side story 1

<– Ch.10                                                                                                                                                  Ch.11–>          

The Warmest Winter

                Every winter I volunteer to give out gifts to kids. I try to go to as many places as I can, but as much as I love to do it, it’s as hard as a regular job. Their smiling faces, their overjoyed energy as I hand out their presents, it gives me a warmth that I need as the cold weather starts to come in. I never ask for anything in return, a smile on a little boy or girl’s face is all I really need. No, really! I promise!

                The wind chilled, its white-cold air freezing as it attempted to penetrate through the windows of a classroom, largely successful as the glass condenses inside. Thick coats, scarves, and gloves become add-ons to the usual uniforms as students scurry out of the school building to escape into warmer abodes.

                Footsteps got louder as they approached a particular classroom. By the frequency of steps, they’re in a hurry. To spend a second longer here in such a cold hallway should be avoided at all costs. By now they’ve ascended into a brisk jog as they descended deeper into the darkened hall, each step echoing across the now empty corridor. It’s nothing less than a relief when those steps arrived at their destination.

                “Haa, haa… Finally, I’m here.”

                A girl quickly enters the classroom. Long black hair that normally sits at her lower back flow behind her as she got to her desk. “Ah, there it is.” She snatched her bag of school supplies that was latched to the side of her desk. Her chestnut peacoat and olive gloves also sat neatly folded on the top of the desk as well.

                “Ah, I can’t believe I got caught up with student council work. I wanted to walk home with the others.” She thought aloud as she collected her belongings and smoothly put on her warmer wear. “Oh well, it can’t be helped.” Fixing her hair as she prepared to leave the classroom, heading towards the door, she realized the light switch in the classroom was still on.

                “…”

                “Hmm?”

                In her haste of leaving, the girl didn’t see another person sleeping at a desk in the back of the class. It was only now due to their loud snoring. The noise was actually quite grating. Their breath was visible in the cold air, inhaling and exhaling as their head napped on the wooden desk.

                Slightly irritated at this person’s disregard for the time, she made her way closer to this mystery to find what they were still doing here.

                Upon further investigation, it was indeed another girl. Her head snugly nested in her arms as she continued to doze off. She had dazzlingly white hair, and a slender frame that complemented her other doll-like features. Aside from the standard school uniform of a dark blue blazer, she was covered in thick scarlet coat. The only thing that was seemingly unfit about this girl was her snoring, the loud and heavy rumble was not at all charming.

                “Oh yeah,” the dark haired girl continued to think aloud. “This is that new transfer student that came only recently, right?” She played with her straight-cut bangs as she racked her memory. “What was her name? I think it was-“

                “Yuki.”

                “Huh?”

                The mystery girl had woken up, eyelids heavy and halfway open from doing so. In addition to her white hair, her skin was equally as pale, shining in the light of the fluorescent bulbs of the room. Fair skin only attracted more attention to her cheeks and nose, which were red as a rose. A tinge of drowsiness crept into her voice as she softly spoke again.

                “You’re Yuki, right? The girl who sits at the front of class?” Bright blue eyes pierced into the dark haired maiden. Yuki normally had a thing for blue eyes, but the way these stared with such intensity made her take a step back in hesitation.

                “Me? Y-yeah. May I ask what you are still doing here? The school day ended thirty-five minutes ago.” She spoke firmly, as if scolding a small puppy.

                Rubbing her eyes while lifting her head up more, the girl sitting continued to mumble. “Hmm, I must’ve… Fell asleep again…”

                Well, obviously, Yuki thought. “It’s just that guy keeps talking on and on and on, and I just get…” The girl yawned. Not ladylike in the slightest.

                That guy?’ You mean the teacher? Why are you talking like you don’t know how schools work?

