The Heroes of Sakakino

Chapter 15 The Heroes of Sakakino

A Triple Date

It was afternoon, and the traffic outside the Ohara Sweets Shop sped by noisily with busy people on their way to get shopping done, running errands, or traveling to meetings. Sidewalk pedestrians sauntered past in the cool, lethargy inducing spring air, some in school uniforms, others in business or casual attire.

Against the brick wall several feet from the door, leaned a rebellious looking young man, with a head of black flecked hair and a sharp gaze in his uncanny intelligent eyes, a tieless, unbuttoned Sakakino uniform hung loosely over his slacks. Next to him, also leaning against the wall, with hands in his pockets, in a sibling like attempt to mimic his adjoining predecessor, a gangly, yet gentlemanly looking young man in a pair of spectacles. His stature dwarfed a rough seven inches by his companion, his Sakakino uniform well-kept and aligned with a red tie present. His bright, boyish eyes looked about from under brown, curving locks, with gentle excitement and an unannounced delight for the situation he found himself in, as the two conversed lively under the traffic noises.

Eiichi laughed heartily, "Haha! So that's what happened?"

"Y-Yeah…" Yuuki blushed.

"See? You took your first big step and you didn't even need my help," Eiichi balled one of his hands into a fist and gave Yuuki a tap on the shoulder. "Nice going there, smooth operator," a complement that was more true about Yuuki, in Eiichi's opinion, than Yuuki would have given himself credit. "I'm just surprised it happened so fast for you two, I thought Chie n' I were gonna' have to pull on the both of you more."

Eiichi had learned about Roka and Yuuki's first encounter through Yuuki some days ago, but never got much of a chance to talk with him about it because they were both either busy with studying or attending to other matters. When Eiichi first saw them together during their lunches, he was ecstatic and overjoyed.

Plus, a factor reached his attention and had him feeling a happiness he didn't expect. Because of their joint efforts, his special lunch with Koto that he always looked forward to for the solitude and quality time, had become a gathering with four additional people that he had special ties to in one way or another. And he was happy.

"I don't know how it happened so quick, myself. Just before I knew it, we were kissing!"

"Well, you two have had it bad for each other long enough."

"I guess you're right. It just kinda' happened, and I didn't even know what I was doing."

"That's the funny thing about it, you don't know when it'll happen until it really happens. It kinda' throw you off guard, huh?"

"Yeah…like everything is just happening automatically…"

Eiichi took another drag as they stood shoulder to shoulder, contently watching the passing traffic and sidewalk pedestrians. He had noticed a few uniformed skirts and casual dresses that had passed by, giving the two a perfervid look over before continuing on. It would only be disappointing for them to discover these two were already spoken for. He gave it a quick thought, amazed it only just crossed his mind, but they must look like night and day.

He saw Yuuki peek a side glance at him, thinking the same thing.

"You know, for the short time we've known each other, I'm going to find it really difficult not seeing you around campus."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah, you've become like a household name. Even when I didn't know you, I knew about you. I don't think people will stop talking about you for a while…"

"Aw~ you've gotten all attached to me."

"H-Hey, don't say weird things!"

"Well, be sure to tell the new freshman my death defying legacy."

"Yeah, I think I'll just let that be…"

Eiichi chuckled and then turned, giving Yuuki a smile, "Well, to be honest, you're the first real friend I've ever had."

Yuuki was struck by this, "R…really?"

"Yeah…" he nodded.

Yuuki tilted his head down and then back up, "Thanks man…"

"No problem buddy…" and then Eiichi balled his hand into a fist again, presenting it to Yuuki, "C'mon…"

"What's that?"

"A fist bump. Please tell me you know what a fist bump is…" he droned.

"No, I do…it's just the first time anyone's every offered me one…you're the first friend I've ever had as well…"

Eiichi smirked, "Yeah, they probably thought you were too astute for it."

"Hey," Yuuki irked, but then looked at the gesture still before him.

In his awkwardness, he made a fist and padded against Eiichi's.

"Now it's official," Eiichi nodded back to the traffic, "And you guys will get to see enough of me outside of school. You can come by to visit whenever you like. Koto has a key now, so feel free to hang out while Torio and I are away."

"Oh yeah, speaking of which, do you think you're going to get into your school of choice?"

Eiichi breathed a sigh, "Well, I have three lined up, no idea which is going to take me. I don't even know if I want to stay on campus."

"Won't you two be lonely if that happens?"

"Yeah…I guess it would be ideal. I won't have to drive anywhere if I stay on campus. It would be the longest we've ever been separated. I'm still thinking about it, but when you look at it, it's kind of another exorcise."

"Exorcise?"

"In patience, in loyalty. Learning to be apart will strengthen us. I've learned in the weirdest ways that life can take you down all kinds of roads. If we can't stand to be away from each other, how are we going to handle it if something like that comes up where we are separated anyways?"

Yuuki mused to the traffic, "I suppose you have a point…"

"I don't want it to happen, but that might end up being the case…" Eiichi's chin furrowed, and he shrugged it off.

He didn't know who would have the toughest time, maybe they could make a game out of that, to laugh off the tension. Depending which university accepted him, if any, he may end up being too far away to visit every weekend. However, Kotonoha might do it anyways, she did have a limo. That would be a relief. It was the being away from her, being away from home on a regular basis that gave him this empty feeling in his stomach. He was an introvert after all, they both were! Being in a new place, surrounded by new people, admittedly made him uneasy.

He decided to change the subject, "On a different note, I'm pretty sure Tokyo U is out of the question, I'm shooting high with that one."

"What are you going to major in?"

Eiichi gave it some thought. He had actually had this in the back of his mind for a while now, considering the major events of the past year.

"I'm thinking a major in psychology with a minor in pre-law, or I might go all out and get a double major, I want to see where I'll be after the first two years."

"Get the psychology degree," Yuuki blurted with wide eyes.

"W-Well…"

"I can't explain why, just get it. I think you'll blaze right through it."

"Um…okay. Thanks?"

"Your welcome," Yuuki faced forward.

That was…sudden. A quick inspection showed Yuuki to be fuming with confidence for him. He was probably right, and as Eiichi took another drag, he figured he would take Yuuki's word for it. Yuuki had been listening to him long enough anyways.

"You know, when you first took that electric cig thing out, it really threw me off. I was seriously thinking we were going to get caught."

"Oh yeah…" Eiichi rolled the vaporizer around in his hand.

"You kind of do behave like a delinquent sometimes."

"Nah, people just gave me that title. I'm just Eiichi, and Eiichi is all that I am. I believe there are rules in our society that don't have any firm ground. They're there to be broken, and I think it bears no reflection on a person's true nature if they are," he took another drag. "Plus I like it. And Koto gave it to me," he smiled.

Yuuki snickered and checked his phone, "What's taking them so long?"

"Get used to it, there's a reason why they told us to meet them here," Eiichi was certain this was the start of a trend.

After another few minutes of idle chatting, Yuuki looked up the walkway.

"There they are. And they brought Otome!"

Oh no, they brought Otome. Why, in the name of all that was good a decent, did they bring Otome!?

Sure enough, from their perspective they could see three, budding young girls in Sakakino uniforms, black stockings and all, headed up the sidewalk toward them. The long haired, fair and modest Kotonoha, the short and feisty, purple twin-tailed Roka, and between them, the just as feisty, but willful Otome, currently in an obvious state of bashful submissiveness.

