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Michiko hesitated outside the classroom door. Butterflies did cartwheels over the elephants marching inside her tummy, and it was only the knowledge that Akira-nii would be very disappointed in her that kept her from running back down the hall and out the door.
Technically, she figured she was supposed to be happy. After a year and a half of arguing with the schools, Akira-nii had finally been able to have Michi moved to a classroom of her proper level. Primary school grades were divided by class. The students who scored the highest marks were put into Class 1, and then the next highest into Classes 2, 3 and 4. Students with any kind of a disability or special need were either put into Class 5, or into a special program. Michiko wasn't severely disabled or handicapped, but her hearing problems and difficulties in focusing had automatically had her slotted into Class 5 – despite her higher than average test marks.
Akira-nii had been really angry, and had been demanding that Michiko be put into a class that would challenge her ever since. 'If I'd known this would happen, I wouldn't have mentioned her having a mild hearing condition,' he'd told the school's guidance counselor angrily. Michiko didn't really like being in Class 5. Some of the students there were scary. Two of them were older than her, old enough to be in grades three and five respectively, but they were unable to do more than basic work. The teacher was someone Akira-nii called 'a patronizing idiot'. Michiko wasn't quite sure what patronizing meant, but it couldn't have been good.
Her teacher had always spoken very slowly to her, shouting at times, even though Michiko could hear perfectly fine when she was paying attention, and sitting close to the board. She didn't know why the teacher praised her so lavishly for doing the simplest of tasks, but she figured it had something to do with that 'patronizing' word again, and let it go.
But now she was being put into Grade two, class two as a result of her latest test marks that had come back. It was a trial run, to see if she could handle it. Kamio-nii had told her that it was very important that she pay close attention to her lessons, and had asked the teacher to let her sit close to the front of the room. The teacher had agreed. Michiko liked her. Midori Koizumi – Koizumi-sensei – was very pretty, and she smiled a lot. Michiko hoped she would be able to stay there. She seemed a lot nicer than Onada-sensei.
The headmaster was looking at her. "Ready, Michiko-chan?" Yutaka Fujikawa was a tall man, and he had scared Michiko on the first day of school with his deep voice. But he had a nice smile, and he never shouted at her like she couldn't hear all the time.
"Yes," she said in a small voice. She wasn't sure if that was really true or not, but there wasn't much else she could say. "I'm ready."
Fujikawa-sensei knocked on the door, and a minute later, a short girl with long black hair tied up in twisty pigtails, opened it. "Sensei!"
"Koizumi-sensei?" Fujikawa-sensei entered the classroom with Michiko trailing slowly behind. All chatter in the room stopped as forty pairs of eyes focused on her. "I have your new student for you."
"Ah, Michiko-chan!" Koizumi-sensei moved to the front of the class, smiling warmly. Michiko tentatively smiled back. "Welcome to class two! We're about to draw a picture of our favorite animals so we can discuss them." Koizumi-sensei bowed her head at Fujikawa. "Thank you for bringing her."
"My pleasure. Enjoy your new class, Michiko-chan," Fujikawa said, and Michiko watched, a little forlornly, as he left her there.
"Now then, where should we we put you?"
"Umm..." Michiko coughed, a little embarrassed. "My brother... he... he asked..."
"Ah, to have you sit near the front?" Koizumi-sensei nodded. "I remember. And it just so happens that one of our groups that sits in the front has an opening!" She raised her voice a little. "Panda-group, raise your hands!"
A group of three students sitting by the window in front of the teacher's desk raised their hands. There were two girls and one boy. The boy was smiling – he looked friendly. So did the girl with the pale brown, nearly gray hair. The other girl was the one who had opened the door, and she had a suspicious look on her face. There was a chair between the gray-haired girl and the boy. Michiko swallowed hard and headed over.
"Michiko, all of our students are in groups named after something in the unit we're studying in English class. The unit right now is 'animals'. You're now part of the Panda group." Koizumi-sensei introduced the other students. "This is Michiko-chan. Michiko, this is Ken-kun."
Ken-kun waved at her. "Hi Michiko-chan!"
Koizumi-sensei pointed to the girl with the twisty braids. "This is Marika-chan."
"Your name is too close to mine," Marika-chan complained. "People will get us mixed up."
