The Runaway Empress

Chapter 25

"Seijuurou-kun!"

His thoughts came to a halt as his dinner companion arrived fifteen minutes later from the agreed time. He took one look at her with her carefully made up face, gold earrings, and revealing midnight blue dress, and felt a wave of revulsion wash over him. Her sickly sweet smile and equally sweet voice made it clear that she was trying hard to win him over, not knowing in the very least that she had already failed even before she showed her face to Akashi. It's not that she looks hideous — most would say that she was actually beautiful, with her caramel brown hair and eyes, with curves in all the right places — but to Akashi, she was just plain revolting.

I could be visiting her right now, he thought as she sat across him, flipping her hair over her shoulder flirtingly.

"What an elegant restaurant!" she said, leaning forward and showing her cleavage to him shamelessly.

Akashi though was already looking at the menu, blocking the awful view in front of him. "Father made the reservations," he said coldly, as if to discourage her from thinking that he made an effort to please her by choosing such a classy restaurant. "And do not call me 'Seijuurou-kun.'"

Only one person can call me by my given name, and that person is Akumi.

"But —!"

"Akashi-san is the more proper way to address me, Inoue-san," he interrupted, not looking up from the menu in his hands. "We're hardly acquaintances. I know you from your father but this is the first time that we've met in person."

"But I was there during the party in Kobe last month!" the girl protested.

Akashi merely took a sip of wine, as if he had heard nothing. After a few more minutes of silence, he closed the menu, having made his choice. She followed suit.

The waiter came and took their orders. After choosing hors d'oeuvres and soup, Akashi ordered duck, and Inoue ordered sea bass. The food arrived at a leisurely pace, which annoyed the hell out of Akashi as Inoue tried to engage him in small talk, with all of her attempts being smoothly brushed off by the redhead while maintaining an impassive face.

"Ne, Seijuurou-ku —Akashi-san, have you, have you ever been in love?"

"What's with the sudden curiousity, Inoue-san?" Akashi asked in return.

"Well, I was just wondering..." she said as she cut a small slice of terrine and brought it to her lips.

"Yes, I have," he said nonchalantly, watching for her reaction, which was exactly as he had predicted. Her shoulders fell in disappointment, her brown eyes darkening as her grip on her fork tightened visibly. She was waiting for an explanation but none was forthcoming as Akashi took another sip of his wine, feeling his appetite slowly vanishing due to his irritation.

Finally, the girl spoke again. This time her voice was laced with jealousy mixed with fury. "It's Kagura, isn't it?"

Akashi set his knife and fork down and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. Looking at her, he asked, "Why would you think that?" His golden eye glinted dangerously, his manners the only thing holding him from wringing the girl's neck for her insolence. She's been getting on his nerves the moment she opened her mouth.

"Because their company is bigger than ours!" she exploded.

At that point the door opened and the food was carried in. Akashi was presented with his roast duck, and Inoue received her sea bass. The waiters heaped fresh cooked vegetables on their plates and dribbled sauce on them before withdrawing and leaving the two of them alone again. Akashi cut a slice of duck and ate it calmly. Inoue didn't touch her food.

"You know, Akashi-san," she said, taking a deep breath to calm herself. "Kagura's family might be richer than mine at this moment, but Father has been busy making business deals with international companies. Besides, I'm more beautiful than that sorry excuse of an heiress, clumsy and can't even speak up properly." She placed her hands on the table and looked him in the eye.

A big mistake.

She flinched at Akashi's cold gaze. "You talk too much."

"I—"

"I don't even see the point of telling me all those things." The words 'I know that already' were left unsaid but Inoue understood perfectly, her face paling as she realized her mistakes. Still, she was desperate and so she foolishly opened her mouth once again.

"I'm just telling you the things you're going to miss if you choose Kagura over me," Inoue said, bringing a piece of sea bass in cream sauce to her mouth.

"Inoue-san, you're getting carried away with your delusions. Kagura-san has nothing to do with all this; you're foolishly making assumptions by yourself. And to make things clear, this is not a marriage interview, so you can stop saying such things."

