"Already?" you ask, peering over the shogi board carefully.
The six year old you does not understand the rules of the complicated game and that is evident on your face.
The boy before you, only a year older than you, begins to explain in precise detail the objective, the instructions, and the overall synopsis of how to play shogi. His voice is too calming, like the wind gently caressing the sea and you find yourself distracted by his beautiful voice.
"Do you understand now?" he asks you after a few moments, although he already has the suspicion that your attention is elsewhere.
You smile sheepishly up at him and even though he is only seven years old, Akashi Seijuro is not amused. He can only smiles diplomatically, however, because you are a guest of his residence, the daughter of his parent's partners.
"I don't really understand," you admit, tucking some loose strands of hair behind your ear. You peer up at him from your embarrassed look, but your eyes are hopeful and he supposes that he really cannot blame you for not being able to pick up on the game so quickly.
Akashi has always been an exception. Or so he's been told.
You aren't, and he supposes that he cannot fault you.
"But... If it's okay... I think I would learn better if we just play."
Hands-on experience, huh?
The smile stretches, but only a slightly, barely a difference from the previous one yet somehow, still significant. He resets the tiles again.
After a few games, when the sun is already beginning to set and the clock on the wall dictates another hour gone by, you finally pull back.
"I don't like shogi." you proclaim.
He merely smiles; it's expected. "I suppose defeat is always a detriment in liking something."
You don't really understand his big words, but reply with your own smaller words. Regardless, they seem to have a much bigger impact than those fancy words ever could.
"But... Akashi-kun... Can we still play again in the future?"
Red eyes widen for a brief moment. Even at seven years old, Akashi Seijuro has never found an opponent who wanted more. (Other than his maids and acquaintances of his father, but that's another reason in itself, so they don't count.)
"Let's play again in the future then, [Name]."
a game of you.
The beginning was pure and innocent, untainted and loving...
01. Trial and Error
Those are the numbers that the electric board reads: Kinsei vs. Teiko.
It's over a 50 point difference and even though you know that your brother school did their best, the feeling of loss is still cold within your stomach.
Kinsei has always been a good school, one of the best junior high schools in Kyoto that is always in the top five. They are undoubtedly the best private boy's junior high school in your district with specialties in the sciences and athletics, so the fact that they have lost to the lesser school is very much a surprise to you, your teammates, and the boys from Kinsei.
As if guided by some form of desperation, you run down the steps with your own dance team following behind you in distress.
It is painful for even you, whose dreams and hopes are not crushed. Maybe it is due to your close friendship with the boys that makes you feel so sad because seeing them holding back their tears because of some stupid, unspoken rule that declares that boys cannot show any emotion and be miserable, it makes you cry in their stead. It hurts more knowing how cruel and mean the other team had been, going so far as to disregard Kinsei completely and refusing to acknowledge the hard effort that they had made.
The team is huddled together, holding onto each other for emotional support.
You are the first one to approach them, being bolder in your step because you are both physically and mentally closer to the boys than your own female peers. Your own friends wait by the sidelines apprehensively, waiting for you to make the first move.
"You did your best," you tell them, offering words of consolidation.
The captain turns around to face you. His hazel eyes are glimmering beneath the bright lights of the stadium but no, he does not cry. Instead, you are the one crying for him and he quickly throws his arms around you to pull you into a tight embrace. You feel him trembling before you but all you can do is bring your hands up to embrace him wholly and try to soothe his sorrow by rubbing his back, allowing him to transfer all of his despair onto you.
"You did your best." you repeat, this time, quieter and low in his ears. As if it's only meant for him, but he knows you are much more sincere than this.
It seems that your words are enough to empower him as he turns around to face his teammates again.
With the vigor of a leader and conviction in his tone, and even though his heart is still weighted with despair, he puts on his best poker face to repeat your words aloud.
"We did our best." he proclaims. "No one can fault us for this. We will not take this memory with us as a loss, but as a stepping stone for us to keep getting better. We did our best, and no one - not even ourselves - can fault us for that."
His words seem to bring enlightenment to his teammates and they raise their heads, giving each other words of compliment and reassuring pats on each other's shoulders.
The captain finally turns to you, thanks you with a slight blush on his face, but eventually leaves to the locker room with his teammates.
Your heart feels a little bit lighter, a little bit better as you watch their returned strength.
With the tears on your face finally drying out, you turn around to return to your own peers. In your move to do so, however, you see better now, the captain of the Teiko team and it makes you freeze at the recognition. Standing afar from up on the stands did not give you a chance to see his face, but now that you two are just a court away from each other, you can see him distinctly. You would never forget that shade of red hair nor that incredibly powerful aura.
