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01. street-side game

 

Amara de la Garza was glad that they hadn’t been hit by a car yet.

 

The street isn’t particularly busy right now, save for the occasional car driving through. The kids are rowdy and excitable, so she always worried a little whenever a car would be pulling down the street. Of course, in typical Japanese fashion, the drivers are patient and slow to a crawl as the kids scramble out of the way.

 

Yet another culture shock, she mused to herself from the side of the street, watching the soccer game unfold with careful eyes. Drivers in the States didn’t hesitate to honk their horn at kids who didn’t move out of the way fast enough, but without fail, in her entire three years in Tokyo, most—if not all—had been courteous and cordial. It was another thing she liked about the country.

 

She shifted, resisting the urge to lean on the car parked on the sidewalk behind her. The kids—a group of junior high schoolers with a penchant for soccer—darted around the open space, shooting the ball around. Every now and then, they’d make a ‘goal’ which was just kicking the ball between two backpacks set up on opposite sides of the street, guarded by a ‘goalie.’ Each time one of the two teams scored, they seemed to look at Amara for official confirmation, which she gave willingly.

 

There was something about watching them play that was incredibly satisfying. She loved the game herself, but her skillset was too advanced for the kids. These kids—both boy and girl, no inhibitions held despite gender—didn’t play in the true word of competition, but rather for fun. Not that she didn’t have fun while out on the field, but she wasn’t playing for kicks, she played to win. The contrasting attitudes between her and the kids always drew her back to this little neighborhood, willing to sacrifice precious time after practice to ‘referee’ their game.

 

Amara knew, as she gave into her urge and leaned very slightly on the car, she could be back at Hotei, in the dorms, either studying her competitor’s games or plowing through the homework that had begun piling up, despite school having just started a few weeks ago. The hard life of a third year, she thought, both amused and dreading the homework she would inevitably have to do. In any case, she was content with pushing away her responsibilities and allowing the excitement the kids felt to make her feel better.

 

“Hey, Miss Amara! Did you see that? The ball went straight past them all—it was so cool! Did you see?” The excitable likes of Kei Takashima were welcomed with open arms as she pushed off the car. Guilt burned in her stomach since she had not, unfortunately, seen the ball make the goal. Still, she grinned at the younger boy. He was a runt, by any means, the smallest of the kids, despite being in his second year of junior high.

 

“That’s great, kid. Good offense—trying to take my position?”

 

“He’s too small for that,” one of the third year boys—Reo Sato—quickly pointed out, huffing quietly. Amara eyed him carefully. He was a newer addition to their street-side game, with an incredible offense and defense on him, but he was temperamental. She’d noticed the spike in arguments and scuffles after his entrance, but she wasn’t going to ruin his fun. Envy seemed to shine in his hazel eyes, and she hummed quietly at the revelation. Kei, despite his size, was talented within his own right and always sought her approval, more so since he wanted to be a center midfielder just like she currently was. Looks like the competition between those two is a lot more personal than I’d thought.

 

“Size doesn’t necessarily matter, Reo,” she said, belligerent in her words, but careful not to get the other team to razzle him. “Center midfielders just have to be quick. Nevertheless,” she reached out to ruffle Kei’s sweaty black hair, “great job. What was the score again?”

 

They all groaned. “Miss Amara! You’re supposed to remember!”

 

“Am I?” She asked coyly, chuckling at their moans and groans. She could say with stark certainty that she preferred the playfully competitive and fun kids over her own teammates, who could be seriously moody at times. Another cultural difference, perhaps. Or maybe it just meant Amara was childish. She’d been called that several times.

 

Brushing those thoughts away, she tossed the soccer ball back into play, the kids jumping back into action. She kept track of the score this time, calling out to compliment or fix one of the kids’ moves every now and then. Reo had taken the ball and proved to be merciless in dodging the others’ attempts to steal it back. She bit her lip, watching much more closely now. He pulled back his foot to hit the ball into the goal, but there was something off about his form.

 

The ball missed the goal, tracking upwards and almost hitting a car. There were several groans from his teammates, accompanied by the cheers of the other team. She heard him curse loudly but decided not to reprimand him as she jogged up the street to retrieve the ball.

 

“Huh?” She grumbled quietly in disdain upon not finding it wedged between two cars as she’d originally thought. She really hoped it wasn’t lost—that would set off the kids and that wasn’t a favorable way to end the day.

 

“Miss?” She stiffened and stood up quickly, rounding the car to step onto the sidewalk. A guy stood there, holding the ball loosely in his hand. He looked a little lost, hazel eyes shifting between the ball and her. Very absent-mindedly, she noted that he was handsome, but his eyes looked a little empty.

 

“Yes, it is. Er, is this your car? If we hit it—or you—then I apologize.” She took a step forward. She didn’t think it was his car, he looked young—possibly her age? Still, she was cautious.

 

“Miss Amara!” A familiar tenor stopped him from replying to her question and she turned to see Kei tracking up the street, Reo hot on his heels. “O-Oh, you found it!” Kei cheered loudly, but Reo frowned at the guy suspiciously. The boys stopped a car down, peering at them over it.

 

“Who’re you?” He asked rudely. Kei looked at him in shock and Amara sputtered.

 

“You—Reo, don’t be rude! I’m very sorry about this, sir,” she apologized again, bowing quickly. The guy didn’t look bothered, looking more apathetic than anything.

 

“It’s fine, and no, this isn’t my car. I was just walking down the street, don’t worry.” His voice was quiet, sounding misplaced amongst the loud chatter of the kids.

 

“Hey, Mister, could you throw the ball back over there? We’re playing soccer!” Kei exclaimed loudly, smiling widely.

 

“N-No, that’s fine! Kei. Reo. Get back over there,” she hissed, shooing the boys away. Embarrassment flooded her, her face heating up rapidly. She thanked whatever deity was out there that her bronze skin could hide the flush fairly well. The guy looked down at the ball again.

 

“It’s not a problem,” he said quietly, then began walking down the sidewalk to get closer to the kids. Amara followed behind him awkwardly, biting the inside of her cheek apprehensively. Kei and Reo had joined up again, all the kids watching the man with curiosity, but still ready to get back into the game. He stopped at a spot where the car was low enough for him to see, a car or so down from where the goal was set up, then with shocking force, he shot the ball into the air.

 

The kids made sounds of wonder as it sailed through the air and she worried that it would end up on the other side of the street, but to her pleasant surprise, it landed perfectly in the middle of the kids. A perfect free-for-all. She turned back to the guy and blinked in surprise when she saw that he was already continuing his trek down the sidewalk.

 

“Uh, thank you again, sir!” She called out, raising her hand to wave. He paused to look back at her, nodding in acknowledgment then turning back around and continuing.

 

Weird dude. She stared at his retreating figure, then quickly remembered where she was and turned to look at the kids. They were all playing with renewed vigor, but a quick glance at her phone said that she would have to wrap up the game soon. The dropping sun was beginning to cast a golden glow, shadows growing tall. She sent them home soon enough, after about twenty more minutes of playtime.

 

They groaned good-naturedly but shuffled around, picking up their backpacks that sat comfortably by the car that Amara usually stood by. She picked up her own, which was smaller than her school backpack and usually used for her wallet and other miscellaneous items. She made it a habit to stop by her dorm after soccer practice to change and freshen up. The kids never stopped playing, even if she couldn’t be there.

 

It was by luck that her practice ended earlier than other schools, since Hotei was an athletic and academic-centric school, she had her last period dedicated to sports, so soccer practice always started at three and ended at five thirty. It gave her time to come and watch them play for a while.

 

“I better get text messages from you all when you get home! If I don’t, I’m calling your parents and getting you into trouble, got it?” She sent them severe looks and they nodded obediently. It was her own way of ensuring their safety. She wasn’t keen to the idea of some of these kids walking around so late, so she’d gotten their phone numbers and their parents’ or guardians’ to be safe. They’d never protested the system, knowing it was for her own sake more than anything.

 

“Miss Amara, will you be okay?” Kei asked, hanging back as the kids left. Reo was slow in the uptake, shooting glances back at them. She smiled gently at him.

 

“No worries, Kei. I’m taking the train home and it’s only a five minute walk from here. Get home safe, alright?” Hiking up her backpack, she ruffled his hair affectionately, then waved goodbye to Reo, who flushed red at being caught hanging back. She turned and left before he could say anything, picking up a fast pace until she turned the corner.

 

She fished her earbuds out of her backpack, turning on some upbeat music for the walk to the train station. The next train that would be leaving in about forty-five minutes, so she had plenty of time. Maybe she’d even pick up some dinner since her stomach was alerting her that it’d been a solid six hours since she last ate. Humming quietly to the tune of Yellow Submarine that was blaring through her earbuds, she faltered in her steps upon arrival to the train station, finding a large crowd of people loitering around the entrance.

 

Several of them seemed angry, speaking on their phones and waving their hands around, while others spoke harshly to the train attendants behind the counter. She looked around for the timetable and found a TV showing the times.

 

1830 – #3745 – Tokyo Express – Kokubunji – Nakatsuwa – Cancelled – Platform 4

 

A quick look at her time confirmed her thoughts. These people must’ve been waiting, but the train to Kokubunji had been canceled. Now a little more worried, she squinted at the screen to try and find her own.

 

1915 – #3780 – Tokyo Express – Kokubunji – Nakatsuwa – On Time – Platform 4

 

She sighed in relief. That wasn’t the last train of the night, but she didn’t want to be getting back to the dorms so late. The other people seemed to hold the same sentiment. A few of them turned and left the station, muttering about catching a taxi back instead. She snorted quietly, turning to head down the platforms to get some ramen from one of the food stalls.

 

Taking the meal and a bottle of water to go, she frowned with the realization that all the benches were taken at her platform. She maneuvered her way to Platform 5, which only had a few people sitting around. Looking at the TV mounted above it, she saw no train scheduled here, so she figured that others going for the train were waiting here as well. She sat down on the bench facing the tracks, making sure to sit at the opposite end of it since there was already someone else seated. She paid them no mind as she dropped her bag to the ground, setting her phone beside her with her water bottle then cracking open the lid on the Styrofoam cup and pulling out the chopsticks.

 

She’d been mid-slurp of her ramen and of Dancing Queen when it cut off abruptly, signally an incoming call. She grumbled quietly, sticking her chopsticks into her mouth to swipe across her phone, barely managing to catch a look at who called her.

 

“Hello?” She asked around a mouthful of ramen, deciding to use her earbuds instead of picking up her phone.

 

“Hey, what time are you coming back?” Chihiro’s flat voice came out of her earbuds.

 

“Uh, in like an hour and fifteen minutes, maybe thirty? Train leaves at 7:15 and it’s 6:45 right now; the ride is like thirty minutes, I think, from here to the station, then like . . . fifteen more minutes for me to walk—”

 

“Good. Chiyo said she needs your help with her English work and she won’t help me with my work until she’s done with hers.”

 

“Hey, hey, don’t be so rude to me . . . And watch your mouth, kid,” Amara grumbled, but there was no real bite in her words. That was just how Chihiro was—all brash and gruffness despite being Amara’s junior. Chiyo always had a better way of dealing with her but Amara found it far too much fun to rile her up.

 

“You’re worse than me,” Chihiro responded flatly. “Alright—”

 

“Doesn’t Chiyo have her own phone? You her servant or what?”

 

Chihiro cursed quietly in the background. “I told you that’s what she’d say, she’s so damn annoying—ouch!” Amara stopped her eating as she listened to some scuffling in the background.

 

“Thought you’d appreciate getting a call from Hiro,” Chiyo’s cool voice interjected quickly. She could hear Chihiro throwing a fit in the background.

 

“I’ll smother you in your sleep, Im."

 

“No, I don’t feel like dealing with the grouch today.” She grinned upon hearing Chihiro sputter indignantly.

 

“Grouch!”

 

Chiyo grunted. “Quit antagonizing her. Hurry up, won’t you?”

 

“Sure, I’ll tell the conductor to kick the speed up just for me.”

 

Chiyo sighed, exasperated. “You know what I mean. We’ll see you in a while. Be safe.”

 

“Uh huh.” The call ended quickly, and Dancing Queen picked up shortly thereafter, though it changed to Hey Jude not even a minute later.

 

She stirred her ramen, finding herself unable to wipe the grin off her face. Chiyo Im and Chihiro Akamine, third year and second year respectively, volleyball team and tennis team (as a single) respectively as well. She’d known Chiyo since her first year and of course, Chihiro came a year after them. Admittedly, she was a difficult one to crack—her stone walls were forces of nature, but Amara was nothing if not persistent and Chiyo if not patient.

 

Humming to the tune, she turned to pick up her phone but knocked her water bottle off the bench instead, the bottle rolling away with the momentum. She grimaced at her mistake, moving to get up and retrieve it but another hand had already grasped it. She blinked in surprise as she came face to face with the guy from earlier, sitting on the other end of the bench. She accepted her bottle quickly, resisting the urge to retract her hand when her fingers brushed against his.

 

Out of respect, she turned the volume down a few notches, but kept Hey Jude still playing in the background.

 

“Thank you,” she said, inclining her head in gratitude.

 

“You’re welcome,” he responded in kind, then resettling himself, gazing off into the distance. She felt a little awkward; she was pretty sure he had recognized her just as she to him. She glanced at the clock. It was barely 6:50. She wasn’t going to move since that was too rude, but should she try to engage him? He seemed a little reserved, it was probably best if she didn’t, lest she make it more awkward.

 

She scooped up more ramen, resuming her eating. What am I thinking? He’s just some guy . . . Not that important to worry about. She huffed to herself. Wait . . . He walked by us like . . . thirty minutes ago. Was he looking to get onto the 6:30 train? She pushed her curiosity down. That was the most logical explanation, so she definitely didn’t need to bother him about it.

 

Steeling her resolve, she finished her food and chugged down half of her water bottle, finding herself strangely parched. The rest of the time seemed to crawl, and it looked like a number of people had decided to take a taxi back to Kokubunji instead of waiting for the 7:15 train. Still, as the train pulled into the platform, hydraulics hissing loudly as it pulled to a stop, the crowd of people waiting was incredibly daunting. She grimaced as she stood up, picking up her things. She wasn’t looking forward to making her way through that, much less finding her seat.

 

Pushing through the crowd was difficult but she managed to make it in, heading farther down the train to find an emptier cabin. She finally found one, collapsing into a window seat on the left of the aisle and dropping her backpack into the seat beside her. The two seats in front of her were still free, but she hoped no one would take them.

 

Luck wasn’t on her side, though, as two older men took the two seats. She felt uncomfortable being in such a small space, especially with one of them glancing repeatedly at her. She wasn’t sure if it was because of her clear foreigner status—her bronze skin, Western features and strange-sounding Japanese usually clued most people in—but whatever it was, it made her uncomfortable.

 

They seemed to realize her discomfort, or at least the other man did as he elbowed him and muttered for him to stop staring. She could only bite her lip and raise the volume of her music as the train pulled into motion, leaving the station in a rush of speed.

 

She dozed off a little on the thirty minute commute, but the seats on the train weren’t made for comfort and the occasional bumps and rocks of the tracks forfeited any type of resting on the window.

 

As the Tokyo Express pulled into Kokubunji, her phone buzzed repeatedly with texts—no doubt from Chihiro, probably cursing her out. She ignored the vibrations, picking up her bag and waiting for the two men to step into the aisle so she could stand and wait for a spot in the line.

 

“Go ahead,” that quiet and familiar voice was muffled by the music still playing and she stiffened upon realizing that the guy had ridden in the same cabin as her and she was being embarrassing and holding up the line.

 

She bowed awkwardly. “Thank you.” She seemed to be saying that a lot to him.

 

Her heart thudded with an unknown emotion—anxiety?—as she shuffled forward, the line to leave the train seeming to take forever. She was very aware of him standing behind her. She could almost feel the heat he was emanating, a sharp contrast to the cool air conditioning in the train. The back of her neck prickled uncomfortably.

 

Finally, she stepped off the train, moving forward quickly to allow others to step off. The crowd surged forward, everyone heading towards the same exit. Upon stepping outside the station, people dispersed. Some heading towards the parking lot, some to the taxis and some to the drop off zone, where other cars idled for them.

 

In her peripheral vision, she could see the guy pause, body slightly turned towards her. She held her breath. He hesitated, then began walking away, the opposite direction of where she needed to go. She released the breath, feeling . . . Disappointed? Amara wasn’t sure why. He’s just some guy.

 

For the second time that day, she steeled herself. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, she’d sometimes find herself enraptured in a boy or girl’s quiet charm or aura and they’d serve to be those crushes that were fleeting—merely strangers in passing who she admired.

 

Shaking her head at her own behavior, she began the fifteen minute trek. She pulled out one earbud to keep an ear out, listening to the sound of cars passing and the rustling of trees. The familiar glow of Hotei’s lights came into her vision. The school was composed of two, three-story buildings, the dormitory standing behind the school itself and the fields sitting behind both the dorms and school building. She showed her student badge to the security guard at the gate, who grunted in appraisal and let her through.

 

She heard some laughter, guessing it to be some students still wandering around, though curfew would fall at nine. She began taking the familiar path towards the dorms and to the second floor, where Chiyo’s room was—and no doubt, Chihiro would be there too. She glanced to the side, where the orange construction tape obscuring the new building fluttered in the wind. It was for Hotei’s attempt at expansion; the school had only just opened up four years ago but had a strong reputation in both athletics and academics. She knew that in a few years, people would be clambering to attend.

 

Her feet guided her towards Chiyo’s room, and she didn’t bother knocking, entering with a flourish. “Your god has arrived,” she exclaimed, tugging off her earbuds to hear them. Chiyo and Chihiro were seated on the floor, various papers and textbooks spread around them. Chihiro leveled Amara with a heated glare and without any hesitation, lifted her decently full pencil case and tossed it at her.

 

Amara yelped and stumbled back to avoid the projectile. “Hey, my face isn’t the tennis court! Throw gentler.” She picked up the pencil case and stepped into the warm room, dropping her bag then herself onto the ground.

 

“Don’t come in here so obnoxious then,” Chihiro grunted, arms crossed. “Help Chiyo, please. I want to go to bed early tonight.”

 

“You say that,” Amara drawled, amused, “but we all know you never do.”

 

“I’m trying something new.”

 

“Right.” Upon the dubious agreement, Chihiro held up the pencil case threateningly. Amara merely chuckled and shuffled closer to Chiyo, who’d been silent through the interaction, observing with a raised eyebrow.

 

“You took longer this time,” Chiyo noted quietly. “Something happen?”

 

Chihiro glanced over at them curiously while Amara slid the paper towards herself.

 

She peered at the work thoughtfully, reading the example sentences with a critical eye. “The train before mine was canceled, so it was a little busier than usual. No worries—hey, this sentence is wrong . . .”

 

Amara did her best to help with Chiyo’s English homework, but honestly, even she—a native English speaker—didn’t understand how to use passive and active voice in writing. By the time they’d all called it a night it was well past eleven o’clock, effectively ruining Chihiro’s supposed plan of going to bed early.

 

As Amara and Chihiro left the dorm and went their separate ways, there were no lingering thoughts about the strange boy. Only about the impending third year and retirement as a soccer player. She hoped to keep it this way; her last year was crucial and under no circumstances could she afford a distraction.

 

 

Chapter Text

02. frequent occurrences

 

As it would turn out, things didn’t quite go Amara’s way.

 

She saw the guy from before on several occasions following that day. It wasn’t back-to-back, since some days she stayed at the dorms to either get in extra practice or do homework, and she never saw him on the weekends either. But it was so continuous that she was curious about him.

 

She wasn’t going to go out of her way for him, but he frequented the sidewalk often enough for her to notice. It made her wonder, as she stood in her usual spot next to a car, observing the game half-heartedly; had he always walked that path and she never noticed? She liked to think she was an observant person, almost always looking over her shoulder to glance at whoever was walking the sidewalk. But of course, there were some days when she’d just let the quiet noise of shoes on the sidewalk be drowned out by the yells of the kids, not bothering to look.

 

Either way, she’d seen him so frequently she was determined to get used to it, so she didn’t dwell on it so much. She’d taken to nodding once in acknowledgment at him if he looked in her direction and it really shouldn’t have pleased her as much as it did to always receive a nod back. (Dismissing the fact that he seemed to look in her direction every time, too.) That was their thing, she supposed, a small greeting in passing—nothing more, nothing less.

 

She’d been expectant of that today, too. Just a nod in greeting and that was that. But her ears picked up on a loud voice coming down the sidewalk and she looked over her shoulder, seeing not only him but another boy as well. Her eyebrows rose. He always took the walk alone from when she’d seen him. Another oddity was his clothes; he was always wearing some sort of school uniform—she’d never been able to identify the school—but today he was dressed down in sweats, tennis shoes and a grey hoodie. The boy was dressed in what she identified as a baseball uniform and her eyes roamed over the Japanese printed down the left side of the shirt. Seido.

 

Seido High School was another school in Kokubunji, not that far from Hotei High. There’d been minimal interaction between the schools since she was fairly sure that Seidō only had a baseball program and Hotei had a soccer, volleyball and tennis program, so neither teams would ever be meeting in a competition. The boy looked young, too—a junior of his, perhaps? Whatever it was, she had no time to dwell on it because the younger boy noticed her staring and lifted up a hand to wave in a happy manner.

 

She blanched as the other guy looked at her as well; he nodded, per usual, but there was a small smile on his lips as he did so. She managed to nod back, her face hot. The game continued to progress without her watchful eyes and she truly meant to return to watching but the boy had asked—loudly— “Chris, who is she? Do you know her?”

 

Chris. Her face heated further as she was reminded that they’d never exchanged names and honestly, she never thought that they would. This boy seemed to be a changing point, however, if the way that the guy—Chris—slowed to a stop next to her was any indication. He’d never done that before, but the younger boy was gazing at Amara curiously and she noticed that he held a gym bag in his hand, the same one that Chris would usually carry himself.

 

“I do, though we’ve never had a proper introduction,” Chris replied, nodding his head at the boy but keeping his eyes on Amara. There was something different about him—call it over-analyzation, but he seemed happier. She couldn’t exactly tell with certainty, though.

 

“Proper introduction?” The boy asked, eyes furrowed in an adorable way. He reminded her of the junior high schoolers—with his expressive face and the baby fat still in his cheeks, but he was taller than her and built leanly, no doubt a side effect of being a baseball player.

 

Amara figured it was time to turn around and face the music, so she turned away from the game.

 

“Proper introduction,” Chris agreed before bowing politely. “My name is Chris Yu Takigawa and this is Eijun Sawamura. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Amara smiled easily and bowed as well. “Likewise, I’m Amara de la Garza, but call me by Amara. My last name is too wordy.”

 

“Chris for me as well,” he smiled very slightly.

 

“Call me Eijun, if you’d like, Miss Amara!” Sawamura—Eijun—bowed deeply and she was pleasantly surprised at the formality—despite him asking her to call him by his first name—and how loud he was. It was, quite frankly, adorable.

 

She felt a more natural smile slip onto her lips. “You can call me Amara as well, if you’d like, Eijun.”

 

He preened at her use of his name but still shook his head. “You’re older than me, right? I will always be respectful of my seniors!”

 

“I am a third year . . .” She agreed. “If you’re sure, then.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!”

 

Chris looked exasperated but fond. “Don’t be so loud, Sawamura. What high school do you attend, Amara?”

 

“Hotei High, in the Kokubunji neighborhood. I’m just here to watch over the game,” she gestured to the on-going game of soccer, “it’s for the kids, usually. I can only make it ever so often, if I’m not held back by practice or homework. Third year is really a force of nature.” She chuckled tiredly.

 

“I agree,” Chris nodded and they both shared that look of tired stress that every third year got. Finals, college exams and for the athletes, practicing as much as you could to go out with a bang, was overwhelming. She was comforted that he held the same sentiment.

 

 “Miss Amara, you said practice—do you play soccer?”

 

 “Yes, I’m in the starting lineup as center midfielder. Are you guys on Seidō’s baseball team?” She nodded, giving into Eijun’s curiosity.

 

“Yes, ma’am! I’m a pitcher but I hope to be their ace one day! Chris is one of their catchers!” Eijun grinned widely, geared up at the prospect. She decided that she officially liked Eijun Sawamura. She stuck her hands into the pockets of her sweats, shifting on her feet.

 

“That’s cool. I hope to see you as their ace one day, too.” She chose the right words, apparently, because Eijun beamed at her, face flushed red from the praise.

 

“Thank you, ma’am!”

 

The trio continued to speak for a while and Amara learned more about Chris—and Eijun, by default—than she ever thought she would. Chris and Eijun seemed like a perfect pair; Chris’ quiet disposition and Eijun’s loud demeanor worked well together. Eventually, though, the pair had to leave to catch the 6:30 train back to Kokubunji. She let them go but was pleasantly surprised to find that Eijun wanted to see her again.

 

“Maybe we can play a game of soccer! I could even get some of the other team members to join in and maybe you can have some of your own teammates! I don’t know much about soccer, though . . .” Eijun trailed off uncertainly but shook it off. “Chris, do you think you’d be able to play too? It’s fine, if you can’t, of course.” He hastily added the last part and Amara felt a little confused once again, but Chris merely looked thoughtful.

 

“Maybe, Sawamura. We’ll see, but don’t bother Amara too much, alright—” He was cut off by the yells of the kids and Amara turned around quickly to see what the problem was. She sighed quietly upon seeing that Reo had merely kicked the ball out of bounds and it was flying up the street and onto the sidewalk.

 

“Oh, I can get it for you guys!” Eijun exclaimed loudly, drawing everyone’s attention before turning and running up the sidewalk. Chris sighed, shaking his head as they watched him go. He turned back to Amara.

 

“I’m sorry if he’s too much,” he apologized, smiling gently.

 

“No worries. It’s refreshing, honestly. All my teammates are serious and moody. He must make things interesting during practice, huh?” She waved him off, not minding Eijun’s energy in the slightest. Amara was fairly extroverted herself, so she knew she could get along very well with him.

 

“Definitely. Thanks for talking with us and sating his curiosity, probably saved me an earful on the train ride back,” he chuckled sheepishly, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. Amara’s smile widened.

 

“No problem. It was great meeting you.” And it was—just like Eijun had been curious to know who Amara was to Chris, she finally had a name and personality to put to Chris; he was no longer strange guy, he was Chris, third year catcher, scorekeeper and manager at Seidō High. There was something strangely secure in knowing him.

 

Amara saw the ball fly back into range, whistling softly in appreciation. “If he kicked that, then that’s pretty impressive ball control.”

 

“Somehow, he has it in his kicks but not in his pitches,” Chris muttered, exasperated. Amara didn’t quite understand but she chuckled nonetheless. Eijun came back up to them.

 

“Was that a good kick? I’m not sure what the qualifications are for soccer,” he frowned pensively.

 

“If that was your first time, then yes—very good.”

 

“I’ve played it before—”

 

“Sawamura,” Chris cut in, not unkindly. “We’ve got to go if we’re going to catch the 6:30 train.”

 

“Right! It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Amara! I hope that I can see you again soon!” He bowed deeply again and she smiled, holding back her laughter to not seem rude.

 

“Come around this time, we’ll be here. No later than seven o’clock, though. That’s usually when we’re done,” she replied, not willing to dull his fire. But Eijun still furrowed his brow.

 

“Practice usually ends at 6:30, I don’t know if I’d make it,” he said, frowning. That made her confused; then what was he doing now? Chris as well? If she was assuming that practice was every day, then why was Chris always here instead of there? She had too many questions, and not willing to be nosy since they’d just met, she smiled indulgently.

 

“We’ll figure something out. We’re usually here on Sunday, from three to six, but I won’t hold you guys any longer. Have a safe trip back, alright?” She bowed politely, to which they both returned in kind.

 

“Yes, ma’am! See you soon!”

 

Chris cracked a smile. “See you around, Amara.”

 

“Likewise.” She waved and watched them go. Eijun’s voice faded as they went farther down the sidewalk, talking animatedly and Chris listening indulgently. She chuckled quietly to herself. Those two—she was conflicted. Eijun seemed like someone she could have as her own younger brother—god only knows that her siblings are all in the States and her foster sister wants nothing to do with her. Chris was different. She wasn’t sure what made it so, but there was something different about him and honestly, she was wary about it.

 

She turned back around to watch the kids, putting those thoughts away for later. That would be a bridge she’d have to cross later.

 


  

She saw Chris again over the next week, but their nods had progressed into spoken greetings and friendly smiles. It was a wild contrast from before and she was curious to know what had changed him so much. She never asked, though, because that’d be rude, and it’d show that she was paying attention to him (probably more than necessary).

 

She saw him once again on a Monday, but this time she wasn’t not standing in her usual spot in front of some car and observing the game. She was sitting in a no-parking zone on the curb, calculus homework on her lap and a mechanical pencil in her hand. She split her attention between the game and her work; the third years seem to take some pity, taking control over the game and resolving needless arguments so they don’t bother her. She appreciated it but still felt a little guilty.

 

May was a busy month; her homework load was already heavy, soccer practice was beginning to kick into high gear for the Fall season starting in September and teachers were already breathing down third years’ backs about college applications. She hadn’t been able to make it out often, meaning she didn’t see Chris or the kids. They seemed to understand, though and waved off her apologies, saying she should focus on school and soccer.

 

She was in the middle of her appreciation for the kids—to avoid moving onto the next problem in her homework, since she definitely didn’t understand it—when she heard footsteps coming down the sidewalk. She looked to the side and smiled upon seeing the familiar face.

 

“Hey, Chris.” She lifted her hand from her paper to wave at him and he’d been slowing down to respond when a gust of wind suddenly blew through the street, ruffling her loose hair and taking her homework with it. She’d moved quickly to grab it, but Chris beat her to it, taking the paper into his hands as the wind slowed down. She sighed in relief and pulled herself off the ground.

 

“You’re a godsend. My teacher wouldn’t forgive me if I’d lost that.”

 

He smiled. “Of course. Pre-calc?” He handed the paper back over to her. She smoothed out crinkles and pressed it firmly to the folder that she’d been using as her base.

 

“Unfortunately,” she sighed. “Or fortunately, I guess. At least I’m not doing calculus right now.”

 

He nodded. “As someone in Calculus, I can attest to that.”

 

She rubbed her forehead, grimacing as she looked back down at the complex problems. She wasn’t sure when math had gotten so difficult, or even why she had to know it. “Is it bad?”

 

Chris put his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he nodded, and she winced in sympathy.

 

“I’m already struggling with this and the year’s just begun,” she sighed heavily. “I don’t know how I’m gonna make it through the rest of the year. I mean—what do we need this for, anyway? I’m pretty sure my employer’s not going to ask me about logarithms.”

 

It was his turn to wince in sympathy. “Understandable. Would you like me to help you out? I remember those fairly well, since we’re using them this year too.”

 

“Great,” she muttered dejectedly. “The bane of my existence. And yes, please. That’d be really awesome.”

 

He smiled and stepped closer to her, so she angled the folder towards him, pointing out the problems she had trouble with or were unsure about the answers. Chris, bless him honestly, was helpful. He explained it all step-by-step and guided her through a few problems, even going so far as to confirm ones she’d previously done.

 

She hadn’t realized how long they’d been standing there until Kei and Reo came over, Reo holding the soccer ball in his hands; Kei smiled widely while Reo frowned suspiciously at Chris. “We’re heading home now, Miss Amara! We hope you get home safe too—”

 

She blanched and checked her watch. 6:46 PM. She was stunned at how much time had passed, quickly realizing that Chris had missed his 6:30 train and she’d been preoccupied away from the game for a majority of the time. The guilt in her stomach tenfold.

 

“Crap, I’m sorry, guys,” she said, frowning. “I wasn’t even watching—”

 

“That’s okay, Miss Amara,” a quiet voice spoke up from behind the boys, Momo Adachi, a third year in junior high, stepping forward. “We know you’re busy with school, we understand.”

 

She bit her lip. “Alright. I’ll come back around tomorrow and watch you guys—I promise.”

 

“Don’t worry! Just being here is more than enough for us,” Kei added, smiling. Reo gave a nod of agreement. She really didn’t deserve these kids.

 

“Get home safe. I want messages, okay?” After receiving affirming nods, she turned back to Chris, grimacing apologetically. “I’m sorry about that—I shouldn’t have held you back so long.”

 

He was already shaking his head before she’d finished. “It’s fine, don’t worry. This was on me, too. I should’ve been keeping better time.”

 

She grimaced. “I held you back, though.”

 

Chris shook his head again, insistently. “It’s really okay, Amara. Besides, I can take the next train back.”

 

She kneeled to put away her work in exchange for her wallet. “I’ll get you another pass, then—”

 

Chris smiled bemusedly. “I have an IC card, you don’t need to worry about it. Is the 7:15 train every day?”

 

Amara nodded. “I take it whenever I’m going back to Kokubunji. Hopefully it’s running right now because the next train leaves at 9.”

 

“We should get going then.” She still felt guilty for keeping him so long, but Chris didn’t look bothered—in fact, he looked a little amused. Her face heated up and she nodded in agreement with his words, swinging her backpack over her shoulders and falling into step beside him. She’d just have to find a way to make it up to him.

 

They spoke a bit on the walk to the station, small comments here and there, but the silence was strangely comforting. It was disconcerting, for someone such as Amara, who was friendly and social by nature; she felt uncomfortable in situations with extended periods of silence but it seemed to work, strangely enough.

 

Once they made it to the station, she found a TV showing the train schedule, picking out the 7:15 quickly. She sighed in relief at seeing the words On Time. “We’re good, I think. The card lets you get on whatever train?”

 

He looked away from the screen to her, nodding. “It’s good for the next month, then I’ll have to get another one.”

 

“Useful,” she commented offhandedly, once again pushing down her curiosity to ask him why he was making these trips. It was none of her business and she silently reminded herself that if her mother saw her asking these nosy questions, she’d be slapped upside the head—hard.

 

Her eyes lingered on the 7/11 as they made their way to the assigned platform. “Er, can I stop here? I want to pick up a snack . . .”

 

Chris didn’t seem to mind, nodding quickly. “Of course.”

 

They stepped into the small store, nodding politely at the greeter sitting behind the counter. She would’ve separated from Chris, probably to go off and buy one of the nicely cooked bento boxes in the freezer, but she refrained. “If there’s anything you want,” she spoke up quietly, observing the candy aisle that they’d stepped into, “I’ll cover you.”

 

He opened his mouth to speak—to protest probably, but she shot him a pleading look. “Please. I owe you this much after keeping you back.” He probably would’ve argued with that too but the look on her face stopped him.

 

He chuckled quietly, conceding to her plea. “Alright, but let’s get something we both can share.” He looked back to the selection, brightly-colored candies stacked and printed in Japanese, but Amara spotted several American brands, the English sticking out like a sore thumb. “Do you like chocolate?”

 

“I like anything sweet,” she replied. “I’m allergic to almonds, though. Sorry.”

 

He wrinkled his nose. (Amara caught herself thinking that was cute and immediately turned to stare hard at the hot pink plastic wrapping of some candy.) “I’ve always preferred peanuts, so no worries.” He wandered over to the section of American candies, picking up a medium-sized bag of Hershey’s and turning it over to look at the ingredients.

 

“I’ve never seen Reese’s Cups here,” Amara mused. “I prefer Snickers, but there’s really no other company who does chocolate and peanut butter like Reese’s.”

 

Chris nodded in agreement. “Sometimes my father’s side of the family sends some in their care packages, along with a few other candy brands that aren’t popular here. Is this fine?” He held up the bag of chocolates and she nodded. They made their way to the cashier, falling into the small line that had formed since they entered.

 

“I do the same thing; I try to send a wish list to my family before they prepare a care package,” she shot him a curious look. “If you don’t mind me asking, is your dad American?”

 

“Yeah, but he moved to Japan to play professional baseball. His family is still there, though, so that’s usually why we ever travel back to the States. And you?” He hastily added, “If you don’t mind me asking.”

 

She snickered and they stepped up to the counter, handing the candy over to the cashier. She handed over the money. “I’m on an international student program. My high school offered it to me when I was in freshman year and I left the following year to start as a first year at high school here. My scholarship is specifically for soccer, though.”

 

They paused the conversation to bow politely at the cashier as the change was given back along with a receipt and the candy. They continued to converse as they made their way to the same bench that they’d both previously sat on. She smiled slightly at the memory, sitting closer to him this time but still keeping a reasonable distance—enough to drop the bag of chocolates between them and open it up.

 

They spent the next fifteen minutes conversing, with Amara leading on the conversation; he was still reserved, by any means, and pretty hesitant to talk about himself in detail (the thing about his father being American was the only true personal thing she’d learned—and that he liked peanuts but dislikes almonds). They made a decent dent in the chocolates and she was amused to find out he liked chocolate—a lot.

 

Before they boarded the train, she bought two water bottles to wash down the chocolate. When she came back, he was standing, holding the candies that was now sealed up at the top; she offered him the bottle, which he accepted gratefully. The train pulled into the platform, which wasn’t too busy this time around.

 

“Sawamura’s going to be waiting for us at Kokubunji,” Chris told her as they stepped to the ledge. He sounded exasperated. She smiled at the mention of Eijun, the air whistling past them as the train hissed to a stop.

 

“Is he quite a handful?” She asked as they stepped onto the train. The line moved slowly as people dispersed.

 

“Yes, but he’s,” Chris paused, thinking over his next words. “He’s a hard worker and once he knows his weaknesses, he tries his best to turn them into strengths. I can appreciate his tenacity.”

 

Amara hummed in agreement as she led them down the aisle to a quieter cabin, eventually finding two single seats facing each other next to a window. She took a seat across from him. “Seems like he has high hopes, too? Ace, right?”

 

Chris nodded as he situated himself. “He has potential, I think. But there’s a lot he needs to work on before he gets there—he’s going to need a lot of instruction. Unfortunately, this is my last year. There’s only so much I can teach him in one year.”

 

She looked out the window, the platform now devoid of people. An automated female voice announced departure in two minutes. “A year is still a long time, though. I think, if I may extend my opinion,” he nodded quickly, listening attentively, “I think with the right people, he can learn a lot in one year. I don’t know him too well, even though he wants me to call him by his first name—” Chris chuckled softly at that and she hid a smile “—but energetic kids like him take patience. Trust me.”

 

Amara knew very well; it had been the same situation with her in junior high, then with her younger brother as he grew up. Trying to cram and push wasn’t going to work out in the long run, probably only succeed in giving him insecurities. She would know.

 

Chris looked thoughtful, taking her words into careful consideration. The train began to slowly pull out, gaining speed until the scenery was a mere flash of colors. “Besides,” she began, grabbing his attention, “it’s not like once you graduate you have to abandon contact with him. You can still help him out even after.”

 

Chris nodded, that thoughtful look still on his face. The glow of the setting sun caught his eyes, making her heart thud a little faster than usual. She looked away from him, catching the minute movement of him unwrapping a chocolate and tossing it into his mouth. The thirty minute train ride was spent in companionable silence, Chris offering her a few pieces of chocolate but she rejected each time. She could tell he liked chocolate, plus he seemed deep in thought, so she let him have his fill as he sorted through whatever he was thinking.

 

Once they pulled into Kokubunji, he returned to the land of the living, gathering his bag and the now empty bag of chocolates and water bottle. He seemed apologetic about the lack of chocolates but she chuckled and waved him off. He didn’t push it, instead allowing her to go first so they could exit the train.

 

People left in a hurry, so there was no traffic leaving the cabin, and as soon as she stepped off the train, she could see Eijun’s hundred-watt smile. He waved happily, dashing over to them. He was out of his baseball uniform, dressed in a maroon hoodie and jeans, his hair looking a little damp.

 

“Chris, Miss Amara! It’s great to see you again!” He beamed and Amara grinned right back at him. They moved out of the way, towards the middle of the platform.

 

“How’ve you been, Eijun?” She asked, moving towards the stairs as Chris caught up with them after throwing away the candy bag. They moved slowly, standing closer together as the crowd moved around them, like a rock in a stream.

 

“I’m good! I’ve been working hard on my pitches with Chris, so hopefully I can be moved to first-string soon,” he paused, and his face lit up. “That reminds me, the second-string is having a game this Saturday to see who Coach is going to move into the first-string. Can you come and watch? It’s gonna start at three in the afternoon.”

 

“Sawamura,” Chris chided, shooting him a look. “Amara may be busy.”

 

Indeed, she might be. She chewed the inside of her cheek, mulling it over. Soccer practice would be from twelve to three. She might be able to make it, if her team didn’t want her to stay behind and do more drills with them. She repeated that to the boys, making sure to sound a little more neutral. She’d love to watch the game, but practice is kicking into high gear and she needs to be able to keep up.

 

Amara doesn’t want to be mean, but if she has to between soccer and Eijun and Chris, then she’ll choose soccer. That was the entire reason she was even in Japan, anyway.

 

Despite the indecisiveness of her statement, Eijun still had a hopeful look on his face. They stepped into the warm night air, the setting sun casting a golden glow around them. “I’ll try to make it to your game, Eijun. I’d love to see you pitch.”

 

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am! Before you go, do you have LINE? You can add Chris and I to get directions!” Chris looked exasperated, shaking his head slightly, but it looked like it was at Eijun’s overbearing tendencies, more than anything.

 

She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she knows the way, plus it might be fun to have him on immediate contact. At the very least, she won’t be using Chris as a messenger. She chuckled and took out her phone, unlocking it and handing it to Eijun.

 

He taped a few things in then handed it over to Chris, who did the same before handing it back to Amara. She observed her phone with mild interest. Their names were now present in her list, with Chihiro, Chiyo, her teammates and her foster mother’s as well. She made a small noise of surprise at seeing a message from her, but turned it off, making a note to reply later.

 

“Okay! If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Miss Amara!”

 

Chris shook his head minutely at Eijun’s loudness, which was garnering looks from others. He directed a small smile to Amara. “Me as well, be it schoolwork or directions.”

 

“I appreciate it. Be safe on the way back, alright?” She took a few steps backwards, smiling in a friendly manner at both of them.

 

Eijun bowed. “Yes, ma’am! You too! If it isn’t too much, please message us when you get back to Hotei!”

 

She nodded, amused. “Of course, and vice versa. Have a goodnight you two.”

 

They exchange the final goodbye and she fell into the familiar path back to Hotei. A few minutes into the walk, she put in an earbud and turned up Queen’s I Want To Break Free, humming along quietly. As usual, she flashed her student badge at security and was waved in with no qualms; she decided not to pass by Chihiro’s and Chiyo’s today. She was strangely tired and quite honestly, she wanted to collapse onto her bed and sleep forever. Of course, she had school tomorrow morning and soccer practice would start up at five thirty in the morning.

 

She groaned quietly just thinking about it, arriving at her own dorm and stepping in. Her roommate—a tennis player named Asano Saito—wasn’t present, and Amara couldn’t spot the tennis racket and shoes against the wall, so she assumed Asano was getting in some late-night practice. She tossed her backpack next to her bed and began changing into her sleeping clothes, a pair of shorts and an oversized t-shirt she stole from her older brother.

 

While brushing her teeth, she opened up LINE on her phone, creating a group chat for her, Chris and Eijun, sending a quick message relaying that she’d made it back to the dorms. She opened up the message from her foster mother as she awaited replies back.

 

eiko

Hey, hon, I transferred some money into your account. Tell me if you need more next time, please. D:

 

Amara snorted. Eiko Hamamoto was her foster mother, the woman she’d been staying with for the past two years since she arrived in Japan. Amara had lucked out; Eiko was a pediatrician in downtown Tokyo, and she had a fascination with the foreign world, causing her to apply to be a foster parent for foreign exchange students such as Amara.  

 

Eiko was like an older sister more than a mother; she was lenient, never demanding anything from Amara—other than pictures of her and her friends or updates on her life—and always willing to provide spending money. That had been a particularly hard adjustment, since Amara came from a family that had financially struggled for some time. Regardless of her money, though, Eiko was always a delight to be around and Amara looked forward to seeing her soon. There was Aiko as well, Eiko’s daughter and Amara’s foster sister, the same age and grade in Hotei as Amara was. But she had found that they had too many things in common. She refocused on her half-typed message.

 

me

i would’ve been ok for the rest of the week!!!!! but thank you :(

 

Two new notifications popped up. She clicked on the group chat, where Eijun’s message popped up first.

 

eijun sawamura

GREAT!!!!! we’re back at the dorms as well!!!!!! have a good night, miss amara!!!!!!!

 

She choked on her toothpaste, hurrying over to the sink to spit it out as she broke down into laughter. Looks like Eijun was a force of nature both in real life and online. She giggled again at the amount of exclamation points. Somehow, she was expecting that.

 

She looked at the new message from Chris, underneath Eijun’s.

 

chris takigawa

That’s good. Glad you made it back safely.  

 

Shortly after he sent that to the group chat (she noted the difference in grammar between the boys with more chuckles), she received a text outside of the group chat from him.

 

chris takigawa

Thanks for putting up with him and I today. Like I said earlier, if you need any more help on your studies, I’d be willing to lend a hand. Plus, some of my other third year friends could help out as well.

 

She hummed quietly in interest.

 

me

hey no problem, eijun’s a breath of fresh air. also, thank you! i’ll keep that in mind if i get stuck again.

 

chris takigawa

It’s not a problem for me either. Also, if you’re unable to make it to the game this Saturday, don’t worry. We understand soccer is your first priority and we won’t hold it against you.

 

She bit the inside of her cheek. Of course, they were both baseball players—at such a prestigious school like Seidō no less.

 

me

thank you for that. i try to balance my social and athletic life but it overlaps sometimes, you know? i’ll try my best to make it out there, though. soccer season doesn’t start until september, right now we’re just getting in practice.

 

She finished up her bedtime regimen and shut off the lights, crawling into bed. She groaned as soon as her tense muscles unwound, relaxing into the soft bedding of the mattress. She kept her phone, the display shining brightly against the darkness.

 

chris takigawa

Of course, I understand. Don’t feel guilty about tending to your duties, Amara. As athletes, we get it.

 

She smiled tiredly. He was too kind for his own good.

 

me

:) thank you! it’s getting late, i’m gonna head to sleep. don’t stay up too late!

 

chris takigawa

I won’t. Goodnight, Amara, sleep well.

 

Okay, so maybe that was cute. She shut off her phone, tucking it underneath her pillow then burying her face into the cool material. She barely registered the noise of Asano entering their dorm, too focused on the messages to think about her. Down the road, she’d deny any accusations of this ever happening, but right now, she would drift off to sleep with a smile on her face.

 

Chapter Text

03. house arrest

 

Amara was more or less bombarded by Chihiro and Chiyo the next day.

 

It was a sneak attack, really. She woke up by the sound of two familiar voices inside her dorm, which was strange since Asano never had any friends over—and vice-versa—and her hand that was stuck underneath her pillow was grabbing empty space. She lifted her head, blinking blearily at the scene in front of her.

 

Chihiro and Chiyo sat on the floor, already changed out of their sports uniforms and into the assigned dress pants and blazer; usually, that wouldn’t be so out of the norm, but Chihiro held Amara’s phone, thumb swiping up the screen. Amara groaned.

 

“It’s too early for you two to be invading my space.”

 

“What do you mean? We’re always in your dorm to wake you up,” Chiyo said, head tilted almost innocently as she played coy. Amara scowled, sitting up but wincing at the rush of dizziness as she did so. Then, something occurred to her.

 

“What time is it?”

 

“8:15—”

 

“Holy shit! I missed practice!” She jumped out of bed, scrambling over to the sink to run through her morning routine. Chihiro seemed to not feel like torturing Amara any further and tossed her phone back onto the crumpled bed sheets. Chiyo watched her panic with a cool visage. “Fuck.

 

Her coach was going to skin her alive then her teammates were going to take turns kicking her ass. Just thinking about it made her want to punch something. Hard. Not to mention, she’d have to deal with Aiko’s sneering about it too.

 

Chihiro chuckled at the sad sight of her senior. “Chill. We told coach you were feeling sick, so you’re currently excused for the rest of the school day and practice after school. Said if she found you outside, she’d make you eat shit.”

 

Hiro,” Chiyo chastised quietly, elbowing her.

 

Chihiro held up her hands. “Don’t shoot the messenger, man.”

 

“She didn’t say that, though. She said you had to rest—”

 

“Same difference.”

 

No.

 

They fell into a quiet bicker. Amara groaned—loudly—and dropped her head onto the cool corner, letting her toothbrush hang limply in her mouth. Great. So she was basically on house arrest. She had the strongest feeling that her coach knew she’d missed her alarm and was trying to passive aggressively punish her for it. If that was really what was going on, then she was succeeding on it.

 

Some toothpaste dripped off and fell onto the tiled floor, regaining the girls’ attention and making Amara stand back up with a heavy sigh.

 

“Gross,” Chihiro hissed. Amara ignored her, finishing up her brushing then crouching to clean up the toothpaste.

 

“Why did you sleep in so late, anyway?” Chiyo asked, eyeing her with thinly-veiled curiosity. “That’s not like you.”

 

“But is it?” Amara grumbled back. She liked sleep—liked it a lot, actually—and she made it very well known that if she wasn’t as passionate about soccer as she currently was, she wouldn’t be making the effort to go to early morning practices.

 

“Yeah, you’re too scared of the coach and the team to sleep in,” Chihiro chimed in unhelpfully. “Who’s Eijun? And Chris? Can I make an educated guess and say you stayed up talking to them?”

 

Amara shot a glare at the girls. “You guys are assholes.”

 

“That’s already been established. Try again.” Chihiro shot her a provocative grin. Amara’s scowl deepened. No, it wasn’t often that Chihiro could rile her up—it was usually the other way around—and she was taking her chance while she had it. Chiyo, ever the neutral party, snorted.

 

“They’re some boys I met while playing soccer with the kids. They go to Seidō and they’re on the baseball team,” she explained, restarting her morning routine but taking her time. “Also, I did not stay up to talk to them. I was just tired.”

 

“Third years?” Chiyo asked, checking her phone for the time.

 

“Chris is. Eijun’s a first year.”

 

“And they’re hanging out?” Chihiro questioned, eyebrows raised. Amara rinsed off her face wash and patted herself dry, shooting Chihiro a dry look.

 

“You’re a second year,” she pointed out.

 

“It’s just a year difference, man.”

 

“No matter,” Chiyo interrupted, pushing herself off the floor and hefting up her bookbag. “Tell us about it after practice,” she paused as Chihiro followed her up, turning to give Amara a look. “You are staying in today, right?”

 

“I don’t really have a choice, do I? I’m not exactly looking forward to eat shit as Hiro put it.”

 

“Good.” Chiyo turned and went towards the door, pulling it open to allow Chihiro through first. She stopped to toss a look over her shoulder. “Do your laundry, Amara. It’s overflowing.”

 

“Please leave.”

 

With a small grin on her lips, Chiyo shut the door with a resounding thud. Amara shook her head at their antics; Chiyo usually had a quiet disposition but if she was feeling playful? That was an entire monster unto itself.

 

Following Chiyo’s suggestion, despite herself, she tossed open her laundry hamper and began separating her clothes. She’d met Chiyo when on her first day of school—they were in the same homeroom of 1-A and essentially showed off to the vultures as foreigners, for better or worse. Amara and her distinct bronze skin, signifying her Mexican heritage, Chiyo and her decidedly lighter shade of bronze skin, showing her as Western and Korean.

 

Foreign kids had to stick together, or that was what Amara had managed to stutter out in her beginners’ Japanese. Chiyo swooped in to save her when she responded in English—heavily accented and slightly broken, but English nonetheless. Amara’s proud to say that she’s polished off her Japanese and Chiyo’s a near-perfect English speaker as a result of their relationship, plus Amara’s been learning some Korean as well (it’s a work in progress, though, because while Hangul may be easy to read and memorize, it’s hell to speak it).

 

Chihiro was a different story; they had to work to get her to open up. A knock on the door pulled her out of her thoughts and she pulled herself off the ground, sliding a pile of dirty clothes to the other side of the room where it’d be hidden from whoever was knocking. She pulled open the door, confused, but upon realizing who was standing there, she grimaced.

 

“Aiko,” she greeted. “How can I help you?” Her foster sister was holding a bento box, glare set in her dark brown eyes. She shoved the bento box into Amara’s hands.

 

“From Coach.”

 

Amara looked at it warily. “Tell her I said thank you—”

 

“You’re looking peachy this morning,” Aiko noted condescendingly, sneering softly. “Feeling better already?”

 

Amara tightened her grip around the box minutely. “Yes, actually. I’m sad to miss practice.”

 

“I’m sure you are.” Aiko was clearly looking to get a reaction, but Amara wouldn’t give in so easily. She knew what her ‘sister’s’ problem with her was—she hadn’t tried to hide it—but Amara had been determined to get along for Eiko’s sake. Sure enough, Aiko agreed whole-heartedly, though she wouldn’t admit it.

 

Amara reached for the doorknob, nodding deliberately with a small bow. “Thank you for the breakfast. Have a good day, Aiko.”

 

Aiko’s face twisted cruelly. She’d always been pretty, with tan skin from her days out in the soccer field, long black hair and brown eyes, but the mean look on her face sucked any beauty out from her appearance.

 

Good center midfielders don’t cut practice for sleeping,” she said coldly. “Don’t forget there are others who want your place and they can take it just as easily.”

 

Amara knew exactly who ‘others’ was. She also knew how precarious her position was, so Aiko wasn’t telling her something new. “If I recall correctly, Aiko, the same was said to you last year when our roles were reversed. Now, as I said before, thank you.” She shut the door before Aiko could reply, locking it for good measure. She heard a distinct huff then the sound of retreating footsteps.

 

Amara released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, feeling tension in her shoulders unraveling. She looked down at the contents of bento box, finding freshly cooked tamagoyaki. The container was warm in her hands, condensation already forming on the clear, plastic lid. She sighed, setting it down on her desk. Her appetite had escaped her with that interaction, so she sat back down and resumed her previous activity of separating clothes, though her actions were more robotic than before.

 


 

Amara kept true to her coach’s warning and stayed in her dorm, save for one trip to the dining hall during lunch to pick up another bento box. A few of her classmates waved at her, and she made sure to nudge Chihiro and Chiyo roughly when she passed by them. She saw no other appearance of Aiko and was relieved for it.

 

She alternated between taking naps, cleaning the dorm and doing her homework. She had nothing to do other than those activities, not even talk to her family back in the U.S. since it would be night time and they would probably be sleeping. When she exhausted her homework, her room looked spotless and she knew if she took another nap she wouldn’t sleep that night, she messed around on her phone, opening up LINE.

 

The time at the top of her screen told her that school had been out for the last thirty minutes, so the athletes would probably be preoccupied for another thirty minutes, or even an hour. She found herself scrolling through her contact list; her finger briefly hovered over renee but she quickly moved past. Her younger brother would probably be asleep, though she knew he had a habit to stay up way past his bedtime. Probably reading sports articles or something. He was such a geek.

 

Besides that, the lack of people in her contact list was a little . . . concerning. There was a grand total of ten people, her entire immediate family made up only three (her parents used regular messaging, leaving the other spots for her siblings), then there was Chihiro and Chiyo, Asano, Fuyumi Taguchi—the captain of the soccer team and her fellow third year, her old friend from the U.S. Andrea Vasquez, and finally, Chris and Eijun.

 

She pursed her lips in thought. Eijun would probably be going to practice right now and Chris would be doing . . . something. She wasn’t sure how his schedule worked. She’d never seen him on his way to wherever he was going, she always arrived after him, so maybe he left right after school? She wasn’t sure. Her thumb hovered over his name. She really had no reason to talk to him; she didn’t know him that well, at least not well enough to call him and just talk. Maybe she could ask him about one of her pre-calc problems.

 

The abrupt open of the door made her jump. She sat up quickly, about to reprimand Asano for entering so loudly but the words died on her lips as Chiyo and Chihiro came marching in. She frowned at them as the door swung shut again.

 

“Do you guys have to be so loud?”

 

Chihiro ignored her in favor of going to the sink to begin rummaging through her cabinets for something. A face mask, probably. Chiyo seated herself at the edge of Amara’s bed, peering curiously at the homework laid out.

 

“Killing your back over Pre-Calc?”

 

“You know it.”

 

Chiyo chuckled grimly. “I’ve been there.” Amara perked up at her words, pushing her homework towards her and pointing at the different problems she’d been having problems on.

 

“Can you help me then?”

 

Chiyo’s sharp brown eyes roamed over the work, expressionless before she grimaced. “Pre-Calc was utter hell last year, so I’ve pretty much erased it from my mind. Sorry, Amara.”

 

She groaned and fell back onto her pillow, the top of her head narrowly missing the metal. Looks like she would have to text Chris about it. She really didn’t want to bother him, but this assignment was due tomorrow and she really wasn’t going to turn it in with the wrong answers. She sat back up just as Chiyo slid off the bed and onto the ground in front of Chihiro, who already had her black hair pulled up in a ponytail away from her face, which was covered in some kind of green mask.

 

Amara picked up her phone, unlocking it and tapping onto LINE when she asked, “Is that one of my masks?”

“Nope.” Chihiro began applying some to Chiyo’s face, who sat there without any real inhibitions. Amara sighed tiredly.

 

“Asano’s gonna kick my ass.”

 

Chihiro huffed. “No, she’s not. If she fusses about it, just say I used it—”

 

“You think I would take the blame for you in the first place?”

 

Amara was ignored. “—and I owe her since I helped her with one of her swings. She’s now a trusted single player because of me.”

 

“Right. As if you need that ego stroke,” Amara snorted doubtfully, tapping on her conversation with Chris. She typed out a quick message.

 

me

hey, i’m really sorry to bother you, but do you think you could help me out with these problems? i asked my friend but she doesn’t remember anything from pre-calc

 

She sent a picture of the problems just to make the process easier, but she hoped it wouldn’t make him feel hard-pressed to reply to her. She had enough time to finish it, since it was only five.

 

“Who’re you texting?” Chihiro asked, her tone suggestive.

 

“Your mom,” Amara replied distantly, without missing a beat. Chiyo snorted while Chihiro stopped her ministrations to make a well-aimed throw of a shoe at her head. Amara ducked out of the way and grabbed it, tossing it back over the edge of the bed just as her phone buzzed in her head. Staying wary of any flying projectiles from Chihiro, she looked at the message.

 

chris takigawa

Of course, that’s no problem. I can help you right now, I’m taking a train to Nakatsuwa. Would you happen to be there a little earlier by any chance so I could see you?

 

She grimaced. No, that wouldn’t be happening. She just wasn’t going to head out today and she’d already messaged the group chat of her and the kids to let them know she was going to be out for today.

 

me

no :( i didn’t head out there today. can you explain over text? or maybe even call me if you’re free? i’m really sorry to inconvenience you

 

His reply was instantaneous.

 

chris takigawa

You’re not an inconvenience, Amara. That’s perfectly alright. Let me write the problems down on a paper then I’ll call you to explain. Please hold on for just a few minutes.

 

She chewed the inside of her cheek, fidgeting with her bed sheet. She was very aware of Chihiro and Chiyo sending curious glances up to her.

 

“What goes on?” Chihiro asked, peering at her curiously.

 

“I’m expecting a phone call,” Amara began slowly. “I say this with utmost sincerity—if one of you guys fuck around while I’m on the call and embarrass me, I will kick your ass into next week.”

 

“Is that a challenge?” Chihiro huffed, sitting up straight. Chiyo shushed her quietly as Amara’s phone began buzzing, signaling a call.

 

She shot them both severe looks then answered it, pressing it to her ear.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hey, Amara. I’m calling at a good time, right?” Yup, that was Chris. His voice sounded a little different but it was still him.

 

“Yeah, you’re fine. I should be asking you that question, though,” She chuckled nervously, doing her best to ignore Chihiro and Chiyo’s staring. “I’m really sorry for bothering you.”

 

“You’re not a bother, Amara. I really had nothing to do on the train ride to Nakatsuwa, so you’re giving me something to do,” he said consolingly. It still didn’t make her feel better, though. She was soon distracted, however, as he began to go over the problems she had, talking her through it the best he could over the phone.

 

He was stupidly talented, it seemed, because she began to understand the concepts quickly—far quicker than when they went over this stuff in class. They lapsed into silence as she attempted a problem on her own, her back aching from sitting hunched over her sheet. Chiyo and Chihiro had lost interest in her conversation quickly, getting up to go and wash the face masks off.

 

Chris cleared his throat on the other line. “So, is everything okay with you? Since you’re not coming today. Did practice run late?”

 

“Not quite,” She muttered, finding herself now a little embarrassed about her slip-up this morning. “I overslept and missed my alarm. I guess I was tired, which is weird since I didn’t do anything too different from my usual routine. My friends covered for me and told my coach I was sick, so I was basically put on house arrest to ‘get better.’”

 

She finished off a problem, rattling off the answer to him. He gave his confirmation and she grinned, immediately taking to the next problem with no qualms.

 

“Your coach didn’t make you go to the nurse?” He asked, a touch of amusement in his voice.

 

Amara grimaced. “No. I’m pretty sure my coach knows I just overslept so I was forced to be stuck in the confines of my dorm for the entire day. Either way, I’m probably going to pay for it tomorrow during practice.”

 

He chuckled, low and deep—and wow, why does her face feel so hot? Maybe she is actually getting sick. “I don’t envy you.”

 

She snorted, trying to ignore how her face was progressively getting hotter and hotter. “I don’t envy myself. Is this correct?” She gave him another answer.

 

“Yeah, you got it. Good job, Amara,” she preened from his praise, ignoring the looks now being sent her way from Chihiro and Chiyo. “Do you need any more help?”

 

“Uh . . .” She scanned her assignment. There were a few problems that looked difficult, but now that she had a loose structure to go off of, she was sure she’d be okay. “I think I’ll be fine. Is it okay if I send you my finished worksheet just in case? You don’t have to confirm anything today.”

 

“That’ll be okay, don’t worry. I’m not staying too long in Nakatsuwa anyway. Would you like me to talk to the kids you play soccer with?”

 

“No, that’s alright. They already know I’m not gonna be there—they’ll still probably play, anyway. I’m more of their referee than anything. Thank you, though,” she said gratefully. Why was he so nice? Limiting their conversation would be so much easier if he was an asshole.

 

“Of course. I should let you go now so you can finish. Good luck on the rest of the worksheet and don’t be afraid to text me questions, I’ll answer them as soon as I’m able. Good luck with your practice too,” he said the last part a bit teasingly and she snorted.

 

“Thanks, I’ll keep your offer in mind.”

 

“See you tomorrow, maybe?”

 

“Sure,” she paused, then took a leap of faith. “If not, I’ll see you Saturday.”

 

“You’re going to the game?” He asked, sounding a bit surprised.

 

“Yeah. I might not be there from the beginning, but I’ll definitely make it to see the end. Eijun’s just too hard to disappoint.”

 

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Chris agreed mock-somberly. She snickered.

 

“Talk to you later. Get back home safe, alright?”

 

“Of course. Goodbye, Amara.”

 

“Bye, Chris.”

 

She pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at her screen.

 

Call Duration: 17:09 Minutes

 

Had it been that long? It had felt so short, talking to him, alternating between her homework and just . . . nice conversation about anything and anyone.

 

“So,” Chihiro’s voice pulled her out of her trance. “Future boyfriend?”

 

They had no time to duck as Amara launched her pillows at their faces, but even as they roughhoused, the grin that had melted onto her lips didn't fade.

 

Chapter Text

04. seido vs. kokudokan

 

The baseball field was alive with action when Amara arrived. (Much thanks to Eijun and Chris’ detailed instructions on how to navigate Seido and which field was being used.) Soccer practice had ended earlier than usual, so once she arrived after showering and changing into a pair of jeans and a hoodie, the game had only just started.

 

She wandered over to the fence where other crowds of people stood, most of them looking like older people, strangers who stopped to check out a game by infamous Seido. There were a few high schoolers as well, girls mostly. She scanned the diamond, her eyes finding a familiar figure standing on the mound. She smiled at the sight of Eijun, who seemed to really be putting in his best effort.

 

The game progressed, with what looked like Kokudokan jumping ahead immediately and leaving Seido in the dust. A few people complained about it, since it looked like Eijun’s pitches were difficult for the current catcher to receive so most of the batters were walking him. She hesitated to cheer, the usual embarrassment getting to her, but things seemed to be getting rough between Eijun and everybody else, so she cast away her inhibitions — for the most part — and cheered as best as she could.

 

Eijun seemed to recognize her voice as his head snapped to look at her direction, a brilliant grin spreading over his lips. He waved animatedly, pausing the game as others looked at her. Her face grew hot but she still grinned and waved back at him.

 

“Who is she?”

 

“I thought you said Eijun didn’t have a girlfriend?”

 

“No way, he’s too dumb for that.”

 

Amara felt the smile slip off her lips as she heard the grumbles from his teammates and the rivaling team. She frowned at their words; energetic kids like Eijun who didn’t focus easily were always dubbed “dumb” and it was one of her biggest pet peeves. She turned away from them to face the field, making sure to cheer a little louder for him.

 

There was still no sign of Chris, confusingly enough. She remembered Eijun pointing out that he was a pitcher and Chris was a catcher, so she wondered where he was currently. Was he even going to play?

 

Eijun pitched once again, but the ball missed the catcher’s mitt.

 

“Ball four!”

 

The crowd groaned and she frowned, concerned about the way this game was going. “No outs and bases loaded? What’s that pitcher doing? He hasn’t thrown a single strike!” Someone complained.

 

“We’re here to root for a strong Seido team! This isn’t what we want to see!”

 

“Get off the mound!”

 

“Yeah! Get off!”

 

Amara openly gaped at the group of men standing next to her. Were they really being this cruel to a fifteen-year-old? And for what? She certainly could understand their frustrations but damn, did they have to be so open about it?

 

They began chanting, voices gathering in unison. She scowled, turning back to the field. Eijun’s eyes had landed on the crowd and he looked a bit lost. She didn’t like that look on his face.

 

“Come on, Eijun! You can do this! Don’t worry!” She didn’t hesitate this time, making her voice louder than the men next to her as she called out to him. They continued to chant, though, clearly undeterred by her.

 

Eijun grinned brightly at her cheering, sending a quick nod her way before he was turned to talk with the other players. She clasped her hands tightly, fidgeting with her fingers as she watched them all converse. She couldn’t read their lips as they spoke, but there were some . . . interesting expressions passing over their faces.

 

Her attention was drawn to the dugout when a tall figure stepped out, holding out a hand. He was probably the coach, since his voice was loud and confident. “Calling for a change in players!”

 

Her heart fell to her stomach as she saw a look of dread pass over Eijun’s face. The crowd fell silent as he pointed towards himself and one of his teammates said something matter-of-factly.

 

The coach continued. “Switching out for the catcher, Ono, for Takigawa!”

 

“Woah,” she muttered aloud, pleasantly surprised at this turn of events. Chris stepped out of the dugout, dressed in catcher’s guards except for the face shield.

 

Surprise flitted across the Seido team’s faces and it was silent in the field, only broken by Eijun’s excited gasp. “Chris!”

 

The players all began muttering amongst themselves, all indiscernible to Amara. She stepped closer to the fence, hooking her fingers through the holes to watch as Chris made his way towards the group standing on the mound. The other catcher, Ono, jogged off after exchanging a few words with Chris. He said something to the others and she watched as other players from the outfield joined up in the huddle, holding their gloves over their mouths as they spoke.

 

“What are they doing calling the outfielders over, too?”

 

“It’s still the first inning, so just play the infield halfway and concede a run.”

 

Amara stopped trying to keep up with the baseball jargon, refocusing her attention on the game. She’d have to call Renee later and grill him about baseball positions and the like so she could actually begin to understand what was going on. If it weren’t for the scoreboard, she’d be completely lost.

 

The group seemed to make their final decision as they all jogged back to their positions, but from the confused mutters that the men were making, she guessed something was off. It looked like they brought more players closer to the mound and bases.

 

“They’re playing the infield in! They’re bringing everyone in for this play?”

 

“Is it to prevent a squeeze play?”

 

“Look! The outfield is right behind the infield.”

 

“I see the logic against a walk-off run, but if the ball goes past the outfield, it’s a three-run hit!”

 

“This infield shift is way too risky here.”

 

She was right earlier, though she had names attached to the sections now. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but it looked like Chris had called for an illogical play, given the current circumstances.

 

She blinked in surprise as Eijun wound up his form and threw with surprising speed, but a grimace quickly slipped onto her lips as the ball tapped the top of Chris’ mitt.

 

“He tapped it!”

 

“And the runner?”

 

Sure enough, Chris moved to the side to catch the ball, preventing the runner on third base from making it home. She’d never seen such a look of pensive concentration on his face, but it was a good look on him. He looked right at home.

 

“He can’t move. That catcher knows how to play.”

 

“He tapped it forward, too!”

 

Eijun wound up again, but his form looked different from before. The batter hit it, but it bounced on the ground, missing Eijun’s glove by a good amount of space. One of the fielders snatched it up, though and tossed it right back to home.

 

“Out!”

 

“A force-out at the plate!” One of the men exclaimed, sounding far more interested in this game than before. She felt irritation well up at their quick-changing attitude, but pushed it down. There were better things to be focusing on. Chris threw the ball towards first base.

 

“No one’s covering first base!”

 

That didn’t look like the case, though, as a player from the back jumped forward onto the plate and caught the ball. She heard the gasps of the men and grinned. Looks like Chris and Eijun were turning this game right around.

 

“The right fielder’s covering first base?”

 

The runner was caught after Chris threw the ball his way. Amara knew enough about sports to know that momentum was favoring Seido now. She couldn’t hold back the grin on her lips as they moved off the field, the crowd now cheering wildly in favor of Seido. The game continued to progress in Seido’s favor, Amara’s cheers joining the growing crowd of people watching the game.

 

But as the game continued, it looked like Seido had gotten themselves into a pinch again. She watched as first base was protected, the batter now out, but there were still runners on base. She pulled out her phone and opened up a text to Renee.

 

me

quick question. in baseball, what is it when the pitcher throws but the umpire calls it a ‘ball?’

 

She was both surprised and slightly disapproving when Renee quickly replied.

 

renee

theres a designated zone called the strike zone for pitches to land into whenever they’re thrown. it’s a ball if it’s outside of that or if the batter doesn’t swing. why???

 

me

i’m watching a game for a few friends of mine, eijun and chris. eijun’s a pitcher and chris is a catcher. eijun had a rough start, though. they switched out the catcher in the bottom of the first inning (is that how it goes?) for chris but before that, the catcher couldn’t catch eijun’s pitches

 

renee

that’s so cool!!!! i mean it sucks that he had a rough start but still!!!! tell them i said hello!!! could you get a video of their game for me??

 

Amara snorted, shaking her head. He was such a geek.

 

me

no way that’s weird. i’ll see if theres any footage of their previous games later on. i gotta go now. go to bed dummy!!

 

She shut off her phone without waiting for a response. The game hadn’t progressed much further and she’d went to scan the field again to see if anything was different. Her eyes connected with a familiar set of hazel ones and she sent Chris a smile, which he returned with a small upturn of the lips. He looked different, somehow. Again, there seemed to be a change in his demeanor, but she wasn’t sure why.

 

A voice behind her got her attention.

 

“Oh my god!” She blinked at the English spoken loudly, turning her head to the side to see a tall, blonde-haired man walking up to the fence. “Is that crazy boy starting? Didn’t expect him to throw a moving fastball. That’s so uncommon in Japan.”

 

Amara was confused at the mix of English and Japanese. It sounded weird. Just who was this guy? Was he talking about Eijun? Did he know him? Other people seemed to notice as well, though it was for a different reason. She watched with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Animal?”

 

“It’s the comedian Animal!”

 

“What’s a famous comedian doing here?”

 

“Also, he’s huge!”

 

She bit back a snort as the man jumped from the outburst, looking flustered. “Who’s a comedian? I’m a baseball player!”

 

She wondered if he was American. He definitely didn’t look Japanese. Plus, that’d certainly explain his odd mix of Japanese and English. The man looked ahead, though and gasped at the sight of Chris.

 

“Yu! Why are you playing? I had a bad feeling. This school is trying to destroy you!”

 

Amara balked at his words, feeling affronted on Chris’ behalf. She wondered how he knew Chris, though, to be speaking so . . . rudely. Chris didn’t look bothered, in fact, his lips turned up again, into the same smile he’d sent her. He turned back to the field.

 

“Hey, Yu!” The man called out again, desperation in his voice.

 

To her pleasant surprise, Chris raised his arms and called out to the team. “We’re just getting started here! Let’s stay focused!”

 

Amara couldn’t hold back her laughter as his voice cracked on the last part, drawing some unwanted attention. The players seemed equally surprised as she had felt, but were hesitant to laugh about his voice crack. Chris looked sheepish, turning halfway to glance back at her. Her laughter increased at the red stained on his cheeks, but she knew it was all in good fun as he grinned slightly.

 

The man looked stunned, but didn’t say anymore. Amara turned away from him as the game started up again. Eijun’s pitch didn’t make it into Chris’ mitt;. The batter hit it, but its path was off, clearly not a prepared hit.

 

“No way! Is that catcher going for the fly?”

 

The man yelled again, worry etched onto his face. “Yu! Don’t be reckless!”

 

She frowned and wondered once again, what his relation was to Chris. Not to mention this strange man was calling him Yu instead of Chris. Was this his father by any chance? Chris had mentioned that his father’s side of the family was American, but Amara found it difficult to imagine that his father would look like this All-American man with blonde hair and a mustache. There was no sign of Chris in his face when she looked at him. Maybe in build and height, but that was where it ended. Plus, she wondered why he was so against Chris playing in the game.

 

She stiffened as she watched Chris dive for the ball, seeing Eijun’s shocked face and the man’s gasped “No!” in her peripheral vision. It put a bad taste in her mouth, making her feel a little anxious about Chris’ well-being.

 

She sighed in relief at seeing him against the barrier, arm held up with the ball clearly held in his mitt. The crowd went wild at that, praising him for making such a risky move. The man from beside her looked pale, but she could see relief lining his face.

 

A group of boys had came up to the fence a little ways from the crowd, talking animatedly with each other. She spotted the Seido uniform and wondered if they were possibly the first-string, coming out to watch the second-string progress. She didn’t dwell on it, though, as the players switched and Chris was at-bat. She saw Eijun swinging wildly in front of the dugout, a small-statured boy with pink hair speaking to him, but her eyes stayed on Chris as he swung with confidence, making immediate contact on the first pitch.

 

“It’s through! To the left field!”

 

“That was an amazing hit!”

 

She was inclined to agree. He clearly had power in his arm. She watched as Eijun came up next, but he held the bat differently, and when the pitch came, he made contact but it didn’t go far.

 

The boys standing off to the side cheered, albeit a bit jeeringly. Eijun was scowling melodramatically as he was called out, Chris having made it to second base.

 

The pink-haired boy that’d been talking to Eijun earlier and that had participated in the first play made by Chris was up next, with a wooden bat interestingly enough.

 

“One out, runner on second,” one of the guys commented.

 

“And they’re back to the top of the line-up. Can they open up the lead right here? Might turn out to be the early-game climax,” another replied.

 

She paid them no mind as the boy hit the pitch. She watched with wide-eyes as it went high and long, curving towards the left.

 

“Foul!”

 

Damn. That was a pretty good swing too. The outfield moved further back, seeming to sense that he’d be able to hit far. The pitcher wound up again but when the batter hit it, the ball didn’t go far again, seeming to find a sweet spot right before the outfield. Chris made it home and the run was theirs.

 

They switched out again, but there was something different about the batters. They weren’t holding the bat at the end — they were holding it like Eijun did. What was it that the boys had called it? A bunt. Amara had no idea what it was, but it looked like it had severely thrown Eijun off his game. Runners continuously made it safely to base as batters continued to bunt.

 

She blinked in shock as Chris made a bad throw, the ball bouncing off the ground and going in the opposite direction of second base.

 

“Safe!”

 

Eijun looked concerned as he called out to Chris, but he merely held up his hand and said something quickly, then addressed the rest of the team. “One out! Outfield! Throw straight to home! Infield! One out at a time!”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Don’t worry about the runner! Just give me your best pitch, Sawamura!”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

She grinned. Chris was good at lifting the team’s morale, she could certainly commend him for that.

 

“You got this, Eijun! You both are doing great!” She called out to him, cheering with the rest of the crowd. She was rewarded with smiles from both of the boys, a brilliant grin off Eijun’s lips and a reserved but just as happy smile from Chris.

 

The next batter set to bunt again, but Eijun looked determined as he pitched towards Chris’ mitt. She grimaced as the batter hit it; Eijun went for it but Chris caught it before he could. It looked like another bad throw, though.

 

Chris looked jarred, as well as Eijun, and she pressed her fingers to the fence again, the metal pressing harshly into the skin of her palm. This game had her on the edge of her seat; she really had no idea that baseball was this interesting.

 

She frowned as the next batter came up; recognition passed over Chris’ face and she wondered who this new guy was. The batter continued to speak to Chris, who watched him with a guarded expression.

 

“Chris! Let’s focus on the batter!” Eijun called out with a grin stretched out onto his lips. Now that was more his style. “Balls are gonna come flying to you, so I’m counting on you guys!”

 

She laughed as he yelled, “Let’s go!”

 

Eijun wound up again, but just as he pulled his arm back, a runner from third base made for a run while the batter moved to bunt. Her grip tightened on the fence, cool metal digging into her palm. His pitch looked off, though, and she caught a look at it hitting the plate then managing to land safely in Chris’ mitt. The runner paused midway to home and went to turn back, but Chris was faster, lunging after him and pressing the ball still encased in his mitt to the runner’s back.

 

That seemed to turn things back into Seido’s favor as the batter continued to hit foul balls. Eijun wasn’t looking close to giving up and neither was the batter. She watched as Eijun wound up once again, pitching the next ball with a new burst of speed. The batter was struck out and she cheered with the rest of the crowd as they switched out.

 

She watched Seido’s dugout carefully, frowning slightly as she saw Eijun and Chris settling towards the back, getting rid of their shirts and icing their shoulders. Were they done for the game? She turned her eyes back to the game. It didn’t really matter, either way. She had a new appreciation for baseball, if she was being completely honest. She’d stick around for the rest of the game — she was kind of hoping it would wrap up quickly so she could corner them both and take them out to get a quick bite.

 

She tugged out her phone, opening up her conversation with Chris.

 

me

could i pull you and eijun away after the game for a quick bite?

 

She didn’t expect an answer immediately, seeing as he had other things to do now, but she was still happy to have her phone buzz only a few minutes after she’d sent the text.

 

chris takigawa

You really don’t have to, but if that’s what you want, then I think that can be arranged. The coach will probably need a few hours to make a decision, I think.

 

me

i want to!! don’t feel bad if you can’t, though. baseball comes first. just update me on what’s happening afterwards if you can.

 

He took a little longer to reply, but she didn’t mind. The game was in full-swing now, with Seido taking the lead. Kokudokan were formidable opponents — clearly — but momentum was in Seido’s favor after leaving on such a strong note with Chris and Eijun’s performance. She was almost envious; Eijun’s teammates seemed a little doubtful, but they didn’t hesitate to cheer him on. She could only wish for that kind of reception from her team.

 

A new notification from her phone pulled her out of her thoughts.

 

chris takigawa

I can do that, but you’re not obliged to stick around for the rest of the game, you know.

 

Amara snorted. She was very well-aware; she wasn’t fond of the sun beating down on her right now, but this was for Eijun — and Chris, by extension — so she’d see it out.

 

me

are you trying to get rid of me?

 

chris takigawa

Yes. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to perform well when your friend is watching? It’s not fun. 

 

She snickered, grinning at this change of pace. She couldn’t have imagined Chris from when she first saw him teasing her like this — it was just weird. But something must’ve changed his mind to make him more receptive. She didn’t know what it was, but it was nice.

 

me

oh, woe is me. suck it up buttercup! that’s how it goes. if you want, you can totally come to one of my games and make me nervous out of my mind

 

chris takigawa

Be careful with what you’re saying. I’ll seriously take you up on that.

 

me

i’ll look forward to it. shouldn’t you be watching the game and cheering on your teammates?

 

He didn’t respond after that, and she might’ve been worried about a slip of words had she not tried to look into Seido’s dugout, only to see the coach saying something to Chris. She snorted, figuring he must’ve gotten told off for texting during the game.

 

The game was wrapped up quickly, since Seido’s momentum was difficult to beat. The game ended at 6, rounding off to two hours of playing instead of three. The crowd dispersed as the teams bowed to each other then went their separate ways. She lingered around the fence, fidgeting with her hands inside her hoodie pocket. Her phone buzzed again, so she looked back at her messages.

 

chris takigawa

Coach is giving us the next two hours. I’ll get Sawamura so we can freshen up then we’ll head back to the field. Are you okay waiting there? You might be able to hang around the dorms, but I’m not too sure.

 

me

i’m fine here! take your time.

 

chris takigawa

If you’re sure. If anyone asks questions, just say you’re waiting for us. They’ll probably leave you alone after that.

 

Amara grimaced. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that probably but she’d take it for now. She sent him one last confirmation then turned around, leaning her back on the fence, mindful of any parts sticking out.

 

The crowd was gone now, only a few people lingering in the field; it looked like they were cleaning up the dugouts and tending to the field, so she didn’t worry about it. Chris and Eijun didn’t keep her waiting too long, as they turned the corner; Eijun was talking animatedly, his voice carrying over to her, while Chris listened attentively, nodding along to whatever he was saying. They were both still in uniform, but they wore their respective Seido jackets over it, as well as a change into regular sneakers.

 

She pushed off the fence, smiling as Eijun lit up upon spotting her. He dashed over to her, waving an arm.

 

“Miss Amara! How was the game? You saw me pitch, right?” He was a bullet train, unstoppable in his questions. Chris came up to them a few seconds after Eijun’s mad dash, a small smile curling his lips.

 

“I did. It was a good game, but let’s talk more about it while we walk, yeah?”

 

“Where are we going?” Eijun asked, head tilted to the side adorably. He looked like a puppy, she noted fondly.

 

“I think there’s this nice ramen joint a few blocks away,” she said, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb.

 

“I think I know what you’re talking about — Yamamoto’s, right?” Chris asked, shifting to put his hands into his pockets.

 

“Yeah, that’s the one. Shall we go?” She nudged Eijun playfully and he nodded quickly, Chris following in agreement.

 

With their confirmation, she led them out of the campus, falling into the familiar path to Yamamoto’s. She’d gone there a few times with Chiyo and Chihiro and she told the boys so as they walked to their destination. Besides that, Eijun made sure to keep a running commentary about the game, Amara indulging him without any quarrels. Chris occasionally spoke up, if only to make a jab at something Eijun said or to provide some dry remark.

 

She struggled to keep up with a few terms and it must’ve shown, because Chris was quick to interject and explain to her. She sent him a grateful look each time; Eijun was clearly having fun talking about the game and she didn’t want to ruin it with her lack of knowledge about baseball.

 

Before it got too old, though, they’d made it to Yamamoto’s, entering the small restaurant. Delicious aromas immediately hit her senses, making her stomach grumble in want. The heat inside was uncomfortable, but there were tables situated outside of the restaurant so she’d make sure to get one once they were done putting in their orders at the counter.

 

She pulled out her wallet from her back pocket, taking out the debit card given to her by Eiko. She put in her order first, then Eijun, then Chris. Chris had attempted to pay, but she batted his hand away from the card reader, giving him a mock-stern look.

 

“I said I was taking you guys out, didn’t I?” She inserted her card, filling out the information quickly and finishing up.

 

Eijun bowed quickly in thanks. “Thank you, Miss Amara!” He said, loudly, drawing some attention. Chris shook his head, exasperated.

 

Nonetheless, he thanked her quickly too as she took the receipt back from the cashier, along with three water bottles.

 

“It’s not a problem. You guys played well today.” After handing over the bottles, she looked at the receipt, spotting the large number at the top of the paper. “I’ll wait here for the food. Why don’t you guys go get a table outside?”

 

“I’ll do it,” Eijun chimed, tugging the receipt out of her hands gently. “You guys can find a table.”

 

Chris shot him a wary look. “Are you going to be okay carrying hot food?”

 

Eijun pouted. “I’m not a kid, Chris.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“Why do you say it like that?”

 

Amara chuckled and intervened quickly. “Alright, alright. Be careful getting it, Eijun. We don’t want you to burn yourself.”

 

He nodded, smiling brightly. “I will be.”

 

She and Chris exited the space, going over to the front of the restaurant. The patio of tables was set up right in front of the window that looked into the shop, giving them a good view of Eijun waiting patiently near the pick-up section of the restaurant. They found a relatively clean table and took their seats, Amara sitting across from Chris, leaving one chair on the side for Eijun.

 

For a few seconds, the air was awkward, but Chris spoke up, his voice quiet.

 

“What’d you think of the game?”

 

She relaxed as the tension was broken. “It was good. You guys were great. Granted, I don’t know much about baseball, but I managed to keep up.”

 

He smiled apologetically. “That wasn’t something we’d counted on, I apologize.”

 

She was already waving him off before he’d finished speaking. “Don’t worry about it.” She hesitated; she kind of wanted to ask him about who the blonde-haired man had been, but she didn’t want to snoop. She was no pepa*, as her mother might’ve said.

 

“Amara?”

 

She smiled nervously. “The game was good and all, but if I can overstep my boundaries,” she paused, reaching a hand up to tug nervously on one of her hoodie strings, “who was the man that spoke to you? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to — I seriously understand since I might be asking a personal question — “

 

“Amara,” Chris gently interrupted her, a small smile crossing his lips. It almost looked fond and she found her face heating up rapidly. She thanked whatever god was out there that her skin had enough melanin to hide any red that would’ve blossomed on her face.

 

“It’s okay. We’re friends, aren’t we?” He continued before she could speak. “That was my dad. He’s very protective of me, especially when it comes to baseball since he used to be a player himself. He came all the way from America to play Japanese baseball.”

 

His words brought about a whole new set of questions, though. Still, it was interesting to learn that about him. She leaned forward unconsciously. “Really? No offense, I just couldn’t have guessed that you guys were related.”

 

To her surprise — and slight panic — Chris chuckled, smile still on his lips. “Not many people do. There are a few aspects, of course, that I get from him. Baseball is one of them.”

 

“I see.”

 

“I know you didn’t ask about this, but his behavior was a little . . . confusing, wasn’t it?” It was a rhetorical question, but Amara nodded cautiously. Chris seemed pensive as he spoke, pausing to mull over his next words. He shot a quick glance to the side and Amara followed his line of vision. Eijun was still waiting, but it looked like the line of people had gotten longer.

 

“You don’t have to tell me about it,” she said, softly. “Not if you don’t want to.”

 

Much to her surprise — again — he shook his head at her words. “I’m just trying to gauge how much time we have to talk. I like Sawamura — and he already knows about this — but this is just something I have to tell you.”

 

“Oh.” She stopped messing around with her hoodie string and reached for the rectangular container holding sugar packets. “Take your time thinking it over. It’s getting busy inside.”

 

Chris hummed noncommittally. His eyes followed her movements as she messed around with the sugar packets, attempting to make a small house. Eventually, he cleared his throat and she stopped messing around with the packets, but he gave a small shake of the head. “You can continue, if you’d like.”

 

She smiled easily. “I’m keeping my attention on you.”

 

“Are you trying to make me nervous?”

 

She blanched and shook her head. “No, no, of course not — “ She faltered upon seeing the amused look on his face and scowled. “Now you’re the one making me nervous. I can never tell when you’re joking around. Not that it’s unwelcome or anything but — “ she stopped and sighed, face hot underneath his amused eyes. “I’m going to stop talking. Please continue.”

 

Chris chuckled again, but sobered up quickly. He leaned his elbows on the table, lacing his fingers together. He thought over his next words as Amara poked around her makeshift sugar packet house. A long, slender finger stretched out from his laced hands to tap one of the packets, effectively collapsing her home. She sighed heavily, shooting him a look as she began to meticulously put them back into the container.

 

“I don’t know why this is hard for me to talk about,” he eventually said. “I mean, it’s not hard in the sense that I’m sad or anything, I’m just having a hard time sorting out my thoughts and turning them into sentences.”

 

She waited patiently, nodding to tell him that she understood. He continued. “You know I’m a catcher, right? I’ve played baseball for a good portion of my life and I got serious in junior high. I was good at what I did. I made good calls — most of the time — and I was living up to my father’s expectation.” He sighed, reaching up to rub a hand behind his neck a little sheepishly. “The pressure was too much, I think. I got to Seido, but I never told anyone I’d started having problems with my shoulder.”

 

The air left her lungs in a rush. She understood now, or at least she was beginning to understand. It didn’t look like Chris was going to be stopping his story very soon, but she could see where this might be leading. She hoped it wasn’t what she thought, though.

 

“The problem persisted but I played like nothing was wrong. We proved ourselves in our first year and in our second year, I was on the first string as starting catcher. Then, one game, my shoulder gave out on me,” he paused, staring at a spot on the table, but Amara had a feeling he wasn’t actually looking at it. He was probably in some other place, on a baseball field a year ago. His hand still rested on the table and she pushed down the urge to grab it. She’d always been physical when it came to comforting people; hugs always made her feel better when she was down, so she’d basically applied that to everyone else unless stated otherwise.

 

“I tore my subscapularis tendon as well as my pronator quadratus. Subscapularis is the shoulder,” he reached up to lay a hand on his shoulder, “and pronator quadratus is on my wrist,” he placed a hand on his wrist of the same arm. “I can’t throw like I used to — I think you saw that in the game, right?”

 

She nodded, watching his expressions. He didn’t look sad, interestingly enough. A little disappointed, but nothing like that. He seemed to have made peace with it. She had to hand it to him. If anything happened to her like that, she wouldn’t be so light about it. He continued to talk. “I’m still healing. I’ve been going to a rehabilitation clinic in Nakatsuwa after school. That’s why I’m there. My dad’s been there, helping me out. Today was my last game for the foreseeable future, until I fully heal.”

 

It all made sense. That would explain why his father was so scandalized about him playing. He was worried. She understood, but she knew if she’d been in Chris’ position and had been offered to play one last game, she would’ve taken that chance in a heartbeat.

 

Chris watched her carefully, checking out her reaction. The feeling of him watching her so attentively made her nervous, but she brushed it off, asking, “You’re okay, right? You didn’t hurt yourself?”

 

He shook his head. “I’m a little sore, but that’s to be expected. I’ve been out of commission for the last several months, but I’m okay.”

 

She nodded, thinking over her next words. “I don’t pity you, by any means. That’d be rude. But I’ll be honest with you, that really sucks. I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”

 

He smiled at her, in a way that said he understood what she was saying despite her floundering. “It’s alright. I have nothing else to do than get better. I mean, does it suck not being able to play? Definitely. But being able to help the team still — helping Sawamura like I am — it helps me get better, feel like I can still be useful.”

 

She folded her arms on the table, leaning forward. “You’re going to try again once you heal?”

 

“Hopefully. I’ll probably be in college by then, but as long as I get to play, I don’t really care. Sawamura, though, is another story.” He glanced through the window again.

 

“What do you mean?” She asked, frowning a little as she glanced through the window too.

 

“This game was supposed to help our coach decide on who to put into the first-string. There were two open spots and Sawamura was aiming for one of them. I have no doubt he’ll make it, but do you remember the pink-haired boy? He uses a wooden bat and has a great swing.”

 

She nodded, recalling the aforementioned boy hanging around Eijun.

 

“His name is Haruichi Kominato, he’s the younger brother of Ryosuke Kominato, a third year on first string. He really showed himself today, too. I’m pretty sure he’s getting that other position on the first-string.”

 

It made sense. She mouthed a soft oh as realization hit her and she looked back at Eijun, still waiting in line. He was starting to look impatient.

 

“Eijun really wants to have you catch his pitches, doesn’t he?”

 

Chris nodded. “He wants to form a battery with me, but I’m not fit to be on first-string. I’ll drag everybody down. Regardless, it’d be between me and Kominato and he wouldn’t want that either.” He sighed, frowning. “I’m not sure how he’ll be taking the news of me not making it.”

 

Amara pursed her lips, contemplating the situation. Eijun was an empathetic person; he would probably mourn on Chris’ behalf because he was just that compassionate.

 

“Whatever happens, you guys can deal with. Maybe tell him what you’re telling me. If you believe it’s better for the team, then he’ll get better. I’ll be here for him too if things get rough,” she finally said, trying to put as much comfort into her words as possible. Movement in her peripheral caught her attention and she saw Eijun stepping up to the counter and picking up a tray of food. She leaned back in her chair, realizing her time with Chris was over.

 

“You’re probably right,” Chris murmured, turning his eyes to Eijun as well as he made his way out of the restaurant. He sent a small smile to her. “Thank you for listening, Amara.”

