“Thank you. Your order will come up right over there.” Pointing down towards the other end of the counter Hajime Hinata pushed the register closed, finishing out another transaction. The mall Starbucks that he worked at, while not quite as crowded as the ones located closer to office buildings and the general downtown area probably were around this time of day, still tended to get pretty busy during the lunch rush. He was finally getting a break in the line for the first time in the past twenty minutes, and was debating whether he had time to clock out for his own lunch break now, when he heard-
“Hajime-chan!!” Even before looking up he knew who was there based off the volume of the voice alone, and looking towards the door confirmed his suspicions. Bouncing into the store he saw the familiar multi-colored hair of one Ibuki Mioda, decked out in skeleton tights and a ripped up band t-shirt, with her Hot Topic name tag still swinging back and forth from around her neck.
“Hey, Ibuki,” Hajime replied, putting a warm (if not somewhat exhausted) smile on his face. Far more genuine than the practiced yet hollow retail smile that he wore in front of customers, at the very least. “Are you on your lunch break too?”
“That’s right! Ibuki has… Twenty-six more minutes!” she declared, stealing a quick glance at her phone. “So naturally she came over here as fast as she could!”
“Four minutes to get here is as fast as you could? Isn’t your store right around the corner?”
“Well I would’ve been faster, but I tripped over a mannequin on the way out! So then I had to stop to apologize to mannequin-chan and set him back up!”
“But Ibuki’s here now! That’s all that matters!”
“You’re being loud again.” Ibuki was always being loud, of course, but it was even worse when she had just come from inside Hot Topic. Hajime blamed the fact that the store always had the music cranked up so damn loud (and the fact that the music they played there was much more aggressive than the top-40 pop music that came on over the speakers inside Starbucks).
“Eh??” Ibuki blurted back, looking genuinely shocked before leaning in closer towards Hajime, dropping her voice down lower. “Sorry! Ibuki’s using her indoor voice now!” she whispered.
“Good. That’s better.”
“Anyway!” Ibuki went on, looking back up towards the menu hanging overhead. “Can I get a-”
“You know I’m not serving you coffee, Ibuki,” Hajime interrupted, causing Ibuki to gasp sharply and clutch a hand to her chest.
“But Hajime-chan!” she protested. “How else will Ibuki get through the rest of her shift??”
“I think you’ll manage just fine,” Hajime replied, before moving over towards the bakery case. “You can have anything from in here.” Baked goods, while still potentially containing dangerous amounts of sugar, were at least free of caffeine. That would keep everyone safe from the most dangerous outcome. And, fortunately, it seemed that that promise had been enough to make Ibuki forget all about the coffee that she was being denied.
“Oh, oh! In that case, Ibuki wants… This cupcake!” she decided, pushing her finger right up against the glass.
“You know a cupcake isn’t a real lunch,” Hajime pointed out, although he was already sliding the case open from the back and reaching inside to get it all the same.
“But you said I could have anything in the case!”
“I know, I know,” he replied. Pulling the cupcake out from inside he glanced around for a moment, making sure that he wasn’t being watched, before holding it out towards Ibuki over the top of the case. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“Hajime-chan is sticking it to the man!” Ibuki gasped, quickly reaching out to snatch the cupcake away. She followed that up with a conspiratorial glance around the inside of the Starbucks- one that made it that much more obvious that they were doing something illegal. “Don’t worry!” she insisted, dropping her voice down to a (still very loud) whisper once again. “Your secret is safe with me. Ibuki and Hajime-chan, partners in crime!”
“Don’t say crime like that,” Hajime replied. Rolling his eyes he walked back over towards the register, starting to tap away at the screen. “Give me two minutes to clock out on my own break and I’ll meet you outside, alright? We can go somewhere else until you have to be back.”
“You don’t wanna stay here?”
“If I have to spend any longer around the smell of coffee I think I’ll lose my mind.”
“Then we’ll break out of here! I’ll see you on the other side, Hajime-chan!” With that Ibuki gave one more look around the store, as if there would be someone who would actually try to stop her from leaving, before booking it towards the door with her ill-gotten cupcake in hand. Hajime rolled his eyes as he watched the scene unfold, although he couldn’t stop himself from smiling at it all the same. At least having a friend like Ibuki around made this job just a little bit less soul-crushing.
“Since when have you even worn this crap? Do you really think covering up your pig-barf face with a bunch of makeup will be enough to make you look pretty?”
“I- I don’t wear it m-myself, I just-’
“So you’re selling a product you don’t even use? What if someone has a question, huh? How are you gonna be able to answer it?”
“Just b-because I don’t use it myself doesn’t mean I c-can’t-”
“Are you just lying to people? Are you tricking them into buying things they don’t even need like some kind of corporate whore?”
“N-No! That’s n-not-!”
“Enoshima-san, it seems that one of your employees is being bullied by a small child,” Celestia Ludenberg chided, resting her chin on her folded hands as she watched the scene playing out at the other end of the Sephora.
“Well, if it keeps her busy,” Junko replied, shrugging her shoulders up casually, and causing Celeste to raise an eyebrow in response.
“You are not concerned about this?”
“As long as standing there getting picked on keeps Tsumiki-chan from stumbling all over the place and knocking shit over I’m fine with it,” Junko insisted. “Besides,” she added on, grin stretching over her face as she looked towards Celeste, “that means she’s gonna be distracted for the next while. So we can do whatever we want.” Celeste had turned her attention back towards Mikan and Hiyoko at this point, although when she heard that comment she glanced at Junko out of the corner of her eye once more.
“Are you being serious right now?”
“You should know that I would never joke about something like that, Celes-san.”
“And if a customer comes in?” Celeste asked. “You would trust the store to Tsumiki-san in our absence?”
“Sure. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I mean, she might start crying or something if they raise their voice at her,” Junko admitted. “But she’ll probably be fine on her own.”
“I do not understand why you continue to employ her.” Mikan was, in Celeste’s opinion, the worst employee imaginable. She was constantly tripping around the store, knocking over displays, damaging products, and growing flustered whenever a customer tried to speak to her. But, as the manager, Junko was the one who had the final say in everything, and all Celeste could do was voice her objections and then watch as they got completely ignored. Still, the only thing Mikan had going for her was the fact that she actually showed up on time more often than Junko herself did, as far as Celeste was concerned. That, and-
“It’s not like she’s not a bad employee,” Junko tried to argue. “She fucks up a lot, sure, but she’s got heart . And sales skills are something that can be taught. But heart isn’t.”
“You simply keep her around because you enjoy the attention you get from the fact that she is obsessed with you.”
“Is she?” Junko replied, just barely managing to keep the amused smile off her face. “I hadn’t even noticed.” Celeste, however, seemed far less amused, eyebrow twitching slightly at the coy response.
“You are not a good liar, Enoshima-san.”
“I am when I wanna be!” Junko retorted, before swinging around from behind the counter and starting to walk towards the storeroom at the back of the store. “Anyway, meet me in the back in five minutes. Do it,” she said, jabbing a bright red finger through the air in Celeste’s direction. “Or I’m gonna fire you.”
“You should not joke about something like that,” Celeste hummed in response. “I could easily sue you for sexual harassment.”
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t. You like me too much!” Junko insisted, flashing a grin at her employee. A grin that was met by an entirely deadpan stare from Celeste, whose eyes had suddenly opened up eerily wide.
“In the weighing of yourself versus money, you seem to have vastly overestimated your own worth.”
“Five minutes,” Junko repeated, stretching out all five fingers on one hand to emphasize that point. “Don’t be late.” From there she twirled around on her heels, marching back towards the storeroom and disappearing from view. Celeste let out a small, exasperated sigh before turning her attention back towards Mikan, folding her hands and resting her chin on them once more as she stared at her fellow employee, whose hair was now being yanked and tugged at by the small gremlin that had invaded their store.
“Pig-faced whore!” she heard Hiyoko shout from across the room.
“Pig-faced whore indeed,” Celeste repeated under her breath.
Fingers brushed along the spines of books as Touko Fukawa walked down one of the aisles of the Barnes & Noble, carefully checking each title to make sure that everything was in order. This was the part of her job that she liked: it was peaceful, quiet, isolated. She could hide between the shelves, and nobody else would find her. It was just her, and the books, and nobody else to come bother her or-
“Fukawa-san, there you are!” Touko very nearly took out the entire shelf with how much she jumped when she heard that, gritting her teeth and tensing up her body. As she turned around she saw the obnoxiously cheerful face of that same girl who came through here so damn often, standing there with a bright smile on her face and her hands behind her back.
“Y-You again?” Touko grumbled, glaring at Komaru from behind her glasses. “Are you just gonna come loiter here every single day? Don’t you have anything b-better to do?”
“Not really!” Komaru replied. “Besides, I kind of like it here. It’s peaceful, you know?”
“It’s a lot more peaceful when you’re not coming by to b-bother me!” Touko insisted. “What do you look so happy about anyway? Why do you have that s-stupid grin on your face?”
“Well,” Komaru said, rocking on her heels and keeping her hands behind her back as she spoke. “You know how you’re always giving me a hard time for coming in here and not actually buying anything?”
“Because that’s t-textbook loitering! And it’s against the store rules!”
“Right! Which is whyyyyyyyyyyy,” she said, building up a dramatic flourish before pulling the manga that she had picked out from behind her back, holding it up in front of her so that Touko could see. “I’m finally gonna get something. It’s-”
“NO!” Before Komaru could even finish explaining she found the book knocked out of her hands by a particularly forceful slap by Touko, who then stomped it into the ground a few times for good measure. “If you’re finally gonna b-buy something buy a real book!”
“That is a real book!”
“It’s a picture book! It’s for d-dumb children!”
“Well if your tastes are so much better then recommend something to me!” Komaru huffed. She started to bend down to pick the manga up off the floor, only to see Touko’s foot fly out and stomp on it once again. If she didn’t want to lose some fingers, it seemed like it was probably better to just leave it there.
“Why w-would I bother wasting my time on something like that in the f-first place?” Touko shot back. “It’s not like you would actually r-read it.”
“Of course I would!” Komaru protested. “If you suggested something to me I would absolutely take the time to read it!”
“Sure you w-would! I bet you just wanna know what kind of b-books I read so you can make fun of me for them! You probably just wanna p-pretend to be nice so you can learn all about me and then m-mock me for it!” Touko was jabbing her finger through the air wildly at this point, punctuating each accusation against Komaru by pointing at her aggressively. “Just admit you s-secretly hate me!”
“Fukawa-san!” Komaru tried to argue, although it seemed like by this point anything that she had to say was falling on deaf ears. “I would never do something like that to you! I just want something good to read, and I trust your recommendations, honest!”
“Yeah right!” Touko spat back, now pointing her finger down towards the end of the aisle. “If you’re just gonna m-make fun of me then get out of here!” Komaru let out a long sigh at that point, realizing that anything else she could say now was probably just a waste of both of their time. She knew how Touko could be when she got into a mood like this.
“Alright. I’ll uh… I’ll see you later, okay?” she said, offering one more smile before she turned and started to walk away.
“Hah! Don’t c-count on it!” Touko called after her.
Komaru groaned out as her head hit the table, not even caring about the fact that she would probably draw some attention to herself by doing so. She was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe- or, more specifically, the second of the two different Starbucks located within the mall- decompressing from the encounter that she had just had with Fukawa.
“You seem like you’ve had quite the day.” Komaru didn’t even have to look up to know that that voice belonged to the lilac-haired barista who, with how often Komaru ended up here in similar states of exasperation, knew of her problems quite well by this point.
“You could say that,” Komaru grumbled out, still keeping her head down against the table.
“Is it safe for me to assume this pertains to Fukawa-san again?” Kyouko asked.
“Yeah… You work with her all the time, right? How do you handle her?”
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but I wouldn’t really say that I work with her,” Kyouko replied. “She works out in the store and I’m here in the cafe. We don’t actually see each other all that much.”
“Figures,” Komaru groaned. “Guess I’m on my own on this one.” She was interrupted a moment later by the sound of something tapping against the table that she was resting on, and she lifted her head to find one of Kyouko’s gloved hands setting a cup down in front of her, causing Komaru’s own brow to crease in confusion. “Huh? I didn’t order anything.”
“I know. But you seem like you could use this.” Hearing that was at least enough to cheer Komaru up a little bit, and a smile crossed her face as she reached out towards the coffee.
“Aww… Thanks,” Komaru said, wrapping her hands around the drink.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kyouko replied, waving her hand dismissively as she walked back towards the counter. “Tell your brother he owes me three hundred yen.”
At the end of one of the branches of the mall, there were two stores, sitting directly across from each other: an Olympia Sports, and a City Sports. Nobody was quite sure why two stores that were in such direct competition with each other were positioned right next to each other like that. The only thing that anyone did know for sure was that it was a miracle nobody had ended up dead in the war zone that existed between the two of them.
“KUWATA! How’re those shelves coming along??” Leon winced behind the stack of boxes that he was carrying towards one of the City Sports shelves as he heard Nekomaru calling out to him, sighing to himself before forcing a grin onto his face and peering around from the edge of his tower.
“Great! I’m almost finished with it!”
“Gahaha! That’s what I like to hear!” Nekomaru shouted back. His voice was loud enough to billow throughout the entire store, causing quite a few customers to turn and stare at him as he spoke. “Hoshi!” he then called out. “Where did you run off to this time?”
“Right here, boss.” The deep voice came from between two of the shelves, followed, a moment later, by the surprisingly diminutive stature of Ryoma Hoshi, hands shoved down inside his pockets. “You need something?”
“Damn right I do! Look at the windows!” Nekomaru replied, pointing over towards the wide glass panes that made up the front of the store. “They’re covered in smudges! What kind of message is that gonna send to people about the kind of business we’re running here?”
“Got it.” Man of few words that he was, Ryoma said nothing else as he flashed Nekomaru a quick thumbs up, going over towards the supply closet to grab the glass cleaner and cloth. Leon watched for a few seconds, making sure that Nekomaru had turned his attention onto something else before sliding over next to Ryoma.
“Hey,” he whispered out, keeping his voice down. “Why’re you always sucking up to him like that?” Ryoma didn’t even bother to look at Leon as he replied, instead grabbing his cleaning supplies and carrying them over towards the windows in question.
“Doing what he asks me to is sucking up to him?”
“Well, not exactly,” Leon said, chasing along behind Ryoma with his tower of boxes still in tow. “But you’re already a good employee, y’know? And he’s always going and busting your ass anyway.”
“He’s my manager,” Ryoma replied bluntly. “It’s his job to bust my ass.”
“Yeah, but- I dunno, I feel like you’re kinda missing the point here, man.” Leon groaned at that point, slumping up against the glass- only to find an elbow in his side a moment later. “Hey, what the hell??” Leon looked down then, finding himself staring straight down the nozzle of the glass cleaner spray bottle.
“Out of the way,” Ryoma grunted.
“Alright, alright, jeez,” Leon grumbled out, standing back up straight. “Chill, dude.”
“Look at them over there, slacking off while they’re supposed to be working. What a bunch of lazy degenerates.” Tenko Chabashira watched through the glass from the Olympia Sports on the other side of the mall’s walkway, eyes narrowing as she saw the way Leon leaned up against the walls. She was the newest of the four employees at the store, although it hadn’t taken her long at all to get caught up in the fierce rivalry between the two of them. When she had initially come to the mall, she actually hadn’t been sure about which store she wanted to apply to. Upon seeing Nekomaru, Leon, and Ryoma all working at one store, though, while Akane, Aoi, and Sakura worked at the other, her decision had pretty much been made for her.
“Well that’s a good thing for us!” Akane replied, clapping a hand onto Tenko’s back as she stared through the glass alongside her. “If they’re slackin’ off over there that’s just gonna make it that much easier for us to kick their butts!” Akane had actually worked at City Sports under Nekomaru not that long ago, until Olympia Sports had posted a position for a manager as well. And he had been happy to recommend her for the job, on one condition: if she slacked off and let the store fail because he wasn’t around to keep an eye on her, he promised to personally come over there and put her through a wall. And thus, a beautiful rivalry between the two stores had flourished.
“But there’s no pride in beating someone who isn’t even trying!” Tenko protested. “It’s not even a contest!”
“Good point!” Akane agreed. Of course, she also had a solution for this. Walking over towards the entrance to the store, she cupped her hands around her mouth, shouting across the walkway at the top of her lungs. “HEY KUWATA! IF YOU KEEP SLACKIN’ OFF LIKE THAT I’M GONNA RAT YOU OUT TO OLD MAN NIDAI!” Leon jumped up when he heard someone shouting his name like that, shooting a glare at Akane before flipping her off through the window and heading back into the depths of his store.
“Pah! How dare he??” Tenko huffed. “If a degenerate like him disrespects you like that it should be grounds for snapping his fingers.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Akane replied. “I mean, there wouldn’t be any pride in beatin’ someone who’s got a bunch of broken fingers either, right?”
“Well… I guess. But still!”
“It’s nothin’ to worry about,” she insisted, pounding her fist into her palm. “After all, they’re gonna need any advantage they can get if they wanna stand a chance against us!” From across the walkway Nekomaru watched their conversation, arms crossed over his chest. They both spoke loudly enough that he could hear their voices carrying across the way, and Akane’s words brought a grin to his face.
“Damn right, Owari,” he chuckled under his breath. “We sure as hell are.”
“So I just uh… Put it through the computer like this?”
“Yeah! You got it buddy!” As Shuichi Saihara’s fingers tapped against the touchscreen of the McDonald’s register in front of him he was interrupted by an arm clapping down onto his shoulder, jostling him around a bit as he practiced ringing up an order. Kaito Momota stood beside him, grinning as he watched the new hire. “See? You’re already starting to get the hang of it!”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Shuichi chuckled back. “It’s not as complicated as I thought it would be.”
“Nothing’s ever as complicated as you think it’s gonna be! The only reason anyone ever thinks anything is gonna be too complicated is because they don’t believe in themselves!”
“Or because things actually are that complicated.” The third voice came from behind them, within the kitchen (if it could even be called that) of the little food court restaurant, and belonged to the second of the two friends that Kaito had somehow talked into coming to work with him. “I don’t think anything about working here could be that complicated, though…”
“Hey, don’t talk that way Harumaki!” Kaito cut in, turning his attention away from Shuichi and over towards Maki Harukawa instead. “Just because it’s a fast food job doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be easy!”
“It’s reheating chicken nuggets and frozen hamburgers. I don’t think I could find a way to screw this up if I wanted to.” Maki barely had the chance to finish saying that, though, before she found Katio’s arm coming down around her own shoulder instead. She nearly jumped out of her skin at that point, shooting him a quick glare before glancing off to the side and huffing softly as her hands moved to play with her hair, almost out of instinct. “Don’t sneak up on me like that,” she muttered, as if Kaito could ever really sneak up on anyone with how loud he always was.
“That’s what you’re saying now,” he replied. “But if you end up burning yourself on a grill top or a deep fryer you’re gonna wish you paid more attention during your training!”
“That won’t happen.”
“It could! Besides, we’ve got all sorts of crazy strict rules about food safety and stuff,” Kaito added on. “If we’re not careful we’ll have the health department barking up our asses in no time!”
“Is that… Even a phrase?” Shuichi asked.
“It is now! Anyway!” Kaito said, pulling back from Maki’s shoulder just so that he could clap his hands together loudly enough to ring through the better part of the food court. “I didn’t bring you in here because this is the sort of job where you can slack off! I brought you two here because I believe in you! And I know that you’re gonna work hard, and that’ll make me look even better for bringing you two in here in the first place. Just like a couple of sidekicks should!” he concluded, flashing a thumbs up and a massive grin towards his two friends.
“So I get paid minimum wage and I get to let you take all the credit for my work?” Maki replied. “I could just get a job somewhere else, you know.”
“Ah, but then the three of us wouldn’t all be working together,” Shuichi interrupted, offering Maki a smile that, while genuine, was far less exaggerated than the grins that Kaito tended to wear. In conversations between the three of them, he often found himself playing this role. Kaito’s boundless enthusiasm and optimism and Maki’s much more grounded worldview didn’t always mesh with each other as well as they could, and Shuichi frequently took it upon himself to mediate. If it weren’t for his presence, he had a feeling that one of Kaito’s attempts to forcefully pat Maki on the back would’ve ended with a broken wrist by now.
“See? Saihara gets it! He understands what being a sidekick is all about!”
“Well, I don’t know if I would call myself your sidekick,” Shuichi interrupted. “I mean, it’s not like you’re my boss or anything. We’re all at the same level.”
“Eh??” Kaito blurted out, and for a moment he looked genuinely shocked and offended that Shuichi would object to the label that he had tried to give him. It never took him long to bounce back, though, and soon enough he was grinning all over again. “Well, maybe so!” he admitted. “But I’ve been working here longer than both of you put together! So until you’ve learned all the ropes, you’re still my sidekicks!” he insisted.
“I want someone else to train me,” Maki grumbled.
“No can do, Harumaki! You’re stuck with me!” A moment after Kaito said that his eyes darted back to the counter, noticing that a person was approaching them. “Hey, looks like we’ve got a customer! Are you two ready?”
“Are you asking me if I’m ready to do my job?”
“Sure am! Saihara, you think you’ve got the register down?”
“I think so, yeah,” Shuichi replied.
“Perfect! You get that and Harumaki gets the grill!” With that Kaito reached out across the somewhat cramped space, clapping one hand onto each of his friends’ backs. “I’m counting on you two!”
“And what are you gonna do?” Maki asked.
"Watch you guys, obviously!” Kaito replied. “Make me proud, sidekicks!”
“Sonia-chan! Sonia-chaaaan! Ibuki found a shirt for you!” Sonia herself was halfway through the process of rearranging one of the displays that sat near the front of the Hot Topic, although she turned away from that task when she heard her coworker calling out to her. She was greeted by the sight of Ibuki standing there, rocking back and forth on her heels eagerly while holding something behind her back. Presumably the shirt that had just been mentioned, although with Ibuki, not even that was a guarantee.
“A shirt for me?” Sonia replied looking down at her own outfit with a somewhat perplexed expression on her face. “But… I am already wearing a shirt, Mioda-san.”
“Yeah, but Ibuki was looking at all the new shirts that we just got in and she saw this one and she thought that Sonia-chan would like it!” Just like that Ibuki was speaking a mile a minute again, although it didn’t really seem like Sonia minded all that much. “Are you ready? Ready ready ready?”
“Ah, of course!” Sonia replied, clapping her hands together excitedly. “Let me see!”
“Drumroll please!” Sonia was quick to comply with that request as well, turning and rapidly tapping her fingers against the metal shelf that she had just been stocking. When she had first come here she hadn’t actually known what a drumroll was, but this exact moment had played out so many times before that she had long since learned. And she was always happy to give Ibuki those drumrolls whenever she was asked for one.
“Aaaand… Ta-da!” With a great deal of showmanship and flourish Ibuki pulled the shirt that she was holding out from behind her back, twirling it around like a matador spinning a cape a couple of times before actually holding it up so that Sonia could see. It was a light pink shirt, decorated with sparkles and a giant cartoon rainbow on the front. And then, going right across the rainbow in big purple font, the words “death metal” were written.
“Ah! I love it!” Sonia exclaimed, her eyes lighting up the moment that she saw it. Sonia had always been a little bit of an oddball when it came to fashion- her current outfit was proof enough of that. Black tights, a black tank top with skulls and bones all over it (that she had, incidentally, bought from the very store that she worked at), and then, to round the look off, colorful flowers in her hair. And in that regard, the t-shirt matched her sense of style perfectly.
“See? Ibuki knew that you would like it, see see see! See see see, a sailor went to sea sea sea to see what he could see see see!” By that point Ibuki had lost Sonia entirely, but the blonde was so enamored by the t-shirt itself that it didn’t really matter to her anyway.
“How many of these did we just get in, Mioda-san?” Sonia asked.
“Eh? Like, lots of them!” Ibuki replied. “Lots and lots and lots! At least a dozen, probably a lot more!” Ibuki was still bouncing up and down with excitement and energy, although when she noticed that Sonia didn’t immediately respond, and was still staring at the shirt, she tilted her head in curiosity. “Are you thinking about buying one, Sonia-chan?”
“I am considering it, yes!” Sonia reached out to take the shirt from Ibuki after saying that, turning it around so that it faced the other girl and holding it up in front of her torso. “How do you think that it would look?”
“I love it! Love love love it!” Ibuki replied. And then, immediately after, she gasped loudly, an idea popping into her head. “Sonia-chan! Ibuki’s been struck by a moment of brilliance!” she so modestly said. “We should both get one, and then we can be matching! Matching t-shirt buddies!”
“That would be wonderful!” Sonia agreed. “We should most certainly do that!”
“Then I’ll be right back! I gotta go get one out of the boxes so I can buy it! Wait for me here, Sonia-chan!” And then, just like that, Ibuki was off to the races again. She twirled around on her heels to make her grand escape, and narrowly manage to avoid knocking over the display that was set up right behind her before she started bolting towards the back office where the extra stock was being kept. Sonia, now left holding the t-shirt that Ibuki had picked out for her, was simply left watching and laughing softly as her coworker disappear. Glancing down at the tag on the shirt in question, she noticed that Ibuki had even managed to pick out the right size for her before bringing it out here. Sonia was impressed that Ibuki had even remembered a detail like that.
Happy birthday Ibooki live your gay princess dreams
Celeste looked into the small compact mirror that she had grabbed off of the shelf, carefully attempting to reapply her makeup in the relatively dim light of the store room at the back of the Sephora. For the most part it hadn’t gotten that messed up, although her lipstick was a bit smeared around at the moment. She certainly couldn’t go back onto the floor looking like that. Behind her, Junko was redoing her shirt one button at a time, making surprisingly quick work of it considering how long her nails were.
“Might wanna make sure your neck is covered up too,” Junko teased, walking up behind Celeste after she was finished with her own clothing and peering down into the mirror over her employee’s shoulder. “I think I left a couple of marks there.”
“I have already taken care of them,” Celeste replied, tilting her own neck a bit so that Junko could see that she had, in fact, already masked the various hickeys and bitemarks with a concealer that somehow managed to match her incredibly pale skin tone. “Must you be such a sloppy kisser, though?”
“You know I just can’t contain myself when I’m around you.” As she said that Junko pushed herself right up against Celeste’s back, leaning in right next to her ear and dropping her voice down to a sultry whisper. Celeste, however, was quick to dismiss it, snapping her compact closed as she finished touching up her makeup.
“Attempting to seduce me immediately after we have performed the act is a waste of your time, Enoshima-san.”
“Immediately after we have performed the act,” Junko repeated, tone stiff and clearly meant to be mocking. “Is saying that we fucked too crude for someone as prim and proper as you?”
“I would not debase myself by resorting to such vulgarity.”
“But you would debase yourself by going at it in the storeroom with your manager in the first place,” Junko said, rolling her eyes as she pulled away from Celeste. “Seems a little hypocritical. Speaking of which!” she added on, snapping her fingers. “You remembered to clock out before coming back here, right?”
“You should already know that I did no such thing.”
“Celes-chaaaan,” Junko chided, wagging a finger scoldingly. “You know that if you don’t clock out first then I’m paying you to have sex with me. And that makes you ,” she said, poking a (quickly swatted away) finger against Celeste’s cheek, “a hooker.”
“I don’t believe it counts as being a prostitute-”
“-if you are not paying me out of your own pocket.”
“And how do you know I’m not?” Junko asked, starting to move back towards the door. “How do you know I’m not secretly the CEO of this entire company?”
“I highly doubt that,” Celeste replied. “Although, to your credit, I do know very little about your personal life. If you truly were a CEO I doubt that I would even know that much.”
“See? I’m a mystery that you’re never gonna figure out.” Junko flashed Celeste a grin once she said that, giving her outfit one last once over before moving towards the storeroom door. Celeste was momentarily silent as she watched Junko begin to leave, although as her manager’s hand found the doorknob she spoke out just a bit more abruptly than she normally would.
“Should I consider that to be a challenge? You may pride yourself on secrecy, but I am sure that if I begin looking I could find whatever it is that you attempt to keep hidden.” Junko’s hand came to rest on the doorknob when she heard those words, her return to the store that she was supposed to be watching over at least momentarily delayed. For a second or two she just stayed as she was, almost as if she had frozen in place, and then she looked back over towards Celeste, wearing a surprisingly serious expression on her face.
“You shouldn’t go prying too deeply,” she replied. “There’s a reason that I keep my personal life and my professional life away from each other.” Now it was Celeste’s turn to go stiff, and despite the normally immaculate mask that she wore, she couldn’t stop her eyebrow from twitching ever so slightly as she began to speak.
“Do you, now?” Celeste asked, hands folded neatly in front of her waist as she spoke. “These on the clock lovers’ trysts with one of your own employees in the back room of your own store certainly could have had me fooled. As could your blatant flirtations with Tsumiki-san. So tell me, Enoshima-san, if your life truly is so neatly compartmentalized, which side of the personal-professional divide do these fall on?”
“Well,” Junko answered, already opening up the door to the rest of the store and starting to step through it. “I guess they have to be professional. Because they’re definitely nothing personal. Don’t spend too long in here, Celes-chan.” With that she disappeared through the door completely, allowing it to swing shut behind her once she vanished from view. Celeste’s nostrils flared out at that point, as she made less of an attempt to hide her irritation now that Junko was gone. Turning her back to the door she grabbed onto the first thing that she could find, digging her nails into the unopened shipment of eyeshadow pallets that sat on the shelf near her. At this rate, this job was going to kill her.
“I wish we had a bigger classical selection,” Kaede Akamatsu sighed. Her fingers were rifling through the assortment of albums that were crammed into the music bins of the FYE, stocking a handful of new CDs that they had just gotten in. Right behind her stood Sayaka Maizono, facing the opposite bin and doing the same thing. At her coworker’s complaint, she stifled a small laugh.
“I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that people tend to come in here for, Akamatsu-san,” she replied.
“But that’s only because we don’t stock any! How are people supposed to know that they want something if we don’t even offer it to them?” To prove her point she reached out towards one of the few classical albums that they did actually have, picking it up and taking a look. “We have like… Two Mozart collections and a little bit of Beethoven and that’s it. This is barely anything. But meanwhile we’ve got every single pop and rock and electronic album that’s come out in the past five years.”
“Because that’s what sells,” Sayaka pointed out. Her own tastes in music leaned pretty heavily into pop, although they were still widespread and varied enough that she could understand where Kaede’s frustrations were coming from.
“I know that,” Kaede groaned out, flopping forward and burying her face into the stack of CDs in front of her (the sharp plastic corners actually sort of hurt, but she allowed herself to put up with it for the sake of her theatrics). “I just feel like we could be a little bit better about offering some variety.”
“All of the music that we sell here sucks. But your suggestion isn’t gonna make it any better.” Kaede and Sayaka both found their attention called away by the voice of their third coworker, and they looked down the aisle to see the shortest member of their staff approaching them, blonde pigtails bobbing on top of her head with each step that she took. “Pop music and classical music both suck,” Hiyoko went on. “They’re both stupid mainstream crap.”
“Oh yeah?” Kaede asked, lifting herself back up from the bin to look over towards Hiyoko. “Then what sort of music do you like listening to, Saionji-san?”
“Death metal, for a start.” Kaede was about to laugh when she heard that, although if the vicious glare that she got a moment later was any indication, it seemed that Hiyoko might have actually been serious about that.
“You know that we have an entire metal row over in the rock section, right?” Sayaka chimed in, pointing towards the edge of the store where that music was stocked. Unfortunately, though, that just seemed to earn her Hiyoko’s ire as well. Most things did.
“All of that stuff is garbage !” Hiyoko insisted. “It’s just a bunch of glam and speed metal that’s an insult to the genre. And the little bit of actual death metal that we do have is still trash!” she huffed. “The only good death metal that’s ever been written comes from Germany, and we don’t have any of that.” Sayaka looked like she was in shock by this point, still not able to tell if Hiyoko was being serious or if this was all just a very elaborate joke, but to Kaede’s credit, she at least tried to keep the conversation going.
“Well, what other sorts of stuff do you listen to?” she asked. “You’ve gotta be into more than just one genre, right? So maybe we have something else that you’d enjoy.”
“You’re saying that like I haven’t worked here just as long as you have,” Hiyoko retorted, putting her hands at her hips and leaning in towards Kaede a bit. “I’ve already looked at everything that we sell here and it’s all trash. No death metal, no nightcore, no neurofunk, no turbofolk. It’s all just mainstream crap!”
“Are… Are those even real genres?” Sayaka piped up.
“Of course they are!” Hiyoko snapped back, shooting another glare at the blue-haired girl. “But of course you’ve never heard of any of them, because you’re just some poser who’s only pretending to like good music while you listen to the same boring old processed top-20 garbage again and again.”
“Just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it’s bad!” Sayaka retorted, returning Hiyoko’s glare. She opened her mouth to say something else, although before she had the chance to do so Kaede was coming between them, diffusing the situation before it got any farther.
“Well, I’ll admit that I’ve never heard of most of that. But that just means it’s something new to check out! Maybe you could show some to me sometime, Saionji-san,” she suggested.
“Yeah right,” Hiyoko scoffed, quick to dismiss the idea. “Why would I waste my time doing something like that? You’d probably just make fun of it all anyway.”
“I would never do that!” Kaede insisted. “I love discovering new kinds of music. And if it’s stuff that you like listening to then it must be good.” Hiyoko still remained skeptical after hearing that, narrowing her eyes and looking up at Kaede. She was silent for a good few moments, before she finally ended up relenting.
“Well… Fine. If you’re finally ready to listen to good music for once I guess I’ll share some with you. But I’m not gonna be surprised if it’s too much for you.” With that Hiyoko turned her back to the other two girls, huffing loudly before starting to walk back down the aisle, clearly intentionally making a scene of it as she went. Sayaka watched her leave, waiting until she was out of earshot before leaning over towards Kaede.
“Do you really want to get into German death metal?” she whispered.
“Not at all,” Kaede replied. “But it’ll make her happy, y’know?”
“You’re all set then. Have a nice day.” Hajime smiled at the customer in front of him as he tapped at his screen one more time, finishing up the transaction. His smile faltered a moment later, though, when he heard the all too familiar sound of one of his coworkers yelling at the other.
“Kuzuryuu! I thought I told you to stop leaving shit all over the counter!” Hajime groaned when he heard Sato yelling like that, knowing full well what he was about to be in for. The two girls that worked at the Starbucks with him were constantly at each other’s throats, getting into these fights with each other pretty much every single time that they ended up on the schedule together. And, unfortunately for Hajime, that meant that he was always getting caught up in the middle of it as well.
“My shit? That’s not even mine,” Natsumi’s voice snapped back. “I bet you just forgot to clean up after yourself and now you’re trying to blame it all on me. Typical, from a slob like you.”
“The fuck did you just call me?” The sound of something clattering against the counter told Hajime that it was time to intervene, and he turned around just in time to see that Sato had thrown the cup she had been holding down, now turning to face Natsumi. Natsumi was facing her as well, and the two of them looked like they were about five seconds away from coming to blows right there in the middle of the coffee shop.
“Hey, hey, both of you calm down,” Hajime insisted, quickly stepping forward to come between them for what felt like it must have been the hundredth time. “Now’s not the time for this.”
“Back off, Hinata,” Natsumi growled in response, looking right past him to keep her eyes locked onto Sato’s instead. “Let this bitch fight her own battles for once.”
“I’m not letting anyone fight any battles.” The shop was, thankfully, mostly empty at the moment. There were still a few people sitting at the tables by the windows, though, and the last thing that Hajime wanted was to end up attracting their attention. If a fight broke out between two employees, it wasn’t going to look good for any of them, himself included.
“She said back off,” Sato repeated, doing the same thing that Natsumi was doing and glaring at the other girl, as if Hajime himself weren’t even there. “If she’s so eager to get her ass kicked you should let her. This isn’t any of your business.”
“Yes, it is,” Hajime replied. “If you two want to beat each other up do it some other time. Not while we’re here, and while we’re supposed to be working.” A few seconds of tense silence followed those words, until eventually Natsumi stepped backward, shooting Sato one more glare before turning her back on the both of them.
“Fine. I can wait. I’ve got all the time in the world. Watch your back, Sato,” she threatened. Empty or not, it clearly got a reaction out of Sato. The anger on her face got more pronounced when she heard that, and she tried to take a step forward before Hajime stuck out an arm to stop her. After that she stood her ground, clenching her fists and speaking through gritted teeth as she watched the other girl start to walk away towards the other side of the cafe.
“I’m not the one that needs to watch out,” Sato spat back. After saying that she turned her back on Hajime and Natsumi as well, looking down over at the counter. Now that the immediate threat of a fight breaking out had calmed down, Hajime could see what it was that Sato had been complaining about. The counter was covered with straw wrappers and used napkins and crumbs, and a handful of other things that looked like they had been left behind in the process of preparing various orders. Hajime could see why Sato was upset about something like that, honestly. Not that it excused picking yet another fight with Natsumi, though.
“I can help you clean this up,” Hajime said, walking up next to Sato, who was now in the process of gathering up all the trash that had been left behind. “I think I might have actually been the one who left it here.”
“You don’t have to lie to protect her. I know you’re not careless enough to do this shit.” Hajime winced when he heard that, embarrassed by just how easily he had been called out. Apparently if he wanted to try to smooth things over he was going to have to be more blunt about it.
“Listen. I know that you and Kuzuryuu don’t really like each other,” he sighed. “And I’m not saying that you two need to become best friends or anything like that. But when you’re here at work, you can’t be at each other’s throats like this.”
“Tell that to her,” Sato snapped back. “She’s the one who’s always parading around this place acting like a total bitch. And you’ve seen how often she tries to provoke me. I mean, just look at this!” she pointed out, gesturing towards the garbage in front of them.
“We don’t even know if this was her.”
“Well it wasn’t you. And it sure as hell wasn’t me,” Sato insisted. “So unless there’s someone else working here that I don’t know about it’s gotta be Kuzuryuu.” After she said that Sato scooped up the last of the trash that was in front of them, shoving it into the bin before turning to storm off. Hajime was left standing there alone, groaning as he propped his elbows up on the counters and buried his face into his hands. When he had first started this job people had always warned him that the customers were going to be a nightmare. Nobody had prepared him for the fact that his coworkers were going to be a hundred times worse.
Komaru stood in front of the bookshelf, slowly running her fingers along the spines of all of the different titles that were before her. For once in her life, she actually wasn’t just there to pester one of the employees. Touko was always pestering her for not buying anything when she came in here. And, as she found out during their last meeting, apparently a manga didn’t count as a book in the other girl’s eyes. So now she was here, actually trying to pick out something that Touko would be more likely to approve of. The only problem in that regard was the fact that her request for a recommendation had been shot down pretty immediately. So now she was just stuck here, staring at a bunch of books while trying to find something that Touko might think was worth her time, and that she would also actually be able to get through.
What Komaru was less aware of was the fact that, even though she thought she was alone, she was actually being watched at the moment. Touko had seen her come into the store, and while she hadn’t said anything, the Barnes & Noble employee was silently peering around the corner, watching Komaru from a safe distance. Her eyes were narrowed as Komaru looked through the shelf, and Touko was silently trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Was Komaru just standing around pretending to be busy in hopes that Touko would end up coming over and talking to her? Or was she actually going to end up picking something out for once? That was… Strange for her.
