Chapter 5 Norms
One bare lightbulb glowed overhead and set a dim yellow glaze over a dark blue, late model sports car that took up one side of a small garage. On the other side, a set of tin shelves sat against a wall, on top of a concrete floor. Also against this wall, a long black pad, about the length of a human torso, was mounted against a post drilled in to the wall, a jump rope on the floor near it. There was a large roll-out tool box near the front of the car, a space from a door, an oily rag lay on its lid next to a pair of clean hand towels.
The sounds of hissy breathing filled the garage, two shadows facing each other circled as they rocked back and forth, hands raised in front of their faded complexions. Momentarily, there would be a break of intense padding noises, with synchronized increased hissing from one of the shadows.
"Eyes on me, eyes on me, don't look at my hands…" a shirtless Eiichi had his bare hands up before his face, reddened palms out forward, fingers lightly spaced apart, clad in only his gym shorts and boxing shoes.
Another break of intense hits, Eiichi's hands were attacked. Kotonoha strained in front of him in her sweat fringed sports top, gym shorts and shoes, wearing his heavy bag gloves. Kotonoha's long shimmering ponytail hung loosely, waving across her back and dancing through the air, a few strands hanging out of place from the rigorous activity. Sweat trickled down their faces and heaving torsos as they leered at each other intensely.
"Stay on those toes, elbows in."
Eiichi moved one hand down, aligning it with his abs, knuckles facing out now, the other he aligned with his face. Kotonoha's fists snapped forward, the gloves smacking against the face target and once against the ab target, hissing air between her teeth. He shifted the surfaces subtly in front of her from side to side to create the aspect of a weaving opponent.
"Reverse," when before they had been circling each other counterclockwise, they began circling clockwise. "Only exhale out your mouth when you strike."
Kotonoha attacked his hands fiercely, throwing a barrage of hits, not stopping. Eiichi's cell phone on the toolbox sprang to life with an alarm.
"That's time!" Eiichi's intense look turned to a gentle smile as he left his stance and approached the fatigued Kotonoha. "Really nice, you're a fast learner. I already have you working combos," he took one of her upturned, gloved hands and began undoing the velcro.
"Did I ever tell you I took Iaido?" she said, a little out of breath.
"No, how far did you get with it?"
"I don't want to brag…but I exceled."
"Hm…" remembering a cold night and the blade of a saw, "That would explain a lot."
'Let it go Eiichi… Just let it go.'
He slipped the glove off her hand and proceeded to undo the other.
"We should really invest in some more equipment if you're going to be training me," she eyed his red palms. "I'm going to need my own gloves too."
"Yeah, I guess we could."
"Maybe I should get weights, and a proper bag," she looked at the pad drilled into the wall.
"If you want to work on your strength, it wouldn't be a bad idea, but strength isn't everything. A few of the pros I view online don't even do weight training, it's all endurance and conditioning," he slipped the other glove off and Kotonoha began undoing her wrist wraps.
Eiichi grabbed his cell and tossed her a towel, and they headed inside. Kotonoha went straight to the kitchen to get a bottle of water. Eiichi was looking at his cell when he approached the kitchen overlook and pulled up a stool, setting the gloves and his towel down. He'd received a text message. Oddly enough, he did not hear his phone go off while they had been training.
"Could you hand me a beer?"
"A beer after training?" Kotonoha, with her face in the fridge.
"There's nothing like it," Eiichi smiled.
Torio appeared from the hall, "Have a good fight?"
"Yeah," Kotonoha closed the fridge door and handed Eiichi the beer, "Eiichi says I'm improving rather quickly, pretty soon I'll be able to take you," feeling competitive and raising her fists playfully.
"Well that's a fight I'll happily avoid," Torio laid back on the couch, facing the recliner.
The text Eiichi received had come from…Yuuki!
'I know you have my cell number.'
Eiichi tapped on his keypad: 'That's impressive. What I want to know is how you got mine when I never sent you anything.'
A little ahead of schedule, Yuuki had decided to contact him. The strain of the whole thing might've been too much for him to bear. Despite his attempt at whatever he was trying to do, Eiichi couldn't help feeling sorry for him.
Yuuki had sent the message while Eiichi and Kotonoha had been training, so it would be a few minutes before he received a response.
