Part Two: Sprout
Eleven: Seasons change
"Well, according to her mid-term results… she ranks at 21st place out of the whole cohort of 340 students. She has no problem going to a ranked high-school."
"That's good to hear."
"If she improved a few marks across all subjects, a competitive academics-focused school is also possible."
"Thank you, sensei. How is my daughter in class?"
The parent-teacher meeting had been going swimmingly. Maika wasn't a troubling student, and her naughty phase had been left behind in her primary school days. Perhaps her naughty and aggressive phase was not even a real naughty student phase, maybe all the moving houses and lonely dinners made her want something constant and something to reassure her that she wasn't alone.
Looking back, she wanted attention. You are your own worst critic. She spent most of the meeting musing on her embarrassing past.
"Although it's only the second year, now would be a good time to think about the future," said Mr. Nishino, a solemn thirty-something year old man. He adjusted his thick glasses.
Her dad patted her shoulder when she didn't reply. "Maika, do you have any plans?"
Maika pondered, trying to think what she wanted to do in five years. Five years seemed too far away into the future.
She was a blank sheet of paper.
"I don't know. I haven't thought about any career goals."
Her homeroom teacher smiled. "That's normal. Is there anything you enjoy doing, any favorite subjects?"
She knew she enjoyed taking photos, but that was for club activities. She liked being health representative because she was used to doing basic first aid from karate classes. Her favorite classes were Classical Japanese and Biology. She didn't like Mathematics classes because she found it boring. Chemistry was fun, however. Maika made sure to tell her teacher all this.
There was one thing she was certain of. "I want to go to high-school in Tokyo. Near where I live. It can't be far away."
Beside her, her parents shared a meaningful look.
"I see. Varied interests are also normal. You can take your time in deciding," he took out a few brochures from his drawer. "Here are some of my recommendations, these are high schools in the nearby area, for now." He paused as he cast another passing look through his student's file summary, catching something he hadn't read before.
"Is there any reason you want to stay close to home? It seems that you've withdrew from all your club activities. You might not want to limit yourself too much, you know?"
She played with the ends of her skirt and was unable to answer. She could only bow her head.
It was her father who spoke up. "Some family reasons, sensei. Her grandmother is getting older and she wants to spend more time with her."
"Of course. I understand now."
Her mother lightly squeezed her hand, whispering. "That's alright. Take your time to think. We'll always support you."
Warmth pooled within her after hearing the encouraging words. She was grateful.
To fill up her free time in her second year, Maika chose to join the Library Committee. It didn't require much commitment.
She was greeted by a familiar face for her first lunchtime shift.
"Kuroko-kun!" she smiled as she walked up to the desk he was manning, for checking out books.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?"
Since the library was rather quiet after exams, they worked together to re-shelve books in the correct places. He seemed to be in a good mood, by the way he smiled to himself at odd times, as if thinking of something amusing. With Tetsuya, his moods were subdued and the signs were easy to fly by, unnoticed.
Maika smiled when she passed him another book as he stood on the small stepladder. Their eyes met.
"You seem happy. Did anything good happen recently?"
He lit up. "I got my new uniform."
She hadn't been following the the school's basketball team in depth recently, so it was also news to her. "For the…first string?"
Tetsuya nodded. She clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh wow! That's fantastic!" - she smiled again as she let her hand drop down, sincere - "I'm glad your hard work paid off."
"Thank you," he smiled back at her as he stepped down from the small stepladder. He missed the last step, but managed to hop down to the ground with the other foot. He stumbled, his balance wobbly.
Quickly, she stepped forward and reached out to steady him, her hand on his elbow. Their gazes met. The faint sounds of lunchtime chatter drifted through the open window. Inside the library, however, it was quiet.
At this close distance to his face, she was surprised at how straightforward his gaze was. She hadn't expected that. The saying that someone's eyes were the windows to the soul was right. Despite his lack of presence, Tetsuya didn't purposefully distance himself from others. He was present, he was here, standing on the same level of the ground she stood upon.
Who was she thinking of? Kuroko Tetsuya was different from him.
Maika let go of his elbow. "Have you gotten a little taller?"
He stayed close to her and did not step back immediately like she thought he would. "Maybe. A little?" Tetsuya glanced down. "Your hair is longer."
He was right. Instead of the bob she sported at the start of the her first year, it now hung past her shoulders and down to her mid-back. It was becoming a nuisance to maintain.
