The campus was wide and sprawling, green and well kept, but Yuki was most interested in the shooting range. He’d noticed it the first day of his freshman year, seen a group of kids loosing arrows at haystacks sheathed in canvas and targets in red paint. It wasn’t a kyudo team, of course– their bows were shorter, and they wore no particular gear or uniforms other than the standard PE garb. Still the fact that they had a range at all had perked his interest.
The school year was over now, the campus traffic much diminished– only the kids who lived in the dorms, and those doomed to summer school, still populated the grounds. As such, it was much easier to use the field– he could find it unoccupied most days. And so here we was, just a little self-conscious in his kyudo uniform, despite his lack of audience. Nonetheless, his fingers itched to hold the bow, to nock an arrow, to watch it thud home in the center of his target.
This late in the afternoon, as the sunlight began to wane, was Yuki’s favorite time of day. He could maintain his focus, shut out the few stragglers that came within shouting distance of his practice. A cross-country runner here, a couple of giggling girls there. He could hear the distant shouts and whistles of the soccer team scrimmaging in the distance but it was onlyan occasional student who happened by the path that neared the archery range. Mostly these were students interested in botany, hands and knees dirty as they returned from working in the gardens and greenhouse that lay beyond the athletic fields. They gave him quick, curious glances but only smiled pleasantly when he tried not to notice.
It was after retrieving a handful of arrows from his well-worn target that he noticed the cross-country runner passing by again with an easy, stamina-conserving pace to his gait, the sweat only just beginning to show on his brow. It was admirable, Yuki thought, the dedication to their sport that runners always seemed to have. Personally, he’d never been fond of that much physical activity. Kyudo was more meditation than exercise (though he might have been just a little proud of the arm strength he’d developed after years of pulling back bow strings).
Even being out of practice, the dedication paid off. His arrow sailed and met the target with the satisfying THUNK and shiver — a good shot, but he could do better. A few calming breaths, a stretch of his arms and he reloaded his bow. Poised, the string drawn and tight, focused — That runner went by again. Was he just running circles around the archery field or something?
Yuki didn’t particularly like the idea of having even an unintentional audience, but without an enclosed dojo in which to practice, he knew he was going to have to get used to the open-air archery range if he wanted to keep his skills sharp. So he kept his eyes on the target, remembered his breathing, and made his best effort to erect mental walls where a dojo’s would be.
He let the arrow sail and sighed faintly when it landed about the same distance from the center as the last.
Startled, Yuki turned to discover that the runner had left the path and was jogging across the green toward him with a smile. He was tall, long in the legs and lithe with the muscle of an athlete. His white tank top was a stark contrast to his dark skin but the almond shape of his eyes hinted at an ancestry that Yuki couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Are you on the archery team?”
It was the sort of question that seemed to invite an obvious answer, but the truth was, “No.” Yuki shook his head. He supposed he aught to have added something further, and for a moment his mouth hung open as though he might continue, but after half a beat he closed it once more. He would have had to look up to meet the guy’s eyes and it made him nervous, like he hadn’t spent the last four years getting used to American social conventions. He looked at the runner’s legs instead.
“Oh, I was gonna ask if they’d changed the uniform or something,” the stranger said with a light, friendly laugh, his running shoes coming to rest on the grass a somewhat-comfortable several feet from Yuki. He paused, tried to catch Yuki’s eye and shifted from one foot to the other in the following awkward moment. “You should join! I’ve got a friend on the team — I bet they’d love to have you.”
“A-ah… well…” Yuki mumbled, feeling his ears already beginning to heat. He knew he wasn’t being very polite, and he swallowed once before forcing forth more words. “I… I’ve never used a short-bow, just this.” He gave a nod toward the bow in his hand, taller even than he was. He risked glancing up just briefly, long enough to catch the runner’s dark, smiling eyes and the hesitant set of his mouth as though he were wondering why he’d even tried talking to Yuki. Which was the way most of his interactions with people tended to go.
The runner just shrugged and flashed his bright, gregarious smile again. “It’s the same idea though, right? Bow, arrow, target?” Another laugh and he extended his hand to Yuki but thenglanced at it and grimaced, wiping sweat on his shirt with an embarrassed smile. “I’m Alex.”
It wouldn’t hurt, he supposed, to make an effort, and so, hesitating only a moment, Yuki pulled off the heavier leather glove and offered his hand, sheathed in the thinner cotton. “Yuki,” he answered. “Nice– nice to meet you.”
