F. Would you like your bike fixed?
With green buds dotted in the background and an earthy aroma in the air, Minato felt at ease as he dribbled the ball down the court. There was something about the natural cleanness of early spring that made it more enjoyable to breathe outside. It seemed like several people in town agreed with him, since there were mothers watching their children play in the sandbox and adults running down the pavement.
Also on the park pathway was a red haired woman dressed in a loose fitting short sleeve walking to work. Three dogs eagerly dashed up to her, barking at her with wagging tails. A German Shepherd licked her across the face as she knelt down to pet it.
"Oi! Chamaru! Down boy!" A young man caught up to the three friendly dogs and apologized, "How many times do I have to tell you not to do that to Uzumaki!?"
She laughed as the Terrier tried to leap onto her lap, "Hey, Chamaru. Anzumaru."
"Jesus. The moment I take the leash off them they just dash off. Sorry about that, Uzumaki."
She looked up at the young man with messy, dark brown hair. He sported a casual T-shirt and shorts, holding three unused leashes in one hand.
"That's fine." Kushina grinned, and ruffled the German Shepherd's neck, "Being tackled by dogs is better than being run over by a car, I guess."
"Oi, Namikaze! I'm right here!" Inoichi called out.
Minato passed the ball too far behind his teammate. It rolled off the court and towards the pavement path, where the red haired girl and the boy with the dogs were chatting.
"Sorry!" He called out in apology, "I'll get it."
The ball bounced in between the two, interrupting their conversation. He wasn't sure what to make out of the fact that this was his intention from the start.
"Yo! Namikaze!" Kushina greeted and handed him the ball.
"Good morning, Uzumaki-chan." He smiled.
His eyes met the dark brown eyes of the same dog walker he had noticed Kushina walking with in the park every other weekday morning during his basketball practices.
"Inuzuka Kawa." The dark haired man introduced himself, extending his hand.
"Namikaze Minato. Nice to meet you." He shook Kawa's hand.
Feeling something wet nuzzle against his knee, Minato looked down and found all three dogs sniffing him.
"Are they all yours?" Minato asked.
"Yeah, kind of. My family runs an animal shelter, so I take some of the dogs out for a run every morning."
"Inuzuka takes the same path that I take to work most of the mornings." Kushina said, "He's like, a fucking genius on dogs. Either that or he was raised by them." She laughed as the Terrier gave her a sloppy lick on the cheek.
"I'm 100% human. I promise. I study veterinary medicine, so I'm expected to know stuff about dogs and other animals."
Minato nodded and smiled at Kushina, who seemed to be enjoying herself with the three pets, "Do you like dogs, Uzumaki-chan?"
"I love them. But my mom was a priss when it came to her carpets, so I never got a chance to have one."
"Oh that sucks. But I get that; things can get pretty messy when it comes to dogs. Like, when Anzumaru was a puppy, she completely jumped into my 10th birthday cake and then tracked chocolate all over the ground."
"Seriously? Isn't chocolate like poison for them?"
"Yeah. We called off my party just to deal with her. I was so pissed off back then."
"And this is the Anzumaru right here?"
"Yep. The one and only."
"You're kidding me. She seems so obedient!"
"Yeah, well just the other day she chewed up my textbook." He laughed, "Although, I shouldn't be complaining since I never really kept up with my reading."
"So is Anzumaru your own?" She asked.
"Yeah. I grew up with her."
"That's so awesome! Wouldn't that make her really old?" Kushina exclaimed.
"Um…I used to have a toad." Minato mentioned awkwardly.
He immediately regretted leaping into the conversation so suddenly. Part of him wanted to apologize for his odd comment and walk back to the court. Yet another part was determined to stay—that was the part of him that noticed how friendly Kushina and Kawa were, wondered how they met, and hoped that they were related.
"Really? What happened to it?" Kushina curiously inquired.
"It started to get really large and antsy, so I felt bad it let it free when I was 12. I think it eloped with another toad." Minato recalled rather innocently.
Upon hearing Kushina snort in laughter, he couldn't help but feel a little sense of accomplishment swell in his chest.
"What did you name him?"
"After the actor who played in that yakuza movie?" Kawa asked.
