"You're getting the hang of it," he said to her, looking up at her face with a smug smile on his lips. "It's not that hard isn't it?"
The way he said it seemed like deja vu to her. Her thoughts went back to that New Year Festival that Akashi had invited her to when they were still in first year.
The Kiseki no Sedai had agreed to come to the festival together; however, having different preferences on what to do during the said event, the team decided to part ways to do what they want, under the condition that they will have to gather up near the ferris wheel in time for the fireworks display. And so it went, with Momoi asking Kuroko to come with her, while Kise was challenging Aomine in random games. Midorima was playing as well, for the sole purpose of collecting random items that might serve as his lucky item one day, and Murasakibara, of course, was on his food hunt.
That leaves Kimiko with Akashi.
The two were just wandering aimlessly around, looking at the booths that catch their attention. Kimiko even roped Akashi in buying cotton candy and managed to convince him to try and eat it. The sight of Akashi holding a stick of the fluffy pink food amused Kimiko to no end.
And so it was that they passed by a photo booth and Kimiko's eyes immediately brightened. Dragging Akashi with her, she went over to the man operating the booth.
"Uhm, excuse me, can we —"
The man looked up at her and smiled pleasantly. He pointed to his camera. "A picture with your boyfriend, young lady?"
Kimiko found herself blushing. She held up her hands. "Uhm, we're not —" She laughed nervously and glanced surreptitiously at Akashi, who spoke at the same time as her.
"Yes, we would like to," he said, a smile on his lips, not saying anything to deny the man's assumptions about their relationship. They'd only known each other for about eight months and had become pretty close with one another. They were classmates, seatmates, and most importantly, clubmates — plus, they walk home together — there's no way they wouldn't become close friends in just a short period of time.
That only fueled the rumors about the two of them. Most assumed that they were together or something like that, only for Kimiko to deny everything while Akashi does not give a damn to what other people say about them. Their interactions with one another though seems to be the complete opposite of what Kimiko wants others to believe them to be.
"You two look very nice together. A perfect match, ne?" He gestured to the backdrop for the photo. It was a Tokyo horizon with multi-colored fireworks gracing the sky. "If you can please stand over there."
"Akumi," Akashi said, taking her hand. Kimiko turned to him, uncharacteristically flustered as she tried to free herself from him.
"But Seijuurou, we're not-" she started once more, trying hard to hide her reddening cheeks from him.
The corner of Akashi's lips curled in amusement. He hummed as he raised an eyebrow at her. "Let's just have our picture taken, Akumi."
"Good," Akashi looked oddly satisfied and she allowed the redhead to lead her in front of the backdrop.
"Take your pose," the photographer said, gesturing at them to move closer to one another. Kimiko followed hesitantly.
"Miss, smile a little brighter," the man said, peeking out from behind the camera. "You look like a dental patient," he added jokingly.
Akashi chuckled lightly, making Kimiko to huff at him. "Akumi, relax. It's just a picture. It's not like we haven't taken one before."
Without warning, Akashi looped an arm around her waist and pulled her close to him. He leaned down to murmur in her ear. "Smile, Akumi."
And despite the wild beating of her heart, Akumi smiled.
"That's better," the man commented as Akashi straightened up before the flash went off.
"They'll be ready in about ten minutes. Both of you will be taking a copy?" the photographer asked as the two approached him.
"Yes, we will," the redhead replied as he paid for the photos. "We will return once they are ready."
The man nodded, and Akashi once again led Kimiko away as they looked for something to do as they wait for the photos to be developed. He must have noticed her silence because he asked her if she was alright.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she said without looking up at him. Thus she didn't see the mischievous glint in his ruby eyes as he gazed at something up ahead. He nudged her lightly with his elbow, and she turned her head to look at him with questioning eyes.
"How about a dance, Akumi?"
She shook her head slowly, eyes slightly in a daze. Kimiko doesn't know why her heart was racing in her chest, and she was hoping that the redhead in front of her will not notice it. She always wondered why the redhead always affect her this way. Lost in her musings, she didn't notice the way Akashi looked at her almost longingly. He pulled her closer then, holding her against his chest. She gasped in surprise, but she did not try to pull away.
Kimiko had her arms around Akashi's neck while he had his arms round her waist, hands resting above the small of her back. The two of them were idly swaying in slow circles to a wordless tune, their faces peaceful and content.
"What are you thinking?" Kimiko asked, looking up at Akashi who was staring at her quietly for some time now, and it was starting to make her feel a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious.
"...Nothing," he replied softly, shaking his head.
