It was a honest mistake, but she couldn’t stop beating herself up over it. She had been manager for almost a year- really , shouldn’t she be past amateur gaffs like this by now? Thankfully Kinjou had been kind enough to allow her to carry a key to the club room, but it still wouldn’t fix the fact that she would risk bothering any members of the team who had stayed late after school-
Look, don’t worry about being a bother or anything, okay? Tooji had told her once, ruffling her hair gently, grinning. Not saying you aren’t a bother… but you’re also a part of the team, as much as anyone else . They were kind words, but all the words in the world couldn’t make her stop feeling like she was intruding on something, some days. Especially now, what with the changing dynamics of the club as everyone prepared for Kinjou and Tadokoro’s graduation, and Makishima’s…
If she were being a hundred percent honest, part of the reason she had been distracted enough to leave her textbooks in the clubroom was thinking about exactly that, in particular, how it was affecting the younger members of the club. Imaizumi telling her his idea in regards to Naruko's role was, to put it lightly, a little worrisome, but Onoda’s behavior was even more troubling. Thankfully he had seemed to have snapped out of it some after the Minegayama race, but she still had caught him quite a few times staring out the window, frowning silently, eyes on the sky like he was trying to look for someone among the clouds-
But... no, that wasn’t any of her business. Aya had always told her she was too nosy for her own good, and this was definitely nosing. She was a part of the team, yes, but she wasn’t… part of the team. She wasn’t the one actually racing or carrying any of the expectations of Onoda or any of the others- wasn’t it kind of selfish to act like this was such a big burden on her?
Come on Miki. Get it together.
She took a deep breath as the clubroom came into view. To her unending relief, it looked like all the bike racks were empty. Thank goodness- she really lucked out. She could just pop in and pop out with nobody knowing about it. Going to the door, she half-chuckled when her fist came up out of habit, and she went to gently knock-
She jumped so hard she stumbled backwards.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
The hairs on the back of Miki’s neck stood on end. What on Earth? It sounded like someone was breaking furniture in there!
Her head felt like it was spinning. It was fine, it could be something totally innocuous, like someone moving around equipment- but no, deep down, she had learned by the age of 8 what it sounded like when people moved tires and rollers around, and THAT was not it.
That… whatever it was, she had never heard anything like it.
But if she had to take a guess, it sounded very similar to what she imagined the sounds of a rival team ruining a clubroom to be.
Her fingernails dug into her palms.
Aya’s voice in her ear: You’re too nosy for your own good, you know. One of these days, it’ll get you into trouble.
Miki flung the door open. “Pardon the intru-!”
… that was not a rival team ruining a clubroom.
What she saw when she opened the door was a single person frozen in the shadows- one of the biggest people she’d ever seen, yes, but a single person. Tires had been scattered across the floor, flung in a way that seemed frustrated. And the incriminating evidence: a cluster of cracked dents in the wall only a few feet away from the culprit, who conspicuously clutched their knuckles.
They locked eyes.
“...Manager,” said Tadokoro.
“...bandages,” said Miki.
“Uh- sorry?” The sprinter blinked, and blinked again once Miki hit the light switch. “I mean, uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t expect- I didn’t mean to startle…” He trailed off as she marched straight past him to the corner, to the spare locker she had left the first aid kit after helping Onoda patching up a badly scraped knee.
“Your hands,” and she gestured to them. Just as she had suspected from the ginger way he had held himself, in the full light of the clubroom she could see that the knuckles of his right hand were raw and bloody.
Tadokoro hesitated and, in a move that seemed almost cute from a guy as big as him, he shied away from her hand. “I’m-! It’s okay, it’s my own fault, you shouldn’t have to-”
“It’s alright. It's part of my job as team manager, after all.”
“I-it’s only a few scratches, I’ll be fine, you don’t have to-”
“If they get infected, it could affect your riding.”
The corner of Tadokoro’s mouth tightened.
