Don't Trust Them

chapter one - two

I was ten when my family made the move from the frigid realms of the north down to Okinawa. My father was offered a job down in Naha halfway through my fifth year at elementary school, and my mother encouraged him to accept the offer. She had been living in Aomori for as long as she could remember, and she was very upfront about her feelings towards the cold. My father, a true Tokyoite, had a hard time disagreeing with her. I was the only member of the family who wasn't so keen on leaving: I'd learned to love the way the cold made my bones ache; I'd learn to love the way the sky looked on a crisp, winter day, and I'd learned to love the trek through snow and ice on my way to school every morning in the chilly months. I had made good friends in Hachinohe, and I was two years shy of becoming a junior high school student—but as a ten-year-old, my opinion didn't matter.

Near the end of the summer, we packed our bags and said goodbye to our friends. We left behind our tiny apartment near the train station and we flew to Okinawa, where the sky was blue and clear and streaked with clouds, and the humidity was so excruciating that we had sweat pouring down our backs within minutes of leaving the plane. We moved into a modest house, not so far from the beach, that was warm and more spacious than our cramped apartment in Hachinohe—but no matter how beautiful Naha seemed, something didn't quite sit right with me. My mother told me that I was simply harbouring attachments to Hachinohe—but in time, I would learn to grow fond of the distance. My hometown would soon be replaced by a compulsory love for Naha. I would go to school and learn to make new friends; I would learn to love the look of the sky on a hot, summer's day; I would learn to walk to school drenched from head to toe in my own sweat.

My father promised that, if I was good, we might be able to go and visit Hachinohe one day, but I didn't believe him. He promised me a long time again that we wouldn't leave Hachinohe until I'd graduated from high school, and he didn't keep his word. My mother scolded him for trying to make promises that he couldn't keep, and in some ways, I'm glad she did: she taught me an important lesson about not holding other people to their promises, although admittedly I did have a much harder time trusting people after that. The only way I could forgive my father for packing us all in a suitcase and stringing us along to Naha was to make him play tennis with me every single week. I would pull on his shirt after lunch, insisting that he come and play with me, and he would laugh gently. He would carry our tennis racquets to the local court, and we'd have a light rally until the sun would set.

When the summer was nearly over, my father and I went to play tennis together on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and he said to me, ", in September, Papa has to go to Nago for a while. When you start school, you'll have to find someone else to play tennis with you, okay?"

I blinked, having never really thought about continuing with tennis after my father decided to stop humouring me with weekly rallies.

"Maybe you could join the tennis club," he went on. "You know, they'll teach you how to play tennis properly. If you join, you'll be much better than Papa in no time!"

I was reluctant to make a promise that I couldn't keep. "I don't want to join the tennis club."

When the sun started to set, my father cut off the rally. Usually, when we finished a rally, we would shake hands over the net and say "Good game" to one another, in the spirit of good sportsmanship. This time, instead of extending an open palm over the net, my father held out his pinky and offered up a sheepish grin.

"You don't have to join the tennis club if you don't want to." He said. "But will you promise Papa that you'll try to find something that you like doing?"

When I didn't return the gesture, he smiled wistfully at me.

"You're very guarded, —just like your mother."

"Mama said that distance is something you grow fond of." I said.

"How cruel!" He said, wincing as he laughed. "Well, that's alright, I suppose—Papa doesn't need the reassurance. But Papa has been wondering, ..."


"The reason that you don't believe in promises... could it be that you don't trust the other person to uphold their part?" His eyes were alight with laughter. "Papa thinks it's that you..."

Don't Trust Them

"... ."


Starting a new school was much harder than I was ever willing to admit to my parents. On my first day at Ryuukyuu Minami, I had such a hard time understanding what the other kids were saying to me that making friends was pretty much impossible. There were a few people that lose their patience in the process of trying to befriend me, and took to calling me names like mainlander and outside, but thankfully, most of my classmates were patient with my poor communication.

For the majority of that week, I got by on the pleasantries of my classmates.

When Thursday came around, I overheard a gaggle of my classmates whispering excited to each other during first period. When my seatmate saw the curious look on my face, she explained (in the simplest possible words, and complete with actions) that, this afternoon, a dodgeball tournament of some kind was taking place. From what I could piece together, it was a tournament in which classes were pit against one another in matches of dodgeball, and the winning class would be exempt from cleaning duties for a week.

I found myself looking forward to the dodgeball tournament: I was an athletic kid, meaning that I finally had a chance to show people I wasn't just a useless mainlander, and dodgeball was unlikely to require very much verbal communication on my part, meaning that I didn't have to worry about compromising my performance with my inability to deal with the localdialect. When long homeroom came, the teacher told us to change into our gym clothes and head down to the gym—which we all did, shaking with enthusiasm and the inability to contain our competitive spirits.

The atmosphere in the gym was far nastier than any of the names I'd been called that week, but not a single person wanted to be seen cracking under the pressure. They held their heads high as the match was announced, and bounded to their respective courts enthusiastically, ready to commence one of the most brutal elementary school dodgeball matches that I'd ever taken part in. It was, retrospectively, a rare moment in which the class was able to unite and work together towards a common goal. Even the kids who called me names passed the ball to me on occasion, trusting me to rack up outs in each and every game. Their confidence in me was heart-warming, and for the first time that week, I felt that I'd truly been accepted by the natives of this strange and foreign land called Okinawa.

Though we lost to the other fifth grade class in the end, I was approached by a small group of boys and girls from my class, who invited me to eat lunch with them. They told me that I'd been a really valuable player today, and they wanted to exploit my athleticism further. They told me that they played dodgeball a lot after school, and if I wanted to, I was more than welcome to join them.

It was my first and only invitation into a clique at school, and I would have been stupid to refuse. Having a group of friends meant that I would no longer be called an outsider, or told that I had no place at Ryūkyū Minami. Having a group of friends meant that I didn't have to lie to my parents anymore about how well I was getting on with my classmates. Having a group of friends meant that it didn't matter so much when I went home and the mailbox was empty. When that clique offered me a place among them, I accepted their invitation, intending only to use them as a distraction from the gaping homesickness that had opened a hole in my heart.