It's not that Eiichi didn't want her to be here, but he knew she was self-conscious of the fact she was pretty much a fifth wheel, with her former rival and him around to boot, not to mention Roka, the one she accused him of sleeping with behind Koto's back. He couldn't help feeling sorry for her, for her worries about being inferior. It was all because of his half-witted offer to have her join their lunch group, which was all couples now, except for days when Chie decided to join, in which Otome did not feel as out of place. He didn't see any problem with it, but it was her awareness that made it a problem. Nonetheless, she continued to join their lunches, every day in fact. Though timid about the situation, she was slowly beginning to get livelier with conversation. He had noticed in her output a display of perseverance, like she was searching for something, which is why he decided to not say anything after the fact, despite her dampened confidence. She just kept pushing those worries aside, allowing herself to get swept up with everyone else. Compared to confessing to him, he thought this would be mental torture for her, but she must have not seen it that way. She was learning. Slowly, but surely.

The three approached. Koto and Eiichi greeted each other in their usual manner, with a quick 'hello' kiss, while considering the mixed company. Yuuki approached Roka with some still visible shyness, but not without casual hand holding.

Eiichi saw Otome, standing out as she had been all that past week. Her pain caused him pain, that was for sure. Her output made a residual flutter every time she saw him with Koto, but he had noticed a desensitization in the past few days. She had seen them together enough, even before befriending him, so this reaction was not as intense as it had been in days before.

"Hey Otome…" Eiichi nodded with a smile.

"Hey Eiichi…" Otome smiled back, as if to say 'I'm doing fine.'

This was meant to be a double date, though all their lunches together were not all that different, just less public. This might have been why he was so concerned for her sake. Though there was a chance someone might notice her state of affairs and be drawn to her. She couldn't tell, but the lonely girl look was cute on her.

Otome busied herself with the interactions between Roka and Yuuki, so Eiichi took this opportunity to communicate with his significant other, giving Koto an obvious dim look.

She saw it, and returned with blank confusion and an encrypted message, 'What?'

Eiichi made a motion with his head to the object of his concerns, with moving lips that spouted a few unheard cracks of broken communication, "What is she doing here? Hasn't she been through enough?"

Koto sighed, glancing away, agitated, and then stared back at him, 'I understand she's been feeling awkward, but she's getting used to it. I'm sorry this is last minute, I know we originally planned this to be just the four of us, but these types of things are casual, and I'd feel bad if we just left her out. It's a step up for her to be with us somewhere else for a change.'

Still, it would have been nice if she let him know ahead of time, so they could discuss it.

'Besides, you never know. A girl in her position really stands out.' At least they agreed on that.

"Are you two okay? You're just…glaring at each other..." Roka had suddenly called attention to their supernatural radio frequency.

"Oh-oh! Um! No, that's not it!" Kotonoha flapped her hands.

Eiichi panicked alongside her, "Y-Yeah! K-Koto just had something in her eye."

"A-And I thought he had a smudge on his face!"

"Oh-kaaay…" Roka's puzzled eyes shifted between the two as Otome and Yuuki stared with her.

"Haha…Well, how about we head inside, afternoons like this don't just wait around for anyone," Eiichi moved rigidly to the door. "After you Koto," he said in a pasty, perfunctory voice.

"Thank you Eiichi," responding with similar perfunctoriness.

Eiichi held the door open for the other three as well, while ignoring their akin, suspicious thoughts.

Inside the Ohara Sweets Shop, it was crowded and busy as usual. It was the Saturday before finals, and everyone was enjoying their few hours of free time available before having to buckle down and review. Eiichi wondered if they would even find a table for their large group.

"Eiichi, you and Otome get the drinks. We'll go find some seats," these were again, Kotonoha's words.

When Eiichi considered it, this was a test for all three of them. Having Otome around brought about a focus of temperance for Kotonoha. She was doing her best, despite her and Otome's rough past, to be as open and welcoming as possible. She didn't begrudge it, but it was taking her some getting used to. She was fast on the uptake with this sort of thing, after everything Eiichi had told her, and made little efforts here and there to get Otome more comfortable around him.

After orders were presumably blurted out to them, the others walked off and began their hopeful search.

Standing next to Otome in line had only been the first time this week Eiichi had a chance to talk with her casually. They didn't really look at each other, pretending to pick out what they were going to order.

"So um…how are you holding up?" he asked.

"Fine, fine…I'm good…" she nodded simply.

"How are things at home?"

"The same…" she muttered.

He had dealt with a lot in his short time, but this was new to him.

"So, how are things with your sister?"

"She's doing good, as usual…but I'm…I'm trying to talk with her more…" she looked to him, nodding.

"Good, that's good. Uh…what about finals? Do you think you're ready?"

A flare of unease, "Um…I guess. What about you?"

"I think I'll do alright. I really had to rush last year, I wasn't exactly the perfect student."

A little smile from her and she looked back at the menu.

"I know what she's doing…" Otome voiced suddenly.

"You mean Koto?"

"Yeah, I have to say I'm surprised. She wasn't like that at all, last semester. She's changed in a lot of different ways."

"Yeah, she has…but she's still just as kind. Does it bother you she's doing this?"

She didn't respond immediately. From what he could read, it was not a bother per say, it just threw her off. It wasn't what she had been familiar with.

"No…it still feels a little weird though, talking to her like this, but…I think now I see what you meant…"

He rested a hand on her shoulder and she looked at him, a little startled.

"Give it time. One day, it's not even gonna' be a thought in your head."

She gave a weary smile, "Thanks…"

They saw the others had managed to miraculously find a space on the booth when they made it back with the drinks.

"This space just opened up when we got here," Koto added while Otome and Eiichi arranged the drinks.

"Ah, so Roka used her evil stare, did she?" Eiichi poked.

"I don't have an evil stare!" Roka flared.

Eiichi chuckled at her and Yuuki developed a warm blush at his girlfriend's short fuse.

'You're welcome, Yuuki.'

Yuuki and Roka sat in the booth side of the table. Kotonoha sat in a chair facing Roka on the opposite side with one for Eiichi next to her and an extra she grabbed for Otome and placed on the side of the table, between her and Roka, to be considered 'the girl's side'.

Koto and Roka were already engaged in a conversation about pop idols, while Yuuki had been sitting by, just kind of absorbing without much to say.

"I think she's amazing. There's this one song she does that I can't listen to enough! The main part is so good," Roka went on.

"She has a very uplifting voice. That other one she does is fantastic as well," Koto joined Roka's excitement.

Otome did not really insert herself into the conversation until making a subtle remark that wound up getting her dragged into it anyways, and before she knew it, she was talking as much as the other two.

While the girls were at it, Eiichi turned his lazy, contented gaze on Yuuki.

"So, read anything good lately?"

"Well, not as much recently, what with all that's been going on, but I'm in this particular book about a horror writer who goes stir crazy. He starts having disturbing nightmares about his dead love."

"I'm not sure horror would be the ideal genre for someone with a recently deceased love."

"Yeah! It's really gripping though, he starts getting paranoid and…"

Idle topics were passed back and forth for several minutes. Eiichi had missed this, what with all the returning drama and mixed emotions, love triangles, and uncertain futures, this was what he enjoyed most about people.

When Koto noticed the guys having their discussion on literature, she wanted to join, and wound up pulling the other two in with her. Both Roka and Otome were not the astute readers their other three friends represented themselves as, and between themselves, found a pleasant commonality in this.

When words died down at one point, Roka looked like she was thinking about something.

"I really wish we could have done better in basketball this year," she said, and Eiichi sensed that Otome felt somewhat responsible for this as well.

"Otome, didn't you play?" Eiichi pulled her back.

"Yeah…" she frowned.

"You were pretty good Otome, but it looked like something was bothering you for a while. I was kind of scared to ask because you got angry here and there," Roka said.

Otome made a nervous glance to her before continuing to stare at her drink.