Feeling bold, she pressed forward with a sunny, plastic smile. “Every part of a cyclist’s body is important, you know! And…” She bit her lip, hearing Tooji and Aya’s scolding voices again. Nosy. “...Naruko-kun and Aoyagi-san probably wouldn’t like it if you didn’t give your all in your last race.”
She stepped closer, and for all the centimeters he had on her, Tadokoro… balked .
“...” He let out a gruff gust of breath, running his left hand through his hair, eyes looking anywhere but her. “Fine.”
She let her hands clap together. “Great!” She quickly opened the kit, going for the rubbing alcohol and wraps. “Don’t worry, this will only take a minute.”
Behind her head she heard a snort. “The demon blood ...”
Miki looked up. “Sorry?”
Tadokoro’s hands, like the rest of his body, were stunningly big and solid. She needed both of hers to enclose one of his palms, and even then it was a close call. He grunted as she inspected his injuries, and her eyes flickered up just in time to catch his ears going a little pink. Tadokoro held himself stiffly as she looked over his palms, not meeting her gaze when she discovered the bleeding blister on his left hand- probably not the result of punching a wall, more likely an old injury aggravated by a fist slamming down on a table again and again.
As a general rule, the third years acted a little aloof around her. She didn’t take it personally, of course- that was just a part of the kouhai-senpai hierarchy. Besides, Kinjou was a serious man, and Makishima was, um. Makishima. But Tadokoro had always been a little different, a little more friendly towards her. She remembered him laughing when she had teased Makishima during the first year race, and, as embarrassing as it was, she had been both bowled over and immensely grateful that he had taken the time to thank her after the Interhigh.
Tadokoro was by far the most open of the third years, the most blunt, the most easy to read… but lately, it felt like that was changing. He had been as sad as anyone when Makishima had left, but afterwards, he had threw himself back into his remaining club activities with a vigor that sometimes bordered on scary. He laughed loud, slapped backs, and rode as hard as he ever had.
She couldn’t help wonder… who exactly he was trying to convince.
“Sh--!” He flinched and clenched his teeth as she ran the alcohol against his wounds.
Tadokoro sighed. “It’s fine. It’s not like I don’t…”
Miki looked up. “Tadokoro-san?”
His head was turned to the wall, eyes on the cracks he left in the plaster.
His tone hovered somewhere between bitter and amused as he spoke: “I really am an idiot, aren’t I?”
“Er.” Miki blanked. On the one hand, it didn’t really sound like he was looking for an answer, but she didn’t really want to seem like she agreed with that.
Thankfully, he went on. “I owe it to Aoyagi and Naruko to give them a real last race- a real challenge. They’re taking it seriously as anything, even that redhead. And here I am, fuc-” His eyes flicked to her face for a moment, and he flushed. “-messing up my hands over a temper tantrum.”
Miki silently unfurled the gauze.
“I can’t take two seconds to think about anything… heh, maybe that’s why Makishima-”
His hands jumped in hers. Just a bit, but enough to feel it through her whole body.
“...dammit. Sh- I’m sorry, Manager,” and he actually looked into her eyes, genuinely sounding like he meant it, “I’m not- I shouldn’t be burdening you with this.” He clenched his jaw and looked away. “Sorry.”
The room was quiet.
“...Imaizumi-kun and Makishima-san are a lot alike, aren’t they?”
“They’re both very passionate about racing,” she went on, carefully arranging the cotton on Tadokoro’s knuckles. “But they’re very reserved people. They both have trouble in social situations, and they have difficulty talking about things that are troubling them. My brother told me about how hard it was for Makishima-san, gathering the courage just to ask him about a replacement frame in first year.”
She took the bandages between her fingers.
“Imaizumi was the same way, the first time he saw our shop. He was so interested in the bicycles, but when my brother asked him about it, he just got all…” She screwed her face up, eyes going narrow and darty. “All Imaizumi . He had to be all cool about it. He was a grade-schooler!”