                Yuki crossed her arms with indignation, her pose statuesque. Dismissive attitudes like this do nothing but grind Yuki’s gears to dust. She also happened to recall her introduction when she transferred at the beginning of winter. All she managed to accomplish was mumble incomprehensibly her name and take her seat in a back corner. Any foreign charm she had was soon lost on the other students as all she did was sleep the class away. To think a student sat back here so carefree while Yuki slogged through journals of notes everyday was almost annoying. Almost.

                Yuki agreed to herself as she made up her mind on judging the character of this particular girl.

                By now the said dismissive student was already sitting up straight in her desk, mindlessly staring off into some nowhere corner of the room. Eyes land upon Yuki again, and a loud bang is heard as she instantaneously leapt from her seat.

                “May I join you?!” the girl boomed.

                Expectedly Yuki yelped in response, falling back until a few desks prevent a full fall from behind. The clattering of wood and metal reverberated throughout the classroom and the adjacent hallway. She was within centimeters of Yuki’s face, with a sense of vitality and life that most definitely wasn’t there earlier.

                “Eh?” was all Yuki could bring herself to say before the other one snickered, posturing her back to stand fully straight.

                She was about twelve and a half centimeters taller than Yuki, who was of average height, surprising since she looked so small while she slept.

                “May, I, join, you?” starkly she repeated, now with a warmer smile on her face.

                “Why? What does that even mean?” Yuki tried to maintain her composure, her voice as icy as she could make it. The last thing she needed was to be bothered by this strange classmate any longer, also not wanting to admit that the considerable height difference made her just a bit intimidating.

                “I’ve seen you around, I live in the same area.”

                Shoot, Yuki blinked as she made sense of that piece of information. I really do have to walk with her now, don’t I? Turning around, she massaged her temple, a gloved finger cooling her head down. “Fine, I suppose. Let’s fix these desks first.”

                Swiftly they complete their task, cleaning up the room before collecting their belongings and closing the door behind them as they exit. The first few steps out of the school building chilled Yuki down her spine, it was a lot colder than she anticipated. Cold air strikes the two mercilessly, Yuki shivering as it does. Her unwanted partner, however, didn’t seem fazed. Yuki vigorously rubbed her hands together while staring at her breath, materializing as a frosty mist.

                “C-come on, the bus stop is only up ahead,” the way the white haired girl blankly agreed to that statement made Yuki question herself all the more. Does she really live near me? Quickening her pace, she tried to escape the cold a little, but also hoping to escape from this stranger’s company. Yuki ran to the bus stop.

                The school building and gates were now behind them, gradually getting smaller as they made their departure into the city. They both made it to the bus in time. Taking her seat, Yuki sighed as that is indeed the case, the taller girl sitting right next to her, the differences in height still apparent as they sit.

                The way bus rocked along the road, and the girl pinning Yuki to the window side, piling up her frustration upon each rickety bump. It didn’t help that the bus wasn’t crowded, at least not crowded enough for her to sit this close. Or near her at all, in her mind. She felt the girl’s body heat as they sat silently. Dark eyebrows beginning to tremble, she tried once again to question this enigma of a woman.

                “By the way,” she says slowly, “I don’t think I got your nam-“

                “It’s almost Christmas, isn’t it?”

                “What?”

                It was such an obvious fact, the holiday in question was about less than a week away, the decorations and holiday related activities that have been popping up in frequency made it even more evident. Why bring that up?

                “Hah, I wish we had a longer break, I’d get a lot more time to volunteer, and it’d be a lot easier on me.” She looked back at Yuki, another warm smile lightly set on her face.

                “Volunteer?”

                “Every winter I volunteer to give out gifts to kids. I try to go to as many places as I can, but as much as I love to do it, it’s as hard as a regular job. Their smiling faces, their overjoyed energy as I hand out their presents, it’s really rewarding against the cold weather…” The longer she talked the sooner words melted into obscure details. That rambunctious boy whose cheering for a toy could be heard the next street over, the grandma who kept handing her letters of what her grandchildren wanted for next year, the little girl who wanted world peace (she got a puzzle of a map instead), Yuki ended up being raptly attentive to all of it.

