He could touch her hand but not her heart.
"Looks like we lost everyone."
The back of his hand brushed against Okuda's as the sea of people threatened to swallow them whole. Above them, the sky was a dark and heavy blue contrasted only by the brightly hanging lanterns illuminating the narrow streets as they stilled within a flood of passersby, the narrow confines of the walkway and sheer volume of people pushing them closer together.
Karma had never liked dealing with crowds; the lack of personal space along with all the noise made it hard to hear himself think. His house was quiet and empty in comparison, the perfect sandbox for his thoughts. Attending the festival had been Kayano's idea, a last hurrah for their final summer break as high school students, and she had gotten all fired up about it too, swearing she'd wear a yukata this year. Karma would never put it in so many words, but he looked forward to seeing everyone from Group 4 again. Even within Class E, he had a tighter bond with them than others.
"Maybe we should text them," Okuda suggested as she opened up her drawstring bag. "If only I hadn't forgotten my phone..."
The quiet sheen of the hanging wisteria patterning her yukata caught his eye underneath the lights, the leaves a thick, dark shade of purple accentuated by faded lilac petals over smooth white fabric, clean and subtle. Apparently, Kayano wasn't going to be satisfied unless she dragged the rest of the girls into wearing yukata too.
Unfortunately for Kayano, Nagisa was as dense as ever and hadn't behaved any differently at the sight of her all "dolled up" in an azure yukata stippled with a rainbow of hydrangeas. Conversely, Kanzaki's yukata was a more mature midnight blue blooming with spider chrysanthemums and unlike Nagisa, Karma thought he was going to have to scrape Sugino's jaw off the ground when the star pitcher saw her in a yukata with her hair done up, a goddess in his eyes.
Okuda, aside from the yukata, was no different. Unlike the other two, she kept her hair down in the braids he was so used to seeing at the small of her back. It reminded him of their days in Class E where he could always see her profile from his seat behind her and that familiarity put him at ease.
"It's fine. We wanted to go to different stalls anyway. We'll find 'em when we find 'em," Karma shrugged as he took Okuda's hand in a loose hold. "But until then, you're stuck with me."
Her hand fell out of his like water and even emptier than the palm of his hand was the feeling he was left with.
Okuda gave him a reassuring if not apologetic smile as he kept his face impassive. "You don't have to hold my hand, Karma-kun. I'm not a child. I won't get lost."
...So that's how she sees it.
"I don't know about that," said Karma, taking her hand again, this time more tightly. He no longer cared if the others saw. "You're so small, someone could knock you over and then I'd end up losing you in the crowd."
Okuda continued to resist but he was both taller and stronger than her and ended up pulling her along behind him. He felt every strain and motion through her struggle but that only made him want to strengthen his hold. "It won't happen! I'll be careful."
"I'd rather not take that chance."
"It's okay, Karma-kun! Even if I do get lost, you don't have to come looking for me." What the hell was she talking about? Like that would stop him from doing it. He spun on his heel to give her piece of his mind, but she wasn't done. "Because I'll find you instead."
He stopped just as Okuda crashed unceremoniously into his chest, their hands coming undone.
"You don't even have your phone with you."
"I'll manage, somehow."
"Not with this many people you won't."
"I'm confident I can find you in any crowd! It might take me some time, but I'll find you no matter where you are."
His fingers twitched. There was no special meaning, he told himself. What she meant was that she'd be able to find him because he was so tall, or because his bright red hair stuck out like an apple in a basket of oranges. It doesn't mean anything, he repeated. But he couldn't stop that warmth spreading over his chest like a blanket and suddenly he was very glad they weren't holding hands anymore, glad that she couldn't feel his fingers tense or the fire at his fingertips. The searing cool of the summer breeze against his skin made Karma painfully aware of how the heat had risen to his face and he turned away from her.
That's not fair.
With just a few words, Okuda had thrown his heart into disarray. She didn't even have to lift a finger to make his poker face crumble — to make him drop every single wall he'd ever put up. And she did it all with nothing but her honesty. It was frustrating that she could unravel him so easily but perhaps even more mortifying was that no matter how hot his face got, her words made him happy.
"Um, Karma-kun? Are you angry?" There was a hint of worry in her voice now, completely unaware of what he was feeling on the other side. He didn't have the nerve to face her just yet as his ears still felt hot against the wind. "I-I'll be okay. I won't cause you any trouble or slow you down, so go ahead and have fun to your heart's content. You don't need to worry about me."
The heat in his face and chest subsided, replaced by something cold and empty. Instinctively, he reached out and took her hand again, small and so easily enveloped by his own. Even when he could reach out and touch her hand like this, he could never reach her heart. How unfair it was that he could bare his heart to her completely and yet he could never touch hers the same way she could his.
Even now with their hands linked, Karma felt a chasm between them.
He kept his voice low and steady over the din of the crowd. "Okuda-san, you're right about one thing. This," he held up their hands in the space between them, "is because I don't want you to get lost." Because I don't want to lose you. "But it's not because I see you as a kid. Because I don't. I never have."
Okuda stared at him with those wide and unsuspecting eyes even now, unaware of any deeper meaning in his words. It was a look of innocence he was so fond of and yet so tired of seeing at the same time. What kind of face would she make if he laced their fingers together right then and there? He wanted to know and yet he perished the thought. She was too unaware. Revealing his hand at this stage would do him no favours. It would just startle her and make her wary, afraid of upsetting him even more than she was now.
Patience was a virtue he'd never really had, but Karma was never one for reckless gambles either. If distance was the issue, then he could only bridge that gap between them. Slowly.
"And I don't care what you say: I'm not going to sit around and wait for you to find me if I lose you. I'm looking." Karma pinched her cheek with his free hand and tugged, channeling a bit of his frustration into it. She yelped. "It's not as fun if you're not there with me."
At this, Okuda finally seemed to understand; her lips parted slightly, the soft knit of her brow. And silence.
Karma raised their linked hands again and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
"So no getting lost, okay?" She nodded, and for the first time, no matter how fleeting it was, he felt like he had reached her. "Good. Now come on, there are stalls to conquer. Oh, I think I saw a karumeyaki stall, too. It's your favourite, right?"
Karma pulled her along at a more leisurely place this time, glad that she no longer resisted the idea or the contact. Silently he wondered how deeply his words had reached her, or whether it was just a shallow blip on the surface. But no matter. He was done spinning his wheels. Slowly, he was going to bridge that gap between them.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, and, at least for the moment, Karma felt the distance between them wasn't so great after all.