I take a closer look at the boy.
Whiteish hair like fallen snow, and pale skin that looks like he hasn't been outside in years. And his eyes again, like gouges in his cheeks, and his grin, too big for his face. And cheekbones slanting diagonally like someone's cut scars out of his skin, and he's quite tall and he's really slim like he doesn't eat much.
No. I can't see anything in him worth liking.
"Timo," Alistair meets his eyes and nods, and I can tell he's trying to look casual, but it isn't working. He's dropped his head too low and his hands are fisting in his shirt like an awkward teenage boy. Which he is, but that isn't the point.
The boy, impossibly, manages to grin wider, "Hey, Alistair," he says, but he doesn't look at him. He holds his hand out to me and then narrows his black eyes. "I'm Timo."
I shake it, and his hands are very, very cold. Like mine. "Hira," I say. I drop his hand. "And I don't play basketball."
Alistair wipes his hand across his mouth to stifle a chuckle, and I consider beating him up right here on a rainy basketball court. That would solve a whole lot of problems, and it would feel pretty good too. Instead, I just sort of stand still, and wait for the whistle to blow which means I can hang around by myself again, which I should've done from the beginning.
The wind picks up speed passed the other team's school, and it howls. I can feel the sound more than actually hear it: the rumble starts deep in your head, and then crawls down your spine like a disease. I wonder if everyone else can feel the wind too, or if it's just me. Alistair wraps his arms around himself, and Timo brushes a strand of pale hair from his eyes. They're both wincing a bit, and I think I am too. We'll all be blown away if we're not careful.
"Alistair," I nod vaguely in his direction, but it's difficult to open my eyes because the air is rushing towards me, stinging my face. I scrunch up my expression, and keep my head bowed. "Let's go."
He nods, and copies me, and we turn away from everyone because in the end - even if they have better conversational skills than the coach and Seiji - they're still on the opposite team, and they're still stupid and annoying and, obviously, rude. Plus they stink. Plus Timo is really intense, like Alistair, and intense people get on my nerves. They're so focussed on feelings that everything else gets pushed aside carelessly, whilst I focus on my wellbeing. Standing in a storm is certainly not good for my health and safety, so I just need to get out. No emotion. No internal trauma or conflict. I'm just cold.
Coach and Mr Grey jog over, followed by anyone other stragglers.
Mr Grey looks at the sky, squinting slightly. "We're calling the game off. The weather's getting worse."
I follow his gaze, and agree. This is bad, but there's no doubt a sky like that can get so much worse. The lightning grins down, a mash of teeth and fury, a face lighting up the sky - perhaps like a Cheshire cat.
"Stop messing around," Grey shouts, even though most of his words are lost. "Grab your stuff - we're going inside."
Thank God. Praise everyone and everything - including My Grey, even Mr Grey. Some rain has finally washed the fog from in front of their minds, and they're seeing sense at last. We should've worn jumpers, we should've stayed inside: in fact, we shouldn't have come at all, because the only things that have happened are a terribly boring basketball game and a very calm, unsettling argument. Plus, I've been assaulted at least twice. Possibly - no, probably - more.
"You look the happiest you've been all day," Alistair comments, laughing a little. He leans in a bit closer as we walk. "What did you think?"
"Timo, obviously," Alistair raises a dark eyebrow, and blocks out Seiji with his shoulders, who seems to want to listen in to our conversation.
I roll my eyes. "You're wasting you time. He's stupid."
"Hiraaa-" Alistair begins to whine, grabbing one of my shoulders with his frozen hands, "Come on. Stop being grumpy."
"Please. You've come all this way, so you might as well-"
"I'm not coming again."
Alistair's mouth opens slightly, and he closes it, and then opens it again. "But don't you want to know him?"
"No. And you lied," I stop completely in my tracks, so everyone else can hurry ahead. "You said he was like me." I narrow my eyes into thin slits. "You lied. He's not. We're nothing like each other, Alistair. You don't know anything about me."
"He is!" Alistair insists. "Honestly- you should see the both of you-"
"I already did," I raise my chin a little, and lower my voice. "We're not the same."
"You wouldn't know, until you meet him."
"I don't need to. And I don't care anymore, even if it turns out we are the same. I told you I hated all of this, but I still came. I'm not doing it ever again," I say, and instead of letting Alistair reply, I just keeping walking. It's so cold, and everyone else is practically inside now. It feels weird being alone in somewhere you hardly know, because there should be a teacher at the back of the crowd to keep anyone from straying off, only there isn't. I guess no-one would really be stupid enough to wander off in this storm, but you never know.
Thunder shrieks across the fields, and Alistair and I both jump out of our skin.
"Holy shit," Alistair grabs my arm, and digs his fingers deep into my flesh. "Oh my God."