"You look like you were thinking of something very important," Kimiko said, tilting her head to look at him. "If you have a problem, you know that I am always here to help you. You also have the team. Remember that, okay?"
He touched his forehead to hers affectionately, "I know, I know."
"Hmp. You always say that, though I wonder if you even mean it," she said teasingly, "You're the type who prefers to keep things to themselves. Seijuurou," she pinched his cheek lightly, "Asking for help isn't always a sign of weakness. It takes great courage to admit that some things cannot be done by yourself all alone, thus the need to ask help from other people around you."
Akashi looked dumbfounded for a short while, and his hold on her tightened.
"Arigatou," he murmured to her, his lips next to her ear. "It means a lot to me."
She said nothing to that, instead, she hugged him tighter, her cheek resting on his shoulder. There was nothing more to say, and she was sure that Akashi knows that as well.
The appointed time came and the group had gathered together to ride the gigantic ferris wheel to witness the fireworks display from above. Everyone had paired up on who they were going to be with in each car — Kuroko and Momoi, Aomine and Kise, Murasakibara and Midorima, Akashi and Kimiko.
The ride was slow but absolutely thrilling, and when the clock struck twelve, the ferris wheel paused, with Akashi and Kimiko's car at the topmost point, just as the first of the fireworks soared up to the sky, exploding in a brilliant shade of red and gold.
Akashi was gazing out the window, admiring the brilliant display outside. Beside him, Kimiko smiled gently to herself. Lately, Akashi had been looking not so well, and she was perceptive enough to figure out that he was having some sort of an argument with his father, something that concerns him being a basketball player in Teiko. He didn't tell her about it, but Kimiko had accidentally overheard his conversation with his father's secretary over the phone. She knew it was not her place to talk to him about it, but taking it out of his mind, even just temporarily, was the least that she could do. She perfectly knows how Akashi treasured and loved the sport, something about it being reminiscent of his late mother — a fact that she had learned from one of their customary chats on their way home. She squeezed his hand instinctively, and he returned the gesture, as they both watched the night sky lit up with fireworks.
"Akumi," he said, his voice loud and clear above the noise, "Will you promise me one thing?"
Surprised at his sudden request, Kimiko nodded her head. "Sure. What is it?"
His face that she saw that time was one that she could never forget — how Akashi's eyes gleamed like rubies in the flashing lights. Gold met crimson as another firework exploded like a thousand little stars, and asked one thing that she absolutely did not expect him to ask from her.
"Can you promise me that you will never leave me?"
"What are you thinking?" Akashi asked, his eyes on the moon hanging just above the horizon. That question was always the norm between the two of them, almost a form pf endearment, maybe, because they have never succeeded in fully knowing what was on the other's mind most of the time.
"Hm." Kimiko looked up. They both stared at the starry sky.
"I'm sorry, too," Kimiko whispered, slowly closing her eyes to prevent the tears from falling.
He angled his head downwards. He was certainly confused. "I don't think I understand where you're getting at with that statement."
She heaved a sigh.
"What?" she replied, raising her head slightly to look at him. Akashi's expression is serious.
Kimiko blinked at his order. "Explain what? I —" A flick at the forehead stopped her from going further.
"Why are you apologizing?"
The girl looked to the floor guiltily. "I'm not blameless for whatever happened back then, Seijuurou. I know you're feeling responsible over it, and yes, I was hurt deeply by it — but it's also my fault. As Coach Shirogane's replacement, I focused too much on securing our victory and paid no attention to everything else. I wanted to make all of you the strongest players — but I failed to factor in the fact that you were supposed to be a team. I didn't realize how such power would affect everyone until it was too late. I admit, it gave me satisfaction to see how everyone looks at us like we were a different kind, someone above their station — someone that is worshipped, revered. I wanted our team to leave a mark in the basketball world. It was an ambition that I gave so much to achieve, only for it to spin out of control. In short, everything... Everything started from me. I was —"
"Kimiko, stop blaming yourself," Akashi interrupted, unable to listen any longer. How could she even say such things?
"It was nobody's fault."
Kimiko sighed softly. How can Akashi fail to understand it? As if reading her thoughts, he added, "You've forgiven us already; I guess it's time for you to forgive yourself as well." Kimiko blinked, remembering that this was what she told Murasakibara as well. She nodded. "If you can give forgiveness to someone who doesn't deserve it, then at the very least, you can try to forgive yourself."
She smiled. A sweet smile that almost made his heart ache.
"Seijuurou..?" she asked quietly, feeling a bit conscious due to their current position. His scent was slowly intoxicating her, but it never failed to make her feel safe and secure.
