Chapter TwelveLIVING NIGHTMARE

I wearily plopped into my seat on the bus. Woke up late, again. I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't wake up. I've been wanting to do both so bad. I just want to sleep this off, but I don't want to stay trapped in this nightmare, anymore. I feel empty. I hate it. I hate it all.

The seat across the aisle from me was empty. Akira wasn't on the bus, again.

I shook it off.

I'm so tired… so restless. I know I'm in a nightmare, and I want to fall into a deep, pitch-black sleep, but I can't. I'm sleepwalking… and I don't know if I'll ever wake up.

Sub Chapter 12.1¡PHEW!

Mrs. Español was enthusiastically gesturing what a donkey was, hoping we could guess the word in Spanish, her fiery red hair aflame, flailing all over the place.

John was laughing his head off, and Mrs. Español smiled, with the sheer thought in mind that John was enjoying her teaching methods.

Akira's hair draped over the edges of her desk as she took notes, legs crossed, wrapped in tight black boots. Her lips were frowning and coated with a dark red.

The class' roaring laughter boosted Mrs. Español's ignorant self-esteem.

John turned to Akira, playing with her locks of hair.

She smiled… a small, insecure smile…

John whispered something in her ear.

She shook her head.

He gave her one of his patented, charming smiles.

She just resumed taking her notes.

I sighed a sigh of relief, and sank into my seat.

How do you say "Phew!" in Spanish?

Sub Chapter 12.2PITCH-BLACK NOTHING

I was so tired. All I did in Study Hall was sleep. I slept away all the noise and responsibilities. I didn't feel like thinking--- I was too tired for any of that. Way too tired…

Where the hell am I?

It was dark… pitch-black…

"Hello…?"

I walked on nothing. Dark nothing. Cold nothing.

"Matthew…"

That voice.

I spun around and gasped. Akira was right behind me.

"A-akira---"

"Matthew…"

I looked to my right and there was another her. The two of them were clad in different clothes. The one in front of me was the girl in in her overalls, in my jacket… The one to my right blended in with the pitch-black nothingness, in tight black, with sad, darkly outlined eyes.

"Hey, Matt!" To my left, far in the distance of all the nothingness was John.

Her ran up to me, laughing. Smiling his charming smile. He took the Darkly-dressed Akira by the hand and started to walk off. Then, as they started to, the Darkly-dressed Akira grabbed hold of My Akira's arm, and started to float away.

She screamed, holding tightly onto my arm, "No…! Matthew, no!!"

I wrapped my arms around her, but she was slipping out of my grasp.

They were floating away… and I was starting to sink.

"Matthew, PLEASE!!"

"I-I'm sorry, Akira! I didn't mean to hurt you!" I held on tighter and tighter but she was slipping and slipping and I was getting pulled into the nothingness.

She slipped and slipped until she was torn out of my embrace, carried off by John and Dark Akira.

And I…

I started to drown in the nothingness. I couldn't breathe, and my lungs started to fill with thick, black, liquid… And thick, black nothing poured into my sockets to mingle with my tears.

I sank until I drowned in myself…

Until I was nothing.

The bell rang.

I snapped out of my nightmare and gasped for air. I clenched my chest, heaving.

Sara Sokavich just eyed me.

Sub Chapter 12.3JUST DON'T ASK.

"Why, Akira… I didn't know you were so athletic," Coach Bossy smiled.

"….."

"I'm gonna hafta transfer you."

"….."

"How does Advanced P.E. sound?"

When she heard the words, 'Advance P.E.' fly out of Coach Bossy's mouth, her heart skipped a few beats.

"Any objections?"

Akira was about to, when Coach Bossy quickly interjected, "Atta girl! That's the spirit!"

"But, I---"

"You're gonna hafta switch yer Study Hall for yer P.E., got it?"

"It's just that---"

"So you know when to come in, dontchya?" He was unintentionally spitting on her.

Her head sank and she nodded.

"Good. We'll see if you could run as fast as Haley."

Sub Chapter 12.4SILLY SYMPATHIES

Lunchtime…

I wearily trudged to lunch, and plopped into my seat. Luke sat down next to me, and gave me a sympathetic look. Mark sat on the opposite side of me and gave me a sympathetic pat on the back.

John sat across from me. He didn't give me his sympathy. Mark and Luke were a bit aggravated by his lack of concern. I wasn't. Sympathy was another term for "Lost Hope". I was too tired to feel sorry for myself.

He happily ate.

Mark and Luke glared at him.

I wearily looked around before I stood up.

The three of them looked at me.

My legs functioned without my consent, and trudged out the cafeteria door for me.

I was in the halls.

I was sleepwalking.

I stopped right before the Geometry door swung in my face.

"…..!"

… It was Meril.

"Hey, Matt. You look real tired…"

"….."

"Are you alright?"

I just blankly stared at her.

She sighed a sympathetic sigh, "Well, I best be on my way--- Oh, hey!" She waved to someone behind me as she started to walk past me.

I turned around, and saw Akira. She was coming down the stairs.

We both froze.

I tried to open my mouth to say something, but I couldn't.

For a moment, her dark, sad eyes lit up, and she was on the verge of smiling.

I wanted to see it. I started walking toward her, "… Smile." I whispered.

She tried to look away, but she couldn't.

"… Smile, Akira…" I beckoned softly.

Her insecure smile was staring to brighten.

"Matt!" Mark and Luke burst through the cafeteria doors.

"Matt!---" Luke stopped.

Akira's sad gaze returned.

They both looked at her and I, who were standing at a distance, facing each other.

"Uh," Mark scratched his head.

Akira hurried down the stairs and gently slipped between them and through the cafeteria doors with her hair and her click-clacking trailing behind her.

The doors slammed shut, and the two of them just looked at me.

Luke quietly squeaked, "Matt, we were just…"

I started wearily for my next class. The bell hadn't even rung yet.

Sub Chapter 12.5'KEYS' CONCEPT

Ms. English stopped reading right in the middle of one of the paragraphs and looked up at us. She slammed her book shut.

She's been doing that a lot, lately.

"We've spent all this time reading about all this Love crap. Let's talk about it," Her eyes caught sight of Akira. She did her best to pay no attention to it, "Isn't Love such a treacherous thing?"

People already started to agree.

John started to play with Akira's hair again.

"I mean, it takes a person to a magical world, robs them with pre-nups and kicks em' out!"

People started to sit up.

Ms. English began to pace around, "I'm starting to feel as if Love's not for me. How many of you feel that way?"

Everyone around me shot their hands up into the air.

I sank low into my seat.

"HALEY! How about you?"

"… Wh-what…?"

"Ah, I love embarrassing you," She smirked.

I scratched my head.

"I didn't see your hand in the air. Stand up, Haley."

I just sat there.

"Come on, stand up."

I reluctantly got to my feet.

"Isn't he a beautiful specimen?"

All the girls agreed, and some guys did, too. Just for fun. I hope.

My face got all hot.

I heard "Awwws…" from everywhere.

"I didn't see your hand up."

"… and…?"

"Well?"

I looked at everyone.

Everyone stared right back at me.

I took a deep breath before I spoke, "… I didn't know what Love was… It was my conception that Life didn't require Love, so I never took notice of it. But, then…" I paused. I swallowed. "… I found out… I was wrong…"

Akira looked up, and slowly turned around.

"I couldn't… I couldn't understand what I was feeling, and I was even less willing to accept that I was feeling anything beyond my reach… I was…" I looked at her, speaking clearer now, "I didn't know what to do with it, but before I knew it, I was in it. I couldn't live without it. Constant questions arose. How badly did I want it? Was I willing to fight for it? Was I feeling what I was supposed to feel? … I didn't know." I exhaled deeply. My eyes dove straight into hers, "… I do now. I'm going to fight for it, because it makes me whole. And I want the feeling to stay with me forever, even if it's only in my memories. I didn't know what Love was, and I don't care what it is. I'm still going to fight for it."

Akira sharply turned away.

Everyone was silent.

Ms. English was dabbing away tears that were starting to smear her makeup.

John gaped at me, before he started to deviously clap with a smirk on his face. Then, everyone else did, too.

Then the cheering didn't stop. Girls took turns hugging me tightly between high-fives from guys.

I didn't take my eyes off of the back of Akira's head.

She felt my gaze, and looked up at the board, but there were no notes to pretend to copy. She stood up, and hurried out of the room.

I was about to go after her, but the class had crowded themselves around me.

"Just for that, you get an A plus!" Ms. English marked it down in her grade book.

John stood up and stealthily walked out after her.

The frustration in me was starting to build. But my own unsettling words got to me more.

… So, this is how I felt all along…

I couldn't hold back my growing smile.

Sub Chapter 12.6OBVIOUS

"I heard you're a chick magnet, now!" Mark joined Luke and I by the lake.

I haphazardly shrugged and grinned.

Luke poked at the fire in silence.

"Hey," Mark turned to me, "Meril's so into Luke, it's not even funny."

I grinned some more and glanced over at Luke, who was sullen, still poking at the fire.

Mark slowly helped himself to some of my mom's cookies out of Luke's baggie. He paused.

Luke didn't do anything about it.

Mark shrugged, and popped one into his mouth.

I turned and faced Luke.

He looked at me through the corner of his eye.

I paused, too.

The fire was crackling and contending with Mark's almost-violent crunching.

"You're so in love with her, and you're just going to let him take her?" Luke looked at me.

What…?

"Who's 'him'?" Mark asked with his mouth full.

"He doesn't deserve her, Matt."

"Who's 'him'?" Mark repeated after he swallowed.

I looked out over the lake.

"He's shallow, and he won't know how to treat her."

"Who's 'him'?" Mark demanded.

"Can't you see?! She doesn't want him! She's still in love with you!"

"Who's---"

"How the hell would you know?!" I stood up, "What the hell are you, some kind of 'Love Doctor', or something?!"

"I'm not blind, if that's what you mean! You walk through Life like cocky-shit, but you're insecure, and you're letting it drive you into losing what you can't live without!" Luke stood up, too.

Mark shoved a cookie in his mouth to stifle a question.

"What the hell do you know? You're not me!"

"I'm your friend, Matt! And I see it! And so do you! You guys were made for each other, and you didn't need to hold hands or say 'I love you' to know that! She's waiting for you to save her, Matt!"

"You know what?---"

"Look at her, Matt!! Do you think that that's really her?!"

"I don't want to listen to this anymore," I stormed away.

"Matt! Listen to me!!" Luke trailed behind me, until I started to run.

"MATT!!"

His voice disappeared behind the trees as I sped away on my bike.

He doesn't know what he's talking about.

Chapter ThirteenOCCUPIED

My alarm has been sounding off for the last ten minutes. This was one Wednesday where I just didn't want to get up. This was one week where I just didn't feel like going to school.

Even if I did try to take her back, John'd be too charming. I shouldn't even bother.

I slammed my alarm clock with a swing of my pillow and fell out of bed.

Luke and I were ready to board the bus.

Luke paused and took my arm, "Uh, how about we walk?"

"I don't want to."

"The air's so fresh---"

I looked up at the bus to catch Mark frantically sending signals through the window at Luke not to board the bus.

But I was tired. "C'mon."

Luke reluctantly trailed behind me. I saw the seat next to Mark empty, and the seat next to Akira filled. John was making pleasant conversation with her. She was looking out the window, nodding.

She caught me looking at her.

I was flushed. "Here," I murmured to Luke, "Take my bags. I'm off this bus."

"Matt…"

"I'm out of here," I cut our gaze and held the door of the bus open before it could close on me. I hopped of the bus as it sped away. I ran to school as fast as my feet could carry me.

Sub Chapter 13.1MARCH STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL

"Okay, you little pipsqueaks," Mr. Substitute growled, "I'm gonna teach you a good, hard lesson on Hell 101."

This guy was worse than Coach Bossy.

He picked on James a lot.

James looked fed up.

Mr. Substitute barked at him, "You screwed up on simple arithmetic, boy! You don't belong in this class!"

James held back his tongue.

"If you were any dumber, your mama woulda named you 'Ed' and we'd all nickname you 'Special'!" He spit on James as he barked. "Is that what you want for yourself?! Are you special, 'Ed'?! Huh?! Are ya?!"

"Look!"

Who was saying that?

"I'm tired of you treating us like five-year-old sweatshop orphans!"

"Are you challenging me, son?"

"I'm not challenging you, I'm telling you. And you're not my father, so I'm not your son!!"

"You gotta alotta nerve, boy!"

I realized I was the one saying everything… I was standing, fists clenched, teeth gritted.

"I guess you've forgotten that I'm the teacher, and you're the student, boy!"

"Well, not anymore!" I slung my backpack over my shoulder.

"What the hell are you doin'?"

"I'm transferring out of Hell Hole 101. I don't like the teaching methods."

The class couldn't contain their laughter, anymore.

"Boy, come back here!"

James stood up, and started marching off, too.

People were cheering.

