Nanako's first doubts came when she was ten.
She was visiting Yosuke in Junes, and she and Yosuke were talking about the cute boys in her class. As always, she had a list of two names, and Yosuke managed to tease a few more from her, out of good jest. Then he said, "You're going to be in middle school soon. Isn't it about time you started dating one of those guys?"
Well, of course she liked Genji-kun and Kyou-kun. She loved being their friends, hanging out with them, laughing and playing with them, but that was it. She didn't feel anything else towards them. When she told Yosuke that, he stiffened a bit, and said, in a weirdly strangled voice, that, well, that was fine, maybe she just hadn't found the right person yet.
Then her father found out that Yosuke was encouraging her to date boys, and Yosuke had to avoid Nanako's house for a month, lest the combined forces of Ryotaro Dojima and Chie Satonaka bore down on him and flatten him to the ground. There were places in Inaba where the police didn't patrol, and unless Yosuke watched over his back at night--
Well. It was sometimes better to not take that risk.
Besides, she wasn’t the kind of person who had crushes. TV was totally unrealistic like that. Just because she was at “a certain age” didn’t mean she should be falling for people left and right, sheesh. Sure, she had posters of idols in her room, and she liked looking at them, but she only liked looking at them in the way most girls did: admiring their faces and bodies and their clothes and wanting to get their autographs, but especially if they left lipstick on the paper.
And then she remembered Miyako-chan did the same thing with those boy bands she liked, which was kind of weird, and then, very suddenly, incredibly embarrassing. No way, she didn’t like girls like that. She was normal. Really.
Six months later, her brother called right on time, as usual, and mentioned he was seeing someone while studying in the city. And then he said that the name of the person he was seeing was Akihiko. When Yosuke heard about it, he turned a strange shade of white and said, in a strangled voice, that god, was there something in the city that turned people into homos, because seriously. And then Nanako told him that her brother wasn't a homo because he liked boys and girls, which made him bisexual. And, by the way, what was the word for a girl who only liked girls, or boys who only liked boys, because the only words she had heard at school weren't very nice.
Yosuke went red and mumbled that Nanako should go see Kanji and Naoto. So she did. Kanji and Naoto were really good at explaining things, anyway, and they always played with her when she visited. Sometimes Kanji let her help with knit things for his shop, and she loved helping. It was fun, and on top of that, Naoto sometimes told her stories about cases she was taking up in her spare time. Naoto knew a lot about a lot of things. Naoto could help her.
"Uh," said Kanji, and then swore very loudly when he pricked himself with a needle. Then Naoto took over and explained everything to her in a very clear voice without stuttering at all--that observation had been Kanji's, and after saying that, Naoto went red and said that information was information, so there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Naoto asked why Nanako had asked and Nanako said that Yosuke told her to come to them.
And then Yosuke and Kanji were arguing for days over how Kanji was "corrupting" people, and then Big Bro had to call Yosuke and the two of them talked for a long time and Yosuke apologized to Kanji and everything seemed fine.
When Nanako asked her father, he sputtered a bit and went silent for a while. Then he said that it was really okay if she was gay and that he still loved her, and he was sure her mother would be proud of her, no matter what happened. Then she said that she had just been asking about her big brother, and he looked incredibly relieved.
And then she asked if she could go see a movie with Kyou-kun because she liked him and he liked her, and could she go alone, without him watching over her? Pretty please?
The dinner that night went straight from "awkward" to "painful,” in half a second flat.
... five years later.
As the customer left Junes, Yosuke heard her say, "Can't you believe how the manager is brutalizing that little girl?" to her friend. If Yosuke hadn't had his hands full with trying to comfort Nanako, he would've clarified things: that the teenage girl crying into his shoulder was his best friend's little sister, so close that she was almost like his own sister, and that he was a perfectly sensitive guy, thank-you-very-much, but he would've been comforting his ego, not Nanako, so he kept his mouth shut and instead led Nanako to the furniture section. After a while, she stopped sniffling and then said, "Sorry for interrupting you at work."
"Are you kidding?" Yosuke said, rubbing her back. "You think I'd be angry if you came running into the store like that? No way."
"Big bro told me that your Dad said he might take away your position of manager if he caught you taking someone on a date in here again."
"That was just a joke," Yosuke said. Or at least, he thought his dad was joking. If the old man hadn’t been, then Yosuke would have… a problem. "Anyway, the old man's not going to fire me because of you. So come on, tell me what happened." Partially out of habit, he said, "C'mon, you can tell your other big bro anything."
"It's stupid,” she said, leaning out of his touch.
"No, no, c'mon. I'm not going to laugh at you. Promise." Nanako kicked his ankle. "Okay, okay, it isn't funny, I get it."
Nanako pulled away from him, sat down on the display bed. Then she said, "Promise you won't get mad?"
"Promise." He'd just tell Souji and have him beat down on whoever made her cry. Nanako frowned at him.
"And promise you won't tell Dad or big bro."
Damn. There went that route. "Promise," he said with a sigh. "And I won't tell Chie, either." Because telling Chie was like telling the entire Inaba police department.
Nanako pulled a handkerchief from her pocket--where did girls get those handkerchiefs, anyway, it was like they produced them from thin air--and then said, "Kyou-kun and I broke up today."
"I knew it," he said. Kyou Ogawa was Nanako's boyfriend--or had been her boyfriend. He had always seemed like something of a lame duck, and that made it hard to get too mad at the kid. It was a bit like kicking a puppy with three legs. But this? All gloves were off. Kyou Ogawa would rue the day he made Nanako cry.