                Staring studiously into her companion’s features, she also noted a few more details. Her pearly hair sitting at mid-length onto her shoulders, her face scrunching as she tried to remember a particular nut that was in a cookie she had received as thanks, her silver socks only reaching to the edge of her skirt, with only a bit of pale skin showing. She’s tall, but she really is pretty.

                “…is all I really need. Um, is something the matter?”

                Yuki finally caught herself still staring at the girl’s legs. Eyes widen in surprise, and a splash of pink washed across her face as she turned away to face the foggy window. “N-nothing…” Accepting that answer without much thought, Yuki’s classmate ended her rambling. They sat in a minute silence before the bus makes the appropriate stop. “W-we’re here.”

                The bus route strolled through the surrounding neighborhoods before stopping the girls off at the city plaza. Braving the chilling freeze once again, it took a while before Yuki could soak in the visuals around her.

                Streets and spotlights and stores were adorned with red and green lights, and people bustling to and fro to attend to late night shopping. Even for a city, the populace was busier than normal. Of course this was nothing new to Yuki, a native to this urban jungle.

                Indifferently, she took her first step away from the bus stop, and another before getting pulled in the other way by her free arm. It was rather forceful.

                “HEY!”

                “Just come with me!”

                This time it was her turn to lead. They walked in the opposite direction. Yuki looked with longing as her usual path back home faded from distance, and decided she finally had enough.

                “Just wait! I don’t know what this is about!” Yuki yanked her arm out of the girl’s grasp. Silver hair in the light twirled as she turned around to face the frustrated Yuki. “We’re here right? Why don’t you go home already?!” A few passersby stare as the two stood frozen in place on the sidewalk. She didn’t care anymore.

                Yuki paused to cool off before attempting to walk back to her normal path. Once again she feels her hand grabbed as a signal to stop. She was forced to raise her head to make eye contact. Yuki’s dark brown met bright blue.

                It had to have been her most soft smile and the most gentle grip she could maintain. “May you join me for a walk? It won’t take long, I promise.” She squeezes Yuki’s hand more tightly for effect.

                People still continued to stare, and from her perspective, she was still a stranger of the strangest kind. Embarrassingly, Yuki was put on the spot. Those eyes were calming, and the blue color matching the wintry air that nipped at their cheeks. Maybe I’ll indulge her one last time. “…Fine,” Yuki sputtered. “B-but it’s not for your sake!”

                Delighted, the girl led on again, still holding Yuki’s hand. It looked so small in the taller girl’s palm. Rationalizing it was so they don’t get lost in the crowd, she was willing to accept the contact. They pass by more people as they walk on. A turn of a corner and they find them themselves soon entering a thick crowd. Maneuvering through such a large gathering proved to be an arduous task. The pair had kept bumping shoulders and arms as they pursue to go deeper. The collective noise rose as well with the urban sounds of cars passing and people chatting enveloping the cold ears of the girls. Yuki could only faintly hear her partner’s energetic voice as she gets tugged along.

                “You play bass right? You look like you need a new amp!” Her voice somehow made its way to its intended destination.

                “Huh? How did you know that?” Yuki tried yelling over the racket. That fact was known only by a handful of people, but not something that she tried to hide. Nevertheless, it was odd that she knew of something Yuki thought so trivial of herself.

                The white haired girl halted in her steps, Yuki running into her from momentum. Rubbing her nose, she looked up as the girl turned to give a semblance of an explanation.

                “I could feel your fingertips. They’re tough, but they feel smooth.” Yuki’s face flushed at her reasoning, but it sounded half unconvincing, as if waving it away with a few words. Wait, but I’m wearing gloves… “Hey,” she said, derailing Yuki’s train of thought “we’re here.”

                Yuki took in her surroundings. Snow had already begun to fall, white crystals slowly beginning their descent from high above. Shining stars speckled across the night blue canvas that was the sky. The soothing cold weather added to the comfortable atmosphere, with all the people present. Then Yuki saw why there was such a gathering in the first place.

