Glorious Victory (At last!)
“That was two seconds slower,” Ryouta calls, staring at his phone.
What? No that’s impossible.
“W… what?” I pant, hands on my knees, trying to force air into my protesting lungs. Step it up boys, I only need one of you… I think.
“Oh, no wait, it’s nought point two seconds slower.” Ryouta declares, with the air of someone who has just cracked an incredibly difficult riddle.
This is the fourth day in a row spent training for Sundays track meet, ignoring the captains imperative for a balanced approach. I’ve decided to beat Emi at all and any costs. To this end I must have run the four hundred metre sprint about fifty times, working to perfect every step from start to finish.
A pounding of feet draws my attention. Jogging up behind me, Hisao takes my lack of obvious activity as a signal to slow down. I don’t mind, the last thing I want is my, now official, running partner having a heart attack; again.
“Ever get the feeling your friends are idiots?” I ask, glancing to where Ryouta lays, his chubby face turned to the sky.
“N.. no comment,” he pants, following my gaze.
“The screen on this thing is hard to read. Anyway, you’re just grumpy that you were slower than last time.” Ryouta calls, not bothering to address us directly. Since his world-shattering revelation that he might still like Ikuno, as if that was a surprise, nothing has really happened between them. He seems to be waiting for something, but I have no idea what.
With a resigned sigh I trudge back to the starting line, a now familiar ritual. Beside me Hisao has managed to get his breathing back under control.
“I need to head off soon,” he says softly, as the wind whips up the trees into rustling around us. The sun is on its way to set, but for now the dimming blue sky is holding on, like some stranded survivor of a ship wreck.
“Student council again?” I ask, trying to act nonchalant, but having to look away to disguise my disappointment.
“Yeah, sorry.” He yawns into his hand, “We’re having to work like dogs to get everything ready for the track meet.”
“But, you’re still coming to watch on Sunday right?”
He nods, wiping his sweaty brow on the back of his hand. Over the last week he’s improved at a steady pace and seems to be enjoying running, or at least watching me stretch before we run. I’ve not yet decided.
“You’re coming out for lunch after, right?” I ask tentatively, he’s already said yes, but I can totally see Shizune conspiring to mess it up somehow. It’s not just paranoia, group work in class has developed into less of a cold war, and more a tug of war, using Hisao as the rope.
“Wouldn’t miss it, see you later Miki,” he smiles, a warm honest smile, before heading back to school and a pile of paperwork. Those two girls must be doing something very special to make that appealing.
Shaking the thought of Shizune and Misha waiting in their underwear for Haiso to save them from a mountain of budget reports. I take my place on the starter line, signalling to Ryouta that I’m ready. With sluggish motions he raises his stump, my whole body tenses as his thin extremity starts to fall.
I burst forward the moment his arm hits his knee, looking up to find the school bag that marks the midway point on the other side of the oval track. That is my goal, I will not stop until I reach it, nothing else matters.
About halfway down the track my limbs start to burn, ran ragged from days of steady abuse. I ignore them. Emi is right behind me I tell myself, she’s going to overtake, I have to go faster! Twenty meters to go.
I can do this, nought point two seconds be damned. With a last heave of effort I throw my chest forward, crossing the line with my heart thundering in my ears.
That had to be faster!
Without even looking at Ryouta I fall onto my knees, before flipping onto my back, the cool ground feeling pleasantly squishy against my sweat soaked vest. The roaring in my ears starts to slowly ebb away as I stare at the infinite sky above me, I almost want to tell my friend to leave me, to let me enjoy this moment of joyous exhaustion.
“Are you dead?” Ryouta calls conversationally.
Sitting up I wince, the lactic acid not quite having deserted my legs yet. “Not yet; time?”
“Almost a second faster, so nearly as good as what you managed four days ago.” with exaggerated effort he gets to his feet. “Is getting progressively slower some kind of secret runner training method?”
“Gah!” I exclaim loudly, punching the astroturf in annoyance. It’s completely unfair, I mean yes I’m not really sleeping, with nightmares as confusing and unsettling as mine, not to mention a ghost hand, who could? At the mere thought my left hand starts to warm uncomfortably, clearly not to be outdone by the stinging in my fist. I just want to scream.