I stopped, and glanced over at Akira.

I saw her hand clutching one of her backpack straps, before she reluctantly pulled her hand away.

She looked at me with tired eyes.

I looked away, "C'mon, James."

Him and I marched out of there, with laughing and cheering to see us off this time.

Sub Chapter 13.2BITTER EMBODIMENT

Spanish was foreign gibberish. I couldn't concentrate. I had nothing else to meditate on, and yet, I just couldn't focus. Heh, but James and I showed him.

I wonder why people like him end up so bitter…

I was beginning to think that James was bitter pre-production before the final culmination of bitterness we've come to know and love as Mr. Substitute. Years of painstaking, psychological and verbal abuse probably sticks so long with a person that they forget what Life's like outside of their own pain.

But James was pretty resilient. I admired it. His resilience makes teachers fear his presence, so they continually bombard him in hopes of destroying the perfection that was bound to surpass them.

James Quinn was not the average guy.

"Why do you keep pretending as if you don't love me?"

"Melissa, I---"

"Why do you keep pushing me away?"

"You ask so many questions I can't answer!"

"Why are you like this?"

"Melissa---"

"Is it because I'm not good enough?"

Oh, no. She's going to start crying, again.

"Is it because there's someone else?"

Oh, please, no.

"Tell me!!!"

Oh, geez. They're falling. Crap. "I… I do think you're deserving of good things, and no, there's no one else…"

"Then why don't you tell me you love me?!" The tears came like rain slithering down a windowpane.

"We're freshmen, for Pete's sake! Why do you keep doing this to me?"

"I LOVE you, MATT!!!" She grabbed my shirt and muffled her own sobs.

I hated it when she cried. It was manipulative, and immature. She kept asking so many questions she wouldn't have wanted to hear the answers to. But, she kept asking them, anyway…

… But… seeing Akira tearing up was a hundred times worse. I… I didn't want her unhappy because of me. I didn't want to hurt her… I didn't want her beautiful face tainted by it… It almost killed me… I was afraid…

Why is she pushing me away?

Why is she like this?

I'm not good enough…?

… Someone else…?

I looked out the window, as tears discreetly rolled down my cheeks…

Why doesn't she love me?

Sub Chapter 13.3GET THE PICTURE

Lunchtime…

I invited James to sit with us during lunch, since we had one empty seat…

Luke gave me a concerned look. I lazily grinned. He returned it.

"So, Quinn… what've you been up to?" Mark took a bite out of James's sandwich.

"Not too much," James smiled a pleasant smile as he took out a spare and started eating it.

"Hear you've been playing quite the vigilante for a week or so…"

"Really?" James looked at Mark with a dramatized, surprised look on his face before he smirked.

"Havoc wreaker," Mark stuck his tongue out.

He did the same.

Luke and I eyed each other.

"Luke…?" Meril came up to him.

"Whaddaya want?" Luke's cheeks bulged with pasta.

"Um, do you know when we should work on the art project? It's due soon."

"A month from now."

"But---"

"Relax, okay? I'm doing it all myself, anyway."

"No, you're not…"

"Isn't it some kind of rule cheerleaders implement on 'losers' like me? That's why you chose me to be your partner, isn't it?"

"No, I---"

This chocolate milk tastes good.

"Yeah, yeah. Excuses, excuses."

It's all creamy.

"Luke, I---"

"Look, cut the chit-chat. I'm doing it myself. Happy?"

James and Mark watched with amused looks on their faces.

"Would you just listen to me---"

"Get outta here. You're ruining my appetite. You're getting an easy A. The least you could do is scram."

Mmm. I miss chocolate milk.

Meril closed her gaping, exasperated mouth in sheer disappointment and silently retreated.

Luke returned to eating his moon pie.

James and Mark stared at him.

Damn! I finished it! I sadly looked at my empty milk carton.

"What're you looking at?!" He batted an evil eye at the both of them.

They began casually eating with silly grins on their faces.

When it came to Love, the four of us were as empty as this carton of chocolate milk.

Sub Chapter 13.4READ LIKE A BOOK

I slothily mopped myself into Study Hall.

There was only one seat left. Usually, there were two.

I slid into my seat and dropped the pencil tucked behind my ear. I leaned over the side of my desk to get it, when a pale hand picked it up. I looked at its owner.

Akira smiled a small smile.

"… Th, thank you…"

What was she doing in my Study Hall?

I fumbled with my belongings, trying to look busy. Most Study Halls, I'm lazing around, waiting for the bell to ring.

I tried to read.

I could feel her looking at me.

Geez, is she smiling at me?

No, don't look, stupid!

Whoops. Book's upside down.

Heh, heh… I knew that.

I nervously scratched my head.

I MUST look at her!!

She was reading.

Okay, so she wasn't looking at me.

Well, I guess---

… wait a minute.

"… Uh… Your book's upside down," I whispered.

She looked at me, startled, "… Oh…! … I knew that…" She flipped it around.

I smiled.

I knew she wanted to, too.

I was satisfied, just knowing she wanted to.

I smiled to myself, relaxed in my seat, and read her mind out of the corner of my eye with my book right side up.

Sub Chapter 13.5BACK ON TRACK

I was heading toward P.E., when I saw her heading in the same direction as me.

She was probably going to sit in the stands and watch John, or something.

Why is she heading toward the girls' locker room?

In the Guys' Locker Room…

I bumped into John, "Hey, Krause."

"Hey, Haley."

I wanted to strike up a conversation, but I couldn't think of anything congenial, "… Is Akira here because of you?"

"She's always in the stands."

"No, last time I saw her, she was heading into the girls' locker room."

John paused and looked at me. He slung his towel over his shoulder. He gave me his sickening, charming smile.

I tried not to narrow my eyes. I'm not sure if I was or wasn't because my face felt numb and hot with jealousy.

His charming smile grew.

I couldn't do a darn thing.

It was Akira's choice.

I shrugged, "Way to go, Krause," and I rat-tailed him.

"DAMN IT, HALEY! THAT HURT!"

I zoomed out of there as quickly as I could. He knew better than try and to run after me.

HA! I am victorious!

I ran straight into Akira, "… Oh, geez! I'm so sorry…!"

"… It's okay, Matthew… Really."

"HALEY!"

"Yes, Sir."

"Meet yer equal."

I looked at her, "…..?"

"She has the same timed runs as you, so you'll be having a heckuva time trying to outrun this little lady."

… What's going on??

"In fact, let's see some of that right now!"

"But, Sir, I---"

"HALEY! MIKIMOTO! Get to it!"

"Yes, SIR!" We both shouted and ran off.

She was fast.

I couldn't speed ahead of her. She ran with such grace and ease. Her feet made no noise. I couldn't even hear her breathe.

I looked at her.

She looked at me through the corner of her eye before she started to speed up.

You're not getting away that easy.

I sped up.

She was too fast.

She darted ahead of me.

I was about to give up, when I saw a football whistling toward her, "… Akira---!"

I zoomed forward and pushed her out of the way, simultaneously wrapping my arms around her to shield her from the impact of the ground.

We rolled through the grass as the pigskin pelted someone else.

I winced and slowly opened my eyes to see her blue eyes twinkling and her rosy cheeks blushing. My arms were wrapped a little too tightly around her.

I cleared my throat and jumped to my feet and helped her to hers.

There was a nervous period of silence as we swiped the grass off our clothes.

"… th, thanks---"

"NO PROBLEM!" I bursted.

And then, I saw that smile of hers through her dark eyes and glossy lips.

I scratched my head and smiled back.

In the distance behind her, John was glaring at me.

Sub Chapter 13.6BOUND TO HAPPEN

"You're right, Luke."

Mark finally knew who we were talking about.

"I am insecure, and I am in love with her."

"Did you tell HER that?"

His innocent, compassionate grin prodded me to grin as well, "I will."

Mark and Luke ate cookies after warming them up over the toasty fire.

"… Oh, we know you will," Mark swallowed, "But, when…?"

"Yeah, before it's too late," Luke added.

I nodded. Then I chuckled, "I never thought I'd say something like that…"

The two of them looked at me.

"Matthew Haley. Me. In love! Can you believe this?"

The two of them smiled.

"Of course we can!" Mark chimed.

Luke shrugged, "I mean, come ON. It was bound to happen some time."

I smiled. The icy cold wind wasn't enough to make me cower behind my comforters.

I love Akira, and I'm going to get her back, somehow…

… It's only a matter of time, now…

Chapter FourteenPLEASANT

I woke up early this morning. The air felt great. It was a strange morning. No ominous grey skies, all the birds were chirping, the sun was out and shining. It was a great way to introduce me to my favorite day of the week. Luke and I picked up Mark before he could board the bus and we all walked to school together.

When we got there, Meril came up to us, "Hey, you guys."

"Hey, Meril," Mark winked.

"Hi," I nodded.

"….." Luke sourly batted an eye, "What?"

Instead of sadly walking away, Meril smiled all the more pleasantly.

"What?" he repeated.

"Nothing," She beamed, and walked off with her head tossed back.

Mark chuckled to himself as I shook my head, smiling.

"What?!"

Sub Chapter 14.1CHANGE

"So, um, what do you like to do?"

"….."

"… Akira…?"

"Oh, hm? I'm sorry, John. Can you repeat what you just said?"

"What do you like to do…?"

"… stargaze…"

"Oh…? Not me."

"Why not…?"

"It's a black canvas with glitter splattered across it. What else could there be?"

"… that 'black canvas' encompasses everything we know and things we've never dreamed of… What else can't there be?"

John was struck. Never has a girl given him a penny for his two cents. He's been broke all his life, and now… It was time for some change in him…

He smiled, "I never really gave it too much thought, but… I guess… okay, um… Wow…"

"….." Akira stared out the window and saw Matthew walking with Luke and Mark.

"….." He looked at her.

She snapped out of it, "Hm…? Oh, I'm sorry… Can you repeat that, again?"

Why is History so confusing? There's this war and that bill. This plebiscite and that dumb mandate. Dates, dates, dates! Not the kind you eat, or the kind you go out on. These are the kind that hurt your head, make you curse and swear during a cram session, and confuse you to death…

Whoops. I must've mixed up these dates with my ex.

Sub Chapter 14.2DIRECT CONNECTION

I bumped into John in the halls on the way into Biology, "Hey!" I smiled.

He grinned, "Long time no real talk, Haley."

"You don't sit with us anymore, dufus!"

John shrugged, "Shit happens."

"Come back anytime."

He nodded, "I might."

I shook my head and nodded. I wasn't mad at the guy. How could I be? He was a my best friend. Besides, it was my fault for letting her slip out and letting him slip in. But it's time I do something about it.

I sat in my seat and pondered to myself. Half of the period zoomed by and I didn't even notice. I turned and looked at Akira. She was looking at me, but when I saw her, she quickly turned away. I wasn't going to let go of her gaze. I stared at her long enough to make her feel it.

She turned and looked at me.

Our eyes locked. I saw sadness, pain, and loneliness. She saw vulnerability, remorse, and hope.

Her lips quivered, as if she were meaning to say something when John took locks of her hair between his fingers as delicately as possible.

Direct connection has been interrupted.

Retry?

Click cancel.

I sat back in my seat.

That'll do. For now.

Sub Chapter 14.3OLD WAYS

Lunchtime…

I walked down the stairs and saw Akira slip out of the Geometry room.

I froze. So did she.

Pause. Okay, think. Should I let her just leave? No. I'm not going to do that, anymore.

I calmly strode up to her, and just smiled.

She couldn't suppress her smile anymore.

I took a few locks of her hair and let them cascade through my fingers. She just looked at me. I slowly started braiding them… My mother used to braid her hair before my father… Well, she keeps her hair down, now…

When I was finished, I let the braid gently fall with the rest of her hair. She looked at it.

I saw John coming up from behind her.

She could hear his footsteps.

I looked at her and smiled with a nod.

She looked at me, a bit perplexed, but still smiling.

I looked at John and grinned, saluting him before I turned around and left.

Sub Chapter 14.4PAY UP

"Hey, you guys," I sat down for the last few minutes of Lunch.

They cheerily greeted me.

James forked up a pork chop, "Hey, I bet you five bucks that Luke'll land a woman before you and I do, Mark."

Mark giggled through his sandwich-filled mouth, "You're on."

Luke grinned and rolled his eyes.

Why doesn't the cafeteria have knives?

"You forget, James Quinn. Girls can't help but fall for my boyish good looks," Mark said matter-o'-factly.

I mean, honestly. It's like they're inviting us to bring our own accessories to murder!

James tried to suppress a giggle fit attack, and his face started to turn all red before he bursted out laughing.

"What the hell's so funny?" Mark batted an eye at James.

"Your 'boyish good looks'? You are a boy, still. I know that much is true. But I don't think you have the good-looking part down!!"

"Hey! I'll have you know that many a woman have succumbed to my irresistible charms!"

Luke looked at him, "How much did you pay them?"

James was dying.

