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The Rain is Trying to Tell Me Something

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Houtarou continues to hold the umbrella.

The first time he does, it is the spring leading up to his second year of high school. He remembers the bustle of the shrine’s workers, being out of place, and wearing traditional clothes that only made this feeling worse. And then, he remembers Chitanda and her flowing junhitoe, gliding silently down a winding cherry blossom road, shaded under a very red umbrella. Chitanda, taking a decisive step into spring, telling him a story she’d pulled from her heart.

These memories leave strong imprints at the back of Houtarou’s mind. Even if he wants to, he can’t forget them. He also does not forget the unnamed feeling that had rattled his heart, had made him afraid to say the words he was supposed to. Sometimes, when there is no one in the clubroom, when it’s finally quiet, he wonders about it.

If he’s given another chance, will he be able to tell them to Chitanda properly this time?

So, before the school breaks for spring vacation, when Chitanda says she has a request for him, Houtarou is understandably upset.

“Oreki-san, would you like to help out for the Doll Festival this year?” she asks him when they are settling down in the Geography Prep Room.

Houtarou has never entertained the idea of holding the umbrella for Chitanda again. He’s always thought of it as a one-off event, a fleeting but potent glimpse of Chitanda as the daughter of Kamiyama’s fields.

“… Is that guy’s leg still broken?” he ventures.

“Well, no,” Chitanda replies. She cups her hands together, not in a prayer, but for a shy question. “I was just wondering if you would like to hold the umbrella again. You helped us last year, and if you would like to do it again, we’d – I’d be very grateful. Of course, I understand if you don’t want to.”

Her eyes aren’t piercing through him for once. Instead, they’re glued to the floor. More than a request, it feels like she is confessing something to him. It’s hard to breathe now, and he tries not to think too hard about it.

Had she asked him this in the beginning of his first year of high school, Houtarou would have turned her down with a second thought.

But she’s asking him this near the end of his second year of high school.

On that day in April, everything happens as it did the year before. This time, the shrine’s workers are less hostile towards him, but Houtarou still spends most of the morning warming up in front of the heater. The clothes they put on him still don’t match his face, and the umbrella is just as red as he remembers it being.

Chitanda is more beautiful than last year. This is the first difference.

The route is shorter this time, the bridge repaired and good as new. But, just like last year, he loses track of time. He gets dragged along in the parade’s lull and the soft beat of the music, trailing after Chitanda, unable to think about anything else apart from the back of her neck and her face, hidden from view. The layers of her clothes are like wind sails in the passing breeze. It is already spring in Kamiyama.

“Houtarou!” He can hear Satoshi calling out to him, like he is a sailor lost at sea.

The second difference this year: Satoshi and Ibara are holding hands.

In their last summer of high school, Kamiyama High School’s Classic Literature Club is working on their annual anthology, ‘Hyouka’.

Eru’s excitement is balanced with sentiment as she goes through this process for the third and final time. Last year, there had been no problems with the printing, but in the end, Mayaka had to order just as many copies as she had in the first year. Satoshi had informed them that the school was abuzz with anticipation for the Classics Club’s anthology. The students had rather liked their initial edition of ‘Hyouka’, and Oreki’s article about her uncle’s past had been widely discussed among the school’s hallways for a brief period of time.

“What about this year, Satoshi-san?” she asks him once they enter their third year of high school.

Satoshi has remained the vice chairperson of the student council, so he’s always up to date with the latest news travelling throughout school. Eru has always been fascinated by the happenings he reports to them.

“Hyouka’s not as popular anymore, but I’m pretty sure some of the students in our year would be more than happy to buy a copy during the Kanya Fest,” Satoshi tells her, proud to share his wealth of information. 

And so, Eru begins planning for the next installment of ‘Hyouka’.

“What’re we doing this year?” Sei, a first year, asks her during the discussion. Sei is the first new member of the Classics Club since Eru and the rest have joined. She’d pulled her small group of friends to sign up for the club with her, and so, thankfully, the Classics Club has escaped the bleak fate of closing down once again.

“When we were first years, our anthology was on ‘Classic Paradoxes’,” Mayaka says. As the editor of the past two issues, she knows the most out of the four of them.

Mayaka continues, “Last year, we talked about Japanese Classics and tried to include what we studied in Japanese Literature class in the anthology as well. But, this year…”

“We don’t have a clue on what to do this year!” Satoshi finishes her sentence for her.

Whenever Sei is thinking about something, she likes to tug softly at one of her pigtails. “Hmmm. This may sound boring, but what about each of our favourite classics? Anything would do as long as we can explain why it’s considered a classic.”

“The idea has a lot of potential,” Mayaka quickly evaluates it.

For once, Satoshi looks eager. He has never been too enthusiastic about the prospects of writing. “Do I get to write about something I like this time? If that’s the case, then I’m all for it!”

“I love the idea,” Eru chimes in. It seems fitting that their last volume will be about the stories they treasure most.

But Oreki has been quiet throughout the entire discussion. Not wanting to leave him out, Eru leans across the table to get his attention.

“Oreki-san, it’s our last volume of Hyouka! We have to give it our all!”

The boy gives her a vague nod of resignation. “I guess so.”

With the first meeting done, Satoshi and Mayaka have to leave to attend their other clubs. Sei promises that she will spread the message to the other members as she grabs onto the sling of her bag. Then, she marches behind the departing pair. The three of them leave the Geography Prep room in the formation of a tiny parade.

Last spring, Oreki had agreed to help her hold the umbrella a second time. She’d imposed on him again, and he had accepted it. She wonders how long more she can do this and tell herself that it doesn’t mean a thing. She is leading Oreki down a one-way road, a road that she cannot stray from. She’d explained it to Oreki before, but she wonders if he really understands what it all means.

Eru pulls herself out of her thoughts. Now isn’t the time to think about that. Quickly regrouping, she turns to face the only other person left in the room.

“Oreki-san, what are you planning to do– ” she stops when she realises that Oreki is writing something down on a piece of paper.

Eru gravitates towards the scribble of words. When Oreki tries to hide it under his hand, she bends closer and taps his fingers politely to ask him to let her see what he’s written.

It’s a list of book titles. Some already crossed out, some with ticks beside their names.

“Oreki-san, you’re already planning for it?” Eru doesn’t mean to sound surprised, but she is.

“No. I was just… these are just some names that came to my mind,” he corrects her.

Eru frowns at him. He could at least lie better, couldn’t he?

Finally, Oreki says: “It’s our last anthology. I figured that I could put in a little bit more effort than usual.”

These words stand out to Eru. It’s sad to think that it really will be the last volume of ‘Hyouka’ for them, that they have entered their final sprint of high school. At the same time, to see Oreki saying that he can spare a little bit more effort – Eru thinks that perhaps she can look forward to something after this all ends.

“Mm!” she hums, giving him an encouraging nod.

She knows it is a selfish thought. Oreki seems to have this effect on her. Whenever he is around, she can’t help but act on her selfishness. Eru has to remind herself that she isn’t going to be a high school student for much longer, that her time with Oreki and Mayaka and Satoshi in the room will stop, that she can no longer ask him questions and expect answers. She has to walk down the path the land has paved out for her. She will have to grow up.

Still, rather than thinking about her last few months with Oreki, Eru can’t help but hope that perhaps, after this, something new will begin.

“I received a strange letter just yesterday,” is how Chitanda begins conversation on a Wednesday in autumn.

It is already the late afternoon in the Geography Prep Room. They’d only reached a while ago because their classes ended later today. Ibara and Satoshi must still be attending extra lessons to prepare for the impending university entrance exams.  

Houtarou keeps his eyes on the pages of his book. He’ll wait until she asks him to solve the mystery for her before putting it down. He’s near the end of the chapter anyway.

“It was strange because, on the back of the envelope, it said to only open it when the time was right,” the girl continues.

Chitanda must truly believe that he can solve every mystery she throws at him, but even this is too much. He waits to hear her own personal mantra, for the words “I’m curious!” to change the slow pace of the day.

But Chitanda doesn’t say that. 

“I thought you might know something about it.”

“Why would I?”

“Because the letter was from your sister.”

Houtarou bolts upright.

“What?”

“Tomoe-san wrote her name on the envelope. I wasn’t expecting to get a letter from her! She’s never sent me one before, and I really wanted to read it when I received it!”

Houtarou places the book on the table before it can fall out of his hand.

“Have you opened it?”

Chitanda stands up and waves her hands frantically in the air. “No, no, I haven’t! I... I have a feeling that the time isn’t right yet, though I can’t really explain it myself.” After saying this, she takes a seat back on the chair, folding her hands on her lap. She brushes her hair behind her ear and a pensive look crosses her face. She must be trying to figure out what his sister means with the letter.

Houtarou doesn’t know what to do now. He wants to know what his damn sister has written, but he doesn’t want Chitanda to read whatever it is. He has never understood the word stalemate until this very moment.

