The arrow successfully finds its mark, impaling itself near-center of the bright white ‘bulls- eye’ adorning the target.
He wishes it had missed.
The oddness of his frustration is not lost on him, but he can find no amusement within himself to suit such irony. Usually he finds a certain solace at the archery range. He enjoys the routine, the discipline, the mastery of mind and muscle required to so skillfully handle the bow. He enjoys the tenseness of his straightened spine, the slight ache in his upper arms and shoulders, overcoming the taught and coiled resistance of the bowstring. The light breeze against his face and rustling his hair quick on the heels of the sharp snap as he releases his hold. The sudden thwack when the arrow hits the target.
But today, his inner-self is in absolute turmoil. His emotions are a roiling, raging mess that he doesn’t know how to even begin to untangle. Anger bubbles up to the surface, hot and acrid in the back of his throat, pounding in his temples and smearing red across his vision. But just as quickly, it sinks below the surface again, hurt spreading up through his chest and settling in a hard, painful lump behind his ribs. This in turn is overwhelmed by a deep, profound sadness that stings his eyes and claws at his tongue. And yet…behind all of this is a certain sense of joy that, while remote and so very small, refuses to leave itself unheard.
A miss would have been…relief. Unusual. A physical manifestation of the chaos inside him. But his muscle memory is strong, and even so distracted, his skill does not suffer. His act is too flawless to crack even when he wishes it.
She hadn’t recognized him.
This in and of itself is not so upsetting as he realizes he’d never really expected her to. It’s been ten years at least, probably closer to twelve, and since he can think of no plausible reason she would be expecting to see him in side-tails and a skirt, there’s hardly any room to be assigning blame. Besides, he hadn’t recognized her at first glance either. Honestly, when he’d called out to Matsurika, he’d just wanted to know what the hell all the screaming was about; he hadn’t placed her face until he was right on top of them, despite the nagging familiarity…
She’d cut her hair. It was one of the first things he noticed as he took a moment to study this new, older version of his favorite playmate. It was short, just shy of the hairline around the back of her skull, a little longer toward the front and around the sides, and it had lightened up a little with age. In his memories it was long and dark, usually tied up in ribbons on either side of her head, but he liked the way the sharp angles framed her face now and highlighted the pale blue of her eyes.
“Kanako you said?” His smile came without effort, without thought, and he wasn’t certain he could peel it from his lips even if he had felt the need to. It had been so long, and he was so pleased to see her! “I know that we just met, but may I call you by your first name?” The statement was completely untrue and made the request somewhat redundant, but he had a game to win, and in any case there was really no reason he couldn’t have a little fun with things.
“Sure,” her tone was friendly, and she offered her own smile in exchange for his, “As of tomorrow I’ll be transferring to Ame no Kisaki’s high school division,” she explained, notes of excited anticipation laced around every word.
“Ah, I see, so that’s why you were wondering in a place like this,” he replied, pitching his voice just a hint higher with thoughtful discovery. Adopting an expression to match the tone, he placed a finger to his chin and gazed around the pretty woodland walkway as he explained her mistake. Still, even as he brushed it off as simple unfamiliarity with the school’s layout, he couldn’t help but wonder if her subconscious had in fact been leading her to something familiar after all.
“Students don’t usually come here, so my maid probably thought you were up to no good,” he finished, turning to Matsurika with a far too-charming smile, “Please excuse her rudeness. It’s not her fault.”
Her reply was quick, subdued, and friendly, “That’s alright. It was my mistake.” She swallowed the fault so easily and without prompting. As if Matsurika’s verbal assault on a perfect stranger was indeed the expected reaction to such minor confusion. And as if she herself hadn’t been standing in the middle of what she’d believed to be a public walkway screaming loud enough to wake the dead just a few scant moments ago.
Kanako, it seemed, had changed little over the past decade. She was still so easily excitable, flying into the most elaborate, obnoxious fits over nothing, and then moments later everything was forgotten and all was forgiven. It was enough to give a spectator whiplash, but it was also what made her so entertaining. Even as children, he loved to wind her up just to watch her go.