"It will be fine, Marika-chan," Koizumi-sensei said firmly. "And Michiko-chan, this is Yuzuyu-chan."
The gray-brown haired girl stared at her with wide brown eyes. Michiko blinked in surprise – did she have something on her face? Her clothes?
"Wow," the girl said in an awed voice. "Your hair is really pretty!"
Michiko blushed. "Thank you," she said, smiling timidly. "My nii-chan put the ponytails in for me."
Yuzuyu-chan beamed. "Kippei onii-chan does my hair too," she said. "Does your Onii-chan pull the tangles too?"
"'Kira-nii stopped doing that a long time ago," Michi said. "He's really good at doing hair now."
Marika-chan frowned. "Both of you have onii-chans?" She pouted and folded her arms. "That's not fair – why can't I have a cool onii-chan?"
"Don't mind Marika-chan," Ken-kun told Michiko with a grin. "She complains about everything."
"I do not!"
Michiko smiled as the two of them started bickering. Yuzuyu-chan had a smile on her face as she watched them, which meant they probably did this a lot. It reminded her of 'Kira-nii and 'Kaya-nii fighting over what movie to watch before Sachiko popped a cartoon in the VCR and ended the conflict. It was reassuring. Class 2 didn't seem so scary after all.
"So what's your favorite animal?" Yuzuyu-chan asked, handing her a piece of paper. "Do you have crayons? You can use mine if you don't."
"Thank you," Michiko said. "I like rabbits. And dogs."
"I like rabbits too!" Yuzuyu-chan said, clapping her hands. "But I really like drawing bears."
"She draws good bears," Ken-kun confirmed. "I like tigers best, but I can't draw them."
"Everyone knows unicorns are the best animal," Marika-chan said, wielding her pink marker with a flourish.
Yuzuyu-chan coughed. "I think we're supposed to draw a 'real' animal," she pointed out gently.
Marika-chan whined. Ken-kun laughed. Yuzuyu-chan comforted.
Michiko watched and smiled. Yes, she had a feeling she was going to like Class 2.
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"Now remember," Koizumi-sensei said, looking around the classroom. "Each group will pick a habit from the list and act it out, showing both the good and bad sides. For example, how can we act out 'littering'?" Michiko raised her hand timidly, and Koizumi-sensei smiled at her. "Yes, Michiko-chan?"
"Someone can throw garbage on the floor. That's the bad habit," she said quietly.
Koizumi-sensei nodded. "And the good habit?"
Yuzuyu-chan waved her hand. "Another person can pick up the garbage," she said. "They can put it in the bin, and tell the bad person they shouldn't put it on the ground."
"Very good!" Koizumi-sensei clapped her hands. "Okay groups, when you've decided what habit you want to do, come and tell me. Then you have the rest of the class to practice what your group is going to do. Tomorrow, we'll act them out."
"I like the 'littering' one," Ken said. "That's easy for us to do."
"I am not picking up garbage," Marika snorted, folding her arms. "If we do that, I get to be the person telling the other one not to do it. There's four of us – someone else can pick up garbage."
"I'll do it," Michiko volunteered. "I don't mind."
"That means me and Ken-kun will be the ones littering," Yuzuyu said with a small frown. "I don't like littering."
"It's not like we're really littering," Ken-kun told her reassuringly. "They're gonna be teaching us the good thing to do, remember?"
Yuzuyu nodded. "Okay. As long as we don't really litter."
Marika rolled her eyes. "Duh, Yuzuyu-chan. We're acting. It's not real." Her eyes went wide as she stared off into the distance. "I wonder what I should wear for tomorrow when we act in front of the class?"
Ken, Yuzuyu and Michiko looked at each other and giggled.
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"Mmm... this chocolate bar is delicious!" Yuzuyu said, pretending to take a bite out of her 'chocolate bar' – which was a ruler covered with paper that had been colored brown. A second piece of blue paper had been wrapped around it, and she held it in her hand as she looked around. "I don't see a bin."
"That's okay," Ken said. He was pretending to drink from an empty juice box he'd rescued from the recycling bin. "Just throw it on the ground. No one will care." He threw his box on the floor as an example, and Yuzuyu followed suit.
"Stop!" commanded Marika. She winked cheekily, and crossed her arms, extending her pinky and index fingers. "In the name of the recycling, I'll punish you!"