“What are you doing here, Fukawa-san?” Touko practically jumped out of her skin when she heard that voice coming from right behind her, her two braids whipping around as she twisted to glare at the source of the noise. Looking up she found the looming, lanky collection of limbs and tangled white hair that made up one of her coworkers: Nagito Komaeda. Glancing back over her shoulder to make sure that Komaru hadn’t heard the two of them she then looked back towards Nagtio, aggressively shushing him and pushing the both of them around the corner and out of view.
“W-What the hell were you thinking??” she demanded, once they were safely out of Koamru’s line of sight. “Couldn’t you tell that I d-didn’t want her to see me??”
“Ah, so you were spying on her? My apologies, Fukawa-san,” Nagito replied, speaking with that same calm, slow, meandering tone that he always seemed to use. “I didn’t mean to get you caught.”
“Well, you’re l-lucky you didn’t! If you had you’d be in t-trouble!” Touko warned.
“But of course. Although if you don’t mind me asking…” Nagito added on, a small, knowing smile starting to cross over his face, “Why were you spying on one of our customers in the first place?”
“That’s- That’s none of your business! You shouldn’t be asking stupid questions like that!”
“Of course. You’re right,” Nagito agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not my place to go sticking my nose into something like this. Of course… I can’t help but notice that this isn’t the first time she’s come in here either. And you usually talk to when she does, don’t you?”
“W-Why do you even know something l-like that?” Touko protested. “Have you b-been watching me??”
“I don’t think you’re in any position to be criticizing me for watching someone, Fukawa-san.”
“That isn’t the s-same thing! She’s my-” Touko had been about to say friend, although she caught herself before actually finishing the sentence. And as she thought about it like that, she wasn’t really sure that it would even be accurate for her to call Komaru something like that in the first place. Just because Komaru came in here all the time and pestered her and they talked pretty regularly didn’t actually mean that they were friends… Right? “It doesn’t matter! Either way!” Touko hastily added on. “She’s just- She’s acting weird!”
“Weird?” Nagito repeated, tilting his head when he heard that. “In the sort of way that should concern us as employees?”
“N-No! It’s nothing like that! Just…” Touko glanced back over her shoulder again when she said that, leaning backwards just a little bit so that she could see around the corner once more. And, sure enough, Komaru was still standing there in the exact same place, still looking through the exact same bookshelf. After glaring at her from a distance, Touko leaned back in and turned her attention back to Komaeda. “She never actually b-buys anything! What does she think she’s doing??”
“She’s been standing there for quite a while,” Nagito observed. “Maybe you should go help her out.”
“W-Why would I do something like th-that??”
“Ignoring the fact that it’s your job?” Nagito replied. “She would probably appreciate it. You always seem to have your face in a book, after all. I’m sure that you would have plenty of good recommendations.”
“R-Recommendations that she would just i-ignore!” Touko hissed back. “I’m not gonna w-waste my time on something so p-pointless!” After she said that Nagito stared back at Touko blankly for a few moments, a few things clicking together in his mind, before a little smile crossed over his face.
“Ah. I understand,” he replied. And then, without any warning, he was suddenly grabbing Touko by the shoulder, yanking her out towards the aisle.
“H-Hey! What are you-!” she blurted out, trying to struggle back against him before being pulled into view of Komaru.
“Excuse me,” Nagito called out down the aisle. “Are you looking for something in particular? I’m sure Fukawa-san here would be happy to help you find it.”
“Huh? Oh, hi!” Komaru said, looking up from the shelf and smiling when she saw Touko being dragged towards her. “I was wondering where you were!”
“I was just- I was busy!” Touko hastily stammered back. “Get your s-sweaty hands off me!” She added on, forcibly yanking her arm away from Nagito. Nagito, meanwhile, didn’t seem fazed by the insults, and the smile on his face was only getting wider.
“I hope she can help you find whatever it is you’re looking for,” he said, making eye contact with Komaru while patting Touko on the back. “Let me know if you need any other assistance.” With that Nagito started to walk away, leaving the two girls alone. Touko shot him one more glare out of the corner of her eye as he abandoned them, cursing him under her breath.
“Who does h-he think he is…”
Kirumi Toujou looked down at the clipboard she held in her hands, checking off the last box on her list. The floors were mopped, the outsides of the windows of every store had been wiped down, the bathrooms had been cleaned, the air vents had been dusted out, the planters had been watered, and the fountains by the entryway had been scrubbed down. And she had gotten all of that done in a single day.
Now that her basic janitorial duties were finished, though, Kirumi had other things to move on to. She was just about to turn over onto the next page of her clipboard when she heard the familiar sound of electric wheels whirring away behind her. Followed, a second later, by the sound of a particularly loud and energetic voice calling out to her.
“Toujou-kun! How are your tasks going today?” As Kirumi heard that she turned around, greeted by the sight of Kiyotaka Ishimaru wheeling towards her on his segway. It wasn’t rare for her to encounter the security guard as he made his rounds, seeing as how the both of them often tended to be out in the middle of the walkways of the mall like this. Upon seeing him Kirumi put a polite smile on her face, setting her mop back into the bucket beside her.
“They’ve been going will, Ishimaru-kun,” the janitor replied. “I believe I’m actually ahead of schedule. And how has your day been going?”
“It’s been going quite well! Nothing objectionable to speak of!” Despite the fact that he was, really, just a mall cop, Taka still seemed to take his job quite seriously. He kept a careful eye on every part of the mall, and every store within it, making sure that nothing shady or dangerous was allowed to happen. Shopper safety was the most important thing, after all.
“I’m quite glad to hear that,” Kirumi said. “I do hope that the floors haven’t been an issue, by the way. I recently switched to a new brand of floor cleaning solution, but I was worried that it might be slipperier than what I’ve used previously. Have you noticed anyone stumbling as you’ve been making your rounds?”
“I can’t say that I have!” Taka said, shaking his head. “But you’ve been putting wet floor signs up where necessary, I assume?”
“Of course.” As she said that, Kirumi gestured towards the yellow triangle sign that she had set up right next to where she had been mopping. “Customer safety always comes first.”
“So it does!” Taka agreed. It seemed that he was just about to say something else, but the conversation was cut short by the sound of someone shouting behind them. Kirumi and Taka both quickly turned towards the source of the commotion, just in time to see a hooded figure dashing past them with a purse stuffed under their arm, barreling towards the entrance to the mall. It didn’t take much for Taka to piece together what was going on, and suddenly he was pivoting on his segway, beginning to chase after the criminal in question.
“Stop right there!” he shouted out. “Purse theft is against the rules of this establishment!” Taka did his best to chase down the purse snatcher, but as it quickly became clear, even when going at full speed, a segway didn’t match up to the speed of a human being running as fast as they could on foot. Kirumi, meanwhile, simply stood off to the side with her mop and her bucket, watching the situation unfold in front of her. At this point the thief already had enough of a lead on her that she likely wouldn’t have been able to catch up anyway. Besides, she was just a janitor. If she tried to get involved in something like this, it would probably just be more of a liability for the mall than anything else.
Between the fact that the thief had already gotten a head start and the fact that Taka’s segway, which he apparently refused to leave behind, was going at a snail’s pace, it seemed like the criminal was actually going to get away. Right up until they reached the front entrance, that was, and, five steps away from freedom, ended up slipping across the tile and crashing to the floor. They hit the ground with a loud, painful sounding thud, at which point it became easy for Taka to catch up.
“I’m placing you under arrest!” he declared as he stepped down from the segway, as if he actually had the authority to do something like that, and wouldn’t have to wait for the real police to arrive. “You have the right to remain silent! Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law!” As Taka continued on with his speech Kirumi simply watched from a distance, that small smile returning to her face. She looked at the wet floor sign sitting next to where the criminal had gone down, then back to the bottle of the new brand of floor cleaner that she had sitting at the edge of her bucket. This had all worked out so perfectly, it almost seemed like she had planned it.
Maki generally wasn’t a fan of actually going into any of the stores at the mall. She showed up, worked her shift at the food court, then left as quickly as possible. The other stores were loud, and often crowded, and full of workers who would end up trying to talk to her if she set foot inside. It was much easier, and much more pleasant, not to let herself get caught up in something like that.
Unfortunately, ever since Kaito had come into her life, he had been making more and more of those decision for her. Take today, for instance: Maki had been planning on going right back home after she was done working, just like she always did. But Kaito had loudly insisted that the three of them needed some “bro time” (despite Maki’s constant reminders that she wasn’t a bro), and had forced both Maki and Shuichi to hang around with him for a while once they all got off their shifts. Shuichi had been far more receptive to the idea than Maki had.
At the very least she had managed to sneak off from the other two, hiding in the far corner of the music store while she listened to Kaito’s voice calling out from a different section, going on about this “great new album I found, bro!” For the time being, she was safe.
Or so she thought, until she heard an obnoxiously cheerful voice piping up right behind her.
“Hi! Can I help you find anything?” Maki winced when she heard that all too familiar question, realizing that she had been spotted by one of the employees. Slowly Maki began to turn around, slumping down and giving off the strongest “Don’t speak to me” vibes that she possibly could-
Vibes that melted away just a little bit when she saw the really cute girl standing in front of her with the brightest smile Maki had ever seen. As Maki saw Kaede, and realized that the blonde girl was actually standing really damn close, anything that she had been about to say left her mind, and it took her a second to get it back.
“No. I’m fine,” she replied, keeping her voice quiet enough that she wouldn’t have to worry about Kaito overhearing her. Not that he was likely to hear anything over the sound of his own voice anyway. But while that normally would have been enough to get an employee off her back, it seemed that Kaede was just a little bit more persistent.
“Are you sure? You’ve been standing over here for a while,” Kaede pointed out. “You sort of seem like you’re having a tough time finding something.” That observation made Maki’s cheeks heat up a bit, realizing that this other girl had apparently been watching her for longer than she realized, and her hands moved up seemingly automatically, starting to comb her fingers through one of her pigtails.
“I’m sure,” Maki insisted. “I’m just… Browsing.”
“Then let me help you browse!” Still smiling enthusiastically, Kaede stepped past Maki and walked over towards the shelf of music. Maki felt her frustration grow even stronger at that point, wondering why this girl couldn’t just take a damn hint and leave her alone. “What sort of music do you like?”
“...I don’t know,” Maki replied, continuing her efforts to make this conversation as impossible as she could. “I don’t normally listen to music.” Hearing that did put a little pout on Kaede’s face, and for a moment Maki started to think that she had succeeded, but apparently she still wasn’t so lucky.
"Come on!” Kaede urged. “There has to be something you like!” As Maki looked back up she suddenly realized that Kaede’s eyes were on her, and the employee looked so eager and so hopeful that Maki felt strangely compelled to at least give something for an answer.
“Well, I like… Calm stuff,” she eventually managed to blurt out. “Like, peaceful. Quiet.” It almost sounded like she was trying to drop even more hints in Kaede’s direction by saying that, although more so, she was thinking about the fact that she got more than her fair share of loud and energetic from the time that she was forced to spend around Kaito. If she was going to listen to music, the last thing she wanted was even more of that.
The answer seemed to be enough to satisfy Kaede, though, and already she was digging through the bins, trying to find something in particular. “Oh, I’ve got the perfect thing for you then! We have a whole album in here somewhere that’s just a collection of nocturnes, we just got it in this week- Do you like classical music?” The question seemed to punctuate a sudden stop in Kaede’s train of thought, and suddenly Maki found the other girl’s eyes on her once again, staring at her with an expectant energy. She looked so hopeful, Maki couldn’t bring herself to shatter that.
“I don’t mind it,” she murmured. Which was technically true. It wasn’t something that she had ever made a point of listening to before, but it wasn’t like she hated it either. That was good enough for Kaede, though, and with Maki’s approval she pulled out the exact CD that she had been talking about, pushing it towards her customer.
“I think you’ll love this then!” Kaede promised. “It’s got all the big names in there, of course, like Chopin and Debussy, but there are a lot of lesser known composers mixed in too. I’m especially fond of-” Fortunately for Maki, she was saved from the rest of what was sure to be a long and rambling story by the sound of another girl’s voice coming on over the store speakers.
“Akamatsu-san to the register for customer assistance, please.”
“Ah, I’m sorry!” Kaede said, looking up at the speakers and then back over towards Maki when she heard that. “I’ll be at the front when you’re ready to check out. I’ll see you there, okay?” Before Maki had the chance to say anything else Kaede was taking off down the aisle, moving towards the front of the store at an impressive pace, and she was left standing there by herself, looking down at the CD that had been shoved into her hands.
Dammit. She actually had to buy this now, didn’t she?
“Mikan-chaaaan! Did you finish unpacking all those boxes like I asked you to?” Junko’s voice rang throughout the store, immediately causing an iota of displeasure to flicker across the face of the black-haired, red-eyed employee unfortunate enough to be standing right next to her- and unfortunate enough to be looking like she did at the moment in the first place. There were some days when Celestia showed up to work with a full face of pristine makeup and perfectly styled hair, her entire getup radiating excess and elegance. And then there were other days, like today, where her appearance was so hastily thrown together it looked like she had barely managed to drag herself out of bed. It was always a crapshoot with her.
“Y-Yes!” came Mikan’s enthusiastic, if not somewhat nervous, reply. She more or less scrambled up to the counter as she answered the questions, hands clutched together in front of her chest while an eager expression adorned her face. “I set them out on the displays, j-just like you asked me to! I d-didn’t even knock anything over!”
“Nothing at all?” Junko gasped, voice carrying that same tone of mock surprise and false praise a parent might use while pretending that the smears of paint their child had cobbled together were somehow worthy of display in a museum- a tone that seemed to come all too readily to her. To Celestia, it was so sickeningly obvious. But on Mikan, it seemed to be having the desired effect.
“Nothing!” she repeated, a twinkle of excitement forming in her eyes as she realized that she might have done something that would actually make Junko proud of her. “I didn’t even d-drop a single bottle!”
“I knew I could count on you for an important task like that,” Junko said, a smile crossing over her lips that had Mikan’s heart skipping a few too many beats. “Now I’ve got another even more important job for you to do. Think you can handle it?”
“Of course!” Mikan squealed out. Celeste could see the flush forming on her cheeks, almost as if she were getting off on nothing more than simple praise. It only disgusted her even further- a sense of disgust that was both undercut and amplified by the cheerful tone of Junko’s reply.
“Good! The stockroom is kind of a mess right now. It looks like someone went in there and started banging-” Celeste nearly choked on her tea. “-into everything. Will you go in there and tidy it up a bit?” she asked, reaching out over the counter to lightly tap a bright red nail against Mikan’s nose. A gesture which seemed to send Mikan into a state of euphoria right there in the middle of the store.
“A-Absolutely! I won’t l-let you down, J-Junko-chan!” Mikan stammered out, already starting to scurry towards the back of the store.
“I know you won’t!” Junko called after her, keeping the grin on her face a moment longer before turning to face a very unamused looking Celeste. “Jeez. Who shit in your cereal this morning?” Celeste didn’t answer right away, instead making a point of taking one more long, slow sip from her tea, staring straight ahead instead of ever looking back at Junko. Eventually she placed the paper cup back down on the countertop, producing a dull thud as she did so. Only then did she finally choose to speak.
“Have you ever played poker before, Enoshima-san?”
“Sure! I’ve played strip poker plenty of times.”
“An unnecessary piece of information to volunteer. Regardless, if you have played the game before, you should be familiar with how it works. So tell me: when you find yourself in possession of a good hand, what do you do with it? Do you sit there clutching it to your chest, stalling the flow for everyone around you simply so that you may continue to covet your cards? Or do you do as you were meant to, and play them?”
“Yawn,” Junko replied, rolling her eyes to emphasize the boredom that Celeste’s question had managed to instill in her. “What was the point of all that?”
“You’re smarter than you pretend to be,” Celeste chided. “Do not disrespect my metaphor by asking me to explain it.”
“I didn’t expect you to be the sort to start going all mother bear for someone like Mikan-chan.” As Junko said that Celeste suddenly found an arm tossed around her shoulders. Her expression soured, and she immediately tried to shrug it away. “Don’t worry so much about her, alright? You saw the look on her face. All I have to do is throw her a little praise and tell her that she’s doing a good job every once in a while and she’s over the fucking moon. She’s happy like this.”
“You think that someone can be happy while being lead around on a leash like a mutt? When you have someone who is so clearly interested in you, you either say yes, or you say no,” Celeste scolded. “You do not leave them hanging in limbo like this.”
“Alright, little miss ‘I’m an expert on romance now,’” Junko scoffed back, pulling her arm away from her employee and circling around in front of the counter. “Didn’t realize my relationship with Mikan-chan was such a major fucking point of concern for you. I’m going on my lunch break. Don’t burn this place down before I get back.”
“Very well,” Celeste replied, eyes glaring holes into the back of Junko’s head as she watched her manager walk away. “I will not.” She didn’t have the wherewithal to tell Junko she didn’t give a shit about Mikan.
“How’s it lookin’ up there?” Akane Owari was craning her neck back, peering up towards the top of the ladder in front of her. And, more specifically, at the mechanic standing on top of the ladder, his head out of sight thanks to the air vent he was currently rooting around in.
“Looks like the fan motor’s totally fried. No wonder it’s been getting all stuffy in here.” The voice was a bit muffled and echoey, bouncing around inside the metal vent, but a moment later a familiar head of pink hair came ducking out from inside the duct as Kazuichi Souda peered down at Akane. “You weren’t running this thing higher than it’s supposed to go, were ya?”
“I don’t think I was…” Akane replied. “I swear, it just crapped out on us outta nowhere!”
“Well either way,” Souda said, dusting himself off as he started to climb back down the ladder (and taking a moment to fit the grate back into place on his way down). “I’m gonna have to replace the motor completely, and it’s gonna take a few days to get the parts in for that.”
“A few days??” Akane immediately protested. “Does that mean we’re gonna be stuck in here sweatin’ away like it’s a sauna ‘til then??” Souda recoiled somewhat at the sudden increase in volume, and the somewhat accusatory nature of Akane’s comments, nearly falling off the ladder in the process, although unfortunately he didn’t have any good news in that regard.
“Sorry, Owari, but there’s not really anything else I can do about it! Unless you want me to drive four hours out to the warehouse where they keep these things.”
“Seriously??” Akane blurted out, the sarcasm of the statement apparently lost on her. “You’d do that??”
“Eh?? No way! I wouldn’t get back until way past midnight if I did that right now!”
“But if the store stays like this for a few more days we’re all gonna melt!” Akane insisted. “We’re gonna have to start strippin’ naked just so we can make it through our shifts!” Souda sighed at that point, doing his best to put the thought of a store full of naked athletic girls out of his mind before reaching up and scratching at the back of his head. He seemed to be considering something, and eventually he ended up relenting a bit.
“I’ll get on the phone with the people who ship these out and tell them we need it as soon as possible, alright?” he offered. “Maybe they can get it here faster than usual.”
“Hell yeah!” Akane’s enthusiastic reply came with a grin and a thumbs up, and Souda braced himself for a friendly (but still agonizingly forceful, when coming from Akane) punch on the shoulder before feeling relieved to see that it wasn’t coming. “I knew I could count on you!”
“I do what I can!” Souda replied, returning the grin and the thumbs up. “And hey! My little workshop stays pretty cool, so if it ever gets too hot in here and you need somewhere to chill out for a bit-”
“Alright! That’s enough, you degenerate!” Souda jumped up again at the sound of a voice that was somehow even louder than Akane’s, craning his head around to see Tenko glaring at him from the end of the aisle. “You’ve done your job, so quit harrassing Owari-san and scram!”
“Huh? I wasn’t-” Souda tried to protest, only to get immediately cut off.
“I heard you trying to get her back to your workshop!” Tenko insisted. “I bet it’s full of chains and power tools, and there aren’t any witnesses at all! Who knows what a degenerate like you would try to do to her back there!”
“Seriously, that’s not-!”
“C’mon punk! Time to go!” Before Souda had the chance to say anything else Tenko was grabbing him by the arm, starting to drag him back towards the entrance. And despite the fact that Souda considered himself to be in pretty good shape, considering all the heavy lifting he had to do for his job, he found himself to be no match for her.
“I’m seriously not doing anything! Owari!” he called out. Akane, meanwhile, was simply watching this scene play out in front of her, giving Souda an enthusiastic wave as he got hauled off out of the store.
“Later, Souda!” she called out. “Thanks again for all your help!”
“Did you find everything that you were looking for today?”
“I most certainly did. Thank you, Nevermind-san.” As she said that Celeste laid the dress that she had selected up on the counter (black, of course, with red accents running along the sleeves and the flared out skirt). The Sephora employee wasn’t dressed in her uniform at the moment, indicating that this was one of her days off, and she had simply come by to do some shopping in her free time. It was also one of the days where her makeup looked flawless. Sonia had commented on it when Celeste had first come in, much to Celeste’s own delight.
“I think this will look most beautiful on you!” Sonia commented, lifting the dress up for just a moment to get a better look at it before beginning to remove the security tag. Celeste had just opened her mouth to thank Sonia for the compliment, but abruptly found herself cut off by a much louder voice.
“Be-yoo-tee-ful!” Ibuki agreed. “That dress is gonna make Celes-chan the goth-loliest goth-loli in the whole wide world!” Ibuki was sitting on the counter behind Sonia, watching the other two as Celeste checked out while swinging her legs in time to the rock music that was blaring over the speakers. Between the two of them, Celes found Sonia to be the much more tolerable of the store’s employees. She kept that opinion to herself, however, maintaining a polite smile and a general aura of civility in Ibuki’s presence, no matter how irritating she found her.
“That is my ambition,” she replied. And then, in a slightly less than subtle attempt to cut Ibuki out of the conversation, she turned her attention back towards Sonia. “Do you have anything fun planned for this weekend, Nevermind-san?”
“Not at the moment, no,” Sonia replied, shaking her head. As the total for the purchase came up onto the screen Celeste opened up her purse, quickly producing a small wad of cash to cover the slightly above average price of the dress. It was always cash with her, Sonia had noticed. Celeste was probably the only person to regularly come into the store and never pay with a card. She had always found that somewhat odd.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Celeste said, exchanging the money for the bagged up article of clothing. “I do hope that you find something entertaining to do. Wasting an entire weekend always feels so dreadful. Au revoir , Nevermind-san.”
“See you later alligator!” Ibuki chimed in, giving an energetic and entirely ignored wave as Celeste made her way out of the store. After she had departed Sonia turned around, putting her attention on Ibuki instead.
“What about you, Mioda-san?” she asked. “Do you have anything planned for this weekend?”
“Not really!” the musician replied. “Ibuki was gonna retune all her instruments, but are those even plans? Probably not! It’s probably not plans unless you plan to go somewhere, and going five feet to the living room doesn’t count! ‘Cause you don’t even have to plan that! You just get up and start walking and then it’s like, whoops! You’re already there!” Sonia put a hand up to her mouth to stifle a small giggle as she listened to Ibuki speak, before folding her hands neatly in front of her waist once more as she began to respond.
“Well, perhaps,” Sonia said, her voice suddenly becoming a little bit softer than it typically was. “If you are not already busy this weekend, and if you would like to…” She was breaking eye contact now as well, choosing to look down at her own feet rather than to make eye contact with Ibuki, and there was a small sliver of hesitation before she finished the question. “The two of us could... See a movie together?”
“Eh?? Yes yes yes! Ibuki loves hanging out with friends!” As she heard the word “friends” Sonia’s eyes flicked back up, locking onto Ibuki’s once more, and the European girl was struck by a brief moment of dazed confusion before she scrambled to correct Ibuki.
“Ah- Well, actually-” she began to say. But Ibuki was already going a mile a minute by this point, and it didn’t seem that anything was going to stop her.
“Oh oh oh! Ibuki could invite her other friends too! Hajime-chan and Sato-chan and Mikan-chan and Mahiru-chan and Hiyoko-chan! Sonia-chan can finally meet all of them! It’ll be a party!” Sonia stood there looking dumbfounded in response to all of that for a few seconds, before a melancholic smile slowly started to cross over her face.
“That… That sounds lovely,” Sonia replied, before her eyes flicked over towards the door to the back office. “Ah… Would you mind watching my register for a moment?” she asked. “I believe I left my phone in the back, and… I would like to look up movie times.”
“Can do cockatoo!” As she said that Ibuki hopped off the counter, marching over towards Sonia’s register. “And I’ll tell everyone else about Ibuki and Sonia-chan’s Great Movie Fiasco 2K17!”
“Wonderful,” Sonia said, before setting off at a brisk pace towards the office. Her voice didn’t make it sound very wonderful at all.
Nobody was quite sure how to classify the odd little store that sat near the back entrance of the mall. It more or less looked like someone had gone through their basement, collected every piece of junk that they had accumulated over the course of several decades, and then had rented out a storefront to sell it. It contained everything from baseball cards and cheap action figures to a genuine katana and finely crafted glass sculptures that were probably actually worth a lot of money. Some people called it a collectibles store. Some people called it a blatant front for a money laundering operation. The scruffy deadbeat who hung around the mall selling weed and palm readings called it his preferred meeting place. If you asked the tiny red headed girl who was usually sitting behind the counter, you would probably just get an apathetic shrug. She wasn’t paid to care about stuff like that.
Himiko Yumeno liked this job. She got to spend all day sitting behind a counter, surrounded by an eclectic mix of stuff that actually made her feel strangely at home. And on top of that, people almost never actually came in, which meant she rarely had to do any real work.
They keyword there being almost never.
“Yumeno-san!” Himiko whined out when she heard someone shouting her name, reaching up to pull the brim of her hat down over her eyes. Maybe if she just stayed very still, and pretended that she wasn’t there…
“Yumeno-saaaan!” Nope. Too late. “What are you doing? Are you trying to hide? Because that doesn’t seem like a very effective way to do that!” As Himiko peeked out from underneath her hat she saw Tenko Chabashira standing there in front of her, borderline vibrating with energy. How she could always be this upbeat and enthusiastic about every little thing, Himiko would never understand. How did she never get tired?
“I’m not hiding,” Himiko mumbled out. “I’m just… Studying my hat.”
“Huh? But it’s the same hat Yumeno-san always wears!” To verify that Tenko attempted to lean in so that she could get a better look, although as soon as she got closer Himiko leaned away, preventing that from actually happening.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t study it,” she huffed. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Tenko just came by to say hi on her lunch break!” Sure enough, she was wearing the striped, referee style shirt that Himiko had come to recognize as being a part of the other girl’s uniform by now. For the most part Himiko thought it looked dumb and tacky, and it made her glad that her own store didn’t require her to wear a uniform. She was a little jealous of how big it made Tenko’s chest look, though.
“If you don’t buy anything then you’re just loitering, and that’s illegal,” Himiko said, pointing a small hand towards the door. “So you have to leave.”
“Yuemno-san! You don’t really mean that!” Tenko gasped. Himiko did, but she doubted there was anything she could say or do that would actually get it through Tenko’s head short of calling mall security. Which, now that she thought about it… “But fine!” Tenko conceded. “If Tenko really has to buy something, she will!” Himiko kept a skeptical expression on her face as she watched the other girl pivot around and start to survey the store, not entirely convinced that she was actually going to spend money on anything. Tenko, meanwhile, started to take her time as she walked around the little area, leaning in closely to inspect every single item on every single shelf.
“You’re taking too long…” Himiko groaned.
“Yumeno-san just told me to buy something!” Tenko insisted. “She didn’t say I have to be fast!” Eventually, though, Tenko did end up scooping something up off of one of the shelves: a small porcelain statue of a wizard, complete with a pointed hat, a gnarled staff, and a comically long beard. Presenting her selection proudly, Tenko marched back over to the counter and set it down in front of Himiko.
“I’d like to buy this!” she declared. Himiko looked down at the statue, then back up at Tenko, scrunching up her face.
“You don’t have to…”
“Tenko said she would, so she will!” Himiko just groaned again, annoyed by the fact that she actually had to do work now, before reaching out to take the statue and scan the barcode.
“Fifteen dollars.” Tenko wheezed when she heard the price, recoiling backwards a little bit. She had assumed that a statue that small would cost, like, three dollars max, and now she was regretting not looking at the price tag. But she was already committed as well, so, with a fair degree of reluctance, she reached down into her pocket and dug out her wallet, handing the cash over to Himiko. Himiko put the transaction through and handed Tenko her change, then slid the statue across the counter towards her. Only for Tenko to slide it right back.
“Nope! Tenko bought this for you!” she declared. That made the borderline frown that had been on Himiko’s face for so long turn into an actual one.
“I don’t want this,” she huffed.
“But he has a pointy hat, just like Yumeno-san!” Tenko insisted, poking the top of the wizard’s cap with her finger. “And he probably uses magic, just like Yumeno-san! Pleaaase?” she asked, looking down at Himiko with the biggest pleading eyes that she could muster. Himiko immediately broke eye contact at that point, pulling her hat down over her face again and looking off to the side.
“Nyeh… Fine,” she grumbled. “If it’ll get you to leave me alone.”
“Yay!” Tenko cheered. “Thank you, Yumeno-san! Thank you thank you thank you! Tenko should go back to work now, but she’ll see you later!”
“It’s fine if you don’t.”
“Eh? Yumeno-san wants me to skip going back to work and stay here with her?”
“That’s not what I meant!” Himiko huffed, yanking her hat down even farther in frustration.
“Tenko supposes she could stay just a little bit longer!”
“You’re sure this is safe?”
“Not even a little bit. Stand back.” The mall parking lot was mostly empty by this hour. It was nearly midnight, and any cars that were still left likely belong to employees who were stuck there- employees like Chihiro, who had been kept at the Microsoft Store for three hours past closing so that he could help out with the year-end inventory. And then there was Mondo, who didn’t even work at the mall, and had really just shown up to cause trouble.
“Be careful…” Chihiro insisted, looking down over Mondo’s shoulder at the massive pile of extremely illegal fireworks that his friend had brought with him. “You don’t want to burn yourself…”
“Relax,” Mondo insisted. “If I can put together an engine without burnin’ my fingers then this’ll be fuckin’ nothing.” If anything, Mondo actually seemed to be in a little bit of a rush, not being nearly as careful with all of the explosives as he should have been. He really just wanted to get this done before-
“STOP RIGHT THERE!” That.
“God dammit,” Mondo groaned, looking up to see Taka zooming towards him on his segway, tearing through the parking lot at a breakneck speed of three miles per hour.
“You can’t set off fireworks here!” Taka declared, pulling up next to Mondo and Chihiro. “I’ll need to confiscate all of this contraband, and issue you both a citation!”
“Seriously?” Mondo asked, standing back up straight to meet Taka’s gaze head on. “It’s a new year and you’re still gonna leave that stick up your ass?”
“Rules don’t stop being rules just because it’s a new year!” Taka replied. “I would expect something like this from you, Oowada-kun. But you, Fujisaki-kun!” he said, turning his attention towards Chihiro. “I thought you were better than this!”
“I didn’t-” Chihiro started, but he was cut off when Mondo suddenly took a step forward, putting himself between Chihiro and Taka.
“Hey, you leave the little man outta this,” he growled. “You wanna write me up or whatever the fuck then fine, but he aint doin’ anything wrong.”
“He’s an accomplice to your crime!” Taka insisted. “And he should be treated as such!”
“Accomplice my ass! He’s just standin’ around not even doing anything!”
“Well he should have been doing something: stopping you!”
“And how the hell do you reckon he’s gonna-!”
“No, it’s alright.” Mondo was startled to hear Chihiro’s voice coming from behind him, and as he looked back over his shoulder, he found Chihiro looking up at both himself and Taka, smiling softly. “I thought it would be fun to set off some fireworks for the new year, but… Ishimaru-kun is right. I knew that it was against the rules, and I should have thought about that. I’m sorry…” Everyone was silent after that, and nobody spoke for a few long seconds, until said silence was interrupted by the low hum of an electric motor.
“Well,” Taka said, slowly pivoting his segway so that his back was to both Mondo and Chihiro, “I can’t do anything about the fireworks if I didn’t actually see them.” Mondo stared at the back of Taka’s head after that, blinking a few times before a grin spread over his face.
“You’re a real piece of work. You know that, bro?” he laughed, grabbing up his lighter again. “Now everyone hold on tight, ‘cause we’re about to blow the fuckin’ tits off this place.”
“Your profanity is uncalled-” Taka started to say, only to be interrupted as Mondo grabbed him by the arm and yanked him off his segway.
“H-Hey!” Taka blurted out, scrambling to keep his balance as he struggled to keep up with the other two, who were now booking it across the parking lot. He could hear a quiet sizzle behind him, telling him that the fireworks were lit, and even Taka could figure that now was probably a good time to run first and give lectures later. The three of them sprinted for a good distance, making it right up to the edge of the pavement before the sizzling sound gave way to a loud bang. The entire parking lot was bathed in an ethereal red glow, and Mondo and Chihiro turned to look back at the vibrant colors that were now lighting up the sky above their little slice of suburbia, while Taka continued staring diligently out towards the road.
“Hey,” Mondo said, nudging Taka in the side.
“I told you,” Taka replied, “I didn’t see-”
“Nah, I aint talkin’ about that. Take a look.” As Taka glanced at Mondo out of the corner of his eye he saw his friend gesture toward something, and following that gesture further, Taka’s gaze fell on Chihiro: expression lit up, eyes shining wide with wonder, mouth an excited smile as he looked up towards the fireworks that still bathed his face in a faint reddish glow. It was enough to bring a faint smile to Taka’s own face as well. Mondo stole Taka’s attention back a moment later by placing a hand on his shoulder, placing another on Chihiro’s as he looked up towards the fireworks as well.
“Happy fuckin’ new year, bros.”
“There you go,” Kyouko said, placing the cup down on the table in front of her. “One milk tea, made to your exact specifications.”
“Thank you, Kirigiri-san,” Celeste replied, a small smile curling at her lips as she reached to take the cup. “It is very much appreciated.”
“You know that this isn’t even something that’s on our menu. We’re not supposed to be serving drinks in a customer’s personal tea set either. I’m worried you’re starting to mistake this for a full service cafe, instead of a bookstore Starbucks.” Celeste chuckled softly as she heard that, taking a small sip of the steaming hot drink before setting her cup down and responding.
“But it is precisely this sort of hospitality that keeps me coming back here,” she insisted. “That, and the fact that the service at your other location can be so… Dreadful.” Kyouko, of course, immediately knew what Celeste was talking about. She felt sorry for Hajime, knowing the hell that he was trapped in.
“Regardless,” Kyouko said, circling back around behind the counter so that she could begin to wipe her station down, “don’t expect this to become standard. I'm not risking my job just to serve you a cup of tea.”
“Understood.” Celeste took another sip from her drink after that, and despite the stoic, slightly amused expression she was wearing, and the fact that she didn’t seem to be particularly talkative at the moment, Kyouko still knew there was a reason the other girl had come here. She never stopped by without one. And, as much as Kyouko had a feeling that she might regret this, her innate curiosity was compelling her to ask anyway.
“How have things been at your job? Is Enoshima-san still being a thorn in your side?”
“I did not think you one for small talk,” Celeste replied. “Why do you ask me questions that you already know the answer to?”
“I thought maybe you would surprise me.” Judging from the way all of that forced pleasantry seemed to fade from Celeste’s face in an instant, though, Kyouko could tell that wasn’t the case.
“She continues to be as incorrigible as ever,” Celeste sighed. “She fancies herself an expert in playing dumb, although I know she’s not as stupid as she would have me believe.”
“You’re always speaking in gambling metaphors. Would you mind if I tried my own hand at one?” Kyouko’s question caused at least a bit of amusement to return to Celeste’s face, red eyes glancing sideways to actually look at the barista for the first time in a while.
“Nothing could make me happier,” she replied. “I trust this will be amusing.”
“I’ve never been an expert in poker-”
“Off to an excellent start.”
“-but from my understanding, knowing when to fold is an important part of the game. You don’t continue to play a bad hand against impossible odds.” Any amusement that Celeste might have found in watching Kyouko attempt to speak her language quickly seemed to vanish at that point, eyebrows creasing down as a stormy look appeared behind her eyes.
“Are you suggesting that I give up, Kirigiri-san?”
“Interpret it however you’d like. I’m just offering something to think about.” Anything that Celeste might have said in response to that was cut off by the sound of another familiar voice calling out, though, as a second customer entered into the cafe.
“Oh, how wonderful,” Kyouko said, turning her attention towards Komaru. “All of my favorite people gathered together in one place.” Kyouko was, by this point, fairly used to dealing with the problems of both Celeste and Komaru, both of whom seemed to frequent her store whenever they were distressed or had something on their mind. There was, however, one key difference between them: while Celeste tended to be more cagey and reserved, often making Kyouko work to extract any meaningful information from her (a task that Kyouko’s near-pathological need to gather up every scrap of information around her routinely subjected her to, despite her own internal objections), Komaru had no reservations about marching into the middle of the cafe, groaning loudly, and falling forward onto the first table she came across. Which was precisely what she was doing at the moment.
“A friend of yours?” Celeste asked, eyes flicking between Komaru and Kyouko.
“Naegi-kun’s sister,” Kyouko replied, prompting Komaru to lift her head from the table with a pout on her face.
“Don’t be mean like that!” she whined. “We’re friends. You gave me that free coffee.”
“It wasn’t free. Your brother still owes me money.”
“Good luck,” Komaru grumbled. “He’s always stingy.”
“I’m sure that Kirigiri-san will be able to persuade him to give her the money in ways that you as his sister cannot,” Celeste chimed in, drawing a stern glare from Kyouko, who then turned her attention towards Komaru once again.
“You seem distraught,” Kyouko said, although it sounded far more like a detached, emotionless observation than it did any expression of sympathy or concern. “Is this pertaining to what I assume it is?”
“Yeah,” Komaru groaned. “Same as always.”
“Perhaps you should encourage her to give up,” Celese suggested. “That seems to be your preferred means of advice now.” Once again, her words found her on the receiving end of one of Kyouko’s glares.
“Your situations aren’t even remotely the same,” she insisted. Then, to Komaru, “Have you spoken to her today?”
“I tried,” Komaru replied. “But she was just…”
“Herself,” Kyouko finished. “Well-” Speak of the devil, though, because before Kyouko could say anything else, the little cafe suddenly became even more crowded still.
“H-Hey! There you are!” Touko’s shrill voice cut through what had been a, if not happy, then at the very least mostly calm atmosphere, causing Komaru’s head to quickly lift from the table and turn towards her. “I’ve b-been looking all over for y-you!”
“You have?” Komaru asked, pointing towards herself, as if there were anyone else Touko could have been talking about. “Why?”
“You r-ran off before I was done talking to you!” Touko insisted. She was holding a book in her hands, and as she approached the table where Komaru was sitting, she shoved it towards the other girl rather abruptly. “H-Here!” Rather than immediately reaching out to take it, though, Komaru looked down at the book, then back up at Touko, seeming little more than utterly confused.
“Huh? This is… For me?” she asked.
“Well o-obviously!” Touko snapped. “That’s why I’m g-giving it to you! You said you wanted r-recommendations, didn’t you?”
“Yeah! Of course I did! I just-” Didn’t expect Touko to actually give her one. Quickly, though, Komaru was reaching up to take the book being offered to her. “Thank you! What’s it about?”
