There's an unearthly amount of pushing and shoving as we climb into our seats: some jock is using his elbows like battering rams, and some other idiot is swinging his rucksack around his head in a careless attempt to force it into the storage above our heads.
Raf has climbed into the front seats with the Coach, and they have files of papers that they're flipping through - a mass of incoherent diagrams and numbers that seem incomprehensible. Alistair commented something vague about strategy, like a basketball match is more a war than a game. I didn't bother to reply. What's the point in answering an answer to an unanswered question?
"Hira- Watch your head-"
I look up, and my eyes go wide as I realise something is spinning towards my skull - and it looks kind of like a pair of trainers with long, trailing laces. My jaw goes a little slack as I look out of the corner of my eye, left then right, and realise I'm squashed between four other boys and seats, and there's quite physically nowhere I can move to.
"Alistair-" I cry out, kind of preparing to duck even though the shoes will still land on my head.
Someone leans right over me, and smacks the trainers with the side of a fist so they go swinging back in the other direction at a terrific speed. I try not to cringe as they surge straight for the windows, and leave a muddy smear on the pristine glass. I'm surprised this bus is so unbelievably clean, seeing as what kind of people travel in it.
I look up to see who quite possibly saved me a trip to the hospital wing. There's a broad face, with deep-set blue eyes and a small, calm smile that rests just above his chin like it might be sleeping. He nods at me, and mutters something in an incredibly deep voice. I think it's you okay? , but I have no idea.
"Thank you," I mutter, straightening out my school collar and simultaneously glaring at Alistair out of the corner of my eye.
The deep-voiced boy says something again, and it's something about how I'm so slim and might've been knocked out by the trainers. If I were stupider than I am, I'd probably be blushing a strong scarlet right now. Instead, I carefully move the trainers out of my path and keep walking, hoping I'll be able to sit down as soon as possible and forget the incident ever even happened.
I drop down in the nearest seat and move to the window, keeping my head facing right so no-one can see my face, and I can just see rain. It slips down as falling dancers, a shade of tie-dyed tears and burnt sea foam. The wind is loud: a little wailing, a little screaming. Crying.
Alistair sits next to me, and I don't have the strength to push him away. Today has already been a mismatch of disasters: the shorts this morning, getting out of history, sweat and shouting and a pair of killer trainers. Raf, as well. Alistair, but I hardly need mention him as one of my ongoing problems any more - that's just taken for granted.
"Are you okay, Hira? I'm honestly sorry Cael's shoes nearly hit you," Alistair laughs, his voice a mixture between uncontrolled amusement and genuine concern. It's annoying.
"I hate Cael."
Alistair rolls his eyes. "Hate the sin, not the sinner."
"Nope," Alistair tries to move into my line of vision, his head comically sticking out in front of me and one of his hands balance don the window next to me for support. "Hira?"
"Why are you so embarrassed? No-one thinks any worse of you just because you nearly got hit by a pair of trainers."
I spin around to face him, eyes flashing slightly. "First of all, I'm not embarrassed. Second, I don't care what anyone else thinks of me. And third-" I grab the hand leaning over me with my thumb and forefinger, and toss it back to the aisle side. "-Stop leaning over me."
"You're definitely embarrassed. Look at your face."
"I can't look at my face, you idiot."
"Well," Alistair pulls my face round so he's inches from me. "I'll describe it to you. You're kind of blushing white, and your lips are all pursed and thin-"
"Stop looking at my lips-"
"-And your eyes are focussed on the floor, and you're clenching your fists," Alistair bursts into laughter. "You're so obvious."
I stare at the back of the chair in front. "I hate you so much, Alistair."
"You don't really, do you?" he's still looking at me intently, a sparkle lighting up his eyes and making me want to punch it out of him. "We're actually friends."
"I don't have any friends."
"You do. You've got me, and Raf, and Seniji."
I sigh heavily. "I don't even know who Seniji is, stupid."
"He saved you a few minutes ago. You should be more grateful, Hira."
"I am grateful-" I say, but am cut off by the deep voice from the row next to us.
I look over, because I know if I don't pay 100% attention to what Seniji is saying, I'll miss it.
"Hira is grateful. Stop teasing him," Seniji says, each word particularly pronounced like the boy is worried people won't understand - perhaps he isn't quite as stupid as I thought he was. Seniji smiles wanly at me, and gives a small wave in my direction that is both confusing and sort of strange at the same time. For a split second, I consider waving back, then inwardly curse myself for even thinking about doing something so obviously stupid.
I turn away, but not quick enough not to hear Alistair's insincere apology to Seniji, who only grunts in response.
Okay. Seniji's okay, I decide. But Alistair is only getting worse the more I get to know him, and I get the sinister feeling that Raf is manipulative beneath his soft smile and dusting of freckles, and that the Captain has not quite grasped the fact i do not want to play basketball. That feeling makes my stomach turn. He's dangerous because he's clever, and he can use you while also making you grovel at his feet.
"Hey," Alistair taps me on the shoulder. "Are you actually okay? You look a little sick."