"Marika-chan," Ken groaned. "Stick to what we planned."
"Mine is so much more interesting," she said pouting, but she rolled her eyes and obediently recited the lines they'd decided on earlier. "You shouldn't throw your garbage on the ground."
"Yeah," Michiko said, scurrying forward to pick up the juice box and the chocolate 'wrapper'. "If there's no bin close by, you should carry your garbage with you until you find one."
"I still say that's unsanitary," Marika huffed quietly.
"Fine, fine... "
"But it's just one box and one paper," Yuzuyu stated with a puzzled look on her face.
"Yes, but think what would happen if everyone did that," Marika lectured. She waggled her finger at the two litterbugs. "If everyone who had just 'one paper' and just 'one box' put it on the ground..."
"..The world would quickly be a very dirty place," Michiko finished. She handed the litter back to Yuzuyu and Ken, who accepted them with guilty looks. "Throw it in the bin."
"Okay, we will," Yuzuyu said quietly.
"We're sorry," Ken added contritely. "We won't litter again."
All four of them bowed automatically as they finished their rehearsal. Michiko straightened, smiling at the group. "I think that looked pretty good," she said.
"I agree," came a voice from behind them. The four of them looked to see Koizumi-sensei smiling at them. "I was watching you practice. I think you'll do a very good job tomorrow. And maybe you can show this off at the next Open Class so your parents and family members can see it too."
Marika preened. "My mother says I'm a natural actress," she declared. "Of course, my group is going to be the best tomorrow."
Ken poked her in the arm. "Your group?"
Michiko frowned. Next week would be her first Open Class. An Open Class was when family members were invited to watch the class, and sometimes even participate. 'Kira-nii had class during the day. "I don't know if my brother can make it," she said sadly.
Marika looked confused. "So? Ask someone else in your family to come."
Michiko shrank into her seat. Yuzuyu and Ken exchanged a quick glance, and then Yuzuyu sent a reproving look at Marika. "Marika-chan, that's not nice," she said. "Not everyone has the same kind of family you do." She looked at Michiko. "I know how you feel, Michiko-chan. My brother has class too. My aunt, or my grandparents, or even Reiko-nii-sama might be able to come, but it won't be the same if Kippei-nii doesn't."
"Kippei-san..." Marika said dreamily. "Yuzuyu-chan, you have to make Kippei-san come to Open Class. You have to!"
"'Kira-nii is really busy," Michiko said slowly. "It takes him an hour to get to school on the bus, and he's on the high school tennis team, so he has lots of practices. If he misses one, his Buchou might get angry."
"That's okay," Ken said. "Not everyone is going to have someone there. Some people in the class don't have grandparents, and their parents can't come to all of them because they have to work."
"But it's my first Open Class," Michiko protested. There had been no Open Classes for class five, or the special classes she'd always been placed in before. "I've never been in one before."
"Never?" Marika looked astonished. Her brows furrowed. "Then you tell your brother he has to come!"
"But-" Michiko was torn.
Yuzuyu came to the rescue. "It's okay, Michiko-chan," she said. "You can share Kippei-nii for the day. I don't mind."
Michiko smiled at her. "Really?"
"Yup!" Yuzuyu smiled back. "I know he'll come. Last time, Reiko-nii-sama told him to skip class to come. I think she'll do it again. And if your brother does come after all, then that's good too, right?"
"I think we should practice again," Ken said, butting in. "We want to look good tomorrow, and in the Open Class. Marika-chan-" he turned to face the other girl. "No more Sailor Moon this time!"
"So boring," Marika complained.
Michiko grinned as Yuzuyu and Ken rolled their eyes good-naturedly at Marika's complaint, and obediently moved back into her position to practice again. She would do her best, and if Kira-nii wound up coming to the Open Class after all, he'd see her group shine brighter than any of the others. She waited as Yuzuyu held up her 'chocolate bar' and practice began again.
"Mmm... this chocolate is delicious..."
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Michiko was not a happy little girl. There was less than a week before her very first Open Class, and she still hadn't managed to ask Akira-nii about it. This was partly because she was convinced that 'Kira-nii would never skip school or practice for any reason except them being sick, and she was afraid to hear him say it out loud.
