Chapter 1:

Chapter One: Hard

My Winter With You

  “Oooh! Look at this, K-chan!” Aria breathed, putting a magazine down in front of me on the table. The tennis bracelet was definitely breathtaking. Gold with stunning diamonds inlaid that simply screamed gloriously ostentatious. As much as I felt I was throwing Aria a subtle mental diss, the bracelet did seem to fit her personality.

“That’s incredible!” I admitted.

“Right? OMG! I sooo want it!” She was practically drooling as she stared at the picture hungrily. I glanced down at the price and my soul fled toward the ether, a lonely ghost wandering amidst a sea of zeroes.

“That’s a lot of money…” I mumbled. While, admittedly, math wasn’t my strong suit I calculated at my current wage, assuming I spent money on nothing else, it would take me nearly 6 months to buy.

“Maybe I could get a job or something,” Aria muttered to herself.

“You really want it, huh?” I asked, though she plainly had passed the point of wanting and gone straight to absolute need. Aria nodded wistfully before sighing.

“Way too expensive, though.”

“Do you see this?” Emi smacked her hand down on the table in front of us, causing me to wrench my eyes from the bracelet. The paper under her hand was a pajama advertisement, the dashing man dressed in a gaudy plaid pair of bottoms beamed at us with impossibly white teeth. She looked at each of us in turn as if we all had knowledge of some deep conspiracy the pajama man couldn’t possibly conceive of.

“Oh! He’s attractive!” Mizuki gushed. My infantile glee at Yuto’s crestfallen expression quickly vanished when Aria chimed in.

“Yeah, he is!” I glanced at her sharply and she winked conspiratorially. Ah, yes, I thought. All part of the plan, I supposed. If I was honest, the entire concept rubbed me the wrong way. I was aware we couldn’t simply come out and start holding hands and making out in public, but her pretending caused my heart to ache painfully, as if crushed in a vice. It was agonizing but, realistically, I had no better idea, so the ruse played out each day while we took whatever opportunity presented to hold hands and kiss and do things couples did. Well, most things, I corrected myself.

One barrier remained unbroken. The intimacy best experienced without clothes. It had only been five weeks, I thought, but I wasn’t sure how long one should wait before taking the final plunge or, as they often put it in manga, ‘climb the stairs to adulthood.’ Despite my rather impressive (if I did say so myself) skill at pleasuring myself I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the notion of pleasuring someone else. We were, after all, still virgins. I’d read losing one’s virginity hurt and I certainly didn’t want to hurt her. Well, not too much anyway. By the same token, however, I wanted to both give and take that one part of us no one else would ever have.

We’d spoken of it, of course. But only in the most arbitrary of ways. I’d read as much as possible online but, as with most things found in the obscure offramps of the information superhighway, the suggestions varied from “right after you meet” to “wait until marriage” to the more outlandish conspiracy theories about how the hymen was a government conspiracy designed to release a control nodule hidden in the vaginal canal making both parties into killing drones. I shook my head slightly. There was some seriously weird shit out there.

“I’m not talking about his looks!” Emi snapped, banging her hand onto the advertisement loudly several times, drawing the attention of most of the other people eating lunch in our room to our table and snapping me out of my reverie. “He’s not wearing a shirt.” We glanced at each other uncertainly.

“I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make, Emi-senpai,” Saki finally acted as the sacrificial lamb and spoke up.

“Point? The point, dear, misled, and naïve young Saki-chan is this: why is it ok for this photoshopped human set of teeth to not wear a shirt in an ad but if women don’t wear a shirt it’s porn?” She was working herself up, so we waited for the Emi bomb to drop. We didn’t have to wait long. “I’d say 95% of the males in this school have bigger boobs than I do but if I take off my shirt, I’ve committed a crime. If they take theirs off it’s fine. Look at Yuto! He’s easily a C cup, but if he took his shirt off people’d be fine with it. I mean, grossed out, but still fine. How is that ok?” I nearly threw up at the mere thought of Yuto without a shirt, bringing my hand up to my mouth quickly to stifle the gag building in my throat.

“I don’t have a C cup,” Yuto pouted, self-consciously covering his chest with his arm. I smirked at him from behind my hand. Mizuki patted his hand reassuringly before answering.

“Women have the duty to be mothers and caregivers,” Mizuki sounded disturbingly like some kind of brain washed Stepford wife all of a sudden and I cocked an eyebrow at her disdainfully.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Emi demanded, clearly giving Mizuki the side eye. “What is this, the Edo period?”

“I’m not old fashioned,” Mizuki replied defensively, her protestations plainly demonstrating how old fashioned she actually was. “I just mean it would be shameful to show off what you’ll use to nurture new life, don’t you think?”