I think that plastic knives provided by the cafeteria make more sense. And just in case someone goes Hannibal on someone else, they could blame it on the cafeteria for providing them with a murder weapon!

"Hey, shut up, you two!" Rice flew out of Mark's mouth.

Wait a minute---!

"You'll have to pay us first!" James slapped his knees.

Luke was muffling his giggle fits into his folded arms.

Eureka!

"I'll pay you!" Mark shook his fist, "And it'll be in twelve monthly installments of your own teeth after I sock you in the mouth!!"

They couldn't stop laughing.

Now I know why they don't have cafeteria knives! They don't want to be accessories to murder!! Or maybe they just don't have enough decency to stop sneaking money into their own paychecks and give us some damn plastic knives!

Mark threw the rest of his sandwich at James and Luke.

Luke caught it mid-air, grabbed it, took a huge bite out of it and threw it right back at Mark.

"HEY!!"

James gasped and laughed harder.

Those sneaky bastards.

Sub Chapter 14.5GREEN IRISES

In English, girls were giving me strange, blushy looks. I tried not to feel weirded out. But they were scaring me.

I caught Akira looking my way a billion times. Well, maybe because I never took my eyes off her.

John desperately called for her with each gentle sweet nothing he whispered in her ear, each one of his best-patented smiles, each playful caress of her hair.

I smiled to myself.

She knew I loved her.

She won't be able to deny it for very long.

"Pssst."

Hm? I turned to see who was calling me.

"Matthew," A girl waved.

Who is she?

She came and sat down next to me as Ms. English wrote down reiterated things on the board.

"Hi," She smiled.

Uh-oh. "Hi," I scratched my head.

Wait a minute.

"New girl in town."

… Wait, is this her…?

"Transferred from that school a few miles away." Luke referred to her as the "HOT" one… Can this be her?

"You look at me as if I'm extraterrestrial…"

"Um,"

"Oh! We haven't been introduced, that's why!"

"…..?"

"… Iris. Iris Langdon. Fairly new."

"Matthew Haley."

"Yeah, I know… I hear a lot about you…"

Hm…? I wonder what.

"According to many girls, you're the Virgin Love god."

"…..?!"

"Don't be ashamed about being a virgin. It's a real turn-on…"

"No, I don't mind the Virgin part, but I'm NOT a Love god…" I kept scratching my head.

"Well, you're a love-something of some sort…"

She had nice, strange eyes… green as jade… No. I shook it off, "I'm in love, if that counts."

"You're so… open with it."

"Is that… wrong?"

"It's all too right…" She smiled, "So, who's the lucky one?"

"I'm the lucky one…"

Her smile grew.

"Akira. Akira Mikimoto."

"That one? Over there?" Iris pointed at her.

"… yeah… that's her…"

She looked at her strangely, like a look of nostalgia… I don't know. "She doesn't look like your type…"

"She was my type. She was when she wore overalls and had pigtails and glasses."

"What…?" Iris squinted at her, "… Whoa…! I didn't even recognize her! I thought she was replaced by this one!"

"Technically, yes…"

"She's so… different. And that guy. That octopus of a guy who's all over her… That's her boyfriend?"

"I don't know. But he's my best friend."

Iris's eyes widened.

"It doesn't matter. He could try all he wants, but I know I love her… I'll let it carry me. I don't need anything else."

"Hopeful, aren't we?"

"I guessso…"

Iris nodded, "Refreshing, indeed… Rock on, Matt."

"Thanks, Iris…"

She sighed, and just smiled, "Why are all the good ones taken?"

I watched John trying to keep Akira's attention.

Yeah… Why are they?

Sub Chapter 14.6READY

James joined Mark, Luke and I by the lake.

We introduced James to the Thrasher tradition and he puked all over his shirt after three of Bubba's Special combos. He told us that he was representing John in spirit. Mark and Luke disagreed. John didn't have enough balls to eat that much and still want a shake. He wasn't a replacement, we assured him. And he wasn't. John could never be replaced. James was just a new guy introduced into our traditions, and our friendly not-so-fantastic four.

Deep down, we knew that John couldn't replace us, either, so we weren't too worried. I don't know about everyone else, but I kind of missed him. It was okay, though. James was a cool guy. Mark seemed to get along with him better. Mark doesn't look like he's in a shadow anymore, as if he's always had to conform with John, because deep down Mark felt that he was beneath him. With James, Mark felt the availability of being himself without the cost of his own dignity. He's more of Mark now than he ever was…

Mark and James swam in the ice cold waters and disappeared into the mist that settled over the lake. Luke happily ate cookies.

I paused.

I slowly looked at Luke, "Hey."

"Mm-hm?" He raised his eyebrows.

"Are you stringing her on?'

Crumbs fell out of his mouth, "What do you mean?"

I roasted a pair of marshmallows over the fire, "Don't you want to be with her?"

He grinned.

I gave him one of the marshmallows and popped the other one into my mouth, "You sneaky son-of-a-fatherless mother…"

Luke's grin grew wider.

I chuckled, "Oh, well. You'll get around to it when you're ready, I suppose."

"Tch, when I'm ready? HA! I'll do it when I damn well please!"

"No, you won't."

He carelessly shrugged, "Heh. Got me there."

Mark jumped out of the water and ran across the shore, waving something in the air.

James submerged, "Hey, you ASSHOLE! Those're my BOXERS!!"

Luke and I popped fresh, uncooked marshmallows into our mouths as Mark taunted James from the shore, parading around with James's shorts over his head.

Luke looked at me, "Don't you wanna be with Akira?"

"… yeah…"

"You'll do it when you're ready to, too…?"

"No…"

"…..?"

"Whenever she damn well pleases." I looked at the sky.

"Got me there."

Mark slipped on the shore and fell. James took this opportunity to drag part of him into the lake to get back his boxers, simultaneously stealing Mark's.

Luke laughed and inadvertently burnt his tongue eating a marshmallow hot off the fire.

James paraded around him, shorts over his head in the same exact manner.

Mark was naked on the shore, embarrassed, and shielding his no-no parts.

… I suppose so…

Chapter FifteenWHITE RIBBON

I woke up early, again.

Luke walked with me to school. James and Mark made funny faces in the window as their bus passed us. Luke didn't mind, though.

Surprisingly, we made it to school before they did. Along the way, Luke traded off all his romance-filled comics for some of my blood-and-gore entertainment.

"How come you own so many love epics?" I eyed him.

"How come you want all of them?" He shot back.

We gave each other all-teeth grins.

"I won't tell anybody if you don't."

He nodded, "Deal."

Meril came up to us, "Good Morning, Matt… Luke…"

"Hi," I waved.

Luke gave her a strange wink.

She was taken aback.

By the time she regained herself, we had stealthily hurried away.

We headed into school.

I bursted out laughing, "What the hell was that about?!"

Luke started chuckling, "I… don't know!"

We both laughed until we saw John come up to us.

"Hey, Krause," I nodded.

Luke gave him a dirty look, "John."

"Hey," he said absent-mindedly, "Did you see Akira on your way over here?"

"I thought she was on the bus with you," I said.

"No, she didn't even get on."

"Well, naturally, one would think that if a guy's all over a girl twenty-four hours a day, five days out of the week, he would know where she is right about now," Luke said sourly.

John looked at him for a moment before disregarding it altogether, "So, you haven't seen her."

"No. I'm sorry, John,"

"No, Matt. Don't be sorry. He's a jackass, anyway," Luke walked off.

I gave John an apologetic look.

He nodded at me before he walked off. Without looking back, he shouted, "It takes one to know one, Hunter."

"UP YOURS!" Luke was already storming off in the other direction.

The hall was empty.

Akira slowly came down the stairs, cautiously looking around.

I came up to her, "Looking for anyone?"

She was startled, "…..!"

I scratched my head, "Sorry."

"It's alright, Matthew…"

"John was looking for you."

"He was?"

"Mm-hm."

"Which way did he go?"

"That way," I pointed.

"Good," She put her hand on my shoulder and led me in the other direction.

…..?

… Where are we going…?

"Where are we going?"

She didn't answer. She led me up the stairs to the third story window, and sighed.

I just looked at her.

The braid I made was still there, fastened with a tiny white ribbon, which stood out amidst her whole black-on-black look. I tried not to pay attention to it.

She looked at me with nervous, anxious, tired eyes.

I took her hands in mine, "What's wrong…?"

Her hands were so cold…

"Matthew, I…"

I waited.

"I---"

The bell rang. We both got jolted back into reality.

I scratched my head, "Uh, you don't need to worry. We'll talk later," I started to head off.

"No, Matthew… Please…!" she hugged me from behind.

I felt my face burning.

I could feel her cheek against my back, her tiny, delicate hands grasping my shirt… Her arms wrapped around my body… I could feel her trembling breath, "Matthew, I…"

I turned and wrapped my arms around her. I was scared she might cry, "No, don't worry. You don't need to say anything… It's okay."

"No, Matthew, you don't understand---"

I hugged her tighter and kissed her forehead, "I do… Please, don't worry…" I reluctantly let go, "We'll be late." I quickly turned around and started to run off as floods of people rushed up the stairs to get to their homerooms.

"Matthew! Wait---!" Her voice was drowned out by the sounds of feet trampling and laughing and cursing and swearing.

I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Sub Chapter 15.1ON THE SAME CANVAS

… What just happened?

… Why… did I run away…?

Ms. Spanish was unusually docile… She taught with such a strange poise and composure. Her hands weren't frantically gesticulating her meaning like they usually were. Neither was her hair flailing about.

Conjugation didn't sound like rambling Cuban strung with colloquial fuddles and confusing words that I couldn't seem to grasp.

It made sense…

Hm…

"Luke?"

"What?"

Meril was taken by surprise. He didn't bat an eye at her, or shoot her a dirty look,

"… Can I help with the project?"

"Yeah, sure…" He pulled up a stool next to him and patted it.

She reluctantly sat down and stared at the canvas.

"This beach seems plain…" Luke sighed.

She was startled, "The colors are magnificent…! The night sky's beautiful…"

"Thanks," he paused and looked at her.

She smiled at him.

He cleared his throat, "No, but… It's---"

"Where are the people?"

"Hm?"

"Where are the man and woman lying beside the shore under the moonlight?"

He paused again, "… Where… are they…?" He looked at her, and for the first time, he smiled at her. He pointed at an empty spot on the shore, "Right here."

Meril took his brush, "Well, now that we're on the same canvas… Let's get to work."

Luke continued to smile as he got himself another brush.

I looked at Akira. Fluent Spanish flooded the room.

… Am I too afraid to hear her say she doesn't need me…?

She quickly glanced my way before she turned face-front again.

Then it hit me.

What the hell am I afraid of?

I've come too far to cower back now!

I love her… and…

I'm going to fight.

"Tirar! Which means, 'to kick'! Let's conjugate."

Damn straight. I'm gonna keep tiraring my through all this crap.

Sub Chapter 15.2EGO BATTLE

I stepped into Geometry, pondering.

Mr. Substitute roared at everyone to sit down.

James turned his desk around so he faced the rest of the class.

Mr. Substitute yelled, "Turn your seat around, right now!"

"If you could tell at what exact degree I have turned in my seat, I will."

"What the hell are you trying to pull?"

"You've got ten seconds!"

"I'm not gonna take this crap from you, scrawny ass!"

One hundred eighty-three degrees.

"You've got five SECONDS!!"

Everyone in the class was frozen stiff, as if he were counting down a bomb detonation. Mr. Substitute's red, puffy cheeks looked like they were going to explode.

James didn't flinch as he stared at everyone.

Mr. Substitute was behind him, towering over him, fumes coming out of his nostrils.

"… three…"

"Turn around, right now!"

"… two…"

"QUINN! TURN AROUND!"

"… one…!"

HE'S GONNA BLOW---!!!

Mr. Substitute grabbed him by the shoulders. The class screamed.

"YOU LITTLE SHIT---!"

"TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THAT BOY, RIGHT NOW!!"

Everyone's heads whipped toward the doorway.

Mr. Geometry was gritting his teeth.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm the teacher, here! Take your hands off him."

Everyone started to cheer.

"What the hell is this?" Mr. Substitute growled.

"Get out!" Mr. Geometry angrily slammed down his suitcase.

The class roared and started throwing wads of paper at Mr. Substitute.

He shielded himself with his blazer coat, "BAH! You little shits!" He ran out of the classroom.

The cheering grew louder.

Mr. Geometry bowed, and grinned that egotistical grin.

Sub Chapter 15.3NOT SO COMMON SENSE

… Biology smelt good… It finally smelt good…!

A strange fruity scent filled the room, mingling with Akira's fragrance… She smelt the same…

Everyone walked out of Biology smelling like Biology… each person their own potpourri. But no one smelt like Akira. Only she could.

John was sending her note after note in World History. She didn't reply. She smiled a fake smile.

"Let's recap on the French Revolution."

Oh, no.