When another boys says something to the captain, he finally turns around to meet your gaze.
It takes a moment for him to decide his next course of action but then he is immediately walking over towards you. You cannot help but stand in your spot, waiting for him, unable to make the next move. You are vaguely aware of the stares from your own peers and even his, but for the time being, you ignore them because the boy in front of you absolutely commands your entire attention.
"I must admit that I was not expecting for you to be here, [Name]." he says.
It's Akashi Seijuro.
And he is wearing Teiko's basketball uniform.
Still, you have grown up with the redheaded boy and maybe it is out of personal bias or simple pleasantries because your fathers are business partners, but you do not hold any hostility towards the older boy, though you know that you probably should out of loyalty for your own sibling schools.
There is a part of you that still cannot help but think about how dangerous this situation really is. This side of him, the overwhelmingly powerful leader of not only Teiko Middle School's basketball team, but also of the notorious Generation of Miracles, is scary. He certainly can be cruel when he wants to, you think, and though a part of you is glad that he has never shown this side of him to you before, it also hurts.
Because somehow, it feels like you have really never truly known him at all.
"Yes. I am here attending with my school for a small performance." you tell him.
He hums in response and you have the slight suspicion that this is already something that he already knows.
"That's right. Kinsei and Suoh are sibling schools." he states, more to himself than to you. "I failed to realize how close the two schools really were, it seems."
His words are poisonous honey: it's a jab at your previous show of affection with Kenta. You should be insulted - upset, even - but you know that there is no use in being angry at a simple observation. If you didn't want people to talk, then you should not show.
"Hanazawa-kun is a good senpai to me." you admit.
"He seems to be more than that."
"We are... not quite at that stage yet."
He hums again, this time, perhaps a bit amused.
His knowing look feels heavy on you and a little bit unnerving. You think that you do not like being this transparent, especially when you have not yet been able admit to your heart's desires yet.
"Congratulations on your win, Akashi-kun." you tell him formally, even though the irony hits you in the head in that you are congratulating the man who designated for the defeat of your brother school, who easily crushed the hopes and dreams of boys his age.
He nods. "Thank you, [Name]."
You stand awkwardly in front of him, glancing to your teammates from the corner of your eyes. He follows your gaze briefly but strikes you with his piercing red orbs once again.
"Your performance," he begins. "Is this the one for the government scholarship?"
You nod. "Suoh has always been a top contender for the scholarship. There will also be many scouts there, both local and international, as well as a few ministers. It's mostly a political thing, Akashi-kun."
You don't need to explain further. Akashi probably knows more than you do, anyway.
"Then, perhaps, should I come to show my support tomorrow as well?" he asks.
It startles you, his sudden interest in your life. You have known Akashi Seijuro ever since you were six years old but you two have never significantly grown close as friends, always remaining on either side of the line that dictated you two were just family friends.
You think that he would do it anyway, with or without your consent. Maybe he is just testing you, you think. Or maybe he is truly just trying to get to know you better.
Regardless, you do not deny him, and you put on your best smile.
"If you are not too busy," you say. "Then it is appreciated."
"Then I will show my support tomorrow." he finalizes. "It was a pleasure seeing you again, [Name]."
"Yes, you too."
As both of you turn your separate ways, you can distinctly hear a loud voice inquire about your identity.
"She is just someone that I am acquainted with, Daiki."
"I didn't know you knew any girls, Akashi."
You smile, and shake your head at the half-insult. It seems that the redheaded boy is doing good at the unknown middle school.
When you return to your own peers, your own friends are quick to ask you about your relationship with the red-headed captain.
"He's a family friend." you tell them.
"He's the captain of the Generation of Miracles, right?" one of your friend asks, although her tone of voice suggests a more hypothetical question. "...I imagined him to be a bit scarier, considering he's the leader of that team of monsters."
Her statement makes you pause and you have to rethink her words in your head.
The Generation of Miracles are legendary amongst your generation and even beyond. They are the five - or is six? - basketball players who excel on the court, decimating all of their opponents with ease and never losing a match.
There are rumours that lately, they have become more ruthless and judging from their match with Kinsei, you can only agree.
Akashi Seijuro, the boy that you grew up with and taught you how to play shogi and many other things... You have never been close with the boy, but he was always someone that you admired if only because he was perfect at everything.
Still, shouldn't it say something when he is the leader of a group of ruthless, monsters in the making?
