Only when they had entered the school building, climbed up several flights of stairs, far out of earshot and there was not a single student in sight, did Fumiko finally stop and turn to Hikaru.
Fumiko let out an exasperated gasp, as though she had been holding her breath in the entire time. "Why did you shake that witch's hand...?!"
Fumiko's group of friends had dispersed without a word when they had left the back of the school, and now it was just Fumiko and Hikaru by the school stairwell.
"Huh, witch...?" Hikaru blinked at Fumiko nervously as though she had took Fumiko's words literally. "What do you mean by that...?"
"Y, you..." Fumiko was about to say something, but sighed, deciding against it.
"Let me see your hand..."
Fumiko grabbed Hikaru's hand without waiting for her response, inspecting it thoroughly while Hikaru gazed at Fumiko bizarrely.
"Um... what are you doing...?" Hikaru finally asked.
"Do you feel sick anywhere? Any nausea? Headaches?" Fumiko asked, ignoring Hikaru's question.
"Huh...?" Hikaru shook her head, then her face paled. "Wait, did that girl have some sort of sickness...?"
Fumiko sighed, releasing her grasp of Hikaru's hand upon being satisfied with something, though Hikaru didn't know what.
"No, Hikaru... that's not it..."
"Then, what is it...?"
"That girl..." Fumiko grimaced, glancing sideways uncomfortably as she crossed her arms. "Risa's a monster..."
"Anyways, Hikaru, just listen to me," Fumiko grabbed onto Hikaru's shoulders and turned Hikaru towards her so that they were eye to eye. "Never ever ever EVER go near Risa again. I mean it."
"Is she really that horrible of a person...?"
"She could have hurt you. Bad. Like seriously bad." Fumiko said in a serious tone. "And there would had been nothing we could do about it. That girl is not right in the head, Hikaru... Trust me on this one."
Hikaru nodded hesitantly, though there were still some lingering doubts remaining in the back of her head. The nature of Hikaru's heart was that she chose to believe in the good of a person, above all else.
The idea that someone could be pure evil simply didn't exist as a thought in Hikaru's mind.
Sure, she had seen that Risa appeared to be the ringleader in the abusive environment seemingly to pervade Class 3-3, however, a part of Hikaru believed that she could talk to Risa and work things out.
If she didn't believe in these things, she probably would had never been able to become friends with Fumiko after all the bullying she inflicted on her.
But, still, besides wanting to talk to Risa to work things out, she also wanted to ease her friend's mind.
"I will avoid her..." Hikaru finally decided, glancing downwards. "If you say so, Fumiko..."
"Good." Fumiko smiled gently upon hearing Hikaru's answer. She grabbed onto Hikaru's hand, dragging her up the staircase. "Come on, let's head back then."
"Wh, where are we going...?"
"To eat lunch, of course."
Fumiko spun around to face Hikaru upon hearing her sudden scream, glancing first at Hikaru's face then quickly down at the hand that Risa had shook.
"What is it, Hikaru?! Don't tell me..."
"I..." Hikaru stared at Fumiko in a panicked state. "I was... supposed to find Itsuo..."
Fumiko let out her breath.
"Wh, what...? Is that it...? Hikaru, you honestly had me scared for a moment there..." Fumiko sighed.
"Itsuo said he had to run some errands for Hiroyuki-sensei, so maybe he will be at sensei's office," Hikaru said. "Could we please go have a look together first...?"
Fumiko thought about Itsuo, remembering her disappointment at how he had asked Hikaru out after school, then her face turned to a grimace.
"L, let's just forget about that idiot for now..." Fumiko said, turning back to where she was heading, dragging Hikaru along the way. "You can see him after school..."
"W, what? Please, Fumiko? We will just have a quick look...! I had something I needed to ask him--"
"No." Fumiko replied firmly, without turning back to look at Hikaru. "Aya's going to be upset that we were gone for so long. I promised her that I would eat lunch with her today."
"Where is Hikaru..."
Aya lamented to herself, staring out the class window to her side with a distant look in her eyes.
Aya quickly returned her gaze back to Sana sitting in front of her, then laughed apologetically.
"Sorry, sorry, Sana...!" Aya said. "I missed what you said earlier..."
