chapter one

It's safe to say that I've never been good at shooting hoops. I wouldn't call it my Achilles' heel—my mother takes that special title—but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of my weak points. When I was a kid, the thought of having a weakness never even occurred to me. All I cared about while I was watching basketball on television with my doting dad was how fluidly people could move, and how one man could shoot a hoop standing as far as twenty feet back, and still make the ball go through. I promoted to middle school with the same mindset. I thought I might try out for the basketball team, blinded by fond memories of watching the sport as a kid, and thinking that having done so would call for some kind of merit on my part. I played for basketball for at least a year and a half at middle school—which, for someone like me, is new—but despite how much time I invested into advancing my, I made next to no progress whatsoever.

And it was discouraging, to say the least. Sure, I was now able to dribble the ball at the same time as weaving through a net of players, but the one thing I fell short of was being able to hone in on a target and follow through—shooting a hoop in the heat of the game, in other words. Decisiveness, I guess, is something I've never been able to keep my hands on. I guess it's something I've just had trouble with from the moment I was born—the moment, more specifically, that I inherited the genetic curse on my mother's side of the family: impulsiveness.

I've done my research. The curse isn't just about being labelled as the kind of whimsical person who embodies the modern Beat Generation kid; it's also about lacking the forethought, reflection and consideration for consequences that are required when making decisions. Coupled with my unfortunately ignorant personality, it took me nearly two years to realise that I was not born to be a basketball player—nor would a person like me ever be; not even if I wanted to. It wasn't just about my physique; I simply lacked the drive and motivation to enter myself into such a long and limited future. It took me nearly two years to realise that I'm too impulsive of a person to hold down a steady commitment of any kind.

Well, almost any kind. But that's another story.

Presently, I have two unanswerable questions on my mind that have remained with me since I quit basketball: the first question is why it took me so long to realise that memory and reality were not in harmony with one another. My love for watching basketball evidently was, as I came to discover, not the same as playing it. Sometime between my incessant love for watching basketball games and the occurrence of my quarter-life crisis in middle school, I realised that fond memories can so easily become empty words if you lose sight of what you thought it was—what you remember it once being. I can't understand why it was necessary for me to endure a two year debate with my conscience, only to come to the baseless conclusion that freeing myself from basketball would be the only way to regain my freedom.

The second question I've never found the answer to is why, after that abusive, two year debate with my conscience, I engaged into an internal, five year-long debate about friendship. Towards the end of my time in middle school, I unsurprisingly found myself with fewer and fewer friends; by then, the only people I talked to were seat mates, and some old friends from the basketball club who, unlike me, held their positions as regulars on the team until they graduated. I'm not denying that it was my fault; I just find it exhausting to hold friendships, especially with people who you feel don't really understand you. That's not to say that I left old friendships with others on a bad note, but what is the point of placid friendship?

Even when I moved schools, I never went out of my way to make friends, because I've never felt the obligation to hold a steady friendship with people who will only be surrounding me for perhaps the next three years in my life as "casual friends." I guess I was just never able to see how rewarding friendship could be, where both time and effort were concerned.

What I'm ultimately trying to say is: I can't understand why it can sometimes be so hard to realise things that are blatantly obvious. Why did I continue with basketball when my only burst of inspiration for it came from watching professionals play it on television? Why did I fail to see the good in keeping strong relationships? Why is it that we spend good years thinking about things, the answers to which are right before our eyes? Is it just that we don't want to accept the answers, or is it just that we lose sight of what we were trying to see?

- x -

The Sunday afternoon before my middle school graduation ceremony, I found myself at the basketball courts down town with three faces I'd grown accustomed two over the passing three years—faces I'd never really appreciated until now (and I don't mean in the attractive kind of way). I guess when you're surrounded by the same people for three years, you never really come to appreciate all the things they've done for you until you realise that it's time to part ways.

Ueda had a basketball out. He was on the court, playing a one-on-two with Tomita and Youko, and I was gathering the last of my dignity, about to leave for the day. The sound of the dribbling basketball slowed as I rose to my feet and held up a hand—a stationary wave of goodbye. "I'll see you guys next week, then, I guess?" I said, feeling about as unsure about my words as I sounded.

The ball bounced its last bounces, and then its movements trickled to a halt.

"I guess so, I guess so." Ueda said, having never got out of his habit of repeating almost everything he said. "Well... is this it?"

"I don't know." I said. "I guess. I mean, you guys are all going to Ichikawa, and I'm going to Rokkaku."

"So we're down to three musketeers." Youko drawled, retrieving the ball from where it lay on the ground. "We have your number, though. It's not like you're moving to another city. We can still meet up and play on the weekends."

She had a point. "I guess there's no reason to prolong this, then." I said.