"No, I broke up with Kyou-kun because I wanted to be with senpai." She dabbed at her eyes and then said, "Um, my mascara isn't running, is it?"
"You're smearing it with your handkerchief," Yosuke said. He sat beside her and put an arm on her shoulder. "Fell in love with your senpai, huh. Tough." He swallowed, remembering, for the first time in a while, the death of Saki. It had been nearly ten years since that rainy April morning; he could handle it. "What's his name?"
She hesitated, looking at him a bit wearily. Then she said, "Jun Asakura-senpai. I really, really admire him. He’s on the tennis team with me. We play doubles together sometimes, and he was really, really—I mean, he is always really nice to me, and even though he already had a boyfriend—”
“What?” Good god, it was like there were more and more homosexuals in Inaba by the hour. Nanako winced at the expression on his face, and, a bit guiltily, he toned it down. After all, this was the boy she fell in love with—but honestly, the guy was a scumbag for hurting Nanako, and he didn’t give a damn about whether he was gay or not.
“Well, Jun-senpai had a boyfriend, but their relationship was really shaky because Jun-senpai’s boyfriend was working in Okina, and Jun-senpai wants to go to college and become a doctor.”
“Uh, all right,” Yosuke said. Poor girl. Falling in love with a gay guy—well, at least it hadn’t gone as far as an actual relationship. That would’ve been even worse.
“Everyone on the team knew they were going to break up.” She sniffled a bit more. “When Jun-senpai didn’t come to practice for an entire week before the qualifying tournament for regional, I went to his house and saw that he was really down. So I told senpai that it was okay if he didn’t play tennis in the future, but we needed him now at the tournament. And then he said I was a good friend, and he was glad I came over, and we made it to the inter-regionals. And then we lost, but qualified to go to the wild card round to go to the nationals, and we lost there, too—”
“Yeah,” he said. He remembered hearing about it from Souji, who was a guidance counselor at the high school. “I remember hearing about that. You’ll just have to practice hard for next year.”
“Uh-huh,” Nanako said glumly. “Well, on the ride back home, we stopped at a hotel in Inzai, and I confessed to him, and he said that he wasn’t interested in girls like that and that we should just be friends, but then some of the other girls on the team found out and then senpai said I must have blabbed and that we shouldn’t be friends anymore and said I should drop out of the varsity team—and—”
“There, there,” he murmured, drawing her into a one armed hug as the tears started again. “I’m sure they’re just jealous.”
She mumbled an apology for something Yosuke couldn’t hear, and said, “They’re calling me a lezzy.”
Oh, for. What was it with high school kids being such assholes these days? “Because you were interested in a gay guy? They’re crazy.”
“Because Jun-senpai’s full name is Junko-senpai.” Yosuke’s arm stiffened. For a second he could only freeze, trying to process what he had just heard. Nanako slipped out of his arms and said, “Please don’t be angry.”
“That’s—no, I wouldn’t,” he said, but he felt like he had never seen Nanako before, like the Nanako he knew was, very suddenly, someone else. He had been getting better with dealing with surprises like this, really, but there was no way Nanako was really gay. She had been talking about boys for years with him, and he knew for a fact that she had done more than just hold hands with Kyou. “I mean—I’m a bit upset… well, no that’s not it, I’m just surprised—I didn’t expect you to—”
“I should go back home,” Nanako said, picking her school bag and her duffel that carried her tennis equipment. “Big bro and Dad are going to start worrying.”
“Nanako, wait,” he said. “I’m—”
“Thanks for all the help! I feel a lot better now.” With a too obviously fake smile, she waved at him and said, “Bye-bye! I’ll see you later!” and ran out the store, leaving Yosuke still on the bed, too stunned to make his mouth move. After about thirty seconds, his brain rebooted. He banged his head against the bed.
Why did he always make a mess out of stuff like this?
Of the people who would know about Nanako being—well, for being that way—the first ones to know would probably be either Chie or Naoto, and of the two, Chie was less likely to look at him like, “Yosuke-san, I do believe that you’re an imbecile.” Chie normally skipped the disdainful looks and went right for the part where she tried to decapitate him with her feet. And if he offered her free dinner at the food court—well, it wasn’t like Chie ever refused a free meal, and she’d probably be a lot more lenient if he kept feeding her.
The second she came into the food court, dressed in street clothes and looking pissed, Yosuke knew he had picked the wrong person.
“God, Yosuke,” she said. “I know that your mouth can run ahead of your head sometimes, but did you have to make Nanako-chan cry all over again?”
“I didn’t—” he began. And then he sighed, because she already knew, anyway. Where would denial get him? “Did she tell you, too?”
“I found her on my way back home from patrol. She told me to not beat you up too much,” she said, her expression softening. “It wasn’t too hard to guess at what had happened once you figured out that there’s no men’s tennis team at Yasogami. So where’s the steak?”
“Come on,” Yosuke said. “You can’t—”
And he had already bought the steak, anyway. The teller called out the number of his order, and he went to fetch the three plates of food: one a yakisoba plate, the other two steaks. Setting the plates on the table, he said, “Don’t you ever get tired of eating this?”
“Not when it’s free,” Chie said cheerfully, cutting into the steak. “Well, I knew that Nanako might be—you know.” She gestured, a bit uncomfortably. “She asked some stuff about me and Yukiko when she starting middle school, and since this was around the same time Dojima-san and Souji-kun told her about the TV, everything kind of… came out.”
He stared. “And you didn’t tell anyone?”