Despite my unethical reasons for wanting to join them, though, that clique was the place I made my very first real friend at Ryūkyū Minami.

Just as I was starting to enjoy my first after school dodgeball game, the leader of the clique, Tobio, said he was throwing in the towel, giving the OK for the rest of us to do the same. We walked to the front of the gate together, said our goodbyes, and then parted ways—or so I thought. After I started walking, I noticed very quickly that I wasn't the only person heading towards the sea. When I turned around, I came face-to-face with one of the boys from the clique.

He looked at me with wide, blinking eyes. "Huh? Somethin' wrong?"

Like many of my classmates, he had black hair—almost the same length as mine—and tanned skin. I was certain that he'd introduced himself to me earlier that day, but I didn't remember it; I figured that, after sometime, he would forget my name anyway.

I pointed in the general direction of my house. "Do you live this way, too?"

"You betcha!" He said, grinning from ear to ear. "C'mon, I'll walk ya back home."

He was much more talkative than I expected he would be—but, to my relief, he spoke slowly and carefully, fully aware that I had yet to accustom myself to Okinawan Japanese. Although I still had a hard time understanding him, I had a much easier time piecing together what he was trying to say in comparison to my other classmates, who spoke brusquely and quickly. He was very considerate, and much friendlier than he looked. As we walked, he complimented my athleticism and asked if I played any other sports. I told him that I used to play tennis with my dad until he flaked out on me and went to Nago for work.

The very mention of tennis caught his attention. "You play tennis, too?!"

"Not competitively." I clarified. "Just for fun."

He grinned from ear to ear. "Guess there's no helpin' it... alrighty, I'll show ya my secret trainin' spot. Are ya doin' 'nything this weekend?"

"N-no, probably not... why?"

"Cos you 'n' me should go play some tennis—that's why!" The way he said it, it should have been obvious. "You said ya pops flaked out on ya, right? I'll rally with ya instead."

His declaration surprised me. "Um... okay. If you really want to."

He started warming up his shoulder, making a bit of a show about getting a new rally partner, but before the conversation could progress much further, we arrived at my house. He said goodbye to me very casually, telling me that he'd see me again tomorrow, but for some reason, the flippant farewell left me feeling a little bit uneasy. It was hard for me to say such a casual farewell, not knowing if or how long this friendship would even last. My brain told me that it was far too early to call him a friend, and—given my history—I believed it.

- x -

My new friend came knocking for me early on Saturday morning. I hadn't expected him to come so soon, so I was still half-asleep when my mom called up the stairs for me, but he was patient enough to wait outside while I brushed my teeth and changed clothes.

When I came downstairs, he showed me to a spot close to the beach where there was a tennis court; he told me that it was half-shaded by the neighbouring building in the early morning, and although "the weak should avoid playin' when it gets reeeeal hot out", it was bearable to play there in the late afternoon, when the temperature dropped off. The court, as a whole, was nothing spectacular: there was no fence to enclose it, and there were no nearby walls that were good for self-practice (the neighbouring building was made from wood), the net remained in relatively good condition, and although the lines were worn, they were all still visible.

My friend tilted his head at me when I didn't say anything. "Somethin' wrong?"

"I was just wondering if there were any walls here—you know, to play against." I said honestly.

"What'cha talkin' 'bout? Ya play tennis on a tennis court up in Hachi-what's-it, don'cha?" He looked at me like I was a poor, frightened foreigner. "Here in Okinawa, we play tennis on a tennis court."

"What if you're playing by yourself?"

"Then ya find somebody to play with, stupid!" He waved his racquet around, as if doing so helped to emphasise his point. "C'mon, are we gonna play some or what?"

"Yeah... okay, I guess..."

He grinned from ear to ear. "You get dibs, —smooth or rough?"

The fact that he remembered my name—let alone make up a nickname for me—caught me completely off guard. "W-wait—um, what's your name?"

He dropped the racquet. "Huh?!"

Hirakoba Rin was his name. He said it a little indignantly—maybe so that I wouldn't forget it so easily. As an opponent, he was nimble and resolute, making it hard to score points off him. Even though we'd initially resolved to start the day with light rallies, we descended late into serious matches by the late morning, each of which Hirakoba was the winner. When we retired from the courts around noon to sit under the shade of a nearby tree, he complimented my stubbornness and unwillingness to go down so easily. He proclaimed that I would become a worth rival of his, although it hadn't really been my intention to do so.

Before late afternoon could hit, I got sunburned so badly that we decided to thrown in the towel. In my haste to get out of the door that morning, I'd forgotten to wear sunscreen. Hirakoba held his tan up to my pasty one; the difference in our complexion made him laugh, and made me look away uncomfortably. He promised that I'd be as tan as him soon, and that it would only be a matter of time before I started to look like the other kids. I wasn't sure whether to believe him or not.

Since my house was on the way, he walked me home to make sure I didn't pass out from sunstroke. Even though we didn't get to play for as long as he'd hoped, he still had the good will to grin at me when I turned around to wave goodbye from the front door.

"Today was pretty fun, —let's play again next weekend!"

"Y-yeah, okay..." I shuffled my feet, unable to reciprocate my enthusiasm to quite the same degree. " Thanks for showing me your secret training spot, Hirakoba-kun."

For some reason, the cheery look on his face dropped, and he shivered, even though it was still ridiculously hot out. "Cold!" He shouted. "So cold, ! Y' damn ice queen!"

"... Huh?"

"Call me Rin! We're not strangers, right?" He said, a little indignantly. "We're rivals, and rivals should regard each other like the scum of the earth!"

"U-um, okay, well..." didn't quite seem like a nickname befitting of the scum of the earth, though. "Then—thanks, Rin-chan."

Rin grinned from ear to ear. "See ya at school on Monday!"

