The Heroes of Sakakino

Chapter 14 Said the Fox to the Wolf

When Otome woke up that Tuesday morning, she went straight into her bathroom to look at her face in the mirror. Peering at her dismal and withered complexion, she checked the bags under her eyes.

She couldn't really tell how much sleep she had gotten the night before. If she did sleep, she didn't remember it, but her best guess had been less than an hour's worth of mere dosing. The rest of the night had been painful tossing and turning, with hundreds of worries and thoughts going through her head at once. Images flashed through her mind's eye of her mother's scornful grimace, the judgmental looks of students while she was being led through the hall with one arm in the firm grip of a uniform, and a dismal courtroom, the most prominent among the others. She pondered with shut eyes why Eiichi had approached her, how she had ruined it, what she had done to him and Kotonoha, what Eiichi thought of her now, if the other students knew now, if the school knew what she had done, and what their course of action would be.

After getting home yesterday, she had gone straight to her room, where she didn't bother changing out of her uniform and proceeded to curl up under the safety of the covers on her bed and release more of the shame, fear and despair she had carried home with her. She didn't tell anyone, and at dinner, said as little as possible; doing her best to hide the anguish and pose like everything was normal, which felt more painful than anything else. Not that it would have mattered, dinners at her house were typically quiet or tense, unless her perfect little sister started up about how wonderful her day was. Her little sister, Karen, the more athletic one, with bigger boobs and bigger grades. It made sense she was the only light in her parents lives, always receiving praise from them, unwary of their actions and probably believing everything was perfect in her perfect little life.

After dinner, Otome took the shower that she had longed for, assuming the fetal position beneath the warm rain and mist, with more silent sobs, hoping the noise from the falling water shielded them. And then it was to bed, where she prayed for sleep that never came, just wanting to escape the world, to go someplace where no one could hurt her.

Now at school, she had to continue the facade. She avoided Minami, Natsumi, and Kumi that morning, they would definitely notice the terrible shape she was in and then she would have to start dodging questions, which would only place more guilt on her.

She tried to remain as low profile as she could, not that it would have made a difference. Once the school got word, it would only be a matter of time before she was called to the office.

She found a quiet, unpopulated place to hide and eat during lunch, or eat what little she could without being overrun by nausea. The realization of how drastic things were, that she had been pushed to isolating herself for her misdeeds brought more tears that she could not choke back.

She got up quickly. Thankfully there was a trash bin nearby, the little bit of rice ball she managed to swallow had decided to come back up.

After washing her face, Otome continued on. There was a strange, liberating euphoria that came after throwing up. Like the body was saying, 'Well, it's gotten as bad as we can make it. If it happens again, nothing new.'

She was still waiting for it, nothing had happened so far, but she figured it would creep up when she least expected. It may even happen during her last class, as she eagerly awaited to leave, the voice would sound from the intercom, announcing her name. Or it may not even happen that way. The principal or one of the senseis from the school might appear at her house with a corrections officer, and she would be taken away for questioning.

The thought of all these things made her vision hazy, and she would need to stop and catch her breath.

When classes were over, she had just one more thing she needed to do before going straight home, while hoping nothing else would happen.

After her second set of failed plans, she remembered she had left the assessment forms on the table in the council room. During between classes, she had managed to sneak off and found them still laying on the table, surprised maintenance didn't trash them. She still had time to finish them. If there was one thing she could get done, it would be this.

This was on her mind along with quite possibly the only good feeling she had experienced all day. The freedom of going home, where she could be alone again, hopefully. If only for a while, if a corrections officer didn't appear. However, she still would eventually have to sit through the regular script of her angry mother's rantings about her father's tomcatting around.

It only reminded her that she was merely a mistake, an irritating blotch on her parent's once happy union. She wondered if they thought the same way of Karen. Since she was the youngest, they probably intended to have her, making Otome the off one, the one who should never have been. And at this, it begged the question, because of her relation with Itou, had she become just like all the women that her father fraternized with? She wouldn't be surprised if this knowledge would only turn her mother's hatred on her, she already didn't care who heard when she went off in that cold, stern tone of hers, rebuking Otome's father in the most vehement ways.