 

She tried her best to calm her heart, sending him a smile of her own. “Thanks for telling me.”

 

Their interactions stopped at that as Eijun came over to them, setting the tray down on the table and passing out the food. He didn’t hesitate to begin talking their ears off, jumping from the wait inside to the game earlier.

 

As she ate, listening to Chris and Eijun speak, adding in her own comments, she decided that coming out to the game today was probably one of the best decisions she’d made in a while.

 

Chapter Text

05. summer training

 

Amara had been staring at the text for a few minutes at this point, frowning at its contents.

 

fuyumi taguchi

Coach Nakamura is going to start evaluating us to see if any changes need to be made to the lineup before season starts. Just giving you a heads up.

 

Amara was sure that if the captain of the soccer team had been anyone else other than Fuyumi, she wouldn’t have gotten a text about the evaluations. Her relationship with her teammates was less than favorable and it was never really an accident if she was never notified about a team luncheon. In any case, she always pushed away any hurt that came with their cold attitudes; as long as they played well on the field, she didn’t care what they thought of her.

 

She typed out her response, already pulling herself off her bed.

 

me

oh okay, thank you!

 

The message was read and there was no response. She expected that.

 

She swiped to the left, going to some of her conversations. The most recent messages were—of course—from Fuyumi, then Chihiro, and Chiyo. Chris and Eijun’s names were far down her list; she hadn’t gotten a text from Chris since the Sunday after the game (though she had seen him on Monday) and Eijun had also messaged her briefly on that Monday.

 

Chris had told her about the temporary slump Eijun had been in after Chris hadn’t been put into first-string. As far as she knew, though, it’d been taken care of; she was assured when Eijun had messaged her in the early hours of the morning—probably up for practice—telling her about the ensuing summer training camp and that he’d be busy this week.

 

It’s all in preparation of the summer tournaments, Chris had told her later that afternoon when they’d taken the train back to Kokubunji together (His father took longer than usual with his physical therapy to make sure he was okay). They’d both be preoccupied this week, so he’d apologized for his soon-to-be lack of presence in Nakatsuwa. She waved him off; she was an athlete herself, she definitely understood the pressure to do well and get better.

 

If anything, based on Fuyumi’s text, she’d probably gain a much better understanding this coming week. She wasn’t going to fall behind and let someone else take her position. She’d worked hard for it.

 

She checked the time on her phone. It was only six in the evening, so the sun was still out and would be out for another hour or so. She changed into a pair of leggings and a t-shirt, switching out the tennis shoes for a pair of cleats. If need be, she could probably convince security to turn on the lights for the field, but if not, there was still a lot of time for practice.

 

Forgoing shin guards, Amara collected her belongings and a bottle of water then left the dorms. The campus was always quiet in the evening, most students going back to their dorms or leaving the campus; the athletes were practicing as usual. She could hear the distinct sound of tennis balls colliding with rackets as she made her way out of the dormitory area.

 

Hotei was split up evenly, the school buildings the first thing you’d see from the street, then the dorms behind the building, and then the athletic areas. It was really only the soccer field and the tennis courts behind the school and the dorms, with the volleyball court situated in its own gym in the school building. Construction was kind of obscuring things, though; there was another dorm building that was just about finished, and then the school had been extended, adding more classrooms and such.

 

The Commons—a huge court for students to hang around during lunch or downtime—was situated right behind the dorms, a buffer between the athletic area and the dorms; it was mostly untouched, other than adding a few more tables and places of shade. There’d been another project in the athletic areas, a wide expanse of field gated off from the students.  

 

Amara stopped by the soccer shed, grabbing a bag of soccer balls to drag with her to the field. She wasn’t surprised to see a girl already there, standing at the halfway line, doing shooting drills. She stopped at the sideline, the white lines looking freshly dumped onto the grass. The girl stopped practicing once she realized Amara was there, turning and bowing quickly.

 

“Miss, I apologize. I was just practicing. I’ll get out of your way.” She had a quiet voice, but it wasn’t meek, more indifferent and toneless than anything. She straightened up and Amara finally got a good look at her; she was unrecognizable, but she looked incredibly young. In fact, she was short, probably standing at maybe five feet, small compared to Amara’s five four. Charcoal eyes met Amara’s and she hesitated.

 

“You’re . . . Miss Amara, right? Center midfielder?”

 

“Uh, yeah, that’s me. You don’t have to address me so formally, though. Are you on the team?” The attached honorifics to her name that made her uncomfortable. She knew Japan was big on respecting your elders, especially in high school, but it was one of the things that she’d never quite gotten used to. In the high school she’d attended for freshman year in the States, there was always some mutual, unspoken dislike or indifference between underclassmen and upperclassmen. Here, though, ‘juniors’ were always big on lending a helping hand, often idolizing their seniors.

 

“No, ma’am. I’m only a first year. Hanako Sanada. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Hanako bowed formally and Amara became shifty, fingering the string of the bag that she still held in her hand.

 

“Likewise,” Amara paused, glancing towards the net that Hanako had been shooting towards. Several soccer balls laid inside it. “You don’t have to go. I can use the other half of the field,” Amara offered politely, but Hanako shook her head.

 

“I want to stand here when I’m officially on the team. I was just checking out how it felt,” Hanako said, making no indication to elaborate. There were a few seconds of awkward silence, but Amara seemed to be the only one affected. Hanako was looking at her with an odd look in her eyes.

 

Amara cleared her throat. “Did you want to be center midfielder too?”

 

Hanako nodded, still staring. Amara tried to diffuse the situation. “You’ll be taking my spot, then. Be careful, there’s a lot of contenders out there. I’m sure you’ll find your footing easily enough, though.”

 

A determined look came onto Hanako’s face. “I will take your spot, Miss. I promise.”

 

Amara blanched, out of surprise from the sudden declaration and how familiar her words were. She had to hand it to Hanako. This girl was unpredictable. That kind of thing was always good out in the field, especially against opponents. Amara watched in a stunned silence as Hanako quickly collected the soccer balls, then once she was done, bowed politely and left.

 

Amara forced her legs to move towards where Hanako had been standing, but as she dropped her belongings onto the grass and loosened the string of the bag, she saw Hanako settle into the bleachers and take out a notepad and pen then turn her eyes towards Amara.

 

Amara briefly lamented about having to practice in front of someone—much less a junior who looked like she was preparing to take notes—but she pushed it away, going through her stretches first, then dropping a ball to the halfway line and stepping behind it. She zeroed in on the goal in front of her, watching as a gust of wind rustled the net. She didn’t hesitate on angling her body to the side, taking a few steps back then surging forward and shooting the ball with the inside of her right foot. The ball landed squarely in the goal, hitting the back of the net then falling to the ground.

 

It felt good to be hitting with as much force as she could—a warm-up of sorts, where she didn’t have to think about power or ball control. It was just her and the goal. (Certainly not the junior taking rapid notes in the bleachers, head snapping between Amara and the notepad.) She did that a few more times then transitioned into dribbling and shooting, hitting the ball from various distances.

 

It was her specialty; she was great at stealing and could do as many assists as Coach wanted her to, but she could shoot the ball right between a team’s defenses and their goalkeeper. She was the center midfielder, flexible enough to help defense or work on offense. Her job was a big responsibility and she knew very well that others wanted it—Hanako being a prime example. But Amara had secured the position this year and she wasn’t going to let anyone take it.

 

She finished up when it became too difficult to see in front of her, so she picked up the stray soccer balls and piled them back into the bag. She’d worked up a good sweat, the heat of June still suffocating, even during nighttime. As she picked up her belongings, she could see the overhead lights being turned on at the tennis courts and spotted several players still out there. Her eyes moved to Hanako, who packed up as well and began following Amara, but still staying back a few feet.

 

Amara had made it to the shed and thrown her bag in, stepping to the side to allow Hanako to do the same, when Hanako quickly spoke up.

 

“Miss Amara?”

Amara rubbed away at the sweat on her brow, meeting Hanako’s eyes cautiously. “Yes?”

 

“Could you help me with my drills tomorrow?”

 

Amara shut and relocked the door once Hanako had deposited her bag. She rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. This was new. Maybe this was what being a third year and being on the starting lineup meant. She wouldn’t know, and she definitely wasn’t going to ask her teammates about it.

 

“Uh, sure. Sure, that should be fine,” Amara finally agreed as they began walking towards the dorms.

 

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll work hard to surpass you. Have a good night.” As though she hadn’t just indirectly challenged Amara, Hanako made way in the direction of her own dorm. Amara stared at her retreating figure for a few seconds before she sighed and began walking towards her room. This would bring about all sorts of new implications; she wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the senior-junior dynamic she’d been actively avoiding since she’d gotten to second year.  

 

~

 

Amara had hoped that Hanako would only seek her help for soccer-related issues, but she was proven wrong for the next few days. Hanako would continuously seek her out for even the littlest of questions, ones that involved soccer, school and even a few personal questions. Amara wasn’t sure she’d ever been so uncomfortable in a situation, but Chihiro and Chiyo reveled in her discomfort.

 

The worst part was that Amara didn’t have the heart to ask her to stop; Hanako was just curious and probably assumed that Amara was a reliable senior. (Which she was, but damn, this kid was persistent.) Not to mention that Hanako seemed to be floating between extreme formal and raging informal. Amara had continuously asked her to drop the formalities and honorifics, which Hanako pointedly ignored.

 

“Hanako,” Amara had said with some exasperation. “I’ve already told you. You don’t need to refer to me so formally. I have no problem if you drop the honorifics.”

 

Hanako blinked at her, then said with complete seriousness. “Ma’am, did you know that you keep your left foot angled towards the goal when you use the inside of your right foot to kick?”

 

Amara gaped at her because one: no, she didn’t know that. It was all natural movements at this point. And two: she’d never been so blatantly ignored. Just who this girl? She used complete formal honorifics but isn’t afraid to ignore her. Amara eventually gave up, figuring that Hanako wouldn’t stop at all and Amara would just have to get used to it.

 

She’d been grumbling about it that evening to Chihiro and Chiyo, who shared looks of amusement at Amara’s complaining, when her phone rang, signaling a call. A little confused since it was ten at night and the caller ID was reading mom (meaning it’d probably be like seven in the morning in Austin, the city where her family currently resided), she answered.

 

“Hello?”

 

“There you are. I wasn’t sure if you’d answer. Isn’t it late there, honey?” Her mother’s soft voice came through the speaker and Amara blinked at the sudden onslaught of homesickness at hearing the lilting Spanish. Her mother wasn’t that good with English—she could certainly understand it, but speaking was difficult (understandably) so she preferred to speak Spanish.

 

“Um,” Amara stumbled over her words, finding it difficult to make that sudden switch from Japanese to Spanish, “y-yeah. Kind of. It’s ten right now.” The words flowed easily enough and she relaxed slightly, completely ignoring the curious looks Chiyo and Chihiro were sending her. (They could both understand some Spanish, only a few words, since that was what Amara had taken the initiative to teach them.)

 

“I won’t keep you too long. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I know Renee said that he texts you every now and then, but you know your father and I are old. I prefer hearing your voice.”

 

“You’re not old,” Amara countered by instinct. By others’ standards, her parents were old; her father was sixty and her mother was fifty-three. They’d had kids late into their lives; her mother had been forty-three when Renee was born. Still, they weren’t that old (at least to her) and she made sure to emphasize that.

 

Her mother chuckled. “Always such a charmer, honey. How is everything?”

 

Amara didn’t hold back and she wasn’t guilty about it, though she did send a sheepish smile to Chihiro and Chiyo once they’d finally left her dorm to let her talk in peace. Asano had come in later but she didn’t say anything, merely nodding in acknowledgment to Amara then locking herself into the bathroom.

 

She updated her mother on anything and everything; she talked about school, how difficult being a third year was, how practice was going and of course, that she’d most likely be making the starting lineup for the upcoming season.

 

“Good job, sweetie. I’ll be sure to tell your dad. I’m sure he’ll be so proud of you.”

 

Amara certainly hoped so. Her mother continued. “Have you spoken to the twins?”

 

Ah. She expected the question from her mother. Beneath the light, casual tone, Amara could hear caution.

 

“No, but you know how it is, Ma. I’m busy here, Lucas is playing doctor and Louisa is playing lawyer. They’re both busy and with the time difference, it’s a little hard to connect,” Amara replied with a grimace.

 

Lucas and Louisa de la Garza—fraternal twins and her older siblings, a thirteen-year age difference between them. Her relationship with the twins had always been odd. For all the reasons that came with different places of growing up, Lucas and Louisa had grown up in the streets of Juarez, Mexico and while Amara had distant memories of Mexico, her first real memories stored away had been in Austin. She’d grown up a little like they did, but while they’d only been accustomed to speaking Spanish, she was used to both Spanish and English (officially, though, Spanish would always be her native language).

 

For better or for worse, there were some perspective differences and that was where their relationship became strained.

 

“Of course, honey. Well, try to keep up with them, okay? Lucas asked about you when I spoke to him yesterday, but this is the first time we’re talking in a while so I didn’t have much to say.”

 

Amara wanted to ask about Louisa, but she knew it’d only end in getting hurt, so she refrained, instead replying, “Yeah, I’ll give them a call, Mom. Don’t worry.”

 

“Alright. As long as you try. Now, when are you graduating again?”

 

“March,” she replied, suddenly wary of where this might be leading. She casted a side glance to Asano as she stepped out of the bathroom, freshly showered and changed into pajamas. Asano climbed into her bed quickly and Amara watched for a few seconds to see what she would do—if she’d pull out her phone or laptop, then Amara was cleared to keep talking, but if Asano was going to sleep, she’d probably need to take her call outside or end it right here. Thankfully, Asano pulled out her laptop and plugged in her earbuds, settling down to watch some movie. 

 

“You’ll be coming back, then? Ms. Markus had said you’d graduate officially here with your high school, didn’t she? That’s so wonderful. I’m glad you don’t have to miss out on that.”

 

It was a thought Amara had been constantly pushing away, refusing to dwell on because it hurt too much to think about. Leaving. Amara was technically still a student at Capitol High School in Austin and she’d be graduating all the same—back in Austin, walking down the stage with a class she didn’t even know that well, save for a few faces who’d bothered to keep contact with her. When Ms. Markus—the counselor at Capitol High—had gone over the terms and conditions for her trip to Japan, she’d ensured that Amara would be coming back to the U.S. as soon as possible after her graduation at Hotei. It’d been great at the time but now, after she’d made so many friends, she wasn’t sure if it really was such a great thing.

 

Amara cleared her throat. It was suddenly very difficult to swallow. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be back in time.”

 

“Maybe even make it to prom?” Her mother asked, sounding too hopeful for Amara’s liking.

 

“No, thanks.”

 

Her mother clicked her tongue in disapproval. “It’s an integral part of high school.”

 

Amara barked out a laugh. “Mom, there’s a lot of things part of that integral high school experience I missed being in Japan.”

 

“Well, yes but if you have your chance, take it!”

 

“Mom . . .”

 

Her mother relented. “Alright, alright, I won’t bother you about it. Speaking of high school experiences, how’re your friends? Any boys?”

 

There was that same reflex to add or girls to her mother’s question but she stopped herself. Her parents had mixed views towards the LGBTQ community and Amara wasn’t willing to risk her luck. It was expected, she supposed. Her parents were die-hard Catholics and pretty conservative; her siblings were more open-minded, but Amara would never be caught telling the twins that she swung both ways. Renee never really cared, instead making a face at the idea of anyone being in a relationship with her.

 

“Chihiro and Chiyo are fine. Their seasons are starting up pretty soon, too. And no, not in that way. I’ve made some friends who happen to be boys, though. They’re from another high school in the area—they’re baseball players, actually.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Amara frowned at the suggestive tone in her mother’s voice. “Yeah. Chris and Eijun. Chris is a third year like me, but Eijun’s only a first year.”

 

“So, that’d be twelfth and tenth grade, right?” Amara smiled, humming confirmation; Japanese culture always stumped her parents and it was an adorable sight. Her mother continued. “Chris isn’t a Japanese name, is it?”

 

She snorted. “No, Mom. His dad is American; he came to Japan to play professional baseball. I believe his mother is Japanese.”

 

“Is he cute?”

 

“Well, Mom, I do believe it’s time for me to let you go. It’s already ten thirty and I do have practice tomorrow morning. Plus, you have to get Renee up too, right? Tell him I said hi.” She deflected the question, not going to give into her mother’s interrogation. Her mother saw any boy that she came into contact with as boyfriend material and Amara so wasn’t there for it.

 

Her mother huffed. “I guess so. Goodnight, honey. Sweet dreams, I love you.”

 

Amara smiled briefly, fingers squeezing the blanket tightly. “Love you too.” The line went dead after that and she sighed heavily, finding herself tired out from her conversation with her mother. It was nice talking to her; her dad probably called every month or so, but her mother was always more frequent. She reached out to plug her phone in, turning on her alarm for the morning.

 

As her screen lit up with the battery percentage, a text notification popped up.

 

chris takigawa

I’m sorry about my recent absence. Things have been hectic, but summer training is over this weekend and then we’ll be doing pickings for the summer tournament.

 

Amara was kind of worried since it was so late already. She glanced to the side when Asano finally settled down for the night, then quickly shut off her lamp and lowered the brightness on her phone. She typed out a quick reply, eyes straining against the light.

 

me

don’t sweat it!!! i totally understand. update me on your schedule, won’t you? i’ll try my best to come out to the games.

 

chris takigawa

I will as soon as we get it. Don’t feel hassled to do so, though. I already told Sawamura not to pester you too much about it, if that’s alright. I don’t want to distract you.

 

She sighed, pressing her cheek into her pillow. She still didn’t understand how he was so nice.

 

me

heh don’t worry. i can’t say i’ll go to all of your games. the starting lineup is going to be evaluated to see who needs to be switched out. we’ve gotten a lot of strong contenders this year for the team

 

Her mind wandered to Hanako and she frowned.

 

i’m pretty solid in my position, but better to be safe than sorry, y’know?

 

He replied quickly.

 

chris takigawa

I get it. I’ll let you go now. Sorry for texting you so late, but I wanted to apologize. I’ll see you soon, maybe. Good luck with the evaluations and have a good night.

 

me

thank you!! you too!!

 

She shut off her phone, sliding it underneath her pillow. The room was plunged into darkness, silence laying like a blanket over her, save for the soft breathing from Asano. Feeling drained all of a sudden, Amara sighed and turned towards the wall. There were too many problems she had to deal with now. Her impending leave, the persistent likes of Hanako, even Aiko’s regular glaring seemed to become more of a frequent problem these days.

 

Her biggest problem was undoubtedly her impending leave, though. She contemplated telling Chihiro and Chiyo tomorrow, but it didn’t feel right. She didn’t want them to worry themselves or stress about it. Then, there was Chris and Eijun too. She grimaced; she couldn’t even imagine their reaction about it. Eijun would probably be hopeful that he’d see her again (and maybe she would be too, deep down inside). Chris, though . . . She drew up a blank. Quiet understanding? Or would he be sad at the prospect?

 

Her throat constricted uncomfortably. These weren’t good thoughts to be thinking as she tried to go sleep. She chastised herself for getting so caught up. Graduation was nine months away, her season hadn’t even started. But that night she tossed and turned, not catching even one wink of sleep—torturing herself over the problems she’d soon have to face.  

 

Chapter Text

06. study

 

Akikawa Academy vs. Seidō High turned out to be a battle of wills more than anything, but Amara still didn’t regret attending. That five-page essay for her English Lit class was probably going to kick her ass this weekend since it was due first thing Monday morning, but the game had been much more riveting than any Shakespearean work could ever hope to be.

 

The game was wrapping up already, and she knew—along with many others in the stands—that Seidō would be walking away as the winners for this round, meaning that they’d be advancing to the quarterfinals.

 

She diverted her attention to her phone, mid-way through typing out a congratulatory message to Chris and Eijun in the groupchat they had, when a separate notification from Chris popped up at the top of her screen.

 

chris takigawa

Given the outlook of the game, the team’s going to be staying here for the next game. I believe it’s Yakushi vs. Ichidai? Besides that, if you’d like, you can go ahead and leave.

 

She paused before formulating her message, seeing the ellipses popping up on the left side of her screen. He was still typing.

 

I wanted to know if you’d like to officially be introduced to the team, however. Just a real quick introduction, but it’s completely fine if not.

 

She made a quiet noise of surprise. She hadn’t expected that. She quickly typed out her own message.

 

me

sure thing! i don’t have anything to do after

 

A little white lie wouldn’t hurt anyone other than her and her grade.

 

so i can stay if that’s cool with your coach? i don’t wanna distract anyone if you guys are seeing how the next teams will be playing

 

It took a while for him to reply, and when he eventually did reply, the teams had left the field already, two other schools—Yakushi and Ichidai, presumably—had begun occupying the space left behind. Many people left the stands, but others came to replace them.

 

chris takigawa

Which side are you on?

 

She stood up and readjusted the bill of her cap, trying in vain to defend her face from the hot sun.

 

me

uh facing yakushi’s dugout. kind of. they’re like

 

She sent the message, then turned to look at the field with a frown.

 

i can’t explain it, but they’re on the left side of me if i’m facing the field

 

His reply came soon enough.

 

chris takigawa

We’re on that side too, near the end of the stands towards the top. Everyone’s still in uniform, so keep an eye out for that.

 

me

got it! i’m on my way

 

She went back towards to the top, so she didn’t disturb anybody keeping an eye out for friends. She walked further down the stands and trying to spot the the blue and white uniform. She finally spotted a large group of boys dressed in the familiar Seidō uniform and made her way towards them. But as she got closer, her feet slowed. How does one go about this? It would feel awkward to introduce herself without Chris. Then again, Eijun would probably be there too . . .

 

A hand landed on her shoulder, making her jump in surprise and turn around quickly.

 

She sighed in exasperation at the amused look on Chris’ face. “You’re terrible.”

 

He chuckled, hand slipping off her shoulder to raise his hands in mock surrender. “You’re just too easy.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever,” she waved him off, turning to glance back at the boys and found herself met with many surprised gazes. She stiffened underneath their eyes and shifted a little closer to Chris, but her movements were unnoticed as another familiar face showed itself.

 

“Miss Amara!” Eijun beamed at her, twisting in his seat to face her. “You made it! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How are you? What did you think of the game? How’s soccer practice?”

 

“Hey, hey, stop asking so many questions,” another boy cut in, but his words weren’t serious; he looked amused as he took in the situation. Calculating brown eyes met hers. She was pretty sure this was Kazuya Miyuki, starting catcher and second year. Eijun had complained about him many times but ironically enough, Chris had nothing bad to say about him.

 

Sawamura doesn’t not like Miyuki. If that was the case, they wouldn’t be able to form a battery, Chris had texted her when she asked him about. Miyuki just knows which buttons to push to get a reaction out of him because he thinks it’s funny. It’s not serious at all.

 

She took his word for it, but she indulged Eijun whenever he was lamenting about some insult or shenanigan Miyuki had done.

 

Eijun turned to scowl at him. “No one was asking you. You don’t know Miss Amara!”

 

“Sawamura,” Chris calmly interjected as a small reprimand—probably for Eijun’s informality, but Miyuki hardly looked bothered by it. Amara suppressed a chuckle, looking at Eijun and getting his attention again.

 

“I’m fine, Eijun—” she pretended not to notice the sharp intakes of breath, the murmured ‘She calls him by his first name?’ “—soccer practice is tiring as usual. The game was good. You played well.”

 

He grinned widely and she resisted the childish urge to shield her eyes from his radiance. He was just too cute, wasn’t he?

 

“Thank you!”

 

“Who is this?” A tall, black-haired player with golden eyes stood up, drawing majority of the attention to him. Amara shifted under all the attention, especially from this intimidating guy. Chris pressed a hand to the middle of her shoulder blades, a warm reminder of his presence. She relaxed slightly.

 

“Tetsu, this is Amara de la Garza. She’s a friend of Sawamura and I. She came to the second-string game, if you saw her.”

 

Amara bowed politely, the other guy doing so in return. He straightened and nodded at her, introducing himself. “Tetsuya Yūki. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“Likewise.”

 

From the intimidating likes of Yūki, she was introduced to the other third years—all of which were Chris’ friends. The respective groups were still warming up, so Eijun had taken the initiative of chattering on about his time on the mound for the game. Amara took notice of Furuya—the pitcher who’d started this game but was replaced by Eijun; she recalled his obvious hesitance to step off the mound and refusal to hand over the ball. He looked indifferent right now, though, not listening to Eijun’s tangent. Haruichi interjected occasionally, if Eijun said something that could be considered a socially inappropriate given his lack of filter but Amara really didn’t mind.

 

“Miss Amara?”

 

Eijun had been taking a verbal beating from Kuramochi and Miyuki for something or another when a familiar voice called out for her. The conversation stopped as the boys turned; Amara followed their line of sight. She was shocked to see Hanako standing there, dressed down in regular clothes, but her eyes immediately caught on the cap on Hanako’s head, black with the letter Ys printed in white. It was a baseball cap, Amara knew for sure, not dissimilar to Seidō’s.

 

“Hanako,” she said, turning to face her. “What brings you here?” Amara’s eyes remained on the cap. A tense silence had fallen over the team behind her. She was fairly certain that the cap belonged to Yakushi’s team, but she couldn’t be sure—

 

“I’m here to watch the game. My older brother is on Yakushi as reliving pitcher.”

 

Ah. None of the boys made a move to resume conversation and when Amara looked over her shoulder, they were all pointedly looking straight ahead. Her eyes connected with Chris’, who gave her an apologetic look. She merely smiled in return then faced Hanako, whom had been watching the interaction with minute interest.

 

“Let’s talk somewhere else for a minute, Hanako,” she looked over her shoulder again, directing her next words to Chris, “I’ll be back.”

 

He nodded. “Take your time.”

 

Amara and Hanako moved away from the group, moving up to the top of the stairs. When she glanced down at them, they were all talking again, but a few looks were sent their way.

 

“Do you know someone from the Seidō team, Miss Amara?” Hanako asked, quiet as ever.

 

“Yeah. The pitcher who came in after Furuya—”

 

“The obnoxious one?”

 

Amara smiled thinly. “That would be him.”

 

“I see. Seidō’s advancing to the quarterfinals, right? If Yakushi wins here, they will too.”

 

They would ultimately be facing each other, Amara realized. She nodded to her statement. “You think they’ll be winning, then?”

 

Hanako shrugged. “Probably.” She didn’t elaborate. Amara could understand, from an athlete’s standpoint. Yakushi was essentially Seidō’s competitor, especially if they won today’s game. Hanako’s brother probably updated her constantly on the state of the team—vital information that could be used against them.

 

“That’s good,” Amara replied, in an effort to combat the awkward silence that ensued. Hanako nodded distantly. Either she noticed the awkward atmosphere and didn’t care, or she was entirely oblivious to it. Whatever it was, Amara didn’t like it.

 

She was a social person by nature, but it was no guarantee for her to get along with every person she met. Hanako and Aiko were prime examples, though Aiko was a much more prominent one. With Hanako, Amara just wasn’t sure how to lead the conversation. She was always so intense and serious.

 

She was saved a moment later, though, when a familiar voice made itself known.

 

“Amara?”

 

She turned to see Yūki standing a few stairs down. His face was perfectly impassive, and he kept his eyes on Amara. “The game has started already. Sawamura wanted you to come back down so we could watch it together.”

 

Amara was nodding before he even finished. Anything to get out of this. It had been a bad idea to take the conversation privately. “Yes, of course. I’ll see you later, Hanako.”

 

Hanako bowed. “Yes ma’am.”

 

Amara grimaced and left quickly, going back down to Yūki. “Thanks for that,” she muttered quietly, seeing Hanako walk off in her peripheral vision. A quick glance to the field said that the teams were indeed already engaged in the game.

 

Yūki nodded, glancing at the spot they’d been standing with mild interest. “Was everything okay?”

 

They began taking the stairs, but Yūki was purposefully slow. Amara appreciated his sentiment for privacy. “Yeah, everything’s fine. Hanako is a first year at Hotei. She’s trying to get onto the soccer team and she’s after my position so it’s . . . weird.”

 

“Weird,” Yūki echoed quietly. “I can see that. I suppose being friends with us and her brother playing for Yakushi doesn’t help, does it?”

 

Amara shrugged. “Life exists outside of sports. I’m not saying she can divulge the deep and dark secrets of their team but I’m not exactly going to out her if she lets something slip.”

 

He nodded in understand. “That’s honorable of you.”  

 

She smiled sheepishly, feeling nervous about being complimented. This was Tetsuya Yūki—captain and first baseman. It was some high praise coming from him. Not to mention, he was easy on the eyes too, a small part of her admitted. She pushed that thought away quickly. It didn’t feel right to think about him in that way.

 

They picked up pace and met the team once again; they were all seated, turned towards the field and watching the game with avid eyes. Amara smiled at Yūki, inclining her head. “Thanks again.”

 

“No problem.” He went a few rows down to sit with the other upperclassmen and she went to where Chris was standing behind the first year trio and Miyuki.

 

“Sorry about that,” she apologized.

 

“It’s not a problem,” Chris shook his head. “Who was that, though?”

 

Amara explained the situation again to them. The other upperclassmen who bothered to listen seemed to understand her problem.

 

Ryōsuke clicked his tongue. “Juniors these days are always so competitive, always chasing after us, aren’t they? How annoying.” Amara saw Haruichi scratch the back of his neck in a shifty movement and she recalled that they were brothers, Haruichi being the younger one. She couldn’t imagine it was easy to have to compete against your little brother. She’d probably concede defeat against Renee if she ever had to play against him.

 

“It’s odd that she’s so competitive about it, as you say. You’re graduating next year, right? There should be no need for a competition,” Chris pointed out quietly from beside her.

 

Amara sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah, I know.”

 

She turned to look at the field, watching as the Yakushi and Ichidai duked it out. In the corner of her eye, she could see Chris watching her carefully, though his eyes flickered back to the field every now and then, giving out whatever information that was necessary at the time. During a lull in his words, he leaned over to her, voice low. “Is everything okay? You seem like you have something on your mind.”

 

Amara was surprised at how easily he seemed to read her. The boys in front of them paid no mind, giving them their own bubble of privacy. She rubbed the back of her neck nervously. “Yeah, yeah,” she hastened to assure him, but it didn’t make her situation any better, because he frowned at her words. “I’m okay, don’t worry. I might’ve put off an essay that’s due on Monday, plus the end of the quarter is coming up soon, so it’s just a lot of studying and work that I have, on top of soccer.”

 

She grimaced at the thought of her homework waiting for her in her dorm. “I guess it’s all part of the package, isn’t it? I can’t complain.”

 

“Of course you can,” Chris disagreed softly. “Being a third year is difficult but doing that and a sport is even more difficult.” His eyes flickered to the row of third years sitting a few rows down—Ryōsuke, Isashiki, Yūki, Masuko, Tanba to name a few. “I believe ours is coming to an end as well. Maybe all of us can meet up sometime to have a study session—we can help you with that essay if we do it this weekend.”

 

“That sounds like a great idea, honestly.” Never mind schematics like one school might be ahead of the other in certain curriculum. She could use some help on a lot of subjects, and she was sure the same thing could be said for Chiyo and Chihiro.

 

“I’m sure we can arrange something. You can invite other friends, if you’d like. The more variety, the better.”

 

“I’ve got two who I think won’t pass up on it. Just update me on whatever happens.”

 

“I will.” At that point, one of the boys had asked Chris about a batter that was currently at-bat and he gave the information as needed, even taking out a small journal that had the signs of wear and tear on it. In neat English, Chris’ Notebook was spelled out. It was kind of cute, if anything, but she pushed that away as she nudged her way onto a bleacher. Eijun made space between him and Haruichi for her.

 

For the remainder of the game—which wrapped up with Yakushi making it to the quarterfinals—she regaled tales to Eijun and whoever would listen about soccer practice. Of course, Eijun got in trouble with Miyuki and Chris for not paying attention, much to her amusement, so she stopped eventually. It was also interesting to see how the team interacted. There was a clear, brotherly bond between them all; she saw it in the way that Eijun was eager to help at any chance, the way Chris offered as much insight and analyzation that he could on the opposing team and despite not being on the first-string, he still commanded respect as much as any of the other third years.

 

She was envious.

 

A large part of her understood that her team wasn’t going to suddenly start treating her warmly. It’d be too detrimental to dynamics that they’d previously established. Unless she found another team to play with (which was unlikely and frankly, too much work), she’d have to deal with their iciness.

 

She left a little before the game ended with a quick goodbye to everybody; she was pleasantly surprised to see that all the boys called their goodbyes, some of them asking for her to come and watch the quarterfinals. She merely smiled and waved at them. She ruffled Eijun’s hair and patted Furuya and Haruichi’s heads quickly, delighted when they both jumped in surprise. She reminded Chris to text her, then taking a leap of faith, patted his shoulder as she passed him. He looked a little taken aback, but not displeased. It was a look that stayed with her the entire train ride home.

 


 

“It’s up to you, Hiro.”

 

Amara did another evaluation of her backpack. She had her notebooks, her folder, pencil case and her laptop. She nodded in satisfaction of having collected everything she might’ve needed, then looked over her shoulder, where Chihiro sat at her desk, arms crossed over her chest with a sullen look on her face.

 

“Chiyo isn’t here,” Chihiro stated.

 

“She isn’t,” Amara agreed. Chiyo had taken a train back to Nagasuchi to visit her grandmother as a pre-birthday celebration since school would be in session when Chiyo’s birthday rolled around. Amara would be heading down to a homey cafe in Kokubunji to meet with Chris and the other third years as well, so either Chihiro would be at school alone for the rest of the day or she could tag along with Amara.

 

“There’s nothing interesting to do here . . .” Chihiro muttered sourly. “But I don’t want to spend the day studying either.”

 

Amara snorted. “You’re a smart girl, Hiro, but even smart people like you have to study. You ought to get it out of the way today instead of rushing it the weekend before exams.”

 

Chihiro groaned loudly. “Fine. I’ll go get my stuff. If you finish, just wait outside my dorm.”

 

“No warm welcome?”

 

Chihiro stood up, a scowl crawling onto her face. “Daidōjin is in a pissy mood. She doesn’t want other people in the dorm.”

 

“That does sound like her.” Mai Daidōjin was the attacking midfielder—or more commonly the playmaker—of the soccer team, a fellow third year and unfortunately for Chihiro, her roommate.

 

Chihiro left quickly and Amara finished packing up her things. Before she left, she went over to the sink, smoothing over the stray hairs that popped out of her messy braid. It was unlikely they’d stay in place, though; her hair was too frizzy for that, and with the humidity of Tokyo, the state of her hair was worse than usual. Because of it, messy braids had been her go-to since she’d come to Japan.

 

She grabbed all her belongings, grimacing at the weight of her backpack, and left the dorm, locking the door behind her. As she made her way to Chihiro’s dorm—on the first floor of the dormitory—she passed the open door of a room, a few voices making their way towards her.

 

“. . . go now? I’m hungry.”

 

“Shut up! We’ll leave soon. God, you’re being annoying today.”

 

“Well, maybe if I got some food, I wouldn’t be so annoying—”

 

Amara didn’t linger. The voices sounded familiar; they were probably some of her classmates, but she couldn’t pick out names for them right now.

 

She didn’t have to wait long outside of Chihiro’s dorm, only a few minutes until she resurfaced, changed from her sweats and hoodie into shorts and a sweatshirt. She looked irritated.

 

“Daidōjin’s being more annoying than usual,” she grumbled as she shut the door loudly. “Can’t you do something about it?”

 

“No.”

 

“You suck.”

 

Amara shrugged and they were off. It was a ten minute walk to their meetup, the cafe being situated well in the middle of Hotei and Seidō.

 

“Who’s going?”

 

“Chris and a few of his friends—they’re all third years, so you know, use the mandatory formalities. They’re not Chiyo and I.”

 

Chihiro shoved her shoulder and Amara chuckled, veering off the sidewalk from the force. She glared at Amara. “You two just don’t deserve it.”

 

“You don’t mean that,” Amara teased with a mischievous grin.

 

“Whatever. Do they know I’m going?”

 

Amara hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her shorts. “No. I mean, they know I have two friends who possibly might go. They don’t know you’re a second year either.”

 

“Great. They’re gonna think I’m your lackey.”

 

“You are, though.”

 

Shut up!”

 

Amara huffed and reached out to pinch Chihiro’s arm. “You’re not a very good junior, Hiro. You ought to clean up your act—”

 

“Stop talking . . .”

 

The walk was short and they came upon the small cafe eventually, situated right next to a 7/11. The cool air was a relief from the midday heat, the tangy scent of caffeine assaulting her senses immediately. She wrinkled her nose in distaste, but Chihiro looked like she was in heaven.

 

“Iced coffee here I come,” Chihiro muttered, just about foaming at the mouth. Amara pushed her by the shoulders, spotting the boys seated at a large table in the corner. They hadn’t noticed their arrival yet.

 

“Can it wait?” She asked, already guiding Chihiro in their direction.

 

“As long as you’re paying.”

 

Amara huffed and shoved her forward with more force, making her trip over her feet and curse loudly, gaining some looks from other patrons. Yūki noticed them first, then said something to Chris, who looked up and smiled at the sight. Amara first noticed his hair, though. It’d always been up, stray hairs resting over his forehead, the times she’d seen him, but now it was loose, resting over his forehead. It made him look younger, more boyish. She liked it—probably more than she should’ve.

 

“Which one is Chris?” Chihiro whispered.

 

“On the left, wearing the green shirt,” she replied quickly.

 

“Holy crap—” was all Chihiro had been able to get out before they made it to the table.

 

“Amara,” Chris smiled at her in a way that made her heart race. “I’m glad you could make it.”

 

“Me too. Uh, this is Chihiro Akamine, she’s a second year but she’s taking advanced classes, so she’s usually in the same class as third years.”

 

All polite and good manners, Chihiro bowed respectfully; the boys all stood up and returned one as well. Introductions went around again just for her sake, and it gave Amara a much-needed reminder. Their group was humble, only having Chris, Yūki, Ryōsuke and Isashiki.

 

As they took their seats, Chris explained, “The other third years wanted to stay behind and practice for the quarterfinals.”

 

“They better not be complaining when finals roll around,” Isashiki grunted, scowling. “I’m not helping them dig themselves out of the hole they created.”

 

“I agree,” Ryōsuke chimed in, much to Chihiro’s amusement. She’d been quiet, as she usually was with new people, but Amara knew it was only a matter of time until she broke out of her shell. The boys were nice, they’d get along well with Chihiro’s testy personality.

 

“If it affects their performance while playing, we should step in,” Yūki pointed out mildly.

 

Chris was quick to reign them in. “That sounds fair, but let’s get started. Do you two want to get something?”

 

Chihiro nudged Amara harshly under the table. Amara shot her a look but nodded. “Yeah, we’ll get something,” she said, rummaging through her backpack for her wallet then standing up. “Do you guys want anything?”

 

They all politely declined, so Amara and Chihiro stepped into the line. Chihiro sent a cursory glance over her shoulder, then stepped closer to Amara, dropping her voice. “They seem nice.”

 

“They are,” Amara replied distantly as her eyes scanned the menu. “It’s too bad Chiyo couldn’t meet them either. She’d probably get along well with them.” 

 

Chihiro made a noise of agreement. The line finally dispersed, and Amara stepped up, giving their order to the cashier then paying for it with a swipe of her card.

 

“Thank you,” Chihiro muttered once they’d received the pastries and stood off to the side to wait for their drinks. Amara smiled slightly.

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

Once they’d received their drinks and food and returned to the table, their ‘study session’ began in earnest. As it would turn out, Chris was the only one in the group taking Calculus, with the rest of them taking Pre-Calc. They all had an English Lit class and a handful of others, but core classes differed reasonably, especially since Chihiro still had other core classes to take—physics, for example.

 

To Amara’s eternal relief, they all pitched in to help her on her essay that was due tomorrow morning, so she had a decent outline done and had started the first few pages. She put it away eventually so they could pool their problems together for each subject. It was during this time that Amara learned a great deal about the boys and vice versa.

 

The boys, for instance, were interested to learn that Chihiro had played baseball when she was younger and was a cleanup batter, much like Yūki and Ryōsuke, but switched off to tennis because she preferred the individualist style of it. There were plenty of questions for personal background too—Amara being born in Mexico then moving to the U.S., Chihiro’s mother being half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian and living in the Ibaraki prefecture. Overall, things had been going well.

 

It was when the bell at the entrance rung again did things begin to go sour.

 

Once they’d gone over problems or confusion with certain subjects, they all buckled down to tackle a few assignments and notes for their classes. In the process, they often switched seats to talk with whoever had the most knowledge on a particular subject. Amara sat next Chris, then on her right and circling back was Chihiro, Ryōsuke, Isashiki then Yūki. They’d convened briefly to discuss a problem for their respective Japanese history class. Amara casted a fleeting glance over her shoulder at the raise of voices in the cafe, then did a double-take at the arrival of new customers.

 

Aiko stood there, along with two of her friends—Shiori Koike and Yukari Ozawa, second years. Amara had memorized their faces and names so she knew who to avoid, but given that they were her underclassmen, it was socially unacceptable to join in on Aiko’s torment. In any case, this was some terrible twist of fate and she could only hope Aiko wouldn’t see her.

 

Under the table, Amara nudged Chihiro’s leg, who looked at her with irritation, but it quickly faded as Amara cocked her head to the direction of the entrance. She followed Amara’s gaze and a scowl quickly formed on her face as she took in Aiko and her friends. Amara gave a brief shake of the head, telling her not to bring attention to it. Reluctantly, Chihiro nodded and turned back. The boys still hadn’t taken notice, or maybe they had but were too polite to say anything.

 

It was difficult to concentrate on their voices and she’d taken to fidgeting with her mechanical pencil in her lap. She fixated on Chris’ paper, neat characters on the little white lines; it looked like calligraphy and she could only ever dream about having her Kanji look that perfect.

 

She blinked when the paper was suddenly angled towards her and when she glanced up, he was still in discussion with the boys, but she’d caught his hand settling back onto the table. She bit back a smile, but her face suddenly felt hot; she quickly scratched a few characters onto her paper to keep up the pretense (lo and behold, the stuff he’d written down was actually very helpful).

 

She’d been able to tune back into the conversation, catching the end of Isashiki’s loud argument against Yūki about something or another. She could see it was drawing attention to their table. She grimaced and swore silently when Aiko appeared in her peripheral vision, only casting a careless glance in their direction, but then Aiko did a double take, much like the one Amara had done before. She’d evidently recognized Amara and Chihiro.

 

Amara silently prayed for her not to come over to their table, but clearly, that was too high of an order, because Aiko whispered something to Koike and Ozawa and then they were walking over to their table, their spot in the line to the cashier forgotten. Amara quickly decided to ignore their arrival; Aiko didn’t know that they knew she was here.

 

Aiko stood behind Isashiki, her arms crossed over her chest. The conversation faded quickly as the boys noticed her arrival. Yūki cleared his throat. “Hello. Can we help you?”

 

Aiko zeroed in on Amara, completely ignoring Yūki. “So, this is why you didn’t stay after practice. Little lazy, don’t you think?”

 

Chihiro turned in her seat quickly, probably about to say something that would be considered socially inappropriate, but Amara cut in. “Aiko . . .” she began with as much politeness she could. “You’re not out on the soccer field, either.”

 

Aiko’s hackles were raised as Amara clearly had a point, but she persisted. “And Thursday? Hanako wanted to practice with you. You know, if she sees that you’re not a reliable senior she might turn to someone else—probably someone with a better standing on the team.”

 

“Whose fault is that?” Chihiro scoffed. “Maybe if the team wasn’t a bunch of lackeys—”

 

Hiro.”

 

She held up her hands. “Just saying.”

 

Amara sighed tiredly, turning back to Aiko. “I had things to do.” She still didn’t regret going to Seidō’s game. She could feel the cautious eyes of the boys on her face but she tried her best to ignore them.

 

“Right.” Aiko sounded too disbelieving for Amara’s liking.

 

“Was that all? If your intentions were to annoy me, then you’ve succeeded, so can we be done now?”

 

Aiko ignored her, eyes flickering between the boys. “What school do you guys go to?”

 

Yūki and Chris had done their best to school their expressions into ones of impassiveness, but Amara could spot the minute tension lining their faces; Ryōsuke and Isashiki were more expressive, Isashiki taking on a slight scowl while Ryōsuke had regained that small, dangerous smile of his.

 

“Seidō,” Ryōsuke responded coolly.

 

Aiko raised an eyebrow. “Really now? So, you haven’t heard, Amara?”

 

“Heard about what?” Amara asked shortly. Chihiro was giving her a look; it was one that said she should pick a fight with Aiko and honestly, Amara was considering it. Her relationship with Aiko had always been rocky, but seeing her come over to them and be a general nuisance was testing her patience.

 

“Nothing, never mind.” Aiko turned to Chihiro, knowing full well that Chihiro wouldn’t be able to talk back. “Tell me, Miss Akamine—”

 

Aiko.” Amara’s voice was sharp. She didn’t like the way Aiko had said Chihiro’s name, mocking and disrespectful. No matter the fact that Chihiro was Aiko’s junior; the senior-junior respect dynamic was a two-way street. “Talk shit about me all you want but keep my friends’ names out of your mouth.”

 

There were identical looks of shock on Aiko and her friends’ faces. Chihiro had a look akin to pride on her face.

 

But as quickly as the shock had come, it was gone. Anger replaced it. “Think you’re hot shit just because you took my position—”

 

No, Amara wasn’t going to deal with this here—not now, not in front of the guys. Not in front of Chris.

 

She stood up and with practiced calm, she said, “Let’s take this outside, Aiko.”

Chapter Text

07. the hamamoto’s

 

Koike and Ozawa had made a move to follow them but Amara turned on them quickly. “Just us,” she told them coldly. They didn’t protest. Looked like those senior-junior dynamics did come in handy every once in a while.

 

Chihiro looked far too excited for Amara’s liking. She knew first-hand that Chihiro had never liked Aiko, taking her grudge against Amara personally. Chihiro could never outright be mean to her but she could certainly achieve it in some twisted, underhanded way. Given the way Chihiro had turned to glare at Koike and Ozawa, Amara guessed she’d be taking advantage of their equal status to scare them.

 

Amara didn’t spare a glance at the boys. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see their reactions. No doubt, they’d assume she’d be doing some sort of bodily harm to Aiko if she was taking it outside. While it was tempting, Amara couldn’t do that; she didn’t have a cruel bone in her body. All they needed to do was talk, but with Aiko, things were never that simple.

 

The air was stifling when they stepped outside. Amara stepped out of the view of the window, Aiko following reluctantly. She looked wary, arms crossed over her chest defensively.

 

“I’m not going to fight you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Amara muttered sourly. “Is it too much to ask for you to leave me alone? Just today?”

 

Aiko sneered. “I didn’t come out here just to bother you. You’re not that special.”

 

“Then why don’t you just leave me alone if I’m ‘not that special?’”

 

“I don’t need to explain myself to you,” Aiko replied defensively, scowl deepening.

 

“An explanation would be nice since you feel so obliged to bother me and my friends—”

 

“Well, we don’t always get what we want, do we?”

 

“Oh, we’re still on this, then?” All their problems seemed to stem from soccer and there wasn’t a resolution in sight.

 

Aiko’s anger appeared to flare and she took a heated step forward, her arms dropping to her sides. Amara became wary of her stance. She wasn’t looking to fight, and maybe she ought to tone it down. But a small voice encouraged her; Aiko had been tormenting her for the past two and a half years, Amara deserved to defend herself too, didn’t she?

 

Aiko opened her mouth to respond but Amara quickly continued. “I worked for my position, Aiko. That’s just something you have to deal with, unless you can somehow change coach’s mind.”

 

Aiko’s eyes flashed dangerously. “You don’t know what it’s like to truly be on the team. When the pressure starts getting to you, don’t complain about it.”

 

“I’m well-aware of what’s expected of me,” Amara countered stubbornly. No, she wasn’t going to take this sitting down. “I’m not going to just surrender if it gets hard. I know being on the startup is difficult.”

 

“It’s not—” Aiko stopped herself; a few emotions flickered over her face quickly before she schooled her expression into one of indifference. There was no sign of anger, no irritation. “Never mind.”

 

“What?” Amara prompted, both curious and wary.

 

Nothing,” she snapped, an irritated look coming onto her face quickly, indifference long gone.

 

Amara relented. “Fine. What are you even doing here anyway? I know you don’t like coffee.” She wanted to go back inside; it looked like Aiko had said what she needed to, released her aggression (for the most part). Amara felt antsy just standing out here; the sun was beating down on her, her skin felt painfully tight—a sunburn was probably going to form. Right now, she could mediate the conversation so they could both go their separate ways (or more appropriately, separate tables).

 

“Neither do you,” Aiko shot back, a scowl still permanently etched on her lips. “And it’s none of your damn business.”

 

Amara raised her hands, an incredulous look passing over her face. Was Aiko still mad? Sometimes, she couldn’t keep up. Aiko went through far too many emotions in a short span of time to be healthy. “I’m just asking.”

 

“And there are things I keep to myself,” Aiko snapped, malice dripping off her tongue. “Because god knows you take everything else I have.”

 

She spun on her heel and promptly walked away, her arms crossed over her chest. There was tension locked in her shoulders, her movements stiff. Amara, while stunned, was also resigned; this was how it had always been between them and it’s how they’d probably be until Amara finally left. She wished that they could get along better than they do now, but Aiko had never liked her so she just stopped trying to be her friend. In any case, Amara had been actively competing against Aiko for center midfielder. Much like Hanako was going against her, a small voice in her head snottily pointed out.

 

Amara sighed, tilting her face to the sun. She could feel the sweat that had developed on her back and rolled her shoulders in discomfort. At least this was over. She looked ahead and saw Koike and Ozawa hurry to catch up with Aiko.

 

She reentered the cafe, glad to see that none of the patrons or customers spared her a second glance. The boys and Chihiro were still seated at their table; it looked like Chihiro had just finished saying something once they’d noticed Amara’s re-entrance. She approached the table and tried to smile reassuringly, but it came out like a grimace more than anything.

 

Chihiro had a hopeful expression as Amara sat back down with a sigh. “Did you beat her up?”

 

Amara shot her a dirty look. “I do want to keep my position on the team, you know.”

 

Chihiro shrugged nonchalantly. “We’re off school grounds, does it really count?”

 

“You know it does,” Amara grumbled. She looked to the boys with an apologetic look. “I’m really sorry about that.”

 

They all shook their heads, brushing off her apology. Chris leaned forward, a gentle look on his face. “It’s not your fault; she seems very . . .” he trailed off, lips turning down slightly. “I can’t think of a way to politely insult her.”

 

Ryōsuke smiled, but it was dangerous. “Who said we had to be polite? She’s gone, isn’t she?”

 

Isashiki grunted in affirmation, his arms crossed over his chest with a scowl on his lips. “Sounds like a real piece of work, if you’re asking me.”

 

“Oh, that’s not quite what I’d call her,” Ryōsuke said softly.

 

Amara frowned in confusion, then looked to Chihiro, who had taken interest with the ceiling fans above them, a mock-innocent look on her face. “What?”

 

Chihiro looked back at Amara and smiled sheepishly. “I told them about her—you know, foster sister, soccer team. Just the necessary.”

 

Chris quickly interjected to save her. “We coerced her. Sorry, Amara.”

 

“No, they didn’t—” Chihiro began but stopped as a look from Ryōsuke was sent towards her.

 

Amara chuckled. They all wore varying expressions of surprise at the noise, which made her laugh. “I’m not mad. I was just asking. Makes it a little easier, if anything. I can’t talk for long periods of time, I can get too distracted.”

 

Chihiro nodded sagely. “She does.”

 

Amara shot a quick glare her way. “Shut it. Anyways, the basics then? Aiko just . . . I don’t know. I’m not entirely too sure why she’s so hostile. I’m sure it’s because of me taking her position, but . . .” she trailed off, shrugging.

 

“She could still be sore,” Chris suggested. “She’s been center mid for the past two years, right? She might’ve had an egoist view of herself.”

 

“Golden rookie,” Yūki added.

 

“Yeah. Bet she got cocky if she made starting lineup as a first year,” Isashiki agreed, scowl only deepening.

 

“Good thing you knocked her down a peg, no?” Ryōsuke asked, but that hard look was still on his face. The smile made it unsettling.

 

Amara laughed nervously. “I-I guess.”

 

Chris seemed to sense her discomfort. “Well, that’s all dealt with. Should we get started again?”

 

Amara nodded quickly, the others chiming in agreement. She wanted to put it all past her as soon as possible. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about the boys having to see Aiko’s aggression first-hand, nor about how she had to deal with her, but this was some temporary relief.

 

They started their work once again, though the air was quieter, even the sounds of the loud customers and patrons seemed unable to penetrate the semi-serious aura that had surrounded them. Amara fidgeted in her seat, her eyes reading the sentence from her textbook over and over again. It wasn’t sitting with her; she couldn’t focus. Underneath the table, her hands balled into fists, nails digging into the soft skin of her palms painfully.

 

“Amara?”

 

She blinked, looking up to see Chris watching her with a hint of concern. The boys’ eyes flickered between their work and Amara.

 

She smiled hesitantly. “I can’t focus, sorry. I’ll just—I’ve got it. I’m fine.”

 

Chris looked like he wanted to say something else, but Chihiro beat him to it.

 

“Here.” She pushed her chocolate chip cookie towards Amara. “Eat.”

 

“I’m not really . . .”

 

“Soda, then?”

 

Amara’s eyes snapped to Ryōsuke, who had reached into his backpack to pull out a can of Mountain Dew. His eyes met hers steadily as he held it out for her.

 

“You were out there for some time,” he said lightly. “Drink something cool.”

 

“Water might be better,” Yūki murmured.

 

Amara looked at Ryōsuke, then shook her head, reaching out to take the can. It was still cool. She didn’t pause to wonder about it as she cracked it open.

 

“It’s alright, Yūki. This is good enough.”

 

She had to wonder—how Ryōsuke had figured it out so quickly. Maybe he’d known since they’d met in passing at the Akikawa game, or maybe he’d just figured it out. She’d been restless this entire meeting.

 

The soda was tangy; she’d never been fond of Mountain Dew, always preferring coke, but it certainly did its job to calm her down. She shot a grateful smile to him and he merely nodded in response.

 

The boys went back to studying, though Chris had sent one last look to Amara, which she responded to with a small, reassuring smile. Chihiro nudged her foot and when Amara looked at her, she nodded at her phone currently lying on the table.

 

When she turned it on, she saw a text message from Chihiro, timing only fifteen seconds ago. Amara shot her a deadpan look, but only received a jut of the chin towards her phone. She opened up the text.

 

chihiro akamine

yo how does kominato know u have adhd ??? didnt u barely meet them

 

Amara rolled her eyes, then typed out a reply.

 

me

yes. he’s observational, i guess. it wasn’t like i was trying to hide it or anything.

 

Amara returned to her work, picking up her pencil to scratch a few numbers onto her paper, working out another calculus problem. She let her hand lay in her lap, phone in hand. It buzzed with a new message.

 

chihiro akamine

well yeah….. i dunno i jst thought itd take a little longer for them to figure it out

 

She had a point. It was a pretty bold move on Ryōsuke’s part, given the chances that she might’ve not had ADHD. Perhaps Chihiro offering her the cookie had been the final puzzle piece.

 

me

i guess. maybe he has a relative who has it? that’s the likeliest possibility. not a lot of ppl know that caffeine/sugar helps calm it down.

 

Chihiro’s response was prompt.

 

chihiro akamine

tru

 

Amara rolled her eyes, shutting off her phone and slipping it into the back pocket of her jeans.

 

This time around, she was able to concentrate—she actually knocked out a few assignments due this week. They’d convened again as a group, having Chris explain some concept to them all for their Pre-Calc class, when the bell rung again. Amara glanced over her shoulder and her eyes widened as she recognized the figure currently standing in the doorway.

 

“Amara!”

 

Chris stopped speaking as heads turned. Amara watched as Eiko Hamamoto slid her sunglasses to the top of her head, wide grin splitting onto her lips as she came over.

 

“Mom,” Amara breathed, surprised at the sight of her foster mother. She stood up in time as Eiko pulled her into a suffocating hug; Amara had to bend a bit, as Eiko stood at around the same height as Chiyo, at five foot.

 

“Wow, look at you! Spending time in the sun? You look great! Feels like forever since I’ve seen you,” Eiko gushed unabashedly, reaching up to pinch Amara’s cheek.

 

Amara shied away from her warm fingers. “Mom . . .” she muttered. “Please . . .”

 

Eiko peered around Amara, looking at the table, her warm brown eyes finding Chihiro. She beamed. “Miss Akamine!”

 

Chihiro stood up quickly, bowing respectfully. “Miss Hamamoto.”

 

“Call me Mom, honey!”

 

Chihiro’s face went red, though the tan of her skin made it a little difficult to spot. She stuttered over the word, and Amara had begun chuckling at her expense, then Eiko turned to the boys.

 

“And who are these handsome boys?” It was said with all the doting of a fond mother; Amara winced at the words, though. The boys were all standing already and bent forward into a formal bow as they introduced themselves. Amara had to hide a snort at the sight of redness on their faces.

 

“I’m Eiko Hamamoto, Amara’s foster mother. Miss Hamamoto or Mom will do just fine,” she said, smiling widely at them. The red on their faces did not go down, but they all received a break as Chris broke away to ask for another chair for their table. They didn’t sit down until another had been placed between Amara and Chris.

 

“Mom, what brings you down here?” Amara asked, turning to look at her foster mother.

 

“Ah, well Aiko and I were supposed to meet up today, and she said to come here but I didn’t spot her and she hasn’t answered any of my texts or calls . . .” Eiko shrugged, unbothered by it. She was probably used to it, anyhow. Amara had to make an effort not to scowl. There wasn’t many things about Aiko that could rile Amara up, but it was certainly her attitude towards her mother. From the looks on the boys and Chihiro’s faces, she could tell they probably shared the same sentiments.

 

Eiko was a good person; her hours as a pediatrician were demanding and sometimes she was away for many days at a time, but she always came back and made it up to the girls somehow. She made as many soccer games as she could, even though she could be back at their home in downtown Tokyo resting up for her shift. She listened to their problems, provided funds—she was seriously the perfect mother. Amara could never understand why Aiko was so cold to her sometimes.

 

“It’s alright. Maybe I can catch her later on. I have today off. Say, do you boys go to Hotei, as well?” Eiko asked, casting a curious look at them.

 

“No, ma’am. We’re all third years at Seidō High School,” Yūki replied politely.

 

Eiko lit up. “Seidō? As in, Seidō that has the baseball program?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. We’re all on the team, actually.”

 

“Really? Wow!” She exclaimed, much like an excited child. Amara grinned at her reaction. “Congratulations on making it to the quarterfinals! I’ll hopefully be watching your final and rooting for you!”

 

The boys all looked surprised at that, but Chris recovered first, smiling softly as he bowed his head forward, the others following in suit. “Thank you, ma’am. We’ll do our best.”

 

“Do you like baseball, ma’am?” Isashiki asked, both eager and polite. Amara leaned back in her chair, arms crossed over her chest in a relaxed position. She was incredibly happy that they were getting along well, so she was satisfied to simply watch them converse. Even Chihiro had a small, sincere grin on her lips.

 

“Yep! The nurses are all big baseball fans and I believe one of them has a son who goes to Seidō and is on the team as well, so we caught the game during our break. It’s an interesting sport, you know, but a little difficult to keep up with the plays and technicalities,” she explained.

 

“Do you work in the medical field?” Chris asked, leaning forward with some interest.

 

Eiko nodded. “I’m a pediatrician down at Tokyo General Hospital! You know, we’ve had our fair share of baseball-related injuries, so do be careful while you’re playing! If you’re injured, tell your coach. Best to get it looked at before it can get worse.”

 

Amara held back a grimace. Some badly-timed advice, she would think. The boys probably knew about Chris’ injury, so they ought to know—better than anyone—not to hide an injury. Amara sent an apologetic look to Chris, but he gave a slight shake of the head, a small smile tugging at his lips.

 

Eiko’s phone buzzed and she checked it quickly. They were all quiet as they awaited her verdict. Eiko’s lips pursed in a way that told Amara she was disappointed as she typed out her own message.

 

“Well. Aiko said she can’t make it, she’s busy,” Eiko tried for a grin, but Amara could see the lingering hurt underneath it. There was a surprising rush of anger and Amara bit her lip hard to stop herself from scowling.

 

“Sorry you came out all this way, Mom,” she said softly.

 

Eiko shook her head quickly. “I got to see you, didn’t I? That makes up for it. What do they have here?” She leaned forward to look at the menu, squinting to read it. “Not very much . . . Have you kids had anything to eat that wasn’t a pastry?”

 

“Um . . .” There were sheepish looks shared around the table.

 

Eiko narrowed her eyes. “You all . . . Alright!” She stood up with an air of finality. “Take a break from studying. Let’s head down to Yamamoto’s.”

 

“Mom, like that’s any healthier than a pastry . . .” Amara protested half-heartedly, only because she could see Chihiro already putting away her belongings. The boys followed with more cautious movements.

 

Eiko pinched her cheek. Hard. Amara batted her hand away, muttering, “Ow.”

 

“It’s a meal! It’s on me, come on, boys,” she directed the last part of her sentence to them.

 

“We can pay, ma’am,” Yūki politely interjected. “It’s not a problem.”

 

“Well, it’s not a problem for me. My treat for getting to the quarterfinals, yes?” She asked, giving them pointed looks. They shared a look, clearly thinking about it, but Amara was sure they’d go. Not many people can say no to the likes of Eiko Hamamoto. She was short and small-statured, but she could be intense if she needed to be.

 

“Alright,” Yūki conceded. He bowed, the others—including Chihiro—following. “Thank you, ma’am.”

 

Eiko waved them off, standing up. “Let’s go! I’ll call us two taxis. Decide who goes with who and pack up, I’ll be outside!” She was putting her phone up to her ear as she walked away, towards the exit.

 

Amara quickly packed up her stuff, the boys finishing up their own packing; Chihiro was already done, backpack sling over her shoulder as she typed something into her phone.

 

“This place—Yamamoto’s, was it?—they serve ramen?” Isashiki asked as he aggressively shoved his textbook into his bag.

 

Amara nodded, but Chris spoke for her. “Amara took me and Sawamura down there back in June. They have good food.”

 

“They concentrate on ramen, but they have other food, too,” Amara added. “I usually get ramen, though. It’s probably one of their best specialties.” Chihiro nodded along with her.

 

“We’re not walking?” Yūki asked.

 

Amara stretched her arms above her head, wincing as her joints popped. “No, it’s way too hot. It’s a few blocks after Seidō, so it’s not that far, but do you guys really want to walk the distance while lugging around your backpacks?”

 

She had a made a fair point and the grimaces that passed over their faces at the thought of it told her they thought so too. “Chihiro and I will ride with Eiko, you guys want to catch the other one together?”

 

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Chris agreed. Once they’d finished up, they went outside to meet Eiko. There were a few grumbles about the heat, but they were all used to it. Some of the boys had lived in the heat of Japan, plus baseball kept them outside constantly. Chihiro was used to it well-enough—but she grumbled a lot more—and Amara was accustomed to it as well; Austin could be both humid and hot, plus her vague memories of Mexico often entailed suffocating heat.

 

Two taxis pulled up and Eiko went to the front seat. Amara watched as Yūki, Isashiki and Ryōsuke immediately went to the backseat of the other one after they’d piled their backpacks in the trunk. That left Chris sitting in the passenger seat and honestly, their driver looked incredibly intimidating.

 

“Chris,” she called, not wanting to subject him to the awkwardness of having to converse with the driver. She handed over her backpack to the driver to put into the trunk of their own taxi as well. “You wanna ride with us? We have space in the back.”

 

He looked back at the boys who’d already seated themselves. They nodded at him, Ryōsuke making a shooing motion. Amara moved away from the trunk to the door, bending down to look at Chihiro, already seated on the far left of the car.

 

“You’re in the middle,” Chihiro told her without looking up from her phone. Amara huffed and slid into the taxi, making sure to invade Chihiro’s space, which was met with a rough elbow to the ribs. Chris came in after her, shutting the door behind him.

 

“Oh, hello!” Eiko greeted him brightly, then turned back to her phone. She exchanged a few words with the driver then they were off. Amara turned to look out the back window and could see the other taxi following them.

 

There was an uneasy silence in the taxi. Amara laced her hands together in her lap to keep from fidgeting, Chihiro had put on earbuds and was taping away at her phone—a quick glance told Amara it was some music game. Eiko was on her phone but she chatted amicably with their taxi driver. In her peripheral vision, she could see Chris looking out the window, watching the scenery pass by with uninterested eyes.

 

The air conditioner was in full-blast, the cool air beginning to make her a little drowsy. She wanted to shut her eyes, grab a few minutes of rest, but as soon as she’d dropped her head onto the seat, they came around a sharp curve. It disrupted Chihiro, making her lean to the side, pushing her weight onto Amara, which led to pressing into Chris’ side, despite her futile attempt to put weight against the lean.

 

Amara reached out to hold onto the passengers’ seat, grimacing. “Sorry,” she muttered to him, trying in vain to scoot to the other side.

 

He merely smiled. “It’s alright.”

 

But it wasn’t—not for Amara, anyway. She could feel the warmth that he radiated intensely, the firmness of his arm pressing into her shoulder and part of her torso, thighs and knees touching in a way that was overwhelming. This much bodily contact made her heart race. She wasn’t sure it was healthy to have one’s heart beating this fast.

 

Eiko looked unbothered by it and the driver didn’t look too aware of his horrible driving skills. They reached the end of the curve and gravity let up on them. Chihiro scooted back over to her side, still on her phone, and Amara followed thereafter. It didn’t help much, though. There was an absence of warmth on her side that she had the strongest craving to scoot back over and take once again. She squashed that thought down quickly.

 

It felt like the ride had been forever, warmth imprinted into her side, the sight of his small smile burned into her mind. They finally pulled up to the curb in front of Yamamoto’s and before Amara could even think of pulling out her own wallet, Eiko was already pressing a few bills into the drivers’ hand, smiling in thanks.

 

Chris stepped out first, offering a hand to Amara. She took it after a split-second of hesitance and immediately wished that she hadn’t. His hand, warm despite the heat, was deeply calloused, rubbing roughly against the smooth skin of her own palm. She dropped his hand as soon as she was out of the car, muttering, “Thanks.” She went to the trunk to retrieve her bag, keeping her eyes forward.

 

The feeling of his palm lingered on her hand, even when she’d dug her hand almost painfully into the strap of her backpack, which was now over her shoulder. She stepped to the side to allow Chihiro and Chris to grab their own packs and glanced to the side to see the other taxi pulling up behind them. Eiko went over to it, meeting the driver first so she could pay.

 

Amara snorted as she saw Yūki, Ryōsuke and Isashiki scramble out of the backseat to try and intervene, but one look from Eiko and they were docile, standing to the side with petulant pouts. As soon as they’d retrieved their bags and Eiko came around to face them, Yūki spoke up. “We could’ve paid for that, ma’am, you really don’t have to—”

 

She waved a finger in his face, shutting him up efficiently. “I’m a doctor, Yūki. I make good money. This is hardly going to drain my bank account.”

 

Amara muffled her chuckles with her hand, hearing Chihiro do the same beside her, but Chris was more upfront with it, looking openly amused at the sight of tiny Eiko speaking matter-of-factly to the tall and intimidating Yūki.

 

“Hey, what are you fools laughing at?” Isashiki growled, shooting a heated glare to all of them. Chihiro shut her mouth quickly, but Amara and Chris didn’t stop.

 

“Yeah. What’s so funny?” There was a deadly look on Ryōsuke’s face that made Amara stop laughing abruptly, pursing her lips to hold it in.

 

Chris shook his head at them. “You two . . .” He sighed, a hint of smile on his lips. “Stop scaring our friends.”

 

“I’m not scaring them! It was just a question!”

 

“It was a simple question. It was their own decision to stop.”

 

Isashiki and Ryōsuke’s defensive statements couldn’t be countered, because Eiko began walking towards the entrance, waving a hand for them to follow her.

 

“We’re burning daylight! Let’s go, kiddos!”

 

Amara sighed heavily at Eiko’s loud display but followed the others into the heated restaurant. The boys all breathed in deeply at the scent of ramen and spices hitting their noses. The boys—minus Chris—took a few minutes to look over the menu and pick out their orders, and while they were doing that, the rest of them gave their orders to the cashier. Eiko shooed the boys to the counter, declining their requests to pay for their own orders. Amara didn’t bother protesting; Eiko was far too stubborn to concede defeat.

 

After the drinks had been collected, they all went outside to determine the seating arrangements. It wasn’t too busy today—probably because of the heat—so there were a few tables free for them to push together. They chose a spot nearest to the fan that was blowing mercifully cool air and also near the entrance of the restaurant; a few employees would be coming out to drop off the order since they were a larger group and it was unanimously agreed to make their job a little easier.

 

Once the food had arrived at their table, the boys had allowed Eiko to grab her own portion, but as soon as she was finished, they all dived in to snatch up the food. Amara and Chihiro shared looks of disbelief at their one-track minds. She was a little surprised that even Chris was there, participating in the roughhousing as much as the others. She was thrown for the loop once again when he’d turned around, holding out a bowl of food for herself.

 

She couldn’t help it. She gaped at him. The sun, previously hidden by a small patch of clouds, came out in full force, casting a shadow over his face. His smile was warm and the way that the sun was hitting his eyes to make them look soft—molten hazelnut peaking at her in a playful manner. He was, quite frankly, beautiful. She’d always known—of course, Chris was handsome, both by Japanese and Western standards, but perhaps she was only just internalizing that now.

 

A violent nudge to her foot pulled her back to reality; she took the bowl from his hands quickly. “Thanks,” she chuckled a little breathlessly. She set it onto the table and stared hard at its contents, making a conscious effort not to flush too hard. She picked up the chopsticks and ate quickly—probably too quickly—but she was trying not to focus on Chris’ presence next to her.

 

It became easier gradually, as she tuned in Chihiro’s quiet complaining about them hogging the food, Isashiki’s loud compliments about the food—which then turned to comments of thanks to Eiko. She really thought she’d been doing a good job with eating and occasionally participating in conversation up until Eiko’s comment.

 

“Amara, is the heat getting to you?”

 

“Huh?” She asked around a mouthful of noodles. The boys stopped to look at her, looks of confusion passing over their faces. Amara looked back to Eiko with a dumbfounded expression.

 

Eiko gestured to her own face. “You’re splotchy. That only happens whenever you’re playing soccer, right? Are you getting overheated—”

 

A violent snort stopped her, just as Amara realized what she was talking about. Chihiro was holding back laughter, elbow clamped over her mouth as she stood up and turned to walk away, presumably to the bathroom. Amara stood up as well, feeling an undeniable heat in her entire face. It was itchy—the same kind she felt whenever she was out on the field, exerting energy. Oh, she knew exactly what Eiko was talking about.

 

“E-Excuse me,” she stuttered out, turning away before she finished her sentence and hurrying after Chihiro to the bathroom. She didn’t look back. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle that.

 

Just as she’d predicted, Chihiro was in the tiny bathroom, washing off her face between snickers. Amara hit her upside the head as punishment, but as soon as she took in the sight of her face in the mirror, she moaned in despair.

 

“How am I going to get rid of this?”

 

Chihiro burst into another fit of laughter, leaning on the stall beside the sink. “I can’t breathe!” She gasped, holding onto her stomach. “My back hurts . . .”

 

Amara paid her no mind, running her fingers over her face, a petulant pout slipping onto her lips. Her normally brown skin was splotchy with red patches. All she was missing right now was the sweat and it’d look like she just stepped off the field after a soccer match. A tiny, unhelpful part of her brain applauded Chris for being able to render her this flustered—unknowingly, too. Her skin was feverish as well. She elbowed Chihiro out of the way and splashed cold water onto her face, but it didn’t help at all.

 

Chihiro was calming down, patting her face dry with a paper towel and blowing her nose into it. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I got soda up my nose. It burns.”

 

Amara finally straightened up, grabbing a paper towel as well and drying her own face. “Good. It’s what you deserve.”

 

Chihiro snickered. “Maybe, but at least any signs of it are gone. Can’t say the same about you.”

 

Amara glared at her. “You’re insufferable.”

 

“It’s my best trait.”

 

Amara touched her face again, grimacing. Chihiro watched her in the mirror, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed.

 

“How am I going to explain this?” She mumbled despairingly.

 

“Stop being so dramatic. Honestly, your hasty retreat probably made everything so much worse—”

 

“Not helping.”

 

Chihiro continued. “—but just agree with Eiko said. It’s literally one of the hottest days of summer. We’re all looking a little flushed today.”

 

“Logically, it doesn’t add up—”

 

“You’re counting on the guys to linger on the reason that long, dude?” Chihiro returned with a raised eyebrow. “They won’t be thinking about it in a few days. Don’t worry.”

 

That was true. The boys didn’t have any reason to accuse her of lying. Or so she hoped, anyway.

 

“Hold on, though. Is this about Chris?”

 

“I thought you knew already,” Amara accused. “Why were you laughing if you didn’t really know?”

 

Chihiro bit her lip, probably trying to prevent any more chuckles. “I saw that stupid look on your face when he gave you the bowl of food. I was also the one who nudged you before you made a fool of yourself. So, I kinda assumed it was, but I do like confirmation. And if it calms your face down, he gave me one, too.”

 

It didn’t.

 

Amara sighed, pressing her hand to her cheek. Her face still felt feverish, but this was the best she could possibly do. “Whatever. He just . . . overwhelmed me for a moment.”

 

Chihiro scrutinized Amara for a few moments, then nodded, seemingly satisfied. “Sure, sure. Let’s head back before Eiko calls the police.”

 

Amara grimaced at the thought and followed her out of the bathroom. She pointedly avoided the looks that the employees behind the counter were giving her, presumably because of her and Chihiro’s dramatic entrance. When they exited, they drew the boys and Eiko’s attention immediately.

 

“Everything okay?” Eiko asked, eyebrows furrowed in concern as Amara re-took her seat next to Chris and Chihiro from across her.

 

“Yeah. I think you might be right about the heat,” Amara admitted, feigning sheepishness as she rubbed her cheek with her fingers.

 

“Here.” A plastic cup of ice was pushed into her line of vision from Chris. Concern lined his face, his lips downturned. “Cool off with this.”

 

She smiled gratefully at him, feeling guilty about lying but also thankful that he’d bought it. She accepted the cup and pressed it to her cheek, sighing in relief at the cold piercing her skin.

 

“You’re not used to the Tokyo heat, then?” Ryōsuke asked, casually.

 

She fidgeted under his penetrating gaze. “Not really, I guess. I’ve never really spent that much time outside during the summer these past two years. For soccer, since I wasn’t starting, I didn’t need to go through the training that others did. Plus, you know, the baseball games are all outside, too.”

 

Chihiro cut in easily. “It’s a little silly,” she snickered. “Honestly, Amara. You’re from Texas.”

 

Amara glared at her, not too keen on how she was managing to successfully take the attention off of the problem but also still make fun of her. “You said it yourself. This is one of the hottest summers we’ve had.”

 

“She’s right,” Yūki agreed, the other boys nodding in agreement. “It’s been hard to play with the heat.”

 

The universe took pity on her and from there, the conversation moved to sports and crazy injuries that Eiko had seen in her time as a pediatrician (“Kids can be injured by anything! It’s amazing!”). Chris had gotten up to get another cup of ice for Amara—much to her adamant refusal—and the look that Chihiro was giving her was one that she out-right ignored. It’d clearly been too tall of an order to hope that Chihiro wouldn’t take the earlier incident the wrong way.

 

Yes, Chris was handsome (stupidly so), but that was it. Yūki, Ryōsuke and Isashiki weren’t too hard on the eyes, either. Eijun was cute, too, in a next-door-neighbor kind of way (but of course, she saw him as a little brother and nothing more).

 

It didn’t mean anything—it had just blindsided her briefly and that was that. She was sure of it.

Chapter Text

08. center midfielder

Relieved that Seidō had made it to the semifinals, Amara found it a little easier to participate in soccer practice the next day. Though she hadn’t been there—Seidō’s match against Yakushi was in the late morning and had ended by the time she was released from school—she’d gotten several texts from the boys. There were the familiar ones like Chris, Eijun, Yūki, but also one who wasn’t familiar, such as Kuramochi—the second year shortstop who, she was pretty sure, she hadn’t given her LINE account to. Regardless, she sent out her congratulations to the boys.



It had been a good thing too, because July was quickly wrapping up, and following the short summer break, August would bring more scrimmages in preparation for the official season startup in September. That meant that Coach Nakamura held the first extended practice that Wednesday after school. 

 

Instead of the usual three to five practice, it extended to six in the evening. Those hours only happened in late July, mid-August to late August and even then, it was still unpredictable; it all depended on how Coach Nakamura felt about the team’s performance.


With Amara’s new hours, but also with homework that was beginning to pile up, it had become increasingly difficult to plan trips to Nakatsuwa so she could see the kids. She’d been sending countless apologies to them, but they were always politely brushed off. Kei said they didn’t really mind since she was a third year and an athlete. From what he said, they could understand the pressure on her right now. She’d made a silent note to herself to make it up to them. Perhaps she could take Eijun’s idea and plan out that game with the Seidō boys and herself against the kids.



It was the last thing on her mind, though, as she limped off the field during a break, feeling an unyielding soreness in her feet and legs. Despite the shin guards, she’d gotten quite a few kicks to the legs from her teammates during play simulations.

 


The managers tossed a few cold towels her way, along with a Gatorade bottle filled with water. She’d managed to guzzle down a good portion of the water until it was snatched out her hands. Surprised and irritated, she looked at the guilty party with a complaint on her tongue, but it died quickly enough as she realized it was Hikari Ban. Had it been any other person besides Hikari or Fuyumi, she would’ve protested.



“Tough practice, right?” Hikari asked, her voice quiet in the background of the girls’ talking.



“Yeah,” Amara agreed, watching her carefully.

 

Hikari Ban was an outlier, the odd one out on the team who liked Amara to some degree (far more than Fuyumi’s pity, anyway). She’d quietly advocated for Amara’s placement on the starting lineup, but from what Amara had observed, Hikari never had any real problems with Aiko either.



She wasn’t complaining about Hikari’s kindness, by any means. Hikari was the other center midfielder on the team, so the two of them often had to convene for certain plays (though occasionally they’d be split to attacking or defense). Yet, despite Hikari’s tolerance, they didn’t speak outside of practice. Maybe a few months ago when Amara hadn’t been on the starting, they’d been on friendlier terms, but it seemed to have faded with time.

 

“Sports Festival is coming up, too—after summer break. We’re competing against the staff. It’s supposed to be an unofficial scrimmage.” Hikari drained the water bottle then tossed it back to a manager.

 

Amara had forgotten about that; last year’s Sports Festival had been a bit lackluster, if anything, and she wasn’t on the team either, so she’d only hung around to catch the volleyball game and the tennis match. Maybe it’d be interesting this year. Parents and siblings were all invited, so Eiko would probably attend. She wondered if Chris and the others would like to go, too . . .

 

“I don’t mean to overstep, or anything.” Hikari’s voice brought Amara out of her thoughts. “But try to do your best.”

 

Amara bristled, frowning at Hikari in confusion. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Hikari held up her hands. “I’m just saying—you’re new. You need work. I’m sure Coach will talk to you about it soon enough, but listen, we want to get to Nationals—”

 

“I do too,” Amara agreed sharply. “So, please don’t underestimate me. I’ll do whatever I need to do to improve.”

 

Hikari scrutinized her for a moment, her eyes looking strangely cold, then she chuckled and turned away, the look in her eyes gone so quickly that Amara felt like she might’ve imagined it. “Whatever you say.”

 

Amara pointedly ignored the condescending tone, a little confused and hurt by what just happened. Hikari had been the one to cheer her on from the side, helping her out after soccer practice was over. Amara thought that she was on her side, but apparently not. She could understand, from a seasoned athlete’s view, if you were wary of the new players on the team, but they were both third years. Making it to Nationals now, in their final year, was the main focus for all of them. If she had to put in more time than anyone else on the team, then she would do it.

 

She had no more time to think about it, as Coach Nakamura blew her whistle and called for everyone out onto the field. They all got into the usual positions, but she pointed at Amara and Hikari. “Ban, Garza, I want you two to switch between defense and forward. You need to be prepared to switch out whenever you need to. As long as you’re switching, I don’t care who goes where.”

 

“I’ll take defense. Your offense looks a little weak.” Hikari didn’t give her a chance to protest as she jogged to where the other defenders of the team were. Amara huffed and turned to where the offense was. Hikari, as much as she hated to admit it, sort of had a point. There were certain moves that offense could use to shoot the ball and her knowledge on it was severely limited.

 

The rest of the practice consisted of polishing off the attacking and defending skills. Later on, they’d start moving towards strategies and plays, plus a new system of sign and signal words needed to be worked out, but it was beginning to look like a reliable team. No matter their feelings toward her, as long as they performed well, she didn’t care.

 

After practice had finished and she’d freshened up, she walked back to the school building. Chiyo would probably be released around the same time since volleyball season was also starting around September. Amara was in desperate need of help for their Japanese History class, so she was planning to ambush her by the gym—if she made it in time, anyway.

 

She waved at a few of the players in the hallway then stopped by the double doors, dropping her duffel bag and backpack on the tiled floor. A few more of the girls exited, talking animatedly. She picked up on the word ‘scrimmage’ before they paused to say hello to her. She greeted them in return, finding it cruelly ironic that Chiyo’s teammates probably treated her better than her own did.

 

“Miss Amara?”

 

She turned at the sound of her name, seeing Hanako standing there, still in uniform with her backpack slung over her one shoulder.

 

“What’s up?” Amara greeted lamely. ‘What can I do for you?’ sounded too open and ‘What do you need?’ sounded too mean.

 

Her relationship with Hanako, while awkward at times (also to be counted because of Seidō’s win yesterday against Yakushi), was still one she wanted to salvage. It wasn’t like many of the other soccer players liked her, and the rest of the underclassmen were too scared to approach those on the starting lineup. Yeah, Hanako was still gunning for Amara’s position and her competitiveness towards it was discomforting at times, but it wasn’t like they were going to fight about it. Amara was leaving next year. The position could go to Hanako for all she cared.

 

“Would you mind practicing with me?”

 

Amara rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly. “Not today, I’m afraid. I think I’m heading out with a friend.”

 

Disappointment flickered over Hanako’s face briefly before she dropped it, her eyes falling to the ground. The sight of it was burned into Amara’s memory and she felt a surge of guilt. She sighed.

 

“But,” Hanako looked back up, a hopeful gleam in her eye, “if it falls through, I can practice with you. Do you have LINE? I’ll give you my account and for whatever reason, I’ll message you there.”

 

Hanako was already pulling her phone out of her backpack and unlocking it. She handed it over to Amara, who typed in her own user and such and added herself to Hanako’s contacts. The screen for the contacts slid away and Amara had the smallest glance into Hanako’s conversations, incredibly barren except for two conversations. There was the name shunpei sanada at the top of the recent conversations and then sohee kim underneath it. Both had new notifications.

 

Amara handed back the phone quickly, feeling guilty about her accidental look. Hanako bowed politely. “Thank you, Miss Amara.”

 

Amara grimaced, knowing she’d accidentally gotten a peek into Hanako’s personal life without her permission and here she was, bowing with more formality than Amara probably deserved.

 

“Er, no problem, kid.”

 

Hanako’s nose wrinkled. “Please, don’t call me that.”

 

“You didn’t listen to me when I asked you to drop the honorific.”

 

Hanako actually considered it, eyebrows furrowing for a moment. She nodded after a few seconds. “An equal exchange. Have a good evening, ma’am.” She turned and walked away.

 

Amara huffed, crossing her arms over her chest petulantly and leaning on the wall behind her. “I can never win, can I?”

 

A minute later, Chiyo exited the gym, speaking to another girl. It wasn’t a strange situation, by any means, but the fact that they were conversing in Korean was something that didn’t just happen often. Amara waited patiently, glancing at them in the corner of her eye. The girl looked young; a first year, probably. She was dressed in a warmup jacket for the team and a pair of track pants. She was probably a new manager.

 

 Amara couldn’t pick up any words, they were both speaking too far quickly for her to decipher any of it. Finally, the girl bowed politely, then left.

 

Chiyo turned to Amara with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t usually get this kind of reception. Special occasion?”

 

“Panicking over that annotated timeline we have for history. I was thinking—”

 

“That’s never good.” Chiyo was looking casual, but Amara could see the tension in her face. Chiyo’s day had been decidedly bad, due to the fact that she’d forgotten to wash her pants, so she had to resort to wearing the skirt (which she hated, but never had a problem with the shorts for volleyball) and then things just went downhill from there on. Amara had kept her distance, not wanting to make her day even worse.

 

“—we could walk down to Yamamoto’s. Or the 7/11 before that and go to the park across the street from it, instead.”

 

Chiyo thought about it for a second and Amara felt compelled to add onto her words. “Don’t feel obliged. I know you had a bad day so if you wanna just head back to your dorm and chill by yourself, I completely understand.”

 

Chiyo’s face softened and she tried for a small grin. “That bad day was because of school. I think the perfect solution is to get out of here for a few hours.”

 

Amara analyzed her face, trying to find a sign that said Chiyo was merely indulging her, but she found none. She nodded. “If you’re sure. You need to stop by the bathroom? I’ve already freshened up, so . . .”

 

“No, I did that in the locker room. Come on, let’s get going before the sun sets.”

 

They didn’t bother changing into different clothes or stopping by the dorms; it was almost 6:30 and it was a twenty-minute walk to Yamamoto’s. They’d made it a few blocks away when Amara remembered to message Hanako. Her name was under her notification bar, alerting her that Hanako had added her into her contacts.

 

me

sorry! i won’t be at school after school today. i can help you out tomorrow, if nothing else pops up.

 

Hanako’s reply was quick.

 

hanako sanada

whatever works. i’m never busy after school.

 

She raised an eyebrow, sending another confirmation and then dropping her phone back into the duffel bag. Hanako was strange; the lack of people in her contact list reminded her a lot of herself, but that seemed to be where the similarities ended. Amara finished zipping up the bag, shaking her head slightly to stop thinking about it. She didn’t want to give herself a headache before they even started working.

 

The walk was spent in companionable silence, with the occasional comment. As she looked around for their current location, she knew they’d end up passing Seidō and she had the strongest urge to visit the fields and see the boys, but she quelled it for now. They didn’t need any distractions from her. So, when they were passing Seidō High, the path to the baseball fields approaching quickly, she pushed down her desire to see them and focused on the sidewalk in front of them.

 

Chiyo had other plans.

 

“Did you want to visit those boys of yours? We’re passing Seidō right now, aren’t we?”

 

Amara sighed, feeling her resolve crumble. “Yes,” she muttered, turning down the path to the fields, Chiyo falling back a little.

 

Chiyo had to hide a smile. “To which question?”

 

Yes, we’re visiting.”

 

“Is this a show-off thing? They’ve never seen you in uniform, have they? This is a—what had Hiro called it?—a flex. This is a flex.”

 

“You sound like an out-of-touch grandmother.”

 

“Granny would be proud,” Chiyo shot back, ending the conversation right there because Amara didn’t have the heart to insult Chiyo’s grandmother, Hea-jung.

 

The fields came into view and it wasn’t difficult to spot which one the first-stringers were practicing on. She came up to the side that faced the third base, staying several feet away. Chiyo followed closely, but didn’t try to edge towards the fence, probably hesitant about meeting new people. Amara crossed her arms over her chest, turning to face the field.

 

“I don’t want to distract them, so we’ll just watch for a few minutes then head out—”

 

“Miss Amara!” Eijun’s yell was both unmistakable and difficult to miss. Amara blanched, seeing his yell turn the heads of his teammates.

 

“You were saying?” Amara didn’t reply, knowing full well that this much attention was bothering Chiyo, too. Chiyo took a few steps back. “Is he . . . going to run into the fence?”

 

Amara looked at Eijun, who was running over to them with his bright and shiny grin, and while she could feel her own smile developing, he was also coming towards them at a rapid rate and it didn’t look like he was going to slow down.

 

“Watch the fence, Eijun!” She held up her hands, motioning for him to slow down. He did so and she sighed in relief as he skidded to a stop in front of them. A baseball was still clutched in his left hand and the mitt was still enveloping his fingers on his right.

 

“I don’t mean to be bothering you guys,” she said, stepping closer to the fence. “I don’t want to disrupt practice.”

 

Eijun shook his head rapidly. “You’re not, though! We’re not supposed to be practicing that hard since we have a game tomorrow.” He beamed at her. “It’s nice to see you. I feel like I don’t see you as often as Chris does.” That part was said with a small pout. She heard Chiyo cough in the back.

 

Amara spread her arms, shrugging. “What can I say? Third years gotta stick together. I’ll see what I can do about hanging out more often, though.”

 

“You’re the best, Miss Amara! Hey, that’s your soccer uniform, right? You look so cool! You don’t get hot easily with that, right?” He never slowed down. She smiled fondly at him.

 

“Nope. The pros of being a soccer player,” she said with a wink, tugging absently on her jersey. Though, with the full-body baseball uniform in white, compared to the shorts and jersey she wears—which were black with the usual red highlights, Hotei’s colors—they probably sweat the same amount. Wearing such dark colors in the hot summer wasn’t fun.

 

Eijun laughed loudly. “I’ll stick with baseball, ma’am! How long are you going to stay—”

 

“Sawamura, you’re not coercing Amara into staying, right? I’m sure she has much better things to be doing.”

 

Ah. Chris came over to them, Yūki, Isashiki and Ryōsuke following along behind him. Amara smiled at the sight of them, but also felt nervous about them convening by the fence. It probably looked a little suspicious and she wasn’t exactly trying to get in trouble with their intimidating coach.

 

“Yeah, shouldn’t you be practicing?” Isashiki asked, reaching out to hit Eijun on the back of his head. “Where’s Miyuki at, anyway?”

 

“He’s not my babysitter!”

 

“That’s sure what it feels like sometimes,” Miyuki said, entering the conversation smoothly as he walked over to them. He was in catcher’s guards, save for the head and face shield; he didn’t look amused as he walked over to Eijun. “You ran off for a girl?”

 

“A girl who’s right here and has a name, Miyuki.” Amara squared him with a severe look, but he held up his hands in mock surrender, a small smirk crawling onto his lips.

 

“Never mind, Sawamoron. She’s a worthy girl to run off to.” Sawamoron. Well, Miyuki just wasn’t doing himself any favors, was he? She raised an eyebrow at him, displeased.

 

Evidently, Eijun didn’t like it either. “Stop talking about Miss Amara like that! And don’t be so disrespectful!”

 

“Like you’re one to talk.” Amara winced as Ryōsuke dealt a harsh blow to the back of Eijun’s head. “Go practice, dummy.”

 

Miyuki hid his chuckles behind his catcher’s mitt but shut up quickly as looks were sent to him. “You too, Miyuki. Sawamura has a point,” Chris said to him reproachfully. Now Miyuki looked a little repentant, while Eijun beamed.

 

Anyways. I’m not hanging around here much longer,” Amara spoke to Eijun, who lit up at being addressed again.

 

“You’re so nice for not wanting to distract us!”

 

“Well, okay, yeah but I also don’t feel like getting in trouble with your coach. Or, we don’t feel like it, anyway. My coach would kick my ass if we got into trouble with another school’s team.” Along with the rest of the soccer team too.

 

Upon mentioning her hidden guest, the boys all peered around Amara at Chiyo, who sighed softly and finally stepped forward to join the conversation. She bowed politely. “Hello, my name is Chiyo Im. Unfortunately, I’m Amara’s friend.”

 

“Unfortunately?” Amara huffed.

 

Unfortunately.”

 

The boys chuckled at the affronted look on Amara’s face then introduced themselves. They hadn’t gotten far into a conversation because a female voice interjected coolly, “Is this the reason you’re not practicing?”

 

An older woman dressed in a blouse and a skirt with glasses got their attention; her outfit looked incredibly out of place amongst the dirty, white uniforms of the boys and the red dirt of the diamond. Quite honestly, she was pretty, but Amara pushed that thought away.

 

The boys became shifty, scratching the back of their necks sheepishly. Beside her, Chiyo had stiffened and Amara could feel that same tension in her back.

 

“You two are from Hotei, correct? The soccer and volleyball team?” The woman ignored the boys and whatever excuses they might’ve conjured up, fixating on Chiyo and Amara. Amara wondered for a millisecond how she could know that then remembered that she and Chiyo were still in uniform, which had their school’s name and respective numbers (eight for Amara, four for Chiyo).