"The French Revolution was a time of radical change, but at the price of thousands of lives. Napoleon was the highlight of the French Revolution and the end of it."

Oh… no…?

Why did that make perfect sense?

"Napoleon had different plebiscites. A majority of those plebiscites ensured that he would rule as an absolute monarch. He manipulated the rules to gain himself unlimited power and the people of France bought into this trickery for the sake of some stability in their lives. If it weren't for a few strategically militant mistakes, not only would he have been able to expand his empire abroad, he would have remained in power for a very long time. But his pride, and his ego ensured his downfall, and the climatic end to the Revolution."

… Did I just learn something?

"It's up to you to remember the events and what Napoleon's plebiscites called for in addition to what men ran the conventions, the estates, and who belonged to the Directory's party of five. After the test which is next week, I need your ticket money for the dance, which, let me remind you, counts about as big as another test grade. Dismissed."

Everyone stood up, a bit dazed and taken aback by the knowledge been presented to them in perfect clarity.

Everything made sense.

I'm still a bit confused, but… everything made perfect sense…!

Sub Chapter 15.3ON TASK

"I think it's time to get serious," Ms. English actually stood at her podium for a change. "We're going to reach the inner recesses of one man's mind, and delve deep into his vivid, lyrical interpretation of Hell…"

… wait… is English actually… on task…?

"This man's name is Dante. His interpretation? 'The Divine Comedy'." Ms. English's eyes started to flare, "In the 'Divine Comedy', there are nine circles of Hell. In each of those circles, the sinners that reside there are tormented by the sins they've committed in Life. Crime fits the punishment, and the further we delve into Dante's hell, the more horrible and gruesome the crimes get… and their punishments…? Too good to give away."

Everyone sat up.

Wait, not only are we on task, is this class actually getting interesting?

"Now, you each have a copy of the 'Divine Comedy' underneath your desks. Take it, and turn to Canto One…"

Everyone eagerly fumbled for their copies, and rippling of pages cut through all the silent madness.

I hesitantly opened my book.

There's something about today… I'm not real sure what it is, but I know it's getting stranger by the hour.

I looked up at Ms. English, who had a triumphant smile on her face.

I turned to Canto One, and started my journey through Hell.

Sub Chapter 15.4CUPCAKES

Lunchtime…

I came down to the cafeteria a bit perplexed, but mostly dazed. I didn't know Hell was so INTERESTING! There were all these morbid pictures on every other page!

"Hey," Luke saved a spot for me in line.

"Hey." I mean, seriously! That book is disturbing! We're in the Fourth Circle of Hell right now. Tomorrow'll be a re-cap and a discussion forum… Whoo-wee, what a book!

Meril passed by, "Hey, Matt. Hi, Luke…"

Luke sheepishly waved, "… Hi, Meril…"

She smiled, and quickly scurried off to the cheerleaders' table.

Why don't they have interesting pictures of Heaven? They always look so boring… Just clouds…

I absent-mindedly got my food and trailed Luke to our table. James and Mark were arm wrestling for dibs on the cupcake that they found just sitting there when they arrived.

Luke ate slowly with a strange smile on his face.

I think I should draw an interesting picture of Heaven.

"Ha! I'm winning!!" James struggled to hold his ground.

"Not for long!" Mark said with confidence as beads of sweat rolled down his brow.

"What makes you so sure…?"

Mark grinned an evil grin.

James raised an eyebrow.

They struggled.

Bam!

James won, "YEAH!" He rose his fists in triumph, "Who's your daddy?!"

Mark pouted. And in a split second, he swiped up the cupcake and shoved it into his mouth.

"HEY!!" James bursted.

"I win!" Mark rose his fists in the same manner, purposely spewing bits of cupcake into James face as he said it.

"Asshole!"

Mark struck his tongue out and displayed the cupcake mush.

"GROSS!!" James yelled.

I snapped out of it, and saw Mark's little showcase, "AHH! Get that thing out of here!"

Mark started to laugh, half-choking, half-sputtering.

That has got to be the most disturbing depiction of Hell I have ever seen.

Sub Chapter 15.5OTHER HALF OF THE ANSWER

I told Akira we'd talk later, so I headed out the cafeteria to look for her. I didn't see her by the Geometry room, so I ventured upstairs to look for her. Halfway up, I heard two voices.

"Akira, I-I don't understand you…"

"Are you supposed to?"

"I want to."

"Why?"

"I… I… don't know."

"This pretty face means nothing to me, Krause."

"Wh-what?"

"All of this."

"I-I don't---"

"These clothes, this make up. None of this is me."

"And?"

"This is what you fell in love with."

"In the beginning, yes, but---"

"But what?"

"… I… you…"

"I didn't want to come back to this…"

Come… back…?

"There's something about you that makes me want to change… I don't understand you, but I want to delve deeper… It's the first time in a long time since I've found someone like you…"

First time… in a long time…?

"Someone like me?"

"You're just like her."

"….."

"….."

"… look, I don't---"

"Please, give me a chance."

"I just---"

"Please…"

"Stay back!"

I started to head up the stairs. He had her cornered.

"I need to get to know you---"

"KRAUSE!"

She turned and saw me, "Matthew!"

"Get away from her!" I shouted.

"Stay out of this!" He glared at me, "This is none of your business!"

"It is my business!"

"Shut the hell up and leave us alone!"

I got between him and her and gently nudged her behind me. She was grasping the back of my shirt.

"You little shit!" he grabbed me by the collar.

We looked straight into each other.

His eyes… I saw a world of hurt… Loss, pain… Regret, sorrow… In all the time that I have known him, I've never seen his eyes up close. What I mistook for his patented, charming smile and the provocative glint in his eye was really a mask for the world underneath. John Krause was only John Krause underneath his bravado. He was only a boy trying to become a man, and what entailed was the strength to overcome grief and pain, not physical conquest, not reputation--- Just the strength and will that comes with maturity. That's what he was looking for, and he found it in me.

I was even surprised that I had what he was looking for.

But, what he thought we both found in me at this very moment, I had actually come to find two years ago.

"Mom, where's dad?" I came into the kitchen, yawning.

It was Sunday morning and he wasn't at the table. There was no plate for him. Not even a cup of coffee.

She looked at me with sad, tired eyes… The same tired eyes that Akira's eyes looked up at me with just a few days ago… those eyes… I can't stand to see them… I couldn't stand to see them.

"Where's dad?" I repeated.

My mom opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. It was open with desperation, and seconds later, sobs that wouldn't stop for days.

"Where's dad, mom?"

She kept shaking her head, trying to shut her mouth, but she couldn't. Tears spilt out of her eyes.

"Where is he?" I grabbed her shoulders, "Where is he?!"

She shook and shook her head.

And then, I understood. My hands slipped off her shoulders, and I fell into the seat next to her. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel… Her sobs started to sound farther and farther away.

Then, a world of pain came my way… Devastation piled upon grief. Grief upon sadness. Sadness, anger. And from anger to a pain deeper until I slammed my fist into the table and spilt the orange juice. The glass pitcher shattered on the kitchen floor along with my mother, and I cried.

I hugged my mom until I passed out.

The days that followed, my mom couldn't get out of bed. All she could do was cry. She wouldn't eat. I tried to bake her favorite cookies, make her coffee the way she liked it, cook her lasagna with five layers of cheese… She'd sit and stare at it until she bursted into another fit of tears and would hug me and kiss my forehead.

She slept for hours at a time.

All the while, I was angry. I spent my whole summer angry.

I skipped camp that year. Mark, Luke, and John wondered why, but I said nothing.

I was alone at home. My mom, trapped in dream world. Just me and my anger.

My anger and resentment turned into sarcasm, turned into contemplative silence, insipidness. I went into high school thinking I knew everything, that I've seen everything.

Melissa was the manifestation of everything I lacked, constantly nagging me to love a little more, love a little more. I never did. I couldn't. I didn't know how. Or maybe it was locked away with memories of my father.

I started to see my mom perk up. She began waking up early, again. She began going to work, again. She started to pray more than ever.

One day, she sat me down at the head of the table where my father used to sit, and served me my favorite meal, and told me with twinkling eyes that she had a date to the theatre.

That's when I decided to grow up.

I stopped feeling angry inside.

If my mom could move on, the least I could do was move on for her.

I walked away from my anger, until I started growing stronger, and stronger, and stronger.

I had become half a man.

But I still didn't know how to love.

… then, Akira came along.

I could feel Akira's hands grasping my shirt.

A smile started to spread across my face.

John pulled me in closer until we were not only eye to eye, but nose to nose.

"I love her, Matt."

My smile grew, "I'm sure you do."

She broke me in. Took me, melted me down, and made me stronger--- She was the other half of me. She… was the other half of me…

And it struck me harder to find that…

… I loved her…

I didn't flinch as the bell rang.

John snapped out of it. Frustrated, he let go of my collar and stormed off.

I felt her arms wrap themselves around me from behind. I silently gasped.

I could feel her rapid breath start to slow down.

"We're… we're going to be late for class…"

She responded with a tighter hug.

I tried to suppress a smile as crowds shoved past us.

I looked up to see Melissa in the distance, watching me between the passing current on the other side of the river of students.

I closed my eyes and held the hands of the arms wrapped around me.

When I opened them, she was gone, and so was the current…

… It was just her and I….

… Akira and I…

Sub Chapter 15.6WINTER QUEEN

"It's kinda weird having Ludicrous Friday with one-fourth of our mayhem missing…" Luke sadly sighed. He laid himself across the carpet of Mark's living room.

"No, it's not!" Mark bubbled, "I can be him for all of us…!" He swiped his hair back, and deepened his voice, "Boy, do I love women."

Luke tried not to laugh, but he couldn't help it. When the laughter died down, it was quiet again. Luke's cookie-crunching wasn't enough to fill the silent void.

Mark blew up, "Oh, come ON, you guys! We don't need John to have a good time! He's an asshole! Who needs him!?"

"… Yeah, but he's our asshole…"

"Oh, stop!" Mark rolled his eyes.

"… but he is…" Luke quieted down.

More silence.

I paused. "Geez, I'm real sorry, you guys…"

"What the hell for?" Mark looked at me.

"He's not here because of me."

"NO! That's NOT true…! He's not here because he's a jackass. It's not your fault!" Mark snapped.

I looked at him.

"Yeah…" Luke agreed, "You're not the one blame… We're on your side, Matt."

"Since the third grade, you haven't done us any wrong," Mark said with total confidence, "Besides, we know you love her. You were there first."

I grinned.

"It's not your fault," Luke repeated, "… We just miss him , that's all…"

"No, we DON'T!" Mark yelled.

Luke and I looked at him.

He sunk into his couch, "… Yes, we do…"

Even I knew that.

When I got home, I wearily trudged up my stairs and plopped onto my bed with my shoes still on.

The wind was more bitter than it had ever been. The curtains made way for its entrance. With it came a warning. Midterms. End of the first semester. That stupid dance… Arriving all too quickly.

I shut my eyes and dismissed the thoughts swirling around me.

I breathed in deeply, and I smelt that fragrance… it was so… prominent…

I sat up. I cursed my vivid imagination, but looked out anyway.

And there she was, right outside my window, "… Matthew…"

I jumped up and came to the window.

I took her hands and helped her in. They were so cold. They were too real.

She was real…

Wait.

……………… What was she doing in my room?!

My mom's going to KILL me if she sees her here!!!

I whispered hoarsely, "Wh-what are you doing here?"

She was shivering.

I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her.

"… I-I need to talk to you…"

"We could do this, tomorrow…"

"N-no, Matthew, please!"

"Shhh…" I put my finger against her lips, "My mom's sleeping."

Akira sighed and tried hard to sedate herself. She's seemed really tense today.

She was in all black, hair ruffled by the now dying, gentle wind. The white ribbon was still fastened to the braid that I made, cascading down one side of her pale, sweet face.

The urgent look in her eyes returned.

She looked around for a place to sit. She settled for the edge of my bed and patted a spot next to her.

… She was on my bed…

In hesitant nervousness, I slowly sat down.

"I have to explain… why I…" She paused and looked at me, "… It all started in eighth grade…"

She pulled my jacket closed to warm herself. I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her.

"I didn't used to wear glasses, or pigtails, or overalls… I was the most popular girl in school. Head of the cheerleading squad. Won beauty pageants. Attended every school dance and won all three times I was eligible. Crowned the Winter Queen," she gently laughed, "Who knew a year later it would be the perfect title for me…" she stared out my window, "and, my

King--- he was exactly like me. We were both shallow, ignorant, selfish."

I silently gasped.

"… He was the most popular guy in school. He was captain of the football team. We both thought we were in love…

"'You'll always be my beautiful Winter Queen,' he promised me.

"'As you will be my King,' I kissed him on the cheek.

"Things couldn't get any better than this, I thought to myself. But, he made too many promises he couldn't keep, and I didn't make enough.

"'Ira, sweet angel… I can't do this, anymore…'

"'Do what…?'

