Kei brushes a few strands of hair out of her face.
“Are you going to the gym this afternoon?” she asks. Her fingers linger by her ear, plucking at a pigtail.
Natsuo swallows the milk in her mouth. That was the last sip, but she’s still thirsty. She wishes she’d bought another one before lunch break. The vending machine isn’t really that far away but her thighs are sore from training yesterday, making walking up stairs a very literal pain.
“I think so,” she says. “Probably, yeah.”
“Do you go there every single day?”
“Not really,” Natsuo says, although when she thinks about it she can’t remember the last time she didn’t head over after school. Things have been relentless lately, but it hasn’t really felt that way. It’s been… good. She wakes up every morning knowing exactly what she’s to do with herself during the day and when she puts her head on the pillow in the evening she falls asleep immediately, with no time for her thoughts to wander. The days have gone by fast, surprisingly so.
“Well, if you think it would be okay to take an afternoon off, I wanted to ask if you’d like come with me and celebrate instead today. I know this cake shop, it’s really nice there.”
“Celebrate?” she asks, her mind fumbling frantically for the date of Kei’s birthday before she remembers that she doesn’t care about any of that stuff.
“It’s been six months since you quit the volleyball team,” Kei continues, as way of explanation. Natsuo scoffs. Now she’s outright glad she never bothered to memorize any dates.
“I didn’t know you were that happy to get rid of me.”
“That is such a Nacchan thing to say.” Rolling her eyes, Kei puts the lid to her now empty lunchbox back on. She has her nose turned up like she does whenever she disagrees or finds something Natsuo just said inexplicably offensive, but the corners of her mouth aren’t set in a frown. “Of course I wasn’t happy to get rid of you, don’t be silly. You already know I wasn’t.”
There’s a latent giggle in her voice. Natsuo crosses her arms, a little stiffly.
“But it’s been a good thing for you. You’re so much happier now, and you talk more, too.”
“I do?” She hasn’t thought of it like that and when she looks back, Natsuo doesn’t feel like there’s much different in that area, but Kei nods vigorously.
“Yeah! Yeah, you really do. I’m mostly looking for a good excuse to take you for cake,” she says, “but it’s true. What I just said.”
“It’s not a very good excuse.”
“Oh, come on.”
Kei sighs, dejected rather than annoyed. It’s not a sigh that calls for an apology per se, so Natsuo raises her head and looks past her, waits for Kei’s mood to shift back to chipper with the same abruptness as always.
The classroom is noisy – break is going to end soon and people are moving about, finishing up conversations and squeezing in last minute visits to other classrooms. Most of the other girls in Natsuo’s class are clustering together in larger groups, six or seven chairs pulled together around only a couple of desks at most. There is a significant amount of space between her and Kei’s seats and the others, a moat filled with silence making Natsuo’s desk into an isolated fortress. The observation doesn’t make her particularly displeased. She built these walls herself.
When she glances back towards Kei the girl is resting her chin in her hands, looking up at Natsuo, unusually serious.
“People ask me why I’m friends with you, you know,” she says.
The directness catches Natsuo a little off guard. It happens with Kei sometimes.
“And you say…?”
Kei folds up her napkin into a neat little square, places her juice box on top.
“I don’t say anything. I’m friends with whoever I like.” She’s smiling now, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. “Come out with me today. Please? I’d really like it if you did.”
It’s a warm day. The windows to the classroom are all open and the breeze that sweeps in from time to time is fresh, the air isn’t too damp. It’s lovely outside: clear sky, sunny. The gym, on the other hand, is going to be a sweltering hell of boxed in heat.
Before she knows it, Natsuo has nodded.
Kei fixes Natsuo’s vanilla cream puff with a wide-eyed stare. Natsuo pulls the plate a little closer to herself.
“I thought for sure you were going to pick something with dark chocolate, mocha….” Kei says. “Because you’re so tall.”
“Because I’m so tall,” Natsuo deadpans.
“And you’re strong.”
“So tall and strong equals mocha type.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
Kei just laughs at that.
She’s ordered an apricot tart herself. The fruit is glazed over with some kind of clear jelly that glistens under the ceiling lights. It’s a small place, only a couple of tables set out for guests. Most customers seem to be taking their pastries to go. Quite a few people have passed through since they sat down, it gives the shop a lively atmosphere, compliments the soothing piano music streaming from speakers in the corners with voices, the chime of the doorbell, the noise from the street outside whenever the door opens.
