flowers without, will

The classroom is full of people with unfamiliar faces. In a class almost twice as large as the one she had in elementary school, Mayaka doesn't know how she's going to make friends. It's the first day of junior high and she's already doubtful. Definitely not a good way to start her school year.

A boy plonks himself down on the seat next to hers. He's small in stature – smaller than the average thirteen-year old male, at least – but his presence is remarkable. The excitement on his face is out of place here. Everyone else is still scrambling to adjust to the new school, making friends like it's a requirement rather than a choice. His school bag is a fancy purple and in his left hand is a drawstring pouch printed with butterflies.

"Hi!" he beams.

"Hello," she says, hating how her voice sounds meek. She's braver than this.

"There are a lot of people in our class, huh?" the boy observes.

"Yes, and I know none of them," Mayaka sighs to herself.

"Oh, that girl is Yukimura, an archery prodigy; she won the prefectural competition in elementary school. That person off at the side there is called Takagi, he's from a family of bakers. They run the bread shop two blocks down from the school. There's Kuragi, the guy who apparently aced his final year exams. He chose to come to our junior high school instead of accepting a scholarship overseas. Then there's – " the boy stops midsentence. "I don't know who that is," he says this with surprise, pointing at the boy sitting at the back of the class.

Mayaka turns to look over her shoulder. The boy in question is sleeping on his desk even though it's only first period. His hair is a messy dark brown, his shoelaces half-heartedly tied.

"I don't know who you are too." She returns her gaze to him.

The boy slaps a hand lightly against his forehead, "Oops! Sorry about that. I'm Satoshi Fukube! Pleased to meet you, Mayaka Ibara."

She tugs at the ends of her hair. "How do you know my name?" She can't remember ever being smart enough to appear on the honour roll, and her family is so average it's almost abnormal.

"One time, I fell off my bike on my way to school, and you helped me up," Fukube tells her. "Even though I almost banged into you," he chuckles at the memory. "Sorry 'bout that. I was still learning how to ride my bike back then."

Ah, she remembers now. She had been ten or so, walking uphill to her school. Fukube's elementary school must have been the one built at the bottom of the slope. He nearly wheeled into her one day, and had tumbled off his bike, landing dangerously near the driveway. She had hauled him aside and ordered him to be more careful, before continuing her climb to school.

"I hope we can be good friends!" This time, he's the one holding a hand out to her.

"Same here," she says as she shakes it. His hand is warm and firm and promises many things.

Mayaka befriends the girl sitting behind her, the one who wears spectacles and likes braiding her black hair. Chikako – written with the characters for 'thousand', 'joy' and 'child' – a child of a thousand joys. Mayaka think it's a pretty name. On the contrary, Chikako the person is a huge worrywart. She worries about not having sufficient money to buy her lunch, about whether she's left her homework on her bedroom desk, about how grey the sky looks sometimes because she's forgotten to bring an umbrella. Mayaka has to remind her not to scrunch her eyebrows all the time, or else she'll start getting wrinkles before she's even twenty.

"You think so?" Chikako panics, a hand flying up to touch her brow. Mayaka pats her friend's head.

Chikako is nice and easy to get along with – not as chatty as the other girls in class, but Mayaka doesn't necessarily like talking all the time. Some days, she doesn't feel like talking much at all. She doesn't know if it's because her period is coming, or because she wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, or because she's tired of aimless chats with the girls. Small talk isn't as easy as it looks. Frankly, it's exhausting for her. Mayaka has always governed herself with rationality. This above all seems to be the most irrational thing for her to feel. Chikako doesn't mind, though. The only thing she never worries about is Mayaka's friendship. She sits quietly behind Mayaka and writes notes in her journal.

Fukube seems to know when she's feeling this way because he always tries to cheer her up. He either says 'good morning' with more oomph than usual, or tells her a silly, unfunny joke he heard on the TV last night. Mayaka still laughs. She likes how lively and perceptive he is, how he's always engaged with the people around him, even with the things that aren't supposed to matter to him. Hardworking people are people she likes to be around.

Fukube easily makes friends with everyone in their class. Then, he finds a sidekick amongst them. Houtarou Oreki. Mayaka does a double take when she first sees them walking into class together one morning, Fukube's arm draped around the gloomy boy's shoulders.