"He's a good guy." you tell them.
Somehow, you sound unsure of yourself.
True to his word, Akashi does show up at your performance.
He arrives with a natural air of confidence and exudes all attention to him, but is not at all unnerved by the glances sent his way nor of the hearsay that travels around backstage.
It is certainly a scandalous situation when a boy is able to enter the dressing room of your traditional dance team, certainly is an irregular situation when your school is known for being strict with the opposite sex. As a result, his nonchalance regarding the entire atmosphere is highly suspicious, but you do not think much of it when he makes his way over towards you holding a simple bouquet of yellow roses and white liatris.
He gives you that charming smile and you can't help it when the blush rises to your cheeks. "These are for you," he says, extending the flowers out to you.
"Thank you, Akashi-kun." you reply and take the flowers up into your arms.
It's silent on your end for a moment and Akashi takes this moment to look around your dressing room, only to fully take in the eyes that are trained your ways.
"Is this not appropriate?" he asks.
You slowly push yourself up from the counter of your vanity and place the flowers onto the table before giving him a small smile. "If you got past the security, then I'm sure it's okay." you tell him. "It's just not usual for a boy to be backstage."
"Ah, I see." he muses. "I must have been under the wrong impression then, because I was not told that."
You tilt your head and look at him in curiosity. That's not a normal statement to hear; even the siblings of your friends had to get permission from your sensei to get through.
However, it is Akashi Seijuro that you are talking about, and you think that he has always been above the law, the sole exception.
"Then it's fine." you confirm.
"Perhaps it is a little too much, anyway," he says and leans in towards you.
It seems that he is too close for your comfort because you can see his facial features too clearly; the red and gold of his eyes - have they always been like this? - the slight curve of his lips and the high bones of his cheeks. His eyebrows are perfectly sculpted along his brow line, not thick, but not too thin either - somehow, naturally groomed to excellence. You never noticed it before either, but his pupils remind you of a cat's and when you look clearer at his eyes, even the shape is similar.
You swallow hard and grip the table behind you tighter, distancing yourself as far from him as much as possible because all you can think of at that moment is of the boy with honey brown hair and dimples and monolids, the captain from the other school whose smile is friendlier and holds a different kind of captivation from the one that the redhead in front of you has.
You are brought out of your stupor when you hear a crinkle behind you. When you turn your head, you see that Akashi is patting the base of the flowers and your cheeks go even more red at the realization.
His eyes meet yours once again and the smile on his lips seem to grow.
"...Considering how easily excitable your friends seem to be." he finishes.
He finally pulls back and you relax from your tense posture.
"They will get over it." you tell him. "The flowers are still very much appreciated, Akashi-kun."
He nods and says, "Then, I will be looking forward to your performance."
You mimic his action and he takes a step back. "I don't think that it needs to be said, but good luck with your performance."
For the second time that day, you thank him, and he promptly leaves.
Following his departure, your own friend, Sakuya, takes his place. She whistles low as she makes her way over to you.
"He's some guy, isn't he?"
You give her an inquisitive look.
"He's a rich boy, isn't he?" she muses. "Confident and arrogant... All of them are the same."
"He's not arrogant." you defend.
"He's that guy from Teiko, right?" she asks, and you nod. "So he certainly saw you with Kenta the day before. Yet, he's still confident enough to create that little scene, huh?"
"I don't think that was his intention."
She laughs and pats you on the shoulder, mutters about how naive you are when her eyes catch sight of the flowers behind you.
"Oh, that's strange." she says and you follow her gaze.
"No, not really. It's just that the mix of them is somewhat odd." she corrects. "You don't really see yellow roses with liatris too often."
"Is that a bad thing?"
She purses her lips for a moment.
Sakuya's family dabbles in business regarding agriculture and her family has had a long line of artists specializing in flower arrangement, so she knows a little bit more than average when it comes to plants and herbology.
"Well, the roses can mean friendship. You've been friends with him for a long time, right?" she asks.
"But... Liatris... They mean "I'm sorry." So did you two get into a fight or something?"
"No. We're actually not that close."
She looks puzzled, but shakes off the feeling of discomfort.
"I guess I'm just thinking too much about it. You two aren't close, right? So he could probably be trying to apologize for not being a good friend."
When you don't reply and she notices that that confused look remains on your face, she gives you a smile. "It's a sweet gesture, regardless. If I got such a lovely bouquet like this, I'd be happy for the entire week!"
You laugh at her exaggeration and she grins.
"Come on, let's finish getting you pretty."