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Your names?”

 

The boys watched on, wary. Eijun was silent, eyes darting rapidly between the woman and Amara and Chiyo.

 

Amara cleared her throat. “Amara de la Garza.”

 

“Chiyo Im.”

 

“And your positions?”

 

Amara didn’t think it was possible for Chiyo to get tenser, but she did. She couldn’t blame her; if this woman—who probably had authority—was asking for names and positions, already knowing the school and sport, then Chiyo and Amara were done for. Amara cursed herself for giving in to her urge to see the boys.

 

“Center midfielder.” She finally found the courage to speak.

 

“Libero,” Chiyo responded.

 

“Those aren’t easy positions.” There were many things that Amara had been expecting the woman to say, but that had not been it. There was a ghost of a smile on her pink lips as she pushed her glasses up her nose. “Center midfielders are the fittest players on the field, no? Proficient in both offense and defense, being able to take kicks to the shins even when your shin guards aren’t as thick as other defenders, while also being able to tackle correctly on the frontlines and shoot goals. You run the most on the field, no doubt.”

 

Another push of the glasses. “Libero—the defensive specialist. Quick reaction time, excellent reflexes, willing to get down on the ground to stop the ball from hitting the floor and always being able to switch out with any position on the court if needed. If you take a dig to the floor, you have to be back on your feet in record time, able to deduct where your opponent might hit the ball next and save it.”

 

Again. Not exactly what Amara had been expecting.

 

The woman smiled at the confused looks on all of their faces. “Are you two on starting?”

 

Chiyo and Amara nodded and she put her hands on her hips, turning to the boys. “A few more minutes, then get back to practice.”

 

That brought them out of their stupor. “Yes, ma’am!”

 

Once she was a safe distance away, Amara let out the breath she’d been holding, feeling Chiyo do the same next to her. There were similar looks on the boys’ faces.

 

“Who . . .” Amara exchanged a confused glance with Chiyo.

 

“She’s our scout. Rei Takashima. She must’ve deemed you two as good influences to let us continue talking,” Yūki told them, looking incredibly relieved now that she had walked away. Ah, that certainly made sense. She’d probably scouted a few of the boys themselves.

 

“Man, I thought Rei was going to completely destroy us,” Isashiki muttered gruffly. He turned to scrutinize Amara. “You never did say what a center midfielder did.”

 

She rubbed the back of her neck. “She made me sound a lot cooler than I actually am. Plus, there are usually two center midfielders on every soccer team, sometimes three for specific plays. But, there is only one libero on each volleyball team . . .”

 

Chiyo rolled her eyes. “Shut up. It’s not easy.”

 

“I can’t imagine it is very easy to anticipate where the ball is going every time it’s hit,” Chris said, head tilted to the side in a way that said he was interested.

 

“Yeah, that’s what I say to my teammates, but they never make my job any easier,” she huffed.

 

“I know what you mean.”

 

Amara figured, as a catcher, he probably knew exactly what it was like. Chris and Miyuki shared a look that only catchers could probably pull off, and she chuckled at the sheepish look on Eijun’s face.

 

“Well, we should get out of your hair. I can’t make it to tomorrow’s game since it’s, you know, during school hours, but the finals should be on Saturday, right?” Amara wanted to shut down the conversation quickly; Takashima was probably being kind and she didn’t want to test the waters too much.

 

“You’re assuming we win tomorrow?” Ryōsuke asked with a raised eyebrow, but the small smile that had transformed from his usual predatory one to a sincere one told her he appreciated it. The boys had similar looks, with Eijun and Isashiki looking the reddest from her praise.

 

Amara chuckled, waving him off. “I know you guys will. Good luck, alright? Do your best!”

 

Just to annoy her, probably, they all shouted, “Yes, ma’am!”

 

She turned around quickly after that, avoiding the curious looks sent to her by other players, stalking away with a huff. Boys were so annoying sometimes.

 

She ignored their laughter and bit back a small grin. Chiyo had fallen into step beside her.

 

“Are they always that loud?”

 

“No,” Amara sighed, both fond and exasperated. “They’re just annoying little jerks.”

 

Chiyo scoffed. “Far from little, I should say, save for Kominato.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure he’d love to hear that one.”

 

She received a rough elbow to the ribs in response.

 


 

Amara regretted making this trip, but only partially. If Chiyo had been here to accompany her on the walk back to Hotei, then the twenty-minute walk would probably be a little more bearable. Unfortunately, things never went her way.

 

After they’d made it to Yamamoto’s and eaten dinner, they studied for the next few hours until Chiyo had to escape back to Hotei, apologizing profusely.

 

“Shit. I just remembered that I need to help out Hachi with her physics homework. I don’t want you to walk alone . . .” Chiyo frowned, conflicted about what to do as she hurriedly packed away her things. Amara stayed seated, pausing in working out a paragraph for their history assignment.

 

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry about it! Are you gonna call a taxi?” She asked, setting her pencil down on the table. It was already a little bit past nine and the temperatures had dropped surprisingly quickly, despite it being July. The addition of wind only added to the coolness of the weather and given that Amara had forgotten her own warmup jacket, she probably wouldn’t be staying much longer, but she did need to finish her assignment or she would never do so.

 

“Probably. But I don’t want to leave you alone.” Chiyo picked up her duffel bag and backpack. “You’re sure you don’t want to come back with me?”

 

“I’ll be fine. I need to finish this thing up and I have a few more paragraphs to write out but I don’t want to rush or make you late, so go on without me. I’ll text you when I’m on my way back and when I get there, alright?” Amara did her best to placate her, but there was still a worried look on Chiyo’s face.

 

“I don’t know how I feel about you walking back alone and in the dark, Amara . . .”

 

Amara smiled at her reassuringly. “I’ll be careful, I promise.”

 

It took a few more minutes to convince her, but by that time, the taxi had pulled up in front of the curb. Chiyo left reluctantly, sending one last look to Amara before ducking into the cab. Amara waved at her as they left, then turned back to her assignment.

 

There was still a good number of people sitting around the patio, talking softly amongst themselves. She finished her assignment easily, and by the time she was packing up, the staff inside Yamamoto’s was cleaning up the restaurant. A quick look at the time told her it was already 9:30.

 

She didn’t hesitate to leave, taking out her phone from her duffel bag to send a message to Chiyo. After she’d done that, she took her time to make the walk back. While the night was cooler than what she was used to in the summer, the street was surprisingly devoid of cars and the sidewalk was empty for as far as she could see. Little neighborhoods like Kokubunji were always pleasant in the evening hours, calm and peaceful. Perhaps the walk back wouldn’t be that bad if it was this nice.

 

When she was passing Seidō, she turned to look at it; the fields were in sight, along with the tall buildings that she assumed were for school. There was another set of buildings in the back and she guessed those were probably the dorms. She was dragged from her observations after a near stumble over her shoelaces, so she bent down to tie them up again.

 

“Late night studying?”

 

She jumped and stood up quickly, finding Chris standing there, looking a little surprised at her reaction. She groaned, throwing her arm over her eyes as she turned away from him.

 

“Stop doing that, dammit!”

 

Amara turned back to him, finding him chuckling quietly at her expense. She glared at him but there was no real heat. “You think this is funny but you’ll give me a heart attack one of these days, I swear to god . . .”

 

He smiled, half apologetic, half amused. “Sorry, sorry. You’re walking out here alone, I thought you would’ve heard me.”

 

“You’re walking on the grass!”

 

He laughed this time, and Amara hid her own smile.

 

“What are you doing out here, anyway?” She asked as he looked back at her, smile still lingering on his lips. “You’ve got a game tomorrow.”

 

“Practice ran late and I was catching for Sawamura after. I saw you when you bent down to tie your shoes, so I thought I’d come say hello.” He seemed a little embarrassed, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck in a shifty movement. He cleared his throat and continued. “What about you? It’s pretty late already. What happened to your friend?”

 

“She had to take a taxi back to school, I think she had to help her roommate out on her homework and she’d promised beforehand. It’s fine, though.” She waved it off, spotting a concerned look pass over his face. “It’s like fifteen minutes from here. It’s a nice night, too.”

 

Chris frowned. “Can I walk you back?”

 

She shook her head quickly. “No, it’s fine. You should get back to your dorm. The game—”

 

“—isn’t being played by me. I’m just the scorekeeper,” he softly interrupted, giving her a small smile. “I appreciate your caution, but I want to do this. It’d probably help me sleep better knowing you were back at Hotei, you know . . .”

 

She sighed heavily. “That’s not fair and you know it.”

 

His smile turned into a small smirk. “Were you under the pretense that I’m fair?”

 

“You’re a terrible human being.” She turned away from him, shaking her head. “Let’s go so this doesn’t take long. I really don’t want to keep you long.”

 

He chuckled and fell into step beside her. Conversation, funnily enough, flowed easily. He had a few questions about her position as a center midfielder, which she was more than happy to inform him about, and she asked a few about baseball in return. She had a feeling that they were probably walking much slower than they should’ve been to get back to Hotei in time, but she couldn’t bring herself to walk faster.

 

In the middle of their conversation about the types of sports that fell in ‘non-contact’ and ‘contact’ categories—with Amara arguing that baseball couldn’t really be considered a contact sport while Chris vehemently disagreed (“Some basemen and catchers will physically stop you from getting onto base.”)—there was a strong gust of wind, pieces of trash being blown across the street and sidewalk. They’d made it to the area where the cafe and the 7/11 were, but walked on the other side of the street where the park was.

 

She shivered at the cool gust of wind, feeling some goosebumps break out over her legs and arms. Chris paused, switching his attention to her. “Are you cold?”

 

“A little bit,” she admitted. “Nothing I can't handle, though—” she stopped abruptly as he pulled his black sweater over his head and held it out for her. She shook her head.

 

“No, it’s fine, Chris. You don’t have to—”

 

“I want to.” Chris knew very well that she wouldn’t refuse him if he used that instead, plus the earnest expression on his face was sincere. She sighed heavily, giving into him and taking the sweater. They paused in their walking as she took off her backpack and duffel bag. She’d gone to drop them on the sidewalk but he took them from her gently.

 

“Thanks,” she mumbled, tugging the sweater over her head. The strong scent of citrusy and sweet invaded her senses and it was . . . pleasant, coupled with the body heat still lingering on the sweater and the soft material, she could probably fall asleep in it. She grimaced as she caught her train of thought. This was dangerous territory.

 

“I still feel bad about this,” Amara said, lips pursed as she took her backpack from him. He kept the duffel bag, though, and began walking away to prevent her from stealing it back, so she was forced to keep up with him.

 

Chris shrugged, unbothered. “It’s fine with me. As your friend and someone that cares about you, I should help you feel comfortable.”

 

She was touched, honestly, but her face was beginning to get hot, so she diverted the conversation quickly. “So, what if I was a guy?”

 

He shrugged again, looking nonchalant. “I’d do the same, it doesn’t matter.”

 

“What if I was Eijun?”

 

He wrinkled his nose a bit. “Well. There are gender identities, then there’s Eijun.”

 

She laughed, knowing it was all in good fun. Chris always had a fond look in his eyes whenever he and Eijun were interacting.

 

“That’s cold. But I can’t say I really believe that you’d do this for a guy.”

 

He gave her a side glance, curious more than insulted. “Why not?”

 

Amara pursed her lips, shaking her head. “In my entire seventeen years, straight guys just can’t handle that kind of action.” Now this was dangerous territory. If he took it the wrong way, then their friendship might go up in smoke, but boys were always so . . . ‘macho’ when it came to interacting with other boys, it was annoying. Girls could do be very affectionate and it was called friendship, but if boys did it, then you were ‘gay’ (as though that was an insult).

 

He shot her a secretive smile. “Ah, but I’m not straight, so that’s invalid, don’t you think?”

 

That . . . was not what she had been expecting. Their friendship was probably going to change very drastically in the next few minutes as she pulled together some words. She hoped to play it cool since, after all, she wasn’t straight, either. Unfortunately for her, what came out was: “You’re . . . not straight.”

 

“Bi, actually,” he corrected casually.

 

There was a surge of relief. It was nice to have another person on your side. She didn’t look at him, balling the extra material of the sleeves of the sweater in her hands nervously. “Oh . . . Me, too.”

 

He chuckled, but when she looked at him shyly, he had a gentle smile on his lips. “I had a feeling. Rei was quite imposing today, wasn’t she?” He asked teasingly.

 

Amara flushed. Yeah, Takashima was super pretty and maybe she’d stared when she’d been going on about Amara’s position. “Shut up,” she muttered by impulse. She reached up to tug the collar of his sweater over her mouth but found that all it did was overwhelm her senses instead of calming her. She dropped it with a grimace. Discussing these kinds of matters made her nervous, but there was something different between them now, a secret they both shared.

 

“It’s nice,” she finally murmured. She saw him look at her in the corner of her eye but kept her eyes on the sidewalk in front of them. “Here, it’s just not . . . as accepted. I like to be kind of open about it, but I can’t. And girls are just so pretty, you know?” Well, she hadn’t meant to let that last part slip out, but it did anyway. Luckily, Chris was nodding along with her, looking amused at her nervous state.

 

“Oh, I know.”

 

Amara continued. “But then boys can be so—”

 

“Oh, I know.

 

She finally looked at him and found a gentle acceptance in his eyes, which looked hazel under the yellow glow of street lamps. A smile was on his lips and she finally relaxed, huffing softly then turning back forward to hide her own smile.

 

“Thanks.”

 

He nudged her softly. “Of course. We have to stick together, don’t we?”

 

Oh. Her face felt flushed. “Yeah. Yeah, we do.”

 

It should be illegal to be this charming.

 

The rest of their walk was filled with some casual talk and comfortable silences in between. When she’d made it onto campus, she slipped her backpack into her hand to take off his sweater but he shook his head.

 

“Keep it. It’s not like I’m going to be needed it anytime soon.”

 

“But—”

 

“I would like it very much if you kept my sweater. Think of it as a payment for walking you here.”

 

“That’s not how it works.” But she kept it on, moving her backpack over her shoulder once again then taking her duffel bag from his hands.

 

She looked up at him (and really, she had to look up at him because he was tall), sending a grateful look to him. “Thank you. I really mean it,” she paused, already taking a few steps backward. “Please text me when you get back to Seidō or I’ll get Eijun to bother you.”

 

“You’re cruel, aren’t you?”

 

“I learned it from you—besides, is there anything wrong with me wanting to make sure you’re safe? Honestly, you’re lucky I hadn’t called in a taxi to take you back.” She frowned pensively, turning to look at the empty streets. “I really don’t like you having to walk back this late at night.”

 

“I’ll be okay. Trust me. It’s only—” Chris’ words died on his lips as he looked at his phone, a surprised look passing over his face. “It’s already ten?”

 

Amara snorted, fishing out her own phone from her duffel bag to type out a message to Chiyo, also adding on that Chris had walked her back so that’s why it’d taken longer than usual. “Time flies by, doesn’t it?”

 

“Well, I didn’t mind spending it with you.” He flashed her a reassuring smile. “Have a good night, Amara.”

 

She tried to ignore his words, but the drum that her heart was beating betrayed her. “You too,” she mumbled back, watching as he turned around and began walking back down the sidewalk they’d been on, already at a much faster pace than the both of them had been going. It was probably for the best, lest he gets locked out of his own dorm or in trouble with the coach.

 

She sighed quietly, turning around and taking the path to the dorms. All the flushing she had done—or more appropriately, that Chris had unknowingly inflicted on her—had raised her internal temperatures exponentially, and the sweater felt incredibly warm on her skin, almost dizzyingly so, but the sweet scent of something citrusy and the soft material of it made it difficult to let go.  

 

She balled up the extra sleeve in her hand again, listening to the rustle of the trees as a gentle breeze blew through the campus. For now, at the very least, she didn’t have to.

 

Chapter Text

09. the finals

 

It was with frightening speed that the semifinals came to pass. The game ended with Seidō’s victory, much to Amara’s relief and pride. As a third year and athlete herself, she knew exactly what it felt like to want to go there for the team. It was in the way that Chris spoke about it, a yearning in his eyes that she could understand first-hand. The underclassmen could understand the desire, but they didn’t feel the time crunch. They had time to make it there. The third years didn’t.



She wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle seeing the despair on the boys’ faces if they lost.



The finals arrived on July 31st in the early afternoon at Meiji Jingu Stadium. The two contenders were Seidō and Inashiro, and with both of them being powerhouse baseball schools, not only were students from the high schools present in the stands, but families, friends and baseball fans alike were all there too.

 

When Amara had arrived—by herself since Chihiro had singles’ practice and Chiyo was currently at a scrimmage against Jurōjin High School—she was taken aback at the loudness of the crowd. It was difficult to squeeze herself past the people to make it to the stands, which were filled to the brim already. She’d managed to find a seat close to the net, facing home plate where she had an incredible view of the entire diamond. Both teams were on the field practicing but it looked like they were already wrapping it up.

 

The size of the stadium was a bit daunting, so she could only commend the first-string for being able to play under all these eyes. Unfortunately, the crowd was too loud for her to even consider calling out to the boys, but it might’ve been for the best. She didn’t want to make them nervous.

 

Seidō’s own brass band was practicing, while the students cheered loudly for the team; on the other side, Inashiro’s students were yelling just as much. As far as loudness went, Seidō probably won that contest.

 

The game had kicked off on an excellent start, with Seidō scoring a run at the top of the first inning, courtesy of Kuramochi. Even after Seidō went onto the defense, Inashiro was unable to get a good hit off Furuya. The next two innings went without any runs for either school, but the energy was running high. The Seidō students were clearly happy about their one-point lead and after seeing just how well Inashiro played, Amara could agree with their enthusiasm.

 

The fourth inning brought Inashiro two runs but nobody was losing hope quite yet. There was still a one-point difference now and Amara was sure they’d be able to get back up. Then, she was surprised as Tanba replaced Furuya at the bottom of the fifth inning; the switch off was far different from the one she’d seen at the Akikawa game. Furuya willingly gave up the ball to Tanba and was moved to left field.

 

Thinking about it, Furuya sort of reminded her of Reo. They didn’t have many similarities since Reo was more testy and temperamental, but both boys seemed to have one-track minds. Furuya wanted to pitch and Reo wanted to win. She shook those thoughts off, putting her focus back onto the game.

 

Things looked a little shaky for the next few innings, probably because Inashiro had scored another run in the fifth inning, the same one that Tanba had been switched in to. The sixth and seventh innings brought no points for either team, yet Seidō was still cheering on, loud as day. The brass band made it all the more impressive when one of the boys was at-bat, but things were looking a little tense between some of the third years and Inashiro’s pitcher—Narumiya Mei, she recalled his name being.

 

The game went on, though, and in the bottom of the seventh, it looked like Tanba had injured himself as he fell over. The crowd began murmuring in concern and she sat up a little straighter in her seat, squinting to try and see what was going on. He got up, much to the excitement of the crowd and pitched some more, but his pitches were off—they weren’t his best.

 

Still in the seventh inning, their coach called for a pitcher substitution as Tanba was clearly in some kind of pain and unable to pitch adequately. The people around her murmured softly amongst themselves, some disappointed about the prospect of Seidō’s ace being changed out, but curiosity came after that. Who would be able to trade places with Tanba and pitch effectively? Amara had her suspicions, though, and they were confirmed as the announcer came over the intercom.

 

“Seidō High School is switching players. Replacing the pitcher, Tanba, is Sawamura.”

 

People began talking loudly again, wondering why a first year would be coming out to replace the ace of the team. She ignored them, cheering loudly for Eijun as he and Tanba made the switch. There was a brief interaction between Yūki and Tanba before he walked off the field, one that clearly made Eijun very happy. Miyuki and Eijun went on to practice a few pitches until he was properly warmed up and Amara was glad to see the usual display he put on was still present on the field, despite the pressure that could get to him.

 

“I’ll send balls flying, so . . . No, wait! I’ll pitch very carefully, so thank you, everyone, beforehand!”

 

She laughed as others snorted at his loud display. Good. This was probably what the team needed.

 

Narumiya was up to bat and it was only when Eijun’s first pitch became a strike that jarred the crowd into cheers. She cheered along with them, watching as Narumiya—a pretty competent batter from what she’d seen in the previous innings—get completely struck out by Eijun. Narumiya was probably pissed, since from what she’d seen, the pitch had been the same for all three of them, yet he still missed them completely.

 

When it came to Seidō’s turn at defense, she watched as Furuya first made a successful run—again because of Kuramochi—then Shirasu made it onto base and Haruichi came up to bat and made it onto base as well.

 

She pursed her lips at seeing how Haruichi had replaced his older brother, going in as pinch hitter. She worried briefly, wondering if Ryōsuke had been injured, but she wasn’t able to dwell on it as Isashiki made it onto base, with Shirasu on third and Haruichi on second.

 

Yūki came up next and the cheers had increased significantly. His job as part of the cleanup was clear. If he hit a homerun, then they had four runs right in the bag. She leaned forward in her seat, watching carefully despite the net between her and the field that made her vision a little disorienting.

 

He didn’t disappoint, hitting what looked like a weird pitch—to her, anyway, since it was probably an actual pitch that she didn’t know the name to—into the right field and giving Seidō two more runs, making them one point ahead. She grimaced when Masuko was struck out next, ending the inning. Two more runs probably would’ve given the game straight to Seidō, but that might’ve been asking for too much.

 

She eyed Narumiya as he walked off the mound. She’d played enough games and seen enough to know that he was pissed. Rightly so, perhaps, but she wasn’t here to sympathize for Inashiro. She wanted Seidō to win as much as any of the others.

 

When the teams switched out, she frowned as she saw Haruichi head to second base instead of Ryōsuke. Did something happen? It wasn’t like Ryōsuke to willing give up his spot in the game unless he was injured or something. She resisted the urge to text him, figuring he probably wouldn't be looking at his phone, anyway. She could ask him about it the next time she saw him.

 

When two Inashiro batters made it onto base easily enough, she had to tense. Eijun wasn’t bothered as easily. He looked serious out there on the mound, keeping his eyes on Miyuki. With his next pitch, the two players were struck out in what looked like an excellent double play, wrapping up the eighth inning with no runs for Inashiro.

 

Maybe they could actually win this. This was the last inning, it couldn’t be too hard to score another run, or even defend, right? She shifted to the edge of her seat, drumming her fingers rapidly on her thigh. The adrenaline of the game was affecting even her, and she could see that people around her were a bit restless as well.  

 

She might’ve spoken too soon. With Miyuki on third base and ready to go home, Eijun went up. His bunt was successful after he tapped a foul, but Miyuki was still struck out. Her hand balled into a fist as the teams switched out, blunt nails digging painfully into her palm. She bounced her leg anxiously, ignoring the annoyed look that the person next to her was giving her.

 

This defense would be the deciding factor, she realized as she watched Eijun on the mound. It was a mountain of pressure for a first year, not to mention he wasn’t being switched out with Kawakami for relief. Furuya ended up being switched out from the left field, so she figured there were a lot of precautions being taken, yet the coach still kept Eijun on. He was probably trusting Eijun to finish the game and she appreciated that, though a small part wondered if he’d be able to withstand the pressure. Eijun was all blinding grins and exuberant energy, but even people like him could fall apart under this kind of intensity.

 

The first Inashiro batter was struck out after his hit was chased by Haruichi and thrown back to first. Seidō needed two more outs, then the game would be over. The next batter—Kamiya, she believed his name was—seemed to be stepping close to the plate, but she couldn’t see too well around the umpire that was behind Miyuki.

 

She watched anxiously as Eijun threw his first pitch, which ended up being a ball. She scanned his face. Maybe the pressure was getting to him. The next pitch Kamiya made contact with but ended up being a foul. Eijun pitched again. She cursed softly under her breath as Kamiya hit it, but began to cheer with the rest of the crowd as Sakai caught it in the left field.

 

A quick glance to the scoreboard said that Seidō would need one more out and then this game was theirs. It was nerve-wracking. They were literally one out away from Nationals. Eijun seemed to realize it too as the next batter—the shortstop, Shirakawa—stepped up. Amara frowned, straining her neck to get a better look at Eijun, but the net in front of her blocked some of his face.

 

His pitches looked like they were getting faster and faster, and there was this strange, determined look on his face. She had a bad feeling, like something terrible was happening and she couldn’t do anything about it.

 

He wound up again and the pitch came racing towards home plate and it looked like Shirakawa would make contact but it didn’t go to his bat or even to where Miyuki’s mitt must’ve been.

 

It went straight to Shirakawa’s head.

 

The stadium fell silent as Shirakawa fell to the ground. Everyone seemed to watch with bated breath as Shirakawa laid there for a few seconds, then began to stumble to his feet. To the surprise of the entire stadium, he let out this—yell, it wasn’t one of pain or defeat, rather it was . . . pleased. There were identical looks of shock on the boys’ faces, and his yell seemed to jar the umpire into action.

 

“D-Deadball!”

 

The crowd began talking again, voices going over one another, but she tried to ignore them and focus on the scene in front of her. The umpire was speaking to Shirakawa, who looked perfectly fine, if not a little frazzled. She noticed he looked oddly smug, too as he glanced back to the mound. She followed his eyes, frowning at the sight of Eijun and the detached look on his face, like he couldn’t believe he’d just done that. She felt the same way.

 

The cool female voice came over the speakers. “Shirakawa was struck in the head and will receive treatment in the dugout. Thank you for your patience until the game resumes.”

 

She pursed her lips. That kind of blow couldn’t have been easy—on Shirakawa or Eijun. Eijun, though, she was a little more worried about. She briefly contemplated about sending him a text message before he got back to his phone, but it felt too insensitive. She had to wonder, too, if he’d be switched out. Something like this was probably traumatic. Would he be able to resume pitching without any inhibitions? She wanted to have as much faith as she could in him, but if she were in his shoes, she probably wouldn’t have been able to continue.

 

Her phone vibrated from her back pocket and she took it out, seeing as the game was paused for better or for worse. The Seidō students had paused their cheers, as had Inashiro, joining in on the rest of the crowd speaking worriedly as they watched things unfold.

 

There was a single text from Chihiro.

 

chihiro akamine

howre things lookin over there

 

Amara sighed quietly, typing out a quick, honest message.

 

me

not too good, actually. we’re in the bottom of the ninth inning and they need one more out to win against inashiro, but eijun pitched a deadball to a batter’s head. the batter is fine but it looked like it really affected eijun. seidō had momentum before and i don’t know if they do now.

 

Chihiro response was quick.

 

chihiro akamine

o no.. ill let u go rn i can prolly convince someone to let us use the radio to listen to the game. hope it turns out ok !

 

Yeah. She hoped so too.

 

She heard a few people talking next to her, catching a few words of their conversation like pinch hitter and kamiya. So, Kamiya would be taking Shirakawa’s place, then? She grimaced. That wasn’t good; she knew he was fast and if he got on base, then winning would be that much more difficult.

 

The boys were on the mound surrounding Eijun, trying to speak to him. She could spot a reassuring smile on Yūki’s face, but it looked like a lost cause as Eijun stared at the ground, saying something else. It didn’t look to be good, because the other boys blanched, looking shocked once again. Miyuki turned his head to their own dugout and did something—a shake of the head, probably, because their coach stepped out.

 

“Kawakami!” A pitcher substitution.

 

Miyuki stepped forward and placed a hand on Eijun’s shoulder, speaking seriously to him, then let him turn to walk back to Seidō’s dugout. Kawakami was jogging back to the mound, and he paused next to Eijun to say something else to him. She frowned, watching as Kawakami resumed his jog, but Eijun had stopped and turned to look back at the retreating figure, his cap grasped tightly in his hand.

 

Amara sighed heavily, knowing that the pressure must’ve gotten to him at the last moment and affected him negatively. She watched with conflicted feelings as Eijun turned to the dugout and everybody began preparing for the game to start up once again. This would have to be dealt with after the game.

 

With a heavy heart, she forced herself to tune back into the game. Seidō still needed one more out and that hopefully wouldn’t be a tall order, but Kamiya was fast. If he ended up on base and the next batters were able to fight well to keep him there, then the game might truly go either way.

 

She tried to keep hope even as Kamiya did end up on first base. Then with the next batter—Yoshizawa—fighting all the pitches that Kawakami was throwing, but eventually, Kamiya stole second and Yoshizawa was finally walked to first base, she couldn’t sit still in her seat.

 

The cheers from the students were back in full-force, yelling without inhibitions to keep Kawakami’s spirits high along with the rest of the team. She was far too focused on the game to join in, watching with bated breath as Harada stepped up to bat. She knew he was part of the cleanup and there was a bad feeling in the bottom of her stomach.

 

Kamiya’s speed paired with another base already loaded and Harada’s contact power felt like a truly terrible combination. If Seidō had any bad luck, it was coming out now.

 

She swore loudly—receiving no looks for it because everyone around her was just as invested in the game as she was—as he made contact with the first pitch, though it was countered by Haruichi’s throw to Kuramochi to get Yoshizawa out at second.

 

Then she realized Kamiya was making a run for home, and Kuramochi was throwing to Miyuki but it was too late.

 

Kamiya made it to home plate and effectively tied the game, shattering any sort of momentum that Seidō had. Inashiro yelled in approval, shouting out his name, but then Seidō’s coach seemed to sense the fall that the boys’ morale might’ve taken, because she heard him shout, “It’s not over! Switch gears!”

 

That seemed to resonate with the boys, and with the rest of the Seidō students, too, because the stands went up in cheers again.

 

As Narumiya walked up, she didn’t try to hold back with cheering with the rest of the crowd for Seidō’s win, for Kawakami to just focus on winning right here.

 

It wasn’t enough, though, and she inhaled sharply as Narumiya made a strong hit straight to center field. Isashiki and Shirasu were running straight for it, but it passed them both.

 

Yoshizawa ran straight for home and made it there, ending the game with Inashiro’s unsightly win. The roars of the crowd were defeating

 

Amara stayed sitting down, even as others around her stood and began hugging each other, cheering loudly for Inashiro as the team all jumped together, happiness evident on their faces.

 

She put her face in her hands, pressing her fingers into the lids of her eyes as she felt a small burn behind them. It wouldn’t do well to have her crying, too. She could hear the Seidō students crying as well, feeling the loss of their ticket to Nationals just as much as the boys on the field were.

 

When she looked up at the field, bearings gathered again, she could see Isashiki on the ground, arms on the grass with his head in them, a minute shaking in his shoulders, Shirasu standing a few feet away from him, hunched over but with tears running down his cheeks. Haruichi was in a similar state, his shoulders shaking but there was no sign of tears quite yet. Sakai was openly crying, face towards the sky. Yūki seemed frozen in place, while Masuko and Kuramochi were beginning to allow those tears to slip down their cheeks as they stared at something she couldn’t see. Miyuki had his head tilted towards the sky and she couldn’t see his face properly, but something told her that although he wasn’t the type to show his feelings so easily, he was feeling this loss just as deeply. Kawakami had ducked his head, pulling the bill of the cap over his eyes, though it did nothing to hide the fact that he was crying as well.

 

She sucked in a shaky breath, feeling so . . . She didn’t know. All she knew was that they’d lost the finals that had been so in their reach only a few innings ago.

 

She ran a hand down her face, cupping her mouth and still watching from her seat as the boys were rounded up. Yūki clasping Haruichi on the shoulder, saying something solemnly as they slowly made their way to the lineup, the other boys following with tears running down their faces, Eijun, Furuya, Ryōsuke and Tanba numbly walking out of the dugout to join them.

 

She noticed with a heavy heart that Ryōsuke was limping and that the sight of tears running down his cheeks didn’t look right—she had partially expected to see his usual smirk, but it was gone. Eijun and Furuya seemed emotionless, but there was a hollowness to their faces that said the loss hadn’t quite sat with them yet. Tanba was crying as well, shoulders shaking violently.

 

Even in the lineup, the boys were still falling apart right before her eyes, Isashiki hunched over while some had their heads tilted back to hold their tears. It was all in vain.

 

She saw the coach and another man—assistant coach, probably—along with Chris step out of the dugout, taking off their baseball caps as they faced Inashiro. She searched Chris’ face for any sign of breaking apart but there was none, only a deep disappointment in the form of a frown.

 

The umpire spoke to the teams, then they were all bowing at the waist, yelling: “Thank you for a great game!”

 

She stood up quickly and exited the row. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue watching, unable to handle seeing the pain on their faces. She climbed the stairs and passed by a boy standing near the mouth of the entrance to the stands. She paused, though, as their eyes connected and she recognized his face.

 

He’d been there at the second-string game back in early June, facing off against Chris and Eijun. He knew Chris somehow, but she’d never asked. It hadn’t seemed important.

 

He eyed her warily for a second before he sighed, disappointment passing over his face. “You were there . . . at the second-string game, right? I recognize you.”

 

Amara blinked and nodded, clearing her throat so her voice didn’t sound shaky. “Yeah. You are—?”

 

“Naoyuki Zaizen.”

 

“Amara de la Garza.” She regarded him carefully as he pulled together his next words, clearly having something to say.

 

“Foreigner, huh? You know Chris, right? Tell him . . . Tell him I said there’d been a fighting chance. There’d always been one with him around.” With that, he put his hands into his pockets and turned and walked away. She frowned at his retreating back. She wasn’t sure what kind of supportive words those were and she wasn’t sure if she’d even be seeing Chris anytime soon.

 

She wouldn’t blame him—or any of the others—if he just wanted to stay back at the dorms and not talk to anybody for a few days. She’d probably end up doing the same if she ever lost a game like this.

 

Amara sighed and began the same path Zaizen had taken out of the stands. He’d successfully distracted her, but she was still unsure on whether not she’d end up telling Chris what he said. While Zaizen’s words had been weird, they didn’t sound too malicious or underhanded, and clearly, the two knew each other. From what she’d seen, their relationship seemed okay for the most part, probably static since they went to two different high schools.

 

She shook it off, figuring she wouldn’t have to deal with it until she was faced with Chris again.

 

Amara made it back outside of the stadium and paused, not sure of what to do now. People had begun filing out of the stadium and it looked like there were people waiting behind a fence in front of the buses. Her feet automatically guided her to the one in front of Seidō and she situated herself at the front of the fence.

 

There were some people from Seidō already moving around the bus, tossing things into the undercarriage. She held onto the fence, squeezing it tightly. Here they could see her and hopefully, they could see that she was there for them.

 

It didn’t take long for the boys to finally exit, the rest of the fenced off area filled with cheers at seeing the team. The boys couldn’t seem to handle it, though, as a few of them hunched forward once again, silent sobs racking their bodies. She pressed her lips together tightly, once again overwhelmed at the sight of their usually happy and loud faces contorted with sadness.

 

“Nice game!

 

“Be proud!”

 

“You all did great!”

 

She sighed softly at the tearful yells from the students around her. She didn’t bother participating. Any encouraging words that she came up with felt too insensitive, not to mention, she wasn’t looking too good either. They didn’t need to see that from her.

 

She was surprised to see the team step forward, Yūki at the front as he took a deep breath and yelled: “We are sorry we could not live up to your expectations! Thank you for cheering for us!” She noticed the redness of Yūki’s eyes and of the other boys and gritted her teeth.

 

The boys followed with Yūki’s shout. “Thank you!”

 

Someone tearfully yelled, “Don’t apologize, Yūki!” She agreed. It made everything all the more heartbreaking and it wasn’t his fault—it was none of their faults. Shit happens. Sports are always unpredictable. One moment you think you’re going to win, the next, they’re calling your opponent’s name as the winners. She chewed the inside of her cheek to try and distract herself from the lump in her throat.

 

She couldn’t stand there and say that just because they’d fought well, then that was all that mattered. That was bullshit. Losing sucked. Hard. They hadn’t deserved that.

 

The boys slowly boarded the bus; none of them met her eyes or given any indication that they’d seen her, but she wasn’t hurt. She completely understood. She wouldn’t be able to try and smile or joke around about it with her own friends if she was in their shoes. Once everything was packed up and the door was shut, the bus slowly pulled out. The cheers had increased tremendously as the bus turned onto the main street and began to disappear with more distance.

 

She sighed and turned around, nudging her way through the people to get out of the crowd. She had to walk back to Shinanomachi Station to catch a train back to Kokubunji that would be leaving at 4:30, thirty minutes from now. Before she started, she used her phone as a guide since she had no idea where she was.

 

As she began down the path her phone suggested, she was surprised to see a missed call from Renee, timing only a few minutes ago. She frowned, tugging out her earbuds from her back pocket to plug them in. It was late in the U.S., probably about one in the morning, but then again, it was already the weekend since they were a day behind Japan.

 

She called him back, keeping her phone facing her and just using the mic on her earbuds. She didn’t want to risk getting lost. The dial tone rang and rang until finally—

 

“Hello?” She felt a reluctant smile pull at her lips at the sound of his voice, soft-spoken from his side.

 

“It’s late, kiddo. What are you doing up?”

 

“There’s family over. Dad is still up and I don’t have school. I watched the game, between, um—I don’t know how to pronounce it . . .”

 

“Seidō? And Inashiro?” She filled in to help him out. Renee was only fluent in English; he’d grown up only mastering that language, but she knew he could understand Spanish well enough.

 

“Yeah, them. It was a really good game, but it sucks they lost. I wanted them to win.”

 

She sighed. “Me, too.”

 

“Have you talked to them?”

 

“Ah, no. I think I’ll just . . . give them space. It’s not easy to lose like that.” She rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly.

 

Renee made a noise that said he didn’t agree. Amara huffed. “What am I supposed to do?”

 

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “But I mean, shouldn’t you, like, be there? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Comfort people when they’re sad? I don’t know . . .”

 

Maybe he had a point. “I guess,” she hedged. “We’ll see.”

 

They talked for the next few minutes, just catching up. He told her about school and how things were going at home. She was tempted to ask about the twins, but she probably wouldn’t get a solid answer. If they were terrible at calling her, they probably weren’t much better with Renee. (She did realize that she probably should try calling them herself, but that sort of self-awareness wasn’t what she needed right now.)

 

She smiled as she listened to him, feeling some of her mood lift at his words. She could almost imagine him—exuberant energy and excitement. She missed him—and the rest of her family as well—a lot more she realized. She stayed on the phone with him even when she boarded her train, but let him go eventually since it was almost two in the morning and he didn’t need to be awake that late.

 

The train was mercifully cooler than outside and she dropped her head on the headrest, feeling exhaustion settle in her limbs. It must’ve been even worse for the boys.

 

Just the thought of them made her grimace. Maybe Renee was right. The boys weren’t the same in terms of what sort of comfort each of them needed and she probably wouldn’t see them soon. She figured that they might’ve needed some space as a good method for all of them, but maybe . . .

 

She reluctantly lifted her head from the seat and unlocked her phone, but once she made it to her contact list—which had grown quite a few from two months ago—she was stumped. Who did she text first? Would texting the group chat with Chris, Isashiki, Yūki and Ryōsuke be too cold? Or should she just text Chris or Eijun and tell them to send her regards to the rest of the team?

 

She frowned, scrolling up and down her contacts listlessly. She didn’t realize it would be this complicated.

 

There must’ve been some sort of god or deity who took pity on her because a new text notification from Chris popped up at the top of her screen. She tapped on it quickly.

 

chris takigawa

Thank you for coming out for us. Sorry it had to end that way.

 

It was a little impersonal, even for Chris, but she couldn’t even imagine how he was feeling right now. The fact that he thought to even text her was sort of touching, despite the fact that his message was a bit empty. She held no ill-feelings about it, though, as she quickly typed out her own message.

 

me

it was a really good game, you have nothing to apologize for.

 

He didn’t respond. The words Read 4:55 PM underneath her message stared back at her and she didn’t feel hurt by it.

 

(Well, only a little bit, but he was probably hurting a lot more than she was, so who was she to feel bad?)

 

She shut off her phone, leaning her head back onto the headrest and shutting her eyes tiredly. There were the beginnings of an intense headache in her forehead. This day hasn’t been great and although the call from Renee was nice, things sort of sucked right now.

 

Which is why, when she’d made it back to Kokubunji and taken the usual walk back to Hotei, she made a beeline to her own dorm and collapsed on her bed. Asano was sitting on her bed, strangely enough (strange because Asano could always be found at the tennis courts on a Saturday), painting her nails black.

 

“Miss Amara . . .?” Asano hesitantly asked, pausing in her work to watch as Amara face planted onto her pillow.

 

Amara made a noise of acknowledgment.

 

“Is everything okay? Wait, does this have to do with that team—uh, Seidō? Chihiro was talking about listening to the game on the radio . . .”

 

“Yeah. It does.” Amara had meant to drop the conversation right there, but she was curious about something, so she turned her head to look at Asano. “What would you do if your friends lost a really important game?”

 

Asano blinked, clearly taken off guard. Interaction between the two of them had always been minimal, but never cold, per se. They were good enough friends, but Amara had a feeling that her seniority made Asano feel awkward.

 

Asano cleared her throat. “How important? The game, I mean.”

 

“Qualifiers for Nationals.”

 

Asano winced. “Comfort them, I guess.”

 

“Well, yes. But how?” This was the part Amara didn’t get. She was better at one-on-one comfort, like if a friend needed advice or needed to rant about something, she could always lend a hand (or ear). These were teenage boys. They felt like an entirely different species sometimes.

 

“Would the friend be one person? Or like, a team?” Asano seemed to be picking up on why Amara was asking her.

 

“A whole team. Kind of. A very large group of friends? Who are also on the team?” Amara frowned. She was usually more articulate than this.

 

Asano’s eyebrows furrowed thoughtfully as she strategically painted her index finger with a thin coating of nail polish. “Company would probably be best, I think. Words can only do so much, you know? But you lose a game like that and eventually, the ‘good job’ and ‘it was well-fought’ become kind of boring. That’s just my opinion, though.”

 

Amara stared at a poster of some idol group on the wall near Asano’s head. Company, huh? The problem there was that Amara didn’t go to Seidō. As third years, they were already so busy, she rarely had time to see them.

 

“Also,” Asano began again, not meeting Amara’s eyes when she looked back at her, “asserting that you’re there for them is good, too. No ‘good job’ or anything like that. Just saying that you’re there for whatever they may need—in my opinion—is really helpful.”

 

Oh.

 

She understood now.

 

Amara picked up her phone again and typed out another message to Chris, since that was the first conversation she opened. Asano watched her warily.

 

me

maybe you need space right now, but i’m here for you and the other boys too. If you need anything at all, i’m here.


She tapped send without another hesitation and went back to her contact list, tapping on eijun sawamura and typing out a similar message. For the next thirty minutes, she made her rounds with all of the boys, even including Kuramochi. Eventually, Asano went back to painting her nails, though she sent occasional glances toward Amara.

 

When Amara was finished, she’d moved to lay on her back on her bed, her blanket pulled up to her waist to protect her exposed legs from the cool air of their dorm. Asano had settled down to watch a movie, hands situated safely on her laptop to dry her nails.

 

Amara stretched, yawning as a bout of tiredness hit her. A nap wouldn’t hurt, plus she’d received no response from any of the boys yet; they’d probably just read the message anyway, but she didn’t mind—not anymore. She’d done what she needed, right? That was all that mattered. If they knew she was there, then she couldn’t ask for anything more.

 

She pressed her head into the pillow, turning to face Asano’s bed opposite of her own. “Hey, kid,” she called out, yawning again. Asano paused her movie and looked at Amara hesitantly. “Thanks for the help. I owe you.”

 

Amara’s eyes were feeling heavy, but she caught the ghost of a smile pass over Asano’s lips before her eyes shut and heard a soft-spoken “no problem” right before she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

10. the aftermath

 

Amara awoke to the vibration of her phone against her cheek.

 

In her sleepy state, she rolled off of it, grumbling softly at being disturbed. She heard it vibrate again near her head and huffed softly, turning back towards it and picking it up with fumbling fingers. Her fingers slipped over the power button, but before she focused on it, she realized the dorm was silent and the lights were off. There was no sign of the sun out in the sky and she wondered what time it was.

 

It was difficult to shake off the usual disorientation that came with taking naps in late afternoon and waking up to the darkness outside. She really hoped that she hasn’t slept through Saturday night and the rest of Sunday.

 

She sighed in relief as she turned on her phone, the time displayed saying it was about to be nine and that it was still July 31, 2018.

 

Then she realized who the text messages were from.

 

She would’ve expected something from Chihiro, perhaps Chiyo, but certainly not from Chris.

 

Amara tapped on the text, opening up LINE. The messages weren’t old, only a few minutes to seconds apart.

 

chris takigawa

This is inappropriate of me to ask of you, especially so late at night but I can’t help it

 

chris takigawa

We lost and I don’t think I can stand being in the dorms. It’s terrible of me to even think that way, but I can’t just

 

chris takigawa

Can I see you?

 

Her heart went into overdrive in her chest. It was beating so fast she worried that her ribs might break from the force. His texts, while they weren’t very articulate, they felt like him. With shaky fingers, she typed out her own message.

 

me

meet me at the park across from the cafe

 

She was suddenly nervous and she didn’t know why.

 

She jumped off the bed, washing her face, brushing her teeth and redoing her hair. She scrambled to change into a pair of sweats, darting to her dresser to pull out a tank top. As she was going through her clothes, her hand brushed the soft material of his sweater that he’d given to her a few days ago.

 

Truth be told, she hadn’t known what to do with it. It was a nice sweater, honestly, and she wanted to use it but she felt like if she wore it, people would find out that it didn’t belong to her. The bagginess of it probably gave it away, but a lot of girls wore baggy clothes, right? Besides, it wasn’t like someone from Hotei would recognize. Someone from Seidō and friends with Chris probably would and that was what worried her. She restrained herself to wearing it only in her dorm, when the day was already over, soccer practice was finished and she’d showered.

 

It felt personal, too. There were . . . implications that came with wearing someone else’s clothes, right?

 

She sighed and pushed the sweater away, picking out the black tank top and tugging it over her head. She was wasting precious time here. She didn’t want him to think she was ditching him.

 

Her stomach rumbled in hunger and she was reminded that the last time she ate was at the stadium when she’d bought some takoyaki. She huffed, picking up a granola bar from Asano’s stash and sticking it into her jacket’s pocket. Looks like she owed Asano two times now.

 

Amara rushed out of the dorm, and just as she’d made it down the stairs and had jumped off the last step of the stairs, she came face-to-face with Asano and Chihiro. She went around them, paying them no mind.

 

“Miss Amara?” Asano asked, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

 

“Where are you going?” Chihiro asked with a raised eyebrow, arms crossed.

 

Amara waved them off. “Company!”

 

She heard Chihiro’s ‘what does that even mean?’ and Asano’s quiet gasp. She didn’t bother to stop. Asano would probably explain what was going on.

 

The security guard at the gate gave Amara the stink-eye with a waspish ‘don’t be late for curfew’ but even that couldn’t deter her. Though, she did distantly wonder where the other security guard was, an older woman who was used to seeing Amara come and go.

 

She slowed down a bit, still walking quickly. It was probably a ten-minute walk to the park that was across the street from the cafe they’d had their study session in. She was glad that she’d remembered it, because otherwise, she probably would’ve suggested something like Yamamoto’s and that would’ve taken longer.

 

Halfway to the park, she’d opened up the granola bar, wincing at the saltiness of it. It wasn’t quite what she needed right now, but it did its job in solving her hunger.

 

The park came into sight, lit up by a few street lamps. The trees rustled with the breeze, a few stray leaves dancing around at her feet. The playground was empty, of course, and it looked like the rest of it was empty as well.

 

She looked for him, eyes strained against the dark. Then finally, she found Chris on a bench several feet away, facing the street, right underneath the glow of the street lamps. Her feet drew her to him, making sure to be loud enough to announce her presence but not loud enough to disturb the quiet around him.

 

He was dressed down, much like the way he was the day he’d walked her back to Hotei, except this time his hair was down, curling over his forehead and moving gently with the wind. Her heart was slamming in her chest, but she quietly sat next to him, as close as she dared, enough to feel the warmth he was radiating and enough so that if she moved her leg to the side, she’d brush against his.

 

His head was tilted towards the sky, eyes shut. He made no indication to move or say anything. He didn’t need to.

 

Amara fiddled with her fingers, staring straight ahead at the buildings. The golden lighting from the cafe seemed out of place next to the fluorescent lights of the 7/11.

 

“How was the game?” He broke the silence first, his voice quieter than usual.

 

Her hands curled into fists. “I think . . . you know how I wanted that to end.”

 

“Me, too,” he murmured, a new heaviness in his voice that hadn’t been there before. “Me, too.” She jumped when he closed the space between them, resting his head on her shoulder. She made an effort to relax and hoped he wouldn’t get too close to her pulse. He didn’t need to know how fast her heart was beating right now.

 

They were silent for a few more minutes and she gave in to the temptation, leaning her own head on his. His hair was soft against her cheek and the scent of something sweet and pleasant tickled her nostrils. She took a deep breath, then sighed. She wasn’t sure what to do now, but maybe . . .

 

“I know I’ve never mentioned it, but I used to play baseball when I was a kid.” She felt Chris tense slightly, an indication that he was listening and that he was probably curious to what she had to say. “I was . . . good at it. I mean. As good as a kid with horrible ADHD can get. I try not to put it down, but it really was shitty for me when I was a kid. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Sports, though, were really helpful.”

 

She stopped, licking her lips, suddenly finding them dry. He didn’t say anything. She continued. “I tried a lot of positions. Probably all of them out on the field. First baseman, center fielder, left fielder, even catcher. With catching, though, they finally found the one thing I wasn’t good at,” she paused, more for dramatic effect than anything and she felt a nudge to her arm. She bit back a smile.

 

“I couldn’t sit still. Crouching out there for so long—it was the bane of my existence. I couldn’t focus. I’d get distracted and miss the pitch. Plus, all the terms I’d have to memorize to call for pitches. It was a very unideal situation for a hyperactive kid like me. I couldn’t do pitcher, either, since that involved memorizing the signs that the catcher gave me. In the end, they made me shortstop. Told me to memorize the bases and positions and what to do if the ball was ever in my mitt. That’s why I barely know anything about baseball today.”

 

She sighed. He hadn’t said anything and she wasn’t sure if she had a point to this story. She was . . . trying to cheer him up. Amara didn’t know if the horrors of her time as a baseball player were appropriate but he was interested, wasn’t he? She pushed on.

 

“It was fun,” she admitted softly. “I wouldn’t mind playing again, especially since I know how to control myself, but . . . baseball is a man’s sport, isn’t it?” She chuckled bitterly, then cleared her throat quickly, shaking her head slightly. “This isn’t about that, though. I have a point, I swear.”

 

She felt, more than heard, him chuckle and it made her smile widen.

 

“We lost games. It happens. But it . . . fucking sucked.” She frowned, feeling the previously light atmosphere around them dampen. “You’re a kid, you know? Winning is great. But every time we lost, it felt like we’d lost something big. Like we were playing the World Series and our team lost horribly. It really isn’t like that, though. It feels like the world is ending but it’s not. The earth keeps spinning. People keep going. Life goes on.”

 

She pressed her cheek to his hair more firmly and boldly reached for his hand, slipping her own hand into his. He reciprocated the movement, intertwining their fingers and squeezing tightly. She took a shaky breath at the feeling of his rough palm against hers.

 

“This is high school,” she whispered softly into the quiet night. “It sucks that you guys lost. I wish I could turn back time and tell you guys to keep fighting, warn you of what might happen, but I can’t. We just keep . . . moving forward. Your shoulder is going to fully heal, you’re probably going to get drafted to play baseball, either with NPB or MLB, maybe some other country. We’re going to graduate.” She squeezed his hand.

 

“You’ll be happy soon. One day, baseball will make you the happiest you’ve ever been instead of sad. You’ll be okay. And maybe I’ve overstepped completely, but until then, until baseball makes you happy again, I’ll try to make you happy. That’s what friends do, right?”

 

The silence that followed felt heavy, but it also didn’t. The air felt warm—gentle. She felt him shift and lifted her head off of his so he could sit up. Her heart was drumming fast in her chest as he looked at her, an introspective look in his eyes. She scanned his face. There was a swollenness under his eyes that hinted at crying and it made her grip on his hand tighten unconsciously. His face softened and a small, tentative smile curved his lips.

 

“You . . .” he began quietly, his thumb beginning to draw small circles on the back of her hand (which didn’t help in calming her down at all), “you have a real way with words, you know that?”

 

Amara smiled nervously. “In a good way or a bad way?”

 

Chris’ smile widened. She tried not to focus on how close his face was to hers, but it was difficult not to. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure, but I think . . . it’s a very good way.”

 

She averted her eyes, feeling heat crawl up her neck. “Thanks. I think.”

 

“It’s a compliment. What you said, about playing baseball, that was true, right?” He leaned his head forward, trying to catch her eyes, which she reluctantly allowed him to do.

 

“Yes . . .” she trailed off, eyeing him apprehensively. “Why?”

 

“You can play a good game with us, then,” he explained, a small smile still on his lips. She blanched.

 

What? No, no way. I-I can’t play, do you know how long it’s been? I played for like five years, from six to eleven and I haven’t played since. There’s no way I could keep up with you guys—”

 

Chris leaned back, amused. “That’s what makes it fun, right?”

 

She gawked at him. Well, she hadn’t expected him to change tunes so quickly.

 

“You’re a terrible human being,” she stated with complete seriousness. “Honestly. I thought we were friends and you want to see me get my ass completely owned?”

 

“We are friends,” he countered, holding up their intertwined hands. “Enemies don’t do this, right?”

 

“You . . .” she shook her head. “Chris.” If anyone asked her later on if she’d whined, she would outright refute that question because yes, she totally did whine, like a small four-year-old not getting what she wanted, but she wasn’t going to admit that. She had a reputation to uphold. Chris was dangerous to be around.

 

He laughed and she thought the sound was wonderful.

 

“Thank you. I mean it,” he said, once his chuckles subdued down. He gave her a meaningful look. “You didn’t have to come out here. I know it was very last minute.”

 

Amara shrugged, trying not to focus on the fact that his thumb was still rubbing the skin of her hand gently, the rough pad of his thumb feelings incredible against her softer skin. “It’s not a problem. Like I said earlier, whatever you guys need.”

 

At the mention of the others, he sighed softly, turning to face the street. “They’re . . . taking it hard.”

 

She chewed the inside of her cheek pensively. “What’s going to happen now?”

 

He shrugged, his left hand coming up to run through his hair tiredly. “We retire. The underclassmen continue in our place. It’s unavoidable. Summer break is for the next two weeks, so us third years have time to move out of the Spirit Dorms into our own and go visit family. The underclassmen have to continue practicing in time for the Autumn tournaments. Like you said, life goes on.”

 

“That . . . stinks,” she said honestly. “At least you guys have time to recuperate, though, right?”

 

“Perhaps,” he hedged, but didn’t have time to elaborate as she heard a vibration against the wood of the bench and figured out that it wasn’t her own phone. “Wait for a moment.”

 

He released her hand (and no, she did not miss the warmth that his hand provided)  and pulled out his phone from his pocket, tapping on the screen then wincing at the brightness of it. She watched his face carefully as he read something—a text presumably.

 

He looked back at her. “Would you mind if a few of the guys came down here?”

 

“Of course not.” A small part of her, though, did mind. She squashed that part of herself down quickly. They were her friends. Chris was her friend. She had to be there for them like she’d been there for Chris. “Should I tell them my baseball speech, too?”

 

He smiled again. “No, let’s keep that one between us,” he paused, smile fading as quickly as it had grown. “They need presence, I think, more than anything.”

 

“That’s not too difficult.” And it wasn’t. But silences were unnerving. She wouldn’t have a problem keeping quiet, but not getting antsy would be her biggest problem.

 

“Also,” she began again, recalling her meeting with his friend earlier today. “I bumped into one of your friends on my way out from the stadium—Zaizen.”

 

Chris blinked, surprise passing over his face. “I didn’t think he would be coming out. That game against Kokudokan . . . It feels so far away.”

 

Amara paused and thought about it. She’d met Chris—god, it had been mid-April, hadn’t it? She had only officially introduced herself—thanks to Eijun—to him in late May. Now, it was already the end of July. She almost couldn’t believe that two months had passed by so quickly.

 

When she realized Chris had been waiting for her to continue, she hurried on and repeated what Zaizen had told her, avoiding his eyes out of embarrassment, even though there’d been a fond smile on his lips.

 

“Sounds like him,” Chris mused. “He didn’t give you a hard time, right?” Here, he turned to give her a concerned look.

 

“Uh, no. No, he was fine. Why? Is he . . . sketchy?”

 

Chris snorted and Amara allowed herself a few seconds to think that what others might consider unattractive was actually really cute (on him, anyway).

 

“Hardly. He’s sort of like Miyuki, honestly, if Miyuki was more manipulative and knew when to not push people’s limits.”

 

“So, he’s sketchy.”

 

Chris chuckled. “That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.”

 

She hid her own smile, biting hard on the inside of her lip, then turned to look forward, watching the occasional car drive by.

 

“I didn’t realize you had ADHD,” he spoke again, looking a little embarrassed about it. She started chuckling, much to his displeasure. “Don’t laugh.”

 

“Sorry, sorry,” she grinned. “But really? I thought it was obvious. I’m pretty sure Ryōsuke figured it out first.”

 

Chris shook his head, exasperated. “Of course he would. And I noticed you were very antsy, but some people are just like that. It was never my place to ask.”

 

Amara leaned back, huffing shortly. “You . . . are far too nice for your own good. In any case, I was diagnosed with it when I was six-years-old. Same year I started playing baseball. It was . . . horrible.”

 

He looked back at her, curious. She smiled. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. My parents didn’t know how to deal with it. I wasn’t—still haven’t—medicated. We couldn’t afford that sort of thing and it was just better to keep me off it instead of taking it at odd intervals. So, I never had a real method to dealing with it. I suffered in school for a long time, until junior high. A teacher helped me out, developed some good methods to deal with it and lo and behold, I proved to everybody else that I actually was smart. I just needed to learn it differently.”

 

He furrowed his brow. “Did people think you weren’t smart? It’s just . . . Well, it can be a learning deficiency, right?”

 

“I suppose,” she murmured. “I was failing all of my classes. I was lucky that I didn’t flunk a grade. And kids are cruel, you know? Especially girls. Admin cracks down on bullying from boys to girls and vice versa, but girls, man. They’re terrible. I was dumb, stupid, an idiot. It was common knowledge for them all. Little, immigrant Amara is dumb. She doesn’t know, I don’t know, fractions, division, whatever.”

 

That was where she had a problem with the boys’ treatment of Eijun, too. Maybe she was too sensitive, traumatized by the cruelty of her childhood classmates, but there was a thin line between joking and meaning it. She worried—maybe needlessly—that there would come a day when Eijun had an actual problem and no one would take it seriously. That was the last thing she wanted for him.

 

Chris seemed to realize this, too, as he grimaced. “I’m sorry,” he said earnestly, truly looking apologetic.

 

“It’s not your fault,” she disagreed softly.

 

“No, but you shouldn’t have to feel that way.”

 

She took a deep breath, leaning some of her weight onto him, a way to show him that it was better. “I’m fine now.” The treatment from her teammates did arouse some bad memories, but she was mostly okay. Her grades were all high A’s and she did have to study material a lot more than other kids did, but that was just the price she had to pay to understand.

 

She looked to the side when she heard footsteps against the concrete, spotting the boys walking towards them, crossing onto the damp grass. It was only Isashiki, Ryōsuke and Yūki, but she still had to smile softly in their direction. They had all showered and changed into sweats and t-shirts, hair still looking damp.

 

There was a noticeable limp to Ryōsuke’s leg, one that looked bad enough that Isashiki pushed him towards the bench, then dropped onto the grass at their feet, leaning his back on Amara’s legs. Ryōsuke took a seat next to her on her right, sighing as he did so. Yūki sat down on the other side of Chris, looking impassive as ever. But as she scanned their faces the best she could, she spotted the redness underneath their eyes, in their noses, lips still swollen from the salt of tears.

 

She was, once again, reminded of their loss today.

 

Amara wasn’t sure how long they sat out there, silent, listening to the trees rustle with the wind, watching cars pass by. Every now and then, a noisy couple or group of friends would exit the cafe across the street, laughing and talking without a care in the world.

 

She stiffened slightly when Ryōsuke leaned some of his weight onto her side, then managed to relax against his weight, feeling him do the same. Yūki had his head tilted towards the night sky, eyes shut. Isashiki had his head resting on her knees, eyes screwed shut tightly. Chris kept his eyes forward, a small frown on his lips.

 

It was surreal at how quickly the environment had changed. The light-heartedness around them was gone, replaced with a heavy feeling of despair in the air. She fiddled aimlessly with her fingers in her lap.

 

Being so still, so quiet, it was making her nervous.

 

Her stomach fluttered uncomfortably with hunger. She looked towards the 7/11, making a split-second decision that could go over well or terribly. She hoped for the former.

 

She nudged Isashiki with her knees. “Come on. Let’s get some ice cream.”

 

He wordlessly moved away and she stood up, turning back to look at the boys with a hand held out. She smiled softly at them. “It’s on me.”

 

Isashiki moved first, grabbing her hand so she could pull him up from the ground, then she offered a hand to Chris, which he accepted easily, giving her palm a quick squeeze then releasing it. She did the same to Yūki and Ryōsuke. They both accepted, allowing her to pull them to their feet.

 

She led their motley crew across the street to the 7/11, pulling the door open to let them in first. They all automatically greeted the cashier, then went down the first aisle—the one with candy, sweets, and the usual junk food. She spotted the ice cream all the way at the other end of the store, held away in the freezers.

 

Ryōsuke stopped at the beginning of the aisle and as she passed him, she saw him pick up a bag of candies with shaking fingers. When she passed Yūki, he had a white-knuckled grip on the shelving, his eyes staring hard at something amongst the bags of chocolate. Then there Chris was frowning as he looked between two candies, seemingly debating between two bags of chocolates, but his eyes were too far away for her to fall for his trick; she caught his hand ghosting upwards to his injured shoulder, frown deepening. Finally, Isashiki stood at the end, shoulders hunched, his head bowed. She could see the minute shaking of his shoulders.

 

She sighed softly, finally making it out of the aisle and going over to stand in front of the freezers. An assortment of small ice cream cartons was stacked, flavors like matcha, chocolate, vanilla, honey and more staring back at her. She considered her options carefully, and when she was pulling open the door to the freezer, Isashiki came to stand behind her, opening the door wider so she could pick out her own.

 

“Thanks,” she murmured, holding back a shiver at the icy air and taking out the pint-sized cookies and cream carton. “You?”

 

“Strawberry, please,” he muttered. She saw him wipe at the bottom of his eyes in her peripheral vision as she reached for the strawberry carton.

 

“Chocolate for me as well.” Chris’ voice came out from behind Isashiki. She handed off the strawberry and chocolate cartons then turned back around to look at Yūki coming towards them, Ryōsuke following behind him.

 

“Honey.”

 

“Matcha.”

 

She handed them their respective cartons then stepped to the side so Isashiki could shut the door. Together, they walked back down the aisle to the cash register, piling all the cartons onto the counter.

 

It must’ve been a sight. Four boys of differing heights, builds, appearances and some foreign-looking girl as their leader. She bit back a smile, pulling out her phone to double-click the power button to pull up her card. She hadn’t had the foresight to bring her wallet since she really didn’t anticipate the others coming or her spur-of-the-moment decision to buy ice cream either, but she had personal cash stored away on her phone’s card for emergencies and this felt like a pretty valid emergency.

 

The cashier packed up their cartons in a plastic bag, kindly dropping in some extra plastic spoons with it. Amara bowed, murmuring her thanks as she took the bag and the receipt.

 

The air outside was cool when they stepped outside, bell ringing from above the door as they exited. Silently, they all trekked back across the street, bypassing the bench to go deeper into the park. She found a spot that was a little bit darker without the illumination of the street lamp, showing off the twinkling stars in the sky. She sat down on the grass, the boys following.

 

She passed around the cartons of ice cream and the spoons, waving off their soft-spoken thanks. She tucked the plastic bag under her leg to prevent it from flying away and cracked open the lid to her ice cream, digging in immediately. As she scooped up pieces of softened Oreos, she looked up towards the sky.

 

The lack of street lamps made the stars easier to see, but they were still dim from all the light pollution around them. It wasn’t as bad as it was in downtown Tokyo, where the sky was pitch black year-round. Here, in the tiny neighborhood of Kokubunji, only the street lamps and house lights disturbed the visibility of the stars. It was another reason why she’d liked it so much.

 

Urban life was nice, sure, but nothing beat being able to come outside and hear the soft silence instead of honking cars and loud voices, seeing the glimmering stars instead of the inky blackness of the sky.  

 

Distractedly, her eyes traced the familiar constellations. She saw Sagittarius, her own sign, with Capricornus and Scorpius near it. A little more upward she found Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.

 

“Amara.”

 

She paused, looking back at the boys. Isashiki had spoken, his spoon dug into the strawberry ice cream. He didn’t meet her eyes, his own trained on the grass in front of him

 

“Go to Nationals. Win. For us.”

 

The other boys had paused in their movements. She surveyed Isashiki for a moment, and in the corner of her eye, she could see Chris gearing up to say something, but before he could, she spoke. “What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?”

 

She heard Ryōsuke let out a soft breath, Yūki and Isashiki doing the same. She could feel Chris scrutinizing her, but she paid him no mind. She scooped up more ice cream.

 

“You all fought hard—” Amara hoped Asano wouldn’t be too mad that she totally dismissed her advice. (Well, she had obeyed the company part of it.) “—and you’ll have to continue that because you can’t just stop here, right?”

 

There were immediate responses, firm nods of the head, rejuvenated looks in their eyes.

 

“It’s gonna be hard. But you’ll get through it. You have no choice if I’m around.” Amara smiled and it widened as tiny smiles pulled across their lips, Isashiki snorting softly and Chris chuckling at her tone.

 

“We’ll have a game with you, Amara,” he said, scooting closer to her to gently nudge her arm. That got their attention.

 

“You played baseball?”

 

“I thought you didn’t know anything about it?”

 

“There’s a difference between playing and actually being good at it.”

 

She scoffed, shooting individual glares to Yūki, Isashiki and Ryōsuke. “When I was a kid, yes. And I was good at it, thank you very much.”

 

“We’ll see about that,” Isashiki said gruffly, ignoring the heated look she sent him. “What position?”

 

“Shortstop. But perhaps, given that I have a better focus now than when I was a kid, I could try out for pitcher . . .” she mused. She did have strength in her arm, but her inability to memorize signs and calls was the only thing that stopped her from being able to pursue the position. With shortstop, all she had to do was be fast.

 

“I’ll catch for you,” Chris added helpfully, though she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand that. Her form—which probably wasn’t much of a form at all—was old and most likely needed improvements. She didn’t know how she felt about him seeing that terrible state of it. Something about the way he said it, though, made her heart race.

 

Ryōsuke clicked his tongue. “Get a room.”

 

She stretched her leg to kick his good foot, scowling at him. “Shut up.”

 

“Or what?”

 

“You a good batter?” Isashiki asked, probably trying to move the conversation before a fight could break out, though Amara knew Ryōsuke would probably kick her ass and Isashiki would cheer them on.

 

She shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a bat, but if it counts for anything, I was always the last on the batting lineup.”

 

That gained snorts from all the boys. She huffed softly. “Whatever. You try having ADHD and standing still in the batter’s box for a long time. It’s not fun.”

 

Isashiki and Yūki gave no indication of surprise, merely chuckling at the affronted look on her face. Chris smiled softly at the interaction, then offered some of his ice cream to Ryōsuke, who had been watching with the ghost of a smile on his lips. The conversation tapered off into something calm and peaceful, cartons of ice cream being passed around, strawberry mixing with chocolate, honey with cookies and cream, matcha with chocolate.

 

Later on, she laid back on the grass, setting down her empty carton with the others. Isashiki scooted up to lay his head on her leg, the others coming in closer so that all the warmth between their bodies was being shared, a shield against the cool breeze of the night.

 

She took a deep breath, finding peace in the space between herself and the stars above them. Today had been a horrible day, one wrought with the guilt of failure and tears of defeat, but being here, together, made her feel like everything would eventually be okay. And as her fingers brushed against Chris’ and he grabbed her hand, squeezing gently, she knew that it would come to pass.

Chapter Text

11. meiji university

 

The first few days of summer break were hell.

 

The team’s overall performance hadn’t been good enough to let them go for the two-week summer break like the volleyball team, so Nakamura was making them work for it. Hard.

 

Amara suddenly understood why Eijun and Chris had been so absent during their summer training camp back in June. This was her own personal hell, one where she had to spend entire days with the cold attitudes of her teammates and the burning eyes of Hikari on her back, sweating and running around in the late summer heat despite the soreness screaming in her bodies.

 

So, when they were finally given a day off that Saturday—an entire week of what could’ve been sleeping in and doing homework wasted on training—she’d honestly meant to sleep in and do absolutely nothing.

 

Then, she got a text from the boys—only Isashiki, Yūki, and Chris, since Ryōsuke was away—asking if she’d be free that Saturday at nine in the morning and for the rest of the day. Apparently, they all wanted to go to Meiji University, their coach’s alma mater, and were going to attend a guide of the university and athletic facilities. According to Chris’ text, Meiji had a pretty killer soccer team, too, so they were extending the invite to her.

 

No matter the fact that the chances of her attending college in Japan were incredibly unlikely, given that she wouldn’t even be staying after graduation in March. She accepted immediately.

 

Yes, she did kind of want to die because she still had to crawl out of bed at eight so she could shower and get dressed, but she hadn’t seen the boys at all since Saturday. Sunday had been her off day, her last day of freedom before the hellish training would ensue, so she’d stuck inside all day.

 

(Plus, she was sure the boys wanted some time to themselves the day after the final, despite the good spirits she’d manage to coax them in to on Saturday night.)

 

The only upside of going had been the surprised expression on Asano’s face when Amara pulled herself out of bed that morning.

 

“You’re up early. I thought you didn’t have practice today?” She asked as she braided her hair, already in shorts and the Hotei tennis team shirt.

 

Amara was too tired to tell Asano to drop the honorifics. “Heading out to Meiji for a tour with a few friends,” she muttered tiredly, dragging herself through her morning routine even though her thighs were sore from exertion and she couldn’t stand too still without shaking a bit.

 

Asano nodded. “Sounds nice. Have a good time.”

 

Amara grunted, finishing up at the sink then collecting her clothes and toiletries to move into the bathroom where the bath and toilet were stationed. It took longer than usual to shower, partly because she had to re-shave—which was hellish to do on sore legs—and also because the warm water made her even more tired. When she was finished, she’d sat down on the bed—still wrapped in her towel—and had probably dozed off for about ten minutes until her phone buzzed with a text from Chris, telling her to meet them all by Field A at Seidō.

 

It was a tough job for her to get ready and she really started to regret shaving when she had to take time to put lotion on before she slipped into a pair of shorts. By the time she was finished, her hair braided, wallet and phone collected along with a baseball cap since it was supposed to be sunny today, it was already 8:45. She did appreciate her own efforts though; she was actually looking sort of presentable for once since she’d taken the initiative to pick out an outfit the day before

 

Amara left campus quickly, though she had taken time to see Chihiro and call out mockingly, “See you, Captain!” That had ended with an expertly-aimed tennis ball to the head, which she’d somehow managed to duck in time.

 

On Sunday, the day before summer training would begin, Chihiro had apparently been dragged to the tennis office along with Asano and some other tennis player where the coach declared Chihiro the official captain and the other two her vice-captains. It had been completely unprecedented—according to Chihiro, anyway.

 

Amara knew Chihiro didn’t give herself enough credit and that’d been basically proven when she’d been made captain, a decision that had been unanimously made by the third years who’d graduated this year and by the coaching staff. Chihiro refused to divulge what they’d said exactly, but it must’ve been something that resonated with her because she didn’t complain at all during the week of training.

 

A similar situation had happened with Chiyo, but on Saturday night.

 

It’d been an emergency, more than anything; she’d been made captain because the current captain of the volleyball team had been injured in the scrimmage and also had to leave Tokyo for the rest of the school year due to another emergency. The vice-captains had refused to choose one another for the position, so they’d settled on Chiyo. A fitting decision, given her position in the team and how reliable she was, but Chiyo disagreed.

 

Unfortunately, she’d also managed to miss Amara’s teasing since she was back in Nagasuchi in the Kyoto prefecture visiting her grandmother and having a great time with Ryōsuke, who had just so happened to visit during this particular summer break.

 

Amara hadn’t laughed that hard ever when Chiyo had sent repeated, panicked texts about sitting right across from him on the three-hour train ride to Nagasuchi. Then, Amara had the advantage to actually hear the panic in her voice when Chiyo had called her later that day to reveal that Ryōsuke was living right next door to her for some unknown reason.

 

(His parents were visiting his aunt and her kids in Nagasuchi, apparently, the same family that Chiyo and her grandmother had lived next to for the last ten years. Bad for Chiyo, amusing for Amara.)

 

Amara was unsure of where Ryōsuke lay in this equation. Chiyo’s complaints about the awkwardness between them (which was probably one-sided, since Amara was sure Ryōsuke didn’t care) had decreased over the last few days and she’d been incredibly vague about it. Amara wanted to take a guess and say that something had happened and they were probably acquaintances by now. Maybe even friends.

 

That might’ve been too hopeful, though, given how closed off Chiyo had been when Amara had first met her. Sure, they’d taken solace in each other since they were both very clearly foreign, but it had taken time to dissolve the walls Chiyo had put up around herself. (It had been the same with Chihiro when she came around in their second year.)

 

But if Ryōsuke was interested in Chiyo, then those walls of hers didn’t stand a chance.

 

The buzz of her phone pulled her out of her thoughts and she answered it quickly, barely sparing a glance at the caller ID. It was probably Chris. She was cutting it close to nine.

 

“Hey, Chris, I just left, I’ll be there soon—”

 

“Deleted my phone number already?”

 

For a minute, Amara was taken off guard by the tenor of the voice, the familiar dialect of Spanish almost seeming too unbelievable.

 

“L-Lucas?”

 

“The one and only, loser. Hey, who the hell is Chris? I thought you were in Japan, what’re you doing talking to white boys?”

 

Amara laughed loudly, both out of pleasant surprise and amusement. Lucas de la Garza, one half of the fraternal twins of the family and one half of their father’s pride and joy. He was a big-name doctor, pretty well known for frequenting Latin American countries and examining people free of charge. It had been a solid four months since she’d spoken to him and she’d managed to deflect her mother’s inquiries about calling the twins.

 

(All the calls between her and her father—where were already infrequent, to begin with—had mostly been to check up on grades and reminding her to behave and not cause trouble. Amara tried not to be hurt about it, but it did kind of sting.)

 

Louisa was an entirely different story. The last she’d spoken to her older sister had probably been during New Years’.

 

“You gonna answer my question or not? I do have the means to fly myself out there and beat up any guy who tries to get close to you, you know that, right?”

 

Amara refocused in the conversation, huffing softly at the tone of Lucas’ voice. “He’s just a friend. Chill.”

 

“That’s what girls always say but it’s never that simple, is it?”

 

“Don’t be an ass,” she muttered, mostly good-heartedly but also with an underlying seriousness. She didn’t need her older brother blabbering off to their mother about boys, much less to her father or Louisa.

 

Lucas chuckled, not taking her seriously at all. “Yeah, yeah. How’s everything going? I’m sorry about being away for so long, I was doing a tour in Argentina and phone service was real shitty down there.”

 

“I don’t mind.” He was off saving lives, being an annoyingly good person. She wasn’t going to blame him for that.

 

Amara told him about school, soccer practice, the ups and downs of living in Japan. As they spoke, she eventually arrived at Seidō and began down the familiar path to the fields, listening to him talk about patients and families, the friends he’d made along the way. She was almost envious.

 

Lucas had known what he was going to do from an early age, as had Louisa. They’d both had big dreams and they may not want to admit it, but immigrating to the U.S. had aided those dreams tenfold and it showed, too.

 

Lucas, traveling the world, saving lives. Louisa, working immigrant cases in the southern U.S., taking on refugee cases, too, and winning. Yeah, they made good money, but they were making a difference.

 

Amara didn’t know what she wanted to do. She’d had the conversation with both the advisor here from Hotei and the one from her high school in Austin, requesting for more time to think about it. Realistically, she should probably get into something like psychology, maybe even physical therapy or medicine, but thinking about all the work she’d have to put in, all the money, it wasn’t ideal. Plus, she didn’t even like those things so much.

 

“Hey, what’re your plans for college, kid? I know, I know, a college with a good soccer team is obviously a must, but you have any ideas for a major yet?”

 

“Uh . . .” She cursed her bad luck, then took it back almost immediately because she spotted the boys standing near the fence, Isashiki yelling at the second and first years currently practicing in the field. She hurried towards them.

 

“I gotta go, Lucas. I’ll get back to you later.” Yūki spotted her first, holding up a hand in greeting and gaining Isashiki and Chris’ attention. She returned the wave with a strained smile.

 

“Stop avoiding the question, dummy—” her brother’s exasperated voice came through the phone.

 

“Bye, love you, talk to you later.” She hung up quickly, only giving him a few seconds to rush out his own goodbye. No, she didn’t feel guilty about it either.

 

She pocketed her phone, making her way to the boys. “Sorry, I’m late. I’m exhausted.”

 

Isashiki clicked his tongue. “You shouldn’t have come if you were tired. You’re doing pre-season training, aren’t you? You should be resting, stupid.”

 

Amara punched his shoulder. Hard. The thought had been nice up until he’d called her stupid.

 

“We didn’t want to bother you,” Chris added quietly, looking more concerned about her tired state than Isashiki currently clutching his shoulder and spewing curses.

 

“You’re here now. Let’s not make you walk back,” Yūki finished off levelly. “We’re taking the bus and it’s about a forty-five minute to an hour ride to Meiji, so you have time to get some sleep.”

 

“Problem solved. I sort of did want to get off campus, too. We’ve been stuck there all week practicing and training. It’s literal hell.” They made their way off Seidō’s grounds and to the bus stop near the school, where a few other strangers were waiting.

 

“I’d imagine. Your friend, Im, she didn’t have to stay on campus?” Chris asked, his hand absently coming up to comb through the bangs resting over his forehead. She noticed he’d been wearing his hair down more frequently and honestly, she wasn’t minding it all. Amara shook those thoughts off. Maybe she should focus on how he knew Chiyo was out of town.

 

“The volleyball team was deemed ready for the season. Chiyo’s always been someone to keep up with practice, anyway. She’s been libero for a solid year and a half now, she’s definitely not going to give it up. I have to ask, though. Did you find that out from Ryōsuke?”

 

She had to snicker as the boys all pointedly avoided Amara’s eyes, looking anywhere but her general direction. It basically confirmed all that she’d thought.

 

She suppressed a small smirk. That would be interesting to see unfold.

 

“You’re all hopeless,” she said, chortling. “Were you actually trying to be subtle?”

 

“No.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Isashiki and Yūki shot peeved looks to Chris, who only shrugged, looking utterly unbothered by their ire. “That was on me for slipping up. Amara’s too smart to not have picked it up, so lying would’ve been pointless.”

 

She tried not to preen too obviously from his small praise, but Isashiki was giving her this look, a cross between exasperated and amused.  She pointedly looked away, much like they had earlier.

 

“He’s right, you know. Besides, what am I even going to do? I’m going to let Chiyo suffer her way through this on her own.” Anything not to have Isashiki point out how pleased she was with getting that compliment from Chris. She’d probably die on the spot from embarrassment if he did.

 

The bus pulled up to the curb, easing into park loudly before anyone else could say anything. Chris laid a hand on her shoulder to put her in front of them and she focused on everything but the feeling of his hand on her shoulder, the roughness of his palm almost tangible even through her shirt. She busied herself with taking out the correct amount of money for the bus fare and waiting for the others at the stop to embark the bus.

 

They took seats in the far back, sitting on the same row, with Amara next to the window, Chris next to her then Isashiki and Yūki on the other side. They continued to speak quietly as the bus pulled onto the highway to exit Kokubunji. Amara had leaned her head onto the headrest, already feeling sleepiness weigh on her eyelids.

 

“Hey, Amara, have you received any offers?”

 

She lifted her head, leaning forward to look at Isashiki. “Ah, I’m not too sure actually. I think all my offers are getting sent back to Austin, and my mother hasn’t mentioned it,” she admitted, rubbing the back of her back sheepishly.

 

The few meetings she’d had with her counselors had prospects for an athletic scholarship or an academic scholarship since she had good grades. Amara had very briefly entertained the thought of offers from a national-level team, like the U.S. Women’s soccer team, but she squashed it down. She was nowhere near that level of skill yet.

 

She pulled out her phone to type out a quick text to Renee, asking him if anything had arrived in the mail. He’d probably get back to her sooner than her mother would.

 

“Are you thinking of going pro?” Yūki asked this time and she found herself fidgeting under the boys’ eyes.

 

“I’m not that good . . .” she repeated her talks with her counselors and the choices they’d given her. Of course, the counselors had discouraged her not going to college, but an exception could be made if she was on a professional team.

 

“Well, you’ll have to wait until the season is over to see if you’ve received any offers,” Chris murmured. “This is your first year on starting, right?”

 

She nodded.

 

“You gotta let the scouts see you play, then,” Isashiki muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

The boys changed the conversation, talking about the recent games that have been going on in the NPB in Japan and MLB in the U.S. Amara tuned them out, too drowsy to engage in further conversation. She dropped her head back, shutting her eyes.

 

Everything seemed much more louder when she was close to falling asleep. The voices next to her were louder than usual, though Chris’ quiet voice was more soothing compared to the loud and gruff one of Isashiki. The chattering from other bus-goers and the sound of the bus riding along the freeway was amplified; she wondered if she’d even be able to completely fall asleep.

 

The air conditioner was working at full-max, making her shiver slightly at the cool air wafting across her exposed legs and arms. She felt Chris shift closer towards her, his shoulder touching her own, gladly giving away some of the intense warmth he radiated.

 

She seemed to have drifted off after that, only distantly aware of the bumps of the bus, but sometime later—she didn’t know, seconds felt so long and minutes felt so short—her head tipped to the side and she made contact with a strong shoulder, the warmth coming from it locking her away into sleep’s embrace completely.

 

Then when she woke up, her head was rested on a shoulder and there was a warm body pressed next to hers. It took a while for her to gather her bearings, as there were quiet murmurs coming from beside her and that consistent hum of the engines. She lifted her head, yawning quietly and blinking away the bleariness in her eyes.

 

Conversation stopped. “Hey, sleepyhead. Feeling better?” Chris’ soft voice was close to her, sounding almost . . . fond.

 

Amara frowned slightly in confusion and turned. Then immediately regretted it because his face was really close. It was then that she realized he’d volunteered to be her personal space heater during her nap, along with her own headrest. And she was still close to his side.

 

She scooted back quickly, feeling her face burn up in mortification. “Shit. Sorry about that.”

 

Yūki leaned forward to look, an amused expression on his face. Isashiki was passed out, his head tilted back in an angle that made Amara wince in sympathy. He followed her gaze, shaking his head. “He followed a little after you and he tried to use my shoulder as his own pillow, too, but I’m not nice like Chris.”

 

Nice. Right.

 

Chris didn’t look all too aware of her inner turmoil. “It’s fine. You were tired and you’d probably hurt your neck if you hadn’t laid on something, and I’m sure the window wouldn’t have been a pleasant option.”

 

As if on cue, the bus hit a pothole, jolting them all on their seats and jerking Isashiki’s head forward so violently she was briefly scared that he’d hit his face on the seat in front. Yūki steadied him, though, shaking his head in exasperation. She distantly wondered how he hadn’t woken up yet.

 

“I took these from you,” Chris added, handing over her cap, which was unfolded and had her wallet and phone tucked inside of it. “They probably would’ve fallen onto the floor since you’d relaxed your position.”

 

“Thank you. Sorry. Again.” Her fingers brushed his as he relinquished his hold on the cap.

 

Chris only smiled. “It’s not a problem.”

 

And it wasn’t. Friends did this kind of thing. There had been countless times wherein Amara used Chihiro or Chiyo’s shoulder to nap and vice versa. This wasn’t any different.

 

But her mind betrayed her, searing the warmth of his side into her mind, the sturdy feeling of his shoulder, still retaining enough softness to not irritate her head. He’d been so warm.

 

She sighed, rubbing her forehead tiredly. She didn’t know why Chris, of all people, had to be the one to stick in her head. If she thought about it hard enough, she could almost feel the phantom warmth against her side.

 

“Look.” Chris’ voice led her to gaze out the window, where she could see the campus of Meiji University, a towering skyscraper that sort of looked like the letter M standing out the most. The campus was sprawling, students walking down the sidewalks, bags strung over their shoulders. She could see the stadium farther down the street, towering above the rest of the business buildings in the area.

 

“Big ass campus, huh?” She muttered, impressed. “You guys got offers here?”

 

“Why do you sound so damn surprised?” Isashiki asked tiredly, now awake and yawning loudly.

 

“Meiji’s pretty prestigious, isn’t it? It’s sorta like New York University, or Cornell,” she said, shooting him an irritated look. “I’m impressed, not surprised.”

 

Isashiki scowled, but his cheeks looked pink.

 

The bus pulled to a stop and they all piled off. Isashiki stretched his arms in a loud and obnoxious way while they walked, Chris and Yūki leading the way. Once they’d made it onto campus, they took their liberties to find the student resources department, where pre-orientations were starting. Of course, they gravitated to the athlete inclusive tour, but Amara glanced around cautiously.

 

“Am I even allowed to be here?” She asked, stepping closer to Chris to hide from their guide’s wandering eyes. She didn’t want to get in trouble with any university people, much less get the boys in trouble.

 

“Yes,” the boys chorused, not looking like they were meaning it at all.

 

“Is that true or are you guys just saying that to appease me?”

 

“Honestly . . .” Chris began, looking too cheeky for her liking.

 

She held up a hand, stopping him. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

 

The boys snickered, but they all quieted down as the guide called for everyone’s attention and began a quick introductory. The group was moderate, probably about fifteen other people with them. They all looked young, so Amara guessed they were probably high schoolers or recent graduates.

 

She stuck close to the boys during the tour, but she hadn’t anticipated their guide to control them so loosely. Their guide—an ethics major, apparently, only a few years older than them—pretty much let the group go wherever they wanted when they entered a department building, then told them all to meet back in the lobby at a specific time. The boys weren’t staying together at times, either, with all three of them going to whatever was most interesting. She tended to follow whoever was going to something that appealed to her.

 

When they’d entered the science department, she hung back with Isashiki to listen to an astrophysics major while Yuki and Chris went to listen to a chemistry and biology major. While they were there, she inquired about what he wanted to do and was sort of surprised to learn that he wanted to major in art, having an interest in drawing.

 

(“It’s because he likes shoujo manga,” Yūki had said with complete seriousness when they’d returned and the two of them had still been discussing the art department. Isashiki had squawked in indignation, denying it immediately.)

 

Chris wanted to do physical therapy or go into medicine, but he’d said that since his own physical therapy would be done by the time they graduated, he was hesitant to commit to something like medicine.

 

“I want to continue playing baseball,” he’d admitted as they exited the medical department. “Even go professional if I’m lucky enough.”

 

Yūki and Isashiki shared deadpan looks.

 

“Of course you will,” Isashiki huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. Yūki nodded firmly.

 

Chris looked away, but she could see the smile on his lips.

 

Yūki wanted to go into history since he had plans to return to Seidō as an alumnus to coach the team and teach—history, presumably.

 

“What about you?” Yūki asked, turning their attention to her.

 

Amara shifted under their gazes, turning to watch as their group entered the cafeteria, the guide gesturing to a few of the establishments. He said something about dormitories, but she wasn’t paying attention.

 

“I don’t . . . know.”

 

It really shouldn’t have been something that made her feel ashamed but it did. The boys knew what they wanted to do, what they wanted to study. They had a loose outline of their life and Amara didn’t even know if she’d be coming back to Japan after graduation.

 

Isashiki slung an arm over her shoulder in a brotherly motion. “Don’t hurt yourself thinking about it,” he said gruffly. “You’ll figure it out. I mean, we still have what? Six months until graduation? That’s plenty of time and if not by then, you can take a gap year. Tons of kids do that.”

 

“I’m sure Miss Hamamoto would be happy to accommodate you if you did so,” Chris added.

 

“What kind of things do you like?” Yūki asked. “You seemed interested in the astronomy section.”

 

The boys continued to talk, listing off majors and careers that she could possibly go in to and she appreciated it. She appreciated it so much but she couldn’t focus on their words. Everything they were saying flew right above her head, Isashiki’s arm only a distant weight over on shoulders as she thought about Chris’ words.

 

“I’m sure Miss Hamamoto would be happy to accommodate you if you did so.”

 

Her chest ached. They were all under the pretense that she’d be staying after graduation, too, then?

 

Being reminded of her impending leave in the worst possible way—by Chris, who assumed she’d be staying—made guilt eat away at her insides.

 

She bit the inside of her cheek hard, blood drawing from the blunt sharpness of her teeth. She didn’t know if she’d even tell them. Could she handle seeing the looks on their faces once they found out?

 

Amara thought back to the finals, seeing the despair on their faces.

 

No, she decided. Any sort of pain on their faces wasn’t something she wanted to see. But not telling them would be worse, wouldn’t it? Taking the flight immediately back to the U.S. only a day after graduation, leaving only a few words and betrayed friends behind? And if she was able to even come back, would they still want to associate with her?

 

She reached up to tug the bill of her cap further over her face, turning her eyes to the ground. Isashiki had removed his arm from her shoulder, talking to Yūki about something or another.

 

Fingers brushed against her elbow, wrapping loosely around her arm to pull her back a little. (Loose enough so that she could’ve easily pulled her arm out of his grip, she realized.) Isashiki and Yūki continued walking several feet in front of them. Amara tried for a calm visage as she looked up at Chris, but the concerned look on his face still prevailed.

 

His hand lingered on her arm, rough against her skin. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she nodded immediately, trying to sound as convincing as possible. Evidently, it didn’t work as he frowned, grip tightening slightly on her arm, but still not restricting.

 

“If we overstepped our boundaries earlier, I apologize,” he said, truly looking recant.

 

“No, that’s not—It’s not that. Just being here,” she lied, turning her head so she didn’t have to meet his eyes, “feels a little weird. I’m lost on what I’m going to do, so seeing how everyone already knows or has an idea . . . It’s a little disconcerting.”

 

It was partially true, but still a lie. She felt horrible about it, but he was the last person she wanted to tell that she was leaving. Much less here in the middle of a tour with the presence of Yūki and Isashiki.

 

She chanced a glance at Chris and found him frowning in a way that made her anxious. She waited with bated breath as he thought of something to say.

 

“Well,” he eventually said, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder, “you’ll figure it out. You can change your mind as many times as you’d like.” He squeezed gently then let his hand slip off her shoulder.

 

“Yeah.” Guilt continued to eat at her insides as they picked up their pace to catch up with the group, an almost uncomfortable silence lingering between them. It made her feel worse if anything. Here she was, taking advantage of her friendship with him and lying because he trusted her and wouldn’t push.  She really didn’t deserve Chris as a friend. She was a horrible fucking person.

 

Once they caught up with the group, they’d moved to the fields where athletics were held. The guide was gesturing to the soccer field in front of them, a huge expanse of field. Amara was momentarily stunned at its size and how well-kept it was. The grass looked freshly cut, the white lines looking dumped recently.

 

Her awe must’ve shown because when Isashiki glanced at them, he snickered. “Looking good, right? I heard that Meiji has a great soccer program, too.”

 

“I believe they’ve been to Nationals a few times as well,” Yūki commented.

 

Amara looked back to the green field, longing to step out there and feel how nice the grass must be underfoot. She caught the last few words of their guide as he began moving them away.

 

“The women’s team is actually in that gymnasium over there.”

 

She deflated. “Of course. God hates me.”

 

The boys all snorted and attempted to hide their chuckles, but she could still see the grins that they failed to smother. She shot them all petulant glares, reluctantly following their guide to the baseball fields.

 

Oh, she could only hope it was actual grass in the gymnasium instead of turf. She’d rather die than willingly play and practice on turf. The scars that littered her legs—ones that her mother had given her crap for plenty of times, too—were testaments to the harshness of artificial grass.

 

Amara knew very well about the unfairness when concerning the quality of the grass, especially when it came to male and female teams. She hoped Meiji was a good enough university to provide well for their female teams.

 

Before they made it to the fields, their guide stopped and turned to face the group. He held up his hands to call for everyone’s attention and when they’d quieted down, he began speaking.

