School was mundane as usual, and he barely saw her all day.
There was a lone exception where he passed her in the hall. He had lifted his hand in a casual wave. She noticed, and shyly reciprocated. The gesture made his heart melt. Then she caught herself, and went off without a backward glance.
He had thanked destiny for bestowing him with a classroom just around the corner to where Ritsu had lessons, but at school, he was still treated as mere acquaintance, and he was sick and tired of it.
Cycling home, Usa grumbled over the art project set by his sensei. School stifled creativity- why ask them to draw something as complex as abstract art? His mood worsened when he didn’t meet Ritsu at their usual rendezvous.
What a day to make a detour to the bookstore, he bemoaned.
To his delight, as he neared home, he spotted two familiar figures that immediately lightened the heavy load our education institutions call a backpack.
“No, you CAN’T. This is your third one already!” Sakuma used one hand to push Shiina away while desperately holding on to his snacks and waving to Usa all at the same time.
“Kouhais! What are you two doing here!”
"Senpai! Help me before this greedy girl steals all the sweet cakes my mom bought for the Kawai complex!” Sakuma motioned to Usa to dismount and help him. Usa made no move to do either. Sakuma could fend for himself, especially against such a sweet but stubborn girl like Shiina.
Goodness, I have no idea why I...” he caught himself. “Why I can stand being with you,” he finally uttered.
“Him or me?” Shiina, blur as always, asked.
“How dare you suggest I am insulting Usa-senpai!”
Watching the comedy unfold, Usa grinned and shook his head, fondly reminiscing his own encounters with Ritsu.
Old and beat up, rusty from time and from being constantly out in the elements. It rattled with every revolution its wheels turned. But it was lovingly oiled and fixed up every morning, and it’s owner’s care kept it running when needed.
Whistling tunelessly, the rider tapped a jaunty beat on his hand bars and wondered what dinner would be that night.
He rounded the corner and caught a glimpse of three figures animatedly discussing something. Alas, he was headed
straight towards them.
The air reverberated with the screeching of brakes, and the bicycle hit the curb.
To this day, no one is clear what exactly occurred, but there is a general consensus that the following events ensued in chronological order:
Usa pushed Shiina to the side, causing her to lose her center of gravity and fall headlong into- guess who- Sakuma. Owing to his tall and lanky legs, Sakuma hit the ground, cushioning Shiina’s fall awkwardly but successfully.
Meanwhile, Usa had stepped back, out of the line of danger. The cyclist rammed into the wall and the impact threw him backwards into some smelly trash cans. Although Usa had avoided the collision, his footing met thin air. He stumbled and slipped into an open drain at the sidewalk. His ankle violently turned to one side, and he winced. There goes my savings, he thought as he eyed his soiled socks and the sorry state of his scuffed shoes. I'll have to buy myself a new pair.
Struggling to his feet, Sakuma staggered forward.
“Show yourself!” he commanded fearlessly.
Sporting a sheepish grin, the source of all this trouble turned around to reveal himself...
Back in the sanctuary of the Kawai complex, Sumiko gingerly took off Usa's shoe and sock. Thank God Mayumi isn't around, Usa thought. She'd comment on the smell.
Sumiko, meanwhile, was busy exclaiming over his injured knee. "Swollen to twice the size! You poor thing!"
She kept up this refrain all the way till dinner time, whereupon Mayumi, irked by this repetition, rudely spoke aloud, "We don't want to hear about 'poor little Usa' anymore, mollycoddling him won’t help improve his miserable existence.”
Sayaka slyly added, “Old people have a tendency to ramble about the same things...over and over..."
A menacing aura began to form around Sumiko. “What did you say, my dear Sayaka-chan?”
“N-nothing.” Even Sayaka shut up when Sumiko was angry.
Usa changed the subject. “Meanwhile...can we discuss the small matter of me going to and fro from school...”
“Ah yes!” Sumiko stirred her tea reflectively. “I’m busy doing housework… Sayaka has no car… Mayumi’s driving…”
The atmosphere turned gloomy. Mayumi was indignant. “What do you mean, my driving isn’t that bad!”
Usa recalled his summer last year. Pale coral beach and waves dyed navy blue... Mayumi behind the driving wheel…torture.
“I could do it,” Ritsu said unexpectedly as she spooned a generous helping of meat onto her plate.
Her grandaunt only blinked at her in confusion.
“I could cycle Usa to school.”
Usa was horrified. It had been a lifelong dream for him to cycle with her, but not in this context! If he showed up in school like a damsel in distress, he’d be the laughing stock of the school for months. Everyone would label him a weakling- that would be worse than being called Freakshow Ringmaster back in middle school!
He opened his mouth to protest, but Mayumi beat him to it.
"You sure, Ritsu? I don't think you can carry that pig's weight."
For once, Usa applauded Mayumi for her brash conduct.
“I'm not carrying anyone, I'm cycling..."
“Mayumi is probably right. I’m kinda heavy, senpai. You might have a tough time ferrying me.”
Ritsu’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits.
“It's not you, it's me!” he hastily added.
“Awwh, Usa just finds it too hot to handle seeing you cycle in such close proximity!”
Mayumi was slamming the table and rocking in laughter. The cutlery was quaking. Sumiko's eyes travelled to the fragile dining ware she had set out. She made a mental note to place Mayumi's next meal in the toilet to punish her for her outlandish behavior.
Eventually, a compromise was struck. Shirosaki would pay atonement for his crimes by cycling Usa to school until his ankle was sufficiently recovered.
Ritsu stalked out, book in hand, blazing with unspoken fury. Usa knew he was in for it. A cold shoulder for the week, and he was back to square one in his friendship with her.
Paying the price for the sake of my manly pride, he thought bitterly. Great.