"Yep. I'm not used to it, though. Maybe I should cut it?" she grabbed a lock and studied the ends, grimacing at the split ends when she held it right in front of her eyes. She needed a trim. But how much? Decisions, decisions.
Tetsuya, bless his observation skills, decided to help her out. "Either way, it will suit you."
A sudden feeling of shyness at the sudden compliment bubbled with her. She wasn't good at taking compliments.
The chatter drifting in from outside died down to a low murmur. She wished they were rowdier. Maika fidgeted with her hands and she looked down to her feet with a small smile.
Classes ended for the summer and just as Maika was changing her indoor shoes for her school loafers at the lockers, she was accosted by Satsuki and Yumi.
"Mou, Mai-chan. We've been looking for you!" Satsuki huffed, her hands on her hips.
"We're going to a cafe," Yumi said as she texted on her phone. She flipped her smooth black hair over her shoulder.
"We are?" One of her loafers fell to the ground as she accidentally loosened her grip.
"Yup. You said you wanted to go last week."
"I did?" Maika winced. She sounded like a broken record. Was she so absent-minded this past week?
Satsuki stepped forward to hug her. "You never told me that you quit all your clubs! I haven't seen you in ages! I have so many things to tell you!"
Maika patted Satsuki's back to comfort her. "Sorry."
In response, she squeezed her tighter. Maika laughed at how clingy she was being. It was so endearing.
"Okay, okay. Let's go now then."
The girls walked out via a side gate. It was a short stroll and they lingered under the shadows of foliage on the way. Satsuki had found a new cafe she wanted to try and no one was going to deny her of her fluffy vanilla swiss roll. Maika craved for a cool drink, or a refreshing sorbet in the warm weather.
Thankfully, the cafe was air-conditioned. Yumi pulled out her phone and started to type rapidly. Maika guessed that it was probably her older boyfriend as she sipped at her iced green tea.
Satsuki coughed for their collective, undivided attention. "Everyone, I have an announcement to make." Her eyes shone with passion.
"You've fallen in love?" Yumi asked her dispassionately as she texted. She blushed.
"No!" Satsuki cried out, "I mean, yes, but that's not the point!"
No, that was a very important point. Maika and Yumi shared a knowing look at her unsure denial.
The flustered girl folded her arms over her well-endowed chest. "Ahem! The big news is that the basketball team has made it to nationals! And we're storming through!"
Maika smiled, trying to act like she hadn't been told by Seijuro already. "Wow! That's nice!" She was a terrible liar.
The other girl grinned, a sly look in her eyes. "You know what would be even nicer to know, Maika-san?"
"Maybe I do, Yumi-san," she teased back. Both of them leveled a stare at Satsuki with the strength of a thousand lions locked onto a weak prey.
"So? Who is it?"
"Who could it be, I wonder?"
"Eh? You two are curious about that?"
"Come on—I'm on the edge of my seat here."
"Me too, me too!" Maika raised a hand.
Slowly, Satsuki unfolded her arms and squealed, a maidenly blush painting her cheeks. "It's Tetsu-kun! On the way home, he gave me a popsicle. It was so sweet!"
Yumi tilted her head, trying to recall a face with the name. "Mmm? Who?"
"…and when he plays basketball, it's kind of cool to watch. Tetsu-kun is super cool, you know? And…oh, you know…"
Maika gasped, grasping at the rare chance to tease her. "You don't know?"
"Come on, tell me," Yumi whined.
"—heart beats so fast when I get lost in his gentle eyes! How dreamy!"
"Kuroko Tetsuya," she replied. It was quite an unexpected choice. "He was in our class last year."
The other girl came up with nothing. Now that she thought of it, a photo would help. Maika tried to search in her phone. She didn't have any. This was difficult.
"…so, do you have anyone you like?" Satsuki chirped happily.
"Yumin has a boyfriend," Maika said.
Yumi's face darkened. "He's dead to me now." The others wisely decided not to dig further and accidentally wake the sleeping beast.
"Mai-chan, what about you?"
She shrugged in response, which was not a good enough answer for Satsuki. "Ehhhhhh? You're so cute though…my research said—well…surely you must be popular?"
Casting her mind back, she went through all her interactions with her male classmates rapidly. Nothing stood out. For some reason, there wasn't much social interaction. She didn't even have that many friends! Some 'youthful' school life she had.
"No one's ever confessed?"
"No one," she confirmed. Satsuki's question dampened Maika's mood. Why would she get any confessions, anyway? That would be too out-of the-blue!
Satsuki tilted her head in thought and debated to herself whether she should voice the obvious. The love warrior within her won. "But there's a good atmosphere when you're with Akashi-kun."