 

“This is where I will be ending the tour. Given that this tour was for some of the sports scholarships, you all have our athletic facilities at your disposal for today. The baseball practicing centers are open, as well as both the gyms, other fields and courts for different sports. Once you’re all finished, please go back to the student building and sign out with us there. Thank you for being a great group and enjoy your time! I hope to see some of your faces out there.”

 

He finished with a polite bow, which everyone returned, then once he’d turned and began walking the direction they came in, the group dispersed. Some kids headed to the tennis courts, others to the soccer field.

 

Amara turned to the boys with her arms crossed over her chest, already having a solid idea of where they’d want to go.

 

“Well?” She asked expectantly.

 

They shared a single look, then looked to her with mischievous gleams in their eyes. She took a step back warily.

 

“To the batting cages.” Isashiki grinned smugly. “Ready to test your metal?”

 

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

Chapter Text

12. the batting cages

 

As it would turn out, they were not, in fact, kidding.

 

“Not doing it,” Amara refused as they entered the batting cages. The waiting area was moderately busy, a small line in front of the receptionist desk. She could hear the clang of bats connecting with baseballs, distant and hidden by the pair of double doors that led to the private area of batting cages.

 

She felt out of place. There were a few baseball players walking out, bats propped against their shoulders, towels around their necks. A few other people were sporting baseball jerseys from popular Japanese teams or dressed in workout clothes, their own baseball bats at their sides. She didn’t belong here. Her baseball player card had expired when she was eleven.

 

Chris stepped into the line to arrange something for them, leaving her with Isashiki and Yūki.

 

“What are you so scared of?” Isashiki snickered. “It’s fine if you strike out. We won’t hold it against you.”

 

“You’re not helping.” She sighed, crossing her arms and turning to glance back at Chris standing in line. He had his head ducked, looking at something on his phone. The line had grown smaller. “I’ll fail miserably. You think I want to make a fool of myself in front of all these people? And you guys?”

 

“You might not be as bad as you think,” Yūki said.

 

“Operative word: might.”

 

“Come on, Amara!” Isashiki grinned. “We won’t make fun of you. We’re all friends here!”

 

“The way you say it makes me worried . . .”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Jun’s right,” Yūki agreed, nodding. “We’re friends. Even though you still call us by our last names, except for Chris.”

 

She shrugged. When it came to formalities in Japan, she always thought it was better to be safe than sorry. “I never assume . . .”

 

“Well, you can!” Isashiki—Jun—huffed. He was so easy to rile up. “And you won’t know if you don’t try. Athletes don’t give up on the possibility of failing, right?”

 

Ah. He was making good points now. From the look on Tetsu’s face, he agreed. She sighed, scuffing the toe of her shoe against the tiled floor and glancing back at the line. There was one person in front of Chris now.

 

“We’ll see,” she conceded. “I’ve forgotten almost everything about baseball techniques and stuff, so I will need help. Hypothetically speaking—if I do end up batting.”

 

Tetsu and Jun nodded, satisfied with her answer. She didn’t want to get their hopes up. The idea of batting again after almost six years was scary. Imagining embarrassing herself in front of competent batters like the boys was mortifying. She’d rather die.

 

At the same time, she was curious. She wanted to see what the bat felt like in her hand again. She had distant memories of batting in games, always striking out swinging, but the thing that stuck was that it had been fun. Waiting and anticipating the next pitch. That rush was thrilling.

 

It must’ve been what they felt like, standing in the batter’s box, waiting while the crowd cheered.

 

“—two of the batting cages. We’ll just have to share them equally.” Chris’ voice brought her back to the present and she blinked, looking at him. When had he gotten back?

 

“Alright! Let’s do this!” Jun grinned, leading them to the double doors.

 

“You’re so loud,” Amara muttered softly, shying away from the looks that other people were sending them. He reminded her of Eijun, except in a more threatening way.

 

“What’s wrong with that?” He huffed, but she didn’t reply as she was immediately distracted by the new sights and sounds. Visitors and athletes were swinging with all their might and the ones that were consistently making contact had gained onlookers. Attendants and employees hung back in the shadows, monitoring the situation constantly.

 

Chris led them to batting cages number one and two. A guy stood in front of them and smiled politely in their direction as they came to a stop in front of him.

 

“My name is Sora Yoshimura, I’m one of the trainers for the baseball team. It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’ll be your attendant for today.” They gave their own names and introductions, bowing politely since he was obviously older than them.

 

Yoshimura eyed them all with barely-hidden interest. “Any of you baseball players?”

 

“Not me,” Amara spoke up.

 

Yoshimura nodded. “Do you plan on batting today?”

 

She shifted awkwardly at the side-eye she was receiving from the boys and tried to focus on the handsome smile Yoshimura was giving her. “Maybe,” she hedged. “I’m not sure.”

 

“You’ve got time to think about it,” he reassured her. He turned to the boys. “Batting helmets are on the rack behind you, along with the bats. The only thing we don’t have is batting gloves. By no means is it a requirement, but if you’re in-season right now, it wouldn’t be best to acquire blisters.”

 

“We’ve retired already,” Chris corrected politely. “But we do have our own gloves.”

 

Lo and behold, they did. She bit back a snort. Baseball nerds. Of course they brought their own gloves. Any chance to swing, right?

 

Not that she blamed them, by any means. The facilities here seemed expensive and state-of-the-art. A quick glance over her shoulder at the helmets and bats showed her the shine of metal and plastic, the brand looking incredibly expensive, too. It made sense, she thought, given the prestigious status of Meiji.

 

Jun and Tetsu went first, Jun in the first cage on the left then Tetsu right next to him. He demanded—somewhat politely, due to Chris’ urging—to start off the pitching machine on 140 km. She leaned closer Chris, muttering, “Would you happen to know what that is in miles?”

 

He smiled. “About 86 miles or so. What, you’ve lived here this long and you don’t know the calculations?”

 

“No . . .” Her phone was still set to Fahrenheit and the Imperial system. “How do you know?”

 

He shrugged. “It’s useful to know.”

 

“Right.”

 

Jun hit the first pitch, yelling like he usually did. Tetsu—who had requested the same speed—hit all his pitches but retained an intense concentration. A handful of Tetsu’s hits landed in the home run plate, much to Jun’s envy, and Amara and Chris were stuck watching a one-sided competition. (One-sided because Tetsu was just swinging like he usually did, unaware of the competition that had been started, and Jun was probably trying way too hard.)

 

Yoshimura watched from a spot between the two cages, at a small doorway in the fences that separated them, ready to turn off or change the settings on the machines if needed. He wore the batting helmet as well, presumably for safety purposes, and seemed amused at the show they were putting on.

 

Tetsu eventually switched out with Chris while Jun took a small water break. Chris handed over the backpack he’d been carrying to her, adjusting his own gloves to prepare.

 

The little competition between Jun and Tetsu had gained onlookers and people were interested to see how well Chris would fair as well. Yoshimura set the machine to 140 km once again. Amara wasn’t surprised to see that he hit the first pitch, landing it right into the home run plate. She wondered about the state of his shoulder, though.

 

“Shoulders looking alright, huh?” Jun grunted, speaking low enough for Tetsu and Amara to hear it.

 

Tetsu nodded in firm agreement. “He’s good, despite being out of commission for as long as he has.”

 

Jun clicked his tongue. “He’s always been ahead of us. Guess even when he’s injured, he’s good at it.”

 

Amara smiled slightly. “Jealous, Jun?”

 

“Shut up!”

 

Jun eventually went back to batting while Tetsu hung back. Chris politely engaged in a ‘friendly’ competition of who could hit more home runs. (It was a tie, much to Jun’s displeasure.) Then, when Yoshimura paused the machines so they could get a break, Jun turned to Amara, pointing at her with his bat.

 

“Well?” He drawled. “What’s it gonna be, de la Garza?”

 

“Your home run competition? That was a tie, wasn’t it?”

 

He scowled. “That’s not what I meant and you know it! I challenge you to pick up a bat again—not literally, you pest—and swing with your heart!”

 

Amara turned her head, her grip tightening on the straps of the backpack. “And how will you know I’m swinging with my heart? I use my arms to swing, my brain—”

 

“Have you always been this annoying?”

 

“It wouldn’t hurt to try,” Tetsu said. “But only if you’re comfortable.”

 

Jun huffed sharply but nodded in agreement with Tetsu. Amara pursed her lips, rocking back and forth on her heels. Yoshimura had been watching silently, but when his eyes met hers, he gave a thumbs up. She turned to look at Chris.

 

He smiled, gentle and understanding in a way that made her heart skip a beat. “Do what you want, Amara.”

 

She groaned. “Fine.”

 

Yoshimura came over to them at that point. “Trying it out, then?”

 

“I’ve been peer pressured into doing it,” she muttered, handing Tetsu the backpack and her own belongings.

 

Yoshimura smiled, amused. “I see. Let me guess, though, you don’t have any gloves?”

 

Right, she’d forgotten about that. “Guess I can’t do it then—” she began, shrugging helplessly.

 

“You can use mine.” Chris undid the velcro straps of his gloves, then handed them to her.

 

She stared at them. “I don’t think this is going to work out.” They were significantly larger than her own hands. She thought back to that night on the bench when she’d boldly grabbed his hand. His hand had fit comfortably in her own, but there was no doubt that she had small hands, at least compared to him and probably Jun and Tetsu. At the same time, she wasn’t down to share hand sweat with some other person and while she didn’t really want to do this, she wasn’t going to truly back down from this challenge over a pair of gloves.

 

“I can ask around if anyone would like to let you borrow theirs,” Yoshimura offered, but she’d already made up her mind and began pulling them on.

 

“No, that’s fine,” she declined politely. At the very least, she knew Chris’ gloves were well-managed and he probably cleaned them frequently.

 

She slid it onto her right hand first and grimaced at the difference in hand sizes, the cuff of the falling to her forearms.

 

“Here.” Chris stepped closer to her, set the batting helmet back onto the rack, then turned to her. He took her gloved hand, adjusting the strap himself, tightening it so it was secure on her hand.

 

Her heart stuttered in her chest at his proximity, his rough fingers brushing against the skin of her forearm as he pulled off the velcro and tightened it. She kept her head low, training her eyes on the black pattern of the gloves. With his adjustment, they felt a lot more comfortable.

 

It provided her a good distraction as well, so she didn’t focus on the heavy smell of deodorant mingling with sweat currently invading her senses. (And it wasn’t even bad, that was what bothered her.)

 

He moved to her other hand and adjusted the glove accordingly. “Is that good? As long as it’s comfortable and not loose enough to hinder you, then that should be fine.” He stepped out of her space and she experimentally balled her hand up. There was some resistance, but she supposed it would be fine since she only had to hold the grip of the bat.

 

She nodded. “I think it’s fine—”

 

She jumped when a helmet was dropped onto her head, obscuring her vision momentarily. Jun laughed as she pushed it up and turned to glare at him. “So funny.”

 

“It is!”

 

“Do you want me to kick your—”

 

“You’re all set then?” Yoshimura asked, stepping forward with a metal bat in his hand.

 

She grimaced. Her heart was racing now, but it certainly wasn’t from Chris—she was nervous. “Not really, but I don’t have a choice.”

 

“That’s the spirit!” Jun laughed loudly.

 

She ignored him and took the bat from Yoshimura, finding that it was pretty heavy. She couldn’t imagine swinging this thing several hundred times a day.

 

“Are you right-hand or left-hand dominant?”

 

“Left-hand.”

 

“Then you stand here.” Yoshimura pointed to the right batter’s box. “Lefties are lucky. You’re closer to first base.”

 

Well, that was great. Except this was a batting cage and not an actual field.

 

She ducked around the net that caught missed pitches and then stepped into the box, unsure of how close she should be standing to the plate. Yoshimura must’ve sensed it.

 

“Stretch the bat. Can you touch the opposite end of the plate?” She could. He smiled. “You’re good there, then. We’ll stick with a straight fastball and I’ll start off on what, 125 km?”

 

“Uh . . .”

 

“That’s about 77 miles,” Chris piped up.

 

She tightened her grip on the bat. That still seemed really fast—no, that was fast. God, the speed limit on highways in the U.S. was barely 60 miles per hour. What was 77 like, then? She recalled trips to visit relatives in Corpus Christi, where the interstate roads were hitting 75 miles per hour. That was too fast.

 

She didn’t know how they did it. She didn’t know how Furuya was able to pitch those monster fastballs of his or how other batters even managed to hit it.

 

Maybe this was a bad idea. She held out the bat in front of her, both hands wrapped around the grip, ready to hit long. But the idea of facing what seemed like such a fast pitch was terrifying. Her heart thudded in her chest, stomach fluttering nervously.

 

“Ready?” Yoshimura asked, taking his stance behind the pitching machine, tapping a few things on the screen.

 

“Don’t be afraid of the ball, Amara,” Chris called out. “It won’t hit you.”

 

Somehow, she felt more scared. But she still nodded at Yoshimura, who smiled encouragingly then clicked something. The machine started up, humming softly.

 

But wait, how do you do this? What was the form? She knew there was a form to this and she certainly wasn’t going to attempt to swing if she didn’t know it—

 

“Wait!”

 

Yoshimura stopped it, looking concerned. “Is everything alright?” The other boys stepped past the safety net to look at her, each of them wearing varying looks of concern on their faces.

 

She took a deep breath, a valiant attempt to calm herself down. She shouldn’t be thinking about it this much, but if she was going to do this, she was going to do it right.

 

She tried not to be embarrassed, but she could only stare at the wall of the batting cage next to theirs as she spoke. “I . . . don’t think I remember how to swing.”

 

“You’ve seen us swing,” Jun pointed out.

 

She scowled at him. “It’s different when you’re actually standing there.”

 

“She’s right,” Chris agreed. “Do you mind if I help?”

 

“Please.”

 

He had her get back into her previous stance. He attempted to help her, but it wasn’t sticking. It didn’t feel right and it was showing on her face as she pursed her lips.

 

“Pardon me, if I may,” Yoshimura grabbed their attention, having come over to them. “It’s probably best to start her off as a beginner. You’re trying to show her the path that advanced players know.”

 

She stilled. “Huh?”

 

“Was I? I didn’t even notice. I apologize, Amara.” Chris did look apologetic, but there was another look on his face. It flickered too quickly for her to decipher it.

 

“It’s fine, you didn’t know,” she muttered. “What do I do, Yoshimura?”

 

He smiled. “Allow me.” He stepped closer to her and guided her through the motions, slower and with more explanations. She didn’t want to admit it, but he was better with his instructions than Chris was.

 

“Wanna try doing it at a regular pace now? I won’t start the machine or anything, we’ll just see how it feels when you’re swinging through like normal.”

 

She nodded and he went back to stand behind the pitching machine, the boys shifting so that they were behind the safety net once again. She ignored the feeling of their eyes on her back and focused as Yoshimura counted down on his fingers.

 

Four, three, two, one . . . She swung.

 

“Nice job!” Yoshimura nodded, giving her a thumbs up and a toothless grin.

 

“That wasn’t too bad, Amara,” Jun conceded. She looked at them over her shoulder, finding Tetsu and Chris looking openly impressed, while Jun looked reluctant in his.

 

She grinned. “Of course it wasn’t.”

 

“Where’s that coming from!” Jun snapped as she turned back around. “You can’t change attitudes that quickly, de la Garza!”

 

“What happened to our first name basis, Jun?” She asked cheekily, stepping back into her position and wrapping her hand around the grip of the bat.

 

“I’m gonna kick your ass!”

 

She snorted softly, lifting her head to look at Yoshimura and nodding. “I’m ready now.”

 

He grinned, looking excited. “You got it, kid.”

 

Amara was too happy with her success to scowl at the nickname. The power of swinging the bat, feeling the strain in her muscles, it was exhilarating. That rush of adrenaline had silenced the soreness in her legs—though she knew she’d be feeling it in the morning—and she was ready.

 

The machine started up again and her heart raced in her chest, but this time it was from excitement. The ball came flying out. It looked like—well, she felt like she should’ve swung but she paused for a brief second and it costed her the pitch. She swung and missed, cursing softly as she heard it fall onto the ground behind her.

 

“Your swing looks good, Amara!” Tetsu called out.

 

She took a deep breath, repositioning herself for the next ball. Another swing and miss. Her timing was still off. She was hesitating.

 

“Swing when it feels right! Don’t hesitate!” Yoshimura encouraged.

 

She nodded, readying herself again. There was the pop as the ball flew out and it looked right; she didn’t think twice about swinging and for half a second, felt the force of the ball connecting with the metal before it was flying, landing eerily close to the homerun plate.

 

She blinked. Had she just . . .?

 

“Alright, now we’re talking!” Jun’s yell was disarming. She jumped and spun around to look at them. He had his fist in the air, looking more proud about her hit than she was.

 

“A hit right between the second baseman and the shortstop. Probably would’ve hit the ground and have been caught by the center fielder, but still,” Chris’ smile widened and he looked . . . proud. “A hit is a hit. We need enough to get on base and you probably would’ve made it.”

 

Amara turned away, rubbing her neck sheepishly. Her face felt uncomfortably hot from his praise. Yoshimura had paused the machine and stepped closer to them, his arms crossed over his chest, grinning widely.

 

“An excellent hit. How do you feel?”

 

She shrugged. “My arms are kind of sore. Is this thing supposed to be this heavy?”

 

Yoshimura blinked. “Huh?”

 

There was a strangled noise behind her. “How the hell were you swinging if it was heavy, then?” Jun barked.

 

“There are different weights for bats,” Yoshimura quickly explained, seeing confusion on her face. “Most don’t need a different weight, but since you’re a beginner, that probably would’ve been better. I apologize.” He bowed formally and she shifted uncomfortably.

 

“It’s fine . . .”

 

“Amara.” Chris got her attention and when she turned around, he’d brushed aside the safety net and was holding out another bat. “Try this one.”

 

She traded the bats and sure enough, this one felt lighter in her hands. She pursed her lips, gauging the weight in her hands. She tried a swing and it carried much less resistance, but she wasn’t sure she liked it.

 

“Shall we try again?” Yoshimura asked, already stepping toward the pitching machine.

 

She nodded and readied herself in the batter’s box. She missed the next two pitches, her timing too early. She held up a hand to stop the machine and turned to the boys, a frown on her lips.

 

“Chris, could you give me the old one? I think I prefer that weight more.”

 

“Seriously?” Jun hissed. “I couldn’t swing with heavy bats when I first started out!”

 

Tetsu looked impressed. “That’s good. Heavier bats can hit faster pitches and help you hit long. Excellent choice.”

 

Chris handed her the old bat, taking the light one away from her. “Hold on, Amara.” She stopped before going back to the batter’s box and watched as he handed the bat to Tetsu for him to put back away.

 

“The gloves?” He asked, stepping in front of the safety net. “Are they still secure?”

 

She’d forgotten about them, honestly, but the mild sting in her palm told her they were taking the brunt of the force. “Could be tighter . . .” She said offhandedly. She dropped the bat, leaning it on her leg to readjust but he beat her to it.

 

“You’re doing well,” he murmured, fixing the velcro straps.

 

She grinned up at him and was pleased to see the smile on his lips widen as their eyes met. “Aren’t I?”

 

She wouldn’t be so bold, usually, but, well—she couldn’t help it. Swinging the bat was as exhilarating as she remembered. Plus, she had a terrible sports ego (though you wouldn’t hear it from her).

 

Chris chuckled, moving to her other hand. “Feeling confident even though you only made contact with one pitch?”

 

“Hey! It was a good hit!”

 

He stepped away. “It was,” he admitted. “Prove that it wasn’t a fluke with these next few pitches, though.”

 

“What’s in it for me?” She asked, picking up the bat and propping it against her shoulder.

 

He seemed surprised for a brief second at her brazenness, but took it in stride. “Your lunch is on me today.”

 

She pretended to think about it, then nodded. “Alright, that sounds adequate.”

 

“Adequate?” He asked with a huff, but there was no heat behind it.

 

“I said what I said.” She turned back forward, taking up her spot in the batter’s box. “Let’s do this, Yoshimura!”

 

“You got it, kid!”

 

She hit the next three pitches cleanly, a few getting close to the home run plate. Yoshimura increased the speed to 135, where she hit three out of seven, and then in a daring move, he raised it to 140. She managed to hit two out of five, but at that point, there was a strain in her arms from the weight of the bat, so she wasn’t swinging as best as she could.

 

After that, they wrapped it up, Amara finally retiring once she began to feel too sweaty for her liking. She handed Chris his gloves back and returned the helmet and bat. The boys took a few more turns while she headed to the bathroom to wash her face and clean up as best as she could. She hadn’t anticipated getting so involved in the batting, but she didn’t regret it.

 

When she came back, the boys were talking with Yoshimura, the batting equipment put away, the only signs of their practice being the sweat on their faces. They turned to her as she stepped into their group, taking her belongings from Chris.

 

“I was just asking—do any of you plan on attending Meiji?” Yoshimura asked, hands in his pockets.

 

The boys nodded and Amara shrugged. Yoshimura looked at her, waiting. She scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. “I don’t know what my offers look like yet.”

 

He nodded, seeming to understand, then offered them some advice on choosing a major. “Don’t rush to figure out what you want. College is the perfect place to try out new things and find what you do and don’t like. I came in this year looking to major in physics. I’m doing sports medicine now.”

 

Amara felt settled for a moment. It looked like even college students didn’t know what they wanted. But that left her problem of where she’d be going. If she even had offers from schools in Japan, where would they be? How would her family react to that? They’d make the assumption that she was going because of her friends and well, they weren’t wrong.

 

Japan wasn’t a large country and unless she went to Hokkaido, she could visit any of her friends by train if she wanted. Or maybe . . . being at a university and in a state where she knew no one was better. Was that kind of isolation better than being surrounded with friends?

 

Caught up in her thoughts, she barely managed to give a suitable and polite goodbye to Yoshimura. She followed the boys out of the batting area, checking the time on her phone. It was only one in the afternoon, so they had plenty of time to explore other facilities, but her stomach rumbled in hunger, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since this morning.

 

“What are we doing now?” She asked, fixing her cap over her hair again as they exited the practice center. The sun was beating down, and it felt like it’d gotten hotter if anything.

 

“Food,” Jun said. “I’m starving.”

 

She winced as she heard rumbles from their stomachs. That . . . wasn’t human. They hurried down to the food court and Tetsu and Jun split off immediately, finding their own place for food. Chris waited with her and it took her a while to realize he was expecting something.

 

“What . . .?”

 

He smiled. “I believe I owe you lunch. I also thought it’d be best if one of us found a table, then go and get the food. In this case, I don’t mind picking up your meal, but are you fine waiting?”

 

She laughed. He was so careful. She certainly wasn’t complaining; it was refreshing. “That’s fine with me.” She gave him her order after unsuccessfully trying to find out where he was eating so she could get something from there, too, and lessen his work. (He wasn’t having any of it, though.)

 

She found a clean table for them all and Jun returned first, carrying a tray of what looked like soba. They talked about the university for a while, then Tetsu sat down, having a bowl of ramen on his tray and his various side dishes. Chris returned a little while after, carrying both trays of food for him and Amara.

 

“Thank you,” she said gratefully, accepting the tray as he sat down next to her.

 

“It was no problem.”

 

The table fell silent for a few minutes as they got over the initial relief of having their hunger satiated, then Jun asked, “You ever get a text from your brother about the colleges?”

 

She pulled out her phone from her pocket and checked her messages. There was a text from him, reading from a few hours ago.

 

renee

yeah u have like a bunch of envelopes from colleges. mom said shes been meaning to mail them to u but we havent gotten around to it. theres none from japan, though.

 

She read the message again, feeling her stomach drop. So, university in Japan was out of the question. She couldn’t do it if she didn’t have a scholarship and while applying for ones was a possibility, the fact that she had no offers at all said that maybe universities here didn’t want her.

 

She wasn’t sure her parents could afford to pay for tuition, either, and while student loans were a thing, she knew what the cost of going here would cost and she wasn’t looking forward to racking up that much money for one year.

 

“He said I have gotten a few envelopes, but it looks like there’s none for Japan.”

 

Saying that should’ve deterred the mood—should’ve dampened their thoughts on her chance of staying, but they nodded, taking it in stride.

 

“I’m sure plenty of universities offer study abroad programs,” Tetsu suggested. “Maybe you can transfer after you get accepted.”

 

“Meiji does have an exchange student program, I believe, and they’re not too picky with the universities who they do programs with. It tends to just be the grades and background of the students that they focus on,” Chris added.

 

“You’re one of the top students, too, aren’t you? You’ll have no problem,” Jun said, before slurping his noodles, much to the astonishment of Chris.

 

Amara sat back in her seat, perplexed.

 

These boys were . . . terrible. They were here, positive and encouraging—being good friends. She didn’t have any words.

 

A nudge to her foot brought her out of her wonder and she found Tetsu smiling from across her. “We don’t leave our friends behind. It’s your choice to stay or leave. We’ll support you either way.”

 

She couldn’t hide her smile, finding Chris and Jun pause their small argument about table manners to nod firmly in agreement.

 

“Yeah, we’re not gonna just let you leave, you know—” Jun was cut off as her phone vibrated on the table.

 

She frowned at the name that popped up on her screen. “It’s Kuramochi.”

 

“How’d he get your account?” Chris asked, confused, and while it was a valid question—one she would certainly like to know about, too—the message was . . . strange.

 

yōichi kuramochi

are you with the guys? if u r tell them to check their phones

 

yōichi kuramochi

don’t come back to seidō

 

What did that even mean?

 

More than a little perturbed, she showed them the messages. Jun took out his phone with fire in his eyes, muttering about kicking Kuramochi’s ass after he’d disrespected his senior.’ Chris and Tetsu were warier.

 

Chris let her see his phone as he unlocked it and went to LINE, where several messages were waiting for him. There was one from Miyuki, Eijun, Tanba, and a handful of the other players.

 

“They’re asking us where we are?” Tetsu asked. Chris tapped on Miyuki’s. She read the message.

 

kazuya miyuki

everyone’s freaking about where u guys are, but u guys are at meiji aren’t u? don’t come back to seidō, there was a gas leak and they’re evacuating us. we’ll be at the park near sumiyori street. rei’s probably gonna be calling u in a minute.

 

She gasped openly, just as Tetsu and Jun swore loudly. Chris looked up at them both, urgent. “Gas leak?”

 

They both nodded grimly.

 

“We should head back—” he’d began, but Tetsu’s phone began ringing. A glance at the caller ID said it was Takashima.

 

He answered the call quickly, putting it on speaker. They all leaned forward.

 

“Yūki?” Her voice came through the speaker. She sounded worried.

 

“Yes, ma’am. It’s me, Jun, Chris and Amara right now. You’re on speaker.”

 

“Good,” she cleared her throat. “I’m sure you’ve been notified of the situation already, but I had to check in to confirm you all weren’t on campus.”

 

“No, ma’am, we’re at Meiji for the student tour. A gas leak, right? And they evacuated everybody?” Tetsu asked, tension lining his face. She could see similar looks on Jun and Chris’ faces.  

 

“There . . . was a gas leak,” she agreed, but her voice sounded off.

 

“Is everyone okay?” Chris asked, apparently hearing it as well.

 

“The gas leak . . .” she paused and Amara felt her stomach drop. “It started a fire.”

 

Chapter Text

13. the fire

 

For a few seconds, they were silent, digesting that information. It must’ve been too long because Takashima spoke up again.

 

“Hello . . . ?”

 

“Is everyone okay?” Tetsu asked again, urgent. They finished packing up, Tetsu taking it off speaker as they all grabbed their trash to dump and leave the food court. Students were talking and laughing loudly; it would’ve been too difficult to hear her as they walked along.

 

“Yes . . . What buildings—? . . . Are you sure? We can . . . Alright, I’ll tell the others. Stay safe, Rei.” He ended the call as they exited the food court; they all stopped, waiting for his verdict. He had a frown on his lips, unsatisfied by whatever Takashima had told him.

 

“Well?” Jun asked expectantly, arms crossed, his lips downturned.

 

“They’re evacuating everyone to the park—that park across from the cafe, I believe. She said they’ve accounted for a handful of students staying in for summer break but they don’t have all of the team yet.”

 

Amara felt her stomach drop. She turned to Chris. “How old were those messages?”

 

They pulled out their phones again, checking the times. The message from Kuramochi had been recent—but vague. She typed out a quick message to him.

 

me

we got the call but takashima didn’t update us on how everyone is. what’s going on?

 

His reply was quick.

 

yōichi kuramochi

shit hold on

 

“He’s probably gonna call. Did she say not to go back?”

 

Tetsu nodded. Amara frowned. “Well, that won’t do. We can head back to Hotei but it’s unavoidable to pass the park. Someone look up a train. That bus stop is probably out of commission since it’s so close to Seidō.”

 

“I got it,” Jun mumbled, beginning to tap on his phone. They began walking in the direction of the train station, exiting the campus. There was some buzz among the crowds as they made it to an area where surplus TV screens were mounted, showing advertisements and different news stations.

 

“Up there,” Chris called, making them stop and crane their necks to look up at the screen. Her phone began buzzing with a call just at that moment. She answered it.

 

“Hello?”

 

Her eyes remained trained on the screen. The picture was an aerial view of what looked like Seidō, but a fire was raging on, orange flames licking at the buildings, black clouds billowing up in the sky. Jun made a strangled noise next to her.

 

“Shit, the dorms . . .”

 

“Miss Amara?” Kuramochi’s voice came through.

 

“I’m here,” she muttered. “Jun, Tetsu and Chris are with me here, too. We’re . . . currently looking at a news spot of Seidō right now. What’s going on?”

 

The boys turned to her, stepping closer as a crowd parted around their group, like a rock in a stream.

 

“I don’t even know myself . . . We had today off so, uh,” he cleared his throat, “I was in the dorms, you know? It was way too hot to be outside but then, I don’t know, Ota comes banging on the doors, telling us to head down to the park. Said somethin’ about a gas leak. And you know, it’s just me and Sawamura in the dorm but he wasn’t there, either, and I wanted to look for him but as soon as I stepped out, teachers were pushing us off campus.”

 

Her heart squeezed in her chest. “Okay . . . So, who isn’t there?”

 

“Shit,” he cursed softly. She heard the swell of voices on the other end but couldn’t pick up anything. “Shit, sorry. Uh, the first years aren’t here . . . and fuck, I’m sorry, I keep—“

 

“You’re fine, Kuramochi,” she soothed. “I don’t care about that. Keep your head on.” She gestured to the train station a few blocks away. They should start heading down there to book a train if they can. The boys looked incredibly stressed but they received her silent message and began walking towards the station.

 

Amara glanced at Jun’s phone as he showed them the screen, finding the information for a train leaving in fifteen minutes and four seats already chosen.

 

“I’ll cover it,” he muttered, pulling his phone back to buy the tickets. “Whatever. Just focus on Amara and Kuramochi.”

 

Tetsu and Chris looked reluctant but did so anyway.

 

“A few of the other first years just got here, but we’re missing Sawamura, Kominato and Furuya. Miyuki and Nori aren’t here, either. The fire started after we’d made it off campus but it’d only been a few of us. I think everyone else had been practicing—”

 

She turned to look over her shoulder at the screen, where she caught sight of the baseball fields going up in flames. Other buildings looked swallowed whole by the fire as well.

 

It’s all too complicated and loud right now—“

 

Kuramochi’s voice was cut off by a barrage of voices. He swore again, loudly, making her jump, then—

 

“Shut up! You’re making it worse by panicking! Just shut it and give the names of who isn’t here, dammit!”

 

She snorted softly.

 

He came back on. “Sorry, Miss Amara .” He sounded genuinely apologetic.

 

“You’re fine, kid. Keep us updated and don’t do anything stupid.”

 

“Got it. Also, I tried calling Ryō but he’s not answering his phone, so I don’t know ?”

 

“I know how to reach him, don’t worry about it. I’ll call right now, so start texting Tetsu or Chris about who’s making it in. I’ll update them on everything else. Thanks, Kuramochi. Be safe.”

 

“Yes, ma’am, you too.”

 

The line dropped and she pulled back to look for Chiyo’s contact.

 

“What’s going on?” Chris asked, reaching out to tug her away from the path of a rushing businessman who wasn’t looking at where he was going.

 

They’d made it to the train station, Jun already having the tickets for the train, and began walking towards their own platform.

 

Amara relayed all that Kuramochi had told her. The concern on their faces increased as she spoke and she didn’t blame them. A large part of her was worried about Eijun and the other first years and second years. She hoped—prayed if she needed, even if she didn’t believe—that they were okay.

 

Just thinking about them . . . not making it made her throat constrict.

 

Chris pressed a comforting hand to the small of her back as she ducked her head to look back at her phone.

 

“All from a damn gas leak,” Jun muttered angrily, running a hand through his hair roughly.

 

Amara dialed Chiyo’s number, silently willing her to answer. To her utter relief, Chiyo picked up.

 

“What’s up? I thought you were doing that thing with

 

“Sorry about this, Chiyo. Is Ryōsuke there somewhere? I need to talk to him.”

 

Chiyo made a surprised noise. “Er, yeah, he’s next door, hold on. What’s going on?”

 

“There was a fire down at Seidō and well, they’re evacuating the kids but from what I’ve heard, Haruichi hasn’t . . .” she trailed off, hoping Chiyo would get the hint.

 

Chiyo cursed loudly. “Hold on.”

 

Amara heard the slam of a door, followed by rapid knocking a minute later.

 

“Miss Noya! I need to talk to —”

 

“What are you so loud for, Chiyo?” Ryōsuke’s voice cut her off. He sounded teasing, that usual light-hearted lilt in his voice. Amara’s stomach dropped. So he hadn’t heard.

 

“Amara’s on the phone. You’re gonna want to hear this. Your parents, too.”

 

There was no other sound other than the rustle of the phone being handed off. Ryōsuke’s voice came in with more clarity.

 

“What’s the deal, Amara?”

 

“There was a gas leak at Seidō and a fire started because of it. Kids are being evacuated right now, but . . . Well, a some of the first years haven’t made it out yet. Haruichi included.”

 

She held her breath, looking up to see the boys watching with bated breath.

 

“Are you sure?” Ryōsuke eventually asked, teasing lilt gone and replaced with a dangerous intensity.

 

“From what Kuramochi told me. I told him to text the boys if there was any word of them—” she looked up to see if they’d gotten any news, but the shakes of their heads shot that down, making her grimace “—and they haven’t gotten anything yet. Listen, though, we’re about to take a train back to Kokubunji and—”

 

“Rei’s letting you guys go back?”

 

“Not quite, but we have no choice. Listen, don’t jump on a train yet, alright? Just tell your parents what’s going on and have them wait for a phone call. I’m . . . not sure if it’d be helpful to watch the news about this—” Chris shook his head “—yeah, no, stay away from the news and just wait. Either admin will call or we will. I’m sure they’re fine, but we knew that you ought to know.”

 

Ryōsuke was silent for a few minutes before he cursed softly. “Fine. I’ll tell them, but as soon as we hear anything, we’re getting on a train. Thanks for telling me, Amara.”

 

“Of course. I’ll update you as needed and keep your phone on you, too.”

 

She ended the call, sighing heavily and checking the time. Their train would be pulling in in a few minutes.

 

“How’d he take it?” Tetsu asked, arms crossed tightly over his chest.

 

“He’s worried, of course, but they’re not gonna jump on a train until they’ve heard something . . .” she watched as the train pulled into the platform, the draft blowing stray pieces of hair, tickling her skin. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

 

“They’ll be fine,” Jun said firmly, standing up as the train pulled to a slow. “Or I’ll kick their asses.”

 

Despite that, though, the air was heavy.

 

They entered the train and found seats quickly, Amara and Chris on one side, then Jun and Tetsu across from them. It was a forty-minute ride to Kokubunji Station, probably the quickest one they could find. Amara stayed on her phone, switching between any news sites that had information and LINE. Her messages stayed resolutely silent.

 

Tetsu and Jun had received calls from their parents, worrying about the boys’ whereabouts, but they both assured them that they hadn’t even been in the neighborhood when the fire started. Amara noticed that they both pointedly left out the fact that they were currently in transit to Kokubunji, but didn’t say anything. They probably didn’t want to worry them and she understood.

 

Chris took his own initiative to call his father before he could start panicking and it sounded like it had been just at the right time. He’d begun speaking in Japanese, but it sounded like his father was in complete panic mode, because Chris sighed softly and switched to English.

 

She glanced at her phone when it buzzed again, finding a new text message from Kuramochi.

 

yōichi kuramochi

still nothing. fire department is here though and theyre looking around. the fire is getting bad, they dont know if theyll be able to put it out in only a few minutes

 

When Chris was finished with his call, she repeated the information to the boys. It really did nothing to lighten the mood, only serving to dampen the air around them further. Amara shut off her phone, bouncing her leg restlessly. When the train finally came around to Kokubunji, they all stood up, not even waiting for the train to pull into the station and stop. As soon as the doors opened, they stepped off, rushing out.

 

Immediately, she could tell that the fire was just as bad as Kuramochi and the rest of the news stations had said. The sky was tinged black, smoke billowing in the distance. People were rushing to get into the station or into a place with cover, hands cupped over their mouths, some having surgical masks tugged over their faces.

 

“Watch the air,” Chris warned, pulling his shirt to cover his mouth and nose. They did the same, cupping hands over their mouths and noses. Chris flagged down a taxi, ushering Jun into the backseat, then him and herself, Tetsu sitting in the passenger’s seat.

 

“Where to?” The driver asked, craning to look at them.

 

“The park near Sumiyori street,” Chris replied, polite but Amara could see the restlessness in the way that his fingers were tapping an unknown rhythm on his knee.

 

“Oh, Nishi Park? Isn’t that where the Seidō kids are being evacuated?” While their driver was a little too talkative for their current moods, he didn’t hesitate to pull into drive, making a U-turn to head in the direction of the park.

 

“Yes, sir.” Tetsu nodded. “Would you happen to know how exactly the fire started?”

 

The driver tapped his fingers on the wheel idly. “Not sure. It started as a gas leak, I think; natural gas is terrible, you know, and can ignite very easily. Stuff like that usually happens in the kitchens where they’re using flames and such. But I have to wonder who people are going to blaming this on, you know? Is this on Seidō? Or is this on our government? Many questions, many questions . . .”

 

He continued to ramble on about the pitfalls of the local government decisions that had been happening recently but Amara tuned him out, staring out the window and watching the streets pass. They were only a few blocks away when she saw that they were about to pass something peculiar. She sat up, squinting.

 

“Hey . . . Hey, wait, stop the car, sir!”

 

“What?” The driver stopped his ramblings to glance at her in the rearview mirror, pulling to an abrupt stop by the curb.

 

“It’s them!” She didn’t wait for a response, unbuckling her seatbelt and stepping out of the car. “Eijun, Miyuki!”

 

She heard the other boys climbing out as well but focused only on the terrible state of the boys, running towards them. Miyuki turned to her, his eyes widening. He looked well enough, but there was ash smudged on his face and clothes. Kawakami was in a similar state right next to him, but in between them were the first-years, all of them hanging onto each other with their arms over their shoulders.

 

Haruichi looked worse for wear, the ash stark against his pale skin, a scrape that was bleeding a good amount right over his eyebrow. Furuya looked like the least affected, though he had a cut on his cheek and ash also smeared over his face, like he’d been trying to rub it off but had only succeeded in spreading it. Eijun looked worse for wear, too, the ash especially standing out against the white Seidō uniform and on his face. It looked like he was relying on the other boys to hold him up.

 

“Miss Amara.” Eijun tried for a grin as she came to a stop in front of them. “It’s great to see you again.”

 

“Not under these circumstances,” she muttered. “Are any of you seriously hurt?”

 

Chris came next to her at that point, Jun right behind him. A quick glance over her shoulder told her that Tetsu was presumably paying the driver what they owed.

 

“I don’t think so,” Miyuki said. “It’s just superficial cuts.”

 

Eijun limped out of their grip and tried to grin again, looking too unsteady on his feet for her liking. “We’re strong boys, Miss Amara, we—” he began coughing harshly. “S-Sorry.”

 

“Were you guys inside with the smoke?” Chris asked, his eyes trained on Eijun as he got over his coughing fit.

 

Miyuki shook his head. “Nori and I weren’t. We . . . Well, we’d been prepared to go but Kuramochi had texted me to ask if Furuya, Kominato and Sawamura were with us. We both agreed to go back inside to try and find them . . .” He looked sheepish, strangely enough.

 

“That was a dangerous move, Miyuki,” Chris reprimanded. “But understandable. Sawamura, where were you guys?”

 

Eijun coughed again. “T-The practice center. The door was blocked off, so it was just me, Harucchi and Furuya—” he broke down in another coughing fit. Amara shook her head.

 

“Stop talking, Eijun.” She turned to Chris and Jun. “He’s probably suffering from smoke inhalation. We need to—”

 

“I’m fine, Miss Amara!” Eijun swayed unsteadily on his feet. “But I can’t—” He fell forward and she braced her arms against his shoulders, then slipped his arm over her shoulders as he just about collapsed.

 

“Call emergency services,” she instructed Jun. “Chris, you wanna call Takashima? Tell her they’re going to need to be taken in.”

 

He nodded, taking out his phone and stepping away. Tetsu came over to their group at that moment, receiving relieved greetings from Kawakami and Miyuki.

 

She turned to Haruichi and Furuya. “How do you two feel?”

 

“My head hurts,” Furuya mumbled. “So do my eyes and throat.”

 

“I have a headache,” Haruichi said, coughing, his eyebrows furrowed in pain. “I feel kind of dizzy, too.”

 

She frowned. Those weren’t effects of smoke inhalation. Well, the sore throat and eyes were side effects, but dizziness and headaches weren’t quite on par with it. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen?

 

She cast a short glance to Eijun, feeling his breathing becoming more rapid.

 

“Is it hard to breathe?” She asked, turning to look at him.

 

He shook his head. “I feel nauseous.”

 

She swore softly. “Tell the ambulance to hurry up,” she said to Jun, then turned back to Eijun, shaking him slightly. “Stay awake, Eijun. And try not to throw up on me.”

 

“I would never,” he mumbled, head lolling to the side, almost knocking into her own. She shifted underneath his weight, feeling strain in her arms. Tetsu noticed, taking him from her and keeping him upright.

 

“Is he going to be okay?” Kawakami asked, face pinched in concern. Miyuki was watching the first years with intense scrutiny, probably to make sure none of them passed out.

 

“I’m fine, Nori,” Eijun muttered. “Jus’ a little dizzy . . .” He dissolved into another coughing fit, one that was more violent, jerking his body so harshly she was afraid he’d throw up from the force.

 

“The ambulance is on their way,” Jun intoned, phone still pressed to his ear.

 

“Rei said they can’t get away right now. A few people have been rescued already, so they’re sticking around Seidō. She said we should head to the park as soon as we’re able to,” Chris stepped back into the group, pocketing his phone.

 

Right on time, they heard the familiar wailing of sirens. Amara turned around to see two ambulances turning the corner, approaching them quickly. There was a police car following it, probably helping clear the traffic.

 

The ambulances pulled to the curb and EMTs jumped out, taking away Eijun, Haruichi and Furuya. Eijun and Haruichi were placed in separate ambulances, putting up no protesting to being taken in. Furuya was the only one who could climb in without the help of EMTs. They were being hooked up to oxygen masks when one of the EMTs glanced at Miyuki and Kawakami.

 

“You two,” he called. “Come along.”

 

Kawakami looked hesitant, but Miyuki clasped a hand on his shoulder. “Come on,” he murmured. “Just to make sure. And keep on eye on them.”

 

“Miyuki,” Chris called his name, making him pause before he climbed into the ambulance. “You have your phone on you, right? Keep us updated. And call your dad.”

 

Miyuki nodded solemnly. “I will.”

 

Before the doors shut, the EMTs leaned back out and handed over a few face masks. “It’s not foolproof, nor something you should rely on, but it’s better than breathing in this air.”

 

Amara took one, glancing at it with mild interest. It was a surgical mask, one that they used in the hospitals. She slid it over her mouth, bending the metal part over the bridge of her nose so it stayed secure. They thanked the EMT and couldn’t watch them leave, as the police officer stepped over to them.

 

They gave their names to the police officer and when they finished up, he kindly offered to take them down to the park. Given the conditions of the air and because it felt hotter than usual—probably because of the extra heat the fire was emanating—they accepted. It felt a little weird to be sitting in a police car, given the reinforcement metal between the backseat and the front seats.

 

Amara brushed it off, sliding the mask underneath her chin since they were isolated (for the most part). Chris and Jun sat on each side of her, both of them silent and sullen. Tetsu was in a similar state in the front, though he hid it better since he had to engage with the officer in some polite small talk.   

 

She was worried, if she was being honest. Really worried. Furuya, Haruichi and Eijun had been worse for wear, and she hadn’t liked how weak they had looked.

 

Suddenly recalling her earlier words, she pulled out her phone, typing out a quick message to Ryōsuke.

 

me

we made it back to kokubunji and ran into haruichi, eijun, furuya, miyuki and kawakami making their way to the park. haruichi looked pretty bad and so did eijun, so we had to call emergency services. they just picked them up

 

She paused. “Which hospital are they taking them to?”

 

“Kokubunji, I think,” Jun replied. “It’d take too long to drive them to Tokyo General. It’s best to stick within the area.”

 

She resumed her message.

 

they’re probably being taken to kokubunji hospital. i imagine one of the boys will give his info to the EMTs so they can contact your parents.

 

She hit send, tapping her thumb on the side of her phone as she reread her message. Only a few seconds later her text was read and she received a response.

 

ryōsuke kominato

okay, i’ll tell them.

 

She watched another message come in, managing a small smile at its contents despite the situation they were in.

 

ryōsuke kominato

thanks, amara.

 

Ryōsuke was a worried big brother despite anything else he might try to claim. She certainly knew what that was like. The thought of it being Renee in the same state as Haruichi or even Eijun was enough to make her heart constrict in her chest.

 

Before her thoughts could get too dark, she heard Tetsu ask, “Whose bus is that?”

 

She glanced around, finding that they’d arrived at the park, but the thing out of the ordinary was not only the crowd of high school students but also the charter buses currently parked against the curb.

 

The officer pulled the car behind the buses, wishing them luck as they climbed out of the patrol car. Amara responded mindlessly, pulling up her mask over her face while bowing her head in respect. Her eyes still strayed to the buses.

 

She could recognize those buses anywhere.

 

“Those are the charter buses for Hotei,” she said, tilting her head in realization. “I wonder . . .”

 

She turned around and was faced with the principle and several other Hotei administrators—the respective coaches for the volleyball, tennis and soccer teams there as well—speaking to the Seidō admins.

 

Were they going to offer refuge at Hotei? Amara couldn’t find any other plausible reason to have their charter buses out there. It wasn’t too bad of an idea, either.

 

“I think—” Jun had begun but was cut off as some of the baseball team recognized them.

 

“Hey, the rest of third years are here!”

 

Amara dutifully stepped to the side as kids perked up at the sight of their upperclassmen. She caught sight of faces like Kuramochi—who looked incredibly relieved and gave her a tentative smile when their eyes met—Maezono, Shirasu, Tanba and other players, both retired and current, looking happy to see such familiar faces.

 

When she glanced back at the administrators, they’d stopped their discussion, the Seidō staff looking reasonably relieved as well, while the Hotei ones smiled politely.

 

Amara smiled sheepishly at Coach Nakamura when their eyes met. She seemed to sigh deeply before turning back to the others, resuming the discussion.

 

She jumped when a hand touched her shoulder and found Chris standing at her side. “You don’t need to be so hesitant to join,” he informed her softly, shifting his eyes to the team, where Jun and Tetsu were talking with Maezono and Kuramochi, the other players hanging onto whatever the two of them were saying.

 

“I know,” she replied, watching the group interact. “But I’m not the person they need to be leaning onto right now.”

 

“Are you trying to say something?” His hand squeezed her shoulder twice, a sign to show that he was just kidding.

 

She smiled despite herself. “Shut up. So, who was made captain? I don’t think I ever asked.”

 

Chris took his hand off her shoulder and she mourned the loss of contact for a few seconds. He stepped closer, though, crossing his arms over his chest and humming quietly. “Miyuki.”

 

She looked at him, her eyes widened. “No shit?”

 

He grinned at her reaction and while she couldn’t actually see it because of the mask covering his nose and mouth, the pull of his cheeks had his eyes crinkling in a sign of his grin. “Tetsu vouched for him. Kuramochi and Zono are his vice-captains. The team has a lot to work on before they get to the state that we were in pre-tournament. Of course,” he frowned then, “we’ll be suffering setbacks because of this.”

 

Amara pursed her lips. “I’d imagine.” She was flashed back to the incident on the street, Eijun’s weight on her shoulder, smelling heavily of smoke and sweat, Haruichi and his eyebrows furrowed in pain, Furuya and his dazed state.

 

“They’ll be fine,” Chris said assuredly, and in a bold move, he reached to grab her hand that had been hanging by her side, squeezing gently. She looked up at him, almost too overwhelmed by his hand encasing hers and the earnest eyes he was giving her. “We’ll get through it. Besides, the others and I won’t mind helping out with practice.”

 

Tentatively, she held onto his hand. “Yeah . . .” she responded lamely, too stunted by his move to actually formulate a cohesive reply.

 

“I don’t think I’ve thanked you,” he continued, apparently unbothered by her dumbfounded state.

 

She blinked. “Huh?”

 

“You care for the team as much as any other member or manager does,” he elaborated, giving her a gentle look (she imagined there was a smile to that caliber as well, hidden underneath the mask). “You care about us. I know I haven’t been consistent with talking to you, especially these last few months, and I know it’s probably the same case with the other guys, but you’re still persistent. Being there for us, taking us on with unending patience, I really can’t thank you enough for it. I hope that you’ll allow us to do the same.”

 

She was touched, rendered speechless both by his words and the gentle stroke of his thumb on the back of her hand. It felt like her heart might actually burst. Or just stop working from beating so hard.

 

“There’s not—I don’t—” she turned her head, rubbing her forehead in embarrassment. Her face felt flushed.

 

“It goes without saying,” she finally mumbled after gathering her thoughts. She daringly squeezed his hand to show that she truly did appreciate his words and that she wasn’t merely taking them at face value.

 

She was usually more articulate, but there was just something about him that was so disarming—she couldn’t put on her usual collected front. It felt like he was seeing right through it.

 

Perhaps the universe was sparing pity on her, probably saving her from more embarrassment, because only a few seconds later the Seidō administrators—an elderly  woman—called for everyone’s attention. She must’ve been high on the admin rank because the students fell silent immediately.

 

“Hotei has been generous enough to offer refuge in their gym. Everyone, please, file into the buses by alphabetical order. The first half of the alphabet will be the first bus and the second half will be the second bus. Please move in an orderly fashion.”

 

“I wonder which gym . . .” Amara murmured thoughtfully. Noda Gym was the best option to accommodate for this many kids—there seemed to be almost a hundred or so—but it was also only used for the volleyball team and special occasions. The default gym where P.E. was held was Ouchi Gym and while it was just as large as Noda, it didn’t have as many bleachers.

 

As if on cue, Coach Nakamura spoke up, stopping any students from entering the bus. “Direct yourselves to the main school building and if you’re not being guided, follow the signs to Noda Gym, please.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!”

 

The students didn’t hesitate, formulating the correct bus orders. She dropped Chris’ hand as other people turned towards them to pile into bus two, both because she didn’t want people to make unnecessary rumors and because she wasn’t sure where she had to go.

 

The confusion must’ve shown on her face as she stepped towards the coaches because Nakamura waved her off. “Get on whichever. The staff knows you’re with us. Be helpful and take your group down to the gym when we get there.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” She turned back to bus two, where Chris, Yūki, and Tanba lingered as students entered the bus one-by-one.

 

“I’ll be heading back with you guys,” she told them, falling in front Chris due to his urging, standing behind Tanba.

 

“You have signs to get to the gym?” Tanba asked, sounding amused as he glanced over his shoulder at her.

 

“We’re a big school. Besides, Noda’s usually only for the volleyball team to use for practice and home games, along with the occasional special ceremony. Security doesn’t like people wandering around the halls.”

 

The bus was filled with noise, kids speaking over one another. Some kids had their phones pressed to their ears, others had formed small circles with a phone held in the middle, probably looking over the articles and news spots that were being released.

 

She followed Tanba towards the back, where a few other baseball players sat. She recognized Shirasu and exchanged a polite nod with him before taking a window seat, Chris sitting down next to her.

 

Once the administrator from Seidō had taken roll (she noticed the exclusion of Eijun’s name with an ache in her chest), the bus pulled into gear. It was only a five to ten-minute drive, probably ten given the size of the bus and if they wanted to keep the buses together.

 

She was introduced to the new first-string players, all of them being first years, interestingly enough. She found Tojo to be the most easygoing out of all of them, maintaining both a polite and friendly disposition as he smiled at her.

 

“What exactly went down?” Chris eventually asked, ultimately silencing the boys and dampening the mood. Yūki nodded his agreement with the question, a serious expression forming on his face.

 

“Well,” Tanba began, a frown creasing his lips. “I’d been in the library when the fire alarm went off. And at that point, it had been a fire, though it’d only just started. No one knows for sure, but we think it started in the kitchen and spread through the school. They evacuated us to the park and only one teacher was there with us in the beginning, but as more students came, their clothes started to look dirtier, like they’d been trapped in the building with all the smoke. The first years were missing, but we got them eventually.”

 

He looked to Tojo at that point.

 

“Yeah,” Tojo sighed softly. “We’d all been in the outside of the practice center, practicing our swings and stuff, but the fire alarm went off. There weren’t any teachers for us, so we thought there might still be people in the dorms. We tried searching, but when we realized everybody had already left, the fire had spread. We had gotten close, too, but Ota got us out of there and to the park eventually.”

 

“And Eijun and the others?” Amara asked, deciding she couldn’t help herself. Miyuki and Kawakami she understood—they’d gone back in to find the rest of the first years, but how exactly had Eijun, Furuya, and Haruichi gotten stuck?

 

“If I’m not mistaken,” Tojo continued, “they stayed for the exact same reason. They can be kind of—” he grimaced, clearly not wanting to badmouth them.

 

“Dumb,” Chris finished with a quiet sigh. “But brave altogether. I’m surprised Kominato didn’t stop them.”

 

“Probably wanted to make sure, too,” Shirasu murmured. “He’s a caring kid.”

 

“Eijun did say something about being blocked in,” Amara muttered thoughtfully. “Could the door have been blocked off?”

 

Tojo shrugged. “I’m not sure. The practice center is metal and it’s pretty close to the dormitory.”

 

“We’ll get our answers soon enough,” Yūki said. “Coach and Rei went down to the hospital as well. They’ll update us if they can.”

 

The group fell silent, the mood somber. She wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer, but it was suitable. The people who did know what had happened were currently at Kokubunji Hospital, undergoing examinations and treatment. She certainly wasn’t going to go demanding an answer from them.

 

It wouldn’t do to worry about the schematics of things, either—not yet, not while the fire still raged on at Seidō, taking who knows how many buildings and dorms. Finding out what happened would just have to wait.

Chapter Text

14. refuge

 

The set-up in the gym wasn’t elaborate, showing that the admins had clearly made this decision on the fly. There wasn’t much, no tables or anything, simply the expansive space of the gym and the bleachers. Amara found that the black, plastic tarp covering the glossy wood of the floor only a little insensitive but she supposed it couldn’t be helped. With this many kids walking around here, they’d want to protect the expensive flooring as much as possible.

 

The volleyball nets that stayed up year-round had been taken down, the bleachers extended as far as they could go to allow the Seido kids space. The teachers announced that the kids could use the locker rooms to clean up if needed and that they’d start passing out water and food in a minute.

 

Amara guessed that meant the Hotei kids would be helping and she wasn’t disappointed in her observations when a second year teacher pulled her to the concession stand at the front of the gym. She cast a reassuring smile to the boys before she entered the back, spotting several familiar faces.

 

“Just start piling waters onto a cart and some snacks then make your rounds,” the teacher instructed, looking frazzled. She glanced out the door as the kids made themselves comfortable on the bleachers. “Don’t mind anyone else.”

 

Amara didn’t have time to say anything else before the teacher left. She huffed softly and wandered over to the shelves, where packs of water bottles rested. She pulled one of the carts to the shelf, lifting two packs onto the lower end of it and tearing a hole into the plastic. She heard a few more people amble into the back; a quick glance over the shoulder revealed it to be a few other Hotei students. Hanako was present too, sending a respectful nod to Amara when their eyes meet.

 

Amara returned it and turned back to the cart, finally creating a sizeable hole in the plastic. She moved onto the other one and once she was finished, stacked another two packs onto the middle rack, repeating her process. After, she stood up to reach for the boxes of granola bars and set them on the top, cracking each of them open as she did so. She didn’t bother turning around as a few more kids came in, a few of them murmuring about warm towels and boiling water.

 

Amara straightened again, wincing at the ache in her back, and checked over her stock. This looked like enough but those boys were bottomless pits . . . Maybe she could go to the other students if only to save the quantity.

 

She sighed and turned around, ready to push the cart around, but stopped short when she realized who exactly had wandered in.

 

She winced at the sight of Aiko; she was standing with her back towards Amara, helping a few other students dip towels in water and pile them up on a tray. The other kids from before had already left—with their own carts presumably—but Hanako lingered, seeming restless as she fiddled around.

 

Amara didn’t stay longer than she needed, pushing towards the door, but when the conversation drifted over to her, she had to stop and listen—unknowingly drawing Hanako’s eyes.

 

“. . . what happened. I can’t imagine anything happening like that here,” one of the boys was saying—a second year, someone she didn’t recognize.

 

The other girls made sympathetic sounds of agreement.

 

“Yeah. I wonder what’s going to happen to them now?”

 

“Maybe they’ll stay here . . . It’s not like we’re short of the room now . . .”

 

A click of the tongue drew Amara’s attention to Aiko and she tensed, not looking forward to what she might say.

 

“I mean, it sucks or whatever but don’t put that work on us, too . . .”

 

Amara had a few options at that point. She could leave the room unnoticed—pissed, sure, but unnoticed and unscathed—or she could confront Aiko about her usual lack of empathy and possibly start a confrontation.

 

“All I’m saying,” Aiko continued, suddenly turning around and placing a tray piled high with towels on the table, meeting Amara’s eyed head on and showing no particular surprise at seeing her, “is that they’d be a burden on us. Adjusting to them, adjusting the schedules, classes. It’s not worth it. Best to leave their school board to find somewhere else to settle. What do you think, Amara?”

 

Amara found the second option to be the best, all of a sudden.

 

She knew—has known since she’d met Aiko and they’d gotten off on the wrong foot—that Aiko thrived on provoking reactions. It wasn’t to get her in trouble, by any means, but of knowing the satisfaction that she’d managed to get under Amara’s skin. Amara didn’t know why. Well, she had an inkling and she’d tried very hard to settle that—to hide from Eiko’s eyes and allow her foster mother to focus on her actual daughter.

 

But Aiko was too far gone, shutting her mother out and firmly pushing her back towards Amara as a sort of reprieve.

 

In any case, at this point, Aiko was looking to get a rise out of her and Amara was willing to give it to her.

 

She took a few steps forward, the searing anger making her limbs feel heavy, restless—the familiar urge to just hit something rearing its head. “Watch it, Aiko,” Amara snapped. “Those are my friends you’re talking about.”

 

“What are you going to do about it?”

 

Amara took a few steps forward, closing the distance between her and the table quickly. Aiko stiffened, on guard. The other kids were watching with wide eyes, clearly not used to seeing such conflict between their seniors.

 

“Nothing you’ll like, so do yourself a favor and watch where you step. If I hear anything else about you badmouthing Seido or even setting such a bad example for our juniors about this, I’ll—”

 

The sudden rattle of the concession partition rolling upward surprised everyone. Amara took a few quick steps back, Aiko doing the same. She looked at the window, eyes wide. Hanako stood on the other side, looking sheepish. The loud noise had drawn the attention of the kids on the bleachers and the teachers standing around, all of them staring into the back of the concession stand with surprise and weariness.

 

“Sorry,” Hanako started, voice low, “I didn’t mean—”

 

Amara stepped forward to reach up and pull the metal partition back down. She locked it and went back to her own cart with determined steps, pointedly ignoring Aiko and the others as she rolled it out. By that point, the kids on the bleachers had seemingly returned to their conversations, though a few glanced over every now and then.

 

Hanako was waiting near the door when Amara exited.

 

“Miss Amara, it really . . . wouldn’t be best if you got into a fight with Miss Aiko.”

 

Amara gritted her teeth. Hanako had good intentions, but she just wasn’t in the mood.

 

“I had it handled,” Amara told her sharply. “Next time, stay out of it.”

 

She didn’t stick around to hear a reply, but as she strayed to the right side of the gym nearest to the concession door, away from the entrance, handing out water and snacks mechanically, she felt guilt begin to form in her stomach.

 

It was a rare occurrence when her temper got out of control, but it seemed to happen most often with Aiko. Perhaps Amara needed to try harder to avoid her.

 

The Aiko situation notwithstanding . . . Amara knew she’d have to apologize to Hanako eventually. Her junior had had good intentions and she was internally grateful for her intervention—although it had drawn some unnecessary attention.

 

Amara made an effort to keep the grimace off her face, the anger from earlier having faded quickly, leaving that guilt behind to gnaw at her insides. When she saw Chihiro enter with a few other second years, she knew it was time for her to keep her emotions in check. She didn’t need Chihiro inquiring about it here.

 

Luckily, a distraction soon presented itself when she’d just finished the right side of the bleachers and was passing the locker room doors. Kuramochi ambled up to her nervously, making her slow to a stop.

 

“Something you need, Kuramochi?” She asked politely.

 

He was shifty, one hand shoved in the pocket of his sweats and the other behind his neck. “Ah, yeah, do you mind if I get a few bottles? A few first years aren’t feeling too hot.”

 

“Sure thing,” she replied easily, tugging out a few bottles to hand back to him. She looked over to the side of the bleachers that she hadn’t touched yet. “If they’re not feeling good, they should see the nurse. Smoke can be deadly.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll do that.” He lingered and Amara knew he wanted to say something else. “And uh, thank you, I guess . . .”

 

There was an unmistakable pink to his cheeks and she couldn’t hold back an amused smile. “I guess?”

 

“Thank you.” He suddenly dropped down to a polite bow and Amara made a choked noise. “For staying calm even when I wasn’t. I really . . . You helped a lot.”

 

Her smile softened considerably. “There’s no need for that, Kuramochi. I was just . . . doing my job as your senior, I guess.”

 

He stood back up and relaxed, smiling cheekily. “You guess?”

 

She returned his grin. “Don’t be cheeky.”

 

Kuramochi barked a laugh. “Sorry, sorry. In all seriousness . . . Thank you.”

 

“Of course. Now, get those bottles to the first years. I’ll get to you guys in a minute.”

 

He nodded but he didn’t leave immediately, looking at her inquiringly.

 

“Yes?” She asked, wary.

 

He blinked, then shook his head. “Nothing. Sorry.” He sauntered off after that, not giving her a chance to further question him.

 

She pursed her lips. How strange.

 

She shook it off and watched him go to the farthest section of the bleachers where a group of kids sat, some of them actually looking quite worse for wear. Maybe she’d need to intervene herself . . .

 

But as she began the process of handing out the water and snacks again, she caught Kuramochi speaking to one of the Hotei admin and gesturing to the kids on the bleachers. She relaxed. He sure was reliable, wasn’t he? How lucky his juniors must’ve been.

 

By the time she’d made it to the baseball team, he’d returned to his spot with the other second years. They were all talking seriously, though conversation quieted as she handed the bottles down the line.

 

“Hey, Amara,” Jun called, standing up from his spot further down to claim a bottle of his own. “Are you a vendor now or what?”

 

She smiled sharply at him, holding out a bottle for him to accept but pulling away last minute and tossing it underhand to Tetsu; Tetsu grinned slightly and held it up in a say of thanks. Kuramochi let out that sharp laugh of his as a few other players grinned and chuckled at Jun’s expense.

 

“H-Hey! We’re guests!”

 

Amara passed a granola bar to Chris, giving him a look. He merely smiled, shrugging in a manner that said ‘That’s just how he is.’

 

“Find another vendor, Isashiki,” she said mockingly as she bumped the cart forward to tend to the other half of the team. He squawked indignantly—in a familiar way that reminded her of Eijun.

 

Thinking of him made her heart ache.

 

“What happened to first names?”

 

She rolled her eyes, finally giving into him and handing over a water bottle. “Stop complaining.”

 

“Don’t be so rude—”

 

A whistle brought their attention to the front of the gym by the locker rooms, where a few Seido admin stood. They calmly gained the students’ attention and Jun hurried to sit back down, Amara pushing forward until she stood in front of an empty patch of the bleachers, switching her attention to them as well.

 

“I know we’re all . . . jarred by this event and we deeply apologize that our dear students had to go through this. As of now, Seido High is still burning, but it’s been completely evacuated and the fire department is taking control of the situation. However, much of our grounds have, regrettably, been ruined. The fields, parts of the dorm and majority of the school buildings as well.”

 

The lull in the principal's speech made the atmosphere dampen considerably, some students ducking their heads. There was no shortage of tense limbs and white-knuckled grips on the bleachers from the team. She sighed silently.

 

The principle glanced over at the Hotei’s vice principal. “Luckily, we’ve found our solution. Construction will take time, so students are allowed to leave if needed but the dorms here remain open to anyone who needs to spend the night. There are some PE uniforms that can be attained for the night as well. Given that Hotei is so graciously offering us their newly built dorms, we’ve made the decision to temporarily merge Seido and Hotei for the time being. At least, until renovations are finished.”

 

There was a roll of whispers, surprise in their voices. Amara couldn’t say she was surprised.

 

Chihiro came to stand next to her, arms crossed over her chest. “You have a fight with Aiko or what?”

 

Amara sent her an alarmed look but Chihiro’s voice was kept low so that no other ears could pick up on it. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Aiko looks like she wants to kill you.”

 

Amara scoffed. “That’s nothing new. But,” Amara shrugged sheepishly. “Maybe we did. It’s fine now.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I may need to apologize to Hanako for snapping at her but other than that, yes.”

 

Chihiro scrutinized her. “If you say so.”

 

Amara shrugged her off. “It’s fine. Now, stop being rude and listen.”

 

But Amara couldn’t find it in herself to tune the principle back in—and from the look on Chihiro’s face, neither could she. The kids behind them were murmuring amongst themselves now and she couldn’t help but listen in on a conversation between a few of the second and first years, a group she hasn’t been introduced to yet.

 

“Can they really hold that many people?”

 

“It’s gonna be majorly overcrowded . . .”

 

“Seido has like, a thousand kids. How many people are here?”

 

“Only five hundred,” Chihiro replied breezily, having no qualms with revealing that she’d been eavesdropping. The attention of the boys shifted to her and the principal seemed to have realized no one was listening anymore, ending his talk quickly and leaving with Hotei’s vice principal.

 

Amara didn’t bother reprimanding her. She wouldn’t listen, anyway.

 

“That’s a lot of people for one school,” Kuramochi muttered.

 

Amara leaned on the cart, shrugging. “You heard him. Hotei’s been doing construction for the past year and a half to expand the campus. There’s only five hundred kids now, but they’re aiming for at least fifteen hundred. The dorms are finished and the school building has expanded considerably. They created an entire building and wing for this building.”

 

“There’s something else going out in the fields, too,” Chihiro added. “Could be a track but they haven’t said much about it. Regardless, you guys would have more than enough space to set up a mock baseball field.”

 

“Huh . . .”

 

They still looked concerned. Amara straightened up. “It’s nothing you guys should stress over. Our admins are doing what they can. They’ll adjust where it needs to be adjusted. And don’t listen to what anybody else might say about the merge, got it? You guys are here for better or for worse. Besides, by doing this it’s a good way to test out the new facilities.”

 

Chihiro grinned at them. “In other words, welcome to Hotei High.”

 

Amara smiled slightly and resumed her process, managing to rope Chihiro into it so she could finish quicker. She wanted to find Hanako and apologize—at that point, her temper had simmered and thinking about the entire confrontation only made her irritated, but not angry like she had been before.

 

But even when she wheeled the cart back into the concession stand—Chihiro hovering close by since Aiko was still present, though she was dutifully ignoring them both—Amara couldn’t find Hanako. She felt guiltier if anything. She hoped she hadn’t affected her too drastically and made her leave.

 

The apology lingered in the back of her head as the Seido kids began leaving, some of them hopping on the last few trains out of the neighborhood. Some of them chose to stay the night, signing in with an administrator from Hotei to get a dorm assignment. Majority of the baseball team had stayed, too, presumably because a fair few were here on scholarships from out of Tokyo.

 

When the clock hit six, with the remaining Seido students, they moved them into the cafeteria, where other Hotei students were already seated. Amara and Chihiro hung back at the gym to lock up the concession stand and before they could enter the cafeteria, where they heard the swell of voices, a familiar voice called out to them.

 

“Hiro! Amara!”

 

They stopped and turned. Amara raised an eyebrow at the sight of Chiyo, dressed casually in shorts and a t-shirt. She had a baseball cap tucked over her light brown hair and a mask nestled under her chin.

 

“You came along?” Amara asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

“With who?” Chihiro interjected quickly, glancing between them with furrowed eyebrows.

 

“Ryosuke and his parents, I assume. How long was the ride?”

 

Chiyo’s lips downturned slightly. “Three hours. And yes, I did go along with them. Thought I could help but it looks like everything is under control.”

 

“They’re serving dinner right now.” Amara tilted her head towards the cafeteria doors behind them. “Are you gonna be seeing Haruichi?”

 

Chiyo shrugged, uncomfortable. “Maybe later. He should be with his family right now.”

 

Chihiro and Amara shared a look, something that wasn’t unnoticed by Chiyo. She opened her mouth to say something but Amara spoke quickly, “Well, let’s get something to eat. You think you’re spending the night back here?”

 

They entered the cafeteria, moving over to the line to their right and accepting the food.

 

“Probably. What’s going on with Seido?”

 

“We’re merging,” Chihiro stage-whispered as she picked up a pair of chopsticks and a drink.

 

Disbelief crossed Chiyo’s face quickly. “No way.”

 

Amara snorted softly, following Chihiro’s actions. “She’s telling the truth. I’m honestly wondering if this is even allowed to happen.”

 

“It’s not illegal or anything,” Chihiro pointed out. “Besides, where are they even supposed to go? This is the next best choice. It’s not like our sports clubs clash or anything. Seido only has a baseball club.” 

 

“Perhaps,” Chiyo agreed. “I can’t imagine how they’re going to be rearranging us, though. At the very least, Amara, you’ll be seeing your friends everyday for the foreseeable future, right?”

 

Amara frowned at her as they came to stand together, Chihiro looking around for a free table. “I don’t like your tone.”

 

Chiyo grinned. “No?”

 

 A whistle caught their attention before Amara could say anything else. She saw Jun holding up a hand, clearly meaning for them to sit at their table. Amara snickered once she saw that the baseball team had laid claim to several of the long tables, students outside of the team being forced to find other seats.

 

“Problem solved,” Chihiro said cheerfully, bounding forward.

 

“Can’t imagine what this place is going to look like when school starts again,” Chiyo muttered as they followed at a much slower pace.

 

Amara grimaced at the thought. The cafeteria had been renovated, too, making it a larger building and adding a second floor of tables; the school had the foresight to add more kitchen space as well, opening up four areas where lunch could be handed out—though one was only open right now. Still, it wouldn’t be easy to accommodate all these students, even accounting for the Commons grounds.

 

“You’ll be taking care of us, right, Amara?” Jun asked cheekily when the three took their seats across from the third years.

 

She huffed softly. “You’re a big boy, Jun. Take care of yourself.”

 

That roused laughter from the boys as Jun’s face went red in embarrassment. Amara didn’t feel too guilty about it, cracking her own grin at his face and his sour grumbling.

 

Amara became aware of Chiyo’s tense form beside her, most likely uncomfortable from all the noise and unknown faces. As she prepared her meal, she re-introduced Chiyo to the boys—the familiar faces smiling politely at her, which she stiffly returned.

 

Chihiro chortled at her obvious discomfort, which got her a strong elbow to the side. Amara laughed at her expense, though, while the others grimaced. This wasn’t a particularly new interaction from the two, but the boys weren’t quite used to it.

 

With the new mixing, dinner had never been so fun.

 

The boys were funny within their own right—interactions they considered normal being completely bizarre (albeit amusing) to the girls and vice versa. Finding out they ate three bowls of rice at breakfast and dinner was an insane concept; Amara’s stomach hurt just thinking about it. It certainly made sense, though, given the builds of them. They were all lean with muscle, some stockier than others, the muscle no doubt being from their hard work on the field and the heavy meal plan.

 

When the boys had finished up their food, Amara finishing along with them, Takashima had entered the cafeteria and commanded attention, settling the loud voices easily.

 

“If the Seido first and second string players could come with me for a meeting, please.”

 

Amara watched as those like Kuramochi, Shirasu, Tojo and Zono stood up, the third years staying seated; she could see Jun pursing his lips, Tetsu frowning.

 

“The retired third years, too, please.”

 

She smiled at the stunned looks on their faces. “You guys heard her.”

 

That spurred them into action, scrambling out of their seats and picking up their trays to dump. Chris picked up hers as well before she could protest. “We’ll tell you what we hear as soon as we’re out,” he said firmly.

 

She smiled gratefully at him. “Thank you. Don’t worry about it.”

 

“You’re friendly with Takigawa,” Chiyo noted quietly once the boys had left the cafeteria. Chihiro made a hum of agreement, scooping up more rice.

 

“Well, he is my friend.”

 

“That so?”

 

Amara narrowed her eyes. “Are you insinuating something?”

 

Chiyo shrugged. “Depends.”

 

Chihiro snorted while Amara frowned at her. “What does that even mean?”

 

“He’s handsome,” Chiyo said instead of giving a solid reply.

 

Amara shifted uncomfortably. “Okay . . .” As if she didn’t know that. Chris was ridiculously handsome—objectively speaking, that is.

 

“Enough of that,” Chihiro said before anything else could unfold. “Hey, Asano! Sit with us!”

 

Amara turned to see Asano cautiously come over to them, a lunch tray in her hands. She sat down across from them, bowing her head to Chiyo and Amara.

 

“You’re eating late,” Chihiro noted. “Practicing hard?”

 

“No, I . . .” Asano flushed, embarrassed. “I sort of got caught up with my phone. The fire at Seido is all over the news and Hotei taking them in has gotten a lot of attention.”

 

“Good attention?” Amara asked, pulling out her phone to navigate to Twitter.

 

“Yeah,” Asano breathed. “Like, really good. A lot of people think we’re great for taking them in.”

 

“Can’t imagine the backlash if we hadn’t,” Chiyo pointed out. “The nearest school besides ours are the Kokubunji junior high and elementary schools, but those are at least thirty minutes from here. It’s not like the admin could do anything else.”

 

“Stop making it seem so negative,” Chihiro chastised. “You make them seem like a charity case.”

 

“She’s just in a bad mood,” Amara interrupted, and before Chiyo could try to refute that—even though she knew Amara was right—her phone began ringing. She glanced at the caller ID then stood up. “It’s Eiko. I’ll be back. Chiyo, play nice.”

 

Chiyo made a face at her, but Amara knew she’d heed her words.

 

She accepted the call just as she exited the cafeteria. “Hello?”

 

“Hey, I’ve been seeing the news about Seido’s fire. Are the boys okay? And you?” Eiko’s warm, motherly voice drifted out of the speaker.

 

“Mostly. A few of my friends—ones you haven’t met—had to go to the hospital, probably for smoke inhalation, but Chris, Tetsu, Jun and Ryosuke are fine. I was with them today at Meiji for a tour.”

 

“What hospital?”

 

Amara smiled at the fretful tone in Eiko’s voice. She was an empathetic woman, something Amara greatly appreciated. “Kokubunji Hospital, I believe. But don’t worry about them, I’m sure you’ve got enough to do. And the boys are getting a debrief from their coach right now, so we’ll know their conditions soon. Did you call Aiko?”

 

Eiko sighed softly. “I did. She’s none too pleased about Seido merging with Hotei. It can’t be helped, though. That fire did a number on their school.”

 

Amara felt her mood dampen at the mention of the school. “Yeah. It’s just good timing that we’ve finished our construction. They have the next week of summer break to finish arranging things for school to start back up again.”

 

Eiko hummed in agreement. “Well, that was all I wanted to call about. Everything is good on your end, right?”

 

“I’m good, Mom.”

 

“I’m happy to hear it. Also, I’ve scheduled you a check up here this coming Saturday at four. Is that good for you? I know soccer season is starting the week after next . . .” Eiko trailed off, uncertainty lingering in her voice.

 

“That should be fine,” Amara confirmed, studying the glossy tiles of the floor. “Practice shouldn’t run any later than noon, if we have any on Saturday, anyway.” They probably would, given the impending season, but it wouldn’t be anything strenuous.

 

She looked up from the floor at hearing a door open and took a few steps forward to look around the corner. She saw the baseball team spill out of a second year classroom, solemn expressions on their faces. She stepped out from her corner when Tetsu spotted her, nodding in acknowledgment and gaining the attention of the others at it.

 

“Excellent. It’ll be with Dr. Hirota. You’ve met her a few times when we had lunch.”

 

The name sounded familiar and Amara could recall a kind, older woman who always had lunch with Eiko on Sundays.

 

“I remember her.” She held up a hand in greeting at a few of the players as they passed by, none of them stopping to talk, seeing she was on the phone. Jun squeezed her shoulder as she passed, and her heart began to feel heavier as Tetsu gave her a small, encouraging smile. She wasn’t sure she liked their reactions.

 

“Good! I’ll let you go, then. Be safe, tell the boys I’m glad they’re okay and I hope your friends get better soon, alright?”

 

The hall emptied out as the boys returned to the cafeteria, but Amara started slightly when Chris leaned on the wall beside her, patiently waiting for her to finish her call. She gave him an apologetic smile which he dismissed with a shake of the head.

 

“I will, thanks, Mom.”

 

She hung up, shutting off the phone quickly and sliding it into her back pocket. “That was Eiko. She says she’s glad you’re all safe.”

 

The corner of Chris’ mouth turned up slightly. “That’s considerate of her.”

 

Amara fiddled with a piece of loose denim on her jeans. “She’s compassionate. Did you get the short straw of telling me what happened?”

 

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Chris said, amused. “But yes, I do have news for you.”

 

“Oh?” Her heart skipped a beat; she avoided his eyes. Strange.

 

“Well,” Chris sighed, either noticing her avoidant behavior and being too nice to say something or totally oblivious to it (she guessed it was the former), “the first years are going to be spending the night at the hospital for the next few days to monitor their conditions. They’re all suffering from smoke inhalation, Sawamura and Kominato being the worst off of them. Miyuki and Kawakami are only staying tonight, since they have some effects but it’s nothing too serious. There shouldn’t be any long-term effects but it remains to be seen.”

 

Amara took a deep breath, feeling a headache beginning to form in the middle of her forehead. The feeling of relief was insurmountable, but she couldn’t help her concern for them still. Having to deal with this only a week after their loss at the finals . . . She couldn’t imagine the stress.

 

She rubbed her forehead, a heaviness settling in her chest and constricting her throat. She took another breath when Chris reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, squeezing with a tenderness that made her breath catch.

 

The warmth of his palm bled through the thin cotton of her shirt, searing into her skin with a frightening intensity. Maybe in an attempt to dislodge that sudden awareness, or maybe because of her simultaneous relief and stress, she stepped forward hesitantly, invading his space in a purposeful manner that she hoped he’d interpret correctly.

 

He stood still, and she felt him tense briefly as she took another step, then another, until he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and eliminated any distance between them.

 

Warmth was the first sensation to register; the body heat he radiated was comforting, and her muscles relaxed unconsciously, arms tentatively coming around his waist. Then that particular scent—something sweet, something that was so effortlessly Chris that it made her heart beat thunderously in her chest, so quick she was afraid he’d feel it.

 

Chris sighed, a small release of air that sounded strangely pleased. When her hands unconsciously grasped the back of his shirt tightly, his arms tightened around her, like a silent reassurance.

 

“I told you, didn’t I?” He asked, his voice gentle. It reverberated through his chest, under her ear, sending traitorous shivers up and down her spine. “I’m—we’re here for you.”

 

She ignored her racing heart, struggling with her own guilt at monopolizing his affection like this. “Yeah, but I—“ She grimaced. “You guys have known them longer and I’m just—“

 

Chris tapped a single finger on her shoulder. “Don’t undermine your feelings in exchange for our own,” he gently reprimanded. “We’re all feeling the affects of this. You’re allowed to seek comfort.”

 

She faltered. “But—“ She stopped herself. Amara wouldn’t argue with him—that was pretty much the last thing she wanted to do. The guilt persisted, but it had simmered down, mellowing out.

 

He squeezed her shoulders. “This is fine, Amara. Leaning on us—on me—is okay.”

 

She took a deep breath and tried to imprint this feeling into her head permanently. This feeling of security, of warmth and unadulterated kindness. Once she was sure it was there, she took a step back. Chris’ arms gave way easily, but he grasped her hand gently on the way down, rubbing a comforting thumb on the back of it.

 

She could tell he was trying to meet her eyes, but it was too embarrassing, too mortifying. With the rough calluses drawing circles on her hand, her face felt prickly with heat. It was suddenly too hot in the hallway,

 

The sound of a door shutting mercifully drew her attention, and she looked around Chris to see Hanako exiting a classroom. She jumped for the opportunity.

 

“Hanako,” she called, eternally grateful that her voice was steady. Hanako looked up, surprise on her face before it smoothed down to a vestige of polite coolness. Amara suppressed a wince, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry about earlier. You had good intentions and at the time, I was just too irritated to realize that.”

 

Hanako’s mask crumbled, leaving wide eyes blinking in shock. She cleared her throat, regaining her bearings, and bowed politely. “I was out of step,” she said softly, a quiet protest to Amara’s apology.

 

The curve of Amara’s lips turned downward, then. “You weren’t,” she disagreed persistently, aware of Chris’ eyes flickering between her and Hanako. “I mean it.”

 

Hanako seemed to let out a soft sigh, then she nodded reluctantly. “T-Thank you, Miss Amara.” She left quickly after a respectful bow, scurrying down the opposite direction—to the dorms, presumably.

 

Amara leaned back, letting out a short puff of air, relieved that she’d gotten that out of the way and also managed to relieve some of her embarrassment. The minute twitch of Chris’ hand around hers brought her back to him, and a sheepish smile painted her lips once again at his raised eyebrow.

 

“What was that about?” He asked, sounding incredibly amused for whatever reason.

 

She shrugged  “Had a minor argument with Aiko. Nothing new.”

 

“Is that so?” It didn’t sound like he believed her.

 

Amara winced. “Escalated a bit more than I had intended. Hanako saved me—us, really—from an . . . unideal outcome.”

 

That seemed to stoke his curiosity rather than satisfy it.

 

“What was the topic?”

 

“All I’m saying is that they’d be a burden on us. Adjusting to them, adjusting the schedules, classes. It’s not worth it. Best to leave their school board to find somewhere else to settle. What do you think, Amara?”

 

She shrugged offhandedly. “Nothing important right now. Don’t worry. I’m . . . usually quite good at holding my temper.”

 

“I hadn’t thought you had one,” Chris remarked, sounding as though that particular piece of information was interesting. He began to walk in the direction of the cafeteria, Amara following closely behind. “One that wasn’t so easily provoked.”

 

“It’s not,” she protested. “Girls are just really good at touching sensitive nerves and Aiko happened to touch one today.”

 

A ghost of a smile passed over his lips and he said nothing else, merely shaking his head gently in a fond exasperation sort of way. It made her heart beat faster in her chest and her fingers tightened around his for a split-second as the doors of the cafeteria neared dangerously. She stopped walking, Chris following her movements and looking back at her curiously.

 

“Thanks,” she said, earnest as she squeezed his hand once again and tried not to get attached to the feeling of his hand around hers, warm and rough.

 

“It’s a given.” A squeeze of her hand returned, almost like an apology and an assurance as he released her hand and opened the door to the cafeteria for her.

 

Amara let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as she re-entered, the swell of voices immediately overwhelming her senses. She made a beeline towards the table they’d all been seated at, casting a fleeting glance over her shoulder to ensure that Chris was behind her.

 

Chihiro, Asano and Chiyo noticed her entrance and Asano quickly stood up, looking uncomfortable at the sheer amount of people around her. “You can take my seat,” she offered softly. Amara smiled gratefully.

 

“Heading back, then?” She saw one of the second years scoot to allow room for both her and Chris on the spot Asano had just vacated,

 

“I think so,” Asano murmured. She turned to the table, bowing politely. “Have a good night.”

 

Amara took her seat, Chris sliding in beside her on the bench. She was pressed closer to his side, if only to give Jun sitting on her other side room. He didn’t seem to mind.

 

“You guys sure took your sweet time,” Jun muttered.

 

Amara ignored him. “Have the families been formally contacted?”

 

Tetsu dismissed Jun’s indignant squawk, nodding at her question. Chiyo nodded as well, speaking for him. “Kominato’s parents got a call when we were halfway back to Tokyo.”

 

“Are we gonna be allowed to visit?” Chihiro asked, stealing a piece of meat from Chiyo’s abandoned lunch tray. Amara turned to Tetsu at that, wanting to know as well.

 

He looked thoughtful. “I would assume so. Maybe we can go tomorrow.”

 

Amara suppressed her relief at that, the tension in her shoulders uncoiling slightly.

 

“What about tournaments? The Fall tournament is coming up soon, isn’t it?” Chiyo asked this time, pushing her tray to Chihiro.

 

The mood dampened considerably, Tetsu’s thoughtful look morphing into one of muted distress. “Coach won’t want us to worry about it, not yet. It’s all up in the air at this point.”

 

The discussion moved to lighter topics, a few of the boys inquiring about Hotei’s schooling system. Chihiro answered the questions easily, appearing to have gotten comfortable with the boys.

 

At one point, the cafeteria began to empty; Hotei students retreating to the dorms and a few Seido kids leaving with their parents, but most choosing to spend the night in a dorm. The first string team bid their goodnights and the remaining few tossed their trash, exiting the cafeteria.

 

“Spending the night?” Chihiro asked Chiyo, who nodded with a deep sigh.

 

“Presumably. Granny isn’t gonna be too happy about it but all the trains are out of service for the night so . . .” she shrugged, unaffected.

 

“You guys?” Amara directed the question to the other third years—Tetsu, Jun, Chris, Tanba, Kusunoki, the ones who’d been staying at Seido over break.

 

“They’ll be staying at my house,” Tetsu replied, eliciting nods of confirmation from the others. They were already heading in the direction of the entrance, the girls following along.

 

“I’m gonna head home tomorrow,” Jun sighed. “No use for me to stay.” Tanba, Kusunoki and Chris agreed with him, all saying they’d already booked a ticket out of Kokubunji for the evening after.

 

They paused at the main doors, Amara peering out of the glass curiously. The darkness of the night obscured any visuals, so she couldn’t gauge how the air quality looked; she spotted a van sitting on the curb at the front, headlights on and glanced at Tetsu. “That your ride?”

 

“That would be my mother,” he confirmed. “We can visit the guys tomorrow, if you’d like. Akamine, Im, you’re both welcome to come along.”

 

Chihiro waved them off. “I appreciate the offer but I have some things I need to do for the team. I hope they get better soon, though.”

 

“I’ll be heading back,” Chiyo politely declined. “But I wish them a quick recovery as well.”

 

Amara stuffed her hands into her back pockets. “You guys can come down for breakfast if you’d like, then we can head off. Cafeteria opens up at seven but I’ll probably be down there by seven thirty.”

 

“That sounds like a good idea,” Chris agreed, then glanced at Tetsu. “Would your parents be okay with that?”

 

He shrugged carelessly. “Probably.”

 

Tetsu’s easygoing manner roused a few chuckles from the group and they said their goodbyes after that. Chiyo left ahead of them, having to take a call from someone, so she had gestured behind her shoulder in a vague manner as she pressed the phone to her ear. Chihiro and Amara took that as meaning she’d head back to the dorms.

 

Once they saw the boys pile into the van and drive off, the two started their own trek to the dormitory, going through the school building rather than outside. Meaningless chatter floated between them, topics of no real importance. But when they exited the school building and crossed the Commons to the dormitory, Chihiro popped an unusual question.

 

“What’s the deal with you and Takigawa?”

 

Amara blinked demurely. “What exactly do you mean?”

 

Chihiro spared her a disbelieving glance. “He’s—you—I mean, you two are close.”

 

“Friends tend to be.”

 

There was a roll of the eyes now, something that—according to the social hierarchy—she wouldn’t have dared to do with any other senior. “Amara.”

 

“Chihiro,” she replied in the same tone, then frowned. They paused by the staircase. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t see him like that. We’re just good friends.”

 

“Just friends?”

 

“Nothing more, nothing less.” Was it a hopeful lie or merely a means of defense? Amara honestly couldn’t tell.

 

It lingered in her head as Chihiro sent her off with a reluctant goodnight, and she climbed the stairs, her feet automatically leading her to her dorm.

 

Chris was a strange conundrum.

 

All these occurrences—the racing heart, the butterflies in her stomach—could all be chalked up to the fact that he was, to be frank, attractive. It was an innate response to his proximity. She was sure it’d be the same case if it had been someone like Tetsu, or Kusunoki. (Jun and Tanba took on more brotherly roles, for some strange reason.)

 

She could list a few properties that made Chris insanely attractive. The looks, sure, because he had a beautiful combination of Japanese and Western features, but he was an all-around nice guy, helpful and kind, always willing to lend a hand or advice. But the same could be said for any of her friends. Tetsu had a certain intensity that was attractive, too, a presence both on and off the field that gained attention. Kusunoki, for as much as she hadn’t spoken to him, was kind and warm-hearted, smiling often in a way that made him glow, and Amara would be lying if she said it wasn’t contagious.

 

Her female friends too, minus Chiyo and Chihiro. There was that third year manager, Takako Fujiwara, who was insanely pretty. She was kind, too, and always smiled warmly at Amara whenever they made eye contact. Hell, Aiko was pretty, too, if only her personality wasn’t the way it was.

 

Even Miyuki could make it on her list, and even though she found the front he usually put up not too attractive, he was still easy on the eyes. A pretty boy catcher, she’d heard he was called. And damn, they weren’t wrong.

 

(She’d be caught dead before she’d ever admit it, though.)

 

And she wasn’t trying to objectify her friends, she was trying to reason. If it had been anyone else in Chris’ place, she knew it would’ve garnered the same reactions. It was all the same to her.

 

So, yes, she and Chris were just friends.

 

Nothing more, nothing less.

Chapter Text

15. visitors

 

Waking up was a difficult affair.

 

Amara was tempted to stay in bed and sleep, especially after she received a single text from Fuyumi stating that practice was canceled for the day. But at one point, after Amara had snoozed her alarm for the fifth time, Asano’s went off and she decided it wouldn’t hurt to get up by this point.

 

(Asano did end up getting up first, so Amara had to wait patiently for her to finish getting ready, which led to her dozing off a few more times.)

 

When Asano exited the bathroom, she greeted Amara sleepily, eliciting a grunt in reply as Amara entered the bathroom. She didn’t bother changing out of the sweats and t-shirt, only washing her face half-heartedly, brushing her teeth and redoing her hair into a ponytail. By the time she was out, Asano had left, but with the lack of tennis racket against the wall, Amara knew she’d probably head out to the tennis courts.

 

The trudge to the cafeteria was tiring and once Amara slipped into a seat at an empty table, pushing her breakfast tray aside in favor of putting her head into her arms, she contemplated crawling back to her dorm and sleeping in.

 

She had fallen off that ledge of consciousness for a few minutes and jerked awake when she heard the scraping of several chairs being pulled out.

 

“Hey, Amara, don’t tell me you were planning on making this your bed,” Jun’s loud voice made its way to her ears.

 

She rubbed her eyes tiredly, frowning. “Shut up.”

 

The once-vacant chairs around the table were now occupied by the third years—Chris, Tetsu, Jun, Kusunoki and Tanba. All of them had their own breakfast trays, too.

 

“We can come back later, if you’d like,” Kusunoki kindly suggested, Chris and Tetsu nodding in agreement.

 

“What time did you go to sleep?” Tanba asked gently.

 

She covered her mouth as she yawned, shaking her head and then reaching for the tray, which was miraculously still warm. “No, that’s fine. And I don’t know, maybe ten. But it’s fine. Soccer practice was canceled for today, which is good, since I hadn’t accounted for that yesterday. Just give me some time to change after this.”

 

They all shared a look.

 

“We don’t need to go now,” Chris said, taking over. “Who knows if they’ll even be awake?”