She was on her way to the faculty office and had just passed through a semi-populated hall, forms in hand, when a familiar, youthful face adorned with a tiny ponytail met her around a turn. She had been standing off to the side by a window, talking with three other girls, when all together, as Otome came walking by, they each cast steady, burning glares at her.

She knew how this worked, and she was in no position for a fight or to be harassed right now. Avoiding eye contact, she stared straight ahead, and kept just enough distance to not show weakness or aggression.

Their eyes followed her every step of the way. She just knew it, if nothing else happened, she just knew they were going to start in on her eventually. She couldn't go near her friends now, so she was alone. It was only a matter of time before they cornered her.

She wasn't even two feet away before one of them called to her.

"Hey you!"

She could hear footsteps behind her.

'Pick up the pace Otome…'

She deserved this. It was for all the trouble she had caused Katsura-san. She should have been more kind to her, even if she didn't like her. She had been wrong, and now it was time for her to pay for it.

She didn't even understand why she was running. She should just turn around and accept it.

She passed right by the corner of another hallway and a husky, familiar voice met her ears.

"Thought you got rid of me, huh?"

1Her head whipped to the right in mid stride. In this moment, when she couldn't unlock her startled gaze, she almost collided with an innocent bystander.

"Whoa!" the girl stumbled back.

"Sorry! Sorry!" Otome bowed frantically, clutching to her chest the forms she nearly dropped.

Her mind had already taken a momentary, cerebral snapshot before her head on collision. Eiichi had been leaning against the corner on one elbow, fist against his temple.

She turned slowly out of her rush to see he had not moved, and was still watching her like prey through his side glance.

No, not him. Please not him. She had enough on her mind. She had not seen him or Kotonoha all day, and just when she thought she could get through this one without any issues, he shows up at the last minute. When she prided herself on being someone pretty good at causing trouble, she had finally learned that he was trouble, and she wanted nothing more to do with it. Though trouble did come with its temptations.

That jet black hair that she just wanted to run her hands through like it was catnip, those sharp, blue eyes of his that stared right through her with that cad, wolfish smile across his lips no less, and with all the strain she was under already, she thought she might just drop cold right there from a heart murmur. That actually didn't sound so bad, now that she thought of it. The perfect way out.

She had stopped in surprise of him, but the girls in her wake continued their pursuit until they crossed right in front of him.

"Whoa, hey, where's the fire?" he somehow noticed they were headed straight for her and rushed forward, stopping them with a subtle raised hand.

"Eiichi-sama…" one of them reacted, surprised.

They looked to him with admiration, but their gazes became questioning as to his action, and they looked to her with continued disdain.

"Did you need to speak with Katou-san about something?" he asked.

More trading of looks, they appeared edgy.

"Eiichi-sama, didn't she try to hurt you and Kotonoha-sama?"

Eiichi turned an eye on her and then back to the enemy posse, "That she did, but she's not doing anything like that now. Why are you girls chasing after her?"

"Well…"

"Come on, this is high school, not maximum security. Umi, I thought you were better than this…"

While he discussed with her pursuers, she kept her eyes to the floor, her shoulder to them, arms stiffly crossed over the forms.

Why was he defending her, what was the catch? They had everything they needed to bring her down, so why not get it over with?

"We just want to make sure she doesn't hurt you and Kotonoha-sama anymore," one girl defended.

"And I can appreciate that fully, but Koto and I have already seen to that. You don't have to worry about Katou-san, she's not the person you believe her to be. Now, I have business to discuss with her. You don't need to play body guard and follow us along, I think I'll be fine. Have you girls been to Ohara's across the street? The coffee isn't bad and a friend of mine really likes their cakes."

A few sighs from the girls, likely with more damaging looks to her that would have been painful if she had seen them.

"Okay…but be careful around her. Kotonoha-sama told me that she's not to be trusted."

Eiichi chuckled, "I'll keep that in mind, thank you."

"We'll see you around Eiichi-sama…"

The quirky attack squad left, and she looked out of the corner of her eye to see Eiichi shaking his head at them. Then, before she knew it, he was standing right next to her.