Leaving the courts that time felt like I was leaving it indefinitely, even though I knew I could return to it any time. And, oddly enough, I felt a strange absence of emotion as I opened the creaking metal gate and walked. Maybe it was because I knew I would see my friends again tomorrow, and it would be just like any other school day, but now that I think about it, it might just have been because I'd never been as close to any of Ueda, Youko or Tomita as I'd initially thought. None of them were actually friends with whom I shared thoughts and opinions; they were just people whose company I enjoyed basking in. That was it.

It was hard to acknowledge my farewells with them on graduation day as "touching" farewells. If anything, they were hasty; I exchanged a hug with Youko, and high-five with Ueda, and an awkward stare with Tomita. It's funny how now, my memories of said event are much fonder than they were in a closer vicinity of that time; I can even come to acknowledge our farewells as "touching in our own, inside-joke-esque way." I've looked over journals that I kept in middle school and found it so strange that everything I wrote, I wrote flippantly. How I took for granted Youko, who empathised with me whenever I ranted about my mom, and always went easy on me when we played basketball; Ueda, who taught me calculus and let me copy his homework answers when I was struggling to pass Math; Tomita, who... really just stared apathetically at me most of the time, but bought me occasionally cans of Sparkly—a drink which I thought to be more popular with the other two than it even had been with me. It's funny how we take things for granted in the heat of the moment, and no matter what we tell ourselves, we can't convince ourselves to feel otherwise. Why is that, I wonder?

The answer to that took me a good six years to find.



I find it constantly amusing that I could have hated my time in middle school so much, yet come to enjoy my life at high school. I suppose this is largely due to the fact that Ichikawa is a cupcake of enjoyment in comparison to the bakery that is Rokkaku. Bad metaphor. The point is that when I transferred to Rokkaku, I viewed school as less of a chore and more of a... well, hobby isn't quite the right word. It was something I enjoyed, I guess. I've been told (mostly by my father) that I'm simply enjoying the divergence of high school from the monotony of middle school, but I can't bring myself to agree with him.

Ultimately, I think that the reason I enjoyed high school so much was because everyone at Rokkaku was so weirdly friendly. I remember a day when I was sick enough that I had to stay home from school; unexpectedly, the student council president swung by with some notes from class and a bag of mandarins from her mom's fruit shop. She also offered to pretend to have forgotten my homework if I didn't feel like doing it that day ("Don't worry about it, -san; there's nothing worse than having to solve equations while you're sick"). In seeing that she came out all this way with food and notes for class that I neglected to take properly anyway, I didn't have the inhumanity to exploit her any further than I already (and unintentionally) had.

I also remember my first Rokkaku school festival: our class ended up doing a modern café for our spectacle, and I worked an open to close shift on the first day, accredited to a passing whim (and also because I had so few friends). On the second day of the school festival, when people found out that I hadn't gotten the chance to explore the school festival yet, about half the class volunteered to take my place. A girl named Aoi (with whom I later became good friends) took my place. She told me to wander around and enjoy the last day of the festival. So I did.

I can probably say that I made friends faster at Rokkaku than I ever have anywhere else. I talked with classmates and strangers more regularly, went places with them, and I even joined a club after all my horrific memories with basketball in middle school. (Incidentally, the club I joined was track.) I'd made a few friends who I regarded as more than just time-passing friends: the first was a girl named Tsubaki, who had been in my homeroom class since first year. We became good friends while working on a geography assignment together in first year, and maintained a good relationship by studying for any subjects we had in common.

My second friend was a guy I met somewhere within the hazy region of my first and second year at Rokkaku. His name was Ryou, and... well, in spite of the fact that he was one of my first proper friends at Rokkaku, I knew very little about him and how his thought processes seemed to work. Wherever I saw him, he was wearing an old cap on his head and a blank look on his face.

I'd be lying if I said I remembered how we met, or why we even became friends at all. My relationship with him is not something you can quite define a "normal friendship." Some days, we can make chatter about the most basic topics; other days, we would avoid each other for no reason, other than the fact that we wouldn't have to make conversation with one another.

Sometime between second and third year, we started to argue a lot—and usually, the main cause of arguments was the topic of my mother.

Often, on one of our better friendship days, I would make a mention of something stupid my mother did to break the awkward silence, and Ryou would make a blatant statement about how I wasn't as different from my mother as I would have liked to think I was. He either never worked out that being compared to my mother was my Achilles' heel (next to shooting hoops), or he was just trying to use said flaw against me for his own personal enjoyment (and possibly a spite for me that I suspected he'd fostered over the past three years).

In fact, today was no different.

The two of us were sitting in our second favourite spot on the school campus: the bench in the centre courtyard, overlooked by most of the classrooms. I had a can of hot coffee, and Ryou wasn't eating. He'd forgotten his lunch, and blatantly refused to accept half of my lunch box when I offered it—"Here, you can share with me; it took a while for me to get it right, but I made it myself." Nope.

