I still watched A Cinderella Story, and I had absolutely no shame in doing so. I rubbed the mentholated ointment on my chest, inhaling deeply as I allowed its coolness to warm the thickness in my throat, and snuggling deeper into the thick yellow blanket and sheets my mother always pulled out of the linen closet when I was ill.
I wanted things to end exactly as they did in that movie – I wanted to get into a good college after high school and take him with me, get my dream job, and marry him. I had it all planned out, and it was so perfect; he had to see that, surely?
We were at the top of our class in terms of academics (ranked first and second, respectively), politics (class president and treasurer), and sports (captain of the volleyball team and star forward on the soccer team). Together we'd be unstoppable, gorgeous, perfect. I took a sip of the green tea my mother had brewed me and switched off the unbearable early 2000s soundtrack playing in the ending credits.
His family got in the way, I could tell. He didn't have parents; why, I didn't know, but his relatives were possessive and secretive. They'd rubbed off on him; frankly, he was sometimes quite creepy. But he was unstoppable and gorgeous. He was perfect.
A tentative knock at my apartment door alerted me to the arrival of my best friend, Naruto. He was hopelessly sweet on me. I tried not to take advantage, but he took most of the things he did for me upon himself, so I never felt guilty about it. He was like that with everyone.
I rose from the couch still swaddled in the huge yellow throw and waded through several layers of sheets to reach the door. Opening it, I proceeded to have a coughing fit, but he pushed past me, undeterred, closing the door with his foot behind him.
"I brought you some miso, Sakura-chan. Iruka made it; it's his best recipe," he called from the kitchen, where he was already heating it up in the microwave."Just the thing for your cough."
"Thank you. And you've brought all my homework as well?"
"Yes, of course!"
"Thank you. I really appreciate it."
"Yes, as always. You're always so grateful." Naruto smiled, and there wasn't a trace of irony in his voice, but I couldn't help but feel guilty. He did it all out of love for me, anyone could see that – the wideness of his eyes when I spoke to him, the wistful glances in my direction when I waited for Sasuke to meet up with me after soccer practice, the way his eyes never left mine when I spoke, and the way his replies were always worded such that no thing I said was too trifling or finicky to be overlooked. But he'd never acted on his feelings because he knew I was in love with someone else; I'd confided this in him and never once had he spoken up.
I sat down at the table in the kitchen and began to sip the miso slowly, savoring its delicate flavor, a kind of richness that imparted itself only to the tip of the tongue and washed over the rest. He'd busied himself in the living room meanwhile, tidying things and just generally moving things around, just to have something to do. We were waiting for Sasuke, and as I usually was at such times, I was silent.
I went over every detail from the minutes in my mind, so that I could convey all of the pertinent information to him. Sasuke had a remarkable memory, so he'd remember it all. He often had to miss class representative meetings due to his demanding schedule, but it gave me an excuse to have my own meetings with him, privately.
A much less tentative rapping of the knuckles at my door alerted me to his arrival, and Naruto hurried over to let him in.
He was every inch what I'd always wanted – his cool, imperturbable gaze, his aristocratic air and delicate, sharp features, his unsurpassable mind and stubborn ambition – and he looked every inch an aristocrat this evening in his designer jeans and leather jacket. I looked down at my striped pajamas and ointment-smeared chest embarrassedly and lead him over to the kitchen table.
"Naruto, could you pour some soup for Sasuke?"
"But, Sakura-chan, this soup is for you. There's enough for tomorrow, if you save it."
"Naruto, pour him some soup." He obliged, heading over to warm more up, but not without an irritated quirk of his normally smooth brow.
I laughed nervously. "It's a bit embarrassing to have you here when I'm sick; I'm not at all looking my best." Sasuke said nothing, eyes fixed on the microwave timer. His disinterest in trivial comments was nothing new; he only listened to the important things.
We waited in silence for the timer to count down, and when it did, Naruto poured Sasuke a bowl and carried it over to the table, where he slammed it down so hard I was afraid the soup would slop over the sides.
"You could at least acknowledge her presence! She's not your personal secretary!" The color was high and red in his cheeks, and his jaw was clenched.
Sasuke blinked in surprise and looked up at him boredly. "Naruto, I don't treat her any differently than I treat you."
"That soup was supposed to be for her, and she's ill, and she's probably been looking forward to meeting with you all day, and you – sitting there – you just—" He let an accusatory finger fall to his side and he sighed. "Well, you all won't be needing the historian for this meeting anyway, so I'll just leave." He glared at Sasuke. "Don't eat all the soup."
Naruto left us in an awkward silence, broken by my recitation of the class' current funds, while he sat idly by. But I knew he was listening.
"So you want to dance?" The new girl scowled, or rather, her scowl deepened. Her brow seemed to have a permanent crease that only varied in terms of its severity and not its presence. The two of us leaned against the low-hung mirror in the school gym's practice room, the distance between us comfortable and not entirely unsociable.
"Yes. I've been told I have a…knack." Her voice skirted the last word lightly, and I couldn't tell if she had done so out of dismissive pride or acute embarrassment. Perhaps both.
"I dance here. I'm alright at it. I don't really like it though. Konan-sensei says my heart's not in it, and she's right…" Karin quirked a brow at her. Taking it as a sign of curiosity, I continued. "It's just not my thing." There was more to it, and I knew she could tell by the way her eyes narrowed, not in judgement but in concentration. Did she bore into everyone with that skeptical gaze?
Konan swept into the practice room then, bringing with her the scent of May roses and sandalwood. She curled a long-fingered hand around the barre and it creaked beneath her grip. "Sakura will start you off with the basics. And then I will teach you."
"Then why are you here?" Her voice broke on the pronoun, accusatory in tone.
"I will watch and advise. That is all." She floated over to the folding chair at the end of the barre. She always gave the impression of floating, being incredibly fleet of foot. Everything seemed slow and graceless as molasses around her. It didn't help that she dressed so frequently in dark, sheer fabrics - it made her seem more of a gray engraving in a book of fairy tales than a living, breathing woman. Me and the other girls sometimes called her Queen Mab behind her back.
"Well, Karin, let's begin." In leotards, we looked much the same - we had the same small, spindly frames and long, strong legs. But she looked pale and almost sickly in our school's fluorescent lighting, she always did. Like a plant fostered in a darkly-tinted hothouse rarely touched by the full light of day.
She was petulant, but rarely rude outright. Even the glares she leveled from beneath thin brows that could not in the least attenuate the effects of that 100-yard glower sought more than they appraised. It was a searching look, and I instinctively followed its trajectory to its object.