On Houtarou’s 21st birthday, he expects to be rudely awoken by his sister. He goes to sleep as an exhausted 20-year old knowing that come sunrise, he’ll be showered in sparkles and poppers and shoved a breakfast plate that is too large for him to finish, just like last year and the year before that.
Instead, it is the incessant vibration of his handphone that rouses him from sleep. It is already eleven in the morning according to his bedside clock. Belatedly, he realises his sister is out of town for work and that he’s alone at home. As his phone continues to buzz, he sits up on his bed and reaches for it. The caller ID tells him that it’s “Eru Chitanda”. His eyes slide over to the small rectangular box on his study table as he holds the phone up to his ear
Houtarou takes a deep breath, preparing himself for awkward birthday well-wishes before answering the call. “Hello?”
“Houtarou-san?” Chitanda’s voice sounds apprehensive, tense. This, he isn’t prepared for.
On the other end of the line, Chitanda pauses, as if indicating to him that something grave has happened.
“Did something happen?”
Chitanda stretches her silence for a bit longer before dropping the news in an anxious whisper:
“Mayaka-chan and Satoshi-san just broke up.”
Houtarou only has one wish today. He needs to make it count.
He closes his eyes and wishes for his birthday to be just a little bit more boring.
Because it is his birthday, Houtarou takes the bus to the Chitanda estate. A bicycle ride would save him about twenty minutes, but the sun is out in full force today. As the scenery outside the bus’ window fades from concrete to grass, he bids goodbye to the prospect of having an uneventful day indoors.
Although Houtarou has never been the type to care for birthdays, the rest of the Classics Club has never been the type to let that stop them. It all started in the second year of high school when they’d thrown a small party in the clubroom. Houtarou had been uncomfortable back then, but he would soon grow to miss the times when birthday songs sung off-key and store-bought chocolate cake were the agenda for the day.
Last year, when everyone had gone to different universities—Satoshi and Ibara headed to Tokyo to do sociology and art respectively, while Chitanda and himself chose universities based just two hours out of Kamiyama—he received a package in the mail that included tea leaves (from Chitanda), hideous socks (from Ibara) and a foldable backscratcher (Satoshi, of course). He’s used two of the three gifts.
So, this year, it no surprise that Satoshi and Ibara are in town for the weekend. Satoshi would be careless enough with his time to plan a visit from Tokyo just so he could pester Houtarou on his birthday. Ibara would be reluctant to pay for the train fare, but she’d probably take the chance to see family.
What he doesn’t expect is the news that Chitanda is around too. Although they both commute from Kamiyama, they go to different universities. With high school behind them, with their afternoons no longer bound to the Geography Prep Room, their paths have begun to diverge. The annual Doll Festival is one of the only occasions they still meet up for, and that had happened just a few weeks ago at the onset of spring. After today, they’ll go back to their own lives for the next eleven months and repeat the cycle again next April. Houtarou does not feel sad when he thinks about this, but it would be untrue to say he doesn’t feel anything at all.
When he arrives at the Chitanda estate, he sees one lone bicycle parked outside. And when he rings the doorbell and stands under the house’s intimidating wooden gates, it is Satoshi Fukube who comes out to greet him.
“Happy birthday, Houtarou!” is the first thing Satoshi says, a big grin spreading across his face. Most would find it hard to believe that this is a guy who broke up with his girlfriend of three years just a few hours ago. But, for Houtarou, this is typical Satoshi.
Before he can respond, Chitanda appears in the open doorway a few steps behind Satoshi. She raises a hand to welcome him, her lips curving up in a polite but strained greeting. Houtarou feels his self-preservation instinct kick in when he sees that smile—it is the smile of someone who has just witnessed a catastrophe, and is now waiting for the right moment unleash a torrent of words onto him. He sneaks a sidelong glance at Satoshi, who’s put an arm around him and is humming the birthday song.
Satoshi is the only reason Chitanda hasn’t exploded yet.
Houtarou looks back to Chitanda. In a show of admirable resilience, she continues to keep her face straight even though it’s clear that she has a thousand things to tell Houtarou. Houtarou can’t help but notice her shoulder-length hair. He’s gotten used to how it frames her face, ever since she cut it last year. It suits her.
“Houtarou-san?” Chitanda blinks, as if expecting him to say something. He’s been staring at her without realising.
A strangled “Good morning” is all he manages to say in response. He snaps his eyes down to his shoes and focuses on removing them at the entranceway, Satoshi’s arm still draped across on his shoulders. As he squats down to undo his shoelaces, he spots a pair of colourful sneakers placed neatly on the floor. There are no other guest shoes.
Ibara’s not here.
The winding hallways of Chitanda’s house are just like he remembers—or rather, doesn’t. If not for Chitanda leading the way to the kitchen, skirt swishing at her calves, he would’ve gotten lost two corridors back.