“Hey, you still with me?” Ryouta asks, suddenly very close.
Looking up I nearly knock my nose against his outstretched hand, offering me help up. “I’m fine, just don’t like getting worse at things.” Gladly I accept his help, rising to my feet. I will feel better after a hot shower and some food. I might even sleep tonight. Though I’m not counting on it.
“Well, I’m sure it will all pay off on Sunday right?”
I shrug unconvinced.
“I could always break her legs for you, if it helps?”
“She doesn’t have legs,” I grumble, feeling like I’m about to be pulled into one of his mad conversations. Yet, I feel unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do anything about it; at the very least it might cheer me up. Let’s see where this is going.
“She does, it’s just they're not always attached.”
“You know, in some social circles joking about damaging a crippled girls prosthetic legs would get you a lot of flack,” I say, as we head back to the dormitories side by side.
“Who said anything about joking?” He grins. “Anyway when it’s cripple vs. cripple it’s fair game.”
“Those are the rules, huh?”
“Yep, the unwritten ones, haven’t you ever read them?” His mock serious face cracks as I raise my eyebrow. Our laughter rings out through the grounds. It feels strangely cleansing.
“So,” Ryouta says, sidestepping a lost-looking first year. “Ikuno is definitely coming to lunch after the track meet?”
“Yeah, and so are you, don’t you dare try and wiggle out of this Ryouta Kuromizu, or so help me I’ll take the other hand,” I give him my best impression of a threatening look. Unknown to him this lunch date has been planned and re-planned about eight times at last count, Ikuno who has taken it upon herself to form a sort of nightly dream patrol, is using our time not sleeping to strategize. There have been military raids and bank heists with less organisation behind them.
“Of course I am, but you’ll be there right?”
“Well, given it’s supposed to be to celebrate my glorious victory I would hope so.”
“Oh good,” he says, stopping outside the boys dormitories, “I didn’t want it to just be me and Ikuno, not the first time we meet again.”
“What are you expecting me to do? You’re both adults aren’t you?”
“Moral support, it’s important.”
Giving him a despairing look I grin. Despite his claims of not needing anyone, Ryouta is just as anxious as his girlfriend. I suppose I’ve been the catalyst in their relationship, unintentionally of course. Would they have even got together without me? I don’t want to think about myself as being important in someone else’s life, but it seems unlikely they would have gone past being friends. Yet another reason I need to keep myself away from a cell.
“As long as you’re not expecting me to be there when you re-consummate this thing,” I grin, rocking back on the balls of my feet.
Ryouta’s eyes seem to become strangely glazed over, “hypothetically if I could get Ikuno on board-“
“No!” I laugh, giving him a light shove to get his mind out of the gutter.
“Right, right, fair enough, never hurts to check!” With a bright smile he starts to back peddle up the steps, “Goodnight Miki!”
“Night,” I call, as still grinning he walks into his dorm. For all his faults, I’m glad he turned around on that lonely hill.
— — —
“You better know what you’re doing.”
Growling by my ear the track captain sounds somewhat like a hive of angry bees, swerving away. I glower at him, and for a few intense moments we compete in a battle of wills, until he looks down. For all his endless prep talks and empty threats the captain really does have the best interests of the team at heart, unfortunately my one-sided vendetta against Emi rather screws with his plans.
“Fifth? How did you manage to do that badly, it’s like you weren’t even trying!” He says in a hushed whisper.
“I’m sorry, I will do better in the next race.” Without waiting for an answer I wander off to find a spot in the sparse shade. It’s noon, and the sun is high in the cloudless sky. Leaving the captain to grumble behind me I search the stands. Hisao, Ikuno and Ryouta should be in there somewhere, perhaps my grandfather as well, though I’ve not heard from him in months.
It’s a shame my parents couldn’t be here, I suppose, painful as it is to admit, I’ve always been envious of people who have their parents show up to stuff like school plays or sports days. The lack of support simply highlighted how different I was from classmates. Then again I never had a telling off in front of my whole class. Silver linings and all that.
Dad did phone this morning, and it was nice to hear his voice, as well as some long overdue encouragement. But I couldn’t help but be distracted by how fragile he sounded, or the way he simply trailed off, forgetting what he had said only a moment before. I think he’s sick. No.
