Nishi grows used to the taste of dust that lingers in the back of her throat. There is grit on her tongue, between her teeth, and in the sound of her voice. Her mouth grows dry when Otomo smiles at her, and Nishi would rather swallow handfuls of sand than think too deeply about what that means.
Nishi's mother was kind. "Someday," she would say, "you will find a person who loves you for you." Nishi's mother was practical. When she spoke of Nishi's future, her eyes slid past the handsome boys, and the popular boys--the ones like Otomo. They are the boys who like their girlfriends smiling, and pretty, and undamaged. Nishi has not spent much time with boys like Otomo, but she knows them.
If Nishi is unkind, she believes that she has earned that right.
Nishi likes Otomo, but she has no illusions about him. I'll protect her. That's what I've decided. Nishi accepts Otomo's steadying hand at her elbow, and knows that his attention is fleeting. He is far from the first person to look at Nishi and see someone who is weak. She is not.
"Hey," Otomo says. He is kneeling in the dirt next to Nishi, and his head is tilted in her direction. "Hey, can I kiss you?"
Nishi curls her hands against her lap rather than crushing the delicate buds she has been tending. She ducks her face, hiding her narrowed lips behind her scarf. "No."
Otomo's lips purse. Of course he is surprised. He is beautiful and terrible, and Nishi hates the fluttering warmth expanding in her chest.
There is nothing hesitant about Otomo. "Why not?" he asks.
It would be satisfying to feel the earth churn beneath her heels as she ran. Nishi clutches at her skirt, furious and ashamed. She had been wrong to think of Otomo as kind. Nishi lifts her chin, and meets Otomo's eyes. "The world doesn't work that way," she says.
Snorting, Otomo rocks back onto his heels. The sweep of his hand takes in everything: the immense and desolate desert, the broken future. "The world isn't supposed to work like this," he says.
This world and the last aren't so different. "People don't work this way," Nishi says. Otomo doesn't look at Nishi's leg, but he does flinch at the sharpness in her voice. "Thank you for what you've done for me, Otomo-san, but I am not a pet. I won't be your entertainment."
"I don't think of you as a pet," Otomo says, quiet. The inviting humour is gone is from his voice. The corners of Otomo's lips are pinched.
Nishi has never felt the edge of Otomo's anger. She doesn't like it. That she cares at all is an intolerable weakness. A lifetime of bitter experience gives force to her words: "Back then, you wouldn't even have seen me."
"No," Otomo agrees. He does not need help to rise to his feet. Dirt grinds beneath his feet as he turns his back towards Nishi. He walks away, his head bowed, and hands curled in his pockets.
Nishi throws a handful of dirt after him. She is used to people walking away from her. She had expected the same of Otomo. Nishi hadn't realized how deeply she had hoped differently of him.
Nishi's stitches are small and careful. She has never been fond of sewing, but she is very aware of how little thread they have, and of how worn her skirt has become. Her needle wavers when Otomo drops down beside her.
He stretches his legs out in front of himself, and gives Nishi a sidelong glance. "I like your legs," Otomo says, as if he is picking up the thread of an ongoing conversation.
Nishi sets down her sewing before she can jab herself in the finger. She can feel the quick throbbing of her own pulse. "You like my legs?" she repeats, too shocked for anger. She does not think that Otomo is being deliberately cruel, but his teasing is thoughtless. "Otomo-san, that is inappropriate."
Otomo slumps deeper into his chair. He uses the same deliberate tone as Nishi when he speaks: "Nishi-san, I think you're being a coward."
Nishi goes rigid with anger.
Otomo talks past Nishi's outraged glare. "What girl," he asks, "doesn't like hearing that she's pretty?"
"People say things they don't mean all the time," Nishi answers. Otomo's bafflement might be endearing if it weren't so frustrating. He insists on taking the things Nishi knows as facts, and twisting them around until nothing makes sense.
"What's the use in lying to you?" Otomo asks.
"I don't know," Nishi says stiffly. "I'm not the one playing games."
Otomo huffs, and Nishi is unsure whether he is amused or annoyed. "This isn't my kind of game," he says. "You don't make it easy, Nishi-san."
"I don't know why I should make it easy," Nishi says. Making things easy for other people had made her a laughingstock: desperate and pathetic. What does someone like Otomo know about betrayal and humiliation?
