For a moment, she thought the catch she felt in the long strands of her hair was just a blowing branch that had snagged; it was a hazard she was familiar with from the last time the fine, light stuff had been this long. She didn’t stop laughing at Miaka’s vigorous imitation of the stray cat she’d just adopted begging for food–just brushed her fingers back through her hair to free it.
She found other fingers under hers.
Yui’s hand raked down and she sprang forward and spun around, stumbling with the violence of her motion. The tall boy behind her, in some other school’s uniform, shook out his fingers.
“Wow, almost got me.” He smirked at her. “You should calm down and take a compliment better.”
Yui could feel her whole body stiffening, her eyes widening the same way her lips pulled back off her teeth. “Compliment?” Her voice was ragged in her throat and in her ears. She could barely feel Miaka’s arm around her shoulders.
The smirk didn’t change. “Yeah, be complimented that a man thinks you’re good looking–”
Before Yui found out what the hot, wobbly feeling in her stomach would become, Tetsuya loomed behind the boy’s shoulder, pulled him around briskly and punched him in the face. Her breath left her explosively as he slammed down onto the pavement. Tetsuya adjusted his shades and moved her from Miaka’s protective embrace to his own. “Why don’t we find a tree to sit under?”
“Sounds good.” Tama didn’t spare a look down at the boy on the ground as he moved past, both hands full of the ices he and Tetsuya had gone to fetch. His mouth curled, though.
Yui managed a shaky breath of a laugh and nodded.
She sat on her bed, drawing her brush through her hair slow and careful. The gentle tugs helped erase the lingering feeling that something greasy was tangled in it. And she’d washed it twice tonight, already.
She sighed, resting the brush in her lap as she fingered the glossy sweep of her hair. There was no reason to still be so upset, was there? Miaka had been with her and Tetsuya had taken care of the boy; pretty definitely. That memory made her lips curve up for a moment.
And Tetsuya had promised her he’d always be there. And that did make her feel better. There was just this tightness lingering in her arms and stomach. She wanted…
She remembered the boy’s smirking face and her hand closed into a hard fist around the handle of her hairbrush. She’d had both hands in fists this afternoon. She stretched her fingers open and closed, looking down at them. Again that careless, self-satisfied face drifted across her mind’s eye and the tightness in Yui’s muscles snapped like a broken tie.
Her brush hit the wall hard enough to dent the plaster. She was on her feet, breathing fast and deep. Her fingers flexed and she could almost feel a throat in them, almost see that mocking smile wiped away.
She wanted to do it herself.
“Yui-chan? Are you all right?” Her mother tapped on her door.
One more breath to slow down. “Yes, Kaa-san, I’m fine. I just dropped something.”
The moment of expressive silence outside her door made her smile, if crookedly.
“All right, then. Dinner will be ready soon.”
“Yes, Kaa-san. Thank you.” Yui looked at herself in her mirror as she listened to her mother’s soft footsteps moving back down the hall. The glint of blue in her ear caught her eye and she stared at it, seeing another face now, hearing a smooth, reasonable voice telling her to destroy herself and two worlds to give that voice what he wanted. For a moment, she wavered; was it just more foolish selfishness? But…
“I don’t have to be a god,” she whispered, finally, “to not be a useless little kitten.”
She picked up her brush and wound her hair up off her neck and went to set the table with a firm step.
“Are you sure about this, Yui-chan?”
Yui smiled around her mouthful of hairpins and doubled her braid up out of the way. “I’m sure, Miaka. It’ll be fine.” Miaka’s worried eyes didn’t change and Yui stuck the last pin in a bit haphazardly and reached up to ruffle her friend’s soft bangs. “You have a boyfriend to go meet, silly; what are you hanging around here for still?” The worried eyes turned starry and Yui laughed. “Go on, I’ll be fine.”
She recited those words to herself as she stood in front of the judo club captain, trying not to feel incredibly overdressed in the dark green wool of the school uniform. “…and I realize it’s very irregular to enter a club after the start of the year, especially with no experience, but I would be very grateful if you would allow it, Arima-senpai.”
“Irregular is one way to put it.” Arima-senpai leaned against the cinder-block wall, arms crossed. “Why the switch, Hongou-kun? I can’t believe Mizuro doesn’t want you in the journalism club any more.”
A drop of sweat tricked down from her hairline to her collar and she wondered if she could get away with saying she wanted a cooler uniform. Arima-senpai’s rather rumpled white gi looked really comfortable in the heavy late summer heat.
Of course, the heat wasn’t the real reason she was sweating right now.
Her hands tightened on each other where she had clasped them in front of her. “I…” Only a little husky, she managed, “I want to be able to do this for myself.”
Arima-senpai looked at her for a long moment. “Hm.” Finally he unleaned from the wall and beckoned her out onto one of the mats. “Come here for a second, then. Now, I know you don’t have any training yet, but if I come at you like this, what are you going to do?” He took a long step toward her, suddenly looking a lot taller and larger, one hand reaching for the front of her blouse.
Electric tension crinkled down Yui’s spine and her arm flew across her body, hard and wild, striking his hand aside. Her toes clenched at the rough mat under her socks, and she felt like something had taken a key and wound her up too tight, even as Arima-senpai stepped back again.
