He carefully slid open the door with one hand, not wanting to disturb her in case she was asleep. And then he looked up and nearly dropped the plastic-wrapped bouquet onto the white linoleum.
The sunlight cast a glow over the girl sitting up in bed, stray brown hairs lit gold when looking from behind. The white curtains fluttered dreamily from the breeze let in from the open window. Her face was turned towards that view outside, and he could see a sliver of her blue eyes staring out forlornly.
"I," she whispered, just loud enough to be heard from the door, "want to see the red maple leaves."
He stood there, not knowing what to say.
And then the girl turned towards his stiff figure, a bright grin pushing her eyes into crescents. "Well, how was that 'anime beauty on the brink of death reveals her pure hidden wish'?"
Sighing, he walked over next to her bed, dropping the flowers on the desk beside a glass of water. "C."
"Humph!" She pouted and crossed her arms. "I knew I shouldn't have expected anything good from you."
"There were multiple things wrong with your performance. Be glad I didn't fail you."
"How? I practiced that until it was perfect!"
"One, you aren't on the brink of death. Two, red maple leaves? A girl like you should've said something like 'I want to go to the beach' or 'I want to watch the fireworks with you'."
"Oh, really?" she smirked. "Were you perhaps expecting a cute girl to invite you to a summer festival?" Her tone was clearly teasing, but Noah had to fight to keep his face neutral.
"Yeah yeah, as if any guy would want to put up with your whining as you stuff candied apples in your mouth."
"Am I wrong? The last time I was being nice and treated you, you emptied out my wallet."
"You only treated me because you owed me in the first place! Do you know how tiring it is to stand in one place for hours waiting for you to perfect your new shiny magic trick?"
They bickered like usual, and as usual he was the first to give up. After admitting defeat, he only had time to show off a few new tricks before a nurse came in saying that he had to leave so the patient can rest.
"Like I was the one disturbing your 'much needed' peace," he muttered to Bobo as she continued to gloat. The glow of victory made her cheeks less sallow and if he didn't focus she would look exactly the same as she did six months ago.
"Thanks for coming to see me."
"Of course. I'll bring something better to show you next time."
Yellow roses like the sun stood out cheerfully in the lifeless room.
The memory of her staring out the window haunted him at night. He lay awake under the covers, mind looping that soft voice again and again. His heart twinged whenever he remembered "red maple leaves".
She could have said "the ocean". A bright girl like her could easily be seen at the beach, ice cream in hand as she ogled the good-looking people out in the sun. He could easily imagine her laughing in the waves, then getting mad as he snuck up behind her, lamenting "I spent hours working on this hairstyle to match with this swimsuit!"
She could have said the cherry blossoms. Those were harder to accommodate as their time was limited, but a young girl like her could easily be seen under the pink trees, looking up dreamily at the sight. She would be sitting on a checkered cloth, munching on a piece of mochi from the bento box on the side. And she'd squawk as he playfully snatched the mochi from her hands, yelling "there's plenty to go around, why take mine?"
He knew she wouldn't want to see the snow.
But of all things, it had to be maple leaves. It was the one scenario he couldn't imagine himself in.
Their last school trip together was in the fall. After taking a bus they were sent to the foot of a mountain with bags on their back. She had chattered excitedly on how the view was supposed to be amazing, and rumors were that lonely people would find their partners if they stand under a certain tree, but after an hour of hiking she and others had started to grumble and complain at the seemingly endless climb.
But once they did make it, everyone's complaints quieted. A sea of crimson spread out before them, a cool wind gently rippling the branches and causing a soothing rustle. There were a few other people there as well, but otherwise it was as if they were teleported away from desks and cars and the city into the middle of nature. Like magic.
After a short "remember to be careful" lecture from the teacher, the students were let loose to eat lunch. Bobo had ran ahead of him, determined to find the tree from the legends to overturn her loveless life. He had smiled ruefully and followed from a distance as she zeroed in on a tall tree a bit aways from the others.
He should have followed closer.
She screamed as she tripped over a root, landing ungracefully on her chin. He started over to help her, a taunt just on his tongue when someone else made it there before him. The girl looked slightly older than them, and she was wearing casual clothes unlike them in their school uniforms. He couldn't hear her words but he could pick up the tones of concern in her gentle voice as she bent down to pick her up. Seeing how her hands were dirtied from trying to break her fall, the older girl had fished out a handkerchief and wiped away the dirt. Only after Bobo nodded ferociously did she smile and walk away.
"Hey, what did the ground do to you?" he tried to joke, but Bobo had turned around startled at his voice, and her face made him knit his brows.
"Did you hurt yourself? Your face is awfully red."
Upon hearing this remark, she laughed awkwardly and waved a hand around to brush it all off. "It's nothing, probably just the light coming through the leaves. Let's go find a spot to eat lunch." She marched forward resolutely away from the direction the older girl had gone.
He didn't remark that the flush was still present even after they exited the tree's shade.
Red maple leaves. Two people under the shade. A silly urban legend of true love. No matter how he tried, one of those people wasn't him. It was only Bobo and that other girl, both smiling shyly as their hands were connected through a cloth handkerchief.
He groaned and kicked out at his blankets, burrowing his head under his pillow to try and dissipate the memories.
Of how she had nearly dropped her food multiple times looking out for pink hair.
Of how she looked out at the crowd at the train stations, seeking out the uniforms of nearby high schools.
Of how she'd grow distracted, mind clearly elsewhere but not because of her diagnosis like others had thought.
Of how his crush's cheeks were warm, but that warmth didn't belong to him.