Sachiko, on the other hand, had spent the last three days being a big meanie-head, telling her she was being a baby and that she should just get on with it. "The longer you put it off, the less time 'Kira-nii will have to get permission," she had said importantly.
Michiko hated to admit it, but Sachiko had a point. But now wasn't really the best time for it, was it? She looked around the Rikkai high school tennis courts, focusing her eyes on her brother who was rallying with Yanagi-sempai. Michiko liked Yanagi-sempai. His eyes were always closed but he saw everything, even the electric green hair dye that Niou-sempai had put in Marui-sempai's shampoo (Niou-sempai had sworn Michiko to secrecy). He was nice too, and didn't tell on Niou-sempai. In fact, he had told Michiko that he would make sure Niou-sempai gave her a copy of whatever pictures Niou-sempai managed to get of Marui-sempai's hair before Marui-sempai killed him. Michiko couldn't wait for practice to end.
Michi huffed, kicking her legs out. She was sitting on the bench, being good like 'Kira-nii had told her. It wasn't a real practice, being a Sunday, but Kira-nii was a Regular and had to be there to show 'team solidarity', whatever that meant. Sachiko had opted to spend the day at Hana-chan's house, which meant Miki had nothing to do but sit and watch and fret about her upcoming class.
Maybe if she asked 'Kira-nii's Buchou, he'd let her brother miss practice? If Buchou said yes, Michi was sure 'Kira-nii wouldn't mind skipping school. He didn't like doing it, but he'd done it before, especially when she or Sachiko were sick. Michiko bit her lip and stared hard at the ground, wishing an answer would pop up out of the grass, like the Flower card from Card Captors. Suddenly a shadow fell across the ground in front of her. "Such a serious face," chuckled a low voice, very close to Michiko, and she started, surprised, nearly falling off the bench. A hand reached out to gently grasp her arm, tugging her back onto her seat.
Michiko turned, head lowered in a bow. "Thank you," she said automatically. 'Kira-nii had told her it was very important that she be polite to all the members of the Rikkai tennis club, and she didn't want to let her brother down.
"It's my fault for not announcing myself sooner."
Michiko looked up and blinked. A tall boy, thin, with soft purple eyes was smiling at her. His hair was long and blue, bluer than Shinji-nii-chan's, and it was held back by a Rikkai headband, just like the one 'Kira-nii had given her to wear. She reached up and touched her own as she stared. "You're pretty!" she told the boy honestly. He really was.
He laughed at her again, but it was a nice laugh, not a mean one, and he sat down next to her on the bench. "Thank you very much. I think you're very pretty too." Michiko beamed. "So, what was that serious face all about, then?"
Michiko's smile fell away, and she looked away, fidgeting slightly. "I have to ask someone something," she said finally, slowly. "I don't know how to ask. I'm afraid."
"Sounds important," the boy said thoughtfully. "Why are you scared to ask?"
"Because I'm afraid he'll say no," Michiko said quietly, almost mumbling.
The older boy tapped his lip. "Is it your brother that you want to ask?" He smiled again. "Because I doubt he says 'no' to you very often."
Michiko wasn't surprised that this mysterious boy knew her brother. Her brother was an awesome tennis player. Everyone knew him. She'd be more surprised if he didn't know him. She shook her head. "Nope. His Buchou."
The boy paused. Something flickered in his eyes; Michiko watched, fascinated, at the play of emotions she could see. Akaya-nii always said she was 'perceptive'. That meant she knew a lot about what people were thinking. This boy was interested in what she wanted to say, that much she could tell. "You want to ask your brother's Buchou something?"
"Mmm-hmmm. But I'm afraid." Michi dropped her gaze again. "Maybe he'll get mad at me. Or he'll get mad at 'Kira-nii 'cause I asked."
"That is a dilemma," the boy agreed. "Why don't you tell me what you want to ask your brother's Buchou? Maybe I can help you think of something."
"Maybe." She sighed again. "I want 'Kira-nii to come to my Open Class next week. Do you know what Open Class is?"
He nodded his head at her. "I do."
"It's my first Open Class," Michiko confessed, almost in a whisper. Everyone was always surprised when she said that, and then they got those 'looks' on their faces, the ones that made 'Kira-nii clench his fists, and 'Kaya-nii growl about 'patronizing idiots'. "I was in Class 5 before, 'cause my ears don't always work right. 'Kira-nii went to my school and yelled at the teachers and made them give me a test." Michiko smiled. "I did really good – they put me in class two this year!"