Satoshi’s keychain-adorned bag has been dumped onto one of the chairs around the surprisingly humble dining table, but again, no sign of Ibara. Houtarou notices that one of the four chairs around the table has been pushed out at a sharp angle, as if the person sitting there had gotten up and left in a hurry.
“So, there’s been a change of plans.” Satoshi props his elbows on the table. “We were going to bake a cake and everything this year, and then appear at your doorstep in a grand display of friendship and move you to uncontrollable tears but, well…”
As Satoshi drifts off, a plate of rice balls appears in front of them. An offering from Chitanda. Across the table, Houtarou exchanges a look with her, and sees that her eyes are searching, seeking answers to questions he can no longer put off asking. He slowly turns to face Satoshi, who has taken a seat and already has one rice ball in hand.
“You don’t seem too upset,” Houtarou says, pocketing his hands in his jacket. Satoshi takes him time to chew, to delay his answer. But there is only so much rice he can stuff into his mouth at a time.
“Right. I figured Chitanda-san would’ve told you what happened.” Satoshi wipes off the grain of rice that’s stuck on his chin. “Well, we don’t need to go into any details, but if this is what Mayaka wants, I’m not going to oppose it.”
“But, Satoshi-san! I don’t understand. When you were here this morning, everything was fine. I… what happened when I wasn’t around? I heard Mayaka-chan shouting, and when I came back, she was already gone.” Chitanda waves her hands in the air as she recounts her probably terrible morning.
“Yes, she decided to go off first,” Satoshi replies, determined not to betray any emotions.
Houtarou is starting to find this act rather irritating. “Why are you still here, then?” he asks.
“Because I’m here to celebrate your birthday!” Satoshi answers, too fast, too planned.
Houtarou’s tone must signal to Satoshi that his patience is wearing thin. Satoshi slouches back into the chair and the smile on his face flattens into a neutral line. He still tries not to look affected when he says, “Well, to put it simply, she said she doesn’t want to see me ever again.”
Chitanda’s jaw drops at this. Houtarou thinks, yeah that sounds serious, but Ibara’s always had a knack for being dramatic when she’s in a bad mood.
“Satoshi-san, aren’t you going to chase her down and win her back?”
Has Chitanda been watching those popular korean dramas lately? Houtarou wonders where she finds the time, in between being a straight-As student and the only heir to an agricultural business.
Satoshi shakes his head and chuckles, as if amused by Chitanda’s suggestion. “I don’t think there’s any point doing that. Mayaka says she doesn’t want to see me or talk to me—I have to accept that.”
“So, if she never wants to make amends with you, you’ll accept that too?” Houtarou asks, partially because he can’t quite believe this himself. For all these years and all the trivial disagreements Houtarou has had to live through, the two never stopped talking to each other for long.
Satoshi does not say ‘yes’ to Houtarou’s question. But he doesn’t say ‘no’ either. He just smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
Houtarou feels a tug on the sleeve of his jacket. Chitanda has grabbed onto it.
“Would you excuse us?”
Chitanda drags him into the room next door without waiting for Satoshi’s reply. He lets himself be tugged along with no protest. Things haven’t changed that much, huh?
“Houtarou-san, we have to do something!” Chitanda whispers when they find a spot to talk in one far corner of the sitting room. As she speaks, she leans close to him, but he can’t afford to let himself be distracted now.
Houtarou inches back and presses his shoulder to the wall. He considers what is happening around him before saying, “This is between them, isn’t it?”
This perfectly logical statement means nothing to Eru Chitanda.
“But why would they break up all of a sudden? Why would Mayaka-chan be so upset that she would never speak to him again and why won’t Satoshi-san try to win her back? What will happen if they don’t make up?” Chitanda is so earnest, she is no longer controlling the volume of her voice. “We need to at least find out what happened! We need to make sure Mayaka-chan is alright!”
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, she has grabbed onto his hands, and her eyes are shining, not with curiosity, but with worry. She’s concerned for Ibara.
“Will you help me? Just like how you did back then.” She squeezes his hands in the warmth of hers. “I need to know, Houtarou-san.”
With those words, he can no longer avoid the strong sensation of déja vu that has been pinching and prodding at him ever since he entered this house—of a time when it’d been so easy to go wherever Chitanda wanted, when their world had been smaller, defined by the walls of Kamiyama High School, when he didn’t need to wait once a year for a reason to see her. When their lives had been inexplicably tied together by a student magazine that caged a silent scream, by an unpopular club that was on the verge of closing down.
There’s no way to go back to those rose-coloured days. But if he could, just for a day, what would he do differently?
“Alright,” Houtarou finds himself agreeing.
As a smile—a genuine one—reaches up to Chitanda’s eyes, he thinks just maybe, there’s still something he can do for her.
When they walk back into the kitchen Satoshi is still where they left him at his seat at the table. He’s scrolling through indecipherable memes on his phone, though none of them make him laugh.
“Will you tell us what caused the argument?” Chitanda rallies herself to ask, hands cupped together.