Kotonoha saw this as her chance to step in, "She was in love with someone, but he did not feel the same way about her. I cornered her during one of our meetings and got her to fess up."

"Oh no! I'm so sorry Otome…"

Otome gulped and developed a hot blush, still averting her eyes.

"Who was it?" oh great…

"I-It doesn't matter…" Otome muttered.

"Yes it does."

"Roka…"

She turned toward Eiichi. His sympathetic expression was joined with a subtle patting motion with the hand, giving her a signal to simmer down.

"Okay…" her voice lowered like she had just been scolded.

"It's alright…" Otome lifted her head. "I should have known that he was already taken, and I shouldn't have let it get in the way of my game. I'm sorry Roka."

"No, it's understandable. I don't think you were the reason why."

"Plus, I found out later he was kind of a jerk anyways," the corner of her mouth grinned across the table at Eiichi.

Eiichi replied with a silent chuckle to her.

"I know what that's like, I wonder if I'm to blame as well…" Roka said. "I um…I guess I had the same problem as you. I was thinking of someone…"

Eiichi saw her arm move to Yuuki, likely holding his hand when she said it. He hoped that was his hand.

"Roka, you could not be more obvious right now," Otome grinned fiendishly. "You can't just say it like that when he's sitting right next to you."

"Oh, um, that is, I—"

The rest of the group bubbled up with laughter and Yuuki scooted closer to Roka, smiling and likely squeezing her hand, Eiichi hoped that was her hand, enticing her join them with a blushed smile.

Suddenly, a rather irked, yet energetic voice sprung up from behind Eiichi.

"What the hell you two?"

The groups stopped and Eiichi turned in his chair. Chie stood behind him, casting her glance from Yuuki to him, and standing behind in her company was Torio, in casual attire again.

"You guys finally decide to meet up and you don't bother inviting us?" she looked angry, but a scan over her output told him she was obviously messing with them.

"Uh, w-well…" Yuuki started. "Wait! How was I supposed to know!?"

"Wait a minute…" Eiichi droned. "So you two just decided to stop in here on a Saturday, when I know this guy has a car," pointing at his brother, "and can take you anywhere around the city."

Chie crossed her arms, grinning, "Well, we did get an invite, even if it wasn't from you two chuckle heads."

Eiichi knew immediately, and turned to face Kotonoha.

"I kind of did…" Koto raised her cell phone into view.

'Jeez Koto, you could stand to give a heads up…'

Yuuki, Roka and Otome had never met Torio, and oddly enough for Chie, she never mentioned him during the times she joined them for lunch, but Eiichi had picked up from her that not only were they dating, but she kept it a secret to surprise everyone. Yuuki was still perplexed to see his sister with a guy, which told Eiichi it had been a while for Chie.

"Hi all, I'm Kuzoka Torio," he bowed casually.

Chie relished in the surprise of the other three at the unexpected relation of the newcomer.

"Wait…" Otome's voice dipped, "You're Eiichi's brother?"

"Yep, live and in the flesh," Torio presented with spread hands.

"I guess I never got to mention I have a brother," Eiichi said.

"No, I just assumed you were raised by wild animals," Otome poked.

"What're you talking about, this is a wild animal," Chie nuzzled the beaming Torio.

'Thanks for sharing, Chie…'

"Eiichi…" Yuuki stared at him blankly, "Your brother is dating my sister…"

Eiichi nodded, "Yeah little brother, that he is…"

To Yuuki and Roka, Torio must have seemed like a giant, being a few inches taller than Eiichi's comfortable five-seven.

There was a rearrangement of seats and Eiichi was scooted to the side of the table, between Yuuki and Koto, while Chie and Torio inserted themselves between Koto and Otome.

"Sorry about the wait Koto-chan," Chie must have informed her she would wait on Torio before arriving.

Eiichi had learned from Roka that the basketball coaches took volunteer members from the senior's team to help coach the second and third year teams. Roka had been Chie's kouhai for the year, so it wasn't odd for her to see Chie visiting during their lunches, but for Otome, Eiichi picked up it had been rather strange for her to be eating with her team captain. Not only that, there had obviously been some tension between them in accordance to Otome's behavior for the past couple months. Chie must have scolded her a few times for slacking off or having a bad attitude. Eiichi had to insert his say once or twice to break off any possible arguments. Though this may have been the case, their time together may have been easing things. Chie was learning to approach Otome less with that authoritative role and a more friendly one.

"Hey Otome! How's it going, girl?" Chie sat next to her.

"Oh, ya know…" Otome said quirkily.

This situation was looking heavy for her, being that she was now a…seventh wheel, and Eiichi wondered if there might be a point where she would get up and leave. If she did, he would excuse himself as well to have a talk with her. Right now, there were so many outputs in his close vicinity, he couldn't make out too much of hers.

Koto had invited Chie and Torio as well. Was this an attempt on her part to—

'Hey…' she was looking right at him.

Eiichi looked into that pair of dark eyes he had fallen so in love with.

'Read me and see that I'm not doing this to spite her. I wanted Otome to meet everyone.'

His face softened up out of its hard expression of pondering.

'Like I said, you analyze too much,' she slipped her hand into his under the table. 'She'll come around. She's going to be fine, so stop worrying about her.'

"Okay…" he eased a smile.

"Kinda' sad you two won't be seeing much of each other for a while with finals," Chie must have noticed their clandestine exchange.

"Oh, Eiichi and I will be studying together, as usual," Koto smiled.

"Uh-oh, that's not promising. With you two love birds locked together in the same room for hours on end, I wonder if any studying will get done."

"It's actually kinda' scary and adorable at the same time," Torio remarked.

"What're you getting at?" Eiichi leered.

"Yeah," Chie asked.

He smiled at the group before continuing, "I knocked one time and found them asleep together under the kotatsu, pencils still in hand…"

Eiichi's face turned beat red and he could sense Koto's embarrassment flaring up as well. In addition, this conjured a flurry of dreamy images from everyone else, straight to Eiichi's inner sight, making him feel the need to adjust his shirt neck.

"Y-You saw that!?" he blurted.

"Wow! No nudity!?" Chie was getting excited.

"So cute…" Roka stared at Eiichi and Koto, making them blush more.

Otome sat quietly, burning up with more affection and discomfort.

"Thankfully, every article of clothing was still intact," Torio smiled.

"That's commitment…" Yuuki looked at them as well.

"Sorry Torio, we'll stick with the living room this time…" Koto's face was still its burning color.

"Well what the heck, we're all here, let's just have study sessions together!" Chie started up.

"Are you sure that's okay sis?" Yuuki asked.

"Yeah, why not? We could all meet at Torio and Eiichi's house! We have enough people, we could keep an eye on each other's progress. And Eiichi, we can take measures to make sure these freshman keep up."

"Hey…" Roka whined.

"My grades are way more stellar than yours!" Yuuki flared.

"I actually like the idea…" Otome said, "I don't really know where I stand with being ready for exams, so I think I could use the help…"

"Don't worry Otome, we got ya covered!" Chie gave a thumbs up. "Torio, you wouldn't mind cooking for us, would you?" she fawned at him.

"It would be my pleasure…" he smiled dreamily, making Eiichi want to gag.

"Okay you two, we're still in public here…" he droned.

"Come on, I need some kind of motivation," Chie smiled at him.

The rantings and wild talk continued.

Eiichi looked at their lively group. The courageous Yuuki, the hopeful Roka, the tenacious Otome, the boisterous Chie, all brought together, to this particular place, in their own special ways.

He realized again, he was happy. Another realization; none of this would have happened, had it not been for her. She planted the seed, she cheered him on, and somehow, they wound up here.