"Come on-" I pull him next to me by the material of his shirt, and we break into a run. Water sloshes up my legs and into my shoes, drenching the soles into something similar to a sponge. My t-shirt is spattered with mud and dirt and grey rainwater, and even my hair is specked with tiny pieces of dirt - the front dribbling water across my nose and lower forehead. My knuckles are white, like frost seeped beneath the bone, and Alistair's are bright red like blood. They look worryingly strange, and I worry we've both caught colds. I worry the entire team has caught colds.
"Hurry up," I mutter to Alistair, and his breathing shivers down the back of my neck.
"Slow down, Hira. I've been running for the passed half hour I-" He has to stop talking because he doesn't have enough breathe in his lungs.
I try and steady him and hold him upright, and he rests his forehead against my shoulder, chest heaving up and down. We've still got a way to go before we reach the school, and no-one is in sight anymore. They're all probably indoors, changed into warm uniforms and finishing hot drinks in the cafeteria. I can't wait to be inside.
"Alistair, come on. You can rest in a few minutes," I force him to his feet, and he murmurs something quietly which I think is an apology. I almost feel bad.
We set off at an even faster pace, but it's difficult, because Alistair's weight is leaning against me, and I can barely see for all the rain and my hair and the darkness. And Alistair keeps stumbling, his stupid feet tripping over the uneven ground and ramming into the back of my ankles. He's like a gold-silver speck in the corner of my vision, blurring, smashing into me like he can't even keep his balance. We're blind. Then there's glass and stone and blue like the sea, and there's a door and an ice-cold silver handle, and the grass is falling away from green into tarmac, inky black that blends in with the very air.
"Hey," I nudge Alistair, "Calm down, we're here."
Alistair smiles grimly, and I smile half-heartedly back. This day can't possibly get any worse- My fingers loosen around the door handle. No way. No way...
A growl escapes my throat, almost like a scream, and I pull at the door harder. No, no, no, no, no: I yank the handle, ripping it towards me with all of my strength. I kick my foot against the wood and hammer my fists into the paint. They couldn't possibly be so stupid as to lock us out, could they? They couldn't possibly have missed us, forgotten about us, shut the doors and kept us out in the rain and the thunder and the grey storm clouds weighing down the sky.
Alistair's jaw is slack, and suddenly he's beside me, hitting the door too and shouting louder than the weather. Something about LET US IN, but I'm not hearing anything right. I shout too, but there's no way there'll eve hear us. This school is so rich and important every door is soundproof, and there's probably only one key inside hanging up at reception so no unwanted intruders can get in. They're probably sipping coffee and hot chocolate right now, sighing with relief and hunching up their shoulders just at the thought of this cold.
"No way," Alistair breathes, pressing his palms into the door. "This is insane."
I gulp, and drop my hands to my sides. "What do we do?"
Alistair is looking around dramatically, eyes darting from each side of the building to the next. "I don't know. We could try and run round the building to another door, but-" But the thunder drops down in dangling threads, and it's so furious. But I don't think either of us could face another mile running. But what if there's nothing but puddles around there?
"Maybe we should just wait here," Alistair says miserably. "Just sit outside this door and wait for someone to save us."
"You're so dramatic, Alistair."
"Yeah," he rolls his eyes. "But I'm also serious this time. It's dangerous wandering over there."
I say, "I know." And then I just sit down, in some pale blue puddle, dirt caking my clothes and rusting behind my nails. Alistair falls down next to me, his knees tight to his chest.
"Sorry," Alistair looks at me sideways. "I wasn't expecting this."
"I don't think anyone could've."
"Yeah," he breathes out, and it's so loud. "I like him a lot."
"But you were right. It's hopeless."
I feel guilt settle in my stomach. "I don't know that."
"Of course you do. I do. He doesn't even look at me," Alistair says, and there's not even sadness in his voice. There's just a kind of flatness which is even worse. "I'm too boring for him."
"You're not boring. You play basketball, you have lots of friends, you sit out in storms."
He laughs, disjointed. "Yeah. I guess not everyone sits out in storms."
"I kind of like it," I admit. "Not the cold, but the storm."
He looks at it, and I think, this time, he's properly looking at it. "You're right. It's beautiful."
"See the blue there?" I ask, and point upwards at a dribble of blue right above the playing field ahead of us. It disappears as soon as it arrives, and there's crashes that follow, so loud they make you wonder if you ever even heard them. And there's violet, and there's rose pink, and there's black as night and jealousy. And there's orange, droplets of fire, and grey like worn pencils and boredom. All the colours fall away.
Alistair rubs the warmth into his arms, even though it's a little pointless. "I think the storm will stop soon, you know."
"Watch it for now," I say, and when the words come out, I can't help but think how funny they sound.
He grins. "I will," then he continues. "You know, you're really interesting."