Satoshi looks up from his phone and says, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Chitanda-san.”
Houtarou eyes Satoshi suspiciously. Something about his behaviour is off. Satoshi has breezed through many interests in his short life. He’s the kind of person that can find something to like about in the most inane subjects, like say the anatomy of a snail or the components of bacteria. He takes up these interests and gives them his all and moves on when he outgrows them. But Houtarou can tell that Satoshi has always been especially fond of Mayaka Ibara and that he’s never grown tired of her. It took them a lot of energy to become an item. Four years of chasing and eluding and bickering and… Houtarou gets dizzy just thinking about how much the two have put each other through. Satoshi should be throwing a tantrum now, not playing it cool. At least, this is what he expects of Satoshi Fukube.
“You’re hiding something,” Houtarou concludes. What it is exactly, he doesn’t know yet.
Satoshi arches an eyebrow to feign confusion. Then, he moves to pick up his bag from the next chair and hoists it onto his shoulder.
“If all the both of you are going to talk about is our misunderstanding, then I’d rather go home.” Satoshi spins around so that they can’t see the expression on his face, only the wrinkled back of his bright green shirt.
Houtarou does not stop him, and neither does Chitanda. The subsequent walk to the entrance of Chitanda’s house is silent and painfully long.
When they get outside, the weather is pleasant and the passing spring breeze carries the faint, bittersweet scent cherry blossoms. Despite this, the look on Satoshi’s face is grim. He’s no longer putting up a brave front as he zips his windbreaker and kicks the bike stand up.
“If you want to hang out while I’m still in town, just give me a call,” Satoshi says as he swings a leg over the seat of his bicycle. Before he pushes off, he gives Houtarou an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Houtarou. I didn’t mean for this to happen on your birthday.”
Houtarou can’t bring himself to say it’s okay. Instead, he just nods.
Watching Satoshi become a small dot in between the fields, Houtarou releases a sigh. As much as he doesn’t want to get involved in this mess, he doesn’t enjoy seeing Satoshi lie to himself. Houtarou turns to face Chitanda, meaning to ask what they should do next, and is startled to find her in a half-bow.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“I wanted to apologise, Houtarou-san.” Chitanda rises back to her full height. “For this to happen today... that wasn’t my intention when I asked Satoshi-san and Mayaka-chan to come back for the weekend. We just wanted to give you a fun surprise.”
So it’d been Chitanda, not Satoshi, who planned this? Houtarou doesn’t know what to do with this discovery, but he decides to compartmentalise it together with other assorted Chitanda-related thoughts for the time being.
“Let’s just blame it on my bad luck,” Houtarou says. This sorry attempt at making Chitanda feel better doesn’t work. She still looks disheartened, hands clenched together and mouth turned down.
Houtarou knows he needs to change the topic. “Do you know where we can find Ibara?”
Chitanda looks up at this. She retrieves her phone from her skirt pocket—it’s an outdated flip phone model—and takes a moment to find the message she’s looking for.
“Yes. I might have a clue.”
Chitanda leads Houtarou to a place he would never come of his own volition. It is a 24-hour gym in one of Kamiyama’s only multi-storey malls.
“Last week, Mayaka-chan texted me about this place. She asked if I wanted to come here with her to try out the facilities while she’s in town,” Chitanda explains as they stand outside the gym. Her eyes are wide open, intrigued by the scene in front of them.
The gym’s walls are transparent, allowing passer-bys to watch the people inside as they work out. Houtarou will never subject himself to the cruel torture of exercising, much less in an open space where strangers can gawk and point.
Houtarou spots Ibara on the right side of the room. Her figure is partially hidden between the punching bags hanging from the ceiling.
“Mayaka-chan looks so cool,” Chitanda says with affection.
Houtarou furrows his brow as he watches Ibara pummel the poor punching bag with her gloves. It’s swinging unsteadily from side to side. He would prefer the term “aggressive” but this, he keeps to himself.
Before Chitanda can stride through the gym’s doors, Houtarou taps her shoulder.
“What is it, Houtarou-san?”
“Shouldn’t we wait for her to finish first?” he suggests. “And what do you plan on saying to her? We need to be careful, or else we’ll be ripped to shreds.” Houtarou shudders a little when he comes to this realisation.
Chitanda stands very still to contemplate the questions he’s posed.
“I just want to make sure that Mayaka-chan’s alright,” she finally says.
Houtarou can’t find fault in that. He tilts his head to look inside the gym again and nearly jumps when he locks eyes with Mayaka Ibara. Her stare is intense, piercing, as she steps out from between the black punching bags. Houtarou doesn’t know if they’ve caught her, or if she’s caught them.
Ibara grabs the towel she’s hung over her shoulders and uses it to wipe the sweat off her forehead. But she doesn’t release it. She holds the towel up to keep her face hidden as she darts out of sight.
“Mayaka-chan!” Chitanda doesn’t wait for Houtarou. She rushes in, past the gym's front counter, and the back of her blouse disappearing behind the privacy wall. Houtarou has to apologise for the commotion and explain the situation to the counter staff.