                Acting as a centerpiece for the plaza was a decorated Christmas tree. Impressive in size. Dressed in brilliantly bright ornaments of various Christmas iconography. Reindeer, snowflakes, poinsettias, and stars glittered across the tree in precise alignment. Red and green lights flickered in random arrays. The long branches reaching out to collect some of the falling snow. And to crown what was a colorful feast for the eyes was large glowing star, red as a strawberry. It was like a light tower signaling in the upcoming holiday. Yuki stood in awe at the marvelous display.

                “Cool, huh?” She heard by her side.

                A soft spoken “Yeah…” was all she could say.

                Lights flashed all around the pair from families and couples who wanted to take a picture, some even offering to take a photo of the two. The other girl was more than happy to have one taken, much to Yuki discomfiture. A strong pose and awkwardly held peace sign. A camera snapped and flash. Yuki recovered her phone. It was over in a second. The entire experience was beginning to blindly fly past her. Had she just gone home, she would have missed it entirely. Though it was hardly the first time seeing an impressive Christmas tree, or even this particular one. But having run into this odd student, who was known for her seemingly narcoleptic nature, suddenly demanding her accompaniment and taking Yuki here; she felt like she was floating through the entire moment.

                A rush of freezing wind gushed over them, and they instinctively got closer for warmth. Yuki could feel her body heat. At what point in this bizarre day, did we ever get this close? Yuki wondered, her heart thawing.

                “Did you like it?” The girl said closely.

                “O-of course, but why bring me here anyways, of all people?”

                “I wanted to enjoy myself a bit more before I get busy again, and you were close! I don’t get much time for myself, you know.”

                “Oh,” Yuki responded with a hint of unexpected disappointment. “Volunteering?”

                “Yup! Hmm, and speaking of which…”

                The girl faced Yuki yet again, her shorter white hair contrasting Yuki’s long black hair. Yuki of course needing to look up to see her face. This time it felt different. Once again her hand was in the other’s, but Yuki could sense that the firm grip the girl usually had started to shake subtly. The face that exuded a hot confidence was now replaced with bashful red cheeks and a wandering gaze, as if trying to find what she would say in the air around them. Her lips twitched in trying to find the right words. “Eh… um…” Yuki had no clue this side existed in this type of person.

                As soon as that side was noticed, the wax melted away. “H- he- HEY!” That fiery tone returned. Startled, Yuki steps back, but her hands still being held, she doesn’t go too far. They stand for another second. The girl then lowered her face toward Yuki’s, her reaction now an anomalous mixture of shock and confusion.

                “Wait! What do you think you’re doing?”

                She felt two arms wrap around her in a cozy embrace. Like falling into a pile of heated pillows. Yuki stayed unmoving, stunned at the gesture of affection she’s receiving. Snow still dropped, surrounding the two. The Christmas tree acting like as a perfect backdrop to this scene. The hug felt like it was taking forever. The girl leaned back first, maintaining their embrace, staring at Yuki’s dazed face. She radiantly smiled as she asked her request.

                “You should be my present for this year!”

                “E-excuse me?”

                “Hee hee!”

                The girl lets go. The crowd around the tree had begun to dissipate. “I had a lot of fun,” she said. “You’ve been very nice to me.” Her shoulders shift. Yuki interpreted this as her taking her leave. Yuki reached for her arm, but stopped halfway. What is this feeling? She barely believed she would be missing someone she knew for less than two hours. A small step forward. She asks her own question in response.

                “Wait, you haven’t even given me your name yet!”

                “Oh that’s right,” she played with her white hair, “it’s-“

                “Oof! Oh, please excuse me, I’m so sorry!”

                “No, no, it’ okay!”