As I retreated into the safety of my own home, I couldn't help but feel lighter—like I'd truly made a friend for the first time since coming to Okinawa.

- x -

Our weekend rallies quickly developed from a thing we did for fun to a thing we did out of habit. I woke up unconsciously on Saturdays and on Sundays at 6 o'clock to rally with Hirakoba until noon, after which we would retreat to my house, talking and eating watermelon on the veranda until the sun went down, and he went down. Part of me was grateful for the fact that our hangouts became routine: I liked that it became a concrete and infallible part of our weeks, dissimilar to my father's "maybe I will, maybe I won't" attitude towards rallying with me on Sunday afternoons.

When exams became a looming threat, I asked Rin if he wanted to cut back on practice hours in favour of studying, but he shook his head and said, "I'd prob'ly show up outta habit 'nyway."

Every single week, we rallied fortwelve hours—sometimes more, when we had the time—and before we knew it, graduation day started creepy up on us. I'd completely forgotten that sixth grade was halfway over when Rin asked me over the winter break which junior high school I planned on going to.

"I... hadn't even thought about it." I admitted. "Why? Where are you going?"

He grinned and pointedly proudly to himself. "I'm goin' to Higa. 's a bloke who's been goin' 'round—says his name's Eishirou. 's been collectin' a bunch o' kids who used to practice Shukuchi—says he wants to make a team that'll wreck face all the way to Nationals. Says he wants me to play for 'im."

When he saw how lost I looked, he just laughed.

"I'm goin' to Higa to join the tennis team." He summarised for me, eyes wide with excitement. "You should come to Higa, too! I dunno if they got a girls' tennis team or not, but that don't mean you can't come anyway."

I told him that I'd have to think about it, and he told me that I'd better pick Higa as my first preference, or I'd be sorry. It sounded a little bit like a threat.

When my father came home for New Year's, the first thing he asked me was if I decided which junior high school I wanted to go to. As part of his apology for pulling me out of Tamonoki so close to the end of my elementary school career, he promised that I could go to any junior high school that I wanted to. Tentatively, I told him that I hadn't given the matter much thought, and I was still thinking about it.

My father rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm... what do you think about Higa Junior High, ? It's not very far away, and it's a good school."

"Rin-chan's going to Higa." I mused aloud.

He smiled, perhaps warmed by the thought that I'd actually managed to make friends. "Papa hasn't hear you talk about this 'Rin-chan' before. Is she one of your classmates?"

I looked at him. "Rin-chan's a boy."

My father seemed surprised, if not a little panicked, that my go-to friend was a boy. He laughed nervously and ruffled my hair. "W-well... if Rin-chan is going to Higa, then that gives you even more reason to go there too, right?"

I shrug. "I guess. He said that he wants me to join the tennis team, though."

"You don't have to do anything that you don't want to, —even if Rin-chan tells you to." My father assured me. "But you can still go to Higa and not join the tennis team. If Rin-chan is really your friend, he won't make you do anything that you don't want to."

I took a good look at my father's face. For some reason, he looked unusually pallid, and he was having trouble making proper eye contact with me.

"Okay." I said. "I guess I could go to Higa."

He mustered a smile in my direction. "Higa's a big school, so you'll make lots of friends."

Despite my father's words, whether or not I would be able to make new friends or not was the least of my concerns. Deep down, I think that a part of me wanted to go to Higa to have a legitimate reason to spite him in the event that he grew out of this friendship we'd fostered over the past year. If we both went to the same school, he would never be able to attribute our platonic break-up to frivolous things like distance or growing up apart: he'd have no one but himself to blame.

But, of course, spite was not an appropriate motivation to do things—so I didn't tell anyone the real reason why I decided to go to Higa. As well as Rin, most of the people in my clique had decided to go to Higa, so any observer could say that I was just a little lost dog, far from home, following the only people who were kind enough to stop by and show me a bit of compassion.


My parents decided to celebrate my promotion into junior high school by entrusting me with a brand new cell phone. At first, I wasn't sure what to do with it: in seeing that it was spring break, I couldn't really ask anyone for their number—and since Rin lived nearby, there was no point in asking for his contact information. That being said, the moment I accidentally let Rin an eyeful of my cell phone, he demanded that we exchange numbers. He insisted, "You never know—it might come in handy someday!"

Though I didn't believe him at the time, having his number really did come in handy. On the day of our junior high school entrance ceremony, I walked outside after breakfast to find that Rin wasn't waiting for me outside, like he'd been doing ever since the start of sixth grade. I sent him a message, asking if he was running late or something, and the response I got was: "Crap, I slept in! Go ahead of me, ; let's catch up after the entrance ceremony!"

I spent the majority of my walk to school trying to repress flashbacks of my first week at Ryūkyū Minami, where kids had lost their patience with my inability to communicate, and I'd come so close to crying after walking into a sixth year classroom as a fifth grader. With my head in a haze of panic, I nearly walked right into Tobio at Higa's front gates.

"Whoa—mornin', !" He said, waving his hand in front of my face. "You still asleep?"

What he called me caught me partially by surprise. "Um... ?"

He smiled sheepishly. "I dunno, I thought you might get a li'l miffed if I called you —y'know, since we've graduated from bein' ankle biters an' all." He cut the conversation short when the teacher standing at the front gates started ushering everyone onto the grounds faster, yelling that the opening ceremony was about to start. "C'mon, let's go 'n' find our seats."

We managed to run into a few other members of the dodgeball clique before heading into the gym and taking a seat. It was a long, drawn-out affair, but when it was finally over, I parted ways with the clique in search of my classroom. As I was walking down the hallway, I heard a voice shouting after me:

"Oi, —wait up!"

Before I could turn around, Rin fell in step beside me. "Oh, Rin-ch..."

When I stopped short of calling him Rin-chan, he looked at me questioningly. "Huh? What's up?"

I coughed pointedly. "Do you think it's weird for me to still call you Rin-chan?"

"Huh? Why should it be?" He sounded genuinely confused.