I was trying to avoid dumping on him how frustrated I was with my mother, given how uninterested he looked with his life right now, but I ended up giving in to the temptation; the awkward silence was too much for me. "So... something fun happened last night."

"Did you have another fight with your mom?" Ryou asked, sparing me a half-hearted look.

"I hardly think you can call them fights anymore. They're a regular occurrence."

He blinked. "What was it about this time?"

"It was so stupid! She asked me yesterday, 'So, how was Geography?' And I kind of looked at her dubiously and said, 'Why Geography?' And then she got all pissed and was like, 'Why do you have to be sarcastic all the time?' And then I'm like, 'I'm not being sarcastic! I just wanted to know why you picked Geography out of all the other subjects that I study!' And then she said some bullshit about how unbelievable I was and hasn't talked to me since yesterday!" I threw my hands up in the air, almost spilling hot coffee on Ryou in the process. Well, even if a droplet or two had hit is face, there was no change in his blasé countenance—not even a muffled cry of pain, or a quaver of sound from his mouth, or a twitch in a face to betray his thoughts.

I sipped from my can of coffee to distract myself from the awkward silence that, once again, ensued. I knew how stupid it was that nothing failed to make me angrier than my condescending mother, but everyone has their own Achilles' heel, and I guessed that this one was mine. I wondered if I would ever find out what Ryou's was; maybe I could use it against him if ever there was a time that I needed to evoke a reaction. It could have well been that twin that he rarely talked about, but I would never know for sure unless I sniffed out the intelligence player on the school tennis team that Ryou was part of. Then again, did Rokkaku's team even have an intelligence player? Were Rokkakuans even intelligent enough to pull that kind of stunt?

Though, there probably wasn't much point in doing that. I'd get a much better reaction out of Ryou if I, on some passing whim, decided to pour my hot coffee all over him.

I flopped against the back of the bench and drained the last of my coffee. Why was it that I always chose to hang out with Ryou? He never empathised with me, he never let me copy his answers in class even though I let him copy mine (though whether or not they were correct is another matter entirely), and he never went easy on my when we were forced to play tennis in gym.

Ryou opened his mouth, and it caught my attention. I got my hopes up for a second, but then he said, "Are you sure you're giving your mom enough credit? You're not exactly Miss Non-Hypocritical and Perfect yourself."

I threw the empty can at him.

Frustrated with his lack of an empathetic spirit, I ditched Ryou for the more calming atmosphere of the classroom. On my thoughtful journey through the dilapidated hallways, it came to my attention that Ryou really should have hated me for having a short attention span by now, and if he didn't, he was either some kind of saint or some calibre of masochist. I'd be lying if I said I could count all the things I regretted doing or saying to Ryou with ten fingers alone. The numbers should somewhere in the hazy hundreds by now.

Impulsiveness, I swear.

My temper faded as I progressed through the halls. I'd always found it so strange how Chiba was home to some of the most important landmarks in all of Tokyo, and yet Rokkaku was the epitome of shabbiness. The school was small, run-down, and dilapidated; the only thing worth bragging about was the students—even I, who didn't have a lot of friends (for obvious reasons), could acknowledge that. The community is worth bragging about at Rokkaku, save for a few individuals who manage to trigger my impulsiveness more than the average person.

Like Kisarazu Ryou, for example.

Once, I found it amusing that a lot of my fights with him would end up in me ditching him, and then somehow we would manage to make up and become 'friends' again. Now, I was starting to lose faith in my ability to hold up such a rickety friendship. Being the bad friend I was, though, I still decided to wait a while before apologising to him.

I sighed, wondering to myself how much longer this game of cat and mouse would go on. Already second year had been and gone, and third year had managed to take my by surprise. Just another ten months or so to go, and it would all be over: I could graduate, move out of home, and apply for a university far away from Chiba.

Once I reached the classroom and sat down in my seat, feeling—and most likely looking—rather disgruntled, Tsubaki, who sat in front of me, turned around and said cheerily, ?Hey, -chan, do you want to go to yozakura(1) with me, Aoi and some friends tonight?" She tilted her head towards Aoi, who was leaning against a desk next to me.

I tossed the idea through my head. At the moment my mother and I were going through a bit of a rough patch, and I felt that I should try to make the effort to leave the house for more than just school. I made up my mind with ease. "Sure, sounds like it'd be fun. Is that alright with your friends, though?"

"Course." Aoi said, sparing me a grin. "The more the merrier, as they say."

I returned the gesture. "Who else is coming?"

"I don't think you'd know a lot of them." Aoi said. "There's Sawa from Class B and her boyfriend, Kurobane-kun, Marinakko from Class G, Haruki from Class F, and Yui from Class C. Some of Kurobane's friends might be coming, though; he implied that there would be more joining our company than just him."