He heaved a sigh, "I don't think I will ever get use to people calling me that."

She tried to hide it, but she was pretty sure she let some of her hopeless surprise show.

She suffered with a lot the night before, but something he told her had helped to alleviate some of the pain. He had called her beautiful. Not even Makoto, her very first love had told her that, and yet this vagrant had said it with such boldness and honesty, with her held fast in his arms, while remaining true to the one he cherished more than her. What she had done after, she couldn't help herself! How could she just pass up an opportunity like that?

She thought it would have made things a little easier, but no, kissing him had only made things worse on her. She only wanted to alleviate the tension some, but now that she had a taste, she wanted more.

Her chest puffed out against the forms, eyes widening involuntarily with a hiss of air through the nose, she spun on her heel, and was off.

Again, she could hear trailing footsteps behind her brisk ones, "Ya know, you're about the third girl to avoid me this week, and it's not even Wednesday. What is it, my breath?"

A special tease from him to her, no doubt. She didn't remember much about his breath, in fact, she had been so emotionally overrun, there was only so much she could remember; just that he was not as rough and crude as he made himself out to be. Even when he had pushed her off, suspending her torso by the shoulders like that, keeping her at a distance, but supporting her at the same time, and not tossing her to the side like trash, it had been a combination of gentle firmness that was so alien to her, she had to hold herself back from the need to pull on him again. This only made her experience all the more sweet, even if the remorse had been excruciating. She knew he could get violent, he had shown that with Makoto, but she knew now, Eiichi never wanted to hurt anyone if he could help it. Even the threats he made toward her sounded like just a front to get her to stop hurting Kotonoha.

"You're a bastard, you know that?" she did not intend this to slip, she only wanted to avoid him and get home, but he stayed hot on her trail, forcing her hand, so she could only throw whatever she had at him.

"Oh, I'm a bastard? I didn't force my tongue down someone's throat."

She whipped around a turn and stopped with the forms crumpling in one stiff hand. Facing his innocent blinking, with hands in his pockets, she raised a defensive finger at him and sliced it through her stern words, "You knew I would do it. You knew. I don't know how, but you knew. You knew, you knew…" she repeated the slicing and continued to maneuver around another group of students while power walking.

"So what was I supposed to do, walk away?"

What was he thinking, following her? He was aware of what she was capable of. She saw the damage in his eyes, so why was he placing so much focus on her?

"For a smart guy, you can be pretty stupid sometimes, holding a girl while you're devoted to someone else."

"I have that effect on people. You said I was full of crap, but I guess I proved you wrong. Otome, you needed someone and I was serious about everything I said. I was only trying to help as a friend…Otome…"

She rounded another corner.

"I don't need you to tell me that! What I want to know is why you're so concerned for me all of a sudden?"

"You've been dealing with this for too long!"

"Oh! So you're just the big friggin' know it all now, arncha'? And just how would you know?"

"Really? You're asking that question? From day one, it's been pretty obvious. And I overheard a few rumors as well."

"Yeah, right! The only people who would know that would be my friends and—"

"Where do you think I heard them?"

"They…" she stopped with fists clenching at her sides, ruining the forms even more, "Rrrgh! I'm gonna' kill them!" and continued on.

"Well don't get mad with them. They didn't really tell me, like I said, I overheard them…"

She had nothing to say to this, she had nothing more to say to him. She just wanted to get away before something else happened.

"By the way, Koto destroyed the footage. We've decided not to go to the school, you're free."

Oh that was laughable, why would he tell her something like that? She wasn't going to let him play her for the fool again, not with his cunning.

However, her intrigue made her steps slow down, and she noticed suddenly her shoulders felt lighter for some reason.

"I'm guessing with your order?"

"No, she did it all on her own. It might surprise you to know, she's been doing just fine without my help."

"Not really," she whipped around another corner, walking faster.

Whoopee! Score one more for Kotonoha, being the perfect girl, and making her feel more morose. Another reason why she didn't belong with these two, why she was beginning to feel she didn't belong with anyone.