“These,” Emi proclaimed, cupping the small globes of her breasts over her uniform, “wouldn’t provide enough nourishment to keep an amoeba alive for more than ten minutes.” We giggled at the visual while Yuto began to take on the hue of a beet. “I don’t want to nurture a parasite, so what am I supposed to do? Wrap myself up like a mummy until I can have non reproductive sex with my significant other in the dark so they won’t see my boobies all while I lay there like a 2X4?” By now Emi’s outburst was garnering quite a bit of attention. People’s eyes had begun to turn to us. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t be the first time.

“I didn’t say that!” Mizuki snapped, the topic plainly hitting close to home

“Then why shouldn’t I be able to show my boobs if I want without getting arrested.”

“Just move to a nudist colony,” I shrugged. With one hand I picked at my bento while the other hand clutched Aria’s beneath the desk. It sent a thrill through me like we were breaking every rule ever written. I had to confess; I really liked the feeling. Emi shook her head and sighed as if I’d just disappointed not only her but every single one of her ancestors as well.

“You’re missing my point,” Emi laced her fingers together on the desk in front of her and leaned forward. “Why is it perfectly fine for some guy to flash his hairy nipples but isn’t ok for me to do the same if I want? I have no interest in getting pregnant any time soon, so my boobs are just as useless as his are so how come he gets to walk around with no shirt, but I get to go to jail if I do?”

“Because the law says so.” I’d never heard a sneer before, but the derision dripping from Daishi’s voice was a palpable thing. Aria dropped my hand quickly and I sighed in disappointment and more than a little hurt. “Besides, no one would care about those bee stings you call tits, Emi, so I’m sure if you took your shirt off, you’d be confused for a 9-year-old boy so no one would report you. Free the nipple, am I right, babe?” His hand dropped familiarly on Aria’s shoulder, and I swallowed the desire to flatten him with superhuman restraint.

“Oh, Daishi,” Mizuki murmured almost inaudibly. Though she claimed she was done with her crush on the handsome asshole mayor’s son it was plain in her voice her imaginary self-created ship had not quite sailed beyond the horizon. I glanced at Yuto’s crestfallen face and, for the first time, I knew what thoughts were passing through the pea brain inside his massive meatball head. How bad had things gotten where I actually empathized with Yuto? Had I truly hit rock bottom?

“Who invited you?” Emi narrowed her eyes, cheeks puffed out in displeasure.

“I didn’t know I needed an invitation to visit my girlfriend,” Daishi sniffed, dragging a chair over and propping his feet up on the desk next to Aria’s lunch. “Isn’t that right, babe? Besides, Yuto’s over here already and I guarantee my presence is more stimulating than his.” My jaw was clenched so hard I got momentarily worried I’d break a tooth.

This was not at all what had been laid out to me when Aria had hatched this whole stupid plan. Not in any way, shape, or form. Daishi was simply to be an afterthought. Someone sitting in the shadows going on about his business while we went on about ours. He sure as hell wasn’t supposed to be sitting four feet away from me with his feet on the table like some sort of Edo Daimyo who’d just conquered his neighbor’s capital.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, excusing myself to stave off biting my own tongue in half to keep myself from saying anything.

“I’ll go with you, K-chan!” Aria enthused, moving to get up.

“She can piss by herself, babe,” Daishi grabbed her arm to keep her from leaving.

“Yeah, ‘babe’,” I growled. “Stay with your boyfriend. I can take care of myself.” The muscles in my back were bunched up and my neck ached from strain as I stalked out of the classroom and made my way toward the bathroom.

I grabbed onto the sink and lowered my head to fight back tears. This isn’t right, I thought to myself over and over. This is not what I signed up for. I can deal with the play acting in exchange for the moments we’re alone, I reasoned. The problems arise when I begin to think that not all of us are acting. Daishi certainly doesn’t seem to be clued into things, though I didn’t imagine he would be. It’s still jarring to see it happening right in front of me.

“A-are you ok, senpai?” Saki asked from the doorway. I brushed the tears from the corner of my eyes and chuckled dryly without turning around.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” I mumbled, turning the water on. “Just, uh, checking my hair and stuff.”

“You don’t have to pretend with me, senpai,” Saki murmured, coming closer. I glanced at her. Her deep brown eyes were clouded with worry.

“I just don’t understand,” I murmured, idly running my hands through the stream of water to keep them occupied. “Why does this have to be so hard?”

“I don’t know that it should be,” Saki moved close to me, looking up at me with concern.

“What do you mean?” I turned toward her; my own form reflected in her eyes.

“I think love should be hard,” Saki replied. “If it was too easy, we wouldn’t appreciate it. I just don’t think it should be that hard.” Saki trailed off, her eyes breaking contact with mine as she glanced away. She plainly wanted to say something more but stopped herself. “Just be careful, senpai.” She returned her gaze to me. “Please know I’ll be here for you, ok?”

“Thank you,” I managed. I wonder what she’d wanted to say but before I could ask, she patted my arm and turned to walk out. Why did I want to stop her? I asked myself as the door closed behind her and I was left alone once more. What comfort did I hope she could grant me? At this point any comfort would be welcome. I need to talk to Aria, I decided. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.