Oreki is the antithesis of everything Fukube is: lazy, idle, unmotivated. Mayaka doesn't know what Fukube finds endearing about this lump of lethargy, or whether Fukube finds anything about Oreki endearing to begin with. Maybe it's his motto: "Don't do something productive when you can do something unproductive instead."

Okay, that's not really his motto –but it is what she hears when Fukube recites it to her.

"Why?" she asks him as they wait for the next period to begin, trying not to sound judgmental. She fails but Fukube doesn't mind. It's nice of him.

"He's interesting," the boy explains.

Mayaka raises an eyebrow at this. Fukube just laughs it off. "Anyway, have you decided which clubs you'll be joining?"

"Oh, most likely the library society," she says. Fukube nods and nods, and she likes that he's listening earnestly. Perhaps, it's the only reason why she whispers the second sentence: "Maybe the manga club too."

"You like reading manga?" the boy asks her, and Mayaka doesn't know why he can look so happy saying that. The only thing she knows is that she doesn't feel so embarrassed about revealing her hobby. She blushes on instinct and tries to hide it. "What about you, Fukube?"

"There's student council, sewing club, go club, cooking club." He counts off his fingers.

"That many?"

"Well, I'm interested in a lot of things! I'd like to keep my school life multi-coloured, if you know what I mean," Fukube defends.

"Which is why I don't know why you hang around that Oreki," Mayaka states, no longer bothering to be polite. When Fukube snickers under his hand and doesn't tell her that she's jumping to conclusions or being mean, she feels an itch under her blouse. The teacher enters the classroom just then, rescuing her.

The girls corner her in the toilet while she's combing the length of her hair down. Bad hair days are said to be ominous signs, and as she sees five people appearing behind her in the mirrors, she confirms this theory. Mayaka keeps her foldable brush in the pocket of her skirt and turns to meet a clothesline of overenthusiastic smiles.

"Ibara! Ibara! We've been seeing you walk home with Fukube every day since Monday, is something going on?" one of them finally breaks down and coos. She had known that this was inevitable, friends will be friends.

"No!" Mayaka denies almost too quickly. "It's for the science project, you guys. Don't go making things up," she says, waving a hand in the air. "Fukube's just a friendly person."

"Yeah, but he seems friendlier around you," Umi, the daring one of the clique, comments. Mayaka tries her hardest not to blush. She veers herself to the sinks, runs a tap and slaps water against her cheeks.

"What are you doing, Ibara?" one of the girls ask. "You aren't crying are you? You know we were kidding with the teasing."

"… This!" Mayaka spins around with a handful of water and splashes it towards the girls, who squeak, giggle and dodge it as best as they can. They retaliate with vengeance, splashing water back at her and then at each other and then everyone's laughing the way only teenage girls know how to. They return to class with wet skirts and drying hair, arm in arm. Mayaka is just thankful she managed to divert their attention. She likes to believe she's resourceful.

As she returns to her desk, Fukube scrutinizes her curiously. She realises that there will never be enough resourcefulness in the world to help her explain what happened in the girl's bathroom to him.

The annual Kaburaya Junior High Sports Day is around the corner, and Fukube is determined to shoehorn Oreki into participating in at least one event. After much debating between them – most of which, from Mayaka's point of view, had consisted of Fukube negotiating with a brick wall – Oreki settles with representing the class in the mixed relay event.

"It's technically the event with the shortest distance to run," Fukube comments. "You do know how to pass and receive baton, though, right?"

Oreki mumbles something like 'it can't be that hard'.

"That's not even a pressing problem right now. We need to get two girls to complete our four-man relay team," Fukube says. Then, he locks eyes with Mayaka. She immediately regrets hanging back after class to watch the two boys wrestle over Sports Day affairs.

"Me? I don't want to be in the same team as Oreki!" she shouts.

"Ouch," is what Oreki says in response. Except that he doesn't sound like he's in pain. "I'm standing right here, you know."

"You could be standing anywhere and I'd still say the same thing. You can't even be bothered to do things for yourself, so how can I trust you to pull your weight in a team?"

"You're too kind, Ibara. Compliments won't work on me."

Fukube steps between them, hushing them with his hands. "Now, now, you two."