When Kei puts her fork to her tart the crust breaks with a soft crunch. She cuts out a tiny slice, pierces it and puts it in her mouth. The soft moan that follows makes Natsuo’s breath hitch. It’s low and unexpectedly throaty and an unabashed expression of pleasure and Natsuo is suddenly hot with worry that someone else has taken note of the shameless display. Kei has closed her eyes, lashes resting on her skin. They’re strikingly long and gently curled – gorgeous in way Natsuo can’t remember registering before. Does she wear makeup? It doesn’t seem like her, but eyelashes as rich as that are too good to be natural.
Kei’s eyelids flutter and Natsuo hurriedly diverts her gaze to her own treat, picks up her fork and cuts right into the fluffy pastry dough.
The first bite makes her eyes widen. The texture is perfect – flaky and smooth in just the right combination – and the taste is full, really creamy, with a gentle sweetness that manages to be not too bland and not too sugary. She’s no connoisseur, but this has to be the real thing. She almost regrets grousing over the price before.
“Is it good?” Kei asks.
“Yeah,” Natsuo says, and means it. Cream puffs are her favorites. “I don’t need to ask about yours.”
Kei grins and parts her lips for a piece of apricot.
They don’t talk a lot while they finish up their tea. Usually it’s either Natsuo updating Kei on recent matches or whatever she’s learned at the gym, or Kei excitedly telling her about movies she’s seen and comics she’s read, but Natsuo already depleted her topics during lunch and Kei is keeping quiet, quiet enough for it to be remarkable. Natsuo swears she can feel Kei’s eyes on her whenever she looks away. With anyone else, it would be disconcerting.
The waitress who retrieves their empty plates and cups has a brisk attitude which, while perfectly polite, indicates it’s time for them to leave and make room for new customers. They gather their jackets and bags and maneuvers through the small shop back out on the sidewalk. Kei immediately checks her phone.
“It’s not late,” she says. “Do you want to go somewhere else?”
Natsuo stuffs her hands in the pockets of her blazer.
“I’m out of money.”
“Oh.” Kei puts a finger to her chin, thinks this over. The gesture is almost demonstrative. “How about you come over to my place then? I live close by and there’s no one else home right now.”
“Is it okay?” Natsuo asks.
“Of course, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have asked.”
Natsuo hesitates. It’s been years since she last went over to a friend’s house and she hasn’t really missed it, not much. Then again, Kei’s company is calm, comfortable, she’s neutral ground, like returning to camp after a battle. The thought of going home to the pressuring silence of her own house doesn’t tempt her at all.
“Alright then,” she says, and the brightness in Kei’s eyes is blinding.
“Would you like something to drink? I think we have some snacks, too,” Kei says once they’re upstairs, in her room.
“Just a drink is fine,” Natsuo says, and Kei nods.
“I’ll be right back.”
Natsuo waits until Kei’s steps aren’t audible anymore before she lets down her shoulders and starts taking a look around. She refuses to think of it as snooping. She doesn’t snoop. She’s observing her surroundings, there’s a difference.
The room is small, much smaller then hers is, but the walls are a light color and the window is large, faces east. The bed is made and the bookcases organized. Nothing seems to be out of place but the order doesn’t feel stern and uninviting, just tidy for the sake of making a small space as comfortable as possible.
During her inspection of Kei’s room, a magazine on the bedside table catches her eye. It’s an MMA publication with a familiar cover. She picks it up, flips through the pages, and all of a sudden she sees her own profile on the page.
Right, Kei once showed her she bought this issue, didn’t she?
When she comes back, a tray with a pitcher of juice and two glasses in her hands, Natsuo holds up the open magazine in front of her.
“You saved this?”
“It’s a nice picture,” Kei says. She kneels to put the tray down on a small table in the middle of the room. “You’re really pretty with your hair down.”
Her cheeks are a little flushed. The pages are rather thumbed right here, the magazine has been folded to stay open on this article several times. Natsuo gives her own image one last good look before tossing it on the bed. She thinks she mostly looks sweaty and pixelated.
“I wear my hair down all the time, I don’t see how that picture is so special.”
“Not when you’re doing MMA, you don’t,” Kei says. She pats one of the cushions on the floor in invitation. “Hair down Nacchan is always pretty, but it’s different then, somehow.”
Natsuo sits down, accepts the glass of juice Kei pours her. Pineapple, the scent is strong and distinct.