"Yeah. He had a scar when I got him, so he reminded me of someone tough or something like that." Minato scratched his head as he tried to explain his 10-or-so year old reasoning behind the name.
"I like it!"
Minato was set somewhat aback by her grin. It was odd, even though getting her to turn towards him was his intention, with the way her expression was full-faced and directed one-hundred percent at him…somehow it snuck a self-conscious stutter into his speech, even if it was something just as trivial as his dead pet, "R-really? Why?"
"It's kinda cool. It's not so typical or too weird that it's hard to remember, like a lot of people's names."
"I suck at names too. Some people just have the longest or most complicated names. And we're like, expected to remember them." Kawa said good-naturedly and changed the direction of the conversation, "Dogs have it easy. They just have to recognize each other by scent and it's all good."
Kushina ruffled the German Shepherds neck affectionately, "That sounds like a pain though. I mean, you'd have to keep someone's shitty smell in your memory."
"These guys drink out of toilets. So their tolerance for crappy smells is pretty high."
"Makes sense. Because I haven't washed these clothes in a while, so I'm sure I smell like some nasty combo of the soy sauce some clumsy asshole spilled on me the other day and old food and shit."
"Um…I think you smell fine, Uzumaki-chan!" Minato blurted, only realizing how inept he sounded a millisecond too late.
"He's right." Kawa agreed.
"Yeah. But you guys suck at smelling stuff compared to these guys." She said as a dog licked her face.
"Lemongrass and beaches." Kawa replied as he casually looked at Kushina who returned his affable smile with an eyebrow raised in confusion. He continued, "Like you said, I was raised by dogs, right? I have a pretty good nose too. You smell like lemongrass and beaches to me."
It took Kushina to realize that he was complimenting her. Unaccustomed to it, she burst out in laughter, "You suck. Smelling like beaches is the same as smelling like ramen isn't it? They both have shitloads of salt."
As Kawa tried to insist that there was a distinct difference between the scent of beaches and ramen, Minato suddenly realized that he was bouncing the ball against the pavement. Odd how he never noticed before. He wondered how long he had been doing this. It was probably rude, being the cause of the incessant, loud dribbling. As only some of his most attentive teammates knew about him, he had a habit of dribbling harder and faster whenever he was bothered by something. So no matter how poorly-mannered it might've been, he kept on dribbling—half in hopes to distract the conversation he was starting to fade from, half in hopes of distracting himself from the confusion over why he was so faintly bothered in the first place.
It was unlike him to have his attention diverted during morning basketball games, being more interested in eavesdropping and observing other people's interactions. The feeling of being annoyed by someone—even more, someone who he hardly knew enough to have any justifiable irritation with—was incredibly foreign to him. Minato knew that he shouldn't feel so anxious about Kushina's new friendship with Inuzuka Kawa. It was a baseless worry: Kawa seemed like a friendly guy.
Maybe too friendly. But did that even count as a problem?
Regardless of whether it did or not, Minato couldn't bring himself to completely like the dog walker who had been strolling in the park with Kushina consistently. And when he came to this conclusion, it only made him feel guilty.
So when Kushina brought up the topic of Inuzuka Kawa while they were walking back to their apartment—he came from the bookstore while she had just got off work—the self-confusion resurfaced.
"Guess what? I invited Inuzuka to hang out with us at Ichiraku Ramen this weekend."
"That's nice." Minato returned with a smile, but couldn't bring himself to share the same enthusiasm about the additional member to their weekly meet-up.
"Isn't it? He's a cool guy and I think Nara and the gang will like him."
"That's good." He wondered what was wrong with him. All he could do was feel guilty for not being able to respond to her comments whole-heartedly.
Luckily, Kushina was oblivious to the feeling of estrangement that he was struggling with. She continued chatting, "Yeah. It'll be the first time that I'll get to introduce someone I made friends with on my own to you guys."
His smile was made a little more genuine once he saw her proud grin. It reminded him of a kindergartener coming home from school, pushing open the door with a first-day-of-school tale of all her new friends.
"…prove that bastard who told me I'll end up a cat lady wrong. I don't even fucking like cats…But you know, it's all thanks to you, Namikaze!"
"Huh?" The last sentence of her rambling caught him off guard.