The only reason Mayaka purses her lips is because he's suddenly standing so close to her. The sleeves of their uniforms brush as Fukube turns to look at his two friends. She can see how short his eyelashes are.

"Why don't you two call a truce for one day? You guys haven't even gotten a chance to know each other that well yet – maybe after this opportunity, you'll learn to see each other in a new light and maybe even become best friends!"

"Impossible," Mayaka and Oreki say in perfect unison.

They both proceed to scowl at each other in perfect unison too, and Fukube bursts into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

"You and Chikako aren't representing the class in any events yet, right? This is perfect!" he insists as he wipes a tear out of his eye. He faces her, hands cupped together in a pleading gesture.

"But, Fukube!" Mayaka attempts to rally herself. Unfortunately, she still she falls under the thrall of his hopeful eyes. They make it seem like the evilest thing to reject his request. Well, at least she died in a gallant struggle against those amber eyes. Chikako will understand.

"… Alright."

"You shouldn't have signed up for so many events," Mayaka says as she passes Fukube a bottle of water. They're waiting in the shade under the stands for the mixed relays, one of the last track events of the day. Fukube had chosen to represent a few of his clubs in some events on top of running for the class. These included the 200m dash, the three-legged race, the costume race, and a couple of others that escape Mayaka's memory under this blistering heat.

Fukube attempts to shrug this off, but halfway through the action, he lolls his head back and gives into his worn out body. After chugging down half the contents of the water bottle, he looks to Oreki. "I don't think I can be the anchor anymore. Houtarou, it's up to you now."

"That's very funny, Satoshi." Except, Oreki doesn't sound amused at all.

Fukube staggers onto his feet and over to the other boy. He collapses on his knees on the grass and clasps both of Oreki's hands in his. "Please, for the sake of the class, for our junior high memories, for our friendship!" Mayaka loves that Fukube's shaking their hands profusely. It really adds to the dramatic effect of the whole scene.

Oreki looks gravely disturbed. At least Mayaka has gotten something enjoyable out of all this.

Fukube's grief hasn't stopped. "What do we do now? Do you think we should rearrange our running positions?" He gazes up at Oreki for advice.

"Fukube, your number's loose." Mayaka interrupts them, gesturing to the number tag pinned on the back of his shirt. All runners need to wear tags with numbers and colours that correspond to their classes. One corner of his tag hasn't been pinned on properly.

Fukube tries to peer over his own shoulder. "Could you help me with that, Ibara?" he asks, raising his hands to show her that he's still clamping tightly onto Oreki's. Oreki looks like he wants to rip his hands back into his possession, but at the same time, contemplating if that would really be worth the effort. Mayaka shoots a withering glare in his direction.

She bends over and tries to pop open the safety pin of the tag and fasten it through the material of Fukube's shirt. The only thing she can see now is the solid curve of his neck and shoulder. It smells like he bothered to spray some deodorant after his other runs. Her fingers scrape against his back and she doesn't know why she starts blushing.

"Oiiii, Ibara. Is the heat getting to you? Or do you have something else on your mind?" Oreki asks. Mayaka inhales sharply. He knows. And is he taunting her about it? Is he really choosing to use energy to taunt her, instead of snatching his hands back?

"No, you slug!" she sputters, finally pinning the tag properly and distancing herself from the two boys. She turns away from them and crosses her arms, indicating her refusal to talk to either of them any further.

"… a slug?"

"Houtarou, pleaseeeeee be the anchor. My hopes and dreams rest on your shoulders now!"

The gun shot rings in the air and the track field springs to life. Chikako is the first runner, and she does a commendable job of keeping second place, outrunning three out of the five competitors before handing the baton to Fukube. And then, Fukube bursts off – grinning at the sun. He's not as fast as the other boys, and their team falls into fourth place, but Mayaka can see how hard he's pushing himself and her heartbeat quickens, thrumming inside her. Mayaka has to refocus her thoughts as he approaches her. She opens her palm, positions her legs and breaks into a run as soon as Fukube is near enough.

'Go' he mouths, too out of breath to use his voice. He looks about ready to collapse. In her heart, Mayaka wants to be the one to catch him when he falls. On the track, she has to concentrate on grabbing the baton and sprinting.