“It’s about a c-coal miner in 1920s R-Russia, who contracts b-black lung, and has to worry about p-providing for his family while knowing he could d-die.”
“Oh!” Komaru replied. “That sounds…” Boring. Long. Depressing. “Interesting!”
“Well, if you don’t w-want to read it-”
“No, no, I definitely do!” Komaru lied. “I’ll get started on it tonight, in fact! And we can talk about it once I’m done!”
“F-Fine,” Touko huffed. “I have to g-go back to work now anyway. Making me ch-chase you all over like this,” she muttered under her breath, turning to walk out of the cafe.
“Thank you, Fukawa-san!” Komaru called after her, giving an enthusiastic wave as Touko left the store. After she was left alone, though, she looked back down towards the book that she had been given, much of said enthusiasm draining from her face.
“A book about a dying coal miner,” Celeste hummed. “How truly romantic.”
“Yeah…” Komaru agreed. “I know I should be happy, but…”
“Does that mean you’re not going to read it?” Kyouko asked.
“I’m not sure. I want to, but… Maybe I can get through this the same way I got through high school and just Sparknotes the whole thing.”
“Maybe,” Kyouko replied, nodding slowly. “But I have a feeling that if you try to do that, she’ll be able to tell.”
“You think so?” Komaru asked.
“I do. Call it a hunch.”
Chiaki wasn’t necessarily a bad GameStop employee. She had a lot of potential, and for the most part she was able to do her job well. The problem came from the fact that she only really had two modes: entirely disinterested, or entirely too interested. Sometimes she would hide away behind the counter with her face buried in the screen of her Nentindo Swap, avoiding eye contact with customers at all costs. And then at other times, when customers actually managed to get her talking about something, she didn’t know when to stop. She could ramble on for hours, giving a dozen different recommendations and listing off the complete history of every franchise she mentioned along the way. And for some customers, that was good! If they were as passionate as Chiaki herself, it made for a great customer experience. For most people, though, it just ended up being overwhelming, often scaring them off from the store entirely.
This was one of the days where she seemed to be buried in whatever game she was playing, and it had probably been at least an hour since she had so much as glanced away from her screen. It was only the impatient coughing of a customer that finally caused her to look up.
“Can I help you?” As Chiaki raised her eyes she found herself looking at a particularly rotund boy, eyes hidden behind thick glasses, hair sticking up in a single brown spike.
“Yes, you may!” Hifumi replied. “I’m looking for an especially obscure title, by the name of Akuma Hantā Saikō: Tamashī no Doragonzu no Ikari .”
“The original or the Bahamūto no shi no Buresu remaster?” Chiaki asked, and Hifumi seemed positively shocked to hear such a simple response.
“You- You actually have it?” he gasped. “I’ve been to fourteen different stores so far and none of them have had it!”
“The original is a used copy,” Chiaki murmured out, setting her game down entirely to tap a few keys on the computer in front of her. “The remaster is unopened.”
“Ah, what a cruel predicament to be thrust into!” Hifumi lamented. “Do I take the original copy so that I may experience the game in its native form, even knowing that the disc and box may have been tarnished by unclean hands? Or do I sacrifice the original artistic vision so that I can treasure an unopened, mint condition copy of the remaster? Who could ever think of concocting such a devilishly torturous dialogue option?”
“The remaster has three additional side missions explaining how Bahamut became the Soul King of all dragons, and fixed the late-game damage overflow bug.”
“Additional story??” Hifumi gasped. “Did they fix the plot hole regarding-”
“How Bahamut could still be alive even after he killed Nidhogg who was later revealed to be his past self sent to the future when Fafnir exiled him?” Chiaki finished, nodding eagerly as she leaned in over the counter just a little bit more. “And they even explained how Bahamut could continue to exist in the present after his past self was banished there.”
“Then I must!” Hifumi exclaimed, dramatically raising a single finger into the air. One copy of Akuma Hantā Saikō: Tamashī no Doragonzu no Ikari: Bahamūto no shi no Buresu Edition, please!”
“Wait right here,” Chiaki said, raising a finger in return before disappearing into the back. She was gone for awhile- considerably longer than Hifumi would have thought it would take her to find a single copy of a single game. When she came back out, though, it became clear to him why that was: in her arms, Chiaki was now carrying an enormous stack of games, which she proceeded to set down on the counter between them.
“What’s all this?” Hifumi questioned, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose while he looked down at the tower of cases. “Does the game come on this many discs? I’ve heard it’s a four-hundred hour plus experience but this seems excessive!”
“I know you only asked for the one game,” Chiaki replied, “but when I was back there I realized that if you’re a fan of the Akuma Hantā Saikō series you need to check out Kami Jishin ga Hōki Shita Hinshi no Sekai no Saigo no Iseki . It had the same game director as the original three Akuma Hantā Saikō games, and the lead artist from Tamashī no Doragonzu no Ikari as well.”
“What?? I’d heard rumors that a game like that existed, but I thought it was never finished!”
“Most people think that because Eagle Jump had a dispute with the designer and didn’t list his name in the final credits, but he worked on it up through the last two months of development.”
“Not only is she a shop owner, but she also provides such detailed exposition about the world around her!” Hifumi exclaimed. “Why have so few thought to merge these two concepts before?” The comment seemed to snap Chiaki out of her excited trance, though, causing her to puff out her cheeks and furrow her brow.
“I’m not an NPC,” she protested.
“Eh? O-Of course not!” Hifumi quickly stammered out. “Perhaps- Perhaps this is like Fantajīshoppukīpā no Hibi no Nikki , and you, the humble shopkeep, are actually the player character! In which case…” He paused at that point, a sudden look of shock setting in over his face. “I would be the NPC! Is that even possible??”
“Maybe neither of us are the NPC…” Chiaki suggested. “Maybe it’s co-op. Or massively multiplayer. Which reminds me,” she said, spark suddenly returning to her eye. “Did you hear the rumors about Akuma Hantā Saikō Online?”
“An MMO in the Akuma Hantā Saikō universe? Preposterous!” Hifumi scoffed, turning up his nose at the thought. “Only one person can wield the Dēmonbēn power at a time! There’s no way for a multiplayer environment to account for that!”
“Unless,” Chiaki replied, raising a finger, “you remember that in Akuma Hantā Saikō: Kossetsu no Dēmonbēn the power was split between the protagonist and his twin sister, establishing that it’s capable of manifesting in multiple people at once. And if that’s the case…"
Celeste was an expert in keeping herself calm and composed. She wore her face like a mask, never letting any emotion slip through unless she had already permitted it to do so. Half the time the emotions that she wore were entirely separate from the emotions that she actually felt, but she maintained her outward appearance so expertly that the people around her remained none the wiser. To her, controlling the tone of her voice and each little twitch of a facial muscle was as easy as controlling any other part of her body, and it was all entirely voluntary.
Junko was the one exception to that rule. Not just in the sense that she had a way of getting under Celeste’s skin and driving her to a breaking point of irritation like no one else possibly could, but in the sense that it was very, very hard to maintain her composure when she felt teeth and warm air trailing down her neck, or felt hands tugging impatiently at the sides of her dress.
“Aw…” Junko teased, lips moving back up towards Celeste’s ear. “Are you cracking already? I’ve barely even touched you.”
“Hardly,” Celeste replied. “You simply caught me off guard.”
“We’ll see about that.” And suddenly any attempt that Celeste might have made to save face was shot down, stopped in its tracks by the noise that escaped her as Junko’s teeth returned to her neck.
“You do this intentionally.”
“Guilty as charged,” Junko snickered, and Celeste didn’t even need to look to be able to tell that she was grinning. “I can’t help myself! The faces you make when I get you all riled up are just soooo cute, it’s actually kind of a bummer that I only ever get to see them in this dark, dingy little storage closet.” And that was when, for perhaps the first time in her life, Celeste’s mouth moved faster than her brain.
“It does not have to be that way.” The moment the words left Celeste’s mouth she started to wonder why the hell she had just said them, and it seemed that Junko had a similar reaction. The manager froze in place for a few seconds, anything that she had been about to do fading away until her eyes finally lifted themselves high enough to meet Celeste’s.
“What, are you about to invite me back to your place or something?”
“Or something, yes,” Celeste replied, only able to hold her eyes on Junko’s for a moment before glancing away. “Forget that I said anything. That was foolish of me.”
“Yeah, it was,” Junko agreed, suddenly pulling back to put distance between them once again. “Don’t say stupid shit like that.” Apologizing for her own actions was one thing, but somehow having Junko insult her for them, and after she had apologized no less, lit a spark of anger inside Celeste.
“Is it truly that stupid?” she replied, straightening her posture and narrowing her eyes as she looked towards Junko. She might have been starting to crumble just a moment before, but at least she could bounce back quickly. “Are you really so thoroughly repulsed at the thought of spending time together anywhere outside of this store?”
“We’ve talked about this, Celes-chan.” Usually that name was cutsey and endearing, and felt playful, if not somewhat mocking. Now, though, it was dripping with venom. “I thought we had an understanding.”
“As did I,” Celes agreed. “And that would have been satisfactory. But you chose to drag me back here.”
“And you chose to follow me.” Junko shot Celeste one more glare after that, then turned her back to her employee, walking towards the small mirror that was set up near the wall. She began to straighten her appearance out- her lipstick was smudged now, but at least her clothing and hair still seemed to be neat enough. “You can leave early today,” she added on, causing Celeste’s brow to crease. “Go home.”
“I have no intention of-”
“I’ll still pay you for the full day, so get the fuck out of here.” Celeste said nothing at first, until her shoulders dropped, and she turned back towards the door.
“Very well,” she sighed. “Thank you, Enoshima-san. I will see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Junko replied, never tearing her eyes away from the mirror for a single moment. “See you then.”
“Prepare yourselves, puny humans, for what you are about to witness has gone unseen by human eyes for centuries upon centuries! Legend says that merely attempting to comprehend his gnarled and twisted visage will cause your soul to be torn into a thousand pieces and scattered across the vast planes of reality and unreality alike. I make no promise that such a thing won’t happen to you as well, but if you are truly foolhardy enough to face these risks, then behold: ANDROMILIUS THE WRETCHED! ”
“That’s a rat.”
Nagisa was right. Gundham was, in fact, holding a rat out towards the gaggle of children gathered in front of him.
“Gross!” Kotoko squealed, recoiling away and hiding behind Monaka’s wheelchair. “That’s not cute at all!”
“Ah, I see,” Gundham replied, chuckling to himself as the little creature twitched its nose and continued to look around at the gathered crowd. “You should thank your ignorance. Your inability to see Andromilius in his true form is the only thing keeping your essences shackled to their shells at the moment. Your inability to comprehend has actually spared your feeble lives. Rejoice!”
“It’s a rat ,” Nagisa repeated. “Do you really think any of us are stupid enough to believe-”
“How did you get a demon into a pet store without anyone noticing?” While most of the children seemed skeptical of the rat at best (or, in Kotoko’s case, outright terrified of it), Jataro was leaning in closer, peering at the animal with wide open eyes. “Did you have to sneak him in? Or did he come in through a portal? Or did you have a normal rat and then the demon possessed him like in one of those scary movies?”
“The masked one is the wisest among you!” Gundham laughed. “Andromilius entered into this plane through his own will and chose to inhabit the form you see before you now! It would be nothing more than arrogance to presume that I could assist him in such a task.”
“Well why didn’t he choose form that was cuter?” Kotoko huffed, still cowering behind Monaka and her wheelchair. “Because this form is totally NOT adorbs!”
“Kotoko-chan doesn’t like creepy crawly stuff,” Monaka mused, putting a finger to her chin and tilting her head as she spoke. “Do you have anything cuter? Like fuzzy fluffy kittens!”
“Tch. You come in here seeking cuteness?” Gundham chided. “I did not curate my army of netherworldly lieutenants so that children such as yourselves could complain about-”
“Or puppies!” Kotoko interrupted.
“About a lack of-”
“A lack of-”
“OF CUTENESS. Now begone, insolent whelps!” Gundham commanded. “I have no time to squander on such ungrateful simpletons as yourselves.”
“Hey!” Masaru cut in. “Nobody talks to my friends that way!” The redheaded boy stepped forward at that point, spreading his arms out wide and doing his best to posture in a way that made him look intimidating, despite the significant height disadvantage he was at when facing off against Gundham. It didn’t seem to be working.
“You have disrespected my companions, and so I feel no qualms in disrespecting yours,” Gundham replied. “If you believe that-”
“RUN!” Immediately after shouting that Masaru made it clear why he wanted his friends to run, giving explanation in the form of a sudden kick to Gundham’s shins. It was surprisingly forceful, all things considered, and between that and the surprise factor it managed to succeed in causing Gundham to double over, wincing in pain and grunting through his teeth. The kids immediately booked it towards the store’s exit, Kotoko grabbing onto Monaka’s wheelchair to help her escape even faster, and while Jataro looked horrified by all the trouble they were probably in now and Nagisa looked more annoyed by his friend’s antics than anything else, the rest of them were laughing hysterically.
“That’s what you get, demon!” Kotoko shouted as they fled from the store.
“Your compliments ring hollow, gremlin!” Gundham shouted back, clutching Andromilius to his chest as he watched the children disappear from view. “Unrefined brutes,” he muttered under his breath, looking down at the rat that was peering back up at him. “They could stand to learn many lessons from you, o’ Dark One.”
There were times in his life when Hajime Hinata looked around and had to wonder how his gay ass ended up so constantly surrounded by girls. Sitting at a table in the food court, with Sato on one side of him and Ibuki on the other, Mahiru, Hiyoko, and Mikan all sitting across from him, he realized that this was one of those moments. In fairness’ sake it was more a case of him being basically being “one of the girls,” rather than any harem anime protagonist bullshit, but despite his utter lack of even a single personality trait that could possibly be described as flamboyant, he still couldn’t help but feel like it turned him into a walking stereotype. Maybe he needed to focus on finding some guy friends too.
Or a boyfriend. Either worked.
Meetings like this weren’t really rare. All of them worked at the mall, in different stores (or, in Mahiru’s case, at one of those tacky photo studios with giant plastic props where parents would try to get their kids to sit still for three seconds so they could have a nice family photo), and around once a week they tried to sync up their lunch breaks so they could all meet up together. It wasn’t the only time that they saw each other, of course, but it was the most reliable way to get all six of them in the same place at the same time.
As he took a moment to survey his little group, Hajime could see that all of the tried and true dynamics were still at play. Ibuki was by far the loudest out of all of them, dominating most of the conversation while rattling off words at a mile a minute pace. Mahiru was mostly listening attentively, although she was stealing occasional sideways glances to make sure Hiyoko wasn’t bullying Mikan too badly (she was). And across the table from her, Sato was watching Mahiru watch Hiyoko. Not in a way that made it obvious, but just enough that Hajime could catch Sato staring at Mahiru when she thought nobody else was looking.
“Oh oh oh! Ibuki has big news!” Anyone who had been spacing out of the conversation at that point (which was basically everyone but Mahiru) suddenly snapped back to attention as Ibuki slammed her hands down onto the table in front of her. “Big big big news!”
“This had better not be something stupid again,” Hiyoko cut in from across the table, placing her hands on the surface and lifting herself up out her chair so she could at least come closer to being at the same level as everyone else. “Every time you say you have news it turns out to be dumb!”
“No no no, this is real big news!” Ibuki promised. “Ibuki is throwing a movie party, and you’re all invited!”
“A- A movie party?” Mikan repeated. “That sounds nice…”
“Shut up!” Hiyoko snapped. “Nobody said you’re invited.”
“B-But Mioda-san said-”
“I said shut up!”
“A-Ah! Forgive me!”
“I think that sounds fun, too,” Sato agreed, while Mahiru set about trying to break Hiyoko and Mikan up again. “Are we celebrating something?”
“Yup yup yup!” Ibuki replied. “We’re celebrating a new addition to our group!” Hearing that caused Hiyoko’s focus to immediately shift off of Mikan and back onto Ibuki, and she leaned in over the table, wishing that she were tall enough to properly get up in Ibuki’s face.
“We don’t need a new member!” she insisted. “We’re fine the way we are! In fact,” she said, glancing sideways at Mikan again, “we could probably do with one less.”
“P-Please forgive me!”
“But Ibuki promises, Sonia-chan is super nice and super sweet and super cool and super pretty and all around super awesome and now everyone will finally get to meet her! She asked Ibuki if Ibuki wanted to see a movie and Ibuki thought ‘Yes!’ And then Ibuki thought, ‘Sonia-chan still needs to meet all your other super awesome friends too!’ So now she’s inviting all of you!” Ibuki grinned widely at that point, putting her fists against her hips and puffing her chest out triumphantly, clearly quite proud of the plan she had concocted. Needless to say, the ensuing silence took that wind right out of her sails, and she started to deflate a bit when she realized nobody was complimenting her for her genius.
“Ibuki-chan,” Mahiru finally said, adopting a stern tone that wasn’t that unlike the one she used when she scolded Hiyoko for bullying Mikan. “When you say she asked if you wanted to see a movie, what exactly do you mean?”
“Huh?” Ibuki grunted back, tilting her head at the question. “Well, she just asked if Ibuki wanted to see one!”
“But how, specifically, did she ask that?” Hajime chimed in. “What exactly did she say to you?”
“Well…” Ibuki mused, scratching her chin as she tried to think back to that moment. “Sonia-chan wanted to know if Ibuki was busy over the weekend, and if not, wanted to know if the two of us could see a movie together!”
“The two of you,” Mahiru emphasized. “Notice how she didn’t invite anyone else?”
“Well, yeah! But Ibuki loves friends, and friends love friends, and so Ibuki figured the more the merrier! Do you think… Do you think Sonia-chan doesn’t like you guys??”
“Ibuki-chan,” Mahiru sighed out.
“Ibuki-chan,” Hajime repeated.
“She was asking you out, stupid!”
“EH??????????????” Ibuki’s first reaction was to brush Hiyoko’s comment off as nothing more than the sort of teasing that she’d grown very accustomed to receiving from the smaller girl, but as she looked around the table and saw everyone else staring at her as well, all with the same “duh” expression on their faces, she was forced to take it a little more seriously. “Was- Was she really??”
“She didn’t just want to go to the movies with you,” Mahiru replied. “She wanted to go on a date with you.” Suddenly Ibuki was sitting up stock straight in her chair, looking around the food court in a frenzy for a few seconds before jumping out of her seat so haphazardly that she nearly knocked the whole table over in the process.
“I HAVE TO GO DO A THING I’LL SEE YOU ALL LATER BYE!” Ibuki blurted out. With that she was turning and scrambling away from the rest of her friends as fast she could, tripping over at least three other people’s chairs in the process.
“Ibuki-chan…” Mahiru sighed, resting her face into her hand. “How can she be so clueless?”
“I’m not sure,” Sato agreed, looking at Mahiru from across the table. “I really don’t know.”
Ibuki wasn’t sure she had ever booked it anywhere so fast in her entire life. She was barreling her way down the corridors of the mall, zipping and weaving between shoppers, hurdling over a wet floor sign while shouting out a rapid “SORRY KIRUMI-CHAN!” Her legs were flailing around so wildly it was a miracle she hadn’t ended up tripping over her own feet and faceplanting yet, but by some act of god she managed to keep going, tearing her way through the crowd until she finally saw the familiar awning of her Hot Topic greeting her from not that far away. She was out of breath, but breathing could wait until later! Right now she had a situation to remedy, and as she zipped around the corner into the store she finally found herself face to face with-
Not the person she was expecting.
“Oh, hello, Mioda-san. Returning from your break?”
“Eh?? Celes-chan??” Ibuki had nearly gone crashing face first into the other girl, and stopping on a dime to avoid that had practically given her whiplash. Celeste was standing in front of her in casual attire (or at least, what Celeste herself would deem casual attire. ie, not wearing her Sephora uniform), hands crossed in front of her waist, holding a shopping bag. “What are you doing here??”
“Shopping, I would presume,” Celeste replied. After saying that, though, she creased her brow, realizing that Ibuki didn’t really seem to be paying attention to her at all. Ibuki was bouncing up on her toes in a not at all subtle attempt to look past Celeste, eyes darting around the store and scanning furiously until she found… Sonia, standing near the back, folding t-shirts. “Is something the matter, Mioda-san?”
“Nope nope not at all! Ibuki’s just in a reaaaal big hurry right now and needs to talk to Sonia-chan like right away so IT WAS NICE SEEING YOU CELES-CHAN!” Then, without any other warning, Ibuki was blowing past Celeste, shooting towards the back of the store.
“Likewise,” Celeste replied, noise crinkling as she exited the establishment.
“Sonia-chan Sonia-chan Sonia-chan!” Ibuki shouted out as she charged towards her coworker. She was already out of breath from the running alone, and all of the shouting on top of that didn’t help. By the time she actually reached Sonia she was doubling over with her hands on her knees, wheezing as she tried to get some air back in her lungs.
“Mioda-san?” Sonia asked, looking up from her work. She wore a polite smile, although she was obviously a fair bit confused as well. “You are back early.”
“Uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh!” Ibuki replied, still trying to breathe and speak at the same time. “Because Ibuki has something suuuuper important to tell you!”
“Oh, how exciting!” Sonia said, clapping her hands together. “I have something very big to share with you as well!”
“Eh??” Ibuki grunted, for the tenth time in as many minutes. “What kind of big??”
“Well… Ludenberg-san was in here just before you arrived-”
“Yeah yeah! Ibuki saw her leaving!” Sonia giggled at the interjection before continuing.
“Well, she came in here to speak to me. And… To ask me to accompany her on a date.”
There was a difference between feeling like you didn’t have enough air in your lungs and feeling like you didn’t have any left in there at all, and in that moment, Ibuki experienced that difference firsthand. She went from feeling like she was having a hard time catching her breath because of all the running and shouting she had done to feeling like the wind had been knocked clean out of her, and it took a few seconds just to be able to fully process what Sonia had said, formulate a response, and then actually get that response past her mouth.
“W-What did Sonia-chan say??”
“Well, I said yes.” Oh . Ibuki had been wrong. Her lungs hadn’t been completely empty a moment before. But now they were.
“That’s- Ibuki is really really happy for you!” She forced herself to say those words, and to smile, although she couldn’t imagine it didn’t look strained now. “Soo… It’s like a date date? With candles and flowers and romance?”
“Indeed!” Sonia replied, nodding far too cheerfully for Ibuki’s liking. “She is taking me out to a fancy restaurant this weekend. I am sure it will be very romantic!”
“That’s great! Ibuki’s happy for you! Super super super super super super super super super happy!” Was that too many supers? Probably. “Oh! But uh, I just, uh, I realized! I think I left my wallet in the food court so I’m gonna, um, y’know,” Ibuki stammered incoherently, making vague hand gestures in the direction of the store’s exit. “Be right back!” Before Sonia had the chance to say anything else Ibuki was sprinting out of the store just as quickly as she had come in, if not faster.
“Okay! I will be here waiting!” Sonia called after her. Ibuki just barely managed to make it out of the store before the tears started.
“Twenty piece McNugget and a large coke! You got that Saihara? And the double quarter pounder’s on you, Harumaki!”
“Shut up.” Maki always got annoyed by just how damn loud and demanding Kaito was during the lunch rush. She supposed she did have to give him credit, though- for someone who looked like he would tie his own shoelaces together without realizing it, he ran a surprisingly tight ship. It was a level of efficiency she wouldn’t have thought him capable of, if she wasn’t seeing it with her own eyes. That said, out all the things you could choose to be efficient at, she felt like this was pretty firmly at the bottom of the totem pole.
Even after a few weeks, Maki still hadn’t shaken the feeling that this was a particularly undignified line of work. She spent her shifts putting circles of greasy beef in between bread, lathering them with condiments, and serving them up to people who had probably never had a healthy meal in their entire life. There were so many other things she could be doing to earn money, even within this very mall, and she constantly found herself puzzling over just how Kaito had talked her into this in the first place. It still wasn’t too late to quit, she told herself. She could still find something else.
“Hey! Heyyy! Saihara-kun! And… Nocturne-san!” That perplexing name was enough to get Maki’s attention, and when she looked up she saw the source of it. Standing on the other side of the counter, waving at her with far too much energy for Maki’s own liking, was the girl from the music store the other day. Shuichi was looking up as well, and he quickly seemed to recognize her.
“Akamatsu-san,” he said, smiling as he approached the counter. Then, looking back at Maki, “I didn’t realize you two knew each other.”
“We don’t, really,” Maki replied. “She just helped me buy a CD.”
“I didn’t know you and Nocturne-san were friends either!” Kaede said, before Maki quickly cut in again.
“That’s not my name. It’s Maki Harukawa.”
“Aww, but Nocturne-san has such a fun ring to it,” Kaede sighed, putting up a little pout. “It’s so dark and mysterious, you know? I think that’s fun!” Maki simply stared at Kaede in response to that for a few seconds, before looking back towards her grill.
“I can’t talk right now anyway. We’re busy.”
“Damn right we are!” Kaito shouted out. “So I want everyone working double-time! That goes for you too, Saihara!”
“Sorry,” Shuichi laughed. “You came at kind of a bad time, Akamatsu-san. We always get busy around this time of day.”
“Oh, it’s alright! I woudn’t wanna get you in trouble with your boss,” Kaede said, only for Maki to shoot that thought down immediately.
“He’s not our boss,” she said, never lifting her eyes from the grill, or from the digusting meat patties sizzling away on top of it. “He just thinks he is.”
“Hey! I may not be your boss, but I’ve still got seniority! I could totally fire you both if I wanted to!”
“Then do it.” Maki finally lifted her head, staring Kaito dead in the eyes. Kaito stared back for a few seconds, before making the wise decision of backing down.
“Well… I wouldn’t do that, ‘cause you guys are my sidekicks!” he insisted. “And a guy’s nothing without his sidekicks, right? We’ve got each other’s backs. And right now I need you guys to have my back by knocking these orders into the fuckin’ moon! So who’s with me??”
“He’s really loud,” Kaede whispered to Shuichi.
“I heard that!”
“Anyway,” she giggled, “I’ll come back some other time when you’re not so busy, alright?”
“Yeah, definitely,” Shuichi agreed. “It was good seeing you.”
“Likewise! And it was good seeing you, too, Nocturne-san!”
“I told you,” Maki grumbled, starting to turn to face Kaede. “My name is-” When she actually looked in the blonde’s direction, though, and saw her standing there with that enormous smile on her face, any protest she might have made seemed to get caught halfway up her throat. Maki stood there like that for longer than she would have liked before realizing how stupid she probably looked at the moment, at which point she quickly pulled her attention back towards her work. She realized her face felt warm, although she hoped that was just from the grill. “Whatever.”
“See you guys around!” Kaede laughed, before slipping away from the counter and skipping back off into the depths of the food court. Maki kept her head down for a solid thirty seconds after that, only daring to look back up when she was confident that Kaede would be gone. When she did so, though, she found Shuichi staring right at her from across the kitchen.
“Do you need something?” she growled.
“Aha, no,” Shuichi replied, putting his hands up and shaking his head. “I was just… Wondering something, I guess.”
“We’re not getting paid to wonder things.”
“No, I guess we’re not,” he chuckled, turning his attention back towards the deep fryer. “Forget I said anything.”
“An entire sale, all by yourself, start to finish? That’s a first for you, isn’t it?”
“Y-Yes…” Mikan replied, fidgeting nervously with her fingers and shifting her weight back and forth between her feet as she stood there in front of Junko. “But th-the customer seemed really h-happy…”
“Oh, I’ll bet they did,” Junko chuckled, starting to scrawl something down on her clipboard. “I’ll be sure to make a note of that. I’m proud of you, Mikan-chan.” The noise that Mikan made when she heard Junko say she was proud was one that didn’t seem fit for public, although Junko didn’t seem to mind. The only person bothered by it was Celeste.
That said, Celeste was less bothered by it than she normally would have been. Typically, this was the sort of thing that would have gotten right under her skin and very effectively pissed her off. She would have felt her stomach churning in disgust, and would barely be resisting the urge to light Mikan on fire the moment the bitch turned her back. Today, though, Celeste could rest a little bit easier. Because she knew she had a secret weapon in her back pocket.
Metaphorically, of course. She would never be caught dead in an outfit that had pockets.
“Feel free to take a couple extra minutes on your break today!” Junko called out as Mikan disappeared towards the back of the store. “You’ve earned it!” After one of her employees was gone Junko turned towards the other, an enormous grin stretching over her face. “It just warms your heart to see her all excited like that, doesn’t it? She’s like an adorable little puppy or something.”
“I’ve never much cared for dogs,” Celeste replied. “I prefer cats.”
“Right, probably should’ve seen that one coming. Either way,” Junko said, interlacing her fingers and resting her chin on top of them, “I just love seeing one of my employees get all happy like that.”
“Yes, I suppose it is rather nice.” Even though she was looking straight ahead, rather than over at Junko, Celeste could still see how quickly her manager’s head snapped around when she said that out of the corner of her vision. She could just barely make out the briefly shocked expression Junko was wearing without actually looking, and it took all of the restraint she had to keep the satisfied smirk that was threatening to spread over her lips down to a genuine looking smile instead.
“Are you actually acting happy for someone?” Junko asked. “What’s gotten into you? That’s not like you at all.”
“Do you really think so little of me that you would find it hard to believe I could find enjoyment in another human being’s happiness?”
“A human being like Mikan-chan, yeah.”
“And what, exactly, makes Tsumiki-san an unusual case?” After Celeste said that she could practically feel the air pressure in the room change, and the ensuing silence was proof this was going the way she wanted it to. Neither of them were stupid, of course. Celeste knew what Junko had meant. Junko knew Celeste knew what she had meant. It was all out in the open. But it was that unspoken sort of knowledge, where neither of them wanted to be the one to break the silence on that topic. Junko had made a critical misstep in even coming near it, and now she was realizing how badly she had backed herself into a corner. The triumphant smile tried even harder to creep onto Celeste’s face as she thought about that, and it took even more restraint to hold it back. For once in her life she had finally managed to end up a step ahead of Junko Enoshima, and now she was going to milk this for all it was worth while she still had the chance. Which meant that, as tempting as it was to leave Junko in this position and watch her continue to squirm, it was time to play her next card instead.
“If you must know,” Celeste went on, “I suppose that I am in quite a good mood at the moment.”
“Oh yeah?” Junko replied, sounding all too relieved to have a way to avoid answering that last question. “And why’s that?”
“Because. I have a date this weekend.” Another silence. Another unspoken tension. Another rush of victory as Celeste reached out across the table to gather up Junko’s wagered chips. And then-
“Ooooh! How exciting! Who’s the lucky lady? I mean, I’m assuming it’s a lady. No part of this,” Junko said, gesturing up and down Celeste’s entire figure, “screams interest in dudes. I’m happy for you though!”
What the hell was this? This wasn’t how Celeste had foreseen this unfolding. Junko would act happy for her, of course, but it would be a feigned happiness, concealing frustration as she watched her control slip away. It would be fake smiles and forced politeness, all while Celeste found arrogant satisfaction in twisting her heel even deeper into Junko’s chest. That was how this was meant to go, at least. But the reality was proving to be something entirely different. This happiness seemed entirely too genuine. Like Junko really was excited for her.
Like Junko was relieved to finally have Celeste out of her hair.
“Her name is Sonia Nevermind. She works in this mall as well. She is European,” Celeste explained, the “I’m rubbing my happiness in your face” smile she had been wearing a moment before disappearing abruptly as her expression returned to one of stone cold neutrality.
“Oooh, European. Of course you would spring for something like that, Ludenberg-san,” Junko teased. “Does she have pale European skin? Fair blonde hair?”
“And what about her tits? Are they huge?”
“That seems inappropriate to ask.”
“I was just wondering,” Junko said, putting up an innocent pout. “Because if she is some blonde-haired big-boobed hussie,” she went on, suddenly leaning in right next to Celeste’s ear, dropping her voice down to a biting whisper, “it’s starting to seem like you have a type.”
There it was. Celeste hadn’t been stupid enough to believe that her position of power over Junko would last for long, but she had at least hoped for a little bit more than this. She hadn’t expected Junko to be able to claw her way back from the brink of defeat so suddenly, or to do it so brutally, but those words made her body go stiff, made her stomach twist, sent a chill right up her spine. And then, before she had a chance to respond, Junko was pulling back away again, acting all bright and bubbly, as if she hadn’t said anything at all.
“Anyway, I hope your date goes well!” she cheered, stretching her grin far too wide to even try to pretend it was genuine. “You’ll have to tell me aaaall about it afterwards!”
“Yes,” Celeste replied, never tearing her eyes away from the wall at the other end of the store for a single moment. “I will be certain that I do.”
“Hyup! Hyyyup! Hyyyyyyyup! ...Dammit.” Aoi Asahina muttered a few more curses under her breath as she stared up at the shelf above her, gradually coming to realize that no amount of jumping would make her tall enough to reach it. Which was a problem, since the box she was holding was supposed to go up there. She started to glance around the store, looking for a stepladder that would give her the extra height she needed, but she instead found the lumbering figure of Sakura Oogami right beside her.
“Do you require assistance, Asahina?”
“Sakura-chan! Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Aoi huffed.
“I don’t think it would be possible for me to sneak up on anyone. Be more aware of your surroundings.” As she spoke Sakura reached down to take the shoebox Aoi was holding, lifting it up over her head and putting it in its spot on the shelf with ease. Having over an extra foot of height over the other girl would do that.
“You say that, but you’re always so quiet when you’re walking around!” Aoi insisted. “It’s like your footsteps are silent or something! Like some kind of ninja!”
“Anyone can quiet their footsteps with a small amount of practice. I suppose I’ve done it so much it’s become second nature to me. But my apologies,” Sakura said, bowing slightly at the waist. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Aw, don’t be silly!” Aoi replied, waving a hand to dismiss the concerns. “That’s nothing to be sorry for. I guess I’m kinda a huge scaredy-cat anyway.” Once she said that the smaller of the two girls looked back up towards the shelf where Sakura had placed the box, scrunching her face up as a displeased expression crossed over it. “I’m kinda jealous though… I wish I could reach stuff that easily!” Sakura looked down at Aoi after she said that, then back up at the shelf, seeming to contemplate something for a few seconds before she lowered herself to the ground, kneeling down in front of her coworker.
“Climb on my shoulders.”
“What??” Aoi blurted out. “Seriously?”
“I’m entirely serious,” Sakura replied. “Obviously I cannot carry you around forever, but I can give you a glimpse of this height.”
“But won’t I be heavy?”
“You insult me.” Aoi looked around for a few more seconds, still wondering if this was a good idea. They were surrounded by shelves and displays in every direction, all of which looked like they could easily get knocked over. This seemed like the sort of thing that could easy go wrong in a dozen different ways. And yet…
She kind of really wanted to do it anyway.
“Alright…” Aoi eventually replied, giving one last glance to make sure there weren’t any customers around to see them goofing off like this. “But you’d better not drop me!”
“Once again, you insult me.” With Sakura’s words Aoi walked around behind the much taller, much more muscular girl, carefully slinging one leg over her shoulders, then the other. Even before Sakura had stood up straight her feet were already off the ground, and Aoi found herself grabbing onto the collar of Sakura’s uniform a little more tightly than was probably necessary, just to make sure she didn’t go tumbling over backwards.
“Are you ready?” Sakura asked, once Aoi seemed to have gotten herself nicely situated.
“Yeah,” Aoi replied. “I’m ready.” Sakura simply nodded after that, and then, without another word, started standing back up straight, hoisting Aoi another four feet or so into the air. The smaller of the pair squealed as she suddenly found herself lifted so high, and if it weren’t for the solid grip Sakura had on her legs, it seemed like there was a good chance she would have ended up toppling backwards anyway. After the initial disorientation wore off, though, and Aoi started to grow used to this new height, she took the opportunity to look around the store- and then up.
“Don’t get any taller!” she warned Sakura. “I’m only like, two inches from the ceiling!”
“I don’t think that will be an issue. I’m already standing at full height. Do you enjoy the view from up there?”
“Yeah! Everything looks way different! I can see over the tops of the shelves and everything,” Aoi observed, taking a moment to do just that. And then regretting it. “It’s really dusty up here…”
“Unsurprising. Even I have a hard time reaching that high.” And Sakura was the tallest person in the store, by a decent margin. “I’ll be sure to make a note of that, though.”
“Of course you’re still thinking about work right now,” Aoi grumbled. “I thought this was supposed to be fun!”
“For you. This experience is no different than usual for me.”
“Well, I would offer to let you up on my shoulders after this, but…”
“HEY!” Interrupted and startled by the sound of her manager’s voice, Aoi twisted around towards the source of the noise so quickly that, once again, she very nearly went falling backwards. She was only actually able to face Akane once Sakura turned in that direction as well, and by that point Aoi was wearing a pretty guilty look on her face. “What the hell are you two doin’ over here?”
“Ah! We were just-” Aoi started to stammer out, realizing there was no good way to explain her way out of a situation like this. Fortunately, it seemed like she didn’t have to.
“Cause from the looks of it you two are chicken fighting or something. But I don’t see how that’s gonna work when you don’t have any opponents! Chabashira!”
“Me!” Tenko chimed in, popping out of the corner of the store she had been in. “What do you need, boss?”
“Climb up on my shoulders! We got some punks to show up!”
“Aye aye, boss!” Aoi had no idea what was happening, but she wasn’t about to look this gift horse in the mouth either.
“Bring it on!” she called back. “We’re not gonna go easy on you guys!”
“I wouldn’t want ya to!”
“This seems like a bad idea,” Sakura murmured under her breath.
“Shush,” Aoi whispered back. “It probably is. But at least we’re not in trouble.”
Kirumi huffed under her breath as she ran her broom along the tile of the mall’s second floor walkway, wondering just how this much dirt had managed to gather up in the first place. She understood that people would naturally track this sort of thing whenever they walked anywhere, but there was so damn much of it at the moment, it seemed excessive. Almost as if someone had been stomping around in the woods immediately before deciding to come here.
“Toujou-saaaaaan!” Concentration broken, Kirumi looked up from what she had been doing to find a particularly energetic Sephora manager walking towards her, waving a hand through the air eagerly as she did so. “You really made me look all over for you, huh? If I didn’t know any better I would think you were trying to hide from me.”
“Don’t be absurd, Enoshima-san,” Kirumi replied, setting her broom back into place on her cart. “You know that I would never do such a thing. Do you require my services?” It would hardly be the first time she’d gotten called into Junko’s store after Mikan had knocked over an entire display and ended up spilling makeup everywhere, although the lack of anything on Junko’s actual outfit meant that maybe wasn’t the case.
“Nah, it’s nothing like that,” Junko replied, dismissing the thought with a wave of her hand as she slid up next to Kirumi. She slung herself over the bannister at the edge of the balcony, leaning over it to peer at the lower level of the mall. When she looked back towards Kirumi her eyes were narrowed, and she was suddenly speaking in a hushed whisper. “I actually came here because I have something important to tell you.” After saying that she gave a tiny, urgent wave, summoning Kirumi closer to her. The janitor was obviously skeptical, arching an eyebrow back at Junko, but she decided to play along, stepping in a little closer.
“Yes? And what is this something important?”
