The Dragon and the Princess

Chapter 4

"You ready?"

Her fist was flying at his face before he finished nodding, but to Ryuuko's surprise, he managed to parry it, and the following two reflex punches, with Karate style parries. She backed off slightly to reappraise him.

"So you DO know what you're doing."

"Yes. As I was trying to tell you, I've been training in Karate all my life. Some would even consider me-"

She interrupted him with a flurry of punches followed by an acrobatic heel kick to the back of his head as she spun around him. He hit the ground face first behind her, groaning and beginning to black out. Ryuuko didn't turn around to look at him. "This isn't some officiated Karate match, it's a street fight. I'm not going to wait for you to stop talking, idiot." She walked away without a backward glance.

When Ryuuko reached the usual meetup spot, Hime wasn't there. She checked her phone and saw a text.

I've got some things to take care of at school today. Don't wait up. How about Karaoke tonight at like 7?

Ryuuko smiled. That was her bestie, all right. Always knowing when she was feeling down, always knowing just how to cheer her up. Karaoke was Ryuuko's favorite way to blow off steam, apart from curbstomping idiots, and was the best choice by far when curbstomping idiots was part of what was getting her down to begin with.

But when she reached the Karaoke joint, her good mood instantly disappeared and her stomach sank right down to her ankles. Hime was there waiting for her as usual, but so was HE. Him. Asagi Shoto. Or whatever his name was. It wasn't like she memorized it the first time she heard it or anything.

"What's going on here, Hime? What's HE doing here? Are we throwing out the rules?" She was unable to keep the hurt out of her voice.

"Not at all. The rule is he can't date the princess unless he beats you. There's nothing there that says we can't be friends and hang out."

"Well, yeah, but! But! But!"

"I'm sorry if my presence here makes you uncomfortable. That's certainly not what I'm after. I can leave." He was apologetic.

"Good. Get lost."

"Ryuuko!" She cringed backward. Hime was in full blown stubborn princess mode, and Ryuuko had never been able to deal with that, not since they were very small. "Asagi-san is MY guest! I would hope that you'd come to be friendly with anyone I consider a friend, just like I would with you, but even if you can't, you do NOT get to treat him that way! Are you trying to say you get to pick my friends for me? If you don't like him being here, then YOU can leave."

"No, really, I don't want to tear good friends apart. I'll just-"

"Don't even think about it. You stay right where you are." He cringed backward as well, and ducked his head. Apparently, he wasn't any better at dealing with Stubborn Princess mode than Ryuuko was.

"Well? Ryuuko?"

Hime always fighting dirty. Arguing against her was an exercise in futility. She knew there was 0 chance Ryuuko was leaving the two of them alone together. Who knew what this sleazeball might try? "I'm staying."

"And you'll be civil."

"Yes." It wasn't a question, but Ryuuko answered anyway.

"Great! Let's get a booth." Hime bounced into the Karaoke joint with a big smile, leaving Ryuuko and Asagi-san to drag along behind her, both looking very browbeaten.

"So, Asagi-san. You said you've never been to Karaoke before?" Hime asked once they got in the booth. She browsed through songs while Asagi-san rubbernecked with wide eyes at everything in the booth, and Ryuuko glowered at him. Subtly. When Hime wasn't looking at her.

"I have not. I have always wanted to try it, but never had the time."

"You must be very busy to never have time for Karaoke."

"Oh, yes. Not so much now that I've transferred, but at my old school I was in the basketball club, and I was a stand-in for the volleyball club, the karate club, the football club, the baseball club, the judo club, and the tennis club. I also did work for the student council, and occasionally helped out when the light music club did a performance. Between all of that and studying hard to maintain decent grades, I haven't had much of a social life."

Ryuuko immediately decided he must be lying, or at least exaggerating greatly his roles. No one could be good at that many things. Typical playboy boasting, trying to impress them. Hime. Trying to impress Hime. She was sure he didn't care what she thought about him.

"Oh, wow, that IS busy. And you haven't joined any clubs at our school?"

"No, and I hardly know what do with myself with all this free time. The sudden lifestyle change is jarring, but welcome. I confess I was experiencing a bit of burnout. Friendships were difficult to maintain, and of course a girlfriend was out of the question."

