She was outstanding in every way in Akihiko's eyes.
She was so much different than those fan girls that would continuously hound him on a daily basis; he liked her as a friend. He was willing to go training with him, and even hang out to eat Gyoza every once in a while.
Her cheerfully bright red eyes entranced him, vaguely reminding him of his long lost sister, and her voice was encouragingly sweet. Her hair was a vivid auburn, bright in comparison to Mitsuru's maroon. The way she dressed was cute- no, in fact, she was cute. She didn't always smile, but when she did, it seemed like he was looking at the most perfect thing in the world.
As the days passed, Akihiko noticed that she never seemed to have a regular routine; one day she could be hanging out with Junpei, the next returning from the dorm with Fuuka with sweet smells clinging to their uniforms, or chatting eagerly with Yukari. It wasn't just limited to that too. She had joined a myriad of clubs, and in turn hung out with exceedingly different people. The Student Council, the Health Club, the Tennis Team… and that was only to name a few. On Saturdays she would cheerfully venture out of the dorm and return with takoyaki, or a book tucked carefully under the crook of her arm, or sometimes with a somber look. Sometimes she would leave in the evening and return to the dorm around midnight with the pungent scent of cigarettes clouding about her.
She was worrying, that girl.
He liked to think that he knew her well, but sometimes she seemed so unpredictable. There seemed to be so little that he knew about her.
She always seemed so vibrant, so strong. Even during their escapades and explorations through Tartarus, she was the lively leader that could lift everyone's hopes. The leader that would constantly do everything within her power to protect her fellow team mates. Still, that didn't stop her from being reckless at times.
Akihiko didn't like to see her hurt. In fact, Akihiko had found her name on a list of things he wanted to protect, and immersed himself in training harder than ever.
However, today wasn't the case.
It was a Sunday; rather than going on a morning jog, he spent precious minutes rolling his phone in his hand, before finally calling her cell phone to hang out. She said 'yes', much to his delight.
At first, he contemplated on taking her out to the Beef bowl place to have the usual, or maybe to Hakegure for some Ramen, but those seemed out of the question. He always brought her there anyway- not that she ever complained. Maybe a change would be in order.
Changall? No, he never went there. Wakatsu? No, he'd never once stepped into that shop. Wuck? No, that stuff was unhealthy, and something that only tasted good after a long once in a while.
…Maybe the Sweet shop? She said that she liked going there. Even though he wasn't too fond of sweets (with the exception of sweet fries and pancakes), maybe this would make her happy…
The auburn-haired girl was absolutely elated. Shocked at first, but happy definitely. They were now inside the sugary smelling shop, where she was thoroughly enjoying the strawberry shortcake that she had finally settled on. Akihiko had ordered a coffee cake that was still a tad too sweet to his liking, but good nonetheless.
"So, sempai," She began, her voice chipper. "I never knew you had a taste for coffee."
"Well… I drink it once in a while, but not often. I heard that athletes that drank some before exercise had an enhanced performance in running." He said, shrugging.
"Is it good?" She asked, tilting her head slightly. She looked cute when she did that.
"I guess." He replied, before blinking. "Do you want a bite?"
"Can I?" She beamed, causing a small smile to form on Akihiko's lips. Nodding his head slightly, she took that as her cue to smoothly stab her fork into the coffee cake and lift away a bite-sized morsel. She seemingly admired it for a moment, before popping it into her mouth.
"How does it taste?"
"Mm." Hamuko giggled. "Coffee has a 'grown-up' flavor to it, you know? It's bittersweet, but it's still delicious."
"A 'grown-up' flavor, huh." Akihiko mused for a moment, thinking back to the time he saw Ken fiddling with the dorm's coffee machine. "…"
"Is something on your mind, sempai?" She asked casually, after taking another bite of her cake. Her trademark ponytail bounced as she lifted her head up, white hairpins shining dully with ruby red eyes meeting his grey ones.
"Reaaally?" She said with a coy smile. "Come on, if you want to say something, go ahead!"
"It's nothing, honest." He tried, but she would have none of it.
"I'll answer any question, limited time offer!" The auburn-haired girl laughed at her last line, confusing Akihiko.
But, answer any question? That was certainly something… but what could he ask? No, what should he ask? His mind was at a blank.
So she was counting down now?
She wasn't kidding. Oh crap.
Let's see… What did she always listen to with her earphones? What kind of things did she do when she came back to the dorm late? What was her favorite thing to do? Were her eyes always that brilliant of a color? What did she enjoy doing the most? What did she like in a person? Who-
-Who did she like?
"One…" She smiled dangerously, letting her voice trail off rather dramatically.
"Why-" Akihiko suddenly blurted, unable to stop himself. "Why do you always wear hairpins in your hair?"
She blinked at him, giving the boxer the impression that this wasn't the question she was expecting him to ask.