“You see those kids down there?” After saying that Junko pointed down to a small group of children that were gathered together near the vending machine on the first floor. There were five of them- a girl in a wheelchair, an energetic redheaded boy, a far more calm seeming blue-haired boy, another girl with long pink pigtails, and one kid who, for some odd reason, was wearing a mask over his entire face.
“Yes, I see them” Kirumi replied, following Junko’s gaze down towards the small group. “What of them?”
“They’re a bunch of little troublemakers,” Junko declared. “Running around this whole mall like they own the place, tormenting employees and shit. You should keep a close eye on them.”
“I’m unsure as to why you’re telling me this. As you know,” Kirumi stated, “I simply handle the cleaning. For matters related to security or rule violations, you should be speaking with Ishimaru-kun.”
“ Seriously ?” Junko spoke the word with as much disdain as she could muster, and as Kirumi turned her head she found the other’s gaze piercing into her, an exasperated expression adorning her face. “You’re really gonna do this right now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking abo-”
“ Oooh, look at me! ” Junko said, waving her hands around in front of herself as she spoke, voice taking on a tone of obvious mockery. “ I’m Kirumi Toujou! I’m the stoic, silent protector of this entire mall! I do all the work and keep everyone safe but I’m waaay too cool to ever take credit for it, so I just let Paul Blart Junior over there get all the glory instead! Give it a fucking rest. It’s okay to be proud of yourself sometimes, y’know.” After she finished speaking Junko and Kirumi simply stared at each other for a few long, tense moments, neither of them saying anything. Eventually Junko snapped her eyes away, looking back out over the bannister again, down towards the children once more.
“Very well,” Kirumi eventually said, letting her own gaze match Junko’s path and return to the small group of delinquents. “I will be sure to keep a close watch on them.”
“Yeah? Good,” Junko grunted, before extending her finger once again. This time she seemed to be singling out one kid in particular, pointing towards the pink haired girl that was leaning up against her friend’s wheelchair. “Look out for that one especially. I think she’s like, their ringleader or something. Up to all kinds of no good.” At that claim Kirumi opened her mouth to say something, although before any words actually left her she shut it again. A slight smile tugged at the corners of her lips, and she chuckled softly.
“Ah, of course,” she replied. “I’ll be sure to keep an extra close eye out for her.”
“Great! I knew I could count on you, Toujou-san!” Just as quickly as she had sombered Junko was back to being all smiles, bouncing up and flashing a peace sign and a corny grin in Kirumi’s direction. “Anyway, I should probably get back to my store now. You know how dangerous it is for me to leave my employees alone in there.”
“I’m well aware. I’m starting to think I should be more concerned about them than about these alleged juvenile delinquents.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Junko replied, rolling her eyes as she started to back away from Kirumi. “I’m serious though! Keep an eye on those kids or they’ll end up bringing this whole place down.”
“Yes, yes,” Kirumi replied, smiling softly to herself as she reached for her broom once more. “I already said that I would.”
With this chapter we're heading into the first section of real, significant, continuous plot. A whole handful of things are going to happen in this one night, and because it's all within this short period of time I think it makes the most sense to post all of the chapters consecutively, instead of breaking them up with other chapters about other arcs in between like I've done up until now. This means that the for the next couple of chapters things will progress more like a traditional story, focusing on the same characters and the same plot thread instead of jumping all around, but I promise I'm not abandoning the vignette style this fic has used up until now or anything like that. We'll be back to business as usual soon, but until then I hope you all enjoy the ride!
Despite all of Ibuki’s wishing and hoping and praying, her sheer force of will hadn’t managed to prevent the weekend from coming. Every day that she had checked off on her calendar had brought her closer and closer to what she could only describe as The Reckoning, and now it was finally here: the night of Sonia’s big date.
It was rare for all six members of their friend group to get together outside of their weekly lunch meetups, thanks to how busy their schedules tended to be, but Mahiru had been fairly insistent about making sure they all hung out at her and Hiyoko’s apartment tonight, in what was a fairly transparent attempt to keep Ibuki distracted. She had gone out of her way to rent a whole stack of campy horror movies she thought Ibuki would enjoy, and had even stocked up on all the sugary snacks and drinks she would normally never let the already far too hyper girl near. But it still wasn’t enough to turn Ibuki into anything more than a depression lump on the floor.
She had collapsed on the rug in the middle of the room pretty much the moment she had first walked in, and she hadn’t moved from that spot since. Even now, as Hajime sat in the chair, and Mahiru sat on the couch with Mikan on one side of her and Sato just a liiittle bit closer than usual on the other, and Hiyoko sat on the floor behind Ibuki, paying more attention to playing with her colorful hair than to the movie itself, she still hadn’t moved.
“Are you sure you don’t want some of the popcorn, Ibuki-chan?” Mahiru asked, stretching the bowl out in Ibuki’s direction. She had been doing little things like that all night, trying to cheer Ibuki up in whatever tiny ways she could, but so far they had all been met with the same degree of failure. It didn’t seem like this would be any different.
“No…” Ibuki mumbled, face still pressed down into the rug underneath her. “If Ibuki tries to eat right now she’ll just get sick to her stomach.”
“Jeez,” Hiyoko groaned, rolling her eyes and giving a particularly sharp tug to Ibuki’s hair. “What was the point of even coming here if you’re just gonna be all sad and mopey the entire time?”
“Hiyoko!” Mahiru immediately chided, although she was cut off by Ibuki slowly shaking her head.
“Nooo, Hiyoko-chan is right,” she sighed. “Ibuki is being real real sad and she’s bringing the rest of you down and she’s sorryyyy.”
“This is why I keep saying you shouldn’t just sit around feeling bad for no reason. If you’re sad then get up and do something about it!” It wasn’t the first time over the course of the evening that Hiyoko had made that suggestion. Her initial rousing speech of “Your woman is out there with some other floozie, so get up and win her back!” had been met with skepticism and dirty looks, though, and it didn’t seem like this was likely to be an exception.
“Hiyoko-chan, we’ve talked about this,” Mahiru sighed. “Life isn’t a romantic comedy. Ibuki-chan can’t just go crashing into the restaurant in the middle of their date to interrupt it.”
“Why not?” Mahiru had expected to hear a retort like that from Hiyoko, but she was surprised to hear it from a different source instead: the girl sitting right next to her. Sato had been quiet on this issue throughout the evening, but now it seemed like she finally had something to say about it. Presumably something she had been wanting to say for a while, actually. If it had been anyone other than Mahiru, she would have done it a long time ago.
“What do you mean why not?” Mahiru asked, face creasing down into a faint scowl. “It’s a nice restaurant. Ibuki-chan can’t just barge in there and make a scene like that.”
“You’ve been saying that all night, but why ?” Sato insisted.
“Eh? Sato-chan?” Ibuki grunted out, and for probably the first time all evening she lifted her head, juuust far enough that she could actually see her friend talking.
“All I’m saying is if the person you liked were out there on a date with someone else, would you really just sit around on your ass letting it happen? You wouldn’t put up a fight for them?”
“You’re talking about bursting into a fancy restaurant and trying to break up a relationship! Don’t make light of something like that.”
“They’re on a first date! Don’t blow it out of proportion by calling it a relationship!”
“I think Koizumi-san is right,” Mikan chimed in. “You should respect their date, Mioda-san. It’s unfortunate, but Ludenberg-san has made her choice.”
“You mean Sonia-san?”
“Ibuki onee-chan doesn’t have to respect anyone!” Hiyoko insisted. “Especially a poser wannabe princess like Ludenberg. She should stand up for herself!”
“But but but, Mahiru-chan is right! I can’t just charge into the middle of their date! People would look at me funny!” Despite her objections, though, that was the most energy that Ibuki had shown since showing up- hell, probably since learning about Sonia’s date in the first place. She was gradually getting more vertical as well, slowly lifting herself back to an upright spot so that she could actually be a proper part of the conversation.
“Don’t think of it as breaking into the middle of their date-”
“Even though that’s exactly what it is,” Mahiru protested.
“Think of it as a big romantic gesture!” Sato continued. “Showing up in some super dramatic fashion to tell her how much you care about her- you could even play a song for her! Bring your guitar!”
“If you were carrying a guitar I doubt they would even let you into the restaurant,” Mikan insisted, her voice remaining eerily calm compared to everyone else in the conversation. “You should probably just give up on this.”
“Nobody asked for your opinion, you brain dead cow!”
“Hinata-kun! Talk some sense into them!” Hajime flinched when he realized Mahiru’s attention had fallen on him, followed a moment later by everyone else’s. He had been noticeably silent during this conversation, and that hadn’t been an accident. Arguments like these weren’t exactly a rare occurrence in their group, and whenever they broke out, there tended to be strong opinions on both sides. Typically, he found it was best to just keep his head down and not get involved. But this time around, it didn’t seem like he was being given that option.
As he looked around the room he realized how intently everyone else was staring at him, and he supposed he could understand why. With the way things were right now, they were pretty evenly split. Mahiru and Mikan on one side, Sato and Hiyoko on the other, Ibuki herself unsure of what to do. If Ibuki was really looking for advice, which it sort of seemed like she was, his opinion had the potential to be the deciding vote. Which made him feel even worse for stabbing Mahiru in the back like this.
“Well, actually… I don’t think it’s the worst idea,” he admitted. The cheers that came from Hiyoko and Sato and the noise of confusion that came from Ibuki paled in comparison to the piercing glare he got from Mahiru.
“You what ?” she demanded.
“I just mean, maybe there’s something to be said for it!” he replied, quickly trying to justify himself before Mahiru came across the room and gutted him. “It sounds kind of crazy and stupid, sure, but… Isn’t love supposed to make people do crazy, stupid things? I think, if I felt strongly about someone, and they were off somewhere else, with someone else… I wouldn’t want to just sit around and let that happen either. I’d want to at least try to do something about it.”
“See? Three against two! Grab your guitar, Ibuki onee-chan! You have a date to crash!”
“Wait wait wait wait wait! I didn’t agree to this yet! I don’t even have a love song ready!”
“We’ll come up with something along the way!” Sato insisted, hopping up off the couch. Suddenly she and Hiyoko were grabbing their friend by the arms, lifting the still somewhat boneless musician to her feet.
“Ibuki can’t come up with a song that fast! She needs more time!”
“We’ll help you!” Hiyoko promised. “Let’s go!” Despite a few more bouts of protest the two of them were already well on their way to getting Ibuki across the room and out of the door, and although they were practically having to drag her limp body across the apartment, at the very least Ibuki wasn’t fighting them. Hajime laughed softly as he watched this unfold, figuring it was probably in everyone’s best interest for him to follow along and make sure they didn’t get themselves into too much trouble along the way. As he stood, though, he looked back towards the couch were Mahiru and Mikan remained, offering the two of them a cautious smile.
“You’re not coming?” he asked. Mahiru glared back at him for a few more seconds before letting out a long sigh, reluctantly getting to her feet. And, not wanting to be the only one left behind, Mikan did the same.
“She’s making a huge mistake,” Mahiru insisted.
“Yeah, maybe,” Hajime replied. “But some mistakes are worth making.”
“Are you enjoying your meal so far, Nevermind-san?”
“Yes! It is quite wonderful! Thank you again for inviting me out tonight.”
“Oh, you do not need to thank me,” Celeste chuckled. “Knowing that you are enjoying yourself is more than thanks enough.” The restaurant she had invited Sonia to was, as promised, fancy. Fancy enough that it was surprising someone who worked on retail wages could actually afford to eat there on her own, let alone take someone else out on a date there. But if Celeste invited someone on a date, she was going to commit. No half-assing to be found here.
So far, the evening had been going well enough for the two of them. Celeste had shown up at Sonia’s home to pick her up, had offered an arm as they walked the few blocks to their destination, had insisted on purchasing one of the fanciest wines on the menu for their table, presumably just for show. She was, perhaps, putting a little bit too much effort into all of this, but Sonia supposed she found that to be endearing, in a way. She couldn’t fault Celeste for wanting to show off a little bit, and it was nice to be made to feel like she was worth this much effort.
“So, tell me more about yourself,” Celeste prompted, in between dainty little bites of her meal. “I feel like I do not know much, beyond what we have talked about on the occasions I have come into your store.”
“Ah! Well, what would you like to know?” Sonia replied. “There are many things I could tell you about myself!”
“Anything will do. Perhaps-”
“SONIA-CHAAAAAAN!” And just like that, the polite quiet of the evening was shattered. Celeste was thankful for the relatively dim lighting the restaurant’s insistence on ambiance had provided, because for that split second, she couldn’t contain the expression of pure irritation that twitched across her face. She knew who that voice belonged to immediately, of course. The only thing she didn’t know was what the hell she was doing here .
Sonia’s head turned towards the source of the shouting, and she wasn’t the only one. Ibuki had already managed to attract the attention of basically every single patron in the whole establishment, along with most of the wait staff as well. It wasn’t every day that a girl with multicolored hair and skeleton tights came bursting into the classy dining room brandishing an acoustic guitar while shouting someone’s name.
“Mioda-san??” Sonia blurted out, hastily looking back and forth between Ibuki, then Celeste, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Celeste’s expression had already returned to cold neutrality, only the slightest hint of displeasure still drawn across it as she silently assessed what to do about this situation.
“Sonia-chan! I came here because I have something important to tell you!” the musician called out, jumping up onto one of the tables nearest her as she did so (thankfully the couple seated there didn’t appear to have ordered yet, so she didn’t end up with her foot in a hot bowl of soup, although she did send some bread rolls scattering across the floor). “But she-”
“Ma’am!” One of the waiters interrupted, rushing up to the table where Ibuki was standing. “You can’t do this! You need to leave!”
“I’m sorry waiter-chan, but I’m on a mission! A mission of love!” she declared, fending the waiter’s attempts to grab her off with kicks while she readied her guitar in her hands. “Ibuki wrote this song on the way over here! It’s called ‘Ibuki Really Really Really Really Really Really Really Really Really Really Likes You And She Should Have Said So Sooner!’ That’s a working title because Sato-chan and Hiyoko-chan just helped me come up with it five minutes ago but now I’m gonna perform it for you and-!”
“Mioda-san!” Sonia shouted the name out as she rose from her seat, interrupting Ibuki’s song just as the first chord was struck, pushing past all the chaos and rushing towards the table that had been turned into an impromptu stage. “What are you doing here?”
“Eh?? Ibuki just said! She’s here to play you a song and win your heart and-”
“I don’t understand!” Sonia insisted. “I- I asked you out, at work, and you…”
“And Ibuki didn’t realize that was what you were doing because- Because I’m kind of really dumb sometimes!” Ibuki admitted. “I’m kind of dumb, and I don’t always get people, and I don’t always understand things other people think are obvious, and I especially don’t always understand romance! And I can’t promise that this won’t ever happen again, and that I won’t ever do something stupid, or say something stupid. But… But I like you a lot, Sonia-chan! A lot a lot a lot a lot! And if you don’t mind me being stupid, and dumb, and a big idiot, then- Then I wanna be a big dumb stupid idiot with you!”
“Mioda-san…” As Ibuki finally finished her rambling she realized that she’d left herself gasping for breath, but as she doubled over to get some air back in her lungs she saw that the blonde had tears in her eyes. Hopefully, they were the good kind.
“I… I do not know what to say,” Sonia continued on. “But- Ah! Ludenberg-san…” She turned back towards her table to address Celeste, only to find that her date had already risen from her seat. She was standing there with her hands folded in front of her now, expression stoic and neutral, red eyes slowly moving back and forth between Ibuki and Sonia.
“Nevermind-san,” she said, her voice staying calm and level. “You wish to accept her confession, do you not?”
“Ah. I…” The words froze in Sonia’s throat for a moment there, and even though it was only for a second or two at most, it was enough time to feel how intently everyone was watching her. Celeste’s gaze remained locked onto her, and while she couldn’t see it, she knew that Ibuki must have been on the edge of her proverbial seat waiting for an answer as well. And then, beyond that, there were the eyes of every patron in the restaurant, all of them glued to her now that she had involuntarily become the center of attention. Everything was standing still, just waiting for her to speak.
“I do,” she finally admitted, choking back more tears as she slowly nodded. “But you-”
“Then my role in this is irrelevant. I believe I see what has happened here. You said you had already asked Mioda-san out prior to arranging our date, did you not?”
“I- I did,” Sonia replied. “But I did not intend for-”
“It is quite alright,” Celeste interrupted, raising a hand to silence Sonia. “You were using me as an attempt to distract yourself from your first attempt at failed courtship with Mioda-san. Some would find this objectionable, perhaps, but if we are laying our cards out on the table now, I believe I was doing the same thing. You two have simply played this game more effectively than I have. I know when I have lost, and I hold no ire towards either of you for your victory.”
“Ibuki is confused,” Ibuki whispered out, leaning down next to Sonia as she spoke. “What’s going on?”
“Ludenberg-san,” Sonia said. She took a step towards Celeste, bowing at the waist as she continued to speak. “Please, accept my sincerest apologies! I did not mean to use you in this way, and I-”
“Do not disrespect yourself by continuing to apologize when I have already told you it is unnecessary,” Celeste interrupted again. She had already turned her back towards Sonia now, reaching towards her seat to retrieve the small handbag she had brought with her to the restaurant. “I see no reason for me to stay until the end of this dinner now. However,” she went on, pivoting slightly to look towards Ibuki, “as a show of goodwill, I invite you to continue on in my stead. I will leave my payment information with the maître d on my way out, so please, enjoy the evening to the fullest.”
“Ludenberg-san,” Sonia tried to insist. “You do not have to-”
“Nonsense,” Celeste chided. “Enjoy this night together. And do be sure to tell me about it the next time I see you.” With those words, and one more polite smile, Celeste turned her back to the other two. She kept her poise and her wits about her as she exited the dining room, and it was only once she had put a safe distance between them that she allowed her nostrils to flare out, her teeth to grit together, her eyebrows to crease down in a display of the pure, unbridled, stomach-twisting rage she was feeling. Sonia watched her leave in silence, unaware of the emotions that were appearing on Celeste’s obscured face, until that spell was broken by Ibuki, leaning closer and speaking in a voice that sounded like a whisper, but was far too loud to actually be one.
“Pssst. Sonia-chan, what just happened?”
“I… I do not know,” Sonia replied. As she looked back up at Ibuki she still had tears in her eyes, a combination of happy ones and sad ones, but she was smiling through them all the same. “But…” she said, gesturing towards the vacated table beside her. “Shall we begin our first date?”
Haha wow this one got really long I hope you enjoy
“I’m sorry I got us kicked out of the restaurant…” Ibuki grumbled, slinging her guitar over her shoulder as she walked down the street. As it turned out, “we were having a big romantic moment” wasn’t enough of an excuse for the wait staff to ignore the way she had jumped up on a table and started shouting in the middle of the dining room, and even after her confession the two of them had still been firmly asked to leave.
“It is quite alright,” Sonia replied, laughing softly. “I think it would have been odd to continue our date there anyway.” Not just because starting a meal with one date and ending it with a different one seemed bizarre, but also because the entire evening would have felt very un-Ibuki. A fancy restaurant like the one they had been at fit a date with Celeste perfectly, but the whole thing really didn’t feel like it was the musician’s style. Now, they had options.
“Where are we going to go now?” Sonia asked, prompting a look of horrified realization to appear on Ibuki’s face.
“Ehh? Oh no! Ibuki didn’t think this far ahead!” Ibuki admitted, suddenly looking quite distressed. “She didn’t think about what to do after her big dramatic confession!” Maybe she didn’t even think she would actually get this far. The entire plan had been pretty touch and go from the moment Sato and Hiyoko had dragged her out of the apartment.
“Well, that is alright!” Sonia promised. “Now we have plenty of options!” After saying that Sonia paused, and Ibuki traveled a few more steps before realizing her date was no longer walking with her. She stopped as well, looking back over her shoulder to see that Sonia had put a finger to her chin, seeming lost in thought.
“Are you okay, Sonia-chan??”
“If you could go anywhere in the world right now,” Sonia replied, “where would it be?”
“Hmmm,” Ibuki replied, and now it was her turn to think, scrunching up her face as she mulled the question over. “Well, I’ve always wanted to see a volcano!” she decided. “A really big one, with lots of lava and fire! And I wanna go waddle with the penguins in Antarctica too! But we probably can’t do any of that stuff tonight.”
“No, I suppose not,” Sonia giggled in response. “Maybe we should limit it to… Anywhere in this city!”
“That’s a big limitation!”
“But there has to be something you have always wanted to do!” Sonia urged. “Something that you have never gotten the chance to do before? Now could be our chance to do it!”
“Well there’s a lot of things I’ve never gotten to do before! But- But I wanna make sure Sonia-chan wants to do them too! Ibuki wants Sonia-chan to enjoy this first date!”
“I will enjoy this date no matter what, as long as I get to enjoy it with you,” Sonia promised. "So… Tell me anything you want to do!” Once again, Ibuki went deep into thought, scrunching up her face as she tired to think of something. Despite Sonia’s claims, she still wanted to make sure this was something they would both actually be able to enjoy, so she refused to just go with the first idea that popped into her head. Or the second. Or the third. It ended up taking quite a few tries before she got to a point where she was satisfied with her answer.
“Oh oh oh! I have an idea! But it’s dangerous ,” she whispered.
“Dangerous?” Sonia repeated.
“Yup yup yup,” Ibuki said, nodding rapidly. “Very very dangerous. Does Sonia-chan want to live dangerously tonight?”
“Well, a bit of danger could be fun! As long as it is not too much!”
“Well then, Ibuki has always wanted to… Sneak into the abandoned amusement park!” Sonia gasped sharply when she heard that, looking surprised for a moment before a smile slowly started to spread over her face.
“Are you sure that is something we can do?”
“Probably! I’ve been by before and it’s all locked up but there’s no guards! We’ll have to climb a little but Ibuki is great at climbing! I can help Sonia-chan!”
“And the park is close by?”
“Yup yup yup! We can walk right there!”
“Well in that case,” Sonia said, extending a hand towards Ibuki and offering it up to her date. “Lead the way!”
The chain link fence surrounding the entirety of the abandoned park was a bit taller than Ibuki had remembered. It hadn’t looked that bad when she had simply been walking by, but now that she was actually standing at the base of it, staring up and getting ready to climb, it was starting to feel a lot more daunting than she remembered. Fortunately, she already had so much momentum from all the other stupid shit she had done tonight that this sure as hell wasn’t going to stop her. If anything, the constraining factor here was that Sonia’s dress was far less suited to this sort of activity than Ibuki’s tights were.
“Alright!” Ibuki said, dramatically slamming her hands against the fence in front of her, hooking her fingers through the metal links. “I’ll climb to the top and then help Sonia-chan up after! Ready?”
“Ready!” Sonia replied. As she stood there in front of the fence, getting ready to trespass on abandoned property, wearing a lovely formal dress that was in no way suitable for the activity it was about to be put through, Sonia was starting to feel more and more like this was a mistake. But it also felt like one of those mistakes that was worth making.
At Sonia’s word Ibuki sprung into action, lanky arms and legs starting to propel her up the fence. She started with a powerful jump off the ground, and she didn’t show any signs of slowing down from there. It was actually quite impressive to watch how she moved, hoisting her way to the top of the fence in only a matter of seconds, perching herself on top of it with one leg on either side once she was finished. She took a moment to strike a triumphant pose, hands at her hips and chest puffed out, before leaning back down to reach towards her date.
“Now Sonia-chan’s turn!” Sonia nodded, stepping closer to the fence and mentally preparing her angle of attack. Ill-suited as her outfit was for this, she was at least thankful she hadn’t opted for heels.
“Okay, I’m coming up!” After saying that Sonia planted one foot into the gap between two of the links, getting a hold higher up with one hand and reaching to grab onto Ibuki with the other. The moment her other foot left the ground she felt a little rush of excitement, as if it had only just become official that she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to be doing. She giggled slightly as she started to climb her way up the fence, aided by Ibuki’s support and encouragement, until she finally reached the top. It was only then that an important question came to mind.
“Um, Mioda-san… How do we get back down now?”
“Yup yup yup!” Ibuki’s eyes quickly started to scan the ground below her, darting around until they locked onto a patch of soft looking grass just beneath them. “Aim for that!” she declared, finger shooting towards it.
“I am not sure this is a-” But it was already a little late for that. Before Sonia had the chance to warn her against this plan any further Ibuki had thrown herself off the top of the fence, cheering out as she plummeted towards the ground. She hit the grass with a thud, landing on her feet but going stiff. She didn’t move for a moment, and concern immediately set in with Sonia.
“Mioda-san!” she cried out. “Are you alright?”
“Ibuki’s spirit is strong but her knees are weak and in pain!” Ibuki called back, before turning to face Sonia, arms outstretched. “Jump down! I’ll catch you!” Sonia was, understandably, skeptical of that promise.
“Are you sure that is safe?” she called back.
“Of course! I won’t let Sonia-chan fall! Trust me!” A soft smile spread over Sonia’s face, and, deciding to do just that, she let herself drop from the top of the fence without another word. The moment she wasn’t holding onto anything her eyes closed out of instinct, and she shrieked with a combination of delight and fear as she plummeted towards the ground. Rather than the cold, unforgiving pavement that she was so nervous about crashing into, though, Sonia found herself brought to a much gentler stop, fall broken by something soft. After that brief moment of sheer terror wore off Sonia opened her eyes up again, looking up to find Ibuki smiling back down at her.
“See? I would never let Sonia-chan fall!” True to her word, Ibuki had caught Sonia out of the air, and was now holding bridal style, one arm around her back while the other was hooked under her knees. As much as she would have liked to have kept that up a while longer, though (and as much as Sonia probably would have been fine with it), Ibuki did sit her down on the ground, allowing her date to regain her footing.
“I suppose I should not have doubted you,” Sonia admitted, giggling softly. From there she turned to look towards the rest abandoned park, now stretched out in front of them without a fence to obscure her view. They were standing at the edge of what looked like it had once been the main area, cracked pavement continuing down for a while in a wide, straight line, with several empty shops and stalls lining it. There were a few planters, but anything that had been growing in them had long since died, and there was no power to the lamps that should have been lighting their way. A little farther down she could see the former rides, rusted into disrepair. A merry-go-round featured horses whose paint jobs were so chipped they ended up looking oddly horrifying, and the creaky track of a roller coaster arched up over the top of everything else. It was all so oddly unsettling, and Sonia positively loved it.
“What do we do now?” she asked, although her question was answered by actions just as much as it was by words.
“We explore!” Ibuki replied. And, without a second thought, she had grabbed Sonia by the hand, starting to yank her down the central street with a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm. Sonia squealed as she was pulled along, laughing as she scrambled to keep up with Ibuki.
“And what are we going to explore?”
“Anything we wanna explore! No rules!” As it turned out, what Sonia wanted to explore wasn’t very far away at all. They had made it less than halfway down the path when Sonia suddenly came to a halt, digging her heels in and tugging back against Ibuki’s hand.
“Mioda-san, look!” Ibuki came to an abrupt stop as well, whipping her head back around to see what Sonia had spotted. The blonde was pointing towards something, and as Ibuki followed her finger she could see what. Sonia was poinitng towards one of the game stalls, previously a ring toss, by the looks of it. And, more specifically, she was pointing towards a small, worn looking teddy bear that sat at the top of the prize shelf, apparently forgotten when the rest of the park had been cleared out. “He looks so sad…”
“Eh?” Ibuki grunted, before gasping sharply. “Oh! Does Sonia-chan want Ibuki to win her the bear?? This is just like in the movies!”
“How are you going to win me the bear when the game is shut down?”
“Watch and learn!” Ibuki declared. With an aura of confidence she strolled towards the stall, approaching the counter and looking at the rings. Her expression was serious and thoughtful, examining the game as if she were actually planning a strategy before making her attempt. Then, with one quick look in each direction to make sure nobody was around to stop her, Ibuki vaulted over the divider, shouting out a loud “FUCK THE POLICE!” as she snatched the bear off the shelf. Afterwards she hopped back to the outside just as quickly, tossing the bear at Sonia and grabbing her date’s hand, resuming her sprint down the street. “Run before they catch us, Sonia-chan!” she called out, and Sonia burst out in laughter, all too happy to follow Ibuki as they ran away from the pursuers that would never come.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“Nope! Not at all! So hold on tight and don’t fall!” The roller coaster track had already looked creaky and unstable from a distance, but now that they were climbing their way up the emergency stairs at the edge of it, the whole thing felt even more rickety than before. Sonia was white-knuckling it the entire way up, squeezing onto the railing with one hand and Ibuki’s with the other. It was a relatively small coaster, all things considered, and the peak of the first hill was probably only thirty feet at most, but the ground had still never felt farther away to Sonia. She knew that, if the coaster had stayed standing this long, it wasn’t likely to collapse now, but she still couldn’t shake that irrational fear that it would give out from under them at any moment.
“Keep going, Sonia-chan!” Ibuki urged, pointing ahead with her free hand. “We’re almost to the top!”
“And what are we going to do when we get there?” Sonia called out from behind her.
“Enjoy the view!” Sonia supposed that was as good an answer as any, and so she kept trekking onward, making her way up the last few steps until they had reached the top. As soon as they got there Ibuki flopped down, sitting at the edge of the little maintenance platform with her legs dangling under the railing and hanging off the edge, and with a small smile Sonia decided to take a seat beside her, carefully propping her new teddy bear up in her lap to enjoy the scenery along with them. “See?” Ibuki hummed. “Told you the view is nice!”
As Sonia looked out over the rest of the park from their new vantage point, she had to admit that Ibuki was right. From up here, she could see everything the abandoned venu had to offer. Every worn down building, every withered ride, every crumbling decoration. Other people might have called it creepy or unpleasant, but Sonia found it to be strangely beautiful, in a tranquil sort of way.
“You did,” she agreed, giving Ibuki’s hand a small squeeze. “I should start listening to you more.” Ibuki beamed when she heard that, slinging her torso forward and slumping over the bottom rung of the railing.
“I have a lot of good ideas!” she boasted. “Like a guitar that’s also a flamethrower! Cook your meat while you rock to the beat! That’d be the slogan!” Sonia laughed again as she scooted a little bit closer, brushing shoulders with Ibuki.
“Do you have any other ideas about what you would like to do while we’re here?” she asked. “We have already... been kicked out of a restaurant, snuck into an amusement park, stolen a stuffed bear, and climbed up a roller coaster,” she said, counting off the events of the night on her fingers as she went along. “Is there anything else you have always wanted to do?”
“I didn’t alway wanna get kicked out of a restaurant!” Ibuki protested, before her tone and posture softened considerably. “But, eheh… There is, one other thing Ibuki’s always wanted to do…”
“Oh?” Ibuki swallowed before saying anything else, and even in the dark of the night Sonia could see that a faint blush had come over her cheeks. From the moment she had burst through the door of the restaurant, swinging around a guitar and jumping up on a table, Ibuki had never seemed nervous. But suddenly, she seemed nervous.
“Ibuki has… Always… Wanted to… KISS A REALLY PRETTY GIRL LIKE SONIA-CHAN!” Ibuki blurted out, before slumping forward again to hide her face. Her cheeks had turned lobster red by this point, and there was a very large part of her brain telling her that her best course of action at the moment was to slip out from underneath the railing and bail out of this conversation, thirty foot drop be damned. The offer was becoming more and more tempting until-
“...Huh??” After taking a fraction of a second to process that Ibuki jolted back upright, looking over to see Sonia staring a back at her, a gentle smile on her face. She looked positively beautiful in the moonlight, and the sight made the butterflies in Ibuki’s stomach flap their wings that much more vigorously. “R-Really?” she stammered out.
“Really,” Sonia promised, nodding slowly. Ibuki could have added on about another fifty reallys after that, but she had just enough of her wits left about her to realize that doing so would probably ruin the moment. So she didn’t say that. She just kissed Sonia instead.
The burst of confidence that allowed her to do so didn’t last for very long. Right up until the exact moment their lips actually touched, in fact. Before that Ibuki had gotten some strange surge of courage that had spurred her into leaning forward and tilting her head, closing the gap between them, but as soon as contact was made that courage disappeared, and Ibuki was left with the full realization of what she was doing. The butterflies had broken free from her stomach and escaped into her chest, and now they were bumping around against her ribs and her heart and her lungs. Her hand was shaking, and Sonia was still holding it. Ibuki hoped she didn’t notice.
Sonia’s lips were nice. That was the only coherent thought Ibuki could manage to form at the moment. They were soft, and they were warm. And Sonia smelled nice. Not like perfume. It seemed natural. Ibuki enjoyed it. Her hair was tickling Ibuki’s face. It felt funny, and Ibuki was trying her hardest not to laugh, because laughing during a first kiss didn’t seem like an appropriate thing to do. So instead she tried to focus on Sonia’s face. Her eyes were closed, and maybe Ibuki should have closed her own eyes too? That was what people normally did when they were kissing, she thought. But then she wouldn’t be able to see Sonia’s face! And Sonia’s face looked pretty. It always looked pretty. But right now it looked extra pretty.
Oh. Sonia was pulling away now. She was opening her eyes. Was the kiss over? That was okay. Ibuki needed to breathe anyway.
Even once she had pulled away Sonia was still smiling, and her hand continued to rest against Ibuki’s, fingers intertwined. It seemed like she was blushing faintly as well now, but she didn’t make any attempt to hide it. Ibuki realized that she probably looked like an idiot at the moment, sitting there staring, mouth still hanging slightly open. For once in her life, Ibuki didn’t know what to say. It was Sonia who ended up speaking first.
“I hope that was to your liking,” she said, voice a little bit softer than it had been before.
“Y-Yes!” Ibuki hastily replied, starting to frantically nod her head. “Very very very much!”
“Good,” Sonia giggled, turning her eyes back out over the rest of the park stretched out in front of them. “Thank you for sharing this evening with me, Ibuki-chan.”
“Thank you sharing this evening with Ibuki, Sonia-chan!” Ibuki replied, wiggling her way closer to her date- girlfriend?- as she spoke. “Um… I’m sorry again about… You and Celes-chan…”
“Do not be,” Sonia insisted, giving Ibuki’s hand a small, reassuring squeeze. “I believe this was most definitely for the best.”
Oh. There was blood on her palm. Was that her blood? Her hand didn’t really hurt. But as Celeste looked down towards her feet, she saw the shattered pieces of what looked like it had once been a glass. That answered one question, but it just raised a different one about how that had ended up there in the first place.
When Celeste raised her eyes back towards the counter in front of her, the room started to spin. She stumbled forward, narrowly managing to avoid getting a piece of broken glass in her foot, catching herself on the counter. The edge pressed right into her cut up hand, and she finally felt something from it. It stung a little bit, but it just made Celeste giggle.
There were quite a few half-emptied bottles laid out in front of her. She remembered that much. She also had just enough reasoning left about her to know that, if what had presumably been her glass was now shattered at her feet, she probably needed another drink. She reached out with her good hand, snatching up the first bottle she made contact with. She was well past the point of having discerning tastes. Her other hand grabbed up a dish towel that was hanging on one of the hooks, clutching it tightly in her palm to stem the bleeding. Probably not the most sanitary way to deal with the situation. But, again, she was far too drunk to care.
With bottle in one hand and towel in the other Celeste stumbled back out of her kitchen and into her living room, tripping over an incense box with one foot and a set of djembe drums with the other. The amount of useless crap piled up inside such a tiny space was staggering, and if she’d had more coordination Celeste might have decided it was time to do something about it. But if she tried to straighten up or clean out in her current condition, she was liable to end up crushed under the suit of armor that was standing next to her front door. That wasn’t how she wanted this night to end.
Instead of doing any of that Celeste eventually made her way to the couch, collapsing onto her stomach the moment she reached it. She laughed as she hit the cushions and bounced off of them slightly, ending up face to face with a particularly large cat who appeared to be sleeping at the end of the piece of furniture.
“Chériiiiii,” Celeste hummed out, still giggling softly to herself. “Are you awake?” she whispered, reaching up a single finger to press it against her cat’s nose. If having her fall onto the couch right in front of him hadn’t already woken Chéri up, that was certainly enough to do so. His eyes slowly opened, unamused expression appearing on his face as he let out a low pur. Said purring became much more distressed as Celeste started to scritch at the top of his head, drunkenly cooing him all the while.
“Of course you are,” she said. “Because you’re always there for me when I need you, aren’t you? You would never abandon me.” As a cat Chéri could neither confirm nor deny that, although the disinterested, vaguely irritated look he gave his owner spoke volumes.
When she was content that enough pets had been doled out Celeste rolled over onto her back, raising the bottle of whatever alcohol she had grabbed to her lips and taking a long swig of it. As she did this she dug her phone out of her pocket with her other hand, chugging down booze while flicking through menus. Eventually she found what she was looking for, and another giggle escaped her as she pressed the tiny green button next to a certain person’s name. Being drunk all by herself was no fun, after all.
Celeste held her phone up to her ear as she waited for the other person to answer, listening to it dial, then start to ring. Once, twice, thrice… Until she finally heard a noise, followed, a moment later, by a stern monotone on the other end of the line.
“It’s three in the morning.”
“It sure is,” Celeste giggled back, setting the bottle aside so that she could actually speak properly. Or, as properly as she could in this condition.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Because I wanted to, obviously.”
“Oooooh, you’re so observant. Nothing gets past you,” Celeste teased, rolling around onto her stomach once again. Chéri looked like he was just about to go back to sleep, but now he found himself on the receiving end of Celeste’s attention a second time, and he hardly seemed thrilled by it. Celeste was all smiles and laughter, but the cat’s expression was as stone cold as ever.
“Chéri and I are having party,” Celeste went on, “but he’s a terrible guest. He just sits around being grumpy, and he won’t drink with me. Will you come drink with me, Kyouko-chan?” The question was met with a moment of silence, and then a question of Kyouko’s own.
“Who am I talking to right now?”
“Hmm?” Another silence. Then…
“Taeko?” Celeste just laughed in response, pushing her face into Chéri’s fur.
“Are you coming or not, Kyouko-chan?” she asked. “Because I have lots and lots of other people I could invite instead. I’m a veeeeery popular person.” She could hear a sigh on the other end of the line, before Kyouko spoke up.
“I’ll be over in fifteen minutes. Try not to hurt yourself before I get there.”
“It’s a little bit late for that,” Celeste replied, returning to her position on her back and looking down towards the now-bloodied towel she was still holding in her hand.
“Make it ten.” Before Celeste had the chance to say anything else her phone beeped, telling her the call had been ended. She lifted it away from her face to see the screen, pouting to herself as she let it fall back onto her chest.
“Not even a goodbye?” she mumbled, already lifting the bottle to her lips yet again. “Typical.”
The last night had felt like a dream. The whole thing had been such a rush from the moment Sato and Hiyoko had dragged her out of the apartment, and from there it had been one crazy, adrenaline fueled decision after another. Bursting into the restaurant, confessing to Sonia, getting kicked out, sneaking into an amusement park, climbing a roller coaster, kissing each other, and only going their separate ways once it was so far into the night that Ibuki had seen the sunrise start to peek through on her walk back home. It had been so wild and so non-stop that she had never even gotten a chance to sit back and think about any of it, and she had collapsed onto her bed in exhaustion the moment she had gotten back to her apartment.