Chie gave him a look. It was the kind of look she gave to the teenage punks she caught stealing. It was the ‘look, buster, do not screw with me’ look. “Yosuke, if I told you in high school that I wanted to strip Yukiko and pin her onto the ground and have wild sex with her, would you go, ‘oh, okay’ or would you have teased us until we avoided each other until for the rest of our lives just so you’d quit talking about it?”
“What? Come on, I wasn’t—”
“You were a real jerk to Kanji-kun,” Chie said. “I mean, I know you’ve gotten better about it, but even when he and Naoto-kun moved in with one another, you kept bugging them—”
“Look, I didn’t come to ask you to skewer me. I wanted your help to… make things over with Nanako.” Yosuke shifted, uncomfortably. “I screwed things up with Kanji and Naoto-kun. When you and Yukiko-san, uh, came out—”
“No, it’s not like that,” Chie said quickly. “I mean, I’m not gay—neither is she, I think—but I still like guys, it’s just—Yukiko’s the only… well, not the only, but she’s…” After a little more verbal fumbling, she made a face and said, “It’s complicated, okay?”
“And when Souji told me that he was bi, I acted like an asshole. I don’t want to do the same thing with Nanako. She’s… she’s like family to me.”
Hmm, went Chie. She speared a piece of steak and chewed, slowly, as she considered. Her expression softened. “So are you asking me how to apologize, or are you asking me how to make you less of a moron when it comes to people coming out to you?”
What was it about girls and always sounding so smug and self-satisfied when they thought they got him? Still, he’d need all the help he could get; Chie wasn’t as much ‘sensitive’ as she was ‘girly’, which made her sensitive by nature. Kind of. Actually, he wasn’t sure. She never seemed to be very sympathetic to him. “Both,” he said.
“Great! Well, the best way to apologize to her would be to just come out and say it.” She prompted him with her steak knife. “C’mon, practice a bit.”
“What? Hell no.”
“Do you want the help or not?” she said. “I mean, I’m not going to do this for free.”
“What the—I’m the one paying for your dinner!”
“You said it’d be free! Chop, chop!”
He was ready to storm out on her, but—well, that’d just prove her point, and he didn’t need to be more of an ass than usual. Besides, this was for Nanako’s sake. He could swallow his pride for that. He took a deep breath, and pictured Nanako in Chie’s place. A Nanako who was eating steak. It was a strange image.
“Look,” he said. “Nanako-chan. I’m sorry about being awkward. It was just—when you said that the senpai you had was a girl, I acted badly because I didn’t think you’d be… you know. Like that. And I’m not mad or anything, and I don’t think you’re gross, but I do think it’d be better—well, I want you to be happy, and I think that this… Jun-senpai person of yours won’t do anything for you.” He paused. “Well. How was that?”
“Hmm.” Chie took out her phone. “Hold on. I’m going to need to tell Yukiko I’m going to be home late.” He got that. What he didn’t get was why after hanging up, Chie called someone else.
“What the—who are you calling now?!” he squawked.
“Well, who else?” she said with an exasperated note in her voice. “Souji-kun.”
Souji. Good, old dependable Souji. Yosuke’s best and closest friend, partner in crime, a man he had died for and sacrificed himself for. Souji was also one of the most thoughtful, sensitive guys on the face of the planet—or, if not on the face of the planet, the most thoughtful and sensitive in Inaba. He had gone off to college for four years at Tokyo University and got degrees in psychology and philosophy. Then he did a doctorate in philosophy—or psychology. The only thing Yosuke really remembered about it was that it had something to do with the role of media engagement and the interaction of the western media with Chinese philosophers. He had become a high school guidance counselor because he thought it was the best way to help the town he loved—never mind that he did a lot of community engagement. He was the coach of the basketball team, and advisor of the philosophy club, and led an animal rescue effort over by the shrine, never mind his side business of finding lost objects for people. The man felt almost… superhuman sometimes, and for better or worse, Yosuke had gotten used to relying on Souji for guidance.
The only problem with bringing Souji into the equation was that this involved Souji’s little sister, and Souji had a tendency for being protective of her. As far as Nanako was concerned, he was both a parental and sibling figure. He was still understanding and sympathetic and knew all the right things to say, but if he found out that Yosuke had wronged his little sister, then Yosuke knew Souji would think less of him. It had been the same way when Yosuke got into a fight with one of Souji’s first boyfriend. (He had lost, but just barely. Apparently Akihiko had been a boxer before he joined the police.) Souji had been understanding and kind and gentle, but the way he had looked at Yosuke, like he thought Yosuke was capable of doing better—that had hurt more than any angry fists or words Souji could have thrown at him.
“Oh, no,” Chie said, a grand two minutes before the time Souji promised he’d meet them at Junes. “What if Nanako-chan hasn’t come out to Souji-kun yet?”
“Does that really matter?”
“Of course it does! You have to be sensible about this kind of thing, Yosuke.” She became pensive, and said, “Before I told my parents about Yukiko, I was always afraid that someone might’ve seen me and Yukiko together and rat us out to them. I was afraid of how they’d react. I mean… you know when you tell someone something you find really embarrassing about yourself? Like your tendency to wet your pants whenever you get stressed out.”
“What the—shut up, Chie,” he hissed. “It isn’t funny!”
“Do I look like I’m laughing?” she said. She smacked him, lightly, on the shoulder. “It’s kind of like that. The way people look at you is different. It… hurts, sometimes. You all were great about it—well, except for you. And Kanji-kun got this nosebleed when we told him.”
That might’ve been because Chie had flipped out and wound up tripping herself into the table while standing up. Kanji, unfortunately, had been in the way of the table’s edge when it came flying into his nose. Although the timing had been pretty suspicious…
“Just let it go,” Yosuke groaned.