                Yuki politely apologized to the man who bumped into her. Probably isn’t a good idea to stand around here. Regaining her position, she returns to find… no one. The white haired girl was all but gone. Lost in the sea of persons who were leaving to go home. Yuki didn’t even have a name to call out. She still felt the lingering sensation of her hand when she held it. She tried to scan a few more faces, but to no avail. Downcast, she was. Repositioning her schoolbag strap, she reluctantly headed home.

                What did she mean by ‘my present’? Ugh…

                That smile stayed in her mind the trip back. To think a girl that she didn’t want to have anything to do with, she now couldn’t stop thinking about. Those red cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and that hair as white as snow. And as a first, the thought of if she’ll ever see her again actually crossed her mind. The last bullet point on the list of surprises this night seemed to bring. She arrived to the front of her apartment door earlier than she expected, her family most likely eating dinner inside. Yuki looked at the high winter sky above her, the moon illuminating its light. She sighed.

                “I guess I really can’t wait for Christmas now, huh?”

<– Ch.10                                                                                                                                                  Ch.11–>          

Chapter 5 – ‘This photo,’

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                  Next –>

                I can’t see anything… It’s dark all around me, and cold, like time has stopped, and all I can sense are noises. Agitated? I hear arguing, and I can recognize my voice. Another… sounds like it’s fading away. But it’s getting too soft to recognize. It’s familiar… This is terrible, I shouldn’t be yelling like this. Whoever you are, why aren’t you coming back? We have to stop, we have to stop… I don’t know why, but you can’t go. Please, don’t do this. Please…

                The sun rose up high as it observed its all-seeing view. A middle school. A class is outside. A gym class more specifically. They’re running laps around the school. One of them has quite the red hair. It shined in the light. Elsewhere, a child cries halfway across the city. It’ll be hot everywhere today.

                Despite the fall weather, the sun’s heat was merciless on the students. Clattering of shoes hitting dirt could be heard as they turn a corner. Some jog at a steady pace, others are a tad more lax. Placed somewhere in the middle of the moving mass of bodies, Lilly struggled to maintain her position. Her hair, tied up, swinging with each passing step as she jogged along. Sweat lightly coats the back of her shirt, sticking to her back as she runs. Every step is accompanied with a heave and sigh, the nondescript route around the school blurring past. Whether it was from the lack of undistinguishable features, or from the unnatural temperature, Lilly wasn’t sure. How I’m managing to keep going is beyond me! The thought of stopping only occurs to her as the umpteenth person passed her by, the occasional tease of ‘Keep going, Lilly!’ and ‘Come on, don’t quit now!’ only made slowing down a more acceptable course of action. Lilly inelegantly stumbled into her last step, her hands now at her knees as she breathes heavily. A minute or so passes before she can regain the energy to maintain a steady walking pace.

                Shouai Junior High was of fairly modest size. Not too large to be overwhelming, but not too small to be boring. Though in Lilly’s case, laps around a perimeter of this size proved to be problematic. And doing it alone also added to her reluctance to run. Her legs ached as she pressed on, a constant reminder of her sedentary lifestyle. Playing with Rea did not exactly count as exercise. Soon she takes refuge from the heat via the tree branches overhead. As the foliage thickens above, the pathway gradually becomes familiar as she finds herself at the school garden. A recognizable and small silhouette appeared as she approached.

                “Ah, Rea, there you are,” Lilly panted. She moved to meet the girl, her arms playfully reaching to rest on Rea’s shoulders, acting like she wasn’t short at all. Lilly huffed. “I finally caught up, why did you have to run ahead?”

                “Oh hi, your garden’s looking super good!” Instinctively, Rea leaned in to Lilly’s weight.

                Lilly lifted her head to get a better view, pretending that the action took more effort than it should. “Gee, you are such a kid sometimes!” Rea said. Like you’re one to talk, she thought up her rebuttal, but was too tired to speak any more. Lilly centered her gaze again.