"So you've never dated?" Hime momentarily stopped looking through songs to eye him shrewdly. Ryuuko struggled to maintain a facade of indifference about his answer.

"No. Never."

Ryuuko could not contain her skepticism. "But you must've been getting confessions left and right. None of them were pretty enough, or what?"

"Hmm. Well, you're not wrong. I did get a lot of confessions." He said thoughtfully. "And some of them were very pretty. I simply don't believe in dating someone unless there's at least the possibility of some kind of permanence, which there hasn't been until now."

"Oh, I see. No dating. So you just bang em and leave em, eh? Get what you want and get out?" She tried to keep her tone lighthearted, but her real intent at sounding out this playboy and unswerving belief in his inner sleaziness was peeking through.

Shoto gave her a level look. "Believe it or not, I am not the kind of person who would do anything of that sort with someone I'm not dating. I've never even kissed before." He said. If Ryuuko had been paying attention to his tone, she would've said he sounded hurt, sad, and maybe a little offended. But she wasn't.

"Bullsh**!" Ryuuko exploded. Hime shot her a furious glare. "Oh, uh, I mean, really? That's very, uh, admirable. I think most guys that could get into a girl's panties at will would definitely be doing it."

Shoto drew in on himself, closing off his expression entirely. "While I suppose that your assessment of my prowess as a pickup artist might be taken as something of a compliment, I hope I can impress on you that I am NOT like your assumption of 'most guys'." His eyes hardened. "I would also offer a differing opinion of what 'most guys' are like. Mere good looks do not give one the right to look down on other people."

"I couldn't agree more." Ryuuko said in a mockery of his uptight way of talking, a little confused about that last non sequitur. "My opinion of guys' usual behavior is justified, okay? That's exactly how all the guys I've met have acted, so yeah, it's fair to think of them that way."

"Well," said Shoto after considering, "I do understand that you're more likely to be exposed to that sort of behavior, for obvious reasons, and I'm not going to discount your personal experience entirely, but I would ask you to consider whether on occasion you're judging potentially innocuous actions too hashly." He flashed a winning smile. "And in either case, I hope to demonstrate over time that I, at the very least, am not 'like that'."

"O-KAY, let's do some Karaoke now." Hime said loudly, overriding Ryuuko's snarky reply. "That is what we came here for, right?"

Ryuuko wasn't the best singer. For her, Kareoke wasn't a place to show off or train her voice or anything. She came purely to mess around. Ordinarily, there was nothing Ryuuko would've liked more than to throw herself into some Anime song, getting so wild and wacky and ridiculous that she and Hime would end up on the ground in stitches by the time it was over, but that was a kind of vulnerability she could only ever share with her best friend. She couldn't possibly do anything so demeaning with anyone else watching, most especially Mr. Oresama over there. She'd rather die. As such, she was content to let Hime do the first few songs of the night, sticking to her favored J-Pop genre.

"Your voice is very beautiful, Asano-san. Have you considered a future in the music industry?" Shoto said smoothly.

"Thank you, but I'm not terribly fond of crowds or attention." Hime responded, looking pleased at the compliment. Ryuuko silently ground her teeth in frustration. At least Hime wasn't blushing. If she was blushing, Ryuuko might've punched a hole in the wall. "Did you want to give it a try?" She held out the mic to Shoto.

"I suppose I can't put it off any longer. Don't judge me too harshly." Shoto scrolled through a list of foreign songs, none of which Ryuuko could read. "Ah. Here it is."

When the music started up, the style was unfamiliar to Ryuuko. Some kind of rock, she supposed. And his voice...his voice was shockingly...unremarkable. Not amazing, not terrible, just ordinary.

Her english was so bad she couldn't understand a single word of the song, but she could tell he actually knew what he was saying, and to her, he sounded like a native speaker. The benefits of being a good student. Ryuuko figured that Hime, who was also an excellent student, would understand the song, confirmed by the smile on Hime's face, outwardly approving whatever message the song was conveying. Ryuuko's mood darkened further. It seemed no matter what she did, this guy continued to garner the approval of her best friend at every turn. It was only a matter of time before the requirement that he beat her first was thrown completely out the window, she thought despondently. Next thing you know, there'd be wedding bells, and then kids, and then one day he'd say 'hey remember that Ryuuko girl you used to hang out with in high school', and she'd say 'oh yeah, her, what an obnoxious loser...'