She turns from Fukube, hearing him 'thump' onto the ground and finding her mark on Oreki, who's waiting in the near distance. Mayaka manages to overtake a few girls and enters second place, weaving neck to neck with the runner in first. The closer she gets to Oreki, though, the more she wants to lift the baton and hurl it between his eyes.

It doesn't even look like he's cheering for her. He's just… standing there. Not even in position to receive the baton. Did he just yawn? Mayaka works her legs harder and powers her way to him, contemplating between passing the baton to Oreki or tackling him and grinding his face into the ground. She hears Fukube cheering for her in the background, his voice stark against the noisy roar of the students in the stands. It's the only thing that channels her frustration towards running instead of plotting the numerous ways to dispatch Oreki with a metal stick.

"You better run or I'll tear your head off!" she yells as soon as he's within hearing distance. Oreki looks disturbed for the second time today. She's on a roll.

He takes the baton from her and actually runs. She jogs to a stop, catching her breath as she watches him inch towards the boy in first place. Oreki might actually win them the race –

Then, at the last ten meters, Oreki slows to a disappointing speed. She had expected him to be out of shape, but to lose his breath after running less than 100 meters? Really? Oreki walks over the finishing line before evacuating himself to the shade of a nearby tree. Mayaka storms over the track field, eyes set on him. Midway to her destination, someone pats her back. It's Chikako.

"We survived," she huffs.

"Somehow," Mayaka says, wiping the sweat off her brow. "You were great!"

"I will never run again for the rest of my life," Oreki groans as they approach him under the tree. He's sprawled out on the grass, the baton resting in his right hand. Overhead, the announcer reveals the results of the race through the speakers. The crowd cheers and claps in celebration. Mayaka's team claims second place. Their class is suddenly surrounding them, thanking and congratulating them for their efforts. Oreki looks like he's close to suffocating in this crowd of youthful energy.

She feels a hand slap on her shoulder. It's Fukube's. "Mayaka! Mayaka! You did great!" he says between breathless laughs. She likes the sound of her name in his voice. It's hard to make a girl feel special when she's sweaty and has strands of hair stuck to her forehead. Fukube is something else. He really is.

"We got second, though," she reminds him.

"I thought we'd get last!" Fukube admits. "Ibara. Thanks for your help."

Ah, he's switched back to her last name. Well, it was nice while it lasted. All six syllables.

"Can I call you Mayaka?" he asks her one day. It happens months after he first (accidentally?) said her name.

She holds her breath without knowing why. "Yes, of course," she finally says.

Fukube blinks, silent for a moment. Then, he smiles at her. "Please call me Satoshi, then!"

"Alright, Sa– " she stops. The girl bites her lip.

"No, I think I'll call you Fuku-chan," Mayaka decides, grinning. Questions appear on his face. "A nickname," she explains. A shield. This, she doesn't explain, not even to herself.

This exchange happens at the end of the semester. Mayaka doesn't get to use the nickname often after that. In their second year, they're placed in different classes: 2A and 2D, different break times and different lessons throughout the week. When they do manage to bump into each other in the hallways, Satoshi never settles for waving. He stops beside her and asks her how her day is, whether she's ready for the midterms, whether she knows if the library has been stocking any new books. Simple questions like these, conversational ones. Yet, Mayaka can't help but swell with pride. She likes standing next to Satoshi, who's grown inches over the summer. She's barely made a dent in her height chart at home.

She doesn't like standing next to Oreki. Oreki towers. He's tall, dark and most certainly not handsome. Thinking about Oreki makes her remember that he has the pleasure of being classmates with Satoshi for another year. That's just one more reason for Mayaka to blacklist him.

Oreki, however, proves his worth to her by functioning as a lighthouse. Mayaka develops the habit of looking for Oreki in the sea of students when she's switching classrooms, wondering if maybe Satoshi is walking somewhere along the same corridors as her. She doesn't tell this to anyone, not even Chikako.

Mayaka spots Satoshi sitting at a table in the library one day. She eventually finds Oreki slumped beside Satoshi, face hidden under a half-read book. Of all the places to take a nap, why did he choose the library? It was an untouched and studious sanctuary, the one place she thought she would never see the boy. She has to valiantly fend off the urge to drop a dictionary on his head. The one thing Oreki does well and without wasting energy is annoying her. He probably doesn't even know he has this talent. Wonderful.