"Akumi, don't leave me again," he whispered, his breath tickling her skin and sending a shiver down her spine. It sounded like a fervent, almost desperate wish. Kimiko shifted her arms and embraced him tightly, burying her face in the comforting warmth of his chest.
"No, I won't," she replied quietly, just as she had three years ago, "I will never leave you. Ever."
"Muro-chin, what are you looking at?" Murasakibara asked his partner, who had been silently standing by himself in front of a wooden drawer in the corner of the room. "Ah, Kumi-chin really liked taking pictures," he said when he saw what had caught Himuro's attention. They were pictures of Kimiko and the Kiseki no Sedai from middle school.
A smile played on his face as he recalled the times when those pictures were taken. He looked at the one in Himuro's hand. It was a framed collage of pictures, all of which are composed of eight middle schoolers dressed in yukatas. "That was during the Summer Festival in our freshman year in Teiko."
"You all look very happy in these pictures," Himuro noted, to which Murasakibara nodded happily before enthusiastically narrating the story behind each photo.
The photos were arranged in a 2x2 grid, with a single photo in the center — making it five photos all in all. There was the one with all of them gathered at the shrine as they made their offerings, the other with Akashi and Kimiko seated at a low table in what looks like a shogi tournament, while the other was of Momoi hugging a grotesque-looking teddy bear with Kuroko, Aomine, and Kise beside her. Then there was one of Murasakibara and Midorima playing a hoop-throwing game in one of the booths. The center photo was of everyone gathered around as they smiled for the camera. Colorful fireworks were in full bloom in the background. Murasakibara, as expected, was holding a cotton candy, Midorima was with his lucky item for the day (which happened to be a statue of Buddha), Aomine was smirking smugly while Kise had on a cheerful smile, arms round each others' shoulders. In front of them, Kuroko and Momoi were holding sparklers, the phantom openly smiling though not as bright as that of the pinkette beside him. Then there was Akashi and Kimiko, dressed in yukatas that contrasted each other like night and day yet perfectly in harmony with each other. Akashi's yukata was of pure white cloth with golden dragon designs, while Kimiko had on a midnight black yukata designed with the crimson flames of the phoenix. The redhead was smiling contentedly while the chartreusette had a mischievously sweet smile on her lips.
To Himuro, the photos showed what was once a very beautiful friendship, although he doesn't miss the fact that Kimiko seemed to be always near Rakuzan's captain.
Before he could comment on that, Takao popped out beside him with a grin on his face. "Waah, look at that! So Shin-chan also wears yukata to festivals!"
Shutoku's ace, who happened to be passing by on his way to the kitchen for another can of oshiruko, stopped in his tracks when he heard Takao spouting yet something about him. He was about to whack the oblivious hawk-eyed boy in the back of the head when he happened to see the frame in Himuro's hand. "So Kimiko still kept them, after all," he couldn't help muttering, thinking that the girl had at least shoved them in the back of her closet, never to see the light of day again after she left them for good.
Takao's question shook him from his reminiscing. "Ne, I wonder who won?" he asked, pointing at the picture with Midorima and Murasakibara in it.
Yosen's center opened his mouth to answer, only to close it at Midorima's death glare from behind Takao. Takao prodded him for a reply, not expecting to get hit in the head in return. The darkhaired boy doesn't even have to look to know who did it. "I was only asking! You don't have to hit me that hard, Shin-chan!"
"It's because you're too annoying, Takao," came Midorima's voice, and Takao can't help but smirk.
"I knew it! You lost to Murasakibara that time, am I right?"
"Eh? How did you know that, Taka-chin?" Murasakibara said, unknowingly confirming Takao's guess, much to Midorima's anger.
Himuro can only sigh to himself. Atsushi never learns.
While the three continued with their bickering, another person decided to join them. Kise grabbed another frame from the top of the drawer, containing yet another photo collage arranged like the one of the summer festival.
"I remember this! This was our second summer camp in Akashicchi's summer villa!" which explains their choice of clothing.
"I can hear you all the way from here!" Aomine's protest at Kise's loudness can be heard from the kitchen, where he and Kagami was still eating.
The blonde model tossed his head back as he yelled out, "Aominecchi, come here, I've something to show you!"
"I don't care!"
"Aominecchi, don't be so mean!"
Momoi, who was helping Kuroko pack up his gifts in preparation for their departure soon, got curious at Kise's words. "Ki-chan, what is it that you want to show to Dai-chan?"
Kise turned to her and grinned, waving the frame to beckon them over. "Momoicchi, Kurokocchi, over here!"