“Don’t open it yet,” he tells Chitanda, trying to keep the composure in his voice. “My sister is overseas now.”

“She’s in Argentina, correct?”

Did she really mail Chitanda a letter from Argentina? Houtarou is too used to this to be surprised.

“Yeah, she is. There’s no way to contact her now, but she’ll be back in spring next year. I’ll ask her then.”

“Next year…” Chitanda begins to say, her mind shifting to another topic.

“What about it?”

Chitanda shakes her head and smiles. “It’s nothing. I just realised that next year, the Doll Festival will fall after high school graduation. So, I wonder…” She drifts off, not because she doesn’t know what to say, but because she can’t quite say it.

Houtarou finds this puzzling, because Chitanda has always had no problem speaking her mind. He’s been receiving the full brunt of her questions for the longest time. It feels out of place to see her hold something back. It’s almost unfair, that Chitanda should only want to tell him things selectively.

No. Don’t think like this. He’s getting ahead of himself. Chitanda’s always trying her best, so much so that Houtarou can’t help but cringe at times. Of course she must have things that even she can’t tell him. This thought is a distant thing in Houtarou’s mind.

“I’ll hold the umbrella again,” he tells her. “Uh – if you still need me to,” he quickly amends, not wanting to sound like he is inviting himself.

Under the setting sun, Chitanda brightens instantly. “Really? That makes me very happy to hear, Oreki-san.” Her smile confirms this. “Of course, I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”

You’re three years too late, Houtarou thinks.

“It’s…. alright,” he says. Not really that convincing, but he can’t back out now.

Chitanda’s chair had been positioned towards the window, away from him. She gets up and arranges herself so that she’s facing him. She lowers her eyes to the hands on her lap, and her hair, longer than last year, cascades down past her shoulders. He expects her to say something, but she does not speak. He wonders what could be going through her head, and whether she is trying to sort her thoughts out. He’s glad that his own brain is so empty and simple.

Chitanda raises her head a minute later, ready to speak. She doesn’t look away this time.

“Oreki-san,” she says, almost in a whisper, “do you treat this as something you have to do?”

For some reason, it sounds like a promise. His throat tightens, and his heart beats anxiously.

“It’s something I don’t mind doing,” Houtarou says, sliding his eyes away.

Chitanda straightens her back and stares out the window, at the mountains rising in the distance. She does not ask him why, and he gives his thanks to her in his heart of hearts.

He remembers the day Satoshi started calling Chitanda ‘Chi-san’. It is the same day she starts calling him ‘Satoshi-san’. Houtarou would like to say that it is a vivid memory among a blur of grey recollections, but ever since starting high school, his memories have steadily become stained with colour.

“ – Chi-san. That’s much easier to say. You don’t mind, do you?” Satoshi starts off casually, leaving behind another conversation Houtarou hadn’t been listening to.

“Not at all!” Chitanda assures him, lips quirking into a small smile. Everyone in the room can tell that she likes the nickname as much as she likes being called ‘Chi-chan’ by Ibara.

“Then, I should refer to you as Satoshi-san, shouldn’t I?”

“Haha! You can drop the ‘-san’!”

“I, I couldn’t,” Chitanda stutters, managing to look poised even though she’s embarrassed. Then, her eyes drift to Houtarou, who has been trying his best not to be included in the conversation, to swim against the direction the tide seems to be headed.

Before Chitanda can open her mouth, someone else speaks up.

“Chi-san… that sounds really cute,” Ibara says. She sounds kind of jealous.

“I’m kind of jealous,” she admits the next second.

“Mayaka-chan! Your name is much, much cuter!”

“It’s true, Mayaka. Don’t worry about it,” Satoshi laughs.

Today, Houtarou Oreki is glad Mayaka Ibara exists in the world.

Ever since then, Houtarou has been dreading the day Chitanda will come back to him and continue from where she has left off. As it turns out, his suspicions are confirmed much sooner than later.

“May I call you Houtarou-san?” Chitanda asks him one day. The Geography Prep room is quiet without the juniors around, and the afternoon had gone by without much need for conversation. Houtarou had been making steady progress on his latest paperback novel.

So, when Chitanda closes her book promptly and looks up and asks this question to Houtarou, he needs a moment to collect himself. He knows Chitanda well enough by now, knows the way she straightens her back and straightens her words when she wants to ask him something, knows the gentle but prying smile. He has been preparing for this moment for the last few months.

 “…. Sure,” he coughs out, feeling the room grow hot and suffocating.

He’s known Chitanda for a long time now, and they’re probably considered friends at this point. Houtarou doesn’t think that is the right word to describe this relationship, but he’s not in the mood to debate with himself. He doesn’t even think he’ll ever be able to find a suitable word, and he’s never really wanted to anyway. Leaving it up in the air is the option that conserves the most energy, so he’ll settle for it.

This means something. Houtarou knows it means something.

But–

“I’ll just stick with ‘Chitanda’.”

He expects Chitanda to get onto her feet, for her eyes to sparkle with a demanding question.

But, she doesn’t.

“Alright,” she says instead, smiling until the curiosity goes away.

The tension in the room seems to evaporate. First, Houtarou is relieved, because he doesn’t have an answer for her. However, it doesn’t take long for him to put his book down and glance over to her side of the room.

“You don’t mind?” he asks her, ignoring the irony the same way he’s learned to ignore many things in life.

Chitanda does not.

And, like this, their high school life winds to an end.

It’s raining.

He had gotten up bright and early just for today. When he was cycling over to the shrine at ten in the morning, the sky had been clear and there hadn’t been anything to clue him in on the impending bad weather.

But an hour before the Doll Procession is supposed to begin, it starts to pour down. Hard. It’s giving him cold fingers now. The rain is now too heavy to do anything and the shrine’s workers tell Houtarou to just wait it out at the Chitanda’s estate. Chitanda’s house may be big, but that also means that it’s very susceptible to the cold. He ends up napping and reading a book he’d kept in the pocket of his jacket. When Chitanda herself finally appears, it is just past noon.  

“I’m sorry for making you come all the way out here,” Chitanda says as she places the cups of tea between them and seats herself down next to him. “It looks like we may have to postpone the procession.”

Chitanda has washed off her make-up. She’s wearing her usual clothes now, a blouse and a long skirt that look familiar. The junhitoe won’t see the sunlight of spring this year, and Houtarou feels the disappointment nip at him. He drinks the green tea and tries to savour the taste of the tea leaves, directing his thoughts elsewhere. 

“When do you start university, Houtarou-san?”

“In a month, I think. I’ll have to check with Satoshi.”

“My university semester is starting in two weeks. It would be good if we could celebrate the Doll Festival before that,” Chitanda explains. “But we get to take a break today, so it’s not an entirely bad thing!”

Chitanda had applied to the top university in the country for agricultural sciences. Houtarou could never hope to match Chitanda’s impossible scores, so he settles for a university that is much more average, just like him.

Satoshi’s results, after intensive studying sessions under Ibara and Chitanda’s scolding and tutoring (respectively), had seen a marked improvement. Of course, he hadn’t gotten stellar results, but for Satoshi, those results had probably been the best he could achieve.

Satoshi had applied to a university near Tokyo. Ibara had followed suit. The university also offered the course Houtarou wanted to study, so he decided to submit his application together with theirs. It meant much less troublesome effort on his part, in any case. After six years with Satoshi and some large number with Ibara (he’s stopped bothering to keep count), another three or four won’t make much of a difference.

“The rain is a good thing, isn’t it?” Chitanda says as she watches the grey clouds mingling overhead. “It washes away all the dirt and it cleans the crops. It helps the farmers without really meaning to, but just by being.”

“Not always.” Houtarou takes another sip of tea. It warms his throat, but his hands still feel cold. “The rain doesn’t wash away the bad things all the time. It can damage things too.” He remembers his sister attempting to grow sunflowers and tulips in the backyard when she’d been in high school. One summer storm was all it took for all her gardening efforts to wither and wash away.

Chitanda doesn’t argue. Instead, she nods and says with a smile, “Then, we’ll be able to start things anew.”

Her optimism knows no bounds. Houtarou’s pessimism cannot hope to compete.

“Yeah.”

When they enter university, Satoshi makes a dizzying amount of friends. Each time they walk through campus, Satoshi waves to every other person they pass. It gets progressively worse the nearer they get to the Literature department, where he studies. Houtarou hasn’t minded this for years. He expects nothing less from Satoshi Fukube.

What he doesn’t expect is Ibara dyeing her hair. In the very beginning, he doesn’t notice it. Of course, he hardly pays attention to most things unless he’d told to, let alone what his friend (…?) is wearing or what’s going on with their hair. Satoshi points out that Ibara’s coloured her hair a very dark blue over a late dinner, smiling and waving his fork around like a conductor.

“Oh,” Houtarou remarks. He cuts into his fish and listens vaguely as Satoshi moves to the next conversation topic.