“Not until you apologize,” Chie said.
“For what?” Yosuke said. “Unless I remember correctly, you still owe me ten thousand yen for that one time you totaled my bike!”
“Well, it all worked out in the end for you, didn’t it? You got your motorcycle three days later!”
“Do you have any idea how far away I live from the school?! Without my bike, I had to get rides from the neighbors, and you know how they felt about me then! That’s what I want the apology for, not for the damn bike!”
The two of them stood there—somehow, whenever they fought, they always wound up on their feet glaring at each other from uncomfortably close distances—both breathing hard for no real reason except that they were having yet another fight over a grudge that should’ve died years ago. For the longest time his parents thought that they’d date. Then Chie joined the police force, and they smiled in a weird way and said that maybe he shouldn’t.
Of course, Souji came in at that point to defuse the tension. Even after all these years, he seemed have a nose for conflict. He came up to them, all calm and grey eyed and soft, mild smiles and said, “Both of you, sit down.”
“Souji-kun,” Chie said. She looked away from both Souji and Yosuke, and sat down. Souji took a seat across from both of them, and after Souji greeted him, Yosuke, too, sat down.
“Sorry, man,” Yosuke said. “I know you’re busy.”
“Chie-san said that it was pretty urgent,” said Souji. “Besides, Nanako wanted me out of the house.”
“Oh, really?” Yosuke asked, cautiously. “Why?”
“She said that she had fallen in love with one of her senpai on the tennis team, and that she was going to Naoto’s house for the night. Kanji’s picking her up.”
“There isn’t a men’s tennis team at Yasogami,” Yosuke blurted out.
“Yes, Yosuke,” Souji said dryly. “As someone who works at the high school, I know what clubs exist and don’t exist.”
Ouch. Sarcasm. So that had been a dumb question. “And that doesn’t bother you?” Yosuke said.
“Does it bother you?” Souji said, but with a relaxed, calm tone—entirely different from Chie’s near bullying. Becoming a police officer hadn’t done anything to improve the rougher aspects of her personality, Yosuke thought with a bit of a scowl.
But with Souji—well, he felt as though he could say anything. Or just about anything, anyway.
“I didn’t expect it,” Yosuke said. “I mean, I’m okay with it. I just don’t get why she wanted to be… I mean, it’s not like she’s really like that, you know?”
“Gay, you mean?” Chie filled in.
“She might be like you and not really care who she’s with,” Yosuke said. “She dated Kyou-kun for a long time.”
“Would that make it easier for you to handle?” Souji said. “If she still liked boys?”
“What the—well, I mean…” He trailed off. “I guess it would, yeah. Kind of feels like just about everyone I know’s normal, but then go off and start making out with their best friends. It’s not that I don’t like gay people.” Even he could sense how stupid he was sounding. “It’s just—it’s… It’s weird, okay? Even if I accept it, that doesn’t mean I have to like them. They’re…”
He looked at Souji, then Chie. He couldn’t say it. He felt as though he should have, sure, but they were his friends. They had a version of this conversation before, when Souji came out with his boyfriend. That had been around the same time Chie and Yukiko moved in with each other. The only difference was, Souji had just told him that he didn’t care what Yosuke did in bed, and Yosuke shouldn’t care, either. Now both of them were getting all psychological on his ass, and it was beginning to piss him off.
“C’mon,” he said, a bit weakly. “Do we really need to talk about this?”
“Yes,” Souji said simply. “You don’t want to hurt Nanako, and the first step to keeping others from getting hurt is to understand yourself. I know you don’t mean to hurt people, but sometimes you do. And if you called me, then that means that you want to talk about it.”
Technically, Chie had been the one to call.
“I won’t get angry,” Souji said.
“I won’t, either,” Chie said, which was strangely reassuring.
Yosuke rubbed his nose with his hand, and then said, “It’s not normal. If you’re going to do it like that, then that’s fine, but I’m—I’m not into it. I get you and Yukiko.” That had been relatively easy to accept. After all, they had been such close friends, and had been sending mixed messages all through high school. Souji and his boyfriends had been harder to understand. Yosuke didn’t always like Souji’s girlfriends, either, but something about the idea of Souji having boyfriends set him on edge. Not that he was jealous of them or anything—well, he had been jealous, but it wasn’t because he wanted Souji or anything. He just thought he was losing his best friend to some fag—homo—someone who wasn’t him. “But I—I can’t see myself being like that. No way, man, that’s not the kind of thing I want to do.”
“But you aren’t doing it,” Souji said, calm and even as always. “We’re the ones who are.”
“I know that,” Yosuke said, wincing. “It’s just—it’s weird to me, okay? And I—I just have a lot of… issues with it.”
“The issues you talked about,” Souji said.
“Lay off, man,” Yosuke said. “It was just a slip of the tongue, okay?”
“So, to redirect this conversation back to Nanako-chan,” Chie said. “How does it make you feel that Nanako-chan might be… well… you know…”
“If anyone has issues, it’s probably you,” Yosuke said. “What kind of person sleeps with a woman, but can’t even say she might be gay?”
“I’m not the one who made a girl cry today,” Chie snapped.
“Stop it,” Souji said. “Both of you.”
“Right… right,” Chie said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Chie smiled, and stood. “Anyway, I’m way later than I expected to be,” she said. “Yukiko’s going to be pissed. I promised I’d help her out with the Inn after work today. You know how busy things get around this season.”
“Tell her that I’ll be there to help tomorrow afternoon,” Souji said.
“Will do.” She bent down to hug Souji, and then was off. Souji turned to face Yosuke, and Yosuke said, “I should get going now, too.”