Sana pouted at Aya, her round nose scrunching as it pushed her glasses up.
"I was saying that if you cancel out this part of the equation here..."
At that moment, Fumiko and Hikaru walked in through the classroom door and Aya stood up from her chair reactively.
"Hikaru..." Aya called out, opening her mouth to say something more, then stopped herself, seeing that the classroom still had other students around, eating lunch.
"Aah, I'm so sorry, Aya!" Fumiko bounced forward, stopping in front of Aya to clap her hands apologetically. "There was something super important I had to attend to and it ended up taking way longer than I thought!"
"That's okay, Fumiko..." Aya replied, more concerned about Hikaru than anything else.
"Sorry Aya and Sana..." Hikaru followed behind Fumiko with an apologetic smile. "I was trying to find Itsuo before he ran off to his errands for Hiroyuki-sensei..."
"Ah, was that it?" Sana replied from her seat. "Aya was so worried about where you had gone off to, Hikaru."
"S, sorry, Aya... I didn't expect him to walk so fast... and then me and Fumiko ended up getting caught with Ri--"
"Waaah--!" Fumiko quickly interrupted what Hikaru was about to say with an anxious laugh. "Would you look at the time? Lunch is almost over haha! Let's quickly eat or I'm going to starve to death!!"
"Huh..." Hikaru stared at Fumiko, confused, as the girls started heading for their seats at the usual lunch spot -- that is, surrounding Aya's desk.
"Come on, Hikaru, if you don't eat anything you're not going to survive the afternoon lessons!" Fumiko called.
Hues of yellowish-orange sunlight fell upon the four girls -- each with distinctly discernable appearances and expressions -- as they trudged slowly behind a lone male figure who was leading the pack silently, his face dark and forbiding.
The quietening chatter of the once vibrant school courts continued to grow even softer still with the gradual departure of students, but even then, the lone male refused to talk, allowing the tense atmosphere to hang over the group like a dark cloud.
It was only when they had reached the entrance of a small building that led to the tennis courts did the lone male finally turn around and shriek.
"Why the hell are the three of you here?!" Itsuo stabbed an accusing finger at Aya, Fumiko and Sana, and the three girls laughed anxiously, their eyes wandering.
"I'm here because Hikaru asked me to come..." Aya said, remembering how she had subtly influenced Hikaru to invite her during lunch.
"Don't get me wrong...! I just wanted to hang out with Aya, okay?!" Fumiko puffed, crossing her arms.
"Haha..." Sana scratched the side of her cheeks. The only reason she was here in the first place was because Fumiko had dragged her along.
"S, sorry, Itsuo..." Hikaru quickly stood in front of the three girls, bowing her head apologetically. "It's all my fault, I wanted to ask you if I could bring them along, but I couldn't catch up to you at lunch...!"
"H, hey, it's okay, Hikaru, it's not your fault..." Itsuo said, wanting to pull her back up.
"Anyways, let's all just get inside..." Sana smiled weakly, wanting to alleviate the tension. "It will be fun to do something together, us five!"
"Yeah... I guess you're right..." Itsuo mumbled, unable to hide the disappointment on his face.
The group started walking into the building and Hikaru was about to follow, but Fumiko grabbed her by the shoulder.
"Hikaru..." Fumiko whispered, "about Risa coming back to school..."
"Please don't tell Aya about it. I don't want her to worry."
"Why would Aya worry about that?" Hikaru gave Fumiko a confused look.
"Because... Risa... she causes trouble... for Aya..." Fumiko explained hesitantly, then noticed they were falling behind from the rest of the group. "Please just don't tell Aya about today, Hikaru! I will deal with Risa myself."
"Hikaru!" Itsuo called over from inside the building. "Come over here, they need you to sign the guest list,"
"Ah," Hikaru wanted to ask Fumiko further about Risa, but Fumiko was already running off to join the group.
"Have you played tennis before, Hikaru?"
Aya was bouncing the bright lime tennis ball against the padded grounds of the tennis court, her skin glistening under the glow of the afternoon sunlight.
"Um..." Hikaru was finding it hard not to stare at Aya's body. Focusing her gaze on Aya's face, she hugged the tennis racket in her arms that felt way too big for her short stature. "A little bit, back in my old school, we used to play some tennis..."
