A/N: Still working on this. Swear.
A/N II: Amended to include a part I originally left off.
Feedback: Penny for your thoughts?
A few days later, Naota is missing from class. Again.
Probably faking an illness or something (typical), not that she cares since she is trying to endure this long and boring class. Given the material, she would have liked more enthusiasm from her teacher, who only blathers on about sporadic events in a monotone voice she hates.
The strong smell of coffee only adds to her growing despondency of being stuck in world history. As usual, the same cup of coffee resides in Mr. Ohta's hand, the nauseating scent wafting into her front row seat and giving her the beginnings of a headache.
It suddenly hits her how bitter caffeine props up the man to spout facts and figures of entire lifetimes that would otherwise be interesting if another, more capable instructor were teaching the class.
She stares fixedly at the mug and its black contents.
Her teacher is an addict.
She remembers the usual packet of cigarettes in Ms. Tsuji's pocket, the girl's gym coach who always preaches the gospel of ultra-feminism, health and physical fitness. The irony is apparently lost on that woman.
"And where might Nandaba be?" Mr. Ohta asks.
She feels the weight twenty pairs of eyes on her. It's heavy. And she belatedly realizes he is taking attendance. Of course she'll stick up for him and they're all waiting to see what excuse she'll use to cover for him.
Oddly enough, she is not coming to the rescue. At least not immediately. They wait for a reaction.
She's staring out of a window. Wistfully is seems. It's a crisp morning and for once, the good girl wants to rebel and play hooky.
The sun peeks teasingly through a few fluffy clouds.
Mr. Ohta takes her silence as an affirmative that the missing student is indeed cutting class. She hears him mutter something about delinquents in the making. The roll book falls on the desk like a loud slap. And before he can open his mouth to begin the morning torture, an odd rush of cold runs down her spine.
The pencil in her hand snaps.
"Well maybe if the school were up to the educational standards it should be," she begins without asking her brain permission. "Then students wouldn't feel the need to skip class if the instructor was both qualified and not so boring."
She meant to speak calmly, even if she was sniping at the history teacher. She's not the debate captain for nothing.
Mr. Ohta puts his mug down on the desk. No one's ever seen him without it. A collective silence falls heavily in the classroom.
"Students are not allowed to tell teachers what is conducive to planning lessons for classes," he replies, speaking slowly. The condescension only fuels her further. She is indignant.
"We're the only reason you have a job in the first place," she grits out through her teeth. So what if she sounds like a snotty kid? She never asked for a crappy teacher to bore her to tears, even though she had the choice to attend another school.
At this point, it's more than that. It's one more adult who doesn't follow through. Do as I say and not as I do. The same load of bullshit she keeps hearing.
She's beginning to understand what the meaning of insurrection is all about. She feels like one of those people who sets animals free at the zoo or steals live lobsters from water tanks to get back to the sea - all inexplicable and strange to bewildered onlookers, but perfectly sensible in the moment.
"And have you actually read the textbook?" she asks incredulously. "It's riddled with errors and typos. This – this (she points to her book accusingly) will be brought up at the Student Council meeting, as will the hiring practices of this school in general which ought to be revised."
This isn't behavior befitting class president and academic darling. She's already threatened and insulted a teacher. Those alone are grounds for suspension. And suddenly, she's on a roll.
"As a tool of socialization, I would rank this as the least effective class of the entire education institution. Surely, boring the entire class with mere figures and years isn't meant to teach us anything other than to develop a tolerance against sleep since we're fighting to stay awake."
If anything, she's learned to adopt the same pompous tone she's heard her father use in stump speeches. It's the only thing she's learned from the old man.
"Ninamori!" comes the shocked reply.
"At this rate, we'll all be insomniacs."
The class watches the exchange like a tennis match. They are torn between applauding or covering their eyes.
Alone with only her footsteps as companions, she let loose a few quiet chuckles, followed by spontaneous brief giggles. She is nearly bouncing with each step, feeling lighter than she has in weeks.
Full blown laughter takes longer to emerge and when it does, she can't stop herself for a long moment after she trips on an unsteady stretch of sidewalk.
It's not her best moment. Not like when she got applauded after the "Marquis de Carabas" play in the sixth grade.