I stifled a sigh, inwardly praying to every God I could think of that Ryou was not feeling very sociable; I didn't know if I could handle the awkwardness of having to be in his presence so soon after a quarrel. At the moment, I felt that it would be best if I left him alone. Distance was the tool I often employed the ensure that things would go back to normal between me another party; I used it on my mom all the time, and depending how bad the fight was, distance would ensure that she would be talking to me again within a day or two. Sometimes she would wake up the next morning and talk to me like nothing had ever happened.

"Great!" Aoi said, interrupting my wandering train of thought.

"We're going to Oshiro Park tonight, at six." Tsubaki said; she had always been the most organised out of the three of us. "I still have your number from first year, -chan, so if there are any changes to the plan, I can call or text."

"I don't have your number." Aoi said, taking out her phone. "Can I have it?"

We swapped numbers and mail addresses, just for a good measure.

"Great.? Aoi said, flipping her phone shut and putting it back into her pocket. "Can't wait for tonight. I never thought you'd come out for a night with us, —I mean, with all our friends and that."

"I'm looking forward to it." I said. "I haven't been out properly in a while—though, is there anyone I should be careful about?"

"Not really." Aoi said. "Well, Marinakko can run her mouth sometimes, but you can ignore most of it."

I spared Aoi's comment a laugh, inwardly a little relieved to see someone treating a friend the same way I treated Ryou. Call me a bad person if you so desire.

- x -

When I got home from school that day, I called out "I'm home!" to the house. To my luck, mom called out to my like nothing had happened last night.

"Welcome home, -chan." She said, beaming at me when I walked into the living room. After all these years, I still hadn't managed to get her to stop calling me by that childish nickname. We had several arguments over it, and after a while, I gave up on trying. "How was school?"

"It was alright. Some friends asked me if I wanted to go to yozakura with them tonight." I said, removing my shoes at the door. "Is it alright if I go?"

"Hmm..." Mom took her attention away from whatever soap opera was playing on television at this time of the afternoon and fixed me with an indecisive look. I was extremely tempted to roll my eyes at her over-protectiveness, but didn't. In doing so, I would have ensured my ticket to you're-staying-at-home-you-unbelievable-child. "How large is the group?"

I did a recount of all the point who were going. "Including me, there are seven girls. There are some boys going, but I don't know how many. Can't be more than us. One of them is dating one of the girls."

Mom frowned. "Where is it?"

"Oshiro Park."

"Well... I guess it's pretty populated, and there are quite a few girls going..." She trailed off, and her eyes went as far off the rails as her train of thought did. Her indecision left me shuffling uncomfortable by the front door.

Reluctant though I was to jinx it, I said, "I think Ryou will be there. It's not definite, but the guy that's dating one of the girls is a friend of Ryou's."

"Oh." Mom said, immediately relaxing. "That's alright, then; if Ryou-kun's going, then you can, too. Just make sure you're home by no later than nine, alright? I know you're nearly in university now, but I still don't want you staying out late—and it's still a school night."

"Um... right. Okay, thanks."

"You're welcome. Send me a message when you want me to come and pick you up."

"Can do." I said, shouldering my bag and heading up to my room. I dumped my bag on the floor and emptied my books out on my desk, jokingly wondering how much homework I could get done before yozakura. Now that I'd given up on journal writing—a habit I'd forced up until the end of last year—the only thing I ever had to do at my desk was do homework, or the occasional scribble that I wrote to waste time productively, or spacing out with a worksheet out in front of me. Today, my mind was favouring option C.

I knew I couldn't bet on Ryou not coming tonight; while he wasn't exactly the sociable type, that didn't guarantee that he wouldn't show his face. Silently, I was hoping he would sit this one out. I didn't want to be the one to deal with the awkward moments that would arise if he came.

With any luck, his friend Saeki would be there—approachable, patient, hard-to-irritate Saeki. He was the kind of guy, I'd told Ryou on many occasions in order to drop a hint, that made good company. Even though he never openly took anyone's side, he always tried to make an empathetic reaction, and he was always willing to lend an ear. He would always offer advice if you asked for it, and was the sort of friend that you could rely on. As for Ryou's other friends, well, even their presence was welcome. Bane was friendly, Amane's jokes filled the silence, Itsuki was inquisitive (at best), and Shudou... didn't talk.

A chime from my phone told me that Tsubaki had sent mail. As it was, she had messaged me the full cast list for tonight: 'Tonight, Sawa, Aoi, Yui, Marina, Haruki, Kurobane-kun, Saeki-kun, Itsuki-kun, Amane-kun and Kisarazu-kun will all be there.' At the end, she tagged on a little, 'The yozakura is still alright with you, isn't it?'