"Cuz' if you think about it, if you hadn't gotten me to quit from that café with all the high class jerks, I wouldn't have met Nara, Takemori, and all the other guys. I mean, it's not like I didn't talk to people before—I just had to do a lot more swearing and yelling at them. But now I've gotten to know a buncha cool people and that helped me make a friend all on my own. So thanks!"
He found it miraculous how she could keep such an unrestrained expression of cheeriness without hiding a single feature of her face from him. It was impossible for him to return the same gesture; the nervous sensation that gripped his chest each time he stared at her smile forced him to look away in embarrassment after certain intervals of time.
"I'm glad for you." He returned with a smile as they approached their respective apartment doors. He fumbled for his keys slightly, modestly adding on, "But I didn't really help that much. Getting people to like you is something you do all on your own."
Kushina considered his words for a moment, "I guess it helped that I didn't swear as much as usual when I first met Inuzuka."
"Really?" Minato thought about the several violent first encounters Kushina he had witnessed her run into, "How did you two meet then?"
"Anzumaru ran me over. And then we started talking after he apologized…"
To be honest, he was actually really interested to learn about how the two met. He couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed to know that Kushina's first encounter with the dog walker was much more pleasant than the one she had with him. And he wondered why it bothered him to notice how she referred to his dogs by their names as if she had been familiar with them for years, when in reality she had known Kawa for only a few weeks—which was practically three months short of how long she has known him.
"Hey, Uzumaki-chan." He interrupted her story, looking over the railing of the open hall and down at the balcony where the bicycle rack was, "Your bike is still broken, isn't it?"
"Yeah. I thought about doing something about it, but I just used up my paycheck to get anime back on my TV, so I can't go to the bike shop. The old bastard who works there hates me and purposely raises the price whenever I'm there. So I've been taking the long way through the park to work."
"I could help you fix it." Minato offered.
"Nah. The bike was a piece of shit to start with. I got it for cheap from a homeless guy who didn't even want it anymore."
"I'm sure that if we get some new parts it will help."
Kushina groaned, "That's so time-consuming."
"I could do it for you."
"Didn't I tell you already? I'm completely broke."
"That's okay. You wouldn't have to pay me anything."
"Yeah right. If you do that I'll seriously just pay you in ramen or Jump magazines—except maybe not the magazines because I like to collect those." Kushina unlocked the door and said before walking in, "See ya later."
But there was a newfound adamancy that had already settled in him. Minato took one last look at shadow of the broken bike before deciding to take a shopping trip tomorrow. He pondered for a moment. Technically, she didn't reject his idea. So he figured that friendly surprises could be nice too.
"What are you reading this time, Namikaze-kun?"
From his seat in the public library, Minato looked over his shoulder and saw Yoshino approaching him. Accompanying her was Shikaku, who seemed to be grumbling in complaint as he carried a large stack of books behind her.
"Takemori-chan, Nara-kun." The blond greeted,"Are you two studying together?"
"Together?" Yoshino scoffed, "As if. Having this lazy idiot around would only make me feel dumber."
"Hey, who's the one carrying fifty pounds of books here?"
"Who was the one sleeping on top of a book?"
"Look, there are only three things books are good for. Reading. Sleeping on. And blocking in a game of eraser hockey. I was done with the first. And the last option was out of question since Chouza and Inoichi aren't here (plus it's too complicated for you anyway), so the only thing left to do was the second choice.
"There are thousands of other books here. I'm sure you could've found at least one more to use your freakish memorization skills on."
Minato simply smiled as the pair bickered.
Yoshino pulled up a chair, "Anyways. How was The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest?"
"Good." He replied, "It was gruesome at some parts, but I enjoyed it."
"I have no clue why you would ever finish reading from a textbook only to read more." Shikaku said as he dropped the books onto the table. The raucous slam startled a few innocent students nearby. He ignored the librarian's glare from behind her gleaming glasses.
"Unlike you, Namikaze-kun actually appreciates books."
"Ahaha. I just like reading novels, Takemori-chan. I find several textbooks dry as well." Minato said.
"Hey. I appreciate books for their convenience as portable pillows." Shikaku laid his head on a hard cover copy.
Yoshino smacked his head with a textbook.