He was beginning to think they would need to make some changes on their trip to Onna beach that summer, but they would be well worth it. He had said he could not promise her they would be alone.


Thank You

The rustling sounds of plastic wrapping resounded through the empty school hall as Kotonoha and Eiichi walked side by side. Aside from the subtle rustling sounds, the halls were empty, and remotely quiet. Students sat quietly beyond closed, classroom doors, faces buried in exams.

The reason for the rustling, Eiichi carried in his arms a set of three large, woven gift baskets, wrapped in glossy, see through plastic. Inside the baskets were assortments of fine chocolates, teas, coffees, pastries, and creamers. They were complete with white envelopes, displaying imprints of silvery, wistful written messages that spelled, "Thank You", the contents of each envelope included his and her signatures. In Kotonoha's arms, three large bouquets of arranged flowers. White Asiatic lilies, yellow roses, blue delphiniums, and purple Monte Casinos with pedals the color of the sky, displayed from the tops of blue and white plastic. Kotonoha could be seen dipping her nose into the bouquets periodically for a whiff.

"Thanks for helping me out with this," Eiichi smiled at her a little nervously.

"Of course, I'm obligated to, but this is so sweet of you Eiichi. It's wonderful that you want to do this."

"Yeah, I just hope everyone is still in…"

"I think they will be. There are students that let their nerves get to them on days like this. By the way, how do you think you did so far?"

"I'm just happy to have math and science out of the way, I guess I did alright. Now I only have Japanese and history."

"You should do fine on those."

"How about you?"

Kotonoha sighed, "I just have science…"

"Hang in there. I guess neither of us need to worry about Japanese and history, we're a couple of literary scholars."

"Yeah! Yeah we are!"

A burst of chuckles resounded amongst them, though they tried to keep it down to not attract attention.

"Well, here we are…"

Eiichi approached a door and had to work to pull the handle with his already occupied arms. Opening it for Kotonoha, an adorable set of crossed arms, moving legs and flowing hair, she gracefully stepped through, peeking curiously around the room as Eiichi followed behind.

Eiichi never developed a fear of hospitals because the way he saw it, he spent a lot of time in similar places, when he wasn't really in one. Even in his younger years, he had spent much time in the infirmaries of his Primary school and Jr. High. Students and teachers back then believed that he was anemic as opposed to a hypochondriac, because of his age.

Now, looking over the infirmary beds, the white curtains with dim, yellow sunlight shining through windows at the back, desks on either side of the doorway with half filled out forms scattered on their surfaces, plastic bins with medical supplies, and the faint smells of peroxide and rubbing alcohol in the air, a strange feeling washed over him. It was a mix of nostalgia and the familiarity of entering a place he had known so well, and had unexpectedly, not seen in a very long time.

When was the last time he had been here?

There was no one visible at the time, so he stepped next to Kotonoha, who he sensed was getting a similar strange feeling.

"Sensei!" he called out.

There was the sound of footsteps from around a corner that turned to the right, a voice called back, worried.

"Oh Kuzoka-san, don't tell me you got one during an exam!"

By the recognition of his voice, three women in white uniforms stepped out. Of the three, two only looked to be in their mid-thirties, while the oldest, possibly mid-forties.

The tallest had a very mature face with tempting eyes, a head of short, wavy strands, done up and under her cap, and puffy lips with just the right amount of ruby application to give off a flirty appeal, which seemed unfitting for a high school nurse. However, time spent talking with a certain teacher or going out after her shift was not out of the question.

The shortest of the three had a very mild, but warm appeal, short hair of a light brownish-orange hue, and a face that could probably display a smile that would brighten any student's day.

The oldest of the three had a strong, yet still feminine frame, long dark hair, with a wisdom in her gaze that presented an answer for many of life's troubles.

Upon seeing Eiichi and Kotonoha standing before them, bouquets and baskets in hand, at first it appeared they didn't know what to make of the display.

"Please accept these…" he said.

Eiichi stepped to the side and allowed Kotonoha to approach them first with the flowers. They each graciously and without a word, took a bouquet. He waited quietly before doing the same with the gift baskets. Afterward, he stepped back and stood next to Koto.

With somberness in his eyes, he looked at each member as he spoke, trying not to trip over his words, "Kawaguchi-sensei, Takita-sensei, Asari-sensei, you have done your best over these past three years taking care of me, and even when you did not fully understand my condition, you still accepted me…I know I was not the easiest patient to deal with sometimes, but you had patience for me."

Little smiles broke out on their faces at the absentminded pun.

"I've gotten to know each of you well. You each gave me someone to talk to over the years, and I think that was the most healing medicine I could receive. So as a token of my gratitude, these gifts are for you. I know they're not much, but they're what I can do, because each of you did what you could for me. From the bottom of my heart, I am deeply grateful."

On cue, Eiichi and Kotonoha bowed.

There was a rustle of plastic as flowers and baskets were set on the infirmary beds, and the strong one, with Asari on her name tag, approached him as he stood.

"Kuzoka…" she placed her hands on his shoulders, and he found himself gazing timidly back at this wise pair of eyes he had come to know so well, feeling like the prodigal son. "You were never as much trouble as you thought you were, but I remember when you were very bitter towards the world. You wouldn't let anyone in, until you let her in," she gestured to Kotonoha. "I remember when she brought you through that door like she had just found a stray, and since then, I haven't seen you. I was sad as well as delighted. And now look at you two…" she motioned for Kotonoha to join and set a hand on each of their shoulders, "Kotonoha and Eiichi, The Heroes of Sakakino, in our infirmary," she smiled with such glee.

"For a while there, I thought you forgot all about us," the tall one with Kawaguchi on her tag smirked.

"I hope your families are proud of you, because I'm about as proud as a mother of four could be," the mild Takita said, and then looked at Kotonoha, "You know, from the time you two started up together, I don't think he's been in here once."

"Well, there were those times he wound up in the hospital," Kawaguchi pointed to Takita.

"Oh dear, I'm sorry, that is true," Takita agreed, making the two under Asari's hands blush awkwardly.

"Also Eiichi, I'm glad to see you've quit smoking. I never said anything, but I could smell it on you every time you came in here," Kawaguchi poked and Eiichi felt even more awkward.

"Didn't I tell you he would be a handful?" Asari nodded to Kotonoha.

"And he has been ever since," Kotonoha giggled.

"All you two had to do was open your hearts, and now, look at what you've discovered," she brought them closer and wrapped her arms around them, "I pray you two have a happy life together, and I wish you both the best."

Asari stepped away and the other two approached to give their early congratulatory hugs and best wishes. The three nurses then stood looking upon the couple.

Asari spoke again, "I knew it would happen, and your absence was only a sign."

Kotonoha and Eiichi couldn't help holding hands at this.

"Good luck on your exams, I'm sure you'll both do fine. And Kotonoha, when the next year starts up, feel free to stop in anytime."

"Yeah, and I'll teach you some tricks, just in case John McClain here decides to stop a runaway bus," Kawaguchi added.

"Thank you very much. I will." Kotonoha was looking motivated.

The two groups bowed to each other.

The nurses picked up their gifts and carried them to the backroom, talking amongst themselves about the wonderful gesture and of warm thoughts for two of their favorite students, leaving Kotonoha and Eiichi to look around the room before leaving.

Eiichi stepped forward, hands in his pockets and peered at the empty beds and open spaces.

"Where we first met…"

"Well actually, you almost passed out where we first met," a simple expression on Kotonoha's face while jabbing a thumb at the door.

He chuckled, running a hand through his hair, "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"But…" she clasped her hands, musing at the floor, "If I had never returned…we wouldn't be standing here…"

He caught the double meaning in that one.