"'This…' He gestured 'this' to me as if it were tangible. And I'd soon come to find that it was. He left me for my best friend. She was the girl whose house I slept over at every weekend and painted her toenails. I told her all my secrets, wishes, hopes, my desires… I shared with her a hidden part of me. I liked to read, I liked to study… she knew all of this, and she knew that I 'loved' him, or whatever the equivalent to 'Love' was, coming from a shallow, ignorant, eighth grade cheerleader… I trusted her, and she left without hesitation… Not even an apology, or a simple 'Hello' when she saw me in the halls. She took all my friends with her. Each, flocking to her with the same impulsiveness, each of them hoping to be his next Winter Queen…"

She became misty-eyed

I hugged her tight. I didn't want those tears to fall.

"I cried for days non-stop. I wallowed in my own self-pity, and wondered why any of it had to happen to me. Why me? I didn't hurt anyone… I didn't… hurt anyone… For the rest of my summer, it was me and myself, alone in my room. I couldn't stand to be in my own skin. I felt ugly, naked. I felt used, I felt pain. And I entered high school with nothing. Thinking that all I had was me, and it was all I ever needed. I was no one. I braided my hair, so I wouldn't have to see it flail. I wore overalls to cover the legs that used to be so eager to dance and twirl. I wore glasses to hide these eyes that I pained to see in the mirror, swollen and red. I felt like nothing. I fell into a lonely void. Just me and my loss… and I became the total opposite of who I was before I came."

I paused.

… Wait… I…

"I became who I was so eager to hide just a year before-hand. I became a true Winter Queen. Ice-cold, shrewd, calculative, and untrusting. I withdrew, became subdued, reserved. Unwanting of anyone… because no one would want me. No one would want me, because I look like this, I kept telling myself. It was my only consolation. If I really looked ugly, I wouldn't have to feel so bad if I were alone. And over time I grew stronger, and stronger, and stronger until I could stand on my own. I learned to live alone. I convinced myself that I needed no one. I was strong, but I was only half a person…"

My heart started to beat faster.

"… And then… you came along…" She looked into my eyes, "… Why does he even bother talking to me? I'm ugly. Why does he smile at me the way he does? I'm no one. I have never seen him smile for anyone, why for me? I'm nothing. He is so genuine, I lie awake and stare at the ceiling thinking about it for hours at a time, but I can't trust him… I can't trust him…

"I thought I'd lost all emotion. I tried to replace my careless laughter, my youthful self-confidence, and my past with books. Stacks of books. Books that I started reading, but never got around to finishing until my graduation came to a close. Books to take me away from such a cruel world that had turned its back on me without good reason, and into a world that made sense… my own. But I couldn't deny that I lacked something. I… I didn't know how to love. I realized that I never did. I 'loved' my King because he 'loved' me. I kissed his cheek because he kissed mine. This conception, this idealism that love begets love and everything else in between… It was so selfish, and I had come to realize that I didn't understand it at all. But, there were those small instances where I was able to jump out of my own body to love him, where I could stop looking at myself in the reflection of his eyes and look straight into him, and tell him I loved him… But, I have forgotten how. It was locked away with my loyalties to my King… and when you came, I… I…"

I wrapped my arms around her tighter. She muffled her face into my shirt, trying to stifle the tears.

She stopped. She heard my rapid heart beats. She put her ear against my chest, and listened to my heart beat faster and faster.

We were the same truth told two different ways. We were the answer to each other's lacking, and that space inside us both that could never fill itself, no matter how strong we thought we were. We were only half of ourselves, and what lied in us both was our other half.

"Akira…?" I whispered into her hair.

She slowly looked up at me.

I smiled, "Akira, I love you…"

She bursted into tears.

I was afraid, but when I saw she was smiling, I began crying, too. Elated tears trickled down her face and I kissed them away, one by one. I kissed each one until all that was left was her beautiful, pale face, her rosy cheeks, and her blue, twinkling eyes.

"Matthew?"

I looked down at her.

"Matthew, I---"

"… shhh…"

She looked at me.

I smiled, "You could tell me it some other time…"

She couldn't help but cry more joyful tears.

"You don't have to say it, Akira… I already know…" I kept kissing away her tears.

I kissed them until she fell asleep in my arms, smiling. I stroked her hair and looked out my window right as a gentle breeze ruffled my curtains and rushed past us. It was… it was warm… It gently swirled around us until it died down, and the cold night air quietly crept in to take its place. My eyes began to feel heavy, but I didn't want to close them… I wanted to watch her sleep… I didn't want this night to end… I didn't want to leave this dream behind…

… As I reluctantly drifted off, I heard her whisper three small words…

And though I couldn't hear them, it didn't matter…

What did was that… we both knew that this dream was real, and it would continue to be even if we were to wake up by the first dawn of tomorrow…

Chapter SixteenLOVE HURTS

The first rays of the morning shot through my window.

I strained to open my eyes, and immediately shut them right afterwards.

I sighed and hugged Akira tighter.

"…..?!" I opened my eyes. I was hugging air.

I sat up, and looked around.

No Akira in sight.

I exasperatedly sighed again and fell back into bed.

But, it felt so real… I could've sworn that…

I turned in bed and looked up at my clock. It was a red, digitalized 7:17am. My vision blurred back into place, and something caught my eye.

It was right in front of my face. I sat up again. I took it and squinted at it.

It…

It was a white ribbon.

I gasped and sprang up out of bed, "YES!---"

WHACK!

"OW…!!!"

My head pounded itself into the ceiling and I got smacked into my bed face first by the cruelty of gravity.

I was still clutching the white ribbon between my fingers.

My growing smile was muffled by my own bed sheets, but I didn't care.

Yes…! It was real…

Sub Chapter 16.1WATER THICK AS BLOOD

Luke woke up bright and early to get himself ready to pester Matthew.

His parents were downstairs, and for once, they weren't fighting. They smiled at him when he came down for breakfast. Luke seemed a bit intimidated by this.

"Luke, we got the mail…" Francine's eyes twinkled.

Al showed him the envelope, "We didn't know you applied for a scholarship, Luke…"

At this announcement, he sighed a sigh of relief. Then he grinned, scratching his head, "Well, it was the least I could do… You're the best parents I've ever had… And I'm always grateful."

"Al, he's going to be able to go to college without you having to worry so much!

And, I---"

"I found a new job. Here's my first pay check," Al slid it across the table.

Francine and Luke looked at it and almost fainted from seeing so many zeros.

Al smiled.

"But, I found a job, too…!" Francine slid her figures across the table.

Luke went over to look at it with Al, and they almost fainted.

Then, Al and Francine slid the scholarship acceptance letter with the enclosed amount across the table to Luke. He nervously looked at it.

He did faint.

Al and Francine laughed and hugged and kissed him when he woke up, and hugged and kissed each other and laughed some more.

"This means you'll be our son forever," Francine kissed Luke on the forehead.

"And I'm proud to be," Luke chimed.

Al smiled even more, "We are too, Luke… We are, too."

Sub Chapter 16.2EVEN FRIENDSHIP HURTS

Mark yawned as he got up out of bed. He felt horrible. He spent his whole evening at home, sorting through all the cards that he had swapped with John in alphabetical order, and then arranged all the photos he's taken with him by size, and all of the girls' numbers he scored at the mall with John's help arranged according to his age-old woman-o-meter. Yeah, he designed the woman-o-meter with John, too.

Then, he went downstairs to watch him and John's favorite cartoon, and ate their favorite cereal, and sat in the seat that John always liked to sit in whenever he came over to his house.

He stared at the cereal box, and read aloud to himself the ingredients. It was something he'd do whenever John came to his house to eat breakfast with him. John would laugh with his mouth full, as Mark tried to pronounce a really lame sounding ingredient.

Mark was about to cry. Why should he even care about him? John wasn't even a girl.

It's not like he's dead, or anything, Mark thought to himself. But, he's not around! It's the same thing!

His cereal was getting soggy. He just stared at it.

Then, he heard the doorbell. It was an annoying, eighteen million presses.

That's John's ring!! Mark jumped out of his stool and spilled his soggy chocolate covered sugar bombs all over the kitchen counter and ran up to the door.

He took a deep breath, and tried to plaster an annoyed look on his face before he excitedly swung the door open, "WHAT?!---"

He paused.

Hey, no one's around! He poked his head out of his front door and looked in both directions. Okay, I guess I'm starting to hear things. Then, his head sank. He was about to close his door when a glint caught his eye. He looked down at the doormat and picked up the object.

It was that golden foiled card that John always kept in a special glass case in his room. Mark always admired it, always wanted it, and now… now, it was right in his hand!

It was real! The ring was real!!

Mark rose his arms in triumph, "YES!---"

WHACK!

"OW…!!!"

The paper boy chucked the morning paper right in his face followed by a hasty "sorry" as he biked on.

Mark was on the floor. His growing grin was muffled by his own carpet, but he didn't care.

He grinned anyway as he looked at the Golden Limited Edition 'Keys' Card that he still clutched between his fingers.

Sub Chapter 16.3CHERRY BLOSSOMS

John walked away from the house. It was a very cold morning. He cupped his hands together and breathed into them. They felt numb.

He hoped that his friends wouldn't hate him forever. The way Luke acted so cold… Luke never gets that bad… He's a nice guy. Which must mean, I've been a major jackass for the past few days. Man, I hope they're not too mad at me. Except for Matt. That guy has everything that I want, so he could kiss my self-righteous behind. I'm not letting him run off with Akira that easy… not like how I let… John paused for a moment, and dismissed the thought.

John absent-mindedly walked down the hill and headed to the park by the lake. It was Cherry Blossom Park.

He stopped.

The birds chirped happily. His feet felt like they were treading on clouds as he walked through the beautiful, pink cherry blossom foliage. Everything started coming back to him…

"Last one to the park is a porta-potty!!" She zoomed out of the house with a basketball clutched under her arm.

He had to shut the door behind him, but he was faster than her, so he didn't worry too much. They raced down the sidewalk as he caught up with her, "… I always win."

"Well, that's about to change," she smirked.

He looked at her.

She winked at him before she pushed forward.

She was fast… Just like Akira.

Her pigtails whipped in the wind, and before he knew it, she was a block ahead of him. And this was after chugging a whole can of soda in one gulp! She didn't even break a sweat.

He finally managed to tail her as they reached the entranceway of the park and zoomed past the Cherry Blossom Monument… A huge, stone cherry blossom tree.

She laughed, "I'm gonna beat you…!"

They swerved through the lush, tall forest, with the blossoms falling gently about them as they weaved through the trees. The trees seemed as if they were untouched by the fall, despite the fact that Winter was soon approaching.

The wind became warmer, again. It was edging near sunset.

She laughed one of her malicious super villain laughs.

He chuckled, "I'm gonna get you!"

Her laugh was cut short by an "Eeeeee-AUGH!"

Followed by him, "Uuuuuu-AUGH!"

They both tripped over the same uprooted root and came tumbling through the grass on a gentle downhill slope.

When they had stopped rolling, John found himself on top of her.

She was laughing, "Goodness! That was FUN! But I'm so dizzy…"

He was speechless.

She stopped and looked at him, "… John?"

He cleared his throat.

It was the first time that he was able to get a really good look at her...

She was… Alicia Landon… his best friend since Kinder…

… She was… around… all along…

What was I missing out on?

Their hot breaths blew in each other's faces. An unusually warm wind swept by. It was almost Winter, but it was so warm… so inviting…

The trees rustled and cherry blossoms rained down on them. The basketball rolled past them, nudged by the breeze. The sky was turning a dark orange to a passionate red.

He performed an age-old gesture. He gently tugged at her earlobe and rested his forehead on hers.

She returned his age-old gesture. She pinched his nose and whispered, "… hi…"

He smiled, "Hi…"

She smiled back.

Geez… she was… I don't know… I-I don't know…

He brushed the golden bangs out of her face.

She ran a warm, soft hand down his cheek.

… Wh-what was… happening…?

He lowered himself in with her curious violet eyes staring right into his… Pulling him in… slowly, softly… gently

He closed his eyes and felt the warm wind swirling around them and the cherry blossoms brushing past their skin as they fell upon the green grass about them.

Their bodies… He could even feel her heartbeat… slow and calm… And his own, rushing and pumping as if they were still racing though the forest. Then, he---

"KRAUSE!!" He and Alicia turned to see his idiot football teammates rushing toward him.

"KRAUSE!!"

John looked up.

No one was calling him. It was just the wind. He walked past the stone monument, and sighed, Where has the time gone…?

"Alicia! Wait!" He ran desperately through the forest, trying to catch her.

Tears were streaming down her face, blown by the wind into his own.

"PLEASE! Alicia---!"

She stopped and looked at him.

He froze.

The cherry blossoms fell to the ground like hard rain.

She vehemently wiped the tears from her eyes, "I spent so much time trying to love you, and you never noticed! You never noticed!"