Maika's heart skipped a beat.
"You know, a good vibe. Ahh, I want to be like with Tetsu-kun! Since Akashi-kun is like…um…more like," - The love-struck teenager waved her hands, her long pink hair swaying - "help me here Yumin!"
"…A shining shoujo prince?"
An uncomfortable feeling similar to the sensation of sea roaches scuttling over her bare feet that one time she was at the beach last summer washed over her. Her mouth was very dry, all of a sudden.
"We're close friends," Maika mumbled.
They swooped down on her like hungry hawks. Satsuki, in her 'warrior for love' mode, was relentless. "What if there was a girl closer to Akashi-kun? What if he got a girlfriend? What would you do then?"
She blinked, unsure how to phrase her answer. These kind of questions were far more complicated than the ones on her end of term exams. "I'd be…happy for him?"
Satsuki pouted. She exuded an air of extreme dissatisfaction. "Aww, Mai-chan…this is like pulling teeth!" The love warrior surrendered.
The General of the love warrior army stepped up to the challenge. Yumi put her phone down gently. "She's stubborn. You need to bulldoze her down. Watch me and learn."
She pinned Maika with a sharp gaze. It was genuinely terrifying, being at the receiving end of one of these interrogations, especially when it was by sharp-tongued Yumi. Maika had a very bad feeling about this.
"If you have to choose a guy to do it with or the world will end, who would you choose?"
See? I knew it. She tried to fight back through the diversion and delay tactic. "What kind of things do you mean?"
Love General Yumi with all her dating expertise and impure thoughts, was ruthless. "The thrusting kind."
Satsuki squealed again, hitting the table repeatedly. "Oh no!"
The delay tactic failed miserably. It must have been that sex education class from last month that Yumi took so seriously. Maika knew that Yumi had been reading a translated version of 'The 120 Days of Sodom' recently, since she had been messaging screen shots of certain parts of the book to her at the most random times. Sometimes she laughed. Other times…she shivered at the memory. Was it possible to un-see things?
Maika turned away from the corruption. "I don't want to answer this."
The weight of their stares broke through her defenses. Her face was on fire. This was insane, why was she even thinking about her answer? Why was she talking so long to dismiss them? Her will crumbled at every moment that passed.
"Fine, have it your way. Just say yes or no?" Yumi pressed the figurative gun to her head.
How was this 'having it her way'? She buried her red face in her arms as she muttered her answer.
The lighthearted times were always accompanied by sad times as well. Such was life. Her summer holidays passed by at a snail's pace, the basketball team won the national championships…everyone was enjoying their youth. Everyone but her, it seemed.
Maika stood with her parents outside the hospital emergency room. She rubbed at the goosebumps forming on her upper arms. Her cotton dress kept her cool outside in the summer heat, but the air-conditioning in the hospital was cold. They had been waiting for an hour already.
She glanced outside the window behind her. It was dark already. Everyone would be having fun at the summer festival by now. Everyone but her.
The door opened, and a doctor stepped out. He was middle-aged and had a bald spot on the top of his head.
"How is she?" Her mother, Rieko asked. Her father placed a hand on his wife's shoulder. The other hand sought hers out, giving her a comforting squeeze.
"Her condition has stabilised." The family let out a collective sigh of relief. He went on to explain the situation and her mother listened attentively. Maika didn't understand what he was saying, but she was grateful and terribly relieved at the news.
"Can I go see inside Granny?" she asked her father after the doctor left. Several nurses entered the emergency room in a flurry.
Hiroto ruffled her hair. "The doctor said that she needs to rest. She'll be fine, Maika. You did a good job when you found her and called the ambulance immediately."
"Really," her mother answered instead of her father. She hugged Maika. "Don't worry. Granny will be okay. You helped her with your first-aid skills. She just slipped and fell down a step. She'll be fine."
Slipping down a step was fatal to the elderly. Maika knew that. Her mother was trying to comfort her. She raised her arms and rubbed circles into her mother's back, doing her best to return the comfort.
Over her shoulder, father smiled at her. Maika smiled back.
"Now that everything's fine, do you want to go meet your friends?" Hiroto asked her.
She shook her head, uneasy about leaving so soon at this time. She wanted to go…but it wasn't right, running off to have fun whilst granny was lying in a hospital bed.
Rieko pinched her cheek lightly. "Why the long face, darling? You've been worried about granny all year. You should go. Have fun. Don't bottle the stress. We have this sorted."