“Hm.” Kei ponders this. She takes a sip of juice with furrowed brows. “I don’t know, maybe because it’s like you’re entering another world when you do tournaments and stuff. You put your hair up and- Ta-da! You’re a fighter.” She shrugs, a little lopsidedly. Is she embarrassed? “It seems really cool to me, at least. And then when you put your hair down…” Kei pauses. She wets her lips, a quick swab with her tongue, a glimpse of white teeth. “I like it. Hair down MMA Nacchan is pretty.”
“It’s just practical to put it up,” Natsuo says. Her mouth is oddly dry so she drinks, too. The coaster on the table is shaped like a flower.
It’s sort of flattering, knowing Kei kept a copy just for Natsuo’s sake. It would be flattering to anyone – the unfamiliar excitement vibrating in the pit of her stomach is incidental.
“I didn’t even keep a copy myself,” she says, and Kei beams at her.
“So it’s great that I did!”
“I guess.” She can’t help smiling back a little.
“You don’t feel bad not training today, do you?” Kei says, and when Natsuo shrugs and replies: “I’ll go tomorrow,” the look of relief on her face is so obvious it might have filled Natsuo with disdain, had she not felt so calm right now. The taste of pineapple is still on her tongue.
“Did you read the other articles? The ones not about me?” she asks.
“Hm, well.” Kei traces the edge of her glass with a finger until it chimes a single, wobbly note. “Some of them. Not a lot. It’s more interesting to watch a real match. Even if I don’t always follow what’s going on.”
“It’s not that hard.”
“Yes it is! Sometimes things happen really fast.”
“Still. It’s not.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Natsuo shrugs again because really, anyone should be able to pull off watching, if not doing. Kei licks her finger, pensive.
“You should show me something,” she says.
Glass halfway to her mouth, Natsuo stops in her tracks.
“How to do some moves.” Kei’s cheeks are flushed again. “Just for fun?”
“I don’t think…”
“Come on, I’m not asking you to pummel me into the ground. Just show me how it’s done. Please?”
There’s no real point to it, teaching Kei won’t benefit either of them. It would be easy to break Kei, far too easy. The prospect doesn’t tempt her at all. It never has.
But Kei’s eyes are gleaming a challenge nonetheless. Does she think Natsuo doesn’t have the nerve to demonstrate? That she’s too simple-minded to teach? As much as they’ve talked about the rules by now Kei should know better, but the way her mouth quirks is taunting.
The glass clinks when Natsuo puts it down without having taken a sip.
“There are some easy ones it might be okay to show.”
They put away the cushions and push the table to the side to clear space. Natsuo takes her tie off and puts it on Kei’s bed before going down on the floor to demonstrate. Something basic that won’t risk knocking anything over. Lying on her back, knees pulled up, her skirt rides up. She tries not to be conscious about it. It’s just Kei.
She goes through the movements as easy as breathing, even with her uniform adding a slightly unfamiliar sense to it all, flipping on her side and forcefully pushing out her legs and arms.
“That one’s called ‘the shrimp’,” she says, and Kei giggles.
“Shrimp? Why are the moves called such silly names?”
“Did you want to try or not?”
“Okay, okay,” Kei says, and gets on her knees.
She tries it out a little tentatively, but next time she’s putting more gusto into it.
“This isn’t actually that hard at all!” she says, and Natsuo crosses her arms, glares sternly down at her.
“Get back to me when you have someone on top of you and you’re trying to escape their hold,” she says. “Now, do it again.”
Kei complies. She complies again and again, but after the seventh demand for repetition she lifts herself up on an elbow and whines:
“Jeez, Nacchan, I get it. You’ve taught me a move, well done. Can’t you show something else now?”
“Oh, so you think you know that one?”
“Yeah, I do,” Kei says and starts getting on her feet.
Natsuo grins. Within less than a second she has swooped down and pushed her friend back against the floor, straddling her with both of Kei’s wrists in a secure grip.
“If you know it so well, just get up and leave and I’ll show you another one.”
“Are you serious?” Kei says. When Natsuo nods, still grinning, her brows settle into determination.
She tries angling her hips at first before remembering to push off the floor with a leg, but Natsuo counters it easy, retaining her balance on top of her. Kei pulls at her arms, tries to wriggle them out of Natsuo’s grip but she has neither the muscle nor the knowledge to manage it. She’s not very strong at all. Holding her down is barely an exertion, even when she’s struggling her hardest.
Her eyes go wide when she realizes she’s trapped, the look in them is tinged with nervousness. Something deep in the pit of Natsuo’s stomach surges violently. Kei is at her mercy now. She isn’t getting up until she is allowed, until Natsuo decides that she’s deserved it. She squeezes Kei’s wrists a little harder, unthinkingly, and Kei’s fingers go slack in response. Her breath is shallow. Natsuo can feel Kei’s hips against the insides of her bare thighs.