I know he’s sick, but he’s too stubborn to see a doctor, my merest suggestion would bring about an abrupt change in subject. I guess I might be overreacting, he’s behaving the exact way I would.
The roar of the crowd draws my attention, the boys must have just fished, and by the sound it secured another win for Yamaku. Getting unsteadily to my feet I start to head to the starting line, the girls’ four hundred meters is up next. I chance a sideways glance at the track captain, who gives me a stern, yet desperate look. This is his last chance for glory, same as mine.
Emi throws me a warm smile as we take our positions. Fidgeting I try and find a comfortable starting position, everything feels wrong, my clothes seem to dig into my flesh, and the sun burns unnaturally hot on my back. Relax, just relax.
This must be how people who care about such things feel before a test, I need to win.
At least this time I don’t have to wear those damn shorts.
Even in my leggings I feel exposed, with my backside stuck in the air it’s hardly the most flattering of positions, I wonder if Hisao is watching? Despite everything my cheeks start to warm. Stupid mesmerising distraction.
“On your marks.”
I fix my eyes on the fluttering tape and beautifully, magically, the noise of the crowd dims around me. That is my goal..
The sun glints off a raised starters pistol, somewhere in the void on either side of the track. I will not stop until I reach it…
Nothing else matters.
I launch off the mark, everything from the wind in my hair to the track beneath my feet feels perfect - like the world and I have come to a temporary understanding. Beside me Emi pours on the speed, the strange muffled clatter of her prosthetics against the track picking up a faster rhythm. One hundred meters down.
I slow, allowing Emi to move in beside me. Long experience has taught me her usual practice is to keep race pace until the very last stretch of track, then claim victory with a killer sprint. Not this time.
Increasing my pace gradually we pass the two hundred metre mark. My opponent is like an atom bomb, ready to burst forth with energy. But here, mid race my longer legs have the advantage. All I need to do is have more energy left at the sprint than she does.
Side by side we burn past the three hundred meter mark, I have no idea how close any of our competitors are, they hardly seem to matter anymore. Twisting and turning less than a hundred meters in front of me, the white tape seems to glimmer, to my right the crowd builds up an excited crescendo. Wait for it, wait for it.
With a grunt Emi explodes into her sprint, but I’m ready, I feel a smile touch my face as I do the same. Throwing everything I have into my legs I burn away, all the pain, all the worry, everything; it doesn’t matter. Not here, not now. Emi is still behind, by the merest fraction.
But it’s enough, I lunge towards the tape, feeling its tension hold me for less than a second before breaking through and sinking to my knees.
Heart beating rapidly I’m assaulted with a sudden wave of sound and colour as the world falls back around me, as if I’ve just pushed my head above the waters of a very deep ocean. I did it, I won.
Beside me, Emi lays on her back, chest rising and falling, her eyes closed.
“G… good r… run,” I pant, my lungs screaming for air while my throat complains of dryness.
“Y.. yeah,” Emi says, similarly exhausted.
Rising to my feet I turn to the crowd, who reward me with a thunderous boom of applause, something really rather rare just happened, and the Yamaku students at least, know it. Lifting my arms above my head, so my stump is clearly on view, an action that would have made me feel sick a year ago, I drink in the cheers. I could get used to this.
Soon enough my moment is over, and I wander back to the rest of the track team with Emi, who’s almost subdued by her normal standards. At first I thought it was because she was in shock, the possibility that she could have lost rocking her to her core, but I don’t think thats the case. Every now and then she missteps, letting out the very tiniest gasp of pain, she’s injured something, and I hope it’s not because of me.
“Are you okay?” I ask, taking a sip from a refreshingly cool bottle of water.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She replies a little too quickly, “I’m still the fastest thing on no legs, you know!”
I shake my head, there's a running theme today of people being too stubborn to admit they're in pain. If we were better friends I would say something, insist she see the nurse, but that’s unlikely to go down well. I don’t know for sure, but I think she sees concern and pity in the same light.
I just hope it didn’t effect her race either, selfish as it is, I hope I won fair and square.
“True,” I agree, meeting her eyes, “Most of the time anyway.”