She laughed, and she swore she caught the corner of Tadokoro’s mouth twitching.
“When he started getting more interested, his parents and mine met, and so did we. And honestly... I kind of didn’t like him back then! He didn’t seem to like me. He said I was too excitable, too loud and hyper. I thought he was a big stick in the mud. But…”
“We both loved road racing. We both loved bicycles. And it’s hard to not like someone who likes something you love so much. It didn’t take long for us to become friends, even if it might have looked kind of weird. And as we grew up, I learned that that was just the kind of person Imaizumi-kun was. He finds it hard to talk about his feelings honestly, even when he cares for something or… someone.
“I think… Makishima-san is a lot like that too.”
For a moment, she wondered if Tadokoro would tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about. Tell her she was sticking her nose in business she didn’t need to. But after a moment, she realized Tadokoro was waiting.
She realized this was the longest time she had ever heard Tadokoro this quiet.
“Makishima-san… cares for you a lot.” For a moment she remembered the first year race again. Makishima clinging to Tadokoro’s shoulders without a care for how it looked. The two of them falling into each other as their cheers filled the van. She couldn’t help smiling again. “Makishima-san cares for you a lot. You... and Kinjou, and the rest of the team too. It must have been very difficult… to leave you all behind.”
She wrapped the bandages as tight as she could.
“Makishima-san is Makishima-san… but if I had to guess… I really, really, really doubt Makishima-san hates you, Tadokoro-san.” Miki looked up, refusing to drop his gaze. “You're friends. If anything… Makishima probably found it hard to tell you about leaving, because you're friends.”
The air was still as they looked at each other, hands clasped.
“O-oh! Um,” Miki quickly dropped his hands, and she couldn’t help the blush creeping up her cheeks. “But, ah, I shouldn’t really be poking into business that isn’t mine- that’s between you as teammates.” And as if by a sign from God, she spotted her textbooks in the corner, and quickly darted over. “Anyways, I just needed to get this- I hope your hands are okay, Tadokoro-san! I’ll see you-”
And a hand, stunningly big and solid, gently dropped on her head.
And after a moment, Miki turned to Tadokoro. He looked down at her with a stony face.
And Tadokoro smiled.
“You really are like your brother, aren’t you.”
“Too damn nosy for your own good.”
"Ah....gh..." Miki swore she could hear the sound of shattering glass.
Tadokoro laughed, and he finally looked like his normal self. “Ah come on, don’t make that face! It’s not a bad thing. You’re good at noticing things.” And because this day was just full of surprises, he actually ruffled her hair. “”Imaizumi is lucky to have someone like you looking after him.”
Miki stood dumbstruck. It took her a moment to realize what was happening: Tadokoro was complimenting her.
“Onoda too,” he went on. “I mean, it was probably ‘cause of you getting involved in that race with Imaizumi that made him interested in the club.”
The seniors knew about that???
“Our team has a lot to owe you, now that I think about it. We couldn’t have won Interhigh without Onoda, after all. I guess we have you to thank for that.”
God forgive her, Miki had always found Onoda’s habit of sputtering when being complimented kind of funny. This must have been karma, because now she was doing the exact same thing. “N-n-n-no!!! Oh my gosh, um, I, thank you, for the compliment, but I was just- that’s so much to- I didn’t really- I was only being curious- and nosy-!”
Miki briefly wondered if she was dreaming.
Tadokoro patted the top of her head. “Keep looking after the team, okay? Keep being nosy.” He smirked. “God knows these punks need all the help they can get.”
He lifted his hand and inspected his bandages, flexing his fingers. “You did a good job. Thank you, Manager.”
She watched him disappear into the fading light outside.
Miki knew she had to get going too, before it got too dark. But before she locked up, she took a few moments to look back at the empty club room.
It was strange, but it somehow felt a little more like home now.