"Then if it's not Kagura, then who—?"

"It's none of your business," Akashi said, cutting her off once more. The iciness of his voice was enough to shut her up for once and for all. The two of them went on eating in silence for a time.

Inoue left half of her fish while Akashi managed to polish off his duck despite his lack of appetite, Kimiko's words about not wasting food echoing in his ears.

The waiters took away their plates and brought lemon sherbet and espresso. Once again, Akashi forced the stuff down his throat, while Inoue ignored her sherbet. Instead, she stared down at her hands on her lap.

What could she be doing now? he wondered as he sipped on his coffee. Akumi could be lying on the sofa reading a book, or she might be playing her guitar. He glanced at his watch and smiled to himself. She's most likely preparing dinner. He felt an intense desire to go back to her apartment to eat her homecooked dinner instead of this restaurant food.

Inoue sighed, then mumbled, "Akashi-san, what should I do to—"

"Nothing" was his immediate reply. Nothing you can do to make me like you.

She stood up when Akashi did. He headed for the door, and she went after him, grabbing his arm as he reached for the doorknob. "Who is she, Akashi-san?" she demanded. "What does she have that I don't?"

How foolish.

As if brushing dirt off his sleeve, he removed her hand and faced the door again. The girl obviously has no sense of self-preservation. He could hear his other self raging inside him, something about making this sorry excuse of a human being know her place.

And you dare ask me why I chose her. It's not like there are options in the first place.

"Inoue-san, it seemed to me that you didn't hear me the first time." He glared at her this time. "Her identity is of no concern to you. As for your second question," he looked her from head to toe, a mocking look in his mismatched eyes, "she's everything you're not."


"Ne, minnacchi, who wants to go for ice cream? My treat!"

From inside the clubroom, Akashi can hear Kise's cheerful voice as he addressed the rest of their group. They had just finished their afternoon practice and were supposed to head home, but here he was, rushing to finish the reports that his father had required him to make, since it was due today.

"Kise-chin, I want chocolate, strawberry, vanilla..." and Murasakibara continued with a long list of ice cream flavors that anyone hearing it would certainly pale at the amount.

"Why don't you just ask Kise to buy the whole store, nanodayo?"

"Thanks, Kise-kun."

"Yey! Kurokocchi is going!"

"Me too!"

"Sure, Momoicchi!"

"I'll go, too, since Kise's buying."

"Hah, well, thanks a lot, Aominecchi..."

"Ki-chan, let Dai-chan buy his own ice cream!"

"Oi, Satsuki—!"

"I'm used to Aominecchi, Momoicchi."

"Aomine-kun, show some gratitude."

"Even you, Tetsu?!"

"Daiki, a simple 'Thank you' won't hurt, will it?"

"Akumicchi! Wanna go with us?"

"Sure. Let's go?

As their chatter faded into silence, Akashi sighed to himself. Alone in the dim room, he continued to type furiously on his laptop, even though his hands were tired from dribbling a ball earlier that afternoon. It didn't struck him as unusual why Kise nor anyone bothered to ask him to go with them — it's just that after rejecting them countless times before, they soon gave up trying to convince him to go with them. Only Kimiko can persuade him, of course.

For a long while, only the muffled sound of his keyboard and the occasional rustle of paper are the only noise around him. Suddenly, footsteps of someone who seemed to be running towards the clubroom can be heard. Akashi wearily raised his head just as the door swung open, revealing a slightly breathless Kimiko. Apparently, the chartreusette merely went with the group to buy ice cream from the nearest convenience store and had come running back to the clubroom to share it with him. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds to catch her breath before flashing him a grin and raising the plastic bag that she was carrying with her.

"Ice cream?"

Akashi's ruby eyes softened as he found himself smiling back at her. She placed the bag on his desk as she settled beside him. She pulled out her own laptop and opened a new document on Microsoft Word, while Akashi was busy inspecting her purchases.

There was a tub of blackberry ice cream, along with two plastic spoons.

"Is the flavor okay with you?" Kimiko asked curiously.