“Awwww, thats so mean!” She giggles. Damn it, even after all this time, her pout is still adorable.
— — —
“You did well,” Hisao says, “Well, I mean, you did really well, uh.”
Ha, is he flustered?
“Thanks,” I reply, admiring for umpteenth time the shining gold medal I won today, it’s beautiful, even if it is a little lonely when compared to Emi’s chest full of ornaments. I noticed her silver was carefully hidden behind too golds, ha.
Ahead of us on the smooth black road Ikuno and Ryouta stroll, an awkward distance between them. She throws me a small smile, that I return, trying to convey reassurance with a look.
“So, you look tired,” I say as way of conversation. It’s true, he has deep bags under his eyes, which are bloodshot making them appear even redder than normal. I can’t look much better. Sleep eludes me as much as anyone else, it’s just that Ikuno introduced me to the miracle of concealer. Not that I would ever wear makeup for a boy, but nothing’s stopping me using it for myself.
“I can’t sleep sometimes” he says, stifling a well timed yawn.
“And here was me thinking you were up all night dreaming about me,” I grin. A light gust flows up the baking road, a welcome relief in the mid-afternoon sun, it plays with my hair still damp from the shower; cooling my neck.
“There’s that too,” Hisao blushes.
Well it’s either a blush or the beginnings of heat stroke.
“Oh, I forgot to say, I joined the student council, but I made sure I’m free for our runs.” He smiles, as if this was a throwaway comment; small talk.
So, she won? I mean she has to have if he’s joined her stupid council, but then why is he with me today? So he doesn't lose his running partner, well I won’t be for much longer if he’s planning to hook up with that deaf bitch. Assuming it’s her he wants, I can’t see Misha getting a look in with that blue haired control freak running the show. Damn it!
“Right..” I say looking out over the hills so he can’t see the expression on my face, I can’t believe he would do this too me.
“Are you okay?” He asks, his voice edged with concern.
“Yeah, just didn’t realise you enjoyed the council so much.” I can feel my face burn, and it has nothing to do with the blazing sun.
“Well, it’s interesting most of the time, and gives me something to do right?” he sounds slightly confused, as if he wasn’t expecting this reaction?
“I guess,” I shrug as the road starts to level out. The town lies before us, sprawled at the bottom of the valley, like water pooled in a puddle. Looking like the front cover of a tourist handbook the settlement is a mix of old and new, with shopfronts artfully cut into the front of aged houses, their bright signs glimmering in the sunlight.
Beside me Hisao lets out an astonished breath, I can’t blame him, I normally only come here at night, when the town is asleep and you feel as if you are intruding on private property just walking to the convenience store. In the sunlight, with windows thrown wide, the town is the very image of a warm welcome.
However all of this seems to be lost on Ikuno and Ryouta, who have eyes only for each other. Ha, knew it wouldn’t take much to get them back together.
The four of us stroll towards the shanghai, the small coffee shop popular with students and town residents alike. Luckily the Cafe is on the Yamaku end of town, not that being on the other side of town would have made for a much longer walk, but my legs are aching in protest at today's rough treatment.
A small bell dings cheerly above the door as we step into the Shangai, the cozy wood panelled booths the same as I remember them and a strong smell of coffee permeating the air, in my mind this is what France is like.
“Welcome to the Shangai!” The waitress bursts, shattering the serenity of the otherwise empty establishment, with a bow so low she just narrowly misses smashing her head on a table. What the hell?
“Afternoon Yuuko,” Hisao and Ikuno say in unison.
Wait. They know this flustered waitress?
Ryouta and I share a confused look, but follow our companions’ lead and smile politely.
“Sit wherever you like, I will be with you shortly, please!” Before anyone can answer she scampers to what I assume is the kitchen, I imagine to have some kind of panic attack.
“You know her?” I ask as we take our window seats, Hisao and I on one side of the table, the lovebirds on the other.
“Yeah? She’s works in the library at Yamaku,” Ikuno says as if it’s obvious.
“Oh,” I grin slightly as something clatters in the kitchen, “I don’t think I’ve seen her all the times I’ve been there.”
“How many times have you been there?” asks Ryouta, a smirk playing on his otherwise nervous face.
“Once,” I say with a smile.