“Thought so.” Arima-senpai sighed and ran a hand through his pale hair. “Come over here and sit and calm down, Hongou-san.” He herded her down to a bench against the wall without touching her. Yui blinked up at him. “Now listen.” He sat on his heels in front of her. “What you want isn’t this club. It probably isn’t even a dojo; not yet.”
“But…” She’d screwed up her courage to even try, and now he told her this?
Arima-senpai’s long mouth crooked. “Listen, I said. I don’t want anyone getting hurt in my club. Not you and not any of my other members, and right now you’d hurt anyone who startled you too bad. Or else they’d hurt you, defending themselves. So.” He held up a finger. “What you want to do, Hongou-san, is go and get a tire iron.”
She could have sworn he said something about not hurting anyone. “A tire iron,” she repeated, a shade weakly.
His grin was just a little evil. “Yeah. Get a tire iron and then go find an old tire in an abandoned lot, or something. And hit it with the iron as hard as you can, until you know what it feels like and you aren’t holding back anymore.”
Warmth ran through her muscles as she relaxed all at once. “Oh.” She thought about that and slowly smiled back.
“Better.” He patted her shoulder and stood. “And when you’ve done that for a while, if you still want to learn a form like this, come back then. Miyako-kun would probably like having another girl in the club.”
She stood as well, hands steady again, and bowed. “Thank you, senpai.”
Yui walked slowly down the hall toward the school’s front doors, wondering what to do now.
Besides find out whether Tetsuya had a tire iron she could borrow.
She had already turned in her resignation to Mizuro-senpai, and she’d had to decline enough requests to rethink it that she’d look like a total idiot if she came strolling back now. She really didn’t like looking like an idiot. It was moments like this when she wondered whether Miaka, who never even noticed looking ridiculous, didn’t have a better grip on how to live life.
“Ah, not another one! Aren’t there any sites about this that aren’t in English?”
Yui glanced aside into the computer room, a bit amused. The computer club seemed small this year; only two of her classmates and one third-year girl she didn’t know clustered around one of the tables.
“At least we know our page will be significant; that will get extra points,” the third-year said firmly.
“Doesn’t help us much if we can’t read this stuff to add it to our site,” Onosaka muttered, making a mournful face. Yui had to put a hand over her mouth to muffle a giggle; Onosaka was her most amusing classmate, even when he was grumpy.
The three of them looked up at the sound. “Hongou-san,” Suzukase greeted her, brows lifted a bit.
“Yui-san, just the person!” Onosaka cut him off, eyes gleaming. “You’re good at English, come help us translate this.”
The third-year cuffed him lightly across the back of the head. “Knock it off. Hongou has her own club work to be doing, stop trying to shove yours off on her.” She smiled at Yui. “Just ignore him.”
“I usually do,” Yui murmured, and hesitated. “I… don’t actually have club work today, though. If you did want a little help. I wouldn’t mind.” Wrestling with English would certainly take her mind off things.
The third-year sighed as two pairs of eyes fixed on her with wide, hopeful expressions. “Don’t think this gets you two opportunists out of any work,” she warned. “If we’re not imposing, we’d be very grateful for your time, though, Hongou.”
“Did Mizuro-senpai dismiss the journalism club already today?” Suzukase asked as Onosaka pulled up a chair for Yui.
“I’m… not with the club anymore.” She fixed her attention quickly on the screens in front of them to ward off any questions about why, and blinked. “That’s not English.”
“Hm? Oh!” Suzukase laughed. “No, that one is code.” He bestowed an exasperated look on the blocks of colored text. “Something’s wrong and I can’t tell what; I hope that, if I leave it for a bit, I’ll see the problem when I come back.” He tapped the turquoise case of the next computer. “This one has the site we’re trying to translate.”
Yui leaned back and took it one word at a time until she could put the title together. “Imported National… Cuisine?” Yes, that was what it said; how odd. “Britain and curry.” She looked at them, puzzled. “What are you working on?”
“Food!” Onosaka declared.
“An informative webpage on imported foods that become really popular,” Suzukase expanded, a bit dryly. “Imai-senpai thought of it. We wanted something unusual for our Computer Fair project.”
Fair enough. Yui pulled a piece of paper and a pen toward her. “Let me get down some of the keywords, then, so you can use them to search more.” As she prodded her brain toward the shape of English letters, though, something on the other screen caught her eye. It felt like stepping into a dip in the sidewalk, an unexpected jar. “Suzukase-kun,” she said, slowly. “Are there supposed to be two question marks there?”
Suzukase looked where her pen was pointing and spun back to face the screen of code. “No it isn’t! Line… forty-eight, yes, that’s it!” He banged on the table with a triumphant fist and tapped at they keyboard. “There, and…” the screen blanked and loaded what looked like a regular web page, “yes!” He beamed at her.
“You have a good eye, Hongou.” Imai-senpai rested her chin in her hand. “Did you say you weren’t with journalism any more?”
Yui nodded and had to stop herself from edging back at Imai-senpai’s suddenly shark-like smile.
“Onosaka, Suzukase, you two get back to work while I just show Hongou here a few things about code.”
Well, she had been wondering what she’d do now, Yui reflected as Imai-senpai pulled her around to the third computer at the table.
She hadn’t thought she still needed to be careful what she wished for.