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i.

Yotsuba Sayo was the interesting sort of character, Nonoka thought, one that would surely be the protagonist if given the chance, tall and blond and pretty. 

The first time they'd interacted, Sayo was giving a speech as the new student representative. But Sayo didn't remember that, because they'd hadn't spoken then, not until Nonoka was outside the gym, looking through the window, but Sayo hadn't seen her either. No, it wasn't until Sayo flagged her down to say hi, because they were in the same class, and Nonoka felt like an ant, small and minute under Sayo's imposing figure, taller than her by almost an entire head.

"I'm Yotsuba Sayo," she'd said.

"I know," Nonoka replied sheepishly. "Everyone in our class knows who you are, you're our representative."

Sayo simply threw back her head and laughed.  "Of course, my bad. You're Sugiura Nonoka, aren't you?"

Nonoka nodded, a little dumbstruck that Sayo knew her name. "Yeah, that's me." Fearing that the conversation would end, she hastened to find her words, tripping over them as they tumbled out of her mouth. "I, uh, I saw you the other day. Climbing, wasn't it?"

"Oh!" A smile spread across her face, and Sayo then seemed like a whole other person, human, even, less like a perfect standard to look up to. "Yeah, I climb. I wanna compete in the world championships someday and make climbing popular everywhere."

"Whoa," Nonoka breathed, eyes wide. "That's amazing."

"Do you want to try it?" Sayo offered. "I can take you."

Every time she spoke, Nonoka found herself inching closer, wanting to know more, drawn to her like a moth to light. "Yeah. Yeah, that would be lovely."

 

 

ii.

“Shoe size?”

“23,” Nonoka replied.

The teen sitting at the counter ducked his head under and rummaged around until he dropped a pair of shoes down on the counter. 

“Thanks, Kou-nii,” Sayo said. Nonoka picked up the shoes, feeling the unfamiliar rubber and fabric covering. The teen grunted in affirmation, and they moved further into the gym. Nonoka gazed up in awe at the walls, one side with short walls and thick, padded mats, the other side with taller walls and ropes stretching from the ceiling in pairs, with the same padded mats. Black benches were scattered throughout, and Sayo led her to the far side of the gym, shouldering off her backpack and putting it into one of the cubbies underneath the bench.

“Go on, put them on,” Sayo said, gesturing to the shoes she held. “Keep your socks on for now, those aren’t exactly the cleanest things.”

Nonoka tugged on the laces of her sneakers and took them off, pulling on the right shoe. A pair of hands reached out and cradled her foot, tightening the velcro strap for her. At that moment, Nonoka was sure her heart stopped. She tried not to make it awkward, but that was hard when Sayo was mere centimeters from her, and as Nonoka took a shallow breath, she could smell Sayo's lavender shampoo. Her body felt stiff, and she was frozen, head pounding. Then, Sayo leaned backward on her heels, and Nonoka could move again. 

“These shoes help grip the wall better, with the stiff rubber sole,” Sayo explained. Lucky for Nonoka, she hadn’t noticed her freezing up. She stepped away, taking a seat on the other side of the bench. “Our street shoes are softer and they slide off when you try climbing. It shouldn’t be too tight, but it should grip your foot well enough.”

“Thank you for helping me, with,” Nonoka waved a hand around, “you know, all of this.” She slipped her other shoe on and did the velcro strap herself, not sure her heart could handle it again if Sayo came any closer.

“Of course. What kind of mentor would I be if I didn’t do this properly?”

“You’re a great mentor,” Nonoka said under her breath before she had time to think about it, then recoiled, eyes darting around.

“Sorry, did you say something?”

“Oh, nothing!” Nonoka could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, but she waved Sayo off nevertheless. “I was just thinking to myself.”

“Alright, then. Are you ready to climb?”

 Nonoka nodded, and Sayo smiled, beckoning her over.

