We live on front porches and swing life away,
We get by just fine here on minimum wage.
If love is a labor, I'll slave 'til the end,
I won't cross these streets until you hold my hand.
- Rise Against, "Swing Life Away"
There are three great struggles humanity faces in the modern world. Aside from, well, you know, all the actual real struggles humanity faces in the modern world.
There's using Internet Explorer for long enough to actually get a better browser. The entire duration of said usage of IE has been known to be so excessive that it occasionally actually left people traumatized for life. Then there's the state of the gaming industry as we know it right now - Skyrim and The Witcher 2 are bright lights in a dying sky blackened by pollution - and then, right, then there's spending a day out with a girl.
With our male bros, we guys usually have pretty lax habits on how we hang out. (That rule doesn't apply to everyone, mind you.) Myself, I crash down with my mates on my couch with piles of oftentimes disgustingly unhealthy junk food and we proceed to watch comedies, horror movies, science fiction or anime, regularly making cheeky comments about how shit goes down there. With our significant others and female bros, we guys have to develop something the ancients have only spoken of in the most horrific prophecies of ancient lore: standards.
There is a horrifyingly long list of things we have to do when out with girls. We have to actually cater to their conversational needs other than a few passing cynical remarks on the plot of a movie we're watching. We suddenly, out of nowhere, need to actually stop scratching our noses and to hide the Pepsi and the tacos until we're given some sort of signal that we can bring them out to share (and that signal will at some point most likely come, because every human being has the flaw of being a willing victim of Pepsi and tacos). We need to stop slouching on the couch and take the girl out for dinner at some "quaint nice little café" rather than our favorite döner kebab bar. Worst of all, it's pretty likely we will need to pay.
The best part is that there are girls out there who do not fit that description at all, and we will fight to the bloody death for the right to slouch on the couch eating junk food and watching Star Wars with them.
Kaori was such a girl, Touma decided the moment she opted for a ramen bar rather than any of the cafes around, in a way. Minus the slouch part, because she didn't seem a person to slouch, ever. He didn't really mind it.
She got herself a bowl of shōyu ramen. All by herself. She didn't ask Touma to buy it nor handed him the money and asked him to buy it for her, no, she went up and got it, all by herself, and didn't leave him the difficult task of balancing two ramen bowls without spilling either one.
Touma grinned at his mental contemplation. He knew her for a while now, and none of this was really any surprise. It suited her – this image of a tough, dour she-warrior with a softer side she only really ever showed to him or Index.
Kaori noticed him watching her and got just a bit lost – awkwardness settled into the air, as she briefly smiled, but then, as if ashamed for some reason, she shyly looked away. Touma coughed, slightly. He appreciated her kind side, but didn't exactly appreciate the way she sometimes felt embarrassed about showing it.
"So, how's life? Missed Japan?"
It was a horrible excuse of a beginning to a conversation, but he tried. Kaori seemed to relax a bit at this, thankfully enough, so not all was lost.
"I did," Kaori nodded slightly while saying this. She seemed to relax with every word – well, that or this was some sort of ramen side effect spreading through her. "I don't think I will ever quite feel as much at home in England as I do in Japan. Necessarius or no Necessarius, I was born and raised here, and, well, sometimes, I feel like I'm more meant to be here than anywhere else. Know the feeling, Kamijou-san? That you belong somewhere above all else?"
"Sure, I do," Touma replied, grinning just a little bit. She must've noticed it, because a smile appeared on a corner of her lips.
"Do you, now?" she asked, her smile deepening just a little bit.
"Does 'in some mess' count?"
Kaori laughed quietly, her pretty purple eyes fixating on Touma afterwards, a shy grin still playing around on her face.
"What?" Touma asked, confused. "Why?"
"Well, it's just that… you wouldn't cause yourself so many problems if you didn't spend so much of your time helping others for no reason but the kindness of your heart. And I don't think I would like you half as much if you didn't."
The dark-haired teenager leant back in his chair, a jokingly serious expression carved into his face. "You can't just tell me that the only redeeming quality of my entire personality is my habit of putting my ass in danger for others."
"But that's a habit that speaks volumes about your personality! You're brave, kind and relentless, Kamijou Touma. In a way, you're like me."