“Let’s keep talking,” Souji said.
“C’mon, man, can’t we put this off until later? Tomorrow, at least.”
“You’re still feeling bad about Nanako,” Souji said. “Let’s talk about her for a while, at least.”
“No way, man. I already feel shitty enough without you guilting me.”
“Do you think I’d do that to you?”
“Fine. No, you wouldn’t. I just don’t want to talk anymore. Happy?” Yosuke rubbed his nose again. “Look, man, I gotta go home. Need to get up early to help set up shop. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Make some time for me in the afternoon,” Souji said. “We can go out to the shopping district to eat.”
“Right.” He pushed the chair in. “Sorry you came all the way here.”
Souji’s smile was a bit disappointed, but he patted Yosuke’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. “No one hates you,” he said. “Just make sure you talk with Nanako the next time you see her. She’s young. She needs all the support she can get.”
“Right, partner. Anything for you.” But not like that, he wanted to add, but didn’t. He was straight, and Souji wasn’t, and that was fine. Every now and then, though, he wondered. They were awfully close for friends, and for a while he was—it was a bit embarrassing, but he used to think Souji might ask him out or something, and dreaded the day because it’d be awkward.
But why would Souji ask him out, anyway? He had told Naoto about it once, and Naoto had just suggested that Yosuke might want Souji like that and Yosuke had flipped. It wasn’t on purpose, but seriously, he was straight.
“Hey, man,” Yosuke said. “Why’d you start dating those guys?”
“Why?” Souji stopped walking, and stared up to the right for a while. “Well, I found them attractive.”
“You weren’t just running out of girlfriends?” Yosuke joked, and Souji smiled. “How did you know?”
“When blood starts rushing into my pants. Other than that? It’s never really mattered to me. To some people it might, but I’ve never had a problem with it.” Souji mused for a bit more, and then said, “You said that it’s not normal. Well, it’s what’s normal for me.”
And did that really matter? Did that change anything?
Too many things to think about. He had never thought about it too much, but now that he had started, he couldn’t stop. Okay, fine, some guys were predisposed to making out with other dudes, and some girls really liked kissing other girls.
So what? What did that mean, if his friends were all like that and he wasn’t? Well, sure, Rise was pretty straight, and so was Naoto, and Teddie was, too, and so was he. As far as he knew, at least.
Between Kanji, Rise, Naoto, and Nanako, Rise was the best card player out of all of them, with Kanji just behind her, and Naoto and Nanako competing for the spot of dead last. It was not a fact Naoto was proud of, but she was just plain awful at cards, and Kanji would sometimes end up blundering his hands because of her mistakes, which, in turn, caused her to blunder, as well.
Even so, she didn’t have the heart to tell Kanji that in a game of Hearts, one wanted to pass the cards with the greatest face value to someone else, rather than give them the cards with the least value.
“Who has the two of clubs?” Rise asked.
“I do. Hold on, I need to arrange my hand…” Nanako stuck a tongue out the side of her mouth as she set her cards in order. Once everything was set, she put down the two of clubs down, and yet another game started.
Presently, the score went like this: Rise was leading with eleven points total. Kanji had twenty one points. Naoto had eighty-two, and Nanako had seventy-one.
Never mind competing with Nanako for the position of last. Naoto was just plain dead last. Had Kanji sensed that and she would be losing, and gave her an easy hand? Although her entire hand was full of relatively low-ranking cards. Good. Fewer chances of accumulating more points. Given by the lack of outcry from Rise about the quality of her hand, Naoto could only conclude that Rise and Nanako had relatively good hands, as well—which meant that Kanji was possibly losing on purpose. Later, she’d have to talk with him.
“Are you planning on staying the night, Nanako-chan?” Naoto asked.
“Can I?” she asked. “I don’t want to stay if it’ll be an inconvenience.”
“She can stay over at my place,” said Rise with a giggle. “I wouldn’t mind having her. The paparazzi won’t come near me as long as Chie-senpai’s out on the street.”
“Her shift ended during the afternoon today,” Naoto pointed out.
“Really?” And then, under her breath, she said, “Damn.”
“Dojima-san’s gone to investigate a murder in a neighboring town,” Naoto said. Should she break hearts? No, not yet. Better not take any risks. “Something about a copy-cat murder of the Inaba case back in 2011. I believe Souji-senpai’s already given permission for her to stay, and it’s not like we had any plans tonight.”
“’sides, you’re never an inconvenience,” Kanji pointed out. “Playin’ cards with you guys is great. I’m having a lot of fun.”
How fun was it to be losing so badly in the six tricks, Naoto wanted to ask, although she hadn’t really played much of a part in contributing to his losing hands.
“So why the impromptu visit?” Rise asked, which was just plain ironic, given that the reason Kanji and Naoto had canceled their night out was because Rise had dropped in during the afternoon to hide from the paparazzi. And then she said, “Oh, Nanako! Why did you break hearts?”
“Excuse me?” Naoto asked. Nanako, across from her, was wide-eyed and startled, and echoed Naoto’s question.
“Sorry,” she said. “Should I have not done that?”
“Once you puts the cards down, you can’t put ‘em back up,” Kanji said gruffly, but he was grinning like a goof. “C’mon, let’s break them hearts.”
“I broke up with Kyou-kun,” Nanako said.
There was an awkward silence. Kanji and Naoto stared at each other over their cards and were, evidently, having parallel struggles to find something to say without feeling awkward. Thankfully, Rise seemed to still have a few words in her.