“Great. This is bouldering,” she explained, pointing at the shorter walls in front of them. “These ones use crash pads because ropes are too long, plus, they would just get in the way with some of the moves.” She grinned. “Personally, I like lead--that’s the ropes, for another time, but lead needs two people. Bouldering is something you can technically do by yourself, but a spotter is best if you’re working on a really hard problem. Also, you’d need a certificate to belay for lead, but almost anyone can spot with a little practice.”

Nonoka’s head spun with all the new words. Boulder, lead, spotter, belay . She must have looked lost because Sayo quickly jumped in again.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to overwhelm you with all this new information.” She laughed. “I keep forgetting not everyone understands all the terminology. Right now, you can just get on the wall and climb whatever you want. You can try the routes another time if you’d like.”

There would be a second time? Nonoka’s heart soared. She stepped forward onto the mats, eager to climb. Moving upward came as easily as breathing. She quickly clambered upward, hands reaching for holds and quickly moving her feet until she reached the top with a triumphant whoop. Suddenly, the ground seemed so far away. Nonoka gripped the top of the wall with both hands, turning her head to look down at Sayo.

“What do I do now?”

“Jump!” Sayo called. “The mat will catch you!”

Nonoka jumped, landing on her feet.

“How was it?” Sayo turned to her expectantly.

“It was great.” Nonoka beamed, brushing off her shorts. She exhaled a breath, pleased with herself for making it to the top so quickly. At first glance, the walls had been so daunting, but now that she’d tried it, she loved it.

“Pick another wall.” Sayo spread her hands. “The gym is ours.”

They spent two hours in the gym, taking turns climbing. Sayo showed her how to climb the routes, and she scaled them with relative ease.

“You’re a natural at this,” Sayo told her while she gulped down water. “Have you ever gone climbing before?”

Nonoka swallowed and stepped away from the water fountain, shaking her head. “No, this is my first time.”

“Well, whatever this is, beginner’s luck or talent, it’s fascinating to watch. You looked perfectly comfortable on the walls, after you got over the height thing.”

“Yeah, it’s a little jarring to be so high up, but I think I’ve gotten used to it. I wanna do this again.” She flexed her hands, opening and closing them. Her body ached but in a good way, her adrenaline pumping. She felt like she could climb a thousand more walls and still not be tired.

“Well,” Sayo gave her a sly look, “Do you want to compete with me?”

Nonoka didn’t even have to think about her answer. “Absolutely.”

 

iii.

“So, this is a game called Add On,” Sayo said, tapping an orange jug on the slab wall. “It’s pretty self-explanatory. I pick the starting holds, and then make one move. Then you have to follow that route and add on a hold of your choosing, and we both go until one of us falls off. It’s better with more people, but for now, I think it’ll be alright. Make sure to tap the wall twice to show you have control, though. With your opposite hand, here, I’ll show you.”

Sayo grabbed the jug, adjusting her feet. “This is the start hold. And then this will be the next one.” She put her hand on a black hold to her right, using her free hand to tap the wall twice before hopping off the wall. “Your turn.”

Nonoka closed her eyes, committing the route to memory. When she opened them, she positioned her hands to climb. It started simple enough, but she knew that it would only get harder from here. She was playing against Sayo, who had years upon years of experience, while she’d only been climbing for four months. She adjusted her feet and picked a small teal foot chip, quickly tapping the wall with her right hand. And so on it went, with them alternating moves until Nonoka slipped. Even though Sayo had been going easy on her, it was only a matter of time before it happened.

Sayo reached a hand out and helped her to her feet. “Again? You can start this time.”

“Sure.”

Nonoka picked up her chalk bag and wandered over to the other end of the slab wall, reaching for the small brush on the side of her chalk bag. She scrubbed at the side of a green pincher, then tucked the brush back in its elastic band. Reaching out, she tested her grip. Not bad. She decided that would be her starting hold, eyes sweeping over the bottom of the wall to look for footholds. There was a black volume running along the bottom of the wall, so she stepped up, one foot at a time. Nonoka edged her feet apart until she could balance without having to hold onto the wall, loosely gripping her chosen start hold with her left hand, tapping the wall with the other. That was rather easy , she thought to herself. Nonoka hopped backward, landing on the mat with both feet. She took a step away to let Sayo advance towards the wall.

