October had yet to settle in, but Sara was already up to her neck in schoolwork. There were tests to study for and universities to consider and a school festival to put together, leaving the whole school in a frenzy and minutes away from exploding into stress induced chaos.
It's a wonder she hasn’t gone mad from stress yet, Sara thought as she left the school. It was still light outside, but the sky had turned a brilliant orange-yellow, and she could see the soft purples and pinks in horizon that heralded sunset. A light breeze brushed by her and down the empty street, the chill seeping into her blazer and nipping at her skin like pin pricks. It's uncomfortable, but Sara didn't mind, because it kept her awake and chased the fog that'd been clouding her mind all afternoon.
Suburbs gave way to bustling buildings and empty streets to seas of people as she made her way to the train station. The train was early today, if only by a minute, and Sara was slightly grateful for it; at least she could feel like she'd get home faster now.
Her phone buzzed just as she boarded the train and sat down at the very end of the car. Sara sighed and fished it out of her blazer pocket; she hoped it was from Ryoko or Nao or Kanna, but most likely it was from her class's group text. No doubt asking about the haunted house they were making again.
But when she glanced at the screen, she was pleasantly surprised.
Got off work early. 16:08 pm
Sara smiled slightly, her heart fluttering against her chest as she shrugged off her schoolbag. It was rare for Keiji to get off work early; usually, he’d work late into the night, and they’d only be able to talk during odd hours. As the train trundled out of the station, she typed a reply.
Just left school too 16:29 pm
Long day? 16:30 pm
Yeah ﾍ(;´Д｀ﾍ) 16:31 pm
For a few minutes, she got no response, only three grey dots at the bottom of her screen that showed Keiji was typing. Then—
Where are you now? 16:35 pm
Sara cocked her head, half a dozen theories flashing through her mind as she felt her cheeks heat up. Knowing Keiji...
A few minutes away from Nishi-Nippori 16:37 pm
Why? 16:37 pm
You’ll see soon 16:38 pm
So ominous… 16:39 pm
Overhead, the loudspeakers crackled to life as the train gently rolled to a stop. Sara blinked and got up, her phone still in hand as she grabbed her bag. She let herself be pushed along by the throng of commuters, drifting through the platforms and right to the station's exit. The cold air batted around her legs and face as she stepped out of the dispersing crowd, and Sara wished she’d brought her scarf with her.
Just left the station 16:44 pm
What are you up to? 16:45 pm
Less than a second later, she got her answer.
Look to your left 16:45 pm
She jerked her head up—
There, standing in front of her was Keiji, with a lazy smile and one hand casually tucked into his windbreaker pocket; the other, carrying a small white pastry box. He was panting slightly and his cheeks were a bright red.
Sara let out a sigh that she didn’t even know she’d been holding in as she let her shoulders sag.
“Keiji,” she said, a small smile playing on her lips. “Did you run to meet me?”
Keiji laughed, and ran a hand through his windswept hair. “No, I jogged. Slight difference there.”
“It sounds the same to me.”
“Ouch.” He held out a hand. “Well, should we get going?”
Sara accepted it automatically, unthinkingly. His hands were warm and soft, as they always were, but most of all, she liked how they were large enough to completely envelope her hands in them.
As they walked out of the station and into the quiet suburbs, Sara glanced at box Keiji was holding.
“What did you buy this time?” she asked.
Keiji only grinned in response.
She didn’t even need to think before she answered. “Strawberry shortcake?”
“Yep.” Keiji hummed, entwining his fingers in hers. “Had you in mind when I bought it.”
Despite the cold wind that was picking up, Sara could feel the blood rush to her cheeks and ears, burning red hot. “You don't have to do that,” she half-squeaked. “Really.”
He shrugged. “Thought you’d like something to cheer you up after school. It’s been kinda tough lately, hasn’t it?”
“It has,” Sara admitted. The mere thought of school was enough to make her head pound slightly. “But I think be—I mean, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
She looked away, Keiji's questioning stare boring into her mind.
Keiji raised an eyebrow. “What were you going to say?”
“It's nothing.” Sara bit her tongue and looked away, cursing her exhausted mind for her lack of filter.
“Doesn't seem like nothing.” Keiji smirked. “Keeping something from Mr. Policeman, Sara?”
Sara felt herself blush even harder.