Kisarazu-kun, huh? I thought to myself, holding back a sigh. I sent Tsubaki a reply, giving her the A-OK. Only seconds later, she sent me details for tonight's meet-up: six o'clock at Oshiro Park's west gate. I relayed the information to my mother, and before we left that light, she instructed me once more to message her once I finished. She was insistent on picking me up. I agreed, convinced that if I'd said anything else, I would have triggered another fight.

Mom dropped me off at the park ten minutes before the meeting time, but to no surprise, I find a group of girls already waiting when I climbed out of the car. Aoi was the first to notice as I jogged up to them, and she greeted me with a loud, "Hey, , you made it! We're the only ones here so far. Sawa and the boys have yet to arrive."

The first of the absent to arrive was Saeki. He walked up to us almost as soon as the clock on my phone ticked to six o'clock.

"Thanks for inviting me out here tonight." Saeki said, unintentionally bragging his beauty with a smile (assuming beauty is a word that can be used on males). He did a once-over of the area. "Looks like we're the only ones here so far..."

"The others should be coming soon." Aoi said. "Sawa's always the last to arrive anyway."

"I'm surprised to see that you came, -chan." Saeki said, looking amused.

It took a lot of effort not to retaliate the way he seemed to want me to. "Last minute call." I said stiffly, and he laughed.

"Well, it's always good to see a friend of Ryou's around here." He said good-humouredly. I welcomed the reprieve.

The ones next to arrive were Itsuki and David. A light buzz of friendly chatter was in the air when Ryou finally turned up, his cap tucked over his eyes, even though night was just starting to fall. His friends greeted him with enthusiasm, the girls greeted him cordially, and I gave him a reluctant wave of the hand, unsure as to whether he would return the gesture or not. He did, and seemed to take it as a sign that it was safe to approach me.

"Hey." I coughed lightly. "I'm, um, glad you made it."

He stared at me. "Are you, though?"

I was about to give him a reply when Sawa and Kurobane arrived, huffing like they're just run a marathon across Tokyo. Sawa was trying to salvage her breath to make profuse apologies, but Tsubaki kindly waved it off. "Don't worry." She said. "Let's get going, shall we? We'll find you a comfortable place to rest."

Though night was falling, the park was full of life. Coloured lanterns were strung up across the park, and the grass was bustling with packs of people, celebrating the spring in their own private circles. Several times along the walk, I tried to turn to Ryou and make amends for throwing an empty coffee can at his head, but he seemed absorbed in the noise and life around him. He always had been more of an observer type than a participant type.

I managed to catch his attention when the group came to a stand-still at the bridge. Tsubaki and Aoi went off to scout ahead for a quieter spot to sit, Sawa was laughing at the scene Bane and David were causing, Haruki was trying to answer all of Itsuki's spring-related questions, and the remaining females of the group were too busy fawning over Saeki. Seeing my opportunity to make amends with Ryou, I tugged at his sleeve.

He turned.

"Hi." I said.

"Hey." He said.

"I'm, uh, sorry about today." I said. When he looked at me, his stare blank, I went on, "The coffee can that I threw at you? That was uncalled for, and I take it back."

He didn't even look surprised. "Ah... no, it's fine."

I gave him a dubious look. "If you, uh, ever get the temptation to throw a coffee can at me, I won't fight you about it. Probably. As long as it's empty."


"...Are you still mad at me?"

Ryou blinked. "I should be asking you the same thing." He said bluntly. "You may be more like your mom than you think, you know. You always seem to try and pick a fight with me, even when I don't directly do anything to you."


When I met his observation with silence, he asked, "Do you have a problem with me?"

I folded my arms. "You just don't react. To anything I say. I threw an empty can at you and you didn't even flinch."

"What did you want me to do?"

"React. Somehow."

"It's a little hard to be individualistic when you have a twin."

A fact that I forgot far too regularly. "Is it really that hard to react to pain?"

"It was just a can." He said monotonously. "It's not like I would try to hurt you over something like that."

Without giving it much though, I responded, "Not physically, at least."

Ryou zeroed in on me, and I immediately regretted my choice of words. "Do you think I'd spite you for throwing a can at me or something?"

"You've been doing a good job of it so far." I said, catching him off guard. "I just feel is like everything I say bores you. When I say something—which, I will admit, is more often complaints than real conversation—you just make those remarks without the slightest twice of emotion on your face. There's not even a bit of satisfaction there when you get a rise out of me; it just feels like you're legitimately trying to spite me for not being a very interesting person."

He seemed stunned into silence.

"Let me ask you something." I said. "Do you actually enjoy having a conversation with me?"

The surprise didn't fade from his face. "What kind of question is that?"

"Never mind." I said when I was that Tsubaki had returned from her expedition.

"We found a nice sheltered area, not too rowdy." She called over the noise of the group. "Aoi's waiting for us there right now."