"That was during our second year, isn't it?" Kuroko asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the photo.
"Hm-mm!" Momoi confirmed, eyes sparkling with excitement. She was thinking of asking Kimiko to have a copy of that picture with her and Kuroko playing beach volleyball. "I wonder if we can go there again sometime?"
"We can ask Akashi-kun, if it's not too much of a hassle..."
"I bet that's where he took his team last year for summer camp," Kise said with a hint of envy.
"They were lucky," Momoi said in agreement. Kuroko only nodded.
"Say, where are those two by the way?" Kise suddenly asked, looking around the room in search of their two leaders.
"Last I checked, Akashi-kun was out in the balcony."
"Akumi-san is probably with him, too," Kuroko added knowingly.
"I'll go and call them!" and without another word, Kise dashed off to the direction of the balcony.
Ever since he started going to school, Kise had always been popular due to his extremely good looks. Never mind the fact that he was not really that smart — he made up for it by being a brilliant player in every sport he joined in. He was charming, easy to get along with, although he tends to be loud and a bit childish at times. The girls doesn't mind that, of course. In fact, that made him more adorable and all in their eyes.
His popularity increased to a nationwide level when he started modeling on his sister's encouragement. The photographers loved him, the media loved him, and just about every female loved him.
Before he joined Teiko's basketball club, he used to be the top in whatever sports club he was in. Because of that, Kise became disillusioned and bored of his life. As he learned more and more about life, he soon found out that not everyone is sincere towards others. Girls approach him not because they truly loved him, but to use him as some sort of a status symbol, as bragging rights. Boys befriend him for the same reasons also. Thus, as young as he is, Kise grew distrustful of his fellow human beings. Also, he became pressured in his modeling job. His manager kept on blabbering about him to be careful with everything so as not to harm his reputation and all that blah blah blah... To the point that he got sick of it. As time pass, Kise felt less like a human — and more like a puppet.
Until he met Kimiko Akumi.
Being a part of the modeling industry, not to mentiosn the fact that he has two sisters who are also models, Kise has seen a lot of people who are considered to be beautiful in the highest sense of the word. Thus he did not expect himself to be rendered speechless when he first laid eyes on Teiko's assistant coach.
Kise was wandering in the school grounds after class, having no club activity to participate in since he was still undecided about it. He passed by some boys from his class on their way to the gym, and they were talking noisily about the assistant coach of Teiko's basketball team. He paid no attention to them, though, and continued with his loitering.
As he rounded a corner of the administration building, he didn't notice the girl that was running towards him, her eyes focused on the sheet of paper in her hands instead of the path before her, muttering all the while about being late and getting ready for her punishment later.
There was a crash as the two collided, but thankfully Kise's reflexes was fast enough to grab her wrist and pull her towards him to prevent her from falling to the hard pavement below. He heard her muffled yelp as her face collided with his chest.
"Are you...okay? -Eh?" Being the gentleman he is, Kise asked for her condition first, only to blink in surprise when he saw the color of her hair. Who in the world actually has chartreuse hair?
The girl pulled away, and he found bright golden looking straight at him. "Yes, I'm fine... Sorry, I'm in a hurry — shit, I'm gonna be late!" The girl exclaimed, before dashing off. "Sorry again!" she yelled, turning to him before completely vanishing from his sight. Kise can only stare at the direction that she had gone to, completely speechless.
Porcelain skin, long eyelashes, gold eyes, a finely sculptured nose, pink lips, and that unique yellow-green hair...
Not even the word 'beautiful' can describe her fully.
To Kise's eyes, the girl who'd bumped into him just moments ago was like Aphrodite herself, the goddess of beauty.
Oddly enough, Kise found himself wanting to see her again.
As he turned to go, he noticed something on the ground before him. It was an expensive Parker fountain pen. He smiled as he picked it up.
He just found the perfect excuse to look for her.
Kise found her in the library two days later purely by accident. The girl was trying to reach for a book on the upper shelves only to fail miserably. He watched as she tried jumping for it, but after a few times, she stopped and pouted in annoyance.
"Damn book, why do you have to be up so high? Where are the library assistants when you need them?"
Before she could go and search for one, Kise approached her and easily got the book she had been reaching for earlier and handed it to her with a smile. "This is the one you want, right?"
Her eyes brightened as she accepted the offered book. "Thanks. Fancy meeting you again."
"So you remembered!"
She stuck her tongue out at him childishly. "Of course, you idiot. By the way, name's Kimiko Akumi."
"I know, I know. Kise Ryouta, right?" She cut off Kise's question of "How did you—"
"Of course I am right."