“That’s too bad,” she said. She nudged Kanji on the side with her elbow, and he said, “Come over here” and squeezed Nanako’s shoulders. Rise put her cards face down and said to Naoto, “Is the tea in the same place as it was last time?”
“I’ll do it,” said Naoto. “This is my house, after all.”
“Well, I did ruin your date night,” said Rise. “I might as well make it up to you somehow.”
Naoto glanced behind her. Kanji mouthed, “I got a handle on this”, and Naoto, satisfied, followed Rise into the kitchen.
She had thought that Nanako looked a bit upset when she had arrived, and had confirmed that Nanako had been crying, but, because Nanako was making an effort to ignore it, actively avoided the subject for most of the night. Still, the probability of Nanako breaking up with Kyou Ogawa within the next three months was something around seventy-two percent. As part of a morbid intellectual exercise (and in part because Souji had been a bit too insistent on knowing the probability of Nanako being hurt), Naoto had drawn up a list of reasons why Nanako might break up with Kyou Ogawa. Number one on the list was the tennis team. The two of them were good friends, but the tennis team had blown a rift between the two. Naoto and Kanji had given some awkward tips on how to maintain long-term relationships (Rise was the one who was actually helpful in this regard), but the second Nanako’s team qualified for the inter-district tournament, Naoto anticipated the termination of their relationship within the month.
Now that it had actually happened, though, she felt like a jerk.
“That’s too bad, isn’t it?” Rise said. “I mean, I knew they didn’t have much chemistry, but I didn’t think she’d be so upset about breaking up with him. She told me that she ought to break up with Kyou-kun soon last month.”
“Did she?” Naoto catalogued this in her head, not so much as ‘evidence’ as it was ‘as a plea for Souji to not go and loom over Kyou Ogawa for the rest of the month’. “I can’t say it was unexpected. I heard that Kyou-kun was getting upset by how much time Nanako-chan was spending with the tennis team.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Rise asked, suspicious.
“I am hiring a high school student as a secretary right now,” Naoto said. Her cell went off, and Naoto answered it with a murmured, “Speak of the devil.”
Over the phone, her secretary cleared her throat and said, “Shirogane-san, I found the files you were looking for. Do you want me to bring them over now?”
On one hand, she was entertaining a guest. On the other, she did have deadlines, and Kanji wouldn’t hold it against her if she at least took a cursory look at the papers. “Bring them to my office, Asakura-san,” she said. “I’m entertaining a guest right now, so please, enter through the side door. Do you have the key?”
“Yes. I’ll see you then, Shirogane-san.”
Naoto hung up. Rise was pouting at her. “You’re still working?”
“I have to make a living,” Naoto said, defensively, although she was aware of how silly she sounded, standing in the Shirogane Manor and saying that. “And I’m not planning on looking at them now.” That was a lie, technically. One that Rise saw right through. Naoto tried to not look too stung, but suspected she mostly looked mildly constipated.
They returned to the parlor room with tea and cake. After they finished the cake, they completed the hand, and the game: Kanji shot the moon and won the game. After that, they moved onto Mahjong, because Naoto’s competitive streak was taking something of a beating. The Shirogane Manor might’ve been a giant, Western style house, but she had grown up playing Mahjong rather than cards, and she cleared the house in a matter of minutes. Things were going well, right up until Naoto went to refill the teapot with more hot water. When she returned, Asakura was in the parlor, and both Nanako and Asakura were visibly flustered.
“Shirogane-san,” she said. “Um, I was… looking for you.” Looking between Nanako and Naoto, she bowed and thrust the papers out to Naoto. “Here.”
“Thank you, Asakura-san,” said Naoto. “You may leave now.”
“Right. Goodbye, Shirogane-san, Tatsumi-san. Kujikawa-san. Nana… Dojima-san.”
Well. That had been unusually awkward. Naoto looked at the table, where her friends and Nanako were sitting, then at Asakura’s retreating back.
Then Rise said, “Oh.”
From time to time, Naoto felt almost insulted by Inaba’s smallness. A coincidence like this never would’ve happened in the city, but in Inaba everyone was connected to one another in small and inconvenient ways.
For example, to take the Inaba Serial Murderer and Kidnapping Case of 2011 (often shortened to ‘the April incident’). Yukiko Amagi had been one of the prime suspects for the murder of Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi for a time, on the sole basis of circumstantial evidence revolving around Yamano’s words to Yukiko’s mother, and her disappearance a few days after Konishi’s death.
Or to take the Tatsumi Textile’s Missing Socks case, which involved hunting down every single pet in Inaba back to their owners and asking them if they had seen any extra socks lying around, because there had been fur inside Kanji’s then empty sock drawer. The culprit had been the fox living at the shrine, and once Kanji saw the state of the socks, he knitted himself new ones and that had been that.
But for Nanako to fall in love with Naoto’s secretary—well, it was another case of small town interconnectivity syndrome. Kanji’s first instinct was to go and shake down Asakura, but Naoto had a good grasp on Asakura’s character, and was more inclined to seat Asakura down the next morning and talk things out with her. It wasn’t that Asakura was a bad person, and if there was one thing Naoto had learned from Yosuke over the years, it was that the knee-jerk reaction of most teenagers to homosexuality was, while painful, normal, and effort needed to be made on both sides to help mend the relationship.
Not that Yosuke had been doing much to mend things on that front. Yosuke had a remarkable ability to ignore his own issues by deflecting them with jokes that invariably ended with someone wanting to punch him in the face.
Speaking of Yosuke.
“Have you talked to Yosuke-senpai about this?” Rise asked. “Or with Souji-senpai?”