"Except you're pretty and I'm just, well. Eheh."
Surprising our incredibly oblivious friend, Kaori blushed. However, at some point the human mind, especially one as sharp as Kaori's, realizes it can only achieve so much blushing and comes to the somewhat illogical conclusion that an end must be put to said blushes for no other reason than personal dignity, and she did the only thing she thought she could at this point: took a gulp of ramen and changed the subject.
"So how's life been for you? You don't seem at all distraught that Index had to leave."
"I've been fine," Touma brushed the question aside somewhat, "I mean, I was somewhat sad at first when I heard the news, but, then again, there is the overwhelming bright side that I get my room and my privacy back. And, well, you know. What Style said is true enough. I can't protect Index. I can help protect her, because she's my friend, and that means, at this point, letting her go."
Kanzaki shifted somewhat uncomfortably in her chair and was met with another quizzical expression from Touma. She noticed it and adopted her most serious face. "You're not… dating, right?" she asked him, prompting, without much delay, a laugh.
"No, no. We're friends, but she's too much a child. Although I have no idea how old she actually is, but she looks and acts like a twelve year old. She's my friend and a good person, but… nothing more."
"Is there anyone more, well, in your life?" she asked, easing back into her zone of comfort, as calmly as she could, trying to create the impression of someone just purely curious. As we know, Touma is hardly the most empathetic person around, so it worked.
"No, not really. It's hardly been the easiest time to have someone around, you know?" he asked somewhat rhetorically, not really noticing the smile on her face. "What about you? Are you dating anyone?"
"Heh, no. It's hardly been the easiest time to have someone around when you're living in a women's dormitory. And unlike some of my roommates, I don't swing that way."
"Don't have anyone you like? At all?"
Most people, and by most I mean all of them, have at some point in their lives encountered such a dilemma as Kaori was having now. A truthful, complete answer would call out an utterly unpredictable reaction, while a lie would make her feel less than pleasant herself and could've impressed upon Touma – what scared her most – the idea that she was unreachable. She could also say, "I do like someone" with no small amount of vagueness, opaquely describing Touma without using his name, as girls used to do in romcoms back in the nineties before it got overused and boring. To say she was lost was to make a huge understatement.
She didn't think it was possible, but she was actually glad (well, to a point where gladness intertwined so closely with frustration over her moment with Touma being interrupted that she wasn't really sure if she was glad glad or dammit glad) when Misaka Mikoto, Academy City's least reasonable, most likely to break soda machines, and oftentimes second-funniest level 5 esper introduced herself into the situation.
"Touma!" she utterly unexpectedly addressed him, appearing from what was rather similar to thin air right next to their table. As was typical of her, she addressed him with no honorific and as accusatively as she could manage.
"Hi," he replied, calmly, with a face where mild curiosity and disinterest, instead of cancelling each other out as you'd expect them to, mixed and intertwined, translating his thoughts into an expression that, more or less, said, 'What now?'
"You completely ignored me, Kamijou Touma, although I've been in this shop for five minutes already" she said, crossing her arms with a face that implied, in its entirety, as if she mercifully deigned to give him some sort of right to notice her and he scorned the possibility all in itself.
Touma's expression showed no particular signs of change as he said, "I'm in the middle of lunch and a conversation here, Misaka-"
"And who is this?" Mikoto interrupted him, staring rather coldly at Kaori. At first, Kaori didn't seem to react in any way, but slowly, her eyes narrowed and what remained of her smile faded. "What's your connection to Touma, swordgirl?"
The poor choice of words and Mikoto's tone finally did it. Kaori rose to her feet, a disgruntled expression written on her face as if she had just drunk something caustic. The overwhelming difference – which Mikoto would've been incredibly ignorant not to notice – in the two girls' heights addressed any and all of Misaka's concerns rather quickly. However, it seemed as if she still had doubts as to whether Kaori was a force to be reckoned with, so Kaori, as if absentmindedly, stretched a hand back and scratched the handle of her katana.
"I'm sorry," she said, trying her best to resist the urge to grin at Misaka's expression, "is there a problem?"