She liked this. Just the two of them, creating and solving their own route together, reaching new heights that would have made the younger Nonoka quake at the sight. But there was no use dwelling on the past. Instead, she would head into the early tomorrow where all the possibilities lay open for her to reach out and take them.



vi.

She'd been staring at the route for over five minutes now, long enough that in a competition, her time would be over even before she set a foot on a hold. In her head, she envisioned the beta clearly, but when it came to the first crux, she found herself at an impasse. She knew where she had to go, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get there, and her first few attempts hadn’t gone as planned. Dozens of others had already gone before her, some succeeding, most failing. However, the one thing that united those who sent the route was this: all of them were taller than her by at least 10 centimeters.

Sayo was on the other side of the bay, chalking up her hands for a particularly nasty V8. Nonoka knew this because, before practice, they'd gone around the gym together marking out problems to try. The gym had reset their problems yesterday.

"Look, the holds are sharp," Sayo had said, running her hand over the start hold, the other hand unconsciously moving up to mimic the beta in her head. "They feel awful, though."

Nonoka marked it down in her notebook. V8, red, 10 degrees incline, though she didn’t expect to flash it or even send it today. For one, it was too high of a grade to really be in her range, and two, the slab was more of her thing, but Sayo insisted that she needed to practice all the wall types because, in competitions, there would be no choice.

She was right, of course, but Nonoka had wasted fifteen minutes now, standing in front of the 45-degree inclined wall, and she still hadn't sent the problem. Of course, Sayo said she flashed it, but that was Sayo for you. Sayo, who was near definition perfect and the poster girl for youth competitive sport climbing. Yotsuba Sayo, The Princess of Lead, and Sugiura Nonoka, ruler of nothing, holder of no title.

Nonoka closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was no point in moping like this. At the end of the day, climbing was a competition between you and the wall, and it fell on you to prepare adequately or be humbled. She picked up her chalk bag from the mat and dusted her hands before stepping forward and placing her hands, wincing at the touch of the slopers. Unfortunately, the starting holds were the best holds on the route. She placed her feet on the little chips and started upward.

The point of this route was to move quickly and efficiently until you reached the top. By all means, it was a straightforward problem: a V6, something that Nonoka would usually easily conquer on 10-meter walls with equivalent grading, but in bouldering, flexibility was only one factor amongst many. Muscle mass. Core. Analytical skills. Height. Any one of them could be the key to success or failure. Bouldering and Lead may have fallen under the same sport, but the skillsets for both could vary widely.

Nonoka eased her foot off the wall, crossing them over each other, careful not to cut feet. That would be sloppy footwork, a voice said in her head, one that sounded exactly like Sayo. Precision is key, Nonoka, watch where you place your feet.

She reached up, and her fingertips scraped the bottom of the hold, right where it met the wall. Too short. Nonoka stretched her arm and succeeded in touching the bolt hole, but the grip of her right hand was shaky, shaky enough that there was no way she would be able to do the move statically. Her foot slipped. Nonoka bit back a yelp as she tumbled to the ground, the mat cradling her as she landed.

She got back up. Took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders. She could do this. She walked forward and exclaimed the offending hold from the ground. So that was the problem. Nonoka could barely see the hold at all; it was covered in so much chalk that there was less friction between her shoe and the hold. She pulled her brush from her chalk bag and scrubbed away at it, blowing away all the excess chalk built up until the red resin revealed itself.

“Any luck?” Nonoka stumbled backward, and the brush flew out of her hands. Sayo reached out, catching it neatly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said quickly. “I was just brushing the hold, the chalk’s really built up.”

Sayo gave her a wry smile. “Do you need some beta?”

Nonoka shook her head. “I think I’m alright. It wouldn’t work for me anyway, I’m too short.”