Alex gave another grin, relieved, and gave him a hand shake far firmer than Yuki’s. “You too! So — what is this?” He glanced over Yuki’s bow and then gave a nod toward the targets. “Whatever it is, you’re good!”
“A-ah, it’s kyudo,” Yuki answered, a little surprised that Alex hadn’t taken the opportunity to excuse himself and return to his running. “Japanese style archery. I’m not very good.” He shook his head, wishing that his ears would stop burning.
“Are you kidding?” Alex answered incredulously, looking between the arrow-punctured bullseye and the other boy. “If my luck with video games is any indication, I wouldn’t be able to hit thewall let alone the target.”
Dammit, there went his nose– he could feel it growing hot. “You– are you on the track team?” Yuki wondered, scrambling to change the subject away from him and the compliments he didn’t know how to handle.
“Cross country,” Alex said, stretching an arm high above his head. “And water polo. Aaand sometimes I sub for the basketball team– I know, no jokes.”
Yuki blinked. “Why would I joke about that?”
“Just–” Alex balked. “You know, because I’m– you know what, nevermind.” He laughed sheepishly, helplessly, then shifted again, uncertain. “Sorry — I’m probably interrupting your practice.”
“I-it’s okay,” Yuki hastened to assure him. “Um, thanks. For saying that stuff. I’ll think about it. A-about joining archery.”
“Oh, yeah! Of course. Maybe you can convince the rest of the team to wear those cool outfits.” There was that grin again.
It didn’t really seem worth it to try and explain to the guy that kyudo and what the archery team did were more or less different sports all together, that it would be ridiculous to put a western archer in a kyudo gi and hakama. But he– Alex, seemed so sincerely friendly, and Yuki hadn’t really been very successful at making friends during his first year at Saint D’s. So he nodded, tried on a small smile and tucked a bit of hair behind his ear. “Yeah. Maybe.”
For a long moment, Alex just stood there with the same cheerful expression before finally interrupting the silence with an abrupt laugh. “Anyway — um, maybe I’ll see you around? I’m here for the summer. My parents travel for work so I live on campus year round more or less.”
“Yeah, that– that’d be, um. I’m mostly here, I guess. And you, run– so… we’ll probably. See you. Around.” Yuki stuck out his hand again, abruptly cutting himself off, silently scolding himself for showing off just WHY he hadn’t made any real friends here. “Nice to meet you. Alex.”
“You too, Yuki,” he replied easily, giving the other’s hand another firm squeeze. “Good luck with your practice!” He waved over his shoulder as he turned and jogged back across the lawn to the path.
“Th-thanks,” Yuki spoke, but Alex was already out of ear-shot. It could have gone better, he was sure. But, he decided, as he watched the other boy pause at the edge of the path and toss one last grin in Yuki’s direction, it could have gone a lot worse.
He left the campus that day with a tiny bit of hope in his chest. If only it could have lasted. But by the time he started to consider going back for another practice, the self-doubt began to settle in. He could only dwell on every awkward word of the brief conversation, each a little stab at his confidence. Alex was clearly a popular guy at school — good looking, friendly and charming, on two (and a half) sports teams? It would take him all of five minutes to figure out that Yuki was far below his social standing and six minutes for Yuki to say something stupid and humiliating that would ruin his chances at his first friendship at the school.
So he put away his arrows until the next morning when he made his way across the campuswhile the air was still damp and crisp, instead of the warmth of the afternoon that Alex ran in. He didn’t see the other boy for the rest of the summer.
And that, he assumed, would be the last of it. He did his best to ignore the twinge of regret that he was beginning his Sophmore year just as solitary as his first year at the school. Instead, he reminded himself there was plenty to keep him busy during high school. Particularly the Amazonian Botany class that he’d signed up for after hearing the rumors about a kid losing a finger in it last semester. He figured his life could use a little excitement. That and anyone else crazy enough to sign up for it might not mind having a weird, awkward kyudo enthusiast as a classmate or even friend.
With a classroom in a humid greenhouse, a text book full of wildly colorful illustrations and a teacher with a full mustache and a pith helmet, the class certainly had entertainment potential. After the first day’s long lecture, thick with some unidentifiable accent, the teacher informed the class that they would be pairing off to dissect a plant — and to mind the the teeth. And the poison sac.
Yuki took his seat at the nearest empty lab bench, knowing that he’d end up with the last person left and there wasn’t any need to scrabble for a partner when he didn’t know anyone in the class anyway.
Except that not a moment after he sat down, there was a tap on his shoulder. “Hey — Yuki, right?”