"Yes, it is." It's actually one of his favorites, but he didn't said it out loud.

"Then, let's eat!" Kimiko took a spoonful of the cold dessert into her mouth. "Hmmm... Tastes good..."

"Aa," Akashi replied as he did the same. "Akumi, what are you doing?"

The girl didn't even look at him as she started retyping the corrected document on her laptop. "Isn't it obvious? I'm helping you out, duh."

"You don't have to."

"But I want to," she retorted, taking another spoonful of ice cream. "Now, shut up and type while you eat so we can finish this faster."

"Don't you have a paper to finish?" he asked, referring to their assignment for their History class.

Instead of answering, she asked him, "Finished yours already?" Akashi shook his head. "Then, let's just do this here then maybe we can do the paper over at my house. What do you think?"

Akashi nodded as he resumed with his work as well. Kimiko was a fast encoder, almost as fast as he is, and in no time at all, they had finished the stack of documents that needed to be done. The tub of ice cream was empty as well. While Akashi copied the files fron her laptop to his flash drive, she went about tidying the room, throwing the garbage to the trash bin outside. Akashi had just hit the 'Send' button, transferring the corrected documents to his father's e-mail address when Kimiko reentered the room.

"Done?"

"Yes," he replied, massaging his sore neck.

Kimiko stretched her arms over her head; sitting down for a long time made her muscles stiff. The two fixed their things and headed out for home, Akashi locking the clubroom behind them.

"I wonder if your father sees you as a superhuman," she said as they walked side by side. "I'm sure you can completely do all that work by yourself, but factoring in our school requirements and club practice to boot, where can you even get the time to do all that?"

"By taking an hour or two from sleep, and sneaking it during class hours," Akashi replied. "It made me appreciate the ten-minute break in between our classes."

She gave him a flat look. "You didn't mention skipping lunch as well. Are you trying to kill yourself?" Akashi was about to answer when she said in exasperation, "You are not supposed to answer that."

"I have no choice. I have to do what my father expects me to do as the heir," he stated.

"Yeah, yeah, I know that already~" As they reached her house, she turned to him. "What do you want for dinner? Oh, never mind, it's tofu soup. Right?"

"You don't have to cook dinner. I can just eat when I get back."

"It's alright. I still have tofu in my refrigerator, and it's better to have dinner first before we start on our research papers." Kimiko shooed him off. "Now off you go, and go get change. If you're not back here within half an hour, I'll go after your head."

For a long moment, Akashi remained motionless by his window sill, though his mind was far from still.

He had thought of the matter countless times, and it baffles him why he can't just simply accept the fact that he is, indeed, in love with her.

So here he is again, cross-examining everything about his relationship with the chartreusette and his actions toward her.

Why had he kissed her? It was unplanned, which in itself was odd, as he almost never did anything impulsively. They were merely going at each other with their usual playful banter when she suddenly lost her balance and fell on his lap. Her golden eyes, almost unnatural in its brightness, coupled with her ridiculously unique lime-green hair, distracted him long enough to make his usually sharp mind go haywire and decided that it would be good to just kiss her then and there.

His other self snickered from within him. Don't tell me you don't know what it is that you feel for her. Surely, you must have realized it by now. You've admitted it yesterday.

I am attracted to her, he thought, and the realization amused and disturbed him at the same time. Since when did his image of the chartreusette change?

Stop being dense; it is so unbecoming of you. And cowardly, too. You've always loved her since Teikou — you both did, just that none of you acknowledged it. It's not mere attraction.

And how can I confirm that? he asked.

You love her. Period.

I love Kimiko...?

Hmm.

Curious about this thing called love, Akashi sat at the table at the corner of his room, crossed his arms over his chest, and allowed himself to ponder upon the matter.

Perhaps it was because of the fact that she had gone for a year that Akashi was able to realize what Kimiko really is to him. After all, people tend to know the worth of something only after it was gone from their hands. That's what Midorima had said. Perhaps it was because they were older now to think of such things; for in Teikou they were but children. Perhaps...