When he finally enters the area behind the counter, he comes face to face with rows and rows of grey lockers for the gym members to store their belongings. Chitanda is standing in the middle of the cramped space with Ibara wrapped in her arms.
“Chi-chan, I’m sweaty,” Ibara says with embarrassment as she peels herself away from Chitanda. Up close, Houtarou can see that her eyes are red at the corners.
“But thanks for coming to check on me.” The smile she summons up puts Satoshi to shame. Then, she glances at Houtarou and her expression shifts into something far more truthful and cautious. “Oreki. Happy birthday, I guess.”
Shouldn’t someone wishing you “Happy Birthday” make you feel, well, happy? All it’s done today is make him feel uneasy. This is exactly why he doesn’t look forward to his birthday.
“Mayaka-chan, what happened exactly?” Chitanda asks as Ibara walks over to a locker and takes a key out from the pocket of her tights.
Ibara pulls open the locker door forcefully. “I don’t want to talk about it now, Chi-chan. Not here.” She sticks her hands inside to rearrange the contents of the locker.
“Satoshi—” Houtarou begins.
“I don’t want to hear that name and I don’t want to talk about it!” Ibara snaps, no longer able to suppress the frustration in her voice. In her haste to grab her shoulder bag from the locker, she forgets to close the clasp. All its contents tumble out onto the floor at her feet. This includes: a towel, handkerchief, her wallet, handphone, a few crushed up receipts, and a thick paperback book with two female manga characters on the cover, drawn in different art styles. Houtarou manages to see the title. Hana to Ume . It’s one of those shoujo manga magazines.
Ibara scrambles to stuff everything back into her bag. She’s so fast that before Chitanda can bend down to help her, she’s already finished scooping everything up.
“I’ll talk to you later Chi-chan. I just… I just need some time by myself,” Ibara says as she gets up on her feet, holding her bag close to her side. “I know you’re doing this because you care, but I need to sort out my thoughts first.”
This sort of composure is uncharacteristic of Ibara. Usually, she wastes no time listing off her problems with Satoshi, nitpicking every detail and elaborating on the reasons why she’s correct. What’s gotten into the two of them today? Houtarou realises that this isn't one of their childish squabbles. This is different.
“When you feel better, let’s have ice cream together. Lots and lots of it.” Chitanda’s voice is soft and kind.
Ibara’s lip trembles a little at these words, but she holds her tears back and nods vigorously. “Mm. I’ll be in touch. Thanks again.”
As Ibara brushes past him, she doesn’t look up. Houtarou nearly doesn’t hear her say, “Sorry, Oreki.”
They stand outside the gym and watch Ibara descend down an escalator, leaving them with more questions than answers. Chitanda leans against the railing and gazes down to the floors below. She doesn’t say anything, her eyes staring blankly at the many people wandering in and out of stores. Houtarou can tell that she wants to help Satoshi and Ibara, desperately. The most efficient way to do this would be to think about it one step at a time, with what they have. Ibara may not have been very helpful, but she did give them a clue.
“Let’s drop by the convenience store.”
Chitanda seems to perk up at this. She looks over her shoulder to him. “What for, Houtarou-san?”
“To get lunch.” Houtarou checks his wristwatch. It’s already past three, and they’ve had nothing to eat. “And... there’s something else I want to buy.”
They find themselves sitting along the river that runs through the middle of the city. The afternoon sun is warm on their skin, but the spring weather keeps it from being unbearably hot. Houtarou places the items he’s just purchased between them. This consists of a big meat bun, a can of green tea, and the latest issue of Hana to Ume — identical to the copy that fell out of Ibara’s bag .
Next to him, Chitanda drops her sandwich into her lap and directs her full attention to the peculiar drink she got from the convenience store. It appears to be water, but the label on the bottle states “Premium Milk Tea”.
“How do they do it, Houtarou-san?” Chitanda asks as she uncaps the bottle and takes a polite sip. Her hand flies to her mouth the next second. “It really tastes like milk tea!”
Oh no. She’s cute.
Houtarou stares up at the sky and waits for this thought to leave with a passing cloud.
“Here, Houtarou-san. You should try it!” Chitanda holds the bottle of colourless milk tea out to him without hesitation. Houtarou knows that with Chitanda's insistence, it would cost him more energy to reject this offer, so he takes it and silently accepts this accursed fate. He makes sure his mouth doesn’t touch the rim of the bottle when he pours the drink down his throat.
It does taste like milk tea.
Wait. What are they supposed to be doing again?
He returns the mysterious milk tea to Chitanda, picks up the copy of Hane to Ume, and begins flipping through its pages. He’s more of a paperback novel reader, but thanks to Satoshi’s penchant for giving impromptu lectures throughout their friendship, Houtarou knows that these magazines don’t just publish long-running manga. Sometimes, they hold competitions, or announce new authors and series. He knows that Ibara has been taking her manga career a bit more seriously since starting university. So…
He finds the page that lists the winners of the annual Hane to Ume newcomers one-shot contest. The very first name on the list, accompanied by an illustration of an angry-looking girl with horns sprouting out of her head, is “Mayaka Ibara”.