Why couldn't he just leave her alone? She had caused them nothing but trouble. It seemed to be all she was good for now, even with Makoto and Sekai. She had just been another notch on Makoto's bedpost and another person for Sekai to hate if she had found out.

She blindly pushed through a door.

"Why won't you take a hint and just go away! Why are you following me!?" she shouted back.

"Otome!"

"No!"

"Where are you going!?"

"Away from you!"

"No, I mean seriously, where are you going!? You just led us all the way out to the track field!"

"Ack!" she stopped and looked around frantically, her settings had suddenly changed from a bland hallway to a grass padded field and bleachers with her being none the wiser.

"Weren't you headed somewhere with those papers?" he poked a finger when he caught up.

She shot a glance down at the rumpled assessment forms in her hands. Would the faculty even accept these now?

"You look like you're having a pretty rough day," now standing calmly in front of her.

"Why should you care?" she leered.

"You didn't sleep much last night, did you?"

She almost touched her face, "Yeah so!? That's pretty obvious."

"I'm not trying to guess here. Why won't you let someone show concern?"

"Why are you even here? What makes you think I'm being so honest with you, huh? Maybe I'm just planning another trap, did you ever think that?"

"And so I'm to assume that kiss meant nothing…"

The kiss, he had brought it up, and so casually too, but not without notable concern. She was surprised he brought it up at all, she thought that was something he'd rather leave alone. Or maybe it was her.

Was she really about to say it?

"Well…maybe it didn't…" she looked away.

He didn't say anything, and she worried she might have struck a nerve unintentionally. She would take it back immediately if she did. How could she have lied to him like that again, this time about something so precious to her?

She risked a timid side glance and saw that he was peering at her inquisitively, head cocked to the right with a hand hanging in one pocket. She loved it when he did that, but of course this wouldn't bother him, he had it made.

"Listen, Koto knows I'm here, and she knows about what happened. She didn't come herself because she figured this was something you and I needed to sort out, and she knows if she did, things would be more awkward and there would only be sparks between you two."

"I wouldn't be surprised if she never wants to see my face again…"

He began scratching or rubbing his forehead, or something. She could never figure out why he did that so much. She knew of the rumors about his 'chronic headache syndrome' or whatever, maybe this was why. Through noticing him more, she had actually found this charming. It made him look like he was thinking really hard about something, which must have been the case, because he certainly had a lot to say most of the time.

"You're not too far from it. Is that why you're resigning from student council next year?" he asked.

"Wow, she just tells you everything, doesn't she?"

"It's a two way street, if you haven't noticed. Really, we both figured that might be the case. She doesn't want you to resign."

"Well, you two have definitely been doing a lot of thinking about me. Why? So she can browbeat me all of next year?"

"You can bet you've created a lot of reasons for her to be angry with you, but she's more forgiving than you give her credit."

"How can you guys have such trust for each other? I thought it would…I don't know, put you guys on the rocks or something. I know it's hard for you to believe, but that's not why I…kissed you…"

"I realize that. It's like I said before, you're a good person," he stepped forward, "I know you're a good person, you've just made some bad decisions. I'm here to tell you that we forgive you."

"You forgive me, wow, that's rich."

"Is it so hard for you to comprehend?" he looked at her with narrowed concern.

"Well, yeah! Don't you get it? I tried to destroy you! I wanted to embarrass and ruin both of you! I…I hated you…"

He padded a section of his coat, but it must have been unintentional, because he consciously lowered his hand and shuffled one of his shoes in the grass. He looked like he was thinking about what to say next.

And then he lifted his head, "You're hate was founded on false principles. If you really wanted to do that, you would have tried it, long ago. You did everything based on what you thought you saw, not what you really felt. Truth can be stranger than fiction. A guy and a girl alone in a confined room, anyone would assume the worst, but we already went over this. When I approached you, it was in part to show what you thought of me wasn't true. What you did may have been out of pure affection, but subconsciously, maybe you wanted to see for yourself how true your own doubts were. And when you realized how wrong they really were, that's when you ran. The fact of the matter is, you don't hate me now, do you?"