"Well, we're in junior high now." I pointed out. "I mean, you're aiming to be on the varsity squad for tennis, right? I just thought it might ruin your image a little if I went around calling you Rin-chan."

He looked away, looking a little miffed. His only response was, "Call me whatever you want—it doesn't matter to me, cos I'm still gonna call you ."

My response was interrupted by the bell signalling the start of homeroom. We grimaced at one another, but said nothing. On a rather sour note, we wordlessly parted ways and went off in search of our respective classrooms.

- x -

Despite that sour encounter, Rin still came to my classroom every lunch time to eat with me. I was certain that he'd already made new friends in his own class, but I didn't pry. Part of me felt that he only came to my classroom to eat because he knew that I would never go to his classroom to eat lunch with him. The fact that he was so partial to appeasing my silent wishes was flattering, but, well, there were ups and downs to spending time with Rin.

Every day that he came in to eat lunch with me, he brought a tennis club admission form with him. Even though he'd already submitted his application, he was determined to get me to sign up with him. He insisted that, even though there wasn't a girl's tennis team, I could always be a manager for the boy's tennis team and help him train for the upcoming Kyūshū Tournament. "It'll be just like ol' times—trainin' together, I mean!" He said.

"It's probably not a good idea." I said for the umpteenth time that week. "I have a hard enough time getting along with people of my own gender, let alone another gender."

I could tell that Rin was dissatisfied with my response, but all he said was: "Fine, but I'm leavin' this with you in case you change your mind." He left the piece of paper on my desk as the bell signalling the end of lunch sounded—yet another admission form to add to the growing pile of paperwork in my desk.

Needless to say, I didn't cash in a single admission form. As insistent as Rin was about it, I didn't love tennis enough to watch a game that someone else was playing while I watched from afar.

I started seeing Rin less and less when practice started. Though he still went out of his way to come and eat lunch with me every other day, we stopped walking to school together. After about a month, he sometimes called me on a Saturday night and asked if we could put a rain-check on our rally the following day. I'd gotten so used to making rain-checks that every time Rin called me with regard to our Sunday rallies, I'd respond with, "It's fine. Don't worry about it."

"I'll make it up to you, !" He promised, time and time again.

"Thanks." I said. "But really—it's fine, so don't worry so much, okay?"

His rain-checks became easier to tolerate as the semester went on. In the way of his frequent after school absences, I found the time to deal with the gradual build up of school work. After school every day, I resigned to the library with a couple of classmates. They were intelligent, serious and dedicated to their academics, but they knew how to take breaks and have a bit of a laugh in between subjects. Especially as exam season started drawing closer, we started studying later, and sometimes we were at school until night had fallen completely. At the end of every session, we would pack our bags, hit up the convenience store in the area that we all lived in, and then we headed home before it was nine.

I started getting so caught up in my habit of going to school, studying and then coming home late that it caught me by surprise when Rin called me on Saturday night and asked, "How're you goin' with studies?"

"Me? I'm on top of them." I told me. "Are you?"

He started laughing, and then sobered so quickly that it was discomforting. ", you know how I've always been postponin' our Sunday rally dates?"

Dates? "Yeah?"

"So, about makin' it up to you... do you reckon I can cash one of those missed dates?" He coughed. "Can I cash in for a study date?"

"... I mean I'll help you, but how is that making it up to me?"

He thought it over for a moment. "... Quality time with a good pal?"

"You're unbelievable." I said, sighing. "I can help you with core subjects, but you're on your own for everything else."

"Alright! You're the best, ." He sniffed, like he was pretending to be emotional about how good of a friend I was being. "Do you wanna do it this Sunday? We can go for a rally in the mornin'—y'know, for old time's sake—'n' then study in the arvo."

"A rally does sound appealing." I agreed. "But I'm too concerned for your academic status to let you get by with only an afternoon's worth of studying, Rin. So, this Sunday? Where?"

Rin made thoughtful sounds as he mulled the proposition over. "How about at my house? You've never been here before, right?"

He had a point: whenever the two of us hung out, it was either at school somewhere, at the tennis courts, in town, or at my house. Since his house was further away from school and town, the both of us had always felt that making the trip to his house would be pretty pointless—but since we had been friends for two (or so) years, I figured that if I was ever to see Rin's house, there was no better time than now.

"Sure." I conceded. "How do I get there?"

"Hmm... I'll come get you." He said. Ah, his shorthand method of saying, 'I don't wanna explain.'

"Okay. Sunday, then—but you can't put a rain-check on a date that you've already cashed in."

"I won't, I won't! I promise!"

"... It's getting late. I'm gonna hang up now, okay?"

"Sleep tight, !"

"See you tomorrow, Rin."

I hung up first.

- x -

When Rin and I first became friends, the thought of inviting himself into my house would have been unthinkable: he would have waited patiently outside the front gate and, at the start of the year, he would spam my phone with messages until I opened my bedroom window and yelled, "Just wait—I'll be down in a second, okay?" Now, he seemed completely comfortable with simply knocking on the door and inviting himself inside the house.

Usually, when I walked downstairs for the morning, I would find him conversing with my parents or eating food with them; today was no different. By the time I came downstairs, he had already shared a meal with my parents and was engaging in a very lengthy discussion about what how even the winters in Okinawa were hot. He only spared me a few moments of his attention when I sat down at the table.

"So we were thinkin'—mornin, ! Hurry up and eat breakfast, okay?—so anyway," Rin went on, turning his attention back to my parents, "we were thinkin' that we'd celebrate my big sis' birthday over the break, since she's gonna be overseas when it's her birthday for real."

He continued to chat animatedly with my parents about his winter break plans; sometimes I felt that he knew my parents better than I did. After I finished eating breakfast, he wrapped up the conversation and we made preparations to leave for Rin's house. My mother insisted that I take a gift of some kind to them (even though Rin insisted that it wasn't necessary), so we left with a basket of papayas in tow.

