Quiet. That was what the lone teenage girl sitting on the park's swing set thought as the wind blew strands of pale blonde hair across her face. Except for the sound of the swing's metal chains creaking as she half-heartedly moved back and forth, the park was silent and devoid of the usual screaming and laughing of children. Feet dragging every time she swung back, unfocused purple irises devoid of light and life were trained on the ground, watching the grooves that were formed from the heels of her feet into the soft dirt. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen a park so empty. Then again, it seemed forever since she last visited a park. After all, she was fifteen years old—no longer a kid. Practically an adult, there was no time to enjoy such foolishness as running around with friends. Despite that, the best place to think whenever her thoughts felt like a jumbled mess was at the swings.

This particular afternoon in late April, Tsukiyomi Utau's thoughts were focused on the young man she had fallen head over heels for at an early age. No one understood why she felt the way she did. She couldn't even explain it herself. And yet, without a shadow of a doubt, she knew that she loved Ikuto. She also knew that he loved her in his own way, even if it wasn't the same kind of love. Because for Tsukiyomi Ikuto, he would never think of his little sister like that. A brother-complex, her parents had called it, often teasing her and claiming that it was adorable. But as she passed from the age of adorable cuteness to feisty adolescence, her love for Ikuto never diminished. The Tsukiyomi parents became relatively concerned about this, but Ikuto assured them that Utau would realize it eventually. Realize what? she thought bitterly, heels digging into the dirt beneath the swing with an abruptness that caused her to lose her balance temporarily. Her hands tightened on the metal chains to prevent falling face first into the ground.

"It's just a defenseless swing set. No need to take your frustration out on it." Utau was momentarily surprised to find she was no longer alone in the park. She looked up to see a brown haired boy grinning stupidly at her, one foot rested on a skateboard while the other was firmly planted on the ground, carrying a bag of convenience store items. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, pointing to the empty swing beside her.

Utau didn't respond, opting to slowly swing once again. The boy took her silence as an "okay", placing the bag of food on the skateboard before sitting on a vacant swing. He began to pump his legs, swinging faster and higher with each pass. Unconsciously, Utau found herself doing the same.

The thrill of a challenge, the wind rushing against her face, the feeling of almost flying, they were almost enough to completely clear the blonde's troubled mind. An unbidden smile came on her face. But as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone before anyone could notice the smile that indicated wit and intelligence. A smile more used to laughing than the heartache that had been accompanying it lately.

When she felt she could pump her legs no more, Utau enjoyed the abandon of slight free-fall as gravity slowed the pendulum motion of the swing. She all but stopped, the chains creaking lightly as momentum continued a small sway. The boy had done the same, she noticed belatedly, eyes shifting to observe her uninvited neighbor. His eyes were closed, head fully tilted toward the sky. It looked like he was soaking up the warmth of the sun's rays before the chill of evening took its claim. As he swung, his ear piercings would glimmer, reflecting the light, almost like a star impossibly within reach.

He seems carefree, Utau thought. Just like a kid. Apparently the boy sensed her staring because he turned his head and cracked open an olive green eye to glance back, another stupid grin growing on his face. "It's a tie," he decided. As if they really had been competing who would swing the highest.

The blonde girl regarded him silently, wearing a bland expression. She focused her lilac eyes on the ground once again, a small frown marring her face. Only a kid would be happy about a tie. Utau hated losing, but she loathed tying even more. Winning was everything. If she failed to win at everything, she would never be satisfied with herself.

"The name's Kukai," his voice penetrated her self-reproach. Her eyes shifted to see him offer his hand as he continued, "Souma Kukai."

Ignoring his outstretched hand, she simply uttered, "Utau."

Kukai retracted his hand, but his upbeat attitude didn't lessen as he greeted, "Nice to meet ya!" His energetic voice was starting to get on Utau's last nerve. Seeing the scowl on her face, Kukai immediately stood up from the swing and faced her. "You look like you could use some ramen. My treat," he offered enticingly.

Utau was about to decline when her stomach protested loudly, causing Kukai to laugh whole-heartedly. "Looks like all that swinging worked up an appetite," teased the brown-haired boy, as he walked over to his skateboard, hitting its tail so that he caught the other end and lifted it into the crook of his arm, the bag of groceries held in his other arm.

"But you're carrying food already," Utau felt stupid pointing it out.

He looked down at the bag he was holding, as if seeing it for the first time, before grinning, "I was forced to run errands for my brothers. I don't mind making them wait longer for their dinner. Come on, Utau-san. I know a great ramen shop."

"Irresponsible kid," Utau muttered. Nevertheless, the promise of ramen overpowered her notion of sensibility as she stood up from the swing and began to follow the strange boy.

She was on her third bowl of tonkotsu ramen when Kukai stated, "You eat a lot." Without pausing from slurping the noodles, Utau shifted her gaze to send the boy an icy stare. He's one to talk, observing him start on his fourth bowl of hakata ramen.

"Hey, wanna make this more interesting?" he asked, his green eyes brightening in excitement. I wonder if that stupid, confident grin is permanently etched on his face, Utau considered, resisting the urge to twitch an eye.

Undaunted, the brown-haired boy explained, "The one who eats the most ramen has to pay for next time."

Utau felt her competitive nature emerging, despite the unnerving prospect of thinking there would even be a next time. Feeling the buzz of her cell phone, Utau fumbled to pull it out before reading the new text message from Yukari. She breathed a sigh of relief.

"Can't," she said, indicating her phone, "I've gotta go. Thanks for the ramen, kid." She stood up and made ready to leave the ramen shop.

"Rain check then," Kukai promised.

Utau rolled her eyes, sarcastic as she mentally replied, Yeah, sure.

"There you are!" were the first words Utau heard walking into Sanjou Productions. "When I said you could take a break, I figured you would be back within the hour."

"Sorry, Sanjou-san," Utau said contritely. "Something unexpected came up."

"Well, Hoshina-san, now that you've finally returned, we better get back to work, ne?" Yukari Sanjou was a force to be reckoned with as manager of rising idol Hoshina Utau. It was precisely Yukari's determination that Utau had been able to produce her first recording which in recent weeks had begun to climb the charts.

But that wasn't enough for Utau. She had to prove herself. Surely if she was the best, Ikuto would admit he was wrong about her. He would realize her feelings were genuine. If she became Japan's number one singing idol, than maybe the violinist would regard her seriously. She wouldn't lose. Not this. Not to anyone.

Thus she put a little bit of herself in each song she wrote, letting the emotions carry her, expressing her love, fear, and longing, baring her soul to the world—to him. He would hear it, wouldn't he? He had to. He had to understand how much she loved him. Please, let him hear it.

It was an hour and a half of recording before Yukari decided to call it a wrap. She was a little distraught that her client appeared to be as depressed as when she had first come in that day. Knowing the thing to cheer up the young blonde, the older woman said, "I've been thinking, Hoshina-san. We need to get your name out there even more, start marketing your diversity. Maybe for our next step, we could record a duet with a more famous musician. Maybe get that dashing new violinist." Utau immediately perked up. "Think you can convince your brother to do something like that?"

Utau's lavender eyes were practically shining as she stammered, "I…I'll ask him tonight."

"Good," the auburn-haired woman nodded. She readjusted her glasses before locking the office and bidding the visibly-happier teenager a good night.

How did it end up like this? Utau thought bitterly when she found herself seated—yet again—next to the grinning idiot.

"All right!" Kukai yelled, unaffected by Utau's foul mood. "The contestants have been assembled. The stage is set. We're ready for the Ultimate Ramen Challenge!" He pumped a fist into the air, caught up in his own excitement. "So here're the rules. You can order whatever you want. Each bowl of ramen is worth a point. Any side dishes, half a point. The one with the most points wins. Think ya can handle it?" he finished with a cheeky smile.

If only to wipe that confident grin off your face, I'll win for sure, Utau resolved determinedly as she nodded in agreement to his conditions.

"I'm so gonna win this," Kukai taunted.

"That's what you think, Souma," the blonde retorted. A spark ignited in their eyes as they lifted their chopsticks and simultaneously shouted, "Go!"

Utau wore a triumphant smirk as she declared, "You lose, kid."

"Who're ya calling 'kid'?" Kukai asked, affronted.

"Someone who was stupid enough to order side dishes when he himself determined they were worth less than bowls of ramen," Utau explained without a hint of patience.

"Hey, ramen can't be fully enjoyed without side dishes. It's like…eating ramen without any toppings!" he protested, viridian eyes widened to further emphasize the blasphemy of such a thing.

"The point of the contest was to see who could get the most points. Not to enjoy the food to its fullest," she pointed out.

"Fine. Next time it will be the most balanced ramen-eating challenge."

"Hold up," Utau said, raising a hand in the air, "who said anything about a next time?"

Kukai huffed before saying, "I've paid for the last two times we've eaten ramen. I think ya owe me at least that much."

"Yeah, sure," Utau sighed noncommittally.

"Awesome," Kukai beamed. "I'll meet ya here next week. Same time."

"And if I don't show?" Utau threatened.

Closing an eye and giving a thumbs-up, he smiled confidently, "You'll show."

Over the next few weeks, it had become increasingly harder to go out in public for Utau, her status as an idol rising more than ever. Thus a few weeks later, Utau arrived at the now-familiar ramen shop sporting a fashionable hat and dark-tinted sunglasses.

"You look like a pop star," Kukai greeted in his boisterous voice. Utau grimaced. She had reasoned with herself that she only came because she never backed down from a challenge. And she was hungry.

"And you look like a kid," she retorted, taking the empty stool next to him. He just grinned in response, eyes closed to further emphasize his excitement.

"Okay! This week's challenge: Ramen Variety Contest! The one who eats the most variety of ramen noodles and side dishes wins," Kukai explained.

Utau knew she was in trouble. She rarely ate anything other than her favorite tonkotsu ramen. But never one to back down from a challenge, Utau's eyes glowered as she said lowly, "Bring it, Souma."