When I make sure he isn't laughing anymore, I place both of hands on both of his shoulders. "Alistair. I think Raf might make me play basketball." I stop him moving out of my grasp, and make sure we maintain eye contact, even though it's uncomfortable for both of us. "You said I wouldn't have to play, and I'm asking you to to both renew and fulfill that promise. Right now."
"I promise I will not make you play. Don't worry," Alistair flashes a small smile. "You'll be fine. You just have to watch."
"Will you be playing in the rain?"
"I thought it was a big school. Don't they have inside courts?"
Alistair scratches his head. "Of course, yes. But we're not really a good enough opponent to merit playing in the school hall."
Alistair sighs. "Basically, we're not taken that seriously at their school."
For some reason, I feel anger boil in the pit of my stomach. That deliberate humiliation, and the way the bigger school obviously looks down on our team, riles me up. I'm not even on the team. "You need to prove them wrong."
"We're trying, stupid. You're still holding onto my shoulders and it feels weird."
I let him go. "Your team shouldn't let them look down on you."
"We don't really have a choice. We need the practice, and having a go at them isn't going to help us. Coach wouldn't like that, anyway. He's a pacifist."
"We're not starting a war, or even a violent protest. Just a boycott."
"That's funny," Alistair says. "Boycott. We're boys, and it's a boycott."
I snort like I did on the bridge this morning, and Alistair yet again throws his head back and laughs at me.
"How do you even snort like that?"
"It's a laugh, dumbass."
"It's so not you, and it's so hilarious-"
"I hate you."
Alistair shakes his head. "Sure you do, Hira."
We turn back away from each other, and I'm utterly furious to find there is a small smile playing at the corner of my lips. I push it down like I'm extinguishing a match. Alistair is so impossibly stupid.
I tap my fingers silently on the ledge of the window, and watch as the colours from the city swirl into one another as we rush past, droplets of rain smearing the hues into an unintelligible palette. A messy watercolour with smeared lights and tumbling skyscrapers, lines that don't add up and people in smudged dresses that catch the wind. Our city is beautiful. Orderly, and yet less corners and more curves. Uniform, yet homely. Clean streets and buildings that live in the clouds like daydreams. We're lucky to be born in this world, where beauty can thrive, and yet doesn't rule.
I hear things about the passed, and I love to know how it was like to live then. But I don't dwell on it. I can learn from yesterday's mistakes, while not investing myself so much in them that I feel unhappy. There's no point.
The rain doesn't cease. It isn't hesitant or unsure, like it sometimes is. It just comes down like it wants to prove it's power all over again, to show mortal fools that a circle never ends and this kind of shameless beauty doesn't grow old and die. Rain keeps falling, running, breathing: an immortality that lived by us side-by-side. The power of a raging storm and the promise of an endless fog and mist that hangs for days as a dead weight.
I hate the sun. I hate sunny days. I hate bright summers that feel like flashing camera lenses, and I hate days that radiate their own light and peek in through blinds and curtains and glass front doors. I hate the way you squint and turn away and bask and bathe and then can't sleep in the heat. It's irritating.
"You will have to wear your sports stuff anyway, though."
"I know. You don't have to rub it in."
"I wasn't. I was just reminding you."
"You were rubbing it in."
"I was reminding you."
Alistair doesn't reply, and the first thought that comes into my head is I win.
Alistair passes me one of his headphones, offering the dangling white wire to me. "Do you want to listen?"
I take the earphone sceptically. "What is it?"
"Just listen," Alistair smiles. "You might like it."
"I don't listen to music."
He shrugs, and when I stay still, takes the earphone himself and puts it in my ear. "Just listen, okay?"
It isn't very loud, and I have to adjust it so that I can hear the words. "What is it? It isn't too annoying."
"I told you - you might like it."
I listen. It isn't slow, but it isn't really fast here. The background moves almost hesitantly, an irregular beat that doesn't seem to follow any kind of pattern, but the voice is constant and sings quite quickly. It's confusing, in a way, but kind of reassuring. "What is it about?" I ask, because even though I pick up the words, the lyrics are scattered and don't seem to make much sense.
"I don't know. Sex, probably."
"Do you like it?"
I frown, trying to listen harder. "I can't tell."
"That's probably a good sign. If you listen to it enough, I bet you'll start liking it," Alistair brings his hand to his ear and then tightens his jaw. "What do you like, Hira?"
"What do you mean?" I feel my back straighten, almost like a reflex.
"What do you like doing?" Alistair takes his earphone out. "You never talk about yourself."
I let my gaze fall out the window. "How long does this journey take?"
"Only twenty minutes now. What do you like?"
"You're not serious."
"You wouldn't understand. You aren't like me, so you won't get it. No-one understands."
Alistair, surprisingly, doesn't push the topic, and I respect him for it. "Okay," he just says, and we both turn the opposite away, but with headphones still keeping us close.