 

Amara shook her head, firm in her decision. “We’ll wake them up if we need to,” she grumbled. “It’s fine.”

 

No one was willing to argue, so the table descended into companionable silence as they ate. Amara noticed that they were wearing different clothes from yesterday and idly wondered where they’d gotten it from. Borrowed from Tetsu? Or maybe someone else in his house?

 

A tap on her shoulder made her turn around, swallowing the rest of the food in her mouth and dropping the chopsticks onto the tray. Hikari stood there, wearing shorts and the Hotei sports jacket, arms crossed over her chest, The sweat shining on her face showed that she’d been practicing, and it was something that Amara couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty about.

 

The difference in drives between her and the rest of the team seemed incredibly drastic at times. She liked soccer — otherwise she wouldn’t have picked a school with a female soccer team and wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to get onto the starting lineup. But it just didn’t feel like enough sometimes.

 

Amara pushed those thoughts away, nodding at Hikari. “Yeah?”

 

“Meeting today in Coach’s office at 12. Some announcements about the Sports Festival and a few other things,” Hikari told her, her eyes flickering to the boys then back to Amara. She raised an eyebrow. “You can make it, right? If not, I can tell—”

 

“I can make it,” Amara interrupted politely. “It won’t be a problem. Thanks.”

 

Hikari nodded and left quickly. Amara turned back around, not bothering to see where she’d go. She picked up her chopsticks again, a little more disgruntled now. Hikari was such a weird phenomenon. Sometimes, Amara couldn’t tell if Hikari liked her or not. Not that it mattered, anyway, but she wished Hikari could stick to one stance.

 

“Sports Festival?” Jun asked, looking excited at the prospect. “You guys host one?”

 

“Every year. There is the National one, but it’s more fun to do it here. We tend to have a pretty big turnout, anyway. A lot of the neighboring schools come down to see it,” she replied, picking up more rice.

 

“Seido never had one. I suppose only having baseball would be a little boring for some, though,” Kusunoki mused.

 

Amara shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. I imagine you guys were busy, anyway. Our date usually falls in September. I’m sure administration will talk to Kataoka about it at one point.”

 

“What do you guys even do? Volleyball, tennis and soccer are the main sports here, aren’t they?”

 

She nodded at Tetsu’s question. “We usually have faculty versus students for volleyball and soccer, so the coaches and a few other teachers participate in that. The tennis team takes on food and drinks, but a lot of the other homerooms host their own activities, too.”

 

“That sounds so cool,” Kusunoki murmured. “You think Kataoka would agree to something like that?” He directed the question to the other boys, who were beginning to look geared up at Amara’s words.

 

“Maybe,” Tetsu hedged. “I don’t see why not. You guys will be in-season after break, aren’t you? Even with the upcoming Fall tournament, I think one day can be spared.”

 

“I’m sure the admins will make a convincing case, especially if the other coaches are there,” Amara added. “It’s more for fun, than anything. He’s not so cruel to deny that, right? I think that even if the team doesn’t participate, they’ll probably get that day off.”

 

They discussed it for the rest of their time there until Amara picked up her trash to go and change, promising to come back to the cafeteria and meet them again so they could leave.

 

The talk had awakened her, so there was no risk of falling asleep in the shower or laying back down on her bed and dozing off. She didn’t waste any time, drying herself off quickly and changing into a pair of denim shorts and a blue t-shirt. She wrung out her hair, brushing through then braiding it. She needed a haircut, she noted, seeing how it was already past her shoulder blades, though the way that it dried into curls made it look shorter than it actually was.

 

She grabbed her phone and wallet, leaving the dorm and quickly making her way back to the cafeteria. She waved at the guys from the entrance and they stood up, tossing away their trash and setting the trays down then meeting her by the doors.

 

They ended up taking the bus to the hospital, coming out to a fifteen minute ride. Amara’s eyes flickered to the sky, which was a pristine blue, so unlike the muggy brown yesterday. At this point, the news of Seido’s fire had spread throughout all of Tokyo and the rest of Japan, even a significant amount of foreign countries covering the entire debacle. The merge between Seido and Hotei was also approved of and Amara knew that Seido had ensured to pay all students back for any belongings lost in the fire.

 

When she’d scrolled through the news stories, investigators had said the fire was a result of a large gas leak, which then got the school quite a bit of backlash for a problem so substantial to be able to get out of hand so rapidly. After that, though, an inspection company quickly took the blame—a justifiable move, at this point, given that it had been their responsibility.

 

It was only their arrival to the stop near the hospital where they needed to disembark at that she started getting distracted at the prospect of seeing the first and second years again.

 

There must’ve been some trepidation showing on her face as they entered the lobby, Amara hanging back a little, because Kusunoki fell into step beside her and nudged her shoulder with his own gently, smiling assuredly. “They’re okay,” he said quietly. “I know we haven’t talked too much in the past, but believe me, they’re resilient guys. They’ll be fine.”

 

That was true. Kusunoki had been a kind face in passing, but Amara found herself having warmed up to him considerably. She sighed, feeling a sheepish smile crawl onto her lips. “I know, it’s just—they’re young, which might be hypocritical of me but . . .”

 

“It is our job to care for our juniors,” he replied, shrugging offhandedly in a way that comforted her. “We’re all worried right now. You’re not alone in this.”

 

Had his words been said with any different type of tone or facial expression, she would’ve taken offense, but Kusunoki sounded gentle, reassuring in a way that wasn’t patronizing. Then, recalling her slight breakdown yesterday with Chris and his words, she relaxed. He was right.

 

She shot him a grateful smile. “Thanks.”

 

He winked. “No problem.”

 

Chris went up to the front desk and the rest of them hung back, keeping to themselves. The lobby was quiet, several people seated on chairs, holding similarly concerned airs around them. Amara didn’t stare or linger, instead turning to listen to the idle conversation that Tetsu, Tanba and Jun were having about something or another. When Chris returned, the conversation ceased as they looked at him expectantly.

 

“She said they’re all located on the third floor of the in-patient wing but Kawakami and Miyuki are in a separate room. They’ve grouped the first years together in another room,” he relayed, voice low.

 

“Let’s stop by them first,” Tetsu murmured as they headed off for the elevator. “We can update them on what Kataoka said, if he hasn’t done so already.”

 

The ride up to the third floor was silent and no one still dared to say anything as they made their way to Miyuki and Kawakami’s shared room. It was as though they were once again reminded of the gravity of this situation; sure, Miyuki and Kawakami were better, but there were still the first years to think about.

 

Amara had no doubt that the team wasn’t just worried about their health statuses, but also about the state of the team.

 

Tetsu knocked first and they listened intently, finally receiving a “come in” that sounded like it came from Miyuki. He pushed open the door and the rest of them filed in.

 

Miyuki and Kawakami’s room was empty of other people, only the two of them placed on separate hospital beds, hooked up to various machines, changed out of the dirty clothes from yesterday and into hospital gowns. The two of them perked up at the sight of their upperclassmen and Amara hung back near the door as the boys entered, greeting them both with reassuring smiles.

 

She realized, then, that even though they were all worried, there would be nothing worse than to have their juniors worrying about it. The bracing smiles on their faces were truly convincing, and Amara could see the effect it had on the boys as they both relaxed minutely.

 

“How do you guys feel?” She asked when there was finally a lull in the conversation, after Tetsu had calmly explained the current situation they were in. Miyuki and Kawakami had taken it well, looking excited at the prospect of interacting with another school and relieved that there’d been something for them to fall back on.

 

“Ready to get out of here,” Kawakami admitted softly, Miyuki nodding in agreement.

 

She took a tentative step forward. “It’ll be in no time. Have your parents stopped by already?”

 

Miyuki nodded but Kawakami shook his head, and upon receiving concerned looks, hurried to explain. “My parents live out in Saitama. They’ve only just gotten on a train out there. They should be here in a few hours.”

 

Tanba nodded approvingly. “Going back home is best. You two shouldn’t be stressing.”

 

Miyuki frowned, a small downturn of his lips. “The fall tournament . . . The block games are starting on the 11th.”

 

“And I’m sure everything will be fine,” Amara interjected calmly, making him look at her. “The best thing you two can do for the team is get better and lend your strength.”

 

She meant it and tried not to get embarrassed at the appreciative looks shot at her from the third years, instead focusing on the slight curl of Miyuki’s mouth, showing that he seemed pleased with her encouragement. Kawakami’s cheeks were pink, but he nodded firmly, taking her words to heart.

 

They spoke for the next thirty minutes until a nurse entered with breakfast trays, smiling politely at Amara and the others then going over to the boys to hand over the food. At that point, they all silently agreed to leave them to eat, waving their goodbyes as they exited.

 

Chris pointed to a few doors down where the first years would be and Amara found herself nervous again, her palms growing sweaty. She wiped them on the fabric of her jeans as Chris knocked on the door. Kusunoki tugged on the hem of her shirt and when she looked at him, he gave her another reassuring grin, one that she accepted with a small smile of her own.

 

The door was opened up by a young girl with short brown hair and warm brown eyes.

 

She smiled softly at them, stepping aside to bow politely. “Wakana Aotsuki. I remember you all—” she cut off as her eyes shifted to Amara, who introduced herself with a welcoming smile.

 

“It’s good to see you again, Aotsuki,” Tetsu said. “The others are here, right—”

 

“Leader!” Eijun’s enthusiastic voice broke into their conversation and Amara relaxed immediately as she got a good look at them.

 

There were three hospital beds set up, this room clearly being bigger than the one Miyuki and Kawakami were in. Haruichi was nearest to the door, then Furuya and Eijun in succession. Amara wasn’t surprised to see Ryosuke, too, seated at a chair on Haruichi’s bedside near the door. He had a tiny smile on his lips and there were bags under his eyes, his appearance rumpled in a way that suggested he’d probably spent the night in the door. He stood up and ambled over to them, crossing his arms.

 

“Well, look at this turnout,” he remarked in a sardonic tone of voice that nobody took seriously. He turned to look at the first years. “They do care about you.”

 

“Of course we do!” Jun huffed.

 

“Did you spend the night here?” Tetsu asked, making Ryosuke’s haughty demeanor falter at being caught.

 

“Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter.”

 

Amara peered around them, inspecting the boys’ appearances. They were all wearing identical hospital gowns, their faces clean of the soot that had been there previously. There were several machines they were hooked up to and it made her grimace as she caught sight of the IV lines they were hooked up to, along with the nasal lines curved around their noses that fed them oxygen.

 

They stepped into the room, shutting the door behind them. Eijun had perked up at the sight of Amara and Aotsuki politely gave up her seat beside Eijun’s bedside despite her protests, only smiling reassuringly in a way that said she really didn’t mind.

 

Eijun grinned widely at her when she sat down, looking completely unbothered by the various instruments hooked up to him. “Brother said you guys would visit but I didn’t think it’d be this soon!”

 

Amara shot Ryosuke a small smile of thanks, which he turned his head at, retaking his seat by Haruichi’s side. She turned back to Eijun, but made sure to make eye contact with Furuya and Haruichi. “Of course. The others are going back home today, anyway, and I didn’t have practice, either, so it was the perfect opportunity to visit. How do you all feel?”

 

“Not as good as I’d like to,” Haruichi confessed. “I really didn’t think it’d be this bad.”

 

Furuya nodded in tired agreement, looking as though he’d pass out at any minute.

 

Eijun nodded as well, sobering up quickly. “Yeah,” he said, picking at a loose thread in the hospital blanket.

 

She reached out to give his leg a squeeze.

 

“Maybe if you hadn’t thought it was a good idea to play hero—” Ryosuke’s sharp voice shattered the calm and Amara was prepared to chastise him for being so rude about it, but Haruichi stopped him.

 

Brother,” he sighed, voice soft and tired. Clearly this was an argument that had already occurred. Aotsuki looked inclined to agree with Ryosuke, leaning on the wall opposite of Eijun’s bed with a worried tightness around her lips.

 

Amara gave Eijun’s leg another squeeze. “Be that as it may,” she said, “we can’t do anything about it. But honestly, what exactly happened?”

 

Haruichi kept reign of the situation, explaining that he and Eijun had stuck around to help evacuate the fields. Upon realizing that Furuya had yet to be accounted for, they started searching once again, heading to the indoor practice center. They ended up finding Furuya there, napping despite the fire raging on—Furuya became more alert at that point, seeming to realize along with the rest of them that if they hadn’t went after him, he could’ve been fatally injured.

 

Amara’s chest ached at that thought and she was glad that they’d stayed. Ultimately, it had been a lose-lose situation. Haruichi and Eijun could’ve left unscathed but Furuya might not have been found until much later, injured far more than he was right now. At least, here, they were okay for the most part.

 

Eijun picked up after that, explaining that to enter the building in the first place, they had to skirt around the fire, and by the time they’d woken Furuya up, the fire had spread to both entrances, causing the smoke to begin leaking in and trapping them there. Their last resort had been to guess which entrance had the least fire and push the door off its hinges, suffocating the fire for a few precious seconds so they could escape.

 

“Even then, that was still a risky gamble,” Chris murmured. “If the fire had blocked off your path to leave . . .”

 

The first years winced. “Maybe,” Eijun hedged, the quiet vestige he had being a strange look on him. “We couldn’t not try, though.”

 

“We tried to guess which side was the worst by looking at the amount of smoke coming in,” Haruichi added. “Luckily, we picked the right side.”

 

Eijun nodded. “Then we found Nori and Miyuki after we got out of the dorm area, somewhere near the sidewalk . . . I-I really don’t remember much after that . . .”

 

Amara took a deep breath, reaching out to grab his left hand, the one that wasn’t hooked up to the IV line. She squeezed it, relieved to feel the warmth of his palm against hers, flesh against flesh, reminding her that he was here and he was okay. They all were.

 

“None of you were burned?” Tetsu asked, a deep brown creasing his lips. The others had similar looks on their faces, but Tanba and Chris were more tempered about it, a mere furrow of the brows that showed their concern for their juniors.

 

“Miraculously,” Ryosuke intoned.

 

Haruichi shot him a look, then replied to Tetsu. “No, we couldn’t risk burning our hands or arms. We had to kick the door, anyway, and the soles of our shoes were enough to take the heat.”

 

That earned a nod of approval from them all.

 

“Good thinking,” Tanba praised, Chris nodding in agreement.

 

“Still, doesn’t beat the fact that you all risked your lives,” Ryosuke said, disapproving.

 

“Yeah,” Aotsuki agreed, a frown developing on her face. “It wasn’t a time to be playing heroics—”

 

“We wouldn’t have found Furuya!” Eijun protested. “What are you trying to say?”

 

Amara sighed. “They’re right, it was reckless,” she directed that to the boys, unable to let them completely off the hook. Upon seeing the downcast looks, she quickly added, “but you had good intentions and fortunately, acting on those good intentions didn’t harm you as badly as it could’ve. Personally, I think it was worth it. Who knows what could’ve happened if Furuya stayed there any longer?”

 

Aotsuki and Ryosuke softened considerably after that.

 

“Well . . . It’s what you do for friends,” Kusunoki said, smiling at the first years. “Thankfully, it turned out well. How long are you all supposed to be staying?”

 

The words of their upperclassmen was balm to their wounds, all of them relaxing slightly.

 

“The doctor said for a few more days,” Aotsuki chimed in, her disapproval seeming to have evaporated. “Then a few more days to take it easy. Just in time for school to start again, anyway.”

 

“That’s not too bad,” Kusunoki said levelly, then glanced at Ryosuke. “Ryo, have you told them--?”

 

“No,” he replied easily. “I was gonna let Amara do that.”

 

“Do what?” She asked warily.

 

“Tell them about our . . . current arrangement.”

 

“Oh! I guess I can,” she shrugged, turning to look at the first years. “Given that Seido is mostly irreparable right now, you guys really can’t use the campus, so Hotei has offered Seido a place on our campus. We have enough room, too, since we’ve just finished construction to expand.”

 

“Wow!” Eijun grinned. “So, we get to go to school with you, now?”

 

Amara laughed. “Yeah. I mean, we’ll be in different areas, but you’ll see me a lot more often.”

 

“What about the field?” Haruichi pointed out, though not unkindly. Furuya and Eijun perked up at that.

 

“Ah . . . Well, right now, I haven’t heard anything, but we have more than enough space to build a make-shift field, so I’m sure everything will be done by the time you guys come back.”

 

“I’m sure Coach has plans to restock our equipment as well,” Tetsu added. “Baseball can be played anywhere as long as you have the correct equipment and enough people.”

 

Conversation diverged at that point as the boys wanted to hear about what had been going on and the third years were too happy to tell them. They stuck around until Haruichi’s parents returned, where they then excused themselves and said their goodbyes.

 

Walking out of the hospital room had a certain weight lifted from Amara’s shoulders, like she could breathe easier. The other boys felt it, too, as conversation was light-hearted while they made their way out of the hospital.

 

A quick glance at her phone said that it was already eleven, which meant she should probably head back to Hotei. She mentioned it to them as they exited, loitering around by the entrance to talk for a few more minutes.

 

“Yeah, I should probably head to the train station,” Jun said. “My train leaves at one.”

 

“Mine as well,” Kusunoki added, Tanba nodding in agreement.

 

“I think mine leaves at two-thirty,” Chris murmured, taking out his phone to check.

 

“We should get going, then,” Amara said, leading them back to the bus stop. “The bus stops at Hotei, then the train station, right?”

 

“Yes, but I’ll be getting off with you at Hotei. That’s where my mother will be picking me up,” Tetsu explained, pulling out his wallet to take out the bus pass.

 

Amara nodded, doing the same—though she had to pay in yen, since she didn’t take the bus that often. The bus arrived ten minutes later, taking them back into the smaller part of Kokubunji, where Hotei and Seido were.

 

Once Hotei came into sight, she tugged on the wire near the window to signal for a stop and stood up, Tetsu following her.

 

“Get home safe,” she told them.

 

Kusunoki smiled. “I was going to suggest we all hang out over break, but this is our last week, isn’t it?”

 

“We can think of something,” Amara assured him. “Even then, you guys will be back at Hotei this Saturday to get settled in, so if we can’t, that’s alright, too.”

 

She handed over her phone to Tanba and Kusunoki, then, having them add their LINE accounts into her list—Tanba looking a little pink in the face as he did so, and Kusunoki also holding the slightest hints of red in his cheeks. She chuckled at their reactions and as the bus pulled to a stop, she gave her goodbyes, making them all promise to message her and Tetsu once they got home.  

 

Amara accepted Tetsu’s hand as she stepped off the bus, briefly surprised at how coarse his hands were. It made sense, though. He had been the cleanup for Seido, after all.

 

They lingered by the entrance to Hotei and once she saw the van from last night pull up, a kind-looking woman with black hair sitting in the front seat, she let him go.

 

“Thanks for coming out with us today,” he said before she left.

 

Amara smiled. “Thanks for inviting me. Get home safe, alright?”

 

“I will.”

 

She chuckled at his resolute attitude for something so mundane and watched him get into the passenger’s side, holding up a hand in goodbye when his mother smiled and waved just before they pulled off.

 

~

 

The meeting wasn’t as long as it could’ve been, though Amara was mostly grateful for that. She didn’t need to spend too much time with her teammates.

 

“The Sports Festival will be held on September 8th. This year’s Fall Tournament drawings will be held on the 30th of this month. Fuyumi, you will be going to represent us. For the Sports Festival, you all will be facing the faculty team, which includes myself, the other coaches and several of the second year teachers. That is the only game the team as a whole will be having. The rest of the games are open for others . . .”

 

The rest of the meeting didn’t entail much, given that the drawings hadn’t happened yet. Amara hoped they’d get an easier pick, if only to take them further than they’d been going for the past two years. In her first year, they’d only made it to the quarterfinals, then in her second, only to the semis. The goal this year was finals—not only to make it but to win and earn their ticket to Nationals.

 

The room vacated quickly after the meeting was adjourned and Amara stopped by her dorm to change into a pair of the uniform shorts, a compression shirt and cleats. The sun was high in the sky already, meaning no one would be out on the field. She stopped by the supply room to grab a soccer ball, and once she saw that it was empty, took to practicing what she could on her own.

 

Having to monitor her own form and progress almost made her miss Hanako, who she hadn’t seen since yesterday. Amara hoped her apology had been taken to heart.

 

After practicing until she knew there’d be soreness in her limbs the next day, she took a seat on the bleachers, careful to not allow her exposed skin touch the hot metal. Amara took a deep breath, drinking more water and wiping away the sweat that was dripping down her face. A loud cheer from the side made her jump, but a quick glance said it was only the tennis team.

 

They must’ve had a meeting, because they were dispersing from the large group, laughter and yells making their way over to her. Amara sighed, feeling the familiar insecurities settle into her limbs like lead. She stared at the grass, sweaty fingers tightening over the water bottle.

 

The disconnection from her teammates always struck her in the oddest of times. Never in the locker room, where players clumped together and giggled about something or another, or when they’d take over a lunch table and have a grand time, never extending an invitation to her.

 

It was the most prevalent when she was comparing to another team, another set of dynamics and friendships. A team where there were no gaps or discrepancies. Seido. The tennis team. The volleyball team.

 

She cast another look at the tennis team and started once she realized someone had taken a seat beside her, obscuring her view of the tennis courts. It was Hikari.

 

Amara scooted to the side, carefully adding some distance between them. “What is it?” She asked, a tad ruder than she would’ve been if Hikari hadn’t startled her.

 

Hikari shrugged, turning to look at the field in front of them. “Saw you here. Looked like you were deep in thought.”

 

“So, you decided to scare me?” Amara asked, incredulous.

 

“A bonus on my part. What has you so down?”

 

Amara shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

 

Hikari snorted. “A likely story. Is it, perchance, the fractured relationships you have with our team?”

 

Amara blanched, wondering how she’d figured it out so quickly. “W-What?”

 

“You know,” Hikari began thoughtfully, crossing one leg over the other and tilting her face towards the sky. “I’ve always felt the team thought too highly of Aiko.”

 

Amara didn’t say anything, unsure of how to reply and how this related to her. She watched Hikari warily, suppressing the urge to run away.

 

“Which is what lead to Aiko’s deterioration, in my personal opinion. If she hadn’t gotten so cocky, we could’ve gone farther than we had originally.” Hikari cast Amara a watchful glance. “Don’t let the same thing happen to you.”

 

Amara scowled. “Unlikely, given, as you said, the fractured relationships I have with the team.”

 

“Maybe. But keep in mind that I’ve also liked you a lot more than I ever did Aiko. She was hell to work with, you know that? Frankly, I prefer you to her. You’re much easier to work with—far better at listening.”

 

Amara shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t see why you’re telling me this,” she said stiffly.

 

Hikari snorted. “I’m trying to cheer you up, don’t you see? The team may hate you, but you have me in your corner.”

 

And somehow, that was worse than having the team hate her.

 

Amara stood up quickly. “I have to go. Ah . . .” she hesitated. “Thanks.”

 

She picked up her phone and water bottle, fetching the soccer ball from the goal and leaving quickly. She didn’t bother to look back.

 

There was something that bothered her about Hikari. A strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. Like Hikari could be her worst enemy or her greatest ally. Even then, thinking about Hikari as the one on her side made her uneasy. The things she’d said about Aiko—her deteriorating performance on the team when second year came to a close that soon led to her being kicked off and Amara being taken in, the high attitude of which the team held her in, even after being booted off the starting lineup.

 

It was all true, but hearing Hikari say it, with no real malicious intent but no true feeling, either, as though losing the second half of the center midfielders was no big deal—it felt too cruel. Too cold.

 

Which was strange, given her and Aiko’s strained relationship. But then again, there were quite a few things they both agreed on. Making Eiko happy was one of them, despite Aiko’s actions, and getting to Nationals. Amara respected her on those aspects—her priorities were well in order, so who cared if she was rude and tried to constantly provoke her?

 

For the first time since Amara had met Aiko, she was on her side. And she wasn’t sure how she felt about that.  

Chapter Text

 16. saturday

 

The conversation with Hikari continued to haunt her for the rest of the week.

 

With the additional absence of the guys and Chiyo, there was no substantial distraction. Chihiro was busy with the tennis club, doing her captain duties and such, so Amara felt guilty for dragging her away from it.

 

Though Eijun’s cheerful text message on Tuesday about their release from the hospital and eventual trip back home provided a nice break, albeit small.

 

clean bill of health!!!!! now we just rest!!! can’t wait to see you this saturday!!!!!

 

The last part had been a bit surprising, though she certainly appreciated it. She knew Eijun held her in high regard—for whatever reason—but it had been quite . . . forward. Then again, she reasoned, he was a fifteen-year-old boy who thought about baseball and only baseball, so he probably didn’t realize that.

 

Coming to that conclusion had made the message all the more endearing.

 

But even with the brief distraction, her mind went back to the conversation, like a rubber-band snapping back into place.  

 

So when Eiko had texted her on Thursday night and asked if she’d take the subway into Tokyo at ten in the morning instead of two in the afternoon so they could ‘hangout’ Amara jumped for the opportunity.

 

It’d been a while since they’d spent time together and if it served as a good distraction, then that was merely a bonus.

 

It was a truly nice twist of events, Amara thought, when she’d stepped off the subway and was greeted with Eiko’s beaming smile.

 

“Have you eaten?” She demanded after squeezing the life out of Amara. She inspected her with trained eyes, pursing her lips. “You look a little thin.”

 

“Mom, I’ve gained weight.”

 

“All the more better, then! Let’s get going!”

 

Things had been going well after they’d picked up a light snack and made way for the shopping district. No thoughts about Hikari, Aiko, school, soccer, the guys—it was just her and Eiko, enjoying their time together. Even when she realized they were on a path to the shopping district, she pushed down any wariness about it—given Eiko’s spending habits—and appeased her.

 

“I’m not gonna always be able to buy you clothes, you know,” Eiko said as they entered the mall, spotting the furrow in Amara’s brow. “Give me my small pleasures, kiddo.”

 

“But it’s not necessary,” Amara replied as politely as she possibly could. “I’m gonna end up needing another suitcase for all the stuff you’ve gotten me . . .”

 

“And I’ll get that, too!”

 

Eiko was good at picking out clothes as well, seeming to know Amara’s style and only finding the stuff she’d want to wear. That made it all the more difficult to decline anything. But of course, declining too much could sour things quickly, so Amara tried to toe that line carefully, agreeing to the cheaper pieces of clothing and showing caution to the pricier clothes of her pickings.

 

They entered an H&M at one point, a store Amara preferred because of the simplistic styles and decent prices, and after going through the men’s section, they made a line for the women’s department on the second floor. There was a wistful expression on Eiko’s face as Amara reexamined the shirts she’d picked up.

 

“You know,” she began, her voice quiet. “I am going to miss you when you leave.”

 

And just like that, the rose-colored glasses that Amara had been seeing the world in that day shattered.

 

It was such a strange feeling, a swooping sensation in her stomach that made her queasy. She grabbed the railing on the escalator for some stabilization, feeling the vibrations of the movement through the thick rubber. Eiko didn’t seem to realize the change in disposition.  

 

Looking at it in a big picture, seeing the problems she had on her plate, it almost made her sick. No, wait—her stomach tightened painfully; she was sick.

 

The escalator folded into itself, bringing the second floor close enough for them to step onto

 

“Mom . . .” Amara muttered, swallowing thickly.

 

“I’m not trying to be a downer,” Eiko said, holding up her hands as she went over to the wall that held summer clothing. “But I just—well, we’ve only got New Years, don’t we? You’re leaving the day after graduation. We can’t even spend spring break together!”

 

Painful reminders. That was all her words were.

 

Eiko brushed her hand over a shirt; it was a gentle yellow that wasn’t oppressive against the eyes. She hummed and bent to look at the shorts offered underneath it.

 

“White and yellow?” She asked idly as she tugged on a pair of white shorts.

 

“I don’t think I look good in light colors,” Amara replied with a forced light-heartedness.

 

“Nonsense.”

 

Eiko began rifling through the shirts to find her size.

 

“All I’m saying is,” she continued, “being able to foster you has been a true blessing.”

 

Amara’s throat constricted uncomfortably and she scrambled for purchase. “Mom,” she mumbled. “I have, like, six months left here.”

 

“Am I making you cry?” Eiko crooned as she finally found a shirt. She was grinning as she turned to drop it onto the pile of clothes in Amara’s arms. “Now, let’s save that for when I’m seeing you off at the airport!”

 

“Honestly, Mom.”

 

The subtle change of the atmosphere gave her room to breathe.

 

She took a deep breath, swallowing the nervous feeling in her stomach.

 

Eiko bent down to look through the shorts. “Are you guys going to be doing a little going-away party? Or a dinner? That’d be a good idea—” She found the correct size quickly and turned around to drop it onto the pile, but stopped suddenly at the look on Amara’s face.

 

“Don’t tell me you haven’t told them.”

 

Amara smiled tightly. “I won’t.”

 

Of course Eiko would know about her immediate leave. (Amara would think that maybe even Aiko knew, but that train of thought had her stress tenfold so she shut it back in the place it came from.) She’d been informed of it as soon as she’d been chosen to foster Amara; it was the deal, after all.

 

Three years.

 

Amara would leave the school year early in Austin—still technically a freshman since it was April—and start with the rest of the high school in Japan, but while she’d complete the Japanese part of it, she was still technically a senior at her own high school.

 

So, it was settled early on with her counselor and her parents that she’d leave as soon as she graduated Hotei and would spend the last two months with her fellow seniors.

 

Once again, Amara couldn’t have counted on it being a decision she’d regret.

 

Eiko released a short puff of air, retracting the pair of shorts and holding them to her chest. She frowned in a contemplative manner.

 

“You do plan on telling them, right?”

 

“Yeah, of course.” Her voice cracked and Eiko leveled a knowing look at her.

 

“Amara.”

 

“I will,” she hissed. “I’m not just—I won’t leave them high and dry, that’d be horrible.”

 

“So, when are you going to tell them then?”

 

Amara floundered for a few seconds, shifting uneasily on her feet. It felt stifling, all of a sudden.

 

“I-I don’t know. I’ll . . . figure it out. Eventually.”

 

The idea of telling them was daunting, though. Given how Eiko had reacted to finding out that Amara still hadn’t told anyone wasn’t assuring, either. She knew someone would get hurt from it but she didn’t know if it’d be her or everybody else.

 

Eiko dropped the pair of shorts onto the pile with a sigh. “Very well. I won’t say anything, but if push comes to shove . . .”

 

“There won’t be any need,” Amara finished. “I’ll . . . I’ll figure it out.”

 

Eiko waved a hand and lead her over to the skirts. She picked one up, making an approving noise. “Now, this—”

 

“No way.”

 

“I’m glad you agree!” Eiko said cheerfully, looking for her size. “As I was saying earlier, I do hope you don’t plan on popping this on them the day before graduation, or worse, the day of.”

 

She held up the skirt; it was simple, looking to be held up on the waist. It looked a tad shorter than Amara would usually concede to, but then again, a few pairs of her shorts were rather, well, short.

 

“This is good! Now, a top.” Eiko tossed it onto the pile and set off for a blouse, more energy in her step.

 

“To ease your worries,” Amara muttered, following closely behind her. “I don’t plan on doing that. I just haven’t . . . planned on doing anything. Not yet, anyway.” She hastily added the last part when Eiko went to turn around.

 

“I’m sure they’d be understanding,” Eiko murmured. She reached out for a blouse. “Hey, this is cute.”

 

Amara eyed the piece of clothing apprehensively. It was cute but she’d never admit that. It was a white, flowy blouse that was off-the-shoulder, meaning a reasonable amount of her shoulders would be showing.

 

She frowned. “That’s . . . quite a bit of collarbone and shoulder I’m exposing.”

 

Eiko shrugged. “Looks good, though.” She began looking for the correct size, making a noise of happiness at finding one quickly. She dropped it on the pile then faced Amara with her hands on her hips. “Chihiro and Chiyo might be peeved since you’ve known them for quite some time already. And the boys . . . Well, they’re boys.”

 

Amara shifted. “Don’t underestimate them,” she sighed. The reaction she didn’t look forward to the most—barring Chihiro and Chiyo—was Chris’. She wasn’t sure why, but the thought of him being disappointed in her or angry in any manner made her chest ache.

 

“Regardless of their emotional sensitivity, they’d understand. All of them would. I’m sure none of them want to spend the last months together angry and hurt.”

 

“This isn’t making me feel confident,” Amara grumbled. “Thinking about their reactions—” She stopped, gritting her teeth. That queasiness returned to her stomach. Thinking about any of them—the boys, Chris, Eijun, Tetsu, or Chihiro and Chiyo—being disappointed in her made her want to just leave now.

 

“It’s inevitable,” Eiko replied mildly. “But that’s okay. It’s inevitable that we all die someday, but we still live, don’t we? Just because you know the outcome doesn’t mean everything you do before reaching that is in vain.”

 

“But I don’t know the outcome,” Amara stressed.

 

Eiko shrugged and drifted over to the shirts. “You know they’re your friends. You know they’ll understand and that if some feelings are hurt, they will be resolved. And that’s because they’re your friends. I’ll say this: if they don’t understand, then they were never your friends in the first place.”

 

Amara wanted to protest; that seemed too cold, too mean.

 

She seemed to sense where Amara’s thoughts had headed. “Yes, feelings may be hurt,” she nodded, “but as your friends, they should always consider things from the other perspective. See how this isn’t the easiest thing to say. See that now they have to cherish the time you have together. They’ll understand, Amara, that, I can promise.”

 

They headed to check out. Amara’s mind was still buzzing, stressing and worrying about the inevitable day that she had to leave. At least she could say she was firmly distracted from Hikari and Aiko.

 

~

 

There was a strange stillness on campus when Amara returned.

 

Since she’d been gone most of the day, she wasn’t sure what had happened. She knew that today was the day that Hotei and Seido students would be returning, but she imagined other things had taken place as well.

 

When she’d left this morning, a few Hotei kids had trickled into the gates, saying goodbyes to their parents. Amara had apparently only just missed the chaos that was the arrival of all the students—according to Chihiro’s text, anyway, which included the fact that she’d been at the tennis courts all day but Chiyo had been roped into tours and dorm assignment by one of the teachers. Amara had winced in sympathy when she read that, automatically taking a free seat on the plastic benches in the subway.

 

Still, there were a few questions to be raised as she re-entered the campus grounds. She imagined people were eating dinner at this time, and the thought made her own stomach growl. She hadn’t been able to pick anything up after the doctor’s appointment—where she walked away with the regular clean bill—since she had to rush to catch the subway back to the neighborhood.

 

The ride back had probably been detrimental to her mental health as she really couldn’t stop thinking about the issue of her inevitable leave. And without Eiko’s soothing words, her thoughts were free to run away and create horrible, unrealistic outcomes.

 

The mere thought of it was slowly consuming her again, so she had to suppress a jump when she turned the corner to the stairwell and was met with a litany of voices. A quick climb to the second floor and a look over the railing showed the Commons; Hotei and Seido students alike seated on concrete tables or in stray patches of shade as an attempt to hide from the scorching sun. The comradery that seemed to have quickly formed between both students was relieving to see.

 

Amara hurried then, dropping the bags in her dorm and making a beeline for the cafeteria where dinner would be served. A quick glance at the new dormitories, which was six buildings, five-stories each—dissimilar to the widespread layout of the two-story building everyone else was in—that would be housing the Seido kids, looked empty.

 

She looked back at the Commons, scanning faces to find any of importance but came up short. The others were probably in the cafeteria. She knew the baseball team would probably claim a table easily enough.

 

Even the halls were quiet, though they were looking extra clean, the tiles waxed and shined, lockers wiped down. Such a show Hotei was putting on.

 

As she neared the cafeteria, the noise appeared suddenly, and upon entering, she was bombarded with an onslaught of loud voices. Every single table was filled up on the first floor. Each kitchen station had been opened up but miraculously, the lines weren’t too long. The number of people was daunting, but she tried not to think about it.

 

She stepped into the first line to her right; it moved quickly, so she was accepting the tray with a polite smile to the lunch ladies in no time. Once she was out of the line, she picked up the utensils and a drink, but that meant she had to face her problem: finding a place to sit.

 

She’d left her phone in the dorm, so she didn’t know where Chiyo and Chihiro were, and as she scanned the cafeteria tables, she couldn’t recognize any familiar faces—not the Seido ones, anyway. There were quite a few people from Hotei she knew, passing friends and acquaintances, but she probably didn’t know them well enough to impose on them. Amara had been taking a step for the exit, prepared to eat lunch outside when she heard a familiar voice.

 

“Miss Amara!”

 

She turned to find Eijun departing from a line further down, dinner tray in hand with Haruichi and Furuya following closely after him.

 

“You all look well,” she noted, not bothering to hide how she pleased she was.

 

They beamed at her.

 

“Thank you! The time at home was great!” Eijun exclaimed, his loud voice carrying easily over the rest.

 

“So, you already had the dorm assignment and tour, right?”

 

“Yeah! I’m only rooming with Kuramochi, though,” Eijun pouted a bit. “I was hoping they’d arrange us like we were before the third years retired.”

 

“Before?”

 

“The third years leave the dorms after they retire,” Haruichi explained kindly. “And here it’s the same method. It’s not surprising, though, since the team has been given most of Dorm A.”

 

“Yeah, the administration wouldn’t want to squeeze you guys more than needed,” Amara agreed.

 

“Yeah, and you were right about seeing each other more often, the first year area is close to the third years!” Eijun added, looking excited at that particular coincidence.

 

She smiled. “We’ll see each other in passing, then. Where are you guys planning on sitting?”

 

“Brother said they were on the second floor,” Haruichi said.

 

“Let’s go!”

 

Amara smiled indulgently as Haruichi sighed in fond exasperation while Furuya looked entirely unaffected by the ordeal. Then a traitorous voice asked, how would Eijun react? Her heart clenched. It was inevitable for her to leave, yes, but she’d be leaving Japan. Probably permanently. They’d never see each other again.

 

The thought made her heart crawl into her throat.

 

They walked over to the stairwell near the entrance to the cafeteria and she asked for a full disclaimer on what the doctor said, grasping for a distraction.

 

“The doctor said we’re fine,” Haruichi told her, glancing over his shoulder. “We’ll be able to resume practice as usual but we shouldn’t try to exert ourselves too much. I imagine it’ll be difficult for you, Eijun . . .”

 

“Don’t be so mean, Harucchi! I know how to control myself!”

 

“You wanted to go running around the field today with the tire,” Haruichi reminded him patiently. “If Miyuki hadn’t stopped you, you would've done it.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with practice, you know!”

 

“Do you have to be so loud?” Furuya asked, voice disappearing underneath the others as they climbed the stairs.

 

“What was that?” Eijun asked loudly.

 

“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with practice—” Haruichi continued calmly and patiently.

 

Amara laughed at their interactions and Eijun pouted.

 

“Are you taking their side, Miss Amara?”

 

“Sawamura! I could hear your voice all the way from up here—can it!” Kuramochi’s sharp voice made its way to them as they took the final steps up.

 

She was pleasantly surprised to see Chihiro and Chiyo seated with the team;

they seemed to gravitate towards the third years, who were seated at the edge of the table nearest to the stairs.

 

Much like last week Saturday, the baseball team took over the table unabashedly, but thankfully, the renovations and addition of the second level meant they weren’t taking up too much space. There were a fair few of tables empty.

 

“Being loud in front of your upperclassman no less!” Jun barked, probably referring to Amara. “I’m gonna kick your ass, kid.”

 

She rolled her eyes and patted Eijun’s shoulder. “You’re fine.” He beamed.

 

“Please, don’t encourage him,” Miyuki intoned, looking more amused about the situation than he was serious.

 

Miyuki’s entrance into the conversation set Eijun on a rampage again as he began petulantly arguing with him, completely ignoring Haruichi’s soft-spoken warnings about senior-junior dynamics. The three of them took their seat near the middle of the table while space opened up at the edge where the third years and Chiyo and Chihiro sat.

 

Amara had barely been able to set her tray down before Chiyo stood up.

 

“Actually, before you sit, could we—?” She tilted her head away from the table, indicating a private conversation.

 

Amara nodded, confused and a bit concerned. Chiyo hit Chihiro’s shoulder, a sign to get her moving that made her huff and puff as she reluctantly stepped out. Chiyo led them further into the second floor, stopping near the metal railing that overlooked the first floor.

 

“Everything okay?” Amara asked, eyebrows furrowed. For a split-second, she worried that Eiko had told them—taken matters into her own hands and revealed her inevitable leave from Japan. The notion of it set her heart racing but she steeled herself. There was no sign of anger or hurt on their faces, rather, some trepidation instead. She frowned, wary.

 

“We’ve heard some . . . interesting news,” Chihiro began slowly, choosing her words carefully. “Well, I heard from Ayako—that, uh, first year who’s in student council. Now, it’s only a rumor, so there’s no real evidence for this, but it’s kinda—”

 

“As far as rumors go,” Chiyo took over, face grim, “this one doesn’t really benefit anybody.”

 

Amara crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing them both with reservations. “And that would be?”

 

The two exchanged a look, and Chiyo sighed. “The project they’ve been working on out in the fields? Two fields for Hotei’s new co-ed baseball club.”

 

“You’re kidding me.”

 

Chihiro laughed but it was hollow. “What would we gain? What would anybody gain from making rumors about a baseball team? Start a fight with Seido?”

 

Amara grimaced. “So, it could be right then. And a co-ed team no less?”

 

Hotei was pretty progressive as far as Japanese schools went. Schools tended to require that girls wear skirts and the uniform top, but Hotei gave them the option to wear dress pants alongside the blazer and button-up. The tennis team was co-ed, too, and Hotei didn’t have an all-boys club for soccer or volleyball. The fact that instead of creating a softball team and a baseball team, they’d went a step further and merely made a co-ed team was astounding.

 

Amara knew that women had little influence in the realm of baseball, recalling that all most professional players were males, then in the schooling system, once high school hit, girls who used to play were forced to default to managerial roles. This was an impressively calculated move, but the timing was awkward.

 

“Imagine all the new kids we’ll be getting next year,” Chihiro murmured. “And the transfers.”

 

They all grimaced. Tension between the schools would already be pretty bad since there was another high school with a baseball team so close, but if Seido kids transferred to Hotei to take advantage of it, Amara couldn’t imagine how bad things might get.

 

“Still, we don’t know if they’ll even be good. Seido is one of three powerhouse baseball schools in West Tokyo. Who’s to say Hotei can amount to anything?” Chiyo pointed out.

 

“Maybe, but they’re gonna have a lot of girls with a lot of motivation to prove themselves on it. That could help their skill factor,” Chihiro said, shrugging. “I’d join if I wasn’t in tennis.”

 

“Seriously?” Amara asked, eyebrow raised.

 

“Thought you didn’t like it,” Chiyo added.

 

“I mean I don’t not like it. Batting is fun. Listening to a catcher? Not so much—wait.” Chihiro frowned. “Isn’t Miyuki a catcher?”

 

Chiyo and Amara shared an amused look. “Yes . . .” Amara trailed off.

 

“Imagine having to listen to him. That’s literal hell.”

 

Amara blinked. “When did you even meet him?”

 

“Tour,” Chihiro scowled, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. “He doesn’t know how to shut his trap. It’s so infuriating.”

 

“Miyuki thrives off getting under people's skin,” Amara chuckled. “Regardless of whether he knows you or not. As long as you’re not older than him, he decides he pretty much has free reign to annoy the hell out of you.”

 

“He talked back to you that one day, didn’t he?” Chiyo asked.

 

Amara shrugged. “I was a mostly unfamiliar face. He was probably trying to gauge how far he could go with me.”

 

“Not very far, apparently.”

 

Amara shifted on her feet. “He’s smart but I’m not too fond of his methods on handling Eijun.”

 

“Well, if it’s Eijun,” Chihiro made a dismissive gesture. “You’re protective of the kid, you know that?”

 

“He reminds me of Renee,” Amara confessed. “But, you know, I expect you to do the same for him once we graduate.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Chihiro replied flippantly. “So, we’re not telling the guys, right?”

 

“I’d wait until they made an official announcement,” Amara replied. “But holding it from them won’t cause any problems, right?”

 

This was a lot like her current problem, except far less drastic. She wondered if this could serve as a measuring tool, to see how the boys would react to something being held from them. It was a little underhanded, but this was morbid curiosity. Just what would she be getting into the day that she told them?

 

Amara glanced around Chiyo. Her eyes connected with Chris’ and she blinked, surprised. Had he been watching? The thought made her stomach do flips, her heart beating at an unhealthy rate.

 

There was a clear question of concern on his face and she could only shoot him a reassuring smile, trying not to wonder if he’d been watching or not. She looked back at Chiyo.

 

“They’ll deal,” she huffed. “We have good reason not to say anything. Causing unnecessary panic or stress could get some people in trouble, especially if it isn’t true. I mean, can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be true but it’s best to be careful.”

 

“So, no telling?” Chihiro asked, for reaffirmation.

 

Chiyo shook her head. “None.”

 

They returned to the table, Amara taking a seat between Chris and Kusunoki.

 

“It’s good to see you again,” Kusunoki smiled.

 

“You too.” Amara sent him a smile of her own.

 

“Was everything okay?” Chris’ voice made her look at him; he shifted on the bench, his arm pressed against hers. The warmth seeped through the material of their shirts, making Amara’s grip on her chopsticks tighten precariously.

 

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” Chihiro said, trying to assure them.

 

“Looked pretty serious from here,” Jun noted.

 

Amara coughed. “Can I tell them, Chiyo? I’m sure they won’t care.”

 

An alarmed look passed over her face rapidly and Chihiro’s eyes widened.

 

“It’s just the birthday arrangements, after all,” Amara tacked on, trying to clue them into her diversion.

 

It worked, because Chiyo nodded reluctantly, easily playing hesitance. Chihiro relaxed considerably.

 

“Birthday arrangements?”

 

“Chiyo’s birthday is on the 30th of September,” Amara explained, even though this was a bald-faced lie. She was making it up as she went. “Her grandmother wants to spend the day with her but we don’t know what our schedules look like yet and of course, we want to do something to celebrate.”

 

The lie was bought easily.

 

“Yeah, Chiyo just doesn’t like sharing her birthday,” Chihiro added, for extra reassurance probably. “But we’re all friends here, so.”

 

“September 30th? Chris, isn’t your birthday the 1st of October? That’s the day right after, isn’t it?” Tetsu asked.

 

Amara turned to Chris, interested. “Really?”

 

He smiled slightly. “Yeah, it’s on October 1st.”

 

“If the birthday kids don’t mind, we could all do something together,” Chihiro suggested. “A party? Or make some food?”

 

Eyes went to Chris and Chiyo, gauging their reactions. Chiyo shrugged, unbothered. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

 

“Nor me,” Chris agreed.

 

“Well, lighten up, you two,” Amara huffed. “You’re both turning eighteen. Er,” she glanced at Chris. “You are turning eighteen, right?”

 

He smiled. “That would be correct.”

 

“There! It’s the big eighteen! You’d be legally of age, be more excited!”

 

“All I see it as is me getting older,” Chiyo muttered, stabbing her meat with a chopstick.

 

“It happens,” Amara said.

 

“When’s your birthday?” Kusunoki asked suddenly, generously dropping a piece of meat on her tray.

 

She nudged him with her elbow and tried to return it but he pushed his chopsticks against hers, easily providing resistance. She huffed and set it back down.

 

“That’s not the point.”

 

“It’s December 7,” Chiyo responded for her.

 

Amara glared at her. “Thanks.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

Amara chewed on the piece of meat glumly and swallowed a bit. “Like I said, besides the point. That’s a few months from now.”

 

“And our birthdays are also still a month from

now,” Chiyo countered. “No need to worry yet.”

 

Chris nodded in agreement.

 

“You guys are boring,” Jun muttered.

 

Amara chortled, finishing off the piece of meat. In her peripheral vision, she saw Kusunoki lift another piece off his tray and lean over to her tray; she turned to him quickly, holding up her chopsticks threateningly. “Don’t you dare.”

 

He smiled, bemused. “I’m not hungry.”

 

“Kusunoki . . .”

 

“Alright, you married couple,” Jun huffed, reaching out to pluck the piece of meat out of the chopsticks and eat it himself. “Do that in private.”

 

Amara blanched and she saw Kusunoki’s cheeks turned red. She felt Chris tense beside her.

 

“I’m gonna kick your ass, Jun,” she threatened, feeling her face heat up at an alarming rate. Chiyo and Chihiro watched on with dangerously curious gazes.

 

“I’d like to see you try,” he said around a mouthful of food.

 

“I’ll help her.” Kusunoki found his voice, though his cheeks were still red.

 

“Two against one isn’t fair.”

 

“Don’t be a baby.”

Chapter Text

17. nakatsuwa

 

The rumors had been right.

 

That Monday when school returned to session and when Amara and Chiyo were in their shared homeroom of 3-C, the announcements crackled on and a cheery voice echoed through the class.

 

“Good morning everyone and welcome back! To our new residents, welcome to Hotei High! Administration would like to remind you all that if there’s any concerns or questions, the front office is never too far away and that you can comfortably rely on your Hotei classmates as well! The administration would also be pleased to announce that a co-ed baseball club has been started! Tryouts are Wednesday after school at 4:15 on the new fields next to the soccer field, Field A! All positions are up for grabs, boy or girl, so come on down!”

 

There was a wave of whispers through the class, some girls looking truly excited about the prospect. A few boys, though, were less welcoming.

 

“Couldn’t they have just started a softball club?”

 

“I can't believe we have to use girls . . .”

 

Chiyo’s glare effectively silenced them.

 

There was some notable tension between the schools for the first few days after that. The Seido boys didn’t think too much about it, which Chiyo attested to “not knowing how much of a threat they were yet” but Amara thought they just didn’t care.

 

They hadn’t even asked the two of them about it during lunch or in any shared classes with the third years. But everyone else, it seemed, were excited to talk about the prospect. A few students—obviously Hotei—had been crowded against the window when she entered her first period, looking at the overview of the athletics areas. When she glanced out, she saw the towering metal gates and the tell-tale shape of a diamond. Two fields—she guessed Field A easily belonged to Hotei and Field B to Seido for the time being.

 

It wasn’t like Seido could protest, anyway. It was made clear that Hotei wouldn’t be participating in the Fall Tournament so they could prepare for the Summer one next year, and much like Chiyo had said, Seido didn’t have to worry about a newbie baseball team like them. Not yet.

 

Tensions unwound by the second week of school and club activity was at all all-time high as well. Coach Nakamura was stressing her and Hikari for their tackling, as in the previous few years Aiko and Hikari had split the tackles amongst each other, but that proved to be a fatal weakness on their team.

 

It was strangely gratifying to see Hikari struggling to refine tackles that she hadn’t been previously using.

 

Amara really couldn’t talk, either, though. She was a bit too new in that department, meaning she had to spend more time with Hikari than she usually would, working on tackles that Hikari already knew by heart and technique.

 

It was a weird situation. Hikari was helpful, yes, and Amara was slowly polishing her skills, but there was a lingering tension between them. It made the air tight and uncomfortable, so Amara began monopolizing Hanako’s time, if only to get a fresh set of eyes on her form and so that she didn’t have to interact with Hikari too much.

 

The question of universities and careers also came into question in her classes, assignments and activities geared to writing essays and studying for entrance exams—in Amara’s case, things like retaking the SATs and ACTs. It was times like those that she sometimes wished the soccer season was in the summer like baseball.

 

But the workload was astoundingly easier to handle with the presence of the other third years. There was that understanding they all shared as tired seniors, something that showed itself whenever they’d share assignments or study together, or even provide a distraction from their stressful schoolwork.

 

That case presented itself to Amara on the Sunday of their second week of school, when Chris was heading back to Nakatsuwa for a checkup with his father at the physical therapy place. He’d brought up the offer on Friday and Amara didn’t hesitate to accept it.

 

It has been a while since she’d seen the kids and thankfully, she’d finished up most of her homework, so she could sacrifice her Sunday to see them.

 

It proved to be a good decision. The train ride to Nakatsuwa and the walk to the physical therapy clinic had been spent together, talking. It was nice, she realized, when she wasn’t getting nervous about being around him, having a normal conversation about trivial things.

 

Chris told her about the addition of a new coach for the team—Ochiai, he recalled, his name being.

 

“Is he any good?” She asked

 

Chris frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not entirely sure. There’s some . . . mixed reviews about him amongst the players, but I’ve never personally encountered him.”

 

That sounded suspicious. She hoped it wouldn’t cause trouble for the team; they needed as much smooth sailing as they could get in preparation for the upcoming qualifying block games, then the actual Fall Tournament that would begin in October.

 

They turned the corner to that familiar street and Amara smiled at the sight of the kids playing soccer. They had yet to notice her.

 

They walked a little more until they were near the set-up and Chris paused to see her off since he had a few more blocks to go. “I won’t be long,” he promised. “An hour or an hour and a half at the most.”

 

She waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t want you to rush.”

 

He smiled at her, then, and it was different from the perfunctory smiles he usually had. The one she’d seen the most was that tiny upturn of the lips whenever they were with the others, but this one was wider in a way that made his cheeks pick up and the corners of his eyes crinkle. Her heart skipped a beat in her chest.

 

“Miss Amara!” The chorus of childish voices brought her back to the present and she sent him one last smile before turning to face the kids. She heard his retreating footsteps and allowed herself to relax a bit.

 

She wondered what it was that made her so tense.

 

Dismissing that, she scanned the group. The faces were mostly the same—Reo, Kei, Momo. They all beamed at her and she felt guilt churn in the pit of her stomach.

 

“First and foremost,” she cleared her throat, beginning in an overly-serious tone, eliciting a few giggles. “I would like to apologize. School and practice is just . . .” she shrugged sheepishly, persona falling away.

 

“That’s okay!” Kei exclaimed. “Can you play with us now?”

 

“Yeah! You’re graduating soon! We get it!”

 

“As long as we can play a game today, then we’ll forgive you.”

 

She grinned. “Well, now I really have no choice, huh?”

 

They cheered and the game resumed full-force.

 

Being around them once again reminded her of why she liked hanging out here so much. The freedom with which they played, no abandons held, doing this for fun reminded her so much of why she liked soccer.

 

But she wondered, allowing Reo to steal the ball from her, was it something to make a career out of? Could she really go out there and become a professional? Her skills were mediocre at best and honestly speaking, could she handle that? The intense practice, the fanfare, the gaze of the entire world?

 

When Momo got the ball past her—without Amara consciously allowing it to happen—she knew that now wasn’t the time to think about it. She had a few more months, at the very least, before Coach Nakamura would begin talking to her about what she wanted to do.

 

The game was relaxed compared to the scrimmages they’d been playing, and no doubt compared to the upcoming tournament. It was a nice break on her sore muscles, though she might’ve been too sore to be putting as much effort as she was.

 

She’d taken a step forward to go up, the slight inclination of the street throwing her off and making her ankle give out, folding in. Before she even knew what was happening, she’d hit the ground, her arms having gone out reflexively to prevent her from falling onto her face.

 

The game stopped as soon as they realized what happened. She shifted into a sitting position, grimacing at the shakiness in her limbs.

 

Momo was there first, looking unsure. “Are you okay? Is your ankle okay?”

 

Amara rolled her ankle experimentally, satisfied to only feel a twinge of soreness. It was normal, given the way it’d folded in.

 

“I’m fine,” she nodded, assuring the younger girl and the rest of the kids.

 

“Your knees are all scraped up,” Kei pointed out worriedly. “Your hands, too!”

 

Now that he pointed it out and the rush of fear had evaporated, she could feel the stinging in her palms and knees. An evaluation of them showed both of her knees scraped up and bloody, her hands in the same state, though to a lesser degree. Amara pursed her lips, feeling embarrassed about her fall.

 

“You need to get them cleaned up,” Reo said. “There’s a 7/11 right around the corner, isn’t there?”

 

Amara shook her head, pushing herself off the ground with her hands but making sure to use her fingers instead of her palms. “And will I be forgiven? I was supposed to play a game with you guys.”

 

“Do it another time!”

 

“Yeah, you can make time to see us later on! Maybe you can bring your friends, too!”

 

“Like that cool guy from June! The one who got our ball for us!”

 

Amara smiled at the mention of Eijun. She had no doubt that he’d be up for it, but she hoped she would have time to come see them again at one point.

 

“If you guys are sure . . .”

 

“We’re fine!” Kei insisted. “One of us can go with you!”

 

“I’ll go,” Reo volunteered immediately.

 

A few of the others protested at that. She rolled her eyes. “Do you all just want to go? Your curfew is near, you know. I’ll go by myself, it’s perfectly fine.”

 

At the mention of their curfew and inevitable departure for today, they quieted. Momo took a hesitant forward. “I’ll go with you,” she said softly. Amara raised an eyebrow. “It’s fine. Someone has to help. We’re always here, anyway, so there’s always tomorrow.”

 

Amara had a feeling she wasn’t going to step down, so she sighed and nodded. “Alright, alright, that’s fine.”

 

She pulled out her phone to check the time. It was only five, so an hour had passed since she and Chris had gone their separate ways. She hoped he’d take that extra thirty minutes but just in case he didn’t . . .

 

“You guys remember the other guy? The one who I’d say hi to? If he comes down here and we’re not back, tell him what happened and that he can leave if he’d like.”

 

They nodded, already kicking the ball into play so she picked herself off the ground and moved to the sidewalk. She flicked stray pieces of gravel off her hand, not bothering with her legs since they were still bleeding.

 

The walk was short. Momo was silent for most of it, but it wasn’t a timid silence, rather contemplative. Amara recalled that she was a third year, still in junior high. Now was the time when teachers wanted to know about high schools, wasn’t it? She was tempted to ask about it, but the thoughtful look on the Momo’s face made her stop.

 

The employee in the 7/11 looked a little alarmed at Amara’s scrapes and allowed her and Momo to use the bathroom after she’d bought some bandages and disinfectant wipes. Momo went first to wash her hands, then Amara to clean off the dirt. By the time she’d exited the bathroom, hands and knees stinging at the exposed air, Momo was waiting outside, seated on the slight raise of the pavement near the store. Amara sent a cursory smile and bow to the employee and exited, drawing her attention.

 

“Did you wash them?” She asked immediately, as Amara took a seat beside her.

 

Amara shifted to face her, holding out her hands. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Momo flushed at the exaggeration and took out a few wipes, taking care to be gentle as she dragged them over her hands. Amara pursed her lips at the sting. The cuts weren’t too severe since she only needed a bandaid on each hand. Her palms was red and irritated, sensitive to the touch, so she laid them in her lap when Momo was finished. There was restless energy thrumming through her veins, though, so she couldn’t stop herself from drumming her fingers on her thighs.

 

Her knees were in worse condition. They’d started bleeding after she’d washed them off and were far more more sensitive. She bit her tongue at the sting of the disinfectant. Momo noticed her discomfort.

 

“Sorry,” she said, dipping her head in apology.

 

“Not your fault,” Amara disagreed.

 

Momo didn’t say anything after that, cleaning her other knee and applying some ointment, then putting a large bandaid over the cuts. Amara observed the handiwork. The beige of the bandaid contrasted sharply from the bronze of her skin, both on her hands and her knees. But it looked secure and clean.

 

“Thanks for that, Momo.”

 

She nodded, cheeks flushed once again. “No problem, ma’am.” She hesitated, then, began hurriedly picking up the papers used for the bandaids that had been discarded.

 

“Something wrong?”

 

“No,” she shook her head. “The, um, the guy you mentioned, who—?”

 

“His name is Chris. Chris Yu Takigawa. He’s a third year, like me,” she replied, wondering about Momo’s interest. Did she have a crush on him, perhaps?

 

“And he goes to school with you?”

 

Amara made a vague motion with her hand. “Not quite. Did you hear about the fire at Seido High School? They’re staying with us for now, so we are seeing each other more often but no, we don’t go to the same schools. He’s a baseball player, actually.”

 

She wasn’t sure why she was telling Momo this. But it was nice. To talk about him freely, to an unbiased source.

 

“He’s,” Momo paused and began picking up the trash more quickly, her face flushed. “H-He’s handsome.”

 

Amara smiled and looked at the street. A few people were walking down the sidewalk, a young couple, hand-in-hand, a man carrying a child on his shoulders. Her eyes tracked the near imperceptible movement of someone in the flower shop across the street watering plants in the window display.

 

“He is, isn’t he?”

 

“D-Do you like him?”

 

Amara’s smile faded a bit. “No.”

 

She could feel Momo’s eyes on the side of her face. “Sorry. It’s just . . . The way you talk about him . . . It sounds like my mom about my dad.”

 

Amara became aware of the heat spreading through her face. Why didn’t they get a couple of water bottles when they were in there? It was stifling out here.

 

She coughed awkwardly. “He and I are good friends. I admire him a lot.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Was there a reason you asked about him?”

 

Momo shook her head. “Just curious.”

 

Amara nodded and they slipped back into silence.

 

Momo wordlessly put the trash back into the plastic bag and stood up to throw it away. Amara followed her up, grunting at the stiffness in her knees. She grimaced, knowing it was going to be hell to run with tomorrow. It’d probably cause for some side-eying, too, a few cruel whispers here and there. But that was how they were.

 

They started their walk back to the street, once again in companionable silence, but they’d only turned the corner when Momo spoke again.

 

“I think I’m gonna try for Hotei.”

 

Amara couldn’t stop her grin. “Yeah? And gun for center midfielder?”

 

Momo smiled at that and nodded, a determined gleam in her eye.

 

“I’m sure you’ll be great out there. And hey, our Sports Festival is coming up on the 7th of September. See if you guys can make it. Bring your parents if you’d like.”

 

Momo looked excited. “Will we be able to participate?”

 

“In the games? A few, probably. And I’ll be with the soccer team. We’re playing against the faculty.”

 

“Woah, that’s so cool. Do you think you’ll win?”

 

“Think? We will win!”

 

Momo’s grin widened, feeding off of Amara’s energy. “We’ll definitely go, Miss Amara!”

 

Amara reached out to ruffle her hair and Momo squirmed, though she was still grinning.

 

When they’d come near to their spot, Amara stiffened upon seeing a familiar figure standing in front of the kids. They were all talking, deep in a conversation with the kids hanging onto every word of whatever Chris was saying.

 

Kei noticed them first and perked up. “They’re back!”

 

Amara and Momo stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street to meet them all. Chris took a step toward her and she was surprised to see a concerned look on his face.

 

“Is your ankle okay? They told me what happened.” The frown on his lips was out of place.

 

She smiled. “I’m fine, don’t worry.”

 

“Uh-huh.” The disbelieving look he gave her was almost comical. “And your hands and knees?”

 

“All bandaged up and taken care of by Momo.”

 

He glanced at Momo and she nodded hesitantly. He gave her a kind smile. “Good job on that, then.”

 

“T-Thank you, sir.”

 

The kids hovered awkwardly.

 

“We’ll be going, then,” she said. “I’ll try and visit again, soon, alright?”

 

Their grins brightened. “We’ll see you!”

 

“Have a safe trip!”

 

“Don’t trip anymore!”

 

Amara made a face at the last one and reached out to flick Reo on the forehead. He stumbled back with a yelp. The others laughed at his expense and she shook her head, exasperated as she stepped between two parked cars to move onto the sidewalk. Chris was following closely, that furrow still on his eyebrows.

 

“You didn’t have to stick around, you know,” she said, lowering her voice.

 

He gave her a displeased look. “We came together, didn’t we? And you’re sure your ankle is fine?”

 

His answer pleased her too much, so tried not to deliberate on it, waving a hand at him in a dismissive motion. “I promise I’m fine.”

 

He caught her hand, turning it over to look at her palm. He looked at the bandaid with a frown, brushing a thumb over it gently. Her palms were still red, but the sting had begun fading already. The warmth of his palm was soothing against the back of her hand. With a sigh, he dropped it.

 

There was a rush of disappointment that she tried to quell desperately. It was just her missing physical contact—the affection of her friends. That was all it was.

 

He still looked dissatisfied and she needed a distraction, so she said, “You can inspect my ankle when we get to the station, if you’d really like.”

 

He shot her a side glance. “I’m not a doctor.”

 

“But you like that kinda stuff, right? You know what you’re talking about.” She shrugged, self-conscious under his gaze. “I’ll allow it just this once.”

 

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

 

She grinned.

 

They spoke about their upcoming exams for a while, until she asked him what he’d done over break. He told her about how he’d spent time with his father; apparently his grandparents—from his father’s side—had flown to Japan and his father had been hosting them by himself for the first week of break, but then the incident with Seido happened, so Chris had been forced to accommodate them, too.

 

At one point, he’d inquired about her own family, so she indulged him—she talked about her parents, the twins, Renee and his obsession with sports, which then elicited his question of: “Does he want to pursue anything professionally?”

 

She scrunched her face up in thought. The idea of Renee in any sort of athletic setting seemed out of place but if he did, well, she’d support him. After making fun of him, that is.

 

“Maybe? He’s interested in the more technical side of things. He hasn’t been in any little league teams when he was younger and he’s not doing anything right now in junior high—and they do have sports teams—so I really can’t say.”

 

“He’s young,” Chris said. “He’ll think of it, I’m sure.”

 

She scuffed the toe of her shoe on the sidewalk. She agreed—Renee was too high-strung to not start planning that out soon. But she, on the other hand, had no idea.

 

She frowned, tilting her head toward the sky. She wondered how disappointed her teachers would be, when they started doing future advising sessions, and learned that she truly had no idea what she’d end up doing.

 

It was like leaving Japan left her stumped, with no other place to consider.

 

The station wasn’t too busy, the bench in front of their assigned platform mostly free of people. She took a seat first, sighing in relief at the rest for her sore limbs and shaky knees. Chris dropped his duffle bag onto the bench as well then kneeled in front of her. They drew some attention, making her shift awkwardly and focus on him.

 

“Which ankle?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Does it hurt if you roll it?”

 

She did so and felt nothing. She shook her head.

 

He pressed his fingers at the top of her ankle bone, applying pressure. “Does it hurt?”

 

She shook her head. He did that on various spots, yielding no reaction. Not outwardly anyway.

 

Ironically enough, it wasn’t the pain—her ankle was fine—but the feeling of his callused fingers on her leg that sent shivers up her spine.

 

“It looks fine,” he eventually said, removing his hands and resting his elbows on his knees. He looked up at her. “Ankle injuries can be sneaky, though. I know you have practice so you’re always on your feet, but take caution. It’s best to watch how you step for the next few days. And if it starts to hurt, say something. It’s not worth it. Now, you’re sure that you’re fine?”

 

Staring was bad. Amara knew that. People stared at her sometimes, since she was obviously not Japanese. But she also knows there’s just something magnetic that makes your eyes latch on. So, either they keep stealing glances or they outright stare. She’s ashamed to be the latter.

 

But if he looks like this, dressed in grey sweats and a loose black t-shirt, hair curling over his forehead and his eyes shining liquid hazel from the strip of sunlight that leaked in from an opening in the roof, she can’t really be blamed, right?

 

His finger tapped against the bandaid on her knee—lightly so as to not hurt but to get her attention. It did just that, making her jump, then extend her foot to thump it against his knee as punishment.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Did you hear me?” He asked instead of apologizing, an eyebrow raised.

 

“Y-Yeah, I’ll be careful and I’m sure I’m fine,” she replied hurriedly, her face heating up.

 

“What were you thinking about?”

 

“Nothing you need to be concerned about!”

 

He chuckled and stood up, then took a seat next to her, moving the bag to his lap. “I think I should be. You don’t usually do that.”

 

“Buddy, I have ADHD.”

 

He gave her a look. “And coincidentally, it’s never been too much of a problem until now?”

 

She groaned, dropping her head onto the bench. The pain that spread through the back of her head was grounding. “Don’t be like that.”

 

“I’ll strike you a deal—” she turned her head, narrowing her eyes at him “—tell me what you were thinking about after you win at finals.”

 

She raised her eyebrows. “Well, aren’t you the extortionist?”

 

He clicked his tongue. “Don’t word it like that.”

 

“You sound strangely confident, too, despite having never seen me or the team play. You know we’ve never made it to the finals since the school opened, right?”

 

Hotei had opened up a year prior to her arrival and so far, the only teams with real success had been the volleyball team, making it to the finals for the past four years without fail, though they’ve never actually made it to Nationals.

 

Chris shrugged, unbothered. “Then you’ll be the generation to do it.”

 

“Oh, come on—”

 

“Stop doubting yourself.”

 

“You say that like it’s easy.”

 

He turned to her, then, a serious look on his face. “It’s not. You have to start from somewhere. But believe me when I say it, your skills are more than enough.”

 

She looked away, face flushed.

 

Chris shifted on the seat, his arm brushing against hers. “It’s a work-in-progress, Amara, I understand. But don’t sell yourself short so quickly.”

 

The train pulled in at that moment, brakes squeaking as it heaved to a stop. Chris stood up, slinging the duffle over his shoulder then offering her a helping hand up. She accepted it gratefully, taking some of the steadiness that he was offering. Her joints were still shaky and usually, that’d be normal given the soreness lingering and the fall from today, but it was a different shakiness. She desperately hoped it wasn’t the beginnings of a cold.

 

His let go of her hand to climb the steps onto the train. He turned back around, hand held out again. She reached for it carefully, frowning at the effort she had to use to take the steps. His hand lingered in hers before he gently released it; she mourned that loss of warmth once again.

 

They found their seats quickly. It was similar to the ones they’d had the last time they’d rode back to Kokubunji together, facing each other with a table between them and a window beside them.

 

“Feel familiar?” He asked, his smile was warm.  

 

“How long has it been?”

 

“Since we’ve known each other? Almost five months. I think it’s only been three months since we’ve been talking, though.” Chris looked out the window, the platform still in view.

 

“Feels longer than that,” she muttered, looking at the window in time for him to turn back. She didn’t meet his eyes.

 

“It does feel like that, doesn’t it? I’m glad I wasn’t the only one.”

 

The sun was hot against her face as the scenery transforming into a mesh of different colors, the train taking off. The sun’s warmth matched the one crawling through her veins from his gentle admission; it spread through her chest and stayed there.

 

She dozed off for a bit of the train ride, feeling more relaxed with his presence right across her. The air was warm between them, a safe bubble that protected them from the outside noises of the world. It remained that way when they docked at Kokubunji Station and even when they walked back to Hotei underneath the sun’s oppressive rays. A few shared words were spoken here and there but she was fine with the silence. That was warm, too.

 

And the silence was what enabled them to pick up on a conversation between a few baseball players when they’d been walking between the school building and Dorm A—his dormitory—since he’d planned to drop his bag off in his dorm and then accompany her to the cafeteria for dinner.

 

“No way!” The commotion drew their attention. “Sawamura has the yips?”

 

Chris stiffened next to her, standing a little bit straighter, eyes more alert. She glanced between him and the group in front of them. Yips? What the hell was that? And what did it have to do with Eijun?

 

“It’s true! There was a guy at my junior high, too. A guy who couldn’t pitch to first base.”

 

Couldn’t pitch?

 

“Isn’t this a chance for Tojo to get back on the pitching rotation?” One of the boys directed the question to one who hadn’t spoken yet. Or at least, she hadn’t heard him.

 

She recognized the sandy-colored hair; it was that first year, Shinji Kanemaru. He looked like an intimidating guy, but he seemed to have a soft spot for Eijun.

 

The boy’s question was confusing, though. Did—whatever this was—get Eijun taken off the pitching lineup? Was it the yips they’d been speaking about earlier? The more questions that formed in her head, the more nerves that developed. She wasn’t sure she liked this.

 

“Are you an idiot? That guy didn’t switch to a field position with so little resolve,” Kanemaru replied gruffly, sounding vaguely affronted.

 

Chris took a step forward.

 

“Can you run me through the details on that, Kanemaru?”

 

The boys stopped and turned around at his voice, many of them looking awed at the sight of their upperclassman. Amara took a hesitant step back.

 

Kanemaru slowly nodded, then glanced back at the group. “You guys go ahead. I’ll meet you all in the cafeteria.”

 

They nodded and walked away quickly, muttering softly to themselves while sending occasional glances over their shoulders.

 

Kanemaru looked troubled. “We had the practice game against Yakushi yesterday and well, I’m sure you know the result of that. But when Sawamura was switched in, he couldn’t pitch to the inside like Miyuki wanted him to. There was a passed ball then Coach switched him out. He . . .” Kanemaru’s face tightened. “He walked off the mound crying.”

 

Amara’s stomach dropped. She had no idea—their texting had decreased substantially, expected since she was back in-season and he was still practicing, but she also saw him far more often nowadays. What was causing this?

 

Chris’ face was grim, eyebrows deeply furrowed. “I see. To the inside corner . . .”

 

“He used to be able to pitch continuously to the inside corner without fear of the batters, so he’s lost his single greatest weapon,” Kanemaru murmured.

 

“Indeed. If it’s the yips, that would be a problem . . .”

 

“Hold on,” Amara interrupted, tired of not knowing these terms. “What exactly is happening? I’m a little confused.”

 

Chris turned to her and Kanemaru tensed a little, as though he hadn’t realized she was there. “Yips are . . . a type of prohibition on an athlete. In baseball, it’s usually where someone—a pitcher, in this case—can’t pitch to a particular area. In Sawamura’s case, he’s unable to pitch to the inside. Am I getting this right, Kanemaru?”

 

He nodded. “Yes, sir. I think it’s probably from that deadball during the finals against Inashiro. He just . . . His body won’t allow it.”

 

“Is this physical or psychological, then?” She asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

“Physical,” Chris replied. “But that’s alright,” he looked back at Kanemaru. “Did he pitch for any other practice games?”

 

“Ah . . . yes.”

 

“If that’s the case, then it’s best if you guys don’t dwell on it.”

 

Amara looked at Chris, surprised. What was he saying? This was very much something to dwell on—if the state of Eijun’s pitching was in disarray, then how was he personally going to be affected?

 

Kanemaru looked just as surprised as she did, probably sharing her sentiments—and proving that he did have a soft spot for his fellow first year. “Ah,” he hummed awkwardly. “Won’t you at least have a word with him, sir?”

 

Chris shook his head and turned to go back the direction they came. “I trust that he will change and become much more active after this slump. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

 

She lingered, giving Kanemaru an apologetic look. “Sorry about that.”

 

Kanemaru looked surprised. “Y-You don’t have to apologize, it’s okay . . .”

 

She gave him a grim smile then turned back around, seeing Chris had continued walking without pause. She stomped down a flash of irritation and went after him.

 

“Chris—Chris, hey, hold on for a minute.”

 

He stopped and looking inquiringly at her.

 

She shot a glance at Kanemaru’s retreating figure. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Leaving him be?”

 

“Of course. This is a physical problem. He’ll get over it.”

 

Another surge of irritation. She squashed it firmly.

 

“Okay, yes, but could this be both? I mean, how should one react when the one thing you truly love doing isn’t working out? Like Kanemaru said, that was Eijun’s greatest weapon, don’t tell me you think Eijun will actually be fine with this?”

 

Chris didn’t reply, instead scanning her face intently. She cursed her traitorous heart for skipping a beat at the intensity of his gaze. This so wasn’t the time.

 

“It’s your friends, isn’t it?”

 

Amara blinked. “What?”

 

“Your friends—the loyalty and protectiveness you feel for them, that’s what gets your temper going, isn’t it?”

 

She opened and closed her mouth a few times, not quite digesting his words.

 

Chris continued, patient. “Sawamura is strong. Both mentally and physically. I have no doubts that he’ll pick himself back up from this.”

 

That got her mouth running again. “Okay, sure, but Chris, he shouldn’t have to handle this alone. Don’t you think that if we help, you specifically given how much he looks up to you, it’ll make this process much quicker? What’s gonna happen if he falls behind the others?”

 

“He won’t.”

 

Chris held firm and Amara had no choice but to concede. She certainly didn’t want to argue with him, not now, anyway, not with her emotions rising at a dangerous rate.

 

Irritation was such a sharp and hot feeling that she never thought she’d attribute towards Chris. Yet, here they were.

 

She did her best to soothe it, finally understanding what he’d meant earlier.

 

It only served to make her more irritated.

 

She still walked with him to the cafeteria and sat down with their usual table. But the bubble in which they’d found themselves in, the warmth between them, it was long gone by now. She vaguely wondered when it had left.


Chapter Text

18. yips

 

Amara didn’t hear anything else about Eijun’s yips for the next few days. Chris was resolutely silent about it, fairly adamant on letting him recover on his own, and the other third years seemed blissfully ignorant about the entire situation. 

 

However, it continued to be a source of stress for her. 

 

Even when the meeting on that Monday after revealed the brackets for the Fall Tournament, she couldn’t bring herself to pay much attention. (They were to face Hayakawa High School on October 2, and the rest of October would be filled with matches should they continue to advance, but that was the limit of her knowledge on it.) 

 

Even her text messages to Eijun went unanswered, and as their lunch and dinner group began dwindling down, players breaking off into their own little groups—still on the second floor—she noticed an alarming lack of Eijun after a few days. Haruichi, too. Had they gone off to eat somewhere else? 

 

She had no idea what was going on in the team, how they were handling it and such, but as the first week of September came to a close, almost a week since his yips were revealed, a trip to the first year area to deliver some papers during homeroom proved to be enlightening. 

 

Class 1-B was one she knew Hanako had, and when school began again, it also held Eijun, Kanemaru and a few other first years on the baseball team. When she entered, the talk dimmed to a murmur, eyes tracking her movements to the desk. 

 

The teacher, a pleasant lady named Hana Ito who had been at Hotei prior to the merging of Seido, took the papers from her, thanking her kindly. 

 

Amara sent a furtive glance around the room. She found Eijun sitting next to the window that overlooked the street; his head was bent low, a book in his hands. The circles under his eyes were prominent enough for her to see them from here, a hollow expression on his face that looked incredibly out of place. Her heart squeezed painfully. 

 

“Oh, would it be too much to ask if you could drop off the attendance sheet? They still haven’t gotten the system online yet and there are a few things we need to do.” 

 

She smiled apologetically but Amara shook her head and accepted the task. 

 

“It’s no problem, ma’am.”

 

“Thank you!” 

 

Amara gave him one last glance. He had yet to lift his head and acknowledge her. And it was so strange, so different from his usual display of enthusiasm that she had to restrain herself from requesting to speak to him, if only for a few minutes. 

 

She locked her jaw and turned around, her previously mild mood souring quickly. She had to do something. She couldn’t sit around anymore. 

 

That led to her semi-interrogation of the other third years during lunch. 

 

It was only the third years and a few select second years like Shirasu and Kawakami, but those two were in their own world, talking quietly to each other. Miyuki and Kuramochi were present as well, but it looked like Miyuki was aggravating Kuramochi as per usual. 

 

Amara tapped her chopsticks on the metal tray. “So, are we all aware that Eijun has the yips?”

 

The talk ceased immediately. Chiyo and Chihiro had confused looks on their faces, but the wariness that formed on the others’ spoke volumes. So, they did know.

 

“The what?” Chihiro asked, eyebrow raised. 

 

Amara filled them in. 

 

“And he hasn’t been eating lunch with us for a while now,” Chiyo noted when she’d finished. “Nor Haruichi.”

 

“They’ve probably separated into their own group, too,” Kusunoki suggested. “Furuya hasn’t been around, either.” 

 

Amara had noticed that, too, but she couldn’t imagine why he, a pitcher who was receiving most of the attention now, would hang around with Eijun when he was clearly suffering from the yips. It’d be too much like rubbing salt into the wound. 

 

“I doubt that,” she said. “He’s the one who was most excited about still being able to hang around us. And have you guys even seen him? He looks like shit.” 

 

“Well, that’s a nice thing of you to say,” Ryosuke jeered. 

 

“Don’t be a dick, Kominato,” Chiyo muttered. 

 

“What was that?”

 

“Moving on,” Amara continued, ignoring them. “Something has to be done. It’s our job as his senior to help him out.” 

 

“Sawamura will be fine,” Chris disagreed. “As I told you earlier,” he sounded vaguely irritated, “this is just a slump.”

 

She turned to him, unable to stop the scowl from forming on her lips. “Bullshit. It’s obvious he’s fallen down from this and he can’t pick himself up, so it’s on us to help him. We shouldn’t just stand by and watch him struggle, not if we have the ability to help.” 

 

She turned to the first string members who had tuned into the conversation. Miyuki had a blank look on his face, but there were the telltale signs of guilt on Kuramochi’s face. “It’s your job, too, as the ones who interact with him the most out of all of us.” 

 

“Respectfully, Amara, the tournament is approaching, so we must prioritize the team over individuals. Coach did say, after all, that he’d prioritize using the good players, so we have better things to worry about at the moment.” 

 

The silence that descended on the table was thick with tension. And Amara couldn’t believe what she had just heard. 

 

Kuramochi stared at Miyuki, wide-eyed, and Shirasu and Kawakami looked just as shocked. Miyuki didn’t meet her eyes, instead picking up more rice to stuff into his mouth.

 

“You—” she took a deep breath and tried to quell the simmering anger. “Seriously?” 

 

Nobody said anything. 

 

She looked at the second years, hoping they’d refute him, call him out on his callous attitude, but Shirasu and Kawakami avoided her eyes. Kuramochi was still staring at Miyuki, though, absolutely befuddled. 

 

She looked to the third years. Tetsu and Jun avoided her eyes, Ryosuke coughed quietly and picked up more food. Kusunoki and Tanba refused to look at her as well. She turned to Chris, sitting beside her, and he met her eyes readily, but the grim line set on his mouth told her all she needed to know. 

 

She stood up, then, anger rising to a boil just underneath the surface of her skin, picked up her tray and promptly left. 

 

She heard the bench scrape against the floor, then two pairs of footsteps were following her. Presumably Chihiro and Chiyo.

 

Amara didn’t look back once, even when they exited the cafeteria. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but she knew she had to get out of there. 

 

They were approaching the doors that opened into the Commons area when a voice called out to her. “Miss Amara!”

 

Amara turned to the source of the voice, prepared to dismiss them as soon as possible, but she faltered upon realizing it was Hanako. 

 

“What is it?”

 

“If you’re looking for Sawamura, he’s sitting out in the soccer bleachers,” Hanako said, then frowned a little. “I had wanted to play soccer but he and his friend were there . . .” 

 

Amara couldn’t stop herself from asking. “What’s he been like recently?”

 

Hanako pursed her lips. “Quiet. Sometimes he’s late to homeroom but Miss Ito doesn’t say anything about it. And a few of the other Seido kids talk about him sometimes, something about his performance during practice. It’s not very good, apparently. I think he hears it but he doesn’t seem to care. Is . . . Is everything okay?” 

 

“He’s going through a rough patch right now,” Chiyo said. Hanako nodded, still looking a bit unsatisfied but obviously unwilling to go against her senior.  

 

“Thanks, kid. I’ll see you around.” Amara patted her shoulder and they continued towards the exit. When they stepped out into the oppressive heat, she glanced over her shoulder. 

 

The anger had simmered to a low boil, and she knew she wouldn’t say something she didn’t mean to them. “You guys didn’t have to come.”

 

Chiyo raised an eyebrow. “They’re being assholes. You expect me to tolerate that?”

 

“Yeah, and I might as well get some experience dealing with this kid for when you guys leave, so . . .” Chihiro shrugged, scratching her jaw in an embarrassed movement. 

 

Amara turned ahead again, smile tugging on her lips. “That’s too bad. I thought you guys were just being good friends.”

 

Chiyo kicked her heel.

 

True to Hanako’s words, she spotted Eijun and Haruichi seated on the bleachers near the top, sitting side-by-side, overlooking the soccer field. She came around the corner and stopped, grabbing their attention. She lifted a hand in greeting. “Room for three more?”

 

Haruichi’s smile was warm. “Of course.”

 

They made their way to the top, taking seats on the row before the two of them so they were all facing each other. The steel was hot, even through her pants, so she shed her blazer in favor of sitting down on it, Chiyo and Chihiro doing the same. 

 

Eijun dipped his head in greeting, keeping his eyes fixed on his lunch tray. It was so different from his usual disposition that her heart clenched in her chest. Haruichi’s smile faded and he began eating his lunch once again. 

 

“So, how has your guys’ day been?” Amara asked, scooping up more rice. Chihiro and Chiyo looked towards the boys as well.

 

“Good so far,” Haruichi said. He hesitated then cleared his throat. “Going to school here is really fun.” 

 

Avoiding the topic of practice seemed intentional. Amara looked at Eijun. “And you?”

 

“‘S okay,” he said, shrugging one shoulder. He didn’t elaborate. Amara sighed silently. 

 

The rest of their lunch was quiet. Eijun didn’t seem to have an appetite but he diligently finished his rice and meat. When the fifteen minute bell rang, they collected their things and stepped off the bleachers. 

 

She allowed Eijun to take her empty tray and watched him do the same with Haruichi, Chihiro and Chiyo. They all began the trek back, Eijun going ahead of them. When they entered the building, he turned for the cafeteria, not waiting up. 

 

They all stopped in a corner of the hallway. Amara looked to Haruichi. “You mind if we talk for a minute?” 

 

He shook his head. 

 

Chihiro looked at the time on her phone. “I’d love to stick around but I have a lab next period and Miyuki’s in my group,” she sighed, shaking her head. “I’ll see you guys later.”

 

“Good luck,” Chiyo muttered. 

 

Chihiro disappeared into the sea of bodies, heading for the second year area. Amara adjusted her jacket over her arm, turning back to Haruichi. “How long has he been like that?”

 

Haruichi sighed, troubled. “Since last Saturday when we came to the conclusion. He’s been on a different training menu. Coach hasn’t allowed him to touch any baseballs so he’s been running. And Kuramochi said he hasn’t been sleeping well so he goes off in the night to run. I don’t—I don’t know what to do.” His hands balled into fists, avoiding their eyes. 

 

Amara sighed, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Hanging out with him, worrying about it—you’re on the right track right now.”

 

She stiffened when she felt Chiyo nudge her foot. She looked up and Chiyo gestured slightly with her chin at something behind Amara, then turned asked Haruichi something or another about his family. A distraction, probably.

 

Amara glanced furtively over her shoulder and found the other third years—Tetsu, Jun, Chris, Ryosuke—standing nearby, well within hearing range. They had frowns on their faces, and she met Chris’ eyes briefly, then took a deliberate step to the side to block them from Haruichi’s view, turning back to the conversation before he could notice. He’d probably clam up underneath Ryosuke’s eyes and his other upperclassmen. 

 

“. . . occasionally. It was a nice coincidence we ended up next-door neighbors.”

 

“It was,” Chiyo agreed. “Hope I see your parents again sometime soon.” 

 

He smiled, a little embarrassed. “I’ll pass it on. Also, Miss Amara,” he paused, clearly nervous. “Could you . . . Could you talk with Eijun? He hasn’t said much about it to me, but maybe he’ll talk to you.” 

 

“It’s not a bad idea,” Chiyo agreed. 

 

“It can’t hurt,” Amara admitted. She glanced at her own phone. There was plenty of time to talk to him, and even if they were late, she’d probably be able to get him away scot-free with his teacher depending on who he had. “What class does he have next?” 

 

“Algebra with Miss Makoto.”

 

“Oh, I had her in my first year. She’s near Fukuhara’s class, isn’t she?” 

 

Chiyo nodded. “A few doors down.” 

 

Amara pocketed her phone. “Yeah, I’ll go talk to him. I’ll see you later—and Haruichi, just continue what you’re doing. I’ll try and lead him your way if I can.” 

 

Haruichi bowed his head respectfully. “Thank you.”

 

She patted his head and turned around, bypassing Tetsu, Jun, Ryosuke and Chris completely. They made no move to stop her. 

 

Thinking about the situation from earlier made her feel a little embarrassed at blowing up so easily, but the reason behind her anger fortified her resolve. Eijun wasn’t a nuisance, an obstacle now in their paths—he was a person—their junior, their teammate and friend. To act so callously and cold went against her nature and reminded her far too much of her lonely days in junior high. 

 

She sighed, turning a corner to the hall she had been looking for. She found Eijun coming around the other corner at the end of the hall, but his head was ducked, hands stuffed in his pockets. She picked up her pace and once she was close enough, called out to him. 

 

He looked up at the sound of his name, stopping in his path when she arrived in front of him. She could see muted curiosity in his eyes, and smiled gently. “Mind if I monopolize some of your time?”

 

He hesitated, then shook his head. 

 

“Great.” She led him back around the corner he came from and stopped there, leaning against the wall. “How’ve you really been, Eijun?”

 

He shifted uneasily on his feet, head low. He seemed to defer back to that—to avoiding her gaze, though it wasn’t out of disrespect. “I-I’m okay.”

 

She frowned at him. “Eijun . . . This isn’t something you have to deal with alone.” 

 

He shook his head. “I promise, Miss Amara, I’m perfectly fine.” He looked up and tried for a grin, but it looked hollow and unnatural on his face. She was disheartened by the dark bags under his eyes, and his eyes—which were usually brilliant brown, sometimes amber in the sun, were now dull and empty. Just how deeply was this affecting him? 

 

And why didn’t he want to tell her? 

 

She pursed her lips; the last thing she wanted to do was force him to talk. 

 

“It’s okay to not be fine, Eijun. But I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. Just . . . you know I’m here, right? And so are your friends, your teammates. Lean on us if you need to. As your friends, it’s our job to help you if you need it. Remember, this doesn’t define your pitching.” 

 

His face fell at the mention of pitching and she panicked for a moment, wondering if she’d made him shut himself off at the mention of the problem. But he surprised her, averting his eyes to the floor again and saying, “But it does.” 

 

She shook her head. “You can still pitch. Maybe not to the inside, but that’s not the only area, is it? Don’t get me wrong. By no means am I an expert in baseball but this isn’t a lost cause. I promise.” 

 

He didn’t respond, his left hand balling into a fist. The tardy bell rang, making Eijun jump and look up in confusion. While they'd been speaking, the halls had emptied out as students went to their classes. Amara had noticed but didn’t rush their conversation. 

 

“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice—”

 

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” She reached up to ruffle his hair again. “It was worth it. You have Miss Makoto, right? I had her in my first year. Come on, I’ll take you to class.”  

 

She turned around, knowing he had no choice but to follow her. They went back around the corner and passed her own class, which was already in session judging by what she’d heard through the door. 

 

When they arrived at his class, Eijun spoke again, hushed. “Sorry.” 

 

“Like I said, it was worth it. Don’t worry.” She opened up the door and shuffled inside. The class had been on their own for an assignment since Miss Makoto was seated at the table. She looked up at the intrusion and raised an eyebrow, looking worried at seeing Eijun accompanied by a third year. 

 

“Amara, it’s good to see you. What happened?”

 

Amara took a few steps forward, ignoring the eyes of the first years and lowering her voice. “Sawamura here lost himself in the second year area and I found him on my way back from the front office to turn something in. I’m terribly sorry about any interruption.” 

 

Miss Makoto relaxed. “Ah, it’s not a problem. Sawamura, don't be afraid to ask others around you for direction, alright? Do you need an excuse, Amara?”

 

“That would be very appreciated, Miss Makoto.” 

 

“Of course. Sawamura, here’s the assignment for today, it’s just a warm-up. Go ahead and take your seat.” She bustled around the desk, passing him a sheet of paper then finding a set of excuse notes to fill out. 

 

Amara shot Eijun a reassuring smile over Miss Makoto’s head and he dipped his head in acknowledgment then went to take his seat with a couple of the other Seido kids. She recognized Tojo’s face and lifted a hand to wave at him. The movement caused a few titters to spread through the class. He waved back, looking a bit red in the face as other students glanced curiously at him and Eijun. 

 

“Here you go. Thank you for your help.” Miss Makoto handed her the paper, smiling warmly, and Amara felt a twinge of guilt at deceiving her. She was a sweet teacher, but lying had been the only option that left both of them out of trouble. 

 

She bowed once, then left the class quickly. She stopped by her locker, which was near her current class, and unlocked it, grimacing at the noise it caused to echo throughout the hallway. She plucked out her economics textbook and pencil case, then shut the door, managing to relock it while juggling the textbook and pencil case in one arm.

 

When she entered the class, she avoided looking at the other students and handed the note over to her teacher, who sighed heavily as he read it then waved her away. She scurried to the far wall so she didn’t have to walk in the middle of the desks, coming to the table that she, unfortunately, shared with Chris. He allowed her to pass behind him and she took the seat, realizing belatedly that she hadn’t brought any loose leaf paper. 

 

She sighed quietly, flipping to the page in the textbook and catching the end of their teacher’s lecture on something or another. Students began murmuring amongst themselves as they all started on the assignment in the textbook and she drummed her fingers on the table, lamenting about the current predicament. 

 

She made a move to lean forward and tap the shoulder of Katsumi Hatanaka, a casual friend who she’d done a few projects with in the past, but Chris kindly set a few sheets of paper down on her open textbook. She blinked and sat back. “Oh. Thanks.” 