Akashi chuckled to himself. How strange, he thought. Here he is, thinking about why he kissed his closest friend instead of thinking about the Nationals (the opening ceremony was but two days away) or doing his company duties (his desk in his study was probably stacked with paperwork again). Not to mention that he has an assignment for his Music class and a worksheet for Math due tomorrow. Surely, burdened with such tasks, Akashi shouldn't have time for such silly, trivial thoughts; all his life he had been taught how to choose and make his priorities in life properly (which basically meant putting the name of the Akashi family first before his personal desires), yet what occupied his attention at this moment was none of which has anything to do with the company, the family, the school, or the team. The only thing that mattered to him right now was no one else but Kimiko.

Just as he had taught Kuroko, Akashi learned a lot about Kimiko simply by watching her; the way she moved, the way she talked, the way she thought. By simple observation, he found out what things would easily make her happy, annoyed, angry, frustrated, and sad. It was fascinating, and though Akashi was rarely interested in anyone on a personal level, he wanted to know more about her, to know her better.

At first, it disturbed him how easily they slipped into such a comfortable familiarity – Nijimura had even joked about the two of them having a telepathic bond or something like that. Most of the time, it took only a few nods and silent looks to get their point across to one another, thus their ability to communicate midgame with Kimiko watching them from the bench. Trusting each other came naturally as breathing – no questions asked, only the mutual understanding that they got each other's backs. It happened without them knowing, and soon enough, they knew each other just as well as the back of their own hands. People even thought that they were childhood friends like Aomine and Momoi, while some even went as far as assuming that they are a couple; what with their closeness and all. When the rest of the team was elsewhere, it was always Kimiko who stays behind to accompany Akashi, offering him her assistance or just her company, both of which was appreciated and welcomed by the redhead.

Another thing that Akashi noticed is that despite being uncomfortable with physical contact with other people, he did not seem to mind when it was with Kimiko. At first, they were simple brushes of the hand whenever she hands him something (a clipboard, a towel, a ball, a bottle of water), or when they would huddle close as they discuss the training menu or their game plans. Then there was him tucking her hair behind her ear, which quickly became the norm for them, and then there were the subtle leaning on the other's shoulders that soon became uninhibited embraces that at first raised a lot of eyebrows among the club members. Nijimura and the rest of the Kiseki no Sedai, along with Kuroko and Momoi were also a recipient of Kimiko's rare hugs, while Akashi gets them on a regular basis.

And then the kiss happened.

One that he had never anticipated on happening.

But then again, he always seemed to lose his restraint when it comes to Kimiko. The walls that he had carefully constructed around him upon the death of his mother vanishes whenever she was around. At first glance, he knew that the girl was indeed special, but he never thought that she'd be special to him. Being a part of a male-dominant club, he'd quickly realized she was too capable and intelligent to have not known exactly what she may be facing, and had taken the risk anyway. She was truly a surprising and remarkable person.

Kimiko was mischievous, exceptionally intelligent, determined, talented and skilled in a variety of areas, possessed a natural charm despite the temper he'd caught glimpses of when she didn't get her way and had a bit of a sadistic streak on her when it comes to her training menus as she tends to push them to their limits, plus she was probably the most caring and passionate person that Akashi had ever known. And she was, honestly speaking, strikingly beautiful. Akashi had no doubts about that certain aspect of her. With her unique hair color and bright golden eyes coupled with her slender and elegant form, she was absolutely more than pleasing to the eyes. Even more so when she had that endearingly sweet yet mischievous smile on her lips, as if she knows something that you don't...

A part of him was beginning to find her quite irresistible. After being reunited with her, Kimiko was always on his mind, more often than he would like to admit. And this was somewhat alarming, as it was almost bordering on obsession.

Akashi, being the shogi player that he was, always planned two steps ahead, always examined all possible futures that might occur with his every action, always ready for whatever might happen. Sadly, this trait of his is void whenever the chartreusette was involved. Akashi becomes impulsive, caring only about the here and now, letting himself go with the flow that she orchestrated. For once, Akashi, who has his whole life planned out for him, welcomed the spontaneity that Kimiko offers whenever they are together.