"So what's on the menu?" Kotonoha stood by Torio's place at the couch.
"I'm not sure…" Torio rubbed his eyebrow. "I know I said I'd take the reins tonight, but I'm getting nothing. Maybe seafood, I don't know."
"We can afford that?" Eiichi said, not looking up from his phone.
A message popped up: 'Chie told me you were friends, so I peeked into her contacts.' Sneaky little bastard.
Torio snickered, "No. And I didn't do any shopping either…"
Eiichi got another text: 'We need to talk.'
"We still have that cabbage in the fridge, right?" Eiichi asked.
"I wonder if they have russets at the store…" looking back at his phone and tapping his response: 'We sure do. Where and when?' hoping this wasn't some kind of setup.
"Hey, I know what you're getting at," Torio pointed.
"We could make mom's traditional meal."
"Yeah! Hey, we're almost in March, it would be a nice—wait, no, the potatoes would have to be russet and I don't think you could even get a considerable amount of corned beef for the price. That import tax is murder on my wallet."
Yuuki's response: 'Meet me at the back of the main building during lunch.'
"What is corned beef?" Kotonoha chimed in.
"Haha, it seems our aristocratic friend has yet to taste the modest cuisine of the O'Connell bloodline."
Eiichi looked up, "It's nasty looking stuff, but surprisingly tasty, as long as you don't get a brisket with a whole lot of gristle in it."
"Yeah, it's very salty, but the cabbage makes up for that."
"How do you cook the cabbage?" she asked.
"Well, you roast it with butter and olive oil in a pan with a lid, kinda' like you're sautéing it…"
'You're not going to try anything weird, are you?' if he wasn't already stressing, this would do it.
"…boil the potatoes until they get a little cakey, then add rosemary or thyme. But it wouldn't be a right meal without some stout or porter. And we have no chance of making anything like that tonight. Thanks for getting my hopes up Eiichi."
"You're welcome." Eiichi's phone screen lit up: 'I assure you I only want to talk. Don't get the wrong idea about me. I'll explain.' To anyone else, this would be a futile CYA move on Yuuki's part, but Eiichi knew better.
"Ah…" Torio slumped back against the couch, "We could put that off for the 17th. Maybe I'll make stew instead. For now, I guess we could all just go out for beef bowls."
"I'm good with that," said Eiichi, tapping on the keypad: 'During lunch, back of the main building.'
"That's nice, thanks Torio. Wow, I feel like a real fighter now," Kotonoha smiled, padding her fists together.
"Okay, then time to hit the showers," Eiichi got up.
"Ah-ah! One at a time," Torio pointed, "I know you guys like to have your fun, but with me around, that's just weird."
"Stop thinking weird things. I was gonna' let Koto take hers first."
"Yeah Torio," she picked.
"Alright, there's gotta' be some kind of law n' order around here ya know," Torio relaxed.
"Thank you Eiichi," Kotonoha squeezed his arm before entering the hall.
Eiichi grabbed his beer and sat back in the recliner. He noticed Torio's amused and rather satisfied aura staring at him from the couch with a broad smile.
"What…" Eiichi grabbed the remote, the TV turning on by Torio's face.
"I told you it would happen man, and now she's practically member of the family."
"I bet you've been patting yourself on the back ever since that first date."
"Yeah, now it's tough enough pulling you two apart."
Without a word, Torio was now concerned something might be bothering Eiichi.
"So what is it now?" Eiichi said.
"Well you look like you were pretty focused on your phone over there. Anything going on?" going with the flow.
"Yeah…" Eiichi explained the situation between Yuuki and Roka, and how he was helping Chie, leaving out a few odds and ends.
"Look at my little brother, playing match maker."
"Well I have some help."
"Maybe get Kotonoha in on it as well."
"Um…" as fantastic as it sounded, he'd have to keep certain information about Yuuki to himself that would be very off-putting, not to mention Yuuki's infatuation with Kotonoha. "I may consider that later on, but I already talked with Roka and she seems really particular about keeping things on the down low." And with that, he remembered there was something else he needed to do, text the unpredictable Chie.
He took out his phone: 'I talked with Roka. How are things on your end?'
"Yeah, it sounds like those two have got it bad, if they argue that much and want to keep so many secrets," said Torio, "They're just denying themselves, that's all. They seriously saw each other naked in the same day?"
