"Chai latte!" Hori shouts over his shoulder, scribbling furiously on the paper cup before passing it to someone else. He manages a thin-lipped smile at the customer and beats a little rhythm on the counter, letting out a sigh of relief when the drink is passed forward, and at last, the morning rush is over.
Grateful for his quick reprieve, he slouches against the counter, dreading the pile of dirty laundry sitting in his hamper and that eviction notice hanging on his doorway.
Then again, who said that being a theater major would be easy?
The bell tinkles from the doorway, and in waltzes Sakura, humming under her breath. She pauses, appraising him over her polka-dotted muffler. "What's with the long face?"
"Morning rush hour. Enough said." He blows out his cheeks, quipping, "Honestly, I should talk to the boss about a raise. You wouldn't believe how crazy it gets in here."
She laughs, shedding her blue peacoat and hanging up on the rack. "Well, I'll take over from here." Tying on her apron, she halts in her tracks, pursing her lips in a frown. Her eyes narrow in suspicion. "Have you been calling your family lately?"
He considers lying, but decides against it; no matter what he tries, she knows him too well to be fooled by it, anyways. "...no," he concedes wearily.
Sakura groans in exasperation. "Hori!" she chastises. "You know they love you!"
Hori rolls his eyes. "Yeah, that would totally explain why they cut me off and let me fend off for myself in the terrifying world of student debt. I call bullshit."
She cringes, and for a moment, he almost believes that she's shrunken even further. "Well, you can't really blame them…" she trails off feebly, hesitating. "They have a point, I guess. Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea if, you know...gave in?"
He gives a derisive snort, slipping into his windbreaker. "And sell my soul to the study of medicine? No thanks." Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he glances at his watch. "As much as I'd love to chat, I have to get to class. Text me later?"
"Call your parents!" Sakura shouts after him as the door slams shut.
He stuffs his hands into his pockets, giving a mournful shake of his head.
What the hell are you going to do with yourself, Hori?
After an hour of relentless Shakespeare quotes, Hori trudges into the laundromat, lugging an enormous bag of dirty clothes and barely stifling his yawn. Beadily eyeing his schedule, he thinks wistfully of the comfort of the coffee shop, craving a French Vanilla coffee and a chocolate croissant, yearning for the whir of the blender and the clink of coins and the aroma of Sakura's famous peppermint hot cocoa.
Oh, right, Sakura, he thinks. Isn't her birthday coming up? Yeah, yeah, a little over a month. He files that into some obscure compartment of his brain, and thinks fervently about every shop display case he's seen in the past week, and oh right, she was dropping hints about getting that overpriced watercolor kit, right?
A handful of coins bonks him on the head, and he swears under her breath, rubbing the sore spot on his scalp.
"Oh my God, are you alright?" someone squeaks.
He glances up, preparing his deluxe death glare, but hesitates when he realizes it's a girl.
The first thought is, oh god, so tall, because his height's always been a sensitive topic (which is probably why he's stuck around Sakura for so long), and really, her limbs seemed to extend for a thousand miles and her eyes are stupidly, stupidly green, and shit, he should really stop gaping at her like a total perv.
He does his best to hide his flush, averting his eyes. "Um, yeah, I'm okay. Just be, uh, more careful next time."
She laughs sheepishly, running her fingers through her unruly blue hair. "Yeah, sorry about that. I'm such a klutz, haha!" Smoothing down the edges of her skirt, she gathers up the coins, scrunching up her face as she counts them. "Oh, darn. Just fifty cents short!"
Hori clears his throat, holding out two quarters. "You can just pay me back lat-"
Eyes lighting up, she snatches the coins out of his hands, shoving them into the slot and pressing buttons at a rapid-fire pace. Pretty soon, her clothes are churning in the machine, the windows splashed with soapy water.
"Gee, thanks, pal! You really saved my life there," she chirps, before winking at him and skipping out the door. "Anyways, see ya around!"