"Hey, hey, hey. Weren't you the one crusading the 'books are for reading only' cause?"
"You're just saying that to be modest, aren't you? You're reading a nonfiction book right now, aren't you?" Yoshino ignored Shikaku's complaints.
"Oh, this?" Minato held up the bike repair book, "I'm actually planning to fix Uzumaki-chan's bike for her tonight. But I don't know much about the mechanics, so I figured I would study them first."
"Didn't that break in that car accident we saw her in the first day we met? She still hasn't gotten that fixed?" Shikaku asked.
"No. I asked her about it and she said that she doesn't have the money."
"Oh, so that's why she walks to work through the park with Inuzuka now." Shikaku said.
"Wait, Uzumaki-kun has been walking with Inuzuka to work every morning?" Yoshino quickly turned her head towards Shikaku, showing a sudden, intense interest in the conversation, "The guy she introduced to us last weekend? That Inuzuka?"
"Yeah. That's how they met in the first place, right?" Shikaku answered and looked to Minato, who nodded. Noticing the mischievous smirk spreading across Yoshino's face, he asked, "What's the big deal?"
The brown haired girl chuckled in amusement, "It's just that—you're the passive aggressive type, aren't you Namikaze-kun?"
Minato met her sideways glance with clueless blue eyes. "Huh?"
"If you fix Uzumaki-kun's bike for her, then she won't have to take the same path as Inuzuka anymore." Yoshino slyly said and leaned forward in Minato's direction, "That's pretty convenient for you, isn't it?"
Minato laughed awkwardly, "I think Takemori-chan is overestimating me…"
"Your manipulative capabilities aren't widespread, Takemori. Don't lump Namikaze with the likes of you." Shikaku said, "Besides, why the hell would he even want to keep Uzumaki and Inuzuka apart anyway? He seemed friendly with her."
"Exactly. That's why he's a threat. Right, Namikaze-kun?"
Lately, Yoshino liked to talk about Kushina with him. He didn't quite understand why, but whenever she did, it flustered him. "U-Umm…"
She scrutinized his eyes, "You really haven't realized yet?" Finally she sat back in her chair and heaved a sigh, "And here I thought the dense shoujo manga archetype didn't exist in real life."
Minato blinked. Being the more frank of the two, Shikaku gave Yoshino a look of sleepy confusion, "Takemori…what the hell are you talking about?"
Yoshino groaned and planted her forehead onto the book in front of her, "Forget it. You guys are hopeless."
"Hypocrite. Books are for reading, right?" Shikaku pointed out, cynically.
As soon as the two started to bicker among themselves again, a sigh of relief escaped Minato's mouth. It was a soft one—too subtle for either Shikaku or Yoshino to notice underneath the volume of their sharp whispers and the librarian's chastising shushes, but loud enough for him to realize that he had been holding his breath while Yoshino was talking to him. He checked his forehead for a fever and then tried to decipher the symptom of a racing heart.
Repairing a bike proved to be a much more difficult task than Minato had predicted. He had spent the day studying about the process to gather his confidence; but now, in the pitch dark of the night, the only thing he had accomplished in terms of making it mobile was attach a chain backwards.
Spring nights still retained the leftover chill of winter and the courtyard of the apartment complex was mostly quiet, save the light and three silhouettes playing video games in Shikaku's window. Minato fumbled through the toolbox that he had borrowed from Teuchi at the ramen shop (when asked what for, he found himself stumbling through some lie about breaking his nonexistent scooter), trying not to break the surrounding silence. His digital watch glared a green "1:20". This was, perhaps, the latest he had ever stayed up—the second latest being midnight when he was unable to put down a good book…and it was all for a run down bicycle too; flat, worn tires, a bell with its shell removed and spring unraveled, frame shedding rust. It really was a wonder how Kushina managed to use it in the first place.
In his attempt to find the brakes through awkward grappling, he managed to knock over the entire row of bikes in a domino effect. The crash was deafening; horrified, Minato watched each of the apartment window lights flicked on.
Hearing the landlady's sharp voice and approaching glare of a flashlight, Minato panicked.
"Show yourself! Or I'm calling the police!"