That was some wacky psych lingo he had going for him there. In the end, she was just another one of his 'patients', and she never wanted that. Otome the bitch, Otome the problem child. 'We just want to help, Otome.' She could never amount up to anyone's standards. Kotonoha and Eiichi had popularity up to their necks, while she had become just another stepping stone.

"Stop acting like you know me so well! You think just because you're popular, you can suddenly walk on water!? You don't come from my family! You have no idea what it's like!"

For some reason he started wincing, and touched his head again, and it threw her off. She tried to ignore it. If she brought it up, it would only change the subject, but it made her uneasy. If something happened to him, she'd call for help, no matter how angry she was with him. The fact of the matter was, she still loved him.

He lowered his arm and it looked like he recovered. He spoke sternly, "Do you intend on explaining that more?"

"What!? No!"

"Then why did you mention it?"

How was she supposed to answer that?

"I…I don't…" she remembered, despite what she thought she knew, she really didn't know anything about him. "It's different…" her stressed voice lowered to a mutter while brooding to the grass, "I don't have a happy family to come home to…"

He waited a moment, "Do you want to know why I've forgiven you?"

"Because I'm a 'good person', right?" she mockingly nodded her head side to side.

"Because you're a human being. If you hadn't stopped, I would have gone through with bringing you down, but only to stop you from harming others. When I yelled at you, that was my own fault, I lost control of my anger again, and it felt horrible. I saw how much it hurt you, and I did my best to take it back. And…" he took a moment to look at the grass, flexing his hands, and then looked her right in the eyes, "…as good as it felt when you kissed me…it did hurt…"

He really thought that? He liked it too!? She had spent this entire time thinking he had been insulted by it. She knew he was telling the truth, it was glowing a pinkish-red right across the bridge of his nose. He looked so cute, getting nervous like that.

"I can only imagine what it must feel like coming home, afraid of what's going to happen next. I don't want to drop comparisons here, but you seem to forget who you're talking to. Do you remember the rumors about me? I wasn't always Eiichi the Hero…"

She spoke slowly, her words weighed down by her shame, "Yeah…my friends and I made fun of you a lot when you weren't around…we were actually afraid of you…well, I was…"

"And it's a good thing you had them. You see, that's pretty much how everyone felt about me. I don't know what it's like to have a harsh family, but I know what it's like to feel scared and small, all the time. I wasn't disgusted with you, Otome. If you hadn't run away, we could have talked. You could say you unwittingly got back at me with that. I understand it was something important, and I don't know about you, but I didn't think it was small and trivial."

She had thought that, it felt ridiculous that it was so important to her. For some stupid reason, she had convinced herself it was just one stupid, little kiss, so what would be the harm? He must have felt like she laid another trap for him. It was not her intention, but if that really was the case, she fell right into it with him.

"But you realized how much it hurt me. I would have still told Koto when you weren't around, and gotten in trouble for it, but we would still be together, just like we are now. Things could have turned out better, but they still can. I was very cold to you these past few months because of everything at the festival. I never really forgave you for it, and I'm sorry…"

"Well, it's kinda' late now, don't you think?"

No, no, not true, not true! Why did she keep saying stuff she didn't mean!? She meant because of what she did.

He stood there, looking hurt, but continued, "No it's not…I want us to put this behind us and work towards something better. I'm willing to make a change. The question is, are you?"

"What do you mean, change?" she almost scoffed at the idea. Just what exactly did he want her to change? It was pretty obvious, 'stop breaking the rules Otome.' 'You're only making it harder on yourself, Otome.'

"It's not even a matter of literal change, it's not even a matter of what I want," patting his chest and then pointing at her, "It's what you decide. It's a lot simpler, and yet it might be the most difficult thing you will ever do—"

"Spit it out already!" damn he talked too much, the anticipation was torture.

"Just…be satisfied with yourself. Be satisfied with Otome."

She stared back at him, air hissing out of his nostrils after the tension. He seemed like he had been really scared to tell her that.

She didn't really know what to say to this. Be yourself. Sure, it was one of those classic philosophies they taught back in primary school, through teachers that might not remember who she was and posters on overly decorated walls of finger paintings. However, all that lack luster inspiration got lost somewhere in her education. No one, especially not her family, had ever said it to her with such conviction.