Kukai grinned. "My pleasure, Pop Star."

As winner of their latest ramen challenge, Kukai forced Utau to go to the park with him. Begrudgingly, she followed him while he tried to instigate small talk. She couldn't quite keep up with what he was talking about—something about sports?—but nodded at the seemingly right places.

"So you'll come?" his stupid grin was larger than ever, sea green eyes gleaming at Utau who was beginning to regret her lack of attention as to what and where she had agreed to go. He missed the confusion in the girl's lavender eyes as he continued, "Awesome! I can introduce you to the rest of the gang. They all agreed to come too. Yaya seemed more than happy to come, and Mashiro-san agreed after hearing Hinamori-san and Fujisaki-san were going. Even Hotori-kun said he'd come…" He prattled on, but Utau tuned him out.

Finally arriving at the park, Utau elected to sit on the swing (again) while Kukai took out a soccer ball from the duffel bag he had been carrying with him. He proceeded to show off some of his skills. But after five minutes of dribbling, head-butting the ball, and performing tricky backward kicks, the energetic boy finally noticed the forlorn expression on Utau's face.

"Yo, Pop Star," he called out, failing to see the way she bristled at the name. "What's up? You look like someone just told you that your pet snake died." She glared at him indignantly. "What?" he defended. "I love my snake."

"Only kids would have pets like," she shuddered, "snakes."

"Whatever you say, Pop Star," he cheerfully placated.

Utau's eye twitched at the use of the nickname. "Why do you keep calling me that?"

"The whole hat-and-sunglass look, like you have to hide your identity. It's the cliché disguise for all pop stars, right?" he maintained.

"I guess," Utau conceded.

"'Sides," Kukai beamed, "it's fun to annoy you."

Utau tightened her grip on the swing's chains. "Right, because the only thing kids are good at is joking around."

"So? S'not like that's a bad thing. You're a kid, too."

Utau's eyes darkened to a violet shade as she refuted by saying, "I'm fifteen. I don't play childish games anymore. I even have a job. I'm practically an adult, unlike you."

"How is fifteen any different than thirteen?" Kukai asked baffled.

"I'm more experienced than you. I've lived longer. Do you always speak this disrespectfully to your elders?"

Kukai pulled a face before saying, "Oh, I'm sorry. Should I help you cross the street obaa-san?"

Utau scoffed at his gibe, "Whatever, kid. Play with your ball. I have important grown-up matters to do."

"Have fun with that," the green-eyed boy sounded uncertain, boarding his skateboard to leave. "Don't forget. Soccer fields at Seiyo Academy next Tuesday. Warm-up starts at 4:30. See ya, Pop Star."

Utau made no sign of hearing him, swinging slightly as her thoughts were consumed with grown-up matters.

The next week passed slowly for Utau. What with school and extra time devoted to preparing her first album for release that summer, the opportunity to get a moment's peace to herself was rare. Even at home, she felt her parents were worrying too much. Over what, she couldn't say for sure. She thought maybe it had to do with how she devoted all free time to songwriting. Then again, Ikuto had been staying away from home more so than usual.

Utau had been ecstatic when Ikuto had agreed to accompany one of her songs with his violin. But the fact that he rarely returned home lately was troubling to Utau. What could the seventeen year old possibly be doing? Curious and always looking for an excuse to be with her brother, Utau decided to follow him one night, donning the same hat and sunglasses she had taken to wearing.

With the stealth of a lioness hunting her prey, Utau trailed after Ikuto. The darkness of evening impaired her vision with no help from the sunglasses she wore. But the blonde was stubborn, and continued her pursuit.

She had begun to question Ikuto's sanity (no one in his right mind would walk on top of fences or walls, crouch on roofs, or wander through the sewer—yuck!) when Ikuto paused before a house. Utau had no idea why Ikuto stood before this particular house. There was nothing special about it. Nevertheless, she held her breath seeing Ikuto climb onto the house's second story balcony with the grace and agility of an alley cat.

What is he doing? Utau was confused why her brother would spend his evenings—if in fact he really came to this house every night—climbing a random balcony like he was some modern day Romeo. Utau took a sharp intake of air. Could it be that…? Her heart stopped when she saw a flash of pink through a crack of the curtains behind glass doors of the small balcony. Then the door opened to reveal a girl with cotton candy pink hair.

Utau didn't imagine the smile that lit up Ikuto's face as he began to talk to the pink-haired girl. Unable to watch anymore, the blonde tore her lilac eyes away and stumbled in her haste to leave as quickly as possible.


Why her? Why now?

She felt her heart break a little more with each pounding step she took as she ran blindly. Running to escape from the hurt. To escape from the cruel reality that had been thrust upon her. Feeling she could run no more, Utau leaned against the wall of a building, breathing heavily. She attempted to rub her eyes to stop the blurriness and was surprised to find tears. No, Utau thought determinedly. I can't cry. Only kids cry over something like this. Resolved, Utau began to walk. She couldn't go home. Not yet. She was sure if she saw Ikuto, the tears wouldn't stop.

The blonde wandered aimlessly, unconcerned for her own well-being. She was momentarily startled when she found herself at the park—the same park that had become her place for self-consolation. She sat on the seat, hoping to swing herself into oblivion.

Utau felt ashamed of herself the next day. She had overreacted. She had uncharacteristically thrown down the proverbial towel before anything had even started. Of course this was a challenge. A competition to win Ikuto's affections. And Utau would not lose. Oh no. She had been in the wrong frame of mind the night before—that much was clear to her now. So little miss grade school thought she could steal her Ikuto? That strawberry-headed girl had another thing coming.

No one at Utau's school approached the blonde that day, too frightened at the fire that burned in her violet orbs. Even Yukari was wary around the pop idol during their recording session that afternoon. She had to urge her client to take a break before the young singer broke another microphone.

Thus Utau had walked the increasingly familiar path to the park and rocked her feet to swing herself slightly.

"Yo, Pop Star."

Utau jerked her head up to glare at the usually grinning boy. Except he wasn't smiling.

"What do you want?" she grumbled.

"I was gonna ask why you didn't show at my soccer game. But you look depressed enough for the both of us."

Utau sneered, "What are you talking about, kid?"

Kukai smiled grimly. "I asked you last week, remember? My soccer game was yesterday. You missed it, even though you promised you'd come."

"Well, it's your own fault for believing I would keep such a stupid promise," Utau said haughtily.

"Maybe you really are a pop star," Kukai laughed bitterly. "You sure act like one. Arrogant and unfeeling towards others. All you care about is yourself."

"Shut up," whispered Utau.

"You ignore everyone around you, indifferent towards them unless there's something in it for you."

"Shut up," Utau said louder.

"Oh, the pop star can't be criticized. It'd ruin her image. No one can see the real—"

"SHUT UP!" Utau shocked herself with her loud outburst. Kukai acted surprised as well, but recovered quickly.

Sounding apologetic, he said, "I didn't mean to say it like that. I was just disappointed. I really wanted you to come yesterday." Utau didn't respond. "Hey, did something happen? You can talk to me about it." His grin was back in full force. "I promise I won't make fun of your pathetic life as a secret idol."

"Idiot," Utau said, angrily pushing the heel of her hands into her eyes to prevent the tears threatening to come out. "It's not pathetic, nor is it very secret."

Kukai was confused. "Whattaya mean?"

Did she have to spell it out? Jeez, this kid was dense. "You've been calling me that stupid name for the past week. Is it really that hard to figure out?"

Kukai's green eyes widened as it dawned on him, stammering, "W-Wait…you're really a…"

"Stupid kid," Utau sighed, digging for something in her pocket. She pulled out a small flyer and handed it to the speechless boy.

"Hoshina Utau?" Kukai exclaimed. "Seriously? Oh man, my brothers will never believe this. Wait 'til I tell the gang. I'm actually friends with a real-life idol."

"Hold it," Utau commanded, lavender eyes flashing in annoyance. "Who says we're friends?"

Kukai beamed as usual. "I do. Obviously."

"Nuh uh," Utau denied, emphatically shaking her head. "There's no way I'd be friends with a kid."

A spark lit in Kukai's eyes as he asked, "Wanna do something about it?"

Utau felt the familiar adrenaline of competition. "Are you challenging me?"

"Glad you figured it out. We'll race to the ramen shop. The one who gets there first will be the one to determine if we're friends."

Utau balked. "That's not fair! You're good at sports. You probably run in your sleep. How am I supposed to beat you at that?"

Kukai winked. "Exactly."

"So why was a pop star moping around at a park?" Kukai asked between slurps of his ramen.

"Just because you won doesn't mean we have to start acting chummy," Utau countered.

"Hey, if it wasn't for me, you'd still be on that swing bemoaning your existence instead of enjoying the food of the gods before you," Kukai teased.

"I would hardly call ramen 'food of the gods'," she muttered as her second bowl was placed in front of her.

"You have no imagination," accused the boy.

"And you have too much," the blonde retorted.

"Imagination is good for the soul," he defended, grinning brightly.

Utau rolled her eyes before saying, "I wasn't moping."

"What?" confused where that had come from, Kukai turned to look at her.

"I'm answering your question, idiot," Utau said, slightly hitting the back of his head. "I wasn't moping. I was plotting."

Kukai was more confused than before. "Plotting what?"

The blonde wore a small smirk, a sinister gleam in her eyes as she revealed, "My strategy to defeat that elementary school twerp."

Kukai gulped as he said, "Glad I already graduated. I'd hate to be that kid. You sound like some evil villain when you talk like that." He suppressed a shudder. "What exactly did this kid do to you that you have to…defeat him?"

Utau chuckled darkly. "He is really a girl. It just so happens that she's my rival in love I had no idea existed until yesterday."

The brown-haired boy scrunched up his face. "Wait a minute. This is about some stupid girl thing?" He quailed under the dark look in Utau's violet eyes. "Uhhh…no offense?"

Utau sighed exasperatedly. "You asked me what was wrong. If you don't really want to know, just say that."