“Oh, uh,” she trailed off uncertainly and her eyes darted awkwardly to the side. He laughed inwardly at her reluctant embarrassment. Did she really think it was such a big deal? He’d asked for hers.
“My name’s Mariya. Mariya Shidou.” The name didn’t seem to mean much to her and she simply repeated it back for confirmation. But in a way, he’d almost expected that. They’d been so close as children, but one of the strongest elements of their bond had been grounded in being just Kanako and just Shizu. Family names were checked at the gate outside the courtyard, and as far as either of them was concerned the outside world suddenly ceased to exist. Oh it was still there, of course, waiting just outside the gate in much the same way that stuffed toys and plastic dolls are very much alive until one opened the toy box and put them back. Beyond that gate lay the shimmering silhouette of well-meaning, perfect elder sisters, and the shadow of beloved younger twins so very much alike neither had any real sense of self. But inside the safety of that courtyard, a little crevice of reality had opened and existed for only the two of them. Just Kanako and just Shizu.
He hadn’t been in love with her then and had never been so naïve as to claim otherwise. But he’d understood that she was special, more precious to him than any other presence in his life except, perhaps, for his sister. Instinctively, however, he’d always realized that the two girls held his attention in very different ways. Especially once he’d begun to grow a bit and his fondness for his dark haired former-playmate had started to become progressively less innocent.
“So do you attend Ame no Kisaki too?” she asked, tugging at his focus once more. “Your uniform looks a bit different than mine.”
“This is the uniform for the middle school division,” he replied, pausing to regard the stiff, black frock pulled over his high-collared white blouse, complete with a thin, red ribbon hanging at the hollow of his throat. “Tomorrow is the opening ceremony for the high school division, so today is the last day I’ll be wearing this. So the reason it’s different,” he flashed an innocent, excited smile, cheeks warming at his command in just the slightest suggestion of a blush, “is because I’m not officially a high-schooler yet.” The effect was perfect; innocent, unassuming, absolutely adorable.
“Oh, that makes sense then. I’m second year in high school.”
“I see. Then, starting tomorrow, you’ll be my senior,” he teased, and his smile grew more playful. Kanako had enjoyed reminding him that she was his elder. Often. Even if the margin was only eighteen months. But when one’s own age is in single digits, a single year is yet enough to hold the right of authority.
He resumed his stroll toward the campus, and she trustingly followed his lead. “But it’s unusual to transfer during your second year,” he mused aloud as the slight incline of the path steadily became more outright vertical, “Missionary schools, like ours, with middle schools and high school divisions don’t often accept new students from the high school level.”
“Um, they made have made an exception for me,” she explained,” since both of my parents used to go to Ame no Kisaki.”
“Your parents?” That didn’t make any sense. “But…this is a girls’ school…”
“Oh, my father wasn’t a student,” she clarified brightly, “he was a teacher here.”
Oh, that was right! Dr. Miyame was a well-liked Language Arts teacher at Granny’s treasure. In fact, that was how they’d met. Her mother used to bring her and older sister round to visit during his free period in the afternoon. Until suddenly she…didn’t. Nothing had ever been properly explained to him, and, in any case, he’d been far too young at the time to really understand anything beyond the fact that Kanako wouldn’t be coming back anymore. Even that hadn’t truly sunk in for several weeks, and he’d passed many afternoons stubbornly seated outside that gate waiting with all the determined impatience of a five-year-old for her to return to the imagined safety of their pocket of reality because it simply didn’t exist for him without her in it. Eventually, he had stopped sitting outside the gate, but he’d never really stopped waiting.
A decade was longer than he’d expected, but his patience had finally been rewarded. This new relationship would certainly be more complicated, in ways that he had expected and ways that he hadn’t, but he was looking forward to it all the same.
He paused again and turned to face her with an excitement that was mostly sincere, if for reasons that didn’t exactly coincide with his words, hands clasped to his chest, “If that’s the case, then the Virgin Mary must’ve brought them together!”