He feels a weight on his shoulder and realises that Chitanda has placed a hand on it. She’s hovering over him, her eyes burning with curiosity. Houtarou self-consciously leans to one side so that she can have a better view of the page.
Chitanda reaches out a finger to underline one of the big headlines on the page. She reads it aloud: “Announcing the debut authors who will be expanding their one-shots into series. Coming this Summer.”
“Looks like Ibara is going to be a manga author, officially.” Houtarou closes the book now that they’ve confirmed his hunch.
“That’s amazing. We should congratulate her! But... why she hasn’t she mentioned this before?” Chitanda sits back down and ponders. She begins to unwrap her sandwich.
Houtarou doesn’t want to make an assumption too soon. He takes a bite out of his lukewarm meat bun and chews on it, considering the different possibilities. He looks over to Chitanda. “You weren’t in the room when the argument started, but did you manage to hear anything?”
Chitanda finishes one corner of her sandwich before speaking. “Yes. I was down the hall in my room checking on something. Then, I heard Mayaka-chan shouting and went outside to listen from the hallway. She mentioned something about not having enough time. And Satoshi-san, I heard him talk about not having a choice in the matter.” She lowers her eyes to the grass at their feet and tucks her hair behind her ear. “I felt bad eavesdropping, so I waited until they stopped talking before going back to the kitchen. By then, Mayaka-chan had already left. Satoshi-san refused to look at me, he just told me that they had broken up—his mood didn’t get better until you showed up—and all I could think to do was to call you.”
Houtarou sits back on his hands as he digests this information. Whatever caused their argument, could it also be the key to helping them make up?
As he reviews what they know, he notices that something in the pocket of his jacket is poking into his side. He reaches his hand in to adjust it, and realises what it is. Should he try giving it to Chitanda now?
“Houtarou-san.” Chitanda calls his name, but her gaze remains fixed on the tranquil surface of the river running in front of them. The question she asks next makes him abandon his plans.
“What do you think ‘love’ is?”
Just when he thinks Chitanda has exhausted all the questions she can possibly ask him, she always comes up with something new to make him squirm.
He thinks about the unmistakable sound of her voice, the colour of her eyes, the way she always covers her mouth when she laughs. Then, he pushes this all aside. “That’s not something I’m qualified to answer,” he answers.
“Do you think what Mayaka-chan and Satoshi-san have is considered love?” Chitanda asks, and then, because she is smart, she doesn’t wait for him to reply. “I thought that was what they had, at least, until today.”
“I don’t know. ‘Love’ is an abstract concept.” He thinks about the way Ibara looks at Satoshi and the way Satoshi looks at her, the way Satoshi always finishes Ibara’s sentences and the way she always scolds him for being foolish but then, helps him afterwards.
Chitanda does not waver. As a gust of wind ripples down the river, she combs the hair out of her face, looks directly at him, and says, “I think love could be a wonderful thing.”
Houtarou avoids her eyes and does not give these words the opportunity to sink in. He thinks about the way broken chocolate looks in a plastic bag, held tight in Satoshi’s hands. “It's more likely to be painful, tiring and ugly,” he counters, because this is something he is sure of. “There’s just no reason why you should invest so much energy into a relationship that might end up hurting both parties. Case in point...” He chooses not to say anything more
“But shouldn’t we still try? Even if we get hurt, even if we may not always understand the other person. Don’t you ever get that feeling, Houtarou-san?” Chitanda does not close the distance between them, but she does not look away either.
Houtarou is transported back to that beautiful sunset with cherry blossoms swirling in the air, the smell of spring around him, and all the words he didn't say to Chitanda.
“I’m not like you,” he reminds her.
But Chitanda, she doesn’t frown when she hears this. Instead, a warm smile touches her face.
“I know. Isn’t that what makes it wonderful?”
Houtarou cannot answer this. His heart is thumping loudly in his chest and he is clutching onto a handful of grass. Just what is the deal with Eru Chitanda? He remembers being sixteen and sitting at this very spot along the river, feeling defeated, dumbfounded. While he’d been preoccupied with solving the mystery in the shoddy film for Irisu, Chitanda had other things on her mind. Chitanda was the only person who spared a thought for Hongou’s feelings, for the happy ending where no one died. She has always been someone who puts others before herself, who cares more about the intention behind the mystery instead of the trick itself.
Houtarou tugs at the bangs matted on his forehead as a new idea emerges out from the noise and clutter in his head.
Chitanda does not miss a beat. “Houtarou-san. You have an idea,” she says, straightening her posture.