“Alright. Go again, it’ll be this time for sure.”

Nonoka approached the wall. Dusted her hands, feeling the pressure of Sayo’s eyes on her. She didn’t want to let her down, did she?

She climbed. And she fell. And she got back up, went back at it, Sayo’s encouragement ringing in her ears.

“Come on,” Sayo called. “You can do it!”

Nonoka reached for the hold. And she fell again. So she got back up. Each time she went for the route, she fell again. And again. And again. Nonoka let out a breath, feeling her confidence drift away. So she lay there, on the mat, eyes closed until a voice spoke.

“It’s okay, Nono-chan. You’ll get it next time.”



v.

(

“Hey.” Sayo reached a hand out to her. Nonoka took it, and Sayo helped her up. "Try again. You'll get it, and I'll be right here, cheering you on. I know you can do it."

"Promise?" I don’t want you to leave. Don't leave me, wandering on my own.

"Promise.” You’re not leaving. “Also, you can’t lie on the mat. They don’t like it when we do that."

“Oh. sorry.”

“It’s okay, you didn’t know. Actually, you know what? Why don’t we take a break and get some water?”

)

 

vi.

“I didn’t start climbing V6s until last year, did you know that?” Sayo shucked off her shoes and started digging around in her bag. Nonoka took her shoes off as well, flicking open her water bottle.

“Really?”

“Uh-huh.” She zipped her bag back up, having found her snack.

Nonoka stared at her, bottle halfway to her mouth. “But you’ve been climbing for so long, and you’re on V8s now.”

“Yeah, because it took time. I didn’t really have anyone to coach me through the process. My dad tried, but it wasn’t really his thing.” Sayo took a bite of her protein bar, chewed, and swallowed. “So it’s really impressive you’ve come so far this fast.”

Nonoka ducked her head. “I think the credit should go to you, after all, you’ve been helping me.”

“No, no. You have real, genuine talent. Inclines just don’t seem to be your thing because of your height. Each climber has their own thing that they’re good at, we’ll find it.”

“You have so much confidence.”

“I think you should have more confidence in yourself.” Sayo patted her encouragingly on the shoulder. “You deserve it.”

Nonoka took a deep breath. Sayo smiled at her, silently telling her: you can do it.

(She could conquer the world fueled by that smile alone.)

There was no point in letting the wall win when she had the means to fight to the top with everything she had. Even if it meant going centimeter by centimeter.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Sayo got to her feet. “We should stretch. You know, there's no harm in taking a break every now and then, it's good not to overwork yourself.”

Nonoka pulled off her shoes, wiggling her toes, letting them breathe. She grabbed her chalk bag and tossed it into her cubby along with her shoes before padding barefoot across the gym floor to the yoga room where Sayo had already pulled out two mats, claiming one for herself.

“Have you thought about where you want to go for high school?” Nonoka asked as she sat.

“Hanamiya,” Sayo said instantly, switching the arm she was stretching, folded her right arm behind her back, placing her left hand on her elbow.

“But they don’t have a climbing team.” Nonoka bent her legs,  feet touching and leaned forward, pressing her palms to the ground in a butterfly position, recalling what she learned from when she scrolled through the school’s website. “I mean, you can still compete on your own, but what about the other schools with established teams? Have you considered any of those?”

“I think we can make our own, can’t we? My dad will let me know. Besides, it would be a bit weird to become teammates with the people I’ve been competing with for so long. Just for the mentality and all of that.”

“That’s true,” Nonoka said thoughtfully. She hadn’t thought of it like that.

“What about you?” Sayo asked. “Applications are closing soon.”

“I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. St Caterno’s?”

Sayo snorted. “They’re such a boring school. So prissy and uptight.”

“Like I said, I haven’t really thought of it.” Nonoka flipped onto her back and pushed her arms up into a bridge, arching her back. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out, though.”

