They liked to pretend that they didn’t care, but an unspoken excitement was palpable on the volleyball court today. The months blew by so quickly, complete with most of the highlights you’d expect from a really good sports movie. Drama, reconciliations, affirmations of friendship!
Minako tried not to think about it for too long. She was sappy, and all the fun she had with Rio made her sentimental and weepy. They were still gearing up for their last meet, though, so the heart-pounding movie that was her life still had to reach its messy climax. Good or bad, at least everyone was giving it their all now. Plus, she had one or two side plots to be thankful for.
Gosh, wasn’t the heroine supposed to get her love interest at the end of the movie?
“Hey! I don’t know what you’re smiling about, but Rio just ordered another set of drills. Get back in line, Arisato!”
She had to blink a few times before the field came back into focus. Another junior gave her shoulder a friendly push as she strode by, then turned back to her friends with a knowing sort of giggle. This was the problem with being too mushy and lovey dovey, even in her own head. The other girls could spot her daydreaming from a mile away, and they could descend like hawks when they wanted to. At least they were nice about it?
They formed up two lines on the court and started working on passing drills, which was one of their most obvious weaknesses as a team. It was easy to practice things that grabbed a crowd’s attention, like dramatic spikes or dangerous-looking dives. Getting more used to setting each other up was a good exercise for the end of the day. The idea would stick a little longer, or so was the hope.
Minako shuffled closer to the front of the line, watching carefully as the ball sailed up and down at a steady pace. Somewhere between the hollow ‘thunk’ each time another girl hit the ball, she heard a small, amused cough beside her. Rio, who was on the other side, wasn’t watching the drills quite as intently. Her eyes kept darting back and forth to the edge of the court.
“Oh, no. Don’t look now, Minako. Your fanclub is here.”
For several seconds that felt unfairly long, she had no idea what her friend meant by that. Turning to where her gaze was repeatedly flickering, however, was more than enough to unravel that mystery. Even as the sun went down over the city’s nearby skyline and made it harder to see, Akihiko was impossible to miss. He was clearly trying to keep to an unobtrusive distance and failing spectacularly.
How could the captain of the boxing team ever expect to just blend in? Not to mention, the girl’s volleyball team could smell a senior from a mile away. Soon, more and more of the girls took notice, and they didn’t try to hide it.
Not only was it Akihiko Sanada, but Minako’s-boyfriend-Akihiko-Sanada.
A few months ago, Minako might have turned beet red at the teasing. It wasn’t always easy to deal with the attention when the news first spread, but she was getting used to it. Beyond that, it was sweet that he would wait so late after school to come see her on his day off. And to watch her do something she was good at? Something that was fun and public, instead of nightly and perilous? He said he liked to watch her fight. Maybe this wasn’t that different.
Her eyes snapped back to the court, once again following the drills intently. Oh, now she was getting butterflies. She wasn’t often struck by the urge to show off, but this felt like as good an opportunity as any. If he wanted to watch, he’d get an eyeful. All of those late days training one-on-one with Rio would show him just how hard she’d been working.
The girl in front of her stepped aside, shuffling quickly to the back of the line so Minako could set up for her pass. The girl in front of Rio caught the ball at an odd angle and stumbled slightly when she bumped it, letting out a worried apology as it soared several yards off in the wrong direction. Someone called to stop so they could start over, but Minako was already running for it.
Her body automatically chased the target toward the net, and a well-timed duck at the last second gave her the room she needed. She clasped her hands and threw her forearms up against the ball, sending it straight back over her head. Some of her teammates gasped and shouted in awe. It had landed in the perfect spot for Rio to line up the next pass without missing a beat.
It was totally worth a skinned knee.
As she stood up, Minako shot a sideways glance toward Akihiko. He was beaming proudly. She gave a small wave before heading to the back of the line again. Several of the other girls were quick to poke fun, but nothing could dampen her good mood now. Only a playfully tug on her ponytail could pull her back to reality for even a moment. Rio was shaking her head, but trembling with silent laughter as she stepped into her own spot.
“You’re ridiculous,” she said, with unmistakable fondness in her voice. “Both of you, I mean. He really doesn’t know how much of a distraction he is, does he?”
Minako crossed over to the other line as well, giving her friend’s much longer ponytail a tug right back.
“You’ll be thanking him at the next meet! If he tells me I did a good job, I’ll have enough power to spike hard enough to cause an earthquake.” She bounced on her feet, mimicking slapping an invisible ball into the ground. “No one can tease me if I’m the reason we win!”