                The picturesque flowerbed sat framed in full view. The colors that were arranged still complemented each other. The flowers themselves seemed to be kept up with more pristine than usual, standing straighter than ever to catch every bit of the sun’s light and intensity. The sunflowers particularly stood with a firm posture, even if it was fall. The only exception were the violets and goldband lilies, which weren’t in bloom. A few students continue to jog past the pair, but some walkers have managed to take in the small garden’s attraction for themselves. Rea took notice.

                “Looks like you have a few fans already? How nice,” Rea’s voice shook with exhaustion. “Should I tell them you’re behind all this?”

                “Shut up! I don’t want them to know…” Because of the nature of the garden’s location, it was true that only a few people would go out of their way to see it. Laps around the school would be the only opportunity for others to notice it. Compared to other gardens, it wasn’t anything particular or extravagant. Destined to be seen, appreciated, and forgotten. Lilly was okay with that. For her at least, it was special. “I wouldn’t enjoy them bothering future lunches.”

                Taking her arms off Rea, Lilly quickly grabbed her hand, Rea leaping in surprise. “Please, let’s keep going, I can hear their praise anyways, if I wanted to. Isn’t that good enough?” Lilly felt Rea trailing behind. It takes a few seconds for her to catch up to Lilly’s pace.

                “Okay, you chuuni,” Rea laughed to herself, later catching her breath from the effort.

                Only when Rea moved toward her side did Lilly get a better view of her companion. Red hair, tied as usual, frayed at the ends in messy directions. The typical gym uniform of a white shirt and red shorts were a few sizes too large; the clothes being baggy on her. The scent of sweat wafted about, with her glasses sitting low on the bridge of her nose and her shirt sticking to her back as well. Her face was also reddened. It was unmistakable that Rea had put a significant amount of effort in the mini-marathon, maybe too much for her own sake. But she wouldn’t have done it any other way. Her smile was weak but light, her breath soft yet heavy. Her hand also felt as light as the autumn air, which Lilly had just realized she was still holding. She lets go with a surprising lack of tact, her head shaking around to see if they were caught by any wandering eyes. Rea exhaled.

                “C’mon, it shouldn’t be that big a deal.”

                “I know! I’m just not, eh, used… to it yet.”

                “You’re blushing!”

                “…shut up.”

                Lilly’s blushing aside, the remainder of their conversation flowed with comfortable ease. The wind would have been soothing if not for the heat picking up. Going deeper towards the back of the school, the trail was less pronounced, Rea rhythmically taps her hand along the metal fence to her left as they continued their walk. School assignments, music, books, the two filled the air with empty discussion while attempting to regain the necessary vitality. They also played a word game that involved starting a sentence using the last letter of the previous sentence’s last word. Rea started, Lilly won. A few more runners pass, but they’re mostly among the ‘walkers’ now. Reaching an ebb in their small talk, Rea looked at Lilly’s face before flippantly raising her voice.

                “You wanna talk about what’s bothering you?” Rea asked, still fixated onto Lilly’s blue eyes.

                “Eh?” Lilly faltered in her step for a moment. “That’s not part of the game!”

                Laughing again, Rea bumped her hip into her taller friend’s side, only getting her upper leg. “Ending that, don’t think I can’t tell, you’re mistaking me for a fool!” Lilly’s eyes move downward as she itches her face. I’m not that obvious… Rea jokily snorted again as Lilly shoved her hand into her pocket. “Wanna talk about it?” she restated.

                Stubbornly, Lilly breathed. “It’s nothing, really.” Apprehension tinged the blonde’s voice, Rea was especially attuned to it. All she could do was flashback a couple of days back on the hill, her mind being clear, and then instantly filled with thoughts and voices of hundreds. And the shock of that heaviness all at once. Like feedback on a guitar, the sharp and intense noise only rising until it was an unbearable torture. Every thought, every voice, every emotion that came with them was as large as a sea, all trying to forcibly fill in a cup that was her mind. Fearing her ability since, the sensation still haunted her. Lilly licked her lips before speaking again. “It’s not that bi-“

                Lilly gazed down at ruby hair. They’ve stopped any movement a second ago, and Rea hugged as snugly as she could. She’s done this before. “Rea…” was all Lilly could say.