“I talked to both of them,” Nanako said. She smoothed out her dress. “And to Chie-san on the way back home from Junes. I know that I already told big bro, but I don’t want to talk to him, so I thought I’d be able to talk to Yosuke-san, but then I remembered… um, well, when I was ten. Remember when I asked you what it meant to be gay?”
It took Naoto a second to remember what exactly Nanako was talking about. Then she remembered. That had been the cause of the fight between Kanji and Yosuke, some years ago. Come to think of it, that had been around the same time when Nanako began going out with Kyou. Naoto had chalked Nanako’s questioning to normal, pre-teen inquisitiveness at the time, but in retrospect, it could have been an attempt to establish her “normalcy.”
Thank goodness that Adachi had been put away. Naoto didn’t want to think about the mess there would’ve been if Nanako had been thrown into the TV then.
“I told him Jun-san’s full name,” said Nanako. “And he froze up. And then I told big bro and… I don’t know. I don’t want to talk to either of them.”
“That was brave of you,” Rise said. “Really. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“Uh-huh,” Nanako said, clearly unconvinced.
“Hey,” said Kanji. “She’s serious. Takes a lot of guts to come out to your friends and family. Hell, I didn’t tell Ma for three years. Even though I knew she’d take it easy, I was too damn afraid that she’d think I was a freak or somethin’. If it weren’t for the shadow, I would’ve told her I liked mostly guys.”
“You were scared?”
“W-well,” Kanji said, drawing himself up, as though he was ready to declare that he hadn’t been. Then he deflated and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I was.”
“But I didn’t want to tell big bro,” Nanako said. “Is that normal?”
“Sure it is,” Kanji said. “It’s hard tellin’ anyone. ‘specially since not everyone’s gonna be acceptin’ of it. But Inaba’s a nice place. Not even the old ladies give much of a shit now.”
“Then why did Jun-senpai try to push me out of the tennis club?” Nanako asked. She pulled her knees up to her chest and furrowed her brow.
“Just give it time,” said Rise. “Give her a bit of space. You shouldn’t quit the tennis club or stop going to practice or avoid her, but you should show that you’re not going to be pushed around, and that you’re still Nanako Dojima, tennis champ. Okay?”
“On the other hand, you should go to talk to Yosuke-senpai immediately,” Rise said. “I’m sure he feels like crap.”
“We could do the talkin’ for you,” Kanji said, half as a joke and half as a threat. “’Course, he probably didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“I think I can talk to him by myself. Thanks for the offer.” She beamed at him, and Kanji rubbed the back of his head and said, “Naw, it’s no problem.” He looked to Naoto, and jerked his head to Nanako, as though to say, ‘c’mon, say something.’ But was there to say? She had never felt much wavering in her attraction to men, regardless of her conflicting gender identities. Besides, Rise was much better at comforting Nanako than Naoto was, and if Naoto told Nanako that she was planning on talking to Asakura, then Nanako might try to talk her out of it, and look at her until Naoto folded.
“Er,” she said. “Call us if you have any trouble with him. The house is always open to you, Nanako-chan.”
“Thank you, Naoto-san.”
“But tomorrow, you have to go back to your house for the night,” Naoto said. “Souji-senpai will want to talk to you, and you shouldn’t avoid him for too long. Understood?”
“Great,” Rise said. “Nanako-chan, let’s paint our nails. Kanji-kun, do you want to join us?”
“Hell no,” he said.
“Then shoo,” she said. “Naoto-kun? How about you?”
“I’ll pass,” she said, getting up with Kanji. “We’ll prepare the guest rooms for you two.”
“Mm,” Rise said. “Hmm, what color do you think would look best on you, Nana-chan, pale salmon rose or salmon pink?”
What was the difference, Naoto wanted to ask, but then they were out of the room and Kanji was kissing her, slow and hard.
“Been meaning to do that all night,” he said, nipping at her jaw. “Think we could sneak in a date while they’re busy with their nails?”
“Maybe in the kitchen,” she said. “We could do the dishes.”
He grinned crookedly. “How about we bake instead?” he said. “What’s the point in havin’ a dishwasher if you never use it?”
It wasn’t a dinner in the city and a musical, but it was still romantic, nonetheless.
Souji met Yosuke at almost exactly four-thirty in front of Daidara. Souji was checking out one of the katana, while Yosuke admired his friend’s form. Souji practiced kendo with a few members of the police department so he wouldn’t get too rusty. Yosuke wound up taking up judo, and had briefly considered archery, but the only archery range in town was at the high school, and he felt damn awkward, standing at his old high school like that.
“It’s too bad,” Souji said, sheathing the sword and handing it back to the owner of the shop. “I don’t think I can afford it right now.”
“Teacher’s salary, huh,” Yosuke said.
“Not only that, but the last time I was practicing with my shinai, I broke a light bulb.” He raised his arms up, and then mimed glass coming down on his head. “It’s a good thing I’m still living with Dojima-san, because otherwise I’d be living on instant ramen.”
“The student loans suck, don’t they?” Yosuke said. “Makes me glad Dad taught me himself.”
“Yes.” They left the store, and headed for Aiya’s. Souji requested a table off to the side, where no one could hear them, and Yosuke felt a bit stung. He had hoped Souji forgot about the talk, and that they’d be able to hang out like usual, but evidently not.
“First thing is first, Yosuke,” Souji said seriously. “I’m glad you were there for Nanako. You might think you screwed it up, but she appreciates that you listened to her yesterday. You handled yourself pretty well.”
“I know when I mess up, man,” Yosuke said, trying to hide behind the menu. “Chie said that she found Nanako-chan crying on her way back home.”