Not much later, on a windy afternoon, he spots Ibara sitting under a tree near the Literature department on his way to class. He approaches her, meaning to ask for directions more than to say hello. Ibara’s an Art major now and, true to her image, she’s drawing something on her sketchbook, her pencil moving rapidly over the page.

“What do you want?” she asks when he walks under the shade of the tree.

“Where’s Room 5 in the Literature department?”

“Second floor, third room on the right corridor,” Ibara says, not forgetting to sound annoyed. “Why do you want to know?”

“I have a class there later.” Houtarou sits down on the grass. He might as well enjoy the pleasant breeze.

“You? I thought you were in Business.” She manages to sneak in a snicker.

“The university let me take some literature classes,” he explains, looking over to her.

Ibara shields her sketch from view, and Houtarou’s eyes move up to the blue streaks in her hair. Instantly, her cheeks become flushed, and she touches her hair in a self-conscious gesture.

“… What’s up with that?”

“All the art students do stuff like this, don’t they?” She sniffs, trying to look unaffected. “But Fuku-chan said he likes pink better, so maybe I’ll dye it that colour next time.”

Houtarou nods absently, leaning back to lie flat on the ground. It wouldn’t be good for him to fall asleep now and miss his class, but he finds the prospect hard to resist. The grass is just warm enough, and the afternoon breeze is soft and cooling.

“What time’s your class?” Ibara asks.

“… Three…” he answers, one foot already in a dream.

He’s eighteen again. The red umbrella is in his hands, closed tight. Outside, beyond the porch, he can see the rain cascading all over the ploughed fields.

“Houtarou-san,” Chitanda takes a short breath as she says his name. “Why did you plan on studying business in university?”

Isn’t it obvious? He wants to turn to her and say.

But he still can’t say these words. Something stops him. It reaches through his ribcage and clenches at his heart, and his thoughts jerk to a halt. Don’t say it. You don’t belong here. This is not who you are. 

It is the same thing that stops him when he is sixteen. When Chitanda looks deep into his eyes, the feeling becomes stronger.

He grips onto the umbrella.

“Because I wanted to.”

He awakes with a start when something slaps him squarely on the forehead.

Sitting up, Houtarou looks around with his groggy vision and finds Ibara beside him, packing up. “Get going or you’ll be late for class,” she tells him as she stands and heaves her satchel onto her shoulder. “I’m going to meet Fuku-chan. I guess I’ll see you later.”

Houtarou rubs his eyes and nods. “Thanks,” he says before rising into a yawn.

“Ew,” Ibara comments. She is either smiling at him or mocking him. She leaves before Houtarou can be sure.

It takes Houtarou a few more minutes to summon the strength to leave the cosy spot under the tree. It feels like spring has just gone by, but it’ll come around again soon enough.

“Ah, Houtarou-kun! Nice to see you back here again!”

“Good morning, Hanai-san.” Houtarou bows in greeting.

Hanai chuckles, no longer the stern elder that Houtarou once thought he was. “It’s incredibly kind of you to come back and lend a hand even now. I heard your university’s a little ways off from Kamiyama, ain’t it? Sorry to keep troubling you every year.”

Houtarou is quick to shake his head at all these considerate words. “It’s fine. I’m on school break now and I’ve grown used to helping out here.”

The old man smiles, his face crinkling. Houtarou wonders if Hanai will ever retire from his job. He seems to really like it.

“Well, we’re used to you too,” Hanai says. “Say, what’re you doing after university?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Houtarou replies. It is almost, but not yet, a lie. There’s a dryness in his throat.

Hanai chortles. He moves to carry the bottles of sake that have been delivered to the door of the shrine. Houtarou helps. It’s nine in the morning and the sky is clear. He hopes that Chitanda will be able to wear the junhitoe today.

“Well, you’ve still got time. Give it a good think.”

Houtarou holds the umbrella one more time for Eru. She has become used to knowing that he is walking behind her now, to the red interior of the umbrella blocking out the top half of her field of vision, to Houtarou meeting her at her house afterwards.

The moment he asks her if they need any more help back at the shrine or at the estate, it triggers something in Eru. She assures Houtarou that nothing else can be done and rushes to send him off before returning to her room. At first, she lies on the floor of her room and hugs her favourite eggplant doll. She quickly remembers that she has university work to do, and starts working on it even though she can’t quite get herself to concentrate.

Houtarou had willingly volunteered to return and help with the preparations this year. This time, he is no longer just the umbrella holder. He’s started helping Hanai-san and the rest prepare for the entire day. He’s started asking her if he can do anything more.

It appears to be a simple thing, but Eru knows what this will all lead to.

She wades through her work, struggling to focus. Near the evening, she hears someone walking up and sliding her door aside.

“Eru?” Her mother enters her room wearing an office blouse and skirt. She must have just come back from a meeting. Eru seats herself opposite her mother on the tatami flooring.

“Yes, Mother?”

“Oh, has your friend already gone? I thought I’d get to meet him this year. Oreki-san has been helping us for so long, after all,” her mother says, folding her arms. “And I was so curious about what my potential son-in-law would be like. Remember this important lesson, Eru – establishing a good working relationship early on is a very vital aspect of business.”

Eru has no time to be embarrassed.

“Mother, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. I don’t mean to include Houtarou-san in the family business in the future. He’s just… he’s just a very good friend that happens to lend us his assistance every year.”

“Really?” her mother asks. “I always assumed that you would want to carry on the business with someone.”

Maybe, once, when she had been younger, she wanted Houtarou to be that person for her. But now, Eru understands that she cannot ask him for something so significant. She has already asked for his help, has already made him answer all her curiosities, has already brought him too far down along this road that should be hers alone to walk.

Her mother regards her with a careful, measured gaze.

“If you’re planning on carrying on the family business yourself, I have no qualms about it. You’re my daughter after all. You can do anything you set your mind to,” she tells Eru, imparting to her the assurance only a mother can.

“But, if that’s the case, then do clear it up with Oreki-san. We wouldn’t want him to get involved with our family because of a small misunderstanding.”

“I understand.”

This is her burden. Eru cannot put it in any nicer way.

Houtarou shouldn’t have to bear it with her.

She won’t let him.

His lecture got cancelled today.

It would have been nice to know about it before braving through the rain and arriving to a half-emptied lecture theatre on the other end of campus. The professor had some urgent function to attend to, and though most people would be happy to have a lesson called off, Houtarou is lukewarm at best. It’s too cold to stay outside, and he’d been ready to pay attention during lecture. Now, all he feels like doing is going back to his room and napping or reading a little. Those are the only things to do on rainy days, aren’t they?

Houtarou trudges back to his dorm, taking the long way back under the sheltered walkway. He thinks about how it rained during the Doll Festival in his third year of high school, and how he had spent even a big day like that napping and reading. Chitanda hadn’t minded. So, until proven wrong, these two things were the only things you could do on a rainy day.

He spots two pairs of shoes aligned neatly outside his and Satoshi’s room. Looks like Ibara’s around too.

Nothing really registers in Houtarou’s mind as he uses his key to unlock the door. Nothing really clicks when he raises his head either. He expects to hear an overly happy greeting and a snide comment, maybe see Ibara and Satoshi mulling over work. Instead, he sees Ibara. And Satoshi. And half their clothes on the floor.

The first thought that comes to mind is – hmm, Ibrara really does have a flat chest.

The second thought, which comes straggling behind the first, is – close the door.

Houtarou does as he’s told.

Then, he turns around and leans against the railing along the corridor. Gazing up, he sees that the sky is still grey with clouds, and rain is falling steadily to the earth below in tranquil pitter patters. As it finally dawns on him what his friends were just doing, he feels his cheeks flush with belated heat.

And so, it seems that there are other things to do on a rainy day.

Houtarou jumps when he hears the door explode open behind him, feeling the waves of terror engulf him before anything else does. When Ibara storms up, fully-clothed now, she hits him like a train. Houtarou had been anticipating it, but she still knocks the wind out of him.

Yanking him down by the shoulder so that they’re eye-to-eye, Ibara grinds her teeth and seethes intensely. Her face is incredibly red, so red that it matches the streaks in her hair. Whether this is because of anger or embarrassment, Houtarou doesn’t know if he’ll live to find out.

“You. Saw. Nothing.” She’s pulled him so close to threaten him that their foreheads are almost touching.

“That’s true,” Houtarou concedes.

“… What the hell is that supposed to mean?!” Her hands have moved from his shoulders to the sides of his head. For such small hands, they sure can squeeze pretty hard.

Don’t panic, Houtarou wants to tell her before she crushes his skull to pieces. Judging from the way Satoshi had been…. fondling (Is this the right word? It feels wrong that he even knows this word) them, the guy doesn’t seem to mind.

“Mayaka! Try not to kill Houtarou!”

Try?

“But, Fuku-chan! You said that he wouldn’t be around and – and – and why did I believe you? I shouldn’t have listened to you!” Mayaka lets Satoshi pry her nails off Houtarou’s scalp, but her horrified expression remains fixed. She slaps her hands over her face and groans into them. If Houtarou didn’t know Ibara as well as he did, he’d think the sound had come from a rumbling dragon.