Rin's house was a little bit of a walk from mine, but from the outside, it didn't seem so different: it was the same style, just like all the houses in the area were, and about the same size, even he'd told me that his family was much bigger than mine. We walked inside, ditched our shoes in the entryway, and he introduced me to his parents and his grandmother (his older sister was out, apparently). They said that they were finally glad to meet this "" that Rin had been talking about non-stop for two years, and they were surprised to find out that I was a girl.

"My, my, my, 's a boy's name, isn't it?" His mother reasoned.

"But Rin is also a girl's name." His grandmother pointed out.

The adults of the Hirakoba family looked like they were trying to hold back their laughter.

They accepted my mother's gift and kept saying, "My, my, my—we'll have to give your parents something in return!" They sprung a basket of dragon fruit onto me and insisted that I take it back to my parents, so I told them that I would. When they seemed confident that I would keep my word, they backed off and told me to make myself at home.

"It's only fair," they said, side-eyeing Rin. He avoided direct eye contact with them.

At the earliest chance he got, he changed the subject by looking at me and gesturing towards the living room. "C'mon, you can take your stuff in there. I'll go get some tea."

I set out our books on the table, and he returned with two glasses of ice cold barley tea and a couple of coasters. "Thanks." I said.

"No problem." He said. "Alright, -sensei, show me the ways of your people!"

"Okay—abandon all hope of fulfilling your dreams and follow my lead."

"You're so cool, -sensei!"

For someone who claimed to be struggling as much as he was, Rin was a hard worker and not so shabby at studying. He was focused, he learned from his mistakes, and he started showing legitimate promise as a student by the time the sun was starting to set. Seeing this side of Rin—the focused, studious Rin—was a first for me, since we'd never really had the incentive to study together. During elementary school, the only subject that he'd shown even a shred of interest in was gym, and now that we were in middle school, our schedules didn't match up enough to be able to study together during school hours.

It was a welcomed change. Rin was rarely quiet whenever we were together, and he was such a free spirit that he held very little regard for the rules. The Rin I saw studying before me, however, seemed just like any other serious and motivated student—no different from the people I saw studying in the library after school hours. It was a little warming to see that, when he really put his mind to it, Rin could really get things done.

We decided to quit the desk for the day when Rin's parents called us to dinner. As a way of rewarding Rin for his rare display of academic diligence, his mother decided to splash out a bit, and ended up making kaki-meshi for the family. Over dinner, Rin's parents brought up his older sister's party, which they were going to be celebrating over the winter break before she went on exchange to Taiwan, and they insisted that I bring my family over to celebrate, too. If there were more people present, they reasoned, then they'd have an excuse to order more food.

After we ate dinner, we had chilled papayas for dessert, and then Rin walked me home. He said he wouldn't come inside because it was getting late, but he told me to thank my parents for the delicious fruit, and I said I would.

"Thanks for teachin' me today, -sensei! I feel like I learned a lot." Rin said.

Good. I would have been a little disappointed if he hadn't. "You think you'll be okay for exams?"

"Prob'ly. If not, though, I'll cash in another study date." He said, grinning.

I sighed. "Just as long as you don't cash all of them in as study dates."

"Alright, I won't do that. I promise."

A pause. "Good night, Rin."

The corners of his mouth dropped a little tiny bit. "G'night, ."

- x -

Rin cashed in a few more study dates before exam season hit us, and when it was over, he came very close to bowing at my feet when he thanked me for helping him study and praised me for being the very best friend he'd ever had. I waved him off, telling him that it wasn't a big deal. "I mean," I began slowly, "that's what best friends do, right?"

It didn't even take him a second to break out into a grin. For some reason, it seemed much brighter and cheekier than it normally did. "You're a legend, —I'm gonna make it up to you, I swear!"

I sighed. "Give it a rest."

Despite my insistence, though, he didn't.

One particular Sunday, I woke up to my mother knocking at my door. When I told her to come in, she poked her head into my room with a cheery face and said in a sing-song voice, "Happy birthday, Mama's little cherub! What do you want to eat for dinner? Just for today, Mama will make anything you want."

Anything? "Can we have shabu-shabu?"

"Hmm? Okay, Mama will go and buy the ingredients for you. Oh, and since Papa's in Urasoe right now, he told me to wish you happy birthday on his behalf!"

I carefully side-stepped her spirited declaration. "If you're going out, can you buy some more pudding? Rin ate my share the last time he came over."

My mother, who was trying to avoid treading on my emotions too much, resigned to a smile. "Okay, pudding it is. Mama will go out shopping now, okay? Happy birthday again!"

After she left for the grocery store, I decided to get out of bed and start cleaning up. Breakfast was waiting for me on the table, but the house was quiet, and the only thing I could hear were the wind chimes on the veranda. It was a birthday like any other, really: lately my father had been working more and more, and it was never very common for him to not be around on my birthday. Although my mother always wished me a happy birthday on my father's behalf, I never got any calls (or messages, now that I had a phone of my own) from him, which meant that I never knew if he really did ask my mother to wish me a happy birthday, or if it was my mother's way of giving the illusion that my father even cared to remember what day it was today.

She came back a little before lunch, and I helped her carry the groceries inside, even though she insisted that I sit back and relax for the day. She seemed to feel sorry for me, not having anything to do that day, so she say, "Is there anything you want to do today, ? Mama will take you anywhere you want to go. We could go to the beach, or into town—we can go shopping and buy things with Papa's credit card."

I couldn't help but smile: she really knew how to cheer me up (or, at the very least, bribe me to feel better about myself). Before I could come up with any ideas, though, my phone started to ring. That was weird. Was my dad, calling to wish me a happy birthday?

Then I checked the caller ID: Rin-chan.

I answered the phone. "Hello?"

"! What're y' doin' right now?"

"I'm at home. Why?"

"I jus' finished practice. Wanna meet in town?"

"... Why?"

"What d'ya mean, 'why'?! I'm cashin' in a date!"

I looked at my mother. "A date? You mean like a study date?"

"No, stupid—a normal date! Let's go into town!"

