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Courage

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Courage

At four thirty, Monday through Friday, she would walk in. The long-haired girl with eyes that shined like polished pearls. She would enter with a gaggle of silly girls, slightly behind the others but nonetheless still engaged in conversation. Two years ago, Tōshirō had given the group little thought. A bunch of young high school girls shuffling in to titter over whatever it was silly girls went on about.

If asked, he would be unable to recall the exact moment the girl became more than a fleeting thought as he traversed his little bookshop. Although rare, there had been times when she would come to him for advice on a book or a topic -- most people went to Masumoto, as she was more approachable -- and he recalled how surprised he had been at her selections. Most of her inquiries would be school related, but the few personal interests she held had been remarkably similar to his own. After a while, the anticipation he felt as the clock would click to four-thirty came naturally to him and then before he realized, she became a constant in his thoughts.

His friend and employee picked up on it, of course, and teased him mercilessly. He never acted on the strange warmth in his chest whenever he saw the girl, content with stealing quick, sidelong glances whenever she came into view, and taking pride in the fact that it was him and not Masumoto she would go to whenever she needed help. Sometimes, when a bout of optimism came about, he even fancied she liked him the same way he liked her.

"Hinata Hyuuga." Masumoto had told him at the end of the first year "That's her name. It's pretty." Tōshirō had only shrugged in response, feigning nonchalance.

He knew his feelings went deeper than he would have liked when school breaks would come around and Hyuuga wouldn't show to the book shop on her predictable schedule. Instead, she would only venture in once or twice, and almost always with a surly-looking male with eyes identical to hers, only frosted over with a hardness he was all too familiar with whenever he looked in a mirror. Eyes which saw more than Tōshirō would have liked and needless to say, the two didn't quite get along.

The beginning of the new school year forced him to come to terms with his feelings for Hyuuga, which he kept to himself as he did with all his other deeper emotions. Eventually, he managed not to blush whenever she came near, and Masumoto's teasing became bearable. Watching her from afar was preferable to him, for despite their friendly banter he was not close to the object of his affection, they couldn't even be considered friends. They associated politely with each other, which was how Tōshirō preferred his relationships with most individuals, and felt content enough to continue the trend.

Then the middle of the year, she shattered all of the shields and illusions he had set for himself.

Thursdays were restocking days, and Tōshirō always made sure to be positioned in a location where he could observe Hyuuga without coming off as some sort of creepy stalker. Exactly at four-thirty the small group of girls walked in, their footsteps heavy and their normally jovial expressions downcast. Hyuuga, instead of her usual position toward the rear as a quiet observer was instead almost cocooned by the others. The pink-haired one had a hand on her shoulder, but the look on her face was what startled Tōshirō.

Either Hyuuga had been crying or was near tears, red lined her puffy eyes that shined in a way he couldn't stand. Her shoulders hung low and despite her pristine uniform, she appeared absolutely devastated.

He spared Masumoto a glance and without even prompting she was there, wrapping a comforting arm around Hyuuga and asking what was wrong. The other girls looked up to the older woman, so allowed her to guide the distraught girl over to a far corner past the register. Although he knew the situation wasn't any of his business, his legs had a mind of their own, and he soon found himself restocking an aisle ahead of the girls, completely obscured as he listened in.

"She confessed today." One of the girls he knew to be named Yamanaka, said. "But he turned her down."

"I'm so, so sorry, Hinata-chan!" the pink-haired one spoke up "He's such a dummy for not seeing what a wonderful girl you are. I don't know why he likes me, I told him I love Sasuke-kun!"

"It's alright, Sakura-chan." Hyuuga's voice was soft but not watery, thankfully. "I'm...." she let out a controlled breath "It hurts, but I'm happy. I'm glad I told him."

"Why?"

The girls went completely silent, and Tōshirō realized belatedly he had spoken out loud. Cursing under his breath, he swallowed his nervousness and walked around the corner, taking in the group's surprised looks with trepidation. Hyuuga broke the silence first.

"Why?" she repeated, tilting her head curiously in that endearing way of hers. "Why am I....happy?"

"Yeah," because he honestly couldn't understand "Why say anything in the first place, if you didn't know if he returned your feelings? Why leave yourself vulnerable? It would have been easier to not say anything at all until you knew for sure. Why risk rejection?"