Now, the next morning, as Ibuki stood there in front of the entrance to Hot Topic wholly sleep deprived and feeling like a zombie, reality was starting to set in. She had confessed to Sonia last night. They had gone on a date. They had kissed. And now they were about to work a shift together, the same way they always did, and Ibuki was freaking the fuck out .
How was she supposed to act around Sonia now? She was probably supposed to keep things professional while the two of them were at work, right? But did that mean acting like the entire previous night hadn’t happened? What even was Sonia to her at this point? They had gone on one great date and they had kissed, but did that mean Sonia was her girlfriend now? Was Ibuki allowed to call her that? All of these felt like things she should have figured out the night before.
Ibuki swallowed as she forced herself to step into the store, expression remaining a firm, confident neutral while her eyes started to look around. Sonia-chan Sonia-chan Sonia-chan Sonia-chan Sonia-chan… Sonia-chan! There she was, standing near the back, unpacking a few boxes of figurines. Just act normal, right? Act like nothing had changed.
“Sonia-chaaaaan!” Ibuki called out, putting on a huge grin and waving her hand through the air as she approached. “Ibuki Mioda is heeeeeeeere!” Sonia looked back towards Ibuki as she heard the other girl arrive, smiling in her direction.
“Good morning, Ibuki-chan!” she called back, and Ibuki’s heart was immediately up in her throat. Sonia was calling her Ibuki-chan. Alright. She had called her Ibuki-chan last night, but that had been last night! Not while they were here at work! What was Ibuki supposed to make of that? Was she reading too much into it by assuming it meant anything at all? Ibuki got so wrapped up in those thoughts that by the time she realized she was probably supposed to keep talking, an awkwardly long amount of time had already passed. She panicked to say something else, and her reaction was hardly the most graceful or eloquent. Not that it ever was with her.
“Good morn-morn-morning!” Ibuki replied, trying to hide the fact that she already felt like she was sweating through her shirt. “Did Sonia-chan have a good... sleep! Morning!” Don’t ask if she had a good night that would be stupid don’t be STUPID. From the light blush on Sonia’s face, though, and the way she was softly giggling, it seemed like she already knew exactly what Ibuki had narrowly managed to avoid saying.
“I had a very nice morning,” Sonia replied. “Did you?”
“Yup yup yup! Ibuki had a great morning! Super great! Tee-riffic!”
“I am happy to hear that!” After saying that, a painfully tense silence set in. Ibuki didn’t know what to say to keep the conversation moving, and from the looks of it, Sonia didn’t either. For a few excruciatingly long seconds they just stared at each other, and then Ibuki was laughing a little too loudly, pivoting around on her heels.
“Well, time to go do work! See you later alligator!” What a graceful exit.
The remainder of Ibuki’s shift passed feeling like the most awkward game of keepaway in the smallest space imaginable. Even though the store wasn’t that large, after the display she had put on that morning, she was making it her mission to stay as far away from Sonia as possible at all times so she wouldn’t have to face her. Sonia ended up fixing the window display at the front of the store? Ibuki was folding shirts in the back. Sonia was ringing a customer out at the register? Ibuki was hiding behind the body jewelry case. Wherever Sonia went, Ibuki made a point of being as far away as she could. Whoever said you couldn’t run from your problems forever had lacked the dedication Ibuki possessed. Unfortunately, dedication or not, they were still right.
Ibuki had been doing a good job of avoiding Sonia so far, but eventually it seemed like her luck was going to come to an end. She had hidden out against the enormous wall of t-shirts that stretched along the back of the store, figuring that going through and folding every single one of them would buy her more than enough time to herself. But just as she was trying to figure out why a Halsey t-shirt was mixed in with System of a Down, and where it had come from in the first place, she heard a voice behind her.
“Mioda-san, do you have a moment?”
“Eh??” Ibuki squeaked out, jumping upright and spinning around to face Sonia. In the process she also stuffed the shirt she was holding behind her back, although she wasn’t even sure why she had done that. It wasn’t like she was trying to hide it. She was acting on instinct, and apparently instinct was betraying her.
“Does Sonia-chan need something?” Ibuki asked, forcing herself to grin through the surge of anxiety this had caused her.
“No,” Sonia replied, shaking her head. “Just to speak with you. Forgive me if I am mistaken,” she said, lowering her eyes a bit, “but… It seems as if you have been trying to avoid me today.”
“W-What?” Ibuki laughed out, forcing her ham-fisted grin to stretch even wider. “Why would Ibuki do something like that??”
“I am not sure,” Sonia replied. “However, I thought that perhaps… It may have had something to do with last night.” Ibuki’s anxiety surged even higher, but Sonia kept going. “I thought that we had a lovely date,” she explained. “However, now you seem to be acting strange, and avoiding me. So if I did something last night to upset you, or if you did not find our date to be as enjoyable as I did…” Oh no oh no oh no .
“N-No, it’s nothing like that!” Ibuki hastily promised. She started waving her hands around in front of her torso to dismiss the fears, flailing the shirt she had forgotten she was holding onto around in the air in the process. Sonia lifted her eyes from the floor when she heard that, and the apologetic look she had been wearing started to turn more curious.
“Then… Why?” she asked. “If you are not upset, why have you not been speaking to me all day?”
“Because- Because I didn’t know how to!” Ibuki confessed. “We had a really nice date last night but then I realized I didn’t know how I’m supposed to act around you when we’re at work and I didn’t know if it was okay to talk about our date while we’re here and I never asked if we’re girlfriends now or if we just went on one date and I-”
“Ibuki!” Sonia interrupted, starting to laugh softly. “You did not need to make yourself worry so much about this. I enjoyed our date very much, and I think it is okay to simply… Act normally around each other while we are here. And to answer your question,” she added on, “I… I would very much like to call myself your girlfriend, if that is alright with you.” It was absolutely a thousand times more than okay with Ibuki, although it took her a few seconds to find a way to vocalize that.
“Yes!” she ended up saying, nodding so vigorously that anyone who wasn’t as trained in the art of headbanging as she was probably would have given themselves whiplash. “Yes yes yes yes! I want to be Sonia-chan’s girlfriend too!” In her excitement Ibuki grabbed Sonia by the shoulders, and she was just about to do something a little bit stupid before the adrenaline wore off enough for rational thought to kick in again. Suddenly Ibuki’s face was turning a bit pink, and she was shrinking down to become even shorter than she already was compared to Sonia, fidgeting her weight between her feet. “Um… Is it okay if I… Kiss you again?” she sheepishly asked, looking up towards Sonia. Sonia laughed softly, nodding before glancing around at their surroundings.
“I think that would be okay,” she replied. “As long as there are no customers around.” Ibuki quickly nodded back in understanding, looking towards the front of the store, then towards the back, then towards the front one more time. And then, seeing nobody there, she leaned forward and kissed her girlfriend.
The last night had felt like a nightmare. What Celeste remembered of it, at the very least. The memories of Ibuki showing up to the restaurant and publicly humiliating her were all too clear, as were the memories of walking home in a seething haze of red, barely able to contain her rage until she got there. The moment she had walked through the door to her apartment it had been alcohol and anger. She remembered knocking back hard liquor like hour-old tea, punching the wall until her knuckles started to ache, screaming her frustrations at a particularly smug looking painting, smashing a glass- and that was about where the evening went black.
When she had woken back up in the morning Celeste was, by some miracle, surprisingly okay. Her hand was still sore, of course, and she was hungover as all hell, but the gash that she had apparently given herself across the palm at some point had been properly, if not somewhat crudely, dressed with real bandages. She had also, apparently, managed to get her clothes and makeup and hair extensions off before collapsing into bed, so that was one less thing she had to worry about now. Walking back into her living room and kitchen Celeste found that, while there were still quite a few objects scattered across the floor that seemed to have been knocked over during her rampage, she had at least managed to get the broken glass picked up off the floor as well. That was probably how she had ended up cutting her hand in the first place, she figured. Not ideal, but at least she didn’t have to worry about stepping on it now.
Celeste was quite glad that she was, much to her own surprise, such a responsible drunk, because it now made it that much easier for her to start putting herself together again. She spent quite a bit of time in the bathroom that morning, fighting through a dull headache while making sure her hair and makeup were as flawless as they could possibly be. Making sure her complexion was smooth, her eyeliner was entirely straight, her mascara didn’t have a single clump to be found. Making sure every strand of hair was neatly tucked away where it was supposed to be, and making sure her drills blended seamlessly with the rest of it. She had to be sure she looked absolutely perfect.
She didn’t know why, though. Junko would see right through her in a matter of seconds anyway.
That was the one thought Celeste couldn’t shake as she stood in front of the door to Junko’s little office, connected to the storage room at the back of the store, preparing to let herself in. She knew this was going to be an unpleasant conversation, no matter how she tried to frame it. But at least, if she got through this, she would never have to worry about it again.
Celeste didn’t bother to knock. Knocking would be allowing the interaction to start on Junko’s terms, and that was something she refused to do. Instead she simply opened the door, stepping into the office without warning. True to her prediction, Junko was sitting there at her desk, some order forms spread out in front of her. When Celeste walked in, however, her eyes quickly flicked up from those papers, looking irritated for a brief instant before a grin spread over her face.
“Celes-chan!” Junko hummed, dropping her pen and leaning back in her chair. “You know your shift doesn’t start for another hour, right?” she asked. “Did you come by to tell me about your date? Or because that date didn’t go so hot, and now you’re hoping for a little-”
“I have no intention of doing either of those things,” Celeste replied, keeping her tone and expression deadpan as she stared back at Junko. This was to be expected. She knew Junko would try to get under her skin from the moment she walked in here. She just had to stay level-headed and not let it get to her.
“Oof. So I’ll take that as your date didn’t go well, but you’re not in a mood to talk about it. I get that,” Junko said, letting her grin stretch even wider as she kept talking. She leaned forward again, propping her elbows up on the desk and resting her chin in her hands. “You suuure you didn’t come by for a little distraction then? Just lock that door and in five minutes I bet I could make you forget all about that-”
“I have come here to submit my resignation.” The silence that followed those words may have only lasted a few seconds, but to Celeste it felt like an eternity. A sweet, victorious eternity. Because for once in her life, Junko Enoshima actually looked surprised by something.
“You’re doing what? ” she eventually said, eyes narrowing as she looked up towards Celeste.
“I believe you heard me. Effectively immediately, I will no longer be an employee of this store. I am resigning.” Junko stared at her for a few more seconds of dead silence, before a taunting smile returned to her face. This was the part Celeste was afraid of.
“Don’t think you’re being a little excessive, Celes-chan?” she asked. “I know you’ve always had a flare for the dramatic, but quitting your job over something like this? Doesn’t that seem a little uncalled for?”
“If you think this in any way pertains to my date last night-”
“Oh, I’m suuure it doesn’t,” Junko interrupted. “I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other reasons for doing this, right? Personal reasons that I don’t know anything about, that I wouldn’t understand, that aren’t any of my business. I’m sure you thought loooong and hard about your choice before coming in here, didn’t you? You probably looked at this a dozen different ways, and then a dozen more, until you convinced yourself it’s the right thing to do. But let’s face it, Celes-chan,” Junko said, rising from her desk. “You’re not a good enough liar to fool both of us.”
“Are you quite done?” Celeste chided, although she already knew the answer to that question. She didn’t even fully understand what Junko’s goal was here. To get her to stay? To get her to crack? She didn’t know. But she did know she wouldn’t be getting off the hook that easily.
“I’m just trying to make sure you’re not making a mistake,” Junko hummed out. As she kept speaking she circled around from behind her desk, slowly making her way towards where Celeste stood, frozen in place. “How are you planning on paying bills after this? Do you have another job lined up already?”
“Finances are not a concern.”
“Right. I’m sure this retail job has left you with a huge savings account.”
“If this truly worries you so deeply, give me severance pay.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Junko whispered. She was close enough to reach out and touch Celeste now, and she did. Fingernails brushed against the underside of Celeste’s chin as Junko tried to tilt her head up, although Celeste resisted, keeping her gaze perfectly level instead. “So why are you so hell-bent on making this choice? You should have realized this by now,” she said, moving closer and closer, until her lips were hovering just an inch away from Celeste’s own. “You can’t replace me. And you can’t run away from me. But it’s cute that you’re willing to flush your whole life down the drain just to try.”
“And just why are you trying so hard to change my mind on this matter?” Celeste insisted. “I hardly considered myself to be an exemplary employee. You should have no trouble finding my replacement.”
“Maybe I’m just worried about you. Maybe, deep down, even though I try to pretend it doesn’t exist, there is actually some small part of me that really does care about you. And maybe that part of me doesn’t want to watch someone I care about throw her life away over this one bad choice. Maybe there’s a part of me that genuinely likes you, and I don’t want to see you leave. I enjoy your company, and I can’t imagine working here without you around to make the days a little more bearable. Maybe, on some level that I’ve tried so hard to ignore up until now, I’ve even found myself falling for you, and the threat of having you disappear is enough to make me realize I can’t keep pretending those feelings don’t exist. Maybe I even love you, Celes-chan… That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?” Junko asked. “But really? I just don’t wanna get left alone in this shithole with Tsumiki until I find someone else willing to take on your crappy job. That sounds like hell.”
“Goodbye, Enoshima-san.” Celeste spoke those words coldly, with as much sense of stern finality as she could muster. And once she had said them she turned her back, keeping her demeanor equally steely as she started to walk towards the office door.
“Suit yourself!” Junko called after her. “But when you realize you’re a broke bitch and you end up homeless and hungry on the streets don’t expect me to take you in. I’m not that sort of person!” The words simply seemed to bounce off Celeste, though, and without any hesitation she continued forward, opening up the door and stepping out of the office. “And don’t think you can come back here and beg for your job back once you realize how bad you’re fucking up here!” Junko added on. “Once you’re gone you’re gone!” But it still did nothing. Celeste let go of the handle, the door swung shut, and suddenly, Junko was only shouting to herself.
And that marks the end of this concentrated little mini-arc. From here we'll get back to the original format, and see what the other characters are up to again. Thanks for sticking with me in the meantime!
“Kirigiri-chaaaan. I’m tiiiiiired.”
“As am I.” As Komaru lifted her head from the table she noticed that Kyouko did, in fact, seem to look more tired than usual. She always had that dead inside stare, no matter how much sleep she had gotten, but the bags under her eyes looked just a bit darker than they typically would have been. Despite that, she was both going about her job and engaging Komaru in conversation at the same time, the same as she always did. “But I’ll bite. Why are you tired today, Komaru-san?”
“I was up all night reading about this stupid book,” Komaru grumbled, reaching into her bag to dig out the novel Touko had recently given her. The spine still seemed to be in pristine condition, as if she hadn’t even opened the front cover a single time.
“Reading about it?” Kyouko repeated, raising an eyebrow as she said that. “As opposed to simply reading it?”
“Well… Yeah.” A sheepish smile crossed over Komaru’s face as she admitted to that, setting the book down on the table in front of her. “I wanna be able to talk to Fukawa-san about it when she asks! But this whole thing looks so dry and boring… I don’t think I would be able to understand it even if I tried to read it. So I thought, maybe, I could find one of those summaries online and read that instead!”
“And you honestly think that’s going to work?”
“Well, I was sort of hoping…”
“You of all people should know how detail-oriented Fukawa-san is,” Kyouko replied. “If you claim you read that book, she’s not just going to talk to you about major plot points, or even the central themes. She’s going to want to know what you thought of the descriptive imagery used on page thirty-seven, or the metaphor used on page eighty-two, whether you felt it accomplished its purpose or simply distracted from the scene as a whole. She’s going to ask you questions a plot summary won’t prepare you to answer, and then she’ll realize that you not only didn’t read the book, but that you lied to her about it as well. Of course,” she added on, turning her attention back towards the coffee machine she was meant to be cleaning. “Saying any of that is coming dangerously close to involving myself in your personal affairs. So take that as an observation of fact. Not a recommendation of what you should do.”
When Kyouko turned her back to her and eventually fell silent Komaru stared at the barista for a few more seconds, before flopping down onto the table with a long, defeated sigh. She already knew that Kyouko was right, of course, but the book still just looked so boring . The thought of forcing herself to slog through the entire thing was already making her eyelids droop.
“You’re here again? At this rate I should really be kicking you out for loitering.” As she heard that voice behind her Komaru felt a hand against the back of her head, ruffling up her hair. “You’re lucky I like you.” Lifting her head back up from the table and craning her neck around, Komaru could see a woman standing over her: Hiroko Hagakure, the manager of the bookstore and cafe. Technically Kyouko’s boss, even though she never really acted like it.
“I was just about to buy something!” Komaru promised, although Hiroko simply laughed it off.
“I’m sure you were. Did you just come by to shoot the shit with Princess Purple?”
“I don’t approve of that nickname,” Kyouko cut in.
“I know you don’t,” Hiroko replied, before turning her attention back towards Komaru. “Oooor,” she went on, “did you swing by here to see Fufu again?” Komaru felt her face heat up a little bit when Hiroko said that, and not just because of the embarrassing nicknames the woman had a habit of giving everyone. Knowing that she was so obvious even the manager of the store had picked up on the real reason she came by so often was a good enough excuse to slink down in her chair, she felt, and she was half tempted to open Touko’s book for the first time, just so she could bury her face into it.
“You didn’t have to say it like that,” she mumbled. “You could’ve just pretended not to know…” Once again, Hiroko simply laughed as she rounded the table towards the side opposite Komaru. The woman pulled out a chair, pivoting it around backwards before sitting down, arms crossed over the back of it.
“You know… Fufu talks about you a lot when you’re not here,” she said. “Seems like she thinks about you a whole lot when you’re not around.”
“Really?” Komaru asked, perking back up a little when she heard that. She was trying not to seem too excited about it, but it was clear that Hiroko had piqued her curiosity.
“Really. I mean- A lot of it’s negative,” she admitted. “Talking about how you’ve never read a real book in your life, or how you always come in here but you never buy or anything, or how loud and annoying you are whenever you come through. But the point stands that she can’t seem to get you off her mind whenever you’re not here with her.”
“It would be nicer if she was actually saying good stuff about me…”
“You and I both know that’s not the kind of person she is, hun. Take what you can get, right?”
“For what it’s worth,” Kyouko chimed in from behind the counter, “she speaks to me about you quite a bit when you’re not here as well. Unlike some people , however,” she said, shooting a stern look in Hiroko’s direction, “I don’t believe it’s a barista’s job to stick their nose into customer’s private affairs.”
“That’s a barista’s only job, Detective Decaf,” Hiroko replied. “And you’re doing a bangup job of it.”
“Not by choice.”
“Point being,” Hiroko said, returning her attention to Komaru. “I think it’s about time you stop beating around the bush, yeah? This whole young love situation you two’ve got going on has been cute, but one of you needs to take the plunge sooner or later. Grow a pair and ask a woman out, plain and simple. But apparently that’s none of my business,” she chuckled, standing back up from her chair. “I’m going out for a smoke break. Care to join me, Kyouko-chi?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Good,” Hiroko replied, already pulling a cigarette carton from inside her jacket pocket. “When this finally catches up with me I’ll need you to stay spry and healthy so you can take over as the wise old mom who gives dumb kids the advice they never asked for. From the looks of it, you’re already halfway there.”
“I’m not a dumb kid!” Komaru tried to protest, although as the words left her mouth she realized they were exactly the sort of thing a dumb kid would say. Kyouko, meanwhile, seemed to be in the midst of her own quarter-life crisis. She had been told this job would be about serving coffee.
Hajime’s ears were still ringing as he sat on the bench, head tilted back, eyes closed. Natsumi and Sato had been at each other’s throats even more than usual today, and while he wanted to believe that he could take his break without the two of them literally murdering each other, he was half expecting to go back in twenty minutes and find the entire store had burned down in his absence.
While Natsumi was obviously blind to the reasoning, it hadn’t taken Hajime much to notice that Sato was even more on edge and quick to snap than she usually was, and it wasn’t hard for him to piece together the reasoning as to why either. The entire situation with Ibuki seemed to be weighing on her a bit. Not because Sato wasn’t happy for her, of course; she most certainly was. But seeing Ibuki find that sort of happiness when Sato herself had been pining after Mahiru for years was taking a toll on her. Comments about Mahiru were always a surefire way for Natsumi to get Sato worked up, but right now they seemed to be even more effective than usual. At least Hajime got these thirty little minutes of peace, though, where he didn’t have to worry about the yelling and the shouting and the-
“Excuse me! You can’t be loitering here!” Hajime slowly opened his eyes when he heard the voice, then lifted his head a bit, greeted by the sight of a spiky black-haired boy, slowly advancing towards him on a segway. Hajime had seen him around a handful of times before, and recognized him as the mall’s resident security guard. Or, “that weirdo loser mall cop on a scooter,” as Natsumi so affectionately called him. Hajime had never actually spoken to him before, although he supposed that was probably a good thing.
“Oh, I’m not loitering,” Hajime replied, putting his hands up and shaking his head. “I work here. I’m just-”
“Employee or not, you’ve been sitting on this bench for an extended period of time with no clear intention of getting up or shopping at any of the stores, and I cannot allow that!”
“I’m not shopping at any of the stores because I work here ,” Hajime repeated. “I’m just sitting here on my break.”
“The Hope’s Peak Shopping Center Security Handbook classifies remaining on the same bench for a period of time exceeding seven minutes to be loitering! You have been here for eight, so I must classify you as a loiterer!”
“Have you been… Watching me this entire time?” Hajime asked, eyes narrowing at the question.
“Of course! As a security guard it is my responsibility to surveil everyone in this mall! If it weren’t for my constant vigilance, there’s no telling what sort of rule breaking delinquency might occur! Now, I’m going to have to ask you to move along!” Hajime sighed out at that point, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to figure out how to reason with someone like this.
“Listen,” he said. “I understand that those are normally the rules, but can’t there be some kind of exception for employees? I just want somewhere to sit down for a little while during my break.”
“Absolutely not! As employees of this establishment we must hold ourselves to the same standard- No!” Taka decided, quickly shaking his head. “To an even higher standard than the customers! Think about the image it would give off if we didn’t! It would suggest that we see ourselves as being above them, believing that our own rules do not apply to us! It would be disrespectful to the very customers who give us our livelihood!”
“I feel like you’re making this into a bigger deal than it needs to be,” Hajime groaned back. “I don’t think anyone will care if I’m here for a couple of extra minutes.”
“That’s the exact sort of thinking that leads to complacency and corruption!” Taka insisted. “If you don’t vacate this bench immediately I’ll have to issue you a formal citation!” Hajime sighed again, but it was quickly becoming clear that, whether Taka had any real footing to get him in trouble or not, it was still probably easier to just not deal with this in the first place. He could spend the rest of his break arguing with a security guard over something stupid, or he could just move on and find somewhere else to spend the next fifteen minutes. With that thought in mind Hajime stood up from his bench and grabbed the bag that was sitting next to him, although his expression made it clear that he wasn’t happy about this.
“I still think this is a waste of your time,” he muttered under his breath. Surely, somewhere in this mall, there had to be something more important that Taka could be doing. Taka certainly didn’t seem to think so, though.
“Time spent upholding the rules is never time wasted!”
“Right,” Hajime said, rolling his eyes as he started to walk away. “Thanks, officer.”
“You’re very welcome!” Taka didn’t seem to understand the sarcasm.
Neither of them had moved in the longest time. They were painfully still, posture straight, bodies rigid, eyes locked onto each other from across the open floor of the L.L.Bean. They were dressed identically- green polo shirts, khakis, brown work boots- and neither one of them showed any signs of breaking. Mukuro Ikusaba and Peko Pekoyama were, just like they had been so many times before, locked in a fierce battle of determination. A fierce, silent, stationary battle. The only thing that could break it would be…
“Mukuro-chaaaaaaan!” Mukuro’s eyes finally broke away from Peko’s as she heard the familiar voice, and she quickly looked over to see her sister strolling into the store, dressed in her own Sephora uniform. She seemed to be in high spirits, waving eagerly as she approached, although Mukuro knew Junko just well enough to know not to trust anything her sister showed her. She could turn on a dime like no one else Mukuro had ever seen.
“Do you need something, Junko-chan?” Mukuro replied, her own voice soft and tame in comparison to that of her sister. “I didn’t expect to see you here today.”
“What, do I really need an excuse to pay my darling dearest twin a visit while she’s at work?” Junko replied, tossing an arm around Mukuro’s shoulders as she marched up next to her. Mukuro tensed slightly at the touch, although she made no attempt to deflect it or to pull away. “Can’t I just drop by because I feel like it?”
“You… You could,” Mukuro said. “But you rarely do.” Junko fell silent when she heard that, and the exaggerated grin that she had been wearing faltered, eyes narrowing as she looked at her sister. She was quiet for a few moments, before her mouth twisted itself into a displeased frown. And when she spoke again, it was with an obvious note of irritation in her voice.
“Alright, Professor Whoreiarty,” Junko grumbled. “If you’re gonna call me out like that then yeah, I do want something from you. Let’s take a walk.” Suddenly Junko was moving towards the door again, pulling Mukuro with her by the shoulders as she went. Mukuro let out a distressed noise, craning her neck around to look back at the post she was abandoning.
“B-But I’m- I’m not,” she stammered out. But she let herself get dragged all the same, and Junko didn’t seem to care.
“It’s fiiine,” she promised. “You’ll only be gone a minute.” She kept her brisk walk up until they had exited the store, at which point she settled into a more leisurely pace, although she continued to keep her arm around Mukuro’s shoulders. The mall was relatively quiet at this hour, which meant that even though they were technically in a public space, their conversation still remained relatively private.
“Why… Why did you… Drag me out here?” Mukuro prompted, looking back over her shoulder at her store as it started to get farther and farther away from them. Junko rolled her eyes before beginning to speak.
“I’m here because I have an opportunity for you, of course!” she replied, forcing the enthusiasm into her voice once more. “A position just opened up at my store, so I think it’s time you leave that dusty old flannel factory and that weirdo girlcrush of yours behind and come work for your dearest little sister instead! I can pretty much just hire whoever I want anyway, so it’s not like you have to worry about qualifications or anything. Just say the word and the job is yours! Soooo?” With that Junko looked back towards Mukuro, wearing a clearly expectant expression on her face, although she wasn’t greeted with the sight she had expected. Junko had been prepared for, at the very least, hesitant enthusiasm, but instead she found that Mukuro had looked away, and was now staring down towards her own feet instead. “Hey!” Junko huffed, jostling Mukuro by the shoulders. “You listening to me?”
“If… If I’m allowed to ask…” Mukuro replied, voice even softer than usual. “How did this position become available?”
“Eh? Does that even matter?” Junko scoffed. “Someone left. So now I’ve gotta fill their old job.”
“Left? On their own?”
“Yes, left! Jeez! Since when have you been so full of questions? Celes-chan was being a drama queen or something again, so she decided to quit.” Immediately after saying that Junko realized that she had, perhaps, just volunteered a little bit more information than she should have, and when she looked over again she found that Mukuro’s gaze had returned to her.
“Ludenberg-san quit…?” Mukuro asked, and once again, Junko fell silent for a few seconds. Her eyes stayed locked onto Mukuro’s briefly, and then she pulled away, staring straight ahead down the stretch they were walking instead.
“Yeah, she quit,” Junko repeated, both the feigned cheerfulness and the exaggerated annoyance disappearing from her voice. “Can you believe that? She goes on one bad date and suddenly she’s acting like it’s the end of the fucking world so much that she’s quitting her job over it.”
“Yeah, she… I dunno,” Junko said, waving her hand dismissively. “She went on this date with some other bitch or something, and then it fell apart and the next morning she was coming in and giving me this whole big speech about how she’s quitting. Can you fucking believe that? She’s a grown woman throwing a tantrum like a child.”
“You’re right. Worse than a child. At least kids can be reasoned with.”
“Junko-chan,” Mukuro repeated, snapping Junko’s attention back towards her. “I… I enjoy my current job,” she stated softly. “I don’t see any reason to leave it…”
“I just gave you a reason,” Junko replied. “You’d get to work for me. Guaranteed easiest gig you’ll ever find in your life.”
“I’m… I’m not sure about that.” As soon as Mukuro said that Junko came to a stop in her tracks, and the arm still around Mukuro’s shoulders caused her to get yanked to a halt as well.
“Not sure about what? ” she insisted.
“About… About the two of us working together,” Mukuro carefully admitted. “I’m not sure if it would be a good idea, and I enjoy my current job, so…”
“ Fine .” With that particularly biting word Junko pulled her arm away from Mukuro’s shoulders, pivoting around and starting to march back towards her own store. “I was trying to do you a favor, you know,” she called out, back turned to Mukuro as she waved a hand over her shoulder. “But if you’re not interested I’ll have no problem finding a better candidate than you. Your loss!” She continued to walk away, and Mukuro watched her go for a few more steps before calling out after her, raising her voice just enough to be heard.
“Junko-chan… Do- Do you still want me to come over tonight…?” Once more, Junko stopped dead when she heard the words, and the hand that had been in the process of flipping Mukuro off dropped to her side as her entire posture slouched. It took a few seconds for her to respond, and even then she didn’t turn to look back at her sister.
“Yeah. Don’t be late.”
Maki was getting real sick of hamburgers. Even if the burgers she had been eating were good she would probably still be getting fed up with them by this point, and when they were greasy abominations on soggy buns, stuffed inside cardboard boxes that lacked any pretense of durability? They were starting to taste absolutely disgusting to her. But with the employee discount she was offered whenever she was working, this turned out to be a very cost-effective way to get meals. How was she supposed to turn down something like that?
Mushy hamburgers aside, lunch breaks were the part of her day that she actually found herself looking forward to. Maybe it was an exaggeration to say that she hated her job, but only slightly, and she always appreciated the thirty minutes she could get to herself, not having to deal with shouting and angry customers and whatever bullshit Kaito was on this time. Eating right there in the food court didn’t give her enough distance to actually get the privacy she desired, so instead she had taken to sneaking off to the loading dock out behind the mall, where shipments for the different stores would come in. It wasn’t a place customers had access to, and other employees rarely set foot out there either.
The keyword being rarely.
“Nocturne-san!” Maki winced when she heard that name, knowing full well that there was only one person it could be. And looking back over her shoulder, it seemed that she was correct: it was that damn girl from the music store, walking towards Maki with an obnoxiously cheerful smile and an over-enthusiastic wave.
“What are you doing out here?” Maki replied, quickly becoming defensive now that her private space was being invaded.
“I like to come out here to take my lunch! And from the looks of it,” Kaede said, gesturing towards the half-eaten burger sitting in Maki’s lap, “so do you! It’s crazy that we’ve never run into each other out here before!”
“Too bad it couldn’t stay that way,” Maki grumbled. Despite the fact that she very clearly hadn’t extended an invitation, Kaede walked right over towards the edge of the loading dock where the other girl was sitting, dropping down beside her with her legs hanging over the edge. Kaede was carrying a little plastic container with her, and as she opened it up Maki could see an assortment of vegetables mixed together over a bed of rice- it looked far healthier and far more homemade than what Maki was eating.
“Hey, I’m sorry about the other day,” Kaede said, giving Maki a sudden and rather unexpected apologetic look. “I hope I didn’t get you in trouble for trying to talk to you or anything.” Maki was clearly a bit surprised and taken aback when she heard that, and she glanced over towards Kaede, blinking a few times before she simply turned her attention back down to her food.
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “I didn’t get in trouble. That guy who was yelling at me isn’t even my boss. He’s just a dumbass.” Maki had made the comment in a dead serious tone, and had meant it with complete sincerity, so she was surprised to hear Kaede laugh in response.
“I kinda got that impression,” she giggled, before taking a bite of her meal. She chewed it for a few seconds, and Maki didn’t say anything else during that time. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to continue the conversation of her own accord, Kaede decided to keep pressing. “Oh! Did you ever get the chance to listen to that CD you bought?”
“...Yeah, I did,” Maki hesitantly admitted.
“And? What did you think?”
“I… I liked it. It was nice.” She wasn’t even lying about that either. Maki really had taken the time to listen to the entire collection, and she had enjoyed what she had heard. The songs were peaceful and relaxing, and while some people might have found them just a touch depressing, that was never the sort of thing that had bothered her.
“See?” Kaede said, and as Maki looked up she saw an enormous, triumphant grin on the other girl’s face. “I told you! I’m great at picking out music for people.”
“It was one CD. Don’t flatter yourself too much.” Once again, she had meant that in complete seriousness, and once again, Maki was startled to hear Kaede laughing at the comment.
“Well then come back to the store some time,” Kaede replied, “and I’ll set you up with something else. And I guarantee you’ll love that too!” Small and seemingly insignificant as that statement was, Maki still felt a sudden surge of… something running through her when she heard it. Kaede was actually trying to get her to come back to the store. And while it was probably reading way too much into it to think that it could possibly mean anything (Kaede was an employee there, after all), Maki still couldn’t shake the weird feeling that was lingering over her all of a sudden.
“Well… Maybe,” she ended up replying, deciding that noncommittal was the best way to go with this. “If I have free time.”
“You have free time right now, don’t you?”
“...What?” Maki grunted, glancing over at Kaede, then down at her burger. “I’m eat-”
“C’mon, let’s go!” Maki didn’t even get the chance to finish her sentence before Kaede was jumping back to her feet, closing up her lunch despite having only taken a few bites of it.
“I’m not done with my food.”
“You’re wasting time! Let’s goooo!” Kaede was already back by the doors that lead into the building, although she had paused once she got there.“Pleaaaaaase?” Maki opened her mouth to say something else, but when she looked up she found that Kaede was staring back at her now, eyes wide and bottom lip pouting out into the best sad puppy dog expression she could pull together. Anything Maki had been about to say got caught in her throat, and she held the gaze for a few seconds before looking back down towards the food in her lap once more time.
“...Fine,” she eventually ended up agreeing, closing the deformed cardboard box and beginning to stand up. The burger didn’t even taste good anyway.
“Are you almost ready?”
“Just let me grab my bag from the back.”
“Hurry up. I’m tired.”
“You didn’t have to wait around for me, you know.” As Mahiru moved into the back of the small family photography studio to retrieve her belongings, a little smile crossed over her face. Sato never had to wait around for her, but she seemed to do it all the time anyway. Hell, today her shift had ended half an hour before Mahiru’s, and she had still hung around the mall for that remaining time just so the two of them would be able to walk back home together. They weren’t roommates, but their apartments were just a few streets apart from each other.
“I didn’t wanna walk back home alone,” Sato replied. It was the same excuse she always fell back on, and by this point Mahiru was starting to feel like there was more than just what her friend was letting on. She had never actually spoken up to question it, though.
“Well, look.” Mahiru popped back out of the office with her bag in hand, holding it up so that it was in plain sight. “We can go now. Ready?”
“Ready.” With a little nod Sato turned and walked towards the exit, Mahiru following right behind. They walked past the tacky plastic sets and solid-color backgrounds, the photography equipment that was just expensive enough to look fancy while not actually being high end at all, the random portraits of various peoples’ families that had been hung up on the walls to showcase the sorts of services the studio offered. Every single time Mahiru walked past them, she couldn’t hide the faintest hint of a disgusted look that appeared in her eye. It was something that was never lost on Sato either.
“If you glare any harder you’ll end up burning this place down,” she mentioned as they stepped into the main hall of the mall, which was mostly empty at this hour.
“Sorry,” Mahiru sighed, reaching up and pinching at the bridge of her nose. “I thought I was doing a better job of hiding that.” The comment made Sato’s mouth twist into a small frown, and she glanced off to the side for a moment or two before speaking up, being just a little more cautious with her words than she normally would. She wasn’t typically the sort of person to censor herself or watch what came out of her mouth, but Mahiru always proved to be the exception to that rule.
“You really don’t like that job, do you?” she asked, and Mahiru was quick to reply with protest and a hasty shake of her head.
“I don’t hate it or anything!” she insisted. “I mean… For a starting job it’s nice. At least I’m getting to do something with photography, so I know I really shouldn’t be complaining.”
“But… I hate the type of photography they have me doing there,” she reluctantly admitted. “Corny posed family pictures on those ugly sets they have. You know I prefer-” Right after she said that there was a familiar clicking sound, and Sato whipped her head back around to see something she was frustratingly familiar with: Mahiru standing there with her camera out and pointed at her, a triumphant smile on her face as she finished the thought. “Candids.”
“Are you seriously still doing that?” Sato huffed, immediately reaching out to try to grab Mahiru’s camera away from her. “Give me that.”
“Nope!” Mahiru giggled back, holding the camera out as far away from Sato as she could with one arm while fending her friend off with the other. “I’m sure it was a great photo!”
“It doesn’t matter how good it was if I didn’t know I was in it! Get rid of it!”
“You always look so pretty when you’re being thoughtful like that, though.” Hearing that was enough to make Sato freeze in her attempts to get the camera away from Mahiru, and it was enough to make her start blushing furiously as well. She stood there dumbfounded for a second or two, and then she quickly turned away again, slumping down into her shoulders as if that would somehow let her hide her face.
“I would look better if you actually gave me some warning,” she grumbled out, but Mahiru just shook her head in response.
“Posing ruins photos,” she insisted. “Everything is better when it’s natural. Liiiiiike, this!” And then the shutter went off again, and Sato’s eye widened as she glanced back at Mahiru out of the corner of her vision. “I’ll call that one ‘Blushing Girl Number Twenty-Three.’”
“You don’t have twenty-three of those!” Sato protested.
“At this point I might.”
“Just stop taking pictures of me!” she huffed, putting a hand up to try to block her face from the camera. Despite those protests, though, the grin on Mahiru’s face was only stretching itself even wider, and she lifted her camera up once again, seeming to prepare for another shot.
“This is good! It conveys a sense of action. It’s a very dynamic shot,” she teased. She was aware that she was skirting her own line about candid shots at the moment, since Sato knew there was a camera on her, but Mahiru decided that Sato being unhappy about said camera made this acceptable. Even if she knew the photos were being taken, she was still acting naturally. It didn’t count as posing.
“I’m serious! If you take any more shots-” And of course, just as she said that, the shutter went off again. Sato huffed even louder, starting to storm off towards the mall exit. “I’m going home by myself!”
“Sato, wait! Oh- Actually, keep going!” Mahiru called out after her. “This is a great shot too!”
“Don’t you-!” Click . “You’re the worst!”
“If we wait a few more minutes the lighting outside will be better!” Mahiru laughed, starting to chase after Sato with her camera still at the ready. “Try to stay out of any shadows!”
“If you take any more pictures I’ll break that camera!” Sato threatened. “I’m serious!” But they both knew she wasn’t.
“Alright ladies, look alive! It’s our first day with this new team so I wanna see everyone put their best faces on! Can you do that for me?”
“Perfect!” Grinning widely, Junko stood at the front of the store, hands on her hips as she struck a triumphant pose. There were two faces staring back at her: the first was Mikan’s, and it was something Junko was entirely accustomed to by this point. The second, however, was a new addition to the Sephora team. Tsumugi Shirogane had been brought on to replace Celeste, after Celeste had so unceremoniously quit and left the store behind. Junko had initially been convinced that she would come crawling back begging for her old job before long, but so far that hadn’t happened. And once Mukuro had turned down the initial offer for the position as well, Junko had actually been forced to start looking for a new employee she could bring in. Fortunately, she had found Tsumugi before too long.
“Now then, Mikan-chan, I’m gonna have you show Shirogane-san here around the store and introduce her to some of the basics. Do you think you can do that for me?” she hummed.