Otomo, Nishi decides, is unexpectedly innocent.
"If it were my choice, I wouldn't like you at all," Otomo says. Nishi expects him to leave her, then. He knocks his elbow into her side instead, and gestures at the sewing on Nishi's lap. "Hey, I want to try."
Nishi wakes to the sound of thunder. The sound rumbles over the desert, overwhelming. Nishi can feel dreams lingering in the air. They cling to her skin like spiderwebs. She pulls herself upright, and joins the others at the window. The sky lights up. Lightening strikes in the distance, again and again.
The air is charged. Nishi remembers how her mother looked in her dream: older, sadder, and close enough to touch. She had looked at Nishi, and raised a hand to her mouth, laughing and crying.
Asami-sensei has a hand pressed to the window, as if he is reaching for someone. Lightening flashes, drawing closer to the school. Asami-sensei lets his hand fall. "Careful," he warns.
"Remarkable," Kamo-san says. Her index finger taps against her lower lip as she thinks. "Perhaps," she says, and only Nishi is close enough to hear how hopes stirs in Kamo-san's voice.
The next day, Otomo leaves with Takamatsu-san and Asami-sensei to investigate the area the storm had centered around. Otomo does not seek her out before he leaves. He does wave at her as he walks through the school gates before hitching his backpack higher on his shoulders. They look very small against the vastness of the desert. Nishi steels herself against fear, and turns away.
They are gone for days. On the eleventh evening, Otomo and the others trudge back through the gates. They are grimy and graceless on their feet. Otomo drops his pack before following it to the ground. His lips are a thin line. "We didn't see home," he says.
Takamatsu-san says: "We heard--"
"The war," Otomo says what Takamatsu-san can not. "We heard people dying."
Pity curls in Nishi's stomach. She too knows the sound of voices that no longer exist. Ghosts have heavy hands. Nishi feels as if every eye turns towards her as she approaches Otomo. She curls her shoulders against the attention, and fixes her eyes on Otomo. He looks at her from dull eyes, waiting. Nishi hesitates only briefly before resting her hand lightly on Otomo's shoulder.
Asami-sensei's voice rasps when he speaks. "We are here," he says, "to make a better world. The land is growing. We are growing. You are all strong enough to carry us to a bright future."
Nishi is unused to giving comfort. She squeezes Otomo's shoulder. His head lowers. The knotted muscles beneath Nishi's hand ease slowly. Nishi experiences a guilty thrill of realization: She is the strong one now. She is the comforting presence, and the guiding hand.
The nights grow colder. There is no room for modesty or propriety when the cold threatens to freeze them from the inside out. They push the desks to the edge of the classroom, and sleep together in the center of the room. They share blankets and body heat, and the morning is long in coming.
Otomo does not sleep next to Nishi, but he joins her later in the morning. There are snarls in his hair, and dark circles under his eyes. This is the only way that Nishi knows him: she never knew him as he was, and does not remember him if she did. Nishi faces her next revelation with a certain grim amusement: the girl she once was would have hated Otomo for simply being Otomo.
Otomo tilts his head back, squinting against the sun. His breath curls from his pursed lips. "It's cold," Otomo complains, deeply aggrieved.
Nishi agrees with a quiet murmur. She feels oddly content. Her fingers tingle painfully in the cold air, and Otomo has come to her. She has not made this easy, and he is still here, with her. Nishi speaks slowly, cautiously. Her words are a gift, a small piece of herself: "I miss coffee."
"Warm socks," Otomo says.
"Clean blankets," Nishi says.
Nishi looks at the weary tilt of Otomo's lips. It doesn't matter that Otomo wouldn't have seen Nishi before. That she would have hated him has no meaning here. If Otomo is here only because he has nowhere else to be, he is still here. Otomo was wrong: Nishi is no coward.
Nishi angles herself towards Otomo. "Hey," she says. Nishi's voice wavers, and her face feels hot despite the sharp air. "Hey, can I kiss you?"
Otomo goes stiff with shock, and for a moment Nishi fears that she has made a grave mistake. And then Otomo's lips are curling, and his hand is familiar against the curve of Nishi's elbow. "Sure," he says, "yes."