"N-No, it's okay. You can talk about…" he grimaced slightly, "that girly stuff."

Utau considered him for a moment. "You act more and more like a little kid." Kukai huffed, but didn't attempt to contradict her. "Tell you what. I have to finish today's recording session. I'll meet you at the park tonight if you really want to find out," she generously offered, gathering up her belongings and starting to think of an apology to give to Yukari about her earlier behavior.

She was already at the door when she heard, "I'll see you there, Pop Star."

He was riding his skateboard on the sidewalk by the park when Utau arrived in the early twilight of evening. She silently watched as he effortlessly forced the skateboard into the air and jumped over the nearby bike rack. He landed without incident and continued to the edge of the sidewalk where his skateboard glided along a ways. He did another jump, this time causing the skateboard to flip once before he landed, and then skid to a stop.

"Not bad," Utau complimented. "Who knew a kid could do some pretty neat tricks with a slab of wood and some wheels?"

Kukai rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. "Nah, these are pretty simple tricks. My brothers are much better at grinding and shove-its. They say my Ollie needs improvement before I can do any serious kickflips." Utau stared at him blankly, causing Kukai to laugh nervously. "Sorry, you probably think I'm speaking another language." Utau hummed an affirmative. "Okay, quick intro to skateboarding," announced Kukai, making Utau raise an eyebrow. The boy ignored her pointed look and brought his foot down hard on the tail end of the skateboard. "So a skateboard is made up of several key components. Deck," he indicated to the base of the skateboard, "wheels, and truck," pointing to the metal that connected the wheels to the board.

Utau nodded, not understanding why the heck he wanted to share this information in the first place. Kukai was too busy to notice her disinterest as he continued, "Some of the most common skateboarding tricks include sliding and grinding, the Ollie, and flips." He did the same jump that he had done over the bike rack. "This is an Ollie. The rider pushes on the end with his back foot to pop the deck. At the same time, he slides his other foot up to the front end so that the board will be level at the peak of the jump. Then to get maximum lift, he brings his knees to his chest, keeping in contact with the deck." He did it again with exaggerated slowness. Utau was surprised to find she actually understood. Wait, she was paying attention?

"Now this," Kukai said as he performed a similar jump, but with the skateboard flipping midair before he landed back on the ground, "is called a kickflip. It's a variation of the Ollie. When the rider slides his foot to the front end, he moves it to the front corner of the skateboard. This causes the board to spin backwards. Then all the rider has to do is place his back foot on the board after one or two rotations to stop it from spinning before landing." He demonstrated the trick again. "Pretty cool, huh?"

Utau was actually smiling. He was eagerly sharing this information with her, and it was hard not to catch his infectious enthusiasm.

"All right, this is a pretty standard trick for skateboarders. Using an edge, a rider can slide or grind, depending on which part of the skateboard they use. For example, it's called sliding when the board touches the edge. But when it's the trucks, it's called grinding." He pushed the skateboard forward with his right foot and moved out to the edge of the curb. The metal of the skateboard against the concrete screeched in Utau's ears causing her to wince and unconsciously close her eyes. The next thing she heard was a low moan.

"Ow…" Kukai was rubbing his elbow, skateboard lying discarded a couple feet from his seated position on the pavement.

"What happened?" Utau asked before she had even fully thought about what she was doing as she knelt down to get a better look.

"Karma," was his bitter response as he winced, touching a sensitive spot on his elbow. "My brothers warned me I wasn't ready for grinding yet. They're going to laugh at me for weeks now."

Gingerly, Utau helped him to his feet and together they walked—limped, in his case—over to a park bench. "Oh yeah," hissing when his arm moved too fast, "that's gonna be sore for a while."

"Should I go to a convenience store and get an ice pack?" Utau asked. She thought better of it and added, "I mean, I can't watch some kid get injured and not help him."

Kukai gave her a thumbs-up and allayed her fears by saying, "No worries. I've been beat up much worse than this. Trust me."

Still doubtful, Utau tightly clasped her hands in her lap, eyes shifting to where his skateboard lay forgotten. Accrediting it to the leftover guilt she felt (despite it not being her fault), she quickly stood up from the park bench and retrieved his skateboard, leaning it against the bench between them.

"Thanks," Kukai smiled. They were silent for another minute before Kukai asked, "So am I gonna hear this story or what, Pop Star?"

Utau fought to keep a smile from her face. Darn, his cheerful demeanor really was contagious. She was feeling happier than she had felt in the last forty-eight hours. "Don't say I didn't warn you, kid. This story has adult content. Viewer discretion advised," she said, slightly teasing.

"Hey, I'm a big kid now. I can handle whatever you throw at me," Kukai winced as he folded his arms in protest.

"Well this story begins, as most stories do, at a beginning," Utau began.

"No kidding," scoffed the boy.

"This was a beginning of changes for a girl who had a pretty happy childhood. She never wanted for anything. She had a loving family, a roof over her head, pretty clothes and numerous dolls and other toys." Utau smiled sadly. "During this particular beginning, the girl was aware of the changes that were happening, though she refused to accept them." She closed her eyes as memory fully immersed her to that day over a decade ago. The day that changed her world completely.

"Onii-chan!" the girl with blonde pigtails wailed. "Onii-chan!" The tears were still flowing as he turned his blue irises on her. "Don't go!" she pleaded. "Onii-chan can stay with Utau-chan and Okaa-san and Otou-san."

The navy-haired boy sighed before kneeling down in front of his distraught little sister. "I have to, Utau-chan. This is my chance to prove myself. I have to go. Chances like this rarely come, even later in life," the seven year old explained. But such mature reasoning fell on deaf ears.

"No!" protested the young Utau. "Onii-chan doesn't have to go so far away. Stay here and play the violin. Please," her voice was hoarse.

Tsukiyomi Ikuto pressed a light kiss to his sister's forehead, "Don't worry. I'll come back. I promise. I'll become one of the best violinists ever."

Utau hiccupped as she hugged him tightly, wishing she could keep him there. I love you, she wanted to say. Please don't leave me. But her parents had told her she was a big girl now, right? Big girls didn't cry. But that was much easier said than done. So the girl clung on to her brother, wishing for something that would never happen. But she needed to act like the big girl Okaa-san and Otou-san said she was. She needed to let him go.

So in her innocence she asked, "When you come back, we'll get married, right? Then I can stay with Onii-chan forever." He gave a sad smile. She still has a lot to learn. Instead of answering her, he ruffled her hair in brotherly affection. Then disentangling himself from her arms, he stood up and walked past the front gate.

With tear-stained cheeks, the five year old girl sniffled and whispered, "Forever," as she watched her brother—her first love—walk down the street and out of sight. "I'll love Onii-chan forever."

Kukai was silent as Utau recounted the day that Ikuto had left to attend an overseas school specializing in music. After five years of that, he spent the next four traveling and exploring music in different cultures, always improving himself. But at the insistence of his parents and sister, he had finally returned home the year before.

"I've always loved him. My parents think it's some kind of phase that I'll grow out of eventually. My brother…he says I don't really feel that way about him." Utau's eyes hardened, glancing at the boy sitting next to her. "You think the same, don't you?" she accused, venom lacing her words.

"No! No, uh, I…" his cheeks were bright red from embarrassment. "Honestly, I don't know what to think."

"As expected of a kid," Utau commented, flicking his head with her forefinger. He sputtered in protest but stopped when she stood from her spot on the park bench. "I better go," she said. "The sun's already set, and my parents are worried enough as it is."

"So…" Kukai began hesitantly, "does this mean we're friends?"

"Idiot," Utau hissed. "You won that stupid race, didn't you?"

Kukai smiled. "Good. Then as your friend, I hope everything works out." In a quieter voice and eyes looking in another direction, he added, "I'll support you."

"Not sure what a kid can do to help me," Utau remarked, "but thanks." She turned to leave, but paused after she'd crossed the street to shout, "Ramen is on me next week."

Utau smiled hearing him yell back, "Don't be late, Pop Star!"

"Did you know my friends are big fans of yours?" Kukai asked one July evening at the park after another of their weekly ramen showdowns.

Utau shook her head before threatening, "You better not have told them anything about me."

Kukai lifted his hands to plead innocent. "I haven't said a word to them. But both Hinamori-san and Yaya were excited to have me listen to their new favorite song." He hit his soccer ball into the air with a knee and then pushed it further into the air with the crown of his head. "You sound pretty decent, Pop Star."

The teenage girl scoffed as she pushed back a strand of blonde hair behind her ears. "You seem surprised about that."

"Maybe," the boy drawled, a teasing gleam in his green eyes. "Course, I almost never listen to pop stars, so I have nothing to compare against. For all I know, the voice on that recording could be synthesized."

"You're such an idiot," muttered Utau.

"Or maybe you hired someone else to sing, and just claimed it was you."

"Once an idiot, always an idiot. Better stick with sports kid, because that's the only thing you'll ever be good at," she said emotionlessly.

"I know," he beamed. "Or maybe aliens—"

Utau figured it was best to ignore the "idiot kid", deciding to focus on swinging instead. Thus she failed to notice when Kukai moved to join her on the other swing and an unofficial competition to see who could swing the highest was held.

"I win!" Kukai shouted.

"No way, brat. I totally beat you," Utau argued.

"You're just a sore loser," he said, sticking his tongue out at her. She turned away in annoyance and disgust. "So what's my prize?"

"Who said anything about a prize?" bristled Utau, her face red from anger.

"Hmm…" the brown-haired boy pondered. "Because I won, you have to stop calling me kid." Utau glowered at him. "For the rest of the day, at least?" She harrumphed, but wordlessly acceded.

"So ki—I mean—Souma, your friends are really fans of mine?" Utau asked, feigning nonchalance.

"Yup," he said. "Yaya is determined that I come with her to Hoshina Utau's first live concert." Grinning at the girl next to him, he added, "I think she's hoping that I'll take her as a date."

"I feel sorry for her. You'd make a lousy date," Utau said lightly, enjoying the protests of the embarrassed boy. "It was a joke. But you make it sound like the idea repulses you."