“If I look at you any more I’ll end up breaking something,” Ibara says into her palms. She peers at him from between the gaps of her fingers, and a chill darts down Houtarou’s spine as he realises that he’s considered part of that ‘something’.

Ibara then turns on her heel and retreats into the room, leaving Satoshi and Houtarou outside.

“Is she…?”

“I think she’ll be fine. Probably?” Satoshi sounds uncertain, but he laughs out of instinct. Then, he turns to face Houtarou. “And Houtarou, aren’t you supposed to have class now?” he asks, folding his arms and looking almost annoyed. Is he annoyed at Houtarou? Why is he annoyed at Houtarou? If anything, Houtarou should be annoyed at him for not saying anything.

But he thinks about it and realises that Ibara probably wouldn’t have let Satoshi mention it in any form or matter.

“Cancelled,” Houtarou mumbles.

Seeing as there’s nothing else stopping him from going into the room now, Houtarou removes his shoes and marches in, determined to get out of the cold weather, even if it means entering Ibara’s range of attack.

Fortunately, Ibara has hidden herself underneath Satoshi’s bedsheets, her head buried in a pillow.

Satoshi goes to sit beside her as Houtarou unpacks the things in his bag onto his study desk.

“Think about it this way, Mayaka!” Satoshi starts to say, patting the top of her head. “Now, there’s nothing else to hide from Houtarou. This is the worst possible thing that can ever happen to you. And he might have seen you one of your most embarrassing moments, but, uh, he’s already moved on from it. Look at him. He just sitting there and reading. Not a care in the world. So, why don’t we move on too? Who knows - this might even happen again, right?”

Houtarou is bad with social interaction, but even he knows that Satoshi is reaching.

“You’re making it even worse!”

Ibara erupts out of the blankets. Even the great Satoshi Fukube has to lean back and brace himself.

“Still, it’s a fact that sex happens!” Satoshi regroups and says as a matter-of-factly. Thankfully, he does not quote any statistics on them. 

“So, we shouldn’t be too ashamed about!”

You’re nowhere near ashamed enough, Houtarou thinks.

“It’s… it’s not the thing that upsets me the most.” Ibara hunkers down and squares her shoulders. “Of all people, why did it have to be – ” she shudders, glares at Houtarou, and narrows her fuming eyes, “you.”

“It’s my room too,” Houtarou reminds her, flipping a page in his book.

“I want to punch you right now,” Ibara begins. Her gallant threat is followed by a disappointed sigh. “But I have to admit that you’re right.”

“Thank you,” Houtarou says. Sarcasm reflex.

Satoshi has yet to contribute his own smart comment. Just as this thought crosses Houtarou’s mind, a look of pure mischief appears on his good friend’s face.

“Well, I guess we can’t expect Houtarou to understand,” he says in a wheedling voice.

Ibara cackles. “Oreki must reproduce through budding.” 

She’s trying to piece back her shattered pride. Houtarou takes this incredibly wounding accusation in stride.

… Actually, budding does sound much more manageable than sexual reproduction, now that he thinks about it.

“But really, Oreki. You’re such a loser.”

Houtarou waits for Ibara to explain her choice of words. As vicious as she can be, she always has a reason behind her poisonous comments.  

“You haven’t done anything for Chi-chan,” she says these words with deliberate emphasis, like a judge sentencing a convict.

Houtarou can’t help but raise an eyebrow at her.

“What am I supposed to be doing, exactly?”

Ibara grimaces, as if disgusted by his answer. “If you can’t figure it out for yourself, I don’t see why I need to tell you.”

Satoshi does not speak for once. Houtarou doesn’t know what they’re trying to tell him. He only knows that there is nothing he can do for Chitanda, except to hold that umbrella.

It’s almost spring break. The rainy season has descended upon them.

Houtarou has forgotten to bring an umbrella today. He can only sit outside the Business department until the heavy shower passes. As always, he has a trusty paperback stored in his bag. The other students walk past him, some choosing to dash through the rain with their files over their heads. Others share their umbrellas and splash through the numerous puddles all over the walkways. Houtarou can’t face off against the weather like them. It’s much less taxing to just wait for the rain to stop.

Among the sea of wet hair and open umbrellas, something catches his eye. A red umbrella stands out against the grey pavement.

The umbrella tilts back a little, revealing a girl with short, shoulder-length hair.

Houtarou blinks.

“… Chitanda?”

This is the first time Eru has come to this university.

She refers to the small piece of paper in her right hand. Mayaka had told her the directions to get to the student dorms. Eru passes through various buildings and walkways before finally reaching her destination. Mayaka isn’t staying in the same dorms as Satoshi and Houtarou, but it doesn’t matter much to Eru. She will just have to search for Houtarou herself later.

Mayaka has been waiting for her. When Eru climbs up to the second floor, she sees her friend sitting along the corridor just outside her room, wearing shorts and reading what appears to be a manga.

“Mayaka-chan!”

Upon hearing her name, the girl jumps onto her feet and runs up to meet Eru.

“Chi-chan! Your hair! It’s so cute now!” is the first thing Mayaka says.

Eru can’t help but compliment the tints of green in Mayaka’s hair too. “Your hair is cute as well!”

Mayaka gives her an abashed smile as she turns around and leads Eru into her room.

“I was so thrilled when I got your call, Chi-chan! Sorry I haven’t had time to clean up my room,” Mayaka says as she closes the door behind them.

Eru thinks that Mayaka’s room is tidy enough as it is. The many books and papers may make it look messy, but upon closer inspection, Eru realises that they have all been categorised and sorted into clear stacks.

She wanders over to the desk and comes across a few half-drawn pages of manga.

“Mayaka-chan, could this be..?”

“Ah! Don’t look at that yet! It’s all sketches, so it’s not done. It’s nothing much now.” Her friend hurriedly covers up the pages with her small hands. Eru laughs at this. Mayaka used to be even more embarrassed about letting others see her drawings. This is an improvement.

“It looks nice. Please tell me when it gets published. I’ll most certainly buy it!”

“Chi-chan, the image of you walking around in a manga store is…” Mayaka drifts off, illustrating how farfetched the scenario is for her.

“I – I’ve done it before!” Eru tells her, trying to sound convincing.

Mayaka chuckles a little, revealing that she had just been teasing Eru. “I know, I know. So, what are you doing here today? If you’re dropping by, it must mean that it’s something important,” Mayaka says, sitting on her bed and motioning for Eru to do the same.

She hasn’t come to speak to Mayaka today, but speaking to her has always helped Eru clear her thoughts.

“Mayaka-chan, do you know that Houtarou-san is still helping my family with the Doll festival?”

“Yeah, Fuku-chan told me. Is he doing it again this year? It’s happening in a few weeks, isn’t it?”

Eru sighs at the reminder. “That’s why I’m here today. I… I don’t wish to trouble Houtarou-san any further. It wouldn’t do to tell him this over the phone, so I decided that the best way would be to tell him face to face.”

“Hm, he’ll probably be happy, since he hates doing work.”

“Will he really?” Somehow, the thought makes Eru feel relieved, as flimsy as it sounds.

“If we’re talking about the old Oreki, then, yeah. He’s a slug through and through. But, if we’re talking about how things are now… I don’t think it’s so simple,” Mayaka says. She looks at Eru, her voice growing more solemn. “Why do you want to do that, Chi-chan? You know, at least Oreki was finally doing something good with himself when he was with you.”

“Houtarou-san doesn’t need me to be useful to others,” Eru tells her.

Mayaka isn’t reluctant to disagree. She shakes her head. “No, Chi-chan. I’m not saying this because I don’t like him. I’m saying this because I know how he is. He wouldn’t do something if he didn’t want to, and he wouldn’t do something unless he knew he could do it.”

“What do you mean?”

Mayaka takes a breath and sighs lightly. “Oreki - he’s not exactly that high in the self-esteem department. One of the reasons why he doesn’t do stuff is because he doesn’t think he’s good at it. So, if you tell him – if you tell him that, I don’t know what his reaction’ll be.”

Eru wants to listen to Mayaka, but, she’s been giving this a lot of thought herself. She’ll just make sure that Houtarou doesn’t misunderstand her intentions.

“Oreki probably has something to say to you too,” Mayaka adds.

“What is it?”

Mayaka lowers her eyes, an apologetic look appearing on her face. “I… I shouldn’t be the one to tell you, Chi-chan. And if Oreki himself can’t say it, maybe he doesn’t really mean it.”

“… I see.” Eru nods.

By the time Eru bids goodbye to Mayaka, it has begun to rain outside.

She takes an umbrella out of her shoulder bag. She has to go and meet Houtarou now.

“Houtarou-san, please, don’t come in the spring this year.”

Chitanda, who had once pleaded with him to help her, is now telling him the opposite. He puts his book down and looks at her.