“O-Of course, Junko-chan!” Mikan hastily replied, nodding frantically. “I’ll sh-show her everything she needs to know!” Junko was, of course, aware of the fact that this was probably a mistake, and that she would end up re-teaching Tsumugi most if not all of what she learned from Mikan anyway, but she still had a mountain of new hire paperwork she needed to get through before the end of the day. As it turned out, bringing in new employees was a pain in the ass.
“I know you will,” Junko said, winking at Mikan before she turned her attention over to Tsumugi. “Mikan-chan here is my best employee,” technically true, “so if you have any questions about anything you just ask her, alright?”
“I certainly will, Enoshima-sama!”
“Great! I’ll check back on you guys in- I’m sorry, what?” Junko did a double take as she processed what Tsumugi had just called her, twisting her head back around to look at the new employee when she had already been turning to go to her office. Tsumugi was just standing there with a completely innocent smile on her face, though, tilting her head slightly to the side in a look of genuine confusion.
“Hmm? Is something wrong?” she asked.
“What did you just say?”
“I don’t- I don’t like that. Don’t do that. Just call me san.”
“Of course,” Junko groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose before she twirled around on her heels and tossed her hands up into the air “Fuck it! Fuck it. I’ll be in my office.” With that she stormed off towards the back of the store, disappearing behind the door and out of view. Tsumugi and Mikan were left watching, both of them smiling as Junko left- until the moment she was gone. At that point Mikan’s expression suddenly hardened, and she looked at Tsumugi out of the corners of her narrowed eyes.
“It’s embarrassing to watch you try to suck up to her like that,” Mikan stated, her voice taking a cold, flat tone, completely different from how it had been a moment before. “Junko-chan doesn’t like ass kissers.”
“I’m not an ass kisser!” Tsumugi replied, shaking her head before raising a finger. “I’m just a dedicated fan.” That was enough to give Mikan a moment of pause despite her annoyance, although in the end it only seemed to irritate her even more.
“A fan?” she eventually repeated. “Of Junko-chan?”
“What does that mean?” Mikan demanded. The question made Tsumugi gasp, clapping both of her hands over her mouth and recoiling away.
“Could it be possible that you don’t know?” she asked, and that only made Mikan grow more frustrated still.
“Don’t know what?? If you’re trying to say you know something about Junko-chan that I don’t-”
“But you don’t even know about her modeling career!” Those words brought Mikan to a grinding halt for a few seconds, slowly registering what she had just heard. But once she did, she was letting loose with even more anger than before.
“W-What modeling career??” she hissed. “Junko-chan’s never been a model!”
“Yes she has!” Tsumugi insisted, nodding energetically. “She had an amatuer model career before she dropped out of view of the public and ended up here! I was an enormous fan of her back then!” she recalled, getting a twinkle in her eyes as she looked back on those memories. “Such an enormous fan that I always wondered what had happened to her when she simply vanished one day! But now I know!”
“You’re- You’re making this up!” Mikan snapped back. “Junko-chan would never give up a modeling career to come work here! There’s no reason for it!”
“I’m not sure what her reason was either,” Tsumugi admitted. “But it’s the truth! I even still have some old magazines she did photoshoots for back at home! I’ll show you one if you don’t believe me!”
“You’re just lying to me! You’re trying to throw me off because you want to-”
“Hey, barfbreath!” Mikan recoiled away at the sound of that voice, craning her neck around to see a very small, very angry looking set of pigtails bobbing their way towards her. “You didn’t greet me when I came into the store! What kind of terrible employee can’t even do that right?”
“A-Ah, I’m s-sorry!” Mikan stammered back. “I- I was distracted, and I-”
“Yeah, I know. You were so distracted you didn’t notice me shoving a bunch of stuff in my pockets so I could steal it,” Hiyoko snickered.
“Th-That’s not- You c-c-can’t-”
“Hey! Are you trying to tell me what to do?”
“N-No, of course not! I’m s-sorry! Please, f-f-forgive me!” Interesting, Tsumugi thought, as she watched this small, strange girl start yanking Mikan around by the hair. Maybe there was more to this store than just Junko after all.
Kyouko Kirigiri swore to herself that, one of these days, she would be able to get through a shift at work without anyone coming to bother her. She would just be able to stand there, and make coffee, and clean out the espresso machine, and nobody would come through trying to pester her with their relationship woes or their requests for life advice. One of these days, she would just get to be a normal barista.
Today wasn’t that day.
The morning had started out well enough, and as she rolled up towards lunch time she was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, she would actually be able to get through this day without incident. Unfortunately, the mere existence of that thought seemed to be a jinx, and as soon as she caught herself thinking she might be able to avoid trouble, trouble came and found her.
“Kirigiri-saaaaaaaaaan!” The moment she heard that voice, Kyouko let out an exasperated sigh. She recognized it as someone who didn’t tend to come around the cafe all that often compared to people like Komaru, or Celeste (who had been suspiciously absent recently), but whenever she did show up it typically spelled out chaos.
“Enoshima-san,” she replied, keeping both tone and expression cold and stoic as she looked up to see Junko, positively grinning as she walked towards the counter. “And what brings you here today?”
“What usually brings people to a Starbucks?” Junko asked. “Coffee, duh. Gimme the most high sugar, high caffeine shit you’ve got on the menu. I need the extra boost today.”
“I know I’m almost certainly going to regret asking this,” Kyouko said, setting about preparing a drink that would have enough kick to it to wake the dead, “but I’ll bite. Why?”
“I’ve got this new employee starting today and she’s a total fucking weirdo. She’s basically obsessed with me or something, and she’s pretty much been clinging to me any time I poke my head out of my office. She’s even worse than Tsumiki,” Junko groaned. “Why did Celes-chan have to quit?” Upon hearing that last sentence Kyouko paused halfway through preparing Junko’s order, looking over out of the corner of her eye.
“Ludenberg-san quit?” she repeated.
“Huh? Yeah. You didn’t know that?” Junko asked. “I thought you two were like, best friends or something.”
“Well she’s gone. Came in, like… A week and a half ago acting all weird and said she was turning in her resignation. I tried to talk her out of it but she wouldn’t listen to me. So now I’m stuck running a fucking freak show over there. Can you believe little miss princess of darkness was the normal one?”
“You haven’t set the bar particularly high. Dealing with your presence, it’s actually enough to make me nostalgic towards Ludenberg-san’s company.”
“Ouch,” Junko scoffed. “Words hurt, you know.”
“Good. They were meant to.” Junko was about to laugh the comment off as a joke, familiar enough with Kyouko’s sense of deadpan sarcasm not to take it too seriously. But when she looked across the counter and saw the barista glaring back at her through narrowed eyes, her expression entirely cold and resentful, she realized that maybe it wasn’t something to laugh about after all. Her own expression turned sour at that point, brows creasing down as her mouth twisted itself into a frown.
“Is that any way to talk to a customer?” she bit back.
“Maybe not. But you didn’t come in here as a customer, did you?” Kyouko set the drink down between them once she said that, hollow bottom of the paper cup tapping against the countertop with a dull thud. “What did you expect to happen when you came in here, Enoshima? Was I meant to feel sympathetic towards you? I have a job to be doing, and I would appreciate it if you stopped trying to distract me.”
“Cut the bullshit,” Junko replied. She reached out to take her drink, and for a small moment both of them were gripping onto the cup before Kyouko pulled away. “I know people come in here bitching about their problems all the time, so how about you just square up and admit you’ve got an issue with me?” Kyouko was silent for a moment after Junko said that, simply staring back at her over the counter. The tension held fast for a few seconds, and a part of her debated simply turning away and going back to cleaning up her work station. But eventually, Kyouko decided to indulge.
“Very well,” she began. “Typically I make it a rule not to involve myself in the personal lives of customers here, but with the amount of drama that’s been rearing its head recently I haven’t been left with much of a choice, and since so much of it ties back to you, I suppose I can hold you personally accountable. I recognize that my perception of these events is largely based on Ludenberg-san’s own account, and as such I realize there’s an inherent bias to it, which is why I’ve wanted to withhold judgement. However, in the two minutes I’ve spoken with you just now, I feel I’ve learned about as much as I could ever need to know. If you believe you have something to say that will change my mind then by all means, feel free to say it, but somehow that seems unlikely. Perhaps I do consider Ludenberg-san a friend,” she continued, “although even if I don’t, I still consider her a human being deserving of a certain level of respect which you haven’t shown her. Your persistent emotional manipulation and disregard for her own feelings or well being drove her to a point where she chose giving up financial stability over being forced to continue spending time around you, and now that you’ve pushed her past that breaking point you’ve come here, expecting me to be sympathetic towards you because you’re finally, for what I have to assume is one of the first times in your life, actually being forced to deal with the consequences of your actions. So yes, I do ‘have an issue’ with you, as you’ve so delicately put it,” Kyouko concluded. “I don’t enjoy your presence. I don’t enjoy the impact you’ve had on my friend. And while this might seem blunt, I’m already oversharing anyway, so I may as well volunteer this information too: I think you’re a fundamentally terrible human being. So I would appreciate it if you paid for your drink and didn’t return here.”
Neither one of them said anything for a good handful of seconds after Kyouko finished. Junko stood there glaring at her, while Kyouko’s own expression remained largely stoic, and that apparent apathy only irritated Junko even more. She debated retaliation, but eventually she ended up shoving her hand down into her pocket, digging out a few crumpled banknotes and slamming them onto the counter between them.
“You think you’re a real fucking hotshot, don’t you?” she sneered. “Standing behind this counter, acting like you’re too cool to get involved in other people’s shit until you see an opportunity to make yourself feel superior to someone. And then you take it, all while pretending you got dragged into it against your will so you don’t have to admit that you’re just as thirsty for drama as the people you’re trying to act better than. How fucking pathetic is it that you’re a twenty-three year old barista working at a bookstore Starbucks whose only friends are your customers? If you’re so desperate for people to shit all over, maybe try looking in a mirror once in a while.”
“This wasn’t a two way street,” Kyouko replied, scooping the money off the counter. “You asked for my opinions. I never asked for yours.”
“Then consider that advice free of charge.” With one more venomous glare Junko scooped her drink off the counter and turned to walk away, not even bothering to collect the change from the money she’d left on the counter. Kyouko took note of the dramatic flourish with which she left the cafe, heels stomping against the tile floor with each step she took in a way that seemed downright precarious. Perhaps it was excessively mean spirited to envision Junko tripping and spilling her drink all over herself as she tried to make her exit, but Kyouko allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy anyway, just for a moment.
Tucked away in the back of the mall, even more removed from the main areas than the little curios store where Himiko Yumeno worked, there was a store that specialized in selling adult novelty items. That was what the sign out front said, at least, because they weren’t allowed to blatantly advertise for what they were actually selling. Of course, anyone who ended up down that far probably already knew exactly what they were looking for anyway. It was hardly the most popular store in the mall, for obvious reasons, but it at least did well enough to keep itself afloat. Even if it was staffed by two of the most terrible human beings imaginable.
“Jeez! Check out the size of this bad boy!” Miu Iruma called out, waving around a certain purple object that was roughly the size of her forearm, but that resembled an entirely different body part. “I get bein’ a size queen, but what kinda freak would go tryna cram this up inside themselves?”
“Maybe some people just enjoy the challenge,” replied Teruteru Hanamura, folding his hands together and leaning forward from behind the counter. “It’s not about whether or not you want to. It’s simply a question of whether or not you can . Which begs the question, Iruma-san: do you think you’re strong enough?”
“Eh? ‘Course I am!” Miu boasted. “There’s no way a measly little noodle dick like this’d be too big for me! Hell! I could probably fit somethin’ twice this size!”
“Ohoho? That’s quite the claim,” Teruteru replied. “I’m not sure I’ll believe it if I don’t see it with my own two eyes.”
“W-Wha-??” Miu blurted out, immediately shrinking away from the extreme confidence she had been showing just a few seconds earlier. “R-Right now?? B-But, I- W-We’re-” Thankfully, anywhere that conversation might have ended up was quickly interrupted when a customer came into the store, coughing to get the attention of the two sales associates. At first glance, Miu noticed the customer was a shifty sort. It might not have been immediately obvious to the untrained eye, but after working in retail for quite some time, she had developed a keen sense for how to spot someone who might have been up to no good. It was something about the way certain people carried themselves, their demeanor when they came into the store, their body language, dozens of little unintentional signals that were likely invisible to a person who didn’t know how to look for them.
The trench coat and sunglasses and face mask and hat were a good clue as well.
“Well hellooooo there stranger,” Teruteru hummed out, sliding towards the end of the counter closer to the front of the store. “And what can we do for you today?”
“Yes!” came a voice from underneath the numerous layers of clothing that were concealing the customer’s identity. It sounded female, though. “Tenk- I- I mean! I am looking to buy something!”
“No shit!” Miu cut in. “Only reason you’d be in this store in the first place is if you wanted to buy something! Unless you’re just comin’ in here to be a peeping Tom! Is that what those sunglasses are for?” she asked, stepping forward and jabbing a finger in the customer’s direction. “Are you creepin’ on us behind those??”
“W-What? No! I would never!” the customer blurted back in response, raising her arms up in front of herself in a defensive position. “This is just because- Because I had my eyes dilated and now they’re sensitive to light! And the face mask is because I have a cold! And the hat and coat are because the cold is giving me chills!”
“Oh, you poor little thing. You must be positively freezing under there,” Teruteru hummed. “But that just gives me the greatest idea. Why don’t you peel down out of that coat and the two of us can use it like a blanket while we huddle for warmth? And don’t you worry about getting me sick,” he added on. “I’ve already caught everything.” Teruteru’s suggestion, however, wasn’t met with whatever positive reaction he might have been hoping for. The entire store seemed to grow a few degrees colder as the customer looked towards him, and even behind the mask and the sunglasses, it was clear she was giving him a positively terrifying glare.
“Nobody asked for your input, degenerate.”
“Ohoho, playing hard to get are we, mademoiselle?" Despite the severity of it, Teruteru didn’t seem put off by that response. He leaned in closer over the surface of the counter, putting himself within an arm’s length of the mysterious customer. “Lucky for me, I like a girl with a little fire in her.”
“H-Hey, hang on a second!” Miu tried to warn. “I don’t think you should be fucking with-” But the warning came too late. With a piercing “KIYA!” that echoed throughout the entire store a powerful leg came swinging out from underneath the coat, and the foot connected squarely with Teruteru’s face. It sent him flying backwards a good distance until he crashed into the wall behind the counter, looking entirely dazed and disoriented now.
“Tenko told you to keep your mouth shut, degenerate!” the customer who was definitely not Tenko shouted.
“W-What the hell??” Miu cried out, rushing over towards the counter to look down at where Teruteru had ended up. He was slumped onto the floor now, head still visibly reeling from the impact of the blow. Unsurprisingly, he looked like his nose was bleeding, though at least his teeth all still seemed to be in tact. “Did you just fuckin’ murder him??”
“Eh? O-Of course not!” Tenko replied, leaning in over the counter as well to get a better look at her victim. “But, uh- I just forgot! I have to be somewhere else now! Bye!”
“H-Hey! Hold on a second! Don’t just leave me here with the little turd!” Once again, though, Miu’s words didn’t come fast enough. Her protests were simply met with Tenko booking it out of the store as quickly as possible, narrowly avoiding three or four different shelves on her way out. “Get back here!” Miu called after her, though it did nothing at all. Turning her attention back to Teruteru, who was babbling incoherently at this point, she let out a drawn out sigh. “You better not’ve fuckin’ pissed yourself,” she grumbled. “I’m not into that unless you’re an eight or higher. And you’re like, a two.”
Finding Komaru Naegi in the bookstore was more or less a given at this point. It seemed like she was there more days than she wasn’t, bouncing back and forth between the cafe and the store itself. If she wasn’t sitting at one of the tables pestering Kyouko she would be walking back and forth between the shelves, keeping an eye out for Touko, bothering her instead. This time around, however, it seemed like Touko was going to be the one to find her.
“Th-There you are, Dekomaru!” Komaru had been halfway down one of the aisles when she heard a voice behind her, and she turned around to see Touko standing at the other end, tense and on edge as usual.
“Fukawa-san!” Komaru replied, perking up and starting to bounce down the hall towards her friend. “I was looking for you!”
“Well I f-found you first, so obviously you d-didn’t do a very good job of it!” Touko said. “But s-since you’re here…” She trailed off for a moment after saying that, suddenly breaking her eyes away and looking down towards the floor instead. She grabbed hold of one of her braids, fingers fidgeting nervously with it before she continued to speak. “I was w-wondering if you ever… Got a chance to r-read that book I gave you.”
“Oh, yeah! Of course I did!” She had not. Komaru had never so much as even opened the front cover. She had, however, spent hours upon hours pouring over every summary she could find anywhere on the internet, looking up all of the important plot points and major themes and critical reviews she could find, to the point where it almost seemed like it might have been faster to have just gone ahead and read it. After all that research she was convinced she could have a real conversation with Touko without ever letting on that she was faking, and this was the moment she had been preparing for. Time to put those skills to the test.
“R-Really??” Touko asked, looking back up from the floor with a mixture of surprise and an excitement that Komaru wasn’t sure she had ever actually seen on her face before. Her hands began fidgeting with her hair even faster, and she leaned in closer as she spoke. “W-What did you think about it?”
“Well, I thought it was good!” Komaru lied, starting to dig back through everything she could remember reading about. “I mean, it was sad, but… I guess that was kind of the point, right? And I thought it was really, uh… Heavy. And profound.” After Komaru said that she found Touko staring back at her blankly, and for a moment she was worried that she had screwed up somehow, said something that was wrong or that would give away that she hadn’t actually read the book. After a few seconds of tension Touko broke her eyes away and looked off to the side, voice a bit quieter now.
“Y-Yeah. I guess. W-What did you think about… About the b-beginning?” she asked. “L-Like, the very beginning? The f-first few pages?”
“The beginning?” Komaru repeated. “Well, if I’m being totally honest I guess I thought it started off sort of slow,” she said, remembering that criticism in a review she had read. If a noteworthy critic thought it was true then it was probably an opinion she was allowed to have as well, right? Once again, though, Touko didn’t seem to have a favorable reaction, and Komaru was left feeling like she was cramming her foot further and further down her own throat without even knowing how she was doing it.
“Well… W-What about, h-hidden stuff?” Touko ended up asking next. “Did you, maybe… F-Find anything hidden in the b-book?”
“Hidden stuff? You mean… Like symbolism? And metaphors, and stuff like that? Yeah, I found a lot of that!” Komaru replied, nodding eagerly. This was one of the topics she had spent the most time reading up on, wanting to make sure that she could actually have a seemingly enlightened conversation about the book, rather than just spitting out plot points, and she was eager to prove what she knew by talking about it now. “Like, how the main character’s pocket watch was meant to symbolize his mortality!” she went on. “It was always featured prominently in the scenes where he was worried about his health, and it was constantly reminding him about the limited amount of time he had left to live. Which was also ironic, because it was his most expensive possession, so it acted as a commentary on the power money and wealth have over life and death. I thought that was really interesting!” Komaru felt like she had nailed that answer, but even once she was done she still found Touko standing there in front of her in silence, not even looking at her, and that made her worry that she had somehow screwed up yet again.
“Y-You know what? Forget it,” Touko mumbled, rather abruptly. “I h-have to get back to w-work anyway.”
“Wait, Fukawa-san!” Despite her protest, though, Touko had already turned around and disappeared around the corner, leaving Komaru standing there alone. She blinked a few times as she tried to process what had happened, wondering if she had given a bad answer, but just a moment after that she was startled by another voice coming from behind her.
“Oh, it seems like your plan to deceive Fukawa-san didn’t work. How unlucky.” Komaru jumped up and twisted around at the sound, heart skipping a beat when she saw not one, but two disturbingly lanky figures standing at the other end of the aisle. Nagito she recognized, although the other male was one she hadn’t seen before. He was even taller than Nagito, with long, dark hair, and an eerie mask that covered the lower half of his face. With how he was staring at her, Komaru almost wished it would cover more.
“Were you two listening in that whole time??” Komaru huffed, shooting glares back and forth between the two of them. “And who is he anyway?? She added on, pointing a finger at the new arrival.
“Shinguji-kun is one of our new employees,” Nagito replied, gesturing towards the man beside him. “I’m sure you’ll get to know him quite well, with how much time you spend around here.”
“Why is this store hiring more employees? Print is a dying medium!”
“Ah, she’s lashing out because she’s unhappy with how this situation went,” Korekiyo mused, though Komaru couldn’t even tell whether he was talking to Nagito or simply to himself. “Standard behavior, if not irrational.”
“Did you even read the book, Naegi-san?” Nagito asked. “Or did you think you could bluff your way through it without Fukawa-san noticing what you were doing?”
“That’s- That’s not any of your business!” Komaru snapped back. “Don’t you two have a job to be doing??”
“Interacting with customers is our job,” Nagito replied. “Besides, it’s Shinguji-kun’s first day here, so I’m taking some time to show him around the store.”
“And what an interesting first day it’s been,” Korekiyo added on. “I came to work at this store for the literature, but I never thought that I would get to see such fascinating displays of humanity playing out right in front of me. Truly, a beautiful spectacle,” he sighed.
“Is he okay?”
“Probably. I think the more important question,” Nagito replied, “Is, are you? I can’t imagine that conversation with Fukawa-san went the way you wanted it to.”
“That private conversation with Fukawa-san,” Komaru reminded him. “The one you were eavesdropping on.”
“We’re splitting hairs at this point, Naegi-san. Don’t you think you should be more concerned about figuring out why that conversation didn’t go the way you intended it to?” Komaru glared back at Nagito for a bit longer, although after another moment her expression did start to soften. She crossed her arms over her chest, glancing off to the side and letting her posture slump a bit.
“Well… Fine. I didn’t actually read the book,” she admitted. “I just looked at a bunch of summaries online. I thought I could fake my way through the conversation that way.”
“Ahh, deception in the name of romance,” Korekiyo more or less moaned. “How truly beautiful.”
“Nobody said anything about romance!” Komaru snapped back. “Stop making everything weird!”
“If you really do love her-”
“Then maybe that means putting the work in to show her that you love her,” Nagito said. “Of course, that’s just my two cents, and what do I know?”
“Nothing, apparently,” Komaru grumbled back. “I’m not taking romance advice from you weirdos.”
“So you admit it’s romance.”
“Shut up! Mind your own business! I’m leaving!” With one more evenly-distributed glare Komaru backed out of the aisle, keeping both Nagito and Korekiyo in her field of vision out of genuine fear that, if she turned around, they would somehow already be in front of her.
Standing in the food court and looking at all of the different offerings always proved to be one of the hardest decisions Akane Owari had to make with her life. When there were so many options on display, how was she supposed to pick just one? If she got McDonald’s she would probably be left with a pizza craving all day, but if she got pizza then she would be missing out on the orange chicken from the chinese place. And if she went there, she wouldn’t be able to get any of the terrible but oh so filling desserts from the the Dairy Queen. She wished her wallet was thick enough for “all of the above” to be viable option.
Eventually Akane decided today would be a pizza day, and within a few minutes she had acquired a nice, hearty stack of several slices, each sporting a variety of different toppings. The other annoying thing about the food court, however, was that it always seemed to get crowded around this time of day, and it could frequently be hard to find a place to sit. Her eyes jumped around between a few different tables, unsuccessful in finding an opening. But they did eventually manage to find a face she recognized.
“Hey, Souda!” Akane said, shouting the name a bit too loudly as she slammed her tray down on the table and slid into the seat across from him. The mechanic, who had been chowing down on a burger, jumped a little bit in his seat when he heard the noise, though his expression turned into a grin when he realized who it was.
“Hey, Owari,” he replied. “How’s your store been?”
“Eh? It’s been fine,” Akane said, settling into her chair and preparing to chow down on her meal. “Why’re you askin’?” Souda looked genuinely hurt at the question.
“Huh? Because of the new AC unit I put in for you! I had to work really hard to get that installed as a rush job!”
“Oh, right! Don’t worry, that works fine,” Akane assured him. “Good thing too. If we’d been wastin’ away in that heat any longer we mighta had to start goin’ shirtless or something.”
“Sh-Shirtless??” Before Souda had too much longer to dwell on the beautiful future he had unwittingly helped to prevent, however, Akane was continuing on.
“Anyway, I owe you big time for that! So if you ever need anything just gimme a shout!” she promised, giving Souda a thumbs up and a large grin for emphasis. Admittedly she wasn’t sure how much she, as the manager of a sports store, would actually be able to offer, unless the “anything” Souda wanted was a fresh pair of sneakers or a new baseball bat. But it was the thought that counted, and Souda was already hard at work thinking about that.
“Anything, huh?” he mused, scratching at his chin while he thought it over. “Well shit, there’s a lotta stuff I could use around here. Like… Hey, you seem pretty strong, right?” While the question might have come a little out of nowhere, it didn’t seem to faze Akane.
“Hell yeah! I’m ripped!” And then, to prove that claim, she lifted up both arms, flexing to highlight her biceps. While she wasn’t nearly as musclebound as someone like Nekomaru or Sakura, there was still quite a bit to show off. “Why?”
“I’m supposed to strip out a bunch of the ducts up there so I can get in and replace a busted fan,” Souda explained, pointing towards the air vents that ran along the ceiling of the food court, many many feet above them. “But I’ve kinda been putting it off, since all that stuff’s really heavy and I kinda didn’t wanna do it alone. Think you could give me a hand with it?”
“Hell yeah!” came Akane’s enthusiastic reply. “Just show me what you need lifted and I’ll lift the crap out of it!”
“Awesome! Can’t really do it with a whole bunch of people around like this, though,” Souda added on, pulling his eyes back away from the ceiling and letting them wander through the crowd of gathered customers and loiterers. “If something fell down it could kill one of them, y’know? So we’ll have to do it after the mall closes up some day. Is that alright with you?”
“After closing?” Akane asked, and for a moment her expression and usual energy seemed to falter. “Eh, well… I guess I can make that work.”
“You sure?” Souda asked. “Cause if it’s gonna be an issue-”
“Nah, nah, it’s nothin’. Besides, we’ll get this done in no time! It’s gonna be the fastest fan changin’ you’ve ever seen! So when are we gonna take care of this?”
“Probably not until some time next week,” Souda admitted. “I’m gonna have to book out a scissor lift just to get up there, so it’ll be a few days at least until I get that approved.”
“Eh?” Akane grunted, tilting her head. “What’s a scissor lift? Does it got anything to do with regular scissorin’?” It most certainly did not, though for a moment Souda was too busy choking on his food to adequately explain that.
“You know those platforms that roll around on wheels and get lifted up really high by those criss-crossing supports?” he asked. “That’s what they’re called. Scissor lifts.”
“You mean I’m gonna get to stand on one of those things??” Akane asked.
“How else did you think we were getting up there?”
“I dunno. Like… A really tall ladder or something?”
“I’m pretty sure a ladder that tall would be unsafe,” Souda said, laughing softly. “Anyway, I can give you a call once I get the lift booked and let you know when we’re doing this. Thanks for helping me out!”
“Don’t mention it!” Akane replied, waving her hand to dismiss the words. “I should be thankin’ you. You’re the one that’s lettin’ me scissor.”
“Dammit, where the hell is Harumaki? It’s not like her to be late!”
“Maybe she finally lived up to all those threats about quitting,” Shuichi joked, although Kaito didn’t seem to find the humor in it.
“She’d better not have! If she decided to bail on us without even givin’ me any warning I’m gonna kick her ass!” Shuichi refrained from commenting on how that fight almost definitely wouldn’t go the way Kaito wanted it to. Instead he turned around to look back out over the counter and towards the rest of the mall, and as he did he found the answer to their question.
“Hey, look,” he replied, pointing towards the crowd. “I think we just solved this mystery.”
“Eh?” Kaito grunted, walking up along beside Shuichi. He followed where his friend was pointing, and soon enough found what had caught his attention: Maki was approaching. But she wasn’t alone.
Standing beside Maki was the same blonde music store employee Kaito and Shuichi had seen her hanging around with a number of times now. Maki, as per usual, looked like she was mostly keeping to herself, seeming more focused on her own feet than the person beside her. Kaede was clearly filling in the majority of the conversation, talking enthusiastically and gesturing every which way with her hands while she rambled on. Despite how quiet she was being, though, Maki didn’t actually look like she was annoyed in the way she would have been if anyone else had come up to her and started chatting like that. If anything, she just looked a little flustered.
The two walked a bit closer, finally stopping near the edge of the food court, still out of earshot of Kaito and Shuichi. Even if they couldn’t be heard, however, it was still easy to fill in what must have been going on in their conversation simply from watching. They talked a moment longer, and Maki lifted her head just enough to say something, which caused Kaede to laugh in turn. Kaede took a step back after that, giving an energetic wave before spinning around on her heels and starting to bounce off. Maki immediately looked back towards her feet after that, turning in the other direction and starting to power walk towards the McDonald’s where Kaito and Shuichi were waiting, doing her best not to look at them as she approached. Unfortunately, Kaito wasn’t going to let her get away with that.
“Hey, Harumaki!” he called out as she circled around the counter. “You’re five minutes late!”
“Shut up, I know,” Maki muttered back. She tried to push right past Kaito and go towards the back, and Kaito tried to prevent her from doing this by grabbing her shoulder. He immediately came to regret this when Maki grabbed his arm in turn, twisting it to the side hard enough for it to feel like it was about to break. “Don’t touch me.”
“Ow, ow! Jeez! Alright!” Kaito huffed, quickly pulling back. “I’m just messin’ with ya anyway. If I’d known you were out on a date I woulda told you to take an extra hour.”
“It wasn’t a date!” Maki snapped, spitting out the words with a surprising amount of aggression. She whipped her head up as she said them, delivering a glare that caused both Kaito and Shuichi to take a step back.
“I think they just happened to be walking together, Kaito,” Shuichi said, laughing uneasily as he tried to delicately defuse the situation. He could only hope Kaito wouldn’t say something else stupid. And then Kaito said something else stupid.
“I dunno,” he replied. “You two’ve been spendin’ an awful lot of time around each other lately. Don’t think me and Saihara haven’t noticed!”
“It isn’t your business who else I spend time with,” Maki growled back.
“Really,” Shuichi agreed. “We should probably just drop this.” But Kaito still wasn’t listening to him.
“Why is this turnin’ into such a sore subject for you?” he asked. “If I didn’t know any better I’d think-”
“Kaito, don’t ,” Shuchi urged. But it was already too late.
“-You’ve actually got a crush on her or somethin’.” As soon as Kaito said that a fresh rage appeared in Maki’s eyes. Her nostrils flared out, her hands balled into tight fists at her sides, and her teeth clenched so hard Shuichi swore he could see the veins in her forehead.
“I don’t! ” she insisted, before twisting and starting to storm away again.
“Alright!” Kaito called after her. “But if you did that’s the kinda stuff you could tell us about!”
“Kaito,” Shuichi stressed, but Kaito just shook his head, turning to look at him.
“I mean it,” he insisted. “We’re all friends here, right? And friends should be able to talk to friends about whatever’s on their mind, no matter what it is. Cause what kinda shitty friends would we be if we didn’t all support each other?” After he said that Kaito glanced at Maki again, who had now stopped halfway towards the back of the kitchen. She was standing still, though she still had her back to them.
“Well I don’t have anything to tell you about,” she muttered.
“Alright,” Kaito agreed. “But if you did we’d both be here for you. Right, Saihara?”
“That’s right,” Shuichi agreed, nodding sincerely.
“I don’t. And I don’t have a crush on Akamatsu-san.”
“I believe ya!”
“But… If I did…” Maki continued, voice dropping lower now. “You guys wouldn’t think that was… Weird?”
“Weird?” Kaito repeated. “Why would it be weird?” Maki was silent for a moment when he asked that, and then she reached up, starting to fidget with one of her pigtails the same way she always did when she got nervous or frustrated by something.
“Because… Because she’s a girl,” Maki finally said. “And I’m a girl.”
“I’m pretty sure Kaito and I are the last people on earth who would think that was weird,” Shuichi chuckled, which prompted Maki to look back at him over her shoulder, eyes narrowed.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked. As soon as the question left her mouth an awkward silence filled the room. Shuichi looked up at Kaito, and Kaito looked back at him. Then they looked towards Maki again. Then back towards each other. Both of them looked like they were about to say something, but neither of them did. This lasted for far too long before Kaito finally broke the silence.
“Are you screwin’ with us right now Harumaki?” he asked, making Maki narrow her eyes even more.
“What are you talking about?” she insisted.
“Do you- Do you really not know?” Shuichi asked.
“Not know what?”
“About me… And Kaito… And that we’re…” At that point, something finally clicked in Maki’s brain. Or at least, something started to click. She looked at Shuichi, then at Kaito, then back and forth between them a few more times before shaking her head.
“No,” she stated, completely matter of factly. “No way. You two are messing with me.”
“We’re not messing with you!” Kaito replied. “We’ve been dating for months!”
“You’re lying. You would have told me.”
“We figured you already knew,” Shuichi said. “I mean, Kaito grabs my butt like, ten times a day.”
“He grabs everyone’s butt. That doesn’t prove anything.”
“She’s right,” Kaito agreed. “I’ve always believed a firm butt pat is the best way to reward someone for a job well done so that’s inconclusive. But what about that time you walked in on us in the freezer!”
“That never happened.”
“Yeah it did! We heard the door open up and we both came scramblin’ around from behind one of the shelves trying to pull our clothes back on!”
“You told me you’d spilled a bag of ice down your pants and you were both trying to get it out.”
“And you actually believed us?”
“No,” Maki replied. “But I figured you were doing something else stupid that you didn’t want me to know about.”
“Hey! Saihara’s not stupid!” Kaito protested, causing Shuichi’s face to turn even redder than it already was. Maki, meanwhile, was still having a hard time coming to terms with this.
“So this entire time,” she said, “I’ve been a third wheel?”
“Hell nah!” Kaito replied. “You’re just a friend hanging out with two other friends who happen to be dating! There’s nothin’ awkward about that! And even if you are a third wheel, tricycles are way more sturdy than bikes anyway!”
“You’re just saying that because you never learned to ride a bike,” Shuichi interjected.
“Irrelevant! Point is,” he said, stepping forward to place a hand on Maki’s shoulder, “we’re all friends here. And friends support friends! So if you’ve caught it bad for some girl, Saihara and I are gonna be here to support the hell outta ya. So whaddyou say?” Maki looked back at Kaito, then towards Shuichi, who was smiling at her from over Kaito’s shoulder. She held her gaze on both of them for a few seconds before closing her eyes, letting out a small sigh, and starting to speak.
“I met her when I went to the music store during my break…”
Celeste was woken up by the feeling of something hitting her in the face. It startled her, causing her to flinch before her eyes opened up, and adjusted to the sight of a very fat cat sitting on her chest, pawing at her face in a bid for attention. She let out a small sigh of relief upon realizing it was just Chéri, though her eyes quickly moved past him to look at the surroundings of her tiny, cluttered living room, causing her to piece together that she hadn’t actually made it back to her bed the night before. She was laying on the couch, and her dry mouth and throbbing headache served as her only real memories of the night she’d had before. And then her attention was back on her cat, as he swatted her in the face yet again.
“Yes, yes, I am awake, Chéri,” she sighed, reaching out to lift him off her chest. “I suppose you’re hungry, is that it? I’ll get you something to eat.” As Chéri was lifted up, he quickly ended up becoming rather helpless. A more energetic, less overweight cat might have thrown a fit or tried to squirm free, but it was as much as he could do just to wiggle his stubby legs back and forth until Celeste set him down at the edge of the sofa before standing up herself.
As Celeste moved towards her kitchen she had to avoid all of the junk scattered across the floor- not just the empty bottle she had apparently been drinking straight from, but also the tea set she had forgotten to wash, and the fine oriental rug that was still rolled up because she had never made room to lay it out properly, and the sheathed sword that was propped up against the coffee table because dear god why had she ever though she needed another sword.
The kitchen was slightly better in terms of clutter, although there were still far too many dirty dishes piled up in the sink and on the counters. Celeste moved directly to her fridge, opening up the freezer compartment to find the prepackaged gyoza. It wasn’t that difficult; they were the only thing in there. It had been several weeks since Celeste had quit her job now, and she’d yet to find other employment. Her finances were unstable, and sometimes that meant choosing between feeding herself or feeding Chéri. She always chose Chéri.
“I hope you’re not too hungry today,” she murmured, peering down into the bag to realize there were only a few dumplings left. “I’ll have to-” But halfway through her thought she was cut off by a noise, coming from her apartment door. Someone was knocking.
Immediately, Celeste froze. Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the unmistakable sound of a fist rapping against wood. She didn’t know what to do, and for a moment she was stuck there, considering her options. Should she answer it? Should she just ignore it, pretend she wasn’t home, and hope they would go away? That seemed like a good option, but as she heard a second series of knocks, and then a third one, progressively growing louder, it seemed like this person was going to be persistent.
Making up her mind to answer the door, Celeste cautiously placed the bag back in the freezer, trying to remain as quiet as she could while she began to make her way back towards the source of the noise. She moved slowly, practically on tiptoe as she got closer and closer, and the dryness in her mouth suddenly felt a thousand times worse. For a brief moment her eyes flicked back to the sword still sitting by the coffee table, considering bringing it with her, but she quickly dismissed that thought, realizing it wouldn’t work as an actual, practical form of self defense, even if the need arose. Instead she turned her attention to the deadbolt chain, making absolutely sure it was in place before taking hold of the latch. She unlocked it, twisted the knob, opened the door, and-
“Jeez, there you are. You took so long to answer I was starting to get worried I was about to walk in on some kinda Brooks Hatlen scene or something. Y’know, Shawshank Redemption? You ever seen it? Don’t bother. It’s really long and really boring. Not worth it.”
Junko. Junko was here. Why the hell was Junko here?
Celeste didn’t have time to consider that question, or even to fully process it. Instinct kicked in, and without saying anything she was trying to slam the door in her ex-boss’s face at full force. She wasn’t fast enough, though, and before she could get the door shut all the way Junko was cramming her foot into the gap, letting the door crash against her boot instead.
“Fuck! That hurts,” she groaned. “Is that really any way to treat a houseguest?”
“What are you doing here?” Celeste was feeling a whole range of emotions, from fear to confusion to frustration, but from the heart of that mix rage ended up being the one to bubble to the surface. Her eyes were narrow as she spat the words out, still trying to push the door closed in hopes that enough force would cause Junko to cede. It didn’t seem to be working.
“I just came by to talk! Will you stop trying to crush my foot for two seconds?”
“I have no desire to speak with you!” Celeste hissed back. “How did you even find me here?”
“At your own home? I have all your old employment paperwork, duh. Your address is all over it.”
“Leave, before I call the police on you.”
“Just give me two minutes,” Junko urged, wedging her hand through the gap in the door to raise up two fingers. “Two minutes to hear me out, and then I’ll never talk to you again if that’s what you want. I’m not asking a lot here!”
“You abuse your privilege as my former employer to look up my address, come to my home without invitation, attempt to burst in through my front door, and you have the audacity to say you aren’t asking for much?” Still, as opposed as she might have been, Celeste was coming to realize she wasn’t going to get Junko to leave by force alone. Reluctantly she took a step backwards, keeping the chain in place so the door couldn’t open more than a few inches. “Your two minutes began when you said that,” she stated. “Speak.”