"Akumi," he whispered to the four walls of his bedroom, her name sounding like a spell that comforts him everytime he utters it.

I wonder if she's thinking about me, too.

Say, Akumi, do you love me, too?


"Are you sure he's not more than that?"

Midorima's words echoed in Kimiko's ears as she stared at the frame in her hands. It was the picture of her and Akashi taken during the New Year Festival. She felt herself smile at the sight of herself with Akashi looking happily into the camera.

What am I to Seijuurou? she asked herself.

To begin with, their relationship had been very questionable, to say the least. There were times when Akashi's behavior towards her leaves her confused and bewildered, and more often than not, would make her heart beat a mile a minute. Even more so when he 'changed'. Despite the fact that she did not liked that side of Akashi in the slightest, a part of her was delighted whenever he acts possessive and all when it comes to her.

Kimiko facepalmed. I make it sound like I'm masochistic.

Akashi is different when he's with you. He's guarded all the time, but with you, he's different. He's more open and at ease in your company.

Midorima had pointed out, with Kuroko nodding in agreement. Somehow, that weirded her out. The two do not normally get along with each other after all.

But yes, he was different. Akashi was different when she was in his company. He'd opened himself up to her, making small talk with her, showing his vulnerable side to her quite a few times before and he never seemed to mind it. He was alright with sleeping in her sights when she remembered how he had blown a fit when Aomine and Kise once barged into the clubroom while he was taking a nap (on Kimiko's insistence).

Kimiko had seen all that and more, something she knew few others had seen, but even more importantly, she'd seen parts of his inner self that she was sure no one else had seen. After all, Akashi wasn't one for sharing information about himself. If not for Midorima, the team wouldn't have known about his status as the heir to the Akashi conglomerate. Even when Kise tried asking him about himself, Akashi would answer in the shortest way possible, just enough to satisfy the question without mentioning anything outside of it, much to Kise's and his listeners' frustration.

On the other hand, Akashi hadn't been upset when she asked him about his past. Nijimura had always commented on the way the redhead treated her compared to the team and Momoi and the other managers. The redhead always made it a habit of knowing where she is and what she is doing at any given moment and was always watchful of anyone who dares to search and speak to her. Whether it was a conscious or an unconscious act on his part, she had no way of finding out.

She's not even sure if she would like to find out.

During their first two years in middle school, that is, before the whole team changed for the worse, she and Akashi had this silent understanding between them that the other club members find creepy and awesome at the same time. Kimiko is not sure when and how such a thing happened or came to existence — it's just that, after all those walks to and from school and their silent observations over each other every time they get, it's not that hard to know what the other's personalities, like and dislikes, habits and quirks are.

They are masters of observation, after all.

But back to the question, what was she to him?

She focused back on the picture in her hands. Akashi'a eyes were both twin rubies, shining in equal parts amusement and happiness, his shoulders totally relaxed, as if momentarily shed of the enormous burden that he carries on a daily basis, and the smile on his face was carefree and genuine. His strong arm was wrapped around her own waist, pulling her close to him, his chin resting on her shoulder comfortably after telling her to smile. She traced his crimson hair with the tip of her finger.

Was he in love with her? This obviously was what Midorima was implying. But why would he say that? Had Akashi talked to him about it? It didn't seem possible that Akashi would have shared something like that with him — it was too personal, and the redhead was never loose with such information about himself.

Then there was Kise's actions to think about. He was pretty much trying to prove the greenhead's assumptions.

Kimiko shook her head. There was no way Midorima could be correct.

Akashi? In love with me?

She entertained the idea for a moment. Ignoring the blush growing on her cheeks, she began recalling Akashi and his treatment of her.

Let's see, and she started from their first year together in Teikou, trying to be as objective as she can.