“I know right!” she chirped, her own excitement bleeding more prominently into her tone and posture. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” she paused briefly as if genuinely considering, cheeks verily glowing with the force of her answering blush. Privately he was of the opinion that if she had to question whether or not something should be said, odds were good it probably shouldn’t. But, to his secret pleasure, Kanako was still Kanako, and so she said it anyway, “But I’m hoping I can meet my special someone while I’m here too.”
“I see.” It was maybe just a little cruel of him to keep this up, flirting and teasing so subtly from behind this angelic mask she didn’t recognize. But it was innocent enough, and, honestly, she’d walked right into this one, turned her back to the trickster, and left herself vulnerable in front of a velociraptor. ”Unfortunately I think most of the men working here now are bit old to be romantic interests.”
“I’m saying it might be difficult to find someone,” he elaborated, his smile sweet and guileless.
“Oh n-n-nonono.” Suddenly flustered, her head ducked and her outstretched hand waved around frantically almost as if to create a barrier between herself and the conversation. “That’s not what I meant.”
His heart sputtered to brief but noticeable halt before ramming itself into 5th without bothering to slide through the ascending gears. Had she…come looking for him?
The prospect of searching her out had been a determined intention of his since he was little more than the child that waited for her so tenaciously outside that gate, deciding that if her mother wouldn’t bring her back to visit him, he would just have to take matters into his own hands. Though he was only just reaching an age where such an endeavor might actually be a doable project, he’d never once doubted that his efforts would eventually prove fruitful. But the possibility of turning it the other way around, of her coming to find him, had never actually crossed his mind.
“…That’s not what you meant?”
Inwardly, he was relieved Kanako had worked herself into such a state because his tone implied confusion, but his expression refused to cooperate. His features remained stubbornly stuck in their ‘politely interested’ arrangement while he worked to ease his excited heart which was currently throwing itself against his ribcage in what he could only assume was a valiant attempt to get out.
But Kanako was thankfully too busy blushing and stammering and being generally distracted by her own embarrassment to take note of these inconsistencies before finally managing to spit out a quiet, “Just forget I said anything,” eyes pointed at everything but him.
He giggled dutifully, coming back to himself.”You’re a strange one, aren’t you,” he quipped, pleased his heart had at last decided inside his chest was probably the better place to be, and more pleased still when she smiled at his teasing.
His smile once again took on that playful, flirtatious edge and he tilted his head just so while pressing his fingers together against his chest, “Speaking of romantic interests,” a quiet voice in the back of mind (sounding suspiciously like Matsurika) informed him blandly that he may be taking this little game of his too far. But he just couldn’t help himself; she was making this so easy and the pull to tease her was just too strong. He could not ignore it. Could not resist.
“Do you have a boyfriend right now?”
“Huh?!” She dropped her suitcase.
“I was asking you if you had a boyfriend,” he repeated, hands clasping together just a bit tighter as he pitched his voice higher with curiously.
Her pupils dilated, exploded really, and her eyes grew wide, a slight twitch jerking around the left lid. Her jaw dropped as she sucked in a shuttery breath and a dark blush erupted across her cheeks. But this wasn’t flustered or embarrassed like she had been seconds ago. This was…fear?
“Nonononono! THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!”
Okaaaay, that was a little…dramatic. Even for Kanako.
“Huh?” It was the most intelligent thing that sprang to his lips as he stared at her with wide eyes and hands pressed firmly against his ears. She peeked out from behind her fingers and quickly rallied herself trying to ramble past her outburst.
“What mean is I really can’t deal with men very well at all,” her elbow settled into the palm of her hand bringing her fingers to her chin in way she probably hoped seemed more casual and composed. But her words were coming far too quickly, jostling and sliding all over each other as she rapid-fired them out of her mouth, “Actually, I get hives just from being in contact with them. Like little bumps all over my neck and arms. Heheh.” Fingers came up to brush her wrist under her sleeve as if to emphasize her point.
For the second time in less than ten minutes, his heart stopped. This time, however, he felt it drop to somewhere in the pit of his stomach.
…What…the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Is that so?” Was that his voice? How could he be talking when he couldn’t breathe? “What a shame.” Did she not…did she really not remember him? At all?