As she speeds off, a sheet of paper flutters down from her pocket. He snatches it up and whips his head around, protesting, "Wait, you forgot-" but she's seemingly vanished into thin air.
Heaving a sigh, he looks down at the paper. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it reads. Auditions December 4th and 5th. All are welcome!
A broad grin spreads across his face.
This is it.
"Names?" a bubblegum-chewing senior asks, looking thoroughly bored as she passes around a clipboard through the rows of auditorium chairs. Hori eagerly accepts a pen, signing his name with a flourish. Masayuki Hori, junior. Auditioning for the role of Romeo.
"Oh, hey! You're the guy from yesterday, right?"
His eyes bulge out of their sockets, because oh God, this cannot be happening.
The girl slides into the seat besides his, grinning from ear to ear. "Yeah, sorry about that. I was kind of in a rush, so I didn't have time to introduce myself, but...hi! I'm Yuu Kashima. It's nice to meet you!"
He eyes her warily, shaking her proffered hand. "Um, hey. Masayuki Hori."
She beams at him, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "So, excited? Who are you auditioning for?"
"Romeo, of course. Tybalt or Mercutio would be nice, too." Hori shrugs. "And you?"
Kashima brandishes an invisible sword, pressing a hand to her chest. "But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." She grins crookedly at him. "What do you think, dummy?"
He gapes at her. "But you're a girl."
She cocks her head to the side, genuinely bewildered. "Your point being?"
Hori doesn't even know where to begin.
Before he can even unknot his tongue enough to dignify that with a response, the senior taps the microphone, announcing, "Auditions will begin shortly. Will Yuu Kashima please come to the stage?"
With a dangerous gleam in her eyes, Kashima bounds to her feet and flashes him a brilliant smile, clapping him on the shoulder. "Well, here I go! Best of luck to you, chap." As she strides confidently down the aisle, everyone's jaws go slack, eyes bulging at the very sight of her.
"No way! The Kashima?" the boy to his left, Matsushita, says incredulously.
Hori raises his eyebrows at him. "What, is she a celebrity or something?"
"You haven't heard of her?" Matsushita exclaims. "Yuu Kashima? Daughter of only the most famous actress in Hollywood? Rich as balls? The sole reason why every guy in sophomore year is single? Have you been living under a rock?"
"A very comfortable one, if I do say so for myself," Hori mumbles under his breath, thoroughly unimpressed. He has far more pressing matters to concern himself with than resident gossip.
Ignoring him, Matsushita parades on. "Anyways, she's amazingly talented. God knows why she's settled for going to our school, out of all places. I mean, with her status, she could be waltzing over to the Ivy Leagues by now!"
"Please. Get over yourself, Matsushita." Hori scoffs. "Wealthy hardly equals talented, especially for a total bonehead like her. If there's one thing I know, it's that all of these trust fund babies are privileged idiots without a single talented bone in their-"
Kashima collapses to her knees with a resounding thwack, banging her fists on the stage and wailing, "Oh, my love, my life! Death that hathsuck'd the honey of thy breath! Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet, is crimson in thy lips and thy cheeks."
Within a few moments, it seems like everyone but him is dissolved in a puddle of tears.
Hori smacks a hand to his forehead.
"Come on, I'm sure you weren't that bad," Sakura says consolingly, washing the dregs from a stained coffee pot. "I mean, she is Kashima."
"Even so..." Hori lets out a sigh, wiping the pot with a towel. "God, I must have looked like such a kid compared to her. I thought I could prove to my parents that this was worth it, but...ugh, I was so, so stupid to think that I could compete with her." He looks gloomily down at the checkered flooring. "Maybe I should have just listened to them."
Her eyes widen to the size of saucers. "You don't actually mean that, right, Hori?"
He narrows his eyes at her. "Weren't you the one who suggested it in the first place?"
Sakura stammers, flushed a deep tomato red. "B-but that's just me being a naggy friend, you know? I didn't think that you'd actually, like, listen to me." She suddenly grows solemn, turning a steely gaze on him. "But seriously, Hori...you can't just give up. This is what you love, right? You can't just let something like this get you down."