She shouldn't be this proud after getting suspended two days from school. (She shouldn't be proud, period.) But she can't help enjoy the sun on her face, even when a cool wind sends a flurry of dead leaves flying past her. There's something more lingering from her rebellious outburst. She looks back behind her, taking backward steps while seeing the looming walls of the school lessen in their domineering height.
It's when she reaches the bridge that she realizes how much her cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
When she happens to look down at the river bank, Naota is standing there, skipping stones off the water's surface.
She cups both hands around her mouth and inhales deeply.
"Hey!" she calls and when he gazes up in confusion, she's waving at him with a smile.
The soles of her bare feet are skimming the surface of the water in the river.
Naota is lying in the sunlight, arms cradling the back of his head on the grass. He hasn't said anything about her being there several hours too early from the dismissal bell. Her mood is bright, something he hasn't seen in a long time.
"So what'd you do?" he drawls, moving his arm to cover his eyes.
Ninamori looks up from gentle current of water and a branch drifting nearby.
"Huh?" she asks, eyes following the moving branch when she notices the little flowers clustered on its ends.
"Did you manage to get the senior class a half day for research or something?" he tries again.
It would be the nerdy thing for her to do. Like any good leader, she's good with words and swaying people, even if it's complete bullshit.
"Nope," her answer is clipped, amused.
She falls on her back, legs following her movements as they stretch out before her, water dripping off her bare heels. She image the tiny ripples being erased in the slow moving water. Naota silently weighs her response and thinks of more questions. There's one on the tip of his tongue as he thinks of the exact words to articulate it.
"I'm hungry," she remarks, choosing that moment to pay attention to the insistent gnawing of her stomach.
She bolted out the house first thing in the morning and when Naota was nowhere to be found, she'd foregone breakfast before diving into full blown irritation.
Kneeling beside him, she pulls on his sleeve, drops his arm on the warm grass.
"What's good around here?" she asks.
Fingertips brush away a stubborn lock of hair on his sudden brightness is blinding as his vision focuses. Blue eyes are lovely in the early afternoon sunlight.
Neither one is sure how long the minor staring contest lasts until a horn honks in the distance. Ninamori is the first to look away.
"So?" she asks again.
He rubs at his eyes and it's similar to the waking up routine she's used to seeing most mornings.
"There's a ramen stand not too far from here," he says.
A corner of her mouth rises and he finds himself staring at her, liking the half-assed attempt of a smile on the class president.
It was bound to happen. Like all things that are finally going well, there's the proverbial wrench thrown into the machine.
Ninamori later blames herself for insisting to go back to the river bank after having a perfectly decent meal at the ramen stand he recommended. Her fists don't stop clenching and for once, it has nothing to do with her father's upcoming wedding.
It begins when Naota's lying on a sunny stretch of grass by the river while the bits of green Ninamori maliciously shredded carried in the breeze cling to him. A smile halfway between serene and amused spreads out on his face. He sits up to shake off the grass from his hair and clothes. Ninamori decides to help him, her hands tangling up his hair on purpose by the time he notices why she's laughing.
She doesn't get to hear him complain about it as they are about to be interrupted.
It's the whirring sound of a motor passing above them that alerts them first. When it halts all of a sudden, the second clue they get is an ominous shadow that has him sitting up. It's distorted and odd looking and getting larger as Naota manages to turn around.
"Tak-kun!" a strangely familiar cry sounds out.
Immediately after that, Ninamori only sees him flying out over the water, bouncing off the surface a few times like stones she's seen him skip earlier. He sinks into the shallow depths not so long after that.
Alarmed, Ninamori turns her head to the spot Naota was just situated. Pink hair sticks out prominently above dusty goggles. A demented smile is spread over that face while the guitar is still in mid swing. Further behind, a yellow vespa is twitching on its side, lying forgotten on the cement bank of the river.
"Shit," Ninamori swears before scrambling up to her feet.
Then she's off and chasing after Naota, not caring how her uniform is soaking all the way through as she splashes through the water to get to him. When she finally reaches him, she's hauling him up to make sure he's not drowning or anything.
As she suspected, he's knocked out by the force of the impact since he's not reacting to the way she's violently shaking his shoulders back and forth. In her panic, she drags him back to shore, where Haruko is squatting on the grass with her guitar between her legs. The predatory look isn't gone from her golden eyes as Ninamori slides him over the cement bank. She kneels beside him as she hovers over his knocked out frame. She dearly hopes she's not trying to wake a corpse in vain.