It had been only half a year ago. He never suspected his life would open up so quickly, just after meeting a girl like her.

He turned, looking around at the infirmary room, knowing it might be his last time seeing it. One look to his favorite bed, it was the one closest to the door, on the left, and the memories came flooding back. He had always used that one when it wasn't already occupied. He remembered days spent writhing in pain before slowly coming to blissful recovery, where he would stare at the speckled ceiling in a relieving calm. It was also where he did some of his most profound thinking. He could even remember Kawaguchi or Takita waking him a few times, when school was over. Kawaguchi had simply poked him in the face a couple times. Something about her output, a certain familiarity, told him he reminded her of some of the guys she dated back in high school, but Takita treated him with a kindness that made him feel like he was another one of her kids.

He looked at Kotonoha, realizing in a funny way, he was her special head case, and she was his. It might have been the nostalgia talking, but she looked like she was standing exactly where she had been on that fateful day in autumn, half a year ago.

He sat on the infirmary bed, in the same place he remembered being. Leaning his head on one hand, elbow against the frame, feigning a wince, he looked up at her with a dim leer.

"Jeez, why does this girl keep showing up and asking questions I can't answer honestly?"

Looking at him peculiarly, Kotonoha then smiled and followed his lead, placing a concerned hand over her chest, "My, who is this strange boy who seems to know so much about me? He even knows what I'm going to say before I say it."

"She's way too troubled and just needs to relax. She should do things her way and stop worrying about others," he grumbled.

"He says crude things and isolates himself from people, but is the only one who approaches me with a kind heart. Could it be that he wants to protect me?"

Not at all like when he last saw her in this place, she was a different Kotonoha, and he was a different Eiichi. He could feel happiness.

Smiles and snickers broke out between the two.

1She stepped over and sat next to him on the bed.

Neither said a word. They just looked at each other.

The visions in his own mind paralleled with hers. They remembered every moment, every tear, all the darkness, pain, confusion and fear, that brought them to this very place in their lives. Their life, together, unfolding, unfaltering, had only just begun.

Their hands intertwined, and they leaned toward each other.


6 Years Later

"Onii-chan~, did you want these boxes in the truck?" a much taller, more mature, and well-endowed Kokoro was rummaging about some scattered boxes within Eiichi's room. Her hair that she used to tie into two strands hanging out the sides now hung much longer and was tied back in a ponytail, hanging over a light blue t-shirt and jeans.

The walls in Eiichi's room were mostly blank, say for his dresser, mattress and bed frame, and his desk, which had been wiped bare of all the books and cluttered papers that once sat upon it. His dresser still had a few knick-nacks on its surface, awaiting to be packaged.

"Move what you can Kokoro," a voice called from the hall, "The ones with 'X' on them go to the car. I know you could power a lighthouse with all that energy of yours, but don't try to lift any of the heavy stuff."

As she was rummaging, looking for something that didn't have 'HVY' marked on it, Kokoro's face grew a cad smile as she called back, "Am I going to find anything naughty in here?"

"Nah, your sister and I keep all that locked up with her ero-novels and a few other things."

"TMI Onii-chan, TMI…" Kokoro droned.

There were footsteps from the hall and through the doorway appeared a slightly taller Eiichi, with a little stubble on his chin, wiping sweat from his forehead. Instead of a Sakakino uniform, a black, faded 'Pantera' t-shirt adorned his chest and hung over a pair of denim jeans.

"Man, why did I decide to move in summer? Why does everyone decide to move in summer?"

"Probably because more people can help. I'm helping. Maybe you shouldn't wear dark colors like that," she stood.

"Hey…" he gestured to the shirt, "This is what I had when I got everything packed. You're just dissin' the 'Cowboys from Hell', that's what you're doing," he pointed, feigning disapproval.

Kokoro placed a hand on her hip, "If you are inferring that I don't listen to your scary music, then yes, you are right."

"Kokoro, 'It's time to chaaange, can't stay the saaame!'" he mimicked a shrieking voice.

"No, no it's not Onii-chan…please stop singing…"

He clenched a fist, "'Reeevolution is my naaame!'"

"You're name is Eiichi, please don't forget this as you continue with your life…"

"Okay fine, I guess it's an acquired taste after all…"

"Bleeeh!" Kokoro teased with the most vicious face she could conjure, sticking her tongue out while throwing up a pair of horns on one hand.

"Ahhhh!" Eiichi made a similar vicious face while spreading out bony, malevolent hands with fingers to the ceiling.

The goofy pair passed vicious expressions back and forth before chuckling at their ridiculousness.

Eiichi continued to meander, looking for a heavy box.

"But seriously, you're not wearing that to the beach are you?"

"Well, it's not a bad repellent. I have to do something to keep wandering eyes off me."

Kokoro rolled her eyes.

"But no, I'm gonna' don the pasty, touristy button up, before we leave," not willing to admit he liked it.

"I think that look better suits you."

Eiichi shook his head and peeked at some larger boxes toward the back of the group, "When you find one that's light enough, set it outside the truck. We want to get all the heavy stuff on the bottom first."

"Okay," Kokoro had abandoned her duty for the moment and was poking around Eiichi's dresser.

"I can't get that song out of my head now…'I— can't help the way I aaam~'"

Kokoro cupped her hands over her ears, "La-la-la-la-la!"

Eiichi chuckled, "So you're done for the summer, huh?" he began tugging on a medium sized, yet heavy box.

"Yeah, finals were good. I got mostly A's."

"Solid. I'm sure it's going to be nice, starting up as a second year. You've got a set of friends, you know where everything is…"

"Yeah, it's alright," her simple response.

"You're starting to sound like me."

"Never in a million years will I sound like you, Onii."

Eiichi chuckled, "Be careful, I tend to grow on people."

"Onii-chan…what's this?"

When he looked up, he saw that Kokoro had grabbed an item of his dresser that held a lot of nostalgic value to him. She had turned and stood holding it in her hand, and for a moment, she didn't look like the Kokoro she was now. She was much shorter, her hair was different, and the bright eyes had lost their glimmer.

Her output was that of curiosity and subtle confusion. She probably recognized it in her subconscious, but could not make out why.

Burlap string that had been woven together into a circular bracelet hung around her fingers. It had been tied into a bow, with paper sunflowers and two ladybug ornaments.

"Lemme' see…" he waved her over.

Kokoro stepped around some boxes and handed him the bracelet.

He went over to his blank mattress and sat down, Kokoro followed him and sat next to him, like she had done many times before when she had allowed him a place in her life.

He held the bracelet in his left hand, which had a gold band on one finger, and stared at it for a long time. The bracelet had accumulated dust from hanging on his wall for so many years. He had set it aside with some other trinkets to be packed into a smaller box.

"You don't remember this?" he looked at her.

"Can't say I do."

She was much older now, and any turmoil she suffered back then had been long forgotten through better times.

He smiled and held the bracelet between the two of them, his voice very wistful, "When you were ten years old, you gave this to me. You were going through a really rough time, and I took it as a promise to always remain true to your sister. You even thanked me, which at the time, was something I never thought I'd hear from you."

"Was I angry at you for something?" she asked curiously.

He chuckled, "In a manner of speaking. To me, it was as good as any wedding vow."

"I think you're being too sentimental…" she raised an eyebrow.

He laughed this time, "Maybe I was, but a lot happened back then. It's hard to not get sentimental…"

"Well, thank you for keeping it, but I don't know if I'll understand that."

"Maybe you'll understand if you can ever get that Shintaro guy to come out of his little shell and ask you out."

"Shut-up Onii!"

Eiichi laughed, "Having him over for dinner wasn't a good way to keep things hidden from me. You should find ways to spend more time with him, he'll get the message."