"Why?" I ask, because even though talking is boring and Alistair's talking is often embarrassing, I want to know why. And I like his voice. I don't know why: it's just sort of pretty.
"You're made of so much, but you're not complicated. And you know so much, but you-" He stumbles a little. "But you don't know all the things that others know that, I don't know, don't matter?"
"You said that when we talked before. Okay. You said it a lot."
"I don't have a chance with him, do I?"
"Are we friends?" he asks.
I drop my eyes, because apparently I'm supposed to be telling the truth now. "I don't have friends," I say, because it's true. I don't have feelings. I don't feel. I don't emotion. "But you're the closest thing I've got."
He falters at my first sentence, and then smiles at my second. "Thank you."
My breathe catches in my throat, and there's a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Alistair should not be thanking him. He should hate me. I'm selfish and I'm self-obsessed and I'm difficult, but he's the one thanking me. I probably embarrassed him in front of Timo, and in front of his team, and I've probably set his nerves on edge for the passed few hours. But he's thanking me.
"What you said, by the river?" Alistair says softly. "You were right. If I stop feeling, I'll be okay." His fingers knot together, and his flickering eyes stutter like butterfly wings. "I hate him, and I like him. We've known each other for a while, you know. It just doesn't seem like it."
The next thing I say is so spontaneous that I can't quite adjust to the fact I've just said it. "Kiss him."
"I'm sorry?" Alistair's mouth drops open.
"Kiss him, and then you'll know," I say. "You'll know if he likes you or not, and whether or not you like him."
Alistair stares at me, his eyes looking hollow because of the shadows on his face. "Really?"
"How should I kiss him?"
"Any way you want, I guess."
Alistair says, "No, I mean, when? In front of his team? Here? On the basketball pitch?"
"Somewhere quiet. Tell him you want to talk. I suppose," I know I'll regret saying it, but I say it anyway: "I could tell him to talk to you, since I haven't done much today." The thought of speaking to number three again makes my blood run cold, but I block the feeling out. It's fine. It would only be for a few seconds.
"I think I'd be too afraid."
"You'd be afraid, but not too afraid. Just afraid enough to make it matter."
Alistair laughs yet again, and I wonder how he can keep his spirits so high so often, "I told you, by the river, that I always thought you were thinking something profound," his face cracks a warm smile, "I was right. You always are."
"I don't think he'll kiss me back."
"Maybe not, but I'm sure he'll remember it."
Alistair chuckles, "I don't think he'll be able to forget it. It'll turn out to be number one in both our top ten most embarrassing experiences lists."
"You have that list?"
"In my head."
"Why? If something embarrassing happens to me, I feel like washing my mind out with bleach. I forget it."
"You think everything is embarrassing," Alistair says, and I agree.
Suddenly, the door behind both of us swings open, and I almost topple right back. Coach is standing in the doorway with an ash white face and wide eyes. He puts a hand over his heart when he sees us sitting on the floor.
"Thank the Lord above," he says breathlessly, and then grabs both of us and pulls us to our feet. "Get inside."
I'm not sure why he's so angry. It was him who locked us out, after all. We're both shivering when we step into the changing rooms. I look over at Alistair, and he looks back at me. We burst into laughter at how the other looks.
Alistair's shirt and shorts are literally dripping puddles around his feet, and his trainers are stained brown and black all over. His gold hair is matted, and there's raindrops dripping across his eyes from his long eyelashes. His lips look almost blue from cold, and his ears and fingers are pink. But there's still a smile like sunshine facing me, and I don't understand.
"You look disgusting," I say, and because the dripping is annoying me, I hold Alistair's chin with one hand, and with the other, I brush away the rain on his face.
He does the same to me, and then brushes the raindrops from my hair too. "You don't look too bad, actually. Just a bit dirty."
I walk to the end of the changing room to the long mirror, and almost die right there, on the spot. I'm gross. I'm a mess. My face is so pale it looks practically luminous, and my lips are pale purple blue, and my dark hair is beaded with dirt and water, and there's sweat on my forehead. I haven't sweat in years. It's so disgusting I can barely breathe.
"Alistair," I whisper, standing still because I don't think I can move I'm so dirty and muddy and- "Alistair-"
"I don't know what to do."
Alistair stands beside me, and I almost faint all over again because he looks taller than me in this mirror and I don't think I can deal with something like Alistair being taller than me right now. "What?"
His lips curve upwards. "Yeah. You need a shower."
"I've never showered outside of my home before. How can I-?"
"Hira," Alistair places one cold hand on each of my shoulders and faces me, eyebrows raised. "You've missed school. You've worn shorts. You've watched basketball. You've sat in a storm for twenty five minutes with a sporty, sweaty basketball player. You can shower. Trust me."
"I don't trust you," I say instantly. "But okay."