"Eh?" Kukai was perplexed. "Yaya's like a little sister to me. I can't think of her like that. And my brothers tell me that I'm so obsessed with sports, I'm never gonna get a girlfriend until after high school." He groaned. "But Yaya will figure out some way to get me to promise to go with her and everyone else, I just know it."

"I can get you tickets," Utau offered. "I mean, tickets are free, but I can get you and your friends some pretty decent seats." As an afterthought, she added, "If you want."

"Heh," Kukai grinned. "That'll surprise Yaya and Hinamori-san." His voice turned falsetto and squeaky as he began his impression of a girl's voice, "Kukai! How'd you get these? You're, like, the most awesome senpai ever!" He grinned at Utau's scowling face. "No doubt Yaya will try to give me a bear hug. And I'm pretty sure Hinamori-san would just be happy to have Hotori-kun accompany her. I'd probably have to buy Mashiro-san a joke book to convince her to come. Fujisaki-san probably wouldn't mind either if I invited him. Oh! I should ask that old transfer student…what was his name?"

Utau remembered Kukai mentioning some of these people before, such as the boy who liked to be referred to as a king, another boy who was learning traditional Japanese dance, and a shy girl who loved to do gags. She wrinkled her nose. "You have weird friends."

"You do realize you just indirectly insulted yourself, right?"

Utau instantly reddened as she vehemently denied it, "That's not what I meant. You…ugh! I'll kill you, Souma. I swear one day I will."

"Nah," teased Kukai. "The day you can kill me is the day I stop being good at sports."

"I can break your legs," she threatened, enjoying the thought.

"Then I can play wheelchair basketball."

"I'll break your arms too."

"I'll join the swim team."

Utau was disbelieving. "How would you do that if your arms and legs are in casts?"

"Um…I'll join the chess team and have someone move my pieces for me!" he said desperately.

Utau laughed. "Are you even smart enough to know the rules of chess?"

"That…well…I…um…" he faltered. "I'll get someone to teach me?" his voice full of hesitance.

Utau just shook her head in amusement. "Stop worrying, Souma. If anything happens to you physically to prevent you from playing sports, it will be your own fault."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," he grumbled, viridian eyes cast towards the ground.

"At any rate, you won't be able to play sports if you fail your first term exams," Utau gibed.

Kukai's eyes widened in realization before exclaiming, "Crap!"

It was a hot and humid August day at the park as kids of various ages were playing, enjoying the last few days of summer break. The blonde couldn't resist a smile at their laughing faces while they ran around chasing each other and involving others in their different games. But she couldn't help but feel that she was forgetting something, making the smile disappear from her face as she tried to recall what it might have been.

"I wonder if that frown is permanently etched on your face," she heard his familiar boyish voice tease.

"I could say the same about your stupid grin," the blonde returned.

"It's part of my charm," Kukai explained, trademark grin in place. Utau scoffed, opting to fold her arms across her chest and remain sitting on the park bench. The humor in the boy's green eyes didn't disappear as he sat next to her. In silence, they both watched a little boy throw his ball haphazardly towards a girl playing in a sand box. The young girl started to cry, even though the ball hadn't touched her. But it had ruined the sandcastle she'd been working on. The boy looked regretful as he walked up to her, stammering out an apology. He offered to help her with rebuilding her sandcastle. Rubbing the tears away from her eyes, the little girl gave a slight nod. Within minutes, they were both smiling happily, as if the ball incident had never occurred.

"Kids sure are forgiving and carefree," Kukai commented.

"Mmm," Utau agreed.

"Still think I'm a kid?" he asked lightly, green eyes staring expectantly into her lavender irises.

Utau gave him a critical eye, as if she were the doctor about to confirm or deny the existence of some deadly disease. "You're definitely cheerful enough. And you talk to everybody like they're your friends."

"Right," but something in his tone sounded off, like he was disappointed. Utau couldn't be sure. "So how's the preparation for the album?" Kukai asked, genuinely interested.

Grateful for the change of topic, Utau said, "Great. Sanjou-san thinks everything will be ready by the end of this month. We'll start advertising in September, and with any luck, my first album will be released mid-October."

"Way to go, Pop Star," Kukai congratulated, giving her a high five, which she returned less enthusiastically. "Found a place for that live concert yet?"

Utau nodded. "Sanjou-san and I scouted out several places. There's an outdoor stage nearby that is offering a discount. We're hoping to be able to hold a concert there in November."

Kukai smiled. "Sounds like everything's coming together. I'm glad."

"Yeah," breathed Utau, leaning her head back and smiling widely. She finally felt like she could catch up to Ikuto. Yukari had even told the rising idol that the violin accompaniment was a perfect complement to her voice in the song they had chosen for Ikuto to play. Utau still felt elated whenever she remembered it.

"What's so funny?" Kukai's voice penetrated her musings.

Belatedly, Utau realized she had unconsciously giggled due to her high spirits. "Nothing really. I'm just…really happy. You know?"

Kukai's cheeks turned a fractional shade of pink before stammering, "Y-Yeah. I guess I do."

Utau turned her full attention on the flushed boy. What's up with him? Instead, she asked breezily, "So what's new in the spastic life of Souma Kukai?"

"Well, I've been hanging out with the usual gang. You remember, right? Hotori-kun, Hinamori-san, Yaya, Mashiro-san, Fujisaki-san. Occasionally Sanjou Kairi comes too." Utau nodded. He talked about them frequently during their weekly ramen contests. "Today they threw me a surprise birthday party." Utau froze. "And they each got me something, even though I told them they didn't have to do or get me anything. You know the kind of annoying friends, right?" Utau nodded stiffly, too afraid to admit she'd never had many experiences with friends of any kind. She had always been too busy following Ikuto or working on her songs. "Anyways, they all got me something to aid in my obsession with sports. Except for Yaya." He paused, the pink in his cheeks becoming even darker. "She, uh, kinda told me she likes me. As more than a friend."

"And?" Utau prodded.

"And…and I don't know!" Kukai admitted, the frustration making his voice crack. "I told her I would think about it and let her know later." Utau hit him upside the head. "Ow! That hurt…"

"You really are a stupid kid." Kukai looked baffled at her scathing tone. Why did she have to explain everything to this dense boy? "A girl confessed to you, idiot. Do you realize how much courage that takes? And all you could say was, 'I'll let you know later'? It's precisely for reasons like this that I prefer older men," Utau huffed.

"What was I supposed to say? I'm sure it would've been worse if I said I didn't feel the same."

"Look, kid. When a girl confesses, you have to take your time to word out a proper response, whether it's a rejection or not. If you immediately answer, the girl knows you're not taking her seriously. If you take too long, she'll think you've already rejected her and there goes any hope of retaining a friendship. Always be considerate of the girl's feelings."

"My brothers always tell me that. I thought that's what I was doing," Kukai defended.

"It just prolongs the wait the girl must endure before she receives an answer. And sometimes, that's worse than an outright rejection," Utau argued emphatically. She sighed at the dejected look on his face. "I'm sorry. You got yourself into this. I'm sure you can figure a way out. You two are friends, right?" He gave a small nod. "Then I'm sure you'll work something out. Ask your brothers for advice. You'd probably appreciate a guy's point of view on this kind of thing anyways."

"I guess," he murmured, unconvinced.

"Hey, I'll buy tonight's ramen. As an apology," Utau offered. Kukai brightened a little at the prospect, but Utau could still sense his dismay at possibly ruining a long-time friendship. He was staring at the sand box, where the little boy and girl had finally recreated the sandcastle, better than before. Unconsciously, Utau brought her hand up to Kukai's face, directing his head until he was looking at her. "I kinda forgot about your birthday, so I don't really have a present prepared." The blonde finally realized her hand was still lingering near his jawbone and quickly dropped it, as if his skin would burn her.

"It's okay—"

"No it's not. You're fourteen now. It should be celebrated. So…uh…" she racked her brain furiously to think of an idea of what to give him.

"Really, Pop Star, you don't—" Kukai began again. But stopped when Utau began to sing.

"Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Souma. Happy birthday to you."

Silence reigned between them for a few moments before Kukai whispered, a gentle smile on his face, "One of the best birthday presents ever, Pop Star."

Utau stretched her arms heavenward as she released a yawn. "Great work today, Utau-san," her manager complimented, locking up the office behind them. "That concludes all the necessary recording and remixing. I think we're ready for mass production."

The blonde's eyes brightened at the news. "Seriously? I can't wait to tell…" she paused, embarrassed at her own excitement, "my friend."

Yukari laughed at the girl's enthusiasm. "Enjoy your break Utau-san. We have some major advertising to do in the coming weeks. Autograph signings, press releases, and practicing the choreography for November's concert."

"We'll do our best," promised Utau, her determination making the auburn-haired woman laugh good-naturedly.

Utau all but ran towards the ramen shop, bursting through the door and startling the customers and shopkeeper inside. She mumbled an apology before taking her place beside the green-eyed boy still wearing his soccer jersey and smelling like wet grass.

"Something good happened," Kukai deduced.

The idol nodded emphatically, her sunglasses falling down her nose. Kukai bit back a laugh. Utau ignored him as she folded the dark-tinted shades and called for her regular order of tonkotsu ramen. Finally, she turned to the younger boy and announced in a low excited voice, "I finished recording!"

Kukai beamed happily as he exclaimed, "That's awesome! Way to go, Pop Star. Soon you'll really have to wear that hat-and-sunglass outfit to keep the media and fans at bay."

"Shut up," she smiled, shoving him lightly.

They chatted animatedly as they enjoyed their ramen, their weekly challenges having finally boiled down to a unanimously nonverbal tie (which Utau pointedly ignored). Feeling that her stomach would protest if she took another bite, the blonde girl was unprepared for Kukai's seemingly innocent question, "Would you mind if I had you meet a few of my friends?"

"What brought this up?" Utau asked, groaning slightly at the amount of food she'd scarfed down.