"He had to stay up and entertain his sister yesterday night. Poor guy got less sleep than usual," Satoshi explains, placing his own novel down. Its title catches her eye.

"Sherlock?" Mayaka asks as she takes a seat opposite him. She places the basket of books she needs to arrange aside.

"Yes! I love reading these." Satoshi is happy to share. "Have you ever read any in the series?"

Mayaka shakes her head almost apologetically. "Where should I start if I want to try?"

"Ahhh, that's a good question." Satoshi cups his chin and leans against the back of his chair. "Personally I started reading the first book of short stories, 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes', but Arthur Doyle wrote four novels before writing those short stories. Those 56 short stories were published in five separate books. Anyway, the first Sherlock Holmes novel is called 'A Study in Scarlet'. Do you know it was published in 1887? That makes it 125 years old this year! I suppose you could start with that. 'A Scandal in Bohemia' is one of my personal favourites, though."

"You're like a database," Mayaka says, breathless even though Satoshi had done all the talking. She quotes her last word from a novel she read the week before.

Satoshi considers the word. "Database – I like the sound of that," he says. "But, you know," he lowers his voice into a secretive whisper. Maybe he's noticed the 'talk quietly' signs hanging on the walls. Mayaka doesn't think this is the real reason, but she can't think of any other explanation. She leans to him and he leans to her. They meet in the middle of the table.

"Knowing something is easy. What you choose to do with the information is what really matters."

Second year comes and goes in a flash.

Mayaka is back in the same class as Satoshi in her third year. Unfortunately, so is Oreki. Mayaka has learned to accept that if one wants to be close to Satoshi, they need to get used to the idea of greyness personified, Houtarou Oreki. Mayaka thinks that it's rightfully fair. The laws of the universe must want to balance out an extreme good with an extreme bad. That makes sense. She still can't bring herself to like Oreki, though.

"Not even a little?" he asks her one day during lunch.

"Not even if you decide to devote your life to using energy instead of conserving it."

"Fantastic," Oreki drawls. Satoshi laughs at the both of them, his mouth full of rice.

"What are you doing for Valentines?" Sayuri asks their group during lunch the next day. Satoshi and Oreki have gone up to the roof to eat their bread. Mayaka prefers eating with the girls anyway.

"Oh, nothing," Chikako says simply, chopsticks searching through her rice for the egg yolk her mother buried. "It's too much work if you ask me."

Sayuri laughs and shakes her head in severe disapproval and amusement. "That's the point, silly." She turns to Mayaka, eyes burning with anticipation. "Maya-chan's definitely going to do something though, right?"

"Well, I'm going to make chocolates to give to you guys and maybe a few other friends like I've always done," Mayaka tells her. Valentines has mainly been a time for her to flex her baking muscles, but this year – this year she might not want to give Satoshi obligation chocolates anymore. "Should I make something for Fuku-chan too?"

"You're a third year in junior high now, Maya-chan, you can't use 'there's always next year' as an excuse anymore," Sayuri reminds her.

"You're right," Mayaka sighs. "I wonder if I should use my old recipe or try out a new one?"

"Fukube's bound to like it no matter what, just make it clear that it's not friendship chocolate, got that? Don't let him escape," Sayuri warns, chopsticks poised.

Chikako nods. "But, oh, I worry for you, Mayaka. Fukube-kun seems a little dense about things like these, you know? You have to put battle armor on your heart."

Mayaka nods firmly. She's ready for it this year.

On Valentine's Day, Mayaka skips library duty. She uses her chemistry notes to convince a junior to fill in for her. Afterwards, she waits outside their classroom for Satoshi to return from sewing club activities. Leaning against the wall and crossing her legs, she plays out the various scenarios in her mind. Total rejection – ack. Total reciprocation – yay. Simple. Easy.

"For me, maybe?"

She looks up from her shoes, jumping in shock when she sees Satoshi standing just there. Unable to produce any coherent words, she passes the chocolates to him. The translucent wrapping allows him to see the triangular sweets in the bag.

"They look great!" Satoshi sings his approval, even throwing his hands into the air. Mayaka wants, so much, to be able to give these to him and let it be the end of that. But she doesn't want to spend the next few days and weeks, the rest of her life, wondering what they mean to him. So, she leaps.