"I'm not saying that you don't look bad or anything," He said awkwardly, almost flustered at himself for asking such a mundane question. "But since I met you, you've always had them in your hair." Which was true; there hadn't been a day where he hadn't seen her without the glossy white hairpins. "Why is that?"
"Ah…" She blushed somewhat. "Well, there's a funny story behind that- well, it's not really funny." She laughed awkwardly. "It's boring, actually, and kinda silly… Do you still want to hear it, sempai? I don't want to bore you-"
"You never bore me." He stated plainly. He didn't mean to interrupt her, but what else could he say? She never did. She blushed harder for a moment, before looking at her cake.
"Well," She began to say as the blush left her face and she lifted her head back up. "It was ten years ago- my brother gave it to me as a birthday present."
"You have a brother?" He asked with a bemused expression.
"I've never mentioned him?" She said quizzically, puzzling Akihiko further. "Anyway, I was helping my mom bake a birthday cake while my brother and dad went out because of an 'emergency'. Eventually, we finished baking and decorating the cake so we waited for them to come back, but they didn't come home until hours later after dinner got cold!"
"They stood you up?"
"No, of course not!" The auburn-haired laughed jovially. "When they finally came back, Dad had a giant bouquet of pink roses in his arms, saying that he bought it because he was thinking of me and mom. And my brother, the first thing he did was that he walked up to me and told me to close my eyes."
Akihiko found himself smiling. "What did he do?"
"I'm getting to that!" She said hastily. "I closed my eyes, and he took me by the hand and started shifting around. When he told me to reopen my eyes, I was standing in front of a mirror, and the hairpins were in my hair. It looked messy; He must've tried making them look neat, but he couldn't. He looked so ashamed, now that I remember, but he said, 'Happy birthday, Hamuko.'" The red-eyed girl smiled fondly whilst toying with the white hairpins. "When I asked him why he got me hairpins, do you know what he said?"
"What'd he say?"
"'I… I thought that they'd look good on you.'" She murmured softly, as if trying to imitate the exact way he said it. "I later learned from my dad that my brother begged him to take him to the mall so he could find me a present 'to make this birthday special'. It took so long because he was trying to find something 'perfect'."
"That was nice of him." Akihiko commented.
"Yeah… my brother was a lot more thoughtful than I was. He was my cool, selfless, big brother. I bet if you knew him, you'd think so too! I promised that I would get him something so amazing that it would knock his socks off on our next birthday… but that never came." A bittersweet smile graced her lips. Akihiko realized what territory he had been stepping in.
Akihiko gave a solemn look. "…The accident?"
She nodded quietly. "…Yeah."
"…I'm sorry." He murmured. "If it means anything, I know how you feel. I know what it's like to lose a sibling."
She remained uncharacteristically quiet. Akihiko decided to fill the silence.
"I won't say that I know what it feels like to lose a brother… He began, attempting to comfort her somehow. Why couldn't he be as good as she was at this kind of thing? While he tried to start again, it became very apparent that he had lost his train of thought. "…Sorry." He tried hiding a grimace at his inability to explain himself, but she caught it anyway.
"It's okay, sempai." She gave him a slight smile. That was an improvement, right? "Say, you said I reminded you of… Miki, right?" She said carefully. "Why's that?"
"… I'm not trying to replace you for her or anything. But… you just remind me of her. She was always so cheerful, but she would get bullied by other girls because she was so little. Not that I'm calling you weak. You're the opposite, if anything, but…" He murmured quietly, cupping his hands while recalling the events of days long gone. "I just wanted to protect her and make her happy… but I…" He couldn't find the words to continue. Instead, he just shook his head.
The auburn-haired girl gave him a worried look. "Akihiko-sempai…"
"What I'm trying to say is how I felt towards Miki…" Akihiko said awkwardly, meeting Hamuko's gaze. "That's probably how your older brother felt towards you. That said, I'm letting you know now that I want to protect you too. I don't know the reason why, but I just do." He tried to elaborate, but failed miserably. "You're our Leader. You're… different." He said decidedly, hoping that she wouldn't take offense at his choice of words. There was no other way to explain what he felt.
After another moment of silence, Hamuko smiled warmly and took another bite of cake. "Thanks, sempai. You know, I bet my Onii-chan would've said the same thing. I never said it before, but the reason why I wear them is because of him. Just to remind myself." She smiled softly before eating the last of her cake. Akihiko nodded quietly, imagining the time she dedicated every morning to place them in her hair. "That's the story behind these hairpins. Silly, huh?"
"Not at all." He rebuked. Akihiko felt that he had definitely learned something new about her today. Unconsciously, he wondered whether he would ever become that precious to the auburn-haired girl. "Just curious… but how old was he?"
"If he were alive, he'd be my age. We were twins." She supplied silkily.
Akihiko blinked, and internally cursed himself for not taking up the hints. "I see..."
There was an awkward bout of silence.
"So, sempai..." Hamuko began to say.
"Err- yeah?" He stuttered.
"Are you going to finish your cake?" She asked with a decidedly sweet smile.