“Maybe. The only way we’ll know is if we try.” Houtarou gets up onto his feet and brushes off the blades of of grass stuck to his palms. “Can you call Ibara and persuade her to meet us at Pineapple Sand in an hour? I’ll call Satoshi.”
Chitanda nods. “Right. Let’s do this.”
After all these years, the rustic interior of Pineapple Sand hasn’t changed one bit. Houtarou suspects the owner might have added yet another wooden clock on one of the walls in the cosy cafe, but that’s about it. He hasn’t stopped coming here ever since the time Chitanda called him out here in his first month as a highschooler. The old Kamiyama Classics Club is meeting here this evening not because of any sentimental reasons—it’s because there’s hardly any customers during this time of day.
Satoshi is the first to arrive. Houtarou told him they were going to have dinner together, which isn’t technically a lie. He’s wearing a different shirt now, but it is still an eye-straining colour. Yellow. He orders a milkshake at the counter before taking the seat next to Houtarou. Chitanda is in position on the other side of the table, stirring her own cup of hot chocolate.
“So, what did the two of you get up to today?” Satoshi doesn’t waste any moment to wheedle them. “Did you go out on a date?”
They’re both caught off guard. Chitanda opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She looks like a fish. Houtarou massages his brow as he thinks of a reply. “You shouldn’t be saying such things after what’s happened today.”
“That’s exactly what someone who snuck out on a date would say!” Satoshi jabs an accusing finger at Houtarou.
Just then, the doorbell rings of the front door swings open. As Ibara enters the threshold, she rescues Houtarou from an awkward conversation whilst consequently thrusting him into a far more difficult one.
The moment Satoshi and Ibara register each other’s presence, Houtarou expects chaos to ensue. He holds a hand over his face in a bid to protect himself. But, all he hears is Satoshi mutter: “Houtarou, when did you become so nosy?” and the sound of the door opening once more.
“Mayaka-chan! Don’t go! Please, just give us five minutes!” Chitanda springs into action, standing up on her feet and beckoning Ibara. “You’ve come all this way. Just five minutes. You don’t even need to look at him! You can look at me!”
Ibara lets go of the door and makes a big show of crossing her arms in front of herself. She’s not happy, but Chitanda’s pleading does the trick. She stomps over and sits down next to Chitanda and very deliberately angles her entire body so that she can’t see Satoshi’s exasperated face.
“Make this quick,” Ibara growls.
“Hey, this wasn’t my idea,” Satoshi says defensively.
“It was my idea.” Houtarou places his hand on the table. “I’ve expended enough energy today. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”
On cue, Chitanda says, “Houtarou-san thinks he’s figured out why you two fought.”
Mayaka narrows her eyes while Satoshi cups his hand to his chin.
Houtarou tries not to let their stares throw him off. This is it.
He places his copy of Hana to Ume on the table, drawing out a look of shock from Ibara. “Ibara, this all started when your manga won the newcomer contest in this month’s Hana to Ume . It just so happened that you were going to be in town this weekend. You made Satoshi promise to keep it a secret, because you wanted to surprise us with the news during your visit. You were excited but you also knew that this meant that all of your time was going to be used to work on the manga. You avoided talking about this until today, when you and Satoshi discussed how you were going to let us know.”
Houtarou shifts his attention to Satoshi.
“You weren’t entirely happy about this. You want to spend more time with Ibara, but you knew that this wouldn’t be possible if she was going to become a manga author. You tried to reason with her, but she wouldn’t listen. You meant it with good intentions, but you were misunderstood. That’s why you called the argument a ‘misunderstanding’.”
He needs to get the next part right for this to work.
“The disagreement became an argument, and in the heat of the moment, Ibara must’ve said she wanted to break up with Satoshi. Satoshi is a joker, but he doesn’t take words lightly. He probably said “Alright” without any hesitation, which made Ibara even more livid and caused her to storm out.”
Houtarou stops, and waits.
As predicted, Ibara immediately slams her hands the table. “You’re wrong, Oreki. You’re completely wrong!”
Satoshi tries to cut in, “You don’t need to—”
“Of course I do! How could I let him say that?” Ibara still refuses to look at Satoshi. Instead, she directs her seething glare straight at Houtarou. Her hands curl into fists on the table as she continues. “You don’t know everything, Oreki. Don’t you dare act like you do!”
Ouch. Houtarou knows Ibara can be brutal, but, still.
“Whatever you said about Fuku-chan, that’s complete bullshit.” The snarl that comes out of Ibara sends a chill down Houtarou’s spine. “He’s the one who supported me the most. He was even more excited than I was when he saw the news.” Her voice begins to crack, but she takes a sharp breath in and continues, “When I told him I wouldn’t be able to cope with a new series by myself, he was ready to give up all his other hobbies and clubs in university to be my assistant. And of course I can’t let him do that. Of course I can’t!”
Chitanda places her hand on Ibara’s back, and she immediately burrows her face under Chitanda’s chin, shoulders shaking.