"You never told me!" he shouted, "If I had known, I would have been able to tell you sooner that I felt the same way!"

"It's only because I look different, now!"

"Alicia, no---"

"The glasses are gone, now! My stupid loafers and my stupid pigtails are gone, now! Now I'm naked, and it's now that you decide to love me?"

"I still loved you even with all that! It's what made me begin to love you!"

"No---"

"Why do you think that just because of these stupid stereotypes that I'm who everyone else thinks I am?! Who cares if I'm captain of this stupid football team! I love you! Why are you saying all this as if I don't?!"

"Because I had to change for you to notice me!"

"NO!!" Frustrated, he smothered his face with his hand. "No, no, NO!!!"

"YES, okay?! ADMIT IT!!" her nails dug into the tree she was clenching.

"NO!!! You're just afraid that I've loved you for so long without you knowing! You're just afraid that you and I are actually meant to be together!!!" He shouted with everything he had left in him.

Alicia stopped. She bit her lower lip, trying to hold back the tears. And, when they were about to fall, she turned around. She didn't want him to see her like this. She ran away.

"Alicia---" He couldn't move.

He watched her disappear into the forest.

Why I didn't tell her sooner…?

Now, he was the guy he feared he'd become. His friends were right… He jumped from girl to girl, trying to find her among them… he couldn't establish a commitment. Deep down, he hoped that she'd come back. She was the only person in his life that made him feel whole. Akira… Something about Akira gave him this sensation… he couldn't explain it. He couldn't ignore it. He couldn't deny it.

I have to fight to love Akira… It was the only way that he could love Alicia...

John breathed in the fragrance of the falling cherry blossoms as he watched the morning melt into the afternoon.

Sub Chapter 16.4TWENTY-TWO NUMBERS AWAY

Luke took his basket of dirty laundry downstairs to wash. He checked all the pockets on his clothes for stale cookies and loose change.

He fished into one of the pairs of shorts that he hadn't gotten around to washing in quite a while, "…..!" He thought he found a dollar bill.

But, what he pulled out of his lucky shorts was worth ten times more! It was a little slip of paper. And on it was Meril's number.

He screamed like a girl and kissed the piece of paper. He shrugged. He guessed he couldn't stay too mad at John. Besides, this was the decoy number that he switched the other one with, which Matthew hasn't gotten around to using… Nevertheless! He found something worth even more than ten dollars! Even worth more than a dozen batches of Mrs. Haley's scrumptious cookies!

He paused.

That was debatable.

Then he shrugged again, Who the hell cares!! I have Meril's number…!!!

He kissed the piece of paper once more before he left his dirty laundry by the washing machine to run upstairs to call her.

He picked up the phone, and then put it down. He thought for about a moment or two. He looked at the number. The paper was soggy. That's when he noticed that his palms were all sweaty. Just a moment ago, he was so eager! Why was his phone so far away from him at the time? He lost courage with each step he took up the stairs, and now the number didn't seem like such a blessing anymore. It was a curse! She's eleven buttons away, but he was too damn shy! And just a week ago, it was so easy for him to be such a jackass toward her.

He picked up the phone again. He stared at the receiver. He stared at it long enough for the automated voice to monotonously yell at him to put it down and try again. He did try again. Several more times. After a frustrated, sweaty ordeal, he slammed down the receiver. He paused. Stared at it some more. Looked at the number. Then back at the phone. Picked it up again, and when he was about to dial, he heard a "…Hello?"

He nearly jumped out of his skin. I'm starting to hallucinate… I'm hearing voices in my head! He nervously gulped, "H-hello?"

"The phone didn't even ring once…"

"Uh,"

"How did you know I was going to call?"

"Well, I…" He looked down at the number. He figured he didn't have to explain anything to further humiliate himself. He happily shoved the number into his pocket, "I have psychedelic powers…!"

Meril laughed on the other end, "You? With mind-reading abilities? That's like a monkey who could perform brain surgery!"

"HEY!" Luke yelled into the phone, "I'll have you know that I happen to be supported by people who recognize my obvious genius…!"

"Have they figured out that you're the only chimp in the world who could paint?"

"HEY!!" He heard more laughing on the other end. "Have you called to degrade me or date me?"

There was no response.

"Well?"

"Who said anything about dating…?"

"Oh, fess UP, woman! I was going to call you, but my palms were too sweaty to hold the receiver! That's how I picked up the phone with you on the other end!"

"Wait… How'd you get my number?"

"How'd you get mine?"

Speechless pause.

"Saturday night? You? Me?"

There was another prolonged pause. She remembered. This time, she knew exactly what to say, "How about Friday night at the dance?"

"Alright, then! Friday, it is!"

They both fell into silence.

Luke looked around, "Um, I'm too nervous to stay here. I'm going to go, now."

More laughing.

" 'Kay, pickyouuparoundateightsoI'llseeyoulater, BYE!" He abruptly hung up.

Meril looked at the receiver and smiled to herself.

The phone rang.

She picked it up, "… Hello…?"

"Um, where exactly do you live, anyway?"

She chuckled and started making monkey noises.

"HEY!!!"

Sub Chapter 16.5INVOLUNTARY GRINNING

I walked over to Akira's house, and paused when I saw John waiting outside her door.

He waited impatiently for a few moments before he rang the doorbell again.

He didn't see Akira peek outside of her bedroom window on the second floor of her house. Her eyes widened. She abruptly closed the curtains.

John rang the doorbell once more.

She peeked out her window again.

John looked around.

I ducked behind one of the bushes on her lawn.

Akira noticed me and avidly waved. I desperately motioned for her to step away from the window.

She did so right before John stepped back to look up at her house.

He sighed and started walking away. He passed right by the bush I was hiding behind.

I waited for him to leave, but he paused, and stared up at the house some more.

A caterpillar started to crawl on my hand. It tickled!

I tried not to laugh. I clasped my mouth shut with my other hand. My teeth started to ache because they were clenched in a painful grin.

Leave, already! PLEASE!!

The caterpillar probably thought this was SO hilarious.

I looked down at it. Why're you doing this to me at a time like this?!

It started to inch it's way up my arm. AH! Ahahahaha…! Don't do that!

He started to walk away. I couldn't contain my laughter anymore.

I bursted out laughing.

John spun around.

He looked at the bush as I nervously peered through the leaves. I bit my lower lip to suppress another giggle attack. If I could see him, I wondered if he could see me…

But, he had this… blank look in his eyes, as if he were doing too much thinking… I guess he thought that he was hearing laughter in his head, because he just turned around and left.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I gently put the caterpillar down, mildly scolding it for putting me in so much danger, and waited a few more moments before I stood up from behind the bush and walked up to the door.

I rang once, and stepped back to look up.

I saw Akira slowly look over her window ledge, and then suddenly disappear.

I heard steps speeding down the stairs, then the door swung open, and she leapt into my arms.

I was taken by surprised, "Whoa!"

She hugged me tighter.

I waited.

The sun was burning the back of my head, and I could feel sweat staring to drip down my brow. I hope she thought it was just the weather.

I waited a bit more. She was still hugging me.

"Uh,"

"OH…!" she nervously giggled, "… No, I was just um, surprised to see you…"

I smiled.

"So… Why're you here…?" She tried not to make eye contact.

"Well, I want to take you somewhere, if you don't mind too much---"

"S-sure!" she bursted.

I looked at her with a grin.

She cleared her throat, "Um, I mean, I don't really mind, is all…"

"Good," I gently took her hand. "I shall take you somewhere!"

She giggled, "Proceed."

I paused. She wasn't wearing her glasses, but she had pigtails and she was in overalls. In my jacket.

I resumed smiling.

She looked at me, "…..?"

I just continued walking, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

She walked beside me with that half-perplexed, half-smiling expression on her face.

I tried not to look at her, or she'd see my ear-to-ear grin.

YES…!!!

Sub Chapter 16.6TAKEN AS IT COMES

Akira was starting to get more anxious. We kept walking and walking. It was almost time for the sun to go down.

I stopped, "… Listen…"

We both fell silent.

She heard the waves crashing. Her eyes lit up, "No… you didn't just---"

"I did." I smiled.

She threw her arms around me again. Then, she started running off the sidewalk and cut between to houses and ran toward the beach.

I watched her. She looked so much more beautiful laughing and smiling.

I followed behind her.

She kicked off her shoes and ran into the water. She looked back and called me, "Matthew! Look at the sky!"

I walked up beside her and watched the sky turn from a pale blue to a radiant gold.

The sun was setting.

She deeply exhaled with the most beautiful smile on her face.

I tried to keep my eyes on the sunset.

As it slowly sank into the sky, she whispered, "… I can't believe you remembered…"

I put an arm around her.

She sighed, and picked up her shoes, "Thank you so much, Matthew…"

She smiled and started walking off.

"Where are you going?"

She stopped and looked at me, "… What…?"

"Where are you going?" I repeated.

"W-well, you took me here to see the sunset, which I've never seen at the beach before, and it's time to leave…"

I sat down, "Do you feel like stargazing with me for eleven or twelve hours…?"

She paused. Then, her eyes lit up again, "Oh, Matthew!" She dropped her shoes and ran and kneeled down to hug me and we fell in the sand. We were both laughing.

As we sat up, I wrapped my arms around her.

A few moments later, she started to cry.

"… Akira…"

"… you remembered…"

I held her closer and looked up at the sky as millions of stars started to come out of hiding. The moon rose into the sky, full and golden.

We watched the world pass us by, and saw a shooting star. I wished that things would turn out okay, so I could hold her in my arms like this forever…

… I… I never felt this way…

I've… never felt this way about anyone…

I watched her watch the stars… she always looked so beautiful… I don't think she knows how much I love her… it's been about two weeks, and it only took that long for someone like me to be melted down just by her smile alone… There's something about her that I just couldn't figure out… How she can make me feel this way…

I've thought long and hard, and I've finally found the answer… I… I just have to take it for what it is… She makes me feel this way. That's all there is to it…

I didn't know I was smiling, again.

She turned and looked at me.

She caught me staring at her, and I was about to explain myself when she put her pale, delicate hand on my cheek.

She looked deep into my eyes before she leaned in, and kissed me on the forehead… So slowly and gently, that I couldn't breathe.

She kissed one cheek, and then the other…

I closed my eyes and she kissed those, too.

I tried to breathe, but I just couldn't.

She kissed my chin, and close enough to my lips, but not close enough. She kissed the corner of my smile, and stopped.

I looked at her. She ran her cold, pale, small fingertips over my lips.

I took her hand and kissed it.

We looked into each other's eyes slowly, slowly leaning in… I… I couldn't breathe…

Our lips were almost touching, when she whispered, "Why… why did you cross this fine line between you and I, Matthew…?"

"Because I… Because I wanted to be with you…"

Our lips touched, but we did not kiss… We breathed into each other, embracing…

I… I didn't want to lose this… No matter how bad I wanted to, I couldn't…

… She knew this…

She knew that, if we… if we could just… suspend time, we could trap ourselves in this moment… But, Life never stops… the least Akira and I could do was move slowly…

She knew this, and it made her and I cry more… We couldn't understand how we knew these things… We couldn't understand why we felt this way… We couldn't understand how we could just sit, and share the same sky all night, and never, never once take it for granted…

Akira and I took things as they were, together…

And her and I lie in each other's arms, and watched this beautiful sky twinkle… we watched the golden moon sink, and fell asleep as the sun came up over the horizon, and woke up to find it sinking again… Her and I… waited patiently, and … took it as it came…

Chapter SeventeenREVELATIONAL TWILIGHT

It was Monday morning. Actually, it was Monday twilight. I woke up earlier. I mean, this was like so early, that the sun hadn't even begun to rise. I walked out onto my roof after getting ready and eating a twilight meal, and saw the whole neighborhood. I saw the shimmering lake surrounded by tall trees, with perpetual winter mist hovering over the water's edge. I saw Mark, Luke, and John's house. I saw Akira's powder blue house down the street. I saw my school. I saw Bubba's and the mall and the comic book shop.

I saw the beach at the far edge of town. I felt my face, soft with all of Akira's kisses. I noticed how soft I've become. How vulnerable. How loving… I was finally free from my own torment. I was able to come home Sunday evening and talk with my mom about how I was doing, and not have to lie to her when I said I felt great. I knew how she felt when she told me about the man she was dating, and how he made her feel new again.

It was easier to accept that Life could be lived twice, and second time around, better than a person could have ever dreamed… I guess it starts with accepting that things will only change if you let them. You can't expect to know all the answers, or think that you don't need to improve. My denial of my situation led me to suffer much longer than I should have. But changing was inevitable. Deep down, there was a part of me that was waiting to change, waiting to be happy.

There was a part of me that wondered why my father did what he did. But now, despite everything, the only thing left to do was cherish his memory, and move on. Hating the Past meant hating who I was, and hating who I was would have also meant that I would have been hating a part of me that exists right now. Hating a part of me would be hating Akira… And, that wasn't an option.