"... Let's not. It's too hot today."

"...? It's the middle of winter, though?"

He started making dissatisfied noises on the other end of the line.

"Well," he stubbornly went on, "if you ain't here in half an hour, I'm gonna come lookin' for ya—got it?"

"Okay, okay—I got it. I'll be there soon."

"Alright!" I didn't need to see his face to know that he was grinning. "See ya soon, !"

Having guessed who the caller was, my mother was avoiding eye contact with me and very trying not to laugh. "Go on, —just be back by dinner time, okay?"

I told her that I'd (probably) be back by dinner, adding inwardly that it all hinged on what exactly Rin had in store for me. His strange and sudden phone call had caught up in a thoughtful haze all the way to the school gates, where I found him waiting in casual clothes. He must have changed into them after practice. Had this not been a spontaneous idea of his, then?

"Hey, !" He called when he spotted me. I waved at him, and he waved back. "Y'know, I thought it'd be a li'l harder to convince ya—but I'm chuffed y' came!"

"I wasn't really doing anything else." I admitted. "So where are we going?"

"You'll see!"

I raised an eyebrow at him, but decided not to press the matter. He seemed to be in a good mood all the way to town, chattering about what practice had been like today, chattering about how nice the weather was today, and essentially chattering about everything except for the reason that he'd called me out so suddenly. We kept walking until Rin stopped in front of a small bakery.

"Is this what you called me out for?" I asked, looking sceptically up at the bakery.

"You betcha! C'mon, let's go in." He tugged on my arm.

I refused to budge. "Why are we here?"

He frowned at me. "To pick up cake?"

"... You didn't call me out here just because you got a sudden craving for cake, right?"

"'Course not! It's for a special occasion!"

"Cravings are a special occasion?"

"It's for y' birthday, stupid!"

I didn't ask how Rin knew my birthday—I figured that maybe he probably asked my parents while waiting for me one day, and they told him without a second thought. If that was the case, though, I wished that my parents had tipped him off a little about my stance on cake. "... You didn't order the cake or anything, did you?"

"... No? I mean, if I knew what kind of cake y' liked, I would've just ordered it and brought it over after practice finished."

"I, um..." I cleared my throat. "I don't really like cake."

He stared at me, obviously having been so preoccupied with trying to figure out what kind of cake I liked that he didn't consider the possibility that I might not like it at all. "... So do y' wanna go to the shops and buy some pudding?"

"My mom already bought some this morning, so it'd probably be kind of pointless." I said, painfully aware that such a statement invalidated the entire reason that Rin brought me to town.

"Well... we came all this way." He reasoned. "Is there anything else you wanna eat?"

I considered this. "I could go for a parfait or two. Or five. Do you know any good fruit parlours in town?"

Rin took me to a fruit parlour that his sister had tried a couple of times before, although he'd never really had the incentive to try it himself (since seafood was a little more up his alley). We took at a seat at an empty booth, ordered some parfaits, and spent the remainder of the afternoon talking just like we usually did. We started off by talking about how practice went for Rin, but somehow, we ended up talking about how my birthday had been. Rin asked the question with conviction, obviously not knowing how underrated events like birthdays were in my house.

"We didn't really do anything." I said. "Oh, but my mom's cooking shabu-shabu tonight—wanna come over?"

He was too caught up on the start of my spiel to notice that I'd invited him over for dinner. "You... didn't do anythin' today? At all?"

"We don't really celebrate birthdays in my house. Come to think of it, this is the most dramatic thing that's ever happened on my birthday... ever." I said, trying to summarise the idea of going outside and eat parfaits in a single gesture. "It's usually just me and my mom on my birthdays, since dad goes away for work a lot. Sometimes, we go out and use my dad's credit card to buy cool things—last year, I bought every single Orange Range album that exists—but I wasn't really feeling up to it this year."

Rin looked positively mortified. "How can y' be so laid back about your birthday? You should be abusin' the good will of other people and makin' 'em get you good stuff."

"That's what this is, right?" I gestured to Rin and the parfaits before us.

"... No?" I couldn't tell if he was asking me or telling me until he went on: "Well, prob'ly not. I'd take y' here on a normal day if y' asked me."

I considered this. "My mom's also cooking shabu-shabu tonight."

"She cooks for y' every night!"

"But shabu-shabu is a rarity. She usually can't be bothered to make it."

Rin puts his face in his hands. "We'll do somethin' really cool next year, , I promise!"

There he goes again with his promises, I can't help but think to myself. "I'd feel really bad if you put this much effort into planning for my birthday and I don't reciprocate." I said. "When is your birthday?"

He frowned. "I'm not tellin'. Go find out for y'self."

"You're a true headache—you know that, right?"

It shifted into a grin. "I try."

When he finally got over the fact that I didn't really celebrate my birthday, I re-invited him to dinner and agreed to come, since it would only be me and my mother at home. He offered to bring his family over to my house, so that would could have a huge party, but I figured that my mother had only bought ingredients for three people, so I told him it would be bad for her heart if we suddenly sprung four more guests on her.

"Maybe next year—so my mom has a bit of warning." I said.

He (hesitantly) came to respect my wishes.

Before we went home, we took a quick trip around town. Even though he'd already shouted me parfaits, he was determined to buy me a birthday present. I was reluctant to let him spend a single cent more on me, but he said he wouldn't let me go home until I let him buy me a birthday present. Since I didn't want him to bust any unnecessary holes in his wallet (he did a great job of that every time he went shopping for new clothes), I took him to Tsutaya and let him pay for a few rental DVDs.

"It's a tradition for me and my mom to watch movies on our birthdays." I said as he took Fugitive off the shelf and added it to our pile of DVDs. "Last year we watched Forrest Gump. It's my mom's favourite movie."

Rin found Forrest Gump on the shelf and added it to the pile.

When we were finished renting DVDs, we headed back home to help my mother prepare the food for dinner. My mother didn't seem at all surprised when Rin walked in with a bunch of DVDs under his arms and asked us how our day was Rin told her how shocked he was when I told him that I didn't really like cake, and my mother burst out, "Oh dear—I forgot you tell you that our doesn't like cake very much."