“Why? Is the festival cancelled?” he asks.

Chitanda is not coming under the shelter. She keeps her red umbrella raised, as if she expects the conversation to end quickly.

 “… It’s not,” she replies, sounding uneasy. Chitanda’s strength and weakness has always been her inability to lie.

“Then, what’s the matter?”

“You don’t need to help us anymore. We will find someone else to do the job.”

Houtarou furrows his brow. He has to talk over the sound of the rain.

“And what if I want to to do it?”

Chitanda’s expression shifts, from struggling nonchalance to something like confusion.

“Houtarou-san, do you understand what it means? If you continue to come, do you know what will happen?” she asks him, her voice rushing with emotion. “I do not wish to drag you into this. I’ve thought about it for a long time, Houtarou-san.”

“Drag me into what?”

Chitanda straightens her posture, raising the umbrella even higher. A few stray raindrops trickle down the sides of her face. She doesn’t even blink, but he can see that the hand holding the umbrella is trembling.  

“Houtarou-san, I am the daughter of the Chitanda family.”

It is not a declaration, but a warning.

“I know you are.”

Chitanda turns her face to the side. The rain is falling harder, and he barely hears her mumble, “… No, you don’t, Houtarou-san.”

He steps into the rain. “I still want to help.”

“Why?” Chitanda looks at him, the question so soft that it could blend into the rain. Her face is wet, and he isn’t sure if those are raindrops or tears.

“Because– ” Houtarou hasn’t prepared what he’s supposed to say, the words get clogged up, and it is like an endless cycle that makes him feel sick. The pelting rain makes his shoulders cold, but he grips his hands at his sides.

“Because I’ve been doing it for a while, what difference will one or two more years make?”

“By then, it will be too late, Houtarou-san.”

Chitanda blinks the water out of her eyes and turns to leave, unable to say anything else. Houtarou grabs his bag and chases after the red umbrella in the downpour. Chitanda is fast despite her dainty figure, and when he slips in a puddle and nearly falls over, it creates enough time for Chitanda to make a turn and disappear out of sight.

“How are things with Ibara?”

Houtarou’s never asked Satoshi about this before. It shows in Satoshi’s look of mild surprise.

It’s not that Houtarou doesn’t care, it’s more like, there was nothing much to care about in the first place. There had never been a need to.

And yet, after standing with Chitanda in the rain and having her say all those things to him – Houtarou can no longer pretend that he doesn’t know what is going on. He remembers a freezing winter night, the creak of a wooden bridge under his feet, and the expression on Satoshi’s face as he looked into the pitch black sky. He wonders if they’ve switched places now.

 “Same old, same old.” Satoshi chuckles to start off. “It’s… I thought it would’ve been over by now. But, Mayaka, she– ” he doesn’t seem to be able put it into words.

“She’s Mayaka,” says Satoshi finally. He grins, and falls back on his mattress.

“Sometimes, I think I might be obsessing. It’s a near thing,” Satoshi admits, staring at the blue ceiling of their room. “It used to be easier in high school, you know? We could say that we were busy with clubs or schoolwork – okay, Mayaka could say that she was busy with schoolwork – and we’d go at our own pace.”

“Now, we meet up even when we’re busy,” he says, looking puzzled as he hears these words coming out of his mouth. “And I don’t mind that. I want it to happen. I like it when Mayaka’s with me. What’s that supposed to mean?”

Houtarou doesn’t have an answer to something he has never understood.

“If it’s any consolation,” he begins, “Ibara must be pretty obsessed with you as well.”

He remembers the tumultuous times of middle school and high school, Ibara’s dogged pursuit and her loud, crystal clear confessions of love. Her and her Valentine’s Day chocolates – she used to receive chocolates from a number from boys in their year, but she only ever gave one out herself. Ibara had started speaking to him because of Satoshi, and she had cried in front of him because of Satoshi too. 

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,” Satoshi says, sighing a little. Still, Houtarou can see that his friend is happy.

“Mayaka knows what I told you on that Valentines’ day, remember? So, she’s always been pretty diligent about it. She’s been forcing her way through all my barriers even though I put in so much effort to build them up. She’s a merciless girl,” Satoshi laughs. It sounds equally sad and hopeful.

“The new problem is, if I were to let Mayaka uncover everything about me, and she found out what was really inside – something empty or something trying to be something else – would she still want to be with me?”

Houtarou considers this for a moment, tugging at his hair. “Aren’t you just scared to admit that Ibara might already know?”

“That’s what she said too.”

Satoshi shakes his head and laughs. “She even said that she doesn’t care and that I’m too self-absorbed. That I have to suck it up.” He gets off the bed and goes to look out the room’s window.

“It hurt. But it was good.”

Satoshi’s changed a lot, Houtarou thinks. He’s been with Satoshi since they were thirteen, and he can tell. He looks much more mature now. But, beyond that, it seems that he’s finally being genuine. It reminds Houtarou of the days in middle school when Satoshi used to go off tangent about trying something new, when Satoshi threw a tantrum whenever he lost in an arcade game – all his emotions had been sincere back then, as unsightly as they might have been. Houtarou himself had never minded those parts of Satoshi.

And then, in high school, Satoshi began closing himself just the tiniest bit, had stopped trying. He still did a lot of things – biking, sewing, cooking, leading the student council, but he’d never been happy with it. For someone like Houtarou, this was already an extensive list of abilities. Satoshi himself never seemed to have seen the value in all he could do. He started smiling a lot more, but at the same time, those smiles were too practiced, too political, too much of a bad habit that they had become a crutch. Houtarou remembers a freezing Valentine’s Day, and the sound of broken chocolate.

“You’ve changed,” Houtarou tells him. Maybe Satoshi had started changing since that very day.

Satoshi shrugs his shoulders, looking like a natural.

“So, why ask me this, Houtarou?”

Houtarou raises his eyes from the closed book in his hands.

“What I don’t have to do, I don’t. What I have to do, I do quick!” Satoshi recites the lines perfectly. “You still believe in this don’t you? It’s part of who Houtarou Oreki is. So, what made this topic ‘something that you have to ask me’?”

One thing that hasn’t changed about Satoshi is how sharp he is.

“You could say it’s about Chitanda.”

He expects Satoshi to start teasing him. But the guy doesn’t even smirk.

“So, what’s it about?” He leans against the windowsill, paying full attention to Houtarou. Whenever Satoshi is serious, it means the situation is dire.

It dawns on Houtarou that Satoshi finds the current situation dire.

“If I could understand, I would have explained it a long time ago.”

Even now, Houtarou cannot fully grasp what is happening. Every single time Chitanda tries to extend a hand, tries to ask him to follow her, he finds a reason – no, an excuse – to put it off, to take a rain check. The gripping sensation floods his lungs, overwhelms his vision, and makes his hands feel cold. He doesn’t know what is beyond it, or where Chitanda will take him to.

But Chitanda has already taken him places, ever since he’d been sixteen and saw the world in one colour. Now, grey is not the only colour he can see.

He is no longer a high school student. They are no longer just friends.

That day in the rain, he’d realised the he did want to follow Chitanda. It is no longer a matter of doing or not doing something. It is about Eru Chitanda, the road she must walk down, and the umbrella he has promised to hold. Houtarou would do it all, but – is he even allowed to? Does he even deserve to now? 

 “Haha! You and me, we couldn’t be any different, could we?” Satoshi’s laughter punctures through Houtarou’s thoughts effortlessly. “But if I’ve changed, doesn’t that mean that you have, too?”

Satoshi lowers his voice into a whisper.

“And maybe we’re not all that different. Even the sun and the moon had to be born in the same galaxy, y’know?”

After their abrupt meeting and even more abrupt parting, Houtarou expects the year’s Doll Festival to be an excruciating experience. He’s always been the type to apologise if he’s in the wrong – and because of his energy conservation policy, he rarely puts himself in such positions. But this, this is not a matter of apologising.

In the end, he returns to Kamiyama despite what Chitanda tells him, reports to the shrine at eight in the morning, and is assigned responsibility for the preparation of all the men’s clothing. It is a fairly simple task, one that doesn’t require him to waste too much energy – after participating in the parade for so many years, he’s come to recognise the different costumes and has seen the proper way to wear them all.

Houtarou does his job and does not think of anything else.

Eventually, he still has to slip into his own costume, and the long umbrella is passed into his hands.

When Chitanda emerges out of the shrine, her expression is dignified, her lips pressed into a thin line. Her hair is long again, like a river down her back. Her eyes are focused on a point beyond the shrine’s grounds, a far cry from the eyes he’d seen only weeks ago on his university campus.

Despite everything that has happened between them, Chitanda does not show any indication of being affected. She slots herself in place, precisely four steps in front of him, and walks the same road she has taken all these years. Houtarou had been expecting himself to freeze up, to panic, because his favourite solution to every problem – ignoring it – is not something that can resolve what has happened between him and Chitanda.

But when he sees Chitanda walk forward, automatically, his legs move too.