She led the way across the bridge. Thankfully, it wasn't too far of a walk; Ryou didn't have the guts to ask me the same question twice, and I didn't have the heart to continue the conversation—for his sake or mine, I wasn't entirely sure. We met with Aoi at the base of a huge cherry blossom tree, and thankfully, the lack of vending machines and park benches attributed to the lack of people in the immediate vicinity. I settled down next to Saeki and Aoi, hoping to avoid any more awkward conversation with Ryou.

"I could never leave the sea." Saeki admitted, laughing sheepishly. The sound of his laughter drew the others into the conversation. When he asked the rest of the crowd what they planned to do, "stay by the sea" was the most popular answer. Itsuki whispered something about sea activities, and David said he'd humour the world by pursuing a career in comedy (at which point Bane punched him in the face).

Ryou said, "I guess I'll stay to open a beauty salon. By the sea."

"A beauty salon, huh? You're into that kind of thing? No wonder your hair is always so well-maintained." Haruki said, remarked of Ryou. Most of the girls had a similar reaction. Marina even asked permission to touch Ryou's hair—a request to which he shrugged obligingly in response.

"What about you, ?" Aoi asked, turning the conversation on me.

"I figured I might go into journalism or travel writing." I said. "I'd like an occupation where I can go all over the world. I don't think I'll stay in Chiba."

Debatable though the issue was, I could sworn that, in that second, Ryou's eyes flickered away. When I blinked, I found Ryou staring blankly at me again.

Aoi gave a low whistle. "That's cool. It kind of suits you."

"You're not very analytical, though." Ryou commented.

"Wow, harsh." I said, unable to help making a comeback. "I don't think you're enough of a sweet-talker. Can you really become a stylist?"

"You don't have a lot of interest in current affairs. Are you sure you can do journalism?"

"Who knows? I'm good at taking sides on a matter, so I think I can write convincing articles to publish."

"You're not very travel savvy. How many times will you get lost overseas before you realise you're not cut out for travel writing?"

"You live, you learn. Speaking of learning, if you learn to flatter people with that spiteful tongue of yours, you might get a few customers at the salon you dream of opening."

"Whoa, everyone's really spiteful today." Saeki cut in, trying to lighten up the atmosphere with the sound of his voice. He smiled in my direction and said, "I'm sure you'll be great at what you do, -chan. And if you open a beauty salon by the sea, Ryou, I'll definitely come and get haircuts from you. If they're not too expensive."

After Saeki mended the hiccup in the conversation, the others in the group (who were undoubtedly agitated by Ryou and my sudden argument) started to relax and ease back into idle chatter. I didn't contribute much to the conversation after that—just answered a few questions that people asked me. I couldn't get over how irritatingly faithless Ryou was. The quarrel kept playing over and over in my head, and it didn't help that Ryou seemed to be doing the same a few feet away from me.

I figured it wouldn't help, having someone as moody as me intruding on such a blissful atmosphere. I said to no one in particular, "I'm kind of thirsty. I'm gonna go get a drink."

"Oh, want me to come?" Saeki, who had heard my remark, asked. He started to get up.

"Don't worry about it." I said quickly. Obligingly, he sat back down.

"Are you sure you don't want some tea?" Aoi asked, shaking a flask at me. "We've got plenty."

"I dunno, I kind of feel like... soda." Real convincing, . "Thanks, though. I'll be back soon."

The mood in the park was nice to savour now that I was alone. There was no one to fight with, and there was no one with whom I felt obliged to hold a friendly conversation with. Though there were plenty of rowdy crowds that I was keen on avoiding, the number of people in the area kept the atmosphere feel warm, and the air smelling of beer.

I found a vending machine near the foot of the bridge, around which multiple people had decided to settle themselves down. It was a bright idea: they had both the beautiful view of the river and the convenience of a vending machine. I fed the machine a few coins and bought myself some juice. As I reached down to take the can from the flap, I heard a loud voice—louder than all the other voices in the park—cry, "Hey, look out!"

I didn't register the fact that the voice had been talking to me. When I straightened up to turn around and go back the way I'd come, something small and heavy struck the edge of my forehead and clattered to the ground. It would most certainly leave a bruise, but the only thing I could think about were the droplets that were fizzing in my hair. I dropped my eyes to the can that was now rolling around at my feet. It was labelled Sparkly.

I rubbed the spot on my forehead, but the throbbing was mild. Whether it bruised or not, I'd had enough basketballs thrown at my head in one lifetime to be able to get over it. I picked up the can, resisting the temptation to throw it right back from where it had come, but the sound of approaching footsteps distracted me.

"Sorry, sorry!" An approaching male said as he jogged up to me, looking incredibly sheepish. "I tried to warn you, but I guess you didn't hear me, huh."

It took me a little while to realise who it was, and vice-versa.

"-chan?" Ueda sounded just as taken about as I must have looked. He looked back at his friends—a large mix of males and females, who were sitting a little distance away from the bridge—and was waving two particular people over. "Hey, come over here! You'll never believe who it is!"