"They always ask me where I run off to every week. I told them I had a weekly competition with a new friend. And of course they were interested in meeting this person. So I kinda agreed that they could come," he added in a quiet voice.

It took a few seconds for Utau to register what he had just said. And then the explosion came. "WHAT? B-But your friends c-can't know about me! I mean, y-you told me they were fans, r-right? Oh no. Oh no no no no…" she trailed off, murmuring "no" under her breath while Kukai tried to reassure her.

"Only a few of them, I promise. Thank the ramen gods that Yaya wasn't around. She's the only one that would go crazy if she met you. No, it should just be Hotori-kun, Hinamori-san, and Fujisaki-san. They'll be nice, I promise. Heck, the lot of them together are nicer than me on any given day."

"Souma," Utau's eyes were frantic. "When are they supposed to come?"

Kukai shifted nervously as he said, "Right about—"

"Hinamori-san, this is the place."

"Thank you, Tadase-kun!"

"Hotori-kun, Amu-chan, I see Kukai-kun over there."

Kukai added sheepishly, "Now?"

There was murder in Utau's eyes as three grade school kids approached their spot at the bar of the ramen shop. The boy—at least Utau thought he was a boy, even though he walked gracefully for one—in the lead had long dark indigo hair and brown eyes, followed by a blond boy with red eyes. Utau's heart stopped when she saw the girl trailing behind them, with short pink hair and golden-brown eyes. She quickly faced forward, hoping to prolong the inevitable of meeting these kids. She can't be the same girl. No way.

"Hello Souma-kun!" greeted the long-haired boy.

"Yo Fujisaki-san!" Kukai greeted back, giving him a high five.

"I hope we haven't interrupted your contest, Souma-kun," said the blond boy in a soft voice.

"No worries, my king," Kukai assured. What the heck? thought Utau. He wasn't exaggerating about that kid. She itched to see the explosion that would erupt by calling the boy a prince, remembering the story Kukai had told her of the boy's fan club dubbing him the prince of the sixth grade. Kukai was still talking to the prince (Utau snickered) as Utau thought of ways to escape unnoticed. Bathroom? No, too obvious. Jump over the counter? Not athletic enough. Act like a stranger and rush the heck out? It will have to do. Utau was about to implement her getaway when the elementary school girl spoke up.

"So where's your friend, Kukai-senpai? I'm curious to know who gets to spend so much time with you."

Out of the corner of her eyes, Utau noticed Kukai flush slightly while he sputtered, "H-Hinamori-san…"

Her plan of escape shot, Utau took a breath to steel her nerves before abruptly turning to face them and greet in a harsh voice, "Hoshina Utau." She watched the recognition form in their eyes like a film in slow motion.

The two boys were the first to overcome their shock and introduce themselves.

"Fujisaki Nagihiko," greeted the effeminate boy.

"Hotori Tadase," the blond prince spoke in his characteristically quiet voice.

"A pleasure, Fujisaki-san and Hotori-san," Utau nodded to each.

"I'm Hinamori Amu. Oh my gosh, I can't believe Kukai's actually friends with you. I'm one of your biggest fans. So are my friends. We all love your single…" Utau's gaze was cold as she regarded the rambling strawberry-headed girl, causing the girl to falter.

Utau turned to Kukai and said the first thing that came to her mind, "Sorry, I have to get going. My family's expecting me." Without waiting to hear any goodbyes, the violet-eyed girl gathered her things, leaving some change for her meal, and walked hurriedly towards the door.

"What's her problem?" she heard the girl—Amu—ask in an annoyed voice.

"I really don't know," was Kukai's bewildered reply.

Utau was on her usual swing when Kukai arrived on his skateboard. She really didn't feel like making any excuses to the boy as to her behavior towards his friends. All Utau wanted to do was cry on Ikuto's shoulder. She wanted to feel loved and supported. And from the look on Kukai's face, she was going to get no sympathy from the younger boy.

"What the heck was that all about, Hoshina?" Utau cringed. He'd never called her that before. He must have been beyond mad.

She didn't help the matter as she snarled, "None of your business, Souma."

"Like the heck it's not," he stood, arms akimbo. "You've just insulted my friend. On top of that, it was Hinamori Amu. One of the nicest and most down-to-earth people you'd ever meet. You seriously have a problem for treating her like that for no reason."

"Who said there's no reason?" Utau muttered.

"Eh?" the boy said, not hearing her response.

"Never mind," the blonde sighed exasperatedly. "Look, I didn't mean to hurt her feelings or anything. I just…blanked." Pausing to regain control over her emotions, Utau confessed, "I was jealous, okay?"

"Jealous? Of Hinamori-san? Why in the holy name of athleticism would you be jealous of the adorably naïve Hinamori Amu?" His attempt to lighten the mood fell on deaf ears.

"Idiot," Utau whispered, pinching the bridge of her nose as she felt the tears coming. She'd come so far. She wouldn't lose to something as silly as this. "That's the girl my brother has been pursuing. She's my rival."

Kukai looked deep in thought as he slowly made his way over to the other swing. Utau went back to staring at the ground. "Geez Hoshina, you've got to give Hinamori-san a break. She probably doesn't even know anything about that. I mean, she told me weeks ago about some high school guy who kept teasing her and following her around. But I'm pretty sure she thought he was joking."

"Of course not," Utau whispered harshly. "My brother has never taken any interest in girls. Until now. He's almost as serious about her as he is about his violin." It broke her heart to admit it.

"If it makes you feel any better," offered Kukai, "Hinamori-san calls your brother a pervert."

Utau looked grim as she said, "It doesn't. Actually, it makes me want to wring that girl's neck for even thinking such a thing about him."

Kukai laughed. "You're overreacting about this. I know for a fact that if you weren't so focused on this…love triangle, you and Hinamori-san would be the best of friends." Utau gave him a disbelieving look. "No, seriously! You're both determined, care a lot for your friends and family, and try to hide yourselves from the world. Deep inside, you're both looking for a chance to shine. Not to mention you both have a tendency to be really stubborn." Kukai's eyes softened a bit. "Maybe that's why your brother likes Hinamori-san so much. She reminds him of you."

"That's stupid. If that were true, my brother would have reciprocated my feelings."

Kukai shifted on the seat of the swing nervously. "That's just it, Hoshina. You have this bizarre notion that it's okay to love your brother in that way, that it'd be perfectly acceptable. But you've told me yourself that your parents are concerned. Why do you think that is?"

Utau really didn't want to answer that. It would mean admitting she'd been wrong for the last ten years. That was worse than a tie. Instead, she abruptly stood up and said, "You're such a kid."

"You always call me that!" Kukai shouted. "I don't get it, Hoshina. You're not even two years older than me. You're a kid yourself. So tell me, what's so different about you that makes you an adult."

Too late, Utau realized the hole she had dug for herself. So she said the first semi-logical thing that came to her mind, "Because I've experienced love. You're too much of a kid to realize what it's like to love someone. The way your heart races when you see that person. And the desire to always be with that person is like an addiction. You can't get enough."

Kukai gave a hollow laugh. "Since the day I met you, you've been pining after someone in a way you shouldn't love—" Utau began to object, but Kukai spoke more emphatically, "—because he can't and won't return the kind of love you want. How does that make you more of an adult than me?" Utau remained sullenly silent. Kukai took that as a sign to continue. "What does love have to do with being an adult? Parents love their kids, and kids love their parents…most days. Teenagers love their friends. Spouses love each other. Love isn't defined by age. For someone who thinks she's an adult, you sure act childishly about this whole love thing."

Utau still refused to speak, staring at nothing in the distance instead. As Kukai walked back to his discarded skateboard, he looked and sounded defeated, saying, "I may be inexperienced in the kind of love you claim that you feel. But it doesn't mean it will stay that way."

Only after he had disappeared from sight did Utau allow the tears to fall.

The next few weeks were the loneliest Utau had ever experienced in her life. It was even worse than when Ikuto had traveled abroad for all those years. She couldn't explain it. Had she really come to depend on that stupid kid? He was immature and slightly full of himself. He hated applying himself to anything besides sports. He'd complain about his brothers, but later laugh it off. Before their fight, she couldn't remember a day where she hadn't seen him without wearing that stupid grin.

Utau tried to convince herself that it was a good thing she didn't see him, neither at the park nor the ramen shop. She was positive that an even more explosive argument would occur if they met again. And with the lack of their competitions, Utau could feel at ease about not having to fear losing anymore.

It was a cool evening near the end of September as Utau sat on a park bench, not really thinking about anything. Her thoughts had no rhyme and followed no pattern. So instead, she had opted to think about absolutely nothing, hoping to fade away into nothingness itself.

She was pulled out of her stupor when a girl greeted her, "Hoshina-san." Utau blinked several times before she could fully focus on the pink-haired girl in front of her. Thinking the idol's disorientation was due to confusion, Amu hurriedly explained, "We met at that ramen shop a few weeks ago—"

"I know," Utau said quietly.

"Oh, well…" the elementary school girl was unsure how to continue.

Utau wondered what had happened to her fighting spirit. Hadn't she promised herself she wouldn't lose Ikuto to this mere slip of a girl? But the blonde felt more emotionally drained than she ever had in her entire life and couldn't find it within herself to put this girl in her place. Instead, she released a loud sigh, and said begrudgingly, "I owe you an apology Hinamori-san. I was out of line, and you didn't deserve it, no matter what I thought at the time."

"Huh?" was the girl's intelligent reply.

"Let's just say, I was participating in a one-sided competition against you."

Confusion was evident in the girl's bright golden eyes as she stammered, "I…I see."

Utau let out a quiet laugh. "So, you think my brother's a pervert?"

Amu's eyes snapped towards Utau's face, sputtering, "Ikuto's your brother?" Utau nodded, enjoying herself at the poor girl's expense. "S-Sorry about that…I mean…if I knew he was your brother…um…" Unable to find the words she wanted to express, she finally admitted, "Actually, I would still call him that. He's such a weirdo, following me around everywhere like some house cat. Although he looks somewhat cute when he's asleep. But then he gets that smug grin every time he…"

Utau watched the girl's indecision with slight fascination. Before she thought through the consequences, she remarked, "You're weird."