The blue-haired boy smiled brightly at her. "That's wonderful!"
"Yeah! 'Cause 'Kira-nii says just 'cause my ears are bad doesn't mean my head is bad, and I'm just as smart as all the other kids." Michiko folded her arms, looking at the other boy sternly, just in case he didn't believe her.
But apparently he did. "I agree with him."
Michiko grinned happily. This boy was really nice. Maybe after he helped her with her problem, he could be friends with her brother and she could see him again. "So, this Thursday is my very first Open Class." She suddenly felt shy again, and she automatically began poking her index fingers together. "I know lots of other kids won't have parents there too, but they've had them there other times. I've never had 'Kira-nii watch my class before."
The boy watched her quietly, still smiling, but it was a gentle smile, a nice one that made her feel warm and cozy inside. It felt like one of Kira-nii's smiles when she'd done something to make him proud of her – like the day she'd passed her tests. "This really means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
"Mmm-hmmm." Michiko peered up at him warily. "Do you think Kira-nii's Buchou would be angry if I asked him if Kira-nii can come to my Open Class on Thursday? It takes Kira-nii a long time on the bus, and he might be late for practice. He might miss the whole thing." She bit her lip again, feeling her nervousness come rushing back.
"I think your brother's Buchou would understand," the boy said, winking at her. Michiko blinked. "How about I settle this for you right now?"
"You can do that?" Michik's eyes widened in shock. She wasn't expecting this. "Really, truly?"
The boy laughed, reaching out to tap her nose. "Really, truly," he said, and stood up. Michiko watched, open-mouthed, as the boy strode over to the edge of the courts and called for her brother.
Kira-nii immediately jogged over, a worried look on his face. Michiko wondered why he looked like that. She'd been good for the whole practice, after all. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine, Kamio-kun," the boy said calmly. "Michiko-chan was just telling me about her Open Class coming up this Thursday."
"Open Class?" Kira-nii blinked, and looked at Michiko. Michiko ducked her head, embarrassed that she hadn't said anything to him yet. "What Open Class?"
"She didn't tell you?" The boy chuckled, and gave Michi a finger-wag. "You should keep your brother informed, Michiko-chan."
Michiko hunched over even more. "Sorry, 'Kira-nii."
"It's okay, Miki-mik," 'Kira-nii said, moving over and sitting down on the bench where the other boy had been. He tugged her hair, and she squeaked, batting his hand away. "But what did you need me for, Buchou?"
Buchou? Michiko's head snapped up again, zeroing in on the blue-haired boy who stood before them both. "He's your Buchou?"
'Kira-nii gave her an odd look before his face cleared. "Oh yeah, you didn't come with us the first time we all hung out at the street courts. Makamoto-san was watching you because you weren't feeling well. And Yukimura-Buchou didn't come to the last couple of weekend rallies because of..." 'Kira-nii paused and shot his Buchou a look Michi didn't quite understand. "...prior commitments."
"Diplomatically put, as always." The boy – Yukimura-Buchou, Michiko gaped inwardly – was still smiling. "But as for the matter at hand we must deal with..."
Michiko shut her eyes.
"...I don't want to see you at practice this Thursday, Kamio-kun," Yukimura-Buchou continued. His eyes were sparkling. "I will see you on Friday though – and I expect a full report on Michiko-chan's Open Class performance.
Michiko's own eyes snapped back open.
'Kira-nii chuckled. "You got it. Thanks, Buchou," he said. Then he nudged Michiko. "What do you say?"
"Thank you, Yukimura-Buchou-nii-chan!" Michiko jumped to her feet, bowing low to the ground. "Thank you very much!"
Yukimura-Buchou-nii-chan's eyes were filled with laughter, which was very reassuring to Michiko. "Anytime, Michiko-chan, And Michiko - " he leaned forward, looking at her very seriously. Michiko gulped. "Next time, I hope you won't be afraid to talk to me."
Michiko grinned widely. "I won't!" she promised. "You're not scary at all!"
'Kira-nii made a funny noise, and Yukimura-Buchou-nii-chan laughed out loud. "That's good to know," he said. "Now, we've got to get back to practice. Cheer us on, okay, Michiko-chan?"