She was already walking away, however, she seemed to be telling Kise to follow her to the couches in the library's lounge. He sat across her, gaping openly at her total nonchalance at having known that he was indeed the famous Kise Ryouta.
If she was a normal girl, she should have fainted on my feet.
Unfortunately — or was it fortunately? — Kimiko Akumi was everything but that.
She must have sensed him staring at her intently because she sighed, then crossed her ankles, face hidden behind her History book. "It's rude to stare, you know."
"I'm not staring!" Kise tried to deny, but a snort from the chartreusette told him that she was not believing him in the very least.
She shut the book quietly and fixed her gaze on him. "Got something to tell me?" Umcrossing her ankles, she added, "Well, aside from the fact that you are quite surprised at my nonexistent reaction about knowing you, that is. However, I assure you that I am still a human being just like anyone else around you. The only difference is that I am a genuine one."
Ouch, Kise winced in his mind. Her words pierced him like a thousand knives in the chest especially with that all knowing tone of hers. Irritation bubbled up deep inside him. He was well aware that she was hinting at him when she said that last line. He retorted harshly, "Well, what do you know?"
"A lot, I tell you," she smirked at him knowingly. His eyes followed her as she stood up and smiled to someone who just entered the library. "Seijuurou!"
The redhaired boy that she called 'Seijuurou' took the book from her and had it checked it out for her. "I figured you were here. What's taking you so long? Practice is about to start in ten minutes."
"Nothing that concerns you," he heard her say as the two exited the library. "Soooo~ ready for the new trainining menu?"
"I'd like to think that everyone is."
Kimiko's merry laughter echoed in Kise's ears lomg after they were gone.
And it was in that moment that Kise Ryouta realized with a start that he wil never be able to reach her from where he stood.
That fact did nothing to prepare him for the scene befor him, though.
Akashi knew the exact moment that Kise laid his gaze on him and Kimiko but he made no move to release her from his embrace. Let him think what he wants to think, the redhead said to himself. It's not like they haven't seen the two act like this before. Akashi and Kimiko hugging one another is not something new to the members of Teiko's basketball club.
Kise stood there in silence for a while, looking at them with a blank face, but Akashi did not miss the way he clenched his fists tightly before forcing a smile on his face and going back inside the room. Ruby eyes narrowed at the gesture but he let it slide.
"I think the others are already looking for us," Akashi murmured silently. "Kise's here."
Sighing, Kimiko pulled away as his arms loosened around her. "Is that so..." Then she gasped as she remembered. "Oh right! You guys have to go home soon! And you!" She looked at him. "You've a two-hour train ride to Kyoto! Sheesh, how could I forget that?" And as Kimiko continued her grumbling, Akashi took her hand and led her back inside, smiling contentedly all the while.
"Take care on your way home!"
Kimiko waved at them from the gates of her apartment complex. It was unfortunate that Kuroko's birthday was a Sunday — everyone has to go home early since they have classes the following day. And some of them live a few hours away from Tokyo — namely, Akashi, Murasakibara, and Himuro.
"We'll be going now, Kimiko."
"See you soon, Kimi-chan! Oi, Shin-chan, are you not going to say goodbye?"
"Shut up, Takao."
"Ja, see you around."
She watched them walk away from her, but she no longer felt sad at seeing their backs receding into the distance. She sighed, but it was one of relief. They were not exactly the ones she had first known in Teiko, but there are some things about them that still remained the same. When she can no longer see them, she turned to go, only to yelp in surprise.
Said redhead only looked at her in amusement. "You look like you've seen a ghost, Akumi."
"I thought you've gone ahead with the others!" she exclaimed, shaking her head as she calmed herself.
Akashi only chuckled in response.
"Not that I'm shooing you away, but... shouldn't you be going off to the station now? It's already late and you have classes tomorrow, right?"
Akashi, instead of answering, asked her a question. "Will you be watching the Nationals?"
"Of course!" she answered enthusiastically. "I can't wait to see all of you on the court, even though I am just a part of the audience now." The last part was said quietly, almost sadly.
"That won't last for long. I'm sure you'll be joining the basketball club as a manager in your second year of high school."
"Yeah, right," she muttered. "Just a couple months more..."
"About that, have you already chosen where to enroll for second year?"
At his query, Kimiko raised an eyebrow in suspicion. She looked at him flatly. "I'm guessing that your next sentence will be along the lines of 'Go to Rakuzan with me', isn't it?"
Akashi's serious expression confirmed her suspicion. "Aa. That is, if you will agree to it."