"I think you've been so busy, you haven't given time to look at the real Otome. You may find it hard to believe, but behind that callous shell, I see someone who's sweet, protective, kind, and very deserving of those same virtues."

She gritted her teeth, glaring fire at him.

Who did he think he was, spouting all this crap, trying to butter her up? She didn't want his help, she was just fine on her own…was she? From what he expressed, there must have been a time when he thought the same way. Was he right? Just minutes ago, she had been staring expulsion in the face, and a likely misdemeanor or even a felony charge. It only took a few words from him to make all of that go away. If she walked away now, it would feel like she was taking what he had done for granted.

Her jaw loosened, though even now it felt tense.

The last time she had looked in the mirror had been this morning, and it had been uglier than before. She had avoided the mirror in the bathroom, while washing her face. In fact, she couldn't remember once looking in that mirror and smiling, or being satisfied with what she saw. How long had she been thinking like this? When she first met Katsura? Or…had it been Karen? Her own sister… And where had it gotten her? She had done terrible things she never imagined possible for her, even to someone she cared about. When everyone around her was laying the hammer down, he stood here repeating the same good things. Sure, he pointed out the bad things, but still, he told her she was beautiful, he told her she was good without holding back, he who was saying all these wonderful things to her, the first and only guy so far to say them to her, even though he couldn't have her. With all his power and appeal, it would have been so easy for him, but he wouldn't let himself have her. Of course, he was dating 'miss perfect'…but he had said this to her anyways.

"Do you hate me now, because I said that?" he muttered somberly.

For a guy with so much confidence, he seemed pretty concerned with how she felt about him all of a sudden.

"No…I don't hate you…" she sulked, but how was she supposed to follow that up? "It may be hard for you to believe—"

"If I didn't believe a word you said, I wouldn't be standing here."

She had to give him that. That time he avoided her and stormed off had been scary, Twilight Zone status. Although there was no way he knew anything about what she was planning. She had assumed it was just because he found another reason to hate her.

"I…I feel awful about what I did. I have to admit, I was really scared…Sawanaga told me he and Katsura had a history, but I didn't know…what did he do to her?"

He lowered his gaze and she noticed his fingers waving and flexing next to each other, "He didn't really do anything to her, but I'd rather not speak of it. She handled Sawanaga on her own, and did just fine, but I'd advise you stay away from him during your remaining years here. Something tells me he has a dark future ahead if he doesn't wise up."

"I was just so freaked out when that happened. I didn't think Katsura-san would react so violently, and Sawanaga running completely surprised me. I wish I could have seen exactly what happened in there…"

"Probably best you didn't. For a smart girl, you can be pretty stupid sometimes. Remember, she saved my life, but had to kill someone to do it. It's something that's haunted her ever since."

She looked up at him and managed a weary smirk, "So that's not just a rumor…"

"It's not…"

She cast her eyes down, ruffling the papers in one hand. She still couldn't figure out what to say to his statement, "I never apologized for it, and you've already forgiven me…I don't know how I could ever take back what I did."

"You can start by continuing with your life. Forgiving yourself and taking better care of yourself wouldn't be a bad move either," she peeked up as he was giving the bags under her eyes more analysis. "And if you want to know real forgiveness, try being our friend. Give it time, but I think if you stick with student council, and give talking with Koto a shot, you'll learn that you two can patch things up pretty well."

She couldn't believe this was happening. Never in a million years had she ever known someone to be this forgiving. Anyone else would have had her locked up and thrown away the key by now.

"No…I can't…"

"What, is it too much?"

"Yes! It's…" she croaked.

She couldn't cry now, his nature might force him to her again, and she wouldn't be able to live with herself if that happened. She didn't even know if she could stand to be around them now, much less him.