Defending me from Shougo's unpleasant advances, helping me with anything every chance he gets, explaining parts of lessons and basketball stuff that I don't quite understand well, protecting me from potential harm, walking with me to and from school, asking me to make him bento on Wednesdays and Fridays, always pairing up with me in pair and group works in class, sharing random information about him to me out of the blue, inviting me on random excursions to theme parks or simply a walk to the nearest city park or basketball court, making sure that I am sleeping and eating properly instead of obsessing on their profiles and data sheets, challenging me to shogi matches, handing me random souvenirs whenever he goes on one of his business trips, seeking me out whenever he feels upset or simply fed up with his father, warding off suitors and unwanted stalkers, making sure that he was the first to give me gifts on occassions like Valentines, Christmas, and of course, my birthday...

Is that how a simple 'friend' acts?

He's my bestfriend, right?

But is that how a 'bestfriend' acts?

I don't remember him asking me for more than that... she reasoned out, and out of the blue, Akashi's request that night rang loud and clear in her mind.

Can you promise me that you will never leave me?

She blushed in spite of herself.

Why does that question sound like a proposal?

Kimiko shook her head violently.

JUST STOP! she screamed to herself.

Well, if it was simply that question, she wouldn't have thought too much about it. After all, no one could possibly want to have their closest friend to leave them, right? But his face that night and the way he held her hands tightly seemed to be saying something else... So could it be...?

But, no, I could be imagining things. Seijuurou was too devoted to his studies and heir duties to even bother about something as troublesome as love... Not that I'm saying that he's incapable of such, but —

She stopped.

Then why do I seem to be so bitter about it? Am I somehow expecting for my delusions to be true?

Suddenly, Kimiko realized.

I'm afraid. I'm afraid because I don't know what to expect because I have never been in love, and I'm positive that Seijuurou is the same.

Right, so why did Midorima insisted on the two of them being in love with one another?

What if I am? she asked herself. How the hell would I even know?

Kuroko's monotone voice came to her head. Do you want him around?

Yes.

Does he make you happy?

Yes.

Does he make you feel safe?

Yes.

Can you imagine life without him?

No.

When he kissed you, what did you feel? Did you liked it?

Her blush intensified. Her fingers touched her lips.

The kiss...felt nice.

Riiiiight, she smacked her forehead. What a generic way to describe it. And my face is as red as Seijuurou's hair.

To be honest, the kiss...felt right. Perfectly right. There's no other way to describe it. The way his lips danced over hers, and how she felt disappointed when he pulled away...

Her heartbeat quickened at the memory. Akashi's dazed eyes when they parted came to her mind's eye, and Kimiko rolled over and buried her face into her pillow.

So maybe she did love him.

Now, the question is, does he love her back?


Kimiko entered the restaurant where Akashi had told her to go. Giving her name at the door, one of the staff led her to where Akashi made his reservation. Even without someone to guide her to their table, she could have made it there without difficulty as Akashi's blazing crimson hair was enough of a beacon for her.

Akashi greeted her with a small smile when she arrived. As she sat down, she noticed the extra plate beside Akashi's.

"Are we having company?" she asked, pointing at the extra plate.

"Yes. I have something to tell you," Akashi replied. Suddenly, a smile he used to give her appeared on his face as his eyes looked at someone behind her. "She's here."

She? Kimiko turned and followed his gaze.

"Sei-kun!" A beautiful girl with silvery blonde hair and pale blue eyes was waving at them as she walked elegantly towards them. Akashi stood to meet her halfway, leaving a bewildered Kimiko behind. She stared as Akashi helped the girl into her seat, who gave him a quick peck on the lips before sitting down.

Akashi cleared his throat and Kimiko blinked, embarassed to have been caught staring.

"Kimiko," he began, but she cut him off.

Gold eyes narrowed, she asked, "Why are you calling me by my last name? Last time I checked, I was 'Akumi' to you."

"Oh, that would be my fault," the girl answered in a quiet voice. "I asked Sei-kun to call no one by their first name. Except for me, of course."

"As I was saying, Kimiko," and an apologetic smile was on his lips as he held the girl's hand in his, "this is Suzaku Rin. Rin, this is Kimiko Akumi."

A fine green eyebrow arched in a silent question as she took a sip of water to hide her growing annoyance.

"She's my fiancee."