I breathed in the cool morning air, fully aware of what today entailed. I'll take it as it comes, and know that each step I take, and each day that goes by will only me make me stronger and teach me to love better. I was prepared.

I saw my long shadow growing in front of me. The sun was rising. I turned around to greet it.

Sub Chapter 17.1TWO STROKES OF A BRUSH

Luke and I walked to school along with Mark, James and Meril. The three of us were curious as to Luke and Meril's strange behavior. It was a bit unusual for a cheerleader to be walking with three nerds and an average Joe.

I had a feeling that Luke and Meril have officially shattered the School Social Caste. James and Mark knew that too, and they were afraid.

"So, Meril," Mark suspiciously grinned at her, "Did you finish the art project?"

Luke answered for Meril, "As a matter of fact, yes, we did."

"Oh, really? What was it?" James fishily grinned at Mark.

"It was a couple having a romantic moment on the beach," Meril smiled to herself.

What?

"Oh, really?" Mark kept looking at her.

Luke took a cookie out of his brown lunch baggie, "Yes, it was."

"And, who thought of that idea?" James pried.

Meril looked thoughtfully at Luke for a moment before answering, "Actually, we both did."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, Mark," Luke chomped away as he glanced over at James's discreet fishiness.

"Without him, I wouldn't have been able to do the couple,"

"And without her, my beach would have been incomplete."

… Would have been… incomplete…?

"So, I guess you guys feel you make a pretty good team," James concluded as some sort of strange confirmation for him and Mark's obvious suspicions.

The two looked at each other.

"Hey, we do, don't we?" Luke smiled.

Meril returned it, "We do…"

There was an awkward silence.

Mark suddenly bursted, "Okay, this is too weird for me. You guys creep me out."

"Yeah, let's go, Mark. They make me uncomfortable," James eyed them as he grabbed Mark and started walking ahead of us.

Luke shared half of his cookie with Meril and they both happily ate together, arm in arm the whole way to school.

I continued absent-mindedly trailing behind them.

… without her… I would have been… incomplete…

I went into Study Hall thoughtfully reflecting on what I had just heard on the way to school and wondered if what anyone ever does can somehow be seen by another person, and though it seems like déjà vu for one person, it might actually be a foretelling or perception of some kind for someone else's life?

No, what if when people are dreaming, they intercept other people's mental wavelengths and those brainwaves seep into those people's minds and permanently imprint themselves into their subconsciouses, so where one person is dreaming a dream of watching the sunset and the stars on a beach, another catches that dream, takes it, and forms it as their own?

Wait, maybe some people have the gift of mind-reading, and they like to exploit people's secret wishes for the benefit of their own enjoyment and to have some kind of muse for their artistic interpretations? … Luke…? With mind-reading abilities? Scrap that. Hm…

…Or maybe people in love think alike?

Uh. Maybe I should just lay off my strange comics for now.

I snapped back to reality and noticed that for about five minutes I was standing, staring blankly into space leaning against the doorway as people eyed me.

I looked around and found Akira, and sat down next to her.

She smiled.

I paused before fishing into my back pack, "You… You left your ribbon at my house," I handed it to her.

She took it and tied it around the braid that I made before looking at me, "And, you seemed to have left your jacket on me." She showed me.

"Oh," I sheepishly smiled, "You can uh, borrow that for now." What I meant to say was, permanently borrow it. I'm sure she knew my implications.

"As you wish," She resumed reading her World History book.

"Your book's upside down," I informed her in a whisper.

"Oh…!" She threw me a sheepish smile.

I scooted my desk next to hers and took out my World History book.

We actually studied in Study Hall.

For our test.

Upside down.

Together.

Sub Chapter 17.2CONVERSATE

I walked through the halls during nutrition and saw Meril and Luke walking by, laughing and talking. I looked at him with a raised eyebrow, and he looked back at me with two.

I chuckled.

Then, Mark and James passed by, arguing about the school's policies, weighing out the pros and the cons. They were so engulfed in their debate, I didn't have enough time to say "Hi" to either of them, or even to raise an eyebrow. Oh, well. Life goes on… and passes by. Sometimes as slowly as two people deeply immersed in conversation, sometimes in one night on a beach, or even in the blink of an eye.

I blinked, and soon, Melissa stood before me. I guess I was thinking so hard, that I didn't notice her approach me.

She smirked, "Where's your precious Akira?"

"In the library," I responded casually. She wasn't going to get the best out of me.

"Way in the back?" She paced around me, "Where no one reads the encyclopedias…? Gathering dust and cobwebs…" She stopped and looked at me, "Pushed up against those filthy bookcases by John, no doubt." Her smirk grew.

I was flustered. I tried hard to restrain myself. Matt, she's just trying to tick you off. Don't let her. "At least she has class," I looked at her the same way, "She's not in the janitor's closet with some filthy bimbo like Paul is."

Melissa pursed her lips and turned away, "It's not like I care. Him and I aren't together, anyway."

I stopped.

She remained silent.

I finally understood why she was always on my case. I understood why she tried so hard to get me to love her. No one else could. No one else tried to understand her. She was alone, watching me in the shadows, waiting for me to come back. She had no one else to turn to. I noticed her double accent was gone. She couldn't hide anything. This was her way of letting me know how vulnerable and weak she felt.

"Please understand me… I, I'm not mad that we're not together anymore," Her voice quivered, "And, and I know you're very much in love with her… But, but… I…" Her icy eyes softened, "I'm in need of a friend right now…"

Before she could start crying, I gave her the loving embrace that I could never give before, but she knew it was a selfless one. One that I would give to just about anyone who needed it. She understood me, and knew deep down how much I've changed. She took the hug for what it was and held back her tears… for our sake.

"Why… why couldn't you love me…?" Melissa sniffled.

I felt my heart plummet into my stomach, and for once, I didn't snap at her when she asked me that question. And I finally had a real answer, "… Because someone else was meant to love you, Liss. Not me…"

"That's not true, Matt. That's not true."

I looked down at her, "Then why do you sound so much like it is?"

She didn't look at me, "Because I know it is… I just don't want to believe it."

"I guess you can't expect to. He'll come around when you least do."

She nodded and gently pulled away, with the most sincere smile on her face, "I know he's your best friend and all, but don't let him take away her from you. Without her, I won't have a single friend."

I chuckled.

There was silence. I smiled at her, and she returned it.

A moment later, she spoke up, "Thank you, Matt," she said in a whisper and ran away, disappearing into the crowd before I could say any more.

I watched the crowd pass by in a wave of people conversing with one another. Each trapped in their own passage of time. Each learning something new, each person changing even if just a little bit. I thought about the passage of time between her and I beforehand and now, and I realized--- Melissa has just grown up.

Sub Chapter 17.3TIME LAPSE

Lunchtime…

Lunch smacked me in the face. Time rolled by so quick, I wasn't even sure if I hadn't just warped straight into right now. I found myself seated at our usual table.

Mark, James, Luke, Meril and Melissa were seated there. How did it get so big? Even better question: How did I get here without me knowing?

My lunch was in front of me and everything. How did that happen?

"How come you're sitting with us?" James didn't care about Melissa. He was more worried about Meril.

"Well, I wanted to, that's all," Meril smiled and ate her pasta.

I shrugged it off. Oh, well. I guess it doesn't hurt too much to be in a position where a person doesn't know how things happen. It's incidents like these that're responsible for sudden Love, sudden War, and, and… Evolution! Maybe this is how the Big Bang started! The fact that we all just came here without even knowing how shows the lapse in Human Consciousness.

"Yeah, there shouldn't be a problem," Luke forked up some of her pasta.

James cringed at the two of them eating out of the same Tupperware.

"Oh, just leave it alone, James," Mark casually chomped on some of his burrito, "They're teens. Raging hormones. Big deal."

Melissa nodded with cheesecake bulging in her cheeks.

Maybe we were all in one big dream when this all happened, and we just happened to daydream all the way into these latter millenniums. And we just didn't notice that we began walking upright, that we were losing hair and growing bigger brains.

"No big deal…? NO BIG DEAL?!" James freaked.

Everyone jumped at his sudden outburst.

"What the hell?! Calm down, Quinn!" Mark yelled.

It's this same lack of consciousness that makes time move faster, I guess. Without the ability to daydream, we'd probably notice that there were actually thirty-seven hours to each day, and there're actually nine days to a week, eight weeks to each month with seventeen months in a year. Hm.

"Calm down?! Did hear what you just said?! You just said that you approved of teen pregnancy!"

"What?!?!?" Mark's beans splattered out of his bean burrito and all over his tray.

"You just said that raging hormones are NO BIG DEAL!"

"So?" Melissa looked at James.

I like daydreaming.

"That's like saying, 'Oh, it doesn't matter if you make love on this table right in front of us! Besides, it is your nature, isn't it?!'"

"But, I never said that, you idiot!" Mark shouted at him.

"Yes, you DID!"

Luke and Meril just grinned at each other and fed each other pasta at the expense of James's sanity. They seemed to be very amused by all of this.

Mark backed away from the volume of James's frantic shouting, "You're CRAZY!"

"I'm NOT!"

"Quinn! Get a life!" Melissa raged.

Mark and James froze.

I woke up.

"Grow UP for Pete's sake! I mean, just because you still think that women have cooties, you don't have to bleed out your ass when you see your friend smiling at the girl of his dreams!"

Mark, James and I were silent.

Melissa resumed eating her cheesecake and muttered, "I mean, honestly."

Luke and Meril smiled at each other, and then at James.

"Cut that out, you perverts!" James was flushed.

Mark joined them and smiled at him.

Melissa rolled her eyes.

Wait. What were they just talking about?

Sub Chapter 17.4CORNERED

I walked through the halls with full consciousness. I looked for Akira, and stopped before turning the corner. I heard two voices. No, not again…

I stepped closer toward the corner and leaned against the wall.

"I, I know, but…" Akira.

"If you let this slip through your fingers---" Another female voice?

Sounds familiar.

"I'm trying, but I'm scared. Why do you think that I've been moving as slowly as I've been these few weeks?"

"He's not like Casen. Can't you see it?"

"I know, I know."

"The way he looks at you… The way he speaks of you, and the esteem he holds you in."

"I just… I'm trying… I can't…"

"You're a different person, I know… But it doesn't mean that you have to hold on to all the things in the Past. If Casen had been more wise, he wouldn't have done what he did to you. You know that good and well…"

Who's Casen?

There was a pause. I froze. I hope they didn't hear me breathing.

Akira's voice was small, "You… you want me to love him because you do, too."

I tried to maintain even breaths. Geez, if they're talking about me…

"That's a little rash, and a bit too early to determine, Akira."

"Oh, Iris. You're still the same. You never say anything until it's too late for you."

Iris…?

"Better than too soon, like Rika."

"I've let that go."

"I know you have, but I haven't. Your friends were my friends, too."

"I know. But she didn't mean to. She liked Casen a lot. No one could change the way a person feels."

"You're diverging."

"Diverging?"

"He loves you."

"I know,"

I was turning red.

"What do I do, Iris?"

"I don't know, Akira. I really don't know."

I was about to sneeze. Don't sneeze… Don't… sneeze…! I slowly tried to back away from the corner to be far enough away as not to make any noise. Ah, the urge went away. Never mind. I headed back toward the corner.

"Well, if he ever comes around as often you say he does, I guess I should go."

"Okay…"

No, no! Don't come around this way! Don't come around this way!!

"The dance is this Friday, Winter Queen."

"I know it is…"

"Then, I'll see you around…" I heard Iris's footsteps heading toward the corner.

I panicked and looked around before I decided to try and pretend I was walking toward the corner to make it look like I was innocently bumping into them.

"Oh, hello, ladies," I sounded unusually suave. Idiot! They'll know you've been listening in!

"Hello, Matt," Iris smiled, and started casually headed off as if she was just there, too.

"Matthew!" Akira leapt into my arms.

Okay, why was I so worried, again?

Sub Chapter 17.5SHOULD KNOW

I walked with Akira to Boot Camp.

I headed into the guys' looker room and stopped right outside the doorway. John looked up at me, and slung his gym bag over his shoulder, "Haley."

I nodded, "Hey, John."

He gave me this look I couldn't even describe. I couldn't tell if it was anguished, resentful, or tired. He held our gaze as he shoved past me toward the track outside.

I watched him leave, and tried to shrug it off as I changed. I've never seen him like this before…

When I came outside, Coach Bossy was giving Akira a pep-talk, trying to inspire her to run. He caught sight of me. I tried to walk away as quickly as I could.

"Haley! Get yer butt back here!"

Rats. I sighed, "Yes, Sir."

"Now, yer job's to outrun each other. Now, don't even ask me if it's even possible, 'cuz I don't care if it ain't! Just git out there an' do it, you hear?!"

"Yes, Sir," Her and I nodded.

"Hop to it!"

Her and I started jogging.