"Ryuuko!" She was jolted from her nightmarish daydream by Hime's hand on her shoulder. "Don't you want a turn?"

"Fine." Ryuuko took the mic, selected a safe, well known song, and sang it without any heart. By the time she was done, her lackluster performance had sucked all the life from the room.

After a long silence, Hime clapped once. "Okay! I know what I want to do next." With a knowing grin, she selected a song that made Ryuuko groan when she saw it.

"Hime, no! Not that one!" She hissed. It was her favorite song from her favorite anime, as wild and wacky as they come, and one that never failed to bring out the silliest in her. "Anything but that!"

"What's that? I can't hear you." Hime said innocently.

"Hime!"

Too late. The song started. Hime belted out the lyrics full voiced and danced like a maniac, just like they usually did. Ryuuko could hardly believe she would do something so embarrassing in front of Shoto, and she shot him a glance of apprehension, but to her shock and Hime's delight, he jumped up and began to sing and dance along. "Come on, Ryuuko!" Hime said between lyrics, beckoning her to join in the chaos.

It was inevitable. The song and dance were too infectious. Sanity went to the winds. Ryuuko forgot herself entirely and became lost in the fun. They were all laughing uncontrollably by the end of the song, hardly able to keep their feet, but when the laughter died away, Ryuuko remembered her incredulity.

"How could you possibly know that song?" She demanded.

"How could I not? It's from the greatest of all Anime, after all."

"You watch Anime?!"

"Whenever I can, which is less than I'd like. I didn't realize there would be Anime songs here. Let me do the next one."

What followed was a competition in geekdom, which Ryuuko had a distinct advantage in, but she was nevertheless very surprised by how far his knowledge extended. Shoto was less well versed in the longer running Anime for obvious reasons, but had encyclopedic knowledge of the best of the shorter ones. Ryuuko quickly lost track of time as they traded songs and stories from their favorites. Hime faded into the background without her even noticing, not being overly familiar with anime in general, singing little and speaking even less.

At the end of the night, Shoto bid them goodnight and Ryuuko returned it without any venom. Until, that is, he offered to walk them home, and she remembered who he was and subsequently told him off harshly.

Ryuuko could not get a read on her friend on the walk to Hime's house. She seemed happy and pensive at the same time. "What's up?" She asked, never one to beat around the bush.

"Oh, I was just thinking. You'll always be my friend, right Ryuuko? Even when you become interested in...other things?"

"What's that?! Don't even ask that question. You KNOW the answer. Me and you against the world, til the bitter end." Ryuuko was a little offended.

"I know. I'm sorry, I shouldn't ask that. Don't mind me. Just feeling slightly unsure of myself right now." Hime smiled sadly.

"Well...I guess it's okay. You get one of those. Just one. Understand?" Ryuuko gave Hime a one armed hug. "You'll always be my number one."

"Hmm. Okay." She didn't sound entirely convinced, but she did perk up a little.

Ryuuko was very confused. She was the one who's best friend was being wooed away from her. If anything, it was her who should be feeling down right now, not Hime. A stab of jealously shot through her. "By the way, what was that foreign song he sang tonight? You really seemed to like it."

Hime's grin broadened back to full. "Oh yeah, that one. It was very beautiful. A love song. It was about a guy who likes a girl, but he knows she's too good for him, so he admires her from a distance and manages his expectations. I really liked how, as much as any song I've ever heard, it expressed how highly he thinks of her. If a guy can sing that and mean it, you know he's really going to treasure the girl if he ever gets her, you know?"

The jealously got about ten times stronger. Ryuuko shoved it back down. This was about Hime's happiness. She was about as happy as Ryuuko had ever seen her. "Well. Don't you have an ego on you, princess."

"You know it." Hime flipped her hair ostentatiously, and gave a playful laugh.

That night, lying in her bed, Ryuuko let all the terrible, ugly feelings that came when she thought of Shoto and Hime together rise up and wash over her, and she cried herself to sleep. But as she did so, she vowed that would be the last tear she shed over this whole business. From now on, she would accept whatever came and find a way to be okay with it. But...that didn't mean she was going to make it easy on him.