A cold, but very, very energetic flame blazed up in her purple eyes, doing its best to burn out Misaka's eyes from a distance.
"… Uh. Hehe…" Misaka spoke, rather inarticulately, scratching the back of her head awkwardly and trying her best to hide her fear. "No. Not at all. I was… just going. Right."
"Kaori," Touma said, with the most serious expression she had ever seen him wear, as she sat down, "that was either the greatest or the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm serious. Stop laughing."
"Just out of curiosity," Kaori said, still stifling a quiet laugh in her throat, "How many times a day do you have to go through something like this?"
"Usually about six."
The sun slowly set on Academy City, its weak, sleepy rays disappearing beyond the buildings on the distant horizon, as Kaori and Touma walked along one of its many streets. Kaori caught quite a few glances, Touma noticed, and he wasn't surprised – it's not every day the students in Academy City see a swordswoman armed to the teeth just nonchalantly walking down the street, let alone entangled in quiet smalltalk with another local student.
Directly before them, on the end of the street they were walking along, stood Touma's dorm. They slowly –not slowly enough for Kanzaki – approached it. As the tower block's shade grew ever longer and ever nearer, Kaori suddenly realized just how rapidly their proximity to said building was increasing. Soon enough, she realized they were right at the doorstep to Touma's elevator, as he turned, smiling at her. She couldn't help but smile back.
"I liked our lunch today," she heard herself say, her mind disconnected entirely from her vocal cords, as if someone else entirely was speaking, "You're not the worst person for company, Kamijou Touma."
"Call me Touma."
She grinned, and spoke, softly. "Take care, Touma-san."
"Kanzaki-san," he called out after her right after a hasty step she made away, trying to feel as little of the irritation at the separation as possible by proceeding with it as quickly as possible. She turned on her heel and replied:
"Call me Kaori."
His face reflected her grin. Or was it vice-versa? Who knows?
"Kaori-san," he said, quietly, "want to go grab lunch again tomorrow?"
There's that particular type of expressional action when a human being, who was previously smiling a kind, honest smile, is taken so aback by something that his physiognomy sort of just freezes over entirely. It's when that person's mouth hangs ajar and closes and opens again, and when that person wants to laugh out with all of their heart but simply cannot due to the sheer shock they are experiencing at the time. That's what was happening to Kaori right now.
"Yes," she finally said, about ten awkward seconds later. "Yes!" she laughed, demonstrating her happiness by exclaiming that little word. Not particularly caring to think her actions over much at this point, she wrapped her arms around Touma in a rather sudden and impromptu hug. Although at first he was rather surprised, our favorite inventor of misfortune as a weapon opted for the passive approach to this unexpected (though not unpleasant) turn of events: just roll with it.
Neither of them had any idea they were being watched.
Ugh, so late at night here. I sort of… don't have the stamina to respond to those of my reviewers who I think would need a bit of a response, so I'll just throw out a thank you to each one of you and then quickly respond to h…x, who I think I should personally thank for writing a full-fledged review equipped with critique as well. Thank you, I really appreciate your input, even if I wasn't too sure what you found annoying with my endnotes – I wasn't trying to attack people who disliked my story, really, I don't even see where I might've implied as much. As for the parentheses, while I understand that you may find them irritating, I'm sorry, but I'll have to disagree. The "good old rule" that parentheses make something sound like a report paper doesn't ring true to me. Parentheses are part of my writing style and while I, again, appreciate your critique, I don't think a bit of playing around with a punctuation mark is anything so wrong as to be avoided entirely. I'm just saying – it's my forte. My forte is my own. My style is also my own, and if it breaks a few "good old rules" that just means it's different, not worse, considering we ARE talking about a punctuation mark. Don't get me wrong, of course – like I said, I appreciate the critique, it's just that with this particular part I don't exactly agree.
Now that that's done, I'd like to thank you guys for all the favourites and follows and everything you've given this fic! Jesus, guys, I've never gotten as much attention for a fanfic before. I need to write more anime romance, this is a freaking goldmine. Thanks a lot.
one last thing: crap, this chapter is like four hundred words short of what I consider my standard chapter length. Darn. But yeah.
Signing off for tonight, BlazeInfinity.