She moved through the rest of her stretches in quick succession. They wiped down their mats in silence, then rolled them back up into the closet where they resided. Nonoka trailed a little bit behind Sayo as they returned to their cubbies. 

“Alright, see you next time.” Sayo waved.

“Bye, Sayo.” They parted ways at the door, Sayo unlocking her bike from the rack. Nonoka headed for the station, digging in her jacket pocket for her bus pass.

“Bye, Nono-chan.”

That night, she sat in front of the computer and went through the Hanamiya application in one sitting.

“Hanamiya?” her dad asked, peering over her shoulder. “That’s a nice school. I’m glad you see you’re applying to schools.”

“Yeah,” Nonoka said, feeling slightly foolish and exhilarated at the same time. She hit the submit button, and the screen whooshed away, letting her know that it’d sent a confirmation email to her inbox. “It is.”

 

vii.

“Oh, they reset the 10-20.” Sayo frowned when they entered for practice two weeks later. “That’s a pity, I had a couple more routes that I wanted to climb. The 45 still seems to have all of its climbs through, you could have another go at the red V6.” 

“Maybe after I warm up,” Nonoka said, giving the offending wall a dubious look. The wall, being a wall, did nothing.

Sayo pursed her lips in thought. “We could project today, that would be fun. There aren’t any competitions coming up soon, are there?”

“Not that I know of. It’s a couple months away, at the least, and the season is wrapping up soon.”

Sayo beamed at her. “You’re so knowledgeable. Look at you, less than a year and you’ve got everything down.”

“I’ve got a pretty good memory,” Nonoka said, feeling her cheeks color at the praise. “It’s not a really big deal.”

“Still. To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure when the next competition was. That’s not good though, I should know.” Sayo barked out a short laugh.

“It’s on the calendar,” Nonoka pointed out, gesturing to the large chalkboard at the front of the gym. The owners of the gym tried to support the two of them any way they could, despite not being able to provide coaches for them, which included giving them their own spot on the gym calendar.

“I guess I’ve just been a bit distracted lately. I’ll try to pay more attention.”

Nonoka dropped her backpack into a cubby and started her cardio warmup, turning on the treadmill. Sayo hopped onto the elliptical a few machines down. Nonoka stared down the machine below her, feeling the band roll under her feet as she jogged on. At ten minutes, she lowered the speed to a walk before coming to a stop, taking a deep breath in and out. Grabbing a disposable cloth, she wiped down the handles and disposed of it in the trash, swinging her arms in smaller circles forwards, then backward, slowly increasing in size.

Once she’d done two rounds of traversing, she headed over to tackle the wall. Sayo was still stretching out her limbs, but she’d told Nonoka long ago that as long as she felt warm, her warm-up could be as long as short as she liked.

“Just don’t get injured,” Sayo added.

“Yes ma’am,” Nonoka had joked. They laughed it off.

Sayo liked to be vigilant, but Nonoka’s veins thrummed in anticipation too much to wait for her. It was a new day, and she was ready to climb. Besides, it didn’t take two to boulder. That much she could do on her own.

It was going to be a good day. She could feel it.

She dusted her hands twice. Read the route three times. Clapped the excess chalk off of her palms, watching the dust billow into the air and whirl away. Walked up to the wall, resting her hands on the start holds. Took a deep breath, eyes tracking the route for the last time before she ascended.

And she climbed. Her hands hit the holds without flaw. She felt her shoe slot neatly in place, propelling her further and further up the wall. She tightened her legs, bending them, and then she jumped, conquering the hold that had plagued her for so long. Her legs swung in the air, but she managed to get them back under control. Nonoka shook out her arms, then continued climbing, hand over foot. But then, right as she’d almost reached the top, she stumbled, her foot missing the hold by barely a millimeter, and before she realized what had happened, she was right back on the mat where she started.