I stared in amazement as Tomita and Youko approached me, the former with a casual stride and an actual smile, and the latter with a running leap that transitioned into a bear hug. She almost knocked me over to the ground, with her height and her ridiculous basketball player physique.

"Long time no see." Tomita said, raising a hand in a kind of salute.

Youko ruffled my hair. "Lucky you've got a hard head, otherwise that probably would have hurt a lot more. If you couldn't guess, Ueda was the one that threw it. He was aiming for Tomita."

"I see..." I said, sparing Tomita a quick glance. He had once been the most docile of the misfit trio—just as blunt and apathetic as Ryou was—but now he seemed more relaxed and carefree than I ever remembered seeing him. I avoided dwelling on the matter for too long, eager to stay five miles away from thoughts of Ryou right now. I picked up the almost-empty can of Sparkly from the ground and hit Ueda over the head with it. "There, now we're even."

Ueda laughed as droplets of soda splashed into his hair. "Time hasn't sweetened you, that's for sure." He said as I sighed at him. "Hey, hey, what's with that sigh? You should be overjoyed to see us! Unless—oh, you didn't come here by yourself, did you?"

"No, despite my personality, I'm not so unpopular that I don't have anyone to go to yozakura with." I told them. Youko and Ueda exchanged a jokingly doubtful look. "Hey, it's true. I just got thirsty, so I came to find a drink."

"How come no one came with you?"

"I didn't ask anyone to."

Tomita looked thoughtful. "Why don't you come and chill with us for a bit, then? It's been three years since we last saw or heard from you."

"While we're on the subject, did you change your phone number?" Youko asked. "I've been trying to call you over the years, but you never respond. After a while my calls just stopped connecting. Have we been ousted, Akira? Did you find new friends?"

"Let's just say I may or may not have had a phone once upon a time, that I may or may no have been messaging people with it while I was washing the dishes, and that it may or may not have fallen into a sink full of hot, sudsy water."

They tried to stifle their laughter.

"So all my contacts were wiped, and I got a new number."

"Alright, alright, exchange numbers with me." Ueda said, whipping out his phone. I took the time to exchange phone numbers with them, after which the three of them led me back to the group of girls they'd brought with them. Ueda and Youko were the only two that had girlfriends among the group; Tomita claimed that he was untouchable.

I stared at Youko, and then back at Tomita. "So this girl can get a girl, but you can't?"

"Oh, are you really that desperate to know all about my life, aren't you?" He lamented. While I remained silent, trying to process the fact that Tomita now had a tangible personality, he said, "Come on, if you're going to hang with us, then hang with us properly."

"I dunno, I've been gone a while, the others are gonna think I've been kidnapped or something."

"But you have been." He pointed out. "By us."

"I should at least—" I was interrupted by an all-too-familiar trill of my phone. Tomita, Ueda and Youko looked at my curiously as I whipped out my phone, looking like the dead and wondering why the hell Ryou was sending me a message. An apology? No, Ryou didn't apologise —not often, anyway. More insults? That was a possibility. Maybe something like... 'How can you become a travel journalist if you can't even navigate your way to the nearest vending machine?'

The actual message took my by surprise: 'There's a vending machine close to the south end of the bridge.'

"Hey, Ueda—we're close to the south end of the bridge, right?"

"Hm? Yeah, we are, we are. Why do you ask?"

"Don't worry." I said absently as I sent a quick reply to Ryou. 'Why are you telling me this now?'

A horrible talker though Ryou was, he was a damn fast replier. 'You were gone too long, so I thought you must have gotten lost.'

Talk about faithless. Annoyed, I flipped my phone shut and pocketed it again. "Sorry about that, one of my group members is getting really agitated." I explained, as my phone started trilling like there was no tomorrow. I was about to turn the damn thing off, but an incoming call prevented me from doing so. "Hold on a sec, I should probably take this."

I stood up to take the call, but Tomita, Youko and Ueda all grabbed my arm and pulled me back down again. They seemed a little too eager to listen in on my conversation. In an attempt to disappoint them, I answered the call with a generic, "Hello?"

A pause. "Where are you?"

"South end of the bridge. Why?"

"Does it actually take this long to get a drink?"

"Put it on loud speaker." Tomita said loudly.

"No." I said.

"Tell him you're just catching up with old friends." Youko drawled.


"Tell him to come and visit us, too!" Ueda contributed.

"Don't talk, Ueda."

"So mean!"

Ryou paused on the other end of the line. "Are you with other people?"

"Yeah, I ran into some people at the vending machine. They're... acquaintances of mine."

"You're so cold, -chan!"

I heard a sound on the other end of the line. It sounded kind of like a tch.

"Look, I'll be back in ten minutes." I said, trying not to laugh too hard as Ueda whined 'love me, -chan!' a little too close to the speaker on my phone.

