and then to kiss and make-up, or make-out, afterwards. In that order. Maybe that was why the set-up had them both fidgeting and awkward.

At that moment, Miyagi decided that it was best if he take the first step. He cleared his throat. "I brought it because I wanted you to hear something."

She turned those big eyes on him and smiled. "I'd like that."

"Pretty corny, huh?"

She bent down to pick up the guitar and he watched in fascination as she attempted to cradle it comfortably in her arms. "No, not at all. But I think I'd rather have you teach me how to play."

"W-what?"

"C'mon, I bet it's easy. What song did you have in mind anyway?"

Miyagi's mind raced. He realized, with a start, that he couldn't make sense of the notes that were floating around in his head. They all fled and left him, right after he woke up and saw her beautiful wrist in his hand.

She had really graceful wrists, with cute curves that maybe he'd have the chance to kiss later.

Shit, why was he thinking of wrists? This was no time to go crazy. She was watching him steadily. But for the life of him, he just couldn't bring himself to remember the chords to that stupid song. And what's more, she asked him to show her how to play, which meant getting close. very close. and..

"Ryota?"

"Y-yeah?" he croaked.

"Am I holding it right?"

He stared at her. She did hold the neck a bit too high and a bit too tight, and her other hand was lying atop the waist of the instrument, instead of dangling near the strings.

"Uhm, no. Not really."

She laughed, wrinkling her nose. "Aren't you going to show me how it's done?"

His stomach in knots, tenser than he ever remembered, even tenser than the Shoyo, Ryonan, Kainan games combined, Miyagi adjusted himself on the low bench. "OK, sit here in front of me," he managed to say.

She did as she was told, lowering herself on the space in front of him.

When she sat down, Miyagi had to close his eyes. She was too near. His face was just inches from the back of her neck. His thighs and legs could feel every nuance of her body. Her skin was so smooth. He could smell her.

He coughed twice, then ordered his arms to reach out in front of him, his right hand making contact with hers, his left gently grasping hers and putting it in front of the strings near the guitar hole.

"Just relax," he heard himself saying in a voice barely above a whisper, and he could have said the same thing to himself. "Let the guitar blend into you. You know, like an extension of your body."

"Like this?"

"Uh-huh. Like that."

Ayako bit her lip. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

He was too near. She could feel his breath on the back of her neck. And where his shorts left off, her skin rubbed against coarse hair. Manly hair. His hands on hers were doing funny things to her stomach. And she could smell him.

"So what song did you want to play?" she asked him, keeping her voice low, not wanting him to find out how flushed she felt.

He laughed, and she closed her eyes as the warmth of the sound wrapped around her. "Actually, it was something that I just happened to put together last night."

She twisted around to see his face. "You mean you write songs?"

"I try. Once in a while."

"That's awesome!" she told him, a burst of pride and endearment inside her. "What's the title of this one?"

"I haven't thought of anything yet."

"So just tell me the story. What's it about?" she prodded.

He sat up straighter, pressing his right hand to hers more intimately. He tried to ignore how some strands of her hair escaped her ponytail and grazed her nape. "Two guys, one girl," he began. "Typical triangle, some people might point out, but to me it's not."

She was silent. He didn't really expect her to respond to that, so he merely guided her right hand to the neck of the guitar. He showed her how to pluck the strings.

"They're good friends, all three of them. One of the guys had very deep feelings for the girl, and it was easy to see why. She. she just had this. this way about her. It made that guy want to protect her, and yet he knew she didn't need protecting. At the back of his mind, maybe he even knew he was the one who needed and wanted her more than anything.

"She can make him feel ridiculously happy with just one look, insanely jealous with a little chat with some other guy, and just plain miserable with a careless word. She pushed him to feel all these emotions he didn't even realize he had in the first place. Because of her, he got to know more about himself."

"Ryota.."

"Now this guy," Miyagi spoke quickly before Ayako could get out a word. "He was so naïve and wide-eyed that he trusted his friend with. with everything. Little that this guy knew that his friend. and his girl. had been.."

The movement was so sudden that he didn't have the time to flinch. The guitar plopped down with a thud on the moist grass. Ayako twisted in her seat, the upper part of her body facing him. She had tears in her eyes and her lower lip trembled.

What was it that Mitsui had said? That she bit her lip every time she was nervous?

"Ryota, I'm so. so sorry," she whispered, putting her hands on either side of his face and locking her eyes with his.

His hands traveled upwards to enclose over hers. Now that he found the guts to speak, he couldn't stop. "At first, he was confused and furious, like anyone who'd been betrayed. Most of all he felt like a complete idiot. He had trusted too much."

She opened her mouth to speak, but he tenderly snapped it shut with an upward flick of his forefinger. "He didn't want to see that girl again. And he really wanted to beat the hell out of his friend. To be honest, they pretty much came close to beating the hell out of each other. But then they came to their senses."

He traced the sides of her cheek, the curve of her jaw. "It wasn't anyone's fault. It wasn't his fault that his friend met her first. It wasn't his friend's fault either that he still loved her long after the relationship was over. And it wasn't her fault that she didn't tell them the truth right away. She just wanted to protect them." Miyagi smiled. "Isn't that something? She ended up protecting them, instead of them protecting her."