“Miki!” Ikuno scolds, “You are meant to be taking final exams this year.”
“You should be utilising the school facilities, like Hisao and I.” She nods to Hisao who looks up quickly having been forced into the conversation.
Though not exactly friends, Ikuno and my distraction are on good terms, given the number of times I drag him into group work. I think she likes having someone who understands the subject matter as well as her, and I like being able to sneak answers off the two smartest people in class. Win, win.
“I like reading anyway,” Hisao says quickly, sitting up a little straighter, “But, if you want someone to study with... other than Ikuno, I mean.”
Again he blushes, and this time in the cool interior of the cafe it can’t be heat stroke, he’s definitely still interested. In what remains to be seen though.
“No, I-“ I begin to say, but a loud voice interrupts.
“What can I get for you? I’m sorry I forgot my apron, and when I was getting it I knocked everything flying, please don’t tell my manager!” Yuuko says in one long breath, standing before us rather pale. Her hair has escaped from the tight bun on her head. Not that I’ve ever had a job, but this one doesn’t seem like one that would cause this much stress.
Copying Ryouta’s order for tea and cake, out of compassion for Yuuko’s stress levels more than than actual desire. Though I can’t say i’ve ever had a day become worse because I ate cake, so it’s hardly a hardship.
With our haphazard waitress dispatched I return to Hisao, “Sorry, I was going to say I don’t have anyone to study with.”
Across the table Ikuno throws me a fierce look. Oh come Ikuno, you know you're always the study buddy for me, but this is Hisao.
Seeming to realise what I’m up to she shakes her head and returns to her discussion with Ryouta; apparently in their separation they have fallen behind in the world of English television and cinema.
“It’s no problem if you want to study with me, I mean I’m going to be doing it anyway,” Hisao smiles softly, “I owe you right?”
I think I owe him for all his fine distracting work, but best not give him an unnecessary upper hand if I can avoid it.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but some homework help might be useful. I have a feeling my friend is going to be distracted.” I point with my thumb over to Ryouta and Ikuno, who are feeding each other cake and staring deep into each others eyes. Hisao and I share a raised eyebrow, before turning to our own plates of cake.
“We can do that,” Hisao nods, wiping at his face with a napkin. “What subjects are you have problems with?”
All of them.
“Maths and science mostly,” I say, using a truly monumental level of self control to take a lady like bite of moist fluffy cake.
“Those I can definitely help with, hmmm.” He takes another mouthful of cake, chewing thoughtfully, “I may have to figure it out with Shizune, but I think I can help you on the days when you don’t have a track club meeting, or doctor's appointment.”
He can’t honestly believe I see a hand doctor can he? I doubt it. But I appreciate the respect for my privacy; patient-patient confidentiality is the best way to describe it.
“That should be okay,” I say softly trying not to be too distraught at the sudden realisation of how much extra school work I’m letting myself into. And I won’t be able to guess my way through it like I normally do, I’m going to have to put the effort in. I can’t have Hisao thinking I’m a total idiot.
“We run straight after right?” I ask.
“Of course,” he laughs, his lips curling into a soft smile, “Seems like we are going to be spending a lot of time together.”
“Well, we can invite the lovebirds as well,” I blush nodding towards Ryouta and Ikuno, whose heads are so close I’m surprised their hair hasn’t knotted together. I knew, or at least I hoped it wouldn’t take much to get them back together.
Though I have a bad feeling that unless they can learn to properly communicate history is bound to repeat itself.
Hisao nods, taking another small bite of cake. Does he always eat like this? Why have I never watched him eat before?
Because if he’s making an effort for me, that means something right?
“I don’t mind if it’s just you and me,” Hisao says, his cheeks redding. “I mean,” he hesitates, “If the others are busy.”
I bob my head in acknowledgement, a mouth full of cake and a million thoughts flying around my head. Is he saying that he wants to spend time with me? Or is it all innocent and I’m just rushing to conclusions?
By some kind of strange mutual agreement we return to comfortable silence and what remains of our cake. Ikuno and Ryouta completely oblivious to what did - or possibly didn’t - just happen.
My two friends seem back on track and I finally beat Emi, but Shizune’s war is far from over and the allegiance of the boy sitting next to me is more of a mystery than ever.
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