"Oh good, so you can play then," Aya laughed. "We're going to absolutely destroy them."
Hikaru glanced across the court at Fumiko and Sana, whom was on the opposing team.
"Listen Sana, you just have to get the ball over the net, and I'll do the rest," Fumiko was instructing an uneasy looking Sana.
"So it's a game of physics, right...?" Sana replied nervously. "We have to calculate the angular force to apply to the ball to result in the correct trajector--"
"Ready?" Itsuo called out to both teams, standing at the side of the courts.
"Ready!" Aya said.
"Let's do this!" Fumiko said.
"Serve!" Itsuo waved his hand, initiating the start of the game.
Aya tossed the ball up into the air, then whacked it to the other side of the court in one fluid motion.
Sana stretched her racket out, missing the ball by a wide margin as she jogged past where the ball had landed.
"15-0," Itsuo announced.
"Gah! What are you doing, Sana?!" Fumiko cried.
"T, trying to hit the ball...?"
"You need to run! Not walk!"
With the ball now in Sana's hands, she stared nervously across at Aya.
Then, she threw the ball up and...
Sana swung her racket, missing the ball completely as it fell past her swing and bounced on the ground.
"Oops," Sana laughed, rubbing her head sheepishly.
"Don't 'oops' me!!" Fumiko roared. "What on earth was that?!?!"
While Fumiko was busy lecturing Sana, Hikaru breathed a sigh of relief, feeling guilty at the same time.
'At least I'm better than Sana...' Hikaru thought to herself. 'I thought I was going to be the worst out here...'
After a quick victory over Fumiko and Sana, Itsuo now joined the opposing team with Fumiko.
"Sorry everyone... I'm terrible at this..." Sana weeped, going to the sidelines.
"Don't worry about it, Sana," Aya tried to cheer her up with a sympathetic smile. "Everyone has things they're good at and things they're not so good at."
"That's right," Hikaru added. "It's just a game!"
"Hah? Just a game?" Fumiko repeated. "Only losers have that attitude, Hikaru!"
"Ugh..." Itsuo placed a hand over his face, hearing that.
"Play to win, or don't play at all." Fumiko declared.
Itsuo let out a heavy sigh.
'How did it come down to this...? It was only supposed to me and Hikaru...' Itsuo was thinking. 'Oh well, at least I get to show off a bit how good I am...'
Itsuo bounced the ball, getting ready to serve.
'When I was watching on the sidelines, it seems like Aya's the best player here out of the girls. But judging from her play... I should still be better.
After all, I did compete at the states level for tennis back in Takayama...'
"Hey, don't mess up, okay?" Fumiko stared at Itsuo, having doubts about how long he was taking to serve.
"Relax, I got it..." Itsuo replied back casually.
"No, I mean, you want to impress Hikaru right?" Fumiko asked.
"H, hey!" Itsuo's eyes shot up to Fumiko.
"Don't worry, they can't hear us over here!" Fumiko laughed at Itsuo's reaction. "I'm on your team, remember?"
"Tch, I told you I have everything under control."
"If you had everything under control, then the three of us wouldn't be out here too! It's because you didn't ask Hikaru out clearly that she invited Aya and us along."
'She had a point there...'
"Look, I was taking it easy last round, but let's do this round for real." Fumiko said.
"Hah?" Itsuo gave her a dubious look. "Weren't you just saying 'play to win, or don't play at all' just then...?"
Fumiko sighed. "There was no way I was going to win with Sana on my team. Besides, I'm trying to help you out here!"
Glancing back acoss the courts, Itsuo saw Hikaru standing at the opposite field, being the one to respond to his serve.
Itsuo tossed the ball in the air, then slammed it down almost immediately and the ball zoomed past Hikaru, without her having any chance to react.
"H, huh...?" Hikaru glanced behind her, stunned.
"Wow--! You're so good at this, Itsuo!" Sana said, clapping her hands in amazement from where she stood on the sidelines. "15-0."
"Heh..." Itsuo smirked. "That was a powershot. The technique is to hit the ball when it is at its highest point, in a straight angle using a shoulder snap, allowing you to hit the ball as hard as possible to produce maximum speed."