"Does he like me too?"

"Uh, I dunno'…" he made a doltish face.

Kokoro shoved him, "Come on Onii-chan, I know you can tell."

"Yeah, but if I did, that would be cheating."

"That's not fair, and you know it!"

He snickered, "Hey, if you can't spot the signs, you need to work on that."

"Whatever…" she got up, a little peeved, and grabbed two stacked boxes, "Fine, I'll ask him out, and that'll show you."

"That's the spirit!" he grinned and swung a hearty fist.

With another roll of the eyes and shake of her head, Kokoro proceeded out of the door with the boxes.

Eiichi stood and got to work on lifting the heavy one he had picked.

It was still late morning, around ten, on a Saturday and Kokoro had gotten a limo ride over to help Eiichi move.

At the bottom of the stairwell there was a bright summer shine coming from their wide open front door. Carefully making his way down the steps after Kokoro, the voices of Koto and Torio could be heard from below.

"Okay…so in a few minutes?…alright…see you soon…"

Koto was standing just outside the kitchen overlook in a thin, white, flower print dress that was so thin, Eiichi could make out the light blue bikini she had on underneath. He also knew she had a wide brimmed, straw hat that went perfectly with it. He made it down just in time to see her set the phone down.

"Oh boy…" she muttered, leaning her hands on the kitchen overlook, one with a gold band as well, and a glimmering rock.

"What?" Torio asked from the kitchen. He was taking bags of snack foods out of grocery bags and putting them into a box.

"You're going to have some explaining to do when they get here, Roka's not happy."

"I was sure to tell everyone."

"Well apparently you mixed something up, because she's saying it was too last minute. I'm just glad I got it across last night, but she still freaked."

"Well I've kind of had my hands full here."

"Don't shoot the messenger," Koto raised her hands. "I'm just giving you a heads up, Hurricane Roka is on her way."

"Ah, son of a…" Torio exhaustedly set a bag of chips in the box.

"You know how she gets Torio," Eiichi said from his place near the stairs, still holding the box. "When she's pissed, there's almost no stopping her."

"You mean kinda' like you?"

"Hey, I'm not the one in her cross hairs," Eiichi chuckled and continued out the already open door.

"Oh yeah, Chie said she had to grab a few things, but she should be here shortly too," Koto said.

"At least there's some good news in the mix," Torio brightened up.

Outside the Kuzoka residence, there was a small moving truck parked in front of the driveway. A ways down the sidewalk from the truck was the Katsura family limo and its driver, Amaya. In the driveway, sitting next to Torio's dark blue S2000 Honda was a price friendly, silver 2002 Corolla, proudly owned by Eiichi himself, as well as the custom 1200cc Sportster, with gray paint over black hardware, sitting inside the open garage, a college graduation present to himself.

Both Torio and Eiichi's vehicles sat with trunks open, a few traveling necessities already loaded.

Eiichi walked past Kokoro as she was headed back in to get more boxes. He loaded his into the truck, and stopped to have a smoke and a chat with Amaya, until Kokoro came back out with Torio and Kotonoha, who were carrying more boxes for the cars. Kokoro complained he was slacking off, which sent him on his way back inside when a white Toyota Highlander appeared from down the street and pulled up behind the moving truck.

The driver and passenger side doors popped open. Roka appeared from the passenger side, looking as agitated as she could be.

"Dammit Torio!" she flung the door shut, her khaki pants and sandals began marching toward him furiously, "I asked you two weeks ago when the correct day would be, and you didn't give me a straight answer—shut up Eiichi!—I had to call in last night to get them to switch the schedules!"

Eiichi had been approaching to neutralize the matter, but backed away when Roka viciously thrust a finger in his direction without paying him a glance. With displaced nodding to her demand and an unvoiced 'Okay, fine…', he paced away from the confrontation. Koto and Kokoro merely stood by, Koto slightly amused with the display of friendly bickering, and Kokoro not really sure what to make of the situation.

"Sorry, sorry," the nearly six foot Torio raised defensive hands to his pint sized antagonist, "We've been really busy getting things set up with the move."

Roka growled with shaking fists, "Then why didn't you say so in the first place!? You could've had Koto-chan tell everyone, that's what she wound up doing anyways!…"

While Roka gripped in the background, Eiichi and Yuuki approached each other by Torio's car. Yuuki and Roka's heights had not changed much over the years, say for a few inches. However, Yuuki had changed his look significantly, to a pair of rectangular, rimless frames that made him appear less like a computer technician, and more like a really short model. To add to his more laid back style, he was ready to go with sandals, cargo swim shorts and an open button up over a tee-shirt.

"She been like this all day?" Eiichi nodded in Roka's direction

With a sigh, Yuuki looked, "Yeah, she ran into trouble getting time off from work too. We almost wouldn't have made it."

"I guess she didn't want to calm down until she let 'em have it."

"Sorry if this is causing you any trouble."

Eiichi had been touching his forehead, "Nah, you think she'd remember though. What's your situation?"

"I had the same problem, but I'm in good with my boss. He actually stops in once in a while to talk with the guys, he even took us out for drinks a few times."

"Wow, working for a publisher isn't so bad."

"Not when you work for mine."

Eiichi looked over to the ongoing rant, "Well, you better get over there before she breaks something."

"Alright," Yuuki adjusted his glasses before leaving to join his sweetheart.

"First you said it was next week, and I had to find out from Koto-chan we were leaving today! I barely had time to pack!" Roka flared with clenched fists.

"Okay, okay, I'll remember next time," Torio floundered.

"You better!"

"Hey, hey…" Yuuki smoothed a hand over Roka's arm.

"Uh!" her head turned to him and blushed, aware now of her erratic outburst. "I'm sorry…" she mumbled, lowering her eyes.

"I know…" a delicate finger brushed a strand of hair over her ear, "I'm pretty excited too."

She raised a hand and set it on his shoulder, stepping closer, "It's just, we do this every year, and I didn't want us to miss it."

While Eiichi watched from his spot, he got the imagery of taking an ice cube and setting it on top of a lit match, "Tss…"

Yuuki tipped his head forward, peeking at her, "Don't worry, we're here now. Torio just got his wires crossed, that's all. We've all been pretty busy."

"Yeah…"

"Have I ever told you how cute you are when you get angry?"

"Might as well say it every day," she smiled, seeming not to mind that others heard this.

Roka looked at Torio, "I'm sorry Torio. You guys have been busy."

"That's alright, I should have asked if you guys wanted to help. We still have more to do after we get back Friday, so why don't you help us over the weekend? We could have a moving party."

"Yeah, that would be good…"

"I like that," Yuuki agreed.

She turned and called to Eiichi, who was keeping his distance, "Sorry Eiichi."

"It's all good," he raised a hand.

"We're going to help Koto move out next week too, so when you can find time…" said Torio.

"Well, I'm pretty sure we don't have anything planned," Roka looked at Yuuki.

"The gym hasn't been scheduling you for weekends, right?" he asked.

"Well, even if that happens, I can still make it when I'm off."

Yuuki looked at Torio, "We'll be there."

Just then, another vehicle, a silvery blue Acura Integra pulled in and parked itself in front of the moving truck. The driver side door popped open and Chie appeared, looking over to the group through a pair of shades.

"Alright, block party!" she smiled while grabbing her satchel purse.

Everybody waved and Torio fled to say hello while Eiichi rejoined the group after the air had cleared.

"Are Otome and Hidetora going to make it?" Roka asked Koto.

"Yes, but Otome is picking up Hidetora from the recording studio. They're going to meet us at that one bookstore that's on the way, after we leave."

"Hidetora's been really excited lately," Eiichi added. "He's almost done with his album and keeps sending me updates. We've been planning a trip to celebrate."