“Thank you,” Junko replied. She mimicked Celeste’s step backwards to remove her foot from the door now that there wasn’t a risk of having it slammed in her face, and then she went quiet for a few seconds, composing her thoughts before she started to speak. “I fucked up,” she admitted. “After you quit I talked to some people who… Kinda made me realize that. I’ve got a lot of shit going on in my own life and I guess I’m not really used to looking past it and thinking that the stuff I do could actually fuck someone else up, but I know that’s not, like, an excuse or whatever. I was really shitty to you, both as a boss and… As whatever else we were. But I’m sorry. And I wanna make it up to you. So… Come back to the store, alright? Come take your old job back. Things will be better from here on out. I’ll be better. I promise.”
When Junko finished speaking, a tense silence hung between them. Celeste’s face was only half visible through the crack in the door, but her expression hadn’t changed the entire time, resting at a perfectly neutral state that Junko found both impossible to read and strangely terrifying given the circumstances. She gave no indication that she had been listening to anything Junko had said, and even when Junko concluded her monologue she still remained stoic, as if expecting her to say more. That pause put Junko even more on edge, and she was unbelievably relieved when Celeste finally responded.
“Are you finished?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Junko answered, nodding slightly. “I am.” And then, without a word, Celeste was slamming the door shut again. Junko barely had the opportunity to react that time around, and she was just able to wedge the toe of her boot into the crack to keep the door from closing completely. “Celeste!” she protested. “Are you serious? You’re not even gonna say anything?”
“What sort of response did you expect from me?” Celeste replied, tone flat and biting. “Did you truly expect an insincere apology and a handful of vague, unsubstantiated promises to win me over?”
“It’s not insincere! I meant what I said! I know I fucked up, and I want to do better!”
“Then do better with someone else. What sort of lesson do you believe you’ve learned?” The question caught Junko off guard, and she fumbled for a moment before offering up an unconfident response.
“That my actions have consequences. That I can’t just go around doing whatever I want without the risk of someone getting hurt by it.”
“And yet you still don’t seem to have learned that lesson at all,” Celeste chided. “You think these consequences are temporary. You believe that coming here armed with an apology I never asked for is enough to undo everything you’ve done, that the risk of hurting someone is easily mitigated by a hasty ‘I’m sorry.’ The world doesn’t work that way, Enoshima, and I dare say you haven’t improved yourself at all if you believe it has. You haven’t learned a lesson or become a better person. You’ve only added another tool to your arsenal of ways to manipulate people, in case anyone should ever call you on the first dozen methods. Unfortunately, I can see through this one as well.”
Once again, Celeste’s words left Junko silent at first. It was an unusual feeling for her- she wasn’t used to being left speechless, nor was she used to feeling like someone else had managed to take control of a conversation. But that had been happening a lot lately.
“You’re sure about all this?” she eventually asked. “There’s nothing I can say that’ll change your mind?”
“Nothing at all,” Celeste replied.
“Then… Alright,” Junko said, stepping back out of the doorway again. “A deal’s a deal, so… I’ll leave you alone now. For good. I hope you’re not down and out for too long. I hope you find a good job soon. And… I hope you have a nice life,” she concluded.
“I would return the sentiment,” Celeste replied, “but I feel it would be impolite to end this acquaintanceship with a lie.” And then the door closed the rest of the way, and Celeste disappeared from view, leaving Junko alone outside in the hall.
Hajime sighed as he fit the key into the lock, closing up the doors to the Starbucks behind him. It was late- shutting down the store already took a while, and it took even longer when he was stuck doing it by himself. Sato was supposed to stick around to help him with it, but she had practically begged Hajime to let her leave early so she could walk home with Mahiru, and he supposed he was weak enough that he’d actually given in and let her leave. Unfortunately, that meant he was stuck doing the work of two people all by himself, and now he was leaving even later than usual because of it.
The Starbucks was already one of the areas of the mall that stayed open the latest, so by the time he was done closing, the space was more or less abandoned. Looking down the corridor he could still see one or two other stores that had their lights on, but for the most part it was dark and empty. Figures a flub like him would be stuck as one of the last people in the entire damn building. He wanted to say this didn’t just feel like par for the course, but he really couldn’t. Pushing the key ring down into his pocket Hajime began to walk towards the mall’s exit, though he didn’t make it very far before he heard a voice calling out to him.
“Excuse me! What are you doing here so late?” Before he even turned to look Hajime recognized the voice as that of the particularly annoying mall cop that had given him an earful the day before, and he groaned as he started to turn back around, preparing to defend himself against yet another nonsense scolding when he wasn’t actually doing anything wrong.
“I’m closing up the store,” Hajime replied, speaking with a tone of voice that made it clear he was done with the conversation before it had even started.
“And where are you going after this?” Taka followed up.
“Out to the bus stop in the parking lot. And then home. Are you about to tell me that’s against the rules too?” Hajime asked.
“Of course not! But traveling through the parking lot by yourself once it’s dark out can be dangerous. Allow me to escort you!” Oh, so he actually wasn’t in trouble this time. That was a pleasant relief, although Hajime couldn’t really say that he felt the need to have someone walk him out to the bus stop (or ride alongside him on a segway, as the case may have been), nor did he want that to happen.
“I think I can handle walking out to the parking lot just fine by myself,” Hajime tired to protest, but Taka was having none of it.
“Nonsense! As a security guard it’s my duty to make sure all other employees of this mall are safe, and that means not allowing them to wander through a dark parking lot by themselves at night! Now, come with me!” And then, before Hajime had the chance to argue the point any further, Taka was starting to zoom his way towards the door. Realizing that he really didn’t have a say in the matter Hajime let out a long sigh, before starting to follow after.
The one redeeming fact of the whole ordeal was that Taka at least didn’t seem especially focused on carrying out a conversation with Hajime. Instead his attention was turned towards being excessively vigilant, eyes darting back and forth around his surroundings as they made their way to the door, and then onto the wide sidewalk that provided a barrier between the mall and the parking lot.
The bus stop Hajime was headed towards was at the corner just at the end of the sidewalk, which only reinforced his belief that all of this was unnecessary, but he was past the point of trying to argue with Taka now. He held his tongue as Taka “escorted” him down towards the bus stop, only speaking up again when he was finally stepping underneath the little glass and metal shelter.
“Well, we’re here,” he said. “So you can go now. Thanks.”
“Your bus hasn’t arrived yet!” Taka replied, and Hajime got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he realized that Taka apparently had every intention of waiting there with him until it did. “If I left now, I would still potentially be leaving you in an unsafe situation!”
“The most unsafe thing that would ever happen to anyone in this parking lot is getting hit by a car, and that’s not about to happen while I’m not even standing on the pavement,” Hajime tried to argue. “I come through here every single day. There’s nothing for me to be worried about.”
“Just because you’ve been lucky in the past doesn’t mean you should rely on it! It’s my duty as a security officer to make sure you’re safe!”
“Do you ever think about anything other than your duty?” For the first time in their conversation, that question actually seemed to put a dent in Taka’s demeanor, no matter how small. He paused, and for a brief moment the look of aggressive conviction that was always on his face softened into something much less determined, though it came back just as quickly as it had vanished.
“Not while I’m on the job!” he replied. “It would be unbecoming of me to allow anything to distract me from my responsibilities!”
“So you never think about anything else while you’re working?” Hajime asked. “Not even a little bit?”
“Of course not! What else would I possibly have to think about?”
“Anything besides being here. I thought that was what we all did.” Those comments were almost more for Hajime’s own sake than they were for Taka’s, and he murmured them under his breath with a certain amount of disdain. Apparently, Taka didn’t take kindly to that.
“You shouldn’t speak about your job with such negativity!” he scolded. “You should have pride in your occupation!”
“It’s hard to take that much pride in mixing people’s coffee for them,” Hajime replied, before turning his cynicism towards Taka. “What about you? Do you really enjoy being a security guard?”
“Absolutely!” Taka immediately responded. “I’m proud to uphold the safety and order of this establishment, and to protect everyone who enters these grounds, customer and employee alike!”
“And you’re happy doing this for the rest of your life?” Once more, Hajime managed to ask something that actually caught Taka off guard. The security guard looked even more taken aback this time around, meeting Hajime’s gaze with a startled expression on his face. His mouth was open, as if to speak, but he didn’t end up finding any words, and eventually he turned back away, looking like he was quickly trying to regain some sense of composure.
“Not forever,” he admitted. “Eventually I plan to become a police officer, just like my father before me! That is my great ambition!”
“Then let yourself think about that every once in a while,” Hajime replied. “Dreaming about the future is one of the only things that will keep you sane in a place like this.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to be a barista forever?” Taka asked.
“Of course not,” Hajime replied. “Nobody does.”
“Then… What do you want to do?” That time it was Hajime who was silent for a moment, and when Taka looked back over her found Hajime staring off over the parking lot, a forlorn look on his face.
“I wish I had an answer to that question,” he answered. Taka didn’t quite know how to respond to that, and the silence hung over them for a few seconds after Hajime spoke. Eventually, though, they were both snapped out of it by headlights rounding the corner, and Hajime looked in that direction to see a bus approaching. “This is me,” he said, stepping out from under the shelter before looking back towards Taka. “Thanks for waiting here with me, I guess.” Taka still seemed slightly thrown by the last comment, but after a moment he was able to shake it off, quickly returning to his usual demeanor.
“Of course! I’m always happy to assist the good people of this shopping center in anything they might need! If you ever need assistance in the future, don’t hesitate to let me know!”
“I’ll be sure to do that,” Hajime replied. After he said that the bus pulled up in front of him, and the doors opened. With one last glance look over his shoulder and a “I’ll see you later” he stepped on, disappearing from view. And Taka was left to stand there on his segway, watching as the doors closed again, and the bus pulled away from the curb and disappeared off into the night.
“I guess I should be getting back to work now, huh?”
“Do you have to?”
“You know I do. I’ll get in trouble if I just decide not to come back from my lunch break when I’m supposed to.” Mahiru offered Sato a soft smile from across the table once she said that, though it wasn’t doing much to wipe the grumpy look off Sato’s own face.
“If your manager tries to give you a hard time just tell him to shove it!” Hiyoko chimed in. “He’s not the boss of you!”
“He literally is. I don’t think that would go over very well.” While it wasn’t one of their large, full group lunches, Mahiru, Sato, and Hiyoko had managed to get together during their breaks, taking some time to sit down in the foodcourt and eat together. But now Mahiru was standing back up from the table, lifting her tray with her. “I’ll see you guys later, alright?”
“I’ll walk you home today, yeah?” Sato said, prompting a skeptical look from Mahiru.
“You get off earlier than me, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I don’t mind waiting around. I’ve got some shopping I need to take care of before I leave anyway,” she said, causing Mahiru to laugh a little bit.
“Alright. As long as you’re sure it’s not a hassle,” she replied, before turning her attention to Hiyoko. “I’ll see you later, Hiyoko-chan.”
“Byeeeeee,” Hiyoko said, waving as Mahiru turned and started to walk away from the table. Sato, as she always did, watched as Mahiru left, and she probably would have kept staring until Mahiru was completely out of view were it not for a sudden jab to her side that snapped her from her trance.
“Ow!” she blurted out, twisting her neck around to see that Hiyoko had scooted closer, and was now grinning up at her with a devilish look after prodding her in the ribs. “What was that for?”
“To get you to pay attention to me,” Hiyoko replied. “Soooo? When are you gonna ask her?”
“Ask her what?” Sato said, eyes narrowing.
“Ask her to be your girlfriend, duh!” As soon as Sato heard that she felt her chest tighten, and she couldn’t tell whether it had suddenly gotten far too warm in the food court or far too cold.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she said, trying to prevent any reaction she might have been feeling from bubbling to the surface. “I don’t feel that way about her.”
“Bullshit you don’t. You might have the rest of these monkey-brained morons fooled, but I’m too smart for that,” Hiyoko insisted, tapping the top of her own head. “You always wanna spend time around her, and you stare at her every single time you think nobody’s looking. You’re sooooooo obvious, I’m amazed nobody else has figured it out yet. But I guess I’m giving them too much credit for thinking they would ever notice something like that in the first place.”
“Or maybe the reason nobody else has noticed is because there’s nothing there. You’re making stuff up right now,” Sato insisted. But Hiyoko remained unconvinced.
“Puh-leaaaaaase. I’ve been watching the two of you act all stupid and mushy around each other for ages,” Hiyoko went on, rolling her eyes while she spoke. “Every time Mahiru onee-chan is around you she gets all blushy and giggly. Even just now!” she pointed out. “Did you see the way she was laughing before she left the table? She’s suuuuuuper into you.”
“Then why aren’t you talking to her about this? I thought you two were supposed to be best friends.”
“We are, but she’s way too scared to ever do something like this,” Hiyoko explained. “You remember during the whole thing with Ibuki onee-chan? She was the one saying crashing the date was a bad idea, and you were the one that wanted her to do it anyway. So if either of you ever decides to stop acting like a bunch of dumb lovesick weirdos and actually do something about this, it’s obviously gonna be you.” After Hiyoko was done there was a small pause, and when Sato spoke up again her voice had softened a bit from where it had been before.
“You really think Mahiru feels that way about me?” she asked.
“I know she does,” Hiyoko replied. “It would take an idiot not to notice. But unfortunately I’m surrounded by idiots.”
“And you think she would say yes if I asked her out?”
“Of course she would! She’s probably been waiting for you to ask her out for years by now! And she’d be stuck waiting another decade if I didn’t finally step in and do something about it.”
“And why are you doing something about this anyway?” Sato asked. The question came with a smile as she looked down at Hiyoko, but it seemed to throw Hiyoko off all the same. She blinked a few times, seeming surprised, and then she quickly looked away, crossing her arms and sinking down into her chair with a scowl on her face.
“Shut up!” she huffed. “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”
“Nah, I guess you don’t,” Sato agreed, laughing softly. “You know, for how bitchy you try to act, I think you care about the rest of us a lot more than you let on,” she said, reaching out to ruffle Hiyoko’s hair. “Thanks.”
“I told you to shut up!” Hiyoko snapped, quickly swatting Sato’s hand away. “Tsumiki still won’t shut up about that cow-titted bitch she works with, and ever since Ibuki onee-chan started dating that weird European girl I’ve been having to listen to that too. At least if you and Mahiru onee-chan start going out with each other I don’t have to put up with any new people.”
“Right, that’s obviously it,” Sato agreed, deciding to simply play along and not call Hiyoko out this time around. “That makes sense.”
“Yeah, it does,” Hiyoko muttered. “So don’t go getting any dumb ideas about me actually caring about any of this. I don’t give a shit about who you date, just as long as it doesn’t make my life more annoying.”
“Alright,” Sato said, letting a small smile cross over her face. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t.”
Komaru laid back on her bed, staring up at the pages of the manga she was holding over her head. It was mostly dark in her room, only lit up by a dim lamp sitting on the corner of her desk, and raindrops were pelting against her window from the blackness outside. Ever since she had started hanging around with Touko, she always felt a little bit guilty when she read a manga. It wasn’t like she actually believed they were an inferior form of media, no matter how adamant Touko might have been about that. Still, there was always that nagging part of her that said maybe, just maybe, she should pick up an actual book instead.
Right now, that guilt was worse than it usually was. Every time Komaru glanced over towards her desk she saw the novel Touko had given her sitting there, silently taunting her for never reading it. She had never even bothered to open it, and the spine remained in perfect condition, never once pushed around or bent out of shape. Time and time again Komaru kept telling herself that maybe she should finally pick it up and give it an honest read, but she just couldn’t force herself to do it. No matter how many times she looked, the damn thing always seemed so dry .
Still, it had been weighing on her more heavily than normal recently, thanks in large part to the bizarre conversation she’d had with Touko the last time she was at the bookstore. Her mind kept going back to that, wondering why Touko had seemed so agitated with her (even more so than usual), and why she had run off like that so abruptly at the end. Had she managed to see through Komaru’s ruse? Did she realize that Komaru had never actually read the book, and had been trying to fake her way through that conversation? Komaru had thought she had done a pretty good job of acting like she knew what she was talking about, but then again, it was hard to say if she was doing a convincing impression of someone who had read the book when she had, you know, never read the book.
“You know what? I’m doing this,” Komaru decided. With a sudden burst of motivation she tossed her manga to the side and sat up on her bed, leaning over the edge to grab the novel off the table instead. The motivation did, admittedly, start to die out rapidly the moment she actually had it in her hands, but she was determined not to let herself give up this time around. She was going to read this whole damn book, even if it killed her, and then she was going to go back to the bookstore and… She wasn’t really sure what she would do at that point. She wasn’t sure how to get herself into another conversation on this subject with Touko without blatantly admitting she had been lying the last time they had tried to talk about it, but that sounded like a problem for future Komaru. Right now, she could just focus on the reading bit.
Even the cover of the book looked dull. Komaru was hoping for some sort of picture or illustration, or something to at least pretend the book might be interesting and lure her in, but nope. The cover was a solid ugly orange color, with the only details being the title and the author's name, both printed in a gaudy gold font. Utterly uninteresting, and a great indication of what she was getting herself into. With a drawn out sigh Komaru took hold of the cover, preparing herself for the worst and opening up to the first page.
And that was when she saw something unexpected.
The first page of the book should have been a simple title page, merely restating the author’s name and the name of the work, alongside some publication info. However, in the blank space below all of this information, Komaru found something else: a handwritten note, penned down onto the page. “Dekomaru,” it began. “Can I take you out to dinner? Fukawa.”
As Komaru stared down at the page, everything suddenly started to make sense to her. Her mind was drawn back to the last conversation she’d had with Touko, to all of the strange reactions, to all of the questions Touko had asked her. “Did you ever get a chance to read that book?” “What did you think about the beginning? Like, the first few pages?” “What about hidden stuff?” And then, when Komaru hadn’t said anything about this note, she’d gotten upset and run off. It had never actually been about the book, and she understood that pefectly now. But what was she going to do about it?
Tearing her eyes up from the page Komaru looked towards the clock, checking the current time: 7:43 pm. The mall was open for another seventeen minutes. If she sprinted, she could make it.
Komaru didn’t waste a single second after that. In an instant she was off her bed and bolting towards the door, clutching the book underneath her arm as she sprinted across the room. She hit the top of the staircase and bounded down two at a time, feet hitting the ground floor with a thud that echoed through the rest of the house.
“Komaru?” she heard her brother call out from another room. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah! I’m going out for a bit! I’ll be back later!” Komaru shouted back, slipping on her shoes as fast as she could.
“Wait! Make sure to take an umbrella!” Makoto called after her. But by that point she was already out the door.
The rain was coming down hard outside. Within an instant of stepping through the door Komaru already felt it pelting her skin and soaking through her clothes, and the path leading up to her house was basically one enormous puddle by this point, but that wasn’t going to stop her. Without hesitation she jumped from the front step and began to sprint down it, shoes becoming waterlogged within her first few strides.
The mall, thankfully, wasn’t too far from Komaru’s house, though Komaru was also very, very out of shape. She hadn’t even made it to the end of her street before she was already starting to feel the effects of pushing her body well past the level of exercise she was used to getting, and the torrential rain and cold air definitely weren’t helping with that either. But if she didn’t force herself to run as fast as she possibly could, she wasn’t going to make it to the mall before it closed. And if she didn’t make it to the mall before closing, she wouldn’t be able to find Touko before she left. And waiting until tomorrow didn’t feel like an option right now.
Every time Komaru’s feet hit the ground they splashed up water, soaking through her socks and shoes even more. Time and time again she was worried she was going to slip on the wet pavement and end up face first in the middle of the road, but thankfully she managed to avoid letting it come to that (albeit narrowly a handful of times). Her heart was pounding inside her chest, her muscles were burning, and her lungs were aching, never able to even get a full breath in, but she still didn’t let that stop her. She just continued pushing herself forward.
When she was sprinting like that, forcing her body past its limits and racing against a clock that was ticking down far too fast, the route to the mall suddenly felt so much more infinite than it had ever been before. She had walked along this path dozens of times before, following it every single time she wanted to go pay Touko a visit, and it had never felt that long before. But now, when she was in such a rush, when she was straining herself the way she was, it felt like it was going on forever.
When Komaru finally rounded the corner and saw the parking lot of the mall come into view she felt a sense of relief, though she knew she still wasn’t home free quite yet. The bookstore was, at least, attached directly to the outside of the mall, so she wouldn’t have to run through the interior to get where she was going. The parking lot was also already nearly entirely empty at this hour, allowing her to sprint across it without having to worry about looking out for cars. She felt about ready to collapse, but she forced herself to continue on that last little distance, making it closer and closer to the front doors until she was finally able to reach out and grab the handle, throwing them open and bursting into the store. And when she did, Touko was right there in front of her.
“Fukawa-san!” Komaru blurted out. Touko looked like she was already on her way out, dressed in a raincoat and a pair of boots, with an umbrella at one side and a bag at the other. She also, understandably, looked shocked when Komaru came flying in through the front doors a few minutes after closing, completely soaked in rain, clutching a (now completely damaged) book under her arm. Touko flinched backwards at the sound of her name, eyes darting up and down and all over Komaru’s body as she formulated a response.
“D-Dekomaru??” she stammered back. “What the h-hell are you d-doing here??”
“Yes, you can take me out to dinner!” Komaru answered, holding the soaked, waterlogged book out in front of her. And that was the last thing she said before all of the exhaustion of forcing herself to sprint through a rainstorm suddenly caught up with her. All at once she felt lightheaded, and weak, and the world started to blur around the edges of her vision.
“Dekomaru?? Dekomaru!” she heard Touko shouting, but it didn’t really process. At that point she was already out of it, losing consciousness as she collapsed into an exhausted, overexerted heap on the mat in front of the door. Mere moments after this happened Kyouko came around the corner from the cafe, dressed in her own raincoat and boots, and carrying her own umbrella. She paused when she saw the scene unfolded in front of her, eyes looking towards Komaru, then to Touko, then back to Komaru, then finally back to Touko again.
“You didn’t kill her, did you?” Kyouko asked.
“Of c-course not!” Touko snapped back. “I w-wouldn’t do something like that!”
“Right.” With a sigh Kyouko set her umbrella down, beginning to unbutton her coat and turning back in the direction she’d just come from. “I’ll open the cafe back up, then.”
Komaru felt groggy as she started to come back around. The first thing she noticed was that she felt sore (running hard enough to push her body well past its limits would do that, and the way she’d hit the ground when she’d collapsed definitely wasn’t helping either). As she became aware of the aching in her body, and the uncomfortable chair underneath her, it took her a few more seconds to piece together where she actually was, and what had happened to her.
And then it hit her all at once.
She bolted upright as she remembered what she’d done, hastily looking around to take in her surroundings. She quickly gathered that she was in the bookstore cafe, sitting at one of the tables while the rest of the store appeared to be closed, and- And Touko was right in front of her. Seeing Touko sitting so close made Komaru flinch again, and her reaction seemed to startle Touko in turn.
“D-Dekomaru!” Touko blurted out. “A-Are you alright??”
“Y-Yeah, I’m fine!” Komaru hastily stammered back. “I j-just-!”
“Don’t exert yourself too much. You’re probably still exhausted.” Komaru was cut off by another voice coming from behind her, and when she twisted her neck around she saw Kyouko approaching, carrying a steaming paper cup and a muffin with her. “Eat,” she instructed, passing by Komaru to set both items on the table down in front of her.
“Kirigiri-san…” Komaru replied. “I don’t have any money with me.”
“Then I’ll collect it from your brother later. For the time being, I’m more concerned with making sure you don’t pass out again. I’d like to get home before it’s too late.” Despite her feigned apathy, though, Komaru was sure she could see at least a small showing of concern behind Kyouko’s eyes, and that made her feel even worse about the entire situation.
“Thank you…” she murmured out softly, before reaching out to break a piece off the muffin. As she chewed she suddenly became aware of just how tense this situation was, of Touko’s eyes on her, and of precisely what she’d said just before she’d passed out. And while she wasn’t sure what the normal protocol for saying she would go out on a date with someone was, she was fairly certain collapsing right in front of them immediately afterwards wasn’t a normal part of the process. There was clearly a conversation that needed to be had, but she wasn’t sure how to start having it. Kyouko’s presence didn’t help with that either, though fortunately the barista seemed to realize that, and wasn’t intent on sticking around any longer. Even if she did it in the most uncomfortable way Komaru could imagine.
“Well, you two seem like you have a lot you need to talk about,” she said, causing Komaru to wince. “So I’ll leave you alone. Come let me know when I can finally go home.” Leaving an uncomfortable silence behind her she turned after she said that, walking away from the table and disappearing back into the kitchen of the cafe. Komaru watched her disappear, but after a few seconds she was forced to turn her eyes to Touko instead, finally facing what she had been trying to avoid. Of course, Touko herself didn’t seem any more eager to have this conversation than Komaru was, and she was looking down at her own hands now, fidgeting uneasily with one of her braids.
“So…” Komaru started to say. She wasn’t sure where the sentence was going, but it didn’t matter anyway. Before she had the chance to go any further with it, Touko was cutting her off.
“W-Why did y-you come here?” she demanded. Thrown off by the question, it took Komaru a moment longer to even figure out how to respond.
“Huh? Well… Because I found the note you left me in that book,” she eventually replied. “And you’ve never given me your phone number, so I couldn’t just call you. I wanted to get here before the store closed and you went home for the day…”
“You j-just found the note now?” Touko asked, which caused another pang of guilt to strike at Komaru’s stomach. She knew what she would be admitting to if she said yes now, but she didn’t see any way she could lie to Touko either. Nor did she feel like she should.
“Y-Yeah…” she admitted. “I hadn’t seen it before.” A moment of silence. And then:
“You n-never looked at the book, did you?” The surge of guilt grew even stronger, but Komaru forced herself to keep being honest.
“No. I didn’t. I wanted to, but it just looked so dry and boring, so… I thought I would be able to pretend I had read it if I just looked up a bunch of notes online. I’m sorry…”
“If you didn’t want to read it,” Touko muttered, “you could’ve just s-said so.”
“But you picked it out just for me! I would’ve felt rude if I said I didn’t want it!”
“So you l-lied to me instead?”
“Well… Yeah,” Komaru sighed out. “I did. And I know I shouldn’t have. So… I’m sorry.” She lowered her eyes as she was saying that, breaking contact with Touko to focus on the food set out in front of her instead. A long, heavy silence hung over the two of them after she was finished speaking, and suddenly it occurred to Komaru that, despite the grand romantic gesture she had just pulled off by running all the way here in the middle of the rain, it might have still been too late for that anyway. It was starting to feel like she’d already blown any chance she had here, and she couldn’t really blame Touko for that. Which was why Komaru was surprised to hear her keep speaking.
“Well… I g-guess maybe it w-wasn’t the best r-recommendation,” Touko said. Startled, Komaru quickly raised her eyes back up to look at Touko again, though Touko still wasn’t meeting her gaze.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I just m-mean… I guess I shouldn’t just e-expect you to want to read the s-same sorts of stuff I like to r-read.”
“Well, if you do give me another recommendation for a book,” Komaru said, “I promise I’ll actually read it this time around! No lying or faking it! I’ll sit down and read the whole thing so we can talk about it!”
“And… And I g-guess I can try to give you something you’ll be m-more likely to a-actually enjoy,” Touko replied.
“I would like that a lot.” Another silence followed Komaru saying that, and suddenly the atmosphere got tense again. There was another obvious question to be asked here, but it took a moment for Komaru to be able to force herself to say it. “And… About that date…”
“I’m the one that a-asked you out,” Touko muttered. “You shouldn’t be the o-one asking about it n-now.” Komaru was actually thrown off a bit by that response, though after the initial surprise she found herself laughing softly.
“Then… Is the offer still good?” A moment of tense silence followed, before:
“Well… Y-Yeah. If you want it to b-be.”
“I do!” Komaru hastily insisted, nodding enthusiastically. “I want that a lot.”
“Th-Then, alright. We can go out to dinner. But n-nowhere too fancy!” Touko quickly added on. “And don’t e-expect me to get all d-dressed up for you!” Once more, despite the slight awkwardness of the situation, Komaru found it all too easy to laugh.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she promised. “Just as long as you don’t expect me to get too dressed up either.”
“Well with your h-huge boobs,” Touko muttered under her breath, “I would be s-surprised if you could fit in a n-nice dress anyway.”
“Hey! That’s mean!” Komaru huffed back. “They make dresses in my size! Why are you so focused on my boobs anyway?”
“I’m n-not, you pervert! But they’re s-so huge they’re h-hard not to notice!”
“It’s okay if you like them, Fukawa-san! Maybe if this date goes well you’ll even get to touch them!”
“Sh-Shut up!!” Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Kyouko was sitting against the wall, listening to the very loud conversation as it carried through the door.
“I’m trapped at work late because your sister decided to reenact a romantic comedy,” she typed out, watching the clock slowly tick later and later. “You owe me for this.”
“ARE YOU READY SONIA-CHAN??”
“I am ready!”
“DRUMROLL!” Sonia complied with the request, rapidly starting to rap her hands against the edge of the display standing next to her. She picked up more speed and more volume, mounting into a crescendo until, with a truly excessive amount of force, the door to the changing room came flying open. Ibuki burst forward, powersliding across the floor on her knees while letting out her best rockstar “YEAHHHHHHHHH!” The jeans she was wearing already had quite a few holes ripped in them, enough so that nobody would notice if she burned another set through the knees, and she had rather unfittingly paired it with a Korean boy band t-shirt that happened to be several sizes too large for her. The look was then rounded out with a rainbow choker, leather wrist cuffs, and a baseball cap from some cartoon.
“How do I look?” Ibuki asked, springing up to her feet in front of her girlfriend.
“Atrocious!” Sonia replied, before clapping her hands together. “It is wonderful!” It was mid-afternoon, and ever since lunch the store had been positively dead. Nobody had come through the doors in at least an hour, leaving Sonia and Ibuki with precious little to do. If they really looked hard enough they could probably find some productive use of their time, such as dusting obscure corners of the store or folding messed up t-shirts, but rather than focusing their efforts on any of that, they had instead decided to take turns putting on the most horrible fashion show possible. Some of the offerings Hot Topic had on display made that a little too easy.
“Ibuki calls this look: My Attraction To Boy Bands Is Purely Aesthetic Because I’m Still Killing God With My Homosexual Tendencies!”
“That is a bit of a mouthful.”
“But it’s memorable! And now it’s Sonia-chan’s turn!”
“Okay, okay,” Sonia giggled, before turning away from Ibuki to start looking around the store again. She hummed softly under her breath as her eyes scanned between the shelves, mentally trying to put together the worst possible look she could. It would be easy to find something that was edgy or over the top, to lean all in on black clothing and spikes and lace, but that seemed like it was cheating. If she really wanted her outfit to be as horrible as possible, she needed to make it clash as horrifically as she could.
“Sonia-chaaaaaaan.” As Sonia continued to try to create the wardrobe of her nightmares she was interrupted by two arms linking around her from behind, squeezing her midriff tightly. She could feel Ibuki’s face pushing into the back of her neck as well, and it caused her to laugh softly, placing her hands over Ibuki’s own.
“Yes?” she replied.
“Ibuki has a question!”
“What is it?”
“Um…” It was rare to see Ibuki at a loss for words like that, but for just a moment she did fall quiet, apparently trying to screen what was going to come out of her mouth next just a bit more carefully than she screened most of what she said. Eventually, though, she did end up blurting it out anyway. “Ibuki wants you to meet her friends!”
“Your friends?” Sonia repeated.
“Mhmm!” Ibuki said, nodding frantically into the back of Sonia’s neck. “Mahiru-chan and Hiyoko-chan and Mikan-chan and Sato-chan and Hajime-chan! They’re all Ibuki’s good friends and she wants you to meet them and be good friends with them too but she was nervous about bringing it up again because of the movie thing and she thought it would be awkward but they’re all really nice and-”
“I would love to meet your friends.”
“Eh??” Just as abruptly as she had started talking and nodding Ibuki lifted her head, and now, as she looked up, she found Sonia twisting her neck around to look back at her as best she could, wearing a small smile.
“They all sound like fantastic people,” Sonia went on, “and if you consider them to be your friends then I am sure I will get along with them wonderfully as well!” For the second time in the span of thirty seconds (and probably the second time in her entire life as well), Ibuki fell silent. For a few moments she just stood there, holding eye contact with Sonia, and then she buried her face right back into her girlfriend's hair, squeezing her even more tightly.
“Thank you Sonia-chan!” she said, though her words were just a bit muffled. “I’ll tell the others and they’ll all be really excited to meet you! We can have a movie party or go out somewhere fun like an arcade or an amusement park or we already went to an amusement park together but this one won’t be abandoned and we can actually ride on the rides instead of just climbing up the side of them and thinking we’re about to die and that was really really fun and we should definitely break into somewhere again sometime but if we broke into a place with seven people it would be too suspicious so we should probably save that until it’s just the two of us and-” At that point Ibuki was finally cut off by nothing other than her own lack of air, and she wheezed abruptly as she started sucking oxygen back into her lungs. Sonia simply laughed in response, rubbing her thumb over the back of Ibuki’s hand.
“If anything, I should be the one who is thanking you,” she pointed out. “It will be lovely to make new friends and meet new people! I do not get invited to other places very often! Especially since-” That time it was Sonia who cut herself off, not even finishing the sentence, but she didn’t have to. Ibuki already knew where it was going: Especially since Celeste had stopped visiting the store.
Celeste no longer came around after the incident at the restaurant, and Ibuki couldn’t really blame her. Civil as they had been to each other during the whole exchange, Ibuki could still understand why Celeste wouldn’t want to subject herself to this environment. Honestly, it was something Ibuki still felt guilty about, and when Sonia narrowly avoided bringing it up she slumped down, voice growing softer.
“Ibuki is sorry Celeste-chan doesn’t come here anymore,” she murmured out.
“Do not be,” Sonia replied. “It is not your fault. That is a decision Ludenberg-san made for herself.”
“No buts,” she scolded, before squeezing Ibuki’s hand softly. “I do not have any regrets, and neither should you.” Ibuki didn’t respond, and another few seconds of silence passed before Sonia continued to speak. “Now, I believe I was picking an outfit, wasn’t I?”
“Mhmm,” Ibuki mumbled. “Ibuki can help you pick.” But suddenly, her heart wasn’t quite in it.
Celeste stood in the aisle of the grocery store, eyes alternating between the shelves that surrounded her and the basket she carried in her hand. It was already filled up to the brim, several boxes and bags threatening to spill over and land on the floor, but despite that she continued to add to it. For too long now, the shelves and cabinets in her apartment had been sitting empty. Recently, she had come into a non-insignificant amount of money, and admittedly she wasn’t doing the greatest job of looking ahead and saving for the future. But when she had been going hungry just two days prior, it was almost inevitable that she was going to spoil herself- and Chéri as well.
She had already filled her shopping basket with several bags of the gyoza Chéri liked to eat, along with a few bottles of different types of alcohol. Judging by the way her basket was layered it seemed like those items had come first, and only after that had she started purchasing actual sustenence. Even when it got to the real food, though, she was still doing a poor job of sticking to necessities. Not only was she ignoring raw ingredients in favor or prepackaged meals and purchasing all name brands, she was buying the most expensive name brands of some of the most expensive foods she could find. But she deserved to spoil herself, right?
Food, at least, had mostly been taken care of now (by Celeste’s slightly dysfunctional definition of “taken care of”). However, she was also refined enough to know that no meal was complete without dessert, and so she intended to fill her basket with a fine assortment of sweets and pastries before heading to checkout as well. She had seen the bakery section of the store on her way in, and now started to make her way back there. She traveled to the end of the aisle, rounded the endcap-
And ran into the one person she didn’t want to see above all else. Junko Enoshima was standing there, causing Celeste’s heart to jump up into her throat as the two of them nearly crashed into each other while they both went around the corner at the same time. And, to make matters worse, Junko wasn’t alone.
There were two other people there with her. The first, while Celeste didn’t personally know, she at least recognized. She was of Junko’s same height, with dark hair and freckles, and Celeste had seen Junko point her out once or twice as her twin sister. Now that she was looking at Mukuro up close, the vast differences between them were even more pronounced, and under other circumstances that might have deserved more of her attention. But right now, it was the second person there with Junko who was far more confusing.
She was a girl, looking to be around twelve or so years old, though Celeste wasn’t particularly good at estimating a child’s age. Her hair was pink, pulled into two pigtails that were somewhat reminiscent of Junko’s own, though they traveled much further down her back than Junko’s did. She was holding Junko’s hand as they walked along and, seemingly unaware of the tense collision that had nearly just taken place, was continuing to go on about whatever she had been talking about before.
“The Berry Burst Oreos look cute because the filling’s pink, but the flavor is super weird and they’re not yummy at all. That’s why I like the Peep ones they make around Easter! They have pink filling too, but they don’t taste as-” It was only at that point that she noticed Junko had stopped dead in her tracks, and she looked up towards her curiously. “Junko onee-chan?”
“Celes-chan,” Junko said, eyes fixed on Celeste as she momentarily ignored the child tugging at her hand.
“Enoshima,” Celeste replied. Though, biting as she tried to make her tone, the shock and confusion of the situation she’d suddenly found herself in prevented her from properly doing so. Her eyes constantly darted back and forth, moving from Junko, to Mukuro, to the strange girl, and then back to Junko again, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
“Junko onee-chan!” the girl repeated, tugging at Junko’s hand even harder, and that seemed to finally snap her out of the addled state she had been in.
“Huh? Oh! Uh- Mukuro!” she said, eyes landing on her sister after frantically bouncing about for a few seconds. “Hey! Why don’t you take Kotoko-chan over to the snack aisle and let her pick out anything she wants, alright?”
“O-Okay,” Mukuro stammered back, clearly just as thrown off by the entire situation as everyone else was. Stepping past Junko she reached a hand down towards the girl, who Celeste now understood was named Kotoko.
“What’s going on??” Kotoko demanded, and Celeste found herself silently asking the same question. The small girl let go of Junko’s hand, but rather than taking Mukuro’s she crossed her arms over her chest, puffing her cheeks out in protest.
“I just need to talk to my friend here for a minute, okay?” Junko said. She turned her attention to Kotoko now, bending at the knees and crouching down slightly to bring herself closer to the girl’s level. “I promise it’s not gonna take long, and I’ll come find you as soon as I’m done. And you can get as much stuff as you want from the candy aisle while I’m busy, no limits. Alright?” Kotoko still appeared skeptical, but it seemed bribery was an effective way to her heart. So, albeit reluctantly, she reached up to take Mukuro’s hand. With one more look at Junko, as if to make sure she was doing what she was supposed to, Mukuro began to lead Kotoko away, back around the corner and out of view. Junko stood back up straight, watching as the two of them disappeared, and only once they were gone did she turn around again- and find herself face to face with Celeste.
“What did I just witness?” The question left Celeste immediately, and despite realizing that she perhaps didn’t have any right to answers or explanations about Junko’s own life, she was demanding them anyway. Even now that it was just the two of them, Junko still looked thrown off as well- much more similar to the Junko that had shown up at Celeste’s doorstep, rather than the one that Celeste had always seen back when they worked together. It was clear she was on edge in a way she never had been before, and she laughed uneasily in some failed attempt to lighten the mood before she spoke.