Without thinking, he clumsily grabbed the bike and half-opened tool box and dashed across a line of hedges towards the street. Wrenches and screwdrivers clanged loudly as he ran. By the time he reached a familiar address, he was heaving for breath and couldn't feel a single muscle in his arms.
"Minato—what the hell happened?"
Upon seeing Fugaku answer the door to the mid-sized house, Minato sheepishly smiled, "Good morning, Fugaku-kun."
"Fugaku-san, who is it—oh! Namikaze-san!"
Seeing her blond friend—his face smeared with grease, left knee bruised purple from the impact of a left behind by a dropped hammer, right knee bleeding from hedge thorns—Arashi Mikoto gasped in surprise when she walked up the entrance hallway.
The sight of the young woman with long black hair wearing a rose robe brought Minato equal confusion, "Mikoto-chan?"
If he correctly recalled, Fugaku was living in this house while the owner, his well-off uncle, was staying overseas. But remembering to take his friends' relationship into account, his blue eyes widened and he stammered, "Oh! Um…Am I interrupting? I, uh, can come back another time…"
"But Namikaze-san, you're bleeding!" Mikoto headed towards the kitchen to grab a first-aid kit.
At this hour and Minato's state of appearance, Fugaku highly doubted that his friend had anywhere else to go to. The young man sighed, "Honestly, what did you do, Minato?"
He related the entire tale with awkward embarrassment, feeling out of place in his plain hoodie splotched with red paint that he had tripped over while trying to run away (come to think of it, he had left the paint back at the complex). Sitting on the sofa on the opposite side of the blond, Fugaku found that the only thing he could do when it came to his long-time friend was sigh.
"So the police are at the complex now?"
Minato flashed a guilty grin, "Umm…yeah. I think I heard the landlady dial 110*…"
"I know you like to help people, Minato, but this is way too much."
The dark eyed man stared at the blond in exasperation. A part of him considered grabbing Minato by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him. But he knew from experience that doing anything that could be considered cold or rude to the guileless guy would only bring guilt. So in the end, he stood up and gave in.
"My uncle was a hobby cyclist. He might have left some maintenance gear in the garage. You can stay here while I go check." Before he opened the back door, Fugaku added on, "But seriously, this is the only time I'm helping you out with something like this. If you show up at my door at 2 in the morning again, I'm drawing the line."
"That's a little harsh, isn't it Fugaku-san? Namikaze-san's a nice person; he can't help it." Mikoto walked in from the kitchen with a tea. She set the platter on the coffee table and handed Minato a cup before starting to look at his wounded knee.
"Thanks, Mikoto-chan." He flinched slightly as she wiped anesthetic onto the cut, "I'm really sorry about troubling you and Fugaku-kun."
"It's not a problem." The dark haired girl smiled and then gently teased, "Maybe Namikaze-san could fix our bikes when they break too."
"Ahaha…" He looked up at the ceiling and scratched his head with an awkward laugh, "I'm actually really inexperienced at that kind of stuff. The reason I'm trying right now is because Uzumaki-chan has to walk a long way to work everyday, and I feel bad…or something like that…"
Mikoto looked up at her old high school classmate, "Ne, Namikaze-san. You really like Uzumaki-san, don't you? As more than just a friend."
Minato blinked. He was about to agree and say that yes, he did like Kushina—she was a great friend. But then the implication of Mikoto's last sentence fragment sank in.
He stood up in a shock, hitting his knee against the glass bottom of the table. The tea cups rattled loudly.
"What's going on?" Fugaku appeared from the door and noticed Minato standing in the middle of the room, obviously flustered.
Still kneeling by the sofa, Mikoto turned and smiled at her boyfriend, "Nothing. It was just the shock of the anesthetic."
"Just try not to break anything, or my uncle will have my ass. Anyways, Minato, I set up some stuff for you in here. Once Mikoto is finished you can come down and check it out."
Once Fugaku left again, Mikoto looked back up at Minato. The red on his ears had spread to his face. With an obvious blush on his cheeks, the blue in his eyes seemed even brighter as he seemed at loss for words. It was a face she had never seen before on her friend, who always wore a composed and easy smile. But she thought it was a nice expression—endearing, even.
She smiled at the young man still stuck in shock, "Just think about it a bit."