Ninamori frowns darkly at Haruko as she works on reviving Naota, who hasn't opened his eyes.
"Come on," she coaxes while trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
Kneeling beside him, her hands are at his neck and and face, checking for both pulse and breathing. Both appear, although she can't tell at first.
She slicks back wet hair from his face, checking the area where he's likely to bruise. So far, nothing seems too bad since he's clearly survived that attack, but she's still worried. The last time Haruko was around, all sorts of crazy things happened: aliens, robots, spontaneous fighting, indiscriminate chaos, collateral damage and weird, inexplicable horns.
"Hey, wake up," she goes on, practically begging as she gently slaps his face between her hands. "Please?"
It has the intended effect as he coughs up water and then shoots up into a sitting position. Relieved, Ninamori only throws her arms around him and holds on. Despite the splitting headache, he doesn't move, finding the smooth expanse beneath her collar to be soothing against his forehead.
"Ow, ow, ow," he complains. "Fuck, that hurt."
Ninamori allows herself to exhale and even smiles a little. Naota pulls back a little to look at her as fingers brush back his drenched hair. Something about the afternoon lights up her eyes differently, more brightly as he stares. She's panting and soaked and he really likes her messy appearance. It's rather impulsive of her since he notices how she really isn't caring that her shirt is transparent, even though he's trying not to look. He belatedly realizes how he's in her arms and had just stuck his head between her breasts just moments before.
"Well, well, well," Haruko interrupts.
Ninamori's arms loosen, gradually dropping to her sides before he starts to move away.
"Looks like I owe your grandpa some money," Haruko drawls, eyeing them both before picking at her teeth.
Naota stands up, feet slipping on the wet bank as he tries to straighten up. Ninamori looks up at him, quietly fuming over the ruined moment. He's no longer twelve, after all. And hard hits to the head as a greeting or form of affection aren't going over so well.
"The hell is wrong with you?" Naota yells.
Haruko doesn't seem fazed at all, since she merely huffs absentmindedly at the stray lock of hair that insists on covering her right eye. It rises slightly before falling right back in place. From Haruko's smirk, Ninamori feels like maybe she was wrong and time hasn't really changed any of them much as an argument breaks out.
"Are all aliens as stupid as you?" he spits venomously.
Ninamori hangs back, watching the rigid lines of his back as he yells at Haruko.
"Not quite the same," Haruko mumbles to herself while measuring his head between her thumb and forefinger. "Still might work, though."
A small notepad emerges from her pocket as she jots down something.
"Why can't you manage a normal greeting?" he asks.
This is the most animated Ninamori has seen him. Just like the time Haruko first appeared, he is argumentative, silly, indignant and a lot more vocal. She's suddenly back in sixth grade and wondering why he isn't noticing her. Again. For all her efforts in the past few years, he doesn't see her.
"Stupid extraterrestrials," Naota hisses.
Part of her is tempted to reach out and grab a handful of his drenched, dirty shirt to remind him she's there. But she resists, biting down on her lip instead as her fists clench over her knees. She's not part of the background, damn it. If he doesn't know that already...
"Never did understand why you're such a freak," he goes on.
I need to get over you, she mentally chants. So this might be her chance after all. Seeing the boy she likes being snatched away by some stranger might be all it takes.
There's the nasty feel of water sloshing in her shoes as she gets up.
"See you," she announces, breaking away from his angry tirade.
When he turns around, her hiked skirt is midway up her thighs as she wrings out the excess water. She doesn't know it, but he's almost forgotten why his forehead hurts. A strangely familiar ache seizes his chest, rendering him unable to breathe properly for a moment.
Except for the length and color of her hair along with a more shapely, slender figure, it reminds him of Mamimi when she used to wade out into the water to rescue randomly floating items that caught her eye. It suddenly occurs to him how Ninamori went after him instead. Without thinking, it seems, if he goes by her appearance.
Arms raised, Ninamori twists water out of her hair. Even though her shirt is sticking to her, he gets a peek of skin when the wet material rides up her stomach. Then, with deliberate calm, she collects her bag and turns away to make her exit. If anything, she knows the reason he still plays guitar just attempted to bash his head in and will most likely continue to do so.
She kind of envies Haruko for being able to do that.
Even though he can clearly see her bra, Naota is more focused on the shape of Ninamori's retreating back and the water dripping behind her as she makes it out of there.