I was debating on how to end the call, but Ryou did the thinking for me. He hung up.

"I think you pissed him off." I said to Ueda, who seemed pleased.

"Good, this gives us more time to hang out with you." Tomita said, equally as cheery.

"Hey, hey," Ueda said, "now that we've finally got your attention, how about to come and play basketball after school with us tomorrow? You should come. It'll be fun. Hey, do you girls want to come, too?"

We were only just beginning to discuss the details of tomorrow when my eye caught a familiar figure wandering along the path beside me. Just as soon as I noticed him, he noticed me.

He veered off the path and started straight towards me. I was forced to cut off Ueda, who was having a ramble about how the current high school basketball scene was the best it had been in years. "Sorry, guys, I gotta go. Right now."

"Whoa, whoa, hold up!" Ueda said. "I haven't finished my fascinating story about basketball players!"

"Sorry, Ueda. Can you finish it tomorrow afternoon? I'd prefer it if you guys didn't have to see this." I jumped to my feet and started down towards the bridge, meeting Ryou halfway. Thankfully, he didn't have the self-confidence to confront my basketball friends, and waited rather impatiently for me to fall in step beside him.

"Who were they?" He asked. His tone and face gave away nothing, other than the fact that he was feeling a lot less chattier and a lot less full of insults than he had before.

"I told you. Old friends."

"Way to ignore my text messages."

"Well I told you I'd be back in ten minutes. Is that such a long time to wait?"

"Alright. Who did you come to yozakura with again?"

"I was just catching up with some people I hadn't seen in a really long time! Jesus, you're so pushy. Why am I even friends with you? How did we even meet?"

Ryou stopped walking. "I remember how we met."

I whirled on. "Oh yeah? Go on, then, enlighten me."

He was silent for a moment, and then said, "It doesn't matter."

His response caught me off guard. Usually he was a little more eager to dish out his insults. "Hang on, what do you mean it 'doesn't matter'?"

"I don't see any point in telling you. You're going to forget again anyway."

I scowled at him. "You know what? I'm gonna go home for today. Since you obviously won't let me hang out with people who actually like me, I'm going to call the quits for the night. I'll see you at school, Kisarazu."

Without waiting for him to react, I turned and walked away from him. He didn't chase me, unsurprisingly. I snatched my phone out of my pocket to call Mom (I wasn't in the mood for another fight tonight), and found several messages waiting for me. Though I wasn't sure I had the patience to read through them all, I forced myself to at least open the ones that Tsubaki and Saeki had sent me. I opened Tsubaki's first.

'We're about to have our picnic! Come back and join us!'

Saeki's message was that of a typical worried friend. 'Hope you make it back soon, -chan! We'll save you a portion of everything. Come back before Icchan eats it all.' The message made me feel a little guilty.

Ryou had send a few messages, but I was in no mood to read them. I called my mom and asked her to pick me up from the west gate. She seemed surprised that I'd finished so early, but said that she'd be there as soon as possible.

I sat on the staircase while I waited for her to come, wondering how it had come to me having normal conversations with Ryou to fighting with him every other day. He and my mom were the only people with whom I seemed to fight often. I rarely fought with any of my high school friends, and I couldn't remember having any blow-outs with my middle school friends, either. Why them? It was a question that had come to haunt me recently, but as was the same with my love for basketball and my inability to comprehend the benefits of casual friends, it was a question to which I couldn't find the answer.

It led me to wonder if it was pointless being friends with Ryou anymore. Though I could admit that I was in the wrong plenty of times when it came to arguing with him, he was equally guilty of causing a stir between the two of us. There were few interactions between us that I could look upon with even a small smile anymore; time and time again, it was just regret, regret, regret.

Why do we pursue pointless things? Is it because it's too troublesome to end? Is it because we are anticipating eventual merit out of a bad relationship? Or it because we're trying to see what we once lost sight of? Maybe it's none of them. Maybe it's all of them. I don't know; I've never found an answer that fits the question.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Princo & Ribbon
January 30, 2015.
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(1)Yozakura: Considering how much anime I'm assuming we've all watched, a lot of you might be familiar with the concept of hanami. For those of you that aren't, hanami is essentially when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring each year, and people go to view them. Some people have little parties or picnics under the trees and all that. You know. (You can read more about it here, if you want.) Yozakura is basically just the night version of that.

Ribbon: I've had this sitting in my folder for at least a good two to three years, but I never felt it was worth publishing. Even know I'm still not sure if it was worth publishing HAHAHA. Oh well. Also, I'm aware that while Ryou is pretty deadpan, he's not a dick. For all intents and purposes, I wrote him that way, and hopefully you'll come to understand why in the next chapter LOL.

Princo: Lol first DN of the year ayyyyee. (Hopefully not the last...)

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