She nodded enthusiastically. Suddenly, the weight was gone from her shoulders; the painful little hitch in her chest had dissolved completely. "I will!" She watched cheerfully, as they went back to work, swinging her legs back and forth with an excitement she couldn't totally contain.
She couldn't wait until Thursday.
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Michiko took a deep breath as she stood in line. Her class was divided into two neat rows of ten (well, one had eleven), with the boys on one side and girls on the other. They had just finished P.E class and were about to enter the English classroom. The difference between today though, and any other day, was that while they had been in P.E class, the custodians would have been rearranging the English classroom to include rows of chairs at the back for the family members who would be watching the Open Class. Her first Open Class ever. To say she was nervous was something of an understatement.
Not everyone shared her nervousness however. In front of her, Marika-chan was finger-combing her bangs and straightening her pig-tails. "My mama and papa said they'd be here early, and they're bringing our new video camera," she declared imperiously. She whirled around and pointed at her group who were in line with her. "I'll give you guys all copies later."
"If we do a good job," Ken said, yawning. "If we do bad, I don't want a copy."
Marika-chan decided the best way to change his attitude and straighten him up was to smack him with her textbook. As they descended into squabbling, the teacher being summoned over to deal with them, Michiko was poked from behind, very gently, and she turned to see Yuzuyu-chan giving her an encouraging smile.
"Don't mind them," she said shyly. "Are you nervous?"
Michiko shook her head. Truthfully, she was excited. She'd never been given the chance to perform in front of friends and family like this before. She couldn't even think of her old class doing anything like this. From Geru-kun who threw things every time he got angry, to Ooyama-kun who threw himself on the floor and cried and screamed at random, to Lita-chan who was physically the same age as Michiko but mentally, about 5 years old… Michiko's teachers would never let them do something like this. She smiled at Yuzuyu-chan. "Nope! I've always wanted to do an open class. And Kira-nii is here today! His buchou made him come!"
Yuzuyu-chan blinked. "Buchou?"
"My brother plays tennis," she explained. "I thought maybe he couldn't come because he has to practice every day. His Buchou was really nice and told Kira-nii he had to come and watch and tell him what we did today."
"Then we'd better do a good job," Yuzuyu-chan said with another timid smile, though this one was a little stronger.
"Of course we will," Marika-chan said suddenly, sticking her face between them. "We're going to be the best!"
"We're going to be late," Ken-kun said calmly, pointing behind her to the line that was disappearing into the class. Their teacher was standing by the door, waiting for them with one eyebrow raised. Marika-chan gasped and raced for the door, dragging Yuzuyu-chan and Michiko by the hand. Ken-kun followed along behind, good-naturedly.
Michiko blinked as she entered the classroom. It was noisy even to her, filled with rumblings of dozens of people talking, and she could feel the vibrations through the floor as people walked around, admiring the pictures on the wall they'd done for art class. She went to her table with her group, and sat down, looking up to scan the room. Where was 'Kira-nii?
A flash of familiar red caught her eye, and she saw Kamio leaning against the wall, waggling his fingers at her. He held up a camera and she grinned hugely. Then she blinked again. Coming through the door was 'Kaya-nii! Her brother was obviously surprised too – his mouth was open in surprise. She obviously couldn't hear what they were saying, but she could see 'Kaya-nii shrug and wave his hands like he didn't care. Then he looked around, until 'Kira-nii pointed at her. She waved wildly, and giggled as 'Kaya-nii made a face at her, before giving her a thumbs up.
"Ne, ne, who's that?" Marika whispered loudly, leaning across the table. "Is that your brother? Do you have two brothers?"
Michiko nodded. As far as she was concerned, she did. "That's Akaya-nii. He's 'Kira-nii's boyfriend." As the words left her mouth, she clapped her hands over it. 'Kira-nii had explained to her once that while they knew there was nothing wrong with two boys liking each other, some people didn't think it was right. She wasn't supposed to talk about it unless she asked 'Kira-nii first.
Thankfully though, it looked like Marika-chan and Yuzuyu-chan didn't really catch what she said. Or they didn't understand. Ken-kun blinked at her with what looked like surprise, but then he shrugged and smiled. Michiko let out a small sigh of relief.
"So not fair," Marika-chan complained. "You have two brothers and I don't even have one."