"Yeah, you're right. I'm just stressed, is all." Hori gives a reluctant smile. "Sorry for worrying you."
She brightens considerably, clapping him on the shoulder. "Totally! I mean, if you didn't get the lead, you could still be one of the side characters, right?"
He tousles her hair, grinning at the alarm on her face.
Good old Sakura.
In a list of twenty names, not a single one is Masayuki Hori.
He clenches his fists, digging his nails into his palms, and tries to bruise away the hurt in those little red half-moons because he is not going to start sobbing in public like a baby, dammit.
Romeo- Yuu Kashima, the top line reads.
"Hori-senpai! Just the man I wanted to see!" Lo and behold, his greatest nightmare is standing before him, her hair as unruly as always, cheeks flushed and eyes gleaming. She grins impishly at him, hands on her hips. "I watched your audition the other day, and holy cow, you were incredible! You should have heard me that day, I couldn't stop going on and on and on-"
"Are you here to gloat?" he snaps, his lips pulled taut. "Here to make fun of the itty-bitty commoners? Well, by all means, go ahead."
She cocks her head to the side; the pure perplexity on her face makes him want to punch the living daylights out of her. "Hori, what are you saying?"
The ugly words pour out of him before he can stop them. "Of course. Little Miss Kashima, perfect and talented and popular. Little Miss Kashima, who gets whatever the hell she wants from her rich mommy." He lets out a derisive snort. "A prince, my ass. You're nothing but a spoiled little girl who's had everything in her life handed to her on a silver platter."
Kashima's face falls. Suddenly, her expression hardens.
"What if everyone wasn't who you thought they were? What, then?"
She gives him one final look, before turning on her heel and flouncing away, her gray skirt dappled by the sunlight.
There's a relentless pounding in his head and an itch at his throat, yet here he is, spending his Friday night slaving away at the counter, measuring out coffee and drizzling syrups and swirling galaxies of whipped cream onto that familiar trucker's mocha.
Thankfully, Sakura has the good grace to listen to his incoherent babblings.
"You do know that what you did was wrong, right?" She purses her lips at him.
Instinctively, he goes on the defensive. "Of course! My moral compass isn't that off-wack, thank you very much." He goes into another prolonged coughing fit, before his shoulders slump. "Yeah, yeah. I know it was shitty. I was just stressed, and, you know...took it out on her."
"Have you apologized?" Sakura asks.
"How the hell am I supposed to do that?" Hori demands, affronted. "It's taking all of my brain power just to avoid her, for Christ's sake, and now you expect me to apologize?"
"Hori," she chastises, narrowing her eyes at him.
He heaves a sigh, massaging a knotted-up muscle in his shoulders. "Just give me a break, okay? It's not like I want to be working the 10 PM shift." Something dawns on him. "Speaking of which...what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn't you be doing your usual Sakura things, like, I don't know, cuddling stray puppies or whatever?"
Sakura goes pink. "Haha, very funny," she bleats feebly.
"Sakura," he mimicks. "But seriously. What is it?"
She gestures wildly, the color of cheeks resembling her hair ribbons by now. "Well, you know," she squeaks, "just wanted to keep you company. Being a good friend. Yeah."
He gives her a hard look. "Sakura, you're the nicest person I know. But even you, my best friend, are not that nice."
"Fair point." Sakura cringes, before lowering his voice. "Okay, fine. So the thing is-"
The door swings open, bringing with it a gust of wind and a smattering of water droplets. A hulking giant of a boy steps through, stooping a little to prevent from smacking into the wall. Spiky black hair glistening with rain, he closes his umbrella and blinks owlishly at them, tilting his head to the side.
"Welcome!" Hori exclaims, twisting his lips into a painful grin. He elbows Sakura in the side when she doesn't follow suit; she's now a dangerously violent shade of magenta, and it looks like she's about to explode, the way her fingers are trembling on the counter and her lips are moving soundlessly and-
When his attempts to unpetrify her fail, he gives up entirely, turning back to the boy with a genial smile. "Long day, huh? No wonder you need a pick-me-up."