"Where are you guys going this time?" Yuuki asked.

"We were thinking about taking Koto, Otome and the bikes down to Lake Biwa for a camping trip, but I have no idea how that guy rides without his glasses."

"Doesn't seem to bother Otome," Yuuki remarked.

"Maybe he uses contacts," Roka said.

"Yeah, maybe…" Eiichi mused, "If he decides to satellite us with that low rider of his all the way to Shimoda, I'm going to be so jealous…"

"Yeah, but we're carrying the coolers," Koto said.

"Yeah…"

"Nothing like bike envy," Yuuki cracked.

Eiichi followed it up with a smirk, "You implying something?"

Koto had naturally been uneasy, riding with Eiichi on the back of his v-twin the first few times, but had built up a tolerance for it. She enjoyed feeling the wind whip her hair around from below the helmet, and resting her head on his back. She still worried sometimes when he took off on it though.

"I'm sorry we're not going to Onna beach like before, Eiichi. I know you and Koto really liked that place," Roka said.

"Ah, that's okay. Shimoda is beautiful, and it'll take us less time and money to get there…"

While they were talking, Koto had noticed Chie and Torio remained happily where they were and decided to walk over and greet Chie. She approached the two as they were talking amongst themselves while leaning against Chie's car. She overheard what they were discussing and decided to throw her piece in.

"Roka and Torio had a minor dispute with the scheduling, but everything sorted itself out."

"Aw, was my kouhai giving you trouble?" Chie teased Torio.

"Just a minor misunderstanding, my bad."

"Have you been able to get everything pulled together?" Koto asked.

Chie and Torio looked at each other.

"They had you on snack duty?"

"They had me on everything duty."

"Eiichi still packing?"

"Yeah, but he's getting there. You got everything?"

"Towels, suit, clothes, bathroom stuff—"

"You didn't forget the Cake?"

"Oh, never forget the Cake. Are the coolers packed?"

"Soda, juice, beer and two five gallons. You got the thirty SPF?"

"I got the twenty, the thirty doesn't let me tan."

"That's good."

"Good."

They looked at Koto, "We're good."

Koto blinked at them, turned, and began walking back over to Eiichi, hearing the two behind her snickering.

"Eiichi…" she muttered in a bothered tone and he turned to her, "It freaks me out every time they do that…"

Eiichi looked over at the couple still conversing by the car.

"I'm not too sure myself, but I think they're messing with you. It could be rehearsed…I think…"

Yuuki, Roka, and Kokoro helped Eiichi move some more boxes into the truck, and when they were done, it was half an hour to noon. Then the four decided to take the truck over to the new house, which was actually a condo spaced evenly between the two universities where Koto and Eiichi were attending.

"Figure we'll be back before one," Eiichi said to the three being left to watch the house. "I've got everything packed, so we can leave shortly after that."

Yuuki and Roka hopped back in the Highlander, while Kokoro and Eiichi took the truck.

Kokoro plugged her phone into the auxiliary and the upbeat computer sounds of pop music, pasty computer noises to Eiichi's ears, filled the cab.

"Hey, I'm the one driving," he complained.

"Payback's a mother," she grinned.

"Jeez. So are you sure you don't wanna' come with?"

"No, I'm leaving with friends to go to the family beach house. Plus, I don't want to cramp your guys' style."

"What's there to cramp?" he shifted into drive and pulled out.

"One high school student and bunch of college kids. It'll look like you're babysitting."

"I don't know, Roka n' Yuuki look like they're still in high school."

"Onii-chan," she scolded.

"Alright, alright…"


That afternoon, Yuuki's Highlander pulled back in front of the Kuzoka residence with Eiichi and Kokoro in the back, after Eiichi had dropped off the moving truck. Everyone climbed out and made their way inside.

Chie, Koto and Torio were all talking in the living room, Chie and Torio having already helped themselves to an afternoon beer. Eiichi went to the fridge and grabbed three more, along with a soda for Kokoro.

Torio and Chie had been discussing with Koto matters involving the move.

"So after we get you and Eiichi settled, I'm going to get started moving in here," Chie said.

"You're not selling the house?" Roka asked.

"Not yet," Torio said, "we're going to give it a while before we decide on a place. I'm thinking we'll turn Eiichi's room into storage or some other thing."

"Oh thanks," Eiichi snapped.

"Hey Eiichi," Yuuki called his attention while he was opening the beverages, "I wanted to go over that last chapter you sent me. The one where Ryun appears just before Yoshinaka gets shot."

"Okay, what did you find?" Eiichi asked while handing Roka and Yuuki their beers.

"The arrangement is good, there's just a paragraph or two that need a little more flair to them. Also, I wanted to know if you'd let me work on Toshi's character more in the next chapter, I think I could give her a little more appeal."

"Yeah sure, I was getting the feeling she was just fading into the background."

"If we can get this into my company before the end of the year, we might have a shot at something," Yuuki grinned.

Eiichi, grinning as well, raised his beer, "Publishing contract, here we come. Kanpai."

"Kanpai."

A drink to their hopeful success.

Yuuki continued, "Hey, I know a guy that works in graphics design who can hook us up with a cover. He's a good artist too. Would you be up to have a sit down with him?"

"I don't see why not, sounds promising."

"I even have some of his stuff on my phone here," Yuuki took out his Samsung.

While Eiichi and Yuuki discussed their future prospects, the rest of the group were continuing their discussion.

"Torio, so what's it like being a head chef?" Kokoro asked.

Torio laughed, "Well I'm not yelling at everyone, if that's what you think. Culinary school helped me out big time and it's been a dream working at Maunten Kasai. I was really blown away when I found myself serving the Katsura family though," with a look from Kokoro to Koto.

"It was just as fantastic as when you made dinner for the wedding," said Koto, "Dad looked you up and said we just had to pay you a visit."

"Well I was absolutely surprised, and grateful. Anything your dad says in a tabloid would make business spike."

"So what about you Eiichi, how are things in criminal psychology?" Roka asked.

"Well, I don't want to ruin anyone's appetite…" the group suddenly felt uneasy at this, and he could tell, with some amusement. "Homicide has been looking into this case where a guy supposedly murdered his business associate. The detective I'm working with had me question him personally because he wasn't getting anywhere. There's certain information I can't divulge, but I'm going to say for now, the guy is innocent," there was no 'likely', 'probably' or 'may be', this was something only Eiichi could be certain of. "I've been going over the crime scene photos with Asako-san. She agrees with me, she's noticed a few things that don't add up."

"Wow that is exciting…" Chie said in one breath. "It sounds like the beginning of an action movie."

"You get to carry a badge and a gun too, huh?" Kokoro asked with pride for her gifted brother-in-law, though she already knew this.

"Well yeah," Eiichi was admittedly charmed by the question, "Only when the detective and I go to question persons of interest, but not often," looking to Koto, who was worried by the thought.

When the conversation veered away from Eiichi, Yuuki nudged him with his beer, "Oh yeah, there was something else I was hoping I could talk to you about…" Yuuki glanced cautiously over to Roka before motioning for Eiichi to follow him upstairs.

Yuuki led Eiichi up to his own room and made sure the door was closed most of the way, peeking out through the crack before turning and fishing in his pockets.

"I know you're not gonna' be that surprised…" Yuuki said.

Eiichi had been picking up hints of anxiousness every time he saw Yuuki look at Roka today, which was odd for him, given how comfortable they had been over the past few years.

When Yuuki withdrew his hand, there was small ring box in it.

"I'm gonna' do it," Yuuki stared back, fuming with determination.

Eiichi took a big, hissy breath of air as a broad smile spread out over his cheeks, "My little brother!"