"T, that was impressive..." Fumiko said.
Getting the ball, Hikaru stared across at Itsuo anxiously.
'H, how am I supposed to even hit that?!' Hikaru thought. 'I didn't even see it coming... I thought this was supposed to be just for fun...'
"Here I go..." Hikaru said, then whacked the ball with an upward swing.
The ball flew slowly to Itsuo's side of the court and Itsuo dashed to the net, then leaped up in the air, smashing the ball downwards so that it was impossible to return.
"30-0," Sana clapped again in amazement.
"Hey, you're actually incredible at this, Itsuo!" Fumiko said in surprise.
"Haha, of course." Itsuo flung his hair to the side with a hand, soaking up the praise.
Back at their hometown of Takayama, no one really took sports seriously so Itsuo never received any comments about his tennis skills back there.
Now it was Fumiko's turn to serve, she bounced the ball a couple of times, trying to replicate Itsuo's technique.
'This is too easy. It almost feels like I'm stealing candy from a baby here.' Itsuo thought. 'Once I've impressed Hikaru, maybe I can keep bringing her along alone to teach her and then we will have more time to spend together. Then, I will have a chance to--'
Hearing Fumiko's cry, Itsuo blinked, seeing the ball bouncing to his side.
"Waahh! That was even more impressive, Aya!!" Sana clapped her hands. "30-15."
"W, what..." Itsuo stared at the ball disbelievingly.
"Pay attention, alright..." Fumiko said. "Aya's actually really good at tennis too..." Then, she added, "and pretty much every other sports..."
'No way... but I was watching her play before, and she wasn't that good... Don't tell me...'
Itsuo glanced up at Aya and saw her smiling at him from across the court.
"Come on, Itsuo, start playing seriously now. It wouldn't look good if you lost to a girl, right?" Aya said.
'...it's an ambush!'
'Lucky this was tennis... if it had been volleyball, I wouldn't know if I would be able to beat Fumiko.'
Aya bounced the ball nonchalantly, her face deep in concentration as she focused on her breathing.
'Still... Itsuo's a bit of a challenge too... When I had looked into his background at the time he first transferred here, I was a bit surprised to find out that he was a state level tennis player...'
Aya spun the ball up as she threw it in the air, then smashed it at an awkward angle in the direction she had spun the ball, adding even more spin with her serve.
'Luckily, I had practiced my tennis skills by hiring a retired Japanese champion for private lessons as soon as I found out about Itsuo's background!'
Itsuo dashed for the ball, noting the spin technique that Aya had used.
'So you've applied spin to the ball, but if I hit it before it reaches the ground...!'
Itsuo made it just in time to return Aya's serve before the ball managed to hit the ground.
"Nice...!" Fumiko clutched her fist triumphantly.
Itsuo knew something was wrong though as soon as his racket made contact with the ball.
The ball spun off the racket, swerving over the net and falling to the side that was out of bounds.
"Aah!! Why did you hit it that way?!" Fumiko cried.
"It's the double spin!" Itsuo clenched his teeth. "I didn't see she had spun it twice...!"
'If you're gonna play that way...'
Now it was Itsuo's time to serve.
Tossing the ball up, Itsuo smashed the ball and it shot past Hikaru at a speed that was even faster than before.
'I'm actually going to have to go serious!' Itsuo thought.
Hikaru blinked, glancing around her confused, clutching her racket close to her body with both hands.
"N, new rule," Aya called out. "Let's allow anyone to hit the ball, to make it fair."
"No taking turns to hit the ball, huh?" Itsuo replied, a competitive spark lighting his eyes. "I'm fine with that!"
"Okay..." Hikaru held a new ball in her hand, getting ready to serve.
Hikaru did another lob serve, flying over gently past the net.
"I got it!" Fumiko called as she prepared to get in position to hit the ball.
Itsuo dashed forward first though, leaping up and smashing the ball downwards from right in front of the net as he had done before.
However, this time Aya was already in position to return the ball, having predicted Itsuo's movement.
Hikaru stared at the ball that was now flying between Aya and Itsuo at intense speed.
Hikaru slowly walked over to the side where Sana was standing, along with Fumiko.