 

He sighed softly. “You’re welcome. So, how did it go?” 

 

Amara eyed him warily. He sure was acting nice despite the incident at lunch. It made the guilt tenfold. She dropped her eyes to the textbook, absently reading the situational practice. “How did what go?” 

 

“The talk with Sawamura.” 

 

She tensed, picking out a pen from her case and scratching down her name, date and period in the top right corner. She could feel his eyes on her face and cursed herself for flushing under his gaze. 

 

“It . . . went.”

 

“He’s determined to deal with this on his own, then.” 

 

She bristled, not liking his matter-of-fact tone. “That doesn’t mean he has to be alone for it. And what happened today during lunch only makes me want to try harder. I seriously can’t believe you guys didn’t even say anything to Miyuki.” 

 

Chris tapped his pen thoughtfully on the textbook. “We know firsthand how competitive it is—”

 

“And? That doesn’t mean you have to treat your teammates like they’re obstacles in your way.” 

 

He gave her a look. “Please, don’t interrupt me.”

 

She took a deep breath, trying desperately to soothe the growing irritation. 

 

Chris sighed. “Amara, this . . . this is something beyond us.”

 

Maybe it was just her, but that sounded like a nice, roundabout way of saying “You’re not a baseball player. You don’t understand how this works and you won’t ever.” As if she didn’t already know that. She knew what her place was in Eijun’s life. She was a reliable senior, someone to talk to and to joke around with. She wasn’t like Chris, someone Eijun admired and looked up to, someone he wanted to desperately work with and learn from. 

 

She knew that. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try. 

 

He continued. “It’s up to Sawamura to decide whether he wants to get better or not. I know he does. You do, too. But it would be best to leave him be.” 

 

“I don’t agree.” 

 

He looked at her, serious. “I suppose it was inevitable that we’d come upon something that we didn’t agree on. But I’m not changing my mind on this.”

 

“You don’t have to, I’m just saying—I don’t agree with the way you want to handle it, the way Miyuki seems to view this or the way you all deferred so easily during lunch. This is your teammate. Your friend, your junior.”

 

“Deferred?” He asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s a little much, isn’t it?” 

 

A part of her curled into itself, stung. 

 

She pushed on. “It could just be me and a personal view, but sports—competition—it’s not that serious. It’s not serious enough to brush away your friend’s problems so you can get ahead. Especially when this is clearly something that’s outwardly affecting them.” 

 

“It . . . Yes, I see where you’re coming from but we’ve done as much as we can for Sawamura. The coach has, Miyuki has—”

 

“You know he apparently hasn’t touched a ball since the practice game, right? We’re coming up on a week since that happened. Tell me, how does that help—”

 

“Amara, you wouldn’t understand,” Chris interrupted sharply, irritation flashing briefly over his face. She shut her mouth, a pang of hurt spreading through her chest, lingering in her heart as a torturous sting. “We knew you’d be like this—”

 

“Like this?” She scoffed, anger renewed in an attempt to dislodge the hurt from her chest. But it was too much. “Worried? Seriously, Chris? Just . . .” The sting throbbed. “I’m sorry I even tried to argue. Forget everything that I said.” 

 

There was something frightening about the way he was able to take her down so quickly. And the throbbing in her chest served as her first warning. 

 

Chris sighed, falling silent. She looked at the textbook resolutely, turning her body away from him slightly, enough so that she could shut her eyes and take a deep breath. There was an almost imperceptible burn in the back of her eyes. 

 

Her chest throbbed. You wouldn’t understand. 

 

She slid down in her seat, propping up her elbow on the table and resting her head on it, facing away from him as she blinked rapidly, trying to prevent the onset of tears. Humiliating

 

It was just an argument. Amara wasn’t stupid, she knew Chris would have the capacity to hurt, to get his point across no matter how it might’ve sounded, so why did it affect her so much? 

 

Katsumi stood up in front of them and stepped into the aisle, taking a few steps so she was bedside Amara’s desk. She held her sheet to her chest timidly and it looked like she might’ve come to ask a question, but her eyes widened at the state of Amara and she dropped into a crouch beside her. 

 

“Are you okay? Are you feeling sick?” She whispered, voice hushed so as to not alert their other classmates. Or Chris. 

 

Amara grasped the opportunity and nodded, shifting to stand up as Katsumi dropped her paper onto her desk and wrapped an arm around her waist. Amara put her hand over her mouth, keeping her head low and shuffling alongside Katsumi, counting the tiles on the floor through blurred vision. She distantly heard Katsumi say something rushed to their teacher, who allowed them to go without any quarrels. 

 

Once they were outside of the class, Amara separated from Katsumi and made a break for the girls’ bathroom next door, barricading herself into a stall. 

 

“Amara? Are you . . . Are you okay?” Katsumi’s soft voice made its way through the metal door. Amara sucked in a deep breath, feeling the traitorous tears fall down her face. 

 

Stupid. 

 

Chris was smart. He’d put it together. And that made it all the more humiliating. 

 

She tried to stabilize her breathing, but the lump in her throat made it increasingly difficult. She sniffled. 

 

This was so stupid. So dumb. She hated herself for breaking down like that. He hadn’t even said anything that harsh. 

 

You wouldn’t understand. We knew you’d be like this. 

 

But then, the thought of him, of the others, thinking of her in a bad light—like what? Emotional? Too caught up in her own personal views? 

 

Maybe she could blame it on a progressively shitty day. 

 

She was going to be starting her period soon, too, so her emotions were bound to be fluctuating. 

 

“Amara? Do you—do you want me to get the nurse?” 

 

“No.” Amara winced at how her hoarse her voice sounded. She roughly wiped away the tears and cleared her throat. “No, I’m fine. I was just . . . That was . . .” She tore a piece of toilet paper and wiped her face, blowing her nose then tossing it into the trash. She opened the door and met Katsumi’s worried eyes. “Sorry.” 

 

Katsumi shook her head. “It’s okay, don’t worry. That assignment was kinda hard, anyway . . . I think I’d get it if we had more time to read and stuff, so it’s alright.” 

 

Amara didn’t quite believe her but accepted it nonetheless, turning to look at herself in the mirror. She grimaced immediately. Her nose was red, her eyes swollen and puffy, a clear indicator she’d been crying. She couldn’t go back to class like that. 

 

“Ugh.” 

 

“Ah, wait, let me . . .” Katsumi tore a piece of towel, folded it then ran it under the faucet. “The coldness helps with puffy eyes. Ice cubes usually work better but this is the next best thing.”

 

She handed it to Amara, and upon pressing the wet paper towel underneath her eyes, sighed in relief at the reprieve. Katsumi repeated the process with another piece and handed it over to her.

 

They stood there for a few minutes. Amara pulled the paper towels away from her eyes now that they’d warmed up. She looked at herself in the mirror. Sure enough, the swelling had gone down significantly. Her eyes still looked a little red, and her lips were swollen, but maybe she could get away with saying she had an allergic reaction. 

 

“Here.” 

 

Amara blinked at the new pieces of wet paper towel, then tossed the old ones in the trash and accepted the replacements, pressing them back under her eyes. “Thank you, Katsumi.”

 

Katsumi smiled hesitantly. “Of course. Did . . . something happen?”

 

“Just has an argument with a friend. I’m not sure why I reacted so strongly . . .”

 

“I cry out of frustration,” Katsumi offered. “Or whenever Ryoko and I argue.”

 

“Ryoko Chinen?” Amara had seen her around school, usually tailing Katsumi.  She’d never personally spoken to Chinen, but if she was friends with Katsumi, she couldn’t be that bad. 

 

Katsumi nodded, a soft look passing over her face. Amara raised her eyebrow, retaking Katsumi’s attention at the questioning look. She flushed, embarrassed. “W-We’re together now, b-but don’t tell anybody else . . .” 

 

“I won’t. But that’s really good, Katsumi, I’m happy for you.” This was good. A distraction to push those words out of her head and to give her time to find some stable ground.

 

“Thanks. Amara,” she mumbled, shy all of a sudden. 

 

Amara smiled weakly, turning back to the mirror. She looked much better than before—good enough for others to see her, anyhow. She had no doubt that Chiyo and Chihiro would know that she was crying. She wasn’t sure about the others. Did they know her that well?

 

She glanced at her phone, checking the time. There were only fifteen minutes left of class and she wasn’t keen on going back in there. The thought of having to face Chris after her abrupt exit made her embarrassment worsen. 

 

But her textbook and pencil case were still there and she didn’t want Chris to take the initiative to keep them, otherwise she’d have to talk to him and get them back. Which she didn’t want to do. She’d feel much better about avoiding him for the foreseeable future. 

 

She hoped, though, that they’d realize their error. Her argument with Chris was something else—a disparity of views. She didn’t need them to think she was right and they were wrong. She needed them to be better friends, to see that viewing Eijun as nothing more than a nuisance wouldn’t do anything good for his self-esteem. 

 

She pocketed her phone, glancing at Katsumi. 

 

“Katsumi, can I ask a big favor?” 

 


 

Chiyo and Chihiro were, understandably, very upset about it. 

 

“He made you cry?” Chiyo seethed as they entered Noda Gym. The tarp that had been laid out the day of the fire was long gone, volleyball nets set up, players mingling on the gym floor and tossing a ball between them. The spectators wouldn’t be coming until four, when school ended, since all the non-athlete students had study hall right now. 

 

“It was humiliating.”

 

Chiyo kicked her heel, making her stumble. “Don’t you dare undermine your reaction. He was being a dick.” 

 

“Sounds like he thinks he’s completely right,” Chihiro mused, pulling open the door to the locker room and allow them to step in first. 

 

“I don’t care about that. I just want them to help Eijun.” 

 

“What were they expecting, anyway? For Miyuki to deal with it? The other first years?” Chihiro asked. They found their spot in a corner where all their lockers were located, opened them up and began changing into their uniforms. 

 

The locker room was communally used by the girls, but there was always the other gym’s locker rooms to use, too. 

 

With the loud voices echoing throughout, their conversation would be well-hidden, so Amara had no problem speaking at normal volume. “Probably. Or for him to get over it. That’s what Chris thinks is going to happen, but I don’t think that’s the case.”

 

“Definitely not,” Chiyo agreed. “So, Takigawa is now public enemy number one, right?” 

 

Chihiro made a loud noise of agreement as she slipped into her shorts. 

 

Amara shook her head, unbuttoning her bra in exchange for a sports bra. “Don’t be like that. He’s just . . . I don’t care what he said. Well, no, I do care,” she amended upon seeing the skeptical looks on their faces. “I just don’t think that’s our main problem. It’s getting the others to see that Eijun needs to be able to lean on them.” She pulled on her uniform shirt then started tugging off her pants. 

 

“I don’t like it, Amara. He hurt you,” Chiyo said, frowning. 

 

“Yeah, honestly, making you cry was the breaking point. I seriously don’t see what he’s gonna lose if he talks to Eijun. What are any of them going to lose? A little bit of pride? It doesn’t make sense,” Chihiro complained, shutting the locker then dropping herself onto the bench, finished changing into the uniform t-shirt and shorts.

 

Amara frowned. That . . . was an excellent point. She wondered what motivated them to remain so alienated from the problem. It was literally their job as seniors to take care of all their juniors. Weren’t they breaking some sort of social code here? 

 

She wasn’t sure. Societal roles and expectations were confusing sometimes. 

 

“Well, anyway, how’d you get out of class?” Chiyo asked.

 

“Katsumi helped me out. Told the teacher I got sick. If Coach asks, I’ll just say it was cramping or whatever.” 

 

“And your things? Don’t tell me Takigawa has them . . . I won’t be held accountable for my actions if I go and get them for you . . .” Chiyo muttered as though it was a true inconvenience. 

 

Amara smiled, knowing she was joking. “Not quite.” 

 

She told them about earlier, how she’d asked Katsumi for a favor and asked if she could retrieve her textbook and pencil case from the classroom before the period ended. Katsumi, the sweetest human ever, agreed easily and when she’d returned with her stuff, Amara realized that she’d left her own belongings back in the classroom to get Amara’s.

 

“Don’t worry,” Katsumi had said with a warm smile. “Ryoko has me covered. Now, we have ten minutes left and it’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it?” 

 

When she finished her recollection, Chiyo sighed wistfully as she straightened up from securing her kneepads. “She’s too nice.” 

 

Amara nodded in agreement, finishing her task of tying her cleats. She stood up and shut her locker, Chiyo doing the same. The other girls had left a few minutes ago, only a few left behind. Chihiro pulled herself up from the bench, stretching her arms behind her head with a loud groan then picking up her racket that rested on the lockers. 

 

“Meet back here after practice?” She asked, following Amara as Chiyo went back towards the door to the gym. 

 

“Sounds good. I’m not too sure where Eijun is during dinner, though . . .” Amara frowned. The bleachers again?

 

“Probably the same place,” Chiyo offered. “See you guys.” She went back into the gym, the cacophony of voices leaking into the locker room as the door eased to a close behind her.

 

They both headed for the other set of doors at the opposite end of the room, ones that led into the athletic area so they didn’t have to walk back through the gym and the school building. 

 

It was quiet for a minute as they stepped out into the harsh sun, various kids heading to their respective areas of practice. She could see the Hotei baseball kids and the Seido baseball kids making their way to the fields, the tennis courts already buzzing with activity and the soccer field filled with most of the team.

 

Chihiro’s voice broke the silence, quiet. “You’re really okay, right? Don’t listen to Chris. We’re not doing the wrong thing here.”

 

Her words were a pleasant surprise and Amara couldn’t help but smile at the worried tone. She knew that Chihiro had a younger sister and brother, so her protective streak could come out at completely surprising moments. 

 

“I’m fine. Don’t worry. Go on and do your captain thing.” She nudged Chihiro’s shoulder and with one last reassuring smile, took off in the direction of the soccer field. 

 

Eijun was their main priority right now. Her own problems were insignificant compared to him. Dealing with them would be a problem for her in the future, so for now, she could focus all her energy on helping him.

Chapter Text

19. intervention

 

The following week had an astounding lack of activity. 

 

The third years had not spoken to her and avoided her like the plague, whether it was because they were angry about the confrontation during lunch or they were lumping her in with Eijun and refusing to approach, she didn’t know.

 

It did sort of hurt, though, when Chris didn’t reach out. And she tried not to think about it too much, too afraid to explore the underlying meaning of her bruised feelings.

 

It was the third years’ continual refusal to talk to Eijun that also refueled her anger and stopped her from talking to them again, lest she say something she didn’t mean. But with Eijun’s general state of continuing to worsen, she was alarmed at the rate that he continued to sink. The circles under his eyes deepened and he began talking less and less until Haruichi was the only one chattering away during lunch.

 

It was worrying, but between practice and schoolwork, Amara rarely had time to spare to talk to him. And Haruichi said that he wasn’t getting anything out of him, either. The closed off attitude Eijun had taken was frightening, so Amara was happier than she probably should’ve been when practice was canceled that Wednesday because of the rain. This was a prime opportunity to talk to him — she just needed to find him first.

 

The rain had been falling steadily since they’d been released for their sports period and while the volleyball team could continue practicing within the safety of the gym, the rest of them had to pack up early — it was barely five — and head back to the locker rooms to change.

 

Amara lingered in the back of the group, not caring about the isolation too much as she tried to get a look at Field B, where Seido was. Field A had already emptied out, but it looked like the Seido team had just barely begun packing up.

 

As if proving the need to head inside, lightning flashed in the distance, and a roll of loud thunder followed thereafter.

 

“If it continues raining like this for the rest of the week, we’re going to have to reschedule the Sports Festival.” Amara suppressed the urge to look at Coach Nakamura as she said that. Their assistant coach, Suzuki, made a noise of agreement.

 

“It is typhoon season,” Suzuki pointed out quietly. “It’s always the strongest in August and September. It might be best for them to push the day to October.”

 

Nakamura clicked her tongue in evident disapproval. “We’d be busy with the Fall Tournament, as would Seido High and all of our other clubs. At the very least, the end of September would be sufficient. Maybe even on a school day instead of a weekend . . .”

 

Amara tuned them out as they reentered the locker room, which was abuzz with activity. She saw Chihiro just unlocking her own locker, clothes and hair dampened from the rain.

 

Chihiro shot her a grin when she made it to her, patting her legs dry with a hand towel. “Our lucky day, huh? I’m in the mood for a nice nap.”

 

“Wonderful example, Captain.”

 

“No one’s invincible,” she sniffed. “It’s a good break.”

 

“Sure.” Amara tugged out her duffle bag, unzipping the main pocket to change into a pair of track pants and the team jacket. She’d picked them up just as her phone vibrated with a new text at the bottom of the bag. Chihiro continued to change next to her as she unlocked her phone to look at it.

 

haruichi kominato

i’m sorry to bother you, but i know you’ve been meaning to speak with eijun and he’s currently being an idiot out in the field.

 

She raised her eyebrows.

 

me

he’s running even though it’s raining and thundering? the others just let this happen?

 

haruichi kominato

eijun can be … very stubborn

 

Amara huffed softly through her nose. Well, Haruichi wasn’t wrong; this was a good opportunity to get him out of the rain and talk to him.

 

me

alright, i’ll head down there. thanks for telling me

 

haruichi kominato

of course

 

She dropped her phone onto the bench with a sigh, sitting down and kicking off her cleats to unstrap her shin guards.

 

Chihiro raised an eyebrow at her. “What happened?”

 

“Eijun’s running right now. I’m gonna go and run interference, see if I can talk to him while I’m at it.”

 

She shrugged. “He’s spirited. I’ll give him that.”

 

“Yeah, well, he’s not gonna be so spirited if he gets sick,” Amara muttered, changing out of her clothes quickly. She sat back down to pull on her tennis shoes. “You still have that umbrella?”

 

Chihiro shook her head. “Nope, but Chiyo does.” She unlocked Chiyo’s locker and pulled out the black umbrella. Amara gave her a look as she accepted it.

 

Chihiro shrugged, unbothered. “Hey, we don’t have any secrets here. Anyway, I’m gonna head to my dorm. You good?”

 

Amara nodded, zipping up her bag and stuffing it back into her locker. She left her dampened uniform on the bench, needing to drop it off in the laundry hamper before she went out. Chihiro picked it up before she could do it herself.

 

“I’ll take care of that, just head out there. The sooner, the better. Good luck.”

 

“Thanks, Hiro.” She put her phone in her pocket and went back towards the direction of the exit while Chihiro went to the front. No one wanted to walk through the muddy grass and rain if there was the gym to get back through.

 

She unfolded the umbrella as she pushed the door open, hearing the dull pitter patter of rain on the plastic material. It was raining harder now, the sky darkened with clouds, almost resembling evening instead of late afternoon.

 

The fields and courts were empty, but she could spot a tiny figure still out there in Field B. She sighed and headed in that direction, grimacing when her shoes sunk into the grass.

 

She’d been passing by a chasm between the buildings, the Commons area further in, when she heard a voice call out. Unsure, she stopped and waited to hear it again.

 

“Yo, Amara!”

 

She’d recognize that gruff voice anywhere. She turned to the side and found Jun striding towards her. He was wearing a pair of sweats and a hoodie, a blue umbrella covering him from the rain.

 

“What is it?” She asked.

 

He huffed. “The hell are you doing out here? Do you want to get sick? Don’t you have that scrimmage against Jurojin High tomorrow?”

 

Amara tilted her head. “Keeping up with the team’s schedule?”

 

That . . . was a pleasant surprise. It made her a little hopeful. At least one person wasn’t completely shutting her out.

 

But she remembered that none of them had spoken to Eijun yet. She squashed down that hope.

 

It didn’t deserve to flourish until Eijun had his upperclassmen to lean on.

 

Jun’s face went pink. “Maybe. We’re still going to support you, you know.”

 

Amara smiled coldly. “Don’t.” He opened his mouth to protest. She continued. “If you’re supporting me, of all people, instead of Eijun when he so obviously needs it, then you guys need to do a serious reevaluation of your friendships.”

 

Jun looked away, discomfort showing through the tightness of his mouth. “You still didn’t tell me what you were doing.”

 

“And I don’t have to,” she shrugged, but upon feeling a stab of guilt at the hurt that flashed over his face, she continued with reluctance. “But I’m going down to Field B. Eijun is running out in this weather, for whatever reason, and I need to talk to him. He’s not doing so well.”

 

Jun shifted uneasily. “I thought he rejoined practice this week.”

 

She pursed her lips. “That’s news to me. Regardless, though, that doesn’t necessarily reflect his state of mind. I don’t know if you’ve heard from Kuramochi, but Haruichi tells me Eijun has been getting up in the middle of the night to run. He isn’t sleeping well, and it’s beginning to show in his daytime performance.”

 

Her tone was neutral, not cold but not warm, either. Jun looked crestfallen at her words and tone of voice, opening and closing his mouth a few times after she’d finished.

 

She raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?”

 

There was no response from Jun. She took a step back. The movement seemed to jar him into action and he scrambled forward a few steps.

 

 “I-I agree with you, you know.”

 

She paused and looked at him; his eyes were regretful.

 

The silence was penetrated only by the pitter patter of the rain on their umbrellas. Raindrops dripped from the edge of her umbrella. She tensed for a split-second as thunder rumbled, vibrating the ground beneath their feet. She breathed out as it faded to a dull reverberation.

 

“Then what are you doing, Jun? Why are you not helping?”

 

He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head once then sighing raggedly. “I just . . . It’s hard. Chris is hellbent on letting Sawamura deal with this on his own, but we can see how much he’s affected and though Miyuki was being a bastard about it, his words have some weight—”

 

“Don’t get me started on that.”

 

Jun tilted his head towards the inside of the umbrella, shutting his eyes tiredly. “I’ll do what I can to change their minds.”

 

Amara huffed. “Trust me, Jun, you’re probably not the only one thinking that way. Everyone else is too scared to say anything. I get it. There’s a balance in your guys’ group and I . . . would rather not make you choose between Eijun and them, but something — someone — has to give.”

 

“I know,” he muttered.

 

Lightning flashed again and the rain noticeably increased. Amara grimaced and took a step back. She’d wasted too much time talking here.

 

Jun noticed. “You leaving?”

 

“Eijun’s probably drenched to the bone by now.” She paused and eyed his hoodie. “Wanna start being a good senior? Give me your hoodie.”

 

“What? Hell, no!”

 

“He’s going to be drowning in his uniform and it’s a long enough walk from the field to the locker room. You have the advantage of heading straight to your dorm.”

 

Jun scowled but he seemed to know she was right. He groaned then held out his umbrella for her to hold over his head. She accepted it and struggled for a moment because of how tall he was.

 

He shrugged the hoodie over his head and she was a little glad to see he had a long-sleeved shirt on underneath.

 

He passed her the hoodie and took back the handle of the umbrella. The hoodie was warm in her arms, his body heat lingering. 

 

She flashed him a grin. “Such a good senior.”

 

Jun scoffed. “Shut up!”

 

She snorted at his reaction, shifting to tuck the hoodie under her arm so it wouldn’t get wet. “See you, Jun.”

 

“Yeah. See you.”

 

She turned around first, feeling lighter, somehow.

 

It was fortifying to know someone agreed. She wasn’t alone in thinking this and hopefully, Jun could change something — someone’s mind.

 

She picked up her face, the grass soft and muddy underneath her shoes. Asano would have a conniption when she came in with her shoes this muddy, even if they would be in the entryway.

 

Amara was relieved to find a sidewalk had been formed around both fields, snaking around and almost connecting them. She scraped her shoe against the concrete in an absent-minded effort to get rid of the mud. She could see Eijun now, on the far side of Field B, steadily jogging.

 

She took up a stance near the fence near the third base line, waiting for him to get close enough so she could call out to him. Waiting for him to come around, she scanned the field.

 

The grass was well-kempt, red dirt darkened into maroon under the onslaught of rain. The dugout was empty, water leaking from an open pipe into a puddle near the side wall. The entire field was empty, save for her and Eijun.

 

He came around, his figure coming into sharper focus.

 

“Eijun!”

 

He stopped and looked at her. She was relieved to find he was wearing the Seido cap, though it looked sufficiently soaked. The rest of his uniform was soaked, the button-up looking blue as it stuck to his compression shirt. Mud covered his cleats, staining the white shoes.

 

He approached her, his face still hidden underneath his cap.

 

“Miss Amara,” he greeted. He was still subdued. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Saving you from getting sick. Get out of there, we’re going back to the locker rooms so you can change.”

 

He nodded once and turned around to get out through the gate. The lack of protest made a lump grow in her throat. She forced her feet to move so she could meet him outside the field.

 

He diligently shut and locked the gate then turned to face her. She took a few steps forwards, swallowing her own inhabitations and invading his space to hold the umbrella over his head.

 

He looked at her, wary. She held out the hoodie. “Give me the cap and change out of your shirt into this. You don’t need to be walking all that way to the locker room soaked to the bone, though we really can’t do anything about your pants.”

 

“You don’t have to,” he said softly.

 

“I want to,” she replied firmly.

 

Eijun seemed to not have any more energy to protest because he pulled off his cap and handed it to her. His hair was black as it was dampened, sticking to his neck and forehead. He began unbuttoning his uniform shirt. She moved the hoodie to rest over her arm that held the umbrella, leaving a free hand open to accept his wet clothing.

 

He relinquished the shirt over to her and she took a few cursory steps back to give him more space to change out of the compression shirt. She could feel a few raindrops dripping onto the back of her head, rolling down to her neck. She suppressed a shiver at the iciness of the water.

 

Eijun struggled for a few seconds to get out of the compression shirt but he got it off eventually. She kept her eyes on his face, but the soft golden tones of his exposed skin still remained in her lower vision. He gave her the shirt then took the hoodie.

 

He shrugged it on easily, covering up his exposed skin and allowing her to breathe. She felt guilty for almost allowing her eyes to stray.

 

He looked at the hoodie, which swallowed up his frame, probably due to the difference in shoulder length and muscle. Jun was a seasoned baseball player, after all, and Eijun was only just starting out.

 

“Who —?”

 

She smiled and handed over his clothes. “Jun. He didn’t want you to get sick.”

 

Jun certainly hadn’t said that, but if he hadn’t shared the sentiment, he wouldn’t have given her his hoodie. She knew him well enough to know that he was a big brother to the underclassmen, yelling and insulting them but protective still.

 

There was a flash of something in his eyes, like the flicker of light in a dark tunnel. 

 

Amara was right. His upperclassmen — more specifically the retired baseball players — were his light in this dark tunnel. She just wished they could see that, too. 

 

They squeezed underneath the umbrella, which Eijun wordlessly took over since he was taller and could cover both of them efficiently. It was quiet for a few minutes as they wandered out of the field area, stepping back onto the soggy grass. 

 

“How are you, Eijun?”

 

She felt him shrug, arm brushing against her own. “Fine.” 

 

“But are you really?” 

 

He didn’t reply for a moment. Then he said, “I can’t pitch at all.” 

 

“What does that mean, then?” 

 

His steps faltered and she felt his gaze on her face. She stared ahead, watching the streaks of rainfall. 

 

“I . . . don’t understand your question.” 

 

“You’re going to try, right? To pitch again?” She looked at him and he averted his eyes immediately. 

 

“I . . .” 

 

Amara cleared her throat. “You love pitching. You love baseball. And if you love it, then it’s worth fighting for.”

 

Eijun stopped in his tracks this time. Amara followed, narrowly avoiding the downpour. He looked at her, a crestfallen look on his face. His knuckles were white around the handle of the umbrella. 

 

“I’m not even good at it,” he whispered. “My control is terrible, I get shaken whenever batters get hits off me, I argue with my catcher — I’m a worthless pitcher, Miss Amara. I don’t deserve to be on this team. At this school. To have these people around me.” 

 

“Is that what you really think?” 

 

“I know it.”

 

“Because of everything you just said?” It pained her to hear him speak about himself in such a manner, but it was relieving at the same time. He was opening up, generously baring his soul for her to see and not to judge. And she wouldn’t. 

 

Eijun dropped his eyes to the ground. “That and . . . Everyone else says it, too. I’m nothing more than a pitcher who gets lucky sometimes. Flukes. A-And compared to Furuya . . . Chris was right.”

 

She stood up a little straighter. “What?” 

 

“He said as long as Furuya was on this team and in my year, I’d never get out of his shadow. And he was right. I’m nothing. He’s the ace. I’m just a relief. But I can’t even do that right, either . . .” He seemed to crumble, slowly but surely break down. His head dipped forward and his eyes looked glossy. 

 

Amara took a minute to control her breathing. 

 

He said as long as Furuya was and in my year, I’d never step out of his shadow.

 

That . . . didn’t sound like Chris. But there were quite a few things she didn’t know about him. In fact, the distance that had grown between them emphasized that fact. She knew the superficial stuff, but she didn’t know him. 

 

This entire situation proved that he wasn’t the same guy she thought she knew. 

 

And learning that he’d said that to Eijun — to a first year pitcher who had little to no real experience, probably burying the seeds of insecurities and doubt, she was pissed. Screw their argument. She was going to have words with him later on. 

 

She reached out to touch his shoulder, squeezing tightly. “None of those things are true, Eijun. If there’s anything I can promise with utmost certainty, it’s that. You’re growing. That’s natural. I’m still learning, too, you know. Furuya is your rival and you both are equals, understand?”

 

“I can't even pitch to the inside.” 

 

“That can’t be your only weapon,” she disagreed. “As a pitcher, you aren’t just limited to that.” 

 

“But I am,” he stressed, looking back up, frustrated. 

 

“Then, Furuya is limited to his speed. What else makes his pitches so difficult? It’s just speed, just velocity. But he’s learning and so are you. What can I do to make you understand that?”

 

Eijun dropped his head. “You don’t need to do anything. I’ve inconvenienced you enough already.”

 

“It’s not inconvenient if I want to help, Eijun.” She paused as her eyes latched onto a soccer ball lying underneath the bleachers at the soccer field. The rain continued to fall steadily around them and she caught the minute shivering of Eijun’s body. She pushed his arm gently and they began walking again. 

 

A thought occurred to her. 

 

“Are you busy this Sunday?” 

 

Eijun gave her a hesitant look. “No.” 

 

“Come with me. I’m visiting a few friends. I think they’d like your company and vice versa.” 

 

He mulled it over then nodded reluctantly. “I guess.” 

 

Amara smiled. “You won’t regret it.” 

 

He wouldn’t. Maybe he needed a departure from baseball. So that meant a visit to Nakatsuwa was needed again. 

 

The kids would love him. 

 

It would be a fresh start. They’d known him as the cool high schooler, his status as a baseball player not that interesting to them given their love for soccer. It was hopefully what he needed.

 

Their walk was silent after that, but it was a contemplative silence. 

 

There was a deep frown on Eijun’s face and while it was admittedly out of place, it was better than the hollow, subdued look he usually had as of late. 

 

And plus, Amara felt like all hope hadn’t quite been lost, because as they’d neared the back of gym, doors leading to the locker rooms in sight, there had been a deafening roll of thunder that made her jump out of her skin, and Eijun had giggled at the sudden movement. 

 

She’d muttered, “Oh, shut up,” which only made his smile widen until it was closely resembling a grin, and the sight of it was so relieving, so endearing, that she felt a little choked up. 

 

Amara dimly noted that if she was reacting this way to a smile and some laughter, she’d probably have a full-on breakdown come Sunday when he’d meet up with the kids again. 

 

She had no doubt they’d lift his spirits with their freedom and love for fun. 

 

He and the kids were similar in that aspect. 

 

He played baseball because it was fun and they played soccer for the same reason. Except the kids weren’t coldly competitive like so many of his teammates; they loved their friends and soccer. There wasn’t one without the other. 

 

She sent him off into the boys locker room with a squeeze of his shoulder, taking back the umbrella as he ducked inside. He lingered in the doorway, looking at her hesitantly. 

 

“Thank you, Miss Amara,” he finally said, his voice soft. She smiled gently. 

 

“That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?” 

 

“We’re friends?” 

 

“We’ve always been friends, Eijun.” 


Chapter Text

20. talk

 

The Sports Festival ended up being canceled. The weather forecast said the storming that had been going on all week would peak on Saturday with a ninety-five percent chance of rain and thunder. 

 

The administration wasn’t willing to take their chances with that other five percent, so a statement was released to the public that the date would be pushed to September 25. 

 

Amara made sure to notify the kids personally, but also tell them she’d be heading down on Sunday with a friend. 

 

Thursday was also their scrimmage against Jurojin High, a powerhouse school in the Western division and regular finalists in the Fall Tournament; they’d been going to Nationals off and on for the last ten years. 

 

Hotei lost miserably, unfortunately, with 13-7 in Jurojin’s favor. Nakamura had been nice about it, restating the fact that they frequently went to Nationals. 

 

It was expected, Amara thought, given Hotei’s lack of good practice. They had a lot of things to work on. 

 

Friday wasn’t much better. She woke up with pain laced through her right calf and it persisted throughout practice, affecting her performance. Nakamura hadn’t noticed but Hikari had. 

 

“Don’t go hiding injuries,” Hikari had hissed as they made their way back to the locker rooms to change into their school uniforms. “You’ll bring the team down.” 

 

Amara brushed her off, irritation flashing. “I know that already. Get off my case.” 

 

That seemed to have only angered her more but Hanako had caught up with them, attending morning practice to observe like many of the other starting lineup hopefuls, tugging on Amara’s shirt. 

 

“I have some KT tape you can use. My brother used it for his calf, too, but he doesn’t need it anymore,” she offered. 

 

Amara smiled tiredly at her. “Could I? I’ll stop by during lunch to pick it up. I have a presentation to do this morning after breakfast, so I won’t have time.”

 

“That’s fine.” 

 

Amara would rather not admit it out loud, but she’d grown fond of Hanako. 

 

After Hanako had stopped stressing the fact that she’d take center midfielder when Amara left, she was always helpful, looking for pointers when she could. She was a sponge, willing to soak up as much information as possible, and Amara had no problem indulging her. 

 

Lunch was ultimately the best time to finally talk to Chris as well. But it made her nervous, too. 

 

It had started raining again, so the cafeteria was packed with more students seeking cover. Eijun and Haruichi secured a table on the first floor, Chiyo and Chihiro already with them. She bypassed the lunch lines to go up to the second floor first, knowing Hanako often sat there with a friend. 

 

Her calf throbbed with pain at the stretch of her foot and she grimaced, trying not to limp too noticeably. As she came up the last stair, her heart took off, stomach fluttering nervously. 

 

They still sat at the same table, and most of them were there—Jun, Tetsu, Tanba, the other second years and first years. Chris was there, too. A few of their faces brightened as they realized she had just entered, an uncertain hush falling over the table. 

 

She hesitated for a second, doubt overcoming her too quickly. She couldn’t do this here—

 

“Miss Amara.” 

 

Hanako was standing at her own table to the right, another girl sitting with her and eating. Amara went over to her, turning too quickly and feeling the strain in her leg. She grimaced and limped a step, then fixed her walk. But it was too late. She heard a few distressed mutters from the table, someone quietly calling out her name. She ignored them, heading over to Hanako.

 

Hanako looked just as concerned. “Is it that bad? Did you sprain it?”

 

“It’s probably just a muscle tear. Don’t worry. Help me set up, won’t you?” She shot a polite smile to the girl, who wordlessly bowed her head, then sat down on a chair and leaned down to roll up the pant leg over her knee. 

 

Hanako looked a little mollified at that and kneeled, opening the box to take out a strip of tape. It was a soft beige, either intended just to be a neutral color or to blend in with someone’s skin. It was probably the latter, but it wouldn’t do much compared to her naturally brown skin. 

 

Hanako shifted to face the side of her leg, touching and prodding her calf to see the reaction. Once she’d received when she needed, she peeled off the wax paper and pressed it to Amara’s calf, creating a zig-zag pattern almost. The tape was tight and sticky, and Amara had half a mind to dread taking it off, but as she released the pant leg and stood up, she was relieved at the reprieve. 

 

It was tight against her skin, but the pain was significantly better, tension relieved. She released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and Hanako stood up as well, holding out the box. “Is that better?”

 

“Loads. Thank you, Hanako.” She smiled gratefully as she took the box. 

 

Hanako bowed her head, clasping her hands in front of her. “Of course. Try not to sleep with the tape, though, so your muscle doesn’t start depending on it. Once the pain goes away, there’s no need for it. But if it hurts at night, use some ice or a heat pad on your calf and maybe take some medicine. Though if it persists and it’s hurting that much it might be best to see a doctor . . .” She trailed off, eyebrows furrowed in concern. 

 

Amara smiled bravely. “I’m sure it’ll be fine in a few days. But I’ll keep that in mind.” 

 

Hanako bowed her head again. “I hope it heals soon.” 

 

She bid her goodbyes and turned back around, faltering in her step once she realized the table had been watching the exchange. 

 

She scowled at the anxious looks on their faces. Their worry for her wellbeing felt incredibly inappropriate given their entire situation. 

 

Before she could stop and think, her feet were carrying her over to the table. 

 

Her eyes met Jun’s first and there was some hope in them. She moved her eyes away as she came to a spot standing between Kusunoki and Chris. 

 

That spot was usually where she sat. 

 

She shifted uneasily on her feet, stomach fluttering nervously. 

 

“Are you talking to us again?” Ryosuke asked sardonically. Her irritation flared. 

 

“Hardly.” She turned to Chris, grip tightening minutely on the box. “I just have a question for you.” 

 

He met her eyes steadfastly, no sign of wavering. His eyes, which were usually warm hazel, were neutral, void of any identifiable emotion. Her chest ached. 

 

“Go ahead.” 

 

She gritted her teeth. “Why didn’t you apologize to Eijun for the things you said to him?” 

 

“What?” He was confused, eyebrows furrowing for a second before he seemed to realize something. She could see him tense, sitting a little straighter as he stared at her in what looked like embarrassment. 

 

“Said what?” Kusunoki’s soft voice came from next to her. A quick glance around the table said she had everyone’s attention, even Miyuki looking at her with eyebrows furrowed. 

 

“That as long as Furuya was in his year and on the team he’d never step out of his shadow.” 

 

There were a few sharp intakes of breath, eyes going back to Chris in shock. 

 

Yeah, no shit. 

 

Hearing someone say that was already disheartening. But the fact that it was Chris, a third year—his upperclassmen—and a catcher to boot, she couldn’t imagine the repercussions it had in Eijun’s self-esteem. 

 

Knowing him, he might’ve been highly affronted and angry about it at first, but as time went on, he was bound to notice the differences between his pitching and Furuya’s. 

 

It would’ve stayed in the back of his mind like glue, haunting him when those internal demons took charge. 

 

Like they had now. 

 

She scanned the table. There were varying degrees of shock written on their faces, but some were finally coming to their senses, disappointment beginning to take over. 

 

Miyuki’s reaction was the most interesting. His grip on the chopsticks was knuckle-white, eyes shut in an almost regretful manner. Kuramochi stared at him, bewildered. 

 

“Chris . . .” Tanba suddenly murmured, looking a strange mix of disappointment and shame. 

 

She turned back to Chris expectantly. He didn’t meet her eyes. 

 

“That was a long time ago,” he said quietly. “I didn’t—I wasn’t in the best state of mind after the surgery and in the beginning of my third year.” 

 

She shut her eyes tiredly, sighing. Of course it had to do with his injury. She was prepared to believe he’d said it with his full conscience, but it certainly made sense to know he’d said that when he was recovering. He had probably been struggling, seeing his friends flourish and watching some arrogant underclassman take his spot. 

 

But it didn’t excuse it. 

 

“That doesn’t mean you can tear down some first year’s ego. Much less someone on the team,” she finally said, reopening her eyes to look at him, disappointed in this turn of events. 

 

She’d hoped she could get angry with him. But she could emphasize too much with how he felt. 

 

“You owe him an apology. Upperclassmen or not, you’re the one in the wrong now. What you said to him has seriously affected him. He’s questioning his self-worth. As a person, as a pitcher and as a teammate. All of you,” she looked at the table and no one met her eyes. “This is on all of you.

 

“Maybe if you all were numbers on a paper I’d understand why Miyuki said what he said, why you’re not helping him. But you’re not numbers on a paper. You’re people. He’s your teammate and friend, so start treating him like that instead of a burden. His mental health is just as important as his physical. It’s not one over the other.”

 

She released a short puff of air, feeling drained all of a sudden. “And if this is about time constraints, think about me. I’m a third year, this is my last season. I haven’t even been on the starting lineup until this year. I, of all people, know what it’s like to be on a time crunch, But he’s my junior and friend. So, I will help him as much as I’m able to.” 

 

The others had guilty looks on their faces, some looking truly repentant like Kanemaru, Kuramochi and Kawakami—the last one, she thought, was a strange detail. 

 

She understood Kanemaru and Kuramochi, but Kawakami? She distantly wondered if Kawakami and Eijun were close. Other than being pitchers and the usual senior-junior dynamic, she couldn’t really tell. 

 

She brushed those meaningless thoughts aside and sighed. “Remember, this isn’t about being right or wrong. This is about Eijun and helping him. I’m leaving the rest up to you all.” 

 

She stepped back and upon receiving no more words, made a beeline towards the staircase. She took care to step carefully but she was desperate to get out of there. 

 

It was a feeling she never thought she’d associate with them. 

 

She made it back down and joined a lunch line, picking up a tray and finding the table that they’d sat down at, taking a seat next to Chihiro and Chiyo. 

 

“Everything fine?” Chihiro asked, picking up a piece of meat. Chiyo glanced at her, eyebrow raised. 

 

Amara smiled reassuringly at them. “It’s fine.” She set the box on the table, drawing their attention. “Just picked that up from Hanako.” 

 

“Hanako Sanada? She’s related to Yakushi’s Sanada, isn’t she? Didn’t we meet her?” Haruichi asked. 

 

Amara recalled the Seido and Akikawa game, where she stayed with them afterward to see Yakushi and someone else play. Hanako’s presence—so obviously a supporter of Yakushi—had been awkward. 

 

She wondered how the news of Hotei’s co-ed baseball team sat with her and her brother. 

 

“That was her, yes.”

 

“Are you okay?” Chiyo asked, eyeing the box as though it’d personally affronted her. 

 

Amara stiffened underneath their scrutinizing eyes. Even Eijun was looking at her with narrowed eyes. 

 

“I’m perfectly fine. I think I pulled a muscle but it should be fine.” 

 

“Don’t hide it if it gets worse,” Eijun said, sounding like a worried mother. Haruichi have a firm nod of agreement. 

 

She grinned despite herself, finding both amusement and fondness in their worrisome tendencies. 

 

“Also, Miss Amara, about the trip on Sunday, I forgot that we’re hosting the Block Games and we have one that day at 10 in the morning. So, I don’t . . .” he trailed off uncertainly and cleared his throat. “I’ll probably be on the bench—” she frowned and Haruichi grimaced guiltily “—so I won’t be tired but is it still okay?” 

 

Amara softened at the dejected tone. “It’s up to you. We can go later during the day, if you’d like.” She watched him push his food around, seeming to feel guilty about delaying it. She continued. “What we’re doing—it’ll be better during the afternoon. Don’t worry. That means I can sleep in, too.” 

 

Chihiro and Chiyo made similar sounds of distaste at that, rolling their eyes while Amara grinned at him reassuringly. 

 

She wasn’t exactly lying, either. The kids were, well, kids (teenagers, to be more accurate) so they weren’t up before nine in the morning on weekends, meaning they’d probably be in the street around afternoon time despite the heat. 

 

She could certainly understand; any opportunity to sleep in was a good one. 

 

“I’m sure Coach will put you in, Eijun,” Haruichi said, trying to sound as hopeful as possible. 

 

Eijun still pushed around his food. “Why would he? I can't even pitch right.”

 

“Ah . . .” 

 

“Well, don’t jinx yourself, kid,” Chiyo murmured. “Never say never and all that.” 

 

Chihiro nodded firmly, cheeks protruding with meat and rice, then pointed to the meat on his tray. “You gonna eat that?” 

 

“Hiro, shut up.”

 


 

Sunday came soon enough; her calf felt significantly better, but it was still sore to use. 

 

Coach Nakamura had noticed the tape, but didn’t say anything about it. Her performance during practice was good enough; there was no need to talk about it. 

 

Their trip to Nakatsuwa ended up being at 2 in the afternoon. Seido had won, advancing them to round 2 of the Block Qualifiers, which would be the next weekend. Then if they won that, the final would be the Monday after that weekend. 

 

According to a dejected Eijun, he didn’t get to pitch at all and she could only do so much to console him as they walked to the train station and boarded their train. The price of the ticket surmounted to a good distraction for him as he fussed over her paying for it, but she ended up pulling her senior card to mollify him. 

 

When they finally pulled into the Nakatsuwa Station, Eijun seemed to finally have the idea to ask her what exactly they were doing. 

 

She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her shorts, experimentally flexing her calf, pleased to feel only a twang of soreness. 

 

“We’re here to play some soccer,” she replied, leading him across the street. 

 

He seemed even more confused at that, but didn’t ask anything else. 

 

Their walk was spent in companionable silence, the only sound being their footfalls and the noise of the outside world. 

 

They passed the 7/11 that she and Momo had gone to and turned the corner to that familiar street. 

 

The sounds of a soccer game in the street up ahead made its way to their ears. She glanced at him, finding him staring at the game with wide eyes and a curious look. 

 

It was a refreshing look on his face and she bit back a smile. 

 

She picked up her pace and called out. “Hey, guys! I’m back to finish my forgiveness game!”

 

They stopped and began chattering away, greeting her loudly. 

 

“Forgiveness game?” Eijun asked softly. 

 

She shot him a grin. “I might’ve abandoned them these past few months because of school and practice. According to them, to earn their forgiveness, I need to play a game with them. Last time I was here, though, I ended up skinning both my knees after tripping. Couldn’t finish it.”

 

His eyes flickered to her knees when she said that, but the scabs had fallen off and only added a few more scars to her already-packed arsenal on her legs. 

 

Thinking of the various scars made her wince and grin. Her mother would have a field day grumbling about it. 

 

“Girls don’t have scars. That’s not attractive.” 

 

Amara huffed a short laugh, waving off Eijun’s questioning look. 

 

He cleared his throat and said, “So, today, we’re here to finish it?” It looked like he was trying to smother a grin, but it was just about impossible. The kids were too loud and cheerful. 

 

“It’s you! The guy from Seido!”

 

“Didja switch to soccer? Are you looking for pointers?” 

 

“Are you gonna play with us?” 

 

Eijun’s eyes widened. He looked genuinely shocked at the reception, turning to Amara with a disbelieving expression. 

 

She raised an eyebrow and nudged him gently with her elbow. “What’s wrong? They took a real liking to you, you know.”

 

“B-But why?” He whispered, glancing between her and the kids, who stood on the other side of the car that they’d stopped by. Reo was at the front, sweaty and eyeing them uncertainly, the soccer ball tucked under his arm. 

 

“Why they like you? You’re a charming guy, Eijun.” 

 

“But I can’t—”

 

She touched his shoulder. “Problems don’t define a person, right? So neither does your pitching. You’re still a southpaw pitcher for Seido with a crazy form and an unbreakable resilience. To them, you’re still that cool guy from Seido.”

 

He looked doubtful. 

 

She squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t overthink it. Just have fun.” 

 

“Hey, you gonna play with us?” Reo barked. “Can you hurry?”

 

“Reo, don’t be so rude! What if you make him go away with your disrespectful attitude?” 

 

“Yeah! Don’t leave, mister!” 

 

“Stay here and play with us!” 

 

“See,” she murmured. “They want you here. Just let loose. Have some fun.” 

 

He looked thoughtful, eyes flickering downward. He shifted uneasily on his feet, then suddenly bowed towards the group. 

 

“Eijun Sawamura at your service! Please, show this poor excuse of a soccer player how to play! I’ll be in your care!” 

 

His declaration made her grin and she looked back at the group to share it. 

 

They cheered and he was just about ready to start playing—the kids the same—but Amara stopped them to assert some semblance of organization. 

 

“Hey, hey, let’s arrange some teams first . . . Would it be fair to pit Eijun against me?”

 

“Is that a challenge, Miss?” He asked, a grin finally forming on his face. 

 

The sight was so familiar and warm that she grinned back, unabashed. 

 

“Maybe so. Let’s see how a newbie first year can play against their seasoned senior, huh? Eijun and I will be team captains. Everyone line up!” 

 

“Hold on—” Eijun muttered, panic flashing across his face as his grin rapidly faded. “I don’t—”

 

“Trust them,” she said softly. “Go with your instincts or pick randomly. Just have fun with it. Those kids trust you and they want to play with you. No one’s gonna get mad if you slip up, okay?”

 

The kids finished arranging themselves and as if to prove her point that they began calling out for Eijun to pick them for his team. Some stayed firmly with Amara, but most looked for Eijun to pick them. 

 

He closed his eyes and breathed in, visibly steeling himself. When he reopened his eyes, she grinned again at seeing the familiar fire in his brown eyes, shining almost amber underneath the sun’s rays. 

 

He grinned at her. “Challenge accepted, then.”

 

“Don’t back out last minute.” 

 

“Don’t worry. I won’t.” 

 

The kids ‘ooh’d’ at the exchange, making her chuckle. Reo dropped the ball onto the ground and nudged it to them. She stopped it from rolling downhill and trapped it between her feet. 

 

She gestured to Eijun. “Take your pick.” 

 

They alternated turns, and either Eijun was doing it randomly or he was strangely perceptive, but he ended up picking Reo, Kei and Momo, the three kids closest to Amara and certainly ones who knew her tricks. It was a smart move (though she wouldn’t admit it out loud). 

 

She didn’t really mind as she got most of the dark horses of their little group on her side. Plus, it was just fun

 

She wasn’t going to face Eijun to just win; she was doing it to make him smile. As long as he was having fun, she’d do whatever she needed. If she needed to play easy, she could do that. But if she needed to play like he was a powerhouse soccer player, then so be it. 

 

Just to see him smiling, laughing, and yelling. Announcing his presence to the world and shining like the sun to all those around him. 

 

The kids seemed to understand what was going on, or at the very least, wanted to see him having as much as fun as they were. His own team cheered and laughed, flourishing under Eijun’s words and encouragement. Her team didn’t hesitate to provoke them, using good-natured jeers and insults. 

 

It was also interesting to see Eijun as a captain. Although this was amateur at best and definitely nothing like baseball, he still retained a certain responsibility. When they convened to discuss, she spouted some typical words that Fuyumi would tell the team before scrimmages or games and tried not to eavesdrop too obviously on Eijun’s speech, . 

 

She caught his low string of words, suspenseful but still enough to rouse excitement. He was an excellent captain. 

 

When they finally started the game, the ball coming into play on Amara’s team, he was yelling just as much as he did during a Seido game. And like it fueled his own teammates, it did the exact same thing here. Even her team looked pumped up. 

 

They played until it was evening, at which point Amara had to tell them to wrap it up, much to their displeasure. 

 

“It’s not even dark yet!” Reo protested. 

 

She looked at her phone, the time displayed as 6:37 PM, then back at him with a placating smile. “Curfew, buddy. Eijun and I have to head back and get dinner still. So do you all.” 

 

Her stomach grumbled, as if proving her point. 

 

Eijun looked at their downcast faces with a blinding grin. He was sweating profusely and she was in a similar state, but he was glowing with happiness. It was a warm sight. 

 

“This is not the end of us, don’t worry, my hatchlings! I’ll come back soon!” He announced loudly, voice echoing down the street. 

 

“You promise?” Reo demanded. 

 

He laughed and it wasn’t like that regular laugh he had around others, a strange mask as though he was protecting himself from something. This one was real; a full-bellied laugh, genuine and warm, pure Eijun.

 

He grinned and reached out to ruffle Reo’s hair. “I promise. Now, all of you head home safely!” 

 

“Text me!” Amara added. 

 

“Yes!” The kids chorused, scrambling to get their things and run off in separate directions. 

 

Momo waved shyly, calling out a soft, “Bye, Ei.” 

 

Kei waved much more animatedly, a large grin on his face. “Seeya, Ei!” 

 

“Ei, huh?” She mused, pleased to see Eijun flush and rub the back of his neck with a sheepish grin painted on his lips. 

 

“It’s a childhood nickname. They liked it, so . . .” He laughed nervously. 

 

“It’s cute,” she affirmed, an amused smile on her lips. “Ready to head back? Dinner’s on me.” 

 

“I’ll pay you back!” 

 

She laughed and they stepped back onto the sidewalk, going back the way they came. “No need. I’m fine covering it.”

 

“But you covered my ticket . . .” He said with a worried frown. 

 

She bumped his hip with hers. “Get that look off your face, Ei. I’m fine, I want to.” 

 

He flushed again and tried to smother a grin but ultimately failed to do so, instead shaking his head fondly at her. 

 

They fell into a warm silence; the few glances she sent at him showed that he was thinking deeply about something, lips pursed in a contemplative manned as he glanced up at the sky. 

 

It wasn’t anything to be alarmed about, so she focused on getting them back to the station. 

 

She wiped the back of her hand over her forehead, grimacing at the sweat and matted hair. She tucked the stray pieces of her hair behind her ear again in an attempt to pat down the hairs that were sticking up, but it was a fruitless attempt. 

 

They stopped at the crosswalk, the station right across the street. It was painfully familiar. 

 

She brushed those thoughts away, stepping into the street when the sign changed. 

 

She hadn’t seen the third years over the weekend, or anybody else from the team really, save for Eijun. She could only hope her words resonated with someone. 

 

After showing proof of tickets, she led him over to a ramen stand and ordered their food, taking a seat at the bench in front of their platform. Their train wouldn’t be there for another thirty minutes, leaving them at their leisure to eat. 

 

Eijun thanked her quickly then dug into the food ravenously, stuffing his mouth with noodles. She grinned and ate her own food—albeit at a much slower pace. 

 

They lapsed into that warm silence again, but Eijun still looked thoughtful, chewing through his food as he mulled something over. She was tempted to ask but refrained from doing so. 

 

“I want to get over this.” 

 

She looked at him, surprised at the break of silence. He still had a thoughtful look on his face, stirring the noodles with his chopsticks. 

 

“I just don’t know how.” 

 

She nodded seriously, understanding his dilemma. He needed the means to get over this—another helping hand to push him in the right direction. She wasn’t that person, her inexperience in baseball finally rearing its head. 

 

But she knew who could. 

 

“Wanting to do it is the first step. We’ll figure it out, alright? I’m not leaving you behind on this.” 

 

He looked at her and nodded slowly. He picked up some noodles and chewed through them, then said, “You know, Miyuki apologized to me.” 

 

“Did he now?” 

 

Eijun smiled slightly. “About an earlier incident when I first met Chris. I didn’t know about his injury and Chris wasn’t exactly loving baseball, so I mouthed off to him like the dumb first year I am. Miyuki got pissed about it. He said . . . He said he knew what Chris had said.” 

 

Amara grimaced, feeling an apology forming on the tip of her tongue. She hadn’t explicitly revealed what Eijun said, but it could probably be deduced. “I’m sorry, that’s all I told them. They needed a wake-up call—”

 

“No, it’s okay,” he said softly. He grinned, then. “It’s not every day you get Miyuki Kazuya apologizing to you.” 

 

She chuckled, more out of disbelief than actual amusement. “I suppose you’re right. But I promise,” she sobered up. “I wouldn’t betray you. Everything you said to me was in confidence. Chris just needed to understand that he couldn’t say something like that to you.” 

 

Eijun frowned, stirring his noodles again. “I mouthed off to him, though,”

 

“Doesn’t matter. He’s a catcher and your senior. He has no place to say something like that to you. And I want you to know—he was wrong. He didn’t know you. He didn’t know how resilient you are, the rate at which you continue to grow and learn. And how could he? But now we all know. You’re a real contender in the ace competition, Eijun. So don’t doubt yourself and all your hard work. We’ll get through this.”

 

He was embarrassed at the end of her spiel, cheeks looking suspiciously red—though it could be chalked up to the evening heat—but it looked like some of it had resonated with him as he nodded, that familiar fire beginning to burn in his eyes. 

 

He finished his food and generously took her trash as well, standing up to find a trash can. Their train began rumbling into the station, other people crowding the platform. She stood up as he came back, keeping an eye out for their assigned cabin. They had to go further down to get closer to their cabin and once they were close enough, they fell into a line of people entering. 

 

Eijun hovered closely as she stepped up and headed through one cabin to theirs. He pointed out their seats—two seats next to a window that overlooked the other tracks instead of the platform. She gave him the window seat and sat down beside him, sending a cursory smile and bow of the head to the two elderly women sitting across from them. 

 

It took a few more minutes for the rest of the cabin to fill up before a friendly automated female voice came over the speaker, “TTX bound for Kokubunji will be departing in two minutes.”

 

She glanced to the side, finding Eijun resting his head on the headrest, staring out the window at something in the distance. The sun was beginning to set, painting the sky orange in its descent. 

 

His eyelids fluttered a few times. She cleared her throat. “Take a nap. I’ll wake you when we get there.” 

 

He made a noncommittal sound, probably trying to protest, but his eyes fell shut and his body slackened. 

 

The game really must’ve tired him out, she mused. Or maybe it was just emotional exhaustion: She was fairly sure today had been one of the first few days in almost a month that he’d been smiling and laughing for as long as he had been. 

 

Then again, he hadn’t been sleeping well since the yips had been revealed. He was bound to be tired from his lack of sleep and constant running in the morning and evening. 

 

That voice came on again as the doors slid shut. “The train will now be departing. Thank you for riding with Tokyo Express.” She felt the train began to move, sliding out of the platform and slowly gaining speed. 

 

Eijun’s breathing had evened out, chest rising and falling with deep breaths. He really was knocked out. 

 

Amara smiled at the sight of it—relieved, mostly, to see him sleeping so soundly after what seemed like endless days of dark circles and eye bags.  

 

Now that he was sleeping, she could finally do what she’d been planning for the last few minutes; she pulled out her phone, going to LINE and opening up a conversation that hadn’t been used since summer break. 

 

me

he wants to get better. mentally, he’s ready. physically, he needs help. he can’t do it on his own. 

 

She sent it, frowning, then continued to type. 

 

me

i took him as far as i could go, i’m not a baseball player, certainly not a catcher or a pitcher. it’s your job at this point. 

 

me

this is about him. don’t talk to me if you don’t want to but please, this is the last thing i want from you. just help him. do it for me, do it for him, do it for the team, i don’t care, it’s your pick. just help. 

 

Her fingers hovered over the keyboard. She bounced her leg restlessly, reading over the messages again. She didn’t care if she came off as desperate. At this point, she sort of was. 

 

Eijun wanted to get better but he didn’t know how. She certainly wasn’t going to count on the coach to be personally helping him, certainly not the potential assistant coach either—who, Eijun told her, tried to get him to become a side-arm pitcher, which was a little suspicious in her opinion. It was ultimately the catcher’s job to help his pitcher. 

 

A new bubble popped up. 

 

chris takigawa

Miyuki told me. I’ll talk to him this Friday. 

 

It was a neutral reply, one that stung. But it made sense. She wasn’t a baseball player, she had no credibility amongst them, why would he do her bidding? 

 

But the fact that it was Miyuki

 

She numbly typed out another message. 

 

me

good

 

She sent it and left the conversation, suddenly finding her chest throbbing as she looked at his name and profile in her list. 

 

Impulsively, she deleted the conversation. It wouldn’t affect the messages or anything on his side but at least she wouldn’t have to look at his name anymore. 

 

She shut off the phone, stuffing it back into her pocket and staring up at the ceiling of their cabin, fingers messing with the lining of her shorts. Eijun slept soundly beside her, his deep breathing an anchor for her. But it all still lingered in her mind, taunting her. 

 

She missed Chris. And she hated herself for it. 

Chapter Text

21. lab

 

The following week was bound to be interesting, and Amara was proven correct as that Monday ended up being the day when the others seemed to realize their mistake.

 

When lunch rolled around, sitting inside on the first floor had become a regular habit — a better option compared to the hot metal of the bleachers all the way out in the athletic fields. Amara had taken her seat beside Chihiro and Chiyo, Eijun and Haruichi sitting across from them, when someone cleared their throat from behind them. Conversation ceased and she turned around.

 

Kuramochi, Kanemaru, Tojo and Furuya stood there, trays held in their hands.

 

Kuramochi coughed awkwardly. "Could we sit with you guys?"

 

Amara turned to look at Haruichi and Eijun giving them the freedom to decide.

 

Haruichi took the matter into his hands like he had with the girls and smiled kindly. "Sure."

 

Furuya took a seat next to Haruichi while Kuramochi dropped himself into the open spot beside Eijun. Kanemaru and Tojo took their spots next to Amara, politely bowing their heads to her, Chihiro and Chiyo.

 

"What's the change in heart?" Chiyo asked, not giving the boys any leeway.

 

"Way too quiet up there," Kuramochi muttered, obviously avoiding his real intentions.

 

Amara smiled, amused. He was always rough around the edges with Eijun — probably for good reason, anyway. She knew he had good intentions when it came to him.

 

"Been missing your loud mouth up there, 'Wamura," Kanemaru grunted, saying what Kuramochi's pride probably wouldn't allow.

 

Tojo smiled warmly. "It hasn't been the same."

 

They turned to Furuya, who shifted uneasily in his seat, then finally mumbled, "The seniors have been awkward recently. It's uncomfortable."

 

"Don't be disrespectful!" Kuramochi snapped.

 

Amara raised an eyebrow, sharing a look with Chihiro and Chiyo. Were there problems? She hoped this entire situation hadn't driven a wedge between them, at least not one that would impair their friendship.

 

Third years notwithstanding, Eijun seemed to enjoy their presence, talking more, smiling more. Kanemaru and Kuramochi proved to be the counterattack, getting at him for being "too loud" or "saying dumb crap." Maybe it would've been effective if they'd put more effort into it, but she could see they were just enjoying this relapse into old dynamics.

 

Tojo was mostly a silent observer, smiling as he watched and sometimes interjecting to placate Kanemaru on something. Furuya was quiet as well, eating his food diligently.

 

She wondered where he'd been these past three weeks and how he was — she knew his primary friend group was Eijun and Haruichi, but Eijun was clearly not able to perform as a pitcher to his full extent. He'd probably taken that hint and found somewhere else to sit for the time being.

 

She picked up her empty cup and slid out of the seat, drawing Chihiro and Chiyo's attention.

 

"Oh, can you get me —"

 

"No."

 

Chihiro glared at her and Amara smiled. "You have legs, don't you?"

 

"You're so annoying."

 

Amara grinned and turned around, starting towards the beverage section. She glanced over her shoulder when she heard another chair scrape against the tile, finding Furuya standing as well, empty cup in hand. She paused to allow him to catch up and once he was next to her, resumed her pace.

 

"How have you been?" She asked, leading them to the counters that held various pitchers of drinks.

 

Furuya's eyes briefly widened, as though he was surprised she was asking about him. "I've been fine . . ." He said, uncertain. 

 

"Good. I haven't seen you around recently and I know Eijun and Haruichi are good friends of yours. I can't imagine you were in the easiest position."

 

They came to stand in front of the counter, taking a spot in the line where the water pitcher was being held.

 

"Ah, I guess not . . ." He hesitated, and she glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. He continued reluctantly. "Why . . . Why are you being so nice to me?"

 

Amara blinked, not expecting that question. The girl in front of her left, leaving the water pitcher on the counter. She stepped forward, picking it up and pouring her fill. "Why wouldn't I be? Just because you're Eijun's rival doesn't mean I'm going to be mean. You're a person before you're an athlete. There's no excuse to be treated any differently."

 

"Oh."

 

She chuckled at his reaction, setting her cup onto the counter then holding out her hand for his cup. He passed it to her and she began pouring the water, stopping once it was almost full.

 

She set the pitcher down and picked up her cup, moving out of the way to allow others to go; a frown creased her lips. "Don't tell me other people are —"

 

"No," he interrupted her softly, shaking his head. "I just thought — you're close to him, that's all. And I'm pitching well. So . . ."

 

Understanding dawned on her and she chuckled. "I'm not going to forsake you for growing as a pitcher. It's just a coincidence that Eijun is a pitcher, too, and that he has the same goal as you. I'm your friend, too, Furuya."

 

He stopped in his tracks, azure eyes connecting with her own. His eyebrows furrowed. "Friend?"

 

She huffed a soft laugh.

 

What was with these first years and being so surprised at having friends? Was it because she was a senior? Did those social dynamics cut that deeply so that seniors and juniors couldn't be considered 'friends?'

 

Or was this something personal?

 

There was a faraway gleam in his eyes. She softened. It must've been personal.

 

She elbowed him, taking him back to the present. "Yes, Furuya, friend. Better get used to it, kid."

 

"Please, don't call me that."

 

She laughed at the familiar statement. "Comes with the package, I'm afraid."

 

He evaluated her words with a frown, then something seemed to dawn on him.

 

"You've never called Sawamura that."

 

"Hey, no need to sound so smug."

 

They returned to the table, Amara exasperated to find that Chihiro had stolen a few pieces of her meat. Furuya retook his seat next Haruichi and Eijun.

 

She kicked Chihiro underneath the table, pleased to receive a wince in return. She expertly blocked a counterattack kick with her foot, grinning in a provoking manner, which was received with a scowl.

 

"Stop it," Chiyo scolded, sending them irritated looks. "What are you two, five?"

 

Amara merely chuckled while Chihiro huffed petulantly and turned forward.

 

Her calf had gotten better, so she was slowly weaning herself off the KT tape. It wasn't as bad as she thought it'd be, her performance in practice remaining steady. If anything, she'd been getting better. Her tackles were in excellent condition, as well as Hikari's.

 

The loss to Jurojin served as fuel to motivate them, and with the first rounds of the Fall Tournament approaching quickly, it was unanimously agreed to do their best.

 

Hanako insisted that she keep the box of tape for herself and Amara obliged, storing it away for later use (though she hoped she would never have to).

 

Lunch passed by almost too quickly and Amara was dreading going to economics. It was one of her few classes that she shared only with Chris and no other third year, and she shared a table with him to boot. Mercifully, Katsumi was present, as well as Chinen, sitting at the table in front of them.

 

The two girls were there when she entered, Katsumi flashing a friendly smile at her while Chinen nodded in acknowledgment. She returned the greetings and took her seat, glancing up at the front of the class. Students slowly ambled in one by one but there was no sign of Fukuhara, their economics teacher.

 

Chris entered at one point and sat down beside her, silently unpacking his own textbook and paper.

 

She flipped through the pages of her textbook aimlessly, trying not to focus on his presence beside her.

 

The classes that she shared with him (and sat with him) were always hellish, the air awkward and tense between them. It didn't look like he was intentionally avoiding her like she was to him, but he definitely wasn't making any attempt to speak to her.

 

Which was fine.

 

It stung but if that was how he wanted it to be, then so be it.

 

When the bell rang and there was still no sign of Fukuhara, a few students began mumbling amongst themselves.

 

"Heh, if he isn't here in fifteen, can we leave?" Someone asked loudly, eliciting giggles from surrounding students.

 

Chinen made an irritated noise from in front of them, drawing Amara's attention. "They're acting like clowns . . ."

 

Katsumi muffled her chuckles and Amara smiled. The volume of the class continued to increase as a few minutes ticked by, still no sign of Fukuhara.

 

Amara busied herself with going back to a few chapters she'd skimmed over, trying to grasp more information this time around. In her peripheral vision, she could see Chris bent over his textbook, too, pen scratching away at his paper.

 

After ten minutes passed, the door finally slid open and two people stepped in. The volume decreased quickly as they all waited for their verdict.

 

She recognized both teachers—Miss Sakito, the first year English teacher, and Mr. Tominaga, the second year physics teacher.

 

"Good afternoon," Miss Sakito said, hushing the rest of the low murmurs. "Mr. Fukuhara is out for the day due to a family emergency and didn't have time to complete a lesson plan, so this period will serve as a study hall. However, Mr. Tominaga has an option for those who want to do something else."

 

Tominaga smiled brightly at them all. "It's wonderful to see your faces again! The second years are currently during their second semester project in the lab and I need some more help on supervision. Any volunteers?"

 

Amara glanced at her textbook. Well, she was finished with majority of her homework and she knew Chihiro had physics right now. It wouldn't hurt.

 

She raised her hand, realizing too late that Chris had raised his at the same time. She wondered if it'd be insensitive to drop it.

 

She decided against it just as Tominaga's eyes swept over her. A quick look around showed that most hadn't raised their hands, interestingly enough. Maybe they were faced with quite a workload, or they just didn't want to work with the second years. Whichever the reason, she certainly understood.

 

Tominaga nodded, pleased. "Excellent! Come on, then. Leave your jackets here and roll up your sleeves as well. I'll release you in time to get your belongings back."

 

She tugged off the blazer and dropped it onto the back of the chair, trying not to stare at Chris when he tugged off his jacket, revealing the white button-up. He'd obviously taken to Hotei's uniform since she was fairly sure that Seido had students wearing beige vests over a button-up and blue tie.

 

She pointedly stared at the blank whiteboard at the front of the classroom, rolling up the sleeves of her shirt.

 

The volunteers ambled out of the class, Amara catching up once she'd closed everything. She shared a smile with Katsumi as she passed, chuckling at the thumbs-up that was sent her way as an obvious symbol of good luck. Chinen didn't do anything, preoccupied with scribbling away at her paper and glancing repeatedly at the textbook.

 

The hall was empty when they left and Tominaga led them to the lab being used, one of many that belonged to the science department. He chattered away the whole time, rambling about the creativity and impressive scales of some of the projects from this year's group. Most of the brown-nosers of the group appeased him willingly, nodding along seriously.

 

Amara hung back with the quieter students, but kept her distance from Chris. She didn't want any awkward confrontations.

 

The lab was alive with action when they entered and Amara spotted Chihiro immediately, standing at a table near the back, Miyuki, Kuramochi and another face she didn't know were standing at the table as well. Tominaga got the attention of the class, holding up his hands for silence.

 

"The third years are generously helping! If you have any questions, ask them, or need any assistance with your projects, I'll allow you all to speak to them. But they're not allowed to touch your projects, only you!"

 

Amara picked up a pair of safety goggles, ones that looked more like the sports goggles Miyuki used during practice and games, and slid them on, heading straight for Chihiro's table.

 

Chihiro narrowed her eyes suspiciously at her. "Why are you here?"

 

"Tominaga just said —"

 

"Shut it, Miyuki, I wasn't talking to you."

 

Kuramochi cackled and the other boy smiled as well. Amara couldn't hold her own snickers, either, even when Chihiro turned to glare at her.

 

She stifling her laughter and held up her hands placatingly. "Fukuhara is out today so we had an option to study but Tominaga offered this as a substitution if we were done with our work."

 

"And you're done with your work?"

 

"It does happen, at times, when I catch up on all my work, believe it or not."

 

"Sure," she muttered sardonically. "I bet you're doing this to torture me."

 

Amara eyed Miyuki and Kuramochi. "No, you don't need me for that." She ignored the indignant sputter from Kuramochi and the dry laugh from Miyuki, turning to the other boy and offering a kind smile. "I don't believe we've met. Amara de la Garza."

 

He smiled politely, bowing. "Hisashi Watanabe, but Nabe works."

 

"Amara for me as well." She glanced at the table. "I'd like to apologize on Chihiro's behalf. You really got the short stick when it came to group members, huh?"

 

Nabe smiled, amused, as the other three made sounds of indignant protest. "They won't slack. This project is sixty percent of our grade and the reviews of each member is a significant portion of that."

 

She laughed. "Oh, you're handling them well, aren't you?"

 

"Miss Amara, aren't you just supposed to be supervising?" Miyuki's voice came close to her ear, making her take an automatic step to the side. Kuramochi began glaring heatedly at him, obviously trying to make him step down; Chihiro was the same, though Amara was more worried about the life of the beaker in her tight grip.

 

"I am," she replied, turning her eyes to the papers spread out on the table. "You're doing it on electromagnetism? That's pretty advanced. Say, don't you need neodymium magnets for this? These . . ." She pushed at one of the magnetic bars. "I don't know what these are, but they're not neodymium and if I'm going by the inventory of supplies from my second year, Tominaga only had three magnets to spare."

 

"Miyuki," Kuramochi growled. "You were supposed to get them."

 

"Was I?"

 

"Let's go," Nabe sighed. "And keep any important electronics away from them when we do . . ." She didn't catch the rest of his words as he, Chihiro and Kuramochi headed towards the front of the classroom.

 

A quick survey of the classroom showed that the third years had taken up stances with other groups; she could see Chris at the front of the room, leaning on the back counter and talking to one of the groups — she spotted Shirasu and Kawakami but couldn't identify the other two.

 

She turned back to the table, finding Miyuki writing something down, looking far more studious than she ever thought he could be. She had wanted to talk to him at one point — thank him for apologizing to Eijun and managing to get Chris to help. But was now the best time? She looked towards the front of the room; Kuramochi, Nabe and Chihiro were still there, and it looked like they were waiting for another pair of students to finish talking. And knowing Tominaga, he'd probably go on a long-winded lecture about double-checking your materials.

 

She never did see him much, so this probably was the best (and only) time to talk to him. The problem was breaching the subject. She shifted, hesitant, then finally sighed — screw it — said, "Thanks."

 

His hand stopped moving across the paper and he looked up at her; he looked a little silly with the goggles over his glasses, but the confusion passing over his features made her stand a little straighter. She cleared her throat. "For apologizing to Eijun about what you did. It made him feel a lot better."

 

The confusion left his face quickly as understanding dawned on him. He snorted. "Felt a lot better because it was me apologizing, probably. But," he coughed awkwardly, sending a furtive glance at the front of the class where it looked like the pair of students had left already; Kuramochi, Nabe and Chihiro looked one step away from getting on their knees and begging for magnets. "I didn't really do anything."

 

She shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest. "Debatable. I can say he definitely had more will to get over this after you did. I mean sure, correlation doesn't equate causation but you are his catcher. Your words have more weight than you realize." 

 

He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Maybe, but you did a lot for him too. A lot more than I should've, anyway."

 

He certainly wasn't wrong.

 

She hummed. "Perhaps. But I'm not a baseball player. I don't know how any of this works. I just . . . did what I could. I guess I have to thank you for that, too. For getting Chris to finally try talking to him."

 

"Ah, that . . . I really didn't know what else to do. Chris is probably the best to deal with it."

 

"That's what I've been saying," she muttered, only a little bitter. "But, like I said, you're a catcher. You have more credibility. I'm just some soccer player who really doesn't know crap."

She internally winced at the resentment in her tone.

 

But thankfully, he didn't use it against her. Instead, he grimaced guiltily. "Er," he paused, clearing his throat awkwardly. "Sorry about that."

 

She raised an eyebrow. "About him not listening to me or for you waiting this long to talk to Eijun?"

 

"Both?"

 

"You don't sound too sure there."

 

He let out a short laugh. "For both. There's no real excuse I can give you. I'm relieved it didn't get as bad as it could've. We need Sawamura on the team. That's probably thanks to you, so . . ." He coughed awkwardly.

 

She eyed him with barely-contained amusement. "You're welcome."

 

"Truce?"

 

She rolled her eyes. "You're forgiven, Miyuki. We may not agree on certain views, but you got your crap together eventually, so it's not a problem anymore. Just try to deal with Eijun more empathetically next time, alright?"

 

"Hopefully there isn't a next time," he muttered. "But . . . okay."

 

Their conversation was cut short as Kuramochi, Chihiro and Nabe returned, carrying the magnets in a careful manner. Amara took a few steps back, covering her phone in her back pocket protectively.

 

"Are those the right ones?" She asked warily.

 

"Yup!" Chihiro chimed. "Did you know they can wipe credit cards?"

 

"Don't sound so cheerful about that."

 

She patted her pockets, relieved that she'd left her wallet in her dorm for today.

 

"Miss Amara, could you help me with these calculations?" Kuramochi asked, sliding over a paper to her. She stepped over to him as Chihiro, Nabe and Miyuki huddled together at the opposite corner over the magnets.

 

"Oh, trig . . . Gross."

 

He laughed, sharing a grin with her. "I know. But this is my part of the project, so . . ."

 

"Am I allowed to help?"

 

"It's not the actual project," he tried to wheedle. "Just, you know, calculations."

 

She grinned. "I would've helped either way. Let's see . . ."

 

They worked at it for the next fifteen minutes; Kuramochi was an attentive listener, eyebrows furrowed deeply in concentration as she guided him through it. But at one point, when she'd taken the pencil from him to scratch out a problem, he became distracted, thinking of something else.

 

She stopped talking and glanced at him. He hadn't noticed. She reached up to tap his cheek with the eraser and he jumped then refocused his attention on her.

 

"Shit, sorry, I totally zoned out . . ."

 

She chuckled. "You're fine. There something on your mind?"

 

He scrutinized her for a second, looking for something in her expression — she wasn't sure, but she tried to stay as earnest as possible. She didn't have any bad intentions and if she did, she had a feeling he'd figure them out quickly. Kuramochi always seemed dangerously perceptive.

 

"You were talking to Miyuki right now, yeah? I'm sorry if he was being, y'know, difficult." His voice was hushed, and he looked at the paper, staring at one of the problems they'd gone over. "I've been wanting to apologize for a while."

 

She glanced at the other three, finding them still in deep discussion about something or another. Miyuki said something probably unhelpful, because Nabe shut his eyes tiredly and Chihiro hit his shoulder. She looked back at Kuramochi.

 

"Well, they're not paying attention, so go right ahead."

 

He glanced at them and snorted, then looked back at her, sobering up quickly. "I wanted to help. I agree with you — it is our job, as Sawamura's seniors, to help him, but Miyuki is a stubborn bastard. And I didn't want to make it look like I was taking sides. We've already had our fair share of arguments since Miyuki became captain. It would've been best to avoid another one. He sighed, regretful. "I should've tried harder. But you helped him a lot. He's sleeping a lot better now — not getting up as often, or as early. So, thank you. And I'm sorry you had to take matters into your own hands. We owe you one."

 

She traced a circle on the paper, smiling slightly. "It was a given. At least . . ." she heaved a sigh. "At least you guys know now. Like I told Miyuki, just don't let it get that far, alright? And there's never anything wrong with needing help or giving it out."

 

"Yeah," he agreed quietly. "I know. Too bad we had to figure it out like this."

 

She nodded, straightening her back and rolling her shoulders to get rid of the ache that had formed from being hunched over. "I know. But it's a mistake that hopefully shouldn't ever happen again. Eijun is slowly getting back to his old self — at the very least, he wants to get better and is actively seeking ways to do it. Chris is supposed to talk to him this week Friday, so . . ."

 

"We'll help him out during practice," Kuramochi murmured. "I know Kariba wanted to go over his form when he tried to pitch to the inside. Maybe we can see what's changed. Nori wants to try and help out, too, since he's both his senior and fellow pitcher."

 

"Are he and Kawakami close?"

 

He made a face. "Not really, but I know that when Rei took him to Seido after she scouted him to give him the tour, he apparently found Nori being targeted by one of the upperclassmen, Azuma. He graduated last year, but he did bully Nori quite a bit . . . Sawamura didn't like it, apparently, so he mouthed off to Azuma about it and challenged him to see if he could hit a home run off his pitches."

 

Amara raised an eyebrow. Now that did sound like Eijun. No wonder Kawakami had been worried. He must've grown a soft spot for him after that.

 

"Did he?"

 

"Nearly," Miyuki entered the conversation, unashamed as he laughed, seeming to recall the incident. "I wanted to, but Sawamura's control was so terrible, he couldn't do it."

 

Kuramochi sputtered. "Have you been listening the entire time? You bastard! I'm gonna end you!"

 

Miyuki laughed. "No comment."

 

"I'll deal with you later," Kuramochi hissed, looking deadly. Miyuki merely laughed again, while Chihiro and Nabe sighed in exasperation and moved to the side to talk by themselves.

 

Kuramochi turned back to Amara with a strained smile, vein popping in his forehead. "Anyway. I think that's why Nori likes him. Plus, Sawamura's always disgustingly encouraging with him. I don't know why he isn't like that with us. Brat."

 

"Maybe because you guys like to bully him at any given moment?" Chihiro asked, leaning down to scratch something off the paper.

 

"No, that couldn't be it."

 

"I don't think so . . ."

 

The look on her face made Amara laugh so hard, her stomach ached.

 

She caught her breath, unable to wipe the grin from her lips. "Whew. You guys are funny. Do you understand the calculations?"

 

Kuramochi looked back at the paper and Miyuki returned to the conversation with Chihiro and Nabe.

 

He tapped a problem. "I don't get this."

 

She read over it, then grimaced. "Ah, this has calculus in it . . . I'm taking pre-cal right now and I hate to break it to you, but I'm dumb. You wouldn't happen to know anyone taking calculus right now, would you?"

 

"Chiyo is," Chihiro interjected.

 

"So is Chris," Miyuki added. "And he's here, too. Chris! Could we have some help over here?"

Amara tensed, dropping the pencil onto the table. Kuramochi glanced at her, confused, then glanced back at Chris. He seemed to understand, because he gently pushed her to the side and moved over so Chris could take the spot he'd been previously standing in.

 

Chris looked at them expectantly when he stopped at the table. His eyes met hers fleetingly, but she averted her eyes to the window next to his head quickly, shifting uneasily.

 

Kuramochi cleared his throat. "This one calculation doesn't make sense to me. Could you please explain it?"

 

Chris took the time to explain it, giving the basic functions of what was being used at the moment and what it did.

 

Amara barely paid attention, scooting more to the side. She tried to tune into whatever Nabe was saying to Chihiro and Miyuki but couldn't get past the quiet voice speaking near her.

 

She gritted her teeth in frustration, feeling too antsy to pay attention to anything.

 

Her saving grace came when Tominaga asked for the third years to head back.

 

"Thanks for all your help! Guys, give your thanks!"

 

"Thank you!" The class chorused.

 

Amara breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed past Nabe, Chihiro and Miyuki to walk down the middle aisle. "See you guys," she called quickly over her shoulder, not lingering to get a reply.

 

The other third years filed out with her, and once they were all there, Tominaga came to poke his head out of the class. "I trust you all will head back to class and as a personal thanks, I'll give you guys some volunteer hours, I just need your names."

 

They all gave their names, Tominaga scribbling them down on a sticky note. When the last person gave their name, he smiled and waved them off. "See you guys around school! Work hard!"

 

They left quickly so as to not get caught up in the transition rush. She fell behind in the group, busying her fingers with unrolling her sleeves and buttoning up the cuffs again.

 

She could see Chris in the corner of her eye, doing the same. Her eyes unintentionally wandered to his forearms, impressive muscles and tendons flexing as he unfurled his sleeve.

 

Wow.

 

The abrupt clatter of a phone falling to the floor made her avert her eyes, face heating up rapidly.

Someone at the front of the group stopped to pick it up, mumbling a soft sorry, then resuming their walk. She stuffed her hands into her pockets, picking up her pace so she wasn't as close to Chris.

 

The class was quiet when they entered, Sakaito nodding at them in greeting. Amara moved back to her table, sharing another smile with Katsumi. She paused by her table to allow Chris to pass to his seat first.

 

"How was it?" Katsumi asked softly. Chinen glanced at them then looked back at her paper.

Amara shrugged. "Second years are second years, I guess. This year's bunch is definitely taking on more advanced projects."

 

"They're real annoying, though," Chinen grunted.

 

Katsumi giggled and Amara felt her lips turn up slightly.

 

"Fair point."

 

She gave Katsumi one last smile then moved to her table; Chris had reseated himself, jacket back on. She did the same, tugging the jacket over her shoulders. She pulled her ponytail out of the jacket and glanced at the clock mounted on the wall, finding there were only five minutes left of class.

 

She sat down, taking out the sheet of paper that she'd used to bookmark her place in the textbook and tucking it back into the folder. There was a palpable tension at their table, one that made her feel uncomfortable. She bounced her leg restlessly under the table, shutting the textbook and stacking her folder and pencil case on top of it.

 

Having to bear this silence was painful.

 

As things with Eijun seemed to tie themselves up, she was left behind with the tension between her and Chris, and the other third years who had yet to approach her. It made her almost regret not doing anything about their individual problems before she dealt with Eijun, but maybe, just maybe, Chris and the other third years needed that.

 

Chris had to understand what he did wasn't right — leaving Eijun by his lonesome, even when he knew he was the one who had the heaviest influence. She was sure he understood at this point, but that left their own relationship up in the air.

 

He understood, yes, but it had been at the expense of their relationship.

 

She could only hope to patch things up. But even then, that would require a heavy talk that she wasn't sure she'd like too much.

 

The bell rang and she stayed seated, allowing him to pass. She watched him exit the classroom. At the very least, she had a few more days to deliberate about it. Then, she'd face this problem.

Chapter Text

 

22. bad day 

 

Friday, Amara thought, was going to be a good day. 

 

Chris was finally going to talk to Eijun, hopefully give him something else to work on and look forward to; this weekend would be the final rounds for Seido and would decide if they’d be participating in the Fall Tournament—which they probably would. 

 

It was going to be a good day.

 

Then morning practice began, and she’d been running alongside Hikari, the ball in play, when the direction switched suddenly, but she’d already had her right foot on the ground, still—you had to go with the flow and move with the team, so she spun around on her heel and set off. 

 

That had apparently been the wrong thing to do.

 

Pain flared in her calf, a strange pulling sensation in it that made her stumble.

 

The same leg, the same spot, but the pain was worse this time. 

 

She swore under her breath, relieved when Nakamura blew her whistle and the gameplay paused. 

 

A quick glance around showed the other clubs finishing up their morning practice and heading towards the locker rooms; further out, students were exiting their dorms and going towards the school building. 

 

The team huddled in the circle and she went over to them, pain searing with each step and stretch of her calf. 

 

She gritted her teeth and took a knee with everyone else, using her left leg to take most of the weight. Nakamura’s words barely registered, the discomfort from her calf blinding her senses. She struggled to catch her breath, pushing herself off the ground roughly as Nakamura wrapped it up and sent them off. 

 

Amara stayed behind; she knew she couldn’t go without telling them. She’d thought her leg had gotten better and hadn’t been wearing the tape for the last few days since her calf felt perfectly fine without it, but something must’ve happened. Had she exerted too much energy? 

 

She lingered on the field, leaning most of her weight on her left leg. There was a weakness in her calf that hadn’t been there before, the muscle seeming to spasm painfully. She concentrated on blocking out the pain. 

 

Nakamura was speaking with Fuyumi and it looked like they were in a fairly deep conversation. 

 

Thankfully, Suzuki approached her. “Something wrong, Amara?” 

 

She grimaced and nodded. “It’s my calf. It hurts to walk. It just started right now, when I spun on it to run in another direction. I hurt it last week during our scrimmage against Jurojin but it wasn’t as bad, and it got better eventually after I used KT tape for a few days.” 

 

A frown formed on Suzuki’s lips. “Well, that’s not good. Come over here and let me see it.” 

 

She led her to the bleachers and had her sit down on the first row, then take off her cleats to unstrap the shin guard. Nakamura had noticed them, and said something quickly to Fuyumi then sent her off. She came over as Suzuki kneeled and observed her calf. 

 

“What happened?” Nakamura asked gruffly. 

 

Amara explained, only a little intimidated underneath Nakamura’s intense gaze; Suzuki had poked and prodded at her leg, several areas tender even though they’d been fine when she’d woken up. When she finished her explanation, Nakamura looked to Suzuki for her verdict.

 

Suzuki sighed. “Probably a calf strain. Nothing too serious, but we should get this checked out. I’ll take her to the clinic and we’ll see Dr. Murai.” 

 

Nakamura nodded and dug out a pair of car keys from her pocket, handing them over to Suzuki. She looked to Amara, where she’d been reaching down to tug her shoe back on, forgoing the shin guard. “You’ll be excused from your morning classes. We’ll see about practice after hearing from the doctor. I’ll call ahead to minimize the time.”

 

Suzuki stood up, holding out a hand to help her up. “Come on. We’ll head off right now.”

 

She bit back her protests, instead accepting the outstretched hand and wincing at the stretch of her calf when she stood up. They all headed towards the school building but while Nakamura headed inside, Suzuki brought her around the corner to the parking lot. 

 

Amara wasn’t too happy about having to sit in her sweat for the car ride but Suzuki turned the air conditioner on full-blast, the chilled air a sweet relief from the heat outside. Her calf throbbed in pain, and she drummed her fingers restlessly on her thigh. 

 

She sighed quietly as they pulled out of the campus and onto a main road, heading towards a small clinic that Hotei used. It was a quicker way to see a doctor than going to the general hospital, and most of the students preferred those familiar faces. 

 

She dreaded the reaction from Chihiro and Chiyo and the others. Her phone was in her gym bag in the locker, so she couldn’t even text them that she wouldn’t be making their morning classes. She couldn’t count on Fuyumi to tell anybody what happened, nor Nakamura since she would prioritize telling administration over seeking out her friends. 

 

At the very least, she was relieved they weren’t going to the general hospital, lest some news of her being there somehow made its way to Eiko. 

 

The ride was silent, Suzuki more focused on driving and Amara wasn’t up to talk, either. Still, the silence was awkward since they’d never interacted too often. 

 

When they finally arrived, there was a nurse waiting outside which, in Amara’s personal opinion, was a bit overkill. She refrained from protesting and accepted the nurse’s help with transitioning from the passenger’s seat to the sidewalk.  

 

“We’ll be in room 107,” the nurse said to Suzuki, who’d gotten out of the car, clearly unsure of whether or not she should’ve been helping. “Dr. Murai will begin her examination soon.” 

 

“I won’t be long,” Suzuki promised, sending Amara a reassuring look then ducking back into the car. She drove in the direction of the parking lot but Amara didn’t get to see much after as the nurse, with an arm around her waist, gently turned her around and led her towards the automatic sliding doors. 

 

The nurse, an older woman, didn’t say much as they walked through the lobby, which only held a few elderly people, and down a hall. When they entered the assigned room and Amara was seated on the examination table, she began asking customary questions, taking vitals and such. 

 

Suzuki entered the room a few minutes later, the doctor following thereafter. The nurse stepped to the side to allow Murai to do her examination. 

 

She smiled politely. “Amara de la Garza, right? Verify your birthday for me, won’t you?” 

 

“December 7, 2000.” 

 

Murai glanced at the clipboard and nodded. “Great. Let’s get started. Coach Suzuki tells me you hurt your calf. Tell me about that and go ahead and turn on the table so your legs aren’t hanging. I’ll take a look at it.”

 

Amara reiterated everything she’d told Nakamura and Suzuki, Murai nodding along as she meticulously did her observations. She finally moved to her leg, looking at what she could. 

 

“So, it hurts here?” Murai ran a gloved finger on the inner side of her calf, right in the middle between her knee and ankle. “Whenever you walk?”

 

Amara nodded. 

 

“And if I apply pressure, it hurts more, correct?” She did so, and Amara grimaced, nodding and suppressing the reflex to pull her leg back. 

 

“The area is already tender within such a short frame of time . . .” Murai frowned thoughtfully. “Could you turn onto your stomach?” 

 

Amara followed her instruction and felt her fingers prod her calf more incessantly. “Showing signs of swelling . . . Do you see this, Coach Suzuki?”

 

“Yes, Doctor.”

 

Murai clicked her tongue. “You can turn around and sit up, dear.” 

 

Amara sat up, relieved. She felt strangely vulnerable in that position, under the prying eyes of the nurse, Suzuki and Murai. 

 

Murai’s eyebrows were furrowed as she pulled off her gloves. “I believe you’ve probably landed yourself a grade two calf strain.”

 

Amara stiffened, wary at the grim expression that formed on Suzuki’s face. “What is that exactly?” 

 

Murai pulled out a stool and set it up in front of the table, taking a seat with a sigh. “Calf strains usually occur on the medial gastrocnemius, and very commonly in soccer players like yourself. There are certain ways to classify these strains, categorized by grade one, grade two and grade three, one being the easiest to recover from and three the most difficult.”

 

The nurse handed her a picture of a calf, muscles and bones labeled and displayed. Her finger led Amara’s eyes to the muscle that Murai was talking about. 

 

Murai continued. “Grade one is probably what you had last week—mild discomfort, minimal disability. The tape probably helped, but it might’ve made your muscle dependent, leading you to re-injure the muscle today. It’s worse this time around because your muscle was bound to be a bit fragile and soccer is a sport that requires a lot of redirecting on your feet. That gives you grade two, which entails discomfort with walking, inability to run or jump, sometimes including bruising and swelling, which you’re most likely going to develop.” 

 

Amara sucked in a deep breath, the onslaught of information almost too much. She dug her fingers into her thighs. 

 

Murai reached for the clipboard and grabbed a pen. “Thankfully, you’re young and healthy, so your body is probably already healing it up. However, these strains will take some time to heal. I predict four weeks of rest for you, at most, six weeks. I’d like to see you every two weeks to make sure you’re healing well. Coach Suzuki?” 