She looked at me, "Well, one of us has to lose, because we can't both win."

"Why not?" I grinned.

"Well, because. If we both lose, we do fifty push-ups. If we both win, it looks like we've both lost, and that's fifty push-ups."

"Do you want to win?"

"Well, I don't believe that I want to win without you, but under the circumstance, yes," she smiled.

"Oh, don't think you can just flash me that beautiful smile of yours and let you win so easily."

"Oh, drat."

I grinned, "I'm going to make you run for your money's worth!" I started to speed up.

"Oh?" She started to as well, "Is that so?"

"Yes, I think so," I zoomed past her, and found her right on my tail. Oh, come on. There's a certain extent to how fast a human could run!

"Well, Matthew? Fifty?"

"I don't think so!" I yelled behind me.

She laughed.

"Give up, will ya?"

"I don't think so!" She rocketed right past me.

We darted around and around the track. We were neck at neck coming down the last stretch, and we were tied, trying to outrun each other. I pushed farther, and so did she. But then, I saw some of these guys doing push-ups on the inside of the track on the grass, and saw them sweating, ready to cry, and then I looked at Akira. She was running her heart out. So was I. Then, I slowed down to the tiniest degree that I could. She won by half a second.

"Good job, Mikimoto!" Coach Bossy proudly patted her on the back. Then, he glared at me, "Haley! Give me a hundred!"

I almost fainted, "WHAT?!"

"Just for that, a hundred fifty!"

I gaped at him.

"Don't make me make it TWO!"

I sadly went toward the grassy area to start my arduous punishment.

"Well, at least you broke two school records!" Coach Bossy laughed as he passed me.

Akira came up and whispered, "Thank you, Matthew…"

"What're you talking about, Akira? You won fair and square…"

"… Matthew…" She smiled.

I melted, "If I wasn't so distracted by that gorgeous smile of yours, you'd probably be the one giving him one-fifty."

She rolled her eyes and went off and continued running.

I watched her leave before I sighed and shook my head.

The things I do for you, Akira.

I had to stay late and do more strenuous punishment-oriented, back-breaking labor. But I promised that after I was finished, I would walk Akira home. So, for the mean time, she would be at the library until I came for her.

After Coach Bossy was done trying to kill me, I trudged toward the locker room. I wiped the sweat off my brow, and heard a voice, "I don't know, Haley. I don't know how much you think you love her."

I looked up. John started walking toward me, and he slammed a locker door closed that was in his way.

"And frankly, I don't care how much she feels for you," He came right up to me,

"You don't deserve her."

"What?"

"You haven't been through what I've been through. You wouldn't know how to love someone like her."

"I, I don't understand you. What are you saying?"

"What I'm saying is, you have to back off."

"Back off?"

John stood eye to eye with me, like we did a few days ago. But I felt so weak this time. So vulnerable, now.

He stared into me and spoke in dangerously hushed tones, "She's mine, Haley."

"She's not anyone's!"

"Shut up!" he shoved me into the bench behind me, and I tripped and fell backward over it.

I struggled to get up.

"I don't want to hear your ignorant shit, anymore! I'm tired of assholes like you who think that your sensitive acts'll save you! You might be able to land a few women that way, but not Akira! Not this time!"

I got to my feet, "I'm not trying to 'land' anyone! Look at yourself! You're acting crazy! You're not making sense!"

"I have taken a look at myself. Look at me, Haley! Do you think I'm fooling around?! Huh?!" He jumped over the bench and rammed me into one of the lockers.

"Snap out of it!" I shouted as he grabbed my t-shirt collar.

"Damn you, Haley!"

I grabbed his hands, and tried to pry them off.

"You don't know how to love her! Not the way I do!" He shook me vehemently.

"How can you think you know how?!" I pushed him away.

He threw a punch and it hit me square in the jaw.

My mouth tasted like metal. I stopped and watched the blood flow from my mouth. I looked up at him, and wiped it away. I shut my mouth and came at him.

He was about to throw another punch when I caught it, "Look at yourself!" The blood from my mouth splattered onto the both of us, "You're not like this."

He shouted, and took my head, and bashed it into the locker behind him.

I winced and held my forehead. Everything was blurry and started to spin. I tried to focus on his echoing voice as I lifted myself up.

"How do I know how? Because I lost the girl I loved. She was… we knew each other without having to say anything." He yelled into my ear, as he tightened his grasp on my hair, "We sat in the most comfortable silence, and I let it all slip away. This time, I know not to. But you don't!" He grabbed on tighter, and I managed to pry his grasp off my hair as I backed away. "I'll know how to love her better than you!" He lunged in to throw another punch, and I caught it. The room abruptly stopped spinning and I held his fist for as long as I could before he pushed me off and jumped backward a step, "Fight BACK, you bastard!"

"How can you know how to love, Krause?!" I winced.

"Fight BACK!" he charged at me.

"How can you know how to love?!" I caught his punch a third time, "You're dead inside!"

He froze.

"How can you talk as if you know more than me because you lost a girl to your own fault?!" I spoke in between my clenched, and bleeding teeth, "You don't know how to love! I loved my dad, and he betrayed me! He betrayed the two people who loved him! I learned to let go and to move on! If you knew how to love, you would've done something about her! You wouldn't try to cover up for your own mistakes with someone else! That's not love, that's cowardice!"

He looked at me, and his muscles started to relax, and his fist started to unclench.

I let go of his hand.

We both caught our breaths.

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

"Why do you have to be so damn right?"

I paused, "I---"

He looked away. A tear rolled down his cheek. He vehemently wiped it away.

I kept looking at him.

"Damn, I'm so sorry… I didn't mean to act so stupid, I---"

"Shut up."

He stopped.

"Shut up. We're friends. I don't need to hear that pitiful crap from you."

He looked at me.

I grinned.

He started grinning, too. Then, his shoulders started to shake. And then he bursted out laughing.

I looked at him some more before I started laughing too.

We were laughing hysterically.

"Ow," I winced and rubbed my aching forehead.

He gasped before he playfully shoved me and I shoved him back and we laughed some more. We even hugged.

We took our bags up and exited the locker room, and he took me to office to get me stitched up, uh, I mean bandaged.

"Man, if you hadn't have knocked some sense into me, I would of knocked you out."

"No, you would've cracked my head open!"

He looked at me. And then we bursted out laughing, again. Afterwards, we went off our separate ways. I headed toward the library and he started off for the park. I wondered for a bit why he was going there, but then again, would I even need to know?

Sub Chapter 17.6INVITED

Luke and I hung out at the lake. Him and I laughed as we watched John and James double-team on poor Mark. John stole his shorts and James stole his shirt. Mark ran after them in his tighty whities across the shore.

Luke and I ate my mom's famous cookies huddled over a nice, warm fire.

Luke turned to me and grinned from ear to ear, "I'm glad he's back."

I nodded, "So am I."

"Well, four assholes and a girl-a-phobic isn't half bad, is it?"

"You're right," I popped another cookie into my mouth, "It's all bad."

Luke laughed, offering me some milk.

I shook my head.

A few moments later Mark, John and James came up to us, picked up Luke over their heads, ran toward the shore and chucked him into the lake.

Luke's head popped up over the surface of the misty lake as he bobbed in the water, "Hey! ASSHOLES!!"

Mark, John and James laughed and slapped each other high fives. Then, they stopped, and slowly turned to me.

My eyes widened. Oh, crap. I stood up, not before shoving three more cookies into my mouth, and zoomed off. They chased after me. Luke jumped out of the water and ran after me, too with soggy footsteps.

They chased me around the lake.

I came to a screeching halt before I would've ran straight off the pier at the other side of the lake, and they all skidded past me and fell into the icy waters. I laughed and laughed until my face turned blue and they all jumped out and pulled me in.

We laughed and cursed and swore and squirted water into each other's faces.

When I got home, I crept upstairs to my room with one squishy footstep after another. When I got up there, I noticed it had begun to rain. I didn't really care. I swung my window wide open to invite whatever wind came my way. I left to go change, and came back into my room with that familiar fragrance swirling through my room. I breathed it in with the sounds of the rain hitting the ground outside of my house, hitting the trees. The trees rustled as a strong wind swept through them and into my room.

I came to my window, and I saw Akira, sitting on a tree branch outside, rain running through her hair as it turned into a living waterfall cascading down her beautiful, pale face… waiting to be invited in.

EPILOGUE

I'm a horrible dancer. Well, at least I thought I was. I guess I did pretty well, because I didn't step on Akira's toes! Not even once!! She was in the most beautiful dress, and her hair cascaded down her back, with the Winter Queen tiara glistening atop her head, adorned with a sash and everything! She fixed my tilted crown and smiled.

I returned it.

We both looked around, and saw Luke and Meril sitting at a table, feeding each other cake and smiling and laughing, trying to see who could eat more. Good old Luke. He gave me issues eleven and fourteen of Keys just a few days ago, laughing and teasing me at how I was so excited, and how my hands shook so much, I couldn't take the plastic seal off the issues. And in impatient frustration, I ripped it off using my teeth. Him and I are and will always be the same duo, the same morons forever more. Cheers, Luke. Cheers.

We turned and saw Mark flirting with three girls as they all fought to dance with him. He teased them by walking over to Iris and asking her to dance instead. We had Ludicrous Friday and Thrasher Thursday a bit in advance. And on special request, we had Tough Tuesday. Luke, James, and John teamed up and beat the crap out of him. He doesn't feel inclined to have another Tough Tuesday. Ever. According to him, we should've at least give him fair warning by calling it "Beat-the-Crap-Outta-Myriad Day".

Behind us, James had sweat trickling down the side of his forehead as Melissa reassured him that he was doing okay. All of us were surprised that he even wanted to go. And he was strongly opposed to such "awkward cesspools of love" just a couple of days ago. We were even more taken aback when he mustered enough courage to ask Melissa out. He defended himself by saying that it wasn't his "raging hormones" that made him ask her out, it was her assertiveness that attracted him to her. Yeah, right.

I looked into Akira's eyes. She smiled some more, and then we heard the gym door swing open.

We turned to see who had entered. John came in, holding a girl's hand. Everyone in the gym let out a universal, "Awwwwwwww…"

He passed by me.

"A little late to the dance, eh, Krause?"

He shot his charming smile at me, "Never too late…" He turned to Akira, "Right, Akira?"

Akira paused, as if she were reflecting on something he had told her, then with a smile of finality, "Yes, John."

The girl looked at us, with her strange violet eyes scanning ours. Her golden hair shimmered along with her golden dress as a small smile played across her lips. Then, with a warmer smile, she turned to John, "Shall we?"

He looked at her, "Yes, we shall, Alicia." With that, the two of them strode away onto another part of the dance floor.

John had told me all about him and her. She was even prettier than I imagined. He was just like all the rest of us, and Mark was right. All he needed to do was take a look around, stop feeling sorry for himself, go out, and find her. He made it known to me that he was actually going to ask her to be his girlfriend tonight. I grinned at his sudden new sense of commitment. And when I bursted out laughing, he rolled his eyes because he knew what I was thinking.

After they had left, I turned to Akira with a questioning look.

She smiled back at me. The music competed with all the people socializing, but there was a wall around her and I. I could hear her soft breathing.

The lights dimmed, and the chandelier that they rented glistened and made her skin glow… I smiled, trying to contain the strange euphoria I was experiencing which made me feel compelled to cry. I held her closer, and we could feel our heartbeats beating faster. I closed my eyes and kissed my Winter Queen on the forehead.

We left the dance and walked toward the lake. When we got there, we sat in the grass, still in our apparel. We didn't mind too much.

We lie and watched the stars.

I remember when she and I first came here…

I wanted so badly to hold her. I remember a rush of anxiety that swept over me when I looked at her and I remember wondering if I hadn't just bumped my head, because I knew was acting so strange. I didn't know I was changing.

I've been trapped in this dream with her, not knowing fully how much I've grown into someone else. A person ready to take things as they come, accept them as they leave, but a person never willing give up on the things that mattered most to him.

I have so many more questions, now… And now I know that I don't have all the answers. Now I accept that there're some that I may never know. I know that I still have room to grow, and that this adolescence… this same adolescence that I was growing tired of is actually only the beginning of the life I'm now prepared to live.

She's done so much to me without even knowing, and… If I hadn't have taken my chances and stepped over that fine line between her and I, I would have always been a fine line away from True Change and True Growth. True Happiness, and… True Love.

She turned to me with her twinkling eyes and with a slow, gentle whisper, came three small words.

I heard them this time, and knew that deep down, even if she hadn't have said them, I'd still know she meant them…

I touched her beautiful face and watched her eyes twinkle brighter, her pale magnificent skin radiating under the pale moonlight. I said the same words, too, before we slowly leaned in… first in an embrace… leaning in, then lips touching. Her soft lips against mine, in the sweetest kiss… In the most comfortable silence… Under the same starry sky that we lie under just days ago…

My name's Matt, and I love Akira.

114