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keep your cool

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She’s always prided herself in her dedication. Noriko follows the rules as they’re laid out, has for at least as long as her hair has reached her back, and never strays. From the simple colored barrettes in her hair to her neat and properly worn uniform, she’s entirely focused on her purpose: to make sure everyone else is following those rules. If not to a T, then at least so that it’s not disruptive to the school environment. People like Erena and Kinoko, they give her the most trouble as the notorious repeat offenders. Her peers, and even upperclassmen, at this school are really just too free spirited. When did she become this kind of person? She can hardly remember.

Noriko gets to the classroom early, as usual; she likes to be on time. Settling down at her desk with her things, she glances around. It’s still early, a milky white glow visible from the windows. A few people have arrived, chatting among themselves, but not many. More will come eventually. She’s used to the early morning lull, because—

Another person steps through the door, and all train of thought is lost.

She gets up early because she likes to be punctual, and so that she follows the rules she enforces. It has absolutely nothing to do with Matsuri Kagami. Sure she’s pretty. Of course she is, with her long pink hair, slightly wavy. Anyone with eyes can see that, but it’s not as if she can’t tear them away. She’s perfectly capable of doing so. It’s only that she’s choosing not to for the moment.

Walking to her seat with a certain grace, Matsuri suddenly pauses midstep, and looks her way. She’s too late to avert her eyes, and they face each other. Noriko knows she shouldn’t have been staring. She clearly noticed her, and is probably uncomfortable. The girl in question, however, shows no sign of it, instead giving her a gentle smile and a wave. It’s just out of politeness, but that doesn’t change how her heart skips a beat.

This is something she does often, consciously or not. Her eyes tend to follow her when she’s not looking. It’s just because she’s pretty; that’s all it is. All the same, she’s never actually noticed her before, and this makes her much more conscious of her actions. It’s rude to stare, anyway, and she’s not one to push her luck. No matter the small part of her that wants to see her smile one more time.

She needs to have better control.

The day goes on, but the weather changes fast. The clouds, darkened while she wasn’t looking, are now deep and heavy. What had seemed like such a nice day through the lens of morning now clearly points to rain. It’s a good thing she thought to bring an umbrella, or she’d be in serious trouble.

It’s as she’s leaving, the flow of students now thinned, and unfolding said umbrella that she notices something. Or, more accurately, someone. Matsuri is standing underneath an overhang, her belongings in her arms. The rain has already begun to fall, and not lightly. It patters on the ground, pooling on the pavement with little ripples. She has no way of leaving without getting soaked at this point. Noriko looks around: no one.

For this reason, she comes closer, half wondering what the hell she’s doing. It’s the other half that propels her forward, though, and extends her open palm to Matsuri. It’s strange. Looking at her directly, she’s even prettier than from afar, with long eyelashes that flutter as she blinks. Those eyes of hers are wide, now, and Noriko suddenly feels awkward. She looks aside. What could she possibly say now? She wracks her brain for something, anything. And soon those words are falling out of her lips.

“Pretty girls shouldn’t catch colds.”

By the time she realizes what she’s said, it’s too late. Her face heats up immediately, mouth now clamped shut. She can’t believe herself. Now Matsuri’s going to think she’s strange, which might be true, but now she has proof. As if what happened earlier wasn’t enough. But once again, she shows no sign of this. No frown crosses her face, but instead the opposite. She smiles, and it’s radiant. Noriko has never seen it up close before. Briefly, she forgets how to breathe.

“Thank you,” she says, stepping under the umbrella, her umbrella. “I wasn’t sure what to do… I really might have caught a cold.” Her voice is soft enough to blend into the falling rain. And she looks up at her, gently, kindly, the difference between their heights making Matsuri’s head about level with her chin. As odd as she feels, though, it isn’t a bad thing. That much she’s sure of.

They walk at a leisurely pace, the umbrella protecting them from the brunt of the rain. With the distance between them, however, stray drops still graze their arms on either side. She can feel it on her own skin, on the short sleeve of her summer uniform, so no doubt Matsuri is having the same experience. This isn’t good. She can ask her to move a bit closer, but that would mean… “Ah!”

“What’s wrong?” Matsuri is concerned. That much she can tell, unfortunately. She didn’t mean to say that out loud…!

“U-Um, nothing!” she says, knowing her voice has taken on a funny tone. “It’s just that, you know, it’d be bad if you got wet anyway, even with the umbrella, so...” She dances around what she actually intends to say with all the grace of an elephant. Noriko is very aware that the warmth in her face hasn’t faded in the slightest, and wishes with all her heart that she wasn’t.

Matsuri looks at her, surprised, and then her expression softens again. Somehow she has understood, and while Noriko has no idea how, she’s so grateful. They come closer, arms now touching. It’s enough to make her chest feel strange. Amidst the scent of the rain, she can smell something distinctly floral: shampoo?

“My house is this way,” says the girl beside her, pointing to the right.

Huh? “So is mine...” This is unexpected. They turn the corner, but the question remains on her mind, and so she asks, “How come I never see you walking?”

Matsuri tilts her head. “I have tennis practice most of the time.” In retrospect, it should have been obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to her at all. Oops.

They continue to walk. The shower has let up a bit by the time they reach her street. It’s only a couple of blocks away from her own house, though why this concerns her, she doesn’t know. She’s only helping a classmate, no more than that. And why would it be more than that? Maybe if they were friends, and visited each other’s places to study, or something… Her thoughts trail off into nothing. She’s overthinking things.

Soon they’ve reached her doorstep, rain dripping from the awning. Noriko has felt strange this entire time, so she should feel relief, but mixed with that is a sense of disappointment. She doesn’t understand herself. And Matsuri is looking up at her with an expression that twists something inside her. “Thank you, again,” she says. “You’re really a good person. I always thought you were a little intimidating, but I’m happy that isn’t the case.”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to...” she begins to say—is there really that much of a gap in her personality?—but Matsuri cuts her off in a way she could have never expected. Before she can wrap her head around it, the other girl is on tiptoes and leaning up to…

Did she just kiss her on the cheek?

The sensation was soft and brief, but it sets her face on fire. She has no idea what kind of expression she’s making right now, but it can’t be anything flattering. What is this? What’s going on? She doesn’t understand. They’re girls, just classmates, so why is she practically burning? Unconsciously, she lifts her hand to touch her cheek.

“Pretty girls shouldn’t catch colds,” Matsuri repeats, in her exact words. She gets a bit shy, hands fiddling with the hem of her skirt. “Don’t you think that should include yourself too?”

Straight through the heart. She might not make it through this.