We file out through the thin passage of the bus, and I keep a close eye out for flying trainers, or anything else, for the matter. You never seem to know what's coming round the corner when it comes to basketball players. As we're walking, I count all the players in total. There's the Coach, Raf, Alistair, Seiji, Cael, and two other boys that I don't know the names of yet. Cael, who I've taken an instant disliking to, has cat green eyes that glisten, and a tall, slim stance - long fingers and a cold, thin mouth. When he talks, he doesn't look at the person he's talking to. He just kind of flickers his eyes around, and a small smile creeps onto his face like a disease. I'm glad he's with us, and not the other team.
The other boy is absolutely tiny, and I heard Alistair say he's on the bench most of the time. He has a nervous disposition, and eyes so blue they mimic the sky. The other is the same height as Alistair (and therefore a little shorter than me), and has messy brown hair, dark gold eyes and extraordinarily large glasses that put his face out of proportion. I haven't seen him speak yet.
Then there's me. Everyone's wearing uniform, but I stand out like a sore thumb. Mine is twice as neat as everyone else's: ironed and clean and tucked in and smart, and whereas some of the boy's sports gear is shoved into their bag, mine is expertly folded like it's only come out of the wash a few minutes ago. Whilst I would normally feel superior knowing I'd done everything so much better than everyone else, I just feel a bit lost. A bit stupid. And I hate it.
"We're going to get changed first," Alistair relays. "Then we'll meet the other team on the pitches, and play a match. After, we'll just practise together in small groups. You could maybe join in for that part, huh?"
We trudge into the building, and I can't help but marvel at the sheer size and beauty of it all. Our school is amazing, but this is magnificent. No0-one greets us, but the receptionist gestures somewhere like she already knows us - which is probably true, since Alistair said they'd practised here many times before. I still think it's rude, though, not having anyone to invite us in. I scrunch my nose and sneer a little.
The PE corridor is clean, and I manage to make the first step down it without too much trouble. Alistair looks pretty impressed, and I'm proud to say I don't make too much of a deal of the whole sporty thing. I'm calm, relaxed, not quite suited to the environment, but not completely out of place either. I have a kit, after all.
The changing rooms are dimly lit, and have benches lining the middle, and smooth silver and white lockers on either side. A narrow room, but big enough to give each player space and comfort before and after matches. There's a vending machine at one end, along with a water fountain also. I hope they have cups, somewhere.
Everyone seems pretty relaxed, swinging open the lockers like this place is a second home. I proceed more slowly because, after all, this is still a changing room, whatever the circumstances.
I quickly change into the sports gear, and make sure to fold everything up as neatly as I can in my locker. I don't know when they were last cleaned, because appearances can be deceptive. The Caretaker could have just spritzed around some chemical cleaning bottle, and left it to dry without a proper scrub. I don't know.
I look at my feet, first. The trainers are a little too small, just pinching my toes, and the funny lycra material of the sports trousers feels weird. The school basketball shirt is a deep, indigo blue, and mine has the number 7 on it. The highest number in the whole group. Raf is 1, Seiji 2, Alistair 3, glasses boy 4, Cael 5 and small boy 6.
I pull on a dark hoodie Alistair gave me, and hope to God it isn't too cold outside. I can't even imagine what it would be like to play basketball in the rain in just a t-shirt, which is what the other boys seem to be planning to do. I look down at my trainers again. I hate them. They stink a bit, and they're so sporty and-
"Alistair?" I turn around to try and find him.
He looks at me, one sceptical eyebrow raised like he knows exactly what is coming. "You look fine, okay? I won't make you play."
"I can't do this. I can't wear this. Please, please can I just change into my uniform?" My voice is dredged in desperation, and I begin to feel panic rise, drug-like, in my chest. I can't wear it; I just can't.
Alistair sighs, but I see a tinge of worry in the corners of his eyes. "Hira-"
"Coach," I turn to the man at the back of the changing rooms. "I've changed my mind. Can I please go and sit in the bus?"
The older man turns around, his deep-set eyes bored and judging. "What're you talking about? The bus has gone. It'll be back in a hour." He turns around again. "And take that hoodie off, you stupid boy. What do you think we are? Middle-aged PE teachers?"
"No, sir, it's fine, sir," I pause. "I'll sit at reception. I've just decided I won't be watching. I'm just going to get changed, right now."
The Coach stares blatantly at me, half in frustration, half indignation. "What's wrong with you? Just be quiet and do what you came to do."
"Hoodie off! Now!"
I feel a little dizzy. It's been a while since someone has shouted at me like this, and it's been a while since I've been pushed out of my comfort zone and into something that backs me into a corner. I can't disobey the Coach, and there's six sets of extremely confused eyes looking me up and down. My hands are shaking just a little.
"Okay," I say, but very, very quietly. I pull my hoodie off and drop it on the bench, my eyes trained on the grooves in the floor.
The Coach is pushing everyone through the changing rooms, and checking up on the most random things.
I feel a hand place itself on my back, and apply a little pressure. Alistair.
"Hey, Hira," he mutters. "Honestly, it's going to be fine. If you get really bad, I don't know, just tell me and I'll get you out, okay?" His face is close to mine, and there's so much concern in the curve of his downturned mouth that I believe him. I trust him.