Nao and I were still arguing about the proposed increase to the club budgets as we made our way down the main hallway of the staff building. All the other board members had left ahead of us, grumbling about extra work they'd have to complete that evening because the meeting had run almost an hour late.
"I don't know why an increase of seven percent is such a big deal," Nao huffed, stomping his way past the darkened classrooms. "It's five percent every year to counter inflation, but that doesn't do anything for the students. I don't think adding a mere two percent of actual usable money is an unreasonable request. Both the fencing club and the track club have made excellent progress so far this year, and they'll need that money for overseas competitions."
I suppressed a sigh. How many times did we have to go over it? "Two percent is a big deal when you're dealing with budget numbers in the tens of millions."
"Don't start with the math teacher lecture, Professor," he grumbled. "We're supposed to be nurturing talent here, not stifling it. Do you want to be the one telling a bunch of athletic boys with pointy swords that they can't go to the junior world championships because the board was a bunch of cheapskates?"
"I'll do it if I have to, but I don't think that will be necessary if we take a good look at the budgets for the underperforming clubs--"
"That again?" Nao turned his head toward me, giving me a familiar glare over the top of his glasses. "We're only a couple of months into the school year. Some of the clubs haven't had a chance to participate in any events yet because there aren't any for those specialties until summer or later. It's not right to slash their budgets because of something outside of their control."
I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out that fairness had nothing to do with the operations of reality. Nao already knew that quite well. The incredible thing was that he kept smiling despite having spent his entire life dealing with issues that made my problems look like a joke. Maybe that was because he'd never known anything different.
Or maybe he was special, like many of the students at his precious school. Maybe he was one of the rare people who never tired of bouncing back to his feet after being knocked down, who always had an easy laugh and a smile no matter what was going on in his personal life. Once we grew closer, he didn't hesitate to complain about the limitations his illness forced upon him, or to ask for a break when he needed one, but he'd never gotten truly angry about the unfairness of it all. The worst I'd seen was an impressive meltdown when the cap had gotten stuck on a bottle of headache pills, and even that became something to laugh about only ten minutes after he finally got it open.
But in the quiet of his own room, alone with his thoughts, did Nao rail against the cruel hand he'd been dealt? I didn't know.
"You're not saying anything." Nao's voice drew me back to reality.
"Sorry," I apologized automatically. "I got distracted. I guess I'm more tired than I thought."
"Seriously," he sighed. "That meeting was exhausting. I thought it was never going to end. I hope it's not too late to get something decent for dinner. I'm starved."
I checked my watch. "Sonoda might object to taking a special order this late, but there's still plenty of time to go off the school island and grab some dinner."
"Mm, I'm a little too tired for that..."
I was used to Nao declining my invitations, but my heart sank a little anyway. He said yes just often enough that I hadn't stopped offering, though my success rate was abysmally low. I tried not to sound too disappointed as I made a revised offer: "Well, I could pick something up for you, then."
Finally a smile. "Only if you're going out to eat. Don't make a special trip just for me."
"Don't worry, I have no plans to become your personal delivery boy."
Whatever snappy comeback Nao had faded away into a quiet groan as we reached the glass doors that led to the path outside the school building. "Ugh, it's raining again."
"It is the rainy season, after all. I hope you brought an umbrella."
"Of course I did." He plucked his from the stand behind the door, an oversized grey umbrella that did a respectable job of keeping his expensive suit dry. The stand rattled as he dug through the remaining umbrellas. "Hm, where's yours? Isn't it the blue and white striped one?"
"Crap," I grumbled, a quick glance confirming my mistake. "This morning was sunny and warm, so I completely forgot about the forecast. I'll have to borrow one of these."
"You can't do that! What if the other person needs to leave the building before you can bring it back? You'll set off a chain reaction of umbrella thievery! As your boss, I forbid it!"
"You can't be serious."
"Hands off, Professor!" Nao grinned as he pointed his closed umbrella at me like a sword. "Ah, I never thought I'd see the day the infallible Professor Sakaki forgot something as essential as an umbrella during the rainy season. What a tragic development! It seems to me that you only have two choices, and becoming a thief isn't one of them. You'll have to run home in the rain. Or..."
I thought about just staring him down until the awkward silence forced him to finish his ridiculous statement, but things would move faster if I just played along. "Or what?"
"Or," he pushed open the door and stepped outside, opening up his umbrella, "you walk back to the staff dorm with me!"
I shook my head, unable to stifle a snort. "What, that's your grand plan? If you wanted to snuggle up to me that badly, you should have just asked."
Nao rolled his eyes. "Don't flatter yourself. Now, are you coming or not?"
"Fine, I'm coming. I don't feel like getting soaked." The rain wasn't especially heavy, but it was steady enough that anyone walking from the school building to the staff dorm would be quite soggy by the time they got back inside. I ducked under the offered umbrella, finding that I had to press my arm against Nao's in order to keep both of my shoulders under its protection. "We'll have to go kind of slow, this isn't exactly sized for a couple of adult men."
"Slow for you is a normal pace for everyone else. You might enjoy slowing down a bit once in a while, Professor." Nao set off down the path, and I had no choice but to follow or get wet. A familiar silence formed between us, but the rainy evening was far from quiet with the patter of rain on the umbrella and fabric of our suit jackets rubbing past each other as we walked. And, unfortunately, the small splashes of muddy puddles that were impossible to avoid while walking together.