 

Suzuki sat up straighter. “We will arrange for something, Doctor. Is there anything she can do to remedy pain or anything of that sort?” 

 

Murai nodded, handing the clipboard over to the nurse, then grabbing a blank sheet of paper and writing as she spoke. 

 

“Rest is the most important component,” she began, giving Amara a stern look. “Which is why you won’t be participating in practice or games for the next four weeks. Other than that, ice your calf when you can for the next two days. Continue that after any activities. Only apply heat packs before you do an activity. I’ll have some guides on how to ice or apply heat to injuries for you. Calf muscle stretching is recommended but don’t do it if it hurts. I’ll prescribe some Ibuprofen, but of course, you can get that over the counter after you’ve run out.”

 

Her heart was in her stomach by the end of Murai’s spiel, her mind going over the beginning of her words over and over. 

 

Rest is the most important component. Which is why you won’t be participating in practice or games for the next four weeks. 

 

Four weeks. 

 

Four weeks of no practice. 

 

She’d need to look at the calendar on her phone to check the dates, but she was sure that’d be early October. The entirety of October was jam-packed with games—assuming they’d advance—so she didn’t know what Nakamura would be doing if she couldn’t play for them. 

 

Her heart fell further at a sudden thought. 

 

Would they bring in Aiko? 

 

The sound of a drawer opening in the metal file cabinet yanked her out of her thoughts. She took a steadying breath. She was getting ahead of herself. And even if they did . . . that would be fine. As long as it was someone proficient, then she didn’t care. 

 

They had to advance during the tournament. 

 

She didn’t want to bring anyone down. 

 

Murai had pulled out a piece of paper from the drawer, then picked up the one she’d been writing on; she stacked them together and handed it over to Amara. 

 

A quick glance showed her that it was all of her instructions, except there was an extra option at the bottom, underlined a few times. 

 

  • Physical therapy 

 

She frowned and looked up. “Physical therapy? But wouldn’t that be needed if it was worse?” 

 

Murai shook her head. “It’s good for a multitude of things. Yes, the main purpose is rehabilitation but they can give you methods to help, especially with stretching and taking care of it. It’s not a requirement, but I highly recommend it.” 

 

“It wouldn’t hurt to look into it,” Suzuki agreed. “Should she still go to her classes? Is there anything that could alleviate the stress on her calf?” 

 

Murai rubbed her cheek. “Is there a lot of walking required? Climbing stairs?” 

 

Amara shifted. “I live on the second floor of our dorms, but all of my classes are on the first floor.” 

 

Murai looked to Suzuki, silently judging. “And does Hotei offer options for those with disabilities?”

 

Suzuki smiled nervously. “Yes, the school and dorm do have an elevator, but it’s restricted access so it’s not abused by other students. I’m sure they’ll allow Amara to use it.”

 

“Good. And to alleviate the stress, you’ll have to start using crutches.” 

 

Amara’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry, what?” 

 

Murai turned to the nurse. “Noya, could you—?” The nurse nodded. 

 

Amara looked to Suzuki imploringly. She smiled tightly but didn’t say anything. 

 

Murai turned back to her. “Well, it’s either that or a wheelchair. Or even missing class completely.” 

 

She balked and couldn’t protest against that. This was the best course of action, it seemed. 

 

After a few minutes, Noya re-entered with a set of crutches, handing them over to Murai. Murai stood up and smiled encouragingly. 

 

“Alright. Let’s go over it together. I promise it’s not all that hard to do.” 

 

That wasn’t it, Amara wanted to protest. She didn’t look forward to the inevitable attention it’d gain. But there really wasn’t much of a choice left, was there? 

 

She swung her legs over the edge, grimacing at the twang of pain that the action elicited. Murai gestured for her to come off the table. She sighed and braced her hands on the edge of the table then slipped off, putting most of her weight on her left leg. 

 

“For the first few days, don’t lean too much on your right, but after that, bear as much weight as you can without hurting it. If it hurts, take some weight off. Alright, let’s go over this . . .” 

 

It was awkward at first. Amara had never used crutches before, and it was an army of things to keep track of. Make sure the crutches went first, that they were within good distance of her feet, keep using the hand rests for support instead of the arm ones, put as much weight as she could on her right leg. It was an intense mental checklist that she wasn’t entirely sure she could do. 

 

She didn’t really have much choice, though. 

 

They left the clinic as soon as Murai felt that Amara had a good handle on the crutches. They’d also received a bottle of Ibuprofen that would keep the swelling down and would help with the pain as well. 

 

As they pulled out into the main road, crutches tucked between the seat and the door, she glanced at the time displayed on the dashboard. 09:01.

 

Suzuki noticed her looking as she turned on the left turn signal. “You don’t have to go to class until after lunch, but if you want to go now, you can. It’ll probably be better to minimize the amount of work you’re missing.” 

 

Amara nodded, turning to look out the window. She drummed her fingers on the metal of the crutch, watching the scenery fly by. The neighborhood was calm, traffic minimal, resulting in a short drive back to Hotei. 

 

It was a bit of a hassle getting out of the car, but she got it with Suzuki’s help. It took some time for Amara to head to the locker room and pick up her duffle bag—since she wouldn’t be going to practice for the next month—and Suzuki to go down to the front office and retrieve the key she’d need to use for the elevator. Even then, she had to stop and maneuver the bag over her neck since she couldn’t carry anything with her hands. 

 

They were drawing close to the end of second period and she wasn’t keen to having that many people see her—lest they start rumors—so Suzuki sent her back to the dorm by herself with the elevator key, which closely resembled the cards used to get into hotel rooms. 

 

She’d made it through the Commons when the bell rang, signaling transition of the classes. She didn’t pause to look, passing the staircase that’d usually take her up towards her room. 

 

Amara had seen the elevator a few times but hadn’t paid much attention to it since it was exclusively for those with authorization from the office. It was located near the back of the dormitory, close to the staircase she used but much further down the wall, right before a corner that turned to the back wall of the dormitory. 

 

She stopped at the elevator and propped herself up with one crutch, keeping the other loosely held under her arm as she leaned to press the button. She took the key out of her waistband then resituated herself with the crutches. The elevator was fairly standard, but she didn’t have time to look at it as the doors immediately opened. 

 

She hobbled inside, looking for the panel that Suzuki had told her about. It was apparently designed to only go up if the key was inserted. Sure enough, with the emergency call button and another one bolded as 2, there was a slot underneath. 

 

She slid the key in and after a few seconds, a small green light lit up near the slot. She pulled it out then pressed the button for the second floor. 

 

She released a short sigh of relief when the doors slid shut and put the key back into the waistband of her shorts. She wouldn’t have minded taking the stairs but it would’ve taken a painstaking amount of time, plus with the duffle bag around her neck, her balance would’ve been off and she wasn’t looking to have another accident. 

 

When the elevator came to the second floor, the doors she’d came in from didn’t open up, rather another set on her right, on the other side of the panel, slid open. It led straight to the hall on the side, the stairway several feet ahead near the front. A few vending machines were against the wall, humming. 

 

She moved out of the elevator before the doors could shut, turning the corner onto her hall. Once she’d arrived at her door, another problem presented itself. 

 

Her dorm key was in her bag. And she didn’t exactly have the ability to hold onto the crutches and dig through her bag. 

 

She swore under her breath, reaching out to try and open it anyway, hoping that today was the day that Asano had forgotten to lock the door. (The campus was fairly secure, so it was usually the students with sticky fingers that they had to be on the lookout for—but even then, no one wanted to go through that trouble.) 

 

She groaned when the handle jammed and she fumbled with the bag for a while, trying to unzip the side pocket and make sure the crutch under the arm she was using didn’t fall.

 

It took several minutes but she managed to open it up and tug out the lanyard that had her key attached to it. She scowled as she unlocked the door and pushed it open, kicking off her cleats in the entryway and stepping into the room. This was too frustrating—she didn’t know how she was going to be doing this for the next month. 

 

She spent the next two hours showering and changing into her uniform, having to maneuver the shower without the crutches and also not fall. Her calf was still throbbing with pain by the end of it, probably the result of unintentionally putting more weight on it than her pain tolerance allowed. 

 

As she wiggled on her pants—sitting on the edge of her bed—she grimaced at the swollen state of her calf. She’d need to take medication soon since she couldn’t ice it yet. 

 

She tucked the button-up into her pants then buttoned those up. She leaned over to her bag to get her phone out; she hadn’t checked it before she’d showered, too irritated and frustrated with the painful process of getting to the dorm. 

 

The time read as 11:37 AM, and there were several notifications from her friends. 

 

Missed Call From chihiro akamine 

7:34 AM

 

Missed Call From chiyo im

7:52 AM

 

Missed Call from chihiro akamine 

8:07 AM

 

chihiro akamine

ur gonna be late dumbass

SENT AT 8:15 AM

 

chihiro akamine

hey is everything good? no one’s seen u since practice 

SENT AT 8:27 AM

 

chihiro akamine

is everything ok???

SENT AT 9:01 AM

 

chiyo im

where are you? 

SENT AT 7:55 AM

 

chiyo im

hiro is having conniptions right now. get back to us as soon as you can. 

SENT AT 8:16 AM

 

chiyo im

i hope everything is okay 

SENT AT 9;40 AM

 

eijun sawamura

a girl in my class said you hurt yourself during practice today!!!! i hope you’re okay :( please rest up! if you need help with anything, this eijun sawamura will help you with whatever you need! 

SENT AT 9:55 AM 

 

tetsu yuki

Is everything alright? 

SENT AT 10:17 AM

 

jun isashiki

you’re worrying everyone, you better be okay… talk to me if you need to

SENT AT 10:23 AM 

 

ryosuke kominato

you better have a good reason for disappearing like that 

SENT AT 10:25 AM

 

haruichi kominato

eijun told me about your injury! i hope you’re okay! get well soon!

SENT AT 10:27 AM

 

fumiya kusunoki 

missed you during government, but i have notes if you need them! i hope all is well. 

SENT AT 10:30 AM

 

fumiya kusunoki

and i’d like to talk with you, i made a mistake with sawamura and how i dealt with this. i owe you and him an apology. i’ll start talking with him today. 

SENT AT 10:33 AM

 

She let out a disbelieving laugh. To have this many people worrying—it was touching. Her chest burned with warmth, a smile making its way onto her lips. 

 

Though the last few messages—barring Haruichi’s—were interesting. 

 

So, maybe her friendship with the guys wasn’t in ruins? She couldn’t think of any good reason for Tetsu to text her if that was the case, plus her talk with Jun had cemented the fact that he was fine with her. Kusunoki, of course, was expected. He was a nice guy, and he’d always looked guilty whenever they made eye contact, so she assumed everything had the potential to be remedied. Ryosuke would probably be petty about it but she couldn’t think of any valid reason for him to hung up over it, either. 

 

Chris was a different story.

 

She held hope, because she liked him a lot (in a very friendly manner, that is). She liked spending time with him; he was probably one of the few people that she could feel comfortable around. He was a great friend all around. She wanted to patch things up, but he had to talk to Eijun first—help him out and apologize for the things he’d said. 

 

Her phone vibrated in her hands and she refocused her eyes on the new message banner. 

 

chris takigawa

Are you okay? No one’s seen you at all today. 

 

Her heart soared. 

 

She took a deep breath and tried to calm down, chastising herself for getting so excited at the bare minimum of contact. He was probably doing it out of duty. 

 

With that mood dampener, she opened up the earlier texts and typed out a quick message, mostly assuring them everything was fine and that she’d be back in time for lunch. She hesitated over Chris’ but ended up taping on it. 

 

She tried to take another calming breath, but it didn’t help to calm her racing heart. She huffed, irritated with her own body’s reaction.

 

me

i’m fine. i had an accident during practice so i had to go to the clinic off campus to get checked out. 

 

She was surprised at the rate with which he replied in. Didn’t he have class?

 

chris takigawa 

What happened?

 

She wanted to tell him, but it felt too soon. Too quickly. He had yet to talk to Eijun and to talk to her. Did he deserve to know, despite the fact that they hadn’t spoken in over three weeks? 

 

Her mind was at war with itself. 

 

The part that had her heart racing and excitement flowing through her veins said yes, but the cold, rational part of herself said no. 

 

She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. 

 

Not yet. 

 

me

it’s nothing. thanks for checking in on me. 

 

She stared at the tiny words underneath the bubble. 

 

DELIVERED

 

She waited a few more minutes, until finally—

 

READ AT 11:59 AM

 

There was no reply. 

 

Somehow, she was disappointed, even though she’d been the one to shoot the conversation down. 

 

She heard the bell ring distantly, signaling the start of lunch. She dropped her hand into her lap. 

 

She desperately hoped that had been the right choice. 

 

With a sigh, she stuffed her phone into her pocket then reached for the bottle of ibuprofen, uncapping it and taking one out. She tugged the water bottle out from the duffle bag, tossing the pill into her mouth and washing it back with water. She set the bottle onto her nightstand then grabbed her crutches and heaved herself off the bed. 

 

She picked up the elevator key and dorm key, sticking that into her pocket with her phone, then had to fight to get her shoes on at the entryway. 

 

When she left the dorm, locking it up after, the Commons was bustling with students, most sitting in the shade to hide from the sun. Temperatures were slowly but surely falling, and it’d be a few more weeks until it started to get colder. 

 

She went back to the elevator, going through all the motions again, but when she exited on the ground floor, she took a minute to psych herself up. No doubt, people would be staring as she made it to the cafeteria. 

 

She groaned quietly and stepped out of the shadow of the dormitory, heading towards the school building again. 

 

She could feel the prying eyes on her back and made an effort to keep her eyes straight ahead. 

 

At least she’d gotten the hang of walking with the crutches and couldn’t embarrass herself. 

 

“Miss Amara!” A second year called out to her. He was a regular at their soccer games and she couldn’t remember his name for the life of her. He was frowning. “Are . . . Are you okay?” 

 

She grinned at him, feeling absolutely none of it. “I’m alright, don’t worry. Just a strain in my calf. I’ll be better soon enough.” 

 

The murmurs grew in volume at that, some spectators not bothering to hide their theories. 

 

She sighed and continued, smiling tiredly at the first year who held the door open for her. There were still students in the hall, some barely going to the cafeteria and others already heading to the Commons with lunch trays in hand. Several were unabashed with staring, but most were subtle it. 

 

The smell of the meat was tantalizing, her stomach rumbling and reminding her that she’d missed breakfast. She tried to hurry to the cafeteria, if only to get a hot meal and escape the prying eyes of her classmates. 

 

She was saved by another kind second year when she got to the doors of the cafeteria. She flashed them a perfunctory smile in return and went to the first line. 

 

Here came her second problem. Holding a tray. 

 

“Miss Amara!” She jumped at the sudden noise and turned, finding Eijun across the cafeteria where he’d jumped up from the table—she spotted not only Chihiro, Chiyo and the other boys they’d been with this week, but new faces as well. 

 

He hurried over to her, worry painted across his face. “Are you okay? What happened?” 

 

She tried to smile reassuringly. “It’s just a calf strain. I can’t be on my leg so the doctor said I had to use crutches.”

 

“How long for?” 

 

Someone cleared their throat behind them and she realized they’d been holding up the line. She grimaced and went to step out of line but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. 

 

“I’ll get your tray for you!” 

 

She didn’t try to protest, knowing very well she couldn’t hold it by herself without some sort of embarrassing incident. They shuffled down the line and he got her a tray, listening to her instructions obediently. After, they moved over to where drinks and other utensils were held. 

 

“Just a water—” she’d been saying before a loud voice cut her off. 

 

What the hell!” 

 

They both jumped this time, and she turned towards the familiar voice, a grimace finding its way onto her mouth as she took in the sight of Jun, Tetsu, Ryosuke, and Kusunoki standing a few feet in front of them, their drink cups in their hands. 

 

Jun stabbed a finger at her accusingly. “The hell did you mean ‘I’m fine?’ How is this fine?” 

 

Her hands tightened around the handles and she smiled nervously. “I feel fine.” 

 

His glare intensified. 

 

“Did you trip?” Ryosuke asked lightly. 

 

She scowled at him. “Certainly not.” 

 

“Is this from when you had that KT tape?” Tetsu asked next, a scarily observant question—coming from him, anyway. 

 

“Is it? You said you’d be careful!” Eijun tacked on, turning to her almost accusingly. 

 

She turned to him. “And I was for a while. I thought I was fine but you know, things happen.” 

 

Eijun’s lips twisted. “That’s true . . . At least you didn’t hide it! Then it might’ve gotten worse . . . Here, I’ll get your drink, stay here.” 

 

He left before she could stop him; she grimaced. She wasn’t ready to be alone with the guys quite yet. 

 

“He is right,” Kusunoki agreed softly. “That you didn’t hide it.”

 

Her mind unwillingly went to Chris. 

 

“What’d the doctor say?” Jun asked, taking a few more steps forward, the others following him. 

 

She hesitated. They hadn’t spoken in a solid three weeks—those texts had been some of the first contact they’d had, Jun being the exception. 

 

But then again, they’d come running when she’d disappeared, genuinely worried about her whereabouts. 

 

That was proof that they wanted to patch things up, right? That it was worth saving? 

 

“We are sorry, you know,” Kusunoki said suddenly. He must’ve read her face. 

 

Tetsu dipped his head. “We made a mistake with how we treated Sawamura. We want to remedy that as soon as possible.”

 

“This wasn’t worth all that fighting,” Ryosuke added. 

 

“We’ll do what we can now,” Jun finished firmly, looking at her imploringly. “So, please accept our apology.” 

 

She sighed, shutting her eyes. “You guys are such assholes.” She looked at them again. “Fine. I’m not immediately forgiving you all, you’ll have to work for it, but fine. No more fighting.”

 

Kusunoki smiled gratefully. “We’ll make it up to you and Sawamura. Promise.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, so tell us what the doctor said!” Jun barked, crossing his arms over his chest. 

 

She sighed heavily. “It’s a grade two calf strain, or that’s what the doctor called it anyway. I’m on these crutches and I’m basically out of soccer. At least for the next four weeks.” 

 

“When does the season start?” Tetsu asked, stepping to the side to allow a girl to pass him. 

 

“October 2 is the round 1 game against Hayakawa High. The entire month is packed with games—there’s six rounds to get through, then the quarterfinal, semifinal, and actual finals,” she explained. 

 

Jun whistled. “All in October? Damn, you guys sure will be busy.” 

 

Amara’s lips turned downward. “Not me.” 

 

He winced. “Right. Sorry.” 

 

Eijun returned to her side before anyone else could say anything. “I got everything!”

 

She gave the boys a tight smile. “That’s my cue to leave then. I’ll see you guys later.” 

 

Eijun beamed at them. “Bye! Please come to our games this weekend!” 

 

“We will,” Tetsu promised. 

 

Amara smiled when Eijun blinked, clearly not expecting them to agree. He recovered quickly, his cheeks flushed as he grinned widely. “Thank you very much!” 

 

“Alright, come on, I gotta go explain myself to Hiro and Chiyo . . . I’m lucky I’m already hurt, otherwise they’d be the ones to do it.” 

 

Eijun laughed. “I think you’ll be okay. Oh, Shirasu and Nori sat with us today! They apologized, too, but I don’t know for what . . .”

 

Amara smiled gently at him. “Did you at least accept it?”

 

“Of course!” 

 

She chuckled softly. “Then I’m sure it’s all fine.” 

 

They finally made it to the table, everyone greeting her loudly. Eijun pulled out the chair for her and she maneuvered herself into it, propping the crutches up on the table in the space between her and Tojo, who smiled when she sent him an apologetic look for it. 

 

She smiled at Shirasu and Kawakami. “It’s nice to see you guys down here. Change in heart?” 

 

“Something like that,” Shirasu agreed. 

 

Amara chuckled and went to pick up her chopsticks to start eating but a rough elbow to her ribs brought her to Chihiro and Chiyo. She tried to smile reassuringly. 

 

“What the hell happened?” Chihiro demanded, glaring heatedly at her. 

 

“You didn’t answer any of us until eleven,” Chiyo said, frowning. 

 

Amara smiled placatingly. “I strained a muscle in practice and Nakamura had me go. I couldn’t get to my phone until after we’d gotten back to school.”

 

Chihiro and Chiyo continued to scrutinize her until she sighed. “I’m sorry for not answering, but it’s not completely my fault.”

 

“No,” Chihiro grumbled. “But you worried us, loser. Just tell us what happened with the doctor.” 

 

She did so, giving them the full debrief on what had gone down at the clinic. The mood had dampened considerably when she mentioned being out of commission for the next four weeks, and that even then, it was in Dr. Murai’s hands to decide whether or not she’d be able to participate in games. Besides that, everyone was supportive, willing to help her out with carrying her things to and from class. 

 

She was hesitant to let the second and first years help, not wanting them to be late to class on her account, so they all unanimously agreed that who had a class closest to her would help out. 

 

Chihiro tapped her chopsticks on the tray. “The third years should help out, too. You guys have the same classes, anyway. Isn’t, uh, Katsumi Hatanaka in your next period?” 

 

“She is,” Amara confirmed, already looking around the cafeteria to find her or Chinen. She found the two at a table in the far corner, talking and laughing. “They’re over there.” 

 

Chiyo stood up. “I’ll go and ask.” 

 

“I can do it —” Amara protested. 

 

“Shut up, you shouldn’t be moving so much. I’ll do it.” Chiyo didn’t leave anymore room to protest and set off for the table. 

 

Amara watched her — most of their table turning to watch — as she stopped at the table. Amara definitely couldn’t read lips, but Katsumi’s face was open and expressive, nodding along attentively to whatever Chiyo was saying. Amara shifted her eyes to Chinen, who said something else with a mostly stoic look on her face. Whatever it was, though, made Katsumi look pleased. 

 

Chiyo spoke again to Katsumi, who smiled then nodded and looked around the cafeteria. When her eyes met Amara’s, she held up a thumbs-up and a wink. 

 

Amara mouthed ‘Thank you’ and she merely smiled in return. Chiyo said a few more things then turned around and came back to the table. 

 

“There you have it. She said she doesn’t mind. Apparently you have Chinen in your class after economics? English? She said she’d be willing to help, too,” Chiyo told them as she sat back down. 

 

“Thank god,” Amara sighed. “I can’t carry anything with these damn crutches.” 

 

Chihiro huffed, stabbing her meat with more force than necessary. “Maybe you should’ve been more cautious.” 

 

“Don’t be rude, I’m literally injured right now.” 

 

“Sounds like a personal problem.” 

 

That roused some laughter, mostly out of surprise at their interactions. She began eating now that there were no distractions, having to hold herself back so she didn’t get sick from eating too quickly. 

 

The chatter at the table was alive and warm, cheering her up more than she thought it would’ve. Her day might’ve started out badly, but it wasn’t so bad, was it? She still had the rest of it to get through, and as she glanced at Eijun—who still had some dark circles under his eyes, but was smiling and laughing—she knew he’d be getting what was hopefully their last resort today. 

 

And hopefully, from there, she could talk with Chris. 

 

Chapter Text

23. apology 

 

The rest of the schoolday was relatively uneventful. She had help with getting to each class and carrying her things, the majority of the help from other third years who she’d been casual friends with. 

 

She, of course, had no practice during last period, so once school was over she went back to her dorm. And by the end of school, rumors were already flying about her break from practice. 

 

Most of the speculation held the general truth—a calf injury had her out for the next month. Of course, some of the other rumors weren’t as truthful—stuff like she’d fallen down or tripped. She didn’t care too much about denying them. Let them speculate. As long as it wasn’t detrimental to her reputation or anybody else’s, she didn’t care.

 

Rumors aside, Amara hadn’t ever realized just how much of her time went to soccer until she didn’t have practice. 

 

She’d taken out a good chunk of her homework during study hall, and once she was back in her dorm, she took a seat at her desk and began working at it again. She had to stop briefly to head down to the cafeteria for dinner, where she met up with Chihiro, Chiyo and the rest of their table. They were all sweaty, having come right out of practice since clubs had been dragging it out later now for the upcoming season. 

 

After dinner, she had to make two calls—one to Eiko to calm her down after Nakamura had informed her of the injury, and another to her mother since, according to Eiko, “she’s your mother, she deserves to know about your health!” Amara didn’t disagree, so she called her right after the call with Eiko. 

 

It had been a few weeks since they’d spoken on the phone, since international phone calls were expensive on her mother’s phone and text messaging was far more efficient. Regardless, the call went on for a solid thirty minutes, most of which was Amara soothing her worries. By the time that ordeal had been dealt with—Amara promising to talk to Renee and the twins more—it was already eight, the sun finally setting amid a darkened lilac sky. 

 

Asano was sitting on her own bed, watching some tv show on her laptop while she painted her nails. When Amara had dropped her phone onto the duvet with a sigh, she looked over at her and held up the bottle of black nail polish inquiringly. 

 

Amara opened her mouth to accept when there were three rapt knocks on their door, then— “Miss Amara! Could I talk to you for a minute?” Eijun. 

 

He sounded happy, a light note in his voice that she hadn’t heard for some time. 

 

Amara smiled at Asano, turning her legs over the edge of her bed and grabbing the crutches. “Can I take a rain check?” 

 

“Sure thing, but I can get the door—” Asano stooped when Amara held up a hand then pushed herself to her feet, tucking the crutches underneath her arms. 

 

“It’s fine. I need to get some ice for my calf, anyway.” She picked up her phone, the elevator key, and her lanyard.

 

Asano looked to her calf at that and grimaced at the sight of it. “Ah, yeah . . . But,” she shifted restlessly, avoiding Amara’s eyes, “if you need anything, I’m more than happy to help out.” 

 

Amara smiled. “I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks, Asano.” 

 

Asano nodded and returned to her show, though she continued to send occasional glances as Amara went over to the entryway to slip her feet into a pair of sandals then pull open the door. 

 

She focused on Eijun standing in front of her, his face lighting up as his eyes met hers. He was dressed down, only in a white t-shirt and track pants, but there was a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, and his eyes burned with a fire she hadn’t seen in a while. She raised an eyebrow, anticipation curling in her stomach and settling there comfortably. 

 

She stepped out of the dorm, shutting the door behind her quietly then looking to him. “Were you running?” She asked, unable to hide the mirth in her voice. 

 

Eijun beamed at her. “No! Well, I mean, I did run over here but that’s not it! I pitched today! And it felt really good!” 

 

Ah. 

 

She grinned at him. “Good job, Eijun!” She congratulated, sharing his joy. 

 

“It felt so good, Miss Amara, like you wouldn’t believe. Chris helped me out, so now I can pitch out-lows!” 

 

“Out-lows?”

 

“Yeah! Like there’s inside of the strike zone, usually closest to the batter, then there’s the outside. I’ve only ever been able to do inside, but now I can do the outside! It’s all because of Chris . . .” He trailed off, a grin on his lips that she missed seeing. 

 

“That’s great, I’m proud of you.” She still didn’t entirely understand, but if he was happy, then she was too.

 

He flushed, pleased. “Thank you! I wish you could’ve seen it—the sound of my ball hitting the mitt, it was amazing!”

 

She smiled. “Show me in the upcoming tournaments, yeah? Get back out there and play your best.”

 

He nodded, brown eyes shining, resolute and determined. “I will! And that wasn’t all . . .”  Eijun shook his head, incredulous. “He apologized to me, too, for what he said. I’m not sure why . . . I was just some loud-mouthed first year . . .”

 

“It’s not his job to put you down,” she disagreed softly, shaking her head. “It’s his job to lift you up. I don’t need to play baseball to know catchers bring out the best in their pitchers.”

 

Eijun’s eyebrows furrowed, smile slipping off his lips. “But I—”

 

Even if you were some mouthy first year.”

 

He shuffled his feet at that, taking her tone seriously. He looked thoughtful, glancing to the side and avoiding her eyes. 

 

“So, then,” he hesitated. 

 

“Yeah?” She tried to be as earnest as possible—anything he said here wouldn’t be used against him. She was his friend. 

 

He cleared his throat. “Were . . . Were you and Chris fighting because of me?” 

 

Amara blinked, because that had not been what she’d expected. But she knew Eijun wasn’t as dumb as the others liked to think of him as; it wasn’t as though she’d been hiding how she avoided Chris (and the third years in general), so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. At least, not in the grand scheme of things. 

 

She vaguely wondered if Haruichi had tipped him off; she was sure he’d notice, maybe even get an earful about it from Ryosuke. Or maybe not, given the way Ryosuke liked to dismiss him. 

 

“Miss Amara?” 

 

She huffed softly, realizing she’d completely zoned out. “Yes, I’m sorry, Eijun, I just—got distracted. But, what exactly makes you think that?” She wasn’t trying to deny it. She was genuinely curious about what he’d picked up on. 

 

Understanding flashed across his face. “Well, you just haven’t been around him? I haven’t seen you, anyway, so who knows how credible that is. And you rarely mention him. Plus, I know you didn’t like what he said to me, so . . .” 

 

She hummed in understanding. 

 

There was another moment of hesitation, before he managed to say, “And when he apologized to me . . . He said that not only did he have to make it up to me, but to you, too. I don’t know, I’m assuming things, I’m sorry—”

 

Her mind reeled and something snapped within her chest, a warm feeling flooding her body. Relief, she distantly recalled. She was relieved. It was insurmountable. The weight off her chest was freeing.

 

She didn’t have to worry about the state of their relationship; something had given, and that had been Chris, miraculously. 

 

“You’re not,” she interrupted, pleased that her voice was still low and steady so as to not alert the entire dorm of what they were talking about. “That’s—Yeah. Yeah, we got into an argument. It wasn’t necessarily over you, so much as it was about the way he was viewing the situation. It was a disagreement on views and, well, he said some things, I said some things. I didn’t like the way he treated this, so that added fuel to the fire and . . .” She trailed off with a heavy sigh, shrugging helplessly. 

 

“Oh.” Guilt formed on his face as he looked down, staring at his shoes. She grimaced. That was why she’d wanted to keep it on the down-low, but if he asked, she certainly wasn’t in a place to lie about it. 

 

“Don’t feel bad about it,” she said, comforting. “It was inevitable that we came upon a disagreement. And it was an eye-opener, as well.”

 

He lifted his head. “Eye-opener?” He asked, eyebrows furrowed. 

 

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s dumb, but I feel like I didn’t truly know him all that well. Finally seeing that he has the capacity to be,” she paused and cleared her throat, struggling to think of a word that was neutral enough to not ruin Eijun’s views of him (if she even had that sort of influence on him), “harsh—it helps put things into place. Don’t get me wrong, of course he could, since everyone has their limits, but seeing it helps? I think . . . maybe it helped break the ice, if that makes any sense. Like, you know, the first hurdle of friendship.” 

 

Her thoughts were too jumbled to articulate. This entire situation had shown her how Chris could be—how he was, at one point. It didn’t make her feel closer to him, by any means, since it had caused problems, but she was relieved she knew about it. This wouldn’t be a surprise later on; she knew his limitations.

 

“Perfect sense. What did he say to you, though?” Eijun looked incredibly curious, leaning towards her slightly, but she shook her head.

 

“Nothing worth repeating. Don’t worry, alright?” She smiled placatingly at him. “Like you said, things will be patched up eventually.” 

 

He nodded, brightening up. “I hope they do! I would never want to be a source of conflict for you two!”

 

“And you weren’t—”

 

She jumped as she heard something clatter to the ground from somewhere beneath them, on the first floor. Eijun glanced around frantically, shaken up as well since there wasn’t anybody else in sight.

 

“What was that!”

 

He turned and went to the railing, peering over it. His face lit up. “Harucchi! Was that you?”

 

Amara moved over to him, following his line of vision to see the aforementioned boy, smiling abashedly. There was a wooden bat resting on his shoulder, black gloves still on his hands, sweat shining on his face in the fluorescent lights of the dorm. She held up a hand in greeting and he bowed his head at her.

 

He turned to Eijun. “Yes, sorry if I spooked you. I was practicing some swings out in the fields. Kuramochi texted me about the first-string gathering in your guys’ room for a video game tournament?”

 

“Bah! He never said anything about that to me!”

 

Haruichi smiled. “Probably because he knew you’d react like that.”

 

Eijun looked genuinely distressed. “I don’t want to be their gofer anymore! Harucchi, rebel with me!”

 

That roused a laugh from him, his hand coming up to his mouth as he shook his head. Amara grinned, leaning a hip on the railing. 

 

Eijun looked at her pleadingly. “Could you hold them off for us?”

 

“Eijun!” Haruichi was admonished, but there were still notes of amusement in his voice.

 

“No can do, bud. Spend some quality time with your teammates, why don’t you?”

 

“Miss Amara!” He protested.

 

“I’m sure she’s already busy, Eijun,” Haruichi gently scolded.

 

“Well,” she amended. “Not quite. I need to head down to the cafeteria to pick up some ice for my calf, though, and I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with you two if I did take you in.” There was also a risk of being accused for impartiality, but she had a feeling that that ship had sailed a long time ago.

 

Eijun’s pout softened upon mention of her leg. “Right! Well, we can accompany you there and back, right, Harucchi?”

 

“It would be a nice thing to do,” Haruichi agreed. “But Kuramochi said we had to be there as soon as possible.” He looked to Amara and dipped his head. “I apologize.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, guys. I’ll end up slowing you two down, so go on ahead, alright? It’s not that bad of a walk to the cafeteria.”

 

It took a while to convince Eijun, but Haruichi’s persistence prevailed—alongside mentioning that Kuramochi would try more wrestling moves on him if they were late—and they soon headed off towards Dormitory A.

 

She made her usual detour through the elevator and Commons, entering the empty school building without any problems (other than having to nudge open the door, anyway).

 

She wouldn’t lie, though, it was definitely creepy being alone in there, the only sound being her light footsteps and the crutches against the tiles. There were only a few lights on in the hallway, allowing the dark to fester its presence in the lack of light.

 

She once again faced the dilemma of pushing open the door but managed to do it, finally entering the cafeteria. Just as it had been in the hall, the only lights on were in the kitchens, the second floor blanketed in darkness while the first floor was only a bit dim.

 

The cafeteria was left unlocked for students so long as they cleaned up whatever they did; a few refrigerators were spared for student use as well, under the condition that everyone labeled what was theirs and respected those labels. There hadn’t been too many problems with that in Amara’s time at Hotei, and she’d always stored a few pints of ice cream in the freezer—making sure to label that they were hers, of course (and no one dared to mess with a third year, much less someone who was on the soccer team).

 

She went to the back, relieved that it was well illuminated, and went to the cabinets that held small plastic bags, taking out one to fill up with ice. She went to the freezer and picked out two pints of vanilla ice cream, planning on handing one over to Asano once she made it back. 

 

She left the door open, goosebumps breaking out on the exposed flesh of her legs and arms at the icy air. She set ice cream on the metal counter behind her then picked up the plastic bag and turned back to the freezer, opening up the drawer that held ice.

 

She then realized she probably couldn’t scoop any of it up without letting go of one crutch.

 

She swore under her breath, irritation spiking at yet another hindrance that she faced because of those crutches.

 

She leaned her weight onto the right crutch, making sure to keep her weight spread evenly on her legs—enough so as to not hurt herself—then slipped the left crutch out from under her arm and propped it up against the counter. Using one crutch didn’t provide much support for her, leaving her to use her good leg more than she probably should’ve, but at least she had a free arm.

 

Amara bent down towards the drawer of ice, plastic bag tucked between her fingers grasping the handle on the crutch, scooping up a few ice cubes into her hand. The cold chilled her to the bone and she shuddered at the frigid air still emanating from the freezer, goosebumps still prevailing.

 

She dropped a few into the bag and reached down to pick up more when there was a loud clatter behind her. She jumped and spun around on reflex, the crutch turning awkwardly enough so that it fell out from underneath her arm, leaving her unsteady and with no choice but to distribute her pain on both her legs.

 

There was a rush of white-hot pain in her leg, probably from the quick redirection she’d done and from fully standing on it, making her gasp and reach out for the table, gripping the edge and bending over. 

 

Pain raced up and down her leg, then settled in her calf, throbbing. Her heart beat unsteadily in her chest and she spat out a few colorful curses, squeezing her eyes shut and leaning her weight onto her good leg.

 

“Amara!” There was an urgency in the voice—it was achingly familiar, sounding much louder than she’d ever heard it before. She heard quick footsteps and leaned her forehead on the cold metal of the table, willing the fire in her calf to go away.

 

“Are you okay?” It was Chris.

 

She groaned in response.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, almost panicked. She twitched when she felt a hand brush over her back. “Is your leg—”

 

She groaned again, cracking open her eyes and finding him standing to her left—though she could only see the black pants and shoes he was wearing. She looked to her right and reached out for the crutch, relieved it’d stayed standing propped against the table throughout the entire ordeal.

 

She tucked it under her arm and turned to him in time for him to bend down and pick up the other one. He handed it to her without looking up, having crouched down to also pick up the plastic bag that had fallen, the ice cubes scattered on the ground and melting quickly. She tucked that one under her other arm and switched her weight from her good leg to the crutches.

 

She gnashed her teeth, calf still throbbing excruciatingly.

 

Chris stood back up, then, and her heart continued its race in her chest—whether it was from the adrenaline or anxiety, she wasn’t sure. He shut the icebox and the freezer, then looked at her.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

She smiled tightly. “Peachy.” Her leg was in no state to be putting weight on, not if the pain in her calf was anything to go by.

 

Chris grimaced. “I apologize again. I dropped a bowl and I hadn’t meant to startle you.”

 

He spoke formally, in a way that said they were acquaintances rather than friends. It made her heart ache.

 

“It’s fine,” she muttered. “I was just getting some ice.”

 

She saw his eyes flicker down to her calf, which was exposed because she’d put on shorts and a t-shirt. He grimaced and looked at her. “What happened?”

 

She raised an eyebrow. “Did the others not tell you?”

 

He shifted on his feet. “No.”

 

Huh. “Grade two calf strain. I’m out of commission for the next month.”

 

“Was it from that previous injury you had?” He asked, perceptive as always.

 

“Possibly.” She didn’t elaborate.

 

And of course, he noticed her short answers, for he sighed again. “Would you like some help?”

 

There was a rejection on the tip of her tongue, a straight-out refusal, if only because of her pride. But he looked earnest, not neutral. It was a relieving sight but she squashed down those feelings as soon as they came. He had not apologized, they hadn’t spoken at all for these few past weeks—she couldn’t enjoy the openness with which he was looking at her with. Not yet.

 

She bit her tongue then nodded stiffly. “Please.”

 

Chris got to work immediately. He went back around to pick up his bowl and put it away, then walked back around and threw out the old plastic bag since he’d used it to put the dirty ice cubes into, then took out another one. There was a tense silence between them, almost suffocating. 

 

He sighed and pulled away from the freezer, closing the drawer then shutting the door, finally taking away the icy air it’d been emanating. He went over to the sink to tear off a few paper towels, wrapping it around the bag. 

 

He came back over to her and she held out her hand to accept the bag, but he paused and looked back at the bag, appearing to mull something over before he finally handed it to her. 

 

He cleared his throat. “Could you please wait here? I can get something that’ll help—”

 

“You don’t need to,” she interrupted sharply. “We’re not all buddy-buddy just because you talked to Eijun, you know that right?” 

 

She knew she was being mean. He hadn’t done anything—at least not now. The least she could’ve done was be diplomatic but she’d been overwhelmed by this seemingly irrational rush of irritation. Over what, she didn’t know. 

 

He didn’t show much outward reaction, looking rather calm despite her snappish tone. 

 

It made her more irritated.  

 

“You’re right,” he agreed quietly. 

 

She looked away, irritation abruptly shrinking at the dejected tone of his voice. 

 

It was silent for the next few minutes, the plastic bag slowly beginning to fall limp in her hand as it melted little by little. 

 

“I don’t like it.” His quiet voice broke the silence once again, and she looked at him with a raised eyebrow, her traitorous heart skipping a beat in her chest when he met her eyes head-on.

 

“What?” 

 

“Fighting with you.” 

 

Oh.

 

She averted her gaze, looking at the ice pack, watching as the condensation on the bag dampened the paper towel. She rubbed a thumb over the damp section and sighed. “Me neither,” she mumbled. 

 

“I’m sorry about what I said.” He leaned against the table, leaving a reasonable amount of distance between them. “You were right. We didn’t—I didn’t—deal with this in an adequate manner. We were the ones in the wrong.”

 

She rolled her fingers under the ice pack and the rustle of the plastic was accompanied by a soft clink of the ice cubes, filling the silence that Chris had left behind. 

 

Clink, clink, clink.

 

“Amara.” 

 

Clink.

 

“Look at me, please.” 

 

She stopped her ministrations, feeling the wetness of the dampened towel seep through her fingers, and hesitated. Chris was unusually well-versed in being able to see through her, and throughout her time of knowing him, she hadn’t minded. He understood her when she wasn’t so transparent. 

 

But now wasn’t a time where she wanted that.

 

Maybe it was her pride talking, but their fight had left her vulnerable, open to the world and his eyes to see how much it had affected her. 

 

She inhaled sharply when she felt rough fingers brush against her jaw, ghosting along the heated skin of her cheek, nudging her face towards him. His touch left a fire in its wake, warmth spreading through her chest and all the way down to her toes, bypassing the now-dull throb of her calf. Her heart was beating at an unhealthy rate, at risk of breaking through her ribs. 

 

She looked up and met his eyes—if only to get this burning sensation off her face, and to bite the bullet already, knowing very well this couldn’t be fixed if she didn’t try. 

 

His hand fell away from her cheek and he held her gaze, willful. “Forgive me, please. It doesn’t have to be now. I know it’ll take time, but can you please give me another chance?” 

 

His eyes, the ones that had been cold and neutral for these last few weeks, had thawed and were warm, a chocolate brown underneath artificial light of the kitchen, watching her carefully. 

 

She took a deep breath, finding his gaze too intense, too overwhelming. She was . . . relieved, though. It felt good to hear him apologize, but it felt even better to hear that familiar warmth with which he used for her. 

 

“You’ll have to work for it,” she ended up mumbling, eyeing the fridge in her peripheral vision to avoid looking at him. “But okay. I’ll give you another chance.” 

 

She felt more than heard him sigh in what must be relief. It made her feel guilty for having given him such a difficult time, but he did sort of deserve it. 

 

“Thank you,” he said next, sounding like he truly meant it. 

 

She spared him a quick glance and found earnest eyes looking back at her. It was marginally better than the intense eyes he’d been giving her earlier—since she seemed to always be nervous underneath his watchful gaze—so she smiled a little at him, only an upward quirk of her lips because she was still a bit wary about how to go on. 

 

He pushed himself up from the counter and looked at the plastic bag in her hand, the ice already melting and staining the paper towel. It’d probably be useless by the time she made it back to her dorm.

 

“I believe there are a few gel ice packs in the nurse’s office,” he said, glancing between her and the plastic bag meaningfully. “Could you—?” 

 

“Sure,” she agreed warily. “But isn’t it locked right now?” 

 

At that, he sent her a secretive smile. “That’s for me to worry about. I’ll be back in a minute.” 

 

He backtracked quickly, leaving the kitchen in a hurry and she could only stare at the swinging door that he’d disappeared through, watching as his figure grew further and further with each swing of the door. 

 

Wasn’t he supposed to be the good kid? The nice guy who did not break into the nurse’s office? 

 

This revelation, learning that he probably had a rebellious streak he pushed down for good reason, made her giggle—because no, Chris was not a saint by any means and that the general reputation he had around school would probably be tarnished by that fact. But with her knowing that, it’s a balm to her irritation, soothing hurt feelings and returning a feeling almost like normalcy. 

 

(Realistically, it isn’t that simple and she knew things wouldn’t quite be the same ever again but for right now, she could certainly pretend.) 

 

She smothered her snickers when Kawakami entered the kitchen and shot him a friendly smile. “Hey, Kawakami. Late night snack?” 

 

He returned her smile hesitantly. “Yeah, I’m getting some studying done for an upcoming exam and I needed some brain fuel. Shirasu said he’d stored some ice cream in the fridge that I could have.” 

 

“Go right ahead.” She gestured to the fridge in front of her and scooted to the side, though it proved to be a challenge since she was still holding the plastic bag. She gave a side-glance at the two pints of ice cream still sitting on the table, droplets of water running down their sides as they slowly melted. She wondered if that was a lost cause at that point, given that she probably wouldn’t be able to carry those back to the dorm.

 

Kawakami’s eyes flickered to the pints of ice cream as well. “Studying, too?”

 

“No, I just needed to come here to get an ice pack. The ice cream was a bonus, though I don’t think they’ll be surviving much longer. Not to mention, I can’t carry them.”

 

“I can help,” he offered. “I don’t mind.”

 

She went to refuse but stopped herself at the last second. She really was craving some ice cream and she wasn’t sure she’d be willing to ask Chris—the usual five minute walk back to her dorm was easily a ten minute one with the crutches, and she didn’t think she’d be ready to handle that sort of alone time with him, as silly as it was.

 

They had to build their bridges once again and she wasn’t in the mood to start that right now.

 

“You sure? I’m waiting for Chris right now. He said he was getting some of those gel ice packs. I don’t want to hold you back . . .” she frowned.

 

Kawakami shook his head. “It’s fine, don’t worry.”

 

Amara relented, unable to find the will to pressure him. “Thanks, Kawakami.”

 

He shuffled over to the freezer and slid it open. “You can call me Nori,” he mumbled bashfully, eyes flickering between her and the assortment of ice cream. “Everyone does.”

 

She smiled, but had no time to respond as Chris returned. Kawakami—Nori, she silently reminded herself—stood up from his rummaging and bowed his head. “Chris,” he greeted softly.

 

Chris seemed surprised to see him there and his eyes flickered briefly to Amara, then back to Nori. He smiled politely. “Nori,” he returned, then directed his attention to her. “This is what I could get. I’m sure the nurse won’t mind you stopping by for more, though.”

 

He handed over a white gel pack, the size of her hand, filled with a stiff substance that she knew not to snap yet.

 

“Yeah, that’s fine. Thanks.”

 

He took the plastic bag out of her hands as she accepted the other one, and she didn’t protest when he dumped the ice in the sink then tossed the bag in the trash. She glanced at Nori when she heard the freezer shut and found him moving on to the cabinets and drawers at the other side of the kitchen, probably in search of a spoon and to give them a small semblance of privacy.

 

Chris stepped back to her, then inclined his head to the table where the ice cream sat. “Did you need help with that?”

 

She smiled but it felt strained. “No, it’s fine. Nori’s helping me out with it, but thank you.”

 

An awkward silence hung in the air, only broken by the quiet noise of Nori going through drawers and cabinets.

 

Chris opened his mouth to say something but she beat him to it, shifting restlessly on her feet as she cleared her throat. “Can you—it’s just been an emotional day. I . . . need some space, alright?” There was a flash of hurt on his face and she hurried to add, “I’m not . . . shutting you out or anything. I said what I said, I’ll give you a chance. Today has just been . . . hectic. I kind of need time to recuperate. I promise we’ll—we’ll do something soon.”

 

“You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” he replied as soon as she finished. “Take your time. I don’t mind waiting.”

 

She gave a breathy laugh. “I’m not gonna do that, it’s only for today and probably this weekend. I’m just—thanks. You know. For apologizing. Sorry I’m all—” she waved a hand aimlessly. “But it’s just. Today.

 

A flash of teeth. Her heart climbed to her throat. “I get it.” And it looked like he truly did. He took a step back. “Get back safely and have a good night.”

 

“You, too.”

 

“Have a good night, Nori,” he called out, already pushing the swinging door open. Amara looked at Nori, who’d hunched over one of the drawers and was . . . rearranging the utensils? She bit back a grin.

 

Nori smiled politely at Chris, abandoning his meticulous rearrangement to lift a hand in goodbye. “Thank you and likewise.”

 

She shot Chris a small smile, which he returned, then found herself watching him leave through the swings of that metal door for the second time that night. Once he was out of her sight, she turned back to Nori and smiled.

 

“Ready to go?”

 

“Sure thing. Did you need some spoons?”

 

“Two, please.”

 

He picked up two more spoons in addition to his and shut the drawer. It took some maneuvering but he managed to carry the three pints of ice cream and the spoons while she kept the gel pack, able to squeeze that between her thumb and index finger with her hand wrapped around the handle of the crutch.

 

The walk back to her dorm was far more enjoyable than she’d thought it would be. Nori was fairly soft-spoken, but once he was comfortable, he could be decidedly talkative. She did her best to encourage that, asking him mostly about baseball and the classes he was currently taking; she offered advice on the ones he was having difficulty with, extending her own help if he wanted it since second year was still on her mind—at least more than first year.

 

At one point, though, when they’d been crossing through the Commons, he asked, “How is everything with Sawamura?”

 

She smiled at the concern in his voice. “Better. Today was hopefully a turning point for him since Chris helped him learn out-lows? Not too sure what that is but Eijun was excited about it. Hopefully it’s enough to get him out on the mound again.”

 

Nori looked relieved. “That’s great. I . . . I really didn’t know what to do. He’s always so encouraging to the team and it’s a real help with our motivation. We’ve been missing him for these past few weeks.” Guilt was visible on his face, even under the dim lighting from the dorm as they made their way closer.

 

“You’re doing what you can now. Better late than never,” she shrugged.

 

“You’re probably right,” he mumbled, then glanced at her curiously. “What about you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

“How are you?” He clarified, a tell-tale redness in his cheeks.

 

She let out a short laugh. “I’ve seen better days, that’s for sure.”

 

He winced. “I-I know we don’t really know each other that well,” he mumbled, avoiding her eyes when they arrived at the elevator and she pressed the button, doors immediately sliding open. “B-But if you ever need to talk to someone, I’m a pretty good listener.”

 

She slid the key into the slot and pressed the button as soon as he was situated inside beside her. She smiled at him. “I’ll keep that in mind. It’s the same for you, you know?”

 

The doors slid open and she went out first. He fell into step next to her and smiled shyly. “I know. Thanks.”

 

“It’s the least I could do.” They turned the corner and she stopped, tugging her lanyard over her head. “This is me.”

 

She unlocked the door and pushed it open; the lights were still on and Asano was still lounging on her bed, watching a movie. She looked up at the noise, pausing whatever she was watching and stood up upon realizing someone else was behind her. Amara stepped into the entryway, kicking off her sandals.

 

“I got these,” Asano muttered, brushing past Amara to take the ice cream and two spoons from Nori. “Thanks, Nori.”

 

Amara watched with muted interest as he flushed a deep red then rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “It wasn’t a problem.”

 

“Means a lot, though,” Amara interjected, taking over after Asano had flashed him a tiny smile then went back to her bed. “Thanks for helping me out. I owe you one.”

 

“T-That’s not necessary.” It looked like he was still recovering, so she chuckled and relented.

 

“Have a good night, Nori. Get back safely.”

 

He bowed his head and stepped back. “Have a good night as well.”

 

She shut the door with one last smile and it felt good, for some reason. It was almost like isolating herself from all her problems of the outside world. Maybe it was the good note her night was ending on—Chris’ apology, Nori’s seemingly silent wish to be better friends with her, Asano’s usual patience and need-to-know basis policy she held whenever it came to their respective problems.

 

Whatever it was, she realized that for the first time in a while, she felt . . . good. Unstressed. Sure, there was the problem of her calf, but that would eventually get better—people and relationships were fickle, not so stable in recovery like her leg was bound to be.

 

Looks like her day had turned out better than she thought it would be. 

 

 

Chapter Text

24. problem solving 

 

The first half of the next week was weird, and Amara wasn’t sure if anybody else had noticed. 

 

Most of the guys, it seemed, had made peace with Eijun (and her by association), so their old lunch group had migrated to the first floor since she was injured and most of the old table had already trickled their way down there. Eijun seemed pleased with the development the most, especially with the return of the third years like Tetsu, Jun, Chris, Ryosuke, and several others. 

 

The dynamics, however, seemed a bit . . . fractured. 

 

There was a lingering awkwardness between the guys, one that the second and first years were desperately avoiding, so conversation felt forced for the first few days. Amara wasn’t sure what was going on, but it looked like it was Chris against the rest of the third years. Which was strange in and within itself, but also helped to explain some other events. 

 

Like the fact that the last time she’d been alone with him had been last Friday when he’d apologized, and the only real time she could talk to him without the interception of other third years was during their economics class after lunch. And when economics was over and he’d offer to walk her to her next class, someone was always there by the door—whether it be Tetsu, Jun, or Kusunoki. 

 

It was weird. And annoying. 

 

She didn’t know if anybody had noticed, though. 

 

Chihiro and Chiyo hadn’t said anything about it and surprisingly enough, Chris hadn’t either. She wondered if she’d only been imagining things—maybe the guys were just trying to make up for those last three weeks of zero contact. But even considering that, the way that they were approaching it had robbed her of talking to Chris in any shape or form—which she wanted to do since they were supposed to be fixing things. 

 

It was on Thursday that she was finally fed up with the boys, and her first break from them came in the gracious form of Nori. 

 

It’d been tradition for someone at the table to help her with her lunch since she couldn’t do it herself and luckily the third years weren’t there yet—something about being held up in a class, Shirasu had said—so Nori had kindly taken up the job himself. 

 

They talked amiably as they stood in line, mostly Amara asking how his classes had been going since he’d been seeking her out for a few subjects over the course of the week. He’d relaxed considerably around her, which made it easier to pose the question that had been itching her for the past few days. 

 

“Have you . . . noticed anything weird going on with the third years concerning me?” She popped the question as he finally picked up an empty metal tray and they made their way down the line. 

 

“Weird . . .” He echoed with a frown. “Like them being around you? All the time?” 

 

Amara breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, good, I thought I was imagining it. But it’s weird, isn’t it? They just—it seems like they’re trying to help me avoid Chris? Which isn’t what I’m trying to do right now.” She frowned. 

 

Nori picked up a set of chopsticks and a few napkins while she typed in her lunch number. He fiddled with tray. “It is weird,” he agreed. “The others have noticed but you know, we’re not in a place to say anything.” 

 

“Yeah, I get that,” she muttered, following him to the beverage counter. “But why? Are they trying to protect me or what?” 

 

“Things have been awkward between them,” Nori said, setting the tray down to pick up a paper cup and pour water into it. “Maybe Chris hasn’t told them he apologized?” 

 

“Even still, it’s not their job to fight my fights. It’s irritating.” 

 

He set the cup on the tray and smiled hesitantly at her. “This may be in bad taste given what you just said, but would you like for us to try and talk to them?” 

 

They set off for the table. She frowned, shaking her head. “No, I don’t want you guys to get in trouble or anything. I appreciate the offer—and that’s just it, y’know? You’re asking for my permission to help but they took it upon themselves without knowing anything.”

 

“They have good intentions, at least?” 

 

She rolled her eyes. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” 

 

Nori smiled. “That’s true, too. It’d be best to talk to them, I guess, since, like you said, it really isn’t cool for them to assume.”

 

She sighed. “Yeah, looks like that is something I have to do. It’s just one thing after another, isn’t it? All I want is some self-autonomy, is that too much to ask for?” 

 

He chuckled and they made it to the table, conversation ceasing since she didn’t want anybody else to know. Certainly not Chihiro and Chiyo, who’d probably throw fits about it and want to boycott the third years again. She didn’t want to drag the other second (or first) years into it, either, so she’d have to deal with it on her own. 

 

She was curious, too, as to why Chris wasn’t refuting the third years’ assumption. He was probably perceptive enough to figure out why they were doing it, so why hadn’t he done anything about it? 

 

She wanted to know, but of course, even when he was the first of them to sit down with his lunch tray, she couldn’t ask. There were too many people around, and the others were already on their way down. Even for their next class, she couldn’t talk to him because they’d had a test that took the entire period to complete (she was also fairly sure she’d scored low on that one). 

 

There were no more opportunities to talk to him, as there seemed to be a third year hot on her heels constantly, and by the end of the school day, she was irritated—so irritated, she almost declined Kusunoki’s request to talk after school. She managed to reign herself in and agreed reluctantly, meeting him by the edge of the Commons, where it transformed into the grassy plains of the athletic area. 

 

It was empty, since most were heading to their clubs and practice was already in session. Much like it had been for the majority of September, there was a thick overcast, hiding away the sun. September had always been a good month for practice; fall was being ushered in with lowering temperatures, though humidity tended to increase since it rained frequently.

 

She found him leaning against a tree, on his phone, typing away. “Kusunoki,” she called. 

 

He looked up and smiled warmly, pocketing his phone. “Thanks for agreeing to talk with me.” 

 

Amara shrugged. “You said you’ve been wanting to.” 

 

“Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I’m apologizing, for what happened over this last month. I should’ve tried harder to fight Chris on it, and even then, I should’ve just . . . went after Sawamura and talk to him regardless. Then you know, everything that happened with Miyuki.” 

 

She was uncomfortable underneath his gaze, earnest and imploring. She turned to stare at the tennis courts, where practice was in session. She cleared her throat. “Yeah, well, it’s fine. Eijun is slowly getting better, so.” She tried to sound as neutral as she could, but it proved to be difficult; Kusunoki had never been annoying, in fact, he was a pretty sweet guy, but today had been a decidedly annoying day and her emotions were spilling over. 

 

She was also a bit confused as to why he was personally pursuing her. They’d never been that close, save for the few times he’d been around to soothe whatever fears she had, or their joking banter during lunch. But perhaps that’s just how he was. 

 

“I feel bad,” he admitted. “Is there anything I can do to help?” 

 

She huffed, the words slipping out before she could stop it. “Why don’t you guys quit this protection thing you have going on around me, then?” 

 

He seemed surprised. “You noticed?” 

 

She glared at him. “It was a little hard not to.” 

 

He winced. “Well, it’s just—we heard he’d made you cry and that’s not cool. Even if he is our friend.” 

 

She took a second to gather her bearings, taking a deep breath. This was, quite frankly, ridiculous.

 

She appreciated their intentions, but they didn’t go about it in the correct way—not to mention, they were purely assuming that Chris hadn’t apologized. 

 

She shook her head. “First of all, I feel like your priorities are out of order. Why are you just getting mad at him now? Why not before when this all happened? And why is it on my behalf, when it should be Eijun’s? This wasn’t all Chris’ fault, so don’t act like you guys are any better just because you might’ve disagreed with him—you still kept it to yourselves.”

 

She’d been willing to put all of that behind her—the guys had apologized and she thought they understood what had gone wrong. She felt guilty about airing all these grievances only on Kusunoki, but it had to come out eventually. 

 

And then there was that game they’d been playing—it didn’t make sense. Tetsu and Jun had looked guilty whenever they intercepted her and Chris, so she found it hard to believe they’d orchestrated this on their own accord.

 

She narrowed her eyes at him. What exactly was Kusunoki’s problem?

 

“Secondly,” she continued, “I don’t need you to fight for me. I mean, you didn’t even ask. You know, Chris has already apologized to me, and we’re trying to work on it.” She glared at him, irritation rearing its head once again. “That’s been just about impossible given that all of you seem to be around us constantly.” 

 

“He never told us,” Kusunoki murmured, frowning at the ground. 

 

She scowled. “You still shouldn’t have presumed. You could’ve asked me or him. In any case, I think we’ve given him enough of a hard time this past month, so this needs to end. Like, today. I can handle myself.”

 

“Why are you so defensive about him? I mean, after everything that happened . . .” Kusunoki’s eyebrows furrowed, genuinely curious, but the question made her bristle.

 

Wasn’t he friends with Chris? Why was he questioning her so much about it?

 

She shifted on her feet, readjusting the crutches under her arms. “He apologized; he mended what he needed to. We all make mistakes. I’m not going to hold this over him. And what you guys were trying to do—that was too much. It was unnecessary.” The dejected expression on his face made her sigh and add, “You . . . had good intentions. I appreciate it. So, thank you for looking out for me but now just wasn’t the time for it.”

 

Kusunoki stuffed his hands in his pockets and sighed, turning to look at something in the distance behind her. “I’m . . . sorry, then. I’ll tell them it’s not necessary. I’m glad you . . . worked things out.”

 

“It’s fine. Try not to do it again, alright? Thanks for coming out and,” she cleared her throat, “formally apologizing. I appreciate that, too.”

 

 His eyebrows were furrowed, lips pursed in a manner that told her he wasn’t quite happy. About what, though, she had no idea.

 

A figure walked up in her peripheral vision, making her glance to the side and regain Kusunoki’s attention as well.

 

“Chris,” she greeted. She turned back to Kusunoki. “Like I said, thanks. I hope everything has been cleared up.” She didn’t want to be mean, but this was a prime opportunity to talk to Chris and given that she’d made her stance clear to Kusunoki, he had to go and let them speak in private.

 

Kusunoki pushed himself off the tree. He smiled but it didn’t meet his eyes. “Yeah, Amara. Thanks for listening.” He walked off without any preamble and she grimaced at his retreating figure, hoping that things had been cleared up.

 

“Was I interrupting something?” Chris asked, gesturing for her to take the spot Kusunoki had been in.

 

She moved closer to the tree and leaned back against it, taking a small rest as Chris took the spot she’d been in. She shook her head. “Ah, no, that was just . . . He was apologizing. But besides that, what’d you need?” She asked, not unkindly.

 

“I—”  

 

“Yo, Amara!”

 

She sucked her teeth, fighting down her irritation. She shot him an apologetic look and turned to look Hikari, not bothering to hide her displeasure.

 

“What is it?” She asked tiredly, fed up with all these interruptions.

 

“Coach wants you down with us for a quick meeting,” Hikari replied breezily, unperturbed by Amara’s tone of voice. She ran a hand over the crown of her head, catching any flyaway hairs. She was sweaty, breathing uneven, clearly feeling the effects of practice. It only served to strengthen Amara’s yearning to be back on the field.

 

“For what?” She frowned.

 

Hikari huffed. “As if I know. She just told me to get you.”

 

Amara pursed her lips and turned back to Chris, who’d been quietly observing the conversation. He met her eyes and smiled in understanding.

 

“Later?” She asked hopefully.

 

He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I’m helping out the team today and Coach is planning on keeping them late. It’s fine, though, don’t worry.”

 

Guilt curled in her stomach; their interactions had already been sparse this week and since Kusunoki had been dealt with, she’d hoped to talk to him today, especially given that he needed to talk with her as well.

 

“Amara,” Hikari called, impatience bleeding through her voice.

 

“Hold it,” she hissed back. She looked back to Chris, pushing herself off the tree. “Are you busy after school tomorrow?”

 

“I don’t believe so.”

 

She sighed in relief. Good. That meant she could monopolize his time as much as she wanted to. She blinked at her train of thought but shook it off. “I’m supposed to be getting a care package from my family. It should be here by the time school ends. Could you help me out with it?”

 

He looked surprised by her request but nodded. “Of course,” his eyes flickered to Hikari, who’d crossed her arms over her chest and was watching impatiently; he looked back at Amara with a small smile. “I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow, but I’m free to help. You should get going.”

 

“Yes, you should,” Hikari intoned unhelpfully.

 

Amara ignored her. “Thanks, Chris. I’ll see you tomorrow morning?” She tried not to sound too hopeful but he appeared to have caught on, because his smile softened.

 

“Tomorrow morning,” he promised. He turned and nodded politely at Hikari. “Ban.”

 

“Takigawa,” she replied, not as polite.

 

Amara sighed and gave Chris one last smile before turning to Hikari. “Alright, let’s go.”

 

They set off for the soccer field, where it looked like the team had convened in the circle, but there were more than the regular eleven of the starting—perhaps the substitutes as well?

 

She didn’t have a chance to ponder it, or even ask, because Hikari broke the tense silence first.

 

“Just had to get injured, didn’t you?”

 

Amara nearly stopped in place, head snapping to her. The nerve of her. She had known that Hikari hadn’t been pleased with the replacement of center midfielder—something Amara had been informed of on Monday (not that she was surprised) and the coach was still apparently deliberating who’d be taking her place—but she couldn’t have anticipated that reaction.

 

As if Amara had willingly chosen to be injured.

 

If it were up to her, she’d get rid of this stupid injury and get back on the field.

 

She’d worked so damn hard to get her spot, but it had been stolen from her in the blink of an eye, her hard work all for naught.

 

“I didn’t choose this, Hikari,” she gritted out.

 

Hikari scoffed quietly and turned her head, effectively ending the conversation—which was probably the best action since Amara’s irritation had flared, bubbling beneath the surface and threatening to blow.  

 

They made it to the circle, all of the players seated on the grass; her predictions had been right about the substitutes being present as well, as she spotted Hanako sitting with a few other first years. Nakamura and Suzuki nodded in acknowledgment once they realized they’d arrived.  

 

Nakamura cleared her throat. “Now that we’re all here, I’ve come to a decision on who will be taking Amara’s position until her leg is healed. Hopefully, she’ll be cleared to play by round four, or at the very least, by the quarterfinals.”

 

The murmurs ceased and the air was tense, suspension hanging over them as they waited for her verdict. Amara ran her eyes over the group again, trying to find Aiko. She hadn’t seen her too much recently but Amara assumed she’d be retaking her position. She frowned when she realized Aiko wasn’t seated amongst them, only finding the other first and second years of the substitutes.

 

She stiffened when she felt Hikari lean over to her. “You noticed? Aiko isn’t here. She’s too chicken to rejoin the starters and I. Sure hope you won’t be like that when you’re all healed up.”

 

Amara’s frown deepened. What the hell did she mean by ‘too chicken?’ Aiko should’ve jumped at the chance to be back on the starting lineup, even if it was only temporary.

 

If Amara had been given that opportunity last year, she certainly would’ve taken it.

 

And if Aiko wasn’t here, who’d be taking her position?

 

Nakamura continued, “For now, joining in our practices and for the first rounds of the tournament will be you, Sanada.”

 

She released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, cutting her eyes back to Hanako, whose eyes widened; it almost looked like she wanted to protest, but her eyes flickered to Amara, surprised and vulnerable. Amara smiled grimly at her. It’s on you now.

 

A few of the substitutes looked disappointed and Amara couldn’t blame them. It was a bit of a reckless decision, given that Hanako didn’t have the experience of a real game since she was only a first year, but Amara had seen her play enough to know she had some raw talent. The potential to grow into an amazing midfielder.

 

She wondered where, exactly, Nakamura was going with this, though. She knew there were quite a few other substitutes who aimed for midfielder positions—she’d been one of those just last year. They had more experience, yet Nakamura had made this decision. Was this an attempt to get more enthusiasm? The roster for the starting lineup tended to be airtight and it often felt like a monumental struggle to get into it.

 

Amara certainly knew it was like.

 

“It’s not to say that players can’t be switched out, either,” Nakamura said, focusing more on the starting lineup now. Amara felt strangely vindicated when Hikari shifted beside her. “We can’t continue to keep our old formation. 5-2-2-1* isn’t going to cut it anymore. We’re known for our defense, yet once the opponent scores a goal, you all seem to crumble. Are you conceding defeat once our only weapon is disarmed? Is that it?”

 

The team shrunk underneath her glare, even Fuyumi—their stronghold of a captain—looking meek. Amara winced, feeling the weight of her words as well. Nakamura was right, of course.

 

She hoped that meant that this year would be different—they’d go past semifinals and finals, qualifying for Nationals.

 

“Well?” Nakamura repeated, expecting an answer.

 

“No, ma’am,” they all chorused.

 

“Nationals is no easy goal. You all have to work hard from now until the tournament, and even then, you will never stop growing.”

 

Her words were heavy stones in a lake, sinking through the team and stirring a familiar fire. It only served to make Amara feel worse.

 

Nakamura nodded, satisfied that her words had resonated. “Now, the Sports Festival is this Saturday and you all will be playing against us—the faculty. The lineup will be released tomorrow but know that all the coaches from Hotei’s clubs will be on the team, alongside Coach Kataoka from Seido’s baseball team. I expect you all to be thinking over strategies because I can say this much,” a smirk formed on her lips, confident and self-assured, “our team will blow you all out of the water.”

 

Amara swore under her breath, frustrated, as excited murmurs broke out from the team. Dammit.

 

Her calf still ached whenever she put too much weight on it or stretched too far, meaning she couldn’t even participate in this.

 

Nakamura checked her watch. “I’ll end practice early today, if only so that you can all strategize as you need to. Make sure to cool down properly.”

 

Amara readjusted her weight on the crutches, readying herself to leave as the team stood up and went off in multiple directions. Everyone stayed on the field, no one really taking the dismissal as a cue to go back to the dorms.

 

“Amara,” Suzuki called, coming over to her while Nakamura departed for the school building. “Your next appointment with Dr. Murai will be next week Friday on the first after school. Everything is fine with your calf, right? It hasn’t gotten worse?”

 

Amara blinked, latching onto the first part of her sentence and completely disregarding her inquiry. “The first . . . of October?”

 

Suzuki laughed a little, appearing to not care that Amara hadn’t answered her question about the state of her calf. “Well, yes. Is that a problem?”

 

“No,” she lied. “Ah, that’s fine.” If her memory served her correctly, that was the day Chris’ birthday landed on. She was fairly sure that was correct, since Chiyo’s birthday was September 30th, the day before his. Great.

 

“Good. And your leg?”

 

“It’s, uh, fine. It’s taking a while to heal but it hasn’t gotten worse.”

 

“Physical therapy might be something worth looking into, then,” Suzuki said, a thoughtful look on her face. “But no news is good news. Update Coach Nakamura and I if something happens.”

 

“I will.”

 

She went in the same direction of Nakamura, practice still going on full-force on the field, except Fuyumi was leading them all and the substitutes had hung around to join in as well. Hikari had left, too, much to Amara’s relief.

 

But now that left her to deliberate her newest problem.

 

She didn’t know exactly what was going down for Chris and Chiyo’s birthdays, but Chihiro had managed to get them to agree to a joint-celebration. She didn’t know when that’d be taking place, though, since their respective sports seasons would be kicking off that weekend.

 

If push came to shove, she’d have to let them celebrate that Friday. Besides, the appointment couldn’t be that long, right?

 

She stiffened when she realized someone was standing close to her, turning to find Hanako there, looking utterly lost as she watched the team practice. Amara pushed that problem away, finding Hanako more important at the moment.

 

She cleared her throat and gave her an encouraging smile. “Well, that’s it, isn’t it? Think you can handle this?”

 

“No,” Hanako immediately replied, finally meeting Amara’s eyes. She shifted self-consciously. “I-I thought Miss Hamamoto would take your place.”

 

“I thought so, too,” Amara nodded. She didn’t want to lie to her—everyone had been expecting for Aiko to take the position. Amara was contemplating asking her why she hadn’t taken the spot, but that’d probably end horribly. “What’s done is done. This is your position now. You can do this, kid.”

 

For once, Hanako didn’t protest the nickname, instead frowning. “I . . . Do you really think so?”

 

Had this been any other situation, Amara might’ve teased her for fishing for compliments, but the insecurity was evident on her face and in her posture, and she knew she needed the encouragement more than anything right now. “I do,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. You don’t have to carry this all on your shoulders.”

 

Hanako took a deep breath, glanced back at the practice, and visibly steeled herself.

 

“Thank you, Miss Amara.” She bowed, still annoyingly polite, but it only made Amara smile.

 

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it? Go on, join the practice. You’re gonna need all the practice that you can get. Find that synergy with the team. We’re going to need it if we want to win against the faculty on Saturday.”

 

Hanako nodded firmly and shrugged off her warm-up jacket, revealing a plain soccer jersey—void of a team number for now, but she’d have that number eight on her back come Saturday. Amara didn’t stick around to watch her join, setting off for her dorm.

 

The problem of Chris and Chiyo’s birthdays plagued her mind once again, but a sudden thought of when she’d be delivering presents to them revealed a new set of issues.

 

She had absolutely no idea what to get Chris for his birthday.

 

When practice had finally wrapped up for the volleyball and tennis team, Amara met them all in the cafeteria for dinner. After, Chihiro and Chiyo had decided to invade her dorm, Asano following at a much slower pace. Amara shot her an apologetic smile for the intrusion but she only shook her head, dropping onto her bed and tugging out her laptop.

 

She brought up her newfound problem to them, making Chiyo pause from scrolling on her phone and Chihiro from rummaging through Amara’s stash of candy—which had been very barren recently, hence why she was getting a care package from her family.

 

“You guys are, like, actual friends again, then?” Chihiro asked.

 

Amara huffed. “I told you he apologized, didn’t I?”

 

“Yeah, but you also said you weren’t going to let him off the hook so easily,” Chiyo pointed out.

 

“That doesn’t mean I’m not getting him something for his birthday.”

 

“Sounds like you’re putting yourself through a lot of unnecessary stress. Honestly, just use that excuse and don’t get him anything,” Chihiro said, going back to her rummage. “Also, your candy stash is severely lacking.”

 

I know that, Hiro.”

 

Chiyo made herself comfortable on Amara’s pillow again, probably dampening the pillowcase with her wet hair. She scrolled through something on her phone. “Can’t say I’m in favor of not getting him anything. I’ll feel too guilty by association. Just get him a book or something.”

 

Amara scoffed. “On what, baseball?”

 

She looked back at Amara, an eyebrow raised. “We are all aware that he plays baseball, right?”

 

“That’d be kinda boring, though,” Chihiro said, tearing open a Hershey’s bar. “Dude lives and breathes it. Give him a break or something.”

 

Amara gestured to Chihiro gratefully. “There we go. I don’t wanna do that. If somebody gave me a book on soccer—”

 

“You wouldn’t read it,” Chiyo finished. “That isn’t a fair comparison. Takigawa is into strategy and stuff—catcher, hello—and he probably likes to read, too. You just like to kick the ball, so it wouldn’t even be remotely interesting for you. It’s a different story for him.”

 

“Fine,” Amara relented, knowing she was right. Strategy, while interesting at certain times and something she was knowledgeable about, wasn’t something she’d be interested in reading. She found fantasy and things of that nature far more interesting. “So, what should I get him, then?”

 

“Could give him one of those English books you’re so fond of,” Chihiro suggested. “Like, uh, which is the one you really like?”

 

“I like a lot of them, Hiro.”

 

She snapped her fingers. “Bless Me, Ultima. That’s the one.”

 

Amara shook her head adamantly. “No, that one has a lot of Spanish in it. It’s usually a better read if you know some Spanish.”

 

“Who’s to say he doesn’t know Spanish?”

 

Amara scoffed. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know Spanish.”

 

“Ask him,” Chiyo suggested lazily.

 

She huffed, reaching for her phone and unlocking it because damn, she was kind of curious.

 

me

ok this is a weird question but do you know any spanish? like any at all.

 

“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” she muttered, dropping her phone into her lap. “Anyways, while we wait—”

 

Her phone vibrated, a signal of a new text. Chihiro and Chiyo leveled her with impish looks. She scowled at them and picked up her phone again.

 

chris takigawa

That is a weird question, but no, unfortunately, I don’t. I know the simple things like yes and hello but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

 

She repeated his message to the girls.

 

“‘Unfortunately,’ huh? Get him a book to learn it, then,” Chihiro said with a snicker. Chiyo grinned, but her eyes remained locked on her phone.

 

“You guys are assholes,” Amara sighed, typing out her reply.

 

me

sorry lol i don’t have bad intentions, i promise

 

chris takigawa

Would it be possible to know why you asked?

 

She grimaced.

 

me

haha. no.

 

chris takigawa

You’re making it a little hard to believe that you don’t have bad intentions.

 

She snorted, missing the look that Chiyo and Chihiro shared.

 

“Uh, what happened to panicking about now knowing what to get Takigawa for his birthday?” Chiyo asked, eyebrow raised.

 

“Hold on,” Amara mumbled absently.

 

me

it’s nothing bad! you might know eventually. maybe. if i decide i can handle that sort of embarrassment

 

chris takigawa

Now I’m interested.

 

She pressed her lips together, face heating up at an alarming rate.

 

me

don’t make me nervous or i’m not telling you. hey, would you ever want to learn it?

 

chris takigawa

I make you nervous?

 

She released a shuddery breath, heart running a marathon in her chest. She looked at the girls. “He’s going to kill me.”

 

They shared a look before scrambling over to her, leaning over her shoulder to read the texts.

 

“He’s flirting with you,” Chihiro stated firmly.

 

“Wha—He is not.” The idea was laughable. What on earth would Chris flirt with her for? There were so many other better people out there.

 

“I don’t have much experience with this, but I promise you, he’s flirting.” Chiyo gave her a look.

 

“Don’t have much experience?” Chihiro scoffed. “When the whole deal with you and Kominato exists? I don’t think so.”

 

“I’ll have you know I do not think of Haruichi that way.”

 

“Don’t try to play it that way—you know exactly who I’m talking about.”

 

“Ah. No.”

 

“Chiyo!”

 

Amara sent off her reply, tuning them out, relieved the attention had been taken off her. She was sure that he hadn’t; the girls were always quick to jump to conclusions. 

 

me

so, anyways, back to my question

 

chris takigawa

I suppose. I know English and Japanese fluently, it can’t hurt to add another language, right?

 

Another message followed that one immediately.

 

chris takigawa

Do you know it?

 

me

spanish is my native language! i’m a little rusty right now since, ya know, i’m in japan lol but i don’t think i could ever really forget it.

 

His reply didn’t come immediately after like it had previously, so she looked back to Chiyo and Chihiro, who had resumed their original spots—Chiyo on the bed with Chihiro on the floor, still digging through her candy.

 

“Spanish is a no-go,” she said with a sigh. “I honestly don’t know what to get him.”

 

“Get him a mitt,” Chiyo suggested distractedly.

 

“No, don’t get him that—that shit is expensive,” Chihiro shook her head.

 

“Yeah and I wouldn’t even know where to start on that.” Amara groaned, leaning back on the railing of her bed. “This is so frustrating. I already know what I’m getting Chiyo—”

 

“Care to update me on that?” Chiyo asked, looking more interested.

 

“It was a joint effort,” Chihiro said, smiling smugly.

 

Amara waved them off. She and Chihiro had pooled their money to get her a new set of knee and elbow pads since she’d been using her current ones since first year. It’d always been easier on Chihiro’s parents as well, for them to split the cost of presents, since her family had struggled financially for some time. She said that the only reason she came to Hotei was because she’d gotten a full scholarship for tennis.

 

Amara definitely knew what it was like to come from a family on the low financial spectrum; it was why she’d applied for a scholarship to Hotei, if only to make the costs easier on her family. Luckily, when she’d been assigned Eiko to foster her, she’d taken it upon herself to cover most, if not all, expenses.

 

It was one of the many things that Amara was indebted to her for.

 

Her phone vibrated in her hand and she blinked, looking at it again and finding Chris’ reply.

 

chris takigawa

I can imagine. You should teach me.

 

She huffed and shook her head.

 

me

i could never

 

chris takigawa

I think you’re just saying that so you don’t have to teach me.

 

She couldn’t ever imagine him being this playful in real life, but maybe this was a side effect of the revival of their friendship. Their boundaries had been tested, so was he finally comfortable?

 

Whatever it was, she liked it.

 

Before she could send off her reply, another text came in.

 

chris takigawa

I have to go now, I apologize. Sawamura wants me to catch for him. Any other weird questions for me?

 

She smiled.

 

me

no, i think i’ve sated my curiosity. thanks, chris.

 

chris takigawa

Of course.

 

She shut off her phone. “Now that that is over, I still don’t know what to get him.”

 

“Doesn’t he like chocolate? Like, a lot?” Chihiro asked, holding up another Hershey’s bar before tearing it open. She broke it into four and handed a piece to Chiyo and Amara, then one to Asano, who accepted it with a bewildered smile.

 

Amara chuckled at the interaction and tossed the chocolate into her mouth, the confection melting on her tongue immediately. She looked back at Chihiro. “He does, yeah.”

 

“Get him some chocolate, then.”

 

“But what does the U.S. have that Japan doesn’t?” She frowned.

 

Reese’s Cups,” Chiyo said. “What’s that one Swiss candy? It had almond in it so you couldn’t have it but—Hiro, you and I had it.”

 

Chihiro nodded. “Toblerone. Delicious.”

 

“That’s it, though,” Amara pursed her lips, unsatisfied.

 

“You’re getting another care package tomorrow, aren’t you? Have him try some stuff and see what he likes the most then go from there,” Chihiro suggested.

 

Amara pursed her lips; that was a good idea and he was already going to be with her for it so it couldn’t hurt, but it felt a little strange to give him just candy or chocolate.

 

Chiyo nudged her thigh with her foot. “Stop overthinking it.”

 

Amara sighed. “I know. I just—wanted to give him something a little more meaningful, I guess.”

 

“Don’t overthink it,” Chihiro repeated. “He’s a nice guy, he’ll like anything you give him.”

 

That was also true. But that only made her want to try harder to get him something with actual meaning behind it, something that she liked and she knew he’d like as well.

 

Chiyo shook her head in disapproval. “If it bothers you that much, just do the book idea, too. You can pair the chocolates up with some books that you like or that you think he’d like. That way, he has options and you feel a little better about it.”

 

Now, that was a better idea. She could think of a few he’d like—classics she knew Japanese curriculum didn’t cover like The Scarlet Letter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her all-time favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe she could even toss Bless Me, Ultima in there; it wasn’t like he’d be on his own if he needed translation help.

 

Which led to another question.

 

“D’you think I should get the translated ones or just the English copies?”

 

Chihiro looked to her, serious. “I think . . . that I kinda wanna hit you right now.”

 

“I breathed.”

 

Chapter Text

25. care package

 

The nerves were, admittedly, a little concerning.

 

Amara did often get nervous around Chris, though these last few weeks when they’d been arguing had proved to be the exception. Barring that, though, her nerves were almost endless.

 

Whether it was a good or bad kind nervous, she didn’t know yet.

 

She hoped their little time arranged to hang out in her dorm and unpack the care package would clear things up. Not only the remnants of their fight, but also her strange tendency to anxiety around him.

 

Their conversation over text the day before—which Chihiro and Chiyo had claimed was him flirting (she didn’t buy it, though)—lingered in her head throughout today, particularly whenever she was around him. She didn’t know why and it only served to make her more nervous as she waited outside of the front office for him.

 

She didn’t know how things would go down today, and given that it was their first time hanging out alone after the fight, she could only hope it would go smoothly.

 

Amara had no time to overthink things as he appeared around the corner of the hallway she’d been situated in. She pushed herself off the wall and smiled at him, hoping it didn’t reflect her nervous state of mind.

 

It must’ve been convincing because he returned the smile, greeting her warmly. “Hey, I hope I didn’t make you wait too long.”

 

She waved him off. “You’re fine. It’s better this way. The office is always a little busy right after school, but everyone’s in their clubs right now, so we’re good.”

 

She offhandedly noticed he had changed out of the stiff school uniform and into a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. She’d informed him they’d only be in her dorm so there was no need to dress up or anything; she was glad he’d heeded her words. She saw that he’d even let his hair down and idly wondered if he’d washed it since it looked incredibly soft curled over his forehead.

 

She shook off those thoughts and lead him into the office. The woman at the front desk waved her back, recognizing her face enough so that there wasn’t a need for formalities. Chris followed closely behind her, seeming to observe the office and its functions.

 

She entered the back room, a place tucked in the middle of the office, near an area where a coffee maker and mini-fridge resided. She shuffled into the room to allow Chris to stand beside her. It was dimly lit, several brown packages scattered around. The room served as a holding place for care packages sent in to the students since many hailed from different regions of Japan.

 

“The package stamp should be to me and from Austin. It’ll probably be the only one in English.”

 

“You live in Austin?”

 

The question surprised her, making her glance up from scanning a package’s stamp. He didn’t look back at her, also looking around for the same thing.

 

“Yeah. Have I not mentioned this?” She didn’t make her question rude, genuinely wanting to know if she hadn’t ever mentioned that she lived in Austin.

 

He thought about it, then shook his head. “No, I do recall . . . I don’t think you’ve explicitly stated it, though. You haven’t mentioned much about yourself. I only know a little bit about your family and the fact that your younger brother—Renee, I believe—is interested in technical things of sports,” he replied, his voice quiet in the room. She looked back to the boxes and continued her search, though it was partially inhibited by the crutches.

 

His words were true. But to be entirely fair, he hadn’t mentioned much about himself, either.

 

She relayed her thoughts to him and when she glanced back at him, he was smiling.

 

“That’s also true, I suppose. I guess we just haven’t gotten around to talking about that—and I think I found it.” She straightened up and went over to him as he lifted a rather large box from the ground. The size threw her off but a quick look at the stamp on top assured that it was from Austin and it was hers.

 

“Yeah, that’s the one,” she muttered, narrowing her eyes at the package.

 

“What?” Chris asked, sounding slightly amused.

 

“It’s just big, that’s all. Usually they’re smaller. I hope it isn’t anything too nice . . . The last package I got made me cry.”

 

He gave her an alarmed look and she laughed, shaking her head.

 

“Homesickness,” she clarified, leading them out of the room.

 

He made a noise of acknowledgment but lapsed into silence while she verified the package with the front desk.

 

He made no effort for a conversation when they stepped out into the hallway and she set the pace to her dorm (slower than she would’ve liked, but those damn crutches were in the way). A quick glance at his face showed he was deep in thought, eyebrows furrowed as he mulled over something.

 

She was tempted to ask, if only to find out the reason behind the frown tugging at his lips, but it seemed serious, so she held off on it.

 

He had enough thought to push the door open that led to the Commons, holding it open for her with his foot while he held the box out of her path. She shot him a grateful smile and led him over to the elevator on the wall, going through the motions. She was aware of Chris’ attention refocusing on her as she did so.

 

“How’s your leg?” He asked softly as the elevator hummed around them.

 

“Getting better,” she replied, drumming her fingers on the handle of the crutches. “Hopefully I’ll be good in a few more weeks to play.”

 

He hummed in agreement but made no other attempt for conversation. The doors opened before she could ask, and even so, she still hesitated to do it. Would he be open about it?

 

She pursed her lips, coming around the corner and pulling out her dorm key. Asano would be out for the rest of the night, apparently. She’d told Amara that she was helping the rest of the team prepare food for the Sports Festival. Chihiro was absent because of it as well and Chiyo was putting in practice in preparation for her own game against the faculty tomorrow.

 

The dorm was mercifully cool compared to the outside. Temperatures would be dropping more drastically as October came upon them, but afternoons were still sweltering, and the dark colors of their uniforms didn’t help their case at all.

 

She kicked off her shoes in the entryway and moved aside for him to come in, shutting the door behind him. Her heart crawled up to her throat as the click of the door shutting into place resonated loudly within the room.

 

“You can just put it on the floor. That’s probably where we’ll be unpacking it—I’m not about to get food on my mind and attract bugs,” she instructed, leaning one crutch against her bed as she shrugged off the uniform jacket and tossed it over the knob of her bedpost.

 

He set the box on the ground carefully, then slipped down beside it, leaning against the edge of her bed. The look on his face was distant as he made no outward reaction to her words besides his actions.

 

“What are you thinking?”

 

She couldn’t help herself, taking a few steps over to him. He hadn’t even paused to take a look around her dorm, all of his movements seeming mechanical, as though he was on auto-pilot. Whatever was on his mind was clearly taking up all his conscious space, and it wasn’t like she could even gauge what he was thinking about.

 

The only signs of his pondering were the furrow of his brows and the downturn of his lips.

 

(A part of her was relieved that after so many weeks of little to no contact, she still knew some of his ticks.)

 

He blinked, eyes flickering up to her in a moment of clear conscience. Though it squeezed her heart to meet his eyes so steadily when he was looking back at her intently, she didn’t turn away.

 

“I’m thinking . . . that I should apologize to you again.” His voice was soft, quiet, but it carried throughout the room, which seemed to have suddenly gotten very small.

 

She pursed her lips pensively, then took a few steps forward, taking a seat at the edge of her bed. She propped up the crutches on the other side, then turned to look at him, releasing a deep sigh.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

He pushed himself off the ground, perching himself on the edge of the mattress beside her. She tensed minutely as his arm brushed against hers. He was . . . incredibly close.

 

“That day in economics,” he began slowly, taking time to collect his thoughts. He didn’t meet her eyes, staring at something on the ground, a faraway look in them. “When we had our argument . . .”

 

Oh.

 

It was embarrassing to reflect upon—the tears that had burned her eyes, first from frustration and anger, then from humiliation at falling apart so easily at a few spoken words from him.

 

It had shown her that she was vulnerable to him and his actions; his words held weight with her.

 

She grimaced. She knew that he’d probably guess why she’d made her quick escape, but that didn’t mean it was any less mortifying.

 

“What . . .” She hesitated, already knowing his answer. “What about it?”

 

“I made you cry,” he said, meeting her eyes.

 

She looked away immediately, pursing her lips. Her face felt hot, flushed from embarrassment.

 

“Sometimes I cry when I’m frustrated or angry,” she mumbled, fiddling with her fingers in her lap. “It’s not exactly your fault, per se.”

 

“But I was the one who made you feel that way.”

 

She shook her head, still avoiding his eyes. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Chris.”

 

“It matters to me,” he disagreed softly.

 

She jumped when he gently grabbed her hand, stopping her fiddling effectively as he intertwined their fingers. Her heart thundered away in her chest and she was almost afraid it’d break her ribs from the force of it—or worse, he’d hear just how easily he was affecting her.

 

“The fact that it was me,” he paused and there was a note of agony in his voice that made her instinctively look at him, because it was so out of place in his usually calm and subdued voice. She swallowed thickly at the agonized look on his face, his eyes looking down at their entwined hands. “The fact that I was the one who made you feel that way, who caused you to cry—it’s just—it doesn’t . . .”

 

She stared at him, partly wonder and partly empathy, because Chris didn’t stumble over his words. He was cool and composed, always put together in the best way possible. To see him like that made her insides clench painfully. She unconsciously tightened her grip on his hand.

 

She understood.

 

Disregarding their argument, she could recall the feelings she’d held about those kinds of matters. 

 

There was something terrifying about the thought of hurting him in any manner or form, of disappointing him, of hurting him—it made her grimace and squeeze his hand, as though she was trying to alleviate any pain she’d caused him or would cause him.

 

“I get it.”

 

He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

 

She leaned onto him, giving in to the temptation of the comforting warmth he radiated. He returned the weight easily and she sighed, both pleased and relieved that he’d relaxed.

 

“I told you,” she murmured. “It’s fine. You’re not the first of my friends to make me cry, you know. Chiyo and Chihiro have done it plenty.” He still hadn’t looked at her. She cleared her throat. “What brought this on?”

 

A wry smile appeared on his lips. “When you said the last care package your family sent made you cry.”

 

She squeezed his hand. “I’ll be sure not to mention it again.”

 

A flash of teeth. He shook his head, an actual smile playing on his lips. The sight was warming, but as her foot brushed against the edge of the package at their feet, she was reminded of their original intentions.

 

She held onto his hand for a little longer, enjoying the way it encompassed hers, rough calluses brushing against her own unblemished palm. The nerves were still there, but they were a dull roar, thrumming through her veins and in the pulsating of her heart—a reminder, but not overwhelming.

 

She released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, deeming herself ready to (regretfully) let his hand go.

 

“In any case,” she reluctantly released his hand and grabbed one crutch, pushing herself off the bed, “I’m not down to stay in these clothes. Here—” she plucked a pair of scissors from her desk and handed them to him. “Go ahead and open it up while I change.”

 

He nodded and slipped back down to the floor while she went to her dresser, rummaging through it to find a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. She finally pulled out a set, but her hand once again brushed upon a familiar material. She pushed aside the shirts to look at it.

 

Chris’ sweater sat there innocently, clean from the last time she’d worn it (within the safe confines of her room of course).

 

She remembered that day. It felt like an entirely different world.

 

It had been when she and Chiyo had walked to Yamamoto’s after practice to do homework but Amara had ended up walking back alone after Chiyo had to return to campus to finish some unfinished business. Chris had surprised her—as usual—and accompanied her on the walk back.

 

There must’ve been a cold front that had come in, because it’d been decidedly chilly and Chris had picked up on it after she’d shivered from a gust of wind, then gave her his sweater he’d been wearing.

 

She could remember, vividly, the warmth that had lingered in it, and how overwhelming it’d been.

 

She remembered their last few words, after he’d been surprised at how much time had passed while they’d made their trek to Hotei and she said something dumb about time flying by, but he’d taken it seriously.  

 

“Well, I didn’t mind spending it with you.”

 

At the time, it’d made her heart thunder dangerously in her chest, and even now, she could feel her heart speed up, recalling the warmth with which he’d said those words.

 

There was a sudden urge, a strange intention, and she couldn’t stop herself from tugging it out from under the shirts. “Well, take a look at this,” she said, drawing his attention. She held it out to him. “I distinctly remember you giving me this. Unless you’d like it back, of course.”

 

He smiled, amused. “It looked better on you, but maybe I can take it back since you’ve buried it in the bottom of your drawer.”