"Yes, but it's… not obligation chocolate this year," she tells him, eyes back on her shoes.

Satoshi lowers his arms, but his grin stays in place.

"I – thank you Mayaka, thank you so much, but– "

She freezes, ankles clenching, armor cracking. She doesn't show it on her face, doesn't drop her smile, doesn't want to give in so easily. She's prepared for this.

"Ah, then, that's o– "

"Oiiii. Satoshi, are we leaving yet?" a voice drones out from beside her. A boy is hanging from the open classroom window.

"What are you doing here? Eavesdropping?" Mayaka frowns. For once, she's thankful for Oreki's existence. This is a secret she will take to the grave.

The boy shakes his head lazily. He jabs a thumb over his shoulder. She peers into the classroom and finds half of it bathed in the glow of the setting sun. "It was too hot," he explains.

"Well, here." The girl rummages through her bag and places a packet of chocolates on the top of the Oreki's head. It balances perfectly on his mop of dark hair that she can't help but find it humourous. At least he makes a good table. "Your parents would lose complete faith in you if you returned home with no chocolates today. You're very welcome."

Oreki tilts his chin, the chocolates still sitting on his head. Mayaka thinks he might be thanking her – or cursing her. Whichever.

"Anyway, I've got to get going now," she hurries to say. She glances in Satoshi's direction, but doesn't have enough left in her to hold his gaze. Then, Mayaka turns on her heels, picks her bag off the floor and dashes down the hallway. She only stops running when she's on the street opposite the school gate.

Then, she forces out the last ounce of strength and doesn't start crying until she's home.

Night passes too quickly, and before she knows it, Mayaka is trekking up the road to school.

She finds Satoshi near the shoe lockers, toeing off his sneakers. Mayaka walks a brave walk up to him. "So, what did you do with the chocolates?" she clears her throats and asks him.

"Good morning! Oh, they were delicious. I ate all of them." He smiles at her.

"You do know that I like you, right?" she says. It's much less of a struggle than she thought it would be.

"I know, sorry about that," Satoshi chuckles. The bullet hits its mark. "But the chocolates were really good. You have got to tell me the recipe you used some time. Do you want to walk up to class together?"

Satoshi Fukube is cruel. Cruel and heartless and vicious.

"Fuku-chan," she says as they walk home at the end of the day. The wheels of his bike squeak as he pushes it beside him.


"You still haven't given me a clear answer. I'm sorry if I'm harping on the matter, but it's important to me and– " Mayaka doesn't want to include the last part in words. She doesn't want to say that she'll be alright if he doesn't accept her feelings.

"Mayaka." Satoshi turns so that she's talking to him instead of his back.

"Let's not talk about this for awhile, okay? I mean, you know, I don't know what to say yet, and I don't want to trouble you," he chuckles, looking like a prince while he breaks her heart.

"Sorry," Satoshi adds. He reaches a hand out to touch her shoulder. Mayaka swivels out of the way. She bangs loudly against the seat of his bike, but the sound is a whimper compared to her heart roaring in her chest. The tension between them skyrockets and Satoshi stares at her with a blank expression on his face. For once, he's unable to read her. Good. Now he knows how she feels.

The only thing she can do to salvage the situation is to stick her tongue out. Then, she says a hasty 'bye' to him, crosses the road at the intersection, and jogs home. She doesn't cry this time, but she isn't proud of that at all.

White Day comes and goes.

A week after, Oreki beckons her over when the last class of the day is ends. Mayaka stalks to his desk at the back of the class, wondering what could compel him to risk conversing with her.

"Here." He drops a small wrapped package into the middle of her palm. "As thanks for the chocolates."

Mayaka is genuinely impressed.

"You actually went out of your way to get this?"

Oreki stares at her with his half-lidded eyes (the bum can't even bring himself to open them all the way), quietly insulted. "No. Satoshi helped me buy it."

Mayaka raises her school bag high in the air and thwacks it down on Oreki's flat head.

She never hangs the keychain on her phone. It's a mascot character from one of her favourite anime, which she only mentioned in passing once or twice. Bright and yellow and pink.

Instead, she hangs it off the bookshelf in her room, but that alone signals Satoshi's victory.