She sighed in disappointment, but she rolled over and got right back up, determined to tackle the wall again, swingline through the motions like water. Chalk. Give the holds a quick swipe of her brush. Hand. Foot. Match. Edge fingers slightly over so she could reach the next hold. She’d done this part so many times, both in her head and reality that she could probably have done it in her sleep by now, but that was no excuse for slacking. Nonoka climbed on, letting her determination fuel her, stopping right where she’d fallen earlier. She adjusted her grip, her eyes landing on a foothold that her many readthroughs had missed, right around the corner, barely out of sight. Bingo. That was what she’d been missing all along.

Nonoka stretched her right foot out, feeling it land solidly on the red resin, then pulled her arms up. She secured her right hand on the last hold, easing her weight over for her left hand to curl around the top of the wall, quickly matching to secure herself, letting her feet dangle from underneath her. Nonoka glanced down at the ground below her.

She’d done it.

Nonoka exhaled, feeling a wave of relief drench her. She climbed halfway down, angling her legs back onto the wall, then jumped, the soft mat catching her fall. She’d done it. She’d done it, and now, her mind was spinning with the probabilities the adrenaline rush sent through her mind.

You didn't have to be the best in the world, Nonoka decided, to do what you enjoyed. And she did enjoy climbing. She really, really did.

 

viii.

"Jun, you scoundrel!" Konomi cried out in outrage. "That hold sucks!"

Jun raised a hand in full view and slowly rapped her fist against the rock face. Knock, knock. 

Konomi groaned. Sayo laughed. "Konomin, you were the one who asked if there were any games in climbing. You were the one who wanted to play."

Jun detached herself from the wall and dropped down to the mat. "Your turn, Nono-san."

Nonoka reached into the chalk bag, rubbing her hands together. In her head, she envisioned herself tackling the holds one by one until she was in the same position as Jun was, on the underside of the wall.

She exhaled a breath and jumped up to the start holds, pulling her feet up and until they rested on their own respective holds. Now, for the route.

She reached for the hold and pulled back. Now, she understood Konomi’s annoyance, having not been able to see it earlier. Jun had picked a spinner. Nonoka had to give it to her, that girl was talented. Having the slightest wrong angle while holding that one and tapping could cause any lesser climber to fall.

Adjusting her grip on the left hold, Nonoka reached for the right hold again and pulled at the edge. It spun on the bolt. Time for a change of plans. She moved her right hand back to its previous hold and pulled herself closer to the wall as she unlatched her feet, slotting them over a large purple hold.

She let go of the wall.

“A bat hang!?” Konomi shrieked. “Are all of you out to get me?”

Nonoka, still upside down, twisted her body backward and waved at her friends. Konomi put her head in her hands. Jun shot her an unamused look. Sayo gave her a fond smile, and with that, Nonoka almost lost her concentration. Her hands reached back up for the holds to steady herself. Focus, Nonoka.  

She settled on an off-white pocket as her next hold, gingerly testing her fingers. It held. Nonoka knocked twice in quick succession, moving her feet so she could land on them and letting go, rolling back on the mat to catch herself. She exhaled a breath, trying to catch her composure. The climb itself hadn’t been particularly difficult, but her forearms were already pumped.

“Konomin, you’re up. Nono, can’t lay on the mat,” Sayo reprimanded, but there was warmth in her voice. “You know that.”

“Sorry, Sayo. I was just about to get up.” Nonoka rolled onto her stomach and got to her feet, moving her chalk bag out of Konomi’s drop zone. She took a seat on the bench next to Jun.

Konomi reached up for the start holds. “I don’t even want to know how you guys started going down on an inclined wall where you’re supposed to climb up .”

“Well, that’s half the fun, isn’t it?” Nonoka told her. “It’s all part of the game, getting to do things here that we normally can’t do.”

“I vote we do campus Add-On next,” Jun chimed in. Nonoka smiled at the challenge. At this point, the walls didn’t quite faze her anymore. Campusing wasn’t her strength, but she would manage just fine. After all, it was just another part of climbing. She might not have been perfect, but no one was.

Sayo raised her eyebrows. “Sure, Jun. But first, we have to finish this game.”