His questions obviously sparked a few nerves, because two of the girls fidgeted uncomfortably, wanting to speak but also wanting to be mindful of Hyuuga's situation. Instead of upset, she appeared to consider his question for a few moments before regarding him with a warm smile.

"Because, I didn't want to run away from my feelings anymore."

Instead of replying, he turned on his heel and stalked away, irritated at her and at himself for being a fool. He spent the rest of the night in sullen silence, completely avoiding the girls and ignoring Masumoto up until closing.

He was not a coward.

If Hyuuga wanted to put her heart on her sleeve, fine, let her suffer the consequences. Not confessing ones feelings without knowing the other side of the equation simply made sense and avoided awkwardness all around. Tōshirō believed this, and so her words struck at his pride and male ego. How much of an idiot would he had looked if he had done as she had and confessed, only to find out she loved another? And no, he refused to even go into how that revelation made him feel.

For two weeks he remained upset with her, keeping to the back rooms just in case she had one of her moments and needed his help for something. Masumoto joked about how childish he was being -- "You act like she was accusing you, Tōshirō!" -- which he knew, but could not find it in him to care. He owed no one an explanation, especially not a girl he barely even knew.

In the end, it was his older brother, Hyōrinmaru, who snapped some sense into him. Tōshirō could not recall how the conversation came up, only that somehow he ended up explaining the situation one night over dinner.

"And you don't think you're running away?" his brother had asked with a raised brow. "You're hiding from her now, and you're blaming her for your own ineptitude."

"I am not running away," but the words sounded hollow even to his own ears.

"Aren't you? It sounds like you're afraid, to me."

He thought on their brief conversation, and on Masumoto's words before and realized they were right, his anger toward Hyuuga had more to do with his own perception of himself. Obviously, her words had struck a chord because deep down, he did feel cowardly for not confessing where she had mustered the courage  to do so despite the odds.

Still, confessing now would only add to Hyuuga's burden. She didn't appear to be the sort to love frivolously, and the last thing he would ever want to do would be to add pressure on her. Besides, she was still a high school student and he had already graduated and taken over the bookstore two years prior.

The next day came, and Hyuuga came in at four-thirty as always. She actually went out of her way to greet him, but treated him no differently than before, to which he felt grateful and ashamed. Exams were coming up, so she asked him about study material and as always, he guided her to the best sources he knew. Watching her, he noticed how her steps seemed lighter, and a weight he had never realized being there had lifted from her slender shoulders.

"Does it hurt?" he found himself asking her as he pulled a book from the shelf to hand to her "You look happier. As if you've let go of a burden."

His question surprised her, probably because he had actually asked in the first place, but her answering smile made the potential embarrassment well worth it "He was my first love," she admitted "and it does still hurt....but you're right. My heart feels lighter."

"If you could go back and do it again, knowing you'd be rejected, would you?"

"I...." she hesitated "Yes. Yes, I would. Because, it was important to me to confess. To be stronger."

"You're already strong."

Her face burned scarlet at the comment and she began to fidget nervously, poking her fingers together and refusing to meet his gaze. "I...th-thank you, Hitsugaya-san. That means to me more than you know." Her last words were whispered, but he caught them nonetheless. He nodded once and walked away, but not before passing her a few parting words over his shoulder.

"Your pink-haired friend was right. He is an idiot. A blind fool."

That was the day he fell in love.

Time continued on, and Tōshirō found himself becoming closer to Hyuuga, even going so far as to allow her to call him by his first name. The first time she called him 'Tōshirō-kun' he nearly kissed her in the middle of the store, and knew then he had to confess. Even if she never returned his feelings, the heaviness in his chest would only grow if he kept silent, and she had only one more year before college. If there was one thing he knew of her, she took her studies seriously. After the winter break she had begun looking at books on different universities, all of them out of the local area.

He had to confess, before she left and he never saw her again.

The notion plagued him all during summer break. He saw her more this time around, her irritable cousin trailing behind her, giving him razor sharp glances occasionally. Not once had he ever seen Hyuuga outside of the store, and he certainly wasn't going to confess within, even without being a romantic he knew that was just tacky. Going to anyone for advice was out of the question, Matsumoto would never let him hear the end of it, and Hyōrinmaru was sensitive like blunt force trauma was pleasant.

Books were only marginally better and reading shoujo manga -- thank you internet for your useless reference -- made him want to gag. Why girls enjoyed such garbage would forever be beyond his comprehension. His life wasn't some comic book series, he wanted real, resourceful advice.