Their third-year graduation school trip involves hiking along the countryside. Oreki never appears on the day of the trip. Mayaka isn't surprised. Satoshi still sighs and laments, "You would think that Houtarou would at least show up for the last trip of our junior high career. After this, it's just revision lessons and final exams all the way."

"You're too hopeful, Fuku-chan," she tells him, and the face he makes in response to that almost makes talking to him seem easy.

Then, they start hiking up to the crest of the hill. It takes only about an hour to complete the trip, the guide tells them. Mayaka ties her hair into a ponytail in an effort to make things seem easier. It doesn't help much, though.

Mayaka has never really been adept at things like climbing. She begins lagging behind as the slope steepens, and the ground becomes harder to find footing on. Moss is slippery. She follows the trail of students as they step through a dried up river, using the rocks to navigate their way upstream. The gaps between some of these rocks are wide, and she hesitates at one point. Then, someone holds a hand out to her. It's Satoshi. The sunlight filtering through the forest around them seems to shine a spotlight on this boy. Mayaka knuckles her eyes, and when someone asks her what's the matter, she says it's sweat instead of foolish imagination and an overdose of shoujo manga. But Satoshi is still waiting when she opens her eyes.

She doesn't want this intimacy. She doesn't know if her heart can take it. She doesn't want to believe that she's close to him, it's just not something she wants to inflict on herself.

But his hand is larger than hers and encouraging and patient and all the things Mayaka loves about him. Her skin is made of steel – this is what she chants over and over again in her head. She takes his hand and holds onto it for as long as he lets her. She decides that it's too long, and slips her fingers out of his.

They have their lunch at the top of the hill. The air smells the same to Mayaka, but she agrees when her friends all say 'wow the climb was worth it!' or 'the view up here is great!'. The view is passable. The intense foliage encircling the hill obscures their view from the town down below, but least the clouds overhead look sort of nice. They gather in their classes and unpack their lunch boxes. Satoshi sits next to her and Mayaka blames herself for letting him get away with it, scolds herself for not moving aside, and betrays herself when she smiles as Satoshi offers her a packet of biscuits.

Mayaka comes down with the flu one week and she misses two days worth of lessons as a result. When she isn't trying to sleep her fever off, she's awake and fretting over the revision content she's missed in class. Her final exams are less than two months away at this point.

On the third afternoon, she stirs from her sleep as she hears the door to her room creak open. Mayaka doesn't wake up immediately, still trying to separate dream from reality. "Mum?" she croaks after a minute, blinking and combing a hand through her unkempt hair.

"Nope! It's me!"

Her eyes open wide. Satoshi is smiling.

"Fu-Fuku-chan!" she yelps, her voice scratchy with sickness. It sounds horrible, like nails raking against a blackboard. Satoshi doesn't even flinch. She tries to register the fact that he's in her house, her room, sitting beside her. He's even holding her stuffed platypus doll in his arms. Her manga collection is stacked to the ceiling. Some of her clothes are scattered on the floor, all crumpled and messy. And she must be the worst sight in this entire mess. She ducks under her blanket, refusing to look at him.

"Houtarou sends his wishes. He misses your stinging but accurate criticism."

"That's a lie," she mumbles into her pillow.

"Eek, caught in the act," Satoshi surrenders, "but he did say it was odd without you around."

"He only learns to appreciate me when I'm gone," Mayaka grunts. "Why are you here, anyway?" she asks from under the blanket.

"To pass you the notes you missed in class and see how you're doing, of course," Satoshi says.

"No," Mayaka emerges from her covers. Her room suddenly looks so pink, and the reality that Satoshi is sitting in it, next to her bed, makes her all the more aware of everything. It makes the question hard to restrain any longer.

"Why do you always act like this? You know I like you and yet here you are – you're cheating, Fuku-chan. You're cheating and I hate that." Her voice cracks from her sore throat and she tugs her blanket over her eyes again. She doesn't want to see his easy, comforting smile. She wonders how many times she's seen it through the years. She wonders how and when she fell in love with that smile.

Satoshi doesn't say anything for awhile. Her room is quiet, and from under her cotton blanket, she can faintly smell the detergent he uses to wash his clothes with.

"Because you're my friend, Mayaka. Nothing will change that."