"Just tell me," Ayako murmured, meeting his eyes briefly before shifting in her seat and turning her back on him again. "I just have to know. This guy. can he. can he ever love the girl again?"

He took a deep breath. "He didn't really stop, Aya-chan. And he couldn't, even if he tried."

He gazed quietly at the fine, baby hair on the back of her neck. How was it that the sheer mechanics of breathing were swiftly lost to him?

He couldn't understand what came over him, but she looked unbelievably inviting, that he pressed his lips on that spot lightly. He felt her shiver.

Slowly, she twisted and faced him once more. He watched her moisten her lips.

And just like the first time, just like in all the dreams he had, he lowered his head, their noses bumping each other shyly at first, before their lips met.

He kissed her, groaning, cradling her nape firmly in his palm, slanting her head a little to taste more of her.

She kissed him back, her hand clutching the front of his shirt.

Is this how it will always be with her?

His left hand still kneading the back of her neck, his right hand ran across her skin, from the tip of her elbow to her shoulder. Miyagi thought idly how easy and mind-numbingly wonderful it was.

He was losing himself. As their kiss deepened, he felt his whole body flow into her, like water. He couldn't tell which hands, which lips were his anymore.

Is this what Mitsui meant when he once said, over some glasses of beer, "I was her, she was me"?

Mitsui.

*"She was with me, Miyagi. She was my girlfriend."*

*"I didn't know anything, anything at all!"*

*"You're not even close to what she and I used to have."*

Miyagi broke off the kiss, turning his head sideways, catching his breath. "Aya-chan, I can't."

Ayako's eyes flew open. "What's wrong?"

He refused to meet her stare. "I didn't come here for this."

"W-what?"

"Look, Aya-chan," he said, swallowing past the lump in his throat, wanting nothing more than to kiss her again. "I wasn't supposed to tell you I still have feelings for you. That I probably will always have. But I already did. I guess I'm just a bad liar."

She blinked, a teardrop clinging to the ends of her lashes.

"And I wasn't supposed to kiss you either," he went on, fighting hard the urge to do just that again. "But I already did, and I can't say I'm sorry about that."

He rooted for something in his pocket and what he handed her stole her breath.

"I came here tonight to give this back to you," he told her, spreading her palm and dropping in the middle of it the thin, silver necklace that she thought she'd never lay eyes on again.

"H-how'd you get this?" she gasped.

"Mitsui forgot to take it back last night."

She opened the pendant. There it was. The picture of her and Hisashi.

"I did a lot of thinking when I got home," Miyagi went on before his bravado deserted him. "When Mitsui was telling me just how much and how long the two of you had been together, I got so angry I hit him. I then told him that he should just learn to accept things. That he blew his chance, and that he shouldn't ruin mine.

"But when I couldn't go to sleep later that night, I looked at the necklace, and at the picture. Maybe. maybe he's the one who's right. Maybe I'm the one who should just learn to accept things."

"Ryota," Ayako said, gripping him closer to her.

He shook his head no. "Don't, please. This isn't easy." And she released her hold.

"I. I don't want you to choose me because you feel sorry for me, or because you want to run away from Mitsui. I don't want you to choose me now, and then later, realize that you'd much rather be with Mitsui, just like the old times.

"Admit it, Aya-chan. You guys. what you shared, what you had. that was something. There are people who would kill to have that kind of bond in their lives. You guys are so lucky to have found that when you were still very young. I can only look at it. and wish I'd known you sooner, wish I'd known you first. You see, you may not realize it now, but after Mitsui, every guy you'll be with would seem just a simple compromise.

"He knows things about you that would take me years to learn. He's almost a part of your family! And you. you made him want to become a better person, and he is now. Are you really sure you want to leave him - now when he's become the guy he always wanted to be? Are you sure about me as I am about you? I don't want you to ever regret that you picked me over him. I mean, with him, you have one long road. With me, it would be like starting a tiny little street or something.

"And I'm okay with that. But the point is, you can't really move on with me if you still haven't reached the end with him. Don't. don't let things pass you by, Aya-chan -"

"Why are you doing this?" she whispered.

"- just because you're scared that he'll hurt you again. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Falling in love is always taking that risk, you know."

"Why are you doing this?"

He didn't answer because he didn't know.

"Why? Why are you. why are you rejecting me?"

He closed his eyes and kissed her hand. "I'm not rejec-"

"Is this your way of getting back at me for lying to you?"

"I just.." He pulled away, released her hand, and stood up. "He was willing to step back and give way last night. I want to be fair. I want to take a step back and give way too." Miyagi retrieved the guitar from the ground. "Think things over, Aya-chan. I just want you to be with the one who can make you happiest."

With heavy eyes, she watched him leave the garden, everything he said ringing in her ears.





*** Why did I revise? Hmm. good question. I did because months of staying away from this fic helped some simple, previously ignored errors to become obvious: Mitsui and Miyagi seem to be too tame and their argument too abruptly ended for them to be believable furious, red-blooded teenage guys.

I did upgrade the rating of this fic to PG-13, and my apologies to anyone who might have been offended by the profanity. But guys, I wanted for things to be. realistic. When guys fight, it's often like that - years of enduring the slovenly manners of my guy cousins and guy friends give me credibility ^_^.

My thanks to Eliar Swiftfire for his services as beta-reader. And my thanks also to everyone who's put up with me. Reactions are always welcome. ^_^