"Neither do I, Marika-chan," Ken-kun said, in attempt to smooth things over.
"So what?" she snapped. Ken-kun rolled his eyes. Michiko looked at him and shook her head, and he shrugged again. He'd tried, at least.
At the front of the room, their teacher clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. She spoke about how hard the students had worked to get ready for today, and all the parents clapped. Michiko beamed as 'Kaya'nii wolf-whistled, and then she giggled when 'Kira-nii clapped a hand over his mouth, making him look cross-eyed at it.
Then she was rising to her feet with the rest of her friends as their open class officially began.
Their teacher led them into a small bow, and then dismissed them. Michiko exploded out of her seat and raced to the back of the room where 'Kira-nii and 'Kaya'nii were mumbling something to each other. "Kira'nii! 'Kaya-nii!"
"Hey, Miki-mik!" 'Kira-nii leaned down and gathered her into a tight hug. He pressed a kiss against the top of her head and she smiled, feeling tears in her eyes as he whispered, "I am so proud of you, baby girl," into her hair.
"Not bad, rugrat," said 'Kaya-nii. "Does this mean you're gonna be an actress when you grow up?"
Michiko giggled, and moved to give him a hug too. He wasn't as demonstrative in public as her brother, and so he just ruffled her hair. But there was no mistaking the pride in his eyes that matched the pride in 'Kira-nii's. "Maybe!"
"Michiko-chan!" Marika-chan was dragging her parents over. Michiko looked up, blinking. Yabusaki-san was a tall, thin lady with long curly hair. Her eyes were calm, but friendly. Behind her, Marika-chan's father was even taller, and holding a camera in his hand. "I want you to meet my mother and father."
"A pleasure to meet you all." Marika-chan's mother's voice was light, but formal. Marika-chan's father merely looked them over and nodded.
'Kira-nii smiled. "I'm pleased to meet the parents of such a famous little girl," he said. "Michiko talks about her good friend Marika-chan all the time." He directed his smile at Marika-chan, who preened under the attention.
The Yabusaki's glanced at Akaya who was standing behind Kamio, arms folded, expression blank. Michiko stifled a giggle as 'Kira-nii casually jabbed an elbow into his stomach. 'Kaya-nii blanched, and then levelled a wide, toothy grin at Marika-chan's parents. "Likewise."
Michiko watched the Yabusaki's exchange a strange look, and then they nodded before directing Marika-chan to show them which artwork on the walls were hers. Before departing, Marika-chan reminded Michiko that she would bring copies of the video the next day.
Harsh whispers caught her attention, and she turned to see 'Kira-nii and 'Kaya-nii glaring at each other. "'Kira-nii? 'Kaya-nii? Are you angry?"
The two blinked and looked at her. 'Kaya-nii spoke first, dropping to one knee to look her in the eyes. "Nah, shorty. Your big bro's just reminding me to mind my manners. He's right." He winked at her.
Michiko was confused. "You were rude?"
"Maybe a little. Forgive me anyway?"
Michiko nodded. Of course she would. She didn't understand why there was a problem to begin with.
"Michiko-chan!" Yuzuyu-chan was calling her name, somewhat hesitantly. Michiko turned and saw a tall boy with laughing eyes, a gentle smile – and the brightest yellow hair she had ever seen in her life.
"This is Kippei-nii!" Yuzuyu-chan introduced them shyly. Suddenly she saw Kamio and Kirihara, and her eyes dropped to the floor, mumbling a greeting.
"Don't be so shy, Yuzuyu-chan!" Kippei-nii chuckled gently, ruffling her hair. Michiko grinned at the familiar actions. "Pleased to meet you all." He looked directly at Michiko. "So you're the one Yuzuyu-chan keeps talking about, huh? I'm glad she found such a good friend."
Michiko beamed. "This is 'Kira-nii and 'Kaya-nii," she said, wanting to introduce her 'brothers' too.
'Kira-nii smiled and held out his hand. Kippei-nii shook his hand firmly, and then extended his own to 'Kaya-nii who took it after a second. "Michiko talks a lot about Yuzuyu-chan as well."
"Nice to meet you." Kippei-nii grinned. "So are you lovely ladies going to show us which artwork is yours? Or do I have to guess?"