"I was merely observing the romantic nuances of tonight's storm," he deadpans, eerily solemn. "Results: inconclusive." Sakura makes an unintelligible squeak in response, but he doesn't seem to notice.
Well, it's not like he's the weirdest fellow Hori's seen at the shop. But honestly, Sakura, sensible and cheery Sakura, falling head over heels, middle school puppy love, for this nutjob? It's unfathomable, really. "Um...sure." Eager to change the subject, Hori waves in the general direction of the menu board. "So, pick your poison."
"Salted caramel mocha," Sakura mutters, still flustered. He barely spares her glance, nodding curtly in reply.
"Well, if you say so." He picks up a paper cup and a Sharpie, poising it over the cardboard. "Sorry, didn't catch your name earlier. What was it again?"
"Nozaki," the boy says, and Hori files this information away in his head, painstakingly copying his name in neat print. "Great. We'll be with you shortly."
Once Nozaki is safely out of earshot, sitting in the remotest corner of the coffee shop and nursing his mocha while scribbling something on a pad of paper, Hori folds his arms over his chest and smirks at Sakura. "So."
She flushes once more, turning defiantly away from him. "What?"
"This is quite the development," he says, rather delicately. "Care to tell me what happened?"
Sakura sighs, defeated. "Okay, so my expressionism class started the other day, right? I walk in, a few minutes late, and there's super tall guy inside, and the only seat's next to him, so I take it, okay? And pretty soon we're partnered together and he's actually really, really talented and lifted me up when I couldn't reach the canvases and it...sort of started from there."
"Have you tried telling him how you feel?" Hori asks.
"Yeah, but...it's not going terribly well." She slams her hand on the counter, hissing, "It's driving me insane, Hori. This guy is just so unbelievably dense. I mean, he's even more clueless than you!" Hori wisely refrains from commenting. "I've tried everything. Literally everything! I've dropped hints, I've flirted, I've used every pick-up line in the book, I even wrote my goddamn number on his coffee cup. But you know what he does? He gives it back and tells me 'there's been a mistake.'" Her voice takes on a note of hysteria. "I'm not sure how much more of this I can take!"
"Remind why you like this guy again?" He raises an eyebrow at her.
"I know he's dense and all...but under all of that, he's actually really sweet!" Sakura protests, before whimpering, "You won't tell anyone, right?"
"Yes, because becoming totally incapable of normal human function is so subtle," Hori quips, dodging a swift kick to the head. "Easy there, feisty pants. It was a joke, for crying out loud." He composes himself, declaring, "I swear on my balls that I, Masayuki Hori, will not tell a soul."
Sakura regards him suspiciously for a moment, before finally sighing in relief. "Thank God. I knew I could count on you." She tenses up again, however, when he clamps a hand over his mouth to hide his smile. "What are you laughing at?"
Hori waves an airy hand. "No, no, it's just funny." Eyes glinting with mischief, he adds, "I mean, I never pegged you as the masochistic type."
By the time their shift ends and they're about to close up shop, it's full-out pouring, and as luck would have it, he's neglected to bring an umbrella. Wincing at the claps of thunder, he looks gloomily up at the sky.
"Oh, geez, I thought it would clear up before now!" Sakura frets, frowning at her phone. "I'd better call a taxi. You coming?"
Hori shakes his head. "Uh-uh. There's no way I could possibly afford it. I'll just walk." One cue, a particularly howling gust of wind rips through the nearby thicket of trees. He cringes.
"Hori!" she exclaims, horrified. "Are you trying to kill yourself? Come on, I'll just pay for it!" When he doesn't reply, she lets out a huff of exasperation, batting him on the forearm. "Stop being stubborn for once and just listen to me!"
"You know I'd never be able to pay you back." He gives her a lemony smile. "Honestly, Sakura. Just let it go.