Kimiko choked ungracefully on her water, but unlike before, Akashi no longer rushed to her side to rub her back. Of course, he can't if he's holding the girl's hand oh so lovingly. Gone are the days when it was only her hand that he would hold.

"What?!" she exclaimed once she recovered.

"Sei-kun and I am engaged," Rin said, and showed her their engagement ring on her finger. Kimiko spied a matching one on Akashi's hand.

Something inside her broke into a million tiny pieces. Breathing became painful, and tears threatened to fall from her eyes.

Why am I feeling like this? Like I am betrayed or something? Why?

"Kimiko, why are you crying?" Akashi asked worriedly, and only then did she noticed that her cheeks were wet. Wiping them hurriedly with the back of her hand, she forced a smile as she looked at their entwined hands.

"I'm...I'm just happy for my bestfriend, is all..." She bit her lip before continuing. "Congratulations, Akashi. Anyway, I should be going, wouldn't want to disturb your time together... Ja, see you around!"

And Kimiko ran on shaky legs, intent to get away from them, away from Akashi and Rin, ignoring his voice calling her back.


"Is something the matter, Akumi-chan?" Her former coach, Shirogane Kozo, asked her in a gentle voice. Kimiko had woken up with tears in her eyes as a result of that dream. Her mind was irritably blank, and for the life of her, Kimiko cannot think of a reasonable conclusion as to why her brain decided to cook that up. When four o'clock came, she had the urge to visit Teikou just to take her mind off things.

Hopefully.

She was watching a practice match between the regulars and selected first string members, but she was having difficulty concentrating on the players. Shirogane, ever observant, had noticed it.

"Uh, no, no!" she shook her head. "Everything is fine," she added silently, biting her lip nervously.

"I'm here to listen," prodded Shirogane. Seeing the usually sharp girl looking dazed and unfocused bothered him. Ever since that day when the chartreusette boldly barged into his office demanding to be a training manager for the team, Shirogane had developed a sort of a fondness for the girl. Her dedication to her job and her passion for the sport was what endeared her to him, just like to the rest of the team. After all, their batch was his favorite.

Seeing her reluctance, he smiled at her and said, "We can talk about it after practice, if you want."


"Shirogane-san..." she said, biting her lip nervously as they sat facing each other. They were in a small café near Teikou, one where she and the Kiseki no Sedai had gone to several times. Shirogane had invited her here to talk about her 'problem'.

"So, Akumi-chan, how are you?" he asked, and she was immediately put at ease by his warm grin as he sipped on his coffee.

"I'm... I'm well," she answered. There was a moment's silence before Shirogane spoke again.

"That was not so convincing Akumi-chan," he said. "What happened?"

She blushed as she looked down and stirred her coffee absentmindedly.

"Uhm," I can't believe I'm telling this to Shirogane-san! "Shirogane-san, you see..." An adorable shade of pink dusted her cheeks — a far cry from the demonic training manager that the old man was accustomed to. "It's... Seijuurou, h-he... I-I don't know what it means..."

"What did he do now?" Shirogane asked, curious.

"He... He kissed me and —"

The old man chuckled. "My, my, you two have grown a lot, you and Seijuurou-kun."

"E-eh?!" she cried, blushing further. She looked at the side sullenly. "I don't even know what to make of it— we're not even a couple..."

Shirogane laid a fatherly hand on her shoulder as he chuckled knowingly. "But you've been acting like one already."

"N-nani?!"

"Ever since middle school. You two have been inseparable, until... You know," the old man sighed sadly as he referred to their last year in middle school. He wasn't there to witness it but he had known it from what the other coaches had told him. "You two compliment each other perfectly."

When she remained silent, he asked her about her thoughts on the redhead.

"Se-seijuurou...?"

He nodded. "How much do you like him?"

"I... I like him... very much."

"Do you love him?"

She gave him a confused look amd tilted her head. "How do I know if I do love him?"

Shirogane's smile was warm and fond as he answered.

"It's when he's all you think about every waking moment... When you only want him to look at you and no one else... When you can't imagine living life without him... That's when you know you're in love."


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