Mihashi Ruri burst into the locker room. This would not have been surprising to Ren's high school team anymore, but this was a different group of guys, who hadn't yet experienced her personal brand of fearlessness. Ren had been a late-round draft pick (that he'd gone out for the draft at all was only because of carefully coordinated bullying on the part of Haruna, Tajima, and Kanou) and Ruri had just burst into the lockers of Ren's low-A minor league farm team.
"Ren-ren," Ruri said, her voice already winding up as she got ready to unload what was bothering her. In the periphery, Ren's new teammates were scrambling to cover up. "He's a complete idiot," Ruri said, steaming. "I can't believe his nerve! You'll be shocked – and I mean it, Ren-ren, shocked even for normal people, much less for you – and, and, ugh! Go challenge him to a pitching duel to defend my honor or something! And get your head out of your sleeve-hole, come on!"
Ren righted his shirt, realized he'd climbed into it backwards, and began a wiggling dance of trapped arms and dipping shoulders, until the shirt was the right-way around. Almost automatically Ruri smoothed a few of her cousin's wrinkles out, pointedly not thinking at all about how much taller than her he'd gotten during that last year of high school – he and Kanou had both shot up like weeds then (of course, once one of them started growing the other had to keep up).
"Y-you," Ren said, flustered back into his old stutter by Ruri's obvious agitation, "You want me to, to, to pitch for your honor?" He didn't ask who Ruri was talking about, it had to be Shuugo; she wouldn't suggest he challenge anyone but his rival. Ruri gave Ren the same look she gave him when they were ten and he'd been hesitant to play tea-party with her; now they were 19. Ren started to sweat a little, glancing nervously around for things to pack into his duffel bag.
"Pay attention," Ruri said, exasperated, and she grabbed him by the left elbow and started dragging him bodily out of the lockers. Ren barely managed to get his things into the bag and the bag onto his shoulder by the time they were outside. He was struggling with the zipper. "Ren-ren, he's been making me totally crazy lately. He was being all cagey and flaking out on our coffee between classes on Tuesdays and, well you know that part, you've been listening for the last couple weeks –"
Ren nodded and chirped at each point he agreed on, confirming that he was listening as he forced the zipper of his duffel closed and Ruri trailed off, distracted by a wandering thought. She was pulling him in the general direction of her favorite café near the practice field - which also happened to be conveniently located only a train station away from the southernmost edge of Kanou's campus (he'd decided to play a few years of college ball to build up his stamina before trying for the professional draft).
"Rrrruri," Ren managed, using a technique Izumi had suggested (when halfway through their second year he was still struggling to speak clearly with the team) and elongating the first sound in the word until the rest of the syllables caught up. He remembered what he'd told Sakaeguchi about Ruri before she'd developed that habit of storming into his teams' locker rooms: "You're angry?"
"Yes, I'm angry! But I can't go ranting at him about it right now, and, yes, I'm angry. That's exactly the problem," Ruri said, snapping back to the conversation and craning her neck so that she could look back at Ren while they walked toward the café. "It's insufferable. First he cancels a study session for some lame fake reason about talking to a professor with really strict office hours, but then I see him sneaking around downtown." She kicked a pebble out of her way and down the sidewalk with particular enthusiasm.
Ren disengaged from her grip and gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder as they turned the corner after the second light, and caught sight of the café. Ruri didn't stop for a minute. "Then," she said, "he shows up late to coffee and keeps looking at his phone the whole time but won't tell me what that's all about, and then the next week he skipped out super-early after we ran into some girls from his chemistry class."
"My rival is… not helping himself," Ren said with widening eyes and an edge of worry in his voice.
"I know! And then over break we were going to go see a movie and I was going to make dinner – and I'd even planned to make a hot-pot because he's always talking about how much he wants to eat some – and the first day of break he says he's been invited down to Osaka with Oda-pin and he'll bring me back takoyaki (which I love, but I would rather have had the date). But during the break, he was supposed to be working on this history paper and he'd told me to remind him but whenever he called and we talked about it and I asked what he'd been doing he said all he and Oda were doing at all was watching those Three Kingdoms battle movies and eating dim sum!"
Ruri mercilessly stomped her foot on a particularly crunchy-looking leaf and took a moment to bask in the satisfaction of crunching leaves. "Of course," she says, her tone softening, "he's great on the phone this whole time – I mean, I told you how sweet he was being when we were texting the other day – and, argh!" She marched up and swung open the door of the café, frustration flaring up again around the warm recollection of how affectionate Shuugo could be.
Ren paid for each of their drinks (a cherry-caramel latte with chocolate drizzle for her, a steamed milk with honey and a packet of protein supplement powder for him). Ruri spent a few moments stirring and smelling her coffee before she took a tentative sip and started up again. "So, he's weird, he's flakey, he's the sweetest guy in the world, he's making me crazy trying to figure out what's going on, but I'm starting to think he'll come back from break and everything will be back to normal."
"Nnnnormal is, is complicated. Things aren't usually normal," Ren stirred his drink, thinking about how normal not-normal was, remembering high school, and watching Ruri fiddle with the end of one of her braids.
"Things kind of were normal, at first," Ruri said, sliding into a chair by the window. "But then three days ago we were supposed to just spend some time together downtown, and at the last possible minute – as I'm getting off the train, honestly – I get this text saying he's running late and needs me to kill time before I show up to meet him. And yeah, it's worrying me, because he won't say what's come up and he says everything's fine but he can't talk, and I'm already in town, so I agree. I went to some shops but, but anyway that's not the point. The point is that he'd been jerking me around for a while, so I spent some time alone working myself up to be good and angry with him and give him a serious talking-to about that."
"You yelled at Shuu?" Ren couldn't hide the wavering note of discordant tension in his voice. He'd always thought of Shuugo as family, and he didn't want to think his relationship with Ruri had gone sour.
"No! No, Renren, that's exactly the problem! I got myself all worked up to be really furious with him and he weaseled his way out of it," Ruri grumbled, and pushed her cup around a little in front of her, looking down at her fingers.
"You got angry, but you couldn't yell at him…. How, h-how did he?"
"I didn't believe he hadn't told you at first! Stupid Shuu," she sighed. "When I got to the café at the later time, it was packed. Of course I thought that we wouldn't get a table but – Renren, it was so surreal, I was so mad and then my parents were there and –"
"Your parents? Is, is this a – strange dream story, or –"
Ruri let out a heavy sigh, pouting and setting her hand out on the table. Ren looked at it, and then – after a moment – he saw. "He--!"
"He'd invited them! That idiot," she said, watching Ren's face turn red as her own cheeks flushed. "I had a whole rant worked up to yell at him and everything."
"Pr-pro, pro, proposed?!" Ren barely managed to get the word out, chirping.
Ruri laughed, "I know! How could I get mad at him for being sneaky when he was sneaking around to ask their permission and arrange the whole thing to surprise me?"
Ren reached across the table and put his hand over his cousin's, covering the ring with a gently reassuring squeeze.
"I kept trying to get angry and he was pushing this box at me and I told him I didn't even want them anymore, but -- ugh, he's just frustrating. As soon as I saw it, I lost my fighting spirit. It was a psychological battle," she said, shaking her head. "He'd hidden it in a box of takoyaki." Ren's expression broke into a rare, wide and unguarded grin.
"I'll t-tell everyone! And mmmaybe I'll try to give him a, a hard time for not telling me sooner -- before," he promised.
Then, more softly: "Congratulations, Ruri."