"It's fine—we went and got parfaits instead." I said. "Did you know that there's a fruit parlour really close to that barber shop dad always goes to? I'll take you sometime. Rin says he'll pay."

"Oh, it wouldn't be fair to make Rin pay." My mother said dismissively. "We can use Papa's credit card, okay?"

All three of us pitched in to make dinner, and even though we rented a lot of DVDs, we decided not to watch any while we ate. Rin talked enough for the both of us, but I didn't mind, and my mother didn't seem to, either. The house seemed fuller and warmer with his voice filling it, and for once, neither of us really minded that my father was flaking out on us—because someone else did such a good job at filling his shoes.

After dinner, we each had a few cups of pudding as we watched movies. When it started to near midnight, Rin got an angry phone call from his mother, demanding to know where he was; he'd obviously forgotten to tell her where he was. As he raced to put on his shoes and hurry out the door, he shouted frantic apologies in between trying to wish me a happy birthday.

"Thanks for coming over!" My mother called after him.

"See you tomorrow, Rin!" I added in an equally loud voice.

"G'night, ! G'night, 's ma!" That was the last we heard from him before he shut the door and made a run for home.

I saw him at lunch the next day, moping a little bit. Apparently, his grandmother had given him a bit of a beating after getting back so late—but they'd let him off without punishment when he told them that he'd just been "spoilin' and 's ma, cos it was 's birthday and the family didn't treat it like a big deal."

"They told me to invite you 'n' y' ma over next year." He said. "My family's pretty good at makin' a big deal out o' things."

"Yeah." I said. "I know all too well."

He grinned at that. I did, too.

- x -

Some things changed between Rin and I over the years. For the most part, we fell into different cliques: since I never joined any clubs, I spent so much time in the library with my classmates that I became an academic (something that made my father choke on his food when I admitted it my parents over dinner); Rin, on the other hand, became a rising star on the tennis team. He made friends with people that I would never have thought twice about going near, even though Rin insisted that most of them were okay, if you caught them in a good mood. That being said, we still ate lunch together every day; the only thing that changed there was that we stopped eating in my classroom and started eating on the rooftop instead. Although it was unbearably hot to sit there in the summer, Rin was far too attracted to the ocean breeze to ever eat inside again. We spent so many lunchtimes on the rooftop that I tanned rapidly, and by the time school was about to let out for summer break in our second year of junior high, I was the same shade as Rin.

"Look!" He said, holding his arm out against mine. He pretended to wipe away a tear. "You're takin' after me more and more each day."

"Okay, old man." I said, hitting his arm lightly with my own.

After Rin came back from the regional tournament that year, he wouldn't stop talking about how the most popular players all had dyed hair. He made me accompany him to the salon, where he had his hair bleached and dyed blond. He insisted that I do the same, but I told him very plainly that I didn't want to look like a delinquent.

"C'mon, !" He said. "You'd be really pretty with strawb'ry blonde hair!"

"You've gotta be joking." I said flatly. "I've tanned way too much to go strawberry blonde. Anyway, are you sure the school will be okay with you dyeing your hair that colour? The new semester will be starting in a few weeks."

"I'll leave tomorrow's problems to tomorrow's me." Rin said, giving me a thumbs up.

Rin's appearance changed a great deal that summer, but even though he was toned and had blonde hair and was popular with all the girls now, the way he treated me stayed the same. Even if my motivation had been spiteful, I was grateful that I ended up coming to Higa. In just a couple of short years, we'd gone from Sunday playmates to true best friends. Whenever I threw up a fuss about Rin's birthday, he made sure to pay back the festivities twofold when my birthday came around; the more Rin came over to my house to watch movies, the less he got angry phone calls from his mother, telling him to come home; the more I went over to Rin's house, the closer I got with his older sister (who told me all sorts of embarrassing stories about Rin before I knew him). It got to the point where a member of the fan club that he'd (somehow) managed to accumulate started a rumour that we were dating.

She confronted us while Rin and I were eating lunch. I complained to Rin so much about how hot it was on the rooftop, so he agreed to eat in the classroom on the condition that we could sit near the window. We were debating whether or not I should change my hair colour when she came right up to the desk and stammered out, "E-excuse me..."

We looked up at her, startled by her sudden appearance.

"I... I was just wondering—I-I'm asking for a friend, you see..." She pointed between me and Rin. "Are the two of you dating?"

There was a pause.

Rin set down his chopsticks very seriously. "Listen! 's my favourite person at this school!"

We all waited for him to go on, but he didn't. He just picked up this chopsticks and resumed eating.

"Eh, I think the class president is pretty swell, though." I said.

"You're right—she is really cool. It was real nice of her to help me study when you bailed, ."

"I didn't bail on you." I said. "In fact, I told you weeks in advance that I wasn't gonna be free that Sunday."

He completely disregarded the attempt that I'd made to defend my honour, choosing instead to circle back to talking about our class president. "D'ya think she'd be my friend if I asked her?"

I scrutinised his hair, which was still blonde. "Well, if she doesn't run away from you screaming, then I think your chances are pretty good."

We resumed eating, completely forgetting that the girl from the fan club was still standing there until she reminded us of her existence with a slow venture. "S-so... are you two dating?"

Rin and I looked at each other. He pointed from himself to me, and then back again. "I dunno—would you call this datin', ?"

I shrug at him. "I doubt it."

The girl didn't look very satisfied with my answer. "I-is that a yes?—Or a no?"

"Hmm... prob'ly not?" Rin summarised. "I think 's really cool, though."

I moved my lunch box from his reach. It was his favourite—leftover kaki-meshi. "No amount of flattery will get you these oysters."

The girl from the fan club decided to give up. She stammered out a "Th-thanks" for hearing her out and then abruptly left, looking abashed and a little bit exasperated. Almost as soon as she'd shut the door behind her, Rin picked up our debate about hair colouring as though we'd never been interrupted. "You can't go anythin' but strawb'ry blonde, though—it's real stylish right now."