The vibrant yellow vehicle pulls up to the curb, honking its horn, but Sakura pays it no mind, scowling at him. "This isn't me trying to be charitable, okay? This is me being worried about my best friend. Ever thought that maybe your so-called selflessness was just making everything worse?"
Her words sting, but even so, he isn't swayed. Sakura's done enough for him already; burdening her even more is the last thing he wants.
The driver rolls down the windows, a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. "Hey, you getting in or what?"
"You should go," he tells her, giving her a gentle nudge forward. "Trust me. I'll be fine."
A whole entire rainbow of conflicting emotions races across her face for a split second, but eventually, Sakura concedes, slipping into the taxi. "Alright, fine." She glowers at him. "But if the police finds your dead body tomorrow morning, I'm going to kill you. Okay?"
Hori grins half-heartedly at her. "Gotcha."
When the taxi finally peels away from the curb, taillights flashing as it speeds away, Hori exhales shakily, puffing out of his cheeks. "Lord help me," he mumbles, before pulling the hood of his sweater over his head and sprinting as fast as he can down the street.
Just a ten minute walk, he tells himself. No biggie.
Two minutes later, he's beginning to regret it.
Hori's chilled to the bone, shirt soaked through, sneakers scuffed and splashed with mud, and he can't seem to stop shivering, fingers beaded with fat raindrops. Standing there, drenched and battered and shaking, every failure in his life hits him with the force of a bullet train, all of the disappoint and regret, pursed lips and sharp red "F"s, because it seems like everything in his goddamn life is nothing but failure and failure, beating down on him like a tidal wave, a shadow that looms nearer and nearer and nearer-
"...Hori-senpai?" Kashima blinks blearily at him, holding an umbrella over her head. Just before she can turn away from him, he catches a glimpse of red-rimmed eyes and mussed hair, clenched fists and hollow cheeks.
"Kashima?" He can only gape at her. "What're doing here?"
She tilts her head to stare at him, before gazing up at the sky. "Running."
"From what?" The words fall from his lips before he can stop them.
Kashima doesn't reply, only manages a sad smile at him.
"What if everyone wasn't who you thought they were? What, then?"
"Yeah. I think I get it."
They lapse into a pitter-patter of silence.
After a beat of hesitation, she thrusts her umbrella into his hands, backing away from him. "You need it more than I do," Kashima whispers. She gives his hand a squeeze and holds his gaze for a moment, and without another word, turns around and dashes away.
As Hori watches her disappear, he closes his palm, clutching her warmth closer to him.
She stands alone on the stage, the glaring lights casting shadows across her face as she twirls across the scratched wood, sword pressed to her chest, eyes closed and lashes fluttering.
Umbrella clutched at his side, he carefully tiptoes towards her.
"Now, Tybalt, take the villain back again, that late thou gavest me; for Mercutio's soul is a but a little way above our heads, staying for thine to keep him company: either thou or I must go with him."
"Thou, wretched boy, that didst consort him here, shalt with him hence," Hori fires back, suppressing a smile at the way her eyes go wide, and clambers up the stairs to the stage. Raising his eyebrow at her, he brandishes her umbrella as a weapon.
Kashima grins, pointing the tip of her blade at his chest. "This shall determine that."
He isn't quite sure how it happens, just that one moment they're swiping at one another with their weapons, and the next she's laying on top of him, knees planted on either side of his torso, so close that the tip of her nose brushes against his chin and he can count every tiny freckle scattered across her pink cheeks and fleck of gold in her stupidly green eyes.
She sits up eventually, straddling his hips. "Where did you learn that?"
"High school. My buddies and I did it for a project once."
They go quiet.
"You deserved the role," she blurts out. "I lashed out at you 'cause...I was afraid you were right. And yeah, you were. I'm spoiled. I'm bratty. I'm selfish. And I'm sorry."
"What the hell are you apologizing for?" he snaps. "You know, nothing pisses me off more than when people apologize for things that aren't even their fault. Fucking hell, Kashima. You can be such an idiot sometimes."
Kashima cracks a reluctant grin. "Don't I know it."