“Well, she’s under a lot of stress right now,” Souji said. “Her teacher talked to me during lunch break and asked me how things were going at home. It was pretty embarrassing for me. Yamazaki-sensei insinuated that Dojima-san and I weren’t good enough to watch out for Nanako’s well being.”
Ayaka Yamazaki. Friendly, but admittedly something of a bitch when she thought she had something to say. She had been rallying against Junes for years, although by now Junes and the shopping district had come to something of an agreement. Junes stocked items from the shopping district, and shared some of the profits with the original store owners, and sponsored the “shop local” movement. Business had been good for both areas for years.
“Don’t call her a bitch, Yosuke,” Souji warned lightly. “She might be outspoken, but she has good intentions.”
“She said that you can’t look out for your own sister,” said Yosuke. “I don’t get how you can be nice to everyone all the time.”
“I learned it from you,” Souji said.
“That’s putting on a mask for appearances,” Yosuke said. “You actually mean it.”
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, when Chie and Yukiko told us that they were living with one another a few years ago, you only stopped making jokes because Chie would’ve hit you.”
“Well, yeah. I wasn’t…” He sighed. “I’m not proud of myself, okay?”
“What would you have done differently?”
“Come on, partner.”
“I’m not trying to bully you,” he said. “But I do want you to talk to me. This has been hanging between us for years, and I don’t want it to destroy our friendship.”
“What the—why would it do anything like that?” Yosuke laughed, but it was forced. The waiter came, and they placed their orders.
Souji didn’t answer the question, but instead asked, “Why do you think it would destroy our friendship, Yosuke?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that even I’m human,” Souji said. “When you call people ‘homos’ or ‘fags’, that hurts me. And it’s like every time I bring anyone back home, you keep trying to drive them away, and that hurts, too. Do you know why I didn’t introduce my last girlfriend to you? Because every time I bring a girl to meet you, you tell them I’m actually gay. You know what Takeshi told me just before we broke up? He told me he couldn’t be with me if he had to compete with you for my attention every day.”
What the hell. Yosuke gripped the edge of his menu, but when it startled to crumple, he let it fall to the table. “Are you saying you think I’m gay?” he said.
“I’m only saying that I would like to be able to introduce my significant other to you without worrying that you’ll end up breaking us up,” Souji said. “That’s all.”
“No, you just said that Takeshi-san said I was competing with him,” Yosuke said. “I’m not like that, man, I’m really not.”
“That’s what he said, not me,” Souji said.
“And what would you say?” Yosuke said. “Don’t pull any punches.”
Souji frowned. He didn’t look happy. He looked, in fact, a little angry. Good. Yosuke wanted him to be angry. He was tired of always being the one to lose his cool.
“Don’t push me, Yosuke,” he said.
“Come on, partner,” he said. “We’re pals, right? Unless you want to be more than that—god, I just—I just want to get a straight answer out of you. Tell me what you think of me!”
“You really want to know?” Souji put the menu flat on the table, and leaned in, his jaw tight and eyes narrowed, ever-so-slightly. “I think you’re my best friend, Yosuke, who sometimes says the wrong thing because you’re uncomfortable with it. I think that even though you’re sensitive, you pretend to not be whenever something hits a little too close. I appreciate and value your input and presence and everything you’ve done for me over the last nine years. You’re more than just a friend to me: you’re like my family. And I think you’ve been attracted to me for years, but haven’t been able to come out and say it. That’s what I think.”
“You’re crazy,” Yosuke said. Him, be attracted to Souji? No way. “Quit joking around.”
“I’m not joking,” he said. “That’s what I really think. I think Takeshi was right when he said he was competing with you for my attention. I think that my girlfriends were right when they said you were jealous of them. And I’m going to leave it at that.”
“Look, man, just because you want to have sex with me doesn’t mean—”
“I don’t want to have sex with you,” Souji said. “That’s not what I want.”
“Then what do you want?” Yosuke shouted. Thank God the store was nearly empty at this hour, because he was vaguely aware that he was making a scene.
“I want to be your friend,” Souji said simply, but that wasn’t true, was it? God, Souji thought Yosuke was attracted to him—like hell he was. God, had Souji been looking at him?
No. Yosuke forced himself to calm down. Souji wasn’t like that. Souji was… Souji was normal. His best friend. But Yosuke couldn’t let the topic die, he couldn’t.
“God, Souji, I knew you were a psych major, but I never thought you’d try to pull that kind of bullshit on me.”
“I’m not talking to you as a guidance counselor,” said Souji. “I’m talking to you as my friend, partner.”
“You just said I was gay. What’s so friendly about that?”
“I never said you were,” Souji replied. “It’s possible to be attracted to a man and still be straight. Sometimes certain people of the same sex attract you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And right now, I’m being your friend by being honest with you. You asked what I really thought, and I told you.”
“You’re wrong,” Yosuke said.
“You’re—god, you’re so wrong.”
“Am I wrong, or is my sexuality wrong?”
“Don’t do this, man,” Yosuke said.
“I want you to be honest with me, too,” Souji said. “I can’t keep giving into you, Yosuke.”
“Don’t make yourself look like a victim,” Yosuke said. “I’m not—I’m not like that, I’m just not. And it’s not wrong if I think that you’re getting things completely messed up, that’s just—god. I hate it when you do this to me.”
“Let’s drop this.”
“All right, Yosuke.”
“I can’t talk about this.”
“Yes,” Souji murmured. “You’ve made that clear, at least.”
Yosuke pretended he didn’t hear it, and the dinner went on. They left Aiya’s in silence, and did not speak to each other as they headed to their respective homes alone.