How strange, to hear words that can raise you up and tear you down at the same time. She feels a hand smooth over her forehead, threading wayward strands of hair away. She can't bear to lower the blanket and see if it's really Satoshi's. The hand is warm and firm, but promises nothing to her. And she should be angry – furious – at him now, but all she can bring herself to do is to curl on her side and close her eyes.

"Thanks for the notes. See you in school."

She hears Satoshi stand up, feels him linger over her bedside. "Get well soon, Mayaka." And then, he leaves, closing the door softly. He never points out the keychain hanging from her bookshelf.

"So, which high school are you applying to?" Satoshi asks her on the last day of school. She stays back after graduation to pack her things. This is what she tells everyone else, but not what she tells her heart.

"Same as you, Kamiyama High," she says.

"Great choice! The history of the school is rich, and they hold the famous Kanya Festival annually! I look forward to being schoolmates with you again next year!" The boy sweeps into a magnificent bow.

"Of course, Fuku-chan," she says almost thoughtlessly. She doesn't say anything after that, toying with the petals in the tiny bouquet of flowers her juniors gave her. Amongst the flowers is a piece of rock candy from Oreki, a necklace from Chikako. Satoshi's graduation gift to her, she keeps in the pocket of her blouse, near her heart.

"You're quieter than usual, Mayaka," Satoshi observes.

Well, she's alone in a classroom with the boy she likes on the last day of school. Satoshi should be aware of this – but, no, it probably doesn't look this way to him. Satoshi must see the world differently from her. It's brighter through his eyes, more colourful. She might be the dull smudge in the corner of his multi-coloured world.

"I'm just sad about leaving the school," she says, twirling a long strand of hair around her finger.

"Really?" Satoshi asks her, hands on his waist. Curse him for being so perceptive.

"Not really, but I won't tell you the real reason why," Mayaka counters, triumphant for once when she sees the surprise on his face.

"You have all the time to tell me in high school," he laughs in response. Satoshi slings his bag over his shoulder. Mayaka wrings her hands together when she sees him leaving.

"Don't count on it," she says softly.

She thinks she hears him say 'I'm not.' and maybe it is just her imagination, but she doesn't want her junior high school life with him to end like this. With so many things left unsaid, in a classroom with dusty windows and mathematical formulas she's already forgotten still scrawled on the whiteboard. Mayaka stands on her feet, the legs of her chair screeching against the floor.

"Satoshi!" her voices chases after him.

"Yep?" the boy looks over his shoulder, a hand on the classroom door.

Mayaka takes a breath. Her hand is trembling on the desk. "One day, I'll steal your heart."

She expects him to laugh, to say 'good luck with that!', to even give her a thumbs-up. Instead, he looks down on the ground. He smiles. But it is not the smile she fell in love with. It's a smile Mayaka has never seen.

The boy nods his head and whispers. Her hair, long and untamed, feels heavy on her shoulders.

Fuku-chan slides the door shut.

"see you next year"

notes –
Mayaka's name is written with the character for 'flower'.
- Satoshi's name is written with the character for 'purpose/will/determination'.
- In a sense, the title can be read in two ways. 1. Flowers without Will [a pronoun], 2. Flowers without, will [a verb].
- Mayaka isn't that athletic, but why she manages to do relatively well during the relay is because, strategically, the third runner in a team is meant to be the slowest. The other teams followed that strategy, while Houtarou came up with an alternate method with the information Satoshi provided him off screen.
- Mayaka cut her hair into the style we all know now before entering high school. Maybe she wanted it to symbolize her moving on from Satoshi, but even symbolically, nothing can really stop her from loving this boy.
- Satoshi's gift to Mayaka was something he made for her. I leave it up to your interpretation for what exactly it was. Personally, I think it might be a hair tie. Of course, that would be useless now that she's cut her hair.
- If you ask me I will tell you one of the reasons why I ship this is because Mayaka falls in love with a boy who will never love her back the same way. Their resulting relationship and the unsaid things between them becomes so heart-wrenching and so telling as a result. GODDAMN IT. WHY? WHY?
- also BOOM this is basically my headcanon of what happened in junior high/middle school, I have not read the novels so I don't know how much they've revealed about what went on in junior high for Houtarou. If this clashes with canon, then we'll just call this an AU.