Kaorin finds sympathy and help with a certain unrequited crush, from unexpected quarters. It might be more alarming than helpful, given the source, but what does that matter? Go for it - spirit al...
Sakaki reminded Kaorin of a panther, sleek and black, all rippling muscles and danger. Quiet and beautiful, but with hands constantly bandaged from a thousand fights instead of flanks rippled with battle scars. A little frightening, but terribly alluring, because the thought of that speed, that strength, that beauty turned to protect you, something that powerful responding to your voice and touch, was almost unbearably delightful. Kaorin, when she went with the zoo, always longed to the point of trembling to reach through the bars and touch the soft fur of the big cats.
Kagura, on the other hand, reminded Kaorin of one of her own kittens. Kioko, the largest one of the new litter, the one that bounced instead of slinking, that would snuggle up to Kaorin and then start happily flexing needle-like claws on her arm until she drew blood, who had ruined more of her outfits than any cat she'd ever owned. Kaorin always wanted to hate Kioko, to send her flying across the room, but the kitten was so energetic, so friendly, so entirely convinced that her attentions were welcome, that Kaorin couldn't help a sneaking, resentful affection towards her. Even when Kioki managed to snuggle up on Kaorin's mother's lap and ignore any nasty remarks.
Kaorin wasn't certain where she fit in all this, unless it was as an undersized, plain little cat that no one really noticed and would probably end up at the pound. She tried to tell herself that there was no cat, even the runt of the litter, that someone wasn't prepared to love, but it was hard when you secretly wanted to run with the panthers.
When Mr Kimura, who had somehow discovered Kaorin was fond of cats, gave her a poster of a kitten snuggled up to a tiger, she locked herself in the girls' toilets and cried until the bell went.
* * *
At some point Kaorin had started trying to imagine herself saving Sakaki's life, dragging her from in front of an incoming train or something and finally seeing admiration and gratitude in those lovely eyes, but the fantasies always lacked colour and reality. She simply couldn't see herself being of that much use to Sakaki, for a start, and for another thing, she seriously couldn't imagine herself being strong enough to shift that much weight. It was with a certain amount of relief that she adjusted her rescue fantasies.
She let the sunlight play on her face as she walked, and closed her eyes slightly, letting her gaze drift out of focus, pretending to herself that it was the heat of fire. A blazing fire that had broken out during the class representatives' meeting, and Kaorin had become trapped on the third floor, having stayed behind to help Chiyo to safety, and now she was trapped herself, as Chiyo sobbed hysterically and screamed for someone to come, safe in the quadrangle below...
Kaorin could almost see Sakaki fling herself at the wall, finding footholds somehow, creeping up to take Kaorin, half-fainting, into her arms.
"I'll save you, Kaori. You rescued Chiyo-chan... you're so brave." Sakaki's fingers, soft with bandages, gently swept a strand of hair from Kaorin's face, grazing her skin ever so lightly. "And so fragile and feminine... I'll look after you, now."
"Hey, Kaorin, wait up!"
Kaorin started, her delicate daydreams shattering to glittering fragments of glass around her, stinging her cheeks to warmth as they fell. She gave Kagura a look of some suspicion as her former classmate ran up to join her; Kaorin had never been able to shake herself of the childhood conviction that first her dolls and pets, then everyone else in the vicinity, could overhear her thoughts if they paid attention to her. Kagura was the last person she wanted to know what she had been dreaming about.
Kagura was also quite possibly the last person she wanted to speak to right now, her home class teacher aside, but that was entirely beside the point.
"Man, I'm glad you're here!" Kagura's feet had been flying, almost as fast -- almost, but not quite, Kaori felt loyally -- as Sakaki's when she ran, but she showed no signs of being out of breath. "I stayed behind after the swimming club meeting to work with some weights, and I hate walking home alone. Hey, how come you're here so late? Astronomy club run late?"
Kaorin softened a little at the openness in the other girl's face, Kioki flashing into her mind again. Kaorin had never been the type of girl to kick a kitten. She even smiled a little in greeting.
"Kimura said there was an important meeting, for the representatives of all the classes and their home room teachers." Her smile faded, and she began to shake uncontrollably. "But -- but -- I was the only one there and Ki-Kimura- He wanted to s-show me a photo album he'd started of the b-best class rep ever -"
"Man, that's tough." Kagura gave her a sympathetic punch on the arm, that Kaorin was almost sure would leave a bruise. Kaorin's trembling subsided anyway. "Were you okay?"