Yuki startled, turning in his seat, eyes wide in undisguised surprised. A tall figure, with a familiar face and a hopeful grin hovered beside the empty stool. The runner. Alex. “Y-yeah. Right,” he nodded, resisting the urge to clutch at the front of his shirt, beneath which his heart rate had risen from normal to thudding.
For an awkward moment, Alex seemed to be trying to find something to say, a few false start breaths before he gave a laugh. “I thought maybe I’d scared you out of the school,” he joked, then hurried on, “Do you wanna — uh — I don’t know anyone in this class. Want to do something potentially life-threatening together? Haha…” He glanced at the nasty-looking plant on the table.
“Ah– oh. Of course. Um, please.” Yuki indicated the empty seat with a nod. A wave of guilt for the way he’d avoided the guy all summer washed over him and settled into the pit of his stomach, leaving him feeling vaguely off balance. “It’s not that–” he added, mumbled down at the table. “My little sister started swimming lessons. So I couldn’t… practice. In the afternoon.”
“Oh!” And just like that, his hesitation melted away and he sank into the seat beside Yuki, cheerful. “That’s cool of you to take her. How old is she?”
At least with the conversation steering away from himself, Yuki found he could get his breathing back in hand. “Ah, she’s 5. She just started kindergarten here.”
“Aww. I bet she’s adorable.” Alex pulled on the latex gloves provided as a thin protective layer between flesh-eating poison and his own skin. “I’ve got a little brother. Eleven and obnoxious as hell. Wanna trade?”
Yuki bit his lip around a small smile. “No, thank you.” He followed Alex’s example, snapping both gloves into place before sliding the instructions onto the table between them. “Do you… want to cut first?”
“Sure. But promise you’ll take me to the hospital if I get poisoned?” He picked up the scalpel with a quirk of his full lips.
“I don’t know how to drive,” Yuki pointed out, “But I’ll ask the teacher to do it.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” Alex chuckled. He grimaced faintly as he cut into the plant’s leathery skin and thick liquid oozed out. “This might as well be an animal. Ugh, gross.” He gingerly peeled away the skin as they leaned over the experiment. “So are you still doing your archery? Or — uh, kido?
“Kyudo,” Yuki corrected. “When I have the time. I– I was thinking of talking to the archery team captain…”
“That’s great!” Alex said enthusiastically, glancing up from the project. “My friend’s the co-captain — I know they’d be thrilled to have your talent on the team. Sounds like they have a hard time finding new members.” There was a thick squishing sound under Alex’s scalpel and he looked back down — just in time to see the scalpel puncture the pouch under the plant’s skin. A strong arm fell across Yuki’s chest, pushing him back suddenly as Alex himself reeled away from the dissection and a sweet-smelling squirt of liquid fountained up from the plant. “Oops. Sorry about that.”
Yuki managed not to fall off his stool, but only by grabbing hold of the sleeve of Alex’s well-fitted school jacket. He waited what was probably a beat too long before righting himself and letting go, silently cursing his ears for their traitorous red. “I-it’s okay,” he mumbled, “Sorry, too.” He focused on fixing his attention to the now-deflating pod between them.
But Alex didn’t seem to notice, busy with sheepish laughter as they peered upon the the eviscerated plant, now swimming in thick, poisonous juices. It was then that the teacher happened to stroll by, peering down upon the the mess of a project from beneath the brim of his pith helmet with a frown. He turned his gaze on Alex and said, “If this were the Amazon, you’d be DEAD.”
Yuki just stared, somehow ashamed, though it had been Alex’s slip of the hand that had ruined the plant. “I apologize,” he said, when he found his voice. “I told him to cut the wrong part. Can… can we have a new plant, please?”
The professor pursed his lips beneath his thick mustache, eyeing Yuki critically for a long moment before giving a long suffering sigh. “Very well. But don’t come crying to me when you burn your faces off.” A few moments later, a fresh plant was set before them with a warning glare to go along with it.
Alex blinked down at it and then gave a guilty, sidelong glance at his lab partner. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Yuki shrugged, steadfastly avoiding meeting Alex’s eyes. “It’s okay.” Then, “You’ve been nice to me.”
Brown eyes turned back on the fresh, dead plant before them and Alex stared at it silently for a long moment. “Maybe you should do it this time.”
Yuki couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed with someone outside his own family, and though the quiet huff of breath was barely audible, it still felt… well. Nice.
“Okay,” he agreed. “I’ll try.”