The girl's face turned pink in embarrassment. "S-So are you!" she retorted. Belatedly realizing she'd just called an idol weird, she said, "Um…I didn't mean…sorry?"

Utau rolled her eyes. "Why are you apologizing? You really are weird." She paused to examine the girl fidgeting before her. "But you know what, I think I like you."

"Thanks?" Amu had no idea what was going on anymore.

Utau smirked. "I'll give you full permission to torment my brother," she added with a wink.

The pink in the girl's cheeks almost matched the color of her hair as she cried, "Why would I associate with that perverted jerk?"

"Didn't you just say you watch him while he sleeps?" the blonde grumbled to herself. Facing the girl, Utau said, "So Hinamori-san—"

"Call me Amu," the golden-eyed girl interrupted.

"Amu-chan…" Utau tested it out. The other girl beamed.

"Can I call you Utau-san?" Amu asked excitedly. The former girl gave a small nod, surprised when she realized a smile had come on her own face.

"So Amu-chan, why are you here?" It was the first time the idol had met the strawberry-headed girl at the park, and with the regularity Utau had been visiting over the last few months, she was sure the younger girl rarely came here, if at all.

Amu shifted her feet nervously as she confessed, "After our initial meeting, I wanted to apologize in case I'd offended you or something. So I asked Kukai-kun, and he told me you'd probably be here."

Utau stiffened hearing his name. Cautiously, she asked, "So what has that kid been up to lately?"

"Well, I don't see him much anymore," Amu admitted. "He rarely comes to the academy greenhouse anymore. But, last I heard, he's busy preparing for a big soccer game in a couple of weeks. Supposedly it's one of the biggest games of the season. If his team wins, they'll play in the junior division semi-finals."

"Good for him," Utau said, and meant it.

"You should join my friends and me. We're all going to attend and support him. I'm sure he'd like it if you were there too."

Utau wasn't so sure. "I'll have to think about it."

"Please say you'll come, Utau-san," the girl pleaded, grabbing the blonde's hands.

And Utau was helpless to deny those shining animated eyes. "Okay," she resigned herself.

Amu smiled brightly. "Great! I'll give you the details by next week. Can I find you here?"

"Yeah," Utau nodded, smiling slightly. What was with these kids being able to affect her with their contagious smiles? She saw Amu preparing to leave when a sudden thought occurred to her. "Wait. Amu-chan…here," she said offering several small pieces of paper.

"Huh?" Amu looked closer at the paper slips. "Are…are these tickets to your concert?"

Utau nodded. "I promised…that kid," she couldn't bring herself to say his name, "I said I would give his friends tickets to my first live concert." Needing to lighten up the mood, she added, "You better not lose those. They're front row seats, and I can't get copies." The younger girl clutched the pieces of paper tighter.

"Thank you so much, Utau-san! Oh wow. Yaya will be shocked. And I'm sure I can convince the others to come. Oh my goodness…" she continued to gush as she swayed back and forth before finally managing to leave the park.

"So that's Hinamori Amu…" murmured Utau. Maybe the girl wasn't as bad as she had first supposed.

Yukari had begun to worry about her client when she showed up at their recording studio looking depressed more often than not. Hoping to find a source to the problem, she asked the navy-haired violinist when he stopped by the recording studio one afternoon to talk to the moping idol. "And try to cheer her up, or I swear I'll send Nikaidou to scratch your priceless violin."

So it was that Ikuto found himself in Utau's room, not quite understanding the torn look in her eyes. When he softly called her name, she just stared at him emotionlessly. He groaned before threatening, "I'll leave unless you have something to say."

"Ikuto," Utau paused. "You know my feelings for you are stronger than anything I've ever felt before." The young man stared at her impassively. He'd heard this too many times to count, and honestly, he was getting tired of it. "But you're never going to feel the same, are you?" Ikuto didn't let his surprise show. Did his sister finally understand? "I guess I've known ever since that day I saw you at Hinamori's house." So that's it, he thought. "Ikuto, answer me honestly. Do you love Hinamori Amu?"

There was a short pause before he said, "Yes."

Utau smiled sadly. "Then there's nothing more I can do." She turned back towards the song she was writing on her desk, and Ikuto took that as his cue to leave. When he pulled back the door, Utau said quietly, "Don't you dare do anything to hurt her, Onii-chan. Amu-chan's a sweet girl and honestly deserves better than you."

"I know," he murmured loud enough for her to hear.

The door closed, and Utau released a sigh. For the first time in her life, she had willingly given up on winning.

The funny thing about losing is that life goes on. Utau grasped this concept sitting in the stands next to Hinamori Amu and her friends—including the blond and indigo-haired boys she had met previously. She had been introduced to the others upon her arrival. There was a boy with glasses and who bore a resemblance to Sanjou Yukari—Utau was unsurprised to learn he was her younger brother. There was also a really cute, yet reserved girl with long wavy hair of a dark blonde shade. The last girl was the over-excitable Yuiki Yaya, wearing her light brown hair in two childish pigtails. Utau saw that Kukai hadn't been exaggerating when he'd called Yaya a baby in the body of a twelve year old as the girl proceeded to wail Kukai's name trying to get his attention, while crying at the same time when the lollipop she had been sucking on fell beneath the bleachers.

Surrounded by people she didn't know, Utau felt like an imposter. But the joy and energy everyone exuded made her realize that despite losing the one thing she had been fighting to win for most of her life, there was so much more she had yet to experience. This was just one of those life lessons her parents had warned her would come as she grew older. How asinine, Utau thought bitterly. I brought it on myself though.

Unconsciously, her lavender eyes searched through a sea of green jerseys until she spotted him. His brown hair unkempt from running the length of the soccer field and a stupid grin adorning his face, Utau realized just how much she had missed their challenges and talks at the playground over the last month and a half.

Kukai had finally heard Yaya's shouts and began to wave to his friends seated near the front of the stands. His smile faltered a bit when he spotted Utau, but then he was beaming bigger than ever, eyes closed, and waving emphatically towards the blonde. The latter gave a small wave in return, nonplussed at his reaction. He's not mad? was all she could think.

The next two hours were a blur to Utau. She had never been a fan of sports, so she had no idea what Seiyo Academy's soccer couch was shouting ("Use that outside cut I showed you Nogi! Amasawa! Stop flirting and cover for Fujimoto! How many times do I have to say you can't nutmeg a defender more than once Kanzaki? Oooh! Nice faint Souma! Everyone follow Souma's example! A yellow card ref? Watanuki didn't do anything!"), and both teams pounded back and forth across the field. The only thing that Utau recognized was the goal at either end. The blonde girl did her best to prevent from screaming herself hoarse—after all, a singer's vocal cords was his or her most valuable instrument—but that didn't stop her from cheering every time Kukai scored a goal.

When the official finally blew the whistle to signal the end of the game, Utau breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn't sure how much more she could withstand sitting next to sweaty strangers who looked almost as tired as the soccer players after screaming almost nonstop the entire duration of the game. Utau glanced towards the field again and couldn't help the smile that grew on her face when she saw Kukai carried by his teammates, waving a grass-stained soccer ball in the air and wearing one of the biggest grins she'd ever seen. They'd qualified for the play-offs.

Standing amidst his group of friends boisterously chanting Kukai's name, jumping up and down in excitement, Utau quietly acknowledged, "Congratulations, kid."

Utau was taking her time walking through the city in the early evening after the soccer game. She somehow felt refreshed breathing in the air and feeling it cleanse the sensation of crowded bodies. So by the time she arrived at the park, Kukai was already there, riding his skateboard.

She stopped as soon as she spotted him, taking note of how unenergetic his skateboard tricks seemed to be compared to the last time he had enthusiastically imparted his knowledge to her. She saw him do a jump—an Ollie—but he lost contact with the skateboard mid-air. The board landed a few feet away from the boy, who was wincing in pain after landing butt first into the sandbox, his legs hitting the wooden edge with a loud thunk.

"Looks like that hurt," Utau said, deciding to make her presence known.

His green eyes snapped up at the sound of her voice, and he tried to laugh it off as he began to rub his upper legs. "Nah. I've experienced much worse. But coach will definitely be mad when he sees me waddling instead of running at our next practice." He shuddered. "He'll put me through the boot camp from hell again."

Utau nodded uncertainly, having no idea what he was talking about, and then said, "Good job at the game today. You were great."

"Wasn't I?" he grinned cheekily. She shoved him lightly, fighting to keep a smile off her face. "So Pop Star, what've you been up to since I last saw you?"

Briefly, Utau recalled the events that had led to their momentary falling-out. "Nothing new, really," she said, taking a seat on the ground next to the sand box, noting how he continued to rub his legs while gritting his teeth. "What about you?"

"Same old, same old," he said. This time, Utau could see how unfocused and lifeless his eyes appeared to be despite the trademark grin plastered on his face.

"Souma?" he turned to look at her, eyes still devoid of light. "I wanted to apologize for what I said. You know, the last time…we saw each other."

Heedless of the piles of sand around him, Kukai laid down with a dull plop, hands stretched behind his head. "Hinamori-san told me she talked to you. Sounds like you two became friends."

"You were right," Utau admitted. "She really is a nice girl. I'm glad I got a chance to meet her properly."

Kukai's eyes were closed, and it would have looked like he was sleeping if he hadn't asked, "So Hinamori-san gets a ticket to your concert, and I don't?"

"Idiot," she teased. "Maybe I didn't want to give one to you because you said some pretty harsh things to me last time, and I thought you wouldn't want to go." Kukai sat up a bit, leaning back on his elbows as he began to object. "Don't worry. You're ticket's right here," she placated, pulling the small paper from her bag.

"Sweet!" he exclaimed, laying back down in the sandbox and gazing up at the ticket. "Front row seats, eh?"