"Man, that stuff only happens in manga. They must've been born under good stars or something."
Chie responded: 'Okay, I spoke with Yuuki and he seems pretty ticked about Roka. I tried to talk him in to apologizing to her, but he's pretty focused on something. That situation the other night was a real whammy. Did Roka tell you anything?'
"It's a blessing in disguise, I suppose. What do you think I should do?" Eiichi looked.
"It doesn't look like you're doing anything I wouldn't. Keep talking with her, try to keep yourself available. Maybe talk with Chie about setting something up. Just remember patience, this one's going to take some time."
And then Eiichi had an idea, his eyes flashed at Torio, "So uh…Chie…I'm pretty sure she's single."
"Okay, now you are doing what I wouldn't do. You're getting trigger happy," Torio pointed again.
"And look who's getting gun shy, my philanderous brother."
"I haven't even met her yet, and she's a high school student," for once, Eiichi had Torio flustered and on the ropes.
"She won't be much longer, we're graduating together. She's as old as me, so you guys are what, five years apart?"
"I don't know man…" Torio smoothed back his long hair.
"Come on, she's on the basketball team with Roka, she's really beautiful, except I haven't seen her outside the uniform yet, and she already likes me, just imagine what she'll think when she gets a look at you."
"Well I am the better looking one."
"See, at least your self-confidence is in full gear, ya jackass," Torio still knew how to turn things around. "Plus, this whole setting up Roka and Yuuki thing was her idea. Meddling in other people's affairs? That's already one thing you two have in common. I have her number right here."
"I'll-I'll think about it, okay?"
"Alright, offer's on the table…" Eiichi tapped on the keypad: 'Roka told me what happened. She's willing to apologize to Yuuki for what she said, but Yuuki has to be willing to apologize as well.' It was starting to look like he was going to have to do her job for her, what with Yuuki's undivided attention on him.
Chie messaged back: 'Okay, I'm thinking we should set something up,' that was spooky, 'If the apology goes well, let's try and get them on a date without their knowing.'
Torio looked over, "Is that her?"
Eiichi threw his head up, "Now who's acting like a high school student?"
The next day, Kotonoha and Eiichi went about their daily routine of him showing up on her step and walking her to school. Eiichi allowed himself to be distracted by their usual conversation and the occasional quip between the two. He had to make it seem last minute, so during class he'd sent her a text message saying he wasn't going to make it for lunch and she'd have to fly solo for a while. Her response was a little gloomy, but she was moderately comfortable with it. It pained him, but he wanted to keep her as uninvolved as possible.
'Go on without me,' where had heard this before? It wasn't what he had said, but it might as well have been.
Finally, Eiichi was going to get to the bottom of things, no more smoke and mirrors. He imagined Yuuki was probably nervous to the point of nausea, while he was bent on knowing just what all this sneaking around was about. Nothing could be easy, could it? It just had to be that he gets setup with the task of bringing two people together, difficult in its own respect, only one of them had such an extravagant secret, and Eiichi had to learn about in the most troublesome way possible. Of all times, Yuuki had remained pretty much silent up to this point, only now he decided to make enough noise that Eiichi had to pay attention to him.
When the lunch bell rang, Eiichi calmly made his way to the side of the main building, thankfully like yesterday, there weren't many students out. Rounding the corner, he saw Yuuki, looking nervous as expected, giving occasional glances in possible directions he figured Eiichi would make his appearance. Thankfully, the red head from yesterday had disappeared, replaced with the short, spectacled boy.
'Now you see her, now you don't.'
For someone with a lot to hide, Yuuki didn't seem to have very good situational awareness. Eiichi was able to walk right up to him without being noticed.
"Wah!" Yuuki scattered back.
Eiichi was going to have to remember to stop setting people off like this, Yuuki's nervousness already wasn't doing him any good. He touched his head, tired, but to Yuuki, probably looking just as annoyed.
"Don't sneak up on people like that!" Yuuki flared.
"Sorry, I thought you'd notice."
Yuuki straightened his posture, adjusting his tie and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Curious and very worried, he was having trouble keeping eye contact with the blank expression on this obscure person who stood tall enough to look down at him.
"H-Have you told anyone?" he asked, with a glance away.