"Don't talk to me about style, you delinquent."

"Cold! So cold, ! How 'bout this, then: if you had to choose between becomin' the manager of the tennis team and goin' strawb'ry blonde, which would you pick?"

"... Neither?"

"That's not 'n option!"

We bickered all the way up until the end of lunch, at which point Rin declared war on me and said that, some day soon, I would bend to his will and change the colour of my hair from "borin' ol' black" to something that was on his level of stylish.

"Don't put me on the same level as a delinquent like you." I said.

"Y' damn ice queen!" Having wrapped up the conversation, he started to gather his things and made way to leave. "Okay, I'm goin' back to class now. See ya, !"

"Okay, bye."

Even though we'd learned to assume that walking to and from school together was an improbability (thanks to hours that the tennis club made him train), seeing Rin leave my classroom didn't worry as much as it did before. A small part of me had been conditioned to believe that he would come back the next day, and the day after, and the day after that with a lunch box in hand and an argument prepared for why I should change my hair colour.

It disturbed me a little that I so wholeheartedly believed he would return to my classroom every lunch time. When I mustered to courage to tell my mother what I'd been thinking about, a smile broke out across her face. The last time I'd seen her smile to this extent was a couple of months ago, when my father had spontaneously come back on White Day with chocolates and roses for the both of us—red ones for my mother, and pink ones for me. I asked her why she was smile, and she started to laugh.

"I shouldn't be surprised that you don't know what it is." She said, a little wryly. "I believe that what you're experiencing, my dear cherub, is a bond of trust."

Princo & Ribbon
December 6, 2015.


Dodgeball competition: When I went to Japan, there was one long homeroom where we were all told to change into our gym clothes and participate in the dodgeball competition in the gym. It was the most violent and terrifying thing I've ever witnessed (they're so goddamn fierce and intense).

Cleaning at the end of the day: At the end of every day, before final homeroom, we'd have to clean our own classroom and stuff. We'd have to move the desks and sweep and the like, and then move the desks back afterwards. There were a few more chores, but I don't really know what they are, since I usually just moved the desks (there weren't many guys in our class, and no one else really wanted to lift the desks). A lot of the time, though, people would disappear and slack off in the library so they didn't have to clean. It was kind of funny to watch them all come in after the bell rang for final homeroom.

Smooth or rough: I remember seeing this a lot earlier in the anime to determine who gets the first serve, and who gets to pick the side of the court that they want (I think). From what I remember, the person who isn't spinning the racquet gets to pick smooth (if, when the racquet lands, the letter on the end cap is the right way up) or rough (if, when the racquet lands, the letter on the end cap is upside down); if they guess correctly, they get the serve (service), but if they guess incorrectly, they get to pick the side of the court that they want (end). If someone could correct me that would be great because I don't remember a thing about actual tennis in Prince of Tennis okay it's been a while since they played realistic tennis YOU COME HERE FOR THE DREAM NOVELS NOT THE REALISM.

You're so cool, -sensei: This is kind of a reference to a shoujo manga that I read a while back (called Saboten no Himitsu, if you're interested). There's a scene where Yamada, the protagonist, is helping this guy study, and she's like, "I, a student ranked in the top 30, [...] shall allow you to proceed to the 11th grade." And he's just like "Yamada! You're so cool!"

Kaki-meshi: Apparently Hirakoba's favourite food is young oysters, so I started Googling around for Japanese oyster dishes and kaki-meshi (牡蠣飯) came up. Get Princo to explain it to you LOL.
(Princo: It's essentially oysters steamed in rice with flavored broth.)

Shabu-shabu: Shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) is a Japanese dish that features thinly sliced beef boiled in water, according to Wikipedia. If you want more details about it, ask Princo.
(Princo: You normally boil beef with vegetables like leeks, napa cabbage, mushrooms, and tofu and you dip it into ponzu sauce, which I guess you could call a citrusy soy sauce—or a sesame sauce. Whatever floats your boat.)

Orange Range: Orange Range (オレンジレンジ) is a Japanese rock band. The only song of theirs that I really know is Ikenai Taiyou (イケナイ太陽), which was the theme song for the original Hana-Kimi drama /sheds a tear for original Hana-Kimi. Although I didn't know this at first, the band's actually from Okinawa LOL. Strange coincidence.

Shout me: I've been told that this is Australian slang, but to "shout" someone is to pay for someone else's meal or drinks or something. So if you shout someone dinner, you're taking them out to dinner and then paying for their meal. If you shout someone drinks, you're taking them to the bar and paying for their drinks. I don't think we use it if it doesn't concern food or drinks, though, since that's basically what the Australian lifestyle revolves around LOL.

I'll leave tomorrow's problems to tomorrow's me: A reference to One Punch Man (ワンパンマン). If you don't think Saitama is the most relatable protagonist in the world then you're lying LOL.

Ribbon: I don't know what an accurate representation of Okinawan Japanese is in English, since I've never heard one before. I've heard that Texan English is usually used to represent the Kansai dialect, but since I rarely watch dubs, I'm not sure what the English "equivalent" is for Okinawan. I ended up going with some extremely deformed version of a bogan accent. I probably did a really poor job of it though, because (a) I'm from the city, (b) the Australian accent is REALLY hard to represent with words on a page, and (c) there were only so many squiggly red lines that my heart can take. To be fair, I don't know a single person that talks the way I've made Rin talk (do people even say "ankle biters" anymore?). But don't worry, guys: as grows used to Okinawan Japanese, I'll start writing in proper Australian English again LOL.

Disclaimer: I am by no means trying to make fun or of belittle Okinawan Japanese: I'm just trying to demonstrate the fact that there are vast differences between Okinawan Japanese and what is used to speaking/hearing, i.e. the Touhoku dialect. Just thought I'd clear that up LOLOL.

Princo: lol i told her to write dat ^^.

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