“I don’t really buy into the whole ‘love giving you strength’ thing, but you’re making an annoyingly good case so far. The problem isn’t that he’s distracting you , but more that…”
Before she could finish her thought, Rio’s eyes widened. By the time she could shout ‘Watch out!’, the familiar ring of a volleyball colliding with someone’s head cut her off. The silence was probably deafening, but Minako couldn’t say. Her ears were ringing. The entire right side of her face was turning a painful, blotchy shade of pink that stung even worse than it looked like it did.
(And it looked like it really stung.)
The girl whose messy shot had pegged her apologized profusely until the moment she left school for the day. The entire team pitched in to help put away the equipment in penance, and Minako insisted that Rio leave her to stew alone in her embarrassment in the storeroom for a few minutes. Her best day of practice in weeks didn’t quite end the way she hoped it would.
There was an old pommel horse bench made of peeling wood in the corner of the room, so she hoisted herself up onto it and rolled up her sweatpants to finally see how her knee was looking. It would be a good distraction. She didn’t really want to think about the state of her face right now.
“There you are.”
When she looked up, there he was. It wasn’t a shock that Akihiko came looking for her after all the comotion. In fact, it was polite of him not to smother her the way that her teammates did. The loud concern only made the sting worse, honestly.
“Sorry, I wanted to see how bad it was before I left.” She stretched her leg out a little, looking over the peeled skin. It wasn’t awful. Bleeding, but the kind of bleeding that only looked like a bunch of little pinpricks that never actually got worse. “I was kind of asking for it, wasn’t I?”
He laughed. She never noticed before, but his smile was like a salve. It always had been.
“Only if you mean that playing any sport at all is ‘asking for it’. Injuries happen.” Akihiko moved closer as he spoke, tilting his head to survey the damage on her knee himself. Soon he was standing in front of her.
Sitting on top of the bench, for once, she was a few inches taller than him. His fingers wrapped around her bare ankle, and he looked back up at her. “And you’ve had much worse than this.”
Suddenly, Minako was struck by how much she wanted to kiss him. She draped her arms loosely over his shoulders, bending down to rest her forehead against his. His skin felt cool against hers. Usually, it was the opposite. Any time she’d catch him after practice or a jog, he was always the warm one.
“I wanted you to see how hard I was working,” she admitted. It wasn’t any less true now, but it felt silly to keep it a secret. He was practically begging for her to say sappy things to him, acting so sweet. “Are you proud of me, Aki?”
He laughed, and even up close she could tell his ears were turning red. “Of course. It takes a lot of passion to get knocked down and still keep trying your best.”
She didn’t feel like waiting anymore, and Akihiko seemed to be on the same page. He moved his hand up her leg, slipping it under her thigh to pull her closer to the edge of the bench as their lips met. Her foot hooked around his hips, locking him in place. It felt numb and a little painful to kiss him, but better than usual at the same time. They didn’t often get this kind of privacy.
When she opened her mouth to let his tongue slip inside, a sharp pain shot across the back of her jaw. She let out an irritated whine and pulled back, rubbing the tender muscles in her face. What bad timing.
“Ah, sorry. It’s still sore...” It was a perfectly good reason to stop, but entirely unwelcome. Minako kicked herself for thinking it wouldn’t be a problem. “I don’t think we can keep going like this.”
Akihiko seemed disappointed, but only for a split second.
“No, but we can work around it.”
When he moved toward her again, she almost thought he was just going to pick up where they left off. He quickly veered off to her left side and out of view, however, and it was more than a pleasant surprise to feel his hot mouth flush against the crook of her neck. She had to bite her lip to stifle a gasp. Her gym clothes didn’t feel very romantic a few minutes ago, but now she was glad to not have the collar of her school uniform in the way.
Their height difference put him in the perfect position to cover the length of her pale neck in kisses and small bites. Beyond anything else, feeling his breath beating against her pulse was making her head swim. If this was her reward for trying to show off and getting hurt, she really wanted to know what would happen when she won a real game while he was watching.
She hooked a hand around the back of his neck and urged him closer, which only encouraged him. As difficult as it was, she tried not to this about how easily their uneven breaths and increasingly needy panting filled the small storage room like a thick fog. They eventually managed to slow down, but it wasn’t easy.
Akihiko offered his arms to help her down from the bench, though once her feet hit the ground, she didn’t feel like letting go. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Feeling better?” He asked, even though it was painfully rhetorical. His lips still looked a little wet. She compulsively bit her own before answering.
“I can’t tell. Maybe if you tell me I did a good job today, I’ll know for sure.”
He was wearing that handsome, proud smile again. It looked so good on him.
“You did a really good job today, Minako.”
Yep, it felt exactly like she imagined it would. Minako stood on her tiptoes, lips brushing against this cheek but not quite committing to a kiss. He stood completely still for her, which made it easy to curve to the side and plant a soft, leisurely kiss against the spot where his jaw ended and his neck began. She felt him shudder against her.
“You did a good job too, Aki.”