"I threw a desk at him and ran," Kaorin said simply.
"Good work." Kagura beamed approvingly at her. "Say, will you get in trouble?"
"No. I never do. I didn't even pass in my last assignment, and I got a hundred marks."
"I could do with some of that. Coach has been really chewing me out lately. She says that just because Yukari doesn't give a flying -- er, that Yukari believes in student freedom, doesn't mean I can afford to fail everything. Still, I bet I can find a university that mostly cares about sports, right?"
"I don't think you'd really like it, Miss Kagura," Kaorin said quietly.
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Kimura freaks me out. Oh, never mind. You catch the train home, right? I'll walk you to the station. You shouldn't be out alone when it's getting dark." Kagura was swinging her bag in front of her in deep curves. Kaorin looked at her curiously. She didn't doubt that Kagura was more capable of taking care of herself on the street alone than she was, but she'd hadn't thought anyone noticed particularly how she got home. "I usually walk with Sakaki when I don't have training."
"Miss Sakaki walks this way?" Kaorin's voice lifted. "But -- but -- I could take the train every day! I could walk with you both!"
"We don't usually go this way." Kaorin could feel Kagura eyeing her curiously, and the prickling heat flamed back in her cheeks, even though she was almost sure the stupid tomboy couldn't tell what she was thinking. "I can go either way home, depending on who I'm walking with. I need all the exercise I can get. College swimming is really competitive, you know."
"Oh." Kaorin stared straight ahead, marching mechanically, keeping her eyes very wide to hold back the tears as she shut out Kagura's bright chatter about strength training and swimming programmes. She wished she had ignored Kagura calling out; but then, Kagura could never tell when she wasn't wanted. Dumb, eager, loud Kagura, pushing her way into everything, easing Kaorin out of the group so that no one even noticed much when Kaorin was exiled to another group, another class... Chiyo conscientiously invited her along, of course, and sometimes Yomi remembered to have a kind word with her, but that was it. Sakaki certainly hadn't noticed. As for Kagura, Kaorin doubted she'd ever even thought about what it meant that she managed to fit into Kaorin's group of friends better than Kaorin ever had.
Sakaki walked home with this brainless, insensitive tomboy, nearly every night. As the threat of tears receded a little, Kaorin cast her a sideways glance under her lashes, wondering if Sakaki actually saw anything in her, or if Kagura just assumed that her company was welcome. They shared athletic ability, of course; Kaorin was dismally aware she was too small and, if truth be told, too uninterested in sport to be of much good. Not that she'd ever want to compete with Sakaki in the crass way Kagura did. Otherwise... Kagura's sunburned skin glowed a rich brown in the sunset, her reddish hair picking up the dying light and sparking into gold where it feathered around her face. Not pretty, not really, although she was well-developed in every sense. Cool, maybe, but too bumbling and graceless to be much more than tomboyish. Kaorin admired graceful movements, long shining feminine hair...
Perhaps Sakaki felt otherwise. Kaorin sighed, expelling the air sharply between her lips.
"You really like Sakaki, huh?"
"Wha-what?" Kaorin whirled, alarmed. The last time she had paid attention, Kagura had been rambling about Miss Kurosawa helping her to look for scholarships or something, but a certain name could always rivet her attention.
Kagura chuckled. "I didn't really notice until you came on holiday with us." Kaorin's wide tragic eyes seemed to register with her at last, and she grinned reassuringly. "Hey, don't worry, I'm not like Tomo -- I won't give you a hard time. I think it's cute. All the girls who are good at sports get that stuff, y'know? It's no big deal. Man, some mornings I open my locker and I can't find my books for all the love letters. 'Course, I've usually left them at home anyway. But they really overdo the perfume -- my swimsuit stinks of it sometimes, and damn, that's embarrassing. Someone will always say I'm wearing perfume to impress Nyamo."
"Y-you get a lot of love letters? Does Miss Sakaki?" Kaorin clenched her schoolbag so tightly that she could feel the muscles on her palm twinge.
"Sure, more'n me, even though she's not on any of the teams." Kagura's bag swung still more wildly. "She's pretty cool." She paused, her cheerfulness ruffled a little. "Say, do you think I should be worried that she gets more than me? Like she's winning a popularity contest or something?"