By now, the pounding of the taiko drums and the whistles of the flutes, all these sounds are like a song he has been taught to sing. He can remember every note, every dip and crescendo – just like the image of Chitanda’s back, solid, stable, never turning around, never looking back. As he watches her move onward and onward still, without a single hesitation in her footsteps, he realises just how deeply Chitanda is tied to this land.

He realises what Chitanda had truly meant. His fingers curl tightly around the umbrella.

The Doll Procession manages to outpace the rain. A light drizzle falls over the north of Kamiyama in the afternoon, an hour or so after the procession had taken place. Houtarou is already out of his comfortable costume and is taking his usual post-parade break at the Chitanda estate. Satoshi and Ibara hadn’t stayed in Kamiyama for the whole of spring break. They’d decided to spend the last month biking across Japan, leaving Chitanda and him behind in this sleepy old city.

He hears someone walking towards him. There is hesitation in the footsteps now. When he looks to his left, he sees Chitanda.

Her hands are clenched in front of her chest. Her lips are still pressed together and her eyes are burning with an emotion that Houtarou does not recognise. There’s someone walking behind her, but she doesn’t seem to notice him as she approaches Houtarou.

“Houtarou-san.”

Chitanda is not greeting him. Her voice is hard and firm. She wants him to listen.

He stands up and looks at her properly. She deserves at least this much.  

“I had a feeling that this was Oreki-san,” a third voice cuts between them.

Chitanda spins around, her short hair mimicking the movement. She jolts a little when she finally notices the person who’d been stalking behind her. “Father!”

Chitanda’s father does not look like a hardened farmer, or an enterprising businessman. He’s even wearing trousers.

“You haven’t introduced me to him, Eru.”

The young woman steps back, reverting to a delicate formality.

Speaking clearly, Chitanda gestures to the older man and then to Houtarou with a practiced hand. “Father, this is Houtarou Oreki-san. Houtarou-san, this is my father.”

Houtarou is already locked in a bow. Despite hanging around Chitanda’s house all these years, he hadn’t expected that he would actually have to meet her father one day. “G-Good afternoon, Chitanda-san! I’m sorry for intruding!”

“Relax, boy.” The man grabs onto his shoulder and forces him upright in one strong push. Houtarou feels like he’s been manhandled. While he is dazed by the circumstances, Chitanda is quick to interrogate her father.

“Father, why aren’t you at the banquet?”

“Because I’m here.”

“Where’s Mother?”

He makes a puzzled sound. “Somewhere. I’m not too sure.”

“… Did you want to speak with me?” Chitanda’s face is red with carefully controlled frustration.

“Yes, I do. Maybe later.”

“When is later?”

“Later is later,” her father says with reassurance.

 “Father!”

Houtarou has come across a very important discovery today.

This is the closest he will ever get to seeing Eru Chitanda exasperated. Houtarou understands the significance of this moment. He can imagine Chitanda being five-years old and asking her father why the sky is blue, only to get “Because it’s blue” as a solution to her conundrum.

Chitanda’s father seems to be used to this, because he turns to address Houtarou after apparently answering all of her questions.

“You’ve been helping us for five years, Oreki-san. I realise it’s been incredibly rude of me to never even thank you personally, for taking care of my daughter and for always being so willing to help us.”

Houtarou immediately feels like shrinking. “Sir, I haven’t done anything much.”

“Nonsense! No matter how small, your contributions are invaluable,” the man bellows. It sounds like something both Chitanda and a farmer would say.

Houtarou wants to deny all of these exaggerations, but Chitanda-san doesn’t let him. He brushes aside all of his jumbled words and pats him on the head and on the shoulder before leaving, only because Hanai has called for him.

Chitanda and him have to take a breather to recover from the meeting. They sit down on the porch outside one of the rooms, and do not exchange any words. When Houtarou has collected his thoughts, the first thing he wants to do is to correct her.

“Your father’s wrong about me.”

“He’s not, Houtarou-san. I – ” Chitanda hesitates. Her cheeks are red again. “I’ve told him a lot about you. He also knows of Satoshi-san and Mayaka-chan, of course.”

“I’m not – I haven’t done anything. Please don’t over-value me.”

He hasn’t done a thing. He hasn’t even been able to say those words to Chitanda.

“Houtarou-san!” Chitanda is suddenly sitting too close. She looks angry. “Houtarou-san, you are a very, very important person to me. Please, don’t talk about yourself like that. It’s not right!”

“Chitanda– ” He starts. Maybe he should tell her now, ask her if he can do more than hold the umbrella.

“Yes?” She looks expectantly at him.

“… Nothing.” And, he ends. “Nothing,” he repeats, and feels the words bite at him.

Chitanda looks disappointed, but she has some things she wants to say too.

“In any case, Houtarou-san, you may be important, but this has to be the last year you help me. I appreciate all you’ve done for me,” Chitanda pauses. She lifts her head and says these words again, slower this time. “I really appreciate it.”

“But, why? You already explained to me, but I don’t understand. What did you mean by it being too late?”

Chitanda looks like she doesn’t want to answer the question. “… Houtarou-san, if you do anything more for me, then there will be expectations. They wouldn’t come from me, but from my family. It just wouldn’t be fair.”

“Isn’t it a bit too early to decide what’s fair and what’s not fair? You haven’t even asked me yet,” Houtarou points out.

“This is not something I can of ask you,” she tells him this like it is something set in stone.

Houtarou can’t help it. He says the words before his brain can judge them. “Is it because I’m not good enough?”

Chitanda reacts instantaneously. Her hands clasp onto his arm, and she is pulling him back, pulling him closer.

“Why would you think that way, Houtarou-san?”

Why wouldn’t I? Houtarou wants to reply. Even if he were to acknowledge his strengths, what strengths did he have? Deduction? That’s not something that can help Chitanda, that’s not something particularly special. He’s average through and through. As hard as he’s trying, he knows that he’s not giving his full effort even now. What’s holding him back aren’t these warm, warm hands. It’s the thought, the fact that he won’t be good enough for Chitanda.

“Houtarou-san, what should I do to prove to you that you are good enough? That you are important to me?” Chitanda asks. Her voice trembles, and then, the words come out in a hushed murmur.

“I’m curious.”

Houtarou doesn’t want to answer her, but Chitanda doesn’t seem to particularly care.

“If I cannot say it in words, then– ”

Chitanda’s hands continue pulling him in. Her body is soft and she smells like a place that Houtarou can never reach.

She’s leaning closer. Why is she leaning closer? Please don’t lean closer.

“Ch-Chi-Chitanda!”

His voice cracks.

Ibara’s in his room again. She might as well move in at this point if she’s going to keep dropping by so often. Of course, Houtarou doesn’t actually want her to consider the possibility, so he keeps these words to himself.

Satoshi must be at club or at classes now. Houtarou walks by his study desk, noticing that his books have been left untouched from last night’s studying. His papers and reports are still piled in uneven stacks which he’s been meaning to sort through. But compared to what Ibara has done to Satoshi’s desk, Houtarou’s desk actually looks neat. She’s got piles of paper pinned underneath her elbows, and at least four different types of pens scattered around her. Houtarou can detect the faintest smell of ink.

She must be working on another submission to a manga publisher. Ibara’s been doing them on and off in her spare time since her first year in university. Houtarou doesn’t remember when he learned that Ibara wanted to become a manga artist. That had been a long time ago. It’s strange to see her actually working towards it now. He remembers the four of them, the old Kamiyama High School Classic Literature Club, celebrating her first publication in a shoujo magazine last year. It had been a one-off contest, and her manga had managed to place in the top three. Ibara had gotten a few interested offers after that, but she never spoke much about it.

Houtarou checks the time on his wristwatch. It’s too early to start on work and too late for a nap before dinner. He stands in the middle of the room as he decides his next course of action, unbuttoning his overcoat, but leaving his sweater on. The room is a little chilly because Ibara’s left the window slightly open.

Ibara herself is wearing a familiar-looking baseball jacket. It’s a little too big for her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. It takes Houtarou a few more moments to recognise that the jacket belongs to Satoshi. No wonder it looks so worn. He’s been wearing it since the end of middle school. The last time Houtarou had seen Satoshi in the jacket had been in the second year of high school. Satoshi has remained a scrawny, androgynous-looking boy, but even he must have outgrown that jacket.

“What?” Ibara catches Houtarou staring at her and eyes him suspiciously. “If you have something to say, spit it out now.”

“How do you do that?” Houtarou asks as he takes a seat on the edge of his bed.

“This?” She gestures to the storyboard in front of her. “I sketch out the name, talk to the editor about it, redo it when I get their comments, and then draw out the manuscript properly. I’m still rushing to complete it after three whole weeks of work.”

Houtarou hadn’t been referring to her manga.

“Here. Help me put the screentone on these since you’ve got nothing else to do.”

Houtarou sighs, taking the page that Ibara passes to him. Later, when Satoshi finishes class, he’ll probably be subjected to the same manual labour.