He spoke, "I'm not going to force you to do anything. Last time was because you were in a really dark place and I couldn't just leave you that way. Koto said something to me yesterday that I had a really hard time accepting, but she was right. If you don't want any help, or you don't want our help, we understand, and we'll leave you alone. But I would much rather see you become our friend than have you sulking around campus. My input is that it would be the better of the two choices. Don't be surprised if we turn up every now and then though, even after I graduate. Otome, with the measures you took, I have to say, you wanted our attention. And now…I think you're stuck with us…"

Was it really possible for her to become their friend, after everything she did? She had never heard of something so strange. She had just gotten settled with avoiding him.

"You saying you're going to stalk me now?" she retorted.

"It's like you want to make everything sound bad. I'm saying if you say no, we're still going to be here to talk to, if you change your mind."

To have Eiichi to go to for 'council' sounded like one of the most bizarre and unlikely things to ever happen for her, but where else did she have to go? Since her friends seemed to have turned over a new leaf, they might just stop talking to her if she went to them. There was no one else closer or more available. She was free now, but this was still hanging over her head.

He lifted a reassuring hand, "Just think about it, you don't have to answer now…"

He may have not loved her the way she wanted him to, but she was getting the feeling he loved her somehow. The common practice for anyone would have been to let the person down easy and then avoid them like the plague, but he actually wanted to bring her closer. He just kept pushing her, and she wasn't even sure where, but he had given back her freedom, so wherever it was, it must be someplace good. Just like with the kiss, how could she pass this up?

She clasped the papers in both hands, wobbling and playing with the parchment, "Can…can I join you guys for lunch…sometime…"

When she looked back at it him, the surprise to see his face light up so brilliantly made her reel away. A smile like that on him was really unbecoming.

"I…I mean, b-because things have been a little weird with my friends…it's been hard to be around them…"

"Otome, we eat on the roof."

"You eat on the roof!?" they were more daring than she thought.

"Yeah, I only learned about it last year, and I'm a senior. The senseis don't really check it that much. And about your friends, tell them I'm willing to talk with them."

"Y-you are?"

"I know my expressions toward them last year were very offensive, for obvious reasons, but I'm willing to hear them out and make amends. All those times I picked Koto up from your meetings, I've noticed they've been avoiding me and I get the feeling I scared them off."

"They'll be pretty blown away once they know I've been talking to you…and on such good terms…"

"You might get a charisma boost with that," he chuckled.

"Yeah…" she smoothed the papers, feeling more at ease.

Everything was suddenly starting to fall into place, in one day! It almost felt too good to be true. People she considered enemies were now becoming her friends. The feeling didn't seem that farfetched, she had seen it in action movies. They had given her future, her life back, and she felt like she owed them everything. She was just happy to see him being so kind to her again, everything from the day before had been so mixed up, she was beginning to feeling like his approaching her had been a fluke, like she had imagined it.

"And with that out of the way…"

He thrust his hands down, palms facing toward her. This was startlingly familiar.

Every limb in her body seized up as she lurched back, "Y-You're not gonna' do it again, are you!?"

And the good feeling was gone.

"What? No! This…" he shook his arms, "I'm-I'm making myself your target. Gimme' your best shot."

"What are you getting at?"

"Think of it as your special initiation into our group. You've been wanting to get it out, I can tell. We're alone, no one's going to hear. You have the floor Otome, this time use your words, not your lips. It's confession time my child."

"Oh no…you don't expect me to—"

"Come on, you're a tough girl. If you can coax yourself into planting one on me, then three measly words should be a piece of cake."

"It's not just three measly words! I mean," she couldn't do it, not like this, it was too sudden, "No way!"

"You can run if you want, but saying it will help a lot more."

"Why should I? What good will it do me?"

"You're aware of what closure is, right? That feeling of knowing you completed something, doing what you expected of yourself."

"I never expected this!"

"Is that so, hmm…" he mused at the clouds, "I guess you really did only want me for my bod then."

"Oh you are so full of yourself!" she pointed. "All that fame has gone right to your head Eiichi Kuzoka!" though this wise ass she was yelling at did have a pretty hard ass, and a set of abs and chest she could probably bounce a yen off of. She knew, she had touched them. What did he do after school anyways? He had to play a sport of some kind, there was no way all that just happened.

"Oh wow," he smoothed out with sarcasm, "You might be right. It sneaks up on you, doesn't it?"