"I'll stay here," Hiroto said.
"Dad, I…I don't think I can go," she said sadly.
"You told me that you were really looking forward to this. And the festival is nearby."
Rieko joined in to persuade her. "You can come back here afterwards, or call us and I'll come get you. It's only a ten minute walk from here. Your friends are waiting."
Her feelings warred with each other. Maika fiddled with the hems of her white summer dress. The selfish part of her won. She peeked outside the window. It was night, but the fireworks hadn't started yet. She still had time.
"Alright," she sighed as her parents both crushed her with a tight hug at the same time. On from each side. Completely pincered.
"Should I walk you there?" her father asked.
She smiled. "No, it's fine. I'll call you when I'm on my way back." Her mother kissed her on the cheek.
And on that heartwarming note, Maika walked away to grasp at the tail-ends of her disappearing youth.
The fireworks exploded into the sky when she left the hospital. She broke out into a run, as fast as she could when in dainty sandals. Her thoughts raced.
Would she make it time? Why had the fireworks started already? Oh, she hope she made it.
Maika turned left. Just as she thought she was going to make it in time, they ended. She was nowhere near the festival grounds. Maybe she took a wrong turn? She checked her location on her phone and — aha, she had taken the long route. Not one to be disheartened, she started jogging again.
Maybe she'd be able to catch them near the end. If they're not there, then she'd walk back to the hospital. Ah! The festival lanterns in the distance!
She could see people walking away from the festival in groups as she ran in the opposite direction. She had to check if they were still there. If he was still there. She couldn't back out of a promise so easily.
And he was. Her heart soared. He had waited.
Seijuro stood alone, at the entrance of the festival. All around him, people were leaving. Some stall owners were beginning to pack up.
He had waited, for her.
Maika stopped to take a breath after sprinting all the way. All around her were people wearing colorful yukata. She sighed, there had been no time to change into the one she had prepared for tonight. Oh well. Granny was more important, anyway.
Seijuro was still here. She walked up to him, a little self-conscious about her state of dress. His yukata was fantastic - white with an amazing dragon motif. Such a design was difficult for anyone to pull off, but this wasn't anyone. This was Akashi Seijuro and he looked so handsome in his yukata.
"Is everything alright?" he asked her.
Maika shook her head. "I'll tell you later…that being said. I'm sorry I'm so late." She looked around. "Has everyone left?"
"Yes. It was time for Momoi's curfew, so we all said our goodbyes."
"But you waited for me," she smiled warmly. "Thank you, Sei-kun."
He returned her smile. They stood like that for a few moments, just smiling at each other. The flow of people continued around them.
"Let's go sit down," Seijuro offered her his hand. Maika hurriedly wiped her hand on her dress before taking it. It was easy to get lost in this crowd if they weren't linked.
The lanterns glowed a dim yellow as she told him everything. They sat on a bench by the pond. It was quiet, apart from the faraway sounds of vendors packing up their stalls and the yelled 'goodnights!'. Moonlight illuminated the lotus flowers floating on the water.
Seijuro listened to every one of her words intently. She came home after spending the day out with Yumi and was doing her homework upstairs when her grandmother slipped down a step in the garden. She wasn't getting up. There was no time for blind panic, and the first aid course training kicked in soon enough. So she called the ambulance and panicked later in the waiting room, which is how her parents found her.
He still watched her with an unreadable expression after she finished her story.
"You did well," he said.
Maika felt lighter after telling someone. It was too dark to see properly. She looked into his eyes. They reflected the dim glow of the lanterns.
Slowly, she leaned her head on his shoulder. Maika sighed, relaxing. "Thank you for listening. I feel better now."
"That's good to know."
She watched the lotus pads drift across the water as the cool breeze picked up. She shivered, regretting not having a light cardigan to cover her bare arms.
Maika felt daring tonight. "Comfort me more," she murmured.
Seijuro wordlessly patted her hand. How platonic.
It irritated her, for some reason.
Maybe all the stress and the summer heat was clouding her judgement. She was getting greedy again, she knew it. The darkness bubbled within her and the impulses were hard to control when all she wanted was to be spoiled.
"That's not it," she sat up and wound her arms around his neck in an embrace. Seijuro tensed at the initial contact, but as the seconds passed, he noticed that she was shivering. Trembling?
Slowly, he raised his arms to hug her back. And that's all Maika needed.
HAHA. Took me 11 chapters for a hug. Whoops? This chapter was so difficult to write, but I needed to get this out. SO. Thoughts?