“That’s, uh…” she started to explain. “That’s a really long story.”
As a heads up, this chapter makes light references to some of the same topics that come up in Kotoko's backstory in canon. If you were able to handle the level that it was presented at in the game then you should be fine reading this as well, but if it's a topic you're sensitive to then you might want to proceed with caution.
The air was fucking freezing. That was the only thing on Junko’s mind as she stepped outside, pulling a coat closed in front of her despite the fact that it left way too much skin exposed to actually do anything to protect her from the weather. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the photoshoot had let out when it was supposed to, but it had run late, and now the sun had gone down and the temperature had dropped precipitously. Stupid fucking photographers, never able to get anything done on time.
Winter hadn’t started in full yet, and that was at least one thing Junko could be thankful for: walking through snow banks and across icy sidewalks in heels was never easy. For now the ground was still relatively manageable, and she was able to keep up a decent pace as she hurried her way down the street- right until the stiletto of her heel slipped through a gap in a grate.
“Shit!” Junko muttered, wincing as her ankle twisted into a very unpleasant position. Not so bad that it felt like it was broken or sprained, but at least bad enough for her to know that the rest of her walk home was going to be that much more of a pain in the ass because of it. Tugging her heel back out of the drain she hobbled off to the side, trying not to put too much weight on her foot in the process. And then she heard someone laughing.
“You should really watch where you’re going!” Junko’s eyes narrowed at the sound of the voice, and she slowly turned her head towards where it had come from, quickly finding the source: a child. There was a little girl sitting on the edge of a milk crate, right where an alley opened up onto the main street. She was bundled up in several layers of coats, along with a hat and a scarf, though underneath it all Junko could still see how scrawny she looked, even for a kid. The girl had pink hair, but it was ratty and matted, looking like it hadn’t been washed in a while. Despite all of this she was smiling, swinging her legs back and forth as she looked at Junko.
“You should really mind your own fucking business,” Junko replied. And she probably should have known not to swear at a child, but she didn’t. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you kids are supposed to be seen and not heard?”
“Hm… Nope!” the girl replied. “Nobody ever told me anything like that!”
“Well they should’ve. Little brat,” Junko muttered under her breath. And with that she turned her back on the girl, storming off towards her home again- as much as a person who was walking with a limp could really storm anywhere.
Junko found herself in that area of the city a decent amount- there were really only a few places around that were good for photoshoots to begin with, and that studio seemed to be the most popular one. It was only a handful of days before she found herself there again, once more ultimately walking home at a frustratingly dark hour. Which wasn’t actually that late at all, but with the sun already setting around five, it didn’t have to be that late for her to be walking home under a cold black sky.
Despite her constant griping about the cold, it seemed Junko had still never learned how to cover up properly. If she just invested in a coat that buttoned up more than halfway up her cleavage, or came down further than the midpoint of her thigh, it wouldn’t be that hard for her to keep herself warm. When she was leaving so much skin exposed to the chilly air, it made sense she would end up taking issue with the weather. But she still refused to actually do anything about it.
As she walked down the same series of streets she had taken countless times before she rounded a corner, only to stop rather abruptly at what she saw. The same girl she’d encountered previously was sitting there, in more or less the same place as before. Now, instead of perching herself on a milk crate, the girl was sitting on the ground up against the wall instead. She was dressed the exact same as she’d been the last time Junko had seen her, and she had a magazine she was reading, though it looked somewhat worn out. As Junko came to a stop, more subconsciously than anything else, the girl looked up towards her, and she seemed to recognize her immediately.
“You!” she huffed, puffing out her cheeks and pointing a finger towards Junko. “What are you doing back here? Did you come to bully me again?”
“I’m walking past. I’m allowed to do that,” Junko retorted. “I should be the one asking you what you’re doing out here. Shouldn’t you be getting back home by now?”
“This is my home!” ...Oh. After the girl said that Junko took a moment to look at the buildings surrounding them, as if she might have been standing right in front of a door to an apartment building without realizing it, but it was already pretty clear what the girl had meant. And eventually, Junko turned her eyes back towards her.
“So, what? You an orphan or something?” she asked.
“No, but my parents were terrible, so I ran away from them! And now I live out here!” As she spoke the girl gestured behind her, down the alley, and as Junko looked past her she was able to see that there was actually a small home set up back there- if a cardboard box and a nest of blankets tucked away in the corner beside a dumpster could really be called a home.
“Sounds pretty awful,” Junko said, letting her eyes hover on the makeshift accomodations for another moment before returning her eyes to the girl. “How do you eat? Or shower?”
“Why do you care where I shower?” the girl snapped back, which Junko took to mean she hadn’t showered at all since running away. “I’m doing just fine out here! Way better than I ever was back home!”
“Whatever. Suit yourself.” And, with those words and a dismissive wave of her hand, Junko was walking down the street again, leaving the girl behind her.
“Hey!” the girl called after her. “You shouldn’t be mean to kids! It’s not very nice!” Junko stopped for just a moment when she heard that, but then she continued right back on without bothering to respond.
The weather was getting progressively colder. Each day was a little chillier than the last, and it seemed like winter was right around the corner. Really, that was nothing more than a giant pain in Junko’s ass, and she wasn’t looking forward to when the snow actually started up.
There was a small coffee shop on the way back from the studio, and today the weather was cold enough to compel Junko to stop through. Not because she actually needed the caffeine hit, but simply because she wanted a warm drink to keep her from freezing to death on the way home. Plus, she hadn’t had a real meal all day. As a model she was constantly counting calories and watching what she put into her body, and while she supposed something loaded up with as much sugar and whipped cream as the drink she’d purchased was a little counterproductive to that, it would hopefully also be enough to tide her over for a while longer.
Junko cradled the paper cup in both hands as she stepped outside again, the warm atmosphere from the inside of the coffee shop immediately giving way to the biting chill of early December. It only took her a second to start shivering, and while the warmth from her drink helped at least a little bit, it did very little against the entirety of the air around her. Continuing to walk along at the quickest pace her heels would allow Junko lifted the cup towards her lips, preparing to take her first sip-
And then she saw that damn girl again.
She was further back in the alley, far enough that Junko almost hadn’t seen her as she was walking by on the street. The girl was curled up with all of her blankets piled on top of her, but even then Junko could see her tiny figure shivering in the cold. She hesitated at the end of the alleyway for a few seconds, and by all accounts she knew she should just walk away. But apparently there was at least some small part of her heart that wasn’t completely calloused over.
“Hey.” The small girl lifted her head from inside her nest of blankets when she heard that voice, and as she looked up she saw Junko standing over her, holding out the steaming paper cup. “Take it.” The girl stayed still for a few more moments, looking up at Junko through narrowed eyes, and then she scooted backwards to push herself as far up against the wall of the alley as she could.
“Why?” she asked.
“Why?” Junko repeated, clearly unprepared to have her act of good will questioned. “Uhhh, because it’s like thirty fucking degrees out here and I can see you shivering? It’ll warm you up.”
“You’d better not have put anything weird in here!”
“Anything weird- Where the hell are you getting these ideas?” Junko huffed. “Just hurry up and take it before I change my mind!” Another second or two passed, but eventually the girl stretched her arms out, reaching up to take the cup with her small hands. As she did so Junko could see just how badly she was shivering, and she only looked for a moment before glancing away, preferring not to see. Cautiously, the girl lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip, though that silence didn’t last very long.
“Eww! This is totally gross and bitter! It’s not sweet at all!”
“It’s coffee, you little brat! Beggars can’t be choosers so either drink it or go cold, see if I give a shit.” The girl scowled at Junko, but it seemed not being cold was still winning out over not wanting to drink something so unappealing to the palette of a child, and after a second she raised the drink to her lips again to take another sip. At that point Junko just found herself hovering awkwardly, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to do. Turn around and walk away, she supposed, though, somehow getting out of this conversation seemed like it would be just a bit more delicate than that. And then, while she was stuck pondering that question, the girl ended up saying something unexpected.
“Thank you, Junko-san…” As soon as she heard that Junko’s eyes narrowed, and she was back on the defensive again.
“Huh? How the hell do you know my name?”
“Because you’re in my magazine!” the girl replied. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t explain the situation any further for Junko. When it became clear her answer hadn’t actually answered anything the girl reached down into her pile of blankets, digging around for just a second before coming back up with, sure enough, a magazine. A fashion magazine, specifically, and probably the same one she had been reading the last time Junko had seen her. It looked like it was old and worn: the print on the cover was already fading, especially around the edges, the pages were bent up enough that it was probably close to twice as thick as it had originally been, and the binding looked like it was falling apart. “Look!” the girl said, rifling through to a specific section before turning it around for Junko to see. And sure enough, right there on the page, there was a picture of Junko herself.
Junko crouched lower as she tried to get a better look at what she was seeing, and it took her a second to even remember what it was from. Junko was by no means a famous or overwhelmingly popular model, and if she had any fame to speak of at all it was more on a local level than anything. Still, a little over a year back she had been deemed just noteworthy enough to be worth running a short feature on in a small, relatively unknown fashion magazine. It had included an interview and a small photoshoot, and while she had been excited about it at the time, it hadn’t really lead to anything and had soon enough been forgotten. This was the first time she’d thought about it in months.
“Are you telling me you’ve known who I am this whole time?” Junko asked, finally lifting her eyes from the magazine to look at the girl. The girl nodded slowly. “And were you gonna say anything about it?”
“Why would I?” the girl huffed back. “You’re some super famous super important model! You’re not gonna care about some homeless little girl on the street.” Junko fell silent after that, and she stayed that way for a few seconds. Her eyes hovered on the girl, then moved down to her picture in the magazine, glancing towards the still steaming cup of coffee next, before finally returning to the girl’s eyes again.
“What’s your name?” she asked. Just like before, the girl seemed wary of any questions or comments directed towards her.
“Why do you wanna know?” she huffed.
“Because I’ve seen you like three times now,” Junko replied. “Normally I would’ve learned somebody’s name by this point. And you know mine so it’s only fair, right?” The girl didn’t seem wholly convinced, but after lingering on Junko’s words for a few seconds she decided to go along with them.
“Kotoko Utsugi,” she answered.
“Alright, Kotoko-chan,” Junko replied, slowly standing back up straight. “I’ll see you around, yeah? Maybe I’ll bring you a new fashion magazine next time.”
“Really??” Kotoko asked, seeming far more excited about that than Junko would have expected.
“Yeah, sure,” Junko replied. “Why the fuck not?”
Junko continued to cross paths with Kotoko after that, and if nothing else she was at least true to her word. Sometimes she would bring with her leftover fashion magazines she had lying around her apartment, as well as occasional drinks and snacks from the cafe. And, as time went on, Kotoko seemed more willing to accept those small gifts without the same hesitation she had initially shown. Still, as the days wore on and the weather continued to get colder and colder, there was one thought that continued to linger in the back of Junko’s head. And finally, it was being forced to the forefront.
Junko had seen the forecast that morning, and now, as she walked down the cold sidewalk and snaked her way around corners, she was seeing it in front of her as well. Snow was starting to fall; it was just occasional flakes so far, only visible when she was passing under streetlights. But it was supposed to get worse than this, and by morning estimates were saying they could have up to six inches. The first snowfall of the season was coming in strong.
Eventually Junko reached a familiar street again, and as she went around the corner she saw exactly what she was expecting: a large pile of blankets, with the shape of a small girl vaguely visible underneath them. Junko was holding a cup of hot chocolate in hand, freshly poured, though on a night like tonight she wasn’t sure that alone would be enough.
“Hey. It’s me,” Junko said as she approached, and she watched a small head poke out from under the blankets. Kotoko looked up at her, and from a single glance Junko could tell she wasn’t in great shape. Even though the snow had only just started, it was still colder than it had been all season long. Kotoko’s eyes were bleary, as if maybe she’d just woken up, but all around she didn’t look like she was holding up too well.
“I brought you something,” Junko went on, crouching down and offering the drink out to Kotoko. Kotoko reached out to take it, murmuring a quiet thanks, but her voice lacked so much of its usual energy and enthusiasm. Junko simply watched as the girl lifted the drink to her lips and took a small sip, shivering worse than she had ever seen before. As Kotoko drank in the warmth Junko looked up towards the dark sky, watching snowflakes flutter their way down towards her, just barely in visible in the night.
“It’s snowing,” she commented.
“I like the snow,” she heard Kotoko reply, voice still quiet and barely audible. “It’s pretty.”
“Yeah…” Junko agreed, before slowly turning her eyes back to the girl. “It’s cold, though.”
“I don’t mind the cold…”
“It’s like, really cold.” And then a moment of silence passed before Junko finished the thought. “You’re gonna freeze to death out here.” Another moment of silence, before Kotoko responded.
“I’ll be okay,” she tried to insist. “I don’t have anywhere else to go anyway…” At that point, Junko knew what she needed to do. She knew the right thing to do, the only thing that would let her walk away from this situation feeling like she was still a decent human being. Despite all that, though, it still took her longer than she cared to admit to force herself to say her next words.
“You can come stay with me tonight.” The moment Junko said that she felt Kotoko’s eyes on her- though, in a moment that she supposed she should have gotten used to by now, she was met more with skepticism and caution than with any showing of happiness or relief.
“Why?” Kotoko demanded, and Junko wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
“I just said,” she ended up replying, “you’re gonna freeze if you stay out here. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
“But I don’t wanna get lured into a creepy stranger’s home either!” Kotoko retaliated. “You could be some kind of pervert!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Junko huffed. “I’m not a pervert, I’m just trying to do something nice for you!”
“If you were a pervert you wouldn’t tell me you were a pervert! You would pretend to be nice to try to get me to let my guard down!”
“Where the hell are these ideas-” Junko started to ask. But before she even finished the question some pieces started to fit together in her brain, and she found her own answer. Up until now she had never stopped to think about why this girl might have run away from home and ended up living in an alley. Now, suddenly, she felt like she understood. And once she understood her expression softened, her voice quieted back down, she even took a small step backwards to leave more space between herself and Kotoko.
“Listen,” she sighed. “If I come by tomorrow morning and you’re dead from hypothermia or some shit I’m gonna feel real fucking guilty about it for the rest of my life. I promise I’m not gonna hurt you or anything. So just let me give you a place to stay for one night so you don’t get buried under a huge mound of snow, alright?” Even once she was done talking Kotoko still seemed wary of Junko, and Junko really supposed she couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to appeal to a girl in this situation, or how she was meant to prove she really did just want to help, even if it was only in a small way. For what was possibly the first time in her life Junko actually felt her conscience flaring up and nagging at her to do something, and she knew she wasn’t going to be able to live with herself if she just got up and walked away now.
As she waited for an answer Junko watched Kotoko’s face, and she could see the hesitation and uncertainty the poor girl was going through. On some level, Kotoko knew Junko was right: it was getting cold, and it would only get colder from here. Staying outside through the entire winter really wasn’t an option for her. But when the only other choice was putting all her faith in a stranger, that wasn’t an easy hurdle for her to overcome.
“I wanna sleep on the couch,” Kotoko finally ended up saying.
“Obviously,” Junko replied. “I wasn’t about to give up my bed for you anyway.”
“And you’d better leave the front door open all night!”
“What, do you want me to get fucking robbed?”
“Leave it open or I’m not coming!” Kotoko insisted.
“Ugh, fine. I’ll leave the door open,” Junko huffed. “Anything else?”
“You gotta help me carry all my stuff.” After she said that Kotoko gestured to her belongings, which was really just a pile of blankets with her fashion magazines stuffed away inside. It wasn’t that much at all, though to someone of Kotoko’s stature Junko understood why it would be difficult to carry.
“Alright, deal,” Junko said, already starting to load the blankets up into her arms. “But let’s hurry up. I wanna get back home before the snow gets too bad.”
Junko’s apartment wasn’t exactly the most spacious. Far from it, in fact; it was tiny and cramped, with the couch she had promised Kotoko barely even managing to wedge itself in between the two walls. The living room and kitchen really just bled into each other creating one far too tiny central space, and her bedroom was attached, though it was hardly any larger. At least it was warm, though. As soon as they stepped through the front door Junko had cranked up the thermostat on the wall, and soon enough hot air started flowing through the tiny space- even though a lot of it was going right back out the front door and into the hall.
“Home sweet home,” Junko said, gesturing to the apartment as she kicked her shoes off beside the door. “It’s not much, but it’s better than that dumpy alleyway, right?” Kotoko still seemed to be a bit cautious and skeptical, and she remained quiet as she walked over towards the couch, setting a few of her blankets down on it.
“Your couch is stiff,” she complained, prodding at the cushions.
“So’s the ground,” Junko replied. “Take it or leave it.” She walked over while she spoke, tossing the rest of Kotoko’s blankets down into a pile at one end. Immediately Kotoko started digging through them, laying them out along the couch, and it was clear she had a very specific vision for how she wanted her sleeping space to look. Junko, not quite sure what else she was meant to do at that point, just stepped back and watched.
Eventually Kotoko had made something that came close enough to resembling the nest she had been sleeping in outside, with one layer of blankets spread out on top of the couch cushions for comfort and another above it that would, presumably, cover her while she slept. Once she was finished she hopped up on the couch, sitting down and making herself comfortable, and then she looked towards Junko with an expectant expression.
“Huh? The hell do you mean now what?” Junko replied.
“I’m bored! You have a TV,” Kotoko said, pointing towards the dingy old screen crammed into the corner of the room.
“And I wanna watch something!”
“Ugh, fine. Didn’t know you were gonna be so damn needy,” Junko muttered. It took her a few seconds of digging through the clutter in her apartment before she was able to even locate the remote, but eventually she did find it, pressing the button to cause the TV to come to life. She flipped through the channels for a few seconds before eventually landing on some game show, dropping down onto the couch at the opposite end from Kotoko. “Is this good?”
“I like game shows,” Kotoko replied. “The contestants do funny things. But I haven’t gotten to watch TV at all since I left home.”
“Huh.” Having no idea how to respond to that, Junko simply went silent. That didn’t seem to bother Kotoko, though; she was more than happy to continue the conversation on by herself.
“I saw a game show once where a big wall moved at the contestants with funny shaped holes in it and they had to twist around to fit into the holes,” she described. “I played along in my living room! I think I was pretty good at it.”
“You’re awfully talkative all of a sudden,” Junko replied. She’d known Kotoko to chatter at least a little bit the past few times she’d run into her, but the girl seemed to have a whole new energy about her now.
“I’m just in a good mood!” Kotoko replied. “I’m getting to watch TV and that makes me happy.”
“You’re really easy to please, aren’t you?”
“Most things are better than sleeping on the street!” Once again, Junko really didn’t know how to react. She glanced back over her shoulder towards the window, and in doing so she could see that snow had started to pick up, coming down strongly enough that she could see it even in the dark.
“It’s really starting to come down out there,” she commented. “The snowbanks’ll probably be built up for a while after this.”
“Yeah,” Kotoko agreed, giving the sort of nod that implied she was only partially listening. “I guess so.”
“Where’re you planning on going then?” Only then did Kotoko pull her eyes away from the screen, looking towards Junko with a scrunched up brow.
“What do you mean?” she replied. “Back to my alley.”
“It’s still gonna be freezing and snowy out there. You can’t go back,” Junko insisted. “You’d die.”
“Well I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Kotoko huffed back.
“You know… They’ve got places for kids like you. Orphanages and shit.” The moment Junko said that, she realized she shouldn’t have. Kotoko’s reaction was immediate, and suddenly she was glaring and scrambling as far towards the other side of the couch as she could, shaking her head aggressively.
“No!” she shouted. “I can’t go to an orphanage! I won’t!”
“Why the hell not?” Junko asked, taken aback by the sudden outburst.
“If I go to an orphanage and they figure out who I am they’ll send me back to my parents!”
“Well you can’t just keep sleeping on the street!” Junko tried to argue.
“It’s better than going back home!”
“You’re gonna die if you stay out there!”
“FINE!” Kotoko shouted. “I would rather die than go back to my parents!” The moment Junko heard that, something inside her shattered. It would have been one thing to hear someone her own age say something like that, and that would have been bad enough. But to hear a child, barely ten years old, shout that at her? And to know she actually meant it? Junko’s own life had been far from perfect. But in that instant, she couldn’t even begin to imagine what Kotoko was feeling.
“Alright,” she conceded. “I won’t send you to an orphanage. But there’s no way I’m sending you back to live in an alleyway in the dead of winter either. So we’ll have to figure something else out.” The only question was what, and as Junko turned her attention back towards the television it wasn’t something she had a great answer for. She stared towards the screen, though she was no longer paying any attention to what was actually happening on the game show. Instead her mind was twisting around that puzzle, trying to come up with an answer. She was only broken away from those thoughts by the feeling of something against her, and when she looked down she realized Kotoko had scooted all the way over, and was now leaning in to wrap her small arms around Junko’s torso.
“Thank you, Junko-san…” she heard the girl murmur. And it was just enough for a faint smile to tug at Junko’s lips despite all the bullshit.
“Yeah,” she replied, reaching down to put a hand around Kotoko’s shoulders in turn. “You’re welcome, Kotoko-chan.”
Junko’s story had come to a close, but Celeste, understandably, was still having a difficult time processing what she had just heard. If she had simply been told this, without any evidence to support it, it would have been easy enough to immediately write off everything Junko had said as a load of bullshit. Junko had never made herself out to be the most trustworthy person in the past, and Celeste had no doubt that she wouldn’t be above lying to garner sympathy, or to make herself look better. But… Even if Celeste did choose not to believe her, that didn’t explain what was actually going on, or why Junko was here at the grocery store with this child in the first place.
“Allow me to be sure I understand you,” Celeste eventually said, deciding to believe Junko for a moment, if only for the sake of furthering the discussion. “Prior to being a retail manager, you had an at least semi-successful career as a model, during which time you took in a small runaway child off the street to raise as your own. Am I correct so far?”
“Yeah. It… Sounds pretty fucking fake when you say it like that, huh?” Junko admitted. Her mannerisms were more subdued than usual; gone was the typical energy and animation that punctuated her every word, and in its place was a nervousness and a hesitation, arms crossed over her chest, eyes avoiding contact with Celeste. “That wasn’t my original plan. I figured I would just let her sleep on my couch for a few days so she didn’t freeze to death until I found somewhere else to send her. But…”
“But that obviously never ended up happening,” Junko went on. “I was never able to figure out what else to do with her. And I guess, after a certain point… I didn’t really wanna send away either.”
“And your modeling career?” Celeste asked. “What became of that?” That question prompted a slight bit of hesitation, and from the small twitch of Junko’s face, Celeste was able to determine that it seemed to be a sore subject. She was used to being able to read people with ease, but Junko had always managed to be the one person who eluded her, no matter how hard she tried. Being able to see through what Junko was thinking now unsettled Celeste- and only furthered her nagging paranoia that she was being played.
“I ended up giving up on that,” Junko eventually said. “I mean… I probably would have had to sooner or later anyway. I was barely scraping by when it was just me. And throwing a kid into the mix…”
“And so you chose to work in retail instead?”
“I know. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, and the pay sucked, but it was pretty much the only thing I was qualified for. ‘Failed model’ doesn’t really pad out a resume very well, you know?”
“But you are the manager now,” Celeste pointed out.
“Yeah,” Junko said, nodding slightly. “Started from the bottom and worked my way up. I busted my ass at that store chasing promotions to get to where I am now.”
“All for Kotoko-san,” Celeste concluded, though it was clearly a statement rather than a question. This time it was her own turn to fall silent for a few seconds, quietly dwelling on everything she’d just heard, and was still hearing. She still didn’t know whether or not she even believed it to begin with, but she was at least allowing herself to continue forward under the assumption that Junko was telling the truth, for the time being. “I still fail to see why this should change my opinion of you, though.”
“Huh?” Junko responded, and her eyes finally darted up enough to meet with Celeste’s.
“The fact that you have done what most people would agree to be a ‘good’ thing in the past does not change the way you treated me during my employ. One good action does not wash away all of the terrible ones, no matter how large it may be, and finding out about this does not suddenly redeem my opinion of you. If anything, it only makes me fearful for the upbringing this child will have.” For once in her life, Junko actually looked stunned. Her expression was blank, and the ensuing silence made it clear she didn’t know what to say. It was a powerful feeling, one Celeste had spent so long striving for, and now that it was here she made sure to remember it as best she could to relive in the future. But she was similarly caught off guard by Junko’s eventual response.
“No. You’re… You’re right, I guess,” she admitted. “Doesn’t matter why I did it. I did a shitty thing to you, one way or another, and whatever my excuses are aren’t gonna mean dick to you. My reasons aren’t worth anything.”
“Reasons?” Celeste repeated, eyes narrowing. The specific phrasing Junko used struck her as odd; she had been under the impression these two events were unrelated, that Junko taking in Kotoko was a single act of goodness in sea that was otherwise full of terrible actions, including but certainly not limited to the way she had treated Celeste in the past. Now, this was suggesting something different.
“Huh? Well, yeah,” Junko replied. “Reasons for- Never mind,” she said, shaking her head. “Forget it. We don’t have to get into this.”
“No,” Celeste demanded. “Explain.” Again, there was a small pause. But eventually Junko continued to speak.
“I mean… A lot of this shit is already pretty obvious now, isn’t it? Reasons I always tried to keep you out of my personal life. Reasons I would never see you outside of work. Reasons I shot down any chance of a relationship. I didn’t feel like I had the time for something like that in my life. And I guess I didn’t really want anyone finding out about Kotoko either. It all felt like personal shit I didn’t need my employees knowing about.”
“And yet having a sexual relationship with one of your employees didn’t concern you the same way.”
“Yeah, I know,” Junko said, nodding slowly. “But it was just… You were a good outlet. You made it so easy.”
“...Outlet?” Celeste repeated.
“Yeah. I mean… Sometimes it feels like my life is collapsing in on me,” Junko confessed. “When I’m at home I have to be mature and responsible and basically act like a parent in front of Kotoko-chan. I have to look after her and take care of her and make sure she’s growing up alright, and do you know how fucking exhausting and terrifying it is thinking any little thing I do could end up being the shit that screws her up somehow? And then I get to work and I have to be the responsible manager and bust my ass to keep that store successful, because if it goes under or I get laid off then how the fuck am I gonna provide for a kid? It was constant stress, and pressure, until I felt like I was gonna break down from it, and I had nowhere else to put it and no way to deal with it until- until you came along,” she said. “And- fuck, I know it was wrong, I knew it was wrong the whole time, but being with you just made me feel so fucking free again. I could do whatever I wanted, and there were no strings or commitments or consequences. You let me get away with anything, and it was the first time in years I’d actually felt like I was in control of some little part of my life again! You let me walk all over you, and being able to do that to someone felt so good ! I mean- fuck!” she said, voice starting to shake slightly as she got more and more worked up. “I barely even feel like an adult myself and suddenly I’m- I’m raising a fucking kid and managing a store and if I take even one wrong step the whole thing feels like it’s gonna come crashing down around me a-and-”
“Do you regret it?” Celeste interrupted Junko with her question, and the words seemed to be enough to snap Junko out of the panic she had been starting to work herself into. She fell quiet, and Celeste could see that she was still shaking slightly, but at least she was no longer spiraling towards a breakdown.
“Regret what?” she asked.
“Regret taking in Kotoko-san.”
“Of course not!” Junko replied immediately, quickly shaking her head. “I mean- She’s everything to me. She’s my whole world. I love her, and- and I’m not sure what I would be without her. It just… It gets stressful, basically doing the single mom thing. But I would never want to give her up.”
“I see,” Celeste replied. The response offered very little to go off of, and she could see Junko’s own eyes move around slightly as she studied Celeste, trying to glean anything she could from it. Celeste allowed her to try for a few moments before she spoke further. “Based on what you have shown me here today,” she said, “I suppose I find myself inclined to believe you.”
“Huh?” Junko replied. “What are you saying?”
“I’m not some harlequin romance fool who would go throwing myself back into your arms after the faintest showing of remorse,” Celeste went on. “I still have not forgiven you for your behavior, and I doubt I ever fully will. You treated me horridly, and you should be made to atone for that for quite some time to come.” She paused there, allowing the full weight of her words ample time to set in before she continued. “However, based on what you have shown me here today… I suppose I would not be entirely opposed to allowing you back into my life in some capacity.”
“Some capacity?” Junko asked. “Like…?”
“Like you seem as if you could use a friend, Enoshima-san,” Celeste said. “And, to be entirely honest… I likely could as well.” Another long pause followed that, and during it Celeste said or did nothing. She kept her face entirely neutral, even as she felt Junko studying it. She had said what she had intended to say, and she wasn’t going to do anything else to sway Junko’s decisions one way or another. At first Junko’s face remained neutral as well, giving away very little about what she was thinking. But, eventually, a small smile did start to spread over it.
“Yeah. Alright,” she replied. “I think… I think I would like that.” After speaking her eyes glanced down at Celeste’s basket, then back up towards Celeste herself. “And I mean, you seem like you’re doing pretty well for yourself right now, financially speaking. But if you do ever want your old job back, the offer still stands.” Celeste still offered nothing in the way of a visual reaction, and her eyes never even moved from where they had been looking to follow Junko’s down to the basket. But, upon hearing the offer, she gave a small nod.
“My current financial boon is… Limited,” she stated. “I may have to consider your offer more seriously now.”
“Well if you want, just say the word and-”
“Junko onee-chan!” Any further discussion of Celeste’s career plans was interrupted by that voice, and turning to look towards its source Junko and Celeste both saw Kotoko, stomping back from the candy aisle with an assortment of sweets and cookies practically as tall as she was piled up in her arms. And, running along behind her, there was a very anxious looking Mukuro.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered out. “Sh-She got impatient, and I-I tired to keep her there, b-but sh-she-”
“It’s alright,” Junko interrupted. “Thanks for looking after her.” She then turned her attention from Mukuro to Kotoko, walking closer and crouching down in front of the girl once again. “See? I told you it wouldn’t be very long,” she said. “Celes-chan and I were just finishing up here.”
“That took forever!” Kotoko protested, puffing out her cheeks and glaring at Junko. Once she did, though, she looked up towards Celeste, properly studying her for the first time. “You’re pretty!” she declared. Celeste wasn’t exactly used to interacting with children, and she found herself utterly thrown off by the comment. For a few moments she glanced around towards Junko and even Mukuro, looking for help that wasn’t going to come, before she settled her eyes back on Kotoko.
“Thank you,” she ended up replying.
“You should wear more color though! Black is like, the least adorbs color of all!”
“I will take your advice into consideration.”
“C’mon, Kotoko-chan,” Junko said, standing back up before reaching down to take some of the snacks the girl had gathered. “Let’s go pay for all this.”
“Really?” Kotoko asked, looking back up at Junko. “All of it??”
“Sure,” Junko replied. “I said you could get as much as you wanted, didn’t I? A deal’s a deal.”
Another day, another evening that Hajime knew he would spend trying to scrub coffee smell out of his clothes. That was still quite a ways away, however, and for the time being he just had to worry about making it through the rest of his shift before he even had to start thinking about that. It was, at least, one of the days Sato and Natsumi weren’t schedule to work together, which meant the store was less of a war zone than it normally was. Still, that didn’t make it any less mind numbing.
It was the slow part of the day- the store usually got a rush first thing as everyone came to get their morning coffee, and then another one around lunch time, but now that they were into the afternoon he knew it would be mostly dead for the rest of the day. Maybe another small surge when people started heading home, but that was never as bad as earlier in the day.
At the sound of the door opening Hajime looked towards the front of the store, ready to greet another customer, but instead he found himself looking at someone he already knew just a little bit too well. It was the security guard from a few nights before- who, Hajime was realizing, he had never bothered to learn the name of. Taka was marching in with the same amount of stiffness and self-proclaimed authority he always carried, though at least this time he had parked the segway outside. He also appeared to be carrying a thick stack of papers under his arm, but Hajime couldn’t tell what they were.
“Hello!” Taka said as he marched forward. “I was hoping I would find you here today!”
“Well I do work here,” Hajime replied, “so it was probably a safe bet. Do you need something?”
“I’ve brought something for you!” After announcing that Taka stepped up in front of the counter, dropping the stack of papers he was carrying down with a loud thud. As they landed in front of him Hajime was finally able to make out what was printed across the front: “Standardized Career Placement Examination.” Hajime glanced at it for a few seconds, then looked back up at Taka, eyebrows creasing.
“What is this for?” he asked.
“During our last meeting you discussed dissatisfaction with your current job!” Taka said, which immediately caused Hajime to hiss at him.
“Can you not say that here?” he shushed, before hastily glancing around to see if anyone had overheard. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like they had. Natsumi was the only other one around at the moment, and she was absorbed enough in trying to clean out the inside of one of the coffee presses that she didn’t appear to be paying attention to anything else.
“Ah, my apologies!” Taka replied, dropping his voice down to something that was, at least by his own standards, probably a whisper. “I did not mean to get you in trouble with your current employer! However, during our last conversation, in addition to stating that you were unhappy with your current situation you also expressed uncertainty about what job you might like to have. I believe this test may help you find that answer!” As Taka explained his reasoning Hajime looked back down at the test once again, then lifted his eyes back towards Taka, before shaking his head.
“You can’t be serious about this,” he said.
“I’m quite serious!” Taka replied. “Planning for the future is no laughing matter!”
“I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with my life for years. That’s not about to get solved because of some dumb test.” Hajime’s response caused a frown to form on Taka’s face- his expression was always stern and hard, but now it was starting to look like actual displeasure.
“The test is not stupid!” he insisted. “I took it and it accurately stated that I wanted to be a police officer!”
“Is this test why you want to be a police officer?” Hajime asked.
“Of course not! I knew I wanted to follow that career path long before I took this test. But the placement confirmed that!”
“Do you think, maybe it’s possible,” Hajime continued, “that you specifically gave answers you thought would get you the results you already knew you wanted?”
“Impossible! These tests are designed so that there’s no way to cheat on them!” Somehow Hajime very much doubted that, but he could tell this wasn’t the sort of point that was worth arguing with Taka either. With a small sigh he ended up reaching down to slide the test book over towards himself.
“Alright. I’ll take a look through it,” he conceded, figuring he could just toss it in a corner somewhere when he got home and forget all about it.
“Excellent!” Taka replied. “I should stop distracting you while you’re meant to be doing a job, but I will return later this week to discuss your results! Have an excellent, safe day!”
“Wait, that’s not necess-” Hajime tried to protest, but Taka was already on his way out the door. For someone who was supposedly so vigilant and alert, it really seemed like Taka only heard the things he wanted to hear. And, as Hajime looked back down at the test, it suddenly seemed like he was on the hook for this as well.
Normally I post this when I finish a fic but since this is kinda ongoing indefinitely it occurred to me that I don't think I've ever shamelessly self promoted on here. So I'm gonna do that real quick! I'm on tumblr as alex-is-a-writer, and I use that place to post fic updates and other random things related to writing as a whole. If you want to keep up with me at all outside of this fic that's a great place to do it, so I hope to see some of you over there!
I put this fic on a little hiatus and then I come back with the bizarre rarepair absolutely no one asked for. Enjoy!
The bookstore was nearly closed, and Hiroko Hagakure was the last one there. She’d already sent her employees home now that they were done with their shifts, and she was doing her final lap around the building to make sure everything was closed up the way it was supposed to be. Lights were all turned off, the gate leading into the mall was locked, the security alarms were set, everything in the kitchen of the cafe was powered down, and the food had been stored properly. Once upon a time this had been an arduous process to go through every single night, but after over a decade she’d reached a point where it was like second nature to her, and it hardly took any time at all.
Satisfied that the shop had been closed up properly Hiroko began making her way back towards the front of the store, jingling a ring of keys off her finger. Before she could get to the doors, though, she was surprised to find them opening up of their own accord, and to find someone strolling in through them. She became far less surprised when she saw who the person actually was.
“Sorry, sir,” Hiroko said, lips curling up into a coy smile. “We’re closed.”
“Damn. Already? Nothing in this town stays open late.” The man standing in front of her was well dressed, suit and hat providing a sharp contrast to Hiroko’s own well-worn sweatshirt and torn up jeans. He had scraggly blond hair, just a bit long for a man, and a small goatee with a very thin moustache, very precisely trimmed. He also, Hiroko noticed, smelled faintly of whiskey. But that was just par for the course.
“Nothing at all?” she replied. “I’ve dragged you out of enough bars to know that’s not true, Koichi-kun.”
“You’re really not pulling your punches today,” Koichi chuckled back. “Rough day or something?”
“Not rough, no. But Fufu’s been even more high strung than usual with that date coming up,” Hiroko explained. “Every day’s an adventure.”
“Well I can’t really help with her, but I bet I know something that’ll get you less high strung.” After saying that Koichi reached down inside his suit jacket before quickly producing a small metal flask that Hiroko was all too familiar with by this point. He unscrewed the cap and held it out to her, and with a roll of her eyes Hiroko stepped forward to take it from him. She tossed her head back and, in a practiced motion, took a swig from the flask before handing it back over.
“Kind as that was, I have a feeling you didn’t come all the way out here just to offer me a sip,” she said. “So what’s up?”
“Perceptive as always,” Koichi replied. “I’ve always said you’re as clever as a fox, and twice as stunning.”
“Flattery only gets you as far as my front door, Koichi-kun.”
“Fair enough,” he laughed, before reaching into his jacket again. Hiroko half expected him to pull out a second flask, but instead he came out with a pair of tickets, fanning them out in his hand to show them off. “Two tickets to Wrestlefest. Skybox seats, open bar. It starts in an hour. Can I count on the fine lady to accompany me?”
“No, but you can count on me,” Hiroko replied. “And here I was thinking I was actually about to go home and get to sleep early for once. I have a feeling you’re about to keep me out all night, aren’t you?”
“What kind of gentleman would I be if I took you out late and then sent you back home on your own?”
“Since when have you cared about being a gentleman to begin with?”
“Harsh again, Hiroko-chan. Shall we?” he then asked, pushing both the tickets and the flask back inside his jacket and offering an arm out to the woman standing across from him. Hiroko made sure to roll her eyes once more to emphasize her exasperation, but regardless of that she was stepping forward anyway, linking her own arm with Koichi’s.
“Should I let Yasuhiro know not to expect me back home tonight?” she asked.
“Jeez, don’t put that on the poor kid,” Koichi replied. “That’s the sort of thing that can scar a guy for life.”
“He’s a grown man now. He can handle knowing his mother has a personal life.”
“Doesn’t mean he wants to. I would drink twice as much if I had to think about my mom having sex.”
“Presumptuous of you to assume that’s how this evening will end up, isn’t it?” Hiroko asked, and Koichi froze up a bit when he realized he’d put his foot in his mouth.
“I mean, I wasn’t trying to assume,” he replied. “I just meant-”
“Go wait outside while I set the last alarm,” Hiroko interrupted, stopping in the doorway and waving Koichi forward. “If you’re lucky I’ll still come out there to join you once I’m done.”
“Damn,” Koichi muttered, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck as he unliked his arm from Hiroko’s. “You’re a vicious one, you know that?”
“I know,” Hiroko replied. “It’s what you love about me.”