It had only been an hour and, already, Tsubame’s brain was fried. Numbers swirled behind her eyes, diagrams and graphs glittering like diamonds so close to comprehension but just out of reach. She wasn’t stupid, she knew that much, but the week before finals had a way of making her feel like it. The air in their hideaway was sticky with humidity and moving felt like swimming. Even Midori’s fan that she’d lugged all the way from home didn’t do much, only sloshing the air around instead of cooling it. Midori lounged like the world’s most awkward cat on the windowsill, thin geometry workbook tilted over her face to block the oppressively bright sun from rousing her. If she didn’t move soon, she’d have a nasty burn when she woke up.
Tsubame decided to call it quits when the kanji in her notes didn’t look real anymore. She’d hit her limit, so instead, she opened her bag with sharp, jerky, unzips that seemed louder than they were in an otherwise silent study session. As she slid her slim sketchbook into her lap, Kanamori glanced over. She had commandeered the only table in their secret base, papers spread out in an esoteric pattern that nobody but her could understand. “You’re giving up already?” she drawled, but her perpetual mocking undertone was gone, and the genuine question remained. “We’ve got another two hours until the Royal Family wants their princess back.”
“Yes, and then I’ll go straight from one tutor to another. The only difference will be how much they’re paid.”
“You pay your other tutors and didn’t tell me?”
“My other tutors do this for a living.”
“Maybe I should just stop helping you if this is how you’re going to treat me.” If Tsubame were speaking to anyone else, she’d give them a real piece of her mind. But this was Kanamori, and Kanamori didn’t really mean anything rude she said to her friends, even if she pretended to. Besides, she needed Kanamori’s help to have a hope of passing, and they both knew it. Kanamori wasn’t mean enough to screw her over on purpose.
“No, please, you can’t just hold my geometry grade ransom like this!”
“Fine, but you’re treating me to strawberry milk the next time we go to the bathhouse,” she reclined and tossed her head to send the glasses perched on her forehead down to her nose, poring back over the textbook on the desk with renewed concentration. Tsubame’s hand twitched and itched for some stationery to fit between her fingers.
“Can I borrow a pen?” Of course she carried some of her own, but Kanamori always had the nice ones, the rollerballs and gels instead of ballpoints. Whenever she signed her name somewhere, she pulled out a fountain pen that cost two thousand yen at the stationery store and looked triple its price.
Over the tops of her square glasses, Kanamori glanced at and then avoided eye contact with Tsubame. “Knock yourself out.” She upended her pencilcase and highlighters, markers, tape, pens, pencils, went skittering across the tabletop. Tsubame settled on a metal mechanical pencil and dropped the rest of Kanamori’s goods back in their container where they belonged. Silence settled back in the cracks of space between them as Kanamori returned to her task and Tsubame to her leisure. Everything she drew looked stilted, strange, unusually posed. The muscles did not form correctly over the skeleton, eyes sunken too deep into the skull. None of it looked like what she knew she was capable of.
Maybe drawing from a live model would help? Before she knew it, Tsubame found her pencil tracing the harsh lines of Kanamori’s face. She wasn’t a cute girl in the traditional sense, but she was an interesting one, all lanky lines, an unusual subject compared to the rest of her usual repertoire of beautiful women and equally beautiful men. There was something in the way she stuck out her tongue and hunched over her work that painted her as an unconventional protagonist. An antihero, or a villain-turned-hero, or even a love interest?
The late afternoon was perfect for a picture like this. She had no way to color Kanamori in. Jagged pencil strokes to convey the shadows cut by Kanamori’s sharp edges would have to do. Thick frames concealed her eyes as Tsubame paid extra attention to the way the sunlight played in her hair. Her usual smirk was gone, replaced with perfect focus. She thought in art and always would, but Kanamori was the only thing on her mind. Once finished, she stared at it and waited for the mistakes to magnify themselves under the microscope and kick her ego while it was down, but none came forward. She could say with perfect certainty that it was one of the best portraits she’d ever drawn.
Tsubame jumped and nearly dropped her sketchbook when Kanamori spoke aloud suddenly. “Whatcha drawing?” she peered over the square table as she pushed her glasses back onto her forehead. Out of instinct, Tsubame shielded her sketchbook like a child.
She bit her tongue to keep silent, but the word “you” slipped out anyway. Kanamori looked delighted, or as delighted as she could look with her limited capacity for expression. “I swear it isn’t weird or anything, you were just right there, and I got distracted!”
“You’re the one making it weird. Let me see.” Kanamori made a grab for it and almost took ahold of it before Tsubame snapped the cover shut with a thunk like the grave digger shoveling lumps of dirt onto the lid of her coffin. She stood up, irritated, phone sliding off her lap where she’d put it on her skirt and onto the floor. She made no move to pick it up and instead glared at it, then returned her attention to Tsubame. “I don’t have any room to judge you, I don’t draw, and I failed first-year middle school art.”
“ Middle school art?”
“Yeah, laugh it up while you still can. You’ve still got to show me, Mizusaki, because I’m the one in the picture. If I knew you were doing portraits, I would have posed or something.”
Peeling open the pages of her sketchbook, Tsubame flipped to the portrait of Kanamori with a funeral dirge ringing in her ears. It was on a fresh page, one of the perforated ones, with nothing on the other side. She wanted to tear it out and throw it out now that its subject had her eyes on it, silent and unreactive. She hated it, she thought it was ugly, she wanted to rip it into a million pieces. “Well?” Tsubame began, voice wavering as she sounded like a kicked puppy, “Do you like it?”
At last the subject spoke. “You drew me so pretty .”
You are, she desperately wanted to add, and she thought it, so it must have been true, even though she didn’t understand its origin, sometimes when you pass me in the halls I forget how to breathe . Maybe those weren’t the kinds of thoughts one had about one of their best friends, but Tsubame knew no different. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Can I have this?”
“Can I have this? You know, to keep?”
“You want it?”
“I wouldn’t ask otherwise.”
Tsubame signed it in a scrawling hand and tore the page out, passing it off like it burnt to be rid of the accursed drawing. “Oh, would you look at the time,” she faked, “my mother just sent me a text demanding me home by five. I’ve got to go.”
“It’s three thirty,” Kanamori pointed out, but didn’t stop her as she blew out the door like a whirlwind, forgetting her blazer in the process. She had to dart back inside for it.
Maybe some would call Sayaka self-absorbed for keeping a drawing of herself taped to the back of her bedroom door, but it was less the subject matter and more its artist that Sayaka wanted to remember every time she walked out of the house in the morning.