The absence of an alarm clock in his apartment came to Minato's disadvantage for the first time the next day, when he groggily got up and did a double take when he read 3:12 PM on his clock. This could've only meant that he had slept through Shikaku's battalion on alarms. He panicked for a moment, wondering what was wrong with him until the events of last night (and morning) flooded back.
That's right: by the time he had trudged back to the apartment complex from Fugaku's garage, carrying the finished bike over one cramped shoulder and a toolbox in his other exhausted arm, it was already 5:30 in the morning. The courtyard was empty, which meant that the police had probably left, and the row of bikes he had knocked over was neatly set back on the rack. Half asleep, he had pushed the bike into an empty slot. It had been the conclusion of his all-nighter, a quarter of which was spent blow-drying the paint and varnish with an army of hair dryers. He didn't even bother looking at the mirror or taking off his paint-splattered clothes before collapsing onto his bed.
He yawned and fixed himself a meal, feeling somewhat uncomfortable by the thrown-off schedule. Having already missed his morning lecture, he decided to talk to his professor in the evening. On his way out, he found Kushina by the bike rack.
"Hey Namikaze! Guess what?" She greeted him excitedly.
"How are you, Uzumaki-chan?"
"Are you okay? You look like you're having a crappy day." She peered at him.
Despite the heavy trace of fatigue, he managed to find a smile at the sight of her teal eyes, "I'm fine. I just didn't get a lot of sleep last night"
Which was true—he didn't exactly lie about that.
"Oh, were you woken up by the thief last night?" Kushina eagerly asked, "Because apparently, some guy got in and tried to steal a bike and the police came!"
Minato looked to the side, hoping that his face wasn't giving away anything as he awkwardly laughed, "Ahaha…no, I didn't here about that…I must have slept through that…"
"Me too! I'm so pissed off. The one exciting thing that happens in our apartment and I miss it. But that's not the main thing, 'cuz get this," Kushina grabbed a gleaming red bike with a brass bell next to one of its sleek handles, "The dumbass was in such a rush to get out that he took the wrong bike! He grabbed my shitty one and left his! I'm not sure why he wanted another bike if he already had one in the first place….but oh well, check this thing out though! It's sick!"
He watched her straddle the seat with a bright grin across her face. She started pedaling around the courtyard, "Technically I'm stealing this, but I don't even give a fuck! I'm keeping it. Man, I haven't ridden a bike in forever—this feels great!"
"Um…Uzumaki-chan, actually…" He opened his mouth in a half hearted attempt to tell her that the bike was in truth hers—that he had spent the entire night repairing it for her.
He had made a good choice in painting the frame red. It complimented the fiery brilliance of her hair, which flowed behind her like a ribbon as she sat back to enjoy the wind against her face. Mesmerized by her grin that seemed to have a life of its own, the idea on his tongue slipped off and out of his mind like feather carried away by a breeze.
"Huh? Were you going to say something, Namikaze?" She hit the brake and looked at him.
The full frontal view of her face coupled with her curious voice kicked his memory back into gear. But the words kept on evading him every time he found himself forgetting his manners and staring at the flecks of light in her teal irises. He realized that suddenly, he could hear his heart thump in his gradually warming ears.
If he told her what really happened last night—what would Kushina do? He thought about it—and the thought made him laugh a bit. She would probably yell at him for doing such a thing and then force him to take a month's worth of instant ramen, like she had mentioned. Or maybe she would try to carry his groceries again. Now that he thought about it, he didn't really want the credit after all.
"Just think about it a bit."
"Oi…Namikaze. Say something."
Suddenly, it made sense. He liked her. He liked her much more than "just a friend". Maybe he had felt that way ever since they first met in the café, or maybe the feeling started somewhere along the way. But now that the fact settled in his mind, the uncertainty dissipated like fog.
So he shook his head and gave her an easy smile, "No. It's nothing."
Because all he really wanted was to see her smile, just with the two of them, just like this. Because now there was no denying it:
He had inrevoccably fallen for Uzumaki Kushina.
Hey there! So in the midst of finals, I decided to not study and edit this chapter instead, teehee.
Just a quick note: *= 110 is the emergency number for crime in Japan.
And now the painful attempts at confessing start...