 

She hadn’t been expecting that response. She laughed, a little embarrassed.

 

Perceptive as always.

 

“It was the middle of the summer when you gave me this,” she defended. “Granted, it’d been a colder day, but July is the hottest month of the year. It wasn’t like I could wear it with my uniform, either. And now,” she dropped it back into the drawer but clung onto the fabric, which was still miraculously soft even after a few turns in the washer. “Well, what would Seido’s student body say about me wearing your sweater?”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

She let out an incredulous laugh and turned to look at him, but before she could even think about saying anything deflective, she stopped short at the look on his face.

 

There was a smile still on his lips, but it was muted; his eyes were serious.

 

She had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t talking about the sweater.

 

Before she could muster a reply, he continued. “The guys switch clothes all the time.”

 

That’s different, she wanted to say. It’s not like I could give you one of my hoodies or something.

 

Of course, Chris took that into consideration. “I suppose you have a point, though. There are assumptions to be thought of and said. Heteronormativity and all that. But I don’t really care. Do you?”

 

She averted her eyes, looking back at the black sweater.

 

There was that feeling again—that inkling that said he wasn’t referring to the sweater anymore or even the implications that came along with wearing it during school. He was talking about something else entirely. A topic that she hadn’t had the pleasure of being informed of yet.

 

It was almost a test, like he was gauging her reaction, and she found that no, she didn’t particularly care. She’d been mostly worried about what he would think and how it would affect him. The last thing she wanted to do was fracture his reputation with the school and well, it was a bit strange to be having one of the players from another school’s sports team wearing that person’s sweater. Evidently, though, he didn’t care.

 

“No,” she finally said. “I don’t care, either.”

 

He looked pleased but before she could really decipher his expression, he’d ducked his head and began cutting through the tape. “Good. And just so you know, that sweater is great to use during the fall and wintertime, and its neutrality works with pretty much anything.”

 

Her face was hot. “Good to know,” she managed to mutter as she folded it again and shoved it messily into the drawer, shutting it with her hip. She picked up the clothes and made a break for the bathroom, barely stopping to lean the crutch against the sink counter than enter the secluded area for the toilet and shower.

 

She shut the door as calmly as she could then turned to lean her forehead on the wall. It was cool underneath her heated skin and she took several deep breaths in an attempt to combat this overwhelming feeling.

 

Once she was sure her face was not in any danger of getting splotchy, she went through the regular challenge of changing her clothes, leaning on the wall in substitute of the crutch.

 

She undid the braid in her hair and tied it up into a loose ponytail, then scooped up the uniform clothes and stepped back out.

 

Chris had opened up the package but hadn’t made a move to get into it; he was on his phone when she exited, but glanced up at her as she washed her hands then grabbed the crutch again and dumped her dirty clothes into her hamper. She felt oddly self-conscious underneath his gaze when she went back over to the package but pushed it down, accepting his helping hand as she heaved herself to the floor beside him.

 

“Is it just food?” She asked as she turned around to pull out a gel ice pack from her nightstand. She cracked the substance then tucked it under her calf, stretching out her leg away from them so it wouldn’t be disturbed, then shifted her other leg underneath her.

 

He pushed open the flaps of the box and peered inside. “Looks like it, but the majority of the space is being taken up by—” he picked up a Styrofoam package peanut “—these.”

 

She snorted and leaned forward to peer into the box. Sure enough, the box was filled with the packing peanuts, various foods buried within it (and probably underneath it).

 

“Probably Lucas’ idea of a good joke since there’s like, thousands of miles between us and he can’t dump water on me in my sleep anymore,” she said, chortling. This was the best thing to a prank that he could get and it was absolutely terrible. She’d be sure to give him hell about it the next time they spoke.

 

“Does he do that often?”

 

“More often than our mother would like,” she grinned.

 

He chuckled and she was pleased to have elicited that reaction. Biting down a grin, she pushed aside the peanuts, finding a large stock of Reese’s Cups. Humming quietly in appreciation, she took it out. They set to work for the next few minutes, pushing aside the packaging peanuts and taking out the various foods and candies that had been stacked in the box.

 

Her inventory was beginning to look promising, especially when they came upon a smaller box pushed into the corner. She wordlessly handed it over to Chris, waiting almost impatiently as he cut through the tape and opened it.

 

Several Toblerone bars laid in there, alongside a few Almond Joy ones.

 

He frowned at her. “Aren’t you allergic to almonds?”

 

She smiled dryly. “Terribly. Those are for my friends, exclusively.” She reached out and picked up a Toblerone bar. “Have you ever had one? Chihiro and Chiyo swear by these ones . . . the chocolate is apparently really good, but I think it’s a Swiss brand, so of course it’s good.”

 

He shook his head. “Can’t say I have. A good majority of what you’ve been sent are things I’ve never tried.”

 

“All the more fun, then.”

 

He set it aside and they continued to empty out the box. An impressive stack of candy laid around them, both American and Mexican. She tilted the box and ran her hand through the peanuts, feeling for anything they might’ve missed. She frowned when her fingers brushed against something pressed up on the side of the box, buried deep underneath the Styrofoam. It felt like envelopes—a thick stack of them. She slipped her fingers between them and the wall of the box then pulled it out.

 

She’d been correct. A reasonable number of envelopes were in her hand.

 

Chris looked at it curiously. “Letters from your family?”

 

She snorted derisively. “Definitely not. It looks like these are my college offers.”

 

That caught his attention. He scooted closer, moving a pile of marzipan peanut candies to his other side so he could settle closer. His arm brushed against hers and she leaned against him, relaxing against the edge of her bed.

 

She pursed her lips, looking at the one at the top.

 

Brown University

 

“That’s pretty impressive,” he murmured, nudging her.

 

She shrugged. “It’s a lot of advertising.”

 

“I’m sure they don’t just send it to just anyone,” he argued softly. “What about the other ones?”

 

She was tempted to tell him that she’d probably never make it into an Ivy League school like that but pushed it down. He was only trying to be optimistic. She couldn’t exactly fault him for it.

 

The food was briefly forgotten as they went through the envelopes. So many names, so many offers. Texas State University, University of Chicago, Boston University, The University of Texas at Austin, Rochester University, Vanderbilt University, St. Mary’s University, The University of Washington and so many more. Yet not a single one for Japan.

 

She tried not to feel disheartened by it.

 

“Even a military academy,” Chris mused as they looked at another one. West Point Academy. “Did you ever have any interest in that?”

 

“Joining the military? Not really. There’s quite a few things about the military and the way the government funds them that I don’t like, but if my parents find out I don’t know what to do for college yet, they’ll probably boot me off to it,” she replied offhandedly, finally exhausting the stack of offers. She tossed it to the side, slouching against the bed.

 

Chris’ eyebrows furrowed. “Just because you don’t know?”

 

She shrugged. “They don’t exactly want me bouncing around majors. College is expensive and while I do qualify for financial aid, it’s still a big expense on them. At least if I joined the military, I’d have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food to eat, that kind of thing.”

 

“But you’d still be at risk for going overseas to those frontlines,” he murmured, frowning, as though the idea of her in that situation was something he didn’t like. “Isn’t that scary?”

 

She hesitated before answering, thinking it over carefully. “Yeah, it kind of is. But like I said, that’s only if I don’t know.”

 

He regarded her carefully. “Do you have a better idea of what you’d like to do?” He asked softly.

 

She laughed hollowly. “Nope.”

 

His face softened. “You’ll figure it out,” he murmured. “It takes time. You could take a gap year here, maybe tell your parents that you need a break, take some community college courses to hold them off. Like we said last time, I’m sure Miss Hamamoto won’t have a problem hosting you for another year, especially since you’ll have time to get a job and pay your part.”

 

There it was yet again.

 

That cruel reminder of graduation and of how she had yet to tell anybody she’d be leaving for Austin the day after graduation.

 

She watched as Chris fiddled with a marzipan, turning it over in his hands, looking at it carefully.

 

She’d have to do it soon. She couldn’t afford to wait any longer; it’d be needlessly cruel to do it right before she left, but at the same time, things were finally getting back on track. The last thing she wanted to do was disrupt the harmony they’d all worked so hard to restore.

 

It could wait. At least until her season was over—until all of their seasons were over.

 

She forced a smile. “Right, well, there’s still time. Now, hey, have you ever had one of these?” She plucked the marzipan out of his fingers and held it up with a smile she hoped was convincing.

 

“I can’t say I have.”

 

This is probably the token Mexican candy. I mean, American, sure,” she waved a dismissive hand at the Reese’s Cups, jelly beans, Twizzler’s, and other candies around them. “But Mexican candy is honest-to-god where it’s at.”

 

He took the marzipan back. “We’ll see,” he conceded, unwrapping the small cookie.

 

“It’s kind of an acquired taste,” she said, but upon the hesitant look on his face before he took a bite, she quickly added, “the other ones, I mean. Marzipan is as simple as it gets. It’s just peanut. Don’t you like peanuts?”

 

“Peanut butter,” he corrected before taking a bite of the marzipan. She observed his reaction; he was incredibly composed, showing no sign of like or dislike.

 

“Well?” She asked, now a little impatient.

 

“It’s not bad,” he said carefully, but she could see through his façade.

 

She chuckled and took the marzipan, finishing off the small cookie. “Honestly, Chris, just say you don’t like it. I was joking earlier.”

 

He gave her a sheepish smile but his cheeks looked suspiciously red. She didn’t comment on it, instead grabbing a bar of Reese’s Cups and tearing it open, offering him one of the cups.

 

“So, tell me about your family,” she began, pulling off the parchment paper on the cup.

 

He shrugged. “Not much to tell. It’s just me and my father. I have grandparents from his side, but they live in the U.S.—in California, so we rarely visit them. Remember, I told you they visited during summer break?” She nodded. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the only time we see them. My mother passed away when I was younger and her side of the family was never fond of my dad, so we don’t exactly keep in contact.”

 

She grimaced. She knew he’d never mentioned his mother and because of that, she hadn’t asked. But now she’d completely forgotten and basically led him to it. Guilt formed in her stomach and she hoped she hadn’t brought up bad memories.

 

“Sorry,” she winced.

 

He shook his head. “No, you’re fine. I don’t exactly have many memories of her, so it’s not too bad. I mean it still,” he paused to take a bite, mulling over his next words. “It stinks, right? I know he misses her. You know, he came to Japan to play baseball but he stayed for her.”

 

She smiled slightly. “That’s . . . sweet. I can’t imagine how difficult it might’ve been to assimilate.”

 

Chris chuckled. “I could argue he still hasn’t but,” he shrugged, a fond smile pulling at his lips. “He has good intentions. And with her absence, he’s always tried to be there for me, to make up for it. He’s done a good job. As far as fathers go, I think I got fairly lucky. I try to be a good son to him as repayment for all he’s done. Don’t know if that’s worked out so well over these past few years, though.”

 

She knew he was referring to his shoulder injury and frowned, nudging his arm slightly. “No one’s perfect. It’s unfortunate it happened but I’m sure your dad knows you didn’t go looking to get injured.”

 

Chris balled up the parchment paper in his hand, a frown replacing the smile that had once been there. “I suppose. But I let that pressure get to me when I should’ve just talked to someone.”

 

“It’s not that easy,” she disagreed softly. “Baring your feelings like that—it’s not. I mean, that takes trust.”

 

He nodded slowly, but something amusing must’ve occurred to him, because he snorted softly.

 

She raised an eyebrow at it, finding the action both amusing and endearing. “What?”

 

He reached up to rub the back of his neck in a shifty movement, still smiling as he shook his head. “Ah, just a thought.”

 

She didn’t let it go so easily. “Which was?”

 

His smile softened. “Just thought that maybe if I’d had you at the time, you probably wouldn’t have let me go as far as I did.”

 

Her heart stuttered in her chest, heat blossoming in her face. The tempo that her heart was going was almost uncomfortable and she looked away, finding herself unable to meet his honest eyes without feeling overwhelmed.

 

“You really think that?” She asked in a mumble, too embarrassed.

 

She felt him chuckle. “You’re persistent where it counts.”

 

That got her attention again. She looked back at him with narrowed eyes. “Are you trying to say something?”

 

His smile was disarming. “It’s good. I’m being serious.”

 

She scoffed and shook her head, but still couldn’t help the exasperated smile tugging at her lips. In an attempt to deflect, she reached for another Reese’s Cups, tearing it open and once again offering him one.

 

The conversation steered towards her as she rehashed information about her family, but with more personal details—their jobs, dislikes, likes, dynamics. In return, he told her about the things he’d do with his dad growing up—going to baseball games, Chris being sneaked into the locker room for his dad’s games, seeing the sights of Japan.

 

They were there for a while, eating their way through the candy and completely ruining their appetites for dinner—though neither of them totally minded.

 

Chris ended up telling her about the bad outcome for Seido’s baseball club, too.

 

“He’s resigning?” She asked, surprised.

 

Chris nodded with a grimace. “Tetsu said he feels the loss at the summer tournament personally. He’s supposed to be resigning after the fall tournament.”

 

She raised an eyebrow. “And what if they end up winning?”

 

“He’ll stay, probably. In any case, Tetsu’s having our retirement match set up this Sunday. He’s hoping to tip-off Miyuki and the rest of the team so they could actually aim for winning a spot at the Spring Invitational.”

 

“You guys gonna be fine to play?” She asked. “The Sports Festival is supposed to be going on for a while tomorrow . . .”

 

He smiled reassuringly. “It’ll be fine. Kataoka’s not doing anything for the festival so we’re free to do whatever we’d like.”

 

“Well, we’ll be there on Sunday. Hey, did you know that he’s supposed to be on the faculty team going against our soccer team tomorrow?”

 

Chris shook his head, chuckling. “I’m sure the team will have a good run for their money, then.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m not even playing but I’m stressed. Nakamura knows the team inside and out. It’s just unfair that they’re having her against us, especially if she’s alongside the other coaches, too . . .” she grumbled. The soccer team was probably smoothing over any last-minute strategy details right about now, too. She didn’t keep up with Nakamura’s announcements—she was too bitter to hang around the soccer field and help the managers—but they’d been released early to do strategizing yesterday, so she assumed that was the case for today as well.

 

Thinking about everything that had gone down yesterday reminded her of things she wanted to mention, so she quickly filled him in on the meeting. He seemed surprised to learn that Hanako—a first year—had been chosen to participate in Amara’s place, rather than Aiko, who had loads more experience.

 

They talked more, dinner coming and going with them staying in her dorm. At one point, they were both a little too full and their sugar high was ending, so Amara shoved the box to the corner of the room and pushed the uneaten candy to another side then sprawled out on the floor.

 

“I’m . . . tired,” she muttered.

 

Chris huffed a soft laugh. “That’s your sugar crash.”

 

“Shut up,” she sighed half-heartedly.

 

She sat up and tugged her pillow off the bed, tossing it to him, then scooted closer to Asano’s bed to grab hers. She shifted down to the floor, tucking the pillow underneath her head. Chris watched with a raised eyebrow, still holding onto her pillow.

 

“What?” She groused. “She won’t mind since it’s me using her pillow, plus I’ll change out the pillowcase after.”

 

“And your own?” He asked, holding up hers.

 

Amara shrugged. “It’s you. And I’ll also change out that pillowcase.”

 

He smiled and did the same, so they were facing each other. They weren’t close, by any means, since there was probably about two feet of space between them, but it was still an intimate position.

 

She idly wondered what Asano would think if she walked in on this.

 

She’d probably be embarrassed and leave immediately, finding someone else to dorm with for the night. I wonder if she’s even coming back for tonight . . . I think it’s getting late . . .  

 

“What are you thinking?” Chris asked softly, echoing her question from when they’d first gotten to her dorm.

 

She looked at him, his eyes a warm hazel even under the shitty lighting of her dorm. She smiled slightly. “That Asano would be incredibly embarrassed if she walked in on this. But I’m pretty sure she’s spending the night with someone else since it’s probably getting late.”

 

He hummed in acknowledgment, then frowned.

 

“What?”

 

“You’re far away.”

 

Her heart skipped a traitorous beat in her chest and she chuckled, stretching out her arm to him to measure the distance. Her hand was several inches away from his chest, making her raise an eyebrow. “Really?”

 

He grasped her wrist and gently tugged forward. She swallowed back her nerves and edged forward until her hand was pressed against his chest; she could feel his warmth even though his shirt and his heart was beating rapidly underneath her palm.

 

Her breath caught in her throat. “Your heart is going . . . really fast,” she chuckled a little breathlessly.

 

He hummed again, looking like her words hadn’t registered, and reached out to tuck a stray curl behind her ear. Her breathing seemed to stop completely as he lingered there for a second then pulled back, but not before brushing his hand against her jaw. He ended up tugging her hand off his chest and intertwining their fingers again.

 

“Thank you.” His admission was quiet, but it carried in the silence of the dorm.

 

“For what?” She whispered.

 

“For giving me another chance.” He readjusted their hands to stroke his thumb over the back of her palm. “For trusting me again.”

 

“That’s a given,” she mumbled, unable to tear her eyes away from his. “Thanks for being so patient with me.”

 

He smiled slightly at that. “That’s a given,” he echoed her.

 

She released a quiet breath, finding that despite the hard floor beneath her, she could probably fall asleep like this.

 

Chris seemed to notice, because his smile only grew, softening immeasurably. “Sleepy?” He teased softly.

 

She gave him a half-hearted glare. “Shut up. What, are you gonna leave me here when you go back to your dorm? To catch a cold and wake up all achey?”

 

“I would never,” he shook his head, still smiling softly.

 

And when she actually did end up dozing off, still a foot away from him, but with her hand tucked in his, she had vague memories of him releasing her hand then shuffling around the dorm, and when he stopped that, she distinctly remembered the feeling of his arm going under her shoulders, then her legs, and she was lifted suddenly, leaving the cold, hard floor. She remembered the warmth that he radiated and that she naturally curled into, taking one second to press closer to him before she was set down on the bed; she remembered the bedsheet being pulled up to her shoulders as she curled up on her side, drifting back into the darkness, and it was surely in her dreamland where she thought she’d felt a pair of warm lips brush over her forehead.  

Chapter Text

26. the sports festival

 

Even after brushing her teeth twice, she still felt a bit worried about the chances of cavities.

 

However, time wasn’t on her side; she usually slept in on weekends but since Saturday was the day of the Sports Festival—after several weeks of fanfare and anticipation—she’d planned to get up at seven-thirty.

 

It was currently eight-thirty.

 

The game of Hotei’s soccer team versus the faculty was starting at eight-forty-five and she had little time to dry off and change but she had to make do.

 

She tossed her toothbrush back into the toiletry bag and redid her ponytail, though she was unable to smooth the little hairs that popped back out of place. As she changed into a pair of jean shorts and a blue t-shirt, she glanced at her bed, where her pillow lay innocently at the head of it.

 

The only difference was that the black pillowcase it’d been tucked in was now lying on the back of her desk chair and the current pillowcase was a soft brown, still smelling like her detergent from the wash she’d done a week ago.

 

Asano’s pillow was in a similar state, the old pillowcase lying on the desk as well, and Chris’ thoughtfulness had briefly dumbfounded her when she’d woken up and realized what he’d done.

 

Because on top of changing out the pillowcases—which did involve having to search the room, but their linen drawer wasn’t too difficult to find—he’d taken out the box that they’d begun using as a trashcan for their candy wrappers. And the candy itself was moved from the floor to her desk, stacked and organized neatly by brand.

 

(Like the icing on the cake, he’d even moved her to her own bed, and while she knew he wasn’t scrawny by any means, she couldn’t imagine it was easy to do.)

 

She didn’t know what exact time she’d fallen asleep—so by default, the time he’d probably left to his own dorm around—but she hoped it wasn’t too late.

 

A child’s peal of laughter from outside brought her out of her thoughts and she shook them off. Whatever. She was nervous about seeing him again but she also really needed to leave.

 

She stuffed her phone into her backpocket along with her wallet and dorm key. She doubted they’d be accepting credit card but it couldn’t hurt to hope.

 

She grabbed both the crutches then slipped on her shoes from the entryway. 

 

When she exited, she was bombarded with an array of senses. Absently locking the door, she looked out to the athletic area. The were rows of tents, all varying in size and color. The Commons had more tables and chairs set up, all of them with umbrellas to protect against the harsh sun.

 

It wasn’t the decoration or festivity, though. It was the sheer amount of people walking around.

 

The Commons, while they had set up more chairs and tables, still had plenty of families and people sitting on the grass on blankets, or under the trees. She could see the stands of the soccer field were filled to the brim and the temporary bleachers had even been taken out, so there were seats on all four sides in contrast to one. Outside of the tents—which extended all the way toward the tennis courts—there was still area left around the baseball fields, which wasn’t as busy.

 

She was still overwhelmed by it all when she made it down to the ground level. It proved to be a task to go down the row of tents as she didn’t want to accidentally hurt anybody, and by the time she made it to the field, both teams were out already, warming up.

 

She stood near the side of the metal bleachers—the only permanent ones—unsure of where to go exactly.

 

She hesitantly moved forward, glancing at the people seated to see if she could spot a familiar face. It was when she got nearer to the front rows that she heard her name called out.

 

A glance to the side showed Jun up against the fence lining the side of the bleachers, on the third row from the bottom.

 

Well, good morning to you,” Chihiro said as she went around, finding a spot for her on the first row up against the fence with Chris on her left. Chihiro and Chiyo were beside him, while Tetsu, Jun, Ryosuke, Tanba, Kusunoki, Masuko occupied the second and third row. Beside them were the second and first years—Miyuki, Kuramochi, Eijun (who beamed at her happily), Haruichi and Furuya. Most of them had on caps and she grimaced as she realized she’d completely forgotten to bring her own.

 

Amara ignored Chihiro’s tone as she took a seat, muttering a soft ‘thanks’ to Chris when he helped her tuck the crutches onto the grass under her seat. She was careful not to let her bare skin touch the hot metal.

 

“Miss Amara!” The urgent voice startled her and she turned in time to see Hanako making a beeline for her.

 

Amara took in the sight of her; she was dressed in the regular Hotei soccer jersey—black shorts and the jersey, Hotei written out in Japanese in red and white lettering. She imagined the white number nine on the back as well.

 

It was a number she should’ve been wearing.

 

But now wasn’t the time for her regret and she could only give Hanako a worried look. “Wh—”

 

“I can’t do it,” Hanako interrupted in a rare display.

 

“Do—?” Amara trailed off hesitantly, still unsure.

 

“Take your place. Wear your number. I can’t do it. I can’t handle it.”

 

“But on Thursday you said—”

 

I know, but I’m not ready. Coach Nakamura was wrong.”

 

Amara frowned at her, wondering if Hikari had possibly scared her off. Or even the rest of the team. They wouldn’t hold back, what with Hanako being a first year and all. She couldn’t exactly talk back to them or anything.

 

“Did something happen?”

 

She was aware of the group watching the interaction unabashedly but it looked like Hanako didn’t care.

 

Hanako shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I just—you asked me if I could handle the pressure of the position on Thursday. And the answer is no. I can’t do this.”

 

Amara spared a glance around her, seeing warmups being wrapped up. “Right. Well. I don’t think backing out is an option for you now. Listen. There’s a difference between being able to play this position and worrying about the expectations. Trust me, kid, you can play. Your worries aren’t unfounded, either, but there’s not much of an option in the matter. You said you wanted to take my position. You got it.”

 

“Not like this.” Hanako’s eyes flickered to her leg for the briefest second and Amara understood.

 

“It’s temporary,” Amara assured her. “Seriously. I’ll be better in a few weeks. Right now, you just need to cover for me in the best way that you can. Everyone else on that team worries just like you do but they can do it. And so can you.”

 

There were still hints of fear and uncertainty in her eyes but it looked like Amara’s words were registering as she slowly nodded.

 

Amara glanced around her again, seeing that the teams were officially wrapping up the warmup.

 

“You need to get out there,” she told the younger girl, giving her an encouraging look.

 

“Please give me some advice,” Hanako requested just as she finished speaking.

 

Amara gave her a look. “After all that I just said?”

 

“Technical advice.”

 

Amara rolled her eyes. “Fine. You’re the fastest one out on that field right now. If you can get possession of the ball and get past their defenders, don’t hesitate to take the shot.”

 

“Even if I’m not—”

 

Amara noticed Fuyumi glancing in their direction and cut Hanako off quickly. “It’s our job to be able to defend and be offensive if needed. Don’t play with the expectation that there’s always going to a forward or a striker willing to take the ball from you and make the goal themselves.”

 

“Play with confidence,” Jun added gruffly, catching Hanako’s attention and making Amara turn around to look at him. “Trust your team but also trust yourself.”

 

“He’s right. Now, seriously, kid, get out there before someone gets mad at you.” Amara ushered her off, seeing the teams taking sides of the field.

 

Hanako nodded and gave a deep, polite bow then left, jogging off to the students’ side—which was nearest to their side of the bleachers.

 

“You really think the team will even consider passing the ball to her?” Chihiro asked, sounding incredulous at the thought. Her voice was loud in order to carry over the other people around here, some cheering, some talking loudly as well, creating an endless circle.

 

Amara smiled grimly, glimpsing the 9 on Hanako’s back as she took a position parallel to Hikari, in front of the defenders. “Probably not but they’re not going to break their backs trying to keep it away from her. Fact of the matter is that if she can steal the ball and she does so and an opportunity presents itself, she’s going to have to take it.”

 

“Why wouldn’t they give her the ball?” Chris asked, making her look at him. His eyebrows were furrowed and she bit back a grimace. Of course. Perceptive as always.

 

But the confusion on his face—and the rest of the boys’ faces—made her belatedly realize that they didn’t know about her tense relationship with the team.

 

Before she could even think of making up a lie, Chiyo quickly spoke. “They’re not exactly receptive to replacements within the starting lineup.”

 

Jun made a noise of protest but Amara hurried on, resisting the urge to toss Chiyo an annoyed look. “Hanako is young and inexperienced. Admittedly, this is an ideal match to test her out on but the team has too much pride to lose this match.”

 

Somehow, she made the team sound even worse.

 

(Ironically, it was even closer to the truth than before, too.)

 

She wasn’t sure why she didn’t want them to know about her relationship with the team. It wasn’t like she was defending them but she knew how the boys were. How protective they could be. They needed to understand, though, that these dynamics weren’t going to change and it wasn’t worth the trouble to talk to any of the adults. It’d bring more resentment, if anything, and they needed to be in their best mindset that they could if they even wanted a chance at advancing in the tournament.

 

“Not only that,” she hastened to continue. “But this’ll probably be the last match where they use the 5-2-2-1 formation.”

 

The distraction worked for the most part but she could feel Chris’ eyes on her. Luckily, Tetsu swooped in to unknowingly save her. “What’s that?”

 

“A defensive formation,” she said, watching as Nakamura and Fuyumi stepped into the middle circle with the ref and began the usual traditions of doing the coin toss and shaking hands. “Five defenders, two midfielders, two forwards, and one striker. Midfielders typically switch between offense and defense and with this formation, there’s a partiality to defense.

 

“But we’ve been relying on it for too long. Our opponents are learning how we operate, so we—or Nakamura, I guess—need to administer another formation. But that requires a lot of . . . rewiring, I guess you could call it. Still, we have to do it if we want any shot at advancing to the finals and hopefully, further.”

 

“Wait,” Miyuki said, “so you guys haven’t done any other type of formations? At all?”

 

“Well, no. We switch it up. But 5-2-2-1 is the one we fall back onto the most. Like I said, it requires some reworking—”

 

She was interrupted by the shrill blow of the whistle as the ball was tossed to the students’ side. Well, at least we know who won the coin toss.

 

She didn’t bother continuing, leaning forward to brace her elbows on her knees. The cheers around them were loud and intense, most of the people wanting the students to win. Daidojin, one of the two current forwards—Fuyumi being the other—had possession and was unsuccessfully trying to break past what looked like the left midfielder. She passed the ball to Fuyumi and more cheers erupted.

 

The first twenty minutes passed quickly. Both sides were scoreless and there’d been no fouls yet. She doubted the team would even try anything underhanded. 

 

It seemed, though, that the student team was having difficulty penetrating the faculty’s defense. It was probably to be expected, though, as Kataoka was acting as one of the main defending midfielders alongside Coaches Enomoto and Hattori (for the tennis and volleyball clubs, respectively) as the center midfielders.

 

The volume of the crowed vaulted as one of the teachers—Makoto?—acting as the forward stole the ball from Fuyumi. Amara tensed, watching as they began making their way to the students’ goal and closer to their area of the bleachers.

 

The ball was passed to Nakamura and Amara’s clenched her hands nervously as Nakamura made the shot.

 

A few people groaned as the ball bounced off the goalpost but most of them cheered. She breathed a sigh of relief as the goalkeeper—a second year by the name of Gima, who had dived for the ball just in case it made it into the net—picked up the ball and threw it perfectly towards Hikari, putting the game back into action yet again.

 

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Chiyo began, her voice loud as she leaned behind Chris to talk to Amara. “But Nakamura’s really upping the defense on her side, isn’t she?”

 

Amara had had her suspicions; the defense was airtight. She counted the defenders, finding four there, then the midfielders. Five that time around. “You’re right,” she replied, her voice just as loud. She cleared her throat to raise the volume of her voice when she saw Chihiro leaning in, too. “I could be wrong but I think she’s using a 4-5-1 formation.”

 

“And for those of us who don’t know shit about soccer?” Jun asked, his naturally loud voice carrying. He ignored the looks that the other third year boys were throwing at him, probably for his cursing.

 

Amara snorted. “It’s a highly defensive formation. It’s usually used for like, big-name teams who have a reputation for winning. Powerhouse schools. Some people call it boring because it’s so defensive. Four defenders, five midfielders and only one forward. Damn near impossible to get through on the best of days and on the worst of them? You won’t even get in the penalty box.”

 

“Is there a particular reason she’s administering this? Is she confident in their ability to score and still defend? Or is this a test?” Chris asked, leaning closer so she could hear him, his shoulder brushing against hers.

 

“Like I said, we’re pretty defensive, but once someone gets past us, we tend to fall apart. And the sturdier the defense, the harder you need to work. So I guess it’s kind of like a test.”

 

“That’s one way to make them learn,” Chiyo snorted.

 

Conversation fell off as they all immersed themselves back into the game. Amara could tell it was interesting the boys a lot more than they thought it would, but she could tell they also found some things about it that was off-putting, like the fact that someone was frequently tripping over their own feet and rolling to the ground but the game would continue, or that some of the players, when they had possession, didn’t hesitate to push back with their arm on an opponent who was getting too close to the ball.

 

In any case, the ten minute break came, marking the end of the first half, which lasted a solid forty minutes. Both sides had yet to score. They took their water breaks and Amara sought out Hanako, finding her drinking some of the water offered greedily. Both teams were sweaty messes, the heat of the sun adding to the physical exertion of running around for forty minutes straight.

 

Before the second half started, the goals were switched, so the one nearest to their spot on the bleachers was now the faculty, while the one opposite was now the students.

 

“Wait, wait, what’s that even for? What’s the point?” Jun asked, sounding as though the move had personally affronted him.

 

Amara shrugged halfheartedly, not bothering to turn around. “Something about uphill and downhill running to make it equal. I don’t know. I’ve never bothered to figure it out. We just do it.”

 

The game started before they could say anything else and she could immediately tell that something had changed—the formation for the faculty team was different. She narrowed her eyes, watching as Enomoto took possession of the ball.

 

“She changed the formation, didn’t she?” Miyuki asked, drawing their attention. His eyes stayed on Amara, though.

 

She nodded slowly, glancing back at the game. “Yeah. The defense has decreased substantially, so I could only assume she’s really going to get to business, but I don’t know which formation this is. There’s too many of them moving for me to recognize it.”

 

“Really?” A dry voice got their attention and she leaned back to see Chinen and Katsumi sitting on the second row beside the second years. It was Chinen who had spoken and made eye contact with Amara. “3-4-2-1.”

 

Amara looked back and scrutinized the faculty side.

 

Huh. She was right.

 

“Yeah,” she nodded carefully. “You’re right.”

 

“You feel the need to verify?”

 

Ryoko,” Katsumi hissed, reproachful, but Amara chuckled wryly.

 

“I’m just trying to see what you see, Chinen. And I do.”

 

Chinen snorted.

 

“Explain, please!” Jun, again.

 

Not that she blamed him. There’d been many times when she’d sat through their games wishing someone would explain what the hell was going on.

 

Chinen took the honor, though. “It’s an offensive formation, designed to put immense pressure on a team. More specifically, its midfielders. Three defenders, four midfielders, two forwards, and one striker. From what I see, though, it’s not quite a textbook example of 3-4-2-1. Coach Nakamura has two of the four midfielders helping the forwards and striker and the other two helping the defenders. Typically, it’s just the three defenders on the back but she’s added the midfielders to help. It’s a surprisingly strategic move.”

 

“Surprisingly?” Amara asked with a raised eyebrow.

 

Chinen shrugged. “Nakamura’s the only one with any serious experience in soccer. She was asking for some pretty advanced plays and formations from the rest of the faculty.”

 

“You’re proficient in your soccer knowledge,” Chiyo noted. “Is it just a hobby?”

 

Chinen let out a short laugh. “I didn’t want to spend my high school career chasing after a spot I’d never get. The starting lineup is airtight.”

 

It wasn’t a dig at Amara—or at anyone else who had spent their high school career trying to get noticed. It was merely her own preference and Amara certainly understood. There were definitely times when she questioned her own motivation and drive, wondering if it was truly worth it.

 

“That’s fair,” she agreed. “Though, Nakamura’s going to have her hands full trying to form a new lineup when we retire.”

 

“I’d imagine. Most of the third years occupy those spots,” Chinen nodded.

 

They lapsed into silence as a loud cheer from the crowd regained their attention. For most of the second half, still no one had scored, and Amara wondered if this would be a tied game.

 

However, things quickly turned around in the seventy-fifth minute of the game.

 

The faculty had possession and they’d already entered the penalty box, but the defenders were giving quite a fight. She saw one of the defenders finally steal the ball with a clean slide tackle and the ball went straight to Hanako.

 

Amara could only lock every single muscle in her body as she watched Hanako take possession and turn tail and run.

 

The crowd’s cheers were almost deafening as she made her way down the field. Only two defenders stood in the penalty box then with the goalkeeper stalking up and down the goal.

 

“Is she gonna—” Jun’s question was lost on her ears as Hanako squeezed past the defenders and shot the ball with her left foot. It grazed the goalkeeper’s hands but the ball soared into the top left of the net, spinning in place then falling to the ground.

 

Amara let out an incredulous laugh as one of the other refs held up the score, the numbers now 0-1.

 

The team didn’t hesitate to celebrate, running across the field to ruffle her hair and slap her on the back.

 

“This isn’t good for my heart!” Jun groused, but when she turned to look at him, he looked exhilarated.

 

She could certainly share his sentiments.

 

A nudge to her arm made her look back to the side and Chris leaned closer again, the bill of his cap brushing against the side of her hair as he spoke. “Looks like your words resonated with her.”

 

She laughed, shaking her head. “She’s always surprising me.”

 

“I know what you mean.” He was probably referring to Eijun. She gave him a grin in response.

 

She watched the team celebrate. “Game’s probably done by now, just a few more minutes.”

 

“So quickly? They just scored, though,” Tanba pointed out.

 

“Points aren’t so easily taken in soccer as they are in baseball,” Chinen said, indifferent.

 

Katsumi shot Amara an apologetic look but she brushed it off with a small smile, taking over the explanation.

 

“Usually, it’s . . . incredibly difficult to score goals as you, the player, quite literally have an entire team physically trying to stop you. I mean look at how long it took for someone to score here. It’s unlikely that someone will manage to score in these last few minutes of the game.”

 

She ended up being right. At the eightieth minute of the game, the referee blew the whistle, signaling the end of the game. The crowd went into deafening cheers as both teams lined up and bowed.

 

They stayed there while the bleachers vacated, everyone heading off to find other attractions. Amara didn’t get a chance to see or speak to Hanako as she was dragged off somewhere with the rest of the team.

 

“I heard the baseball club set up batting cages,” Chiyo said, turning to face the group.

 

Confusion passed over the first stringers’ faces briefly and Chiyo snorted. “Our baseball club.”

 

“Right. Speaking of, what’s been going on with them?” Miyuki asked, turning to Chiyo and Chihiro.

 

“How are we supposed to know?” Chihiro huffed. “It’s not our sport.”

 

“You’re so rude.”

 

“Oh, you are so not one to talk.”

 

Amara bent down to untuck the crutches, pushing herself off the bleachers. “That was fun but I haven’t had anything to drink or for breakfast at all, so I’m gonna go find something.”

 

“The stands will be busy,” Tetsu pointed out.

 

“I’m hungry and thirsty, Tetsu, I’ll do whatever it takes to get something.”

 

“May I come as well?”  

 

She turned her eyes to Chris, heart skipping a beat. She nodded, though. “Sure.”

 

They left before anybody could think of requesting for a drink or snack. It wasn’t like Amara could carry any of it, in any case. She was glad Chris was coming—for purely practical reasons that he could hold whatever she ended up getting.

 

“How’d you sleep?” He asked, a note of teasing in his voice, as they made their way back down the row of tents slowly.

 

She gave him a half-hearted glare. “Fine, thanks.”

 

He chuckled. “Good. Sorry about having to go through your stuff for the pillowcases, though.”

 

Her eyes roamed the various tents, all of the concession ones having long lines. She sighed internally and picked a random one, taking a place behind a family. “I’m more mad about you letting me go to sleep without brushing my teeth.”

 

She glanced at him to make sure he received it as a joke and she was pleased to see a smile spread on his lips.

 

“I didn’t want to wake you up.”

 

“Sure, but if I get any cavities the next time I go to the dentist—”

 

His smile was warm and teasing. “You can send me the bill, no worries.”

 

She rolled her eyes and ignored the fact-paced thrum of her heart.

 

She glanced to the side when she heard loud laughter and saw a few kids running around the Commons, chasing after each other. Her eyes unconsciously went to the tree where she and Kusunoki had spoken, and where she and Chris had met after that, though they’d been interrupted by Hikari.

 

Thinking of Kusunoki, he seemed rather withdrawn since their talk. She hoped she hadn’t hurt his feelings but he did need to see that what he’d done had been presumptuous and definitely not something she was going to let fly. She wasn’t going to bother Chris about it; as long as things were relatively fine in their group, she’d let Kusunoki distance himself.

 

But thinking of their brief meeting by the tree, she remembered that Chris must’ve needed to speak with her about something. She wondered if he’d said all that he’d needed yesterday.

 

She leaned her weight onto the crutches (something she wasn’t necessarily supposed to do but she still wasn’t favoring her good leg over the bad one, so it was fine). The sun was high in the sky already, beating down upon them relentlessly.

 

“How long do you think you’ll be on the crutches?” He asked, his voice a bit softer, but because he was so close, she was able to hear him well. They shuffled forward in the line.

 

She shrugged. “Not too sure. We’ll have to see what the doctor says.” She suppressed a wince when she recalled the next appointment and made a quick decision to tell him now. “Also, regarding that, I was told that my next appointment is actually next Friday right after school, so I’m going to be partially missing your birthday. Hopefully it won’t take too long.”

 

He shook his head, his eyes understanding. “It’s not a problem. Your health goes first.”

 

She turned her head at the earnest admission, huffing a bit to cover for the prickling heat in her face. “Yeah, but come on, it’s your birthday. I’ll drop off the present maybe before school? Something like that.”

 

She still needed to pick up the books and go over the events of yesterday to find which candies he’d liked the most. It had dawned on her, though, that he was probably well off enough financially to buy from the foreign exports that came into Japan. Still, hers was free and of little charge compared to Japan.

 

His prolonged silence made her look at him, a little confused. She was surprised to see a bashful expression on his face, though a smile lingered on his lips.

 

“You didn’t have to get me anything.”

 

“Didn’t have to, sure, but I wanted to,” she countered, giving him a look.

 

He shook his head, almost fond. It made her chest squeeze.

 

She continued. “It doesn’t matter. It’s happening whether you like it or not. I was also wondering—I know this is kind of late—but what was that thing you wanted to speak with me about on Thursday? When I was talking to Kusunoki but then after when it was you and me, we kept getting interrupted. It wasn’t intentional on Hikari’s part, though,” she added the last part in a mutter.

 

He looked thoughtful as they moved forward in line again. “Yes, Tetsu, Jun and Kusunoki’s scheme . . .” She blinked, surprised that he’d noticed but also not really. They weren’t being subtle, per se, and Chris was already innately perceptive, so of course, he’d notice. She did wonder, though, why he let it happen so easily. Before she could even think of asking, he continued: “Ah, well, I was going to ask if you’d like to have a study date sometime soon. Maybe next week Saturday?”

 

She was a little stunned by his casual use of date, but pushed it off. Those were definitely things that she’d do with Chihiro and Chiyo before and more recently, with the other third years. It wasn’t all that weird.

 

But why date?

 

“It’s fine if not, but there was a test in economics coming up . . .”

 

And Chris, always so understanding and compassionate and never willing to pressure anyone into a decision they didn’t want to make, but this time was different. Maybe her ears betrayed her, because he sounded hopeful. Like he knew he wasn’t asking her of much and wanted her to come along.

 

“No, yeah, yeah,” she quickly said, relieved that her voice was steady, if not a bit pitchy. “I’m down. Next Saturday is good.” She realized she was rambling and grimaced, adding on, “Where at, though?” If only to combat the sudden nerves that had encompassed her.

 

“My father told me about this little café downtown. It’s supposed to be fairly quiet, so it’s a good place of study. I can cover the bus and train fee.”

 

She was dumbfounded enough by this entire situation that she realized, a few seconds after he’d said it, he had been considerate enough to do that. Cover the bus fees, because she probably shouldn’t be walking too much. Warmth spread through her chest.

 

“No, no, that’s fine. I can cover my own, don’t worry,” she said, shaking her head. Once again realizing how thoughtful he’d been, added on a smaller, “Thank you, though.”

 

His smile softened. “Of course.”

 

The line began moving up at a steadier pace and eventually, they made it up to the counter. She asked for a bottle of water and scanned the foods offered. None of the menu items were exactly healthy or even substantial for breakfast but she shrugged it off; she’d already indulged yesterday. She could afford another day. She asked for one of the taiyaki, with chocolate instead of red bean paste.

 

She blinked when Chris leaned in and asked for another bottle of water, then realized what he was doing when he dropped a few coins onto the counter.

 

Chris,” she groaned. “Really?”

 

“I want to.”

 

She glared, but there was no heat. “You’re insufferable. I will pay you back.”

 

He chuckled, amused by her ire. “I’d like to see you try.”

 

She huffed as he accepted their order and they moved out of the line, to the side. They paused as she shifted her weight to one crutch and took the taiyaki from him, taking a bite.

 

He uncapped his water and took a few drinks, watching the other people walk through the tents absently.

 

She hesitated, thinking over her next words. She was sort of bothered that he’d known about Tetsu, Jun and Kusunoki’s plan and hadn’t said anything.

 

Not bothered that he hadn’t stepped in on her behalf—only a little, but it wasn’t the point—but more bothered that he hadn’t stopped them, knowing full well that he’d already apologized and she’d accepted it.

 

“What are you thinking so hard about?” His amused voice brought her out of her musings and she glanced up, finding him watching her with an odd warmth in his eyes. A slight smile pulled at his lips.

 

“I’m just wondering,” she paused, eyebrows furrowing. “If you knew what Tetsu, Jun and Kusunoki were doing . . . why didn’t you say anything on your behalf?”

 

The smile faded a bit and she cursed herself for bringing it up, disliking the solemn, serious look he had on his face now.

 

He thought it over for a minute and she ate the taiyaki out of nervousness, partially wishing for the earth to swallow her whole.

 

“I let them do it because I thought that I . . . deserved it. It was a punishment in and within itself for me, to not see you. I thought I still . . . deserved something like that, even after you’d accepted my apology,” he finally said, his voice soft, for her ears only.

 

She held his gaze, a part of her aching at the thought of him imposing his own punishment because he thought he deserved it.

 

“You honestly believed that?” She asked, part incredulous, part hurt on his behalf.

 

He watched her carefully. “You don’t like what they did,” he stated matter-of-factly, effectively avoiding her question.

 

She shot him a look. “They presumed too much,” she said, playing into his deflection for a minute. “They took matters into their own hands needlessly. And you know . . .” She trailed off, momentarily unsure, but his curious eyes egged her on. “I’ve already forgiven you. I know . . . I said you’d have to work for it but that wasn’t true? I’m not one to dwell on what happened and for what it was worth, you’ve honestly been trying. So, I won’t hear that from you.”

 

“When?”

 

“Huh?” She met his gaze and her breath caught at the intensity of it, her heart picking up its pace once again.

 

“When did you forgive me?” He clarified, still holding her gaze.

 

She couldn’t bring herself to look away, words spilling from her lips before she could filter them. “It just happened. It wasn’t entirely conscious, I guess, but I . . .” She had to look away, then, unable to look into his eyes and wonder what emotion she was seeing, because it wasn’t one she was familiar with, but it wasn’t . . . scary. It made her feel warm.

 

She cleared her throat, trying to steel her nerves. “I missed you. I didn’t want—I didn’t want to spend more time away from you. These past few weeks were more than I would’ve liked.”

 

It’d made her realize how much he meant to her and how vital his presence was. Even thinking about somehow losing that—permanently—made her throat threaten to close up.

 

“Funny.” His voice was tender. “I feel the same way.”

 

She stared at the tent next to them, popping the rest of the taiyaki into her mouth. Her face felt uncomfortably hot, pulse thrumming at an unhealthy rate.

 

This . . . is not normal.

 

Before she could begin psychoanalyzing her own feelings to find out just what was going on (though a part of her knew exactly what was happening), Chris handed her the water bottle and asked, “Ready to go now?”

 

She cleared her throat, trying to will her face to cool down. “Yeah, I’m good.”

 

They made their way back to the soccer field, a companionable silence between them. She frowned when she realized the bleachers were empty.

 

“There they are,” Chris said, looking at something to the side, nearer to the baseball fields. Sure enough, she could see their group making their way over there, presumably to the batting cages.

 

They followed at a slower pace but eventually caught up with them.

 

“The batting cages?” Amara asked as the group slowed to match her pace.

 

“They’re also doing a dunk tank,” Chiyo added.

 

“Dumb and dumber went off to see if they can get a turn being dunked,” Ryosuke said with his usual light-heartedness.

 

She raised an eyebrow, glancing at the group again and realizing Kuramochi and Eijun were absent. She snickered.

 

“They said they’d text us if they got their turn so we could go and see,” Tetsu nodded. “Until then, the batting cages aren’t looking too busy.”

 

She squinted, looking ahead at Field A, where a few batting cages had been set up inside the field. There was a smattering of people on the other side of the fence, watching the ones currently inside. Everyone must’ve been preoccupied with the other tents in the main area.

 

When they reached the fence, a girl was waiting, dressed in the baseball uniform with a cap tucked over her hair. Amara recognized her as a third year but her name fell short in her mind.

 

“You guys coming in?” She called, crossing her arms over her chest. She stood in a self-assured, confident manner, back straight and chin raised.

 

“Hello to you, too, Akiyama,” Chiyo greeted dryly.

 

Right. Kahoru . . . Akiyama? Amara was pretty sure she was one of the catchers but she couldn’t be sure. She didn’t exactly keep up with Hotei’s baseball club.

 

All she knew was that they were training hard in preparation for the summer tournament next year. Of course, third years like Akiyama would be graduating, but many of the girls still wanted the chance to play on a team for however long they could.

 

“Seriously. Who’s coming up?” Her eyes flickered to Amara at that. Whether it was intentional or not, she didn’t know.

 

“Probably not a good idea,” Amara muttered, shifting on her feet.

 

Akiyama’s eyes flickered to her leg then back up to her face. “Probably not. Im? Akamine?”

 

Chihiro made a noncommittal noise and Chiyo snorted softly. “Why are you asking us instead of the actual baseball players?”

 

A cold look passed over Akiyama’s face. “Because they have their own batting cages over at Field B. Come on, girls, we’re burning daylight.”

 

She turned around and went to the entrance to the field, Chiyo and Chihiro following reluctantly after being egged on by the boys.

 

The group migrated over to where the cages were, faced right in front of the third base line, but she and Chris stepped closer to the fence where a bench was, both of them satisfied to stay there and watch.  

 

“Hostile,” Amara murmured, watching as Akiyama helped set them up.

 

Chris made a noise of agreement. “They do have a point for it, though. No one took the idea too seriously originally.”

 

She turned to look at him, confused, but winced at the sun in her eyes. She wished she’d taken a cap, or even made the stop by her dorm before they came back around. Chris noticed and reached up to take off his own cap.

 

She blanched. “Wh—don’t do that. It’s fine—”

 

“I haven’t sweat much, I promise,” he teased with a smile. She noticed that his hair was down again; he ran his fingers through his fringe, unsticking it from his skin. He dropped the hat onto her head abruptly and she startled.

 

“You’re so annoying,” she groused, shifting her weight to one crutch to lift a hand and fix the cap.

 

“I got it,” he said, ignoring her complaint and setting his water bottle down onto the bench before coming around behind her.

 

She tensed, heart picking up as he settled the cap over her hair. His fingers skimmed the nape of her neck as he slipped the ponytail through the hole and tightened the strap of the cap. She relaxed minutely as he stopped, but her relief was short-lived, as he came around to stand in front of her.

 

“So, what? Because there’s girls on the team?” She asked as a distraction—mostly for herself—as he reached out to straighten the bill of the cap.

 

“An opponent is an opponent, regardless of their gender,” he murmured.

 

She raised a doubtful eyebrow. “Yeah, that’s what you think but is that what the team thinks?”

 

He smiled slightly, reaching out to tuck a stray curl behind her ear. “They were wary, initially, but most of the first string know not to take them as jokes. Or so that’s what Miyuki says.”

 

Her heart raced as his fingers skimmed along the side of her neck before his hand dropped back to his side. “And who knows how reliable he is?” She said dryly, though she sounded a bit breathless.

 

He chuckled. “In any case, they’re going to face heavy scrutiny—” he hadn’t thought of taking a step back, leaving himself permanently in her space, but she found she didn’t truly mind “—an all-girl team is fine, just as an all-boy team is fine. But this is co-ed. Progressive, even for today’s age.”

 

“Here, maybe,” she argued, having to tilt her head to look at him. “There’s plenty of co-ed teams in the States.”

 

“That’s true,” he agreed. “But America and Japan are two very different countries.”

 

“Also true,” she muttered, then turned to the batting cages as a sharp clang rang out, the sound of a bat connecting with a ball. Chris turned as well and they watched as a ball landed in the infield and rolled to first base.

 

“You’re better than I expected!” She heard Miyuki jeer. To Chihiro, presumably, since Chiyo wouldn’t ever allow that sort of cheek from any of her underclassmen.

 

Amara was proven right as she heard Chihiro snap a waspish, “Zip it!

 

“Want to join them?” He asked softly, drawing her attention again.

 

She raised an eyebrow. “Is the cap on my head situated to your liking?”

 

He smiled, not minding the dryness of her tone. “It looks better on you than me. But then again, you always look better than I do.”

 

She scoffed, turning away from him. “You’re so full of crap, Chris.”

 

A chuckle. “Thanks.”

 

“Shut up.” 

Chapter Text

27. the present

 

The papers staring up at her were almost taunting, and Amara was a half-second away from admitting that she might be losing a little bit of her mind. 

 

She was so engrossed with the stupid papers that she hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps. She did hear the blunt, but careful, “You seem tense.”

 

Hanako’s statement was fairly point-blank, probably too honest to be considered respectful but Amara had been harping on about her uptightness when it came to their dynamics so she supposed she couldn’t be too mad about it.

 

Their spot in the corner of the library, tucked behind the numerous towering, mahogany shelves, was well-hidden from the rest of the students—mostly third years—there.

 

Amara leaned back in her seat, casually sliding her black folder over the papers. She was thankful for the reprieve, glad she’d remembered to send Hanako a text to meet her in the library so she could talk to her. 

 

“Tense? I’m fine—just dealing with some . . . work stuff.” Amara waved a dismissive hand.

 

“I can stop by another day,” Hanako offered generously, but Amara could hear some weariness in her voice. 

 

“No, it’s fine. Thanks for coming out, I bet you’re tired after practice,” she said, shaking her head. Hanako was dressed in a black tracksuit, her hair looking damp from her ponytail. It was already six-thirty, so practice was over and she was nearing the end of her patience with the papers currently hidden under her folder. She sighed tiredly just thinking about it.

 

“Miss?”

 

“Yeah, sorry. I just haven’t—seen you since the Sports Festival. Which was four days ago. I felt like this was overdue,” Amara continued. She didn’t bother asking Hanako to take a seat; she would probably head back to her dorm as soon as they were finished.

 

“‘This?’” Hanako repeated hesitantly. “Was it . . . bad?”

 

“The game? You? No, definitely not.”

 

The game had been talked about for several days, everyone wanting to know who this new first year was and how she was so talented. The Sports Festival itself had done enormously well, both in attendance and profit (or so she heard from the administration); the neighborhood had been abuzz with compliments about it for the rest of the weekend.

 

But it was already Wednesday and Amara really hadn’t had the opportunity to speak with Hanako since the game. 

 

On Sunday, there was the retirement game with the third years against the first string, then Monday and Tuesday had her busy with schoolwork, her load beginning to get heavier as the year crawled along and they grew closer to graduation, so Wednesday was her last option.

 

Wednesday, because alongside not being able to talk to Hanako, she hadn’t been able to start working on Chris’ present. 

 

Chiyo’s was already wrapped and ready for delivery tomorrow, and she did have another package sent from her family for the snacks, along with some supplies to make the actual present.

 

But just giving him the books—which she’d narrowed down to The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Art of War, and Bless Me, Ultima—felt too impersonal. Unfortunately, that was where her thought process ended.

 

She’d finally decided to just go to the library and go over the books (her own copies, of course) to see what she could do. Before she could really start getting frustrated, she finally remembered to text Hanako and have her stop by to talk.

 

“So . . .”

 

Amara leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table and lacing her fingers together. “I just wanted to say you played really well. Seriously. I mean that’s your first goal. Not even an assist. A goal. I told you that you can play this position.”

 

Hanako preened under her words and looked down, a tiny smile forming on her lips, and given how inexpressive she was, that was the equivalent to a grin. Amara didn’t bother hiding her own smile.

 

“I trust you with this position, Hanako. You’ll play well. You ready for round one?”

 

It was the last week of September, and for this coming Saturday—October 2—their fall tournament would be officially starting. Hotei would be facing Hayakawa High sometime in the morning; she was fairly sure that Seido was starting their own fall tournament as well but she didn’t know their opponent or times.

 

She pursed her lips slightly as she realized that this Saturday was also when Chris asked to go. Does he not want to go?

 

“I . . . think. I mean it’ll be much different than playing the faculty or even against our own team, right? Then, there’s round two the next day as well . . .”

 

Amara shook off those thoughts and nodded along with her. “Right, I forgot. They really do like packing us in at the beginning of the tournament. Kuramoto High, right?”

 

Hanako nodded. “I believe so. I hope it’ll be okay . . .”

 

She knew she was referring to the team’s stamina. It wasn’t easy running around for ninety minutes straight, and under the sun no less (though temperatures would cool down by the time the quarterfinals rolled around). There’d be a round three game next Wednesday as well, against a school whose name was escaping her for the moment.

 

“Just rest,” Amara instructed. “Round one is early in the morning, so you’ll have time to rest afterward. No practice or anything. After round two, though, it should be a little easier. The matches will be more spread out.”

 

“Yeah, that’s true. But you’re—” her eyebrows furrowed slightly “—you’re talking so confidently. Do you really think it’s a given that we’ll win?” With me, of all people, on the team?

 

Amara could tell her status as a first year and general lack of experience truly bothered her. Hanako had wanted the position because she had the skills—because she outshone the rest of her contenders. To be ceded the position like this—only because of Amara’s injury—must not have sat well with her.

 

Amara cracked an easy smile. “Our strategies might need some revival but they do work. We routinely make it to the semifinals each year. Hopefully, we can get to the finals this year and then Nationals. Until then, have confidence. Like Jun said, trust yourself and trust your teammates. We’ll get those wins one-by-one.”

 

“If you’re sure,” she mumbled.

 

“I’m sure. I’ve taken up your time—that was all I really needed to say. If you need any help, though, you know how to get to me.”

 

Hanako bowed. “Yes, ma’am, thank you. Have a good night.”

 

“You, too.” 

 

Hanako left after that and Amara was about to take out the sheets of paper from under her folder, but she heard a hushed conversation down the same row that Hanako had disappeared down, before it faded and another familiar face came out from behind it. 

 

Amara squashed down some disappointment at the sight of Nori. She’d really been wanting to get to finding something to add to Chris’ present but she could see a paper placed on the folder in Nori’s hand; he looked a bit sheepish, too. 

 

Whatever. I can work on it tonight or tomorrow night. She certainly wasn’t going to refuse him help. 

 

Then, an idea occurred to her. She hesitated only for a second before she pushed her reluctance away. Nori was certainly helpful; he wouldn’t look into the situation too much and if he did, she knew he wouldn’t say anything. Probably.

 

Already knowing what he was going to ask and keeping in mind what she needed help with, she said, “I’ll help you with that if you help me figure something out.” 

 

Nori blinked, surprised for a moment, then smiled. “Deal.” 

 

He took a seat beside her and she turned to face him. 

 

“Geometry?” 

 

He nodded, abashed. “Yes—I just . . . don’t understand some of these. It’s certainly easier to understand than anything from the past year, but I still get confused easily.” 

 

“It happens to the best of us. Let’s see . . .” 

 

She helped him out for a few problems, and while he was working on a problem for practice after her guidance, he asked, “So, what did you need help with?” 

 

“You like music, right?”

 

He paused once to glance up at her, clearly surprised, but a tiny small crawled onto his lips as he resumed his work. “I’d say I do.” 

 

“Hypothetically speaking,” she began carefully, “if you were making a playlist for someone—anyone, like a good friend or something—would you add anything with it? Or would you just give them the playlist as it is?” 

 

He paused his work again, a thoughtful expression on his face as he slowly rotated the pencil between his fingers. “If it was for a good friend, I’d add maybe a letter? To explain the significance of each song . . . Throw in my favorite lyrics . . . Maybe even why I chose those particular songs for the playlist for that person.” 

 

She blinked. A letter? That could work.

 

“If you don’t mind me asking, is this hypothetical situation . . . not so hypothetical?” 

 

She opened her mouth to reply—confess, really, because Nori was pretty trustworthy—but he looked up at something she couldn’t see. “Hold on,” he mumbled.

 

She frowned and before she could ask, another person stepped out from the shelves.

 

“Chris,” she greeted, surprised, but her heart had picked up its pace (anxiety, she told herself). How much had he heard? 

 

She casually shifted her arm over the folder. None of the papers were visible but she still felt oddly exposed. He was too perceptive for his own good sometimes and it’d be mortifying if he found out about her dilemma. 

 

“Amara, Nori,” he returned with a polite nod to the latter. Nori dipped his head respectfully but didn’t say anything. 

 

“What’s up?” She asked, not unkindly. 

 

His eyes flickered to Nori. “I could come around later, if you’d like.” 

 

“Don’t worry on my account,” Nori said softly before Amara could muster a reply. 

 

She nodded in agreement, pushing herself up from her chair, grabbing the crutches. “Yeah, it’s fine. Nori, you’re good?”

 

“I’m fine.” 

 

She went around the table and they stepped into the row of shelves, obscured from Nori’s view. “Did something happen?” She asked, keeping her voice quiet. 

 

“No, no, everything’s fine. It’s just that—for Saturday . . .” He seemed hesitant, sheepish almost. 

 

“Oh, yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that, too—you don’t mind missing Seido’s game for the tournament?”

 

“No, that’s only round one. We’ll be coming around in the later rounds probably. I could ask you the same thing as well for the soccer team.”

 

She shook her head. “Oh, no, they’ll be fine. But hopefully I’ll be playing in those later games. But anyway, what’s up about Saturday? Do you need to reschedule?” 

 

He winced. “Not quite. It’s just that . . . my father wanted to go out for my birthday.” 

 

Of course. He has to spend it with his father, too. It had slipped her mind completely. 

 

“You should—we could do it another day. Sunday is free for me, too,” she quickly said, not wanting him to sacrifice the time to see his father for their study . . . date (it still felt weird thinking of it like that). 

 

He shook his head. “No, it’s—I told him about our plans and he didn’t want to make us reschedule, so he’s going to meet us at the cafe for lunch. I just don’t know if you’re fine with that.” 

 

Fine with . . . meeting his dad? 

 

Her heart lodged itself in her throat. She wouldn’t lie; the idea of meeting his father was absolutely daunting

 

She knew his father was an ex-NPB player so he was famous. Or something. But it was the idea—the concept—that made her nervous. 

 

Well, it’s not like I can say no. 

 

Chris was asking for permission, and he’d probably call it off if she said she wasn’t fine with it, but she couldn’t do that. That was immeasurably rude in her eyes, because this was his father, who he probably seldom spent time with in a carefree setting. His physical therapy really didn’t count. 

 

Besides, she didn’t really know his father. It couldn’t be that bad. 

 

“Amara?” 

 

She realized he was waiting for her answer but there must’ve been something in her expression that gave her away, because he quickly said, “I’ll meet him on Sunday. It’s not a problem.” 

 

She blanched. “No, no, it’s fine, I promise. I don’t mind that.” 

 

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re lying.” 

 

She sputtered for a moment. 

 

“I’m not, I swear.” 

 

“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” His admission was considerably softer this time around and she flushed. 

 

She shook her head. “No, it’s not—that. I . . .” she grimaced. There was that usual lack of articulation that came with being around him. It was like her thoughts were too scrambled, too jumbled for her to make any sense of them and express them adequately. 

 

Chris waited patiently for her to gather her thoughts, a concerned expression on his face still. 

 

She sighed. “I-It’s just the idea that makes me nervous. I’m not—I wouldn’t be uncomfortable, per se. I’m sure your dad’s a nice guy but that’s the thing, you know? It’s your dad. Parents make me nervous.” 

 

She could see that he had relaxed a fraction, probably relieved that she wasn’t merely uncomfortable about it. 

 

“Is it . . . because he’s my dad that it makes you nervous?” He asked, gently, and she was glad that he was starting to understand. 

 

She had no problems meeting his father but she was just scared at the thought of it—what was she going to say, what was she going to do. 

 

“Probably? Like, what if you were meeting my parents? My family? That kind of thing, you know?” 

 

Understanding seemed to fully dawn on him as he nodded, a pensive look on his face. “I think I get it now. Well, in any case, I won’t leave you alone with him unless I really have to. And if dry conversation is one of your worries, then no need. My dad is . . .” He let out a fond chuckle, the smile that had crawled onto his lips making her feel warm inside. “He’s a socialite. He’ll be interested in you, especially since you’re here on a foreign exchange program.” 

 

Not sure if that’s better but I’ll take it.

 

She was temporarily soothed by his promise to stay with them, and she certainly couldn’t imagine that he’d need to leave during their meeting. That would be a bit redundant since his father was meeting them to see him and wish him a happy birthday and all.

 

“How much have you told him about me?” She asked, suddenly curious to know what he might’ve revealed to his father. 

 

A bashful look flickered over his face quickly but it was soon replaced by an easy-going smile. “Enough, I should say. He knows you’re a good friend of mine and that you’re American—it’s certainly piqued his interest. I’ll say sorry in advance if he’s reminiscing for the entire lunch.”

 

His words, while she could tell they were a slight deflection and that he wasn’t being entirely truthful, were surprising. 

 

“Does he miss it? The States, I mean?” 

 

Chris stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I suppose. I think it’s . . . a hometown sort of sickness. It’s his home country but Japan is his—our—home. Do you get what I mean?” 

 

She nodded slowly. “I think I do. When’s the last time he—or you guys, I guess—have visited?” 

 

Chris’ eyebrows furrowed for a moment. “It’s been several years, probably when I was in elementary school, before I took baseball more seriously. But it’s only his parents that are there, so that was the only reason we ever went. Nowadays, they have always flown out to see us, but that’s usually only every two years or so.”

 

“Oh,” she said softly. “That’s quite some time. Does he have plans to go visit anytime soon?” 

 

“All these questions make me think that you’re inclined to take us back there and show us around,” he chuckled, teasing. 

 

She sputtered, the mere idea of her showing him around Austin both laughable and somehow . . . very appealing. 

 

“Shut up. If you’re done making fun of me, I need to get back to Nori and make sure he’s fine,” she muttered, her face feeling undeniably hot. 

 

Chris’ smile softened. “Of course. And just for the record, he doesn’t have any plans to go back. Other than his parents, we don’t—he doesn’t—have a reason to go back. Not even to see the old sights or anything.” 

 

“Well, never say never and all that, I guess,” she mumbled. She needed to get back to Nori before she started making a fool of herself even more

 

His eyes were warm. “That’s certainly true as well. We’ll have to see. I’ll let you go now. I’ve taken more than enough of your time. See you tomorrow?” 

 

She relaxed a bit. “Sure thing. Have a good night.” 

 

He shot her a smile. “You too, Amara.” 

 

He turned around and exited through the other side of the shelf. She took a minute to regain her bearings, trying valiantly to calm her racing heart. 

 

The effects that he had on her . . . It was something that she needed to confront. 

 

A part of her knew what it was but even admitting it, admitting why she felt that way around him and only him, it felt like she’d be tainting a part of their friendship. 

 

Tainting a friendship that had only just gotten back on track. 

 

Because if she even admitted to the fact that her feelings weren’t platonic anymore, she’d know truly that her feelings wouldn’t—couldn’t—be the same ever again. 

 

She sighed and shook her head, trying to get herself out of that topic. It didn’t matter. Now she had a few more things to worry about. 

 

His present and his dad. 

 

She grimaced and turned back around, heading towards her little nook where Nori was still hopefully there. 

 

The present seems much easier to handle all of a sudden, she thought as she stepped out from the bookshelf. 

 

Nori was still seated at the table and he seemed to be looking back over his work, appearing finished with it. He looked up when she came out and smiled. “Was everything fine?” 

 

She nodded, taking her seat beside him and propping the crutches up beside herself. “Yeah, it’s all good. Sorry for disappearing like that. Time just got away from me.” 

 

“I bet.” 

 

There was something in his tone, in his voice, that made her narrow her eyes at him. 

 

“Nori . . .” she trailed off, giving him a look. 

 

He shook his head and seemed to be suppressing a wide smile. “Nothing, nothing. So, what was your hypothetical situation about again?” 

 

She shot him one last look before leaning back in her chair. “Right, well, Chris’ birthday was coming up—good job on catching him coming, by the way—and the plan was to give him a few books that I’m fond of, in the hopes that he’ll like it too, along with some American snacks and stuff, but giving him just the books by itself felt like not enough.” 

 

Nori nodded along as she spoke and when she was finished, spoke. “Too impersonal?” 

 

Exactly. But the letter thing you were talking about really works out. I think I’ll have to do that, so thank you,” she said, giving him an appreciative look. 

 

He smiled and looked down at his paper. “No problem, I’m glad I could help out. Was there anything else?” 

 

She thought about it, pursing her lips. “I think so . . . I have a doctor’s appointment for my calf after school on Friday but I’m not sure how much time it’s going to take. Hopefully not too much but I don’t want to give him the present late or anything. You’re in Dormitory A, right?” 

 

Once he’d confirmed it, she continued. “So, could I ask for you to stop by my dorm in the morning and pick up the present and drop it off with him? Before or after your practice, it doesn’t matter. I’m in there until about eight o’clock.” 

 

“That’s no problem. I think I’ll stop in after practice, before I shower and stuff, so is seven-fifteen or so good for you?” 

 

She held up her hands. “Whenever is good for me, Nori. You’re doing a lot for me. I’m not going to be picky.” 

 

He shook his head, bashful. “It’s what friends are for, right? It’s no problem. So, I’ll pick it up at seven-fifteen. Sounds good. Do you mind looking over my answers for this worksheet, though?”

 

“Don’t mind at all, let me see . . .” 

 

She spent the next thirty minutes correcting and helping him out. By the time they were done, it was already seven-thirty and the cafeteria would be shutting down soon, so they both packed up and went to find some of the leftover food from that day’s dinner. 

 

The papers in her folder remained blank for the rest of that day. 

 

It was truly her luck, of course, that she wouldn’t be able to work on it the next day at all. Not that she was really mad about it. 

 

Chiyo’s birthday was something to celebrate and everyone had agreed. The joint-celebrations for her and Chris had fallen through since no one had planned anything out but it turned out to be okay, as when after school rolled around and everyone’s practice had wrapped it, they headed to the Commons to celebrate, with her opening up her gifts and eating the cupcakes that the volleyball team had gotten for her. 

 

She’d been ecstatic about the new knee and elbow pads from Amara and Chihiro, along with the other few presents she got from her team and the boys—who had all gotten one gift in coordination. 

 

It was already nine when Amara left the Commons and she had to get down and do some homework assignments that were due Friday, all the while those papers burned a hole in her folder. 

 

She did get around to it eventually, when she’d finished her homework, but that was at twelve-thirty, Asano already asleep on her bed. Amara had half a mind to go to sleep as well but she needed to start—and finish—the letters.

 

Unfortunately, despite Nori’s advice which had inspired her, she couldn’t start them off for her life. She began with To Kill A Mockingbird but it wasn’t going the way she wanted. 

 

Her Kanji was shaky at best, either from general inexperience (even after three years) or from exhaustion, so she switched to English, knowing that he was perfectly fluent in the language. Even then, though, her penmanship was almost that of a middle schooler’s. 

 

It doesn’t matter. It’s readable. 

 

She finally let go of making her handwriting look nice for once and buckled down to do the contents. 

 

For each book, she wrote on a sheet of paper, some being filled up, some only halfway. It was sort of nice to get her thoughts out on paper like that, certainly something to consider doing in the future. 

 

The letters were easy-going, things she’d say to his face (for the most part). It just took so much time. 

 

She finished it off at two-thirty in the morning then had to go through the other grueling task of assembling the present. 

 

It wasn’t that bad, thankfully, since she’d requested for a smaller sized cardboard box to be sent in the package of the snacks she’d wanted, along with plain blue wrapping paper (that was sent with the pretense that it was for Chiyo; she didn’t need to be interrogated by her mother about her relationships). 

 

It was difficult to stay quiet with the paper but she managed, stacking the snacks then the new books she’d ordered online and the letters tucked between the front cover and the front page. She taped it shut and started wrapping it, relieved to have had experience after wrapping presents for her mother during Christmas time (the few times she’d gone back to the States, anyway). 

 

She finished the entire thing at three, neck aching and just generally exhausted. 

 

She was out like a light as soon as she climbed into bed but that sleep felt like it'd only lasted a second before she woke to the sound of firm knocking on the door. 

 

I haven’t felt this tired in a long time, she thought miserably, the side of her face smushed into her pillow. It was a physical task to get up, all of her muscles filled with lead and protesting vehemently at the movement. 

 

She picked up the present, not even grabbing a crutch as she went to the door. In her bleary state, she noticed the relieving lack of tension in her calf. At least there was one good thing going for her. 

 

She pulled it open and cringed at the bright light that filtered into her room. A sweaty and dirty Nori stood there and he blinked at the sight of her.

 

She didn’t even want to think about how bad she looked—her ponytail was loose, hairs probably sticking out, and she must’ve not looked like a happy camper because he regarded her cautiously. 

 

“Good morning,” he greeted carefully. Hardly. 

 

She wordlessly held out the box. 

 

He took it from her. “Did you . . . get any sleep last night? Like, at all?” 

 

He sounded worried. She appreciated the sentiment. She must’ve looked worse than she thought. 

 

The concern in his voice made her muster up a half-hearted reply. “I dunno, maybe like three or four hours or something. I don’t know. I’m still not awake.” 

 

His eyes widened. “Why?” 

 

“I was busy all of yesterday,” she muttered. “Had to finish the letters last night. Finished at like, three or something.”

 

Nori looked genuinely appalled. “You should stay in your dorm for today—”

 

She sighed. “I can’t do that. One, I’d rather not miss Chris’ birthday. Two, I can’t miss class. I have a few things to turn in.” 

 

“W-Well, you can go take a nap with the nurse for a few periods. For the ones that aren’t important.” 

 

All of them are important, Nori. Just the responsibilities of a third year. I’ll be fine. I’ve pulled all-nighters before. Granted, it’s been a while but it’ll be fine. I can deal. I’ll sleep early tonight. Promise.” She gave him a half-hearted smile but his eyebrows only furrowed more. 

 

“I . . . don’t approve of this,” he finally said, a frown twisting his lips. 

 

She shrugged. “You don’t have to. I really do appreciate your concern but it’ll be okay, I promise. I have the other third years to help me through the day.” 

 

By that she meant Chiyo. The boys would rather have her taken to the nurse to take a nap as well but Chiyo understood. She wouldn’t be happy but she understood. 

 

He sighed. “I can see I’m not going to change your mind. Alright, I hope it’s not too bad, then . . . Maybe invest in some coffee. The vending machines have some. Miyuki drinks it all the time.” 

 

She wrinkled her nose. “Don’t like coffee but I’ll power through. Hey, you better get going. You need to shower and have breakfast, don’t you?” 

 

“I do. I’ll see you later—I’ll tell you when I drop it off later today. Maybe try getting thirty more minutes of sleep or something—”

 

Goodbye, Nori. Make sure you eat.” 

 

He shook his head, exasperated. “I will. See you, Miss Amara.” 

 

She shut the door and groaned loudly to the empty room. 

 

Amara knew she wasn’t going to be going back to sleep. She couldn’t. She’d probably end up sleeping through the rest of the day if she did and she definitely didn’t need to get in trouble with the coaches or her teachers. 

 

She washed her face and redid her hair, grimacing at her reflection as she did so. The bags under her eyes were difficult to miss. She bent down to pull out another toiletry bag from under the sink, unzipping it. This one was full of makeup—stuff she never wore unless it was for a truly special occasion. 

 

The foundation, though, demanded to be used more often than the rest. 

 

She’d used it multiple times during second year after pulling all-nighters for various projects or essays. She remembered enough of it to smear it under her eyes, glad to see that it blended in easily with the natural brown tone of her skin. The eye bags disappeared with each motion and she sighed in relief at it. 

 

She finished getting dressed, then headed out, crutches under her arms, though the feeling of being able to walk without hurting herself lingered in her head. That was hopeful. She didn’t want to use the crutches anymore, two weeks of doing so being too much. 

 

When she met at the usual table for breakfast, she found Chris there, with a few other second years. She put on a grin as she made eye contact with Chris. 

 

“Well, good morning to you. How’s it feel to be eighteen?” She asked, standing near him to tap his shoulder with her hand. 

 

He shrugged. “The same as yesterday.” 

 

She laughed, finding a more natural smile slip onto her lips. “Happy birthday, Chris.” 

 

She almost startled when his hand grasped her own that had fallen onto his shoulder, squeezing it in an affectionate gesture. “Thank you, Amara.” 

 

He released her hand and she found herself missing his warm touch more than she usually did. 

 

Must be the exhaustion. 

 

She slipped her hand off his shoulder and went to get a breakfast tray. She glanced to the side when she realized Nori was tailing her, probably taking up the daily duty of holding her tray. 

 

“Good morning,” she greeted with a wry grin. 

 

He gave her a worried look. “You look better. Did you sleep?” 

 

“The wonders of makeup, Nori, the wonders of makeup. Did you drop off the present?” 

 

Chris hadn’t given any indication that he’d gotten it but perhaps he wanted to be more private about it. Being in a team and the recipient of several gifts from several teammates probably made him be more careful about his reactions. 

 

“I did but he wasn’t there. I managed to catch Masuko before he was leaving so I could drop it off. It’s currently waiting for him on his desk,” he explained as he took a tray for her and they made their way down the line. 

 

“You’re a lifesaver, Nori. I owe you one. Seriously.” 

 

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. I was more than happy to help out.” 

 

“Well, your job is done. Hopefully. Probably.” She snickered as he shook his head. “I hope so, anyway. The only thing I need to do today is get through my classes without falling asleep and not let my anxiety about the present get to me.” 

 

“I’m sure he’ll like it,” Nori murmured, probably willingly ignoring the first part of her words. “It’s a thoughtful gift.” 

 

She tossed a look over her shoulder at their table, finding the rest of the third years and the first string sitting there and talking, most of the attention being fixed on Chris. 

 

He was smiling, small but sincere, as he listened to whatever Eijun was saying. 

 

Her heart skipped a beat in her chest and she silently swore when his eyes met hers, catching her staring. He only tilted his head at her, though, in another greeting and she gave him a bashful smile before turning back. 

 

“Hopefully,” she muttered, helping Nori collect the rest of the breakfast. 

 

She’d see how today would unfold. At best, it’d be a breeze, but with her luck, it would be far more difficult to handle. 

Chapter Text

28. october 1

 

Amara knew she had been right. 

 

She just seemed to have horrible luck when it came to Chris or even the general events of her life. 

 

Her eyes widened when they’d pulled into the parking lot of the clinic; the usually half-empty parking lot was almost filled to the brim, leading Suzuki to circle around the entire clinic twice before she caught someone just leaving their spot. 

 

She had a frown on her face, so Amara guessed that she didn’t know what this was about, either. 

 

It was barely four-thirty—a time she cataloged, knowing that the third years were probably gathered in the Commons to celebrate and wait out the baseball practice since Eijun, along with the surprising addition of Miyuki, had requested for them to do so. 

 

She stepped out of the car, taking her crutches out along with her. She was even still dressed in her uniform, Suzuki wanting to leave right after school to see Dr. Murai as soon as possible. 

 

But observing the cars currently taking up the parking lot, she wondered if they’d have to reschedule. Amara wasn’t too willing to spend her evening here, and she doubted that Suzuki wanted to as well. 

 

The lobby was just as busy, most, if not all, chairs taken by different people. Families, the elderly, a few teenagers; there was a low murmur accompanied with the number of people, also something that usually wasn’t present. 

 

Amara chose to walk up with Suzuki to the counter, where a frazzled-looking receptionist greeted them with a strained smile. 

 

“We’re here for an appointment with Dr. Murai—it’s a follow-up for a calf strain, a student from Hotei High School.” 

 

The woman typed something into the computer and nodded, a strained smile still on her lips. “Miss, ah, de la Garza?” 

 

Amara nodded. 

 

“Dr. Murai won’t be able to see her very soon, unfortunately. A few hours of waiting time, at the very least,” she said, smile giving way to a grimace. 

 

Amara sighed internally. Great

 

Suzuki’s eyebrows furrowed. “Did something happen?” 

 

The woman sighed. “The clinic down the street shut down very temporarily, so their patients are being detoured here. Dr. Murai is very busy trying to see them all, and even for scheduled appointments, there’s still a waiting time.” 

 

“Is there any way to reschedule?” 

 

She nodded slowly. “Ah, of course, but the follow-up won’t be for another week and a half or so. Dr. Murai will be going out of town, and she’s leaving tomorrow. Would you like to reschedule?” 

 

Suzuki looked at Amara, then, grim. “Do you want to wait it out here or reschedule? You’ll be on those crutches for a little longer, though . . .” 

 

Amara suppressed a grimace. “I-I think we can wait. Is that okay?” She directed the question to Suzuki, who shook her head.

 

“Well, I don’t have anything to do right now, but do you? I know you’re busy as a third year and all . . .” she trailed off, leaving the decision in Amara’s hands. 

 

Just missing Chris’ birthday that’s all . . . Amara forced a smile. “I’m good with that. I can wait.” 

 

She felt a bit guilty about it, but she wasn’t too keen on staying on the crutches any longer, especially since they were going out tomorrow. She had been hoping that this appointment would clear her of the crutches and they could start doing something else to finish remedying her injury, but she hadn’t anticipated the wait time. 

 

How bad can it be? 

 

Suzuki turned back to the receptionist, who had watched the interaction. “We’ll wait, then. Do you know how long it’ll take?” 

 

The woman turned to look at something on her computer. “There are about eleven people in front of you right now waiting for Dr. Murai. I would estimate maybe an hour or two at most. If you’d like, I could have you see Dr. Takashi.” 

 

Suzuki shook her head with a polite smile. “No, I’d prefer it to be Dr. Murai. She knew about the injury before and I’d rather she be the one to clear her.” 

 

“Of course. Go ahead and take a seat, then.” 

  

They’d been lucky enough to find two free seats, finding a place amongst the people waiting. 

 

Amara had to precariously balance the crutches on the seat, holding them both with one hand as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. 

 

She sighed internally at the time and opened up LINE; she leaned her leg against the crutches to free her other hand, typing out a message to send off to Chihiro, Chiyo, and the other third years, explaining the situation. 

 

She wasn’t expecting an answer from the former two since they had practice at the moment and wouldn’t be out until five-thirty, but the boys were free at the moment, probably sitting around in the Commons. Even then, she knew they were probably preoccupied celebrating for Chris’ birthday and all. 

 

She still sort of hoped someone would text her, though, because she was bored

 

The seconds ticked by, a few minutes turning into thirty. All of it was sitting there, scrolling through social media, liking all the posts that her classmates from Austin had posted over the night (most of it was back-to-school, everyone celebrating their new statuses as seniors). Suzuki had surrendered to her own phone as well, doing something Amara couldn’t see. 

 

Five-thirty came soon enough, meaning they’d been there for forty-five minutes already and that Chihiro and Chiyo would be getting out of practice soon. 

 

Another thirty minutes passed and while Amara was close to surrendering to her exhaustion, to lean back and sleep, her phone vibrated in her hand, jolting her back to alertness. 

 

She looked at the message, coming from a groupchat she’d had with the two of them.

 

chihiro akamine

ur STILL there?? just saw the guys in the commons nd didnt see u there :|

 

Amara grimaced. 

 

me

yeah, it’s not looking too good over here. i think we’re gonna be here late. 

 

Chihiro’s reply was quick. 

 

chihiro akamine

that sucks dude 

 

A text from Chiyo arrived soon as well before Amara could send off another reply. 

 

chiyo im

that’s too bad. when’s the next time you’re going to see takigawa?

 

Amara frowned in confusion, wondering why Chiyo was asking, then quickly realized that she’d completely forgotten to inform them about her and Chris’ plans for tomorrow. She pressed her lips together, debating on whether she should wait until tomorrow night, after they got back to the dorms, or just do it now and make it quick and painless (hopefully). 

 

She sighed, deciding on the latter. 

 

me

actually, he asked me to come with him tomorrow for a study. thing. session.

 

It took a few minutes for them to reply and Amara could only guess that they were in the locker rooms at this point, since both of their practices were over and it was already six. 

 

chihiro akamine

what were his exact words

 

She suppressed a scoff, already knowing where this might be leading. 

 

me

does that matter

 

Chiyo’s reply was immediate. 

 

chiyo im

he said study date, didn’t he? 

 

Her face felt hot, and she scrambled to reply. 

 

me

that’s not even the point. it’s just a study ... thing. session. something like that. 

 

chihiro akamine

can u be any more dense lmao

 

me

im too tired to have this conversation. that’s what we’re doing tmrw, so it’s fine. although i do wish i would’ve been able to see him today :/ 

 

chiyo im

ignorance is bliss and all that, i suppose. well, nonetheless, that’s good. we’ll be heading down to the commons after we finish showering, so text us if anything happens. 

 

She sent off an affirmative then stuffed her phone between her thighs again. She knew that had been the conclusion they would’ve jumped to. That their previous accusation of him ‘flirting’ with her when she’d asked him about the languages he knew was right—which it wasn’t. 

 

Chris hardly had any reason to flirt with her and she was sure he said ‘study date’ because, well, it was a date, but not . . . in the romantical sense. 

 

Friends went on dates all the time. 

 

She, Chiyo, and Chihiro used to do that when they were in their second year and Chihiro in her first; they’d take a train or a bus to downtown and spend the day wandering around. The three of them weren’t native to Tokyo, so it was a learning experience all around. 

 

So the concept of Chris seeing her in any way that wasn’t platonic was laughable. 

 

“Amara.” Suzuki’s voice jarred her out of her thoughts and she turned to look at her, seeing that she had put her phone down and was leaning forward. “Are you hungry yet?” 

 

Tired, mostly. She forced a small smile. “Not that much but I could go for something.” 

 

Suzuki nodded, looking relieved as she shifted in her seat to put her phone into her pocket. “Good. I’m going to head down to the restaurant a block down from here and pick something up. I’ll get you something, too.” 

 

“You don’t have to, Coach—” 

 

Suzuki gave her a stern look. “I won’t have you starving, Amara. This is usually around the time that dinner is going on at campus. Is there anything you don’t like?” 

 

Amara pursed her lips. “Not really. Anything is fine with me.” 

 

She nodded. “Alright. I . . . doubt we’ll be called up, but in case we are, just go ahead. I’ll try not to take long. You’ll be okay here, right?” 

 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

 

“Alright, don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back.” She pushed herself out of the chair and stopped by the receptionists’ desk first, saying something to the receptionist then gesturing to Amara behind her. Amara frowned, wondering what she was saying, but didn’t have a chance to ask before Suzuki nodded and bowed her head politely, then strode out the lobby. 

 

She heard the air conditioner kick on and shivered at the chilled air that blew from the vents. After a few minutes of merely watching people walk around the lobby, she felt exhaustion creep up on her, stronger this time around. She suppressed a yawn, reaching up to rub her eyes. What I’d do for a nap right now . . . 

 

Well, taking a quick power nap wouldn’t be too bad, right? It wasn’t like sleeping in public was a social faux pas or anything; honestly speaking, she’d seen more people sleeping in public here in Japan than anywhere in the U.S., whether it was on the train, or the bus. 

 

She sent a furtive glance around the room. Hell, the other few teenagers that were there were dozing off as well.

 

She shifted in the uncomfortable, plastic chair, scooting back. She made sure the crutches were safely leaning on the edge of the chair between her legs then crossed her arms over her chest, ducking her head forward. The position would hurt like a bitch when she woke up but she’d rather that people didn’t see her openly sleeping. 

 

She suppressed another yawn and shut her eyes, quickly drifting into unconsciousness, though a part of her stayed vigilant, listening for names. 

 

Her ‘nap’ only felt like a few seconds long before someone was touching her shoulder, jerking her awake. She winced at the crick in her neck, reaching up to rub at the sore spot before looking up. Suzuki stood there, looking apologetic, and carrying a white, plastic carry-out bag. 

 

Amara rubbed her eyes, somehow feeling even more tired than when she first went to sleep. 

 

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I got tired. What time is it?” 

 

“No worries,” Suzuki soothed, taking her seat next to her, then unpacking the contents. “It’s seven-thirty—” upon the shocked look that must’ve passed over Amara’s face, she hurried to add, “it took longer than I thought it would’ve. Go figure, though, since it is Friday.” 

 

She handed over a plastic bowl, which was warm to the touch, the clear plastic lid steamed over. “Miso soup. That okay?” 

 

Amara tried to shake the remnants of unconsciousness away. “That’s fine. Thank you, Coach.” 

 

Suzuki waved her off, handing her a pair of chopsticks. “No worry. I have the water, too, when you want it.” 

 

Amara nodded, cracking open the lid carefully. No one seemed to mind, so she propped the lid onto her thigh then dug into the soup. She might’ve been hungrier than she thought, her exhaustion trumping any hunger, because the soup—not her favorite by any means and indeed a standard meal—was the best thing she’d ever tasted. 

 

(Perhaps it was actually good and she was just too tired to comprehend that.)

 

She cast a look around the lobby, finding that a few people had left since the last time she’d looked. She hoped they were going up soon. She was so tired and she just wanted to see Chris. 

 

She polished off the soup, shutting it with the lid again then taking the plastic bag from Suzuki to store away the trash. She took out the bottle of water before handing it back, drinking a few gulps greedily, the savoriness of the soup drying out her mouth and throat. 

 

It didn’t take long for Suzuki to finish her own meal then get up to throw their trash away outside. Amara checked her phone, looking for any texts or notifications but finding it disappointingly empty. 

 

She sighed quietly and Suzuki made a small noise of agreement beside her. 

 

“I know,” she murmured consolingly. “I didn’t anticipate that it’d take this long. I suppose . . . another forty minutes or so and we’ll see how things look. I’m not going to keep you out so late, even if it is already dark outside.” 

 

“That sounds fine,” Amara assured her. She leaned forward to look outside, though, and sure enough, it was dark. She spotted a few soft pinks and oranges in the sky, but it was mostly dark. 

 

She doubted the others would still be out by now. Or perhaps they would, probably under Jun’s insistence, or even because they were simply having fun

 

She twisted her lips, finding herself wanting to be there, too. 

 

More time passed, but Amara didn’t bother to keep looking at the clock, not wanting to know how long this entire thing was taking. She ended up going through a few articles online from The New York Times and a few other more prominent news companies. She kept up with the politics in the U.S. as best as she could but it was never good news, most of it being disappointing and mildly worrying about how the country was turning out to be.

 

She’d been engrossed in some article about a hurricane that was touching down in Florida in a few days when she received a text, though it wasn’t from Chiyo or Chihiro.

 

chris takigawa

Would you mind stopping by my dorm when you get back? I’m on the third floor, room 347, Dormitory A. 

 

She frowned at the request but typed out an answer, nonetheless. 

 

me

sure thing. i don’t know when i’ll be getting back, though. is everything ok? 

 

chris takigawa

Of course. I just wanted to talk to you about some things.  

 

Her heart sped up despite herself and she let out a short huff, finding herself both curious and anxious to know what he wanted to talk about. 

 

She sent off another affirmative just before she heard one of the nurses call out, “Amara . . . de la Garza?”

 

“Oh, thank goodness,” Suzuki mumbled, rising from the seat. Amara shared her sentiments, stuffing her phone into her pocket, then pushing herself out of her seat and tucking the crutches under her arms. 

 

They followed the nurse back and Amara absently verified all her information before they were led to an examination room. Amara hopped onto the metal table, leaving the crutches against the side of it. The nurse—a younger-looking woman with deep circles under her eyes—took all her vitals, then started asking questions. 

 

“How does your calf feel?” She asked. 

 

“Fine. Doesn’t hurt when I walk or anything and there’s no tension whenever I stretch it.” 

 

She rattled off a few more basic questions which Amara dutifully answered and nodded, setting the clipboard onto the small stool by the wall; as she went to leave, Dr. Murai entered. 

 

She looked strangely put-together for someone who had to deal with a major influx of patients but Amara chalked it up to years of experience. 

 

She flashed a polite smile to them as she picked up the clipboard. “Miss de la Garza, Miss Suzuki. I’m terribly sorry about the wait. Now . . ." She read whatever the nurse had written, lips moving as she said something to herself, inaudible to their ears. 

 

“You feel better, right? Roll up your pant leg for me, please.” She set the clipboard back down onto the stool and went over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser on the wall, taking some for herself and wringing her hands together as she waited for Amara to fold up the pant leg, stopping it above her knee. 

 

Dr. Murai poked and prodded her calf, a pensive expression on her face. Amara resisted the urge to shiver from the feeling of her cold hands on her leg. 

 

She finally pulled away. “Now, could you come down here and walk around a bit without the crutches?” 

 

Amara unfurled her pants and slipped off the table gently, testing the waters carefully. She walked to the door, then back, following Dr. Murai’s instructions. When she was seemingly satisfied, she hopped back onto the table. 

 

“Now roll up your pant again—no pain or anything while you walk?” She poked at her calf more once Amara had re-rolled the fabric. 

 

Amara shook her head. “None at all.” 

 

“And you’re putting your full weight on your leg while you walk, correct?”

 

She nodded.

 

Dr. Murai hummed. “I see. That’s good, at the very least. However, your muscle will still be fragile and susceptible to re-injury. I’m not saying you’re completely healed, but you’re halfway there, so these next weeks are crucial.” 

 

Amara frowned at her words, not quite understanding. Suzuki appeared to be in the same boat, as she asked, “Meaning?” 

 

Dr. Murai picked up the clipboard and seated herself on the stool. “No more crutches. Did I mention what part of your calf was injured?” 

 

“I . . . believe so.” She recalled being shown a picture of a calf and its muscles, with each of them being pointed out. 

 

“It was the soleus and flexor hallucis longus muscles, to be very precise. I wasn’t too sure at the time, but those are the muscles that are easily injured, particularly in soccer. Now, since you’re off the crutches, you can’t jump back into the game. In fact, I’m having you given half-inch heel lifts for your shoes.

 

“You will use those over the course of these two weeks. I want you to wait one week of using the lifts, then after that, slowly begin conditioning yourself again and weaning off the lifts. It’s here I’d recommend a physical