"Guess! Guess!" Michiko and Yuzuyu-chan chorused.
Michiko watched the three older boys exchange rueful grins, and suddenly felt a burst of happiness well up inside her, so big she couldn't contain it. Tears suddenly splashed down her face. Yuzuyu-chan looked at her in alarm. "Michiko-chan, are you all right?"
Michiko nodded, and buried her head in 'Kira-nii's stomach. He crouched down, wrapping his arms around her. "What's up kiddo? What's wrong?"
Michiko sniffled, and lifted her eyes just up enough to see her brother's. "I'm just happy," she said quietly. "I knew I wasn't dumb."
'Kaya-nii had a murderous look on his face, and 'Kira-nii's arms tightened even more, but before he could say anything, suddenly Kippei-nii was there, smiling at her. "Of course you're not dumb," he proclaimed. "Yuzuyu-chan only picks the best, smartest, most special people to be her friend, you know."
Michiko sniffled again. "Really?"
Yuzuyu-chan nodded solemnly and gave her a hug of her own. Michiko wiped away her tears, using a tissue handed over by Akaya-nii who was giving Kippei-nii a nod that meant he probably liked the other boy now. 'Kaya-nii didn't always like people. Michiko was glad he liked Kippei-nii. She wanted to keep Yuzuyu-chan as her best friend forever.
"Let's go look at this world-famous artwork now," 'Kira-nii said. Yuzuyu-chan nodded and grabbed Kippei-nii's hand, dragging him to the side of the room.
With a much-lighter heart, Michiko reached up, linking her hands with both her big brothers, and followed.
When Kamio and Kirihara arrived at Rikkai high school early Friday morning, they were greeted by the absence of the entire team. Kirihara stared blankly at the empty court. "'Kira?"
"Did 'Mura-buchou cancel practice and forget to tell us, you think?"
Kamio shrugged and headed for the clubhouse anyway. "I'm still gonna get changed," he said. "Somehow I doubt he forgot. Maybe everyone's late. How early are we?"
Kirihara followed behind. "Only fifteen minutes," he said, scratching his head. "I don't get it."
Kamio opened the door to the clubhouse and froze. The rest of the Regulars were all there, perched on the benches (except for Niou, who had managed to scale the lockers and was stretched out along the top), staring at them with expectant looks. Kamio pushed back the instinctive fear to run that any smart mouse would feel before a room full of snakes. "Um…. Is there a meeting we forgot about?"
Yukimura was standing at the back of the room next to the white board, arms folded and a mischievous smile playing about his lips. "Not at all, Kamio-kun. I'm just waiting for my report on Michiko-chan's open class."
Kirihara snickered. Kamio blinked. "…seriously?"
"Yukimura is always serious," Sanada barked.
"So, how'd the runt do?" Niou drawled with a lazy grin. "I told her I'd give her copies of the pics I took of Marui's hair last week."
"You promised me you didn't take any pictures!" Marui snapped, whirling around and glaring at the other boy.
Niou smirked and stuck out his tongue, flashing an 8x10 glossy of Marui's neon green hair and fanning himself with it. "I lied."
"Asshole," Marui muttered. "Do you know how long it took to change my hair back? My hair was almost completely fried."
"Kamio?" Yukimura tilted his head. "I'm waiting."
Kamio felt a warmth rush over him as he took in the interested looks on his teammates faces. He had never expected to fit in so well at Rikkai, much less for them to take an active interest in his home life. And while he was definitely aware of Sachiko and Michiko's amazing ability to win over even the toughest of tennis players, he certainly wouldn't have expected his team to care about their welfare to the extent that they did.
Before he could open his mouth though, Kirihara burst out with all the force of a proud papa, "She was freaking brilliant!" He flashed two thumbs up. "Hell, her English is better than mine."
"Not like that takes much," Marui countered with a sly grin. "Dude, a preschooler could learn a second language faster than you could."
Kirihara growled and attacked. Marui yelped and ran. Niou cheered on Kirihara and passed out copies of Marui with neon hair. Sanada began screaming at them to run laps. Yukimura was fighting to hold back his own laughter, Jackal nudged Kamio back so the devilish whirlwinds wouldn't run him over, and Kamio beamed at the whole situation, taking it all in with a satisfied air.
Just like Michiko with her new class, he finally felt like he belonged.