“I’m not keeping anything from you.” Sara muttered, clutching his hand tighter. “I was going to say that...that being with you is enough for me.”
Keiji paused. “Is that so?”
“I wouldn't say it if it wasn't.”
“So honest.” Keiji chuckled and leaned against her slightly, close enough so that Sara could catch whiffs of of petrichor and coffee, a quiet comfort that made her heart thump with each step. “Another reason to love you.”
Sara felt her heart skip a beat as she spluttered, and Keiji watched her, amused. Between his bold affection for her and his teasing, she swore he’d be the death of her one day.
“You’re so direct today.” she remarked, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. “What’s with that?” Still, she gently rested her head on Keiji’s arm, eliciting a small smile from him.
Keiji shrugged. “I appreciate my girlfriend, that's all.”
Sara responded with a very dignified squeaking noise.
They rounded a corner and into a small park that Sara would always cut through to get home. By now, the trees that lined the stone paths were bursting with a riot of autumn colours, the summer green that Sara had grown accustomed to seeing now brilliant reds and oranges. Leaves dotted the grass and stone, crackling beneath her shoes as she and Keiji passed through in silence.
Sara wondered if they could walk through here again on their next date.
The park soon gave way to suburbs again, and before Sara knew it, they’d reached her front door. In the distance, she could see the sun already below the horizon as twilight began to settle in, casting long shadows over the empty streets.
“Here we are.” Keiji said, his voice neutral.
Sara felt her stomach drop a little as she reluctantly let go of his hand. Their walk had ended too quickly for her liking, and for once, she wished it took her longer to get home.
“Thanks for walking me home, Keiji,” she replied. “It was nice.” She tugged on her schoolbag's strap, trying not to think of all the homework she'd have to do, and looked him in the eye. “I wouldn’t mind doing something like this again.”
“I wouldn’t mind either.” Keiji handed her the pastry box, a pensive look on his face. “If only we both weren’t so busy, huh?”
“Yeah.” A thought suddenly struck her, and she looked away. “If you want…my school festival is coming up.”
Surprise flickered over Keiji's face for the briefest second, like a deer in headlights, before he laughed.
“I'm honoured,” he chuckled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “that'd you'd want to share your springtime of youth with me.”
Sara looked down at her shoes, her stomach churning. Was he mocking her?
“You don't have to if you don't want to,” she said.
Keiji ran a hand through his hair. “No, I wouldn't miss it for the world,” he said softly. He looked almost cute when he was caught off guard, Sara thought. She wondered if she should pull something like this on him again, just to see his reaction. “Just surprised, that's all.”
“Mm. Suppose it is.” He suddenly leaned in close, and Sara felt a lump rise to her throat. “Really can't wait to see what you're cooking up. But for now, I guess this will be enough.”
Before she could react, Keiji kissed her.
Stars burst into her vision, dazzling and brief as her head spun, fading into blurs and the feeling of Keiji’s lips on hers. She opened her mouth just a little, if only to steal a breath, and Keiji took the opportunity to deepen their kiss, entangling his hands in her hair as he ran the tip of his tongue across the roof of her mouth. And Sara reciprocated, kissing him back with equal ferocity, relishing the rough feel of his lips on her tongue and his scent on her skin, a heedy, intangible heaven that she wouldn't mind going on into forever.
It did feel like forever, but Keiji eventually pulled away from her, his face flushed and warm. Sara took a step back as well, her chest heaving as she took in greedy gulps of air, her heart pounding wildly out of control. She could hear the blood rushing to her ears, the adrenaline still in her veins as her breathing steadied and her mind grew clear again.
“I still have homework to do,” she said, pouting half seriously. “I can't get distracted.” It hadn't even been a minute since they'd kissed, but she already missed his warmth.
Keiji grinned, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “Don't worry. I'll take responsibility.”
Red hot shivers rippled down her spine as Sara nearly choked in surprise.
“That's not what I meant!”
“I know, I know. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. You're just too cute to resist.” He pressed another gentle kiss to her lips, and Sara felt her mind go blank. “Does that make up for it?”
“For now” —She turned away, her face now burning, and fumbled for her house keys— “I'll see you later!”
And Sara all but flung herself into her house, Keiji's carefree farewell echoing in her ears.
(Hours later, her lips were still warm.)