Tōshirō eventually conceded to simply being himself, and when winter break came around, he handed Hyuuga a letter. In simple, neat handwriting, he had asked her to meet him at the local park that weekend at a certain time for an important message he wanted to give to her in person, outside the shop. He had given it to her the beginning of the week, wanting to be considerate of her schedule, but waiting, not knowing what would happen felt agonizing. He had even gone so far as to take to avoiding her again just in case she had questions he was not yet ready to answer.

More than anything, he hated being vulnerable. Tōshirō had prided himself on the shield of ice he had built around himself over the years, not letting anyone get too close except for a select few. Even then, Masumoto only knew as much as he told her, and while he had a good relationship with his brother, there still laid a thin layer of frost between them. In a few short days, Hyuuga would hold more power over him than he had allowed anyone in his entire life, and the thought thrilled and frightened him.

Saturday rolled around, cool and crisp as the sun set early and night brought about a pleasant temperature drop. Wrapped comfortably in a wool coat and scarf, Tōshirō arrived at the meeting spot a little early, the tightness in his chest constricting to an almost painful degree. Tonight would, hopefully, be the moment of truth. No one was currently around where he stood, a bench slightly sectioned off by trees still shedding fall leaves.

Hyuuga arrived five minutes later, bundled up in a thick purple and gray coat and a dark grey skirt. Her pale cheeks were dusted with red from the cold, and she had her face partly buried under her scarf. Shyly, she peeked out at him from under her bangs and offered a small wave.

"Good evening, Tōshirō -kun."

He nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Hyuuga-san."

Awkward silence. Everything had seemed so simple in his head. Hyuuga would arrive, he would confess and then wait an appropriate amount of time for her response. Except, he hadn't anticipated on how lovely she would look without her uniform on, or how his throat would decide to close up for some inexplicable reason.

I'm supposed to be a genius. This can't be that impossible. Say something, idiot!

"Um," Hinata ended up breaking the silence instead "You wanted to see me? Your letter...."

"Yes." his tone was sharper than intended, so he cleared his throat before continuing "I....you're going to be leaving soon. For college. I've been thinking about what you said a year ago, about not running away from your feelings." With his foot, he began to trace circles on the ground "I'm not good at this sort of thing, so I'm just going to come out and say it." He finally glanced up at her and saw the recognition in her eyes. Her lips parted, a gasp escaping, and she knew, before the words had even left his lips, but he spoke anyway.

"I like you," he shook his head "No, I love you, and I want you to be my girlfriend." A shaky breath left him then and the tightness in his chest loosened just a bit. "You don't have to answer right away, I know it's sudden."

Hinata nodded numbly, her hands hovering over her lips "You've never...."

"I know. I've had feelings for you for a long time, but I didn't want to say anything. But I don't want to run away anymore. I'll wait for your response, please don't feel pressured to answer right away. Well, that's all I came here to say." Satisfied, he turned on his heel to leave, but managed only two steps before soft, warm hands reached out for his. Heart pounding, he managed to turn and meet her gaze.

The scarf she wore drooped down around her neck, revealing her face in full. Her hands squeezed his gently once, her gaze unwavering, almost pleading. Feather light dustings of white began to drift down from the sky, landing on the silky strands of her hair before melting instantly. Her breaths came out in light puffs past pink lips.

"Please, don't leave," she implored "I....I feel the same."

"You do?" Tōshirō could not hide his surprise. Well, he had noticed her demeanor had changed around him lately. There had seemed to be a sort of comfort zone they had reached, but he never would have imagined....

Hinata looked down and nodded, giving his hand another tiny squeeze. "I didn't think you would, but this is....I'm very happy you told me, Tōshirō-kun."

And she gave him a look so beautiful it took his breath away. Her smile, eyes, everything about her melted into an expression of endearment for him. The tightness in his chest finally shattered, a rush of dammed up emotions breaking through. Unable to hold back any longer, he framed her face with slightly trembling hands and closed the distance between their lips.

His first kiss was as chaste and awkward as he had believed it would be, her lips as soft and warm as he imagined. They parted quickly, but his hands remained, thumbs lightly stroking her cheek. Hinata stared at him in wonder, awe, and that other emotion he could only hope was her feelings for him. Briefly, he wondered if he was looking at her the same way, because everything certainly felt surreal to him.

She was finally his. And he was no idiot.