"What? No..." Kaorin stalked along, her mind filled with images of stupid, stalking girls spraying perfume on silly little love letters and forcing them on her beloved Sakaki. She received more than Kagura? And Kagura made it sound like she'd got thousands. She was exaggerating, of course, to make Kaorin feel less embarrassed, but even so, that meant Sakaki... And Kaorin herself would never dare... What if she had? Would Sakaki have liked it? "Does -- do you know if Miss Sakaki likes love letters?"
"She never seems to notice, really. Don't think she even opens them."
Kaorin shot her breath through her teeth, relaxing a little.
"Look, these things happen in high school. It's a stage, y'know? Most girls grow out of it."
"I won't." Kaorin said it very softly and fervently.
She had spoken so softly that she didn't think Kagura would overhear, but there was an uncharacteristic silence before Kagura said, "She's pretty cool, huh?"
"Yeah, she's the coolest," Kaorin managed, but without her usual sparkly-eyed distraction. She was too distracted by the horrible suspicion that Kagura was really some kind of rival. She did seem slightly obsessive about Sakaki, with all her obsessive rivalry. And Kaorin had been exiled from the group, too far away to notice... "D-do you think so, Miss Kagura?"
Kagura laughed again. Kaorin was horribly aware that it was a very taking laugh, warm and sunny. Possibly Sakaki had noticed that, too. "Oh, Sakak -- Oops!" The case finally slipped from her grip, soaring in a graceful arc into the air, and coming down with a sickening squelching noise. "Oh, damn! Yukari said she'd kill me if I messed up my books again."
Kaorin sighed and went to help, handing puddle-splattered books to Kagura to be haphazardly shoved back in the satchel.
"Thanks." Kagura reached out and grabbed Kaorin's hand. "Look, if Sakaki's that big a deal to you, you should do something about it instead of wasting film on that idiot Tomo. If you want something, you have to be able to fight! Go for your dreams!"
Kaorin tried to wrench her hand back. "Oh, no -- I -- I couldn't."
"Sure you could. Hey, I know, I'll help!"
"You'll help?" Kaorin stared at her as alarm bells went off inside her head. Kagura;s eyes were literally shining with enthusiasm as she seized on the idea. Kaorin had a horrible vision of Kagura standing behind her cheering at the top of her voice: Kiss her, yeah! C'mon, big kiss, whoo-hoo, go for the tongue! She wouldn't put it past the rambunctious tomboy for one moment. Kaorin's hands began to tremble, sweat gathering in her palms.
"Look, you have cats, right?"
"Yes. My cat just had another litter only recently." Kaorin stared at her, wondering what the point was.
"Sakaki's crazy about cats. Why don't you ask her over to look at the kittens?"
"She -- she wouldn't want to." Panic made Kaorin feel sick to her stomach. Sakaki, in her house, touching her things... She wiped her palms on her skirt. "I don't even think she does like cats much. I never see her with one, and I look a lo - I mean, she looks at my photos, but I think she's just being polite. There's no way she'd want to come over my place."
"Sure she would! I mean, she doesn't have to be interested in you, just the cats."
"Oh. Um, thanks."
"Look, I'll come too." Kagura released Kaorin's hands and cracked her knuckles. "Sakaki'll need someone to protect her from the kittens, anyway."
"She - what?" Kaorin could feel her temper rise, a furious knot of anger in the pit of her stomach. "Miss Sakaki would never need your help! She's the toughest girl in the school!"
Kagura cracked her knuckles, grinning. "Don't worry. Vicious cats are my speciality."
"My kittens aren't --"
"Then it's decided!" Kagura beamed at her, teeth gleaming white in her tanned face. "I don't have practice tomorrow. I'll come get you straight after school, and you can ask us both over to see the kittens. It'll be great!" She bounded to her feet and set off towards the station.
"Yeah. Great." Kaorin rose to her feet more slowly. She felt sick to her stomach, but despite herself, a little of Kagura's optimism was warming the pit of her stomach.
Sakaki. In her house. Petting her kittens... Kaorin hugged her satchel to her stomach, and followed Kagura.
"C'mon!" Kagura paused on the steps outside the station and gave Kaorin a big thumbs up. "Smile, Kaorin! True love and spirit all the way!"
Kaorin sent a frantic, hunted look at the passers-by turning to see what the girl was yelling about, put her head down, and scurried towards her train. She had a feeling that Kagura's interest and sympathy were something she was going to regret.