The anticipation collapsed inside Yuuki, that's one painful emotion down.
"Thank you…" he breathed.
Yuuki was quiet now and Eiichi could feel things getting a little awkward.
"Hey, about the crossdressing, if you're feeling confused about things, I get it man. I'm not going to judge."
"It's not the crossdressing!" Yuuki spouted and then retracted, holding a fearful hand upon his mouth and looking around, hoping no one heard.
Aside from his frustration with Eiichi and the longing, bottled up emotions for Kotonoha, Eiichi could tell this was not an issue, but he still found it kinda' funny. Yuuki was pretty concerned about his appearance, hence what Roka had said to him.
"Then what could have possibly driven you to do that?" Eiichi asked.
"It's not your concern."
"Oh, it damn well is my concern. Do you realize how embarrassing that would've been if Koto—wait…" his voice let out a little snarl, "You wanted Kotonoha to see you with me…"
"What I want to know is how you knew!" Yuuki tried to change the subject.
"Oh no, it's my turn now. You tried to pit us against each other with that little trick of yours," he was picking up signals that Yuuki must have spied on them while they were together, more than a few times. Eiichi kept his cool, delving into Yuuki's psyche, no matter how painful it became, "You were probably going to hang all over me, huh? Asking for my number and treating Kotonoha like she was just a friend of mine."
"How! How do you know all this!?" Yuuki was nearly in hysterics, it was obvious that Eiichi turned out a little smarter than Yuuki had taken him for.
"Just be happy you're talking to me and not some other guy. If someone else had seen through your little plan, you'd probably be in some physical peril, that and you'd have a bad reputation so fast, it'd make your head spin. You'd probably have to change schools, so you're welcome."
"So what, you're going to threaten to tell? You want to blackmail me, is that it?"
"If you want to, I don't care!" flinging his arms out. "I've settled myself with the consequences, so what's the catch? What do I have to do in exchange for your silence?"
"Dude…" shaken with the absurdity of this sheer upheaval.
"Do you really know what I risked doing what I did? I did it for her! You do not deserve to be with Katsura-san."
Eiichi nodded sardonically, "Mhm, and what brought on this line of thinking?"
"I know about you," Yuuki aimed an accusatory finger.
"Yeah, what've you heard about me…" Eiichi couldn't help droning in abject apathy while rolling his eyes. 'Ahh, here we go…'
"You're a delinquent, and you're violent. You don't follow the rules, and you've been lying for years about a medical condition to get sympathy from the school. Katsura-san needs to be with someone who is trustworthy, who she knows can take care of her. You don't even live in a wealthy enough household." Wow, he'd actually followed them home. Did he even know the meaning of the words 'need to know'? "I bet your track record is so bad, you couldn't even get a job after graduating." Now he was just grasping for stuff, though that last part was almost accurate, and kinda' scary, 'Why do I feel like I've heard all this before? Oh yeah…'
Eiichi thought he'd recite a little American proverb he'd learned from dad about what it is to 'assume', but the translation might be lost on Yuuki. "Hey, I admit I'm no saint, but you've yet to even get to know me. What about the other things that have been going around?"
"Yes, I know about those. I know that whenever Katsura-san is around you, she ends up in trouble somehow. You don't seem to have any moral value or sense of commitment whatsoever."
"Just how dated is your idea of me? What, do you think I'm in a gang because I skip class and keep my shirt untucked? Oh, I don't use proper Japanese either, so I must also be a drug dealer."
Eiichi wondered how this guy knew so much about everything that had happened, and yet he had not been able to pick him out before. He must've made friends with everyone while keeping his distance all the same. He probably had the social profile of a central intelligence agent, keeping in the background until the dust settled before making his move. While Eiichi had been doing his own work in the shadows, this kid was at it as well. Maybe it was his imagination, maybe his mind was fitting pieces into place where they had not originally been, but Eiichi thought he could remember a gangly, spectacle faced student eyeing Kotonoha and him during their library study sessions while walking through the aisles of books.
"Listen, I know you have a thing for Kotonoha, I fully understand, alright."
"I don't have feelings for her."
"Think about what I have to go through every day. There are so many guys on this campus that have it bad for her, sometimes I'm concerned my health might be in danger."