"T, these two are really going at it, huh...?" Fumiko said, staring at the rally.
"They're both so competitive," Sana laughed as though watching two children playing on the sand.
"Wah! Is that Aya Kuramoto?!"
Students from the tennis club were gradually forming a crowd around the court where Aya and Itsuo was playing as the intensity of the match got higher and higher.
"I knew Aya was good, but I didn't know she was this good!"
"Who's that playing against Aya? He's insanely good too!"
"Who cares about the other guy! Doesn't Aya look so elegant with every move she makes!"
'How did this happen...?' Hikaru weeped inside from the side of the court. 'What happened to having fun doing sports with Aya...?'
"I can't believe it..."
"Stop complaining already..." Fumiko said.
"How could I lose...? To someone that doesn't even..."
"It's just beginner's luck." Aya smiled at Itsuo, feigning to cheer him up. "I'm sure you will win next time!"
"B, beginner...?" Itsuo stammered.
"I don't really play that much tennis," Aya laughed, casually forgetting the fact that she had rented out an entire tennis stadium just to practice for this day. "I much prefer calmer sports like archery or Aikido."
"T, that's impossible..." Itsuo said.
"Don't be a sore loser now," Fumiko pouted.
Itsuo fell into a bigger slump as the five of them continued walking to the station next to Hibiya High.
'Fufu, now that I've crushed Itsuo's spirits, he won't try to do anything to Hikaru any time soon.' Aya was thinking with a pleasant smile. 'Trying to beat me? Ha! You're a hundred years too early, kid!'
"Anyways, me and Hikaru have something to do!" Aya announced to the group and all of them turned to Aya in surprise, including Hikaru.
"We will see you guys tomorrow!" Aya said, then grabbed onto Hikaru's hand, dragging her away.
"What..." Itsuo said.
"See you!" Sana waved farewell enthusiastically at Aya and Hikaru.
"There they go again..." Fumiko sighed, placing her hands at her hips as she watched Aya run off with Hikaru. "Aya's really fond of Hikaru, huh?"
"Seems like it!" Sana laughed. "They would make such a cute couple!"
"W, what?!" Both Itsuo and Fumiko said at once, staring at Sana.
"Haha, I'm just kidding!" Sana giggled, and Itsuo and Fumiko looked at one another absurdly.
"No way that would work..." Itsuo said.
"Well... now that I think about it, they would actually make a really good couple..." Fumiko said hesitantly. "Too bad they're both girls..."
"W, what are you saying?! So if one of them is a guy, it's fine?!" Itsuo said.
"No, I'm just saying they match each other, that's all," Fumiko said with an annoyed glance at Itsuo. "Hikaru needs someone forward to drag her around, otherwise, she just ends up nowhere."
"Who's side are you on...?"
"Aya's." Fumiko replied straight away. "If Aya told me she likes someone, I would go through any hell to make it work out for her."
"You're such a great friend," Sana laughed.
"U, ugh... what's up with you and Aya anyways?" Itsuo asked Fumiko. "It's like you worship her or somethin--oww!"
Fumiko kicked Itsuo on the shin, an angry cross appearing on the side of her head.
"Do you want to die that badly?" Fumiko said, holding a pulsating fist up.
"Okay, okay!" Itsuo said. "I'm just curious, that's all. Sorry for asking, jeez..."
Fumiko sighed, dropping her fist down. She continued the walk to the station with Itsuo and Sana by her side.
"The reason I like Aya so much... is because she's the person I admire most in the world." Fumiko suddenly said in a serious tone. "She's the one that I've been looking up to since... the very first day I saw her in junior high..."
"U-huh..." Itsuo said, his face also turning solemn seeing how serious Fumiko sounded. "Why do you look up to Aya so much?"
"That's a long story..."
"When I was little..." Fumiko sighed. "My parents were never around because they were always busy with work... cliche, I know, but... naturally, they just gave me everything I wanted to shut me up." Fumiko laughed bitterly. "Every time I threw a tantrum on the phone with them, they would just spoil me by sending over all the gifts and newest toys a little girl in an empty mansion could ever ask for... I would always be playing alone in my room... making up imaginary friends... never having to share anything... And that was just the way I learnt how to..."