His mouth must’ve switched into autopilot while his brain struggled to process this new crushing development because he heard himself saying things he actually thought. At least his voice remained high and feminine. Good. That’s…good.
“No, but thank you,” she responded to…whatever it was he had just said. About how cute she was and surly he wasn’t the only who thought so. She was blushing again, excited and flustered, obviously pleased with his compliment. “For the record, I think you’re r-r-really cute too Mariya!”
For some reason this comment was like a bucket of cold water splashing down his back, dragging him kicking and screaming from his momentary paralysis that, while far from comfortable, at least hadn’t hurt. Now he hurt, his chest felt constricted and far too tight as if it were about to cave in on itself and his lungs seemed reluctant to expand enough for a proper breath, he imagined for fear of being crushed. Luckily there was a little extra space behind is ribs; his heart must’ve been somewhere around his shoes by now.
The bubble of conflict and emotion steadily growing inside him must have found something sharp, probably one of his collapsing ribs, because it burst with such force he was amazed Kanako didn’t hear it and that he was still on his feet. Suddenly there was too much going on inside him. Anger, sadness, pleasure, pain; he was not accustomed to feeling so many things at once, and for half a second he was certain he was about to lose his composure-
“Thanks. That’s very kind of you to say.”His cheeks warmed, a little hotter than he would have liked because he was now flushed more from anger than intent, but his smile, demure and guileless, stilted and forced, suggested the redness steamed from embarrassed pleasure. He was a vain creature, and that part of him had straightened and preened under her praise while the rest of him dissolved into chaos.
The mind is said to be a muscle after all, and his muscle memory was strong. Control was not something his subconscious would allow him to give up so easily it seemed, even if his entire world had just crashed down around him and lay in deserted, scattered ruins only he could see.
Instead he found himself smirking, slow but purposeful steps bringing him forward.
“By the way, Kanako, em, could you bend down just a little bit?”
Surprisingly given her behavior so far, his request actually caused her to straighten a bit, spine curving slightly as she leaned away from him. “Eh? Bend down? But why?”
“Just do it.”The request was gone, and though his voice remained playful and soft, there was no denying its undercurrent of command. This time Kanako complied without question and his searching fingers met her half way, stroking the sharp line of her jaw and cupping her face he pushed himself to the tips of his toes.
The skin there was soft and felt good against his lips as he pressed them to her cheek. His eyes drifted closed and he inhaled deeply, lungs finally permitting the action, taking in the warm, sweet smell of her skin and lightly floral scent of her hair. A few stray locks brushed against his nose in the slight afternoon breeze and he resisted the urge to sigh into them, enjoying their softness and light tickling sensation.
Kanako’s skin heated swiftly under his mouth and he opened his eyes to watch her flesh ignite, satisfaction swelling in his stomach at the result. But the contentment he allowed himself was brief and he quickly pulled himself away with a flirty toss of his glossy, blond hair.
Ignoring Maturika’s look of disgruntled confusion, “See that building over there?” he pointed a slender finger toward a bulky square structure at the crest of the hill mostly hidden behind the lush foliage. “That’s girls’ dormitory Kanako, you understand.” His innocent smile stretched smugly as he turned to face her, frozen and flustered behind him hand pressed disbelievingly to her cheek. He continued up the path a bit, disappointment and hurt ebbing weakly beneath the rush of satisfied pleasure that he could affect her so strongly with an innocent, childish kiss so similar to the one she’d given him the last day he’d seen her.
“It was nice meeting you,” he called over his shoulder, a sweet expression etched across his face, “but I have archery practice so I better head to the training hall before I’m late.” Ten minutes ago he had intended to be late in order to walk her right up to the door of the dormitory, could have happily skipped practice altogether if the proper opportunity had presented itself. But his sense of pleasure was already fading, the confused knot of other less favorable emotions surging forward again and struggling to take its place. The archery range had always been a calming place for him and he needed that source of comfort right now.