“She didn’t want me to stop mountain-biking and cheerleading and running for the student board, she said I didn’t have enough time to do what I wanted as is. But I told her I didn’t mind it. That I wanted to do this with her.” Satoshi doesn’t sound angry or resentful when he says this. His gaze falls gently onto Ibara as he continues, “She thinks that I’m forcing myself to do this because we were dating. I wasn’t able to convince her that this is what I wanted. We put off talking about it, but this morning when we wanted to let you know about it, it came back to haunt us.”
“She didn’t want to be the reason I stopped doing what I loved. And I got upset, because it felt like my choice didn’t even matter. Then, she said what she said, and she left before I could talk her out of it,” Satoshi recounts this with an unmistakable sadness in his words. “I didn’t want to make it any harder for her if she already made up her mind. I was doing my best not to do… well... anything.” Then, he turns to Houtarou. “But look who decided to do something he didn’t need to do for once?”
It’s true. Houtarou doesn’t believe in wasting energy on things he doesn’t need to do. So what can he say about this?
“You’re... my friends.” Is his quiet response to the taunt, and the frustration on Satoshi’s face changes into surprise.
“Satoshi-san,” Chitanda pipes up. “If Mayaka-chan already made up her mind, if she truly felt that way, she wouldn’t be here.” She pats Ibara’s back, and the young woman holds herself upright. Even though her hair is messy and her eyes are puffy, she doesn’t try to hide herself any more.
“If Mayaka-chan really didn’t want to talk to Satoshi-san, she wouldn’t even have come. I couldn’t lie to her like you asked me to, Houtarou-san. I told her that Satoshi-san would be here,” Chitanda admits.
It's Houtarou's turn to be caught off guard, but he should have known that Chitanda would never lie if she could help it. And in this case, maybe she's made the right call. Houtarou glances at Satoshi, who is running a hand through his hair. He is speechless, a half-smile, half-grimace forms on his face for a moment before he finds the words.
“Mayaka.” That’s all Satoshi says, but Ibara finally raises her eyes to meet his.
“I just… I don’t want to stop you from doing what you want. I care about you, you know,” she mumbles.
“I know. I remind myself I’m a lucky idiot every single day. So, you need to let me care about you too,” Satoshi chuckles and then, he smiles at her. “Mayaka, could we maybe talk? Properly this time.”
Ibara’s face is flushed, but she is firm when she says, “Alright.”
When he hears this exchange, Houtarou allows himself to relax into his seat, his back slouching blissfully. Opposite him, Chitanda claps her hands together in tiny celebration.
After Satoshi’s half-melted milkshake is served on the table, the rest of the evening passes in a blur. Satoshi and Ibara agree to have a proper discussion later on, but for the time being they choose to focus on what they planned to do with this trip: torment Houtarou on his birthday. They follow this up with orders for food to fill their empty stomachs, compllicated tales from university, Mayaka’s award-winning manga and Chitanda’s latest harvest.
Eventually, Houtarou gets a simple piece of chocolate cake with a candle on top and a horribly sung birthday song in his ear. And this, he’s alright with.
Chitanda asks if they can instead walk instead of take the bus, and Houtarou does not say ‘no’. His feet feel sore after all the places they’ve travelled today, but he knows that this long day with Chitanda is coming to a close. And so, he walks beside her down the middle of town, in the direction of the Chitanda estate.
“So explain it again to me Houtarou-san. How you intended from the start to get it wrong,” Chitanda can ask this now that Satoshi and Ibara have gone off their own way.
Houtarou is prepared for this. He clears his throat and says, “I knew I couldn’t get the right answer by myself. But I knew what would’ve been a wrong answer—what would’ve convinced Ibara and Satoshi to correct me. The idea wasn’t to get it right by deduction, it was to find out their true feelings.”
“That’s…” Chitanda hums.
“I learned it from you.” Houtarou isn’t brave enough to look at Chitanda when he says this.
Chitanda makes a hushed sort of “oh” sound. They walk in silence for a few seconds before she speaks up again. “I'm curious. Why were you so sure you’d be wrong?”
“Because I realised that they’ve changed.” Houtarou can say this confidently now. “The old Satoshi and Ibara, that’s what I think they would do. But they’ve become less selfish, and whatever I thought I knew about them, that’s changed,” Houtarou explains. Perhaps this is what happens when you no longer live in the same town. Or, perhaps, this is what love is.
“I think I’ve changed too.” Chitanda places a hand over her chest. “Because I got to know you, Houtarou-san.”
It is Houtarou’s turn to go “oh”, except his is akin to a weak sputter. He tries to recover by asking, “What do you mean?”
“I’ve learned not to take myself so seriously,” Chitanda explains, and there is a hint of modest joy in her words. “I realised I could say whatever was on my mind when I was with you. I only really understood this after we graduated high school. I still think about those days fondly, about the things I wished I had done when I was younger.”