Fumiko shook her head. "I know I'm rash... and I know I'm rude... even if no one tells it straight up to my face... and... I always end up saying or doing something that hurts the people around me..." Fumiko continued. "Even though most of the time, I was just trying to help my friends..."
"Fumiko..." Sana said, staring at her with a look of concern.
"That's why... I wish I was like Aya." Fumiko said. "I wish I was polite, graceful, elegant... I wish I would always know how to do the right thing or say the right thing in any situation. I wish people would look up to me for advice. I wish everyone in the school would want to be my friend and say great things about me..."
"But I'm none of that," Fumiko's voice dropped quietly. "I'm the complete opposite. I'm rude, aggressive, emotional, dumb. People say that I'm like an out of control bull. Everyone at school always whispers things behind my back, even the people that are supposed to my friends. Every day I have to force a smile and pretend everything is alright, when I just want to scream in their faces."
"If I could be even 5 percent as good as Aya, then I could die happy..." Fumiko glanced up with a soft smile. "...I just hate being myself."
Itsuo and Sana stayed silent next to Fumiko, standing in front of the station where they had reached their destination.
Fumiko's limousine was parked at the front of the station, waiting for Fumiko and Sana -- the latter of which was being dropped off.
Sana's soft voice was interrupted by Itsuo's, which was loud and clear.
"Oi..." Itsuo said.
"Hm...?" Fumiko replied.
"Rude, violent, idiot." Itsuo said. "That's what you are."
"Itsuo!--" Sana said, but Itsuo stopped her.
"You do things without thinking and you're right, everyone does talk behind your back." Itsuo continued. "Hell, I always complain to Hikaru about you almost every single day when we walk to school, but you probably know that already."
"The very first day I saw you when I transferred to this school, I was already thinking to myself how we were never going to get along and how I could avoid you." Itsuo said. "And when I found out from other students about what happened between you and Hikaru before, I wanted to beat the crap out of you in the middle of the class as soon as I heard."
"So you knew, huh...?" Fumiko said.
"Of course, I knew!" Itsuo exclaimed. "Everyone in the class was shocked at how you and Hikaru suddenly became best friends!"
"To this day, I still have no idea how Hikaru managed to forgive you for what you did to her." Itsuo said. "If it was me, I would had never forgiven you."
A cold silence passed over the trio, the red rays of afternoon sunlight falling upon them. Fumiko held her head down, her violet fringe creating a shadow over her eyes.
"So there you go... I said it to your face..."
Itsuo said, breaking the silence quietly.
"But you know..." Itsuo said.
"After all that... I still think... you're a good person."
Fumiko lifted her head up, staring at Itsuo with eyes that were on the verge of tearing up.
"You're always quick to take action, no matter how many times you've failed or how many people would hate you for it, if you think you're doing the right thing, you go for it, even if the whole world is standing in your way." Itsuo said.
"You do anything for the people that you care about, and you're always thinking on your own about how you can help those around you."
"You're strong, resilient, genuine. If I had the whole school whispering crap about me behind my back, trust me, I would had been on the first train back to Takayama in less than a week. And you've been putting up with this for, what? Five, six years now?"
"Now, I can sort of understand why you're so snappy all the time," Itsuo laughed. "I'm just surprised that you haven't massacred everyone in the school yet, to be honest."
"But the biggest thing of all," Itsuo coughed, "is that I've never seen someone that is as genuine as you. If you don't like someone, you literally tell them straight up to their face. Like that time you just randomly told me you had a boyfriend."
Sana chuckled at that.
"Sure, there's some things I think you could improve on, but... don't we all have flaws?" Itsuo said, then smiled faintly at Fumiko.
Fumiko remained silent for a long time and Itsuo peered at her face, getting worried.
"H, hey, hope I wasn't being too harsh...?" Itsuo said.
"Fumiko...?" Sana said, from the side.
Fumiko cried, running into Itsuo with a hug that squeezed all the air out of his lungs and almost dropped him to the ground.
"Jerk, jerk, jerk...!" Fumiko said, her shoulders shaking.
Itsuo loosened up when he realised Fumiko was crying on him, while Sana watched with a gentle smile on the side.