How did he manage to get under her skin so easily? This is what made her just want to punch him. He did make himself 'her target'…

"Tch…" she crossed her arms, giving the grass a withdrawn head shaking, "I swear, you can be pretty ungraceful sometimes…"

"What's graceful about it?"

She stopped.

"When is it ever perfect? When is it ever how you imagined it, exactly? If you keep thinking like that, it may never happen for you. From everything you've learned, you should be able to understand. What matters is the here and now."

She leered at him and then turned with ferocity, "Fine! You want to hear it so bad!? Eiichi Kuzoka, I luh…" this felt too weird, suddenly her chest hurt like before, her hands felt cold and she had to collect herself. She shut her eyes as tight as she could, with grit teeth and fists at her sides, she leaned into the pain, forcing it out, "I luh…"

She couldn't get it to come out, she had never done this before and she sounded so stupid. She had already slept with a guy, but she couldn't get herself to say three stupid, childish words. He was such a jerk, pushing her to do this in broad daylight, with all his talk of feelings and 'we're all alone, so it's okay'… That one sounded more pervy than she wanted, but so what, he said it, not her.

"Try again, this time with less vinegar and more honey."

"What, you want me to sound like one of those mushy, slice of life anime girls you probably drool over?" What was she saying!? Her favorite had always been Makoto Sawatari from Kanon, and not because she had the same name as Itou. She could still remember clutching her pillow and bawling her eyes out when Makoto passed on to continue her other life as a fox, but no one would ever hear her admit to that.

He was eyeing her keenly…why was he suddenly looking at her like that?

"I just want you to feel like you said it. Don't worry about what I think. This has little to do with me, you're the one in the spotlight."

"Yeah, putting a girl on the spot isn't the right way to go about it."

"If you came to me with this, wouldn't you be putting me on the spot?"

"Not really, the answer is easy for you."

He gazed at her with a swivel of his chin, "It's not as easy as you think…"

What did he mean by that? But he had pretty much confessed that he found her attractive, or more importantly, that he just simply liked her. He was very honest, almost to a level of brutality. If he could be that honest with her, this was the least she could do.

"Eiichi Kuzoka…" she rolled her eyes before shutting them, heaving an exhausted sigh. "I…" there was no way this could sound any less weird. "I…" just focus on those eyes…those deep, blue eyes…

'One word at a time Otome'

"I…love…you…"

They blinked at her and smiled.

"There, I said it, okay…" looking away, her face felt really, really warm.

He stepped closer and stuck out his hand.

"I appreciate your affections, but I can only answer them as a friend…I'm sorry Otome, but you can't have your cake and eat it too…"

"Like I said, what was the point?" she frowned, exhausted.

"That you made it known to the person in question. I'm a firm believer that actions speak louder than words, but you have to admit, it's harder being honest about your feelings than simply responding with body language. It takes a different kind of courage, and you wouldn't have said it if you didn't want me to hear it…"

A little gust of wind picked up, brushing those dark locks over his eyes, and it felt that much harder for her to let go.

He was right. Somehow, in her screwed up little life, she had managed to do everything but say those words to someone she cared about. With Makoto, she really only admitted her admiration, in a dark room no less. It was nothing as outright as this. In fact, it had been what she imagined the natural course of things. To confess first, and yet she lost sight of it, all the simplicities of natural love and companionship doused by her infectious desires.

"Hey…"

She turned away, weary from her self-berating to see his hand was still out.

"Stop beating yourself up, you are so much more than that. Everybody makes mistakes, you will heal from this…things will get better…"

Why did she suddenly feel he wasn't referring to just her recent mistakes? Like he knew her more than she knew herself. Maybe it was her imagination. She was really tired, stressed and emotional. That would explain it.

Reluctantly, her hand edged toward his.

"You're not going to try anything funny, are you?"

She looked from his hand, this time to be greeted with a compassionate smile.

"Be careful…I don't think I'm over you yet," she said with sternness, and their hands clapped together.

"Understood. I won't have to beat you off with a stick, will I?"

"You're such a boyscout…"

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