                “This is fine, right?” the sound of her voice muffled in her shirt, “Best friends can hug it out like this!” Rea lifted her face off Lilly’s chest, her glasses now more off-kilter. She didn’t want to admit it, but Rea’s goofiness can work out in her favor occasionally. “Yeah.” Lilly patted Rea’s head. Alone together, they stay for a minute longer. Rea takes another deep breath. Gently, Rea raised herself on her toes, coming closer to Lilly’s face before-

                “Rea! Hey, Rea! You need to come with me for a minute!”

                Dust was the only thing that circled Lilly, her blank and confused expression looked on as Rea hastily made her way to the coach that had just called her. Rea made a hasty goodbye, all before hiding her flushed face in her baggy shirt and running off, but Lilly barely registered it. Huh? I don’t have to catch up… What? In a blink of an eye, Lilly was alone.

                “Of course…”

                Slowly but surely, Lilly found herself among the last stragglers of the run. Now resting on the stone edge of the fountain at the front of the school, she was content with getting last place. She counted the cars that pass by just ahead of the school gates, categorizing by color. They flew past in a haze of both speed and sweltering heat. The mist that lightly grazes her neck felt refreshing as ever; she never wanted to leave. Luckily for her, the last leg the walk wouldn’t be as mundane as she expected.

                “Sh-shall we get going?” The voice had so little presence there may as well have been no body for it to come from.

                Remorseful for not noticing the girl sitting beside her, Lilly spoke hastily. “Ah! Megumi, you’re like a ghost, ah ha…” Her attempt at banter went over the shyer girl’s head, taking light offense to it instead. “Eh… Yeah, come on, why don’t we get going?”

                She patted Megumi back, trying to stave off that somber expression a second more. The gawky brunette sat stiff at the contact. Ah, I still don’t know how to act around her completely, Lilly surmised.

                After a second more of rest, they made their way back to the school gymnasium. Finding themselves the last to enter the large space, the others in the gym class were pairing up for further exercise. Lilly caught herself before she thoughtlessly searched for Rea, having yet to see her after she got called away earlier. The disorder of kids pairing up kept bumping Megumi into Lilly’s arm, and she had by now gotten impatient in her search.

                “You look like you need a partner, Megumi. Mind if I join you?” Lilly was forced to firmly hold Megumi’s shoulders to not lose her in the commotion.

                “Y-yah, sure.” Megumi’s eyes darted about, as too much was happening around her to calm down. Lilly smiled at her meekness, I forget she does have some charm points after all.

                The class’ instruction was simple; every student doing fifty sit-ups each, with their partner holding their feet down. Losing a game of rock-paper-scissors, Lilly began to lay her back on the ground, Megumi getting in position to support her legs. Their workout pace was pathetically slow, but thankfully the students were paired together for a reason.

                “It- it’s a good thing we have a joint gym class today, right?” No one could take away Megumi’s effort to socialize, at least.

                “Hah, yeah, good thing, hah,” it was a point Lilly had neglected to make. Rea and Megumi are from the same class, it should be no real revelation to see them both at the same gym session. Nine… T-ten…

                Lilly briefly remembered the unassuming, but potent, lunch they shared a week ago. I wonder if Megumi thinks about that day. Probably not? Or would she rather have hung out with Rea? Come to think of it, Rea was by herself when I ran into her. She couldn’t have at least kept Megumi company? Would she really want to finish the laps first that much? I need to have a little chat with her about this… Mind floating over the fond memory, she recalled another important point.

                “-…-”

                It was that same radio-like interference from before. With eyes locking onto Megumi’s forehead, Lilly couldn’t make out a proper explanation. After what had happened on the hill, this relative silence was disconcerting. Why? Is Megumi connected somehow? This doesn’t make any sen-

                Lost in the haze of sit-ups, Lilly found her face parallel to Megumi’s, her lips just a hair’s breadth away from the brunette’s. The shortness of breath, the meeting of eyes, and the warmth exuding from their cheeks; Lilly could feel it all. Move! Please, move!