And yet…”Oh, but if you don’t mind, I’d certainly enjoy seeing you again some other time,” he replied, turning fully to face her properly once again. “I’ll give you a personal tour around the school campus.” As requests for a date go this one was undeniably bland. And regardless of the enthusiasm of her response or her secret flights of fancy, he knew Kanako didn’t see it for what it was.
But her complete loss of composure, scarlet cheeks, and excited screeching of, “THAT’D BE WONDERFUL!” was enough to take the wind out of his confused feelings and stoke his not unsubstantial ego.
He smiled for her one more time and wished her luck finding the dorms as he began the quick trek to the training hall. When he was certain Maturika’s amber eyes were focused ahead and not on him, he allowed his tongue to quickly dart across his lips. Salty, sweet, vaguely floral.
“Master Mariya?” Matsurika’s voice snaps him out of his thoughts. Opening ceremonies aren’t until tomorrow, and few students have returned to the dorms yet. Fewer still felt compelled to spend their final day of relative freedom at the archery range, leaving Mariya mostly alone with his thoughts and his maid. Consequently there’s been an almost unnatural quiet settled around the two of them, even for usually peaceful training hall; one that two words from Matsurika has shattered.
Even so, it is not the sharpness of her voice against the otherwise silent atmosphere that has snagged his floundering attention so much as the tone itself. Oddly questioning and personal where she is usually so confident and detached.
“What is it, Matsurika?”
“Why did you do that to that pig girl?” Again this is strangely curious for her. For a moment he thinks to respond to her breach of character with one of his own and offer a response that is somewhat sincere if for no other reason than it might trigger the same cathartic release as missing the target, which as of yet, even with his mind settled firmly on the smooth stones of the courtyard path two hours ago and half a mile away, he has still failed to do.
But what he does is flash her a coy look over his shoulder, “What kiss her? Don’t get jealous on me, it’s no big deal. I was just playing around a bit, that’s all.” He turns back to the target, notching another arrow and pulling back on the bowstring. “It’s hard to keep up my grades and my appearance,” he sighs out the burden of his status and popularity, “I have to let off my stress somehow.” His fingers release the bowstring with a hard snap, the sudden expulsion of kinetic energy rustling his hair as the arrow flies.
His muscle memory is strong. His record remains unsullied.
Beyond that, he isn’t even really sure himself why he did something so stupid. Part of him, the crueler more vindictive part, had simply wanted to tease her, to watch her stutter and blush embarrassed and flustered as she forgot which way was up. Another part was wounded and bleeding and had needed that reaction, the re-assurance and self-satisfaction that he could still charm her in such a way. And yet another part had just wanted to. Had craved the sensation, however innocent, however faint, of his mouth against her skin, whispered seductively in his ears that once would be enough. Just a taste would be enough.
But what he’s really done is give himself a taste of something he knows he cannot have. It’s not enough, and he is unsure of how to sate himself with what he has to work with. His uncertainty and confusion stoke his anger, and it redirects itself at Kanako for making him feel these things.
It’s not about the time they’ve spent apart; they were children and the power children wield only amounts to so much. He has never begrudged her that. And it’s not about an unrequited affection or the blatant implication of her preferences. There is no rhyme or reason to attraction, no formula she is disregarding, and so no fault to rage against. He would have been unhappy of course, but he could have gotten past it. He could have let it go.
But that she has forgotten him when his earliest memory is of looking up at her under the trees in their courtyard because even as little more than toddlers she has always been so tall-
It is not so easily overlooked.
He wants to punish her.
He wants to kiss her properly, his mouth against hers, and savor the sensation of her on his tongue.
He wants to lash out at her, to make her hurt because he is hurting.
He wants her with him still. Always.
He wants to punish her.
He doesn’t know what he wants, and that is perhaps what troubles him most of all.
His fingers flex tightly around the smooth wood of his favorite bow until his long nails brush past the hard surface and dig dully into the soft pad of his thumb, and all expression slowly drains form his face as he eyes the tight cluster of arrows peppered around the glaringly white bulls-eye. He is confused and his exemplary performance has only served to frustrate him further.