Houtarou doesn’t like the direction this is going. Knowing Chitanda, she’ll ask him about his own thoughts soon enough, and he doesn’t want to get into that. He needs to change the topic. He pats down his pockets, searching for the box he’d stuffed inside his jacket this morning.
Chitanda tilts her head to the side. As they pass under a street light, he holds the small gift out to her. He didn’t bother to giftwrap it beyond the lone ribbon he tied around it, so she can see through the plastic on the top of the box. It’s a fountain pen.
“Here. It… it was supposed to be for your birthday.” He lowers his gaze to the ground and watches their shadows extend down the street. “Sorry I couldn’t give it to you on time. I saw it at the stationery shop and thought that you might have some use for it. You don’t seem like the kind who uses computers.”
Their fingers brush when Chitanda takes the pen from him and inspects it with bright, eager eyes. “Oh, Houtarou-san, It’s perfect! I’ll use it when I’m journaling and writing letters.”
When he sees her smile, Houtarou weighs it against the ache in his feet, and decides that it is worth it. Giving the present had been more manageable than Houtarou thought. When he first bought the pen, he had no idea how he would give it to Chitanda, only that it held the promise that he had to meet her somehow.
Chitanda stores her gift away and pulls something else out of her handbag. It’s a small package as well, except it’s wrapped beautifully and embellished with a beautiful golden ribbon. “This is for you, Houtarou-san. It’s actually the reason why I left the kitchen this morning. I wanted to finish wrapping it.”
Ah, the bad luck on his birthday strikes again.
Houtarou does not need to unwrap the present to know what it is. He recognises the size and the weight of the book. It’s a paperback novel. He doesn’t think he could ask for a better present. Because of its handy size, it slips easily into his jacket.
“Thank you, Chitanda.” These words come easy. Why hasn’t he said them before?
Chitanda is pleased that her gift is well-received. She doesn't hesitate to ask, “So what did you wish for today, Houtarou-san?”
“For a boring birthday,” he says assuredly.
Chitanda laughs at this. Maybe because it is late at night, but she doesn’t cover her mouth with her hand like she usually does, and it is mesmerising.
Houtarou reminds himself to look away so that he’s not caught staring. His eyes follow the stars in the sky, and the little trail they make that leads to the moon. “I suppose you wished for a good yield of crops,”
“No, our crops have always been healthy. I wished for something else,” Chitanda replies.
He’s still looking up at space, trying to figure out if there are any constellations he can spot. “Oh. What was it?”
“To be able to see you again.” Chitanda says this assuredly, too.
Houtarou keeps his eyes glued to the sky and he does not blink. He doesn’t know what to say to this. The seemingly effortless conversation he’d been having with Chitanda seems to slip away into the cool night air. But Chitanda refuses to be deterred.
“And I know that today has been unpredictable and tiring and full of surprises. But… Houtarou-san, would it be horrible of me to admit that I enjoyed spending the day with you?”
“No.” Because I enjoyed it too—this, he keeps to himself and instantly regrets it when the moment passes and silence fills the space between them.
It’s already been five years. Why can’t he say anything that matters to Chitanda?
He clutches his hands at his sides and thinks about Satoshi and Ibara. If they can change, can’t he too?
Houtarou stops in the middle of the sidewalk, under a street light. Chitanda halts a few paces in front of him and turns around, a puzzled expression appearing on her face.
“The next time you’re busy, if you need help, with school or your business, or anything. You can call me.” He locks his knees and fidgets with the collar of his shirt as he says this.
Chitanda doesn’t say anything at first. She takes one step forward, then another, crossing her hands behind her back as the dim yellow light washes over her. “Do you need a reason to see me, Houtarou-san?” she asks, and the question hits him square in the chest.
His throat is tight and his hands feel sweaty, but he presses on. “Why else would we see each other?”
Chitanda listens, and then, the corner of her mouth lifts just slightly. “The reason why I want to see you isn’t because I need your help, Houtarou-san. I’m sorry if how I’ve acted makes you feel that way, it’s inexcusable—it’s just, I don’t know how else to ask you.” Under the light, her cheeks have turned a soft pink.
“You could just ask.” Houtarou knows he is a hypocrite when he says this, but shouldn’t he allowed to have a fatal flaw too?
If Chitanda knows this, she does not fault him. Instead, she takes a third step forward so that they are standing in front of each other. This time, Houtarou doesn’t inch back.
“Are you sure? If you give me permission, I might never stop asking you. It might be painful,and ugly and tiring, like you said.” Chitanda reaches her hand for his, and he takes it, hoping his palm isn’t cold and clammy. She smiles when their fingers fit, like pieces of a puzzle, and says, “But what if it could be wonderful?”
Houtarou remembers all the adventures Chitanda has put him through. From a somber Valentines Day to a long afternoon listening to announcements over the PA system, a bag of flour thrown in the air at the height of summer, and being locked in a pitch dark shed at the stroke of the New Year. Hasn’t it always been little bit of both, right from the very start?
As they continue walking, he doesn’t let go of her hand.