He raised a hand that Yuuki responded to unintentionally with his own, forgetting the box was still in it. Eiichi's hand clapped over it and he pulled Yuuki into a gruff embrace, having to kneel down a little so the bottle in his other hand didn't hit the back of Yuuki's head.

"She's going to say yes, man! I just know it!" Eiichi said excitedly.

"Well of course you do," Yuuki said, his chin elevated so his face wasn't pressing into Eiichi's shoulder, "Having you around is like having a cheat sheet."

"Three years after graduation. It took you a while, but you're finally gonna' do it."

"Yeah well, I didn't want to graduate and then have marriage staring us in the face. I guess I lost track of time."

"Understandable, that's what happens when you're content with someone…Ah man, I'm gonna' have another sister!" Eiichi hugged tighter, Yuuki began taping his beer against his emotional cohort's back, signaling he couldn't breathe. "Roka's gonna' be my sister!"

"She might as well be. We're not related, remember?"

"Thicker than blood man…"

There were footsteps outside the door and the sound of voices.

"We still have to move the bed and dresser, but—"

As the door swung open, Eiichi and Yuuki scrambled, just as Koto and Roka's frozen, perplexed faces appeared, Koto's hand still on the knob.

The two looked around uncomfortably, Eiichi scratching his chin stubble, Yuuki gazing very interestedly into the neck of his bottle, with his other arm behind his back.

Eiichi fidgeted, "Ahm, we weren't in here huggin' or anything. We were just talkin' man stuff, ain't that right Yuuki?"

"Yeah! Sports!" Yuuki raised his head and blurted.

The wife and wife-to-be stared at their male counterparts a few more seconds with slightly parted lips before taking their leave.

"I will never understand those two…" Koto's voice sounded.

"They're on a wavelength I don't even want to understand…" Roka responded.

Eiichi and Yuuki stared out the door after they'd left.

"We pulled that off…" Eiichi assured.

"Yeah…" Yuuki said nervously.

Still watching the doorway, they nonchalantly clinked their bottles together and took a swig.

"Where are you gonna' do it?"

"I was thinking on the beach, tomorrow evening, if no one is around."

"She'll understand when you pop the question."

On their way back downstairs, Eiichi was getting a little anxious about the time.

"Alright everybody, we have to get going soon or we won't make it until five or six."

"Eiichi, come here!" Koto appeared, seeming to have completely forgotten the bizarre situation, which Eiichi would explain to her later, and was suddenly very excited about something, flapping her hand for him to follow, "Kokoro found something you have to check out."

Curiously, Eiichi and Yuuki followed Koto over to where everyone was grouped together in the living room, near the coffee table. As Eiichi got closer, he saw them all standing behind Kokoro, who was holding a thin, hardcover book she had pulled out of a box he left sitting near the entertainment center. It had a black finish, was really dusty, and very familiar to him.

Koto took his hand and led him around to the back of the group, where Torio and Chie made a space for him and her to see.

One the pages were pictures of the class of 2008. Black and white images of students seated at library tables, or standing around and talking inside classrooms.

"Oh look! There's little Roka!" Kokoro swooned.

"Hey!"

"There's Hurricane Roka," Eiichi smiled.

A picture of the Sakakino basketball team, with Roka, the shortest of them all, up front with the team captain Chie, standing right next to her faithful kouhai.

"You were smokin' in that jersey," Torio said.

"You do like to see me being all sporty," Chie smirked.

"Yuuki, I didn't know you had such big glasses!" Kokoro had turned the page, displaying a picture of Yuuki toting a stack of books with other members of the library crew working in the background.

"Wow, those made me look even younger," said Yuuki.

"Yep, he was my awkward little bookworm," Roka clutched him close.

"Man, I remember back when you hated me," Eiichi said.

Yuuki chuckled, "Yeah, and you knew all along."

Kokoro turned the page and there were two particular images that drew their interest. One was of Koto and Eiichi, seated at a library table, Koto with a pencil in hand and a fixed gaze on homework assignments, and Eiichi with a history text book in his hands.

"Oh…my…" Eiichi didn't let himself finish.

"You guys look so cute," Roka said.

"Wow, Eiichi studying, there's a first," Torio cracked.

"He had to meet an angel like Koto-chan before any of that happened," Chie followed up.

"I'm surprised you got away with wearing your uniform that way," Kokoro said.

"Well, they complained enough about it," Eiichi said.

"And look at the text," Chie pointed. "'Our Heroes hard at work', isn't that just adorable!?"

Eiichi remembered being relieved that Noda had tossed aside her odd titles for a more affirmative one.

"Yeah, I'm sure Asako-san wrote that. She was the same one who took the photo. I can still remember that flash-bang of a camera she had," he felt Koto shiver next to him and captured her own memory of losing over fifty percent of her sight for a couple seconds.

The other picture, the one that Koto wanted him to see the most, was of her and him against a bookshelf background. Koto had her books clutched in both hands in front of her skirt with a pleasant smile. Eiichi had his arm around her with the cad, wolfish grin he was known for, their heads touching. The text underneath read 'The Heroes of Sakakino'.

"Wow…" Kokoro uttered, "You guys were hot!"

"What do you mean were?" Koto gripped a little sibling rivalry.

Eiichi wrapped his arm over her shoulders, just like he did in the photo and planted a kiss on her cheek, "You're just as hot as you ever were."

She responded with raising a hand to his and intertwining their fingers, their rings close.

Eiichi sighed, "Back in the day…"

"Yeah…" Koto replied.

They had all grown up, passing through life's bitter boundaries to pursue their ambitions, to learn more of themselves and each other, time being the strict overseer of youth.

"You guys had such eventful lives at Sakakino, I only hope mine are as interesting…" Kokoro mused.

Eiichi set a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at him.

"It's only what you make of it. You just do what Kokoro does, and you'll do fine," he smiled.

"Thanks Onii…"

Kokoro closed up the past and placed it back in the box to be observed for another day. Then she patted her hands against her hips, "Well, I guess I should be going, I need to be up bright n' early to meet everyone at the train station."

"You're right, and we should've been gone like an hour ago," Yuuki checked his phone.

Kokoro grabbed her messenger bag that she left by the couch and slung it over her head. Everyone gave her a goodbye hug.

"Go out there and get yourself a surfer guy," were Chie's parting words.

Kokoro laughed, "I'll try."

"Go make some memories," Eiichi said.

And again, she said, "Thanks Onii…"

After more hugs and warm partings, Kokoro took her leave, waving and responding to calls from the front door all the way to the limo.

"See you next week!" Yuuki called.

"Have fun!" Roka called.

"Kokoro, be careful, kay?" Koto called.

"I will, bye Onee! Bye everyone!" she disappeared into the limo and her guardians watched Amaya drive up the street and around the corner.

"You've got a great sister Koto-chan," Chie said.

"I know…"

"Well, I guess we should get going as well," said Torio.

"Lemme' change and grab my bag," said Eiichi.

"Good, that means you get to lock up," Torio smirked.

Eiichi rushed up the stairs and into his room. He got changed and grabbed his keys off the dresser, but when he turned, he saw his duffel sitting on the floor by the bed, with the dusty bracelet of rugged, woven threads laying on it. He must have set it there unintentionally.

He picked it up and stared at it again. He touched the ring on his left hand, then tenderly placed the bracelet back on his dresser, to be packed in the car with him and Koto when they got back.

When he came down the stairwell, Koto was waiting for him, in her white dress and straw hat, the open door behind her revealing the cars outside, ready to roll under a bright afternoon sun.

"Shall we?" she extended her hand with a smile.

He took it, "Let's."

THE END

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