“Come on,” he allows his voice to drop to its natural smooth baritone, certain of their privacy at the moment. “I have to go get changed.” He begins collecting his spent arrows, careful not to tear the stiff canvas as he pulls them from the target.
“So soon?” The vaguely personal notes in her tone have faded, but they’ve been replaced with strong chords of surprise. He understands her confusion; the team session may have ended forty minutes ago, but it is not at all uncommon for him to extend his personal practice hours well into the evening on days he has no pressing matters demanding his attention.
“Yeah,” his voice is growing impatient because he can imagine the blank stare she must be giving him right now. He doesn’t have to explain himself to her and he really doesn’t have time for this. His time at the training hall has done nothing to quell his upset but he has lost track of it, and he has to meet up with Kanako. They hadn’t agreed upon a meeting place or a specific time for that matter, he’d been too distracted and off-kilter at the moment to think about it, but he had told her where he was going to be and if she’s as much like her childhood self as he thinks she is, she’ll probably just come…looking…for…him. Any minute now.
He has an idea.
“Hmm?” A blank look over her shoulder accompanies her questioning hum as she realizes she is now walking not only ahead of him but unaccompanied as he stops abruptly outside the door to the spacious but unused storage closet near the front of the training hall.
“We don’t have time to walk all the way home and back,” he explains, sliding the door open and stepping inside, “I promised I’d show the new girl around, remember? There’s no one here-.”
“We passed Yuzuru Inamori not five minutes ago.
His eyes roll skyward and he pins her with dry look, “Why would she walk into a storage closet that hasn’t been used in its unremarkable existence?” The exaggeration is not terribly far off; there’s a thick layer of dust and cobwebs settled over everything, and it doesn’t look like anything besides the occasional insect has set foot inside this room in ages.
Matusrika pauses in the doorway, eyes sweeping the empty room with a critical air before settling back on his form.
“We don’t have time,” he insists stubbornly in the face of her expressionless stare and begins the lengthy process of tugging himself out of his archery uniform, “She’s gonna show up any minute and it’ll hurt my reputation if I stand her up.”
For a moment, Matsurika’s straight-backed, professional stance doesn’t waver and her blank eyes don’t leave his face. They’ve been not-really-friends for years and she knows all of his moods and behaviors, can often guess his moves before he makes them. She knows that something is not right with him. But its underlying cause is so out of character and unexpected of him that she can’t properly interpret the evidence because it doesn’t even occur to her to look.
Finally she blinks once and shrugs, closing the door behind her and stepping forward to help him into his corset. If her master wishes to end the game so quickly and so foolishly, what business is it of hers?
She begins threading the laces through the eyeholes at its back, tugging hard with each one. He grunts lowly as the damnable contraption starts to tighten, constricting his breathing and squeezing his waist. His ears strain and just when he thinks this might not work after all, he hears what he’s been waiting for. It’s faint and has no guarantee, but he makes an educated guess about the sound of footsteps accompanied by soft muttering barely audible through the closet door.
Matsurika gives him the perfect opening and he grips the shelves in front of him and breathes as deeply as he can when he feels the hard heel of her shoe press into the small of his back and she starts tugging in earnest.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing, Matsurika?!” he growls as loudly as he can with the corset choking off his air supply.
“Please hold still,” she responds blandly, “If you move the corset will slip.”
The door opens. “Uh, excuse me, is Shidou-“
Now he has an excuse.
Part of him knows he is being unfair. He is in love with a memory, an idealized fabrication layered over a reality seen through the eyes of a child. It is not Kanako’s fault that she is not a fantasy and it is not her responsibility to be one, even for him.
He knows that. But love and reason hold little company together and he can’t help it. He wants her with him. He also wants to lash out like a wounded animal, snapping at her when she gets too close. In many ways his love is still so childish and, unintentional or not, she has broken his heart.
He is confused, but he understands that she is special, more precious to him than any other presence in his life, except, perhaps, for his sister. That at least gives him a foothold and something he can work with.
His muscle memory is strong, but perhaps hers is not, and if she doesn’t remember him, he’ll simply have to jog it.
In the mean time, he’ll make sure she understands that he is unforgettable.