"Whatever. If you don't like it, I'll give you a ticket in the very back at my next concert."

A little bit of light had rekindled in Kukai's green eyes as he taunted, "Who says I'll want to go after hearing how bad you'll be at your first concert?" Utau opened and closed her mouth in protest. Kukai laughed. "You look like a fish. Maybe I should call you that instead of Pop Star."

"That's not funny, Souma!" taking more offence than necessary.

"Au contraire, Fish, it's hilarious."

"Souma…" she growled.

He put his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay. I promise the only nickname I'll give you is Pop Star."

"Honestly, how can you joke about my concert like that?"

Kukai smiled, "That's what friends do. We joke around. We laugh about the things that worry us. We cheer each other up. Help them realize everything isn't as bad as they think it is. No matter how stressed you feel, you'll forget it by laughing with your friends."

"For a kid, you sure are smart about these kinds of things," Utau observed.

"I thought you'd stopped calling me that," Kukai groused.

"Why are you so upset by it?" Utau asked honestly.

"Because I'm not a kid," he said petulantly.

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes at his hypocrisy, she threw back, "That's not a good enough reason." He frowned and closed his eyes again, refusing to answer. Utau let out a frustrated groan. "You don't want me to call you a kid, and yet you act like that." He stuck out his tongue. "I rest my case."

They sat in silence, the sky darkening overhead as the sun began its descent. "So how are things between you and Ikuto?" Kukai finally asked.

Utau regarded him, seeing that his eyes were once again lifeless. "I've given up on him," she quietly admitted. "He's determined to pursue Hinamori Amu. I've accepted that."

"Liar," the dull green-eyed boy accused. "You're face says otherwise."

"I'm trying to accept it," Utau amended. "I really am. I guess…I unconsciously knew this day would come. The day I would have to give him up. But I refused to accept it. So I clung to the hope that he would eventually love me back." She exhaled sharply. "A stupid and pointless hope."

"You're crying," Kukai observed. Utau hadn't realized it. Hadn't she cried enough? Didn't she promise herself to not be weak about this? She wiped furiously at her eyes, trying to destroy the evidence.

"I want to be happy for him," Utau tried to explain. "I really do. But it hurts. It hurts so much, and I don't know why." The tears were falling quicker than she could catch them. "I hate this. I feel so useless. My heart feels like it's been broken into so many shards that there's no chance for repair."

Utau was shocked when she felt her head collide with his chest, arms wrapped around her shoulders. "During times like this," his voice was a quiet hum, "you should lean on your friends. When you feel like falling, let them help you back up. Trust them." Utau sniffled. "Trust me."

"Okay," Utau whispered, letting the pain wash away with the tears she stained on his soccer jersey as he continued to hold her, supporting her, praying the pieces of her broken heart would someday mend.

Kukai spotted Utau sitting in their usual seats at the bar of the ramen shop, greeting her with a boisterous, "Yo, Pop Star!"

"Souma," the blonde acknowledged without looking at him.

"I got your text. You really want to hold a ramen challenge the day before your first concert?" he asked as he took the chair next to her, a smile etched on his face in humor.

"Afraid to lose, Souma?" she finally turned her lavender eyes on him.

Kukai faked a yawn. "In your dreams, Pop Star."

Utau looked smug. "Here are the rules. You eat whatever I order. If you can't finish it all, I win."

"That's it?" Kukai grinned. "Piece of cake." Confidence oozed from his gestures as he stretched his arms before him in a warm-up. "Do your worst, Hoshina."

"Oh, I intend to," Utau smiled as the order she had placed earlier was put in front of the soccer player. Five extra-large bowls of tantanmen ramen along with four side orders of fried rice and a single glass of water. Kukai gulped nervously. "Scared yet?"

Determination settling in his bright green eyes, Kukai shook his head and said, "Of what? I'm so gonna win this." He looked expectantly at her. "So what's the prize?"

"Besides the satisfaction of winning?" Utau asked. "Hmm…the loser has to do whatever the winner wants him to—"

"Or her," Kukai interjected.

"To do for a day," Utau finished.

The boy nodded, agreeing to the conditions. Then he noticed something amiss. "Aren't you going to eat anything?"

"Nope," Utau grinned. "I have to make sure you don't cheat. So I'll be watching your every move."

Kukai grimaced. "Geez, you just destroyed the trust in our friendship," he moaned. "Guess I'll have to win it back by proving you wrong, Pop Star." Picking up his chopsticks, he yelled, "Game start!"

The first mistake was eating all the fried rice first. Not only did it allow more time for the rice to expand in his stomach, but when it came time to eat the spicy ramen, he had to refill his glass of water several times. Instead of using the rice as a relief from the fire in his mouth, he had to consume more water than needed, filling up his stomach faster.

Utau was already beaming in triumph by the time Kukai reached the fourth bowl, looking a little green. "Do you give up?"

"No—" and immediately threw a hand to his mouth when he felt the gag reflex.

The blonde narrowed her eyes and warned, "You better not puke over my new bag, Souma. It's my birthday present from Ikuto. He gave it to me this morn—"

"You're a sick and vile woman," Kukai retorted, once he had regained control over the bodily impulse. "I accept defeat. Geez, that was worse than the time my brothers dared me to eat the sashimi after it had gone bad."

"Sorry," Utau offered, sounding only slightly sincere.

The brown-haired boy took a few deep breaths to make sure he wouldn't be sick. After he was sure his stomach would stop protesting, he said, "So Pop Star…I'm yours to command for the day." Warily, he asked, "What exactly do you have in mind?"


"Dang it Hoshina, I can only push you so high. I'm an athlete, not an escaped circus strongman!" the boy complained while Utau continued to laugh happily as the wind whipped her hair across her face. Kukai pushed her a few more times before falling down in exhaustion. "I'm taking a break, woman. You were seriously asking too much of me to push you on the swing for the last half hour." He looked at his limp arms. "At this rate, I'll fail the tryouts for basketball next month. Okazaki-sensei will murder me…"

Utau ignored him, choosing to bask in the carefree world that was freefalling, before gravity finally made its claim, and she eventually slowed to a stop. The swing's inertia was still in effect within her body, so she slightly wobbled when she stood up only to fall to the ground next to Kukai. The boy stared at her in confusion as she began to giggle uncontrollably.

"Uh…Hoshina? You alright?"

The giggling stopped, but a huge smile was still on Utau's face as she reported, "Never better!"

"You're acting more like a kid than me right now," Kukai remarked, wincing slightly as he said kid.

Utau laughed. "You might be right, but I could care less at the moment." She smiled happily, as she confessed, "I haven't enjoyed a birthday as much as this one."

Kukai nodded as if in understanding. Then her words finally processed, and he sputtered, "Y-Your birthday's…today?" Utau confirmed this with a quick nod of her head. "Why didn't you say so earlier?" His eyes widened in comprehension, "The ramen competition. You set me up!" Utau didn't deny it. "You wanted me to lose so that… Geez, I would have just accepted defeat instead of eating to the point of wanting to empty my stomach, you know."

"Where's the fun in that?" Utau joked.

"You wanted me to celebrate your birthday with you, so you set up that elaborate plan. Sneaky girl, you could have just asked," Kukai grinned cheekily.

"Ah, ah," the blonde responded, wagging a finger at him. "Today's my birthday. I can do whatever I want. Including playing pranks on you, Souma."

"Is that so?" he asked, a peculiar gleam in his green eyes. Unaware of his calculating gaze, she nodded emphatically. And then froze when she felt something wet touch her cheek. What the…?

"Souma, did you just…" He quickly wiped the offending finger against his pants to rid it of the excess saliva.

"I never got to play any pranks on you during my birthday," he explained.

"You can't do that. It's against the unwritten code of birthday conduct."

"Unwritten, eh?" Kukai continued, "Then I want a refund on my birthday present."

"Idiot," she called him, hitting the back of his head. "You can't get refunds for something that happened over two months ago. Besides," she sniffed, "how exactly am I supposed to refund something that wasn't physical?"

"By giving me the time back," he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Let me know when the first successful time machine is built. I'll make sure that's the first thing I correct," she goaded.

"The first thing…what else would you change?" Kukai asked curiously.

Thinking it over, she decided, "I would go back to the day I kissed Ikuto—"

"You kissed your brother?" he asked, shocked.

"Like I was saying, I'd go back and make sure I didn't do such a sloppy job."

"This is really too much information," Kukai muttered.

"You asked," Utau pointed out, like it was his fault. "What about you? What would you change?"

Kukai gave a small smile and said, "That's a secret."

"Jerk," Utau smacked his arm.

"And yet," a spark in his green eyes, "I'm okay with that."

"Jerk," she called him again.

"If I'm such a jerk," Kukai began, "why am I here celebrating your birthday with you?"

"Because if you didn't, I would take back that ticket for tomorrow's concert," she threatened unconvincingly.

"No way, Pop Star. You gave me that ticket out of your own free will. I'm not giving it up to anyone," he avowed with a grin. "Besides, when you get stage fright, you'll need someone in the audience to make faces at you, right?" he joked.

Utau gulped. "That might make things worse."

"So birthday girl—who didn't tell me it was her birthday until just now—needs a present. What should I give the forgetful girl?" he teased.

"I really don't wa—" Utau stiffened at the unfamiliar feeling traveling throughout her body when he closed the distance between them, kissing her cheek.

She was still disoriented when Kukai laughed, "You should look at your face. You look like someone on Novocaine."

"What the heck, Souma?" she finally broke from her momentary shock.

"It was my birthday present to you. You gave me a present. It was the first thing I could think of since you never told me it was your birthday." As if that explained why he had done that.

"Whatever, idiot," she scoffed, hoping the flush she felt wasn't present on her cheeks. She'd never been kissed on the cheek before by someone who wasn't related to her, and it was…different. Neither good nor bad. Just different.

Taking her silence for another reason, he asked, "Are you seriously worried about your concert tomorrow? You've been practicing for weeks. I know you'll be fine, Pop Star. But just in case," his hand formed a fist and he lightly tapped her forehead, "here's a good luck charm for the birthday girl."