She knows she should be letting go now, before this goes from friendly tousle to something a whole lot more serious, but she doesn’t. She rests her full weight on Kei, revels in the soft gasp it elicits. Whenever Kei moves her hips up against her the impulse is to grind back down, and it makes her face feel hot. Kei is so much smaller, so much softer and weaker, and now, feeling the way her body yields to pressure, the want to do more, to go harder, is reeling her in bit by bit, closing the space between her face and Kei’s until the end of her ponytail brushes Kei’s neck.
That’s when Kei lifts her shoulders off the floor and presses her lips against Natsuo’s.
It’s quick and sort of clumsy, their noses touch and Natsou’s lower lip isn’t quite invited to the party, but it freezes her in surprise. It’s like she’s forgotten how to breathe entirely.
Kei’s eyes are fearful when she pulls back.
“I’m sorry,” she says, stumbles on the words. “I didn’t-“
Natsuo kisses Kei. She tips forward so fast she almost loses her balance and smushes their mouths together without much finesse, and she would berate herself for it if she wasn’t on top, if she didn’t feel so exuberant, so triumphant. She’s still holding Kei’s wrists.
This, all of this, is a victory she didn’t know she was competing for.
Kei kisses her back, Kei parts her lips, Kei puts her tongue in Natsuo’s mouth and it’s wet and strange and wonderful. She’s pressing up just as Natsuo is pressing down and she feels amazing. Eventually Natsuo lets go of her arms and ventures boldy under the hem of her shirt, ghosts anxiously over her hips at first but after a few minutes she touches, she strokes. She pinches, hard, and Kei moans so she does it again and again and hopes there will be bruises.
They stay like this until the afternoon becomes evening, until their lips are numb, until Kei carefully pushes her hands away, breathing a reminder of how late it is into her ear. Natsuo kisses her again in the hallway, bending down to find Kei’s lips while absently struggling with the sleeves to her blazer and sticking her feet into her shoes without looking.
She almost misses her train.
At lunch break the next day Kei doesn’t show.
Seven minutes past the time she usually comes by, and Natsuo’s heart is beating as if she was in the steel cage right now, as if the empty chair on the other side of her desk is a two meter, 100 kilo opponent who prefers to grapple. Yesterday perches on her shoulders and she can’t shake off the weight.
Her lunchbox sits unopened in front of her, next to a box of milk. Natsuo has unwrapped the straw from the crinkly plastic cover and stuck it through the opening, but she has yet to drink any of it.
It’s all patently ridiculous. She doesn’t have to wait, there’s no rule saying she can’t start her lunch and finish her lunch and leave the classroom until the break ends if she wants, but here she is, waiting.
She didn’t sleep much last night. The memory of Kei’s skin was imprinted on her palms.
Natsuo leans forward to rest her elbows on the desk, and her hair falls over her shoulder, sweeps over her forearms. In retrospect she obviously shouldn’t have let it down today. It’s too pathetic. She wishes she had a hair tie but they’re always gone when you really need one and it’s not like she can ask one of her classmates.
Yesterday sneaks back into her mind uninvited, the feel of Kei beneath her, the sound of her breathing, made all shaky by Natsuo’s ministrations. She never saw it coming, not any of it. Kei blindsided her and while she didn’t reflect on it last afternoon, now doubt is wedging itself into her. She isn’t sure what this is, what it’s all supposed to mean. She hates not knowing. She hates that empty chair.
Suddenly she’s angry. Her own chair screeches against the floor when she stands up. She strides to the door, purpose returning to her, forcefully slides it open – and finds herself face to face with Kei.
“Did you wait for me?” Kei says. Her voice is slightly breathless, like she’s been running. “I’m sorry it took so long! We have gym before lunch and a girl in my class hurt her wrist so I went with her to the school nurse.”
“It’s fine,” Natsuo hears herself saying. Kei steps in a little bit closer.
“Thanks for yesterday,” she says, and her voice is much quieter, much lower.
Natsuo realizes with sudden clarity that Kei will let her kiss her again. That Kei will let Natsuo’s hands on her skin again. Kei’s eyes trail down Natsuo’s body and the gentle curl of her lashes is a promise. This, whatever it is, will continue. Whatever it is they have become they will figure it out together. Natsuo’s heart pounds hard, her abdomen surges violently, sweetly.
Kei smiles like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“I love your hair like that.”