“I wasn’t talking about this,” he says as he retrieves the necessary equipment from her art bag. Sadly, Houtarou has done this before, so he already knows what he needs to do. Pasting and cutting the tones onto the page is meticulous work, but Ibara’ll probably treat him dinner after this.

“Then?” Ibara doesn’t look up from her work. “What is it?”

Houtarou gets the page where the heroine is confessing her love to her love interest. How lucky.

“How can you be so straightforward? Haven’t you ever had things that even you couldn’t say?” he asks, picking at the stationery in the bag, finding the right tools to cut out the screentones.

Ibara has always, always been like this, so he’s never given two thoughts to it. Houtarou is so used to it that he sees it as something as natural as the circle of life.

“It’s the best way to do things,” Ibara reasons. “I don’t like beating about the bush. It’s wasteful.”

Huh, so maybe he and Ibara can agree on some things.

She leans back against the chair and stretches her arms. “You know, Fuku-chan told me that I wouldn’t be able to tone myself down even if I tried. Is that a bad thing?”

“Depends.”

Ibara turns around and glares at him, annoyance flashing across her face. “So what’re you getting at, asking me this? Do you need me to teach you how to grow a spine? You’re twenty-one, Oreki.”

Houtarou concentrates on finishing up the page in front of him. When he is done, Ibara does not forget to pass him a second one.

“Does it have something to do with Chi-chan?”

“It’s about what I want to do after I graduate,” Houtarou says. He doesn’t want to reply Ibara’s question directly. The girl arches an eyebrow at him, a knowing look replacing her earlier annoyance.

“You want to work with Chi-chan, don’t you? But, as far as I know, you two’ve never talked about it,” Ibara stops. An electric bulb seems to light up over her head. “Is that the reason why you keep helping her out every year? What was your idea, anyway? Just keep working with the Chitanda family and hope that they extend the offer to you, if Chi-chan herself doesn’t?”

Ibara’s accuracy is disconcerting.

When she realises that he’s not going to reply, she sighs with exasperation. “That’s just the kind of half-assed solution someone like you would settle for,” she says. 

“I’m not like you,” Houtarou has to remind her.

He’s not like Ibara, who can barge down doors just the way she is. Always looking ahead, always sure of what to say, never double-backing on her words or running them through her head. She’s been an unstoppable force since elementary school. He’ll never understand how she can speak without reservation, without fear of all the repercussions spoken words have a tendency of bringing. Fear might not even be an emotion she can grasp, Houtarou thinks.

Ibara glances over her shoulder. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“It’s not easy for everyone to say what they feel,” Houtarou mutters.

The girl snorts. “Oreki, I’ve known you and Fuku-chan for years. You two are the least straightforward people I know. You don’t care about letting others understand how you feel. Fuku-chan doesn’t want anyone to know how he feels.” She pauses here to outline a speech bubble.

“I know that not everyone can say what they want to. So, I’ve learned to read them.”

Houtarou glues a piece of black onto the page.

“It’d be good if Chitanda could read my mind, then.”

He hears her slam her pen down hard on the desk. Houtarou doesn’t jump. He’s used to her making explosive noises.

“That’s all you ever think about, isn’t it?” She turns to address him properly, her work abandoned. “It’s always about the easiest way out, the one that requires the least effort, with you. Do you really think her reading your mind would be the best outcome?”

Well, it would make this a lot easier.

Ibara hasn’t stopped reprimanding him yet.

“Then, what about Chi-chan? Did you ever give a thought to her? Did you ever think about the words she isn’t saying? If you know her, you know that she would never, never ask you to do such a thing. It’s not like the mysteries she asked you to solve. It’s not like holding an umbrella for her. This is something big, huge! And yet you still expect her to be the one to do it? Why’re you placing all the responsibility on her?”

“I’m– ” Houtarou stops. He lets the words sink in.

Ibara is right.

“I’m sorry.”

These words do not belong to Ibara, but Houtarou says them anyway.

The girl halts just then. She regards Houtarou, not with her usual condescending look, but with something softer, more tolerating.

“… If it’s something you can’t say, more often than not, it’s the thing you really have to say the most.”

Even when showing sympathy, Ibara does not forget to be critical.

“So don’t you dare think about slacking. If you don’t say it yourself, then it’s meaningless. Oreki, you may be hopeless, but you’re not totally meaningless.”   

“It’s not just because of that, it’s– ”

“I know.” Ibara cuts in.

She looks at him unblinkingly. These are the eyes of the girl who has loved Satoshi Fukube for over eight years. “I know.”

Houtarou believes her. 

“… Thanks.” It is sincere this time.

Ibara looks like she might throw up. “D – Don’t say stuff like that. I’m just repaying you for what you did for Fuku-chan and me back in high school, that’s all. I had a feeling you’d come crawling over here for some desperately needed guidance. Don’t act so smug about it.”

“That’s why I’m thanking you,” Houtarou says.

Ibara balks once more.

Admittedly, he finds this enjoyable.

“Stop. You’re creeping me out,” Ibara warns him. She grabs a stack of papers and thrusts it in front of him. “Here! Add the tones to all of them!” she instructs before returning to the half-drawn page in front of herself.

“Aye-aye.”

As he completes page after page, Ibara doesn’t tell him to redo anything. If she is satisfied with his work, it means that he’s not completely useless. The idea feels foreign in his mind. He tries to apply it to Chitanda the same time he applies the tones onto the page.

Before this manga is published, Houtarou will tell Chitanda what he needs to.

Kamiyama High School is celebrating the Kanya Fest once again this year.

Eru, back in her hometown to visit her family and to work, decides to stay for one more day just so she can attend day one of the famous school festival. Even though it’s only been two years, it feels like she hasn’t visited her old high school for a long time. Maybe, if she does, she can sort out a few thoughts.

When she arrives to Kamiyama High, she is met with colours and streamers and big signs with striking words and boisterous declarations. Eru stands before the school gate, taking in the sights, gripping her handbag close to her stomach. Has the gate always looks so open and inviting? Maybe it’s just the lively atmosphere of the festival affecting her senses. She steps into the school, ready to get swept away in the noise and laughter.

Eru knows exactly where she wants to go – to the fourth level of the Specialised Subjects Building, to the room at the very end of the hallway, to the Geography Prep Room. Her feet take her there without any hesitation, the memories of walking up to the clubroom after school guiding her through the corridors full of students dressed in all sorts of costumes. Eru does not stop to take a photo or play a game of Karuta this time. She wonders if this means she’s matured, and whether that really is a good thing.

When she slides the familiar door aside, she sees Sei speaking to someone at the makeshift counter in the middle of the room. They aren’t wearing the school uniform, but they might just be one of the other students.

Sei is no longer the baby-faced junior Eru knew in her third year of high school. She’s grown taller, her face looks just a little sharper now, and she’s wearing her hair in a ponytail instead of those girlish pigtails. There are two small stacks of ‘Hyouka’ on the table, waiting to be sold.

Sei stops talking with the student when Eru enters the room.

“Chitanda-san!” she greets her. Her smile hasn’t changed one bit.

“Hello, Sei-chan.” Eru steps forward. As she does this, she realises that the young man Sei had been speaking to isn’t a student.

“Fancy meeting you here, Chi-san.” Satoshi grins at her.

Eru is glad to see him, but she feels mortified for mistaking him for a student simply because he looked no bigger than the male students she’d passed on the way here. “Satoshi-san! I didn’t recognise you! I’m so sorry!”

“It’s alright,” Satoshi calms her down with a simple, good-natured chuckle.

“Seniors!” Sei calls out to both of them, raising a hand in the air like she wants to ask a question in class.

“Yes, Sei-chan?”

“You came at the right time. I’ve been doing duty here for the entire morning! All the other members have been busy with other events, so they can’t help it. But it’s been killing me!” Sei reports, puffing up her cheeks.

Satoshi breaks into a bout of laughter. Eru can’t help but join him, covering her mouth with one hand. She remembers how Houtarou had stationed himself behind the table for three days straight without so much as a complaint.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, Tanaka-chan. We were just reminiscing. So do you want to take a break? Chi-san and I could watch over the counter for you,” Satoshi offers, wiping a tear out of his eye.

Before he finishes this sentence, Sei is already halfway to the door. “Alright! I’ll be back in half an hour, tops! Thank you so much, Fukube-san, Chitanda-san!”

Eru can hear Sei skipping merrily down the hallyway outside as she grabs a chair and seats herself next to Satoshi. It’s been a long time since they’ve caught up with one another.

“It’s good to see you, Satoshi-san. What clubs are you in now?” she asks as she smooths out the creases in her dress. She’s excited to hear all his answers.

“Oh, the mountain-biking club.”

Nothing follows.

Eru widens her eyes as she realises that Satoshi has only joined one club. Immediately, her curiosity seizes her. “You’re only in one club, Satoshi-san?” she asks, balling her hands into fists in front of herself.