You have never been a partaker in hearsay, have always chosen to keep your voice to yourself and only speak kind words. You know that words can certainly be cruel and how damaging they can be for a lifetime and it's a mature thought considering you are so young, but you also know that hearsay - gossip and the likes - is a normal topic of conversation for almost everybody. Just because you hold these sentiments does not mean that those around you share the same opinions.
So you think that it's really no surprise when your encounter with the Akashi heir spreads around your friends. However, it is certainly surprising to hear that it's spread to your brother school.
You don't have anything to hide, but words are sharper than a sword can ever be, so come the joint celebration for the boy's basketball team - not because they won or that they lost, but to celebrate their hard work - between both Suoh and Kinsei, you are quick to look for the older boy to clear up the misunderstanding. It takes a while, but you finally encounter him in an empty hallway.
"Hi." you greet him.
He shuffles awkwardly in front of you, but smiles for you nonetheless. "Hey."
"...I know there are rumours going around," you begin, straight to the point and honest with your heart. "...But they're not true."
"I know." he says curtly, unlike his usually friendly tone with you.
If he knows, then why is he being like this? Acting like a stranger in front of you.
"I think I'm going to study abroad next year." he suddenly says.
He laughs and moves to lean against the window sill. His gaze is down, avoiding yours, and he misses the way that your eyebrows furrow in confusion.
What... Why? I don't understand.
But you do understand. Kinsei is a prominent school in Japan and even if they have an adjourning secondary school, not every middle school graduate chooses to keep attending the famed school. Many end up choosing to attend other prestigious high schools in the area, in other parts of the country or even abroad.
"Ah, is that so, senpai?"
"I think I'm going to quit basketball, too." he says and this causes your eyes to widen. "You know that I'm the only son, right? And my dad is getting old, too, so he wants me to inherit the company when I'm older. I can't keep playing games anymore, chasing after dreams that might not come true."
I can't keep chasing after you, anymore.
"I wanted to win this last match for sentiment, but I guess it just wasn't possible."
He laughs, and you think that it sounds hollow and empty, not like the way his mouth would widen to release a loud, slightly awkward laugh that used to make you want to laugh simply because of how funny it would sound.
"I wanted to do a lot of things, I think." he says.
"You should do what you want, senpai." you tell him.
"...Yeah." But both of you know that when it comes to matters like this, there's not always the luxury of a choice.
The sounds of cheers in the courtyard break him out from his thoughts and when he looks up to look at you, you quickly turn away to wipe the tears from your face.
"You..." he says with wide eyes.
The brunette pushes himself up from the sill and walks over towards you. After a few simple steps, he's in front of you and you inhale deeply before turning to face him as well, offering him a smile of your own.
He brings his hand out towards you, but he suddenly retracts it back and forces it down by his side.
"It suits you... When you wear your hair up like this."
"I... never realized how clear your features really are, how much they compliment you." he says, only to laugh to mask the embarrassment that grows on his cheeks. "I should have told you sooner, shouldn't I have?"
You can tell me it now.
I know because I've asked around about you. I know what you like and what you don't like. I wanted to know everything about you.
I wanted you to see me today.
He laughs again, that sad, hollow laugh, and smiles flimsily at you.
"It was nice seeing you again today, [Name]. The school uniform really doesn't do you any justice." he says. "I'll see you around, [Name]."
He's going to graduate in only a few months and, and he's planning to go away from you forever and-
I like you, senpai.
Please don't go, senpai. Please give me a chance.
I don't want to lose you yet, senpai.
My first love...
When he walks past you, you smell the scent of spring.
"Take care of yourself, [Name]."
He seems to hesitate for a moment as he pauses in his step, mouth opening with a confession not yet ready to be said, perhaps passing by him due to the interchanges of time. He finally settles for another smile, this time, one that hides his heart, and he pats you on the shoulder once and carries on.
When he continues walking away, he takes the scent of spring along with him.
We just aren't meant for each other.
The tears won't stop falling when you return home, as you lay in your bed and drown your pillow with heartbreak. You finally allow your heart to fall to pieces, letting the burden and and pretense of happiness unravel in secret.
No one hears the muffled sounds coming from your room. No one notices the tears that drown you nor the heartbreak that makes it hard for you to breathe.
By the window where the curtains blow from the pleasant breeze, a bouquet of yellow and white flowers are listening to you.
They seem to grow from the nourishment of the sunlight, seem to grow erect from basking in the warmth of the sun as if brought to higher degrees of life.
But... the matters of heart is the trickiest game of all.