                Stunned, they both stood in place as the rest of the class toiled on. Flustered couldn’t begin to describe Lilly, but it was Megumi who was handling it worse. Along with the above symptoms, her face was one of abject panic. Cheeks rosier than red, eyes paralyzed with shock, and her voice too soft to make a response. A second longer before she crumbled entirely under the social anxiety. The still-embarrassed Lilly made the first move.

                “HA! Eh… S-sorry about, tha… T-twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two…”

                She finished her remainder with blinding speed, and then they switched. Though the next ten minutes melt away into a fog of embarrassment and discomfort. They both kept quiet in the meantime, avoiding any eye contact. Both wishing they could disappear.

                It was a godsend that the drills ended earlier than usual, but the girls were unaware that the class voted on a last minute relay for fun. Murmur bubbled among them as they all got placed into groups. Her body sore and her heart sinking, Lilly tried to hide her face with her hand as she moved to her spot on the makeshift track. Realizing her position, she moaned with stress. Having to shoulder the last leg of the relay was not something to look forward to. Having been separated from Megumi in the process, Lilly rationalized it was for the best.

                Bang! The noise and bustle of cheering, running and pure sportsmanship resonated throughout the gym. Lilly wondered if it was even close to a decent idea to appoint her as the anchor. Sooner than she’d hoped, the mass of runners rush towards her, Lilly’s partner lagging behind only one other person. The other person was sprinting with heated ferocity, and the distance between first and second getting larger. Fascinated at this spark of energy, Lilly watched with wonder as the face came closer into view.

                Rea?

                She blazed past without regard, enflamed hair trailing behind the runner’s body. But her expression was something Lilly hadn’t seen before. Ever. Her face held no emotion, her eyes giving away little feeling. Not even a countenance of fatigue from the relay. Even with that impressive energy to run, she looked burnt out. Rea looked burnt out. Normally Rea would look elated to expend all that energy. Puzzled, Lilly couldn’t make out this enigma. In merely a second Rea was more than far ahead. Why does she look like that?

                “Lilly… Lilly…”

                She turned back to meet her partner, Ayane, a classmate, who had been poking at her shoulder. Green eyes drill into her with impatience. How long was I standing here?

                “Sorry, please excuse me,” with clumsiness Lilly started her first steps, like a newborn chicken. Pushing with all her might, in reality it’s nothing better than a snail’s pace. She heaved a sigh as other racers began to pass her by, leaving her in dead last, her teammates expressing disappointment. Among the frustrating display, Rea turned the corner with the finish line in sight. …Why? Lilly had a swelling desire to go get Rea, even if it didn’t make sense.

                ‘Come on, don’t quit now!’ and ‘Keep going, Lilly!’ soon filled the gymnasium, the other participants feeling the hype. As if a response to the collective demand, she shut her eyes and ran with as much vigor as she could handle. Her legs felt lighter than ever, the chatter of cheering faded into nothing. Running on air, it was like. She felt calm, it felt easy, until-

                “WINNER!”

                Lilly opened her eyes. Confused at the loud celebrating, Ayane and the rest of her relay partners ran to congratulate her in gaiety. Even Megumi rooted for her in her own timid manner in the background. Still disoriented, Lilly tried to get a grip of the situation. Did I… win? Others voiced their astonishment, not believing that someone like Lilly apparently having latent running prowess. Lilly also timidly and humbly addressed her relay mates as well.

                Remembering her original goal, she searched among the faces, relaxing when her eyes found Rea in the distance. Gasping for air, she now kept a perplexed look, trying to make sense of Lilly’s performance. “Lilly…” was all Rea could say under her breath. Among the rejoicing, a feeling of oddly placed pride and bewilderment filled Lilly.

                Just wanting to be with her, that’s enough… right?

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