"Nao," I sighed after stepping in three puddles in a row, "are you aiming for the mud?"
"What? I'm not stepping in the mud... oh." He paused, glancing down at my shoes. "Sorry."
"It's fine, they're easy enough to clean. I don't want wet feet, though." I motioned in the direction of the staff dorm. "Come on, let's hurry back. I think the rain's getting worse."
"Right," Nao agreed, squeezing up against my side again. He felt surprisingly warm against me, though maybe that was because the air had been stripped of summer heat by the cool rain. It was a pleasant, comfortable warmth, like a physical manifestation of the atmosphere when we were together. Nao was supposed to be my enemy, not my best friend. I'd come to the school to take him down, not to support his idealistic plans or to help him rewrite his proposals so the board would be less likely to reject them.
Well, I wasn't exactly the type of person who cared about following orders.
We were about halfway to the dorm when a distant shout cut through the air, followed by a few other voices. The sound was coming from the track. "Don't tell me those kids are playing soccer or something in the rain."
"Why wouldn't they?" Nao shrugged against my shoulder. "If they have the right equipment, they can practice in almost any weather. Our students aren't going to be deterred by a little rain."
"Hmph, imagine the rumors that would start flying around if a troublesome brat caught the two of us walking like this, love-love umbrella style."
Nao laughed. "There's already rumors about us. It's probably like that at every school, especially boarding schools like this where you have no choice but to mix public and private life." He glanced up at me with a sly smile. "Why, does that sort of thing bother you?"
My stomach tightened at the sudden direct question. I'd considered it before, not seriously, but as an idle curiosity to explore during lulls in conversation. Nao had a quick mind and was well-read, easily holding his own in conversations about various topics. What he didn't know, he'd learn. He had a warm, welcoming personality that the students loved, especially when he was fooling around. He was childish and naive due to his sheltered upbringing, but also mature in ways that only a person who was hyper-aware of the fragility of life could be. It was an unusual and interesting combination that made him stand out from the people around him, a strong and opinionated personality that could become quiet and delicate in an instant.
That sort of person was an ideal friend for someone like me, who had faced lesser problems and had been scarred by them. Being close to Nao's calm, unbreaking spirit made me believe that I could also find strength to stand tall, even if I wasn't ready yet. The seed of possibility had been planted. And now it was waiting.
For the warmth of an intimate smile, one meant only for me.
Before I could stop myself, words were spilling out, laced with a sarcastic and teasing note - cowardly self-defense against the possibility of rejection. "What if I said it bothers me that those rumors aren't true?"
Nao stopped walking and turned to face me. For a few long seconds, there was nothing but the sound of raindrops thumping against the umbrella, echoing the frantic beat of my heart. Had he somehow sensed the truth in my careless statement? I stared at his shoulder, unable to meet his eyes as they searched my face for hints.
"What if they are true?"
Fabric rustled, and cold fingertips brushed my jawline. I raised my eyes just in time to watch Nao leaning close, letting them drop shut as his clumsy kiss landed on the corner of my mouth instead of fully on my lips. His obvious lack of experience did nothing to lessen the impact of the brief, fleeting touch. All the hair on my body stood on end, and a rush of excitement swept from my face all the way down to my toes, making me shiver.
"Nao." My voice sounded strange and dry in my ears. I didn't know what else to say, so I let my body do the talking. I slipped one arm around his waist and tugged him closer, bending slightly to place an artful kiss on his lips. After a moment of stillness, he returned the gesture, fingers tightening in the fabric of my jacket. I kissed him softly, multiple times, each press of our lips punctuated by a quiet sucking of air and a warm breath.
The open umbrella clattered and rolled on the ground, forgotten. Cool rain pattered the crown of my head, warming in my hair before sliding down my cheeks in thin streams. The water pooled on our lips, sweet and refreshing, and I kissed Nao again to suck it away.
When we finally parted, even my eyelashes were heavy with raindrops. Nao's too, creating the illusion of tears, though his expression as he looked up at me was anything but upset.
"Professor Sakaki," he breathed, unable to find any other words. Instead, he squeezed my waist.
I brought one hand up between us, pressing a wet finger to his lips. "Shh. You don't have to call me that when it's just the two of us."
"Then... Sojiro-san." He actually blushed as he said it, and it was difficult to resist the urge to kiss him again as he lowered his eyes, suddenly shy. "Um, what happens now?"
I kissed his forehead. "First, we get out of this rain before you catch a cold. A sick person shouldn't be wandering around in the rain without an umbrella."
"That's not what I meant." Was he pouting? He probably was.
"I know, but it will be easier to talk things over once we've changed into dry clothes and taken the time to eat. Come on, let's hurry back."
Nao nodded, though I could tell his agreement was reluctant. "Yeah. You're right." My waist felt oddly cold when his arm pulled away, and I had to suppress the desire to lean into him again, chasing his warmth. He picked the umbrella up off the ground, shaking out the water that had gathered in the upturned bowl of the fabric.
A moment later, his arm was pressed against mine again, and I nearly sighed with relief. We set off again, wrapped up in a cozy silence.
"But, you know," Nao's glanced up at me with a smile, "I'm suddenly feeling a lot less tired. I'd like to take you up on that offer of a dinner date, if you're still interested."
I bumped his shoulder with mine. "I'm always interested in spending time with you."
~ end ~