"Yeah, but, you're such a jerk…" Yuuki grumbled.
"Hey kid, I know about the crossdressing and I haven't said shit about it, so could you lay off with the insults?" How did Chie deal with him?
"I saw you talking with Roka yesterday. Shouldn't you have been with Kotonoha?"
"So you spied on me yesterday too. Ya know, just because we're together doesn't mean we need to be with each other every moment of the day. You have a very confined concept of how relationships are supposed to work. She's got stuff she has to do."
"Then why were you talking with Roka?"
"What I can't talk to girls now? Kid, you've gotta' understand something, Kotonoha is a reserved person, but she talks with guys just as much. It's a little thing called trust."
"Stop calling me kid! Call me by my last name, it's Ashikaga by the way, or did you forget that?"
"I'm sorry," he eased up, smiling a little, "For some reason I just can't help but think you're kinda' like little brother to me. I guess it's because I don't have one."
Yuuki was momentarily taken aback by this sudden showing of kindness, but his lack of trust continued to pull on him, convincing him only more that Eiichi was a liar.
"You seem like a really nice kid…" Eiichi was serious. It was really refreshing to be talking to yet another kind spirit. Given Yuuki's bizarre, yet daring stunt, Eiichi had the feeling that he was just as reckless and dedicated as a certain ex-chain smoker he knew. "That's more than I can say for most of the minds-I mean guys—" that was close "—I've seen walking around here. Believe me, in another life, if Kotonoha and I were not already a thing, I'd help you out in a heartbeat." Though he remembered he was supposed to be trying to get him with Roka, things were getting way off track. "If you really do not believe I'm dedicated to her, then why is it you're having this talk with me right now?"
"I don't have feelings for her."
"You do, unless your stunt really was influenced by other urges. What made you come up with that anyways?"
"Yeah, just keep lying to yourself, because then you'll never have to admit it. But those feelings won't go away until you do, and if that keeps up, well then you're only living with an infatuation."
Yuuki looked at his feet, Eiichi could feel the gears working, he'd made a mark, but it was all up to Yuuki now.
"No…no I won't stand here and let you take Katsura-san away," Yuuki clenched his fists. Eiichi figured kindness was not something he'd been familiar with.
"You're still going to rely on your shallow perception of me, and yet you won't turn that moral code on yourself. Appearances can be deceiving kid, just like yours. If you were willing to do something that crazy to protect someone, good, you've proven your loyalty. If you ever find a girl who's okay with that kinda' stuff, make sure she's decent, and never leave her side."
"I'm not a—!" Yuuki stopped himself. "I'm going to separate you two! Katsura-san deserves better!" Yuuki pointed menacingly. "If you won't release her, then I'll just have to take her from you!"
Eiichi had just about had enough, his eyes narrowed into a dark glare and he could feel Yuuki's fear pulling him away, "Kid, I've stared death in the face more than once for that girl. You're not about to play that game with me. I'm only trying to help you here."
Despite the fear, despite his doubts because of everything he'd just heard, Yuuki pulled his eyes up and glared right back at Eiichi, snarling, "Watch me."
Without another word, Yuuki turned and walked away.
Eiichi sighed, happy to at least have a few moments of mental peace. Makoto, Taisuke, and nearly every guy he'd ever come in contact with had trouble looking him in the eye when he got that way, but this short bookworm in glasses, who'd probably received all kinds of teasing for his feminine appeal, had just stood his ground and figuratively spat in his face. Eiichi could've been seven feet tall with twenty-four inch arms, and it wouldn't have made a difference. He smiled, "Now that's courage…"
He could sense another storm was brewing, he just hoped he'd be able to come out of this one with his limbs intact. "I'm in it now…" he walked out into the sunlight beyond the building.
In a space in front of the main building, Eiichi was approached by a male student.
"Yo Eiichi! What's up man?" the guy came running up to him. "I saw you with a really hot red head in the cafeteria the other day."
"Yeah, is she a friend? Would you mind introducing me, or you could give me her number."
"It's nice that you asked, but you just missed her. She's actually a cousin of mine that was visiting for a couple days. She's already headed back home."
"Aw man, I thought she was a student here."
"She wanted to try it out, but it wasn't for her."
"Damn…well sorry man, I didn't mean any disrespect."