Satoshi is not surprised by her question. She remembers them talking in this very room when there were still students, and her asking him to explain all the immensely interesting trivia he used to share. But this is not a trivial thing.

“Well, at the start, I did join a lot of clubs: Cheerleading, Community Service, Shogi, Cooking, and some others. But after the first year in university, my schedule got too packed. I realised that I didn’t have time for a lot of things, so I decided to just quit all of them except for my favourite club, the one that I thought I was the best at. Of course, Mayaka was the one who suggested for me to do it, but she’s always right about these sorts of things. See? I even have time to enjoy the Kanya Fest now!”

“Speaking of Mayaka-chan…?” Eru scans the room, finding no sign of her other friend’s presence.

“Ah… Please don’t tell Mayaka that I came back to Kamiyama. She’ll get angry at me for not bringing her along. But she had work to do for her manga, so I decided not to disturb her.” Satoshi adds in a hopeful whisper, “I’ll bring her with me next year, so overlook it just this once, okay, Chi-san?”

Eru wonders if this is the second secret between her and Satoshi.

“So, how’s you and Houtarou? He’s been pretty gloomy lately. I think he needs someone apart from Mayaka and I to cheer him up,” Satoshi continues on, not bothering to hide the obvious hint.

Maybe coming back to her high school really will help her sort out her thoughts.

“… What I want to tell Houtarou-san wouldn’t cheer him up.”

Satoshi looks a little bewildered. “Why is that?”

“Because there are many things I want to ask of Houtarou-san.” Even as she says this, Eru knows that she could sum it all up into one very short statement that she will not be able to take back.

She bites her lip before straightening her posture and folding her hands together, the way she has been taught. “I’ve been spending a long time thinking about it, you see. However, I wouldn’t want to put such burden on Houtarou-san. It doesn’t seem right. It is, after all, my own.”

Satoshi does not speak for a moment, but her cryptic words do little to confuse him. Instead, slowly, a smile, one that seems more critical than friendly, spreads across his face. He looks over at her, his sheepish expression revealing all his doubt.

“Chi-san, is that something you’re saying out of formality, or is it something you truly feel?”

It feels like he has seen through her somehow. More so than embarrassed, Chitanda is impressed with him and disappointed with herself. She summons up a smile.

“I want to burden him”, the selfish words she promised herself she would never say a loud – Satoshi has managed to hear them without her even speaking.

The young man does not address her with a judging eye. Instead, he relaxes a little, leaning against the back of the chair. With a strategically-placed laugh, he dissolves the tension between them.

“Chi-san, it appears that you’re not perfect.”

“I never said I was! You and Mayaka-chan consistently insisted on it, though,” she informs him, her tone clipped. Then, she smiles again, more genuine this time.

“That’s true, but, it was hard not to think that way in high school,” Satoshi says, already sounding nostalgic. “It’s almost a relief now, to see that maybe we have some things in common.”

Eru finds this humbling. She wants to tell Satoshi that she feels the same way.

Returning to the Geography Prep room, Eru can’t help but think back to her days as a student in the school. It had been much easier back then. She could ask Houtarou about anything she wanted and not have to worry about the consequences. She could spend all her time with him and her other friends, and it wouldn’t have meant a thing.

Growing older makes so many things harder to do. Yet, maybe, she should try to remember that feeling again – asking Houtarou any question that happens to cross her mind, not caring about what his answers would mean. Simply believing in them had been enough.

Forty-five minutes pass before Sei-chan is back from her break. She’s carrying a number of prizes from various games and stalls. Chitanda wonders if that’s what she looked like in her first year of high school.

After they buy four copies of Hyouka, Satoshi stands on his feet and turns to her. He looks much more like a university student now.

“Do you want to go and grab a bite to eat?”

“Yes, I would.”

They meet before the Doll Procession this time. It is early in the morning and the shrine is bathing under the rays of the rising sun. Hanai and the rest haven’t even reached, and yet here Houtarou is, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. When Chitanda arrives, riding a bicycle down the dirt road, she looks equally tired. But, they’ve decided to meet here for a reason.

After she greets him good morning, Chitanda stands with her feet together and her hands clasped. “Houtarou-san, I would like to ask you something very important.”

“Wait,” Houtarou interrupts her. He needs to say this first, before he loses his nerves again. Just this once, when it truly matters, he hopes that Chitanda will control her curiosity.

“Yes?” Chitanda eases back. A smile touches her face, like she knows that something is going to happen.

“… Remember when you asked me what I wanted to do after university?”

Since he was a kid, Houtarou told himself not to do anything unnecessary, to only use his energy when he had to, and to use it just for himself. He had also told himself that he wasn’t anything special or important, that he had no talents that were worth mentioning.

But maybe, none of that needs to matter. If there should be one thing he can do, perhaps it is because of Eru Chitanda.

His palms are cold and sweaty, but he doesn’t let it stop him.

“That business side for the Chitanda farms. Is it still open for consideration?” Houtarou asks.

“Yes.” Chitanda does not miss a beat.  

“Then – maybe,” Houtarou stops.

“Yes, Houtarou-san?” A few steps is all it takes to bridge the looming space between them, and Chitanda crosses this distance easily. She grabs onto his hand and holds it carefully between hers, as if she’s encouraging him. The smell of her hair is faint, but it still makes him think of a place that is far, far away. This time, perhaps he can make it there.

“Then,” Houtarou heaves a sigh, “then perhaps I could – ”

Chitanda’s eyes are waiting for an answer, like they always have.

“ – I could handle that for you.”

He doesn’t realise he’s been squeezing Chitanda’s hands until she squeezes back.

“Houtarou-san, would it be fine if I kissed you this time?”

Chitanda, even when impatient, remembers to be polite.

 

Houtarou’s hands are cold when she first touches them. Gradually, they warm up as she presses her hands over his. When their fingers tangle together, it is a feeling that makes her want to close her eyes, take a deep breath, and remind herself where is she standing. Being able to share something as simple as body heat causes her to think back to a time when they couldn’t even do such a thing – a chilly, abandoned shed on New Year’s Day, her favourite red kimono, and Houtarou’s face, all scrunched up and thinking hard.

The expression on his face now seems to mirror the one he had back then, but there are obvious differences. They are six years older, they are holding hands, and he is not thinking of a way out.

When she asks him for permission to kiss him, Houtarou does not give her a verbal reply, does not even nod. He closes his eyes, tight and firm, as if to brace himself. Eru takes this as a sign for her to be gentle and careful. She realises that it is odd, because being with Houtarou seems to make her anything but.

She slowly lets go of his hands and cups his face.

Ah. He’s so warm now.

Eru pulls him down closer to her, guided by only her heart.

 photo burdge_hyouka_zpsguf7f8om.jpg
(art by Burdge, please don't reproduce/repost without permission)

She feels Houtarou’s lips trembling against the gentle press of hers, and then, slowly, returning the kiss, following along, like he always has. She doesn’t realise how long she has been waiting for this until the climatic sensation bursts through her heart. The road she has been walking hasn’t changed, but now, maybe, it will take her to an easier and warmer place. With Houtarou, perhaps, her burden will no longer be one. It’s taken them a long time to get here, but they’ve finally reached.

Houtarou’s cheeks are still hot. She must be blushing just as severely. Eru thinks about what to say next.

“Houtarou-san, did you realise how fed up I was getting?”

“About what?”

“About you,” she tells him curtly.

“At least I was early today. I always oversleep in the winter,” is Houtarou’s reply.

“That’s because it’s already spring.”

“Dear Chitanda-chan,

My brother is an emotionally-reticent and lazy good-for-nothing. He snores when he sleeps sometimes. The only thing he’s good at cooking is eggs and curry. He spends most of his time reading books no one has heard of. He doesn’t like being put on the spot, nor does he like telling others how he feels. Last but not least, he rarely meets expectations. He will not change.

Take care of him.

Tomoe Oreki.”

It’s raining again.

“It’s raining again,” Eru says out loud.

She laughs to herself as the raindrops splatter the ground around them, not minding the water that gets on her shoes. “Doesn’t it seem like it always rains when we’re together?”

Houtarou shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Eru’s memory is much better than his, so he should listen to her. Yet, the only thing he can think of when they’re standing along this road is a cool, peaceful day, already in spring. The cherry blossoms had been dancing, and the sunset had felt warm on his back. The words Eru had told him back then and the words that he hadn’t been able to say – all of it.

Remembering this, the rain feels less cold.

“Thank you.”

“What for, Houtarou-san?”

He gazes at the fields spreading out around them, soaked in rain, flattened to the earth. There’s nothing here now, but once the sun comes out, everything will start growing once more. It sounds like something only Eru would say. Funny enough, a part of him kind of believes in it now.   

“For letting me see this place.”

Eru says nothing at first because there is nothing else to say. She closes her eyes, thinking for a moment. A smile touches her lips just so, and she nods.

“Well then, let’s go.”

“Let’s go.”

He holds the umbrella up high.