"And how's that supposed to help?" the blonde asked skeptically.

"Just trust me," he grinned.

Utau gave a small smile, feeling a bit happier than before. I do, Souma.

Never in her life had Utau felt as energized as she did throughout the concert. She had been shocked at the number of fans standing in the aisles after every seat had been occupied. Security hadn't been pleased, forced to escort most of them out due to fire hazards. But despite the setback, everyone's energy fed into Utau until she no longer felt the apprehension she had experienced for the last few days.

And when she had started her first song…wow! It was like she was no longer her own person. She felt herself becoming part of a greater design, one that thrived in music and empowered others through it. She'd even forgotten she had an audience during the number she performed with Ikuto as accompanying violinist.

The energy was still thriving in her veins as she made her way to the park after the concert. She was too worked up to go home, wanting time away from her family and the celebratory dinner they were holding in honor of the successful concert. Instead, she sat down on a bench, watching the occasional car drive past.

Reviewing the concert's success and trying to commit every detail to memory, Utau sat in solitude. An unbidden smile came to her face when she recalled the people who sat in the very front row, supporting her with their encouraging smiles and cheers (especially the ecstatic Yaya).

The blonde girl remembered Amu's reaction of surprise when Ikuto came out to play his violin, quickly becoming a gentle smile hearing the mellifluous sound. For the first time, Utau no longer regretted letting this girl get close to her brother. Amu had been able to do something for Ikuto that his own sister could not do. The navy-haired boy smiled more often, and his sullen personality seemed considerably brighter after spending time with the pink-haired sixth grader. Utau knew it was all thanks to Hinamori Amu.

Utau laughed quietly to herself thinking about the reserved Mashiro Rima who had been shouting almost as much as Amu and Yaya, although Utau thought she might have heard the younger blonde yell something that sounded like, "Bala-Balance!"

Then there was Fujisaki Nagihiko who had randomly began to dance during Utau's rendition of a traditional Japanese folk tune. And Hotori Tadase who had been hovering protectively around Amu. Yuiki Yaya yelling her excitement for the entire country to hear, while eating the cotton candy Kukai had bought, acting like the little sister the green-eyed boy had always seen her as which she had finally accepted. And Kukai…

Souma was Souma, Utau had decided. He had yelled and whooped between each song, giving his full attention while she sang. More than once, Utau saw him wearing a small sad smile, but would force his usual grin when he sensed her eyes on him. She wondered what was wrong to have caused the soccer player to make that expression. It made her heart clench seeing that look, feeling helpless to do anything about it. Since when have I ever cared about that kid's feelings… No, that wasn't true. Hadn't she been calling him "kid" less often? Because it upset him? She had felt guilty about the things she'd said to him weeks ago. She'd miss competing against him, talking with him…being herself around him.

Maybe that was the answer. Before Souma Kukai, the lonely violet-eyed girl had distanced herself from everyone, scared to let them know the real Utau. But that stupid Souma… He'd butted into her life, completely turning it upside down so that Utau could never go back to how things used to be. For the first time in her life, she had friends. There were others she could talk to about anything under the sun, and—unlike her usually-cold brother—they wouldn't mind. And then yesterday… The blonde gave a slight shiver remembering his lips touching her cheek, even though she felt warmer than normal for a November evening. She had stumbled more than once that day, whenever the memory had come unbidden to her conscious, before deciding vehemently that it was all the stupid kid's fault.

But there was something about that boy with his ever-present smile that calmed Utau even on the days she felt everything was completely hopeless. It had slowly become an addiction. She'd had a taste of his drive, his energetic disposition, the spontaneous wisdom he'd occasionally share. But it wasn't enough. She found herself wanting to know more about his dreams and aspirations, besides being a professional soccer player. She wanted to hear more about his childhood, his annoying brothers, his secrets and embarrassing moments. Her desire to know everything about him, good and bad, might overwhelm her sanity.

"Kukai…" she whispered, surprised at the thrill that ran through her just by uttering his name.

"What's up, Pop Star?" The blood drained from Utau's face as her heart stopped beating. Kukai was standing in front of her, hands shoved in jean pockets, trademark grin in place, and a teasing look in his jade green eyes.

"W-What are you doing here?" stuttered the shell-shocked idol.

"I wanted to congratulate you on a job well done. Tonight was awesome." As an afterthought, he joked, "You were pretty good too."

"Thanks…" Utau had no idea what to do. Her heart was beating again, but at an unnaturally fast pace, and she knew if she tried to stand up, her legs would be shaking like jelly. What's wrong with me?

Kukai took the seat next to the speechless girl on the bench. He removed his hands from his pockets to place them behind his head. Casual and complacent, with no worry in the world. What do I say? Utau thought frantically.

He broke the silence first. "Remember when we had that argument here back in August?" Utau nodded, wishing she could forget. "I said some pretty harsh things to you."

"But they were true," Utau murmured.

"Doesn't mean it was right for me to say them," he countered. "Well, I've been thinking about it…" he paused, trying to collect his thoughts. He started again, "Remember the time machine conversation we had yesterday?"

"What about it?" Utau was really confused where he was trying to go with this change of topic.

"The thing I'd go back and change would be that fight I had with you," he confessed. "I wouldn't have said some of the things I said. I never realized how much our friendship meant to me until we stopped talking."

The blonde girl took a breath before saying, "I hate to admit it, but the same goes for me. You're such a persistent guy, I guess I just got used to you hanging around."

Suddenly, Kukai stood up. "But maybe, it was better that way. We wouldn't have realized that. For me…" he clutched his hair in frustration. "Dangit, I didn't mean to say all this."

"Say what?" Utau asked curiously, standing up when he refused to face her. "Souma?"

His dull eyes looked at her. "Do me a favor."


"Call me Kukai." His eyes seemed to beg. And Utau couldn't refuse.

"Ku…kai…" Feeling her cheeks heat up, that same tingling sensation ran through her body. She looked up at him to gouge his reaction, but was struck by another thought, Tall. Has he always been taller than me? Why haven't I noticed before?

"Would you mind if I called you Utau?" he asked.

Another tingle went down her spine. "S-Sure."

He stepped away from her and he inhaled before saying, "There's something else I would have changed that day." Utau was beginning to get annoyed. Since when did Souma Kukai act so bipolar? "I wouldn't have lied about never having experienced love." He paused, and then feeling the need for clarification, added, "The non-familial kind."

"So? Honestly, I'd be more surprised if you really hadn't experienced a crush before…" Utau said trying to lighten the atmosphere.

"That's not why I'm telling you this," he moaned.

"Kukai?" Something was really upsetting the brown-haired boy for him to look as he did, hands clenching into fists at his side, breathing loudly, before he looked her straight in the eye, determination blazing in his green irises.

"I like you."

"Wha—you're jo…"

"I'm not joking, Utau." His eyes were the most serious she had ever seen them. He took a deep breath and continued. "I've liked you for a while. But you were so obsessed about Ikuto, that I felt I'd never get a chance. Do you have any idea how jealous I was of him? And even after you claimed you were over him, I could tell there were doubts. But," he released a frustrated groan "I can't keep lying to myself. I really like you, Tsukiyomi Utau."

She was still dazed. How…? When…? Why?

"I like eating ramen with you. I like the way your eyes light up when you sing. The way your face gets this determined look every time I challenge you to something. Happy, sad, angry, excited…I like it all." His eyes finally looked away from her. "But I know you don't feel the same. And that's okay—"

Utau stepped forward. With one hand gripping the collar of his shirt and the other grasping the back of his neck, she brought their faces together. Her nose knocked painfully against his, but the pain was forgotten as she felt the warmth flooding throughout her body at the contact of her lips on his. As quickly as it happened, Utau pulled back, her hand still clutched to his shirt. She breathed heavily for a few moments, trying to regain a sense of her former self. Unconsciously licking her lips, she was surprised to taste cotton-candy—even more surprised at the craving to taste it again. She giggled when she saw the shock registered on the green-eyed boy's face.

"Sorry," she whispered breathlessly. "I didn't mean to collide into your nose like that." A smile was inching its way on Kukai's face.

"Wow, Pop Star. I didn't think you'd be the one to do that."

"Neither did I," she admitted. She was about to remove the arm around his neck, when he raised his hand to keep it there. A gentle smile rested on his face and his eyes were bright as he brought his other arm across her back.

"So does this mean what I think it means?" he teased.

"Stop acting like such a kid," she grumbled, failing to keep the smile off her face.

"You just called me a kid. I think you need to be punished," his voice was a low murmur.

Their faces were inching closer, until their foreheads finally touched. "And what exactly does that entail?" Utau asked, grinning.

"This!" he yelled, as he forcefully picked up Utau and gently threw her into the sand box.

"Kukai!" she sputtered. He snickered mischievously at the expression on her face. She was pouting as he offered his hand to pull her out. Noticing too late the gleam in her eyes, he found himself sitting in a large pile of sand next to a grinning Utau.

Lying back on the sand pile, Kukai smiled contentedly at the stars twinkling in the sky. Utau joined him in watching the small pinpricks that could rival the sun if they were to reach them. Simultaneously, their hands stretched across the sand until they made contact, grasping the other's hand lightly. Maybe I'll let him know I've changed my mind about younger guys.

"Hey! Doesn't that group of stars look like a soccer ball?" Kukai asked excitedly, using his free arm to point it out to the slightly irritated blonde. Nevertheless, she couldn't help the smile spreading across her face.


Disclaimer: Shugo Chara! belongs to Peach-Pit. Mentions of other characters belong to their respective copyright owners. If you have in fact read this entire story, congratulations! On the other hand, if you scrolled down to the bottom to skip to the "good stuff", then you should know that your souls have become tainted and your dreams have been turned into X eggs. Except there are no guardian characters to save you. Poor unfortunate you. "The Little Mermaid" belongs to Disney (and Hans Christian Anderson…who is dead).